Sheriff Norton nodded, saluted her briefly, and walked away. Clara’s thin profile remained in the frame of the door, still playing his words in her head.
“The lady will not press any charges, but she wanted to make sure that the parents found out,” the sheriff had said. “I may be wrong, but when I was driving my car today, I saw your son and your daughter, with their friend, taking a walk on the main street and gathering rocks. And the lady's description of their clothing was correct… Besides,” he had added, extending his left hand towards the dusty road, “it also happened right there, on the main road“. Sheriff Morris had avoided her eyes. Bringing the news was hard and Clara knew why – Dr. Pierce, her husband, had always been a call away when any of the sheriff’s family members had been sick. Jack Pierce had also operated on the sheriff’s sick mother.
Slowing closing the door, Clara gathered her thoughts. With the corner of her eye, she could see the tiny silhouette hiding on the stairs, behind the white balusters.
“Ashley, come here, Missy,” she called. “I know you’re there.”
The figure moved, peeking from behind the banister's vase-shaped supports.
“Mommy, it wasn’t me. It was Alex,” – the girl said. No denying: thank you, Lord; She was confessing everything, without much questioning. Unlike Alex. And Clara relaxed knowing that Ashley would tell on her brother without blinking an eye. As for Alex, she could never get him to talk. Only Jack could.
“Did you or didn’t you throw rocks at the cars?”
“I didn’t hit any, though…” She said in the smallest and softest voice she had. “I’m sorry, Mommy.” Her eyes searched the floor and the blond hair ran into her face, covering her tears.
“It was very wrong what you did. I’m sure you know that.”
The girl nodded. You know such things when you are 7, but you do them anyway. In the same way in which Alex knew, at 11, but couldn’t care less.
Clara unleashed her long blond hair from the pony tail, brushed it off her face, and gathered it again to the back of her head. How would Jack handle this? He would talk to Ashley, spank her, ground her. She couldn’t bring herself to do that. She looked at a contrite Ashley – so small and innocent – standing on the stairs. The child was close to tears.
“Go wait for me in your room,” she said. Clearing her mind and acting like an adult was a priority. And she couldn’t do it with her daughter watching.
“Mommy, noo…” The child knew.
“Now, young lady.”
The small foot steps echoed as Ashley ran to her room.
And it was supposed to be a vacation, Clara thought, rubbing her temples with two shaky fingers. She checked the clock, and it was only 5, and Jack would be back from shopping probably by 6. And where the heck was Alex? She hadn’t seen him since morning; he had skipped lunch even. The weather had been splendid, but she had spent all day in the kitchen, cooking for tomorrow evening’s party. And Jack had been helping around cleaning the house. And the kids… the kids had run wildly. And on Alex one should keep an eye or he would always get himself – and his sister – in trouble. What happened today should teach both her and Jack one or two things about parenting.
Alex throwing rocks at passing cars was easy to picture. It was impossible to create such an image for Ashley, though.
She brought herself to walk upstairs for the discussion with her daughter. She passed by the bathroom, to pick from a mahogany cabinet the wooden hairbrush, and walked in Ashley’s room. She found the child sitting on the bed, crying.
“Don’t spank me, Mommy,” she pleaded. Big teary eyes were fixing Clara.
“I’m sorry, Sweety, but you can’t just start throwing rocks at cars and people and not get punished for it.”
“Just ground me like you did other times…”
“I’m afraid I can’t. This is far too serious.”
Clara came next to her daughter, hairbrush hanging heavy in her hand. “Common,” she said, taking Ashley’s hand and sitting herself on the bed, child in front of her. The girl didn’t need a spanking to get her crying. She was already there.
“Common, Ashley, quit stalling. Do you want your Dad to take care of this?”
The child shook her head and went over Clara’s lap, leaving the mother in an uncomfortable situation. The thin shorts offered little protection and Clara decided against taking them down.
“Don’t bring your hands back...”
The child nodded again, rubbing her red eyes.
The descent was not hard, yet the pace was fast. One sharp stroke of the hairbrush got Ashley’s feet into motion and Clara had to pin Ashley’s restless hands to the small of her back. Spanking Ashley was harder than she had expected. It was not like swatting her butt once or twice – it was a struggle. The brush hit the round spot about ten times and Clara found herself crying as her own daughter hissed and struggled with the pain. She picked the weeping child up, and wrapped her arms around her.
“Clara? Kids?” – Jack’s voice called from downstairs.
