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Picking up Courtney

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By Tim Waggoner


"On the q.t. - was I staring at you when the incident occurred?"

Brent looked at the old woman for a moment, trying to decide if he'd heard her right. He chose to play it safe and shook his head.

She smiled, relieved. "Good."

They stood on the sidewalk in front of Haven Falls Elementary. Cars zipped by only a few feet from where they stood, drivers ignoring the SLOW: SCHOOL ZONE signs. For the thousandth time, Brent wondered what genius had decided to build a school on one of the busiest streets in town.

"We bring her here to get her used to the noise." The woman had an accent that he couldn't place. He recognized it as European, but that didn't narrow it down much. She was alone, so Brent wasn't sure who the "we" she referred to was, but the "her" was plain enough. The woman held a thin leash attached to the collar of a tiny tan dachshund. The animal's tail was between its legs and it was shivering as if it were the dead of winter instead of early October. Its eyes were moist, and Brent thought the dog might start crying any second.

"She's afraid of loud sounds," the woman said. "Every day I come to get my granddaughter, and I bring Peanut. The cars, the children, they make plenty of noise, and we hope she'll become . . . inoculated? No, acclimated, yes, that's it."

The dog didn't seem to be doing much "acclimating" to him. The way it was shivering, it looked like its tiny heart was close to bursting.

Brent glanced at his watch. 2:24. Six minutes until the bell rang. He wished they lived on the bus line. Dropping off their daughter in the afternoon for half-day kindergarten and picking her up again every school day was getting to be a real drag. Not to mention cutting into his work.

"Each day, she seems to be a bit better, I think."

The dog pressed against the woman's leg and started to whine. This was better? Better than what?

"I'm sure she'll do fine. It'll just take a little time is all." He didn't pay attention to his own words. He'd been a realtor for seven years, and in that time the small talk portion of his brain had become so developed it operated on autopilot.

The woman grinned, displaying slightly crooked teeth that were yellow at the edges. "Yes, exactly so!"

Brent had never seen the woman or her dog before. He was usually five minutes late to pick up Courtney, sometimes ten. This was the first day he'd managed to get here early. At first, he'd congratulated himself on being a Good Daddy, but now that he was stuck talking with Frau Non Sequitur and the Amazing Vibrating Wiener Dog, he regretted it.

Brent replayed the woman's strange question in his mind: On the q.t. - was I staring at you when the incident occurred? They'd been talking about the school's open house last week. It had been crowded and hot as hell, far too many glassy-eyed parents trying to cram themselves into closet-sized classrooms to stare at enigmatic creations of construction paper and glue. It had been so stifling that Sandi, Courtney and he had ducked out early after making a token appearance in Ms. Watson's class. Had something happened after they'd left? Perhaps the old woman had fainted from the heat. Naturally, she would've been embarrassed by such an incident, and confused as well. She might have seen him in the hall earlier and later couldn't recall whether or not he'd been there when she'd fainted.

Then again, maybe she suffered from Alzheimer's or something. Or maybe she simply was a loon. It didn't matter. A few more minutes - three, to be precise - and Courtney would come running through the school's glass front doors, and he'd hustle her into their mini-van and get the hell out of here.

The dachshund's whining grew louder, it pushed harder against the old woman's leg, as if it hoped it might be able to slip its molecules in between its owner's and vanish into her flesh. Brent wondered if he were making it more nervous, if he should excuse himself and walk away. But the little dog yapped then and nipped at the old woman's leg. Not hard enough to draw blood through the woman's slacks, probably not even hard enough to make a dent in her skin. Still, the old woman scowled, her lips contracting into a tight ring of flesh that made him think of a puckered anus.

"Bad Peanut. Nasty Peanut." Her tone was calm, but her eyes glittered with anger. She began wrapping the leash around her hand, taking up the slack until the black leather strand was taut.

Brent thought she would stop there, but she didn't. She continued winding the leash around her hand, pulling Peanut's head upward, baggy skin wrinkling around the collar. The dog's front paws lifted off the ground, dangling almost daintily before it rose onto its haunches, sitting the way dachshunds do when they beg. Brent thought she would finally stop there, but she kept wrapping, her fingers now starting to redden and swell.

