It started off as a peaceful, plodding kind of summer, the summer of 1946. We didn’t know that our lives would charge wildly out of control.
The war had been over for a year, although my brother, Patrick, and I were still taking part in it as much as possible. We had given up shooting each other, mainly because we were too old – I was twelve and Patrick was thirteen and a half that summer – and also because my mother didn’t like to hear me going around ack-acking and ptchooing at Patrick. “Keely,” she said, “girls don’t do that.” I didn’t ever tell her this, but I used to think, what if I was in the war and they were coming right at me with guns and bombs and everything they could think of, I’d dig in my heels, grit my teeth and hold up the flat of my hand. I’d wither them. Floor them. You just have to think hard enough about something and you can do anything. Usually. Well, maybe not always.
Being too old to shoot each other didn’t stop us from planting stink-bombs in each other’s beds. Or ambushing each other. Once I leaped out from behind the garage with the garden hose aimed full blast. As it turned out, it was Mother’s footsteps I heard on the cracked cement of our driveway, not Patrick’s. She isn’t what you’d call a good sport at times like that. Neither is our father. He’s a judge and has a position to uphold. “And so do all of you,” he keeps telling us. He made this clear the day he heard that Patrick marched downtown with his hair plastered in a straight line over his left eye and a square, black moustache under his nose. I dared him to. Adolf Hitler spent next day cleaning the garage. He vowed to get me back.
By the middle of August, it was so hot that even in the morning we stuck to the chairs in the kitchen. Patrick and I were sitting at the kitchen table after breakfast, trying to think of things to do if we could get off the chairs. Patrick was at loose ends because his friend Donald was away. I had my arms folded in front of me on the table and my head down resting (stuck, actually) on my arms. With one finger I nudged a sweating glass of milk, left over from breakfast, close to the edge of the table. It was one of those finish-your-milk-and-then-you-can-leave-the-table situations. I tapped and prodded until it was at the brink. Patrick had a pencil and paper, and was doodling as he usually did, drawing horses’ heads. He was also watching what I was doing, not taking his eye off the glass. I pushed it a little farther until it hung over the edge. Our eyes met now. We didn’t say anything. We didn’t have to. Patrick looked at the glass on the verge of falling off the table; he looked at my finger just touching the base of the glass. His eyes flashed a dare and mine answered.
We hadn’t noticed our mother come into the kitchen. The glass toppled over. Patrick’s hand shot out and caught it, but the milk went flying all over the floor.
“Outside!” she ordered. We peeled ourselves off the chairs and headed for the door.
“I’ll clean it up,” I offered, standing holding the door open, letting flies in. I pushed my hair back out of my eyes so she could see I was sorry.
“It’s easier to do it myself,” she said, in that last-straw tone she gets sometimes.
Outside, the heat was so heavy it was like trying to walk through neck-high bathwater. Patrick said, “I bet you’d be afraid to walk that plank over the falls in Barnet Park.”
“Bet I wouldn’t.” I was lying and Patrick knew it.
“Prove it,” he said.
We walked through my friend Ginny’s backyard, taking a shortcut to the park at the south end of town. I hollered for Ginny on our way through but she wasn’t around. She could have been anywhere, and usually was. Ginny gets around. Mrs. Dickson, Ginny’s mother, claims that Ginny has an independent streak that she finds most unbecoming. I think it’s just fine.
In the park, we climbed over a fence with a sign warning people to keep out of that area. I looked at the narrow plank that spanned two newly built bridge abutments, mentally trying to measure its width. The plank didn’t look much wider than a tightrope. Water cascaded over a falls under the plank, making me light-headed. The water swirled over jagged rocks and rushed madly to join the main body of the river. Patrick stood on the board, not expecting me to follow, not even looking back. I took a deep breath, raked back my hair with a sweaty hand, and said, “Okay, out of my way.” I brushed past him, sliding one foot ahead of the other. I inched my way toward the middle, mumbling to myself, “Don’t be stupid. Don’t look down. Don’t look down.”
