by Sherry Decker
Cassie lay on the roof of a long-dead, forty-eight Chevy, fifty yards from the house, watching her older brother sharpen his knife. Ben sat in the open front door, his black-booted feet on the steps. He dragged his knife blade repeatedly across a square, gray stone and then he lifted the knife to eye level, squinted at the shining edge and pressed the soft part of his thumb against it. Smiling, he slid the knife into a leather sheath on his belt and got to his feet. He disappeared into the black interior of the house.
Cassie rolled over on her stomach, relishing the warm car roof. It was just after eight o'clock on Saturday morning. By noon the metal roof would be a skillet and the interior of the car would be an oven, even though Ben had shot out all the windows last summer. Blackberry vines covered the front end of the car right up to the missing windshield, and vines grew through rusted-out holes in the floor, coiling and looping and filling the front seat like pale green snakes with thorns. There was one corner in the back seat where Cassie sometimes crawled when she wanted to hide from Ben, for when he was feeling mean and looking for someone to tease.
Sometimes Ben chewed his lower lip as if he were unaware of what he was doing. Sometimes he chewed his lip until it bled and then he would lick
the blood away with his tongue. Sometimes he drummed his fingers on his knees in time to a rhythm only he could hear. When Cassie saw him doing these things she found a place to hide and stayed there until he gave up calling her name, until he leaped on his black-and-chrome Harley-Davidson and skidded out of the yard in a cloud of dust and flying rocks. His motorcycle rumbled like thunder. Even when Ben was a half-mile away, the familiar growl of his bike was unmistakable.
Cassie slid from the car roof and ran across the front yard, down toward the mud flats. A big alder tree towered from a rise of ground, in the strip of land between the dust of the driveway and the edge of the mud. She stepped behind the tree just as Ben jumped from the doorway to the yard.
"Cassie!" he yelled.
Cassie studied her bare feet, at the way one foot sank into soft gray dust and the other into soft black mud. The mud oozed between her toes, curling over and touching the next curl of mud like wide, matching rings. She leaned against the tree's wide trunk.
"Cassie, come here little darlin." Ben's boots raked the scatter of loose rocks in the dirt at the bottom of the steps.
Cassie peeked around the tree trunk in time to see Ben stride across the yard to the Chevy body. He stepped into the mass of berry vines and checked behind the car. "Cassie?" He stepped back around to the half-open door and stuck his head inside the car. "Cassie!" Then he turned around and scanned the yard with his pale blue eyes. Ben kicked rocks toward the bay. Cassie ducked back behind the tree.
"Dammit, brat. Where'd you go?" He kicked more rocks and one of them ricocheted off a tree root. The rock arched high and then landed in the mire, splattering thick, black mud on Cassie's legs.
"Okay, fine!" Ben flung a leg across the seat of his motorcycle. "See if I care." A moment later the bike growled alive and he roared out of the yard and down the road.
Cassie rounded the tree, keeping the trunk between her and Ben. When he reached the blacktop at the end of the bay and turned left, she ran for the house.
It was dark inside. It took a half-minute before her eyes adjusted to the shadows.
"That you, Cassie?" Her mother's voice was high and quivery. She always sounded that way after a late Friday night of waitressing at the tavern.
"Darlin' bring me a glass of water, please?"
The sink was piled with dirty dishes from the past three days. Big green flies circled the room and crawled across the plates and bowls. The cupboard held one clean glass. Cassie used a chair to reach it, turned on the cold water and let it run. Then she filled the glass and carried it in to her mother.
Her mother was in a nearly upright position. She reached for the glass with both hands. "That's my girl," she said. Her hands shook. "Did Ben leave already?"
"Dammit. I asked him to give you a ride into town. We need a few things from the store."
"That's okay. I can walk."
"The money's in my purse there. Take the twenty."
"What do you want me to get?"
"I'm about to die for some orange juice, Baby. And you'd better get a loaf of bread . . . and here, I'll write a note for you so Mr. Cox can sell you a pint of Jim Beam."
"He won't do that anymore, Mama, remember? He said not to ask again."
Her mother sighed. "Okay. Just the juice and the bread then. Take the ten instead of the twenty . . . and make sure Mr. Cox gives you a receipt. I'm pretty sure he overcharged you last time, but I couldn't argue without the receipt."
