The neighborhood cats love my yard. I don’t know why. Every time I look out the window there are at least two cats out there, perched on a fencepost or skulking through the tall weeds behind the shed. When I open the back door, they look at me like I’m the intruder. They love the unused flower beds best of all. I think cats come from miles around to shit in my flower beds. I can imagine their conversations. “It’s the best outdoor litter box you’ve ever seen. Just the right ratio of sand to mulch. Let me give you directions.”
After the sun sets, my backyard turns into a kitty night club. I couldn’t guess how many kittens have been conceived back there. Judging from the amount of yowling, hundreds. At least.
I was sitting on the sun porch, which had been haphazardly tacked onto the back of the house by the previous owners, and idly watching a black and white tuxedo cat pounce on a butterfly that had landed on the shaggy honeysuckle. It was a nice spot to sit and think, if you didn’t mind ants and leaky windows. I didn’t. Sometimes I even slept out there on hot nights.
I had pulled up a local newscast on my tablet, hoping for information on the rumored upcoming layoffs. A friend had sworn that she could get me on at the factory, but that wasn’t looking like such a sure thing anymore. I was going to have to send out some resumes. After I put together a resume.
The newscaster was droning on in the background about a cold case segment, and a familiar name caught my attention. Jenny Straits. I dug through the murk in my brain, trying to place it. They flashed a photograph of a sexy brunette, her arms wrapped around the neck of a chocolate Lab. She was laughing as the dog tried to lick her face. It was the sort of photo that would get hits on a dating site.
The murk started to clear. High school. We had been in the same class, nearly twenty years ago. I remembered her as a nerdy, mousy girl. Quiet and skinny, with bad hair. Of course, I had been a quiet, chubby girl with bad skin, so I had no reason to judge. We had been in band together. I was lost in a sea of flutists and she was lost in a sea of clarinetists. We hadn’t shared any other classes. I couldn’t remember ever having a conversation with her, but maybe we did at some point.
And now she was the subject of a cold case. I felt that vicarious thrill and horror that one feels when distantly connected to a tragedy. I wanted to call someone, but I had lost touch with all my high school friends. It was the sort of thing I would have told my husband about, before he ran off to Omaha with his dental hygienist.
According to the report, Jenny had been an exotic dancer at Delilah’s eight years ago. Her boyfriend stopped by one night and they got into an argument, so when her shift ended she went to a girlfriend’s apartment. She was asleep on the couch when the friend left for work the next morning. When she returned that night, Jenny was gone, though her car was still in the parking lot. No one ever saw her again.
I was stunned. She had been missing for years and I had never heard anything about it. The news report was now showing Jenny’s father pleading for information. After eight years, he was still holding out hope.
She was probably dead and buried in a field somewhere. I shuddered.
It was late afternoon, and the heat was beginning to get to me. My house had central air, but the system had developed a horrific leak, so I had to get it recharged every summer. Last year the charge had only lasted a month. Since fixing the leak would cost at least a few thousand dollars, I was going to have to get by with fans this summer. Maybe I could look up how to make a swamp cooler.
I went next door to Cara’s house. Before I even knocked, I was greeted by an insane yapping inside. Maybe that explained why the cats stayed out of her yard.
Back when Cara was eight months pregnant, their toilet had malfunctioned in some catastrophic way. (I didn’t ask for details.) After the third time she rang my doorbell in less than two hours, I had unlocked my back door and told her to come and go as she pleased until her husband managed to make the repair. It took a few days. Having someone creep into your house several times in the middle of the night is not a pleasant feeling.
She owed me.
Cara peered through the screen door at me, holding the yapping dog back with a foot. She was nearly spilling out of a tube top and cut-offs.
“I’m hot,” I said. “I mean, I value your friendship and want to spend time with you.”
She laughed and let me in. The house was blessedly cool.
Owen was now a toddler. He was dressed in his usual diaper and grubby t-shirt, his hair a blonde tumbleweed. He picked up a piece of cereal off the floor and ate it. At least I hoped it was cereal.
