The Girl in Blue

December 24, 1933

Snow was falling gently onto the cobbled streets of Willoughby, Ohio, when the girl in blue stepped out of the bus station, limping on a pair of unsteady legs down the stairs and past the stray mutts that roamed the streets before sunrise; her soiled boots left muddy footprints on the fresh snowy surface as she walked glass-eyed into the deserted town, a rare sign of pre-dawn life in a town battered by an icy wind from nearby Lake Erie.

The sun was barely peeking over the rooftops in the east as the girl trudged into town, dragging her ragged suitcase through the street behind her, hardly seeing the miniature Christmas trees erected downtown every few dozen feet and meandering blindly beneath the strings of electric lights zig-zagged colorfully above the main streets.

A man who had exited the bus with her watched cautiously from behind as she swayed to and fro. Sensing she was not quite right, he had followed her at a distance; when he saw her trip on an uneven cobble, he raced up to her and caught her before she fell. When she asked, blinking, where she could stay for the night, he offered to help her find her way.

Holding her tiny waist with one firm hand and her tiny wrist with the other, the exhausted Dr. Tom Fleet, of Willoughby, Ohio, returning home from a house call, led the girl slowly down the snow-covered Vine Street just north of town. He shivered as he walked, wishing he had put his gloves on before helping the lost girl. But he gaped at her attire more than he rued his own, for she was dressed only in a damp blue gingham dress that barely reached her knees and a thin navy cardigan to cover her pale arms. Her leather ankle-boots were soaked through with snow and slush, and her strawberry blond hair was tied back messily with a fraying red ribbon. But she did not appear to be affected by the wind and snow whatsoever; her face remained blank, its two bright green eyes staring but not seeing.

Twice Tom offered his coat to her, and twice it had fallen, rejected, from the girl’s shoulders as she walked on the frozen street. So he pressed her gently onward, neither speaking a further word.

A few minutes later, the unlikely pair arrived at an inconspicuous wooden door on Third Street and Tom knocked quietly three times. It was early, and he was sure the sleepers inside would not appreciate an interruption before sunrise.

After a bitter wait in the pre-dawn air, he heard heavy footsteps dragging across the floor inside. The girl in blue had slumped down against Tom’s shoulder, causing it to ache as he waited, listening to the person inside the inn unlock the peeping hole in the frame of the door

“Good morning, Mrs. Judd, I’m sorry—” Tom was about to proffer an apology for the early hour when he looked up to see not the old grandmotherly woman who ran the inn but his own 21-year-old daughter. “Annie! What are you doing here so early?” She was hidden in the door’s long shadow, but Tom immediately recognized her tired face in the gap in the door.

She yawned. “Mrs. Judd’s husband is ill. She asked me to fill in for her yesterday, and said she’d be back today.” She pointed at the girl in blue. “Is she okay?”

The girl blinked hard but said nothing. “I’m not sure,” Tom replied, glancing at her. “She doesn’t seem to know where she is.” Tom quickly straightened up and looked sternly  at his daughter. ” Are you by yourself here? You be careful, Annie. Don’t you be on your feet all day while you’re here.” In typical daughter fashion, Annie rolled her eyes and prepared to rebut.

An incoherent mumble interrupted their dialogue; neither Tom nor Annie understood what the girl said. When Tom briefly let go of her arms to usher her across the threshold, she faltered, and both Tom and Annie reached out to break her fall. In the process, the girl somehow managed to trip Annie, who staggered backward and hit the wall hard. Tom gave his daughter a look to say, You see? Annie, only briefly winded, shot her father a glare before hoisting the girl up and carrying her to a small closet-like room just up the stairs — the only bed available.

Tom followed as his daughter led the girl in blue into the room, and then closed the door out of politeness as Annie helped the girl remove her wet clothing. He walked tiredly back down the stairs and sat down in a chair opposite the desk in the office, putting his head in his hands. He hadn’t slept all night, and he hadn’t been home in three days.

The leading obstetrician in the area, Dr. Tom Fleet had been one of the first doctors to recommend the switch from midwifery to hospital delivery, but there were still some holdout families in rural Ohio who could never have made it to a hospital in time — these were the folks Dr. Fleet assisted.

