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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 27


  “Oh, man!” Davy Ray breathed.

  Standing in the crossing of headlights were two men wearing ordinary clothes except until you got to their heads, which were covered by white masks. One of the men was medium-sized, the other was big and fat, with a belly that flopped over the waist of his jeans. The medium-sized man was smoking either a cigarette or cigar, it was hard to tell which, and he angled his masked head and blew smoke from the corner of his mouth. Then the Cadillac’s doors opened, and I almost swallowed my heart when Bodean Blaylock slid out from behind the wheel. It was him, all right; I remembered his face from when he’d looked across the poker table at me, same to say he had my granddaddy and wasn’t about to let him go. A slim man with slicked-back dark hair and a jutting slab of a chin got out of the passenger side; he was wearing tight black pants and a red shirt with cowboy spangles on the shoulders, and at first I thought it was Donny Blaylock but Donny didn’t have a chin like that. This man opened the Cadillac’s right rear door, and the whole car trembled as whoever was still inside started to climb out.

  It was a mountain on two legs.

  His gut was tremendous, straining the front of the red-checked shirt and overalls he wore. When he rose up to his full height, he was maybe six and a half feet tall. He was baldheaded except for a wisp of gray hair circling his acorn-shaped skull, and he had a trimmed gray beard that angled to a point below his chin. He breathed like a bellows, his face a ruddy mass of wrinkled flesh. “You boys goin’ to a masquerade party?” he growled in a voice like a cement mixer, and he laughed hut-hut-hut like a big old engine starting to fire its plugs. Bodean laughed, and the other man laughed, too. The men wearing the masks shifted uneasily. “You fellas look like sacks of shit,” the mountainous bulk said as he shambled forward. I swear his hands were the size of country hams, and his feet in their scuffed-up boots looked like they could stomp down small trees.

  The masked man with the bulbous belly said, “We’re incog…incog… We don’t wanna be recognized.”

  “Shit, Dick!” the bearded monster said, and he guffawed again. “Have to be a blind fuckin’ fool not to recognize your fat gut and ass!” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black, I thought.

  “Awwww, you’re not supposed to recognize us, Mr. Blaylock!” the man who’d been called Dick answered with a whine of petulance, and I realized with a double start that this man was Mr. Dick Moultry and the other was Biggun Blaylock, the fearsome head of the Blaylock clan himself.

  Ben realized it, too. “Let’s get outta here!” he whispered, but Davy Ray hissed, “Shut up!”

  “Well,” Biggun said, his hands on his massive hips, “I don’t give a shit if you wear sackcloth and ashes. You bring the money?”

  “Yes sir.” Mr. Moultry reached into his pocket and brought out a wad of bills.

  “Count it,” Biggun ordered.

  “Yes sir. Fifty…one hundred…hundred and fifty…two hundred…” He kept counting, up to four hundred dollars. “Take the money, Wade,” Biggun said, and the man in the spangled shirt walked forward to get it.

  “Just a minute,” the second masked man said. “Where’s the merchandise?” He was talking in a low, gruff voice that sounded false, yet I knew that voice from somewhere.

  “Bodean, get what the fella wants,” Biggun told him, and Bodean took the Cadillac’s keys from the ignition and walked back to the trunk. Biggun’s gaze stayed fixed on the man with the false voice. I was glad it wasn’t directed at me, because it looked so intense it could puddle iron. “It’s fine, quality work,” Biggun said. “Just what you boys asked for.”

  “It oughta be. We’re payin’ enough for it.”

  “You want a demonstration?” Biggun grinned, his mouth full of gleaming teeth. “If I were you, friend, I’d get rid of that cheroot.”

  The masked man took a final pull on it, then he turned and flicked it right where we were hiding. It fell into the pine straw about four feet in front of me, and I saw its chewed plastic tip. I knew who smoked cheroots with a tip like that. It was Mr. Hargison, our mailman.

  Bodean had opened the trunk. Now he closed it again, and he approached the two masked men carrying a small wooden box in his arms. He carried it gently, as if it might hold a sleeping baby.

  “I want to see it,” Mr. Hargison said in a voice I’d never heard Mr. Hargison use.

