The exasperated caretaker snapped her head around to glower at the antiquated intercom system. "What?!"
"You have a telephone call."
In the instant her eyes went off them, Two-head Fred and Ringo Rango began to argue loudly and unintelligibly once more, which considering the disposition of the former meant there were now three voices raised in cacophonous dissention. There was a variety of name-calling, finger-pointing, blame-shifting, and back-stabbing going on. None of this served to explain to the young woman's satisfaction just who had made the remark that was causing Big Baby to bawl and wail with such abandon that it was hardly possible to hear oneself think. To put it simply, she was not eager to add any more voices to this mix.
"I'm busy, Mr. Herriman!" she called out, and then turned back to the quartet of disgruntled friends. "Now everybody, eyes up here! I want you to calmly and quietly explain to…"
"MISS FRANCIS!" The pompous playmate's voice cracked like a whip. "By not answering the telephone, you are tying up the line! I insist that you perform this duty at once, or face the consequences!"
Teeth ground together, and a guttural snarl caused her nostrils to flare.
"Take a MESSAGE, RABBIT!"
Before she could once more seek to play negotiator, her imaginary taskmaster soldiered on in clipped tones. "The gentleman on the other end claims it is a matter of some urgency, and he has been tasked to speak specifically to you. No third parties were mentioned. Therefore, according to our very explicit and carefully-worded phone privilege addendum, you must…"
Frankie threw back her head and screamed. She then spun on one heel and stomped in the direction of the lobby. Her current crisis was apparently unwilling to lose the only uninvolved party they could lay their hands on, and proceeded to follow her closely. None of them let up in their attempts to explain their side of the story or voice their extreme displeasure at the state of events. Thus it was that the entire conflict threw open the doors of Mr. Herriman's office.
Seated at his desk, the primly-patterned potentate of their daily lives gave no sign of being discommoded by the argument or its uninvited intruders. Apparently the level of displeasure he was currently experiencing for his creator's granddaughter trumped all lesser irritations. His stiff upper lip was curled to reveal prodigious incisors, and the pink rabbit nose twitched in an admonishing fashion. Herriman held out the telephone in a manner that implied he had suffered terribly in holding it for this long, and the resultant lag in his schedule would need to be rectified by the lady in question.
A look of venomous animosity was his only answer. Eager to get back to what she had been doing (which was a sad testimonial to how their relationship worked), Frankie Foster planted one hand on the green inkblot adorning the desk, snatched up the receiver, and without taking her hostile glare from Herriman's flashing monocle, she spoke into it.
"Frankie Foster here. Who's this?"
"Miss Foster, thank G…"
"FRANKIE, HE DID IT AGAIN! MAKE HIM STOP!"
"I didn't do anything, and neither did I!"
"WAAAAHHHH! DON'T WAHHHHH-NA!"
"Guys, I'm on the phone here!" Her brow was knotted with half-a-dozen levels of irritation. Not helping this was the fact that the man on the line had not seemed to notice her difficulties and was still talking. She managed to pick out "security" and "top-notch", but the rest was buried under a tide of incoherent blubbering. "Seriously, cool it for just a minute, and then I can help you!"
"But I still haven't told you what happened next!"
"I was trying to make a paper-maché ball, and I was playing with the radio-controlled racecar, but the glue spilled, I got some on me while I managed to avoid it, and…"
Could it possibly get any worse, Frankie silently asked the heavens?
"Miss Francis, I must protest at this absolute lack of decorum! Trying to carry on a conversation both here and on the telephone is a serious breach of etiquette! I had thought you had been raised better than this, but clearly…"
Apparently it could.
Attempting to salvage some measure of control in this situation, she then sought to deal with three different things at once.
"I'm sorry, what were you saying… Guys, cut that out right now, this is not the place!… I don't care about that, just… No, not you, I do care about you, if you could wait just one minute… I am NOT going to have this conversation with you again!... Quit trying to bite each other, you share the same neck, for Pete's sake!... They do not take after me, if anything you're the one to blame for…Wait… wait, what did you…? Guys, pipe down, I'm trying to listen here!... Okay, now what did you just say?"
