blackbirdonline journalSpring 2011  Vol. 10  No. 1
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Panther Stalks Hinds County

A week after the panther escapes from the exotic zoo in Magee, the chewed remains of animals turn up in ditches along the highway. Possums and rabbits, raccoons with their thick, ringed tails stiffened with blood. Pets too—a couple of half-eaten dogs, three mangled house cats. But when an eight-year-old boy goes missing, just outside the county line, the city of Jackson takes notice. There is talk, so much talk, heated, frantic. Everywhere mouths working hot, lips puffed and jaws aching with the strain of it, a frenzy of talk.

Florrie, having lunch in a downtown café, wants to talk too.

“I wish you wouldn’t.” Her sister Wynn sits beside her at the table, a fat baby slumped in her lap. It is midafternoon, a Saturday. They sit at an outdoor table because Florrie says she likes the breeze, though it’s summer in Mississippi and the air almost thick enough to see. Though both of them suffer from sensitive skin and are prone to heat rashes, hives.

A copy of the Clarion Ledger is spread between them. Florrie runs her finger over the headline: Panther Stalks Hinds County. “Imagine it,” Florrie says. “Being eaten. The cold eyes of an animal the last thing you see.” But she knows it’s useless to say this. She knows exactly how Wynn will respond.

“You’re being morbid,” Wynn says.

“But aren’t you nervous?”

“No.” Wynn bounces the baby in her lap, making the fat jiggle around its slack mouth. “We’ll stay far away from there, won’t we?” She pushes her bottom lip out in a pout, says, “My poor little guy.”

Florrie is used to this kind of talk. Wynn has taken to feeling sorry for the baby, and also for her first child, Cissy, since her husband ran off two months ago. Up and gone, Wynn explained it, out of nowhere.

“It’s not a panther,” Florrie says. “There’s no such thing.”

“Of course there is.” Wynn blinks down at her water glass.

“No.” Florrie fights an urge to snap at her, to pound her fist to get her attention. “It’s just a myth. It’s what they call any breed of big cat, if it’s black.” Florrie has done her research. In fact, she’s done little else these past several weeks. Truth is, she saw the panther, there in the woods. She was out there, not alone, her back pressed to the broad trunk of a tree and it came to her all at once that something wasn’t right. A feeling she’d had before, a feeling that had nothing to do with who she was with, what she was doing. It was urgent, painful, a sharp stitch beneath her ribs, like voodoo. Something not right and she stood there, swallowed in dark, her eyes open wide and darting from tree to tree and then she saw it. She is sure that she saw it—the sleek black head, eyes glowing evil through a tangle of tree limbs, bushes. She felt then that it was not a panther, but something far worse.

But she can’t explain this to Wynn, who won’t understand. Wynn is only two years older than Florrie, and both have the same dark hair, same sharply pointed nose and small pale eyes. Outwardly so similar, nearly identical, but Wynn will never understand.

“I don’t know why you want to sit outside,” Wynn says.

“Of course you don’t,” Florrie says, then, “I like the air.” And she’d like to think that it’s true, that she does like the air, that there’s no other reason. No dark, bent head and slumped shoulders, no big angry hands that she hopes, if only for a moment, to glimpse.

Behind them, a man tapes a yellow flyer to the door of the café. Residents of Hinds County Urged to Avoid Wooded Areas, it reads, and Children Strongly Urged to Remain Indoors After Dark. “Heaven knows,” Wynn says, pointing to the flyer, “why you think you’ve got this figured out.”

The baby spits up a milky fluid. Florrie turns away, turns back to her paper. On the front page is a photo: in grainy black and white, the highway, empty save for three policemen clustered together, their heads hung low as if shamed. Behind them and far above, clumps of trees, of bushes, tall weeds and wild flowers crowding the background. Florrie taps the photo with her finger—“I was there,” she says, because she cannot help it. “Just weeks ago. Right there, driving south.” She is tightly wound, swollen, like if she moved at all, even to swat the fly buzzing round her plate, she’d burst open and spill across the table into her sister’s lap.

“Don’t bring it up to Cissy,” Wynn says. “She’s morbid enough.” She dips her napkin into her water glass, dabs her face. “Hot, hot, hot.” Wynn is beginning to flush, the pink blotches spreading up from her neck like a stain, which means probably Florrie is too.


