Authors: Taylor Caldwell
It was then that she became aware of a sickening stench close at hand. Skunks? No, she had smelled that effluvium years ago, when she used to visit her sister. This was an odd and vile smell, sweetish, rotting. She could not recognize it. Did other animals have warning stenches, besides skunks? All at once, she was unaccountably frightened. She stood absolutely still, like any of the wild creatures about her. The stench deepened; it was almost at her feet. She did not know why she scraped aside a damp carpet of needles and leaves, with one fastidious foot. But when she had scraped the carpet aside she saw that the black earth had been disturbed, and it was a little mounded. Then she jumped in horror. A tiny stiff paw, the color of honey, stuck up just a little from the earth, as rigid as wood.
She uttered a faint cry. She bent and touched the furred paw, and saw the infant nails of a small dog. Then she was kneeling, and frantically pulling away the loose earth with her hands, digging her fingers deep into the soil. The little grave was shallow; within moments the decaying body of little Petti lay before her, and she saw the glazed eyes. And she also saw that the fur was stiff and matted with blood and that the head had been crushed.
“Oh, my God!” she cried, aloud. She fell back on her buttocks and sat there, shuddering violently. She did not hear a distant snapping, and the sound of rapid stealthy feet, retreating.
A long time passed, and she crouched there, as motionless as the small corpse of the dog who had been so cruelly murdered. She knew. She knew at once, with a dreadful clarity. Her mind did not scurry around, desperately, seeking other explanations. She knew. She remembered that Kathy had said that perhaps it was just as well that Petti had disappeared; he had “bitten” poor little Angel. Yes, she knew. She was almost as cold, now, as the innocent corpse rotting there in its grave.
Then, with shaking hands full of tenderness and pity, she covered the dog again with the compassionate earth, and brushed leaves over the grave. Mark must never know. Above anyone else, Mark must never know! And she must say nothing. She must never speak of this, not even to Angelo-Bruce. She took painful care, now, that the earth was mounded over the stiff paw, and that the carpet of leaves and needles was deeper.
She wiped away her tears, childishly, on her forearms. She picked up some wet leaves and rubbed away as much soil as possible from her hands. Then she stood up. She felt desperately ill. And then anger seized her, and a most terrible rage and hatred. And an abysmal fear.
She ran from the woods. When she reached the edge of them she saw Angelo sitting quietly on the porch, still reading, his head bent studiously. It was he, then, who had followed her. She knew this immediately. It was no innocent animal who had snapped twigs or rolled stones. It was Angelo. The rage seized her again and shook her. She felt she was smothering.
She walked very slowly to the porch, over the hot grass, past the blowing flower beds. She reached the steps of the porch. Angelo looked up brightly, and showed all his white teeth in a pleasant smile.
“Did you have a nice walk, Aunt Alicia?” he asked in that loathsome, winning tone.
Alice stood on the lower step and gazed at him, and her dark blue eyes were full of fire and knowledge. Angelo regarded her coolly. Girl and boy stood and sat without moving, and understanding leaped between them like an electric charge. Angelo smiled again. And then, suddenly, he threw back his head and laughed gaily. And then, as abruptly, he was no longer laughing or smiling.
“Mum,” he said, in a distressed and beguiling voice, “says you’re too old for shorts, Aunt Allie. She says they’re just for young girls. Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have told you. They’re awfully pretty, and I like them.”
Alice stood there and looked at him, and the blue fire of her eyes filled her face with a kind of blaze.
I must go away, she thought, or I’ll take hold of him and beat him almost to death. I’ll slam his face and head against the wall! I’ll twist his throat. I’ll pound him into the earth, as he did Petti. Her hands clenched at her sides. Her body became rigid. And Angelo watched her, his hazel eyes welling and alert, his hands palm down on his book.
“Why don’t you go away, and never come back?” whispered Angelo, and the whisper was sibilant in the intense quiet. “What are you doing here? Mum and I don’t want you. Daddy does, but that doesn’t matter, does it? Daddy’s very stupid.”
The full impact of what he had said did not reach Alice for several dreadful moments. She looked into eyes fathomless with evil age, with ancient understanding of terror, with mockery. And she retreated backwards, several steps, and put her hands to her cheeks.