"Thanks, darlin'." Cassie's mother slipped back down into her bed and pulled the sheet over her shoulder. Her ash-blond head sank into the pillow.
Cassie paused in the bedroom doorway. Her mother was already asleep, snoring lightly, a similar rhythm to the circular droning of the flies in the next room. Cassie stuffed the ten dollar bill into her shorts pocket, found her faded red Keds near her bedroom door, jammed them on her feet and ran outside.
It was a quarter-mile from the house to where the dirt driveway merged with Bay Road. It was all blacktop from there into Bristleton. Cassie hurried along the edge of the blacktop, keeping close to the cattails and the cottonwoods on the other side of the narrow ditch. If she heard Ben's motorcycle, she knew of several places to duck and hide.
Across the road to Cassie's right were the mud flats of Bristleton Bay, a saltwater inlet too shallow for boats with deep hullsat low tide only a narrow strip of water remained in the center, sloshing back and forth in a rocky trough. The bay's salty, iodine smell, the smell of dead, sun-baked fish and warm seaweed were a pungent mixture, something that made visitors to the area pinch their noses and hurry back to their cars. But Cassie found the smells comforting. She had come to like the smells.
Oftentimes, her mother would reach out, ruffle Cassie's fine blond hair and ask, "What does the bay tell you today, Baby? What kind of day will it be?" And Cassie would turn to gaze at the water. She'd study the way the sunlight glanced off the surface, she'd inhale slowly, through nose and mouth together and close her eyes and let the smell leave a taste in the back of her throat. The bay had a way of warning her of trouble. "Nothing bad today, Mama. The breeze smells sweet."
"Sweet? If you say so, darlin'." Mama would shake her head and get that half-smiling look on her face, as if she thought reading the bay's mood was a strange thing to do. But she'd smile. "Maybe at high tide this evening, after the water has flooded back in over all that steaming mud and over those baked rocks, we can go for a swim."
On her journey to the grocery store, Cassie approached an abandoned gas station that slouched on the outskirts of town. Its corroded gas pumps leaned away from the sinking building, the structure's doors and windows were mostly boarded over. What remained of the original yellow paint hung bleached, blistered and flaking away. More blackberry vines claimed the building as a trellis, pressing against the few visible windowpanes from inside like long, ghostly fingers. The wide garage doors were a colláge of public notices, of upcoming events, bond issues, politician's faded photographs atop their faded promises, and hand-printed missing dog and cat signs. Cassie glanced at the hodgepodge of flyers, saw nothing new and kept walking. But she halted at the next utility pole. A new flyer had been nailed to the post. "REWARD" it began, "FOR INFORMATION LEADING TO THE WHEREABOUTS OF LUCY ANN HARSTEAD, AGE 16 - MISSING SINCE JUNE 10 - LAST SEEN WEARING BLUE SUNDRESS & WHITE SANDALS. ALL INFORMATION KEPT CONFIDENTIAL.
A black and white photograph took up the top half of the flyer and Cassie studied the photo closely. Lucy Ann Harstead looked familiar. Cassie decided she'd probably seen the missing girl in town before, loitering around the drugstore or the grocery story with the other high school girls, reading celebrity magazines, drinking cans of soda pop and comparing shades of fingernail polish. She could ask Ben if he knew the girl. He was seventeen, closer to Lucy Ann's age. Naw. Cassie didn't want to ask Ben anything. He'd either tell a whopping big lie or refuse to talk at all.
Once, a couple of years ago, Ben told her he knew where there was a nest of baby ducks. "Cute little yellow ducks and they'll eat right out of your hand," he'd said. Cassie had followed him along the shore until they were nearly a mile from home. Then he pulled a length of cord from his jacket and tied her to an alder.
"That should give you something to do for awhile." Ben grinned, turned
and jogged away on the trail alongside the bay.
At first Cassie yelled and then she wrestled with the rope, twisting and pulling and gasping, but soon she grew dizzy. For a few seconds she couldn't seeeverything went white. She felt as if she were floating, as if only the cord kept her from floating away. And then finally she focused, saw the grass at her feet and the sunlight sparkling on the bay, felt her equilibrium return. Her eyes stung and then blurred. She was glad Ben wasn't there to see her crying.
