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The Child Thief
This one is for John Fearing
Lady Modron’s Garden
Author’s Note or An Ode to Peter Pan
About the Author
Other Books by Brom
About the Publisher
It would happen again tonight: the really bad thing. The girl had no doubt. It had started a few months ago, around the time her breasts had begun to develop, and now, with her mother gone, there was no one to stop him.
From her bedroom she could hear him pacing the cluttered living room of the cramped apartment. He was in one of his fits, muttering to himself, cursing the television, his boss, the president, Jesus, but mostly cursing her mother for taking all those pills, cursing her to hell and back, over and over. But her mother was dead and would never have to suffer through another of his tirades, not ever again. The girl wished she were so lucky.
There came the sharp snap of a beer tab, then another, and another. Her hands began to tremble and she clutched them to her chest. She wished she could fall asleep, then she would at least be spared the waiting, the dread. But she knew there’d be no sleep for her tonight.
He was there. The flickering light from the television silhouetted him as he leaned against her door frame. She couldn’t see his eyes, but knew they were on her. She twisted the sheet tightly about her neck as though it were some magical talisman to ward away wickedness. Sometimes he stared at her like that for hours, muttering to himself in his two voices: the kind, soft voice, and the harsh, scary voice. Back and forth the voices went, like two men debating their religious convictions. Usually, the soft voice prevailed. But tonight, there was no sign of the soft voice, only a low rasp punctuated with sharp barks of profanity.
He moved into the room, setting his beer on the dresser next to her Betty Boop radio-alarm clock, the one that woke her up for school with its crackling rendition of “Boop Oop a Doop.” She’d missed a lot of school lately, partly because she was tired of the looks and whispers from the other students, from the teachers, all so careful around her, as though her mother’s suicide was somehow contagious. But mostly she wanted to avoid Mrs. Stewart—the guidance counselor—and all her prying questions. Somehow Mrs. Stewart seemed to know and was determined to get her to talk about it. This scared the girl. There was a two-inch scar on the side of her head where her hair would never grow back in. He’d made that mark with a dinner fork the one time she’d tried to tell her mother. The girl found herself thinking more and more about the pills her mother had swallowed, wondered if those pills could take her to her mother. She thought about that every time the bad thing happened.
His hand was on her—heavy, hot. She could feel his heat even through the sheet. He pulled the cover away then sat next to her, his weight sinking into the small box springs and causing her body to slide against him. He laid a calloused hand on her calf, slid it slowly up along her inner thigh and under her flannel nightgown, his thick fingers squeezing and prodding.
His breathing became heavy. He stood. She heard his thick brass belt buckle hit the floor then he was on top of her, the small mattress protesting his bulk.
She clutched her pillow and struggled not to cry out, staring out the window and trying to take herself somewhere else. The stars were particularly bright tonight. She focused on their magical glow, wishing she could fly up among them, fly so far away that the man could never touch her again.
A shadow blocked the stars. Someone was at the window looking in. In the faint glow she could see it was a boy. The boy pulled the window up and slid into the room with a quick, fluid movement.
“What the fu—” the man started, but the boy bounded across the room and hit the man with both feet, knocking him backward and into the hall. The boy moved fast, faster than the girl had ever seen anyone move, and was at the man before he could regain his feet. Both the man and the boy crashed down the hall and out of view.
Someone hit the wall hard enough to shake the girl’s bed frame. The man let out a howl and something shattered. There came a single sharp cry from the man, followed by a low “Oh, God” that sounded more like an exhale than a heavy thud. The apartment fell silent.
The girl glanced at the open window and wondered if she should run, but before she could, the boy reappeared, his wiry frame silhouetted in her doorway.
He moved into the room and she drew back. This seemed to trouble the boy and he slipped over to the window, leaped up, and perched on the sill. He had a tangle of auburn, shoulder-length hair, a sprinkle of freckles across his nose and cheeks, and his ears were—pointy. He looked up at the stars as though drinking in their magic, then back at her. She noticed the color of his eyes: gold like a lynx.
He cocked his head, then smiled, and when he did, those golden eyes sparkled. There was something wild in them, something exciting and dangerous. He slid a leg out onto the fire escape and nodded for her to come along.
She started to follow, then stopped. What was she thinking? She couldn’t just follow this strange boy out into the night. She shook her head.
His smile fell. He glanced back up at the stars, then waved to her as though to say good-bye.
