The kid appeared on the first of May.
LP was in the kitchen, doing the dishes in desultory fashion, cursing Kurt’s refusal to shell out for a dishwasher (“Already got one and she cooks too,” accompanied by a slap on the ass was his standard reply), and staring at the overgrown foliage of the back yard; it tangled with the old growth woods their property bordered. It was the movement that caught her eye, slow but still kinda sharp, cautious and nervous, and pretty soon there was this kid creeping out of the trees and shrubs and long grass.
Matted dark hair, halfway down the back, no clothes to speak of but so covered in filth that LP couldn’t tell if it was a girl or a boy. Lordy, but it must reek to high heaven. She wondered if the kid could see her, but realized its gaze wasn’t directed at her, or the windows she stood behind, but at the fat tortoiseshell tom.
It was Tuesday, and quiet. LP’s best friend Angie had been sick, so she’d not dropped Thomas off for his once-a-week day with “aunty;” he was a good baby, contented, seldom cried, but she was always aware of his presence. Kurt was long since gone to work at the furniture factory. The houses on either side were empty and had been for some time, with foreclosure signs decorating their front yards like great steaming turds. LP was deeply grateful for the respite as the Mondays she spent with her mother were invariably hellish, and yesterday had been a high-water mark.
Whiskey was sunning himself on the little round iron table that had been quietly rusting in the garden for ten years. It sat just off to one side of the washing line, didn’t get in the way, could barely hold the weight of a cat or a peg-basket. There were two chairs to go with it, but no one sat on them anymore on account of the legs being held together with what passed for oxidized spit, and the tendrils of some mysterious weed that wound its way through the lacework.
LP told herself she couldn’t have done anything, couldn’t have changed what happened, but she was lying and she knew it. Sure, she wouldn’t have made it to the back door and into the yard, but she could have banged on the glass. Kurt loved that damned cat more than life itself, and maybe more than her, but it jumped and hissed if she so much as breathed near it; anything louder would have made the critter shit itself and run. But she didn’t trouble to make a noise, in fact she held her breath, just waiting to see what might happen. She rubbed one damp hand absently across the flat belly beneath her cotton dress, primped the short dark curls of her ghostly reflection with the other.
Whiskey didn’t even see it coming.
Which meant the kid was silent, like stealthy as a fox, light as a breeze, because the kid’s fingers—closer up now, LP could see how long the nails were, black ragged things—were around Whiskey’s thick neck before he knew it. That neck was broken in a freakishly swift motion—there was no doubt the cat was dead, the way it hung in that strong, nasty little grip.
But LP couldn’t muster even a lick of sympathy for the feline. Too many years of him tearing up her favorite cushions and couches, her craft supplies and works-in-progress, her clothes whenever he could get his paws on them, and the smell of piss in the house because Kurt wouldn’t get the fucking animal neutered. There were deep red scratches on her arms, the latest in a series of Whiskey’s “love taps” while she slept; she’d got infections from them three times before. LP felt the first genuine smile in a long while lift her lips, and imagining life without Whiskey distracted her from watching the kid tear him open and feast on his innards. She kind of glanced off to the side, so she saw but not quite.
When the cat was no more than a sack of bloodied fur and bones, the wilderling tossed Whiskey on top of the little iron table again, almost well-mannered, and disappeared back into the woods. LP would go out soon and put him in the compost, bury him deep in the rotting food scraps and other crap in the plastic bin that sometimes swelled in the summer heat and always smelled bad, so bad even Whiskey never went near it. Kurt wouldn’t look for his old tom there.
LP went back to doing the dishes, humming, heart considerably lighter.
“Angie, you ever hear of kids lost in the woods hereabouts? Not ever coming out again?”
LP had spent part of a day at the library, using their internet so Kurt couldn’t check up on her browsing history at home. He didn’t do it to keep track of her or anything—he wasn’t that kind of husband—but he liked to find reasons to tease her and LP was an inveterate adopter of hobbies. She always began with online research. Kurt thought he was being funny, didn’t notice her gritted teeth.
So she’d sat in the air-conditioning, ignoring the low-level buzz of people and machines, and looked through old news articles for mention of children who’d disappeared from their homes or schools or the national forest . . . anywhere, really. But there was just the usual: parents kidnapping their own offspring in custody disputes; random crimes of opportunity by would-be killers and/or pedophiles—those children were always returned in one state or another, some less alive than others, some wishing they’d not survived. Then there were the ones who just wandered in the front door later than usual, had lost track of time, or tried to run away from but decided that, somehow, home was safer than the big old world.
