“Insecure people only eclipse your sun because they’re jealous of your daylight and tired of their dark, starless nights.”
— Shannon L. Alder
On a sunny Saturday in August, Babs McVitie, aged seventeen and of no fixed abode, shutdown her laptop in the air-conditioned library. Within twenty-four hours, under the cover of the eclipse, Dougal’s release would change his life forever. No one had the power to stop her plan now.
“Closing in five minutes.”
Babs checked the time on her phone dangling from its cable, recharging for free. She had half an hour to waste until work.
Shouldering her tote and carrying her ukulele case, Babs left her study carrel and headed for the elevator. When the bell pinged, she stepped inside and studied the report of a missing boy on a poster stuck to the metal wall on the way down: Jason Younger, 7, Caucasian, brown eyes, sandy hair.
A few moments later, she left the elevator, and then library. She passed through the ornamental gardens and park, across the street, and turned into a busy strip mall. Without wasting time, she took to the back streets and service alleys of the private houses, away from the traffic and the prying eyes of those on the lookout for shoplifters. Craig, her solitary friend, had taught her so many tips and tricks in the last month for living under the radar.
He was the one who told her about the solar eclipse, when total darkness would fall at precisely at two o’clock on August the 19th. He’d shown her a video on his phone about what to expect. That clip had given her the idea. She could do anything she wanted and no one would see a thing, better than a night Ninja, more like a cloak of invisibility bestowed on a knight on a worthy quest.
She walked along Butcher Boulevard staying in the shade of the parched birch trees on the neglected street until she reached the concrete, flat-roofed, cube. It looked like a flop house or maybe a drug den. Either way, Babs would never break into someone else’s house. Better to sleep in the park or the station or down by the creek in the open air.
Dumping her belongings at her feet, she bent to spy through the knothole in the rotten wooden fence and scanned the ramshackle yard. She spotted him. Dougal—why had she given him that name?—lay sprawled in the dirt, fur matted, slack-jawed, tongue lolling over yellow fangs, listless in the baking, merciless sun. His tether, a twenty-five-foot chain, stretched to a hefty metal spike driven deep in the ground. A bowl, presumably for water, was upside down. No food visible. Bleached bones littered the ground, none within reach. The yard was scattered with detritus: cardboards boxes, several punctured balls, a few empty cans, a little kid’s tricycle missing a wheel, and filthy furniture not fit for any purpose other than adding to the picture of a garbage dump.
Craig, who knew everybody and could engineer anything, had his friend rig up a makeshift night-vision camera in case something went wrong with the plan. She turned toward the blank, fisheye camera lens on a telephone pole on the opposite side of the street at shoulder height with a wide view of most of the fence. She raised a hand in greeting, smiled, and made a thumbs up sign. Everything was going to be okay.
“Dougal! Here boy.” Did he know she was trying to help? She called him twice, that sweet-faced, sandy-colored mutt. On the third time, he raised his neck, his head too heavy and unsteady. A tremor juddered through his body. Would he stand? Could he walk? Crawl? How old was he? Two or ten? Dougal’s paws and long ragged claws reached forward. He shuffled, rear legs struggling, scuffing clouds of dirt into the arid air.
She forced a smile on her face. “Come on, Dougal, you can do it.” Uncapping the water bottle, she flipped one of the loose fence planks, reached through the gap and waved the bottle back and forth. Dogs could smell water. Dougal flinched. Straining, he raised his chest, stick legs supporting his emaciated torso, ribs visible through his loose hide. A thin line of drool spindled from his mouth. His floppy tongue swept over his black-button nose.
Babs swallowed instinctively. If only she could save him now. Why wait until the eclipse? Would he survive that long, another twenty-three hours? What if, miracle of miracles, the Humane Society came and saved him tonight, anytime before tomorrow? Understaffed and underfunded, she knew they wouldn’t. How long had she waited on hold? How many calls had she made? How many reports to so many different people? She’d lost count and lost patience.
She’d memorized Dougal’s case number—MC—male canine—95124866—knew it off by heart, but that didn’t help her navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracy. However, she had followed their advice: keep a diary of events, visit as often as possible, and don’t challenge the human occupant of the property; not that she had ever seen a living soul in the vicinity of the house or yard.
