#6 Do you think I killed that cat?
The second part of a story about family secrets and childhood misunderstandings
This is the third part of an ongoing series set in 1989 about an important queer role model from my childhood. You can read the first part here and the second part here.
There’s something else you should know about the summer I met Elaine: that was the year I decided to become a child detective. I didn’t make this decision lightly either. I had devoured the entire Eric Wilson oeuvre after school let out at the beginning of July—The Green Gables Detective. The Lost Treasure of Casa Loma. Vancouver Nightmare—and despite being a relatively recent devotee to children’s crime fiction, I was pretty confident that I had the right skill set to succeed in my newly chosen profession.
As the third of four children, I had an innate, almost instinctual understanding of what was fair and just and had no problem speaking out against abuses of power. Like my mother, I liked to ask questions of other people and was a good listener. People liked to confide in me. If I had a superpower at that age, it would’ve been the ability to hide my excitement whenever someone started a sentence with I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but…
Yet I was also self-reflexive enough to realize this wouldn’t be all sunshine and rainbows. I had problems with authority, an impulsive streak, and an overly-sensitive nature, particularly when it came to feeling other people’s emotions. There was also my unfortunate tendency to overlook important facts or information while obsessing over trivial details—without ever seeing the bigger picture.
For example, it would be weeks before I saw Elaine again, yet after that evening we met her on her driveway, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way she had looked at me or how my mother pretended like we had all run into each other by chance. The more I thought about it, the more questions I had and I blamed myself for not asking them sooner.
Eric Wilson’s books chronicled the adventures of brother and younger sister detective duo Tom and Liz Austen, who solved crimes during family holidays to postcard-perfect Canadian vacation destinations. They combined the best parts of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries in a practical Canadian way that spoke to my soul. The Kootenay Kidnapper was so good I read it twice so I could study how to be a better detective. I knew how important keeping good notes were going to be in my future investigative work so I started keeping observations about my family and our neighbours in a lime green notebook.
Like Tom Austen, I too had a younger sister—well, I had three sisters, but the two older ones wanted nothing to do with me—and I was determined to convince my little sister to join me on this new business venture.
Two years younger than me, Lindsay had become a reliable sidekick now that she could ride her bike without training wheels. We had started a successful business earlier that summer. I would dig up the California poppies that grew like weeds by the gravel pit near our house and divide them into plastic potting trays my mother used in the spring to grow seedlings. Together, we would load them into a creaky old Radio Flyer red wagon after dinner and then go house to house around our small subdivision to sell them for 25 cents each.
Our neighbours would open their front door, spot me in dirty clothes from all the digging and potting, and frown. That’s when Lindsay, in pigtails and her favourite tea party dress—a pink frilly affair with a white lace trimming—would hold up a pot filled with wilting poppies and flash her toothless smile. The following morning I would walk down through a series of ravines to a corner store near the elementary school and spend whatever money we had made in plant sales on penny candies: foamy bananas and blue whales for me, fuzzy coke bottles and Swedish berries for her.
Detective work seemed like the natural next step in our business arrangement. But we needed to solve a case first before we could market ourselves to the neighbourhood as child detectives. Lindsay agreed to a partnership in principle: she would help me investigate cases in exchange for me helping with her weekly Barbie runway extravaganza in the basement. Being a wardrobe assistant and music supervisor (ie. videotaping the end credits to Fashion TV and hitting play at the start of her fashion show) was a small price to pay for an extra set of eyes on the many important cases we would soon find ourselves solving.
When the neighbour’s cat Slippers went missing a couple of weeks after we met Elaine, I knew that this was our chance. A black tuxedo cat with tell-tale white paws should be easy to find, but instead of canvassing the neighbourhood for information or creating posters to drop in mailboxes and to staple to telephone poles, I zeroed in on my mother’s recent complaints that Slippers had been marking and digging in a row of dahlias that bordered our driveway in the front yard.
When I asked her about the missing cat, she said told me it had killed two of the dahlias she had stored all winter, then said, “If that damn cat got hit by a car, it had it coming. I stored those tubers all winter in the garage!”
