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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 59


  “Such a bright young man,” Dr. Lezander said, standing between me and the way out. “There’s that terrier determination, isn’t it? Finding that green feather and then pursuing it to the end? I admire that, Cory, I truly do.”

  “Dr. Lezander?” I felt as if my chest were constricted by iron bands. “I sure would like to go home.”

  He took two steps toward me. I retreated as many.

  He stopped, aware of his power over me. “I want that green feather. Do you know why?”

  I shook my head.

  “Because your having it upsets Miss Sonia. It’s a reminder of the past, and she doesn’t like that. The past should be put behind us, Cory. The world should go on, and leave the things of the past alone, don’t you agree?”

  “I don’t—”

  “But no, just like that green feather, the past has to turn up again and again and again. It has to be plowed up and spread out for everyone to see. The past has to be put on exhibit, and everyone who struggled to keep from drowning in that sludge has to pay the price over and over. It’s not fair, Cory, it’s not right. Do you see?”

  I didn’t. Somewhere along the line, his train had derailed.

  “We were honorable,” Dr. Lezander said, his eyes feverish. “We had honor. We had pride. And look at the world now, Cory! Look what it’s become! We knew the destination, but they wouldn’t let us take the world there. And now you see what you see. Chaos and vulgarity on all sides. Gross interbreedings and couplings that even animals wouldn’t abide. You know, I had my chance to be a physician to human beings. I did. Many times. And do you know that I would rather kneel in the mud and attend to a swine than save a human life? Because that’s what I think of the human race! That’s what I think of the liars who turned their backs on us and sullied our honor! That’s what I…that’s what I…what I think!” He picked up the collie cup and flung it to the floor, and it hit the tiles near my right foot and shattered to pieces with a noise like a gunshot.

  Silence.

  In another moment, Mrs. Lezander called from upstairs: “Frans? What broke, Frans?”

  His brain, I thought.

  “We’re talking,” Dr. Lezander said to her. “Just talking, only that.”

  I heard her footsteps, heavy on the floor, as she moved away.

  Then a scraping sound above us.

  And a few seconds later, the piano being played.

  The tone was “Beautiful Dreamer.” Mrs. Lezander was actually a very talented pianist. She had the hands for it, I recalled Miss Blue Glass saying. I wondered if she also had the hands that were strong enough to wrap hay-baling wire around a man’s throat and strangle him to death. Or had Dr. Lezander done that as Mrs. Lezander had played that same tune in the den above and the parrots had squawked and screamed with the memory of brutal violence?

  “Twenty-five dollars a week,” Dr. Lezander said. “But you must bring me the green feather, and you must never, never talk to Miss Sonia Glass about this again. The past is dead. It should stay buried, where it belongs. Do you agree, Cory?”

  I nodded. Anything to get out of there.

  “Good boy. When can you bring me the feather? Tomorrow afternoon?”

  “Yes sir.”

  “That’s very, very good. When you bring it, I’ll destroy it so Miss Sonia Glass won’t think of the past anymore, and it won’t hurt her. When you bring it, I’ll give you your first week’s money. Is that agreeable?”

  “Yes sir.” Anything, anything.

  “All right, then.” He moved aside from the stairs. “After you, mein herr.”

  I started up.

  The front doorbell rang. “Beautiful Dreamer” abruptly stopped. I heard the scrape again: the piano bench being pushed back. At the top of the stairs, Dr. Lezander put his hand on my shoulder again and held me. “Wait,” he whispered.

  We heard the front door opening.

  “Tom!” Mrs. Lezander said. “What may I do for—”

  “Dad!” I shouted. “Help—” Dr. Lezander’s hand clamped over my mouth, and I heard him give a muffled cry of anguish that it had all come to this end.

  “Cory! Get outta my way, you—!” Dad started into the house, with Mr. Steiner and Lee Hannaford behind him. He shoved the big woman aside, but in the next instant Mrs. Lezander bellowed, “Nein!” and slammed a forearm across the side of his face. He fell backward into Mr. Steiner, blood trickling from a gashed eyebrow. Only Mr. Steiner could understand the things Mrs. Lezander shouted to her husband: “Gunther, run! Take the boy and run!” As she was shouting, Mr. Hannaford grabbed her around her throat from behind and with all his weight and strength he wrestled her to the floor. She got up on one knee and fought back, but suddenly Mr. Steiner was on her, too, trying to pin her flailing arms. A coffee table and lamp crashed over. Mr. Steiner, his hat flown off and his lower lip burst open by one of her fists, yelled, “It’s over, Kara! It’s over, it’s over!”