Three days ago, Tom was called to a ramshackle brick house 20 miles west of Willoughby, just outside Cleveland. The young woman, lying in a drafty room under a thick quilted blanket, had started feeling labor pains early, more than three weeks before her due date, and had lost consciousness twice in the preceding days. She couldn’t have been older than 18. By the time Tom arrived, blood and sweat already covered her sheets, and the only midwife the family had — the woman’s terrified, shaking grandmother — was standing in the corner, crying, “Oh my god, oh my god!” over and over.

Tom had a sense before walking through that bedroom door that neither mother nor child would survive, but he remained there for three painful days, desperately trying to save them both. It was too late; the family, in their panic, had failed to notice the fetus had stopped kicking days ago. Dr. Fleet delivered the stillborn baby, black and blue, on a Friday morning. For nearly two full days after losing the child, he struggled to save the mother, but the blood she’d lost was ultimately her death sentence. Without a hospital, Tom could do nothing.

Before leaving the house that early morning, Dr. Fleet washed up as best he could and consoled the family in their grief. Then he closed the door behind him and walked to the train station. Arriving back in Willoughby early on Christmas Eve, he had encountered the girl in blue. For a split second, he had considered ignoring her so he could return home and get some sleep. But his conscience got the best of him, which is how he ended up nearly falling asleep at the desk in his daughter’s workplace.

At 48, Tom Fleet was already one of Willoughby’s patriarchs, having lived here for two decades and having delivered most, if not all, of the town’s children in that time period. The town literally grew up around him, one by one, as his innovative delivery practices likely saved hundreds of infants — Willoughby had nearly doubled in size since he had first arrived, fresh out of the University of Chicago.

Tom loved his town, and it loved him. But for the first time in his life, he had something more to worry about than his medical practice, and here she was: not the girl in blue, who had shown up unexpectedly, but his own daughter, Annie, who was now exiting the little room with her hands on her back, stretching her slowly swelling body as the child inside her grew.

“Dad?” Annie whispered, seeing her father slumped over on Mrs. Judd’s desk, “Are you okay?” He lifted his groggily. “Yes. Just tired. How is she?”

“Fine. She fell asleep right away. Who is she?”

Tom shrugged. “I have no idea. She was on the same train as me and was staggering everywhere when she got off. I couldn’t leave her there. But I—” here he shook his head and yawned three times in succession “—I just need to get home.”

Annie suddenly remembered. “That’s right! How did it go yesterday?” Her lips formed a grim line as her father told her what had happened — she had seen her father perform too many painful births during her childbirth, none of which calmed her when thinking of her own impending labor in another three months.

As if sensing her apprehensions, Tom placed a gentle hand on her stomach and kissed her forehead. “No need to worry now. Please be careful. And,” he said, nodding toward the room where the girl in blue slept, “call me when she wakes.”

A restless four hours later, Tom Fleet awoke not from a phone call but from a growling stomach; he realized he hadn’t had anything to eat since the previous afternoon. But as he had been gone for three days, his food supply was minimal, and he headed toward town, deciding halfway there that he would take his daughter and the mysterious guest out to lunch.

He arrived to a bustling inn, where guests milled around the small cafe and where both Annie and Mrs. Mary Judd, the longtime owner of Willoughby’s longest-standing inn, sat in the corner office, folding linens and packing toiletries to furnish the rooms. Both women looked up eagerly when Tom entered.

“Mary!” Tom exclaimed kindly. He took Mrs. Judd’s hand and kissed it soundly, prompting a giggle from the wrinkled old woman. “How is your husband doing?”

“He’s much better, Tom, thank you for asking. I shouldn’t have left everything unkempt around here, but I needn’t have worried with your wonderful daughter here.” She laughed. “My son is one lucky man to be getting married to her.”

“That he is, Mary,” Tom agreed, taking his blushing daughter by the hand. “Tell me, is the young woman in Room 2A still here? I’d like to take her and Annie out to lunch.”

