The Teller

The Teller

The Teller 1818 1228 Emily Mani

M y brother is playing street hockey with the boys. Krystal and I sit on the lawn, making pretend salads with grass and crabapples. We’re eleven, too old to be playing make-believe but it happens automatically when we’re talking.

“That can’t be true,” she says, sitting up straight, her brow furrowed. She is scared, and it’s my fault because I’m the one who told her. But instead of saying sorry, I think about Megan Farquharson because she was the one who told me.

“Why would he even do that?” asks Krystal.

“Because he’s a psychopath,” I say. It’s a new word for me. I found out what it means a few days ago.

Krystal puts a hand to her stomach. I know that what I’ve told her is making her feel sick. I know because this has happened to me, especially in the last few weeks since the trial started.

At recess, the girls stand around listening to Megan. She tells us what she’s read in the paper or heard from her other friends at dance and Girl Guides. I only go to piano lessons and my piano teacher, Tevy, is nineteen and not going to discuss the trial with an eleven-year-old. Also, I think my mom hides the paper. This means that I get all my information from Megan Farquharson. It’s usually second or third-hand information by then, and sometimes I wonder if it’s completely made up although it’s hard to tell because the real details are unbelievably horrible.

When I’m The Hearer, I feel unsafe because just about anything could come out of Megan’s mouth and change me forever. The change starts in my stomach and moves outwards in all directions and only takes a couple of seconds.

Still, I want to know what she’s going to say. The details are out there, everywhere and wild and I would like to hear them, and put them into order and move on. When I learn a song on the piano, Tevy puts a star on the page and we turn it. The problem with the trial is that the details keep coming and it will never end.

Six months ago I went outside after dinner and knocked on Krystal’s door to come out and play. She opened the door with a fork in her hand because her family was still at the table.

“There’s a girl missing and she has the same name as me,” she said, important and responsible with the information. That’s the only time that Krystal was The Teller, and I didn’t do much with the information. I didn’t even think about it for very long because back then, we didn’t know how bad it was all going to get.

Now Krystal stands up, arms limp at her sides.

“I’m going home, Allie,” she says and turns and walks to her house next door, carefully, like there are dangerous things hidden in the grass.

When I’m The Teller, I feel in control. Before a detail leaves my mouth, I’m the author of the story like Judy Blume or Ann M. Martin. I can move things around with my little finger. It’s not until later, when it’s dark and I’m in bed that I remember that I’m not the author of this story. The author of this story is a psychopath.

I look at my pretend salad and flick the crabapples with my finger. One of them lands on the street, right in the middle of the hockey game. The boys don’t notice. In just a few minutes, it will be squashed. In a few minutes more, my mom will come outside onto the front porch and call our names because it’s getting dark. She’ll have so many thoughts but will only say one. You’re supposed to come inside when the streetlights come on. We’ll go upstairs for baths and our feet will sting because they are cold. The dirt will be extra stubborn, frozen into our fingerprints.

 

Since I’ve been having trouble sleeping, my mom lets me listen to stories on tape. I found a tape with an episode about bullying on one side, and an episode about divorce on the other side. Bullying and divorce are not happy subjects, but they’re not scary. The main characters are helping each other and just want what’s best for everyone. None of them are psychopaths.

Usually I listen to the entire tape three times before I finally fall asleep. But tonight I am having trouble again. I’m thinking about the new detail, the one that I told Krystal and was in control of for a moment. I can feel it taking hold of my thoughts. I can feel it alone with me in the room.

I raise my hand up in the dark. There is a little heart on my palm that I drew at recess today with a permanent green marker. I pretend that I’m Krystal, not my next-door-neighbour-Krystal but the Krystal that went missing. I imagine that I’m trapped somewhere, far away from my mom and brother, and I’m tracing the heart on the palm of my hand to keep from crying.

Fear shoots through my body and I gasp. I sit up in bed, making a move to go find my mom and tell her I’m scared again. But then I remember that I’m trying not to do that anymore.

Instead, I press stop on my cassette tape and put my head back on the pillow, shutting my eyes tight. I imagine my fear. I imagine Krystal, the one that went missing, and I imagine the psychopath who took her and the house where it all happened and I imagine packing it all down into the palm of my hand like a tiny snowball. I put it inside one of those plastic containers that come out of a gumball machine, and I cover it in several layers of duct tape, then throw it away from me, out of my house and up into the night sky traveling at light speed into space until it’s out of our galaxy, until it’s gone from the universe to where there is nobody and nothing.

