When the girl appeared on the sidewalk, the edges of her body and clothing were fuzzy, as though all of her hadn’t arrived. She looked up and down the street, the way a person would if she’d forgotten an address or lost her way.
Her hair was frizzed and matted, sticking out akimbo. She was thin, had a dirty face, and wore a scratchy coat that was far too big. Its sleeves were rounded little capes; her arms stuck out of them like chopsticks protruding from a napkin. The coat slipped off her shoulders, first to one side, then the other. She hitched it up and kept walking. When she walked, the coat opened to reveal her feet and lower legs.
Her thin socks, trimmed with grayed lace, were pulled up to make a ruffle below her knees. Pink satin laces held up the socks, their Xs snaking up her shins from her shoes. She looked pretty much like everyone she saw, except for her shoes. Long pink ballet slippers stuck out from beneath her coat, as improbable as roses sprouting from the cement.
Eliana made her way along the sidewalk, knowing that she was dirty, feeling the grit in her hair and on her skin. When she had reached the planet’s atmosphere, clothes and all sorts of things had rushed at her with great force, tossing her over and over. Dirt had come, too. She had found the clothes she needed and put them on the way her teachers had shown her. Then her people had put her where she was.
Humans passed, but no one stopped or said anything to her. A paper blew against her leg. More dirty papers blew and piled up everywhere. Streaked and grimy buildings rose near her. Writing in different colors covered their walls. She looked carefully, but couldn’t make out the words. She’d learned to read and write English, but those words mystified her.
“Hey, you!” a person said loudly.
“Yes?” She spoke to a human for the first time, politely bowing. The human was dirty like Eliana, with torn clothes and matted hair. She couldn’t tell if it was a he or a she.
“Get out of here!” the ragged person shouted. “You don’t belong here.” Eliana cowered, but the stranger rushed past her, clawing at something Eliana couldn’t see. “Stay away,” the human said, and then stood with feet braced, shouting, “Get out of here, all of you. Stay away!” The human hadn’t seen Eliana at all.
The girl realized that her people were right; they had put her where no one would notice her. Now she needed to tell them that she had arrived. She raised one foot, turning it gracefully and resting it easily on the other knee. She flicked the shoe with her finger, listening. A trill of clear notes deep within her brought the hint of a smile. She held the coat closed and stood still. She was where she was supposed to be. It had begun.
She fingered the piece of paper in her pocket. Her map. Beneath it, in the pocket’s depths, was the notebook. What was written on it would get her where she needed to go. She had all she needed.
She walked a long way along the hard path. More humans passed her. To her left, gray, inert structures rose high in the sky, blocking the sun. She touched the see-through parts of their lower levels, looking at the humans inside. They looked at each other with darting eyes, speaking rapidly. Everyone outside rushed frantically, noticing nothing. They didn’t see her, just as her people had said.
Eliana choked when a very large carrier passed, spewing a foul odor. The carrier floated above the hard surface where the vehicles moved. Her teachers had told her about the floating. Though she couldn’t see it, a force lived under the machines that made them go. It would kill her if it touched her. She didn’t know what kill meant; kill did not exist in her world. Her mother had explained that she would be like a dead pet. She had seen dead pets before they whisked them away. Motionless husks. She moved away quickly. Better get on with her purpose. She didn’t have much time.
A man with a round stomach and a gray hat walked out of an opening in the ground with many others. He walked like he had a mission. His coat was the same scratchy stuff as hers, but it was buttoned up and looked new. He looked new; his face was ruddy and clean. His shoes reflected the pale sunlight. The trill of notes resounded in her mind once again.
He was the one! She stood in front of him to make him stop. She hoped he could comprehend her speech.
“Will you help me?” she said, working to form the strange words.
* * *
George bent down to look at her. A homeless waif, dirty and lost. She didn’t smell, thank God. Then he saw her shoes.
“You take ballet? My daughter takes ballet. Those are pointe shoes. You shouldn’t be walking in those. They’re just for dancing.”
“Dance,” she said with a tiny smile. She looked beautiful when she smiled. Something about her touched him.
He pulled a five-dollar bill out of his wallet. He never gave money to street people, but this was a new one: a bedraggled ballet dancer out begging. Probably her mother got the shoes at a thrift store and put her up to it.
Then he looked at her again and knew that she didn’t have a mother—not on this earth, anyway.
“Take this,” he said, handing her the bill. He wanted to get rid of her. The first race was starting soon. He had bets to place.
She looked at what he’d given her as if she’d never seen a fiver before, then pointed at the image of the Lincoln Memorial on the bill and whispered, “Temple.” She seemed to be speaking out loud for the first time.
He tossed her another five. She had a good act, if it was an act. Yet everything about her told him it wasn’t an act. She was so foreign that he couldn’t even comprehend how foreign she was. The look on her face said she’d never seen money and had no idea what to do with it.
But she was wonderful, too. Standing next to her, he felt buoyant, like the bank wasn’t going to take his house back and life was great. He felt happy. It had been so long since he had felt that way, he almost didn’t recognize the feeling. His chest opened up and a smile popped onto his face. He wanted to help her, maybe take her to a shelter or help her get a job. She looked at the money and tried to give it back.
“It’s for food.” He pointed at his mouth. “Food. You know what that is, don’t you? I gotta go.”
