By Lane Chasek
He arrived at Hester’s door wearing a red coat with no shirt, dirt-streaked sweatpants, and rubber boots printed with white giraffes. He gripped the boy by the arm—painfully, Hester imagined. The boy might have been six or seven. Sleet fell from the sky, but neither man nor boy seemed to care.
“Have an extra room?” the man asked. The boy stared at some unseen animal, some presence only he could discern, concealed in the cottonwoods surrounding Hester’s home.
“Come in,” Hester said. “No one else here tonight. Just wipe down, don’t track in any mud.”
Hester backed into her living room, gave her guests a wide berth, never turning her back to them. The man was taller than he’d appeared outside. The crown of his balding head brushed the ceiling. His face was red and chapped, his chest and stomach pink and lightly downed like a terrier’s belly.
The boy prepared to hang his own coat over a wicker chair as the man pulled damp bills from his pockets.
“No, don’t do that!” Hester said. She rushed to the boy, pried the coat from his wet fingers. She hung it on a hook near the doorway.
The man pursed his lips and stared at her as he buttoned up his coat.
Hester studied the bills in the man’s hand and said, “Two hundred.”
He handed Hester the money. He stretched his neck from side to side then leaned down toward the boy. He whispered. The boy shook his head, whispered something back.
The man stood up, asked, “Where’s the room?”
Hester pointed toward the back of the house. She was about to tell the man to remove his boots, but by then her guests were already trudging down the hallway.
“Are you at least gonna tell me your name?” Hester asked.
Without looking back, the man said, “Sean Little. The little man’s Phillip.”
Hester turned off the main lights and sat on the sofa. She picked up yesterday’s Carlisle City Star but couldn’t focus enough to read the front page. Not now, at least. She looked out the window and watched as the sleet metamorphosed into heavy snow.
When she awoke that morning, she knew it would be a morning for waiting, the kind of morning in which either everything or nothing would come to light. It all depended on how much Sean wanted to talk. She couldn’t be afraid. She prepared a plate of toast for them, left out a jar of pineapple preserves. The toast was already damp and cold by the time the two arrived and sat at the table. Hester poured a cup of coffee for herself.
Sean’s forehead was red and moist, like a crying newborn’s. Phillip leaned back in his chair, staring up at the stucco ceiling. Hester, wondering what the boy saw, looked up too, saw a world of hills and shadows that seemed less mundane now and more lunar.
“What’s wrong with him?” Hester asked, nodding in Phillip’s direction.
“Nothing’s wrong with him,” Sean said. “By the way, aren’t these places supposed to bring you breakfast in bed?”
“You’re thinking of hospitals,” Hester said. “We call them bed-and-breakfasts still because it sounds nice.” She tilted her coffee mug toward Phillip again, the robin’s egg porcelain hot against her fingers. “Something about him doesn’t seem right.”
“He’s just tired,” Sean said. “We were on a bus three days straight. Didn’t eat hardly anything.”
“A boy his age shouldn’t be that skinny.”
“You don’t know how old he is, ma’am. Can I have some coffee?”
“You scare me, you know that?”
“That doesn’t bother me any,” Sean said. “How about coffee?”
Hester lowered her mug. She placed it on an eroded patch of Formica where she’d set this mug for years, and she was suddenly frustrated, even a little disgusted with herself for being so prone to habit, to instinct that refused to die. Her mug, now a quarter empty, was ringed with brown stains.
“I read the paper last night,” Hester said. “There was a story about—”
“You’re not threatening me,” Sean said, tearing the crust from his toast before placing the bread into his mouth. Chewing, he continued. “I’m not one to be threatened.”
“I’m not threatening anyone,” Hester said. “I just noticed some similarities between the story, and, well—”
“A man has a right to take his son where he wants,” Sean declared. “If the state wants to call it kidnapping, that’s their business. Just because his mom lives in Texas and I live in Kansas and have to cross state lines to take him home, does that make me a felon?”
Hester had no intention of talking law. The fact that Sean knew exactly what she’d read was all the proof she needed.
“The story said you trained animals,” Hester said.
Sean nodded. He smiled, the first time she’d seen him do so. He didn’t bare his teeth, and Hester wondered if he’d had braces as a kid. Harold, back when he was alive, said that was how you could tell if a person used to wear braces—they never got over the bashfulness, the shame of it.
“Lions, tigers, and ligers,” Sean said. “That last one’s a hybrid. They aren’t too bright, but they’re obedient.”
“You don’t train them anymore, then,” Hester said.
Sean shook his head. “I’d like to, but you know how people are these days. Eat a hamburger, there’s no problem. But the moment you start teaching a tiger to spell her name with block letters, suddenly you’re a monster.”
“I loved tigers as a girl.”
“So you trust me?”
Phillip looked down from the ceiling, grabbed for a piece of toast. He narrowed his eyes, studied the landscape of holes in the toast’s surface. The world the boy inhabited, the mind he lived within, must have been wonderful.
“I won’t tell anyone,” Hester promised.
Interesting story idea. Pulled me right in. Spooky ending. I wanted them to all be okay! 😢