Occasionally, she’d seen a light on in one of the upper windows, but no movement or sound. She wanted to meet the devils who hid inside. What kind of monsters were they? The same kind of monsters who could steal a child from his bed? She hoped someone would save Jason, just as she would save Dougal.
Dried kibble was expensive, but light, portable, and easy to keep in her pockets. It didn’t taste half bad. She’d tried some out of curiosity—artificial bacon flavored. Gritty and crumbly it seemed to suck the moisture from her mouth. That’s why she always began by tempting him to drink first.
Dougal edged toward her inch-by-inch, wide liquid eyes fixed on the bottle. She took the foldaway camping bowl from her pocket, snapped it open and laid it flat on the ground. The water splashed the base as she poured a couple of cupfuls, not too much or he’d vomit. She picked up the stick she had purposefully left behind on previous occasions, and pushed the bowl slowly forward. Drops of precious water slopped over the brim and soaked into the ground, disappearing in a second.
Lurching like a drunk, Dougal stumbled a few bow-legged steps, then a few more, staggered, paused, and staggered again until he reached the bowl. He collapsed in a heap and buried his muzzle in the bowl, the water flying in all directions. Empty.
Babs took a handful of kibble and lobbed single pieces through the air. They landed near enough for him to snaffle them into his mouth like a lizard stealing flies. She threw more, tossing them with care; she didn’t want to exhaust him. Brushing the crumbs from her palm, she hooked the bowl with the stick, and pulled it back to the fence for a refill. Two more cups of water. Dougal watched her every move, patient, as if he had learned the routine.
Babs dropped the bottle, stood, and flattened herself against the fence. A truck came around the corner and barreled past her, horn blasting, music blaring from the windows. When it had gone, and Babs had caught her breath, she turned back to Dougal, undisturbed, eyes closed, still as a bearskin rug.
# # #
Babs caught her breath. Time? How long had she stayed with Dougal? Unzipping her bag, she grabbed her phone. Damn! She stashed the bottle and bowl into her bag, and pushed the loose plank back into position.
“See you later, Dougal.” She took off at a trot, and jogged the ten-block distance to her court-approved part-time job. The sun still belted out heat, even this late in the afternoon, and radiated up from the sidewalk, hot through her thin-soled sneakers.
She shoved the double doors to The Holistic Healing Center, an out-patient mental health facility, and dumped her belongings in the knee-hole of her desk at reception. Ignoring the clients in the waiting room, Babs sat on the swivel chair. Kicking off her sneakers, she rubbed her dusty feet discretely on the carpet, and grabbed a pair of black pumps from the deep file drawer to her right. Powering up the laptop, she laid her fingertips on the keys and her eyes on the blank screen, the image of an industrious employee.
As the laptop sprang to life, Babs let her gaze wander over the clients: middle-aged, tubby woman in a tie-dye t-shirt, gray-bearded man with a flat cap on his bald head, and an acned teenager, with braces on her teeth and glasses on her nose. None of them looked miserable, depressed or suicidal. Why were they here?
Babs ran her eye down the sign-in sheet on the clip board on the edge of desk. This was how she had met Craig, reading his name upside down on the sheet—Craig Peterson—when he came for his weekly appointment with Dr. Schlesser. Patient files were password protected, but Dr. Schlesser, an old-school practitioner, often jotted down a few lines in a moleskin notebook, which she always kept close at hand—apart from one time, three months ago, when she left it on the counter by the sink in the restroom.
No doubt, Dr. Schlesser had thought she was alone in the cubicle chatting to her husband on the phone and not paying any attention to Babs. The doctor’s handwriting, unlike many in her profession, was rounded, neat and legible. Craig Peterson’s name was underlined three times. Babs memorized the word “recidivism” to look up later, but she knew it had something to do with crime. The other terms were familiar: OCD, ADHD, sibling rivalry, arson, and anti-social.
Babs had left the restroom, and the notebook as if untouched, and returned to reception. There, she found Craig perched on the corner of her desk, like a male version of herself, androgynous, slender, and middling height. He had a lopsided grin, a swathe of thick, blond hair hiding his right eye, and he spoke to her as if she were an ordinary, everyday person.
“Hi.” He had run his fingers through his hair, tucking it behind his ear. “Dr. Schlesser asked if you could change my appointment next week. I have a clash in my schedule.”