They leave the café on foot, Wynn pushing the baby in its stroller. Jackson is not a town for walking and they make slow progress over the cracked sidewalks, the busy cross streets. The flyers go up all around them—on telephone poles, doors, fences, windshields. Garish yellow consuming the landscape, drawing crowds and clicking tongues. A young man up ahead calls to passersby: “A tragedy upon us! God’s vengeance upon us!” He is without his shirt and his skinny, hairless chest heaves.

“He’s happy,” Florrie says, when they pass.

“He doesn’t look happy.”

Florrie spreads her arms wide. “They all are.” Because it’s like a celebration outside, the flyers themselves festive. Like Mardis Gras beads littering the streets and everywhere people snatch them up, wave them above their heads. All of them alive with it, full to bursting with the panther—so rare and exotic, so mysterious. Florrie would like to join them. She’d like to toss flyers in the air and dance among the fluttering yellow. But it would be a lie, because she knows what they do not; she knows that something, surely, is wrong.

They pass a group of women who stand, smoking, in front of the bookstore. “I’ll tell you what,” one of them says, “that animal’s got a taste for human blood.”

The women shudder, bring their cigarettes to their mouths.

“I wonder,” another says, “if we should close up early today?”

“It seems valid.”

“We could put up a sign,” the first says, “to explain.”

“A panther day,” Florrie offers, because they’re ridiculous.

They look at her blankly and she adds, “Like a snow day.”

“Yes, that’s it, isn’t it?” one says. The others nod. “That’s what we’ll call it.” And they puff their cigarettes and continue to talk.

Florrie and Wynn move on. “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Wynn says. “Talking to people on the street.”

“They don’t mind.” In fact, from the looks of it, no one minds. The streets are crowded, even for a Saturday, everyone out to take part. It makes them special, famous; all the local stations and even some in Birmingham have covered the story. Florrie thinks Elliot must have heard by now. He must have heard, and so he will come back to check on the family he left behind, his small children, his abandoned wife. Florrie herself. She wonders if the same has occurred to Wynn—that Elliot, her husband, could turn up at any minute, that he could emerge in the street like a chimera among the yellow confetti, the worship.

They reach the public playground; the children are in on it, too. A group of boys tumble together in the grass, growling and pawing at one another. Baring their small teeth. Girls run shrieking, laughing, as boys chase them on all fours. One boy has even painted his nose black and drawn whiskers across his cheeks.

“Damn idiots,” Florrie says.

“Watch your mouth,” Wynn hisses and points at the baby.

The baby is asleep and drooling on itself. It would maybe look better made up like a panther. Give some distinction to its too-round, too-soft face.

They enter the playground through an iron gate and find Cissy on the swings. She comes here Saturdays with the daycare kids—Wynn’s idea, to give the child some social skills. Cissy is a quiet girl, often distracted. She continues to swing as they approach, her large dark eyes turned up to the sky.

“We got her on the slide,” the young woman, the sitter, tells Wynn. “But she wouldn’t go down.”

“Why not, Cissy?” Wynn says.

Cissy drags her feet along the ground, kicking up a cloud of dirt. “There’s a bad smell up there.” She points. She is six, big eyed, skinny. Fatherless now, and so like him in every way.

“That’s just dirt,” Wynn says. “We’ve talked about this.”

“No.” Cissy shakes her head. Her black hair, messed from the wind, hangs tangled over her shoulders. “It comes from them.” She waves her hand at a group of giggling children lined up to slide.

Behind Wynn, Florrie nods at the child. She can’t help but agree with Cissy. She wouldn’t like to play with these children either. So unnaturally cheerful, most of them.


Cissy in tow, they continue their walk through downtown. Despite the heat, despite their delicate skin, they walk every Saturday and have done so since Wynn’s husband left. Wynn was with Elliot a long time and Florrie remembers him as a boy in his early twenties—sullen, big shouldered and dark eyed and back then Florrie judged him secretly, his pointless brooding, his self-absorbed anger at the world. Selfish, she called him. It was all for show, this emotion, and somehow she knew he felt the same about her. That had changed. Something had happened to him, to her, and only recently, only in the weeks before he left, he began to look at her. All of them together for a dinner, she would turn and there he’d be, looking. Or over coffee at their mother’s condo, Wynn distracted by the baby, their mother prattling on about her suitors, Cissy dark in a corner, and Florrie would feel his eyes on her, his big, dark eyes that touched her from across the room. Forced her to look back.

