by Christine Terp Madsen
I know the truth about everything. I know the truth about Mama, and about Daddy. I know the truth about my sister Peth and my brother Kestrel.
Peth. Pethula. Pethulatta. She hates it when I say her name like this. Pethissimo. Pethatude. My mama named her Peth because she thought it sounded Biblical. She named my brother Kestrel because she wanted him to be free like the birds. She named me Marla because she thought it sounded rich.
This is the truth about Peth: She isn’t very Biblical, believe me. Yesterday I heard her in the bathroom saying, “Oh shit oh shit oh shit” over and over again. I opened the door as quietly as I could and she whirled around and shouted for me to leave her alone. But I saw the box. I knew what it was because of the TV commercials. Somebody stuck a baby up inside her.
Mama wasn’t going to like this one bit. I couldn’t wait for her to find out.
So I left the bathroom and was lying on my bed minding my own business when Peth came into the room I have to share with her.
“Listen, punk, if you tell Mama anything—” She hovered over me, her hair even weirder than usual, all orange with green stripes.
“No,” I said, “I’ll let you have the fun.” I rolled onto my side, facing her. “So when are you going to tell her?”
I liked seeing Peth like this, all shaky and scared. Miss I’m-grown-up-and-you’re-not-Pethbreath was looking pretty scared. I tried to figure out who’d done it with her. There is a boy she hangs out with a lot, Craig, though we’re supposed to call him C, who has the same spiky hair that Peth has, only orange and purple. He has a big tattoo on his arm, a really smeary looking snake. In other words, he looks like everyone else in Pethalina’s bunch of other greenhead friends.
“Who stuck the baby inside you?” I asked, thinking she might be so scared she might actually tell me.
“Shut up, Marla-barla,” which was as good as she could get with my name. She was putting on her usual assortment of black clothes. Black shirt. Black pants that didn’t even make it to her ankles. Black jacket. Black socks. Big black shoes. Even though it was summer. She already had put on lipstick, this puke orange lipstick.
“On TV people are either happy or sad when they look at the little stick,” I said. “They don’t get angry.”
“I told you to shut up,” said Peth, who now was busy putting a fake tattoo on her left wrist. Mama would kill her if she had a real one. Even though it was Sunday we were the only two home, unless you counted Kestrel. Mama got an extra shift at the hospital where she’s a nurse, and Daddy had National Guard duty. Once Peth leaves, I’ll be in charge. She’s not supposed to go out when Mama and Daddy aren’t home, so I hardly ever get to be in charge. But today I suppose she had to go stand around somewhere and sneak cigarettes and tell Craig—excuse me, C—about the baby stuff. It had to be him who did it to her. The rest of the boys she knew were even more pitiful.
She finished fussing with the tattoo, glared at me one last time, picked up her ratty little bag and slung it over her shoulder.
“I swear, you little runt, if you say anything—”
“Don’t worry,” I said.
This is more truth about Peth: I really do like her. She upsets Daddy a lot, I know, and Mama is always trying to talk to her about going to college after she graduates high school. But she is a great source of information and she will talk to me about anything. It was just lately, since she started switching hair colors, that she’d gotten really weird.
This is truth about Kestrel: he is dumb. He is so dumb. He’s four years older than me, but he is really dumb. Mama says I’m too little to remember when he wasn’t that way. But I know what happened, partly because I listen to the grown-ups and partly because Peth told me.
One day when he was three, he found his Daddy’s gun and started to play with it. Peth was there, and she ran to get Mama, because she knew better. But before they got back, Kestrel figured out how to pull the trigger and he shot himself in the face. Mama thought he was going to die right then, but the fire department got there fast. They took him to the hospital and he had to stay there for a long time while they fixed up his face and brains. I guess they couldn’t fit all the brains back in because he ended up dumb. Then Mama and Kestrel’s daddy began to fight all the time and that’s why he left and why I have a different daddy from Peth and Kestrel.