“Up here!” – Clara responded, still rocking softly her daughter. “You know that spanking you hurts me,” she whispered. “Why on earth would you do such a stupid thing?”
“Alex and Josh were also doing it. And it was fun.”
“That’s not a reason, Ashley, honey…”
Jack remained rooted to the ground, in the doorway, surprised at the scene. The smile had turned into an anxious look.
“Everything all right?” The worried tone surfaced even when he tried to hide it. “Are you two ok?”
“Fine, honey,” Clara said, wiping her eyes. “Ashley has something to confess.”
Jack raised his eyebrows to his daughter. “Let’s hear it, then.” His crossed arms were not a good sign.
The girl shifted nervously on her mother’s lap.
“Common, honey, tell Daddy what you did.”
The small fingers played nervously with her Buggs Bunny imprinted t-shirt.
“Alex and I slang rocks at passing cars this morning…”
Jack’s eyes widened.
“And Alex hit a car’s tail lights. By mistake” – she added fast, hoping this would diminish the guilt of telling on her brother.
Jack suppressed the “Did what?” cry, hanging in his throat.
“You’re in trouble,” was what came out instead.
“But Mommy spanked me already!” – Ashley cried fast, the small voice becoming high-pitched and desperate.
“In which case you are grounded.” – Jack added, matter-of-factly. “Downstairs right now and put your nose into the corner. Now. Don’t look at your mother and don’t try to milk sympathy from me; for something like this you won’t get any. You know better. Downstairs. Now.” His pointed finger seemed to vibrate in the tensed air.
There were no protests on Ashley’s side.
When they were alone, Jack asked the question which was twisting his brain. “You spanked her?”
“I did. And it wasn’t easy.”
“I do it so you don’t have to.” – Jack sighed. “You can’t handle it and you become a mess. At least I try to control my feelings.”
He wrapped his arms around her and planted a kiss on her lips. “Thanks, though… I can handle Alex because I know how a boy feels. But with Ashley… It’s unfair to say it-”
“It’s easier with Alex. I know.”
“Where is he, anyway?”
Clara almost shrugged. “I haven’t seen him since morning - you know, when you saw him last… Oh, I forgot to mention: the sheriff came. That’s how I found out.”
Jack stood up, thought for a moment, looking blank. “He might be at Adam’s house, playing with Josh. Did you call?”
“Ok, let’s go downstairs, see how Ashley’s coping with her situation, and then I’ll try and call Adam to check on Alex.”
Alex saw Ashley first, sitting on the floor with a coloring book in front of her and a bunch of crayons lying around. Her puffy red eyes triggered his defense mechanism. The thought that something else might have been the reason for her crying was not strong enough to stick to his mind.
Jack popped in the living room from the kitchen, holding a kitchen towel in his hand. Alex took off his shoes slowly, waiting for any word from his parents that might give away his current situation. He didn’t have to wait long.
“What time is it, Alex?” Jack asked, drying his hands with a kitchen towel. No reply came from his son. Jack disappeared into the kitchen and appeared again in the living room, hands in his pockets. He measured his son from head to toes: his dirty hands, his mud-stained face, the dusty t-shirt and khakis. A small branch was still hanging in his dark hair and he had managed to scratch his arm again. The look in the boy’s green eyes, when he confronted his Dad’s, was guiltless.
“I was fishing but I couldn’t catch anything all day and then we started catching more fish towards evening so I stayed more.” “I’m sorry.” – he added fast, checking closely his Dad’s reaction.
“That’s all you’ve been doing today?”
“I guess so.”
Ashley looked up and in her face Alex felt the danger of the upcoming storm. She had started picking up her crayons and gathering her coloring books and papers.
“You guess so?” – Jack asked again, arms crossed.
That was the kind of question his Dad would ask when he knew. Alex looked down. “Dad, I’m hungry,” he whispered. Which he was.
“Ashley, go help your Mom in the kitchen, Sweety,” Jack turned to his daughter.
Alex could tell she was happy to be out of the room. But he was hungry. He didn’t care about how hungry he was; until now. At that very point he felt the hunger as unbearable. He felt the hunger tightening his stomach into a tensed small ball.
“I’m hungry,” he whined again, rubbing his eyes.
“And tired. And whiney.” – Jack added staring at his son who was still at the entrance, not daring to come any closer to his father. “Which is what you get when you stay out all day, running wild and skipping lunches. It’s past your curfew and past our dinner time.”
“Go take a shower and change your clothes, please. The sheriff passed by today and we’re going to have a little talk about it tonight.”
