Paul The Cannibal had driven by with his Mom on their way to do errands, slipped the note into the mailbox and put the little red flag up.
Dad noticed it first. He happened to be looking out the kitchen window because he was too lazy or hungover or something to get a plate and so was standing over the sink, the crumbs from his toast and peanut butter pitter-pattering like little raindrops onto the stainless steel basin. He squinted as he sipped his coffee, it looked like because the hot hurt him or something. “It’s Saturday,” he said.
I didn’t know what he was saying other than the obvious. “Yep.”
“Mailman doesn’t come on Saturday.”
“Mailman’s name is Susan. So I guess she’s a mailwoman.”
“Firewoman, policewoman, mailwoman, whateverwoman.”
“Kay, but why are we getting mail on a Saturday?”
“I don’t know.”
“Go check the box.”
I was reading. “I’m in the middle a something.”
“That book’ll wait.”
“I’m not dressed.”
I left my shoes untied and walked with the heels dragging along the gravel. When I saw the paper, folded up into a square with an eight ball drawn in blue ballpoint on the outside of it, I was glad Dad hadn’t been the one to walk out and see who’d left us mail on a Saturday. The drawing was pretty good for something rushed and probably angry. I remember ruts of blue ink curving off here and jutting out there.
This was a time before cell phones and texting and even though we were twelve and thirteen years old, me and my classmates still wrote notes to each other, folded them up in elaborate ways and passed them up, down and across rows of seats, the tiny packages tucked into our palms. I’d never had one slipped into my mailbox before.
It read, “Church at hi noon. Your dead. Game over. Finished. Paul. P.S. If you don’t show up, I’ll just come to your house.”
Dad knocked from the inside of the window. I turned and squinted, but I couldn’t make out his expression. Then he held his hands forward, palms up in exasperation. “It’s for me!” I shouted. Roxy, the neighbour’s dog, barked.
I was sitting on the car’s dusty, twisted rear fender rereading the note when the screen door squealed and Dad poked his head out, “I said, ‘What’d we get?’”
“I told you, it’s for me.”
“What is it?”
“Is it from a girl?”
“Guy in my class.”
“What’s wrong with your voice?”
“No!” I dragged my shoes off around the car and sat on the front fender, my head and face obscured by the pine tree we always parked under.
“Jack, I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Make fun of me, fine. But don’t lie.”
“It’s not like that, Buddy.”
The wind picked up and a branch blew towards my face. I flinched.
“Come back inside,” Dad said.
The wind died down again. Someone started up their lawnmower.
“When you’re ready, then.” Dad went back inside.
I wiped my nose on my bare arm. The snot darkened my new, coarse arm hair. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on the mower’s far off buzz. Paul flooded my mind.
I gave him the nickname Cannibal. In April, the whole class got invited to a party at Suzy Orlean-Smith’s and in this nice finished basement she had, Paul, me and some of the other guys ended up playing with a dirty tennis ball Max found in his pocket. Somehow this game evolved to where we were hiding behind the furniture and whipping the ball at whoever happened to poke their head up. How the game went any length of time without something breaking is pretty impressive. Dennis had the ball and wasn’t throwing it. Trying to provoke him, Paul made a dash from behind this ornate chair, in front of the fireplace, heading for the sectional couch. Dennis chucked the ball and knocked over a jar on the mantle. It was made of metal, so it didn’t break. It did clang a bunch. The mantle was deep enough that the urn rolled before falling, rolled long enough that Paul had time to go and catch it before it hit the ground. This big plume of ash puffed into the air and drifted down to the carpet.
The noise from upstairs and out in the backyard didn’t change. No one else had heard the urn fall.
All the guys came out from where they were hiding. Some of the guys went and found things to do in other parts of the basement. Dennis said he had to go to the bathroom. Geoff and I went to help Paul. With my hand, I brushed the ash around the carpet. It was thick carpet and most of the mess was absorbed. If you squinted, you could barely see the discoloration. To my satisfied eyes, it looked like a shadow. I wiped my hand on my pants. Geoff held the urn while Paul used the side of his hand, then the fireplace brush to sweep the ash from the mantle and the hearth.
The whole time, we didn’t talk about what the ash was. I didn’t know who the ash was, but I knew that it was a person. Maybe Paul didn’t know. I have to assume he didn’t know, or that he wasn’t really thinking when he started licking the fine ash on his fingers. I don’t know what face I made, but I saw Geoff make this disbelieving, disgusted look. Paul’s features dropped and hung loose for a second. Then he smiled and put his whole finger in his mouth.
“That’s someone,” Geoff said. “That’s someone’s ashes.”
