Chapter 12 - Sunday, July 17th
"Well then," he said, still gazing at the hillside of this big town but small city. "I suppose I should tell you about Crystal."
He turned around and looked at Melanie, who still stood at the doorway. He nodded toward Caleb. "Spend a few minutes with your son. Jessamine said she'd wait for him and keep him for the afternoon."
Melanie sat on the bed next to Caleb. "Hey buddy," she said, her voice reassuring. "I know it's boring here, but I’m so glad you came to visit. I miss you more than anyone when I'm here."
Craig tuned them out and turned back to the window.
He hated talking about his sister. And every time he decided to tell someone about her, he swore it was the last time he'd talk about her. Ever.
Melanie was a different kind of sick, sort of, than Crystal had been, but sometimes it seemed like they were each one half of a pair of socks, rolled together tightly in his brain.
Crystal was six years older than Craig, and had been goofy and dramatic and sick for as long as he could remember. One of his earliest memories was his mother begging Crystal to eat. Pulling Snickers bars out of the cupboard, then macaroni and cheese, then offering to bake a cake, if Crystal would please, please just eat it. Anything she wanted. He'd felt almost angry about that, and wished he could have cake instead of chicken when it wasn't his birthday.
The food thing became a big issue. Crystal must have been in sixth grade, and Craig was in kindergarten. It was the only year that they attended school in the same building. What he remembered most was how he never understood her problem with food.
He was thrilled with school hot lunches – a whole meal right in the middle of the day! It was unimaginable to him when she called school lunches 'disgusting' and 'practically inedible.'
He remembered what she did eat – saltine crackers and water, for almost a whole year, until her arms and legs looked like sticks and her hair started falling out, and she finally went away for a few months, to learn how to eat.
Logically, he knew his parents brought him along to visit her, he remembered bits and pieces of the car ride even, doing the twenty minutes of out-loud reading that his teacher required during the drive. But the memories of the actual visits to some facility or hospital were gone, leaving mainly the image of Crystal's face, twisted in revulsion when presented with a meal on a plastic toddler-sized plate.
Her refusal to eat was only the beginning.
"I have to talk to you," Melanie said softly and right into his ear. "Someone has threatened Caleb, so you have to be extra careful."
Craig glanced over his shoulder. Caleb was propped against the pillows of Mel's bed, Gameboy in hand, volume all the way down out of an innate respect for the hospital setting. He was a good boy. An awesome boy, who didn't deserve a crazy mother.
He sighed. "Mel, I'm always careful."
She was shaking her head. "No, you're not. And neither am I. We let him run the neighborhood, hang out at the park with his friends, do all the normal stuff that kids do. That's not careful. That's operating on the assumption that nothing's going to happen."
"Right," Craig agreed. "Because nothing's going to happen."
Melanie's head shake became a little more violent. Frantic.
"Someone's threatened to take Caleb. Hurt him."
Craig searched her face. Her eyes were wide and frightened, her lips trembling. Melanie had been kidnapped and molested at Caleb's age, but it wasn't in her history to hear voices. Of course, it wasn't outside the realm of possibility, either. Hell, Crystal had believed the weatherman on the local television station was speaking directly to her. For about nine months she stalked him and made his life miserable, confronting him and begging him to stop sending his filthy thoughts to her through the television. The poor guy had finally had to take a months-long sabbatical off the air.
And Crystal was harmless.
So even if it was rude, Craig had to ask.
"Are you hearing voices or seeing things that other people don't see or hear?"
Melanie let loose a funny, hiccupping laugh. "I'm not that crazy. Jesus." She was still basically whispering.
"I think you can have the sound on, buddy," Craig said, and Caleb answered, "Cool." The machine in his hands spat a frenzied, happy tune out its tinny, dime-sized speakers.
Craig wrapped his hand around Melanie's upper arms and gave a gentle squeeze. "Who has threatened Caleb?"
She shook her head. "I can't tell."
"Come on. This is our son. You need to tell me."
She shuddered, and her words came out the barest whisper. "The Doll Collector. From the shed."
A cold chill flew through Craig's veins, just a quick flash, there then gone. Pity for Melanie and her terrifying delusions settled over him. "He won't get near Caleb," he said. "I promise."
She visibly relaxed. "Keep him close, please? Don't send him with Jessamine. I need to know, without a doubt, that he's safe, or I will lose my mind. For real."
Craig released her upper arms and hugged her very lightly, very gently. "Okay," he said into her hair. "But then we have to go, because Jessie is waiting."
And he had to make some phone calls, Sunday or no, and find out if Melanie's perverted abductor was still confined. Because if the answer was yes, then Caleb was perfectly safe. And if the answer was no, then surely the guy would be picked up for making contact, making threats.
There was some relief in escaping the hospital this easily, in not having to talk about his sister, not having to find words to relive the pain. Not having to admit that what happened to Crystal was all his fault.
She asked for her phone, which was locked up somewhere. She was a bad, bad girl for telling Craig, and if she thought about it too hard, the fear would paralyze her. But she'd been gone for much too long, and he was going to be angry. And if he was angry, he might retaliate and take Caleb.
She didn't believe for a heartbeat that Craig could watch Caleb every second. He was ten, almost eleven, and all boy. Caleb would fight any constraints Craig tried to place on his freedom. So as much as the hospital had been her cozy safe cocoon, Melanie had to buck up and face reality. She had to tell him where she was, and that being here was beyond her control.
It would have been best if she'd called him from her room, but she wasn't allowed to use her cell phone, only turn it on long enough to copy numbers from her address book. Her contact list was filled with names that were barely familiar, if remembered at all, people she'd met at the bar, a guy who'd picked her up and drove her home one night when she sitting on the curb of the street, too drunk to even walk.
Alex. Craig. Her sisters. Her brother. Mom's number was still there, too.
And That Clown.
She couldn't bear to input his real name, because that made him seem almost human, and he was not. He was the monster from a nightmare, so she gave him a silly name in a useless effort to make him less frightening.
She called from the phone at the end of the hallway, a clunky, heavy thing, with the curly, coiled cord between the base and the hand piece.
She twisted the cord in her fingers, around and around and around until her forefinger was completely encapsulated, then reverse, reverse, reverse until it was free again.
It seemed like he was never going to answer, but then he did. He said, "What?" instead of "Hello." And then immediately, "Who is this?"
He sounded irritable and annoyed, as if she'd interrupted him raping a child.
She wound the cord around her finger again, finding comfort in the way the tight coils cut off the circulation to her digit.