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Lessons From Catawa
The wind whipped my ponytail against my back as I ran down the forest path. I ran until I was gasping for breath and wheezing. Were my friends behind me? Was Mr. Treger chasing me? Even if he was, I couldn't run any further. I wedged myself between two trees and kept as still as possible. The smell of the pine trees filled my nostrils. I tried to focus on keeping quiet, but my labored breathing was deafening in the quiet forest. Was it too quiet? It was almost eerie. Where were my friends? An owl’s loud hoots startled me. I slowly squirmed out from the gap between the two trees and looked warily around me. Was anyone there? I saw no one but the looming shadows of the dark trees. I caught myself tiptoeing down the path and tried to steady my nerves. Fear got the better of me, and forced me into a jog. I was too tired to run any longer, but I was afraid Mr. Treger might catch me. Visions of Mr. Treger doing so flooded my thoughts, since there was no telling what an eccentric old man might do. Mr. Treger’s shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair was always unkempt. Everyday he wore the same faded red-and-white checkered shirt that hung stiffly on his shoulders and blue jeans torn from wear. A far cry from Cristina’s “torn” designer jeans. And what would my mother think of me? I kept hearing her reproach me, "Molly, how could you do this?" I was racked with guilt and fear. I always tried to stay out of trouble for my mother's sake, since Mom had the sole burden of raising me after my father died ten years ago when I was four.
Why was I so stupid to follow Cristina when she decided to cause trouble? I wanted to splurge and go to Patsy’s Kitchen for a burger, but Kyle had dared Cristina to break into Mr. Treger's barn. Despite the fact that she’s one year older, Cristina's my best friend. Kyle, Cristina, and I make an unlikely trio. Cristina is from a well-to-do, picture-perfect family that could have
stepped out of the pages of a magazine, whereas sixteen-year-old Kyle and I come from poor, single-parent households. (Kyle's mom left his dad when Kyle was younger). Christina reigns over us less fortunates even though she’s younger than Kyle. She's a lot of fun to hang out with, but her inability to turn down a dare has gotten us into a few scrapes. So of course, Cristina accepted Kyle's dare and we broke into Mr. Treger's barn. I kept reliving the events that occurred in the barn that night.
Sneaking up to Mr. Treger’s barn was not difficult since he had long since gone to bed and had no security system in place. Cristina broke one of the windows of Mr. Treger’s barn and unlocked the door for Kyle and me. In the faint gloom of the barn, all that was visible were dusty bales of hay and a few restless horses.
I shivered. “Guys, why did you even want to come here? It’s so dusty and boring. It’s only ten o’clock, we can still grab some burgers at Patsy’s Kitchen.”
Kyle tossed his coal black hair out of his electric blue eyes. He shushed me. “Of course this barn is boring. We ought to liven it up a little.”
His eyes glinted as he smiled mischievously. He flipped on the light switch and held up a penknife with his initials carved in the hilt. KL. Kyle Lambert. I immediately stepped back.
“Are you planning on killing us?” I asked fearfully, my voice a mere whisper.
“Chill, Moll. Just don’t get in our way.” He turned away from me and started walking towards the horses.
“I don’t want anything to do with whatever it is you’re planning.” My voice was now shrill and bordering on hysteria.
“What are you going to do, call the police on us?” Cristina asked dismissively. “I’ll just report you to the police too. That would really hurt your Mom, right?”
I flinched at the mention of my mom and didn’t say anything when she turned to join Kyle. I sat on a sack of feed and watched Kyle and Cristina in the horse’s stall. It was pointless to interfere and risk sending my mom to the therapist, a visit we could not afford. However, they were soon interrupted.
An old man’s growl broke the silent hush of the barn. “What’re you kids doing here?”
I froze as I recognized Mr. Treger, but Kyle didn’t hesitate. I now understood what Kyle and Cristina had been doing. Mr. Treger used tie stalls that had no gates. His horses were only prevented from seeking freedom by ropes that Kyle and Cristina had just cut. Kyle released two of the horses while I helplessly looked on.
