He knew he'd lived in a house once, but it hadn't been as big as this mansion in Mandeville Canyon. Although he couldn't remember it, he'd had a mother and a father, and maybe even a dog. The Red Lady had told him that once, when she was having one of her good days.
He remembered that day very clearly. It had been the best day of his life. Miss Razel had given him a box of new pencils for his birthday, with his name stamped on them in gold letters. There were twelve pencils in pretty bright colors. Three orange, three green, three blue, and three yellow. He'd counted them out for Miss Razel and she'd said,
Very good, Jimmy
. And then she'd hugged him and told him that he was a very good student, the best she'd ever had in kindergarten.
The flat box of pencils had rattled under his shirt, and there had been an unaccustomed smile on his face as he'd run all the way back to the apartment building. He'd pulled open the door to the dark, cramped little lobby with its row of broken mailboxes, and his smile had abruptly disappeared. The Red Lady was waiting for him upstairs, and he had to be very careful. He never knew which one she'd be. The one who slept on the rumpled bed in the red room with her mouth slightly open to let out the snores, the one who sat at the table and smiled and told him how much she loved him, or the one who grabbed him roughly and made him do nasty things with one of the Uncles because he was a bad boy who needed to be punished.
As he tiptoed up the creaky wooden steps that led to the fourth floor, he put on the mask he wore for her. It was a good mask, and it had saved him from her punishment several times in the past. He wore it so she wouldn't learn how much she hurt him.
His eyes were downcast so she couldn't read his expression and call him a rude little bastard. His head was bowed in an attitude of respect. His expression was carefully blank, like the glass-eyed face of the teddy bear Miss Razel had on the shelf in their classroom. It was a look of impassive surrender to the things over which he had no control.
It was a lot like the reading contests in school. If you could read the word, Miss Razel let you go out for recess early. But if you missed your word, Miss Razel gave you another and another, until you got one right. It wasn't fair to compare her to Miss Razel, but he'd learned the whole thing was very similar. If he got the mask right, the Red Lady hit him once or twice, and then she gave up and let him go. But if he whimpered or started to cry, she hit him again and again, until he was perfectly quiet.
When he reached the second-floor landing, he stepped around an old drunk sleeping off the effects of the bottle in the brown paper bag he still clutched in his hand. The landing smelled bad, a combination of human waste and breath wheezing past rotten teeth. As he started up the stairs, they creaked loudly. The drunk woke up and reached out for him, but he was young and fast and he scrambled up the stairs as fast as he could.
There was garbage on the stairs, and he held his breath as he hurried past. Flies crawling over something that looked like dog food. The Red Lady had told him that some of the people who lived here ate dog food. It was cheap and it kept them alive.
As he came to the top of the stairs, he bent down to pick up a piece of ripped cloth that was caught on the banister. Then he took out his pencil box and stuffed in the cloth, so his pencils wouldn't rattle. If the Red Lady was having a bad day, she might break them all, especially if she guessed that he liked them. The first chance he got, he'd hide them under the loose board in the closet. The rats might find them, but that was better than watching her destroy the present Miss Razel had given him.
He stopped and felt his face to make sure his mask was in place. Then he took off the key he wore on a string around his neck, and opened the door very cautiously. She was up, sitting at the table, her back to him. Before he could say anything at all, she turned. There was a smile on her face, and she looked almost happy, but he still kept the mask in place. He'd seen her smile turn into a frown in the blink of an eye.
“Happy birthday!” Her smile was still in place. “Come over here, sweetie. I've got a present for you.”
It still wasn't safe, so he approached very quietly in case she was having one of her bad days. But she hugged him and patted the chair next to her.
“Open it, sweetie.” She handed him a heavy box wrapped in silver paper with a big blue bow on top. “Uncle Bob picked out this present for you.”
He couldn't help it. He started to smile. Uncle Bob was his favorite Uncle. He was older than the rest, and when he did the nasty thing in the red bedroom, he was always very gentle.
