By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, March/April 2016, and reprinted in The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror.
“Damn you, Violet—you are a shameless liar.”
Her mother was disgusted with her, again. But how could her mother even guess that Violet hadn’t been telling the truth? Could her mother read her mind?
So she’d taken a few dollars out of her mother’s wallet. She hadn’t taken any large-denomination bills (twenties, fifty) but only small-denomination (ones, fives) and she’d left much more than she’d taken. Her mother used credit cards anyway, rarely cash. But there was her mother fuming and fussing like she’d stolen a thousand damn dollars.
“Were you at the mall? With who? How’d you get there? Did you take the bus? Did someone give you a ride? Who? How’d you get back? Where’ve you been? It’s after six.”
It’s after six. So what. Violet made a pinched little face, luckily her mother didn’t see or she’d have gotten a sharp slap.
In her mother’s hot-vibrating presence Violet wore her sulky face. It was an airtight mask of some material like satin or silk, which she could draw down over her actual face. Like Hallowe’en. That morning at school she’d borrowed her friend Rita Mae’s new lipstick, dark maroon, near-to-black, to apply to her mouth, that gave her a dazzling-sexy look (she thought), so after school the eyes of older guys trailed after her.
Trouble was, she’d forgotten to wipe the lipstick off when she returned home. First thing her mother said, staring at her—“You! At your age! Looking like a, a . . .” Her voice trailed off, she could not utter the word Violet flinched to hear.
Second thing, “How dare you take money from me? How much did you take?”
Inside the sulky mask Violet mumbled what sounded like Don’t know. Or, Didn’t take anything.
“Don’t you know that the mall is dangerous? Hanging out there is dangerous?”
Inside the sulky mask Violet mumbled something totally unintelligible. Could’ve been uh-huh, or OK. Or nah.
“Don’t they warn you at school? Or don’t you listen? There’ve been children ‘abducted’ here—a two-year-old toddler taken right out of a backyard, with her mother just inside a screen door on a telephone.
“Right now there’s a five-year-old girl missing for a week, her mother was buying something in JCPenney and when she turned around, the little girl was gone. And before we moved here, a three-year-old boy who disappeared allegedly from inside his own house just a few blocks from here. All of them—vanished without a trace.”
“Jeez, Mom! Those were little kids.”
“What do you mean, ‘were’? Why do you say ‘were’?”
“I mean—they’re really little kids, that somebody could pick up and walk away with, kind of easy. Not like—”
“And you’re so ‘big’—you? You’re thirteen years old, you weigh—what?—ninety pounds?”
Violet’s face flamed as if her mother had slapped her. She was short for her age and fat for her height—in fact Violet weighed ninety-five pounds. And she was only four feet eleven inches—one of the shortest girls in eighth grade.
Worse yet she was growing breasts, and hips—soft, spongy flesh she just hated—envying the skinny girls who eyed her with disdain if not pity. Even Rita Mae who was practically her only friend pitied her.
Shamed, furious, Violet ran away upstairs. Heavy-footed on the stairs to show her mother what she thought of her—there was nothing so upsetting to Violet as her weight, didn’t her cruel mother know?
At the foot of the stairs her mother was shouting up at her—“I know you took money and I want it back, Violet—every penny, I want back.”
Violet slammed the door to her room. Her heart was beating crazy-hard. Her lips felt swollen as if in fact her mother had slapped her.
“Hate hate hate you. Wish I was dead.” Thinking, then—“Wish you were dead.”
Couldn’t stop from crying, quick hot tears, for going to the mall after school with Rita Mae Clovis and Carliss LaMotte had been a dumb idea since the other girls had even less money than Violet did and had to “borrow” from her. That was why, in fact, Violet had taken the money—only seventeen damn dollars!—because Rita Mae had suggested it: “Your Mom won’t know it’s gone. In our house it’s just Dad who has cash in his wallet but you could never get Dad’s wallet from him.” Violet had been so eager to please Rita Mae, and the other girl who was mostly Rita Mae’s friend, she’d done what Rita Mae had said. Now, her mother would never trust her again.
They hadn’t taken the bus to the mall after school. They’d gotten a ride with a high school senior Carliss knew, who worked at the New Liberty Mall. They’d gotten a ride back from the mall with some older guys Rita Mae claimed to know, two of the girls (Violet, Carliss) crammed into the rear of the station wagon smelling of spilt beer, stale cigarettes, dirty gym clothes, so tight that Carliss (giggling like an idiot) had to sit on the lap of one of the guys and Violet was crushed against a door, ignored. Everyone was loud-laughing and acting stupid except Violet staring out the window wishing she was anywhere else including dead because it was pretty clear, the guys were not remotely interested in her.
At South Valley Middle School Violet Prentiss was “new”: a transfer student.
Damn she hated South Valley!—twice the size of her old school where she’d had at least three good friends, girls she’d known since kindergarten. At the new school, unless she wore Midnight Kiss lipstick and painted her nails dark maroon, faked a black rose tattoo on the inside of her arm, and “pierced” her ear with a mean-looking silver clamp the way Rita Mae Clovis showed her, Violet was totally invisible.
They’d moved to this new city just eighteen miles south of their former city because Wells Fargo had transferred Violet’s mother and she’d had no choice but to move. Her mother said it was lucky she hadn’t been downsized only just relocated in a branch of the bank in a faster-growing suburb than the one in which they’d been living for as long as Violet could recall.
(If Violet tried to remember further back things got blurry as in a watercolor left out in the rain. That memory of the scratchy-jawed beer-smelling funny-face man who’d been Daddy made her choke up and snivel.)
It was true, as Violet’s mother had said, small children were going missing in the area. Two little girls, a little boy—just in the past six weeks—no one had any idea what had happened to them. Local and state police were “investigating all leads” but had “not yet made any arrests.” Weirdly, there were also missing pets—cats, dogs, rabbits. In fact, the pets had begun to disappear at least a year ago and there were many more of these missing than children. As soon as Violet and her mother had moved into their new apartment they’d started seeing these sad posters in stores and on walls and fences—pictures of lost children, lost cats, lost dogs, lost rabbits with headlines MISSING, or HAVE YOU SEEN ME?
