Authors: Brenda Chapman
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel.
“The Waste Land,” T.S. Eliot
Stars will blossom in the darkness, Violets bloom beneath the snow.
â Julia C.R. Dorr
first, Catherine Lockhart wasn't worried. Perplexed, possibly even annoyed if she was honest, but definitely not worried. It wasn't until she and Sammy stood on the country road in front of Adele Delaney's house that a sense of foreboding rolled slowly upwards like a bad meal from the bottom of her gut. Her shoulders wriggled as a shiver travelled up her back, even as her face was warmed by the late-April sun.
Something doesn't feel right
, she thought. She'd remember that exact moment of trepidation for days afterward.
Sammy tugged at her arm until she looked down into his freckled face. “They're home,” he said, pointing a chubby finger toward the rusty Fiat halfway up the long driveway. His blue eyes brightened and his voice rose joyously. “Can I play with Violet?”
She'd meant just to walk by, to assure herself that Adele had been ignoring her phone messages because she'd been called away suddenly. The sight of Adele's car standing unashamedly in the drive felt like a betrayal â as if she were thirteen again and her best friend had just ditched her for the cooler crowd. The bit that didn't feel right, though, was the front door. Wide open, it swung gently back and forth on its hinges in the gusty spring breeze.
Catherine and Sam had moved into the small white house with the blue shutters a kilometre down the road a year and a half ago. She'd wanted Sam to grow up surrounded by trees and space, not in a scuzzy high-rise in the east end of Toronto. Luckily, her freelance writing job meant she could work anywhere. This stretch of land just east of Kingston and north of Highway 2 was close enough to civilization but far enough out of town to feel like they were living in the countryside. They'd met Adele and Violet at a mom-and-me fitness class and their kids had hit it off. Naturally, they'd started meeting up for coffee and playtime during the weekdays when Adele's husband, Ivo, was at work.
Catherine ruffled Sammy's ginger hair, soft and fluffy from his morning bath. The strands felt like warm silk in her fingers. “I'm not sure Violet and her mommy are up for company just now.” She checked her wristwatch. “Maybe Violet's having a nap.”
“Violet doesn't nap,” Sam said, scowling. “She said that napping's for babies.”
Before Catherine could stop him, Sam had sprinted across the gravel shoulder of the road and was halfway up the long drive. He stopped long enough to check that she was following before turning and running toward the front steps. A premonition made her call out to him.
“Wait, Sam! Wait for me.”
She stepped around the puddles left over from the morning rain. Sam had barrelled through the mud and water in his black rubber boots, not caring about the muck splashing up onto his pants and jacket, but what four-year-old ever cared? She was panting when she reached him. The cigarettes were going to have to go or she would be on a ventilator before she hit forty. For the second time that day, she made a solemn promise to herself to quit. The same promise she made every time she exerted herself beyond a brisk walk. Sam had found a stick and was poking it into an ant hole. She spit onto her fingers and rubbed a smear of mud from his cheek.
“Why's the door open?” Sam looked up at her, his brow creased as he tried to work out what an open door could mean. She glanced up the steps into the shadowy hallway.
“No idea, kiddo, but we shouldn't just rush in. I'll knock and you wait here until Violet's mom tells us to enter.”
Sam shrugged and moved over to a mud puddle where he began digging in the muck with his stick. Catherine slowly climbed the steps and grabbed onto the swinging door when she reached the top. She knocked and called down the hallway. The lights were off and gloom thickened towards the kitchen. “Adele! We've just come by to see if everything is okay. Are you home? Adele?”
Catherine kept one hand on the door and listened. The house smelled of cinnamon and apples. Adele must have been baking pies with apples she'd bought during an outing they'd all gone on that Tuesday. She looked back at Sam. He'd made it to the bottom step and looked up at her. “Can weÂ goÂ in?”
No noise except the normal house sounds â the furnace kicking in, a clock ticking, the shudder of the fridge cycling on. She suddenly felt ridiculous, standing on her friend's steps, imagining the worstÂ inside.
“I'm just going to make sure everything's okay since the door was left open,” she said to Sam. “Come wait here in the hall while I have a look.”
“I want to come too,” Sam said, stubbornly climbing the steps until he was next to her.
She took his hand and led him into the living room. All looked in order. The furniture was frayed and second hand, but cozy. Sunlight filtered through the white lace curtains. Sam dropped down next to the basket of Lego and started pulling pieces onto the floor. A moment later and he was laying on his stomach, fitting pieces together, their search for Violet forgotten.
She backed out of the room and walked quickly down the hallway into the back of the house, leaving Sam engrossed in building a spaceship. She stood at the entrance to the kitchen and glanced around the large space. The smell of cinnamon and spices was stronger but other smells competed. A container of open milk had been left on the counter, a half-filled glass beside it. A carton of eggs and a block of cheese were next to the stove. Plates of uneaten scrambled eggs and toast sat patiently on the table as if waiting for Violet and Adele to sit down and tuck in. Catherine stepped farther into the room until she was standing beside the kitchen table. A greyish crust had formed on the eggs, which looked the consistency of rubber. She reached a hand out and touched the toast with her fingertips. It was stone cold, unbuttered. She looked around the kitchen, her eyes searching the attached family room for any sign of them. She didn't know whether to be relieved or worried that they weren't anywhere to be seen.
