THE BIG PICTURE
Everyone has a childhood monster story. There are the little yellow men with sharp knives who live under your bed and come out at night to slice your ankles to ribbons if you have to get up to go to the bathroom. Or maybe you were terrorized by huge furry creatures who popped out of your toy box when your parents were sound asleep. Creatures of the night have terrorized children for hundreds of years. Most of us outgrow the bone-numbing fear. Some of us don’t.
Jean was one of those who didn’t. I’d ask her why she was half-dead at work, and she’d give me one of those martyred smiles that women perfect, and I could tell she wanted me to drag it out of her, but to be honest, I wasn’t too interested. Because we shared a cubicle, I tried to be friendly and interested in her personal life, but I don’t have too much in common with a married mother of two boys under the age of four. Bachelorhood suits me just fine, and if I’m dragging my ass into the office on Monday morning, it’s because I spent the weekend with a hot hook-up and imbibed a bit too much of the cheap stuff. Jean’s husband sounded like a lazy monster himself, from the way she talked about how he never helped her around the house or with the boys, and I always figured she looked like hell because she was taking care of three babies over the weekend, not just the two who really were. Some monsters are real, and they don’t come out only at night. Some, you marry.
She was pretty once, I guessed from looking at the wedding photo she kept on her desk, beside the color pictures of her kids when they were in the hospital nursery, all red and faces screwed up like they were constipated. Brown hair that was once long, but now cut short and not very well, and a nice figure if you liked women without boobs, didn’t have a chance on Jean, with the huge circles under her eyes. In the year we shared office space, she got skinnier by the month, and I just assumed it was because she never had time to eat, given the pressures of our jobs and the double load she carried at home.
I know it sounds like I was interested in Jean, but really, I was just a head with two ears who half-listened when she needed someone to dump her complaints about her family crap. We never socialized after work, since she wasn’t into the bar scene, and our projects always got finished at the office. So we were colleagues, I guess is the definition of our relationship, which really wasn’t one.
That’s why I was surprised when she didn’t show up for work for one solid week. We were busier than heck, and she was always good at the detail work, which meant I had to do double duty. I tried to not resent her absence, but she knew we were on a deadline here, and she could at least have taken some of the work home to do while she was lying around drinking her herbal teas and sucking down vitamins like candy.
The big project deadline is my excuse for burying my head in computer programs and not taking the time to find out what was really going on. When our boss, Kev, dropped the bomb about her missing kid, I was like, totally shocked.
“They go to day care, how can one of them be missing?” I knew that much, at least.
“The husband said the youngest got snatched out of his bed in the middle of the night, when he called to explain why Jean wouldn’t be in. The one and a half year old. The three year old saw it, said it looked like a big black blob was standing over the baby’s crib, so the police are coming the area.”
“Sheesh, I’m sorry to hear that. Do they have any leads?” I sounded like a bad Dragnet actor.
Kev shook his head. “It’s crazy. No fingerprints, no DNA, nothing to find the guy. Even the Boy Scouts are out there. Don’t you watch the news?”
“Not if I can help it.” I glanced at Jean’s desk, at the pictures of the ugly, red baby faces. “Any idea when she’ll be back?”
Kev shook his head. “She’s totally in pieces, according to her husband. May be a while. I’ll pull Rocco from the other team to help you out.”
“Don’t do that,” I protested. “He’ll just slow me down. I can pull this out, just keep everyone away from me for the rest of the week.”
Kev made good on his promise, and I cranked out the final program and got it off to our client without too many hitches. Since I had the weekend free, I figured I’d go to Jean’s house, make an appearance, a few sympathetic noises, and try to scope out when she’d be returning to the office. I didn’t expect what I found.
Jean and her family lived in an older neighborhood filled with huge oaks and cracked sidewalks. Some of the bungalows hadn’t had much done to maintain them, but Jean’s looked pretty nice. Bright yellow paint, white wooden rockers on the front porch. Right now, they were filled with neighbors, their butts planted on the rocker seats as they blew their noses and rubbed their gloved hands in the cold.
“Jean in?” I asked from the bottom step.
An older woman wearing a really ugly blue knitted hat that she should have thrown away thirty years ago, nodded. “Who’re you? Only police and family allowed inside. Jim’s orders.”
