My first impulse was to send Liv to bed right then, but the focused way she was staring at my hands let me know that would not work. At the very least, I would have to unwrap the package and hope that whatever it was wouldn’t upset her. Sometimes, once you’ve traveled a certain distance down a path, you cannot turn aside or even pause. This was one of those times.
As I pulled the object from the loosely wrapped paper, I was careful to hide my name. I’m not sure why. I suppose I was trying to maintain as much control over the situation as possible. In a half second, the paper lay on the table, and in my hand was a microcassette recorder, similar to the one I used as a backup when taking notes in class.
“What’s that?” Liv asked.
“It’s a microcassette recorder. You can use it to record people talking,” I said, and forced myself to smile. “Hmm. Maybe someone was trying to figure out if you talk in your sleep. Or they were playing a trick on you. Seeing if you could discover that something was in your bear. Did somebody borrow your bear?”
“Mommy did, before you came over to take care of me. She said his eye was coming loose, so she took him and sewed it back on.”
That would mean that even before I got to their house, before they’d gone wherever they went a few nights ago, Laura had intended to involve me. We’d always gotten along well and were friendly, but it still felt odd to be playing a part in all this. I was just the babysitter, after all. Was I part of her delusion? Or did she not have anyone else to turn to? “Well, she must have wondered if you would figure it out,” I said again. “We’ll have to tell her that you were a smart little cookie, huh?”
She smiled. “I did figure it out!”
“You sure did! Okay, let’s get you back up to bed. Little girls need their sleep.”
Of course it wasn’t that easy. I ended up negotiating a drink, then a cookie, then a story—this time read by me. But eventually Liv settled down and went back to sleep, and I quietly slipped downstairs and fished the recorder down from the upper cabinet where I’d put it.
Because one thing was for certain: this hadn’t been put in the bear in hopes of catching anything Liv or anyone else might say. Oh, the recorder had a voice-activated feature, but it wasn’t in record mode. It wasn’t on at all. That meant that most likely, this was a message. A message to me. If Laura had brought Liv to my house, either she could have told me about it, or it wouldn’t have been needed. As it was, finding it had been chancy. Very chancy. Hiding it the way she had seemed like a desperate measure.
I pressed the play button.
Up till now, I’ve tried to avoid placing this story in a particular time or location by avoiding mentions of anything that would do that (although from the first, it’s clear that the story is being told as remembered by Rachel). For example, anytime I’ve talked about a phone, I’ve not specified landline or mobile, and I’ve made sure to have all phone conversations take place indoors. However, the story has necessitated that I pin the timeframe down a bit. The interaction with the dog owner in the park hints at it being placed after “stranger danger” became a thing, and the bit of technology I introduced in this part hints that the action happened at a time when it was still typical to use cassette voice recorders, whereas today we would just use an app on our cell phones if needed.
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