Paul licked his hand clean.
At school on Monday, all the guys asked him what it tasted like. I called him a Cannibal and he seemed proud. I remember seeing Suzy crying at some point and I guess someone told her at least part of what happened. Then at lunchtime, Paul beat up Dennis. “You could have at least helped us clean up!” he shouted as Mr. Doucet held his arm and led him into the school.
Paul came back on Wednesday after a one-day suspension and he beat Geoff up. He was suspended for three days.
Paul waited a day after returning from that suspension before kicking Max’s ass. The staff decided to give Paul a week inside at recesses. That week, I got a note and a drawing in my desk. The drawing, copied maybe from some record in Paul’s big brother’s collection, was a person eating a heart, ink-blue blood dripping all over the place. The note read: “You know Suzy’s little brother, Sam? Punch him in the head for me. The Cannibal.”
I didn’t do it, of course. Paul passed me a folded up piece of paper with a cat drawn on the outside and a hairy triangle covering most of the page inside. It was captioned “Your a pussy.”
Paul waited two days after he was allowed back out at lunch before he punched Sam in the head.
That was it for recesses for Paul, for the rest of the year at least. A social worker from the school board started meeting with him once a week. And I started getting invitations to get my ass kicked after school, in the locker room, in gym class, right now in front of everybody.
One day he punched me in the back of the head as we were doing laps around the track. He blamed me that he got in trouble. Said I overreacted and that’s why Miss Aaron, our gym teacher saw. As if all the teachers weren’t on high alert, watching for what Paul would do next.
By this point, the class had decided that eating the ashes had been responsible for Paul’s change. Delicately, the girls in the class figured out whose ashes they were—Suzy’s grandfather’s—and what he was like—super-nice, no history of violence that Suzy knew about. To this day I think that eating the ashes was what fucked Paul up. Guilt or magical thinking or whatever. I would love to see that social worker’s notes, for sure.
Whatever the reason, Paul was on a mission to beat up everybody connected to the incident.
When I went back in to my house, the note folded up inside the pocket of my jeans, Dad said, “I could call your grandmother over.” Since Mum died, that’s what he offered every time I expressed feelings.
“It’s fine,” I told him.
I went to my room and lay down. Determined bits of light made it through the birch tree outside my window and danced on my floor. The sound of the lawnmower was calming me, lulling me. Then it stopped and into the sound’s absence rushed all the fear and anxiety and anger I’d been keeping pent up wherever. Is there a gland for that? One of those organs that science can’t figure out?
I had to sit up so I didn’t vomit.
I stared at my stack of Nintendo games. I even picked up the Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt cartridge and blew on the bottom of it like I was going to slide it into the system and coax it to work, but I felt too weak to do even that.
It was ten twenty. “I’m gonna go,” I told Dad.
“I’m gonna meet someone.”
“This Paul guy?”
“You want me to come with you?”
I hadn’t thought of that possibility and I let the idea in and it settled briefly. I shook it out of its comfortable spot, scowling and grimacing it away. No, no, no.
“You want to eat something before you go?”
I wasn’t hungry.
“Let me pack you something.”
I sat in the kitchen while Dad made me a peanut butter sandwich and folded it up in plastic wrap. He put it with a red delicious apple into a brown paper bag.
“Is that enough?”
He put a can of ginger ale in there too.
I had to bike down to the bridge over the creek and up the steep bank on the other side. I’d been getting better and making it up the hill lately and if I got a good start down, I had a way better chance of pedaling all the way up. That day though, I sabotaged my chances, holding the rear break my whole descent. I stopped on the bridge and threw the brown paper bag towards the river. It landed on the bank. I stared at it a while feeling stupid and guilty, then I went and picked it up. I saw a stand of yellow flowers that looked like dandelions. I picked a few.
I had to walk the bike up the slope, my lunch and a bunch of flowers in my hand.
At the top of the hill was this whole different landscape. It was flat and the only trees were windbreaks dividing up the farmers’ fields. My friend Ryan lived up here with his karate expert dad, and my friend Marc, whose dad was huge and German and had been, Marc claimed, in the Hitler Youth. Their three spoiled shepherds barked as I biked past.
The United Church was modest by most standards, but tall around here. It was at a crossroads and the cemetery was separated from the road by a ditch and a wood and wire fence. I leaned my bike against the church and took my flowers to Mom. I sat cross-legged facing the headstone I’d come to think of as my mother and I ate my apple and sandwich, drank my ginger ale. There was a bouquet that Dad must have left there. It was all dried out against the headstone and I thought maybe I would throw it out once I finished eating. The sun was warm and summery, though the ground held some of winter’s chill.
