Joint Winner of the Letter Review Prize for Short Stories. Features: Self harm.
Most days I don’t like my brother, Dan. He’s bigger and four years older than me. Besides, he’s always saying he’s smarter than me, but that doesn’t matter anymore.
It all started on Saturday night when everyone in Crawley’s Corner celebrated the return of Hamish Arnold from the Korean War by turning out for the beans and scallop supper at the Women’s Institute Hall. Other than Saturday night, I only see Hamish when he goes to the store to get something his mother needs.
Momma didn’t go to the supper. She hasn’t been feeling good, and Dan says it’s because she is going to have our baby brother any minute. Dan’s sure the baby will be a boy and he’ll finally have a brother.
This morning, I don’t care what Dan thinks because I’m not allowed upstairs. And if that isn’t enough, Mrs. Bartlett, a woman Dad hired to stay while we wait for the baby to arrive, hurried me through my breakfast.
That’s why I’m sitting out here on the porch watching the Arnold house across the backyard. I’ve been told to wait for Mrs. Arnold to hang her wash on the clothesline. Mrs. Arnold hangs her wash out every Monday morning by six o’clock. Momma knows because she’s up really early to get breakfast for Dad before he goes to work at Jones’ General Store down the road from our house. Momma has never once gotten her clothes on the line before Mrs. Arnold.
I’m not watching Mrs. Arnold’s house because I like her. She’s never let me inside her house, and she never misses a chance to tell me to mind my manners. Hamish is her only child, so I figure he’s spoiled. I never see him weeding their garden like I have to, or doing anything outside for that matter. But today Momma wants me to keep busy, and I’ll do just about anything she asks. Before I came out here, I picked a bouquet of violets from the flowerbed along the side of the house to give to her.
There’s another reason why I don’t like being out here. I’m a sitting duck for my brother who never misses a chance to remind me that Grade Two is nothing, even though I led my class at the Christmas examinations. I can see him coming along the road from the store where he’s been stoking the furnace, getting the store warmed up for business. But he isn’t whistling as he usually does.
I wish there was some way to avoid him because he’ll tease me about being a sissy over the lard pail full of worms he’s collected to take fishing today. I don’t like fishing, or worms or hooks, and he knows it.
I stare at the Arnold house as Dan comes toward me. I do my best to ignore him, but he’s hard to miss as he clomps across the porch in his ugly brown boots.
“What are you doing out here, Sis?” He plunks himself down beside me.
“Nothin.” I don’t look at him. No reason to. He’s on his way into breakfast, and I’m staying here until I see Mrs. Arnold’s clothes on the line.
“Did you have a good time Saturday night?” he asks as if he means the question.
“Yeah, I guess so. Lila and I helped with the dishes after the supper was over.” I was standing in for mom who wasn’t able to go because her back hurt so bad. I was real proud of all the work I did, and so was Momma when I told her. Not that it was any of Dan’s business.
“What did you think of Hamish Arnold?”
“He’s nice I suppose,” I offer, confused by my brother. He never asks my opinion. According to him, I’m not old enough to know anything, and besides I’m a girl. But his sudden question makes me brave. “What did you think of him?”
“I dunno. He said some pretty peculiar things to me.” My brother leans against the porch railing and there’s a really strange expression on his face.
“What did he say?”
Dan closes his eyes. “He told me he didn’t want to go to war, that he was no hero.”
“Was he drinking hooch?”
“And who told you about hooch?” Dan asks, disgust in his voice.
“Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I don’t see and hear things.”
And I would never be near Hamish Arnold. Girls my age aren’t supposed to be close to a man, other than their dad. Lila says that being close to a man could mean you got a baby. I wouldn’t have been anywhere near Hamish, if he hadn’t come out of the outhouse at the back of the hall and nearly knocked me over. I was on my way to Mr. Darling’s pigpen in the field behind the hall with the slop pail from cleaning the plates.
“Did you hear him say anything?” Dan asks, staring at me as if what I say matters.
Suddenly, just this once, I want to show my brother that I’m smart. Had Hamish said anything? “I don’t…yeah, maybe.”
“What?” Dan asks, his voice soft.
“I think he was crying?” But grown men don’t cry. Dan says so.
