The Floating Girls: A Documentary

Selected for inclusion in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2015, edited by Paula Guran
2014 Bram Stoker Award Nominee for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction

Originally Published in Jamais Vu Issue Three – September 2014
You can purchase the issue here.
Reprinted here with permission from the editor.

The floating girls are all but forgotten now; it’s easier to pretend they didn’t exist, to pretend it didn’t happen. But there are parents who still keep bedrooms captured in time, complete with clothes folded in bureau drawers and diaries tucked beneath pillows, everything in its place, waiting, and there are friends who still gaze at the sky, wondering how far the girls floated and if they ever fell.

Some of us haven’t forgotten. Some of us never will.

*****

Twelve years ago, three hours after the sun set on the second of August, nearly 300,000 girls between the ages of eleven and seventeen vanished. Eyewitness reports state that the girls floated away, yet even now, many of those eyewitnesses have recanted their stories or simply refuse to talk about it at all.

The girls lived in cities, in the suburbs, in the country. They lived in first world and third world countries. They were only children; they were one of many siblings; they were of all ethnicities and religious backgrounds. They were everyone and anyone, and after that night in August, they were no more.

I’ve found plenty of evidence decrying the phenomenon, but there are lists, lists of the girls who disappeared. Those who claim it’s all bullshit provide other lists, girls who vanished and were found years later: the runaways; the girls involved in ugly custody battles, who were spirited away by either custodial or non-custodial parents; the girls whose decomposing bodies were recovered from forests, old drainpipes, beneath concrete patios.

But none of those girls were floating girls, only gone girls; the reports always conveniently leave that out.

I wonder about the evidence I haven’t found, that doesn’t exist; it seems like there should be so much more. And how many girls who vanished were never reported? And why just girls? Why just these girls?

As far as I can tell, very few scientists or statisticians studied the phenomenon itself. No one counseled the families; no one dug through the chaos to find the facts. Like certain religious or political scandals, everyone wanted to brush it under the rug.

Maybe it made a strange sort of sense at the time. I don’t know.

*****

Jessie and I grew up next-door in a tiny corner of suburbia. You know the sort: backyard cookouts, running through the sprinklers, drinking water from the hose, playing tag. Perfectly charming. The sort of childhood that screams ideal. The sort of childhood that could take place anywhere, in any town, not just our little corner of Baltimore, Maryland.

Our backyards were separated by a row of hedges with spaces in between perfectly sized for someone to walk through. We would flit from yard to yard—mine had the swing set and the sprinkler; hers the sandbox and hammock—and house to house, nearly inseparable, spinning circles and holding hands while we chanted Jessie and Tracy, best friends forever.

My strongest memory is how she and I spent countless hours catching fireflies. We’d keep them inside glass jars with holes poked in the lids so they wouldn’t die, and we’d invent stories that the fireflies were princesses trapped in the bodies and the lights were their way of calling for help because they couldn’t speak. And every night, we’d let them go, watching until they blinked out of sight, pretending they were off to find their mothers, their princes, the witches who’d cursed them.

I think you only truly make those sort of friendships in childhood; when you get older, you know better than to let people in. You know they’ll only disappoint you in the end.

*****

Video interview with Karen Michaels of Monmouth, Oregon, March 17, 2010:

[A woman is sitting in a cramped, dingy kitchen, a lit cigarette clutched tightly between two fingers, an overflowing ashtray by her side. She grimaces at the camera and looks down at her cigarette. Her face is worn and heavily lined, her shoulders hunched forward.]

“Thank you for agreeing to talk to me, Mrs. Michaels. I know this is difficult.”

[Mrs. Michaels takes a drag from her cigarette. Exhales the smoke loudly.]

“Call me Karen, okay?”

“Okay, Karen. I know it’s been a long time, but can you tell me what happened that night, August second—”

[She waves the hand holding the cigarette.]

“I know what night you’re talking about.”

[Another inhale from her cigarette. Another exhale.]

“Nina had problems with sleepwalking when she was a kid. Used to drive me crazy. For a couple years, I had to lock her bedroom door from the outside to keep her in the house. You got kids?”

“No—”

“That’s right. You already told me you didn’t. Who knows, maybe you’re lucky. Anyway, that night, the night Nina floated, it had been years since she walked in her sleep. I heard her go down the steps, and I followed her. She went out the front door and stood on the lawn, staring down at her feet, like this.”

[Mrs. Michaels stubs out her cigarette and stands with her arms straight and her head down, her hands held out a few inches from her body.]

