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"Girl by Girl" by Kati Bumbera

Something was off about the woman from the start. Danielle knew it, even though she pushed the feeling down. Something in the way she stepped up to the booth with her passport. She didn’t move like the others, the regular passengers who submitted to the ritual with practised indifference. This woman, this traveller had a purpose written on her face. A tingle ran through Danielle’s spine, an uneasy throwback to fairytale pacts.

As though her booth at Gate Nine was a crossroads.

It was Danielle’s first shift after a car accident, colliding with a tree. Now she didn’t have a husband. Not at home, at least. Instead, she had a million husbands everywhere she looked. Her mind was still searching for him, anticipating him, predicting his moves. It was a skill she’d perfected over six years of marriage. It was useful once. Now it was like a car wheel still spinning in the air while the wreckage burned.

“We’re on Gate Nine this morning,” said Alyssa, her supervisor, when she arrived that morning. “The scanner’s new. If it glitches, whack the lid.” She spun around and gave Danielle a long hug.“How does it feel to be back?”

“Too much time home alone drove me mad,” Danielle said, with a brisk laugh. “Now I’m spooked by the crowds. I see the faces, and—”

“You know this place plays tricks on the senses,” Alyssa replied. “Take it easy. You’ll have your mojo back by midday.”

Danielle didn’t tell Alyssa that she felt queasy since she woke up. She wanted her boss to be right: it was just the announcements, the fake light, the crowds that made her light-headed. The terminal was both a borderland and its own country. Like hospitals, thought Danielle. Everyone rushes around and you lie still, yet you’re the one in transit, moving through pain to somewhere new.

You are the one who’s breaking free.

She took another look at the woman behind the plexiglass: familiar, without being remarkable. Danielle never forgot a face. She had a knack for ignoring distractions and spotting the “tells”. Not that she needed it these days, with scanners and algorithms doing most of the work.

Boarding card, passport, face, picture. All checked out. Was she a doctor? Perhaps that was it. Danielle might have seen her at the hospital. One of the doctors who’d told her it wasn’t her fault.

She could be going away on a break.

Except she knew in the pit of her stomach that she wasn’t. The woman was fleeing, running away.

“Help me.”

Danielle leaned forward. Blanchette Monfort, as was written on her passport, seemed barely more than a girl now, wearing a dress that was brand new and centuries old. Wasn’t she old just a minute ago?

Wasn’t he alive a minute ago, next to me in the car, yelling—

“Need a hand?” Alyssa called over.

Danielle exhaled, clutching the desk. She thought Blanchette Monfort had mentioned a daughter, but she must’ve misunderstood. The accent was hard to place, just like everything else about the woman. But there was no daughter. Blanchette was travelling alone.

She positioned the passport in the scanner with care. The machine hummed. Blanchette Monfort stood still. This was, at last, something familiar, Danielle thought, this minute on which the future hinged. Like waiting for a line on a pregnancy test to make six years of marriage be worth it. Or counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder, guessing how close it would strike. One— his footsteps approaching. Two—a key turning. Three—

She knew.

Danielle knew where she had met the woman before, not once but twice.

The first time was in a museum. Blanchette Monfort stood in a forest, holding a lantern that threw a golden light on her face against the woods. In front of her stood the devil — an ominous, winged creature, as tall as the trees. But Blanchett wasn’t looking at the devil. She was looking at the light of the lantern, mesmerised. It was a small painting, centuries old, dark and quietly brilliant. Danielle read about it in a magazine later, at the hospital. That was the second time she saw her. Blanchette, a French peasant’s daughter, bought a lantern from the devil, so she could study and become a surgeon. She traded her soul for that light. That was the legend behind the painting. The article showed a close-up on the girl’s face. It was triumphant.

Danielle remembered thinking the soul was an old lie.

And now that peasant from the painting, Blanchette Monfort from the middle ages, waited for her passport at gate nine. Her face, once aglow with excitement, now radiated urgency, like a doctor looking at something grave.

“I studied by the light of that lantern for years, every night, until my eyes ached and my very soul was consumed by the flame. Naught left for the devil to drag to hell. The lantern, I passed it on before I died. Girl by girl, they’ve kept the light, if only just."

The scanner hummed.

"But now the devil claims I’ve cheated. He wants the lantern back. He’s after me, and he’s near, he’s here, he’s—”

“He’s dead,” Danielle said. “I killed him.”

The scanner beeped. A Yes/No question flashed up on the screen. A glitch, Alyssa said. A crossroads, Danielle thought.

She hit the key, holding her breath. Then she handed the passport back to Blanchette, wanting to ask if she was meant to feel something. Instead, she glanced at Alyssa, and when she turned back, Blanchette was gone, and the sea of people that swallowed her up closed again. Danielle saw only strangers, waiting behind the painted line.

Girl by girl, Blanchette had said.

Did she say something about a daughter too?

By midday you’ll have your mojo back, Alyssa had promised.

On her break, Danielle thought, she’d stop by the pharmacy. Then she’d buy that magazine, with the painting of a girl, holding a lantern. She already knew there would be no devil on the painting. Just a girl in the forest, shining a light.

A word from the author: I am a video games writer living in France. I write short fiction for fun.


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