She held out her hand, and he took off the blue ribbon and handed it to her. She liked ribbons and she kept them. Then he loosened the tape and took off the paper, so she could use it again. There was a white box under the paper, and he was almost afraid to open it.
“Go ahead.” She urged him. “Take off the cover.”
The lid of the box was taped shut, and he slit the tape with his fingernail so it wouldn't tear. Then he lifted off the cover. His smile spread all the way across his face as he saw what was inside.
“Books!” He turned to her, almost afraid she'd say it was all a mistake and they weren't for him. But she just smiled.
“Uncle Bob thought you'd like them. They must be pretty old, because he said he read them all when he was a boy, and Uncle Bob's no spring chicken. Now listen to me, sweetie. You keep these books right here on the table. I want Uncle Bob to see you reading them.”
He nodded. “I will. I promise.”
“All right then.” She smiled and opened one of the books. Her eyebrows lifted, and she started to frown as she handed him the open book. “These words are hard. Can you read them?”
“Sure.” The moment he said it, he knew he'd made a big mistake, especially since she'd dropped out of school in the sixth grade, and she'd never learned to read very well. Now there was a frown on her face.
“Oh, yeah, Mr. Smarty Pants? You'd better watch it, because I'm starting to see red!”
He looked up at her with a worried frown on his face. He had to eat his words fast, or she'd start having a bad day and punish him.
big words!” He looked properly contrite. “Could I ask Uncle Bob if I don't know some? That way he'll know I'm reading his books.”
It took her a minute, and then she clapped her hands and smiled again. “You're a smart little boy! Every time Uncle Bob is here, you ask him about a word. He used to be a teacher, you know. If he thinks he's helping you, he'll come to see us more often. And that'll mean more money for us.”
“Okay.” He nodded. “Shall I pick out a word right now?”
She shook her head. “No hurry. Uncle Bob isn't coming back until later, and then we're gonna have us a little party. Now open this.”
He tore his eyes away from the box of wonderful books and took the small envelope she handed him. “What is it?”
“It came with you, and I saved it for you. I think it belonged to your mother.”
His hands were shaking as he opened the envelope. Inside was a picture of a young woman, all dressed up in a long white dress. She had a halo of beautiful blond hair around her face, and her lips were curved up in a gentle smile. She was standing in front of a white house with green trim around the windows, and she was holding a bouquet of flowers. There was a dog at her feet, a small dog with a happy face, and he could see the shadow of the man taking the picture. His father?
“Is that . . . her?” His breath caught in a painful sob. She looked like an angel, and he wished she were here right now. His mother looked kind and sweet, almost like Miss Razel, except much prettier.
She shrugged. “I guess so. I told you, it came with you, so it's gotta be her. I bet you think she's pretty, huh?”
Something in the way she said it made the hair on the back of his neck bristle a warning. Careful. He had to be very careful. A line from a cop show he'd seen on Miss Gladys's television flew through his mind.
Anything you say can and will be used against you.
“Her hair's white.” He looked down at the picture again. “Was she real old?”
That made her laugh, and he breathed a sigh of relief. He'd done the right thing. He didn't know why, but she was jealous of that picture.
“No, she's young. Her hair's just bleached out real white. And see those flowers she's carrying? That must have been her wedding picture. And you see the shadow in front of her?”
He looked down at the picture again and nodded. “I see it.”
“It's a man's shadow so maybe it's your father. Somebody had to take the picture, right?”
He nodded and did his best to look impressed. “That's right! I never thought of that!”
“I'd make a pretty good detective, huh?” She grinned at him as he nodded. “I think that was their house. You can almost make out the name on the mailbox. It's kind of fuzzy, but their last name starts with a B, and it's got seven letters, just like yours.”
This time he really was impressed. “You know a lot, Aunt Neecie! I wish I could be as smart as you.”
