She was nothing but skin and bones, but how they could just have left her I couldn’t understand. Her dirty blonde hair was pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. Her green eyes, the size of saucers—you know the look, when some one is starving and their eyes are buggy.
To my horror I saw that she had sores on her scalp and bugs feeding off her. Some of the sores were oozing, and yet I couldn’t quite put my hand on what the odor was that engulfed her. She smelled of waste, and something sickly sweet. I started to gag. It was hard, too, to figure how old she was. She wouldn’t let us that close. She was so wild. She coiled back like a snake and hissed at us when we approached her! I jumped back, somewhat embarrassed that I was afraid of a child. I had my hand over my mouth but couldn’t hold the vomit back, and so I ran across the road to a clump of trees.
She had been living in the back of an abandoned, rat infested SUV for who knows how long. A multitude of other cars were strewn almost haphazardly along the empty roads like so many tinker toys left unattended. People had just run out of money for gas, and so cast their cars aside. This waif was a human and a child, though. How could she compare to a big piece of metal?
Lee and I are “searchers”. The State employed our services to seek out and help search for the missing and dislocated. My husband had written several books on how to survive a natural disaster, and that saved us from internment among the non-essentials.
We had the heavy packs on our backs, and numerous weapons for protection. Lee is a forward-thinking type of person and always prepares for some measure of disaster. I used to tease him, but I loved him even more for all the thought and time he put into keeping us safe and alive following this series of climatological disasters. We had dried food that needed only to be mixed with water. There are restrictions, certainly, but we are among the exceptions because of the work we do. Lee missed nothing in his preparations. Some clothing, yes. I have to chuckle. I am amazed at the attention my husband gave to under-things and pants and such.
Really, we didn’t know what kind of weather to expect anymore. Mother nature was in revolt, with massive fires, earthquakes, and volcanoes erupting, melting the ground. The government has been stretched to the breaking point. Things have to change. The system couldn’t work if it remained the same as before.
We live in California and have experienced violent earthquakes and threats of tsunamis many times. We are use to it. Oh, they did have a volcanic eruption up at Big Bear, but that was nowhere near us. We have been hugging the coast, going north from San Diego.
There was no nuclear holocaust like so many had been afraid of. Rumors of course were rampant after the Tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan. Our great disaster was fear of all of the things that could happen in the wake of the disaster across the Pacific, if that makes any sense. Fear drove oil prices and the cost of food staples sky high, and people had to choose. Gas or food. Many parts of the country could not afford to even heat their homes, and so the occupants died, notably the very young and the very old and in-firmed. Soon enough, the riots started and the lawlessness began. Martial law was enacted. Law breakers were rounded up by the government and put into camps. The criminals were “chipped” so they could be tracked in case of an escape. Daily they were sent to work farms and were denied television. Keep them blind to the outside world was the go phrase.
A typical day was breakfast, short showers, work, dinner at six, an hour of reading or letter writing afterward, and then lights out . Under the new government program everybody had to serve and work. Everyone. No more special treatment. This had to work because the old way surely wouldn’t in these desperate days. I guess you could say that that was when life as we knew it ended.
We were given a badge, and this allowed us credits for food and other basic necessities. We drove a military-type vehicle that ran off gasoline and a strange hybrid solar power converter. The officials pasted a decal on the door identifying our official status, and so we were free to pass if the military should stop us.
I sent Lee to the Jeep to get some beef jerky and something to drink for all of us. I could see the girl watching him through the broken rear window of the old car as he walked to the vehicle. A moment later I heard, “White trash, white trash! Leave her she won’t be worth selling.” The small girl was singing.
“Honey did you say something?” I asked her.
Just then Lee came back with the food before she had time to answer—if she even intended to. I had a plan. We could start a fire, pull out our tent and set it up, then leave her something to eat on the rocks nearby.I was trying to lure her out of that ratty old car.
We got up and walked away from her share of the food and started to set up. We had a 50-gallon can of water on the back of the Jeep, and I filled a large metal pan and brought it over by the fire Lee had started. I had a smaller pan and put water in to wash my face and hands. I hoped she would want to clean up a little, but for now we were just taking baby steps. Standing there, I told Lee what she’d said, that I didn’t know how I would have felt if I had been sold.
