A kid/his sister get revenge on a sadistic headmaster. Child and sexual abuse themes.
I remember once telling Erin that there is nothing scarier than a darkened window in a big house. Nothing’s scarier, she amended, than a lighted window in a big house, because that means that somebody’s home. In hindsight I believe that a subset of our psychosis was being displayed here; my level of trust, her level of mis-trust. I had thought about saying, but didn’t, if the great fear is that somebody’s home, then you most likely are somewhere you have no business being. I knew that it didn’t really matter much. For as long as I had known my big sister I had never known a place she would not venture, prohibited or not, or an order that she would not take as a direct challenge to disobey.
However, when the second-story window to the left lit up we both let out a short shriek, and then both cupped our hands tightly across our mouths. The light in the window hovered in the darkness, questioning, like a sentinel, and then shut off. Erin and I both let out a sigh in union.
“Do you think he heard us?” I asked, hoarsely.
“No way.” Erin replied.
I knew that she was right. We had been moving up through the grass – still damp from that afternoon’s rain – so slowly that if we had been moving about in circles we probably would’ve looked, from above, like the two hands on a clock. Erin the minute and I the hour, for I was lagging a nervous yard behind.
I gazed up at the dim two-story house. It was old, gnarled, and almost certainly haunted. Backed by a line of pines that looked like upside-down fangs. The moon was out in force – a full one, that night – and it cast a dark silhouette across the house that made it look like something out of a children’s pop-up book, as if it would suddenly come alive and come at me like a jack-in-the-box. A metal fence with pointed tips circled the house. We stood on the other side, looking in. The two-story house was a peculiar combination of brick-work and siding. The front of the house, the side that stared back at us, was a brown-brick that looked almost identical the public-school building. Behind it, on the back side of the house, was a larger granite style brick that looked like something that an old church might be constructed from. The second floor, front and back, was a tan plaster siding that must’ve been renovated on some years after the brick had been laid. All of this lead up to a shingled roof that was black and hard to distinguish against the night sky. A true Frankenstein’s monster of a house. Stitched together with patchwork.
“C’mon, I say we turn back.” I said, my voice faraway and weak. “What if we get caught?”
“We won’t.” Erin replied. “Stop being such a baby.”
“He’s bound to catch us. He probably already knows what we’re up to. I bet you that he’s waiting for us right now! Right behind that door.” I pointed a thumb at the large front door that seemed to me to be beckoning.
“Listen to yourself! You really have lost your bird. He was probably just going to the bathroom or putting his glass eye in a jar of water or something. You know, like old people do with their teeth.”
The image of that did nothing to steady my nerves, which were playing tug-of-war with my feet. Keeping my eyes fixed on the house, thinking that at any given moment it would pounce, I reached out and gingerly touched the fence. I had half expected it to swing ominously open all by itself, perhaps with a thirsty squeak, the way that they always do in those old horror movies. But it didn’t. I pulled softly on the gate and the rusted joints didn’t hold their peace. The cemetery silence of the night was broken off by a shriek that seemed impossibly loud.
“Shhh!” Erin scolded me.
“It’s locked.” I said. That much was obvious. “How do you expect us to get in now?”
“Over the top, stupid!”
My eyes went to the top of the gate. It should be noted that at this time I was eleven-years old and stood only 4’7”. Erin was fourteen and was half a foot taller. No easy feat. At least, not for me. A brass plaque at ground level on the gate read, 606 Stoneway Drive¸ and below that, Mr. Edward K. Hossler. It looked almost identical to the brass nameplate that marked his office door at the public-school building. The word Headmaster engraved above, instead of an address.
“Nu-uh, I can’t climb that high.” I confessed.
“Sure, you can. I’ve seen you do it on monkey bars all the time.”
“That’s different.” I said slowly, my eyes still locked on the metal tips of the gate that were filed into a sharp point. One slip and you’d pop like a balloon. That was the first image that came to my eleven-year-old brain. It was followed by the image of a kid sputtering around in the air like a deflating balloon, propelled by wheezing air from a hole in his belly.
Erin removed the backpack that was strapped across her shoulders - I had no idea why she had brought it – and tossed it over the gate like a shot-put. It landed with a wet thud on the grass on the other side. Well, that was it. No turning back now.
“Watch and learn.” Erin said, as if she wasn’t half a foot taller and gold medal championship of the high school gymnastics team.
She reached up as high as she could and grappled the metal bars with both hands. Then, like a squirrel, pounced up and planted her shoes on the gate. She was now five feet off the ground.
“Hey, be careful.” I said, perhaps trivially.
Her face showed not even the faintest trace of effort, even as she propelled her body into a backwards somersault and quite literally cartwheeled over the top of the gate. There was a split-second moment where the top of her head hovered right above the pointed metal tips and I could feel a stone in my mouth that I would only later realize was my tongue. She’s going to slip, I thought, hysterically. She’s going to slip and corkscrew down on the fence! Oh God, I can already hear the crack of her skull and wet squishing of her brains! By the time that both of her feet had landed in the grass below her I would also realize that my hands were clenched into fists so tight that my nails had left red crescent indentations in my palms.
Erin grinned, bowed, and shifted her weight between legs, impatiently, unaware that in my head she was still dangling from the gate like a slab of beef in a butcher shop, spewing leaking brains.
“Simon says.” She said, smirking,
I tried my best to hide the astonishment on my face. You see, I did have something of an adolescent boyish pride. Okay, so maybe something isn’t exactly the right word. Maybe fierce would be more appropriate. The byproduct of growing up with an older sister who could kick my butt at literally anything; athletics, video games, trivia, you name it. I had developed a poker face to match my pride. If Erin had, instead, levitated off the ground and flew over the gate with wings I would have still only muttered back a slightly bored, meh, not bad. Form could have been better.
In my stupidity, I said, “That’s nuthin’. Watch this!”
I was wearing a baseball cap which I turned backwards and rolled the sleeves to my hoodie up above my elbows. Erin was observing this with a bemused expression that did nothing to resolve my determination.
I reached up and grabbed the metal gate. It was hallowed and metallic. Hard to get a good grip on, especially considering that it was still damp from the rain. I tried to pull my body up, but my grip didn’t hold, and I slid right back down to my feet. I glanced over to Erin. She had an eyebrow cocked.
Sun was in my eyes? No, don’t be stupid, it’s dark. I spat in my palms and rubbed it between my hands. “Gotta warm up.” I said. Erin nodded, engrossed.
Again, I got hold of two of the bars. This time, however, my feet made it up off the ground. I think I was probably grinning like a fool, but I couldn’t help it. Alright, I told myself, just like the monkey bars. I pitched one of my sneakers in a nook created by a column. First the left foot, then the right. I was now slightly higher than Erin was when she had performed her high-wire act. I was much shorter, though.
“Are you watching?” I asked. She was, of course.
One of the tips of the gate was now directly at eye level. It gleamed in the moonlight menacingly, like the blade of a dagger. A black and white movie that I had once watched about a mad ruler named Vlad the Impaler came to me reluctantly. Bracing, eyes closed, teeth locked, I kicked as hard as I could with my feet and went literally head over heels. It was nothing like Erin’s graceful somersault. In fact, it wasn’t really much of a somersault at all. Much in the same way that a dive-bomb into a pool is the same thing as a dive. I went over with as much form as Erin’s bookbag. Then, suddenly, one of the pointed tips grabbed hold of me. I probably screamed. I don’t remember and I’m thankful for that. The tip snatched my pants by the knee and punctured a hole there. However, the gate’s business with me was far from over. It could have been waiting years for a stupid little boy to try this very endeavor and was determined have its full say on the matter. I could hear the humiliating RIP as my right pant leg was shredded into two strips. When the gate’s point had caught hold of the bottom rim of my pant leg it bobbed me tauntingly in the air for a humiliating second. I probably looked like a fish on a hook. Then, bored of toying with me, let me loose. I feel no shame in admitting to you that I did not land on my feet, as agile as Erin had. By this point I don’t believe that I had any shame left. As if my blundering somersault wasn’t embarrassing enough, I created a whole orchestra of noise doing it.
