by R. Saint Claire
When Dudley Frank (Dud to everyone), a man thrice her age and the first friend she made when she moved to the city, offered Yvonne the keys to his summer home with a sympathetic pat on her hand, she accepted. They both agreed she needed a rest after what happened. Although she tried to keep it light when she told him over dinner that her broken engagement with Brent Harrington was a mutual decision (a bold-faced lie), she could tell by the way Dud’s eyes narrowed at the news that he was concerned, but also disappointed. He had come to regard them as a couple and was looking forward to helping Yvonne (parentless and without many friends) plan her wedding. As he signaled the waiter for the check, Dud reflected on how this remarkable creature sitting before him let slip through her manicured fingers the best catch in the city. He didn’t voice it, but the older man suspected he knew why. For all her stunning blond beauty, classic style, and good manners, there was something about the girl that was just off.
She had omitted the worst of it, of how Brent dumped her after that awful weekend at his family home in Connecticut. What she had done wrong she had no idea, but it was clear that she had not passed the Harrington’s test. When she pressed Brent for an explanation, he responded with infuriatingly banal platitudes, and their last face-to-face meeting over lunch at the boathouse ended badly with her throwing his mother’s heirloom three-carat diamond ring into the lake when he’d asked for it back. The obsessive calling and texting and showing up at his job were bad enough, but the poor decision to send Mr. Harrington (the one she suspected of giving her the final veto) a box of her own shit disguised as Godiva chocolates, by courier to his Wall Street office, took it to a place of no return.
After explaining to her boss’s raised eyebrows (they were in the midst of a marketing campaign) that she’d be gone for at least a week, she hopped on the Amtrak with her matching luggage and settled in for the two-hour trip. In the reflection of the train’s window, refracted by streaks of golden sunlight as the scenery whooshed by, she saw a striking woman staring back at her: blond, impeccably dressed, and thin. She had worked hard to reach that 117 pounds at 5’7” goal; now she wondered what was the point. As her body swayed to the rhythm of the train, a little chant pounded in her ears: not enough, not enough, not enough, not enough.
As soon as Yvonne arrived at Dudley’s home, a three-story Victorian home on a rural stretch of a cozy Pennsylvania river town, she called the local grocer and placed an order. According to Dud’s instruction, she could help herself to anything, including his collection of fine wine.
While a frozen pizza thawed in the oven, Yvonne ventured down the rickety wooden steps into the basement. Compared to the upstairs décor—bright floral 1980’s era chintz—the basement was a dungeon lit by a single dusty bulb hanging from the exposed beam ceiling, the stonewalls of the foundation damp and covered with dirt and mold. In the corner was a laundry unit, next to it a second door leading to a small, temperature-controlled wine cellar stocked from floor to ceiling with bottles dating back to the 1960’s. She removed two with French sounding names, and returned to the kitchen to finish preparing her meal.
A few hours later, Yvonne lay sprawled across the living room sofa watching her favorite true crime TV show about murderous senior citizens: Elder Skelter. On the coffee table sat the remains of an enormous feast: two frozen pizzas, cool ranch Doritos, mac and cheese, vanilla ice cream, and two slices of blueberry pie. She had consumed one bottle of wine already, and was eyeing the second when a paroxysm of nausea sent her flying off the sofa and up the stairs. She made it to the bathroom just in time to expel her meal in an eruption of orange and blue Jackson Pollock swirls. She rested her head on the lip of the cold ceramic bowl until the dizziness subsided, then flushed the toilet multiple times. She noticed the old-fashioned bathroom scale in the corner of the room, and feeling bloated despite the purge, she stripped off her clothes and weighed herself. After stepping off and on several times, hoping for a different outcome, she turned sideways in the full-length mirror and gasped in horror at her slightly distended stomach. She forced herself to puke again till she dry-heaved, then showered, taking extra measures to clean out her mouth with the corrosive Listerine she found in the medicine cabinet. Afterward, she dressed in the shorts and t-shirt she’d packed for that purpose and went for a run, flying out the back door and cutting through the neighbor’s yard to the canal towpath.
Despite being still somewhat tipsy, Yvonne managed to complete a three-mile run in under twenty-five minutes–her blond ponytail bouncing as she caught the eye of nearly every passerby, especially men, some trailing behind their stroller-pushing wives to cast a lingering, hungry glance at the long-legged stranger.
She returned through the back door, and feeling much better—her stomach miraculously flattened–she opened the second bottle of wine and flopped on the sofa for more TV binging. At some point during the evening, weaving and nearly toppling down the dark stairs, she returned to the basement for additional libations.