Inquiring after the young girl in blue, Mrs. Judd, told Tom and Annie that she was packing and would be out shortly. Not wanting to disturb her, Tom told Mrs. Judd he and his daughter would head to a nearby deli and asked if she would give the girl in blue an invitation.

As Tom and his daughter walked through the afternoon sunshine, they chatted over frivolities like the mouse Tom had discovered in the pantry that morning and how Annie’s fiance — Mrs. Judd’s son — had locked himself out of the house the other day; both were trying especially hard not to discuss either the grievous birth of the previous morning or the fate of the girl who had quite literally fallen into both their lives. The temperature outside was a welcome increase from the morning’s frigid air, and Tom and his budding daughter took their time walking to the deli. Tom, a regular, greeted the deli’s owner, who offered them another sandwich on the house; Tom always refused, but the owner would not take no for an answer.

Twenty minutes later the girl in blue walked into the cafe looking refreshed. Seeing her, Tom and Annie stood to invite the girl over — Tom was glad she had changed out of her wet clothes; she was now wearing a navy blue skirt and white blouse and carried a blue wool overcoat on her arm. She walked over shyly like a dog with its tail between its legs, clutching a small piece of paper in her hand. When she sat down at the table, Annie saw that it was a train ticket to Corry, Pennsylvania, a small town east of Willoughby. Pulling out a chair for the girl, Annie said kindly, “I hope you don’t mind we’ve already ordered. Just some soup and sandwiches for the table.” The girl in blue shook her head and gradually took her seat on the chair.

Tom and Annie glanced at each other, hoping to make conversation, but the girl was very shy. She said her name was Sophie and she was headed to Pennsylvania, but she contradicted herself when explaining where she’d come from and why she was traveling: I’m going home, I’m visiting my brother, I just got out of the hospital. Tom and Annie shared a knowing glance. He was the last person to judge — many of the young mothers he treated came from far more dubious backgrounds — but, as the father he was, he fretted over her behavior that morning. Here at lunch, having eaten and rested, she seemed mostly normal — but how safe could a strange girl be in a strange town?

After an hour had passed, the three walked back to Mrs. Judd’s inn together. Much to his surprise, Sophie held out her hand for Tom to shake as they parted. Her vivid green eyes danced in the sunlight as she looked at them, but Annie couldn’t help notice they still appeared sad. “Thank you very much, sir, for your hospitality, and to you, madam,” she continued, turning to Annie, “for caring for me. A merry Christmas to you both.” And she entered the inn and closed the door.

Tom and Annie stood in silence for a moment before both sighing heavily; when they made eye contact, both started laughing — they could scarcely believe the day they had had, and it was barely 1 p.m.. As the sunlight spread out overhead, the pair decided to stretch their legs and walk around town, letting their feet eventually guide them to the nearby cemetery. Tom had always enjoyed walking here, sad as it was to see more and more names he knew. Something about cemeteries fascinated him: the lives lived by the people buried there must add up to thousands and thousands of interesting, mysterious, heartbreaking stories. They walked together, side by side, pointing out the names on each gravestone and recalling with fondness the memories they shared with the deceased person.

Neither noticed Sophie, the girl in blue, walking distractedly outside the north gate of the cemetery.

Tom and Annie ambled happily among the gravestones for several more minutes, following the curved, snow-covered path westward for a few hundred yards before stopping to rest on a bench just before the graveyard’s northernmost gates; they paused long enough for Annie to retie her boots around her swollen feet. The moment they began walking again, a thin blur of blue whipped out of sight into the small grove of trees bordering the railroad tracks just west of town.

As Annie and her father drew closer, the blue flash appeared again on the sidewalk in front of them, this time catching Annie’s eyes. “Dad—is that Sophie?” They watched from a distance as the girl in blue flitted back in forth, seemingly in distress, from forest to train tracks and back again; she was oblivious to either the cold snow at her feet or the two people down the road shouting her name.

Sophie disappeared beyond the trees again as her curious pursuers approached her from the east. When Tom and Annie draw near to the shady grove, they saw her worn suitcase abandoned in a snowbank, and a trail of footprints leading out into the ditch next to the tracks.

