Week 2: January 8-14, 2023
Prompt: A Family Mystery Uncovered
Of course, it would have to be Friday the 13th.
This secret had been buried for over two decades, if it was going to surface, it would be on this unluckiest of days. It has been at least that long since I have been back here, in my childhood home. I have talked with my 4 siblings occasionally during that time. We tried, all of us tried, to stay in contact but the weight of this burden stilts our conversation. No one wants to talk about it, so we end up not talking about anything. After, “How are the folks?” And “What’s the weather like out there?” The conversation dries up and whoever is on the other end of the phone suddenly remembers something crucial that needs attention, right now.
It feels strange, and yet right, to be standing in the living room of my childhood home. The big sofa in the blue tapestry prints my Mom loves so much. That blue she somehow managed to find the exact shade to match the curtains hanging from silver rods. Mom always called this the “Queen Elizabeth” room, and we rarely used it. Mom would say, “I want a room that is always clean in case someone important shows up. There have been many changes and it says a lot about the changes that bring me here that I am waiting here now, waiting. For what or who, I am not entirely sure.
I know everyone is coming but I think I may be the first to arrive home. I long and fear to hear Mom’s voice. “Baby.” She will manage to put love, longing, and reproach in that one word. I am the baby. The youngest of four and it is my fault this family once so close has been splintered for 25 years. Looking out the big picture window I see, not the suburban landscape but a field, a shed, and more blood than I had ever seen up to that point in my young life. More than I have seen since if I am being honest.
Bile rises in my throat as unwillingly I go back to that other time and place. I rub my hands over the sides of my slacks and feel not worsted wool but the nubby corduroys I used to wear.
“Joseph,” I hear my Mom’s voice, “Are you going to make it back in time for dinner?”
I call down from my room, “Yeah Mom, this is only going to take a minute. I am just going to help Carl out with a few things.”
“Well, I think it’s great that you are helping him out but don’t let him take advantage of you,” Mom called back.
“Senior year has been harder for him than me, Mom.” I said, “Mr. McCarthy hasn’t given him any help with his college applications.”
I pulled my favorite sweater vest over a tucked-in grey button-down shirt. Grabbing my Member’s Only jacket, I headed down the steps. Detouring to the kitchen I kissed her cheek and grabbed an apple out of the refrigerator before heading out the back door. My long legs moved quickly down the stairs and headed toward downtown. In front of the library, I saw Carl sitting on the steps. The minute I saw his posture I slowed. Something wasn’t right.
“Carl?” At the sound of my voice, he raised his head. There was a gash on his forehead and a shiner starting to blossom where his cornflower-blue left eye usually resided.
“Carl,” I said, drawing near to him “Did your foster dad do this? Was this Mr. McCarthy?”
I really didn’t need to ask, I knew the cause of Carls’s bumps, bruises, and misery. Jonas McCarthy, his. His foster dad. Carl was his meal ticket since he received a stipend from the state for the care and feeding of this young man and the four other foster kids in his care. The others were bigger and more aggressive, so Jonas saved Carl for working off his frustration. Carl’s good eye welled with tears that threatened to shed.
“He destroyed it, Joseph. He mumbled holding out his clenched fist. He turned it up and when it opened, I saw a tiny figure fell from his palm. It was part of a larger wood sculpture he had spent days working on.
“Oh,” I said. softly. “I’m sorry, Carl.”
“I hate him! I hate him. I wish he were dead. He kills everything good. He can’t stand for anyone to have any joy because his life is inside a bottle. I wish he were dead! I wish I could kill him. I have to get away or I swear I don’t know what I will do to him. I can’t take it anymore.” Choking sobs made his words unintelligent mumbles. I sat beside him with my arm around his shoulders.
“Where’s the rest of the statue?” I asked.
“I put as much as I could into a box and hid it so he couldn’t find it.” He stood up. “It’s no use. There’s not time to do it all over again in time for the scholarship competition.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” I said, the eternal optimist. “Let’s go look at what’s left.”
I pushed up from the library steps and started towards the street. I stopped when I realized he was not following me.
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. It’s all over. I’m never getting out of here or away from him. That scholarship is as far away as China.” He stood and pushed his hands into his pockets.
“You can’t know that yet”, It couldn’t hurt for me to see it, could it?” I faced him. You know what you always say, ”It’s not over until it’s over.”
He choked out a laugh,” I don’t say that, you do.”
He shook his head and caught up with me. He started to whistle, Rascal Flats, “Bless the Broken Road.” As he linked his arm with mine.
We walked through the town and out into the back of the strawberry field to the cabin that Carl used as a hideaway. Most of the time it was used by the workers to box up strawberries for sale but right now it was empty. I knew Mr. & Mrs. Faulkner, the owners. I also knew they knew we were often there, but as long as nothing was damaged and we were gone when it needed to be used, they didn’t mind Carl using it. Like most of the town, they knew his sorry story and were glad for him to have a place to escape away from Jonas.
I walked inside and as always, I was greeted by the smell of strawberries and wood shavings. Underneath the bench, Carl picked up a wooden box.
When he lifted off the lid, my heart sank when I saw the damaged statue. I don’t know what I thought Carl meant when he said “He destroyed it”, but I hadn’t imagined anything like this.
Even back then I had some skills in woodworking. It started as a hobby and as these things do, grew into a passion. Good as I was, Carl was better, but now, I looked at Carl’s work. Originally it had been a three-dimensional piece an intricate pattern of faces and hearts creating multiple designs which changed depending on the angle you gazed at it. Jonas had to jump all over it to achieve this level of destruction. I saw tears hit the table and looked at Carl.
“Oh man,” I had no other words. His hands holding the lid started to shake. I knew he was seeing his entry to the University Art school in as many pieces as his sculpture. He started to lower the lid.