In fact, it appeared, from LP’s reading, that Wolf’s Briar held an unusual record, that of a one hundred percent return of its roaming children (dead or alive, but always returned). So, she’d called Angie, because any bit of gossip Angie didn’t know wasn’t worth having, especially seeing as how she worked for the local police department. Not that she had loose lips, hell no—Angie wouldn’t have kept her job if Sheriff Bagley thought she was leaking secrets like a sieve—but, as she’d said to LP, she needed someone to vent to on occasion. All those notions, all those bits of truth, all those terrible things, pressed inside her so much that sometimes she thought her skin would split. So she told LP and she knew LP could be trusted because they’d been best friends since grade school; not to mention that LP had no one else she’d call “close,” so who was she gonna tell? Not that Angie would ever have said that aloud, but LP knew she knew, and appreciated her friend’s discretion.
Given her research results, LP thought she probably already knew the answer to her question, but she’d asked anyway. Just to be sure.
“You mean proper dead?” Angie was at work, so her voice was low. LP could imagine her friend’s blue eyes skirting the office to make sure no one was within hearing range, her shoulders a little hunched, pen tapping on the blotter on her desk. For someone who kept secrets so well, Angie sure had a lot of tells; she’d have made a crappy poker player.
“Nope. Missing, never found again. Maybe ten years ago?”
She hadn’t seen the kid again, not in the last two days since she’d buried Whiskey deep as she could bear in the stinking compost bin. But she felt the kid would be back; she couldn’t say how she knew, but sometimes she got feelings, did LP.
“Why are you asking?” Angie said, but LP could hear the tapping of keys as her friend began searching whatever databases police forces were heir to: something sure as shit better than Google at the library. All things considered Angie coped pretty good with the stuff she heard and saw, stuff that had made grown men cry. Pretty damned good, especially since Thomas was only six-months-old; sure sometimes Angie got distressed, but it didn’t seem to make her scared, not for her own kid. She told LP it made her more determined that what she did was important, even if she was only answering the phone and filing and researching. It’s a little bit, she’d say, but it’s my little bit. She said again, “Why are you asking?”
LP was careful not to swallow—if Angie was ignorant of her own tells, she knew LP’s, and that gulping noise was a dead giveaway—offering casually, “I thought, you know, I might try writing a story.”
Without children or a job, there wasn’t a lot taking up LP’s time when Kurt wasn’t home from work, so she picked up hobbies the way some men picked up hookers. She’d made dollhouses and miniature furniture for over two years before she got bored; knitted so many sweaters that the Good Will store still had some on their shelves; crocheted blankets, some of which were still in use in the police cells because they were warmer than the cheap rubbish usually purchased; she’d tried painting, jewelry-making, pottery and ceramics (there was a difference), car detailing, landscape gardening, cushion-making, sewing clothes for babies, children, adults and dolls, she’d decorated cakes, done quilting, book-binding, repairing watches, furniture restoration . . . You name it, there was a good chance LP had tried it, and when she mastered it, she got bored and cast about for something new—much to Kurt’s amusement. So, she didn’t think that Angie’s radar would ping at something that sounded like another hobby-in-progress.
She was right.
“Well, why not?” said Angie more to herself than LP. Having no craft skills herself, she was always interested in her friend’s undertakings. More tapping, some tongue-clicking. “You know, it does not look like it. Not in that time period. You want me to widen the search parameters? Like, five years either side?”
“Sure, that’d be great.” LP didn’t think that would matter, the kid hadn’t looked more than ten. Then again, that strength in those hands . . . the dirt obscuring mostly everything . . .
“So, what’s this story about?” Angie was clearly warming to the idea of her friend as a writer.
“Well, I can’t tell you yet!” LP said it almost too loud. “Don’t want to jinx myself. Who knows if I can even get the idea on the page. And don’t you go telling anyone—last thing I need is Kurt making fun of me for this too.” She sighed. “This is just for me, something I can keep quiet.”
“My lips are sealed, as you very well know. But promise I can read it when you’re done, even if you think it’s awful?”