There stood the girl in blue, as the New York-bound train barreled at 65 mph along the steel rails 500, 400, 300 yards away, shaking the ground beneath her feet as it drew nearer. She stood facing it, motionless. Equally frozen were Tom and Annie, who stood in fear a few dozen feet away, failing somehow to anticipate the girl’s next move.

Finally Annie took two frantic steps toward the train. Sophie, too, hesitated, then walked forward. And in that flash, it was over: the agonizing squeal of the brakes, the dull, thudding impact, the squish of the girl’s limp body in the snow.

Annie’s expression changed instantly from steely determination to sheer horror. She tried to take a step, but stumbled, as if she were wading through quicksand. When time sped up again, she heard only the ringing in her ears. “Oh my god, oh my god!” she shrieked, reaching one distraught hand toward the train as though she could pull the girl back, then instantly slapping it over her agape mouth. She took three leaping bounds forward toward the railroad tracks, but slipped in the snow and tumbled down the adjacent gravelly gulch. Tom reached her with fear in his chest, and pulled her to her feet. Her blond hair whipped past her grim face as she faced him. “Oh my god! Do something!” she cried, pulling her dress, now torn and spattered with mud, above her ankles and sprinting toward the train. Tom, his face immediately drained of its normal rosiness, chased after her, his beating heart practically dangling in his stomach now.

Tom never forgot the image of the girl in blue, lying on the frozen ground that afternoon. In his addled mind, he could not differentiate between Sophie and Annie, and for weeks he woke up from nightmares in a cold sweat, hearing the impact, seeing the young supple body fly through the air, always with Sophie’s body but with Annie’s face. He didn’t hesitate to peel back the covers and tread hastily to the spare bedroom, reassuring himself that his daughter was still there, safe. Most times he never went back to sleep and instead walked the city like a somnambulist, but never again near the railroad.

She died from a fractured skull, the coroner said, from the impact of the train — not the hard landing on the ground several yards away. Her neck was twisted at a bizarre angle, and her arms and legs were splayed out on the sides, her neat blue overcoat eaten up by her rocky landing. Tom saw her body land but he could not find the strength to crawl over to her; he only looked for Annie, who was sobbing on her knees nearby, her face red and blotchy. Somehow the local authorities came for the body. The police chief, a longtime friend of his, tried to question him gently, but Tom could find no words, only gasps.

He found himself lying in his own bed hours later. Annie was in the room next door. When at last he found the strength to walk to her door, he found it ajar, and his daughter sitting on the floor clutching her knees to her chest. Filled with anguish, Tom helped her stand. “I feel nothing,” she whispered. Thinking she referred to the events of the afternoon, he started to say something, anything, to distract her. But she grabbed his own hand and placed it on her stomach, and then he saw her eyes: wide and bloodshot in the fear and trauma of the last several hours, knowing that more than one life had been lost that day.

* *

October 5, 1945

Otto Klimczak coughed nervously as the taxi jostled him into town, rekindling the ache in his chest even further in the ever-growing autumn frost. Despite watching the lazy flurries of colorful leaves swirling on the curbside, he couldn’t relax; he fiddled with the buttons on his jacket, pulled up his socks and straightened his pilot’s badge.

The taxi driver slowed the vehicle to a stop outside a small rustic farmhouse in front of a sprawling green forest just south of town. Otto paid his fare and stood up creakily from the cab, gazing at his surroundings. The faded white house at the end of the walk leaned slightly to the left, and its front steps were worn away in moss and decay. A few dogs trotted in the front yard, and Otto could see a mangy horse penned up just off to the side. This is where a doctor lives? he thought, second-guessing his reason for being here. But he shook himself off, stood up straight and marched stiffly toward the front door.

Otto knocked three times. A chorus of barking dogs rang out on the other side of the door, immediately followed by a two-toned whistle and an immediate hush. Even the dogs outside the house had obeyed and sat down, Otto noticed with amusement. The door pulled open slowly to reveal an older man with greying hair, Dr. Tom Fleet of Livingston, Tennesse, 59 years old, who looked with opaque eyes upon his young visitor. Otto stared, then cleared his throat and extended his hand. “Good afternoon, sir,” he said, removing his pilot’s cap and introducing himself.

