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Although my memory is now leaving me, I will still recall upon the days of my childhood. My name is Adrian Drew; I am a city kid, born July 2nd, 1951 into a family of working class New Yorkers. All through out the 50’s and 60’s, I would spend my summers in Lewistown, Montana. My parents would receive a well-deserved break while I had the time of my life with my Gramma Rachel and three cousins. Unfortunately, the day I remember most is also the day that ruined my life.
I was normally the first awake, and would sit in that small kitchen with Gramma Rachel making biscuits till the others woke up. Caroline and Donald were my uncle’s kids. They looked a lot like my father and me. We were athletic and had thick, dark hair. Caroline was lucky to be blessed with my uncle’s hazel eyes as well. Donald and I were always racing and swimming, trying to best the other in every category imaginable, Caroline seemed disgusted by our races being the oldest at thirteen. Looking back, I think of our competitions being normal and necessary for our development, as Donald had been diagnosed with polio when he was really young. Donald and I were next in age at twelve, only a few months apart. Last came Joyce Ann at ten. Gramma Rachel was always scolding Joyce Ann for being a tomboy. She had to spend many afternoons baking and sewing because of her overalls. Her hair was so soft and shiny; she had Gramma Rachel’s and her mother’s buttery locks and big blue eyes. Out of the four of us, Joyce Ann was the only country kid as she lived in Kentucky. Our first summer all together was the one where we were taught to ride Gramma Rachel’s old mare by a very hyper four years old Joyce.
As usual, I was the first up and scampered down the stairs to help Gramma Rachel. The four of us always tried so hard to please her, yet now I am ashamed to say that she won’t even give me the time of day. The day that I remember so well was an unusually sunny one. It was early august, 1963. I set the table for breakfast, and watered the plants, and put the biscuits in the oven, and then my favorite chore, milking the cow. It was a custom for me to do the morning chores, Caroline did the chores that revolved around the house, Donald did the chores outside, yet the only one who dared be near the mare was Joyce, so she fed and groomed the old horse. I’m sure the mare had a name, but I can’t remember it.
When the others came down the stairs, we had breakfast which consisted of scrambled eggs, toast with jam, and bacon, we quickly got dressed, just like any other morning. As we ran out the door, Gramma Rachel would shout, “Be back by dinner, children, or I’ll tan your hyde.” Just like any other morning. But this morning was different.
Donald and I raced to the dark woods in attempt to find shade from the relentless sun. Joyce Ann had won. We hadn’t seen her come up behind us, maybe because she was so small. “Lord, since when have you been fast?” Asked Caroline. Joyce giggled, pulling at her braids. “Joyce Ann Curren!” Caroline bellowed. “You heard Gramma Rachel, she’ll chop off your hair if it gets tangled again!” Caroline had such straight hair that it never tangled and she was allowed to wear it long, but Joyce never cared about combing hers and it wouldn’t be the first time Gramma Rachel had cut it short. We were so absorbed with yelling at Joyce that we hadn’t noticed how far we were walking into the woods. By then, there was little light, yet the mystery of the dark forest enveloped us. It was as if the wind was whispering to us, daring us to come closer. Our curiosity got the better of us and we pushed forward.
The trees were taller, and there was a weird sun speckled pattern on the forest floor, but other then that, it was just like the edge of the woods. We had no idea of the dangers that would await us if we walked farther. We grew up hearing of Mr. Stern, the crazy squatter who lived in the woods, but we bravely shrugged off the stories as we pressed on. Mr. Stern ate children who strayed too far from the schoolyard, that’s what happened to Walter Krisstoff’s older brother. “I wonder if Mr. Stern lives near here?” Gasped Joyce Ann. We quickly silenced her, for we did not fancy a meeting with him.
After a few minutes of walking, the creepy feeling loosened and we were able to breath. “LOOK!” Screeched Donald. We all spun in his direction, ready to tackle him for speaking so loud. When we saw what he pointed at, we froze. It was a crude shack, made of pine and smelled like there was a dead animal inside. Joyce Ann grimaced. “Eww…” and before we could grab her, she skipped off to the front door and peeked inside. The rest of us hid. “Wait…” she said. “It’s empty, just a bunch of tools and stuff.” We all relaxed a bit and slowly crept to the window beside Joyce Ann. She was right, just a boring shack full of tools. The question was more of why it was all alone out here. We sat there awhile, unable to piece the question together before I proposed my brilliant idea. “This calls for a couple of detectives.” I declared. We nodded in agreement that we were the right people for the job. “Hold on,” Said Caroline. “Where is Joyce Ann?” We quickly split up to find her. What if Mr. Stern got her! We tried calling her name. No answer. Then out of the gloom, we heard a screech. We blindly ran in that direction, thinking of the awful things that could have happened to our cousin.
