Excerpt from Survival of the Fittest by Theresa Cartier
People in books are always having adventures. Like, I’ve just finished reading A Wrinkle in Time, and it’s about these kids Megan and Charles Wallace that everyone thinks are weirdos. They travel through space to rescue their father who everyone thinks abandoned his family, but he didn’t abandon his family, he was doing an experiment and got stuck on another planet.
Why can’t something like that happen to me? I mean, it would be so great if the next time my father disappeared and my mother asked where he was, it turned out he was on a top secret mission but he couldn’t tell us because it would put us in danger. And then one time he would need help, and he’d ask me to go, and it would be so fun, and when we came back people would start liking me because, guess what, I wasn’t weird after all, I was just mysterious because of my secret missions that I couldn’t tell anyone about.
I wish. I never have adventures. Other kids in my neighborhood do, but not the kind in books. Orsino shoplifts and he smokes, even though he’s only twelve. We’re all just waiting for him to be sent to a home for juvenile delinquents. Lisa’s father got drunk and tried to run her over with the car. And my new friend Mary Kay made the entire fire department to come to her house when she burned a pizza.
Mary Kay is two years older than me. I started hanging out with her after my friend Karen moved away to Chagrin Falls. I don’t think she has anyone else to be with. Her father died of a heart attack a few years ago, and her mother works at a factory, so Mary Kay spends most of her time alone.
My mother is still in the hospital, and with Karen gone, there’s not much for me to do. When I get really bored, I go knock on Mary Kay’s door to see if she wants to play. She usually has the house to herself but we rarely stay there. Everything is covered in plastic: the furniture, the lamps. It’s like the house can’t be lived in, only looked at.
Instead, we go to Stafford woods and explore by the creek. I’m always hoping we can make it like Bridge to Terabithia, where we cross over a river into an imaginary kingdom.
But so far, I haven’t been able to make Stafford woods into Terabithia. First of all, there’s the creek, which is not really a creek but a sewer. It comes out of a big pipe and smells like the toilet. Also, there’s no magic rope to swing across, just a fallen tree trunk bridging the putrid water below. Once Mary Kay fell in, but it wasn’t scary like in the book. She pulled herself out yelling, “Ewww, mucky!” and chased after me with gunk on her hands.
This time as Mary Kay and I make our way down an embankment still wet from the spring thaw, I slip and go flying into a bush. When I get back up, my head feels itchy. I touch it and find burrs in my hair.
Since my mother has been away, my hair has gotten pretty bad. Usually she would comb out the snarls after my bath. Now I’ve got two big ones, the kind my mother calls “rats’ nests,” one on each side of my head. They’ll probably have to be cut out.
“Wait up,” I call out to Mary Kay. “I have to get these burrs out of my hair.”
“What?” she says. “You have birds in your hair?”
But Mary Kay just starts laughing. “Ha ha! Do some bird whistles, Theresa.” Then she disappears into the brush.
She always does this to me. Gets me stuck somewhere so she can laugh at me when I get upset. Last week she locked me in her garage. I couldn’t open the door from the inside, and even though I was pounding on the window, begging her to let me out, she just smiled and waved at me before running away.
I find Mary Kay on the other side of the creek, up in the woods, setting a pile of twigs on fire with some matches. Only two weeks ago we were in an empty lot by the highway and Mary Kay made a fire that got a little too big. A cop stopped us as we were walking home and told us to give him our names. Mary Kay just smiled like she wasn’t worried and everything was okay.
“Jackie,” she said. But then she started crying, Bawww! like a big baby.
I was so surprised, I started laughing, even though I was really scared. I laughed and laughed and couldn’t stop. The cop turned and pointed at me. “Hey, Giggles! What’s your name?” I could tell he thought I was the bad seed, always getting poor “Jackie” in trouble.
I stamp my foot on Mary Kay’s twig fire. “You’re going to get us in trouble,” I say.
