Struggling through his arithmetic homework in the warm glow of the hearth, the dark-haired ten-year-old boy suddenly looked up at the window. He was aware that the soft crooning of the wind had stopped and a deep silence had filled the woods. He could see bare branches waving against a gray slice of sky, and a quiver of excitement coursed through him. He put aside his pencil, pad, and book – gladly – and then rose from where he'd been lying on the floor. Something was different, he knew; something had changed. He reached the window and stretched upward to peer out.
At first nothing looked different, and he was mildly disappointed; all those numbers and additions and subtractions were rattling around in his head, clinking and clattering and making too much noise for him to think. But then his eyes widened, because he'd seen the first flurry of white flakes scatter down from the sky. His heart skipped a beat. "Daddy!" he said excitedly. "It's snowing!"
Reading his Bible in his chair before the fireplace, John Creekmore looked out the window and couldn't suppress a grin. "Well, it sure is!" He leaned forward, just as amazed as his son. "Glory be, weatherman was right for once." It rarely snowed this far south in Alabama; the last big snowfall he could recall was back in 1954, when Billy had been only three years old. That had been the winter they'd had to accept charity canned goods from the church, after the stone-scorching summer had burned the corn and bean crops to stunted cinders. Compared to that awful year, the last few crops had been real bounties, though John knew it was never a good thing to feel too blessed, because the Lord could easily take away what He had provided. At least they had enough to eat this year, and some money to see them through the rest of the winter. But now he was infected with Billy's giddy excitement, and he stepped to the window to watch the flurries beside his son.
"Might fall all night long," he said. "Might be up to the roof by mornin'!"
"Gosh!" Billy said, his light hazel eyes – so striking against the darker coloring he'd inherited from his mother – widening with pleasure and a bit of fear too; he could imagine them all getting very cold and hibernating like bears, snowed in until April when the flowers came out. "It won't be that deep, will it?"
John laughed and ruffled the boy's curly, reddish brown hair "Naw. Might not even stick. The way it's comin' down now, it's just bein' windblown."
Billy stood watching it fall for a moment more, then he shouted, "Momma!" and scuttled across the room, through a short hallway, and into the room where Ramona Creekmore sat propped up on pillows in bed, patiently mending a brown sweater she'd stitched for Billy as a Christmas present. It was less than a month since Christmas, and already Billy had worn the elbows out climbing trees and running wild in the woods. "Momma, it's snowing outside!" he told her, pointing out the small window near her bed.
"I told you those were snow clouds, didn't I?" she said, and smiled at him. There were deep wrinkles around her eyes, and strands of gray in her hair. Though she was only thirty-four, the years had been hard on her; she had almost died of pneumonia just after Billy was born, and she'd never fully recovered. She stayed in the house most of the time, doing her intricate needlepoint, and drank homemade herbal potions to fight off chills and fevers. Her body had gathered weight from lack of exercise, but her face was still fine-boned and lovely but for the faint dark circles under her eyes; her hair was still long and lustrous, her Indian complexion giving her a false appearance of perfect health. "Coldest weather of the year is still ahead, long as those blackbirds perch in the trees," she said, and returned to her work. It constantly amazed her how fast he was growing; clothes that fit him one month were the next ready to put back into the Hawthorne cycle of hand-me-downs.
"Don't you want to come see?"
"I know what it looks like. It's white."
It suddenly struck Billy that his mother didn't like the cold or the snow. She coughed a lot at night sometimes, and through the thin wall he could hear his father trying to soothe her "You don't have to get up, then," he said quickly. "It's better if you stay right here."
John came up behind him and pressed a weathered hand against the boy's shoulder "Why don't you bundle up and we'll take a walk."
"Yes sir!" Billy grinned widely and hurried to the closet for his battered green hooded parka.
John took his blue denim jacket with the sheepskin lining out of the closet; he slipped it on and then worked a black woolen cap onto his head. In the ten years that had passed, John Creekmore had grown lean and rugged, his wide shoulders stooped slightly from his seasonal labors in the field and the constant work of keeping the ramshackle cabin together through summer heatwave and winter frost. He was thirty-seven, but the lines in his face – as rough and straight as any furrow he'd ever plowed for a crop of com – made him out to be at least ten years older; his lips were thin and usually set in a grim line, but he was quick to smile when the boy was around. There were those in Hawthorne who said that John Creekmore was a preacher who'd missed his calling, settling for earth instead of reaching toward Heaven, and they said that when angered or antagonized his steely blue gaze could drill holes through barn planking; but his eyes were always soft when he looked at his son. "I guess I'm ready," he said. "Who wants to go walkin'?"
"Me!" Billy crowed.
"Time's wastin'," John said, and reached out to his son. They linked hands and John felt the immediate warm pleasure of contact with the boy. Billy was so alive, so alert and curious; some of his youth rubbed off on John when they could be together.
They pushed through the plain pine door and the screen door and out into the cold gray afternoon. As their boots crunched on the frozen dirt road that connected the Creekmore property, all two acres of it, with the highway, Billy could hear the soft hiss of the tiny snowflakes falling through the dense evergreens. They passed a small round pond, now muddy brown and veined with ice. A white mailbox dotted with .22 holes leaned toward the paved highway, and bore the legend J. CREEKMORE. They walked along the roadside, toward the main part of Hawthorne less than a mile ahead, as the snow fluctuated between flakes and sleet; John made sure the boy's hood was up good and snug, and the cord tied securely beneath his chin.
