"It was a pleasure to meet you, Sheriff Mercury," I said. "I'm a big fan."
"What's that?" he asked, distracted. "Oh, right. That. Yes, well, thanks. Just continue on this way and you should get into familiar territory in a while," and he spun and was gone, walking very quickly down the road that meandered off to the left.
"He was nice," Amy said, yawning.
"Nice? The last sheriff was nicer," I answered. I caught her yawn at that point and, stretching and flexing, I was reminded that we needed to hurry.
"Why did you say you were a big fan?"
"Hmmm? Oh, he's a pretty well-known singer, a rock star," I answered, starting to walk.
"He doesn't look like a rock star," she said. "Can we find a hotel or something here? I'm sleepy."
I cursed under my breath, wishing we'd have gotten here sooner. I was pretty zapped myself. "No, we can't. That's why we'll need to hurry. We can't rest here."
"Not right here," she said. "Don't they have hotels or something like that?"
"No, they don't. We can't rest here at all, here in Aphter. There's no rest for the living in Aphter." I tried to set a pace that wouldn't exhaust us too quickly but would still move us along.
"What do you mean?"
I sighed, wondering how to make her understand. "Look, Aphter is where the dead rest. There's no rest for the dead outside of Aphter. Well, we're just the opposite. We're alive. There's no rest for us here. We have to get in and get out without rest. So, let's not talk too much. Let's move."
"Or what?" She sounded nervous.
"What do you mean?"
"What happens if we get tired and fall asleep?"
"You can't fall asleep here unless you're dead."
"So what happens if you get really, really tired? You don't fall asleep?" She stopped.
"No. You can't rest at all. Just like out in the living world, though, if you get exhausted enough, you'll die."
She stared at me, tears welling up in her wide eyes. "Are you serious?" She looked so tired it almost broke my heart.
"Look," I said, kneeling down to look her in the eyes, "it's going to be alright. People can go a long time without sleep if they have to. I've been here for a few days before. Don't worry. Trust me."
"But I'm already tired now," she started to sniff and a tear ran down her cheek. "Can't we just leave?"
"No, we can't. We're running out of time, Amy. We have to keep going." I had to stay aloof. In my line of work you can't let your emotions take over. Let the emotions loose and, pretty soon, you can't pay attention to anything. I had to be sharp. I couldn't afford to miss anything. "Come on. Be strong." I gave her an awkward pat on the shoulder.
She started to sob. She stood there facing me, eyes squeezed shut, arms straight at her side, and her entire body shook and shuddered as tears poured down the crinkles in her cheeks, along her lips, over her chin and onto her shirt. A more skilled companion would have comforted her immediately. I knew this. 'She's a little girl, damn you!' I cursed myself. 'Do something!' I reached out with one hand and, placing it on the back of her head, pulled her gently toward my shoulder. She didn't need much encouragement. She plunged her sloppy face into the crook of my neck and shoulder and threw her arms around me so tightly I thought she'd choke me. For more than a minute she sobbed uncontrollably and dripped tears down my back. Once, between her moans and sniffles, I heard her choke out the words, "I want to go home." This renewed my sense of urgency. I'm not a commiserator, I'm a repairman. There was only one chance to fix things, and it was slipping away fast.
"Come on," I said, and I wrapped my arm around her back and stood, lifting her. She wasn't so heavy. I could move like this for a little while. I adjusted her weight a little for balance and started off in the direction the sheriff had indicated toward The Twilight Zone. I tried to focus on the task at hand and avoid becoming distracted or carried away by compassion for this troubled little girl in my arms. It wasn't the easiest thing I'd ever done, believe me.