Home > Little Lies(4)

Little Lies(4)
Heather Gudenkauf

The boy is curled up in a tight ball, his thumb in his mouth, eyes opening and closing slowly, still heavy with sleep. “Morning,” I say in a whisper and he scrambles to his feet, fingers clutching at the rails of the crib. I reach down and lift him from the bed. “Are you hungry?” He nods, his eyes fixed uncertainly on Joe. “This is Joe,” I tell him. “He’s a police officer. He helps people.”

“Nice to meet you,” Joe says, offering his large hand to shake. The boy reaches out, but instead of taking Joe’s hand he pulls at the hat Joe is holding in his other hand. He takes it into his arms and hugs it as if it was a favorite blanket or stuffed animal. I smile. Joe will never get his hat back.

Joe sighs, but decides to play along. “His name is Cujo.” I elbow Joe in the ribs. “And I bet he wants to know what your name is. Can you tell Cujo your name? You can say it into Cujo’s ear if you want,” Joe suggests.

The boy holds the hat away from him as if trying to locate its ear. He presses his lips into one of the ear flaps and says softly, “Mason.”

I look with surprise at Joe. It worked. Just knowing the boy’s first name is crucial in being able to find out who the woman in the park was, to finding Mason’s next of kin. Joe smiles smugly.

An hour later Mason has eaten breakfast, Joe has left and Martha Renner has arrived. I do my best to explain that Martha is there to help him and that he gets to go to her house and play with some other nice children. Mason looks heartbroken. These transitions are never easy, even for me, a seasoned social worker who has made these handoffs time after time.

“How’s Jonah doing these days?” I ask Martha as she straps Mason into the car seat of her SUV.

She shakes her head sadly. “Not great. Didn’t end up graduating from high school last year, though I’m constantly telling him to go and get his GED. He works on and off for a construction company. Lives with a group of guys over on Laurel Street.”

“Will you tell him I said hi?” I poke my head into the backseat of the car. “See you later, Mason. I promise.”

He nods gravely and grasps Cujo.

Once they drive away I realize that I left my car back at Singer Park, having ridden with Mason in the ambulance to the hospital. Adam’s in class teaching by now, but I send him a text telling him all is well and I’ll be able to pick up the kids from school and day care. I consider my options for getting back to the park. Singer is three miles away—I can walk or I can call Joe and see if he is able to come and pick me up. Walking the three miles in the brutal cold sounds too daunting, so a little reluctantly I call Joe. Though I consider Joe one of my best friends, sometimes I think he wishes we could be more. His divorce came as a blow, his wife of ten years leaving him for their accountant, and he’s never quite recovered. I know he’s lonely and he often tells me that Adam and I have it all: a strong marriage, beautiful kids, a home, a perfect life. I encourage him to get out more often, have even tried to set him up with another social worker from the department and an algebra teacher from Adam’s high school, but it doesn’t seem to work out.

“Hey,” I say when he answers, “I’m stranded at the hospital and was hoping you could give me a ride back to the park so I can get my car.”

“I think I can manage that,” he says, “but you’re going to owe me.”

I laugh. “Okay, I’ll run into the café across the street and get you a coffee.”

“Thanks, but not what I had in mind. I’ll explain when I see you. Be there in fifteen minutes.”

I thank him, puzzled at what I could possibly do to help him out. I zip up my coat and pull my hat over my ears and step outside. The sky is gray and the morning air is cold and pricks sharply at my lungs when I inhale. I cross a busy intersection and dash into a café and order a large black coffee for Joe, a hot chocolate for myself and two blueberry muffins. By the time my order is ready, Joe has pulled up to the curb. I pick my way across the icy street, carefully balancing the two steaming cups and bag of muffins, and climb in the passenger side of his car.

“Did Mason get off okay?” Joe asks, relieving me of the coffee and bag of muffins.

“Yeah, he’s pretty dazed, but Martha is a pro. She’ll get him settled in. No one has come forward about a missing woman and child?”

“No, but I got a guy working on digging into local birth records trying to find documentation of a little boy born four years ago with the first name of Mason.”

“That could take some time,” I say, taking a cautious sip of my cocoa.

“Not as much time as you’d think. Everything is computerized now. Just have to enter the name into the system and it sorts all the info.”

“Unless Mason wasn’t born in the county,” I remind him. Joe tips his head in concession. “Now to the favor you need.”

“I’m not ready to collect yet,” Joe says cryptically. “I want to check into things a little more before I start barking up that tree.”

“What tree is that?” I press as Joe pulls next to my van and parks.

Joe turns in his seat and regards me thoughtfully. “I shouldn’t have said anything yet. It’s just a hunch I have. Let me do some more digging and then I may need to ask for your help.”

Something about the rigid set of his jaw and the weariness in his eyes causes me not to push further. “Okay,” I say, patting him on the arm. “Thanks for the ride. Will you call me if you find out anything more about the woman’s identity or Mason’s next of kin?” He agrees and I step out of the car and slide quickly into my van, where I turn the ignition and twist the knob controlling the heat to High. Joe waits until the ice that has collected on my windshield melts away, and when I raise my hand indicating that I’m ready to go, he pulls away.

I have every intention of following Joe out of the park, but something keeps me there. It is deserted. All the emergency vehicles and personnel from the night before are long gone and all that remains is a scrap of crime scene tape tangled within a bush, a ragged yellow ribbon rising and falling with each gust of wind.

With the van idling, I leave the warm interior and step back into the icy air. I approach the marble sculpture, the same mottled white as the snow at its feet, and look up at her serene face. I don’t know much about the figure carved expertly in the stone, but from the placard affixed to the base, scoured by years of exposure to the elements, and nearly illegible, I confirm the artist fashioned her after a Greek goddess by the name of Leto. Here Leto stands nearly ten feet tall, her lovely face cast downward at the two children who are at her feet. Somehow the sculptor was able to etch her face into an expression of pure adoration. The children are looking up at their mother in rapt attention as if Leto was whispering the secrets of the universe to them. I wish the mothers that I worked with could look at their children that way more often—as if there is nothing more precious in this world. It’s not that they don’t love their kids—I know they do—but something has distracted them; a boyfriend, alcohol, drugs or life has hardened them so that they aren’t capable of expressing that kind of love. I don’t know. Suddenly, even in daylight, the park emits a ghostly aura. There is no sound except for the bray of the wind.

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