The girl stood in the middle of the antique shop, her deep brown eyes reflecting the soft glow of the metal desk lamp on the check-out counter. Hollowed cheeks emphasized the prominent bones under heavy eye bags, and her tattered rags draping her skeletal figure stained with dirt. She could not any be older than eight or nine years old; the hunger in the lonesome gaze resembled the same glare of the beggars that sometimes gathered alongside the streets outside, rattling their tin cans at any passerby.
Mrs. Lee felt uneasy. It was almost closing time, and she had already been thinking about the pork roast that was prepared for dinner today. She leaned heavily against the counter, blinking her bleary eyes to clear her vision. Her eyesight had been failing her lately, tired from the long days working the antique shop and even items at short distance looked like things that they were not. Maybe it came with aging, and her older sister, who had recently retired in chilly Chicago, always tried to convince her to sell her shop but she refused. She and her husband had built this shop from the ground up, and though the pie store next door closed to open a salon, and the clothing stores across the street exchanged owners over the years, her antique shop had brought in a reliable and steady clientele. Her husband would not have wanted her to sell it to some greedy businessman who would just tear the place down and open up a money loan firm or some stale laundromat.
The girl was still standing there, and had not said a word. Mrs. Lee realized that it was not that the girl had dark skin; rather, her arms and face were covered in a layer of mud and dirt. She looked out of place among the polished trinkets and sculptures that neatly lined the shelves and tables of the store.
"Do you need something? Where are your parents?" Mrs. Lee dipped her head as if to welcome the child closer. When the girl did not move, Mrs. Lee leaned forward.
"Where are your parents?" Mrs. Lee said louder and the girl stepped back. Immediately she felt bad. She and her husband had never had children; and though she had always wanted them, after her third miscarriage they had decided to redirect their efforts into growing the shop. Though it did not quite fill the empty feeling in Mrs. Lee's heart, she felt satisfied through the work.
She glanced out the double doors to the store. It was dark now, already thirty minutes past closing time. The streetlamps glowed, blurred by the heavy mist that set in daily around sunset. It was getting late. The girl probably ran away from home, Mrs. Lee decided. She looked like she hadn't eaten in a couple days, probably hiding in the dense woods on the edge of the street.
"Are you hungry?"
For the first time, the girl responded, nodding her head slightly. She fidgeted, rubbing her left shin with her bare right foot.
"Alright, come with me," Mrs. Lee made her way slowly to the front of the store careful not to scare the child, and locked the door, flipping the Open sign to Closed. She turned and headed up a wooden stairway. The girl followed silently in her shadow. Mrs. Lee lived alone above the store in a house her husband had built it for them, and though it was a small and modest space, it came equipped with a full kitchen with marble tile and couches that were stitched with mismatched vintage floral print. She frowned at the mud tracked into her home by the girl but didn't say anything. The pork roast only needed fifteen minutes to re-heat, and then she'd have the girl shower after eating.
"Have a seat," Mrs. Lee nodded to the overstuffed recliner, "Dinner will be ready soon." The child sat gingerly on the edge of the recliner as Mrs. Lee busied herself with dinner. It was strange welcoming another person into her home. Since her husband had passed, she'd grown accustomed to the loneliness to the point she barely noticed it, but now that there was another person in her house she hadn't realized how much she missed being around others. Mrs. Lee wanted to make her feel at home.
The girl's eyes flittered quickly around the house, taking in the sturdy pine wood dining table and the grandfather clock that stood ticking in the corner. She glanced over at Mrs. Lee and admired her black strands of hair tied neatly at the nape of her neck, and self-consciously patted down her disheveled hair.
"Dinner’s ready," Mrs. Lee called as she served a hearty serving on a heavy white plate. The girl's stomach rumbled, reminding her of how hungry she was. They sat across from each other on the dining table, and Mrs. Lee watched as the girl ate voraciously with her fingers, grabbing fistfuls of pork roast and stuffing them in her cheeks before swallowing. The thick sauce covered her lips and splattered on her rags. When she was done, she licked her fingers and looked up. Mrs. Lee served her another slice. It had been a while since someone else had enjoyed her cooking. Her husband had always made her recipes, and they had often enjoyed baking together this very kitchen. She was happy to see this girl so eagerly eat her food, though she supposed it could just be the hunger.
