Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 1

  New York Times bestselling author Robert R. McCammon, author of Swan Song, Stinger and Mine, creates a marvelous new novel of mystery and unforgettable storytelling power set in the American South.

  The year is 1964. On a cold spring morning before the sun, Cory Mackenson is accompanying his father on his milk delivery route. Without warning a car appears in the road before them and plunges over an embankment into a lake some say is bottomless. Cory’s father makes a desperate attempt to save the driver, but instead comes face-to-face with a vision that will haunt and torment him: a dead man handcuffed to the steering wheel, naked and savagely beaten, a copper wire knotted around his neck. The lake’s depths claim the car and the corpse, but the murderer’s work is unfinished as, from that moment, both Cory and his father begin searching for the truth.

  The small town of Zephyr, Alabama, has been an idyllic home for Cory and his friends. But now, the murder of an unknown man who lies in the dark lake, his tortured soul crying out for justice, causes Cory’s life to explode into a kaleidoscope of clues and deepening puzzles. His quest to understand the forces of good and evil at work in his hometown leads him through a maze of dangers and fascinations: the vicious Blaylock clan, who defend their nefarious backwoods trades with the barrels of their guns; a secret assembly of men united by racial hatred; a one-hundred-six-year-old black woman named the Lady who conjures snakes and hears the voices of the dead; a reptilian thing that swims in the belly of a river; and a bicycle with a golden eye.

  As Cory searches for a killer, he learns more about the meaning of both life and death. A single green feather leads him deeper into the mystery, and soon he realizes not only his life but the sanity of his father may hang in the balance.

  Welcome to the imagination of Robert R. McCammon, the New York Times bestselling author who now takes us on a whirlwind voyage into the realm where innocence and evil are on a collision course. BOY’S LIFE is a tour de force of magic and wonder, a journey that is at once joyful, unrelentingly mysterious, and hauntingly poignant.

  Also by Robert R. McCammon


  Bethany’s Sin

  Blue World


  Mystery Walk

  The Night Boat


  Swan Song

  They Thirst

  Usher’s Passing

  The Wolf’s Hour

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  I GET AROUND. Words and Music by Brian Wilson. Copyright © 1964 Irving Music, Inc. (BMI). All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured.

  POCKET BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc., 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

  Copyright © 1991 by the McCammon Corporation

  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

  McCammon, Robert R.

  Boy’s life / Robert R. McCammon.

  p. cm.

  ISBN: 0-671-74226-4 : $21.95

  I. Title.

  PS3563.C3345B6 1991




  First Pocket Books hardcover printing August 1991

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  POCKET and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster Inc.

  Printed in the U.S.A.



  ONE: The Shades of Spring

  1. Before the Sun

  2. Down in the Dark

  3. The Invader

  4. Wasps at Easter

  5. The Death of a Bike

  6. Old Moses Comes to Call

  7. A Summons From the Lady

  TWO: A Summer of Devils and Angels

  1. Last Day of School

  2. Barbershop Talk

  3. A Boy And a Ball

  4. I Get Around

  5. Welcome, Lucifer

  6. Nemo’s Mother & A Week With the Jaybird

  7. My Camping Trip

  8. Chile Willow

  9. Summer Winds Up

  THREE: Burning Autumn

  1. Green-Feathered Hat

  2. The Magic Box

  3. Dinner With Vernon

  4. The Wrath of Five Thunders

  5. Case #3432

  6. Dead Man Driving

  7. High Noon In Zephyr

  8. From the Lost World

  FOUR: Winter’s Cold Truth

  1. A Solitary Traveler

  2. Faith

  3. Snippets Of The Quilt

  4. Mr. Moultry’s Castle

  5. Sixteen Drops Of Blood

  6. The Stranger Among Us

  FIVE: Zephyr as It is


  About the Author

  We ran like young wild furies,

  where angels feared to tread.

  The woods were dark and deep.

  Before us demons fled.

  We checked Coke bottle bottoms

  to see how far was far.

  Our worlds of magic wonder

  were never reached by car.

  We loved our dogs like brothers,

  our bikes like rocket ships.

  We were going to the stars,

  to Mars we’d make round trips.

  We swung on vines like Tarzan,

  and flashed Zorro’s keen blade.

  We were James Bond in his Aston,

  we were Hercules unchained.

  We looked upon the future

  and we saw a distant land,

  where our folks were always ageless,

  and time was shifting sand.

  We filled up life with living,

  with grins, scabbed knees, and noise.

  In glass I see an older man,

  but this book’s for the boys.

  I WANT TO TELL you some important things before we start our journey.

  I lived through it all. That’s one problem about relating events in first person. The reader knows the narrator didn’t get killed. So whatever might happen to me—whatever did happen to me—you can be sure I lived through it all, though I might be a little better or worse for the experience, and you can make up your own mind which.

  There might be some places where you’ll say, “Hey, how come he knows this event right here happened or this person said or did this or that if he wasn’t even there?” The answer to that question is that I found out enough later on to fill in the blanks, or in some cases I made up what happened, or in other cases I figured it ought to have happened that way even if it didn’t.

