"But anyone who troubles one of these little ones who believes in me,
it were better for for him that a millstone be hanged around his neck
and that he be drowned in the sea." - Matthew 18:6
If I'd known it was the last time I was ever gonna see her alive, I probably would have fought a lot harder to stay awake. I tried my best, resting my chin on my forearm and just staring at her as the IV drip, drip, dripped beside me. She was my mom and she was sick. She was already sleeping. Her face looked pale and bony and her eyes were sunken, as though she were already practicing being a skeleton. I held her hand. It was cold.
"I want you to take your sister for ice cream tomorrow, okay?" she told me before she fell asleep. "She's little, and she doesn't understand what's going on. Get some money from Baxter and take her for ice cream."
"I will, mom," I said.
"Are you okay?" she asked me. "You look upset. Don't look so sad, Ollie. I'm not going anywhere."
"You don't look like yourself."
"No?" and she tried to smile.
"Mrs. Wimmer says you gotta come to my school. She wants to talk to you about my report card. All the other's kids' parents went already."
"I like Mrs. Wimmer. Do you? She's nice."
I didn't answer. I hated it when she talked with her eyes closed. I hated how she trailed off.
"Ollie?" mom said, still not opening her eyes. Her voice was a fading whisper.
"I want you to be brave. I want you to be strong. Take care of Sissie."
"I'll take her for ice cream tomorrow," I said. She was talking about forever though. I thought she was talking about tomorrow. She went to sleep and didn't wake up again. I just sat there, trying to stay awake. Trying to be with her, holding her hand, and giving her little kisses.
I fell asleep though, and I didn't hear the machine start to beep when her heart stopped. I think, maybe if I'd heard it, I could have called the nurse or something and they could have saved her. But I fell asleep.
Baxter Douglas was some kind of trucker I think. We don't even know what he was when mom met him. He was just all of the sudden there, on our couch everyday, flipping the channel from the show we were watching without even asking. After mom died, he was still there, on our couch every day, and mom's life insurance was sitting in brown bottle on his stomach, being slowly sipped away.
Thing's went crazy very quickly after mom was gone. Sissie and I soon discovered that the whole nice guy thing had been all an act. Now we were walking around like little robots, not looking up above his waist, always doing what we were told, keeping quiet, and hiding in our rooms. The years passed and nothing changed. We just became more afraid, because after a while being good wasn't enough any more.
I was sitting in my room doing my homework and Sissie was laying on the floor colouring with crayons she brought home from school. She was quietly humming to herself and I was trying my best to concentrate on my math, but we could hear the stomping. Sissie kept looking up at the door and her humming got a little louder. She kept swallowing nervously, and blowing out long sighs that had a little too much shake in them.
Stomp, stomp, stomp, back and forth across the kitchen and living room. He was looking for something. Something we'd missed. I tried my best to get as much homework as I could done before the door burst open. Sissie got up off the floor and laid on my bed. The stomping vibrated in the floor. I lifted my foot up onto the bed as well. Sissie's humming got louder.
"Shhh," I said.
"I did everything I was supposed to, Ollie. Honest."
"It doesn't matter," I said, and her sigh turned to a whimper as the footsteps came down the hall. Stomp, stomp, stomp, faster now, with a purpose.
The door burst open upon our little performance of two normal kids quietly minding their own business. We both looked up, putting on the proper scared face. Not scared, but sort of concerned about what might be troubling him.
"Where's the god damn bottle opener?" he said.
So it was about the bottle open this time. Okay. This was a new one.
I looked at Sissie. She looked at me and shook her head.
"I put it in the drawer when I put the dishes away," I said. I got up, to go past him, to show him that it was in the same place it always is. He shoved me. I stumbled forward and fell to my knees, burning them on the hallway carpet as I skidded to a stop.
"Get up! Find it!"
He stomped along beind me down the hall. I moved fast, expecting a kick. The bottle opener was in the drawer, right where I put it, right where it always was.
"Here," I said. "Here it is."
