Heat Stroke

by Richard Cumyn


Bill pulled into one of the spots reserved for visitors and left his clubs in the trunk. Leona was sitting on the grass in the shade beside the front doors, rocking back and forth and humming to herself. The baby was asleep. Doreen was pushing the carriage away from her and pulling it back. He asked her what was going on. The sun had burnt a wide ring around the back of her neck and on the top of her shoulders where they were exposed. The baby's clothes were soaked through.

"We should go inside now," he said. Doreen did not respond, only rocked the pram with one hand and chewed the nails of the other.

"I'm going to take the kids inside now, Doreen. Are you coming? What are you looking at?"

"She'll be back any minute."

"Who? Who will be back?"

"I can't just leave her."

"Who are you talking about? Come inside with me."

"I can't. Not yet. You take the children in."

He spoke angrily. She seemed to slide inside herself. He had to pry her fingers off the handle of the carriage -- how long had she been gripping it with such force? Had she been standing there like this all day?

He brought the children inside. The baby sucked down a whole bottle of milk and then another of water. Leona found something to watch on television. Bill regretted what he had said to Doreen, but he couldn't understand. What kind of mother would keep her children outside in the cruel sun all day?

Leona ate a bowl of cereal for supper and fell asleep at the table. He carried her to her room and put her to bed still in her clothes. Kenny refused to lie in his crib. Bill paced the living room, rocking him. Periodically the baby brought his knees up to his chest and howled. Bill walked with him high against his shoulder, singing an old song that had once soothed him, but Kenny wasn't having any of it. Bill got a blanket to cover him, brought him down in the elevator, and stepped outside.

The air was cooler now and the light fading. They walked over to the corner where Doreen had been, turned left down Vine and then headed up a street that curved around itself. He looked back and could no longer see their building. The baby dozed against his shoulder.

Bill stopped walking when he saw Doreen come out of a doorway, cross the lawn and ring the doorbell of the next house. The door opened and she said something at length to the man who answered. He was fat and wore only an undershirt and boxer shorts. The man shook his head. Doreen turned her shoulders, nodded, and they exchanged a final word. She walked towards the street, the man watching her for a moment. He saw Bill looking, and quickly closed his door.

Bill called to her. She walked up the empty street to where he was standing.

"Where's Leona? You shouldn't have left her."

"She went right to sleep. I wanted to see how you were. I was worried."

"Don't be."

She looked away. Finally he said, "Are you coming home now?"

"This isn't going to take me long."

"What isn't? What's not going to take you long?"

She could see he was not going to leave without an explanation.

* * *

She had been sketching in the park earlier in the morning. When she looked up from her drawing, a little girl was staring at her. Slowly the child moved around the monkey bars until she was standing beside the bench where Doreen was sitting.

Doreen said, "Hello, what's your name?"

"I'm not supposed to talk to strangers."

Leona ran over to her. "We're not strangers," she said, "you're the stranger."

"Leona, I think the little girl would prefer to be alone. You go back to your swing. Mind you don't wake Kenny." Doreen returned to her drawing.

"My mother told me I should go out and play and never come back."

"She didn't. I think you're telling stories," said Doreen without looking up from her sketching surface, a piece of particle board laid across her lap. The child crawled between her feet and curled up under the board.

"What are you doing down there?" Doreen said with a startled laugh. She uncrossed her legs and lifted the board to look. The child wormed beneath her long skirt until her head rested on Doreen's lap.

"Come out of there," said Leona, who had returned to rescue her mother. She seized the child roughly by the arm and yanked. The child tumbled onto her side at Doreen's feet, brought her knees to her chest, jammed her thumb into her mouth, and slid her other hand under the waistband of her shorts. When Doreen tried to pull her into a sitting position, the child shrieked.

"Do you know where her mother is?" Doreen asked a woman who had been attracted by the commotion.

"No, I thought she was yours."

They took turns trying to get the child to talk, asking her name, her address, the name of her school, her favourite toys, what she liked to watch on television, whether or not she had brothers and sisters. This continued until the other woman excused herself, calling her son down from an elm.

