A Hard Fall

Margaret Koger

My little brother Robert Louis fell out of the sky yesterday—well, fell from the highest point a swing could be pushed to in the schoolyard. Now here he is this morning, a five year old, lying on a cot in the back bedroom next to Grandpa, the two of them as white as bleached sheets. I was all teary-eyed while I fed and watered the hogs and chickens, because I knew that before sundown the both of them might die. My mind seems to be stuck near the banks of that “Deep River” we’ve all been singing so much about on Sundays. Not only would we miss Grandpa and my brother something terrible if the worst happens, but our family line would be knocked out forever right here in the 1950’s. The Macaulay name goes clear back to the days of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites, but now only Robby counts as the last surviving grandson. And if he dies, it will be my fault.

Robby’s named after Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scotsman who some of wrote Grandpa’s favorites. He read from A Child’s Garden of Verses a long time ago, so last year in the fourth grade I read Treasure Island and it was so good I went on to Kidnapped. I promised to read both of them to Robby when he’s bigger because Grandpa isn’t able to read to us anymore. Robby studied all the pictures and begged me to play shipwrecked and pirates till I about went crazy. We’re lucky to have these books at home because Central Cove doesn’t have a library—just a school.

Yesterday I wanted to take him to the playground there. It’s the only place for kids to swing and such in all of Central Cove. Poor Mama had Grandpa to take care of as usual and my older sisters, the twins Millie and Myna, had to help Grandma fill Mason jars with the green beans that needed to be put up before they shriveled in the basket—we’d snapped about a ton, sitting up late after supper the night before. So I told Mama how Robbie and I could stay out of everyone’s way if we went, but she said, “No.”

“Mama, please, “I said, trying anyway. “When you were thirteen I think you knew how to stay out of trouble. Don’t you think I’m smart enough to take care of Robby?” And since the schoolyard was only little way past a farm, I added, “I’ll run to the Olsen’s if anything happens. We’ll be fine.”

Mama shook her head no, again. She didn’t have much use for Mrs. Olsen because she so delighted in telling tales on everybody in the Cove. If any other family had lived close to the school, she might have called and asked them to look out. Still, I thought of how often she reminded us girls not to listen to people with negative attitudes. She’d say, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. If you want it badly enough, you’ll find a way.” So I took my lesson from her everyday advice and kept on asking leave to go.

“Why Kenna May, just how do you plan to know when to come home?” Mama said.

“You could loan me your pin watch.” I pleaded. “I’d wear it and keep track. I’d swing with Robby and then push him on the merry-go-round. He’d have a great time.”

Finally she said yes, and Robby and I took off for two whole hours of freedom. I looked forward to fake falling off the teeter-totter, keeping one hand on to ease the drop, so he could bounce a little as the seat hit the ground—he loved that. Taking care of Robby was my job and I knew how to make him happy. Or so I thought. I supposed we’d be all right without any Mrs. Olsen to help. If only I had turned right around and taken Robby home when we came on Will Akin and Colin Oliver at the ditch, Robby would still be the healthy little boy we loved so much—and I would have been a little closer to being as smart as I thought I was. I just hadn’t counted on anyone else being near the schoolyard the day after school got out, least of all Bill and Coo, as I called Will and Colin, when they couldn’t hear me.

I’d had plenty of trouble from those two before. They seem to always be together, rain or shine. Bill has a pinchy nose and a brassy voice while Coo tends toward a Pretty-Boy-Floyd look that makes some of the girls fawn on the rare occasions when they catch him alone. Usually Bill stays in front with Coo trudging along behind—until the master sends his minion to the fore—and then Coo starts up the mischief. What happened clear back in my fourth grade year should have taught me a lesson to remember.

When I had read all the books set out for the lower grades, I got sent to the bookcase in the upper grade room so I could get a new one to keep me busy. There are just enough children to fill two classrooms and keep two teachers busy since there are only twenty or so families in Central Cove. The school has grades one through four in one room and five through eight in the second. So when I looked in the upper grades’ bookcase for something to read, I wanted to read more about David Balfour from the one who got kidnapped. Mr. Stevenson made up such swell adventures that I couldn’t get enough of them. And the mysteries! I’d always be on the lookout for secrets and lies, such as certain people I know. Maybe you can guess who. Unfortunately, Bill and Coo took note of my visit to their room, and they came at me on the playground. “So you think you’re smart enough to read our books?” Bill asked.

