The story so far:
The forest was too dense to create echoes, so it must have come from the well. Yes, of course, an echo. Maybel was sure she heard a second sploosh. Looking down, she saw nothing but concentric ripples on the water’s surface. She cleaned her hands against her denim bosom before pinching a nickel from her pocket. Pennies were ideal for wishes, but this was the only coin she had.
“I wish...” she started, unsure what to wish for. Pebbles return?
Had she attended school, Maybel would’ve been in junior high. Her biology class might have informed her how dog corpses weren’t good for sanitary water. But her version of home schooling provided an altogether different education. Life experiences, mostly. You can dissect all the frogs and pig fetuses in the world, but until you watch your old pet lose a fight with a raccoon, you can’t appreciate how life works.
She turned her back to the stones and flipped Jefferson ’s profile (another useless fact her secondary education could have taught) over her shoulder, into the rock-walled chute. “I wish... I wish Poppa would stop hittin’ Momma.”
Satisfied with her plea, she licked her dry lips. The afternoon sun magnified her thirst, so she released the pulley that lowered the well’s bucket until it plummeted beneath the water.
Maybel cranked the handle. The rope grew taut, but the bucket never surfaced. Familiar with snags, she let go to allow the bucket to sink itself free. The rope didn’t slacken.
In the tiniest of voices, a girl whimpered, “Is anyone up there?”
Below, a young face squinted. Maybel grabbed the handle and wound vigorously. “Hold tight, I’ll git you out.”
A typical adolescent girl would have never had the upper body strength to reel in anything half this size, but working with livestock and lumber paid dividends. Within a minute, Maybel took the girl’s hands and freed her from the well, falling backwards and drenching the front of her clothes. “Are you okay?”
“My foot hurts.”
Maybel unlaced the girl’s Chuck Taylors as they traded names. Cassie Hunter, seven-and-a-half. She’d chased a rabbit in the woods and found herself lost. Last night, she found the well and stopped to sleep, hoping someone would find her. Sometime during the night, a monster woke her up – maybe it was a man, Cassie didn’t know. When she scrambled out of its grip, she tumbled into the well. Now she was cold, tired, and soaked to the bone.
Cassie winced as Maybel examined her tender skin which would have been far more wrinkled if not for the swelling. “Let’s git you home,” Maybel promised.
Maybel piggybacked Cassie along the path towards the family’s shack. There was no computer or telephone, but at the very least, Momma could give better attention to Cassie’s injury. Somewhere along the trail, Cassie fell limp, exhausted. Maybel caught her balance before either girl hit the dirt, then she carried Cassie chest to chest the rest of the way. She couldn’t discern whose heart was beating faster.
As they passed the outhouse, a breeze swayed the shack door open. Less substantial than a log cabin, Maybel could hear anything from any of the three rooms. No one else was home. She carried Cassie through the kitchen and her parents’ room, then laid her on her mattress and covered her with her quilt. Backtracking to the kitchen, she opened the icebox. An inch of tea in a dirty plastic pitcher, two open beer bottles, a handful of ketchup packets, and the skinned remains of the raccoon which Poppa dutifully shot after it had killed Pebbles (only then could he get a clean shot, so he claimed).
Maybel poured herself the tea and returned to her room to find Cassie curled into the fetal position, eyes pressed shut, whimpering, “No more! Please! No more!”
Motherly instinct took over as Maybel brushed the younger girl’s hair back from her brow and comforted her with soothing coos.
Feverish, Cassie sprang up in the bed, unintentionally head butting Maybel and splitting her lip. “It’s here! It followed us here!”
“What is?” Maybel asked.
Before Cassie could answer, they both heard scratching on the door. Probably another raccoon, Maybel thought. Until she heard Momma screaming.