Hours later when Cassie had nearly worked herself free and her wrists were raw and she'd wet her pants twice, suddenly Ben was there again.
"I thought you'd get loose by now, Brat." He untied the rope. "Guess this last knot was pretty tight."
During the day the tide had come in. Cassie waded out far enough to rinse the urine from her feet and legs and to cool the stinging rope burns. Then she splashed water on her face to wash away any dried tears.
Cassie continued past the REWARD flyer for Lucy Ann Harstead. A few minutes later she pushed open the front door to Cox's Grocery and stepped inside. Mr. Cox was behind the front counter. His pink scalp reflected the overhead lights through his thin, straight, graying-blond hair. He looked up, nodded at Cassie and then returned his attention to a customer. The customer was stoop-shouldered and elderly and wore a straw hat. He turned at the sound of the bell above the door and squinted through thick lenses at Cassie as she picked up a shopping basket from the end of the counter. Then he continued talking.
"In my day we handled things differently, yessir. We'd have found the sick so-n-so by now and gave him a taste of his own medicine, guaranteed."
Mr. Cox leaned across the counter. Cassie heard the sound of whispering, and then the customer turned aand eyed her again as she passed by.
"Hmmm," the man said.
'Well, at least they found her," Mr. Cox shook his head. "Not knowing . . that's got to be the worst part."
"I guess so. Say, how's your garden doing this year?"
"Back quarter-acre is all in bloom. Come see it sometime," Mr. Cox said.
"I'd like to." The old man jerked his head toward the door. "Well, the Missus is waiting for these groceries. She's making pies today."
"Take care now," Mr. Cox said.
The bell above the door jangled and then, "Help you find something, Cassie?" Mr. Cox stood at the end of the aisle, rubbing his bony, white hands together. Cassie's mother had explained it was just a 'nervous habit' he had.
"No thanks. I know where everything is." Cassie picked up a can of frozen orange juice concentrate and dropped it in the basket.
"Did you hear about the Harstead girl?"
"I saw her picture on the telephone pole down the road." Cassie rounded the end of one aisle and headed up the next aisle.
"Neighbors said they heard a motorcycle the afternoon the Harstead girl disappeared," Mr. Cox said, continuing to rub his dry palms together.
Cassie shifted the basket to her other arm and lifted a loaf of whole wheat bread from the display. Mama and Ben both liked whole wheat bread.
Mr. Cox nodded, his eyes not really focused on her, more like he was thinking aloud. "Neighbors said they heard a motorcycle go up and down the road several times that afternoon."
Cassie rounded the end of the aisle and slid the basket onto the counter. Mr. Cox arrived at the other side, picked up the orange juice concentrate and punched the price into the cash register.
"Mama wants the receipt this time," Cassie said.
"Sure thing, little lady. What's your brother up to these days? Ben graduated from high school this month didn't he?"
Cassie nodded. She remembered the day Ben came home from school, grabbing one of Mama's beers out of the refrigerator and saying how he felt like celebrating now that he had graduated, and how Mama shrugged and said, "If you can call a D-average 'graduating'."
"What do you know?" Ben fired back. "You're nothing but a drunk."
"Well, takes one to know one. I do believe that's the third beer you've taken without even asking."
"Well you can have it back." Ben threw the can on the floor. Amber beer and foam gushed across the dull wood. Then he had shoved past his mother and out the door.
"They found the poor Harstead girl you know," Mr. Cox said. He placed the orange juice in the bottom of a small sack and the bread on top. He waved the receipt in the air above the sack, making a show of integrity before he dropped it in and then he folded the top of the sack.
"Is she okay?" Cassie asked.
"Okay? No, Cassie. She's dead. A search team found her over on Hicklebickle Rock, laid out like some kind of gift or decoration."
"Whoever killed her laid her out sort of nice-like, over a hundred lilies spread all around her and both her hands were folded over her chest like this," Mr. Cox demonstrated, "holding a bouquet. She was fully dressed. Nothing wrong there. She hadn't beenyou knowmolested."
Mr. Cox's eyes focused on Cassie as if only then realizing to whom he spoke. "Well that wouldn't matter none to you." He handed the sack to Cassie. "There you go. I hope you and your friends don't ever play around Hicklebickle Rock. It might be dangerous."