Some of the pictures of dogs, cats, rabbits were so cute, Violet wanted to cry to think they were lost. The children’s pictures she didn’t look at too closely.
Older people like Violet’s mother said how strange it was there didn’t seem to be kidnappings in the United States any longer, only just abductions. Violet asked what was the difference between a kidnapping and an abduction and her mother said, “If a child is kidnapped, the kidnappers contact the parents and ask for a ‘ransom.’ And the child might be returned safely. That was how it used to be in the old days! Now, the child is just—taken away . . .”
And never heard from again, Violet thought with an excited little shiver.”
At South Valley Middle School the missing children were spoken of with the same sort of excited shivers. No one actually knew any of the missing children or their families—and it was only “little kids” who were at risk, not older children—so it was possible for the cruder boys to make jokes about the abductions. (Violet flinched to hear these jokes. Yet a few times to her shame Violet heard herself laugh with the others.)
At a school assembly the principal (a stout fussy woman named Mrs. Flanagan) addressed them in a grave voice warning them not ever to be “cajoled into” getting into a vehicle with a stranger, and not to walk home from school alone if they could avoid it. “Use your common sense, children! You’re old enough to be vigilant. If you miss your school bus, report to the office immediately. Do not walk alone on the busy truck routes at any time. Do not walk anywhere after dark alone—or even with a friend.
Police had a theory that the abductions were the work of out-of-state truckers who drove their enormous trailer trucks along Ajax Boulevard, which turned into state highway 103 outside the city limits. This would account for the fact that the children had vanished into thin air—it would be easy to carry captives inside a storage truck. (Especially if it had a deep freeze!—the boys joked.) Police claimed there’d been witnesses to “attempted abductions” by truckers on Ajax Boulevard but unfortunately the witnesses hadn’t been able to see the truck licenses, only just to notice that, by their color, the licenses had been out-of-state.
(Violet would learn that Rita Mae Clovis’s older brother Emile was one of the witnesses who’d reported to police what he’d seen, or almost seen—an out-of-state tractor trailer truck stopped at a red light and the driver opened his door and tried to “drag a boy into the truck” before the light changed; but the light turned green before he could get the boy inside the cab of the truck, and the driver—“Must’ve been six foot five, weighed two hundred fifty pounds, one of those droopy mustaches like they wear in Mexico and sort of dark-skinned,” as Emile had reported—had to drive away.)
People debated whether the missing pets had anything to do with the missing children. It was not likely that the truckers—(if it was truckers who were abducting children)—would bother with mere dogs and cats and rabbits, if they could get children; but then, could it be a coincidence that children, cats, dogs, pet rabbits were all being taken at the same time, by different people?
So far there’d been eight cats, five dogs, a dozen or more pet rabbits that had disappeared. Each had left behind a bereft family, including stricken children.
Talking about the disappearances Rita Mae said, with a shudder, “Wonder where they all are. Seems like the poor things would be all in the same place.”
“Some kind of heaven, y’think?” Violet said.
Rita Mae giggled. “Or hell.”
VALLEY GARDEN APARTMENTS was the sign in front of the apartment complex where Violet and her mother lived, that resembled a two-storey motel of stucco painted dull orange. “Garden” had to be some kind of joke—there wasn’t any garden that Violet could see from their first-floor windows, only a parking lot with laser-lights that bored through the venetian blinds in her room and kept Violet awake at night. Her mother insisted the apartment was “just fine” and anyway it was “just temporary” and Violet didn’t even bother to contradict her, it was too depressing.
Just temporary? Like, the rest of their lives?”
Violet’s mother could drop her off at school (three miles away) before work but how Violet made her way home after school was the issue. Which city bus would she take, if she missed the 3:30 p.m. school bus to which she was assigned. (Violet never “missed” the school bus except on purpose. Already during the first week of school she’d grown to fear and hate the school bus for the driver was indifferent to older boys bullying younger children and girls. The driver seemed not even to notice how Violet had been singled out by several ninth-grade boys for particular torment since she was new, and easily intimidated. They’re just teasing, can’t take a joke, how’n hell are you going to survive in the real world? Somehow it was worse, the driver was a woman.)
Violet knew better than to complain to her mother who might become hysterical over the phone making threats against the school principal, or whoever—if the damn bullies stopped, it would be just for a few days. Then they’d start again, nastier.
So when Violet “missed” the school bus she had to take a city bus which meant walking to Meridian Avenue, and taking the bus that came every twenty minutes; unless she walked to Curtiss Boulevard, where a bus came every thirty minutes. But sometimes she got confused, or frightened, and ended up taking a bus that dropped her off a quarter-mile from her home on the wrong side of a busy street. It was all so exhausting!
Her mother didn’t like Violet taking the city buses, and she didn’t like Violet waiting for any bus on Curtiss Boulevard which had almost as much heavy truck traffic as Ajax Boulevard. So Violet allowed her mother to think—(it wasn’t like lying outright, was it?)—that most days she took the school bus home, with no problem.
When the weather got bad in the winter, Violet would be miserable, she supposed, but as it happened, something so wonderful occurred by the last week of September, she never had to worry about the damn old buses again.
She’d been walking toward Meridian Avenue when there came a call—“Vi’let! Hey! Want a ride?”—and she’d looked around to see a girl from her homeroom waving to her out the window of an SUV with mud-splattered fenders and scraped sides, that looked as if it had been in use for some time.
This was such a nice surprise! Violet could not believe her good luck. She had been noticing Rita Mae Clovis at school but had felt too shy even to smile at the tall skinny girl who wore glittery silver piercings in her ears, eyebrows, and nose, and dark maroon lipstick—in eighth grade.
Of course, Violet said yes. Violet ran to the SUV and climbed into the rear seat, that smelled of something delicious—yeasty-sugar doughnuts, greasy fried hamburger meat with ketchup. (On the floor were crumbled food bags.)
“Hi, ‘friend of Rita Mae’—I’m Rita Mae’s father, Harald Clovis.”
