What’s Behind You
Content Warning: This story includes scenes of violence and abuse that some readers may find disturbing.
You know who killed your mother. You’re fourteen, not stupid nor blind to truth.
His name is Eddie Whitewater.
Not your father, or your sister Ide’s.
He showed up drunk one night with your mother three years ago, and a year after that, maybe less, the baby arrived, at home, bloody, in the bathtub. Eddie was nowhere to be seen as your mom laboured. The baby, she was a thing with so much dark hair, you’d think she was rushing to show her father how she fit in the rented house so she screamed it. She liked to exercise her lungs. That hadn’t sweetened Eddie.
To the best of what you know, your mother never married Eddie. But he claimed her name, wore it like the faded jean jacket he owned and loved. You’re sure he’s a conman, but you can’t uncover what con he’s running on your mother. Like a magician, he’s got flair, switching out his family name the way other men change shirts. Licence plates still registered to other provinces in the trunk of his sedan. A flathead screwdriver too, rolling around.
Your mother, she’s got nothing to lose.
In this life he’s claimed, Eddie Whitewater begs your mother to bead his worn jacket. In traditional patterns and colours, he insists, raving in his way. This is a few months after the baby is born and her screaming resonates through the studs of the rented house. Even when the baby isn’t screaming, the walls carry on. An earthquake only you kids can feel coming your way.
Your mother doesn’t bead, doesn’t know what colours Eddie’s raving about. But she buys packages of seed beads in the Wal-Mart crafts aisle when they’re on sale, and for six days, Eddie Whitewater doesn’t wear his jacket as your mother stitches a pattern she’s inventing as she goes along. Swoop of red here, orange there, yellow, and some purple (though Eddie looked at her funny when she opened the purple ones). As she works with the bulky material, she breaks needles, draws blood once, a needle cutting right through the fat pad of her thumb. She bleeds on the fabric and worries. She rinses it in cold water before Eddie returns. This thing, he loves it, and you think it must be something belonging to the first Eddie, the original one before he turned conman.
You’re not expecting it. You’re expecting something else. But he adores his beaded jean jacket. The first time he wears it into town, he brings home pizza topped with little salty fish. Enough for everyone. He even tries to feed his baby that night, the only time you can remember Eddie touching his kid.
You don’t know his legal last name, and at fourteen that drives you mad as it’s your custom to exchange names, to trace connections, to find cousins. It won’t make you crazy, not your whole life. When you’re older, when you move in with the Golds, and they show you the internet, you’ll be happy you don’t know Eddie’s fucking legal name or you’d hunt him down and with your hands, put him into the ground too. No, you’d leave his body in an empty lot, and you’d do him the favour, one he doesn’t deserve, but one you know you’d need to grant to live with yourself afterward, you wouldn’t do him like he did your mother. You imagine covering Eddie’s body with gasoline, the burn in your nose. With kindness still living in your heart, you would make sure he was dead before you lit the fumes.
It becomes a habit, to carry lighters around in your pockets. You steal them from other people’s pockets, from counters when heads are turned. But not from stores. You’re so angry at fourteen, it boils you. But you have no desire to wind up in jail. Too many other father figures live in federal pens. Ide’s dad had tried the hardest, harder than yours, or your city uncles, to stay out of trouble so he could stay free. But even he who tried is serving life, parole possible after twenty-five. This boils you, and forever will.
That night, angry, you watched Eddie drag your mother out of the house by her hair. Ide watched too, she was something like seven years old. You were angry enough that when Eddie Whitewater returned without your mother, you stabbed him with a kitchen knife. Blood on his shirt, blood on your hands. The knife hitting something hard, a rib, deflecting your hand from sinking in. A cheap knife, its handle breaking at the blade. There are others in the drawer. Five more chances. But you know they’re just as cheap.
Only need one good one to do the job, you tell yourself, angling your body for a long reach. The blade, you feel it in your hand, although for now, there is nothing there. You feel your victory calling to you, until Eddie knocks you to the ground, your head impacting against the stove. The second time your head slams hard, Eddie Whitewater has you by the hair. Feral fuckin’ Indian, he calls you, your vision tunneling, your ears rushing as if underwater.
When you’re conscious again, Ide’s crying in the corner of the kitchen, the fingers of one hand hinged in her mouth. The baby’s crying in the back bedroom.
The baby’s diaper is dirty, so you change it.
The garbage in the baby’s room is full, stinking in the corner, so you take it outside and toss it, double vision making the bag’s trajectory hard to track.
The baby’s filthy, so you bathe it in the sink, cleaning the blood from your hands as you go.
Even though the baby’s half Eddie Whitewater, you bathe the baby before you call the police. She holds your finger while you wash her with green dish soap. In water, she stops screaming.
Yes, she was always happiest in water.
Hours pass before the police arrive. They let themselves into your rented house, lifting empties, and opening drawers like they own the place. They ask you why you washed the baby before calling them. The blond cop keeps looking about the house, his disgust registering on his face. They ask questions as if you’re the criminal, and maybe you are, violent flashes of the knife in hand coming back to you.
