by Roberta MacKinnon
A young girl is walking down the gravel road, kicking stones with her battered shoes. Her shoulders are slumped and her head is hanging down. She seems to be watching her shoelaces as they dance around her feet. She holds her head down as if trying to make herself invisible. Her long braids are dangling by her face and swinging from side to side with each step she takes. Why? Why do they hate me? she asks herself. What did I do?
She can hear the school bus creeping up behind her, as she trudges along the road. The laughter of the children reaches her as the bus draws near. Big baby, someone yells as the bus roars by and kicks up gravel. The dust stings her face. She looks up to see her friend, but her friend is pointing and laughing at her. Go home and wash your fleas, she hears. Big tears fall as she watches the bus disappear down the road and around the corner. I thought she was my friend, she thinks to herself. Oh well I guess not, I'll be fine without her.
She steels herself and turns to cut through the ditch and the grain fields that is beside her rundown old shack. Wonder if they noticed the bus didn't stop, she thinks, now hurrying towards her home. I suppose I will get it now. Maybe I am lucky and they didn't notice. She opens the creaky door and calls out hello. Silence. She enters an empty kitchen. Maybe they are sleeping, she thinks. She notices the note on the table. Gone to town, it reads. Well, maybe, she hopes. She lays down her books and gathers up her chore clothes, and proceeds to change. She heads out to the barn to start her many chores.
Later that evening the phone rings and she freezes and listens. It is just the neighbor wanting to make sure that the trip was okay and to find out if her parents Tony and Alice had picked up a few things for them.
"Almena," she hears her mother calling. "Where is that lazy girl?" Almena crawls out of her hiding place and creeps forward. She can see her mother's back. It is enormous, yet at the same time there is a strain of fatigue there. Almena, in a nervous voice, says, "I'm right here." Alice turns and asks, "Have you done your homework and your chores?" "Yes," Almena replies. "May I go up to my room now? I have some reading I need to do." "Well, get busy," her mother snarls. Almena walks quietly yet quickly up the stairs to the attic where her room is located.
Her room. Her sanctuary. Her safe place. The room is not fancy by any stretch of the imagination, but it is hers. As Almena looks around, she takes in the room as if seeing it for the first time. Opening the door, she can see the windows that are on the other side of the room. The curtains on the windows are a bright yellow, her favorite color, it reminds her of the sun and happy times. The walls are straight, but at about four feet from the floor they slant upwards and become the ceiling. A small closet is set right behind the door. The closet holds her only dresses, all three of them.
In between the window is a small rickety dresser with a cracked mirror. On the dresser are her few treasures, a comb and brush set, a small jewelry case, and a piggy bank in the form of a house with a waterfall. A waterwheel is attached by a small nail which holds the wheel close to the waterfall. When a coin is dropped into the chimney of the house, the waterwheel turns. If you turn the house over, you would see a security hatch on the bottom with a little latch that has a key to open it. The key has long ago been lost, and now the latch has been broken. The latch is held in place by a piece of tape over more tape. The latch has been opened many times, so Almena can see the waterwheel work by using the same coin over and over again.
Off to the side of the room, a steel bed is standing parallel to the wall. The bed is old fashioned made of bedsprings and a steel frame, the type that was in style before the box spring and mattresses were available. Everyone else had a box spring and mattress, matching box spring and mattress. Oh, how Almena wanted a new bed. Oh well maybe someday.
Almena grabs her books off the dresser and sinks onto the bed before opening her math textbook. She sighs and starts to copy problems into her notebook. How am I ever going to be done? She wonders to herself. I'll be lucky to finish before tomorrow. The teacher must really hate me. She struggles to keep her books straight. The teacher had given her an extra page of math to do as punishment. For what? She thinks. As she settles into her work, her mind wanders back over her day.
She had started out early enough. If only that crazy cow hadn't stepped into the pail just as she was getting ready to milk her. After cleaning up the mess and cleaning the pail, she tried again, this time getting hit across the head with a tail. Wonder if she is trying to tell me something, Almena thought as she took a few minutes to give the cow a hug. After getting the cow ready, Almena milked her along with two others and strained the milk to get it ready to use. She quickly gathered the eggs from the stubborn chickens and washed them before putting them into the cartons for the neighbors. She ran inside and went into the basement to separate the milk and wash the separator, before packing a quick lunch for school. Almena listened for sounds of movement to see if anyone else was up. Everything was quiet.
Almena quickly finished her chores for the morning and hurried to see if breakfast was ready. There were signs of someone up, but no one was around. She helped herself to a bowl of cereal, but before she could finish, the bus was waiting for her. She grabbed her books and ran out the door. The bus was starting to leave as she reached the door, but the driver waited when he saw her running. Almena ran onto the bus and looked for a seat. No one wanted her to sit with her. She finally found a seat and pushed the girl over so she could get a bit of the seat too. The girl pushed back. The children in the back of the bus started to tease her. Told her that she smelled and was dirty. Forget to wash? they asked her. They can be so mean, she thought. Almena tried to ignore them and look straight ahead, but it was hard. Finally she told them to leave her alone and be quiet. What are you going to do? they taunted her. Someone pushed her head forward, and she hit the steel bar in front of her. Oh, man, that smarted. Tears came to her eyes. The bus driver had been watching, but he had said nothing. Someone poked her with something really sharp, and she swung back and accidentally hit the little girl behind her. The girl started to cry, and Almena felt bad. Almena tried to apologize, but the girl cried harder. The other children called her names and told her that she was mean for hitting the girl.