Then I press play on my radio and try to focus on the story of Jimmy and his parents’ divorce.

 

In the morning, the fear is hardened and grown over like a scab. It’s easier not to think about once I’m dressed and downstairs in the kitchen with my mom and brother. My brother is at the table slurping Shreddies and reading a Consumers Distributing catalogue. Behind him, my mom has the little television turned to the morning news. She makes me cheddar cheese melted on toast and a glass of apple juice.

“Piano lessons tonight,” she says. “Did you practice?”

I nod. It’s Musette in D Major by Bach and I think it’s nearly perfect. I’ll probably get a gold star and a new song to practice for next week.

My mom is wearing a royal blue skirt and blazer. Her teased hair is pulled into a ponytail at the base of her neck. I like her makeup because she has applied a mauve eyeshadow.

“Are you alright?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “Why?”

She brushes hair out of my face, her fingernails gently scratching my forehead. They are painted hot pink. I lean my head on her stomach for a moment, then manage to eat my toast.

My brother and I leave for school, meeting up with one of his friends. The two of them walk ahead of me. I’m not sure what they’re talking about, but they are very energetic, waving their hands around. I plod along behind. I feel like I’m trying to get my bearings, like the first day back at school after having the stomach flu.

“Allie!” my brother screams, because we’re supposed to stay together. “Hurry up!”

I can see my friends clustered in the schoolyard. Megan is watching me get closer and I know that she is about to be The Teller. I am about to be The Hearer, changed by another terrible detail.

 

My piano lesson is at 6pm. By the time I set out to Tevy’s house, the sun is starting to go down behind the houses. I’m comforted by the kids that are outside playing, but the teenage boys scare me. They lean against cars and smoke, watching me walk by as if we have a history in which I did something wrong to them. I hug my piano book close to my chest and walk at just the right pace, fast enough that I’m not sticking around for any trouble, slow enough that I don’t look frightened.

I get to Tevy’s house and ask if she knows those boys, since they’re teenagers and she’s a teengager.

“Who?” she asks.

“The boys on the driveway.”

She looks at me blankly, like she’s never seen teenage boys in her whole life.

“They’re smoking,” I say.

“Who?”

I get the idea that she knows the boys I’m talking about, but discussing them is beneath her. Tevy is classy and so is her house. It’s full of polished wooden furniture and musical instruments and books. The television is never on and there is no overhead lighting. The air smells faintly of lemon and flowers.

Tevy has straight hair that sits just below her shoulders and looks like it’s cut every day. She wears large, wire rim glasses and striped tops and expensive looking jeans. Everything about her is perfect, and I want to be like her so much that it hurts.

“Did you practice this week?” she asks.

I nod. I always nod because I always practice. I’m a very good student and we both know it.

I sit down at the piano and Tevy sits down beside me on a dining room chair with dark wooden arm rests.

I start with scales, Tevy keeping time by tapping her pen on the side of the piano.

“Okay,” she says. “Now let’s hear the piece.”

I turn to Musette in D Major in my music book but play mostly from memory. It’s a pleasant song. It makes me imagine that in the past, nothing bad ever happened but nothing really exciting happened either. This is mostly what I long for.

When I’m done with the piece, Tevy nods but makes me shove down on the bench. She wants me to play the left hand with more pluck.

“Hear the difference?” She is playing the part without looking at the keys. Her fingers jump like cartoon baby deer in spring.

I nod and smile, then she shoves back off the bench and lets me try again. Before I’m even done, I see her reach for the gold stars out of the corner of my eye. Tevy has dozens of sheets of these stickers, but they’re valuable to me. I love when her fingers smooth one onto the corner of the piece, crisp and shiny on the wrinkled pages I inherited from my cousin, and then my brother, who never practiced and doesn’t take lessons anymore.

I watch Tevy flip through my book, deciding which song to assign me next. Her fingernails are so clean and smooth that they look fake, like plastic.

“How old are you?” I ask, even though I already know.

“Nineteen,” she says, without looking up.

I sigh. That, plus the look on my face says it all: You’re so lucky. I wish I was nineteen. 

She smiles. “You’re older than you think,” she says.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re very mature for your age.”

This is the best thing anyone has ever said to me. I want to ask how mature she thinks I am. Practically thirteen? Practically fourteen? I want to be as practically old as possible. I want to be as self-assured as my brother, and the boys on the driveway so that I don’t have to worry when I’m walking to school or piano lessons.

I look at Tevy and words come out. They are the kind of words I usually wouldn’t say to an adult because they’re completely honest. But Tevy is just barely an adult.

