A Lesson Learned
By Matthew Zdulski
That’s what he would always call them. They weren’t spankings or beatings or whatever else they could be called. If we were misbehaving, he would lay us across his knee, and we would be taught a lesson. It made it seem productive, like there was a good reason for it. He always said that we’d thank him for it later. It’s just who my father was. He was a man who had his principles, and you can’t fault someone for their principles, even if you don’t believe in them yourself. That’s how he was raised, and that’s how he was going to raise us. His father disciplined him all the time, but it made him who he was. He wanted us to have the same values he had, so why would he do anything different? He was our father, and it was his job to teach us any way he could.
He worked in the limestone quarry in St. Mary’s. Most of the men in the area worked there if they didn’t farm or commute into London. It eventually shut down in 1982. I had moved away by then to London for university. He was pretty much retired by that point, anyway, but he died within a year of it shutting down. It’s funny, you know? For how much it mattered to him, I’m not even really sure what he did there. He would come home coated in limestone dust, but he would shower, throw his work clothes in the laundry, and it would be completely gone from the house. Washed down the drain, I guess. I remember riffling through his work clothes a few times. The dust on my hands always fascinated me as I tried to imagine what he was like out in the world, at the quarry. He never really did much else. He’d work at the quarry, work on the house and his car, and go hunting once in the fall. The most he ever said about it was that it was a decent and honest job. He always knew best. Always serious. And always on the lookout. He had that gaze, you know? The kind that gave you chills. He could stare you down, that’s for sure.
There was only one time it got away from him and he lost his nerve. After the Walter Easton ordeal. He was a neighbour kid down the road. My sister Rebecca and I have hardly mentioned it to each other since. We don’t talk too often anymore. Busy people, busy lives. She would definitely remember it, though. He hardly laid a finger on us after that. Never like he had that time, at least.
The girls are having a good time on a Saturday morning in early spring—tossing one of the eggs they’re supposed to be collecting back and forth to each other—until their father appears from around the side of the house. He stops and stares at them. Lorrie quickly puts the egg back in the basket, but it’s no use. They know he saw them. He strides across the lawn and grabs Lorrie by the waist despite her protests, hoisting her horizontally underneath his armpit, her legs kicking. He drags Rebecca by the arm—she’s a little older and can’t be picked up so easily—toward the house, only letting her go—his fingerprints leaving their phantom, red outline on her upper arm—to open the screen door. The girls make their excuses, scream their apologies, but they know what they’re in for now. There’s nothing they can do about it.
They’re going to learn a lesson.
This is in 1968. Lorrie is eight, and Rebecca is ten. There’s a chill in the morning air, but it’ll heat up later. The sun has just come up. The dew that coats the dead grass will dry, leaving it crispy with mud. The windows and doors will be open later for the cool breeze, letting out the stuffy smell of winter that’s been in their house. The ditches are flooded with water, but they’ll empty soon. The grass will revive. Corn and wheat are being planted in the barren fields surrounding their concession that will dwarf them before they know it. The trees, now dotted with pastel buds, will soon be bursting with leaves. Things are moving on beyond their control.
The girls know that their pleas are falling on deaf ears—their father is determined not to listen—but they make them anyway. None of the eggs had been broken, they say. Nothing happened, so what was the big deal? They were only having some fun. They never meant any harm—not that any had been done. They’d only been playing a game. It was something they did a lot of: coaxing the other into playing games, tugging the other into their fantasies. Lorrie is usually the instigator, always pushing things too far, because Rebecca hates being in trouble.
In the kitchen, their mother is making breakfast: tea and fried cakes. She is a short, anxious woman. Thin with frizzy blond hair that she could never keep under control. She never hits them herself but is quick to tell their father about any wrongdoing. She, too, loves to root out their bad behaviour.
She turns around from the stove to watch the fuss.
“What have they done now?” she asks, wiping her hands on her apron. The girls are already guilty in her eyes.
“Nothing!” Lorrie yells, still squirming underneath her father’s arm. Rebecca is already crying.
“We were only playing,” Rebecca squeaks.
