What happens when you grow up in the wrong place? What happens when there’s nowhere to go? Sometimes it helps to find a partner in crime, someone to scheme and share dating advice with. Sometimes it helps to hide in the woods or learn life lessons from a board game. One thing’s for sure–it always helps to know how to properly swing an ax.
~Bram Shay, Editor
Wayward Girls and Secret Orphans by Stephen Conley
Mystery Date by Karen Stefano
My stepfather’s pancakes are the only thing I’ll miss about him. They thought he left me in that squat, frowning little house all by myself. In a way, I guess he did leave me. Just not of his own volition. It was his fault, yes, but not his choice. I feel I’m digressing though, so more on that later. On what really happened to my stepfather.
Bells rang in the sky somewhere behind a storm in the distance on the day they came to take me away in the ugly grey school bus with “The Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini Boarding Home for Wayward Girls” painted big and important across the side. I was eager and packed and at the ready, one suitcase filled with dresses and a picture of my mother, one burlap sack filled with bedding and some books. I didn’t need anything else from that house, especially not memories. I’d have burned the place to the ground if I knew how to do it. Pretended like my stepfather fell asleep with a lit cigar. But I was an eight-year-old girl, what did I know about arson?
There was only one other little girl on the bus, aside from the headmaster and three sisters in their modest habits. The little girl had shiny black shoulder-length hair and she sat halfway down the bus, nearly hugging the window. She didn’t acknowledge me in the least. It was fine; I sat up front right behind the sister driving the bus. She smiled when I sat down and she had a sadder but better disposition than the other ladies. Sister Adele was younger and she looked like me if I had wavy hair. Mine was dark brown and flat though. It was so dark that everyone said it was black. Sister Adele was the first one to compliment my hair. It was the first thing she said on the bus. I thanked her politely, playing it shy with her as well as with the older, meaner sisters. They scowled at me already, old crows dismissing a wounded chick, reluctant to nurse it back to health.
The bus ambled and tossed around on the old roads to the home. Sister Adele piloted us deftly; the older sisters behind me chatted and clucked about townsfolk and old recipes. The interior of the bus smelled like dust and old plastic. I clutched the top of Adele’s seat and my chin was up and optimistic, eyeing the countryside and the distant storms. They were always so pretty on the horizon, not so much when they were all around me. I’d get to the boarding home and step off the dirty grey bus and plant my feet deep into the soil. It would be my world, the boarding home for wayward girls. It would be my temporary world but it would be my world.
It was big and up on a hill away from the road, the boarding home. The roof appeared first on the horizon and Sister Adele pointed at it for me. Then the home rose slowly out of the background and stood defiant and menacing past that long wrought-iron fence that went around and disappeared behind listless trees in the back. I always imagined there were fairies and gnomes peering at me from those woods. I would spend my days hunting them down and putting them in jars, the fairies. The gnomes would go in houses made of shoe boxes and milk crates.
Two big trees stood guard out front, branches out and at the ready to welcome wayward girls. Or prevent their escape. I narrowed my eyes and frowned a little bit. Where were the other wayward girls? There wasn’t a soul on the small wooden playground or anywhere I could see. The home looked like a dead and haunted mansion from the outside. The door was a forever frowned and agape mouth, crying out for nothing sacred.
The chapel was pretty in the back, taller and skinnier than the home. Large and shining kaleidoscopic stained glass windows rose high on the front of it. Over the chapel door was a big concrete overhang with spires and noble lions on each side. It was a sharp contrast to the mean house hiding it from view. Sister Adele stayed in the chapel. She was the only one because she was the caretaker. The rest of the sisters stayed in the dorms with us, only they stayed in the big rooms downstairs. A big stone well sat in between the main house and the chapel, just like the well behind my house. How many bodies were down in it? Wells always seemed like the best place to hide a body.
I knew I was in for it when my mother finally passed on, bedridden all those months. I never liked the way my stepfather leered drunk at me from that ugly chair and now my mom wouldn’t be there to protect me. The house felt different when we arrived there after her funeral. I had to find a way out and quickly; I couldn’t be alone with him. I couldn’t be alone without my mom.