The man repeated himself.
And it was all she could do not to drop the phone.
Grabbing hold securely with both hands, Frankie clutched the receiver against her head. At seeing the look on her face, Mr. Herriman's officious proselytizing died out. He drew back with a start. Noticing their normally unflappable overseer's reaction, the other three imaginary friends let their altercation die out naturally.
In the ensuing silence, the words she spoke next carried a particular sense of menace.
"What do you MEAN, 'HE ESCAPED'??!!!"
In the space of a few hours, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends went into full emergency battle-mode.
A revolutionary new security system that had been installed following the events of last month was activated. Metal plates covered the windows, bars were flung up across all doors, and starving rats were unleashed into the ventilation system. Weapons and armor in the form of anything available at hand were swiftly distributed. They had all been training for the unthinkable, although every soul in the house had been praying it would never come to this. It had been their most fervent hope that the nightmare was over and done, its originator safely locked away in one of the most secure mental institutions in the entire American criminal-psychiatric spectrum.
But now, every shadow held unspecified dread. Each creak of a floorboard was met with gasps and small whimpers, and not a single article of food was consumed, due to a morbid fear about what might have gone into it.
Or rather, who might have gone into it.
It was Frankie's assigned duty to help distribute the weapons. For every one she handed out, the determined redhead also added a little bit of encouragement.
"It's okay, we're not going to let anything happen to you." A pot for the pink squirrel's head. "Remember, stay in pairs, stay in groups." The dish ran away with the spoon and fork. "If there's a knock at the door or a telephone call, come and get me." Heavy musical instruments for the band as they scuttled away. "Sorry, we're all out." The Cubist primadonna glared and stormed off muttering. "No, I wasn't serious, here, take the letter opener." The popsicle-stick Cyclops brandished his blade bravely and went striding off.
She drew a sleeve over her perspiring forehead. It felt cold in this normally happy house, despite the fact that it was well into spring by now. Almost as if a long, shadowy arm had reached in and ripped the heart out of this place, braised it, seasoned it, and served it up to them with a great big smile and a shake of its lopsided head.
We're not going to lose anybody else, Frankie promised herself grimly.
As she did, a scream sounded.
Panicked nerves, already frayed to the breaking point, suddenly snapped. More cries of terror echoed through the halls. Several people could be heard yelling out, "WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!" There was the sound of running feet, items being broken, battles being fought between who-knows-what.
None of this deterred their human protector. Frankie vaulted over the table, dashed out of the makeshift armory, and tore down the endless halls. That first cry had come from the direction of the library, she knew. Halfway there, it dawned on her that she had neglected to bring a weapon of her own. Maybe I don't really want to believe it, she thought. Not just that he would actually do anything to hurt us, but that we might actually have to hurt him. If I hadn't seen, felt… tasted what he's capable of now, I wouldn't even consider it. But it's clear that there's no sense wishing for the impossible. Whatever he might have been to us in the past, he's a threat to everyone here. And if necessary, I'm the one who's going to stop him for good and all.
At last her feet halted at the ornate portal leading into their reading area. Kicking it open, she flew inside, and skidded to a halt as Noteworth Bookingham wrapped himself around her leg, sobbing and scrambling up to reach her waiting arms.
"What?!" Frankie demanded, hugging the hysterical friend tight as she scanned the room, alert to any sign of trouble. "What is it, what did you see?"
Quivering and sobbing, Notey turned and looked off towards the window.
His guardian did the same. At first she couldn't see anything untoward.
Then it hit her.
Below the drapes hanging off to the left, there was a pair of large tennis shoes sticking out.
Slowly, Frankie bent down and placed the imaginary friend back on the floor. She shooed him out the door, where a small crowd of similar entities clustered in panicked fascination. None of them dared to enter that library with her. That was for the best. Maybe there was still a chance. Maybe she could still reason with him somehow. She had known him better than anyone. And even with clear damning evidence of what he had done, given time to think about it, there was some part of her that understood what could have driven him to such lengths. They had both been pretty darn annoying. Who's to say if given a few more years of having to put up with their crap, I might not have done the same thing?
