Sal and the twins were back, the cake was in the oven, and Leo was at his art table drawing angels. Both girls got parts in the musical, and as Sal leaned over to kiss Maureen’s cheek, he whispered, “I heard the song they’ll be singing all the way home. Boy, even with the windows down, the acoustics in that car are somethin’.” He was a good father, who couldn’t know how she was planning to protect their family.
“Take the cake out in a half hour,” she said. “I want to go for a walk.”
“Where to?” Sal asked, his arms still around her.
“I just want to be outside. The air coming in has been tempting me all day,” she fibbed, turning to look at Leo in the corner, with his felt marker making the angel’s gown the color of the sky. She wondered if when he’d been trapped there under Sophie and looking up at the sky, he wished for an angel to save him. There were no angels, only mothers. She slipped her wallet into a pocket of her shorts.
In the backyard, she gazed down the rope, a tangle of brilliant white in the afternoon sun. She picked it up and wound it so tightly around her hand that her fingers became red and hard, filled with enough pressure to burst through the skin and release her fury. Her boy had been lying on the ground helpless before she’d been able to throw Sophie off him. If she’d gotten there a minute later—she shuddered violently. The paint on the Blessed Virgin statue was chipping, and she’d repaint it the first really warm day. She thought of Mary’s agony in Michelangelo’s Pietà, and her lower lip began to tremble.
No—Leo was all right, and she knew how to make sure he’d stay that way. Uncoiling the rope and massaging her hand, she was nodding. What she was going to do wouldn’t leave any marks. One of the websites said that appealing to a sociopath’s sense of right or wrong was futile, as they had no empathy and only followed rules when it benefited them.
She knew where to find the little monster, and with a forced nonchalance that had the unintended benefit of soothing her nerves, she strolled down the dead end. The town had converted two adjacent, empty lots into a neighborhood park—just about an acre of grass with a swing set and a pit filled with sand, surrounded by a chain-link fence. There, all alone, was Sophie swinging, her lovely black hair, lifting into the air as her body fell. Maureen pictured Sophie flying over a cliff, falling and falling, arms flailing, trying to catch something to save herself, bouncing off jagged rocks, her screams suddenly ending, and she’d never again hurt anything, not a defenseless animal, not a smaller child too meek to fight back. No one was around. The dead end was silent.
Approaching the child, Maureen asked God to be with her. And to forgive her. “Stop swinging, Sophie. I have something important to tell you.”
Maureen took the bill out of her pocket. “I have twenty dollars for you. And I have something to tell you.”
She sat on the swing next to the girl and dug her heels into the dirty sand. “Sophie, you did a very bad thing today. You tried to hurt Leo. Everybody knows that you do bad things. I don’t know why you do them, and I don’t care. But I’m going to tell you something important, and then I’m going to give you this twenty dollars for listening to me very, very carefully.”
The girl was staring at the money, guarded, suspicious, fully attentive.
“If you try to hurt anyone or anything, if you do a bad thing that harms people, I am going to kill you.” She paused for effect—and to watch for a reaction. The girl stood to leave, but Maureen used the twenty-dollar bill to wave her back to her seat. “I don’t mean just the expression that some people say when they get really mad. I mean I am going to find you, and I am going to kill you. I know how to do it fast without leaving any blood. And I’ll take your body and bring it to a cold, dark place where no one will ever find it, only the animals that will come and eat it, your body.”
Tipping her head back slowly so she was looking down at Maureen, Sophie’s nostrils were dilated and she was breathing heavily.
Maureen pivoted her swing to face the girl and whisper, “I will not get into trouble. If you ever tell anyone about what I am telling to you, I will just say you’re lying. Everyone will believe me, and no one will believe you. You’ve done a lot worse than lying before. Everyone will believe me because I am a very nice lady that everyone likes. Nobody likes you, Sophie.” Forcing herself to think of Leo, helpless, under attack, Maureen was able to bring up tears. “If you tell anyone, I’ll just cry—like this—and I’ll say, ‘Oh, my goodness. I would never hurt any child, especially a little girl.’” She wiped her eyes and forced a smile. “And not only would people believe me, they would lock you up in the scary place they put bad children—for trying to kill Leo.” Gently tilting her arm toward Sophie, she said coldly, “Now take the twenty dollars.”
Feeling buoyant, Maureen walked toward the main street. The most difficult part had gone just as she’d hoped. In case she’d ever need proof of a reason for a walk, she went into Walter’s Variety to buy a small jug of laundry detergent. She asked Mickey, Walter’s teenage son, who was absorbed in big textbook on the counter, how school was going.
He jerked his head to flip the curtain of hair off his face. “It’s all okay but math. If you can tell me how isosceles triangles will help me in life, the detergent is on the house.”
She laughed. A normal teenager, sane, happy, the way she hoped Leo would be. Wanting to kiss Mickey on the cheek and wish him well, she just smiled and waved as she left with the detergent swinging at her side.
Leo and Sal were asleep in the easy chair facing the TV, and the girls were loudly reading scripts in their room. There was more to do. She took an envelope from the drawer, wrote “Valley Tribune” across the front, licked it shut, and then tore it in half. Opening the back door quietly, she listened for a moment before she stepped out, her bare feet touching the surface reverently. In the darkened corner behind the coatrack, she scattered the halves of the envelope, and then went back inside.
She made chamomile tea with honey for herself and Sal. With their cups steeping on the tablemats and waiting, she went to the doorway and asked Sal to come to the kitchen.