He snatched it from my hand and smacked me hard across the side of the head. A bright flash zipped through my head and I saw stars, the side of my face got hot. My ear rang for a moment and I was dizzy.
"From now on I want this thing on top of the TV. Nowhere else. I don't want to have to look for it. Do you understand me?"
I nodded, still dizzy. He smacked me hard again, the other way. I think I cried out a bit, but I can't remember.
"I said, do you understand me!?"
"I do. I do. Yes! I do."
He raised his hand again and I flinched, but he was only putting the bottle opener in his pocket.
"Yes, yes! I do. I do," he mocked me in a whiny little voice that sounded nothing like me. "You do what?"
"I understand you," I said. He smacked me under the chin, knocking my teeth together and forcing my head up. I'd forgotten to grit my teeth. I usually never forget that.
"Look at me when I'm talking to you!"
I didn't want to look at him. I would have rather pulled out my own eyes. I looked up into his face though and waited for him to continue, trying my best to keep the scared/concerned look on my own face, and nothing else.
"You understand what?" he asked me.
"I- The bottle opener, goes on the TV."
Yes, that was it. That was the big issue today. Okay. I got it. Are we done now? Can I go?
He studied me for a moment, sneering at me like I was a criminal he was forced to guard.
"You think I'm a prick, don't you?" he asked.
Oh no. The trap! There was no right way to answer that question.
"No," I said, taking the obvious path.
"No?" he replied. "You're a fucking liar!"
There was no right answer. All there was was a big boom, and I found myself on the floor, waiting for my vision to turn back on. I could feel the cold linoleum, but I couldn't see for a moment. Everything was just a dark blur.
"After all I do for you, you can't even be honest with me! Admit it! You think I'm a prick!"
Another boom, this time in the side of the stomach, with a foot. I slammed against the stove.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" was all I said. He was worse than a prick. He was a devil in human flesh, but I would never say so.
"Get out of here, you little cocksucker! Go on!"
I scrambled to my feet and was back at my bedroom door before the echo of his yell had even faded. He was coming after me though, running. What had I done? He'd told me to leave, didn't he?
He caught up to me in my door way and kicked me in the back. I slammed into the dresser and the whole thing fell forward, almost crushing Sissie. She screamed. He grabbed me up off the floor and threw me right over the dresser onto my bed. The bed broke and hit the floor with a crash that shook the house, and then he flipped the dresser back up against the wall. The drawers were all over the floor and my clothes were everywhere. He stomped right through the bottom of one of them as he came forward again. Sissie covered her face and I had just a moment to glance over at her before I was yanked up off the bed. My shirt ripped, but held on enough for me to be pulled eyeball-to-eyeball with him.
"If you ever look at me that way again, I'll fucking kill you! Do you understand me?"
What look!? I was looking at the floor the whole time!
I nodded, feeling like this was the end of everything. I would finally be killed. I didn't want to die.
"Don't you ever look at me that way again!"
He threw me back down onto the mattress and the headboard tipped forward, knocking me in the head.
"I understand. I understand," I said.
I didn't though. I hadn't looked at him at all.
He stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
"Christie, I want you in bed in five minutes or you're gonna get it too."
"Yes," her little voice croaked.
I sat there holding my head, holding my side, squeezing my eyes shut and just breathing, deep and hard, trying to force my nerves to calm. I was shaking and I couldn't stop myself. I wanted to cry, but I couldn't. The Devil hates wimps.
"Come on, Ollie. Let's clean this up, okay? Please?"
Sissie was allowed to cry. She was a girl. Her voice was a terrified whisper, her sentences were punctuated by tortured squeaks, like a frightened dog.
"Come on, Ollie, in case he comes back again. Please!"
I got up and began cleaning. I put the clothes back in their drawers, folding them all, and sorting them neatly. Then Sissie helped me slide them back into the dresser.
"The bottle opener goes on the TV from now on," I said. "Don't forget."
"Okay, Ollie. I won't."
