From Beneath the Snoozing Tree

As long as I’ve been writing, I’ve believed that stories deserve audience. Publication is terrific affirmation, and one of the finest affirmations I’ve had was the publication of a YA (young adult) story in an anthology, Dark Times, published by Ronsdale Press in 2005, edited by Ann Walsh. http://ronsdalepress.com/books/dark-times/ Simply being in the company of Ann and the other talented contributors to this book was a gift.  But as with all books, all stories, after a time they seem to wander quietly away and go to sleep under a tree. (No reason for that choice of metaphor at all, except that I like the image.

So it seems to me, in keeping with my recent resolution to at least keep my webpage alive, even though I’m not seriously working on any other projects, that “Kick” deserves another airing.  And Dark Times deserves readers.  Do look for this wonderful book!

Kick

by Betty Jane Hegerat

(“Reprinted from Dark Times, edited by Ann Walsh, published by Ronsdale Press, 2005)

Justin decides before he even leaves the school at lunchtime that he’s not going to tell his mom about Will. She’ll find out soon enough. In the parking lot he spies a rock with a good edge. About the size of a haki sack. A sweet kick sends the stone flying down the street and Justin panting after it. He can hear Amanda calling behind him but he ignores her.

When he opens the front door, he can smell fish and green onion.

In the kitchen, his mom, still in her housecoat, shuffles from the fridge to the counter, mixing tuna for sandwiches.

“Stinks in here,” he says, and when she yawns, he asks, “Did you sleep?”  She worked twelve hour shifts all weekend, and now she has four days off.  When Justin left for school she was trying to decide whether to sleep or tough it out.

“Some,” she says. She whacks a sandwich into quarters, and slides the plate in front of him. “Remember this when I’m old. Any mom who got up out of her bed after three hours of sleep to make lunch for a fourteen-year old deserves big boxes of chocolates in The Home.”

Justin opens a sandwich and picks out the onion.  His mom rolls her eyes, but waits until he’s finished before she scoops up the disgusting pile of green and drops it down the garburetor. Then she scrubs her hands under the tap like she’s at work.  She’s a nurse, and Justin’s sure their kitchen is clean enough for brain surgery. He makes a tower of the four pieces of sandwich.

She pours a glass of milk, sets it in front of him.  Musses his hair, and then wrinkles her nose. “You didn’t shower this morning.”

“Sure I did,” he lies.  He presses hard on the sandwiches, flattening the bread the way he likes it. But the first bite makes him gag. The same feeling in the back of his throat as this morning when Mr. Waters stood in front of homeroom blinking so fast it looked as though there were insects behind the lenses of his glasses. “Class, we have terrible news today.”

Justin coughs the wad of sandwich into a napkin.

His mom watches his face for a minute and then puts her hand on his forehead.  “What’s up?”

“My throat feels funny.” He glugs down half of the milk. “That’s all I want.” Swiping away the milk mustache with the back of his hand, he stands up. When she has that squinty look, she can read his mind. “I better go.”

Still squinting. “Did something happen this morning?”

Oh yeah. Something happened all right. He mumbles and stumbles through the stuff Mr. Waters told them. About Will and his mom and dad and his sisters in the van in California. And somebody came through that red light and Will’s dad couldn’t stop.

“Oh my God, Justin!” She grabs him and pulls him so close he can feel her heart thumping like it’s his own.  His face is pressed to the nighttime smell of her housecoat.  “How terrible for Will and his family! Are they okay?  Was anyone else hurt?” ­

She’s got it wrong, but he can’t correct her. He just shakes his head and pulls away. With the tips of her fingers between her lips she looks like a little kid. He knows that as soon as he leaves the house, she’ll flop down in the rocker in the living room and stare at the wall. He wishes he wasn’t going to walk out the door and leave her thinking Will’s dad is dead. But she’ll have a worse afternoon if she knows it’s Will.         Halfway to school, still booting the rock, the inside of his foot starts to ache. A soft mushy hurt like pressing on an old bruise. A glance at his watch and he slows down so that he can time his arrival to the bell. There are clumps of grade eights standing around the door. Girls crying and holding each other the way they did this morning. Except for Amanda who swoops down on him at the edge of the parking lot. She hooks her foot in front of his and lofts his rock onto the playing field.

“Why didn’t you wait for me, you dork? I was calling you.”

She’s about four inches taller than he is this year. His mom says the boys will catch up in high school, that Justin will grow into his weight. But for now he still feels like a blimp, which is why he goes home for lunch. He doesn’t need anyone ragging him about stuffing his face.

