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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 5


  I crunched the apple. Mom sat down next to Dad, and their eyes were on me. “Sir?” I asked.

  “Every other Saturday you burst in here like gangbusters wantin’ to tell us all about the movies. We can’t hardly stop you from actin’ ’em out scene by scene. So what’s the matter with you today?”

  “Uh… I guess I…don’t know, exactly.”

  “Come here,” Mom said. When I did, her hand flew to my forehead. “Not runnin’ a fever. Cory, you feel all right?”

  “I’m fine.”

  “So one movie was about Tarzan,” my father plowed on, bulldog stubborn. “What was the other movie about?”

  I supposed I could tell them the title. But how could I tell them what it was really about? How could I tell them that the movie I had just seen tapped the primal fear of every child alive: that their parents would, in an instant of irreversible time, be forever swept away and replaced by cold, unsmiling aliens? “It was…a monster movie,” I decided to say.

  “That must’ve been right up your alley, then.” Dad’s attention veered back to the baseball game as a bat cracked like a pistol shot. “Whoa! Run for it, Mickey!”

  The telephone rang. I hurried to answer it before my folks could ask me any more questions. “Cory? Hi, this is Mrs. Sears. Can I speak to your mother, please?”

  “Just a minute. Mom?” I called. “Phone for you!”

  Mom took the receiver, and I had to go to the bathroom. Number one, thankfully. I wasn’t sure I was ready to sit on the toilet with the memory of that tentacled Martian head in my mind.

  “Rebecca?” Mrs. Sears said. “How are you?”

  “Doin’ fine, Lizbeth. You get your raffle tickets?”

  “I sure did. Four of them, and I hope at least one is lucky.”

  “That’s good.”

  “Well, the reason I’m callin’ is, Ben got back from the movies just a little while ago and I was wonderin’ how Cory is.”

  “Cory? He’s—” She paused, and in her mind she was considering my strange state. “He says he’s fine.”

  “So does Ben, but he acts a little… I don’t know, maybe ‘bothered’ is the word I’m lookin’ for. Usually he hounds the heck out of Sim and me wantin’ to tell us about the movies, but today we can’t get him to talk. He’s out back right now. Said he wants to make sure about somethin’, but he won’t tell us what.”

  “Cory’s in the bathroom,” my mother said, as if that, too, was a piece of the puzzle. She cast her voice lower, in case I could hear over my waterfall. “He does act a little funny. You think somethin’ happened between ’em at the movies?”

  “I thought of it. Maybe they had a fallin’-out.”

  “Well, they’ve been friends for a long time, but it does happen.”

  “Happened with me and Amy Lynn McGraw. We were fast friends for six years and then we didn’t speak for a whole year over a lost packet of sewin’ needles. But I was thinkin’, maybe the boys ought to get together. If they’ve had an argument, maybe they ought to work it out right off.”

  “Makes sense.”

  “I was gonna ask Ben if he’d like Cory to spend the night. Would that be all right with you?”

  “I don’t mind, but I’ll have to ask Tom and Cory.”

  “Wait a minute,” Mrs. Sears said, “Ben’s comin’ in.” My mother heard a screen door slam. “Ben? I’ve got Cory’s mother on the phone. Would you like Cory to spend the night here tonight?” My mother listened, but she couldn’t make out what Ben was saying over the flush of our toilet. “He says he’d like that,” Mrs. Sears told her.

  I emerged from the bathroom, into the well-meaning complicity. “Cory, would you like to spend the night at Ben’s house?”

  I thought about it. “I don’t know,” I said, but I couldn’t tell her why. The last time I’d spent the night over there, back in February, Mr. Sears hadn’t come home all night and Mrs. Sears had walked the floor fretting about where he might be. Ben told me his father took a lot of overnight trips and he asked me not to say anything.

  “Ben wants you to come,” Mom prodded, mistaking my reluctance.

  I shrugged. “Okay. I guess.”

  “Go make sure it’s all right with your father.” While I went to the front room to ask, my mother said to Mrs. Sears, “I know how important friendship is. We’ll get ’em patched up if there’s any problem.”

  “Dad says okay,” I told her when I returned. If my father was watching a baseball game, he would be agreeable to flossing his teeth with barbed wire.

  “Lizbeth? He’ll be there. ’Round six o’clock?” She put her hand over the mouthpiece and said to me, “They’re havin’ fried chicken for dinner.”

