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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 31


  The last thing he hollered—and I thought this was strange, coming from a crazed killer—was “For God’s sake, be careful!”

  Rocket flew over the rain-pocked puddles, its golden eye picking out a path. The clouds were parting, shards of yellow sunlight breaking through. Dad had always told me that when it rained while the sun showed, the devil was beating his wife. Rocket dodged the splashing cars on Merchants Street and I hung on for the ride.

  At home, Rocket skidded to a stop at the front porch steps and I ran inside, my hair plastered down with rain and my hand gripping the soggy green feather.

  “Cory!” Mom called as the screen door slammed. “Cory Mackenson, come here!”

  “Just a minute!” I ran into my room, and I searched the seven mystic drawers until I found the White Owl cigar box. I opened it, and there was the green feather I’d found on the bottom of my shoe.

  “Come here this instant!” Mom shouted.

  “Wait!” I placed the first green feather down on my desk, and the green feather I’d plucked from the mayor’s hatband beside it.

  “Cory! Come in here! I’m on the phone with Mayor Swope!”

  Oh-oh.

  My feeling of triumph cracked, collapsed, cascaded around my wet sneakers.

  The first feather, the one that had come from the woods, was a deep emerald green. The one from the mayor’s hatband was about three shades lighter. Not only that, but the hatband feather was at least twice as large as the Saxon’s Lake feather.

  They didn’t match one iota.

  “Cory! Come talk to the mayor before I get a switch after you!”

  When I dared to walk into the kitchen, I saw that my mother’s face was as red as a strangled beet. She said into the telephone, “No sir, I promise you Cory doesn’t have a mental condition. No sir, he doesn’t have panic attacks, either. Here he is right now, I’ll put him on.” She held the receiver out to me, and fixed me with a baleful glare. “Have you lost your mind? Take this phone and talk to the mayor!”

  I took it. It was all I could do to utter one pitiable word: “Hello?”

  “Cory!” Mayor Swope said. “I had to call to make sure you’d gotten home all right! I was scared to death you were gonna fall down those stairs in the dark and break your neck! When you ran out, I thought you were…like…havin’ a fit or somethin’.”

  “No sir,” I answered meekly. “I wasn’t havin’ a fit.”

  “Well, when the lights went out I figured you might be afraid of the dark. I didn’t want you to hurt yourself, so I was tryin’ to get you settled down. And I figured your mom and dad wouldn’t want me to let you try gettin’ home in that storm, either! If you’d gotten sideswiped by a car…well, thank the Lord it didn’t happen.”

  “I…thought…” My throat choked up. I could feel my mother’s burning eyes. “I thought…you were tryin’ to…kill me,” I said.

  The mayor was silent for a few seconds, and I could imagine what he must be thinking. I was a pure number-one nut case. “Kill you? Whatever for?”

  “Cory!” Mom said. “Are you crazy?”

  “I’m sorry,” I told the mayor. “My…imagination got away from me, I guess. But you said I knew somethin’ about you, and you wondered how I’d found out, and—”

  “No, not somethin’ about me,” Mayor Swope said. “Somethin’ about your award.”

  “My award?”

  “Your plaque. For winnin’ third place in the short story contest. That’s why I asked you to come see me. I was afraid somebody else on the awards panel had told you before I could.”

  “Told me what?”

  “Well, I wanted to show it to you. I was bringin’ your plaque in to show you when the lights went out and you went wild. See, the fella who engraves the plaques misspelled your name. He spelled Cory with an ‘e.’ I wanted you to see it before the ceremony so you wouldn’t get your feelin’s hurt. The fella’s promised to do your plaque again, but he’s got to do some softball awards first and he can’t get to it for two weeks. Understand?”

  Oh, what a bitter pill. What a bitter, bitter pill.

  “Yes sir,” I answered. I felt dazed, and my right knee was really starting to throb. “I do.”

  “Are you on…any medication?” the mayor asked me.

  “No sir.”

  He grunted quietly. That grunt said, You sure ought to be.

  “I’m sorry I acted a fool,” I said. “I don’t know what got into me.” If he figured I was crazy now, I thought, just wait until he saw what I’d done to his hat. I decided to let him find that out for himself.

