That little girl’s glare would spook the pope.
With grocery bags hanging from each hand, Maureen walked stiffly toward the child stationed on the walkway that ran alongside the tenement. She tried sounding chipper: “Hello, Sophie, how are you today?”
Personable as an ice cube, the kid stared back, eyelids droopy with boredom or contempt. She usually didn’t respond, and Maureen stepped onto the grass to get by.
Suddenly: “Did you get any real maple syrup?” She was eight, but her face had already lost its baby fat. Raven hair and eyes like blue flame, she could be a black Irish beauty, if she’d smile.
“No.” Maureen shook her head slowly. “Do you like maple syrup?”
“It’s the blood from trees,” Sophie droned, and turned to walk to the backyard.
After interactions like this, Maureen would tell herself to never second-guess her intuition. She’d known the girl was off that first day—last year, when the parents had toured the upstairs apartment in the house she and Sal owned. Maureen was showing Tricia and Edgar all the things that had made her fall in love with the place—the beadboard paneling, the claw foot bathtub, the crown molding—and had figured their daughter was just off exploring on her own. But when she opened the door to the walk-in pantry, there the kid was, standing in the dark, facing empty shelves. She spun around quickly, scowling. “What?” she hissed, squinting at the light. No more, just What?
Maureen had been a teacher’s aide after her associate’s and before the kids, and she’d initially assumed the girl was on the autism spectrum. But that was a hasty—and generous—conclusion. Sal, her left-brain engineer husband, was oblivious to subtleties. “Not everyone has a diagnosis. She’s just shy. Our kids’ll bring’er out,” he’d said, without looking up from the Tribune.
All the windows were open, and the smells of the new spring wafted into the kitchen, providing a welcome distraction from the ear-wax rattling rehearsing of Ann and Paula, the twins, who were on the program to sing ‘Do You Believe in You?’ an original song the chorus teacher had written for the sixth grade graduation. Maureen was up on the counter with a Q-tipping dust out of the latches, and Leo was working at his little art table in the corner. He was so different from the twins, who’d had been absorbed in each other from the start, touching, babbling, laughing in ways that placed everyone—even their mother—outside their little twindom. Even at five, Leo preferred solitary projects, was always turning something into something else. He drew pictures—mostly birds and flowers—with remarkable detail, and he brought the twins’ abandoned Barbies back to life as astronauts in tinfoil spacesuits. But the way he moved his shoulders when he watched his sisters sing made Maureen bet he’d only ever think of girls as shopping buddies. She didn’t bother mentioning anything to Sal, who needed clues on a billboard.
She was grateful for the temporary quiet of the girls’ bathroom break, but the peace was suddenly interrupted by a sound from outside, starting as an almost-whistle and building to a sustained yowl. Both she and Leo stopped what they were doing. It was like a baby crying. “Leo, stay there,” she said, hopping down from the counter.
In the backyard, the sound was bouncing and ricocheting off the fence, the house, the trees, everything around her. She searched everywhere, behind the bulkhead and under the tarp draped over the lawnmower. She finally found the source, behind Sal’s storage shed. One of the neighborhood cats was in the corner, clawing at its neck, screaming like it was afraid and angry; and its head was bobbing up and down, like it was trying to shake something out of its ears. Maureen took a step closer, but the cat’s crying became hissing, and one paw lifted to strike. It gathered its senses long enough to bolt past her and along the fence into the side yard, where it twirled a couple of times before it started scraping its head against a rail.
She sprinted back to the house and called Animal Control. “There’s a crazy cat in my yard,” she said, peering out the window. “It’s jumping up and down in a weird way and sounds like a baby choking.” The woman on the line said it was probably rabies and not to go near it.
“What’s the cat doing?” Leo screeched, running to a window and sliding the curtain behind his head to see.
In an instant, Ann and Paula were at the other windows, their foreheads pressed against the screens. The girls were near tears. “Oh, the poor little thing!” “Why’s it doing that?”
