Chapter 12: Maybe Forever
I killed a frog. To me, it would seem, that killing a mouse was one thing, one sensible, innocent thing to do when one sees a mouse, and killing an unthreatening animal like a frog was quite another. But maybe I was wrong.
Desmond and Mikey never wanted to go outside when it rained, but I liked the cool, damp weather and dripping tree branches. Never did I pass up opportunities to go for walks around our block by myself in the rain, though I would surely tend to pay for it after with a brief but intense head cold.
It was only a few weeks after Mom had left that I had found myself wandering around Central in the light drizzle of the sweet summer afternoon. Though I was wary about leaving Desmond home with Dad by himself, I had promised to bring him home some Skittles, and our dad was probably sleeping anyways.
My feet hurt when I walked too much, but I pretended not to notice it. Only when my arches cramped did I stop walking and sit down for a bit until they relaxed. I was on my way back, candies in hand, but I was too distracted by the clean chill of raindrops misting over my skin to care about getting back to the boring indoors.
When I finally reached the house, the rain had almost dried up. My hair had curled in the rain, drooping messily over my new glasses – Mrs. Lincoln had taken me to the eye doctor last week – and into my eyes. My clothes dripped but weren't completely soaked through.
I was just about to head up the driveway when I saw it, flopping about foolishly in the puddles at the bottom of the driveway. It jumped from the puddle right onto my foot. I jumped and shook it off as if it were a blood-sucking insect.
I picked up the poor frog after it had dislodged itself from my foot. I looked at its throat, finding a darkened spot. It was pretty small and I noticed, after managing to get it to stop squirming in my hand, that it had blackened fingers. He was male, and just big enough to be an adult.
Mrs. Zimmerman next door had a birth bath in the backyard, I remembered. It would no doubt be flooded with rainwater. I strolled over to it, knowing full well that the Zimmermans wouldn't even notice.
I looked critically at the amphibian and dipped his feet in the water, which was overflowing in the porcelain structure. The frog struggled at this point, looking up to me as if in confusion. I continued to immerse the creature.
Before I knew what I was doing, his head was underwater and he thrashed around, splashing water everywhere. It clawed uselessly at my fingers for life. For a moment I almost thought I saw something in his beady, inhuman eyes.
But in the next second, he was gone, lifeless. The kicking ceased immediately, and I knew that I'd done it again, killed an animal. After the initial bout of shock faded from my senses, I was elated, completely filled up with an indescribable sense of contentment. I closed my eyes for a moment before realizing that my fingers were still clutched around the dead, lifeless body of the green frog. Its colour appeared to fade away into grey, but I knew it was just my imagination running wild with adrenaline.
"Julius!" I heard a voice call. My head snapped up to meet Desmond's eyes. He was over on the deck, plain as day, watching me. "What are you doing?" he called out. I dropped the frog to the ground and mucked through the wet grass.
"W-was that a frog?" Desmond wondered in confusion as I came inside with him.
I decided that pretending I had no clue what he was talking about would be a good course of action. There was no way I was going to expose my fragile-minded brother to my dark side. I could already feel shame filtering into my heart, quickly replacing my adrenaline rush.
"What are you talking about?" I said plainly.
He looked confused. "Outside. I saw it, you had a frog in your hand."
"No I didn't."
Des wouldn't give. "I saw you, you drowned it in the neighbour's birdbath. Why did you do that?"
Dammit, he'd seen everything. Could I really lie to him even further? I decided to relent: "It scared me," I told him. While I was still lying, at least it was something that he could potentially believe. "I don't like frogs."
"I didn't know that," he said, very clearly still suspicious. "But why did you kill it? You didn't have to kill it." Now it was more a sense of disbelief in his voice, fear, even, at what I'd done and the idea that I'd done it solely out of fear. He didn't seem to buy it, but I continued along this line of reasoning regardless.
"I told you, it scared me. I didn't mean to, it just happened." At least that wasn't a total lie.
Desmond just looked at me a little longer before he nodded and stopped questioning me. Though the after-shock of my actions still coursed through me, I felt bad about the whole thing. The entire day, I felt Desmond's big, grey eyes watching me, wondering what it was he'd truly seen. I missed Mom more than anything.
