By Daniel Davis
There was something on Cassandra Little’s kitchen floor. Brown and oval, about half an inch long. Patricia squinted at it, convinced that it wasn’t just her failing eyesight that prevented her from seeing it clearly. It was still in the shadow cast by the bottom of the stove. Tucked discretely down there, as if it wanted to be forgotten.
A roach? Patricia had taken note of the accumulated filth in the house. Mitchell would say she was exaggerating, but she wasn’t. Pizza boxes, dust, food wrappers, dishes, glassware—the kind of stuff that you’re supposed to notice as it gathers up. Patricia hadn’t been in the Little household—grand word for it, “household”—in a few years, not since Alex was a toddler, but she didn’t remember it being this bad. Of course, the last time she’d been here, Cassandra’s husband hadn’t been in jail. Maybe he’d been the tidy one.
She hadn’t come over immediately after hearing about Alex's disappearance; she’d come over after a sleepless night in which she’d convinced herself she should come over. She then spent all day Saturday waiting for the police to leave. She’d half-dreaded that Cassandra’s latest boyfriend, some broad-shouldered hooligan, would show up, but perhaps it was still too early for that. Immediately after feeding Mitchell and herself, she'd pulled the casserole out of the fridge and headed across the street. She'd gotten Mitchell's hopes up by cooking it; he'd reluctantly eaten the spaghetti she'd served him instead, sneaking occasional glances into the kitchen. She'd told him the casserole was for a higher purpose.
Heading across the street, Patricia's dread grew with each footstep. She wasn't about to turn around, but she did slow her stride. She could only vaguely remember the last time she and Cassandra had spoken to each other. She couldn't remember what words were exchanged—probably just an extended greeting, perhaps a question as to how young Alex was doing. No questions about Patricia's children, but that could be because they were all grown and moved out, and when that was the case, it was generally assumed they were doing all right. Cassandra had always struck Patricia as that kind of mother: whenever Patricia saw Alex and his friends, Cassandra was nowhere in sight. Perhaps she was at work; perhaps she was sleeping off the previous night. The gossip—which Patricia steadfastly refused to fuel—varied.
Something slammed itself against the door to Patricia's left. The dog. She knew what it was, but it was still a thing to her, as no other dog had ever been. Jasper, part Rottweiler, part hell-spawn. It began barking, that deep, guttural grinding of phlegm and muscle that you seldom hear outside of horror movies. A fantastic guard dog, the kind that took its job far too seriously.
Patricia listened to the dog scratching at the wood, wondering how long it would take for the beast to claw its way out. She glanced at the kitchen clock, wondering if Cassandra would be back in the room by that time. Why had she left? Probably to use the washroom. Patricia couldn't tell if Cassandra Little had disappeared to cry at the back of the house. She was the kind of woman who took an offered casserole, and instead of putting it in the fridge, left it on the counter to spoil. At least she'd put the demon dog in the attached garage.
Patricia returned her gaze to the brown object in front of the stove. It hadn't moved. She wanted to get up and walk over to it, but that would be improper. You never study someone else's trash. You accept it and ignore it. A brown spot on an off-white kitchen tile floor stands out, though. If only it would move, then Patricia would have an excuse for killing it. People are grateful when you kill their vermin. They don't thank you for casserole, but they thank you for getting rid of a cockroach.
She heard Cassandra's plodding footsteps returning to the kitchen, and quickly put on a sympathetic smile before turning around. As a mother, she was expected to be a rock, a shoulder for everyone. She'd fulfilled that role well enough when her kids were still at home, and she did the same now for Mitchell. Funny how as soon as the children were gone, her husband had become something of a child himself. A capable, mostly independent child, and certainly not a petulant or complaining one—but a child nonetheless, someone who needed looking after. Patricia did so without complaint because she'd been taught as a girl that such was the duty of a mother and a housewife: you put up with a lot, and in return you gained the respect and prestige of maintaining a proper, functioning household.
