So that was our big “bad as it gets” chapter. We tried to make it really seriously bad without being too lurid.
Now the problem was ending the story realistically in one chapter, since school was winding down. Obviously it would be stupid to just say everyone shaped up and lived happily ever after. Or, like, Heather’s father gets a job somewhere good, moves the family there, leaving Che behind, and Itzy dies of her injuries so she’d not a problem anymore. We did want to leave the door open for the next school year in case we wanted to go on with it. But it turned out that the next year no one wanted to continue the story. We had some decent readers and our lives had changed.
I had thought maybe the next 7th grade class would like to write some kind of story, but they turned out to be like little children compared to the class ahead of them. They wore little kids’ backpacks and brought stuff animals with them. They had packs of colored markers and wanted only to draw. If they had to read, the childish readers the others had scorned suited them pretty well. Their world was small and they intended to keep it that way. Hard to criticize that. But some among them were just hidden and had the same old troubles.
A HELPING HAND
When Heather's father got home there was a terrible quarrel in the house. Her father blamed Heather and her mother for not knowing where Itsy was, but the two of them stood together and agreed that Itsy was defiant and uncontrollable. No one, they agreed, could have kept Itsy from that kegger.
But Heather did not tell anyone that Che had taken Itsy in the first place and, oddly, neither did Itsy. Maybe she didn't remember. Certainly, she didn't remember much of what happened to her. When she woke up she was lying on the road where she had been thrown. After that she was only partly conscious, mostly mixed up.
For just a moment Heather had felt vengefully happy that Itsy was hurt, but then she felt bad, both that Itsy was hurt so much and that she, Heather, had been glad. She wondered what had happened to Che, and in spite of herself she wanted him to be all right. Yet, the fear nagged at her that somehow he had been involved in what happened to Itsy-- beyond taking her there in the first place. Had he been the one who got her drunk enough to pass out? Had he attacked her? Had he tried to stop others from attacking her? Why hadn't he gotten help for her instead of leaving her out there on a road? Or was he hurt himself? Her head hurt from trying to figure it all out.
Che was not hurt physically. He woke that morning with the sun in his eyes, conscious only that he was on the ground in a lot of grass. He stared up into the dazzle of the morning sky, trying to decide what time it was.
"It is still early," said a voice. The old grandfather sat on a log, ignoring the terrible mess left behind by the kegger.
"How did you know where I was?"
"Hmmph," the old man snorted. "Kids are lots easier to track than elk."
"I think I may be going crazy. I saw stuff last night that..."
"Could be. Now let's go home."
"How are we going to get home from here?"
"Your aunt is waiting in the pickup out on the highway. It's only a little ways." He did not help Che when Che staggered to his feet, but set off on the trace of road that went uphill to the highway. The sun was hot and Che felt dirty, not himself, and very thirsty-- but not so hung-over as usual since the LSD had taken effect before he had a chance to drink much.
He was puffing by the time they came out of the aspens to the blacktop. hIs legs felt like rubber and his eyes kept swirling around. The old man walked slowly ahead of him, but with long sure steps. Che was grateful to have someone to follow, because he hardly knew which direction he was walking. It seemed like hours from the kegger firepit to the road. He was amazed to see his aunt's familiar pickup and when he got next to it, he just stood there. There was a scream high overhead and a golden eagle flew by, its shadow raking past them.
"Get in, Charles," said his grandfather.
"Get in, Che," said his aunt. He got in first, so that he was sitting in the middle. No one said anything more.
But to the boy's amazement, the pickup when it got to town went on past both his grandfather's little house and his aunt's house. His aunt, looking determined, drove on up the main street to the old hospital that had been made into a rehabilitation and counselling center.
"What are we doin' here?" asked Che. "Is someone sick?"
"Yes, my boy. You are." His aunt was still gripping the steering wheel. "And maybe this whole family is sick. Your uncle is staying here while he begins his treatment and I want you to stay here, too, for a while. We need to do a lot of talking to understand all this."
