The Sleeping Child (excerpt)
A Children’s Story By Kathy Briant
The Sleeping Child
“Get out of there this minute!” Mom shrieked trying to haul Carrie out of the pantry backwards by one leg. Carrie was saying, “No, no” and wouldn’t come. What could she be hanging on to? There were just shelves and a lot of dark in there. What a little brat. Mom looked pretty mad with the lifter from the frying pan still in her hand while the pork chops were burning merrily on the stove.
“Out, out” from one, then “no, no” from the other. Carrie was resisting with all her might but Mom was stronger and slowly she was hauling Carrie out of the pantry. Lissa wished Mom would give her just a little whack with the lifter.
Getting into full mad, a sight to behold. Curls shaking, blue eyes blazing. Carrie was trying to bite Mom now and wiggle away as she was pulled out of the pantry. She had the same hair, same shaking and likely her blue eyes were blazing as well. Hair earthquakes, no good could come from that.
It was a real bad day for Mom. Kept late at work, the babysitter gave her one week’s notice about not babysitting Carrie any more (who could blame her) and she was trying to get supper going. Melissa sat at the kitchen table, drawing while Carrie and Mom fought it out in the pantry. Mom had been trying to get the pork chops done while talking on the phone, potatoes boiling in the pot. She had a plate over the potatoes. They hadn’t found the lid yet in their unpacking. Mom hadn’t been herself since the move and actually they were all a little disoriented – not used to things yet. Melissa got up and turned the pork chops over so they wouldn’t burn more and turned the burner down as well.
The old neighborhood in Hillhurst they had just moved into a few weeks ago was real nice though, Melissa thought. Older, quiet, settled feeling. And not a soul knew her nickname was Messy. She got that name from Carrie. She got most of her hard times from Carrie. Carrie couldn’t say “Melissa” when she was a baby just learning to talk, and so had started to call her Messy. Unfortunately, the habit had caught on until everyone was calling her Messy. It sort of suited her room, she guessed, but really, that was no name for someone 10 years old. Little pipsqueak Carrie at three and a half could get away with it, but she didn’t want anyone here to ever call her that now that they were in new territory. And she had the summer to train her out of it before school started and she met new people.
She thought maybe she had the “Messy” thing covered though. Bribery. She’d promised to take Carrie to the store. Carrie loved the store, all that candy. The local grocery store had clear bins full of lots of different candy, sours, licorice, straws of powder, cinnamon hearts and squares, Carrie’s favorites. She was funny about money so they always had an argument when they were there. Carrie liked Loonies because of the bird on them. She was sure nickels were worth more than dimes, because they were bigger. And Toonies? Well, she thought they were like the poker chips from Gran’s set that she used when she had her card club each month. She didn’t get that the poker chips were not money and sometimes you’d find a few in her piggy bank and have to talk her out of taking them to the store. So she promised the store if Carrie would never call her Messy again.
Carrie told her, “Tweep your promise.” and would shake her little pointer finger at Melissa. “Tweep your promise.” That was really funny. She had funny names for things too. She said “soup soon” for perfume, the neighbor’s dog was a Herman shepherd. Small children were downright weird if you thought about it. Carrie also had a sort of Boston accent too, when you listened to her; at least that’s what Mom and Gran said.
“Messy!” Carrie called from inside the pantry. Mom had her almost out. Oh, no, she didn’t! “I told you to call me Lissa, you little brat you. You promised!”No good if the little poop wouldn’t cooperate. It would be all over the neighborhood and she’d be back to Messy again!
“Messy, Messy, Messy.” Carrie said, taunting her. Angry, Melissa leapt for her. “No store for you, brat!” she shouted. Carrie was leaning against the wall, Mom returning to the supper. Carrie just pouted and blew raspberries at Lissa.
“Girls, girls, cut it out would you!” From the tone of voice and the pained expression on her face, Lissa could tell Mom had had enough. She backed off and sat down at the kitchen table to finish her drawing. She was drawing the furnace downstairs.
It was an old, old variety; an old octopus furnace Mom had called it. A gravity furnace, no blowing air, but a slow rising of the heat with a little clanging, a softer, gentler type of heating. It was huge, taking up most of the basement, but so fascinating with miles of large, bulky, wrapped beige-brown pipes wandering through the basement and disappearing suddenly up the basement ceiling to the rooms above. Lissa had been quite impressed with it when she first saw it and lately she and Carrie had used the basement as a quiet, friendly sort of place to hide out when they didn’t want to be seen. Cooler there in the summer, too.
Something had changed about it lately. Maybe it was just that you noticed more things about something as you got to know it and it looked different because you were noticing more? No, that wasn’t it. Something was different. Lissa was trying to draw it, sort of to clarify in her mind what was happening. Not much success so far.
Boom! A loud sound resounded and the house shook. It was like something hitting the house. Maybe something had hit the house!
“Good Lord, what was that?” Mom said stopped dead in mid-lecture to Carrie. Lissa looked down and saw that her drawing had developed a squiggle that looked like a crooked door on the right front side of the furnace she was drawing – ruined the picture. She crumpled it up and threw it in the garbage as Lissa and her mom headed for the back kitchen door to see what had happened.
Whatever it was seemed to have hit the back of the house. Melissa and her mother ran to the back of the house to see. Out of the corner of her eye, Lissa saw Carrie headed for the pantry again. No dummy that girl; she took advantage of situations as they occurred.
They looked at the sky and could see forks of lightning and then hear the boom of the thunder.
“I think it was lightning striking the house.” Mom looked heavenwards and then her glance descended to the house. “Look at that!”