Todsfall was, when it came down to it, a pretty small community. We third-graders had never seen any new kids come to our small elementary school – or leave it, for that matter. Our town was in its own little, cut-off world here, too far north from New Amsterdam, the busiest city in the country, but just south of the border that would join us with Canada. We were a lonely little group of people. As I grew older, I had begun to understand why our town was named after "death" – because people lived and died here, but they didn't leave.
Bridget Kelly was the first new student we'd ever seen at Todsfall Elementary. It was such a novel experience that we all went a little crazy over it – everyone but me, of course.
"I'm Bridget," she said to the class, raising a hand as if salute us, like fellow soldiers. She glanced up at the stoic teacher, whom I hadn't seen crack so much as a smile in the entire first month of school. She was nowhere near as nice as Miss Sanford.
Bridget was very short, even for a third grader, and she had very short black hair, almost as short as mine or Mikey's. But what I noticed most when I saw Bridget was not physical. It was her air of sadness that hung over her. It was a very mysterious feeling, looking at this girl. It made me eager to learn her story.
I saw it in Mikey too. He wanted to expand our group of friends to include Bridget, despite the fact that she was, in fact, a girl, and that, by our limited knowledge, girls were "icky".
By the middle of October, she'd noticed us watching her at recess. She'd grown accustomed to picking flowers and skipping around the school with them – alone. I wasn't up on girl activities, so it took me this long to realize that this was abnormal behaviour, and that the other girls laughed at her and found her "weird".
Above all else, I found Bridget's eerie tendencies to be breaths of fresh air compared to the usual, boring goings-on us boys got up to: throwing worms at walls, throwing spiders at girls, throwing balls at other boys in the guise of sports. We tended to do quite a bit of throwing.
Bridget was shy, at least at first. She wasn't shy about being weird, but rather about talking to others. From what we could see when we glanced across the playground to Bridget dancing by herself, doing cartwheels by herself or hanging from monkey bars upside down by herself, she didn't have any friends at all. And when she was called on in class, she would whisper an answer or simply say nothing.
After a while, we started trying to convince Desmond that we should talk to her. "She looks lonely," I told him one recess, "she could be friends with us."
"But she's weird."
Mikey laughed. "Everyone's weird."
"Not me," Desmond asserted. We laughed again.
"C'mon," Mikey prodded, "she's pretty. Maybe you can marry her someday!"
I knew immediately that this would only upset Desmond more. "No way! I don't want to get married! I hate girls!" he was nearly yelling by this point, so I calmed him down as best as I could.
"He was joking, Desmond, it's okay. Don't hate girls, though. Mom was a girl, didn't you like Mom?"
Now he was furious. "No! I hate Mom!" he was shouting now. He looked like he wanted to run away from the kids whose curious eyes now bore into us from all across the playground. After a few seconds, he realized there was nowhere he could run to and he sat down on the grass, angry and defiant. I was almost angry at him for saying he hated her, but I knew he didn't really mean it.
I sat down next to him as the other children began to resume their previous activities. "Calm down, Des," I murmured "I'm sorry. We don't have to talk to her. It's okay." Mikey was about to join us on the ground but I looked up to him and shook my head. Desmond took another moment to calm himself down and finally stood up.
It was a few more weeks of talking Desmond into trusting a girl before we decided to finally talk to her. Bridget had begun to take a real beating from the other girls for her tomboyishness and eccentricity, and we noticed her shyness only amplifying over time.
Rachel, a particularly bitchy nine-year-old, tended to lead the bouts of insults that they would fling at her. "You're ugly," she would say, "you look like a boy." Then the other girls would laugh at her hair and her choice of non-girly clothing. We watched in surprise when Bridget just took their words and swallowed them whole. She said nothing, just stood there and stared angrily into Rachel's eyes. I wondered what she was thinking in that moment, I thought about that more often than I realized. I resolved to help her, to stop her from being picked on. Maybe it was the fact that I'd lost my Mom and wanted another strong female in my life, but as far as I knew, I simply wanted to make Bridget feel better.
