Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 30

  Mom pulled her head out of the oven, looked at the sky again, and frowned. “I don’t know. It might start pourin’ on you.”

  I shrugged. “I’ll be all right.”

  She hesitated, her fretful nature gnawing at her. Ever since my camping trip, though, I could tell she’d been making a mighty effort to stop worrying so much about me. Even though I’d gotten lost, I’d proven I could survive in the face of hardship. Finally, she said, “Go on, then.”

  I took two Lorna Doones and headed for the porch.

  “If it starts comin’ down hard, you stay at the courthouse!” she called. “Hear?”

  “I hear!” I told her, and I got on Rocket and pedaled as I crunched the Lorna Doones between my teeth. Not too far from the house, Rocket suddenly shuddered and I felt the handlebars jerk to the left. Ahead of me, the Branlins were pedaling side by side on their black bikes, but they were going in the same direction as me and didn’t see me. Rocket wanted to turn to the left at the next intersection, and I followed Rocket’s sage advice to take a detour.

  Thunder was rumbling and it was starting to sprinkle a little as I reached the dark-stoned, gothic-styled courthouse at the end of Merchants Street. The drops were chilly; summer’s warm rain was a thing of the past. I left Rocket chained to a fire hydrant and went into the courthouse, which smelled like a moldy basement. A sign on the wall said Mayor Swope’s office was on the second floor, and I climbed the wide staircase, the high windows around me letting in murky, storm-blue light. At the top of the staircase, three carved gargoyles sat atop the black walnut banister, their scaly legs curled up and their claws folded across their chests. One wall was decorated with an old tattered Confederate flag and there were dusty display cases holding butternut uniforms riddled with moth holes. Above my head was a darkened glass cupola, reachable only by ladder, and through the cupola I heard thunder resonate as through a bell jar.

  I walked along the long corridor, which had a floor of black and white linoleum squares. On either side were offices: License Bureau, County Tax Department, Probate Judge, Traffic Court, and the like. None of their lights were on. I saw a man with dark hair and a blue-paisley bow tie coming out of a pebbled-glass door marked Sanitation and Maintenance: He locked the door from a ring of jingling keys and looked at me. “Can I help you, young fella?” he asked.

  “I’m supposed to see Mayor Swope,” I said.

  “His office is at the end of the corridor.” He checked his pocket watch. “Might be gone home by now, though. Most everybody leaves around three-thirty.”

  “Thank you,” I told him, and I went on. I heard his keys jingling as he walked toward the stairs, and he whistled a tune I didn’t know.

  I passed the council’s chambers and the recorder’s office—both dark—and at the corridor’s end I faced a big oak door with brass letters on it that said OFFICE OF THE MAYOR. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to knock or not, and there was no buzzer. I grappled with the question of etiquette here for a few seconds, as the thunder growled outside. Then I balled up my fist and knocked.

  In a few seconds the door opened. A woman with hornrimmed glasses and an iron-gray mountain of hair peered out. Her face was like a chunk of granite, all hard ridges and cliffs. Her eyebrows lifted in a question.

  “I’m…here to see Mayor Swope,” I said.

  “Oh. You’re Cory Mackenson.”

  “Yes ma’am.”

  “Come in.” She opened the door wider, and I slipped in past her. As I did, I got a jolt of either violet-scented perfume or hair spray up my nostrils. I had entered a red-carpeted room which held a desk, a row of chairs, and a magazine rack. A map of Zephyr, brown at the edges, adorned one wall. On the desk there was an in tray and an out tray, a neat stack of papers, framed photographs of a baby being held between a smiling young woman and man, and a nameplate that said MRS. INEZ AXFORD and, underneath that in smaller letters, MAYOR’S SECRETARY.

  “Just have a seat for a minute, please.” Mrs. Axford walked across the room to another door. She rapped softly on it, and I heard Mayor Swope say in his mushmouth accent, “Yes?” from the other side. Mrs. Axford opened it. “The boy’s here,” she said.

  “Thank you, Inez.” I heard a chair creak. “I believe that finishes us up for the day. You can go on home if you like.”

  “Want me to send him in?”

  “Two minutes and I’ll be with him.”

  “Yes sir. Oh…did you sign that application for the new traffic lights?”

  “Need to study that a little more, Inez. Get to it first thing in the mornin’.”

