No one saw where the little girl came from.
For many, her mysterious appearance became as confounding as how she had managed to stay alive for six years. But she came; she appeared as if a mirage, her white nightgown tussling with the dirt, the hem fading into a muddy brown, darkening with each shuffled step. Long stringy hair lolled back and forth to her slow rhythmic pace. Her right arm hung limply by her side, hand tightened into a fist, a white sliver of something peeking through her fingers.
Initially, her approach was marked only by puzzled expressions as heads turned silently and arms paused mid-motion, the lawns seeming to part for this unexpected ripple in the otherwise clear waters of the town.
Strange that the girl’s peaceful approach could swarm a town with such turmoil. Grady was a slothful community, but when the little girl entered their midst, everyone leapt into action. Paul Michaels draped her with a blanket. Penny Stewart gave her a cup of water. Missy Smith dialed the police.
For years, when it came up in conversation, Mrs. Stephen Meyers pointed out with pride that she was the first to interact with the little girl. Her story changed as time passed; the confusion she initially felt evolved with each retelling into an immediate avid certainty regarding the young girl’s identity. But one aspect of her first statement to police remained ever constant. Mrs. Meyers mused: “All she said was, I’d like to see my mother, please. That’s it. After enduring Lord-knows-what, that’s all she had to say? I can’t get over that.” She always dramatically shook her head and sighed before continuing: “The woman we all thought killed her, that’s who she wanted to see — her locked-up mother. Eerie, isn’t it?”
Even at her peak, Mallory Robins had to work harder than most to win the attention of a man. This is why the general public in Grady was stumped as to how she always had someone by her side. Neighbors rarely saw her without a token sidekick to rotate between flattering her so-so looks and highlighting her many flaws. Mallory learned early on that romance would be an uphill battle for her, so, forsaking all else, she donned shorts a bit too short and shirts a bit too low, bent on proving to everyone that she was, after all, worthy of love.
In the end, the only person she fooled was herself. After enough partners, she came to believe she was beautiful, desirable, interesting. The children she had from her string of exes were, she believed, souvenirs of great loves that failed only due to exceptional obstacles. Mallory saw the insults and slaps from which many women would quickly scurry as mere collateral damage. In fact, when facing such quarrels, she bragged about her thick skin, proud that she was too strong to be affected by slight imperfections in her suitors.
Despite her many shortcomings, Mallory was, at the core, a decent human being. She did not wish harm on others and was sure to drop some change into the collection plate at church — assuming, of course, someone was there to see her do so. She may have been labeled the town floozy, but certainly not a murderer.
So no one saw December 12th coming.
Like so many days destined for disaster, soothing bird melodies ushered in the crystal-blue sky that morning. A breeze rustled the leaves just slightly, painting an idyllic texture into the trees. Children skipped on their short walks to school, husbands kissed their wives goodbye as they left for work, and bells jingled on opening shop doors.
Only one shrill voice sliced the tranquility.
“MI-CHELLE FE-LIC-IA ROB-INS!! You get back in this house right this second!” Mallory stood on her front porch wearing only a teddy, scraggly blond hair half-heartedly pulled into a head-top ponytail.
Mallory’s five-year-old daughter, Shelley, widely known for her affinity for bugs, had wandered into the garden again. Seemingly captivated by a caterpillar snacking on the last of the fall produce, Shelley did not budge.
Mrs. Stephen Meyers, Mallory’s next-door neighbor, gawked as she pushed the curtains aside. “She’s practically stark naked!” Mrs. Meyers whisper-yelled.
Her closest confidant and regular early morning coffee visitor, Dawn Parker, was at the window without missing a beat. “If I didn’t know her mother, I would assume she were raised by animals,” Ms. Parker tsk-ed, as if she had met appallingly uncouth animal families before.
Mallory continued her squealing, “Shelley! Get up here... NOW!”
Mallory’s latest husband, Phil, appeared at the front door, looking dazed. He seemed to startle Mallory, and she leaped down the stairs, crossing the yard to the garden. The spectators next door suddenly had an unhindered view of her hot-pink, laced thong as Mallory bent over, grabbed Shelley by the ear, and dragged her through the cotton candy-colored doorframe and into the house.
“Mom-MIE! OW! You’re hurting me!”
“Good! I have absolutely had it with this! It is time for school. Not for—”
The remaining details of the conversation were lost to all but the porcelain figurines and throw pillows adorning the Robins’ living room. None of the neighbors thought the interaction was particularly out of the ordinary — some barely even noticed. But, when they thought back on it later, scenes like this one had become an increasingly regular occurrence at 446 Smythers Lane, and they could not believe that they had not taken action before the tragedy.