Dan sits down next to me, his arms resting limply at his side. “Sis, I’m going to tell you something. You have to promise not to tell another living soul…ever. If you do, I’ll never speak to you again. And I’ll put a bloody, stinky pheasant foot in your bed again the next time I go hunting with Dad.”
“I promise,” I say, remembering the terror I felt that night when I woke up to find a feathered foot beside mine in the bottom of my bed.
But all that’s forgotten now. If Dan is willing to swear me to be quiet, what he’s about to say is important. “Go on.”
Dan begins to rub one palm into the other. “Hamish and I were standing under the Maple tree outside the hall Saturday night. His eyes were watery, and he looked scared.”
Dan’s face was one big scowl. “He told me he shot a man in the head.”
“You’re kidding!” I yell then cover my mouth with both hands. Momma says it’s not polite for a girl to yell.
“Keep your voice down!” Dan hisses, glancing around. “I’m serious. He stood right there and told me how he and his buddies had to kill a bunch of Koreans headed toward their line of trenches…somethin like that. He was shaking real bad.” A strangled sound comes from somewhere inside my brother, a sound I’ve never heard before. “Do you think it’s possible?”
Dan is asking me? “I don’t know. If he says so, it must have happened. No one would lie about that, would they?”
“I suppose not.”
We sit for a few moments while the sun warms us. I sit waiting for Mrs. Arnold to go out to her clothes line. “Did the man die?”
“Of course, you dimwit!” Dan mutters, jumping up off the bench.
“What will you do?”
“Me?” He leaned down close to my face. “Forget I ever told you, hear me?” he demands, his voice squeaky.
“Of course,” I say, truly afraid of the anger in his eyes.
He leaves the porch without another word, and I hear the screen door slam as he goes into the house.
I glance toward Mrs. Arnold’s house, and I am surprised to see not one piece of wash hanging on her line. She is always so careful about hanging her clothes out: the longest pieces are hung close to the pole and shorter pieces are hung closer to the house.
I am still waiting for Mrs. Arnold when I hear Momma scream. Clutching my violets, I bolt for the back door, into the house and up to the landing at the top of the stairs, only to be met by my dad.
“Emma, stay right where you are,” Dad says.
I grab the railing, gasping for air. “Is Momma okay?”
“She is.” Dad continues to stand there, but I see the beginnings of a smile on his face. “And your new sister is just being cleaned up and wrapped so you can see her.”
“A sister?” I have a little sister. My brother was wrong.
“Is Momma okay?” I ask again, worried because I can’t hear any sound coming from the door behind my dad.
“Everybody’s fine.” He reaches for my hand, and his skin is rough against mine.
“Can I see Momma?”
“You sure can, just as soon as your momma is fixed up a bit. It’s a great day to have a new sister, don’t you think?” Dad asks.
“Oh, yes it is,” I say, and I’m happy. Dan didn’t get a brother.
Dad goes into the bedroom while I wait on the top step.
Dad comes out and I follow him into Momma’s room. It smells sweet and a little like the inside of a tin box. Momma is lying in the middle of her big bed, holding a bundle in her arms.
“Hi Emma, come and see your little sister. We’re going to name her Sarah Marie. Do you like that name?” Momma reaches out to me.
Handing her the violets, I climb up onto the bed next to her. Curious, I edge closer to get a look at my sister. Sarah Marie doesn’t look like much, just all red with tiny fingers and a frown on her face. “Momma, where will Sarah Marie sleep?”
“In her crib over there.” Momma glances toward the corner of the room, sniffs the violets and smiles at me. “Did Mrs. Arnold put her wash out on the line this morning ahead of everyone else as usual?”
“What?” Momma’s voice is sharp. I look at her and see the way she looks at Dad. I only ever saw that look on Momma’s face once before; the day Rose Carson fell into the well.
Dad groans and rubs his face. “Oh. No. You don’t suppose…”
“Samuel, get over there now.”
Dad yanks the door open, calling for Dan, his boots banging against the wood of the stairs.
“Momma, what’s wrong?”
“It may be nothing,” she says, but I feel her body tighten against mine.
“Sweetie, why don’t you go with Mrs. Bartlett? I have to feed Sarah Marie.”
There’s a frown on Momma’s face. She looks like she does when she’s been working too long in the vegetable garden. “Can I have a sugar cookie?”
“Sure, whatever you want,” Momma says.
I go downstairs with Mrs. Bartlett, quite satisfied at how easy it was to get a cookie in the middle of the morning.
