Sunday, March 16, 2014

Periwinkle, Periwinkle by Jeremy Billingsley

A nine year old girl tries to protect her little brother from their mother's hatred in Jeremy Billingsley's creepy story; first published in Fat City Review, July 2013.

Rapps Barren, Arkansas, the 1950s.

Periwinkle Roberts shut her eyes when the slap came. When she opened them she focused outside the window where a chirping blue jay perched on a limb of the maple in bloom. The sky beyond was cloudless. Outside looked warm, safe. She could hear a soft mewling, just under breath, and though the hand hadn't touched her, she felt the sting all the same.

Waiting to turn around until after the door slammed shut, the footsteps faded, Periwinkle turned and faced her younger brother. A red welt already began to rise on his left cheek. His eyes welled with tears, but rather than allowing those tears to fall, he puffed his cheeks out and pouted his lips. She crawled off her bed and slid across the mauve carpet to put her arm around him. He leaned on her shoulder. Presently she felt a teardrop splash on her shoulder.

They lived in a two-story farmhouse with nearly an acre of yard, front and back, and the backyard faced a deep wood. A mile-long country road led from the driveway to the county highway, which in turn meandered lazily toward town some ten more miles away. The nearest neighbor was a half a mile away on either side. They had a pool, a tire swing, and a trail that led into the woods. Outside this particular afternoon their father was roofing a tree house in the old elm by the front drive. Every Saturday from ten till about three, he'd sip his beer and work with Mr. Johnson up in the tree-house.

Their father ran an auto-home-and-life insurance company in town, their mother stayed at home and the family was always well-received at church. They were a typical family of the time and place, WASPs and upper middle-class, the children blonde and blue-eyed and rosy cheeked. They seemed perfect and lived in what looked like a perfect home. But this home held secrets that would change an outsider's view of the Roberts family. Or maybe just expose them for who they truly were. Whenever Periwinkle thought of these secrets - like now, as she held her little brother - she thought of a long time ago, when she was even smaller.



Periwinkle stood outside her parents' door, her ear pressed against the surface, listening. They had been talking for over an hour. Earlier that evening, at dinner, they told Periwinkle that she was going to have a little baby to play with. Periwinkle was excited. But her parents had quickly moved their conversation upstairs. They didn't do that often and this intrigued Peri. She had waited a few minutes before sneaking up the stairs and listening at their door.

"I do love her," said her father.

"You don't spend any time with her!"

"I spend time with her. She knows I love her. I was raised in a house..."

"I know, I know. We've heard it a million times. Your mom raised a bunch of boys. You don't know how to act around girls. Funny, but you didn't have a problem with me in college."

"That was different, Maureen."

"Fine. I hope it's a boy too, if it will get you off my back. But you better not play favorites. You better not neglect Peri anymore, you understand?"

Her father was silent for a time. Periwinkle heard her mother say, "What?" several times, before her father spoke.

"You remember my secretary. The one I fired."

"I remember."

"I had to fire her. She wanted to come to you."

"You bastard," her mother said. Periwinkle clapped a hand to her mouth to muffle the gasp. She could not remember ever hearing her mother curse.

"She didn't understand what I have here," her father said.

"Nothing," Periwinkle's mother said. "Absolutely nothing."



Not long after Joe's birth, Periwinkle again overheard a conversation. Outside Joe's nursery, little Peri had followed her mother upstairs to ask if she could ride Mr. Johnson's horse - their nearest neighbor and a dear old friend of their father's. But she stopped when she heard her mother address her tiny baby brother.

"You are a bastard child, aren't you? Yes you are. Uh huh." Mingling with her mother's voice came chuckling from an infant boy.

"Your daddy wanted a boy. He doesn't care about his daughter. Did you know that?"

Chuckling.

"He has whored around and he thinks you are the pride of his world. But you know what I think?"

The boy-infant made a gurgling sound.

"I think you are the prize from his whore-mongering."

The infant began to whimper, then cry. Periwinkle saw a little hand reach up through the railing bars. Her mother turned on a heel and Periwinkle swung around the corner and darted down the hall to her own room. Periwinkle leaned against her bedroom door, breathing hard, only sure that her mother had not seen her when she heard footfalls on the stairs.



That was a long time ago. Peri was now nine and Joe was now three, and his left cheek had reddened to a welt. Peri listened to her mother explain away the dark pattern on Joe's cheek as her dad drank a beer with dinner, and after her bath that night, Periwinkle knelt at her bedside and folded her hands together and closed her eyes.