Tom smiled. He had seen young men, recently returned home from Paris, roaming the streets, looking for work. “A military man, eh? Glad to see you’re home safe and sound. I do thank you for your service, but I have nothing to offer you.” He gave the stranger a nod and began to close the door, turning his back.

“Please, sir!” Otto stepped forward and placed a hand on the door. “I’m not here for work. I’m—I’m here because of the girl in blue.”

Tom froze. He let one ragged breath fill his body. “Would you believe it’s been 10 years since I heard those words?” He paused, looking toward Otto curiously, but his clouded eyes had already become watery. “Please, come inside.”

Otto felt a flood of relief surge through his body. He stepped into the house and was immediately ambushed by a four dogs, all wagging their tails in excitement of meeting someone new. He bent down to rub some of their heads and started laughing; the war had kept him from his own dog for too long. When he stood up, he was blindsided by the palest woman he had ever seen, a life-sized skeleton with platinum blond hair running down to her waist; she stood, bony hands clasped in front of her, peeking out of her bedroom.

“Annie, we have a visitor,” Tom said, gesturing toward the living room chairs with a tray of tea in his hands. She remained in the doorway, apprehensive, while Otto politely accepted Earl Grey tea and sat in the reclining chair opposite the couch, where Tom sat. There was a silence, as both men sipped their tea and wiped their mustaches in succession.

“Mr. Klim—Klimsey, was it?”

“Klimczak, sir. It’s Polish.”

“Mr. Klimczak, pardon me. I must say, I am surprised by your visit. In fact, I am quite shellshocked—” Otto flinched “—really. It’s been 10 years.”

Otto looked guiltily into his tea cup. “I’m sorry, sir, comin’ here unannounced. I just— You see, I’m her brother.”

“Whose brother?” Annie spoke quickly, stepping forward. Tom sat erect. He turned toward his daughter — the light of his life, whose fire had burned out, whose life had been inexorably altered that wintery day by the railroad — and said the four words he hadn’t spoken in 10 years: “The girl in blue.”

Annie wavered for a moment, but she recovered her wits. Tom moved on the couch to allow her to sit down. Otto fiddled with his buttons again.

Tom broke the ice. “I’m sorry, Mr. Klimcazk. Please, go on.”

Otto opened his mouth to speak, exhaled nervously, sipped his tea and opened his mouth again. “The girl in blue was my sister. I came here ’cause I was told you had spoken with her before she disappeared. You’ve gotta understand, I hadn’t seen her in years when she disappeared. See, Josephine spent her final years in an institu—”

“Hold on — Josephine?” Annie interrupted. “She told us her name was Sophie.”

Otto hurried to explain. “Well, her nickname was Sophie. But her real name was Josephine Klimczak. She was my younger sister, the youngest of all of us. I’ve been trying to find out what happened to her for years. I started searching for her, oh, six or seven years ago, but I ran into a dead end. I went to Willoughby, because I had heard a girl her age had died there. And I saw her grave, and I saw the morgue photo. I knew it was her right away. I asked the gravekeeper what happened, but he didn’t know.”

“Gravekeeper?” Tom frowned. “Do you mean Hank?”

“Yeah, the sexton, Hank Heaverly? He said he knew you. He put some flowers on her grave for me. Well, anyway, I found out where she stayed that night, and everyone there said she had talked to you. It took me a while, but I knew I needed to find you. Of course, the economy had other ideas. We had a few hectic years, and then the war hit, and no one knew what to do.” Otto then sheepishly pulled up his pantleg to reveal a sheath of metal encased by slats of wood where his ankle should have been. “I was shot down over Germany and had to smuggle myself back into France. I lost it to frostbite in the process,” he said, tapping his leg with his finger. “War is hell in the winter — pardon my language,” he added, forgetting Annie was listening.

“But that’s how I came to find you here. Once I returned from Europe, I learned all my brothers had been killed, too. I’m the only one left now, and I knew I couldn’t move on without findin’ out what happened to Josephine.”

