WEEP FOR THE CHILD

By Guy Belleranti

Ronnie opened his eyes to blackness and tried to move. The terror returned. His arms were bound behind his back and his legs tied at the ankles. He raised his head but couldnít open his mouth to cry out. Something was lashed over it, biting into his cheeks.

He blinked and craned his head around but still couldnít see anything. What kind of awful place was this?

Water dripped somewhere close, and the air was cold. He shivered under his thin pajamas, and rolled onto his side, trying to warm his icy feet as he pulled them closer. The ropes cut deep, and he gave up, salty tears burning his eyes.

A horrible face swam into his memory, a face heíd only seen for a moment back in his bedroom, one he hoped to never see again. Narrow mustache, thin snarling lips, scary evil eyes.

He remembered other things. The flashlight stabbing out of nowhere, finding him. The gloved hands tearing him from his bed, pressing that terrible smelling rag to his nose, dragging him through the window into the rain.

A sob welled in Ronnieís chest. He didnít want to be here. Heó

Footsteps echoed nearby, and a bobbing light came into view. Ronnieís stomach churned, and a sour taste filled his mouth. The man was coming back! Ronnie squeezed his eyes closed and tried to shut out the world. Donít hurt me. Please.

The footsteps were almost on top of him. In another moment-- He flinched as fingers touched his forehead.

"Easy, child. Donít be afraid. Maggieís with you now." The fingers yanked at the gag, loosened it, at last tore it free, then pulled him close, cradling his fifty pounds with amazing tenderness. "Iím taking you out of this dirty cave and down to the house where we can find something to cut those ropes off."

He collapsed against her, murmured "Youíre nice," and hoped she wouldnít mind that heíd wet himself.

* * *

"You had me worried, child, you did indeed." The woman pressed a warm, damp sponge to his face again and again, soothing, cleaning, taking away some of the pain. "Passed out in my arms you did. Before I even got you out of the cave. But I guess you were just tired."

Ronnie blinked up at her, looked beyond, and saw out the roomís little window that day had arrived but that the rain continued. "I donít like this room . . . this bed. . . I want to go home." A couple of tears spilled from his eyes, and she wiped them away.

"There, there, dear." She leaned close and pressed a well-worn teddy bear into his arms. "Here. Teddy needs a boy like you for a friend. Someone to keep him company. And while Iím making you breakfast, you can change into that robe hanging on the back of the door. Itís too big, of course, but Iíve pinned it up a bit, and you can roll up the sleeves how you like."

Her soft voice. . . . It reminded him of Momís. And her perfume -- that was like Momís, too. But she wasnít like Mom in other ways. Much bigger, with gray hair and pink-framed glasses.

He pulled the teddy close to his heart. It was skinny in spots and had only one eye, but he didnít care. He held it fiercely, and once more tears streamed down his face. And the lady named Maggie stayed with him, not leaving to prepare breakfast until he had cried himself dry.

* * *

She was gone only minutes and returned just as he lay his soiled pajamas aside. "Itís stopped raining, child. And thereís a pretty rainbow. Look."

Ronnie followed her finger out the window. It was pretty. So were the field and wildflowers and those trees in the distance.

He ran his glance around the room, taking in other things for the first time. The ceiling had stains, kind of like the one at home did that time it leaked, and the window was cracked. He looked closer at the peeling wallpaper and picked out smiling pelicans and other strange-looking birds. An owl wearing huge glasses, a green-and-yellow polka-dot bow tie, and a towering hat was especially funny.

Ronnie pointed and laughed. "Heís goofy."

"He? Oh, thatís Ollie the Owl. Yes, little boys seem to like him. Why, I remember my own Brian. . ." She stopped abruptly.

"Brian?"

Maggie shook her head. "Never mind. Thatís all in the past."

"But. . . . Did Brian know Teddy, too? Was he Teddyís friend?"

"No more talk, child."

"But--"

She moved toward the door, turned back. "Thereís raisin bread, bananas and grape juice waiting in the kitchen. Come along now." The floorboards creaked as she disappeared down the hall.

Heíd gotten Maggie mad at him. What if she stayed mad? Then heíd never get home, never see Mom and Dad again. He looked at the small window, bounded across the room. Too high up. He needed something to stand on, but what? There were only two things: a tall chest and the bed.

Ronnie tried the chest first, attempted to pull it away from the corner, felt it teeter toward him, and quickly pushed back against it, puffing and panting, hoping it wouldnít fall and make a big noise. It didnít, and he moved to the bed. It wasnít on wheels or anything else that could move. He couldnít budge it.

Ronnie wiped at his eyes and stared at Ollie the Owl then lifted Teddy from the bed and squeezed the toy close. "Mommy," he whispered. "Daddy." He stumbled out the door.

The kitchen was to his left. He could hear Maggie moving around out there. And straight ahead. . . Ronnie stared at the draped window, at the door in the same wall. He could be out it in seconds. But should he? Maybe there was a phone? He knew his number, and he could call Mom and Dad. If Maggie would let him. . .