Babs had swallowed, flustered by his direct gaze. Taller than him, she folded her arms and slouched. There was no such thing as love at first sight. Just a crush, a sudden onset of irrational emotions, freezing her brain and stealing her powers of speech. He had waited patiently, didn’t rush her, as if he knew how she felt, torn and overwhelmed. Craig had pulled a folded baseball cap out of his back pocket, snapped it open and held it by the brim, his thumb covering the letter “T” on the word “Taurus.” Babs concentrated on the embroidered image of a stylized bull, and the sparkling constellation, little stars joined together by white stitches.
Babs could hardly believe that their first encounter was over twelve weeks ago in June. They had met again, often, and not just at the Holistic Center. She’d never have survived on the street without him. They had so much in common: values, history, and a dogged determination to survive. Babs was indifferent to Craig’s obsession with astronomy, but tuned him out when he droned on about the subject.
However, Craig always listened to her. His enthusiasm for the plan, her plan, never wavered. She knew with absolute confidence that if she asked him to help, he would without hesitation. In fact, he provided the solution to the biggest problem—how to break the chain securing Dougal to the stake. Babs had elaborate plans to borrow a bolt cutter. She couldn’t steal one. However, figuring out how to find one, hiding it until needed, and then returning it after carrying Dougal to safety, seemed far too complicated, especially when she explained to Craig.
They had sat together in a booth at a cafe nursing two coffees—Craig’s treat. Babs wondered where he got the money, but didn’t ask. She didn’t question him about his clean clothes either, because he would probably tell a tall tale, and then laugh at her if she fell for it. Instead she watched the flat screen TV on the other side of the room broadcasting the news. They’d had a break on the kidnapped kid case, Jason Younger, abducted on the same night Babs had run away. Someone had phoned in on the anonymous tip line. A teary old lady pleaded for more members of the public to call in because she couldn’t pay the ransom.
No one had reported Babs missing. Nobody searched for her. Then again, since she was already seventeen, practically an adult, the authorities had other priorities. Who’d worry about a selfish, spoilt, truant from high school, when a seven-year-old had been taken from his bed?
Craig snapped his fingers in front of her face. “You dumbass. You don’t know the first thing about planning, or dogs for that matter.” He rolled his eyes, and then spelled it out for her. “Douglas is wearing a slip-chain, like a choker. If he pulls, he strangles himself, simple, foolproof. All you have to do is open the chain collar, wider, and it’ll slip right over his head and you can dump it in the dirt.”
“How do you know he’s wearing a slip-chain collar?”
“Maybe I checked out your story. Did you exaggerate? Might have taken him some dog treats. You’re not the only animal lover on the planet, you know?”
Truth or lie. Babs couldn’t tell.
After work, Babs rushed to meet Craig at the soup kitchen on Powell Street. On arrival, breathless, she spotted him, or rather his black baseball cap, near the front of the line. Taking it off, he stuffed it in his jacket and pulled up his gray-colored hoodie as always. Was he shy?
By the time she reached the bench behind the trailer at their pre-arranged rendezvous, his term not hers, Craig had already finished his food—soup in the winter, sandwiches in the summer. He grinned at her, face in shadow from his hat and eyes hidden by Ray-bans.
“Sunset in a couple of hours,” Craig said. “Want to take in a movie before we split?”
Babs bit into her sandwich and shuffled her shoes across the dried grass beneath her feet. The movie theatre at the end of Powell had a broken fire exit door. Together they’d managed to slip inside unnoticed on more than one occasion. Craig always waited with his ear to the door, listening for the end of the trailers and commercials, just before the opening strains of the main feature.
“Dunno. What do we care?”
He rubbed his hands on his thighs. Why was he wearing black jeans, long pants, at the height of summer? Then again, knowing Craig he’d probably stolen them, or borrowed, as he often said.
“I’d kill for two hours of air conditioning, wouldn’t you? Plus, you could wash up afterwards in the restroom. The place’ll be emptied out by then. Have you still got that toothbrush I got you?”
“You don’t have to keep thanking me. We’re buddies. Brother in arms. Us against the world.”
“Any more clichés stuffed up your sleeve?”
“I would say Thelma and Louise, but I’m the wrong sex.”