Mr. Treger let out a roar of frustration and leapt towards the horses. In that instant, Cristina fled towards the door. Kyle grabbed my hand, as I was still frozen with terror, and pulled me out the door. The three of us stopped running when we arrived at the fence a hundred yards away from the barn door. Cristina halted, gasping for breath and clutching her knees. She burst out into exhilarated laughter, glancing at us triumphantly. “Wasn’t that fun?” she crowed. I stared at her in astonishment as I collapsed onto the cool grass.
“What—exactly what part about that was fun?” I asked loudly as we all panted and sought to recover our breath.
Kyle flopped down next to me on the grass and laughed at my dismay. Cristina and he then exchanged exultant glances and laughed until a movement caught Kyle’s attention.
“Shut up” Kyle whispered furiously. I turned behind me to see what he was staring at.
Mr. Treger was stomping out of the barn carrying what looked like a shotgun.
“Oh my god,” Cristina whispered, more to herself than to Kyle or me.
Kyle stumbled to his feet. Shots rang out around us as he leaned over my paralyzed figure and roughly pulled me upright. Kyle urged Cristina and me forward, and the three of us were running again, into the forest.
Wait. What was that noise? I stopped. I heard the faint crackle of twigs. I slowly backed up against a tree, nearly tripping on a mossy green stone. Something leaped towards me out of the darkness. I let forth a piercing scream that sounded excruciating even to me.
"God, you're such a scaredy-cat. Be quiet." I immediately shut my mouth. In the faint gleam of light I managed to discern Cristina's tall figure.
"Where's Kyle?" I asked.
"I don't know. He's somewhere in the woods. We got separated back towards the fence." She pushed her long wavy blonde hair out of her face. I studied her apparition in the light of the moon. I recalled Cristina’s delicate face, which often misled people into mistaking her as quiet and timid when they first met her—until she opens her mouth. My eyes absorbed her long blonde hair, even visible in the dim light. I visualized her striking features: her high angular cheekbones, porcelain-like skin, clear green eyes, and long dark lashes. Inwardly, I sighed. I’m not going to say that I’m jealous of her. But sometimes—sometimes she makes me feel inadequate. I often wonder why someone as pretty as she would deign to choose me as her best friend. Cristina chose me, me with my straight, unimaginative, dark hair and wiry small frame.
“Hello? Are you zoning out again?” Christina’s sarcastic voice snapped me back to the present.
“No, no, I’m listening,” I muttered. My subservient voice seemed to bolster Cristina’s self-assurance even more. She adopted a lofty tone. “Yeah sure.” She rolled her eyes at me and commanded, “We better get going. We have to sneak back to our homes before Treger reports us to the police or something.”
“What about Kyle?”
“What do you mean, ‘What about Kyle?’ He’s a big boy, he doesn’t need us to take care of him.” Her sarcastic tone suddenly made me angry.
“We have to go back and find him. Mr. Treger probably—” My words tumbled out desperately.
Cristina silenced me abruptly. “Look, will you stop calling Treger, “Mr. Treger”? He’s only a crude, uneducated, overweight farmer with a bad haircut for God’s sake.”
Something about the way Cristina lashed out at Mr. Treger unleashed my pent up emotions. My fear turned to fury. I could feel my voice shaking as I began to yell, “So what if Mr. Treger’s looks don’t live up to your high standards? We can’t all look like you. Even if he’s not as wealthy as your family, he donates more to charity than your dad. Not to mention, Mr. Treger could get us arrested for trespassing and breaking into his barn. It’s entirely your fault that we’re in this mess. Just because you could not resist a dare.”
I saw Cristina’s green eyes widen with astonishment. “Where is all of this hostility coming from? ”
I opened my mouth to apologize, to take back my too hasty words, but she did not give me the chance.
“By charity, do you mean, he’s given money to your family?” She knew that my mom struggled to support the two of us, but now had the audacity to rub my poverty in my face. And just like that, my newly found bravery was swept away from under me, reverting me to my old former self.
"Cristina—" I said weakly.
"Whatever. All I know is I'm done wasting my time with you. Just go. And don’t you dare tell anyone that we were in Treger’s barn. Or I swear I will kill you.
I stared at her in astonishment. Her voice got angrier and more commanding.
