Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 48

  I sat down and tried to find something to read. My eyes couldn’t focus on the magazine pages. “So fast,” I heard Mr. Callan say. “It happened so fast.” Mom sat with Mrs. Callan and they held hands. A bell bonged somewhere in the hospital’s halls, and a voice over a loudspeaker called for Dr. Scofield. A man in a blue sweater looked into the waiting room, and everybody gave him their rapt attention but he said, “Any of you folks the Russells?” He went away, searching for some other suffering family.

  The minister from the Union Town Presbyterian Church, where the Callans belonged, entered and asked us all to link hands and pray. I held one of Mr. Callan’s hands; it was damp with nervous moisture. I knew the power of prayer, but I was through being selfish. I wanted Davy Ray to be all right, of course, and that’s what I prayed for with all my heart, but I would never dream of wishing Rebel’s death-in-life on a force of nature like Davy Ray.

  Johnny Wilson and his mother and father showed up. Johnny’s father, a stoic like his son, spoke quietly to Mr. Callan but showed no emotion. Mrs. Wilson and my mom sat on either side of Mrs. Callan, who couldn’t do much but stare at the floor and say, “He’s a good boy, he’s such a good boy,” over and over again, as if preparing herself to argue with God for Davy Ray’s life.

  Johnny and I didn’t know what to say to each other. This was the worst thing either of us had ever been through. Ben and his parents came in a few minutes after the Wilsons, and then some of Davy Ray’s relatives. The Presbyterian minister took Mr. and Mrs. Callan away with him, for more intimate prayer, I presumed, and Ben, Johnny, and I stood out in the hallway talking about what had happened. “He’s gonna be okay,” Ben said. “My dad says this is a real good hospital.”

  “My dad says Davy Ray was lucky it didn’t kill him right off,” Johnny said. “He says he knew a boy who shot himself in the stomach, and he didn’t last but a couple of hours.”

  I checked my Timex. Davy Ray had been in the operating room for four hours. “He’ll make it,” I told the others. “He’s strong. He’ll make it.”

  Another hour crept slowly past. Night had fallen, and with it a cold mist. Mr. Callan had washed the greasepaint from his face, scrubbed the dirt from beneath his fingernails, and accepted the loan of a green hospital shirt. “That’s my last huntin’ trip,” he said to my father. “I swear to Jesus it is. When Davy Ray gets out of this, we’re strippin’ the gun rack clear to the wood.” He put his hand to his face and choked back a sob. Dad put his arm around Mr. Callan’s shoulder. “Know what he said to me today, Tom? Wasn’t ten minutes before it happened. He said, if we see it, we won’t shoot at it, will we? We’re just out huntin’ deer, aren’t we? We won’t shoot it if we see it.’ You know what he was talkin’ about?”

  Dad shook his head.

  “The thing that ran away from the carnival. Now, what do you think got that in his mind?”

  “I don’t know,” Dad said.

  It hurt me to hear these things.

  A doctor with short-cropped gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses came in. Instantly the Callans were on their feet. “May I speak with both of you outside, please?” he asked. Mom gripped Dad’s hand. I knew, as well, that this was not good news.

  When they returned, Mr. Callan told everyone Davy Ray was out of the operating room. Davy Ray’s condition was guarded, and the night would tell the tale. He thanked everyone for coming and showing their support, and he said we all ought to go home and get some sleep.

  Ben and his parents stayed until ten, and then they left. The Wilsons went home a half-hour later. Gradually, the relatives thinned out. The Presbyterian minister said he would stay as long as they wanted him there. Mrs. Callan grasped my mother’s hand, and asked her not to go just yet. So we waited in that room with the stark white walls as the mist turned to rain, the rain stopped, fog drifted across the windows, and mist returned.

  Past midnight, Mr. Callan went to get a cup of coffee from a machine down the hall. He returned a few minutes later with the gray-haired doctor. “Diane!” he said excitedly. “Diane, he’s come to!”

  They rushed out, their hands linked.

  Ten minutes passed. Then, after what seemed an eternity, Mr. Callan walked back into the waiting room. I have seen cigarette burns with more life than his eyes possessed. “Cory?” he said softly. “Davy Ray wants to see you.”

  I was afraid.

  “Go on, Cory,” my father urged. “It’s all right.”

