While South of the Border
Chapter Three: While South of the Border
That was the way things began for to us on those first few weeks we lived on Lincoln Drive. Our arduous move and subsequent sanitizing of the house carried us through the end of the week as my mother had foreseen.
School started for us kids much too fast. Though we’d enjoyed much of the summer, the long days followed by equally uncomfortable nights had worn on us. By the time the last of our furniture was in place, the dishes put away, the linens stowed, our bedrooms set-up and all else put in storage in the attic, we had just enough time to eat, take a shower, get our clothes ready for school and go to sleep.
We awoke the next day thoroughly unprepared for the rigors of a school day.
I think at one time or another, each of us dosed off in class only to be roughly awakened by our miffed instructors. Eli was sent home with a note detailing the importance of a good’s night rest prior to attending school.
My mother had laughed away the memo and assuaged Elijah’s fears of being a bad student. She was still too cheerful to be bothered by something as ridiculous as an overzealous academic administrator.
By the end of the first week on instruction, we had carved out a degree of routine and things begin to settle down.
My mother began her search for a landscaper to help her tackle the jungle that was our front yard and a full-time gardener to make sure the grounds stayed in tip-top shape.
It wasn’t as though she was above doing yard work, mind you. Every other day we came from school we’d found her in some portion of the yard pulling vines away from some hidden treasure, cutting back bushes from the fencing or trimming the trees. She would always greet us tired, but with a satisfied grin. Her face would be besmirched with grime or dust or cobwebs, but she was unerringly fulfilled. There was no denying the obvious. She loved the house and everything about it.
It was on the Saturday following our move that Valerie’s knee-high moccasins went missing. They were her favorite. She wore them more than any other pair she owned, and she owned over twenty pairs of shoes. She had us looking all over hell and back for them, but we didn’t find them. She was pissed off something fierce.
My little brother tried to lighten the mood by saying the house had eaten them.
She had only glowered at him. She would’ve said something bitter to him, if my mom hadn’t been there in her room with us. So, unwilling to risk her wrath, she stayed silent. She crossed her arms under her breasts and turned away from us.
I was fed up with her childish behavior, so I left. I had a date with Myra later on that day and I hadn’t done a damn thing in terms preparation. I still needed to shower and shave and do all the mundane shit we guys do to look presentable for you ladies.
A few days later, on a Tuesday, Elijah had been playing in the back yard, near the toolshed. In a fit of overwhelming curiosity, he went to investigate the smaller storage shed on the other side of the stepping-stone walkway. He had opened the wooden door and peered in, looking at the shelves on either side of him. To his surprise, there were Valerie’s boots, sitting there, as plain as day, on the middle shelve toward his right, toes pointed directly at him. It was as though someone had placed them that way on purpose. Here I am! Here I am!
Excited over his monumental find, Eli ran to our sister’s room with the soft boots in hand, saying: “I found them! I found them!”
“You little creep, why did you hide my boots!” was the scream that brought us from the various locations about the house.
“I didn’t hide them, Valerie,” Eli said in defense.
By the time I got there, Eli was clutching the moccasins to his chest, half-turned from her, while Valerie was pointing an accusatory finger in his face. He was afraid, his eyes wide, one shoulder bunched toward his ear, shielding that side of his body from the angry onslaught of my sister.
I was infuriated. I had never seen Valerie act as aggressively with our little brother as she had right then. I could tell there was something more, feeding fuel to the fire, but still, that didn’t give her an excuse to take it out on a six-year-old. Our asshole of a father did enough in that department. There was no need for her to add to it. She should’ve known better.
I could hear my mother barreling through the house. From the way she was stomping about, I could tell she was just as irate as me.
“Valerie!” I said emphatically.
She was glancing in my direction, another stinging remark upon her lips. This one was for me. Suddenly, her eyes bulged as if some unseen pressure had filled her head beyond capacity. Shock exploded across her face, making her gasp.
“Ooow!” she exclaimed, bringing her hand to her ear.
Elijah stared back at her like she’d gone mad.
My mother came whirling into Val’s bedroom, pruning fork in hand. “What the hell is going on in here?”
Valerie ignored us. It was like we weren’t even there. Her eyes were locked on my baby brother once again. “How did you -?” she tried to ask, but couldn’t finish. Her throat clenched, strangling her words.
Eli tiled his head to the side, beyond confused. I could see tears beginning to gather at the corner of his eyes. He didn’t understand what was transpiring in Valerie’s head. To him, she probably didn’t seem like his sister anymore. She was a stranger, a raving lunatic he laid eyes upon for the very first time.
“Explain yourself, Valerie,” pressed my mother, her brow knit.
My sister peered through her bangs, bewilderment and a tinge of something that looked like fear etched on her visage.
