“Mom, I’m bored.”
At Joshua’s words, Ellen felt her back go rigid. She didn’t look up from the dishes she was washing. “What happened to the games I just bought you?”
“I’ve already played them at least a hundred times.”
She somehow doubted that, since they’d just come home with a bag full of new discs for his Xbox two days earlier. Trying to ignore the chill that traced its way down her spine, she said, “The TV? I know there have to be lots of channels you haven’t watched yet.”
Joshua circled around so that he stood next to her. Big brown eyes stared imploringly up into hers. “They’re boring.”
How she’d come to hate that word. It always signaled the beginning of the end.
“If you give me five minutes, I’ll be finished with these dishes. Then I can come into the living room and play a game with you.”
His nose wrinkled. “Don’t want to.” His gaze drifted past her to the window over the sink. Through it the white clapboard side of their neighbor’s house was visible.
An acid burn of nausea fought its way up her throat. Don’t, she thought. Don’t say it.
“I want to play with Bobby.”
Voice calm, she replied, “Honey, he’s not home from school yet.”
“But when he gets home.”
It wasn’t a question.
It always came to this. Ellen tried to choose places without other children nearby, but sometimes her careful planning just wasn’t enough. In Bobby’s case, he’d been off for his court-mandated two weeks with his father when she and Joshua had moved in next door. She found out too late that a boy her son’s age — eight — lived in the little white house which bordered hers.
No one asked why Joshua didn’t go to school. Parents homeschooled their kids all the time these days, a fact for which she was grateful. She’d already spent too much of her life running away from questions.
Although this dialogue had played itself out too many times before, she roused herself to make another protest. It wasn’t enough to keep the guilt at bay, but at least she could try to tell herself she’d done everything she could.
“Even when he gets home, I’m sure he’ll have homework to do.”
Joshua shook his head. Straight dark hair flopped across his brow, obscuring his eyes. “Huh-uh. I’ve seen him. He rides his bike down the path next to the stream.”
She wondered then how long Joshua had been watching, how long he’d been planning. Impossible to say. Her son never confided in her. Most of the time she thanked God for that small blessing.
“I’m going to take my bike down by the stream. That way I can meet him when he goes to ride his bike.”
Any delaying tactics were useless. She’d fed Joshua his lunch an hour ago. His lessons — such as they were — had been finished before noon. The only things she could say were the ones she knew she never would.
“All right,” she said, after a horrible pause. Her lunch felt as if it wanted to make a repeat appearance, but she swallowed it back down. She didn’t bother to add, Be careful.
Really, he’d be doing the world a huge favor if he fell and broke his neck on the narrow path that bordered the stream behind their property. But he had the devil’s own luck. Nothing so mundane would ever happen to him.
He smiled at her, and she smiled in return, even with the bile at the back of her throat, the twisting nausea that told her they weren’t long for this place. She had to smile. As long as she seemed happy and did everything to meet his needs, he left her alone. Why she cared any more about prolonging her existence, she wasn’t quite sure. She just knew she didn’t want to die quite yet.
Then he went out. The slam of the back door sounded like a gunshot.
Joshua kept his bike in the little gardening shed out in the backyard, the one that should have held potting soil and yard implements. Ellen had no interest in such things, although she thought she remembered liking flowers, once upon a time, before her son had been born. Now the gardening shed held nothing but a lone shovel and Joshua’s bike.
The nausea subsided a bit, replaced by a nervous fluttering of her heart beneath her ribcage. On an impulse, she went to the back door and opened it. There went Joshua, hair flying in the wind, legs pumping at the bike’s pedals. A stray shaft of sunlight through the trees brought a spark of red to his dark hair. Ellen closed her eyes.
How long did she have? A few hours at most. It was almost two now, and she didn’t think school got out until around three. But you could never trust a school not to have a minimum day for one reason or another. As usual, she would have to work fast.
She left the kitchen and crossed through the combination living room/dining room. The design there was Japanese and spare — a table with two chairs, a futon facing a low coffee table. A TV on an equally low cabinet that held Joshua’s games and DVDs.
The aesthetic wasn’t one she particularly cared for. If she’d been able to indulge her own tastes, her home would have been decorated with overstuffed furniture and well-worn antiques with a collection of bric-a-brac to reflect her interests and her travels. But she hadn’t taken a vacation since her son was born. The furniture she had now was cheap, easily left behind, something that could be replaced almost anywhere.