Despite the numbing effects of the wine, a black cloud of despair descended upon her, and her mind returned to Brent’s rejection. His explanations were so vague—I can’t give you what you want/We’re essentially too different to ever make it work. If only he told her exactly what was wrong with her, she would fix it. She would try to make him understand, she thought, as she pulled her phone from her purse and pressed his number; it went directly to voicemail. She tried again, and again, and again, till finally she left a slurred, profanity-laden message that transmogrified into a soliloquy of blubbering, self-pitying accusations and suicidal threats dwindling to silence only after she passed out in the crook of the sofa’s ruffle-edged cushions.
At around midnight, she was awakened by a loud bang. Disoriented for a moment within the darkened living room that was now lit only by the purple TV glow of another murder mystery program, Yvonne disengaged herself from the sofa to investigate the noise. She weaved a wobbly path to the kitchen and saw that the back door was wide open; the screen door bounced against the frame with a light tap. She shut it tight and locked it. As she switched off the lights in the kitchen, she felt rather than saw a shadow cross the darkened living room. The blond down on the back on her neck stood up straight, and over the noise of the TV she heard the rasp of heavy breathing. Someone was inside the house with her!
She inched towards the foyer, moving quickly to the front door and her escape. Then she realized that the key to the second lock was sitting atop the messy kitchen counter. As she was about to make a bold dash across the living room to the kitchen, she bumped into an umbrella stand, her hand coming to rest on the knob of a wooden baseball bat. She picked it up, brandishing in front of her like a weapon. Then with measured, barefoot steps, she started towards the kitchen. As she passed the open basement door, she saw in her periphery a dark thing advance, and suddenly it was on her: a mass of hot breath and sickly-sweet smelling flesh. She screamed and hit it twice with the bat, each strike into the soft mound producing a nasally grunt; then she raised the bat above her head like a pickaxe, and brought it down. It hit something hard, sending shock waves through her delicate wrist and knocking her back a few steps. The blob hovered at the open doorway for a moment, then fell into the negative space and disappeared. Loud bumps and groans followed, a thud as it landed on the hard concrete floor below, and then silence.
Yvonne slammed the basement door, and trembling from head to toe, leaned her back against it. Her thoughts raced to where her phone might be, but before she could move to find it, she slid down the door and collapsed.
* * *
The combination of the golden morning light spilling in from the living room bay window, and the insistent buzz of the doorbell woke Yvonne with a start. She palmed the wall to help herself stand, and after a few tilt-a-whirl spins, the room shifted into focus. In the fog of her thoughts, she remembered the key to the front door, and by the time she got to the kitchen to retrieve it, the visitor had moved to the back door. Yvonne gasped at the sight of a woman’s face–pale as a ghost’s–pressed against the screen. Yvonne turned the doorknob, and the woman was immediately inside, breathlessly jabbering.
“Oh my God! Oh my God! Is Dud here? Dud?” She called past Yvonne into the empty living room.
“He…he’s not here.” The light from the open door pierced the space between her eyes like a dart. She rubbed her forehead. ”What’s going on?”
“Oh, I’m…so sorry. I’m the neighbor,” the older woman said, panting and pointing through the screen door to the white house across the lawn. “Traci’s missing. Have you seen her?”
“Who’s Traci?” Yvonne asked.
“My daughter!” The woman replied, as if it were a stupid question. “Oh, I need to sit down…I’m going to…ah”
She fell into a kitchen café chair and rested her forehead on the tabletop, trying to catch her breath.
Yvonne filled a glass with tap water, and handed it to her.
“God bless you,” the woman said. She lifted her head and took a sip of water. “I’m sorry…I just…my daughter is missing…What’s your name?”
Yvonne told her, explaining that she was a friend of Dudley’s from the city.
The woman nodded. “Call me Dottie. Sorry to bother you. I just thought maybe she came by here. My daughter, Traci…she’s Down’s.”
Yvonne shook her head, still not understanding.
“She’s a grown up, with Down’s Syndrome. She wasn’t in the house when I got up. She never wanders off, especially at night. But she loves Dud, and I thought maybe she saw the lights on in here and…Sure you haven’t you seen her? You can’t miss her…she’s about this tall…“ her hand indicated someone short in stature. “And she’s a big gal like this.” Her hands spread twice the width of the table.
The memory of the intruder’s attack rushed at Yvonne like an oncoming train and her mouth went dry. She unconsciously massaged her wrists where they still ached from the impact of the baseball bat.
Yvonne blinked and said, “I’m sorry, Dottie, I haven’t seen her.”
“Oh God!” Dottie sobbed.