Tom exhaled heavily. He could see only the vague outline of a man through his cataracts, but he felt at ease with the stranger now, despite the heavy subject. “Well, I’m afraid we won’t be much help. Annie and I spent about an hour with her, if I recall. She didn’t say much, not her real name, obviously, nor where she was going or had been.”

“That’s alright; I know it’s been a long time. It’s been an eternity for me, too. Mostly I can’t believe I’ve finally found you, Dr. Fleet, after all these years, and you haven’t run me out yet for askin’ about ‘the girl in blue.'” His face suddenly turned bitter, and his eyebrow furrowed.” I just wish I never had to hear that phrase again. But it’s stuck now. I guess that’s what they all called her, ’cause no one knew her.”

Tom and Annie exchanged a look before starting the story together. Somehow, the details of Christmas Eve, 1933, were clearer than ever in hindsight, with the girl’s own brother here before them. Tom could see the girl’s staggering blue form on the snow, and Annie saw the limp figure in her father’s arm at the door of the inn. And, horribly, they both had never been able to forget the fatal frame in their minds: the rush of the train, the whirl of the blue coat and the percussion of the impact. The girl’s body lay there for more than an hour before anyone could retrieve it, but no one knew what to do with it when they did. She had no money and no family — all she carried in her suitcase was a change of clothing, some towels and a few envelopes. She didn’t even have an identity.

Tom told Otto about the media frenzy of the mysterious girl in blue, when the local papers each wrote about her death, and dozens of hopeful letters surged into town, asking if this missing girl was the one from their own families. No one claimed her; she appeared to belong to no one.

Nearly wo weeks after the girl’s death, Tom ran into Hank Heaverly, the longtime cemetery sexton, at a bar in town. Most of the town had pushed Sophie to the back of their minds already, but neither Hank nor Tom could move on. Tom broached the subject carefully.

“Hank — the girl that came here the other day. Is she, y’know, still with you?”

Hank wiped the mustard off his lips with the back of his hand, juggling a mouthful of food with his response. “Yeah. I don’t rightly know what to do about her. No one’s come for her, but I gotta bury her. The sooner the better, with this weather.”

“You can’t wait?”

The sexton shook his head. “I doubt it. She’s not in good shape.”

“I see. In that case, I want you to use my plot.”

“What?”

“I’ll give her my plot. There’s only one space in it now anyway — mine — and I’m not dead. It’s the least I can do, since she isn’t going to get a respectable burial anywhere else. And I’ll pay for the stone.” Hank looked at Tom like he was crazy. “Tom, that’s going to cost you a fortune! I can’t let you do that.” Tom leaned back in his chair. “Then hold a community drive for money for it. I’ll contribute whatever Willoughby doesn’t raise.”

“And that’s what I did,” Tom said, returning to the present, looking up at Otto. “We held a drive, and everyone raised just more than $80 for a headstone and flowers. I gave the rest.”

Annie stared at her father: she had never heard this story before. “Dad — what? That was all your money!”

Tom sighed. “I know. But I couldn’t bear to see her be buried in some unmarked grave. Not after dying like that.”

Everything clicked into place in Annie’s mind. Her father had rushed in and out of the house the first few days after the  death, after the miscarriage — she never knew where to, and she barely cared. She never even knew there was a memorial service, or a gravestone — she had been too sick. It was small, at any rate, with a procession of gawkers, more than mourners, who stopped under the mulberry tree under which Sophie was buried.  And the stone was simple, but it would suffice for a girl who no one knew:

Girl in Blue
Killed by a train
December 24, 1933
Unknown  but not forgotten

Once or twice a month for more than year, Tom stopped to place fresh flowers on the site — geraniums, Annie’s favorite. Annie never knew about it — after the miscarriage, she had a series of infections and hemorrhages and spent much of her time in bed or in the hospital. Her weight dropped precipitously; she couldn’t keep anything down, and she slept all day. She barely noticed her father keeping later hours every night with piles of bills and scraps of papers with numbers and calculations scribbled all over them; nor did she notice the constant stream of men in suits coming in and out of the house, her father standing guilty and submissive on the side. Half of Willoughby’s businesses closed while Annie herself was holed up in her bedroom; Mrs. Judd and her son moved east, ending the engagement. Tom himself gradually stopped making house calls and sold his clothing and furniture.