The sad thing, Mama said, is that Kestrel is still smart enough to know he is dumb. Well, she didn’t say dumb. She said brain injured. She said that to Auntie Eleanor. Then she said that it might be better if he was so dumb he didn’t know he was dumb. I heard her say it. So I know it’s the truth.
I know the truth about everything.
I even know what happened after Kestrel blew up his face. His daddy got really sad, because it was his gun, and Mama got real sad too, so sad that she let my daddy stick a baby inside of her—that was me, of course—so that Kestrel and Peth’s daddy went to live somewhere else and my daddy married my mama. Their daddy’s name was Billy, but my daddy’s name is Roger.
So I guess I should be glad that Kestrel blew up his face. Kind of weird, don’t you think? Mama calls me her Unexpected Treasure.
Kestrel spends almost all of his time in his room upstairs. My bedroom is on the second floor, and Kestrel’s is in what used to be the attic, right over my bedroom. Mama and Daddy’s room sort of hangs off to the side by itself, over the dining room. I don’t go up to Kestrel’s room very much, but Peth does. She says she likes Kestrel. He can be funny sometimes, especially when he doesn’t know it, but Mama won’t let anyone laugh at him then. But sometimes he means it, and then we can laugh and he smiles kind of crooked and looks happy.
After Peth finally left yesterday morning, I wanted to check on Kestrel. I called and called for him because I am supposed to make sure he is okay. Finally he yelled at me to be quiet, so I went up to his room to see what he was doing.
“Kestrel?” I said because I didn’t see him anywhere.
“Shhh!” he said from under the bed.
I picked up the heavy blankets he sleeps under year-round and looked under the bed.
“Kestrel, what are you doing?”
“Quick, get under here!”
So I crawled under his bed with him. He didn’t say anything so neither did I. We were at the foot of the bed, lying side by side, with our feet underneath where the pillows would be. He just stared out from underneath the edge of the blankets at the doorway.
“Kestrel, what’s going on?”
“Shhh!” he said again, very quietly. “The Nazis. Didn’t you see them coming up stairs?”
“Nazis? What’s that?”
“You don’t know what Nazis are?” Kestrel said. “The greatest menace on the face of the earth and you don’t know what they are?”
I couldn’t tell if he was playing a game or not. Maybe I had heard about Nazis, maybe from Grandpa—I wasn’t sure.
“Kestrel, are you playing a game?”
He stared at me and even in the dark under the bed I could see that his face looked scared, like he was looking out into the night and saw something evil looking back at him.
“Marla, if you think I’m playing a game, you’d better leave,” he said. “If you think it’s a game and you don’t know what Nazis are, then you must be a Nazi.”
“How can I be a Nazi if I don’t know what one is?”
“Because you have been brainwashed by them. Now, get out!” He pulled something from his side, the side away from me. It was Mama’s big kitchen knife.
“You must be one of them,” Kestrel said, and his face got all tight and mean. He brought the knife close to my face. “Get out or I’ll cut you.”
“Kestrel, stop.” I said. “You’re scaring me.”
“Last chance, little girl. I don’t often give people the opportunity to run away.” He touched the blade of the knife to my cheek.
“Yes, yes, I saw the Nazis!” I said quickly. But Kestrel just narrowed his eyes.
“Hah!” he said, and brought the knife to my cheek again. This time I felt a pinch run down my cheek. Then I felt the blood.
I rolled away from him under the bed, hoping I could roll far enough to stand up and run. It took me two complete rolls, but finally I could stand up. But Kestrel was coming right behind me with the knife clenched in his teeth like a pirate.
I ran, slamming his door behind me, and jumped down the stairs. I heard Kestrel open the door following me. I ran to Mama and Daddy’s room and slammed and locked the door behind me. Kestrel caught up and started pounding on the door.
“Nazi! Nazi!” he shouted. “C’mon boys, I got a Nazi trapped in here!”
Mama and Daddy had a telephone next to their bed. I knew Mama had the hospital on speed dial because sometimes they beep her during the night. I pushed the button and counted the rings while Kestrel kept shouting and banging on the door.