When I shared this with Lindsay she, unsurprisingly, started to cry. I told her to toughen up, but that only made her cry more. Still, we had found a suspect with a clear motive and something to gain, so we both agreed to keep a closer eye on our mother.
At first, our preliminary surveillance quickly uncovered my mother’s standard weekday routine. After my father left for work, she set up sprinklers in the front and back yard and moved them throughout the morning. She was baking more than usual and would finish with the oven before the midday heat arrived: Nanaimo bars, coconut macaroons, lemon poppyseed rolls, banana loaf, butter tarts, homemade caramels, mint chocolates, birds-nest cookies with homemade strawberry jam—she ziplocked everything and packed it all into the deep freezer in the garage, writing the exact number of each baked good in black sharpie pen on the front of each bag.
“Hands off,” she warned me and my sisters. “These are for a special occasion. I’ll know if you’ve eaten anything and you’ll hear from your father if you do.”
She would kick me and my younger sister out of the house after lunch to terrorize the neighborhood with the rest of the kids in our subdivision. We weren’t allowed to come back inside until dinnertime. Whenever we snuck back into our house to use the bathroom, she would either be talking on the phone or reading or writing in her bedroom. She spent most evenings working on a series of raised garden beds around the plum tree in the backyard or watching rental movies with my father.
As our investigation progressed, Lindsay and I searched the bottom of the family minivan—a sky blue caravan that fit all six of us and both our Shetland sheepdogs with room to spare. I crawled underneath on our elbows, army style, but couldn’t find any black fur or dried blood.
Our first big break came one afternoon in the garage: a giant plastic container labelled Insect Killer from the hardware store. Was this the murder weapon? We sprinted to the backyard where my mother was picking red plums off one of the trees left over from the old farm that used to be where our house was now. We hovered, nervous about what was going to happen next until she finally turned around and raised both her eyebrows, gesturing at us to speak.
Lindsay and I glanced at each other. She looked down at her hands until I mustered the courage to ask: “So, uh, do you think, ummm—”
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Did you—” I paused. I could feel the sweat on my face and my t-shirt sticking to the center of my back. “Do you think someone could have used the poison in the garage to kill Slippers?”
“I would never spray that stuff into the ground. What if the dogs ate it?” My mother’s smile faded and her eyebrows drew together into a crease. “Do you think I killed that cat?”
Lindsay and I shrugged and said nothing. The tables had turned and this interrogation was not going how I expected. My mother took a step towards us and crouched down.
“Did you do something I should know about?” she asked.
Before I could answer, Lindsay ran over and latched on to my mother, burying her face into my mother’s shoulder. “No, we didn’t do it. Sean thought you did it.”
My face burned with shame. How could Lindsay betray me like this? But my mother waved me for me to come to her anyway. She hugged both of us. “It’s like that Fred Penner song,” she said. “He’ll come back when he’s ready. You’ll see.”
Still, I had lingering doubts. Despite her denials, what if my mother really did have something to do with Slippers vanishing? More importantly, did my pre-existing relationship with a major suspect make me an unwitting accomplice after the fact? Wasn’t I also guilty, in a way, for doing nothing to stop a crime that I should’ve seen coming?
There were too many grey areas and the too close-to-home nature of the cat case had paralyzed me with fear and anxiety. The only thing I knew for certain was that my sister Lindsay couldn’t keep secrets and I was worried about what this meant for the future.
When Slippers reappeared two weeks later, I was relieved, not because he was safe, but because I could help my mother in the garden again without worrying she was a murderer. This case was closed, but a new one was building on the horizon. Elaine was about to come back into our lives with a misunderstanding that would end this phase of my childhood and change the way I looked at my family forever.
Thanks for reading this week’s story! Here’s one of my favourite entries from my lime green detective journal from 1989:
Look at that penmanship haha!
My question for you this week: what would you like to read for a future Sunday? Another installment from this childhood story series or some of what I’ve uncovered about my car accident and the person who hit me?
Would also love to hear your thoughts on this week’s post as well as your childhood ambitions.
Until a future Sunday.