"Oh, no…" Russell groans. "No, no, no…. No! Come back!"
I watch curiously as Russell's basketball crawls to a stop on crabby Mr. Anderson's lawn. The yellowing pages of the Scarborough, Pennsylvania Public Library's Jane Eyre flap in the wind as I raise my eyes to Mr. Anderson's second-floor window. A pair of binoculars disappear from the other side of the windowpane, followed by an abrupt closing of the black curtains. Thirteen stomps resonate from inside the rickety house as he descends the stairs, gleeful at the thought of a new toy.
"Here he comes," I tell Russell calmly, lowering my eyes once more to discover the fate of dear Jane.
A door slams open and closed as Mr. Anderson flings his frail old body down the porch steps and onto his pristine lawn. An ancient hand crawling in veins reaches down and scoops Russell's basketball lovingly. A crooked finger shakes in our direction, accompanied by a practiced snarl.
"Stay away from my lawn!" Mr. Anderson shouts in that phlegm-filled, aging voice of his.
"Wait, Mr. Anderson!" Russell begs. "Please! That's my only ball."
"And it's on my property. Now get away! Go on, get!" His hunched figure hobbles back into the strange abyss of his door where toys disappear forever, never to be seen again.
"Aww," Russell whines, plopping down next to me on our own porch stoop, across the dusty road from Mr. Anderson's. "My ball."
"It's his now," I say indifferently, turning a battered page to hear what Mr. Rochester thinks of Jane's no-shit attitude.
"Only if you want to die, Russell."
"Which is why you should do it. Come on, Elizabeth, you're good at it! Just sneak into his house tonight and bring my ball back. He's too old to run down the stairs and catch you. Easy."
"What a silly idea."
"Come on! I'd do it for you!"
"You would not."
"Fine. I guess you've just lost your touch."
"I would be fully capable of retrieving your ball were my wishes to warrant it. But they do not. Too bad for you." I slam my book shut, annoyed by the realization that I won't be getting anymore reading done here with Russell heckling me.
But my cousin pursues me into our small house, following me through the front hall to the kitchen. I sit in a rickety wicker chair at a pockmarked table, turning my chair away from the peeling green paint to face instead my cousin Riley. Her seven-year-old body slumps over a wretched stick-figure drawing as she furiously colors in an orange house.
"You have chocolate on your face," I state matter-of-factly as I reopen my book.
What? she signs.
Ah. My words are literally falling on deaf ears.
I mime wiping my face, and she catches on with a grin. Sloppily dragging her sleeve across her mouth, she points guiltily to the cookie jar. I frown in distaste, pulling a napkin from the drawer and handing it to her, careful not to let our fingers touch.
"Elizabeth, all I'm asking for is one basketball. Please."
Ignoring Russell, I try once more to discover just what, exactly, Jane will do about this most recent predicament. Alas, it is not to be.
"I'd like to present you an offer," Russell says quietly, his face a stone as he sits next to me.
"I'll allow it," I respond calmly.
"There is a certain girl… with certain dolls…"
"Say no more." I hold up my hand to stop him. "I will require three flashlights, a steak knife, twenty feet of string, and Riley."
"I see Elizabeth hasn't changed," I mutter as we pull into her driveway, earning me a distasteful glare from Jackson.
In the back Mikowski presses his face to the window as he stares in wonder at the strange scene before us. Elizabeth Fletcher sits in an open police car, her legs dangling out the sides. Russell Fletcher sits on the grass below her, his arm on his knee because his wrist is handcuffed to Elizabeth's. A tall woman with black hair running in a braid down her back stands talking to a police officer who is simultaneously being yelled at by an old man. An old orange basketball sits guiltily in the officer's hands, evidently at the heart of the crime. And a young girl with wide, wet eyes stands off to the side, her tiny hand held by none other than Timothy fucking Upham.
"What the hell is going on here?" I murmur as I swing my door open and step out into the frigid night.
"Is this their father?" the young policeman asks, looking as though this is his first day on the job.
I open my mouth, a hell no on my lips, only to be cut off by Elizabeth.
"If he was my father, I would shoot myself," she answers the officer politely. I have the urge to pull the trigger on my pistol, but wisely choose not to act on this impulse in front of an officer of the law. Instead, I focus my attention on a different traitor.
"Timothy Upham, what the hell are you doing here?" I ask slowly.
"Now's not a good time for this, Reiben," he answers fearfully.
