Chapter 10: Elsie
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Bixby
After my less-than-successful “interrogation” of Alex Bancroft, I walked back to the Burns Cottage, my tail between my legs. I’d gotten nothing out of him, except to prove I was a fool for coming here. What made it worse was that he looked so cheerful when he bid me good-bye.
I don’t remember what Tanya made up for dinner. I ate it, but I didn’t taste it. I answered all of her questions with monosyllables, and she quickly took the hint and shut up. The only thing I managed to accomplish was to drink enough hard cider to feel looped.
So I was in a surly mood after dinner. I doubted I’d get anywhere. Agency guarantee notwithstanding, my stay in Quasopon would likely be short. I decided I might as well go see my family. I might not get another chance, and if I was going to make a mess of that, too, I might as well do it tonight. Screw up everything at once.
Besides, it gave me a chance to try to play a trick on the Children. My parents’ house was on Icy Glen Road, south of town. Icy Glen Road doesn’t reach to the Children’s land, because it dead-ends in the Icy Glen. But just before its western end, when it’s just a dirt road, the railroad spur from Milltown crosses it. I didn’t know how closely the Children were watching me, but I doubted they’d remember to watch that route. And even if they did, it was a shorter route to the house than the officially approved route through Center Village and down Over Mountain Road.
I told Tanya I would be out late, and struck out east across the fields and into the woods before bushwhacking south toward the railroad. I picked it up easily enough. It was clearly still active: the rails were shiny with wear.
I gradually left behind my bad mood as I was walking through the woods along the railroad. It was evening. The sun was going down, casting long shadows while still lighting the treetops. I flushed a beaver by a culvert and saw deer at the edge of the woods. And it smelled of forest, my forest, the forest I grew up with. I’d been gone a decade, almost, and hadn’t ever wanted to come back, but it was home: the place I grew up in.
My good mood lasted until I passed the road to Burnt Mill Pond. My parents’ home was close, and I ought to think of what I was going to say to them when I saw them. And I thought to try to see if my cell phone worked. It did, and I placed two calls, one to Bonnie, and one back to the agency, asking them to check into Alex Bancroft, and warning them that it probably wasn’t his real name.
My parents’ house is the last on the south side of the road, just after the pavement starts. It used to be a rambling farmhouse, though much of that had been torn down before my parents bought it. The remaining structure was a two-story house with a steep-pitched roof, a screen porch on the front, and a barn hanging off the east side of the house. It’s the sort of place flatlanders drool over buying. Now that I thought of it, I had to wonder just where my parents had got the money to pay for it. Or what bank would have given them a mortgage just after they left the Children.
I put that aside, took my courage in hand, and walked up the steps, through the screen door, across the porch, and rang the doorbell. I could hear what sounded like a television playing indoors, and some lights were already on inside, so I knew someone was home. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I hadn’t spoken to or written to anyone in the family in a decade. But whatever I was expecting wasn’t what happened.
My mother answered the door. She pulled it open, saw me, and stopped dead.
We both stood there, staring at each other, at an utter lost for words. All my pretty ideas went up in smoke, just like they had when I met the Prophesied One. And she . . . well, she looked as if I were a ghost, which I guess I was, more or less.
My mother took one step toward me, broke out in a sob, turned and fled. She stepped back into the hall and ran up the stairs, crying out loud the whole way. I heard a door slam, and figured she had gone into their bedroom.
I raced up the stairs after her, turned to my parents’ bedroom, and threw open the door. There was my mother, sitting on the end of the bed, just crying away, bent over. I went and sat down beside her. She let me hold her, but she didn’t stop crying. And I started crying, too. For what, I don’t know: sympathy, sorrow that we’d been apart so long, maybe for all the times we’d been at odds while I was growing up.
I don’t know how long this had been going on when I looked up and saw someone standing before us. She was a tall woman, with my mother’s hair and face, but I couldn’t place her. It wasn’t until she spoke that I realized who she had to be.
“Em, take a hike to the living room. I’ll be with you in a minute,” she said.