  “Well,” and the mayor gave a little laugh that told me he was finding some humor in this mess, “it’s been a real interestin’ afternoon, Cory.”

  “Yes sir. Uh… Mayor Swope?”

  “Yes?”

  “Uh…the plaque’s okay as it is. Even with my name spelled wrong. You don’t have to get it fixed.” I figured this was penance of a sort; every time I looked at that plaque, I’d remember the day I shoved a chair at the mayor and knocked him down.

  “Nonsense. We’ll get it changed for you.”

  “I’d just as soon have it the way it is now,” I told him, and I guess I sounded firm about it because Mayor Swope said, “All right, Cory, if that’s what you really want.”

  He said he had to go get into a bathtub full of Epsom salts, and then he said he’d see me at the awards ceremony. When he hung up, I had to face my mother and explain to her why I’d thought Mayor Swope was going to kill me. Dad came in during this explanation, and though by all rights I should have been punished for my foolishness, my folks simply sent me to my room for an hour, which was where I was going to go anyhow.

  In my room, I looked at the two mismatched green feathers. One bright, one sober. One small, one large. I picked up the Saxon’s Lake feather and held it in the palm of my hand, and I found my magnifying glass and examined the feather’s rills and ridges. Maybe Sherlock Holmes could’ve deduced something from it, but I was as confounded as Dr. Watson.

  Mayor Swope had been the man in the green-feathered hat. His “knife” had been his pipe-cleaning tool. This feather in my hand had nothing to do with Mayor Swope’s hat. Did it have anything to do with the figure I thought I’d seen standing at the edge of the woods, or the dead man at the bottom of the lake? One thing I knew for sure: there were no emerald-green birds in the woods around Zephyr. So where had that feather come from?

  I put the mayor’s feather aside, intending to return it to him though I knew deep down in my heart I never would, and I slid the Saxon’s Lake feather back into the White Owl box which was deposited once more into one of the seven mystic drawers.

  That night I dreamed again about the four black girls, all dressed up as if for church. I guessed the youngest was maybe ten or eleven, the other three around fourteen. Only this time they stood talking to each other under a green, leafy tree. Two of them were holding Bibles. I couldn’t hear what was being said. One of them laughed, and then the others laughed and the sound was like water rippling. Then there was a bright flash so intense I had to close my eyes, and I was standing at the center of thunder and a hot wind yanked at my clothes and hair. When I opened my eyes again, the four black girls were gone and the tree was stripped bare.

  I woke up. There was sweat on my face, as if I had actually been kissed by that scorching breath. I heard Rebel barking in the dark from the backyard. I looked at the luminous dial of my alarm clock, seeing that it was almost two-thirty. Rebel barked on and on, like a machine, and his voice was igniting other dogs, so I figured since I was awake I’d go out and calm him down. I started out of my room, and I saw at once that a light was on in the den.

  I could hear a scratching noise. I followed it to the den’s threshold, and there I saw my father, wearing his pajamas, sitting at his desk where he wrote out the checks for the bills. He gripped a pen in his hand, and under a pool of light he was writing or drawing something on a sheet of paper. His eyes looked feverish
and sunken, and I saw that moisture glistened on his forehead just as it did on mine.

  Rebel’s barking broke. He started to howl.

  Dad muttered, “Damn it,” and stood up, being careful not to scrape his chair on the floor. I shrank back into a shadow; I’m not sure why I did this, but Dad looked like he didn’t want to be disturbed. He walked to the back door, and I heard him go out to hush Rebel.

  Rebel’s howling ceased. Dad would be back in a minute or two.

  I couldn’t help it. I had to know what was so important for him to be up at two-thirty doing.

  I walked into the den, and I looked at the sheet of paper.

  On it, my father—who was by no means an artist—had drawn a half-dozen crude skulls with wings growing from their temples. There was a column of question marks, and the words Saxon’s Lake repeated five times. The Lady was written there, followed by another series of question marks. Down in the dark was there, the pen’s point almost tearing through the paper. It was followed in capital letters by two desperate questions: WHO? WHY?

  And then a progression that made me feel sick to my stomach:

  I am.

  I am afraid.

  I am about to have a breakd

  The back door opened.