Even after the early morning front yard display, Shelley Robins showed up to school on time that day. She was wearing her blue knit beanie just like she had every day in the previous month, and she pouted when, just like every day, Ms. Michaels reminded her that hats were not allowed in class. Shelley sat in the back of the room, doodling Christmas trees on the desk, whispering relentlessly to her best friend Rachel, and sneaking handfuls of Cheez-Its whenever Ms. Michaels turned her back.
Mallory, on the other hand, arrived late to work that morning, and, as the town’s theory for her motive went, she blamed Shelley for this tardiness. After hustling her daughter off to school, Mallory had disappeared inside her house, and there was no movement for about an hour. Around 9:00 a.m., Phil emerged. His rounded belly brushed up against the side of his truck as he placed his magnetic Piper’s Pipe Cleaners sign on top of the cab. He then took off for an out-of-town job.
On her way out the door, Mallory noticed she had broken a nail during the course of the morning. “I can’t show flowers all day with unmanicured nails,” she whined to herself, “it ruins the whole arrangement.” So, on the way to her job at the florist, Mallory stopped to have her nail fixed. As it turned out, the salon was overflowing with gossip that morning, since the local fitness instructor had just left her husband. Mallory, fully engaged in gathering all the dirty details, simply lost track of the next forty minutes amid the flood of who, whats, and wheres.
On most days, such a delay would not have been supremely detrimental to Mallory’s life, but the cards were already stacking against her, and wouldn’t you know, Ivan Segars, CEO of Grady’s primary — and only — notable business, had realized he had an urgent need for sixteen bouquets of flowers by lunch. It was his business’s yearly holiday celebration, and he had decided to present sixteen valued employees with a small token of the organization’s appreciation.
Unaccustomed to being required to wait for anything, Mr. Segars was frustrated when the florist did not open five minutes early, as he believed any reputable business should. When no one had arrived to open the door by one minute past nine o’clock, Ivan decided to take his business elsewhere — but not without first calling the owner to express his displeasure.
Pamela, Mallory’s boss, arrived at 9:10, livid that the day-old carnations could have found a home and depressed that her flaky employee had cost her the biggest order of the year. By the time Mallory arrived at 9:52, Pamela had already changed the locks and hired a replacement.
Mallory was not typically prone to wild outbursts, her exes having taught her that they usually lead to black eyes. So when Pamela gave her the bad news, Mallory simply nodded her head, spun around in a huff, and crossed the street to Balto’s Pub.
Being a reputable business itself — or a bar looking to capitalize on a patron’s bad day — Balto’s did open five minutes early, and Mallory had a drink in hand before 10:00 a.m.
Because she grew up with Balto, Mallory knew exactly how to solicit strokes for her temporarily damaged ego and immediately set to work doing so. Because he grew up with Mallory, Balto knew exactly how to kick off a wildly lucrative day and immediately served her a stiff cocktail on the house.
“Be honest, Balto...”
Any decent bartender knew no customer truly meant these words.
“... Are my best years behind me?”
“Mallory, sweetie, what’s got you thinking like that?”
Raising her eyes, but keeping her head bent over her drink, Mallory’s look dared Balto to patronize her. Her tone sarcastic, she quipped, “Oh I don’t know, just got fired from the last place in town that will take me, maybe?” Then, a little more somber, “I just think, if I still had it, people wouldn’t be so quick to fire me.”
She fiddled with her napkin, spinning it — diamond, square, diamond, square. “You know I turn forty next week.”
“I’m right behind you, babe.”
“Yeah, but at least you’ve got something to show for it. What do I got? A couple daughters who moved out, a piece of junk car, a few gray hairs, no job, and at least thirteen more years of taking care of another daughter. Turns out, after all my dreams, I’m just,” she took in a deep breath, gathering the gumption to finish, “ordinary.”
With this, she took the piece of gum she had stored on the side of her glass, contemplated it, and tossed it in her mouth to start smacking again.
“Oh, hon, you got more than that,” Balto replied. “You got Phil. You’re still a knockout. You raised two good girls, Shelley’ll be the same. That’s what life’s about, you know? Family. The ones you love. I mean, maybe it’s corny, but that’s what I think it’s all about.”
Mallory chuckled lightly, “This from a thirty-nine-year-old, single bartender.”