Then she fled. She ran to the bluff, and arrived there, panting, covered with sweat. That was not a child there. That was a monster! And more and more of these monsters were being born! Had evil finally broken through from hell and was it now afflicting the earth? She put her hands on the log fence and shook her head dazedly. What would the Kennies of this world do with them, the Kennies who were all kindness and compassion and decency, convinced of the innate goodness of mankind, convinced of the ever-loving presence of God? There was only one thing to do with them, and the Kennies were incapable of it, in their pity and gentleness. Yet, at last, and finally, good and evil must inexorably face each other and fight it out to the death. The final hour had arrived in the world, this most portentous world, when the battle must take place.
Weak and undone, Alice sat sideways on the fence, her breath hard and fast, the sweat rolling down her cheeks, mingled with her tears. She twisted her body sideways and looked at the distant hills. And, she thought, Mark must be snared this knowledge. Mark must never know. This would kill Mark.
Alice was silently but intensely religious. She looked at the sky and prayed for the Kennies and the Marks, the multitudes of the good who would not understand, even when the battle was joined, the true nature of their foe. If they defeated that foe, they would in mercy try to explain away the evil they had encountered and conquered. They would chatter of environment; they would speak of “no opportunities to be better”; they would talk of “bad leaders who betrayed their people.” To the Kennies and the Marks, it was impossible to admit that there was true evil in the world, and that it often came clothed in brightness. For the first time in her life, Alice, often skeptical and very rational, entertained the idea of a personal Satan, just as there was a personal God. There could be no other explanation of those who came like the serpent, fascinating, full of charm, persuasive, eloquent, frequently superior to others in physical appearance and mental endowments. They were counterfeits of the good, and that man was wise indeed who could tell the difference. But the Church knew! She talked of those who were possessed of demons.
She heard the faintest sound behind her, but she was too late. Even in the very motion of turning her head, she felt the violent push against her shoulders. It seemed to happen slowly, as if in a dream. She was tilting dreamily forward; she was looking straight down on the toothed rocks and the murderous brush far below; she was sailing slightly in the air. Then her instinct of survival rushed to her aid. Somehow, as she dropped, she caught a strong stake which supported part of the fence, and she was hanging over the gulf by her right arm, her hand clutched about the stake. Her whole body shuddered abruptly, stopped in the instant of falling; the bones screamed in their sockets; her shoulder exploded into fire; her legs and torso dangled in space, and she was looking at the brown and crumbling race of the bluff, and its dust was in her nostrils.
A wind rushed up from the bottom of the bluff, and Alice’s body swung idly. It had happened an instant ago; it had happened hours ago. Only the agony in her arm was real. The muscles slipped; ligaments ripped; her wrist was strained unbearably. She felt her hair fluttering about her face. Then terror took her and shook her as with giant teeth. Only the frail bones and flesh of her right arm held her from death.
Then she screamed. She looked up, her eyes starting. Angelo was leaning on the fence and smiling down at her. Only his head was visible, his beautiful, wicked head.
“Why don’t you let go, Aunt Alicia?” he asked softly. “You can’t hang there very long, can you? They won’t be home for nearly an hour yet. Can you stand it?”
Alice screamed again, and her voice was carried away in echoes, and the sun struck the top of her head and her body swayed and she coughed, as she inhaled dust. She had no thought except to live. She did not even feel horror, for she had accepted it.
“Poor Aunt Alicia,” said Angelo, sighing. “She was sitting on the fence, and then she lost her balance and she fell, and I came running and screaming, and there wasn’t anyone to help, and I’m too young and little to help her. And there is Aunt Alicia at the bottom, all torn up by the rocks and the brush, as dead as Petti.”
Alice made no sound. She looked up into that angelic face with its gleaming smile. Then the smile was gone. A vicious darkness clouded the hazel eyes.
“Why did you have to find him?” he whispered. “Why did you go poking around? Did you know I’d killed him because he was stupid, and he bit me? He bit me on the arm. You knew I’d killed him, didn’t you? Well, you’re not going to tell anyone; you’re not even going to know it yourself pretty soon.”