Most of the sisters’ sour faces blended together and I didn’t pay them much mind over the years. They were unremarkable, all of them with the same glowers and unwavering disdain for us girls. Sometimes that disdain came across as hostility. The older sisters didn’t understand or care about the troubles some of us girls had come from. It was apparent in their punishments and judgments. We were in the home and that was proof enough we needed such harsh disciplines and angry countenances.
Didn’t eat all of your food? Clean out the pots for a day. The big pots. Big enough to sit in (as we tested once).
Talked back? After a smack on the face, go read the sacraments out loud in the prayer room in the chapel. A cacophony of voices read verses in there most of the time.
Uniform unkempt? Spend the afternoon in the sweltering linen basement with the big and loud steaming machines and the servants doing laundry. At least the servants were polite.
Didn’t finish your homework? To the bindery room, where you spent the day putting texts together and ended the day with paper cuts and ink-stained fingers and wrists. This was the most “popular” room, as all of the girls hated their homework. There was simply too much assigned.
Then there was the axe. Most punishments were sent to the axe. It was just the right size for little girls to hoist and chop with. The wayward girls hated this punishment the most except for me. I was used to chopping wood and doing so with a bigger axe. My stepfather relegated that duty to me after my mother passed. I was seven years old in the back yard, chopping logs with an axe taller than I was. I’d had plenty of practice so the wood-chopping at the boarding home wasn’t really a punishment for me. And it was all small pieces, not like the logs I had to cut back at my stepfather’s. I was chopping wood when I first saw Emma. Little Emma.
I would always smell the rye whiskey on my stepfather’s breath before he entered my room. I’d freeze myself mute and small under my blanket, hoping he’d change his mind this time. But he never changed his mind. He always stood at the door breathing for a minute or two before he silently approached my bed. It was always after chopping wood, when I’d be too tired to escape. Too weak to resist.
I was sent to chop wood because of Agatha. She was my age (I was 10 by then) but taller than me. I could always see up her nose because it was always turned up. Her hair was so perfect with that little headband on all the time, and she knew it. She’d called me “Little Bug” for the last time. Only my stepfather had called me any kind of names before Agatha. I grabbed her perfect hair and pulled down hard so she fell backwards off of the bench at the lunch table. Her head hit with a little smack on the concrete floor and she squeezed her eyes shut in pain. I straddled her chest, my knee-socks pressed into the cold floor, and I shoved a hard, dry piece of cornbread in her mouth. Agatha tried to turn her head left and right but the cornbread was already deep in her pretty mouth. She moaned and retched and I smiled with glee. Sister Gretchen pulled me away, just as I fingered in the last corner of cornbread and Agatha gagged and drooled.
“To the axe for you, young Charlotte,” she chided, “There’s wood to be chopped.”
But I wasn’t chopping wood when Emma showed up. I was sitting on the big stump for a break. I picked at a scratch on my knee with ink-stained hands and thought about that mole on Sister Gretchen’s chin. I would stare at it when she lectured me, not able to focus on anything else but how that mole sprung up and down with her every word. Leaves and twigs crunched behind me so I twisted around to look. Surely I was caught. It would be Sister Nora or Sister Beth Ann, yardstick in hand, ready to rake it across my knuckles. It wasn’t either of them.
Emma stood small and ethereal in a tall patch of grass. She had chopped-up, dirty blond hair that went just below her ears and a smudged plush bunny was draped tired over her crossed arms. Her face was serious and pretty. Emma was smaller than me, which was weird because I was always the smallest girl at the home. She regarded me with reverence, something I’d never experienced before, not even from my mom. She was always too busy with my stepfather.
I spoke first, “You’ll get in trouble back here.”
Emma shrugged, “I’ve only been here a day.” Her voice was a firefly, light and quick.
I went back to picking at my knee, “Yeah but I’m always in trouble. And the other girls are all scared of me.”
“That’s okay. I want them to be scared of me too.”
I considered her then and she just smiled at me with her head a little bit tilted. Emma had only been there one day and she hated it as much as I did.