"And why is that, Timmy?"
"Because this officer is arresting my assassins," the old man says matter-of-factly.
I open my mouth for a snarky remark, but nothing comes. I'm far too stunned by this cheeky old man, who reminds me a little too much of myself, to say much of anything.
"That is not accurate," Elizabeth says calmly. "This man has been keeping me hostage in his basement."
"That is a lie!" the old man roars.
The officer stands defeated with the basketball in one hand and a small pad of paper in the other.
"Officer," I say kindly, preparing a lie as I place an arm on his shoulder. "This man is their grandfather. He's ninety-three, and… well, lately… you know…" I tap my head knowingly.
"Oh," the boy nods, happy to be closing this strange case. "I see. Look, if you don't mind, I'll be heading back to the station now. This seems like a domestic issue you should work out amongst yourselves…"
Ignoring the old man's protests, the officer unlocks Elizabeth and Russell's handcuffs, disappears back into his rickety old car, and drives off.
"These two are felons!" the old man screams at me.
"Who are you?" I ask, wiping some stray spittle from my face.
"Sergeant Frances Anderson!" he shouts angrily, waving an old finger at my idiocy. "I fought in the first world war, and I didn't do it to be harassed by these hooligans!"
Elizabeth and Russell roll their eyes, and I get the feeling they've gotten this very lecture before.
"That's very nice, Mr. Anderson, but we have to be going now. So you have yourself a nice day and-"
"These kids were in my house illegally, and they'll go nowhere until this matter is settled!"
I sigh in annoyance, turning to Jackson for help.
"Sir, there seems to be a misunderstand-"
"A southerner! Get off my lawn, you rascal! Go on, get! I thought we taught you a lesson or two about obeying us northerners in the civil war, you backwards buffoon!"
Jackson stares at the man in confused astonishment while I stifle a laugh.
"Mr. Anderson, I'm very sorry the kids bothered you again," Upham interrupts gently. "We talked about this, and I thought they understood that they were to be nothing less than respectful to you. If there's anything we can do to-"
"Oh, I'll tell you what you can do. You can take your apology and-"
"Mr. Anderson, Elizabeth and Russell are very sorry for the harm they brought to your house tonight."
"No, we're not," Elizabeth corrects.
"He stole my basketball," Russell accuses.
"It was on my lawn," Mr. Anderson says calmly. "If you wanted that basketball, you should have respected our property lines."
"Mr. Anderson, may they please have their ball back?" Colby asks politely.
I turn my head to hide the smile.
"Colby, he's a thousand years old, he can't stop us!" Russell urges.
"Russell!" she snaps.
"Okay," I interrupt. "This isn't getting us anywhere. Mr. Anderson, they're sorry they ruined your night." I pick up the basketball from where the officer abandoned it on the ground. "We have to leave now, but have a fantastic day." I turn and walk back to the Fletchers' house despite the rampant argument from Mr. Anderson, who attempts to hobble after me, yelling and spitting all the while.
I toss the ball to Russell, who hugs it lovingly as we enter the house. Sitting at the table, with innocent expressions that tell me they were just watching out the window, are three children sipping juice with Todd.
No. No more. This is far too much to handle.
"Elizabeth and Russell, you're going to tell me right now what you were doing breaking into Mr. Anderson's house," Colby demands.
I turn to the table to find that Elizabeth has already situated herself in a seat and is happily reading a tattered copy of Jane Eyre. Russell sits next to her, stroking his basketball absentmindedly as he contemplates what to say.
"He took something that did not belong to him," Elizabeth says robotically without lifting her eyes from the page. "And he paid the price."
"Elizabeth, I don't care what he takes from you, you can't just break into someone's house and-"
"That is an exaggeration." Elizabeth lifts her eyes from the page and holds up a hand to stop Colby. "We entered through the cellar door. The only thing that was broken was a tacky vase, and I refuse to mourn the loss of a flea market throwaway."
"What you did was illegal!"
"It was justified."
"Forget about the basketball for a minute," Upham interrupts. "The bigger problem here is Susan Carter."
Russell and Elizabeth share a look. Russell's eyes open wide, but Elizabeth closes her eyes and shakes her head slowly. They turn back to face us.
"Susan Carter?" Elizabeth repeats innocently, her face expressionless.
"Her father called earlier. He said Susan found a dozen beheaded dolls hanging from their porch with a note saying 'You're Next.'"
