by Lindsay Foran
The rain had been coming down unwanted for hours. It wasn’t until I felt the first drops on my forehead that I knew we were in trouble.
Every year, Dad took one week off work in August to help save us from the heat and boredom of our summer holidays. There was no pool for swimming and we lived miles away from any friends. Summers for Jeff and me were spent biking up and down the laneway, building forts in our backyard or, much to mom’s discontent, watching the afternoon soaps. By the time August arrived, we’d have exhausted all our play options and time would seem as unmoveable as the air itself. I would lie out on the grass while Mom locked herself in the house, blinds drown, lights off. Once Dad’s car pulled in the drive, she’d quickly lift up the blinds and smear blush on her cheeks to cover the heavy lines on her face.
When Dad announced we were leaving in two days for our annual camping trip, we felt rescued from an otherwise lost summer. All kids know that on the first day back to school you’re always asked to report on your summer vacation. The city kids would talk of going to even bigger cities in different countries or smaller faraway towns, summer camps, anywhere that was distant from our school district. When the teacher would point an intimidating finger my way, I knew I could rely on that one magical week in August. Without it, I’d be forced to weave together unbelievable events for my other classmates. One year, I boasted Mom and I had spent the summer months in Prague. Everyone believed it. I even believed it.
The two days before our departure were spent in a fury of packing and repacking, making sure we hadn’t forgot anything. Dad was always loud and excited on these occasions while Mom would retreat into her moments. I never knew if she enjoyed the camping trips. I often thought that one year she would simply decide not to come and it bothered me to think we might not really miss her. But she always came – complained about everything – but came. I don’t know if Dad would have ever gone with just Jeff and me.
The camping grounds were all alike. We’d pay at the main gate, get directions where to set up, buy some firewood, and make our way down the dirt roads, big enough for only one vehicle. Each site would be shaded by trees that offered little privacy. There would be a fire pit in the centre, surrounded by a circle of rocks and down the road the communal showers that we rarely used, except for Mom, who was sure to never break from her morning routine even while away from the house. We’d set up our tent, never without some sort of argument.
This year more than others it was obvious the tent was coming apart. Duct tape held together the torn sections and the poles seemed too weak to support the weight. But Dad got it up, threw our sleeping bags inside and yelled: “Let’s find the water”. Mom didn’t come. She stayed to set up the green Coleman stove, unpacking the food onto the picnic table and placing the cushiony inflatable mattress at the bottom of the tent for added comfort.
We hopped on the bikes we had brought along and raced down to the beach with our towels blowing in the wind behind us. Dad got there first, jumped off his bike while it was still in motion and made a dash to the water. There was very little seaweed so I wasn’t afraid to jump right in. Dad and Jeff swam out deep, pulling each other under water in some sort of survival game. I stayed where I could still touch bottom, thinking the loss of the sand under my feet would somehow mean danger. While Dad and Jeff goofed around I was distracted by the loud laughter of a group of kids. I couldn’t see them, but decided to find out what was going on. I walked along the beach until their laughter brought me to a small path that followed the shoreline. I didn’t want to be seen so I crept through in the bushes next to the path trying hard not to step on any branches. I was able to get close enough to see there were four boys and one girl. The five of them were huddled in a circle, poking something with sticks. I was too scared to get any closer, so I left, hearing Dad in the distance calling my name.
A few days later, after hours in the sun and biking all around the campground, we were at the beach again. Dad had run back up to the campground to get us a snack. Jeff and I were sitting on the sand waiting for his return. Again, I heard the familiar laughter from a few days earlier. I tried to start up a conversation with Jeff, worried that he had heard it too. But I was too late. He was up on his feet saying “Who’s that?” He followed the beach to the secret path and started to boldly walk down. I pursued, worried what he might do next. He stopped quickly, holding out his arm to stop me.
“What are they doing?” he asked. Without waiting for a response he said, “Let’s wait for them to leave and then scope the place out.”
We hid behind a nearby storage shack. It seemed like almost an hour later by the time we saw them emerging from the bushes. We hadn’t noticed, in our excitement, that Dad had never come back with our snacks. The four guys were older than Jeff and I. They had shaggy hair and bronzed skin. The girl looked to be my age. She had golden blonde hair and light, almost pasty skin. The boys were pushing her and laughing and I recognized something in her face – that fake, forced smile that comes only out of the most scarred pain.