“I thought she was sleepwalking again, that’s all, so I stayed on the front porch. I was getting ready to go get her, grab her arm, and take her back in because I had to get up early in the morning. But then she went up, just up, like a balloon. I, I—”

[Video cuts off. Returns. Mrs. Michaels is wiping her eyes.]

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, sure, I’m fine. I, so she went up, and I thought… I don’t know what I thought. I ran and tried to grab her, but she was already up too far. I touched the side of her foot, but I guess, I guess I was just too late.”

[She grabs another cigarette and lights it. Her voice is barely audible when she speaks again.]

“I let her go. I didn’t know what else to do, so I let her go.”

[Her head snaps up. She looks straight into the camera.]

“Everyone told me not to talk about it. It’s like she never existed at all. But she did. She did. No one cared that she was gone. No one. Do you really think this thing, your project, will help?”

“I’d like to think it will, yes.”

[She makes a sound low in her throat.]

“Will you tell me what Nina was like?”

“She was like every other kid. Listened to her music too loud, left her dirty clothes on the floor, griped about her chores, but she didn’t run around wild or anything like that. She didn’t drink or do drugs.”

“And what was your relationship with Nina like?”

“Normal. I mean, we had fights, but nothing really serious. She was always in her room, reading or listening to music.”

“What about with her siblings, her father?”

“Everyone was fine. Everything was fine.”

[There’s a long pause, and she looks away with tears in her eyes. Video ends.]

*****

Jessie’s father died the year we turned eight. I remember black clothing, tears, confusion, and the smell of flowers. At some point, she and I snuck out into her backyard and played in the sandbox. I don’t remember what we talked about or if we talked about anything at all, but I remember how we slipped out of our dress shoes and wriggled our toes through the warm top layer of sand to the cool beneath. I remember the scent of honeysuckle thick in the air.

*****

Recording of a telephone interview, July 28, 2012:

“You’re not going to use my name, right? I don’t want you to use my name.”

“No, I won’t.”

“Good. Okay.”

“Tell me what you think happened on the night of August second.”

“All I can tell you is what I saw. The kid was hanging in the air in her backyard, looking like some kind of angel, only not the kind you can see through. I mean, she wasn’t wearing anything like an angel would. I think she had on some kind of dress, but nothing like you see in pictures of angels or anything like that. Then she went straight up. Craziest damn thing I ever saw. I kept thinking it was the beer. I only had a couple, maybe three, but…”

“Did you do anything?”

“What could I do? Hell, by the time I figured out my eyes wasn’t playing tricks, she was high up. I mean really high up.”

“And you told the authorities what you saw?”

“Yeah, I told them. Lot of good that did me. They said I was crazy. Or drunk. People can’t float. But I know what I saw, and that girl just floated up and away.”

“Did you know anything about her?”

“No, she was just the kid who lived next door. She kept to herself, the whole family did. I mean they were nice enough, just not real friendly.”

“Is there anything else you’d like to say?”

“You’re not going to use my name for this thing, right? I don’t want my name used.”

“No, sir. As I said before, I won’t use your name.”

*****

Jessie and I started to drift apart the summer she turned eleven, about a year after her mom remarried. I’d ask her to come over and catch fireflies, and she’d say no. I’d invite her to spend the night. She’d say no. I spent countless nights crying, trying to figure out what I’d done wrong, because best friends didn’t stop talking to each other unless something was wrong.

My mother said, “Tracy, honey, that’s what happens with friends sometimes. Don’t worry. Maybe she’s just going through a phase. You are becoming young women, you know.”

I know she was only trying to help, but I wanted everything to go back to the way it had been, not the way it was.

*****

Video footage, dated August 2, 2002:

Video opens with a scene of a back yard, complete with a hot tub, a fire pit, and tables and chairs setup for a party. There’s a break in the video; when it returns, the sky is full-dark and a party is in full swing. No children are present. The camera captures several people saying hello to the cameraman, there’s a break in the filming, and when it returns, the camera is stationary, capturing a wide-view of the partygoers.

5 minutes, 06 seconds: A pale blotch can be seen in the far left corner, above a row of well-trimmed hedges.

5 minutes, 08 seconds: The pale blotch is larger, the shape completely visible over the hedge.

5 minutes, 10 seconds: While the partygoers continue to drink and laugh, the blotch continues to rise.

Video editing enhancement of the last few seconds before the blotch disappears from the film clearly shows a young girl in her early teens, her face solemn, rising up through the air.