We had gotten the dresser put back together and had begun fixing the bed again when the stomps returned, thumping down the hallway. Sissie jumped when the door burst open, quickly wiping away her tears.
"What the hell are you doing, girl!?" he said to her.
"I had to help Ollie fix his bed. He can't do it by himself."
"I didn't ask you to help him fix his bed!" (slap!) "I told you to get in your own room!" (smack!) "Now!"
She was already crying, and her little body was being knocked back and forth like a doll. I watched, still trying to socket the frame of my bed back into the headboard.
"Ollie needs help!" she cried out. "His bed is broken!"
She didn't want to leave me. That was the real reason she was still here. I've fixed this bed by myself dozens of times. I could do it in the dark, and she knew it. She didn't want to leave me. She was scared. She was just a little girl.
I saw him raise a fist above her and I screamed.
He actually jumped a bit, like a gun had gone off behind him. But then his eyes flared over at me, and he lunged at me instead, dropping her like a rag doll on the floor. The punches rained down on me like a storm, and then the choking until I kicked and struggled beneath him, despreate for air, and the cutting insults about me being useless, weak, no-good-for-nothing.
"What good do you serve in this world? Why are you even alive? Who would care if you died right now?" he screamed at me. "I could kill you right now and no one would even care!"
Then more punches. Then slaps across the face. After a while I couldn't even tell one from another. It was just one solid wall of pain, but Sissie was okay. He would take it all out on me and leave her alone. Thank you, God.
I woke up in the dark, on my mattress. There was a tapping at my wall, a light gentle tapping. I tried to get up, but I hurt all over. All I could do was lay there, hardly breathing.
"Hold on!" I said, but the tapping continued.
I got myself up off the slanted mattress and finished fixing my bed, slowly, painfully, replacing the boards into the sockets in total darkness, and dropping the mattress back into the frame again. Then I lay down on it and squirmed up against the wall.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
"Ollie? Are you there?"
Her little voice was weak and cracking. She'd been crying.
"I'm here," I said. "Hold on."
I got the wood panelling of the bedroom wall moved aside and I found her little hand reaching out in the space between our rooms. She grabbed my hand and held it tightly.
"It's okay. Don't cry, Sissie. I'm here."
"Are you okay, Ollie?" she said.
"I'm okay," I answered. "Did he hurt you?"
"No. He just shoved me into my bedroom and slammed the door."
"What time is it?"
"I don't know."
Her hand was damp. Tears, I guess. How long had she been knocking? How long has she been crying alone in the dark, wondering if I was even alive?
"When can we go somewhere, Ollie? When can we just run away?"
"I've got $112 already, Sis. Maybe in a couple weeks we can do it. We only need $73 more dollars and we can get a bus to Calgary and go find dad."
"What if we can't find him?"
"Then at least we'll be far away from here."
"He'll come look for us. He said he would. He can't keep mom's money unless we're living here with him."
"I know, but Calgary is a big city. He'll never find us. Beside he'll look all over Winnipeg first."
"Do you think we'll find dad, Ollie?"
"He works at a bank. We can just go down there and ask for him. If he's not working there anymore we can ask them if they know where he is?"
"What if we find him and he doesn't want us?"
"Then I'll just get a job somewhere. I'll take care of us."
She nodded. I couldn't see her but I knew she did. I felt it in her hand. Then she started crying again.
"Ollie, I miss momma."
"I miss her too. Don't worry. She's watching over us. She won't let us down."
"Can you do the prayer thing, Ollie?"
"I don't want to right now, Sis. Come on."
"Please, Ollie. It makes me feel better."
I said the little incantation without much emotion. I'd said it hundreds of times and the words had lost all meaning for me. I wasn't eleven anymore. But Sissie still hung on to her beliefs, so I did it for her.
"Momma, up in heaven, watching over Sissie and me, please take care of us and keep us safe. Please ask God for extra strong angels to protect us. Make sure we have enough to eat and are safe and sound. Thank you, Momma. Love, Ollie and Sissie."
