I didn’t need Link to tell me not to chase after the woman. I stayed in the van and pinned Mildred with a pointed stare. “What did you do to her that she hates you that much?”
“That’s unimportant,” the cat replied.
“Since we got here, I ran over a body, nearly lost an eye to a squirrel, was almost arrested, and I’ve been threatened by the campground owner,” I complained. “I think I deserve to know why we’re here.”
“I told you — to get the squirrel.”
“And what are you going to do with him once I catch him?” I studied her carefully, trying to determine whether or not she would lie to me.
She twitched her tail and narrowed her blue eyes. “We need him for a ritual.”
“Are you going to eat him?”
“Are you expecting meto eat him?”
She made a scoffing noise that sounded like she was about to cough up a hairball.
“Are you going to sacrifice him?”
“Considering that you’re the one that’s going to have to perform this ritual, you would be the one to sacrifice him.”
I shook my head. “No way.”
“You have experience with that,” she reminded me.
She wasn’t wrong, but I refused to acknowledge that fact aloud. “I won’t do it,” I told her defiantly.
“Well then get ready to spend eternity together, darling,” she purred.
My fingers itched to grab the spray bottle and douse that superior smirk right off her face, but I remained still.
“Why don’t you tell me what wrong it is that you’re trying to put right here. Maybe I can help in a capacity other than running ridiculous errands for you.”
She narrowed her eyes and considered me carefully. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Probably not,” I agreed, “but try me anyway.”
The coffee maker gurgled, signaling it was done. I got up to pour myself a cup, giving her a moment to make her decision. Once I had a steaming mug in my hands, I settled back into my seat and waited.
“She always hated my boy,” Mildred complained.
“Of course,” she hissed. “Isn’t that who we’re talking about?”
“And we’re talking about Buddy?”
The cat did not deign to answer.
I couldn’t blame Tess for hating Buddy. I had hated him too, which was why I could never figure out how I’d ever married him in the first place.
“So it wasn’t my fault,” Mildred continued, justifying herself, “if Tess had not–”
She didn’t get to continue her story, because there was a knock on the camper’s door.
Bracing myself for another run-in with the cop, no doubt there to haul me down to the station, probably in cuffs , maybe in ankle irons, hell, for all I knew in a Silence of the Lambs mask, I took a fortifying gulp of coffee before I got up to answer the door.
The knocking repeated.
“I’m coming!” Throwing open the door, I was surprised to find, not Welton as I’d anticipated, but the little brat, Richie.
“Hi, Smoosher lady,” he said with a wide grin that revealed that he was missing a front tooth.
I looked over his head passed him. “Where is your mother?”
“Asleep,” he said defensively.
Something in his tone, a vulnerability, softened my opinion of him. Having seen his mother the night before, I was pretty sure the kid did not have the easiest of lives. “What do you want?” I asked gently.
“Do you want to play hide and seek?” he asked hopefully.
I blinked and took another sip of my coffee before I answered him, studying his dirty yellow shirt, the same he’d worn the night before, and unbrushed hair. I realized that this place probably didn’t have any other children for him to play with and it didn’t look like his mother was the type to indulge his need for fun and games. “Yeah, I’ll play hide-and-seek.”
“Yay!” He jumped up and down excitedly. “This is base.” He touched the side of the vehicle.
“But I can’t play for long,” I warned him. “I’ve got stuff to do. Grownup stuff.”
He nodded his understanding, and instructed, “Count to twenty and don’t forget to hide your eyes.”
Doing as he instructed, I leaned my arm against the frame of the door, rested my forehead against it and began to slowly count out loud. “One. Two….” I heard his footsteps hurrying off and then the crunch of leaves as he entered the woods.
I stopped counting and took another sip of coffee. I wondered whether I had ever played hide-and-seek as a child. It’s a strange thing to have no memory, no points of reference, when you encounter events that other people take for granted as being part of their history.
I wondered if I’d had siblings to chase after, or if I’d been alone, begging for a playmate like the little boy.
I drank some more coffee and shook my head, trying to chase away the thoughts. It did no good to spend time pondering the “what was” questions. I would never have any answers.
“Ready or not here I come!” I yelled loudly. I drained the last of my coffee, put the cup in the sink, and closed the camper after me as I left. I walked in the general direction that I thought Richie had headed.
Catching a glimpse of a grackle cleaning its iridescent feathers, I stopped to talk to it. “Pardon me. Did you happen to see a little boy running this way?”
The bird tilted its head as though she couldn’t believe that I was talking to her. “You talking to me?” she squawked.
“Yes. I’m talking to you.”
The bird fluffed out her feathers and asked again, “Me?”
“You can understand me?” The bird looks so startled, I thought she was going to fall right off the branch.
“Yes,” I can understand you and I’d love to have a further discussion with you at some point, but right now I’m looking for the boy.”
“Yes,” she replied hesitantly. “He came this way.”
“Thank you.” I continued in that direction in the woods stopping every few feet to listen carefully, to see if he would give away his location. I heard nothing out of the ordinary. The kid was a pro.
Still, I continued on, searching behind trees and around turns.
It was one of the times when I had stopped to listen, when I heard voices. They weren’t the voices of a child.
I crept forward, being careful not to step on any twigs I could snap and give away my presence.
I peeked out at the clearing and saw the two people arguing. Their shimmers were pulsing shades of orange.
I pulled Conroy out from beneath my shirt so that he could see too. “Sienna orange,” he declared. “Definitely non-magical.”
Marco, the amateur astronomer, seemed irate as he spoke with Ernie. He waved his arms about, gesturing wildly, while the older man, stood still, his walking stick clasped in front of him.
Neither of the men noticed me watching. The only phrase I could make out, was “get rid of”.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of movement, recognized the yellow of Richie’s shirt, and gave chase as he raced back to the home base of the camper Princess. The kid was fast, but I’m faster. I don’t get tripped up by roots and ruts the way other people do. I practically skim over them, barely touching the ground as I run. He hadn’t even gone twenty yards, when I tagged his shoulder. “Gotcha!”
He let out a mock groan of dismay. “How did you do that?”
“A good hide-and-seek player never gives away her secrets.”
Together we walked back to my camper.
“OK,” he said, “Your turn to hide.” He leaned against the vehicle, putting his arm against his forehead as he’d seen me do, and began to count, significantly faster than I had. “Onetwothree-.”
I took off at a dead run for the woods. Even though I knew it was just a game, adrenaline coursed through me as I weaved my way through the trees. I would have found a good hiding spot, I had no doubt, except I tripped over something and fell to my knees with a thud.
I shook my head, trying to get my bearings as I pulled myself up and looked around. It was unusual for me to fall and now I’ve done it twice in one day. I’d sort of understood the squirrel’s trap, it had been designed to trip someone, but that didn’t explain this time. I looked around trying to figure out what had happened.
That’s when I saw it.
The top hat.