At the wheel of his racketing old Ford, Reverend Jim Horton rubbed his eyes wearily and tried to focus on the highway ahead. It had been a long and terrible week; tomorrow was Sunday, and he had yet to go over his material for the sermon, which he'd titled "Why Does God Let It Happen?" Tonight he would stay up late again at his desk, and his wife Carol would come in to rub the kinks out of his shoulders and neck before it was time for bed. He felt he'd been a stranger to her lately, but he'd told her a long time ago that being the wife of a country preacher was definitely not going to be a bed of roses.
The Ford's headlights cut white holes in the darkness. The heater chirred ineffectively, though it wasn't nearly as cold out now as it had been a few days before. He remembered how the sunlight and shadows had lain across the Hawthorne cemetery as the bodies of Dave Booker, Julie Ann, and Katy were lowered into the hard red-clay earth. The coffins had been closed, of course, during the memorial service at the Fayette funeral home, and Julie Ann's mother, Mrs. Mimms, had been almost overcome with grief. Tonight Horton had driven the fifteen miles to Mrs. Mimms's house to sit with her awhile, because she lived alone and was getting on in age, and it was obvious that this tragedy had almost destroyed her. He'd offered to have someone bring her in for church in the morning, and as he'd left she'd clutched his hand and cried like a baby.
Sheriff Bromley, Horton knew, was still searching for Will's corpse. Just yesteday the sheriff had poked a stick in the ground and brought up the odor of decaying meat; but when the shovels had finished it was Boo, the Bookers' dog, that lay moldering in the earth. Bromley had told him in private that most probably Will would never be found, that there were too many places Dave might have buried the body. Perhaps it was for the best, Horton thought, because Mrs. Mimms couldn't stand any more strain, and for that matter neither could Hawthorne itself.
He was aware that he walked a dangerous line. Things were changing in the world, due to people like Dr. King, but it wasn't fast enough to help the people of Dusktown. These last few weeks he felt he'd made a little progress: he'd been helping the Dusktown elders rebuild their burned-out box of a church, and he was on a committee to plan a potluck supper, raising money for purchase of lumber from the sawmill. There was still hard work to be done.
Horton was jarred out of his thoughts when a pair of headlights stabbed into his eyes. He instinctively swerved before he realized the headlights had reflected out of his rearview mirror. A red chevy roared past him as though he were sitting still, and he had the fleeting impression of a pale face glaring at him before the car whipped around a curve up ahead. He could hear the Chevy's horn honking – once, twice, three times – and he thought, Wild kids on a Saturday night. He would be in Hawthorne in just a minute; he hoped Carol would have coffee ready for him. When he took the curve the Chevy had disappeared around, Horton thought he saw something red flicker on the road before him. A strange thought flashed through his mind: Ramona Creekmore, at the Bookers' funeral, stepping forward from the assembly of people and standing right at the edge of Julie Ann's grave. Her hand had come up and out; dozens of red petals, picked from wild flowers that must've grown in some secret, protected grove of the forest, had floated down into the ground. Horton knew that the woman wasn't well liked, though in the eight months he'd been Hawthorne's minister he hadn't been able to find out exactly why. She never came to church, and he'd only seen her a few times in town, but she'd always seemed pleasant and certainly not a person to fear . . . .
Something moved on the road ahead, just out of range of his headlights. He thought of red petals floating, floating, floating down, and then . . .
The headlights picked out two large bales of hay that had been dragged into his path. He knew with a surge of fear that he couldn't stop the car at this distance, he was going to hit; and then he'd swerved the car to the right, the tires squealing, and slammed into one of the bales with a jolt that cracked his teeth together and struck his shoulder a bruising blow into the steering wheel. The Ford, out of control, left the highway and plowed into deep weeds. The car crashed into a three-foot-deep ditch and hung at an angle, its tires digging into the thawed mud. The engine rattled, and came to a dead stop.
Dazed, Horton touched his lower lip with a trembling hand; when he looked at his fingers he saw bright red petals blooming, and he numbly realized he'd bitten into his tongue. Fireflies were bobbing in the dark around the wrecked car, circling closer.