Peanut rose onto her feet, then her tiptoes, and then there was space between her hind feet and the concrete of the sidewalk. Not much, maybe just enough to slide a child's construction paper drawing under, but it didn't matter how much space was between Peanut and the ground, did it? When you're at the end of a noose - and that's what the leash had become - a few inches is the same as a hundred feet.

Peanut hung slack, not struggling, oddly calm after her earlier display of terror. The only sign that she was strangling was the way her wet black eyes bulged forth from their sockets. Dark streaks rolled from the corners of those eyes, and Brent realized that the dog was crying at last.

The bell rang then, snapping him out of his daze. He reached for the old woman's wrist, intending to make her drop the dog. But before he could close his fingers around her arm, she opened her hand, releasing the coils she'd gathered, and Peanut fell back to the ground, back paws first, then front. She didn't gasp, didn't pant for air. But she started shivering again.

He looked up at the old woman. She smiled at him as if she hadn't just tried to strangle her dog.

"What the hell -" he started.

"Daddy!"

He turned at the sound of his daughter's voice, saw her running down the school's front walk toward him, so beautiful she shone like a star among the crowd of awkward, mussed-haired kids around her.

"Lovely child," the old woman said, then she turned and walked off, heading away from the school. A girl with long black hair broke out of the pack of running, laughing children and jogged in her direction. She caught up with the old woman and fell in step beside her, but neither of them spoke. And, Brent noticed, the girl didn't reach down to give the dog a hello pat, didn't so much as acknowledge the animal's presence.

A tug on his sleeve. "Daddy, what's wrong? Aren't you glad to see me?" Courtney gave him the pout which he always called her monkey face. He knelt down and kissed his daughter on the cheek, grateful she hadn't seen the old woman abusing her dog.

"Course I am, Pumpkin. You have a good day at school?"

"I sure did!"

He stood, held out his hand. She took it and they started toward the car.

"What did you do today?" he asked.

"I don't know. I don't remember."

It was her stock answer, one he usually teased her about, but today he said, "That's nice." He watched the old woman, her granddaughter, and Peanut continue down the sidewalk, and again he heard the strange question she asked, saw Peanut's tear-slick bulging eyes, and without realizing it, he gripped his daughter's hand tighter.

The next morning, Brent told his wife he was getting backed up at work and asked if she could pick up Courtney after school. Sandi said she couldn't take off in the middle of the day, he knew that. She'd just started back to work at the doctor's office full-time only a month and a half ago. She couldn't start asking off yet.

They'd argued a little, but it didn't go far. Brent couldn't tell his wife the real reason he wanted her to get Courtney was because he didn't want to see the old woman and her dog again. He knew he wouldn't be able to make her understand; hell, he didn't understand it himself.

That afternoon, Brent arrived at the school ten minutes early. He wanted to pick up Courtney and get the hell out of there before the old woman showed up and did something else disturbing - something his daughter might see this time. He parked at the curb and sat in his van, thinking about why his encounter with the old woman yesterday had so unsettled him. He supposed it had something to do with the death of his uncle. When Brent was nine, his Uncle Larry—or "Red" as everyone called him- was like a father to him. More so than his real father, who was a salesman and always on the road.

His dad never had time to play catch with Brent, teach him how to throw a football, take him fishing. But Uncle Red had time, and even when he didn't, he still found a way to make it. Brent had loved Red, practically to the point of worship. And then one day Red went to the doctor's for a check-up. The physician saw Red, gave him a clean bill of health, and then Red went out into the reception area, sat down and waited for his name to be called so he could pay his bill. He never got up again. His heart gave out, the doctor said, and he died instantly, probably didn't feel a thing. As if that were any consolation.

Red had seemed so healthy, so full of life. His death struck Brent as so unfair, so damn absurd that he had himself a nine-year-old's version of an existential crisis. He questioned whether life had any meaning, if there was any design in the universe, or if existence was nothing more than raw, blind chance.

Eventually, he'd come to uneasy terms with his grief, and as he got older, he came to believe that life did have meaning, even if people had to make that meaning for themselves.

