My name is Beni Teeter, and I’m here to tell you about the Game. It was our secret for a long time, because Momma said folks fear what they don’t understand, and malevolence follows fear as predictably as the cart follows the horse. Now I’m not suggesting we lied, or that we withheld facts of national importance. Nothing as fancy as all that.
I’m saying what happened that day down by the river, where not fancy, was not natural by most folks standards. So before I get away on myself, let me go back.
Beni is short for Benedicta. My momma thought that was just about the ugliest moniker a young lady could be saddled with. By all accounts, my momma is a good woman and Benedicta had been Grandma’s name. So keeping favor with the in-laws, she agreed to Benedicta and dubbed me Beni, and it stuck. Like Gorilla glue. Evidently momma wasn’t alone in her assessment.
Small for my age, which is currently 6 years, I am blonde haired and blue-eyed like my momma. More importantly, I possess a powerful and vigorous memory and because of its nature, as early as three years old, folks were beginning to recognize it. My infamous memory provided a different sort of game that I played with adults, and most times I could trip them up pretty easily. It wasn’t eidetic. Nothing as fancy as that, but unnatural in some folks opinions. So if my memory suggested something unnatural, they sure couldn’t contend with the likes of the Game.
This narration begins on a summer day when I was six, and Momma and I had been playing the Game for about 3 years by then. It was a hot day. The kind of heat that cooked the wag out of a dog’s tail as Daddy used to say. I had been tasked with helping Momma hang the laundry on the line. We were always doing chores because we had, what fancier people than us would call, a hobby farm. The surrounding 200 acres was all leased to more serious farmers, and provided a fairly decent bit a coin as momma described it. At six year of age, I had already declared a hobby farm was called such due to never being able to have hobbies because you’re so busy hanging laundry, mucking chicken coops and straightening your room.
However, this day I had a reprieve from mucking out the coops. It came in the form of attending a funeral. With the humidity what it was, I was none too pleased at the prospect of spending a blistering afternoon sitting indoors at the homestead of newly widowed, Doris McKay. Dad was working the fields with Mr. Jessup so that meant I had to attend the funeral with momma. Decked out in my grey skirt and white blouse, I was sweating before I left the house. I’d never been to a funeral, but what with the foxes and raccoons getting in the chicken coop I was no stranger to carnage.
I seriously hoped that old Mr. McKay would not be laid out, or sitting in his coffin a headless torso sporting an ill-fitting suit or something equally gross. Either way, I figured I could keep my cool, and my hands to myself. No Games today. Momma and the other ladies had all brought food, which suggested if people would be eating, they wouldn’t have him splayed out and ruining people’s appetites. That would just be poor planning.
So off we went in Daddy’s Ford truck. What I remember most about that day was all the crying. Turns out Widow McKay missed her calling as an opera singer what with the set of pipes she had. By the time everyone had paid their respects at the church and had congregated at the McKay homestead, Widow McKay’s makeup and face were a ruinous fright. It was terribly sad, and before the day was even half over, her voice was hoarse from the endless chorus of her momentous grief. Friends and family clustered around, but were helpless to provide solace or restore calm to the widow. It was unsettling to watch otherwise competent adults, wearing a visage of helplessness, after each failed attempt at consoling the Widow McKay to sit in their seats and grimly shake their heads in obvious despair.
It was not long before leaving that the widow took a seat next to me. I’d heard others expressing their sorrow at Mr. McKay’s passing, saying things like I am so sorry, and he’s in a better place. However, the only point of reference I had was the carnage left from the chicken coop bandits, so I thought it best to keep my tongue. Momma had also strongly advised, and she always did this using my full Christian name, that I keep my hands in the pockets of my skirt. It was just so confounding hot. So I sat there listening to the Widow McKay quietly sob with my hands in my lap.
Before I could stop myself, curiosity got the best of me. “Penny?” At once, I recognized my mistake. The widow’s mouth hung agape. However, it was her eyes that registered the significance of my faux pas and drew others closer.
“I beg your pardon?” Her bottom lip trembled, and her eyes bugged. “Benedicta?” She gulped, and stifled a sob. “Chester?”
I don’t know why I did it, but because I had no words, and I couldn’t just sit there because she would likely think I was touched or ignoring her or something, I touched her hand. Just lightly, for comfort. Just like that, she got very still. Frighteningly so. Her eyes glazed as though fixed on a distant point and her face went all slack. The big red blotches that covered her cheeks and inflamed her eyes, cleared at once. Slowly, a peaceful look came about her. She began staring at my hand on hers.