"I don't think I can protect my little brother, so maybe You can protect him. Or even, maybe You can help him protect himself. I know You can, God. I always believed in You. In Christ Jesus's name Amen."

The next morning, Periwinkle's father came into her room, asked her to dress quietly and meet him downstairs, in the kitchen. Periwinkle found him sipping a cup of coffee at the kitchen table, rubbing his temple. The light from outside was blue, the chill of the early morning had invited itself into the kitchen. They exited out the back door off the laundry room, cut through the yard, and took the trail that led into the woods. Her sandaled feet fell upon dewy grass that splashed mud on her heels and ankles.

Her father didn't speak as they walked slowly down the dirt path, undergrowth reaching out for their shins. They had walked for a pretty long while when he paused under a cedar, pointing down to a clump of red and white flowers. "You were named after those flowers," he said. Periwinkle knelt, stroked the blossoms before plucking a few and carrying them like a bunch of daisies.

"Periwinkles, Daddy?"

"That's right, sweetheart."

"And what was Joe named after?" she asked.

She caught sight of a frown on her father's face before he looked away.

"Nothing."

After a time they came upon a brook. A family of deer stretched their necks till their lips kissed the water. The doe was almost a solid brown with a white underbelly, the two fawns - twins, it appeared - still fresh with spots. At first they took no notice of either Periwinkle or her father, his hand on her shoulder. When the deer finally noticed, they looked wide-eyed from her to her father, they blinked and turned and scampered into the underbrush.

Further up the stream they found a hollow oak log, bark peeling and worms and maggots and millipedes scurrying underneath. The sky through the canopy of oak leaves and piney tops was whiter now, the air warmer, drawing sweat out of their pores. The dew now burned off, Periwinkle's feet now felt mud-caked in the sunlight, laden by the clinging dew and sweat and dust kicked up by footfalls.

"The deer were neat," Periwinkle said.

"You know I love you, don't you?"

"Yes, Daddy. I know you love me. I love you."

"I would not trade you for anything in this world."

"I know, Daddy." She didn't want to cry right now. He looked away, staring up at the cloudless sky, a warm breeze flowed between the oaks and maples and cedars.

"Your brother isn't as clumsy as all that, is he?"

Periwinkle shook her head.

"You'd tell me, wouldn't you?" her father asked, meeting her eyes. "Big girl promise, now," he added, holding out his fist but with his thumb up. Mimicking his fist, she touched her thumb to his.

"I promise," she said.



She woke long enough the next morning to hear her father say that the Studebaker needed a tune-up and he'd be a bit late, and then she went back to sleep. When she woke up again she heard her mother shouting foul words that the old ladies at church would say didn't fit her mother.

Periwinkle's mother thrashed about the kitchen, tossing pots and pans every which way. Her little brother, eyes wide and unblinking, sat on a stool nearby, nibbling on a cracker, crumbs about his lips.

"You think I can prepare such a dinner in time, you little bastard? His boss is coming over. Did he ask me if that was okay? He just assumes I'll do it. Like he assumed I wouldn't find out about that blonde number in the tight sweater they just hired and I'd forget that your daddy has been coming home later and later."

Joe didn't respond.

Her apron was wrinkled, her flower-patterned dress was wrinkled and faded, the armpits stained with sweat.

"Your father wants a feast for him and his boss," her mother said calmly when Periwinkle walked around the corner. "Go upstairs."

She looked to Joe. He shook his head, but she had no choice. She wanted to run to him, to hug him. In that moment she wanted to show him the periwinkle flowers, the deer.

Periwinkle walked upstairs to her room, her head swooning, and spent the afternoon staring out the window to the tree-house. Forever passed slowly as bluebirds frolicked outside, a couple of squirrels scampered about, until the sound of her mother's calm yet high-pitched voice called her back down to the kitchen.

She noticed the smell first, something like pork boiling in a large pot on the stove. Steam rolled out from under the lid. Her mother sat at the kitchen table, staring, rocking slowly in a chair. Her skin was oily and sweat-sheened, her hair disheveled. Blood was everywhere on the island bar. The blade of a large meat cleaver had been wedged into the cutting board atop the counter, covered in blood. A wad of clothes, now just crimson dyed rags, were crumpled up in the corner. A burlap sack stained maroon sat at her mother's feet.

Periwinkle said nothing, her mind tried to organize things, but the scene became cartoonish in the eyes of the child, appeared as bright vibrant colors leaping out at her, painted on in a smear.

"Bury this." Her mother pointed to the sack. "I'm going to clean up before your father gets home."