Everything she cared to take with her would fit into the RV parked in the driveway. She owned no books; they were too heavy and difficult to move. Her own bedroom was equally sparse — another futon, a bedside table. No dresser. Her clothing only took up a quarter of the closet space.
She moved with the ease of long practice. Toiletries into the small train case her mother had given her years ago. Clothing in the trunk that sat at the foot of her bed.
Joshua’s room took more time, since he had toys and books and CDs and all the other flotsam and jetsam an eight-year-old boy tended to generate. More, probably, since she spent a small fortune on anything she could think of to keep him occupied. But she had a series of clear plastic storage containers kept aside for just this purpose, and everything went into those.
Their next destination had been chosen almost as soon as they’d moved into this house. She didn’t have a new home picked out, but that was partly why she had bought the RV. They could stay in it for a few days while she located their next place to live. Luckily, Joshua had always found the stays in the RV to be something of an adventure. It was a challenge to find an RV park that didn’t have a lot of children in it, but so far she’d been lucky. Of course, it helped that many of their moves took place during the school year, when the sort of vacation parks she chose tended to be populated by retirees.
She glanced at her watch. Three-thirty. Was it soon enough? Or should she wait another half hour, just to be sure?
By now it had happened enough times that she had a fairly good idea of how much time would elapse before — well, before she needed to check on things. Still, she didn’t know exactly what time Bobby had taken his bike and headed down to the stream.
If she’d had anything left of herself, she would have gone next door. She would have waited and told Bobby he shouldn’t go riding today, that he needed to stay home and make sure he was never, ever alone with Joshua. She didn’t, though. Once, long ago, he’d given her a taste of what he gave them. Just a taste. It was enough to haunt her nightmares for years afterward. Enough to make her vow that she would do anything to never repeat that experience.
Three forty-five. She couldn’t wait any longer.
The air outside felt cool and mild against her face, the scent of grass and drifting leaves heavy as memory. Beams of sunlight picked their way through the trees. Once she’d played in a wood like this, built castles of air and dreams of dust motes. Even then she’d known they couldn’t last.
Joshua met her on the narrow path. His cheeks were flushed, and his eyes caught golden sparkles in the late afternoon sun.
Her heart constricted. I could reach out, she thought. If I caught him off-guard, I could push him over the side of the path. It’s steep and rocky. He could bash his head against that outcropping I see there, or break his neck in the fall.
But she didn’t. She couldn’t be sure that such a desperate attempt would even work, and then he would know she didn’t love him. At least he couldn’t read minds. Thank God for that, or she would have been dead a hundred times by now.
“Did you see Bobby?” she asked, even as she hoped that maybe today the neighbor boy hadn’t ridden down to the stream. Maybe he’d had a dentist appointment, or a soccer game.
“Yeah,” said Joshua, and grinned. “We rode bikes and threw rocks in the stream. I tried to hit a frog, but I missed.” His gaze moved to the shovel she held, but the grin never faded. “Moving day?”
“That’s right,” she replied, and forced a smile. “I was thinking we could go to Oregon next. You want to see redwoods?”
“Huge trees, so tall it looks like their tops touch the clouds. And we’d be by the ocean.”
Joshua looked almost wistful. “I want to see the ocean.”
The grin returned. “Awesome!”
“Just give me a few minutes, OK? Can you watch TV for a little bit until I get home?”
Now that he’d had his way, Joshua was far more tractable. “Sure. Can I have some cookies, too?”
“Absolutely.” Her son’s metabolism had always been freakishly fast; a few cookies weren’t going to make a bit of difference.
He sprinted past her, up the path back toward the house. Ellen grasped the shovel more tightly and headed down to the streambed.
It didn’t take her long to find Bobby’s body. The red shirt he wore was a bright splotch against the gray pebbles that lined the stream on either side. Overhead a crow cawed, and she flinched. The carrion-eaters were already circling.
She wished she didn’t have to turn over the boy’s limp form, but she knew she couldn’t leave him where he was. If the stream were faster and deeper, maybe she could have just thrown the body in and hoped for the best, but it was shallow enough she could have forded it without getting her knees wet.
As with all the others, Bobby’s face had sunken in on itself, looking like a waxwork that had begun to melt. The skin was a livid gray-yellow. His eyes bulged, staring up at the hard blue sky. There were no marks. No blood. Just something that used to be a boy.
Ellen bit her lip, bit it until the blood came. Then, tasting metal, she began to dig.