Next thing I know Erin was grabbing me and dragging my corpse – that is the right word – behind an overgrown hedge bush. The light in the upstairs window returned. This time, it was no mere bathroom trip.
“Nice one, Mr. Magoo.” Erin said, accusingly.
“I’m not as tall as you.” I confessed. It was as close to an apology as she would get.
We both peeked up above the hedge. Silhouetted in the window like a marionette was the gaunt and fragile outline of Mr. Hossler. He was wearing a robe that flowed around him like something that a king might wear in an old knight’s tale, as well as a sleeping cap that also made his outline look decidedly 15th century. He peered out into the darkness with his one good eye, swiveling his head like a turret. The white of his sole eye, in fact, was the only thing that I could distinguish apart from the black shadow.
“Erin, your bookbag!” I whispered in her ear.
The bookbag – hot pink, of course – was sitting among the grass as conspicuously as bull among mice.
“Crap!” Erin said, and I swallowed a lump.
“You’re gonna have to go snatch it.” She added.
“You’re kidding, no way!”
“You’re smaller than I am,” she whispered back, “and your hoodie is black enough to blend in.” That first bit made me wince. I felt the second would have sufficed alone.
“Why’d you have to bring that stupid thing anyway?”
“Shh! Just go snatch it.”
“Oh, man.” I groaned.
If Mr. Hossler had two working eyes, he would certainly have spotted the bookbag by now. It gleamed ethereally in the pale moonlight like an important item that a video game doesn’t want you to miss.
Laying down on my stomach, as close to the ground as I could get, I began my serpentine crawl. I looked like an earthworm slithering through the grass. I swayed my head from side to side, like a swimmer taking in breaths of air. Whenever Mr. Hossler’s outline would swivel my way, I’d stop, put my baseball cap to the ground, cup my hands behind my neck, and hold my breath. It was an agonizingly slow process. When I finally got within arm’s reach of the bookbag I lassoed a hand around one of the shoulder straps and inched it towards me. The bookbag, bright pink, didn’t look as natural as I did, black hoodie, winding across the grass. Please don’t see me, please don’t see me, please don’t see me, I whispered aloud. Then the light in the window was extinguished to blackness. I exhaled a caught breath but did not move. Mr. Hossler could still have been stealthily watching. After a moment without incident passed I felt confident enough and was determined to rise into a crouch and barrel quickly back, bookbag triumphantly in hand. Erin was giving me two very enthusiastic thumbs up, which made me momentarily forget about the whole gate mishap.
Then the front door swung open.
It cast an echo that played individual keys on my bones. Without even thinking, I pounced back behind the hedge like a runner jumping a hurdle. The bookbag landed on top of me, I landed on top of Erin. My right leg, still sore from my clumsy fall, twisted at an alarming angle that almost made me cry out. Erin must’ve seen the pain on my face for she quickly cupped her own hand across my mouth. I winced but remained silent.
Mr. Hossler’s outline filled the entire large frame of the open door. He was old, lanky and fragile, but tall. He was holding a flashlight before him that illuminated some of his features. He looked less a medieval king now and more like an over-sized bag of skin wrapped around bones. The loose robe that he wore fit him like a potato sack fitting one potato. Around his feet were a pair of thick felt slippers, also roomy, like clown shoes. His only eye was glaring attentively into the darkness of the night. Where his left eye should have been, was only a hole that was equally as dark and seemingly as bottomless. Silvery hair shot out from beneath his night cap in mere whiskers. A net of wrinkles drew crazy patterns on his face. Still, he looked remarkably strong. He didn’t shuffle his feet but took wide, gallant strides forward. Nor did he slouch. Well preserved, like canned olives.
He took about five wide steps and stopped in the middle of the front yard. His one eye scanning the darkness as though he had some internal night vision. I remembered than having once read that when you lose one of your senses your other senses are amplified. That such is the case with people who are blind or deaf. The insane notion flooded my head that perhaps this too is the case with people who lose an eye. Erin and I were dug deep into the hedge bush, but I felt exposed. Warm liquid trickled down the length of my right leg. Piss, I thought, with self-loathing, you big baby, you pissed yourself! However, when it glowed crimson in the moonlight I quickly realized that it was blood. When the gate tore my pant leg wide open it must have also broke skin. It may seem odd to you, but that was a relief.
I was still sprawled across Erin’s body like a blanket. The back of my head was pressed into her breasts and I could feel the rhythmic thump, thump, thump of her heartbeat building towards a crescendo. My own felt as though it could pound right out of my chest.
Mr. Hossler slowly made his way up to the latched gate. His footsteps were not careful and deliberate, like a man fearing an intruder, but bold, as if he were almost hoping to find an unwanted party in his front yard. It was the same way that he patrolled the school halls during class hours, like a walking sentry tower. And woe be to the wayward student whom he’d find dawdling on their way to the restroom.
Standing before the latched gate, he gave it three good thrusts with his hands. It clamored metallically but did not open. He inspected the lock. It held. Satisfied, he then turned and walked back towards the house. He looked like a ghost floating across the front yard; the white robes flowing around him, the beam from his flashlight convulsing. The front door creaked shut. A moment later, the second-story window lit up again, briefly, and then went black.
Erin and I sat there for a space of silence that could have been an hour, too horror-struck to move.
“Are you crazy?” I asked, at last.
“Will you get off me?” she simply said, pushing me off.
“Do you have any idea how much trouble we’re going to be in if we get caught?” The question was rhetoric. She did. “If dad finds out what we’re up he’s gonna whip us both.”
“We’re not going to get caught,” Erin said, “and Joe’s so blitzed he’ll be sleeping it off until tomorrow afternoon.”
Erin never referred to our step-dad as dad and used his first name instead. She might have been right. That afternoon he had come home with the salty smell of vinegar on his breath, and he had put away at least three more bottles afterward.
“Why did you bring this stupid thing anyway?” I asked, unzipping the bookbag.
Erin made a maniac lunge for it, but I quickly turned away, holding it out of reach. It reminded me of playing keep-away, like Sam and I would sometimes do with Erin’s things. She liked to pretend that she was helpless, as though she couldn’t kick both of our collective butts without breaking a bead of sweat. I mostly think that she was just humoring us. Humoring us in that patronizing big sister way that all older siblings do from time to time. The same way that she will sometimes magically loose a video game match after a particularly brutal stretch of wins.
I stuffed my hand into the book bag. At first, I thought that it was empty. Then my hand found a thin folder. I removed it and flipped open its contents.
“Finders keepers,” I grinned, “losers-”
I forgot what I had been saying and stared dumbly at what my hands held.
About a dozen print-off photos. Glossy, hi-def, withholding nothing. I had heard about pictures like these but had never actually seen them before. Kids talked about them in whispered tones on the playground. Nudes, they were called. Of who? All of the photos were cropped at the head. Some were in extreme close-up. Of Erin? I couldn’t tell. I didn’t try to. But still… Oh, God!
I threw the folder at Erin as though it contained a hornet’s nest.
I was eleven-years-old and still retained that omnipresent fear of some higher disciplinary power. We never lose that fear, just shift authorities. To children, it’s parents. To adults, it’s God. The same adolescent fear that had once made me glance guiltily around after saying one of the forbidden words in my head – I knew seven of them, with at least three variations of each – or after mentally undressing Sylvia Winters in math class now hounds me whenever I enter a cheaper produce product on the U-scan or when I palm a copy of the U.S.A Today on my way out, without paying. It hounds me through the parking lot on the way to my car and maybe I’ll even make silent vows to break the habit. However, by the time that I get to my car I’ll be thinking about something else entirely - work, dinner, gym – and the next time that I make a trip to Whole Foods you can just bet that I’ll be giving myself a discount and taking some reading material with me on the way, the same way that I still rolled those forbidden words over in my head, like a jawbreaker too sweet to stop sucking, or the same way that I still attended those mid-class floor shows held by Sylvia Winters.
