“Mommy, hurry up!” Missy, aged 9, fussed at her mother. Len and Dennis were already going down to the river and if she didn’t hurry she’d be left behind. Not on purpose, she knew. Her brothers were always glad, often eager to have her along. They always said she wasn’t the typical little sister. But they weren’t the typical older brothers. They had not ditched her rather, than minding the brat, they had been unable to contain their eagerness, and left before Mommy had finished braiding her hair. They couldn’t possibly be across the second field by now but she’d have to run to catch them, and if they were lost in the woods before she found them she’d have to stay home, because Daddy told her never to go in the woods without someone else until she was older.
“Young lady, if you don’t hold still I’m going to braid your hair to this porch!” her mother barked, yanking the attempts at pigtails back into place and setting her daughter’s head. “Don’t move this time and you can go!”
Missy tried not to move but she couldn’t help craning her head, trying to see that last corner of the last field, the one with the path to the creek through the woods she was never allowed to go in on her own. If she moved just a little more, she could see it and if her brothers were there and she ran and screamed they might stop…
Her mother hauled her head back into place and resumed braiding. “Honestly, Missy, you haven’t the patience God gave a sparrow. You’re going swimming, so you’re getting your hair braided.” Eventually the braids were done, containing her daughter’s long dark hair, but the braids looked like cancerous snakes. Her mother couldn’t help giggling.
Missy looked over her shoulder. “What is it? Are you done? Can I go?”
Barely containing her mirth, she nodded and gave Missy both a kiss on the lumpy braid and a little push. “Yes. Go on honey. I love you.”
The little girl was gone like a shot. Her mother contained her laughter at the sight of the two tumorous reptiles attached to her daughter’s head until they were out of sight.
Missy sprinted down the fence line of the first field and crashed through the shallow waters of the brook separating the two fields. Up the hill, she could see two shapes just beginning to merge with the colors of the forest. She stopped and took a deep breath, stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled. A piercing blast emanated from her hand, and the two shapes stopped merging with the darkness of the treeline. Gratified, Missy renewed her sprint. Dennis had shown her that trick and after weeks of practicing she had mastered it. That whistle, Dennis and Len assured her, would stop what they were doing. A second would bring them running.
“Hoy!” she hollered, and resumed her run, but at a leisurely jog rather than a full sprint. The two shapes grew arms, legs, a head, and features as she got closer.
“Nice whistle,” Dennis said, giving her a five and she slapped it.
“Not bad,” Len agreed, and immediately turned back to the trail they had just sighted when Missy had whistled. “Come on, let’s go. It’s hot, and I’m hot.”
They all were, and fell into line behind Len. Missy next, and Dennis followed, cataloging as if to himself what he planned to do upon reaching the water.
“First, I wade in up to the ankles. Then the knees, then turn around and back in slowly until it gets up to my waist. Then I can slowly lower myself in and not even have to get my head wet if I don’t want to.” Dennis smiled at the sky, and the sun, whose bounty made this trip necessary. “If I don’t die of heat stroke first.”
After a while, the path narrowed and brush grew up around it. Branches grabbed and Missy was glad of her pigtails now, time-consuming though they had been. They ducked under and hopped over and elbowed their way through brush until they came out at gray sandy beach with crystal clear turquoise water reflecting a blue sky and a few puffs of clouds. In the water were around a dozen children varying from just able to swim to unable to remember how not to. There was a great deal of splashing and yelling and was punctuated by the occasional splash as someone ran up a small ridge and jumped off the six-foot bluff into the water. Len wasted no time in racing up the ridge and creating a massive splash with a war-whoop. Dennis followed suit. Missy, not feeling the ridge and war whoops to be quite her style, waded in and dog-paddled out to where her brothers latched on to her and towed her around in circles.
A boy with long dark hair slicked back on his head paddled up beside them, grinned, and spat water at them. Dennis laughed and splashed at him. The boy splashed back. Immediately there was an all-out war of splashing, spraying and laughter as they battled it out, each seeking to soak the other in the water in which they all bathed. Missy didn’t know anything was amiss until she noticed there were only their three heads instead of the four. She looked around, thinking the boy had gone away to splash someone else. She saw only Len and Dennis, breathing rapidly as they trod water and grinned back at her.
“Where’d he go?” Missy looked around again, then looked back at her brothers.
Len looked down.
Missy looked too.
The boy with the long hair was between them, beneath the surface, his fingers no longer breaking it in their quest for freedom. Their movement had slowed, and were visible about a foot beneath the surface, where they gradually stopped moving.
Dennis winked at her, and Len let out a yell and hauled up on the hand of the long-haired boy, screaming as he did, “Help! Help! Someone get help, I think Harry’s dead!” Dennis now took up the cry. “Help! He’s not breathing! Someone get help!” Dennis nudged Missy, and she gave voice to her own scream. “Help! Somebody HELP!”
Her piercing shriek carried across the fields as her mother hung the laundry out to dry. She shook her head and went on pinning the clothes to the line, an indulgent smile on her face.
“Those kids,” she said to herself, and sighed, not quite ruefully.
“Those were the days,” Missy smiled, and looked around at the group. “Back when not getting caught and Mom’s apple pie were the two most important things in the –”
There was movement from the back of the room. Long curtains covered the wall for some reason and the shape now moving independently from them had blended almost perfectly with the shadows and the dark gray of the drapes. This shape rose up from the ground slipped behind the drapes, and clawed them aside with a curse. The fabric fell aside and revealed a man’s face, gray with stubble and haggard, bloodshot eyes framed by not-yet-grayed brown hair falling across his forehead in a greasy mat. He pushed himself off the wall and stood erect, squaring his shoulders and pushing the hair out of his face. Once he had collected himself, he spoke, reaching under his coat as he did for the tools of his trade, fighting to stay upright.
The group had drawn back from the drapes as the shape had moved and now they bunched together as the newcomer voiced their worst nightmare even as he palmed his gun and showed his badge with his other hand.
“Police department. Everybody get on their knees with their hands behind their head. Nobody fucking move unless they want a bullet in the eye.”
I’ll do it too, Ed Harding thought, as he sighted on the younger woman with a hand which would not stay steady. Starting with this sick bitch.