Dark clouds over a hillside and field of yellow grass.
Dark clouds over a hillside and field of yellow grass.
photo / Patti Witten



A chapter from a novel-in-progress

Robert did not tell Cynthia about confronting Smith, about almost betraying their suspicion that Smith hurt Maylin when she was a girl. He kept it from her because she would be furious at him. And he was ashamed of losing self-control. He couldn’t even muster the defiance to justify his behavior, so he just wanted to forget it.

They sat opposite each other in Maylin’s room, leaning over the boxes looking for clues among the CDs, dolls, clothes, and jewelry. They turned each item over and ran fingertips across them, holding up at anything made of paper to the light — drawings, envelopes, lists.

Robert examined a plush toy he did not recognize, a bear or dog or whatever it was. It looked new. Who gave it to her? Why did it look new?

“What’s this,” he asked Cynthia.

She looked at it blankly. “A stuffed animal.”

“But have you seen it before,” Robert insisted.

Cynthia shook her head, and he examined her. Long dark hair with silver threads sweeping around in the hood of his sweatshirt, which she continued to wear even though he’d asked for it back.

Robert dropped the toy in a box they had set aside for donations. He felt stupid and angry at himself because he did not know what his own daughter had cared about.

Cynthia ignored him. His reluctance to touch Maylin’s things was palpable and she resented him for it. Why wasn’t he more helpful? She returned to sorting receipts in the expanding file folder balanced on her lap. Most of them had faded print on slippery thermal paper. There were paystubs, too, even a few from Maylin’s first job as a waitress in 2008. It was sad to think that Maylin had tried to keep track of her income and expenses this way. Cynthia shuffled them with her fingers. Nothing.

Snooping like this was a private vice Cynthia had indulged often and it was uncomfortable to share it now with Robert. She had snooped a lot over the suspicious years — in Robert’s coat pockets and the glove compartment of his truck, for instance, but he was careful. Once, she found a handmade stoneware mug in the passenger side footwell, but nothing else. She had also snooped in Maylin’s room when she was a teenager, expecting to find evidence that Maylin had inherited hers and Robert’s thirst for drugs and alcohol. She found cigarettes, a tiny pot pipe, condoms, even a vibrator, and sexy underwear at the back of a drawer. That’s when she quit looking in the drawers and confined her snooping to Maylin’s backpack and purse.

She remembered feeling guilty at the time, but now she just felt empty. There would be no more chances to save Maylin from drinking, drugs, or sex; no grounding, no taking away privileges, and no advice-giving. There never had been any stopping her.

Snooping with Robert was the really disturbing part about this hunt for Maylin’s abuser. She still did not trust Robert and cringed to think of him seeing their daughter as a sexualized person. She still wondered if he might be the bad man. Probably not. But she wanted him to feel intensely ashamed about this activity, and she wanted to bind him to her plan to find the man. The price for that was this awful unease, part vulnerability, and part suspicion. There was no way around it.

It made her angry — angrier than she already was — and more determined to keep silent about the visions she’d had since Maylin died. She could not tell if it was really Maylin she saw or her imagination. The most recent one made her cringe. All that stuff from myths, fairy tales, and children’s stories — a snow-white drudge for stupid dwarves, and a princess-hostage to a god who visited only in total darkness. Cynthia knew these stories. On some level, they had always bothered her and she had never understood why the princess-drudge-prize could not have or seize power. Not even the evil vanity of queens and witches was a match for gods, kings, sorcerers, ogres, and monsters.

Maylin’s spirit was not helping them find anything to solve the mystery of the words in the address book—Never and October 1998.

But she went on looking, pulled another banker’s box to her feet, and flipped the lid aside. On top, a small collection of horse figurines was swathed in bubble wrap. Paper-bound textbooks from Maylin’s semester at community college underneath. Under the books lay a thick manilla envelope, taped shut. Cynthia’s wrist bent backward from its weight as she lifted it and tore the tape. The envelope was full of greeting cards Maylin had saved, just like Cynthia had saved the condolence cards in the Chinese bowl. Fear branched like lightning across her abdomen.

Robert sensed it and looked over at her. He watched as Cynthia upended the envelope and poured the pile of cards onto the upturned banker’s box lid. She lifted a card, opened its wings, and opened her mouth.

“What,” Robert said.

“Jackpot,” said Cynthia.

Card after card inscribed with block print, loose handwriting: I can’t wait to see you again . . . It’s our secret . . . Waiting makes you sweeter . . . Shhh, don’t tell . . . I love you!

A strip of photo booth pictures revealing a man’s body parts pushed up to the lens — throat, lips, hands, a pink nipple starfished on a seabed of black hairs. Polaroids of Maylin flipping her hair, one blue eye peeking out through bangs, pushing up small breasts crushed under a tank top. A fortune cookie fortune printed in red uppercase lettering: YOUR DREAMS WILL COME TRUE. LUCKY NUMBERS 3 7 8 21 239. A horoscope clipped from a newspaper: Scorpio, it’s time to sit for five straight minutes, no worrying about the world. You’ll realize that which you’ve been seeking. Watch out for new people you’ve just met! This year might be the right time for something new and everything changes for the better.