“Valerie…” It was the threatening tone my mother uttered when she on the verge of true anger.
“M-mom, Elijah flicked my ear,” she said, breathless, as if she’d run a mile. There was doubt in her expression. I don’t think she really believed what she’d just spoken aloud.
I frowned. It was clear there was no way my little brother could’ve touched her. He was too far away. And, he’d been angling away from her!
“No, I didn’t!” He was finally indignant. He’d had enough.
Valerie’s eyes were wild now, darting around the room, toward each of us, out the windows. I could see all other emotion evaporate from her face like rainwater before an unrelenting tropical sun. There nothing but fright left in their wake. “S-someth-th-thing hit m-my ear,” she mumbled, stricken, her hand coming up to touch her right earlobe. She pulled it away as if she’d been stung.
Elijah dropped Valerie’s shoes on the floor and scurried into my mother’s grasp.
I gazed at Valerie, truly at a loss for her erratic behavior. This was so unlike my sister. I really didn’t know what to think. She was never like this. Unglued, snappy, denunciatory weren’t adjectives used to describe my younger sibling. Yeah, she could be rigid, maybe even a little cold at times, but she didn’t have a mean bone in her body. And, suddenly… there was this change in her. I had never seen her discard the protective shield she often placed over Elijah. Never. She was as protective as my mom. She always came to his defense, alleviated his fears, even kept our erratic father as far away from him as possible when he was raving drunk and rampaging about. I had seen her run, full-tilt, with Elijah in her arms, away from the particularly bad confrontations that occurred within our household from time to time.
I had even seen her take a blow in his stead.
No, she was fiercely vigilant of his well-being. And yet…
I couldn’t connect the dots.
It didn’t add up.
Yet, I could see an angry blotch of red on her ear.
I was wrangling-up every cliché explanation I could corral, trying to figure out what was going on in her head.
“It’s cold,” muttered my sister, her hand stretched out before her.
“What’s cold?” I asked, before my mother had the chance to say anything else.
Valerie stared back at me as if she were on the verge of death. “My ear, it’s freezing cold.”
“Jesus Christ!” sputtered my mom. “You better get your shit together, Val! I’ve had enough of your bullshit!”
“B-b-but, ma -.”
“No ‘but’s’, young lady. You either get a grip or I’m going to ground you for a week.” She spun on her heel and left, Eli still holding her about the waist.
I shook my head at my sister, unsure if I should be irritated with her, or feel sorry for her.
The tears in her eyes were no joking mater. Something was bothering her, and in a big way.
Still, hurting Eli’s feelings wasn’t the answer either.
I just left. I stepped away, walking toward my room and the letter I’d been writing to Myra.
I was halfway up the stairs when I heard her scream at the top of her lungs.
“I hate this house!”
Weeks passed uneventfully.
Eli traipsed about, having forgotten the whole “shoe incident”, harboring no ill will toward Valerie. In fact, as the days progressed, his temperament mirrored my mother’s. He seemed most happy when he was at home, cavorting about the house or in one of the various yards. There were technically three – the front, the back and the side yard, which was dominated by the deck, though there was still enough room for a six-year-old to find adventure.
On one such occasion, I’d come home from school and found him searching the environs beneath the deck with the scrutiny of an archeologist on the ebb of a monumental find. He was crab-walking, hunched even more than that deformed man of Notre Dame, his eyes inspecting every square of the ground before him.
“What’cha doin’?” I had asked. I’d been looking for him for nearly fifteen minutes. It was time for him to bathe – or so my mom had instructed – and I was chosen to be the bearer of bad tidings.
“Hunting for treasure,” he said distractedly. An exasperated shrug followed, telling me I should’ve known what he was doing by mere observation.
The little scamp!
“What makes you think there’s treasure down here?” I had to ask. It was too intriguing. I was curious to hear his answer. Eli oftimes had doozies that sent me laughing aloud for hours.
“Because, Jerry, she told me there was treasure down here,” was his succinct reply.
I frowned. I had not expected that. I tilted my head to one side. “What she? Who are you talking about, Elijah?”
“The lady… She told me it was a game.” He continued to gaze around the support-posts, poke his fingers through age-old cobwebs. “I like games.”
I watched him for a few moments longer, not entirely at ease with what he had said. He was way too focused, like he was consumed by the idea “she” had planted in his mind. Eli kept on, edging around the concrete piles in the ground, shoving dirt and leaves and sand this way and that.
I recalled what our mother had said, shaking myself from my brother’s odd behavior. “Mom said it’s time for you to take a bath.”
Eli huffed through pinched lips, making them vibrate loudly. “Tell her I’ll take one later. I’m busy.”