“When I’m nineteen, I won’t have to worry about psychopaths anymore.”

And Tevy looks at me and words come out, the kind you don’t usually say to children. But the trial has pushed us to the brink, like when you are on the verge of tears except it’s not tears we’ve been holding back, it’s words. Sometimes you cry in places you don’t want to cry in. Sometimes you say things to children.

“You’ll always have to worry about psychopaths,” she says.

“Not when I’m a grown-up woman,” I insist.

There is already regret on her face. She regrets the words as they come. “Especially when you’re a grown-up woman.”

She is stunned for a moment, like she’s accidentally told a secret. But then she laughs and I don’t understand what’s so funny. When she sees me, frowning and confused, she turns back to my music book.

“Alright,” she says. “Something more sombre.”

She puts the book on the piano ledge, open to a new wrinkled page. There is no star.  After the Ball by Alexandr Gretchaninov.

 

Later, my mom and brother are in bed and the house is quiet except for my stories on tape. I have lost count of how many times I’ve listened to each episode, but it’s at least three. Each time one story ends, I sit up in bed and hum Musette in D Major while I flip the tape. I don’t want to be in silence for even a second because the fear creeps in so fast it’s like when you spill milk and the puddle races right under the refrigerator before you have a chance to think about where the paper towel is. The fear finds the dark corners of my mind that I don’t know about, the corners that all other parts of me are slanted towards.

After piano lessons, I couldn’t eat my dinner even though it was pizza from the grocery store deli counter, where the crust is like bread and the mushrooms come from a can, slippery and salty like fish. It’s my favourite, both mine and my brother’s. My mom always brings it home on piano lesson night. I only took one bite and struggled to chew.

“Are you alright?” my mom asked.

The mauve around her eyes had mostly rubbed off and her foundation had caked into the fine lines around her eyes. I saw what it was to be a woman. I imagined an entire life of worrying about psychopaths. I thought that my mom must be tired and I felt so sad for her and for me and I felt angry with my brother, who was on his fourth piece of pizza. There was dirt under his fingernails and I wondered if it was from today or yesterday.

The story on tape ends and the play button on my radio pops up. Then my room is silent. I sit up, humming, but stop when I realize that I’m not humming Musette in D Major this time. I’m humming After the Ball. I’m looking at the green heart on my palm, nearly faded from all the washing. I’m pretending that I’m missing, like Krystal. I have the same body. I have the same hands. But I’m far from home and my mom and brother. I’m trapped, and the green heart will outlast me.

Fear seeps under the refrigerator.

I get out of bed and carefully run down the hallway to my mom’s bedroom, opening the door without knocking.

“Mom?”

She sits up like she’s been waiting for me. It’s like she doesn’t sleep, just lays in bed all night, awake.

“Are you alright?” she says.

I shake my head and the words come out. I am The Teller.

“Megan said that the psychopath cut off Krystal’s arms and legs.”

My mom stares at me while the words fall. She is trying to decide if they’re true. She is trying to decide if it even matters if they’re true.

“Allie,” she says, and gets out of bed and picks me up.

I don’t remember the last time my mom carried me, and I know it will only last the hallway. I hug her tight around her neck. I put my nose to her hair.

She carries me into my bedroom and gets into bed with me, one arm under my head and across my chest. I clasp it. Her hand is incredibly soft. She has four rings on, even though it’s night time.

“Okay,” she says, smoothing my hair with her other hand. “Shhh.”

“Tevy said that grown up women have to worry about psychopaths too,” I say. “I don’t want to be scared for the rest of my life.”

“Shhh,” says my mom again, and she hugs me tighter, so tight that I almost lose my breath.

I want to stay this way. I don’t want morning to come because I don’t want to walk to school along the sidewalk where a psychopath could pluck me up. I don’t want to go to Tevy’s and walk past the teenage boys. I don’t want to see Megan at school tomorrow because there will be more details.

“Okay,” says my mom. “Shhh.”

I can feel my mom’s heartbeat and her breath on my ear and I focus on these things. I think I’m too scared to ever sleep again, but in just a few minutes the fear will start to harden over like a scab. A few minutes more and I will feel tired, mercifully, and I’ll fall asleep wrapped up in my mom. I’ll fall asleep but my mom will not.

She’ll have so many thoughts but will only say one and nobody will hear her. Fear is for children, she’ll whisper, listening to make sure I don’t stir. Fear is just for children.

Header photography © Madeline Mecca.

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