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Authors: Katherine Holubitsky

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BOOK: Hippie House
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On an afternoon late in November, I stayed after school to help my home economics teacher, Mrs. Suringa, take the actors' measurements for their costumes. I slipped the tape measure around Donny Russell's waist. As I did, I looked for some indication of how Katie's disappearance was affecting him—a gaunt, faraway expression, or maybe an uncontrollable facial tic.

But Donny only joked with me, contorting his face to show me how he planned to look when, as Bill Sikes, he hung from the flagpole at the end of the play. He did not let on how he felt about his sister disappearing without a trace.

3

M
Y FATHER WAS
very proud of our dog, Halley. Even in her old age he claimed she was the best hunting dog he had ever owned. This put Halley ahead of some very stiff competition, for Dad had always selected his dogs from excellent bloodlines. I knew nothing of the ability of Halley's predecessors to hunt, but my memories of the two white-muzzled black Labrador retrievers we owned when I was very young were fond.

Halley first distinguished herself simply by being a Clumber spaniel. Dad had read about the rare breed in a duck-hunting magazine. A low, heavily built bird dog, they were bred to crash through dense underbrush. Slower than most sporting dogs, they made up for this with unwavering persistence and a nose said to be second only to a bloodhound for keenness of scent.

“In addition to their hunting skills,” I recalled my father reading aloud to us many years earlier, “they are even-tempered dogs with loveable personalities and not overly active when mature. They do have a tendency toward stubbornness,” he continued with amusement, prompting Mom to interject that she did not want a dog that was not going to do as it was told.

“No, no, that's actually what you want. It's a good thing for a hunting dog. It means they won't give up easily.”

“Oh,” Mom replied.

Dad winked at Eric and me, drawing a hand across his forehead in a gesture of relief.

Halley turned out to be all of what the magazine said she would be and more. She was intensely loyal to all of us and very affectionate, winning Mom over the first time she pushed her head into her lap for a hug. Halley was given little reason to worry, but she could not stand being left out of any activity. She was eight years old in the fall of 1970 and although long retired from hunting, when sound asleep she would still lift her head at the sound of an airplane overhead, wondering if Dad had left her behind.

It was sometime around the second week of November that she began to act out of character. In the habit of taking long naps now, her sleep was easily disturbed. She would wake suddenly, roll to her haunches, look at us and whine. Or she would pace restlessly as if searching for something, talking to us like we should know what or where it was, before seeming to settle down again. She was anxious outside. She was never a wanderer, but she began keeping unusually close to us as we did our chores. Several times Halley glued herself to us so closely that we bumped into her as we turned around.

“Halley, what is it, girl?” we would ask.

Appearing glad to have finally been asked, she would run to the open barn door, then back to Eric or me, as if expecting us to take her somewhere.

One Sunday morning, Halley accompanied me down to the duck house. I was on my way to sweep out the old straw and spread a fresh layer on the floor. A heavy snow had fallen during the night, and after rounding the barn I stopped to gaze over the airfield, a marvelous ocean of white, pure and glimmering in the morning sun.

Here and there where the land rose and fell, snow had drifted in rhythm to the forces that moved it, swelling softly toward the woods, soaring halfway up the fence in places at the edge of the field. I stopped because it was a sight I was fortunate to observe. I was generally not quick enough. By mid-morning Carl would set out on Uncle Pat's snowmobile and this work of nature would be doomed.

For now the morning was soundless and still. The wind sock draped like an old balloon, but the gentle puffs of snow capping the fenceposts seemed somehow alert, reminding me of delicate birds paused in flight, waiting for the next gust of wind to carry them off.

The trail, of course, was hidden, and unintentionally I stepped in the ditch and sank a good foot down. Snow wedged into my boot beneath my pant leg and I knew I would have to live with the uncomfortable sensation of it sliding down to my ankle as a lump, then melting as I went about my work with one wet sock. Halley kept close, looking up at me often. She would not, as she normally would, be distracted by the scent of the field mice where they had tunneled beneath the snow. I noticed how beads of snow gathered in clumps and clung to her chest fur and the beautiful featherings on her legs. It could not be a much more comfortable feeling than having snow in your boot.

Looking straight ahead of us, past the duck house where the road curved into the woods, I thought how dark and mysterious, yet enticing in its strangeness, the snowfall had made the woods appear. I walked past the duck house simply to stand in its doorway. The branches of the fir trees bent low beneath the weight, and the birch and aspen, which were not silent once I was inside but full of complaint, shed snow from their branches so that it appeared that in the woods the storm was still going on. The snow was too deep to walk any farther, and by now Halley was whining incessantly, so I returned to the duck house to sweep the floor.

Once I had corralled the ducks into a pen, I let Halley follow me in. She would not stop whining or pacing. That morning she had no interest in the ducks—these particular ducks my father had trained her to ignore, although it went against her every instinct and it killed her to do it, so that now and again we would catch her chasing one when she thought no one was around. But that morning her mind was too occupied by whatever it was that only she could sense.

Insulated from the snowy world in the stuffy warmth of the duck house, I began to think of a story I had read in school. It was written by Guy de Maupassant and it was called “The Inn.” It was about a caretaker who was snowbound for six months in an inn in the French Alps. Eventually he went crazy from cabin fever and loneliness. He cracked up when he heard his dog, Sam, howling outside the door.

“Halley! That's enough.”

Spooked by her behavior, I returned to the house and tried to convince Dad to take her to a veterinarian. It didn't take much. After a week of her fitful pacing in the workshop where she normally dozed next to the woodstove while he drilled holes or stained wood, he was also convinced something was wrong.