  I was born in July of 1952. I am approaching my fortieth birthday. Gosh, that’s some number, isn’t it? I am no longer, as my reviews used to say, a “promising young talent.” I am what I am. I have been writing since I was in grammar school, and thinking up stories long before I understood exactly what it was I was doing. I have been a published writer since 1978. Or is it “author”? Paperback writer, as the Beatles said. Hardback author? One thing’s for sure: I certainly have developed a hard back. I have suffered kicks and smiled at kindnesses just like any other brother or sister on our spinning home. I have been blessed, to be able to create characters and worlds out of whole cloth. Writer? Author?

  How about storyteller?

  I wanted to set my memories down on paper, where I can hold them. You know, I do believe in magic. I was born and raised in a magic time, in a magic town, among magicians. Oh, most everybody else didn’t realize we lived in that web of magic, connected by the silver filaments of chance
and circumstance. But I knew it all along. When I was twelve years old, the world was my magic lantern, and by its green spirit glow I saw the past, the present, and into the future. You probably did too; you just don’t recall it. See, this is my opinion: we all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.

  After you go so far away from it, though, you can’t really get it back. You can have seconds of it. Just seconds of knowing and remembering. When people get weepy at movies, it’s because in that dark theater the golden pool of magic is touched, just briefly. Then they come out into the hard sun of logic and reason again and it dries up, and they’re left feeling a little heartsad and not knowing why. When a song stirs a memory, when motes of dust turning in a shaft of light takes your attention from the world, when you listen to a train passing on a track at night in the distance and wonder where it might be going, you step beyond who you are and where you are. For the briefest of instants, you have stepped into the magic realm. That’s what I believe.

  The truth of life is that every year we get farther away from the essence that is born within us. We get shouldered with burdens, some of them good, some of them not so good. Things happen to us. Loved ones die. People get in wrecks and get crippled. People lose their way, for one reason or another. It’s not hard to do, in this world of crazy mazes. Life itself does its best to take that memory of magic away from us. You don’t know it’s happening until one day you feel you’ve lost something but you’re not sure what it is. It’s like smiling at a pretty girl and she calls you “sir.” It just happens.

  These memories of who I was and where I lived are important to me. They make up a large part of who I’m going to be when my journey winds down. I need the memory of magic if I am ever going to conjure magic again. I need to know and remember, and I want to tell you.

  My name is Cory Jay Mackenson. My hometown was a place called Zephyr, in south Alabama. It never got too cold there, or too hot. Its streets were shaded with water oaks, and its houses had front porches and screens on the windows. There was a park with two baseball fields, one for the kids and one for the grown-ups. There was a public swimming pool where the water was blue and clear and children plumbed the deep end for pennies. On the Fourth of July there was a barbecue, and at the end of summer a writing contest. When I was twelve years old, in 1964, Zephyr held about fifteen hundred people. There was the Bright Star Cafe, a Woolworth’s, and a little Piggly-Wiggly grocery store. There was a house where bad girls lived out on Route Ten. Not every family had a television set. The county was dry, which meant that bootleggers thrived. The roads went south, north, east, and west, and at night a freight train passed through on its way to Birmingham and left the smell of scorched iron in its wake. Zephyr had four churches and an elementary school, and a cemetery stood on Poulter Hill. There was a lake nearby so deep it might as well have been bottomless. My hometown was full of heroes and villains, honest people who knew the beauty of truth and others whose beauty was a lie. My hometown was probably a lot like yours.

  But Zephyr was a magic place. Spirits walked in the moonlight. They came out of the grassy graveyard and stood on the hill and talked about old times when Coca-Cola really had a bite and you could tell a Democrat from a Republican. I know. I’ve heard them. The breeze in Zephyr blew through the screens, bringing the incense of honeysuckle and awakening love, and jagged blue lightning crashed down upon the earth and awakened hate. We had windstorms and droughts and the river that lay alongside my town had the bad habit of flooding. In the spring of my fifth year, a flood brought snakes to the streets. Then hawks came down by the hundreds in a dark tornado and lifted up the snakes in their killing beaks, and the river slinked back to its banks like a whipped dog. Then the sun came out like a trumpet call, and steam swirled up from the blood-specked roofs of my hometown.

  We had a dark queen who was one hundred and six years old. We had a gunfighter who saved the life of Wyatt Earp at the O.K. Corral. We had a monster in the river, and a secret in the lake. We had a ghost that haunted the road behind the wheel of a black dragster with flames on the hood. We had a Gabriel and a Lucifer, and a rebel that rose from the dead. We had an alien invader, a boy with a perfect arm, and we had a dinosaur loose on Merchants Street.

  It was a magic place.

  In me are the memories of a boy’s life, spent in that realm of enchantments.

  I remember.

  These are the things I want to tell you.


  The Shades of Spring

  Before the Sun—Down in the Dark—The Invader—Wasps at Easter—The Death of a Bike—Old Moses Comes to Call—A Summons from the Lady


  Before The Sun

  “CORY? WAKE UP, SON. It’s time.”

