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Patricia Abbott

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hidegoseek.jpg
Art by Eleanor Leonne Bennett 2012

“A Game of Hide and Seek”

By Patricia Abbott

 

“Think we should do something about him?” Kitty said, slanting her head toward a large man hiding beneath a table of perennials. His long-legged crouch was reminiscent of some species of garden insect. Letting her sunglasses slide down her nose, she took a better look.  About thirty-five with an impressive head of hair, the man wore speedo shorts, a sleeveless tee shirt, and sandals. Hairy, tattooed skin was exposed. Under the table, his knees touched his nose.

Ruth glanced up from the Johnson’s Blues. “Huh?”

Kitty’s head gestured again. “That guy over there. He’s been chasing a kid all over the place. Nearly knocked over a cart of petunias when we were walking in.”

A blank look.

“Then he ran down a stock boy over by the knockout roses.” She looked into Ruth’s sun-glassed eyes. “How could you miss him? At one point, the girl was straddling his shoulders.”

“I go into a sort of trance in nurseries.” Ruth held a plant up. “Look at this. I’m disappointed in their stock this year. These geraniums look over-watered.”

“Just take a minute to note the man under the table of Lenten roses.”

It was a good thing his back faced them. Head bobbing, neck tensed, muttering constantly, he seemed desperate for attention. Perhaps he was more like a bird than an insect.

“The hellebores? Well, is it unusual for a father to play tag with his kid? It’s just a guess, but it seems normal. Are those tattoos or did he fall in the dirt? Poised like a praying mantis, isn’t he?”

“That’s it. I’ve been trying to place it. Although, perhaps in his case, a preying mantis.” Kitty sighed. “The child’s at least twelve, and right now, she’s in the bathroom—hiding from him probably. He’s preparing to jump out at her when she comes out. And yes, they’re definitely tattoos.” Vividly colored tats of ominous subjects covered his arms and legs. Kitty could only imagine the images that lay beneath his shirt.

“There’s a good chance he’ll overturn that table.” Ruth put down her plant, looking ready to act now that the plants seemed at risk. “This stock was months in the making. Why did they choose a garden center for their games? Isn’t that what playgrounds are for?”

“You’re more worried about the hellebores than the kid, admit it.”  Looking around, Kitty spotted an empty spot on a table and began emptying her purse. She came up with her cell phone and crammed the rest back in.

“Those poor defenseless plants are sitting right in front of me,” Ruth said. She watched as Kitty flipped the phone open. “Are you planning on calling the police, Kitty? Isn’t that a bit drastic?”

“I’m going to take a picture.”

“Of that guy under the table?”

 Kitty nodded. “Maybe he kidnapped her. There’s something off about his behavior.” Kitty thought for a minute. “I can’t remember Edward chasing after Sarah like that.” It was so long ago, she couldn’t say for sure.

“I can’t imagine Edward running at all, but I doubt Tattoo Man would’ve brought her here if there was something to worry about,” Ruth said. “But as long as you have that camera out, could you snap a picture of that display?” Ruth pointed to a container of various annuals in lavender, pink, and orange. “I have a terracotta planter just begging for that combination and I’ll never remember it.”

The door to the restroom opened then, and a girl of about twelve exited. She looked around cautiously, her face stony stoicism. Probably used to such behavior from this man—whatever he was to her. The man leaped out and she delivered the requisite scream. It was completely unconvincing to the women, but the man seemed pleased.

“He expects us to applaud, doesn’t he? I can’t tell if he’s mentally challenged, crazy, or a child molester,” Kitty said. “But he isn’t right.”

“No, probably not,” Ruth agreed.

They watched as the man and child darted among the hostas, finally disappearing into the evergreens. Eventually the women’s attention returned to their plant selection. Twenty minutes later, they were loading the day’s purchases into Kitty’s sedan.

 “There they are again,” Kitty said, watching as the man and the girl got into in a battered Saturn. The girl held a large lily carefully although the petals were nearly spent. “Mother’s Day, I bet,” Kitty said almost to herself. “That’s their errand. That plant will last about two days. Why don’t the clerks alert novices to such things?”

Shaking her head, Kitty took note of the license plate on the Saturn—a specialty plate that said 2FAST4U. In keeping with the warning, the man sped out, spraying gravel at a woman pushing a baby stroller. Luckily, nothing but a large holly bush rested on its seat.

