by Carrie Connel-Gripp
Fresh start. New life. Second chance. The litany wound its way through Robin Campbell’s brain. A new home in another state. A chance for the past to be buried for a long time. Robin looked at his sixteen-year-old son’s glowering image in the rear-view mirror. It had been a terrible year for Peter. Jennifer died early in January taking their eleven-year-old daughter Anna with her. The wreckage was unrecognizable and dental records were used to identify the bodies.
Then Peter was accused of stealing from another student; next a teacher. His alibis never panned out. On July 6th, he opened the front door to confront two police officers on the front porch. Between them, his son looked at him in silent defiance. Not for the first time, Peter feigned listening while Robin talked about reform or military. When asked if he had anything to say for himself, Peter replied, “I should have gone with Mom.”
Robin was losing touch. When the position was posted for Wanakanda, he walked straight into his boss’s office and said, “I want that job.”
Wanakanda, population 368. Robin stopped at the first light to check the map. Two more lights, then right, down half a block: 51 Settlers Drive. For ten-thirty on a Friday night, the town looked very quiet and dark, few streetlights lit. Robin continued down the main street and stopped at the next red light. Along the left side of the street, there were several blocks of stores like in any small town. On the opposite side, other than the faint outline of one small building, there was only blackness. Just before the light turned green, a wild moan issued from the dark.
“What the hell was that,” said Peter, sitting forward in the backseat.
“Oh, you’re awake. We’ll be at our new home soon,” said Robin, pulling away from the four-corners. He double-checked the map and stopped at the red light at Settlers Drive. He turned right. A police siren split the silence. Robin stopped the car and rolled down the window.
A deep booming voice forced its way into the car. “Don’t you realize you can go to jail for doing that, Mister?”
“Uh, no, sorry, Officer…,” He looked at the nametag pinned to the man’s shirt, “Burton. I didn’t realize it was against law here.”
An old-style officer’s hat, over moon face, thrust through the opening. “You’re new in town.”
“Yes, sir. We’re just moving into the house at 51,” Robin looked around.
The officer looked to see where Robin was pointing and shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll let you off this time. First thing tomorrow, you pick up the Book of Laws at the town clerk’s office. You don’t want to be spending a night in jail ‘cause of something stupid.”
“No, sir. I’ll do that before.” Robin smiled at the man.
“You better get inside.” The officer looked at his watch. “You’re thirteen minutes away from curfew.” The officer walked back to his car.
“Curfew! Fuck, Dad, what’ve you gotten us into?”
“Don’t swear, Peter.”
The tires scrunched on the gravel drive and they got out. “Just grab your suitcase. We’ll get the rest in the morning,” said Robin, as he fumbled for the house key.
Creaking open, the door released a musty sigh. Robin searched for the light switch, his hand crashing through cobwebs. The sudden brightness revealed avocado shag and a chocolate chaise lounge.
“Shit! I thought your company had money,” sneered Peter.
Robin glared at him. “I think this place was forgotten when we bought out the plant. Go open the back door so we can air it out.” He stepped over the threshold, trying not to breathe deeply. Walking through each room, he first flicked on the light and opened the window. Peter met him back in the living room.
“It’s gonna take a year to get rid of this stench.”
“Hrumph,” came from the front door.
“Officer Burton,” said a surprised Robin. “What can I do for you?”
“Curfew’s past. Lights out. Get the Book of Laws tomorrow. Read it!” The officer turned and slipped into the darkness. “Lights out!” accosted them from the street.
Robin shook himself. “You heard him. Let’s get those lights off.”
Peter looked at him strangely.
Peter headed for the back of the house as his father turned off the lights in the front. Slamming into Robin in the hall, Peter said, “Okay, how are we supposed to find our bedrooms? And I’m hungry.”
Robin grabbed his son’s shoulder with one hand and eased him through the doorway on the right, just discernible in the near darkness.
“Here’s your room. Go to sleep. There isn’t any food in the house.”
Robin heard mumbling as he entered his own room on the left. “Peter, we’re both tired. Go to sleep.” He heard the twin bed creak as Peter lay down.
