Paper is in short supply. It is used for wrapping, for covering, for protection, in place of cloth and plastic and wood. It is what the world is made of. The girl’s parents wear green garments made of rough, felt-like paper. The paper from which their garments are made resembles egg carton.
The girl has gotten a C on an assignment. She brings home the paper, with the red letter grease-penciled in the center, slick and shiny. Her punishment has to do with paper, but she doesn’t understand the nature of the punishment. First she is given some paper, and then her parents yell at her for how she uses it. There is confusion. She doesn’t understand the rules. Each day, she is given a different type of paper, and less. Finally, her parents give her a huge paper towel, as big as a blanket. She spreads it on the dirt, sits and cries, slowly ripping pieces from the edge to wipe her eyes. Her grief makes her eat the paper, though her grief is only for the paper’s demise. She knows if she could stop being sad, she could fold the paper neatly and keep it with her always, but she can’t. When the paper is gone, that will be all.
In daylight, a sleeper train pulls up. She knows there are men inside who will disembark to spend the night—where, she doesn’t know—but she never sees them. The train’s windows are dusty and darkened, like a spotted antique mirror. No, darker, she decides. She can’t see herself in the windows, and she can’t see through. Perhaps they are not even glass.
She walks along the train tracks, veers onto a wooded path. The sky is overcast. It is autumn and the trees have dropped their leaves, which clot the ground. The clumped leaves are sticky and wet. They radiate the peculiar yellow of a banana slug. She gets farther and farther from any landmark she can identify. She passes a river, thinks the water opens into a cove ringed by a private beach, but she peers over the path’s edge and can see nothing through the trees. Just the same thin trickle of water, ribboning away from her. The land unwinds at the wrong speed, like a DVD on fast-forward. The passage is smooth, but disorienting. She misses whole parts without knowing. She can’t tell what’s stitched together and what’s whole.
Then, night has fallen. She has come back to the sleeper train. She is all alone. On the train, a single lit window glows, private and foreboding. The tracks are dark. She will never know who is on that train.