She returned to the doorway to the living room. Sam was still busy with the Lego, so she had time to finish her search. She crossed to the stairs and climbed toward the light coming in from the window halfway up. The carpet was red and frayed but it muffled the sound of her footsteps. The landing was empty except for a laundry hamper at the far end. Catherine took a deep breath and darted theÂ length of the corridor, checking each room asÂ she went. Satisfied that nobody was lying dead on the floor in any of them, she took her time returning with a good look inside the three bedrooms and bathroom.
Her overactive imagination was going to kill her before the cigarettes. She laughed out loud at herself before taking the stairs two at a time back to find Sam.
“Let's go, honey bun,” she said to him.
He looked up. “Where's Violet?”
“They must have gone out.”
In a big hurry.
“Then why's their car in the driveway?”
Catherine stopped and looked at his scrunched up features, serious eyes so like the father he would never meet. She had no answer to his question or to the others that crowded in alongside. Why had the front door been left unlocked and swinging in the breeze? Why hadn't Adele answered her phone all afternoon? The anxious feeling returned. She reached into her pocket and pulled out her cellphone. She checked if Adele had responded to one of her calls, but no voice mail or text messages. What to do? She didn't feel right just leaving. Ivo worked in a bank downtown on Princess. She knew his direct line because she'd returned his call the summer before when he was organizing a surprise birthday dinner for Adele. She found his number and tapped the screen. He answered on the second ring.
“Catherine,” he said as a way of greeting. His voice quavered as it always did when he spoke to her. He'd been a big awkward boy who'd grown into a man without quite recovering from his shyness. “What a pleasant surprise to see your name pop up. Everything okay?”
Now why had he asked that?
“I'm not sure. Adele and Violet missed our appointment so I came by to see if they were feeling well. We were supposed to meet at playgroup in the church basement after lunch. The car's in the drive but the front door was open. Nobody's here.”
A pause, then, “Are you sure?”
“Yes. Sam and I came in to check on them since the door was open. Their breakfasts are on the table uneaten. Could they have gone out with someone spur of the moment? Maybe in a friend's car?”
“I wouldn't know who. Adele doesn't have any other friends that I know of. I'm going to come home. Can you wait until I get there?”
“Of course.” She wanted to say no, but his voice had picked up the worry she'd been trying to ignore for the past half hour.
She was sitting on the couch with Sam in her lap, reading a book about trucks, when Ivo clumped into the front hall. She heard the sound of his keys hitting the bowl on the entrance table and something heavier dropping onto the hardwood floor. A moment later and his six-foot-three hulk entered the living room. His shoulders were stooped from trying to hide inside himself and from sitting at a desk all day. His wavy brown hair needed a cut and his glasses were small and round and could use an update. The mystery was why Adele had found him attractive enough to marry. Catherine studied him for hidden depths of character whenever Adele invited her and Sam for supper. They had to be there but so far she hadn't detected anything spectacular. She'd always thought that Adele treated him as an afterthought.
“Any word?” he asked, voice hopeful.
“I'm afraid not,” Catherine said.
“Well, I have no idea where they could have gotten to. When I got up this morning, Adele said that she was going to let Violet sleep in and they were going out in the afternoon. What time is it now?”
“Going on four.”
“You checked the kitchen?”
Are you thick?
“Yeah, and upstairs. Their breakfast is still on the table â¦ uneaten.”
She and Sam trailed behind him into the kitchen. He stood looking at the food, then spun around to face her.
“Did you try the basement?”
“No. I couldn't imagine what they'd be doing down there.” Even as she said the words, a kind of hysteria began bubbling somewhere around her ribcage. Wild horses couldn't get her to go down thereÂ now.
“Well, I'll just run and check. You wait here.”
“If you like.” She leaned against the kitchen counter and listened to his footsteps clumping down the stairs, fainter as he descended. Sam came over and tugged on her arm.
“I want to go home,” he said.
“In a minute. Let's just wait to say goodbye to Ivo.” She kept an ear open as he made his way around the basement. What if Violet and Adele were down there? What would that mean? She pulled out her cellphone again and hit Adele's number. Tapping the fingers of her free hand on the counter, she listened to it ring once, twice, three times and then Adele's voice telling her to leave a message. Catherine didn't hide her worry as she had in her last messages, or her growing impatience. “Where are you, Adele? We're worried sick. Call me or Ivo as soon as you can.”
She shut her phone and listened for Ivo. Just as she was thinking about calling down to him to make sure he was okay, he reappeared at the top of the stairs, holding Violet's pink knapsack with rabbit ears sticking out the open pouch. Puzzled lines creased the width of his forehead.
“That's odd. Violet never goes anywhere without her rabbit. It looks like she was watching a movie this morning while Adele was making breakfast. The television is still on but the movie is over.”
“I wonder if we should call the police.”
The words had popped out. They held both of them motionless for a moment. Their meaning had opened a box of fear that neither of them had wanted to acknowledge before now. Ivo looked across to the table where the full plates of food sat untouched. His eyes circled the family room and the mess on the kitchen counter before sweeping back to meet her own.
“You might be right,” he said, “because I have absolutely no idea what is going on here. There has to be a logical explanation, but for the life of me, I can't think what it could be.”