Balto pushed himself back from the bar, cut by her words. Throwing a bar rag down, he snapped, “Look Mal, that’s a low blow and you know it. Watch what you say, or you’ll lose a friend today, too.”
Repentant, Mallory apologized, “I’m just upset, Balto. Feel like I’m always grinding my wheels and I’m not getting anywhere. If I didn’t have Shelley, I’d take off. Me and Phil’d go somewhere. See the world. Start over.” She looked at him. Her tone undefinable, she asked, “You don’t want a five-year-old, do you?”
“Ha, can’t say I’m in the market right now.” After a moment, he gave a nod to her glass, “You want a refill?”
“Yeah, and pour yourself one, too. I don’t like drinking alone.”
Mallory looked at him sideways as they clinked their glasses together. “You really think I’m a knockout?”
Balto smiled and took a swig.
Sometime around 11:00, three other day-drinkers joined the party — Peter, a trucker who happened to be passing through town, Tom, a carpenter who had finished with his day’s work, and Walt, a retired owner of a local deli who was struggling to fill his free time since he quit working.
Mallory was in her element and, receiving the attention she craved, quickly bounced back from her morose state of mind. By 2:00 p.m., stripped down to a tank top, Mallory was dancing to the jukebox and adamantly expressing her love to everyone in the bar. “In fact, I love everyone in this town! Except that witch Pamela. Tom, baby, promise me you’ll never go to her shop again. Can you promise me that?”
“I promise, Mallory.” Just another in a long line of promises he had made to a tipsy Mallory over the years.
Mallory patted his face, scrunched her eyebrows, and then put her forehead to his. “I always know I can count on you. You’re so good to me. If I wasn’t married…” She blinked hard and moved her head to look over his right shoulder. “Wait, what time is it?” she asked. She couldn’t be sure if her eyes were telling her the truth or not, but she thought she saw Balto’s youngest son walking in the door.
“Uh, two-thirty,” Tom answered quickly, hoping she would finish describing what he and Single Mallory could do together. “Now what were you saying? If you weren’t married…?”
“Oh, crap,” was Mallory’s reply. She pulled back, the intimacy she had felt seconds before slaughtered by the memory of her responsibilities. “School’s out. I gotta go get Shelley,” she said, to herself as much as to Tom. “Hey Balto,” she added, turning toward the bar and placing her credit card on the counter. “Here’s my card.” She winked at him as she clumsily put her sweater back on over her tank top. “Keep the tab open. I’ll be back.”
Had he not known Mallory so well, Balto would have argued and insisted she take her credit card with her. He knew, however, that if she said she would be back, she would be back. Fighting her about it would only bring out Agitated Drunk Mallory — a much less pleasant version.
Tom, watching his morning’s investment crumble away, threw out a Hail Mary pass. “Want me to walk with you?” he offered. He pushed himself close to her and laced his fingers through hers.
These moments were the ones that carried Mallory from one day to the next — knowing someone wanted her. Though she had no intention of cheating on her husband, she saw no harm in playing the game. Once she had a man chasing her, she reveled in stringing him along as long as possible.
Removing her fingers from his, she sweetly grabbed his chin and said, “Oh Tom, that’s so sweet of you. But not today.” She pivoted, in a move that may have been sexy if she were sober. Then, regaining her balance, she walked toward the door, calling back over her shoulder, “But if you’re still here when I come back, maybe we can finish our chat.” She threw the door open and disappeared into the blinding sunlight.
Perhaps it was just their eyes readjusting, but when the door had swung closed again, the bar felt a little darker somehow, a little less inviting. That was the thing about Mallory Robins — even though there was always something negative that could be said about her, people liked having her around. Some appreciated that her scandalous behavior was fodder for gossip, and others felt that her childish energy brightened up a room. Either way, her absence was felt immediately, and Balto’s cleared out for a few hours.
Shelley was not surprised when Mallory was not waiting for her at the bus stop. In fact, she was generally more surprised the days her mother was there when she hopped off of the bus. Some days Shelley chose to walk home alone, expecting to pass Mallory on the way. This day, however, she decided to wait for her mother.
At only five years old, Shelley was still, in many ways, a baby. Yes, she knew the way home from the bus stop, and she could entertain herself for hours when her mother needed some ‘me’ time, but her teacher, Ms. Michaels, frequently commented on her lack of maturity. Other children came into kindergarten knowing the alphabet and prepared to sit in desks. Shelley, gentle-natured as she was, just could not track with the other children. Her mind wandered constantly, her emotions fluctuated wildly, and her work progressed slowly.
