The little girl, Dee, managed to survive the nightly vigils of her mother, in part because she had nothing else to compare it too. When she watched TV, with her Mom and Annie, her sister, and Daddy, and Linda and Ray, when they were home, the families portrayed in black and white seemed as foreign to her as if they had lived in town. She wondered if real people acted like that. Could real people be that nice?
Dee had lived all of her life on this small farm, in an old, old house surrounded by the yard full of trees, with the undergrowth always creeping slowly and silently into the yard. Her daddy constantly fought the fast growing weeds and vines with his mowing scythe. Many days, she had watched him sweat in the hot summer sun, bare-chested, sweat poring from his body, as he swung the scythe, clearing a little more land with each swing.
Dee remembered one Halloween he came home wearing the mask, "its just a stupid rubber mask you big chicken" her sister said, and how she had screamed with terror, hiding under the bed. It had taken a long time for them to coax her out, and not until her father said he was throwing the mask over the hill, would she slide out. That very summer, she and Annie had been out playing, and had come across the mask, half covered in leaves and dirt, and she had started screaming again, much to her shame. "God, your such a fraidy-cat" her sister had laughed. She laughed so hard that Dee finally laughed with her. It really was just a mask, made of rubber. It wasn't real. But she hated it anyway.
When all of her brothers and sisters had been home, she had taken on the habit of walking around in a state of ready defense. She didn't call it that, not then. She didn't have the words . But when ever anyone came too close, her arms immediately went up into a "X" that covered her face. Usually when the bigger people of the house got close they tended to slap you without reason. Best be prepared. Her brother Ray commented on this one day, "What the hell are you doing? You think I'm gonna hit you?" When she solemnly nodded, he just turned away, muttering, "Everyone in this house is crazy! My lord, my lord." He slouched off to peg his pants.
She had taken to writing on the walls, and not a bare spot was to be found. No matter how many times she was slapped, she could not resist the temptation to draw a beautiful girl, or write her name on whatever space she could find. Paper was a scarce commodity, so the wall seemed a logical conclusion to her. She finally stopped, when her Daddy painted the walls, and told her softly but sternly, "I don't want to see no pictures on these walls." Just thinking he was mad at her would make her cry.
Her mother's favorite child, Ray, would sometimes skip school, hiding behind the sheets on the clothesline, with a bag full of groceries from the store about three miles up the railroad tracks. "Shhhh!" he would whisper. "Don't tell Mother." He had gotten them 'on credit', Dee knew that much, and that Daddy wouldn't like it, but at least now they had something else to eat besides pinto beans and cornbread. He usually did this when Daddy was working away from home. Ray wore enough Crisco in his hair to bake a cake. But, she didn't say anything about that. She had learned very early some things were best not said out loud. Even with the groceries, she was still within slapping distance.
Her oldest sister, Gerry, was living in her own apartment now, working at the 'Daniel Boone', whatever that was, living in 'Charleston', a place she had never seen, and was running with a wild bunch who smoked cigarettes. This much she had overheard from her mother. Her sister Gerry had tried to go to Bible school, but because of Dee, again, according to her mother, she had to quit and come home and go to work. Dee felt so bad for her sister, and thought that must be why Gerry made fun of her so much. Annie said no, it was because no one thought mother and daddy would ever have another baby, meaning her. Annie said that daddy thought she was the ugliest baby he had ever seen. Mother said her daddy had wanted another boy. Ray told her a bird shit her on a limb and the sun hatched her. "Did not!" she retorted. Smack! "Don't yell in the house, Dee." Her mother caught her by surprise with that one.
So, she chose to spend as much time outside as she could. Even in winter, with the ice and snow, when she didn't have socks, and her feet would ache so bad, that sitting in front of the fire, trying to warm them, would make her cry. Smack. "What are you whining about now! It gets on my nerves! I'll give you something to whine about!"
Now everyone talked about how tall she was getting. Her Aunt Ruby, who always said she looked just like her cousin Dwight, said, "Why, you're almost as tall as me!" Dee thought she couldn't be that tall. That would make her a giant.