Kenny roused from sleep in his pram and began to cry. The girl whimpered, as if in chorus. Leona whined to be taken home.

"We can't just leave her here."

"Can she come home with us?" Leona asked.

"I suppose she'll have to." Doreen's morning collapsed before her eyes into stringy clots of red.

"We have to go now," she said, bending closer to the child.

When Doreen tried to pick her up, the girl recoiled and screamed as if burnt.

"I don't want to leave you here, but if you don't come with us now, you'll be all alone." She felt an odd urge to append terror to the promise of solitude.

"I want to be alone."

"Fine. Good-bye. Come on, Leona."

Doreen began to walk away, slowly, expecting the child to call out, to run after her, at least to pick herself up. She stopped pushing Kenny's carriage, bent over to adjust his soother, and glanced back at the child. She would have to call the police.

When she returned with the officers, the girl was gone. The team, a man and a woman, began to ask Doreen questions. What were her feelings about disciplining children? Did she ever resent her daughter and son? What time of day did she find the most depressing? Doreen tried to answer each question dispassionately. She said she had called out of a feeling of desperation.

"She crawled up between my legs and hid her head beneath my skirt. Think of it -- for God's sake!"

"Ma'am, you didn't tell us that before," but Doreen insisted that she had.

"Leona, tell the officers what you saw."

Leona clung to Doreen's skirts and sucked her thumb. She shook her head "No" to everything the officers asked her. Had she seen a little girl who was alone in the park? Had Leona's mother seen a little girl? Was Leona telling a lie? Did Leona's mother ever spank her for being bad?

"Now wait just a minute!"

The man put up his hand. "Clearly your daughter has no recollection of the event. Was she nearby at the time?"

"She was right beside me. You've made her afraid to speak."

The woman, feeling Doreen's distress, redirected. "Ma'am, she's probably back home by now. We've had no report of a missing child in the vicinity. We have your statement, your description of her. There's nothing else we can do. Would you like us to drive you home?"

Doreen declined coolly and began to push Kenny's carriage, with Leona alternately lagging behind and sprinting ahead. The police walked back to the cruiser.

A block away from the next intersection, Doreen saw the girl sitting on the front step of a townhouse.

"So this is where you live."

"No, it's not. I don't know where I live. I can't find my house."

"You're a little liar. This is your house. Go on inside," said Doreen. She took hold of the child by the upper arm and pulled her to her feet.

"Let go of me, you're hurting me. This isn't where I live. I swear. I don't know which house is mine."

"We'll see about that," said Doreen as she pressed the doorbell. They waited. She rang again. No answer. She tried the door, but it was locked.

"I don't think this is where she lives, Mum. I've seen other kids go in here."

"Just be quiet and let me think." Turning to the girl, arm still gripped tightly, she said, "If you don't tell me your name, I'm going to let go of you and walk away. I have my own children to take care of. I'm not playing any more games. You tell me everything you can remember about your mother and father and brothers and sisters, if you have any. Do you hear what I'm saying?" The girl nodded. "Leona knows her full name, address and telephone number, don't you, Leona?"

Leona recited the information, proud of her recall and speed.

"Now, can you do what Leona did?"

The girl began to sob again.

"I can't, I can't," she shuddered.

"Your name. You have to have a name."

"Stupid. That's my name. My name is Stupid."

Doreen saw the child's pathetic life all in one flash. She moved her hand to the girl's shoulder and pressed a tentative hug. The girl flung her arms around Doreen's waist and buried her face in her middle.

"It's all right. You don't have to worry now. You come home with us. We'll get to the bottom of this," Doreen said, feeling the soup of rage and tenderness settle deep inside. She took the small hand gently in her own.

Leona immediately ran and grabbed Doreen's other hand, leaving her unable to push the carriage. She told Leona to help by taking hold of the girl's other hand. They progressed that way, spread across the concrete sidewalk.

The strange child's face brightened. She let go of Doreen's hand and joined Leona, hopping, skipping, singing, the two of them bounding ahead.