Yvonne touched the sleeve of her purple velour jacket and asked kindly, “Do you want me to help you look for her?”
Dottie’s pale, deeply lined face lit up behind her bifocals. “Would you?”
“Of course.” Yvonne smiled sweetly. “She has to be someone in the neighborhood, right?”
Dottie nodded hopefully.
Yvonne gestured towards the back door. “Just let me find my shoes. Wait outside. I’ll be right back.”
After a moment’s confusion, Dottie heaved her cumbrous body out of the chair and through the screen door and out onto the yard. Yvonne went to the living room and stepped into her running shoes. Then she pulled on an Adidas jacket to conceal her purple stained t-shirt, and paused to check her reflection in the hall mirror. She reset her ponytail high and tight, and combed her fingers through her short bangs. With the aid of a little spit on her fingertips, she removed the smear of black mascara that had gathered under her eyes during the night. Before she left, she took a quick peak down the basement stairs. Visible within the corona of overhead light, was a large blob, a darker black than the surrounding darkness. Yvonne whistled a yoo-hoo into the damp hole; the blob moved slightly and groaned.
Still alive, she thought, as she closed the door on her captive and engaged the latch. She forced her mind to focus through the fog of her hangover. Even though it was an accident, she couldn’t risk this news getting back to Brent. He already had a low opinion of her, and this would only make it worse. She quickly devised a plan: get the girl out of the basement tonight and set her loose in her own backyard–a little bump on the girl’s head and none would be the wiser. Satisfied with the scheme, she wedged a wooden chair tightly beneath the doorknob for reassurance and bounced out the backdoor to join Dottie, who now paced the yard, practically hyperventilating as she yakked into her phone.
* * *
Yvonne and Dottie canvassed the neighborhood without luck, before going to the town’s small police department. Considering Traci’s disability, the handsome young sergeant, Juan Cessara, waived the usual twenty-four hour waiting period for a missing adult and launched an immediate investigation. By noon, flyers with Traci’s image (an obese girl with a short, bowl haircut, smiling broadly while holding a kitten in her lap) were all over town.
As more friends and neighbors showed up at the station to help, Yvonne found a moment to sneak away unnoticed and returned to the house to check on Traci. Halfway down the stairs, the stench of shit stopped her dead in her tracks.
“What the fuck!” Yvonne said, surprised at the angry tone of her voice echoing back at her.
A voice shot through a snotty nose whispered from the dark. “I’m sorry.”
Yvonne stepped carefully over the brown liquid forming a puddle under Traci’s fat legs and ass, and trying not to breathe, peered down at her captive, who seemed stunned (her confused eyes darted about the basement space) but otherwise unharmed. Yvonne approached a laundry basket filled with fresh towels.
“Clean yourself off,” she said, tossing two towels at the girl.
Traci obeyed, with a confused grunt.
“Take those shorts off too,” said Yvonne, her hand covering her nose.
“K,” said Traci. “Where’s mom?”
“The underwear too…God, you stink.”
“I’m sorry,” Traci said again, looking mournful as she wiped up the shit as best she could. Yvonne saw a slop sink in the corner near the laundry unit and turned the rusted spigot till the water ran clear. She soaked one of the towels and flung it across the room, hitting Traci’s bare stomach with a wet slap.
“Where’s mom?” Traci asked.
“She’s not here.”
“Where’s Dud?” Yvonne repeated the words, mocking Traci’s speech impediment. Yvonne pushed an empty laundry basket towards Traci with her foot. “Put the dirty clothes and towels in here.”
“Huh?” Traci said.
“Are you fucking deaf? Or just stupid?”
Traci looked up at her with sad, frightened eyes.
* * *
A few hours later the chair was back under the basement door, and Yvonne lay on the sofa paging through an ancient copy of Architectural Digest. Except for the low hum of the dryer spinning in the basement, all was quiet in Dudley’s pristine, lavender-hued home. Yvonne was restless–the summer day was long and it would be hours till nightfall. She was about to check her phone (again) to see if Brent had responded to her last text, when a sharp knock at the front door startled her. It was Dottie: the purple velour replaced with mom jeans and a white blouse, the face an even deeper mask of worry.
Yvonne stepped outside the door to greet her with a smile. “Hey, Dottie. Did you find Traci?”
“No,” the older woman shook her head. “Not yet, but there’s a meeting at the community center tonight at seven if you want to come. We are mobilizing a team for the search.”
“Of course,” Yvonne smiled compassionately. “I’ll be there.”
A loud bang came from inside the house.
“What was that?” Dottie said, looking past Yvonne to the door.