No one called me Em but my sister Elsie, just as no one called her Else but me. This had to be her. But I couldn’t see the resemblance to my little sister, not at all.
Even so, I figured Elsie knew what she was doing, or at least knew how things stood at home better than I did. So I gave my mother one last squeeze, got up, and headed downstairs to the bedroom, stopping for just a moment in the bathroom to use the john and wash my face.
I didn’t have long to wait. Elsie came downstairs. She scarcely glanced at me as she brusquely said, “C’mon, Em, we’re taking a walk.”
She headed down the hallway to the door. I followed, caught up with her at the front door. “Mom OK?” I asked.
Up to this point, I hadn’t really seen my sister, and she had hardly looked at me. So what happened next shocked me. Elsie turned and glared at me. “You’re about ten years too late in asking that question, Em.”
I started to say something, but Elsie erupted in fury. “Shut up, Em. You left, you didn’t call, you didn’t write, you didn’t come home. You want to come pay us a visit now, you shut up and listen. Or you go to hell.”
This had to be some terrible changeling. No way could this be my kid sister, shy, timid, sweet, and not terribly bright. This angry creature had to be someone else. And yet it was her. Older, taller, more a woman than a child now, but the same curly black hair she shared with my mother, the same way of standing when she was a child, as if she longed to be in motion. It was Elsie.
I fell back a step, then stopped. Whatever she was now, this was my sister, and I had to deal with her now. So I answered, “OK, Else. I’m shutting up and listening.”
She gave me one more look, and then turned to the door. “We’re taking a walk, Em. I’ll tell you why when we get there.”
She headed out into the night. I followed and caught up with her and we walked up the street together, almost like we had done so many years ago. Then, I’d been the big sister and she the little girl. Now, it almost felt like the reverse. Elsie was in charge, and she stood a head taller than me. She headed west and the road quickly turned to dirt under our feet. The sun was down below the horizon now, but the remaining light was enough. We both knew the road, anyhow. And then Elsie swung on to Burnt Mill Pond Road.
The Children hadn’t been the only ones to dam the local streams and build mills. More than a century ago, someone had dammed the stream not far from our house and built a mill. The mill had been a financial failure, and burnt down ages ago. The pond remained, and served as the local swimming hole.
I thought Elsie would head down to the beach, but she turned left and went up to the bluff on the western side of the pond. There’s a bit of open space there. It’s a popular picnic spot on a hot summer weekend. Elsie sat down by the edge of the bluff and motioned for me to join her. So we sat side by side, her in worn jeans and a tee shirt, me in new jeans and a buttoned blouse. When we were younger, I’d been the one who dressed informally, while Elsie was still being dressed fancy by our mother. Now it was the reverse: I had a job and was trying to impress people, while Elsie was apparently doing things her own way.
The bluff was an eerie spot in the night. The pond was below and beyond us, and the only noises were those of insects, frogs, and water spilling over the dam. The moon wasn’t out, so we seemed perched over a great gulf, an abyss. Even Elsie looked ghostly. I could barely distinguish her facial features in the starlight.
We sat there for a few minutes, neither of us speaking. I figured I had to say something. “You said something about explaining why we’re here, Else.”
She sighed. I expected some sort of emotional outburst, but instead she began speaking in a soft monotone, as if she were a machine. “As I said, you’re about ten years too late asking how Mom is. After you cut yourself off from us, Mom just started having crying jags. Dad couldn’t do much with her, and I guess their relationship started going downhill. He started spending more evenings away from home, and drinking when he was home.
“After a few years of this, I hit puberty. I didn’t take it well, and Mom and Dad were too miserable to help. So one evening, after they’d been yelling at each other a bit, I just left and came here. I was sick of everything. You’d left me, Em. Mom and Dad might as well have been gone for all the support they were giving me. At least I felt that way. So I looked over the edge of the cliff here, and decided to jump into the pond and kill myself.”
I didn’t know what to say. Obviously she hadn’t. But her tone of voice, so emotionless, was at such variance with the content of what she was saying, that I could neither tell what she was feeling nor know what response she expected. So I said nothing and waited. She paused as if to catch her breath, and then continued talking in that same monotone.
