The story belonged to me first. I was the first to see her stare at the magazine photo.
The wooden birdhouse, tiered like a square wedding cake, caught Madeline’s attention, and she studied the birdhouse, then the railroad sign and the splintered cross bars. They were mysteriously familiar. She knew that, to the right of the birdhouse, railroad tracks curved into a grove of trees, but Madeline didn’t know how she knew.
She flattened the magazine to see the photo without staples or the center crease. The caption said the birdhouse was in Pennsylvania, but Madeline already knew that; all her visits and vacations fell within state lines. She concentrated. The train tracks stretched out like a long zipper.
When the nurse called Madeline, she dropped the magazine onto the waiting room chair.
A year passed before Madeline tried to sharpen the focus of another blurred memory. Outside a gas station a woman unwrapped a root beer Popsicle for a small boy. Madeline ate half of a Popsicle like that once. It was a twin bar snapped in two, and a jagged edge interrupted the smooth ice. The sugary brown juice melted down the wooden stick to her fingers.
The Popsicle evoked other sights and sounds: a wooden porch, the whine of a spring, and the slap of a screen door. Madeline tugged on the images, but she couldn’t recall who gave her the treat or who ate the other half.
I doubt the story belongs to you yet, even if the images are familiar. But you like the memory of a sweet Popsicle, magazine pages dulled by dozens of fingerprints, and a centerfold sliding out of the staple.
More memories surfaced.
Madeline skipped into the room when the phone rang.
Her mother switched the bulky, black receiver to her other ear. This time pain squeezed her voice. “The Institution?”
The third time was a plea for clarity: “The In-sti-tu-tion?”
Her mother tugged the stiff loops out of the telephone cord. After seeing Madeline, she turned away and whispered.
At night, loud voices woke Madeline. She slid her bottom down the top three steps and listened. Grandpa. Aunt Mary. She heard the voices, but no words.
Slipping her head between the wooden balustrades, she stared at the light spilling from the dining room. Madeline held her breath. Uncle Sim. Grandma. She pressed her temple against the wooden post, but still couldn’t hear the words. She scooted down a few steps. A few more. She heard an unfamiliar voice, and someone pounded on the table.
She tiptoed down the stairs and stood just outside the dining room.
“If it were a boy, I’d cut his…thing off!”
That was Grandma. The others gasped and scolded the old woman as Madeline stepped into the room.
Ashtrays and coffee cups in saucers were scattered around the table. In the corner sat a bald man wearing a bowtie.
Aunt Mary quickly knelt in front of her. The conversation skidded into silence. Madeline tried to see the others, but her aunt’s face blocked her view. Madeline’s mom—also kneeling–stroked Madeline’s bangs. Hushing sounds and gentle words brushed her ears.
“C’mere, honey.” Her dad swooped in and picked her up. She locked her fingers around his neck, and he carried her out of the room. The talk resumed behind them.
You’ve had similar experiences: Old voices swirling. The cacophony stopping when you entered. The conversation switching to spelled words, big words, or the foreign language of grandparents.
Someone was in trouble. Someone did something wrong. Adults said you didn’t need to know, or you wouldn’t understand. All the phone calls and whispers and yelling: the grown-ups didn’t understand either.
Madeline’s story is becoming yours, and you add your own images. A policeman showing his badge. The moon framed by the window of your father’s car while you sat in the backseat alone.
The red suitcase waited by the front door. Madeline slid the silver button on the top, watching the clasp pop up. She pressed it closed and popped it up again. She opened the suitcase. It was empty.
“Mommy! Where are we going?”
The answer came from the kitchen. “We’re not going anywhere, dear.”
“Why is the suitcase here?”
Her mother walked into the room. “I’m letting somebody else use it.”
Her dad came through the doorway and picked up the suitcase. He motioned with his head. “Let’s go.”
Madeline didn’t remember where the family took the suitcase or whose clothes eventually filled it. She tried to grab the memories, the way she once chased bubbles till they floated out of reach or burst on the cement.
This has happened to you, hasn’t it? Some image like a red suitcase elicits the thinnest wisp of a memory. What’s there lingers a bit, but memories unreinforced by conversation or photographs die. Other people hold onto secrets and sins, or let the truth pass with them.
Did someone take the suitcase onto the train that ran behind the birdhouse? Who ate the other half of the Popsicle? Madeline came to believe—or imagine—it was a girl, and the girl went to the Institution, the county hospital. The Institution sat near the woods on the edge of town, and the family frequently drove by the white buildings and big lawns behind tall fences. Townspeople called the men and women who lived there crazies, and Madeline knew not to stare. But when her dad slowed to drive over railroad tracks, she peeked, fueled by curiosity, excitement, and fear. Patients sat on benches. Others walked in circles. Some danced on the lawn.
No one danced at the Institution for years. Hollowed structures with scorched window frames stood as artifacts of the rumor that male patients had rioted and set the buildings on fire.
Madeline couldn’t connect the suitcase to the bald man, the Popsicle, or the birdhouse. Her struggle exposed the hole left by her father’s death and her mother’s dementia.
She tried during a few visits, but her mother’s answers were random, enigmatic.
“Benny’s house was near the Institution.”
“I liked Creamsicles.”
“Judy wasn’t all there. A little girl in a big girl’s body.”
A picture of Judy came into focus for Madeline. She was as tall as the adults and sometimes wrapped her brown hair in big curlers. She wore a bra, but didn’t know if ten minutes was shorter or longer than two years. She liked to color and play dolls. Her house had rocking chairs on the porch.
Madeline tried again with her mother a week later.
“I never believed what they said. How could she get those men so riled up?”
“Betty wouldn’t even let Benny visit his own daughter.”
“Judy gave me my pills this morning.”
That night images popped into Madeline’s consciousness one by one, like a rapid slide show.
Judy in a sundress. Jumping rope.
“Cinderella dressed in yella.”
Judy tripping and throwing down the rope.
The wooden handle bouncing off the driveway.
“This is dumb.”
The two girls running through the field behind Judy’s house.
A low rumble rattling the ground and a distant whistle.
Judy pulling Madeline through the grass.
Dropping Madeline’s hand and running faster.
Untying the sundress at the back of her neck.
Kicking her red underpants into the air.
Rolling her hips like she had a hula hoop.
A train, with people at the windows.
Judy twirling and lifting her skirt. Showing the people on the train she had no underwear.
Men standing up and leaning toward the window.
More windows. More passengers watching.
Judy yelling, “Do it, Maddy! It’s fun!”
More train windows and more faces.
Judy touching her breasts.
Maddy pushing her yellow cotton panties to her knees. Shaking her legs till the panties slid to her ankles.
The train disappearing in the grove and Judy collapsing in the grass laughing.
Madeline standing, scared and ashamed.
Judy whispering the word secret and, “Ain’t nothing they can do about it.”
Madeline visited the house by the railroad tracks one more time. She sat alone on the shady porch and tried out all the rocking chairs. Judy was inside crying. Judy’s mom yelled. Judy’s dad cried. Someone brought half of a Popsicle to Madeline. Someone set the red suitcase by the door. Judy was going away.
Maddy stuffed the yellow panties under her mattress. She kept the secret, even from herself, until the day she remembered Judy’s words. “They can’t get out. They can’t touch me, but I can make them want to.”
Secrets and mysteries tiptoe through everyone’s life. A stack of money. The hasty departure of a big-bellied girl or a hot-tempered boy. A lie transformed into the truth. This story reminds you of what you can’t remember, and the confusion and frustration in it belong to you.
This is no longer Madeline’s story. It is yours, or it is not a story at all.
Riddled with Arrows 5.4:
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