We wanted to wait, at least until after Christmas. That only meant we’d be waiting three days, anyway, so it wasn’t too bad. So much of our time had been poured into this. We had to do it right. We owed it to Clara and Winnie to get as much of the story as we could.
Dill hadn’t been home in a while since he’d been chasing these ghosts with me, so the three days leading up to Christmas were nice for him. We texted, but he was distracted by his family so I think they were glad to have him back. We decided once the library opened back up that we should go there to look at the city records again.
We stashed the book in the cellar (or what Clara had called “William’s hovel”) out in the woods. That way we knew it was hidden and I wouldn’t have it around and be tempted to read it without Dill.
We wrapped it up in plastic and put it in a box, buried it in the soft dirt floor, too. Just in case.
Christmas came and Terri and I made a more natural peace like we did on holidays. We were hardly at ends, but Christmas cookies, music, a fire in the fireplace, and A Christmas Story on repeat in the living room… It made it easier to forget the parts of each other that annoyed us and we could just remember that we were brothers. Even so, Christmas always threatened to be a mixed bag for Terri, given that his birthday was on Christmas Eve. Our parents had always given him presents for both, never combined as an excuse to get him less. But there was always that fear that you could see in him over the two days. Our Aunt and Uncle on Dad’s side had already fallen to that laziness, only barely increasing the amount of money in the envelope that arrived in the mail. That made the fear real. But Mom and Dad calling them lazy and poking fun at them made Terri feel a little more secure.
This year he received a car, now that he was officially 16. It wasn’t brand new, it was actually over a decade old, but it was his, so he loved it. Maybe that’s how you can tell how good a parent you’ve been: how your child reacts to their first car if it’s not some Ferrari or something. Maybe I’ll act upset and spoiled when I get mine just to test and see. Terri’s car was a white sedan with blue fuzzy dice draped over the rearview mirror, heating that worked, and a cassette/CD radio so he could put one of those iPod adapters in. He made the most remarks about the blue fuzzy dice, excitedly praising them, though I don’t think he’s old enough to remember when they were a really popular novelty.
Then again, I don’t know if anyone remembers that.
The next day I asked him before he headed out the door to see Ashley if he would take Dill and me to the library.
“They’re still closed,” he answered. I hadn’t told him about the new diary.
“But Christmas was yesterday,” I complained.
“Yeah, but librarians need an extra recovery day,” he explained.
“From the huge librarian rager they throw on Christmas. Librarians only get these couple of days off every year. They make it count.”
I didn’t believe him, but watched as he left. He stashed the fuzzy dice in the glove compartment before backing out of the driveway.
My parents had given me a box set of this book series that all my classmates were reading right now. Some futuristic space adventure that I was honestly really interested in. I picked up the first book, about 300 pages in length. Volume one of the 15 book series. I made it through chapter 1 before I decided to put it back down. I couldn’t do it. It felt like cheating. The only story I could make it through anymore was Clara’s and Winnie’s. That was all I wanted to know. All I needed. Ms. Copper had also assigned us some poems to read by e e cummings who didn’t capitalize anything he was supposed to. They were short, but even they couldn’t hold my attention. Poetry was supposed to be decoded and when I started to do that, I ran into the same dilemma I had with the other books.
I joined my dad for a while, watching some old war documentary, and humored his attempts at sharing his conspiracy theories with me. “What do you think of that?” He asked, snorting. “Think we really won that one? Or does the government just want us to think we did?” His attempts were sort of sad when he had to make them up himself like this. The specials about how we didn’t really land on the moon were his favorite.
“I think we really won that one, Dad,” I answered. It was about the Civil War. So really, I was half wrong either way.
Terri came home late that night and didn’t say anything as he passed the rest of us in the living room.
Later, I found the fuzzy dice in the trash can. I took them out and dangled them on the doorknob inside my closet.
The next morning I heard a knock on my door and told the knocker to come in. It was ten o’clock and it was Terri. “Hey,” he said. “Library’s open. You and Dill still want me to take you?”
I retrieved Clara’s diary from the not-cellar and we went to pick Dill up. From there we drove back to the ornate library where we’d found the pictures of the Temptowers and their house. On the way, as we merged onto the only highway that runs through Poll Oaks and Orange Park, “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers came on the radio. Terri turned it up and nodded his head, stuck his chin out some.
“Yeah man,” he said firmly. “This song gets me.”
We checked the dates in the diary and found that we needed to check out everything between December 1889 and May 1891. Having the dates made it a lot more convenient as there were newspapers archived all the way back to the founding of the state of Vermont.
Poll Oaks had not always been Poll Oaks. Nor was Orange Park always called Orange Park. The area of both modern towns used to be a single one called Lickston. The newspaper was called the Lickston Leaflet, though it went through a phase in the early 1900s where they changed to the Lickston Ledger. I guess they wanted to appear more professional, but it didn’t matter because Poll Oaks and Orange Park were established out of it in 1917 and the newspaper changed altogether to the Orange Oaks Oracle. We got the Triple O on our porch every morning.
It was hard to tell what would be important, so we dropped $15 dollars on photocopies for every Leaflet in our target area. It wasn’t too bad because they were each only a page front and back, and most of the back was a comics section titled “The Tickled Cavalier.” Maybe it was funny back in the day.
We headed back to the house and finally opened the diary, placed Clara’s explanation on the hearth next to us, the fireplace warm on our backs. We thumbed through the pages one more time to see how long we would read for. We settled for roughly half. That would fill most of the day. As we prepared to start, Terri found a seat in the recliner next to us and we both turned our faces to him.
“Figured I’d find out how it ends, too,” he said almost timidly. “If that’s alright.”
He hadn’t earned the story like us, but there wasn’t any reason to tell him no.
December 25, 1889
Merry Christmas! Mother gave me this wonderful book to begin keeping a diary in and I find it’s not until you have one that you feel as though you have nothing to say. Or perhaps even too much. Where to start? I suppose today is as good as any! Though most of the news is only of this book itself.