  I nodded and tried to summon a smile, but my thoughts were in the tunnels where the Martians plotted the destruction of the human race, town by town.

  “Rebecca? How’re things goin’?” Mrs. Sears asked. “You know what I mean.”

  “Run on, Cory,” she told me, and I did even though I knew important things were about to be discussed. “Well,” she said to Lizbeth Sears, “Tom’s sleepin’ a little better now, but he still has the nightmares. I wish I could do somethin’ to help, but I think he just has to work it out for himself.”

  “I hear the sheriff’s about given it up.”

  “It’s been three weeks without any kind of lead. J.T. told Tom on Friday that he sent word out all over the state, Georgia and Mississippi, too, but he hasn’t come up with a thing. It’s like the man in that car came from another planet.”

  “Now, there’s a chilly thought.”

  “Somethin’ else,” my mother said, and she sighed heavily. “Tom’s…changed. It’s more than the nightmares, Lizbeth.” She turned toward the kitchen pantry and stretched the cord as far as it would go so there was no chance of Dad hearing. “He’s careful to lock all the doors and windows, where before he didn’t care about locks. Up until it happened, we left our doors unlocked most of the time, like everybody else does. Now Tom gets up two or three times in the night to check the bolts. And last week he came home from his route with red mud on his shoes, when it hadn’t rained. I think he went back to the lake.”

  “What on earth for?”

  “I don’t know. To walk and think, I suppose. I remember when I was nine years old I had a yellow cat that got run over by a truck in front of our house. Calico’s blood stayed on the pavement for a long time. That place pulled me. I hated it, but I had to go there and see where Calico died. I always thought that there was somethin’ I could’ve done to keep him alive. Or maybe up until it happened, I thought everythin’ lived forever.” She paused, staring at pencil marks on the back door that showed the steady progress of my growth. “I think Tom’s got a lot on his mind right now.”

  Their conversation rolled on into the realm of this and that, though at the center of it was the incident at Saxon’s Lake. I watched the baseball game with Dad, and I noticed that he kept closing and opening his right hand as if he were either trying to grasp something or free himself from a grip. Then it got time to get ready to go, and I gathered up my pajamas, my toothbrush, and another set of socks and underwear and shoved everything down in my army surplus knapsack. Dad told me to be careful and Mom told me to have fun, but to be back in the morning in time for Sunday school. I rubbed Rebel’s head and threw a stick for him to chase, and then I climbed on my bike and pedaled away.

  Ben didn’t live very far, only a half mile or so from my house at the dead end of Deerman Street. On Deerman Street I pedaled quietly, because guarding the corner of Deerman and Shantuck was the somber gray stone house where the notorious Branlin brothers lived. The Branlins, thirteen and fourteen years of age, had peroxided blond hair and delighted in destruction. Oftentimes they roamed the neighborhood on their matching black bicycles like vultures searching for fresh meat. I had heard from Davy Ray Callan that the Branlins sometimes tried to run cars off the street with their speeding black bikes, and that he’d actually witnessed Gotha Branli
n, the oldest, tell his own mother to go to the bad place. Gotha and Gordo were like the Black Plague; you hoped they wouldn’t get you, but once they laid a hand on you, there was no escape.

  So far I had been insignificant to their careening meanness. I planned for it to stay that way.

  Ben’s house was much like my own. Ben had a brown dog named Tumper, who got up from his belly on the front porch to bark my arrival. Ben came out to meet me, and Mrs. Sears said hello and asked if I wanted a glass of root beer. She was dark-haired and had a pretty face, but she had hips as big as watermelons. Inside the house, Mr. Sears came up from his woodshop in the basement to speak to me. He was large and round, too, his heavy-jowled face ruddy under crew-cut brown hair. Mr. Sears was a happy man with a buck-toothed grin, woodshavings clinging to his striped shirt, and he told me a joke about a Baptist preacher and an outhouse that I didn’t really understand, but he laughed to cue me and Ben said, “Aw, Daddy!” as if he’d heard that dumb joke a dozen times.

  I unpacked my knapsack in Ben’s room, where he had nifty collections of baseball cards, bottle caps, and wasps’ nests. As I got squared away, Ben sat down on his Superman bedspread and said, “Did you tell your folks about the movie?”

  “No. Did you?”

  “Uh-uh.” He picked at a loose thread on Superman’s face. “How come you didn’t?”

