Paula studied the child before her, weighing the risk carefully. Idea had become need, she realized with a heavy heart, and it was getting worse. This child appeared like a gift, an affirmation from the universe that Paula’s calling was not really a sin.

The child’s bruises and thread-bare clothes spoke of abuse and neglect, a nothing rag doll no one would miss.

Paula held out her hand to the little girl on the edge of the road, “I think your name is Melanie, is that right? Let’s get you cleaned up.”

She waited in her mom jeans and crossing guard vest for the child to accept that she could be trusted. Together, they walked through the schoolyard while Paula told silly stories about her new baby kittens and the cookies she had just baked that morning.

In the forgotten bathroom at the end of the last row of buildings, she gently cleaned Melanie’s grimy face with cold water and grainy pink soap from the plastic container on the wall.

Tenderly, Paula brushed the child’s long tangle hair, finding herself mesmerized with every stroke. But then she snapped out of it, pulled a sheet of stickers and bag of snacks from her purse and snuck the child away.

In a department store two towns over, Paula picked out a pretty flowered dress for Melanie, and soft sweaters in bright colors, and new socks and even some underwear with pink roses on them.

They were so deep in their game of pretend, pretending to be mother and daughter, that when a suspicious store manager started asking questions, the lies about a dentist and a cavity came easily.

The man wore a name badge and smelled like eggs and one eye wandered the wrong way and Paula was pleased that Melanie clung to her for safety.

“Little girls need to be in school on a week day.” The egg man lectured. “She has a lot to learn in these formative years. You will blink, madam, and she will have her own family to raise. This time is precious.”

He chucked Melanie under the chin and Paula held her teeth still until he walked on.

Inside her home, Paula let Melanie run through all the rooms on the first floor and then the second, calling and searching everywhere for the baby kittens. The house smelled of fresh baked cookies and litter boxes and something earthy underneath it all.

“They must have gone up to the attic, those naughty babies!” Paula giggled and clapped and led the eager 7-year-old right up the final, narrow flight of stairs and into a large, windowless space on the third floor.

It was crammed with sagging bookshelves, thick rugs, old beds, and three little girls who stood up in a panic-as-one when the door swung open.

“Good afternoon, girls!” Paula large frame filled the doorway.

The three little girls stared back her, not seeing Melanie, eyes wide, faces uncertain.

“I SAID, Good afternoon, girls.”

“Good afternoon, Ms. Paula!”

She smiled her approval. “I have a new friend for you. Her name is Melanie. She is going to stay with us. See how our family grows? Say hello to Melanie.”

“Hello, Melanie,” the others obeyed, wide-eyed. They were Amy, Maria, and the girl who never spoke.

Paula gave Melanie a shove into the center of the room. “Go ahead and meet your new sisters. Oh, you’re going to be such good friends! Go on now. They won’t bite, will they, Maria?”

The smallest girl shook her head and stepped behind the oldest girl, Amy.

Amy said quietly, “Can we have lunch, Ms. Paula?”

“I don’t know,” Paula sneered, “Can you?”

Amy corrected herself, “May we please have lunch, Ms. Paula?”

Paula frowned. It had been a long and stressful morning. She could feel one of her headaches coming on. Even the light hurt.

But she acquiesced and returned quickly with tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, sliced apples, milk, and a cookie for everybody.

The girls were hers now. And as much as she despised the good little housewives up and down the block with their slave-like routines of cooking and feeding and cooking and feeding, these girls were only worth keeping if they were strong and healthy – so Paula cooked and fed, and cooked and fed, and did the other things.

While the children ate at the round homework table in the center of the room, carefully and gratefully like polite little girls, Paula sat in the rocking chair and taught them about the world outside.

“It’s just not safe out there, girls. It’s just not safe.”

She told the girls of men with whiskey breath and heavy hands, and the things they did in the dark that made little girls hurt in the most delicate places. She spoke of other girls being taken away in dark blue vans with shag carpeting and the unspeakable things that happened to their little bodies. She warned of boys with crooked smiles and worse intentions and told them over and over they must never go outside.

