Maureen clenched her jaw, imagining just the opposite: times she might be asked to watch Sophie when Tricia had a medical appointment. Sophie in her own house, sneaking out of sight to do some mischief. “So what about the frog? And the cat? What did—”
“I don’t know what you want me to do? They called her out from her room and asked her if she hurt the froggie in the backyard.”
“Is that how they said it, ‘the froggie’? God.” Being alone in seeing the whole picture felt like solitary confinement. “If you’re asking your kid if she did what we know she did, you don’t say, ‘Did Mommy and Daddy’s precious little angel just murder a little froggie?’ They’re protecting her.” She didn’t want to think of them as victims.
“It wasn’t like that.”
“Well, how did she react, or did she just glare like a fucking ghoul?”
Sal inhaled like he was the one being interrogated about the frog. “She said, ‘I didn’t do it’ and walked back into her room.
“Her wiring’s all mixed up.”
“I’ll give you that. But we have to give in a little because of Tricia’s health.”
Leo was at his art table, drawing on an empty toilet paper roll, while Maureen was at the kitchen table with her laptop, Googling “child hurting animals behavior” and “young child kills animals psychology.” The same things kept appearing: narcissism… antisocial… marked by cruelty… incapable of morality… escalating episodes… shallow emotions… impulsive behavior… ease in lying… risk aversion… self preservation. The familiar descriptions were like a recipe to make a poisoned child, and nearly all the sites pointed to the same conclusion: Sociopath.
She had had all kinds in her classroom—and had heard stories of kids the counselors said were on the sociopath spectrum. The “Show and Stealer,” as the staff had nicknamed him, had serially nicked other kids’ show-and-tell items. When told to apologize to a victim, he’d usually at first refuse and then yawn in between “I’m” and “sorry.” But that kid was a fourth-grader—and even he wasn’t setting fire to animals in the classroom terrariums.
She got up and shut the window, which made the air still and the kitchen quiet. It felt suddenly safer, somehow, and she closed the laptop and put it away. She wouldn’t let Sophie ruin her time with her son. Walking toward him, she said, “What are you working on?”
Smiling, Leo held his work up to her. On the toilet paper roll was the figure of a woman. Her head was a simple oval. “It’s gonna be a lady, but not done yet,” he said.
“Oh, my goodness, my brilliant artist, look at her. She’s fantastic.”
“You can have it—after I’m done,” he said, returning his attention to his creation.
“Maybe when you grow up, you can make things like that for your job.” She pulled up a chair to watch.
With his black marker, he put features on the tape-covered cylinder—eyes with lashes, eyebrows. The nose was a vertical line bordered by crescents pointing in. None of the older kids in Maureen’s classes had ever drawn like that. So intensely focused was his face that she could imagine being in his mind, where it was only the roll, his hands working, on the face, the hair, learning how the ink spread across the surface, the pressure needed for the desired effect, the constructing, the art. She had herself an artist, a boy who would think, grow up to be a cultured man, who would come back to visit and use witty, intelligent words to talk about important things and the exotic places he would know firsthand. She was proud they’d provided a home that would make their children smart. Leo loved being read to—on his father’s lap, his mother’s, alongside one of his sisters—and he would point out things in books. “I don’t like the ‘Daring Dachshund’ story, but the pictures are really very good.”
Hers were amusing, sensitive, intelligent children. And then she felt horrible about what had to be a roll of the dice. Tricia had MS and a basket case for a kid.
It was the first Saturday of spring, and the girls were at the North Shore Theater Club tryouts. After he’d dropped them off, Sal went to his mother’s to change a toilet seat. Leo was out back, playing with Brian Press. The perfume of the neighbor’s lilac trees was wafting into the kitchen, where Maureen had the ingredients for a cake lined up on the counter. She knew from experience the girls would come home screaming triumph or moaning defeat, so the cake could do double duty, celebrating or consoling. As she was getting the whisk from a drawer, she caught a glimpse through the window of Brian Press passing by quickly and heading toward the street. She’d hoped he would have stayed to play a little longer this time, and was disappointed. A solitary artist, she had. Leo would like the cake, too.
She noticed the intense quiet when an egg cracking on the side of the mixing bowl seemed as loud as a tap on the window. As she tilted her head to the side, she became aware of something, a spectral thing that was neither sound nor smell, but still went to her brain along the path travelled by the senses. She inhaled deeply. Just lilacs. She dropped the egg into the bowl, opened the back door and stood there. Cocking her head as if she were trying to hear a question, she didn’t move for a few moments. Brian Press had left in a hurry.
She walked out to the porch to survey the noiseless yard. New tufts of green were poking through the flattened brown lawn. “Leo, where are you?” she called, wondering if he’d followed Brian Press across the street without permission. There was some crinkling noise coming from behind the storage shed, and she trotted over, calling, “Leo, Le—” when she saw them.
