Susan Levi Wallach
I was nine years old when I killed the boy, pushing the knife between the soft bones of his chest with both my hands. I pulled it out slowly, not realizing at first the finality of what I’d done. “What’s your name, boy?” I whispered.
He had been playing in the woods behind the motel, just beyond the barbecue grills and picnic benches, out of sight from the pool where both our mothers lay sunbathing with their heads tilted up and eyes closed against the heat. They had no interest in us.
“Go on, find something to do for a little while,” my mother had said. I was nine after all, no longer in need of constant attention.
I had been the one who had begged for this one last weekend out of the city as a family before my sister’s wedding. Because then everything would change.
“I want to go to the farm,” I’d said to my father, who like me was tired of looking at table settings and bridesmaid dresses. “You promised we’d go someday. I want to see where you grew up.”
And so, on the Thursday before school started, we went — a four-hour drive out of the city and onto two-lane back roads.
My mother’s indignation at being dragged away from bridge games and deviled eggs was reason enough to keep away from her. My father had left us on our own for the afternoon to visit old friends. My sister, twelve years older, was in our room with the home decorating guides and bride’s magazines her mother-in-law-to-be had given her. She had drawn the chain across the door, so even though I had my own key there was no getting in.
I had gone around to the back of the motel, where there was a battered swing set, a picnic area and a thicket of trees. That was where I saw him.
He was younger than I and slight, with straight hair like mine, but darker and cut very short. I thought that if I had been a boy I might look like that.
At first, I really just wanted to touch his hair. He had a stick in his hand and was poking at the blackberry vines, their tough, thorny canes twisted around the surrounding bushes.
“You won’t be able to cut those vines with that stick,” I informed him.
“It’s not a stick,” he said, holding it up in the air. “It’s a light saber.”
“But it doesn’t have any lights on it.”
“You just can’t see them,” he said, turning back to the vines, which were thick with fruit.
He must have been pulling off berries and eating them — his hands and lips were streaked with red.
I thought for a moment. It was so still where we were, no one else around and no one to see us. “I have a real light saber in my room. Would you like to see?”
He looked at me, then, gauging whether he could trust me, “Sure. Go get it. I’ll wait.”
I ran back to the pool, slipping out of my sandals before I reached the pavement so I could sneak up behind my mother’s lounge and take her key from the table beside her. When I left the enclosure, I went back to the end of the parking lot. I looked to the boy, relieved to see him still occupied with the berries, pulling a couple off a vine and chewing as he thwacked the stick against the bushes and tables, calling out to foes only he could see.
My parents’ room had a kitchenette and I’d seen the knife there that morning, short and thin, with a sharp tip and fine edge. I rolled it up in the newspaper, centering it across one of the corners the way the florist rolled up the flowers when my father and I went to get my mother’s weekly bouquet of peonies and mondo grass or, for special occasions, white roses and snapdragons. I left the knife in the tall grass outside the pool gate while I snuck the key back onto the table.
The boy, still where I’d left him, pawed at the dirt with his sneaker and shook his head. “No way,” he said. “That’s no real light saber. That’s just a roll of paper.” Already he had started back toward the motel, slashing the stick from side to side. It was as if I wasn’t even there.
“No, wait,” I said. “I wrapped it up so that no one but you would see. Come here, I’ll show you.”
I moved off a little, so that I was standing by the thickest of the trees. It was easy to maneuver so that the boy was leaning against it while I carefully unwound the newspaper, hoping the anticipation would keep him distracted and silent. I could feel the cool weight of the haft as I let the newspaper fall away and lifted the knife high above both our heads, his eyes following it until the very last moment.
When my father found me, I had the boy’s stick, using it to make overlapping circles in the dirt. He turned my bloodied arms this way and that, looking for the wound.
“Did you do something, Anna?” he said, agitation rising in his voice. “Show me what you did.”
I pointed to where the picnic tables were.
“Wait here,” he said as he started to walk past the tables, stopping for a moment a little farther on, then turning and walking swiftly back.
He pressed his lips together and didn’t say anything, just grabbed the stick out of my hand and took me hard by the elbow. There was a spigot at the back of the motel, and he pulled me over to it. The water was icy enough to make me gasp. But he held my arms under, rubbing with his hands until my skin looked pale again, albeit chafed from his determination. When he was done he stepped back and looked me over from head to foot, his countenance locked in such concentration that I feared even my breathing would be an interruption.
