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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 12


  “Yes ma’am.”

  “Gavin, we’ll be back directly,” Nila Castile said. “We’ve got to get Grandpap to where people can help him. Hear?”

  “Yes ma’am,” Gavin answered.

  “You boys mind your mothers.” Mr. Thornberry spoke up, his voice raspy with pain. “I’ll whip both your butts if you don’t.”

  “Yes sir,” we both said. I figured Mr. Thornberry had decided he wanted to live.

  Mom and Nila Castile began the labor of pushing Mr. Thornberry in the wheelbarrow against the brown water, each supporting one handle and Mom holding the light. They tilted the wheelbarrow up as high as they could, and Mr. Thornberry lifted his head up, the veins standing out in his scrawny neck. I heard my mother grunt with the effort. But the wheelbarrow was moving, and they pushed it through the water that was swirling around the open doorway and across the flooded porch. At the foot of the two cinderblock steps, the water came up to Mr. Thornberry’s neck and splashed into his face. They moved away, the current at their backs helping them push the wheelbarrow. I had never thought of my mother as being physically strong before. I guess you never know what a person can do until that person has to do it.

  “Cory?” Gavin said after a minute or so.

  “Yeah, Gavin?”

  “I cain’t swim,” he said.

  He was pressed up against my side. He was starting to shiver now that he didn’t have to be so brave for his grandpap. “That’s okay,” I told him. “You won’t have to.”

  I hoped.

  We waited. Surely they’d be back soon. The water was lapping up over our soggy shoes. I asked Gavin if he knew any songs, and he said he knew “On Top of Old Smoky,” which he began to sing in a high, quavering yet not unpleasant voice.

  His singing—more of a yodel, actually—attracted something that suddenly came paddling through the doorway, and I caught my breath at the noise and swung the light onto it.

  It was a brown dog, matted with mud. Its eyes gleamed wildly in the light, its breathing harsh as it swam across the room toward us, through the flotsam of papers and other trash. “Come on, boy!” I said. Whether it was a boy or girl was incidental; the dog looked like it needed a perch. “Come on!” I gave Gavin the lamp, and the dog whimpered and yelped as a slow wave slipped through the door and lifted the animal up and down again. Water smacked the walls.

  “Come on, boy!” I leaned down to get the struggling dog. I grasped its front paws. It looked up into my face, its pink tongue hanging out in the dank yellow light, as a born-again Christian might appeal to the Savior.

  I was lifting the dog out by its paws, and I felt it shudder.

  Something went crunch.

  As fast as that.

  And then its head and shoulders were coming out of the dark water and suddenly there was no more of the dog beyond the middle of its back, no hindquarters, no tail, no hind legs, nothing but a gaping hole that started spilling a torrent of black blood and steaming guts.

  The dog made a little whining sound. That’s all. But its paws twitched and its eyes were on me, and the agony I saw in them will last in my mind forever.

  I cried out—and what I said I will never know—and dropped the mess that had once been a dog. It splashed in, went under, came back up, and the paws were still trying to paddle. I heard Gavin shout something; wannawaterMars? it sounded like. And then the water thrashed around the half of a carcass, the entrails streaming behind it like a hideous tail, and I saw the skin of something break the surface.

  It was covered with diamond-shaped scales the colors of autumn leaves: pale brown, shimmering purple, deep gold, and tawny russet. All the shades of the river were there, too, from swirls of muddy ocher to moonlight pink. I saw a forest of mussels leeched to its flesh, gray canyons of scars and fishhooks scarlet with rust. I saw a body as thick as an ancient oak twist slowly around in the water, taking its own sweet time. I was transfixed by the spectacle, even as Gavin wailed with terror. I knew what I was looking at, and though my heart pounded and I could hardly draw a breath, I thought it was as beautiful as anything in God’s creation.

  Then I recalled the jagged fang driven like a blade into the chunk of wood at Mr. Sculley’s Beautiful or not, Old Moses had just torn a dog in half.