But something about the old woman's crazy behavior had dredged up feelings he thought dead and buried long ago - feelings that life was utterly random and without purpose. Now here he was, hiding in his van like a frightened child.

He kept an eye out for the old woman - how could he not? But he didn't see her. Others parents got out of their cars, walked toward the school's main entrance with the steady, deliberate paces of adults who'd rather not be here but couldn't be anywhere else. He looked at the digital clock on the dashboard. 2:29. He turned off the engine, removed the key from the ignition, and got out of the van. He stayed close to the vehicle for a moment, watching traffic, scowling at the drivers who sped by. Idiots. Didn't they know that in less than a minute the sidewalk was going to be full of kids? Didn't they care?

He walked around the van and started toward the entrance, looking around for the old woman and Peanut without trying to look like he was looking. He didn't see them, and let out a relieved breath of air that he hadn't realized he'd been holding.

He reached the front doors, nodded to the other parents - mostly moms - standing outside. He didn't know any of them well enough to start a conversation, and he didn't feel like trying, especially not after what had happened yesterday. He just wanted to get Courtney and take her back to daycare. There was a sign on one of the glass doors.

WE'D APPRECIATE IT IF PARENTS COULD REMAIN OUTSIDE UNTIL THE BELL. TEACHERS ARE CONDUCTING CLASS UNTIL 2:30 AND HAVING VISITORS IN THE HALL ARE DISTRACTING.

He frowned. He'd noticed the sign before but had never paid much attention to it. The grammar error annoyed him. He expected better from the school his daughter attended.

The bell rang. Several seconds passed and then the doors banged open. Kids wearing and carrying backpacks came flooding out, faces beaming with a tired joy at being free again. Courtney came though the doorway, her Barbie backpack slung over her shoulder at a sassy angle. She looked so grown up. Brent had no trouble imagining her looking much the same when she was in college, sass and all.

She saw him, smiled. "Hi, Daddy!"

"Hi, Pumpkin." He reached out to tousle her hair, but she gave him a look that said, I'm not a baby, and he withdrew. Five years old, and already she doesn't want me touching her, he thought.

He started to ask her how class had gone (though he knew darn well how she'd answer) but before he could, she dropped her backpack at his feet and ran off after a red-haired girl calling, "Kristie! Kristie!"

The girl turned, grinned, shucked off her backpack, shouted, "You're it!" and took off running across the school's front lawn. Courtney followed close behind, both girls alternately shrieking and giggling.

They didn't have time for this, Brent thought. He didn't have time. But then again, he didn't want to tear Courtney away from her friend. He hesitated, unsure what to do. He reached up, scratched the dry skin at the side of his nose, an old nervous habit. Three minutes, he decided, no more. He checked his watch to mark the time.

He watched the girls play, sometimes following the rules of tag, other times abandoning them entirely just to run and make noise. He envied their ability to be so alive, so wholly in the moment.

Courtney, who'd been about to tag Kristie on the elbow, stopped and looked to her right. "Doggie!" she squealed, and started running, Kristie right behind.

Brent looked in the direction they were headed, saw Peanut, saw the old woman. They stood in roughly the same spot as yesterday, Peanut shivering against her owner's leg, the old woman smiling as the girls came pounding across the grass toward her.

Brent started moving before the girls reached Peanut. He felt an urge to run, but he checked it. He didn't want to alarm the other parents or startle the old woman. It was a cliché - don't make any sudden moves - but that's exactly what his instincts were telling him now, so he walked across the lawn at a measured Goldilocks' pace: not too fast, not too slow, keeping his gaze firmly fixed on the old woman the entire time.

Courtney fell to her knees before Peanut, making the poor dog jump, and began rubbing its side. "Good dog, you're a good dog, aren't you, you cutey-wooty-wooty."

Kristie started petting the dog's other side, adding her own variations to Courtney's baby-talk patter.

The old woman looked down at them, still smiling, but there was something about her expression that made Brent's spine go cold and tingly. Nothing overt - it wasn't as if her eyes were wild, her teeth bared in a snarl, froth bubbling forth over her lips. There was just something wrong about it.

