The police bulletin warned: Presumed unstable. Approach with caution. But the girl didn’t have the look of a criminal. She was early-college or late-high-school. Still a child. The department had also slapped me with a nuisance label. Argued from the front porch that it was time to “move on.” To sell the house and buy the plot I’d been looking at down in Freedom before everything happened. It would be easier to start fresh in a new town, they reasoned. To not be the mother of the daughter who’d gone missing on a Saturday afternoon jog.
From his boathouse thirty miles south, Kent called me to say he agreed with the bulletin.
“You see that girl around, you go back inside. Ain’t no sane person decides to summer in those woods when it’s bear and black fly season.”
I carried the phone down to the dock where I shucked off muddy socks and lowered my callused feet into the lake. The surface rippled before closing back around my ankles as though it’d never been disturbed.
“You ever think she might have bigger trouble at home than black flies?” I said into the phone.
“Jesus, Jo. Even so, it’s not your job to mother strays.”
I watched the tree line where Evie and I used to forage fiddleheads and saw a pale face emerge from the weeds. I was pleased the sweatshirt I’d left on the dock zipped over her growing stomach.
I cocked my chin in the girl’s direction and she faded back into the undergrowth.
“She’s pregnant, Kent,” I told him and waited for the hitch in his breath that I knew would come. “Now why would the bulletin not mention that?”
Kent had long disapproved of my efforts to aid the feral cats that made their home in the woods around the lake.
“Same cycle over and over again. You and Evie get attached, then those damn cats get eaten.”
“I’m teaching her empathy,” I said. “Got to combat that indifference she inherited from your side of the family.”
Far as I saw it, there was nothing shameful about bettering a life, even if the odds weren’t good. Every winter, Evie and I filled Rubbermaids with heavy blankets and hay. Shored up the storage containers against the low stonewall that ran the length of the property. Delivered hot water bottles and plastic margarine containers of Meow Mix to the sheltering cats.
Come spring, we stole away what kittens remained—those that hadn’t yet been picked off by fishers, hawks, or coyotes.
Just this May, I set out with my carrier and cowhide gloves, but it’d been a hard winter, and numbers were down this year. The babies I did find were malformed or already dead, abandoned by first-time mothers who decided they’d be better off cutting their losses and trying again next season.
I buried the dead in the plot Evie and I had started. So when supplies began disappearing from the shed, I suspected Kent had come up from his boathouse to teach me a lesson. No more looking after strays. No more waiting for our daughter to return from wherever she was, dressed in the same clothes she had on when she left for her run: compression bra, Nike shorts, a Patriots tank top, and neon-green Brooks.
Of course, it wasn’t him. Early-morning, I spotted the girl wading near-naked into the lake, and for a moment, I was certain she was Evie. They had the same protruding spine. The same high hips that gave them a distinctly lopsided look. The same rounded mound beneath the belly button that I refused to acknowledge back in the day.
When the police had searched Evie’s bedroom, they took the positive pregnancy test into evidence.
“Any ID on the father?” the police chief asked.
But the two of us always dealt with the mothers and kittens, never the toms. Evie—poor, Evie—didn’t know the first thing about men.
The arrangement started out simple enough. I didn’t replace the shed’s broken padlock and brought Kent’s old camping stuff up from the basement. I left the sleeping bag and cooking gear beneath a tarp on the dock. Hosed out the storage containers and stocked them with clothes and warm blankets. Refilled the Rubbermaids every so often with gallons of well water, canned food, mosquito spray, and prenatal vitamins.
We were getting on just fine, then tourist season hit. Children paddled over in their aluminum canoes to get a look. Parents phoned in reports from their rentals across the lake. A reporter, having heard the rumors, cut up his foot wandering through the property’s abandoned garbage pit.
“Stories true?” the police chief asked when he found me behind the house, gutting trout. “You seen that runaway around here, Jo?”
“Why you looking so hard for this one?” I took off another head and slit from the anus up the belly. “Just another lost girl to add to the list. Isn’t that what you said?”
The chief took off his hat and bent down to wipe a streak of gut from his boot.
“This isn’t about Evie. You could get yourself in trouble. We find out you’re withholding information.”
But it had everything to do with Evie. With stories that spread like black fly larva in the creek that fed into the lake. Strangers who tramped through warbler nests, curious to catch a glimpse of the missing girl in her natural habitat. Babies that grew until they did not.
Hours later, Kent climbed the front porch and held up his hands, our age-old gesture of concession. He put together a plate of smoked trout and walked it out to the Rubbermaid nearest the tree line. Back at the dock, he startled forward when the girl materialized, her tangled hair trailing down Evie’s old cross-country sweatshirt.
I wrenched him back by the bicep.
“First rule. You keep your distance. Gain her trust.”
He set his jaw and nodded. That evening, when the boat traffic died down and the black flies swarmed over the lake, he would help build a bonfire and we’d burn the girl’s missing person bulletin.
Author Bio: Jess E. Jelsma is a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati and holds an MFA in prose from the University of Alabama. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, CRAFT, Entropy, Printers Row, The Normal School, and various other publications. You can find her online at jessejelsma.com or @jessejelsma.