"That's clear across the bay from our house. I can't swim that far."
Mr. Cox turned his gaze out the window and Cassie's gaze followed his. From his store they had a clear view of Bristleton Bay. Cassie's house was a small beige square to the far right side, and straight across the bay on the left side was Hicklebickle Rock. The rock jutted up and out over the water like a giant's thumb with an unusual rock formation at its tip that looked like a kneeling Indian woman with a blanket over her shoulders. From this far away the kneeling Indian woman was just a small bump. "Right," Mr. Cox said. "Even at low tide you couldn't wade clear acrossnot that you'd want to."
"No, besides, Mama told me Hicklebickle Rock is haunted."
Mr. Cox smiled. "Well, there's a legend about some lost civilizationa displaced tribe of Aztecs, I think. Some people still believe it's a place of mysterious power. Last summer, a visiting archeologist from the State University said he was certain Hicklebickle Rock was once a place for human sacrificeto some old Aztec god called, Quetzalcoatl."
Cassie wrinkled her nose.
"Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned that. Your Mama might not want you knowing things like thatscary things to keep you awake nights. Guess I talk too much."
"It's okay. I won't tell her you told me."
"How old are you, Cassie?"
"I'll be nine when school starts."
"You're small for your age, but you're older than nine up here." Mr. Cox tapped his temple. "You're growing up fast. Hope you're careful."
Cassie wasn't sure what Mr. Cox meant, but she nodded.
He came around the counter and opened the door for her. "Tell your Mama I said hello."
Cassie headed for home but paused when she reached the driveway. She set the grocery sack down in the shade of a maple tree. It was already hot and not even noon. She blotted her upper lip with her wrist and checked the bay's mood.
The tide was out. The water in the center was flat and calm, the sun glinting off its surface the same way it reflected off Ben's sharpened knife. Cassie sniffed. The air smelled bloated and heavy, the same way it smelled the day after a killer whale carcass had washed in. Danger, it whispered.
When she arrived home her mother was in the kitchen. Cassie was surprised to hear her whistling and to see her elbow-deep in steaming water and detergent bubbles. Most of the dishes were washed.
"Hey, Baby," her mother said.
Cassie placed the can of frozen juice on the counter and the loaf of bread beside it. She dumped the change and the receipt on the table.
"The bay's worried, Mama."
"It knows who killed somebody."
"Oh," Her mother twisted her face around over her shoulder. "You mean the Harstead girl? I heard about that."
Cassie nodded and then told her mother what Mr. Cox had said about how the searchers found the body on Hicklebickle Rock with lilies all around.
Her mother shook her head. "It's a shame. Could be someone we know did that. This is a small town."
Cassie folded the sack as she gazed through the front room and out the front door, straight across the mud flats and the shallow green water to Hicklebickle Rock. From this angle it was an ordinary round-topped boulder, the kneeling Indian woman only a shadow.
"If I get that job in Rutherford, we're moving away from here," her mother said. "I've never liked it herenever felt good about this place."
"When will you know about the job, Mama?"
"This afternoon. They asked me to come back for a second interview." Her mother dried her hands on a dishtowel. "Will you be all right? I don't like leaving you alone but I can't count on Ben. I never know where he is until I hear that damn motorcycle outside."
"I'll be okay, Mama."
"I'd call someone to sit with you, but I don't get paid for another week and all we have is that twenty in my purse and," she eyed the money on the table, "looks like six dollars and some change." She sighed. "And the car is on empty."
"It's okay, Mama. I can take care of myself."
"Good girl. Just stay here at home."
Her mother showered, dressed and combed her hair.
"Mama, how did Hicklebickle Rock get its name?" Cassie leaned against the bathroom doorway watching her mother apply rosy lipstick.
"I always thought it sounded like a witch's chant . . you know, like 'hubble-bubble, toil and trouble'? But my friend Gretchen Boyd told me that 'hicklebickle' means out-of-place, or misplaced, or not belonging where you are, or something like that. Maybe it just means, lost."
A few minutes later, Cassie's mother backed their sixty-seven Chevy Nova from beneath the carport and down the driveway. Cassie waved good-bye and then returned to the kitchen and made herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. She spotted Ben's binoculars on the windowsill, looped their strap around her neck and then held the binoculars in one hand and the sandwich in the other and ran down to sit beneath the big alder tree by the mud flats. She sniffed the air again.
