Thursday, November 8, 2012

An Unlikely Friendship


I'm writing a bit of fiction for scriptic.org again (my prompt is at the end of the story). I'll try to keep the intro short, because this one ran a little long. As soon as I received the prompt the vision that came to me was that of a little girl with a dirty, tear-stained face, clutching an old doll. From there, I let her tell the story. All I did was type it for her.

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Last week Gina emailed me and asked me how I’d known. I lied. What choice did I have? I told her that the truth of it was, the memory had slipped away, like fine sand through a sieve. While it’s true that I've lost most of my childhood through that sieve, there are a few nuggets that didn't fall through. I mean, I can very clearly recall what happened the summer that I was 8 years old. Ironically, my sharpest memory is the one you’re least likely to believe, and I didn't tell Gina because I knew she wouldn't believe me either.

In August of 1970 Michigan experienced the hottest stretch of summer on record. Humidity draped everything in a sweltering, wet blanket. Cicadas screamed at a near deafening, constant pitch. It was too hot to stay inside, and too hot to be outside. Even so, my mother pushed us out the door with the command, “Go play!” Her way of assuring that if she cleaned the house it would actually stay that way for fifteen minutes. We didn't dare argue.

I wandered over to Katie’s house with my ever present companion, my doll, Abigail. Abigail had been my charge for four years. She had belonged to my older sister, Joan, before that. Joan was born a tomboy and in a fit of pique at my mother forcing her to wear a dress, she abused poor Abigail. She poked out one of her pretty blue eyes, tore out all but a small mangy patch of hair, and left her with a dent in her left cheek deep enough to hold a dime, and tattooed all four of her limbs with purple marker. When I was four, my mother was gathering things to give to the Salvation Army and Abigail was part of the heap. “Mommy! You can’t just send her away!” I cried. My mother leveled me with one of her looks and said, “Oh, for crying out loud, Bethy, what are you whining about? That thing is a piece of junk!” Whining, according to my mother, was a mortal sin. I tried for a calmer approach. “Can I have her?” My mother rolled her eyes and turned her back. I took it as a sign that the doll was mine for the taking. So it was that I adopted Abigail, and just in the nick of time. That winter I nursed her through the worst bout of scarlet fever in recorded history. I patiently applied cloths to her forehead, gave her sips of water, swaddled her and paced the floor while cooing to her for hours.

Four years later I had her in my arms as I walked up the driveway to Katie’s house. Katie wasn't my favorite person to play with, but she was the only friend I knew who wasn't away on vacation. I knocked on the door and her mother answered, wearing nothing but a bathing suit and the scent of martinis. She soundlessly pointed a finger and directed me to their backyard. I could hear Katie giggling at something as I rounded the corner. She was crouched in the grass in the shade of the trees. Dara was across from her, They were playing with their Barbie dolls. They both looked up as I approached, Dara with obvious annoyance. I smiled shyly anyway and asked, “Wanna play?” Katie, hesitating, started to reply, “Well…” But Dara interrupted with, “We already were playing! Nobody invited you.” I stood there, lip already starting to wobble. That was all the signal they needed to go into full bullying mode. Katie said, “Yeah, we don’t want you here. Take your dumb crappy doll and go home.” Insulting my beloved Abigail brought the tears on full force, which only fueled Dara. She hollered, “Yeah, go home to your mommy, Bethy, you big cry-baby boogery butt!” At that age, it was an impressive insult. Calling someone a butt was bad enough, but adding something as disgusting as boogers was just downright mean. I turned and ran from the yard, holding Abigail to my chest and sobbing all the way.

I wasn’t about to go home though, at least not right away. I knew better than to go inside on my mother’s cleaning day, and I certainly knew better than to complain to her about anything as trivial as what had just happened. I would get the Quit Whining speech again and a week‘s worth of extra chores as punishment for possibly carrying a speck of dust into her pristine house. I decided Abigail needed a walk through the woods. At least it would be shady in the woods. Plus, I could avoid walking past the McCreery’s house and having their mutt bark and chase me the length of their chain link fence.

