Holes in the yard
My parents had been fighting for months the summer I tortured Krissy Bodkins in my backyard. It started innocently enough: two seven-year-old girls throwing plastic animals across the overgrown lawn. That year the air was hot and thick as steam, clinging like a wet coat to our bare arms. Action News weatherman Dave Roberts threatened us all with rain, covering the Pennsylvania map with big cloudy magnets, yet the bright angry sun hovered, stubbornly, in the sky.
There was this tall tree in the back yard that had been struck by lightning. All its branches had shriveled up and died and it bore a wide, pointed scar down the middle. There was a hole at the base of the tree, at the end of the long gaping split. My sister, friends and I used to climb one at a time inside the narrow slit of a hole and laugh. It was a secret backyard cave.
A person can stay alive inside a four by four by four-foot space for sixty minutes. Ninety, if they breathe slowly, shallowly. That’s how much air a person can survive on. It was something I learned one Saturday morning on an episode of Scooby Doo. That was about the size of the wood cave, give or take an inch or two. We used to stay in there just under fifty minutes, timing ourselves carefully with my purple plastic watch. We were pretending to sit in a space ship, a bear cave, inside a clamshell at the bottom of the ocean with only one hour to live. Though since the trunk had an air opening in the front we could probably, hypothetically, live forever in there.
When my Dad disappeared at the end of August, our house was the quietest it had ever been. My mom sat on the porch with a sweating glass of iced tea and cried. The white car stood covered with dust in the driveway. When Krissy and I were running around the backyard that day, playing around the old dead tree, our laughs echoed across the neighborhood.
I went inside the tree cave first. “See?” I said to her, slipping in and out of the sliver. “There’s nothing to it. Easy.”
Krissy was a pale wisp of a girl, her skin so light it was translucent and glowed red from within. Her hair, nearly white, as light and fine as cobwebs. She resembled a boiled shrimp in a dress.
Krissy was apprehensive. She had never been inside. “I don’t want to.”
“Oh come on. Don’t be a wimp.” I pointed in the hole. “You can stay alive in there for three hours,” I lied.
Krissy never was any fun. She wore pretty prissy dresses. She whined and cried and always snatched the last Ding Dong, if we had any, from our cupboard. “I’m the guest,” she would say. “It’s mine.” I’d watch as she’d tear off the foil, screw up her face and stuff the entire cake at once into her wet mushy mouth.
After a long dramatic pause, Krissy lifted a pale bluish shoe, on a pale reddish leg and placed it inside the tree crevice. Her foot kicked at the green flashlight we hid in there. She closed her eyes, her face wrinkling with disgust as she slipped her tiny body, in a yellow dotted dress, inside the narrow space. She sat in the tree, her red legs bent up like an unformed fetus.
I looked through the window of my house. My mother was in the kitchen now, furiously washing dishes. During this time she was absorbed in her anger and grief, in Dad leaving, so that I became invisible. I could run through the yard unheard, unseen.
“I want to get out,” said a thin voice from within the tree.
“You can’t get out. You have to stay inside.”
“For how long?” she asked.
“For five minutes.”
“No way,” she said, poking her pale leg out again.
I stuffed the leg back inside. “Stay in there. It’s only been thirty seconds.”
“I’m getting out,” she answered. One hand gripped the bark and her white head began to poke slowly out as though the tree was giving birth.
I shoved her head back in as she screamed and gripped the outside bark with two hands now. I pried finger by red finger up, holding her in with my knee, and pushed her back in the crevice.
“Stay in there!” I shouted. I reached in, grabbed the little flashlight, and hit her once in the head. She held her ear and shrieked.
Turning around quickly, I blocked the entrance with my back, cradling the flashlight. I looked at the sky.
Every year cocoons with tent caterpillars inside scatter the trees in the winter before they hatch in June. You have to squint through the leaves to see them, but they hang silently there. When the cocoons are pecked with holes by birds or damaged in some way, it leaves them susceptible to rain.
The lightning that struck the tree earlier that spring was followed by torrential rains. So much it filled a few cocoons with water, drowning the caterpillars within, so that by summer they hung like useless pods from their branches. Looking up, I saw one dangling loosely in the neighboring tree.
“Let me out!” Krissy screamed. “I have to be home by five o’ clock.” Her shoe kicked weakly at my back.
“It’s only four.” I reached in and grabbed one red leg, and then the other. I pulled off her sneakers with hearts on the laces and threw them towards the house. The tiny pink shoes and laces arced through the air, hovering, before landing in a bush by the driveway.
I glanced at the dirty car. Dad used to wash the white Toyota hatchback every weekend. He whistled as he ran a soapy sponge along its windows and sides. Sometimes I held the sponge and helped. Then he rinsed it with a green hose. He would polish it briefly with a buttery cloth, working carefully in the corners, and leave it to dry in the sun. I looked at it now, coated with dust. The back window was cranked half way down. It stopped rolling up the week before.
“Give them back!” Krissy cried. “Give them!” She looked up at me with sore blue eyes. A single line of blood dripped from her ear, red and ridiculous on her pale neck.
“They’ll never hear you,” I told her, turning around so I didn’t have to look. I just listened. She began to howl, hoping someone would hear but the lawn was empty.
“Let me oooooout! Oooooooout!
I turned my head back and looked in at her. “No,” I said, as she sobbed. “You’re in your cocoon. You have to stay in there for six months.”
“Let me out!”
“If the rain comes, you’ll die.” She stopped for a moment and looked at me with unblinking red eyes. “There are many holes,” I told her, “like this one.” I stuck my hand in the space between the tree and my ribs, and wriggled my fingers.
Her mouth fell open. She took long gasps of air. But there was only one hole, the one I was blocking with my whole body. I wondered if my dad would ever come back.
She began to rock, groaning loudly, over and over. Her once white socked feet were wrenched up under her, filthy and brown. “Please let me out,” she begged, no longer trying to fight. She began to sob like an animal, but I just squatted there and listened to her. Her cries were muffled, but they stood out in comparison to the silent house. I turned my head around again and peered back over my shoulder. I had left just enough room so that I could look in at her, trembling in the crevice.
Inside her puckered red face looked like a baby gerbil as she clutched weakly at the wood. I pushed tight against the crevice, sealing it shut with my back. I closed my eyes and prayed that she wouldn’t leave me but knew in time that she would. After a while her cries had faded to soft breathy whimpers, barely audible in the yard. When that happened I hated her more than anything in the world.