One summer afternoon in 1954 a jealous four-year-old girl named Cherry Ring bites her baby brother Pete on the cheek. She bites him so hard that little Pete needs a skin graft to repair the damage and will have a scar for the rest of his life. Cherry knows what's she's done is wrong, and she really is sorry.
But sorry isn't going to be good enough. The bite marks the beginning of a troubled relationship between the siblings that will last a lifetime. As Pete gets older he perfects an ability to completely ignore his sister. It scares Cherry, the way he looks right through her, and she chooses to leave him alone. Cherry can't seem to find her way into her mother's affections either. Her father is the only one who seems able to love her, but when she is only nine years old he dies suddenly, leaving her to manage as best she can in her dysfunctional little family.
Cherry is in university when her mother decides to remarry and move away, taking Pete with her. Cherry isn't sorry to see them go. She finally starts to feel like her life is going somewhere. But on a sultry summer night in 1995, disturbing incidents begin to occur around her house and Cherry realizes she has not managed to leave her past behind. Luckily that nice police inspector Frank Foote lives in the neighbourhood. Maybe he can help her.
The story unfolds in the Winnipeg neighbourhood of Norwood Flats, which readers have come to know in Preston's other mysteries, The Rain Barrel Baby, The Geranium Girls, Sunny Dreams, The Girl in the Wall, and Blue Vengeance.
About the Author
Alison Preston was born and raised in Winnipeg. After trying on a number of other Canadian cities, she returned to her hometown, where she currently resides. All of her books are set in the Norwood Flats area of Winnipeg, including The Rain Barrel Baby, The Geranium Girls, Cherry Bites, Sunny Dreams, The Girl in the Wall, and Blue Vengeance. A graduate of the University of Winnipeg, and a letter carrier for twenty-eight years, Alison was twice nominated for the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer, following the publications of her first two novels, The Rain Barrel Baby and A Blue and Golden Year. Alison went on to win the Mary Scorer Award for Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher for Sunny Dreams and the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction for The Girl in the Wall. She was also shortlisted for the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award for Cherry Bites.
Read an Excerpt
I bit a dime-sized morsel of flesh from the tender cheek of my brother, Pete, while he napped in his basket on the porch swing. He had whimpered as he dozed and I lost my temper. Even in sleep he couldn’t shut up.
The baby's screams when I bit him sounded different from his usual carrying on. The cries had an edge to them that cut through to the inside of me. I could tell from the screams that this was the worst thing I had ever done, by a long shot. It didn’t feel good.
I don’t remember the taste of his skin as much as the feel of it: soft and then slippery. I spit it out in the cotoneaster and ran away.
It was July eleventh, 1954. A dusty day. Dry topsoil blew in off the fields forming a mist of grey cloud over the western edge of the city.
I didn't run far, just two doors down, to the Wideners’ caragana hedge. Murray called for me, but he had to take Pete to the hospital. Nora didn’t drive. As I recall, it was soon after that day that she asked Murray for lessons and went for her driver’s license. She wanted to go with them, but someone had to stay behind to look for me.
"Find Cherry!" Murray shouted out the car window as he drove off, as though she wouldn’t have known to do so on her own.
She called my name a couple of times, but she didn’t leave the front steps. I waited till she went in the house and then I crept home and hid in the crawl space under the verandah. An hour or so later Murray returned and I slipped out of my hole.
Nora was putting on her gloves. She had called a taxi to take her to the hospital where my little brother stayed on.
"Go to your room," she said, "and stay there."
Nora and Murray are my parents. They didn't know how to punish me for a crime of such proportions. A spanking wasn’t even mentioned. I waited for the punishment to come and it never did, unless you count the silence from her and the new way Murray had of looking at me sometimes, as if he didn’t know who I was.
Right from the start Pete irked me. I had been so excited when my parents told me I would be getting a baby brother or sister. I remember waiting, a little quivery, for them to come home from the hospital, watching out the window with Elaine, my babysitter, on the crisp December day when my father drove up with Nora and the baby in the front seat of the Studebaker.
"When will I be able to play with him?" I asked. I hadn’t given any thought to the types of games I would play with a being so small, but it seemed a valid question.