Amanda says she goes home because the girls in grade eight are morons and she doesn’t want to hang out with them. She says she can’t wait to go back up north for the summer. Jason and Amanda have been friends since kindergarten. She and her mom live across the street with Amanda’s grandparents. Every summer Amanda spends a month in Yellowknife with her dad and her other grandmother. At the end of August, she comes back acting like some kind of junior shaman with a new supply of bones and feathers and other stuff her mom won’t let her keep in their house. Most of it is in a box under Justin’s bed.

They wait on the fringe. “Sucks, huh?” she says. She’s chewing on her thumbnail, looking away from Justin whenever he glances toward her. “Will’s such a turd, but I never hoped he’d die.”

Justin feels like she kicked him in the gut. Maybe she never hoped Will would die, but she has to know that Justin did. Every time Will yanked the toque off Justin’s head and filled it with snow, snatched his backpack and threw it in the air and all his pencils and homework tumbled into the wind; every time Will puffed out his cheeks and grinned and said, “Justin’s got high cholesterol!” Every single time, he wished Will would drop dead. But there was always Amanda, helping him brush the snow off his stuff, stomping along beside him all the way home, shouting at him. “Justin, you have to be a bear! Nobody messes with Bear!”

Finally the bell rings, and they trail in together. They have math with Mr. Waters first period after lunch, so back to their home room.

Justin slides into his desk and looks straight ahead, over top of the empty chair in front of him. Are they going to leave it there? Waters hands out a letter for parents. He says it’s about the memorial service for Will. The math test on Thursday is postponed because he knows that some of the students will want to attend.

Justin folds the letter and crams it into his pocket. Mr. Waters is still talking. “For those of you who were friends of Will’s, there’s a counselor in the office this afternoon.” He begins to point and call out names. And the first one out of his mouth is, “Justin.”

Friends?  Does Waters think he’s doing Justin a favour by including him?  Amanda says thanks but no thanks when he calls her name.” I really didn’t know him very well,” she says.  Justin wishes he’d thought of that line, but more than anything he wants to get out of the room, so he shuffles to the door with everyone else.

In the hall, he waits until they’re ahead of him, the girls whispering and sniffing, and then ducks into the washroom. Sits there on a toilet and watches the minutes click past on his wrist. He knows the routine with the counselor. When his grade five teacher’s baby died, a counselor came to the classroom.  To help them “make sense of it” the principal said.  Like there’s any sense in babies dying. Justin already knew from his mom’s job at the hospital that shitty things happen to kids.

After half an hour, he peeks down the hall. Through the glass wall in the office, he can see a few of his classmates waiting in the chairs. Girls. The ones who probably never even talked to Will.

Finally, Justin slips back into the classroom, into his desk. Amanda is looking at him out of the corner of her eye.

He closes his eyes and tries to drown out the voices. Since morning, he’s been afraid to think about Will. Afraid he’ll see him all mangled and bloody. But instead, he’s imagining Will in the chair in front of him. Will turning with that twisted grin, lifting a cheek, and polluting the air around Justin.  Then holding his nose, and just loud enough for everyone to hear, “Ewwwww. Justin! Silent but deadly!”

Justin gags. He swears he can smell the fart even though it’s a dream.  He gets up without telling Mr. Waters where he’s going and runs for the washroom. After he spits into the sink, he rinses his mouth, and then hides in a cubicle until the bell rings for the next class.

At dismissal, the haki sack guys hang out in the stairwell. Sometimes Justin spies on them from the top of the stairs after everyone else is gone. Pretends to be waiting for someone.  Usually they’re playing “clock” and he fingers the knitted grey footbag in his pocket, knowing that he’s better than any of them. A guy like Will – if he did normal stuff like haki instead of following Justin around – would  kick in and join them, all jokey. But Justin’s not good at jokey, and he doesn’t need anyone telling him to get lost. Today, he races ahead, wanting to be first out of the school.

The rock is in the soccer field one bounce from a Slurpee cup, exactly where he marked it in his mind. Kick, kick, kick, takes him halfway home before Amanda catches up.

“So what did she tell you?”

Justin shrugs. Lines up the rock with his toe, and wraps his fingers around the haki in his pocket. The dense weave has a comfortable scratchy feel.

“You didn’t go, did you? I’ll bet you sat in the can the whole time.” After the kick, she races beside him. Amanda is the only person he knows who can talk in a normal voice when she’s running full-out. “So are you going to the funeral?”

He stops, and bends over to catch his breath. “Are you?”