Coo joined in and said, “Shall I give her a big girl handshake, Will?”

Bill nodded and Coo grabbed me by the wrists, squeezing and twisting the skin. I wouldn’t cry so he kept at it long enough that he left red marks on me when he let go. I’d never have told what Coo did if the skin on my wrists hadn’t bruised up and Mama insisted. Then she called the offender’s parents and made things worse. But for months after that Millie and Myna stuck with me during recess, which allowed me to keep on borrowing books, mostly ones by Charles Dickens and Walter Scott. So I put Bill and Coo out of my mind until last fall when I started fifth grade in the big room and there they were again.

That’s about when Bill got his crush on Myna. She was stuck on one of the Four Lads we heard singing songs like “Walking My Baby Back Home” and “Cry” on the radio’s Top Ten Saturday. She didn’t really know how to turn Bill down. He started coming around the house after school, which was quite a ride for him as the Akins lived six miles west of school and we were two east. Once in our yard, he would stand astride his shiny, new Tuff Huffy bike on the packed-down dirt and call Myna’s name, “Myna, Myyyyna,” until Mama would go out and ask him to please leave. He didn’t stop coming though, until winter set in and he couldn’t ride his bike up the hill to our house on account of the icy road.

On the night of the Christmas program, Mrs. Olsen had caught my hand and sat me down beside her. She had seen me watching Bill, who was Will to everyone but me, to me, and I suppose I looked truly disgusted. She said, “Your sisters may be twins, honey, but they’re not identical. Myna is really cute and Millie is, well, pretty. Boys like Will go for cute two to one.” Mrs. Olsen wasn’t saying anything I hadn’t heard at home, all hushed up so Millie and Myna wouldn’t know. Still, I didn’t much appreciate hearing such from her; she was always one to poke her nose in. It appeared that cute meant more than pretty when it came to boys. I didn’t see why. I had seen the twins naked, and they looked about the same from the neck down.

After the Christmas vacation the teacher, Miss Scott, had changed our desks around so that I sat in the back of the fifth grade row where I couldn’t help seeing Bill sparking on my sister. He was only in the seventh grade row, but he kept leaning over the aisle to the eighth and writing little notes on Myna’s tablet, things like “Let’s make some fun tonight, baby,” and then Myna had to copy her assignments all over before handing them in. There wasn’t much any girls could do to stop boys from fooling with them that way. It made me sick, thinking how he had those kinds of thoughts about Myna. Mama had decided to give me the talk so I knew something about why boys acted up the way they did.

Since I would be turning twelve when summer came and because I had already gotten fleshy on the chest, Mama sat me down on my single bed in the basement and began. I spent a lot of time staring at my yellow vinyl curtain she had let me pick out for myself. Mama seemed so serious about it all that I held onto my doll Ruthie and let my fingers fiddle with her red wig the whole time. At the end of her speech she said, “Kenna, these changes in your body will get you ready for, for things that shouldn’t happen until the boy is ready to take on his responsibility as a man.”

I understood she meant couples shouldn’t join together until the nuptial night. And when Mama said how the boy needed to become a man, I thought of Bill and Coo—some husbands they’d make—dragging their whole families down. One bad apple rotting in a bushel will turn the whole forty pounds to pig slop.

Yesterday, before the accident, I wanted to go back to the school on my own—Robby was too little to count—at least one time before the summer got too hot and too busy for playtimes. About all Central Cove has is a school. The two classrooms sit on top of a daylight basement where community events are held and the playground equipment sits in the yard. It’s the only place in the Cove where people gather, and it’s mostly deserted all summer except when children play there on Sunday afternoons as treat—a little change from the rope-and-tire swings hanging from tree branches in their own yards.

My heart had been like to break Friday, saying goodbye forever to Miss Scott. After a while there would be no trace that she had ever been our teacher. I had puzzled for some time that she lived alone with no husband to defend her, so even though the Macaulay family respected teachers all the way, I finally did ask Mama, “Why doesn’t Miss Scott have a husband?”

“And why would you worry about that?” Mama said.