“Hey, look this search is going slow. I’ll call you back if I get any hits?”
“Sure thing. We good for next Tuesday?’ Every week they caught up for a cheap movie and drinks at the tiny Royale Cinema, whether there was a new film showing or not.
“Hells yeah. I’ll bring Thomas over early in the morning for his “aunty day.” Then pick you both up after work, and we can drop him off with Byron on the way to the movies.”
“Sure thing.” LP cared for Thomas because she loved Angie, who’d married Byron straight out of high school and fallen pregnant almost immediately. But she’d lost that baby and the one that came after, and the one after that. So, for a while, it didn’t matter that LP (marrying Kurt around the same time) didn’t have children either. Didn’t matter that she didn’t fall no matter how often they did it, in how many positions, with however many potions or pills or injections. Didn’t matter because Angie’s babies never came to fruition. Not until Thomas. He really wasn’t any trouble, slept most of the time he was at LP’s, and one day a week was manageable; the bitterness didn’t choke her too much, wasn’t a constant reminder of opportunities not given to her.
Angie’s voice sped up, abruptly urgent and running everything together, “Gottagosheriffscomingbye.”
“Bye,” said LP to dead air.
LP found the fattest, oldest cat she could at one of the Wolf’s Briar shelters. Told the woman in charge about Whiskey, how he’d gone missing, how her husband loved that cat so much. And sure, it was a little soon to go replacing dear old Whiskey, but hey, it had to happen sometime and it was awful to have a feline-shaped hole in their lives. The woman nodded sympathetically and asked if she wouldn’t rather a younger animal, one that would be with them longer? LP kept her face straight and said she’d rather give a “senior citizen” a great home for however short a time it had left, and the woman wiped away a tear.
LP tied the cat to the iron table, a strand of twine from its collar to the latticework; left it a bowl of milk, some dry food, and the thing seemed happy enough, went to sleep almost immediately. By late afternoon, she wasn’t quite so sure that she’d see the wilderling again at all. But about twenty minutes before Kurt was due to walk in the door—and thank God, coz she couldn’t bear to present him with another cat to take precedence over her—there was that same slow-quick movement between the trees and soon enough the kid was stepping furtively into the garden, pert little nose twitch-sniffing at whatever odor the old cat was giving off.
The nameless critter went the way of Whiskey; kid ate fast, must have been hungry. LP wondered if it had hunted out its patch of the woods, if the squirrels and raccoons, and whatever else might count as small game had got too wary or too scarce. Or maybe finding Whiskey had just been so easy and the kid had decided it liked easy.
From the kitchen window LP watched everything, didn’t look away. Maybe coz she had no connection to this animal, or just maybe because she was getting more and more curious. At any rate, she was looking straight at the kid while it licked red off its palms, when it glanced up, straight at where LP stood. This time, LP was sure she’d been seen. She held her breath, unmoving. The kid stilled, tilted its head and stared.
LP’s curiosity was what got her through boredom, what made her chase hobby after hobby, what stopped her from doing terrible things like taking a hammer to Kurt’s big old head at her most frustrated, or pulling a blade across her mother’s throat every time Agnes told her what a failure she was. All manner of violent things that occurred to her when someone insulted her or underestimated her and wasn’t polite enough to bother to cover it up.
But right now? The curiosity that had stirred those few days ago, had kept her looking out for the kid, turn cold as a stone in a mountain stream. Because the kid looked at her as if she was food.
LP had had this vision, of the kid, the kid somehow becoming hers. In her imagination, it was a girl, all clean and neat, in a pretty dress or jeans with flowers embroidered on the hems, hair brushed and shiny, well-mannered and sweet and tame. And she thought how if she had that kid, a kid, her kid, then no one would be looking judgment on her ever again. No more pitying stares, no more mouthing of childless behind her back when they didn’t know she could see them in the reflections in the shop windows or the glass freezer cabinet doors at the supermarket. If she just had that kid . . .
Everyone liked Kurt; people liked LP too, but they pitied her, whispered what a shame, what a shame, and she knew it. No babies, no children.
It had settled in her, this idea, and although it was shaken somewhat by the kid’s feral gaze, it was still there. That’s how ideas are, once they take root they’ve got those little tendrils and if they connect with something you really, really want? Well, then. No matter how bad an idea, it was probably going to stay with you until you got what you wished for, and consequences be damned.