Shaking off the incident, Kitty asked, “Mind if we stop at the resale shop on the way home? I promised my granddaughter I’d pick up a few of those beanie babies. They sell them for a buck.”

“You’re the driver,” Ruth said. A few minutes later, they found a spot outside of Second Helpings.

“They keep their Beanies near the rear,” Kitty said, pushing her way through the racks of garments. The cloying odor of stale perfume gripped them as they walked through the Better Dresses Aisle.

“Makes you want to toss out every bottle of perfume,” Ruth said.

As they passed the dressing room, the girl from the plant center came out of a curtained-off area wearing what looked like a prom dress. It was lime green, strapless, and full of flounces. She hiked the top up, embarrassed when she noticed the women watching her. A pair of red sneakers stuck out at the bottom and a purplish bruise necklaced her collarbone.

It looked like someone had grabbed her, Kitty thought. She could almost see fingerprints. Was it possible it was a tattoo and not a bruise? Tattoo Man might take his kid for tattooing too—if she was his kid. Kitty would’ve loved to put on her glasses, but the search through her purse would be too obvious. She looked around, locating the man who was sitting on a child’s plastic frog, his legs straddling it. The scene in front of her seemed fabulistic, and a shiver ran up her back. The Princess and the Toad, was that the one?

“Too young for a dance.”

“The dress fits her though,” Ruth whispered. “She’s too old for dress-up, too young for dances, and it’s not Halloween.”

 “Do you see that bruise?” Kitty whispered back.

“What?”

Now the child’s back faced them as she modeled the gown for Tattoo Man.

He sprung up. “Wow. You look like a million bucks, Sweetie.” He bounced around like the insect he resembled. “Knew that dress would be perfect.”

Perfect for what, Kitty wondered.

The girl hunched her shoulders. “I think it smells like fish. Something icky anyway.”

The tattoo man found this funny, and after a few seconds, the girl started laughing too. His laugh was out of control, drawing glances from the cashier and a customer in dishware.

Putting a hand on her bare back and caressing it a bit, he said, “Change back into your regular duds and we’ll pay for it and hit the road.”

She slipped behind the curtains. Tattoo Man’s attention turned to the women. “I remember when Tiffany liked them,” he said, nodding toward the toys. “A couple of years back. Must have had fifty of those things.”

 “Thunderbolt,” Kitty said to Ruth, reading the tag on a brown and white horse.  “I think Ava needs this one. She’s especially fond of horses.”

“Girls always go for studs,” he said with a snicker. “We probably have Thunderbolt at home.” He rose and came toward them. “Let me see.” He grabbed the beanie baby horse before Kitty could react. Up close, his tattoos seemed as overwhelming as his odor. “I’m not sure. Anyway, it looks like a really cool beanie.”

“Tiffany’s your daughter?” When he didn’t answer, Kitty tried another approach. “You look too young to have a child that age.”

 “You know how it is nowadays.” He handed the horse back to her.

On their way out, Kitty saw his dark blue Saturn parked a few cars in front of them and managed to take a picture of the license plate. She’d like to think she’d remember the plate number an hour from now, but recent events suggested not.

“Who are you, Jessica Fletcher?” Ruth got into the passenger’s seat and waited for Kitty whose arthritic knees testified to the coming rain. “Remember her?”

“Of course, I remember her.”

“Cabot Cove, right?”

Ignoring what threatened to be a long remembrance about the superiority of the past, Kitty said, “I just wonder if I should call Sarah quickly to make sure Ava doesn’t have this one.” She looked at the tag again. “Thunderbolt.”

She was stalling, and Ruth, a friend for thirty years, saw right through it. “Want to wait till they take off?” she asked. “I don’t mind sitting here a minute, but please don’t tell me you’re going to follow him.”

“Of course not,” Kitty said. Because if the way he pulled out of the nursery was any indication, they’d be hard-pressed to keep up.

After a few minutes, the pair emerged, blinking in the blinding light. They climbed into the Saturn, the girl placing the lily on her lap again. The man opened the back door and put the green dress, now encased in dry cleaning plastic, on the back hook. In a moment, they sped away. The plate, 2Fast4U disappearing around the corner before Kitty could even put the car into DRIVE.