We’re in the kitchen when my dad comes in and goes straight to the phone, lifts the earpiece and turns the crank. “This is an emergency. I need this line now,” he yells into the mouthpiece. My dad never talks to anyone that way.
I look to Mrs. Bartlett, but she’s watching my dad, her fingers working in the folds of her apron.
“Operator, get me Dr. Symes,” my dad orders. He covers the mouthpiece of the phone, and says in a tone that no one would dare to disobey. He nods at Mrs. Bartlett. “Take Emma upstairs.”
Dan comes in the back door, huge tears on his cheeks. “Dad! Come quick! Mrs. Arnold’s breathing funny.”
Dad holds up his hand, speaks into the mouthpiece of the phone, telling the doctor to come to the Arnold house right away. Then, slamming down the phone, he charges out of the kitchen and through the backdoor.
“Dan, what’s wrong?” I ask, bracing my feet as Mrs. Bartlett pulls on my arm.
“Dad and I went over to the house to check on Mrs. Arnold,” Dan gasps, and sniffs hard. “There was blood all over Hamish, and he was lying in the bathtub.”
I see the blood on his hands. “Are you hurt?” I ask, pulling away from Mrs. Bartlett, and reaching for Dan.
“Don’t!” He holds his hands up in the air, his sobs so loud they drown out the chime of the grandfather clock in the dining room. “Dad got me to help him get Hamish out of the tub, and his wrists—”
Dan’s sobs make me more afraid than I’ve ever been in my life. “His wrists?”
“Emma, come with me,” Mrs. Bartlett says gently, her fingers squeezing my shoulders.
“What about Dan? He’s got blood—“
“Not for you to worry about,” Mrs. Bartlett says so softly I can barely hear her.
“I need Momma,” I say, swiping at the tears stinging my eyes.
When I enter Momma’s room her face is pale. She stares at Mrs. Bartlett. “Is it Hamish?”
“Yes. The doctor’s coming.”
“Go down and be what help you can, Mildred,” my mother says.
I climb into the bed next to Momma. Sarah Marie is asleep beside her. “Can I help?” I ask.
“No, sweetie, there’s nothing you can do.”
“Is Hamish going to be okay?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Dan says he and Dad got Hamish out of the tub. Why did they do that?”
Momma gives a long sigh, and hugs me close. “Because Hamish is very sad.”
“About what happened in the war?”
Momma gives me a sharp glance. “Where did you hear that?”
“Dan told me. Is he in trouble for telling me?” I ask, hopefully.
My mother hugs me, the warmth of her skin and the scent of lavender making me feel safe. “He shouldn’t have told you. You’re too young to understand.”
“Sometimes a person can find life so difficult that it seems impossible to bear.”
“And that makes them sad?”
“Sad and lonely, and sometimes they feel guilty for something they’ve done that they couldn’t help. Something they had no choice about.”
“Like Hamish did.”
Momma strokes my hair the way she does when I hurt myself playing in the yard. “Hamish is a good person, you got to remember that, no matter what happens.”
I’m just getting really comfortable next to Momma when the bedroom door opens and Dad comes in.
“Samuel, is he all right?”
My dad shakes his head ever so slowly: the look that passes between Momma and Dad is one I’ve never seen before—sort of dark and sad at the same time.
Momma’s arm tightens around me, and I feel her body tremble. “It’s okay Momma,” I say, patting her cheek. My fingers come away wet.
Momma takes my hand in hers. “What would I do without you?” she asks.
I look up at Momma, wishing I could make her smile. “It’s going to be okay,” I say.
“How I wish, sweetie, how I wish,” she says, kissing the top of my head.
In 2018, Ruth MacLean served as Writer in Residence at Vancouver Public Library in Vancouver, British Columbia. She has also served as Treasurer and Chapter Liaison on the Board of Romance Writers of America. Ruth’s past includes being a registered nurse, obtaining a Commerce Degree, majoring in Accounting, from Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. She went on to become a Certified Management Accountant and received the designation of Health Services Executive while working at The Moncton Hospital. Ruth is a full time writer and author of over a dozen books, both fiction and non fiction. She received Honourable Mention in the writing contest sponsored by the Writers Federation of New Brunswick–2022. She is presently working on a novel, Family Ties, Family Lies.
Original Artwork Supplied by Art Director Kita Das