"…Did she scream?" Elizabeth asks with a slight smile.
"Why would you… How… What is… Why?"
"Susan Carter is an enemy of the state. She got what she deserved."
"Elizabeth, Susan is not an enemy of anything. She's your classmate, and you're going to apologize to her."
"Woe to the state," Elizabeth announces, slamming her book closed and exiting the kitchen with perfect posture and poise. The blonde bun tied tightly at the back of her neck starkly contrasts the simple black dress adorning her body.
"When did she get like that?" I ask Upham curiously. The Elizabeth I've just witnessed is drastically different from the one I remember.
"She's always been like that," he answers. "She's just gotten more and more gloomy lately."
Gloomy? I would have said psychotic.
"Okay, but that's not normal," I tell Upham, pointing to her empty seat. "There's something wrong with that."
"You think I didn't get her help?" Upham says suddenly, irate. "I took her to three different psychiatrists. Obviously there's something wrong with her! You would've known that sooner if you hadn't been so busy taking care of yourself for the past year!"
I narrow my eyes at Upham, half in indignation, half in surprise. He's gained far too much confidence in the past year; I much preferred the scrawny boy who twitched every time you glanced at him.
"For your information-"
"We don't have time for this," Jackson interrupts, stepping between us. "We need to get out of here before someone catches up to us."
I'm annoyed by his level-headedness, as always, but I agree that I don't want my head to be shot off. Upham disappears after Elizabeth while Colby angrily slams dishes into the sink.
I tilt my head to take in the full effect of her rear and Jackson elbows me in the gut. I turn to him in annoyance and he gives me a Jackson look, serious enough to make me shut up.
"So, uh… How long has Upham been hanging around here?" I ask.
Colby pauses, a wet dish in her hand. "What do you care?" she responds tiredly.
"Do you have a problem with me?" I snap, tired of all this shit.
"You know, Elizabeth may have liked you, but Upham told me all about you. And frankly, I don't care what you do to Elizabeth, but you'd better not hurt Upham."
"Because he doesn't deserve it."
And she does.
Fine. If that's how she wants to play it, so be it.
"I'll be in the car," I tell Jackson, my voice laced with annoyance.
I stomp outside and jerk open my car door, cursing as it catches. I kick the damn vehicle and reach inside to unlatch it through the window. A hand reaches from the backseat and grabs my wrist before I have a chance to pull away.
"What happened with Susan?" I ask Elizabeth sternly from the door.
She sits upright at the top of her bed, back resting against the wall as she flicks a lighter on and off, over and over again, her murky blue eyes hypnotized by the flame.
"If you'll refer back to our earlier conversation, you'll find that Susan needed to be punished. I took care of it."
"Why did she need to be punished?"
"An enemy of the state deserves nothing less than death."
"What did she do?"
"Now that's a different question."
I sigh as I step into her torture chamber where I've often heard the younger kids screaming in pain, only to run in and find Elizabeth dissecting a beloved doll or melting brave army men. I join her on the bed, sitting next to her stiff body as she continues to flick the lighter.
"What's wrong, Elizabeth?" I ask gently. "What did I do to make you like this?"
"I'm thoroughly confused by where you're taking this conversation," she answers stiffly.
I take the lighter from her hands and place it on the nightstand.
"Why do you hate Susan?"
"Susan Carter spread slander about me in the school hallway."
"What kind of slander?"
"Elizabeth, we can sit here all day, but we're not leaving until you answer my questions."
She heaves an annoyed sigh before continuing. "Susan Carter invented a lie regarding my romantic interest in boys."
"…Well, what did she say?"
"She said that I canoodle about with women."
"Ah… In those exact words?"
"More or less. I told her that what she fantasized about at home was her own business, but I kindly requested that she keep me out of it."
I feel a small smile tug at my lips. "And what happened?"
"I put a snake in her backpack. But I felt that it didn't quite hold the same gravity I'd been hoping for, so I sent a second message that emphasized decapitation, which I believe is the only way to properly deal with your enemies."
I wonder briefly where she found a snake before deciding it's not worth asking.
"You know that was wrong, Elizabeth."
"I know that you think it was wrong."
"This has to stop."
"I will stop when she stops. Or is decapitated. Whichever comes first. Scout's honor. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a few possessions to pack."
I reluctantly allow her to pack, as I can see I won't be getting anywhere anytime soon. She has drawn an iron curtain between civilization and her mind, and it is impenetrable.