“She’s so happy,” Terri interrupted. “I thought that picture said ‘help’.”
“Different girl,” Dill explained. “And I don’t think the ‘bad thing’ has happened yet. Whatever it is.”
We continued on.
Winnie was given a new box of crayons and a scarf for the cold. She’s so small that the scarf could nearly be a blanket. But she’s been wearing it around the house ever since she opened it up. And Joel received a new pair of gloves and a book of speech skills. Mother says it will help him for when he starts going out with Father to sell things. Father began the day as he does always on Christmas. He wants so bad to be Santa Claus for us but forgets he hasn’t the patience for it. Joel is about the only one he touches anymore, giving him a strong hand on the shoulder, though he’ll allow a hug for Winnie and I on holidays like today. Winnie still doesn’t understand why he won’t have anything to do with her, so she holds tight to those hugs. Afterward, he sat in his chair and watched us open our gifts until he couldn’t watch anything at all, the brandy getting the better of his eyelids and taking him to where he really wants to be every day.
Mother says I am becoming very good at writing. She likes to fill my head with dreams of University, but I do my best not to be swept away by her words. She wants the best for me and gives me the best. Her and Thomas Levincut two houses down both do, teaching the other children in town first so that in the afternoon we get their full attention and extra time to learn and ask questions. But University is not likely, if only for the money. They do a fine job teaching me and Winnie and Joel anyway. I feel I have all I need in them.
I love this time of year. Everything seems brighter in the cold to me. I’ve never minded it, though Joel hates it. When the first snow came, he spent the whole day cooped up in his room, curled in a ball under his blankets. Father gave up trying to get Joel out in the field that day, though that and today were the only ones. Joel tried to point out to Father that he didn’t get into the snow himself, and he was struck for that. He went out after that. But no one was struck today because Christmas is the happiest day of the year. I heard they even have a Christmas tree in the White House where the president lives. I wish I could see that.
There was a little bit of space left at the bottom of the page, and the next entry began at the top of the next.
“Drinking dad,” Dill said. “Found the trouble.”
December 26, 1889
Same things to report as usual, Diary. Today Joel went out into the field and Father stayed behind. He said no one wants to buy the day after Christmas at all, let alone wood working implements. Mother went with Mr. Levincut to visit the other children, mostly to visit for the holidays and see what they’d gotten. There are times, Mother says, for work, but Christmas is not one. Winnie and I wished to go with her, but she refused, worried that we might be jealous of the other children’s gifts. I more think they would be jealous of ours, Diary, but if I told Mother that, she’d tell me I was being prideful. Mr. Levincut came around after they were done as usual and told Winnie that she had the prettiest scarf he’d ever seen and that he knew I’d write some great stories one day. He said I was sure to go to University, but I think Mother told him to say that. His grin was wide and felt sincere nonetheless, though. Mother tells me I stare too much when he’s over, though she doesn’t say it in a bad way. He’s a fine young man, she says, only eight years your elder and so bright for a man of 24. I like to think about that sometimes. Getting married, I mean. To Mr. Levincut, maybe, but just to a man I can trust. Sometimes I watch Father and wonder how Mother decided to marry him. I could never ask, but sometimes I feel she wonders the same things.
She must have trusted him sometime in her life.
Winnie and I made lunches for everyone, including a last minute plate for Mr. Levincut who tried to leave early, but finally yielded to our insistence. Joel came in and they got to talking. Joel admires him quite a lot. If he didn’t have hands so gifted for work, he might be a teacher one day. But Thomas (I suppose I can call him by his real name here since it’s just you and me) says that too many families would be without a house one day if Joel didn’t use his hands. Father asked Thomas about the goings on around town and the two talked over glasses of Father’s whiskey. I don’t know what makes the difference, but Thomas can drink the same things Father does and yet not get as angry or tired as him. Once Thomas left, father went back into his room to look over his implements as he had all day. Mother settled in the kitchen with Winnie and me and we began preparing dinner. I asked if Thomas might join us for dinner, too, and she said that if we continued to feed him, he would forget how to cook for himself. Then I asked if William could come up for dinner and she scoffed.
She says if we feed William, he will never learn how to cook in the first place.
“I wonder,” I said out loud, “if that’s the same William as the one with the hovel.”
Terri and Dill both nodded in agreement.
January 1st, 1890
I’m sorry it has been so long, Diary. I really did not forget about you, but each night I’ve been far too tired to keep my eyes open in only the lantern light. The White House that had the Christmas tree also had electric lights, but here we still have to use the lanterns we’ve always had, and the chandelier in the Great Room. Maybe one day we’ll be wealthy enough to have those electric lights that stay bright so that I can stay up and write.
Father had another episode the other day. After Mother returned from the other children’s houses and Thomas had left, he burst into the living room and began shouting. Joel was on his way back out to the field when he heard, and swung back around as Mother called for him. That’s all we must do anymore. Call out and Joel knows where to go. This time he had spilled a case of his implements on the ground and decided it was my fault. He turned on me and swung, his arm narrowly missing my head. Mother shouted to him and tried to back him away, but by then Joel was on his way and had overpowered him. As he calmed down, Winnie began crying because she’d cut her foot on one of the blades. I helped Mother treat and bind it as Joel cleaned up the blood.
Father’s back out around town now which makes the days better. Winnie and I will play and prepare lunch in the mornings, await Mother and Thomas, and then help Mother make dinner for when Father comes back. Half the time his plate goes untouched as he tends mostly to his drink. He’s gone again from the table by the time Joel comes back in, so he will finish what Father leaves and then whatever else until he’s full. He’s helpful that way. We don’t have to work as hard, and he’s much more grateful than father.
On Tuesdays he takes me out into the back field and woods with him to go and see William. Father still hasn’t found out about William’s staying back there. I would be nervous to mention it here if I weren’t so confident that he would never find this book. He would never care to look anyway, and I’m not sure he would be able to read it if he did. He can’t see too much when he is drunk, and so he can’t see too much most of the time.