By the time the two men arrived, the cat lay whimpering against the hurricane fence. It tried to get away as they closed in but could only take a few steps before tumbling over in exhaustion. Kneeling over the cat, the men seemed to be deliberating, and Maureen knew they’d never get that close if it were rabid. And they weren’t rushing to put it in the crate they’d brought, either. She wanted to know what was wrong with it. “You three stay here,” she said, but as she opened the door, the twins and Leo sprang like grasshoppers to follow. “Well, at least keep your distance,” she warned, as she grabbed Leo’s hand.
They stood in a circle around the action. The older man, wearing what looked like oven mitts, cradled the cat in his arms, while the other guy was hunched over it with scissors. Maureen pulled Leo toward her, ready to cover his eyes at the first sign of bleeding. The cat cried, and the twins grimaced like little speak-no-evil monkeys, their hands covering their mouths. “Is it going to be okay?” asked Ann.
“Somebody wrapped an elastic around its neck,” said the older man. “This your cat?”
“She belongs to the Donovans,” Maureen answered. “Two doors down.” An elastic around its neck? Cats were untrustworthy, but to do this to an animal.
“Donovan. We’ll call to tell them. This cat’s gotta see the vet,” he said.
Maureen turned to an arriving blur, and there was Sophie, between the men.
“It’s all tangled in its fur,” said the younger guy, changing the scissors for another pair that was shaped like a parrot’s beak. “Even if I snip it, not sure it will pop off.” His rubber gloves were the color of a robin’s egg.
His partner encouraged him. “Nope, that’s fine, you’re doin’ it good.”
Leo was rocking back and forth, and the twins looked like they were waiting for shots. Sophie was dead-faced, as always. “How long before it woulda died?” she said, like asking for the time.
Both men looked at her for a moment, and then at each other.
Her question ignored, Sophie silently watched the younger man cut away at the elastic embedded in the hair. There were a few small red flecks on the blue gloves. The cat was either resigned or semi-conscious, panting, unblinkingly staring at the sky. Each time the animal made a sound, her children winced and Sophie smiled. Even smirked once.
“The nice men are taking good care of the cat,” Maureen said weakly. Sophie had done this. Definitely. Her eyes were transfixed by the cat’s little bib of blood.
That night, after the kids were tucked in, Maureen told Sal about the cat.
He smiled apologetically. “Don’t hate me for soundin’ like ‘The People’s Court,’ but did you actually see her do it to the cat?”
Her neck tensed up. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I saw her after what I know she did to the cat. The Animal Control guys aren’t gone two minutes when the ice cream man is coming down the street, and Sophie’s running down the back steps, screaming, ‘Ice cream, ice cream!’ Ann and Paula were in their bedroom,” she said, pointing to their door, “saying a prayer to St. Francis for the cat—while Sophie is wolfing down a fugdsicle on the front stoop.”
His hand motioned for her to lower the volume.
“God, I’m so pissed at myself for letting the kids see all that. The way the guys were holding it, I’d only thought it had a thorn or got stung by a hornet.” She said mockingly, “I thought, okay, since they followed me out, may as well let them watch a little biology lesson. What an idiot.”
Sal lowered his head as he asked, “I’m sorry, I’m lost. Are you blaming the kid for the cat, or yourself for I don’t know what?”
She was looking out the window. “Has she ever, ever said hello to you?”
“You said she had asshole-burgers.”
His trying to lighten the mood was grating. “It’s not Asperger’s,” she said. “She’s like something out of Stephen King.” A couple of weeks ago, Maureen had picked up cute bracelets for the twins at the Target checkout, and had thought it would be a nice thing to get one for Sophie, too. Upstairs in their kitchen, Maureen didn’t know where to look as Tricia pleaded, “Please, Sophie, just say thank you. Sopheee, come on.” The kid plucked the bracelet out of Maureen’s hand, examined it coldly—and then asked, “Would this melt if it was in a fire?” It wasn’t Asperger’s.