She didn’t know what food was, he could see. She wanted him to do something. He looked around frantically. The races were about to start. He couldn’t be hanging around with some little girl. He had bets to place and a house to save. Getting away from his wife hadn’t been easy. He had taken two subway lines and a cab down here so she would see his car in the office parking lot when she checked up on him. She’d never know he wasn’t slaving away all day.
The wife just didn’t get that he was the boss. He could take an afternoon off once in a while. George could imagine the horses parading in the paddock area, ready to head onto the track. Overhead, flags would be flapping. All the guys would be there. “Hey, long time no see. The little lady keeping you on a short chain?” They’d drink beer, and, for an entire afternoon, life would be what it should be.
“Sayonara, ballet princess. I gotta go.” He tried to step around her, but couldn’t.
“I gotta go,” she whispered without moving.
Something about her was breathtaking. “Where do you want to go?”
“School.” She looked at him with huge, solemn eyes. They were gray, with silver flecks that made them gleam. He stared, unable to look away.
“Well, go. I’m not stopping you.”
“Where? Where is school?” She pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket. The name and address of a high school was written on it. The Hermitage Academy. Everyone had heard of it. Kid actors and dancers and artists went there.
“Dance school,” she whispered, looking at him hopefully.
He got it: some of those artist kids looked like her. The ones on stage and such. He’d seen them on ads for plays like Grunge and Road Dirt. Maybe she fell out of her mommy’s Rolls and ended up down here.
But she wasn’t rich and she hadn’t fallen off anything. His head said she was just a funny little girl and the rest of him said she was from outer space. He had to get away. “The school’s uptown, a long way.” He tried to grab the paper and draw a map but she pulled it away, alarmed.
“Honey, I gotta go. I got people waiting. Hail one of those cabs. The yellow cars? That’s a cab. Wave one down and go to school. Use the money I gave you. Here’s some more.” He gave her a twenty and then a demonstration of waving down a cab. None of them stopped for him.
They stopped for her. She walked into the traffic, looking into the eyes of a cabbie. Horns screamed and cars shrieked as their braking systems locked. The taxi hovered there, rocking back and forth.
“Whatsa matter with you? You crazy?” the driver bellowed. “You tryin’ to get killed?”
George scooped her into the cab and sat next to her. “The Hermitage Academy. That art school in Manhattan. The famous one. Take us there.”
His hand shook when he placed his arm around her shoulder. Such a close call. He had to protect her. Light radiated from her, light and something good. She was here to do something important. He had to get her to the school, and then he could play the ponies.
The school looked like a prison, a stone-fronted hulk rimmed by chain-link fencing with rolls of razor wire on top. He saw it and cringed. She wouldn’t try to climb the fence, would she? The wire would cut her. Did she know that? Should he warn her?
The playground was concrete. All of it was unmarked by graffiti, which he took as a sign of the school’s esteemed position in the world. The place still looked like a damned jail.
She looked at it, eyes wide. “School?”
“What’s the matter? You haven’t seen it before? That’s your school. Right at the address you showed me. Go. I’m not taking you any farther.”
She fumbled with the door handle.
“Jesus, do I have to do everything?” He got out and walked around the car, then opened the door. He took her hand and set her on the curb. Her hand was as tiny as a little elf’s. White and cold. “You button up that coat. Just walk across the street to that guard station. They’ll let you in and see you get home. And listen, honey, you get in any trouble, call me. My name is George Hempstead.” He pulled a business card out of his pocket and gave it to her. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Eliana. I am Eliana.” She took his card and looked at him solemnly. She put his card in her pocket, then dug deeper into it and pulled out a notebook. When she opened it, light blasted from the pages. She showed him one.
His eyes bulged. The page looked as though the words were cutouts with a million-watt bulb behind them. The book was written in light. That was wild enough, but he couldn’t believe what the page said. He’d been working the numbers all week and knew every horse and its odds. He tried to take the book from her. “You even got their weights down. Where did you get this?”
She pulled away. “Write. This for you. They are wins.”
“How did you know that?”
“This for you. You help me.”
He pulled out a pen and pad from his jacket and scribbled what was on the page. How could anyone not believe tips that came from magical letters in a fairy’s notebook? Just the same, he asked, “You sure this is right? These are the winners?”
“They always right.”
And they were right. Every horse on that list won by what she said it would. He won all day. He maxed out his credit cards––and he won and won. He wished he had more to bet. He’d bet the house if he could. His buddies were freaking out. Rich said, “Hey, let me bet with you. We can split the money.”
Something inside him said no. What was in that little girl’s notebook was only for him. If he tried to share it, it would all backfire.
He had to go through security when he left with his bags of money. Two men in black suits took him to an office under the track. It had filing cabinets, a desk, and a window, high on the wall, covered with a grille. He didn’t mind. He already had eaten the paper on which he had written the tips. They couldn’t nail him on anything.
They frisked him and questioned him. They had a file open on the desk. He started when he saw his pictures stapled in it. They had a file on him! One photo must have been taken at the window when he had made a bet. It had bars up and down; his face looked expectant. The other one showed him and his buddies sitting in the stands laughing. He figured they kept files on everyone. The feds always watched. “A low-bet regular,” it said under his photo. He was insulted.
“Hey guys, a little angel came to earth and sat on my shoulder.” He grinned. They let him go; there was no reason for them to hold him. When he went back to that school and found that little girl, he’d come back. Tomorrow, they’d call him something else. They’d change the caption on his file to “All-Time Winner.”
He stopped short. The girl. He had to get Eliana. He was nothing without her.