Gracelyn spun around and pressed her back to the counter. Her heart started thumping inside her chest, lit up with fear. “Who said that? Who’s there?” she called out.
The door to the stall slowly opened with the squeak of a metallic mouse. A small man, husky, and with a very round face emerged. There was some gray in his hair that was creeping out from beneath a crooked pointed winter knit cap that sat upon his head. The salt and pepper scruff on his face was uneven, choppy like a soured sea, as if he had used a dull butcher knife to shave. He had a lot of wrinkles around his cold blue eyes, the skin like rivulets streaming in from somewhere beyond his temples. He looked tired, Gracelyn thought, but not overly threatening. “Who are you?” she asked.
“The name’s Astron Puffin,” he said, and he spoke with an accent, like from the Old Country on the other side of the planet.
As he grew closer, Gracelyn saw that his skin had an almost pale-green hue to it, like he had been washed in over diluted watercolor paint. “Are you sick?” she wanted to know.
“No. I’m not sick at all. I swear it. Would I even be here if I was?”
“Right. Here. Then why is it you’re in the girls’ bathroom? I’ve never seen you around school before.”
The man looked around at all the pipes and pink and porcelain, confused, as if he had just discovered where he was. “I don’t know. I just figured it might be the safest place to be at the moment.”
He stepped forward and Gracelyn shifted away from him. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he assured her. “I just wanted to wash my hands.” He was not much taller than she was, but definitely wider. “I’ve never hurt anyone in my whole life. Yet here I am, left to suffer alone in a world such as this.”
“You said you thought my speech was wonderful. How did you hear my speech?”
“I was hiding outside an open window, near your classroom,” he said, shaking water from his hands and then rubbing them against his clothes to dry them. “And even the softest voices carry far in this weight of silence.”
“Have you been watching me? Following me?” Gracelyn demanded to know.
Astron Puffin turned his moon-like and pale-green face away from her. “You’re the first person I have seen in a very long time,” he shyly said. “Please don’t be upset. I was just trying to make sure you weren’t evil. I suppose I’ve decided you aren’t.”
“You’re right. I’m the farthest thing from evil, most of the time,” Gracelyn pointed out. “But where did you come from?”
“I had my own cabbage farm, far over the hills to the west. The nights grew to be too long and lonely and much too dark. I set off to see if I could find someone else. To keep madness at bay… And that’s how I came upon you.”
Gracelyn hesitated for a moment and then moved toward the door. She quickly turned to look back at him there. She was scared yet felt pity for him. “It was nice meeting you, however strange of a meeting it was, but I really should get to my next class before I’m late,” she said.
Astron looked hurt. “Oh. All right, then. I shouldn’t keep you from your lessons.”
“Maybe I’ll see you around again, somewhere,” Gracelyn added, in an effort to give him a small bit of hope for whatever future he had.
Astron attempted a smile. “Yes, perhaps. I’d like that. Good luck with your schoolwork… What was your name?”
The girl hesitated for a moment. “Gracelyn,” she said, and she went out of the bathroom and into the dead hallway that glistened with lonely solar energy falling across the plains of the universe.
Gracelyn sat alone in her art classroom. She reached into a box of crayons and retrieved a periwinkle blue. She held it under her nose and smelled it deeply. “I just love the scent of a fresh crayon,” she said to the quiet air. Then she applied the tip of the crayon to a blank sheet of drawing paper and moved her right hand back and forth until a sky appeared.
She then retrieved from the box two shades of green, a burnt umber, and an earthy yellow to draw the hills, forests, and fields that surrounded her home. She mixed white, and gray, and black to construct the house. She grabbed a darker shade of blue to color in the lake and used the gray and black again to create a stone pier. Finally, she grabbed brick red to create a lighthouse that sat tall at the tip of the pier, and silver to add a shiny light that looked out all around the world.
When she was done, she held the drawing in front of her and looked at it. She cocked her head to the left and studied it more intently. Once she was satisfied with it, she signed her name at the bottom in bright orange — Gracelyn Polk, sixth grade, 413 years old. She then got up and walked her drawing to the front of the classroom, turned to face the empty desks, and held it up for no one to see.
“This is my drawing of where I live,” Gracelyn began — speaking much more confidently than she did in her history class earlier — and then she pointed with a finger. “This is my beautiful house. I live in the country, surrounded by lovely green hills and trees and golden-brown fields. It’s all very pastoral — that means being peaceful in the lands beyond the broken cities. Further off, you can see the great lake, and there’s the lighthouse with its bright beacon guiding safe passage for all… Thank you.”
Gracelyn turned and stuck her drawing to a corkboard with a push pin. She went back to her desk, put the crayons back in their box, and put the box back into a wine-colored cubby hole in the cubby-hole cabinet near the front of the room. She looked up and saw the big poster that showed the map of the entire world. Her eyes scanned it for a moment. There were so many red Xs drawn over so many countries. She sighed with faint hope, faint promise. She pulled the classroom door open, walked the somber corridors alone, and went to the playground for another desolate recess.
TO BE CONTINUED