XIV - My Camping Trip
THERE IS NOTHING MORE FRIGHTENING OR EXCITING THaN a blank piece of paper. Frightening because you're on your own, leaving dark tracks across that snowy plain, and exciting because no one knows your destination but yourself, and even you can't say exactly where you'll end up. When I sat down at my typewriter to chop out that story for the Zephyr arts Council Writing Contest, I was so scared it was all I could do to spell my name. Concocting a story for yourself and a story that you know strangers are going to read are two different animals; the first is a comfortable pony, the second a crazy bronco. You just have to hold tight, and go along for the ride.
The sheet of paper stared me in the face for quite a while. at last I decided to write about a boy who runs away from his small town to see the world. I got two pages done before it became clear my heart wasn't in it. I started on a tale about a boy who finds a magic lantern in a junkyard. That, too, went into the wastebasket. a story about a ghost car was going pretty well until it hit the wall of my imagination and burst into flames.
I sat there, staring at another fresh sheet of paper.
The cicadas were whirring in the trees outside. Rebel barked at something in the night. From far away I heard a car's engine growl. I thought of my dream about Mrs. Neville, and what she'd said: Don't think of it as writing. Think of it as telling your friends a story.
What ifi I asked myself. What if I was to write about something that had really happenedi
Like... Mr. Sculley and the tooth of Old Moses. No, no. Mr. Sculley wouldn't want people coming around to his place to see it. all right then, what about... the Lady and the Moon Mani No, I didn't know enough about them. What about...
...the dead man in the car at the bottom of Saxon's Lakei
What if I was to write a story about what had happened that morningi Write about the car going into the water, and Dad jumping in after iti Write about everything I'd felt and seen on that March morning before the suni and what if... what if... I wrote about seeing the man in the green-feathered hat, standing there at the edge of the woodsi
Now, this I could get fired-up about. I began with my father saying, "Coryi Wake up, son. It's time." Soon I was back in the milk truck with him, on our way through the silent early morning streets of Zephyr. We were talking about what I wanted to grow up to be, and then suddenly the car came out of the woods right in front of us, my dad twisted the milk truck's wheel, and the car went over the edge of the red rock cliff into Saxon's Lake. I remembered my father running toward the lake, and how my heart had clutched up as he'd leaped into the water and started swimming. I remembered watching the car starting to go down, bubbles bursting around its trunk. I remembered looking around at the woods across the road and seeing the figure standing there wearing a long overcoat that flapped in the wind and a hat with a green-
No, that's not how it had been. I had stepped on the green feather, and found it on the bottom of my muddy shoe. But where else could a green feather come from but the band of a hati Still and all, I was writing this as it had really been. I hadn't actually seen the green-feathered hat until the night of the flood. So I stuck to the facts, and wrote about the green feather as I'd found it. I left out the part about Miss Grace, Lainie, and the house of bad girls, figuring Mom wouldn't care to read about it. I read the story over and decided it wasn't as good as I could do, so I rewrote it. It was hard making talking sound like talking. Finally, though, after three times through my Royal, the story was ready. It was two pages long, double-spaced. My masterpiece.
When Dad, clad in his red-striped pajamas and his hair still damp from his shower, came in to say good night, I showed him the two sheets of paper.
"What's thisi" He held the title up under my desk lamp. "'Before the Sun,'" he read, and he looked at me with a question in his eyes.
"It's a story for the writin' contest," I said. "I just wrote it."
"Oh. Can I read iti"
He began. I watched him. When he got to the part about the car coming out of the woods, a little muscle tensed in his jaw. He put out a hand to brace himself against the wall, and I knew he was reading about swimming out to the car. I saw his fingers slowly grip and relax, grip and relax. "Coryi" Mom called. "Go lock Rebel in for the night!" I started to go, but Dad said, "Wait just a minute," and then he returned to the last few paragraphs.
"Coryi" Mom called again, the TV on in the front room.
"We're talkin', Rebecca!" Dad told her, and he lowered the pages to his side. He stared at me, his face half in shadow.
"Is it okayi" I asked.
"This isn't what you usually write," he said quietly. "You usually write about ghosts, or cowboys, or spacemen. How come you to write somethin' like thisi"
I shrugged. "I don't know. I just thought... I'd write somethin' true."
"So this is truei This part about you seein' somebody standin' in the woodsi"
"Then how come you didn't tell me about iti How come you didn't tell Sheriff amoryi"
"I don't know. Maybe... I wasn't sure if I really saw somebody or not."