Agony was painted on Alex’s face. The word ‘sheriff’ was enough to startle him; he looked at his Dad, as if questioning the truth of the statement.
“I didn’t do anything,” he began.
“Stop whining and go wash.”
As Alex slid past his Dad, Jack swatted his bottom hard. “Fast!” – Jack added, watching the boy rubbing his bottom and his tired eyes.
Jack turned his gaze to Clara, who had finished emptying the dish washer and was setting the table for Alex. “After I talk to him,” Jack told her.
“But he’s hungry, Jack. He didn’t have anything to eat today.”
“I doubt he would be able to swallow anything right now. When we’re done he will be more relaxed. Trust me.”
She sighed. “If you say so… I hope you know what you’re saying.”
Ten minutes later Alex came downstairs, dressed in his blue pajamas bottoms and in a dark blue t-shirt. His sight had grown accustomed to the floor, as he had been studying it intensely for the past few minutes. From the kitchen table, Jack saw him coming and met him in the doorway. He stared patiently at the slim small figure in front of him.
“Do you have anything to say to me, Alex?” – Jack questioned.
There was no answer. The clink of dishes and cutlery being moved around in the kitchen had also ceased.
“What were you doing this afternoon on the road, Alex? With Josh and Ashley?”
Alex shook his head “no”. He rubbed his eyes again and his lip began trembling on its own will.
“It won’t happen again,” he replied as Jack had paused allowing for the silence between them to grow. “We were just playing and it happened.”
“This did not happen by accident. You can’t tell me that you were shooting rocks at cars by accident?”
“But I didn’t mean to hit them…”
“No, you mean to tell me that you were shooting at them to miss them, right?”
“We were playing…”
“Playing is not hitting cars with rocks. Not to mention that you are not allowed to play on the main street.”
“But there are hardly any cars passing on that street, Dad!...”
“That is not the point. The point is you had no business to be there in the first place. And second, you do not – do NOT – throw rocks at passing cars, animals, people, or whatever else. That is the point. Am I making myself clear?”
“But how come Josh can be on the main street and I can’t?”
“What Josh does is his business and his parents’ business, even though I am quite sure his Dad wouldn’t approve of him playing on the street.”
“But there are no cars on the street!”
Alex stomped his foot and pouted. Jack grabbed his arm before any protest could come out, spun him around and smacked his bottom hard a few times. The kid arched his back in reply and his hand covered his bottom.
“Young man, you do not argue with me.”
More sharp slaps landed.
“And you certainly do not stomp and pout!”
“Daddy I swear it won’t happen again please don’t spank me Daddy please!…” Behind the darkness of his closed eyes Alex could feel the distinct sting of his father’s handprints on his behind.
Jack walked an unwilling Alex to the couch. The kid tried to resist but another smack got him moving and whining.
“I won’t do it again. Daddy, I promise....”
“I’ll show you throwing rocks at cars and being late home.”
He removed his belt, doubled it, and sat himself on the couch, dragging Alex in front of him. “Pull your pajamas bottoms down, please,” he added patiently, fixing his son. Alex was crying already so asking him again was no good; it would only raise the frustration. Jack pulled Alex closer and did the work himself. Then took his arm and pulled the boy over his knees.
Silence engulfed the room before the belt landed. Only three licks, and then it stopped; but Alex was crying hard by now, both his hands locked behind his back under his Dad’s firm grip.
“Why am I spanking you, Alex?”
“I threw rocks at cars… But I won’t do it again, Dad. I promise. I swear.”
“And I want that sling you've been using tonight, understood?”
The belt landed a couple more times and the butt began turning red. Jack stopped. A knot had formed in his throat. He knew how hard it had been for Clara to spank Ashley. Alex was wailing, unaware that the spanking had stopped. Jack lifted his son up, on his lap, and wiped his eyes. He pulled up slowly the kid’s PJ’s bottoms. In his chest, Alex went on sobbing. He was aware only later on that Jack had taken him to the bathroom, to wash his face, and then carried him again downstairs, to the kitchen. By now he had calmed down but the sting in his butt was still there.
Ashley was already in bed. But Clara, in the kitchen, was still warming some chicken soup with noodles. She kissed his hot forehead.
“You stupid little boy, you,” she whispered.
Jack watched silently, shaking his head, speaking to no one in particular:
“What am I gonna do with you when you grow up, Alex?”
The kid looked up from his plate, innocent look in his eyes: “But I’ll be good, Dad.”
Jack only laughed. Fuck - he was in trouble.