We hid away from the other wayward girls after that; we lived our own secret life. We chased fairies (fireflies) and built wicked contraptions out of sticks back in the woods. We had to sneak back there because only the servants were allowed in the woods. They never bothered us, just clucked Spanish in our direction or sometimes gave us fragrant, stone-baked chunks of bread. Emma became my first and only friend at the home, if you didn’t count Sister Adele but Sister Adele wasn’t allowed to socialize with us very much.
I formulated a plan to end my stepfather’s rendezvous in my tiny bed when I just wanted to sleep and dream of my mother again. Getting him to look into the well out back was easy. I told him his beagle Buster had fallen into it. Really I’d locked him quiet and safe in the garage with a leftover pork chop and a cup of water. I followed my stepfather to the back yard and he was drunk enough to not notice me grab the axe leaning against the back porch.
I always thought Sister Adele secretly knew about me and Emma’s trick. She was wiser than she ever let on, always with that knowing smile. Old Sister Esther always did the head-count on field trips to the fabric factory. She had giant glasses and wasn’t very smart and was the oldest sister at the home. We hated the fabric factory, Emma and I. They were just preparing us for work in sewing shops once we were old enough. Once though, Emma made me a plush bunny at the fabric factory, just like hers.
But back to our trick. One of us would stay behind and hide while the other switched places during the head-count, making Sister Esther believe we were all there. That way Emma and I could take turns and escape the trip to the stupid factory and stay home and sleep or read. Nobody ever noticed. We were the quiet ones, the invisible ones. It was during a field trip to the fabric factory that we figured out how to get away from the home.
I’d had plenty of practice chopping wood for my stepfather. I almost had the chops down to an art. My swings were quick and accurate. He leaned over the well and peered down into it, making a clicking noise for Buster the beagle. Then I swung with more might than I’d ever used on a log. The axe landed square in his back, right under his neck and between his shoulders and a sliver of dark blood appeared around the blade. He didn’t make a sound, just lurched over the side and into the well. I didn’t wait for the splash.
The orphans at the home went on better field trips to places like the ice cream plant or the city pool. I couldn’t let the sisters know I was an orphan though. They thought my stepfather had left me, remember? That’s how I justified staying home from the stupid trips to the factory. I was a secret orphan. For months we did the trick, and I finished all of my books. I lay there on my little cot in a completely empty dorm, except for the servants. When they went to lunch back at their huts among the trees, I went exploring. I didn’t have any more books to read.
The main house was bigger and dustier and darker when it was empty. I walked here and there, looking into secret rooms and kitchens, thumbing cold counter tops and smelling oils. Then I found the hammer in the foyer on a shelf. It was a small one, a ball-peen hammer with no claw on it. I took it with me, swinging it here and there, pretending to slay goblins with it. I don’t know what compelled me but I smashed out one little window in the foyer with the hammer. It was such a satisfying crash that I walked down to the next window and did the same to it. Then I looked around the room. There were at least twenty windows in the foyer alone.
Within half an hour, all of the windows were broken. All of them. I did it from the outside, one at a time. Think of my stepfather. Smash. Think of chopping wood. Smash. Think of Sister Nora slapping my mouth. Smash. Think of never seeing my mom’s smile again. Smash. For the windows too high to reach, I threw the hammer with the same accuracy I’d swung the axe with. Smash.
After the other wayward girls returned, I sneaked around the back of the bus and stood next to Emma. Nobody in the group saw me; they were busy gawking at the now windowless Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini Boarding Home for Wayward Girls. Emma looked right at me and handed me my bunny and squeezed my hand tight in hers. I smiled and my face was warm.
All of the windows are broken.
Who did this?
None of the sisters suspected a thing. Not even Sister Adele.
The only choice left, after discounting the chapel (too small) and covering the windows (too cold), was for us to stay at the two hotels in town. I’d given me and Emma our own special field trip. They were nice hotels and we shared a room with Sister Adele. It was a night of giggling and stories and consoling each other and fixing our hair, nothing like staying in the dorms at the home. I’d never been as happy as we were that night. I secretly knew it wouldn’t last.