  I stood up, and I followed Mr. Callan.

  The doctor was standing outside Davy Ray’s room, talking to their minister. They made a grim picture. Mr. Callan opened the door, and I walked in. Mrs. Callan was in there, sitting in a chair beside a bed enveloped by a filmy oxygen tent. Plastic tubing snaked up from the figure that lay under a pale blue sheet and connected with bags full of blood and clear liquid. A machine showed a green dot, blipping slowly on a round black screen. Mrs. Callan saw me and leaned over toward the head under that tent. “Davy Ray? He’s here.”

  I heard the sound of labored breathing, and I smelled Clorox and Pine Sol. Rain began to tap against the window. Mrs. Callan said, “Cory, sit here,” and she stood up. I went to her. Mrs. Callan picked up one of Davy Ray’s hands; it was as white as Italian marble. “I’ll be right here, Davy Ray.” She summoned up a smile with a mighty effort, and then she lowered his hand to the bed once more and moved away.

  I stood next to the bed, looking through the oxygen tent at my friend’s face.

  He was very pale, with dark purplish hollows under his eyes. Somebody had combed his hair, though. The comb had been wet. He was all covered up, so I saw no indication of the wound that had brought him here. Tubes came out of his nostrils, and his lips were gray. His face looked waxen, and his eyes were staring right at me.

  “It’s me,” I said. “Cory.”

  He swallowed thickly. Maybe the green blip had picked up a little, or maybe it was my imagination.

  “You took a fall,” I said, and instantly thought that was the stupidest thing ever uttered.

  He didn’t answer. He couldn’t speak, I thought. “Ben and Johnny were here,” I offered.

  Davy Ray breathed. The breath became a word: “Ben.” One side of his mouth hitched up. “Numb nuts.”

  “Yeah,” I said, and I tried to smile. I wasn’t as strong as Mrs. Callan. “Do you remember much about what happened?”

  He nodded. His eyes were feverishly bright. “Tell you,” he said, his voice crushed. “Have to tell you.”

  “All right,” I said, and I sat down.

  He smiled. “Saw him.”

  “You did?” I leaned forward conspiratorially. I caught a whiff of something that smelled bloody, but I didn’t show it. “You saw the thing from the lost world?”

  “No. Better.” His smile went away as he swallowed painfully, then came back. “Saw Snowdown,” he said.

  “Snowdown,” I whispered. The great white stag with antlers like oak trees. Yes, I decided. If anyone deserved to see Snowdown, it would be Davy Ray.

  “Saw him. That’s why I fell down. Wasn’t watchin’. Oh, Cory,” he said. “He’s so pretty.”

  “I’ll bet he is,” I said.

  “He’s bigger than they say! And he’s a whole lot whiter, too!”

  “I’ll bet,” I said, “he’s the most beautiful stag there ever was.”

  “Right there,” Davy Ray whispered. “He was right there in front of me. And when I started to tell my dad, Snowdown leaped. He just leaped, and he was gone. Then I fell down, ’cause I wasn’t watchin’. But it wasn’t Snowdown’s fault I fell, Cory. Wasn’t anybody’s fault. Just happened.”

  “You’re gonna be fine,” I said. I watched a bloody bubble of saliva grow at the corner of his mouth.

  “I sure am glad I saw Snowdown,” Davy Ray said. “I wouldn’t have missed it. For nothin’.”

  He was silent, but for the soft wet rattling of his breath. The machine blip…blip…blipped. “I guess I’d better go,” I said, and I st
arted to stand up.

  His marble-white hand grasped my own.

  “Tell me a story,” he whispered.

  I paused. Davy Ray watched me, his eyes needful. I settled back down again. He kept hold of my hand, and I didn’t try to pull loose. He felt cold.

  “All right,” I said. I would have to put this together as I went, like the tale of Chief Five Thunders. “There was a boy.”

  “Yeah,” Davy Ray agreed, “gotta be a boy.”

  “This boy could just think of it, and he could go to other planets. This boy could get the red sand of Mars on his sneakers, or he could skate on Pluto. He could ride his bike on Saturn’s rings, and he could fight dinosaurs on Venus.”

  “Could he go to the sun, Cory?”

