Kate had just picked up the chef’s knife to get back to work when the phone rang, digitally cheery in the air. She hurried to the wall and felt a sharp pang of sympathy when she heard Anna’s voice.
“Kate, do you think you’d mind—that is, if you have a few minutes, maybe you could—I mean—”
There was a lot to do before Chris got home from work, but, still, if she could not succor Anna in her hour of need then friendship was worth nothing in the world. Chris would understand a late dinner. The basement door had swung open again so she latched it as she left the kitchen.
Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror as she entered the front hall, she was pleased to see that her hair showed no signs of the day’s exertions. Anybody who says being a housewife is easy, she thought, I’ll show him a thing or two. She straightened the sleeves of her T-shirt and left the house.
As she walked towards the street, a soccer ball flew over her head into her yard. She shielded her eyes and looked next door towards the Mason house, and sure enough there was Jim, standing, embarrassed, on the other side of the low fence, looking down at his shoes.
“Watch out, young man,” she said, waving her finger at him with mock sternness, though she was only twice his age, if that. “You never know who you might hurt with that thing!” Jim looked up, grinning sheepishly, and she laughed. “Now come and get your ball.”
“Sure, Mrs. Kendrick,” he said, leaping into her lush green lawn with the vigor of youth. Kate and Chris did not have any children of their own, but she loved living in a neighborhood surrounded by them.
She looked at her house with satisfaction as she closed the gate. That paint job really does look good. Chris had wanted blue but she had insisted on yellow and now even he agreed that hers had been the better choice. “How do you always get these things right?” he had asked, stroking her hair.
“I’m taking my secret with me to the grave,” she had laughed.
She looked carefully, both ways, before crossing the street. It was unnecessary, as their street was so small and quiet that she would have been aware of any cars as soon as she’d left her house. But she did not like to get into bad habits, especially with so many young people around who might be tempted to imitate them. “We have a responsibility to mold the children,” she would say whenever it seemed relevant.
As she approached Anna’s house she noticed with a sigh that the grass still needed mowing. And now, she realized looking up, there were two or three roof tiles missing. Not that she blamed Anna, not at all, especially with no one else in the house old enough to help her. But it didn’t seem appropriate for the neighborhood, somehow, for one house to be—well, less kempt than the others. She had tried to tell Anna this before but it had never seemed to sink in and so she simply avoided the house when she could. Today was different, of course; tragedy made such things unimportant.
Anna looked haggard, her eyes puffy and her light blue dress holding yesterday’s wrinkles. She held a clump of wadded up Kleenex in her hand. “I just talked to the police,” she said—it was obviously an effort for her to keep her voice steady—“and they say that, after 72 hours, if they haven’t found him by now it’s not very likely that they will.” She started to cry and then, stopping herself, stepped back from the door. “I’m sorry. Please come in.”
“You poor dear,” said Kate as she enfolded Anna in her arms; her shirt was cotton, so tear stains wouldn’t be a problem, not that that mattered at all, of course. “Don’t you worry about a thing. I’m here now.”
They went into the kitchen, where, Kate was surprised to see, the sink was full of dirty dishes. Even with what’s been going on, Kate thought, you’d assume she might—. She stopped herself; there was no need to be uncharitable. She crossed the room and began rinsing plates and glasses, though she doubted Anna ever did this properly herself, and filling the dishwasher.
Anna wrung her hands—why didn’t she throw that mess of wadded-up Kleenex away and get some fresh tissues?—and sat down at the kitchen table, which was so gouged and stained it really ought to have been replaced long ago. “I should have kept a closer eye on him,” she said. Kate did not think it would be helpful to say that she agreed, so instead she scrubbed with slightly more vigor, gratified to see bits of potato and chocolate and dried sauce swirl down the drain, at which point they might as well never have existed. “But it was a morning just like every other,” Anna continued. “Mark always made it to school with no problem before.”
Keep flipping a penny and getting heads, you’re bound to get tails sooner or later, thought Kate. But she said, “The neighborhood is so peaceful. You had no reason to expect anything of the kind.” No one did, though naturally if Kate had had a son she would have taken better care of him. She would certainly never have let him go to school alone or wander around at all hours of the night, and if he had tried she would have made sure it was the last time he did such a thing. “It could have happened to anybody—almost anybody. Look, why not try to take your mind off it? I think it’s high time you made a plan for your garden. It’s a shame to let such a beautiful space go to waste.” Perhaps she could bring Anna around by sheer force of will.