“I don’t know,” I replied, and then I felt kind of guilty. Personally, I could see picking out to be an independent woman if it meant you got to dress up and fix your hair every day like Miss Scott did. Her appearance caused a measure of respect from the men and boys alike. As the teacher of the upper grades, she had to be principal, and some parents wondered how a tiny thing like she was could manage. She did all right though, until spring when she shocked everyone by taking a paddle to Bill Akin.

The upset happened close to the middle of May, only a couple of weeks ago. The lilacs had shriveled and the irises looked out over our yards like purple flags and the snowball bush by the corner of the school hung heavy with white blossoms. The farmers were still planting, and as they plowed and sowed the fields with their tractors, the mice and the killdeer had to make a run for it. We were at recess when the big boys caught a mouse. Bill himself held it out for us to look at and when we got close he pushed it at us so we’d scream and jump back. He got all the boys laughing at the girls and then Coo said, “Hey, let’s burn it.”

The trash barrels stood close behind the school near some poplar trees and the old outhouses, so there wasn’t enough room for everyone to see the action. The boys got some paper and wadded it up, tilted the barrel and threw the mouse in with it. When they lit the matches, the paper flared and according to those in front, the mouse scrambled and clawed to get out. In the end we all smelled the flesh burning. Bill and Coo hooted and slapped each other on the back, having proven how big and brave they could be by triumphing over a mouse. Miss Scott must have suspected that something was up when she looked out front and saw the empty playground. She sounded pretty troubled when she called, “What’s going on out there?”

“Will Akin and Colin Oliver burnt a mouse!” someone shouted. She ran down the steps, threaded through the crowd, and looked in to where the barrel still put out a wisp of smoke. Here was another stunt added to a list of other problems caused by those two.

“I’ve had enough,” she exclaimed, “You boys will have to stand for the paddle.” She sent a toady, Mamie Nicks, to bring it and soon enough Miss Scott looked up into Bill’s eyes and said, “You’re first.” He weighed twice what she did and was known to be a good fighter, but he turned his back to her, leaned over, put his hands on his knees, and let her whack him on the rear three or four times. During Bill’s turn, Coo slipped away and ran on home. There was nothing Miss Scott could do about it except to say, “That will be his last day of school.” And it was. The Olivers had such a bunch of children that nobody much missed Coo. But Willy Bill Akin was another story, because he was an only child.

“I guess my property tax money might just support the most of this whole school,” Bill’s father could often be heard saying, and he meant for Bill to be treated according to his position as the heir apparent of their big old farm. After the paddling, there came a meeting of the school board to decide what to do. Miss Scott agreed to finish out the year and be on her way by five o’clock the last day of school. Meanwhile, Bill and Coo were done for the year and would pass on to the next grade. When I heard the news, I hid my tears till I could cry in my pillow. I knew how much I would wish Miss Scott could’ve stayed. I also hoped and prayed the paddling had taught Bill a good enough lesson to mend his ways, because in the fall Millie and Myna would be riding a school bus to high school and I’d be on my own with His Majesty, Sir William.

I expected from the time school let out Friday and on through the summer that we’d be shut of Bill and Coo. Most older boys spend the season working with their fathers, so I had no idea those two could be the cause of how I came to be flat on my back in the weeds when Robby fell out of the sky on May 29 the day before my twelfth birthday. But one thing just seemed to lead on to another, and there’s no way to separate them.

Robby and I walked fast after we left our place, in a hurry to get where we were going. We passed the Olsen orchards and then the house. We stopped down the hill a little ways to sample the raspberries growing out into the barrow pit from the Olsen’s berry patch. Robby looked pretty funny because he turned his whole chin red when he smeared a big handful of berries into his mouth. When we came traipsing onto the footbridge plank over the irrigation ditch in front of the playground, and I saw Bill and Coo floundering around in the water, splashing and whooping it up, I got the idea they’d been fishing. They’d have quit when the sunlight drove the trout to shelter up for the day. I thought we might sneak by, but before I could stop his mouth, Robby yelled “Hey,” When they heard him, they stopped horsing around and stared. It was then I saw their clothes up on the bank, and guessed they’d be extra jumpy, wondering just how much bare skin I’d seen.

“Well, if it ain’t little Miss Suzy Q and her baby brother,” Bill sneered.