Mr. Clovis was smiling at Violet in the rearview mirror. He was a friendly-looking man with fair, fawn-colored hair in waves that fell to his shoulders, and eyebrows so thick they reminded Violet of caterpillars in a children’s picture book—something to make you smile, not shrink away.
It was strange and wonderful how, from the start, Violet didn’t feel shy with the Clovises. She was smiling and laughing and just so grateful to be where she was and not out on windy Meridian Avenue waiting for some damn bus.
Rita Mae was much friendlier to Violet than she’d ever been at school. She told her father that Violet was “just about the smartest girl” in eighth grade which made Violet laugh, for it wasn’t true, but the thought behind it was so generous, if maybe silly—Violet laughed and blushed as if Rita Mae had leaned back over her seat and tickled her. And there was Mr. Clovis regarding her in the rearview mirror, with a big smile.
“Well, I hope that Violet will become a good friend of yours, Rita Mae. Seems like you could use some smartenin’-up not dumbin’-down.”
Violet would discover that all of the Clovis family talked like this, smart-snappy like TV dialogue that went on and on seemingly without any effort. You expected a laugh track with such clever talk.
Mr. Clovis asked Violet about her family, and Violet told him a few facts, in an embarrassed mumble; but Violet did not tell Mr. Clovis that nobody was waiting for her inside the Valley Garden Apartments and that her mother sometimes didn’t get home until after 7:00 P.M.—some evenings, her mother didn’t get home until 10:00 P.M. and when she did, her breath smelled of some evil mix of garlic, beer, and cigarette smoke. Gross!
Mr. Clovis extracted from Violet the information that her mother was a “single parent” and that Violet was an “only child.” Mr. Clovis seemed to find this information valuable for he smiled and winked at Violet in the rearview mirror as if she’d given the correct answers to some tricky questions.
“Rita Mae, are there any doughnuts left?—just pass the bag back to your friend Vi’let.”
Violet had vowed not to eat fattening things, delicious fattening things like cinnamon glazed doughnuts, especially between meals—but Mr. Clovis’s generosity could not be rebuffed.
“Oh thank you, Mr. Clovis!”
“You’re certainly welcome, ‘friend of Rita Mae.’”
At first it had seemed like a happy coincidence—“Seren-dippity” Mr. Clovis called it—that Violet happened to be walking along the street when Mr. Clovis’s SUV came along, at least twice a week; then, one day at school Rita Mae told Violet that she could have a ride home any time she needed it—“My dad really likes you, Violet. He says you’re special.” This was so utterly amazing, Violet had to wipe tears from her eyes. Rita Mae seemed embarrassed but pleased. In the SUV Mr. Clovis said, with his sunny smile, “Hey, it’s no trouble, Vi’let. We’re going almost that way, anyhow.”
Sometimes, one or two other Clovis children were in the SUV with Rita Mae, so Violet got to know Trissie and Calvin too, who were both younger than Rita Mae; eventually she met Eve, who was older and in high school, and Emile who was the oldest, who’d dropped out of South Valley High a year or two ago.
All of the Clovis children were friendly, and all took an interest in her.
And suddenly Violet had friends at school also, at least Rita Mae Clovis’s girlfriends with whom she could sit in the cafeteria and eat lunch, instead of huddling at a remote table by herself, hoping/dreading that someone, anyone, would join her.
Almost overnight Violet had stopped hating school. In fact, Violet had begun to look forward to school each morning.
“You’re making friends, are you? I told you, you would.”
Violet’s mother was so damn smug. But Violet was too happy to mind.
Once on the way to Violet’s home when there were just Violet and Rita Mae in the SUV, and Violet was sitting in front beside Rita Mae, Mr. Clovis took the girls to Edgewater Park where he bought ice cream cones for the three of them. Violet hesitated for a fraction of a second, for it threw her into despair how damn fat she was, compared to the girls she most admired at school, then she gave in—“Mr. Clovis, thanks!”
When Rita Mae went to use a restroom in the park Mr. Clovis said in a tender voice to Violet, “Any friend of my daughter’s is a friend of mine. No questions asked!”
It near-about broke Violet’s heart, these words like the words of a song. And the way Mr. Clovis lay his hand lightly on the nape of her neck, like you’d stroke a nervous cat. She’d have flinched away except—she was so happy.
In October it began to happen that, since Violet’s mother wasn’t home anyway, Violet was often invited to come home with Rita Mae to visit, or even to stay for supper.
Violet’s mother was making new friends of her own, Violet had reason to believe. She’d hear her mother singing in the bathroom, and she’d smell her mother’s special cologne, and began to notice her mother making up her face ever more glamorously.
Think I care? I do not care.
I hate you.
The Clovises started their evening meal early, between 5:00 P.M. and 5:30 P.M. Most days there was a whirlwind of busyness in the kitchen, until the meal was on the table. Often the family straggled in and out of the messy kitchen until early evening—nobody was in a hurry to clear away the table or wash or even rinse or soak dishes, the way Violet’s mother was insistent upon Violet helping to clean up the kitchen after every meal. (“My mom says a dirty kitchen ‘breeds bacteria,’” Violet told Rita Mae, expecting her friend to laugh scornfully; but Rita Mae said, frowning, “Oh gross. I saw on TV once, what a kitchen sponge looks like under a microscope. Made me want to throw up.” But nobody fussed much over the sanitary conditions in the Clovis’s kitchen, or anywhere in the Clovis house.)
Something or someone was missing at the Clovis house—at first, Violet couldn’t think what it was. Who.
Unlike Violet’s mother who was always muttering about “nutrition” —“organic foods”—“omega fats”—Mr. Clovis allowed the kids to eat anything they wanted, and as much of it as they wanted. He certainly didn’t fuss—for Mr. Clovis a “gourmet meal” was fresh pizza picked up on the way home, instead of frozen pizza heated in the microwave. An “ultra-gourmet” meal was takeout from Tong Lee Chinese Kitchen, packages of leaky sugary-oily food and sticky white rice, fortune cookies in crinkling cellophane wrappers. Mr. Clovis brought hefty bags from McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts to slide onto the kitchen table with a grin and the greeting—“Hey, kids! Chow time.” And seeing Violet there beside Rita Mae, Mr. Clovis would wink, adding, “And Vi’let. Did I get around to adopting you yet, sweetheart?”