Without hesitation she grabbed my 6-year-old self out of the chair, and hugged me tight. I just let her because she seemed to need to do that. Also, because Widow McKay is a sturdy, and robust, fine figure of a woman as I had heard her say on more than one occasion, and I was small for my age.
I just kept thinking about old Mr. McKay and what he was up to. Old Mr. McKay looking down on us and thinking it was too hot for such prolonged hugs, was my guess. He was also probably wondering what those brownies on the table tasted like. Truth be told, I didn’t feel sad for the old guy. I felt really happy for him, but those were considerations best left unsaid. Over and over, I could hear him saying, “Penny? Penny for your thoughts, My Dear?”
I could hear his booming laugh, and it was so filled with joy and vitality in those moments sitting there with the Widow McKay, I just felt overjoyed. However, I could also feel her sadness, and how scared and lost she felt being the one to find him.
It was like hearing Dad’s sports on Sunday’s from the other room while I was doing homework. You knew when there was a touchdown by the cheering of the crowd. I knew Mr. McKay was going to miss all the cups of tea that would never be delivered. All the pats on his shoulder that would never be received. All the dinners together on the patio. I think that’s why he was still thinking about those brownies. I also knew he didn’t want her sad and crying.
Right about then Momma came in carrying a plate of date squares. To my recollection, which as I said earlier is pretty spot on, that was the first time I saw Momma truly afraid. Her blue eyes glittered brightly with alarm as she stood helplessly witnessing the grip the Widow McKay had on me. She put that plate down hard and rushed over to where Widow McKay had me in a bear hug. She grabbed my arm and pulled me away, taking the widow into her own grasp.
“Doris? Oh, Doris. It’s going to be alright? You poor, sweet dear.”
I could see the concern on all the adults’ faces and they began cluck and coo, closing the circle around the widow.
“I’ve—“ The widow paused and she continued to stare past Momma at me, an air of desperation and pleading. I could no longer hear his laughter, and soon she gathered herself. “I’m fine.” And what if Widow McKay didn’t march straight over to the piano, sat down and started playing. She sang Amazing Grace and all the adults began to join in. No one questioned the abrupt change in her demeanor any more than Widow McKay did. You see, people see what they expect to see. Someone behaving irrationally at a funeral is not unexpected. That was good news for me.
I went outside and sat on the stoop. Having purloined a brownie on the way out, I just sat and listened to the song and appreciated the vibrancy and joy the widow conveyed in her singing. Loud and gay, she sang over all the others. She really did have a set of pipes. Momma realized then, the Game was more limitless than her previous observations would suggest.
For months nothing much happened. It seemed like Momma didn’t want to play the Game anymore. Nor did she want me to, and I was strictly forbidden from playing on my own. I was only six, after all.
Momma and Daddy carried on as usual. It became a ritual that the Widow McKay would bring me brownies after church every Sunday. Occasionally she’d bring a pie. Peach was my favorite. She never spoke with me again, not to the degree she did at the funeral at least. She’d just stop and watch me quietly sometimes with a curious expression. A few times she’d made an attempt to rest her hand on my cheek and Momma would quickly step in and steer her off in another direction. I was sad for her. Momma knew I just wanted to help. Momma also knew there were risks associated with others knowing of the Game, and I needed to respect Momma.
Things were quiet the following summer. School was done, and I was finished mucking out the chicken coop for that Saturday. My room was straightened, and I’d finished helping Momma with the dishes, when I saw dust spiral up over the access road. The road offered access to the river that bisected our property from the Ripley’s run-down farm, hence the name. Local’s used the road to get to the river, and by locals I pretty much meant Momma, Daddy and I, and only on those rare occasions that we were going for a swim. So the fact that dust was kicked up, was curious.
No reason to not take a look. Through the field and through the south gate to the access road and what I discovered hurt my insides. I’ll backtrack a bit here, so you can keep up.
Momma and Dad always told me that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all so I found their complete silence when others were talking about the Ripley’s communicated much more than words ever could. Momma’s mouth would turn down and she’d just go quiet. Sometimes she would just cluck her tongue and shake her head. In any event, because the Ripley’s didn’t attend church or travel in the same circles, and their kids were teenagers, there were few occasions where contact was necessary.
On the northern border of our land, stood the Conrad farm. The Conrad’s owned a large parcel as well as leasing many more acers from Momma and Daddy. They had an actual working farm. Now Arden Conrad, daughter of Mike and Gloria, was the prettiest girl in school. She was blonde and blue-eyed, and she had a glow. She didn’t appear to care about all that though. Arden Conrad didn’t make herself out to be fancier than she was. Above all, she was the kindest and sweetest person you’d ever want to meet. Momma always said she’s the whole package.