  He was still hungry. This happened so fast, my mind hardly had time to see it: a pair of jaws opened, fangs glistened, and an old boot was in there impaled on one of them along with a flopping silver fish. The jaws sucked the remaining half of the dog’s carcass in with a snarling rush of water and then closed delicately, as one might savor a lemonhead candy at the Lyric theater. I caught a quick glimpse of a narrow, pale green cat’s-eye the size of a baseball, shielded with a gelatinous film. Then Gavin fell back off the table into the water, and the lamp he was holding hissed out.

  I didn’t think about being brave. I didn’t think about being scared.

  I cain’t swim.

  That’s what I thought about.

  I jumped off the table to where Gavin had gone in. The water was heavy with mud, and up to my shoulders, which meant Gavin was nostrils-deep. He was flailing and kicking, and when I grabbed him around the waist he must’ve thought it was Old Moses because he almost jerked my arms off. I shouted, “Gavin! Stop kickin’!” and I got his face up out of the water. “Humma hobba humma,” he was babbling, like a rain-soaked engine trying to fire its plugs.

  I heard a noise behind me, in that dark and soggy room. The noise of something rising from the water.

  I turned around. Gavin yelped and grabbed hold with both arms around my neck, all but throttling me.

  I saw the shape of Old Moses—huge, horrible, and breathtaking—coming up from the water like a living swamp log. Its head was flat and triangular, like a snake’s, but I think it was not just a snake because it seemed to have two small arms with spindly claws just below what would have been the neck. I heard what must have been its tail thwacking against a wall so hard the house shook. Its head bumped the ceiling. Gavin’s grip was making my face balloon with blood.

  I knew without seeing that Old Moses was looking at us, with eyes that could spot a catfish through murky water at midnight. I felt its appraisal of us, like a cold knife blade pressed against my forehead. I hoped we didn’t look much like dogs.

  Old Moses smelled like the river at noon: swampy, steaming, and pungent with life. To say I respected that awesome beast would be quite an understatement. But right at that moment I wished I was anywhere else on earth, even in school. But I didn’t have much time for thinking, because Old Moses’s snaky head began to descend toward us like the front end of a steam shovel and I heard the hiss of its jaws opening. I backed up, hollering at Gavin to let go, but he would not. If I’d been him, I wouldn’t have let go, either. The head came at us, but just then I backed out of the front room into a narrow corridor—which I certainly didn’t know was there—and Old Moses’s jaws slammed against the door frame on either side of us. This seemed to make him mad. He drew back and drove forward again, with the same result, except this time the door frame splintered. Gavin was crying, making a whoop whoop whoop sound, and a frothy wave from Old Moses’s agitations splashed into my face and over my head. Something jabbed my right shoulder, scaring a ripple up my spine. I reached for it, and found a broom floating in the debris.

  Old Moses made a noise like a locomotive about to blow its gaskets. I saw the awful shape of its head coming at the corridor’s entrance, and I thought of Gordon Scott’s Tarzan, spear in hand, fighting against a giant python. I picked up the broomstick, and when Old Moses hit the doorway again I jammed that broom right down its gaping, dog-swallowing throat.

  You know what happens when you touch your finger to the back of your throat, don’t you? Well, the same thing happens, evidently, to monsters. Old Moses made a gagging noise as loud as thunder in a barrel. The head drew back and the broom went with it, cornstraw bristles jammed in the gullet. Then, and this is the only way I can describe it, Old Moses puked. I mean it. I
heard the rush of liquid and gruesome things flooding from its mouth. Fish, some still flopping and some long dead, went flying all around us along with stinking crayfish, turtle shells, mussels, slimy stones, mud, and bones. The smell was…well, you can imagine it. It was a hundred times worse than when the kid in school throws up his morning oatmeal on the desk in front of you. I dunked my head underwater to get away from it, and of course Gavin had to go, too, whether he liked it or not. Underneath there, I thought that Old Moses ought to be more particular about what he scooped off the Tecumseh’s bottom.

  Currents thrashed around us. I came up again, and Gavin took a gasping breath and yelled his head off. At that point I started yelling, too. “Help!” I shouted. “Somebody help us!”

  A light speared through the front door, over the choppy water, and hit me in the face.

  “Cory!” came the sound of judgment. “I told you not to move, didn’t I?”

  “Gavin? Gavin?”

  “Lord God!” my mother said. “What’s that smell?”

