In the summer of 1970, you take a car trip from Miami to Beaufort, North Carolina for a fishing vacation with your big sister, Lisa, and your mom and dad. You check into a motel that is on an inlet where a few small boats are docked.
“Rustic,” is what Dad calls the wooden building of about twenty rooms.
“Smelly, dirty and old,” is how Mom describes the place.
The swimming pool looks too small to play in and it has no slide. Two demerits from you because you are nine years old and a big pool with a slide is all you want in a summer vacation. You mope around the outside walkways to see if there is a vending machine with good candy, wondering what you are going to do for an entire week if you can’t play in the pool. The sandy walkway is warm under your feet and you realize you forgot to put on your sandals before you left the car. Mom will yell about walking around barefoot but what else is new. You spot a vending machine at the end of the walkway. It’s empty. Before you can get disappointed about the absence of candy, you are distracted by a rustling sound in the pebbled courtyard in the middle of the motel rooms. At first all you notice are two thirsty looking plants. Like everything else around here, they are droopy and close to colorless. But one of the plants rustles again. You take a few steps on the pebbles and peek under the plant. As if your own angel were listening, you are surprised with a mother cat and six kittens who look about four to five weeks old. The mother is small herself. She is black and white and timid looking. But she looks at you and you hear a soft meow. The kittens range from orange and white stripped to black and there are two gray tabbies. They cuddle one another as they nurse. You’ve seen kittens being born and you’ve helped care for cats as old as twenty. You love cats even more than you love swimming pools. You are certain by week’s end you’ll have persuaded your animal-loving parents to let you keep at least one of the kittens. You hope to take two.
You are a six a.m. kind of early riser, regardless of the time of year or where you are. Your family likes to sleep until at least eight a.m.. Instead of staring at the ceiling and listening to the wall unit air conditioner go on and off for two hours, you get up, grab a few pouches of the cat food Mom bought from the grocery store last night after dinner, grab the room key off of the top of the T.V., and slip out the door. You check the courtyard for the kitties. When you don’t see them you wonder where else they might be.
It is August, so it is already light enough to make your way around the motel rooms to the back and the inlet. You see the caretaker of the property who you saw last evening. He had scared you then because he didn’t smile or say anything, just frowned and looked toward the ground. You wonder why he bleaches his hair. He’s tall and muscly and you instinctively know he is capable of hurting you.
You know to stay away from people who can hurt you. It looks like he has the same gray tank shirt on that he wore yesterday. You tiptoe around a group of yellow peonies that remind you of buttery popcorn and hide behind a tall palm which is much wider than you are. The air is still. So is the water. It is warm out and you hear no sounds except the man doing something. You peer around the side of the tree and you see him.
But what you don’t understand because you are too young, is that what you are seeing now will haunt you forever. All you know is you stand paralyzed and mute as you watch this big man. He’s holding a large metal cage that looks like what your dad calls a lobster trap. At first, it doesn’t register. The kittens are inside the cage. There is a long rope attached to the cage and the man is holding the end of the rope. He tosses the cage into the water. You hear squeaky kitten cries before the cage hits the water. It splashes. You watch the cage sink. The orange and white striped boy kitten and the black and white girl are grabbing and clawing the metal. You haven’t yet realized what is happening, that the kittens will soon die. The cage sinks out of sight. Now the man holds the mother cat. He throws her into the water. She has what looks like a fishing weight tied to her back leg. You see her move deeper into the water. She struggles but sinks deeper and deeper until she disappears. You grasp the tree tighter than you’ve ever held anything. You want your mom. Your dad. You are unable to scream. Or do anything. What you just saw cannot be true. The man finger combs his hair from his face and walks up the hill toward the motel office like nothing has happened, like all he has done is throw out the trash. In this moment, you are shocked. You had thought everyone was like your family and loved cats. You had never imagined anyone ever killing an animal.
An awful feeling envelops you that, years later, you will recognize as guilt. If you had been an extraordinary nine year old, you would have realized sooner that the man was murdering the cats. If you had been extraordinary, you would have overcome your shock and fear of him and saved all of the kitties. You could have done something. You didn’t. Why are you not extraordinary?
You don’t remember getting back to your motel room or unlocking the door. You do remember standing in the dark room and screaming for your parents to wake up and do something. Lisa sits up in bed. “Oh my God!” she says.
“Calm down, Allison!” your mom says, and lifts her eye mask off her head. You throw yourself on the bed next to your mom. She hugs you. “I’m sorry,” she says. You are inconsolable.
“Son of a bitch!” your dad says, and pushes the bathroom door open and goes in and brushes his teeth.
You learn parents cannot always make things better. Sometimes they are unable to help at all.
Twenty minutes later your Mom, Lisa and you are in the car waiting for Dad who is inside the motel office. As Dad comes out, he pushes the door so hard it bangs on something. No one comes out after him. He plops into the driver’s seat, grabs the steering wheel with a bloody knuckle and you speed out of the parking lot. Mom takes tissues out of the glove compartment and dabs Dad’s hand.
Through his rear view mirror Dad makes brief eye contact with you. “Where to, now?” he asks.
Jeanne Panoff lives in Miami, Florida. She writes short stories, creative non-fiction and non-fiction stories.