Technically, Maura and Steve hadn’t abducted Lionel, their nephew, a boy not yet self-conscious enough to pull down the tube socks reaching up to his pale knees. Maura knew the skin below those knees, down a little at the very meat of the calves, was flecked white like the underbelly of a newt, which was probably why he wore his socks so high. Lionel stood in the kitchen now, at the streaming faucet. He stood on his toes, his heels pulling down a little those socks topped with two wine-colored stripes. He held a pot with a wilting golden pothos. Soil streamed from the side, the water came so hard. Maura asked where her husband went, Lionel’s blood uncle, but she didn’t think the boy heard her. He pushed down the faucet’s handle. Without looking at her, he answered.
“He said that he was sorry, but he had to go to Alabama.”
Lionel, still of an age where Alabama meant a state, not a person who once outlined to Maura’s husband fifty-two reasons why Alabama would always be the best woman. Steve had kept the list folded away in his sock drawer, clenched in an alligator clip of receipts for costly purchases. Maura had read it once, crumpled it up into the tightest ball possible, too. She’d flushed it down the toilet, but waited a good minute to let the ink bleed down into the porcelain rim. Reason twenty-nine: “No one could give you babies like my ovaries can.”
The rubber zebra mask that they’d bought Lionel at an Orlando zoo lay crumpled at the center of the kitchen table where the golden pothos once sat in its pot. Its mouth bent up toward the chandelier, which was dialed in on to its fullest luminosity. Beads of orange light dotted the mahogany around the mask like coins hazy in the depths of a fountain. The blinds on the kitchen’s two windows were drawn shut still. Lionel stared at her expectantly. He really seemed to be getting comfortable with the idea of staying with her and Steve longer than expected, even though they were supposed to have dropped him off at Steve’s sister’s house two days ago at the end of their Orlando trip. For the past forty-eight hours, Vivienne had called their land line quite often, not to mention their cell phones, and she had even passed their house a dozen times. They’d parked the truck in the garage so she wouldn’t know that they’d returned.
“What time did he leave,” Maura asked Vivienne’s son.
“A blue convertible picked him up?”
Lionel had black hair and freckles, large square teeth that mostly rested on his lower lip as though he preferred being bucktoothed. His teeth appeared now and Maura felt her toes curl in her high heels. The insole lining had little brown furrows that showed at the shoe’s open ends, her toes, by God, unremarkable parts of her that had indented that durable surface so clearly.
Maura walked to the garage. The kitchen too dim to sit in, the living room too much of a reminder of the last time she’d seen Steve as he scrolled down the local news page, his laptop balanced on his knees, looking to see if his sister had reported an abduction. She went to the pickup whose gassy cab, upon first whiff, always reminded her of nail-polish remover. She sank in the cracked vinyl, closed the door, but didn’t start the engine. Within seconds, sweat sprang from her forehead. She wiped this off with the back of her hand and looked at how her skin, now moist, made the tendons glisten as she wriggled her fingers. The boy came into the garage. She waited for him to reach the car. She nodded toward the passenger-side seat. He got in and the springs under the seat groaned. Beside her, he let out an exhalation deep enough to reveal the onions on his breath and she knew instantly that he’d been in their backyard, more specifically, the patch of radishes and onions that she’d gotten so good at growing since moving into the house several years ago.
“How were they?” she asked, and he looked up at her with his teeth set on his lip again, his brow wrinkled in lines not so unlike the tendons of her hand now that sweat sprang on his forehead, too.
“Don’t worry,” Maura said. “I’m not mad.”
“They were really good. The sweetest I’ve ever had.”