"Will Mama get that job?" Cassie asked. She took a big bite from the sandwich and squinted at the strip of water out in the center of the bay. A breeze ruffled the leaves above her head and the chug-chug-chug of an inboard motor from a boat she couldn't see, carried across the water from out in the Straits. She chewed slowly, swallowed and took another bite. A bright green leaf landed on her head and then slid to her lap. "Good. Will we all move to Rutherford and be happy there?" A few seconds later a brownish frog hopped along the dry bank and then leaped behind a log. Cassie smiled.
Cassie finished the sandwich, licked her fingers and was about ready to go inside when she spotted a bird high in the sky above the bay. It circled slowly, wings spread wide. Cassie lifted the binoculars and adjusted the focus. The bird's head was snowy white.
"Oooh, a bald eagle," Cassie said. The eagle circled for another few minutes and then glided off over the treetops across the bay. Cassie's gaze dropped to the water's edge, down to Hicklebickle Rock. The rock Indian woman knelt, as always, on the outer edge of the boulder, her sad, stone face and eyes gazing out over the water. Cassie was sure that the Indian woman heard her when she talked to the bay, even if she whispered. She believed the Indian woman knew everything that happened around Bristleton.
Cassie's mother told her once, "There's an old superstition about the rock woman, about how she was once a real Indian princess and the cruel priest of her tribe demanded that all the children in their village be sacrificed, but the princess intervened and saved the children, and then the priest was so angry he turned her to stone." Cassie thought that was a very sad story.
"Hey, what are you doing with my binoculars?" Ben leaned against the trunk of the big alder. "You didn't ask me first."
Startled, Cassie jumped. "You weren't here to ask."
"Take them inside, right now." Ben shoved away from the tree and strode across the yard toward the house.
Cassie followed from a distance. "I didn't hurt them," she said. "Hey, where's your motorcycle?"
"A friend has it."
"None of your business. Where's Mom?"
"Gone to her job interview."
Ben snorted. "Nobody's going to hire her. She can't do anything except work at a tavern."
"She said she had a real good job oncewhen you were little and she had to leave you at a daycare and that's why you're . . ."
"And that's why I'm what?" Ben prompted.
"That's why you're so mean. She says she should have stayed home with you more."
"She said I'm mean?"
"No, she said you're 'the way you are' or something like that."
Ben snorted again. "What a joke. If I really wanted to be mean . . well, she doesn't know the half of it."
Cassie followed Ben into the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator, leaned on the open door for a full minute and then slammed it shut. "Nothing to eat in this place. Never anything to eat."
"There's peanut butter and jelly."
Ben's eyes shifted toward the loaf of bread on the counter, frowning as though considering it.
"I'll make it for you," Cassie offered.
Ben shrugged, nodded and headed toward the front room.
When Cassie carried the sandwich to Ben, he was sprawled on the front steps with the binoculars jammed against his eyes.
"Here," Cassie said.
Ben took the sandwich and bit into it.
"You're welcome. What are you looking at with the binoculars?"
"Did you know the Harstead girl? Mr. Cox said that neighbors heard a motorcycle go up and down the road the afternoon she disappeared."
Ben lowered the binoculars but continued to stare out across the bay.
"Did you hear me?"
"I heard you."
"What if the police come here, asking about that day and about your motorcycle?"
Ben turned. "Don't care if they doI ain't done nothin'."
Cassie leaned against the open door. After another moment Ben continued. He sounded angry.
"I suppose you and Mom have it all figured out. Ben is mean. He's no goodhe probably killed that girl and someday he'll start killing people left and right. Is that it? You and Mom think I'm some kind of psycho nut?"
"I didn't say that. I was just wondering . . ."
"Wondering if I would do something like that?"
"Well, you are mean all the time."
"Get away from me, you little idiot. You don't know anything. You don't
what I know! I'm not half as mean as Dad was. He used to hit Mom and sometimes he'd kick me . . . but he ran off when you were born and . . ." Ben grabbed Cassie's arm. He pulled her through the door and then shoved her outside. She stumbled down the steps and went to her knees in the dust. She heard the door slam and the lock click.