  “I don’t know. How come you didn’t?”

  Ben shrugged, but thoughts were working in his head. “I guess,” he said, “it was too awful to tell.”

  “Yeah.”

  “I went out back,” Ben said. “No sand. Just rock.”

  We both agreed the Martians would have a tough time drilling through all the red rock in the hills around Zephyr, if they were to come calling. Then Ben opened a cardboard box and showed me his Civil War bubble gum cards that had gory paintings of guys getting shot, bayoneted, and clobbered by cannon balls, and we sat making up a story for each card until his mother rang a bell to say it was time for fried chicken.

  After dinner—and Mrs. Sears’s wonderful black bottom pie washed down with a glass of cold Green Meadows milk—we all played a game of Scrabble. Ben’s parents were partners, and Mr. Sears kept trying to pass made-up words that even I knew weren’t in the dictionary, like “kafloom” and “goganus.” Mrs. Sears said he was as crazy as a monkey in itching powder, but she grinned at his antics just like I did. “Cory?” he said. “Didja hear the one about the three preachers tryin’ to get into heaven?” and before I could say “No” he was off on a joke-telling jaunt. He seemed to favor the preacher jokes, and I had to wonder what Reverend Lovoy at the Methodist church would think of them.

  It was past eight o’clock and we’d started our second game when Tumper barked on the front porch and a few seconds later there was a knock on the door. “I’ll get it,” Mr. Sears said. He opened the door to a wiry, craggy-faced man wearing jeans and a red-checked shirt. “Hey, Donny!” Mr. Sears greeted him. “Come on in, you buzzard!”

  Mrs. Sears was watching her husband and the man named Donny. I saw her jaw tense.

  Donny said something in a low voice to Mr. Sears, and Mr. Sears called to us, “Me and Donny are gonna sit on the porch for a while. Y’all go on and play.”

  “Hon?” Mrs. Sears drew up a smile, but I could tell it was in danger of slipping. “I need a partner.”

  The screen door closed at his back.

  Mrs. Sears sat very still for a long moment, staring at the door. Her smile had gone.

  “Mom?” Ben said. “It’s your turn.”

  “All right.” She tried to pull her attention to the Scrabble tiles. I could tell she was trying as hard as she could, but her gaze kept slipping back to the screen door. Out on the porch, Mr. Sears and the wiry man named Donny were sitting in folding chairs, their conversation quiet and serious. “All right,” Ben’s mother said again. “Let me think now, just give me a minute.”

  More than a minute passed. Off in the distance, a dog began barking. Then two more. Tumper took up the call. Mrs. Sears was still choosing her tiles when the door flew open again.

  “Hey, Lizbeth! Ben! Come out here, and hurry!”

  “What is it, Sim? What’s—”

  “Just come out here!” he hollered, and of course we all got up from the table to see.

  Donny was standing in the yard, looking toward the west. The neighborhood dogs were really whooping it up. Lights burned in windows, and other people were emerging to find out what the uproar was about. Mr. Sears pointed in the direction Donny was looking. “You ever seen anythin’ like that before?”

  I looked up. So did Ben, and I heard him gasp as if he’d been stomach-punched.

  It was coming down from the night sky, descending from the canopy of stars. It was a glowing red thing, purple spears of fire trailing behind it, and it left a white trail of smoke against the darkness.

  In that instant my heart almost exploded. Ben took a backward step, and he might have fallen had he not collided with one of his mother’s hips. I knew in my hammering, rioting heart that everywhere across Zephyr kids who had been in the Lyric theater that afternoon were looking up at the sky and feeling terror peel the lips back from their teeth.

  I came very close to wetting my pants. Somehow I held my water, but it was a near thing.

  Ben blubbered. He made mangled sounds. He wheezed, “It’s…it’s…it’s…”

  “A comet!” Mr. Sears shouted. “Look at that thing fall!”

  Donny grunted and slid a toothpick into the corner of his mouth. I glanced at him and by the porch light saw his dirty fingernails.

  It was falling in a long, slow spiral, ribbons of sparks flaying out in its wake. It made no noise, but people were shouting for other people to look and some of the dogs had started that kind of howling that makes your backbone quiver.

  “Comin’ down between here and Union Town,” Donny observed. His head was cocked to one side, his face gaunt and his dark hair slick with brilliantine. “Comin’ down like a sonofabitch.”