  I retreated to my shadow, and watched as Dad entered the den. He sat down again, and he stared at what he’d drawn and written.

  I had never seen his face before. Not the face he wore now, at this quiet hour before the sun. It was the face of a frightened little boy, tortured beyond his understanding.

  He opened a drawer and took out a coffee cup with Green Meadows Dairy stenciled on the side. He brought out a pack of matches. Then he folded the sheet of paper up, and began to tear it into small pieces. The fragments of it went into the coffee cup. When the paper was all torn up, Dad struck a match and dropped it into the cup, too.

  There was a little smoke. He opened a window, and then there was none.

  I slipped back to my room and lay down to think.

  While I was dreaming of the four black girls in their Sunday dresses, what was my father being visited by? A mud-covered figure rising from the lake’s murky depths, borne up by a fleet of moss-backed snapping turtles? A beaten and misshapen face, whispering Come with me, come with me, down in the dark? A handcuff on the wrist of a tattooed arm? Or the knowledge that it could be any man and every man who ends his life alone, forgotten, drifting down into oblivion?

  I didn’t know, and I was afraid to guess. But I knew this for sure: whoever had murdered that unknown man was killing my father, too.

  At last sleep overtook me, and gentled me away from these tribulations. I rested, while around me my monsters kept their watch.

  2

  The Magic Box

  THE SATURDAY NIGHT of the Zephyr arts council awards ceremony arrived. We all put on our Sunday clothes, jammed into the pickup truck, and headed for the library. My fright level, which had been hovering around eight on a scale of ten, now moved past nine. During the week, my so-called buddies had been telling me what might happen when I got up to read my story. If their predictions came true, I would break out in hives, pee in my pants, and lose my dinner from both ends in one simultaneous rush of shame and agony. Davy Ray had told me that to be safe I ought to put a cork in my butt. Ben had said I’d better be careful walking up to the podium in front of all those people, because that’s when likely I’d have my accident. Johnny said he’d known a boy who got up to read something in front of people and he forgot how to read right then and there, had started babbling in what sounded like Greek or Zulu.

  Well, I’d decided against the cork. But when I saw the lights on in the library and all the cars parked out front, I started regretting my decision. Mom put her arm around my shoulder. “You’re gonna do just fine,” she said.

  “Yep,” Dad said. He was wearing his father’s face again, but he had dark hollows under his eyes and I’d heard Mom telling him he might need to start taking some Geritol. She knew something was wrong, of course, but she didn’t know how deep the troubled current ran. “Just fine,” he told me.

  The library’s meeting room was full of chairs, and at the front there was a table and the dreaded podium. Worse yet, there was a microphone at that podium! About forty people occupied the chairs, and Mayor Swope, Mrs. Prathmore, Mr. Graver Dean, and some of the other contest judges were moving around hobnobbing. I wanted to shrivel up and squeeze into a corner when Mayor Swope saw us and started walking over, but Dad placed his hand on my shoulder and I stood my ground.

  “Hi there, Cory!” Mayor Swope smiled, but his eyes were wary. I figured he thought I might go crazy at any second. “You ready to read your story tonight?”

  No sir, I wanted to say. “Yes sir,” was what came out.

  “Well, I think we’re gonna have a good turnout.” His attention went to my folks. “I suspect you two are awfully proud of your boy.”

  “We sure are,” Mom said. “There’s never been a writer in the family.”

  “He’s surely got the imagination for it.” Mayor Swope smiled again; it was a very tight smile. “By the way, Cory: I got my hat out of my closet to get it reshaped. You don’t happen to know what became of the—”

  “Luther!” a voice interrupted. “Just the man I need to see!”

  Mr. Dollar, all dressed up in a dark blue suit and smelling of Aqua Velva, pushed up beside the mayor. I was never so relieved to see anyone in my life. “Yes, Perry?” Mayor Swope asked, turning away from me.

  “Luther, you’ve gotta do somethin’ about that dang-goned monkey!” Mr. Dollar insisted. “That thing got on my roof last night and neither me nor Ellen could sleep a wink for all the racket it was makin’! The thing even did its business all over my car! I swear, there’s gotta be a way to catch it!”