When they had finished, Mrs. Lee directed her to the bathtub and laid out a pile of fresh towels and a pair of shirt and shorts that had been distributed at a half-marathon event she had participated in years ago. As the girl bathed, Mrs. Lee searched among her bookshelf. Beside her textbooks and novels, she scanned for something suitable for younger readers, and found a picture book gifted by her sister during her first pregnancy. That pregnancy had been difficult, she remembered. She had lost the baby during childbirth. They had kept the gifts of the cribs, diapers, and toys, clinging on the hope that faded with each failed pregnancy, replaced with the bitter taste of emptiness and resentment.
The book was titled "The Moon Chronicles." This one had been her favorite. She had read it to the baby in her womb every night, trusting that her baby could feel the love vibrating in her voice. She opened it and waited for the girl on the couch.
When the girl finished her bath, Mrs. Lee beckoned her to sit. The girl sat tentatively as far away as the couch would allow, her arms locked tense at her sides. She looked even thinner under the oversized shirt, but her hair and skin were scrubbed clean of the mud and dirt. Mrs. Lee peered through her thin-rimmed glasses and her jaw fell open as she saw the bruises that laced the child's arms, tendrils of finger-length markings that twisted up and down her wrists, elbows and covered her thin neck. The girl noticed the direction of her stare and hid her arms behind her torso.
Mrs. Lee looked away at the book.
"Do you want me to read you a story?" the girl glanced over and nodded. Mrs. Lee cleared her throat and adjusted so that she could read it under the light of the overhead lamp.
"Nora was an alien child living on Mars with her family…" she began, and looked at the silent girl who was now peering over her shoulder at the pictures on the pages. Mrs. Lee wondered where the girl's family was. "…and all was right until a meteor hit their planet and Nora had to escape to Earth." She read of Nora's adventures on Earth as an alien child, about the first time Nora had tasted ice cream sandwiches and met Earth friends. As she read, the girl's eyelids grew heavy, and she curled up on the couch, her head bobbing slowly until it finally came to rest on Mrs. Lee's shoulder. Mrs. Lee gently closed the book and placed it on the stand. She lowered the girl to lay on the couch, whose eyes were now fluttering under her closed lids, and pulled a weighted blanket over the child. She turned off the lamp and went to her room to sleep.
The girl stayed. Over the next few weeks she ate with a healthy appetite, devouring all of Mrs. Lee's cooking. Mrs. Lee cooked recipes she hadn't touched in years, and was pleased that there were never any leftovers. The girl even gained a few pounds and her black mousy hair took on a natural gloss. Her face filled out and color returned to her cheeks. Though she never spoke, she followed in Mrs. Lee's footsteps around the store like a puppy, and helped carry the antiques to the clients and dusted the untouched sculptures on the lower shelves. She followed directions well and in her spare time liked to tinker with the trinkets and toys. Mrs. Lee had started taking her on daily trips to the confections store on the corner of the street that lined the edge of the woods, a place she had always dreamed of taking her children. Along the walk, the child's small hands would cling on to Mrs. Lee's bony wrist. At the store she always chose the lemon drops in the cardboard box, and her thin lips tugged at the corners the way they did when she was happy. Every night they read "The Moon Chronicles", and Mrs. Lee grew to love her dearly. The heaviness in her heart was lifting, and she named the girl Nora, her little alien.
One night they startled at a heavy pounding on the store's double doors. A heavy-set police officer stood outside, his round face sweating and his heaving belly stuffed into strained uniform pants. Mrs. Lee made her way to greet him.
"Hello officer, how can I help you today?"
Up close, his smooth cheeks gave him a childish look as his beady eyes narrowed at her under caterpillar brows.
"Ma'am, I'm looking for a little girl. Her father was found dead weeks ago." From his pants pockets he pulled out a crumpled paper. Nora's sullen face peered at her from the folds of the poster.