  Between Zephyr and Union Town lay eight miles of hills, woods, and swamp cut by the Tecumseh River. It was Martian territory if there ever was, I thought, and I felt all the circuits in my brain jangle like fire alarms going off. I looked at Ben. His eyes seemed to be bulging outward by the cranial pressure of pure fear. The only thing I could think of when I stared at the fireball again was the tentacled head in the glass bowl, its face serenely evil and slightly Oriental. I could hardly stand up, my legs were so weak.

  “Hey, Sim?” Donny’s voice was low and slow, and he was chewing on the toothpick. “How about we go chase that bugger down?” His face turned toward Mr. Sears. His nose was flat, as if it had been busted by a big fist. “What do you say, Sim?”

  “Yeah!” he answered. “Yeah, we’ll go chase it down! Find out where it falls!”

  “No, Sim!” Mrs. Sears said. In her voice was a note of pleading. “Stay with me and the boys tonight!”

  “It’s a comet, Lizbeth!” he explained, grinning. “How many times in your life do you get to chase a comet?”

  “Please, Sim.” She grasped his forearm. “Stay with us. All right?” I saw her fingers tighten.

  “About to hit.” Donny’s jaw muscles clenched as he chewed. “Time’s wastin’.”

  “Yeah! Time’s wastin’, Lizbeth!” Mr. Sears pulled away. “I’ll get my jacket!” He rushed up the porch steps and into the house. Before the screen door could slam, Ben was running after his father.

  Mr. Sears went back to the bedroom he shared with his wife. He opened the closet, got his brown poplin jacket, and shrugged into it. Then he reached up onto the closet’s top shelf, his hand winnowing under a red blanket. As Mr. Sears’s hand emerged, Ben walked into the room behind him and caught a glint of metal between his father’s fingers.

  Ben knew what it was. He knew what it was for.

  “Daddy?” he said. “Please stay home.”

  “Hey, boy!” His father turned toward him, grin in pl
ace, and he slid the metal object down into his jacket and zipped the jacket up. “I’m gonna go see where the comet comes down with Mr. Blaylock. I won’t be but a little while.”

  Ben stood in the doorway, between his father and the outside world. His eyes were wet and scared. “Can I go with you, Daddy?”

  “No, Ben. Not this time. I gotta go now.”

  “Let me go with you. Okay? I won’t make any noise. Okay?”

  “No, son.” Mr. Sears’s hand clamped down on Ben’s shoulder. “You have to stay here with your mother and Cory.” Though Ben stiffly resisted, his father’s hand moved him aside. “You be a good boy, now,” Mr. Sears said as his big shoes carried him toward the door.

  Ben made one more attempt by grasping his father’s fingers and trying to hold him. “Don’t go, Daddy!” he said. “Don’t go! Please don’t go!”

  “Ben, don’t act like a baby. Let me go, son.”

  “No, sir,” Ben answered. The wetness of his eyes had overflowed onto his pudgy cheeks. “I won’t.”

  “I’m just goin’ out to see where the comet falls. I won’t be gone but a little while.”

  “If you go…if you go…” Ben’s throat was clogging up with emotion, and he could hardly squeeze the words out. “You’ll come back changed.”

  “Let’s hit the road, Sim!” Donny Blaylock urged from the front porch.

  “Ben?” Mr. Sears said sternly. “I’m goin’ with Mr. Blaylock. Act like a man, now.” He worked his fingers free, and Ben stood there looking up at him with an expression of agony. His father scraped a hand through Ben’s cropped hair. “I’ll bring you back a piece of it, all right, Tiger?”

  “Don’t go,” the weeping tiger croaked.

  His father turned his back on him, and strode out the screen door to where Donny Blaylock waited. I was still standing with Mrs. Sears in the yard, watching the fiery thing in its last few seconds of descent. Mrs. Sears said, “Sim? Don’t do it,” but her voice was so weak it didn’t carry. Mr. Sears did not speak to his wife, and he followed the other man to a dark blue Chevy parked at the curb. Red foam dice hung from the radio antenna, and the right rear side was smashed in. Donny Blaylock slid behind the wheel and Mr. Sears got in the other side. The Chevy started up like a cannon going off, shooting black exhaust. As the car pulled away, I heard Mr. Sears laugh as if he’d just told another preacher joke. Donny Blaylock must’ve stomped the gas pedal, because the rear tires shrieked as the Chevy tore away up Deerman Street.