It had already been a hard winter, with January not even half over yet. There had been several freezing rains, and a fierce hailstorm that had shattered windows all across Fayette County. But as sure as day followed night, John thought, spring would follow winter and the real work of farming would start again; there would be corn and beans, tomatoes and turnips to plant. A new scarecrow would have to be put out in the field, but in these troubled times it seemed that even the crows were willful and refused to be bluffed. He had lost much of his seed to birds and bugs in the last several plantings, and his corn had grown weak and stunted. This was good land, he thought, blessed by God; but it seemed that finally the earth was beginning to give out. He knew about rotation planting and nitrites and all kinds of chemical soil foods the county agent tried to sell him, but all those additives - except for plain old fertilizer, which was as basic as you could get – were violations of God's plan. If your land was played out, so be it.
But times were troubled everywhere, John thought. That Catholic was president now, the Communists were on the march again, and people were talking about going up into outer space. Many autumn and winter afternoons John ambled down to Curtis Peel's barbershop, where the men played checkers in the warm wash of a potbellied stove and listened to the news from Fayette on the ancient Zenith radio. Most people, John was sure, would agree that these were the Final Days, and he could point to the Book of Revelations to show scoffers just exactly what evils would befall humanity in the next ten years or so – if the world lasted that long. Things were even troubled right here in the Hawthorne Baptist Church; Reverend Horton did his best, but there was no fire nor brimstone in his sermons, and worst of all he'd been seen over at the church in Dusktown helping the blacks with their potluck supper Nobody liked to shake Horton's hand anymore after the services were over.
Billy's gloved hand was thrust out, trying to catch snowflakes. He snagged one on a fingertip and had a second to examine it - tiny and as lacy as his mother's Sunday tablecloth – before it vanished. She'd told him about the weather, and how it speaks in many voices when its moods change, but to hear it speak you have to be very quiet and listen. She had taught him to watch the beautiful pictures the clouds made, and to hear soft sounds in the forest that meant shy animals wandering near His father had taught him how to gig for frogs and had bought him a slingshot to bring down squirrels, but he didn't like the way they squeaked when they were hit.
They were passing the small wood-frame houses outside Hawthorne's single main street. Billy's best friend, Will Booker, lived in a green house with white shutters just up the road; he had a little sister named Katy and a dog called Boo.
There was a light scattering of snow on the road. A black pickup truck came crawling along the highway toward them, and when it reached them the driver's window rolled down and Lee Sayre, who owned the hardware and feed store where John Creekmore worked on weekends, stuck his crewcut head out. "Hey there, John! Where you goin'?"
"Just takin' the boy for a walk. Say hello to Mr. Sayre, Billy."
"Hello, Mr. Sayre."
"Billy, you're growin' like a weed! Bet you'll top six-four before you quit. How'd you like to be a football player?"
"Yes sir, that'd be fine."
Sayre smiled. In his ruddy and slightly overfed face, Sayre's eyes were as pale green as a jungle cat's. "Got some news for you about Mr. Horton," he said in a quieter tone of voice. "Seems he's been doin' more than socializin' with his darky friends. We need to have a talk."
John grunted softly. Billy was entranced by the white puffs of exhaust that were billowing from the rear of Mr. Sayre's truck. The tires had made dark lines in the faint white spread of the snow, and Billy wondered where the air came from that filled tires up.
"Real soon," Sayre said. "You come down to Peel's tomorrow afternoon around four. And pass the word along." Sayre waved to the boy and said cheerfully, "You take good care of your daddy now, Billy! Make sure he don't get lost!"
"I will!" Billy called back, but Mr. Sayre had already rolled up his window and the truck moved away along the road. Mr. Sayre was a nice man, Billy thought, but his eyes were scary. Once Billy had stood in the middle of the Ernest K. Kyle Softball Field on an April afternoon and watched a storm coming over the forested hills; he'd seen the black clouds rolling like a stampede of wild horses, and bolts of lightning had jabbed from clouds to earth. Lightning had struck very near, and the boom of thunder had shaken Billy to the soles of his battered Keds. Then he'd started running for home, but the rain had caught him and his father had given him a good whipping.
The memory of that storm wheeled through Billy's head as he watched the pickup drive away. There was lightning behind Mr. Sayre's eyes, and it was looking for a place to strike.
The snow had almost stopped. Nothing was even white, Billy saw, but instead a wet gray that meant there would be school tomorrow, and he would have to finish that arithmetic homework for Mrs. Cullens.
"Snow's about quit, bubber," John said; his face had gone red with cold. "Gettin' a bit chillier, though. You about ready to turn back?"
"Guess so," he answered, though he really wasn't. That seemed to him to be a matter of great concern: no matter how far you walked the road still went on to somewhere, and there were all the dirt trails and forest paths that led off every whichaway too, and what lay at the far end of them? It seemed to Billy that no matter how far you walked, you never really got to the end of things.
They walked on a few minutes longer, to the single blinking amber traffic light at the center of Hawthorne. The intersection was bordered by the barbershop, Coy Granger's Quick-Pik grocery store, a rundown Texaco gas station, and the Hawthorne post office. The rest of the town – clapboard-and-brick structures that looked like blocks a baby's hand had strewn into disarray – sat on either side of the highway, which swept on across an old gray trestle bridge and up into the brown hills where an occasional chimney spouted smoke. The sharp white steeple of the Hawthorne First Baptist Church stuck up through the leafless trees like an admonishing finger. Just on the other side of the disused railroad tracks was the jumble of stores and shanties known as Dusktown; the tracks might have been an electrified fence separating the black and white sections of Hawthorne. It disturbed John that Reverend Horton was leaving his rightful duties to go into Dusktown; the man had no cause to go over to the other side of the tracks, and all he was doing was trying to stir up things that were best kept buried.