I heard a car coming and I turned to watch it go by. I didn’t recognize the driver. When it pulled into the church parking lot, the Minister, Meg, stepped out. “Good morning, Jack.”
I held up my hand to her, nervous what talking might do to my voice.
She came over. She smiled. “Here to visit your mum?”
“I see you brought her some flowers.” She waited. “They’re lovely.” Another pause. “Do you want me to take those old ones?”
I shook my head, No. “I’ll do it.”
“We have vases inside. Would you like me to get a vase?”
“Well, I guess I better get to work.” She walked towards the church, but said over her shoulder, “I’m just inside if you need anything.”
A few minutes later, I was lying there watching the clouds slowly drift and shift, form and reform. I closed my eyes and opened them again and tried and figure out how the sky had changed. I did it again and again. I had no watch, no way of telling time, but I think I must have fallen asleep, because when I heard the car door unlatch and creak open, my skin was suddenly feeling sore and dried out like I’d been in the sun too long. Paul was getting out of a beat up beige K-car with wood paneling. “Yeah, Mom, Jeesh. I said it’s fine. I’ll walk home.”
I rolled over, my heart beating like a bass drum, and pulled my feet under me.
Paul looked around. I tried to duck behind Mom’s headstone without being seen. “Good-bye, Mom.” He slammed the door and turned towards the cemetery. He spotted me almost immediately.
“Are you sure, Paul?” His mother was leaning across the passenger seat still lowering the window with the hand crank.
“Yes, Mom. Get out a here.”
I stood up.
“Is that your friend?”
“Mom,” Paul said.
“Hi,” she shouted to me.
“Seriously,” Paul said. “Go away.”
“What’s he doing in the cemetery?”
“His mom’s dead,” Paul told her.
“Oh.” She said something quietly after that and waved to me again, this time more gently, before she drove off.
“Is that your mom?” Paul asked from the driveway.
“Yeah,” I said.
“That was my mom. In the car there.”
“Well, are you going to come out here?”
“So you can kick my ass?”
I looked around. The cemetery was small and, really, I wouldn’t have wanted Paul chasing me through it for the disrespect that would show. But it was surrounded by wide-open spaces that I could have run through to get away. I was sick of waiting for the moment when he would finally fight me, though, so I walked towards him.
We stood a few feet from each other, staring awkwardly. I didn’t know what to do, so I let him take the lead. He stepped towards me and screwed his face up into something angry looking. I was starting to smile, not to mock him but as an entreaty, a call to negotiation, when I saw his left arm lift awkward and unbent. I flinched. His hand crashed into the side of my head. It didn’t hurt much, either because of technique or because he, like me, had just stepped through the front door of the house of puberty and his coordination hadn’t caught up to his body. I covered my head with my forearms and open hands. He was raining me with blows. Isn’t that what people say? Raining? It felt heavier than rain, but they were barely blows. Still, he landed a fist on the side of my body and I jerked forward then dropped to my knees. He started kicking me too. The kicks were harder.
When Meg came outside to see what the commotion was and startled Paul into stopping, I thought I was laughing. She thought I was sobbing.
She took me into the bathroom and she cleaned some gravel off my face. Nothing was bleeding. Nothing was even swollen. Meg told me she’d be right back. I washed my hands. She was holding a white vase with what I know now are hobnails all over the surface, those little protruding semi-spheres that look like the inverse of the divots on a golf ball. She filled the vase with water.
As we left the church, Meg walked right beside me, her hand on my back. We didn’t see Paul right away and I assumed he’d started his walk home.
It was when we turned to the cemetery that we saw him. He was in front of my mother’s grave on his hands and knees and all tucked into himself. His shoulders jerked and he paused before his shoulders rolled slowly then jerked again.
“Hello,” Meg said. “Excuse me.”
Paul turned to us. His flush and the wild movements of his eyes told me that he was up to something awful. I burst out from under Meg’s hand and raced for Paul. He stood up and held his hands out. I could see the matchbook briefly before I leaped at him and tackled him over my mother’s gravestone. He landed on his head, with his neck at an awkward angle. My momentum brought his body around and overtop of me. I threw him off, then straddled his torso, grabbed his head and hit it once, twice against the marble base of Mum’s marker.
He stopped moving, his hands pressing against the back of my thighs, trying, I know now, to return to their fetal position in front of his chest.
Meg was screaming for me to stop though I already had.
I thought, “I’ve killed him.”
Toronto, January 2016
Emoji sequence: Gregg Hebert, teacher and writer
Story: Lee Sheppard