She said something to the girls, but Brent wasn't in earshot yet. Whatever it was - and it might be any crazy thing, mightn't it? Another non sequitur, or perhaps a bark of profanity ala a tourette's sufferer - the girls didn't hear or chose not to respond, so caught up were they in their doggie love fest.

The old woman looked up as he approached and smiled. Brent had no idea what to say to her, but Courtney saved him from having to think of something.

"Daddy, I want a dog, can we have a dog, pleeeeeeeeeease?"

"We'll see, Pumpkin." His reply was as automatic and unthinking as the outgoing message tape on an answering machine.

Brent found himself staring at the dachshund's neck, scrutinizing the hide around and beneath the collar. The skin looked fine, but then it was covered with fur, wasn't it?

"Peanut seems to like you girls," the woman said. "Maybe you could come over to my house sometime and help to give her some exercise, yes? Chase her in the backyard, throw the ball for her to fetch, put sharp little sticks into her behind. Wouldn't that be fun?"

Brent was shocked. He looked at the girls, but they still didn't seem to be paying any attention to the old woman, thank Christ.

"That's enough now." Brent leaned down, took each girl by an arm and pulled them away from Peanut.

"Aw, Dad-dee!"

"We need to get going, Sweetie, and I'm sure your friend does, too." He spoke to his daughter, but he kept his eyes on the old woman as they backed away. "And this nice lady has come to pick up her granddaughter, and we should let her be about her business." He kept backing away, towing the girls with him.

The old woman continued smiling. It was as if her face were made of wax and permanently molded into that expression. "The mirror's cracked, you know."

"That's nice." He kept moving, kept hold of the girls, who were starting to squirm.

"It always has been," the old woman continued. "But now the cracks are spreading. Growing wider and deeper, yes? It's only a matter of time before the glass breaks."

"I really hadn't noticed. Bye now." He turned and led the girls back toward the school. Kristie's ride evidently hadn't gotten here yet, and he couldn't bring himself to leave the girl alone with that crazy bitch. He decided that Courtney and he could wait inside with Kristie until her mom, dad or whoever came. Besides, he wanted to be near other people. Other people were safe, other people were sane.

"Daddy! You're hurting my arm!" Courtney whined.

Brent didn't loosen his grip, was afraid the girls would take off if he did. He kept his hold until they had passed through the front doors and stood inside the lobby. He turned and peered through the glass, saw the woman looking at him, smiling her wrong smile. Her granddaughter now stood at her side, and there was something odd about her face: the skin was yellow-tinged, and the girl's expression was slack. Peanut was squirming, as if in pain, and then Brent saw why. The old woman was grinding the dog's tail beneath her shoe.

A little after eleven that night, Courtney woke up, complaining that her tummy hurt. They'd eaten fast food that night, and the greasy glop had made Courtney constipated. Sandi marched straight for the medicine chest only to find they were out of laxative. So Brent threw on his windbreaker, hopped into the min-van, and headed for the grocery in search of gentle, soothing relief for his daughter.

While Bellwether wasn't huge - few towns were in southwestern Ohio - it was big enough to have a twenty-four hour grocery. He parked as close as he could and crossed to the entrance, looking right, then left, keeping an eye out. For what, he wasn't sure.

Once inside, he got a cart and steered it into the produce section. He was here for laxative, but Sandi figured why waste a grocery trip? She'd given him a list of a dozen must-have items that they couldn't get along without for another day. He got bananas, a bag of gala apples, and a single lemon - he had no idea why just one, but he put it in the cart. As he made his way toward the bread, he passed a middle-aged woman whose face looked as if someone had grabbed the corners of her eyes from behind and pulled backward. It was like her picture had been scanned into a computer, then stretched horizontally a few clicks. It couldn't be some sort of deformity, could it? Plastic surgery, maybe a botched face lift?

The woman noticed Brent staring and scowled, the expression making the distorted, taut flesh of her face bend and twist as if she were her own funhouse mirror.

Brent looked away and moved on. In the dairy aisle, he saw a bearded man with a gauze bandage over his left eye. There was a wet patch in the middle of the bandage, and as Brent watched, it widened, as if the eye - or whatever was behind the bandage - was seeping something fierce. And it appeared the gauze pulsated slightly, like the skin on top of a newborn's head where the skull hasn't grown together yet. The man looked at Brent, opened his mouth to speak, but Brent hurried on before he could hear what the man had to say.