“Jesus cow!” I think I said.
“Are you happy?” she replied, stuffing the photos back into her bookbag. “Hey, you said that you’d come along and help.”
“And you said that you just wanted to pull a joke on Mr. Hossler.”
“Yeah, this is the joke.”
“Mr. Hossler’s a real pervert and I wanna see him get canned.”
“What’s a pervert?” I asked, still too shocked to say much else.
I had heard the word before, in the same hushed tones that nudes were discussed, but I was still fuzzy on what it meant. I had heard Mr. Hossler called a pervert – never to his face, God forbid – and during recess I had once heard Sam call Ryan Thompson a pervert as well, amid a torrent of other bits of playground profanity – shithead, dipshit, asshat, for example – so I assumed that it was one of those forbidden words. A new one for my collection.
“It means sicko.” Erin replied. “All of the girls at school think so.”
“What are you gonna do with those?” I asked, timidly.
Erin grinned, sickly. “We’re gonna stash these in his house and tomorrow I’m gonna make an anonymous phone call to the cops and BAM!” She slapped her hands together before me, creating a thunderous clap. “Before you can say zappo Mr. Hossler will be canned for being a sick pedo.”
I thought about canned olives, again, but I knew what she meant. However, I had no good idea what a pedo was. I asked Erin, but she said that it didn’t matter. That it was bad, and that it would get Mr. Hossler canned for good.
All the while I was thinking to myself, Erin’s no longer talking about pulling a prank, no, she’s talking about trespassing. If we were to get caught there would be a lot more in store for us than dad’s belt. There would be the police. Trespassing is a crime, trespassing is a crime, that’s a crime, that’s a crime.
“That’s a crime!” I vocalized.
“Exactly!” Erin agreed. “That’s what’s gonna get Mr. Hossler canned.”
This misunderstanding confounded me for a second. So, looking at nudes was a crime? I thought about Sam on the playground, bragging about the nudes stashed away under his mattress. My second thought, a more disconcerting one, was that if we – Erin and I – were to go through with this, we would be nailing Mr. Hossler with a crime. He would – could – go to jail for that. Perhaps for a long time. Perhaps forever.
“Erin,” I began. Whenever I called my sister by her name, it was serious talk. “Look, I wanna see Mr. Hossler canned too, but we can’t make it look like he’s a criminal or something. He could go to jail for that. This is serious!”
“He should to jail.” She replied, then amended, “Prison. He’s a disgusting pervert and he’s done sick things.”
“If he’s done sick things than he would have been arrested for them.” I was, I feel I must reiterate, eleven-years-old.
“Yeah, right, like they’re gonna believe a bunch of fourteen-year-old girls above the respected Mr. Hossler.” Erin replied, bitterly, saying Mr. Hossler’s last name with a thick mock-accent. She was mad now and it made me frightened. “No, he’s been getting away with it for far too long. So, I’m just gonna help give providence a little push.”
The entire gym was as quiet as a graveyard, after hours.
A sound broke off the silence. A basketball dribbling stupidly across the polished wood floor. It had escaped from Anne Miller’s trembling, awe-struck hands. From the look on her face, equally amazed, she hadn’t noticed.
I looked over to Sam. His face was a mirror of my own. Disbelieving, appalled, a little bit exhilarated. I then looked back to where the real action was. It felt as though time was now something that could be manipulated. Slowed, rewound, paused. Like a VCR tape. Everything was now set at half-speed.
Erin was standing alone in the middle of the court. Her sweat-stained t-shirt tied off just above her bellybutton, her gym shorts barely reaching down her thighs. She had her hands on her hips like King Tut and was standing with all of her weight shifted to one leg, defiantly. Mrs. Briskal was a few yards away, but in Erin’s direct path. They looked like two cowboys about to draw guns at sunrise. The look on Mrs. Briskal’s face was that of a cowboy suddenly realizing that his chamber was empty.
“Fat bitch!” Erin had screamed at the overweight gym teacher.
Her words still echoed around the gymnasium and it felt then like they always would. Like the last screams in a tomb of someone who had been buried alive. In English class we had once read The Cask of the Amontillado. I couldn’t imagine a more terrible fate.
When the noise came back to the scene it was like a tidal wave. Mrs. Briskal raised hell, the likes of which I had rarely seen before, and certainly not by a 53-year-old woman. She was going to call the headmaster, but not before calling our step-father, she was going nail her to the wall, she was in for it, she was neck-deep in trouble, she was… The gist of it was that if trouble was a tangible thing, Erin was literally buried alive in it, she just didn’t realize it yet. Like the poor Fortunato in Poe’s tale, hopelessly pleading in jest to the narrator even as the narrator lays the final brick that seals his fate. Mrs. Briskal and Mr. Davidson lead Erin out of the gym and down the hall, one on each side. She looked like a prisoner making the walk to death row. A walk that, to those making it, must feel simultaneously short and endlessly long.
“Oh, she’s in for it now.” Sam said, gapping. “Mr. Hossler’s gonna enjoy giving her the swats.”
It should also be noted that this was 1963 and corporal punishment was still implemented wide-spread. The town where Erin and I grew up was also far from the most enlightened town in far from the most enlightened U.S state. I’ll leave that one to your good guess.
“Enjoy?” I asked, dumbly.
“Yeah, he just loves swatting the girls. He’s a real pervert.”
“What’s a-” I began to ask but was interrupted the blowing of the bell.
The final bell. I hadn’t realized how close we were to being let out. If Erin had kept her tongue in check just for another three minutes… But I knew that just wasn’t possible. Back when our mom was still alive, she had always said that Erin should make a fine lawyer someday. The feud between Erin and Mrs. Briskal had been simmering all school year, working towards a boil. Like a pot of baked beans on the back-burner, always a quarter turn away from boiling over the sides. I never did learn what gave Erin that quarter turn.
I was waiting outside the front doors of the brown bricked public-school building for maybe ten minutes. I had brought my bike over, walked back, and brought Erin’s over as well. I was playing with my bike chain when Erin finally came out. She was walking stiffly. Her cheeks were red and puffy. I could tell that she had been crying. She was still wearing her sweaty gym attire.
“What are you looking at, you little shit?” she snapped at me.
“Nothing. I brought your bike.”
“Don’t talk to me.”
She inspected her bike.
“You didn’t bring the kick-stand up before dragging it over. Now it’s all bent to hell. God, you’re so stupid!”
I said nothing.
I biked slowly, peddling my feet on the ground instead of on the peddles, trying to keep pace with Erin but always hovering just a little bit ahead, cautiously. Erin walked her bike home that day.
When we got home, dad was waiting for Erin outside the front door, like a doorman whose sole function is to hold the door open and say, Welcome! Thank you so much for coming. Please enjoy your stay. His greeting was less cordial. He kicked her butt and told her to go upstairs, that he’d be up in a minute to skin her hide, that when he was done with her her butt would be above her shoulders, that for a whole week all she’d be able to see is black and blue. I laid in bed – I had sacrificed my own dinner that day – with a pillow wrapped tightly around my ears, trying to block out the sound of swings coming from Erin’s room across the hall. That night, there were home-runs.
Chorus: The sound of the leather belt meeting bare flesh in an applause. CLAP! Then Erin’s voice, low and mechanical. I’m sorry, sir. Another belt CLAP! I’m sorry, sir. CLAP! I’m sorry, sir. CLAP! Then dad roaring, like an old furnace spitting to life. Verse: Teach you some respect… Spoiled little… Get your hand back up there… Return to chorus. Not exactly an infectious little tune but just listen to those drums.
However, even as the swings rained down - hour after hour, it felt to me - never once did Erin cry out. She never did. Her voice never raised above an emotionless murmur. Never faltering. That satisfaction, I knew, she would not allow.
Erin hurled verbal abuse at me straight through the next week. I’ll admit, some of it was hard to take.
