Read More: A Brief Interview with Jacob M. Appel
That year Lizzie’s kid sister kept a list of things that were funny when they happened to other people: tarring and feathering, peeping toms, mad cow disease. The rare encephalopathy from which their father suffered didn’t actually come from eating infected cattle, it turned out, but from a spontaneous somatic mutation—what Bill Sucram’s neurologist described as “losing the genetic lottery”—yet the ailment was enough like mad cow that Lizzie’s mother swore off animal products. Overnight, Myra Sucram stopped fricasseeing duck and took to ordering exotic soy dishes from a newly-opened kosher-vegan deli on Walloon Street. Her family’s health consumed her: She spent mornings arguing with Bill’s insurance carrier, afternoons researching manganese contamination and do-it-yourself dioxin tests at the public library, evenings promising her husband and daughters that medical breakthroughs can happen overnight. She wore her grim smile like a shroud.
Lizzie’s father resigned himself to his diagnosis. He informed the Pontefract Board of Education that he had six months to live and that he did not intend to spend them at the office. Then he composed a list of people who harbored him ill will—a shady plumber he’d sued in small claims court, his estranged step-brother in Las Vegas—and he telephoned each, one by one, to apologize. That night, the thirty-eight-year-old agnostic middle school principal summoned his daughters to hot cocoa at the kitchen table and announced: “I fear I’ve taught you girls too much grammar and not enough forgiveness.” So Lizzie was mortified, yet not unprepared, when their father insisted on taking them to meet the sex offender.
The sex offender’s name was Rex Benbow. He’d been staying inside his grandmother’s immaculately-tended bungalow at the end of their block for nearly two weeks, the subject of protests and countless flyers, but Lizzie had been far too concerned with her father’s wellbeing and her own hopeless crush on Julia Sand to give the parolee a second thought—until Lizzie’s closest friend confessed to a fascination with the man. Suddenly, he acquired the allure of an outlaw.
“My brother has been spying on the place. He says the cops aren’t protecting his house anymore,” said Julia. “So the coast is clear.”
“Clear for what?”
“Clear for us.”
The girls sat side-by-side on the swing set in the playground of their former elementary school. At thirteen, their long legs dangled aimlessly—Lizzie in acid-wash jeans, Julia in a denim skirt over tights. The pair had been meeting after school like this all autumn, a coven of two, sometimes sipping liqueurs in miniature bottles pinched from Dr. Sand’s study. Today, they were sober. It was the first week since the clocks had fallen back and slender shadows darkened the nearby playing fields.
“Have you gone totally crazy?” demanded Lizzie. “You don’t really plan on trying to meet him, do you?”
“Meet him? Who said anything about meeting him?” Julia laughed playfully. Her dazzling green eyes turned all feline. “We’re not going to find out anything interesting by meeting him. What we need to do is to wait until he goes out—I mean, the guy has to come out eventually—and then we’ll sneak inside to explore. We just have to be careful my brother doesn’t see us.”
That was the audacity that rendered Julia so alluring, the same leap-and-then-look mindset that would get her friend hooked on heroin three years later. The wild intensity stamped on the girl’s delicate features genuinely frightened Lizzie—but she found this danger magnetic, disarming. It mattered nothing to Julia that her own father and older brother were among the “concerned citizens” going door to door with petitions aimed at driving the sex offender from the neighborhood.
Julia added that she’d read a newspaper interview with Alice Benbow’s former nurse, who claimed the old lady no longer left her first-floor bedroom. So as long as they kept quiet, they’d have free roam of the house.
“You’re not afraid, are you?” Julia asked.
Lizzie gnawed on the string of her sweatshirt hood. A station wagon panned across the playing fields with its headlights, made a U-turn in the elementary school parking lot, and departed up the avenue. “I just don’t get what you’re expecting to find,” said Lizzie—struggling against her own imagination. “Do you really think he’s going to leave stuff lying around?”
“You are afraid,” snapped Julia.
“Okay, I’m afraid. Why shouldn’t I be afraid?” Lizzie lowered her voice. “I’ve got enough to be stressed out about without getting raped and murdered.”
Julia laughed again and shook her head. “Nobody is going to get raped and murdered,” she said—accentuating Lizzie’s concerns so that they sounded foolish. “Or, at least, we won’t. Not if we’re prepared.” She reached into her purse and withdrew a double-edged boot knife. The five-inch blade sent a shiver down Lizzie’s spine.
“See, we’re fine,” said Julia. “Besides, he likes boys.”
Lizzie’s veranda offered an unobstructed view of Alice Benbow’s bungalow, so the girls ensconced themselves on the porch and waited. Although Bill and Myra Sucram weren’t the type to suspect mischief, Julia insisted that they set up a pair of easels and pretend to be painting the autumn foliage, just in case their constant presence on the terrace drew notice. To Lizzie, this seemed like overkill—yet she dutifully filled her canvas with bright hues of amber and vermillion. Meanwhile, her partner brazenly painted the Benbow dwelling itself: a flawless facsimile, down to the stars on the curbside flag and the tire treads on Alice’s ornamental wheelbarrow.
