Dad meant business. I could see it in the set of his jaw and hear it in the rasp of his voice. The fear apparent on Becky’s face indicated her own understanding of the severity of the situation. There were just some things not to be done and she’d done one of them, holding me under the water. Considering I was still gasping for breath, I shouldn’t have felt sorry for her, but I did.
Diana helped me climb out of the pool. Dad kept his hold on Becky and watched me get out and dry off. He was clearly waiting for me to join them which at the time had me thinking I was in as much cow dung as my cousin. I found myself wishing for my boots and jeans rather than the minuscule trunks I had on.
I turned to Diana and took the towel from her hands even as she was trying to mop water off of me. “You don’t want to be a part of this,” I said.
She frowned at me. “She tried to drown you.”
“I think we both know it ain’t that simple,” I said. “You should find some place to go be inconspicuous.”
Diana looked beyond me to Becky and Dad and then turned back to me, her hair fluttering in the afternoon breeze. “If that’s what you want.”
I nodded. “It is. I’ll talk to you later, okay?”
Diana didn’t answer me. She glared over at Becky one last time and then turned her back to both of us and stalked away. My gut told me letting her walk away mad was a bad idea, but I had to deal with Dad and Becky. I tried to push Diana from my thoughts and turned my full attention to the boiling situation at hand.
I walked to join them, wiping the remnants of water from my face. “We were just fooling around,” I said, looking Dad in the eye.
“Attempted murder isn’t fooling around,” Dad said.
Becky squirmed in Dad’s hold. “I wasn’t trying to kill him, I just wanted to teach him a lesson.”
Dad looked at Becky, almost amused with her efforts to free herself from his grip. “The only schools under water are for fish.”
I said, “It’s really my fault. She asked me to stop and I didn’t.”
“And if she’d slapped you across the face, I’d be inclined to say you deserved it,” Dad said. “But what she did was reckless and dangerous. Someone could have gotten seriously hurt and because of that I can’t just look the other way.”
Becky said, “It won’t happen again. I swear.”
Dad nodded. “That’s right, it won’t and you’re going to go cut me a switch so we can make sure of it.”
Becky looked confused. “A what?”
Dad pulled his old pocket knife out and handed it to me. He kept his eyes on Becky. “Ritchie will help you cut an appropriate one and if you’re still confused, I’m sure he can explain the whole thing to you.”
Just the heft of the ebony handle knife in my hand was enough to evoke shivers of dread down my spine. There was real fear in Becky’s eyes which told me she’d at least heard of switching before even if she had never experienced it first hand. Cutting a switch had never been an activity to enjoy and being sent to show my cousin how to do it was not any different. I understood why my Dad was doing it and I even agreed in principal, but I still wished there had been another option.
I grabbed hold of Becky’s arm just below my Dad’s grip. “Come on,” I said, “let’s get this over with.”
Becky and I walked in silence to the back of the property line. A row of hickory trees ran along the chain link fence. The low branches always had plenty of flexible, long shoots, perfect for switches unless of course you were going to be on the receiving end. I stopped underneath one of the trees in the middle of the row and opened the knife. There was a long, skinny shoot that was mostly straight. Dad would like it, Becky wouldn’t.
I pointed at the shoot. “Cut that off as close to the branch as you can and clean the leaves off it.”
Becky shook her head and took a step back. “You can’t be serious.”
I tried to swallow my guilt. “Look,” I said, “I know this at least partly my fault, but I didn’t make you hold me under water. Once my Dad makes up his mind about these things the only way out is going through it. So accept it. You’re gonna get switched and it’s gonna hurt.”
Becky fluttered her eyes at me. “You could change his mind if you really wanted to.”
I laughed. The fear in her voice and her eyes wasn’t funny, but the thought of me changing my Dad’s mind about anything was about the biggest joke I’d ever heard. “If I could do that, there wouldn’t be a Mustard Mobile sitting in the driveway and I wouldn’t know the first thing about cutting a switch.”
Becky sighed. I handed her the knife and pointed at the shoot again. She stepped up underneath it and pulled it down until the branch was bending toward the ground and in easy reach of her outstretched arm. The blade rested against the wood and she turned her eyes to me one last time.
“I really have to do this?” she asked.
I nodded. She bit her lip and turned back to the branch. It took her a few minutes to cut it free, mostly cause she was trying to take as long as she possibly could. Once it was free, I took the knife and the switch from her. It’s not that I didn’t trust her, but watching her cut the shoot, I figured it was only a matter of time before she cut herself if I let her try and clean it on her own.