“So, are you gonna help me or not?” Erin was asking. Probably had been asking. “Or are you just gonna chicken-shit like you always do?”
“I didn’t say that!” I contended. “Yeah, I’ll help. This just better not ever come back to me.” I added, hastily.
“It won’t.” Erin replied, glowing. “No one will ever know. By tomorrow afternoon, Mr. Hossler will be as good as dead.”
By now, a brave solitary cloud had begun to cut over the moon, like a straight razor slicing across an open eye. But just one. One eye.
We crept up the driveway without conversation. A silence held dominion over us. A silence that spoke loudly of strained nerves and wandering, worst-case-scenario thoughts. We crouched behind Mr. Hossler’s Buick that was parked up by the house. We could no longer be seen from any of the second story windows. That gave me some relief. However, I was nearing that level of panic that boarders on insanity where every shadow is a menacing form, and the culprit of every noise is lurking just behind my shoulders. Leaves crunched under my feet, sounding to me like bones breaking, and with each one I expected to turn around and find Mr. Hossler crooning over the two of us, laughing sinisterly, perhaps with a paddle in one of his pale gnarled old hands. Erin was more level-headed, but I could tell that she was feeling it too. She had stopped talking and her features had grown dark and concentrated.
“There!” She suddenly said, pointing. “Up there. That’s how we’re gonna get in.”
Looking up, it now dawned upon me like prophecy. Why Erin had wanted me to tag along in the first place. Why she didn’t protest like she usually did when I was in tow. Above us was a window. It was little boy size. It was big sister height off the ground.
“You aren’t,” I groaned, “you can’t be serious?”
“I’ll lift you up. You should be small enough to fit through the window.”
“How am I gonna get back out?”
“Front door.” She replied, flatly.
“Nu-uh, I said that I’d help. This was your idea! It sounds like I’m doing all the work.”
Thinking, she said, “I’ll make you a deal.”
“What?” I asked, skeptically.
“It’s your deal, stupid. You have to tell me what you want.”
“I don’t know.” I groaned.
Erin was growing impatient.
I thought hard.
“Fine.” I said, at last. “I want you to call Joe dad from now on.” I still don’t really know why I said it.
For a moment Erin didn’t reply. I think that she had half-expected me to say, I get your dessert for the whole week. Or, a trip to Rollerama, on you. You know, typical eleven-year-old boy stuff.
“Why?” she asked, wryly.
“Because I think that if you two stop fighting so much I think that you won’t be in trouble so much and I think that dad won’t be mad at you all the time.” I hadn’t realized how flustered I had grown. Embarrassed, I turned away and said, “Anyway, so that’s the deal.”
“Fine.” She replied. I could tell that it was hard for her to swallow.
Only later would I realize what I had asked of her, and how terrible it would make me feel for asking it.
Erin handed me the bookbag. “When you get in,” she said, slowly, “hide this under the ottoman. That’s important, okay? It has to be under the ottoman.”
“What’s an ottoman?” I asked.
“When you sit on the couch you know that floaty thing that you put your feet up on?”
“That’s an ottoman.”
“And be quiet.” It might have been the most unnecessary piece of advice that I had ever received. I murmured in reply.
“Take off your shoes first.”
“Because your socks will make less noise and I don’t want your dirty track shoes on my back.”
Erin got down on her hands and knees. The muscles in her athletic back protruded out from her thin gray t-shirt. I took off my shoes and climbed softly on top of her, placing one foot on each of her shoulders. She then rose, effortlessly. The window sank lower and lower towards me. When it was at eye level I placed my palms on the glass and shimmied it up. The window was old, long neglected. It went up sticky and hard, and shrieked the entire way. But after I made a finger-width crack at the bottom of the pane I could place all five of my fingers underneath and pull up on the wood frame. I could feel Erin buckling under my feet.
“Hurry up!” She gasped, laboriously.
“Wait!” I pleaded.
When I had formed enough room to squeeze through I slid the bookbag in first and then, with a jump that sent Erin toppling over, wedged myself halfway through the window. I could hear a moan followed by a soft thud on the grass below me as Erin went down.
I had the bookbag by one of the straps. It was dangling almost five feet from the ground. I lowered it within two inches before I let it fall. It made no sound on the thick carpet.
I glanced around. The living room was dark and foreboding. It looked like something out of a museum exhibit. Something with a plaque sign that reads, living room, completely untouched since the 1800s. A large grandfather clock loomed moodily in the corner. I was glad to have already made its acquaintance before giving it the chance to catch me off guard later with its mournful chiming.
My eyes stopped on another item that made the hairs on the back of my neck rise to attention. A large wooden paddle was hung on the wall, like a trophy. Perhaps it was. A trophy in the same way that some hunters will hang their best rifle above the fireplace. The paddle was made from a mahogany wood that was nearly an inch thick and sanded down to a glassy finish. It was eighteen inches from the handle, which rounded off into a knob, much like the hilt of a sword, perhaps Excalibur, to the flat top of the paddle. The surface, which was five inches in width, was perforated with six holes, three on each side, and looked not unlike a slice of swiss cheese. This, I knew, had something to do with aerodynamics and accentuated the paddle with a satisfying whish as it cut through the air like a saber. The wood was a dark navy color but was faded white in the center. Faded from use. On the handle, just above where a wreath of string was looped through a roughly drilled hole, allowing the paddle to be hung from a nail, were gold cursive letters engraved in the wood that read, PROPERTY OF THE BELMONT PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM. Below that were more letters; etched in a much different, much older emboss, pitch black, that read, 1951. The paddle was older than I was by a year. That made me shiver.
I snatched my attention from it. An L-shaped couch rested just below the window, no more than three feet. My luck. I managed to get a foot through the opening first. I stood on top of the headrest and after that pulling the rest of my body through was a cake walk.
There was a stone silence from outside the window and the idea suddenly struck me that Erin had left. Left, and left me in the middle of some sick joke. A little boy trespassing in a house where he didn’t belong, a little boy with a hot pink bookbag filled with nude images. Quite a story, that. Tomorrow she’d be laughing and high-fiving all of her sophomore friends, and they’d all call me a pervert.
“Erin.” I hissed, my voice pitched low. “You still there?”
“Shhh!” She hissed back. I was glad to hear her voice, regardless.
Mere words cannot express how slowly I moved down onto the carpet. The process was meticulous. Painstaking. I could feel arms getting impatient and sleepy. I kept glancing below my feet, absolutely sure that when they finally met ground they would be met with the loud crash of a picture frame or the loud squeak of a dog toy. I stood on the pale white carpet for a whole minute before allowing my weight to follow. My breath came next and it came out of my nostrils short.
I palmed the bookbag and removed the print-outs, holding them at arm’s length and making it a point not to catch a glance. The thought of them still made my stomach feel weak and nauseous.
The ottoman sat in the middle of the room like a leper, disconnected from the rest of the couch. Easy peasy, I thought. Cushion goes up, print-outs go down, cushion goes back down, boy goes out the front door, boy and girl tear pavement, end of story.
If only the story had ended there.
No sooner after repeating those words over and over in my head like a mantra did I realize that the work was done. I had done it without even thinking about it. I was lowering the cushion and folding the empty bookbag underneath my arm pit...
…when the light came on.
When I glanced behind me and saw Mr. Hossler glaring at me with his one good eye, I did not react with a coolheaded thoughtfulness. How could I have? Woops, sorry, I must’ve have gone in the wrong window by mistake? It was hard to tell if he was surprised. I could hardly gauge his expression as he only had one eye fixed on me. All I could trace in that was rage. I still don’t know if he happened upon me by chance, perhaps in the middle of a poorly timed midnight snack, or if my previous precognition had been right, that he had been waiting for us all along behind the closed door. Toying with us like a cat padding a mouse back-and-forth with its paws, knowing full well that it will eventually kill it. He blinked, and I could hear him blink. It was a wet, achingly loud blink. BLINK. BLINK.
I screamed bloody murder and billowed like smoke towards the front door.