Their father pulls out a chair from the kitchen table and lays Lorrie across his knee. With his open palm, he hits her five times, even and calm, and then stands her back up on the linoleum floor. The clock ticks loudly on the wall. The cakes are sizzling in the pan. Tears are welling up in her eyes from the stinging in her backside and from her anger, but she doesn’t let them slide down her cheeks. She adamantly keeps them to herself. She feels humiliated. Now it’s Rebecca’s turn, and Lorrie watches. The sound is shocking: the thudded smacks; the interrupted, croaking sobs coming from Rebecca; her sister’s repeated apologies. Lorrie watches her father’s face but sees neither anger nor delight. He puts Rebecca back on her feet beside Lorrie.
The girls are standing there in front of him, waiting to be dismissed. They want to run away but know that would mean another lesson. He leans onto his knee, pointing at them.
“We don’t need you girls playing around,” he tells them. “Not when you’re supposed to be working. There’s a time for play and a time for work.”
The girls don’t say anything. Rebecca is whimpering. Anyone would be able to see that Lorrie is upset, pouting and glowering at her father, but she imagines she’s hiding it well.
“You know I don’t like to do it,” he continues. “But I have no choice. I do it because I have to. The same way that you two have to take care of the chickens.”
“We expect you to take it seriously,” their mother pipes in.
They nod, subdued.
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” they whisper. “Sorry.”
The ordeal is nearly over.
“I know it hurts now, but you two will thank me for this later,” their father says. “You’ll be glad you had these lessons. Now go and finish your chores.”
“I hope you two learned something,” their mother says, but they’re already running out the back door.
They keep running until they’re back at the chicken coop. It’s a small, wooden hutch that was built by their father. It’s attached to a fenced-in area that allows the hens to wander. The chickens were their father’s idea. He raised chickens when he was a kid, and he says it taught him to be responsible. He had shown the girls how to feed them, how to clean their droppings out of the coop, how to change the pine shavings in their nesting boxes, how to pick up a chicken, and even how to collect the eggs. Their father takes the eggs they collect to the quarry to sell to his coworkers and to their neighbours. He’s always going on about the chickens, telling people how much the girls are learning, how nice the extra money is. Before, their mother had either bought their clothes from the Salvation Army in town or else she’d made them. Now they bought nicer dresses and shoes for church and school, where their mother said they ought to look respectable.
The girls are always playing out melodramatic stories with the chickens. Recently, the hens have been in mourning—dressed in imagined black, their grief-laden clucking filling the yard—after the loss of the eighth chicken, Maureen. She was the late Admiral’s widow. She was carried off nearly a month ago by a fox or coyote in the middle of the night. All the girls had found in the morning was Maureen’s grey-blue feathers littered around the coop and an empty nesting box.
But today, there are no games because the girls are still feeling sullen from the lesson they’ve been taught. They’re finishing their chores in silence, not looking at the other one. Minutes go by while they’re spreading feed and collecting the eggs. Rebecca is still whimpering quietly, which is starting to annoy Lorrie.
Suddenly there is a wild fluttering of wings and some alarmed, nervous squawking. Gertie and Blackie are at each other again, fighting over the same pieces of grain. The girls can’t help looking at each other and smiling.
Lorrie will have to bring Rebecca back to her, she knows.
“There’s a time for play and a time for work,” she mocks, imitating her father. Rebecca lets out a restrained laugh, side-eyeing her sister. Lorrie sits down on the edge of the coop, hiking up the lap of her skirt around the crotch like their father does to sit. She leans on an elbow and points.
“I do it because I have to,” Lorrie continues, lowering her voice. This gets Rebecca to let out a peal of laughter.
It never takes much. They’re usually both mad at the same thing.
With the eggs collected and put away, the chickens fed, the coop cleaned, and everything else finished, the girls wolf down their breakfast in the kitchen and then run outside. Their father is on the driveway washing his car.
“Don’t go too far off,” he calls after them half-heartedly. “Mom will need your help later.”
The girls, however, are already gone and nearly out of earshot, heading toward the cow path down the road. The nip that had been in the air before is nearly gone. They watch a tractor till its way across a field on the other side of the road, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake. The earthy, damp smell of the world washes over them.