  “Oh, sure he could. He could go to the sun every day, if he wanted to. That’s where he went when he needed a good suntan. He just put on his sunglasses and went there, then he came back brown as a berry.”

  “Must’ve gotten awful hot, though,” Davy Ray said.

  “He took a fan with him,” I said. “And this boy was friends with all the kings and queens of the planets, and he visited all their castles. He visited the red sand castle of King Ludwig of Mars, and the cloud castle of King Nicholas of Jupiter. He helped stop King Zanthas of Saturn and King Damon of Neptune from fightin’, when they got into a war over who owned a comet. He went to the fire castle of King Burl of Mercury, and on Venus he helped King Swane build a castle in the tall blue trees. On Uranus King Farron asked him to stay all year, and be an admiral in the ice fleet navy. Oh, all the royalty knew about this boy. They knew there’d never be another boy just exactly like him, even if all the stars and planets burned out and were struck to light again a million times. Because he was the only one on the whole earth who could walk on the planets, and he was the only one whose name was written in their invitation books.”

  “Hey, Cory?”


  His voice was getting drowsy. “I’d kinda like to see a cloud castle, wouldn’t you?”

  “I sure would,” I said.

  “Gosh.” He wasn’t looking at me anymore. He was looking somewhere else, like a solitary traveler about to wish himself to a fabled land. “I never was afraid of flyin’, was I?”

  “Not a bit.”

  “I’m awful tired, Cory.” He frowned, the red saliva beginning to thread down his chin. “I don’t like bein’ so tired.”

  “You oughta rest, then,” I said. “I’ll come see you tomorrow.”

  His frown vanished. A smile sneaked across his mouth. “Not if I go to the sun tonight. Then I’ll have me a suntan and you’ll be stuck here shiverin’.”

  “Cory?” It was Mrs. Callan. “Cory, the doctor needs to get in here with him.”

  “Yes ma’am.” I stood up. Davy Ray’s cold hand clung to mine for a few seconds, and then it fell away. “I’ll see you,” I said through the oxygen tent. “Okay?”

  “Good-bye, Cory,” Davy Ray said.

  “Good—” I stopped myself. I was thinking of Mrs. Neville, on the first day of summer. “I’ll see you,” I told him, and I walked past his mother to the door. A sob welled up in my throat before I got out, but I clenched it down. As Chile Willow’s mother had said, I could take it.

  There was nothing more we could do. We drove home, along misty Route Sixteen, where Midnight Mona arrowed in search of love. We didn’t say much; at a time like this, words were empty vessels. At home, the green feather lay on the floor where it had drifted; it went back to its cigar box.

  On Sunday morning I awakened with a start. Tears were in my eyes, the sunlight lying in stripes across the floor. My father was standing in the doorway, wearing the same clothes he’d had on all day yesterday.

  “Cory?” he said.

  Traveling, traveling: to see Kings Ludwig, Nicholas, Zanthas, Damon, Farron, Burl, and Swane. Traveling, traveling: to castles of red sand, hewn of blue trees, formed of fire, shaped of sculpted clouds. Traveling, traveling, with planets and stars beyond and invitation books open to a single name. The solitary traveler has left this world. He will not pass this way again.



  I THOUGHT I HAD known death.

  I had walked with it, ever since I could remember sitting in front of the television set, or hunkered down with a box of buttered popcorn before the Lyric’s silver screen. How many hundreds of cowboys and Indians had I witnessed fall, arrow-pierced or gut-shot, into the swirling wagon train dust? How many dozens of detectives and policemen, laid low by the criminal bullet and coughing out their minutes? How many armies, mangled by shells and burp guns, and how many monster victims screaming as they’re chewed?

  I thought I had known Death, in Rebel’s flat, blank stare. In the last good-bye of Mrs. Neville. In the rush and gurgle of air as a car with a man at the wheel sank into cold depths.

  I was wrong.

  Because Death cannot be known. It cannot be befriended. If Death were a boy, he would be a lonely figure, standing at the playground’s edge while the air rippled with other children’s laughter. If Death were a boy, he would walk alone. He would speak in a whisper and his eyes would be haunted by knowledge no human can bear.

  This was what tore at me in the quiet hours: We come from darkness, and to darkness we must return.