Patricia had always thought Cassandra looked a bit trashy. Today her hair was mostly dark red with hints of purple; it varied almost weekly. Her clothing always seemed a size too small, as though she shopped in the children's section. She walked with what Patricia considered as a strut: her shoulders back, as though the world automatically reinforced her own good opinion of herself. Even now, in the midst of tragedy, she looked composed. She had makeup on, and her hair was pulled back; her clothes weren't neat, and not entirely clean, but they weren't stained or overly rumpled. She didn't look like she'd been lying in bed crying, which is how Patricia would've been in her situation. A stroke of intuition that made Patricia look away. Her eyes automatically went to the brown object on the floor.
Not offering any greeting—she'd said only two or three words since Patricia showed up on her doorstep five minutes ago—Cassandra went to the fridge and took out a beer. She grabbed another bottle for Patricia. On her way back to the table, she stopped in front of the stove and glanced down. Bending over, she picked up the brown object with her fingernails. She held it in front of her eyes for a moment before tossing it into the nearest trashcan.
Patricia took the beer, though she hadn't had an alcoholic beverage other than the occasional cocktail with the girls from her office, in years. She didn't open it, hoping Cassandra would take the hint and offer her a water or juice. But Cassandra sat down and took a swig of her beer. A swig. Not a sip, not a swallow, not even a drink. A sailor's swig. She glanced at the door, where Jasper was still wreaking havoc, doing God-knows how much damage to the wood on the other side, but she said nothing. Her expression hadn't changed since Patricia had rung the doorbell.
Patricia wanted to ask the usual palliative questions, but she knew they would either go unanswered, or would be met with a casual shrug that could mean one of a dozen things. So she glanced at the clock again, then at the casserole. She found herself saying, "It's called 'Hollywood Chicken,' but it's actually hamburger. A misnomer, I suppose."
Cassandra didn't say anything, but Patricia supposed there was no need for commentary.
"It goes great with peas. Do you have any peas? I could bring some over; I always overstock on greens."
"I do," Cassandra said. Her voice was heavy but not with grief. Maybe this was what they called "shock" in the papers and on all those TV programs that Patricia heard about. She didn't watch television, except reruns of WKRP, Columbo, and other shows from her early years. The thought of keeping up with new shows wore her out. She'd almost been suckered in by Lost, but had held firm. It kept her nights free, at any rate, not that she ever did much.
"I could fix you something else, if you want," Patricia said, glancing around the kitchen, as though suggesting that the cooking should be done at her house, and not here. This was a house of microwavable dinners and frozen pizzas. And Subway, according to some of the napkins she'd noticed. That perhaps accounted for Cassandra's figure: trashy though she may be, her body was still something to admire. Patricia was Cassandra's senior by more than a decade, an age gap big enough to make jealousy a moot point.
Cassandra said nothing to the offer of cooking, which Patricia took as a silent refusal. A minute passed, during which Cassandra got herself another beer. The only sound came from Jasper's assault on the door, which had waned when Cassandra returned to the kitchen, but had started again when the dog realized that Patricia was still there. To listen to it, one would think there was a lion on the other side, and a wounded gazelle sitting at the table.
The curious thing was that Cassandra didn't seem to resent Patricia's presence. In fact, as Patricia politely looked everywhere but across the table, she seemed to get the sense that she may as well not have been there at all—that Cassandra's mind was entirely elsewhere. As should be expected, though some politeness was called for in most situations. A cursory "thank you" for coming over; something along the lines of "I'm doing all right," even if it was a bold-faced lie.
As the silence began to stretch for upwards of two minutes, Patricia's eyes, no matter where they roamed, kept returning to the clock, with its cracked and dusty face. Jasper began a new tactic. The collisions stopped, and for a second there was blessed peace in the garage. Patricia felt part of herself—the part that had always envisioned Jasper snatching up one of the neighborhood children and running away with them—relax, until she noticed the door handle begin to wiggle.
She barely stifled her scream. Cassandra turned to the door and yelled, "Quit it the fuck out!"