That’s what gets me about Thomas and William. Thomas doesn’t get drunk, but I know William does. And that green stuff he drinks is much stronger than Father’s. And yet he is so much kinder and caring.
“Nothing about the new year?” Terri observed.
“Maybe it wasn’t worth her noting,” I answered.
January 28th, 1890
I asked William where he finds the words he speaks to me. He told me that a green fairy pulls them out of the clouds and places them in his ear so that he can speak them back out to me. I don’t know where he gets those sorts of ideas. When he doesn’t blame the fairy, William blames the woods. He spends so much of his time talking about how amazing it is out here, how stuffy his old offices were in New York. He would go on the same slurred and stumbling rant about it often, and I’d grin and laugh with him as he recalled. Do you know how rare it is, he’ll say and lay his bottle down so as not to distract himself, for The Times to hire a writer at 18? And not even with a higher education! Right out of high school, I knew and they knew I had it. I don’t know what it is, but I sure have it! But they think they’re so high and mighty just because they’re the big kid on the block. You know what they did?
And I’ll respond and provoke him on, acting as offended as I think he expects me to be: what did they DO?!
And he’ll say they cooped him up! They took a young talent and cooped it up in a musty office and told him exactly what to write. What sort of writing is that? he’ll ask me. What good comes from writing that was mandated, hmm?
So I’ll ask him what he did and he’ll take another swig from his emerald bottle to get him through his favorite part.
I took my things and sold them for fare to come out to where real writing can happen! he declares as if he’s won a war. Didn’t tell my parents or anything, just packed it up and moved out here where the trees are thick and the inspiration everywhere. Because it’s all beautiful out here, Clara Temptower. Everything I see.
And he always looks at me when he says that last part. And he always says that last part.
He says he wants to write a book like Thoreau and Whitman. He says they understood what it meant to see and be a part of the world around us. He just sees it better through a bottle, he says. He refuses to let me see anything he writes, though. He says I should write with him sometime and that I can’t read anything of his until we write together. I told him I’m keeping a diary now and he says he bets it’s a song. He presses me to read it now and I always tell him he never will. He says he’ll find it eventually, that one night when the lantern in my window is still lit and dim, he’ll tap on my window and while I write, and then he’ll know where to find it. I call him a creep and shove him, knowing he’ll shove me back. But I do secretly hope some nights that I’ll hear him at the window. Father only knows there’s a squatter out in the thick woods behind our house. He doesn’t know that we are friends, or that I have to change my lantern oil more often because I leave it burning for him so that he might come and let that fairy speak to me some night.
We moved on, ignoring each other in the suddenly awkward atmosphere of the story. Hopefully the next entry would change tones. I was relieved to see it did and the hotness in my ears began to subside some.
February 18, 1890
The letters continue to press in each month and Father continues to horde them in his closet. He keeps them so that he can make good on them some day, though Mother refuses to permit him. Winnie still knows about as much about them as she knows about anything else. It’s a blessing he’s begun to stash them away, really. It used to be that every time they arrived, he and Mother would argue and he would strike her, Joel unavailable to help, working out in the field every time the mail came. I would watch and cry out to him, but he would ignore me. It was only once her bruises and cuts became so bad that his hand came away red that he finally decided to give it a rest. Mother healed slowly, but when I tried to treat her at all, she’d smile warmly as she does and assure me that they did not hurt so long as Winnifred was still about. She only calls her Winnifred, and me Clarabelle.
They want to take her, the letters. They say there’s an institution where Winnie can learn better with other children who don’t pick up on things so quick. She’ll be happier there. They even have electricity because they’re in the city. But Mother insists that Winnie is just fine here. She’s already learned so much. She can write her own name and a couple other words, though she may have trouble with the capitals here and there. And she draws nearly without stopping. And the joy she brings to us… That is not something learned, but a talent. A blessing. Thomas agrees with Mother and teaches Winnie with such an enthusiasm.
Soon our birthday spree will begin and I’m very excited to see what that holds for us! I haven’t yet finished Winnie’s gift, but I believe she’ll enjoy it. I have until the end of the five day run anyway, so I’m not too concerned. William is doing well, and he’s taken a liking to being called only by his last name, Mr. Murrey. He says everyone has to call him that except me. I think he says that to make me think he knows other people, but I’m still not convinced he does.
February 25, 1890
Joel always makes sure we have a dull start to our birthday week. He doesn’t mean to. He tries to be no trouble, but he doesn’t realize we want to go through the trouble for him. Mother made him cornbread with molasses per his request. He has it most mornings anyway, but she made it a bit sweeter for today. We never receive much, but for his 15th birthday this year, I gave him some candy I’d saved up for and Mother and Father gave him a new book about some boy who adventures in the mountains. He doesn’t like us to think he’s much of a reader, but I know he has a hard time waking up in the morning because he’s up late thumbing through those pages. William tried to give him a bottle of his drink, but Joel still refused as always.
February 26, 1890
Today was my birthday and I am officially 17! I didn’t receive much, but I’m not really in need of anything at the moment. Mother gave me an application to a Women’s University and said that she and Thomas would cover the fee and the postage. I am filling it out right now, only breaking to mark here. Winnie also made me a drawing which I have folded up and placed inside you, Diary. I must get back to these papers and Winnie’s gift as well. I’m starting to get anxious as to whether or not I’ll finish it in time.
February 27, 1890
Father’s birthday was today. He spent most of it out of the house as he typically does. Mother did not permit us to get him anything because he would likely just sell it for more alcohol. When he came back home, I could hear him hitting Mother in their room. Several years ago she told us simply not to worry about what we heard from their room. Any other day she said it was just the parents talking. But on his birthday, she said it was her present to him.