Periwinkle rushed to the back door, pushed it open, just barely making it to the grass before she wretched and heaved, last night's supper spilling out, then bile burned her throat and mouth. From behind her the sack rolled into the yard, her mother's shadow loomed over her. A cold sweat broke out over her body, the color gone from her face, Periwinkle trembled, reached out and hoisted the bag up.

She dragged the burlap sack across the back yard, leaving a sanguine smear atop the grass blades. Mounting the hill, Periwinkle immediately found relief in the shade, a cool breeze blowing from the east. As she dragged the sack, the burlap fibers cut into her clenched fist. She and Joe should be playing up in the tree house.

Periwinkle released the bag and prostrated on the dirt path by a florid patch underneath a large cedar, her hands covering her face and muffling her sobs.

He needed a proper burial.

She knew where she wanted to bury him: under that clump of periwinkle flowers. He would be shaded easily by the cedar, and have a cool breeze during the warmer months, and a pretty good view. But she had nothing to bury him with, and this thought brought more tears.

She found a rock, just large enough but one she could still handle. Periwinkle wept and her tears dampened the soil, then the jagged edge of the rock tilled the soil loose. The flowers undisturbed, she found she could pull the patch - roots and all - off the soil bed. She laid it aside and continued stabbing at the dirt, crying harder and harder until a modest hole lay in front of her. She picked up the bag, struggling not to simply drop it in the hole, but place it gently.

"I love you, Joe. And Daddy loves you. I'm sorry I couldn't help you. I hope God can protect you now."

Kneeling, she raked the dirt back over the bag and all, finding that she hadn't enough to completely cover the bag. So she walked the area, gathering rocks, the larger the better, and laid them over the bag as well. A cairn just slightly rounded above the surface of the ground was crowned by the jagged rock she had used to dig the hole. Finally she blanketed the grave with the patch of periwinkle flowers. She stepped back to look at her work.

Periwinkle wiped her cheeks, blew a kiss toward the grave, then made her way home. Two hours after she had vomited, Periwinkle approached the house, noticed the black fifty-gallon trash bag just beside the door. The kitchen was immaculate, the smell of bleach overwhelming. Her mother had time enough to even clean herself up. Standing at the stove, stirring the pot, her mother looked over her shoulder and smiled at Periwinkle.

"Did you play well, honey? That bag shouldn't be too heavy. I just did a little lawn care, if you'd take it to the curb for me. Trash comes tomorrow, remember. Joe went over to Mr. Johnson's via the woods. I told him to be back by dinner."

Her father's car pulled into the drive followed by a black Packard as she hoisted the trash-bag to the curb. Periwinkle bounded to him, fresh tears and sobs, clinging to his neck.

"Dear," he said, patting her back, then rubbing just below her shoulders. The driver of the other car exited. A bald man in a suit smiled at her. She sobbed into his nice dress shirt. "It'll be okay," he whispered, and then he said, "Hi, honey?"

Periwinkle froze, held her breath. She stared over her father's shoulder, her lips quivering. Her mother's voice sounded like cracking ice. "How was your day, dear?"

"Long. You know Mr. Sherman, our District Supervisor," he said as he carried Periwinkle inside. Still rubbing her back, he asked in a slightly softer tone, "What's wrong with her?"

"Poor dear is coming down with something, I think. She's been playing outside all day, and I'm sure she got too hot. Might be a case of spring fever."

He set her down, ruffled her hair. "Where's Joe?"

"He said he was cutting through the woods to go visit Mr. Johnson. Dinner's ready."

"Smells great. I'll be right back." He patted his boss on the shoulder and invited him to tour the house. As the two men headed upstairs, Periwinkle was spun around, her arm tight in her mother's grip, her pasty skin already reddening, her mother knelt to look at her eye level.

"I did this for you, okay. You best straighten up and remember that."

When her father returned, Periwinkle sat at the table, elbows on the doily covered top and hands under her chin. Five place settings were laid out; her father went immediately to the telephone and dialed Mr. Johnson's number.

"Phil? Hey, it's Bill. Would you send Joe back? ...Oh, he isn't. Oh, okay. Well thank you."

"When did he leave?"

"A couple of hours ago," her mother said, stumbling a little across her words. She ushered her husband toward his chair. "Sit. Eat. I'll go look for him. I'm sure he's just out playing in back or in the tree house.

Periwinkle's father stirred the bowl of stew with a spoon. The liquid turbid, the meat gray and chunky, bits of gristle her father spit out fell onto the saucer under the bowl. He slurped the broth from the spoon, sopped up more juice with the crackers.

"This is really good," his boss said.

