“You know, we’ve walked by here every day for a year and I’ve never noticed that before.” Stella paused on the cracked sidewalk. She rubbed her arms. Even in her red wool jacket, the chill made her joints ache.
“What?” Margie continued on for a few more feet before she stopped. She tapped her foot, and then pushed the loose strands of gray hair out of her face.
“There’s a face in that window up there. A young girl.” She nodded toward the upstairs window of the old house in front of them. “No, don’t be so obvious!”
Margie squinted at the window. “I don’t see anything.”
“She looks sad. Or thoughtful. Something. I’ve never seen a girl playing outside.”
“Kids don’t go outside anymore. They sit on their cans in front of computer screens and have virtual lives.” Margie snorted. “Come on. I’m cold.”
Stella shuffled her feet. The girl in the window watched them go.
The next day, Stella slowed well before the house, to give herself time to look at the house and the window. Most of the leaves had drifted to the ground over the past few weeks, leaving the view unobstructed. The house hadn’t seen a paint brush in over a decade, she’d guess. She’d never seen anyone working in the yard. Without leaves on the trees to dress it up, the lonely house looked dejected. Bare branches reflected on the glass, making it difficult to get a good look inside. They reached the same crack in the sidewalk as the day before. Stella paused. Yes, there she was.
“She’s there again. The girl in the window.”
“Stella, I don’t have time for this today. So what if a girl lives there.” Margie reached out to tug at Stella’s hand.
Stella allowed her friend to pull her along. She was right. It made no difference. Not really. Yet, she seemed so sad. Thoughtful beyond her years. Isolated. Stella felt her heart sink as she thought of what life must be like for the girl. Whatever kept her in that house must be serious.
Every day, for a week, they took their walk. Every day, for a week, Stella slowed to a stop by the crack on the sidewalk and peered up at the window. And every day, for a week, the young girl looked thoughtfully down at her. She never smiled. She never waved. She never pointed. She never left the window.
The days turned blustery and frigid. Storms would arrive soon, bringing with them a coating of snow and ice that would make these walks treacherous until the spring. She and Margie were getting a little too old for ice skating down cracked sidewalks, so they decided they’d take one more walk and then start using the local mall for their exercise.
Out of habit, Stella stopped at the crack in the sidewalk by the old house. She glanced up. The girl in the window stared down at her for a moment, then stepped away from the window. Stella blinked, then squinted. The window remained empty.
“I’m going to go say hello.” She turned to the front door of the house, then beckoned for her friend to join her. “Come on, it’ll only take a minute.”
“I’m getting my hair done, Stella. I don’t want to be late.” Margie heaved a sigh.
“Just a minute.” Stella marched up the steps to the door and knocked. Margie remained on the sidewalk.
After several loud knocks, Stella was just about to give up when the door swung open. An old woman stood there. She had to be in her late 80s, maybe even mid-90s. Wrinkles cascaded over her face. She wore a faded, shapeless blue dress and a kind smile. A faded blue ribbon held her gray hair in a tight ponytail.
“Yes?” The old woman raised her eyebrows.
“Uh, Hi,” Stella stammered. “I’m sorry to bother you, it’s just…I just wanted to say hello to the young girl in the window. We pass by here every day, and it seems rude to not say hello.”
Behind her, Margie stomped her feet. Probably to urge her to leave, but she made it look like it was to hold off the cold that was setting in by rubbing her arms briskly.
“You mean my window?” The old woman furrowed her eyebrows.
“Yes, the upstairs window. The one by the old tee and the holly bush.” Stella pointed to the side of the house. “She watches us every day.”
“I’m the only one here, and I assure you I haven’t been upstairs in years.” The woman smiled. “Perhaps it’s just reflections in the window looking at you.”
Stella looked back at Margie. Her friend had started to pace back and forth.
“You’re sure? There’s no young girl upstairs?” Stella looked the old woman straight in the eye.