I reached for his hand. “Wait,” I said, “Maybe, just maybe.”
“What?” he snapped., “There’s no time. The deadline is in three days. I busted my ass 6 months on this. Nah man, it’s over.”
I reached into the box and took out a small heart which miraculously had escaped being destroyed. Turning the heart over, I saw the small face Carl had carved into it.
“What if you make this a sculptor about small pieces, almost invisible to the naked eye. You know, go for small instead of large.”
I reached in again for another piece of heart.
“Could you sand this part smooth and wood glue another piece onto this?”
He was shaking his head even as I could see my ideas the idea starting to take hold bloom. He took the small piece from me and turned to look inside the box of endings, now suddenly a box of possibilities.
“Needs more cedar,” he said but he was no longer talking to me.
“I’ll go pick up some cedar and bring it tomorrow” I was backing out of the door, “I have to head for home in a bit. Tomorrow, I have to help my dad with a big job, but I’ll meet you after, ok?”
Carl looked up at me and smiled. “I was ready to give up, Thank you Joseph.” he said, “You never give up.”
I smiled, “Oh I do, I said, “But I’ll never give up on you.”
Home around the dinner table I shared Carl’s story and plight. My parents shook their heads.
“I am so glad he will age out of the foster care system next year. As hard as being on his own will be, it won’t be as hard as living with that devil of a man” Mom put the potatoes down with a forcefulness they hadn’t earned.
My father said nothing, but I could see the tightening of his jaw and I knew he was thinking some hard thoughts about Mr. McCarthy.
My older sister Sonja said, “I can’t believe they keep sending foster kids to him.”
“Baby Bro, there are more kids needing homes than there are homes for. Many foster homes have kind people who are trying to do their best for their charges, but a lot of them just do it for the little extra money they get from housing these kids. As long as the kids don’t get any truancies, stay out of trouble, and don’t end up in the hospital nobody pays too much attention to them,” Pelagie, my oldest sister said.
“I know Carl’s foster brothers. So many of the kids Mr. McCarthy looks after are bullies, or if they aren’t when he gets them, they are when they leave,” said Claude looking at Pelagie.
“I’m glad you were able to help him, son. But, You know I am still counting on you tomorrow for help at the Janitorial service.”
“I know dad, I’ll be there. I have time to pick up the cedar for Carl and drop it off before I join you at the job. Is that okay?” I asked.
“Not a problem,” he said reaching for a cookie off the plate Mom had laid out for dessert.
The next day, during a passing period at school, I saw Carl. He was all excited about the repair work on the sculpture, but we didn’t have time to talk about it. I gave him the cedar and watched as he put it into his locker, and we agreed to meet later.
I got to his studio and used the key to let myself in. My jaw fell open as I looked at his work. Gifted didn’t even begin to describe his talent. If he had been born into another life, with classes and opportunities, instructors, mentors, and privilege. Well, I thought ‘Maybe he was so good because he did not have those things. My Mom always said, ’We are always where we are supposed to be, doing what we are supposed to be doing, otherwise we’d be somewhere else, doing something else.’
This sculpture was smaller and more intricate than the first piece and it had less detail, but the richness of each of the images more than made up for it. It was mixed woods composed of hearts, within hearts, and more hearts everywhere you looked. Inside each heart was a face, an image, a token.
I heard Carl behind me, and I turned. He smiled when he saw the look on my face.
“It’s amazing,” I said, “Even better than the piece he destroyed.”
He nodded. “I want to polish it and add some lacquer to make it gleam, but it will be done in time to send off. Thanks, Joseph.”
He pointed to the tiny symbol inside one of the hearts. I had somehow missed it while taking in the entire piece. It was a tiny broken twig. He hummed a few bars of ‘Bless the Broken Road.’ God Bless the broken road that led me straight to you. It was our symbol. I hugged him.
* * *
A day later, I found the perfect box and went to meet Carl at the studio as we had planned. I raced in with excitement and stopped short. Then I saw the sculpture was now a pile of splintered wood and lying next to Carl in a pool of blood.
Over him stood his foster father Jonas McCarthy. “You slept in my house, under my roof, you little fa…” he stopped and didn’t get the next word out of his mouth because I was on top of him.
I slammed his back down on the ground and pounded his head over and over until he was limp and I saw his eyes glaze. Only then did I think of Carl. Crawling to him I saw his wide-open eyes and knew he was gone. I sobbed as I touched his face.
I panicked. I had killed McCarthy, and for what? It wasn’t going to bring Carl back. I got up and ran. I don’t remember doing it, but I must have managed to get home, change my clothes, and destroy the ones I was wearing.
There was a big stink about the two bodies found in the strawberry field shed, but no lack of witnesses to speak up about how Jonas had treated Carl. Obviously, Jonas had killed Carl, but who then killed Jonas? I was called by the police and had to give a statement. I said what everybody else said about their relationship. I waited several months to let everyone decide for now, the case would remain unsolved. No family came forward to ask for “justice” for Jonas McCarthy. Six months later I packed up and left.
My family tried to talk me out of walking away from the college art scholarship. I tried to talk to them about what had happened, but I just couldn’t. I was so sure they wouldn’t understand, and they would be embarrassed by me and what I was. No, the best thing was for me to leave, and so I did. Now I have come back. Back home to face my memories, my fears, and my family.
Sonja watched from the doorway. I hadn’t meant to creep up on Joseph, but his still shoulders told me he wasn’t aware of my presence yet. I watched him, eyes closed facing the picture window in the “Queen Elizabeth” room. My God, it was good to see him again. I had missed him so much. So often I had wanted to call and tell him the truth. ‘It wasn’t your fault the family split up; You weren’t the one that was the problem. It was me.’