Then her sister Linda, who, believe it or not, got yelled at more than she did, announced she was going into the Marines Corps. Her mother was all for it, but Dee and Annie hated to see her go. Linda laughed, and made them laugh, would laugh about the craziest things. Linda made life fun. And, she told them all the gossip she could gather. Dee knew her mother didn't approve of gossip, but she listened just the same, so she wasn't quite sure if it was good or bad. Maybe it wasn't for "little pictures with big antennae's". That was some kind of secret words the adults used when they didn't want her to hear something they were talking about. Why didn't they just say we don't want you to hear this, instead of saying something so puzzling you could waste hours trying figure it out?
They had just learned some news about a neighbor girl, one she thought was beautiful, and had decided she wanted to be when she got older. She could sing real well, and she laughed all the time. When ever Dee stuttered, it was her neighbor who told her to slow down, think about the words, and try again. Now, she hardly stuttered at all. "Well, Richard got what he wanted from little miss Linda S., the sainted choir girl," Linda told Dee's mother. "Oh, I knew that was going to happen!" her mother said. "Now she's ruined, and no decent man will have her." Ray said, "Yeah, I heard something about that. Mother, you shouldn't talk like that. Linda just thought Richard was really going to marry her. You know how them boys are. "
"Yeah, the only good one was Mike, and now that he's dead, well, it ain't the same." Everyone paused for a moment, remembering Michael, who Dee didn't remember at all.
"Yes, that was a horrible thing. Poor Mike. Course they never should have got him that motorcycle." Dee's mother covered her mouth with the dish rag she was always toting for some reason. She began to giggle. " I remember Michael spending a whole day, outside, teaching Dee when she just starting talking good, to say "Joyce is a horse". He must have spent hours with that girl." Her mother laughed.
Ray and Linda joined her. " It was cause Joyce chased him so bad, and he didn't want nothin' to do with her. Lord, when she come over, and Dee just come out and said, "Joyce is a horse" plain as day...damn if she didn't take over the hill, mad as a hornet." Linda enjoyed a good long laugh. Though she and Joyce were friends, she had suffered at Joyce's sly references to the differences between her life as a preacher's daughter, and Linda's life as poor white trash. Joyce would be going off to bible college.
Dee often wondered what Bible college was, and why everyone wanted to go. Just how much was there to learn about the bible, she wondered. Then she was noticed.
"Dee, shouldn't you be outside on such a pretty day? You're just eaves' dropping on grown folks talk, is all. And don't repeat what you heard, ya hear?"
All Dee could think about was how her beautiful neighbor was now "ruined". The beautiful girl with the freckles and red hair. The one who taught her how to control the stutter that tormented her life for so long. She was ruined! But, that couldn't be right, she thought, slipping out the door. She looked just the same. She seemed just the same. She didn't look hurt or nearly killed. She didn't know if she had been raped, because she didn't know what that looked like, but if she had, she must have decided to live. Perhaps that's why she was ruined. Maybe she just hadn't done what girls were supposed to do, let it kill them, and that's what ruined her? But who wants to die? On purpose?
What Dee really wanted everyone to talk about was the man outside. This was mainly why she lurked around the older people, hoping to catch some news about the prowler. It wouldn't be too long before Linda was gone, and soon Ray would follow. She would be older, and in school herself, but that wouldn't change his comings and goings. All she could ever glean was just bits and pieces here and there.
Sometimes she day dreamed she had been picked up by the wrong family at the hospital. These daydreams made her feel guilty and ungrateful, but Lord, they were nice. Maybe her real family lived in "Charleston" in a big fine house, with servants, like Hop Sing, on Bonanza, or something. Deep inside she knew it wasn't true, but sometimes it was nice to dream.
She had a recurring dream, that made her wake up, so full of sorrow, so full of remorse. Waking up, she'd think, "I didn't mean to do it!" She knew it was from carrying the cats around so much. In the dream, her mother took her outside, down into the dark cellar, down the concrete steps where she had watched a black widow spider for hours one day. Once in the cellar, among the arsh potatoes, and sweet potatoes, and rows and rows of canned corn, and green beans, her mother pointed to the floor. "See? See what you did?" The big black mother cat lay stretched out dead, and all of her little babies, dead, stretched out behind her. Dee wanted to take it back, all of it back, and she looked into her mother's stern dark eyes, and saw no forgiveness there.
It would be 30 years before she realized, it was, after all, just a dream. There were no cats in the basement. She had never squeezed the mother cat to death. It had, indeed, been just a dream.
There are times Dee still reminds herself it was just a dream. Like the man who came out of the wall. He was a dream as well.