[Note: Records state the video was taken by Jack Stevenson of Denver, Colorado. Repeated attempts to contact Mr. Stevenson have been unsuccessful.]

*****

By the time I was twelve, the drift between Jessie and I had become a crevasse. We weren’t even on speaking terms. She was just a girl I used to know. As kids do, I’d made new friends and sure, her rejection of our friendship hurt and sometimes I’d look over the fence to see if she was outside, but I was a kid, just a stupid kid.

How was I supposed to know?

*****

Photograph A: Photo shows a baobab tree and a girl beside it. On closer inspection, the girl’s feet are hovering about a foot from the ground. The girl is looking away from the camera. The back of the photograph reads August 2, Shurugwi, Zimbabwe.

[Note: Photograph provided by one of the girl’s family members, who asked to remain anonymous. For that reason, the name of the girl is also withheld.]

 

Photograph B: The central image is the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. On the far right of the photo, a girl is suspended in the air, her arms held in the distinct way described by many others, her face serene. Using the tower as a point of measure, she is approximately 1,050 feet in the air.

[Note: Image found on a website claiming it was manipulated digitally, however, no evidence of alteration can be found in the image itself. The girl in the photograph has not yet been identified.]

 

Photograph C: Photo of Trakai Castle, south of Vilnius, Lithuania, taken by Algimantas Serunis of Chicago, Illinois, while on vacation. A girl’s head and shoulders are visible above the westernmost tower of the castle.

[Note: The girl has been tentatively identified as Ruta Gremaila. Attempts to contact her family have been unsuccessful.]

*****

When I was fourteen, Jessie showed up at the back door one night. I was blaring music and eating the last of the mint chocolate chip ice cream, knowing my dad would pretend to make a big deal about the empty container and my mom would roll her eyes at the both of us. My parents weren’t home, and yes, I’ve wondered more than once if it would’ve made a difference.

“Yeah?” I remember saying.

“I was wondering if maybe you’d want to hang out for a little bit?” she asked, her voice whisper-thin, her eyes all red, like she’d been crying. Behind the red, though, there was a strange emptiness, a hollow where laughter had once lived.

I remember being surprised, more at her request than her eyes. Although I’d made new friends, she hadn’t. She skulked through the halls at school like a ghost. She sat alone in the cafeteria at lunchtime and with her shoulders hunched in class. She wore baggy clothing and kept her head down so her hair almost covered her face. After school, she walked home alone.

“I can’t, sorry. I have a math test tomorrow I have to study for.”

“Oh, okay.” She stood for a minute, toeing the doormat with the tip of her shoe. “See you around then?”

“Sure.”

But I lied. There was no math test. I just didn’t want to talk to her.

*****

Video footage of interview with Sheriff Joseph Miller, Brookhaven, Pennsylvania, September 9, 2008:

“No, none of it’s true. I have no idea why you’d even want to talk about it.”

“So why do you think everyone reported the same thing?”

“I don’t have an answer to that.”

“Maybe it’s because it really happened.”

[He glares into the camera.]

“Look, it didn’t happen. A bunch of kids ran away, a bunch more people got upset and invented some story about floating.”

“But didn’t three girls from your own town vanish?”

[His expression changes, and he crosses his arms over his chest.]

“Yeah.”

“Don’t you think that’s suspect?”

“Sometimes kids, especially girls, run away together. It happens.”

“And what if I told you those girls weren’t even friends, didn’t even go to the same schools?”

[He sighs heavily, looks at some spot in the distance, and shakes his head in dismissal.]

“We’re done here. Some of us have real work to do.”

*****

On August 2, 2002, the summer Jessie and I were fifteen, I was in the back yard on a blanket, staring at the stars, waiting for one to fall so I could make a wish. My parents were out at the movies, and other than the crickets chirping, the neighborhood was quiet.

Jessie’s kitchen door opened—it had a funny little squeak that all the oil in the world wouldn’t fix—and Jessie walked out into the yard. All the lights in her house were off, and she was little more than a shadow flitting across the grass.

I hunched down on the blanket and watched through the hedges. She stood still in the middle of her yard for several minutes with her head down, her hands fisted at her sides. I thought about calling her name—I know I did—but then her hands relaxed, her arms extended slightly, and she lifted her chin to stare straight ahead. And then she lifted off the ground.

She was a foot in the air before I realized it wasn’t an illusion, before I was able to do anything other than blink. I scrambled to my feet, told her to stop, and raced through the hedges, scratching my upper arms all to hell in the process. I shouted her name and called out for my parents, for her parents, for anyone.