Jasper did as instructed, though after a brief pause he began ramming the door again.
Cassandra grabbed a third beer. Patricia watched her, and as Cassandra sat back down, she said, "It can open doors?"
Patricia turned her gaze to something she'd noticed almost immediately, but had pointedly refused to comment on—a Charleston County Sheriff's Department business card, placed haphazardly near the edge of the table. It had earlier been closer towards the center, where it had no doubt landed after Cassandra tossed it aside, but her repeated movements had brushed it towards the edge. Another light puff of air, and the card would fall to the floor, where it would probably find its way under the cabinets or stove.
In what she told herself was a charitable gesture, Patricia picked up the card and looked it over. "I didn't even know they had these," she said. The card was plain white and bore no names—not the Sheriff's, not any of the deputies or city councilmen or whoever else one would expect to be associated with the Sheriff's Department. Just an address and two telephone numbers—one of them 911.
Cassandra, as Patricia expected, made no comment, so Patricia took advantage of the opening and said, "They were here a long time. The police, I mean."
She received a noncommittal grunt in response—laced, it sounded to Patricia, with a tinge of resentment.
Patricia hesitated, as though it were difficult for her to ask the appropriate follow-up. "Do they have any leads?"
"Leads," she knew, was the word you used in a murder investigation, or a robbery, or a situation in which someone did somebody wrong. Perhaps it wasn't the proper word for when a boy went off into the woods with his friends and then vanished, but it had a dramatic flair to it, and truth be told, Patricia felt important saying it, as though it were an honor to be involved in a situation in which the word "leads" could easily enter into ordinary conversation. They hadn't found a body yet, which meant Alex could still be alive. It was hard for Patricia to imagine a happy, tearful reunion as she glanced around the kitchen.
Cassandra looked at her for the first time since opening the door and it seemed to be the first moment in which Patricia knew that she was really there. Cassandra was inviting her into her world now, and instantly Patricia regretted asking to come. It was an angry, desperate world, one far dirtier than this kitchen.
"No leads," Cassandra said. Her voice didn't change, but that only made it worse—she seemed detached from the entire situation.
"They were here a long time," Patricia said again, slowly. "I meant to come over sooner, but I felt it best to wait until they had gone."
"They had questions. Lots of questions, but no leads. One of the cops bummed my pack of cigarettes. But no leads." Whereas Patricia had taken a small delight in the word "leads," Cassandra spat it out, as though it had burnt her tongue.
"But they must have some idea. I mean…" But Patricia didn't know what she meant, so she stopped.
"They said he's 'gone.' Whatever the fuck that means."
Patricia thought she knew what it meant—one of the cops had slipped and let his true thoughts show. They weren't supposed to do that, but the case of a missing child was always an incendiary one.
"I told them they should ask those kids he was with." Cassandra snorted as though there was something caught in her sinuses. "They said they did already, and I told them they should really talk to them. Alex runs around with some little shits, I told them, and maybe something happened, and those kids decided to cover it up. They ain't too young for that. That shit starts early these days."
Patricia winced at the profanity. She heard it all the time, of course—Mitchell could cuss up a blue storm if the Cubs were losing, a habit from his boyhood up in Chicago that no amount of nagging or churching could eradicate—but he'd never directed it at their children. Patricia had seen Alex's friends before; they looked like a decent bunch, eager to play and live and everything Patricia remembered from her own childhood. Typical grade school boys on summer afternoon adventures. One time, a couple of them had even offered to shovel her driveway for her.
Except today you weren't supposed to be able to trust kids. These days, children murdered other children. Patricia knew things weren't as bad as everyone made them seem, but you couldn't deny what was right there in front of your nose, could you? Maybe this generation wasn't plotting to destroy the world, but they were certainly desensitized to things that rattled the bones of any sane person.
But Patricia couldn't say that, so she offered, "They're so young," in a voice that sounded a little too pleading. She cleared her throat and added, "Anyways, I'm sure the police have already thought of that. They've probably thought of everything."