Well, not exactly the same thing. That was pretty gut-wrenching, what he did to them. Even now, the thought left her stomach roiling with acid-filled nausea, and Frankie felt the urge to brush her teeth obsessively as she had for three days after the event.
So then. What next?
You know what, missy. You just have to do it.
Without another second of hesitation, she crossed the divide and stood before the lilac-colored draperies.
The shoes did not move. It hardly seemed possible that anybody could hide themselves behind such a narrow hank of bunched-up cloth. And perhaps for anyone else, it would have been. But he was an exception. A very, very, very slender exception. The asylum theorized that was partly what had helped him to facilitate his breakout. They simply hadn't designed the place with anyone of his dimensions in mind. Skinny as a pencil, tall as a giraffe, crazy as pedals on a wheelchair. NOBODY could have seen someone like him being incarcerated there.
No breeze rustled the curtains. Nothing came lunging out at her.
She stared at the oversized athletic shoes.
"Wait a second," Frankie muttered suspiciously.
With that, the daring damsel reached down and boldly grasped the strings.
She gave a tug.
Both pairs of shoes came up in her hand.
Frankie then reached over and threw back the drapes.
There was nothing behind them.
Slowly, she turned and held the offending footwear up for all to see.
They all got a good look at them.
Then everybody spun about and trained their eyes on one friend in particular. Multi-appendaged Captain Clopolopolis puffed on his bubble pipe. A gleam of understanding lit up his heavy-lidded eyes, and he glanced downwards. Of the dozens of legs he was sporting, two of them were missing their shoes. A flowered bowler hat bobbed as he raised his head to regard Frankie with a very sheepish look.
"Oops. Left a few by the window to dry after my last stint washing the floors. Must've just forgotten about those. Sorry."
He trundled in, took the pair away from a distinctly dire-looking lady, and then beat a hasty retreat, centipede limbs flying.
Frankie dropped into a plush leather armchair with a relieved groan. She remained in that position for about a minute, eyes closed. Upon hearing her name being spoken timidly, though, she opened them to find a small crowd of children's playmates hovering around her, some quite literally.
"Um, Frankie?" Billy the Squid mumbled. "Do you… really think he'll come back here?"
They were all looking for her to provide them with comfort. Fortunately, that was something the inheritor of her grandmother's dream had plenty of experience with.
"Guys, this is all just a precaution. Every law-enforcement agency in the state is looking for him by now. He'd have to be crazy to come back here, of all places!"
Bad choice of words. She could tell that immediately, judging by the anxious looks and tear-filled eyes that resulted. Now it was tiny little Peas who spoke up next, hopping onto her knee to make himself known.
"But what if he does come back to Foster's? Which of us do you think he'd be after this time? I've tried to think of anything I might have done to make him mad at me, but I can't…"
"Now listen, all of you." Frankie reached down and cupped the little pebble-pal in her hand, then stood up and fixed them all with an unflinching look. "You can't work yourselves up about this. There's no reason to think he'd even want to hurt any of you if he did come back. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but I think we all appreciate just how much of a torment living with Bloo and Cheese really was. They even drove the nicest person we've ever known into doing something none of us even considered at the worst of times! I honestly can't think of anybody here who could have been as obnoxiously aggravating as those two. You're all such wonderful friends! And this incident is not going to be the end of Foster's. We're going to continue doing what we've always done: try our best to make children happy. Am I right?"
Appealing to their natural instincts seemed to brighten the collective spirits of the group. They began to file out, now chattering good-naturedly among themselves. Their long-time nursemaid watched them go with an affectionate smile.
"I always liked him," Clumsy asserted before falling flat on his face.
"He was a really, really sweet person," Howie Dooya chimed in.
"It would have taken a real creep to make him do what he did. I should know." That was Foul Larry.
"Ummm-uh, if'n he did come back, who'd ya think he'd be after now?" Sloppy Moe wondered as he scratched himself idly.