“I work with Jean. She’ll want to see me. Grayson Whiting. Tell her I’m here.” I was pretty sure she would. Then I’d feel like I’d done the right thing, and I could have a nice weekend after all. “Please.” I added as an afterthought.
The Blue Hat Biddy stared at me through black framed glasses and after glancing at her fellow cronies, who gave her reluctant nods, she stood up and went into the house. I could hear her lock the front door behind her. What did she think I was going to do, storm through after her?
Jean appeared at the front door, and boy howdy, was she a mess. “Gray, come in, please. I’m so sorry I didn’t call and explain in person, but I’m so glad you’re here.” Grabbing my arm, she hauled me into the front room.
Even though it had big windows facing the porch, no light could penetrate the gloom caused by the pulled curtains. Everything smelled stale and musty, and I could see dust on the coffee table, even though it was piled with Styrofoam cups and plates with half-eaten donuts.
“Sorry for the mess,” she fussed, shoving aside a blanket and some pillows crumpled on the sofa. “Have a seat. Please. It’s so nice to see someone who isn’t the police. They think we did it, you know, killed our baby. They’re here nonstop, asking us the same questions over and over, and I said I’d take a lie detector test, but they said it wouldn’t help find Stevie, and we had to tell them where we put his body.”
Any hold she had over herself melted as she crashed into my chest, clearly expecting a comforting set of arms. After a few tentative pats, I gave up and held her as she soaked my jacket with snot and tears. At that moment, I was so grateful I wasn’t married, I could have sworn off sex forever.
“Where’s your husband?” I was looking for someone to take over who knew what to do better than I did. “Um, Jim, right?”
She reared back. “The bastard says he’s out looking, but I know what he’s up to. He’s just pretending. He knows where Grayson is, I just know it. He never believed me when I told him about the attic. Now there’s proof, and he won’t let me tell anyone. Oh God,” she wailed loudly, scrunching my good Burberry jacket in her hands, “it took him. I know it did.”
I waited for her to dump more of her craziness, but she was sobbing so hard, she couldn’t speak. Taking her shoulders, I gave her a little shake.
“Jean, you’ve got to hold it together.” I had a flash of inspiration. “For the sake of your other boy. He’s around, right?”
“My mother took him home so he wouldn’t get snatched too. I’m going to kill that bastard, he wouldn’t nail the closet door shut, no, not when I told him what I’d seen as a kid when my family lived here. This was my grandparent’s house, and I spent the night with them when I was little, sometimes a whole weekend, and I knew what lived in the attic. I saw it, but I screamed, and it ran away. I was older than Stevie, though, and he was too young to cry out before it snatched him.” Louder wailing. Oh great.
This was getting too creepy for me. She needed drugs, serious ones at that. “Do you have a doctor?” I asked loudly, so she’d hear me over the sobbing. “You need something to calm you down, and I’ll be glad to pick up the prescription.”
“Screw that,” she snapped, all white fury and red eyes. “Tell them, tell the police about the monster in the attic. Please. Maybe they’ll listen to you. You’re not a suspect.” She began hiccupping, she was weeping so hard.
I didn’t know what to say to calm her down, other than “Okay.” I finally disentangled myself and let myself out the front door. The Blue Hat Biddy and her cronies stared at me as if I were a child snatcher.
“She needs help,” I offered, hoping they’d take over where I’d left off. “Anyone know her doctor’s name?”
“She’s not crazy,” Blue Hat Biddy snapped. “Everyone knows the monster has lived here for centuries. Her grandparents finally believed her, and they moved out. But her cheapskate of a husband said they had to live here because it was free, and poor Jean has slept with the kids every night since they came home from the hospital. Did her jackass of a worthless husband help keep watch?” The glares of the tree women grew uglier, and my manhood was feeling threatened. I crossed my hands in Adam Pose Number One in front of my crotch.
“I don’t know what to say.” I really didn’t. Insanity seemed to run in the neighborhood. “If there was a problem with the house, and I’m not saying there is, why didn’t Jean leave with the kids?”
“She was going to go. The weekend the baby was snatched. She said she could hear the monster pacing, and she knew it was getting ready because it hadn’t had a baby in a long time. The people who lived here before Jean’s grandparents, they lost their only boy to it. We found out later he didn’t die of SIDS, like they told everyone.” Blue Hat Biddy wiped a tear of her own with her gloved hand. “I was just a girl back then, and my mother told me to stay out of this house. She knew.”
