“Why do you look like that?” said Lu.
“Like what?” I said, and plastered my expression smooth. In truth, I was nearly giggling with the prospect of it—not just the money, but the chance to make an animal trap at last. I was itching to master the figure-four deadfall. All it takes is three sticks and a weight: a diagonal stick hinged onto a straight-up stick, which holds a heavy stone; and a trigger stick, forming the triangle’s base, which holds the bait and brings the whole contraption down. I had checked out that wilderness-survival book from the library three times last year before I somehow lost it. I wished I hadn’t, though; there were all kinds of useful tips in there for living out in the woods all on your own.
I had been telling Lu about the figure-four deadfall for ages, telling her how you can eat all kinds of things out in the woods if you have to rough it for a while. If you’re laying low.
“I can chisel the sticks with my pocketknife,” I said to Lu.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “Where the heck did you get a pocketknife, anyway?”
I grabbed her hand and drew a figure-four trap—wrist to knuckles, side to side, in blue pen—to remind her of its basic parts. “And go change into jeans,” I said.
She pulled her hand away.
“You want to get that skirt messed up?” I said. “Mom’s skirt?”
“She isn’t here,” said Lu. “Who cares?”
But then she disappeared into our room. I heard a drawer bang shut.
Out behind Mrs. Mallory’s, we gathered three sticks; the longhorned beetles had gnawed at the oaks and elms and there were twigs everywhere, like storm debris. Then I levered a giant rock out of the ground, flipped it dirt-side up.
“It’ll only be for a minute,” I said, when Lu, grasping the plan at last, tried to roll the rock back into its hole. “Just enough weight to keep him there till we can grab him.”
“Can’t we find an empty box, instead?” said Lu. “I bet Mrs. Mallory has one somewhere. To fall on him and trap him. Won’t that work?” She tugged at my arm like she did when she was little. It had been a long time since she had done that. Her fingers were electric, pulsing worry. “What if we hurt him by accident?” she said. “What if we break his little legs? What if we break his skull? Without even meaning to.”
She shut her mouth up tight then, puckered it closed till her lips whitened. Like she was afraid something might fly in there— or fly out, maybe. It seemed to me that everything about her was knitting together, lately: her mouth drawn closed over her teeth, her skin tightening over bumps and bones, and her clothes tightening, too. Her hair was growing darker, I had noticed. She wetted it down and combed it to either side these days, two auburn waterfalls. Like Mom sometimes used to, when she was going out for fun. Lu looked a lot like Mom, lately.
“I promise we won’t hurt him,” I said. “But we need to use the rock. To pin Timmy in place. I know what I’m doing.” Saying it like that, I almost believed it. But I don’t know if Lu did. She scrunched her mouth up tighter, crossed her arms, and watched.
I chiseled the sticks to points, wishing for a better pocketknife than the one I stole from the Mt. Olivet Church yard sale. I cut notches too, and I fitted the sticks together to make the triangle, just like the book had said. I called Lu over to hold the thing in place while I leaned the rock against the sticks. But it was too heavy for the sticks, and I couldn’t get the angle right. The whole thing collapsed. I tried again, over and over. Lu’s knees hurt from crouching so long on the acorns, she said; she complained her hands were cramping up.
“Just hold your horses,” I told her. “Don’t be a baby.”
“What if Mom comes home tonight and we’re not there?”
“She won’t,” I said. “Not tonight.” But of course, I wasn’t sure. Neither of us even knew where she had gone, this time.
By the time I got the trap to stay upright, the sun had set. The woods beyond the yard were fuzzed out in the twilight. The breeze brought a sharp, sooty odor—someone burning dry leaves, even farther out of town.
“The next step,” I said, “is bait.”
Mrs. Mallory had left the back door unlocked. Timmy’s food and water lined the wall next to the pantry in matching purple plastic bowls. His food looked like chocolate cereal and we each tried a piece, just to see if it tasted like chocolate, too. In truth, my stomach was pinging and rumbling—tomato soup for dinner hadn’t filled me up. The cat food wasn’t bad; I could pretend it was tuna and pretzels, maybe. Only a hint of liver.
When we picked up the bowl, a few bits scattered on the tulip-patterned linoleum. “She must have a broom around somewhere,” said Lu. Always the one to mind her manners.
“We’re not getting paid to clean up,” I said.
She shrugged and kicked some kibble toward the wall. We brought the bowl outside and dumped some of Timmy’s food around the trigger stick, under the shadow of the giant rock.
After that we lay down, our legs and backs uneven on Mrs. Mallory’s warped deck. Sleeping bags were another thing we would surely need that we didn’t have yet. I had brought us bath towels from home and a moth-eaten thermal blanket. That would have to do for now. All you could hear for the longest time was the crickets trilling from the woods and the wind in the yellow leaves. There was a pond back there in the woods, if you went in far enough. I wondered if there were fish in it, and if there were, what kind, and how hard it would be to catch them, and how to clean and cook them.
It’s hard to say what time it was. I was trying to train myself to tell the hour of night, from the color of the sky and the temperature of the ground, and whether it was frogs bleeping or crickets humming or birds calling—just like the wilderness-skills book advised. But I didn’t know how to do that yet.
I didn’t say anything. Lu didn’t either. I could feel her breathing next to me, though. Spidering my hand toward hers, I felt her pulse beating through her fingertips.