Ginny Barnes sat bolt upright in bed. The late autumn wind howled outside her bedroom window, yet the air felt stuffy. She tossed her duvet aside to let cooler air reach her. She touched the clammy skin of her face and neck. The lack of wrinkles and pain in her fingers brought her relief. She was happy to be back in her younger body again. She tried to remember what she had been dreaming about. There had been a computer screen; not a com-ring screen, but a big one projected from a desk where she checked files, answered phones, replaced the water jug. Her heart plummeted. She had been having that dream again. The one where she was an office temp. She felt the weariness of unrest and repetitive tasks overcome her, and she frantically felt her face again to see if it had developed any wrinkles because of it.
Jackie wound her way through the police station, in and out between officers and suspects. The atmosphere here had calmed some since the gold shortage had resolved itself, but the station was still a bustling place. She watched everyone rush about like ants: all homogenous looking and intent on their tasks. Life in a uniform had never held any appeal to Jackie. If these officers were ants, then she was something else entirely. She was a pig at the very least. She shrugged her shoulders to herself as she turned a corner that led to the interview rooms.
Chief Pearson had called her in to hear Ginny’s full account. Jackie had always thought of the police chief as a decent guy. He didn’t step on her toes, and she didn’t go out of the way to step on his. Very rarely, they found themselves working together, and when they did it was always professional. Whatever tension arose never made it to a personal level. She felt that Pearson knew they were doing a similar job, but from different angles. He never got precious about his perspective. She liked that about him. She didn’t always work well with other officers, but Pearson was okay by her.
She rapped her knuckles on the cold, industrial looking door to interview room D and entered. Chief Pearson and Sergeant Marcus sat waiting at a table opposite an ashen faced young Ginny. The sniveling, puffy eyed woman next to her was her mother Molly. “Glad you could make it,” Pearson said. “Molly was just telling us that Ginny has been having recurring dreams since she’s been back home.”
“About work,” Molly elucidated. “Children shouldn’t have dreams like that! She’s begging to wear sunscreen, and flossing her teeth like crazy. She’s so afraid of getting old. Eleven-year-olds shouldn’t be worried about liver spots, Officer!” the distraught woman sobbed. Ginny’s blue eyes were full of concern as she stroked her mother’s arm, trying to calm her. Jackie’s gaze cut to Pearson, and a silent understanding seemed to pass between them.
“Marcus, perhaps you can help Mrs. Barnes find a hot cup of tea in the break room. I think we have chamomile. Ginny, do you feel comfortable speaking with Ms. Thurgood and me in the meantime?” Ginny turned her slack face to peer into Pearson’s russet brown eyes and nodded. Molly squeezed Ginny’s hand before she rose and then squeezed Jackie’s upper arm before she left with Sgt. Marcus. It seemed she still wasn’t finished saying thank you for finding her daughter.
“Do you like drawing, Ginny?” Pearson asked with a deep, soothing voice.
“I’m not very good at it, but I like it,” she said grinning. For the first time since Jackie had seen her, a hint of childlike amusement glittered in Ginny’s eyes, replacing what seemed to be years of world-weary unease. Pearson pulled an ancient-looking spiral of paper from the table drawer. The thick drawing paper was curling and brown at the bottom edges, but when he thumbed through to find a blank page, few proved to have been used. Reaching farther into the drawer, he fished out a shiny yellow pencil with an aged eraser. He sharpened the tip just a bit more with a pocket knife and gave it to her.
“I know art class is mostly digital now, but I can’t help but love the old school art supplies,” Pearson said.
“We’ve used pencils before in school. But what do you want me to draw?” Ginny asked, playing at the pencil tip with an index finger.
“Whatever comes to mind first,” Jackie answered, hoping the girl would sketch some clues they could use to find the rest of the missing kids. Ginny nibbled at her lower lip and began to draw a soccer ball. Chagrinned, Jackie twisted up her snout and plopped down in the seat Sgt. Marcus had vacated.