In the pharmacy section, he got a bottle of Philips Milk of Magnesia (cherry flavored) and put it into the cart with his other groceries. He reached into his coat pocket and took out Sandi's list. He double-checked to make sure he'd gotten everything. Without thinking, he reached up to scratch the dry skin on the side of his nose and was rewarded with a sharp pain.

"Damn it!"

He pulled his hand away, examined the finger, saw it was dotted with blood. Perfect. Just perfect.

Keeping one finger pressed against his nose, he tried pushing his cart one-handed toward the front of the store where the restroom was. But the cart, though far from full, was too awkward to steer, and he said fuck it and left it where it was. He'd come back and get it after he'd tended to his scratch.

In the men's room, he stepped up to the sink, tore a brown paper towel from the dispenser on the wall, and pressed it to his nose. The paper was coarse, and his scratch stung, but at least the towel absorbed the blood. He removed the towel, turned it around to a dry patch, and pressed it against his cut once more. He pressed harder this time, hoping to force the blood to clot faster.

He looked at his reflection in the mirror over the sink, thought of the old woman's parting words today. But the cracks are spreading. Wider and deeper, yes? It's only a matter of time before the glass breaks.

He half expected to find a crack in the glass somewhere, but its surface was unmarred and surprisingly clean for a public restroom. He couldn't shake the feeling that the old woman had tried to impart some manner of vital knowledge to him this afternoon.

He thought of Stretch-Face and Mr. Eye Patch. In a way, they were like the old woman: a glimpse into something that lay beyond the seeming normalcy of the everyday and into . . .

Whatever was on the other side of the mirror.

Brent hoped they'd have to keep Courtney home from school the next day. At this point, he'd be glad to take the time off from work, and to hell with the effect on his sales percentage, just so long as he didn't have to go near that school.

But come dawn, the laxative had done its job, and Courtney felt fine. Brent dropped her off at daycare, and then spent the rest of the morning chauffeuring a couple around to look at some houses. They talked to each other, mostly ignoring him. After a while, he became aware of a strange, almost inaudible sound that accompanied their voices when they spoke, like the hiss and crackle of radio static, or the electronic noise of a modem trying to connect. He had the sense that this secondary sound he was hearing was their true voices, that they weren't really saying anything at all, just exchanging bursts of white noise.

By the time he parted ways with the couple, they still hadn't settled on a house, but he'd picked up a throbbing headache. He'd worked through lunch without realizing it, and now he didn't have time to grab anything eat, not if wanted to be on time to pick up Courtney.

He drove to the school, doing five miles under the speed limit without being aware of it. He pulled up to the curb, parked, and sat, gripping the wheel so tight his knuckles bulged white. He experienced an urge to put the key back in the ignition, turn it, put the van in gear, and roar away from the curb, leaving Courtney behind. He'd pick a direction - it didn't matter which one - and keep driving until he ran out of gas. He reached up and rubbed the scab alongside his nose, and tried to ignore the pounding in his head as he thought.

He wasn't going to abandon his daughter, of course. If he did, he would be a Bad Daddy, and he couldn't bear that.

He got out of the van and closed the door. There was the normal chunk! Of the door shutting, but beneath it was the sound of fingernails raking a chalkboard. Another crack, another glimpse?

Stop it, he told himself. Just goddamn stop it. An old lady says a couple weird things, abuses her shivery little mutt, and he ends up doubting his own sanity. Hell, doubting the nature of reality itself. That was the insane part. He lived in a world of rules and structure, of mathematics, of laws, regulations, statutes, custom and convention. The alphabet had twenty-six letters, there were 365 days in a year, and thirty days hath September . . . September . . . and several other goddamned months. The mirror wasn't cracked because there wasn't any dumbass mirror in the first place. The world was the world and what you saw was what you got. If you wanted meaning, you had to make your own, simple as that. But by God, once you made it, it was real. Right now, his meaning was Courtney, and he was here to pick her up.