The driver's door opened. Startled, the minister looked up into the blinding glow of flashlights; behind them were white figures with black, ragged-rimmed eyes. Someone shouted, "Get that shit outta the road! Hurry it up!" He remembered the hay bales now, and swallowed blood. His right eye was swelling, and he was getting one whopper of a headache. A voice beside him said, "He's all bloody!" And another, muffled by a mask, answered, "Ain't nothin'! You ready to heave him out? Horton, you stay real quiet now, you hear? We don't want to have to get rough."
He was pulled out of the Ford by the hooded white figures, a blindfold of coarse burlap slipped around his eyes and knotted behind his head.
The Klansmen hauled him up into the bed of a pickup truck and covered him with gunnysacks. The engine started, and the truck headed for a backwoods road. Horton was held down by several men, and he imagined what they would probably do to him, but he was too weary to try to escape. He kept spitting blood until someone shook him and hissed, "Stop that, you damn nigger-lover!"
"You don't understand," he said with his mangled, bloody mouth. "Let me . . ."
Someone grabbed his hair. From the distance, perhaps at the end of the road, Horton heard a high-pitched Rebel yell. "You think we don't know?" a voice rasped into his ear. Horton could almost make out whose voice it was: Lee Sayre's? Ralph Leighton's? "The niggers are tryin' to take over the country, and it's sorry white trash like you that's helpin' 'em! You get 'em in your schools and your cafes and your churches, and they drag you down to where they are! And by God as long as I've got breath in my body and a pistol at my side no damned nigger is gonna take what belongs to me!"
"You don't . . ."the minister began, but he knew it was no use. The truck slowed, jarring over a last crater in the road, and stopped.
"We got him!" someone yelled. "Easy as pie!"
"Tie his hands," a harsh voice commanded.
Carol Horton knew her husband had probably stayed longer than he'd planned at Mrs. Mimms's house, and might have stopped somewhere else between here and there as well. But now, at twenty minutes before midnight, she was very worried. There might've been car trouble, a flat tire or something. Jim had been tired and disturbed when he'd left home, and Carol had been concerned for a long while that he was just trying to shoulder too much.
She looked up from the book she was reading on antebellum history and stared at the telephone. Mrs. Mimms would be asleep by now. Perhaps she should call Sheriff Bromley? No, no; if the sheriff had heard anything he would've called. . . .
There was a quick rapping at the front door. Carol leaped up from her chair and hurried to answer it, trying to get herself composed. If it was Sheriff Bromley standing out there, bringing the news of an accident on the highway, she didn't think she could take it. Just before she opened the door she heard a truck roar away, and a chorus of male laughter. She unbolted the door, her heart pounding.
In a way, she was relieved to find that no one was there. It was a joke, she thought; somebody was trying to scare her. But then her breath froze in her lungs, because she saw the mottled black-and-white bundle of rags out under the pines, at the edge of the light cast from the front-porch bulb. A few bits of white fluttered away on the chilly breeze.
Feathers, she thought suddenly, and almost laughed. Now who would dump a bundle of feathers into our front yard? She stepped off the porch, her gown windblown around her, and approached the mass; when she was five paces away she stopped, her legs gone rubbery, and stared. A crudely hand-lettered sign hung around the thing's neck: NIGGER-LOVER (THIS IS WHAT THEY GET).
Carol did not scream when the eyes opened, wide and white like the eyes of a painted minstrel. She did not scream when the awful swollen face lifted toward her, shining in the light and oozing fresh tar into the grass; nor when the arm came slowly out, gripping at the empty air with a black-smeared hand.
The scream burst free, ravaging her throat, when the thing's tar-crusted mouth opened and whispered her name.
Feathers danced on the breeze. Hawthorne lay nestled in the valley like a sleeping child, only occasionally disturbed by nightmares. Wind moved like a living thing through the rooms of the dark Booker house, where brown blood stained the floors and walls, and in the profound silence there might have been a footstep and a soft, yearning sob.
The Coal Pile
"There she is, Billy!"
"Why don't ya go catch her, Billy?"
"Billy's got a girl friend, Billy's got a girl friend. …"
The singing of that dreaded song was more than he could bear He took after his three tormentors – Johnny Parker, Ricky Sales, and Butch Bryant – swinging his schoolbooks at the end of a rubber strap like a makeshift knight's mace. The boys scattered in three directions, jeering and thumbing their noses at him while he stood sputtering like a live wire, atop the pitcher's mound at the center of Kyle Field, spring's dust rolling around his sneakers.