“I figured clothes would help me sink faster, so I didn’t bother to take them off. I just jumped in. And I tried to hold my breath as long as possible, so I’d have to take in water when I tried to breathe, figuring I’d drown faster that way.”
Elsie paused for a bit before resuming, and this time a bit of emotion crept into her voice, to my ears a pleading note. “I couldn’t do it, Em. I took down one big gulp and surfaced and coughed up water and couldn’t make myself go down again. So I just floated there.
“It was fall, and the water was cold. I didn’t realize the cold could get me so quickly. I was lying with the back of my head under water. I started losing feeling in my limbs, but my thinking was already getting confused. I probably went under again at least once.
“And the next thing I knew, someone was pounding on me and yelling at me and trying to get me to do things. It was Rachel Baker. Maybe you don’t remember her, but she was about four years behind you. It’s funny, the first thing I noticed was that she wasn’t wearing any clothes above the waist. She brought me around, got me moving, walking, stretching, trying to build up my body heat again any way she could. Once she thought I was OK physically, she took me home. Somewhere along there, she managed to put on a blouse and sweater.
“We got to the porch and I told Rachel she couldn’t come in, because I didn’t want her to see my parents fighting. And I was still so out of it I said all that. She told me to give her a call at any time, and stood there until I went into the house.
“I walked into the living room where Mom and Dad were. I was still wearing my clothes. They were a mess, soaked and with leaves still on them. I probably didn’t look much better. I told them I had tried to drown myself in the mill pond, but that I wouldn’t do it again, and that I needed a hot shower. Mom took me into the bathroom, got me all set, made up hot cocoa for me, and didn’t ask one question.”
The moon had just started to come over the horizon, and shed enough light that I could see Elsie’s face. She looked a lot like our mother, but prettier. I don’t just mean younger, and our mother had been a good-looking woman, but Elsie verged on being beautiful. She had the same oval face, the one I’d always wanted, regular features, arched eyebrows, and an elegant straight nose. The biggest difference was that she had hazel eyes, and not my mother’s brown. Not that I could make out their color there in the moonlight; that was from seeing her in the house. Elsie was staring out at the pond, as if she were trying to find answers in it for why she hadn’t drowned herself.
We’d sat in silence for a bit when Elsie started talking again. The monotone was completely gone now; she was talking in a regular voice, though softly. “Mom and Dad felt they had lost you, and it was their fault somehow. So when I tried to kill myself, they were afraid they were going to lose me, too. They agreed between them that they had to keep it together at least until I was an adult. They stuck to it, too. And somehow over time, they got themselves back on track, too. Of course, they didn’t tell me this until years later.
“Rachel became like an older sister to me. She was what you should have been, Em. The really funny part is that the reason she saved me was the same reason she got kicked out of her home a few years later. She’d been using the cliff as a rendezvous for having sex with her boyfriends. If she hadn’t looked up at one point, I’d have drowned.”
Elsie stopped talking. I sat there looking at her. She kept staring out at the pond, and her eyes were now two pools of moonlight.
After a while, all I could think to say to that was, “I’m sorry, Else.”
She turned to look at me, hostility written on her features. “Yeah, well fuck that, Em. That’s also ten years too late. You have no idea how much I hated you then.” Her voice was now normal, no longer soft, and loaded with bitterness. She looked away, then turned back, and this time there she looked at me with curiosity, the hostility gone from her voice. “So why did you leave, Em?”
I was bewildered by her sudden changes in attitude, and had to stop and think about what to say to her. This was my sister, but a sister whom I barely recognized. She had just told me how she tried to kill herself. I wasn’t going to top that, it would be foolish to try, and anything else would seem lame. So, let it be lame. “I was one of the Fallen, Else. I got sick of it. I got sick of why no one would explain why. I got sick of being teased and hated. I got sick of being something I couldn’t control. There’s a lot more, but I’m not going to try to compete with you in a misery contest.” I had to blink back a few tears of my own.