“Third South,” said the nurse who answered the phone.
“I need my mama right away,” I said, trying to stay calm.
“I’m sorry, we don’t take calls for patients.”
“No, no, she’s a nurse! Judith Holmes!”
The nurse on the other end paused. “Is this Marla?” she said.
“Yes, I need my mama! Kestrel’s acting really weird.”
I heard the phone being fumbled at the other end and then I heard Mama’s voice.
“Marla? What’s happening?”
“He has a big knife. He thinks I’m a Nazi. He cut my cheek.”
“Where are you?”
“Your room, with the door locked.”
“Marla, listen carefully. Under our bed is the ladder we use for fire drills. Remember?”
“Put it out the window like we showed you. Climb down and go next door. Do it now. I’ll be right there.” And she hung up the phone.
Now I was really scared, because I could tell Mama was scared. I kept telling myself she would be here soon, because the hospital wasn’t far away. I dragged the folding ladder out from under the bed and over to the window. Kestrel was still banging on the door and shouting. I guess I should be glad that he was so dumb because he must have forgotten how easy it is to pop open the lock with a butter knife. He didn’t have a butter knife—he had something much bigger—but I’m sure it would have worked fine.
I got the ladder out the window and let it unroll to the ground. I always hated these fire drills when Daddy made us do them. The part I hated the most was going down the ladder because it just didn’t stay still. But I could hear Kestrel jiggling the lock, so I climbed out the window and started down. Half-way down, the ladder came off the windowsill and I fell to the ground, tangled in the ladder. That was lucky, really, because Kestrel couldn’t follow me easily.
I ran next door to the Lenahans’ house and just barged through the door. Mrs. Lenahan was in the kitchen.
“Marla?” she said. “What happened to your cheek?”
“Kestrel,” I sputtered. Mrs. Lenahan looked out the window towards our house. We both could see Kestrel leaning out the window. Then I heard the police sirens coming down our street. Kestrel heard them, too, because he disappeared from the window. I heard him slamming doors all over the house. The police officers leapt from their car and pulled out their guns.
“Are they going to shoot him?” I asked Mrs. Lenahan.
“I hope not, honey,” she said, and she hugged me tight, so my head was pressed into her stomach and I could smell dish detergent and a clean starchy cotton smell and something else I didn’t recognize until I realized it was my own blood.
Mr. Lenahan came up from the basement.
“What’s going on? Did I hear sirens?” he said.
“It’s Kestrel. Go talk to them, please, Richard. Tell them he’s a good boy, and that his sister is safe here.”
I tried to pull away from Mrs. Lenahan to see what the police were doing, but she just hugged me tighter.
“Oh, here’s your mother,” said Mrs. Lenahan. “Let’s go to the front door so she can see you’re okay.” She kept her hands on my shoulders and we walked through her dining room and into the living room. I opened the door just as Mama got out of her car.
I’d never seen Mama run before. She ran across our yard and the Lenahan’s and Mrs. Lenahan pushed me towards her. Mama hugged really tight, looked at my cheek, and asked Mrs. Lenahan if she could take me to the hospital.
“I’ll come to the hospital as soon as I can, but I have to help Kestrel right now. Where is Peth?”
“I don’t think she’s home, right, Marla?” said Mrs. Lenahan.
“Mama, they have guns!”
Mama looked me square in the eyes, one hand on each of my shoulders.
“I’ll make sure they don’t hurt him,” she said and then she ran again over to the police cars.
The rest I had to read in the newspapers, because no one at home was talking, not even Peth. The newspaper said that Mama explained that Kestrel’s medication must need adjusting, for about the millionth time, I might add, and that he had only a knife because there were no guns in the house. She told them about the Nazis and so they went into the house pretending to be American soldiers from the Number 2 War and told him all the Nazis had been killed. Then they brought out Kestrel in handcuffs and that was the picture they put in the paper, Kestrel in handcuffs with Mama crying in the background.