He headed up the walkway to the front door of the school. He didn't see the old woman around, and he was more grateful for that than he liked. There were no other parents standing outside today. It was a bit nippy out, and he supposed the others had decided to wait in their cars.

He glanced at the faded print-out he had noticed yesterday, saw it now read: INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE AUTOPSY AND POSTMORTEM EXAMINATION OF THE AVERAGE KINDERGARTENER. What followed were simple step-by-step instructions accompanied by appropriate full-color diagrams. Brent stared at the poster, willed it to return to normal, but it didn't. He looked away, shivering like Peanut.

The bell rang. On one level, it sounded the same as always, but on another it sounded like jackhammers biting into ancient, brittle bone. Along the curb, parents and caregivers got out to meet their little ones. At the same time, as if on cue, the school doors banged open and children poured forth.

He watched for Courtney, afraid to see her, afraid of what she might look like to him in his present state. But there she was, looking as beautiful and happy as always, eyes bright, smile wide.

She ran over and hugged him, and she felt so good, so normal that he hugged her back too hard. She made an oof! sound and pulled back. She grinned, smacked him lightly on the back of his hand. She said, "You're it!" and ran off. He called after her, shouted that he didn't want to play, not today, but she kept running across the lawn, crunching leaves, hair flying behind her.

He hesitated, unsure what to do. If he gave chase, she'd just run all the faster. But if he didn't go after her, she'd keep running and laughing until she grew tired of the game, and he wanted to get out of here right now, before -

The old woman came strolling up the walkway, Peanut plodding along at her side. She held the dog's leash gently and the dachshund seemed in good spirits, was even wagging her tail a little, turning her head this way and that to look at all the children gabbing, playing and laughing as they slowly dispersed.

He wanted to run, wanted to hide. Instead, he started walking toward the old woman. He managed to keep from shaking, but his forehead was slick with sweat, and he could feel it trickling down his face. He met her in the middle of the walkway.

She smiled pleasantly and Peanut kept wagging her tail.

"Look, I don't know what hell is wrong with you, and I don't care. But I'd appreciate it if you'd stay the fuck away from me and especially from my daughter. You got that, you crazy bitch?"

He looked for Courtney, saw she'd hooked up with Kristie and they were playing tag now, her slow-poke Daddy forgotten for the moment.

The woman didn't reply; she just kept smiling. Her granddaughter walked up, backpack slung over her shoulder. The old woman looked down at her. "Ready to go, dear?"

The girl didn't respond. Her face was slack, her skin yellow-pale, eyes roiling circles of darkness. He had the impression he could poke his finger into the churning inkwells of her eye sockets if he wished.

"I think Peanut might like to run a little. Should we let her off the leash for some exercise?"

"Sure, Grammy, that'd be fun!"

The girl was normal now. Face animated, eyes a rich brown.

"Go ahead," the old woman said.

The girl unhooked the dachshund from the leash. For a second, Peanut just stood there, not realizing she was free. Then she took off, tiny legs pumping as she flew across the grass. The granddaughter squealed and ran after the dog. Other kids noticed, shouted, laughed and also took up the chase. Peanut wove between their legs, avoiding little hands desperate to grab hold of dog fur. Courtney had joined the pack, was at the head of it.

"Stop, Doggie! I want to pet you!" she pleaded.

She got close, reached out, her fingertips brushed fur, but then Peanut put on a burst of speed. She zigged left, and squealing with delight, Courtney followed. Peanut dashed between two parked cars and out into the street.

Brent shouted something. It might have been "No!" or "Look out!" but it just as easily might have been an inarticulate cry of horror. Tires squealed, there was a sickening, muffled thump! and Peanut came trotting back between the parked cars and onto the sidewalk, looking pleased with herself.

Horns honking, kids screaming, parents running into the street. Traffic stopped, and drivers got out of their cars, faces frozen in shock.

Brent ran into the street, knelt beside the wet red thing that had been his daughter, cradled it in his arms.

The old woman was standing beside him.

"You lied to me, didn't you?" she said softly. "You were staring at me when the incident occurred."

In his mind, Brent answered yes, but what came out of his mouth instead was the sound of shattering glass.

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