Except where Alex is right now.
"I told them," Cassandra said, ignoring her, "that if it had just been an accident, then the other kids would have seen something. They were all out there together."
Gossip spread fast in small towns, faster when the news was bad or salacious. Patricia had heard that the children had been playing hide and seek, and so had not, in fact, been together. Four children went into the woods to hide; three were found.
"They sit around with their fingers up their asses," Cassandra said, "and they look at me as though I'm to blame. They asked me about Roger, as though maybe he had something to do with it. They even asked about Paul, like he broke out of jail and took my damn kid. Can you believe that?"
Patricia knew the question wasn't really directed at her, so she said nothing. Instead, she tried to picture Cassandra's ex-husband. The only thing she could remember, aside from the fact that he looked like he worked out every day, was a small dragon tattoo on his left bicep. And even that, she only remembered because she'd actually seen it. In fact, she couldn't think of a time she'd seen him with his shirt on. When he'd gotten arrested, her first thought hadn't been for Cassandra or Alex; her first thought had been, Of course.
"They kept asking and asking and asking," Cassandra said. She snorted. "So finally I told them to stop asking questions and just fucking do something. And you know what they did? They asked me what I meant by that." Cassandra slammed her fist on the table. "I told them to get the hell out of my house. And they asked why. If they stopped asking where Alex is, and just went out and looked for him, he'd be home by now."
When Cassandra lifted her fist, there was a mark on the table—part sweat, part dirt, maybe part blood. Patricia couldn't look at it; she glanced up at the clock again and noticed that less time had passed than she'd thought. The idea struck her that she might never get out of this house alive, that Cassandra's rage might consume her, rip her down to her bones and memories. Patricia couldn't imagine dying in a place so filthy.
"I'm sure he's out there," she said, dry-mouthed. Recognizing the ambiguity of her words, she followed it up with a declaration that came out more as a question: "I'm sure he's all right."
"He better be," Cassandra said, and then shifted her gaze away, kicking Patricia out of her world again.
Perhaps inspired by Cassandra's outburst, Jasper struck the door again—twice, in fact, so rapidly that there seemed to be two demon beasts in the garage. Patricia glanced again at her casserole, mourning its destined interment in the trashcan. She would have to make it again very soon, to keep Mitchell from being disappointed. Patricia preferred diversity at her dinner table, but you had to make sacrifices to keep your husband happy.
"I'd best be going," she said, standing. Cassandra made no movement—didn't even acknowledge her. Patricia thought, How rude, followed by, That poor woman. She tried to imagine what it'd be like if one of her own children went missing. Would she sit at her table staring at the wall, or would she be out searching? Patricia shot another look at the casserole dish. Perhaps she would be in the kitchen cooking. It's what her own mother had done in times of stress, and Patricia had often found herself standing over her oven, stirring a pot of macaroni and cheese, or a pan of lasagna, or her grandmother's apple pie recipe. Cooking, she could get lost in the right proportions of ingredients, the savory and sweet aromas tickling her nose and watering her taste buds.
But was there really a difference between staring at the wall and slaving over a casserole that no one would consume, only lingering in the refrigerator until its unrecognizable contents were finally discarded? Patricia took in Cassandra's sallow face, the beer bottle dangling listlessly between wrinkled, yellowing fingers. A thin frame still beautiful, but perhaps just a stressful year or two away from being anemic. A body that wasn't built to endure something like a missing child. A body that needed all the nutrients it could get.
Patricia opened her mouth to say something else, but then Jasper began trying the door handle again. If Cassandra noticed, she made no motion to stop it. Patricia lingered until she realized that the door actually was unlocked, and that the dog stood a very good chance of succeeding, before she high-tailed it out of the kitchen with a hellhound snapping at her ankles, and Mitchell's beloved Hollywood chicken left to its dismal fate.
Daniel Davis is the Nonfiction Editor of The Prompt Literary Magazine. His own work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com, or on Facebook and Twitter.