Savage Row by Britney King

 

Prologue

TODAY

Thursday, December 10th

11:23 p.m.

He should turn around and go home. But he thinks of the children, and he can’t. He isn’t supposed to think of the children. As he creeps forward, sinking further into darkness, Theo is aware of the consequences.

He doesn’t want to go to jail. He’s been there, done that. He has no intention of doing it again. Still, he puts one foot in front of the other, ambling forward. He cannot turn back now, any more than he could turn away at the start. He’d tried to do the right thing. Some lessons come wrapped in sandpaper, his mother likes to say. This must be what she means.

The alarm sounds loudly, causing that familiar dull ache deep in his skull, the one he’s never quite able to completely silence. Warning bells ring like fireworks on the Fourth of July. It’s all in his head, they say.

People are going to talk about you, his mother tells him. Give them good material. Theo turns the knob and walks over the threshold. What else is he supposed to do? He is a part of this now.

The smell, he was not expecting, and it nearly folds him in two. Theo is not a weak man, despite what everyone says. The girls. Where are they?

If they’d listened to him, he wouldn’t be here putting his own life at risk. He tried to tell them. Little girls are fragile. They ought not be climbing trees, doing cartwheels, playing on monkey bars. They should be safe at home, not out in the world flinging themselves about. Now Theo realizes they weren’t safe, not even there.

A noise on the second floor catches his attention. He starts toward the stairs. At the top, he knows where to go. Only he doesn’t get there. Theo’s foot makes contact with something in the dark.

He lurches forward, breaking his fall, but not before he’s down on all fours. Behind him, faint light filters in from the front door. He thought he’d closed it. Surely he had? He wouldn’t have wanted to let the cold in. Children need warmth. Now he’s glad on account of the wretched smell. Theo slaps his palm against his forehead several times. He should have been smarter. If only he’d thought to bring blankets, the way the paramedics do. If he wasn’t worried about going to jail, he might call them.

Trouble, he mumbles to himself. This is bad. This is trouble. Just like the lady in the hospital had taught him. Theo remembers other things too. He remembers how her breath smelled like stale oatmeal, and her eyes were so close together that it made him dizzy to look at her. And sometimes he wanted to kill her. He was glad he hadn’t, because he recalls what she’d said now. To clear his mind, he had to regulate his emotions. Or was it the other way around? She spoke so fast Theo often had a hard time keeping up. Take deep breaths, she’d repeat. Focus on what is in front of you.

At the end of their sessions, she always asked if he had any questions. Theo knew she didn’t care to hear what he thought, that her asking was just routine—an afterthought. Meaningless words. Theo asked no questions. But there was one that plagued him. One that danced on the tip of his tongue: how would you prefer to die?

He imagines the woman now, splayed out before him, undigested oatmeal still in her stomach. His mind does this sometimes. Plays tricks on him. Theo knows it isn’t her, the lump of flesh and bone contains more mass than her frail old body had.

He tries not to panic. It’s obvious the man is dead. There is a solidness to him, a finality, an absence of anything. His palms sweat, and his breath comes in heavy bursts. He wishes it weren’t so dark. Theo can’t make out the man’s features, and he’d rather see. Then his mind wouldn’t have to fill in the blanks.

He trips over furniture that’s been turned over. There was a struggle. There is still a struggle, he knows. Up the stairs and to the left. An intruder. Or maybe to the right. He’d have to wait and see. First, he had to breathe and calm his emotions.

Theo’s mind flits from image to image like the View-Master camera he had when he was a kid. His mother’s crime shows display on the reels. He hates television, but if he has to watch, Theo much prefers the programs about saving the children, sometimes animals too—although those make him feel particularly desolate. At least children can talk. But now there is a glimmer of something. Not quite gratitude, but a seed of hopefulness, as though his mother and the television had been preparing him all along. If you want to save anything, it’s helpful to know what you’re up against. The world is a terrible place, she says, like clockwork, at the start of one of her programs. A terrible, terrible place.

A faint cry takes him away from his swirling thoughts, away from the bloodbath. He can feel the man’s vacant eyes stare back at him, leaving an unsettled feeling in his belly. Theo uses the tips of his gloved fingers to close the man’s eyes the way he’s seen on his mother’s shows. Then he pushes himself upright, and though his feet stick to the floor, he pushes onward. Maybe he couldn’t save all those children, on all those nights, on all those programs. But maybe he can save these.

He has to. Theo likes the family that lives in this house. He is especially fond of the youngest daughter. The older girl has her moments, but she can’t help it. She’s already been hardened to the world. She looks at Theo like most everyone does, as something other, a specimen to be handled carefully, something to keep at a distance.

Theo never let that stop him. He tried to be respectful. What he loved most of all were the times she didn’t know he was looking. The times no one noticed he was watching, not even his mother. Out their rear window, which faced the family’s yard, he’d watch the older girl as she played. It was one of the few times she let her guard down. He loved the girls’ giggles, the push and pull of it, the games they played. Sometimes he’d join in, imagining himself with them, showing them how much fun he could be when he let go of the bad thoughts.

He wanted to tell them about the old woman at the hospital with the sour breath and scruffy voice. He wanted to warn them about all the bad things that could happen, and sometimes, even though he wasn’t supposed to, he did.

Now he realizes he should have told them more. He takes each step carefully, pausing halfway up the stairs. The girls are weeping. He can hear it down the hallway. He hears their mother, speaking hurriedly, reasoning, pleading: Whatever you want—whatever—anything — I’ll give it to you. If it’s money you need, I have a little. You can take it all. But please. Please don’t—they’re just children.