“Hello, sun, it’s been a long time,” Angel whispered, turning her pale face up to the cloudy sky.
“You’re just as warm and friendly as I remember. Did you miss me? I missed you!”
The sidewalk was littered with leaves: bright red, dark green, fiery gold, chartreuse. Above her head, a few trees still hoarded their fall finery, but mostly, the branches were bare and brown, dotted with squirrel nests and the occasional plastic grocery bag.
Angel stepped lightly on the leaves at first, not wanting to scar their fragile beauty, but the temptation to crunch, crunch, crunch was too great, too exciting, and soon she was jumping up and down, her black and white saddle shoes landing flat against the dry foliage, the sound so satisfying she grinned and hugged herself.
“It’s fall. Fall. Fall.” She sang the words and skipped to the corner. The corner of Sheridan and Capitol Streets. Make a right, make a left, Tate’s Grocery marked the spot.
A small yellow dog – a Cocker Spaniel? Was that a type of dog? - barked at her from behind an old iron fence, its back end wriggling so fast she thought the two halves would come apart. The dog’s owner leaned out the door and called to her, then the dog, “Sorry! Butter, get over here and leave that girl alone!” and the dog retreated to the porch, where he continued to watch suspiciously as Angel skipped past his territory.
Two kids were playing across the street in the yard of a large square house. A boy was throwing a ball to the other kid, who kept dropping it. The pitcher was patient, maybe the other boy’s brother. They were around her age, or a little older, probably definitely in middle school. Maybe they could be friends. Probably not. But maybe. Bud would like them. Bud had to be sick of girls by now.
Angel slid her hand into her waistband, felt to make sure her skipping hadn’t bounced the money out. No, it was still there, tightly rolled, four one dollar bills and a five dollar bill. That would be enough for milk, chocolate chips, and apples, Alfred said. That would be plenty. Bring back the change. And a receipt. Make it quick, no more than thirty minutes. Tick tock. Tick tock.
But she didn’t want to make it quick. The sun felt so good, even though it wasn’t really sunny out. And the air smelled fresh. Earthy. The leaves had their own perfume, a little dusty, a little woody, and she wanted to scoop them up in great handfuls and memorize that smell for later. She wanted to go back to Butter the dog and shove her face into his neck and take a deep breath of that wonderful mix of musty fur and stinky dog breath.
You can’t always get what you want, the Stones said. They might be old, but they knew what they were talkin’ about. That’s what her dad told her, years ago when she was a kid and he was still around. You didn’t need a man of the so-called God to tell you what’s what. The Stones, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, Rush. Those are the true voices of God.
At the corner of Capitol and Barton, she waited while two cars passed through the intersection. One was a green Jeep. The other looked like her mother’s ancient station wagon. It couldn’t be that car, though. That car had died long ago, when Angel was still a kid.
And then she was at Tate’s. There were a couple of Iowa City Press-Citizen newspapers left in the news box outside the small corner grocery store and she stole a quick glance. October 3, 2000. Angel felt a short, sharp pang of despair but pushed it down. The headlines talked about new buses for the schools, an attack on an army base in Iraq, and the leaders in local high school football.
“Hello, young lady!” a large white-haired man, possibly Mr. Tate himself, grinned and waved at her from the customer service box that was raised a step up from the main floor.
Angel ducked her head in a nod and picked up a red plastic shopping basket. She had to hurry now; she’d taken her time getting here, and she was going to be late. Chocolate chips, milk and… what was the third thing? She stood in the baking section, squinting at the items as if mind-melding all the brands of chocolate would kick loose the missing item. There were three things. She knew that. Chocolate chips, milk and… darn!
The gallon of milk was heavy in the red basket and her hands began to ache. And she was in the way; people kept saying ‘excuse me’ to get past her. Red-faced, Angel moved into an empty aisle to think hard. But once there, she came face to face with dozens and dozens of magazines. She loved magazines. Especially ones with moms on the front that promised delicious treats inside. Or with animals being cute on the cover. Or the kind with fancy women dressed in impossibly fancy clothes.
Just a peek. Just one little look at one magazine, and that would be it. Surely that peek would help her remember the missing item! “Women’s Day” called her name. The woman on the cover was smiling and happy, showing off a batch of freshly baked cookies. “24 recipes for busy weekday nights!” “Finding the perfect winter coat for you kids without breaking the bank!” and “10 great holiday gifts you can make and give.”
Angel sighed and gently turned the page.
She almost didn’t notice the girl who passed behind her. She wouldn’t have given her a thought except the girl made a mean face at Angel and slid a teen magazine into the front of her jeans, under her sweater, daring her. Angel’s mouth dropped open, but she couldn’t say anything. If she said something they’d make her stay and then she would be really late and –
“Hey! You! I saw that!” a loud voice boomed down the aisle. The big friendly man from before was not friendly now. He blocked the end of the aisle, his hands on his hips, and glared at the girl.
Who, for no logical reason whatsoever, turned to Angel and yelled, “Run!”