Waking slowly from a numbing sleep, Robin heard pounding.
“Dad, who the fuck is it?” Peter stumbled down the hall and met Robin at the front door. Robin pulled the wooden slab open. A man with a beatific face and premature grey hair, met them with a “Halloo, neighbor! Gotta make hay while the sun shines.”
“Good morning,” said Robin hesitantly.
“Yeah, sure, it’s always a good one. I’m Rashad, from across the street. It’s already seven-thirty. You got lots to do today. Better get started.”
Robin looked at his new acquaintance strangely. “Yeah. We met with a police officer last night who said something about a book of laws?”
“I’ve been appointed by the council to get you oriented. Meetings are set up. You have thirty minutes before the first one. I’ll come back in twenty.” Rashad walked quickly down the sidewalk.
Peter poked his father in the side making him jump. “I’d really like to know what the hell’s wrong with this town,” he said, adolescent voice cracking.
Robin glared at him. “I’m going to get ready. Go out to the car and bring in the box with the coffeemaker in it.” He heard a muffled “Get it yourself, dickweed,” before the front door slammed.
Peter had the car partially unloaded when Robin emerged refreshed, dressed in shirt, tie and casual pants.
“Didn’t find the coffee, yet,” said Peter. “Seems like there’s a few other things missing, too.”
Before Peter could answer, Rashad called from the other side of the street. “Time to go. We’ll take my car.”
Robin instructed Peter to finish unpacking and get a start on cleaning the house. Peter watched the car pull away and turn the corner towards the center of town. As his eyes swept over the neighborhood, he noticed the entire street was devoid of grass.
“Do you work at the plant?” asked Robin.
“Sure, everyone does, except those who work in the town clerk’s office, or who run the stores, and the police officers and the minister. Wanakanda probably wouldn’t exist without the plant.” Rashad turned onto a side street and stopping by a large, grey brick building. He led the way up the steps into an open room with an old-fashioned office desk behind a counter.
“Bill,” called Rashad. A thin, short man wearing a bow tie stuck his head out of a door in the back.
“I’ll be right out,” he called back. “Just take a seat.”
Rashad turned to Robin and gestured to a row of black vinyl chairs along one wall. “You sit, wait for Bill. I’ve got an errand to run. I’ll come back to get you and we’ll go over to the plant.” He went out the door whistling.
Robin paced the room, looking at the photos on the walls.
“Did I say ‘take a seat’?” asked Bill from behind the counter.
“Yes, you did.”
“I thought so,” he said. “What is it I can help you with?”
“I was instructed to get the books of laws,” said Robin, sheepishly. “I’m new in town. Taking over management of the plant.”
“Ah, you’re the one.” Bill reached, drew out a small book. It was the size of a five-by-seven inch picture frame and approximately half an inch thick. The black leather cover reminded Robin of his wife’s old family bible, complete with gold embossed letters that proclaimed it as The Book of Laws of Wanakanda. Robin reached for the book, but Bill snatched it away, sliding a piece of paper across the counter with his other hand.
“Sign this release form first.”
Robin filled it out and held it up in front of him. “I’ll trade you,” he joked.
Bill took the sheet of paper between thumb and forefinger. Before handing over the book, he said, “Don’t lose it. You can go to jail for something that stupid, you know.” With an icy tone, he added, “Take a seat while you wait for Rashad.”
“Yeah, sure.” Robin sat and thumbed through the first few pages of the book, where he discovered it was first published in 1858.
“You’ll have to give those up,” said a voice from behind Peter. He jerked his head to look around, knocking it against the edge of the upraised rear door of the station wagon.
“Not on your life,” he said around the cigarette between his lips. “I’m Peter.”
“Jessie.” She was a small girl, about fifteen years old, wearing a yellow sundress and sandals. Her hair, the palest blonde Peter had ever seen, was tied back in a loose ponytail. “You won’t find any in town.”
Peter took a deep pull on his smoke and flicked it under the wheels of the car. “I brought a whole carton with me. I just can’t find it.”
