Authors: Lee Hays
There they are again. And that man is there, too. The older one. What’s he doing here? I saw him inside with the old lady. They were on the floor together. Picking something up. Why doesn’t he go away? She doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. She’s mine now. Nasty Billy. He would spank you if he knew. Why doesn’t he go? Why don’t they all go away? Then maybe I’d be free. I feel sick again. I’m going to call. Why doesn’t someone stop me, why?
Inside the house, oblivious of the stranger who prowled just outside and watched through the living room window Phyl was performing the introductions. Once Jess and Chris had met Mr. Harrison Chris told him what the police were planning to do. They all left the room together, Jess, Phyl, Chris and Mr. Harrison followed by Mrs. Mac who helped them into their coats in the hallway.
“Girls, it’s terribly cold out!”
“We won’t be very long, Mrs. Mac,” Jess said, adjusting her long scarf.
As they went out the door Phyl called back to Mrs. MacHenry, “Have a look in on Barb, would you Mrs. Mac? She’s probably asleep but just see that she’s all right. Her asthma—”
“Yes, dear. Now, for heaven’s sake, stay bundled up! No sense in coming down with pneumonia. And be careful. Stay together, all of you.”
The door closed in front of her and she stood in the hall for a moment before she turned the lock and went back to the stairs that led to the second floor. Slowly she climbed them, telling herself that there seemed to be more steps every day. At the top she hesitated, then went directly to Barbara’s room.
Inside she switched on the bedside lamp and looked down at the motionless girl. There was a bottle beside the lamp on the table and she poured a drink from it before setting about the task of undressing Barbara.
As she removed the girl’s shoes she muttered, “God! You don’t know how well off you are.” Tossing the shoes on the floor she picked up the glass and took a quick swig and then turned her attention to Barbara’s clothes.
The skirt was easy but she had to struggle to get the blouse off after unbuttoning it. “I’m telling you,” she said to no one in particular. “Hardly in the line of duty, undressing drunken broads. I must be the best goddamn house mother on campus. Come on, you little bitch, roll over. I’ll bet you aren’t this much trouble to those boys who . . . Come on.”
Finally the blouse came off and she stopped for a moment, breathless, before rolling Barbara on her back. “If they were to give out the award for the best house mother, I’ll bet I’d get it, hands down. In a walk. No competition. Where’s that glass?”
She finished what she had poured and looked back at Barbara, then lifted her up and slipped her arm underneath the girl’s shoulder. “What a slob! Twelve years I’ve been looking after girls like you and what has it gotten me? Tired feet and a tired back. And no gratitude at all!”
She unfastened the bra from behind and let it slip awkwardly down Barbara’s shoulders, then one at a time she lifted the girl’s arms and took the straps over them so that all Barbara had on was her stockings and panties. She let the girl slip back down onto the bed, half crumpled into the fetal position. “Shit! What a dead weight. You’d think I’d at least get ‘house mother of the year’ or some-such. All right, Barb, if you insist I’ll have another.”
She reached over and took the top from the bottle, brought it directly to her mouth, foregoing the glass. “Here’s to you, you drunken slob!”
Sitting heavily on the bed she glanced around the room, the bottle still in her hand. “God, how can she drink that stuff! Give me sherry any day.”
She sat for a while lost in a kind of reverie while Barbara snored beside her. At last she said, “Keep snoring, honey. It’s such a lovely sound. That’s the girl. It’ll really turn those boys on. Between your snoring and your dirty mouth you’ll be the most popular lay on campus. Boy, I should have been smart like my sister. She snored. But she married a man with money. Smart girl. Didn’t let him find that out, that she snored, until after she hooked him. Let’s have another drink.”
The bottle was still in her hand but for some reason she reached and got the glass, poured some of the whiskey into it and held it aloft.
“Happy days! Up the rebels, with a rope. Boy what a life I’d have. Florida every winter.” Leaning back she rested the glass on the area between Barbara’s shoulder and the small of her back. “Marry a man with money, and don’t let him know you snore, honey. Hey, that’s a rhyme!”
Barbara stirred and tried to swat the chilly glass from her back. The motion awakened Mrs. Mac who quickly moved the glass away, finished its contents and replaced it on the table saying, “Sorry, honey. I know you need your beauty rest.”