I chuffed. “Naw, man, you tell her. You’re on your own now that I’ve told you what she wants.” I made to leave.
Behind me, Elijah clicked the roof of his mouth. “Alright, alright, I’m coming.”
“Thought you’d see the light,” I muttered not turning back, though I heard his small footfalls following.
None of us like facing my mother’s wrath. Not one of us.
It was quite some time before I truly understood what was transpiring with my little brother that late afternoon. Whether or not he ever found the “treasure” I never knew either. Though I’d seen him on the side yard many times, he never mentioned it to me again.
Valerie stayed in her room for the most part, watching MTV or some ridiculous sitcom that was more annoying than funny. She was no doubt lying low, trying to stay out from underfoot.
My mom had already employed a landscaper by then and Julio, our gardener, a had started the week before, so the square acre about the house was beginning to look less like the foothills of Kilimanjaro and more like a normal, suburban patch typical of Highland Park.
I had to admit, there was a small part of me that really hated to see the jungle at 1052 Lincoln Drive disappear, because it was a place where imagination could run amok. But, as the new, manicured version began to take root, I couldn’t disagree with the notion that I liked it as well. Seeing the rolling lawn beyond the Birds-of-Paradise and the long-stemmed, Naked Ladies was amazing. It was a perfect place for Eli to play. It was screened from the street below by the hulking Lantana bush and, though it was canted with a slight incline, it was entirely safe. I could see many a good time for him out there in the front yard.
I was happy.
I remember it was a Sunday when those assessments of our new home were skipping across my consciousness. I was at my desk, pondering what I’d do next. I’d been half-thinking of my surroundings and half-recalling I’d been rolling around on my bed with Myra less than an hour prior. I was distracted, clearly.
She’d come over after breakfast, full with smiles and kindness for my family. We had dallied about for a time before my mom suggested I show her all of the improvements we’d done to the place since we moved in. It wasn’t like Myra hadn’t been here before. She’d come over more than a few times once we’d began dating. I think my mother was being polite.
So, I showed her about the grounds.
She made it seem like she was impressed, but kept alluding to seeing the “improvements” in my bedroom. That’s always been the thing with Myra. Even when she was trying to be subtle, she did so with the delicacy of a nuclear bomb.
I got the hint and took her upstairs.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves entangled upon the bed, making out furiously like teenagers typically do. There were no lingering touches or fluttering kisses, only lips smashed against smashed lips, our mutual ardor near searing, our young loins burning with a desire we both feared, but wanted to quench. I think we both knew there would be a time when the need to brush against those flames would outweigh any misgivings we might’ve had in our minds. We were already flirting with it.
With thoughts of her pert breasts filling my hand and my mouth, I heard the thump of someone’s foot upon the top step of the stairs leading from the attic. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but by the third, then the fourth, then the fifth step, a thought struck me…
Who’d gone up into the attic?
I hadn’t heard anyone walked past the threshold of my room. Anyone wishing to attain the third level of the house would have to pass by my room to do so. And, why would someone go up there in the first place? With the house being as large as it was, only those items we’d use maybe once a year were stored up there – Halloween and Christmas decorations, old papers and pictures, our baby clothes and such items my mom was intent on keeping for all of time. There was nothing of immediate importance up there. Who could it be?
I heard the ninth, the tenth, the eleventh…
There was really no reason for someone to go up there… unless, Eli had…
He better not have! I thought. The attic wasn’t a good place for someone his age to play. It wasn’t safe for little kids. Eli could get hurt up there! He could fall down in the dark, scrape himself silly on a rusted nail… The list went on and on in my head.
…The twelfth, the thirteenth, the fourteenth… sounded.
I was sure going to let him have a piece of my mind when he walked past the door of my room on his way toward his. The attic stairs ended just outside the portal of my domain. I knew there were only nineteen stairs, having made the trip up there, over and over, when we’d moved in, so I got up from my desk and turned to face the door.
…The seventeenth, the eighteenth, the nineteenth…
I made ready to speak. Elijah wouldn’t be playing up there any time soon, if I had something to day about it.
…The twentieth, the twenty-first, the twenty-second…
What the fuck? was the thought. I rushed toward the hallway, thinking my little brother was messing around on the bottom stairs, knowing I was going to berate him for playing where he shouldn’t be playing.
“Elijah, you had better not -.”
There was no need to continue speaking.
There was no one there.
I heard the twenty-third step, my eyes noting the near-imperceptible bend of the wooden plank. I knew how a step would give when weight was applied to it and that was precisely what I was seeing. Someone was standing upon the lowest stair.
Only, no one was there.
The way to the attic was clear.
I took an investigative stride forward, my brow furled in consternation. What was going on?
There came a creak. The wood flexed again. The weight had disappeared.