“What, or rather who, are Thelma and Louise?”
“It’s this great movie, my mom’s favorite,” his chin dropped to his chest, “before she died.”
Babs took another bite, and tomato juice dribbled down her chin. Was he really sad? He had a habit of making stuff up and then when she offered sympathy or acted surprised, he would laugh—”Fooled you! Just kidding.” This had happened so often, that her reactions had become stilted and cautious. She didn’t want to be the butt of another hoax.
Taking the napkin from his sandwich wrapper, he dabbed her chin. “You’re getting better, Kiddo. It’s good to be wary. You never know who’s going to pull a fast one. When I think how naive you were at first—it’s a miracle you’ve lasted. Still, not much longer.”
“How do you mean?”
“Nothing.” He stood and stretched his arms above his head. “Are you still going ahead tomorrow?”
“Do you mean, Dougal? Of course! I’m counting the hours, no the minutes.”
““And you’re determined to go it alone, you don’t want my help?”
“No, this is all on me. You shouldn’t risk getting into trouble again.”
“Trouble follows me around, it’s like I have a target on my chest. When in doubt, blame Craig.”
Babs didn’t respond. It always sounded weird when people talked about themselves in the third person, like a dictator of some god-forsaken, back-water country. Dad talked like that—”If I, Jonathan McVitie, ask you to jump, you ask how high.”
“Hang on.” Craig unzipped his backpack. “I got you this. Just think of it as Craig Younger’s way of making a contribution to the cause.”
“Younger? I thought your last name was Peterson.”
“What’s in a name? I use lots of different names for many different reasons. Haven’t got time to explain them all now. Take these.”
He handed her a plastic-wrapped, plaid, fleece blanket, a pair of black jeans, and a gray hoodie, all brand new.
“Thanks, but I can’t accept them.”
“Don’t be a wuss. We’re about the same size. You’ll need them on chilly nights soon enough.”
She spotted a second blanket in his backpack. Great. He’d got one for himself too, so it must be true about the cold.
“Plus!” He patted her knee, “wear them tomorrow to protect your legs from the piss-soaked, fleabag.”
“Craig! Don’t call him that.” She was about to tear into him, but he cut her off.
“Use the fleece for carrying the dog. Make the whole escapade go so much easier. Trust me, it’s the only way. He might struggle, scratch or bite if he’s scared. This way I’ll know you’re safe. Remember, you’re doing this for Dougal, right?”
Only later after Craig had left, Babs began to wonder. Had he really visited the dog on Butcher Boulevard? If he had, how did he find Dougal on that long, long street? Craig didn’t know the house number. He had lied, bare-faced. Fooled again.
Babs struggled through the following day. She stole a shower at an all-female gym with poor security and sloppy staff. Brunch from a dumpster behind the Chinese take-out—moo shu pork and noodles. New shoes from the Salvation Army truck—closed to donations because it was full—the entrance piled with people’s crap because they were too lazy to come back tomorrow. The rest of the day, she split her time between the bus depot in the morning, and then the library in the afternoon once the sun was too hot to tolerate unless you were a lizard.
She ran her plan through her mind for the umpteenth time: loiter around the corner of Butcher Boulevard and Cutler Street, out of sight from the camera, wait for the eclipse, as soon as darkness fell and everyone’s attention, if anyone was around, turned toward the obliterated sun, then she’d pull off two fence planks, slip into the yard, roll Dougal in the blanket, carry him off and head for the Humane Society on Powell, four blocks away on foot.
Stuffing her backpack with supplies, dog kit and blanket, Babs filled her two empty bottles from the water fountain and tucked them into the net pockets on the side of the backpack. She’d kept her phone battery full since recharging it in the library and didn’t plan to turn it back on until she reached the Humane Society with Dougal.
At the corner where Butcher intersected Cutler, she sat on the pavement with her feet on the gutter to wait. She didn’t need to know the time, the sun’s disappearance would tell her when to pounce. While she waited, she read a paperback she’d taken from the free shelf at the library. Babs hadn’t like the way the librarian had eyed her at the time.