Adopting was a charged word at the Clovis house. For some of the children, Violet had reason to believe, were adopted; others, like Rita Mae, were home-born.
But where was the children’s mother? Violet didn’t want to ask for fear there was some sad, tragic story behind her absence. She supposed that, in time, she would be informed.
Violet was fascinated by the possibility of being adopted. It would explain so much, like why she and her mother just could not get along—“It’s like we have two different strands of DNA. But I think I am my father’s actual child.”
“How’d you know that?” Rita Mae asked, staring at her with a skeptical smile.
“Just some thought I have. Just intuition.”
“Vi’let, you are weird. But wonderful.”
Weird but wonderful. Violet who’d always thought she was totally ordinary if slightly “plump” and not very pretty flushed crimson with joy.
And so, one day, the mystery was solved. Or anyway, the mystery was acknowledged.
Just as Violet’s father had vanished from Violet’s life when she’d been a little girl, so Rita Mae’s mother had vanished from Rita Mae’s life when she’d been a little girl. Violet felt how close they were in that instant, like sisters. She asked, “Do you miss your mom?” and Rita Mae said, sniffing, “I do not. It’s, like, she walked out on us. Dad says.”
Violet was impressed. “That’s cool! My dad walked out on us, or anyway my mom says so.”
“Don’t you believe her?”
“D’you believe your dad?”
“Yes! My daddy never lies.” Rita Mae spoke so vehemently, with such a fierce glare at Violet, Violet felt rebuffed and embarrassed. She hadn’t meant anything by her silly question. But she was impressed with the way Rita Mae claimed her father never lied, as Rita Mae claimed that her father was the best father there was, who’d do anything for his family.
Violet had to consider that she didn’t know if she believed her mother much of the time, or any of the time, or all of the time. She just did not know.
But she guessed she didn’t love her mother the way Rita Mae and the other Clovis kids loved their dad. The way they looked at Harald Clovis, sort of eager and anxious, as if there was something unspoken among them that no one dared bring up.
“Don’t you wonder where your mother went?” Violet couldn’t resist asking Rita Mae.
“I said—no. Dad said she’d ‘betrayed’ the family by leaving us, so that’s all I know. Nobody ever thinks of her any longer.”
“How long has she been gone?”
Rita Mae shrugged. As if to say Why ask me? Who cares?
Unlike the boring residential neighborhood in which Violet lived, the Clovises lived in what Mr. Clovis called a “rural retreat.” Their house was a sprawling old farmhouse at the edge of town, in an open field that had once been, Rita Mae said proudly, a “pasture.”
Behind the farmhouse were decaying outbuildings—hay barn, storage barn, chicken coop, silo. There were the remains of a decaying apple orchard and at the rear of the property a straggling forest of deciduous trees. The nearest neighboring house wasn’t even visible—“Lots of privacy for my brood,” Mr. Clovis said, with a wink.
(My brood. Violet wondered what that meant! It made you think of a mother hen fussing protectively over her chicks.)
Rita Mae told Violet that she thought her father had “inherited” the property somehow and that it had once been much larger—“Acres and acres. Now there’s just two acres.”
Rita Mae did not seem to recall if her mother had ever lived in this house or if she’d “disappeared” before Mr. Clovis moved the family here when Rita Mae had been just about old enough to walk.
Violet thought it was cool, to live in such a big sprawling old house that you could find an actual room to be in alone, if you needed to be alone. Though most of the upstairs rooms were empty of furnishings, and were very dirty with dust balls on the floors, cobwebs everywhere, and the husks of dead insects underfoot, and a pervasive smell of grime, she much preferred the Clovis house to the cramped two-bedroom apartment at Valley Garden Apartments. There, Violet was often alone—lonely. And even when her mother was home, Violet felt lonely.
You could see that the original farmhouse had been plain and utilitarian like a square box of two storeys; added to this were additions on both sides, like wings, that tilted just a little, as if the foundation beneath them had not been secure.
Close behind the house were rows of small nasty-smelling cages with wire mesh, which Rita Mae said were “rabbit-hutches.” In all, there must have been more than a dozen of these. Violet wasn’t sure if there were rabbits in these enclosures or if the enclosures were empty; or if, horribly, there were remains of rabbits inside, that had never been cleared away.
“It’s OK, Vi’let,” Rita Mae said, seeing Violet’s nose crinkled at the smell, “—you don’t have to clean them. You’re not family—yet.”
The downstairs of the Clovis house smelled of scorched and spilled food and a not-unpleasant aroma as of overripe fruit. The kitchen was pleasantly hot, even steamy. One afternoon Rita Mae’s older sister Eve was preparing supper, cooking spaghetti sauce in a large pot on the stove. Mr. Clovis kept popping into the kitchen to taste the sauce, and to add “pinches” of spice—“I like my Italian sauce hot and spicy. Don’t you, Vi’let?” Eve had emptied cans of tomato sauce into the pot, then added tomatoes, onions, red peppers, and some kind of coarse-ground meat like hamburger. (What was this meat? Violet wanted not to eat meat, she’d have liked to be a vegetarian—but it was so hard to resist! Her mouth watered at the smell.)
Of course, Violet was invited to stay for supper. Mr. Clovis insisted she should call her mother on her cell phone to ask permission—“That is the polite way, Vi’let.” But Violet knew better than to call her suspicious mother who’d just say no out of meanness.
Discreetly Violet went into another room to call so that the Clovises could hear her bright voice—“Oh hi, Mom! Hey listen—Rita Mae’s dad says I can stay for supper with them, then he’ll drive me home. OK? It’s real nice here, Mom—a ‘rural retreat.’” Violet paused, breathing quickly. Then, “Thanks, Mom!”
When she returned Mr. Clovis said approvingly, “It is always the proper thing, dear Vi’let, to be polite to your elders.”
Again, Mr. Clovis winked at Violet. That wink!—Violet squirmed, and giggled, and shivered, and looked quickly away. She felt just slightly guilty about misleading Mr. Clovis, well—lying to him. But he would never know, she was sure.