“Not surprising. Someone probably went through your car and took out all the contraband. Can I help?” Jessie grabbed a small box and headed to the house.
Peter hoisted another to his shoulder and followed her. “Did you see someone?”
“Curfew. I was asleep.” Jessie put down her box in the living room.
“Guess that would explain the missing coffee beans and bottle of whiskey. Dad’ll be pissed about those.” Peter dropped his box on the floor beside the other one, reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew the pack of cigarettes. “Shit. Only half a pack left.”
Jessie crinkled her nose in distaste at Peter’s colorful language. She looked about the room, noting the dated décor. “I can help you clean the place up if you like.”
“Oh, well, you could help me finish unpacking the car. I’ll get to the cleaning later.” Jessie nodded and they returned outside.
“There’ll be lots of things you’ll have to get used to. First day at school will be a shock.”
“Yeah? I came from a school with zero tolerance.”
“Here, it’s subzero tolerance.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You can’t even have a criminal thought.”
“What, thought police? We’re a long way from 1984.”
Jessie looked puzzled. “What does 1984 have to do with anything? I wasn’t even born then.”
“1984? Book by George Orwell? Movie starring John Hurt? You never heard of it?”
Jessie shook her head.
“Come back inside. I’ve got a copy.” Peter dug into a box just inside the front door. “Hey, my books have been rifled through. There’s no 1984, no Catcher in the Rye, lots of others are missing too. Somebody’s head is gonna roll.”
“There’s nothing you can do about it.”
“That’s my property. No one has the right to take my stuff!”
“Come on, Peter,” shouted Robin. “The invitation was for two o’clock sharp!”
Sauntering down the hall, Peter glared at his father. “I don’t see why I have to go,” he whined.
“Because the invitation was for both of us and it’ll give you a chance to meet people your own age before you get to school tomorrow.
“Great,” mumbled Peter as he shut the door behind them.
They walked across the street to Rashad’s house. As instructed, Robin led Peter around to the garden gate and into the backyard. Several people were already there and turned to look as they came around the corner of the house. Rashad called Robin over to the barbecue and introduced him to several of the men he hadn’t met yet, explaining each of their roles at the plant. Peter saw Jessie and joined her by the side of the pool. Jessie’s mother, Nina, brought Peter a glass of lemonade and asked what he thought of Wanakanda.
“Well, it’s a much smaller town than where we lived before,” he said with a small shrug.
“You’re going to really like it here. I can sense that you’ll fit in.” Nina echoed the shrug and pushed her dark brown shoulder length hair behind her ears. “It can be difficult though, if you weren’t born here.” She walked away to join the other women around the picnic table.
“How difficult can it be?” asked Peter.
“Don’t know. I was born here.” Jessie turned her attention to a group of young people just arriving. “All of them were born here too.”
A smart looking boy with wire-framed glasses, led the group to poolside. “Hey, Jessie. Who’s your new friend?”
“Everybody, this is Peter. He just moved across the street to number 51. This is Jimmy, Patricia, Rob, Greg and Dawn.” Peter thought it was strange that all his new companions had the same pale blond hair as Jessie.
After polite small talk about school, music and other interests, Jimmy stripped off his shirt and said, “Anyone actually going to swim at this pool party, or what?” He ran and performed a cannonball, splashing the others which set them all off, diving and splashing. Peter was the last to join them.
Watching his son, Robin was pleased to see Peter making friends and having fun. It had been a long time since he heard his son laugh with such abandon.
Later that evening, Robin and Peter sat on the front porch, discussing the events of the last few days.
“You did a good job cleaning the house, Peter. That musty smell is almost gone.”
“Yeah, almost, but not quite.” After a short silence, Peter said, “I know I put up a fuss when you first told me we were moving, Dad, but I think this was a good thing.”
“Thanks, Peter. I hope we’ll be able to make a better life for ourselves here.”
“It’s a bit weird though, don’t you think?”
Robin shrugged. “Everyone’s incredibly nice, something we’re not used to.”
“Yeah, there’s that. But didn’t you notice something funny about the parents today?”