  “Yes sir. I’ll be goin’ on, then.” She retreated from the mayor’s domain and closed the door and said to me, “He’ll be with you in two minutes.” As I waited, Mrs. Axford locked her desk, got her sturdy brown purse, and straightened the photographs on her desk. She wedged her purse up under her arm, took a long look around the office to make sure everything was in its proper place, and then she walked out the door into the hallway without saying boot, shoot, or scoot to me.

  I waited. Thunder boomed overhead and rolled through the courthouse. I heard the rain start—slowly at first, then building up to a hammering.

  The door to the mayor’s office opened, and Mayor Swope emerged. The sleeves of his blue shirt were rolled up, his initials in white on the breast pocket, his suspenders striped with red. “Cory!” he said, smiling. “Come in and let’s have us a talk!”

  I didn’t know what to make of this. I knew who Mayor Swope was and all, but I’d never spoken to him. And here he was, smiling and motioning me into his office! The guys would believe this about as much as they believed I’d stuck a broomstick down Old Moses’s throat!

  “Come in, come in!” the mayor urged.

  I walked into his office. Everything was fashioned of dark, glistening wood. The air smelled of sweet pipe tobacco. There was a desk in the office that seemed as big as the deck of an aircraft carrier. Shelves were full of thick, leatherbound books. They looked to me as if they had never been touched, because none had bookmarks in them. Two burly black leather chairs faced the desk over an expanse of Persian carpet. Windows afforded a view of Merchants Street, but right now the rain was streaming down them.

  Mayor Swope, his gray hair combed back from a widow’s peak and his eyes dark blue and friendly, closed the door. He said, “Have a seat, Cory.” I hesitated. “Doesn’t matter which one.” I took the one on his left. The leather pooted when I sat down in it. Mayor Swope settled himself in his own chair, which had scrolled armrests. On his flattop of a desk was a telephone, a leather-covered jar full of pens, a can of Field and Stream tobacco, and a pipe rack cradling four pipes. One of the pipes was white, and had a man’s bearded face carved into it.

  “Gettin’ some rain out there, aren’t we?” he asked, his fingers lacing together. He smiled again, and this close I saw his teeth were discolored.

  “Yes sir.”

  “Well, the farmers need it. Just so we don’t have another flood, huh?”

  “Yes sir.”

  Mayor Swope cleared his throat. His fingers tapped. “Are your folks waitin’ for you?” he asked.

  “No sir. I came on my bike.”

  “Oh. Gosh, you’re gonna have a wet ride home.”

  “I don’t mind.”

  “Wouldn’t be good,” he said, “if you had an accident on the way. You know, with that rain comin’ down so hard, a car could hit you, you could go down in a ditch and…” His smile had slipped. Now it crept back. “Well, it wouldn’t be good.”

  “No sir.”

  “I suppose you’re wonderin’ why I wanted to see you?”

  I nodded.

  “You know I was on the panel that judged the writin’ contest? I enjoyed your story. Yessir, it deserved a prize.” He picked up a briar pipe and popped open the can of tobacco. “It surely did. You’re the youngest person ever to win a plaque in the contest.” I watched his fingers as he began to fill the pipe’s bowl with bits of tobacco.
“I checked the records. You’re the youngest by far. That ought to make you and your folks very proud.”

  “I guess so.”

  “Oh, you don’t have to be so modest, Cory! I sure couldn’t write like that when I was your age! Nosir! I was good at math, but English wasn’t my subject.” He produced a pack of matches from his pocket, struck one, and touched it to the tobacco in his pipe. Blue smoke bloomed around his mouth. His eyes were on me. “You’ve got a keen imagination,” he said. “That part in your story about seein’ somebody standin’ in the woods across the road. I liked that part. How’d you happen to come up with that?”

  “It really—” Happened, I was going to say. But before I could, somebody knocked at the door. Mrs. Axford looked in. “Mayor Swope?” she said. “Lord, it’s pourin’ cats and dogs! I couldn’t even get to my car, and I just had my hair fixed yesterday! Do you have an umbrella I might borrow?”

  “I believe so, Inez. Look in that closet over there.”

  She opened a closet and rummaged around in it. “Should be one in the corner,” Mayor Swope told her. “Smells awfully musty in here!” Mrs. Axford said. “I believe somethin’s mildewed!”