They couldn't fathom why Billy had started noticing Melissa Pettus. Maybe she did have long pretty blond hair done up with ribbons, but a bird-dog pup was pretty too and you didn't make a fuss about one of those, did you? So today, when they'd all been walking home across Kyle Field beneath a blue late-April sky and they'd seen Melissa walking up ahead through the green weeds, the only thing to do was to have some fun at Billy's expense. They hadn't expected such a violent reaction, but it gratified them, especially since they were aware Melissa had stopped and was watching.
Ricky Sales crowed, "Loverboy, loverboy, Billy's a loverb – " He had to dodge fast, because Billy was suddenly coming at him like a steam engine, swinging his schoolbooks.
Suddenly the strap broke with a moaning sound and books were flying through the air as if fired from a slingshot. They spread open like hard kites and sailed into the dustclouds.
"Oh . . . damn!" Billy said, instantly ashamed that he'd cussed. The other boys howled with laughter, but all the anger had seeped out of him; if there was anything Mrs. Cullens hated, Billy knew, it was a dirty arithmetic book, and he was certain some of the pages had been torn too. The boys danced around him for another moment, careful not to get too close, but they saw he didn't care anymore and so they started running away across the field. Ricky looked back and shouted, "See ya later, Billy! Okay?"
He waved halfheartedly, distressed about the battered books, and then began picking them up. He turned to pick up his arithmetic book, and Melissa Pettus, wearing a dress as green as the new grass of April, held it out to him. There were flecks of yellow pollen on her rosy cheeks; her hair shone in the sunshine like waves of spun gold, and she was smiling shyly.
"Thanks," Billy said, and took it from her. What do you say to girls? he asked himself, as he dusted the books off on the front of his shirt. Then he started walking for home again, aware that Melissa was walking a few feet to his left. She made him nervous down in the bottom of his stomach.
"I saw your books fall," Melissa said after another moment.
"Yeah. They're okay, though. Just dusty."
"I made a hundred on the spellin' test today."
"Oh." He'd only made an eighty-five. "I missed a couple of hard words."
Yellow butterflies swooped through the grass at their approach. The noise from the sawmill sounded like a big cricket hurnming up in the woods, interrupted by the chugging of conveyor belts hauling cut lumber Before them, heatwaves shimmered across the field.
What do you say to a girl? he asked himself again, feeling panic-stricken. "Do you like the Lone Ranger?"
She shrugged. "I don't know."
"Last Saturday night we went to the movie in Fayette and know what we saw? The Lone Ranger and the Canyon of Gold, but I fell asleep before it was over There was too much talkin'. He rides on a horse named Silver and he shoots silver bullets."
He glanced at her, startled by the question. " 'Cause silver bullets kill the bad guys faster," he explained. "There were Indians in the movie too, they were 'Patchee Indians. I've got some Indian in me, did you know that? I'm part Choctaw, my momma says; they were the forest tribe that lived around here a long time ago. They hunted and fished and lived in huts."
"I'm an American," Melissa said. "If you're an Indian, how come you don't wear war paint and moccasins?"
" 'Cause I'm not on the warpath, that's why. Anyway, my momma says the Choctaws were peaceful and didn't like to fight."
Melissa thought he was cute, but she'd heard strange things about the Creekmores from her parents: that the witch-woman kept jars of bats' wings, lizard eyes, and graveyard dirt on shelves in her kitchen; that the needlepoint pictures she made were the most intricate anyone had ever seen because demons helped her do them in the dead of night; and that Billy, who looked so much like his mother and not at all like his father, must be tainted with sinful blood too, bubbling in his veins like the red morass in a hag's stewpot. But whether all that was true or not, Melissa liked him; she wouldn't let him walk her all the way home, though, for fear her parents might see them together.
They were nearing the place where Melissa turned off onto the path for home. "I've got to go now," Melissa told him. " 'Bye!" She cradled her books and walked off along the path, weeds catching at the hem of her dress.