Sister Adele had come alive that night in our shared room. She smiled like I’d never seen from her and she kept us up all night. She expressed her distrust of the other sisters and their archaic methods. Her eyes were so wise and understanding, not small and hostile like Sister Gretchen’s. It was like Sister Adele was one of us, stuck at the home as well. I wished there was a way for every night to be like that. An escape.
Then Emma told me why she was sent to the home. What really happened to her parents. Her family. She was a secret orphan just like me. Emma knew things I didn’t know. She was an eight-year-old girl. What did she know about arson?
Next it was her turn to stay home from the field trip.
Stephen Conley has been writing forever and it has tainted his otherwise positive view of humanity. His work has appeared at Curbside Splendor, Yellow Mama, and Thunderdome: The Writer’s Collective, amongst other places. His one claim to fame was interviewing James Ellroy.
Twitching with want, but doubting all I desired, I entered my phase of dangerous analogies, comparing people to pigs and national disasters. I got away with this because I myself resembled nothing. When I met someone new I sized them up, stabbing with educated guesses at what they regretted in their lives. It was still only 1976 and I was just twelve, but I already knew that the worst part of living was yearning for the things one’s own choices had placed just out of reach.
Not surprisingly, most people learned to steer clear of me, especially the kids rungs beyond me in a junior high school social structure more intricate and dangerous than the jungle gyms I had climbed inside as a little girl. So alone in the dullness of my room, draped across the width of my bed, I lost myself inside books borrowed weekly from the Oak Park Public Library. Adrift inside their scenes I answered back to the characters in those pages, feeling all the things they felt. Tangled in the dark promise of a book, the sounds outside my window faded. I reveled in my ability to disappear for hours, to finally blink up from the page, disoriented, wondering: Where am I? Whose butterfly bedspread is this? Whose arms are these? Then I’d get a chill, followed by a lonesome pang like when someone you actually like forgets your name.
Catching me in conversation with myself more than once, my parents determined that I needed to get out of the house more, to work harder at forming sustainable relationships. Forming sustainable relationships. My father was a plumber, my mother a part-time waitress. They didn’t use such words and I suspected they had consulted a shrink, or worse. People have a bad habit of looking back at adolescence with nostalgia, yearning for the freedom of simpler times. But a child has no freedom. You’re commanded to leave your cage, then ordered to crawl back inside. You have only the illusion of choices, the option to select from whichever ones have been placed in front of you. In any event, it was through my parents’ misdirected concern for my social development that I came to meet Mary Gerson and her family.
Catholic and severe, Mary’s house felt almost as dull as mine. Mary’s frog-faced father was a middle-aged insomniac. He organized the family garbage late at night, bagging shriveled remains of orange peels and dinner scraps so they didn’t stain the copies of Seventeen discarded by his three daughters, each named after a saint. Mr. Gerson worked for the phone company but held a position that never required him to climb the poles that dotted our neighborhood. He hid copies of Playboy in stacks of old newspapers in the garage, and when confronted with them by Mary, explained he had purchased them for the articles.
Mr. and Mrs. Gerson seldom argued. Their worst fight occurred when Mrs. Gerson wanted to go out for ice cream and Mr. Gerson said he wasn’t in the mood. Mrs. Gerson’s face pinched to a pout and she sat in the living room with arms crossed tightly against her chest, watching TV in stony silence. After an hour, she made a production of slamming a bowl onto the kitchen counter and filling it with brown sugar. She sat on the floor at her husband’s feet and ate the entire contents of that bowl, pretending to satiate her sudden need. It never occurred to Mrs. Gerson to pile her girls into her blue Pontiac and go out for ice cream herself.
I know all of this from becoming Mary’s friend, from spending as much time inside the Gerson house as my own. The lure of Mary and her home were her older sisters, Veronica and Therese, who became my doorway to a different world and the source of my metamorphosis. These girls fought back. They refused to be caged and as a consequence had lived better and more interesting lives than Mary and I had. Veronica and Therese were our sole source of reliable information and we huddled on the floor of their room for as long as they would let us. We begged for stories from their lives, mentally filing away facts we might take and use to create a better existence, an existence, it turned out, which required boys to have any meaning. Under their tutelage Mary and I learned to flip our feathered hair and finger puka shell necklaces, eyeing boys only from the corner of an eye, while casually swinging freshly shaved legs. The trick, Therese whispered, was to pretend that you just didn’t care.