February 28, 1890
Mother is always in the best of spirits on this day because so often she gets to share it with Winnie. Today she had all the other children and Thomas come here so that we could have time together and play and celebrate her birthday. Winnie’s birthday truly comes in 2 years when February 29th comes back, but Mother insists that in the meantime they share it, and Winnie is more than happy to do so. She made a cake for the two of them and Winnie enjoyed playing with the others, especially the ones younger than her, the toddlers. She is 6 today, and happy as ever. When all the other children left, I gave her the dress I’d made and show her the parts where I had sewed. She gaped at it for a long while, and when mother showed her a spool of thread and asked her if she’d like to learn how to sew like Mama and Clarabelle, she nodded excitedly and even began to cry! We’ll start her off simply with scrap pieces of material, but seeing how well she draws, I believe her stitching will be wonderful. For Mother, I showed her my progress on the application and we spent the evening revising it. She insisted I not give her a gift, but I figured that the time we spent looking over those pages was gift enough. She wanted this so badly for me, even if all the details weren’t there.
There was no sound from Mother and Father’s room tonight either. I suppose he considers that his gift to her.
“And I thought I had it bad with a Christmas Eve birthday,” Terri huffed. “What do they do for the rest of the year?”
“Whatever families in the 19th century did anyway, I guess,” I answered.
“Which doesn’t seem to consist of much,” Dill added.
I disagreed. If you wrote out a list of the things the Temptowers did, it would be a relatively short list. But if you wrote out a list of who the Temptowers were… They were pretty busy people.
March 4, 1890
William wasn’t in the woods when Joel and I went out to meet him today. We checked through his hovel and all around the woods, even threatened to become lost among the trees for several moments, but we never found him. It was fine for a while, but as the day went on, it began to drag. I could hardly focus when Mother returned with Mr. Levincut to study with us. And I have to wonder w
“What?” Dill asked.
“There’s a break…” I answered. She was nearly to the bottom of the page, but there were a couple lines’ worth of space left unfilled and she seemed to have just stopped.
I turned the page:
March 4, 1890
William had been out finding inspiration and courage today. He wanted the whole of our house to feel unfamiliar when he returned so that it wasn’t just my window that felt foreign when he climbed up to it. He said he was sorry for only seeing me on Joel’s birthday and not my own. When he spoke I could smell his drink on his breath. When I told him so, he said it tasted better than it smelled.
He was right. But I think it only tastes so sweet when it comes from his lips.
We continued reading on through April, the entries relatively short as Clara revealed that she was now going to see William Murrey on Thursdays, too. And then Saturdays also. They included details from the same activities she typically listed: Joel’s work, Winnie’s joy, and Alexandria’s abuse. The entries lengthened once we got to May.
May 6, 1890
Thomas continues to ask after Mother when I walk him to the door. He’s noticed the bruises and cuts before and there’s always been a certain softness in his eyes when he looks at her. For a long while I believed that he had a crush on my mother because she is very beautiful, the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, really. And maybe that was true, but I’ve also come to understand that it’s a poorly disguised sadness. He asked me how we were doing and then asked again in the exact same way after I told him we were fine. I then told him nothing had really changed at all and that Mother seemed at peace with our Father. He sold enough to give us food and she loved nothing more than raising us, so that seemed to get her through. He agreed that she loved us. He reminded me that he’s only down the road if anything should happen that needs greater help than we could give.
The mail came today and with it came the letter from the institute that wanted Winnie, and an envelope from the Women’s University. Mother clutched me excitedly as I opened it and I felt her grasp loosen when I read that I would not be accepted for the fall semester. She kissed me and apologized, though I feel the apologies were only to herself. It’s not fair to myself to say I expected it, but my heart wasn’t so deep in the idea of it all as Mother’s was. She held the two envelopes, mine and Winnie’s (though addressed to Father) and sat in the kitchen floor for a long while silently sobbing. I heard her say something about wanting to take away the daughter she could provide for and rejecting the one she couldn’t. I hate to think that Mother doesn’t believe she can provide for me. But maybe she’s thinking of the things that she can’t. I don’t know what those things may be and I suppose that’s only appropriate, but I feel no need for them.
I have all I need in this house. All I need sat defeated on our kitchen floor crying and I could do nothing to help.
I saw William before the letter came so I’ll have to tell him on Thursday. I don’t want to make him feel like he must be sad for me. I don’t think he will, though. No one forces William to feel anything he doesn’t want to. But I still worry of him, though. He never seems like he feels anything at all.
But he told me once that I make him feel everything.
May 8, 1890
Mother didn’t come out of her room all day yesterday. Thomas came over and asked for her, but she said to tell him she was sick. Father left in the morning before she woke, so he didn’t know. Joel came in early for a while to help Winnie and me prepare dinner so that Father wouldn’t know she hadn’t done anything all day.
May 9, 1890
Mother returned to teaching today, telling Thomas she was better again after some rest. Winnie and Joel and I felt like we needed a rest as well after preparing meals for ourselves two days in a row. We had one more to make, though, because Mother stood in the Great Room after Thomas left until dinner was ready. When I asked her if she would like to help us cook, she simply commented to me about the chandelier we have in there. She asked if I remembered the party we’d had 5 years ago when we were all much younger. I nodded and she smiled widely and listed all the people who’d come. She said the chandelier drew so much attention from them, that they all thought it was so beautiful.
Sometimes, Clarabelle, she told me, we forget how blessed we are.
May 10, 1890
Mother and Thomas have arranged another large class for us for the next two days like they typically do when summer comes closer. Thomas often travels during the summer so that he has new things to teach us about, so lessons stop for a long while. We spent the day at his house which is very similar to ours, but with many more books and a richer smell.
Mother had dinner prepared when we returned and it was as though she had cooked every scrap of food we had! Father returned and was pleased to see so much offered to him, so much so that he nearly forgot his drink. Nearly, but not entirely. Never entirely.
May 11, 1890
“Jeez,” I gasped as I turned the page to the next entry. The writing was all over the page, the usually sure pen strokes replaced by sporadic ones, not even immediately recognizable as English.