Once the group was out of sight, Jeff and I ran down the path, stopping where they had been gathered. There were broken, bloodied sticks lying around. On the soil, there was a pile of dead and half-dead fish, clams partially torn out of their shells and even butterflies with their wings torn and ripped. Flies were gathered around something off to the side. As I moved closer I recognized the mutilated corpse of a robin. I stood paralyzed. A sudden urge to rescue the bird overpowered me and I leaned down to touch it. Jeff grabbed my arm and pulled me away.
“What are you doing? Do you want to get rabies or something?” That summer, we had been particularly worried about rabies. There had been a rumour that a rabid fox was seen running in the fields near our house. Mom had warned us that anything or anyone could have rabies. She frightened us so much that we believed there was some sort of rabies epidemic in the area.
I started to gather soil and bury the robin. I would not stand there and watch as swarms of flies claimed its lifeless body. As the flies began to recruit on to the piles of fish, I saw that the bird’s neck was broken, its legs had been cut off and its wings had been burned at the edges.
“We can’t stay here. Don’t do that, they’ll know it was us.” Jeff was frantic, pulling at my arm. But I wouldn’t move and so he left, running erratically down the path. I was almost mimicking his behaviour as I frantically dug into the earth to get more loose soil. The smell of the rotting flesh was nauseating. It was a mixture of animal feces, abandoned furniture and flat tires at the garbage dump and the backed up sewer that our neighbour had a few years before.
“What are you doing little girl?” I had been so focused on my task that I had not heard the four boys come back down the path. I stood up quickly. In front of me was the biggest of the boys. He was holding a large stick in his calloused, dirt stained hands. The look of disgust on his face was similar to Mom’s when she’d tell me how much I reminded her of “my father”.
“I’m…sorry…I…just…” I couldn’t get any words out. His eyes were burning through me. I thought I saw froth coming out the sides of his mouth. Mom had said that people could have rabies too. Perhaps I would have been safer touching the bird then standing here next to him.
“What’s that? Can you speak, freak?” He was yelling, spit flying out at me.
“The smell,” I started. “The flies, blood, I couldn’t stand it. I had to.” I wasn’t sure if I was making any sense. The boys started to laugh. I pictured them gathered around the helpless bird, torturing it and laughing the whole time. They had formed a circle around me and the half covered grave at my feet. I couldn’t look at them out of fear of what they might do to me. I worried they would cut off my feet, burn my hands, even break my neck. My eyes were fixed on the bird. The bright red chest indicated it was a male robin. Dad had taught me that when I was younger. He also told me that each spring you’re supposed to make a wish on the first robin you see. Their brown silk feathers and burnt orange-red chests gave me faith that I could have anything I wanted. As I stood next to its feeble body, I realized this bird was no more powerful than me and my wishes had been wasted. It wasn’t until I tasted salt on my lips that I realized I had been crying. Not just crying. I was bawling. I kept my eyes closed tight out of embarrassment that I had let these boys see my so upset. They taunted me until we heard Dad’s voice calling my name. His footsteps crunched down the path in our direction. They laughed and ran in the opposite way. It wasn’t until I opened my eyes that I saw, standing in front of me, the blonde girl with that same, forced, clown-like smile. She reached down and held my hand. I learned later that her name was Heidi. She was the youngest and only girl in a family of boys. They weren’t camping, they actually lived close by.
“The fish were already dead, you know. My brothers like to poke at things and see them bleed. I just watch. I think the smell’s pretty gross too.” Didn’t she realize that I wasn’t upset about the fish? Hadn’t she seen the corpse of the innocent bird?
We began to meet everyday to go swimming, ride bikes or just talk and laugh on the beach. She asked me why she never saw my Mom and I told her it was because she didn’t like the sun or the water. I asked her where her Mom was and she told me she was dead. I looked up at her, expecting to see something broken on her face, in her eyes. But she was smiling, looking out over the water – just smiling.
