The Backyard Kids

I wrote the following story last year. I thought with all of the CoVid-19 chaos, a story would be a great escape. It’s not long. Enjoy and take care, xxoo

Growing up in the seventies, our only responsibility was to be occupied outside until dinner without ample blood loss or missing a limb.  An old apple tree situated on a backyard lot gave us cool shade from the searing pavement of our parking lot playground and enough activity to ensure we met that responsibility.  There were no monkey bars or climbing walls unless we trekked down to Steele Avenue Park.  Even then we had to have an older sibling or an adult accompany us to make our way.  No older sibling would be caught dead dragging his kid sister down an open street where actual people could see him.   We lived in a complex of townhouses that had been developed on an old apple orchard.  Some of the trees were saved, but the majority were destroyed to make room for the townhouses.  One backyard still had one of the old trees and it served as a gathering place for the kids in the neighborhood. It creaked and swayed in the wind, the tenuous branches daring us to climb and sit upon them, our bare legs scraping against the dry bark.   Summer days were spent climbing, making forts and playing around the trunk until dusk set in.  The tree was expansive with wide enveloping arms that stretched to the sky, inviting us to linger.  The crab apples became ammunition as the screams of innocent kids who wandered by the tree unaware of its silent occupants, echoed throughout the adjoining backyards.  These cries of pain elicited concerned adults to venture out onto their back steps to protest the unprovoked assaults.

An older kid nailed a two by floor across the middle branches of the tree making a perfect lookout spot.  If a kid got to the tree early enough he could sit on the plank with another kid and keep watch over the backyards, ammunition at the ready.  Kids who were good at climbing would clamber up around the crow’s nest to the top of the tree calling names and daring others to climb higher.  The tree was abandoned in the darkening night save for a few brave souls who remained hidden in her shadowy leaves determined to claim a spot on the plank.   I always had a sense of comfort sitting up in that tree, secreted away from the noise of the other kids’ roughhousing, the revving of car engines and slamming of screen doors.  My eyes closed I would raise my face into the cool leaves allowing the tree to wrap me in her false sense of security.  My feet would dangle precariously from the plank, the cold smooth wood underneath me, my hands clenched onto the encroaching branches.   I was directed not to ‘let go’ by my brother.   He was the only reason I was sitting up on the plank in the first place.  His fate was clenched in my fist as tight as those branches had I fallen.  I’m sure the phrase “Watch out for your sister and don’t let her climb that tree,” was said on more than one occasion.  Much to my delight my brother would pay no heed and would only allow me to get to the plank if he was there.  Otherwise, I was on my own.  I dared not climb without him, and usually, he would knock a kid or two out of the way just so I could get a chance to sit up there.  It was a glorious accomplishment and I relished every second.  I would sit and view the world, a queen on her pedestal overlooking her court.  The jostling and screams of wrestling boys and girls playing tag as several kids tried to climb the chain-link fence without getting their shorts stuck on the links that jutted out on the top.  It was an active and chaotic yard. 

 No one tried to kick anyone out of the crow’s nest or push anyone off.  If a kid got to the spot first, he owned it.  Plain and simple.  I wasn’t a very good climber.  My brother would make sure no one tried to knock me down or take my post, but he would climb up and ask me to move claiming it was his ‘turn’ on the plank.  I was obligated to climb down and gaze upwards at the kids higher than the plank seat as the crab apples tumbled to my feet; the damp earth trampled and worn from our sneakers’ incessant pounding.  The chain-link fence that surrounded the back yard sequestered the tree as if attempting to cage it from the adjacent parking lot of the businesses that it bunkered.   There was a hole in the fence just across the tree that provided a short cut to the variety store parking lot where it was twenty-five cents for a bottle of pop if it was drunk inside the store, and thirty cents if it was ported outside its doors.  I spent many days hovering around the pop machine inside the store trying to drink as fast as humanly possible to catch up to the other kids who were already down the path back to the tree.  Just like the crab apples, it didn’t make for very good stomachs afterward.  For most of that summer, we managed to skirt trouble and broken limbs with only sporadic blood loss.  Until one fateful day when we didn’t.  