I was the equivalent of a half a block into the woods, still sniffling back tears, when I tripped over a tree root and fell flat, knocking my left knee against a rock and sending poor little Abigail flying at least ten feet. It was adding injury to insult. To this day I feel justified for simply scooping up Abigail and sitting in the dirt bawling my eyes out. My face was a mess of sweat, matted hair, dirt, snot and tears when I heard his voice, “Hey. Hey, kid. You okay?” I whirled around on my butt and looked up at a boy who appeared to be around 12 years old. “Nu.. ya.. nuh.. I…” I felt a fresh trickle of tears escape down my cheeks as I tried to choke back a sob and clutched Abigail as if she, rather than gravity, was holding me to the earth.

The boy came over and crouched down about two feet away from me. “Hey,” he started again. “Hey. Don’t cry. Hey. Are you hurt?” I sniffed hard, trying to calm the tears. He waited patiently for my reply. When I had myself mostly under control again, I said, still stuttering from all the crying, “I’m… I’m ok-k-kay. I b-bumped my knee, b-b-b… I’m…” Here I let out a watery sigh. He sat down cross-legged. “What’s your name?” I told him it was Bethy and asked what his name was. “I’m Puck,” he said. I couldn't help but giggle. “Like a hockey puck?” I asked. Puck grinned at me, “No, like a mom who wanted to be an English Lit teacher, but who got married and had kids instead.” He shrugged as if to say it was water that was long under the bridge.

Puck tilted his head, nodded toward the bundle I was still clinging to and asked, “What’s that?” Pulling the tiny blanket back off of Abigail’s disfigured head, I said, defensively proud, “This is Abigail. I ‘dopted her.” “She looks like she’s in rough condition.” I explained that my sister was the abusive parent from whom I’d rescued the dear urchin. I was still futilely trying to wipe away the remnants of my tears, but all I was managing to do was smear more dirt around on my face. I knew my mother was going to take one look at me and make me scrub in the laundry tub on the porch before I was allowed in the house. I brushed the hair off my forehead and out of my eyes and took a closer look at Puck. As I did, he smiled at me. It didn't occur to me to question why an older boy would be so nice to me. Those were more innocent times.

“So, why were you so upset?” he asked. I told him what had happened at Katie’s house, pausing every time there was a hitch in my voice so that I could take a breath and not start crying again. I ended the little story with how I’d fallen over the root and how I felt like the whole world was being mean to me. Puck nodded, but gave me a somewhat patronizing smile at the same time. He said, “The whole world isn't being mean to you, Bethy. You’re just having a lousy morning. And it’s too hot to have a lousy morning. You know what though? Years from now you probably won’t even remember this. Heck, just forget those girls. Who needs ‘em? It’s no big deal.”

I was quiet. I was used to being chastised for being overly sensitive. After all, I was a card carrying member, maybe even the president of my mother’s Quit Whining Club. But I got the sense that he was saying it out of niceness, that he was trying to soothe me and tell me everything would be okay. That was something I wasn't used to, so I didn't say anything. He let the silence sit between us for a minute or so, then he took a deep breath and went on. “Can I trust you with something?” I nodded. “Swear on a stack of Bibles?” I nodded vigorously.

Puck said, “I have my own story to tell, but… well… just be cool about it. Okay?” He didn't wait for me to answer before continuing. “See, I’m not really here.” My eyes widened and I stared at him. “Be cool. Just wait and hear what I have to say. Okay?” This time he waited for my response. I nodded, slower this time, not cautiously, but with absolute sincerity. “Alright,” he said. “I’m not really here. I. Uh. I died last year… and… well. Nobody knows. Well, you know now, but nobody else.” He stopped, gauging my reaction. My eyes must have been the size of saucers, but I was calm. I raised my hand halfway up, palm out in the classic “hang on a sec” gesture.