“Wait,” she called.
And that was as far as she got, unsure what to do next. The only thing she was sure of was that she didn’t want this magical boy to leave her. A sparkling star caught her eye. The stars were all so brilliant she found herself wondering if she were in a dream, if maybe this boy had come down from the heavens to take her away.
She blinked, tried to clear her head, needing a minute to think. She wanted to go to the bathroom, but that would’ve meant going down the hall, and she didn’t want to do that, didn’t want to see what the golden-eyed boy had done to the man. And she didn’t want to let the boy out of her sight, afraid this might break the spell, that when she returned he’d be gone forever and she’d be alone. Her eyes fell on the man’s big brass belt buckle sitting atop his wadded-up pants and she began to twist the hem of her nightgown, tighter and tighter, until finally a sob escaped her throat. Tears overtook her and she slid off the bed onto her knees.
The boy came and knelt beside her. While she cried into her hands, he told her of an enchanted island where no grown-ups were allowed. Where there were other kids like her, who loved to laugh and play. Where there were great adventures to be had.
She wiped her eyes and managed to smile as she shook her head at his silly story, but when he invited her to come along, she found herself believing. And even though a voice deep within her warned her to stay away from this strange boy, she wanted nothing more at that moment than to follow along after him.
She glanced around the tiny room where the man had stolen so much from her. There was nothing left but painful memories. What else did she have to lose?
This time, when the boy stood to go, she dressed quickly, following him out onto the fire escape, down to the street, and into the night.
If the girl could only have spoken to the other boys and girls, the ones that had followed the golden-eyed boy before her, she would have known that there is always something left to lose.
In a small corner of Prospect Park, in the borough of Brooklyn, New York, a thief lay hidden in the trees. This thief wasn’t searching for an unattended purse, cell phone, or camera. This thief was looking for a child.
In the dusk of that early-autumn day, the child thief peered out from the shadows and falling leaves to watch the children play. The children scaled the giant green turtle, slid down the bright yellow slide, laughed, yelled, teased, and chased one another round and round. But the child thief wasn’t interested in these happy faces. He wasn’t looking to steal just any child. He was particular. He was looking for the sad face, the loner…a lost child. And the older the better, preferably a child of thirteen or fourteen, for older children were stronger, had better stamina, tended to stay alive longer.
The thief knew Mother Luck had smiled on him with the girl. She’d been a good catch, too bad about her father. He smiled, remembering the funny face the man had made as the knife slipped into his chest. But where was Mother Luck now? He’d been hunting for two days. Nothing. He’d come close with a boy last night, but close wasn’t good enough. Grimacing, the thief reminded himself that he had to take it slow, had to make friends with them first, gain their trust, because you couldn’t steal a child without their trust.
Maybe Mother Luck would be with him tonight. The child thief had found city parks to be good hunting grounds. Strays and runaways often camped among the bushes and used the public restrooms to wash, and they were always looking for friends.
As the sun slid slowly behind the cityscape, the shadows crept in—and so did the thief, biding his time, waiting for the falling darkness to sort the children out.
NICK DARTED INTO the warehouse entryway, pressed himself flat against the steel door, his breath coming hard and fast. He leaned his cheek against the cold metal and squeezed his eyes shut. “Fuck,” he said. “I’m screwed. So screwed.”
At fourteen, Nick was slender and a bit small for his age. Dark, choppy bangs spilled across his narrow face, emphasizing his pallid complexion. He needed a haircut, but of late his hair was the last thing on his mind.
Nick dropped his pack to the ground, pushed his bangs from his eyes, and carefully rolled up one sleeve of his black denim jacket. He glanced at the burns running along the inside of his forearm and winced. The angry red marks crisscrossing his flesh crudely formed the letter N.
He tried to put the nightmare out of his mind, but it came back to him in heated flashes: the men pinning him to the floor—the floor of his own kitchen. The sour, rancid taste of the dish sponge being crammed into his mouth.
Marko, big, thick-necked Marko, with his beastly grin, smirking while he heated the coat hanger against the burner. The wire smoking then turning red then…the pain…red-hot searing pain. God, the smell, but worse, the sound, he’d never forget the sound of his own flesh sizzling. Trying to scream, only to gag and choke on that gritty, soggy sponge while they laughed. Marko right in his face, Marko with his long, straggly chin hairs and bulging, bloodshot eyes. “Wanna know what the N stands for?” he’d spat. “Huh, do you fuckhole? It’s for Narc. You ever say anything to anybody again and I’m gonna burn the whole fucking word into your tongue. You got that you little prick?”