"But you're sure nowi almost six months after it happened, you're sure nowi and you could've told the sheriff this, and you didn'ti"
"I... guess that's right. I mean... I thought I saw somebody standin' there. He was wearin' a long overcoat, and he-"
"You're sure it was a mani" Dad asked. "You saw his facei"
"No sir, I didn't see his face."
Dad shook his head. His jaw muscle twitched again, and a pulse throbbed at his temple. "I wish to God," he said, "that we'd never driven along that road. I wish to God I'd never jumped in after that car. I wish to God that dead man at the bottom of the lake would leave me alone." He squeezed his eyes shut, and when he opened them again they were bleary and tortured. "Cory, I don't want you showin' this to anybody else. Hear mei"
"But... I was gonna enter it in the con-"
"No! God, no!" He clamped a hand to my shoulder. "Listen to me. all this happened six months ago. It's history now, and there's no need dredgin' it all up again."
"But it happened," I said. "It's real."
"It was a bad dream," my father answered. "a very bad dream. The sheriff never found anybody missin' from town. Nobody missin' from anywhere around here who had a tattoo like that. No wife or family ever turned up huntin' a lost husband and father. Don't you understand, Coryi"
"No sir," I said.
"That man at the bottom of Saxon's Lake never was," Dad said, his voice hurt and husky. "Nobody cared enough about him to even miss him. and when he died, beat up so bad he hardly looked like a man anymore, he didn't even get a proper burial. I was the last person on this earth to see him before he sank down forever. Do you know what that's done to me, Coryi"
I shook my head.
My father looked at the story again. He put the two pages back on my desk, next to the Royal typewriter. "I knew there was brutality in this world," he said, but he kept his eyes averted from mine. "Brutality is part of life, but... it's always somewhere else. always in the next town. Remember when I was a fireman, and I went out when that car crashed and burned between here and Union Towni"
"Little Stevie Cauley's car," I said. "Midnight Mona."
"That's right. The tire tracks on the pavement said that another car forced Stevie Cauley off the road. Somebody deliberately wrecked him. The car's gas tank ruptured, and it blew sky high. That was brutality, too, and when I saw what was left of a livin', breathin' young man, I-" He flinched, perhaps recalling the sight of charred bones. "I couldn't understand how one human bein' could do that to another. I couldn't understand that kind of hate. I mean... what road do you take to get therei What is it that has to get inside you and twist your soul so much you can take a human life as easily as flickin' a flyi" His gaze found mine. "You know what your granddaddy used to call me when I was your agei"
"Yellowstreak. Because I didn't like to hunt. Because I didn't like to fight. Because I didn't like to do any of the things that you're supposed to like, if you're a boy. He forced me to play football. I wasn't any good at it, but I did it for him. He said, 'Boy, you'll never be any good in this life if you don't have the killer instinct.' That's what he said. 'Hit 'em hard, knock 'em down, show 'em who's tough.' The only thing is... I'm not tough. I never was. all I ever wanted was peace. That's all. Just peace." He walked to my window, and he stood there for a moment listening to the cicadas. "I guess," he said, "I've been pretendin' for a long time that I'm stronger than I am. That I could put that dead man in the car behind me and let him go. But I can't, Cory. He calls to me."
"He... calls to youi" I asked.
"Yes, he does." My father stood with his back to me. at his sides, his hands had curled into fists. "He says he wants me to know who he was. He wants me to know where his family is, and if there's anybody on this earth who mourns for him. He wants me to know who killed him, and why. He wants me to remember him, and he says that as long as whoever beat him and strangled him to death walks free, I will have no more peace for the rest of my life." Dad turned toward me. I thought he looked ten years older than when he'd taken the two pages of my story in his hand. "When I was your age, I wanted to believe I lived in a magic town," he said softly, "where nothin' bad could ever happen. I wanted to believe everyone was kind, and good, and just. I wanted to believe hard work was rewarded, and a man stood on his word. I wanted to believe a man was a Christian every day of the week, not just Sunday, and that the law was fair and the politicians wise and if you walked the straight path you found that peace you were searchin' for." He smiled; it was a difficult thing to look at. For an instant I thought I could see the boy in him, trapped in what Mrs. Neville's dream-shape had called the clay of time. "There never was such a place," my father said. "There never will be. But knowin' can't stop you from wishin' it was so, and every time I close my eyes to sleep, that dead man at the bottom of Saxon's Lake tells me I've been a damned fool."
I don't know why I said it, but I did: "Maybe the Lady can help you."
"Howi Throw a few bones for mei Burn a candle and incensei"
"No sir. Just talk," I said.