Mama was mad at Daddy because he didn’t get home in time to help with anything, but he did come to the hospital where they had put stitches into my cheek and they put Kestrel in a special place in the hospital where they put people who aren’t thinking quite right. I knew Daddy came as soon as he could but it’s hard to get out of National Guard duty.
This is the truth about Daddy: sometimes he wishes he hadn’t married Mama. He married her after I was born but before everyone figured out how dumb Kestrel was going to be. He tried to be Kestrel’s daddy too, but Kestrel only wanted his real daddy, who no one ever saw anymore. Sometimes I heard them talking in their room at night, Mama and Daddy, and Daddy sounded really tired. That’s when he would say it.
“I don’t know, Judith, I just don’t know. I didn’t bargain for this when I married you. He’s getting bigger and stronger every day.”
Mama would talk really softly then, and I could hardly ever hear what she said, but I could guess based on what Daddy said.
“But Judith, you must at least consider the possibility that we will have to find a home for him somewhere.” I tried to picture Kestrel living some place other than his room in the attic, but I couldn’t. He liked it too much up there. But maybe then Kestrel would be free, like Mama said she wanted him to be, if he didn’t have to live in the attic.
Then Daddy would say, “Sometimes I wish we had just left things the way they were, without getting married.”
That always made me feel weird, because it made me think that maybe he didn’t like that he had stuck me up inside Mama. But then the next morning Daddy would pick me up and hug me hard and twirl me around and call me his Pride and Joy and I would feel better again. I wonder how it felt to Peth and Kestrel that their daddy was never there. I know Peth kept a picture of him holding her when she was little, because I like to look in her drawers whenever it’s safe. I have to know the truth about everything. One time I asked her if it was weird not having her daddy around and she told me to shut up.
I asked Mama once why Peth and Kestrel’s daddy never came to visit, and she got all quiet and said that she had hurt him very deeply and she knew he wished he could see his kids but he had to move to California and it was too far to visit. When you live in Maine like we do, California is a long way. I can tell by the map.
This is the truth about Mama: she worries all the time about Kestrel. She tries to make him come down from his room and sit in the living room with us, but usually he stays upstairs. When he does come down, he sits in a corner on a pile of pillows and sort of stares at nothing. At meals he eats all of his food really fast and then just stares, too. Once Daddy asked him what he’d been doing upstairs.
“Picking my nose,” said Kestrel.
Mama pretends she doesn’t worry about him, so Peth and I will think everything’s okay, but I know she thinks about him all the time. She is always “adjusting his medication,” and talking to the doctor on the telephone about him.
Maybe Peth worries about him, too, and that’s why she isn’t afraid to go up to his room. Peth likes to sneak up there, especially at night when she thinks no one is watching. But I wake up sometimes and her bed is empty and if I listen real hard sometimes I can hear them jumping or something up there. I think they might be playing a tickle game. Then I lie there awake and wait for her to sneak back into the room and when she does she lies down and sighs and starts to snore right away.
This is the truth about me: I will never be rich. Peth isn’t Biblical, and Kestrel isn’t free like the birds, so I figure having a rich-sounding name won’t make me rich. But that’s okay with me. Being rich means I would probably have to take care of Peth when I grow up because she isn’t very good at taking care of herself. And that means I would have to take care of her Pethhead greenhead baby. And it might mean I would have had to take care of Kestrel, which I would never do because he is too dumb and weird, not to mention the whole knife thing.
This is also the truth about me: my cheek really hurts. It sort of throbs and aches and I can see the bandage on it if I point my eyes down just right. They only let me come home today because Mama is a nurse at the hospital.
Tonight Mama and Daddy sent me to my room even though I hadn’t done anything wrong because they wanted to talk to Peth. I had an idea it might be about the stuck baby, so I very carefully snuck over to the top of the stairs where I could listen.
It took me a while to catch up to what they were talking about, but then it made perfect sense. Pethissimo had acted as dumb as Kestrel and actually left the baby test kit in the trash in the bathroom, where of course Mama found it because she is so fanatic about cleaning all the time. And now they were grilling Peth about it.
