Kiki finished her last mouthful of porridge staring into the faraway eyes of the missing girl on the milk carton. She mused on where she might have gone and whether she was happy there. In her peripheral vision, she waited for Pa to be through with his breakfast. He chewed the blubbery pork rind with relish, the fat glistening at the corners of his mouth. When he was done, she filled two large pans and placed them on the stove to boil. She was careful not to spill any which was a struggle because of her small stature, the heavy copper bottoms making her thin wrists feel they could snap like green sticks. They would help a little to take the chill off the water pouring from the faucet into the cold, stone sink. Through the kitchen window she could see the sun burning the mist off, as though steam was rising from a simmering earth and she felt that the promise of summer was edging closer.
The house was at the outer most border of the county, a sparsely populated area, with almost a mile of dark roads to the nearest neighbor, ten miles from the nearest convenience store and twenty-five miles from the nearest real town. There was no phone and Kiki’s father’s pick-up ran only sporadically though she was far too young to drive it. In a rural place like this, he was a hunter like most other men in the area. A loaded hunting rifle sat by the front door, out of her authority to handle. She knew that if she picked it up and tried to fire it, the recoil would knock her off her feet.
He left without it, so this was no hunting trip. She heard him swear at the truck as if threat alone would encourage it to start first time. His favorite bar would be open by the time he hit town. She wondered what time he would consider it closed for the day.
Marnie flicked through the baby picture album she’d scrapbooked five years earlier, the pink checked ribbons now dusty among all the other women’s things which had found their way up here, displaced. She hated being in the attic with the bugs and filth listening to the scratching noises that the mice made in the insulation batting in the sloping exterior walls.
She would often find herself in Kiki’s room, watching her as she slept or singing to her, stroking her hair if she woke to a nightmare, her soft voice lulling her daughter back to sleep. She heard Jared’s pick-up leave for town so felt brave enough to venture downstairs.
Each step made her squirm with all the eyes upon her. The terror frozen onto the stuffed faces of animals peering down from their mounts, acted like a snapshot of their last dying moments. Jared’s gun was propped by the door, a sentry forbidding them to leave; ominous, silent, waiting. No one could touch it, only look and beware.
Just after midnight, Kiki woke to hear her bedroom door crack back on its hinges and she lay trapped like a prey animal, paralyzed under the covers. She had learned her lesson in the past. If he wanted to play games where every question had no correct answer, she would remain numb and not give in to intimidation. His rage would escalate as he failed to manipulate her into making a mistake but she would remain resolute and then he would grow sick of it, say ‘good girl, back chat is bad,’ or worse case, tell her how much she reminded him of her mother.
He sat on the edge of the bed and she wondered what pain he was planning to invoke. He knew she was awake and laughed, deriding her timidity. With grave anxiety she pulled the bed covers down off her face.
‘Folks got no respect no more.’ His face was contorted, tightly wound.
His idea of discipline was the slash and burn variety, non-selective. Walking on egg-shells was not always a guarantee there would be no suffering. Overwhelming fear choked her throat as he raised himself up.
‘Need to sleep a while, come back later. You know you gotta take the place of that bitch of a mother for leaving right baby?’
Confused he staggered out of the room grabbing at shadows as though they might steady him. Relief flooded over her as she heard his door shut then his bulk drop into his pit, the rusty springs screaming complaint.
From the shadows her mother emerged, warmth emanating from her whole being. Marnie sat down next to her daughter and kissed her forehead. Kiki reached out for her mother’s hand and the two of them sat entwined until the dawn began poking through the thin curtains and sleep took over.
Jared woke with a sour taste on his lips and a jack hammer pounding his head. The room was fuggy as he slowly raised himself up. He lurched across a deck of wooden floor, zigzagging through a growing swell and crunched his toe against the door jamb. He cursed the pain searing through his nerves. Out in the hall, the perspective of the walls seeming to shrink and elongate alternately. As he arrived at Kiki’s room he froze and had to subdue the urge to scream. Marnie stood in the doorway like she was plugging up a dam. He stumbled backwards, confusion filling his face. His foot slipped off the top of the stairs allowing his head to bounce rhythmically off each step until the haunted look on his face came to rest atop a boneless and bloodied heap below.
The sheriff shook his head as he listened to the woman from Child Protective Services explain the anomalies. Apparently Kiki’s insistence her mother was hiding upstairs was a result of trauma. Marnie Corben had been a good looking woman in her day. In light of the time that had lapsed, he wasn’t looking forward to attending the exhumation taking place in the woods and making her re-acquaintance.