“Look, Kit, you really have nothing to worry about. She didn’t seem scared of him. He’s probably her mother’s boyfriend and that’s what he meant.” Ruth patted her shoulder.

“He’s just too weird to be in charge of a child. Did you see that bruise on her chest?”

“What! No. I saw a garnet necklace, I think.”

“That was certainly not a necklace. Someone had their hands on her throat.” Kitty paused. “And he was caressing her back. Did you catch that at least?”

“I think you’re letting your imagination run away with you. He was a bit odd, but my nephew, a physicist, plays Extreme Frisbee—or something like that—collects tin toys from the 1920s, and only eats food that grows above the ground and doesn’t have a face. Younger people today feel free to be strange.”

“I’m not talking about odd hobbies. He’s mistreating a child.”

“You have little evidence of that. Playing boisterously at a plant center isn’t a crime.”

“I know I’m right.”

“And I know you’re not.”

“I have this sickening image in my head of him dressing her up in that gown and….I don’t even know what.”

Both women were silent during the rest of the drive home. When they pulled up at Ruth’s house, Ruth said, “Look, maybe you’re right, Kit. But I don’t think you have the means or pull to run his plates to find out where he lives.”

“I can’t rely on running into them again. This is a small town, but not that small.”

Kitty got out and helped Ruth unload her plants. Then she made the two-minute drive to her house. She hadn’t gotten half the flowers she’d intended to buy because of that man. It’d been a strange and unfulfilling day after she’d looked forward to it all week.

Was Ruth right? Was it all in her head?

There were at least four worrisome things to dwell on. No five: his wildly inappropriate behavior at the nursery, the bruises on the girl’s neck, the adult dress he made her parade around in, the way he caressed her back, and the comment about girls liking “studs.” He had said “studs” with particular emphasis.

She planted the flowers in front of the house, being careful to add new dirt, starter fertilizer, and water. Usually gardening took her mind off of whatever was bothering her, but not today.

What could she do about it? In all likelihood, she’d never run into the man again. She had his picture under the Lenten roses and another of his plate, but as Ruth said, she’d no way to run it. Coming back in the house, she slipped her gardening shoes off, leaving her gloves at the door too. In the powder room, she washed her hands again. No sense picking up dermatitis again.

Then she took her cell phone up to the computer in Edward’s old study and downloaded the pictures. She had no paper to print them on, and anyway, the printer was none too reliable. She sent Ruth her photo of the flower arrangement, then sat there and thought.

On an impulse, she looked up the website of the police station on Willis Street, the one closest to the resale shop and nursery, found the name of the Chief, located his email address, composed a letter telling him about their two encounters with the tattoo man, attached both pictures, and pushed SEND. Not that anyone would take her email seriously. But the picture of him on her computer now was more sinister than what she remembered. Surely no one could look at it and not be alarmed. It was out of her hands.

She made herself a drink. It wasn’t even three o’clock but who’d tell.

 

A week later, Kitty was reading the newest Libby Tidewater mystery in a shady spot in the backyard when she heard something stirring. She turned around, expecting to find a rabbit or squirrel, and saw it was him—the tattooed man.

 “Mrs. Gartland? Katherine Gartland?”

How had he learned her name? The cops must have provided him with it. Not only had they not believed the information on her email, they’d turned her name over to him.

“Mrs. Gartland? Just want to talk to you for a minute. You don’t need to be afraid.”

 “I should call the police.” Kitty waved her cell phone in the air. “And my neighbors are home.” She nodded toward the car in the driveway next door.

“Calling the police doesn’t always help. Sometimes it makes things worse.”

 “I have 911 on automatic dial,” she told him. “So keep your distance. Push a button and they’ll be here in ninety seconds.”

 “I won’t move.”

“So what is it? What do you want from me?”

“You really screwed up.”

“I beg your pardon.”

“Fucked up, siccin’ the police on me like you did. You picked the wrong person to bounce out of that house. It’s Sally who comes down on her. Tiff’s mother.”

Kitty gave an audible groan, and he frowned. “Look at these pictures, Katherine. Do they look like I’m some scary kinda guy.” He pulled out his wallet and tossed it to her. It was filled with pictures of the man, the child, and a woman who looked angry. “I got her away from Sal as much as I could, but now…That social services worker came roaring into the house like I’d been caught—what’s that word—infragrante.” 