Mass hysteria had a longer shelf life than I imagined it could. “Okay, well, Jean needs some serious medical help, and if you won’t call a doctor, I’ll get an ambulance here. She’s falling apart, and it’s not going to get better.” I’m a good big picture person, which is why Jean and I worked so well together. I knew I’d never get her back on my team, not for a long time, but I owed her something for all her hard work. The least I could do was get her medical help.
I pulled out my cell and started to dial 911 when Blue Hat Biddy smacked it out of my hands. It bounced on the cracked walkway and the screen shattered. I couldn’t help it, I almost grabbed her by the throat. “That cost $700, and I expect you to pay for it!” I yelled.
“Screw you and your phone. You want to help Jean, get into the attic. The police went up there, and they said they couldn’t find anything. Jean’s too emotional to see what’s there because she doesn’t want to, and her so-called husband won’t.”
“You go,” I snapped, scooping up the remnants of my expensive and very cool phone. I was more than angry. “I’m outta here.”
“We can’t,” Blue Hat explained as if I were an idiot who didn’t know what two times two equaled. “It knows us. It’ll hide. You’re a stranger. You might catch it.”
“The police are strangers. Why can’t they catch it?”
“It’s hidden from the authorities all its life. For over a hundred years. It can smell a uniform a mile away. Please, do this for Jean. She deserves to know what’s happened to her baby, so she can finally leave this horrible house with her other little boy. She won’t go as long as she knows her baby is up there with that monster.” Blue Hat Biddy grabbed my arms and clung like a drowning woman. “You’re the first person who isn’t police to come here and get inside. Jean won’t let any of us in.”
I shook my head. “No way. I’m not getting in the middle of this.”
“Please. Do it for the sake of a woman who needs to bury her child.”
The other two women, eyes reproachful, joined Blue Hat Biddy in surrounding me. I was either going to have to knock them over, and probably break their fragile bones in the process, or do as the old woman asked.
“Oh hell.” I was stuck and I knew it. I couldn’t hurt a woman, especially an old one who could have been my great-grandmother. “Okay, get me back inside.”
I’d run up to the attic, stir up some dust, tell Jean her baby wasn’t stashed in the rafters, and leave. My brownie points with the Big Guy upstairs were adding up, I hoped, even though I wasn’t sure the Big Guy even existed.
Blue Hat and her cronies approached the front door and Jean let them in. A few minutes later, Jean came to the door and reached out her hands for me, her eyes even redder than when I’d left her a few seconds ago. I really wished I’d gone to Hooters instead of Jean’s, but I said I’d do this thing, so I had to do it. Then maybe I could call an ambulance for Jean and my conscience would be clear. Only my phone was now destroyed.
“Where are the police?” I asked Blue Hat as she took my elbow and steered me into the house as if she was afraid I’d bolt. “Shouldn’t they have left someone here in case a kidnapper calls?
“They don’t think it’s a kidnapping. They said they had to coordinate the search, but that just means they’re idiots who can’t see what’s right in front of them. We told them, all of us, when they wouldn’t believe Jean.”
I was starting to understand Jean’s husband a little better. He’d probably had enough of this crap, too.
“Okay, let’s get this over with. How do I get into the attic?”
“Are you sure? It’s so dangerous. It might try for you, though historically, it only takes children.” Blue Hat looked at me as if I wasn’t strong enough to fight my way out of a paper bag.
“I do Pilates, I’m stronger than I look.” Plus, Pilates classes are a great place to pick up hot chicks. I wished I was in one right now.
“He’s the only person I trust.” Jean managed to calm down enough to speak. “He’s a good man, and he’ll see the truth.”
I don’t know where she got her confidence except out of a bottle of delusion, but I was ready to get this over with. They led me to a closet in one of the rooms via some creaking stairs. A door inside the closet lead to the attic, I assumed. All four women backed away and I put my hand on the door knob.
“If I don’t come back, call the cops, right?” I was joking, but they looked so stricken, I was sorry I’d said anything so glib.
I could tell an army had been up those narrow stairs, just from all the disturbed dust. At the top of the steps, I had to duck my head to crawl into the attic itself. It couldn’t have been any larger than ten by fourteen, and nothing had been stored there in a while. A quick glance showed me nothing but a dark and empty space.