“Look!” Wynn stops suddenly, points. Florrie stops too, overcome with memory, all her body heavy and sweating and for one brief second she thinks Wynn has spotted Elliot, that Elliot has come back, and then, “Isn’t that Mom?” Wynn says.

Florrie presses her palm against her cheek. It’s the heat, the sun too strong and close; it hurts her eyes, makes her quiver. “Of course not,” she says, though there’s no reason why it couldn’t be their mother, the thin figure of an elderly woman, stepping briskly out of a big white van. The van says Apple Orchard Retirement Community on the side, and so, in fact, it is their mother, along with several other elderly men and women who file slowly out of the van and gather, dubious, on the sidewalk.

“Let’s not bother her,” Florrie says.

“She’ll want to see us, Florrie,” Wynn says. “And Cissy and the baby.”

“What’s this?” their mother is saying when they reach her. “They’ve taken us to the wrong place.” The van has pulled up in front of a flower shop. The sign on its door, old and peeling, shows a burst of roses and violets, their colors all faded to pale yellows and grays. “I won’t go in there,” their mother says. “I wanted the salon.” She is speaking to no one in particular. Then, waving maniacally to Wynn and Florrie, “Oh girls,” she says, “that’s nice! You’ve come to take me to the salon.”

“No,” Florrie says.

“They said we’ve got to go back early tonight,” their mother continues. “And I got all dressed up, too.” She is wearing a dark red dress and shiny black heels, tan panty hose in spite of the heat because she must cover her thin, veiny legs. Her hair, which she keeps long and dyes black, is braided down her back like a girl’s. “They said there’s a curfew,” she says. “Which I think is nonsense.”

“Say hello to your grandma,” Wynn tells Cissy. The child hangs back, behind Florrie. She peeks her head around Florrie’s waist, her dark eyes blinking up at her mother.

“Hello there,” their mother says. “Hello, hello.” She stoops to get a closer look at Cissy. “You’re like a tiny doll!” she says, as if she’s never seen the girl, though Wynn brings her to their mother’s condo at least three times a month. Then, “What’s that? What’re you doing?” she shouts.

An old man squats, slowly, at her feet and grabs a yellow flyer from the sidewalk. He takes a long time standing back up on his shrunken legs. He brings the flyer up to his eyes, palsied hand shaking, and says, “It’s no panther responsible for this.” His voice comes out surprisingly deep and even, as if, unlike the rest of him, it has refused to age.

“You think so?” Florrie says.

He squints, as if trying to place her, then, “No animal that’s done it, I can tell you,” he says, “and something else too—” But he stops suddenly, shuts his eyes. The flyer drops from his trembling fingers. His yellow cheeks sag; his mouth opens, all gums, and what comes out is low and choked, guttural, and Florrie realizes that he’s crying.

“He’s wet himself.” Their mother points to a dark stain spreading over the front of his pants. “Again.”

And, as if out of shame, he collapses onto Florrie, his whole weight dragging her down, his wet face buried against her neck. Florrie is overcome with the stench of him—something medicinal mixed with the smells of urine and sweat. They stumble together to the ground and as Florrie hits the pavement, it’s Wynn she sees, Wynn’s face looming above, her lip curled back in horror. A young woman—his nurse?—rushes over. “It’s all right, Mr. Crowe,” she says. “It’s all right. It’s all right.” Florrie, from the ground, watches as the nurse helps him to his feet and leads him back to the van. When he realizes where he’s headed, he begins to shout in his deep, strong voice, “I know what’s going on here! I know what’s going to happen. None of you can fool me!” But he allows the nurse to buckle him into the van and close the door.

It’s not until later, after the van has driven away and their mother has decided to join Wynn and Florrie for their walk, that Florrie thinks maybe it happened to the old man too, what had happened to her. In the middle of an embrace, moon throwing shadows and suddenly everything much too quiet—the overwhelming sense that something is wrong, all her skin gone damp, an animal-like instinct to cower, hide.

Had he ever felt—like she did, like she still does—that some dark, lurking thing lies in wait for him, that it could spring at any moment, all claws and teeth, and latch itself against his throat?

She’d like to follow that van, get him alone, make him tell her what he knows. But probably, it’s too late.