That hot day in July started like any other.  The sun blistered the pavement sending kids for multiple requests to parents for change for popsicles and ice cream treats from the Dickie Dee truck.  We could hear his bell jingle from around the last housing development and the ensuing pandemonium resulted in chaotic line organizations for a chance to buy the first treat.   We gathered under the shade of the apple tree, our popsicles dripping down our bare legs making them sticky orange masses.  Blades of grass and dirt would stick to us making it look as if we rolled in glue and fresh grass cuttings, sending our mothers running for wet washcloths and exclamations of “What a mess!”  After the mass cleanup, we again pandered for the crow’s nest resulting in shrieks of dismay and more wrestling for branches still waiting for eager occupants.  Some kids trotted off to the nearby Thames River to throw rocks under the cool bridge or to watch the Americans moor their boats for the weekend.  The rest of us sat under the tree, relishing the shade and quiet rustle of the leaves.  A few boys sauntered by the tree, my brother among them giggling in hushed excitement at their new toy.

 A pellet gun had been presented.  I spotted the black handle and the fervor the boys expressed as they encased it in their small hands.  They took turns holding it, impressed with its power they perceived it held.  They ogled over its smooth finish and weighty trigger.  They practiced holding it in two hands and then in one hand, pointing it at the fence and then at the trunk of the tree.  They searched the branches for a wayward squirrel or latent wren that they could shoot.    Appalled that an innocent squirrel or bird could be maimed, the girls retreated to the parking lot to skip and dance among sprays of the water hose on a front lawn, leaving the boys to their prey.   Lunch turned into the late afternoon and once again we made our way back to the tree.  The boys were still hunched around the trunk.  I could see the black gun barrel protruding from my brother’s shaky hand.  He aimed intently at a bird perched on a high branch as it sang to the sky.  In horror, a young girl screamed out scaring the bird and obliterating my brother’s concentration.   A blast fragmented the quiet summer day.  The pellet had missed its intended target.  The little girl who had protested the impending slaughter of a bird slumped into a heap a few feet in front of me.  Blood seeped from her chest as her face contorted into a scowl.  I screamed in horror.  I stared into my brother’s ashen face, his eyes staring at the girl lying limp at my feet.  He dropped the gun and ran.  The other boys were quick to scream and run, one scurrying to the girl, one clamoring to a neighbor’s door pounding in panic.  I stood frozen in my spot, crying and sobbing in terror.  With the chaotic movements of parents and kids running and screaming, there was no time to think nor any time to move.  The ground reverberated with desperate feet.  Questions and demands were hurled through the humid air as the mother of the girl lifted her daughter’s sweat-soaked head checking for consciousness, blood soaking her hands.  I stared up at the apple tree.  Its quiet branches seemed less inviting, the leaves remained still in the weight of the afternoon heat.  It absorbed the chaos, the cries, and the blood.  The bird had flown away.  The tree stood steadfast and waited in stoic silence as the child was picked up and hoisted to a car to be transported to the hospital.  We were all ordered home at once, parents questioning kids, reprimanding the carelessness and providing as much comfort to other parents as possible.

We stayed inside for the rest of the day.  Few words were spoken as dinner was placed on the table, the heavy absence of my brother felt throughout the house.  Despite my mother’s searches he was nowhere to be found.  The police car was still outside even after my father had returned from work, a panic phone call urging him home at once.  He remained outside with the officer as dusk descended and games of hide and seek were long forbidden.  He stormed through the house snatching my brother’s grade five picture from the photo album.  It was the one with his half-smile and a straight bowl cut.  He shoved it into the police officer’s hand.  My mother paced in the hallway as we waited for news of him and the girl he shot, the evening growing darker with every step my mother took.   My eyelids grew heavy with sleep but I was determined to wait out the night and to see my brother home.  “He’s small,” I heard my father plead to the police officer.   Weeks passed, the summer retreated into fall and the neighborhood fell in step with the march of time.  The girl’s family moved, too distraught by her death to remain.  My parents’ guilt became too much and I watched my father pack a suitcase and leave without a “goodbye.”  My mother’s morning ritual of retching away her worry yet another sound I was forced to tune out.   My brother had flown away like the bird who escaped the intended pellet.  I still wait for his return.  

The following summer, we went back to the apple tree.  The crow’s nest remained and we continued to dare each other to climb up to reach it.  With my brother no longer there to knock kids out of the way for my ascent to the perch, I conceded to sitting beneath its expansive branches.  The leaves were in full bloom and the crab apples tumbled around me as I closed my eyes and listened to the echoes of the backyard kids.  They climbed higher up the tree, the limbs creaking beneath their weight and the leaves rustling with movement.   A tear slid down my face as I opened my eyes and clutched a crab apple from the ground.  A robin flew and perched on the chain-link fence in front of me, its head darting side to side.  It stayed despite the commotion and I clutched the crab apple tighter, ready to throw.  I raised my hand to strike and the robin gazed into my face as if daring me to follow through.  For a moment, I stared back.  The apple sailed from my grasp launching the robin skyward, its wings whipping the humid air.  I watched it as it flew high above the apple tree and out into the summer sky.     