He looked at the floor. He drew a deep breath and slowly freed it. Then he said, "I've gotta get some rest," and he walked to the door.
"Do you want me to tear the story upi"
He didn't answer, and I thought he wasn't going to. His gaze flickered back and forth from me to the two sheets of paper. "No," he said at last. "No, it's a good story. It's true, isn't iti"
"It's the best you can doi"
He looked around at the pictures of monsters taped on the walls, and his eyes came to me. "You're sure you wouldn't rather write about ghosts, or men from Marsi" he inquired with a hint of a smile.
"Not this time," I told him.
He nodded, chewing on his lower lip. "Go ahead, then. Enter it in the contest," he said, and he left me alone.
On the following morning, I put my story in a manila envelope and rode Rocket to the public library on Merchants Street, near the courthouse. In the library's cool, stately confines, where fans whispered at the ceiling and sunlight streamed through blinds at tall arched windows, I handed my contest entry-marked "Short Story" on the envelope in Crayola burnt umber-to Mrs. Evelyn Prathmore at the front desk. "and what little tale might we have herei" Mrs. Prathmore asked, smiling sweetly.
"It's about a murder," I said. Her smile fractured. "Who's judgin' the contest this yeari"
"Myself, Mr. Grover Dean, Mr. Lyle Redmond from the English department at adams Valley High School, Mayor Swope, our well-known published poet Mrs. Teresa abercrombie, and Mr. James Connahaute, the copy editor at the Journal." She picked up my entry with two fingers, as if it were a smelly fish. "It's about a murder, you sayi" She peered at me over the pearly rims of her eyeglasses.
"What's a nice, polite young man like you writin' about murder fori Couldn't you write about a happier subjecti Like... your dog, or your best friend, or-" She frowned, at her wit's end. "Somethin' that would enlighten and entertaini"
"No ma'am," I said. "I had to write about the man at the bottom of Saxon's Lake."
"Oh." Mrs. Prathmore looked at the manila envelope again. "I see. Do your parents know you're enterin' this in the contest, Coryi"
"Yes ma'am. My dad read it last night."
Mrs. Prathmore picked up a ball-point pen and wrote my name on the envelope. "What's your telephone numberi" she asked, and when I told her she wrote that underneath my name. "all right, Cory," she said, and she summoned up a cool smile, "I'll see that this gets where it needs to go."
I thanked her, and I turned around and walked toward the front door. Before I got out, I glanced back at Mrs. Prathmore. She was bending the envelope's clasp back to unseal it, and when she saw me looking she stopped. I took this as a good sign, that she was eager to read my entry. I went on out into the sunlight, unchained Rocket from a park bench, and pedaled home.
No doubt about it, summer was on the wane.
The mornings seemed a shade cooler. The nights were hungry, and ate more daylight. The cicadas sounded tired, their whirring wings slowing to a dull buzz. From our front porch you could look almost due east and see a single Judas tree up in the forested hills; its leaves had turned crimson almost overnight, a shock amid all that green. and the worst-the very worst for those of us who loved the freedom of summer's days-was that the television and radio trumpeted back-to-school sales with depressing fervor.
Time was running out. So one evening at supper I broached the subject. Bit the bullet. Took the bull by the horns. Jumped in headfirst.
"Can I go campin' overnight with the guysi" was the question that brought silence to the table.
Mom looked at Dad. Dad looked at Mom. Neither of them looked at me. "You said I could if I went to Granddaddy Jaybird's for a week," I reminded them.
Dad cleared his throat and swirled his fork in his mashed potatoes. "Well," he said, "I don't see why not. Sure. You guys can pitch a tent in the back and make a campfire."
"That's not what I mean. I mean campin' out. Like out in the woods."
"There are woods behind the house," he said. "That's woods enough."
"No sir," I said, and my heart was beating harder because for me this was really being daring. "I mean way out in the woods. Out where you can't see Zephyr or any lights. Like real campin'."
"Oh, my," Mom fretted.
Dad grunted and put his fork down. He folded his fingers together, and the thought lines deepened into grooves between his eyes. all this was, I knew from past experience, the first signs of the word "no" being born. "Way out in the woods," he repeated. "Like how far outi"
"I don't know. I thought we could hike somewhere, spend the night, and then come back in the mornin'. We'd take a compass, and sandwiches, and Kool-aid, and we'd take knapsacks and stuff."
"and what would happen if one of you boys broke an anklei" Mom asked. "Or got bitten by a rattlesnakei Or fell down in poison ivy, and Lord knows that's everywhere this summer." I hung on; she was working up to full speed. "What would happen if you got attacked by a bobcati Lord, a hundred things could happen to you in the woods, and none of them good!"