By the time summer came, our nipples pierced our halter tops with their own trapped aggression, and Mary and I learned together how to use those mysterious feminine products, packaged in pink and covered in promises. Lying on beach towels in our parents’ driveways, we became desperate for a tan, to look like we had gone somewhere, done something with our summer. Saturdays we stayed inside while our fathers mowed the grass. Back and forth in tidy rows, they had something to show for their day while we retreated inside playing Canasta, removing our retainers to eat peanut butter on Wonder bread, watching I Love Lucy reruns. We could waste our days because we were filthy rich with time. Days were impossibly long and we had so many in front of us we couldn’t possibly concern ourselves with spending them wisely.
On my thirteenth birthday, Mary watched me make a wish and blow out candles on a white frosted cake. Then she stared in silence as I opened my two gifts, a digital clock radio and Milton Bradley board game. We retreated to my room and under the watchful eye of my new clock, ripped the cellophane from the game. It was called Mystery Date. Open the door to find your perfect match! The box promised good clean fun and a peek into our dating future, though I knew its purpose was to drill our subconscious minds with skills necessary to identify the qualities that constituted an appropriate man.
As it turned out, there were not that many qualities to dream of in a man. My chance mates included a bland, square-headed boy in a crisp white dinner jacket, waiting to whisk me away to prom. Next came bowling alley dork, wearing goofy black framed glasses and red plaid pants, holding a matching bowling bag. Finally there was the bum, smudged in dirt, hands stuffed inside eternally empty pockets, a man whose eyes promised that years later he would habitually yell up from the downstairs couch that he was hungry, when was I making those goddamn pancakes?
The game proved simple. Open the door to a good guy and win. Get a dud and lose. But to me, each of these cardboard men held their own promise, the promise to get me out of my parents’ stifling house, off their lime green polyester carpet that scratched at my skin. Any of them could give me what I most longed for but couldn’t identify: an identity beyond myself. Mary assured me that I wanted the one in the dinner jacket and presented a cogent argument as to why. But alone, after Mary had been called home for dinner, I stared down into his flat eyes, willing him to speak.
–What can you offer me besides that corsage?
–I’m thirteen. I don’t even know what that means.
–It’s nice. Marry me and you’ll see.
I screamed that at thirteen, I didn’t need to be saved, and security was synonymous with boredom. But the game just claimed to be doing its job, teaching me: You are offered a small assortment of realities and it is from these that you must choose.
–But what if I don’t want to choose?
–Because those are the rules.
My mother tapped on the door and asked who I was talking to.
–No one. You must be hearing something outside.
I shoved Mystery Date in the back of my closet and vowed to have nothing to do with it. Alone again, I studied my new clock radio. So reliably hesitant, its little plastic tabs quivered, fighting before finally giving in and flipping over, surrendering to the passage of another minute. Eventually that clock betrayed me and time began to move faster.
That next year in school, Mary and I learned we had rights. So we declared our right to choose, and the right to change our minds about what we had chosen. We declared our right to keep and bear clove cigarettes, that the freedom of speech included the freedom to use the f-word any fucking time we felt like it, until our mothers told us to shut our filthy mouths and vacuum. Mothers sifting through our trash in the name of cleaning violated our Fourth Amendment rights, we proclaimed. So call the ACLU, our mothers said, blowing smoke at the ceiling. It turned out we had no rights at all, not even the right to cast a vote. But it didn’t matter. In truth all we wanted at that point was the right to slow dance with an exquisite stranger, a dangerous mystery man who whispered secrets in our ears.
