‘Natalie?’ the woman asked.
Natalie sat on the front porch of the ramshackle cabin, hugging her knees to her chest and wearing her popsicle print pajamas. The fleece did little to keep her warm in the December chill, but Natalie didn’t shiver, despite the gooseflesh that covered her arms. She looked up at the lady who’d said her name, whose navy jacket bore the yellow letters CPS, and wondered what this lady would want from her. It seemed that people always wanted something from her.
Natalie looked forward again, away from the woman and down the snow covered driveway as it disappeared between the trees. Two police cars were parked fifty feet away, men in blue uniforms with pistols on their hips crunched through the snow in their black boots.
‘My name is Linda, I’m from Child Protective Services. Do you know what that is?’ Linda asked.
Natalie shook her head.
Linda sat down next to Natalie on the rough hewn boards of the porch. Each stared off. Natalie at the dirty snow at the bottom of the steps. Linda at the naked trees, bereft of leaves and reaching toward the gray sky with their knotted and slender branches.
‘I’m here to help you,’ Linda said quietly.
Then silence, the two of them separated by a few inches on the porch of a shabby, half finished cabin, somewhere in the valley, under the shadow of Mount Rainier. The cabin was set back in the trees, a good mile from the closest neighbor and even more miles from the main road. It was a quiet place. Surrounded by a forest so dense that it swallowed sounds and no one would ever hear you scream.
Natalie was still. Her eyes didn’t blink, as if she was locked in a daydream.
‘Do you know what happened to your father, Natalie?’ Linda asked.
The skin around Natalie’s eyes tightened. She saw images of the man, three times as large as her, drinking the brown stuff in the kitchen and the brown stuff always made him angry. Natalie hated it when he got angry, because he took it out on her.
You took her from me, Natalie’s father would say. He would seize her with his huge hands, hands that could squeeze the life out of her if they had wanted too, but he didn’t. He didn’t want the game to end. Each time he took her to the brink of consciousness, to the point where she hoped that she would slip over into the black and never return, but she survived. Natalie hated games.
Natalie shook her head.
This was how Linda acquired the sad lines in her face, because rescuing little children from the abuse of their parents had become common. It happened almost every day, really. Yet, nothing about this seemed normal.
‘You understand that your father is dead?’ Linda asked, softly.
Natalie felt relief well up in her eyes. She nodded.
‘Do you have any close relatives who could take you on until we find you a proper home?’ Linda asked, she flexed her fingers as if she was wringing out a sponge in each hand, her hands were stiff and cold.
Natalie thought for a moment. Family? No, she didn’t have family, not that she knew of and, if they were anything like her father, she didn’t want any part of them.
Natalie shook her head.
‘Would you like to go with us? We can take care of you until we find a home for you,’ Linda asked. Her brittle voice left trails of fog in the still, December air.
Natalie tried to hold back but there was too much inside her. Too many times she’d wanted to cry but was too afraid, afraid He’d hurt her for crying because He hated it when she cried. Natalie clung to the cliff inside herself, afraid to let go, afraid to fall into that open space at her back, so deep she couldn’t see the bottom, but her fingers couldn’t hold her.
‘Home?’ Natalie asked like the word was foreign to her. Her eyes were blurry with tears.
‘Thats right, home,’ Linda said quietly.
Natalie shifted, turning into Linda, and pressed her body against Linda’s soft, warm stomach. Linda wrapped her arm around Natalie and pulled her closer. Tears ran down Natalie’s face, stinging her cheeks, as she whispered the words again into the navy jacket, home, and, for the first time in Natalie’s life, she something that felt like hope.
‘You say you came by this morning to buy a load of firewood from Timothy Cain. Is that correct, Mr. O’Donnell?’ The detective asked.
They stood some fifty feet from the front of the cabin. The CPS agent sat on the front porch of the sunken looking cabin with the little girl to the left of her.
Jim scuffed the snow with his boot. He never though it would come to this, not in a million years did he think he would ever see a man more cruel or encounter someone with as dark of a secret as Timothy Cain.
Jim wished he didn’t know but he couldn’t unsee what he’d seen. It was one thing to be ignorant, it was quite another to ignore the truth, especially if it was as ugly as this one. Jim never had a choice and he’d done what he had to. A man had to stand up for his fellow man, especially when his fellow man was a terrified eight year old girl.
‘That’s right. I bought a cord or two of wood off of him every year when I couldn’t find the time to chop it myself,’ Jim said.
‘That’s when you realized something was off?’ The detective asked, he tugged his jacket a little tighter.
‘Normally, Timothy was out in front, chopping away. Don’t know why, that’s just how it always was in the mornings I’d visited in the past,’ Jim paused and spat a long stream of brown saliva that burned a hole in the snow, tobacco grains rested atop. ‘I noticed the front door was open and there wasn’t a fire going. Well, it’s below freezing in this valley in the morning and Timothy’s old truck was in the drive, thought maybe someone had come ill. So, I let myself in,’ Jim said casually.