To my surprise, I heard my sister laugh in response. “You’d lose, Em. I am the official miserable person of Quasopon.” She gave me a broad smile, a mischievous smile. “Three years ago, after Rachel’s parents kicked her out, I was supposed to give one of those stupid speeches at Assembly Day. Instead, I told the entire town how I had tried to kill myself and how Rachel had saved me. The PTA tried to get me expelled, saying I was encouraging kids to commit suicide and to engage in premarital sex. They didn’t succeed, but it made my reputation. Instead of being a child of the Fallen, I’m the suicide kid.”
I shook my head. “No one’s mentioned this to me.” Read: Bonnie didn’t mention this to me. Now I knew what she hadn’t wanted to tell me.
“They won’t, Em. After the initial flurry, it’s become one of the unmentionable topics in town, along with Martha Wolfe’s affair with Don Stevens.”
Ah, yes, Quasopon, Vermont’s own Peyton Place. I didn’t know either party, but I was willing to bet that one of them was married, and likely both, but not to each other.
Elsie had been watching me, studying my reaction. Now she broached a different subject. “How long are you staying in Quasopon, Em?”
How long, indeed? I’d been thinking a few hours ago it might be a very short stay. Now I wasn’t so sure. “I don’t know, Else. My boss committed me for a month, but that depends on what progress I make and how much the Children want to put up with me.”
Elsie considered that, and then asked, “So this visit to the house: why did you come?”
I’m not usually good at these emotional situations, I speak before I think, but for once I realized how different the reality was from what I expected. So instead of just telling her that it was obvious I’d come to try to reconcile with our parents, I thought about this from Elsie’s perspective. She doesn’t know me anymore, any more than I know her. She’s tried to explain herself. Now it was my turn.
So I looked her in the eye, this strange sister of mine, and I said, “I had to cut myself off completely if I was going to survive. I couldn’t come back here. It would be the same old problems, and nothing I could do would change them.” And I doubt much has changed here. Thinking of it that way, I can understand why you tried drowning yourself, Elsie. “I didn’t ever, ever want to come back. And then I had to. And I knew you’d all know I was here. And I really couldn’t bear to just leave you all hanging anymore.” I thought a moment, and added, “It may be ten years too late, Else, but it’s better than twenty years too late.”
Elsie nodded thoughtfully to that. “Go back to the Children for now. I need to do some talking with Mom and Dad before you show up again, so you all don’t make a mess of it. Not just you, Em. They’re likely to make a mess of it, too. This may not make much sense, but you should know I think they blame themselves for what you did, but they’re also bitter about it.”
That struck a chord. “Not a bad way to put it. I kind of feel the same way myself.”
Elsie stood up, and I followed her. She said, “Maybe I’ll set them straight tonight, maybe it will take a few days. I’ll come get you when they’re ready. Where are you staying?”
“The Burns Cottage in Milltown. Bonnie knows where it is.” I had to caution Elsie, “The Children won’t be happy if you come onto their lands without their permission.”
My sister gave another laugh. “Em, one thing trying to commit suicide does is give you focus. I could give fuck all what the Children think. Now get along. I need to go home and convince our parents I didn’t toss you into the mill pond myself.”
End of chapter ten
That line about attempting suicide giving you focus — that sounds awfully familiar. Are you quoting one of your other stories?
Nope. I may have mentioned it to you in passing. Or maybe somebody else said the same thing, and I may or may not have read it.
Poignant, Brian. Are we seeing a new depth to your writing, or is it that I’m only now noticing it?
I suspect and hope the former! Though there are some hints of this in the long piece I sent you.
Which I am still reading. I think I’ve said it before. I tend to leave reading till the evening and, as you know, I’m easily exhausted. But if I did the reading first I’d never get the writing done.
Indeed. And the passage I was thinking of is nearer the end than the beginning. You’ll get to it when you get to it, and will be fine.
Okay, I’m now feeling guilty that I’ve still so much to read. I’ll catch up just as soon as I’ve finished the Jarnigan post – ought to be posted before the end of the month. I hope! It will be the year round.
No, no, save guilt for actual evil, not trying to manage your own time.
There speaks a wise man.