Z’Aria’s fingers shook a little as she held the paper. She read it through a few times before dropping her hands, the paper clutched in her sweaty palm. She seemed like she didn’t know where to look, her eyes scanning around rapidly.
“Explanations in this place aren’t easy, you know.” Z’Aria glanced over her shoulder briefly, then back. “I was in an accident a while ago.”
Callie looked where Z’Aria had and saw nothing more interesting than typical overpass intersection debris scattered across the concrete. “Did it happen as the paper described?”
Z’Aria looked uncomfortable. “Pretty much. My memory from then is all choppy and stuck together.”
“What happened after you landed? How did you survive the crash?”
I woke up here. Well, over there.” Z’Aria indicated the area behind her. Callie rose and went to look more closely at the spot, Z’Aria trailing her slowly.
The glitter of broken bits of glass reflected in the sodium lights of the overpass. Callie could see a twisted hubcap lying against the nearby pillar, and a few other shards of metal and plastic that were originally attached to a car.
“What happened to the car?”
“It stayed here for a while. I didn’t like looking at it, though. I went off exploring, and when I came back I guess it had finally been towed away.”
“Why did you come back?”
“I found a lot, out there. But not my answers, maybe not even my questions. Here is where it all started, you know? So I thought maybe if I came back here, I’d find the next step.”
“What happened then?”
“I made myself more comfy, got enough from the kindness of those passing by to survive. I spent time watching the sky; back home I used to know all the constellations, but not here. It didn’t happen all at once, you know. Seems like it did thinking back, but not all at once. Just really fast, you know? Days, weeks, everything changes.”
“What changes do you mean?”
“Oh come on, you have to have noticed. Everyone went to sleep, or went away. No one passes by here anymore, you’re the first person I’ve seen in forever.”
“I don’t get out and about very often.”
“Oh.” Z’Aria looked lost in thought for a minute. “Where did you say you were from?”
“I didn’t. Does it matter?”
“I guess not. I remember talking to some kids who warned me about the lady that lived in The Box, who didn’t come out very often.”
“I think I remember overhearing neighborhood children calling my house by that name.”
Z’Aria studied Callie for a long minute. Callie sat patiently through the examination.
“Did I help you with your questions?”
“I might have a few more. You said you went exploring, do you remember the places you went?”
“I sure do, I made bunches of friends. Well, they probably aren’t there now, but it was mostly nice.”
“Well, Z’Aria, perhaps it is time we explore again.”
“You want me to show you the places I found? I can do that, I like being Helpful!”
Callie pointed to the crumpled paper that Z’Aria still gripped tightly in her hand. “Do you mind if I keep that for the moment? There might be further clues we find that it connects to.”
Z’Aria readily returned it. “It’s not really a memory I want to keep too clear, I don’t mind if you hang on to it. You seem nice enough to me.”
Callie raised an eyebrow. “Now, if you’re ready, let’s learn more of what there is to know around here.”
They returned to more populated areas after a short walk along one of the streets branching off from Z’Aria’s overpass. Z’Aria was full of casual chatter but no useful information yet, and Callie suppressed a bored sigh.
Z’Aria pointed over to a single-story business building, vaguely medical in appearance. “That’s a pretty creepy building, I used to see parents taking children there all the time. The parents always looked angry going in, and happy coming out. The children looked pretty miserable the whole time, though.”
Callie took a second look, but the parking lot was empty and the building looked closed. “Perhaps we’ll keep walking, it doesn’t appear that there is much there now.”
“There isn’t much anywhere anymore.”
“You keep saying such things. Do you know why?”
“The few left that I’ve met all have different opinions.” They moved on in silence quiet enough to hear the occasional thin scrape from discarded paper, dragged along the concrete by the wind.
They next found a faded and paint-chipped sign next to a path overgrown with scraggly weeds which proclaimed “Constant Conservatory”. Callie studied the path branching off from the paved road they stood upon. “What do you know about this area?”
“It was really well visited a while ago, but no one really goes now. They had this really cool whirlpool thing, but I haven’t looked lately, it might not even be there anymore.”
“Let’s look more closely, shall we?”
They followed the path until it opened into a clearing surrounded by trees, branches growing over the clearing to form interlocking patterns against the starry sky. A deep depression centered in the ground might once have been a “really cool” whirlpool, but was now barely a third full of water that appeared stagnant. Callie watched it for a bit and saw that there did seem to be a very slow circular current tickling the surface occasionally. It was out of touching reach even if she knelt down by the edge.
“Dear Goddess, this isn’t what I remember. So sad.” Z’Aria looked pale and a little ill.
“It seems like it could be repaired with a little work.”
“Sure, but by who? That’s not anything I know how to do.”
“Let’s continue on.”
Z’Aria led the way back to the main road eagerly, restarting her chatter as they traveled more comfortable territory. “Further this way is another neat place, they had tons of nice people – well, most of them were nice – living in this big house. Mostly adults but they had a cool kid there too, she liked to talk to me.”
“If there were many people there, perhaps there will still be some remaining.”
They rounded a sharp curve in the road and stopped suddenly, their path blocked by what appeared to be a solid glass wall. They could see a large building further down the road, but the details were blurred by the distance and thickness of the glass. Z’Aria reached out to first touch the barrier, then knock on it.
Callie watched with interest. “Was this here before?”
“No, I haven’t visited in too long, I guess.” She knocked again, but didn’t look hopeful.
Callie shrugged. “Where do we go from here? I don’t know much more now than when I met you.”
Z’Aria frowned. “Let me think a minute.” She looked off down the road, and so missed the movement behind the glass coming toward them. As it drew nearer it resolved into the shape of a small person.
Callie guessed it was the friend whom Z’Aria had referenced. The kid was carrying a notebook and pen. Callie cleared her throat for Z’Aria’s attention. “We have a visitor of sorts.”
Z’Aria looked behind her and saw the child. She waved her arms happily and yelled “Hi, Iris! I missed you!”
Iris pointed to her ears and shook her head, then opened her mouth and said something that neither Callie nor Z’Aria could hear. Z’Aria took a deep breath in preparation for yelling louder.
“I think Iris has a better solution than shouting, Z’Aria.” Callie looked steadily at her companion until the other finally turned her attention to the kid on the other side, who was holding up a paper with writing on it to her side of the glass where they could read it: Everyone at the House is asleep. They won’t wake up!
“Did you bring paper or something to write with? I only have the paper with which I found you.”
Z’Aria raised her hands helplessly. “I didn’t think to grab anything.”
Callie looked back at the wall. Iris’s paper now read: Help us.
Z’Aria nodded like a dashboard decoration in response, until Callie placed a hand on Z’Aria’s shoulder and effortlessly turned her away from the view through the glass. “Where does one find help for them in a place like this?”
“That’s hard to answer.”
“I remember someone who helped me once. We’ll try there.”