“See, Lili. The man doesn’t look too dangerous,” the woman – with a look suggesting she had not had her morning coffee in weeks – reassured the girl standing beside her, smiling while wincing at the white-knuckled pain the nine-year-old was inflicting on her hand. Lili was scared, and apprehensive. Parents aren’t meant to hand over their children to middle-aged men who advertise available seats in their cars for two-hundred-mile trips. At least not good parents.
“Hi Mrs. Jessop. I’m Andrew. We spoke on the phone yesterday,” Andrew reached out his hand in greeting, but the woman’s own was still in the grips of a child nearing a meltdown with every passing second. He lowered it and placed it in his pocket, deciding that pushing physical contact on the mother would not bode well for any potential trust she could have in him. He looked at the child doing the clinching and noticed her piercing grey eyes. They seemed to reflect everything they saw.
Lili was eyeing his car with the suspicion of a child who has seen every stranger danger video available at school and the local library.
This is a bad idea. She said nothing about her daughter being barely over the legal walking age, Andrew thought as he tried to find a way to defuse the ticking bomb this scenario was fast becoming.
“Don’t mind her, she is always shy around new people, aren’t you Lili?” Mrs. Jessop winced further as Lili dug tiny nails deeper into her palms.
“Do you like puppies, Lili?” Andrew grasped at the only straw that passed him by. You idiot. All little girls like puppies, and you’re coming across as a creep. Why don’t you just tell her you have candy in your car?
“Grandpa killed my puppies,” Lili stated blankly, and looked up at her mother.
Mrs. Jessop spurted out a nervous laugh and pulled her hand free of Lili’s grip.
“She is always coming up with little stories. You know how they are at that age.” The woman seemed to be grasping at straws of her own now, and unsuccessfully at that. “It was an accident,” she said, having found the worst one.
Andrew stood dumbfounded at the icebreaker he had just been dealt. Should have just asked if she wants candy.
Lili seemed to take no notice of the ripping away of her safety harness, and now walked forward, closing the five yards between herself and Andrew, offering her hand in a greeting far too confident for a child of her age. The imminent meltdown had passed, and a new, threatening demeanor had been adopted by the girl with the bright yellow beanie over her raven hair.
“My name is Lili, and I am nine years old.”
Even though the morning was frighteningly cold, and Andrew had been blowing clouds of white vapor with every word he spoke, Lili’s hand was boiling hot as he shook it softly.
“Do you have candy? I have some, but mommy says I’m not supposed to share it. It’s only for me, so you can’t have any.”
What in the …
Andrew looked in his rear-view mirror as he shifted down to third gear, preparing to overtake a white truck which had already cost him a good ten minutes of his trip.
“Don’t,” Lili stated, void of emotion, as he was about to turn the steering wheel and put his foot down further on the gas pedal.
Andrew startled as he realized she was still sitting beside him. The first ten minutes of the trip had been spent in anxious trepidation over how he was supposed to entertain, or talk to, the far-too-easily-offered child in the passenger seat. Rather than place the weight of worry on his mind, he had selected the only playlist he thought would have no cursing in it – wouldn’t want her to reach her destination with tales of vulgarity – and had gotten lost in the good vibrations of The Beach Boys.
As he straightened the steering wheel, interrupting what had almost become an overtaking maneuver, a red Jaguar appeared beside the truck, speeding from the opposite direction.
“How did you …”
“You’re welcome, Andy. Want some candy?”
Goose flesh crawled over his body as he struggled to come to terms with the last few seconds of his life.
I didn’t see it. I’m sure I didn’t.
“Doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. Candy?”
“I thought you weren’t allowed to share?” It was all Andrew could utter. Did I say that part out loud?
“Mommy lies sometimes.” Lili leaned forward and unzipped the pink backpack she had placed below the glove compartment. She took out a small zip lock bag, and slowly opened it while The Beach Boys asked if it wouldn’t be nice if they were older. She reached out her short arm and Andrew reached into the bag while still focused on the road ahead, fumbling around on his first two attempts. The red Jaguar and the circumstances of the near miss had glued his eyes to the road, and he had no intention of peeling them off.