The last night of our vacation, it began to rain. I was lying on top of my sleeping bag because the humidity hadn’t died down with the setting sun and the night air was thick. The door to the tent was unzipped a crack to let in air but all that did was invite the mosquitoes inside to find a place to rest out of the rain. The tent smelled like damp basements and rotting soil, and the rain seemed to last the entire night. Through the sound of water hitting the nylon tent, I could hear Mom crying. When I looked over at her, I saw water leaking from the roof of the tent onto her face. The rain water mingled with her tears leaving her face and hair soaking wet. She hadn’t bothered to move, she just lay there. As an adult, I would think back to this and realize this is why she hated camping. The rain always seemed to find her. But this year, I began to feel the drips on my forehead too. Dad and Jeff were asleep and dry. I reached out to hold Mom, but as soon as I touched her, she froze silent. Her skin was almost dead beneath my fingers and I imagined this is what it would have felt like to touch the robin. I lay like that for a few minutes before I realized that she wasn’t even breathing. Once I let her go, she gasped for breath like a fish out of water and rolled away from me. The two of us lay there the rest of the night damp and hot.
The next day Heidi came to find me as usual. The campsite was wet and the fire pit smoked from the damp ashes. I was busy packing my things and rolling up my sleeping bag. I heard her almost invisible footsteps before I saw her face. I looked up and saw that she had fresh scratches on her face layered bruises on her arms and legs that I had never taken the time to notice before. Dad stood up and spoke before I could.
“Jesus, what happened here?” he asked her, glaring as though he expected some sort of logical explanation. “Looks to me like you fell down a cliff or something. Too much rough housing for a girl if you ask me. I’d never let my Jujubee walk around in public looking like that”. I wanted to push him aside, rescue her from his unanswerable question, his unwanted comments, his large hands. I wanted to push him aside, rescue her from his unanswerable question, his large hands. I felt that she had been broken and only my small hands could piece her back together again. I stood up quickly and walked over to her.
Again, I was interrupted, but this time by Mom. She knelt down on the soil in front of Heidi and brushed the hair out of her face, examined her wounds. At first Heidi wouldn’t look at her, her eyes were focused on something off to the side. Her arms were glued to her torso and her chest exhaled in quick sharp movements. It wasn’t Heidi’s nervousness that shocked me; rather, it was Mom’s lack of it. She was delicate and sweet, her voice as calm and rhythmic as I had never heard before. She asked what had happened, who had done this. I knew that Heidi would never tell on her brothers because they were all she had. Mom wanted to know where Heidi’s Mom was, if Heidi needed something to eat. She told her that she would clean her wounds and make sure this never happened again. Heidi smiled as though Mom had glued her broken face back into that constant smile. But as Mom stood to lead her to the bathroom, the sides of her mouth began to drop, her eyes closed, and she collapsed, like a marionette into Mom’s arms. I stood motionless, watching these two, strangers to each other, protecting one another from someone or something. In a second, Heidi seemed to regain her strength and she was almost pushing Mom away from her. She ran over to me.
“I made this for you. See you next year, eh?” She handed me a folded piece of paper. I absent-mindedly put it in my pocket. I was struck by what she had said, “next year”? We hadn’t made plans to come back next year, and yet she spoke as if she knew we would.
Mom ran over to Dad and grabbed him by the arm. She was whispering, but there was a look of panic in her eyes.
“Listen, what do you want me to do? Go over there and question her parents? It’s just kids being kids, that’s all. Jeff gets bruises like that from playing soccer, it’s nothing to worry about.” Dad tried to reassure her, but she didn’t believe him and pushed him away, staring blankly into the direction where Heidi had run. Dad went back to packing up the tent, but Mom walked off and was gone for well over an hour. When she returned she wouldn’t tell us where she’d been and we never found out either.
It wasn’t until we were back at home that Mom found the folded paper in my laundry. I grabbed it from her before she could open it and took it to my room. I opened it slowly, worried I may rip the paper. Heidi had made a drawing for me. It was a picture of the beach with two girls talking on the sand. At the top she had written: “Friends Forever” and underneath: “Always, Heidi”. The one girl that was meant to be me seemed to be faceless, unrecognizable. The image of Heidi was perfect and smiling. I crumpled it up, ran frantically to the bathroom and flushed it down the toilet. Heidi had probably expected that I would put it on the fridge, maybe she thought Mom would look at it everyday and remember what a beautiful child she was. I couldn’t let myself hold onto it. I knew that in the days to come each time I looked at it I would smell rotting flesh and bruised skin, but I would never feel the warmth of Mom’s soft hands brushing away a smile.
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