“Emmaliene Taylor is a very sad girl.”
It was the same thing the teachers always said (followed by sober nods and regretful shakes of the head) when the waif-thin, tawny-haired girl’s name came up in conversation.
“I think it’s the father,” the math teacher stated primly. “A little too charming, you know? Can’t trust a man with eyes that blue. And he’s always smiling,” Mrs. Carter added in a tone of condemnation.
“No. I believe the mother is to blame,” the French teacher objected (she was quite fond of Mr. Taylor’s marine eyes). “The woman is a cold fish – with that rigid posture and eyes like an ice storm…I’m sure the child gets no affection from that quarter,” Miss Colbert confided with a judicious nod.
In truth, both of Emmaliene’s parents were utterly devoted to their daughter. They began and ended each day of her life with warm hugs and kisses and filled the time in between with thoughtful conversation, family outings and many I love yous. The girl did not want for affection or endearments.
But Emmaliene had never smiled, not even as a toddler. She did sigh a lot, particularly when gazing from the windows of the Taylor family penthouse. It was a lovely and spacious apartment on the twelfth floor of an old but quaint building overlooking Central Park. Emmaliene’s sighs were not those of contentment. Rather, they were filled with the heavy weight of loss.
“Have the Taylor’s sought any kind of help for the girl?” This question was posed by the new art teacher, Miss Holly. The latest addition to the teacher’s lounge was a youthful, (and disastrously freckled) red-head from one of those southern states none of the urbanites could be troubled to remember the name of. Her accent alone had inspired many covert smirks from the other teachers. And the woman’s wardrobe! The art teacher’s flowing patchwork skirts hanging low over form-hugging body suits in bright jewel tones had earned much scorn from the fashion-minded teachers of the Upper East Side. “She’s actually wearing pumpkin,” Miss Colbert had sneered to Mrs. Carter not ten minutes before. “Could she be a bigger cliché? And those boots! Is there a rodeo in town?” “Hillbilly Chic,” the math teacher had chimed in with a derisive snort.
The school psychiatrist, stood between Mrs. Carter and Miss Holly now, rocking thoughtfully on his heels while contemplating his coffee. “Emmaliene Taylor. She does warrant some concern, yes…”
“I think she has some real potential…” Miss Holly began but Mr. Dodge cut across her words with the precision of one who listens for a living.
“Troubled girl. I’ve seen her many times myself. Even referred her to some of the top psychiatrists in the city. No one can decide what to do with her. Sadly, the latest word from a specialist of my acquaintance is autism. A mild case, nothing too severe – there’s no denying she’s a better than average student – but socially she’ll never fit in. I am working with the parents to find a more suitable school for the child. She needs a different kind of attention than she will ever get here…and really, she would be more at ease with her own kind. I’m afraid the parents are being quite stubborn about the whole thing. Denial,” Mr. Dodge decreed.
Miss Holly beamed with delight over the sketches Emmaliene had spread across the desk, but the girl did not notice. She was mesmerized by the ghost of a mud stain across the pointed toe of her teacher’s boot.
“Emmaliene, these are lovely drawings. I’ve never had a student choose a woodland scene when working on a perspective assignment. They usually choose cityscapes, perhaps because the lines are easier to follow, but your wandering tree lined path is perfectly rendered.” Miss Holly followed the footpath to its vanishing point with a paint-flecked fingernail, “You’ve completed the perspective exercise like an expert and the setting is wonderful.” The art teacher squeezed Emmaliene’s shoulder gently, “I do believe you are a natural artist.”
Emmaliene gazed at the drawings and sighed as if they were scenes of nuclear holocaust, “The pencil was black so I couldn’t draw any leaves. They’re all dreaming now.”
Miss Holly nodded thoughtfully, “Do you spend much time in Central Park? You’ve captured the organic lines of the branches beautifully.”
“I don’t like the park,” Emmaliene frowned. “It’s full of ghosts.”
The skin on Miss Holly’s arms prickled. Arms crossing her chest, she hugged herself tightly until the chill passed.
It was a breezy spring day. The kind of day where no child wants to stay indoors and even adults can feel the hope of new possibilities writhing just under the skin. The chartered Coach bus pulled to a stop with a soft wheeze, exhaling twenty jubilant students, three harried teachers and one hesitant Emmaliene Taylor. Miss Holly placed a hand on each of Emmaliene’s shoulders and called the rest of the children to order in her sugary, no-nonsense tone.
