“Are you ready?” asked Travis. He was supposed to be dead, but he visited Nicole often, so he couldn’t be.
“No,” she replied. “I don’t think I’ll ever be ready.”
“Pussy,” said her mom from the chair in the corner. Her mother was in Chicago most of the time, hundreds of miles away, but somehow she managed to sit in that chair every night. Usually she only said one word at a time, and that word was usually something bad.
Nicole tried to ignore her mother, to focus on Travis. “I’m scared, okay? I am terrified. That just means I’m sane, it doesn’t mean I’m a…” She shot her mother a filthy glare. “I’m not a coward.”
“Of course you’re not,” Travis soothed. “You’re going to be a hero, when all is said and done.”
“Scaredy-puss,” taunted her mother from the corner, “useless bitch.”
“Mom,” Nicole cried, unable to stop herself. “You know I hate that language!”
Her mother looked her straight in the eye and said, “Fucking bitch.”
Nicole closed her eyes, trying not to cry. She heard her father, somewhere far away, sobbing. She kept her eyes closed, and stood. She could still see everything in the room in her mind’s eye, and she maneuvered herself closer to the sound of her father’s lamentations. She followed the cries into her bedroom, where they became so loud she could hardly stand it. “Dad,” she yelled over the noise of him. “Dad!” She grabbed the edge of her bedspread.
She opened her eyes. The room was empty, and the sounds of grief had vanished as though they had never been.
There was a duffel bag on the bed which contained a hammer, duct tape, rags and twine. There was also a bottle of chloroform which she had gotten from her meth dealer. He hadn’t had any advice about how to administer it, but she had seen it used before. Kenny Thomson, automotive salesman and kidnapper of children, had used it when he’d taken little Grace Beauregard. She had seen him hold the rag over her face.
She picked up the rags and chloroform and soaked each rag, one by one, so she’d be prepared.
She had tried to tell the police about the kidnapping, but they had just laughed and called her names. “Crazy schizo,” one of them had muttered. She had almost gotten herself locked up, but as usual her nephew Matteo had been there to help her. He was a good boy, newly-made detective. He had been skeptical of her story as well.
“Titi, you know that sometimes you see things that aren’t there,” he had said while driving her home from the station. She would have been embarrassed, but he had let her sit up front. Criminals never got to ride shotgun.
“I understand that sometimes you can’t see what I see, or hear what I hear. That doesn’t mean I don’t see the things I see, or hear the things I hear. It doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” Nicole said.
“But it does,” Matteo insisted. “It does mean that. That’s what schizophrenia is. Listen, you need to have someone looking after you now that Travis is gone. You know you can move to Chicago to stay with your mom, she keeps asking. You should say yes.”
“No,” Nicole said.
“NO,” she almost shouted. Her mother was smiling at her from the back seat; she could see her grin in the rearview.
The rest of the drive home was silent, except for her mother whispering obscenities in the back seat. Nicole knew Matteo couldn’t hear it, or wouldn’t. He dropped her off, hesitantly, and she knew he would have stayed if he hadn’t had to go back to work. He was so overprotective.
She had been seething with fury when she got home, and she’d thrown a punch at the wall and split the skin over three of her knuckles. She had a pair of black silk gloves which she’d been wearing since then, to hide the injury. Matteo hadn’t said anything about them.
Nicole shook herself out of reverie and picked up the duffel bag. She was dressed in black and had a black beanie on, with her long greying brown hair tucked up into it. Her glasses kept sliding down her nose; she was sweating from head to foot. It was 40 degrees out, and barely 60 in the house, but she was full of nerves and fear. She had never done anything like this before. But every time she thought she’d lose her nerve, all she had to do was picture Grace’s wide, terrified eyes over the cloth Kenny had held over her face.
Those eyes had met hers, as she rode home in an Uber, driving by the back of the local Methodist church. She had screamed at the driver to stop, but he’d driven a couple of blocks, arguing with her for a moment before cursing at her and stopping. By the time she had run back to the church there was no sign of Kenny or his white F150. No sign of little Grace.
It had been six weeks since then, and she had seen him stalking other young children, though she hadn’t personally witnessed him taking anyone else.
He had to be stopped.
She slung the bag over her shoulder, paused, then reached into the bag for the hammer and holstered it in her belt. She hoped she wouldn’t need it.
She hoped Kenny didn’t carry a gun.
“You can’t let thoughts like that stop you,” Travis said. “Those kids need you. They’ve got no one else.”
