Tala groped in the bottom drawer of the electric stove where the kitchen utensils were stored and pulled out a small-framed picture. “Here you go. I knew I saw it in there.” She wiped her younger brother’s tears with the bottom edge of her T-shirt and handed him the picture.
Dason clutched it close to his chest. “I shut my eyes real tight and I still don’t see her face.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve and looked up at her. “Do you think Anjij still has a picture of us?”
“She doesn’t need one,” Tala said. “She’s everywhere around us, in the trees, the flowers, the earth, the wind. She sees us all the time.”
“Susan says she’s way up there in Heaven.”
“Like she knows everything,” Tala said.
Susan had been their mother’s good friend before the accident two years ago, and had made it her mission since then to always check up on them. Tala counted the days until her thirteenth birthday next month; no more nagging about being too young to stay by herself. It sure didn’t help that Susan’s kitchen window looked straight into theirs, and that her son Josh was Dason’s best friend. Car tires crunched the loose gravel on their driveway. Tala bolted for the front door. “Must be Tom,” she said.
She’d fallen asleep on the couch waiting for him to come home last night. When she checked his bedroom first thing this morning his blankets were still in the same heap on the floor. He hadn’t picked up any of her text messages; she was forever reminding him to charge that cell phone of his. Maybe he couldn’t use it in the woods, but he might pick up signals on higher ground.
She parted the slats in the Venetian blind to check if he had picked up a carton of milk, yanked her hand away, and dashed back to the kitchen to switch off the TV. Dason jumped up to protest but she signaled him to be quiet. “That woman’s back,” she said. “Don’t make any noise.”
A sharp rap on the front door; neither of them moved. Dason went to say something but Tala shook her head at him. The blinds were all closed but the front window was still open. All inside noises could be heard from the front porch.
Must be that busy body Susan who noticed Tom’s pick-up wasn’t in the driveway this morning. Ever since Tom told her Tala was old enough to take care of Dason, she made sure to snoop on them every chance she got. Just last night she called again to say the basement window was left open. No matter how many times Tala tells her she leaves it open for the cat to come in at night, Susan still calls to nag about it. Of course she made sure to ask if Tom was home yet. Tala was convinced Susan still had a thing for Tom; even after he told her there was no woman walking on this earth who could ever take Anjij’s place.
The knocking came back louder, more insistent. The door. What if the woman tried to come in? Tala prayed she had remembered to lock up. She’d gone out earlier to look for Thunder. The cat was always curled up in a big orange ball in the middle of the kitchen table when they got up in the morning. Angry cat howls had woken Tala up in the middle of the night. Maybe Thunder was too hurt to come home. Both her father and her cat were missing, and there was no way she’d open that door, not without having to answer questions she didn’t have an answer for.
After a few moments, Tala tiptoed to the front window again. Dason followed clinging to the back of her shirt. From the narrow opening on the side of the blinds, she recognized Officer Scott from Social Services, the same woman who had come to the house last month when Tom was away in the woods. He’d been in a bad accident that night on the road coming home. By the time he was discharged from the hospital, it had been too late to call. Uncle Lou and Tom had swerved into the driveway just as Officer Scott handed her business card to Tala. “Make sure you tell your father to call me the minute he comes home.”
A second visit from Officer Scott in such a short time wasn’t good news. Why did it always have to be on a day that Tom wasn’t at home with them? Susan must be the one squealing on them. Laura, Tala’s best friend, had warned her about Susan blabbing to everyone in the village about how messy the house was and how Tom left his kids on their own a lot.
“Is she gone?” Dason said, muffling his voice with her shirt.
“She’s writing something in her notebook,” she whispered in his ear.
Officer Scott stepped down from the porch and headed towards her car. Just then Susan jogged across the front lawn to talk to her. Tala pressed her ear to the closed blind and strained to hear their conversation.
“Maybe they’ve gone out with the father,” Officer Scott said.
Tala inched the blind open a crack. Susan shook her head, “I’ve been home all morning. I’d notice if he drove in.”
Officer Scott checked her watch,” I’ve got a few cases to take care of.”
What she said next made Tala’s stomach turn over a few times,” If he’s not home in the required seventy-two hours, I’m coming back with the authorities. Meanwhile,” she pulled a thick set of keys from deep inside her purse, “I’ll check into getting emergency custody for tonight.” She plunked herself down behind the wheel of her compact car, “That’s if he doesn’t show up,” she said, as she backed out onto the road.
Susan trotted towards Tala’s front door, came to an abrupt stop to answer her cell phone, and headed back home.
Tala fell back into Tom’s old lumpy armchair and stared up at the ceiling. “We’ve got to do something before tonight.”
“What do you mean?”
“Remember, Susan called yesterday to check up on us five minutes after Tom left. I’m sure she wrote down the exact time he drove out of the driveway.”
“So what? She’s just being nice,” he said, placing his mother’s picture on the coffee table before reaching for the TV remote.
Tala sat up straight and stared at Dason, ” Do the math kid, if Tom’s not back in the next forty-eight hours, we’re both going into foster care.”
“Can’t Nannie come get us?” he said in a small voice.
“She’s still in the hospital. Tom said she’d need to rest for a long time after.”
He climbed on the arm of her chair and leaned against her shoulder, winding the strands of her long brown hair around his short fingers, “Tom will be back soon.”
Tala could tell by his voice that he was starting to panic. It wouldn’t help matters if he knew his big sister was scared too. “Sure he will,” she said, grabbing his hand. “Let’s clean up the kitchen before going to find Thunder.”
Dason led the search for their cat in the empty field behind their house while she forced herself to focus on any unusual movement or disturbance in the tangle of tall grass and multicoloured wild flowers. Though her heart raced each time she spotted anything that resembled Thunder’s matted orange fur, her heart cried out louder for Tom.
Being the best trail guide around, his clients had to book his nature outings months ahead of time. His job was to show them the shortest way through the thick forest to the mountain area where they wanted to hike or hunt. He made sure to give them a detailed map to find their own way back. No matter how deep he went into the woods, he always came back home the same day.
What was keeping him so long? Hunting season was a real busy period but it hadn’t even started yet. She remembered Tom saying something about finding a pile of dead fish last time he was in the woods. Must be bear poachers, he said, they leave bait around to attract hungry animals, and they sure don’t like to have anybody knowing about it.
“Come on, Dason. We’ve checked all his favourite hiding places. Maybe Thunder went home already.”
She pushed open the kitchen screen door and glanced right away towards the front room. Tom’s hiking boots weren’t among the mountainous pile of rubber boots and muddy shoes on the mat by the front door. No Thunder snoozing on the kitchen table either. It was way past lunchtime. Tom should be home by this time. Something bad must’ve happened. Calling the police was out of the question; they’d focus more on her and Dason being left alone rather than Tom being missing. It was up to her to try to figure this out.
McRites Press Copyright Murielle Cyr 2012