We came back from Thomas house and
she was in the Great Room and she was just dangling there. Winnie saw and asked what Mama was doing and so I told her that Mama was dancing and shoved her up the stairs to her room. Joel set the stool back up and pulled out a knife to cut the loop off the arm of the chandelier that was bent from her fall. He slipped the loop off her neck and tossed the rope aside the knot still in it empty.
Mother is gone.
“Oh my God,” Terri whispered, and loosened his collar from his collarbones some.
“I guess that’s why the rope was all curvy,” Dill concluded. “If they left the knot in it for a long time before undoing it…”
I nodded and continued on.
May 14, 1890
We buried mother today. I may tell the story of that day another time, but now I just want to remember her. Preachers are very good about bringing up the good in people once they’re gone. I love them for that. I know she did not want us to be mad or sad at her for leaving. I don’t know what it was. If I were struck as often as her by Father, I might have done it as well. But she was always so strong. And I love her for that.
And Alexandria looks so beautiful written in stone.
May 17, 1890
Winnifred has found the envelopes that Father keeps. She has stolen one, knowing he won’t notice. I looked it over and remembered it as the one she clutched alongside mine the night she cried in the kitchen. She keeps saying it was Mama’s favorite. Mother always told her that you should save your favorite food at dinner for last so that it’s the last thing you taste. It was always just a trick to get Winnifred to eat her peas, but it worked. So now she views the last things as the favorite things.
Father has not changed in anyway. He made it clear last night that he still expects dinner to be made every night. I hid it from William when I saw him today. There’s no telling what he would do if he found out Father hits me now.
May 31, 1890
Winnifred asked me why I call her Winnifred now instead of Winnie. I told her Mother always called us by our full names because that’s what the oldest lady of the house does and now I am the oldest lady in the house. She told me she liked being Winnie and I told her she is still Winnie. Our summer will start soon, and I don’t know what I’ll do without Mother here.
The days feel like years now. When I wake up in the morning, I feel like the night wasn’t nearly long enough and I wish for one that will last forever. And then I cry because I wonder if that’s what she felt before she hanged herself.
William has stopped speaking sweetly to me. I asked him and he said that it was because those were not the words I needed these days.
I believe those words were the sweetest he’s ever said.
We decided that was a good place to stop for the day as we’d already been reading for hours and it was clear my father was ready to use the living room. The center room felt so much more vacant now as I passed through it on my way up to my room.
The next day, Dill came back over and we began to read it again in the living room, our father sitting in a chair and reading his own book.
We held a brief recap.
“Alexandria hanged herself off the chandelier,” I said.
“Right,” Terri confirmed. “And Clara and William Murrey are still secretly seeing each other and he’s an awesome guy to her even though he gets drunk on absinthe.”
“Ha,” came a chuckle from my father.
“What?” I asked.
“William Murray,” he said, looking at us over his book. There was no response. “Like Bill Murray.”
“No, Dad,” I explained, “different Murrey. This one’s with an ‘e’ not an ‘a’.”
He shook his head and said distantly to himself. “Bill Murray on absinthe. Now there’s a thought. What a legend!”
As we began to read again, it became clear that the summer heat brought on new feelings in Clara. She had always clearly hated Filmore and for good reason. He had attempted to rape her multiple times by July, and she called him filthy names constantly, eventually replacing “Father” with things like “The Pig”. I began to mentally refer to it as “The Summer of Fury.”
July 12, 1890
The Pig spilled his drink and blamed Joel again. As he rose from his seat, I told him it was his own fault and took his fist proudly to my cheek. My mouth split against my tooth and I can’t get it to stop bleeding, but I am glad I did it.
July 26, 1890
He backed Winnifred into a corner and stomped on her crayons, shouting at her. I tugged on his arm until he tried to whirl it back to hit me, but I stayed on it and made him trip onto the ground. He pulled me down as well and kicked me in the side. It’s been hard to breathe for the last couple hours, but it gets easier the more I think about it.
July 30, 1890
The brute doesn’t realize he can’t speak when he’s drunk and I can watch his pride melt as he rushes toward me. I feel like I can hardly feel his blows anymore. In the mornings I do, but I am never bothered once I remember how I got them.
August 4th, 1890
He struck Winnifred again and I held her as she cried for hours. She isn’t used to it as I am. Neither is Joel, but he doesn’t go after him. I asked Joel not to when it’s me being hit. Mother took it for so many years and now I’m going to. He can hurt me all he wants.
But he will never harm me.
They continued on like that for so long. Vengeful and full of hatred that seemed so foreign from the Clara we knew before. There were other parts as well, and as summer began to close out, they became more prominent.
August 27, 1890
Winnifred has started to draw circus scenes for every picture. She hardly draws anything else anymore. She hasn’t drawn us like she used to- not since Mother died. It’s the strangest thing, though. Perhaps she’s just retained everything that Thomas has taught us about them, but even then, he hasn’t told us much. She always puts her name in the corner like it’s schoolwork, though, and draws elephants and lions and bears and all sorts of wonderful, colorful things. The man who mother would buy the crayons from, Mr. Dilken, gives me a box every time I go into his shop now and Winnifred goes through it in a matter of a couple weeks.
“She’d never seen the circus?” Dill questioned.
“Yeah,” Terri answered. “But haven’t you seen Rain Man? When some mentally challenged people find out about things, they get fixated and just learn everything about it.”
“I think that’s just autism,” I said.
“She’s probably autistic,” my dad shrugged, his eyes not leaving his book.
I didn’t buy it, but shrugged it off as well.
September 20, 1890
I’m concerned for Winnfrede. School has started again and she’s not writing and doing math like she used to. We used to be able to get a couple problems out of her, even a shadow of a sentence, but now she wouldn’t write at all except her name and “Jumbo,” whatever that means. Thomas doesn’t mind it so much and says that maybe she’s still recovering from Mother’s death. He allows her to draw throughout class time.