"Better head on home now," John said, and took his son's hand.
In another few moments they came up even with the small but neatly kept green house on their right. It was one of the newer houses built in Hawthorne; there was a white-painted front porch at the top of a few steps, and white smoke curled from the chimney. Billy looked at the house, looked again, and saw Mr. Booker sitting up there on the porch. The man was wearing his yellow John Deere cap and a short-sleeved blue shirt. He waved to his best friend's father, but Mr. Booker seemed to be looking right through him. He said uneasily, "Daddy? . . ."
John said, "What, bubber?" Then he looked up and saw Dave Booker sitting there like a rock. He frowned and called out, "Afternoon, Dave! Pretty cold to be outside today, ain't it?"
Booker didn't move. John stopped walking, and realized that his old fishing partner was staring out at the hills with a blank, frozen expression, as if he were trying to see clear to Mississippi. John saw the summery short-sleeved shirt, and he said quietly, "Dave? Everything all right?" He and Billy came up the brown lawn slowly and stood at the foot of the steps. Booker was wearing fishing lures stuck in his hat; his square, heavy-jowled face was white with the cold, but now the man blinked and at least John knew he wasn't frozen to death.
"Mind if we come up for a spell?" John asked.
"Come on up, then. Long as you're here." Booker's voice was empty, and the sound of it scared Billy.
"Thanks kindly." John and Billy climbed the steps to the porch. A window curtain moved and Julie Ann, Dave's wife, peered out at them for a few seconds before the curtain closed. "How about that snow? Came down for a few minutes, didn't it?"
"Snow?" Booker's thick black brows knitted together The whites of his eyes were bloodshot, his lips liver-red and slack. "Yeah. Sure did." He nodded, making one of the chrome lures jingle.
"You okay, Dave?"
"Why shouldn't I be?" His gaze shifted away from John, and he was staring into Mississippi again.
"I don't know, I just …" John let his voice trail off. On the floor beside Dave's chair was a scattering of hand-rolled Prince Albert cigarette butts and a baseball bat with what looked like dried blood on it. No, John thought, must be just mud. Sure, that's all it is. He gripped Billy's hand tightly.
"Man can sit on his own front porch, can't he?" Dave said quietly. "Last I heard he could. Last I heard it was a free country. Or has that changed?" His face turned, and now John could clearly see the terrible, cold rage in his eyes. John felt his spine crawl. He could see the wicked prongs of a hook protruding from the man's cap, and he recalled that they would've gone fishing last Saturday on Semmes Lake had it not been for one of Dave's frequent migraine headaches. "It's a fuckin' free country," Dave said, and suddenly grinned viciously.
John was jarred; it wasn't right that Dave should use such a word in front of the boy, but he decided to let it pass. Dave's gaze had clouded over.
The front door opened and Julie Ann peeked out. She was a tall, fragile-looking woman with curly brown hair and soft pale blue eyes. She smiled – grimaced, John thought – and said with tense good cheer, "John Creekmore! What brings you uptown? Billy, you takin' care of your daddy today? Step on in and let me offer you a cup of hot coffee, John."
"No, thank you. Billy and I've got to get on back. …"
"Please," Julie Ann whispered. Her eyes were luminous with tears. She motioned with a quick tilt of her head. "Just one cup of coffee." She opened the door wider and raised her voice: "Will? Billy Creekmore's here!"
"KEEP YOUR DAMNED VOICE DOWN, WOMAN!" Dave thundered, twisting around in his chair; he plastered one hand against his forehead. "I'LL STROP YOU! I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL!"
John, Billy, and Julie Ann formed a frozen triangle around the man. From within the house Billy could hear little Katy sobbing in a back room, and tentatively Will called out, "Mom?" Julie Ann's grin hung by one lip, and she stood as if motion might cause Dave to explode. Dave abruptly looked away, dug into a back pocket, and brought out a bottle of Bayer aspirin; he unscrewed the cap and tilted the bottle to his lips, then crunched noisily.
"Strop you," he whispered, to no one in particular His eyes bulged above dark blue circles. "Strop the livin' shit out of you. . . ."
John pushed Billy toward the door, and they entered the house. As Julie Ann closed the door, Dave said mockingly, "Gonna talk about the old man again, aren't you? You dirty bitch. …" And then Julie Ann shut the door, and her husband's curses were muffled, indistinct ravings.
The house was dark and oppressively hot, one of the few in Hawthorne that had the luxury of a coal-fed furnace. John saw splinters of glass twinkling in the grayish green carpet; a broken chair sagged in a corner, and there were two empty bottles of Bayer on a lamptable. A framed print of Jesus at the Last Supper hung crookedly on one wall, and opposite it was a stuffed and mounted large-mouth bass, painted in garish blue and silver. In addition to the furnace heat, raw pinewood crackled and hissed in the fireplace, sending plumes of smoke up the chimney and scenting the room with pine sap.
"Excuse the mess." Julie Ann was trembling but trying to keep a desperate smile on her face. "We've . . . had some trouble here today. Billy, Will's in his room if you want to go on back."
"Can I?" he asked his father, and when John nodded he rocketed down a corridor to the small room Will shared with his little sister. He knew the house by heart because he'd spent the night several times; the last time, he and Will had explored the forest together in search of lions, and when Katy had tagged along they'd let her carry their stick-guns for them, but she had to do as they told her and call them "Bwana," a word Will had learned from a Jungle Jim comic book. This time, though, the house seemed different; it was darker and quieter, and might have been scary, Billy thought, if he hadn't known his father was up in the front room.