“I dunno,” she says. “Maybe. If you go.” Then Amanda turns and races ahead of him. From behind, it looks as though she’s flying, one foot hardly back on the ground before the other rises. In front of her house, she waves without looking back.

His mom meets him at the door. Hands on his shoulders, she makes him look straight into her eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me it was Will who died, not his dad?”

“I did. But you misunderstood. I didn’t want to talk about it, okay?”

Her hands drift down his arms, squeeze his wrists and let go. She nods. “Okay. I called the school. They said they had a counselor talk to the class. How was that?”

He hates lying to her. Most of the time, he gets away with half the truth. “Stupid,” he says. “They said it was for Will’s friends, and Waters made me go.”

“And…?”

“I didn’t even like Will!”

“Oh. Oh, I see.” She has that look on her face. Like she understands everything, but she doesn’t. Not any of it. She heads for the couch now, leading him by the hand. “Sit down a minute.” Her eyes are shiny. She takes a Kleenex out of her pocket. There’s a whole wad on the floor beside her chair. “Know why I’m crying?”

“Well yeah. A kid died. It’s sad.”

“All afternoon I’ve been imagining how I’d feel if it was you. And feeling so glad that it wasn’t. Because maybe if it was someone else’s boy, then that means that particular tragedy is used up and it can’t happen around here again. Do you understand?”

Oh jeez, same as when they’re going to fly somewhere and she says she’s relieved if there’s already been a plane crash in the last few months because it decreases the chances. Statistics. And then she feels guilty for being glad that other people crashed.

“Yeah,” he says. He’s tired, suddenly. He feels like putting his head on her shoulder. Instead, he pats her hand. And she smiles. “Guilt, right?” he asks. “You feel guilty.”

“Uh huh. How about you? Do you feel guilty because you didn’t like Will, and now he’s dead?”

“No,” Justin says. “I feel guilty, because I don’t feel guilty.” He’s afraid for a minute that she’ll think he’s trying to be a smartass, but she keeps on nodding. He pulls the folded paper out of his pocket and hands it to her. His gut is rumbling. He’d like to grate some cheddar and make nachos.

She reads the letter, and looks up at him. “I think we should go to this service.”

“Maybe,” he says. If he says no, the discussion will go on for much longer.

She smoothes the paper on her knee and looks thoughtful. “You know, funerals are for making peace, Justin. Maybe you could go and just think about what you’d have said to Will if you’d known he was going on a trip and it would end this way.”

Whoa! Glad you’re leaving, but sorry you’re going to die, Jerk? Yeah, that sounds like something the counselor lady would have suggested.

His mom is frowning, waiting for him to answer. “Justin?”

“Yeah, sure. If we go, maybe I’ll do that. Think about what I’d say to him.”

“So we’ll go to the funeral.”

“Maybe,” he says. “If Amanda comes.”

Amanda, all in black, looks like a raven. Black pants, black sweater, and her black hair loose on her shoulders. She barges into Justin’s bedroom on Thursday afternoon while he’s changing from school clothes into his khakis and button shirt. Ten seconds before, he was tugging on the pants, zipping his fly. His shirt is unbuttoned, his feet bare. “Crap, Amanda! Can’t you knock?”

She shrugs and spreads out on his bed, head on the pillow, arms wide. “I don’t think we should go,” she says.

“Well it’s too late. My mom won’t back down now, and your grandma and your mom said they thought it was a good idea for you to come with us.” The buttons seem too big for the holes. He works his way slowly to the bottom. When he looks up, Amanda is taking deep breaths and then exhaling as though she’s going to die. “What are you doing?”

“Justin,” she says in a squeaky voice that does not sound at all like Amanda, “I think I killed him.”

“What?” He stares at her. “That’s ridiculous. Their van got hit by another car.  In California.”

“I know,” she whispers, “but I think I made it happen.”

“Aw man!” He can’t take this. Not one of Amanda’s visions. Not today.

She lurches up and swings her feet to the floor. “See, I made this amulet about a month ago.”

“You put a curse on Will.” His voice is as heavy as the stone in his stomach. “Amanda, that’s kid’s stuff and you know it.”

“I did not put a curse on anyone, you moron. Shamanism is about communicating, not about evil spells. I made this amulet to put you in touch with Bear. So that you would be strong and Will would never bother you again. I think it may have backfired.”  She swoops down beside the bed and lifts the corner of the mattress. Her hand emerges holding a cloth bag.  With her teeth, she rips open the stitching at one end and tumbles the contents onto the quilt.

Will kneels beside the bed and picks through the two chicken bones, a clump of orange hair, and a tiny translucent claw. He holds it between thumb and first finger. “And this would be…? The claw of the sacred grizzly?”