Violet wished that Mr. Clovis would lay his hand on the nape of her neck as he sometimes did, to stroke her like you’d stroke a cat. But Mr. Clovis never did this except if they happened to be alone, which was not often. Too many Clovis children!
Was there something happening in the Clovis household? Violet noticed the younger children excited and giggling. And there came Emile home, sort of excited, too. Violet had been looking out a window and had seen Emile climb out of the SUV with a canvas bundle in his arms, that was bulky and awkward-sized, and looked almost as if it was moving, but later when Emile came into the kitchen he didn’t have the bundle.
Emile was the oldest of the Clovis children whom Violet had met, somewhere beyond eighteen, Rita Mae believed—maybe as old as twenty-two. (To Violet and Rita Mae, both thirteen, this was old.) Emile had quit high school to take a job with “the county” which was where Mr. Clovis worked, too: road repair, construction, snow removal, storm and flood cleanup. He wore colorful T-shirts, jeans with deep rips, and safety boots big and clunky as a horse’s hooves. He had a sexy close-shaved head that looked small on his shoulders, gold studs in both ears, tattoos scattered on both muscled arms. From the waist up Emile was normal-seeming but when he was on his feet you could see that his legs were strangely short. He was not so very much taller than Violet and Rita Mae. When Emile walked quickly he seemed to scuttle like a crab as if one leg was slightly shorter than the other. It was Emile who held the “family record” for pizza: he’d once eaten three entire medium-large pizzas without pause, as well as several sixteen-ounce Cokes. Violet blushed when Emile winked at her for it was clear that, for all his teasing of Rita Mae and Violet, he had special feelings for her.
That day, Violet saw Rita Mae whispering with Eve and Emile. And there was Mr. Clovis smiling in her direction. Rita Mae said to them, in a voice loud enough for Violet to overhear, “Hey, it’s cool. Vi’let’s cool.”
What was it? Violet felt anxious, wondering what they were saying. Were they talking about her?
“Would you like to meet Big Momma, Vi’let? Before we sit down for supper?”
Violet smiled uncertainly. She glanced at Rita Mae who said, “Sure she would, Dad!”
Mr. Clovis took Violet’s hand in his warm calloused hand, and led her along a corridor into the rear of the house. She’d never been in this part of the Clovis house before. Her nostrils begin to pinch at a new, strange smell.
Mr. Clovis said, “It’s a little surprise. We have a special pet—we don’t show just anyone. Big Momma is her name.”
“What kind of pet?”—Violet’s heart beat quickly.
“Not your ordinary pet.”
Out of his pocket Mr. Clovis took a key to unlock an unusually heavy door, that looked as if it were reinforced with steel. When he led Violet into the room beyond, Rita Mae and the others followed close behind, and the door was shut behind them.
“Big Momma, look who’s here! Vi’let, our new friend.”
At first Violet couldn’t make out what the thing—the creature —was on the other side of a glass barrier. Was it a snake? A huge snake? The largest snake she had ever seen, even in photographs, lay languid and unmoving on the floor inside an enclosure like a large aquarium, only about ten feet away on the other side of the scummy glass. Strange words came to her, like stuttering—boa ricter? boa stricter? The immense snake was thick as a big man’s body, with a scaly glittering skin splotched in diamond shapes, tawny and brown like a rotted banana. The air in the windowless room was oppressively humid, like a jungle. There was a smell as of rotted fruit and a sharper, saltier smell.
Violet’s heart was pounding so violently she nearly fainted.
“Oh—what is it? A s-snake?”
Proudly the Clovises told Violet of Big Momma who was some age beyond ten years, and weighed more than three hundred pounds—“That’s just our estimate. Nobody’s ever weighed her.” Big Momma was as long as twenty feet when she stretched out straight which she rarely did. Mostly, Big Momma lay in coils.
Rita Mae said excitedly, “I knew you’d like her, Vi’let! We all think she is way cool. Daddy bought her from a carnival when we lived in Florida. The carnival was disbanding, so Daddy got her cheap. She wasn’t so big then, I guess. A python is way, way bigger than a boa constrictor. She got her name ‘Big Momma’ by just growing.”
One of the Clovises nudged Violet in the small of the back, to push her forward for a better look at the python.
Languidly the snake’s eyes moved as if Violet, stepping forward, had stepped into the snake’s vision. The head was so large! Violet stared at the hideous huge snake that was staring back calmly at her.
It was unnerving, the snake had such large eyes. Intelligent and alert eyes they seemed, the size of oranges, tawny in color, with dark slits for pupils.
And did the snake have eyelashes? Violet trembled to see that she did.
Then Violet saw, the snake’s cylindrical body was distended, about five feet from the head. Something fairly large had been swallowed whole.
The Clovises were eager to speak of Big Momma in whom they clearly took much pride.
“Big Momma was fed a few days ago. She doesn’t eat often—just eats a whole lot. Then she rests.”
“Big Momma sleeps a lot, you’d think. But see, she isn’t actually sleeping. She’s watching.”
“Big Momma doesn’t have teeth like we do, to grind up food. She swallows her food whole.”
“She catches her food in her coils and squeezes it so it’s paralyzed but she doesn’t care for dead food. She likes live.”
“Her mouth stretches open, sort of unhinges, you wouldn’t believe how wide, so she can swallow her food . . . It’s awesome.”
“It only looks like she’s sleeping. But if you were to go inside, she’d wake up fast.”
The Clovises laughed. The prospect of venturing inside the glass enclosure made Violet feel panicked.
There was a buzzing in Violet’s head so that she had difficulty hearing the Clovises. She saw Mr. Clovis glancing at her with his warm brown eyes and friendly smile, and Rita Mae, and Emile—to see how she was taking Big Momma. Was it a test?—to see if Violet was one of them, or a coward?
Violet asked, “What—do you feed her?”
“Rabbits. Lots of rabbits.”
“Lots and lots of mousies!”
“Lots of rabbits.”
Doubtfully Violet said, “That doesn’t look like the size of a rabbit . . .”
“Well, it could be a jack rabbit. They’re real big.”