“You have to try this!” She chirped. We stared wide-eyed at the rope she was hanging on. It was tied so high up; we couldn’t see where it ended. It was only a ghostly thread hanging down from the treetops. We climbed up the giant fallen tree she was standing on. “This is so much fun!” She was swinging in a circle with her legs wildly thrashing around. Caught up in the moment, we were excited to find this strange rope, not for a second did we wonder where it came from or how sturdy it was. As Joyce Ann grabbed the rope, Donald shoved her. “Hey, what’s the big idea, it’s my turn!” Joyce Ann clutched the rope tighter, “No, it ain’t.” He shoved her again. I wished I had done something then, but Caroline and I stood silent as Donald shoved her so hard, she went swinging off the trunk in a graceful arc, screaming. We all closed our eyes, preparing for a crash, and there was silence. She landed in one swoop and without a stumble. We stared, mouths wide open, at our cousin’s unknown ability. “What?” she said. “You think I don’t know how to climb a tree.”
“Let me try! Let me try!” We all shouted. After Joyce scrambled up the tree trunk again, she handed me the rope, then lunged at Donald and the two of them went tumbling down. I felt so free soaring down the trunk, my landing wasn’t as perfect as Joyce Ann’s, but I landed on my feet none the less. Caroline came after me, stumbling and she landed in a heap. We ran back to the tree trunk to pull Joyce Ann off Donald, and then tried it again. We were having so much fun. These are the moments that I still considered myself a child.
“We should head back soon.” Said Caroline squinting at the sky. “I think it’s almost noon.” So we all had one more try. Joyce Ann went first followed by Donald, then me, then Caroline, in the last moments…
She started off normal, and then, we heard a CRACK. The rope came tumbling down. The dreadful thud in the treetops drowned out by Caroline’s screams. Joyce rushed down the trunk in pursuit of Caroline, but I held her fast and not a moment too soon. The branches came crashing down now, in rapid succession. 1…2…3…4…5…6…
Then silence. We nearly fell off the trunk, with one thought in our heads. Caroline. Joyce threw her weight into a branch, trying with all her might to free Caroline. Donald joined her and I worked on a second. Due to our adrenaline, we quickly were able to uncover poor Caroline. Only one branch lay across her chest. This was the branch with the rope attached. Caroline’s hair was shiny with blood, and her arms covered in bruises, her dress completely tattered. “Caroline!” I shrilled. No answer. Joyce began to shake her. Donald restrained her while I lifted the final branch off Caroline. I wish I hadn’t. She looked as if she had been crushed. “Help her, Adrian! Help her!” Joyce sobbed. I didn’t know what to do.
“I’ll go and fetch Gramma Rachel, maybe she will know what to do!” She shouted. Then to my surprise, Donald smacked her. Joyce could hold her own in a fight, when she wanted to, she was a ball of fists, but Donald always had her beat in the weight class. He threw her down and violently started kicking her. “DONALD!” He wouldn’t listen to me. He kicked her till a red blotch appeared on the back of her overalls. Unable to stand my own cousin’s brutality, I grabbed him by the neck to pull him off of her. We struggled with each other for a while, and when Donald settled down, we couldn’t find Joyce. “She is nothin’ but trouble!” Donald growled angrily. “Donald, You tackled a girl and really hurt her, and not just any girl, your own blood.” I reasoned.
“Adrian! She is gonna tell Gramma Rachel! We’re gonna be in so much trouble!” I did not understand how his assault of Joyce would affect me, and then it hit me. Caroline. Poor Caroline. We quickly remembered her and turned around. She stirred. “Caroline?” We knelt down.
“It hurts.” She groaned. We knew it; her body didn’t even look human anymore. “Where’s Gramma Rachel?”
“Don’t worry, Caro.” Said Donald. “We’ll fetch her. You stay here, Donald, I’ll go get Gramma Rachel. Oh, and if you find Joyce Ann, don’t say nothin’ to each other, don’t want a fight.” I turned to run, but suddenly, there was a sharp pain on the side of my head. I was seeing lights. Donald had just struck me. We never fought, ever.
“You can’t fetch Gramma Rachel!”
“Because we’ll get in so much trouble!”
I can’t believe what I did then. I sat there and let Donald pick Caroline up and shove her under the tree. “Now we can pretend she is lost, and when she wakes up, she can tell Gramma Rachel she just fell.” I had a feeling she wouldn’t wake up.
Our walk home was silent. We were scared stiff and still couldn’t find Joyce Ann. We got home and Gramma Rachel yelled us for leaving the girls behind. They missed dinner so Donald and I nervously rode the mare.
By nightfall, they hadn’t returned. Donald seemed completely fine, but I must have looked very suspicious because when I went inside for supper, Gramma Rachel raked me with her gaze. “You look dreadful, boy.” She said. “Why don’t you go upstairs and I’ll bring you some tea.” I dragged my feet upstairs, and when I heard the screen door open, I paused at the top.