I looked down.
“Stupid!” I said out loud. I couldn’t move. I tried praying but got stuck after “Our Father.” Panic had me by the throat. I got down on all fours and crept, studying the board, memorizing it. This kept me crawling. I was getting slivers in my knees, but getting closer to the end of the plank all the same. “Thy kingdom come,” I breathed finally, as I reached the other side and scrambled onto firm, grassy ground. I ducked under a chain with a sign similar to the one on the other side, danger keep out, and looked back at Patrick. He was shuffling along, sliding one foot, then the other, his arms outstretched for balance.
“Hey, you guys!” The voice was Ginny’s. Patrick was halfway along the plank when she appeared on the shore on my side of the falls. He faltered, tipping backward, then forward, making circles in the air with his arms. Ginny and I sucked in air. Patrick caught his balance. Without taking his eyes off Ginny, he straightened his shoulders, his arms graceful as a dancer’s, and – placing one foot in front of the other – increased his speed until, with a flying leap, he cleared the chain with the danger sign. Superman had landed. That’s what it looked like, anyway.
“Holy!” Ginny said, her eyes all round and admiring. My heart had stopped for a moment but it started up again.
“You’re such a show-off, Patrick,” was all I said.
He put his hands in his pockets and strolled away whistling.
Ginny looked as if she were melting away. She had a thing about Patrick. I don’t know why. He made rude noises; he swore; he insisted he was right even when he was wrong. He wasn’t often wrong, I had to admit. For a boy he was very intelligent. Talented, too, according to his teachers. He could draw and paint pictures better than anyone else in town, not that I cared. I had a talent or two of my own. Probably. Anyway, Patrick Connor was considered a regular Vincent van Gogh. With two ears. Everyone in town said so.
I flipped over into half a cartwheel and called Ginny. “Look at how far I can walk on my hands, Ginny. Hey, look. Patrick can’t go half this far.” But Ginny was still watching Patrick swagger along ahead of us.
What I like about Ginny is that independent streak her mother finds so unbecoming. She doesn’t think about things; she does them. Like tobogganing off Old Man Harkin’s garage roof last winter. She didn’t think about whether he’d be mad and chase her with part of an old eavestrough. She’s a good runner. What I don’t like about Ginny is the way she makes me feel invisible whenever Patrick is around. I’d like to put a question to her sometime. I’d say: If Patrick and I were in front of a firing squad and you had the power to save only one of us, who would you save? I know I’ll never ask her that, because I’d probably be crushed by her answer.
I was right side up again. Ginny and I scuffed along shoulder to shoulder, Ginny smiling, probably thinking about Patrick and herself. I wasn’t smiling, but I was thinking about Patrick and my
self. And life.
I said, “I know why Patrick sets up dares. He likes to prove he’s a winner. I guess I only do it to keep up to him. Know what I mean, Ginny?”
“No,” said Ginny. She was still gazing at Patrick’s back, which was getting farther and farther ahead of us.
“I mean, sometimes I think I’m only here because Patrick’s here, that maybe without him I’m not even a person. Know what I mean?”
Ginny shook her head. “No,” she said. Patrick turned the corner and was out of sight now.
“Look at it this way. I feel that if Patrick disappeared, I’d disappear too. Now do you know what I mean?” I looked hopefully at her, coming around to stand right in front of her.
“Keely,” she said, “sometimes you’re such a bore.” That was Ginny’s word that summer, the summer of 1946.
So maybe I am a bore. At least she didn’t say I was a screwball. Often people did.
Ginny came over after lunch to swelter with me. We sat on our back stoop and wondered if we were too old to run through the sprinkler.
go to the swimming pool,” I suggested.
“Too boring,” Ginny replied. “Anyway, I’m not allowed. Germs, you know.”
“We’re not allowed either, but Patrick always goes.”
“What about the germs?”
“You don’t get germs; you get polio or something. But that’s only in cities.”
“What a bore.”