She rubbed the spot where the glass had been sitting and added, “It’s okay, honey. Mrs. Mac is here. She’ll take care of you. It’s okay. Hey, let’s have another drink.”
The voice echoed through the woods from the bullhorn which Lieutenant Ken Fuller was holding in his hand. He was standing at the base of a statue and there were about fifty people crowded about him, plus two teams of hunting dogs and off to one side sat several snowmobiles.
The voice sounded hollow and some of the words were lost as it died on the wind but the purpose and most of the words were clear: “Mrs. Quaife and Mr. Harrison have asked me to express their thanks to you for coming out on such a cold night to help.” Fuller paused to get his breath and looked around. Mr. Harrison, erect, his face a mask, stood nearby while Mrs. Quaife sat some yards away in a squad car, looking straight ahead fearfully, fighting back her emotions.
Fuller continued through the bullhorn. “Now, Mrs. Quaife has told us that Janice would very likely have come through this park on her way home from school this afternoon, so the first thing we’re going to do is comb this park. We’ve got plenty of people, we’ve got dogs and we’ve got light.”
He looked out over the crowd to make sure that his words were being understood and then he went on, “I’d like everyone to spread out evenly across the south edge here of the park, stay close to one another but far enough apart so that we don’t miss any place, and we’ll walk through slowly. Check every clump, ever tree and bush, every pile of snow. Don’t hurry, keep up a steady pace but don’t get ahead or behind the people on either side of you. Is that clear?”
When there was a murmur of assent he added, “Don’t bunch up! The two dog teams will lead the way. Spread out behind them. Don’t get ahead or you’ll confuse them. Matt!” When an elderly policeman ambled forward Fuller said to him, “You and Carly and George go out on the flanks. Otherwise the fumes’ll mess up the dogs. Besides the snowmobiles will act as a boundary for us. Don’t go more than ten miles an hour or you won’t be any use.”
Chris stood beside Jess rubbing her back and shoulders to help warm her up. She was, she knew, shivering as much from fear as from the cold, but his hands would give her a feeling of security as well as warmth that she needed at the moment very much.
Jess smiled at him wanly and said, “I like your friend, Chris. He’s efficient but he’s decent, too.”
“Ken? Yeah, he’s very special. Ought to be something other than a cop. No, maybe we should have more cops like him, and fewer guys like Nash. Don’t worry, Jess.”
“Thanks. But I’m the one who should be telling that to you. How’s Mr. Harrison taking it?”
“He’s like a brick over there. But he’s pretty shook, you can tell.”
They were interrupted by Fuller’s voice once more. “Once we get to the other side, we’ll start working our way over to the college. Now, if anyone finds anything, send someone out right away to tell the others. Call out as loud as you can and get word back to me. All right? Let’s go.”
The snowmobiles fanned out as the dogs, let off their leashes, leaped off and the whole search party, reluctantly at first, then swiftly, surged forward with much shouting from the searchers and continual yelping from the dogs. The snow had stopped and the moon once more made its appearance.
On the other side of the park, on the college campus, the same moon silently silhouetted the sorority house on the hill. Finally the silence was broken by the crunch of footsteps in the new snow and a figure moved out of the shadows and squatted down against a tree, watching the house for a few seconds. He sighed, looked at his watch, rubbed his forehead thoughtfully and then Peter Smythe stood up, stared at the dark house for a few more minutes before he started to walk, the sound of his footsteps receding in the crisp snow.
Upstairs in the attic, Claude wandered through an array of trunks and boxes, occasionally looking up at the window through which the moonlight poured. Sitting in the rocking chair was a human form and Claude leaped onto its lap. The chair moved but the form didn’t, even when Claude purred and rubbed against Clare Harrison’s body lovingly. Her face stared out blankly through the piece of plastic as her body continued to rock.
Downstairs, unaware of Claude’s whereabouts, Mrs. MacHenry, dressed in a wool suit and matching hat, obviously ready for traveling, sat at a small desk in the living room sipping on a drink as she penned a note to the few girls who had not yet left the house for the Christmas vacation.