  But it was not over for her husband.

  At her warning cry, he had picked me up with one arm and scooped the car keys off the kitchen counter where his wife had left them. As I thrashed to get free, he dragged me out the back door into the falling sleet, the wind whipping his red silk robe. He lost a slipper, but he didn’t slow down. He flung me into the Buick, slammed the door almost on my leg, and came close to sitting on my head when he leaped behind the wheel. He jammed the key into the ignition, turned it, and the engine roared to life. As he put the gears into reverse and the Buick’s tires laid rubber on the driveway, I sat up in time to see Dad run out the back door into the glare of the headlights.

  “Dad!” I reached for the door handle on my side. An elbow crashed into my shoulder and paralyzed me with pain, and when the hand gripped the back of my head and flung me down onto the floorboard like an old sack I lay there dazed and hurting. Dr. Gunther Dahninaderke, the murderer—whom I still knew as Dr. Frans Lezander, the murderer—crunched the gearshift into first and the Buick’s engine screamed as the car tore away.

  Behind us, my father was already running back through the house to get to the pickup. He jumped over the struggling bodies of Mr. Steiner, Mr. Hannaford, and Kara Dahninaderke. The woman was still fighting, but Mr. Hannaford was using his fists on her horsey face and the results were not on the side of beauty.

  Dr. Lezander was racing through the streets of Zephyr, the Buick’s tires shrieking at every turn. I started to crawl up from the floorboard, but Dr. Lezander shouted, “Stay there! Don’t you move, you little bastard!” and he slapped me in the face and I slid back down again. We must’ve passed the Lyric; I wondered how much hell a hero could stand. We roared onto the gargoyle bridge, and when the steering wheel slipped out of Dr. Lezander’s frantic hands for an instant, the Buick sideswiped the left side of the bridge and sent sparks and pieces of chrome flying into the air, the car’s frame moaning with the impact. Then he seized control again and, his teeth gritted, he aimed us onto Route Ten.

  I saw light leap from the rearview mirror and stab Dr. Lezander in the eyes. He shouted a curse in German that was louder than the Buick’s wail, and I could just imagine what the parrots had had to endure that night. But I knew whose lights those were, ricocheting off the mirror. I knew who was behind us, right on the Buick’s tail, pushing that old pickup truck to its point of explosion. I knew.

  I reached up and grabbed the bottom of the steering, wheel, jerking the car to the right. It went off the road onto loose gravel, the tires slipping. Dr. Lezander gave me another Germanic oath, hollered at the velocity and volume of a howitzer shell to the skull, and pounded my fingers loose with his fist. With that same fist, he knocked me in the forehead so hard I saw purple stars and that was the end of my heroics.

  “Leave me alone!” Dr. Lezander screamed to the pickup truck whose headlights filled the rearview mirror. “Can’t you leave me alone?” He fought the wheel around Route Ten’s snaky curves, the force of gravity trying its best to rip the tires off. I pulled myself up on the seat again, my head st
ill ringing, and Dr. Lezander yelled, “You little shit!” and grabbed the back of my coat, but he had to use two hands on the wheel so he released me.

  I looked back at my father’s pickup, twenty feet of sleet and air between Dad’s front bumper and Dr. Lezander’s rear bumper. We hurtled out of the series of tight curves, and I held on to the seat as Dr. Lezander accelerated, widening the distance between vehicles. I heard a pop and twisted my head in time to see Dr. Lezander reaching into the glove compartment, which he’d knocked open with a blow of his fist. His hand emerged gripping a snub-nosed .38 pistol. He threw that arm back, almost cuffing me in the head with the gun’s barrel before I ducked, and he fired twice without aiming. The rear windshield exploded, the glass fragments flying toward Dad’s pickup like pieces of jagged ice. I saw the pickup swerve and almost go off the road, its rear end wildly fishtailing, but then Dad got it righted. As Dr. Lezander’s gun hand passed over my head again, I reached up and grabbed his wrist, pinning that gun against the seat with all my strength. The Buick began to slew from side to side as he grappled with the wheel and with me at the same time, but I hung on.