Lorrie looks down the road and sees a figure in the distance. She stops in her tracks.
Her heart sinks.
“What are you waiting for?” Rebecca calls to her, looking back. She turns and then stops, too.
It’s Walter Easton. They had forgotten about him.
Lorrie turns to look back toward their house, hoping their father hasn’t seen.
“Quick,” Rebecca says, taking charge. “Let’s meet him.”
They bear down on him, knowing they have no choice.
Walter Easton is a schoolmate and their neighbour. He is, above all, a liar. Their father has warned the girls about the Eastons. They are not to associate with Walter even though he’s the only other kid in the area. His father, Henry, works as a trapper, selling mink, fox, coyote, and other furs from the animals he kills. They live on the land of a cattle farmer who accepts the predator control as rent. The girls often catch glimpses of Henry wading through the creek, always unshaven and with wild hair, in long rubber boots or setting up his traps. He worked at the quarry years ago with their father, but they’d let him go because he’d started showing up late and hungover—sometimes even showing up drunk or not at all. This had vexed their father to no end, that someone would take advantage of the quarry. He’d told the girls all about this, using Henry as a teachable lesson. He’d told them that the Eastons were “no good.” That was the phrase he used. As far as their father is concerned, any trouble in the area has its roots in the Eastons.
The girls have explained this to Walter, that they’ve been expressly forbidden from being friends, hoping he would recognize the position they were in and leave them alone. It had, however, only made him laugh as if it were the funniest thing in the world. He’d looked proud of it. Lorrie would think about that in the years to come. Maybe that’s the way he came to accept the hand he’d been dealt. His father made him a marked kid. That seemed unfair.
Despite, or maybe because, of the warning, the girls find Walter exciting in a way that makes them nervous. He is a little older than they are—two grades ahead of Rebecca—and is always telling them the most outlandish stories. One time he told them that the man who shot JFK had holed up inside of his trailer, keeping them hostage until the RCMP and FBI tracked him down. There had been a massive shootout, their trailer getting riddled with bullets. He told them that the police had even let him participate in the gunfight and that he had been given a medal. He couldn’t show it to them, however, because he’d lost it. Another story he told them, which dazzled the girls at the time, was that his mother worked as a spy, entangled in the international world of espionage. She worked directly for Pierre Trudeau, who used her as his personal intelligence officer. Walter claimed that there were times when he had been taken along on her missions, helping in interrogations and even getting to meet the Prime Minister. The girls had also been told another story about Walter’s mother from other kids at school. They claimed that she was really a prostitute who worked in a brothel in London and had left him to his father, who wasn’t even sure that Walter was his. That story had seemed equally fake, but who could say? It was exciting to think that their concession in Middlesex County was somehow relevant to the rest of the world. The stories were interesting, not unlike the sort that the girls would act out together by the creek. Besides, there was also something exhilarating about having a secret, about going behind their parents’ backs.
Today when they get to him, Walter is grinning broadly. The jeans he’s wearing are tattered, torn at the knees and heels. His threadbare, collared shirt is unbuttoned to expose a dirty undershirt.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” he says to them, pointing with his thumb down the road behind him.
The words make the knot in Lorrie’s stomach constrict. They hang humidly in the air. The last time Walter surprised them, he’d led them to the creek and shown them a rabbit he’d caught in a snare. The wild-eyed creature twitched and squirmed against its wire noose. Lorrie made sure to watch—as Rebecca turned away—while he snapped its neck. Although she would never admit it, Lorrie wished she hadn’t seen it; the scene often played itself on a loop in her head before falling asleep. He’d said he was going to show them how to skin the rabbit, which was something he’d learned from his father. The girls had lied and had said they needed to leave. Later on, Walter had been relentless in making fun of them, telling everyone at school who cared to listen how they’d chickened out, how a rabbit had scared them. Lorrie had been embarrassed.
“What secret?” Lorrie asks, not wanting to seem too interested.
“Can’t tell you. Wouldn’t be a secret then, would it?”
“Where is it then?” Rebecca follows up.
“Back at my place. Just something I found. Trust me, it’ll be fun.”