By April of 1935, he spent his last penny. Annie woke up one morning to a low rumbling noise and found her father throwing his last few belongings into the backseat of his idling car. She felt no dread anymore; she was resigned to everything around her. They drove south, the cemetery’s lone mulberry tree square in the rear view mirror. Annie watched as the only town she’d ever lived in grew smaller and smaller. Tom never turned around. Within a few weeks, their modest food supply ran out, but Tom managed to earn some money here and there through odd jobs on the way down to Tennessee. It was only through sheer luck Tom had stumbled across an infrastructure project near Livingston through the Works Progress Administration, which had ultimately supported them through the war.

The Klimczak family, too, had lived through the harsh depression, Otto then explained. It pushed his brothers and him in to the war, if not for the benefits, then at least for stability, while his parents and Josephine slowly starved to death. “Josephine had always acted out as a child, “Otto said, “fightin’ and kickin’ and bein’ all-around aggressive. Sometimes my dad would hit her, and then both she and my mom would scream at him. So when the stock market crashed, my parents put her away in an institution; they just didn’t want to deal with her anymore. So she went to this asylum somewhere near Philadelphia. Me and my brothers stayed for a couple years, and I can’t speak for them, but I always kind of pretended nothing was wrong. We all moved together to the Air Force base in Harrisburg; worked as civilians for awhile, and then enlisted a little later. We all tried to keep in touch — well, except Josephine — but we weren’t really a writin’ kind of family.

“Anyway, I don’t want to keep you folks while I talk on and on. Once I got myself rehabilitated, I set out straight for Willoughby to figure out what happened to my baby sister. I had come on one trail after another, and I guess they all led to you, Mr. Fleet.”

The whole time Otto and Tom had talked, Annie listened with sympathetic eyes. She remembered her father telling her of the girl in blue’s erratic behavior at the station, and the downcast expression her eyes wore at lunch, and her aversion to answering simple questions about her personal life — and now she understood that Sophie never intended to take the train home. A chill ran through Annie’s chest.  It wasn’t an accident.

Outside, the sun had begun its slow descent into night, casting long shadows on the potted plants in the living room windowsill and the teacups, long empty, on the coffee table. A sudden cold breeze streamed in through the loose-hinged front door, and a slow-moving car applied its squealing brakes just beyond the yard’s edge. A full afternoon had passed since the same taxi driver had dropped off a slightly limping man at this property. As the driver looked out at the house now, he amusedly told himself it was a miracle the house hadn’t collapsed on the poor fellow in the meantime. He honked his horn twice, breaking up the solemn visit inside. The three guests stood up gradually and shook hands, and Tom followed Otto to the front door.

The men walked out to the road together; Annie stood on the porch, the wind rustling her long hair.

When they reached the road, Otto turned toward Tom again. “Mr. Fleet, I… I don’t know how I can adequately express my thanks to you.”

“There’s no need,” Tom waved his hand hurriedly. “I just hope you found what you were looking for.” Otto suddenly felt a lump in his throat that hadn’t been there all afternoon; it hadn’t even been there seven years ago when he first saw his sister’s grave.

“I wish I had more to tell you,” Tom continued, “but it sounds like Sophie knew exactly what she was doing when she came to Willoughby that day. Annie and I only happened to distract her for a bit. So I’m sorry there wasn’t a better ending to this story,” he said. Otto opened his mouth to reply, but only extended his hand again. Tom clasped it within both of his. After a few seconds, they let go, and Otto climbed back into the taxi. Tom stood at the end of the sidewalk watching it drive off, disturbing a pile of leaves in the road, which leaped gracefully up and hovered for a few minutes before cascading down onto a flower bed by the mailbox, in which Tom’s dutifully planted blue geraniums stood quivering against the autumn wind, slowly dying.

* *

For further reading on the true story of the Girl in Blue:

The News Herald in Ohio: ‘Girl in Blue’ finally gets gravestone

Haunted Willoughby, Ohio, by Cathi Weber

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