As Billy entered, Will looked up from the plastic Civil War soldiers he'd arranged on the floor. Will was the same age as Billy, a small thin boy with unruly brown hair plagued with cowlicks, and he wore brown-framed glasses held together in the center with Scotch tape. On the other bed, his sister lay curled up in a ball, her face against the pillow. "I'm Robert E. Lee!" Will announced, his sallow, rather sad-eyed face brightening at the approach of his friend. "You can be General Grant!"
"I'm not a Yankee!" Billy objected, but within another minute he was commanding the bluecoats in a daring attack up Dead-man's Hill.
In the front room, John sat down on a rumpled sofa and watched as Julie Ann paced before him, stopped to peer out the window, then paced again. She said in a tense whisper, "He killed Boo, John. He beat Boo to death with that baseball bat and then he hung him in a tree with fishin' line. I tried to fight him, but he was too strong and . . ." Tears brimmed from her swollen eyes; John quickly averted his gaze to a little clock sitting on the mantel. It was ten minutes before five, and he wished he'd never offered to take Billy for a walk. "He was just too strong," she said, and made a terrible choking sound as she swallowed. "Boo . . . died so hard. …"
John shifted uneasily. "Well, why'd he do it? What's wrong with him?"
She pressed a finger to her lips and stared fearfully at the door. She held her breath until she'd looked out the window again and seen her husband still sitting there in the cold chewing on another aspirin. "The children don't know about Boo," Julie Ann said. "It happened this mornin', while they were at school. I hid Boo in the woods – God, it was awful! – and they think he's just roamed off somewhere like he does. Dave didn't go to the garage today, didn't even call in sick. He woke up yesterday with one of his headaches, the worst he's ever had, and he didn't get a wink of sleep last night. Neither did I." She put a hand to her mouth and chewed on the knuckles; a cheap but sentimental wedding ring with tiny diamonds in the shape of a heart twinkled merrily in the orange firelight. "Today it … it was the worst it's ever been. Ever. He screamed and threw things; first he couldn't get hot enough, then he had to get outside in the cool air. He said he was going to kill me, John." Her eyes were wide and terrified. "He said he knew all the things I'd done behind his back. But I swear I never did a thing, I swear it on a stack of Bi – "
"Just calm down, now," John whispered, glancing quickly at the door "Take it easy. Why don't you call Doc Scott?"
"No! I can't! I tried to this morning, but he … he said he'd do to me what he did to Boo, and . . ." A sob welled from her throat. "I'm afraid! Dave's gotten mean before, and I never let on to anybody; but he's never been this bad! He's like somebody I don't even know! You should've heard him yell at Katy just a little while ago, and he eats those aspirins like candy and they never do no good!"
"Well" �D John looked at Jilie Ann's agonized expression and felt a long stupid grin stretch his face�D"everything'll be all right. You'll see. Doc'll know what to do for Dave's headaches . . . ."
"No!" she shouted, and John winced. She stopped, frozen, while they both thought they heard Dave's chair scraping across the porch. "Doc Scott said he had a damned sinus infection! That old man ain't got good sense anymore, and you know it! Why, he almost let your own wife just linger and . . ." She blinked, unwilling to say the next word. Die is a terrible word, she thought, a word that should not be spoken out loud when talking about a person.
"Yeah, I guess so. But those headaches need lookin' after. Maybe you could talk him into goin' up to the Fayette hospital?"
The woman shook her head forlornly. "I've tried. He says there's nothin' wrong, and he don't want to spend the money on foolishness. I don't know what to do!"
John cleared his throat nervously and then rose to his feet, avoiding her stare. "Guess I'd better get Billy. We've been out too long as it is." He started to walk back through the hallway, but Julie Ann's arm shot out and grasped his wrist tightly. He looked up, startled.
"I'm afraid," she whispered, a tear trickling down her face. "I don't have anywhere to go, and I can't stay here another night!"
"I can't …"
John looked away from her before she could finish. He was shaking inside, and he had to get out of this house fast. He looked into the back room, saw the two boys playing soldiers on the floor while Katy rubbed her reddened eyes and watched. "Got you!" Will shouted. "That one's dead! Bam! Bam! That one on the horse ls dead!"
"He's shot in the arm is all!" Billy said. "KABOOM! That's a cannon and that man and that man and that wagon are blown up!"
"Are not!" Will squawked.
"War's over, boys," John said. The strange ominous feeling in this house lay like a cold sheen of sweat on his neck. "Time to go, Billy. Say good-bye to Will and Katy. We'll see y'all later."
" 'Bye, Will!" Billy said, and then followed his father back to the living room while Will said, " 'Bye!" and went back to the sound-effects of rifles and cannons.
Julie Ann zipped up Billy's parka. When she looked at John her eyes were full of pleading. "Help me," she said.
"Wait until mornin' before you decide what to do. Sleep on it. Say thank you to Mrs. Booker for her hospitality, Billy."
"Thank you for your hospitality, Mrs. Booker."
"Good boy." He led his son to the door and opened it before Julie Ann could speak again. Dave Booker sat with a cigarette butt between his teeth; his eyes seemed sunken in his head, and the strange smile on his face made Billy think of a Halloween pumpkin's grin.
"You take it easy now, Dave," John said, and reached out to touch the man's shoulder. But then he stopped, because Dave's head was turning and his face was dead-white from the cold, and the smile on his thin lips was murderous.
Dave whispered, "Don't come back. This is my house. Don't you dare come back."
Julie Ann slammed the door shut.