“We don’t want to go to your place,” Rebecca says. “We’re going to the creek.”
“Don’t be such a baby. We’ll only be there for a minute. We’re gonna take it to the creek after, anyway.”
He turns before they have a chance to answer, whistling while walking down the road. Lorrie can feel Rebecca’s gaze on her. She resists the urge to return the stare. If she looks, she’ll relent, and that will mean they’ll have to go home. Even with her nervousness, she can’t help but feel curious about the surprise. She follows Walter. After a few solitary moments, she hears Rebecca’s footsteps trailing behind her.
When they get there, the girls hear snoring coming from Walter’s trailer, muffled by the walls. That must be Henry. There’s a rusted-out Ford pickup sitting on cinderblocks in front of the trailer with the tires stacked beside it. The bed of the truck is covered by a tarp that appears lumpy because of the scrap under it. Other garbage litters the yard: rotten and busted lumber; discarded tin sheets; melted, balled-up newspapers; milk crates filled with bottles; jars filled with loose screws and nails; empty bottles and crushed cans; and rusted tools and other equipment used by Henry. Toward the back of the property there’s some woodlot and a small, cobwebbed shed that the girls have never been in. That’s where he leads them.
Walter yanks the door open, but the girls don’t follow him inside. Through the doorway, they see some knives on a workbench and other tools they don’t recognize. Some animal hides are stretched out on a rack to dry. They’re small and tawny like a squirrel or rabbit. The sight makes Lorrie a little queasy.
“Are you gonna show it to us or what?” Lorrie asks.
“I’ve got it hidden. Just a second.”
He sidles his way into the corner beside an old wardrobe and reaches his hand behind it along the wall. The whole length of his arm disappears, until he finds what he’s looking for. He pulls out a blanket that has something wrapped it in. Placing it on the floor of the shed, he unveils it like a sacred relic. It’s an old .22 hunting rifle.
“Check it out,” he says. “I got a real one for us. No need to imagine anymore.”
The wooden stock is cracked and faded, and the barrel is a dull grey. He puts the rifle up to his shoulder and looks down the sights toward the girls, who duck.
He laughs. “Relax. It’s one of my dad’s old rifles. He told me he got rid of it, but I found it hidden in the trailer. It’s not loaded. Couldn’t find any bullets for it.”
The girls are silent. Lorrie looks to Rebecca, but she’s worrying at a loose thread on the hem of her skirt.
“What’s wrong? Are you guys scared?”
“No,” Lorrie nearly shouts. “Does your dad know you have it?”
“No, but he’s taught me how to use one. He’s going to get me my own soon, so this one’s just for practice. I’ll show you two how.”
“I don’t want to,” Rebecca says.
“But there aren’t any bullets,” Lorrie says, speaking over her.
“That’s why we’ve got to look. My dad keeps his in a locked box, but I’m sure there are some loose ones around here somewhere. I’ll keep looking in here while you guys look in the yard.”
The girls walk away from the shed back towards the truck.
“C’mon,” Lorrie says. “Let’s look around.”
“We shouldn’t be here,” Rebecca whispers. “I want to go home.”
“And do what? More chores?”
“We’ll help look until Walter calls it quits,” Lorrie says, knowing she has to reassure her sister. “We won’t find any, I bet. And if we do, we’ll keep them to ourselves.”
Lorrie walks over to the truck while kicking over a few crates and boxes on her way. There are loose materials everywhere, but nothing that’s finished or whole. Everything is a piece to something else, either broken or abandoned on its way to being finished. There’s really nothing of interest until she finds a dented toolbox peeking out from underneath the truck’s tarp. Sure enough, in the bottom of the toolbox are a handful of loose rifle cartridges. Her heart sinks. She rolls them around and they clink innocuously. She looks over her shoulder. Walter is still in the shed, and Rebecca is sitting on an overturned milk crate, looking at her shoes. She shuts the toolbox and shoves it farther underneath the tarp and immediately feels better.
From the shed, however, comes a whoop of delight. Walter bolts into the yard shaking a box of cartridges.
“C’mon,” he says with a wild smile. “Let’s take this thing to the creek and see what it can do.”
Lorrie, biting her lip, looks at her sister, who looks alarmed.