"Ben!" Cassie climbed the steps and pounded on the door. "I didn't really think that you . . . hurt anybody."
A song from a Metallica album blared, drowning out Cassie's voice. Her
fist felt bruised. She stopped hitting the door, turned and squinted at the bay.
It was very hot on the front stoop. Heat waves rose from the front yard and along the driveway. There was no breeze now from off the bay, no leaves rustling to suggest coolness near the water. There was only the monotonous clicking of grasshoppers from deep within the blackberry vines. The sound only made Cassie feel hotter.
She headed down the driveway toward town. At least Cox's Grocery was air conditioned. Halfway down the driveway Cassie looked back at the house. She was certain she saw Ben in the front window, elbows against the glass as if he were watching her with his binoculars. She stuck her tongue out, just in case he was.
Cassie reached the old abandoned gas station and sat down in its shade. She leaned against the crusty front doors, too hot and tired to walk any further. After a while she stretched out in the yellow grass and fell asleep and when she woke the building's shadow was even wider, stretching clear across the road. But it was still hot. She got to her feet and continued into town.
"Back again, Cassie?" Mr. Cox looked surprised. He smiled.
Cassie closed the door and took a deep breath of the cool store air. "I don't have any money, just need to cool off," she said.
"It's a hot one, all right. You walked all the way over here just to cool off?"
"I accidentally locked myself out," Cassie said. She wouldn't tell Mr. Cox about Ben shoving her outside and locking the door. Mama said the people in this town were gossips and to never tell them anything they could 'spread around'it was none of their business.
"Isn't your mother there to let you in?"
"She's at a job interview." It was okay to tell him that, Cassie decided. That was something good. Nobody could 'gossip bad' about a job interview.
"Oh, that's nice. A job here in Bristleton?"
"Nope. Over in Rutherford."
"Oh . . . well that's an hour's drive from here. She won't be back until after dark. Where's your brother this fine evening?"
"I don't know. Riding his motorcycle somewhere."
"You poor kid. All alone, huh? How about a Popcicle?a free one on me."
"I have a few extra grape onesneed to get rid of them before they start tasting like the frost in the freezer." He lifted the lid on the ice-cream bin and held out a grape Popcicle. The paper wrapper was frosted and dotted with tiny ice crystals. Cassie pulled off the wrapper and stuck the tip of the sweet purple ice in her mouth. For a few seconds it stuck to her tongue, but then it melted and she bit the tip and smashed it against the insides of her upper teeth. She smiled. "Thanks."
"Nothing too good for my best customer," Mr. Cox said.
Cassie nodded again. The Popcicle did taste odd. Stale, or kind of like the cough syrup Mama gave her when she had a cold. The inside of her mouth felt numb and there was a sick-sweet taste in the back of her throat after she swallowed.
"Hmmm. Why don't you sit down over there by the window and read some comic books? I'm about ready to tally the receipts and close up, but you can rest here where it's nice and cool for another half-hour. Okay?" Mr. Cox walked straight to the front door and turned the little sign so the CLOSED side faced the street.
Cassie sat down on the bench below the window. It didn't feel cool inside the store anymore, didn't feel cool, didn't feel warm, sort of in between. It only felt cool when you first stepped inside.
The Popcicle was only a third gone. Cassie didn't want the rest of it. She was certain that if she ate any more she'd be sick. She searched for a place to dispose of it. The garbage can was up near the front counter. She didn't want to throw it away right in front of Mr. Cox, not after he had been so nice in giving it to her, free. Cassie smoothed out the paper wrapper and slid the Popcicle back in. Then, with quiet fingers, she lifted the lid on the frozen food bin and dropped it inside.
Cassie eyed the comic books along the bottom row of the magazine display, but none of them tempted her to leave the bench. The bench had a thin, soft pad. The pad was covered with a striped fabric that reminded Cassie of her own pillow at home, her pillow with a sturdy striped fabric that held the feathers inside. She wished she were home now, resting on her own bed with her own pillow. Darn Ben anyway. Cassie lay down on the padded bench and closed her eyes.
# # #
Cassie woke to a gentle rocking motion. It felt as though her bed was swaying. Her room was darker than usual. At first she thought Ben was pulling her mattress out from under her, inch by inch and she wanted to say stop it, Ben but her tongue was numb. It refused to form a word.