“No one else,” she breathed. She laid a hand on the head of the hammer, let it comfort her. “I can do this.”
“Pussycunt,” her mother called from her chair in the corner of her living room.
“Shut up, ma,” she called, her ire rising. It galvanized her will, and she marched down the hall to the front door with resolve. The doorknob was breathing in time with her, and the sound of her pounding heart filled the house. She squeezed her eyes closed, grabbed the knob and twisted it.
It opened as a door normally opened, but she could feel the pulse of the house under her hand. The knob was hot and fleshy, alive.
She released the knob and wiped her clammy hand on her black jeans, then marched out into the night without even closing the door.
It was six blocks to Kenny’s house. Nicole was not a sure-footed lady, but the moon was full and talkative. Its light guided her through the back streets and paths between houses, all the while fretting and confiding in her all the secret things it was seeing from the heavens. She tuned it out as well as she could, knowing there was nothing she could do about all the atrocities going on all over the world. There was only one she could do anything about, and she was on her way. She told this to the moon, but it didn’t listen, just continued its laundry list of horrors.
A police SUV pulled up next to her as she walked and turned its lights on, startling her. “Aunt Nicky!” Matteo’s voice came over his loudspeaker, alerting everyone who might be near to her presence. “Stop what you’re doing, now!”
Nicole ran to the driver’s side window, sneaking a rag into her hand from the open duffel. She made shushing motions at him and indicated he should roll his window down.
He complied. “Auntie, I knew something was wrong with you when we spoke earlier. You look like a burglar. I don’t know what you’re planning, but it has to stop no—”
Nicole shoved the rag over his face, grabbing the back of his head so that she could push harder against his face. He was strong, but he’d been startled, and he’d taken a big inhale of the chemicals. The sweet disinfectant smell hit her nose and she held her breath, just in case.
Even weakened, it took an unsettlingly long time for Matteo to pass out, and he fought her the whole time. Her adrenaline was up, though, and she managed somehow. After he had slumped over the steering wheel she almost panicked, thinking he might be dead.
“You don’t have time to check his pulse,” Travis insisted. She turned to look at him. His face looked like a demon, but she knew that was just a trick. Travis was the best man she’d ever known. “Think of the kids! You have to hurry. When he wakes up he’s going to call for backup.”
Travis had never steered her wrong. She stuffed the rag back in her bag, nose filled with the smell, and she began to run toward Kenny’s house.
The lights in the house were off. She snuck through the gate into the backyard and skirted the pool, aiming for the glass sliding doors. She tried them; they were locked. She moved along the back of the house to the kitchen window, which was above a sink.
It was open.
She pushed it open as far as it could go, which was just about enough for a slender woman like Nicky to slide through. She pushed the duffel through first, freezing when it dropped off the counter and onto the floor. She waited, but all she could hear was the moon.
The window squeaked as she hauled herself through it, causing her to freeze again. This time, she heard movement in the house’s depths. She hurriedly yanked herself through the window, knocking a dish out of the sink and onto the floor. It didn’t break, but the clamor of it was very loud. She squeezed her eyes shut as she heard a door open, gave herself a last shove and fell off the counter herself with a loud thud. The wind was knocked out of her, and she was gasping on the floor when the kitchen light came on.
She stood, wild-eyed, panicking.
“You!” Kenny said, lowering the baseball bat he’d been holding. An iron key was hanging around his neck on a chain, over his white t-shirt. He tucked it in his collar reflexively, though she could still see its dark outline against his chest. “You’re that crazy lady who talks to herself all the time. What are you doing in my house?” he asked. He turned abruptly on his heel. “Never mind. I’m too tired for this. I’m calling 911.”
Without even thinking about it, she grabbed the hammer from her belt, ran up behind Kenny and hit him on the head with it as he was turning back to her.
He stumbled, eyes wide. “Wha—” He reached up to his head, and his hand came away bloody. “What are you doing?”
She hit him again, then remembered the chloroform and reached for a rag with her left hand.
“Sh…shtop,” he slurred, one pupil dilating.
She shoved the rag over his face and tried to guide him gently to the floor. He spasmed a little and some blood dripped out of his right ear. He barely struggled.
When he was out, Nicole stepped over him and raced from room to room, flinging open closets, looking under the bed and behind the sofa, trying to check every possible place that he might have stashed a child. “Grace,” she called. “Grace!”
“He knew you were coming,” said her mother, from a chair in the corner of the living room. “You failed. You’ll never find the child now.”
