We find a low, detached cottage, like Hansel and Gretel might have lived in, although maybe it isn’t a good sign that abused fairytale children have sprung to mind. Still, I like the place. It’s got two small bedrooms. Mine has an alcove with a small built-in desk and a matching bookcase. The boy’s room has a low window seat that opens on top—a place for his toys. (Add toys to the list I need to make.) Each room has a twin bed in it, topped with a thin white bedspread, which means someone has realized how chilling a naked mattress can look. The living room is small with one long window, the kitchen smaller and pretty basic. Appliances out of the sixties. A couch, a few tables, all cast off but still good. Furnished or unfurnished—my options feel limitless.
The landlord introduces himself as John Johnson, making me wonder if I should get myself an alias. Instead, I just gave him my name, Patty Grant. You’re not very good at this, Patty.
After a little unpacking, the boy and I slump on the brown corduroy sofa, origins unknown. I bite at a cuticle. He gnaws on one of his own. It flashes through my mind, like an old-fashioned sign over the hearth: Home is where you chew on your hands. I dab a tissue at his bloody cuticles. You will need to carry tissue, Patty.
Check your list, Patty. I shut my eyes and it begins to run for me teleprompter style. A job. Food. Daycare. I hadn’t thought of that before. Who put that on the list? Boy clothes. Boy toys, although not gender-exclusive. Boy names. I’m not sure if I can find these in the want ads. I’m not sure where else to look, but then all of a sudden I do, I know where to get information. I’ve always been a pretty good student.
Although we’ve really done just about enough today, somehow the idea of a trip to the library invigorates me. I pick up a map at a Qwick-Buy and enough food to get us through a few days, especially if you like bread, peanut butter, and cheese. Basic supplies. The kind you’d keep in an emergency kit, were you smart enough to have one. As if a kit would help me now.
“Off to the library!” I tell him excitedly. He bites at the hot dog in an all-too-familiar way.
There’s a sign—it looks temporary, spray painted, even—that reads Santa Vallejo Library. We drive up a hill and we’re there, and I have to admit I’m a little disappointed at what I see. Another library under construction, just like at my former college. It’s blocked off by a large white-tented area, but I know a library-to-be when I see one. Not that I can quite see it.
Still, standing before the library-to-be is a long series of connected, skinny white trailers. Inside is the treasure: I reach out and touch a few books, running my fingers down spines in psychology, history, science, makeshift sections stacked to the ceiling, but respectfully. The boy touches the books in the same way, and I’m so happy to have taught him this. Yes, you can touch the books I tell him telepathically.
I take the boy to the temporary children’s section. A few other kids sit quietly on a purple rug that features a little town you can trace with your finger, or maybe small cars, not that I approve of toys in a library. Such a place should be toy-free, but then you’ve never had children, have you Patty. A man about my age sits with a girl in his lap—and his nametag tells me he’s the children’s librarian. He waves at me in a children’s librarian way.
I lead the boy to a table where we sit side by side—I look at the newspapers, he examines Dr. Seuss, both of us a little mystified. His attention keeps shifting from the Grinch to the brightly colored USA Today. I keep myself going out of a basic sense of fear that I’ll see my own name in what used to be my daily paper, balanced with the anxiety that I won’t see my name. But there’s no mention of me. No front page badly sketched mock-up assembled from statements provided by motel and Carl’s Junior employees. No mention of a grad student fleeing after turning in her grades, with two small televisions and an unidentified little boy bungee corded to the front seat. No missing children reported at all, nationwide, this holiday season—there’s an article about it. It may be a first. It may be the happiest of Christmases ever.
“Maybe the Grinch will return Christmas,” I say to him. There is small gash by his third knuckle that I don’t remember seeing before.
I select a few books and decide to get a library card before we leave. Live dangerously, Patty, I tell myself, pleased that I can still recognize irony. I show the library worker my rental agreement, real name and all. I’m leaving tracks, I think. But no one has noticed we’re gone yet, the little boy’s eyes tell me, as he holds on to his picture books and bites rabbitlike at his hand. We need these books, his eyes tell me. The library woman examines my rental agreement.
“I live here now,” I say. “May I get a card?”
“Well, you’re in the outlying valley,” she says, turning the agreement over, although there’s nothing on the reverse side, no mention of whether I’m responsible with library books despite living on the wrong side of the river, not to mention that I have potential kidnapping charges hanging over my head. “But you can get a card.”
I’ve been approved by the city library system, and I feel the first hint of relief, validation, permanence.
After a dinner of peanut butter sandwiches, I put him to bed. I’ve put my old twin bed sheets on his bed, still bright yellow despite all the years. The pillowcases have orange butterflies on them, and he outlines them with his finger.
“This is your bed,” I tell him, “in your room.” I look around. After a bath, I’ve dressed him in another old T-shirt of mine, so he looks like an old-fashioned child in a long nightshirt. A character in a story, a character out of place and time. A nearly fictional boy.
I try reading to him about the Grinch, but he really just wants to hold on to the closed book with his left hand. As I recognize that books have more than one purpose, this is fine with me.
He brings his right hand to his mouth, and I gently try to put it back to his side. He puts up no resistance at all, no cry or objection, but the moment I begin to leave, the sore hand returns to his mouth. He makes a little sound of discomfort as he bites down, a kind of a verbal wince.
I make exactly the same sound.
A few minutes later, I look in on him asleep in his bed. His mouth has relaxed around the hand, almost kissing it. I take my own books to bed and don’t even read them. I know that late in the night, it’s the weight of them on the bed that will help me the most.
Linda Lenhoff’s latest novel, *Your Actual Life May Vary, was a finalist for the SFWP Publication prize, Top 6, and also made the final 6 for the Galileo Prize from Free State Review and the Orison Books prize. The first chapter, “Your Actual Life May Vary,” was published in This Side of the Divide by Baobab Press in 2019. She is looking forward to having her first collection of short stories, You’ve Got a Problem, published by Propertius Press. Linda published two novels with Kensington Books, Life a la Mode and Latte Lessons. Life a la Mode was her thesis for an MFA in Creative Writing and was translated into four languages. She lives in California’s Bay Area.