"Maybe Duchess should be watching her back," Fuzzy Fred opined. "She's got to be the most aggravating friend left in the house, now that those two are gone."
"Yeah, you said it," Jackie Khones spoke up. "Lucky there's nobody else like them still around. Can you believe they both got dreamed up by the same guy?"
And behind them, Frankie froze.
Her eyes widened, and her blood ran cold.
The crowd of playmates was bowled over by her passing, crying out in confusion. In under a minute she had pelted down the stairs, grabbed her cell phone and car keys, and was tearing down the road in the Foster's bus, desperately dialing a number.
3:20 pm. It was just 3:20 pm right now. School had been out for twenty minutes already! Would he be at home yet? Was this all just a delusion of her fear-filled brain?!
It was almost too horrible to think, but what if he was now after…
It had taken her almost fifteen minutes to remember the location of Mac's new apartment. Tearing down the road at the speeds she was going, Frankie expected at any minute to be accosted by Officer Nina Valerosa and assessed the appropriate fine. Fortunately, the only cops on the road that day were the ones who routinely ignored the speed limit themselves. The first five minutes had also been spent frantically calling Mac's phone number, but every time, all she got was a recording of his mother asking to leave a message. And with each instance of hearing the other woman's voice, her dread increased ten-fold.
Finally a familiar sign let her know that she had found the right apartment complex. Frankie narrowly missed swiping a line of cars, scared a cat out of one of its nine lives, and wound up vaulting the bus over an embankment to settle perfectly in a double-parked stop.
She was out the door and up the stairs in three seconds flat. Racing along the walkway, counting numbers, looking out for signs of anything being wrong. And then…
There it was! Mac's new apartment!
Out of breath and almost her mind, the panicked heroine reached the door, and paused for a moment, her fist halfway to knocking. What am I about to find? A warm domestic scene? An empty block of rooms? A bloodbath?! She could almost see that eerie grin turning to regard her even now, a meat cleaver clenched in his one good hand and a blood-stained apron around his waist reading, 'Kiss the Cook'. Please, by all that's holy, don't let that have happened, he's a good sweet kid, he can't help it that his imaginary friends all come out rotten. Don't hurt him, 'cuz if you do, I'll…!
She couldn't take not knowing anymore. Frankie Foster reached out and rang the doorbell.
"Mac?" she called softly. "Is anybody home?"
And her heart quailed.
She could have cried.
When suddenly, from behind the door, there was the sound of movement.
A lock clicked, a handle turned, and in the next moment, Mac was staring up at her curiously.
The girl sobbed with relief, knelt and swiftly hugged him close to herself, giddy at having her premonitions proven false.
As for Mac, he was somewhat taken aback by his confidante's show of emotion. She seemed really happy to see him, like she hadn't been expecting him to be in his own home, which was funny considering that she was the person that it was weird to find here. Ever since Bloo left, they had been more open with his Mom about going over to Foster's to play, and Frankie and Madame Foster had even stopped by once to see the new place and introduce themselves. Since his own imaginary friend was no longer staying at the boarding house (off on the dumbest excuse for a world trip Mac had ever heard of), he no longer stopped by every single day after school. But not a week went by that he was not playing with the other imaginary friends on at least four afternoons. So he could find no reason for the friendly firebrand to act like she hadn't seen him in months.
Of course, all that was only occupying a small part of his thoughts. The rest was focusing on the fact that Frankie's hugging me!
Mac returned the gesture with a sigh, letting his small arms grip the older woman's body tightly. Whatever the reason for all this, he hoped it happened more often.
Eventually, Frankie drew away, still keeping hold of his shoulders. She looked radiant, and patted his cheek and hair, as if to make certain that he was all right.
Then she leaned in close, a deadly serious look on her face. "Are you all right?"
The boy blinked at her change of demeanor. "Um… yes?"
Dark chocolate eyes scanned the apartment intently. "Is there… anybody else here with you?"
"No." Mac shook his head. "It's just me."
