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The Artist by Dennis Stein

“Can you help me to go home?” asked the little girl.

My mouth hung open slightly, as I stepped down the steps from the library’s large glass doors.

“Where do you live?” I asked, wondering what this young girl of no more than five or six years old was doing out here on the streets. It was near sunset, and turning out to be a cold October evening.

“I don’t know the number, but it's on Charles Street,” she replied.

It was not that far away, a couple of blocks. I debated pointing the way, and tossed the idea a moment later. It was not far out of my way, and I would know that she got back safe and sound. My civic duty for the day. I wasn't sure she would even trust me to walk with her.

“I can walk you there, if you like,” I offered.

She said nothing, her dark eyes observing me cautiously, and simply nodded her little blonde head.

“Ok, let’s go.” I pointed up the street. “Charles Street is this way.”

She fell in beside me as I began walking, silent at first.

The sun slid below the buildings, and darkness crept in quickly. The trees along the street had lost all of their leaves; only the bare branches remained, like skeletal fingers reaching up into the cold evening sky.

“Did you get lost?” I asked after a few minutes, hoping to at least spark some conversation with the little girl.

“Yes, I was at home, reading a scary story, and ran outside when my kitten got out. I didn’t want her to run away, but she did, and I lost my way,” she explained.

Finally, I saw the opportunity to share.

“I like to read too, that’s why I was at the Library, getting a new book. I like some scary stories myself.”

She kept stealing small, shy glances up at me as we walked. She had curly blonde hair, and wore a purple sweater with light blue leggings. Her small running shoes were bright white, and looked as though they had never seen the outdoors at all.

“Would you like to hear about the story I was reading?” she asked politely, seeming a little more relaxed the more she spoke, and the further we walked.

“Sure,” I replied.

She thought for a moment, her gaze far off down the street as we went.

“It wasn’t too scary. It was about these little monsters that chew you. They chew all the skin off your bones, and only your skeleton is left. Then they use your blood to make finger paintings everywhere.”

“Wow. that sounds pretty scary to me,” I said.

“Are your stories scary like that?” she asked, looking up at me with those dark eyes again.

I pointed across the street as we approached a corner before answering.

“Yes, some of them. We have to cross here, my dear. Your street is down there.”

We crossed, the streets becoming quieter, and the warm glow of lights in the houses we passed spilled out of windows here and there. In the crisp fall air, the aroma of dead, decomposing leaves met the senses.

“I don’t mind scary stories, if they are good stories. I try to make up stories sometimes,” the girl stated.

“Don’t those kind of things give you nightmares?” I asked.

I was also wondering how the young lady’s parents would react to her returning home in the company of a stranger. My own parents would have frowned upon me talking to a stranger when I was young, but in this case, I knew I was doing the right thing in escorting her safely back home. Hopefully it would be brief and pleasant: ‘Here is your daughter, she was lost, and now she is not. See ya.’ They might have the cavalry out looking for her, or be out looking for her themselves. I certainly would be if I suddenly discovered my child was missing. I silently hoped that they would be home when we arrived, or I would have to wait around with her until someone returned. It was something that came to me, something that I hadn’t thought of earlier.

“I don’t really have dreams. Not that I remember anyway,” she answered, her tiny voice yanking me back to the present.

The breeze picked up, and I shivered absently, pulling my coat a little tighter around me. Looking down, I was surprised to see that she didn’t appear to be bothered by the cold evening, despite being dressed fairly lightly.

“Aren’t you cold?” I asked.

“Nope,” she said simply.

I thought about asking her name for a moment, but decided to hold off. Hopefully this little adventure would be over very shortly, and I could get on my own way, back to a nice warm house where I could relax with a hot mug of something, and my book. I smiled slightly to myself as I looked up, seeing the faded green street sign. We were approaching Charles St.

“Here is your street!” I exclaimed cheerfully as we turned left along the sidewalk.

“Yes, my house is the brick one down there., she said, pointing with a small finger.

I sighed in relief. I hadn’t counted on being sidetracked, but I knew I could not let this youngster wander the streets alone, who would?

My happy thoughts were subdued, however, as we approached closer, and I noticed that the lights were all out in the large red brick Victorian.

We walked on, the house looming out of the dark now, the circular illuminated areas from the streetlights dividing the night with the shadowy hulk of a building. Large, concrete steps led up to a massive wood door as we stopped in front.

“Is anyone home?” I asked, looking doubtfully at the darkened house.

A few dried leaves skittered across the sidewalk and into the street in the cold wind.

“Oh, they’re here,” she said, and reached out, putting her small hand around two of my fingers.

She led me up the steps, turning the doorknob and pushing the large door inward. It creaked forward into darkness. She stepped in without hesitation, still pulling me. I could barely see her now, even though she had not released me, and I thought for a moment that she might be frightened. In the gloom, I could make out what resembled painted hand prints in bright red paint on the darkened wall inside the door. Perhaps some of her artwork from school, but I thought that it was a strange place to display it.

I could only see her small arm in the reflected light of the streetlights outside, and she pulled me gently forward.

“Come in and see,” she said softly.

As I stepped forward, letting her usher me sweetly along into the darkness, I realized that it wasn’t red paint. Her hand prints had been made in blood.

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