Arden could always be found with her dog, Bernhard. She didn’t go anywhere without that huge shepherd, so I was surprised to find Bernhard sleeping at the side of river. In my experience, dogs just didn’t behave in that manner. So I called out his name to let him know my intention was to approach. After all, Bernhard was a sizeable Alsatian, and it would be unwise to give him a start. However, my announcements generated no response from the animal. When I got close, I could see why. His tongue lolled out of his mouth to rest in the dirt. Blood had pooled around his belly and his head was disfigured in a terrible manner and soaked with blood as well. His eyes were glazed and I was fairly certain he had no idea I was kneeling beside him. A large rock sat off a few feet from where he lay, covered in fur and blood. Why someone would hurt him, I couldn’t understand. Of equal concern, where was Arden?
I felt the tears hot against my cheeks before I realized I was sobbing. With that I reached for him, and positioned his massive head in my lap. I’d never played the Game with an animal so grievously injured, but I experienced no misgivings. If I didn’t, he’d quickly expire. As well, he was currently alone and no living thing should be alone in their final moments, least of a devoted and beloved pet. My soul couldn’t bear the thought. So I closed my eyes, and gently stroked his misshapen head. I thought of all the times I’d seen Arden walking up the road with him in tow. His beautiful tail wagging furiously as he grinned up at her. He panted, but showed no other signs of awareness.
So there we sat, with me recalling that day in the bright sunshine and Arden aglow. Bernhard grinning his doggie grin and wagging his tail. I pushed away the other stuff, the ugly, dark and repugnant stuff. Oh, it was there, deep and sucking at the corners of my mind like a mental black hole. I won’t deny it was difficult to avoid its impingement. It was something terrible and awful, and holding onto Bernhard and maintaining that physical contact with that sucking darkness looming was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Nevertheless, I was all he had and no living thing should spend their final moments alone. Never. So I stayed and bore the monstrous pain and used all my might to think about him walking the sunny main.
As I fought the darkness, I felt it begin to ease until only the light of the sunshine on the main remained. His tail wagged. It couldn’t have been more than five minutes before his tail was kicking up dust into my face.
I opened my eyes against the bright sunlight and what if Bernhard wasn’t panting and grinning up at me, wearing the same devil may care expression he wore on the sunshine day walking the main with his Arden. I jumped up and so did he. That was when I heard them.
“What are doing, you fucking freak? I saw what you were doing. What the hell are you?” Scott Ripley was a fair-skinned, freckle-faced, unfortunate sort of boy. Moreover, he was mean. Momma said he was a bad seed, and so were his buddies, and Momma’s warnings sounded loudly in my head that cruelty always followed fear.
In focusing on Bernhard, I had failed to see Scotty Ripley, Todd Jenkins and Phil Blakemore coming out of the trees. I couldn’t imagine at the time what they were doing in there, but I couldn’t think it was anything good. I couldn’t say for certain how long they had been spying on me, but I didn’t like the feel of this whole scenario, and neither did Bernhard because he started to growl. I looked down at him and his lips were peeled back in a fierce snarl, his powerful head down.
“You’re a freak. A little witch,” Scott hissed. “I fucking saw you.”
Phil was backing down the water road already. Todd was running. “I thought Bernhard was hurt is all,” I said. “Turns out he was just fine,” I lied.
“You think we didn’t see, bitch,” Scott yelled, taking in my bloody dress. “Freak.” His voice was taking on a hysterical pitch as they all continued to back quickly down the water road, evidently eager to put some distance between themselves and Bernhard. Certainly it wasn’t me they were afraid of. I was six and couldn’t hurt anyone.
I reached down to pat Bernhard, thankful he was there. He smiled up at me and turned back to look at the three retreating figures. They had now broken into a run and were nearly at the main. “Curious, that,” I said to Bernhard. I would ask Momma to drop the big dog home or have the Conrad’s pick him up. Arden might be looking for him right now.
Bernhard was sipping water from the bowl I provided on the porch while Momma was bent over him mopping off his fur. Her lips were pursed tightly and she looked none too happy. She pulled the big shepherd over to the matt and told him to sit.