“You each have your group assignments. Stay with your chaperon at all times. Have fun and draw anything that grabs your attention.”
Miss Holly led the way to a set of huge wrought iron gates under an arch which read ‘Inwood Hill Park’ in ornate letters. As the children passed through in a surprisingly orderly fashion, she felt a trembling in Emmaliene’s shoulder.
“It’s okay Em,” she said in a reassuring whisper. “I’m right here with you. If you see any ghosts you just let me know and we’ll face them together.”
The art teacher led her group of seven to a copse of ancient trees that seemed to brush the clouds. All of the children were laughing and carrying on as children do when they’re not corralled in a classroom. All the children that is, except for Emmaliene. She was shaking visibly and wide-eyed, looking everywhere at once. Miss Holly had not dared let go of the girl’s shoulder for the short hike into the park for fear she would bolt. There was also Sarah Fowler and Dirk Westin to consider. The two trouble-makers were the worst of the lot when it came to picking on Emmaliene. The two had been whispering together since they’d exited the bus and Miss Holly wasn’t about to let them spook the girl any further.
As the students were choosing their places on the grass and pulling out their sketch books, Sarah called out boldly, “Miss Holly, Emmaliene is looking kind of green. Maybe she should go back to the bus and wait.”
Snickers rippled through the lounging children and Emmaliene shook severely as though stifling a sob.
“One more word out of you Miss Fowler and you’ll be the one sent back to the bus,” Miss Holly threatened.
Sarah stalked away with a triumphant glance at a jeering Dirk only to trip over a thick tree root. When the girl hit the ground face first, Miss Holly let go of Emmaliene and rushed to Sarah’s aide. The other children were laughing at Snotty Sarah’s misfortune until they saw the blood dribbling from her mouth.
“She’s just bitten her tongue, but it seems in tact. I doubt she’ll even need stitches. Do you want to call the parents and ask if we should take her to the hospital?” the paramedic asked.
Miss Holly nodded and stepped away to redial an anxious Mrs. Fowler.
“Has anyone seen Emmaliene?” asked a frantic Miss Holly. Nineteen pairs of shoulders shrugged as the eyes of two teachers widened in alarm.
Hours passed in a frenzy of phone calls, explanations to park rangers and police and a long fruitless search of the entire park. The Taylors and Miss Holly alternated comforting one another and calling Emmaliene’s name. Around dusk, a tearful Miss Holly walked back to the copse of trees where she had last seen the child.
“Em honey, if you can hear me please come out,” she sobbed. “Your parents are here and they’re so worried about you. I am too. I’m sorry I left you. I know I promised we’d face the ghosts together. Please Emmaliene,” Miss Holly pleaded in a whisper, “please be alright.”
“There aren’t any ghosts here Miss Holly,” Emmaliene sighed from somewhere in the shadows.
“Emmaliene?” the teacher spun in the direction of the child’s voice.
Standing in the space between two giant trees was Emmaliene. She looked so different Miss Holly almost thought she was another child altogether. It took a moment to register the biggest change – Emmaliene was smiling. There were leaves in her hair and enough dirt on her skin that she appeared as brown as bark, but she was smiling in a way that Miss Holly could only label as beatific.
“Look what I can do,” Emmaliene whispered with a wild grin and Miss Holly gasped.
Dazed and bewildered, Miss Holly stumbled back to the edge of the search party staging area to pull Mr. And Mrs. Taylor aside.
“Follow me,” she breathed and turned back toward the forest.
Confused but hopeful, the Taylor’s followed the eccentric art teacher down a moonlit path to a copse of ancient trees that seemed to touch the sky. Miss Holly stopped in front of the smallest tree in the circle and turned toward the expectant Taylor’s.
“Well, I have some good news and some weird news. The good news is – Emmaliene is alive and safe and I’m fairly certain your daughter is not autistic.”
Mrs. Taylor looked around with concern, “If she’s safe, then where is she?”
“Well, that’s the weird news,” Miss Holly gestured to the tree. “Emmaliene is a dryad.”
From the shadows, the Taylor’s heard the sound they’d been dreaming of for eleven years – Emmaliene giggled.