Patrick swung into sight just then, his towel stuffed into his shirt. “Hurry up if you’re coming,” he said to me. “Mother’s gone out so now’s our chance.” He flashed Ginny a challenge. “Coming?”
“Of course,” she said, falling into step beside him.
“What a bore,” I murmured, but nobody heard me. I walked along with my hair in my eyes.
Ginny and I were not invaded by germs. We didn’t even catch summer colds after all our cannonballs and belly flops with the other kids in Channing’s public swimming pool. All three of us returned to our place and sprayed each other with the hose to explain our wet hair. We lounged lazily on the grass under a maple in our front yard. It was too hot, even, to play cards.
I said, “You can think yourself into being cool, you know.”
Patrick was pulling up grass blade by blade and throwing it at Ginny. He stopped long enough to argue with me. “No you can’t. You can’t think up a drop in temperature.”
“You can do anything if you think hard enough about it,” I insisted.
“You can’t fly.”
That nearly stopped me. “Riding a fast horse would be like flying.”
“Some people can’t even draw a horse, let alone ride.”
“Here we go again,” said Ginny. She threw grass back at Patrick, but he didn’t notice.
“Let’s see you think your way into drawing a recognizable horse, Keel.” Another challenge. Patrick had a way of smiling knowingly and looking sideways at Ginny that infuriated me. If Ginny grinned back at him, I’d kill her. There are times when girls ought to stick together. Boys do automatically.
Ginny lay back in the grass with her arm over her eyes, ignoring both of us.
“I’m not talking about drawing,” I said, “I’m talking about riding. Drawing’s too simple.”
“Simple for me, anyway.” Patrick was right, of course. He just had to pick up a pencil to produce a sleek racehorse. He could spend a whole rainy day drawing horses running or jumping fences or standing still. I always wanted him to give his horses riders but he never would. Even though I believed I could do anything if I thought about it hard enough, I knew from experience that whenever I tried to draw a horse it turned out looking like a potato on toothpicks. Even after deep thought.
“Who’d want to sit around drawing horses when you could easily ride one?” I was kneeling in front of Patrick now, so that I could stare him right in the face. This was an ongoing challenge. So far nothing had come of it.
“You can’t ride a horse if you haven’t got a horse.” His standard reply.
“I’ve heard all this before,” Ginny sighed. She sounded as though she might fall asleep.
I continued my dare. “We could sneak into Laurence Saunders’ field and ride Lightning.”
Patrick groaned and leaned back against the tree trunk, flicking grass at me now. “Lightning only exists in your one-track mind, Keely. Count ’em. There’s fat Lola.” He held up a finger. “And there’s dumb Bill.” He held up another finger. “Calling Lola ‘Lightning’ won’t turn the old nag into a racehorse. Face it. And anyway, you can’t ride either horse without permission.”
“If you fell off and broke something, everybody within ten miles would know.”
I sat back and checked my bare knees for grass stains. I didn’t want to look right at him. “You’re scared, aren’t you?”
Patrick snorted. “Don’t be ridiculous. Look, let’s just drop it, okay? It’s too hot.”
Only one knee was grass-stained so I rubbed grass into the other one. Ginny told us we were both being bores.
The reason we were on more or less intimate terms with horses was because of where we lived, at the extreme west end of Channing. Channing is a small town in the lower Ottawa Valley. I should explain about the Ottawa Valley. It’s a river valley, not a mountain valley. But there’s more to it than geography. My father says it’s more a state of mind than a place. It has a personality.
To the east and across the street from us were houses; beyond our place to the west was countryside – farmland and bush. Our backyard looked out on our neighbor Laurence Saunders’ small farm, separated from our garden by a rail fence. Beyond the fence, pastureland sloped gently uphill to where the love of my life, Lola/Lightning, liked to graze on the dry August grass or shelter under a clump of birches. Often, I leaned on the fence and watched the horse take long drafts from the creek that meandered through Laurence Saunders’ property, trickled into a culvert under Fairly Street, our street, and widened into a shallow, nearly stagnant pool in the woods nearby. The pool was known locally as Bloodsucker Pond. You’d have to be out of your mind to put a bare limb into Bloodsucker Pond, for obvious reasons.