The Clovises laughed, excited. Violet saw Emile clenching and unclenching his fists. His face shone with pride.
Now Violet noticed that there were cages along the walls of the room, the size of the outdoor rabbit hutches Fortunately these cages were all empty. In a corner was an ax, and on the floor scattered pages of newspaper soaked with dark stains.
“Where do you get the r-r-rabbits?”—Violet was trying not to stammer.
“Where do we get the rabbits, Dad?”—Emile asked, as if he couldn’t recall.
“Pet supply store, son. Out Ajax Boulevard.”
“D’you think Big Momma is beautiful, Vi’let?”—Rita Mae’s breath was warm against Violet’s cheek.
“Y-Yes. Big Momma is beautiful . . .”
Violet spoke in such a halting voice, all of the Clovises laughed. It was like teasing her, she knew.
Did that mean that they liked her, if they teased her? She thought so!
Mr. Clovis trailed his hand lightly against the nape of Violet’s neck. Violet shivered, and did not shrink away.
“Next time we feed Big Momma, you can help, Vi’let—would you like that?”
Hesitantly Violet nodded yes.
The rest of the visit at the Clovis’s house, that day, passed in a haze.
The spicy Italian tomato sauce, lavishly poured onto fresh-cooked spaghetti, was the most delicious meal Violet had ever had. After seeing Big Momma in her glass enclosure, Violet was hungry.
Violet was excited, and nervous, and anxious, and hungry. Though she hated garlic and would never have eaten garlic bread prepared by her mother, she had several pieces of garlic bread at supper.
During the meal Mr. Clovis regarded all of the faces around the table with a playful sort of scrutiny as if he had the power to read minds. This was how Mr. Clovis—the “resident patriarch” as he called himself—behaved at most meals Violet had attended.
She both dreaded and wished for the man’s gaze moving onto her because that made her feel so self-conscious—but of course there was no escape: “Vi’let! You know, Big Momma is our family secret. You must never tell. Promise?”
“Oh yes, Mr. Clovis. I promise.”
“But I didn’t need to tell you that, did I? You already knew.”
“Oh yes, Mr. Clovis. I knew.”
“And you know, Vi’let, you’d be a whole lot prettier if you smiled more, and didn’t frown.”
Mr. Clovis leaned over, past Rita Mae who was sitting between them, to smooth Violet’s forehead with his thumb. It was such a sudden gesture, Violet couldn’t shrink away. She blushed to realize she’d been frowning the way her mother often frowned.
“Just remember, Vi’let: your step-daddy Clovis prefers you to smile. Every time you’re about to frown, think: Step-Daddy Clovis prefers me to smile.”
Violet collapsed into a fit of giggling that got everyone giggling with her. It went on and on.
When Mr. Clovis and Rita Mae drove Violet home it was shockingly late—past 8:00 P.M. Luckily, Violet’s mother wasn’t yet home.
There was a macaroni-and-cheese casserole in the refrigerator for Violet to heat up in the microwave. Her favorite food!
Anyway, used to be her favorite food.
Violet felt sickish at the prospect of more food but heated the casserole up dutifully so that the food-smell would be in the air when her mother came home. She scraped most of the casserole into the garbage disposal. The yellowish melted cheese with splotches of brown reminded her of—something . . . She laughed nervously and pressed the chilly back of her hand against her forehead. She was feeling just slightly nauseated.
Here was a strange thing: Violet had to force herself to recall the very special thing she had seen at Rita Mae’s house that day. The reticulated python.
The reticulated python kept slithering out of her consciousness like a TV screen turning dim. Violet kept swallowing, her mouth was very dry. She was feeling very sleepy.
On the sofa, with the TV on but muted, and printouts of math homework problems in her lap, Violet fell asleep and was wakened by a stranger’s hand nudging her shoulder at 10:55 P.M.
“Violet? Sweetie? Are you asleep?”
It wasn’t clear if Violet’s mother was angry, or annoyed, or abashed. She’d stumbled coming into the semi-darkened room in her high-heeled shoes holding her hand over her mouth as if she didn’t want Violet to smell her breath.
Violet’s mother’s hair was streaked blond now and her eyebrows were sharply defined in dark pencil. She was apologetic telling Violet that she hadn’t meant to come home so late except something had “come up” in the office and she’d had to remain at work later than she’d planned.
“I didn’t know banks were open at night, Mom.” But Violet was yawning, to show that she didn’t care.
“Don’t be silly, banks are not open at night. Not to the public. But the world of finance never sleeps. If you work in the world of finance, you can never sleep. I see you ate the casserole, sweetie. All of it?”
Assiduously Violet had scraped every last scorched bit of the macaroni-and-cheese into the garbage disposal. She’d done a heroic job scouring out the casserole bowl with steel wool and had placed it in the dishwasher.
“Did you stay after school today, Violet?”
“When I called you, you didn’t answer. Why was that?”
“Charge ran down, I guess.” Violet yawned.”
“You don’t lie to your mother, sweetie, do you?”
“Violet! I’m asking you a question.”
But Violet was yawning so, her jaws stretched wide and aching, she couldn’t pay attention to whatever her mother was saying.
“Sweetie, I love you. You know that, don’t you?”—Violet’s mother stooped over Violet to help her onto her feet, to walk her to her bedroom and to bed. It was just 11:00 P.M., hardly any time had passed.
When Violet crawled into bed, Violet’s mother kissed her forehead with lipstick lips that smeared though neither Violet not her mother noticed at that moment.
“Is macaroni-and-cheese still your favorite food, Violet?”
Violet nodded yes.
“You know your mother loves you very very much, don’t you, Violet?”
Violet nodded yes.
“Let’s hear from Violet—‘smartest girl at South Valley Middle School.’”
Violet blushed crimson. She knew that Mr. Clovis was just teasing but it was a sweet tender flirtatious kind of teasing that lit up her heart like Christmas tree bubble lights.
She’d been thinking she would not accept a ride from Mr. Clovis and Rita Mae any longer but, well—a few days after her last visit there she was on Meridian Avenue walking kind of slow and distracted in a light-falling rain, and there came the welcome cry—“Vi’let! Hey! Why didn’t you wait for me after homeroom? Want a ride home?”