John grasped Billy's hand and hurried down the steps, across the dead brown lawn to the road. His heart was beating very hard, and as they walked away he felt Dave's cold stare following them, and he knew that soon Dave would rise from that chair and go inside, and Lord help Julie Ann. He felt like a slinking dog; with that thought he envisioned Boo's white carcass swinging from a tree with fishing line knotted around its throat, bloodied eyes bulging.
Billy started to turn his head, snowflakes melting in his eyebrows.
John tightened his grip on the boy's hand and said tersely, "Don't look back."
Hawthorne closed down for the night when the steam whistle blew, promptly at five o'clock, at the sawmill owned by the Chatham brothers. When darkness settled across the valley, it signaled a time for families to eat dinner together, then sit before the fire and read their Bibles or subscription magazines like the Ladies' Home Journal or Southern Farm Times. Those who could afford radios listened to the popular programs. Watching television was a real luxury that only a few families possessed; reception from Fayette consisted of only one weak station. Several houses farther out from town still had outhouses. Porch lights - for those who could afford the electricity – usually burned until seven o'clock, meaning that visitors were welcome even on cold January nights, but after they went out it was time for bed.
In his wood-framed cot between the front room and the small kitchen, Billy Creekmore was asleep beneath a quilt and dreaming of Mrs. Cullens, who stared down at him through her fish-eyed glasses and demanded to know exactly why he hadn't finished his arithmetic homework. He tried to explain to her that it had been finished, but when he was walking to school he'd been caught in a thunderstorm and he'd started running, and pretty soon he was lost in the woods and somehow his blue Nifty notebook with the problems he'd done was gone. Suddenly, as dreams do, he was in the dense green forest, on an unfamiliar rocky path that led up into the hills. He followed it for a while, until he came to Mr. Booker sitting on a big rock staring out into space with his scary, sightless eyes. As he approached, Billy saw that there were timber rattlers on the rocks and ground all around him, crawling and rattling, tangled together. Mr. Booker, his eyes as black as new coals for the basement furnace, picked up a snake by the rattles and shook it at him; the man's mouth opened and a terrible shriek wailed out that grew louder and louder and louder and –
The shriek was still echoing in his head when Billy sat up with a muffled cry, and he could hear it fading off in the distance.
In another moment Billy could hear his parents' muffled voices through the wall beside him. The closet door opened and closed, and footsteps sounded on the floorboards. He got out of his cot in the dark, stepping into a draft that made his teeth chatter, and then he was facing the door of their bedroom. He paused, hearing them whispering inside but remembering the time he'd opened that door without knocking and had seen them dancing lying down; his father had been sputtering and furious, but his mother had explained that they needed to be in private and calmly asked him to close the door. At least that had been better than when he heard them fighting in there; usually it was his father's voice, raised in anger. Worse than the yelling, though, were the long wintry silences that sometimes stayed in the house for days at a time.
Billy gathered up his courage and knocked. The whisperings stopped. In the distance – out on the highway, he thought – he could hear another shriek like a ha'nt up in the Hawthorne cemetery. The door opened, and standing against the dim glow of a kerosene lamp was his father, pale and bleary-eyed, shrugging into his overcoat. "Go back to bed, son," John said.
"Are you goin' somewhere?"
"I have to go into town to see what those sirens are for. I want you to stay here with your mother, and I'll be back in a few . . ." He stopped speaking, listening to the fading echo of another siren.
Billy asked, "Can I go too?"
"No," John said firmly. "You're to stay right here. I'll be back as soon as I find out," he told Ramona, and she followed him with the oil lamp out into the front room. He unlatched the door, and when he opened it frost cracked on the hinges. Then John was walking toward his beat-up but still reliable 'fifty-five Oldsmobile, made up of different colors and different parts from several wrecked car dumps. Ice crystals seemed to hang in the air like sparks. He slipped behind the wheel, had to wake up the cold engine with a heavy foot on the gas, and then drove along the frozen dirt road to the main highway with a cloud of blue exhaust trailing behind. As soon as he turned onto the highway and started toward Hawthorne he could see the red comet flare of spinning lights. He knew with a sickening certainty that the police cars were parked in front of Dave Booker's house.
He felt numbed as he saw all the trooper cars and ambulances, and the dark human shapes standing out front. The Olds's headlights picked out an overcoated state trooper talking on his car radio; Hank Witherspoon and his wife Paula were standing nearby, wearing coats over their robes. They lived in the house closest to the Bookers. Lights blazed through the Bookers' windows, illuminating the bundled figures who went in and out through the open front door John stopped the car, leaned over, and rolled down his passenger window. "Hank!" he called out. "What's happened?"
Witherspoon and his wife were clinging to each other When the man turned, John saw that his face was gray, the eyes sick and glassy. Witherspoon made a whimpering sound, then he staggered away, bent double, and threw up into a steaming puddle on the icy concrete.
The trooper thrust a hawk-nosed face into the window. "Move along, fella. We got more gawkers than we need."
"I . . . just wanted to know what was goin' on. I live right down the highway, and I heard alt the commotion. …"
"Are you related to the Booker family?"
"No, but . . . they're my friends. I thought maybe I could help, if . . ."
The trooper braced his Smokey the Bear hat to keep it from flying away in the wind. "Move on," he said, and then John's attention was caught by two white-coated men bringing a stretcher down the steps from the house; there was a brown blanket over the stretcher, preventing him from seeing who lay on it. A second stretcher was borne down the steps as well, this one covered with a bloody sheet. John felt the breath rasp in his lungs.
"Bring it on down!" the trooper shouted. "Got another ambulance on the way from Fayette!"