I had just unlatched the lock when Mr. Hossler came at me.
His body was propped up with a sturdy black cane, golden metal handle. He jabbed the open door with the tip of the cane and it slammed shut. I made a mad dash towards the open window.
Mr. Hossler screamed something. I think it was, Get back here, you little shit! But I could be wrong. All I remember next is the business end of his cane coming down upon my body, over and over. The cane was just for show. Mr. Hossler, even at the ripe age of 69, could hold his own. The wood of the cane cracked on my knees, my elbows, my skull. A blow landed squarely between my eyes and drew blood. Another one popped me right in the nose. Blood poured out like someone inside had turned on a faucet. I was screaming, wildly. My hands flailing like tentacles in front of me for defense.
The paddle, I thought, hysterically, if I could just get hold of the paddle! But when I looked to its location on the wall I was stunned to observe that it was gone. Gone like a ghost paddle. Maybe it had never really been there at all. This place really is haunted, I mused, irrationally. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I observed Erin sneaking up from behind Mr. Hossler, the front door wide open. In her hands was the mahogany paddle. Even as the cane beat down upon me I could see her biceps flexing with effort. She brought the paddle back wide, like a baseball player gearing for a home-run, and then swung it forward. It landed on the back of Mr. Hossler’s knees. The sound that it made was gross and satisfying in equal measures. A loud POP filled the room. Mr. Hossler’s legs buckled at an unnatural angle and he screamed going down, down on bended knee, as if in prayer. His one eye gaping and bulging out of its socket, the pupil oscillating crazily, as though a current of electricity was flowing through it. His mouth wide open, a low gesticulation emitting from it, a humming guttural noise that was also reminiscent of an electrical current. Erin’s face was just as crazy. Her dark brown eyes looked lunatic under the filtered moonlight that came in. Deranged, like she belonged in an asylum somewhere. She was screaming too. We all were. But hers was not a scream of agony, not like mine and Mr. Hossler’s were. Hers was a primal scream. A battle cry. She brought the mahogany paddle back above her head. She was now turned almost completely around.
“NO!” I shouted, clapping my hands to my ears.
Even through my fists I could hear the WHISH of the paddle tearing through the still air. I could also hear the CRACK as it landed on the back of Mr. Hossler’s skull. His eye popped out, still hanging from a nerve string like a ball on a paddle ball set. It dangled in front of his cheek, still seeming to glare at me. His mouth upturned into something of a sick grin, as though he couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of his own nose, viewed from a strange and irregular angel that no eye had ever achieved before. Blood was seeping out from between his teeth. Erin dropped the paddle to the floor. Seconds later Mr. Hossler joined it. I didn’t need a doctor to tell me that he was dead. He was, after all, stone dead.
Mr. Hossler was stone dead.
Erin and I stood above him, looking down. Him looking back up at us, though I suppose that looking isn’t really the right word at all. Both of his eye sockets were black and vacant. However, even then, they seemed to be staring.
Every fiber of my body ached. A chorus of pain sang out on my back, my knees, my shoulders, my head. Blood was still oozing gruesomely down my chin, but it was now beginning to dry.
I crouched down, wincing, and gave Mr. Hossler’s body three hard shakes. His corpse offered no resistance. It was like poking a dead salmon.
“Stop it.” Erin said, pulling me back.
“You killed him.”
“He was gonna kill you. He deserved it.”
“Oh my God, Erin, what are we gonna do?”
“I don’t know.” She replied.
Blood was forming a crimson pool around Mr. Hossler’s head. I shuffled my socks back to avoid socking any up. His face fell grotesquely to the side and his cheek made a sick slapping sound as it clapped against the wet carpet.
Vomit was loaded in my throat. I had to swallow the whole load to keep from losing my stomach all over the place.
“I swear to God,” Erin fumed, “if you throw up.”
“I won’t.” I replied, through fingers clutched tightly across my mouth.
“Go in the bathroom and see if you can’t find a shower curtain.”
“What for?” I asked, nausea still bobbing with my Adam’s apple.
“We gotta stop the bleeding.”
“Stop the bleeding? What for? He’s dead!”
“I know he’s dead!” Erin screamed back. “But we gotta clean up the blood.”
It hadn’t struck me until than that we were standing in the middle of a crime scene. What Erin was talking about was self-preservation.
“Now!” She shouted.
I went dutifully to the bathroom. I was crying, and tears were running down my cheeks in streamlets. When I flipped the light switch I could see my own reflection in the mirror. I was five good shades of screwed up. A puncture between my eyes was still spewing blood. The blood coming out of my nose had stopped. It formed two dried lanes that traced down to my lips. My entire face was blue and swollen. It looked more like a baseball than a head. A baseball that had been hit out of the park. I opened the medicine cabinet and found a package of band-aids. I slapped one across the gash on my forehead. There were other things in the cabinet too; antiseptic, gauze, tape, but I didn’t have time to fix myself up right. I would probably need stiches anyway, I knew. That was far from a reassuring thought.
There was a clear plastic shower curtain that I tore right off the rings. When I came back out to the living room Erin had most of the blood already mopped up. The strong odor of Pine-sol filled the room. That’s the power of Pine-sol, baby. Beside Erin was a trash-bin that was nearly full to capacity with wadded up, bloodied paper towels. The empty cardboard tube kicked underneath her sneakers. She was wearing bright yellow dishwashing gloves and was leaning sickly over the trash-bin.
“Erin?” I asked, frightened.
She opened her mouth to speak, considered it, turned back to the bin, and then unloaded her stomach into it.
We laid out the shower curtain like a tarp and placed Mr. Hossler’s body on top of it. His corpse felt as through it had been weighed down with dead weight. Perhaps it was just my sorry state that made him feel so heavy, for he now looked even more fragile than ever. We then commenced to rolling up the shower curtain like a sleeping bag and Erin applied duct tape to hold it snug.
“In the basement.” She said.
The bewilderment must’ve shown on my face, for she added as an explanation:
“I cased it out. There’s an old gas stove down there. It’s big.”
I looked hard at Erin, gauging her sanity. She couldn’t be serious. But her eyes showed not even the slightest toil of conflict. They looked like copper coins. I could tell within three seconds that she was now more serious than ever.
The basement did not match the rest of the house at all. It was an old Michigan style basement. The walls were constructed entirely of cement and the ground was nothing but moist soil. It was damp and smelt strongly of mildew, dirt, and worms. Like a tomb. Nightcrawlers, they were. The big and fat kind that I would sometimes dig up after dark, after a good rain. Too big and fat to even fit on the hook. Two naked lightbulbs hung on strings from the ceiling. The beaded chain to click them on was so short that Erin had to stand on tip-toe to do it. The light didn’t offer much. The bulbs swung on their strings from Erin’s forced effort, swaying in long arched pendulum motions. The new shadows that the light created bounced and jived. Coming at us, then backing away. Earthworms were beginning to come out of the woodwork. They always do after a rain. Usually they just end up drying out and dying on the sidewalk when the sun returns. They’re sunbathing, is what Erin used to say. She had once told me that if I was to ever fall asleep under the sun or in a tanning salon, that I would dry out like an earthworm. Down here there would be no sun. Just the incandescent glow of the two lightbulbs to fool them. The worms were writhing and crawling in the dirt. Congregating together as if in mourning. Mourning the death of their master. Mr. Hossler, king of the worms. Or perhaps they were shrieking, silently, the only way that earthworms know how to shriek. Angry that their master, in death, would not be buried among them.
Carefully stepping over a large night-crawler that had made its way up to the second step, for this insane notion of kinship with Mr. Hossler had already formed in my head, I lost my hold on Mr. Hossler’s corpse. Erin and I had been shimmying him down the stairs, her in front and me in back. Erin had to leap over his body headlong to avoid being taken down for the ride. Mr. Hossler tumbled the rest of the way like a haversack of dirty laundry. Among the worms, I was doing myself no favors.