The Pekingese, on the other hand, was perfectly groomed. As I sat on the couch, the dog trotted over and began humping my ankle. Owen bopped the dog with a foam block but that didn’t faze him.
“Thor! Stop that!”
Cara rattled a box of dog biscuits and Thor ran to the kitchen to get his treat.
“Way to reward bad behavior,” I said.
Cara was in the process of latching a baby gate, trapping the dog in the kitchen. She paused.
“You want me to let him back out? Maybe you can fend him off with a good talking to.”
She latched the gate and brought me a glass of iced tea. Thor finished his biscuit and began whining and pawing at the gate. She fished an ice cube out of her own glass and tossed it in the kitchen, and the dog gave chase.
“So. Anything new?” she asked, as Owen handed her a block.
I told her about Jenny. As she listened, she pulled Owen onto her lap before he could find more toys to give her. He struggled for a moment, then curled up and went to sleep.
“The boyfriend killed her,” she said with certainty.
“It’s always the boyfriend. He came by the friend’s apartment and sweet-talked her into leaving with him. Then they got into another argument. Who else could have done it?”
“The friend? She was the last person to see her alive. Maybe she caught Jenny stealing something and whacked her in the head with a cookie jar.”
Cara frowned at me. “A cookie jar?”
“A frying pan seemed too cliched.”
She laughed and shook her head. “Only you. Okay, it could have been the friend.”
“Or maybe it was a stranger. She could have walked to the corner to buy cigarettes and some man grabbed her and threw her in his car.”
“And no one saw anything?”
“Maybe she isn’t even dead. She could have just taken off.”
The phone rang and Cara checked the caller ID display. “Ugh. My cousin. She’s planning a wedding and there’s lots of family drama. I need to take this.”
I tuned out the phone conversation as I thought about the possibility that Jenny was still alive. Maybe she had been walking to the corner store when a stranger pulled up next to her and told her she was the prettiest girl he had ever seen, then leaned over and opened the passenger door, and she climbed in. And never looked back.
It wasn’t hard to imagine. I was stuck with a house that had started to crumble around me. I didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to make the mortgage payments, and I owed more than the place was worth. I was facing a mind-numbing assembly line job, if I could even get that. I might end up working as a clerk in a convenience store. And I spent my Saturday nights alone sitting on the sun porch, staring out at all those glowing eyes in the darkness. If I were offered an escape, I’d take it, too.
Cara waved a hand to get my attention, then covered the receiver and whispered, “Thor needs to go out. Will you take him?”
Outside, Thor made a beeline for the hydrant on the corner. As he sniffed all around it, looking for the perfect spot, a black Charger turned onto the street and continued down the block. I had dated a boy in high school who drove a Charger. I had liked the car more than the boy.
The car disappeared and I sighed, returning my attention to the dog.
“Hurry up or I’ll feed you to the cats.”
Thor ignored me and continued sniffing. I glanced over at my house and froze. A limb had broken off from the dying tree next to my house and fallen on the roof. I could see where it had dislodged a couple of shingles. One more thing I couldn’t afford to fix. I wondered if I could put an ad on craigslist. “Will exchange sex for tree removal/roof repair.”
The Charger had turned around and was headed back. As it approached, my heart began to pound. The car slowed and pulled to a stop next to me. If he offered to take me away, I could tie Thor to the hydrant. Even if he ended up murdering me, at least I’d get to ride around in a nice car for awhile first.
The passenger window rolled down and I bent over to look inside. A blast of cool air hit me. The driver was a few years younger than me, and not bad looking. He smiled. He had even, white teeth.
“Can you tell me where Bend street is, Ma’am?”
I only called women my age “Ma’am” when I was pretending to be respectful, but this stranger was being serious. How old did he think I was? I wanted to laugh, but I was afraid I’d start crying.
“Two blocks that way,” I said and pointed. It was actually in the opposite direction.
“Thanks,” he said, and drove away.
Thor signaled he was finished doing his business by kicking dirt on my shoes.
We went back inside.