“Miss Rachel, I believe I found one of your grandkids.” I peered down the stairs to see an old man, missing his teeth and dressed in the dirtiest clothes I’ve ever seen. “I saw Joyce Ann run into Gramma Rachel’s arms then some inaudible speech. Unable to face Joyce Ann, I clambered up to the room I shared with Donald and got into bed. A few minutes, later, Donald walked in carrying a tray of peppermint tea and toast. “Did you see that man?” He asked me. “He was Mr. Stern!” Wait till we tell all of the kids in town! He’s not even a cannibal!” I shook my head. “How is Joyce?”
“Oh, fine, she won’t squeal.”
“No. I actually mean, how is she. Is she hurt?”
“She hasn’t said anything to Gramma Rachel.” I sighed.
“Donald, we have to tell Gramma Rachel, Caroline could die.”
“She won’t die.”
“Did you see her? ”He shook his head.
“Well Gramma Rachel phoned the sheriff, they're gonna find her.”
“But we hid her, ‘member?” Donald froze.
“I…I… forgot.” He shuddered. “What do we do now?”
“Tell Gramma Rachel.” He shook his head and left. I didn’t see him till bedtime later that night, and he was silent as he got into bed.
The next morning, I was the first one awake and I scampered down the steps to the kitchen. Gramma Rachel was sitting at the table teary eyed. “What’s wrong?” I asked, even though I knew the answer. “Caroline hasn’t come home yet, honey.” I snuggled next to her. “How is Joyce?” I said nervously. Gramma Rachel looked at me funny.
“Fine, Mr. Stern, bless him, found her near his tool shed. She was crying and had fallen on her back.” I groaned.
We ate breakfast. I sat next to Joyce and grabbed her hand. She opened her mouth a few times, but closed it when Donald glared at her. Because her overalls were destroyed and Gramma Rachel didn’t trust her with a dress, she was wearing a pair of my shorts, held up with twine. After breakfast, Joyce Ann gingerly got up to help with the dishes. “What’s wrong with you, Joyce? Why are you walking funny?” Joyce froze and nervously lifted up her shirt to show Gramma Rachel her lower back. “My, my. You say you fell? Off of what, a church steeple? I’m calling Dr. Madison.” Gramma Rachel swept out of the room to the phone and Donald glared. “Don’t say anything, or I’ll hurt you a lot worse.” Joyce shrunk down and quickly ran to Gramma Rachel in the living room.
“She’s gonna squeal unless I smack her again.” Said Donald.
Dr. Madison came after dinner to fix Joyce Ann’s back. She emerged from the kitchen with a bandage all around her middle. “Now remember boys, nothing too physical.” Said Dr. Madison. The rest of the afternoon was quiet, except music coming from Joyce Ann’s vinyls in her room.
By supper, I felt sick, it was as if someone was sitting on my chest, threatening me not to tell the truth, but I have to.
We ate in silence. “My goodness, what is wrong with you children. I’m worried as you are.” Joyce Ann quivered. Then out of nowhere, she lunged across the table. She made contact with Donald and held fast. From there she started punching and slapping Donald’s face. Her knuckles were bloody before I grabbed her a few seconds later. Gramma Rachel was livid as she picked up Donald and all the plates and cups. “JOYCE ANN CURREN! I WILL BEAT YOU CLEAR TO TEXAS!” I knew Joyce Ann wouldn’t get spanked ‘cuase she was hurt, but the threat scared her pale anyways. “WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU KIDS?”
“I’ll tell you what.” Joyce whispered.
“What’s that, girl? You’re walking on thin ice!”
“HE’S A MURDERER!” She screamed, pointing at Donald.
I didn’t know what happened till it was over, but Joyce Ann explained everything to Gramma Rachel, how we found the shed, how we played on the rope, even how Donald kicked her, then how she couldn’t find Caroline when she came back. Gramma Rachel quickly phoned the sheriff and he was at the house in a minute flat.
I took Joyce to bed, and we huddled together while the sheriff questioned Donald. I knew I wouldn’t get in as much trouble as Donald, but I was still scared. “She is still alive, Joyce Ann.” I said “Only a bit hungry.”
She wasn’t alive. They say she died less then an hour after the fall. The thought of her dead and alone under the tree made me want to vomit. Donald left the next day to be with his parents. I tried to stay, but the looks I received from Gramma Rachel were too much for me. It was as if she regarded me as dirt, the love she had for me, just gone. It was a cruel, hateful look, which is way I packed my bags and headed back to New York. I was pen pals with Joyce Ann for a while, but never contacted Gramma Rachel ever again; I highly doubt she would want to talk to me again. Donald I never even tried to talk to. He wrote me once, but I didn’t respond. To think, all of this would have been different, if only I listened to my instinct.