Warily, Frankie darted her head over his left shoulder, then his right, and finally over his head, seeking out any tell-tale disturbance that might not register to his senses.
None of this was making any sense to her host, and while the close physical contact was still making his knees shake, the questions were starting to build up. First thing's first, though.
"Frankie, do you want to come inside?"
Her eyes continued to wander about slowly, meticulously.
"Yes… I think I would. Thank you, Mac."
She stood and walked in, all the while examining the floors and ceiling, peeking around corners warily. He shut the door and locked it securely as he had been taught, then trotted along after her. Frankie was seriously acting weirded out by something. A thought occurred to him then.
"Have you heard anything from Bloo?"
"What?" she turned to look at him, then gave a quick shake of her head. "No. Nothing from Bloo, he's still… gone away. You know how Bloo is."
"Oh." The child pondered this information thoughtfully, then lifted his head again. "What about Wilt?"
The shout made him jump, and in the next instant Frankie was down on her knees facing him, hands gripping his shoulders once again. Her expression was vacillating between panic and heartfelt concern. "You haven't heard from him, have you? Wilt, I mean. Has he tried to contact you ever in the last month?"
"No." He had no idea she was so concerned about Wilt. Of the two missing members of Foster's household, he would have thought the gangly red basketball prodigy was far less likely to be in any serious trouble. Then again, he was with Bloo. Trouble followed him like a magnet. "Was he supposed to call or something and didn't?"
She stood back up, attention once more roving about his living quarters. "I just like to know where he is at all times, that's all."
"Gee, Frankie, I never knew you were so worried about Wilt."
"He's not the one I'm worried about," she replied.
Probably talking about Bloo, Mac figured. And he could certainly relate to that. While having his old buddy take off out of the blue like that had been worrying at first, Mac had quickly decided that things would work out in the end. Whatever the pairing of Red and Azūl were doing, at least they were together, and were probably watching each others' backs. Thinking this allowed him to continue with his own life.
"Do you want to sit down, Frankie? I could get you something to drink or eat."
"Uhhh." The tall twenty-something began to slowly swing her arms back and forth. "Yeah. That sounds… good. And Mac…!" she called out after him as he scurried eagerly off, an unpleasant thought occurring to her. "No juice, okay?"
Watching the loveable kid go bounding towards the kitchen, a feeling of maternal instinct swept over her. She wanted more than anything to protect this innocent soul, from all the travails that life might throw in his path. Unfortunately, the most immediate threat to his security was one she was partly responsible for. There was no telling what Wilt's intentions might be, but even being away from Foster's for this long was causing her to be anxious for a different reason. What if something happened while she was out? Had she actually told anyone where she was going? At the time, Mac's safety had been the only thing on her mind. To find him hale, hearty, and uncooked was the greatest gift she could have asked for, but still, there were others who might be the target of the red devil's demented ire.
Frankie made herself a seat on the sofa in the living room, taking the time beforehand to check beneath it and behind the curtains of the window too. She felt silly when nothing threatening presented itself, but better to be safe than sorry.
A minute later, Mac came bustling back into the room. He deposited a tray of ginger and lemon cookies and two tall glasses of soda with plenty of ice on the coffee table. That last she was truly grateful for. It was hot outside, and all the anxiety and exertion had combined to make her throat parched. "Thanks a bunch, Mac. I really needed this."
"You're welcome, Frankie." They both helped themselves to the snacks and sat together for a while, munching and sipping peacefully, though the boy noticed that his friend's eyes still strayed around the room, like she was looking for something. Curious himself, Mac did the same.
And when he spotted something that was out of the ordinary, he mentioned it.
"Hey. How did that get here?"
"What?" Surprised, she turned to see what he was talking about.
Mac pointed, and there, on the coffee table, next to some glass sculptures…
There was a bottle of barbecue sauce.
Frankie stared at it.
Nothing remarkable about that.
So why had a chill stolen over her?
When the bushy-haired elementary student reached for the offending article, she quickly stopped him with a hand on his arm. Mac gazed at her questioningly, and Frankie forced herself to smile charmingly.