As Ginny shaded in the dark pentagons of the soccer ball, Pearson asked, “What do you remember about the time when you were away from home?”
Ginny didn’t look up but continued her coloring, seeming to direct her answers to the paper on the table. “I didn’t remember anything before, but the dreams are helping. The last thing I can remember from before I turned old was going to my room to lie down because I didn’t feel well. I was playing soccer in the park all afternoon. Mom was going to make meatloaf. But I didn’t want it. There was this old lady that was going to give me candy. I wanted that instead.”
“The old lady was probably the point of contact for the curse,” Jackie said to Pearson quietly.
Drawing of the soccer ball complete, Ginny began to draw a smaller circle with u-shapes arrayed around it; the origins of a daisy.
“I wasn’t always wrinkly,” she said to the paper again. “I remember seeing myself in the mirror and looking like how old my mom is, but I couldn’t remember things right. I just wanted something. I wanted something so bad, that I left and went looking for it. I didn’t know what it was though.”
The chief leaned forward slightly and asked, “Do you remember where you were while you were gone?” Ginny put the pencil eraser to her pale bottom lip. Weariness started to seep into her eyes again.
“No, I don’t know where I was or how I got there,” she said sounding ashamed. She cast her eyes down to the paper again and began to draw a square. “I just remember wandering around.” Pearson sat back in his seat again. The girl drew another square near the first. She looked up again then, as if she just realized something.
“The next thing I remember is someone asking if I wanted a job, and then suddenly I did. All I wanted was a job right then! I didn’t know exactly what I wanted until people offered me stuff. ‘Do you want candy? Here you go.’ I think they figured that out about us pretty quick and used it to make us do things. ‘Do you want to take out the trash? Great! The bin is over there.’ The more candy I ate, the more of my teeth fell out, but I still wanted more whenever they offered it. I couldn’t help myself.”
A curse of wanting, Jackie thought to herself. That’s what Dr. Amas had called it. A hunger for something and an inability to feed it.
Ginny turned her eyes to her paper again. “The more of anything I wanted, the older I got and the less I remembered about me. The less I remembered about anything.
“There were other old people there. Sometimes we would see kids playing outside, and we would all crowd around the windows watching them. There was something about the them that we wanted really bad.”
Jackie leaned to Pearson and said in a low voice, “I think that’s the curse wanting to spread, wanting to take the children’s youth.” Pearson nodded in understanding.
Ginny drew lines from the corners of one square to the corners of the other, connecting them.
“Your mom said you had been dreaming about work. What was your job?” Pearson asked. Jackie cocked her head to the side in interest as the young girl drew the beginning curls of a spiral.
“I’m not sure. I had to wear a funny suit and mix smelly things together in glass jars. Really smelly. Sometimes it burned my eyes even though I had a mask on. And it burned my gloves. After that, they asked if I wanted a different job. Of course I did. Because as soon as someone asked if I wanted something, then I had to have it. I was screwing pieces of metal together. And then they had me answering phones for people,” she said as she lifted her pencil from the paper.
“What were the names of the people? Who was calling?” Jackie questioned, attempting to keep the pressure out of her voice. She couldn’t tell if she succeeded or not as Ginny kept her eyes on her paper and began to draw another spiral in a different place.
“Um, Mr. Blue. Mrs. Green... They all had color names I think. After that, I was in charge of making sure everyone had water, and I got coffee for the office people. They gave us easier jobs when we got older and couldn’t remember how to do things. Later on I was cleaning up. Sweeping and wiping work benches.” The spiral grew bigger and bigger covering over the soccer ball, and the cube. Ginny’s arm seemed to be moving of its own accord as she stared blankly at the paper.
Pearson and Jackie exchanged a worried glance. Pearson reached his large, calloused hands toward Ginny, but used the utmost tenderness to remove the pad from her hand and turn it to a fresh, blank page. The little girl looked up but didn’t seem moved in any way by the interruption to her drawing. She merely blinked at them, the corners of her mouth pulled down slightly.
