Abruptly, Charlie was torn from his reverie by the sight of a figure lurching quickly toward the berm of the road. Charlie stepped on the brake just as the headlight shone upon her frightened face. Before he had time to do anything else, the girl was at his passenger side door, frantically smacking at the glass. He quickly leaned over and cranked down the window.
"Miss? Is everything okay? You kinda scared m-"
"Oh, please! Please, let me in! Oh, hurry!" she glanced back toward the deep woods and then turned again to Charlie, her brown eyes pleading.
Without thought, Charlie popped open the passenger door. Instantly, the girl yanked it open and scrambled into the car, slamming it behind her. Again her eyes scanned the edge of the woods. Charlie saw nothing.
"Please, go! Drive, drive, just drive!"
Infected by the girl's panic, Charlie punched the gas and started putting distance between the car and whatever had terrorized her.
Minutes passed in nervous silence as they traveled. Charlie stole a few glances at the girl. He guessed her to be about seventeen. She was shoeless and her legs and feet were criss-crossed with mud and bloody streaks from bramble-scratches. Her pink dress was dirty and her hair hung in damp tendrils. She kept tugging ineffectually at a torn shoulder strap. She had been crying. She was hugging herself and shivering.
Charlie pulled over and stopped the car. Immediately, she looked over the seat, out the rear window.
"It's okay! It's okay! There's nothing following us! I've been watching! It's okay!" Charlie soothed. "It's just...you look so cold. Here, let me..."
He took off his jacket and helped her to drape it over her shoulders. When his hand brushed her cheek, he was alarmed at its chill. How long had she been out there dressed like this?
"There," he said. He gave her his warmest touchdown smile. "Better?" She pulled the jacket closer around her fragile frame and nodded. She offered him a shy little smile. Until tonight, Charlie had only seen eyes so soft on deer.
"Listen, I guess I need to take you to the cops, or a ...or a...doctor or something?"
"No!" she said. "No, I just need to get home! I just need a ride home, that's all! My mother is worried, I know! Please, it's just a little way! It's...so close." She looked suddenly puzzled. Her voice became a whisper. "It... happened... so close to home"
Charlie decided not to upset the poor girl any further. Perhaps it would be best to just take her home. Her parents would surely know what to do for her. She gave him the address, only one mile away, and Charlie began driving again.
Soon, her hand lightly touched his forearm. "Here. My home is here, just off the road." The chill of her fingers sank all the way to his marrow. He eased the car over to the edge of the blacktop. About fifteen yards back was a small, neat house. There was a light in the window, but no porch light glowed to welcome her return.
Charlie cut the Dodge's engine. He turned to face the girl once more. She looked a little better. Expectant. Hopeful.
"Are you sure you'll be okay? Your folks are home?" Suddenly he remembered. "My name's Charlie, by the way."
She smiled a little smile that did not quite touch her eyes. Her fingertips rested on the door handle.
"Charlie," she said. "Thank you, Charlie. I don't know what would have become of me...without you."
"Oh, it's nothing," Charlie replied, blushing. "Anyone would have. Are you absolutely sure—"
"Oh, yes," she insisted. "If I can just get inside, I'll be fine. A hot bath and a warm bed will..." she trailed off. She opened the door.
As her bare feet touched the ground Charlie blurted "Hey, I didn't get your name!"
She looked at him one last time. "Jenny."
She turned quickly and began walking across the yard, her bare feet on the flagstone path. Charlie watched her, waiting to see her mother open the door and welcome the girl inside. It occurred to him she was still wearing his jacket. He could see the name "Miller" in red across her shoulders as she receded. Gradually a glow appeared under his name as the window light began shining through his new friend. With each step she became more transparent, and just before she reached the porch steps, the diaphanous girl disappeared utterly. The light in the window winked out.
The next morning, Charlie awoke from a fitful sleep. Without eating, he dressed, took the car keys from the hook and headed back to Green Valley Drive. He knew what had happened last night wasn't real. He had not seen it. He knew this.
He found the house. It looked oddly forlorn in the bright morning sunshine. Three days worth of ignored newspapers were jammed into the delivery tube by the driveway. Charlie once more pulled the car to the side of the road, cut the engine and got out.
Gingerly, he walked across the yard, avoiding the flagstone walkway. He passed a neglected flower bed, with several yellow roses blooming amid the overgrowth. At his knock, a woman answered. Her face was care-worn. She looked very tired, but not at all surprised to see a young man on her porch at eight o'clock.
"Good morning," he began hesitantly. "My name is Charlie and I, um...met your daughter last night. I'm the one who...gave her a ride and, um...I just wanted to make sure she's okay." Charlie heard his words sound stupid as they tumbled into the chilly air.
The woman looked up at Charlie with large, soft brown eyes and gave him a small, familiar smile. "You tried to help my girl," she said quietly. "You brought my Jenny home."
"Yes, ma'am . Is she asleep? I don't want to—"
"She's gone, dear," said the woman with wan finality. "She isn't here. She always tries to come home, you see," the woman continued dully. "Every year... October fourteenth. My girl tries to come back to me. She always tries so hard. She was always such a good girl."
"You'll be wanting to see for yourself. They always do. It's just up the road about a mile. I put a marker by the spot. I hoped it would help my poor girl rest. I used to bring her the roses, you know. Yellow was her favorite. But I ...put up some silk ones a few years back. Because they don't die, you know. And I can't really go there any more. I can't. So she... comes here. You're the ninth one, you know."
"The ninth one to bring Jenny home."
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