The Knapsack Man

Look, I’ll tell you right off the bat: you aren’t going to get a villain here. Just a bunch of angry, sad, and tired people. Myself included.

There isn’t a whole lot to me. We were poor growing up, and I’m slightly less poor now. The only difference between me and my folks is that I’d never dream of bringing a kid into this life, much less two. My sister was over ten years my senior, so much older that it just became unreal. She wasn’t like a sister, she was another, harsher grown-up in a house that couldn’t afford much patience. Mama worked two jobs, daddy worked one that took up all his daylight hours. Sister worked part-time at a shop, but she hated being home with me. She hated me. One of my first memories is my sister screaming in the other room, begging, pleading not to have to stay in the same bedroom as me, and mama calmly and quietly cutting her short. She had to. She had to stay with me. It was her duty.

Man, nothing like staying with someone who hates your guts.

I didn’t hate my sister.

I was scared of her.

I’d be doing nothing and she’d take two long, candy-red nails and pinch a part of my arm until the skin burned icy-hot. Whenever I cried, which was often, whatever parent was home would immediately turn on her. That was probably part of why she hated me so much.

As she grew older, graduated high school(or flunked out, I was too small to know which) she started chafing at the collar. Wanting to move out. Our parents wouldn’t let her. They made her turn over every cent she earned, even checked with her boss to make sure she wasn’t squirreling any money away. They’d give a little back to her in an allowance, but they held onto most of it. She wasn’t responsible, they said. She had to learn.

God, I was a mess. That much tension in a house could turn even the Dalai Lama into a headcase. I was crying all the time, scared of my own shadow. My sister just made it worse. She couldn’t hit me and get away with it, but she would do other things. She’d tell me scary stories she’d ripped off horror movies I couldn’t watch, tell me something was lurking just outside our bedroom window. She never let me sleep with the light on, and she’d whisper scary things in the dark.

It got to the point where I internalized everything she said to me. It was so horrible having to watch me, I had to be a bad person. I stopped calling for mama when she hurt me. I never repeated the scary things she told me. It didn’t make her ease off, instead she just got worse. And the very worst night was also the last time I saw her.

Mama was off on job #2 and daddy was still at the yard, so me and sis were on the couch watching tv. I remember how it started. She gave me a sidelong glance and changed the channel to a scary movie. Not that I was going to complain. I couldn’t. So she turned the volume up way too loud. I just kept reading my school book. She knocked it out of my hands and told me to pay attention, it was important. On the tv, some kind of monster-man was torturing a woman with his claws. It was probably tame enough to be shown on network television, but to my six-year-old mind it was a view of hell. I begged her to turn it off. She turned up the volume full blast.

I told her to stop it or I would tell mama.

She turned off the tv. Then she turned off the lights. Whatever had been on the tv, this was suddenly worse.

All I could see was her long, scraggly hair and the shine of her eyes in the little light that leaked in off the streetlight. She asked me if I had ever heard of the knapsack man. Of course I hadn’t, it was something she had just made up, but she acted like she was shocked at my ignorance.

The knapsack man lurked outside houses, she said in a whisper, he looked for real bad little kids.

For some pretty bad kids, he took their pets and drowned them.

For some worse kids, he took their hands and feet so they had to hobble like the guy on a dolly near the train station.

For the very worst kids, though, he took their entire family so they were all alone.

When I finally found my voice again, I asked her which one I was.

She said I was the worst kind of kid, and that it was my fault everyone had to work all the time. Just by being alive, I made everyone unhappy. And she herself had called the knapsack man to take us all away, just to be rid of me.

And then she ran to the bedroom and slammed the door.

I didn’t start screaming then, not until I saw the silhouette of someone on the front curtains with a lumpy shape on its back, and then I feel like I never stopped. Daddy got home past eleven, he had to duck my head under the faucet to get me calm. I clung to him like a bear trap. In the middle of all my ramblings, he heard my sister’s name and his face stormed over. He opened the door to our shared bedroom. My sister wasn’t in there, the curtains were drifting out the open window. I’ll never forget his first words to mama when she got home: “she’s got away from us.”

Gradually I learned to calm down. I made friends in school, graduated with mostly B’s from the same place my sister had gone. My parents had managed to put a little money by in their long hours, so I went to the local community college, got myself an AA in Business. When I walked for graduation, mama was there for me. Daddy had suffered a stroke while I was matriculating, she had a neighbor watch him while she was out.

I remember thinking how old she really looked, the weight of all those years whitening her hair and twisting her back. I marveled at the people who thought to bring not one, but two children into such a hard life, just to push them for something better.

Mama gave me a peck on the cheek and told me she was proud of me. She also gave me a white envelope that she told me to open later. I was expecting money, such a humble woman would probably be shy about a gift like that. Instead it was a letter.

“I ain’t your mama,” the very first sentence said in her never-finished-sixth-grade scrawl.

The letter said, in short, that she and daddy weren’t my parents, and my sister wasn’t my sister. My sister had done something stupid, and they were determined to make her own up to her mistake. Even if she was too young to be a mother then, they would make sure she knew the weight of what she’d done. The letter closed by pleading with me to make something of myself, because they’d put so much into me.

That letter is still haunting me. I have it in a box somewhere, beneath bank statements and certificates and other papers important but not worth reliving over and over. Yeah, I’m something now, I guess. Maybe I could take care of kids if I had them, but I don’t plan on it. After what I went through, I feel cursed. I know firsthand how someone with the best intentions can still screw something up royally. I wonder about my parents, my grandparents, doing the only thing their limited, overworked minds could think of. I wonder about my mother, whether she ever got to be an adult, or is she still dragging her feet in teenage stubbornness. I wonder what she looks like, who she’s with, if she ever had any other kids and if she did, did she treat them any better than she treated me. I wonder if they would ever have had a chance to be a nice family if I never had been born.

Sometimes I wish there was a knapsack man, something sharp and shadowy that had made off with my family because I was so bad. Because all I’m left with is a whole lot of loose ends and that’s what keeps me up at night.


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