Your mother wouldn’t let me bring the ice chest into the house, so I left it in the garage. Earlier, I’d knifed four holes into the styrofoam lid. One of them looked like half a star, which I remember liking. This was years ago, a windswept Sunday. This was Texas.
When I returned to the kitchen, she pointed at the sink. She said, “Wash your hands. With soap.”
She was breading flounder. She’d been listening to radio reports about that little girl who’d been abducted. So had I. Probably I pulled over and gave that man eighty dollars because I thought it would keep you safe. He was parked under the causeway, a handlettered sign propped against the tire of his van, as if he were just selling pecans.
Your mother had flour dust on her neck. She’d already fried okra, boiled potatoes. Soon we would call you to the table and you, our little man, would bolt in like you’d heard a starter pistol. You were seven, a boy who liked bedtime stories with fantastic monsters and twisty, unexpected endings. You liked sneaking up on us. You hid behind closed doors and in the laundry hamper, then jumped out screaming and laughing. You loved the word “maybe.” (Maybe I’m a kid who’s a million years old. Maybe we should be a family with a pet. Maybe someday my eyes will turn blue.) Your mother swiped her forehead with her wrist. The kitchen was gummy with the day’s heat, the windows open. Before leaving that morning, I’d mowed the yard—you helped me rake, you wore your cowboy boots—and now, with dusk coming on, the cut-grass smell was rising and trying to cool everything off.
“She’s still missing,” your mother said. “Now they think the uncle did something.”
I nodded. I’d heard that, too, and if it was true, I thought he’d get killed in prison. But I didn’t want to talk about such things.
Instead, I asked, “How’s our little man?”
“Worn out,” your mother said. “He’s napping in his room.” I’d been all day at the job site, drawing overtime. On the drive home, I’d seen the man under the causeway and pulled over for a look. Our ice chest was still in the bed of the truck from when we’d gone floundering. I took that as a sign. And he had only one left, which also seemed lucky. I was excited to surprise you, to hear what you’d name it.
Now I said, “I wonder what he’ll name it.”
“He asked for a dog.”
“A pet,” I said. “He asked for a pet.”
“Right, a dog. A cat. A goldfish. Pets have fur and show affection. Pets aren’t deadly.”
“Goldfish don’t have fur,” I said. I didn’t think she was angry, not really. I took three glasses from the cabinet. “And it’s not deadly.”
She fixed me with her eyes. “It’s an alligator.”
“It’s a caiman. There’s a difference. It’s the size of a shoe.”
“Not for long,” she said. She turned back to the stove. She laid one piece of fish in the skillet, then another. Grease started snapping.
“They’re smart,” I said, repeating what the man had told me. “They won’t mate until the river is high. They make sure there’s enough water for their offspring. They build nests.”
“They’re cold-blooded. They have scales.”
“Danny can take it for show-and-tell.”
“They bite. They escape. They escape into sewers and terrorize neighborhoods. They eat regular pets.”
I laughed at that, but your mother said, “They do.”
She flipped the fish in the skillet. The sound of frying started up again like distant applause. She blew hair from her eyes, stood with her hip cocked, holding the spatula. The applause quieted. She slipped the fish onto a plate she’d covered with a paper napkin to soak up grease. She put two more pieces in the pan and watched them sizzle.
She said, “Why would that man take that little girl?”
“We don’t know that he did.”
“But you think he did?”
“Yes,” I said. “I do.”
“I do, too,” your mother said. “You know she’s Danny’s age.”
“They could still find her.”
“But you don’t think they will?”
“I don’t know, honey,” I said.
“I don’t think they will.”
She lowered the flame on the stove and turned to stare out the window. She was touching her fingertips to her thumb, one after the other, something she did when she was concentrating. The air in the room shifted.
“What would we do if something—”
“It won’t,” I said. “Not to him.”
She nodded, pressed the heel of her palm to her eyes. She said, “We’re still getting a dog.”
“And you owe me a new ice chest,” she said.
I poured milk for you but returned our glasses to the cabinet and opened up two bottles of beer. The meal was starting to feel like a celebration, like one of us had gotten a raise or was having a birthday. I found some cocoa mix, stirred it into your glass.
“An alligator,” your mother said, shaking her head.
“Caiman,” I said.
“You know some husbands bring home candy, right? Or roses or diamonds.”
“Their poor wives,” I said. “They probably—”
“Tell Danny you caught it,” she said. “Tell him you were fishing and you saw it and you caught it just for him.”
“You want me to lie to our son."
“I want you to make up a story for him, something with a happy outcome,” she said and turned off the stove. She went to the refrigerator and took out the tartar sauce and a salad she’d been chilling. The wind lifted the curtains over the sink and sent a few paper napkins gliding off the counter. Your mother closed the window, and the kitchen went quiet as a secret.
And then, with the wind shut out, we could hear your boots on the floor in the hallway. You were stalking toward us, planning one of your sneak attacks. Your mother sipped her beer. The flour was on her neck—it looked like snow, like a smeared galaxy—and she was smiling a little. I understood what she didn’t: you’d been awake the whole time, listening to us. You already knew about the caiman, about the flimsy hopeful story I’d tell, about everything else. The only surprise left was that I did believe they could still find that girl. I thought her uncle might prove everyone wrong. Maybe he cooked her favorite meals, played her favorite movies, never touched her. Maybe such extravagant misguided love was still possible. As a baby, you liked putting your feet in my mouth. You’d laugh until you got the hiccups and your toes would move behind my teeth as slow as growing coral, and sometimes, I swear, I wanted to bite down, to crush your perfect bones and swallow your body whole.
Your mother knelt to pick up the strewn napkins. You were just on the other side of the door now, trying not to giggle and preparing your ambush. Maybe you knew we were onto you, maybe not. I joined your mother on the floor. I felt like we were praying or giving thanks or mourning. The kitchen tile was cool, hard. We were listening to you breathe, waiting for you to strike. We were on our hands and knees, our bodies low to the ground like strange and ancient creatures.
Bret Anthony Johnston is the editor of Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer and the author of Corpus Christi: Stories, both from Random House. He teaches at Harvard University, where he directs the creative writing program, and at the Bennington Writing Seminars. (4/2009)