Copyright is held by the author.
MARGARET SITS with her laptop open in front of her. She watches but doesn’t see the little trail of coloured ribbon of the screensaver. With her tongue she feels the hard bump that recently developed on her gum, worrying it until, suddenly, it breaks open. She spits a tiny piece of bloody gravel into her hand in surprise.
Little Margie clutches the edge of the wagon. Michael is behind her pushing, head down with the effort. With one mighty shove, he sends her hurtling down the drive toward the road.
Margie screams as the wagon careens wildly to one side. It tips and rolls her out to tumble and scrape down across the gravel while Davie screeches and flaps his arms with excitement in the shade of the big oak.
Michael stands and wanders closer to survey the wreck. He bends to inspect her face with interest knocking Davie’s curious fingers aside.
Her face is peppered with gravel, permanently tattooed with cinder and dust.
Shut up crybaby princess. Daddy’s little princess. Hah!
Their father. He takes her for rides in his car, a posh car with slippery seats she loves. He fusses with her hair and the belt on her dress — always a dress. Margie is the chosen one and Margie feels smug at her brothers’ envious looks as they pull out of the drive. On sunny days, they all seem to be sunny days, he leaves the top down and she is exhilarated by the wind.
She waits for him uncomplaining while he talks. The men he meets cast sidelong glances to her when voices get raised. She smiles and waves and the voices become hushed again. This is Daddy’s work and she must always smile at the men. Finally money and packets are exchanged. Daddy things.
When he slides back into the car, he is pleased and gives her candy from his pocket.
Soon after the wagon incident, their father disappears.
Men and women in uniforms and suits knock at the door. They spew questions and write notes. They roam through the house poking things and opening drawers with gloved hands. Their mother wrings her hands and shouts at first. She yells and tugs at their sleeves. They take things away in boxes.
Then they are gone. Their mother slips into silence. The windows are closed, the lights stay out after the sun goes down. She sits silently in the dark.
Michael makes sandwiches and pours cups of water from the tap. He makes Margie bathe and roughly brushes her hair, ignoring her cries.
And the house becomes silent.
Margie is sorry. She cries quietly in bed. She didn’t mean to make Daddy leave. She’d tell him she was sorry, she’d be pretty again, and he would laugh and take her in his car! She would help him at his work and life would be the way it should be once more.
Michael is the one who registers her at school. He lays the papers out on the counter. Margie sits on a bench and watches him. There are many questions, many sidelong glances her way, and unfathomable looks between the adults. He stays very calm, stoic.
No, their mother can’t come herself.
Yes, it’s all signed.
Michael narrows his eyes at a question about their father and the question is not pursued.
A woman bends over Margie and talks, her face close and shiny with perspiration. Margie looks at the stain of bright pink lipstick and the blond moustache as she watches her lips move. She is telling her something loudly and nodding. She seems to expect a nod in return. Margie looks away, uncomfortable by the woman’s closeness and the smell of hair product.
Seemingly satisfied, the woman turns back to Michael.
Davie doesn’t go to school. He shrieks and slaps at the window as his twin escorts Margie. Her first day. Margie wonders if their mother will finally look up and see him and remember to feed him or watch he doesn’t hurt himself.
Michael scowls and drops her hand as soon as he sees the others. He hops away quickly to join his friends in the school yard. Margie is bewildered by the tumult and noise around her and stands exactly where he left her. She shyly hides the grey patch on the side of her face behind a screen of hair while she is jostled and bumped by a hundred children. But there are few of the curious stares she has become accustomed to. Instead, there are whoops and screams of joy as friends find friends, nannies and parents abandoned at the gate with delight.
The bell rings. Throngs of children mill about and form rough lines funnelling towards the doors. Margie stands paralyzed. They all know what to do. But she doesn’t and their confidence and competence overawes her.
She shrinks back. There is a hedge that runs along the fence. Unnoticed, she slips down. She backs into the space by the trunks, sheltered by the leaves and branches. She crouches silently as the stragglers race to the doors laughing and jostling so as not to be last.
And there is quiet in the yard.
Margie hears voices through the open class windows but can’t make out what they are saying. There is some singing coming from one class, and chanting of some kind from another. For one moment, she thinks she sees Michael at one of the windows. But he is gone.
She huddles down. She watches a spider as it spins one long thread from one branch to another. Then does it again. And starts weaving a web in wide circles. The spider positions itself in the centre of the web and waits.
Unable to hold it any longer Margie pees through her panties. She shifts her shoe slightly out of the way of the stream. She watches as it flows past her picking up dust which rides along the surface. Margie wrinkles her nose at the pungent odour. The little river winds along on the hard earth and puddles at the edge of the stony asphalt causing ants and bugs to beat a hasty retreat from the liquid. All at once it soaks in. In minutes nothing remains but a little dark trail. Then even the darkness fades.
She watches silently from behind the curtain of small branches as recess comes and goes; the ebb and flow of tumult. She is apart, of another world, a world of dust, leaves and insects. And no voices, no looks.
It’s hot. And dry. Her tongue is thick and she dreams of popsicles and lemonade and candies from her father’s pocket.
The cicadas buzz long and loud and hypnotic. She dozes crouching there, jerking awake when she nods.
When the end of day bell rings, she watches the students file out laughing and teasing each other and wonders at them.
Michael emerges with the others, elbowing his friends and smiling, his backpack slung on one shoulder, heavier now with books.
Margie stiffly slips through the branches and re-emerges into the school yard unobserved. But for a few dawdlers trailing away on the far side, she is the last to leave. She hurries to keep Michael in sight. He glances back but doesn’t acknowledge her. She sees him turn back again with a slight frown. She follows him home. And nothing is said.
The next day a teacher in the yard takes her by the hand and leads her to class.
Margaret bends over her desk. She still has the habit of screening her hair over the side of her face even though she has learned how to cover the scarring. It is still there beneath the layers of beige creams and powders. The gray lines of dust and dirt beneath the skin. The shame and the wretched feeling of guilt.
She still feels pangs especially when she talks to Michael, which she does less and less since their mother died. Davie has been in care since the social worker came and found him naked on the porch while they were at school. That must have been Grade Four, Michael in high school by then. She struggles to pin down the date but finds it is lost. It is unimportant anyway.
Today is the day her father appointed to meet. He has told her he is ill, living in a boarding house or halfway house; he is evasive. His calls have become more plaintive, insistent, probing. The initial thrill of re-connection soon gives way to reluctant recognition of the manipulation and insincere charm he plies. To listen to Michael, it was always so.
She watches the clock on her screen tick toward the appointed time. And then past it.
She looks down at the little stone bathed in blood and saliva. That little sharp stone that has lived and travelled in her head for so long. She picks it up in a tissue and tosses it in the wastebasket.