The next year we turned fifteen and Mary and I had a ménage a trois with a man who claimed to be a stand-in double on Starsky & Hutch. We didn’t know which one he was supposed to be. We didn’t care. And we didn’t know yet about the girl-on-girl part of such arrangements, didn’t know that was part of the deal. If we had known, we would have done it, but we didn’t know. Licking us like cotton candy, pink and sticky, Starsky –or Hutch –got worn out. Too much work for one man, I supposed. I shrugged, got dressed, went back to the party we had left. I was determined to keep moving, experimenting, sampling from what life had to offer. Mary and I had our whole lives ahead of us so we drove drunk, fucked the wrong men, skipped the scraping of our cervices in the gynecological exams that promised to save our lives.
But later that same year, everyone in Mary’s family took unwarranted turns. Therese had some kind of breakdown: Satan was inside her. Mr. and Mrs. Gerson suddenly consummated the sin of divorce. Veronica escaped to a small liberal arts college three thousand miles away, never looking back. It all left Mary on the edge, staring into an abyss. I was still trying so hard to get somewhere, anywhere, and the people I had come to love were struggling just to get back to the point where they had started. But they couldn’t, because whether they liked it or not, everything had stopped. Everything except time, which kept running on without them.
Years later, the call from Mary’s father was like being caught naked by an intruder. I sat in the dark quiet of my parents’ empty house two nights before returning for my second year of college. The ring of the phone violated the stillness of the air, and I reached for it, paying no attention to what was about to happen.
His voice came on the line, speaking my name, explaining who was calling, though at that point I already knew. A jolt of fear electrified my insides. Something horrible had happened to Mary. Why else did a father call his daughter’s friends? I felt my panic was justified. I had, after all, just returned from the hospital, visiting another childhood friend whose face had transformed into a giant scab, unrecognizable from having flown face first through the windshield of her boyfriend’s car. No seat belt, the nurse had said to me as I stared at the girl in horror. The nurse’s tone was a warning for caution, her cold eyes leveling me before turning on a white wedged heel and disappearing silently from the room.
But as Mr. Gerson got to the point of his call, I learned Mary was fine. His voice, deeper, more gravelly, didn’t hesitate.
–I was wondering if you’d like to join me for a drink.
Stuck on the other side now, middle-aged myself, I remember my parents’ house as a haven. I close my eyes and picture it, remaking it with blackout windows and no doors. Looking back at those years I see only endless possibility because we all remember ourselves better than we were, and that is our right. Only after growing up do we realize that the Mystery Date game was only trying to help us, teaching us that while the details that put flesh to cardboard vary, the categories stay the same. How could I have known that one of those cardboard choices would include the father of my friend? Offering himself up to me, pressing his lips so hard into mine they bruised, tasting my saliva and sharing his. A relationship described briefly for what it was: a fly unbuttoning in the bathroom of a bar, ankles wrapped around a thick pale waist, a prim vow of silence. Repeat as necessary.
After a year with Mr. Gerson, my Mystery Date game turned out to include a cast of hundreds, featuring fun (but volatile) Meth man, followed by Wall Street man clutching handfuls of money in beefy paws, followed by Green man with bike and single reusable sandwich bag. After that came Recession-Depression man who worked his whole life only to lose everything, who then spent entire days in bed. And last but not least, Cancer man, dream date grown gaunt and hollowed with concave cheeks, tufts of hair falling from his head when I stroked it.
You can block out a person’s life by the people they have been with. I know people who have stayed with the same person for thirty years, but that just makes their story shorter. Through my real life Mystery Dates I learned the hard way what questions to ask. How many people have you known? What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? How do you want to die? Have you ever given a pity-fuck? Do you fight dirty? Ever waved a gun over your head? What’s your approach to debt? Just how disappointed are you with how things have turned out?
Mary and I, bodies throbbing with want, couldn’t possibly have known that those girls who were us would disappear forever. We couldn’t know then how much we would lose in our lives, that we would have to make new plans and adjust our dreams to fit the passage of time. We couldn’t possibly have known what time would leave us and how swiftly.
Karen Stefano‘s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The South Carolina Review, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Tampa Review, Storyglossia, Metazen and elsewhere. To learn more about Karen and her writing, please visit stefanokaren.com.