So, Violet hadn’t any choice but to run to the curb, to swing up into the shiny black SUV. Thinking of her mother with a stab of satisfaction—Don’t need you. Hate you.
At the Clovis house, she’d near-about forgotten what was kept in the locked room at the end of the corridor. Not one person spoke of B___ M___ and when Violet tried to think what or who B___ M___ was, her brain came up blank like a computer screen when there’s no Internet connection.
What Violet loved about the Clovis household, next to the way they all seemed so fond of her, was how everybody talked, and everybody listened.
All sorts of serious things, they discussed. Like whether there was God, and whether animals have souls; whether there was “some special meaning” to life, and a “heaven where people would meet their loved ones.” The loudest voices would prevail initially but then Mr. Clovis would tap his water glass and call Quiet! so that Violet could speak.
Crinkling her nose Violet said, “But what if you didn’t have any ‘loved ones’? Or what if you and your ‘loved ones’ didn’t much like each other?”—and everyone around the table laughed, especially Mr. Clovis who appreciated wit. Violet blushed with pleasure.
“There’d always be somebody who liked you, Vi’let,” Emile said in a voice so lowered and soft, Violet felt faint.
After supper, Rita Mae smoothed out a local newspaper onto the table, and some of the Clovises peered at a two-page spread of MISSING PETS. These dated back to autumn of the previous year, before Violet and her mother had moved into the Valley Garden Apartments. “So sad,” Rita Mae said, biting at a thumbnail, “—it says here there are nineteen pets missing as of this last Monday.”
Pictures of cats, pictures of dogs, pictures of lone-looking rabbits—these were melancholy creatures who’d seemed to know, when their pictures were being taken, that they would wind up as they had—MISSING PETS in a weekly newspaper.
“If a little kid is missing, you can blame the parents. At least the mother. But if a pet is missing, that’s different—it doesn’t seem like the same thing.”
Rita Mae spoke thoughtfully. Violet was staring at the pictures trying to select which cat, which dog, which rabbit she would choose to save, if she had the opportunity.
Fluffy. Ivor. Big Mitts. Snowball. Scottie. Fiji. Mr. Ruff. Otto.
“I feel sorry for those families, who are still looking for their pets. Or their children.”
“I don’t! They have to be realistic.”
“That’s a harsh thing to say. Are you realistic?”
“Yes. I try to be. I try not to believe in the Easter bunny!”
“And if an older child disappears, someone who should know better, you can just blame her, or him.”
“How do you think your mother would feel, Violet?—if you ‘disappeared’?”
“She wouldn’t feel a thing. She’d rejoice.”
Did Violet believe this? She wasn’t sure.
That night, Mr. Clovis drove Violet home late. It was almost 10 P.M. Rita Mae almost didn’t come with them, then changed her mind at the last minute. As they drove, Rita Mae squeezed Violet’s hand. Was she feeling sorry for Violet, for what Violet had said about her mother? The word rejoice was just a—a word . . . Violet wasn’t sure she’d meant it, at the time of uttering it.
At the Garden Apartments, Violet sat in the car and could hardly move. Her legs felt like lead. For she could see that the first-floor windows of her apartment were darkened which meant that her mother was “working late” that night.
“Oh Mr. Clovis—I wish I could live with you.”
Rita Mae said, “I wish you could too, Violet. Why don’t you ask your mother?”
Quickly Mr. Clovis said, in his most tender voice, “I don’t think that’s a wise idea, Rita Mae. You’ll just get your dear friend in trouble if you put her up to such a thing. Violet’s mother loves her, just as I love you and your brothers and sisters. You can’t just steal away a girl from her own mother.”
“I wish I could!” Rita Mae said.
Violet wiped at her eyes. She was deeply moved.
This was certain: in all of Violet Prentiss’s life no one had ever talked like this about her.
* * *
“The way you’re behaving lately around here, somebody’s going to take you.”
Violet’s mother spoke in her shrill warning voice. It was breakfast time and Violet wasn’t hungry at all for soggy sugary cereal. She was trying not to lift her eyes to her mother’s eyes, that were boring at her like slits. In her denim jacket pocket was a borrowed Midnight Kiss lipstick from Rita Mae, and wrapped in a clean tissue were silver ear clamps and the kind of “piercing” you could clamp onto your nose or eyebrow.
“Mom, you’re really confused. The way you hate me, nobody’d want me.”
Her mother laughed, startled. She was in the midst of lighting a cigarette—(though hadn’t Violet’s mother stopped smoking, since before they’d moved to this new town?—wasn’t that one of the points of moving, that Violet’s mother could reinvent herself and begin again?)—and paused now to look at Violet, with a hurt expression as if Violet had slapped her.
“Honey, nooo. I don’t hate you. That’s not—that’s not right.”
“Of course not. Just because I have to discipline you sometimes, for your own good . . . It’s like those math problems you bring home, Violet. There are rules for triangles, that can’t be changed. An ‘isos-celis’ triangle . . .”
“. . . is different from an ‘equatorial’ triangle . . .”
“‘Equilateral,’ Mom! Jeez.”
“Well. The point is, sometimes a parent has to discipline, for a child’s own good. It does not mean that I hate you, for heaven’s sake!”
“Hey, it’s OK to hate me, Mom. ’Cause I sure do hate you.”
Violet laughed to show that she wasn’t serious. Violet’s mother stared at her not knowing what to think.
“Violet, that isn’t funny. Why are you saying such things?”
“I’m not ‘saying such things.’ I’m just—saying—the thing that I said. Not ‘such things.’”
Violet wiped at her eyes, and shrank away when her mother tried to touch her. Especially, Violet did not want her mother to brush her lips against her forehead and smear lipstick on her skin. She did not want that.
After school Violet was walking fast in the rain on Ajax Boulevard, where she hadn’t meant to walk. Was there a bus that stopped here? Somebody had told her yes. But there hadn’t been a bus for forty minutes.
For three days she’d been avoiding Rita Mae at school. Some reason, she didn’t know why . . .