Then she heard water sloshing and the thump-grind-thump of oars. She was in a boat. Wrapped in a tarp. The air inside the tarp was hot, humid and heavy with a flowery, sweet smell. The smell reminded Cassie of the grape Popcicle. She swallowed, feeling a little sick. She licked her lips with her stiff tongue.
Then the sound of the oars died and a few seconds later the boat ground to a halt in coarse sand. The tarp slipped open enough for Cassie to see light, moonlight almost as bright as day, then she heard footsteps in the sand. The boat was dragged further ashore. Cassie's heart started pounding harder and harder. Her eyes strained to see something, anything, through the gap in the tarp. Sand! The only spot in the whole bay where there was sand was the beach surrounding Hicklebickle Rockthe place for human sacrifice. Like the Harstead girl. Cassie straightened her legs, felt the curve of the boat's bulkhead against the bottoms of her Keds. The other bulkhead pressed against the top of her head. It was a small boat and she was stuffed beneath its bow.
Someone pulled on the tarp and Cassie closed her eyes again, pretending to be asleep. She felt herself lifted and carried ashore, still wrapped in the tarp. The kidnapper gasped for breath as he climbed the sandy bank and then a moment later he laid Cassie down and peeled away the tarp. Cool air caressed her face. She smelled the salty, iodine smell of Bristleton Bay, but she kept her eyes closed. Heavy fingers brushed stray hairs from her eyes and arranged her hair around her face. Her shirt was twisted, but her captor pulled it straight and then he overlapped her hands across her chest and straightened her legs, touching the heels of her Keds together.
"Pretty baby," he whispered.
Cassie opened her eyes, but only a crack, only enough to see down over her own cheeks toward her feet. Mr. Cox knelt by her knees, his hands wavering above her chest as if he were uncertain of his own actions, uncertain of what to do next.
"You're perfect," he continued to whisper. "A virgina pure sacrifice."
He twisted around suddenly, as though remembering something. "The flowers!" He scrambled to his feet. A shoe grated beside Cassie's ear and then his footsteps continued on by. A moment later she heard the sounds of him climbing back into the boat. She opened her eyes and lifted her head. Mr. Cox leaned down and gathered something from the center of the boat. Then he straightened. His arms were filled with lilies. He climbed back out of the rowboat and plodded up the sandy bank again.
Cassie looked around. She was on Hicklebickle Rock. Dizzy, she pushed herself to her feet and stumbled back along the top of the rock, but Mr. Cox dropped the lilies on the beach and ran toward her, blocking the only exit.
"Don't be afraid, Cassie. I . . . it won't hurt much, I promise."
Cassie backed along the top of the rock, toward the water, toward that white, shimmering moon path that cut straight across the bay toward her house. Toward Mama and Ben. She wished she were home right now. She wished it were noon instead of night, and she wished she were down by the water picking lemon-yellow buttercups in the sun instead of out here on this rock with nowhere to turn. The water below the rock was black. It looked deep.
Cassie screamed and a few seconds later it sounded as though another girl on the opposite shore screamed exactly the same way.
"No, no! Shhhh." Mr. Cox waved his bony white hands back and forth. "Cassie, don't be afraid. You know me, I've always been nice to you."
Cassie screamed again. She staggered toward the tip of the giant's thumb, toward the stone Indian woman with a blanket around her shoulders.
"Help!" She fell beside the stone woman and reached out to grasp the corner of the cold, stone blanket. "Please help me."
Bright moonlight reflected on the woman's stone face, on her forehead, nose, and cheeks, and on her hands clasped beneath her chin in a prayerful poseso perfect in the moonlight, as perfect as if the formation had been carved by human hand instead of by nature. But she was just a rock.
"Cassie, Cassie," Mr. Cox crooned. "Let me help you join all the virgins sacrificed here throughout the centuriesyou'll be a goddess and Quetzalcoatl will grant me power because I gave you to him at this sacred place." His eyes were as wild and round as the moon.