Leo shrugged. “The parents are always real nice. Edgar always asks how things are goin’ and offers to hold the door whenever we’re crossin’ paths.”
“They’re too nice. Like they’re hiding something.” She raised an eyebrow. “It’s, like, a cliché: the criminals in TV shows are super polite to their neighbors.”
“They’re criminals now?” he said, arms crossed, nodding sarcastically.
“Oh, shut up,” she said, laughing, because laughing was the only way he might take this—her—seriously. “No, but they hafta realize she’s a freak-job, and they’re on their best behavior so we’ll just back off. It’s a classic look-the-other-way tactic.”
Getting in from Sunday brunch at Pancake House, they opened the car doors to a strange smell in the yard, like a barbeque with too much lighter fluid. Maureen didn’t think about it until she was rinsing off grapes in the kitchen, where the odor was stronger. She opened the door to the back hallway, but it was even more intense there. To air things out, she pulled open the porch door, but settled out back was an oily-sweet smokiness, thick enough to give everything a tint of milky blue. She went out to investigate.
Maureen was nodding confidently. “Nothing like Oh, my God, I can’t believe it. Right? See. Proof. They know what their kid’s capable of.” She’d been right about them.
She stepped tentatively across the yard, inhaling deeply, and stretched to peer over the neighbors’ fence. Nobody was barbecuing. Finally, she spotted it, up in the far corner, right in front of the hip-high Blessed Mother statue, a gray pile of smoldering something. Walking slowly toward the statue, she looked left and right. When a crow cawed, she froze for a moment before she continued across the dry grass.
Maureen’s brain couldn’t make sense of the jumble of images, the straight lines of Mary’s white robes pointing down to the smoking, dark mound at the statue’s base. Surrounding the clump, in a circle a few feet wide, was seared earth. She bent forward, and blinked to finally understand it was a dead frog, a large bullfrog, looking like it was covered in spent charcoal. She recoiled and screamed without thought of the neighbors. “Sal, Sal! Come out in the back please, Sal!”
When he got to her side, she was still leaning over it, pointing. “Oh my God, Look. Look what she’s done.” Because it could only be Sophie who’d done this. Right in front of the Blessed Virgin.
Picking at the charred flesh with a twig, Sal said, “Yah, uh, it was, uh, doused in lighter fluid. A lot of lighter fluid. You can see, there was a pool of it around the thing.”
“Oh, God, the kids are on the porch,” she whispered.
“Bring them in. I’ll take care of this. And then I’m talking to them.”
She was nodding, suddenly very sleepy, maybe a little motion-sick, and instinctively, she wanted to take her children to her big bed, fold them up in the comforter, and tell them stories about what they were like as babies and toddlers.
Walking to the house, she was smiling tightly. “No, no, it was nothing. Daddy will take care of it.” Up on the porch, with her arms spread to herd them inside, she ignored their questions until they were all in the kitchen. “We think the frog tipped over the container of lighter fluid, and there was some kind of chemical reaction that hurt the frog. Daddy’s taking care of it. He’s a nice person to take care of this.” Redirect them to the positive. And distract them. “Now, I think it’s gonna rain, so let’s watch a good movie.” The Sound of Music was a reliable hypnotic, and she put in the DVD, hoping a twentieth century Hollywood musical could eclipse a real-life horror movie in the backyard.
Ann and Paula were sitting up straight on the couch, singing backup for the Von Trapps, while Leo was stretched across the big easy chair, his legs draped over an arm and bouncing to the music. Maureen was curled up in the armchair, just watching them. She smiled; her children could soothe her nerves as reliably as that big fish tank in the dentist’s waiting room.
A half-hour later, the backdoor opened and she got up slowly—not wanting to arouse their curiosity and have them follow her.