"Hi, Bridget," Mikey said one cold recess in November. "Want to play tag?"
She looked from me to Desmond to Mikey. "With you?" she sounded almost offended, but I knew it was just her timid voice. We nodded. Her deep blue eyes fluttered for a moment. "Okay." I was kind of surprised that it had worked so easily, but when Bridget suddenly ran up to Mikey and declared that he was "it", we broke off in a run to get away, laughing as though we'd been best friends for years.
And from that moment, that one invitation, that's how we were. We ate lunch together, played ball, played with bugs, laughed privately at the girls who had teased her. We were, all of a sudden, the closest of friends. Our group of three had turned into a group of four overnight. It was hard for Desmond to adapt, but he eventually got used to the idea, and didn't bring our mom into it again.
Despite our interference, Bridget continued to be bullied by other kids.
The worse instance of this happened just before the Christmas break. It was too cold to go out for recess so we sat in our respective classroom (Desmond wouldn't be happy about this) and played cards. The girls had been playing with some sort of dolls across the room and had happened upon a doll with no head.
"It looks like Bridget!" one girl announced gleefully, positively delighted at having come up with such a scathing insult on her own. The other girls giggled and gave Bridget these looks of contempt for some reason. I really didn't understand girl logic too well.
Rachel had jumped in at this point: "No, she has nice clothes on," she said in reference to the doll. "And she looks like a dumb boy." She pointed her finger obnoxiously to our friend and laughed heartily. I glanced up to the teacher, sitting at her desk unmoving. She was reading a large, weighty novel, unaware of the present situation.
"You should put a bag over your head," Caroline called from across the classroom. Another bout of laughs.
I wanted to say something when I looked at Bridget's somewhat distraught face. Her usually bright smile was contorted in something of a frown, but she stayed silent. For some reason I simply couldn't say a word myself. I watched in quiet anger as the girls ripped Bridget to shreds over and over.
Mikey seemed as conflicted as me, and just as shocked by Bridget's ability to stare them down and not give them the satisfaction of anger, frustration or sadness.
Only when one girl with a particularly shrill voice called Bridget a fat pig did Mikey manage to choke out a response. "Shut up, shut up!" he yelled, a sudden burst of rage emanating from his mouth. He would have screamed further, I was sure, but at this point, the teacher had been sufficiently roused from her reading and told us to settle down and she gave Mikey a stern look.
The girls, from this point on, left Bridget alone for the most part, save a snide comment or a giggle here and there.
Though I was glad that Bridget had been stood up for, I couldn't help but feel useless compared to Mikey. It should have been me to stand up for my friend, not him. Why? I hadn't the slightest clue, perhaps I just wanted to be the one to help her. I was so used to helping Desmond solve his every problem, however slight or serious, that I thought I was the one that had to help everyone else, too.
And over these last few months, Desmond had been having a hard time. What with the weather changing and the clocks shifting back an hour, his biological clock had been out of whack like every winter – it became more and more difficult for him to wake up, he was tired all the time and he would get intense headaches nearly every day. Each year his teachers would tell Mrs. Lincoln on parent-teacher day that Desmond wasn't trying hard enough, that he was beginning to "lose focus". "How can he focus without Mom? How can he focus when he's in pain all the time, from cracked ribs to bruised dignity?" I wanted to say, to protect him. But I didn't. Much like my experiences with Bridget, I never said anything of the sort to stand up for Desmond.
It had gotten to the point where, this year, Desmond's fourth grade teacher advised Mrs. Lincoln to take him to a therapist. Not being our legal guardian, the decision fell on our father instead, who gave a resounding "no" one afternoon. Madison, who tended to avoid our dad, tried to reason with him that Desmond is a "troubled young boy" and needs someone to talk to other than me and Mikey. I wanted to tell her that I was all he really needed, but I didn't want to ruin her case against Dad. Despite her words, as I could've guessed, he stood by his firm hatred of the mentally unwell. I thought this odd, considering how well he himself fit the description of "mentally unwell".
So Desmond got progressively worse. I didn't know what to do when he stopped eating one day, then the next, then the next.
"What's wrong?" I murmured one night at dinner as Desmond stared into his ham sandwich. "You have to eat or you'll die."