  “Show him what he’s buyin’,” Biggun told his son, and Bodean carefully released a latch and opened the box’s top to reveal what lay within. None of us guys could see inside the box, but Mr. Moultry walked over to peer in and he gave a low whistle behind his mask.

  “That suit you?” Biggun asked.

  “It’ll do just fine,” Mr. Hargison said. “They won’t know what hit ’em until they’re tap-dancin’ in hell.”

  “I threw in an extra.” Biggun grinned again, and I thought he looked like Satan himself. “For good luck,” he said. “Close it up, Bodean. Wade, take our money.”

  “Davy Ray!” Ben whispered. “Somethin’s crawlin’ on me!”

  “Shut up, goofus!”

  “I mean it! Somethin’s on me!”

  “You hear anythin’?” Mr. Moultry asked, and that question froze the marrow in my bones.

  The men were silent. Mr. Hargison gripped the box with both hands, and Wade Blaylock had the fistful of money. Biggun’s head slowly turned from side to side, his blastfurnace eyes searching the woods. Hoot-hoot, went the distant owl. Ben made a soft, terrified whining noise. I hugged the earth, my chin buried in pine straw, and near my face Mr. Hargison’s cheroot smoldered.

  “I don’t hear nothin’,” Wade Blaylock said, and he took the money to his father. Biggun counted it again, his tongue flicking back and forth across his lower lip, and then he shoved the cash into a pocket. “Okey-dokey,” he said to the two masked men. “I reckon that concludes our bidness, gents. Next time you want a special order, you know how to find me.” He started trudging back to get into the Cadillac again, and Bodean moved fast to open the door for him.

  “Thank you kindly, Mr. Blaylock.” Something about Mr. Moultry’s voice made me think of a ratty dog trying to lick up to a mean master. “We sure do appreciate the—”

  “SPIIIIIDERS!”

  The world ceased its turning. The owl went dumb. The Milky Way flickered on the verge of extinction.

  Ben hollered it again: “Spiders!” He started thrashing wildly amid the pine needles. “They’re all over me!”

  I couldn’t draw a breath. Just couldn’t do it. Davy Ray stared at Ben, his mouth hanging open as Ben writhed and yelled. The five men were frozen where they stood, all of them looking in our direction. My heart thundered. Three seconds passed like a lifetime, and then Biggun Blaylock’s shout parted the night: “Get ’em!”

  “Run!” Davy Ray hollered, scrambling to his feet. “Run for it!”

  Wade and Bodean were coming after us, their shadows thrown large by the crossing of headlights. Davy Ray was already running back in the direction we’d come, and I said, “Run, Ben!” as I got up and fled. Ben squawked and struggled up, his hands madly plucking at his clothes. I looked over my shoulder and saw Wade about to reach Ben, but then Ben put on a burst of frantic speed and left Wade snatching at empty air. “Come back here, you little bastards!” Bodean yelled as he chased after Davy Ray and me. “Get ’em, damn it!” Biggun bellowed. “Don’t let ’em get away!”

  Davy Ray was fast, I’ll say that for him. He left me behind pretty quick. The only trouble was, he had the flashlight. I couldn’t see where I was going, and I could hear Bodean’s breath rasping behind me. I dared to glance back again, but Ben had headed off in another direction with Wade at his heels. Whether Mr. Hargison and Mr. Moultry were coming after us, too, I didn’t know. Bodean Blaylock was reaching for me, about to snag my collar. I ducked my head and changed directions on him, and he skidded in the pine straw. I kept going, through the dark wilderness. “Davy Ray!” I shouted, because I no longer could see his light. “Where are you?”
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  “Over here, Cory!” he called, but I couldn’t tell where he was. Behind me, I heard Bodean crashing through the underbrush. I had to keep running, the sweat leaking from my face. “Cory! Davy Ray!” Ben shouted from somewhere off to the right. “Goddammit, bring ’em back here!” Biggun raged. I dreaded finding out what that monstrous mountain and his brood would do to us, because whatever had been going on back there was definitely something he’d wanted to keep a secret. I started to call for Ben, but as I opened my mouth my left foot slid on pine needles and suddenly I was rolling down an embankment like a sack of grain. I rolled into bushes and vines, and when I stopped I was so scared and dizzy I almost upchucked my toasted marshmallows. I lay there on my belly, my chin scraped raw by something I’d collided with, while I waited for a hand to winnow from the darkness and grab the back of my neck. I heard branches cracking; Bodean was nearby. I held my breath, fearing he could hear my heartbeat. To me it sounded like a drum corps all slamming an anvil with sledgehammers, and if Bodean couldn’t detect it, he was surely as deaf as a post.

