The sun, filtered through the canopy above, flashed brilliantly on her red pigtails. Ellie put one hand on her floppy straw hat and used the other to haul herself over the moss-covered log blocking the overgrown stone path. She winced as she felt one stocking rip a little against the bark. Momma would have her hide for that, but maybe it would distract her from the mud-covered backpack and grass-stained yellow sundress she’d ruined earlier in her trip. Now that she was eight daddy had allowed her to visit grandma alone. Daddy had made her promise, before she left, to get home before dark today or signal so he knew where she was. The sun was high in the sky but it would start setting soon. If she didn’t move faster night would fall before she reached home. Ellie kept an eye out for a safe spot to rest, just in case. Most of the stone ruins had crumbled in this area; the trees had uprooted them thoroughly after they were abandoned. One large structure caught her eye, and she couldn’t help thinking it resembled shelves almost. One corner had collapsed under the weight of the trees on the roof, leaving a dangerously steep grassy slope. She noted an entrance on the side facing home, and looked up at the sun again. With a sigh she stopped, her heart sinking with the sun. It was too late to get home tonight.
She climbed over a small stone wall and into the dim interior. Metal shells were slowly rusting away in neat lines against small walls and pillars. Flowers and grass grew where the sun hit, and moss covered most of the floor in a soft bed. One shell near a particularly sunny spot had a beautiful purple flower growing inside of it, sheltered behind the metal from wind and cold. She debated bringing it home to her mother, but without a container it wouldn’t make the trip. She walked up the gently sloping floors until she emerged on the roof. It looked almost like the lawn at home. She had never noticed this place when they traveled past before, the horses always moved too quickly to see much. The ledge facing home was intact enough that she could set down her signal lamp on it. She lit it, carefully, blew the whistle her mother had given her three times, and started pressing the button on top of the lamp. A metal flap closed over the opening on the side facing home with each press and the reassuring click helped her keep track. She saw the flash of a reply from home. Stay safe, lots of love. She put the lamp out to conserve the wick and went back inside to find somewhere to camp.
The roof was breezy, but inside everything felt closed and stuffy. It reminded her of last winter, when they had been snowed in for three days. In one corner was a little room that had partially caved in under the roof. The door had broken and rusted off its hinges, leaving just enough space for her to get through. She had to wonder what this room had been for, before the great war had taken its toll on civilization, leaving only ruins and legends. Her parents never seemed to want to discuss the ruins, only answering her questions with warnings and stories of the lost ones. They always said the past was best left there. She found a dry corner and set down her backpack, opening it to pull out her blanket. Ellie shook out the blanket, coughing as the dust of centuries stirred from its rest, and sat down against her backpack. There was a strange metal scraping noise and she looked back to see there was a pile of scrap metal against the wall. It had shifted slightly but the room was dark enough now that she couldn’t make out what it could have been. Her parents had taught her what to watch for; some things were dangerous, some were harmless. There was always the risk of stumbling across a lost one, but that was unlikely so close to the path. She tried to make herself comfortable and shut her eyes to go to sleep.
It was pitch black when the howling started. It was distant, but creeping closer with every beat of her heart. Ellie lay awake where moments before she had slept, staring in terror at the entrance of the room. They might even follow her scent this far into the building. She thought back to what her mom had packed. There was nothing that would make a good weapon in her bag; bits of metal lay around but none were the right size for her to fight with. She curled up tighter, hugging her knees and closing her eyes as the howls drew closer. They were in the building now, and she could hear the sharp barks that meant they were tracking something. She shivered with fear as the pack came closer, and opened her eyes to see one crawling in the doorway. Ellie knew better than to make noise, but couldn’t help screaming. In an instant she found herself being lifted into the air and a piece of metal came out of nowhere to hit the wolf’s jaw sharply. It yelped and scrambled back out of the hole. She looked up and screamed again as a terrifying metal face with glowing eyes looked down at her. With a quick squirm, she tumbled down to the ground and scrambled back into the corner. She turned around and curled up in a defensive ball as the metal creature lurched towards her. One of its legs seemed to have locked straight due to rust, and it scraped against the ground. The wolves were snuffling outside the door, as if trying to decide if it was worth trying again. A short howl, a few barks, and the padding of feet marked their retreat into the night, in search of undefended prey. The metal monster seemed to look at her for a few minutes, and then reached out its arm. With a frightened squeak she shielded her face, and it paused. It chirped and began backing away, finally settling back down in the corner. Fear gave way to nervous curiosity as nothing further happened, and she peered at the metal creature over her arm. It was rusting and dented, like the old plow her father used in the fields. Her parents and teachers had warned her about the lost ones. They were dangerous, the warnings about how one could easily kill a child had scared Ellie when she was young. It had certainly made the wolves think twice. But then, why hadn’t it attacked her? Why had it stopped the wolves and backed off when she was cornered? It looked ready to fall apart and yet it moved like a person. She kept a nervous eye on it until wariness became weariness and she slipped into a deep sleep.
A bird sang somewhere nearby; a rare treat. Ellie opened her eyes and looked around drowsily. She clamped a hand over her mouth to avoid screaming again when she saw the lost one standing in the center of the room, facing the door. It looked towards her a little, chirped softly, almost cheerily, and returned to watching the door. Her stomach growled to remind her she needed breakfast, and she cautiously crawled over to grab her bag. Back in her corner, she pulled out some bread and gobbled half of it down. She put the rest back carefully and looked at the lost one more carefully. Its right leg was rusted straight, and it stood at an odd angle. One three-fingered hand held a stick like a club, and it was watching the doorway intently. When she stood up and picked up her bag, it looked at her again and chirped. She looked from it to the door anxiously; there was no safe way to get past. As if sensing her intentions, it moved aside and half fell back down where it had been. She hurried to the door and paused, before crawling away, to look back. It chirped at her again and Ellie curtsied silently before hurrying back out into the ruins. Even if it was a lost one, momma had taught her manners. She reached the outside world again and hurried back down the path to home. Her parents would be waiting for her and she didn’t want to miss lunch. She reached the stone farmhouse as daddy came in from the fields, and endured a scolding for her dress. After lunch she helped clean up, nearly dropping a bowl as her thoughts drifted back to the ruins and the lost one. At dinner she told her folks that nothing had happened on the trip, and promised to help repair her dress and stockings before being excused to bed.
That night she nestled in her bed and dreamt about her journey. She hadn’t told her family about the lost one; they would have reported it to be destroyed. Ellie owed it her life at least, so she would keep it a secret. Tomorrow she could go visit the lost one too, and thank it properly for stopping the wolves. There were no howls that night and she slept soundly.