“Right. Symbolically. Actually it’s one of Dandy’s claws.”

The clump of orange hair was obviously donated by Amanda’s cat as well. Justin stuffs the bits back into the little bag and hands it to her. “I don’t want any amulets, Amanda.  I just want to get this over with.”

On the way to the funeral home, Justin’s mom tells them it’s not really a funeral, but a memorial service. There won’t be a casket.  Amanda, who seems to have left her guilt in Justin’s bedroom, chats with his mom about cremation versus burial. Justin refuses to have an opinion, and stares out the window, wishing he’d been a bear instead of a rabbit when his mom suggested this.

When they park at the funeral home, he considers faking a sick stomach. Like that works when your mom is a nurse. He follows Amanda in black and his mom in her navy coat and high-heeled shoes into a lobby where clumps of people stand talking quietly. He can’t spot any of the other guys from school, but Mr. Waters glides over to say he’s proud of Justin for coming.  Even Justin’s mom can’t think of a comeback to that one.

Justin’s already told his mom that the deal is they leave right after the service. No standing around after, no talking to Will’s family. He figures the last thing Will’s parents need is to see other kids today. Live kids.

On a table in front of the chapel door, there’s a blown-up photo of Will in a baseball uniform. He’s winding up to pitch with a look of intense concentration. Justin doesn’t remember ever seeing that expression on Will’s face. With the blue eyes and the blonde afro like a huge halo under the baseball cap, Will looks like a kid in a Disney movie. On the table a sign with flowery writing says, These were a few of his favourite things. Books: the whole set of the Black Stallion. DVD: Happy Gilmour. Pack of baseball cards. Baseball glove. Bag of Doritos. Electric guitar. Haki sack, grey, with frayed threads. Justin feels as though he’s wandered into the wrong room.  Some other kid who died.

Then the chapel doors open and while they wait to file inside, Justin sees Amanda slip a rock onto the table.  He absolutely is not going to ask her about it later.  The chapel is packed. They sit in the back row, which is not nearly far enough away from all those people who look like aunts and uncles and cousins at the front. There are at least two other kids with wild blonde hair like Will’s. He wonders if they knew what Will was really like. He wonders if he knew.

Justin doesn’t try to sing along, but his mom and Amanda are right into the program. They’re both pretty awful singers. A few words from an uncle, then a man who was Will’s baseball coach, then a minister talks and then finally Will’s dad steps up and thanks them all for coming. He starts to say that he knows Will must be smiling down at this wonderful gathering… and then he chokes up and walks back to his seat and the music begins for one last song.

While everyone else is making their way to the room with the coffee and trays of sweets, the three of them sign the guest book. Justin waits while his mother writes a message that uses up all the space beside their names and then runs down the margin of the page.  He knows that on the way home she’s going to ask him if he thought about it.  About what he would have said to Will if he’d known he wasn’t ever going to see him again.  He watches the murmuring guests in the reception room. Looks back at the kid in the picture on the table.  At the plain grey haki sack.

A deep breath, and then he puts his shoulders back so that he feels much taller, and walks through the doorway to stand in front of Will’s mom. “I’m Justin,” he says. “Will sat in front of me this year. And last year too.” The woman bites her lip and nods, and that’s enough for both of them.

Amanda and his mom have followed him into the room, but he turns and leaves them there. Outside in the parking lot, he squints in the bright sunlight. What would he have said?  Nothing, he’ll tell her.

But then he takes out his haki sack. “Hey, Will,” he whispers. “Wanna rally?” A couple of slow kicks, then heels and toes fly and he dances on his little patch of funeral home pavement. When his mom and Amanda finally come out the door, the hack still hasn’t hit the ground.

Notes on the story:

“Kick” was born of the experience some years ago of one
of Betty Jane Hegerat’s own children when an elementary school classmate
was killed in a traffic accident. With all of the best intentions,
the school provided a counsellor for the whole class.
What was a sad event and a harsh lesson in vulnerability,
became even more of an emotional upheaval. The child who
barely knew the victim came away feeling guilty that he
could not summon the sadness he was “supposed” to feel.
The storyteller took the tale a step farther with the perennial
“what if . . . ?” What if the child not only had barely
known the dead classmate, but had actively disliked him?
What if the boy who died was a bully? How does his victim
deal with the sense that his own dark wishes have come
true?

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3 thoughts on “From Beneath the Snoozing Tree

    • Thanks, Ann. It’s one of the few stories I’ve written because a call for submissions spoke to me.

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