It happened at Rashel’s birthday party, the day she turned five years old.
“Can we go in the tubes?” She was having her birthday at a carnival and it had the biggest climbing structure of tubes and slides she had ever seen.
Her mother smiled. “Okay, kitten, but take care of Timmy. He’s not as fast as you are.”
They were the last words her mother ever said to her.
Rashel didn’t have to be told, though. She always took care of Timmy: he was a whole month younger than she was, and he wasn’t even going to kindergarten next year. He had silky black hair, blue eyes, and a very sweet smile. Rashel had dark hair, too, but her eyes were green—green as emeralds, Mommy always said. Green as a cat’s.
As they climbed through the tubes she kept glancing back at him, and when they got to a long row of vinyl-padded
stairs—slippery and easy to slide off of—she held out a hand to help him up.
Timmy beamed at her, his tilted blue eyes shining with adoration. When they had both crawled to the top of the stairs, Rashel let go of his hand.
She was heading toward the spiderweb, a big room made entirely of rope and net. Every so often she glanced through a fish-bowl window in one of the tubes and saw her mother waving at her from below. But then another mother came to talk to hers and Rashel stopped looking out. Parents never seemed to be able to talk and wave at the same time.
She concentrated on getting through the tubes, which smelled like plastic with a hint of old socks. She pretended she was a rabbit in a tunnel. And she kept an eye on Timmy—until they got to the base of the spiderweb.
It was far in the back of the climbing structure. There were no other kids around, big or little, and almost no noise. A white rope with knots at regular intervals stretched above Rashel, higher and higher, leading to the web itself.
“Okay, you stay here, and I’ll go up and see how you do it,” she said to Timmy. This was a sort of fib. The truth was that she didn’t think Timmy could make it, and if she waited for him, neither of them would get up.
“No, I don’t want you to go without me,” Timmy said. There was a touch of anxiety in his voice.
“It’s only going to take a second,” Rashel said. She knew
what he was afraid of, and she added, “No big kids are going to come and push you.”
Timmy still looked doubtful. Rashel said thoughtfully, “Don’t you want ice cream cake when we get back to my house?”
It wasn’t even a veiled threat. Timmy looked confused, then sighed heavily and nodded. “Okay. I’ll wait.”
And those were the last words Rashel heard him say.
She climbed the rope. It was even harder than she’d thought it would be, but when she got to the top it was wonderful. The whole world was a squiggly moving mass of netting. She had to hang on with both hands to keep her balance and try to curl her feet around the rough quivering lengths of cable. She could feel the air and sunlight. She laughed with exhilaration and bounced, looking at the colored plastic tubes all around her.
When she looked back down for Timmy, he was gone.
Rashel’s stomach tensed. He had to be there. He’d promised to wait.
But he wasn’t. She could see the entire padded room below the spiderweb from here, and it was empty.
Okay, he must have gone back through the tubes. Rashel made her way, staggering and swaying, from one handhold to another until she got to the rope. Then she climbed down quickly and stuck her head in a tube, blinking in the dimness.
“Timmy?” Her voice was a muffled echo. There was no
answer and what she could see of the tube was empty. “Timmy!”
Rashel was getting a very bad feeling in her stomach. In her head, she kept hearing her mother say, Take care of Timmy. But she hadn’t taken care of him. And he could be anywhere by now, lost in the giant structure, maybe crying, maybe getting shoved around by big kids. Maybe even going to tell her mother.
That was when she saw the gap in the padded room.
It was just big enough for a four-year-old or a very slim five-year-old to get through. A space between two cushiony walls that led to the outside. And Rashel knew immediately that it was where Timmy had gone. It was like him to take the quickest way out. He was probably on his way to her mother right now.
Rashel was a very slim five-year-old. She wiggled through the gap, only sticking once. Then she was outside, breathless in the dusty shade.
She was about to head toward the front of the climbing structure when she noticed the tent flap fluttering.
The tent was made of shiny vinyl and its red and yellow stripes were much brighter than the plastic tubes. The loose flap moved in the breeze and Rashel saw that anyone could just lift it and walk inside.
Timmy wouldn’t have gone in there, she thought. It wouldn’t be like him at all. But somehow Rashel had an odd feeling.
She stared at the flap, hesitating, smelling dust and popcorn
in the air. I’m brave, she told herself, and sidled forward. She pushed on the tent beside the flap to widen the gap, and she stretched her neck and peered inside.
It was too dark to see anything, but the smell of popcorn was stronger. Rashel moved farther and farther until she was actually in the tent. And then her eyes adjusted and she realized that she wasn’t alone.
There was a tall man in the tent. He was wearing a long light-colored trench coat, even though it was warm outside. He didn’t seem to notice Rashel because he had something in his arms, and his head was bent down to it, and he was doing something to it.
And then Rashel saw what he was doing and she knew that the grown-ups had lied when they said ogres and monsters and the things in fairy-tale books weren’t real.
Because the tall man had Timmy, and he was eating him.