  The water was settling down. I realized Old Moses was no longer between the two mothers and their sons. Dead fish floated in a slimy brown sludge on the surface, but Mom’s attention was on me. “I’m gonna tan your hide, Cory Mackenson!” she shouted as she waded in with Nila Castile behind her.

  Then they walked right into the floating monster disgorgement, and from the sound she made I don’t believe my mother was thinking about whipping me anymore.

  Lucky me.

  7

  A Summons from the Lady

  NONE OF MY FRIENDS believed me, of course.

  Davy Ray Callan just laughed and shook his head, and he said he couldn’t have made up a better story if he’d tried. Ben Sears looked at me like I had seen one too many monster movies at the Lyric. Johnny Wilson thought about it awhile, in that slow, deliberating way of his, and then he gave his opinion: “Nope. Didn’t happen.”

  “It did!” I told them as we sat on the porch of my house in the shade under a clear blue sky. “It really did, I swear it!”

  “Oh yeah?” Davy Ray, the feisty one of our group and the one who was most likely to make up astounding tales, cocked his brown-haired head and stared at me through pale blue eyes that always held a hint of wild laughter. “Then how come Old Moses didn’t just eat you up? How come a monster ran from a kid with a broom?”

  “Because,” I answered, flustered and angry, “I didn’t have my monster-killin’ ray gun with me, that’s why! I don’t know! But it happened, and you can ask—”

  “Cory,” my mother said quietly from the doorway, “I think you’d better stop talkin’ about this now.”

  So I did. And I understood what she meant. There was no use trying to make anybody believe it. My mom herself couldn’t quite grasp it, though Gavin Castile had sputtered the whole story to his mother. Mr. Thornberry, incidentally, was all right. He was alive and getting stronger day by day, and I understand he wanted to get well so he could take Gavin to see more Looney Tunes.

  My friends would have believed it, though, if they could’ve smelled my clothes before Mom threw them in the garbage. She threw her own tainted clothes away, too. Dad listened to the tale, and he nodded and sat there with his hands folded before him, bandages on his palms and fingers covering huge blisters that had been raised by the shoveling.

  “Well,” Dad said, “all I can say is, there’re stranger things on this earth than we can ever figure out if we had a hundred lifetimes. I thank God the both of you are all right, and that nobody drowned in the flood. Now: what’s for dinner?”

  Two weeks passed. We left April and moved through the sunny days of May. The Tecumseh River, having reminded us who was boss, returned to its banks. A quarter of the houses in Bruton weren’t worth living in anymore, including Nila Castile’s, so the sound of sawing and hammering in Bruton was almost around the clock. There was one benefit of the rain and the flood, though; under the sunshine, the earth exploded in flowers and Zephyr blazed with color. Lawns were deep emerald, honeysuckle grew like mad passion, and kudzu blanketed the hills. Summer was almost upon us.

  I turned my attention to studying for final exams. Math was never my strongest subject, and I was going to have to make a high grade so I wouldn’t have to go to—and the mere thought of this made me choke—summer school.

  In my quiet hours, I did wonder how I’d managed to beat Old Moses away with a bristle-brush broom. I had been lucky in jamming it down the monster’s throat, that was for sure. But I figured it might have been something else, too. Old Moses, for all his size and fury, was like Granddaddy Jaybird; he could holler a good game, but at the first sting he took off running. Or swimming, as the case might be. Old Moses was a coward. Maybe Old Moses had gotten used to eating things that didn’t fight back, like catfish and turtles and scared dogs paddling for their lives. With that broomstick in his throat, Old Moses might have figured there was easier prey where he came from, down at the bottom of the river in that cool, muddy banquet hall where nothing bites back.

  At least, that’s my theory. I don’t ever want to have to test it again, though.

  I had a dream about the man in the long coat and the green-feathered hat. I dreamed I was wading toward him, and when I grasped his arm he turned his face toward me and it was a man with not human skin but diamond-shaped scales the color of autumn leaves. He had fangs like daggers and blood dripping down his chin, and I realized I had interrupted him in the process of eating a small brown dog, the upper half of which he held struggling in his left hand.

  It was not a pleasant dream.

  But maybe there was some truth in it. Somewhere.