Alice coughed again. Her arm was becoming numb, but the pain was vivid beyond endurance in her shoulder, in her straining back muscles, in her neck. She was sheeted in flame. Then she said, almost as quietly as Angelo had spoken:
“Yes, I knew all the time you’d killed that little dog. I knew it, somehow, even before I found him. I know all about you—Angelo.”
He nodded. “And I know that, too. And that’s why you’re going to drop down there soon. And you won’t be around to tell anyone.”
I can’t die! thought Alice wildly. Somehow, somebody might suspect; Mark might suspect! The police might start to think. They have ways of finding out things. For Mark’s sake, I mustn’t die, please God, I mustn’t die! If I do, then he’ll know!
“You thought you’d take Daddy away from Mum, didn’t you?” asked Angelo. “You thought you’d put Mum and me out of the house, and live there, our nice house I like so much, and all the nice things in it. You thought you’d get Daddy’s money. And Mum and I would live somewhere else. I’ve been watching you and Daddy. You look at each other. Mum’s silly, and she doesn’t know, but I do! And that’s another reason you’ve got to fall down there, and die.”
Alice’s eyes were blue circles of light as she looked up at the monstrous child. There was no use in arguing with him; he had no concept of right and wrong to which to appeal.
The girl’s body swung gently. “Do you want me to get a stone and hammer your hand away?” asked Angelo reasonably.
“If you do, they’ll find the marks. The police are very good,” said Alice. She was growing weak. But she had a thought. She must keep him occupied so he would not see. Stealthily, her left hand crept to her wide leather belt. It was too large for her; she had intended to cut off the extra inches this morning, but had forgotten. She thanked God for that forgetfulness now. Tears slid along her eyelids.
“Yes,” she said, “the police always suspect everybody in an—accident. They search; they look; they always find clues.”
“But I’m just a dear little boy,” said Angelo, grinning down at her. “I’ll be hysterical; I’ll get a fever; Mum will have to put me to bed and call the doctor. The police won’t even think of me, I’ll be so sick.”
He reached down and then rose again and showed her a jagged stone. “It’s sharp,” he said, looking at it with critical approval. “And I can kneel down and push my hand, with the stone in it, through one of the slits in the logs.”
“And the police will find fragments of it in my flesh,” said Alice. “Don’t think for a minute that the police won’t search. And they’re on to children like you, these days. They think of them first now; they’ll especially think of you, when they know we were alone. And they’ll go through the woods, and they’ll find Petti. The police never let up. And they’ll talk to people who know you, the schools you went to, the neighbors’ children who won’t play with you. And then you’ll be taken away and you’ll never see your mother again.” She dared not glance down into the giddy nothingness below her.
Torturous movement by movement, she had undone the belt. Now it was free in her trembling hand. It was heavy leather, not plastic; it would hold. Angelo’s face had changed during the time she had been speaking. It had darkened; he held the rock tentatively.
“They’ll put you away with your kind,” said Alice. “They know all about you! You’ll be in a dark place, behind iron doors and bars. You’ll walk in a concrete yard. You’ll never be free again, for the doctors know you. They won’t dare let you free, to kill. There isn’t any cure for you, and they understand that.”
Astonishingly, the boy began to cry, but his tears and his sobs only made his face appear more wicked and more terrible. He beat the stone on the top of the fence, frenziedly. “I hate you!” he screamed. “I remember when you hit me when I was little, just because I wet myself! I hate your ugly face, I hate the sight of you! If you hadn’t come on Friday night you wouldn’t be hanging there, and this wouldn’t have happened, and you wouldn’t have found Petti! It’s all your fault, it’s all your fault! It isn’t MY fault!”
She had diverted his attention; he laid his head on the fence and gave himself up to convulsions of sobs. Alice closed her eyes and prayed for a little extra strength. She had one chance, and one only. She looked up at the strong but narrow stake, which her right hand, now so swollen and red and purpling, clutched so desperately. Then she swung the belt up, holding it by the buckle. The belt curled about the stake, and she sobbed in thanksgiving. She pushed up on the stiff leather, and the end dropped down toward her. Now, with the fingers of her left hand she must clasp the ends together, and somehow, with the help of God, get her head, and then her neck and then her shoulders through the large loop. One slight error, and she would hang herself, and that would be even more frightful than falling to her death below.