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The Girl with the Red Umbrella
It was one of those days where the sky stays dusk-dark all day and the rain drizzles down like water wrung out of a rag, dirty and somehow staining the very air. It was April, and spring was close, but still it felt like the world was trapped inside a dingy snow globe of in-between, of gray skies and streets filled with melted slush and air that sits heavy and stagnant around the closed-off houses of suburbia. He was stuck in traffic, still a long way from the end of his monotonous daily commute, and his fingers drummed on the steering wheel. The radio droned in and out of focus, but he didn’t quite notice it, in the same way he didn’t quite notice much of anything these days, at least not unless it was important. He was on the highway at the outskirts of the city, and traffic was moving slower than ever, and he was glancing from his clock to the road for the hundredth time when he saw her.
She had a red umbrella, a splash of color so bright amidst the gray that it was like an electric shock. She was standing on the side of the road. The hood of her sweatshirt was pulled up hiding her face, and the toes of her soaked-through Converse sneakers were pressed tightly together. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen years old, and maybe it was that fact that made him decide to pull over; maybe it was simply the color of her umbrella. He leaned over and opened the passenger door.
“Get in,” he said.
She climbed into the car, bringing with her the sound of pouring rain and the rush of cars passing by on the highway. Wordlessly she pushed back her hood to reveal hair that was cropped short and messy around her ears, and it was then that he noticed the look in her eyes. An intense and slightly wild-looking stare, like she had been searching for something out there in the rain.
He began to feel uncomfortable.
“What’s your name?” he asked her.
“Zoria.” That was it, no last name. He didn’t press.
“Where’re you going?”
“The—” Whatever she was about to say, she seemed to think the better of it. “Away.” Her voice was very soft.
“Away? Just anywhere, away?” Her fingers busied themselves with the strap around her umbrella. “Well, I can take you to the nearest town. Once we’re there, you’re on your own.” She gave the slightest of nods. “How old are you, kid?”
He felt a jolt of shock that faded away as abruptly as it had come, washed away by the rain. “Sixteen? What are you on the road for? A kid like you has her whole life ahead of her.”
“Not me.” She had her head down again, staring at her lap, and he was only half-sure he heard her mumble the words, “I only have death.”
He stared out through the windshield wipers at the gray road, the air thick with the rain and the fumes of car exhaust. He felt as though he should say something, an important and inspiring speech that would miraculously turn this girl’s life around, but no words came and so his mouth stayed shut until the silence grew to a point where it would have felt wrong to break it. He was just beginning to wonder whether they would spend this entire ride in silence when the girl spoke up.
“What?” He half-glanced at her, wondering if he’d misheard.
“The Underworld. That’s where I’m going.”
For a few precious seconds, he took his eyes off the road and just stared at her. Her head was down, her lips barely open, and something about the bend in her nose or the curve of her eyelashes brought a startlingly clear image of another girl swimming up through the depths of his memory. His daughter. For a moment, her face hung there in the space between, charging the air with its presence, and it was to this phantom figure that he spoke.
“Listen, kid. You tell me where you live and I’ll turn this car around and take you back home, no favors asked.”
The girl looked up sharply, and the moment was lost. Her face vanished again into the oblivion of his mind. “I didn’t leave just to be picked up on the highway and driven back again.”
He winced. “Well…what are you so determined to run away from, then? What’s wrong with your life?”
“Nothing.” Her voice was suddenly soft again—bitterly soft. “Absolutely nothing. It’s the most normal life a person could ask for.”
“Well—” He gestured vaguely around the steering wheel, at a loss for words. “What are you running from, then? Where can I—”
“I’m running from a place where I don’t have a choice. I’m running from a trap.” Her words charged the air with a strange kind of energy, and even though they were the words of a lunatic he was startled by how powerful they were. “Every day is the same, and I’m tired of it. I want to escape.” Her voice broke at the same moment that the radio crackled, surged briefly into focus with voices that just barely eluded comprehension and then died away again. She hunched down into herself, shoulders curling protectively inward, and her hands tightened on the soaking red umbrella.
He lifted a hand to clasp around her shoulder, but couldn’t quite bring himself to touch this girl he didn’t know. Again the image of his daughter’s face flashed in his mind, bringing with it a pang like a knife in his chest. He hadn’t felt pain like that for a long time—hadn’t felt anything, really. “Kid—” he began.
“Don’t you just…” Her voice was a whisper, blending with the sound of the rain falling on the road until he wasn’t sure which was which. “Don’t you just want to escape it all sometimes? Be honest. Don’t you ever just want to break out of this trap?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. It was a lie.
She sat up suddenly, unbuckled her seat belt. Reached for the door handle. “You can let me off here.”
“What? Wait, what are you doing…”
The girl already had the door open and was climbing out into the road. The murky water collecting on the asphalt sloshed around her feet as if welcoming her back. She leaned down toward the car window, giving him one last glimpse of her eyes that were full of a sad and almost desperate kind of longing. Crazy person eyes. They were gray, he noticed, the same color as everything else. “Thank you for the ride.”
“No—wait—” He struggled to remember her name. Called it after her, too late. “Zoria!” he called.
She was already walking away, her hoodie pulled up over her hair, the red umbrella at her side. He stared mutely after her and wondered whether he should pursue her. The Underworld—
Behind him, a driver honked. He rolled up the window and eased onto the gas, all the while watching the girl disappear. He was thinking of another girl, the one she had reminded him of, the one whose eyes had also been desperate and withdrawn in her last few months of sadness. The one who had “escaped”, leaving his house feeling huge and empty—and his life. He was struck, for a moment, by a feeling of responsibility—as though by saving this girl, he could, perhaps, have saved his daughter. The ache of it and the knowledge that he had failed nearly blinded him.
And then it passed. He was left empty and numb, as he had been for so long since then. The rain drummed down on the roof around him, and on the radio, voices wove in and out of static.