The veterinarian could find no physical reason for her anxiety and, with the exception of a touch of arthritis, he declared her to be a very healthy animal for her age.

By the first week of December I had been assigned the costumes I was to sew for the production of
Oliver
!. I was to alter pants and a velvet jacket for Fagin. Mr. Wellington, the drama teacher, was always on the lookout at thrift and bargain stores for costumes for his department, and Fagin's jacket was one of his more lucrative finds.

In addition, I was responsible for Oliver's costume as a young boy as well as the skirts for the chorus of flower sellers. These would be quick to sew with their two simple seams and gathered waists.

But what thrilled me the most was to be asked to sew Nancy's dress—all that satin and velvet and crinolines and lace!—exquisite fabrics I had no reason to work with normally. I planned to save sewing her dress until the Christmas holidays, when I could devote all my time to it and I had the other costumes out of the way.

On a Saturday afternoon, sitting at my sewing machine with my back turned toward it, I pondered the deep blue jacket lying among the scraps of fabric on the floor. A mound of skirts, a chorus of color, lay across from me on a rocking chair. I had taken in the back and side seams of the jacket, ripped out the sleeves and reinserted them. I had then narrowed the shoulders to fit Fagin, who was also known as Adam Brown. I had done a superb job; Mr. Wellington had commended me. But—

I could not bring myself to do what he asked me to do next. This was to make the jacket look like the only piece of clothing owned by a nineteenth-century pickpocket who lived in the slums of London. Essentially, I was to trash the soft blue velvet, cut into its rich surface—Mr. Wellington may just as well have asked me to cut into my wrist.

“Don't be so dramatic,” my brother commented when I told him this. “It's a lousy jacket bought at a secondhand store. Probably somebody got married in it and now they're divorced. It's not like Hendrix wore it at Woodstock. By the way, can you make me a white suede one with fringes like that?”

Eric was on his way down to the Hippie House, and because of this he was wearing tall boots and a heavy parka with the hood up. He did not wear any gloves. It was not cool to wear gloves unless he was doing heavy work or skiing, and every winter his hands suffered for it. The skin became so rough and cracked it bled. He was searching for a guitar strap he hadn't seen since September when we'd last closed the door. Maury was organizing a protest rally against the Vietnam War, to be held at the drop-in
center on a Sunday in mid-December. The band had agreed to reunite for the day.

Halley, for the moment, was lying on the one patch of floor that was not taken by a fabric remnant. Eric called her over. Without lifting her head, she stared at him with her hazel eyes and tentatively thumped her docked tail. He called her over again. No doubt intimidated by his forbidding appearance, she gave one last thump and came over to me instead.

“You're too scary,” I said, patting her chest.

Once Eric had left, I set the jacket aside until I felt more courageous. I would work on the flower sellers' skirts instead. Already I had folded the waists and run most of them through the sewing machine to create pockets for the elastic inserts. I finished four more, then I consulted my list of actors' measurements, measured and cut a length of elastic and after attaching a safety pin, I picked a skirt from the top of the pile—electric blue—and began to push the elastic through the waist. I remember this so clearly because I would recall it many times later. This is what I was doing when the back door to the kitchen opened and I heard the sound that would change our lives.

It was my brother—after bursting through the kitchen door, he was shouting for Dad, screaming for him in the most horrific voice, tortured and full of terror. Paralyzed by what I heard, I stopped what I was doing and listened. Eric was tromping back and forth in his heavy boots with “Dad” being the only word he seemed able to say. Setting my sewing aside, I hurried down the hall. By the time I reached the top of the stairs I could hear my mother trying desperately to calm Eric down—trying to understand what could possibly have upset her son, who was as even-tempered as his father, to the point that he could no longer speak. She was now at the bottom of the stairs.

“Emma!”

“I'm coming, I'm coming.”

My heart hit my throat as I took the stairs two at a time. I slipped on the last tread. “What is it?” I asked, scrambling to my feet. I faced my brother, whose hair glistened with fine drops of melted snow, where he stood in the center of the room. Despite the cold, his face was pale and for a moment he reminded me of an angel. A small puddle was forming around his boots, and his chapped, gloveless hands—clenched as if in prayer—rose to his mouth and down again. But he was as unaware of this as he was unaware of anything else; although his eyes were on me, they remained fixed on whatever they had seen.

“Run to the workshop and get your father!” Mom ordered.

“But what's wrong?” I wanted my brother to snap out of his strange catatonic behavior. “Eric?!”

“Go!”

Already into my boots, I pulled on my coat while Mom attempted to guide Eric into a chair. “Emma, you come right back here with your father,” she insisted as I flew out the door.

Fear for Eric's sanity carried me quickly to my father, who I was confident would understand whatever had put him in such a state and make everything well again. Halley ran several yards ahead of me. Dad looked up from his workbench when I opened the door. I had to catch my breath before I could speak, but it wasn't necessary. The look on my face must have told him something was wrong.

“Emma.” He lay his tools aside. “What is it?”

“It's Eric. I don't know what, but something's happened.”

Dad followed immediately and by the time we had arrived back at the farmhouse, Eric was seated in a chair with a blanket around his shoulders. He was trembling violently as though the shock within had worked itself to the surface. Tears clouded Mom's eyes and I guessed that by now she had some idea of what was wrong. Dad looked to her for some sign—some indication of how he should be approaching the situation.

She could barely speak. “Pat is on his way,” was all she said.

BOOK: Hippie House
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