The first stretcher was being shoved into the rear of an ambulance not ten feet away from where John sat; the second, covered with the bloodied sheet, was laid down on the ground almost opposite his window. The wind caught at the sheet, and suddenly a white arm fell out as if trying to hold the sheet in place. John clearly saw the wedding ring with its heart-shape of diamonds. He heard one of the attendants say, "Holy Christ!" and the arm was shoved back underneath; it looked stiff and bloated and hard to manage.
"Bring 'em all down!" the trooper shouted.
"Please," John said, and reached for the man's sleeve. "Tell me what's happened!"
"They're all dead, mister. Every one of them." He whacked the side of the Olds with his hand and shouted, "Now get this damned piece of junk out of here!"
John pressed his foot to the accelerator. Another ambulance passed him before he turned off the highway for home.
The coals in the cast-iron stove at the rear of Curtis Peel's barbershop glowed as bright as newly spilled blood. Chairs had been pulled up in a circle around it, and five men sat in a blue shroud of smoke. There was only one barber chair at the front of the shop, a red-vinyl-padded monstrosity. It tilted backward to make shaving easier, and John Creekmore had always kidded Peel that he could cut hair, pull teeth, and shine shoes from that chair at the same time. A walnut Regulator clock rescued from the abandoned train depot lazily swung its brass pendulum. On the white tiled floor around the barber chair were straight brown snippets of Link Patterson's hair. Through the shop's plate-glass window the day was sunny but bone-chilling; from the distance, seeping in like the whine of an August mosquito, was the sound of saws at work up at the mill.
"Makes me sick to think about it," Link Patterson said, breaking the silence. He regarded his cigarette, took one more good pull from it, and then crushed the butt in an Alabama Girl Peaches can on the floor at his side. His smooth brown hair was clipped short and sheened with Wildroot. He was a slim, good-natured man with a high, heavily lined forehead, dark introspective eyes, and a narrow bony chin. "That man was crazy in the head all the time, and I saw him near about twice a week and I could never tell a thing was wrong! Makes you sick!"
"Yep," Hiram Keller said, picking at his teeth with a chip of wood. He was all leathery old flesh and bones that popped like wet wood when he moved. Gray grizzled whiskers covered his face, and now he stretched his hands out toward the stove to warm them. "Lord only knows what went on in that house last night. That pretty little girl. …"
"Crazy as a drunk Indian." Ralph Leighton's ponderous bulk shifted, bringing a groan from the chair; he leaned over and spat Bull of the Woods tobacco into a Dixie cup. He was a large man who had no sense of his size, and he could knock you down if he brushed against you on the sidewalk; he'd played football at Fayette County High twenty years before and had been a hometown hero until his knee popped like a broomstick at the bottom of a six-man pileup. He'd spent bitter years tilling soil and trying to figure out whose weight had snapped that knee, robbing him of a future in football. For all his size, his face seemed chiseled from stone, all sharp cutting edges. He had hooded gray eyes that now glanced incuriously toward the opposite side of the stove, at John Creekmore, to see if that comment had struck a nerve. It hadn't, and Leighton scowled inwardly; he'd always thought that maybe – just maybe – Creekmore had stepped on that knee himself for the pleasure of hearing it crack. "Sure ain't gonna be no open coffins at the funeral home."
"I must've cut that man's hair a hundred times." Peel drew on a black pipe and shook his head, his small dark eyes narrowed in thought. "Cut Will's hair, too. Can't say Booker was a friendly man, though. Cut his hair crew in summer, gave him a sidepart in winter Anybody hear tell when the funerals are going to be?"
"Somebody said tomorrow afternoon," Link replied. "I think they want to get those bodies in the ground fast."
"Creekmore?" Leighton said quietly. "You ain't speakin' much."
John shrugged; a cigarette was burning down between his fingers, and now he drew from it and blew the smoke in the other man's direction.
"Well, you used to go fishing with Booker, didn't you? Seems you knew him better than us. What made him do it?"
"How should I know?" The tone of his voice betrayed his tension. "I just fished with him, I wasn't his keeper."
Ralph glanced around at the group and lifted his brows, "John, you were his friend, weren't you? You should've known he was crazy long before now. . . ."
John's face reddened with anger "You tryin' to blame me for it, Leighton? You best watch your mouth, if that's what you're tryin' to say!"
"He ain't tryin' to say anything, John," Link said, and waved a hand in his direction. "Get off that high horse before it throws you. Damn it, we're all tied up with nerves today."
"Dave Booker had headaches, that's all I know," John insisted, then lapsed into silence.
Curtis Peel relit his pipe and listened to the distant singing of the saws. This was the worst thing he'd ever remembered happening in Hawthorne, and he was privileged with more gossip and inside information than even Sheriff Bromley or Reverend Horton. "They had to take Hank Witherspoon to the hospital in Fayette," he told them. "Poor old man's ticker almost gave out. May Maxie told me Witherspoon heard the shots and went over to find out what had happened; seems he found Booker sittin' naked on his sofa, and the room was still full of shotgun smoke. Must've put both barrels under his chin and squeezed with his thumbs. 'Course, Hank couldn't tell who it was right off." He let a blue thread of smoke leak from one side of his mouth before he puffed again. "I guess the troopers found the rest of 'em. I liked Julie Ann, she always had a kind word. And those kids were as cute as buttons on a Sunday suit. Lordamighty, what a shame. . . ."
"Troopers are still at the house," Leighton said, risking a quick glance at John. He didn't like that sonofabitch, who'd married a women more squaw than white; he knew the tales told about that woman, too, just as everyone around this stove did. She didn't come into town much, but when she did she walked like she owned the whole street, and Leighton didn't think that was proper for a woman like her. In his opinion she should be crawling to the church to pray for her soul. That quiet dark-skinned whelp of hers wasn't any better either, and he knew his own twelve-year-old son Duke could whip the living hell out of that little queer. "Cleanin' up what's left, I suppose," he said. "What they're puzzlin' over is where the boy might be."