“No, dear. It’s been any years since anyone referred to me as a girl.” The old woman’s eyes twinkled. “I do appreciate the visit. Perhaps when the weather warms up I could join you on your walks.”
Stella nodded. Her mind raced. “We’d like that.”
They said good bye and the old woman slowly closed the door. “I know what I saw,” she muttered.
The old woman returned to the living room and sat down in her favorite chair. She picked up the cup she had sat down on the small table next to the chair and took a sip before she began to rock.
“They seem nice.” The soft voice next to her made her smile.
“Yes, they do.”
“They come by every day.”
“Yes, they do.” The old woman looked up. A young girl stood next to her. She wore a simple, shapeless blue dress and her pale hair was pulled back into a pony tail with a bright blue ribbon. “You are welcome to join them. I’m sure the one lady would be happy to have you.”
“The other isn’t as grouchy as she seems.” The girl smiled. “You won’t mind?”
“No, dear. It’s time. They’ll stop by once more.”
“How can you be sure?” The girl frowned.
“Human nature, dear girl. Human nature.”
The next day’s weather forecast was grim, but Stella insisted on one more walk.
“Come on, the sidewalk is dry! Just one more. I know what I saw. I’ll prove it!” Stella threw gloves at her friend.
Margie grumbled, but she tugged on the gloves, then her coat. “Fine. One more time. But that’s it. I’m getting too old to hang out in the cold like this.”
They stepped out into the gray light and started walking. Stella set a brisker pace than usual. She was anxious to get to the house. Margie complained that they were moving too fast, but Stella barely listened. The girl had to be held captive or something. She’d prove the girl was there, then she’d call the police. There was something very wrong about that house.
They reached the crack in the sidewalk and stopped. Margie stomped her feet. “Hurry up, then. I don’t want to hang around here all day and catch our death.”
Stella squinted up at the window. It looked black. The sun, obscured by clouds, refused to cast any shadows or illumination into the room beyond. The young girl wasn’t there. She stared hard, willing the child to show herself. She remained stubbornly absent.
“Damn,” Stella whispered.
“Told you. Can we go now?”
Stella stepped forward, then paused. “I know she was there.”
“Well, even if she was, it’s no business of yours. Come on, let’s go.” Margie tugged at her arm, then started walking ahead of her. Stella reluctantly followed, glancing back every other step at the house. As they reached the end of the street she could swear she saw the door open. But the old woman didn’t come outside and after a moment she shrugged and told herself she was being silly. Tomorrow they’d go to the mall where they’d be warm.
“Are you sure?” the young girl’s worried eyes surveyed the old woman.
“Yes, dear. I’m sure.” The old woman rocked. “It’s time. You go on.”
The girl nodded, then leaned down. The old woman stopped rocking to accept a kiss on the cheek. She smiled.
The girl turned to go. She opened the door, took one last look at the old woman, then stepped out into the cold and shut the door behind her.
Stella stomped up the steps to her house. It had already begun to snow. There would be no more walking outside until the spring. It was just as well. Her recent obsession with the girl in the window wasn’t healthy. Just inside the door, she shrugged out of her coat and threw it on the coat tree.
A soft tap at the door startled her. She turned to stare at it. Now who would be out in weather like this?
She looked through the peephole and saw nothing but snow falling. Must have just been the wind, she told herself. She headed down the hallway toward the kitchen.
A soft tap behind her stopped her. There was definitely someone there. She returned to the front door and pulled it open. The stoop held nothing but footprints in the gathering snow.
“Hello?” She called out. Nothing answered her. Even birds were huddled down to wait out the storm. The world had taken on a hush that she’d always found magical. “Well, whoever you are, come in. It’s cold out.” She laughed at herself, then shut the door.
Later, she sat drinking her tea and thought back to the tapping at the door. Something odd struck her that she hadn’t paid attention to. There’d been two sets of footprints on the step. One larger, one smaller. Like those of a girl. When she went back to check, however, snow had coated everything.
She shook her head. She was being silly. Still…she headed upstairs to the guest room. Just in case.