"Good-bye!" Billy called after her "Thanks for helpin' with my books!" He thought for a moment that she wouldn't turn, but then she did – with a sunny smile – and he felt himself melting into his shoes like a grape Popsicle. The sky seemed as big as the world, and as blue as the special plates Gram had made for his mother's birthday last month. Billy turned in the opposite direction and walked across Kyle Field, heading homeward. He found a dime in his pocket, went into the Quik-Pik store, and bought a Butterfinger, eating it as he walked along the highway. Girl friend, girl friend, Billy's got a girl friend. Maybe Melissa was his girl friend, he thought suddenly. The heat of shame flamed his face as he thought of magazine covers he'd seen in the grocery store: True Love, Love Stories, and Young Romance. People were always kissing on those covers, getting his attention while he paged through the comic books.
A shadow fell across him. He looked up at the Booker house.
Billy froze. The green house was turning gray, the paint peeling in long strips; the dirty white shutters hung at broken angles around rock-shattered windows. The front door sagged on its hinges, and across it was written in red paint, private property! Keep out! Weeds and vines were creeping up the walls, green clinging vines of the forest reclaiming its territory. Billy thought he caught a soft, muffled sigh on the breeze, and he remembered that sad poem Mrs. Cullens had read to the class once, about the house that nobody lived in; he would have to get his feet moving now, he knew, or soon he'd feel the sadness in the air.
But he didn't move. He'd promised his daddy, back in January after it had happened, that he wouldn't go near this house, wouldn't stop in front of it just as he was doing now. He'd kept that promise for over three months, but he passed the Booker house twice a day on the walk to and from school and he'd found himself being drawn closer and closer to it, only a step or so at a time. Standing right in front of it, its shadow cast over him like a cold sheet, was the closest he'd ever come. His curiosity was tempting him to climb those steps to the front porch. He was sure there were mysteries waiting to be solved in that house, that when he stepped inside and looked for himself all the puzzling things about why Mr Booker had gone crazy and hurt his family would be revealed like a magician's trick.
His mother had tried to explain to him about Death, that the Bookers had "passed away" to another place and that Will had probably "passed away" too, but no one knew exactly where his body lay sleeping. She said he was most likely asleep back in the forest somewhere, lying on a bed of dark green moss, his head cradled on a pillow of decaying leaves, white mushrooms sprouting around him like tiny candles to reassure him against the dark.
Billy climbed two of the steps and stood staring at the front door. He'd promised his daddy he wouldn't go in! he agonized, but he didn't step down. It seemed to him to be like the story of Adam and Eve his daddy had read to him several times; he wanted to be good and live in the Garden, but this house – the murder house, everybody called it – was the Forbidden Fruit of Knowledge about how and why Will Booker had been called away by the Lord, and where Will had "passed away" to. He shivered on the hard edge of a decision.
Sometimes it seemed that when he'd tried to walk past this house without looking at it he could hear a soft, yearning sound through the trees that always made him look up; sometimes he imagined he heard his name whispered, and once he thought he'd seen a small figure standing behind one of the broken windows, waiting for him to pass. Know what I heard? Johnny Parker had asked him just a few days ago. The Booker house is full of ghosts! My daddy says for me not to play around there, 'cause at night people see funny lights and they hear screams! Old man Keller told my daddy Mr. Booker cut Katy's head off and set it on a bedpost, and my daddy thinks Mr. Booker hacked Will up into little pieces and scattered him all over the woods! . . .
Will was my best friend, Billy thought; there's nothing in that house that would hurt me. . . . Just one look, his curiosity urged.
He gazed off along the highway, thinking about his father busy at work in the cornfield, tending the new spring shoots. Just one look. Billy laid his books down on the steps. He climbed up and stood before the sagging door, his heartbeat quickening; the door had never looked so massive before, the inside of the house never so dark and full of mysteries. The Adam and Eve story flashed through his mind, like one last chance at turning back; Once you sin, he thought, once you go where you're not supposed to, you can never go back to the way it was before; once you step out of the Garden and into the Dark, it's too late. . . .
A bluejay shrieked, scaring him almost right out of his shoes. He thought he heard his name called in a hushed sigh of breath, and he listened hard but didn't hear it again. Momma's callin' me from the house, he told himself, 'cause I'm already so late. I'm gonna get a whippin'! He glanced to his left, at the ragged hole where the troopers had searched for Will under the porch. Then he grasped the door's edge and pulled it partway open. The bottom of the door scraped across the porch like a scream, and dry dusty air came roiling out of the house into his face.
Once you step out of the Garden, and into the Dark . . .