Erin had been right. The old gas stove that loomed in the corner of the basement was big. Human body big.
“I can’t.” I said.
“You have to.”
“No! You do it by yourself if you want to but I just… I can’t.” I began to sob.
“I can’t lift him by myself.” Erin admitted.
“Well that’s just too bad for you! If it wasn’t for you and your stupid joke, we wouldn’t be here in the first place. I hate you! I hate you! You’re just a stupid bitch and I hate you! I hope you die! You stupid bitch!”
Erin smacked me across the face so hard that for a moment I thought I could see daylight. Daylight, as though I had just snapped awake from a bad dream. As though I could just turn my head, blinking the sleep out of my eyes, and there my alarm clock would be, blinking right back at me. Blinking 6:30AM and I’d be thinking to myself, what a crazy dream, and by the time that my feet would hit the carpet, it would all be gone.
I stood there for a moment, dazed. My mouth open and drooling saliva.
“Grab the feet.” Erin said, sharply.
Me, holding Mr. Hossler by the feet, and Erin, his head, stuffed his corpse into the large gas stove. It was an uncomfortable fit, but Mr. Hossler wouldn’t be complaining. I laughed out loud. Erin looked up at me, concerned, but quickly went back to work. A few times I swore that I could still hear Mr. Hossler blinking that same solitary wet blink. BLINK. BLINK. BLINK. I thought hysterically, what if he’s still alive? The Poe tale came back to me. Not The Cask of the Amontillado now but a different one. I had forgotten the name. I could remember that it ended with the narrator bellowing manically, Yes! Yes, I killed him. Pull up the boards and you shall see! I killed him. But why does his heart not stop beating?! Why does it not stop!? The idea terrified me. What if I were to be lying in bed the next day, or perhaps the day after that, trying to sleep, looking up at my own eye lids, and then suddenly hear, out of nowhere, BLINK. BLINK. BLINK.
Erin turned the knob and the faint whisper of gas filled the stove. It wheezed hoarsely, long unused, and at first, I remember thinking that it didn’t have the stuff in it to fight. But after a few rough coughs I could smell the oily fumes of gas rising up. The stove sounded like a sleeping monster, waking at last after a long hibernation. A monster with an empty belly, hungry for food.
“You don’t have to watch this part.” Erin said, palming a long gas lighter from a shelf above the stove. She clicked the trigger and it spat to life with a blue spark that ignited into a yellow flame.
I ran head-fast up the stairs, taking them three at a time. They seemed to me to be protracting out. For every step I gained, two more were added. There were no longer twelve steps, no, there was twenty! Earthworms grabbed at my shoes and I even heard one say, Murderer! Murderer! When my feet fell on the last step before the open door into the living room I could hear the stove roar monstrously to life. The monster had begun to feast.
We burned the photo print-outs in the dying embers in the gas stove. All that now remained of Mr. Edward K. Hossler.
The first evidence of blue was staring to show in the sky above. It was now well into early morning. Smoke still penciled a faint trace vertical with the chimney. The air smelt like burnt BBQ. It made me nauseous.
The shadows gone, the front yard that we had traversed with so much panicky deliberateness the night before now looked like something that could almost be jumped across in one big leap. The gate too looked like it had shrunk half its size and I felt even more foolish than ever that I had let it have its way with me. I made sure to grab my shoes, still resting underneath the open the window, which I also closed.
There were no spectacular acrobatics across the gate, not this time. Even Erin scaled the gate dully, the bookbag slung back around her shoulders.
A Chevy drove past us without slowing. The driver must not have noticed the fourteen-year-old girl climbing down the locked gate, or the eleven-year-old boy beside her, who’s clothes and appearance practically screamed, yeah, we killed someone! What of it?
Our bikes were hidden in a large shrub bush just down the sidewalk. We biked home, neither of us speaking.
When we did make it home we climbed in through my bedroom window. I was tired of climbing through windows, and climbing in general, for that matter, and it took all of my remaining strength to make it in.
Erin sneaked on tip-toe down the second-story hall and peered down the staircase into the living room. When she came back she said, relieved, “Joe’s passed out.” She had promised to call him dad for now on, but I held my tongue in check.
“What do we do now?” I asked.
“Nothing.” She replied. It looked as though she wanted to say more but either didn’t have the inclination or strength to do so. “Go to bed.”
I took a detour to the bathroom down the hall. I undressed and stuffed my dirty and bloodied clothes into the haversack. I then splashed cold water over my face and across my chest. The blood washed down the drain, but the bruises stuck. A large goose-egg had formed on my forehead, right where I had been struck between the eyes. It felt like someone was inflating a balloon inside of my skull, pumping it with so much air that seemed destined to pop.
When I laid down in bed my bones settled, creakily. It was now Sunday. No school. Thank Christ for small favors. I slept like a corpse.
When I came downstairs the following day dad was reading a newspaper at the breakfast table. Erin was quietly doing dishes in the sink behind him.
Dad looked up, looked back down, considered it, looked back up at me.
“What the hell happened to you?”
I could hear Erin’s hands stop moving in the sink and the water running listlessly over the yellow wash gloves that she was wearing.
“I fell off my bike.” I said.
He stared at me through crescent eyes, suspiciously, over the top of his newspaper. I don’t think that he believed me, but all that he said was:
It seemed to me to be the final word on the subject.
It rained again in the afternoon and that night I had very strange dreams.
The sun greeted the next day, Monday now, with a clean, glowing face. The rain, baked from the earth, hovered in the air, giving the atmosphere a sticky cling-to-the-skin feel, like Eucerin lotion.
I had slept uneasily, and I can’t imagine that Erin’s experiences had differed in any way from my own.
We didn’t intend to swing past Mr. Hossler’s house while we were out on bikes on our way to school. It just happened, as if we had both consented to some unspoken mutual agreement. We had started off biking down Caledonia Street, which ran west. Mr. Hossler’s house was positioned more to the east of town, just before what constituted as downtown. Erin and I had biked to the entrance of the park. Though, to call it an entrance is slightly misleading. It amounted to little more than a jagged hole cut through the chain fence that enclosed the park. It was rough, sized only for those under the age of fifteen, and screamed tetanus. It did, however, provide a handy shortcut to the public-school building. Since we were on bikes, though, we kept going. It was early, and we had time to spare. Erin cut a left into the Victoria Park condos and I followed. The lot reopened onto Riddle Road some time later. In between was some of the slickest, most ridable pavement that I had ever seen. It looked like a swimming pool of black tar, all downhill. You could set a steady pace of fifteen miles an hour, without even having to lay on peddles. The ride cut a serpentine pattern with as many twists, turns, and near-death experiences as you could possibly ask for. Were we at least wearing helmets, you might be thinking. Do you really have to ask? The sound of our bike spokes slicing through the still air was the only noise that broke the silence that surrounded the oval of white two-story houses – with very little variance in shape, color, or design in-between. We sounded like two choppers tearing down the pavement, even without any added baseball cards for SFX.
I don’t believe that either of us had said a word to each other since we had departed. Once we hit Riddle Road we droned in aimless turns, seemingly at random, just killing time. It wasn’t until we found ourselves on Stoneway Drive that our riding became clearer. More concise. In a way I think that we were subconsciously positioning ourselves between the proverbial rock and hard place. To turn back meant going having to circle around and get to school late. To ride ahead meant getting to school on time. It also meant taking a detour past Mr. Hossler’s house. I could already see the tip of Mr. Hossler’s chimney. The rest of the house was still obscured by other the homes and the large pines in the front yards. The vivid picture of smoke emitting from the chimney and the equally vivid smell of burnt meat came back to me. I could feel my stomach turning disquietingly over.
“Race you.” I said, suddenly. In truth, I just wanted to remove the house from my sight as quickly as possible.
I didn’t wait for a reply. Not a fair start. I booked it as hard as I could forward. Erin’s delayed consent came to me as I could hear her picking up speed and laying on the peddles hard.