"Here, let me put that away for you. You've been such a good host, I'd like to pay you back. Just…" And she grabbed the bottle, standing up. "Wait right here, okay?"
Mac blinked uncomprehendingly. "Sure. Whatever you say."
"I'll be right back."
Then Frankie Foster braced herself, and turned her steps towards the kitchen.
The bottle of barbecue sauce was nothing remarkable, a common store-brand item that held no particular peril. She opened the top and sniffed it, but there was nothing unusual about its scent. Still, anything out of the ordinary…
At last her steps brought her into the immaculate food preparation area. A giant black refrigerator dominated the locale, along with a self-cleaning oven, dozens of cupboards and shelves, racks loaded with spices and cookbooks, and enough pots and pans hanging from hooks to provide for an army. There was not so much as a crumb to be found on the floor. Oddly enough, Frankie had a feeling that Mac was responsible for this cleanliness. He was so eager to please at Foster's when it came to helping her, no doubt the same sentiment travelled over to his own family.
But now was no time for introspection. All her instincts told her that the first place to look was the looming cooling fixture. Crossing to the mighty monolith, she grasped a door handle and pulled it open, unconsciously raising the barbecue sauce against anything that she might find there.
If she had been expecting to be confronted with something resembling the memorable dishes from 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom', Frankie was disappointed. There was nothing out of the ordinary to be found in these well-stocked environs. Fruits and vegetables were placed in their correspondingly labeled bins, and on the shelves above them could be found orange juice, soda, soy milk, blocks of tofu, juice boxes, and several different kinds of yogurt. A few covered dishes were revealed to have leftovers of lasagna and pasta salad, while some Tupperware pieces held half-eaten sandwiches or the odd food item that must have come from a restaurant. A big bowl of mixed greens caught her eye for a moment, but nothing more. The side pockets had all the things you would expect, ranging from margarine to ketchup, mustard to pickles and yeast, mixed in with black olives, bags of dried figs and apricots. Everything seemed to have been here for more than a day, and they certainly did not jump out at her as being particularly sinister.
Closing the refrigerator, she then opened the freezer door. The interior was filled with wax-wrapped meat market packages. Opening one suspiciously, she found it to be only spareribs, while another yielded hamburger meat, and even flank steak. The one marked 'head cheese' she knew from experience to avoid. One man's healthy was another man's vomit-inducing. Underneath all this she encountered several frozen dinners, some bags of blueberries, a vegetarian frozen pizza, and six different kinds of frozen yogurt.
Frankie closed the door, tapping the bottle thoughtfully against her chin. Noticing it again, she reopened the refrigerator and placed it next to a half-empty bottle of horseradish sauce. After this, she made a quick perusal of the cupboards. Cereal, bowls and plates, snacks (sugar-free, of course), and some fancy dinnerware. There was absolutely nothing out of place that she could see.
Realizing that she was taking too long in performing such a simple task, the earnest investigator then quickly returned to the living room, where Mac was waiting for her.
"That's an amazing kitchen you've got there, Mac," she said by way of explanation. "I was thinking you could probably whip up enough food to feed all of Foster's, at least for a day."
She flopped back down beside him, and her tiny admirer smiled, pleased at having his home complimented so highly. "I help clean up. That's my job after Mom makes dinner. I make sure everything goes back where it belongs."
"Ah," Frankie mused as she sipped her beverage again. "So that's how you noticed the barbecue sauce was out of place."
"I didn't know we had barbecue sauce at all," Mac explained, helping himself to another handful of cookies. He popped them into his mouth, then held out the plate for Frankie, only to find her staring at him strangely. She blinked and accepted his offer hesitantly, a questioning look on her face now.
"Why wouldn't you have barbecue sauce?"
"Oh," he swallowed, "I forgot to tell you. My Mom decided to go Vegan about two weeks ago. She said that red meat, eggs and butter weren't healthy for us, and that it was probably the cause for my big brother Terrence having so much 'unproductive hostility'. That's what she and the counselors call it, anyways. I just say he's a brainless lying bully who likes to hurt people when nobody's looking. So we haven't had any meat in the house this month."