  “Yeah, gotta clean it out one of these days,” he said.

  Mrs. Axford came out of the closet clutching an umbrella. But her nose was wrinkled, and in her other hand she was clutching two articles of clothing that were white with mildew. “Look at these!” she said. “I believe mushrooms are growin’ in here!”

  My heart seized up.

  Mrs. Axford was holding a mildew-blotched overcoat and a hat that appeared to have been run through a washer and wringer.

  And in the band of that battered hat was a silver disc and a crumpled green feather.

  “Whew! Just smell it!” Mrs. Axford made a face that might’ve stopped a clock. “What’re you keepin’ this stuff for?”

  “That’s my favorite hat. Was, at least. It got ruined the night of the flood, but I thought I could get it fixed. And I’ve had that raincoat for fifteen years.”

  “No wonder you won’t let me clean out your closet! What else is in here?”

  “Never you mind! Run on, now! Leroy’s waitin’ at home for you!”

  “You want me to throw these in the garbage on my way out?”

  “No, Lord no!” Mayor Swope said. “Just put ’em back in there and close the door!”

  “I swear,” Mrs. Axford said as she returned the items to the closet, “you men are worse about hangin’ on to old clothes than little babies with their blankets.” She closed the door with a firm thunk. “There. I can still smell that mildew, though.”

  “It’s all right, Inez. You go on home, and be careful on the road.”

  “I will.” She gave me a quick glance, and then she walked out of the office with the umbrella.

  I don’t think I had drawn a breath during that entire exchange. Now I pulled one in, and I shivered as the air burned my lungs.

  “Now, Cory,” Mayor Swope said, “where were we? Oh yes: the man across the road. How’d you come up with that?”

  “I… I…” The green-feathered hat was in a closet ten feet from me. Mayor Swope was the man who’d worn it that night when the floodwaters had raged in the streets of Bruton. “I…never said it was a man,” I answered. “I just said…it was somebody standin’ there.”

  “Well, that was a nice touch. I’ll bet that was an excitin’ mornin’ for you, wasn’t it?” He reached into another pocket, and when his hand came into view there was a small silver blade in it.

  It was the knife I’d seen in his hand, that night when I was afraid he was going to sneak up behind my dad and stab him in the back for what he’d seen at Saxon’s Lake.

  “I wish I could write,” Mayor Swope said. He turned the blade around. On its other end was a blunt little piece of metal, which he used to tamp the burning tobacco down in his pipe. “I’ve always liked mysteries.”

  “Me too,” I managed to rasp.

  He stood up, rain pelting the windows behind him. Lightning zigzagged over Zephyr, and the lights suddenly flickered. Thunder crashed. “Oh my,” Mayor Swope said. “That was a little too close, wasn’t it?”

  “Yes sir.” My hands were about to break the armrests of my chair.

  “I want you,” he said, “to wait right here for a minute. There’s somethin’ I want to show you, and I think it’ll explain things.” He crossed the room, the pipe clenched between his teeth and a scrawl of smoke behind him, and he went out into the area where Mrs. Axford’s desk was. He left the door ajar, and I could hear him opening the drawer of a filing cabinet.

  My gaze went to the closet.

  The green feather was in there. So close. What if I was to pluck it from its hat and compare it to the green feather I’d found on the sole of my shoe? If the feathers matched, what then?

  I had to move fast if I was going to move at all.

  The filing cabinet’s drawer closed. Another opened. “Just a minute!” Mayor Swope called to me. “It’s not where it’s supposed to be!”

  I had to go. Right now.

  I got up on rubbery legs and opened the closet. The reek of mildewed cloth hit me in the face like a damp slap. But the coat and the hat were there on the floor, nudged up into a corner. I heard the drawer slide shut. I grasped the feather and tugged at it. It wouldn’t come loose.

  Mayor Swope was coming back into the office. My heart was a cold stone in my throat. Thunder boomed and the rain slammed against the windows, and I grasped that green feather and jerked it and this time it tore loose from the hatband. It was mine.

  “Cory? What’re you doin’ in—”

  Lightning flared, so close you could hear the sizzle. The lights went out, and the next crack of thunder shook the windows.

