A knuckle—a woman’s, I guessed—tap-tap-tapping at the kitchen door: exactly what we didn’t want to hear. Hello there! it seemed to say; it was not the kind of rap to bruise you.
“Mom wouldn’t knock, it isn’t her,” I told Lu, nearly certain I was right. My heart juddered, pulsing in my ears. Lu only shrugged, ran her hand through her hair—one silky slide of fingers from part to end. She was like that lately: queenly, almost. Taptap, went the knuckle, hidden by slanting blinds. Jump-jump, went my heart. It could be anyone out there.
Sitting in the kitchen, me and Lu, I took a picture in my head of everything around us, wondering what someone would notice, looking in. It had been just the two of us all week—our longest stretch alone so far—and we had kept the kitchen pretty clean. That was the one thing, housekeeping-wise, our mother guarded like a captain. A stack of unwashed dishes was insubordination. The sweet stink of those old cabinets, rot swelling in the wood grain, brought on sporadic fury in her—though the rotten cabinets, at least, were not our fault. No telling what she’d do, when flaming hot.
The knuckle tapped again.
“Maybe it is Mom,” said Lu. “Open the door.”
It was only Mrs. Mallory, from down the road. I let my breath out. “Have you all seen my cat?” said Mrs. Mallory. Her yellow-white hair was loose and sticking out in all directions.
“Our mom isn’t here,” Lu said, behind me, which wasn’t what she should have said at all.
“Good lord, Alexandra,” said Mrs. Mallory to me. “When did you get so tall?”
She wore a bright cinnamon smudge of lipstick and a silky blouse with daffodil-petal sleeves and a pleated skirt. Hose that shaded her legs tanner than the rest of her. She looked like a bouquet of dried flowers and smelled like one, too. Mom’s scent was different: molasses-dark with a pang of lemon; sweat and cold metal underneath. That smell had wafted into my dreams all week. Woke me up every time, a jumper cable to my veins.
Mrs. Mallory licked her lips and smiled. “I didn’t mean to interrupt your dinner, girls. I’m worried about, Timmy, is all,” she said. “You know Timmy. My handsome old Tuxedo? He darted out this morning and hasn’t returned. I don’t have time to look for him just now. It gets dark so early, this time of year.” She bobbed her head a little this way and a little that way, trying to see past me into the kitchen. “Your mom is out again?” she said. “Isn’t that a nice skirt, Lucinda,” said Mrs. Mallory. “How grown-up you look.”
The skirt was khaki and narrow to her knees. I guessed it was from the back of the closet: that one time when Mom had to dress neat for a job interview at a rental car company. The skirt nearly fit Lu now, but it wasn’t meant for her. It still wore its store tag, jutting from the waist at a crazy angle, like a tiny broken arm. Lu tugged at the skirt from the bottom—to keep it straight, I guess.
I elbowed her, hard, in her shoulder. An elbow that said: take that thing off, right now. You want Mom coming after you if she finds out you helped yourself to what isn’t yours?
“We should probably clean up dinner now,” I said, “and start on homework, Mrs. Mallory.” We hadn’t been to school all week, in fact. But that was the kind of thing that grown-ups liked to hear.
“I’m just sick about Timmy out there hungry, somewhere,” said Mrs. Mallory. Then she brightened up. “How would you girls like to earn some money?” she chirped. She put a hand over her heart. “Poor old Timmy.” She gave us a nice round number then: forty dollars. “Why, you can split it in half,” she said. “Do you think your mom would mind you helping out?” A bead of perspiration perched at the place where her hairline met her ear.
“She wouldn’t mind,” I said. Mom called Mrs. Mallory names behind closed doors: Featherbrain, and Snoop, and worse. But Mom wasn’t here to make her opinion known.
I knew that, pooled together, the forty dollars would be just enough for that cooler at Dempsey Brothers Hardware in town. We didn’t have enough cash yet for a tent—a tent was one-hundred-percent indispensable, I had explained to Lu a hundred times—but we did also need a cooler. Lu didn’t want either of those things. She didn’t want to leave.
But I was thinking, just at that moment, as I inhaled a damp cloud of Mrs. Mallory: We can buy the cooler tomorrow, first thing, me and Lu. As long as we catch Timmy tonight. If Mom stays gone at least another night, and we buy the cooler tomorrow, well—I rose on the balls of my feet and tapped the doorframe with my fingers twice, for luck. It served to block Mrs. Mallory’s view into the house, another boon.
“Okay,” I said. “We can find Timmy for you.”
Just then there was a honking. A big white car waited at the end of Mrs. Mallory’s drive, down the hill, shaded by poplars. That’s why she was all dressed up, I understood then. Going somewhere.
She swiped her tongue over her teeth. “I’ll be back tomorrow morning, girls. I’m visiting with a friend tonight. Poor old Timmy. He’ll be hungry,” she said, turning to us again, fluffing her hair from underneath. “His hunting days are over. You do your best, now, and you’ll have your money. The kitchen door’s unlocked. Just bring him in.”
And then she clicked her way down the gap-toothed brick steps, holding her arms out for balance. You could see pinkish patches on her tendons, above the shoe rims, even with hose on. She scuttled down the road in her high heels, fluttering her palm overhead. She got into the car and it drove off.