He went back to sipping his drink.
In the meantime, Frankie's mouth had gone dry.
Not noticing her reaction to his statement, Mac stopped and gazed thoughtfully out the window. "Come to think of it, where is Terrence? There was a message on the answering machine from his school about how he didn't show up to class today. Probably playing hooky again, but even then, he's always here whenever I get back from school. He's supposed to watch me until Mom gets back from work. If you can call wet willies and Indian burns being watched."
On the wall, a Bavarian wooden clock chimed the hour, and a small red bird flipped out of it, shouting, 'Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!'
Beside him, Frankie set her glass down and stood up.
"Mac," she said very softly, "I think you'd better come with me."
"Huh?" he gazed up at her, surprised. "You're leaving already?"
"Yes. And you are too."
Her eyes were very bright, and he thought he caught a faint tremor in her tone. He didn't understand. Was something wrong? "Are we going to Foster's? I need to get my backpack and homework. We've got a test on Friday."
"Okay, but hurry."
He dropped off the couch and raced to his room. Frankie followed and watched him from the doorframe. Her posture was tense, but she was trying to hide it. Every shadow and sharp turn held the possibility for unspeakable horror once more.
"Mac, why don't you pack a change of clothes and your toothbrush too?" When he looked at her strangely, Frankie hid her concern with a smile. "Coco's staging a mudpie contest later today, and you're bound to get dirty. Plus I'm trying out a new recipe. It's Korean, and I don't know if you'll like it. Wouldn't want to have that taste in your mouth all afternoon, right?"
Apparently these explanations and his trust in her were sufficient, for Mac proceeded to follow her suggestions. The second he was ready, Frankie took him by the hand and led the way out of the apartment. In spite of her strange behavior, the affectionate lad couldn't help but be secretly thrilled at getting to hold hands with his secret crush like this. And he was going to see all of his friends at Foster's too. An afternoon without Terrence abusing him, combined with mudpies and taking a stroll with the beautiful Frankie Foster?
This must be what some people call heaven.
By eight o'clock, the authorities had been notified and the contents of Mac's freezer were removed and examined. Since his brother had a record as a juvenile offender, it didn't take long for their suspicions to be confirmed. A blood sample came back positive, and mixed in with the plethora of meats were strands of black hair. DNA testing would confirm it, but as far as Frankie was concerned, there was no need for further confirmation. She knew what those white-wrapped packages contained.
Or rather, whom.
Thanks to the dedicated efforts of the house residents, goaded along by a very stern and somewhat menacing appeal from Frankie, Mac was so thoroughly entertained and completely exhausted by the resultant playtime that he conked out before 7 pm, and was now sleeping peacefully in her grandmother's room. Madame Foster had gone to collaborate with the police, offering them her vast experience with imaginary friends' thought processes and even an accurate description of the suspect. "Gonna set the dogs loose on 'im!" she proclaimed with a cackle, and left with several imaginary puppies yapping at her heels, causing Mr. Herriman to lock himself in his room and refuse to come out.
The police had agreed not to release details about the crime, but still, it had taken some persuading to ask them to refrain from specifically providing a description of the suspect to the media. Knowing how hard it was to keep a secret, Frankie understood that eventually word of this would get out. But hopefully by then, she would have come up with a plan to keep Mac from ever learning the truth.
She was in the office, looking at brochures for military camps and bad-behavior institutes that could offer a valid explanation to the little boy for where his disreputable older sibling might have disappeared to, when the phone rang. Since the police had informed her that they would call with any new information, she reached for it without thinking. "Hello?"
She nearly screamed.
That familiar voice, vibrant and buoyed up by good spirits. One could almost see the gigantic grin stretching across his wide features, one eye gleaming cheerfully, the other rattling around on its twisted stalk.
It left her chilled.
"Frankie?! You still there?!"
Bringing herself roughly back to reality, the distraught housekeeper clamped both hands around the phone to keep it from shaking. When she finally managed to speak, her voice sounded weak and whispery to her ears.
