I'm getting this letter to you by courier because I don't trust the regular mail service out of Gotham yet.
I miss you a lot. It's hard to be away this long, but I can't thank you enough for whatever strings you pulled to get me in here. More than a year since the quake, and another week to go before the rest of the country gets to come in, and yours truly already on the spot gathering one of the stories of my life.
I wanted to write first to say "hello" and "I love you," and to let you know that I'm fine, but also because I have a story to tell you that will never make it into the paper -- not because it isn't good enough -- just because I promised I wouldn't tell it there. But, I have to share it with you, Smallville.
I spent the first two days here in and around police headquarters, in the "safe area," getting as many personal stories of the survivors there that I could. Yesterday I finally talked Jim Gordon into getting me an escort uptown to the clinic run by Dr. Leslie Thompkins. You remember the good doctor, don't you? There's a story in itself -- but it's not the one I wanted to tell you.
Since I was up in that area, I wanted to try to find out if Buddie's Bar was still there. You remember how much Lucy used to rave about Buddie's. Well, it wasn't the kind of question I could ask Dr. Thompkins, but there was this nice young man there, Jean Paul Valley (don't know why that name seems so familiar) who knew about Buddie's. It seems that Buddie survived the quake all right, but the bar didn't make it. Complete rubble pile. However, just last week Buddie opened up a new establishment about two blocks away from the old one. That put it about five minutes from the clinic. (There still isn't much restaurant-quality food here, of course. But somehow caches of booze still keep getting uncovered.)
Jean Paul insisted on walking me over there, though you and I know I would have been fine on my own. But, it was getting dark, blah, blah, blah. In short, it was too hard to turn him down. Of course, he wanted to stay and wait for me, but that I would not allow. So I made an agreement to wait for him if he'd come back in about three or four hours, and that seemed to satisfy him. I figured that Buddie's was the place to go for a different kind of story -- survivors still, but maybe the less fortunate ones, the real down-and-outers.
And I was right. You'll read all about them in next Sunday's DAILY PLANET if all goes well. But while I was talking to some of the patrons, I kept noticing this really tragically sad-looking woman sitting by herself. I really wanted to get her story, but every time I'd finish with one person or group and look for her, I couldn't find her. She must have kept moving around the bar to avoid me all night. Finally, I caught a glimpse of her walking out the door. I was thinking of getting up to follow her, but changed my mind. Anybody that determined to avoid a reporter deserves her privacy.
That didn't stop me, though, from asking Buddie himself what he knew about her. "Oh, that would be our pretty Ms. Natalie," he said. He must have seen the surprise on my face. "Pretty" would not have been the adjective I'd have used. This woman, young though she was, looked haggard and weather-beaten. Buddie explained, "Well, I'm sure to people such as yourself, who never knew Ms. Natalie in the old days, the days before the quake, I mean, it would seem strange to call her 'pretty.' Though, come to think of it, Natalie was never a beauty queen. I think it was just that she was one of those people who liked to smile. She smiled a lot. Pretty unusual for Gotham, that, even back then. When Natalie was around, it was like the sun was always shining -- if you know what I mean." I nodded my encouragement for him to go on.
"Then there was the quake," he continued. "Her husband was at work, her little boy at school. She never saw either one of them again. Gone, like so many others, without a trace. Of course, you wouldn't expect her to be the same after that. She had some good neighbors, an older couple who wanted to take her out of Gotham with them. She was actually on her way out with them, walking along with one of those groups of people getting out while they still could, when she suddenly just left them and her luggage and went running off. They tried to find her, of course. But eventually, they had to go on, leaving her luggage behind.
"About four or five hours later, a couple of regulars from the bar came carryin' Ms. Natalie to my house. Said they found her near this deep, narrow pit in the ground with her arms and head actually hanging down into the pit, and cryin' hysterically. The wife and I couldn't get her to talk to us or tell us anything coherent. So, we got her over to Dr. Thompkins. The Doc must have had her there for three or four months all told, before she was able to function on her own. Even after that, she never did open up about what happened. The wife and I have kept lookin' out after her the best we could, but, well, you know, we got problems of our own too."
I nodded sympathetically. "So nobody knows what happened that night?" I prompted.
"Well," he resumed, "the Doc was able to figure some of it out from some of the things she muttered in her sleep. It seems like she thought she heard someone crying for help. That's why she left the group she was with and rushed away. She thinks she was trying to rescue someone in that pit and she couldn't do it. Must be something to it. Natalie still won't talk about it, but every night since she's come back from the clinic, she goes up and stands and looks at that pit, just starin' down into it. You'd probably find her out there right now, in fact. Funny, tonight will probably be the last time."
My breath caught in my throat. "What do you mean, 'the last time?'" I choked.
Buddie laughed. "No, Ms. Lane... I don't mean she's goin' to come to any harm. I mean the bulldozers are comin' tomorrow to finally fill that old pit in. Plenty of rubble around, you know."
I don't know for sure what made me panic, but I had a vision of something terrible right on the spot. "Where is this pit?" I asked in agitation.
"Hey, calm down, woman," Buddie said, "She'll be all right."
"Where's the pit, Buddie?" I yelled. He told me.
"But you gotta go through the barricades now, " he yelled after me. As if that would stop me! If Natalie could go through the barricades, so could I. I ran as fast as I could. The wind was whipping around fitfully, blowing sand and grit into my eyes. Finally, after what seemed an eternity I saw her at the top of a little hill, just standing and looking steadily down at something on the ground. As I climbed through the barricades, I must have made some noise, because she turned to look at me through her hollow, haunted eyes. Her sad, but calm, look halted me in my tracks. After a few seconds, though, I began walking slowly up the hill till I was within about three feet of where she stood. She had turned around again by then and was looking back down into a pit. It was actually the middle and widest part of a long crack in the earth, at the most, about five and a half feet wide, but with a bottom that could only be imagined.