The house seemed to be rushing at me. I could have been the one who was standing still and it, the one racing forward. Playing a game of chicken. See who swerves at the last fraction of a second.
That’s when I noticed the cop cars that were parked in parallel on the side of the road. I let my feet off the peddles and my bike slowly smoothed back down to a leisurely glide. Erin lapped me triumphantly.
“Too slow.” She smirked. Then, her eyes falling upon the two police cars with berry colored lights on top, she pinched her handle breaks and fell back.
One of them, an officer, was exiting Mr. Hossler’s house through the front door, the same door that Mr. Hossler’s cane had blocked my exit from, just moments before Erin had killed him. The other one, the police chief, judging by his uniform, was talking to a neighbor lady who was shaking her head. In the chief’s hand was a notepad.
“What do you think is going on?” I asked, panicky.
“Only one way to find out.” Erin replied.
Before I had time to reach out and stop her, Erin had set a direct course towards the house. Damn it, I thought, and followed after her.
The officer who had exited Mr. Hossler’s front door had a Polaroid camera in his hands, which he was placing on the front seat in his patrol car. Erin segued her bike up on the sidewalk and dosed lazily past. He glanced up at her, nonchalant, then back down, and closed the car door. She backtracked casually in a wide arched circle and then said to the officer, just as casually, as if she were simply asking the time:
“That’s a nice hat. My brother said so.”
The officer removed his blue cap, looked at it inquisitively, then back up at Erin, still perplexed.
“He wants to be a cop when he grows up.”
The officer’s glance narrowed on me, still lagging a few yards behind. I meekly waved. I had no idea what Erin was saying about me. She could have been pinning the entire murder on me, and me just sitting there stupidly waving, as if saying, yep, it was all me. Everything that she’s saying is God’s honest truth. Good day, now. Erin summoned me over with a few sharp waves of her hand. Groaning, I pulled up beside her.
The officer placed his blue cap on the crown of my head. It was big and fit loose. The rim fell just below my eyes. I laughed but I still didn’t really understand what the joke was.
“I’d say that you still have quite a few years left to go, champ.” The officer said, joyfully. He removed the hat and ruffled my hair in a paternal way. “Bet I’d bet my badge that before long you’ll be wearing a hat like that one over there.” He pointed, with his cap, to the police chief who was still in congress with the neighbor lady. Perched above his head was an even more important looking blue cap.
“You think so?” I asked, imitating a wide-eyed wonder. The ploy was just beginning to dawn on me. “I have a detective hat back home, you know, like Sherlock Holmes wears. I wear it for Halloween and sometimes just for fun. I have a magnifying glass too.”
From the look on Erin’s face, I could tell that she was impressed.
The officer laughed, and it came from his stomach. A deep, rich laugh. “I’m afraid you don’t see too much of that anymore. Not outside of Columbo anyhow. Nope, here in America we got the boys in blue,” then, giving a curtesy nod to Erin, added, “and gals in blue.”
“It must be exciting?” Erin said, somewhere in-between a statement and a question.
“It has its days. It has its days.” The officer replied, proudly. Then, to me in particular said, “But remember it’s not all bustin’ perps and doing ninety-five with the lights on.”
“I just love watching those true-life crime shows on TV.” Erin said. “You know the kind? The kind that say true-life but are really 95% crap?”
“I suppose I do.” The officer replied, grinning.
“What happened here?” Erin asked. “Something exciting?”
“Not quite sure yet.” The officer replied. Talking now came easy to him. “Missing persons, that much is for sure. Might be foul play. We found some… some evidence on the floorboards. Someone tried to clean it up right good too. Going off the sloppy job that they left behind I’m gonna guess that it wasn’t Mr. Clean. Luckily for us.” I got the feeling that he thoroughly enjoyed saying those buzzwords that even two neophytes like us could understand; missing persons, foul play, evidence. He probably thought that he was giving Erin and I the time of our young lives.
“Evidence?” Erin asked. “Like blood?”
The officer grew flustered and shifted his stance, awkwardly. “Oh, you kids don’t want to be hearing about that. By the way, don’t you got school or something to be getting off to? You want to end up wearing one of these,” the officer pulled on the brass badge pinned to his breast that gleamed, “remember to stay in school, alright? Stay clean too. You got it?”
“Yes.” I replied.
“Yes, I killed him.” My voice grew to a thundering scream. I began beating my fists against the side of my head. Pulling on my earlobes like a lunatic. But I could hear it. Loud and clear. BLINK. BLINK. BLINK. “Pull up the boards and you shall see! I killed him. But why does his heart not stop beating?! Why does it not stop!?”
But I didn’t say any of that. I had just thought it. Thought it so hard that I could feel the words loaded dangerously in my throat.
“Yes, sir.” Came out instead.
Erin and I swiveled out bikes around and just as we were just about to take off the officer suddenly spoke, asking:
“Hey, listen, just one more thing.”
We turned back, pallid.
The officer was glaring at us with stony, dead-set eyes. He had taken a small notepad out from his pocket and was holding it towards us like a loaded pistol. I was utterly convinced that we were done for. That in our stupid, childish folly we had unwittingly revealed some critical piece of accusatory evidence.
Suddenly, he broke into a wide toothy grin, stuffing the notepad back into his pocket.
“How is it? My Columbo impression. It needs work, I know, don’t be afraid to say so.”
Erin and I both let out chuckles that sounded more like gasps of breath, as if we had been holding them in for the past three minutes. I can’t speak for Erin but, in truth, I had been.
"Not bad.” I said, smiling a smile that must’ve looked like white death.
Erin and I lived in one of those communities that grouped all of us kids post-elementary in the same school building. Younger kids on the first floor, older kids on the second and third. You know the hierarchy. The building was a nondescript brick color. On the drive up there was a swamp where a family of geese congregated in the warm months. They were a mean and loud bunch and if they decided to cross the pavement then they had the right of way. Erin and I brought our bikes to standstill. The two big geese – ma and pa – led the way while six little ones tailed faithfully behind.
“He said missing persons,” Erin said, “and that’s it. Not murder, not homicide. They’re not even sure if anything bad really happened yet. You heard how he said it, might be foul play. Might. As far as they know Mr. Hossler could just be taking an impromptu trip. You know, off the cuff.”
“He also said that they found evidence. Evidence! You know he meant blood. Christ, they can test that, you know, for like DNA and stuff. How long before they find out that it might not even be Mr. Hossler’s blood at all. I was bleeding like stuck pig in case you don’t remember.”
“So, what?” Erin snapped. “Unless they have something to test it with it’ll never come back to you. I highly doubt that eleven-year old boys are tops on their suspect list.”
What Erin said made sense, but still, I couldn’t shake the inescapable feeling that some higher disciplinary power was idly laughing while rubbing its hands together conspiratorially.
There were more police officers at the school building. Talking with the staff. Keeping it all very private from us students. I overheard Anne Miller asking Mrs. Briskal what was going on. Questions, that’s all, Mr. Briskal replied, simply, now run along and get to class before the bell rings.
The bell rang solemnly that day. Mr. Hossler’s voice did not come over the loudspeaker that morning, as it usually did, to inform us of any after-school closures or events. Mrs. Reinheart’s voice came on instead. However, so used to Mr. Hossler’s voice in the morning was I, that when the disconnected voice began to speak, I nearly jumped a mile high out of my skin. He’s not dead, I thought, crazily, we didn’t kill him enough. He’s here, in his office, and he’s about to tell the entire school building that you tried to kill him. That stupid boy and his sister tried but they failed, now please report to my office for some… discipline. I heard those words in my head followed by mad cackling and the practice swats of the paddle raining down upon Mr. Hossler’s oak panel desk, splintering it.
When the daydream washed away from me I found myself back in the classroom, back in the window side desk that I occupied, third row from the front. My fists were coils underneath my seat. A cold sweat had broken out on my forehead. My eyes were pinched tight in anticipation of the paddle’s first swing. My stomach tasted like rotten cheese. I could taste it in my throat. The rest of the class were all staring at me, nearly a dozen curious faces on strained necks. Mrs. Brown was also staring at me, a perpetual frown down-turned on her lips. I glanced around the room, dumbly.