The connection seemed weak, scratchy and faint. There was some kind of hubbub in the background, almost like a restaurant. Nothing else could be clearly distinguished.
"It's great to hear your voice again!" Wilt went on, clearly not recognizing any distress on her part. "I miss everybody so much, but you especially! The whole time I was away, I was hoping that you would come to see me, or call at least! It was kind of a disappointment when you didn't! I would have appreciated the company!"
Her heart was booming in her chest, and her feet had gone terribly cold. Still, Frankie mustered the courage to continue this chillingly macabre conversation. "I'm sorry, I couldn't… I was scared to… Wilt, where are you right now?"
"Somewhere far away! I'm sorry, but I don't think we'll be seeing each other for awhile, Frankie! That's just the way the ball bounces!"
"How's Mac doing?!"
Anger came to the fore then, pushing past the terror. "How could you ask me that?! Do you know what you've done??"
"I took away the thing that made him need to create imaginary friends to protect himself!" Happy and confident. Not a trace of remorse. "It came to me while I was away! I had only been dealing with the symptoms of the problem, not the root cause! Nobody else seemed to be doing anything to stop what was going on! Not his Mom, not the school, and not the police! But things'll be better now, for all of you!"
Amazement caused her mouth to hang open. When you put it that way, it almost made se…
NO! This was wrong! It had to be, right?! This couldn't possibly be the right way to deal with things in life!
She forced herself to say it. "Wilt, listen to me. You have to turn yourself in. I promise to help you however I can, if you'll just…"
His exuberant words cut her off. "I'm sorry, Frankie, but I can't do that! Even for you! As long as I'm certain you're there doing your part looking out for Mac and the others, I can rest easy doing mine! It'd be a problem for the house if I came back, so I won't be paying you any visits or trying to contact you for the time being! I know you're smart enough to extend me the same courtesy! The world's a better and more interesting place for your being in it, Frankie Foster!"
There was something terribly possessive in that statement.
And a cold hand of horror clutched at her heart.
"Wilt, what are you…?"
"I gotta go now, Frankie angel!" Wilt giggled. "I'm having an old friend over for dinner! Keep loose, take good care of everybody, and give 'em all my best! See you later! Bye!"
The phone went dead.
After a while, the dial tone came on, and she put the device back in its cradle. Sitting alone in her grandmother's house, surrounded by the most wonderful and fantastical creations culled from the very epitome of innocent imagination, Frankie tried to rid herself of a feeling of lingering horror.
Wilt handed the phone back to the bartender. "Gracias, amigo!" he said. The imaginary fugitive then picked up his tropical beverage and sipped at its contents out of a loopy colorful straw. There were people shouting and jabbering in all sorts of tongues around him, along with animals lowing, barking and clucking. The outdoor market teemed with life.
But right now, his crazy eye was fixated solely on the small airfield opposite.
The punch-colored private jet had finally taxied down the runway, coming to a halt right across from the outdoor cantina he was currently sitting at. A small mountain of luggage was being unloaded, while coming down the gangplank, the flight's only passenger was yelling at a secretary to make herself heard over the fading engines and riot of sound.
"Are you sure the security at this place is decent?! I don't want any drooling fans getting near me like last time!"
"I assure you, Miss Berry, we've taken every precaution imaginable."
"You'd better have!" the tiny talking gummy bear huffed. "I don't tolerate slackers in my employ! Now where's the stupid limo?! It ought to be waiting for me right here, those dirty locals are getting to look at me!"
Their party went off towards the car park, followed by attendants carting suitcases.
Wilt quaffed his drink and set it down, grinning happily. He picked up a straw fedora and settled it over his red dreadlocks, eyes poking up out of the holes he had cut into its top. Dressed in a white suit and Hawaiian shirt, he then strolled into the press of vendors and natives, travelers and livestock.
In no time at all, he was lost amidst the vibrant throngs.
Author's Note: Dedicated to Swamp Fairy, this story's most ardent supporter, without whom this chapter would never have come about!