“You know very well my name’s not Suzy Q,” I shouted back. “I’ll please and thank you to stick to Kenna Macaulay.” Suddenly my breath stuck in my throat. I hadn’t learned the importance of holding my tongue even though I’d been told a million times to think before I spoke. “Never mind,” I said, trying to slip on past. “We’ll see you later then. Bye now.”

Robby was in front of me so I put my hands on his shoulders and pushed him on across to the other bank where we ran on to the swings. The frames were made of steel pipe and raised up about twelve feet high. The wooden seats were fixed on long chains, and they’d clobber just about any untrained individual who got in the way. I settled Robby on his, pushed him hard, and then pumped myself to a full height. I hoped Bill and Coo would head on out and find some other poor souls to bother.

As Robby and I had scooted onto the swings, I felt my heart pounding like a scared little rabbit’s. And sure enough, Bill and Coo hurried their clothes on and came strolling down the ditch bank all casual-like. Bill carried his frog gigger, three sharp prongs in a trident on the end of a long handle, so it was plain that they’d been out all night. Frog gigging took place in the dark with two people, one spotting frogs with the flashlight and the other stabbing. Being let loose in the evening twilight made me pretty wild, and I figured staying out all night would have made them border on feeling invincible. At least Bill laid the gigger down on the grassy ditch bank before they came over to us.

“Kenna, you’ve been growing up haven’t you?” Bill said. “Mmm, mmm. You’re getting to look a lot like Myna—pretty spiffy, huh Colin? Why don’t you stop swinging so we can talk?”

“I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than talk to me!” I said, and I kept pumping my legs and swinging higher until Bill got ahold of the chain and jerked. Truth to tell, I weighed a lot more than he expected, so he fell forward and the wooden swing seat slammed his forehead. I saw a little blood oozing out when he rose up. That’s when he got a good hold on me and commenced dragging me over into the weeds at the side of the playground. I’ll never forget the dusty smell of weed pollen in my nose and the way the hard stems stabbed into my legs. I wrestled free for a minute until he pulled me down, his pinchy nose right in my face.

Bill had left Coo behind to keep pushing Robby in the swing so he could mess with me, and I was flat on my back when I looked over because I heard Robby screaming, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” Coo never let up and pretty soon the chains let loose at the tops of each back and forth swing and that freed up Robby’s seat long enough to stop it in midair for a second. Then the chains would jerk tight, jarring and scaring him even more.

That’s when we suddenly heard Mrs. Olsen yelling, “You children stop now or I’ll call the Sheriff! Mr. Olsen’s coming and he’ll be here any minute!” She must have heard Robby screaming when she was picking raspberries down in the patch. Or maybe Mama had called her after all, but I didn’t think of any of that right then. We all just froze up at the sound of her voice and turned to look her way. What we saw was her blood-red fist waving Bill’s frog gigger at us, its three tines glinting sharp in the sun.

Then Coo roared out, “Will, Will, look at that!” and he started off running straight away. Never in a coon’s age would he have stood up to Mrs. Olsen with a razor-sharp stabbing tool in her hand. Robby screamed again and then he was flying out of the swing and up in the air, to where I saw, just for an instant, the blue sky behind him, and then I heard a dreadful thud. I guessed he let go. Bill got off me and we both rushed over to the boy who was just lying there like somebody’s old rag doll. I flung myself down on one side of him and Bill knelt on the other. “Robby! Robby!” I cried but he didn’t even stir.

When I looked up from where he lay so still and quiet, I saw how Bill’s face had turned to ash. He was saying something, but I couldn’t hear him—it seemed like my ears were all stopped up. He looked over at Mrs. Olsen and I watched his lips moving. Then I heard her say, “Mr. Olsen took the car to town for the day. I was just trying to scare you all, so you’d quit whatever you were up to. He isn’t coming.”

Bill shook his head and said, “Kenna, listen to me! Let me help you carry Robby on home. You lift his head so I can raise him up.” Bill shifted Robby on over his shoulder and then we started running as fast as we could, running and running, and running.

About the Author

Margaret Koger is a school media specialist with a writing habit. She lives near the river in Boise, Idaho. Her work appears most recently in The Amsterdam Quarterly, Red Rock Review, Collective Unrest, Heartland Review, Inez, Voice of Eve, Headway, and The Chaffey Review.