Nicole went through the house again and again, crying and feeling more hopeless than she’d ever felt. How could she have blown this so badly?
As she walked by Kenny she noticed that there was a pool of blood rapidly spreading over the kitchen floor. She hoped she hadn’t killed him. She didn’t want that on her conscience. Especially now that she hadn’t even been able to save poor Gracie.
The voice of the moon came in through the kitchen window. “He keeps them outside, come outside, come outside…”
Nicole walked over to the sliding door and opened it onto the big backyard. She looked around, but couldn’t see anything except piles of fall leaves. But…maybe Grace was hidden in one of the piles? They were big enough to conceal the body of a child. She hoped it wasn’t so, but…
She tore across the lawn and plunged her hands into the first pile. She disturbed a rat with a human face, which scurried away as it hurled obscenities at her, but nothing else. She tore through the next pile. Nothing.
She scattered the leaves from each pile and found nothing.
Until the last one. There was a well-made trap door under the last. It was locked and very sturdy.
Nicole ran back into the kitchen. The blood had stopped spreading, which she hoped meant it had clotted and not that his heart had stopped pumping, but she paid it little heed. She plunged her fingers under Kenny’s neckline and pulled out the key. She thought it must certainly fit the lock on the trap door.
She heard police sirens in the distance. She yanked the chain over his head, getting her gloved fingers bloody in the process. The metallic smell of Kenny’s blood mixed with the sweet chloroform made her gag.
“Hurry,” the moon whispered in her ear.
She stood, almost slipping in the blood, and raced back out the door. Her hands shook as she tried to unlock the cellar trap door. The sirens were getting louder. The shaking was so bad that she didn’t think she was going to be able to get the door unlocked before she was interrupted, and she knew if she was interrupted Grace would certainly die. Travis and the moon were both telling her so.
Finally she unlocked the door, and descended into darkness on the sturdy wooden ladder attached to the cellar wall. It was dark and she hadn’t thought to bring a flashlight. “Grace?” she called. “Grace!”
She heard muffled voices in the dark, and stumbled toward them.
“Grace!” she called, and a demon leapt out of the darkness at her, its eyes and mouth like burning coals. It laughed and held up a glowing straight razor. “Grace!!” she screamed, and reached for her hammer. She had dropped it somewhere. She had dropped the duffel as well. She had nothing to defend herself with.
The demons laughed, holding up their razors, and circled her, cutting her arms, and her face, and her belly. Blood poured out over her clothes. She screamed and screamed, hearing sobs all around her. She collapsed to the ground, rolling up into the fetal position.
She slowly opened her eyes. There were flashlights lighting the room, banishing the shadows and the demons. Matteo was kneeling in front of her, light red burns adorning his nose and mouth. He was looking at her with heartbreaking concern.
She jerked up, and looked at herself. Her wounds had magically healed. She thought the moon was probably responsible. “The child…” she managed.
“We have them, Aunt Nicky. I don’t know how you knew, but we found them. They’re going to be alright.” He waved toward the trap door, where officers were handing a small brown child up the ladder. He was wailing.
“We had to peel off layers of duct tape from their wrists, ankles and faces,” Matteo told her. “You were out like a light. They were noisy as anything, poor kids.”
“Gr…Grace?” she asked.
“There were only boys,” he said. “I told you, I checked on Grace for you when you reported this the first time. She was never kidnapped. She’s fine. I don’t know how you figured this out, but I’m glad you did. Those kids…” He sighed. “They’ve been abused and malnourished for who knows how long. I suspect they might be orphans, because no one has come looking for five missing boys, that I know of.”
“Five,” she said, breathing harshly.
“You hurt Kenny but good,” Matteo said, and there was an undercurrent of admiration in his voice. “He’ll live, but his brain might be damaged. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you don’t get any time for this. Probation maybe. It helps that you’re a hero who saved a bunch of kids.” He eyed her sidelong. "But don't think this gets you off the hook with me. I mean, you chloroformed a police detective. We have to get you under control again. Have you done meth today?"
Matteo sighed. “I’ll take you to visit her tomorrow, if her parents agree. She’s just fine, Aunt Nicky. Just fine.” He reached out and took Nicole in his arms, and she realized she was crying. “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. How could I?”
Nicole closed her eyes as she allowed relief to sink through her alarm.
“Twat,” said her mother from the corner.
“Shut up, ma,” she said, and relaxed into her nephew’s arms.