"We'd be all right, Mom," I said. "We're not little kids anymore."
"You're not grown up enough to go wanderin' around out in the woods by yourselves, either! What if you got out there at night two miles from home and a storm blew upi What if it started lightnin' and thunderin'i What if you or one of the others got sick to your stomachi You know, you can't just find a phone and call home out there. Tell him it's a bad idea, Tom."
He made a face; the dirty jobs always fell to the father.
"Go on," Mom urged. "Tell him he can wait until he's thirteen."
"You said last year I could wait until I was twelve," I reminded her.
"Don't talk smart, now! Tom, tell him."
I awaited the firm, resolute "no." It came as a real surprise, then, when my dad asked, "Where would you get the compassi"
Mom looked at him in horror. I felt a spark of hope leap within me. "From Davy Ray's dad," I said. "He uses it when he goes huntin'."
"Compasses can break!" Mom insisted. "Can't theyi" she asked Dad.
My father kept his attention on me, his expression solid and serious. "Goin' out on an overnight hike isn't any game for children. I know plenty of men who've gotten lost in the woods, and they'll tell you right off what it feels like to be without a bed or a bathroom, have to sleep on wet leaves and scratch skeeter bites all night. That sound like fun to youi"
"I'd like to go," I said.
"You talk to the other guys about thisi"
"Yes sir. They all said they'd like to go, too, if their folks'll let 'em."
"Tom, he's too young!" Mom said. "Maybe next year!"
"No," my father answered, "he's not too young." My mother wore a stricken look; she started to speak again, but Dad put a finger to her lips. "I made a deal with him," he told her. "In this house, a man stands on his word." His gaze swung back to me again. "Call 'em. If their parents say all right, it's all right with us, too. But we'll talk about how far you can go, and when we expect you back, and if you're not back by the time we agree on, you'll have a tough time sittin' down for a week. Okayi"
"Okay!" I said, and I started to go for the phone but Dad said, "Hold on. Finish your supper first."
after this, events gained momentum. Ben's parents gave their approval. Davy Ray's folks said okay. Johnny, however, could not go with us, though he pleaded for my dad to talk to his. Dad did what he could, but the judgment was already passed. Because of Johnny's dizzy spells, his parents were afraid for him to be out in the woods overnight. Once again the Branlins had robbed him.
and so, on a sunny Friday afternoon, laden with knapsacks, sandwiches, canteens of water, mosquito repellent, snakebite kits, matches, flashlights, and county maps we'd gotten from the courthouse, Davy Ray, Ben, and I struck out from my house into the beckoning forest. all our good-byes had been said, our dogs locked up, our bicycles porched and chained. Davy carried his father's compass, and he wore a camouflage-print hunting cap. We all wore long pants, to guard our shins against thorns and snake fangs, and our winter boots. We were in it for the long haul, and we set our faces against the sun like pioneers entering the forest primeval. Before we reached the woods, though, my mother the constant worrier called from the back porch, "Cory! Have you got enough toilet paperi"
I said I did. Somehow, I couldn't imagine Daniel Boone's mother asking him that question.
We climbed the hill and crossed the clearing from where we had flown on the first day of summer. Beyond it the serious woods began, a green domain that might've given Tarzan pause. I looked back at Zephyr lying below us, and Ben stopped and then so did Davy Ray. Everything seemed so orderly: the streets, the roofs, the mowed lawns, the sidewalks, the flowerbeds. What we were about to enter was a wild entanglement, a dangerous realm that offered neither comfort nor safety; in other words, in that one moment I realized exactly what I'd gotten myself into.
"Well," Davy Ray said at last, "I guess we'd better get movin'."
"Yeah," Ben murmured. "Get movin'."
"Uh-huh," I said.
We stood there, the breeze on our faces and sweat on our necks. Behind us, the forest rustled. I thought of the hydra's heads, swaying and hissing, in Jason and the argonauts.
"I'm goin'," Davy Ray said, and he started off. I turned away from Zephyr and followed him, because he was the guy with the compass. Ben hitched his knapsack's straps in a notch tighter, the tail of his shirt already beginning to wander out of his pants, and he said, "Hold up!" and came on as fast as he could.
The forest, which had been waiting a hundred years for three boys just like us, let us in and then closed its limbs and leaves at our backs. Now we had set foot in the wilderness, and we were on our own.