Nick opened his eyes. “Need to keep moving.” He snatched up his pack and unzipped the top. Inside the pack were some chips, bread, a jar of peanut butter, a pocket knife, two cans of soda, a blue rabbit’s foot on a leather cord, and about thirty thousand dollars’ worth of methamphetamines.
He dug through the hundreds of small clear plastic bags until he found the blue rabbit’s foot. The rabbit’s foot had been a gift from his dad, the only thing Nick had left of him now. He kissed it, then slipped it around his neck. He needed all the luck he could come by today.
He leaned out from the entryway, glancing quickly up and down the busy avenue, keeping an eye out for a beat-up green van. He’d hoped for some congestion to slow the traffic down, help him make it to the subway alive, but currently the traffic chugged steadily along. The day waned and soon the van would be just one more pair of gleaming headlights in the night.
Nick slung the pack over his shoulder and ducked out onto the sidewalk, weaving his way between the thin trail of pedestrians as he jogged rapidly up the block. There was a bite to the wind and people had their collars up and their eyes down. Nick pulled up his own collar, skirted around a cluster of elderly men and women lined up in front of an Italian restaurant, and tried to lose himself among the thin stream of returning commuters.
You fucked up Nicky boy, he thought. Fucked up big. Yet part of him was glad, would do about anything to see the faces of those sons-of-bitches when they found their stash gone. It would be a long time before Marko was back in business.
A horn blew behind him. Nick jumped and spun—heart in his throat. But there was no green van, just someone double-parked. He caught sight of the trees and felt a flood of relief. Prospect Park was just a block away. He’d be hard to spot in the trees. He could cut across the park and come out at the subway station. Nick took off in a run.
THE SHADOWS TWISTED and crowded together, layer upon layer, until darkness claimed the playground. One by one the sodium lamps fizzled on, their shimmering yellow glow casting long, eerie shadows across the park.
The parents were gone now, the playground empty. Garbage cans—overflowing with empty soda bottles and soiled diapers—stood like lone sentinels as the distant sounds of traffic and the steady thumping of someone’s pumped-up stereo echoed across the grounds.
The child thief saw the boy sprint into the park, saw him from far across the way, catching glimpses of his face as he dashed through the pools of yellow lamplight. The thief saw the fear, the confusion, and he smiled.
What had led this child here: abuse, neglect, molestation? All of the above perhaps? It really didn’t matter to the thief. All that mattered was something had caused the boy to leave his home behind and venture out into the night alone, a runaway. And like so many runaways, this boy didn’t know where to run away to.
Not to worry, the child thief thought. I have a place for you. A place where we can play. And his golden eyes twinkled and his smile broadened.
NICK PASSED A young couple on their way out of the park, giggling and clinging to each other like Siamese twins. He took a wide detour around a man and his dog. The dog—some sort of large poodle—gave Nick a shameful look as it went about its business. The man stared dully at his phone, texting away, seemingly unconcerned that his dog was laying down landmines along the public walkway.
Nick noticed a pack of youths far up the path. They were cutting through the park, shouting and acting up. They looked like trouble and Nick didn’t need any more trouble. He veered off the path and drifted into the trees.
Nick pushed through a dense line of bushes and jumped down into a wide ditch. His foot hit a slick chunk of cardboard and he stumbled, landing atop something soft. The something soft moved. “Hey,” came a muffled cry beneath him.
The something soft was a sleeping bag, worn and oily, like it’d been dragged through the gutter. The someone was a woman and she didn’t look much better—the smear of cherry-red lipstick over layers of caked-on makeup unable to hide the ravages of the street. Nick thought she might’ve been pretty once, but now her matted hair, hollowed eyes, and sunken cheeks reminded him of a cadaver.
She rolled over and sat up, got a good look at Nick, and smiled.
A bald man with a long, white, grizzly beard poked his head out from a nearby sleeping bag. “Who’s that?”
Nick realized there were several sleeping bags scattered among the bushes, along with cardboard boxes, blue plastic tarps, and a shopping cart full of garbage bags.
“It’s just a boy,” the woman said. “A tender little thing.”
Nick rolled off of her, but when he tried to get up, she grabbed him, her hard, bony hands locking around his wrist. Nick let out a cry and tried to pull away.