Minutes ticked away. Babs finished the first chapter and moved on to the next. Turning the pages, she soon reached the end of the second, and then the third chapter. Looking up, the sun shone back at her with no sign of a shadow in sight in any direction. Had Craig got the time wrong? Had she misunderstood him? Should she text him and check? What if she missed the moment because her attention was on the phone? Would it be over that quickly? She should have asked him more questions, made certain that she had the facts down correctly.
On impulse, she picked up her rucksack and ran to Dougal’s backyard. Maybe he was already dead. Perhaps the Humane Society had already rescued him.
Shutting one eye, she spied with the other through the knothole. Dougal lay in the same position as she had left him the evening before, ribcage rising and falling. Damn it! Why not do it? Do it now!
At the Humane Society on Powell, Babs carried Dougal in her arms for the last few yards and saw a woman locking the front door.
“Hey! Wait, I’ve got an injured dog here, he needs help.”
The woman turned toward Babs, “Oh dear, you poor thing. Give me a second, and you can bring him inside.” Her arthritic fingers fumbled with the keys. “I’ll phone the doctor on call for emergencies.” Hurrying inside, she snapped on the lights. “We close at five. Put him down on the couch for a minute”“ She took her eyes off Dougal, and glared at Babs, assessing, appraising, and judging. “Everyone’s gone home except me. What’s your name dear? This is a clear case of abuse. Can you complete this form for me?”
Babs froze in the woman’s cold stare. Did she think Babs was the owner? “I’m sorry.” She grabbed her backpack and made for the door, “I’ve got to go”
Leaving the Humane Shelter, Babs didn’t look back. As she ran she noticed a huge new billboard announcing the solar eclipse. Pausing, she shaded her eyes and read: the date—Monday, 21st August, 2017—made her blink. That couldn’t be right. She jogged onward and stopped at a newsstand. The papers all ran the same story, front page news, the solar eclipse on Monday the 21st—all of them. Tears pricked her eyes. She’d picked the wrong day, or rather, Craig lied. Damn him!
Babs ran her hardest and fastest, all the way until she reached the creek, and relative safety. She leaned against a tree to catch her breath, anger and relief fighting for supremacy. Half of her wanted to share her story with Craig. The other half wanted to tear him limb from limb. Why had he lied to her about the eclipse? She had to find him. She wouldn’t rest until she’d hunted him down.
She darted along a service alley to check out the first of his usual haunts. Although she had never accompanied him, he followed a circuit to make sure he never hit the same mark twice, or at least that was how he had explained it her.
“Never get recognized, keep moving, never go to the same place or use the same route. Don’t let yourself be identified as homeless. Keep changing your look, your clothes, your appearance.”
Craig said he stuck to his rules like a mantra, but had he? She’d caught him in one lie at least, had he told more? Babs had assumed that thievery featured high on his priority list, but had never had the guts to ask him straight. Had they ever met in the same place twice? No, apart from the soup kitchen. His ridiculous sunglasses and hoodie made more sense; when forced to break his own rules, Craig had tried a disguise.
Babs trekked through the town checking off Craig’s list as best she remembered. She arrived at the parking lot behind a home improvement store. A huddle of day laborers sat along the curb. She walked toward them.
“Excuse me, guys, have you seen Craig Peterson today?”
“Who?” They looked from one to another, shaking heads. “Sorry, don’t know him.”
Pulling out her phone, she hesitated. Why didn’t she have a photograph of Craig? In all the time they’d known each other, he had often taken selfies, and photos of her, but she couldn’t remember any of them both together. She scrolled through the photos on her phone, roll after roll, album after album. None of Craig.
“Thanks, guys.” She retreated across the lot. How would she ever find him? Did she have to wait for him to find her? They hadn’t made any arrangements to meet. With all the worry over Dougal, she hadn’t thought about what she would do afterwards. Hungry, exhausted, and close to tears, Babs returned to the creek to sleep under the bridge. Craig, his stories and the truth, could wait until tomorrow.
A siren blared.
Babs woke, rubbed her eyes, sat up and kicked off sheet she used at night. Half a dozen cops, maybe more, approached the creek, stirring the occupants scattered along the bank. One man, she’d never learned his name, grabbed his cart and pushed it onto the road, but he didn’t escape. The cops moved in, questioning each individual, flashing a tablet at them, “seen this girl?” She wanted to run, but she knew she had nothing to fear with her fake driver’s license, another gift from Craig, to prove her age—over eighteen—an independent adult.