He took a deep breath of stale air and stepped across the threshold into the murder house.
The front room was huge, barely recognizable, because all the furniture had been hauled away. The Last Supper picture and the mounted fish were gone too, and yellowed newspaper pages covered the floor. Vines had crept through the cracks in the windows, snaking up toward the ceiling; Billy's gaze followed one of them, and stopped abruptly at a large mottled brown stain on the ceiling just above where he thought the sofa had been. The house was full of deep green, shadowy light, and seemed a secretive, terribly lonely place. Spider webs clung to the corners, and two wasps flew about seeking a secure place to start a nest. Nature was at work tearing the Booker house back to its basic elements.
When Billy crossed the room to the hallway, his shoes stirred up a few of the newspaper pages, exposing a horrible blotched brown patch on the floorboards. Billy carefully covered the stain back over again. When he walked into the hallway spider webs clutched at his hair, sending chills up his spine. What had been Mr. and Mrs. Booker's bedroom was bare but for a broken chair and more newspapers across the floor; in Will and Katy's room brown flecks and streaks marred the walls as if someone had fired paint from a shotgun. Billy got out of that room quickly, because his heart had suddenly given a violent kick and he'd had trouble getting his breath. The house was silent, but seemed alive with imagined noises: the creaks and sighs of a house continuing to settle into the earth. Billy heard the high whining of the saws at work, the barking of a dog in the distance, a screen door slam shut, sounds carried far on the warm spring air.
In the kitchen Billy found a garbage can filled with an odd assortment of items: hair curlers, ice trays, a reel of fishing line and a snapped pole, comic books and newspapers, brown-smeared rags, cracked cups and dishes, coat hangers, a pair of gray Keds that had belonged to Will, and a crumpled sack of Bama Dog Chow.
Sadness gripped his heart. This is all that's left of the Bookers, Billy thought, and placed his hand against the can's cool rim. Where was the life that had been here? he wondered desperately. He didn't understand Death, and felt a terrible sense of loneliness sweep over him like a January wind. The leaves of the snakelike vines that had found their way through the broken kitchen windows seemed to rattle a warning at him – Get out get out get out . . . before it's too late.
Billy turned and hurried along the hallway, glancing back over his shoulder to make sure the bloated corpse of Mr. Booker wasn't following, armed with a shotgun, grinning and wearing his yellow cap with the fishhooks in it.
Tears of fear burned his eyes. Spider webs caught at his face and hair, and as he passed the door that led down to the basement, something cracked sharply against the other side.
He yelped and flung himself backward, pressing against the opposite wall and staring at the doorknob, expecting it to . . . slowly . . . turn; but it never did. He looked toward the front door, getting ready to run before whatever haunted this murder house sprang up from the basement after him.
Then: bump! Silence. Billy's eyes widened, and he heard a low bubbling of fear deep in his throat.
When it happened a third time, he realized what was causing the noise: someone was hitting the door with pebbles of coal from the large mound that lay down there, near the furnace.
There was a long silence. Billy said, "Who's there?"
And then there was a hail of noise, as if a flurry of coal had been thrown in response to Billy's voice. It went on and on, until Billy clapped his hands to his ears; then it abruptly stopped. "Whoever you are, you're not supposed to be in this house!" Billy called out. "It's private property!" He tried to sound braver than he was.
Slowly, he placed his hand on the cold knob; something pulsed into him like a mild charge of electricity, enough to make his arm buzz. Then he shoved the door open and protectively pressed against the opposite wall again. The basement was as dark as a cave, oozing a cold and oily odor. "I'll call Sheriff Bromley!" Billy warned. Nothing moved down there, and now he realized there were no pieces of coal littering the top few steps at all. Maybe they'd all fallen off, or bounced back down to the floor, he reasoned. But now he had the cold and certain feeling that the heart of the mystery – what had drawn him into this house, only a step or so a day for over three months – beat in the silence of the Bookers' basement. He gathered up his courage – Nothing in here that can hurt me! – and stepped into the darkness.
A few shards of muted gray light filtered through small, dirty panes of glass. The bulk of the furnace was like a scorched metal Halloween mask; and standing near it was a mountain of darkly glittering coal. Billy reached the bottom of the steps and stood on the red-clay floor A shovel was propped against the wall near him, its triangular head giving it the look of a snake about to strike. Billy avoided it, and as he walked closer to the coal pile, one tentative step at a time, he thought he could see the faint blue plume of his breath before him. It was much colder here than in the house. His arms were sprouting goose bumps, and the hair at the back of his neck was standing on end.