"We have reason to believe she may have killed her father. He was found with deep gashes in his neck and chest. Have you seen her around?"
Mrs. Lee gripped the paper tightly in her shaking hands, pressing deeper folds into the already marled paper. Nora looked much younger in the poster. She stared out with the same deep brown eyes, begging Mrs. Lee to stay quiet. Mrs. Lee remembered the bruises she had seen on Nora's slight figure the day she appeared in the shop. She shook her head. She'd never lose Nora, now her only child, to the grubby hands of this cop whose face shone under a sheen of greasy sweat.
"No, officer, I haven't seen her."
"Alright ma'am, give us a ring if you notice anything."
He reached up a thick arm and tipped his hat in her direction. Mrs. Lee returned to the shop, her arms quivering. Nora appeared from behind the counter, her eyes fixated on the picture of her own face on the poster clutched in Mrs. Lee's hands. Though Mrs. Lee quickly crumpled the paper into a ball with her fist to hide it, it was too late. Nora had seen it. Her body was tense, and she crouched, her lips pulled back into a snarl.
"Nora –" Mrs. Lee protested but Nora had already darted past her out the double doors.
"Come back!" Mrs. Lee cursed and tried to follow Nora down the dark street. The mist had settled in and the breeze cut through her clothes. Nora was sprinting and had disappeared into the shadows of the woods. Mrs. Lee struggled to keep up, but it had been years since she had run, and her joints complained as she dragged the cold autumn air into her burning lungs. Her mind was racing. How could Nora, sweet Nora, kill a full-grown man? Didn't they know that was impossible? And those bruises Nora had on her arms and neck. Maybe she had been abused. Maybe her father had deserved it.
Since her husband passed, her whole life Mrs. Lee had only cared for herself. Her close family members were scattered across the country, checking in maybe once a month or so, and until Nora had entered her life she hadn't realized she had simply been peacefully waiting for death. It was the small girl that stirred something in her heart, steadily chipping at the walls she had built high years ago.
She broke into the line of the woods. The trees shuddered under a sharp breeze, bathed in the eerie moonlight. Mrs. Lee could make out a figure hunched under the shadows of a thick pine.
"Nora!" Mrs. Lee choked. The figure shifted into the moonlight filtering through the branches, revealing the bristling mane of a grey wolf. It peered back at Mrs. Lee with Nora's same wide brown eyes, slender legs perched on a bed of autumn leaves, wet nose quivering on a pointed snout.
"Nora, come back…"
The wolf did something Mrs. Lee had never seen a wolf do; it dipped its head and bowed. For a moment, everything was still, like time itself had paused. She allowed herself for a moment to hope that Nora would return to her.
The wolf turned heel, breaking the silence, and disappeared into the underbrush. She was gone. Mrs. Lee crumpled onto the bed of moss. Tears rolled down and settled into the lines etched into her aging skin. Her heart was emptier than ever before, barren of the children that had brought her beacons of hope before vanishing into other worlds.
Mrs. Lee saw it on the steps outside her store before she reached her antique shop. The baby in the bundle cooed softly, fidgeting in the tightly wrapped woven cloth. His plump arms waved gently, reaching toward her. She glanced up and down the street, but they were alone. The mist hung in the air and a broken light fixture flickered on the sign of the salon next door. On the steps lay a crisp letter on parchment paper, and her fingers trembled as she picked it up to read the words written in flourished cursive.
Thank you for taking care of me. I am one of the pack of wolf children. We are tasked to seek out abusive parents and eliminate them. The girl I took the form of was killed by her father, who I disposed of, leaving behind an orphan. I took the form of the young girl in order to find a suitable parent for him and believe that you would be a good match. Raise him well.
Signed, Your Nora
Her tears were flowing freely again, dripping down her chin onto the collar of her shirt as she picked up the warm bundle, the baby fast asleep now. She held him close to her chest and headed into her antique shop. In the distance from the direction of the woods, a gentle breeze carried the faint howl of a wolf.