It is late afternoon now, closing in on evening, and hotter than before—all the day’s earlier heat piling up, layer after layer, so that it clings thick to their necks and chests. They pass several people fanning themselves with the yellow flyers. They pass an outdoor bar with speakers tuned to a local radio station. The DJ is saying, “—rumors of panther sightings, and some believe that the animal has moved north, into the heart of the city.”

 Florrie says, “It could be stalking us this very minute.”

“You’re scaring the children,” Wynn says.

“Of course they’re scared,” their mother says. “Their father gone off and you parading them out in the heat.”

Wynn stops in the middle of the sidewalk. “What do you want, Mother?” Her face is flushed, blotched. “I’m doing the best I can,” and there’s a catch, a hitch in her voice, like she’s fighting to keep the rest back. She wins, of course, and says nothing else, and Florrie is reminded of Wynn’s expression, as the old man collapsed, the outrage at such an open loss of control. Wynn herself would never show that much emotion, not where anyone could see. She never has.

“He’ll die soon,” Florrie says.

“Who?” Her mother turns to her. “What’re you saying?”

“That man. He looked bad off.” Florrie finds her mother’s eyes, pale eyes like Wynn’s, like her own, and paler now than ever, faded with age. “Will he die today, do you think?”

“What’s wrong with you, Florrie?” her mother says. “For God’s sake!”

“You know him,” Florrie says. “How old is he? He can’t last much longer.”

“Hush!” Her mother presses her hands to her ears. “You’re morbid, Florrie. You were always so morbid!”

Morbid is her mother’s word, and Wynn’s. They’ve used it on Florrie for as long as she can remember, and she’s not sure they even know what it means. Because she’s not obsessed with death. But there are times, so many times, when something is wrong, and how can they never feel it too? She herself has felt it, on and off, for years. The first time she was a child; she was only fourteen and blindsided. The memory is vivid still—the middle of the night and the room she shared with Wynn all dark, quiet. Florrie lay curled on her side, listening to the rise and fall of Wynn’s breathing, so soft and even, and, for no reason at all, Florrie flung the blankets away and shot straight up as if fighting her way out of a nightmare. But she hadn’t been asleep. She was wide awake and suddenly terrified, her breath coming so fast and hard it shook her chest, her hands locked together and pressed tight to her mouth as if to keep it back, keep it down—whatever it was, whatever had come to her there, in the dark. She stayed like that, fists crammed to her mouth, until it passed, until she could lie back, bury her face into her pillow, reason with herself. Because it was unaccountable, ridiculous. There was nothing there, nothing to be afraid of. Wynn was not afraid. She slept on, slept peacefully, while Florrie struggled not to scream, struggled not to wake her sister and force her to share this terror.

“Stop it, Florrie,” Wynn is saying now. “Stop depressing everybody.”

Florrie would like to tell Wynn, “You’ll rot like that man and so will Mother. All of us will rot.” But there’s never any sharing with Wynn, who doesn’t understand.

There comes a sudden tug on Florrie’s hand. Cissy gazes up at her. “I want to see the panther.”

“It’s not a panther.”

They walk on for a time in silence but for the babbling of the baby and the clack of their mother’s heels. A brisk clack at first, but gradually slowing. The heat must be getting to her.

Wynn notices it, too. “Let’s stop and go in.” She points to a costume shop on their right. Through the front window, a twinkle of sequins, a sheen of patent leather. Racks of dresses and wigs like so many fancified people lined up in rows.

Florrie doesn’t want to go in. She has been there recently. She has been there with Elliot, just before he left. She had tried on a pair of long lady’s gloves, a sequined headband. He walked right up to her, real close, grabbed her by the shoulders. “You look just like her,” he said, meaning Wynn. “But there’s something different. I don’t know.” Those hands on her shoulders, big and heavy and burning right through her shirt, and she wished, suddenly, that her shoulders were bare, that she could feel his fingers against her naked skin. “How come I never saw it before?” he said.

Florrie’s arms broke out in a rash from the gloves, itched and burned for two days straight.

“All right, if you want,” their mother says. Her panty hose have stretched with the heat, and sag around her ankles. Her black braided hair is beginning to frizz. “I guess you want to.” She follows Wynn and the baby inside.

Cissy moves as if to follow, but Florrie grabs her hand, holds her back.