The Pig is still in full swing, but I cannot waste time provoking him any longer. I endure his beatings and incoherent shouting until he exhausts himself. Thomas is teaching me about argumentation and it’s clear I will learn nothing about that from the Pig.
October 21, 1890
William hates how much I’ve learned about arguing. We hardly argue about things, but when we do, I win and that frustrates him. He claims it’s too logical and that when you see things through a logical lens in life, you only see half of what’s around you. I told him that was an illogical and generalized statement and he grinned, not knowing if he’d won or lost. He decided he hadn’t done either and settled on ending the debate by kissing me. He still drinks his green elixir, but not as often anymore. He still refuses to show me any of his writing, and now claims that they’re worthless.
I asked him why they were worthless now and he said he’d written them because they were words the green fairy had brought to him, but since we kissed that night, he didn’t write with her anymore.
He said he wrote for a new fairy and that her lines were much better, like embers in the breeze and stars that had forgotten to fall back down when morning came.
November 11, 1890
The Pig has been gone for a two days now and Joel has only now found out that he will be gone for the rest of the week. So I invited William to come and stay for the night. Winnifred and I prepared dinner for him and once Joel came back in for the day, we all ate together. William had so many stories to tell, and Winnifred’s eyes were fixed on him the whole time, fascinated and delighted. When it came time for her to sleep, she clung to his pant leg and wanted him to sleep next to her. He politely declined the offer and once Joel had left to his own room, our eyes met. I offered him The Pig’s bed, but he assured me he did not sleep where pigs laid.
And I’d so hoped he would say that.
We climbed the stairs to my room-
“Wait,” my father said, lowering his book. “Have I given you the talk?” He asked me.
I nodded. “Yeah, like 2 years ago, dad.”
“Alright,” he looked satisfied. Then: “Dill?”
“Yeah, I know, sir,” he confirmed.
“Dad,” he answered. “Come on.”
“Cade, scan it and decide if it’s appropriate to read out loud,” he commanded me.
I did and it wasn’t. It wasn’t inappropriate, though. My father had given me the talk, but not quite so.. Eloquently.
We settled to just pass it around so everyone could read it and then continue on after my dad, prompted by his parental duty, reminded us: “Pre-marital sex is wrong, men. Don’t do it.”
November 19, 1890
The Pig knows about William. He has not seen him in the house, but has seen him appear in the woods now, and he’s certain that whoever that mystery man is, he has malicious intentions. There is no way for me to settle him about it, even if he would listen, which he won’t. So I go about my business as usual with the assurance that the Pig is not competent enough to truly do anything.
My days are filled now with William’s poetry which is inherent in the words he speaks. He’ll trip over a root while we walk in the woods and the startled rush of air from his mouth is like a song. He says I talk like him now, and I made the argument that maybe he talks like me. He won that one because he reminded me that he doesn’t argue. But by winning that argument, I proved that he did.
And so we’ve settled to believe that we simply speak with the same voice these days.
December 7, 1890
I had to bring home a whole case of new paper for Winnifred today. She has been drawing so furiously, I don’t know where she puts them all. She gave a good number to William when he left the morning after we made love and she did not give him more only because she wasn’t aware he came back in through my window every following night that week.
It amazes me that she can continue to draw these circus scenes without ever repeating herself. Sometimes it appears to be the same scene as before, only from a different perspective. I worry for her, but still cannot help but love her as well as I always have. When I return from my time with William, she leaves whatever picture she’s working on and rushes to me. She babbles on so often about school and that boy who was here (though she knows not to mention him when the Pig is around) and everything else about life. She never mentions Mother, but I wouldn’t expect her to.
I like to believe that Winnifred’s world has left Mother behind. That may be an awful thing to wish, but if Winnifred’s mind, special as it is, can continue going forward without Mother, then I believe she has a true chance at being happier. Maybe even a better chance than Joel or I do.
December 17, 1890
The Pig spent an entire day today walking through the woods, determined to find William. He carried his bottle in one hand and an axe in the other and sloshed his drink onto the ground whenever he would swing the blade into the bark of the trees. Some of the smaller ones he was actually able to fell, but the others he just took chunks out of.
He’s set Joel to a new task of chopping down all of the woods. He said it with such confidence that he couldn’t have told what driveling trash he was speaking. Joel told me his plan was just to go to the back of the woods and chop down several of the smaller trees, and use them for fire wood. He says we’ll need it anyway to stay warm now that winter is in full course and there’s no use buying chopped wood. The Pig is convinced he’ll put William out of a home, wherever it was in those woods. He says he has to sleep somewhere, so he’ll destroy his bed.
But as long as I have a bed, William will as well.
December 25, 1890
We did not exchange gifts this year at all. The Pig celebrated by knocking himself out in the afternoon, draping himself across his bed. We shut the door and took the rest of the day to ourselves. Knowing he would not wake until tomorrow, we headed out to the woods to find William. Once we did, we spent Christmas Day among the trees and snow and even down in William’s hovel. After we had buried Mother, William offered to take the stepstool and rope out to his home. There was no use in throwing them away, he said, but we shouldn’t be forced to look at them all the time.
Winnifred sat on the lowest step of the stool as we talked in his hatch and I believe that’s what finally convinced me that she’s forgotten. Or if she hasn’t forgotten, then she’s at peace in her own way. And that gives me a great peace as well.
There wasn’t much left to the book which concerned me. It seemed like there was so much more that still needed to happen.
January 15, 1891
Our birthdays are drawing near again. I think back to last year when I was stitching the dress for Winnifred and planning to teach her to sew with Mother. It was to be our summer project, but I could not go through with it without Mother. I knew not what to give her, but was grateful that it was not her special year yet. This way we didn’t have to have a gap in the days.
These entries were mostly shorter and continued to dwell on what Clara intended to do for Winnifred’s birthday until the day came.
