All the places you think are real, are real. Events and people are pure invention.
“What is it?” Gloria asked Margaret.
She showed us the base of the car. Carved underneath, it said, Riley Donohoe.
“This was my son’s,” she said. Gloria and I exchanged glances. She’d never mentioned a son. “My father made it for him when he turned two.”
I heard, very clearly, He’s a good boy. He’s a sweet good boy.
“Riley loved cars. Always wanting to look under the bonnet, what’s dat, what’s dat, and you couldn’t make anything up. You had to say the right thing.”
“Did he end up working with cars?”
Margaret blinked. “My dad gave it to him on his birthday. He wouldn’t put it down, not to eat or sleep or anything. That night I couldn’t even bathe him properly. He wouldn’t let it go and didn’t want it to get wet. He screamed if anyone tried to touch it. You know what two year olds are like.”
We both did.
“The next day I took him to childcare with the birthday cupcakes with cars on them and his wooden car and his new car t-shirt. They weren’t fussy in those days so you took whatever you wanted in. They weren’t big on details. On noticing things. The coroner said so.”
She sniffed at the car. “Nothing,” she said. “It smelt like varnish when he got it. Really strong. I was a bit worried about it affecting him. But what. 23 years.”
She took the car back to her desk and shifted her mouse. I thought she was looking something up but she was opening a document she’d left before lunch.
“Margaret!” Gloria said. “What about the coroner? You have to tell us now.”
Margaret slumped. “I don’t tell anyone.”
“You can tell us. God, we’ve listened enough to Diana’s problems,” Gloria said, but she patted me to show she didn’t mean it.
“True!” Margaret put the car against her cheek. “I really don’t understand. The whole building burnt down. The childcare building. There was nothing left at all. Melted plastic. Metal table legs.” She choked. “Bones. They all died. Not a single survivor. They managed to figure out who was who, though. This goes with that, like a puzzle. They used to do jigsaw puzzles. The bigger kids. Spend hours putting them together.”
“Not Riley, though. They never identified him. We thought he was burnt to bits, with his toy. No way he was letting go of it. He’d let the other kids look and touch. He was a kind boy. But he didn’t set it down, not once in the short time he owned it. Even when he slept.”
Never set it down, I heard. Never did till he was a bigger boy.
She looked at the car again. “At the time my only comfort was that he’d died with his favourite thing. For a long time I couldn’t face the truth.”
“What about his dad?”
“His dad…was not a good man. He had a horrible childhood but the good ones rise above it. Not him. He was like a blight on our lives.”
Lies lies lies I heard.
“But this car? The fact that it survived…did Riley? Did he somehow get out? Wander? He couldn’t.”
She was on her feet as if we were in the past and she could run out the door to find him.
“Is he alive?” she whispered.
“I don’t know,” I said. Her intensity chilled me.
I picked up the car; nothing. Not like the other items, all of which seemed to buzz with life.
I didn’t mention what I could see or hear. My ex is always looking at ways to knock me down.
“It looks almost new. No burn marks. No scorches,” I said. “Did someone take it from him? Or was he not even at the childcare centre at the time?”
Bram Stoker, twice-World Fantasy Award Nominee and Shirley Jackson Award winner Kaaron Warren has lived in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Fiji. She’s sold more than 200 short stories, three novels (the multi-award-winning Slights, Walking the Tree and Mistification) and six short story collections including the multi-award-winning Through Splintered Walls. Her latest short story collection is Cemetery Dance Select: Kaaron Warren. You can find her at kaaronwarren.wordpress.com and she Tweets @KaaronWarren
Part four of The Public Menace of Blight will be published on the site tomorrow.
The title comes from Pritchett, Wendell E. 2003. The “Public Menace” of Blight: Urban Renewal and the Private Uses of Eminent Domain. Yale Law & Policy Review 21, 1-52.