“Tell me again, Benedicta Josephine Teeter, what happened?” Bernhard gave a happy groan and stretched out in the cool shade of the veranda. Momma rung the rag out in the basin, turning the water a deeper pink. Quite some time had passed since I dragged the dog home. Oddly, he’d been reluctant to leave the river, and it had taken quite a while for Momma to clean him up. Changed into a clean dress, I’d been over the story what seemed a million times, and Momma’s interrogation had quickly proven a bore. However, she’d used my full Christian name, suggesting I’d better be more forthcoming. She was almost never kidding around when she used my full name.
Admittedly, I had been playing fast and loose with the facts because I was well aware I shouldn’t be playing the Game without Momma around. As well, I was fairly certain that Momma was getting the idea that I was significantly better at the Game than I had led her to believe.
Still, it was evident in the extreme quiet when she examined the dog’s belly that the injuries I discovered him with were not those she was witnessing now. It had taken much time to clean the dried blood from his thick fur, as there was much of it. Far more than the story I provided could account for, and he wagged his tail as Momma touched him. Her eyes shifted accusingly to me. “Beni, this dog was badly injured. There are huge scabs and dried blood. I had to clean it off before we called the Conrad’s to pick him up.”
“Don’t know what to tell you, Mamma,” I muttered. “It was just as I said. Why are the Conrad’s not coming for him?”
“There was something going on there, and they couldn’t.” She was watching me now, no longer concerned for the dog. “Beni, you played the Game, yes.”
“I didn’t do anything bad, Momma.”
“I don’t doubt that for a moment, Beni.” She paused and but her eyes never left my face. She sat quiet for a few minutes, her bright blue eyes searching mine, and then she started speaking softly.
“Beni Mrs. McKay has told me some stories about the day of the funeral,” she started. “Her ideas seemed far-fetched that I put them down to a sort of hysteria from losing, Chester.” At once, I understood this was a grown up conversation because Momma never used adult’s first names when addressing me. She looked at Bernhard, now snoring contentedly on the matt, and her lips worked in a fashion that indicated she was thinking very hard about her next words. “But there is the Game, after all.”
“You see, Dear, Doris claims to have seen things the day of the funeral. When you touched her. She claims that as sure as the nose on her face, she heard Chester laughing in that booming way he had. She claimed you said ‘penny’ to her and that was something private Chester and she shared. It meant penny for your thoughts. She said she can say with absolute certainty, you transmitted it. Now I have spoken with her, and she has promised not to run around talking about this. So you needn’t worry. However, I need to know.”
A lump formed in my throat. “I don’t know what to say about that.”
“I suspect you don’t, but maybe you’d like to try. Start with what you were thinking about when you touched Doris’ hand, Beni. You can do more than just fix dying plants and bugs, and little field mice, can’t you?” She turned back to Bernhard and then looked at the bloody rag in her hands. “You healed the dog? Can you see things too, Child?”
“Yes to which part?”
“Both parts, Momma.”
There was a sharp intake of breath and I met Momma’s eyes that were very wide and blue. “Beni, how did you know Doris found him?”
“I don’t know, Momma. Does it matter? She did.”
“Now don’t you be smart-mouthed with me, Benedicta. A detail of that nature, does matter. How did you know?”
“Sorry, Momma. I just knew it. I just knew all kinds of stuff in those minutes.”
That was the time the phone started to clang, and I was right thankful, too. I plopped down next to Bernhard because I figured he had the right idea. It was hot and sticky out, and had been quite an afternoon.
I could hear Momma on the phone and could tell she was talking to Mrs. Conrad because her name was Gloria. I could also hear something was wrong, and I figured Arden must be missing Bernhard badly. So when Momma came out with and said we were headed to the Conrad’s, I wasn’t surprised. Although what came next was alarming.
Momma kneeled on the veranda floor and took my shoulders in her hands. Her eyes glittered in a manner I’d never witnessed before. “There’s been an accident, Beni. Arden has been injured, and she is doing poorly.” Bernhard sat up at Arden’s name. He scooted closer and licked my ear.
“Beni I’m taking you over there, and I have arranged for you to sit with Arden while I talk to Gloria and Mike. Do you understand what I am asking?”
“I think so Momma.”
“Beni I want you to play the Game. Do you understand? She’s hurt very badly.”
“Did they call the doctor?”
“Yes. She will live Beni, but she’s hurt horribly.”
“We won’t speak of this to anyone. Do you understand?”
“I think so, Momma.”
“No, I-think-so, Benedicta. We will not speak of this to anyone. But there is more.” She drew me closer. “Remember you told me that there was a black hole, something dark and frightening and you did not want to look at it?”
“Yes, I do remember that.”
“And remember you told me that you understood at once from the darkness what happened to Bernhard.”