“I don’t think so,” said Robin, perplexed.
“I tried not to stare, but it was hard.”
“Stare at what?”
“At their backs. Almost all of them, the men and women, had scars on their left shoulder.”
“Yes, I noticed a few. Rashad had one that looked kinda like an eye.”
“I saw one that looked like a fire within a circle. I think that was Jimmy’s mother.”
“His father had the same one. Well, it’s weird all right. It’s also late. We both have big days tomorrow. Bedtime.”
They went inside and Peter headed for the bathroom to wash up. Robin checked his watch. “Hurry up, son. It’s 10:53.”
Routine set in quickly for Robin and Peter. Robin started work at the plant and, with the help of all the employees, learned the methods of production quickly and instituted new company policies that had been discussed with him prior to the transfer. Everything at the plant ran smoothly and Robin found himself on the production floor helping out more than being in the office.
Robin was happy that Peter quickly settled himself into the routine of school, doing his homework every night, studying for tests and exams. His best marks were in his morals and ethics course. Peter often went out with friends, always making it home before curfew. Well into the school year, Robin was cooking dinner when he heard the doorbell. He opened the front door and found a familiar scene.
“Why, Peter?” he asked his son. Peter stared at his feet.
“Mr. Campbell. Your son was caught stealing from the variety store at the corner of Smith and Main,” said Officer Burton. “Since he was caught red-handed, he will be punished.”
“What do you mean ‘punished’?” asked Robin. “And who determines what that punishment is?”
“It’s the same for all the kids, Mr. Campbell. If you had read the Book of Laws, you would know.”
“I don’t understand. If there was no damage done, couldn’t you just give him a warning and let me punish him?”
“I’m taking you both downtown. Please get in the car, Mr. Campbell.”
As the car turned from Settlers Drive onto the main street, Robin saw a fire blazing on the vacant side. The police car pulled up behind the crowd that stood watching. It seemed the entire population had turned out as if for an event of great importance. Officer Burton got out of the car and opened the back door to allow Robin and Peter to get out. The town clerk stepped forward to assist in escorting the two to the small building in the middle of the ravaged lot.
“Since the Campbells are the newest members of the community, I will briefly explain to them the purpose and procedure,” said Bill. “Mr. Campbell, your son was caught stealing. As his punishment, he will spend one night in the old town jail. Whatever happens to him inside this building, will be for him only. Hopefully, it will assist him in recognizing the error of his ways and he will work to improve himself. As his father, you will willingly accept the consequences.” Bill turned to Rashad who stood nearest the building. “Open the door.”
Rashad pulled out a skeleton key, released the large padlock and swung the door inwards. Peter struggled as Officer Burton pushed him towards the open door. “What’s the big deal about an old building? What’s going to happen to me?” asked Peter, his voice cracking.
The police officer pushed Peter inside and slammed the door shut. Rashad replaced the padlock and secured the key in his pocket. People began to move about, setting up lawn chairs and pulling drinks out of coolers.
“We brought a chair for you, Robin. Have a seat. It’ll be a long night,” said Rashad, who sat with Nina and Jessie.
Robin numbly sat down and accepted the bottle of juice handed to him. He opened his mouth to ask a question, but was shushed by Nina.
“Doesn’t help any. Just sit back and relax,” said Rashad.
The thick, distressed door opened inward without a sound. The townsfolk gasped as Peter stepped into the sunshine. Robin did not recognize him. Everything about his son had been bleached: hair, skin, even his clothing had been drained of color, except for a tint of blue. Robin stood still and waited. After blinking his eyes numerous times, Peter gazed at the crowd. He then stepped toward his father. Stopping three feet from where his father stood, he held out his right hand.
“Take it.” His voice had left puberty behind.
Robin hesitated, shocked by his son’s appearance. After Peter prompted him a second time, he reached out and grasped the iron bar. He twirled it around in his fingers, examining it. A square of metal had been welded to one end. Inside the square was the image of a severed hand.
“Come to the fire, Mr. Campbell,” said Bill.