  The gun went off in front of my face, the bullet passing through the seat and out the door with a metallic clang. The sound and heat of it going off so close to me sent a shock and shiver through my bones, and I guess I let go but I don’t remember and then Dr. Lezander hit me a glancing blow on the right shoulder with that gun barrel. It was perhaps the worst pain I’d ever felt in my life; it filled me up and overspilled from my mouth in a cry. Without the padding of my coat in the way, my shoulder would’ve surely been broken. As it was, I grabbed at it and fell back against the passenger-side door, my face contorted with pain and my right arm all but dead. I saw, as if locked in a cyclic dream akin to that in Invaders from Mars, that we were about to pass the dark plain of Saxon’s Lake. And then Dr. Lezander jammed on the brake with his bare foot, and as the Buick slowed and Dad’s pickup gained ground, the doctor threw his arm back again and this time he looked over his shoulder to aim. His face was slickly wet in the wash of the lights, his teeth clenched, his eyes those of the savage, hunted animal. He fired, and the windshield of Dad’s truck suddenly had a fist-sized hole in it. I saw his finger tighten on the trigger, and I wanted to fight him with all the want in my body, but that pain in my shoulder had me whipped.

  Something huge and dark and fast burst out of the woods on the other side of the road, near where I’d seen Mrs. Lezander standing that morning in March.

  It was on us before Dr. Lezander even saw it, and it was headed straight for his door.

  At the same instant, the gun went off and the beast from the lost world collided with us.

  This, truly, was a noise like the end of the world.

  Over gunshot and Lezander scream and crash of glass and folding metal, the Buick was knocked up onto the two tires on my side and they shrieked like constipated banshees as the entire car was shoved off the pavement. Dr. Lezander, his door buckled in as if kicked by God, came tumbling into me across the seat and my breath burst out, my ribs in danger of snapping. I heard a snort and grunt: the triceratops, protecting his territory, was pushing the rival dinosaur off Route Ten. Dr. Lezander’s face was pressed up against mine, his weight crushing me, and I smelled his fear like green onions. Then he screamed again and I think I screamed, too, because suddenly the car was falling.

  We hit with a bone-jarring jolt and splash.

  Dark water seethed up into the floorboard. We had just been received by Saxon’s Lake.

  The Buick’s steaming hood was rising. As it did, water began to surge over the slope of the trunk and pour through the shattered glass. The window on Dr. Lezander’s side was broken as well, but the water hadn’t yet reached it. He was lying on top of me, the gun lost. His eyes were glassy, blood oozing from his mouth where he must’ve bitten his lip or tongue. His left arm, the arm which had taken the brunt of the beast’s power, was lying at a weird crooked angle. I saw the wet glistening of white bone protruding from the wrist in the red silk sleeve.

  The lake was coming in faster now, air bubbles exploding around the trunk. The rear windshield was a waterfall. I couldn’t get Dr. Lezander off me, and now the car was turning slowly against me as the Buick rolled over like a happy hog and my side started to submerge. Dr. Lezander was drooling bloody foam, and I realized his ribs must’ve taken a wallop, too.

  “Cory! Cory!”

  I looked up, past Dr. Lezander to the broken window rising above me.

  My father was there, his hair plastered flat, his face dripping. Blood was creeping down from his cut eyebrow. He started wrenching out bits of glass from the window frame with his fingers. The Buick shuddered and moaned. Water edged up over the seat and its cold touch shocked me and made Dr. Lezander start thrashing.

  “Can you grab my hand?” Dad wedged his body in through the crumpled window and strained to reach me.

  I couldn’t, not with that weight on me. “Help me, Dad,” I croaked.

  He fought to winnow in farther. His sides must’ve been raked and clawed by glass, but his face showed no pain. His lips were tight and grim, his eyes fixed on me like red-rimmed lamps. His hand tried to part the distance between us, but still the distance was too great.