But now there came the familiar mud-splattered SUV slow along the boulevard, amid heavy truck traffic. Stubbornly Violet was staring at the wet-glittering pavement, and would not look up when the call came—“Vi’let! Hey! C’mon get in, we’ll take you home.”
There was some reason Violet wasn’t going to climb into that SUV one more time. She’d made a vow in a dream (maybe). But she’d made a vow.
But she was feeling lonely, and weak. And somehow it happened, she ran to the curb, and Rita Mae was laughing and helping her up into the cab.
“Vi’let, you’re damn wet. We better get you home to dry off.”
It was Big Momma’s feeding day. Violet might have known this, but had forgotten. At the Clovis household everyone seemed excited, restless. Emile was smiling and winking at her—“Hi, Vi’let! How’s it going?”
Just the second time Mr. Clovis led Violet along the corridor to the secret back room but it felt like she’d been there many more times.
Again the jungly smell, and humid air. Violet was weak-kneed, Mr. Clovis slid his warm strong arm around her waist to help her walk.
How often did the reticulated python feed? Big Momma was a beautiful slick-skinned snake with glittery diamond-patterns on her body that seemed to ooze along the floor, slow, but alert in every muscled inch. Twenty feet was so long, you could hardly see the tail-end of the snake if you were staring at the big hard-looking head. The thick-lashed eyes were particularly alert and alive and hungry. Violet wondered—was there nothing in that brain except, in a tiny molecule, an upside-down image of herself, as in a tiny mirror? Did Big Momma recognize her from the other time?
She didn’t want to think that Big Momma was hardly more than a gigantic alimentary track inside that beautiful skin. She didn’t want to think that nothing more came of it, than Big Momma opening her jaws to a width of, how many feet?—three? The strong bones unhinging, and again hinging, as the squirming prey was swallowed inch by inch.
“Time for mousies. Bunnies. Lots mousies, and lots of bunnies.”—Emile was joking awkwardly.
“That isn’t funny, Emile. You’re not funny one bit.”
“Mousies and bunnies are best. I hate having to use that ax to ‘dismember.’”
“Emile, shut up.” Mr. Clovis spoke the sharpest Violet had ever heard the “resident patriarch” speak.
“The point is, Big Momma won’t eat anything that isn’t alive. What d’you think, Big Momma is some kind of disgusting scavenger?”
“Big Momma isn’t that choosy.”
“Big Momma is.”
Mr. Clovis gave Violet one of his special-blend drinks which he’d prepared in a blender in the kitchen. Pomegranate juice, apricot juice, dollops of yogurt, blended to a froth. Maybe he’d put something else in the mixture, a grainy white powder, to “tranquilize” Violet’s jumpy nerves. She hoped so!
Big Momma’s enclosure was very cleverly designed, Violet saw. She’d been too nervous to notice the first time but there was an inner enclosure, which was the larger space, where the giant snake was at the present time; and there was an outer enclosure, much smaller, separated from the larger by a sliding glass partition operated by a lever. In this way you could venture inside the outer area, to leave fresh food and water for Big Momma while Big Momma remained locked in the inner enclosure. Then, the inner partition would be opened by a lever, and Big Momma could crawl out for her meal.
Mr. Clovis was doing that now—sliding open the outer glass door. It was a totally safe place—so long as the inner glass remained shut. Even if the reticulated python was desperate with hunger, she could probably not have broken the thick plate glass, scummy from its saliva and the oily ooze of its great coils.
For such a great beast, Big Momma was a captive.
Mr. Clovis said, in a tender voice, “Rita Mae was right about you, dear Vi’let. You are special. We will not soon forget you.”
She felt a thrill of pride. But her eyelids were heavy, it was like sprawling on the sofa with the TV on but muted. Just. So. Hard. To. Stay. Awake.
“It’s your turn to feed Big Momma, Vi’let. Would you like that?”
“I—I don’t know.”
“Big Momma is very grateful when she’s fed. You haven’t seen that yet but it is a sight to behold.”
Violet was feeling sleepy. Buzzing in her ears. Wanting to shut her eyes, and lay her head down. What was in Mr. Clovis’s fizzy drink? It was creamy-smooth and sweet, delicious. But it left a chalky taste in her mouth.
Rita Mae wasn’t there. Violet missed Rita Mae! She’d heard Mr. Clovis and the others say sharply to Rita Mae—Stay away then. We don’t need you.
“Vi’let, this will be your only chance, to feed Big Momma. If you refuse, I’ll have to take you home—that’s that.”
Weakly Violet protested. Anything but that lonely apartment!
“No! I—I can feed Big Momma.”
There was a hot, humid atmosphere here, like the inside of a gut. Just a few feet away on the far side of the splotched plate glass Big Momma lay tense and quivering and not so languid-seeming as she’d been at the first visit. Violet stumbled a little as Mr. Clovis led her into the outer enclosure, and eased her down onto the floor where she could shut her eyes. Lightly he pressed his lips onto the nape of her neck where the little hairs stirred.
“Say hello to Big Momma.”
“H-Hello . . .”
So close by, only inches away on the other side of the glass, Big Momma was waiting. Big Momma’s eyes were sharp now, staring right at Violet as if she recognized her after all. Violet’s eyelids were very heavy. Her vision was dimming slowly, like encroaching dusk. She felt peaceful and not anxious and had forgotten—whatever it was, in the first-floor apartment overlooking the parking lot.
“Good, sweetheart! Just sleep. It’s nice and warm here, you can sleep here all night.” Mr. Clovis left Violet, so silently she scarcely knew he had stepped out of the enclosure.
Violet was lying on the floor, on her side. One of her arms was extended, limp. Her fingers moved just slightly, as if she was grasping for something—what? She had no idea.
She could feel, without knowing how to name or identify it, something like a vibratory hum, through the plate glass against which she was pressed. This might have been Big Momma breathing, or quivering, or tensing up her coils . . .
This was so comforting, Violet’s eyes filled with tears. But before the tears could spill over she’d curled into a snug little ball hugging herself, her knees to her chest. Within seconds in a swoon of the sweetest surrender she was asleep.
Image: “Snake Eye” by Hal Tenny
I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.