This story is by Teresa (Tess) Karlinski and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Adults told me I lived an easy life: young, carefree, no school worries—just fun and games. I used to be an ordinary kid.
I had rules, however, which needed repeating—often—as I couldn’t remember all of them.
—Don’t you ever leave this yard!
—You better come when I call you.
—Wash your hands before meals.
—Don’t leave your tricycle in the street.
That was before the reversion.
I remember Mom told me a new brother or sister would arrive soon. Her lady friends teased her about her tummy. “When’s the baby coming, Jean?”
“Three months.” She smiled a lot during those days. I didn’t understand but experienced anxiety. Nobody else I knew had a baby brother or sister. An only child, I wanted someone to play with other than Johnny from across the hallway—someone less rough—someone who knew how to play with a girl. My doll’s head flew off when he banged it on the floor. He wasn’t a good husband and refused to eat my mud pies when we played house.
One day Johnny left his tricycle in the street and a car smashed it. He cried and cried but his daddy said, “That’s it, Mr. Smart Guy! You’re not getting a new one until you learn to look after your things.”
Johnny stopped crying and stared at me. Arms crossed, I shook my head. “This is my bike and you’re not touching it,” I stamped my foot. I always took good care of my bike. What if he left mine in the street too? He always lost his toys and broke them. What a scatterbrain, though he was almost six like me.
Larder Lake, where we lived, had a rocky shoreline wrapped around the lake in the shape of a sickle. A fish smell always hung in the air. On weekends, boys and their fathers fished off the town dock. Farther along the road, we enjoyed swimming at the beach.
Except for the main street, the roads were graveled not paved; slick after rain and dust-choking in dry weather. The wooden houses were small; some without basements. Each had a woodstove, whose chimney caught fire now and again, keeping the fire department busy. We had more rock than grass except in the churchyard.
A humble town, we survived with basics.
The townspeople came from all over the world after World War II. The war had been a terrible time. Though poor, everybody wanted a fresh start in a new country. The primary language French, people spoke many tongues: Swedish, Ukrainian, Russian, English and Polish, My family spoke Polish.
Every day my father worked in the gold mine. All the men did. Mom filled a black, humped lunchbox with rye sandwiches wrapped in wax paper and coffee in a thermos, latched in the hump. Sometimes he worked all night. Mom grew distant and afraid if he did not arrive home on time, scaring me. I wanted to know what he did there. No one explained.
One time our fathers went hunting. I found a large bird in a brown paper bag on my mother’s kitchen counter. It still had its brown and gray feathers but it was dead. “Look what my father brought from the woods today.”
“No, he didn’t.” Johnny raised his tone. “My dad got it and gave it to your dad. You’re s-o-o-o stupid” He grabbed one end and I tugged at the other.
“No, you’re stupid and your ears look like teapot handles.” I shouted louder than usual, too.
I pulled and Johnny yanked and we fell apart. Rip. Thump. He held the head and neck. The bloody bag with the rest of the body tumbled to the floor. What a bad stink. I ran crying to my mother in the bedroom. She gave me a lecture about minding my own business and leaving alone what didn’t belong to me.
In our three-story apartment building close to the lake on Godfrey Street, we lived on the second floor. We had a kitchen, bathroom, a small, windowless bedroom for me, and one for my parents. I remember my bed had a gray blanket I disliked.
Johnny’s and my parents’ bathrooms shared the same wall, which didn’t reach to the ceiling. Sometimes Johnny and I shouted to each other when we were in the bath.
* * *
An old man bent like a fish hook and a thin, small woman owned a dress shop on the street floor of our building. Their faces were wrinkled. They looked tired and old like grandparents though they had a girl and a boy—Patricia and Roger—who attended high school. The girl had a white dog with black spots and different colored eyes, one brown and the other blue. She loved that dog. I know because she cried and cried when a car hit it. I thought Roger liked it too. He hugged his sister when she cried the day the dog died in the street but rolled his eyes.
Both brother and sister were bad. Roger was worse. I saw him with his friends, swinging a white cat by its tail. “I bet I can go the highest.” Roger shrieked, his eyes peculiar. His friends laughed for a while; they watched and looked at each other.
“You’re the champ, Rog,” Mervin said. The cat yowled and yowled; it hurt my ears. I wanted it to stop shrieking. Then skinny Roger with his strange face threw it into the lake.
“Look at this guys. It can’t even swim.” Hands trembling, he smirked their way, then back to the drowning cat. His friends shook their heads and scrammed.
Patricia stole lipstick and perfume from the dry goods store. Roger stole comic books. The neighbors watched as the town policeman hiked down the street to their front door many times. Loud yelling followed his visit.
“How many times have I told you stealing is wrong?” His father, Mr. Novak, hollered loud for a small man. “I’ll not spoil the child nor spare the rod.” I heard a slap.
“Ouch.” Something crashed. “Don’t touch me again, old man.” Roger’s voice rumbled loud and harsh.
That last summer before we started school, Johnny and I played hide-go-and-seek in the graveled backyard. Summer ending, the day continued warm. Johnny hid; I pretend-counted: five, seven, three. I waited for a long time before I yelled, “I’m coming.” If I counted too long, Johnny lost interest and wandered off someplace else.
I looked everywhere: under the long wooden stairs; behind a pile of chopped wood. I searched down by the garden; beside the bushes by the hotel next door; in the tall grass on the other side of the building. He’d disappeared. Tired of looking, I decided to go home. Wandering back along the length of woodsheds in the backyard, I dragged a stick along the dirt humming How Much is that Doggy in the Window? I didn’t know many words, just the tune. I stopped. My eyes widened. I brushed the raisin brown hair from my face. Aha. I’ve got you now. I grabbed the door of the corner shed—the Novaks’ shed—and rushed inside.
I gazed about at fragrant wood chopped and stacked along two walls. A wooden work table had tools scattered over it. A half-full crate of kindling leaned against a table leg. I’d hidden in there before. No Johnny anywhere.
An axe sliced into the chopping block, its handle low and vertical. This meant it was wedged deep. My daddy taught me that. I noticed a sour rust smell—and saw the blood and ginger fur on the stump. Another cat. Don’t look. I couldn’t stop myself. I knew Roger had done it. He chopped and stacked the wood for his father. I gagged and ran before he found out I knew.
Some time afterward, Roger’s parents sent him away. Adults whispered amongst themselves. “There’s something strange about that boy.”
“He’s a funny kind of sick.”
“Who understands such things?”
* * *
I don’t recall telling anyone what I found. No one mentioned the true reason Roger went away. Mental health issues weren’t recognized. If you ignored strange events, they didn’t exist. Even adults didn’t discuss certain things.
During the 50s, children were expected to exist like shadows without a voice. Children like me tended to hear things in those shadows. I knew nothing about eavesdropping; I wasn’t clever enough yet. Adults kept forgetting little ears have a certain kind of radar.
I buried this memory somehow. Had I told my parents what I’d found, what would they have done except say, “Don’t think about it and it’ll go away. There’s a good girl.”
Years passed. I survived, but I wonder about this memory. Is it real or is my imagination overactive? How is it that I’m okay?