“Fine,” she says. She’s not going to back down. “Let’s go.”
The creek is swollen with floodwaters, murky and fast. It gurgles and rushes as they follow Walter, who leads the way along the sloping trail by the water’s edge. Lorrie feels the pull of the mud on her shoes as she follows him. She’s carrying an armload of cans to shoot that they collected from Walter’s yard. She looks at the trilliums that are in bloom along the trail. Mayapple brushes their ankles. She passes the wild ginger, colt’s foot, and the pretty trout lily leaves. Rebecca is following them but lagging behind. Lorrie looks for her, but she’s out of sight around a bend. A sparrow calls to them. O Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada. Walter glances back to see if they’re still following. He has the rifle swaddled in the blanket again, the cartridges rattling with every step. Lorrie’s heart is pounding in her chest. Despite her nervousness, despite the fact that Rebecca wants to go, despite knowing they shouldn’t be hanging around with Walter or playing with the rifle, she wants to try shooting, anyway. To see if it’s anything like their games. She feels a shock of excitement shoot through her just thinking about it.
Soon they make it to the meadow by Van Gaal’s fence. The matted grass is mustard brown, a filthy, entangled carpet. Unbroken, dead stalks of goldenrod and mullein from the year before stubbornly rise above the grass. Walter stops and puts the rifle on the ground.
“Go set up those cans on the fence,” he says while unwrapping the weapon.
“I think we should just go,” Rebecca says, having finally caught up.
“We shouldn’t be playing around with this stuff.”
“You’re scared, huh?”
“No, we’re not,” Lorrie says.
“Then go set up those cans,” he says.
Lorrie drags her feet towards the fence, putting her targets on the cedar posts that give shape to the wire. Ravioli. Molson. Creamed corn. Royal Reserve. Tuna.
“Ok, I’ll go first,” he says. “And then you guys.”
“I don’t want to,” Rebecca says. “You guys can have my turn.”
Lorrie looks at her sister, feeling torn. Rebecca looks completely crumpled. The sight almost makes Lorrie change her mind. They can still leave. They can go back along the trail, enjoy their afternoon, make up some new games without guns. It would be so easy. But she can’t walk away. She wants to try it.
“Fine,” he says. “You can be a baby if you want. More for us.”
He awkwardly holds the rifle in his hands, pulling back the action with some effort. He loads a cartridge into the chamber and closes it. He hoists the gun up to his shoulder and looks down the barrel toward the cans. Lorrie sees him breathing slowly, his hands shaking almost imperceptibly. Her own legs feel rubbery underneath her. It takes her a second to realize she’s holding her breath. There’s a click as he pulls the trigger but nothing else. Walter frowns, scrutinizing the rifle. Not seeing anything wrong with it and nothing in the chamber when he pulls back the action, he loads another cartridge. When he pulls the trigger again, the rifle explodes, splintering the stock, shooting pieces around the meadow.
Rebecca screams. The sound pierces Lorrie’s ears. She turns to see Rebecca running away. She turns back and sees Walter on his knees, the rifle in sharp, jagged pieces around him, his hands shaking in front of his face. They are trembling and cut up. Blood runs down from his hands. It drips onto the grass from his elbow.
Lorrie screams, too. And then she’s running.
You can’t really help what you carry forward with you. Some things just stick, you know? So you have to laugh. There’s something kind of funny about the way things turned out after Walter’s accident. I’d been so worried about getting in trouble, about what was going to happen to us when our father found out, but the thing that finally caught up to us wasn’t related to the rifle at all. To anyone else, the two events wouldn’t even seem related, but they always were to me. Walter was at the centre of both of them. I remember feeling so angry at him, not understanding why he would make something up about us like he had. The farther I get from it though, the less I care about why he did it. People do lots of things all the time without thinking. Still, I’ve thought about the whole thing a lot since then.
Anyway, Walter’s accident with the rifle happened. We were lucky not to get hurt like he did. Although it was a pretty small thing to happen, truth be told. There was another boy at our school who lost his arm up to his elbow in a combine thresher that year. That was horrible, but it’s what happened when we were kids. To have Walter get his hands cut up a little from misfire wasn’t the craziest thing.