Jessie never looked down, not once. I stood right underneath her, waving my arms and yelling at her to come back, until my legs couldn’t hold me up anymore and my throat was too thick to speak.

My parents found me in the back yard when they got home. I was on the blanket, sitting with my grass-stained knees up to my chin, crying. I told them how Jessie just floated and kept floating until I couldn’t see her anymore, until she was gone.

I saw the disbelief in their eyes. My father went over to Jessie’s house, knocked on the door, and came back shrugging his shoulders after no one answered. My mom pressed her hand against my forehead, proclaimed I had a fever, and sent me to bed. I stayed there for three days.

Jessie’s parents told the police she ran away.

*****

Video footage of an attempted interview on August 18, 2011 with John Gelvin from Brawley, California, whose daughter, Rosie, age thirteen, is still listed as missing. Documents show she was reported as a floating girl. Other documents show that Child Protective Services had been called on at least one occasion before Rosie’s disappearance, but no further action from CPS can be found.

“Sir, you said you saw Rosie float.”

“No. I didn’t. Sorry. You’re the one who’s mistaken. She ran away.”

“But I have a report here, a police report, that says—”

“Leave me alone. Just leave me alone.”

*****

I tried to tell people the truth. My parents continued to blame the fever. When I told Jessie’s parents, her mother’s eyes filled with tears, the silent, terrifying kind; her stepfather told me to leave their house and never come back. They moved away a few months later and didn’t tell anyone where they were going.

People at school thought I was crazy, even after the other reports came out. Jessie was just another troubled kid who ran away. It happened every day. No big deal.

If I’d been an adult, if I hadn’t see Jessie float away, I wonder if I would’ve been as dismissive. Possibly. Probably.

I tried to tell the truth so many times, but no one would listen.

*****

Graffiti on the side of a building in Rapid City, South Dakota, June 8, 2013, in the section of the city known as Art Alley:

SILENCE IS ITS OWN FORM OF HELIUM

[Note: According to a local artist, who asked not to be named, the graffiti was originally written on the building in September of 2002, and she’s been repainting it as needed ever since. When asked if she knew the identity of the original artist or thought that the statement was related to the floating girls, she declined to answer.]

*****

Eventually I stopped talking about it, about Jessie. I didn’t forget her, but it was too hard to keep trying to explain what I saw to people who refused to believe it. I finished high school, moved out of state for college, dropped out in my second year, and came back home.

When my parents decided to sell their house and move to Florida, I found a box of photos in the attic, pictures of me and Jessie when we were young, pictures of us holding our firefly jars, grinning crazy kid smiles, those smiles that scream innocence. Our eyes were filled with laughter and happiness and hope.

And I remembered her eyes the night she came over, the night I turned her away. We all have a secret spot, a tiny light, inside us, and it doesn’t take much to make that light go out. It doesn’t take much to extinguish that light forever.

As I carried the photos out to my car, I decided to do something. I’m not sure if I decided to do it for Jessie or for the others or for me, but I don’t think it matters.

I’m not a fifteen year old girl anymore, and I’ve spent years digging for proof, searching for the truth. Maybe now people will listen, and maybe they’ll start talking.

*****

Excerpt from “A Study into the Phenomenon of the Floating Girls”, dated November 2002, author not cited:

Given a lack of concrete evidence to the phenomenon, and with evidence that a percentage of the girls were from troubled homes and had a history of running away, we can only conclude there was no phenomenon, only a strange set of coincidental circumstances.

It is also noted that there was a heavy incident of fog in the northwestern states, which may explain the visual oddities noted there.

Reports from other countries are sketchy at best with most being reported well after the disappearances in the United States, leading this researcher to determine that they were copying the phenomenon, perhaps in hope of cashing in on the notoriety. More research is needed.

[Note: There is no evidence that any further research was conducted.]

*****

I live twenty minutes away from the house I grew up in. Kids still play in sandboxes, they still catch fireflies and run through sprinklers. At night, I stare at the sky and wonder if the girls are still floating. I think they are, and we just can’t see them.

I tell Jessie I’m sorry, but the words seem so fucking inadequate. I should’ve been there for her. I should’ve listened. And after, I should’ve kept talking. Hell, I should’ve screamed and shouted. But I didn’t.

No one did.

For Jessie
Tracy Richardson, Director
The Floating Girls Project
Baltimore, Maryland
2014

© 2014 Damien Angelica Walters