“What were the results?” I heard Daddy say, but Peth didn’t answer.
“Tell your father the results,” Mama said.
“He is not my father,” Peth sniped, which always gets her in more trouble, as if she needed it now. I might be six years younger than she is, but even I know that letting someone stick a baby in you before you get married is not the best thing to do.
Mama let the snipe go this time.
“Tell us what the results were,” she said. Still nothing from Peth.
“We will have to assume that you would answer if the result was negative,” Mama said. “That means the test must have been positive.”
“Fine,” said Peth, “assume whatever you want.”
Nobody said anything, but I could see Peth twirling one of her green stripes of hair around her finger, and Mama looking out the window, and Daddy sitting with his elbows on his knees staring at his feet as if he had never seen them before. Just then Kestrel’s clock radio clicked on really loud—it went off every night at this time to remind him to watch Batman—and there wasn’t anyone to turn it off because Kestrel was still at that hospital place. I started to go up to his room to take care of it, but I was worried the knife was still there even if he wasn’t, so I didn’t go. I missed a little bit of the conversation before I got back to my spot on the stairs.
“Kestrel?” Daddy shouted. “Kestrel? You’re telling us that Kestrel did this?”
“Roger, quiet down. Marla will hear you.”
“Kestrel,” Daddy muttered. “This is just perfect.”
I wasn’t sure why Daddy was so upset. Kestrel always played his radio and TV too loudly and Daddy always had to shut him up. Maybe this time really was the last straw, like he was always threatening. Maybe now Mama would have to give in and they would send Kestrel to a home somewhere, like Daddy would say to Mama when he thought nobody could hear. Or maybe Daddy meant that it was Kestrel who cut up my cheek, but I thought he already knew that.
Then I realized that Peth was crying. Pethless was crying. She never cried. Maybe she thought what I thought, that Mama and Daddy would send Kestrel somewhere. She must really like him. I suppose I will miss him, but not enough to cry over.
I wanted them to forget about Kestrel and get back to the real subject at hand. I wanted them to ask the big question. I wanted to hear who stuck the baby into Peth.
But nobody was saying anything. I could still hear Kestrel’s music, his favorite station that played country/western. I could picture him sitting up there, his face all goofy like it always got when he listened to music, kind of rocking himself as he sat on his bed, and I remembered that from my room I could hear his bed creaking as he rocked.
“Peth, do you know about insects?” Daddy said, kind of low and mean-sounding. “Kestrel is your brother.”
I was kind of losing the thread of the conversation. What did insects have to do with anything? Maybe Kestrel went off yesterday because of insects?
“Really, Peth,” said Mama, “What were you thinking?”
So that explained it. Peth must have put insects in Kestrel’s room or something and now I had stitches in my cheek, 17 of them, and I would probably have to have plastic surgery. That’s what the doctor said.
Pethamess didn’t say anything. I waited along with everyone else. I was getting really tired. I wanted to go to bed. I wanted Mama to come into my room and hold me tight and tell me that Kestrel would be home tomorrow and that Peth was really okay. I wanted Daddy to lift me into the air and call me his Pride and Joy. I wanted Peth to stand in front of the mirror over her dresser and make her hair into little spikes. I wanted Kestrel to be upstairs so I could yell at him to turn down his radio.
I looked back downstairs. Peth stood up and walked over to the front door. I waited for Daddy to yell at her to come back, but he didn’t. He just sat there staring at his feet. I waited for Mama to call out to her, but she didn’t, because she was crying so hard. Peth pulled the door open, and I almost called downstairs myself. Peth said goodbye, and then she left.
Mama and Daddy just sat there, letting her go, and it was just me and them in the house and everything felt odd, like when the time changes or on the day after Christmas when you have nothing to do. I listened to Mama crying and I didn’t know if it was about Peth or Kestrel or maybe both or maybe something entirely different that I hadn’t figured out yet.
I was scared that Peth might not come back and that Kestrel might not come back and that everything would stay odd for a long time. I wanted to know what was going to happen next, but there’s no one left to tell me the truth about anything.