"You forgot the last part," she told me. I knew I had. I'd left it out on purpose. My aches and pains made it feel more like empty mockery, meaningless words.
I didn't reply.
"Please, Ollie. That's the most important part."
I sighed again.
"... and please tell God to make the devil go away."
"Yeah," Sissie said. "I hope he dies."
"Don't say that," I said, though I agreed with her.
"Why not? It's true!"
"God doesn't like that kind of talk. He won't answer your prayers if you talk like that."
"Sorry," she said, but she wasn't talking to me.
I guess she fell asleep after that. Her grip weakened and then faded away all together until I was just holding her limp hand.
"I love you, Sissie," I said, and gave her hand a kiss. "Only $73 dollars more."
I couldn't sleep after that though. I was sore all over and had trouble breathing. Every time I inhaled my ribs hurt. I had a headache and my neck was sore. The rest of me was just sort of numb. I almost felt like I was floating above my bed, sort of twisted around at the waist.
Eventually I pushed Sissie's hand back into her room and slid her wood panelling shut, and then mine. I lay there thinking about everything that had happened, trying to figure out what I could have done to avoid it all. I couldn't think of anything though. We'd done everything right. We always did. Or maybe we didn't do anything right. Maybe we never did. Maybe it didn't make a difference either way. Maybe it would be better if we gave him excuses to freak out on us. At least then it wouldn't be so confusing, so unfair.
The hits always fell harder, and with less restraint though, when he had a reason to do it. That was not an option.
The last thing I remember before falling asleep that night is thinking that if I hadn't fallen asleep in the hospital room five years ago, none of this would have happened.
School was bad too, when I couldn't find a hiding place at lunch. I sometimes sat in a stairwell, doing my homework, or reading. I sometimes wandered out into the field and sat by the fence. They'd always find me though.
There was this guy Friesen and his friends. They used to strut around the school like they owned the place, like we had all come there that day for their benefit. They usually always found me, Friesen Alexander and his gang. Sometimes I think they actually looked for me. They caught up to me that day while I was on my way to the washroom. I felt myself pushed into the concrete wall and Friesen got up in my face about me walking down his hallway. It was the usual bullshit.
"Look at him. He's scared!" his friend Daryl said.
"Of course he's scared. He's not stupid. He knows when someone's tougher than him."
"Alright," I said. "I get it. You're the king of the fuckin' school. Can I go now?"
The truth was, I wasn't scared. I could mop the floor with this guy and every single one of his buddies. I knew I could.
"I don't think I like your attitude, Octopus boy!"
Octopus boy. Clever. Just because my name starts with O I guess.
"I don't really care if you like my attitude, Friesen. I just want to go read my book."
"What? This?" he said, yanking it out from under my arm. "Capturing the Rye?"
For Christ's sake, the kid couldn't even read.
He threw the book across the hallway. It banged off of a locker and hit the floor. I moved to go pick it up, but he slammed me back against the wall.
"I didn't say you could leave yet, punk."
I wanted to just loose it right then. I honestly wanted to give up and beat the little bastard into a bleeding, twitching pulp, but I held back, standing there, gnashing my teeth and staring up at the ceiling.
"What? Are you gonna cry, Oliver? Gonna cry for your mommy?"
"No," I said. "I was just trying to think of a reason not to kick your fucking ass, you and all your buddies here, right through that glass door over there."
"Excuse me?" he said, with phony shock, and a how-dare-I chuckle.
"You heard me," I said.
"So do it then, Octopus boy. Come on. Let's go. Right now."
I looked him in the eye and thought about what he'd look like, crying like a baby as I reduced his pretty little face to a sopping pulp. Then I thought about the meeting I'd had with the principle the last time I'd gotten in a fight. He called me into his office and he had a cop standing next to him. He told me he knew I had a history of violence and if I wasn't careful he'd make sure I wound up locked up in juvy.