Almena tried to get off the bus, but she was tripped and pushed at the same time. The bus driver told her, You can't ride on the bus tonight if you're going to act that way. It was an accident, Almena told him. She was pushed again, but the driver did not seem to notice. That was her punishment for hitting the little girl. What about the kids who were picking on me? she asked. What kids? the driver wanted to know. She could not tell him because she did not know their names. Was he blind?
When school started, things got worse. The teachers seemed to dislike her too. All day the kids picked on her and pulled her hair. They would pin her hair between her seat and their seats, and then when she would lean forward, her hair would get pulled. When she would try and move her desk to free her hair, they would yell to the teacher and tell Mrs. Spider that she was bothering them. Almena would always get into trouble. It seemed always to be her fault. The adults around her seemed to think that she was the troublemaker.
Sometimes the kids would sharpen their pencils as sharp as they could get them and then poke her in the head or the neck, sometimes in the back. Again it would be Almena who would get sent to the principal's office. Disruptive, doesn't get along with others, a troublemaker were the comments on her file. Almena had gotten a sneak peek one day when the principal had to leave to take a phone call. Almena knew that if she got into trouble at school, she would get the belt at home.
Recess was the worst Almena would sit alone and read, or just watch the bugs on the ground. The last few years she had begun to get to know another girl, Kara. Kara came from a poor family too. Her dad was a farmer, and her mother was busy looking after Kara's four brothers and sisters, who were all under seven. She was expecting another one. Kara's mother was really quite sick, and Kara was missing a lot of school to help her mother out. Kara was the oldest and took on a lot of responsibility with her younger siblings. The kids would pick on Kara too, because she wore clothes that were miles too big for her or looked like they belonged to her younger brother. For whatever reason the kids seemed to revel in picking on her. Kara nine years old. She was a tiny slender little thing and weight maybe sixty pounds. Almena felt sorry for Kara and would often share her lunch with her, whenever Kara would come to school without lunch because her mother had nothing to give her. Almena knew that Kara did not have an easy life. Almena tried to be her friend and protect her at school as much as possible.
When Kara was at school, they would sit and watch the other kids play, the kids from the younger grades. They never sat on the side where their classmates were because if they did, they were asking to be teased. Today Kara was not in school; she had been sick the day before and had gone home on the bus. She was so sick that she had been trembling with a fever. She could not seem to get warm. Almena hoped that Kara would be feeling better soon. She missed her and had to endure the others walking around her with FR written on their hands. (FR meant that they were flea resistant and therefore could not get fleas if they accidentally touched her). No one else wanted to play with her simply because they thought she had fleas. Sometimes a neighbor girl would play with her, and then other times she would tease her. Almena found that really hard to understand. Today the girl had played with her and then on the bus she had laughed at Almena and pointed at her.
Almena leans against her pillow and shakes herself out of her reverie. She feels sad and so alone. Why can't the adults see that she's not a bad person? Why had she been born? she would often ask herself before crying herself to sleep. Why me? Where are my parents? She would wonder.
Almena knew that Tony and Alice were not her parents. She also knew that her parents hadn't wanted her so they gave her to these people to live with. Almena wondered why these people wanted her. I suppose they just needed someone to do their many chores and to be a slave, she thought. Almena looked at her problems and tried to concentrate, but it was too hard. She was too tired.
Almena puts her books away, "I'll do this at recess. It will give me an excuse to stay in," she thinks. She hears the phone ring, and she strains to hear. There is muttering and then silence. "Almena," her mother calls "come down here." She slowly gathers her strength as she walks down the steps. "That was your teacher," Almena's mother explains. Almena's heart shrinks. "She called to let you know that Kara passed away this evening." Alice's voice is fading. She can see her lips moving but she cannot hear anything. "What?" Almena asks and she feels faint, "No, no, no, it couldn't be Kara. She was just having the flu. She couldn't." "I'm sorry," Alice gives her an awkward hug and pushes her back towards the steps. "Go back to bed. We'll talk in the morning."
Almena lay in bed and thoughts were pushing themselves onto her. She is the lucky one; I wish it had been me. These thoughts kept pounding away at her head until she laid and cried herself to sleep.
The service was held a few days later in the Roman Catholic Church near their community, and all the other children from the class went. Almena was not allowed to go because it was a different faith than Tony and Alice believed in. Almena stayed home that day. She asked Alice, "Why do the other kids go to her service if they hated her?" Alice slapped her and said, "Don't ever talk like that again." Almena knew then that she would never be able to reveal what was going on in school, because she would not be believed. How truly sad for that little girl with the burdens and the abuse she would have to bear.
Years later Almena struggles to deal with all those feelings and memories, as she looks at an invitation to a 25-year class reunion. Almena places the invitation inside a diary and places them inside her trunk, not now she thinks maybe someday I will see them all again, but not today. Maybe someday.