  His voice drifted to me, from my left. “Might as well give up, kid. I know where you are.”

  He sounded convincing. I almost answered him, but I realized he was just as much in the dark as I was. I kept my mouth shut and my head low.

  A few seconds later, Bodean shouted from a little farther away: “We’re gonna find you! Oh yeah, don’t you worry, we’ll find every one of you sneakin’ bastards!”

  He was moving off. I waited a couple of minutes longer, listening to the Blaylocks calling to each other. Evidently, Davy Ray and Ben had both escaped and Biggun was furious about it. “You’re gonna find those kids if it takes you all goddamn night!” he roared at his sons, and they meekly answered “Yes sir.” I figured I’d better get out while the getting was good, so I got up and crept away like a whipped pup.

  I sure didn’t know where I was going. I knew only that I needed to put as much distance between my skin and the Blaylocks as possible. I thought about doubling back and trying to find the other guys, but I was scared the Blaylocks would nab me. I just kept walking into the dark. If bobcats and rattlers were anywhere around, they couldn’t possibly be worse than the two-legged beasts behind me. Maybe I walked for half an hour before I found a boulder to crouch on, and under the stars I realized my predicament: my knapsack, with all it contained, was back at the campsite, wherever that might be from here. I had no food, no water, no flashlight, no matches, and Davy Ray had the compass.

  I had a crushing thought: Mom had been right. I should’ve waited until I was thirteen.

  8

  Chile Willow

  I HAVE KNOWN long nights before. Like when I had strep throat and couldn’t sleep and every minute seemed a torment. Or when Rebel had been sick with worms, and I stayed awake worrying as he coughed and whined. The night I spent huddled on that boulder, though, was an eternity of regret, fear, and discomfort all jammed into six hours. I knew one thing for sure: this was my last camping trip. I jumped at every imagined sound. I peered into the dark, seeing hulking shapes where there were only skinny pines. I would’ve tossed every issue of National Geographic on a bonfire for two peanut-butter sandwiches and a bottle of Green Spot. Sometime near dawn, the mosquitoes found me. They were so big I might’ve grabbed their legs and hitched a ride to Zephyr by air. I was miserable, from my red-blotched bites to my growling belly.

  I had plenty of time, between slapping at skeeters and listening for the sounds of footsteps creeping up on me, to wonder what was in the box that Mr. Moultry and Mr. Hargison had paid four hundred dollars for. Man, that was a fortune of money! If the Blaylocks were involved, it had to be something wicked. What were Mr. Moultry and Mr. Hargison planning to do with the contents of that box? Something Mr. Hargison had said came back to me: They won’t know what hit ’em until they’re tap-dancin’ in hell.

  Whatever this was about, it was a bad enough business to be conducted late at night in the middle of the woods, and I had no doubt the Blaylocks would cut our throats—and maybe Mr. Moultry and Mr. Hargison would, too—to keep it a secret.

  At last the sun began to rise, painting the sky pink and purple. I figured I’d better get moving again, in case the Blaylocks were somewhere close. Yesterday we’d been following the sun, and that had been afternoon, so I chose to head due east. I started off on aching legs, my heart hungry for home.

  I figured I might be able to get to a high point and see Zephyr, or Saxon’s Lake, or at least a road or a railroad track. On the hilltops, however, I could see only more woods. I did get a break, though, about two hours after dawn: a jet plane screamed overhead, and I saw its landing gears slide down. I changed course a few degrees, heading for what I hoped was the Air Force base. The woods, though, seemed to be thickening up rather than thinning. The sun was heating up, the ground rough underfoot, and soon I was wet with sweat. The gnats returned, with all their brothers, sisters, uncles, and cousins, and they swarmed around my head like a dark halo.

