So Helpless

“What’s in the box?” is a nice question, unless you are Detective Mills or a little girl in the park.

In the Gutter, ain’t nothing is free. Including candy, puppies, and free rides...

So Helpless by JP Lundstrom

She was the only one left. There had been other children on the playground, but as evening approached, their careful mothers had shepherded them into cars that waited to carry them home to warm houses and hot meals. She sat alone in a swing, patiently waiting, her shoes tapping the sand to make the little built-in lights blink on and off. Puffs of dust rose into the air and then settled on her sparkling toes.  

The child watched as a light blue van pulled in and stopped at the edge of the parking lot. She liked the look of the van; blue was her favorite color. The driver parked over on the shady side of the lot, near the edge. It was cooler there—a good place to stop and eat lunch, no matter how late in the day. Sunshine filtered through the trees and fell on the shrubbery that surrounded the van.

The driver got out, walked around to the back, and opened the doors. He was trying to move something in the back of the van, but was having trouble. She could tell he’d hurt it somehow: it was wrapped in a dark blue cowboy scarf. She watched him for some time as he worked, his hurt arm hindering his efforts. At last, she left the swing and moved closer.

“What are you doing?” Her curiosity had brought her to him. He smiled.

“Shhhh—you have to be quiet. You don’t want to wake them up. They’ll start crying.” The man wrestled awkwardly with a bulky bundle, muttering under his breath at the sling that kept one arm tied up. He gave the bundle a final shove with his free arm and started to close the door. 

The little girl peered curiously into the van. It was nice inside, with plenty of room to move around. There was a large, floppy cardboard box on the back seat. She wrinkled her nose at its milky, vaguely dirty smell. She climbed into the back of the van for a better look. Inside the box were three sleeping puppies.

“Oooh,” she said, eyes wide. Then she covered her mouth with one tiny hand, so as not to awaken the puppies. 

“What’s your name?” he asked her.

“Bonnie,” she answered. “I know what your name is. It’s Bud. I can read.” She pointed to the name on his dark gray work shirt.

“Well, Bonnie, what do you think of the puppies?”

“They’re darling!” She used the word carefully, as if hoping she’d got it right. 

He leaned in, watching her. 

She concentrated on the puppies. She liked the caramel-colored one. It pawed its way around the box, looking for something that wasn’t there. She reached in to stroke its soft fur.

“Poor little thing. It’s helpless,” she said. “It can’t find its mom.”

“I know. She got hit by a car.”

“Did she die?” She was curious about death.

“No. She’s in the pet hospital. She’ll be okay, but now I’m stuck taking care of her pups.” 

“Can I help?” she asked.                

“I don’t know . . . you have to be pretty responsible,” he said doubtfully.

She knew that word. That was the word they used at the Home when kids didn’t follow the rules. “That’s all right. I’m very responsible. I’m responsible for a lot of things.”

He hesitated. “Well, look. With my arm banged up like this, I’ve only got one hand. I could use some help. They’ll be waking up soon, and they’ll need to be fed. Do you think you could do that?”

“Sure. Do you have dog food?”

He laughed. “These dogs are babies. They don’t eat dog food. They only drink milk. You have to hold one at a time and feed it with a baby bottle.”

She considered this. “I guess I could do that. I know how to feed a baby doll.”

He laughed again. “Well, I guess you can. We’ll just wait till they wake up, and then you can feed them.”

She looked around again. The van was spotless, and empty. “Where do you keep the baby bottles?”

“I don’t keep them in the van,” he said. “I have to keep them at home, in my refrigerator. We’ll go get them. It’s not far.”

“Okay. I’ll go tell my daddy where we’re going.”

Bud scanned the area. The parking lot was empty, as was the playground. He saw no one, except a ragged trash picker going through the garbage cans near the picnic tables. He watched as the man added to his collection in a black trash bag. The bum stared back at him for a moment, then returned to his work.

“Your dad is here? I don’t see him. Where is he?”

“I think he went to the bathroom. I’ll go find him.” She slid over on the seat and started to climb down from the van.

Now was the moment. Bud moved quickly, slipping the sling from his arm and blocking the way. He pushed the child back inside and slammed the door shut. She was his.

 “Hey!” she shouted through the window. No cause for concern. The park was empty now; no one would hear her. Then she shouted, “There he is! Daddy!”

The ragged bum was suddenly behind him. He’d been concentrating on the little girl. He hadn’t noticed when the bum left off going through the trash and started slowly edging closer.

“Going somewhere, Mister?” asked the bum.

Bud felt the burst of his own skin and the plunge of a blade. He felt the sharp point travel through his flesh and between his ribs. By the time it reached his heart—less than a second, really—he didn’t feel a thing anymore. Darkness filled his brain as he slipped to the ground. 

“Nice work, Bonnie. You had him eating out of your hand.” 

The bum wiped his knife on the dead man’s shirt. He pushed at the body until it had rolled under the surrounding shrubbery, then shed his ragged coat and used it to cover his work. 

“Get in quick, Daddy. The keys are right here.” 

Bonnie’s daddy took his place in the driver’s seat and the van pulled slowly out of the parking lot. “What an actress. In twenty years, I’ll probably be watching you win an Academy Award.” 

“What’s that, Daddy?” she asked absently. She was moving around in the back of the van. He heard the box rustle, and then a faint yelp.

“What shall we do with the puppies? Do you want to play with them?”

“No, I guess not. They smell bad.” She folded the flaps over the box of now lifeless pups. “Stop up there and I’ll throw this in the trash.”

Bonnie moved to the seat beside him, and he smiled and pulled his girl close. In twenty years, I’ll be watching you like a hawk, he thought. If you haven’t already done me in. 

“Isn’t this a nice van? I told you I could do it.” She snuggled against him.

He sighed as he contemplated a life sentence with this fearless, monstrous child.

“I love you, Daddy.”

JP Lundstrom sat around being belittled and browbeaten, until she took matters into her own hands, and now she’s out for BLOOD! Lundstrom writes crime: white collar, blue collar or leave your shirt off.