Listening To Your Intuition

Clearly, I should have listened to my gut this morning.  I was on my way to Tim’s for tea for Hubby and coffee for myself.  A long line greeted me at the drive thru, however, it’s usually quick and I was in no hurry.  I had left early enough to adjust for the line.  I get to the drive thru window and a sign had been posted.  No debit.  Of course, there’s no debit at the drive thru this morning because I don’t have any cash!   I get to the window and ask if I can place my order, park and come in to pick it up.  Of course, I can’t do that because that would be too easy!  I drive on past the window and look at the extensive line blocking the parking.  My answer was “Fuck this,” and I drive out.  I go to the OTHER Tim Horton shop that is only a walk-in.  I refer here to, ‘listening to my gut,’ because at the sight of the line as I was initially driving up to the first coffee shop, my head was saying ‘fuck that and go to the other Tim’s.’  I didn’t listen and here I was fifteen minutes later, driving to the other Tim’s.   I get there.  Virtually no line.  They also have no tea.  Ugh.  I wait.  Half an hour later, I arrive home with tea for Hubby.  My lesson for today was listen to your gut.  (And…. I can hear the Starbucks fans yelling at me…)

We always have situations where that little voice in our head is telling us something different than the oftentimes, easiest route.  It says to go the other way, or something about this situation is wrong.  We have the free will to choose.  We can either listen to that little voice or our ‘gut’, or we can choose to go the easy way.  Maybe the easier more convenient route seems logical or more practical at the time, then it turns out costing more time or more energy in the long run.   If we stop and listen for just a second more, we could have saved ourselves pain or time or money by listening to our ‘gut’ or our intuition.  It’s rarely wrong. 

Listening to our intuition takes practice.  We have to be able to trust that little voice to lead us in the right direction.  Often times, we doubt what that voice is saying because we doubt ourselves.  We don’t trust enough in our intellect or in our logic or in our understanding of the situation to trust that inner voice.   It’s screaming to be heard and we ignore it because we fear the outcome.  We fear its wrong and we’ve made the wrong choice.   Making mistakes is an essential part of growth and if we never make a mistake, if we never take a chance on something that makes us challenge ourselves, we have allowed complacency to move in.  That would be boring.

 Today’s lesson for me was minor.  It cost me time but I had time to spare.   I try to impart the wisdom of listening to your intuition to my daughters.  Your intuition or ‘Spidey-Sense’ tells you when someone is ‘off’ or maybe the situation feels wrong to you.  Then get out.  If it feels wrong then it is wrong.  For you.  You may think because you see others seemingly enjoying themselves and they may well be, that you would be making the wrong choice by leaving or by not participating.  But maybe they feel something about it is wrong too, but are not listening to their gut.  Maybe they’re afraid they’ll miss something or that people will ostracize them because they made another choice.  You have to trust in yourself to listen to your inner voice and make the choice that’s right for you.   I’m not saying to run away from things or situations that challenge you.  I’m saying if a situation or person seems to be going in a direction that’s immoral, illegal or unethical then you have the obligation to decide what’s best for you. 

And your true self, your true inner voice already has your back and knows the answer.  

You just have to listen to it. 

Opening ourselves up to listening to our voice and to trust in ourselves takes practice, but it is well-worth the work.  Fear and self-doubt should take a backseat to listening and acting upon our instincts. 

Obviously, I have some practicing to do myself.  Or, I can send Hubby to get the coffee and tea next time.  We’ll see if he listens to his inner voice along the way….

A Letter From Julien

Hello Out there,

My name is Julien Hill.  If you’ve read KJ’s book, False Hope, you would know who I am.  KJ wanted me to write a little bit about myself to give you ‘insights’ into my behavior in the book.  Frankly, I think it’s a big waste of time, but she can get a bit whiney and this was the only way I could shut her up. 

Like I said, my name is Julien and before I went working undercover at that sorry excuse for a law office of Upshall’s, I worked on the Vice squad for about five years.  Most of my policing experience comes from dealing with drug dealers and low-lifes, so this new gig was one I wasn’t looking forward to.  I regret the whole thing.  The only light in the entire operation was Ashley.  She’s an angel.  It’s no secret I had a thing for that girl, but she only had eyes for Jamie, or Jax, as you all would know him.  Trust me, that guy has some secrets he wouldn’t like to get out.  But this is about me.