If you didn’t count the pond, it was a fine part of town to live in. Maybe it was because our father was a County Court judge that he seemed to weigh things one against the other, even when he wasn’t in court. Living on the edge of town was as good as living in the country, he was fond of saying. “We have the best of both worlds. Six blocks from our front door takes us to the center of town [the courthouse where Father spent much of his time was in the center of town], and behind us, from our back door, we can breathe in the pure country air.” Our mother shook her head sometimes. Breathing in the country air had its drawbacks, especially when Laurence Saunders got busy with the manure-spreader. He was a part-time farmer only, but that part was just too much as far as Mother was concerned.
“You watch,” she had often said. “When the war ends, this street will see houses spring up like mushrooms.” The war had ended, but the street remained much the same. There were rumblings around town, however, my father admitted – about development, about progress, about Laurence Saunders wanting to get ahead in the world. The other part of Laurence’s job was hitching his old horse, Bill, to the bread wagon and plodding up and down the streets of Channing delivering bread to the customers of Quinlan’s Bakery.
Ginny came to life, probably because Patrick and I had finally stopped arguing. We were just foot-fighting now, pressing the soles of our feet together trying to dislocate each other’s ankles. Ginny sat up, so we stopped. “What’s so big about horses, anyway?” she wanted to know. She had asked the question before, but we had never got round to giving her a straight answer, at least not one that she said made sense. One thing about Ginny, she never gives up. Here she was, asking the question again.
“They’re … noble animals,” I said, not very helpfully.
I’ll admit right here that my passion is horses. I read books about horses; I went to Saturday matinée cowboy movies just to admire the horses. Ginny usually went along too, but she went to admire the cowboys. The thing is, I think I’ve always had this vision of myself charging through a sort of mist on a silver-white stallion, up and down, say, the Ottawa Valley – probably the only place where this could happen – fixing things, making everything all better, riding like crazy over the vile and the petty to rescue the faint-hearted, while along the roadside crowds cheer and roar, “Keely the Connor rides again!” This is not something I talk about.
Ginny was trying to get Patrick to tell her what was so big about horses.
“Horses,” he said, “are symbolic.” Symbolic was Patrick’s word that summer. I laid claim to it too.
“What does that mean?” Ginny was beginning to sound bored.
“Too hard to explain if you don’t know.” Patrick looked over at me; I looked back at him with just a tiny movement of my head. He blinked. Sometimes we were like Siamese twins joined at the mind, catching each other’s thoughts through a nod or a glance. We had decided to enlighten Ginny. I plowed back my hair, yanking it a bit to help me think clearly. I said, finally, “Heroes ride horses. That’s what’s so big about them.”
Ginny didn’t say anything. She looked into my eyes, then Patrick’s, as if we were kidding or something. She must have seen that we were serious. Her face was blank, then a little disappointed. “I don’t get it.”
Ginny’s mother called her, then, from the Dicksons’ front porch across the street and down a bit. When Mrs. Dickson bellows, you don’t hang around. Ginny jumped up. We looked at her mother with her hands on her hips, her elbows pointing east and west. “Oh-oh,” Ginny said through her teeth. “I’m in trouble.”
“Not sure. Can’t remember.” She set off at a trot.
Patrick called, “See you later.”
She looked back, sliced her fingers across her throat and wobbled her head. “Help!” she mouthed.
Patrick and I were still sitting on the grass, leaning on our hands, tanned skinny legs stretched out in front, foot to foot. We looked at each other and laughed because Ginny’s not the type to need help. Neither were we.
Or so I thought.
Excerpted from Hero of Lesser Causes by Julie Johnston. Copyright © 2003 by Julie Johnston. Excerpted by permission of Tundra Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.