February 28, 1890
The Pig was gone all day today. He’s beginning to be angry at Joel now because he doesn’t think he’s chopping the woods down like he’d asked. Joel continues to explain that they’re large woods and that they’ll take a long time to chop down. It’s become something of a joke between us now, one that is worth the beatings and bruises.
She’d stopped talking about being beaten, I’d nearly forgotten it was continuously happening.
Winnifred loved the small cake we made her, eating most of it herself. She and I played games for most of the day and William came and gave her a picture he’d drawn her. All this time and I never knew he could draw as well. She loved it so much and thought that it was so good that she gave it right back to him as a gift. He thanked her very much and then handed it back to me so I could sneak it into her things later after she’d forgotten all about it.
April 2, 1890
The Pig’s patience came to an end. The house is still. The woods are gone.
Joel had been bringing in wood constantly, but the Monster saw through our plan, finally. He found that picture, Winnifred’s, the one that William had drawn and so foolishly, foolishly penned his name to. He did not put all the pieces together in his sloshing, drunken mind, but he knew he was the man out in the woods, his woods as he put it. And Joel was a disappointment as a son.
I do not know when or where the Beast procured his gun, but he drew it on Joel that instant and held up a canister of oil and the matchbox. He declared that it would end tonight and that Joel would burn down the woods. We were far enough away where the flames wouldn’t reach us. He called William scum and said he would be burned alive if he didn’t leave.
Joel refused until the Pig fired a round past him and the window. I was hysterically in tears by then and I saw Joel was beginning to be so, too, as his eyes pleaded with me. We both knew we had no choice. The Monster watched from the back of the house as Joel descended down into the woods, journeyed to the back and began setting his flames.
I sent Winnifred to her room as I watched from the window, my tears feeling hot as though they were part of the blaze that now consumed the back half of the forest. It was dry right before the onset of the showering season and the trees gladly burst apart into orange and gold tongues.
I felt as though I was watching every good thing in the world slowly fade away until the edges were blackened. Every hope of every person I’d ever known: there they were. Floating into the air as embers, never to make it back onto the ground where they could be reached again.
No one could have them ever again.
There is no more hope.
There is no more William.
And I find it hard to believe now that there is anymore love left anywhere at all.
April 3, 1890
Joel had to wait until the Pig had left and everything was sorted out with the authorities who came to see about the wildfire. It halted at the end of the woods and the Liar filled them in on the man who’d been squatting back there and burned himself down. When they investigated, they found a handful of trees that were left relatively untouched, and an empty canister of lantern gas, along with a shattered lantern that the Pig had thought to send back out for Joel to plant.
But after it all settled back, Joel came into my room and handed me two sheets of paper. He had been able to meet up with William who had spied on our house once he heard the gunshot from the woods. They walked together, ahead of the flames and talked before William finally departed out of the woods and away from us. But he gave Joel these two papers to give to me. Joel made it very clear that William had said this was the last I’d ever hear from him. But he also said something that he’d said before a long time ago.
He said that on those pages was what he felt like with me.
What it felt like to feel everything.
I hugged Joel tighter than I think I ever have before.
What it felt like to feel everything. Once I was alone, I opened the pages and read them.
And I felt it, too.
May 11, 1890
I gave it to Winnifred today. And this is the last time I’ll speak with you, Diary. Tomorrow I will be gone and Joel knows every duty that will be his. We’ve talked a long while about it and we know it’s what has to be done. Winnifred looked at those pages I’d sewn together for her like they were the greatest thing she’d ever seen. She’s seen me write in here and she seemed fascinated by it. It’s crude, but I have no doubt she’ll fill them with her own stories. Maybe of that circus of hers.
I have to go out. I have to use what I’ve learned to some benefit. I’ve not given up on seeing William again despite his instructions to. I like to think, though, that he knows that when he said that, he was starting an argument. And if he knew that, then he knew I would win and that I would find him one day. And so this has to be my last and greatest argument. But first I have to win this one with myself. Then maybe someday I’ll find my William again.
I don’t remember a lot about that party Mother reminded me of last year. But I do believe in the blessings she talked about. And I think that perhaps all things are blessings. Green fairies, envelopes, and pigs alike.
But some blessings you must wait for. What happens between the waiting is where the toughest decisions lie.
I’ve made my decisions, though, and so I will part with you, Diary. You’ve taught me so much. I’ve asked Winnifred to hide you for someone else. I’ve also placed William’s last words with you. I don’t need them anymore for I carry them with me now. I hope that this might be a blessing to them some day as well.
And to you if you’re reading. Thank you so much for listening. Even though these words were not written for you, they are for you.
And that was all.
Dill and I groaned in unison and fell backward, clonking our heads on the wall.
“I don’t know what I expected,” Dill shook his head in disbelief and disappointment. “It’s a diary. A diary!”
“But it was a story, too!” I shouted.
“Please be quieter,” my dad snickered.
We sifted through the newspapers that we’d copied, but none of them gave any substantial information. There was one about the fire, but it only told the same lies that Filmore had. There was something, too, about Thomas Levincut receiving some teaching award, but by the time the paper changed its title, there was nothing left that was relevant at all.
We tried to convince ourselves that we were satisfied, but continually googled things as they occurred to us, even as school started back, but to no avail.
Where did Clara go? What happened to Winnie? What happened to William Murrey? Joel, Filmore?
So many more questions came flooding in, more than I’d even started out with. Murrey was a crap lead because it just led to stuff about freakin’ Bill Murray from Ghostbusters, and none of the Temptowers brought up any results, even on Poll Oaks or Orange Park databases because, come to find out, the archives aren’t digitized at all. It didn’t matter what town anyone ended up in: no town was big or small enough to care to record anything about the Temptowers. I even searched for Levincut and Dilken with nothing returned on either.
I was sitting in my bed one afternoon reading back over the pages that were in the back of the diary- William’s, written in large script that covered the pages.
I read those lines over and over, letting them move me in a way that words never had before.
And then there was a knock at the door and Terri appeared.
“Hey,” he said, and slunk in. “You busy? Still trying to figure everything out about your book?”
