Arden is walking Betsy the cow to pasture in her pink rain boots when suddenly a deep voice bellows, “Where you going with that heifer?”
Startled, Arden stops.
“I said, Where you off to with that heifer?”
This time she sees him, over by the corner of the house, one bulky boot in view, the rest shadowed by a large oak. Dimly, she can tell he’s tall, but stout, a beard unevenly covering his face. Too old to be Leonard, the odd boy she’s heard so much about but never met. Must be his father.
His right hand clutches a socket wrench, his jeans are smudged with grease. He looks to Arden like her father does when he works on their truck. But she knows the O’Donnells have no car.
“Such a pretty day and such a pretty girl,” he says, smiling. “You look like you’re in a right big hurry.”
Arden smiles. “Betsy’s hungry,” she says.
“Got time to see something first?”
She nods, curious as she follows him to the barn. Before leaving, she ties Betsy to a fence post.
“Arden, what did I tell you about sleeping under here?”
“No buts,” her father says firmly, tossing her pillow on the bed. “No more sleeping under the bed.”
He stops in the doorway, his bony shoulders translucent in the light. “I must have heard you incorrectly,” he says, without turning around. Arden stares at the floor.
“Come on over, then,” he says. “I’ve got something I’d like to tell you.”
Arden walks to where her father stands. He gestures with his finger, a tight circle. She turns her back, wincing as her pajama bottoms are tugged to her ankles; next, a pair of underwear that has Sunday embroidered on the elastic even though it’s Friday.
There follows an awful moment of silence when she knows she is being studied.
The belt strikes. Arden bites her lip.
“Now be a good girl,” he says, tugging the belt back through his pants. “Get dressed and take Betsy out to pasture.”
A heavy, clumsy racket, the tread of feet against brush. Panicked, Arden glances around the pasture, sees Betsy chewing happily undisturbed on her grass.
He crashes through the brambles, extends a hand, cut and bleeding. “I’m Leonard.”
Frightened, Arden wobbles backwards. She’s heard things about Leonard. That he’d be in the fifth grade if he went to school, even though he’s sixteen. That one night he got angry and killed his mother because she wouldn’t let him eat a Snickers bar.
At night she lies in bed, imagining Mrs O’Donnell’s decomposing flesh as she stares at the darkened ceiling. She thinks of Leonard, venturing beyond the fence at the edge of his property to come up the path that leads to her house. She sees him climbing the apple tree right outside her window, pushing the sill up.
“I like cows, don’t you?” Leonard is saying, now.
Arden smiles, lips quivering. She wants to run. Is going to run. She lifts her legs but her boots are stuck in the mud and her feet slide out. Horrified, she looks down at the socks her mother gave her for Christmas the year before she moved to Alaska. They used to be red but are now pink, with pictures of Barbie on the sides. One of the socks came off, too, and she’s busy cramming her too-big foot into it when a shadow spills across the grass.
“You fell,” says Leonard, outstretching a hand. The hand of a murderer. She screams.
“This is where I killed Mildred,” Leonard’s father is saying, pointing to a corner of the barn. A fat tabby slinks around Arden’s pink boots, purring. “Right over yonder, by that sawhorse.”
He laughs, and Arden thinks him handsome, with his clean-shaven face and neatly pressed trousers. He looks like an actor from the old movies she watched with her mother, someone whose name she doesn’t know but who captures the era of bootleg whiskey and cigars smoked in back rooms whose doors were always locked.
“Don’t ask why,” he says, dark eyes twinkling. “Ask how.”
He shows her then, how he took a socket wrench and bashed her over the head. She cowered in the corner the whole time, begging him to spare her.
“Finally her skull split, that was it,” he finishes, with a satisfied snort. “Blood gushed outta her ears, her eyes were wide open. It’s not like in the movies, you know. People’s eyes don’t shut when they die, not if they’re open when they’re killed.”
Arden puts one foot behind the other, smiles coyly. “Mind if I see that socket wrench?” she asks.
Leonard’s face looms close. His breath smells like dead fish.
“Why are you crying?” he asks. “Is it because you lost your cow?”
He’s practically on top of her, her pink boots overturned in the mud. She can hardly breathe. “You—you killed your mother,” she chokes. “Go away!”
Leonard’s face darkens with confusion. “Mother is at home,” he says, sitting back on his heels, but keeping Arden pressed into the grass with his pudgy hands. “Sleeping in her bedroom. She gets headaches, mother does. She loves me very much.”
He looks down at Arden, whose head is rocking side to side.
“Don’t cry,” he says, softly. “Don’t cry.”
“I lost her!” cries Arden, trembling in her father’s arms. “I tied her to the fencepost and now she’s gone. Gone!”
“Oh, don’t you give that old cow another thought. What’s important is you’re here, safe and sound.” Smiling, he smooths the hair back from her forehead, his skin cool and soft against hers. “Is my baby girl all right?”
Arden nods, too spent for words. Her father smells familiar and safe, like laundry soap and engine grease. She feels her body relax, and thinks she might even be happy.
He fumbles with the buttons on her pants, pulls them down. Goose bumps sprout on her legs. For a moment Leonard studies her silently.
“You’re pretty,” he says.
Arden whacks the socket wrench upside his head. He pulls back, stunned. She quickly pulls up her pants and runs from the pasture, barefoot.
“Where you off to with that heifer?” the man calls out. “Where you going with my wrench?”
She runs, through the woods, up the stairs, into the house. In her bedroom she locks the door, slides under her bed.
“You know what this means,” her father says, hours later, when the sun has set and he’s kicked her door in. He gestures with his finger, a tight circle.
Arden doesn’t turn around. Nor does she unbutton her pants. She keeps her hands at her side, clenching the socket wrench until her knuckles are white.
“Well, well, well,” says her father, stepping close. “I see somebody done got to you, Arden. I sure hope it wasn’t that O’Donnell boy. I sure hope it wasn’t him. Now, turn around like I told—”
His eyes bulge in their sockets. Blood pours from his ears.
“Jerk,” she hisses. “You killed her.”
She strikes him one last time, stepping back as he crashes to the floor. Downstairs, she flings open the front door where Leonard stands waiting on the porch, a rope tethered from his wrist to Betsy.
“I found your cow,” he says, smiling.
Arden falls into his arms. Love me, she thinks, a tender shiver sprouting up her spine. Love me now.