One thing was for sure, LP was gonna need more cats.
After the third cat (sourced from the last of Wolf Briar’s shelters), LP set up a little nest in the basement—there was a small space she’d used a couple of years ago as a dark room when photography had occupied her mind. She replaced the lock and made sure it was sturdy. Kurt never went down there, didn’t spend time in the shed either, no tinkering for him, just wasn’t that kind of guy. Work was work, he’d say, and I wanna leave it there. He was a porch-sitter, Kurt was. Come home, get himself a beer from the fridge, kiss her on the forehead, then out to the front of the house and the old swing that creaked and creaked and creaked. He wasn’t a bad guy, but she’d got earplugs so she could make dinner without feeling the urge to go out and hit him over the head with a skillet or whatever came to hand. Earplugs Saved My Marriage! Some days she thought about writing that story and sending it to one of those magazines, but she figured it was probably a pretty common solution for a lot of women, so she wouldn’t be adding anything.
There was a small chest of drawers and a day bed that she cleaned up; its mattress was soft if not a little soggy, but she couldn’t imagine the kid had been sleeping on anything especially luxurious—and the tiny room was neat and blacked-out window down there was small, small, small so she didn’t believe anyone could crawl out even if they did manage to break the glass. It would just give LP time to get the kid used to her, soon she’d have it taking food from her hand, then . . . civilization would ensue. Could the kid talk? LP had no idea.
Kurt had always wanted children, but he’d never made her feel bad about not having them. He had asked if they should go and get tested, figure who wasn’t working properly, but LP decided she didn’t want to know that. Folks automatically blamed her anyway—what if she found out they were right? She preferred it this way. Now, though, there was this kid, a kid, her kid. Their kid. When people asked, LP would say it was a foster. Had a bad start. And Kurt? How was she going to tell Kurt? Honestly, she had no idea, it was a mere detail, but all she could see was the goal, shimmering just out of reach, so she’d burn that bridge when she came to it.
When Monday rolled around the usual pressure had built in her chest, but LP still got out of bed, made peach cobbler while Kurt ate his breakfast. When he was gone, she dragged on a blue dress, sandals with heels and did her hair. The makeup she wore was light but it wouldn’t have mattered if she’d applied it with a trowel; her mother would criticize it either way. Too little and she wasn’t trying, too much and she looked like a whore. LP was an only child, but she never wished harder for a sibling than as an adult, just to have someone else to share the burden of her mother. Filial duty was the only thing that took her to visit each week, admittedly never for long. It was bad enough she’d failed to have children, being a failure as a daughter was a final humiliation she couldn’t bear—even if there was no woman alive or dead who deserved more to be left alone than.
LP pulled into the driveway of the home Agnes Mayberry had shared with four husbands (consecutively, not all at once, and all deceased in their turn), and now with a sole cat (Puss, sluggish, fat, not dissimilar to the late unlamented Whiskey), and turned off the engine. Hands resting on the steering wheel for the count of fifteen, she steadied her breathing, then got out of the car before retrieving the still-warm baking tray from the back seat.
“Mom?” she knocked and called loudly, even though Agnes wasn’t deaf, but she always led with “Oh I didn’t hear you.” LP opened the door, which was never locked despite all warnings to the contrary. Privately, she suspected no burglar or invader of any kind would stand a chance against her mother’s withering stare.
Still no answer. LP moved along the hallway, keeping an eye out for Puss who liked to swipe the unwary from doorways. “Mom?”
Continued silence and LP knew it was wrong to have that little leap of hope in her heart, to imagine a future where Agnes did not feature except as a name on a headstone. She knew it was wrong, something the universe would punish her for, and so wasn’t at all surprised when she made it to the open-plan living-dining area and saw her mother. Standing out on the back deck, tall and straight in platforms and a long pink summer dress, blonde hair sprayed so it wouldn’t move in a tornado, cigarette in hand, a good inch of ash clinging to its end in sheer defiance of gravity, Agnes surveyed her immaculately kept garden. In her other had was a martini glass, breakfast of champions. LP put the tray onto the kitchen bench, knowing her mother would eat it only after she’d left, lest she had to offer any kind of thanks or compliment.