Robin looked up, incomprehension on his face. Rashad and Officer Burton flanked him, each grabbing an elbow, and directing him toward the flames. Robin shook his head. “This is barbaric. You can’t be serious.”
Bill took the iron from Robin and shoved the square end into the embers. “You should kneel down,” he said. Officer Burton pushed his nightstick into the back of Robin’s legs, causing them to bend, and Rashad helped to ease him to the ground.
“This can’t be happening,” said Robin, looking around at the crowd. He struggled against the police officer’s strong hand on his shoulder.
After several minutes, Bill pulled the iron out of the fire; it glowed a soft red. “Not quite hot enough,” he said shoving it back into the flames. Several more minutes went by and Bill nodded to Officer Burton.
“Remove your jacket and shirt,” the officer said to Robin.
“What? No, I’m not going to do this.” Robin attempted to stand. The officer pushed him back down and Rashad grabbed the front of his jacket, undoing the zipper and easing it off his shoulders. The officer then reached down, took hold of the collar of Robin’s cotton shirt with both hands and ripped it down the back.
“I promise we’ll make this quick,” said Bill as he pulled the iron from the fire.
The brand seared into the flesh of Robin’s left shoulder. He screamed and fell forward. When Bill removed the brand, Rashad dumped a bucket of cold water onto the wound. They allowed Robin to rest on the ground, then Officer Burton motioned for Peter to come over.
“Take your father home. The walk’ll do him good,” Officer Burton said.
Peter nodded and helped his father get to his feet. The crowd parted, dispersing at once then coagulating again on Peter’s right side. Each person touched him as he passed.
At home, after putting his father to bed, Peter sat down in his mother’s rocking chair by the front window, gazing out at the street. Forward, back, forward, back, rock, rock, rock.
Robin found him sitting there when he awoke a few hours later. Still in a state of minor shock, Robin stepped into the kitchen to put the kettle on. His son had not moved when he came out again. Robin looked into his face trying to discern the expression. Was it beatific, forgiving? Robin had not noticed the eyes before – cold, deep and black when they had been soft and blue yesterday.
“Tell me what happened in there,” he said gently.
“I can’t,” said Peter, turning to look at his father.
“Can’t or won’t? Was it something so terrible?”
“Not at all.” Peter turned again to the scene outside.
“Won’t you tell me anything?” whined Robin.
“Oh, you mean anything that might ease your conscience?” said Peter, not looking at his father. He didn’t wait for a response. “I saw Mom and Anna. Mom mentioned something about the car brakes. You fixed them yourself to save a little money, didn’t you. Next time, don’t forget to flush the brake lines.” Peter got up from the chair and walked to his bedroom, closing the door behind him. The whistle from the kettle startled Robin. He moved quickly to remove it from the burner.
About a month or so later, the doorbell rang on a snowy Saturday. Peter got up from the dinner table to answer the door.
“Grandad? What are you doin’ here?”
“I came to surprise you for Christmas,” said the eldest Campbell, entering the house with an armful of presents. “Great dye job on the hair. Go on out and get my suitcases will ya?”
Robin came out of the kitchen. “Dad, what are you doing here?”
“Christ, ain’t anybody glad to see me?” he said as he placed the presents on the floor near the front window.
“Well, yeah, sure, Dad. I just wish you had called, is all.”
Peter returned with two suitcases. “Staying for a while, Grandad?”
“I thought I might.”
“Great.” Peter took the suitcases into his room. “I’ll sleep on the couch and you can have my bed,” he said as he came back out. “Better hope Dad’s on the straight and narrow. He shouldn’t do anything stupid while you’re here.”
Charles Campbell looked from his son to his grandson. “What in hell do ya mean by that?”
About the Author
Carrie Connel-Gripp is a poet and fiction writer who lives in Goderich, Ontario, Canada. Her fiction has appeared in Under the Armchair, Writtle Magazine and Bygone Days. Her story “One-Eyed Undertaker” was published by Channillo.com in 2017. She is the author of two books of poetry, A Day in Pieces (2013) and Persona Grata (2016) both published by Harmonia Press.