  I was a walker in these days, bereft of two wheels to call my own. I enjoyed walking to and from school, but all my friends had bikes and I definitely had lost a step or two of status. One afternoon I was pitching a stick to Rebel and rolling around in the green grass with him when I heard a clankety sound. I looked up, Rebel looked up, and there was a pickup truck approaching our house.

  I knew the truck. It was splotchy with rust and its suspension sagged, and the noise it made caused dogs to bay in its wake. Rebel started barking, and I had a time getting him quiet. The truck had a metal frame thing bolted in the bed from which hung, clattering like asylum inmates, a bewildering array of tools, most of which looked as antique and worthless as the truck. On the driver’s door was stenciled, not very neatly, LIGHTFOOT’S FIX-IT.

  The truck stopped in front of the house. Mom came out on the porch, alerted by the clamor, but Dad wouldn’t be home from work for another hour or so. The truck’s door opened, and a long, skinny black man wearing dusty gray overalls got out, so slowly it seemed that movement might be painful for him. He wore a gray cap, and his dark skin was smoky with dust. He came slowly toward the porch, and I have to say that even if a bull had suddenly come charging up behind him, Mr. Marcus Lightfoot probably wouldn’t have hurried his pace.

  “Good afternoon, Mr. Lightfoot,” Mom said, her apron on. She had been working in the kitchen, and she wiped her hands on a paper towel. “How are you?”

  Mr. Lightfoot smiled. His small, square teeth were very white, and gray hair boiled up from under his cap. This is how he spoke, in a voice like a slow leak from a clogged pipe: “Good afternoon to you, too, Miz Mackenson. Hey there, Cory.”

  This was a good-paced conversational clip for Mr. Light-foot, who had been a handyman in Zephyr and Bruton for more than thirty years, picking up the task from his father. Mr. Lightfoot was renowned for his skill with appliances, and though he was slow as a toothache, he always got the job done no matter how baffling the problem. “Mighty fine.” He stopped, looking up at the blue sky. The seconds ticked past. Rebel barked, and I put my hand over his muzzle.

  “Day,” Mr. Lightfoot decided.

  “Yes, it is.” Mom waited for him to speak again, but Mr. Lightfoot just stood there, this time looking at our house. He reached into one of his many pockets, brought out a handful of penny nails, and clicke
d them around, as if he were waiting, too. “Uh…” Mom cleared her throat. “Can I help you with anythin’?”

  “Jus’ passin’,” he replied, slow as warm molasses. “Wonderin’ if you”—and here he paused to study the nails in his hand for a few seconds—“might need somethin’ fixed?”

  “Well, no, not really. I can’t think of—” She stopped, and her expression told me she had thought of something. “The toaster. It went out on me day before yesterday. I was gonna call you, but—”

  “Yes’m, I know.” Mr. Lightfoot nodded sagely.

  “Time sure does fly.”

  He went back to the truck to get his toolbox, an old metal fascination filled with drawers and every kind of nut and bolt, it seemed, under the workman’s sun. He strapped on his tool belt, from which hung several different kinds of hammers, screwdrivers, and arcane-looking wrenches. Mom held the door open for Mr. Lightfoot, and when he walked into the house she looked at me and shrugged, her statement being: I don’t know why he’s here, either. I left Rebel the gnawed stick and went into the house, too, and in the cool of the kitchen I drank a glass of iced tea and watched Mr. Lightfoot stare down the toaster.

  “Mr. Lightfoot, would you care for somethin’ to drink?” Mom asked.

  “Nome.”

  “I’ve got some oatmeal cookies.”

  “Nome, thank you kindly.” He took a clean white square of cloth from another pocket and unfolded it. He draped the cloth over the seat of one of the chairs to the kitchen table. Then he unplugged the toaster, set it on the table alongside his toolbox, and sat down on the white cloth. All this had been done at an underwater pace.

  Mr. Lightfoot chose a screwdriver. He had the long, graceful fingers of a surgeon, or an artist. Watching him work was a form of torture for the patience, but no one can say he didn’t know what he was doing. He opened the toaster right up, and sat staring at the naked grills. “Uh-huh,” he said after a long moment of silence. “Uh-huh.”