“I want to see the masks,” Cissy says.

Florrie crouches in front of her, takes her by the shoulders. “Listen,” she says, “have you seen your daddy?”

Cissy only stares up at her.

“At the playground maybe?” Florrie glances quickly at the door to the shop, then back down at Cissy. “Did Daddy come to see you at the playground?”

Cissy shakes her head. “Daddy’s gone to Graceland,” she says. “Momma said so.”

Florrie slides her hands down the girl’s arms, wraps her fingers round her tiny wrists. “It’s okay, Cissy,” she says. “You can tell me.”

“What do you want to know?” Cissy struggles against Florrie’s grip. “Let me loose!”

Florrie fights the urge to shake the child, to dig her fingernails into her flesh. “I want you,” she says, “to tell me about your daddy. I know you saw your daddy.”

All at once, Cissy is still. “At the playground?” She squints, as if trying to remember.

“What did he say? What did he tell you, Cissy?”

“He said,” Cissy says, “that he came to see the panther.” And suddenly, she smiles. “He said to tell you to take me there.”

Florrie buckles. Wound up for weeks, all her body too tight and wanting to burst at the seams. Only she has no seams, nothing but this too-sensitive flesh, and she lets go of Cissy and wraps her arms over her chest, hugging herself.

“He found me,” Cissy says, “and he told me not to tell anybody but you, and he said tonight he’s going out there.”

The shop door opens, and Wynn and their mother step out. “Costume shop, my foot,” their mother is saying. “Who would pay money for someone’s used tutu? Not me, girls. I guarantee you.”

“You should’ve seen the hats, Cissy,” Wynn says. She pushes the stroller up the street, their mother beside her. But, for a moment, Florrie and Cissy hang back.

“What else?” Florrie says. “What else, Cissy?” She reaches to touch the child’s face, but her fingers miss their mark, become tangled in Cissy’s long black hair.

“Don’t tug,” Cissy says; then, “He said you know where to take me.”

If only Florrie could run now, with the girl. Run all the way there this very minute, and instead she grabs Cissy’s hand and runs to catch up with Wynn. Runs laughing and panting, her long, dark curls blown back from her face. Lips parted, legs itching in the heat, and she waves her free hand, yells, “Hold up for us! Wynn! Hold up!” Laughing, she shouts. Cissy laughs too. They’re contagious and Wynn, turning back at their noise, grins. She shakes her head at Florrie, looks right into her eyes and laughs along with her. The two of them, Florrie and Wynn, laughing like they haven’t in the six long weeks since Elliot left. They laugh like idiots and laugh harder because they know it, and because their mother stands by and frowns.


Later, when it’s dark, when the streets are nearly empty, Florrie sneaks Cissy from Wynn’s house. It’s not so difficult, with Wynn already in bed and Cissy ready, waiting by the back door.

“He said he’d wait for us out there,” Cissy says. “In the woods.”

“I know where.” Florrie has not changed her clothes. She has not combed her hair or otherwise prepared herself in any way. She has done nothing but pace the length of her small studio apartment, back and forth, until her legs shook with effort. Two hours she paced and remembered, played it all over in her mind: how, just before he kissed her, his huge dark eyes stared right into her, all the way through, seeing her. Seeing so much of her and then he groaned, as if it hurt him. That groan, the memory of it each time sends a thrill all down her body.

“Will we see the panther?” Cissy wants to know.

Florrie glances over at her, at her profile, the gentle slope of her nose, her soft, unformed features. But for the eyes, she is a baby still.

It takes less than ten minutes to get where they’re going—a stretch of woods just off the highway. Florrie remembers it well. And there are markers: the charred frame of a barn, the rotted wood fence that runs, half-heartedly, along the road.

Florrie parks the car beside the fence. “Stay here.”  

“He said to come with you.”

“All right.”

Florrie lifts her over the fence. Together, they hop the shallow ditch. Cissy falls and scratches her knees but does not cry. There’s not much moon tonight, everything dark. But loud, the bugs screaming from the weeds and the frogs down in the ditch, calling harshly. Cissy says she hears a horse too, but Florrie tells her that it’s not possible. They move into the trees.

Florrie has forgotten a flashlight. She has forgotten everything but Elliot, that she will see Elliot. She will touch Elliot. And what will he suggest? What will be his plan?—questions she chooses to ignore. She wants no questions. Only for him to look at her like he did before, to come to her out of this dark.

