I made my way down the trail through the pinewoods toward the house. Sophie was on my shoulders, her legs tucked under my arms, her arms around my neck, one small hand clutching a droopy bouquet, strangled in her sweaty grip.
“So it was a good day,” I said. “We picked flowers.”
“Yes. And we found arrowheads—”
“—the Indian kids lost them,” Sophie said, whispering into my ear.
“Right. The Indian kids lost them. And we had a picnic at the swimming spot and you went swimming—”
“And we had a nap,” she said.
“Right. We went to sleep in the mossy spot.”
“A bug, he crawled on me.”
“But he didn’t hurt you,” I said.
“No, Daddy,” Sophie said. “He was a nice bug.”
Down the path we went, Sophie’s face brushing against mine as she leaned forward while we passed under low-hanging branches. I could smell her fresh Sophie smell, feel her soft-smooth skin. I bent under the branch of an old maple, craggy and dying, dating to when Prosperity, Maine was all farms, these woods were pasture, and this maple was spared the axe. Its roots had come to the surface, as if the old tree was trying to get up and move, sick of the same old place after a hundred years.
I stumbled, Sophie hung on, and after a few more lurching steps, we emerged from the shadows of the woods into tall grass, then onto a broad swath of lawn. Beyond the lawn was the Varneys’ big, shingled barn. A door swung open.
Sophie slipped her leg over my shoulder, her legs pumping as I lowered her to the ground.
“Clair,” she said, running on her little sandaled feet. “We were in the forest.”
Clair held his arms out and she hit them at full stride. He swung her up and around and she was chattering now, about the Indians and the bug, then she was down again, racing back to me as I crossed the lawn, saying, “I need the arrows. Clair needs to see.”
I took three stones from my shorts pocket. Sophie took them and ran back, held them out. Clair bent down, his head of white hair close to her dark curls, his big, tanned hand picked up one stone and turned it.
“Whoa, Pumpkin,” he said. “Where were the Indians?”
“They left,” Sophie said, jumping up and down on one foot, then the other. “They left a long time ago.”
Clair looked up at me and smiled.
“I know where there’s some dinosaur bones out there,” he said, picking her up and holding her so she sat on his bicep, just above his Semper Fi tattoo.
“Wow,” Sophie said. “Can we go get them?”
Then two chickens came around the corner of the barn and she squirmed to the ground, following them and clucking as they fled back toward the coop.
“A lesser paleontologist might mistake them for moose bones,” Clair said.
“Or pointed rocks,” I said.
“Good thing we know what we’re doing.”
“A very good thing.”
“She’s gonna be in trouble if she ever needs to know about video games,” Clair said.
The chickens came back around the end of the barn, heads bobbing. Sophie was behind them, saying, “Peckety peck,” bobbing her head, too.
“You want to come in? Mary’ll make us some lemonade,” Clair said.
“Sure,” I said. “We worked up a thirst, didn’t we, Soph?”
Walking along the gravel path that led from the barn, we started for the house. We were by the back door, closer to the road, when we heard a familiar sound: Roxanne’s Subaru approaching. The car flashed past, headed for home, leaving a billow of dust in its wake.
“Mommy’s home,” Sophie said.
“Yeah,” I said. “And she’s early.”
Clair and I exchanged glances. I said we’d take a raincheck on the lemonade, go see Roxanne. Sophie was already trotting down the drive, and I followed, caught up with her, swung her into my arms and hurried out to the dirt road.
It was five hundred yards to the house, and when we walked up the drive, Roxanne’s Subaru was parked by my truck. We went inside and as soon as I put Sophie down she dashed for the kitchen, and I heard Roxanne say, “Sweetie.” When I came into the room she was holding Sophie in her arms and the wilted bouquet as Sophie briefed her on our day.
“Indians,” Roxanne said. “Really. Did you see them?”
Sophie said no, slipped down, and said she had to put her arrowheads in a secret spot. She ran out of the kitchen and we heard her shoes slap on the stairs. I walked over to Roxanne, gave her a squeeze and a kiss. Behind her on the counter, there was a bottle of white wine already out of the refrigerator.
“Three o’clock,” I said. “They let you start the weekend early?
“I’d had enough.”