We waited patiently for an hour and saw her finally creep over to the food. I didn’t think she would even take the time to unwrap it. We knew from experience that when someone hasn’t eaten in a long time you have to take it slow. If it would help her I would have prepared a table of food fit for a queen. I found another container, filled it with water, and moved it a little closer into the fire. Then…as if I’d been hit by a lightning bolt I said, “We didn’t even tell her our names.”
We didn’t want to scare her and have her run back to the car so we stayed by the fire and called to her to come and sit by us.
Half-yelling I said, “My name is Anne, and this is my husband, Lee. What is your name?”
She answered in a rhyme form.
“White trash, white trash,
nobody loves white trash.
No food till you make some cash."
I understood perfectly then.It hurt me so much that people could be so cruel, so mercenary with children.
She had some kind of bundle behind her, and the stench of whatever was in it was filling the air. She would have to go down to the ocean and take a serious bath to get the foulness off her. That would have to wait, though. Right now she needed sleep. I reached over and grabbed a sleeping bag and set it near the fire. I unrolled it and put a banana on top as a bribe.
“Lee, I think she needs to have her head shaved.I know for a woman or a girl that is such a degrading thing to go through, but in this case...”
Lee went over to bank the fire for the night without answering, and we retired to the tent, leaving the door unzipped so she would know we weren’t going to leave her. I had to bury my nose in my one luxury; my pillow.I didn’t know how we would get her to bathe tomorrow. I simply need to go to sleep. I would deal with that when the time came.
We heard noise by the Jeep and saw her going from door to door, trying to open them, but they were all tightly locked. She soon gave up and settled into the sleeping bag. It would have to be burned, never to be used again after tonight.
I woke early with ideas to get her to wash herself in the sea and let me tend to her hair.I had to find plastic gloves and scissors. I told Lee we would need some privacy for bathing, and then gathered up some sweats in a size small, and a pretty polka dot ribbon. I tucked all of it into a canvas bag along with soap and shampoo.
Once I returned to the fire, the powdered eggs and potatoes were all ready on cooking and she was glued to a spot next to the food. I grabbed a cup of coffee and served up breakfast. Something had changed in our little stranger. She was watching Lee very intently. I recognized the first signs of a crush. I pulled Lee aside and asked him to say it was a great time to freshen up. To mention how he liked the clean fresh smell of my hair after it was shampooed, to do this in front of the girl. He agreed with the idea and did as I asked. I told her she could bathe and change into some clean clothes I had found for her. I looked and she was starting to take her clothes off right there. Surprised, I said, “Oh no! We need to go down to the water. We can undress there.”
She showed no sign of modesty. I was the one with the red face. Lee had a definite influence on her bathing it seemed, and I was so happy. She actually wanted to clean up. We made the descent down the side of the hill to the great Pacific Ocean spread before us, a sparkling crystal blue. I started talking to her about the fact that she needed to trim her hair and that I had a pretty ribbon for her. A smile grew on her face for the first time since we found her. I was getting through to her. I noticed she was without her pack and hoped Lee was searching it while we were gone. She undressed as though it was the most natural thing in the world, although save us, the beach was empty. I handed her a bar of soap and then told her I had shampoo for her hair. I was shocked to see she had a scar on her stomach resembling a cut from a C-section. Oh dear God what has she gone through, I thought?
When she finished bathing I had her sit in the sand on a towel, and then I cut her freshly scrubbed hair. She said nothing while I worked, only looked out at the incoming waves.Before we went back to camp out of the blue she said, "I'm Sophie."
On our ascent to the campsite I felt much better and Sophie’s transformation was truly astounding. Knowing someone cared, she was blossoming, an exotic flower, an almost pretty girl. Our rescue and thoughtfulness were the nourishment she craved. Her glistening blond hair was cut in a pixie style, set off with the polka dotted ribbon. Buried under all the dirt and grime was a jewel.
The girl left my side and returned quickly to the spot where she had left the pack.
I slowly walked over to Lee, and when I was certain we were out of her earshot, I said, “Did you get a chance to look in her bundle of rags?”
“Yes. I had to put gloves on. When I opened it, I was utterly shocked. I know if you had seen it you would have had a repeat of yesterday, throwing up. I have never seen such a horrendous sight, worms gorging on the remains of…a small infant! Ever so carefully I retied the bundle and placed it where I found it. I got it back just before you returned.”