I didn't have a history of violence. It just seemed that way because of all the times Sissie had gone to school with bruises all over here. I'd told her to tell them I did it if they asked. God only knows what would happen to us if the cops came asking the Devil if he'd done it. The one time I had threatened to go to the police he held me down and choked me until I blacked out, snarling at me that if he ever even so much as saw a cop at our house he wouldn't be taken alive, and he'd make sure we died with him. Suffice it to say we never even thought of asking for help, and lied our asses off to protect him.
It meant that the school saw me as a violent thug however, and didn't think too much of me. Teachers frowned at me as I walked by. Rumours flew. I wouldn't be there for long though. All I needed was $73.
This was part of the reason I protected Sissie from his onslaughts. If she showed up at school with bruises, I'd be blamed and things would get even worse at school. They'd find any excuse to haul me off to juvy and then who would take care of Sissie? Who's hand would she hold at night to help her fall asleep? Who would do the prayer thing for her?
It was also the reason I stood there and let Friesen punch me, right in the ribs where I was already sore.
"He's a coward," he said to his buddies. He hit me again. I gnashed my teeth and took it, with a grunt. I closed my eyes and pictured Sissie's little hand in mine in the darkness of the night. I pictured her reaching out and not finding me there, and I held my temper.
"It's no fun when someone hits back, is it, Octopus? I know you normally beat up helpless little girls, but we ain't no little girls."
A crowd was beginning to gather.
"I didn't do anything to you, Friesen. I just want to leave."
But he hit me again. This time right in the most tender spot on my side, right where the Devil had kicked me on the kitchen floor. I reacted without thinking, shoving him hard away from me. He hit the ground, knocking two of his buddies aside as he went, and slid a couple feet across the polished floor, coming to a stop with the squeak of his running shoe. That was the only sound in the entire hallway. All else was quiet.
"I just want to leave," I said.
Friesen got up slowly, looked around at the crowd, flushed hot with embarassment, and then lunged at me.
"No!" I said, too loud. The crowd gathered more quickly. Friesen and all four of his friends swarmed me, punching, shoving, kicking at me, and tearing at my clothes, yanking my hair and knocking me into the wall. I could have taken everyone of them down, but I just covered my face, ducked, and let the beatings fall.
"Fuckin' kill him!"
"He deserves it!"
People cheered them on, and I was curled up in a ball with all five of them kicking me and stomping on me.
"You boys there! What's going on!?" a teacher called out from down the hall.
The beating stopped all at once and they were suddenly just standing around talking to each other.
"Go on, get to your classes!" the teacher said.
"Fuckin' coward!" someone hissed at me, and then they were gone.
"He shoved me first! You all saw it right!?"
"Fuckin' rights, man!"
That's all I heard. I slowly got up again, and looked around for my book. Someone had kicked it all the way down the hall.
I sat in class later, aching, shivering, and exhausted inside and out. I just wanted to leave. I wanted to just take off out the door and get far away from school, from everything. I couldn't though. It would give the Devil a reason to beat on me even more. So I was stuck. I couldn't run away. I couldn't stay. I was a prisoner, tortured in an aching body with nothing to hope for but more beatings when I got home. I began to feel like everything would be better if I just died. Why couldn't I just die? It would be so simple. So final. This world didn't want me anyway. Nobody liked me. I should just die.
Sissie would have no hand to hold though.
I woke with a start on the last day of that ugly miserable life. He kicked the door in and threw me out of bed.
"Get out there and get your newspapers delivered, boy!" he said. I barely even had time to give my head a shake and I was already getting dressed. "If you see your sister tell her to get her ass home and make her bed."
Then he was gone.
I made Sissie's bed for her and hurried out to find she had already begun my route. She was pulling the wagon down the sidewalk with all her strength and dropping folded papers into mailboxes. She'd already done an entire block.
"What are you doing, Sissie? You trying to kill yourself!?"
"I know all your houses, Ollie. I do this with you everyday."
"Why didn't you wake me up?"
"I just wanted to try it on my own."
"Did you get every single house?"
"Yup. Both sides of the street too. I already done that side."