"Stop at the corner, you two."

They were laughing now, the girl's face alight with mischief as they approached the intersection. She nudged Leona to cross with her, to go ahead without Doreen. Leona, still laughing, resisted politely. They were four houses ahead of Doreen now. She quickened her pace and tried to steady the carriage as it bumped across the uneven joints of the sidewalk.

"Just wait 'til I get there."

The girl pulled hard at Leona. Doreen called for them to stop, but they were already into the road. Leona followed the girl into the middle of the street and froze. A car turning quickly off Montpelier squealed its tires. The car skidded to a stop, its bumper just kissing Leona's thigh as she rotated away from it.

Doreen's scream blended with the sound of the tires and a second driver's horn. She ran out into the snarl of cars, picked Leona up in her arms, and raced to the opposite side.

The driver called out his window, "Is she hurt? Should I wait for the police?"

"No, she's all right," said Doreen, and waved him on. She crossed the intersection again, Leona riding her hip. Doreen grabbed the carriage with her free hand, waited for the traffic to break, and maneuvered her children across.

"Don't you ever! Don't you ever!"

"I won't, Mommy. I'm sorry. She was pulling me."

"Where did she go now? Where is the little...?" she said gazing about her, just paces from the entrance to her own building. "Where is she?" Doreen fumed.

Kenny began to cry for his afternoon bottle. Doreen, without a watch, tried to estimate how much time had passed. It might have been an hour, maybe three or four. The midsummer sun was still high, but that meant nothing.

"I'm thirsty," said Leona, pulling at her to go inside. Doreen was not thirsty or hungry. She felt abraded, entire layers of her skin missing.

She rolled the carriage back and forth to soothe Kenny. He can wait, she thought.

"Stop whining, Leona. We'll go inside in a minute. There's something Mommy has to see to."

She gave Kenny his soother. He fussed, fell asleep, awoke, wailed, worked the soother with his tongue. At seven Bill came home from the club and found them standing on the corner in front of their building.

* * *

"It's late to be ringing people's doorbells," said Bill. "Besides, you can't haul her out of her own home."

"I wish you could have seen her," she sighed.

They didn't talk as they walked back. Towards Vine Street, Doreen gripped Bill's arm. The girl came skipping towards them. As she neared them, she changed her gait to a walk.

"Hello again," she said to Doreen. "It's getting late. I'm going home now. My mother's worried sick about me."

Doreen's mouth dropped and she stiffened.

"You show me where you live. Go ahead."

"Well, I'm really not supposed to talk to strangers. You can watch me go in, I guess. I can't stop you from watching, but I can't tell you my name."

"Just do it. Just go up to any one of these houses and go in. Show me."

She skipped up the street, and Doreen hurried after her, retracing her steps along the long curve. Bill followed with Kenny. The girl stopped in front of the house where Doreen had called earlier. "This is my house here," she announced.

"Good," said Doreen. "You just go on in, then."

"All right, I will. You don't believe this is my house, do you?"

"You're right, I don't."

The child's face twitched as if she were about to cry, but she recovered quickly. She smiled directly at Doreen. "Too bad for you."

She marched up to the front door and pressed the door bell. The fat man, still in his underwear, opened the door and listened as the girl spoke to him. He scowled past her to where Doreen and Bill were standing. He ushered the child inside and promptly closed the door.

"That's not where she lives, it can't be," said Doreen, already moving up the walk. She knocked loudly on the door with her fist.

"Doreen."

Bill's voice roused Kenny, who began to cry. The man opened the door.

"I know she doesn't live here," said Doreen above Kenny's escalating cry. "I want her to come home with me."

The man pulled his door shut. The outside light went out. Doreen continued to pound on the door.

"I don't know what she's told you, but you shouldn't trust her. I want you to let her come home with me."

All the lights inside the house went out and the living room curtains were yanked closed.

"He's covering for her, Bill. Why is he doing it? I hate this place. Why did we have to move here, anyway? Why did you make me come?"

"It's not the place, it's the heat," he said.

"What did you say?"

"This is as good a place as any."


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