Though the addicts had been spooked by the shot, as Kathy’s car pulled up the thinned crowd seemed to double or triple. Deacon Willis was driving with Kathy riding shotgun. The girls were in the backseat, and Kathy snatched Jennie up by the arm while Sarah got out the other side on her own. None of the family seemed phased by the figures milling about the yard.
On the contrary, Kathy waved them inside the home. HER home. The home Clara had paid for, with the children Clara had cared for. Clara could see them inside, kindly lined up, waiting their turn, until they got what they were there for. Afterward they either disappeared into the woods, or paused in front, slightly hiding behind the heating unit for a smoke before heading on their way.
Inside, the girls were not being put to bed; instead, they were hanging around in the living room alongside the questionable company. Clara could see a little through the back screen door, and it looked like Sarah was eating something off of the floor while Jennie appeared to be…helping. Seeing them off: thank-you-very-much, see-you-again-soon, don’t-you-be-a-stranger-you-hear?
Clara knew she had to wait. She had been perched in the deer stand for hours now, she was sure, and a real thirst had set in. But she had to get the girls. She hadn’t had a plan when she started her journey—that’s for sure, she thought, looking at the gun in her hand—but she knew she wasn’t leaving without Jennie and Sarah.
It was hours more until the lights in the girls’ room finally went out, and Clara Mae knew it was time.
She made her way down the tree ladder awkwardly—falling the last three rungs, knocking her chin back and snapping her jaw closed. As she dusted herself off, she realized she must’ve bit her tongue. It was quite a lot of blood. She hoped she hadn’t done anything serious.
Clara had been worried that the lawn-zombies would come after her after her decent—particularly given her noisy emergence—but they hardly seemed to notice. She made her movements slow and slouching, imitating theirs, but she wasn’t sure if perhaps that made her stand out more? The girls’ window was a few feet away when one of the wanderers set his sights on her, began to walk to her, open mouth and pointing finger like he had something to say, and so before he could Clara Mae opened her mouth—where tongue-blood and saliva had been gathering—and sprayed the fluids to the leaves below as if it were bloody vomit.
The lawn-zombie turned tail.
Clara moved in closer to the house. It had an…odor. Sharp and pungent and ripened as if doused in cat piss. Steeped in cat piss. Marinated. The girls’ bedroom window was up high so she had to take off her shoe and try to fling it. The first didn’t hit high enough, she thought, so she tried her other shoe. She saw the top of a head (Jennie’s) and she quickly mouthed
with her pointer finger pressed over lips, and then the gesture
with the wave of a coaxing hand. Jennie snuck out the back door with ease, her skittishness revealing that she knew too well the dangers lurking outside. The outside light was dim, but Clara could still clearly see that Jennie had a black eye.
“Quite the shiner,” Clara whispered, reaching out to hold the side of the child’s face for a closer look.
Jennie pulled away. “It’s fine, Grandmom. I’m fine.”
“You’re coming with me tonight. The both of you,” Clara said in her quietest, firmest voice, hoping that the command inspired more confidence than she actually felt in her gut.
Jennie nodded, understanding. Agreeing. Yes, escape. The only choice.
“Has your mom gone to bed?” Clara asked.
Jennie nodded. “They’re in her bedroom, at least.”
“They?” Clara said.
“Deacon Willis.” Jennie shrugged.
“Ah,” Clara said, understanding. “Wait here. I’m going to get Sarah.”
Jennie did, maintaining vigil, waiting for her grandmother to return, confident that Grandmom could withstand all BAD THINGS, confident that no harm would come to her in there, sure, so sure, that she was rescued.
But when Clara walked through the door, on the other side was Deacon Willis.
“WHATTHAFUCK?” he said, his eyes wide and wandering. “Kathy, whatthafuck. Why’s your mother-in-law breaking in again? Didn’t she just go to JAIL for that? I mean, whatthafuuuuuck?”
The door was open to the bedroom, and Clara could see mason jars of liquid and plastic tubing, winding pipes of dirty transparent or manila-envelope-beige marked with ash. The carpet had stains, dark stains—blood? no, iodine.
Kathy stood in the middle of it all, hands in the middle of mixing or heating or concocting when caught, boil, boil, toil and trouble. Can’t call the police this time can you? Even Clara recognized that Kathy and the deacon must be cooking meth.
Kathy smelled strongly of those chemicals as she pounced through the doorframe and onto Clara, pinning her to the floor. “You ain’t taking my kids.” Kathy spat in Clara’s face.
Clara wiggled a hand free and got couple of fingers into her pocket. Her fingers dug for T’s gun, though what did she think she was gonna do with that, exactly?
Just scare ’em. That’s all.
“GET-OFFA-ME!” Clara said, but Kathy did not ease up one bit.
“She’s got a gun!” Deacon Willis saw her pull the gun out, and the two—unprepared for her to be armed—backed off completely.
Clara looked outside and saw Jennie had left her post at the door and, in the midst of all of chaos, was…playing. Clara Mae was struck with shame—her gun pointed at the chest of the child’s only remaining parent—and here Jennie was, as she was meant to, just playing.
Clara took a second look. Jennie was playing with a doll.
No not a doll, The Doll.
Clara’s missing handbag was sitting next to Jennie, splayed on the ground and gutted of cash. Clara had the thought, T must’ve thrown it there, at the same time she noticed a fly, then two, dropping along the windowsills and floorboards.
Dropping like flies
Clara was already in motion by the time she smelled the smolder coming from Kathy’s room. Clara bolted for the door so fast she knocked over the shelves by the entrance where Kathy had her stash. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Kathy and Deacon Willis diving for the drugs, scrambling and gathering and trying to save what they could. Clara dived, too, but she dived out the back stairs, catching air, arms outstretched like a superhero, reaching, reaching for Jennie, skinning her knees and belly but paying that no mind. Clara could feel the gravel burying into the skin burn of her stomach, but Jennie was not phased; she just kept rocking the baby back and forth and repeating, Mama’s shouldn’t outta do that to their babies, no they shouldn’t, just a little baby, no they shouldn’t. Jennie looked up at Clara, still cradling The Doll, and burning in her eyes she could see intent. Though the papers would later footnote it as another meth lab caught fire, Jennie—forever—would know what she had done. The girl looked up at Clara, and said, almost as if asking a question, “They shouldn’t’ve done that.”
“No, they shouldn’t’ve,” Clara grabbed her granddaughter and pushed her backwards, but not soon enough, and the trailer was all at once aflame, and she remembered thinking that’s why they call it a ball of flame, surprised by how cleanly round the fireball was, when wall of heat blew them off of their feet.
For a moment, time stood still, and Clara and Jennie held each other, huddled together while their eyebrows and arm hairs singed. Jennie looked up at the fireball that had been her home and said, “Sarah… Sarah didn’t get rescued.”