“Why don’t you draw some things you remember about the place. What were the differences between that place and your house, or this station? What did it look like outside the window where you all watched the children play? Anything you can remember at all. Even small things you think are unimportant could be helpful. What their coffee cups looked like, what art they had on their walls…” Pearson trailed off as Ginny began to draw again.
This time she drew long, skinny ovals with gears inside that turned out to be conveyer belts. Then, an office area with out of fashion décor, antiquated looking chairs, a dead plant in the corner. Her mouth pursed as she drew, but her blue eyes were focused, engaged. She drew a marshmallowy clean suit next, explaining that this was what she wore when she mixed the really smelly stuff together.
“I hope you find them,” she said putting the finishing touches on the suit’s gloves. “All of them. The old people kids like me, and the bosses. When I think back about it, they gave me lots of stuff I wanted. But they didn’t care about what was good for me. They were just using me. And the minute I couldn’t work anymore, they tossed me out. If that’s how adults are to each other then I don’t ever want to grow up ever again.”
Jackie looked to Pearson. He shook his head slightly as if to say it was a shame that Ginny went through that experience especially at such a young age. But it appeared that he too didn’t have the heart to admit that some adults were even worse to each other.
Jackie’s chest felt a little on the hollow side as she left the interview room. The girl’s troubled eyes stuck with her. If Jackie could get to the rest of the kids in time, maybe they had a chance of not being as haunted by the experience. She kept to the edges of the station to avoid the busy foot traffic going to and from the hub of desks in the center of the main room. As she passed the row of holding cells, a croaky voice called to her.
“Ms. Thurgood, have you found him yet? Have you found my son?” Jackie turned and searched the cell for someone she recognized, but a cursory glance found no one. Confused, her eyes rested on an old woman making eye contact with her. On closer inspection, there was something familiar about her frame and her dark, eager eyes.
“Dr… Dr. Shaw?” Jackie asked hesitantly.
The once youthful woman nodded, her proud dark curls were now completely white, and her glowing brown skin had wrinkled and dulled. “But I just saw you yesterday. You looked… well you didn’t look like this,” Jackie said unable to stop staring at the deep lines cutting into the doctor’s once full lips.
“I suspect I will grow even older as the other children are found and the curse turns back on me.”
Anyone else might have grown despondent at this notion, but Jackie was surprised to see a smile wind its way slowly across Dr. Shaw’s creased yet newly unburdened face.
“I don’t care how old I get. As long as you find Gregory safely. I think it’s time to retire anyway,” she said.
“Chief Pearson is here to see you now, Mz. Bliss,” said a tinny sounding voice through the parliamentarian’s office intercom.
“Thank you, Angelica. Send him in.” Mz. Bliss swiveled from her window overlooking Main Street Newburg at night. The cool silvery- blues of moonlight cast long rich shadows down the building lined street speckled with warm faux gas lanterns. She had never realized it until this moment, but it appeared she had unconsciously replicated the atmosphere in her office with orange hued lamps and deep blue carpeting.
Her door opened, and Pearson walked through wearing a blue polo shirt and denim jeans on his tall frame with a stun weapon and badge clipped to his belt.
“Do you ever go home?” he asked her with a pointed look around the darkened office. She resisted the urge to mention that he was also still at work, and dodged his question with one of her own.
“Why couldn’t you send a little girl’s drawings through a com?”
“I wanted to take this to you directly. I don’t want to risk putting the whole world into a panic.” He unrolled three sheets of parchment and placed them in the middle of the parliamentarian’s desk.
“What am I looking at?” she asked with a frown as she shuffled through the pencil drawings. However, when she reached the last page she knew exactly what she was meant to see. A drawing of a series of tubes and wires, two cylinders of what appeared to be liquid, and a clock face.
Pearson tapped the paper with two fingers and said, “You’re looking at a bomb.”