“You.. you’re a… a ghost? How did you…?” I couldn't finish the question, but I had to. I somehow sensed that he needed me to ask. I swallowed hard, cleared my throat, and tried again, “How did you get dead?” Puck clamped his lips together as if he didn't want the words to come out until he was satisfied that they were the right ones. After what seemed like minutes, but was probably only seconds, he said, “My dad. My dad was always using his fists on me. He was never happy that I was more like my mom. I’d rather read than do just about anything else. Well, one night he beat the shit out of me for reading what he called ‘that queer boy story’… Catcher In The Rye. He didn't know that it was my mom’s book and that she had let me borrow it, and I wasn't about to tell him and earn a beating for her, too, when she got home from her shift. Maybe even my sis when she got home from her date - just for good measure, y’know? I didn't want them getting hurt, so I just took it. Usually he stopped after a minute or two, but something really had him going that night. He just kept hitting me and he knocked me right into the edge of the kitchen table.”

“After that, it was kind of like watching a movie. I saw him wrap me up in an old blanket, watched him scrub down the kitchen. He carried me out to his truck and drove out here to the woods. I watched him shovel dirt as he dug a hole. I even watched him as he put me in the hole and shoveled dirt over me. The strange thing is? I wasn't angry at him. I didn't feel much of anything at all, except maybe a little sad.”

Puck paused there. I couldn't think of anything to say except, “So, you’re really dead? Like… dead dead?” Puck nodded. “Yeah. Dead dead.” He looked down at the ground. “He buried me right over there,” Puck said as he jerked his head to the left to indicate a spot about fifteen feet from where I’d fallen. He was quiet for a few minutes. So was I. After all, what was I supposed to say? We let the silence settle and I picked twigs and dirt out of Abigail’s blanket. Finally he said, “Hey, Bethy?” “What?” “Can you help me?” “Um,” I shrugged. “I guess so.”

“See, my mom and my sis think that I ran away from home. Nobody knows I’m dead. Nobody knows where I’m buried. Nobody knows about my dad. I need you to tell someone. Anybody, any grown up. Please?” Puck held my gaze in his. “Please?” I told him I would try, but that I didn't think anyone would believe me. “But you’ll try?” “I’ll try.” Puck thanked me and then said something odd. I mean, the whole thing was odd if you think about it, but what he said next is really what shook me and stayed with me all these years. He said, “You’re greater than you think you are. Don’t ever let anyone make you less. Ever.” With that he disappeared. All at once. He was there, then he was gone.

I walked home very slowly, thinking about what had just happened, wondering how I was going to tell anyone. It wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be. When I got home my mom took one look at my scrapes and my tear streaked dirty face. For once she let me blubber it all out. When I got to the part about Puck, her face changed. It wasn't a look of disbelief, it was a look of confirmation. It turned out that Puck’s mother had been on the news asking anyone who had information about her boy to call the police. Even more, apparently, Puck’s father was well known around town for being a class A dirt bag. My mom called the police. The police questioned me, but all I would tell them was where they could find Puck’s body. I didn't tell them his ghost had sent me on the errand. I guess with me being only 8 years old, they didn't push me too hard. Puck’s body was found, and enough evidence to put his father away for a couple of decades. He was killed in a prison riot seven years later.

Anyway, a few weeks ago Gina, Puck’s sister, tracked me down on Facebook. After some preliminary niceties and talk about the old neighborhood, she messaged me and got down to business. She wanted to know how I’d known where Puck’s body was. I told her I didn't remember. She wouldn't believe me if I did tell her. I never told anyone but my mother about that day, and only that once. I don’t even know why I’m telling you. I guess maybe it’s time for me to unbury some things.

Abigail sits on the corner of my desk as I type this. It’s a perch she’s enjoyed for a number of years now. My husband doesn't understand it. He thinks it’s unnerving the way she stares out of her one remaining eye. But I love her as dearly at 51 as I did at 8. She’s the only one I've ever trusted with all my darkest secrets and she’s kept them all. She’s kind of like a sieve that way, catching the important nuggets and keeping them from washing away forever.

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For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Crosshavenharpist gave me this prompt: The truth of it was, the memory had already slipped away, like fine sand through a sieve..... I gave David Wiley this prompt: a candle, toenail clippers, and a box of milkduds

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