  Ah, Lucifer. The monkey was still loose in the trees of Zephyr, and woe to the occupant of the house on whose roof Lucifer chose to squat. Because of the resulting furor and threatened lawsuits for property damage, Reverend Blessett had slinked out of town in mid-August and left no forwarding address.

  “If you come up with a good idea, you let me know,” Mayor Swope answered with a hint of irritation. “Short of askin’ the Air Force boys to drop a bomb on the town, just about everythin’s been tried.”

  “Maybe Doc Lezander can catch it, or we can pay somebody from a zoo to come in here and…” Mr. Dollar was still talking as Mayor Swope moved away, and Mr. Dollar followed him, prattling about the monkey. My folks and I took our seats, and I fidgeted as more people entered the room. Dr. Parrish came in with his wife, and lo and behold the Demon sashayed in with her fireplug mother and candlestick dad. I tried to shrink down in my chair, but she saw me and waved gleefully. Luckily there were no vacant chairs around us, or I’d have walked up to the podium with a booger on the back of my neck. Then my senses got another shock as Johnny Wilson and his parents came in. It wasn’t two minutes later that Ben and his mother and dad entered, with Davy Ray and his folks close behind them. I was going to have to brave their leering mugs, but in truth I was glad to see them. As Ben had once told me, they were good old buddies.

  It must be said that the people of Zephyr were supportive of their own. Either that, or there wasn’t much good on television on Saturday nights. A closet was opened and more folding chairs brought out. The crowd hushed for a few seconds as Vernon Thaxter, wearing only the last shade of his summer tan, strode into the room with a big smile on his face. But people were used to Vernon by now, and they’d learned where to look and where not to. “That feller’s still nekkid, Momma!” the Demon pointed out, but except for a few muffled chuckles and flushed faces, nobody made a scene. Vernon pulled a chair into a corner at the back of the room and sat there, contented as a cow. Bull, I mean.

  By the time Mayor Swope and Mrs. Prathmore took a box full of plaques up to the table at the front, there were around seventy lovers of fine literature present. Mr. Grover Dean, a slender man of middle age who wore a neatly
combed brown wig and round glasses with silver frames, went to the front, carrying a satchel, and he sat down at the table with the mayor and Mrs. Prathmore. He unzipped the satchel and slid out a stack of papers that I presumed were the winning entries in the three categories of short story, essay, and poetry.

  Mayor Swope got up and tapped the microphone at the podium. He was greeted with a squeal of feedback and a noise like an elephant breaking wind, which brought a chorus of guffaws and made Mayor Swope motion for the man who operated the sound system. Everybody quietened at last, the microphone was adjusted, and the mayor cleared his throat and was about to speak when a ripple of whispers crossed the audience. I looked back toward the door, and my pounding heart leaped like a catfish. The Lady had just walked in.

  She was dressed in violet, with a pillbox hat and gloves. There was a veil of fine netting over her face. She looked frail, her bluish-black arms and legs as thin as sticks. Supporting her with an ever-so-discreet hand to her elbow was Charles Damaronde, he of the massive shoulders and werewolf’s eyebrows. Walking three steps behind the Lady was the Moon Man, carrying his cane and wearing a shiny black suit and a red necktie. He was hatless, his dark-and-light-divided face and forehead there for all to see.

  I think you could’ve heard a pin drop. Or, more precisely, a booger fall from the Demon’s nose. “Oh my,” Mom whispered. Dad shifted nervously in his chair, and I believe he might’ve gotten up and walked out if he hadn’t had to stay for me.

  The Lady scanned the audience from behind her veil. All the chairs were taken. I got a quick glimpse of her green eyes—just a glint—but it was enough to make me think I smelled steamy earth and swamp flowers. Then, suddenly, Vernon Thaxter stood up and with a bow offered his chair to her. She said, “Thank you, sir,” in her quavery voice and sat down, and Vernon remained standing at the back of the room while Charles Damaronde and the Moon Man stood on either side of the elegant Lady. A few people—not many, only five or six—got up not to offer their chairs but to stalk out. They weren’t scared of her like Dad was; it was their indignation that black people had entered a room full of whites without asking permission. We all knew that, and the Lady did, too. It was the time we lived in.