A quick smile spread over her face, and for just a moment, she looked almost pretty. She reached out to ruffle his hair, and he was careful not to flinch. This was a good day, not a bad day, and he wanted to keep it that way.
“Okay. So now you've got the picture. And don't go asking me questions. All I know is they found you in a basket in front of the place, and that picture was tucked inside your blanket. Now, why don't you . . .” She stopped suddenly, and reached in her pocket to pull out a flat, tissue-wrapped packet. “I almost forgot. Here's my present. It's old, but I can't afford to buy you new.”
“Thank you, Aunt Neecie.” He took the packet and unfolded the tissue paper. Inside was a thick silver chain. Why would she give him a silver chain? His mind sifted through the possibilities, but he couldn't come up with a thing.
She was frowning slightly, and he put on a delighted smile. “Wow! It's . . . it's wonderful, Aunt Neecie!”
“You bet it is!” She smiled. “Old Roy gave that to me when we got married. 'Course you don't remember your Uncle Roy, do you? He died when you were just a baby.”
“I think I remember him.” The truth was, he didn't remember Uncle Roy at all, but he said what she wanted to hear. According to her, Uncle Roy had been a saint. And since he'd lost a leg in a train accident, they'd had his disability check every month. When Uncle Roy died, the checks had stopped coming, and she'd sold everything to pay the bills. That was when they'd gone on welfare and moved to this old apartment building.
“You can keep your key on that chain.” She smiled at him. “Then you can't lose it. Now you go pick out a couple of big words and write them down, so you can ask Uncle Bob. He's bringing Chink food for our party. And after we eat, you'll make him feel real good about that present he gave you, won't you?”
He nodded. It was what she expected, and it wouldn't do any good to tell her that he didn't want to do the nasty thing in the red bedroom anymore.
“You like to help me with the Uncles, don't you, sweetie?”
He'd nodded again, because he'd learned that it was the smart choice. If he told her that he hated what the Uncles did to him, she'd beat him. And then she'd tie him to the bed in the red room, so Uncle Bob could do it anyway. But if he wore the mask and agreed with everything she said, he could avoid the beating. Of course, there was no way to prevent what the Uncles did to him. It was a part of his life, like breathing.
“I'm going out for a pack of smokes.” She picked up her purse and headed for the door. “You stay right here and don't you make any noise, you hear?”
The moment she was gone, he picked up one of the books and started to read. It was all about two boys who lived in an orphanage.
was a good word to ask Uncle Bob. It was nine letters long, and no one would expect him to know it.
There was a smile on his face as his eyes skimmed the words, following the story. These books were old, but they were still good. He would be able to live in a wonderful, storybook world for as long as they lasted. And then he could start reading them all over again. It was very good of Uncle Bob to give him these books. Now he'd have something interesting to think about when he was alone in the red bedroom with the Uncles.
He came back to the present with a jolt as he heard the glass door to the patio slide open. He parted some of the dense leaves in the hedge bordering the side of the pool, and peered out anxiously. It was only the housekeeper. She had a broom in her hand and she was going to sweep off the patio, as she did every night.
He liked the housekeeper. She was always friendly, and she took good care of the children. She thought she knew him, but all she really knew was the mask. They thought they were locking him out with the new security system, but he could get inside the gates anytime he wished. And they'd never guessed that most of the time he was here already. It was like the Red Lady used to say, there was always a way around everything, if you used your head. Of course, she wasn't saying anything now. Now her mouth was closed forever.
He could feel the red mist threaten as he thought of that night, and he pushed it away. Not now. He had to be alert. The housekeeper was sweeping back and forth with hard, even strokes of the broom. It reminded him of something that made him shiver, but he pushed that out of his mind, too.
He felt the hair on the back of his neck prickle, as a voice called out from the house. Not one of her children. And not the husband, either. This was a different voice, a voice that made him ache inside with its hauntingly familiar tone.