They stand against the trunk of a tall pine. Cissy gazes up at her. The child’s enormous eyes, like a lemur’s, take up most of her face. Same eyes as her father, same expression—something lurking there, just beneath, and for a moment it’s as if the child understands her, as if she knows her through and through. Mosquitoes whine in her ear. From above comes the cry of a night bird. Cissy shifts her gaze, and the moment passes. She is a child again. Strange, quiet, not like other children, but a child all the same. Elliot’s child. And Wynn’s.

It’s too hot. Too many trees holding the heat close. Cissy’s little hand presses damp into hers. “Momma will be angry,” she says.

With her free hand, Florrie lifts her hair from the back of her neck. Her eyes have adjusted to the dark, the woods taking shadowy shape. Was it here, against this very tree, that Elliot ran his hands over her bare stomach, kissed her throat, her collar bone? She’s not sure, but it’s close enough. Close enough to the place where, only weeks ago, he’d pushed her up against the rough bark, nipped her breasts with his teeth. So much emotion, so much urgency, so raw and untamed and what could anyone like him ever see in someone as cool and contained as Wynn? And when he bent Florrie’s head back and whispered in her ear that, “there’s so much wrong with what we’re doing,” Florrie had thought how nice it would be, how comforting if that was it, the reason for her feeling, like she had even then, as he pressed his body against hers, that something wasn’t right. That the world was off. That it had always been off, and that she, Florrie, a skinny woman moaning against a tree, was nothing more than the rest of it, no more significant than the bird twittering in the branches above, than the mosquitoes lighting on her flesh, than the tree itself, supporting her weight, and Elliot’s too.

“Won’t Momma be angry?” Cissy says.

“Your mother is never angry.” Never anything, Florrie thinks, but shocked by other people’s emotions. Like she’d been when the old man wet himself. Shocked and sickened. But then, Florrie remembers how she’d laughed, how they’d both laughed, together. Their own loss of control, laughing until their jaws ached, until both of them had messed their faces and their mother had scolded them fiercely. And Wynn’s mouth, so wide open and smiling, and Florrie had never seen that much of her teeth, of her gums, of the fleshy pink and white beyond the carefully set face. It surprised Florrie to see that Wynn’s bottom teeth are rather crooked.

Sweat drips into Florrie’s eyes and stings. She wipes the back of her hand across her face, which is too hot. The sudden rustle of branches makes her jump. Probably a squirrel.

“Don’t be angry,” Cissy says.


Cissy’s fingers dig into her palm. “Daddy’s not coming,” she says. “I didn’t see him. He never came back.”

Florrie’s face, the skin of her neck, her chest feels strange. Much too tight, as if it’s shrinking. Or she’s swelling up beneath it. “What are you saying?” she says, but it comes out wrong, high and windy.

“Something’s wrong with your face,” Cissy says.

It burns. All at once, all over, and she fans her face with her hands, cries out and finds that her throat burns too. Her eyes dart from the trees to the ground, to Cissy’s pale face. Even her eyes burn and she squeezes them shut, drops into a crouch. She’s never felt this—like her skin is alive and separate from her, like it crackles and ripples with a will all its own.

“Something’s wrong,” Cissy is saying.

The thought comes to Florrie—maybe she’s dying out here. She will die out here in the woods, and it’s the panther that’s done it. She stumbles blindly to her feet, bumps Cissy, the tree and then falls against the grass, which is cool to her burning skin, and she throws her arms up over her head and stays that way.

At some point, she is conscious that she is alone. At some point, she is aware that her face and neck have broken out into hives, wide red welts that spread to her chest and arms. She should get up. She should find Cissy. She knows this. But what she doesn’t know is that Cissy is far off now, past the barn and the rotted fence and back on the empty highway, running toward home. Running as if the panther is right on her heels, her tiny feet slapping the pavement, the road long and flat and light grey against the black of the woods. She is a blur, a darting shadow, flitting past trees and wire fences and eventually a house or two. A couple sitting on their porch see her pass, so small and dark that they think she’s the panther and not a child running because she is afraid, because there’s something wrong back there. Young as she is, she felt it and she feels it still, even as she tells herself, over and over like a prayer, that it’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right.  end

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