Che turned to his grandfather, who was looking straight ahead. "Why can't we just have a sweat? I only went to a kegger. I didn't kill anyone."
"You are killing yourself. You are killing our people. Booze is no good and the old ways are not enough. You need more than that."
Suddenly Che was terrified, more afraid than he ever had been. He had felt all his life that he was no good and that if people found out about him they would turn on him and kill him. Secretly he thought that the reason his mother had died and his aunt's marriage was so hard was just because of him. He felt that if he were not alive, everything would be all right for the people he loved, and maybe that's why he tried to kill himself in the roundabout way of booze and fighting.
But he wanted to live. He wanted to be walking over the prairie with the wind ruffling his hair and moving the collar of his shirt. He wanted to sit in the little kitchen of the trailer and talk to Heather while she beaded. He even wanted to drag the bedding out of the old man's little house and take care in hanging it over the clothesline in the sun. Suddenly he thought how good it would feel to just carry water and cut wood by that little house.
The pickup sat on the hospital parking lot and the three people sat in a row inside of it, trying to understand what might happen next. Sweet clover bloomed all around the asphalt, because it was a weed that took hold where it could. The smell was sweet and filled the cab of the pickup with its honey, its perfume of summer. Che's aunt put her hand on the handle of the door. "Times will get better for us now, Che." The three of them went inside where a counselor was waiting to hear their story, so that a new story could begin to replace the old tales of terror and punishment.
In the new hospital next door Itsy moved restlessly in her bed. How could anyone ever think that a rape might feel good? She had always heard people joke about it, but she ached everywhere and her stomach felt ripped apart. The doctor had told her she would never have children now, and she felt worthless. She thought of suicide, of just not existing any more. What was there to live for? No one would want her. Most of her life had just been a bluff anyway. She was just playing it for laughs. It was kind of fun to fool her mother and the school people.
A shadow in the door made Itsy look up. Shyly, Heather came in with a handful of lupine the color of evening shadows. Without saying anything she jammed the prairie flowers into a drinking glass. Only then did she face Itsy.
"I brought you a bouquet."
"So I see."
"I'm really sorry for what happened to you."
Heather was so earnest that she forgot that she was really kind of afraid of Itsy, who always seemed so tough. "No, really, Itsy. It must be terrible to be beat up like that. I didn't tell where you went, but maybe if I had told, they would have gone and gotten you before you were hurt. It's my fault."
"Hah! You don't know nothin', kid. If anyone had come lookin' for me, they'd 'a never found me. Our father could never just come bustin' into a kegger after his kid! No one does that!"
Heather only heard Itsy say, "Our father." Oddly, it made her think of the Lord's prayer. "Our Father." She remembered how enraged her father had been over this whole thing and suddenly she realized that even though he seemed so strong and powerful to her, that maybe he really COULDN'T do things and maybe he got so mad because he knew he couldn't control Itsy, couldn't make the world better for Heather, couldn't keep her brother alive, couldn't earn enough money to buy a new house, couldn't even find a job at home so he could be with his family.
Itsy watched Heather's face. It was a kid's face, but then it struck Itsy that this kid was her sister. Somehow at the moment that meant more to her than having a father, to know she had a sister. For Itsy power was nothing. She knew powerful people and she had a lot of power herself. What she needed was understanding, and maybe a sister was a person who could listen and understand.
Standing there, Heather could feel the change in Itsy, a relaxation, an opening up. On impulse she sat down on Itsy's bed and Itsy reached out to take her hand. Their hands were just alike, slim with nails like smooth seashells, but Itsy's hand had scars on it and tattoos she had made with a pin and ballpoint ink. Both hands were the exact same shade of skin color, not red as people speak of Indian color, but fawn-colored with a hint of the same delicate lavender as the lupine. Heather held on tight to Itsy's hand and through the window came the smell of sweet clover.