The police wouldn’t let me stay in the house alone that night. They said I was a minor, even though I was sixteen. Since we have no family anywhere close by, I had to stay with our neighbor, Mrs. Farley.
“It’s my duty to the Lord,” she said to the cop who brought me over. She was bundled in a quilted bathrobe with her hair wrapped up in curlers. My first thought was that she should have green cream on her face and be shouting get off my lawn out an upstairs window. “It doesn’t matter that I’m an old woman and it’s gotten me out of bed. What good is sleep when there’s a child in need?”
Once the cop had gone, she took me by the hand as if I were nine years old, and led me over to a living room sofa that was pink and covered in plastic. The house smelled like boiled vegetables. “Sit down and I’ll heat some milk.”
I sat down. The plastic squeaked and groaned under me in an embarrassing way, so I tried to sit very still. Without thinking, I ran my fingers over the smooth surface of the locket around my neck, as if it were a talisman. Mrs. Farley went into the kitchen.
I’d never been inside her house before, even though we’d lived next door for my entire life. The room was cluttered, and the carpet was brown and nappy. I looked around at all the crap on her walls. There were lots of souvenir plates from around the country, which said things like “Kansas: the Sunflower State,” and “Florida: the Sunshine State,” and “Minnesota: the Land of 10,000 Lakes.” There were and cheesy landscape paintings and pictures of the Virgin Mary. Over the fireplace was a huge picture of Jesus touching his bleeding heart with one hand, his eyes turned upward, looking for God.
“I’ll put clean sheets on the bed in the spare room,” Mrs. Farley said, handing me a mug of warm milk. She headed up the stairs. The smell of the milk was making me sick, so I snuck into the kitchen and dumped it down the sink. My head hurt and I was exhausted. I sat on the sofa and listened to Mrs. Farley walking around upstairs, muttering to herself. The next thing I knew I was slouched over a pile of lacey pillows and Mrs. Farley was shaking my shoulder.
“Paulette, dear, you mustn’t go to sleep before we’ve prayed together,” she said, sitting down next to me. She held my hand and closed her eyes, sighing with her sickly sweet old lady breath. “Lord, no one can truly know your mysteries, but let us be worthy to accept this challenge as your servants, as part of your faithful flock…”
Her hand was warm and withered, and the band of her ring pressed hard into one of my knuckles. I thought of the boy’s cold hand and the way he’d curled his fingers through mine. But thinking about the boy made me remember the dark stain in the snow when they took him away, and then of mom being driven off in a police car. I pulled my hand away.
“Mom doesn’t want me praying,” I said quietly. “We don’t believe in God.” I looked down at my hands, now folded between my knees where no one could get them.
Mrs. Farley gasped, “Heavens!” and sat there staring at me for a long time, like she was trying to decide whether or not to say something that was right on her tongue. She said it. “Maybe that’s why she’s in jail right now.”
I squeezed my knees against my hands to keep them from punching her in the face. She abruptly got to her feet.
“The bathroom is down the hall,” she said, waving her hand in its general direction. The novelty of martyrdom had already worn off, and she wasn’t even pretending to be nice anymore. “You sleep now, Paulette, and I’ll pray for your soul on my own.”
It was cold in the house, and the blankets were thin and itchy. Mrs. Farley snored loudly down the hall, a low, constant grumbling sound. Though I had been tired earlier, my mind was now racing and I couldn’t fall asleep. I wondered if I was supposed to go to school in the morning, or if I should wait for my dad to come home. I wondered how long it would be before mom came home. But wondering about the boy was too much to bear, and so I pushed the thought away.
The sooner I go to sleep, I thought, the sooner the night will be over. I closed my eyes and imagined myself as a little kid in the old room I shared with Judy, the one with our dueling cat and dog posters on the walls and our canopy beds pushed into opposite corners.
“Judy,” I whispered out loud, like I’d done as a little girl when I woke up scared in the night. No matter how tired she was, she would climb out of bed and tiptoe across the room to do one sleepy round of our secret game, zing-zing-zing. And then I would fall asleep. I held my hands in the air, as if they were joined with an invisible pair of hands.
“Zing zing zing,” I said, doing the little hand movements we’d developed together, our spell against everything dark and scary in the world.
It was enough of a prayer for me. I folded my hands over my stomach and lay perfectly still, waiting for sleep. The refrigerator kicked on downstairs in the kitchen, its hum soothing, reminding me of home. I thought about Mrs. Farley and her prayers, and wondered what she'd said about me to God.