“Oh, yeah, it’s just—”
Roxanne closed her eyes. Swallowed hard. A tear showed at the corner of her eye like a tiny pearl.
“A crummy day,” she said.
“Why?” I said.
She paused. Sighed.
“We pulled these two little kids down in Appleton. People down the road found them rummaging for food in their trash cans. Thought it was raccoons.”
“Why is that so crappy?” Roxanne said, turning and uncorking the wine, pouring a glass. She took a quick sip. Swallowed.
“Kids didn’t want to come with us, of course. Skinny little things, dirty. Their teeth, oh my god.”
“Welts all over them. They said it was from ‘the belt.’ Parents live in this compound sort of place way out in the boonies. Filthy house. Dogs on chains you had to get by. Deputy had to Mace one of them. Inside there’s dishes covered with mold. Blankets over the windows, dark and stuffy and smelly. Mother was clearly an abuse victim, scared to death of the dad.”
“Was he screaming at you?”
“No, the deputies held him back, and then—”
Roxanne drank again. Her face was drained and gray, dark shadows under her eyes. She swallowed.
“And then what?”
“He’s going on, saying he’ll see us in court. Usual stuff. State won’t get away with this.”
Roxanne looked at me.
“And then he gets really quiet, he’s this tall skinny guy, going bald, really creepy pale blue eyes,.”
“Marilyn, she takes the younger one, a little boy, five-year-old. They go outside. I’m inside with the older one, he’s seven or eight.”
“Where are the cops?” I said.
“They’re right there but then the dogs—one of the chains pulled out or something and the dog attacks Marilyn in the yard and the deputies take off, their guns out and everything and Marilyn is screaming and the younger boy is yelling. Oh, God.”
Another sip. A quick breath. I’d rarely seen her this upset.
“So you’re alone with the boy.”
“And the parents. They clearly hate my guts, I mean really hate me.”
“Who are these people?”
“Harland and Cheree Wilton. With two E’s. But you don’t know that.”
“These things don’t usually bother you like this.”
“I know. I mean, they shouldn’t. But this wasn’t just normal angry. The guy especially, just staring so hard, and then out of nowhere he calls me a Jew bitch.”
“And then I’m headed for the door, I’ve got the boy by the shoulder and he isn’t saying a word. But the father gets close to me, he’s right behind me and the door won’t open, it’s this heavy wooden thing, and I was about to yell for help.”
“You should have.”
“And he’s right next to me, Jack. I can smell him. And he says, in this awful low voice, calm and slow. He says, ‘You’re dead. The power of Satan will destroy your body and soul.’ Those exact words. And then he lets out this awful bellow and raises his arms up, like he’s going to make lightning strike and he says, ‘Satan. I will do your bidding,’ or something, and then he’s ranting about filthy Christians and Jews, and oh, my God.”
I put my arm around her shoulders.
“It’s okay, honey,” I said. “He’s just some nut. You’ve seen hundreds of them.”
Roxanne closed her eyes.
“This one just shook me.”
“Sure, but it’s okay now.”
“Jack,” Roxanne said.
She looked at me, eyes wide open, tears welling in her lashes.
“I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“Alright,” I said.
“Baby, I just want to stay home.”
“Fine. Then you’ll stay home. I’ll pick up the pace on the freelancing, cut wood with Clair. We’ll be okay.”
I held her close, felt her sigh again and shudder. Then we heard Sophie come back down the stairs, one step at a time. We broke our embrace and Sophie ran into the kitchen, launched herself at Roxanne, who caught her, lifted her up and held her tightly. Sophie pushed herself back and looked at her mother.
“No being sad allowed, Mommy,” Sophie said.
“I’m not, honey,” Roxanne said.
“Where did you go today?”
“A place called Appleton.”
“Is the apple place far, far away?”
“No,” Roxanne said.
About ten miles from Prosperity, I thought, if you took the back ridge roads. Just the other side of Searsmont.
“Do you have to go there tomorrow?” Sophie said.
“No, honey,” Roxanne said. “I don’t.”
Twenty minutes, I thought. Shorter if they were in North Appleton.
“Why did the apple place make you sad?” Sophie asked.
Because some psycho devil worshipper scared the crap out of her, I thought.
I patted Sophie’s shoulder.
“Mommy just missed us,” I said.