My mother ignored me, just fussed over her tiny bundle.
"Not for a while yet, Cherry dear." Murray chuckled nervously. "He's just a little bit of a guy."
I think my dad was smart enough to sense right from the start that the new baby was going to be a piece of work. He was tiny, five and a half pounds at birth. I had weighed in at eight pounds, ten ounces when I was born. It was satisfying to me that I had been a sturdy baby.
When I reached up to move the blanket aside so I could see his face, Nora pulled away. Then she immediately thought better of it and allowed me a peek at the baby boy.
Peter, they named him, after my uncle Pete, my dad's older brother who was killed in the war. I never met him; World War Two happened before I was born.
The baby started crying and he never stopped. That’s how it seemed to me, anyway. His wails were explained away as colic. He ran Nora and Murray ragged and made me want to scream.
He vomited a lot, more than the average baby, I was sure of it. I was also pretty sure that my brother would never be the playmate I had imagined; he was so frail and disgusting.
My parents held him constantly, cooing and rocking to stop his crying. When I cried to see if they would coo my way, it didn't work. They sent me outside instead. In those days there were kids in practically every house on the street so there was no problem finding someone to play with. There was always something going on: skipping, marbles, British bulldogs, work-your-way-up, hopscotch, or just tormenting the rich guy.
We called him that because he had a fussy yard with flowers all over the place, more than in normal yards. And there were trellises and tall birds and fancy stepping stones, things like that. We figured you’d have to be rich to waste your hard-earned cash on those kinds of frivolities. Nora thought so too. I heard her say it.
So they sent me outside if I was in their way, or got Elaine over to play with me, to keep me out of their hair while they dealt with the newer, more important member of the family.
Elaine was all right. She was a high school girl and I liked her fine. She was good at playing and didn't mind when I coloured outside of the lines. That was something that bothered Nora, unreasonably, I thought. I could have coloured inside the lines; I just didn't want to.
The plastic surgeon grafted flesh from Pete's bum onto the wound I had made on his face. It healed beautifully; there was the tiniest of scars. Outwardly, the damage was nearly invisible.
Because I knew that part of Pete's face was made up of skin from his bum, it was impossible for me not to call him ‘Assface’. It was especially mean, I know, because I was the one who caused the damage in the first place.
The cheek bite was the only major incident between us in those early years. I was just four when it happened. My resentment towards Pete lessened as time passed. Other than my calling him ‘Assface’ as he turned toddler and then little boy, I treated him all right. He wasn't so bad if you didn't count the way he totally ignored me. I tried to play with him, boss him around a bit, but he had a way of looking through me that kind of scared me, so eventually I left him pretty much alone. It seemed best.
Almost as soon as I had done it I regretted biting my brother. It amazed me that my hate could have been so strong; I truly didn’t feel it anymore, after the event. I remembered wanting to hurt Pete and I had known it was wrong even as I did it, but it wasn’t until afterwards, in my spot under the verandah, that I began to sense the different levels of wrongness. It wrecked everything, even more than he already had.
I knew Nora wouldn’t be able to love me, not after what I had done. I don’t know that she ever had. I was sure had never cuddled with me the way she did with Pete. But I didn’t envy him. His cuddling stopped as soon as his crying baby ways did.
My dad loved me; he couldn’t help it. But I frightened him now. It was as though I gave him his first taste of truly malicious behaviour. Or maybe he just didn’t expect it of someone so close, someone he had helped to create. He was blind when it came to Nora, to anything that hinted of wickedness on her part (like not looking for me the day of the bite). It was because of her beauty, I thought then and still do; she bewitched him.
I believed that there was a darkness that lived inside of me, deep and hidden. It came out the day of the cheek bite and then went into hiding again, maybe somewhere in my small intestine, I thought – there was lots of room in there for extra stuff – twenty-five feet or so of slimy twisted innards. Or maybe it was in the blood running through my veins and arteries, always there, but inactive for the most part.
One of the main worries of my childhood, besides getting polio, was that the darkness would resurface and that the good part of me wouldn’t be big enough to control it, that the good part wasn’t very big at all. That worry still surfaces from time to time, but only as a memory or in a dream.