“The one that’s gone.” said Mom sarcastically.
“Oh!” said Lissa surprised looking up again and noticing the empty space and a few bricks on the ground. She jumped as another flash of lightning darted across the sky and jumped again at the thunder that soon followed.
“That one was close, too.” said Mom. “But they say lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place. Now that I think about it, the only new-looking thing in this house when we first looked at it was the chimney. Do you think it had been replaced because of…” and she looked to the lightning in the sky. “That sneaky landlord!” Seeing Mom standing there, lifter in her hand still, scowl of anger on her face, curls in her eyes, looked so ridiculous, Lissa started to laugh. Then mom looked down at the lifter and remembered.
“The pork chops!”
They both ran back into the house to find Carrie on the floor smiling from a pile of cereal she had emptied onto the floor. She was pretending to be a dog and eating it by stuffing her face in the pile, barking and then looking up, face plastered with little brown pieces. She was sent to her room and Lissa cleaned up the cereal while Mom finished making supper.
They got lawn chairs, Carrie was released from her timeout and they sat outside eating slightly scorched chops, watching the lightning. Carrie was quite impressed and yelled “hooway!” in her little pipsqueak voice each time she saw a flash or heard the thunder, and when it wasn’t flashing and booming, Lissa saw her eating grass along with her supper as she sat on a blanket with her plate. Lissa didn’t say anything though. The kid was weird.
After supper and the dishes, Lissa and Carrie went down to the basement. Outside was a little scary as the lightning and thunder continued. The basement would be safer. Carrie was looking all over for her stuffed toy, the white rabbit. You couldn’t really call it white anymore, but it had been. Carrie called it Baby.
“Here, Baby, Baby.” she called, like it was a real rabbit that would come hopping when she called it. “Come and see Carrie. I’ve got a nice carrot for you.” Carrie held the picture of a carrot that she had crudely drawn. It looked more like an orange potato, but a stuffed rabbit probably wouldn’t care. Melissa had chucked the thing in the garbage yesterday, angry at Carrie. Maybe she was being too mean? Maybe. Maybe not.
They had settled on blankets on the side of the furnace near the overhead naked light bulb. Lissa pulled out her book. It was best for reading, and while Lissa read, Carrie played talking to herself and her dolls. Lissa looked up at the furnace now and then. There was something?
The furnace was a sort of a dusty tan brown in colour and its pipes seemed covered with an old lumpy material like burlap, like clothing. The pipes were warm and almost soft to the touch, like living arms covered with cloth. She could look at the furnace for hours and imagine all sorts of things about it.
It was just like a land octopus. She could see it swimming in an ocean of air with miles and miles of arms waving and leading to all kinds of places, lending warmth to large areas of the earth. Or maybe it was like a warm brown root, upside down that stretches its arms up and up, through the earth until it reaches the surface. It seemed slow and ponderous, like a slow plodding turtle she had seen once at the zoo. If it ever got up and moved around, it would be a real slow mover. It was a gravity furnace, which meant no fan pushed the air around the house. That was why the pipes were so large and the grates were big black wrought iron things with large openings. Sometimes you could hear someone talking in another part of the house, if you put your ear to the grate. Sound echoed all over the place. Mysterious and strange.
This was a furnace with real dignity. Gravity in more ways than one. It seemed to take itself seriously. She couldn’t possibly imagine it related to a modern, forced air furnace. It relied on warm air rising and warmed the house in an unhurried, quiet, but thorough way. Forced air furnaces gushed noisily, blowing dust around when they came on – with a fan to push air along and make it hurry. Her furnace sounded like a gentle sigh as it gave them warmth, and you couldn’t even hear it running when you were upstairs. A couple of clangs now and then but mostly quiet. It had calm dignity and kept itself and its noises to the basement where furnace noises belong.
It dominated the basement too, a big presence, not tucked away in some dinky little corner like those bright, aluminum furnaces. It gracefully spread curved pipes all over the basement, taking up most of the room, like a friendly, warm giant. Her mother grumbled as she bumped her head on the pipes as she did laundry, but Lissa liked its size. It was like playing next to a tree or maybe the atmosphere in the basement was like that of being in a slumbering giant’s bedroom. The light from the one bulb was weak and that made for a nice friendly twilight. It was so peaceful here and cool – she could almost start nodding off and fall asleep. Sometimes she did when Carrie wasn’t around that is, and had a pillow down here, just for that purpose.
The furnace seemed to be changing however. She had noticed that a few days ago. Nothing you could put your finger on, though. Maybe it was just a change of texture or colour, but it certainly was looking more and more tree like lately.
As she looked a jagged crack seemed to be appearing on the front right side. That was odd. Delayed reaction from the lightening or something? She frowned, put the bookmark in the book then stood, smoothing her hair and with Carrie still babbling to her dolls behind her, went to examine the marks closely. There was a protuberance, like a door handle and the crack stopped spreading. It formed the rough shape of a door. She touched the protuberance and it felt like a smooth knob. She turned it, pulled and stood amazed as the furnace opened up as though she was opening a door.
Carrie stopped singing to her dolls. “What’s that? Is it broken? If you broke it, I won’t tell, promise.” Which usually meant she would. She stood up and came over. “What’s in there? It looks all dark and nice.” Carrie stepped forward.
“Wait Care. Don’t just walk into a strange place. What if the furnace turns on and you get all burned up?” Carrie stepped through the door and peered around. “Would you wait, you little turkey.” Lissa said as Carrie suddenly took off. Of course she didn’t stop and Lissa had no choice but to follow.