"What the hell is your problem?" I shout at Mr. Anderson, snatching my wrist from his grip. "Nearly gave me a heart attack."
"I'm coming with you."
"You're taking away two criminals who nearly killed me, and I'm coming with you."
"To make sure they don't escape your custody. If the cops won't bring them to justice, I'll do it myself."
"Get out of my car."
"I will literally drag you out of there, Mr. Anderson."
"You'll do no such thing! I've got a weapon!" He brandishes a plastic knife, and I raise my hands in surrender. No point in fighting the old coot. I can drop him off at the next rest stop and tell him it's the courthouse.
"Fine. Stay there. See if I give a damn."
I feel a body appear beside me, and I turn to find the small girl whose hand Upham had been holding earlier. She stares up at me with wide eyes and makes some sort of motion with her hands.
"What?" I ask.
She does it again, and I feel an anger creep up inside of me.
"Look, I don't know what you're doing," I snap.
"That's the deaf girl," Mr. Anderson says, peering out the car window. "I never know what she's saying. Just shake your hand at her and tell her to get off your lawn, that's what I do."
I stare at him in confusion before returning my gaze to the girl. She makes the motions again, and I feel a headache coming on.
"This is not going to work out," I murmur.
"She wants to get in the car," Upham informs me as he carries two suitcases to the car. He drops them in my trunk and squats down next to the girl. His hands fly in front of her, and she smiles. I notice she's missing three baby teeth. The girl motions with her hands again and Upham hoists her into his arms, carrying her to his own car.
What the hell were they talking about?
"Rory!" Russell roars, chasing the younger boy down the porch steps and tackling him in the grass. "I swear to God, if you don't give me my basketball back right now, I'll kill you!"
I rub my temples in exasperation as two more children, carrying suitcases that say 'Alba' and 'Gabriel,' descend the porch steps, followed by Todd and Colby. Through the open window, I see Jackson desperately trying to convince someone to leave the house and venture into the dark, early morning. Finally, after much coaxing, a stiff Elizabeth exits the house, her bun properly in place above her black, long-sleeved dress, a tattered suitcase in her left hand. She frowns at the rising sun as it reaches her pale face and walks purposely, always poised, to my car.
"I've been informed that I must ride with you."
"That's not gonna happen," I say simply.
"Take it up with Jackson," she says, her eyes slits.
I stare in disbelief at Jackson, who shrugs in defense. I watch in astonishment as Russell, Todd, and Rory pile into Colby's car, followed by Alba, Gabriel, and Riley in Upham's car. Then Mr. Anderson climbs over Mikowski in the back seat of my own car and stumbles onto the grass.
"Your car smells like dead fish," he declares. "I'm riding with the good-looking man."
"The good-looking man?" I ask Jackson. "How is that not me?"
Mr. Anderson shuffles to Upham's car and persuades Riley to leave. They switch seats, landing a confused Riley in my car. I sigh heavily, because this is going to be a long ride. Elizabeth sits in the middle seat, back rim-rod straight, directly between Riley and Mikowski. I slide into the passenger seat and rub my tired face. I drove all night; now it's Jackson's turn.
"What did he mean dead fish?" I turn to Jackson.
He sniffs the air. "I don't know, but I smell it, too."
A thin smile appears on Elizabeth's face. "It smells like something's died in here," she says with the faintest hint of excitement.
"Let's just get out of here," I murmur, not looking forward to dealing with Elizabeth for the rest of the car ride.
"Did you know that that field was used to slaughter spies in the civil war?" she asks politely as we head down the street, as if she is making friendly conversation.
God, help me.
"No…" Jackson says slowly. I'm pretty sure there weren't enough civil war spies in Pennsylvania to warrant a slaughtering, but I keep my mouth shut, as I learned long ago that there simply is no way to win an argument with Elizabeth.
"There was blood all over the grass," Elizabeth says dreamily. "Intestines collapsing… eyes rolling around underfoot."
Mikowski begins to look sick, and rolls down his window.
"Ah, yes," Elizabeth says happily. "I do so love when the breeze blows the smell of decomposing corpses at me."
I cover my eyes with my hand and pray she'll shut up soon. If every day goes as badly as this one, I know we're in for a rough ride. Taking a slow breath of stale air, I begin to wonder what's causing that odor, because it's starting to smell a little more sinister than a couple of dead fish.