“Oh, I was cleaning Dud’s shelves. The books must have fallen over.”
“Do you need help?” Dottie took a step forward.
“Not at all.” Yvonne blocked her path. “You have enough to worry about—now scoot! I’ll see you tonight at the meeting.”
She shut the door on Dottie’s slack-jawed face, and turned to see Traci standing in the middle of the living room, buck-naked (rolls of fat and short tufts of hair sprouting here and there).
“Ma!” Was all Traci got out before the baseball bat slammed into the side of her head. On impact the bat broke into two pieces; Yvonne let the sticks drop to the floor and watched as Traci teetered like a clown in a fat suit, then fell straight back, her head hit the floor like a bowling ball, landing with a dead thud.
* * *
In her chic sleeveless black dress and flat sandals, Yvonne stuck out like a sore thumb at the community center among the locals. After Dottie tearfully thanked everyone from the podium, Sergeant Juan Cesarra, handsome and somber in his dark blue uniform, addressed the group of concerned volunteers, and laid out a plan for a search starting at daybreak the following morning. In the meantime, he explained, two officers would be examining images from every surveillance camera in town. At the end of the meeting, each volunteer was given a packet of Traci flyers and a detailed street map of the town with pertinent contact numbers in case anyone found anything.
As Yvonne picked up her bundle of volunteer items, including a bright orange Team Traci t-shirt, the young sergeant introduced himself. After a brief chat, he asked her to join him for dinner at the local diner; she accepted.
“Thank you so much for helping with the search effort,” Juan said over the lip of his ceramic coffee cup. “Traci is very special to all of us.”
“What do you think happened to her?” Yvonne asked, picking at, but not eating, the salad she had ordered. She forgot to tell the obese, white trash waitress to put the dressing on the side.
“I really don’t know, yet. I just hope we find her safe and sound.”
“Do you think she drowned in the river?”
Juan shuddered. “That’s what we’re all afraid of, or maybe she was abducted.”
“That would be unusual, wouldn’t it?”
“Who would want to rape someone like that?”
Juan’s brown eyes widened. “What do you mean?”
“I’m sorry,” Yvonne grappled to cover her goof. “That came out all wrong.”
As Juan set down his coffee cup, the kindness drained from his face. “I’ve been on the force long enough, Yvonne, to know that people are capable of all kinds of evil…some you’d never suspect.”
* * *
By the time he dropped her off in his squad car, Yvonne knew that she liked Juan a lot, and she could tell he liked her too–until she put her foot in it with that insensitive comment. She’d have another chance to impress him tomorrow during the search, meaning she’s have to keep Traci hidden for at least another day.
Although she was tired, she changed from her dress into a pink gingham playsuit, and went down to the basement to check on her captive. She was relieved to see the girl was still breathing, and gave her some water to drink from a plastic cup.
When she was finished, Traci looked up at Yvonne with pathetic eyes and whined, “I’m hungry.”
Yvonne stood over her, hands on hips, and laughed. “Aren’t you fat enough?”
Traci looked around, confused. “Mom?”
“Do I look like your fucking mother?”
At this, Traci began to weep in short, panting sobs that transmuted into a prolonged screech, like a cat being tortured by a deranged boy. Desperate to shut her up, Yvonne pounced on top of her, straddling her with her ass pointed at her face, toned bare thighs pressed against Traci’s floppy, tube-like breasts. Feeling a fart on deck Yvonne let it rip in her face, resulting in an agonized groan from her captive. Then she pulled off Traci’s big cotton, granny panties (the reek of the fat girl’s unwashed nether regions hitting Yvonne’s nose like a poisoned gas dart) and pivoting her body to face her, shoved them into the girl’s mouth. She was looking around the room for the silver duct tape she had brought with her for this purpose, when, in a moment of defiance, Traci bit down hard on Yvonne’s finger. Yvonne heard the crack of bone and whipped her finger back in a spray of red. Traci’s bloated face stared up at her blankly, blood from Yvonne’s finger smeared around the fat girl’s lips like strawberry jam. They looked at each other for a moment, their hearts matching each other’s rapid rhythm, beat for beat. The sensitive center of Yvonne’s crotch resting on Traci’s hairy pubic mound picked up the throbbing rhythm. Yvonne began to rub herself against the spot as the warmth spread throughout her body. Then, as if it were the only possible next step in this macabre dance, Yvonne whipped back her hand and slapped Traci’s face as hard as she could, leaving a pink hand print on the girl’s moist cheek. As a fresh assault of tears and wails sprouted from the girl, Yvonne felt a sensation in her body she had never known before, and with instinct as her instructor she began to pound her fists into Traci’s face, one punch to each eye, twice to her nose, which cracked and flattened on the second blow, all the while grinding her crotch, hot as fire, into the girl’s soft flesh with each strike. She didn’t stop hitting Traci until she felt the skin of her knuckles rip open on the jagged edge of the girl’s broken front teeth and saw the blood flow, at which point her body exploded in a blinding white light of pure ecstasy, her screams of pleasure sounding off the walls and echoing through the empty house.
