The only person she had ever loved was The Little Jackal Boy.
If you knew Rena Kelper, the solitary greying crone in the ranch house at the base of the Carrol Lane cul-de-sac, you might know of her peculiar collection of past lovers. They almost seemed chosen at random, a wheel spun between pit-stained electricians, adulterous cardiologists, and sex-starved high school seniors looking for a cougar to score them booze. You could spend hours trying to trace the pattern and come up with nothing–except for the fleeting nature of their rendezvouses with Rena.
Some people are just like that. Phoebe Phan lived two houses away and was the weary stay-at-home mother of two tireless schoolkids. She was proud of the friendship she had thawed out of Rena and proudly took on the caretaker role for the neighborhood cook. Phoebe enjoyed hearing Rena gossip on her past flames. Some people don’t have much need for company but don’t mind someone else in their beds from time to time. To each their own.
If you really knew Rena Kelper, you knew the connection between her lovers–the harbinger imp with long ears, obsidian eyes, and pale skin. But no one really knew Rena Kelper, not even Phoebe Phan. At least, not yet.
The Little Jackal Boy had found Rena after her Parents’ Fight. Not one of her parents’ fights that she could tune out with the sound effects turned all the way up on Froggy Jump, no this was the Fight, the Broken-Glass-Fight, Bloody-Screaming-Roaring-Fight, the Siren-Lights-Boots-On-The-Stairs-No-More-Daddy-Fight. The rabbits didn’t come back to the yard for a whole week.
He had crawled out from under the sink while she was sweeping the shattered window out of the moldy kitchen rug and had tapped her toe to get her attention before rocking back onto His heels. She should have been scared of the Little Jackal Boy. Instead He became her only friend.
Phoebe knocked on Rena’s door and announced herself clearly and loudly. Rena didn’t open the door for someone she didn’t know.
She drew pictures of The Little Jackal Boy in school. None of the crayons were quite the right colors for Him but she did her best. Her teacher noticed the pattern eventually and asked who she was drawing. The Little Jackal Boy of course. Why do you call him that? Because that’s His name. Rena thought that was a particularly dumb question.
He never came with her to school. He liked things damp and cool and dark. She built Him a mossy lean-to down by oily pond under the gravel road. It was her special spot where she came to try to break pebbles, but now it was their spot. She visited Him after school every day. Sometimes He was there, sometimes He wasn’t. After a few days alone in their spot and sad nights watching television with glassy-eyed Momma, He appeared again. Bring me a rabbit, Rena. Please.
Would Rena watch Phoebe’s kids for the weekend? She was going with her husband on his business trip to Dallas. You knew how much he worked and how little Phoebe got to see him. Of course, Rena would be delighted! She smiled one of those polite smiles she had practiced. She had even figured out how to add a little twinkle in her eyes when she did.
There were enough rabbits in Rena’s yard to draw all the neighborhood dogs that liked to snuffle around in the overgrown grass and lick up the dried pellets of rabbit shit until they were yanked away. A neighbor with a small patch of farmland used to leave a box of produce for Rena and her mother every few weeks or so after her father had been stabbed to death in jail, but it was always left out to rot and once the rain softened up the cardboard, the rabbits chewed their way in. After a few shredded boxes, their neighbor gave up her fruitless altruism, but the family of rabbits had exploded into a stubborn horde.
Rena spent an hour chasing them. If she brought the Little Jackal Boy one, He would come to her school as a Boy-Who-Like-Liked-Her. But the rabbits were quick and soon the long orange dress she had found in a clothing donation bin was smeared in grass stains and rabbit shit. She was no closer to catching a rabbit.
And then she saw it. A little baby one, hidden in a patch of wilted dandelions. The rest of the rabbits had fled back under the house or across the gravel road into the ivy-choked forest. She crawled toward it, chest tight as if bound by Daddy’s belt. One of its legs bent a strange angle and as Rena neared it only managed one sad half-hop.
She brought her broken rabbit down to The Little Jackal Boy’s lean-to. He smiled while He crawled out and scratched the rabbit between its ears. It quieted a bit.
If you almost-really knew Rena Kelper, you knew that she had moved quite a few times throughout her life, leaving behind neighborhoods spackled with missing dog and cat and (in one case) teacup pig posters. You probably carried a healthy dose of suspicion.
She didn’t have a knife, but down by the pond she found a shard of a broken beer bottle. It could have been Daddy who had thrown it down here, she mused, as hot blood bathed her knuckles. When the rabbit stopped biting she handed it to The Little Jackal Boy. She didn’t feel anything for the rabbit. But she felt happy for her friend as He pulled a tuft of fur from its head.
If you hung one of those missing dog or cat or teacup pig posters, you never found your pet.