I was just about to duck back down the stairs when a slight shift in one corner caught my attention. The air shimmered and for a second, I thought light was leaking through from the second floor, between the rafters. Then it was like a movie, where all these tiny bits of black swirl around and suddenly, voila, there’s a solid shape. Usually an alien or something like that.
I wanted to run, but I couldn’t. It was as if my hands and feet had been nailed to the rafters. Tugging as hard as I could, I couldn’t get free.
The bits of black changed colors, and a man, crouched over, his head lifted and eyes on me, glared. I couldn’t have screamed if I’d been offered a million bucks. I couldn’t look away, either. With a shock, I realized the form glaring at me resembled Jean’s husband, the man in the wedding picture on her desk.
“Tell her I said I’d get her. She thought she was so smart, when she was a little girl. Then she believed she could save her children from me. They never win, these mothers. I always take what I want. Tell her the boy was mine from the minute he was born.”
I understood every word, even though his mouth didn’t move. I wanted to ask him if he was Jean’s husband, but I figured he was as crazy as she, and between the two of them, I was in trouble if I stirred the pot. I nodded, because that was all I could do.
“Go. Don’t come back. If she leaves this house, the boy dies. He’s mine now, and I will do with him as I want. She knew the risk when she moved in here.”
I prayed the police would come running when I called them to arrest the son of a bitch. Any father who’d kill his own kid was dog food, as far as I was concerned. After giving me one more sneer, the man disappeared. I figured he had a hidey hole he used, and I hadn’t been seeing anything more than a sick bastard who tormented his family. Jean needed a divorce lawyer more than she needed a doctor.
Backing down the attic stairs as soon as I could move, I tried not to shake with the anger I felt. The three older women huddled around Jean, their protective stance both heart rending and silly. They couldn’t save her from a marriage to a sicko.
“Your husband took him,” I blurted, grabbing Jean’s arm to pull her away from the women. “Call the cops, they have to arrest him. I don’t know how he gets up there and out so fast, but he’s your monster.”
Jean started shaking, every inch of her vibrating. “You saw my husband up there?”
“In the flesh. I’m telling you, he’s your monster.” I wiped the attic grime from my hands on the front of my jeans, feeling dirty inside and out. How could someone so sick manage to marry a normal, ordinary woman like Jean, much less father two children by her?
Blue Hat Biddy hauled Jean into her arms and gave me that killer look again. “You don’t need to make up stories. Jim has been in the police interrogation room all morning. They came by at eight this morning to get him. He called twenty minutes ago to tell Jean to get him a lawyer down there.”
My stomach heaved. “I’m not lying. I saw him, the man in the wedding picture on your desk, Jean.”
Her closed eyes opened, and she looked into mine with infinite sadness and resignation. “I believe you. It can look like whatever you want it to resemble. It has Stevie, and I know what I have to do.”
“No!” The three women threw themselves at the door leading to the attic stairs. Though elderly, they looked pretty formidable to me.
“I’ve always known. I just didn’t have the courage. Thank you.” She squeezed my hand before she charged the door. “It wants me. Maybe it’ll give Stevie back if it gets me.”
A force stronger than any hurricane blew the door open and scattered the three biddies and me onto our asses and back into the bedroom. Running, Jean threw herself at the stairs, and as she landed on the first steps, the door smacked shut behind her. I was pretty stunned, but those old ladies scrambled for the door quicker than women half their ages. No matter how hard they tugged and jerked on the handle, the door stayed shut.
A phone rang downstairs. I left the women still trying to pry open the attic door, and figured I’d use the phone to call both the police and an ambulance. Jean had snapped for good, I was sure of it.
I picked up the phone, ready to tell whoever was there to hang up so I could make an emergency call. Instead, I listened as an excited man screamed into my ear.
“We found him, the little boy! Tell Jean he’s safe, they’re taking him to St. Catherine’s Hospital to check him out, she can meet him there!”
I hung up the phone without saying anything. I knew before I ascended the stairs to the second floor that the attic door would open and that we wouldn’t find any trace of Jean up there.
Unfortunately, I was right. I did as the three old women ordered and kept my mouth shut about what had happened in the attic.
No one but they would have believed me, anyway.