* * *
That night Yvonne slept better than she had in months. The next morning she was up with the sun, showered and dressed in cargo shorts and her Team Traci t-shirt. She waited by the door holding a steaming cup of coffee in her hand and humming a pretty tune until it was time to join the others for the search.
While Dottie and the sergeant spoke at a press conference at the town hall, groups of volunteers fanned out to search the town. Yvonne and a group of teenagers were assigned the canal region. Except for one boy who stared at Yvonne the entire time, practically drooling, the teens made only a lame stab at the search before turning their attention back to their phones, and Yvonne quickly lost interest too. During the lunch break at the community center, she caught up with Juan. The two of them took their pizza and cokes outside and sat on a fieldstone wall that faced the river. When he asked, she told Juan that the Band-Aids she wore on her fingers and across her knuckles was due to the poison ivy she had contracted during the search. He smiled warmly and thanked her again for her help.
“It’s the least I could do,” Yvonne said, taking a sip on her diet coke.
Juan smiled, and said, “It’s nice to know there are people out there who aren’t afraid to get involved, to help someone they don’t even know.” He looked out over the river’s expanse. “I just hope we find her today.”
“Did you ever consider that maybe Traci took off with some friends?” Yvonne suggested between tiny bites of her pizza slice.
Juan shook his head. “No way. She barely leaves Dottie’s side, which is why…hey,” he said, his brown eyes squinting in the bright sunlight. “Did you search all of Mr. Frank’s house? I’m only asking because those two are so close and she hangs out there whenever he’s home.”
“I did, Juan. Dottie and I looked everywhere. We even checked the basement.”
Juan nodded, then became very quiet and stopped eating.
Yvonne noticed that a tear had formed on his cheek. She brushed it away with her finger; he smiled at her and took her hand.
“Sorry…it’s just that she is such a special person, and not just because she’s special,” he said. “We all love her so much.” His mood turned somber and he let go of her hand. “I need to get back to work. You sticking around?”
“No, but If you’re free for dinner tonight?”
“Listen Yvonne, I’d love to get to know you better.” He stood, and tossed out his trash. “But right now Traci is my first priority.”
* * *
She returned to the house and was thinking about Juan’s words when Dudley called. He had heard the news and was frantic, insisting he was leaving the city immediately to help with the search. Yvonne attempted to talk him out of it, saying the media was playing up the drama for ratings, but he was adamant. He would be arriving at the house the very next morning, saying that Traci was like a beloved daughter to him, and Dottie one of his oldest, dearest friends.
His voice was drowned out by the sounds of the city when the call ended abruptly. She was about to call him back when she received this text message from Brent: DO NOT CONTACT ME AGAIN!!
She moved to the kitchen, gulped down two glasses of wine in quick succession, and began to search through the kitchen drawers for the supplies she needed. Intending to drink more wine during the time it took for her to complete the task, she took a glass and a corkscrew with her among the other items she had gathered, removed the chair from under the doorknob, and descended into the darkness.
When she emerged from the basement many hours later, she was naked and covered in blood, crawling up the stairs on her hands and knees because she could no longer walk.
* * *
Dudley arrived early the next morning, discovered Yvonne on the living room floor and got her to the hospital in time to save her life. While she recovered in a private room, Juan called with some amazing news he knew would cheer her up. Traci was found. She had followed her cat outdoors on the night she disappeared and had gotten lost in the woods behind her house for days. Aside from being dehydrated and having a bad case of poison ivy, she was fine.
The day before Yvonne was released, Dottie stopped by for a visit, all smiles behind a bouquet of cheap supermarket carnations. Dudley had come up with some elaborate lie to explain the injuries to Yvonne’s arms, legs, and neck, but Dottie didn’t bother to ask. She was just ecstatically happy to have her daughter back, and wanted to extend a personal thank you to Yvonne for all her help. After Dottie left, Yvonne ripped opened the sunny yellow envelope attached to the flowers. The cartoon of a silly cat with big teeth smiled at her. She skipped over the printed greeting and read through the fog of her tears the crudely printed words: Thanks for all your help. I Luv You! Traci.