He shook his head. "I'm sick of sandwiches for dinner. I miss Mom." I knew there was more to it, the fresh bruise on his ribs and chest told me so when we'd gotten dressed that morning. "I don't want to do this anymore."
"Do what?" I winced when his eyes finally met mine in a moment of agony.
He shrugged. "Live, I guess. Not this way. Not without her."
I told Madison what Des had said, but she just gave me a pitying look and said that he will probably feel better in the spring. But he wasn't eating a bite, I protested. He won't make it until spring. We needed our mom, I told her.
"I know, sweetie, but I can't turn the world around."
"What does that mean?" This wasn't a question I used often, even as a child.
She gave me a soft smile. "I can't bring her back. She's gone, maybe forever. You might have to learn to live with that, I'm afraid."
This slapped me in the face, this realization that this was how my life was, now. Motherless.
"Why don't you boys come and eat here, tonight, get some real food in you?" Mrs. Lincoln offered, her cheeks wrinkling to force a smile. "Will Desmond eat chicken fingers?"
I nodded, still caught up in her earlier words. They still stung.
"You go on over and get him. Maybe you boys can have a sleepover tonight," she suggested. I only nodded once more.
I snuck past my dad, dozing off in the living room like he seemed to do all day, every day, up the stairs and into our room. Sure enough, Desmond sat on his bed half-reading. I told him we were going to the Lincolns' for dinner. He shook his head 'no'.
"We're having chicken fingers," I told him, knowing full well that this wouldn't change a thing. Of course, the shaking of the head continued. He looked like he was withering away already, his eyes were empty and as dull as grey as ever. He looked sosad.
I decided I wasn't taking "no" for an answer. I couldn't look at him like that anymore. "C'mon, we're going to Mikey's."
He scowled at me, stood up and dropped his book on the floor. "NO!" he yelled forcefully. "You can't make me!" And before I could understand what was happening, his hands were wildly clawing at my shirt, then my neck.
My breath flew from my lungs, my throat stopped short, unable to comprehend the hands around my neck, stronger than I ever would've believed.
"Des!" I choked out, grabbing his hands away from my throat. My heart raced and I felt tears well in my eyes for the first time since Mom left. "Stop!"
But he didn't, he only choked me harder, his skinny arms suddenly full of life and strength. I didn't understand how he had the energy to throttle me, but here we were. His eyes were closed, screwed shut. He groaned and yelled and tears streamed down his face. He strangled me until I couldn't even cry out, I felt my head grow lighter and lighter. I thought, for one terrifying and fleeting moment, that I might die. Finally, I was desperate and suddenly very alert, and I kicked him in the leg. He fell down, sobbing at my feet. I gulped in air and brought my own hands to my neck. I could still feel where his fingers had dug into my skin. My skin ached and I couldn't breathe properly.
He looked about ready to pass out. I sat down on the ground and tried to breathe normally as much as possible, but I still felt the air catching in my lungs, scared and confused. After a few seconds, I realized my throat hurt badly. I coughed once, which then launched me into a coughing fit which lasted for an eternity. Desmond just looked at me and cried for a few minutes as I regained my composure. We said nothing.
After he finished crying, I put on a collared shirt so Mrs. Lincoln wouldn't see the strangle marks. Desmond stood up, though it seemed like he was about to fall asleep on his feet. "I miss her," he murmured.
I paused for a minute before I went over to my bed and dug around in my pillowcase for Mom's compact mirror. I brought it back to Desmond. "It was hers."
"You took it?"
"Yeah." Dad had purged Mom's things from the house a few weeks after she was gone, much to mine and Desmond's displeasure. Now, our house looked as though she'd never even been here. Des took the mirror from me delicately and opened it as if it might break.
A few moments later, he handed it back to me and took a deep breath. "Let's go."
I gave him a small smile to reassure him and a hug. I quickly forgot about Desmond strangling me, for I found it unimportant in helping him get better, so I didn't tell anyone about it. But when I looked in the mirror, pretending it was Mom's eyes looking back at me softly, it would drift back into my memory. He wasn't mad at me, I realized, but at her.