She considered correcting him, but instead said, “Your behavior last Saturday was…worrisome. Besides, I only have your word that you weren’t the… perpetrator.”

“Notice they call them perps on TV now. At first I thought they were saying pervs.”

“That dress you bought her, for instance.”

“What the green one? It was for a school play.”

This was possible. “How did you find me anyway? Did the social worker tell you who filed the complaint?”

“Nah. I took a picture of your plate when I saw you at the resale shop. You were hanging around, watching us. Gave me the creeps. Had the number run some place online after the crat showed up. Cost some money, but I wanted to come by here and tell you, you got it wrong.”

“Crat?”

“Social worker, you know. Bureaurcrat. Now you left Tiff in the hands of her crazy-ass mother. Right now, she’s probably beating the crap out of her.” He paused. “Sal doesn’t like to be without a man—if you get my meaning.”

Kitty sank into a garden chair. “My God. What can we do about it, Mr….I don’t know your name.”

“Just call me Stewie.”

“Maybe I can tell the police I was wrong, Stewart.”

“Stewie. See, that’s not gonna work, Katherine, because I have a record. Not for anything to do with messing with kids. Sold a little dope, way back when.”

“Then what can I do?” She’d grown stone cold with fear at the thought of Tiffany alone with her maniacal mother.

“Best thing now is to wait. Let things cool off. Then I can work myself back in there.”

She’d drive by the house herself in the meantime. He’d tell her the address. Ruth and she could take shifts. She could tell the police she made a mistake.

At that moment, the sprinkler came on. She jumped up, looking for the remote to shut it off. She must have left it on the kitchen counter. “Just wait here a minute while I turn it off,” she said running for the back door.

That was the last time she saw him outside.

Thirty seconds later, he was inside.

Reaching for the remote, she felt or heard or sensed his breath on her neck.

“Hey, Katherine,” he said as she turned around. He tapped her lightly on the shoulder. “Tag, you’re it.”

With an equanimity that would have surprised her normally, she began to run.

 

kathy.jpg
Art by Noelle Richardson

Kathy McDonald’s Mother

by Patti Abbott

 




In 1958, Kathy McDonald’s mother, a woman none of us had ever seen, fell down the cellar steps carrying a load of laundry. Loose aluminum tread was initially thought to be the cause. It wasn’t until the next morning we learned of her mother’s death since Kathy never returned from lunch.


Miss Michaels, the school principal, was waiting in our classroom when we came in. She took her eyeglasses off, polishing them with a cloth tucked into her blouse and said, “Children, I have some very sad news.”


And she told us how Kathy McDonald found her mother at the bottom of the cellar steps when she went home for lunch the day before.


 “Mrs. Kenney will help you make sympathy cards to send to her family.”


And that’s what we did, decorating the ivory and dove gray construction paper with pictures of crosses, flowers, and praying hands.  At noon, we rushed home, hoping not to find our own mothers dead, too.


After school, a few of us marched over to Kathy’s house and stood outside,  wondering if a funereal look would have replaced the ordinary appearance of the small brick house with its green shutters and a mustard-yellow door.  We were somehow astonished to see that tulips still bloomed, that Kathy’s brother’s bicycle still lay on the grass, that there was a J.C. Penney’s sale flyer in the mailbox. That the afternoon newspaper sat on the steps. The damask curtains were pulled tight, but no one could remember if that was unusual or not. None of us had been inside;  Kathy, a tall shy girl with the air of a housewife at ten, kept to herself.


But despite the closed-eye look of the house, the news that Mrs. McDonald had been wearing only a black bra and panties when Kathy found her soon trickled down. Our mothers kept their doors and drawers tightly closed in those days so underwear in any color other than white was preposterous.


Word also came along that Kathy had draped a bathrobe over her mother’s body, trying to get Mrs. McDonald’s arms through the sleeves, the belt tied around her waist—actions that only served to confuse the police. Kathy was believed to have trampled through the blood, wiping her hands and feet on some of the dirty laundry on the floor before dialing 911, a telephone number only in place the last year. She was able to give a clear report, supplying her address and telephone number to the clerk.


It’d been a hot day, but we wondered why Mrs. McDonald, a church-going woman, had been dressed like that. Our mothers unvaryingly wore white cotton briefs and bras and were dressed before we left for school. We did not even know black underwear existed in 1958. Beige, or even pink perhaps, but not black.