The light in the ceiling fan darkened the lines around Sal’s eyes. “You want some decaf?” he asked, sounding tired. He was looking around the kitchen, like for a place to start.
“What’s going on?” She was glad the kids were cushioned in noise.
“Lemonade, then.” He poured a couple of glasses.
At the table, he examined his watch, picked at something on the band. “Well, when I got there, I wasn’t sure how to tell them. I feel bad how I did. I just kind of blurted it out—told them what we found.” He exhaled a chestful of air. “Right then, Tricia just starts bawling, and like collapses into Edgar’s chest.”
Maureen was nodding confidently. “Nothing like Oh, my God, I can’t believe it. Right? See. Proof. They know what their kid’s capable of.” She’d been right about them.
“Yeah, but they have more than Sophie to worry about. Tricia fell a couple of times and she thought it was vertigo or something, and went to the doctor.” His face was wincing. “They said she has M.S.”
“Oh, shit.” Maureen imagined for a moment the horrible luck of having a child and a medical condition that would both, over time, just get worse and worse.
With the tenants instantly elevated to the kind of family you ask people to pray for, Maureen suddenly couldn’t lay out her vision for bringing stability back to her universe. Even with Sal finally getting that Sophie was a more than just a little peculiar—that she could be a horrible influence on their children and even, who knew, God forbid, burn the house down—she couldn’t suggest the family find another place to live.
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.
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.
Along with all the other portions of her plan to eliminate the threat of Sophie, the last had arrived in her mind fully formed. But she needed Sal to complete it—and to do so unwittingly. He would drink his tea, might say something like, “This is nice,” and Maureen would draw a breath and tell him she had something serious to talk about. Holding his hand, she would reassure him that Leo was safe and would blame herself for not being more vigilant. She might even cry as she’d recount what Sophie had done—what she’d attempted. Regaining a resolute calm, Maureen would insist the family had to leave, and with a fuller grasp of Sophie’s capabilities, Sal would agree. They could offer them two months rent-free and give them the security deposit back. Sophie and her parents would be gone in eight weeks. Stunned by the news, Sal would maybe nod blankly as she’d tell him, “Go up and tell them now.”
She’d walk him to the door, and follow him into the hall, where she’d hug him tightly, lovingly, kissing his cheek and thanking him for doing the dirty work. Then she’d pause, suddenly asking, “What’s that?” He would turn to look and pick up the torn pieces of the envelope. Maureen would stare dumbly for a few moments before she’d utter faintly, “I left it up there on the ledge, for tomorrow, for the paperboy. I thought it would be hidden up there, but” and she’d look up at the stairs and say, “I guess you can see it if you’re coming down.” She’d wait a second before sneering with disgust: “My god, she steals twenty bucks on top of everything else.”
Sal would go upstairs to inform them of what Sophie had done to Leo, about the two months plus security that they’d kindly give them. And he’d ask for the twenty dollars back, which would make it clear to Sophie that her new enemy took her for a sap.
Sal walked groggily into the kitchen. “Don’t worry. I took the cake out before I fell asleep.”
“Thank you so much. Have some tea.”
“Okay. How was the walk?”
“It helped clear things up.”
“Everybody’s been napping. The girls had a big day. And judging by the way Leo zonked out, I’d say he had a big day, too.”
Sal was a good guy, and she hated even having to share the horror of just knowing what had happened to their son. But Sal was lucky not to have that image of Leo on the ground in his mind forever. Fate had given that to Maureen, and she was glad. If Sal had come upon them, had discovered someone—even a kid—trying to kill his son, he might have done something without thinking—maybe something crazy.
Bud Jennings completed the graduate creative writing program at NYU, and his work has appeared in Word Riot, Serving House Journal, Gertrude, 34thParallel, Educe, and Superstition Review. He received a finalist award in Fiction/Creative Nonfiction from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and two residencies from the Blue Mountain Center. He lives in Salem, MA with his husband Rick.