“I haven’t gotten a ransom note or anything.”
“Daffodils would be perfect, and maybe some azaleas beside them. Yellow and red.”
“Do you think he’s been . . .” The hand Anna put to her mouth was trembling slightly. Then she dropped it back into her lap. “Do you think he’s been hurt?”
Kate sighed. “I think it’s silly to allow such morbid thoughts into your head. Most likely he’ll be back soon enough, and none the worse for wear. Maybe he’s just off on some adventure”—she raised an eyebrow—“and is waiting until he’s good and ready to come home.” Anna’s eyes were wide. “Boys are like that.”
“Do you really think so?”
Kate winced at the catch of hope in Anna’s voice. It’s not as if I can do anything about this, she thought resentfully. “Well, of course I’m not positive. If he weren’t so used to roaming around unsupervised I would feel more certain, but given his habits I suppose he could be anywhere. Or something could have happened to him, or some terrible person could have—” But she was not permitted to finish her sentence, as Anna interrupted her with noisy weeping. “Oh, now, don’t cry. You don’t know anything for sure yet, not really. There’s a very good chance that everything will work out fine.” Kate put the last spoon into the dishwasher, dried her hands carefully on the towel, and sat down, taking Anna’s hand in both of hers.
“I think I’d like to go lie down.”
“Of course, honey,” said Kate, releasing Anna’s hand and standing up briskly. “I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Please don’t. I’d rather not be alone right now.”
They went into the living room, filled with shelves and old furniture. Before she could stop herself, Kate said, “Next time I come I’ll bring a duster, how’s that?”
But Anna did not seem to have heard; she stretched herself out on the couch. “Would you mind staying with me for a while?”
Kate reached out to run her hand along the back of the sofa, far enough so that she could glance at her watch as she did so. She saw that there was still more than enough time to get dinner ready before Chris came home, so she said, “Of course.”
“If the phone rings—”
“Don’t worry, I’ll wake you immediately. I’m just glad I can help.”
“Thank you for being such a good friend,” said Anna, but her eyes were closed and her voice was already drowsy.
Kate shifted in the lumpy chair, hoping to find a comfortable position, but after a few moments she gave up and sat still, her torso erect. The flat black shoes Anna had kicked off caught her eye; one was upside-down and the other, on its side, had a stain on it. Kate pursed her lips. Eventually, after the breathing from the couch had evened out, she stood up, picked up the shoes, and set them neatly beside each other along the wall. This made her feel useful, even though she could do nothing about the stain, so she continued around the room, frowning as she picked up video games—it was none of her business, of course, but Kate would never have permitted a child such a violent hobby—and discarded candy wrappers. No wonder Mark was so heavy; with all the sugar his mother fed him Kate was surprised he hadn’t developed diabetes. She dropped the wrappers into the garbage in the kitchen and then, feeling generous, started up the hall stairs. Then she stopped, her hand resting on the banister. She really needed to get back home; Chris would be back before too long, and, besides, she decided, it would be inappropriate to clean Anna’s house without being asked. Give a man a fish, she thought.
The mirror over the fireplace was dirty, so she could not check her hair before leaving—why am I surprised? she thought wearily—but she was sure she looked fine. As she went to the front door she turned her head and her heart swelled with compassion for the woman lying on the sofa. Then she walked out into the bright street.
She was so lucky. How easily people’s homes could be disrupted, how swiftly their lives torn asunder! It was almost a miracle, really, that horrible things didn’t befall everybody all the time. She wished Jim Mason would take his soccer ball inside when he was done playing instead of leaving it out on the lawn like that. Perhaps she would mention this to his mother next time they met. It was so important to help young people behave properly; otherwise they would become careless, like Anna, and then look what happened. Kate felt a sudden piercing longing for the order of her kitchen and quickened her pace.
She inhaled the calm of the house, drawing strength from the dark wood of the floor and the perfectly hung photographs on the wall. Back in the kitchen, the only change since her departure was that the sunlight bathed the toaster rather than the telephone. She picked up the gleaming knife again.
As she opened the door to the basement and flipped the weak bulb on, she worried at first when she did not see what she expected at the foot of the stairs. But then she looked over into the corner and breathed a sigh of relief; the child was huddled there, limbs bound and eyes wide, and silent, of course, because of the gag. “Now, where were we?” she asked brightly. She fingered the point of the knife and descended the staircase into the dimly lit room.