"Stop looking at me with those Bambi-like eyes. God, you're no use to me anymore. LEAVE!"
I fled, tearing through the trees, not caring that my clothes were getting ripped by the branches, which were now reaching out to claw me. At the edge of the clearing I stopped and looked back. Cristina was a leader without her troops, looking lost in the midst of trees.
The night's occurrence burst on me and I ran home. I slipped through my bedroom window and into bed, not even bothering to change into pajamas. I shivered beneath my heavy blankets, unable to shake off memories of the night. I couldn't help the tears that slid down my face and soaked my blankets. I wasn't sure why I was crying. Maybe the tears were out of concern for Kyle. Maybe they were for my broken friendship with Cristina. Maybe—they were for me. I think I was still crying when I fell asleep
"Good morning, Molly!" My mom's voice floated over me, returning me to consciousness. "I made you your favorite—waffles!"
My mom's light tone made me suspicious. "Why are you so cheerful?"
"Why can't I be happy this morning?" She glanced at me again. Her charade collapsed. I saw the lines of worry reappear as her smile dropped. My mom rarely smiled now because she never had reason to. Her hair, once a lovely lustrous red, had faded to grey. "Molly, I'm sorry, I wanted to wait to tell you later. Kyle didn't go home last night. His dad has already called the police..."
"What? Kyle didn't go home?" My eyes widened.
Her voice was gentle as she said, "He's missing, honey. I'm sorry. I wanted to keep this from you as long as possible…" Her eyes narrowed as she studied my pale face and hands, which nervously clutched the covers. Hesitantly she asked me, "Do you know anything about Kyle's disappearance?"
Panicking, I shouted. "No, No. Of course not--"
She looked at me intently for a moment. "Alright,” she said quietly. She did not probe further.
That day was all a blur. The police came to our house to ask me all sorts of questions: Was I with Kyle yesterday? Did I know where Kyle might be? Any friends he might be staying with? I answered all of them in a daze, trying to make sure my lies were consistent.
Finally my mom came to my rescue, telling them I was too tired and in shock to answer any more of their questions. Yet she said nothing to me as she prepared dinner and I sat silently at the kitchen table. The tension between us was nearly unbearable. When the phone rang, both of us jumped up to answer it. But it was only our neighbor, Mrs. Hayworth, asking if I had heard about Kyle. Mom stiffly affirmed that we both had heard the news and slammed down the phone. I put the plates on the table and sat down slowly, glancing to see her reaction. But her face was as inscrutable as a blank piece of paper.
I had to break the silence between us. "Mom, I don’t know where he is. I don’t know what happened to him."
She nodded grimly, and I saw her disbelief.
"Mom, please. You have to believe me." My voice was shrill with anxiety. I was losing her, just as I had lost Cristina and Kyle.
"What am I supposed to think?" She gazed at me, and I knew she had already made up her mind.
We finished the meal in silence, and I fled to my room.
Mom and I never talked about Kyle again after that awful dinner. And since I was no longer friends with Cristina, we never talked about her either. Prior to that night, I don’t think I had a single memory without Kyle or Cristina in it. The barriers my mom and I erected around these topics strained our relationship. Distance continued to grow between us, until eventually we became strangers who made forced conversations about the weather. I guess I lost my closest friends and family that night. I wasn't surprised a few months later, to learn that Cristina had moved to a bigger town. I think she moved to escape the memories of that night. You see, nothing exciting happens in a little town like Catawa, so people did not stop talking about Kyle's disappearance for a long time. Indeed, he became somewhat of a legend.
I haven’t been back to Catawa for fifteen years. As I trudged up dusty, unpaved Main Street, I was surprised to recognize all of the buildings around me. Gerald, the general store-owner was a kid from my old school, the school I attended when I felt like it. It felt weird, coming back here, seeing a lot of the people I grew up with. Even the youngest boys from school had their own kids now.
"Are you new here, sir?" Gerald asked me. I studied him for a moment before replying. Was he trying to place me from somewhere in his past? I decided he was just being friendly. "Yes, I'm new," I said slowly as I paid for my soda.