Maylin was a Libra.

After a moment, Cynthia and Robert moved to the dining table and spread the cards and souvenirs between them.

Cynthia tried to keep them in order at first, but after she lifted and looked in several cards she began dropping them on top of the pile and read the same ones again and again. She was looking for October 1998. But that wasn’t right, it couldn’t be. How would a man send cards to an eight-year-old girl without being detected?

These cards to Maylin had to have come later when she was a teenager, maybe from a single period of time. Maybe the same time Cynthia quit snooping in Maylin’s room! How did the man get them to her? Was there a secret hiding place, a drop, arranged between them? Where did they meet? The careful planning and concealment required were horrifying. The man’s primary thought had to be to not get caught. Rather, that was his second thought. His first thought would be possession.

Robert could not touch them. Terror clawed at the back of his throat, opened a chasm in his belly. But the pressure of his own secret — that day at Jessica’s twenty years before— threatened to split him in half. It had to be Smith. Leah had told them Smith was living at Jessica’s house. And he was at the Halloween party when Maylin had the bedwetting accident.

But this put Robert too close to the center of the horror and he was desperate to deflect it.

“What if these are just from some boyfriend?” he asked, knowing they were not.

Cynthia shook her head. “No. They sound . . .” She opened a card decorated with roses and read aloud, “‘Buttercup, I am waiting for you.’” She threw it from her with a yelp like a wounded animal.

Robert felt sick. Memories played in his mind — Smith’s face across a meeting room, the grinning mouth sliding over an off-color joke. Maylin’s teenage years, her rage and defiance masking vulnerability. He saw how Smith’s appetite might have evolved. He could imagine the many small, secret alterations, decisions, and wordless un-thoughts required to create a predator — he knew because he had felt them, too.

Robert stood with his back pressed against the kitchen counter. He didn’t remember getting there. He watched Cynthia at the table, staring at the leaf litter of notecards and souvenirs. He wanted to erase the scene so thoroughly that the idea of setting fire to the table seemed almost reasonable. He wanted to burn down his own life, his own shame.

But he would kill Smith, first.

“What should we do,” he whispered.

Cynthia didn’t answer. For her, Maylin’s secret collection underscored her failure as a mother. She also thought of destroying herself. Again.

The sound of rain striking the roof broke through the silence. Cynthia heard leaves scrape the ground and the clapboard walls outside, the shrubbery rattling, and Robert’s spooked-horse breaths. The pendant light above the table was too bright, too yellow. The wind was a careless, oracular voice that frightened her.

She panicked — was she having another vision? “Not now,” she moaned. “I don’t want this.”

“What? What’s happening?” Robert watched as Cynthia leaned back in the chair, her spine arching. Her mouth opened wide as her head tipped back, and he saw with unusual clarity the way her hair caught in the hood of his sweatshirt under her bent neck. It was terrifying.

The summer storm roared around the house, battering the windows and doors, howling in the pine branches. He heard the ping of hail hitting his truck in the driveway, a sound like BBs shot at a tin can. He felt and heard the whump as something big hit the ground just outside the kitchen window behind him. The house shook.

Cynthia pushed her chair back and stood, swept her arms across the table, and scooped up the notecards, photos, dried flowers, and other souvenirs — all that shit — with a loud grunt.

“Help me,” she cried, and Robert sprang away from the kitchen counter, snatching at the cards and bits falling off the table’s edge. Cynthia straightened, crushing the armful of notecards to her chest. Rain fell heavily on the roof, but the wind was gone. Thunder growled in the distance.

“I say burn it,” Cynthia said, her eyes round and glinting.

“Yes, and I say, fuck him,” Robert seethed. “Never let him know we know. Let him wonder if someday I catch him alone and kill him.” He was panting. “Let him be afraid.”

He fetched a plastic garbage bag from the kitchen. Together, he and Cynthia dropped every scrap of paper, ribbon, crumbled petals, and photos in the bag. All the buttercups and love-struck phrases, every sickening word. Cynthia left the room and returned with the stuffed animal they hadn’t recognized from Maylin’s room. She dropped it in the bag.

They stood together by the table, each holding a corner of the garbage bag that rustled against their knees.

“This doesn’t change anything,” Cynthia said. “It doesn’t change our Maylin. Or us.”

Robert heard this as a warning as much as a prediction.

“OK,” he said. “You’re right.”

Give her what she wants, he thought. He was ready to do it, now.

This is a chapter from a novel in progress.

Written by

Writer, songwriter, essayist; novel-in-progress. Writes for Cornell U College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. swaytothis.wordpress.com

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