Periwinkle felt nauseous. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Her father took notice, brushed her matted hair away, felt her clammy forehead.

"Why don't you go to bed," he said, his voice gentle.

"I love you, Daddy," she said. He pulled her close, hugged her as fresh tears moistened her flushed cheeks. The door opened and her mother entered. She fumbled for a chair, put the back of her right hand to her forehead and closed her eyes.

"Oh dear, I'm so sorry, I couldn't find him, I'm feeling ever so faint, I just can't go on further."

"I can help," his boss said.

"Thank you. I'll get my neighbor, Mr. Johnson. Thank you. I'm sorry." His boss left as her mother made her way to the stairs, and her father patted her head. "You go off to bed, sweetie, I'm going to go find your brother,"

No, you're not, she thought.



"Periwinkle, Periwinkle
Where have you gone?
My Ma killed me and you took away my bones.
My Pa ate me though he didn't know it
I really want to sing but my Ma slit my throat."
- An old Ozark folk song



She lay in the bed, her face smothered by the pillow, held by her hands. She wished to join her brother rather than carry all of this. Her father would not find her brother, no more a successful search than her mother had attempted.

Now her mother lay in bed asleep. The door had not opened and closed since her father had left. So when Periwinkle felt fingers caress the back of her right hand, she jumped. It couldn't be anyone else. It just couldn't. It had to be her mother, and now it was her turn.

Her eyes tried to adjust to the dark. Periwinkle reached over and turned on her bedside lamp. The pillow that had covered her face now lay in her lap, and covering it a handful of petals, small red and white buds.

A scream filled the house. Frozen, unable to block out the sound, Periwinkle was only able to move when the quiet returned; she shivered as gooseflesh chased up her arms and across the back of her neck.

The door creaked open. Periwinkle stared into her parents' room, afraid to even call out for her mother. What moonlight came through the drawn blinds tiger-striped across the bed and sheets, outlining a lump in the middle. A glint of metal caught her eye, she saw a shadow at the foot of the bed. A black mass no taller than three feet swayed a bit, held up the knife so that the moonlight glinted off the blood-soaked blade. Periwinkle heard it breathing.

Something familiar in the simulacrum, its size, the way it panted, she was on the verge of recognition as the light came on after footsteps from behind, and the horror in the bed splayed out before her. Periwinkle turned her head away, buried her face in her father's stomach, even as he patted her with his right hand. She noticed how rigid he stood, how his left hand was held up by his chest, clenched into a fist, his knuckles whitening.

Periwinkle peaked around, found no black mass at the base of the bed and no knife. Instead a jagged rock, pointed, with clumps of dirt and blood, lay at the foot of the bed on the comforter.

"How long you been in here?" Periwinkle's dad asked.

"I didn't..." she stammered. He knelt. His right hand caressed her cheek, his left stayed clenched.

"I know, dear. I know just about everything." He held his left fist up for her, opened his fingers, and watched the petals fall to the floor. "I heard a song, and found when it was over that I was laying down, and these were on my chest."

"So now we call the police, Daddy?" because the police were the good guys, and her dad always told her she could trust the police.

"They wouldn't believe that neither one of us did this. They wouldn't believe who did do this."

"Do you think Joe's with God, now, Daddy?"

He nodded, closing the door and pulling her into the hall.



The promises from fathers to their little girls after such horrific events are often proven ineffectual once the police are involved. Police would not stay out when such events were revealed, as such events were impossible to keep concealed. There were answers that were needed and Periwinkle often reflected on those answers that he gave, in the years that had passed since that horrible night. Her dad had all the answers. He knew what their mother was doing, how she was treating Joe, but no one would believe that Joe or his ghost had done this. So he offered up another answer, one more believable.

Periwinkle had not spoken since that night to anyone. Her father had visited her twice after that, once to tell her she'd live here a while and another to tell her he had remarried. The second time he came she would have been old enough to get her driver's license, if the circumstances were different. The lights hummed and the doctors gave up talking to her years ago. They learned a long time ago that all she needed was three squares a day and her pot of soil and periwinkle flowers. She could even do without the food, but they learned quickly not to take the flowers away from her, and if the flowers wilted or died then the staff learned to replace them immediately. There wasn't enough Haldol in the hospital to subdue her if she had to go without her red and white flowers. She held them and stared out of the window, and hummed the song she first heard that horrible night so long ago.

3 comments:

  1. this really is shocking. i hoped i was wrong when i suspected what was coming. anyway, well written and very creepy!

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. Excellent--dark and shocking. Look forward to reading more by this author.

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  3. What an upsetting tale. Very effective.

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