I grew up just outside of Toronto.  I was an only child.  My parents were teachers and are retired, now living in Hamilton.  Linda and Brian were always worried about my tendencies to be alone instead of hanging with a bunch of kids from school, but I just never found my group.  I stayed locked up in my room reading comic books.  They suited me better.  I was never good at sports and the geeks were too brainy for me, so I fell somewhere in the middle.  I got my first good camera in grade 10 and taught myself how to take cool shots and develop them myself.  I started spending a lot of time in my darkroom I had set up in the basement.  Again, Linda and Brian weren’t too pleased with my ‘obsessive’ tendency to take ‘pictures’ and suggested I spend more time with my studies.  This led to a lot of arguments with my parents and I ended up storming out a few times.  I needed to get my own place, I knew that. 

After high school, I really didn’t know what to do with myself.  I knew a guy who had applied to the police department for kicks, so I thought I’d apply.  I wrote on the application I was handy with a camera and they seemed interested by that.  I showed them the portfolio I threw together along with the dark room I had and they sent me to the academy.  I hated that too, but I made it through.  They sent me directly to Vice and I was set up to do surveillance.  Apparently, my eye for detail and awesome photography skills came in handy.  I got great shots that handed guys some hefty sentences in Kingston.  I was feeling useful in that gig.  I got my own place and set up my darkroom off of my bedroom.  And then, they sent me to Organized Crime with the pretty boys like Jamie.  Adrian had strict rules about who I was to ‘associate’ with, so no buddies at Vice for me, anymore.  I hated undercover.  The only thing that suited me was the fact I got to be alone and take some shots.  I guess you know by now, that I had some photos of Ashley and some women.  It wasn’t a pervy thing.  I just appreciate a beautiful form.  Call it art. That’s all I’m going to say about it.  The secret compartment under my desk was supposed to be private.  The fact that Ashley found it and it wasn’t discovered by the guys in OC was more awesome than I could have ever imagined. 

I know I’m dead, now.  You don’t have to pretend that I’m alive and kicking and will be magically reappearing in another of KJ’s books.  I know it ain’t happenin’ but I couldn’t have imagined any better way of dying.  All for Ashley.  Those idiots couldn’t save a raccoon from a tree, let alone a beauty like Ashley.  That’s why I had to dive in.  I had to make sure she got away from the goons charging into the apartment and I thought I had a good shot at getting her away from Jamie and his gang of merry men, but that didn’t work out as well as I had planned.  But, she did good in my opinion. 

She was innocent in all of this.  She wasn’t supposed to be in any of the operation until Jamie got his hooks into her and made her a part of this mess.  It’s his fault she had to run from murderous bastards and his fault she had to move away.  I could see how hurt she was when her friend was killed and I could see he left her in the middle of the whole ordeal.  I didn’t bail on her like Jamie did.  I was behind the scenes watching like always.  And I was there when it counted, in the end.  That’s what’s important.

I don’t know what they did with all of my stuff.  My apartment is empty so I assume Linda and Brian cleaned it up.  I know Ashley asked that my pictures be taken away.  I only hope she has a few to remember me by.   Her savior.  Her hero.  I loved her the most.  You can tell her I said that.

Always,

Julien

A Dance in The Hurricane

The following is a reblog of a post I wrote two years ago. It reminds us to take a breath and appreciate our connections and relationships; to value each day and each person we encounter along the way. Stay connected, my friends.

KJ

The other day I was cleaning out our closet.  It was time to do some much needed purging.   I decided to gut out everything and go from there.  I ended up finding some old cards from a few years ago when my mother passed away.  I opened each one and read them again, this time with five years behind me.  They were sweet and sympathetic.  My Aunt had sent one reminiscing about when she and my mother were teens and very close.  Some I kept and others I didn’t.  So much for the big purge.    In amongst the cards I found a letter that was written by a childhood friend of the family.  Her kids were friends with us when we lived in the old neighbourhood.  She and her husband were friends with my parents.  We used to visit them after they moved away into a new house.  She wrote to say how dismayed she was of my mother’s passing and that she hadn’t realized my mother continued to reside in Chatham.  She assumed she had moved in either my brother or myself.  She was disappointed she had not made the effort to reconnect.  I think she was disappointed neither had my mother.  I don’t think it was anyone’s fault that they got disconnected.  It was just life.

 Kids grow up, graduate, move on to university or not, tragic events unfold, weddings and new houses, new babies, new lives.  It’s everything that happens over a lifetime. We get disconnected. We get disjointed and enmeshed in the everyday.  We forget the connections that were made years ago on a summer’s day when the children were small, who later walked to the bus stop hand-in-hand on frosty fall mornings, caught “all things squirmy and squishy” (her words) and played basketball until nightfall.   

