The girl stood stock-still, her arms at her sides, on a bus bench along a two-lane road near a fast-food restaurant. She had on a ragged purple corduroy jumper and a blouse that never would be white again. A backpack patched with duct tape rested at her feet.
The restaurant had gone out of business near to a year ago. Andy glanced in his van’s rear-view mirror. No lights behind him and no sign of anyone the other way. He and the girl might well have been the last two souls on Earth.
One less soon, perhaps.
Andy stopped next to the bench, powered down the passenger window, and studied the girl. She was still a child, if her lack of breasts and hips were any sign. No more than eleven. Beneath the grime, she was pretty; tall and slim, with dark hair and light-brown eyes that held a touch of wild.
“Are you lost?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Nope. I know where I am.”
Andy looked around the bus stop, studied all his mirrors again. No one. He felt a tickle of excitement. He had been on his way home, disappointed that his hunt tonight had failed. Maybe he had just given up too soon.
“Do you live nearby?” he asked.
She stared at him; unblinking. “Nope.”
“Are you with someone?”
“Your mother or your father?”
She made a face. “They’re dead.”
“I’m sorry. Do you live with family or friends?”
“Nope. I’m all alone.”
That tickle of excitement jumped a notch.
“Do you have somewhere to stay?”
She leaned forward to peer into the van. Andy fumbled with the dome light. He had trouble with the switch; he always did. He smiled at her, an expression he practiced in a mirror every night. Children needed reassurance. They were taught to be wary around strangers and to them most folks were strange.
“You a preacher?” she asked.
Andy fingered the clerical collar he had found last year in a thrift store. “Yes.”
That was a lie.
“Where you headed?” she asked.
“Home,” Andy said. “Can I offer you a ride?”
“You want me to get in your van?”
“Only if you want to,” he said, cautiously.
“Ain’t this where you offer me the candy?”
He practiced a sincere chuckle, too. “I’m not like that.”
The girl shook her head. “That’s what they all say.”
“You don’t have to get in, if you don’t want to.” He held his breath. The tickle had become a full-blown itch.
“You got candy?”
That sounded like a nibble. Now to set the hook.
“I have ice cream at the parsonage,” he said. “and my wife can fix anything you want to eat. She’ll wash your clothes and you can take a bath. There’s a clean bed for you to sleep in, too. We keep it ready for kids who need to spend the night.”
All lies. There was no food nor ready bed. No parsonage, and certainly no wife.
The girl frowned and shook her head. “I ain’t that easy, Preach. I gotta see some candy first.”
Andy didn’t mind a challenge. “Let’s see,” he said. “Maybe I have something here.” He rummaged in his left coat pocket. One piece. No more. To see he carried handfuls might frighten her.
He held out a piece of taffy. The girl flew from the bench, bounced off the side of the van, and reached in to snatch the sweet from Andy’s hand.
She tore it open, dropped the savaged paper to the asphalt, and popped the taffy — peppermint — into her mouth. She curled her lip, as if she wasn’t pleased with it, but didn’t spit it out. Better still, as she chewed, she opened the van door, climbed into the passenger seat, pulling the backpack behind her as she slammed the door.
For an instant, Andy forgot to breathe. At a distance, she had been pretty, if unkempt. Up close, she was exquisite. This close, her eyes had an intriguing golden cast and — down deep — a wild, heady glint.
“Okay,” she said, still chewing. “Let’s see this church.”
Behind them, the garage door rumbled closed. The girl was dozing, had closed her eyes almost as soon as she finished that first piece of candy. The sedative had worked.
The garage-opener light clicked out and in the dark, Andy felt the girl twist in the seat. Damn! The drug was supposed to last four hours.
Still no need to worry. Her van door locked from his side. Both garage doors were on a code. And if she cried out, there was no one nearby to hear her screams.
It wouldn’t come to that, though; he had a second dose at hand. He dug into the outer right pocket of his coat — his hand trembled with excitement — and the syringe caught on a fold of fabric. He tugged, but it was stuck. Damn! He didn’t want to rip his favorite coat.
“Take your time,” he whispered to himself. “Ease it out.”
Tomorrow he would have the pocket lined. Silk or leather; something smooth.
Her movement became more energetic.
“Want another piece of candy?” he asked, as he fumbled for the dome light with his free hand.
“No. It tastes like shit.” Her voice was hoarse from sleep. He ignored her profane words. The syringe was almost free.
“Other kids said it was good,” he said.
“They lied to you.”
“Yeah. You ought’a be more careful who you help.”
She chuckled; Andy thought no little girl should have a laugh that deep. He finally found the switch and clicked it on.
As he turned — right hand still clutching the syringe — the thing in the purple corduroy jumper launched itself at him, all needled teeth and razor claws.
And those gleaming golden eyes; so very deep and wild.
K.C. Ball lived in the Pacific Northwest, with her wife and two fussy cats. In addition to Every Day Fiction, her stories have appeared in various print, online and podcast markets, such as Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction and Pod Castle. She was a 2010 graduate of the Clarion West writers workshop and won the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Senior Writer award in 2012.
K.C. passed away in August. She is sorely missed.
Many thanks to her wife Rachael for giving us permission to publish this story.