My blouse was a deep rose with small orange and pink flowers — the small red flecks barely showed, but he told me I’d have to give it to him later, after I’d changed for dinner. For now, he said I should just ball it up and put it in a pillowcase as soon as I’d undressed. “Go on now. Don’t talk to anyone. Tell your mother that I forgot something in town and will be back soon.”
I’d started to skip away when he called me back. He bent down and scratched up a fistful of dirt, then rubbed it onto my hair, blouse and capris with both hands. “Tell your mother that you fell, that you need a good hair wash too.”
My mother had gone upstairs and changed into a bright yellow and white sundress. I could see her through the window as I walked past her room. She was standing in front of the mirror putting her earrings on while swaying to the music from the television set. I knocked on the door to my room and waited until my sister opened it. She immediately stuck out her hand, “Oh no you don’t. Not looking like that. What happened to you?”
“I fell,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest, sure now that it was the boy’s blood she’d seen.
“You fell? Not likely. Looks like you rolled. You’re not coming in here. Go knock on Mom’s door. You need a shower. I’ll bring you something to wear.”
“And a pillowcase,” I said, before realizing it.
She stared at me ready to pounce, to pick apart any reason I might offer. I rocked anxiously from foot to foot. “Dad said to. He said to put my clothes into a pillowcase because they’re so dirty. He doesn’t want them mixed up with yours.”
“Yeah. Sure. Anything. Just go.”
My father still hadn’t come back. It was another hour before he did. I had on a new dress, bought just for the weekend, and I twirled around slowly for him. But he did not seem to notice me. He just looked at my mother as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words. He had a bag of groceries and a six-pack.
“Arthur, what’s all this? You don’t think I’m going to cook dinner here I hope,” my mother jabbed.
“I hope not.”
“Thought I’d try one of those grills in the back. You know the restaurants around here aren’t any good. Anna, do you have your muddy clothes? Let’s get them into the trunk.”
He twisted the cap off one of the beers and carried the grocery bag out with him. I followed. But we didn’t go to the car. When we got to the foot of the stairs he stuck the pillowcase with my clothes inside into the grocery bag and shooed me away. “Go help your mother with the plates and things,” he said. “We’ll eat at one of the picnic tables. Tell your sister I said to help too.”
Instead of going right upstairs, I watched him as he settled the food on one of the tables. He shoveled some charcoal into the bottom of the grill, sprinkled it with lighter fluid, and threw in a match. I didn’t see that pillowcase again.
Even as we were eating, we could hear voices out in the parking lot. Cars came and went. A woman sat by the pool, crying with a towel around her shoulders. Later, when we started up the stairs, we saw people moving through the woods, their flashlights like fireflies filling the warm night. Every so often a man shouted a name I couldn’t quite make out over the air conditioning. At one point, I heard a siren and started to tremble, fearing they had found him. But the siren passed.
In the morning, I heard my parents talking in low, urgent voices outside the door to my room. It was my father who knocked, and my sister who answered. “Your mother wants to get going back now,” he said. “A little boy disappeared here yesterday, and it has her spooked. So get your things together and be quick about it.”
He looked tired, as if he’d been out there too, one of the men searching the woods.
“What about breakfast?” my sister asked. “It’s so early.”
“We’ll stop once we get on the road,” my father said.
Instead, we stopped in town. My father told us to wait in the car and crossed the street to the police station.
“Oh, I could tell you stories about your father and his brothers,” my mother said. “How on Saturday night the town police would round up half the boys in town. They’d have them sleep off their poor judgment in the jail cells so they wouldn’t get into any real trouble. Everyone looked out for everyone else then. Those boys are probably running things here now.”
After a while my mother got out of the car and bought us all sodas. We had the windows open, the breeze just cool enough to keep us comfortable. My sister and I played hangman and tic-tac-toe over and over. My mother closed her eyes and leaned back on the headrest, as if she were still at the pool.
When he finally came back, my father didn’t offer any explanation, just slid onto his seat, started the engine and pulled carefully into the light weekend traffic. “Too bad about that boy,” he said. “The way these woods are, they don’t think they’ll ever find him.”