They ask you where your father is.
You tell them Eddie Whitewater is not your father.
But this is what kills you: you tell the story, without anger, using your inside voice, your calm words, how Eddie Whitewater dragged your mother out of the house by her hair. You tell it this way three times.
Each time, you wait for them to help you.
“Well,” one cop says, “without a body, there’s no murder, kid. This is missing persons. Unless Whitewater brings charges against you for the assault.”
“She’ll turn up,” says the blond one, as he scans the kitchen, opens the closest cupboard. It’s filled with paper plates. “You kids have food in the fridge? Canned food? An auntie with a job or something?”
Your throat is too tight, your anger too hot to answer. You nod.
When your mother’s body is located after two weeks, you tell your story again, to the murder cops. They have a pad of legal paper in front of them, but no pens in sight.
Eddie Whitewater killed my mother.
I watched Eddie Whitewater drag her out of the house that night.
The last time I saw my mother alive, Eddie Whitewater had his hands on her body, dragging her by the hair.
That’s still a crime, right? Assault?
You’re not listening—
“Son,” the murder cop says. “No one here knows a man by that name. We can’t find any other man who knows the man you’re calling out. Are you positive that was his name?”
You’re sure, though, you know it’s not. But when he left, he took a beaded jean jacket with him. On the jacket, you know your mother’s blood is still caught between the fibers.
If you tell the murder cops as much, you can’t remember.
Time passes as time does.
But you can’t let it go.
Once, in the basement of the Golds’ Wychwood home, before you leave for school, maybe only days before—you remember your room packed in cardboard boxes Leah Gold had bought for you at a moving supply store, like used cardboard just wouldn’t do the trick as she sent her last son to university—you ask Ide what she remembers.
You wish before you’d asked that you’d known when you ask for others’ secrets, they become your own. But, unlike those homegrown, you may not barter with inherited secrets. They shall die, on loan, with you. And now, you carry Ide’s too, alongside yours.
This is what your sister tells you, staring ahead at the TV, something like a sitcom with a laugh track. Neither of you are watching, but you don’t talk like this about that night. You can’t face each other. Ide’s eleven or twelve now, and she loves you more than anything, and so, when you ask her, she puts down the bottle of blue nail polish Leah Gold brought home, after visiting her oldest overseas in Tel-Aviv, on top of a stack of Israeli fashion magazines. By this point, you remember, Ide is learning Hebrew to please the Golds. And while you adore them, you’re ready to get out and into your life.
Ide waves her left hand vigorously to dry the polish.
When Ide starts to speak, you’re mesmerized:
You have your own room before Eddie’s baby girl arrives. It’s something your mother’s proud of, her three-bedroom home.
After the baby, you sleep in your fourteen-year-old brother Abe’s room because the baby screams more than it sleeps and the couch isn’t safe. When you’d fall asleep on the couch, Eddie would knock you right off, like you’re a dog not permitted on the furniture. Abe helps move your bed into his room one afternoon. And since you understand something is wrong, you spend more time sitting in corners, tucked small, watching:
Mother in the kitchen, pouring two cans of spaghetti into a pot to heat for dinner (something you still crave), and if this is a good day, there’ll be leftover bannock, enough to go around, and if this is a good day, Eddie won’t ask where the real bread is, and if this is a good day, Eddie won’t serve himself first.
Mother drinking wine with Eddie in the kitchen, beer on the couch, and something expensive in the back bedroom they share.
Mother leaving Abe in charge of you and the baby, Eddie ushering her from the house, a hand on her body (not that time) (not yet).
Mother serving you ice cream, just you, Abe and Eddie, and the baby (it would seem) missing for a few hours.
You work around that night in your memory when you revisit it, like a ritual against bad spirits, but as far as you travel in other directions, you always arrive. They are always waiting for you.
The screaming is what you remember best.
Eddie, in response, as if to tame your mother by yelling over her.
Your brother joining in later when Eddie returns alone.
Your brother holding a kitchen knife the way you’re not supposed to, when he rushes Eddie, when the knife bounces, when the knife breaks.
The baby never stops. Its screaming is easy to ignore after two years’ exposure in a three-bedroom house.
You can’t remember if you joined in.
This bothers you.
A chorus of raw throats in a three-bedroom home and you’re not sure you cared to chorus.
You linger here when you revisit this memory, this place.
This chills you under your skin, in the inside layer, the layer closest to what holds your soul.
You won’t understand your mother’s pride in her house until you wind up with the Golds in Wychwood Park. For a few months, you’ll think you’re dreaming. The walls are sturdy, painted, and the furniture is made of real wood, even in your room. You have your own bathroom. There’s a lock on your bedroom door.
But, you’re not fooling yourself. From day one, when Leah Gold points at the signs warning of quicksand, you understand—even this neighbourhood of large homes, hiding from the rest of Toronto on wooded acres, cannot escape everyday terrors.