"Hello, Miss Lane," she said. "Oh, yes. I know who your are." After a little, "Did you come all the way out here for another story?"
"Natalie, it's not your story I want. I just want to make sure you're all right."
I heard hear sarcastic laugh, "Ha! All right.... Yes, yes... I'm all right." She paused a long time, then finally she said, "You know, my daddy always said, 'Kid. Don't take things too seriously. Remember, no matter where you go in this life, no matter how high you climb, you end up in the same place as everybody else -- a hole in the ground.'" And then the tears started to flow, first like a small stream, then like a river, and soon she was on the ground, kneeling in front of that terrible pit. "I couldn't save her, Miss Lane. I tried, but I couldn't save her."
"Who, Natalie? Couldn't save who?"
"I don't know her name. I heard her crying for help and I ran. I kept getting closer to the sound, but I couldn't figure out where it was coming from. Then finally I found this place... And, she was there! In there! A little teenage girl hanging by the tips of her fingers to a small ledge down there. Who knows how she got in there? She must have just been looking down and lost her balance. It's hard to believe she didn't see the hole since it was bright daylight. Anyway, I bent forward into the pit, tried to give her my hand to hang onto, and then she lost her grip and started falling,, and fell, and fell, and, Oh God! her face! I see it all the time like it just happened... I couldn't help her. I couldn't help her!" There was nothing to do then except let her cry it all out. I knew that her grief was really a combination of all the losses she had experienced and not just the one incident. After she had quieted down a little, I began talking calmly and consolingly to her, trying to help her see how much she was still loved and appreciated by others and why life was worth living. You know the kind of thing. I can't imagine that I was very impressive. I am, after all, a reporter, not a philosopher. However, after about five minutes, the sobbing stopped, and I was able to help her to her feet.
"No matter what she may have suffered, Natalie, you know she's at rest now." Now that was a stupid thing to say.
"Sometimes it seems to me that she must still be falling, she'll never stop... At rest. I think I'd like to be at rest sometimes, too." And, then it happened. I don't know if she really stumbled toward the opening on purpose, or if her knees just went out from under her, but before I knew it, she was slipping into the opening. I reached out for her and lost my footing just as she wrapped her arms around me. As we started to go over, I flung myself toward a metal post I saw sticking out of the ground on the other side of the hole. I got one hand on it, and then the other. Natalie still had her arms around my waist. I cried out for her to hang on, fearful that she would just let go and end it all. Maybe I'm a better philosopher than I thought. We hung there in stupefied silence for what must have been ten seconds. I needed to do something fast. Neither one of us could hold on like that for long.
"Natalie, can you climb up to my shoulders? Maybe you can climb right on out if you use me like a ladder." It was the only idea I could come up with.
"I can't," she said.
I had another idea. "The opening is not that wide, Natalie. Maybe you could swing your feet to touch the other side of the hole and use your feet to help you walk up to the height of my shoulders." I could feel her trying to do as I asked, but she just couldn't get a toe hold. Finally, she gave up and hung straight down again. I was fresh out of ideas. It didn't seem like there was any way we were both going to get out of there alive.
It was then that I sensed, rather than saw, something dark and shadowy come into the pit beside us. For a second, I thought I could see two black hands pushing against the wall of the pit and moving down past my eyes. Natalie must have sensed it, too, because I heard her scream. Fortunately, her terror made her just cling more tightly to me. Then, shortly after, I felt her let go of my waist completely. "Natalie!" I yelled, "Don't..."
"It's okay," I heard her. "Can you pull yourself up?" Her voice was shaking, but it was really her talking. I couldn't figure it out, but there was no getting around it -- she was still with me.
"Yes, I think so," I said. "But, will you be okay?"
"I-I'll be okay," she assured me. Within seconds I had pulled myself up, being free of her weight, and was lying on the ground looking back down into the pit. There I could see Natalie, seeming to float up toward me. She reached up her arms to me, and I pulled her out. When we both looked back down into the pit, we could see a frail creature, all in black, looking for all the world like a little bat-girl, with her hands pressed against one side of the pit, and her feet against the other. She was the human elevator that Natalie had ridden up to my waiting arms.
I'm pretty sure, now, looking back on it, that the little bat-girl could have made it up out of the pit quite all right by herself. But, to my amazement, and to her great credit, she stopped all of a sudden, and raised one arm up as if beckoning us to help her. Natalie quickly grabbed the arm, then I grabbed the other and we hoisted her out.
The three of us stood there at the top of the pit, the bat-girl with her back to it looking at Natalie, and me behind Natalie's shoulder looking at our little savior along with her. "Thank you," Natalie said. The bat-girl said nothing. I made a silent motion to her over Natalie's shoulder, gesturing for her to remove her mask so we could see her face. I could see how she reluctant she was to do that. She hesitated, then finally reached up and removed the mask, revealing the features of a young teenage girl, probably much the same age as the girl Natalie had once tried, unsuccessfully, to save. Before I knew what was happening, Natalie was crushing the bat-girl in a loving embrace that was hard enough to have broken a weaker girl's ribs. The bat-girl smiled sheepishly at me over Natalie's shoulder and soon made a gesture of her own. She pointed to Natalie's back, and then made an arcing motion with her arm toward the mainland. I knew exactly what she was trying to say. So, I'm bringing Natalie back to Metropolis with me. The bat-girl was right. Gotham is no place for Natalie anymore.
You know, Smallville, I was wondering about the wisdom of that little girl. It was a wisdom of the heart. It was not the wisdom of age. I think you'll know what I mean.
Can't wait to see you again..