With such concerns, other mothers may have walked away from parent-teacher conferences worried, focused on procuring needed supports to propel their child to grade level. Mallory, however, left these meetings and immediately called all of her friends — and enemies she wanted to impress — to report that Shelley’s teacher had noted that Shelley was “Just such a sweetie.” Mallory recalled only the positive notes Ms. Michaels had shared and quickly forgot the many proposed areas for improvement. When Shelley insisted on wearing mismatched shoes, Mallory commented on her daughter’s individuality. When she drew lines of hearts instead of capital Bs, Mallory raved about her creativity. And when Shelley began carrying her backpack across her chest “because Rachel does,” Mallory expressed pride in her daughter’s blooming friendship.
Whether or not Mallory absorbed the information given to her regarding the struggles Shelley was having in school, no one knew. All Ms. Michaels could be sure of was that Shelley’s performance did not improve; rather, it became progressively worse.
Shelley, though close with one friend — Rachel — struggled to interact with the other children. Though Shelley’s teacher was aware that children have varying personalities and was equipped to adjust expectations based on children’s unique strengths, she noticed Shelley’s social-emotional development was lagging. Some children may naturally be the social butterfly, while others may take longer to warm up to classmates. Shelley Robins, however, was unlike any child Ms. Michaels had encountered in her twenty-two years of teaching. Shelley was not shy, not exactly. She was simply distant. Most often, she stood apart from the other students, observing, almost as if she were watching a television show. The curious part of this detachment was that Shelley watched from a distance and mimicked the actions she liked. She did what others did, learning from their triumphs and failures. She was malleable to a point of abnormality.
Shelley, of course, was utterly unaware of the conversations that floated around about her, and even if she did know, it is doubtful she would have minded. She was, in general, unperturbed — by her mother’s wavering affections or her teacher’s emphatic nudges.
Though there was typically distance between Shelley and her classmates, they did not necessarily dislike her. In fact, they seemed to understand her more fully than the adults did. When she chose to join a game, they welcomed her. When she preferred to sit alone or follow Rachel to an opposite corner of the playground, no one minded. To them, Shelley was just Shelley. Later, when police began interviewing the children in her classroom, this sentiment was far and away the most repeated. Shelley’s just Shelley. Pressed further, the children commented on the bugs she brought to live in her desk, the day she had fallen during a kickball game and not cried at all, and the time she punched Zach Winters when he called another boy stupid. These stories were ineffective at building a composite sketch of the young girl’s personality. She seemed to be completely individualistic, but also completely dependent on imitating the behaviors of others; she was stoic, but emotional; she was fun, yet boring.
Perhaps she had inherited her mother’s unpredictability, or perhaps such a behavior is learned.
That December day, as Mallory wandered up to the bus stop, she mumbled to herself about her afternoon plans: “Take Shelley home, call Sasha, make some cheesy mac, pht… mac and cheese. Back to the bar by five.”
She was only a few feet from the bus stop’s bench when she noticed her daughter. “Oh! Hey, baby! Hi! How was shkool?”
Shelley cocked her head, taking in her mother’s enthusiasm, and opted to keep her own energy level low to even out their conversation. “Hey, Mommy,” was all she said.
“Ooh, there’s my sweet girl!” To a bystander, it would have looked like Mallory’s body was trying to swallow Shelley as she bent over, wrapping her up in an upside-down hug.
“Mommy, ow.” Shelley pushed her mother away with one large motion, as if flinging off a blanket in the middle of a hot night.
“What? I can’t even hug my own daughter?” Mallory’s offended tone quickly turned to anger. “You got a lot of nerve talking to me that way, young lady!”
Child though she was, Shelley was able to skillfully navigate her mother’s moods on days like this one.
“Sorry, Mommy, it just hurt for a minute,” she said.
The little girl wrapped her arm around her mother’s waist and looked up at the woman who was simultaneously the hero of her world and the source of her disappointments.
Mallory had not surrendered her offended posture yet, so Shelley threw out a tidbit she knew would alter the tone of their interaction:
“Today Jessie Sutton said her mommy went away.”
Distracting Mallory with gossip was a surefire way to brighten her mood. Mallory, eager to hear another version of the morning’s nail salon chatter, put her hand lightly on Shelley’s head as they began to walk.
“Oh, no! Where did her mommy go, sweetie?”
Shelley recounted everything she knew as mother and daughter strolled home languidly, almost as if they knew what the night would bring and were savoring their last few minutes in the sun together.