  Soon I heard more jets shrieking, though I couldn’t see them through the trees, and then I heard the dull whump! whump! whump! of explosions. I stopped, realizing I was near the bomb testing grounds. From the next ridge I could see dark plumes of smoke and dust rising into the sky to what I reasoned was the northeast. Which meant I was a long, arduous way from my front door.

  My belly and the sun at its zenith told me it was high noon. I was supposed to have been home by now. My mother would start going crazy soon, and my dad would start warming up his whipping hand. What would hurt most would be admitting I wasn’t as grown-up today as I thought I’d been yesterday.

  I continued on, skirting the area where the bombs were dropped. The last thing I needed was to be greeted by a few hundred pounds of high explosive. I pushed through tangles of thorns that bit my skin and tore my clothes, and I gritted my teeth and took what was coming to me. Little panics kept flaring up inside me, my mind seeing rattlesnakes in every shadow. If ever I wished I could really fly, now was the time.

  And then, all of a sudden, I emerged from the pine woods into a green, leafy glade. Sunlight glittered off the rippling water of a small pond, and in that water a girl was swimming. She must’ve not been there long because only the ends of her long, golden hair were wet. She was as brown as a berry, the water glistening on her arms and shoulders as she stroked back and forth. I was about to call to her, and then she flipped over on her back and I saw she was naked.

  Instantly my heart jumped and I stepped behind a tree, more afraid to startle her than anything else. Her legs kicked blissfully, the small buds of her breasts visible above the surface. She wore nothing to cover the area between her long, sleek thighs either, and I was ashamed to be looking but my eyes were spellbound. She turned and slid underwater. When she came up again, halfway across the pond, she swept her thick wet tresses back from her forehead and flipped over once more, gazing up at the blue sky as she floated.

  Now, this was an interesting situation, I reasoned. Here I stood, hungry and thirsty, covered with mosquito bites and thorn welts, knowing my mother and father were calling up the sheriff and the fire chief by now, and twenty feet in front of me was a shimmering green pond with a naked blond girl floating in it. I hadn’t gotten a good look at her face yet, but I could tell she was older than me, maybe fifteen or sixteen. She was long and lean, and she swam not with the splashy giddiness of a child but with an elegant, easy grace. I saw her clothes lying at the base of a tree on the other side of the pond, and a trail led off into the woods. The girl dove under, her legs kicking, then she resurfaced and slowly swam toward her clothes. She stopped, her feet finding the slippery bottom. Then she started wading in toward shore, and the moment of truth was thrust upon me.

  “Wait!” I called out.

  She spun around. Her face turned red and her hands flew up to cover her breasts, and then she ducked down in the water up to her throat. “Who’s there? Who said that?”

  “I did.” I came
out, sheepishly, from my hiding-place. “Sorry.”

  “Who are you? How long have you been standin’ there?”

  “Just a couple of minutes,” I said. I followed it with a white lie. “I didn’t see anythin’.”

  The girl was staring at me with open-mouthed indignation, her wet hair crimped around her shoulders. Her face was illuminated by a spill of sunlight through the trees, and I looked beyond her anger at a vision of beauty. Which surprised me, because the power of her beauty hit me so hard and suddenly. There are many things a boy considers beautiful: the shine of a bike’s paint, the luster of a dog’s pelt, the singing of a yo-yo as it loops the loop, the yellow harvest moon, the green grass of a meadow, and free hours at hand. The face of a girl, no matter how well-constructed, is usually not in that realm of appreciation. At that moment, though, I forgot about my hungry belly and my mosquito bites and my thorn stings. A girl with the most beautiful face I’d ever seen was staring at me, her eyes pale cornflower blue, and I had the feeling of waking up from a prolonged, lazy sleep into a new world I had never realized existed.

  “I’m lost,” I managed to say.

  “Where’d you come from? Were you spyin’ on me?”

  “No. I…came from that way.” I motioned in the direction behind me.

  “You’re tellin’ a story!” she snapped. “Ain’t nobody lives up in them hills!”

  “Yeah,” I said. “I know.”

  She remained hunkered down in the water, her arms around herself. I could tell that the anger was gradually leaving her, because the expression in her eyes was softening. “Lost,” she repeated. “Where do you live?”