Phoebe brought Yen and Thanh over on Friday night. They were both wore fuzzy PJs and little backpacks packed with games, books, and snacks.
The Little Jackal Boy kept His promise. Anthony showed up in Rena’s class a few days later. He smiled and sat down at the desk next to her. She noticed a wiggling scar at the base of his lip and the glimmer of the Little Jackal Boy in his eye. Two days later she kissed him while walking home from school down where the road split and he went one way and she went the other. He had kissed her back.
In a few weeks, The Little Jackal Boy no longer looked back at her from Anthony’s eyes and the scar on his lip was gone. They didn’t kiss anymore after that.
Rena didn’t mind Yen and Thanh. They were good kids. Thanh settled quickly onto the couch and started reading through a thick pair of glasses. Yen followed Rena into the kitchen. Her hair had been braided back but she kept scratching at it and pulling out flyaways. Cookies? Yes, dear. Momma doesn’t let us eat cookies.
Yen pointed up to a picture of The Little Jackal Boy Rena had hung over the sink. Who drew that? Do you have grandkids?
No. I drew that a long time ago.
Who is it?
Looks funny. Why are his ears so big?
The Little Jackal Boy disappeared for a long time after He had left Anthony. When He came again, she was a sophomore in high school, when all she had was a hand-drawn picture and a growing fear her childhood mind had dreamed Him up.
He requested something more than a rabbit. He wanted the Cybeno’s mopey beagle Winny they left leashed up in the backyard. Winny was the only neighborhood dog that waddled past Rena’s yard without licking up rabbit shit.
She had almost done it. She waited until the lights in Mr. Cybeno’s room went out and she crept into his backyard with a kitchen knife limp in her right hand. He didn’t move, didn’t run, didn’t bark. He just stared at her with watery eyes reflecting foggy moonlight. She hacked through his leash and tugged the frayed strand but he didn’t move, just kept staring. She raised the knife to his jowl and scraped away a strand of slobber. Winny gave the blade a lazy lick and settled his head down into his paws. Why didn’t he howl to the heavens and rip into her ankles?
When she returned home all that had dirtied her knife was a touch of mud.
She couldn’t find The Little Jackal Boy after that. Every day she regretted more and more not grabbing that dog by the collar and dragging it down to the pond. Not slicing open it’s throat and stuffing its sticky corpse under the roots and calling for the Little Jackal Boy until she lost her voice.
She didn’t resist when Jack Mancuso started flirting with her. Maybe he’d help her forget The Little Jackal Boy. But every second with him burned like a cigarette butt on her arm, knowing that he wasn’t Him. And maybe He didn’t like it when she was with other people.
When The Little Jackal Boy appeared crouched on the top of her shower her freshmen year at college and asked for Sue Benson’s seeing-eye dog, Rena didn’t wait a moment. She got what He wanted while her hair was still wet. In return, He came to her as George Redford for the entire rest of the semester. When he came back in January after break, his scar had vanished and The Little Jackal Boy was gone from his eyes. She never spoke to George again.
She had stuffed her bra down the dog’s throat to keep it quiet. As long as Sue didn’t hear anything, she probably wouldn’t notice for a good long while.
She sat with her fingers folded in her green armchair, watching the kids read while the cookies baked.
If you had heard of Rena Kelper in college, you probably had heard she fucked her way to the top of the class.
Her senior year of college, The Little Jackal Boy came to her as her psychology professor after she had brought Him the librarian’s cockatoo. She wasn’t sure when she first thought she saw The Little Jackal Boy in the professor during lecture. But a hand on the small of her back as she left convinced her.
The timer dinged and Rena rose. Yen’s head shot up. Don’t get too excited. They may need a few more minutes.
She walked into the kitchen and opened the oven door, squinting into the radiant heat. The cabinet under the sink squeaked open. She felt a tap on her toe.
Not done yet, she called out, sliding a kitchen knife from the wooden block and tucking it into her waistband. Let’s go for a walk until they’re ready.
It’s dark out though. And I’m in my jammies.
Oh it’ll be quick. There’s a nice little path down by the woods.
The cookies burnt, then caught fire.
If you were assigned to the Rena Kelper case you were able to piece some of it together. You learned about the missing dogs and cats and Bacon the pet teacup pig. You found what was left of Yen stuffed in the clutches of an upended tree, tufts of hair ripped from her scalp. But you could never find Rena or Thanh, not a trace, not even after you spent weeks tearing the forest apart.
You thought you really knew Rena Kelper, but no one really did, no one but the long-eared imp, with pale skin and obsidian eyes.
David Vonderheide studies computer engineering at Dartmouth College and enjoys the outdoors in all its forms. He has just completed his first novel “Litter of the Waste”, coauthored by James Cato, also featured in this issue.