Angel was so surprised she dropped Women’s Day and turned to watch the girl run out the open end of the aisle. She was even more surprised when a large, angry hand clamped down on her shoulder. Her voice came out a shocked squeak. “What –“
“I’m tired of you kids coming in here thinking you can just help yourself to the goods. We’re calling your parents. This way, young lady!” The man kept a firm grip on her and shoved her ahead of him toward the front of the store. Her basket sat abandoned at the magazine rack, still an item short. Angel started to tremble.
“But – I – I’m just here to buy chocolate chips and milk and – apples!” The mystery item came back in a rush. “I don’t even know that kid!”
But the big man didn’t care, he was beyond hearing, she could see it in his red face, in the way his eyes squinted when he looked down at her. She knew mad.
“Mister, please, just let me get my apples and pay you and go home! Please!” Angel squirmed, felt her lip quiver, knew she was going to cry, couldn’t stop herself. This was bad. So, so, bad. Worse than anything that had ever happened before bad. If she didn’t get home soon… if she didn’t get home with the groceries soon…
“Kid, I’m sick and tired of this crap and it’s your bad luck you were the one to get caught. You have a seat while I call your parents. What’s the number?” He shoved her down onto a hard wooden chair, and blocked the opening to the small customer service area with his big body. He lifted the receiver of the black phone and waited.
“I – I don’t know the number.” Angel could feel her eyes expanding in their sockets, thought they were going to bug out of her head any minute. She shoved her hand into her waistband, pulled out the crumpled money, held it out. “See? I was going to pay for my chocolate chips, milk and apples. I swear!”
“What’s the number, girl? It’s either your parents or the cops. Your choice!” Sweat had broken out in beads all over his forehead, and some of the beads were having races down his red cheeks.
“I don’t know the number!”
The man raised an eyebrow at her. “How old are you?”
“And you expect me to believe you don’t know your phone number?”
“I don’t!” Angel sobbed.
“Cops it is then! Just not your day!”
Angel felt her heart shove its way up into her throat, thought she would pass out from lack of breath. Then realized she had no choice, she had to run for it, had to had to had to because things would be so much worse if she didn’t Go Right Now.
Screaming like a banshee, Angel threw herself at the big man, startling him into moving just enough that she could squeeze past and dash out the door, past the rental carpet cleaners, past the line of free magazines and newspapers, out into the cold fall air. She ran, and ran, and ran, and ran, not stopping at the corner of Capitol and Barton, not stopping at the corner of Capitol and Sheridan, just ran, and ran, and ran.
Until she got to the green bungalow house with the hydrangeas in the front yard.
Then she stopped dead.
She had no chocolate chips. She had no milk. She had no apples. And she was late. Very very late.
She knew mad.
The front door to the pretty green house was open, just a crack, just a tiny bit, enough that she could tell it was quiet inside. Angel stepped from the porch into the foyer, carefully closed the door behind her, set the chain as she’d been taught to do, turned the deadbolt as she’d been taught to do, twisted the feeble little press button on the door handle itself as she’d been taught to do.
Alfred was sitting on the couch in the living room, legs crossed, a shimmery gold throw pillow in his lap. His hands, long-fingered and soft, picked at the fringe on the pillow. He stared at her, expressionless, and Angel began to quiver. The quiet was like nails on a chalkboard, plucking every nerve in her body beyond bearing. Even though the room was warm colors like deep yellow and red, it felt cold. So cold.
“I’m sorry, I – this girl – at the store – she stole a magazine and the man thought – he tried to call the police – and I – I had to run – I – I didn’t get caught – I – knew you’d be ma-waiting – I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Angel felt the words spilling out as she moved slowly toward the door to the kitchen. Her hand unclenched and she carefully exposed the money, crushed into a tight ball, and held it out, not reaching for him, just stretching her hand out, the money sitting on it like an offering, but she kept moving, slowly, carefully, toward the swinging kitchen door, a step closer, one more, just a little more, almost there, almost to the door, just a little farther, and she’d be okay, they’d be okay, everything would be okay.
Somewhere in the back of her mind she recognized he wasn’t moving, wasn’t reacting, just staring at her, not looking mad, not looking sad, not looking amused like he sometimes did. Something was really wrong. Her gut clenched and threatened to heave but she fought it down, swallowed the bitter gut juice that rose up into her mouth, reached out with a hand to feel the wall, almost there. But the money. She still had the money in her hand. Had to put the money down. She stopped, looked at Alfred’s face, felt his eyes burning into her as he watched her think. Swallowed. Took a quick step forward, into the danger zone, just enough to drop the rolled bills onto the table behind the sofa and jump back.
“I’m really sorry, I’m really sorry, I’ll go downstairs, I’ll put myself away, no need to – I’ll just go now, okay?” She backed into the kitchen door, pushed through it with her butt, turning as soon as she was safely in the kitchen to grab at the handle of the basement door. Her hand was slick with sweat, and the knob didn’t turn right away. She tried again, sure he would be behind her any moment, yelling and angry and –
The knob caught and she dragged the door open, slipped through it onto the first step, the second, then slammed the door shut behind her and half-ran, half-slid down the remaining steps into the living room of the basement apartment.