“Oh my God,” I said in shock. “She’s barely a child herself. What in the name of all that’s holy happened, I wonder?” I left Lee and walked over to Sophie. She was kneeling beside the putrid bundle, whispering to it. Words that I couldn’t make out, but that I could imagine.
“How are you doing, Sophie,” I asked, not knowing what else to say. She looked up at me with her large, sad eyes.
“Oh fine. I was just…thinking.”
I was sure she was. I placed a hand on her head and urged her to stand. “I’d like to introduce you to my husband.” The young girl beamed. “Sophie, this is Lee,” I said motioning to Lee who had followed me.
He extended his hand. “Glad to meet you Sophie. You look very pretty.”
Her eyes no longer had that dead empty look, now they danced. Sophie grabbed hold of possibly the first male’s hand that wanted nothing from her except her friendship.
“May I have a drink?” she asked, gazing up at him absolutely entranced.
“Yes of course. I’ll get you one.”
Lee released his grip and walked over to the car. He pulled out several juice bottles.
While he was away I spoke to Sophie. “Sweetheart. I have a question…you have the pack you have been carrying with you. What’s inside it? Can you tell me?”
“I suppose.” She dropped her eyes and nervously moved a bare foot across the dirt in front of her.
“Well? Will you tell me?”
“My baby, Angel.”
I waited, and then finally she continued.
“I killed her. I had no food. No milk. She starved. I lived with Tom…my stepfather. He was mean; made me go out and…and, and...Momma died a long time ago, and he was taking care of me. He made me work for him, and then I got the baby in me. Nobody wanted nothing to do with me after that. There wasn’t any money after the things happened. The earthquakes and stuff. He was mad at me for that, and he wouldn’t give us any food, and he hit me and threatened to hit Angel. She was just a baby. She didn’t do nothing to him.
“He got mad and he was mean. But when I had Angel he didn’t care. He wouldn’t give me any food or milk or anything, so I had to go away to find some, and Angel starved. I killed her. It was my fault. She died and I keep her with me because she’s my baby. I don’t want to lose her.”
I wanted to cry with her; for her.
“Honey, she’s in heaven now. What you have isn’t really her anymore. Just her shell. You have to…Sophie, she isn’t here. What would you think if we made her into something that you could keep with you always? That isn’t going to make you ill.”
“How?” she asked.
“We could cremate her and…”
“Listen, sweetheart. We either have to do that or else bury her here. That’s what we have to do. If we cremate her, you can still have her with you, and decide whether to put her someplace permanent, or simply keep her with you. I have a very pretty metal box with a lid…”
“Really? I can take her, then? I won’t have to leave Angel? I couldn’t, Anne. Couldn’t.”
“Yes, dear. You can. Lee and I will help you.”
Lee had returned quietly and stood behind me. “You’ll always have her with you, Sophie, and you’ll never ever have to give her up. We promise,” he said softly. Sophie glanced up at him, smiled wanly, and then looked back at her dead baby’s gruesome covered remains.
“Okay. If you promise.”
“We do,” both of us assured her.
We ate. Sophie continued with the sad tale of her life, and then a little later we set about the task of cremation. By dusk the chore was done.
It had been a busy day. A sad day. A happy day, oddly enough, as well. Not wanting to spend another night out there in the open, we cleaned up the site, packed everything into the Jeep and pulled out, heading north.
We spoke to Sophie about where she and Angel might stay. “There is a wonderful place not far away, Sophie. There are other girls your age. They have food and all the things you and your baby will need. A place for both of you. Do you think you’d like to stay there for a while?”
“Do they have a garden?”
“Yes, sweetheart. A pretty one filled with flowers. You can work in it, and keep your baby right beside you.”
“Yes, we promise.”
I watched her consider this carefully. She caressed the box holding the ashes of her baby, moving her lips, speaking to Angel, I knew.
“Okay. We’ll go there. Will you and Lee come to visit us?”
“Yes, sweetheart. We promise.”
We drove quietly for some time. Many miles up the road I broke the silence.
“There’s a song that keeps playing in my head. It goes like this. ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it…and I feel fine’.”
The road ahead was somehow brighter, the sound of the engine softer, Sophie’s future, at least for the time being, was secured at the end of this world.
Text: (c) Serena Axel 2011
Publication Date: 04-24-2011
All Rights Reserved
To my husband who puts up with all my little outbursts before this story was finished.