“Yes.” Her fingers tightened on my shoulders.
“What happened to the dog?”
“Scott Ripley hit him, Momma. With a rock. Then they stuck him with a pocket knife. That’s why they were scared of him. He owed them what for. Scott, Phil and the Jenkin’s boy, Todd.”
“Why, Beni. Why did they do that?” Momma’s eyes glittered, and tears spilled onto her cheeks.
“He was barking and fussing. I can’t tell you why aside from him being a pest.” With that Momma stood and smoothed her hands over her dress. “I’ll grab my purse. Benedicta, when you see Arden and you sit with her, if you see darkness, you tell no one but me, do you understand?”
It seemed a lot things to understand, but that was okay.
In minutes I was being shuffled off to Arden’s room, Bernhard was snuffling at my heels and Momma was putting the casserole she brought into the Conrad’s fridge. Tea was being made, and Momma was fussing over Mrs. Conrad. Mr. Conrad was conspicuously absent and there was much concern being voiced regarding his handling of the day’s events. Phrases such as going off halfcocked, and taking matters into his own hands were being bandied about.
In any event, those were not my concerns. It was full on awkward being ushered into Arden’s room. She was a teenager, after all. She baby sat me a few times, but I felt I was here to baby sit her and that was more than a little disquieting. She was very sweet and kind, but she was also a senior in high school and even though Momma said I was terribly precocious, I was only in grade one.
The room was dark, but even with the drapes pulled, I could make out the pink walls and white spread. Arden’s yellow hair spilled in silken coils over the pillows, and I thought she looked like a princess until I witnessed the huge bruises and welts about her tortured face. Thick coils stood red and angry around her neck and wrists.
Bernhard jumped onto her bed and her slender fingers reached for his fur. It was the only movement I saw. He nuzzled her hand and whined. A tear rolled from one eye down her bludgeoned cheek. Battered and blue, her face was unrecognizable.
I remembered what Momma said, and I pulled the pink, vanity chair closer and took her fragile hand. Her fingers tightened shockingly on my mine and in so doing, transmitted a jolt of urgency that hit me with considerable and shocking force. At once I was faced with indescribable horror. A wretched and abhorrent suffering and shattered innocence was inflicted this day on beautiful Arden and I felt my heart might shatter from the torment conveyed through our entwined fingers. Screams burned through me, too agonizing to tune out. The three of them had not just taken what they wanted, but sought to destroy it for the simple fact it was not given and never would be. I lifted her beautiful hand to my cheek, now feverish with despair at the loathsome act of cruelty.
Her fingers coiled tighter around my own to the point of considerable discomfort. There was no further movement from her still, prone body. The pain heaved me out of the darkness. Remembering Momma’s words I conjured the image of Bernhard and Arden on the sunlit main straining against the pain and fury and hurtled us both toward the soothing, healing light. Having found the image, I bore down and allowed it to ripen and transform. We remained that way for a very long time.
Where there had been tears audible from beyond the door, there was now silence. Bernhard had fallen into a deep slumber beside Arden.
I opened my eyes and found her looking at me, the air still luminescent and shimmering from the Game. Her cheeks were wet, and her eyes wide with wonder. Her face was significantly less swollen revealing the beauty. Once again she glowed, although yellow and traces of chartreuse were still evident.
“Are you an angel? Am I—“ Her lips trembled.
“Of course not, silly. I’m not fancy like that.”
“You brought, Bernhard?”
“Yes. Momma and I did.”
“Did you do to Bernhard, what you just did to me?”
“I did. But Momma says we are not to speak of it.”
Arden’s bottom lip trembled. She surprised me by sitting up and swinging her feet over the edge of her bed. “Your secret, whatever it is, is safe with me Benedicta Josephine Teeter.” I thought her using my full Christian name indicated she was well on her way to being a good mother as she had already perfect an essential prerequisite. “You’re a special little girl. Then again, not just a little girl, are you, Beni?”
“Not so fancy as you may think. Momma says I have no small amount of the Devil in my blood,” I said. She laughed and it was a happy sound. With that we talked for a long time until she was a little more settled on how matters stood.
Our fingers were still entwined as we walked slowly to the kitchen. You could have knocked Mrs. Conrad over with a feather. Whereas, my own just looked on in silence and her blue eyes were glistening and pretty. They said we looked like sister's that day, and I suppose that was the kindest thing anyone could say to me. And now we kind of are like sisters.
So there you have it. Now I don’t want to mislead you, there is much more to be told, but that is for another time.
My name is Benedicta Josephine Teeter, and I go by Beni.