“No, I’m not.” Mary Kay sits on the edge of an old mattress some teenagers have brought here so they can have a comfortable place to drink and smoke. Lighting the matches one by one, she lets them burn down to her fingers. She uses the last one to set the pack on fire, and we watch it smolder in the grass.
People in books are always solving mysteries. I’ve just started reading A Wind in the Door, where Charles Wallace finds dragons in his garden, and they’re actually real dragons, and then there’s an angel, and he’s come to save Charles Wallace from a mysterious illness.
There are mysteries in my life, too. Like, what has happened to my mother?
My father brought her home from the hospital today, and I thought seeing her would make me happy, but instead I’m scared and worried because of how sick she looks. She can’t even walk; my father had to carry her into the house.
What has happened to my mother? She’s a stringy-haired skeleton with swollen, bruised arms, and she looks a hundred years old. When I ask her about the bruises, she says they’re from all the IV’s—her veins kept collapsing and the people at the hospital had to find new ones. She tells me don’t worry, the bruises don’t hurt. Well, the ones on the top of her hand hurt, but only if you touch them.
What if she’s dying and the grownups aren’t telling me? The emptiness of not having her—it’s more than I could bear. So why don’t I get angels or dragons or unicorns or really smart special friends to help me figure out what to do? Oh sure, my Aunt Claire flew in from Chicago to help us when my mother first got sick but she made me cry after she rearranged my closet and I couldn’t find anything. Plus it didn’t seem like she and my mother got along very well. When she left, my mother told Aunt Claire she hoped the plane crashed on the way back to Chicago.
* * *
“They put me in the looney bin.”
This is what my mother tells me when she’s finally strong enough to visit with me. She says that when she was in the hospital they gave her all kinds of medication that made her feel sick. She couldn’t eat and she would just lie on her bed curled up in a ball because that was the only way her stomach didn’t hurt.
But eventually she started to feel better. One day she noticed how good her room smelled, like lilacs or roses, only richer, sweeter. She thought it was the nurse’s perfume, but the nurse said she wasn’t wearing any.
The smell got even stronger after the nurse left and that’s when my mother realized it was Padre Pio, a real live priest in Italy who bled from his hands and feet just like Jesus did when He was nailed to the cross. From the stories she had read in her book about Padre Pio, my mother knew that the perfume smell in her room meant that he had come to visit her.
Not long after that, the outside wall to her room melted away and she saw Jesus walking through a green valley, his brilliant purple robe swelling behind him. This time Jesus wasn’t depressed. He looked calm and happy as he walked into a golden sunset. That made my mother happy, too.
After dinner, Mary Kay knocks at my back door and asks if I can come out and play. It’s starting to get dark, so that rules out badminton or Frisbee. We won’t be able to see anything.
We sit on my front steps and Mary Kay starts to tell me a story about something that happened to her. It goes like this: Just the other night she saw some of the kids on our block run through the back yard of this one house, and that’s when a bloody man came out. He crawled out of a hole in the ground and chased the kids through one yard after another as they ran for their lives.
“Did he see you?” I ask.
“No,” says Mary Kay. “I don’t think so.”
“Do you think he’ll come out again?”
Mary Kay looks very grave. “Maybe,” she says. “He could be anywhere; your back yard, even.”
A shiver runs through me. He’s out there right now, maybe digging in his dirt hole, maybe undoing and redoing his bloody bandages (if he’s bloody, he has to have bandages, right?) I imagine myself kneeling over his hole with a flashlight and magnifying glass, looking for clues to solve the Mystery of the Bloody Man.
Then I get the greatest idea.
“Show me where the Bloody Man lives,” I say.
Mary Kay thinks about that for a minute, then she says follow me, and we start walking around the block.
I’m so excited, I can hardly think. Finally I get to have a real life adventure of my own instead of just reading about them. At the same time, I’m afraid. What if I do see the Bloody Man? What if he comes after me? I picture his bloody, bandaged hand on my arm as he pulls me down into his hole. There are bandages on his face and one of his eyes is dangling out of the socket. He can’t talk, just makes an awful moan.