Their first week of espionage proved a washout: Nobody entered or left the Benbow house for five straight evenings. Of course, it was possible that Rex conducted his excursions in the mornings, while the girls were at school, but Lizzie didn’t have the courage to suggest this to Julia. Most days, they had the porch entirely to themselves, except for the occasions when Lizzie’s eleven-year-old sister, Rebecca, an aspiring newspaper reporter, asked them to use vocabulary words for her in context: vertiginous, mandrake, cantilever. Also vigilante, pedophile. Once, as twilight approached, Myra served them hot chocolate, and then sat silently in a wicker chair while they drank—looking as though she wanted to share something profound, but couldn’t quite muster the strength. Several times, Bill Sucram steered his motorized wheelchair down the makeshift plank that covered the porch steps, and complimented the girls on their artistic efforts. “Few hobbies more wholesome than painting,” said Lizzie’s father. “And if you two ever want a live model,” he added, winking, “you just ask.” At those moments, Lizzie felt a twinge of remorse that she wasn’t spending more time with her father—and less with Julia—but then she’d hear her friend’s electrifying voice and the guilt would pass.
Julia’s precautions did ultimately prove prescient—but not as protection against the suspicions of the Sucrams. Rather, it was her own father and brother who appeared on Lizzie’s porch that Saturday morning, the latter armed with a clipboard. Dr. Sand and his son both boasted lantern jaws and deep-set black eyes; in their matching cardigan sweaters, they reminded Lizzie of Mormon missionaries. Julia herself referred to her family as “victims of the body snatchers” and often claimed she was changeling.
“Fancy meeting you here, Julia,” said Dr. Sand—as though this were the world’s funniest quip. “Morning, Elizabeth. Your parents home?”
Lizzie leaned through the front door and shouted for her father. Less than a minute passed before Bill Sucram emerged from the house.
“Morning, Bill,” said Dr. Sand. “How are you holding up?”
“Not too bad for man with Swiss cheese for brains,” said Lizzie’s father. “But keep an eye on me. Yesterday, I tried to unlock my car door with my tooth brush.”
Dr. Sand smiled uncomfortably. His son stood at broad-shouldered attention, the clipboard behind his back. Julia continued to paint.
“I’m joking,” said Bill. “Cut me some slack. I have to cram thirty years of bad humor into six months.”
“Of course,” agreed Dr. Sand. “In any case, my boy and I are trying to persuade the town to enact an ordinance prohibiting sex offenders from residing within five-hundred yards of children under eighteen.”
“Are you now?” inquired Lizzie’s father.
“We’re hoping you’d be willing to sign. Your wife too, if she’s around.”
Julia’s older brother stepped forward with the clipboard.
“And why exactly do we need such a law?” asked Bill.
Dr. Sand glanced over at the girls, then up the block toward the Benbow house.
“I thought you’d be more aware of what’s going on. I don’t want to delve into details at the moment,” he said, looking pointedly at Lizzie and Julia, “but there’s a level one predator living on your block. Haven’t you seen our flyers?”
“Oh, I’ve seen your flyers,” said Lizzie’s father. “But as far as I’m concerned, punishment is the job of the criminal justice system. I’m in the business of forgiving people, not harassing them.”
Dr. Sand’s face lost its color, but his voice remained level. “I don’t think that’s an accurate characterization, Bill. We’re not harassing anyone….You’re an educator. And you’re a father. Surely you must….”
“Must I? Well, I don’t,” said Lizzie’s dad. “In fact, I’ve been thinking of inviting the poor fellow over for dinner.”
That was too much for Julia’s father. “I won’t pretend to understand, Mr. Sucram,” he said—shaking his head like a preacher befuddled by sin. His legs turned around so quickly that he nearly toppled his son. Lenny Sand flashed his sister a look of warning on his own retreat down the steps.
“When holes start sprouting inside your brain,” Bill Sucram called after them, “You may see things differently.”
Lizzie’s father watched from the head of the stairs as the Sands knocked on the door of his neighbor. He listened for a moment while the dentist presented his petition to elderly Mrs. Greenbough, who kept asking Sand to speak louder—until the dentist was forced to shout the language of his proposed ordinance into the tranquility of the suburban morning. Then Bill Sucram apologized to the girls for disrupting their work and wheeled himself back inside the house.
“Your dad is awesome,” said Julia. “Totally awesome.”
Another three days elapsed without any signs of life at the corner bungalow—and then, on Tuesday afternoon, the girls returned home from school to find the Benbows’ garage door rolled up. As they watched, dumbstruck, a twenty-year-old Lincoln Town Car, glistening with tail fins and suicide doors, eased into the driveway; the driver exited the vehicle and pulled the garage door shut behind him. When the car passed Lizzie’s porch, the girls recognized Rex Benbow—older, but unmistakably the face from the flyers—at the helm. Instantly, Lizzie sensed perspiration erupting on her neck and along the bellies of her forearms.
“Okay, babe, it’s now or never,” declared Julia. “Tell your mom we’re walking downtown to see a movie.”
Lizzie did as instructed. Then she trailed Julia up the block and around the corner onto Fleming Street—where they advanced ten meters before backtracking into the Benbows’ rear yard. Julia plucked two pocket flashlights from her purse, tested each inside her cupped palm, and handed one to Lizzie. “I did some reconnaissance last week,” Julia whispered—and to Lizzie’s amazement, her friend retrieved a crowbar from behind the septic tank. Seconds later, she had pried open a cellar window and vanished into the darkness below. By the time Lizzie built up the courage to follow—or rather, by the time the fear of entering had paled compared to the terror of standing alone on the sex offender’s lawn— Julia had already switched on the overhead light. […]
Subscribers can read the full version by logging in.
Jacob M. Appel’s most recent books include the story collection, Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets, and the essay collection, Phoning Home. He teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and practices medicine in New York City. “Hue and Cry” first appeared in The Gettysburg Review (2012) and is included in the story collection Einstein’s Beach House (Pressgang/Butler University, 2014). More at: www.jacobmappel.com.
“Hue and Cry” was the winner of the 2016 Editor’s Reprint Award.
Read More: A Brief Interview with Jacob M. Appel