  I remembered Dr. Lezander saying that as I’d sat on his porch with him facing the golden hills. I didn’t want to believe it. I didn’t want to think that Davy Ray was in a place where he could see no light, not even the candle that burned for him at the Presbyterian church. I didn’t want to think of Davy Ray confined, closed away from the sun, unable to somehow breathe and laugh even if doing so was only shadow play. In the days that followed the death of Davy Ray, I realized what fiction I had been a witness to. The cowboys and Indians, the detectives and policemen, the armies and the monster victims, would all rise again, at the dimming of the stage lights. They would go home, to wait for a casting call. But Davy Ray was dead forever, and I could not stand the thought of him in darkness.

  It got to where I couldn’t sleep. My room was too dark. It got to where I wasn’t sure what I’d seen, the night a blurred figure spoke to Rebel. Because if Davy Ray was in darkness, so, too, was Carl Bellwood. Rebel was. And all the sleepers on Poulter Hill and all the generations whose bones lay beneath the twisted roots of Zephyr’s trees: they, too, had returned to darkness.

  I remembered Davy Ray’s funeral. How thick the red earth was, on the edges of the grave. How thick, how heavy. There was no door down there when the minister was finished and the people gone and the dirt shoveled in by Bruton men. There was only dark, and its weight made something crack inside me.

  I didn’t know where heaven was anymore. I wasn’t sure if God had any sense, or plan or reason, or if maybe He, too, was in the dark. I wasn’t sure of anything anymore: not life, not afterlife, not God, not goodness. And I anguished over these things as the Christmas decorations went up on Merchants Street.

  Christmas was still two weeks away, but Zephyr struggled for a festive air. The death of Davy Ray had drowned everybody’s joy. It was talked about at Mr. Dollar’s, at the Bright Star Cafe, at the courthouse, and everywhere in between. He was so young, they said. Such a tragic accident, they said. But that’s life, they said; whether we like it or not, that’s life.

  Hearing these things didn’t help me. Of course my folks tried to talk to me about it, saying that Davy Ray’s suffering was over and that he’d gone to a better place.

  But I just couldn’t believe them. What place would ever be better than Zephyr?

  “Heaven,” Mom told me as we sat together before the crackling fire. “Davy Ray’s gone to heaven, and you have to believe that.”

  “Because why?” I asked her, and she looked as if I’d just slapped her face.

  I waited for an answer. I hoped for one, but it came in a word that left me unsatisfied, and that word was “faith.”

  They took me to see Reverend Lovoy. W
e sat in his office at church, and he gave me a lemon candy from a bowl on his desk. “Cory,” he said, “you believe in Jesus, don’t you?”

  “Yes sir.”

  “And you believe that Jesus was sent from God to die for the sins of man?”

  “Yes sir.”

  “Then you also believe Jesus was crucified, dead and buried, and on the third day He arose from the grave?”

  “Yes sir.” Here I frowned. “But Jesus was Jesus. Davy Ray was just a regular boy.”

  “I know that, Cory, but Jesus came to earth to show us that there’s more to this existence than we understand. He showed us that if we believe in Him, and follow His will and way, we, too, have a place with God in heaven. You see?”

  I thought about this for a minute as Reverend Lovoy sat back in his chair and watched me. “Is heaven better than Zephyr?” I asked him.

  “A million times better,” he said.

  “Do they have comic books there?”

  “Well…” He smiled. “We don’t really know what heaven will be. We just know it’ll be wonderful.”

  “Because why?” I asked.

  “Because,” he answered, “we must have faith.” He offered the bowl to me. “Would you like another candy?”

  I couldn’t picture heaven. How could a place be any good at all if it didn’t have the things there you enjoyed doing? If there were no comic books, no monster movies, no bikes, and no country roads to ride them on? No swimming pools, no ice cream, no summer, or barbecue on the Fourth of July? No thunderstorms, and front porches on which to sit and watch them coming? Heaven sounded to me like a library that only held books about one certain subject, yet you had to spend eternity and eternity and eternity reading them. What was heaven without typewriter paper and a magic box?

  Heaven would be hell, that’s what.

  These days were not all bleak. The Christmas lights, red and green, glowed on Merchants Street. Lamps shaped like the head of Santa Claus burned on the street corners, and silver tinsel hung from the stoplights. Dad got a new job. He began working three days a week as a stock clerk at Big Paul’s Pantry.