  I stood in the dark, the green feather in my hand and Mayor Swope in the doorway.

  “Don’t move, Cory,” he said. “Say somethin’.”

  I didn’t. I edged toward the wall and pressed my back against it.

  “Cory? Come on, now. Let’s don’t play games.” I heard him shut the door. A floorboard creaked, ever so quietly. He was moving. “Let’s sit down and talk, Cory. There’s somethin’ very important you need to understand.”

  Outside, the clouds had gone almost black, and the room was a dungeon. I thought I could see his tall, thin shape gliding slowly toward me across the Persian carpet. I was going to have to get through him to the door.

  “No need for this,” Mayor Swope said, his voice trying to sound calm and reassuring. It had the same hollow ring as Mr. Hargison’s false voice. “Cory?” I heard him release a long, resigned sigh. “You know, don’t you?”

  Darned right I knew.

  “Where are you, son? Talk to me.”

  I didn’t dare.

  “How’d you find out?” he asked. “Just tell me that.”

  Lightning flickered and hissed. By its split-second glare I could see Mayor Swope, white as a zombie, standing at the center of the room with pipe smoke drifting around him like a wraith. Now my heart was really hammering; a spark of lightning had jumped off something metal clenched in his right hand.

  “I’m sorry you found out, Cory,” Mayor Swope said. “I didn’t want you to get hurt.”

  I couldn’t help it; in my panic, I blurted it out: “I wanna go home!”

  “I can’t let you do that,” he said, and his shape began moving toward me through the electric-charged dark. “You understand, don’t you?”

  I understood. My legs responded first; they propelled me across the Persian carpet toward the way out, and my lungs snagged a breath and my hand gripped the green feather. I don’t know how near I passed to him, but I got to the door unhindered and tried to twist the doorknob but my palm was slick with cold sweat. He must’ve heard the rattle, because he said, “Stop!” and I could sense him coming after me. Then the doorknob turned and the door opened and I shot through it as if from the barrel of a cannon. I collided with Mrs. Axford’s desk, and I hea
rd the photographs clatter as they fell.

  “Cory!” he said, louder. “No!”

  I caromed off the side of the desk, a human pinball in motion. I went into the row of chairs, striking my right knee on a hard edge. My lips let out a cry of pain, and as I tried to find the door into the hallway it seemed that the chairs had come to malevolent life and were blocking my way. A cold chill skittered up my spine as Mayor Swope’s hand fell on my shoulder like a spider.

  “No!” he said, and his fingers started to close.

  I pulled loose. A chair was beside me, and I shoved it at Mayor Swope like a shield. He stumbled into it, and I heard him say “Oof!” as his legs got tangled up and he fell to the floor. Then I turned away from him, frantically searching for the door. At any second I expected a hand to seal itself around my ankle, and that hand to draw me to him like the tentacle of the glass-bowled monster of Invaders from Mars. Tears of terror were starting to burn my eyes. I blinked them away, and suddenly my hand found the cold knob of the door that led out. I twisted it, pushed through, and ran-along the storm-darkened corridor, my footsteps ringing on the linoleum and thunder echoing through the halls of justice.

  “Cory! Come back here!” he hollered as if he really thought I might. He was coming after me, and he was running, too. I had the mental picture of myself beaten to a pulp, my hand cuffed to Rocket, and Rocket tumbling down, down, down into the awful netherworld of Saxon’s Lake.

  I tripped over my own flying feet, fell, and skidded on my belly across the linoleum. My chin banged into the bottom of a wall, but I scrambled up and kept going, Mayor Swope’s footsteps right behind me. “Cory!” he shouted, fury in his voice. It was surely the voice of a crazed killer. “Stop where you are!”

  Like hell, I thought.

  And then I saw dank gray light streaming through the cupola over the staircase and I started running down the stairs without even holding on to the railing, which was enough right there to cause my mother to go white-haired. Mayor Swope was puffing behind me, and his voice was losing its steam: “No, Cory! No!” I reached the bottom of the staircase, and I ran across the entrance lobby and out the front door into the chilly rain. The worst of the storm had already swept over Zephyr, and now squatted above the hills like a massive grayish-blue toad-frog. I got Rocket unlocked, but I left the chain hanging. I pedaled away from the courthouse just as Mayor Swope came through the door hollering at me to stop.