I remember being worried for weeks. Just sick with it. You have to realize that I have a tendency to feel guilty, even for stuff that isn’t really my fault. My parents were very religious, and they were always watching us closely. I think it has something to do with that. I remember the guilt I would feel when I felt my mind wandering in church. I felt like everyone knew what I was thinking.
So, yes, after the accident, I felt very guilty. I thought we were going to be found out, and I’d never been so miserable. Rebecca wouldn’t speak to me, and we spent most of our time alone and stuck in the house. My imagination came up with the worst punishments. Work camps. Chain gangs. Executions. Eternal damnation. I don’t know how I thought up that stuff, but I was definitely suffering. No rest for the wicked.
All I could think about was how we hadn’t done anything to stop him. We knew better, even if he didn’t. I know we knew better. We knew we were doing something wrong, and that made us responsible for whatever happened. I always felt like that when Walter was around. That we were responsible for him in some way. We couldn’t exactly make him do whatever we wanted, but it was up to us to shift the rudder in any way that we could. I had gone along with it. I had been genuinely curious. I wanted to try shooting the thing.
The funny part, though, was that we never got in trouble for the gun accident. I spent weeks worried about it, and it didn’t matter at all. We got in trouble for something else entirely, for something that hadn’t even happened. Walter ended up making up some lie—one of his stories—to punish us for abandoning him, I guess. He started boasting at school that the three of us had been fooling around at the creek. So people started talking about it. About how we’d been showing each other our areas. At the time I didn’t understand what the big deal was, why everyone was making such a big stink about it. They made it seem like we’d committed murder.
Things were different afterwards, after our parents found out. We got it pretty bad from our father that time. That was some lesson. But Walter got it much worse. What a savage beating he got from his father. I think my own father insisted on it. I remember him driving over there after he was done with us. Child Services took Walter away. I don’t even remember seeing it happen. He was just gone one day. Maybe it was for the best. Sometime later his father spent some time in prison for hitting someone with his truck while he was drunk. That’s another story, though.
As for my father, he seemed different after, too. Maybe he didn’t believe in his lessons so much. Any time he hit us after that, he seemed reserved or cautious.
Lorrie and Rebecca sit at the dinner table the day after the accident. Even though it had been another spring day that stretched its arms and legs toward summer, they’d spent the whole time indoors after church. They’d avoided each other for the most part, Rebecca consciously ignoring Lorrie’s desperate stares.
They sit quietly, idly picking at their Sunday roast. Lorrie isn’t feeling hungry.
“Oh,” their mother says suddenly. “I forgot to mention something I heard this morning. Mrs. Andersen told me something pretty interesting after church. Henry Easton’s boy had to be taken to the hospital in St. Mary’s yesterday.”
Lorrie feels her face flush. It’s suddenly unbearably hot in the dining room. She glances up at Rebecca, who is also beet red, her eyes fixed on her plate.
“Really? Why?” their father asks. “How does she know that?”
“She has a cousin who’s a nurse there. The boy was brought in by Van Gaal, apparently. He found him near his property playing with a gun.”
“He shot himself?”
Their mother looked at Lorrie and Rebecca and then gave their father a reproachful look. “Maybe the whole thing isn’t a subject for the dinner table.”
“I’m sure they’re going to hear about it eventually. Just get on with it.”
“Well, it wasn’t a shooting, but apparently the rifle was found in pieces. It must’ve broke on him or something.”
“Right, sure. They had to stitch up his hands real good, anyhow. They’ve got them wrapped up in bandages.”
Their father makes an approving sort of grunt. “Doesn’t surprise me,” he says. “What did I tell you girls about him?”
“He’s no good,” Rebecca says.
“That’s right. That’s what happens when you play around with stuff you shouldn’t.” He puts some roast in his mouth and chews it thoughtfully for a few moments. “What can you expect from people like that? Poor. Drunk. Trash. No supervision. Never seen him at church. This is the sort of thing that happens.”
“Mrs. Andersen said that when the police came to Henry’s door, he was still sleeping. Snoring off a hangover.”
