We moved to Evergreen Pond the summer before sixth grade. Ours was one of the first houses finished in the rural subdivision, built on lush wetlands in the basin of Mt. Rainier. The night we moved in, I curled up on a mattress in the empty dark, and found my thoughts drowned out by chirping. Hundreds of thousands of frogs called Evergreen Pond home. Listening felt like gazing up at a starscape. Some notes dragged and reverberated across the whole spectrum, while others glimmered in the distance, mere hints that they existed. I snuck out from underneath the sheets and shoved the pane window open.
Out of the same pond crawled my nemeses, the lizards and salamanders. They posed no threat and scurried away from footsteps, but as larger targets they were more likely to meet vehicle bumpers. And as more house lots were sold, the neighbors multiplied and the carnage mounted. Each day that summer I passed fresh carcasses pulverized into the road. Their silver bones were like strands, and they had more guts than seemed possible in such a small creature. Pink, knotty, bulbous messes strewn around their pancaked bodies, still plump as if ready to carry on without their shells. Their desecration revolted me, and I wished they’d go extinct.
When the first school bus heaved up the road in September, the dead lizards were slipping into memory. Too many cars and shiny headlights, too many lawn mowers butchering the grass, Roundup and powders and pellets seeping suburban death into the soil. I rejoiced their disappearance.
What wasn’t steamrolled and gutted across my path, was the slow muting of my frog orchestra. Each summer from the first, the sound would fade further away, until you had to open the window to hear it. Until you had to make sure the TV was off. Until you were lucky to hear one call-back and answer in a night, and even then you couldn’t be certain it was real. I was too young, and my world still too black-and-white, to realize that the same maladies could destroy what I loved as much as they could what I hated.
“We have a question you should ask!” Lisa whispers through perfect, bleach-white teeth. Her less perfect and pretty friend Tara stands next to her.
We are in Mr. Wilson’s sixth-grade classroom, a place I would love if I were alone. We’re in the middle of an Egyptian unit, so the walls are covered in hieroglyphic drawings and sarcophagus portraits. After lunch Mr. Wilson sits on the stool next to the chalkboard and reads to us. He has a collection of Time magazine covers from the last two decades ringing the room like a wallpaper border. His voice is soothing and even, like my mother’s, and I stare up at the covers and pick out my favorites. Candice Bergen, September 1992. I love her hair.
I can’t do my hair. Part of a long list: I can’t put on makeup, pick out cute clothes, I don’t know what a blowjob is. Lisa knew this list instinctually since the moment I showed up at school. Lisa and Tara were born on the same street. They’ve been classmates since kindergarten. Clueless and gawky, I’m the perfect target for their 12-year-old angst.
Lisa slides a blank piece of paper across my desk. “It’s for the Question Box,” she points out. The Sex-Ed unit is looming a week away, and The Question Box is an anonymous depository of queries on bodies and intercourse. “Write down, how do lesbians masturbate?”
“Because you’ll need to know,” Tara adds.
I stare at the paper, its blankness reflecting my own. I am so dumbfounded I don’t hear Mr. Wilson step up behind my chair and stare down at Lisa and Tara over his neat black moustache.
“We were just suggesting a question,” Lisa explained, nudging Tara to nod.
“If you have a question, you can ask it yourself,” he said, his even voice pulsating with condescension. “Tabitha is not your scribe.”
For the first time that school year, I saw Lisa’s ears flush.
Two months later the bullying would escalate, and my parents would sit down with the school administration. Mr. Wilson was there, glaring at the principal with the same exasperation.
“Tabitha isn’t the problem here,” he pointed out. “Have you considered kicking out the sadistic brats disrupting the kids who deserve a safe classroom when they go to school?”
“If she can’t handle being around normal teen girls,” the graying principal said, “maybe it would be best if she left.”
Mr. Wilson slammed his hands down on the conference table and walked out of the room. I transferred out of the school. We would never see each other again.
“Mom’s on the NEWS!” Six months later my little sister Brianna pounded up and down the stairs, hollering to the whole house.
“Huh?” She caught me in the kitchen, snacking while I waited for dinner. Brianna had just returned from junior cheerleading practice at my old school.
“There was a King 5 news van, and the camera guy came right up to our car!”
“Mom?” I called, “what happened?”
My mother slumped into the kitchen. She looked as though she had just slammed a glass of her own bile.
On TV, the anchorman was shoving a microphone through the window of our minivan.
“Did you know Ken Wilson?” he demands.
“He was my daughter’s teacher,” she replied. In an instant the camera was rolling and big reveal: “Did you know he was molesting boys from his church, including his own foster child?”
Mom turned off the TV, tossing the remote as if it bore responsibility. “Just last month I saw him at Safeway,” Mom said to me, still staring past the kitchen, past the pond, out into some distant ether. “He was buying groceries for his mother, because she couldn’t drive any more. He asked how you were doing.”
Those were the last words on the subject. But I couldn’t forget. The truth about Mr. Wilson infected me, and quickly tinted the world into a hideous shade of doubt that I could not shake. Every time I saw a man and a child—my band teacher, the father across the street—a voice crept into my consciousness: what if…? Could he be…? Who else was a monster? And what was wrong with me, not being able to see who someone really was? What hideousness couldn’t I see inside of myself, I wondered on loop. The questions shrunk my sense of self and worth to a husk. I had to be defective, I thought. I was simply too stupid to know how. I waited, sunken over the bridge between 12 and 13, waiting for the proof that I didn’t deserve to exist.
The revelation that evil is a cop-out for understanding evaded me. I couldn’t understand that Mr. Wilson could be the only person to stick up for me, that he would buy groceries for his ailing mother, that he would abuse children. The good and the bad get choked by the same poison.
Photograph by: Jaemin Riley
Written by: Tabitha Blankenbiller
Written by: Tabitha Blankenbiller