“Mister, can you spare some change?”
The little girl was dressed in rags, crumpled against the brick wall. A film of grime covered her face.
The businessman stopped. With a grin, he crouched to her level.
“Why are you out here all alone, sweetheart? Shouldn’t you be with your mommy and daddy?”
“They don’t want me. That’s why I’m here.”
“I’m sorry.” His grin widened. “Why don’t you come with me? I’ve got an apartment way up at the top of a skyscraper, with a view of the whole city.”
Her eyes lit up. “Really?”
“Yes, really. I even have some chocolate cake in the fridge.”
It was a lie, and he knew it.
“What’s your name?”
“Amelia, like Amelia Earhart. Someday I’m gonna fly planes just like she did!”
“I bet you will, Amelia.”
He gently took her hand. The buildings rose up on either side, looming monoliths of steel and glass. The sky shone through the gap between them, filled with the burnt clouds of sunset. The shadows on the street darkened, and the streetlamps flickered on.
“How much farther?” she asked, holding his hand tightly.
“Just a little bit.”
A dark alleyway came up on their left, its shadows blacker than the coming night. “No, wait.” The girl stopped in her tracks, staring into the abyss-like alley.
“No, come on. My apartment’s just a block ahead, over there.”
The man looked at her eagerly, sweat beading on his brow. Come on, little girl, just follow me. Please.
He often ran into homeless children on his way home from work, and each time he used the same lines. They always worked perfectly.
View of the city. Chocolate cake.
He actually lived in a studio apartment on the second floor of a crumbling old building. All that he could see from his window was another brick wall, and all that sat in the fridge was a bottle of vodka. The lie was necessary, though, since they never followed him otherwise. After all, what kid wants to be turned in to the police?
“Come on, please. My apartment’s just up ahead.”
Just follow me to the station.
If he could just get her there then it’d be easy, as it always was. The police would try to locate her parents, and if they failed then she’d go into the foster system. That wasn’t ideal, of course, but it would be better than starving on the streets.
Palm Sands wasn’t safe.
“Don’t you want chocolate cake?”
“I heard something in the alleyway. I think it was a meow. I want to pet the kitty! Oh, please, can we pet the kitty?”
He sighed. “Okay, we’ll look for the cat.” He glanced up at the darkening sky and grimaced. Sunset had passed; the only trace left was a trailing fingertip of cloud brushed with pink.
I hate being out here after dark. It isn’t safe.
She darted into the alleyway before he could stop her. “Hey, wait up!” he yelled, his feet slapping against the pavement.
“Come back here!”
He whipped around in the darkness. All he could see were the vague outlines of dumpsters, garbage, and pipes. The slim gap of light from the street seemed miles away.
Silence. Then, just as he opened his mouth again, a voice sliced through the blackness.
“Why did you lie to me?”
The voice was hers, but it had turned cold and emotionless. The laughter and smiles had been sucked right out, like a vivid picture turned black-and-white.
“What? I don’t know what you’re...”
“Why are you taking me to the police station?”
Dammit. She must’ve seen the Crown Vic poking out on the next block.
He crouched down again, though he couldn’t see her in the darkness.
“It’s not safe for you to be on the streets. I was going to bring you to the police station to help you find your mommy and daddy.”
“Is it because of Drew?”
“I said, is it because of your brother Drew?”
He was silent. His heart pounded in his chest – the only noise he could make for a moment.
How does she know?
He sucked in a deep breath and tried to reply with confidence. “I don’t know what you’re talking about…”
“He drowned in the pool. You didn’t see him, because you were talking to a girl.”
“I, I don’t…” He faltered. His heart pounded even louder in his chest, in his ears. I didn’t tell anyone that, not even Mom.
“Wake up, Drew! You’ll be okay, come on!” she cried in the darkness.
Those had been the man’s exact words. As his brother lay dead on the concrete he’d screamed those eight words over and over, until he couldn’t scream anymore. Here, years later, was a child saying them with the same intonation, the same level of panic.
The quick, pattering thumps of her footsteps echoed in the alleyway.
“I know you didn’t mean to do it, Mister Brandon.”
He fell to his knees, his hands shaking. “Who are you? How do you know all of this?”
“Earl Grey.” He could see the deranged grin on her face in the dim light, just inches from his. “Not the tea. The little gray pill.”
“No, no. Please, tell me you didn’t take some drug. That’s how… that’s how lives are ruined.” His voice crumbled. He was on the verge of tears. “How?”
“A week ago, while I was begging, a nice lady came over and talked to me. She gave me a little gray pill and said if I ate it, I’d get superpowers.”
Brandon’s head dropped into his hands, and he couldn’t hold back the tears that started to fall.
“I did. And now I do have a superpower!”
“What superpower?” Just play along. Play along and try to get her to come to the station.
“When I look at someone, I can see their memories. I can feel their feelings, and I suddenly know everything about them. It’s like being psychic!”
“Oh, Amelia…” He thrust an arm into the darkness, feeling for her. “Okay… I get it. You have this superpower no one else has.”
“Soon other people are going to have it too!”
“Oh, is that right?” He stumbled in the direction of her voice, but his hands fell on empty air.
“Some guys were talking behind Bernie’s Bagels. They said in a few weeks they’re going to let everyone take Earl Grey. Isn’t that awesome? Then we can all be...”
His hand latched onto her arm.
He yanked her towards him, harder than he meant to.
“You’re coming with me, now.”
Her scream reverberated against the buildings, against the darkness. He tugged at her, but her hand slipped out of his grasp.
Thump, thump, thump.
Her feet raced against the pavement.
He crumpled to the ground. Pain burned along his spine and shot up his arms. He tried to stand up, but something heavy was sitting on his chest, pinning him to the ground.
“I. Said. No.”
Her eyes flashed red.
Then his world faded to black.