“Had the same problem with him at the quarry.”
“Mrs. Andersen says Child Services might be called. They took a look around Henry’s trailer, and they think he might not be fit.”
“Some people just aren’t cut out for this stuff. No morals.” He takes another large, satisfied bite from his roast. “Probably for the best.”
Later, as she’s trying to fall asleep, Lorrie watches the ceiling. In the fuzzy darkness, shapes coagulate, indeterminate and featureless like the imagined bodies of constellations. The fence across the meadow. The shattered pieces of the gun. Walter slumped on his knees. They tug at her conscience. She listens to her sister’s breathing on the other side of the room. Heavy and steady. Normally Lorrie would crawl into Rebecca’s bed when she couldn’t sleep. Instead, she keeps watching the ceiling.
Walter isn’t back at school for another few days, long enough for the whole thing to be blown out of proportion. The accident is stitched together from scraps of gossip people have heard from their parents until it’s this scandalous, untrue tapestry. Although she wants to, Lorrie can’t contradict any of it. It feels like the whole thing is directed at Lorrie, like it’s a painting with her silhouette blankly glaring in the centre of it. The other kids talk about how Walter was shot, that he is fighting for his life, that the suspect is still at large. Twice Lorrie is scolded by her teacher for daydreaming, the others giggling at her aloofness. She can’t help it. What if Walter dies? How will she be able to live with herself?
By Wednesday, Walter is back at school, and Rebecca and Lorrie find him mobbed by classmates in the schoolyard in the morning. They are clamouring, speaking over each other to find out what happened, asking to see his scars. Lorrie approaches the group as Walter carefully peels back his bandages to show off. His hands are adorned with blue stitches, the worst streaks across one of palms. There are various nicks and smaller cuts, the skin around them puffy and angry. Lorrie is relieved to see him, to see that he isn’t dead. They lock eyes for a moment, but Walter moves on to his admirers.
She doesn’t get a chance to talk to him until the girls are walking home from where their school bus drops them off. Walter is ahead of them, and Lorrie runs to catch up.
“I’m glad you’re ok,” she says. “Do they hurt?”
“I’m ok,” he mumbles.
“We weren’t sure what happened to you,” Rebecca says after catching up to them.
“I have to go,” he says. He runs away from them toward his trailer, leaving the girls to stand and watch.
“I’m sorry,” Lorrie says after a moment, feeling tears welling up in her eyes. “I didn’t think anything was going to happen. It wasn’t like our games at all.”
“God, you’re really stupid,” Rebecca says, leaving Lorrie behind on the road. “We’re going to get in trouble, and it’ll be your fault.”
Her sister is trying to hurt her, and she does. It’s an awful feeling. She feels the tears slide down her cheeks.
A few weeks later, while Lorrie and Rebecca are still not talking, they’re surprised to see a strange car in their driveway after school. It’s not their father’s car but a nicer one. It’s sleek and shiny, out of place in front of their old farmhouse.
“Who’s that?” she asks.
Rebecca doesn’t say anything. They approach the house in silence.
When they get inside, they see Minister Jacobs from their church sitting in the living room with their mother. Lorrie and Rebecca know their parents have been trying to have him over for dinner for a long time, but he’s never obliged. Their mother has put out cookies and biscuits, the kind she serves when people of importance are visiting. He’s a small man with hawkish features and a receding hairline. Everything about him is stark and severe except for his slight paunch, which hangs crudely over his belt. In all black and his white collar, he’s holding a tea cup and speaking to their mother in precise, careful language.
“I hope you understand,” he says. “I know children are simply curious, but that curiosity can breed all kinds of indecency. I normally wouldn’t put much stock into these sorts of rumours, but when a number of concerned parents in the community approach me about it and when it’s a moral issue …” He trails off when he hears the girls at the door. He turns and smiles at them kindly. He’s making it seem like he’s on their side, speaking diplomatically, giving them the benefit of the doubt, but the girls know an accusation has been made against them.
Their mother looks at them frantically. Her hair is a tangled mess on top of her head. They hardly have their shoes off before she jumps up from her seat and ushers them upstairs.
“Girls,” she says, her nervousness getting the better of her. “To your room now. Stay there until I say so.”