“Mom,” said LP for the third time and stepped outside. Agnes didn’t turn, either at the sound of voice or footstep; even when LP came to stand beside her all she did was blow out a long stream of white as she said, “Oh, I didn’t hear you, Laura Pauline.”
LP cringed at the name.
“How’s Angie?” Agnes asked, just as she always did; she had a cycle, a plan of attack, nothing changed except maybe the intensity. She never asked how LP was, only Angie, then Kurt, then Whiskey, then Thomas. She’d wax lyrical about Thomas, though she’d seen him once since his birth (hadn’t bothered to hold him), and there was no way Angie was going to let the child visit a house the interior of which had a higher air pollution rate than India. As willful and precisely put-together as Agnes was, she wouldn’t stop smoking, and even she couldn’t prevent the odor from impregnating fabric and walls, staining paint and making toxic clouds against the ceiling.
“She’s fine. Kurt’s fine. Thomas is fine.”
“What about Whiskey?”
“What do you mean?”
And it gave LP no end of satisfaction, though she knew it was mean as all hell, to say, “Gone. As in disappeared. Probably dead. You know how it is.”
“Oh. Poor Kurt. He must be devastated.” Pause. “After all, that cat was the closest thing he’ll ever have to a child.”
LP blinked hard. It didn’t matter how often it happened, it didn’t matter how regular the digs were, somehow Agnes always found a new way to slip the knife in. It wasn’t unusual for LP to spend more time cooking and grooming than in her mother’s house. “Okay, Mom. Have a good day.”
Agnes didn’t bother to reply.
LP reached the front door and paused. Through the doorway into the room on her right was her mother’s bed with its saffron-colored comforter and mountain of pillows and cushions in various shades of purple. On the mound, like an emperor, lay Puss. He made those angry little sounds in his sleep, tail twitching, and one back foot spasmed as though he were scratching the hell out of someone.
LP stared at the animal.
She stared at Puss for a long while.
She was still staring, wondering if she had time to find the cat box Agnes kept for trips to the vet, when she heard the sound of her mother’s heels on the floor. A pause, then very softly, “Laura Pauline?”
LP left as quietly as she could, feeling a band of tightness settling around her head.
The headache was almost gone by the time Angie drove up at seven-thirty the next morning, just as Kurt was backing out of the driveway; they exchanged good-natured waves. LP watched as Angie got Thomas from the car and the big bag that contained food and formula, fresh nappies and changes of clothes, hopefully enough for an six-month-old for a day, but who know what might happen even though he was less mobile at this stage. Boys attracted muck, in LP’s experience (she tried not to think about the amount of filth adhering to the kid in the woods, what that might mean), but she just smiled when she opened the door, as if she hadn’t forgotten babysitting or movie night. As if she hadn’t spent breakfast trying to figure out where she was going to get more cats, answering Kurt’s chatter with a sequence of uh huhs, yeahs, maybes, whatever you want honeys.
“Didn’t find anything,” said Angie as she entered the kitchen, blue onesie-clad Thomas on her left hip, bag over her right shoulder.
“Children. Missing children,” explained her friend, managing the impressive maneuver of dumping the bag on the table and handing off the snoozing child to LP at the same time. “None that stayed missing anyway. How’s your story going?”
“Oh. Slow. You know, takes me a while to get going. And this is something different to my normal hobbies, so even slower than usual.” LP adjusted the slightly damp Thomas so his face nestled into the side of her neck and his breath was warm and soft against her skin. Made her heart clench, not in a way that was good or warm, though.
“Well, don’t you worry, LP, I’ve got faith in you. I reckon you can spin a great tale. Don’t they say everyone’s got a book in them?”
LP smiled vaguely, mind elsewhere. The kid had had three fat, four-legged meals, and LP was running out of places to go. The women at the shelters would notice if she went back too soon, and the cats that lived in the dumpsters behind the Safeway were too leery of humans to come near her no matter what she held in her hand. Anyway, they were too thin, too nervous, and she couldn’t imagine them snoozing their day away until the kid turned up. And Puss, though tempting, wasn’t an option because it would mean returning to Agnes’ house before she absolutely had to.
“Well, I’d better get going, don’t want to be late.” Angie gave LP a quick buss on the cheek, placed a firmer one on her son’s forehead. “I’ll pick you up this afternoon about five-thirty.”
“Sounds good. Drive safe.”