Andrew felt soft bristles creep under his fingernails, and at first took no notice of it, absentmindedly thinking he had simply missed the bag again. It was only when he reached further down and felt small, sharp nails stroking his knuckles that he pulled his hand away and uttered a short, shocked scream.
“What is that?” Andrew asked, still not taking his eyes off the road.
“My puppies, silly,” Lili giggled, “I told you mommy lies sometimes.”
The luggage packed on the back seat in the cold of the early morning struck the back of Andrew’s seat as he slammed his foot down on the brakes and aimed the steering wheel at the gravel runoff beside the interstate.
“Why’d you do that, Andy?” Lili looked at him, holding the zip lock bag to her chest and concealing its contents with her folded arms.
In the moments following her question, Andrew strongly considered placing his car back into gear and getting to his destination as fast as humanly possible.
The little nails that had scratched at his knuckles had left small cuts, announcing their undeniable existence. These cuts now started to sting like deep paper cuts, and Andrew placed the sensitive wrinkles in his mouth, hoping for some relief and tasting blood on his tongue.
“Don’t be scared. Grandpa said I could keep them if I promised not to take them swimming again.” Lili’s voice sounded ashamed, and she looked down at the bag still nested in her lap. “He said I had been a bad girl, but that if I loved them enough and kept them warm, they would stop crying.”
Andrew looked over at the top of the bag, still mostly hidden from view, and saw steam rising from it.
“What did you do to your puppies, Lili?”
“Grandpa said I shouldn’t tell.”
“It’s okay, it can be our little secret.” Andrew immediately regretted his statement. Just tell her to put it back and get the hell out of dodge.
Lili slowly uncrossed her arms, revealing the steaming bag and its morbid contents to a man who had done nothing more than post on a lift club group. Three pairs of small paws, detached from little bodies no doubt floating in a pond somewhere, scratched their nails against the fogged-up sides of the bag, stretching the plastic and clawing hopelessly like lobsters trying to escape a trap. Andrew felt warm, sour bile making its way up his throat as The Beach Boys announced that they can hear music.
Funeral music, no doubt.
“Don’t be scared of them, Andy. They just want to play. They get real sad and lonely in here,” she looked down at the bag and a small sob escaped her quivering lips.
Andrew reached for the door handle but heard the locking mechanism reject his plan of escape. He jerked at the handle, but it refused to give him so much as an inch of hope.
“Let me out, Lili,” his voice was shaking, and he could feel an unwelcome panic making its way up past the bile now bubbling just behind his tongue.
“You’ll tell Grandpa! I know it!” she knelt on the passenger seat and held the bag with its softly squirming contents out to him with two cupped hands. Crimson tears were running down her cheeks. “Play with them or I’ll make you go swimming, too.”
Andrew withdrew further and swung his elbow at the car window as the icy, grey eyes he had marveled at only an hour earlier turned to alabaster white, like milk being poured into a glass. The window hit back, and Andrew felt a bone in his elbow crack. Pain shot through his upper arm, and he let out a scream.
“If I take them, will you let me out?”
“Of course, Andy. As long as you don’t hurt them,” the tears disappeared down her neck and left no sign of ever having been there, and she gave him a reassuring smile while lifting the bag up toward his face with arms which seemed to be growing longer.
Andrew took the bag with trembling hands and felt its clawing contents scratch at his palms through the plastic as he cupped his hands to hold it in place. Steam still rose from the bag’s opening and the smell sent sharp tentacles shooting up his sinuses, creating an unstoppable storm when it merged with the bile threatening to make its escape.
“Don’t,” Lili spoke through a smile, still giving the illusion of reassurance.
Small nails like blunt pencil tips scratched at Andrew’s palms in a silent plea for release, and as the river of bile made its final journey over his tongue, he instinctively reached to cover his mouth, dropping the bag to the floor.
“You hurt them!” Lili screamed, stinging Andrew’s ears and echoing through the locked space.
Don’t go near the water was the final message The Beach Boys serenaded him with as he looked down at his feet and saw water creeping up over his ankles, rising steadily.
“I told you not to hurt them!”
Andrew struck hopeless fists against the window as the warm water reached his lap and deposited three pairs of squirming paws on his leg. They clawed at his jeans, begging to not go swimming again. Swimming was no good.
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