Maureen started to run but the air had turned solid, and she had to cut her way through it, pushing against the heaviness that was slowing both her and time. Leo was flat on his back and Sophie on top of him, straddling his still body, bent over him, her hands at his throat. Everything accelerated when Maureen got to them. She flung Sophie off of Leo with a strength that made the girl feel like a bed pillow, and Sophie tumbled over violently, whimpered angrily. As Maureen kneeled over Leo, she saw the clothesline rope wrapped around his neck. Afraid to look at his face—because the terror could paralyze her—she focused all her attention on her fingers, finding where the rope started, unwrapping it from his neck, and only when it was off could she look at his wide eyes, bloodshot and wet—pleading and frightened. She took him in her arms, rubbing his back as he was coughed the way he did when a wave had knocked him over at the beach last summer.
She carried her son, her living child, into the house and he too seemed to weigh nothing. Her thoughts were racing, concocting a way to protect him. She saw the day, when in that crowded room, under fluorescent lights and her legs in stirrups, they lifted him—bloody, wet, his face pressed like a robber with a stocking over his head—and placed him on her. He was alone, born alone, unlike the twins, whose arms had found each other even before they opened their eyes. Leo needed her more than they ever would.
Inside, she brought him to the bathroom and turned on the water. She knew what to do—the itinerary was already in her head. “I want to give you a bath, Leo.” She cleared her throat to stop the trembling in her voice. “It’s going to be a very important kind of bath that you must keep a secret.” She was calming down. It was already in her mind, the plan in its elaborate entirety. Regardless of Tricia’s M.S., she would ask them to leave, but she would protect her son in the meantime, before they’d be gone and out of their lives, to keep him from danger. The way a mother should. As she lifted him into the tub, he spread out his arms as if he were flying. The sound of running water echoed off the tiles. From the linen closet she got the bottle of holy water they kept for the Lamb of God wall font in the twins’ room.
Leo mumbled hoarsely, “Why did she want to do that? She told me she wanted to show me a ladybug.”
“A ladybug behind the shed?” she asked, pulling off his shirt.
Nodding and naked, he sat. The mark left around the neck was raised and red. “I was so afraid, and I tried to yell.”
She kissed the welt she’d remember for the rest of her life. “Yes, that can be very frightening when someone does something stupid, but you won’t ever have to be frightened again.” She held up the bottle. “Now I want you to look at the holy water, Leo. We’re only supposed to bless ourselves with it, but if there’s an important reason, we can put it in our bath.”
“What does it do?” he said, still shaking a bit, but responding to the gravity in her voice.
“When it’s in the bathwater, then we get super Mother Mary protection. What Sophie did was very wrong, but this bath will make sure that nothing bad ever happens to you again.”
His eyes widened at a thought: “You should take a bath in it, too!”
“What a good idea. But for now, the bath is for you—and the super Mother Mary protection.”
His hand stirred the water between his legs, as he said, “It doesn’t look any different.”
“Oh, we can’t see the power in the water. But I can tell,” she said softly, “that it’s already working. You don’t have to worry about anything now, Leo.” She washed his body gently, barely pressing the soapy cloth against his arms and chest. He was playing with the plastic whale, gliding it underwater and letting it go to watch it break the surface.
“This is very important, so please listen. Nobody who gets a super Mother Mary protection bath can tell anyone they’ve had one. That’s why we don’t ever ask anybody if they’ve ever had a super Mother Mary bath, because they’re not supposed to tell. That’s the rule from God.” She was relieved to see his eyes open to receive the wonder she was serving him. Teachers she’d worked with had said she had a gift for making up stories that captivated children, and she was the power behind the magic water chasing away Leo’s fright. She gave him another quick kiss but couldn’t take him into her arms and hold him, because she was still holding back a wave of crying that would scare him. “I can’t even tell Daddy or the girls that you’ve had a super bath. So you can’t say anything to anybody. Do you understand?”
“Not. One. Single. Person,” she said, smiling and tapping her finger on his nose at each word.
“Why?” he was playing with the whale absently, in a way that indicated he was listening.
“We have to keep it a secret for the bath to protect you, so Sophie won’t ever do anything like she did again. So you don’t ever have to think about her again.”
“She won’t do that anymore?” he whispered.
Adamantly shaking her head, she promised, “After this bath, she won’t even go near you. She’ll be afraid of you. But don’t be mean to her. Just let her be, and don’t go near her.”
“She won’t want to go near me after the super Mary bath?”
“After the super-duper Mother Mary protection bath.”
He squealed, “Hey! You didn’t say ‘duper’ before!”
The red around his neck was fading.
“We’re going to make a cake for tonight, you and me,” she said, cocooning him in the towel. She’d make sure that the only two possible informants would comply with her wishes to stay silent—by different kinds of deception.