She’s shoving them up the stairs, nearly making Lorrie trip. They are so frightened that they can’t even find the words to ask about what’s happened. The girls sit on the edge of Lorrie’s bed together while watching the door.
“Do you think it’s about Walter?” Lorrie asks.
“What else could it be?”
It seems like all of Lorrie’s nightmares are coming true. They will be punished. And now that the minister is involved, there is no doubt that they will suffer in hell. Lorrie hears Rebecca crying, and she shuffles over on the bed so that their arms are touching. It’s comforting.
It’s an excruciating half hour before they hear the front door close and the minister drive off in his car. Each one of their mother’s footsteps on the stairs makes Lorrie’s heart flutter.
“We didn’t do anything,” Lorrie blurts out as soon as their mother opens the door. She raises a hand to stop their excuses.
“I can’t believe you two,” she says. “That’s not how we raised you.”
The girls are silent.
“Minister Jacobs told me everything. Children should not be doing something so cheap and disgusting. In fact, I’m afraid to learn any more about it.”
“What are you talking about?” Rebecca yells, her face flushed. It surprises Lorrie. “We didn’t do anything. It was all Walter’s idea.”
“I don’t want to hear it. You two are in for it now.”
They are left alone again to try and come to terms with their fate. Lorrie is confused. What did the minister tell their mother?
Soon they hear their father’s car pull into the driveway and muffled voices downstairs when he gets in the house. The voices are becoming more and more agitated by the second. They hear their father yell and start hurrying up the stairs, the pounding on the steps like nails closing a coffin.
The door flies open, and he’s standing there before them. He’s dirty with limestone dust and still wearing his work clothes. He’s holding his belt in his hand. The girls are too shocked to say anything.
“What have you girls been doing?” he bellows.
He grabs Rebecca, who has begun to sob and wail, and pulls her up from the bed and throws her down on the floor. He starts to lash her with the belt—two, three, four, five times—while Lorrie is begging him to stop, screaming that Walter was a liar, that they don’t even know what they’re talking about. His face is dark and angry, his teeth are clenched together.
“Don’t you make even more of a fool out of me,” he says to Lorrie, pausing to threaten her. “I told you two not to hang around with that boy. You’ve been lying all this time, and now you’ve been exposing yourselves. I will not be raising whores.”
Rebecca gets away in that moment and nearly collapses while running down the stairs. Their father then heaves Lorrie onto the floor where Rebecca had been. The leather sings against her backside, thwacking and slapping. Soon her whole body is searing with pain. She feels agonizingly hot. Their mother rushes into the room and latches onto their father’s arm, trying to hold him back.
“What are you doing?” he roars.
“That’s enough,” she cries. “They’ve had enough. That’s too much. That’s too much.”
Lorrie is now weeping openly on the floor, and their father is panting from the effort.
“They’ve got to learn,” he says. “We have to show them this isn’t right. That Walter boy is going to learn, too.”
With that, Lorrie runs off, going to look for her sister. She runs back to the chicken coop. Rebecca is squatting there on her haunches, her head buried between her knees. The clucking of the chickens is maddeningly ordinary. Lorrie sits, whimpering beside her, watching their father’s car careen down the road toward Walter’s trailer.
The last time the girls see Walter Easton is later that week. Their father picks them up after school. They hardly have any time to themselves now, their parents watching over them like prison guards. The girls sit sullenly in the backseat, still favouring their bruises and welts. Up ahead, they see Walter walking down the road. Their father’s grip on the steering wheel tightens, and Lorrie feels her heart thrashing against her ribcage. As they drive by, Walter locks eyes with her for a moment. His right eye is bruised, and his lip is split and scabbed. He is badly beaten up, but he doesn’t betray any emotion. Lorrie sees their father watching Walter in the rear-view mirror as they drive past. There’s a look on his face that she can’t recognize. He must see Walter, must see him staring down their passing car. He slows for a moment—Lorrie feels it—but then he keeps going, his eyes now trained forward, travelling resolutely toward home.
Matthew Zdulski is a writer living in London, Ontario. He has work forthcoming in Junto Magazine.