"Foodís on!"

Ronnie sucked in a breath, darted for the door, and twisted its knob. The door opened only an inch. A chain held it shut from high above.

"Child!"

Ronnie jumped. "I was just. . . . Please, donít hurt me."

"Hurt you? Dear me, love. Oh dear me." Maggie touched his face. "Youíre still feverish. Perhaps you should go back to bed. Yes, I think you better. Go get under the covers. Iíll bring you some food on a tray. You can eat in there, then rest and--" She broke off, head cocked. Then Ronnie heard it, too.

A sound outside, drawing closer. A motor. "Mom!" he shouted. "Dad!"

"No, child. Itís not!" She pulled aside a corner of the drape, peered out, and let it drop back.

"You must hide. Quickly now. Quickly." She reached out for him.

Ronnie backed away. "I donít want to hide. I want to go home."

ďThe man out there. . .if he finds you here. . ." Again, she tried to grab him.

Ronnie ducked, slipped by, and dashed to the window. He pulled at the drape and saw a burly figure emerge from a rusty blue van. The manís face. . . . Thin mustache, unsmiling lips, and evil eyes. And in the manís hand. . .a gun. Ronnie trembled. The man seemed to be looking right at him and was coming toward the house.

"This way, child." Maggie hustled him into the kitchen, past the humming refrigerator, and stopped before a door. "Out this way. Hurry. Go down the hill and hide in the tall grass."

"But--"

"Trust Maggie, dear. Please trust Maggie." Her hand squeezed his and pressed two slices of raisin bread into them. "Share those with Teddy." She brushed her lips over his forehead, threw open the door, and gave him a little shove. "Go now. Hide!"

Ronnie clawed at the door as it shut, the bread dropping to the ground, tears filling his eyes. He looked at the field. He could do more than just hide in the grass. He could run and keep on running until he got away from here. A harsh male voice came from around the side.

"Where is he?"

"I donít know what--"

"Donít give me that! I had him trussed up in the cave tighter than a pig goiní to market. He couldnít have got loose without help."

If Maggie said anything in reply, it wasnít more than a mumble. The man went on. "Whatíd you do, hear me on the kitchen phone, follow me, see me stop at the cave, and wait for me to drive to town for the ransom pick-up?"

"The poor child. How could you be so cruel?"

"This is how." There was a sudden silence. Then the man laughed. "Never seen so much dough, have you? A sweet two hundred Gís. I spent days planning it, watching the kidís house, picking out when to do it."

"And now youíve done it. And you have your dirty money. So leave. You donít need the boy." "Heís a witness. Heíll--"

"Heís just a child. And it was dark. He canít describe you."

"How can you know that? How can I take that chance?"

"Because you donít have any other choice. Because I know you better than you think. Despite all the terrible things youíve done, you still have some good in you. Youíre not a murderer."

"You think you know me so well, do you? Well, I know you, too. I leave without the kid, and youíll call the cops. Youíll give Ďem my plate number and a description of my van."

"Leave the boy. . .and the money. Iíll return them and wonít bring you into it. Youíll get a second chance."

"Youíre crazy. My only chance is now."

"No. Youíre wrong. Youíre-- Where are you going? Where--"

"Where do you think? Inside. And he better be there. You hear me?"

"Stop. You canít go in. You--"

The man cursed. "Let go of me, damn it! Let go of me or--"

Ronnie heard a sudden explosion. No. No! He buried his face into Teddy. He wanted to run, wanted to hide just as Maggie had told him to. But he couldnít. His feet seemed frozen in place. He couldnít make his legs move at all.

The man wouldnít find him inside and would come back out and then, sooner or later, around the side looking for him. But he didnít come. And his van didnít start up, either. Nobody, and no sound, came at all.

And, suddenly, Ronnie found himself moving, but not away from the house. Instead, he edged along the wall until he reached the front corner and could peek around it. He saw two figures on the ground, one sprawled motionless, the other sitting, shoulders shaking as she sobbed. "Maggie!" He started toward her and broke into a run, mud coating his bare feet. He uttered a joyous cry as she looked up and scooped him into her arms. They clung to one another, sprinkling tears.

"I heard a loud noise. I was scared." Ronnie glanced at the figure, at the blood staining the manís jacket, and looked away, trembling.

"It was the gun, child. I grabbed it and. . .it went off. It. . . . He didnít want to hurt you. Brian didnít want to hurt anyone. Not really."

"Brian?" Ronnie stared up at her, at the tears coursing down her cheeks, then looked back the man. This man. . .her Brian? The little boy whoíd liked Ollie the Owl? He pressed his lips to Teddy, then, hesitatingly, held it out to Maggie. "Here. Brianís."

Maggie drew in a sharp breath and closed her eyes a moment. Ronnie set the teddy bear in her arms.

"Dear, child," she whispered.

They sat there silent another minute. Then Maggie lay the toy beside the dead man and took Ronnieís hand, and they walked inside to phone the police.