As I stepped out onto Main Street, the neon lights of Patsy’s Kitchen caught my attention. The building cried out for a new paint job. The “K” had burnt out, so the sign now read “Patsy’s itchen.” I wandered in and sat by the window. The place was empty except for an old man mumbling into his cup of coffee.
A tired-looking waitress with dark lifeless hair and a wrinkled uniform handed me a menu. I didn’t bother glancing at it.
“I want a large coke and the giant Patsy.”
Her face lit up as she smiled and even her hair didn’t look so limp. She went to the kitchen and returned with my drink.
“I don’t think I recognize you. Are you from around here?” She asked curiously. I saw her eyes absorbing my pressed navy suit, silk tie, and polished brown shoes.
“I’m just visiting.”
She nodded at me, and I saw vestiges of the fourteen year-old girl that I had left behind. I stared at her intently, but she did not recognize me. She went off to place my order. Had I changed that much in fifteen years? When she returned, I slowly reached into my pocket and took out a penknife, the only souvenir from my life in Catawa. It was now rusty and dull, but the KL carved in the hilt was still visible. Her face paled as she stared at the penknife.
“Kyle?” she whispered.
“Oh my god. You came back. You didn’t die.” Her eyes widened with amazement. “What happened to you?”
“Moll, you know my old man was a drunk b****** who beat me most of the time. At least the time he was conscious. The rest of the time he was passed out in his own vomit. I couldn’t take it anymore. I saw the opportunity to get away that night, and I just did. ”
Molly sank down in the seat across from me. I saw hurt and hostility reflected in her eyes. “You ruined my life. I lost everything that night. I was never able to shake you from my mind. You know they blamed Mr. Treger for your disappearance. I certainly did. I thought he killed you and dumped your body.”
I was silent for a moment. “Is Treger still kicking?”
“He had a hard time. There was no proof, but people suspected him. People stopped buying produce from him. He lost his animals, the barn, everything. The bank foreclosed on his property. He died a broken man, two years ago.”
“I’m— I’m sorry. For what I put everyone through. I didn’t think about how my leaving would affect you or Cristina.” I said contritely.
“Cristina,” she nodded sadly. “She and I stopped being friends that night. She never acknowledged me again, even the few times we ran into each other. She moved away three months after that night. I think we both tried to forget you, but it was too hard. Your face was plastered everywhere, even on the milk cartons.” She shook her head again and stood up. “Your burger’s ready.” She walked away, her shoulders sagging with defeat and returned with my Catawa favorite.
I took a big bite. “Mmm. The Patsy. Just as I remembered.”
Molly stared at me in disgust and anger. She leaned forward, looking at me intently. “How can you eat after causing all that pain? Fifteen years of torture. It has been unbearable. But obviously not for you. Look at yourself now. It certainly doesn’t seem to have hurt you in the least. Done well for yourself. Where did you go? You owe me an explanation. Everyone asked me about you, except my mother. But I could still see the question in her eyes. She knew I was with you that night. Things were never the same between us. She died thinking I had something to do with your disappearance."
I moved uneasily under her accusing gaze. “I wandered around for a while. I hitched a ride with a truck driver. I slept outside for a few weeks until some kind old folks took me in. They treated me like their son. They gave me an education, and left me a general store to run when they died a year ago. The store is doing well. In fact, I hired a man to help me because business is so good.” I could feel myself babbling under her hostility. “I’ve got a girl back home. We’ve got a kid on the way. We’re getting married in a few weeks. ”
“Well, at least you benefited from this whole mess. Why did you even bother coming back if your new life is perfect?” Her voice was heavy with bitterness.
I leaned forward. "I'm sorry. I just wanted some closure, to say goodbye to my past before I got married." She stood up and walked away, clearly shaken.
I watched her pretend to help the old man as I finished my burger. Somehow it just didn’t taste as good as before. She returned and asked, “How long are you staying?
“I'm just passing through. I'm glad I ran into you, Moll.” She looked away from me.
"I have to go to the kitchen."
I paid my bill, left her a nice tip, and exited Patsy’s Kitchen. I walked a few steps and looked back to see Moll watching me as I got into my car. I knew this would be the last time we would see each other. There was nothing left for me in Catawa