LP glanced out the kitchen window, while Thomas snuffled and farted in her arms. She had no bait today, nothing to attract the kid; no lunch all tied up and waiting to lure it out of the woods. She wouldn’t see it until the next cat. Thomas stirred, his little fists beginning to flail; he farted again and it sounded wet. Thoughts of cats would have to wait until tomorrow. LP wrinkled her nose; she knew when something took priority.
Thomas was fractious and demanding most of the morning, which he usually wasn’t but LP normally wasn’t quite so distracted by her own thoughts. Usually she played with him and enjoyed his company as much as she was capable, but today just wasn’t that sort of day, so it was a relief to put him down in the cradle in the spare bedroom upstairs after lunch. He went to sleep quick, too, like he was just waiting for the whole experience to be over and slumbering through it was the best option he could come up with.
Back downstairs, LP collected the laundry from the washer. She carefully closed the back door behind her—a habit from the days of Whiskey when she kept him out of the house during the day until Kurt returned from work and let the animal in—as she went to the washing line.
While she was pegging up socks and underpants, work shirts and jeans, bras and dresses, LP daydreamed. She’d got a vision board in her head, did LP, where she pinned all the things she wanted in the order she thought they should be. Her mother was fond of saying that LP don’t think things through, which wasn’t entirely true, but not entirely unfair either. LP did think a lot, but what she didn’t get was all the angles. She thought she did, but she had a tendency, not uncommon for sure, to check only the angles that supported what she wanted. So LP’s plans tended to be like fishing nets with overly large holes in them, not strong enough to stand against anything that didn’t want to be caught.
By now, LP had a concept, pretty much fully formed, of her endgame. She always had an “ideal” of that no matter what hobby she took on, and maybe that was why she wasn’t really thinking straight about this project. She could see her and the kid (clean and neat and tidy) and Kurt walking down the street together, doing the groceries, going for ice cream, all sitting on a blanket at Kurt’s company picnic, just like the other families with their baskets and plates and cups and coleslaw.
No more pitying looks, no more whispers behind hands, no one telling her she’d best get a hurry on before her “use-by date,” no one dumping babies into her lap like they were doing her and her barren womb a favor.
LP was smiling by the time she’d done with the washing. She hitched the basket on her hip, walked back to the house and its open back door with a swinging gait. As soon as she got inside she smelled it. Raw and fetid, a sewer stink. It made her eyes water. She blinked, wondering for a moment and then recalled Thomas. He must need changing again. What the hell had Angie been feeding him?
Unhurried, she put the laundry basket on the couch—the sun was warm and the breeze high, she’d need it again soon—and took the stairs. Halfway up, she seemed to hear a door closing but she knew she’d already shut it when she came in, so she must be imagining things. Maybe it was just the wind rattling it in its frame.
She took two steps into the spare room before she knew something wasn’t right. Normally, she could hear Thomas breathing—he was a snuffler, a snorer, even this young—but there was no sound from the crib. Two more steps, three more, four, and there it was: the empty cradle.
LP was frozen, stunned, bewildered. All those things and more, everything you might feel if you were hit in the head with a brick or a length of wood and not quite knocked unconscious. Stupid. She picked at the blanket and sheet, the pillow, the mattress, the plastic lining, everything, just in case the child had managed to secrete himself somewhere in the small rectangle of space and her eyes had failed her.
She turned on the spot, more than once, then propelled herself out of the room and down the stairs. In the kitchen was the phone, hanging on the wall, and she stumbled getting there. LP almost pulled the handset away from its moorings, held her fingers over the keypad, about to pick out those three numbers, the numbers that would get the cops, would tell Angie far too soon that somehow LP had let her down . . . and LP paused, stared. The 9-1-1 keys seemed to glow and burn brighter than the others.
Slowly she looked away, seeking inspiration. Where could he have gone, this baby boy? Sleepwalking, sleepcrawling . . .
LP was staring out the kitchen window now, staring, staring, staring, paralysed so only her eyes shifted.
And shift they did as they caught a movement, just as they did a week ago, but this time not slow or cautious or nervous. No. Quick, quick, quick, delighted and wicked and so terribly cruel as the kid, matted hair, filthy skin, long talons, paused at the edge of the woods, a blue-clad bundle in its arms, then scampered off into the trees and shrubs and long grass.