Billy stood a few feet away from the coal pile, which towered over him by several feet, as his eyes grew used to the dim light. He could see almost all the shadowed nooks and crannies of the basement now, and he was almost certain that he was alone. Still … He called out in a shaky voice, "Anybody here?"
No, he thought, nobody's here. Then who made that noise on the door? . . .
His brain froze in midthought. He was staring at the coal pile, and he'd seen it shudder.
Bits of coal, a tiny avalanche, streamed down the sides; it seemed to breathe like a laboring bellows. Run! he screamed inwardly. But his gaze was fixed on the coal pile and his feet were glued to the ground. Something was coming up out of the coal - perhaps the dark key to a mystery, or grinning Mr Booker in his yellow cap, or the very essence of Evil itself coming to carry him to Hell.
And suddenly a small white hand clawed itself free from the top of the coal pile, perhaps three feet above Billy's head. An arm and shoulder followed, slowly working out and writhing in the air. Rivulets of coal rolled down and over Billy's sneakers. A small head broke free, and the ghastly, tormented face of Will Booker turned toward his friend, the sightless white eyes peering down with desperate terror.
The gray-lipped mouth struggled to form words. "Billy" – the voice was an awful, pleading whine – "tell them where I am, Billy . . . tell them where I am. . . ."
A wail ripped from Billy's throat, and he scrabbled up the basement stairs like a frantic crab. Behind him, he heard the coal pile shifting and groaning as if gathering itself to chase after him. He fell in the hallway, struggled wildly up, heard a scream like a neglected teakettle spouting hot steam filling the house as he burst onto the front porch and ran, ran, ran, forgetting his books on the porch steps, ran, forgetting everything but the horror that lay in the Bookers' basement, ran home screaming all the way.
John quietly opened the bedroom door and peered in. The boy was still lying huddled beneath the quilt, his face pressed against a pillow, but at least he wasn't making those awful whimpering sounds anymore. In a way, though, the silence was worse. Billy had sobbed himself sick for almost an hour, since coming home twenty minutes late from school. John thought he'd never forget the white expression of fear stamped on his son's face.
They'd put him in the bedroom, since it was much more comfortable than the cot and he could be quiet in here. As John watched, Billy shivered beneath the quilt and mumbled something that sounded like "cold, in the cold." John stepped inside, arranged the quilt a little more snugly because he thought Billy had felt a chill, and then realized his son's eyes were wide open, staring fixedly into a corner of the room.
John eased down on the side of the bed. "How you feelin'?" he asked softly; he touched Billy's forehead, even though Ramona had told him Billy didn't have a fever and didn't seem physically ill. They'd taken off his clothes and checked him thoroughly the double punctures of a snakebite, knowing how he liked to ramble through dark corners of the forest, but they'd found nothing.
"Want to talk about it now?"
Billy shook his head.
"Your momma's about to put supper on the table. You feel like eatin'?"
The boy whispered something, and John thought it sounded like "Butterfinger" "Huh? What do you want, a candy bar? We're havin' sweet potatoes, will that do?" When Billy didn't reply, but stared straight ahead with such intensity that John was beginning to feel uneasy, John squeezed the boy's shoulder through the quilt and said, "When you feel like talkin' about it, I'll listen." Then John rose from the bed, feeling sure Billy had just stumbled onto a snake up in the woods and he'd be more careful next time, and went to the kitchen, where Ramona was laboring over a woodburning stove. The kitchen was filled with late afternoon sunlight and smelled of fresh vegetables from several pots on the stove.
"Is he any better?" Ramona asked.
"He's quieted down some. What did he say to you when he first came in?"
"Nothing. He couldn't talk, he was sobbing so hard. I just picked him up and held him, and then you came in from the field."
"Yeah," John said grimly. "I saw his face. I've seen sun-bleached sheets that had more color in 'em. I can't figure out what he might've gotten into." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair.
"I think he'll want to sleep for a while. When he wants to talk about it, he'll let us know."