She drove the boy to the produce stand on the corner of Wilshire and 28th. She let the car idle in the gravel lot where people paid and picked out their vegetables. The owner, a man named Carl whose red apron was adorned with the outlines of two giant peppers, the words “The Hotter the Better” stitched above these shapes, came up to the side of the car where the boy sat. He rapped on the glass and motioned with a finger for her to roll down the window. For a moment, it looked as though Carl was motioning to something under the window, something out of their view, his less-than-average erection that hooked at its end like an errant shoot in search of direct light. Maura had taken him in her hand enough times to regret indiscretions, their sameness; more recently, how sex all around seemed reinvigorated with her promise that enough was enough, the lovely sense that Steve would surely discover the ongoing liaison again. Now this impression passed and it occurred to her that Steve’s sister might have told Carl that they hadn’t returned her son yet. Carl loved to talk and her vegan sister-in-law had surely stopped here in the past forty-eight hours. What could be wrong with Steve and Maura? Now Carl bent and looked into the car, looked from the boy to her and back to the boy again, the crooked ridge of teeth showing where his lower lip dipped like the curve on a question mark. The Ford spat gravel at Carl. He crossed his large arms over his trunk-like chest, but otherwise didn’t move, just got smaller in the rearview mirror, standing next to his precious produce stand.
Maura kept looking in the rearview mirror at him, the road, the mirror, the road, the mirror, Carl shrinking each time she looked back. Soon, he was out of sight, Lionel quiet, an inquisitive pout on his face like he knew something else was slightly awry—something else besides his being two days late in coming home. They drove toward a strip mall with a dollar theater. She turned into the lot and drove to the theater as though drawn by a magnet. The marquee displayed not one familiar title. Instead, the names seemed to string into one single sentence.
The ticket seller, a girl in her mid-teens with willow-yellow hair and pink eye shadow, asked for their movie, then said that everything had already started long ago except for one film that was just beginning, but they weren’t going to want to see it anyway.
“And how do you know that?” Maura asked. “How do you know what we are here to see?”
“Well, it’s an x-rated one.”
Maura’s phone vibrated in her purse. On its face, Vivienne’s name blinked, poor woman. They’d taken care of the boy for nearly a year while Steve’s sister, a widow, recovered from her bone-marrow transplant. Maura dropped the phone back into her purse and pulled the zipper with enough force to make the metal whine.
“I should say not-rated, though,” the girl said, now looking at Lionel with mild disinterest. “I think it just has a lot of violence and gore.”
Maura looked at the titles one more time, theirs the last one on the list of movies stuck on the board behind the ticket seller: Dream Catchers.
“It doesn’t sound so bad,” she said.
The girl shook her head, sighed.
“It’s about lovers, husbands and wives whose heads explode next to their partners while asleep because of some sort of nasty virus. Basically, if you catch this thing and fall asleep, you’re doomed, but the movie’s done in a way that isn’t entirely scary, if you’re smart and pick up on things.”
Maura looked down at Lionel, who kept one hand raised to the ticket booth shelf, his fingers tapping near a semicircle cut in the Plexiglas. Maura said, “Two, please.”
The cool theater was nearly empty, the movie already going. Maura selected seats in the very back row. On the screen, a night scene transpired, a couple necking in a deep-red convertible, crickets chirruping and a foreboding creak that either might have been the car’s seat, or someone stepping on wet earth in route to the car, or even a seat in the theater, or the carpeted walkway, where the girl who’d sold them the tickets now descended holding a conical light that glowed a dim maroon, the color of a heart if someone had finagled a light bulb through an artery, the girl’s feet padding by and then fading as the couple on the screen stopped their light kissing, the woman’s sizeable breasts now revealed in the moonlight. Lionel covered his eyes. Maura forced herself to think about anything but Steve and Alabama in Alabama’s convertible. She thought of Carl’s apron, the stitched letters and what they said, the feeling that they evoked, and she thought of those long nights when she first met Steve, this from a time long ago when they used to sit in his backyard to escape his mother and sister, when they carried out plastic furniture from the back porch so they could make out next to the chain-link fence. Lionel still held his hands over his eyes, though the woman’s breasts no longer showed on the screen. And Steve’s sister, Vivienne, she always knew why they were moving the chairs from the porch to the backyard’s shadows and she always suggested bringing out a citronella candle to ward off the mosquitoes and she always amended this by adding that the neighbor’s Doberman liked to bite, too. And even though they knew she was right, they stopped bringing out the candle because, on that first night they used it, Maura just happened to look back at Steve’s house, a little brick ranch house with two bedrooms toward the back, and noted his sister’s face at the window of the room she shared with her brother, Vivienne watching them, hooking the curtain up with her finger, not moving away even after Maura discovered this spying. They stopped bringing out the candle, sprayed themselves with repellant that made them smell like the innards of poisonous coconuts, and Maura never noticed Steve’s sister peeking out at them again. The Doberman was never a problem, though sometimes its sleek black body moved behind the holly shrubs against the fence. Sometimes they heard the dog breathing, the clouds covering the moon bright and silver-looking. And now here she sat with Vivienne’s son. Funny how circular life seemed at times, and at others, just a flat line that led to moments so disconnected with the past, you wondered if it all were happening to someone else.
