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Once upon a time in an unnamed, obituary place a young girl was walking to the hospital. A slow trickle of traffic passed through the dimly lit streets. A middle aged taxi driver tips the ashes of his cigarette on the side of his gleaming yellow vehicle. A greasy construction worker blasts a drill into the ground, releasing noxious fumes from below. A pale stock broker is standing on the curb yelling profanities into a cell phone. The smoke, noise, and smell are enveloped by the thick fog that shrouds the city. A nearly silent shuffle of feet could be heard by those on the streets. Her windswept hair was unfurling from the loose headband that held them. She pulled the thick, crimson jacket closer to her huddled form. The hand not swinging a light blue Nike bag is buried in her warm coat pocket. The sun is setting in the skies above her. Iridescent hues of orange are streaked across fields of dark grey clouds. This is only seen, however, on the outside of town.
It was beginning to grow dark.
Grandmarie would be expecting her soon. It was cold on these windy streets of Chicago—too cold for walking, but she missed the bus and it was only five or six blocks to the hospital. It was beginning to grow dark, slowly and surely, like the fear that began to rise from the pit of her being. Her eyes swept her surroundings. In front of her, a group of baseball players were ambling off in the opposite direction. They were loud, but essentially harmless.
A silver Volvo slowly skids to a stop in the lane next to her. “Scarlet!”
She turns to see Michael, her older sister’s friend. She smiles hello.
“What are you doing out in the cold?” He stops his car.
“I’m visiting Grandmarie.”
“Do you want to wait a bit? I have to drop this report off, but afterwards, I can give you a ride.”
Scarlet weighed her options quickly. “Sure. I’ll wait in that café.”
As she turned away from her and the silver car sped past her, Scarlet realized it wasn’t a good idea. The café she entered was sparsely populated with bleary eyed staff and the occasional patron. She sunk into a cold, wooden bench. Her fingers drummed against the table. She hadn’t eaten since lunch, but at the site of the moldy food on display, she realized she wasn’t hungry. A few minutes later, a lethargic waitress with dull blond curls ambles over. Scarlet orders a hot chocolate. She doesn’t drink it though, just holds it until she can feel the warm back in her fingertips. Her fingers glide against the ceramic mug absentmindedly as she turns the pages.
The warning bell sounds as yet another customer has entered this haphazard establishment. Scarlet doesn’t look up. She peers aimlessly out the window, her eyes straining to see against the dust and dirt caked onto the neglected glass. How many years did it take before the windows lost their shine?
A tall, gaunt man in a distinct dark suit approaches her.
“Is this seat taken?” He smiles at her, with all his teeth.
“Um, no.” She gets up, and promptly slips out the door.
Outside, the air is crisp and fresh for a few minutes. But soon afterward, the wind comes. She watches the murky rainwater trickling into the sewer system. How much dirt did it take to turn water black?
“Excuse me, do you have the time?” A hairy, cheery man from across the street jeers as she passes.
“No, sorry.” She smiled and side-stepped him, not sorry at all.
She keeps walking. The streets wind longer and the signs are becoming more and more unfamiliar. Scarlet wraps her jacket tighter. Fear, swift and intense, burned through her. She turned and turned. Her desperate flight is halted by a wide eyed bespeckled man leaning out of a parked cab.
“Hey, miss. You lost?”
“Well, you shouldn’t keep going this way… it’s a dead end.”
She crosses to the other side of the street. He retreats deeper into his car and chuckles to himself. She feels his eyes burning behind her. Scarlet walks faster now, her route erratic, frantic. She circled and twisted. The sun has set and the streetlights are lit. Long, creeping shadows seem to reach for her. She walks even faster, blindly, not caring where she is headed as long as she gets there fast. A hand closes on her shoulder, jarring her.
“Scarlet! It’s just me.” His smile is comforting and familiar. “Where were you? I looked all over for you.”
Her heart rate slowed as she breathed. She steps inside the car, which is warm. “I’m sorry. I promise I won’t run away again.”
There is an edge in his laugh; but she ignores it.
He handed he a navy blue, wool blanket. He was always so thoughtful. She’d always liked Michael and could never understand why her older sister didn’t invite him over anymore. He was nice to her, brought her candy and played video games with her. He was always so nice. She wondered what she did to deserve that kindness. Why couldn’t all people be more like him?
Swarms of cars struggling to get home crowded the lanes. Lulled by the onslaught of traffic outside, she drifted into sleep. She dreamed about trees, climbing them, the mountain trails she hiked when she was younger…large, luminous eyes above sharp, cruel teeth— She jolted awake. She slowly shook her head, trying to clear any traces of fatigue from her features. In front of the car was a grey, brick building. The shutters were open. The barren trees swayed against the fierce wind. The lights were off. The front gate swung open after he pushed in his card. It was a grey, brick building with a steel gate behind the mountain whose trails she used to hike when she was younger.
“Michael, this isn’t the hospital.”
Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say "wolf," but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.
Andrew Lang, The Blue Fairy Book (London, ca. 1889), pp. 51-53.
Charles Perrault, Histoires ou contes du temps passé, avec des moralités: Contes de ma mÃ¨re l'Oye (Paris, 1697).