Mr. Cox picked Cassie up, his arms around her middle. She kicked and scratched, but he shoved her down on the rock again and then wrapped his hands around her throat. His fingers were big and tight and squeezing. Soon her ears rang and her tongue felt too big for her mouth. She wanted to gag, to vomit but his hands wouldn't let her. He squeezed tighter and then everything started going white around the edges, just like when Ben had tied her to the alder tree and left her and she had fought the rope until she almost fainted. Cassie kicked again, felt her foot strike Mr. Cox's shoulder, but it wasn't enough. She felt herself floating again, floating inches off the rock, felt as if she could float away, and then she kicked again, as hard she could, one last desperate kick. Mr. Cox grunted. His grip loosened on her throat. And then, over his shoulder, Cassie saw the stone Indian woman rise to her feet. The woman was much taller than Cassie had imagined, a giant rock woman towering ten feet tall, with shining eyes, eyes as black and deep and wet as the bay. Mr. Cox must have heard somethingsome soft stepping sound the stone woman made, because he turned, and gasped . . . and released Cassie.
# # #
Cassie heard voices, some close, some farther away, but she couldn't see anything or anyone. It was very dark all around her, as if she were at the bottom of a well, floating upward, toward a tiny distant light.
A man spoke. He was nearby, his deep voice cutting through the dark air.
"Looks to me like he slipped and fell, doesn't it? Looks like the outer edge of Hicklebickle Rock gave way beneath him."
"Sheriff," another man said from farther away. "There's been some recent erosion on the rock up there. It's quite a drop to the beach from that spot. His neck is broken. Snapped like a twig."
"Just as well. It'll save the taxpayers from trying the S.O.B."
"The girl's family is arriving from across the bay in the police launch, Sir."
Cassie heard a motorboat and then the motor died and she heard footsteps in the coarse sand.
"Cassie! Baby!" Mama's voice.
I'm here, Mama, I'm here, Cassie wanted to say, but she couldn't. She floated toward the light, faster and faster. The light was now a small moon.
Cassie heard a man's voice. "You're the mother? I'm Sheriff Larken. The paramedics are with her. They said she'll be okay, just bruised."
"Where is she?" It was Ben's voice.
"Over there. Wrapped in a blanket. She was half conscious when we found her, mumbling about Mr. Cox choking herand then something about the stone Indian woman saving her. A hallucination, I guess, or it could be from shock."
"I can't hardly believe this happened," Mama said. Her voice shook. "How did you know that Mr. Cox was the killer?"
"Mr. Cox recently placed a large order for bulbs through a wholesale nurseryall lilies. When Dispatch relayed your call about your daughter being missing, we were already headed over to his store to question him. He was goneand so was his boat."
Cassie's eyes finally focused. The small moon she'd seen was a spotlight atop a police van. She felt the blanket around her, felt the solid ground through the blanket, felt her body waken, felt her mind clear. She took a deep breath and turned her head to the side. Mama and Ben were standing nearby. A big man in a uniform leaned closer to Mama. "You okay?" he said. "You look sort of pale. Maybe you should sit down." Mama sank to the sand.
"I want to see Cassie," Ben said.
"I guess that's okay, but don't make her talk, son."
Ben strode toward Cassie and then he fell to his knees beside her. "Jeez, Brat," he whispered. "I shouldn't have locked you out." He swallowed and looked away. His whisper grew so soft she couldn't hear him, but she read his lips. "I'm sorry."
Cassie nodded. She had never seen tears in Ben's eyes before.
He sniffed, wiped his nose on his sleeve. His lips quivered into a painful
"Kicked him," Cassie managed to say. Her voice sounded scratchy. Her throat hurt.
"You must've kicked him pretty good! He landed on the beach down there. See? Quick, take a look before they cover him up."
Cassie shoved the blanket away and pushed herself up until she was sitting. Mr. Cox lay amidst broken rock and sand, with the lilies scattered all around him. Cassie looked out across the top of Hicklebickle Rock, surprised to see the Indian woman kneeling again, her back turned toward the beach, her face, as usual, aimed out across the bay.
"She saved me," Cassie croaked.
"She's just a rock, Brat. She isn't real."
"No." Cassie shook her head, looked at Ben, shook her head again and looked at the stone Indian woman. Mama and Ben and the police weren't going to believe her. They thought Mr. Cox had fallen off the rock, that she had kicked him and made him lose his balance. They thought the Indian woman was just a rock. But Cassie would never forget what really happened, never forget the woman's eyeseyes as black and deep and wet as the bay.
Previously appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine 6/98
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