The detective narrowed his eyes.
‘And you didn’t think to call the sheriff before entering your neighbor’s house?’ The detective asked.
‘Excuse me, detective, but there isn’t any goddamn cell towers out this far and I wasn’t gonna just leave it be. Timothy had a little girl, I was worried for the both of them. Wouldn’t you do the same for your neighbor?’ Jim asked.
The detective wouldn’t have done any such thing, of course. He lived in an urban neighborhood where no one knew the name of their neighbors, which was a far cry from checking on a cabin a good three miles away from one’s home, then walking in uninvited, for the simple pretense that there wasn’t smoke billowing out the stack and the front door was open. Urban people didn’t do things like that and Jim knew that, it was just one line on a long list of reasons why he hated the city.
‘Actually, Jim, it sounds very strange to me but maybe things are different here than from where I live,’ The detective said.
‘They are. Things are better here,’ Jim said. Spitting again.
The detective raised his eyebrows. As if to say, there’s a dead man and a girl, now an orphan, at this sad little patch of Nowheresville, where everything seemed very cold and terrible and dark, it hardly seems better, not in the slightest.
‘Anyways, let’s continue,’ The detective smiled wanly. ‘What did you see after you entered the Cain house?’
Jim scratched the white whiskers on the side of his face.
‘It was quiet. Creepy quiet, like walking through a graveyard at night. The front room was empty and the place smelled sour, like old booze. I called out his name a few times but no one answered. I saw an empty bottle on the counter, a turned over glass, and an empty prescription bottle. So, I walked further, into what I figured was Timothy’s room. That’s when I saw his little girl, Natalie, she was sleeping on the floor under a thick stack of blankets, on the mattress that sat in the corner of the room. I didn’t want to disturb her. So, I went to the room adjacent to her’s and that’s when I found Timothy,’ Jim exhaled.
The detective was scribbling notes down on his notepad.
‘What did you see, in Mr. Cain’s room?’ The detective asked.
Jim shuddered. It was natural, he hoped.
‘Timothy was hanging halfway out his bed, face down against the ground. The floor was covered in vomit, looked like damn near his whole intestines had shot out his mouth, and it smelled horrible. Had to pull my jacket over my face just to go any closer. He was pale, too pale, and I figured, even though I’d never seen a dead body in my life, that he wasn’t among the world of the living anymore. I checked his pulse just to be certain,’ Jim said, then exhaled. He tried to conjure the tone of someone who’d been honestly surprised to see a dead body, then he continued. ‘And that’s when I knew he must’ve done himself in, the pills on the counter and the whisky. I knew I had to call the police but Timothy didn’t have a landline phone, so I locked the door to his room, afraid of what the little girl might think if she saw her pops like that, and drove to the nearest place I could get cell service. That’s when I called the sheriff,’ Jim finished.
‘Alright,’ the detective said after a moment, ‘I think we’ve got enough here,’ He closed his notepad and shut off the recorder.
‘That’s that?’ Jim asked, frowning.
‘Yes, Mr. O’Donnell. In your words, that’s that,’ the detective said casually.
‘What happens now?’ Jim asked as the detective put his things away.
‘We have reason to believe Timothy Cain was assaulting his daughter, no solid proof yet but from blood samples and the evidence of physical trauma on the girl, it’s pretty obvious. Timothy Cain did the world a service by leaving us behind, I believe,’ The detective said.
‘I see,’ Jim said quietly. ‘What happens to the kid?’
‘Protective services will take care of her from here on out. There’s no need to be concerned about that Mr. O’Donnell,’ The detective soothed.
‘They’ll put her in a foster home, won’t they?’ Jim asked, a concerned frown on his brow.
‘Or adopted. Hard to tell at this point. But I must say, it really can’t get much worse than what was happening here, don’t you think?’ The detective said.
‘Can only get better from here,’ Jim mumbled to no one in particular, as he turned to look at the little girl, now cradled in the CPS agent’s arms.
‘That’s right. You’re free to go, Mr. O’Donnell. We’ll look you up if we need more information but I don’t think it’s likely,’ The detective said. His voice echoed from inside the patrol car, while he bent over the driver’s seat put his things away.
Jim did not respond. He stared at the little girl, and thought you’re free to go now. They’ll never know the truth, what really happened, and the world is a better place for it, he thought.
The little girl opened her eyes and stared back at Jim with wet and shining eyes. Jim almost thought he saw the girl wink, then smile and mouth ‘Thank you’, before she turned and buried her face in the side of the CPS lady’s jacket once more. But that was all in his mind.
Jim thought maybe sometimes it was necessary to lie, just as it was necessary to die, but it was only the timing and reason for the two that mattered in the end. It seemed to Jim that he had been much too late, even though late was better than never, and the damage to Natalie was much too deep and horrible to ever heal. But he hoped she would, he hoped one day she would find peace.
It was over now and it turned out that it didn’t matter how Timothy Cain ended, just that he did.
No one would ever know what they’d done.