  Dr. Lezander’s body lurched. He said something, but it must’ve been a snarl of German. He blinked, his eyes coming into painful focus. Water sloshed over us, a touch of the grave. He looked at his broken wrist, and he made a deep moaning noise.

  “Get off him!” Dad shouted. “For God’s sake, get off my son!”

  Dr. Lezander shuddered and coughed. On the third cough, bright red blood sprayed from his nose and mouth. He grasped at his side, and suddenly there was blood on his hand. The beast from the lost world had staved his ribs right through his innards.

  The water was roaring now. The Buick was sinking at the trunk.

  “Please!” Dad begged, still straining to reach me. “Please give me my son!”

  Dr. Lezander looked around as if trying to figure out exactly where he was. He lifted himself off me a few inches, which made me able to breathe without feeling like I was jammed in a sardine can. Dr. Lezander looked back at the sinking trunk and the water surging dark and foamy where the rear windshield had been and I heard him whisper “Oh.”

  It was the whisper of surrender.

  Dr. Lezander’s face turned. He stared at me. Blood dripped from his nose and ran down my cheek. “Cory,” he said, and his voice gurgled. His good hand closed on my wrist.

  “Up you go,” he whispered. “Bronco.”

  He lifted himself up with an effort that must’ve racked him, and he guided my hand into my father’s.

  Dad pulled me out, and I flung my arms around his neck. He held me, his legs treading water and tears streaming down his heroic face.

  With a great buckling and moaning noise, the Buick was going down. The water rushed around us, drawing us in. Dad started kicking us away from it, but the pull was too strong. Then, with a hissing noise of heat and liquid at war, the Buick was drawn down into the depths. I felt my father fighting the suction, and then he gasped a breath and I knew he had lost.

  We went under.

  The car was sinking below us, into a huge gloomy vault where the sun was a stranger. Air bubbles rose from it like silver jellyfish. Dad was kicking frantically, trying to break the pull, but we were going down with Dr. Lezander. In the underwater blur I saw the doctor’s white face pressed up against the windshield. Bubbles were streaming from his open mouth.

  And suddenly something had drifted up from below and was clinging to the trunk. Something that might have been a big clump of moss or rags somebody had dumped into Saxon’s Lake with their garbage. Whatever this thing was, it moved slowly and inexorably into the Buick through the broken rear windshield. The car was turning, turning over like a bizarre ride at the Brandywine Carnival, suspended against darkness. As my lungs burned for breath I saw the blur of Dr. Lezander’s white face again,
only this time the ragged mossy thing had wrapped itself around him like a putrid robe. Whatever this thing was, it had hold of his jaw. I saw a faint glint of a silver tooth, like a receding star. Then the Buick turned over on its back like a huge turtle and as air bubbles rushed up again I felt them hit us and break us loose from the suction. We were rising toward the realm of light.

  Dad lifted me up, so my head broke the surface first.

  There wasn’t much light up there today, but there was a whole lot of air. Dad and I clung together in the choppy murk, breathing.

  At last we swam to where we could pull ourselves out, through mud and reeds to solid earth. Dad sat down on the ground next to the pickup truck, his hands scraped raw with glass cuts, and I huddled on the red rock cliff and looked out over Saxon’s Lake.

  “Hey, partner!” Dad said. “You okay?”

  “Yes sir.” My teeth were chattering, but being cold was a passing thing.

  “Better get in the truck,” he said.

  “I will,” I answered, but I wasn’t ready yet. My shoulder, which would become one swollen lump of bruise in the next couple of days, was mercifully numb.

  Dad pulled his knees up to his chest. The sleet was falling, but we were already cold and wet, so what of it? “I’ve got a story to tell you about Dr. Lezander,” he said.

  “I want to tell you one, too,” I answered. I listened; the wind swept over the lake’s surface and made it whisper.

  He was down in the dark now. He had come from darkness and to darkness he had returned.

  “He called me Bronco,” I said.

  “Yeah. How about that?”

  We couldn’t stay here very much longer. The wind was really getting cold. It was the kind of weather that made you catch your death.

  Dad looked up at the low gray clouds and the January gloom. He smiled, with the face of a boy unburdened.

  “Gosh,” he said, “it’s a beautiful day.”

  Hell might have been for heroes, but life was for the living.

  These things happened, in the aftermath.