“It’s just not safe out there, girls. It’s just not safe.” She pinched the bridge of her nose, the headache thundering behind her skull with the force of ten thousand hammers now.

“Ms. Paula,” Amy said. “Did you see my mom? Did you look for her? Did she come back?”

Paula stared at the girl. “Why. Must. You. BRING THIS UP? Every damn day. Where’s my mommy? Did you find my mommy?!? Well guess what, Amy, she’s homeless. She’s a homeless woman who can’t take care of herself, and she sure as hell can’t take care of you. She’s gone, Amy. She’s not looking for you. She’s not waiting for you. She’s gone. Got it? Do yourself a favor and let that shit go.”

The headache leveled up and Paula winced. “Do you want to sleep on the streets again?”

“Don’t you want the food I cook for you and the clothes I buy for you and the safe place I make for you and, and sleeping through the night – is sleeping on the street better than sleeping through the night? Yeah? No? That’s what I thought.”

Maria burst into tears, “I want my mommy! She’s not homeless!”

“Your mother is a whore!” Paula snapped and left.

She locked the girls away in the attic, determined to find a quiet place to sleep and desperate for something to kill the headache.

A shadow crossed along her back porch, quick but awkward. Someone was out there, avoiding windows and creeping around her yard.

Paula edged along the hall, careful to keep back far enough to see without being seen. A sharp knock on the back door made her jump. And then a man’s voice,

“We know you’re in there.”

“We saw you with that little girl,” came a deeper voice, “We know she’s not yours.”

Paula cursed. Might as well handle this straight on.

She cracked the door as far as the chain would allow. “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do,” said the first one. His stubble and cheap suit went well together. “You’ve got a little girl in there.”

“And we don’t think she’s the only one.” The other man was short and wide, with thick butcher’s hands and an air of authority.

“Nope. Not here.”

Stubble smiled, “We just want a couple. One for each of us. We got cash.”

“We got pills.” The short one shook a full baggie in her face.

Paula looked from one to the other, very much not in the mood for this. But it’s what she had signed up for, so she shut the door, slid the chain back and let them in.

“So where you keepin ’em?” Stubble asked, faking interest. His head was on a swivel as she led them through the house, probably taking stock of what was worth coming back to steal later.

The short, thick man couldn’t care less what was around him; he was all about the destination.

Paula stopped at the basement door. “Go on down and wait there. I’ll bring them to you.”

Short man clomped down the stairs but stubble man stopped and let out a low whistle. “Soundproofing?”

Paula shrugged. “Nosy neighbors.”

He laughed.

She shot them at the bottom of the stairs, clean and quick, one in the head, one in the heart. The charms and pleasures of meting out a long, drawn-out death had faded away weeks ago. She used her foot to roll them into the pit with the others, careful to rescue the bag of pills first, and spent several minutes adding another healthy layer of lye to the pile.

“It’s just not safe out there, girls.”

She checked all the locks, took some oxy and a quick shower, and gathered a basket of clean sheets and blankets. She knocked quietly at the attic door and went in. All the girls were asleep – all but one.

Paula frowned. “Amy. You didn’t eat your cookie.”

“I don’t want to sleep.” The little girl drew herself up to her full, tiny height. Her voice shook as she said, defiantly, “I know what you’re doing.”

Paula waited.

Amy lifted her chin. “I want to help.”

“You’re a little girl.”

“I’m older than Maria and that judge said that man could have her already.”

Paula studied the child before her, weighing the risk carefully. Idea had become need, she realized with a heavy heart, and it was getting worse.

“Okay.” She said. “I’ll teach you to kill a man tomorrow. But tonight,” She placed the basket in Amy’s hands. “Make up another bed. I’m going back out.”

*      *      *      *      *      *      *

{Written for: Alameda Shorts: October 2018: Creep}