Mrs. McDonald was also wearing mules, pearl earrings, and a rose pendant. Speculation rose she’d been about to remove that day’s outfit from the dryer. But a friend of Joey McDonald’s maintained the family had no clothes dryer. Clothes from a previous load would’ve been hung on the clothesline. However, the line was empty: already removed by the time we found our way to the backyard.


Kathy did not return to school the following week, and now the story leaked out that Mrs. McDonald had not fallen, but was pushed. Someone’s father, a clerk of some sort in the police department, reported that bruises consistent with a push were found on the victim’s shoulders, suggesting an unknown person, perhaps someone standing behind her, had shoved her. The police believed she was unaware of this presence because of her descent to the basement in such garb. Would a woman entertaining company walk around in her underwear and carry laundry to the basement?


Mr. McDonald, who soon fell under suspicion, was said to have been in his usual spot behind the counter at the hardware store. We had seen him there on numerous occasions, in fact, dispensing advice on what screw or paint brush was necessary for a job.


More questions. Would someone wear black underwear in the morning if nothing more than housekeeping was in the day’s plan? None of our mothers would, we thought, outraged at the idea.


Among the spilled laundry on the floor was a gym uniform Kathy needed that afternoon. This key piece of evidence had been missed because the uniform was particularly soiled with blood from Kathy’s feet and hardly recognizable. There were also some dirty socks, two kitchen dishtowels, and a bathroom floor mat. But the gym uniform seemed most important. By fifth grade, most girls were particular about clean clothes and Kathy would have requested a washed uniform for gym. Perhaps Mrs. McDonald remembered the necessity of washing the uniform in the midst of dressing.


A consensus arose that a man entered the house and murdered Mrs. McDonald as she descended into the basement. But for what purpose? Nothing was missing. Aside from her fall and the bruises on her shoulders, Mrs. McDonald was intact. We pondered the meaning of that word. In tacked, was how we heard it. And somehow related to attacked.


Information surfaced then that Mr. McDonald kept a woman in an apartment in the next town. Well, probably not kept her, our parents agreed when they thought we were not listening, because he could hardly support two families on his salary as a hardware store manager. No one could decide on the right word to use until someone came up with “mistress.” He had a mistress in Elkins Park. The police found calls from the hardware store to her apartment. And a few on his phone at home. Late night calls when Mrs. McDonald and Kathy and Joey were asleep.


Had this mistress killed Mrs. McDonald? But as quickly as the “other” woman became a suspect, she ceased being one. She (we never learned her name) was employed as a nurse in a local hospital and had been doing her eleven o’clock rounds at the time in question. She may have been the cause of marital discord but not of Mrs. McDonald’s death.


A Fuller brush man came forward to say that he’d been in the McDonald’s house at nine-thirty that morning. When pressed, he admitted the visit was neither entirely professional nor wholly unusual. The milk delivery man said much the same thing. The dry cleaner professed complete ignorance of such arrangements as did the man who sharpened knives. Mrs. McDonald was a lonely woman; no, she was a woman who supplemented the family income in an unusual way; no she was getting even with her husband. These were details we pondered in the school yard as the school year ended.


As summer stalked the neighborhood, it was finally discovered that Kathy McDonald had pushed her scantily dressed mother down the cellar stairs.  She came home at noon to find her gym uniform still dirty from two days before. It was her hands, large for a ten-year old, that made the bruises on her mother’s back. Mrs. McDonald, tired from her morning exertions no doubt, and struggling to dress for a PTA meeting, didn’t move fast enough and Kathy gave her a hurried push with no idea what the outcome of that push would be. When confronted with the sobbing girl, this became clear to the police. It certainly wasn’t murder and prosecution of the ten-year old was soon dropped.


          The McDonald family moved away. We speculated Mr. McDonald had joined his two families, but several people reported seeing his mistress alone in the next town. It was thought the McDonald family had moved out to Pottstown to be with his parents. The house sold to a young family and no one had the heart to tell them about Kathy McDonald’s mother and her fall down the cellar stairs.




 
 

Patricia Abbott has had over 75 stories published in various venues. Recent stories appeared in All Due Respect, D*cked, Deadly Treats, Pulp Ink and Crime Factory: First Shift. An ebook of her stories (Monkey Justice) appears this month through Snubnose Press.

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