"May Maxie told me they found blood in his bed, all over the sheets. But could be he got away and ran off into the woods."
John grunted softly. May Maxie was Hawthorne's telephone operator, and lived attached to wires. "Thank the good Lord it's over with," he said.
"Nope." Hiram's eyes glinted. "It ain't over." He looked at each man in turn, then settled his gaze on John. "Whether Dave Booker was crazy or not, and how crazy he was, don't make no difference. What he did was pure evil, and once evil gets started it roots like a damn kudzu vine. Sure, there's been calamities in Hawthorne before, but now . . . You mark my words, it ain't over."
The front door opened, jingling a little bell that hung over it. Lee Sayre stepped in, wearing his brown-and-green-splotched hunting jacket with stags' blood still marking it like a badge of honor. He quickly shut the door against the cold and strode back to the stove to warm himself. "Colder than a witch's tit out there!" He took off his brown leather cap and hung it on a wall hook, then stood beside John and kneaded his hands as they thawed. "I hear Julie Ann's mother came to town this mornin'. They let her go in there and she had a fit. It's a shame, a whole family killed like that."
"Not a whole family," John reminded him. "Maybe the boy got away."
"Anybody believes that can whistle 'Dixie' out his ass." Sayre drew up a chair, turned it around so he could rest his arms across the back, and then sat down. "Next thing you'll be sayin', the boy did the killing himself."
That thought caused a sudden shock, but John knew it wasn't true. No, Will was either wandering in the woods or buried somewhere. He cursed himself for not seeing this before, in the rages of temper Dave had displayed sometimes when they were fishing. Once Dave had become infuriated with a tangled line and ended up throwing a perfectly good tackle box into Semmes Lake, then cradling his head and breaking into tears as John had nervously steered their rowboat back to shore. Lord, he thought, she was begging me to save their lives yesterday! He'd told no one that he'd been there; fear and shame had stitched his mouth shut.
"Yeah, it's a shame," Lee said. "But life's for the livin', huh?" He swept his gaze around at the others. "It's time we talked about what's to be done with Preacher Horton."
"Damned nigger-lover" – Ralph leaned over and spat tobacco juice – "I never liked that blowhard bastard."
"What's to be done?" Lee asked the group. "Are we going to have a regular meetin' to decide on it?"
"Lieutenants are all right here," Hiram drawled. "We can decide now and be done with it."
Curtis said hesitantly, "I don't know, Lee. Horton may be associatin' with the niggers, but he's still the minister He was awful good to my Louise when her mother took sick, you know."
"What're you talkin' about, boy? Horton's tryin' to get niggers to come to white services! He's been hangin' around Dusktown, and Lord only knows what he's up to!" Lee lowered his voice conspiratorially. "I hear he fancies some black tail, too, and he knows where to find it when he needs it. Are we gonna stand for that?"
"Nope," Ralph said. "No way in hell."
"John, you're mighty quiet today. Guess I can't blame you, seein' what went on last night and you were Dave Booker's best friend and all. But what do you say about Horton?"
John could feel them waiting for him to respond. He didn't like to have to make decisions, and he hadn't wanted to be a lieutenant anyway but they'd forced it on him. "I think we should wait until after the funerals," he said uncertainly. He could feel Ralph Leighton's wolfish gaze on him. "Horton's going to conduct the services, and I think we should show respect. Then . . ."He shrugged. "I'll go with whatever majority vote is."
"Good." Lee clapped the other man's shoulder "That's just what I was going to say. We wait until the Booker family is buried, then we pay a visit to Mr. Horton. I'll get things ready. Curtis, you start callin' everybody."
They talked on for a while longer, the conversation turning back to the murders. When Curtis started going into the details he'd heard from May Maxie again, John abruptly rose to his feet and put on his coat, telling them he had to be getting home. The men were silent as he left the barbershop, and John knew all too well what the subject of conversation would be after he was gone: Ramona. Her name was never mentioned in his presence, but he knew that as soon as he'd gone they would turn their minds and tongues to the subject of his wife, and what they disliked and feared about her. He couldn't blame them. But he was still a son of Hawthorne, no matter who he'd married, and they were respectful in his presence; all except that fat pig Leighton, John thought as he walked to his car.
He slid into the Oldsmobile and pulled away from the curb. Slowing as he reached the Bookers' house – help me help me, Julie Ann had said – he saw two state-trooper cars parked out in front; a trooper was walking up in the woods beyond the house, poking a stick into the ground. Two others were methodically ripping up some of the front-porch boards underneath. Never going to find that boy, John thought. If he ran away he's so scared he'll never come out, and if he's dead Dave did away with the corpse.
Returning his attention to the highway, he was startled to see two figures standing on the roadside staring across at the Booker house. Ramona wore her heavy brown coat and clenched Billy's gloved hand; her eyes were closed, her head tilted slightly back. John screeched the brakes in stopping the Olds, and he had his window roiled down as he backed up and yelled, "Ramona! Come on, both of you! Get in this car!"
Billy looked at him fearfully, but the woman stood very still for a moment more, her eyes open, gazing across the road at the house.
"RAMONA!" he thundered, his face flaming with anger. He was amazed that she'd ventured out from home in this numbing cold, because she rarely left the house even at the height of summer. But here she was, and he was furious because she'd dared to bring the boy. "Get in this car right now!"