“Well?” Mrs. Brown asked, sharply. “Aren’t you going to go to the headmaster’s office to receive your discipline, you murderer?”
It had been no daydream.
“Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!” The class chanted in unison.
Suddenly, a tearing pain stabbed at my right forearm. I looked down and to my horror I could see the slimy body of an earthworm digging itself into my arm. It had broken skin and was almost a quarter of its length under my flesh. Queasily, I pulled it out and tossed it on the hard tile ground. I screamed and jumped up from my seat.
“Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!” The chants did not stop.
Mrs. Brown picked up the telephone on her desk and I could hear her speaking into it, “He’s being quite uncooperative. Could you please send the headmaster down to room 135? He will have to administer the discipline here.”
The realization dawned upon me with a terror that met pure insanity and lapped it. The earthworm had not been trying to crawl into me, no, it had been trying to escape. I suddenly could feel every fiber of my body tingling underneath my skin. Slimy things slithered across the sockets of my eyes, in my throat, between my nostrils, underneath my finger nails, my scalp, inside my ear drums. I could hear them. Amplified, their slithering sounded enormous. Heads began to emerge from my body. Little brown faces peered out into the fluorescent lights of the classroom. I vomited onto the ground. The puke was a knotted coil of worms, like a rubber-band ball.
Down the hall, the sound of the paddle soaring through the air cast an echo. Lockers slammed open and slammed shut again. The bell screamed its lungs out from above.
I tried in vain to pull at my hair but found that each strand had been replaced by a thicket of worms. They slipped through my worm-infested fingers. Most of them were halfway out of my body by now. It looked like my right and left arms were adorned with spaghetti noodles. I was quite literally melting into a pile of worms.
The door kitty-corner to room 135 opened. I could hear it. A mad laughing filled the school hall. Then, the sound of a paddle coming down like a hammer on bare flesh. Followed by almost inhuman howls of anguish. A voice that was hardly recognizable as human, but a voice that I recognized nonetheless. It was Erin. Screaming in agony as the paddle ravaged her. Demolished her. WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! The desk that she was most likely leaned across scratched painfully on the tile ground with every whack. Her cries were drawn from a deep well that dropped to some unseen bottom, or maybe not. As if the cries had to traverse long dark channels to escape her throat. A primordial pain. A dark, sadistic laughter came next, and it came from all of the kids in the class. Mrs. Brown had continued with her lesson. I could only hear snippets of it in-between the sound of the paddle, Erin’s throat clenching cries, the laughter of the children, and my own hysterical screams.
“On his quest to immortality, Gilgamesh…”
“If you subtract 72 by 13…”
“Atoms are made up of even smaller particles known as…”
All of the subjects. I was rapidly struck by the notion that I should be taking notes. I had just begun to look about me for a pencil, the screams still emitting from my open mouth, as relentless as the school bell…
…when the door creaked open.
Mrs. Brown stopped speaking. The chanting and laughter of the students had ceased. Even the earthworms seemed to take notice.
“YOUR TURN, YOU LITTLE SHIT!” Mr. Hossler bellowed with brass lungs as he flew – yes, flew – into the classroom. His face was a grotesque mixture of flesh and ash. His body was on fire and the flames ignited whatever they touched. The paddle in his hand was stained with Erin’s blood, and as it neared me I could even see her reflection in it. No, not her reflection. Her soul. The paddle had stolen Erin’s very soul. The look on her reflected face was one of a sheer and cumulative dread. Soon, I observed, we would be together in that timber hell. A hell where the sound of WHACK! WHACK! never stops.
When the daydream washed away from me I found myself back in the classroom, back in the window side desk that I occupied, third row from the front. My fists were coils underneath my seat. A cold sweat had broken out on my forehead. My eyes were pinched tight in anticipation of the paddle’s first swing. My stomach tasted like rotten cheese. I could taste it in my throat. The rest of the class were all staring at me, nearly a dozen curious faces on strained necks. Mrs. Brown was also staring at me, a perpetual frown downturned on her lips. I glanced around the room, dumbly.
Déjà vu. Was I still dreaming?
A silent scream worked its way up from my lungs, throbbed my throat, and dissipated against my clenched teeth. My fingernails were embedded in the wood underneath my seat. Color painted my cheeks red. The rest of my face was as pale as bone.
“Well?” Mrs. Brown asked, sharply. “What do you have to say?”
I shook my head like dog trying to dry itself. None of it had really happened. I held my arms out in front of me. Just skin and bone. The bell was no longer ringing, Erin was no longer screaming from next door, the rest of the class neither chanting nor laughing, just observing me with a mild boredom. The silence was only shared by the soft ticking of the small analog clock above Mrs. Brown’s desk. Reality swam back over me in cold, sobering waves.
“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice still just a squeak inside of my throat, “could you repeat the question, please?”
Mrs. Brown sighed, impatiently.
But the story did not end there.
Perhaps it never will.
No, the real climax came seven years later, after Erin and I had both left home to attend college. She moved to Missouri to study at MU in business management. Instead of a B.A she found a husband instead. I stayed local. Community College boy. She came down only once to visit me.
Three days later two police officers knocked on our step-dad’s door. They caught him half-sober and presented him with a warrant that he threw on the ground without reading. After reading it to him, the officers entered his house and went straight to his upstairs bedroom. Straight up, as if going off some internal heat-seeker. They pulled back the sandal wood dresser and found pictures buried underneath. Bad pictures. The charges never stuck. They didn’t have to. He was fired from his job as a bus driver and, after that, he really laid into the bottle hard. The social stigma of being labeled as a pedophile turned him into a recluse and he eventually drank himself to death. Never once did he call either Erin or me to deny the allegations.
At first, I despised Erin, for Erin was the one who had stashed the pictures, I was sure of it, and she was also the one who had made the telephone call to the authorities, there was no question about it. I told myself that it just wasn’t true. That there was no way. That Erin was simply exacting revenge for revenge sake. Sick revenge. For the beatings, for the drunken fights, for the childhood neglect. But that nothing sexual had ever happened between us and our step-dad. That there was absolutely nothing that I could rake up in my brain to justify her actions. Nothing at all. Absolutely nothing.
I could remember.
I could remember under the clothes tick checks on camping trips. I could remember laying in bed, trying to sleep, and hearing Erin’s bedroom door open and close, well after midnight, and soft footsteps entering. I could remember the beatings that would always begin with sudden violence and end with tender caressing. So, I guess that I did remember. I always had. I just… chose not to.
Erin’s words sometimes come back to me. The words that she spoke on Mr. Hossler’s front yard. Like they’re gonna believe a bunch of fourteen-year-old girls. No, he’s been getting away with it for far too long. So, I’m just gonna give providence a little push.
As I write this I am forty-two. The date is 2018. Anyone with even a passing interest in the human condition has most likely read up on the Larry Nassar case. It didn’t strike me until well after me and my wife had our first child, a baby girl, just where Erin had been coming from. I often find myself thinking, what if it were my daughter? It’s a thought that most parents block out from their subconscious, like they have a parental firewall that doesn’t allow bad malware sites to pass. They don’t think about it because it’s too horrible to think about. They don’t think about it, that is, until it creams them right in the face. So, I think about Erin’s words. Would they have believed a bunch of fourteen-year-olds? Would I? Would I have believed myself at fourteen? I hadn’t even allowed myself to accept the abuse from our step-dad until well into my twenties. I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t let myself. Like a firewall. Malware blocked.
When you rely on providence the monsters in the closet are given time to feed. Sometimes that closet door is slammed shut for good, and the monsters inside move on to different closets, and different children, to terrorize. The kind of monster that cannot be killed by a silver bullet or a stake to the chest. Not truly killed. Not before irreparable damage has been done.
I hope that Erin has found peace with this world. Above all, I hope that she has found peace with herself.