Those days get lost in band practices, packed lunches, hockey games and baseball tryouts.  People get older, move to other streets or to other towns.  They work, they make new friends, they move on to other hobbies, other occupations and other past times without the old acquaintances that have become a part of their past.  The present is different.  Its fluid and changes with the seasons and the ever-speeding passage of time.  We don’t notice the children becoming adults until they are there.  We don’t notice our hair changing colour until our hairstylist points it out (while saying loudly WHY ARE YOU NOT COMING HERE MORE OFTEN?!  )  we don’t notice the deeper cracks in the sidewalks outside the house,  how the maple tree has grown exponentially or how few little children are out playing street hockey these days, until all of that suddenly seeps into our consciousness and we take a look around with clearer eyes.  And older eyes.  How did this happen?  When did we get HERE? 

I understand her disappointment and dismay.  It seems like a sudden about-face of one minute she’s there, the next she’s gone, but really it wasn’t like that.  It was a lifetime of being, of living and of surviving.  The disconnection of relationships is unfortunately, an everyday occurrence that can be prevented if we take the time.  Aye there’s the rub.  TIME.  We never have enough. It flies away so fleetingly.  If only we had more time to connect, to say ‘hey’, to reminisce, to support, to actually stop and watch everything grow and change without having to be awoken to its transformation.  It’s a difficult dance.  Maybe we don’t want to watch because if we do, then we’ll have to admit that we are getting older, life is flying by without us even moving or flinching in this hurricane.   Maybe we don’t really want to see the children getting older or the sidewalk cracking or the maple tree growing so big we can’t see across the street, anymore.  We’d rather hold on to today, to live in the present, just let me have one more day!

Connections are our lifelines.  We crave them, we seek them out and some we hold dear.  Our intentions are for connections to last as long as we take a breath, to be eternal and constant, but sometimes those bonds get weaker and grow more distant, then they are suddenly lost in the gale force wind.  It’s not wrong.  It’s life.  

I’m thinking after all of this time, to send her a reply.  To let her know I did receive her letter and I did read it and I still have it.  That I remember everything she said was true. 

 Maybe, that could be one little dance in the hurricane.

Writing a Sequel

The undertaking of writing the second instalment of False Hope is beginning to make me nervous.  I remember how time consuming and all-encompassing it was writing the first book and I’m beginning to feel bogged down.   I have one chapter completed with work starting on the second.  The struggle of carving out time to write characters and scenes and implement accents and plot points is difficult when summer weather decides to make an appearance.  The sun shines and I want to be outside, not locked in a room in the basement writing the next big adventure.  The rarity of sunshine makes it all the more important for me to head outside while it lasts.  Autumn is packing its bags getting ready to move in and wave summer off into the grand abyss where the seasons-that-barely-happened go to die.   Before I know it, I’ll be welcoming students back for another year, scheduling tests and skipping lunches in favour of one more hour for testing.   I’m fearful my penchant to procrastinate will overtake me and I’ll finish Book Two around the same time any grandchildren I’ve been promised have graduated high school.  

I’m ever-aware of my tendency to simply give-up or to throw my hands up in the air and proclaim it all a bit too much before I’ve even given it my best shot. I managed to stay focused and finish the first round and I’m hoping my determination will see me through to the next.  I have big plans for Claire and Jimmy in Book Two and I’m hoping it will all come to fruition.  They may even run into some old friends from False Hope.  (That was a hint, by the way in case you missed it.)  

My notes are gathering in the purple notebook I used for the False Hope.  I’ll simply keep it moving with more notes chapter-by-chapter and flesh out some new characters I have in mind.  I always change around chapters and events according to how things logistically work out.  For example, in False Hope Julien was supposed to be accused of nefarious activities with the women he was photographing.  If you notice in the book, there are references to a rapist running around loose in town and even a dark hooded stranger bumping into Julien when he was standing outside the office building where Ashley worked.  That incident was initially a set-up to a much larger sub-plot.  I backed down at the last minute not wanting Julien to undergo any further scrutiny and bias from his colleagues.  He had enough on his plate.  

My work continues on Book Two and I hope my characters move forward with their lives, but not everything can go easily for them in their new circumstances.  I’ll try to keep the momentum going through bouts of soaking up the intermittent sunshine and my tendency to walk away.

 I’ll keep you posted on the progress and maybe drop a few more hints along the way, like Jimmy Feherty.  He’s an Irishman straight from Belfast with eyes only for Claire.  Or so he says….