Sitting still and silent, Babs took a deep breath as the officer came toward her. He looked her straight in the face.
“Are you Babs McVitie?”
“Yes … sir.”
“I’m arresting you on suspicion of abduction–”
“–What? I didn’t abduct him, I rescued him.”
The cop spun her around and cuffed her wrists before she had time to think.
“Let me go!” She struggled, pulling away, but the cops closed in. “What are you doing?”
The cruiser fought through a barrage of reporters at the precinct. Cameras flashed. Hands pressed against the windows. Someone hammered on the roof. Angry faces snarled at her.
“What’s going on?”
Nobody heard her above the noise of the writhing crowd.
Somehow, the cops dragged her through the mob and inside to a windowless interview room. She waited alone. A lazy fly crawled across the table. On the ceiling, a yellow fluorescent strip-light buzzed intermittently. For some unaccountable reason, as the minutes ticked by, she thought of the eclipse. What future did she have? She’d miss the whole thing. This once-in-a- lifetime event would pass her by. Why did she care, and why now?
The door opened. A sandy-haired man in a suit—a detective?—walked over, pulled out a chair, and slapped a dozen photographs on the table. “This is you, right?”
Babs looked at the pictures of her carrying Dougal wrapped in a blanket and then back at the detective’s impassive face.
“You! In broad daylight.”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“With a body wrapped up like a package for the mailman.”
“I had to wrap him tightly to stop him escaping. It was supposed to be dark, during the eclipse, but I messed up my dates–”
“–Everyone knows the eclipse is on Monday, today, common knowledge, this afternoon. You’d have to be a fool or a lunatic not to know that.”
“Craig said it was on Sunday.”
“Craig Younger. He helped me, I mean, I thought he was helping me.”
“Are you seriously trying to lay the blame at his door?”
“No, I’m just explaining what happened. How I got the idea in the first place.”
“You’re not denying you took him?”
“No.” She sat up straight and met his gaze. “I saved him. Nobody else would.”
“We’ll see if the court of public opinion agrees, but I’m damned sure a jury won’t buy your pack of lies.”
“If you’ve got the photos then you must have the camera. It has a time stamp and will prove my story.”
“The camera on the telephone pole outside Dougal’s yard.”
“Who’s Dougal? Are you trying to implicate someone else too?”
“Listen! I don’t know what’s going on in your depraved little mind, and don’t think you can play the Looney Tunes card, and get away with it.” His phone pinged, and he read the screen. “That’s the only piece of good news today.”
“They checked him over at the hospital. He’s dehydrated but he’s going to be fine. His Gran and his brother are by his bedside. No thanks to you.”
“I don’t understand.”
He turned the screen toward her. Babs lips parted. It made no sense. “What’s Craig doing? Is that the missing boy in that hospital bed? Who’s the old lady?”
“As if you don’t know his name. He’s been headline news for weeks.” The detective stabbed the screen, “Jason Younger, his brother, Craig, and their gran. Why choose the park to dump him?”
“Did you think there wouldn’t be cameras? We have recordings of you dropping him on the bench. That fleece blanket’s at forensics.”
Babs couldn’t speak, couldn’t think, couldn’t process what she heard.
“And,” the detective leaned forward and whispered, “we’ll find a hair or some skin cells on that baseball cap Jason clung to when we found him.”
The familiar sound of the constellation tune rang out. The detective shoved the phone in his pocket. “Wait here.”
Babs knew where he was going and why. She had a million questions for Craig. But would she ever see him again? How could he have set her up like this? What had she ever done to deserve such treachery? She let her heartbeat slow and took a deep, sobering breath. Somehow she knew that if their paths crossed again, and she had another chance to ask him all her questions, the outcome would be the same: the chinks of her daylight obliterated by his darkness.
Madeline McEwen is an ex-pat from the UK, bi-focaled and technically challenged. She and her Significant Other manage their four offspring, one major and three minors, two autistic, two neurotypical, plus a time-share with Alzheimer’s. She is a member of the California Writers Club and Sisters in Crime, Norcal. She maintains a blog with a loyal following. Her platform is associated with the Autism Hub [UK], as well as the usual Facebook and Twitter accounts, predominantly in the realm of disabilities.