Finally they crossed the road and climbed in. Billy shivered between them. John put the car into gear and drove on. "What're you doin' here?" he asked her angrily. "Why bring the boy? Don't you know what happened there last night?"
"I know," she replied.
"Oh, so you thought you'd bring Billy to see it, did you? Lord God!" He trembled, feeling like the sputtering wick on a stick of dynamite. "Don't you think he'll find out quick enough at school?"
"Find out what?" Billy said in a small voice, sensing the sparks of a fight about to explode into flames.
"Nothin'," John said. "Don't you worry about it, son."
"He needs to know. He needs to hear it from us, not from those children at school. …"
"Shut up!" he shouted suddenly. "Just shut up, will you?" He was going too fast, about to overshoot his dirt driveway, and he had to fight the brakes to slow the lumbering Olds enough to turn it. Ramona had looked away from him, her hands clenched in her lap, and between them Billy had slunk down low with his head bowed. He wanted to know what those police cars were doing in front of Will's house, and why Will hadn't been at school this morning; he'd heard whispered stories from the other children, stories that made him feel sick and afraid inside. Something bad had happened, but no one was exactly sure just what it had been. Billy had heard Johnny Parker whisper the words murder house, but he'd shut his ears and hadn't listened anymore.
"Just can't leave it alone, can you?" John said between gritted teeth. The Olds was racing along the driveway, throwing up rocks and snapping sticks in its wake. "Woman, haven't you had a gutful of death and evil yet? Do you want to rub your own son's face in it? No, no, you can't leave it alone, you can't stay in the house where you belong when you smell death in the air, can you? You can't act like everybody else, and – "
Ramona said quietly but firmly, "That's enough."
The blood drained from his face for a few seconds, then his complexion turned an ugly mottled red. "HELL IT IS!" he roared. "You don't have to get out and go about the town! You can just stay put and hide, can't you? But what about me?" He wheeled the car to a halt in front of the house and yanked the key from the ignition. "I don't want you ever goin' back to that house again, do you hear me?" He reached out and caught her chin, squeezing it so she couldn't look away; her gaze was dulled and distant, and that made him want to hit her but he remembered Billy and so stayed his hand. "I don't want to hear any of your damned ravin's, do you understand? Answer me when I speak to you, woman!" In the sudden sharp silence he could hear Billy sobbing. He was pierced with shame, but there was still anger in him and he had to get it out. "ANSWER ME!" he shouted.
She sat very straight and motionless; there were tears in her eyes, and she regarded him for a long time before she spoke, making him feel like a bug that had just crawled from beneath a rock. She said softly, "I hear you."
"You better!" He released her chin, then he was out of the car and hurrying into the house, not daring to look over his shoulder at either of them because anger and guilt and fear were chewing him up inside like a dull plow on wet earth. He had to clench his hands around the Good Book, had to find something that would soothe the tortured ache in his soul.
When Ramona and Billy came in, John was already sitting before the hearth with the Bible on his lap. He was reading silently, his brow furrowed with concentration, but his lips were moving. Ramona squeezed her son's shoulder in reassurance and also as a warning to walk quietly, then she went quietly to the kitchen to finish the vegetable pie – made of leftovers from the last few meals – she was baking for their supper. Billy added another hickory log to the fire and positioned it with the poker. He could still feel the storm in the air, but most of it had already struck and he hoped things would be all right now; he wanted to find out from his father exactly what had happened to Will and the Bookers, and why those men were tearing up the front porch, but he knew it was something very bad and it might cause another fight between his momma and daddy. He replaced the poker, glanced at his father for approval – John was reading in the Book of Daniel and didn't look up – and then went back to the little secondhand desk next to his cot to start on his spelling homework.
John admired Daniel's strength. He liked to think that he and Daniel would have gotten along just fine. Sometimes John felt as if the whole of life were a lions' den, ravenous beasts snapping roaring on all sides and the Devil himself laughing fit to bust. At least, he thought, that's how it had turned out for him. He leaned forward and read Daniel's speech of deliverance to King Darius: "My God sent his angel and shut the lions' mouths, and they have not hurt me, because I was found blameless before him. …"
. . . blameless before him . . .
John reread it and then closed the Good Book. Blameless. There was nothing he could've done about Julie Ann, or Katy, or Will, or Dave Booker. He felt that in his choice of this scripture he was being told everything was all right, he could let the worry melt away from his mind and put it in the past where it belonged.
He stared into the crackling flames. When he'd married Ramona – and God only knew why he had, except that he'd thought she was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen, and was all of twenty, not knowing anything about love or duty or responsibility – he'd stepped into the lions' den without knowing it, and it seemed to him that he had to guard himself every day to keep from being swallowed whole down the Devil's throat. He had prayed over and over again that the boy wasn't touched by her darkness too. If that ever happened, then . . . John was startled, because he'd had the mental image of himself in Dave Booker's place, bursting their heads open with a Louisville Slugger and then putting a shotgun underneath his chin. Lord God, he thought, and shunted that awful image away.
Putting the Bible aside, he rose from the chair and went into the bedroom. His heart was beating harder; he was thinking of Reverend Horton, creeping over the tracks to Dusktown. He didn't want to join in what had to be done, but he knew the others expected him to. He opened the closet and took out a cardboard box tied with twine. John cut the twine with his penknife, took the top off the box, and laid his Klan robes across the bed. They were dusty and wrinkled, made of heavy yellowing cotton; he clenched the material in one fist and felt the power of justice in it.
And in the kitchen, kneading dough between her brown hands, Ramona heard the distant call of a bluejay and knew that the cold weather had broken.READ MORE >>