  I let him pull me up from the dark cavern of sleep, and I opened my eyes and looked up at him. He was already dressed, in his dark brown uniform with his name—Tom—written in white letters across his breast pocket. I smelled bacon and eggs, and the radio was playing softly in the kitchen. A pan rattled and glasses clinked; Mom was at work in her element as surely as a trout rides a current. “It’s time,” my father said, and he switched on the lamp beside my bed and left me squinting with the last images of a dream fading in my brain.

  The sun wasn’t up yet. It was mid-March, and a chill wind blew through the trees beyond my window. I could feel the wind by putting my hand against the glass. Mom, realizing that I was awake when my dad went in for his cup of coffee, turned the radio up a little louder to catch the weather report. Spring had sprung a couple of days before, but this year winter had sharp teeth and nails and he clung to the South like a white cat. We hadn’t had snow, we never had snow, but the wind was chill and it blew hard from the lungs of the Pole.

  “Heavy sweater!” Mom called. “Hear?”

  “I hear!” I answered back, and I got my green heavy sweater from my dresser. Here is my room, in the yellow lamplight and the space heater rumbling: Indian rug red as Cochise’s blood, a desk with seven mystic drawers, a chair covered in material as velvety blue-black as Batman’s cape, an aquarium holding tiny fish so pale you could see their hearts beat, the aforementioned dresser covered with decals from Revell model airplane kits, a bed with a quilt sewn by a relative of Jefferson Davis’s, a closet, and the shelves. Oh, yes, the shelves. The troves of treasure. On those shelves are stacks of me: hundreds of comic books—Justice League, Flash, Green Lantern, Batman, the Spirit, Blackhawk, Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, Aquaman, and the Fantastic Four. There are Boy’s Life magazines, dozens of issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland, Screen Thrills, and Popular Mechanics. There is a yellow wall of National Geographics, and I have to blush and say I know where all the African pictures are.

  The shelves go on for miles and miles. My collection of marbles gleams in a mason jar. My dried cicada waits to sing again in summer. My Duncan yo-yo that whistles except the string is broken and Dad’s got to fix it. My little book of suit cloth samples that I got from Mr. Parlowe at the Stagg Shop for Men. I use those pieces of cloth as carpet inside my airplane models, along with seats cut from cardboard. My silver bullet, forged by the Lone Ranger for a werewolf hunter. My Civil War button that fell from a butternut uniform when the storm swept Shiloh. My rubber knife for stalking killer crocodiles in the bathtub. My Canadian coins, smooth as the northern plains. I am rich beyond measure.

  “Breakfast’s on!” Mom called. I zipped up my sweater, which was the same hue as Sgt. Rock’s ripped s
hirt. My blue jeans had patches on the knees, like badges of courage marking encounters with barbed wire and gravel. My flannel shirt was red enough to stagger a bull. My socks were white as dove wings and my Keds midnight black. My mom was color-blind, and my dad thought checks went with plaid. I was all right.

  It’s funny, sometimes, when you look at the people who brought you into this world and you see yourself so clearly in them. You realize that every person in the world is a compromise of nature. I had my mother’s small-boned frame and her wavy, dark brown hair, but my father had given me his blue eyes and his sharp-bridged nose. I had my mother’s long-fingered hands—an “artist’s hands,” she used to tell me when I fretted that my fingers were so skinny—and my dad’s thick eyebrows and the small cleft in his chin. I wished that some nights I would go to sleep and awaken resembling a man’s man like Stuart Whitman in Cimarron Strip or Clint Walker in Cheyenne, but the truth of it was that I was a skinny, gawky kid of average height and looks, and I could blend into wallpaper by closing my eyes and holding my breath. In my fantasies, though, I tracked lawbreakers along with the cowboys and detectives who paraded past us nightly on our television set, and out in the woods that came up behind our house I helped Tarzan call the lions and shot Nazis down in a solitary war. I had a small group of friends, guys like Johnny Wilson, Davy Ray Callan, and Ben Sears, but I wasn’t what you might call popular. Sometimes I got nervous talking to people and my tongue got tangled, so I stayed quiet. My friends and I were about the same in size, age, and temperament; we avoided what we could not fight, and we were all pitiful fighters.

  This is where I think the writing started. The “righting,” if you will. The righting of circumstances, the shaping of the world the way it should have been, had God not had crossed eyes and buck teeth. In the real world I had no power; in my world I was Hercules unchained.

  One thing I do know I got from my granddaddy Jaybird, my dad’s father: his curiosity about the world. He was seventy-six years old and as tough as beef jerky, and he had a foul mouth and an even fouler disposition, but he was always prowling the woods around his farm. He brought home things that made Grandmomma Sarah swoon: snake-skins, empty hornets’ nests, even animals he’d found dead. He liked to cut things open with a penknife and look at their insides, arranging all their bloody guts out on newspapers. One time he hung up a dead toad from a tree and invited me to watch the flies eat it with him. He brought home a burlap sack full of leaves, dumped them in the front room, and examined each of them with a magnifying glass, writing down their differences in one of his hundreds of Nifty notebooks. He collected cigar butts and dried spits of chewing tobacco, which he kept in glass vials. He could sit for hours in the dark and look at the moon.