When she had finished she signed it with a flourish and then began to reread it to herself in a low mumbling monotone, standing and pacing the room and hall as she read.
“Dear girls. (Should have dotted that ‘i’, they’ll think I’m illiterate) Mrs. Mac is deeply sorry (Where’s that drink? Ah, there you are.) but she has to go away tonight. I know I am obligated to stay until all of you girls have left the house for the holidays, but (Christ, I’ve got lousy penmanship) I’m sure you will understand that this is the only time I could get a ticket to go for Christmas at my sister’s.
“I’m sure that Clare will show up. (Like hell I am.) Please say goodbye to Mr. Harrison for me. Merry Christmas to all of you.
“Love, Mrs. Mac.
“There, that ought to hold the little . . . Uh-oh.”
She went back to the desk and picked up the pen, adding a line which she read aloud as she wrote. “P.S. I still cannot find Claude. Could you keep an eye out for him? Mr. Reynolds said that he would feed him over the holidays.”
She waved the letter in the air a few times to dry the ink then took a piece of Scotch tape from a roll on the desk, folded the note and taped it to the front of the Christmas tree. Glancing at her watch she saw that it was late so she hurried out into the hall and rapidly climbed the stairs to her room on the second floor.
Above her, in the attic, a rasping voice prayed aloud with only the indifferent Claude and the no longer breathing Clare Harrison as audience.
“Oh, God! No! Please! Please, stop me! Please! I don’t want to do it. Won’t you stop me, please? I can’t help myself.”
There was an ominous silence and then the sound of a cat meowing. The person who had just spoken looked around but Claude was nowhere in sight and the hideously contorted face of the girl in the plastic bag watched mutely as his body heaved from its crouching position beside the bed.
The cab would be there any minute, she told herself as she bustled about the small bedroom adding last minute items to the second of two bags, the first of which was already closed and standing ready by the door. Scurrying from place to place she threw things helter-skelter into the bag while she kept one ear cocked for the sound of the doorbell which would mean that the taxi driver was waiting outside in the cold, no doubt impatiently stamping his foot.
Although he had not arrived she already anticipated his annoyance and said aloud, “Let him wait.”
Next to the open suitcase was the box that contained the nightgown the girls had given her as a Christmas present. She opened it and took out the negligee, holding it up in front of her. Then beginning to hum she waltzed to the mirror, spun around and bowed to her image in imitation of her once upon a time vaudeville act.
Remembering the hour she stopped as quickly as she started, tossed the negligee into the suitcase and hurriedly closed it. Just as she finished locking the snaps she heard the honking of a car horn from in front of the house.
She ran to the window, looked out and saw the taxi waiting there with no driver in sight. There was another call from the horn before she released the curtain.
“All right,” she said, “goddamn it, I hear you. Can’t even come to the front door? I’m supposed to carry these damn bags myself. What’s the world coming to. Jesus. Lazy bum, afraid of a little cold air?”
She picked up the bag from the bed, crossed the room, turned off the light, reached down and gathered up the other suitcase and went into the hall still muttering to herself about the poor quality of service as compared to when she was a young lady.
She was about to go down the stairs when she was stopped by a sound much softer and far closer than that of the taxi horn. Turning around she called out, “Claude!”
Then she put the two bags down, listened again before she yelled, “Where are you? Now you stop hiding like this!” Heading back down the hall away from the stairs to the main floor she felt herself getting angry for, no doubt, the driver had the meter already running.
“Goddamn it, Claude, you’re going to make me late and cost me a fortune!” She listened at Clare’s room, then Barbara’s, but there was no sound. “Come and say goodbye to Mamma, Claude. You little—!”
At the end of the hall were the stairs leading to the attic trapdoor and she stopped there, listening as the cat meowed from above.
“How the hell did you get up there?” she called.
Climbing the steps she pushed the trapdoor with her hand as the taxi driver started to honk his horn impatiently. Stopping she turned and yelled to the area below her, “Oh, shut up! You can wait.” Turning back she pushed harder saying softly, “Here, Claude.”
The door creaked eerily as she pushed it all the way open and climbed a few more steps so that her head was above the attic floor. Suddenly she shrieked and leaned down to look at where she had torn a stocking on a nail.