The girl who’d sold them the tickets was now making her way back up the carpeted ramp. She stopped at the back aisle where Maura sat with her nephew. Maura always felt a bit of satisfaction when Vivienne’s husband had left her during the bone marrow transplant. She supposed now that this was the world’s retribution on her, to have her husband leave her even though she was perfectly healthy.
“You’re going to have to come with me,” the girl said. “Someone is looking for you out in the lobby.”
Maura nodded. She took Lionel’s hand and stood, pulling his hand away from his eyes. Of course, Vivienne stood out there, leaning a little on the four-pronged cane of metallic purple she used on bad days. Vivienne seemed the sort who would corner Maura and jab her chest-level with the walking device, cage her breast like the flesh was a wild beast. She saw Vivienne’s car through the theater’s glass front, a Mazda with a customized paintjob of gold with glitter highlights. She called herself terrible for thinking this way, but Maura always imagined that they’d filled Vivienne’s bones with something of the same color. Sometimes, Maura wondered how all of their lives would have turned out differently had Vivienne died. Then, what would it be like to have Lionel die shortly thereafter, the spotted calves beneath his tube socks some herald of terrible sickness? What would it feel like to live through that with Steve?
As it turned out, Carl had called Vivienne after they’d pulled away from the produce stand. Vivienne had driven around the area looking for them, stopping at the Publix for her soy milk when she saw the truck and parked next to it at the theater. The ticket seller lingered nearby with her cone of light. The three went outside and sat on the benches next to holly bushes. Lionel picked the red berries but his mother snatched and threw them away.
“I heard that Steve left you,” Vivienne said.
“Should have known that he would leave after all that has happened.”
Lionel began naming all of the capitals of the southern states, beginning with Alabama. He got only so far as Tallahassee before Maura told him to shut up.
“Don’t speak to my son that way.”
Vivienne held her right leg straight out as though it pained her. She rubbed her knee in tight concentric movements, fingers outstretched and curled at the tips like rake tines, which was the way that Carl shaped his hands while massaging, the fingers bending with energy released through the palm. Vivienne looked at Maura and Maura said, “Carl.” Vivienne returned her gaze to her knee. Maura repeated the name again and this time Vivienne started shaking her head.
“I have a kid,” she said, and added, “and a disability.”
“Like any of that makes a difference,” Maura said, and now Lionel was looking at her, too.
“Are you sure that you’re alright?” Vivienne asked.
Maura stood. She thought that she might nod, just to ease any worries the boy might have, but she walked to her car, leaving the mother and her son on the bench. The two were talking, not looking at her. Lionel picked another berry from the holly bush. He held it aloft like he might put it in his mouth and Vivienne waited. Maura waited. Lionel, of course, waited.
“Those are edible,” Maura said.
Vivienne and her son looked at her, and Maura left them like this. She drove past the produce stand, Carl in his apron reading a magazine, sitting on a stool. Her house, as expected, empty, its onions and radishes pulled from the garden, lying in a neat pile, a kind of pyramid that the boy had stacked, for some reason, at the side of the house, visible upon reaching the driveway. This little pyramid of gold and pink pieces, it was the first thing Maura saw upon returning home. She decided to park the truck in the garage again.
The zebra mask remained on the table, but someone had turned off the chandelier. Maura went to the sink, the place where she’d last seen the boy standing. She pulled the blinds up. In the backyard, clumps of soil lay where the boy had made holes pulling up onions and radishes. One of the mounds moved, not dirt, but a light-brown rabbit foraging for anything left behind. Steve’s rifle sat on the top shelf of their bedroom closet. Maura slid the kitchen window open and pointed its barrel through the opening. The first shot made the rabbit look. The second made it hop away.