I nodded. “Yeah, but there’s not much else there.”
“That sucks,” he comforted me, and sat next to me on the edge of my bed. I shrugged to show my resignation. “So…” He waited a long while and then a sigh before finishing: “Ashley broke up with me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. No one ever tells you how to comfort someone who’s been dumped and I’d never had to experience it before to try and piece it together. “That sucks.”
He sighed. “Yeah. She didn’t even say why. Like, give me something, you know?”
“Like a grade,” I nodded.
“Yeah, like a work assessment,” he agreed. “So I… I don’t know. So I don’t do whatever it was again.”
“Maybe you didn’t do anything,” I shrugged. “People just stop liking people sometimes. That’s why Dad stopped like Dallas.”
He laughed. “I think people are a little different from TV shows,” he said.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “He said it had very compelling characters.
The day after that, school started and that’s when I started googling fruitlessly. Dill and I aced our poetry assignments and I managed to get interested in that Ultra Space Espionage Chronicles box set I’d gotten for Christmas. Everyone else complained about how the ending sucked and that it didn’t answer all the questions, but I was used to it by then.
Though for being 15 books long, the author should have just tied up the three loose ends he had. I doubt it’s that difficult.
We read A Separate Peace when spring came, and the day before we left for Spring Break, I finally gathered the courage to approach Ms. Copper with a question I felt she was qualified to answer, being an English teacher and such.
“Ms Copper?” I asked. Her attention turned to me from her computer monitor as the last of the other students filed out the door.
“Yes, Cade, what is it?” She replied, and I swore I could hear her voice physically unwind as she spoke, the stresses of the day finally fading with each student who walked out the door.
“I had a questions about… I guess about stories?”
“What about them?”
“Mostly about their endings,” I added.
“Is this about those Star Wars books everyone’s reading?” She asked, the patience in her voice vanishing instantly.
“No,” I admitted. “But there was another story I read and it… I don’t know. It didn’t really end, you know? It stopped, but it didn’t end. And so it definitely didn’t end the way I wanted it to, you know?”
“Okay,” she leaned back some, obviously relieved we wouldn’t be talking about the space books. “So you’re wondering…?”
“Why don’t stories end the way we want them to? Or why can’t they? Does that make sense? Is that stupid?”
She shook her head and I think it might have been the first time I’d ever seen Ms. Copper genuinely smile. “It makes sense,” she assured me. “I’m not sure, Cade. To be honest, I’m just not sure.”
“But you’re my English teacher! You’ve got the answers!” I complained, hoping to lay enough guilt on her to get her to answer.
She laughed lightly, more femininely than I’d expected, and she nodded. “Alright. Well, I guess if I had to guess… Well, now I’m the one who might not make any sense. But maybe they don’t end the way we want them to because then we wouldn’t get anything.”
“We’d get an ending,” I retorted. “And a story.”
“Yes,” she nodded, “true. But if they end the way we want, then we don’t learn anything. We think we want something, but sometimes someone else knows better than us. So few people in this world, Cade, are wise enough to want the right things. And one of the wisest things to want is to want to learn. And we learn best by being denied.”
I chewed it over for a while and was acutely aware of her watching me.
“Does that make sense?” She checked.
“I think so,” I nodded. “It’s not our ending after all. So maybe they know something we don’t?”
She nodded. “And it’s up to us to figure it out. That’s how we learned.”
“That’s actually pretty cool,” I smiled. She nodded in agreement.
Before I made it out the door, she stopped me again to add: “Cade? I think you’re going to learn a whole lot in your life.” I smiled and said thank you because I didn’t know what else to do.
Spring break sucked. My Aunt Shelby lives in New Hampshire which is way too close to Vermont and way too similar to Vermont to justify spending Spring Break there. But one of the many perks of the move was that now we could spend more time with her, her four dogs, and my cousin who’s older than Terri and less mature than me.
We all rode together on the way there, and Terri was in high spirits the whole way. She lived in the largest city in New Hampshire, which wasn’t saying much, but to Terri it meant that that would be where the most girls would be.
We spent days lazing about and thinking of things to do. Terri spent most of the time texting one girl he’d met at the supermarket one day.
I was walking past a banister when I bumped into it and knocked a couple picture frames over. My parents and aunt were sitting on the couches, talking when I did, so I got a stern “Cade!” from my mother, followed by a “Clara!” by Shelby. I knelt to pick them up when I realized that Aunt Shelby was finally going so crazy that she was forgetting my name.
She came to my side and picked up the larger frame and turned it over, sighed with relief when she saw it was unscathed. “I thought you’d broken Clara’s frame for a second,” she said.
“Who’s Clara?” My mom asked. “We don’t have a Clara in our family.”
“I know,” Shelby replaced the frame. “She was the founder of my sorority at St. Mary’s Women’s University. When we pledged we had to carry this picture all around with us. It’s the oldest sorority there, established in 1898! She’s actually sort of a legend around…”
Her explanation began to fade out as I stared at the picture- a young woman with an even younger one, maybe early teens. And I knew I’d seen the faces before, but not as happy. Not nearly as happy as they were now, together.
I knocked on the guest room door where Terri was sleeping (Aunt Shelby’s house consisted of three themed guest rooms, myself in Wizard of Oz, Terri in Sherlock Holmes, and my parents in A Tale of Two Cities) to find him awake and reading.
“Hey,” I said, and brought my hand out from behind my back, dangling the fuzzy dice on my fingers. “I found these in the trash a while back. I don’t know why, but I thought you might want them back.”
He smiled and nodded, told me to just lay them by the door. “Thanks,” he said.
On my way back to my Yellow Brick Road room, I passed the banister again, and looked at Clara’s face. And Winnie’s.
And I thought of William’s words in the back of the diary.
And of Ms. Copper’s words on that last day of school before break.
And that’s when I thought that so many stories don’t end the way we want them to.
But maybe some don’t even end.
Maybe none of them do at all.