Okay, now I’m really scared.
We reach the house at the bottom of the hill, where the Bloody Man is supposed to live. I know this house. An old woman lives here, but no one ever sees her. She’s not friendly like the cat lady on the other side of the block.
Because the house is built into a hill, the back of the basement is above ground. It has a screen door. Mary Kay and I climb over the fence into the back yard and she walks to the basement door, cups her hands around her eyes, and peers inside.
“What do you see?” I whisper.
Mary Kay presses her face harder against the screen, then she springs back.
“Ooooohhhh! Treeeesaaa!” She runs over to me and crouches behind me, her hands on my arms. “Theresa! I saw him!”
I give a frightened squeal and try to hide behind her. “Is he coming out? Maybe we should go.”
“No,” says Mary Kay. “Now it’s your turn.” She pushes me toward the basement door.
I lean back and dig my heels into the ground. “Nooo! Don’t!”
“Go on,” she says, giving me another push.
“Stop pushing me!” My voice rises higher than I meant it to, and I can feel a little sob at the back of my throat.
“Chicken,” says Mary Kay. “Bawk! Bawk!” Laughing, she tucks her hands under her armpits and flaps her elbows.
“I am not chicken!” I yell. To prove it, I tip toe up to the basement door and lean forward to look inside. The basement is unfinished concrete and it’s dark like a dungeon. Maybe this is where the Bloody Man keeps his victims.
Mary Kay comes up behind me. “See anything?”
I force myself to look but I don’t see anything.
Mary Kay turns the door handle but it’s locked. “Wait a minute,” she says. She walks to the back of the yard and picks up a stick. With the tip, she punches a hole in the screen, reaches inside and unlocks the door.
“What are you doing?” I say.
“I want to go inside.”
“You can’t do that,” I hiss. “We’ll get in trouble!”
Mary Kay ignores me and opens the door. She walks into the dark basement and disappears.
She’s walked right into the Bloody Man’s lair! He’s probably hiding in a corner just waiting for some dumb kid to come looking for him.
“Mary Kay,” I whisper. “Mary Kay!”
There is no answer.
Gingerly I open the screen door and step into the basement. I hear footsteps shuffling to my left. A silhouette approaches me. I want to scream but I’m paralyzed.
Mary Kay jumps out at me. “Boo!” She starts laughing.
I exhale and almost melt to the floor with relief.
It’s now completely dark outside and the only light we’re getting is from the streetlight. But my eyes have adjusted and I can still see around the basement. There are boxes in the corner. A workbench. A broom and dustpan. Stairs leading up to the kitchen.
Suddenly, the kitchen door opens and somebody calls down to us. “Who’s there?” It’s the old lady who lives in the house.
I freeze and look at Mary Kay. She gives a little yelp and covers her mouth. She’s still holding the stick she used to tear the screen.
“I’m gonna call the police!” hollers the old lady.
“Go!” Mary Kay grabs me, and we scram out the door, leap the fence, and take off down the block.
When we’ve put a safe distance between us and the crabby lady, we stop and catch our breath. I hide behind a tree as Mary Kay steps into the street and watches for a police car. As scary as the Bloody Man is, right now I’d rather see him than a cop.
But nobody comes. Not the old lady. Not the cops. Not the Bloody Man.
And that’s when it hits me: there is no Bloody Man. There never was.
“You can stop hiding,” says Mary Kay. “We’re safe.”
We start walking again, and Mary Kay’s laughing about how funny I looked when she jumped out at me. I want to tell her to stop doing this to me but I can’t. It feels like something’s stuck in my throat.
“What’s wrong?” says Mary Kay. “You scared of that old lady? She won’t do anything.”
I don’t answer. She wouldn’t understand.
All the way home I drag my feet, so sad about losing the Bloody Man.