She stood in the kitchen chewing her bottom lip. Her gloves were already on. She needed 3 more things.
First, the knife and measuring cup:
Her heart was pounding as she reached deep into the back of the silverware drawer and pulled out the old paring knife. It had been bleached to kill any DNA, then boiled to get rid of the bleach smell. Then (using gloves) she’d wrapped it in plastic and set it aside.
The knife was old but very sharp. She’d bought it and a couple of other items at a yard sale the first year she was married. That was in another state, another life. There were no other knives in the house that matched this one. That was important.
She shoved the knife up the sleeve of her sweatshirt, then donned her winter coat. The measuring cup went in her giant winter pocket. Then, she slipped leather gloves on top of the latex ones. Her lips felt raw. She used beeswax lip balm to soothe them. If only everything were that easy.
Second, the Cubs:
By the time she got downstairs to the kids’ playroom, she appeared happy, casual, and calm. She was ready to go and so were her-
The cubs were fighting. Cub #1, just a year older, was teasing Cub #2. They never used to fight. The pair were best friends until a few weeks ago. They’d only been in the new house a month. They seemed to love it.
As she separated them, her mind drifted back …
Just 2 days ago she’d realized what was happening. Cub #1 had locked Cub #2 in the closet, in the dark. She’d come in from the garage and heard #2 wailing and pounding on the door. #2 was terrified and #1 was calm. Angry.
It wasn’t the first time she’d caught them mistreating one another, but it was that particular cruelty that drove it home. It struck her. Like lightning, only the energy was the knowledge that someone had messed with her cubs. She calmed #2 and probed #1. Gently, as only a mother could. They depended on her to keep them safe. It broke her in half, learning the unspeakable details of secret visits with the man next door.
It was all her fault. She was too busy unpacking and setting up their new lives to notice the moment they disappeared from the front yard that first time. She’d asked one of the neighbors in the cul-de-sac, “Have you seen my kids?” They were there 10 minutes ago. “I saw them talking to Chester. They went inside with him,” the neighbor said.
She’d wailed on Chester’s door and told him exactly what she thought of grown men inviting children into their houses. He’d paled at that. He apologized. She took the Cubs home and gave them a talking to about Stranger Danger.
It never happened again. Not that she knew of. But there had been signs … toys she didn’t remember buying, the kids saying they were going to be in the backyard, but then she’d have to go looking for them, and they’d pop-up in the cul-de-sac after she searched it.
Thirdly, she needed sugar:
It was important. It was the reason they were going shopping in the freezing rain.
She had parked outside the day before. On purpose.
On the way to the car, she looked around. No neighbors in sight. She pressed the key fob and unlocked the doors.
“Mama Bear, can I get a toy?” Cub #1 had the biggest smile.
Mama Bear smiled. She knew they’d ask. They especially loved going to the store because she usually said, “yes.”
Cub #2 chimed in, “me, too! I want one, too!”
“One toy for both of you, as long as it’s not expensive, and doesn’t use batteries.”
She turned the car on to warm up. Then the DVD player. Their favorite movie started playing. She locked them in their booster seats and said, “I’ll be right back,” like she had the world’s greatest idea.
It was the world’s greatest as far as she was concerned.
She walked up to Chester’s door and pulled the measuring cup from her pocket. Looking back at the car, she could see the windows were fogging.
Her body went cold. She said, “I know this sounds cliche, but can I borrow a cup of sugar?”
He grinned, or she imagined he did. She couldn’t really make out his face anymore. “You’ll give it back as soon as you’re done?”
“Oh, I always pay-back.”
“Well, come in out of the rain.”
She did. His house was set up exactly like hers, only reversed. It smelled stale.
He closed the door behind them. She handed him the metal measuring cup and waited in the entry, discreetly removing one winter glove.
She expected him to make small talk, but he didn’t. She watched him move around his kitchen. He looked in a cabinet or two, then picked up a sugar bowl, removed the lid, and then poured.
On his way back to her, he apologized. For the wrong thing. She worked the blade from her sleeve into her hand.
“Sorry, I barely have half a cup.” His hand shook as he passed the container.
“No problem,” she turned towards the door, thinking, “now. Do it now!” But it wasn’t time yet.
He opened the front door and stood behind it. She stepped out onto the porch- quick glance: no neighbors- and turned to face him before he could shove her completely out.
She was saying, “Oh, I wanted to tell you-”
The paring knife jammed into his neck. His eyes widened. She spilled some sugar grabbing the door to keep the crime concealed. She’d planned on twisting the blade but took it back instead. Too messy. His hands flew up to cup the wound. Everything was running red.
“-I know what you did to my Cubs.” She slipped the wet knife back into the baggy, took off the outer latex glove, and put it in there too, then closed the door.
She wanted to run, run, run! But forced herself to move casually. She threw the rest of the sugar into a puddle and pocketed the cup.
When she got into the drivers’ seat and buckled, the cubs were singing along with the movie. She turned on the defrosters and removed the three latex gloves she was still wearing, putting them inside the same baggy, then stowing it in her giant winter pocket. Her hands seemed clear of any evidence.
She placed her warm winter gloves back on and began backing down the driveway. The smiling faces in the back seat warmed her bones. “Have you thought about the kind of toy you want?”