"Yeah. Know what he said he wanted? A Butterfinger, of all crazy things!" He paused, watching his wife take plates out of the cupboard and set them on the small dinner table, and then jingled the few loose coins in his pocket. "Maybe I'll drive down to the store to get him one before they close up. Might ease his mind. That suit you?"
She nodded. "I'll have your supper on the table in ten minutes."
John took the car keys from his pocket and left the house. Ramona stood over the stove until she heard the engine start and car pull away. Then she took the pots off their burners, checked the corn muffins, and hurried into the bedroom, wiping her callused hands on her apron. Her eyes were shining like polished amber stones as she stood over the bed, staring down at her son. Softly, she said, "Billy?"
He stirred but did not answer. She laid a hand on his cheek. "Billy? We've got to talk. Quickly, before your father comes back."
"No . . ." he whimpered, his mouth pressed against the pillow.
"I want to know where you went. I want to know what happened. Billy, please look at me."
After a few seconds he turned his head so he could see her from the corner of a swollen eye; he was still shaking with sobs he was too weak to let go of.
"I think you went someplace where your daddy didn't want you to go. Didn't you? I think you went to the Booker house." The boy tensed. "If not inside it, then very close to it. Is that right?"
Billy shivered, his hands gripping at the covers. New tears broke over his cheeks, and like a dam bursting everything came flooding out of him at once. He cried forlornly, "I didn't mean to go in there, I promise I didn't! I wasn't bad! But I heard … I heard … I heard it in the basement and I … I had to go see what it was and it was … it was . . . awful!" His face contorted with agony and Ramona reached for him, hugging him close. She could feel his heartbeat racing in his chest.
But she had to find out, before John returned. "What did you see?" she asked.
"No! Can't . . . can't tell. Please don't make me!"
"Something in the basement?"
Billy shuddered; the illusion he'd been building in his mind, that it had all been just a particularly nasty nightmare, was falling apart at the seams like wet and rotten cloth. "I didn't see anything!"
Ramona gripped his shoulders and looked deeply into his swollen eyes. "Your daddy's going to be back in a few minutes. He's a good man in his heart, Billy, and I love his heart, but I want you to remember this: your daddy is afraid, and he strikes out at what he fears because he doesn't understand it. He loves us; he loves you more than anything in the world, and I love you too, more than you'll ever know. But now you have to trust me, son. Did . . . whatever you see speak to you?"
Billy's gaze had gone glassy. He nodded his head with an effort, a strand of saliva breaking from his half-open mouth and trailing downward.
"I thought so," Ramona said gently. Her eyes were shining, but there was a deep sadness in her face too, and a certainty of the trouble to come. He's only a little boy! she thought. He's not strong enough yet! She bit her lower lip to keep her face from collapsing in a sob. "I love you," she told him. "I'll always be there when you need me. . . ."
The sounds of the sawmill's steam whistle and the screen door slamming came at almost the same time, making them both jump.
"Supper on yet?" John called from the front room.
Ramona kissed her son's cheek and eased his head back down on the pillow: Billy curled up again, staring sightlessly. Shock, she thought. I was like that too, the first time it happened to me. He would bear watching for the next few days.
John was standing in the doorway when Ramona looked up. He was holding two Butterfinger candy bars in his right hand, and with his left seemed to be supporting himself in the doorframe; Ramona knew it was her imagination, and perhaps a trick of the dusky afternoon light that cloaked his shoulders from behind, but he seemed to have aged ten years since he'd left the house. There appeared to be a sickness behind his eyes. A weary smile worked across his lips, and he came forward to offer the candy bars to Billy. "Here you go, son. Feelin' better?"
Billy took them gratefully, though he wasn't hungry and couldn't figure out why his father had brought them.
"Your face looks like a puffball," John said. "Guess you took a wrong turn in the woods and saw a snake, huh?" He gently ruffed the boy's hair before Billy could reply, and said, "Well, you've got to watch your step. You don't want to scare some poor timber rattler half to death, do you?"
For the first time that afternoon, Billy managed a tentative smile; Ramona thought, He's going to be all right.
"I'll put supper on the table now," she said, touching her son's cheek softly, and then walked past John – who stepped suddenly away from her, as if fearful of being contaminated – and into the hallway. She saw that John had left the front door open, and closed it against the evening chill.
And as she turned to go to the kitchen she saw the dusty set of schoolbooks lying on a chair.READ MORE >>