The carpet was slick under her feet and she lost her footing on the last couple of steps and fell on her butt, tumbling down like a kid on a snow-covered hill, her right leg folding under her.
She screamed when she landed at the bottom.
Bud was hanging upside down from a heavy bag stand, naked, his hands and ankles bound tightly with barbed wire. A tennis ball was shoved in his mouth, his lips crusted with blood from the force of getting it in there. His blue eyes, identical to her own, were clouded with pain as he watched her slip down the last steps, push herself back to standing from the carpet, ignoring the pain in her leg. He shook his head when she gasped and reached toward him. His eyes moved in a way that told her Alfred was behind her, watching.
She didn’t care. She hadn’t been gone that long. Not long enough that the blood would be dried!
“Amelia?” Angel hissed, moving away from the bottom step, so she could both see Alfred and look for the older girl. Amelia wasn’t in the living area of the apartment; that left the bedroom, the training room or the bathroom. She couldn’t go look. She had to be still. Be calm. Wait to see what would happen next. Stop. Think. Breath.
Alfred came slowly down the stairs, still silent. He sat on the bottom step, elbows on his knees, fingers steepled together, and looked at her. She could see him out of the corner of her eye. His head cocked like a puppy, curious and interested. Finally he spoke. “You were very bad.”
“I wasn’t. I told you. Another girl –“
“You didn’t bring the apples. Or the milk. Or the chocolate chips.”
“I couldn’t! I had them in my basket but he was going to arrest me!”
“You made a promise. You made a commitment. You let me down.” Alfred sighed. He faced Bud. “You let Bud down. Didn’t she, Bud?”
Bud remained motionless; even a shake of the head would cause pain.
“You let Amelia down, too.”
Angel sucked in a sob. “I didn’t. I didn’t mean to. I tried to do what you asked, but the girl, and the man, I couldn’t. I couldn’t! I ran home so fast, so they couldn’t get me. The police. They didn’t get me!”
Alfred smiled the scariest smile of all… the smile that made the corners of his eyes crinkle. “You knew the rules. You knew that if you were allowed this special treat, you had to meet all the conditions. You failed. You failed, and now your brother and sister will pay for your sin.”
“I didn’t sin!” Angel felt like she screamed, but fear pushed out only a whisper. “Please! Don’t punish them. Punish me. I’m the one who -” she choked on the word, anger and unfairness bubbling through her – “I’m the one who sinned, so punish me!”
Alfred shook his head, still smiling. “Very noble of you, my darling girl. But this lesson is so much more effective.” He stood and pulled something from his back pocket. A small, glistening knife. “Come to me, Angel.”
She shook her head, clung to the wall, wanting desperately to run into the bathroom mere inches away and slam the door, but there was no door on the bathroom, and even if there was, she’d have to come out sometime, and he’d still be here. Waiting. Nowhere to hide.
“Come here, Angel,” Alfred repeated, still softly, his head cocking again, the smile still dancing on his lips.
Angel looked at Bud, understood the look in his eyes. He knew what was coming. He was accepting. She took one small step toward the man and the boy, but not close enough for Alfred to touch her.
“Closer, my dear.” Alfred motioned with the knife. “You have a choice. You can take the knife, and do as I say.” He smiled and his eyelids lowered and Angel thought of a lizard she’d once seen in science class. “Or I will do it.”
Her heart was pounding so hard she felt blood in her ears, and thought she would pass out. Her brain wasn’t connecting… what did he mean, she could do it, or he would do it… she wasn’t going to hurt her brother…. she couldn’t do that. This was a new form of hell he’d created.
“Angel, if you do as I say, there will be pain for Bud. But if you don’t do as I say, the pain will be much, much greater.” His voice was a sing-song now, soothing, convincing.
She felt her eyes grow wider, looked into Bud’s face, saw him nod just a little, telling her, “Do it. It’s okay.”
But it wasn’t okay. She couldn’t. She couldn’t cut her brother.
But she had to. If she didn’t, Alfred would, and Bud’s body showed what that meant. His pale, skinny chest was a tic-tac-toe board, lines and circles and Xs from his collar bones to his belly button. His back was just as bad. Alfred wouldn’t slice her or Amelia – that would damage their ‘beauty’ he said – but he enjoyed making scars on Bud. There was more scar tissue on Bud’s body than there was soft skin.
Angel stepped closer and looked at Alfred, knowing he would see how much she hated him, she could feel the hate burning in her own eyes, making them water, making them sting. He would also see the fear she fought, and knew he didn’t care about either emotion.
Smiling like a mad clown, Alfred handed her the knife, handle first for safety. “Five bands across his bicep. One for each of the five minutes you were tardy. There must be blood, there must be visible tissue under the flesh. If you don’t do a good job, I’ll have to correct your work.”
Where was Amelia? Why didn’t she come out of hiding? She couldn’t. That was why. Somewhere in the maze of rooms, she was tied up, and if Angel failed to satisfy Alfred’s bloodlust with Bud, Amelia would be next.
Sucking back a sob, Angel stepped close to her brother, whispered, “I love you,” and cut.