Pretty soon we were drenched with sweat. Going up and down wooded ridges in the heavy august heat was no easy task, and Ben started puffing and asking Davy Ray to slow down. "Snake hole!" Davy Ray shouted, pointing at an imaginary hole at Ben's feet, and that got Ben moving lickety-split again. We traveled through a green kingdom of sun and shadow, and we found honeysuckle boiling in sweet profusion and blackberries growing wild and of course we had to stop for a while and take a taste. Then we were on the march again, following the compass and the sun, masters of our destinies. atop a hill we found a huge boulder to sit on, and we discovered what appeared to be Indian symbols carved into the stone. alas, though, we weren't the first to make this find, because nearby was a Moon Pie wrapper and a broken 7-Up bottle. We went on, deeper into the forest, determined to find a place where no human foot had ever marked the dirt. We came to a dried-up streambed and followed it, the stones crunching under our boots. a dead possum, swarming with flies, snared our attention for a few minutes. Davy Ray threatened to pick up the possum's carcass and throw it at Ben, but I talked him out of such a grisly display and Ben shuddered with relief. Farther ahead, at a place where the trees thinned and white rocks jutted from the earth like dinosaur ribs, Davy Ray stopped and bent down. He came up holding a black arrowhead, almost perfectly formed, which he put in his pocket for Johnny's collection.
The sun was falling. We were sweaty and dusty, and gnats spun around our heads and darted at our eyeballs. I have never understood the attraction of gnats to eyeballs, but I believe it's the equivalent of moths to flames; in any case, we spent a lot of time digging the little dead things out of our watering orbs. But as the sun settled and the air cooled, the gnats went away. We began to wonder where we might find a place to spend the night, and it was right about then that the truth of the matter came clear.
There were no mothers and fathers around to make our suppers. There were no televisions, no radios, no bathtubs, no beds, and no lights, which we began to fully realize as the sky darkened to the east. How far we were from home we didn't know, but for the last two hours we'd seen no mark of civilization. "We'd better stop here," I told Davy Ray, and I indicated a clearing, but he said, "ah, we can go on a little farther," and I knew his curiosity about what lay over the next ridge was pulling him onward. Ben and I kept up with him; as I've said before, he was the guy with the compass.
Our flashlights came out to spear through the gathering gloom. Something fluttered in front of my face and spun away: a bat on the prowl. another something scuttled away through the underbrush at our approach, and Ben kept asking, "What was thati What was thati" but neither of us could answer. at last Davy Ray stopped walking, and he shone his flashlight around and announced, "We'll set up camp here." It was none too soon for Ben and me, because our legs were whipped. We shrugged the knapsacks off our aching shoulders and peed in the pine straw and then we set about finding wood for a fire. In this case we were lucky, because there were plenty of pine branches and pine cones lying about and those burned on half a match. So before long we had a sensible fire going, the firepit rimmed with stones as my dad had told me to do, and by its ruddy light we three frontiersmen ate the sandwiches our mothers had made.
The flames crackled. Ben discovered a pack of marshmallows his mom had put in his knapsack. We found sticks and began the joyful task of toasting. all around our circle was nothing but dark beyond the firelight's edge, and lightning bugs blinked in the trees. a breath of wind stirred the treetops, and way up there we could see the blaze of the Milky Way across the sky.
In this forest sanctuary our voices were quiet, respectful for where we were. We talked about our dismal Little League season, vowing that somehow we'd get Nemo Curliss on our team next year. We talked about the Branlins, and how somebody ought to clean their clocks for screwing up Johnny's summer. We talked about how far we must be from home; five or six miles, Davy Ray believed, while Ben said it must be more like ten or twelve. We wondered aloud what our folks were doing at that very same instant, and we all agreed they were probably worried sick about us but this experience would be good for them. We were growing up now, and it was high time they understood our childhood days were numbered.
In the distance an owl began to hoot. Davy Ray talked with great anticipation about Snowdown, who must even now be somewhere in the same woods sharing these sights and sounds, perhaps hearing the same owl. Ben talked about school getting ready to start soon, but we shushed him. We lay on our backs as the firelight dimmed, and stared up at the sky as we talked about Zephyr and the people who lived there. It was a magic town, we all agreed. and we were touched with magic, too, for having been born there.
Sometime after the flames had died and the embers glowed red, after the owl had gone to sleep and the soft warm breeze brought the fragrance of wild cherries into our campsite, we watched shooting stars streak incandescent blue and gold across the heavens. When the show had ended and we were all lying there thinking, Davy Ray said, "Hey, Cory. How about tellin' us a storyi"
"Nah," I said. "I can't think of anythin'."
"Just make one up," Davy Ray urged. "Come on. Okayi"
"Yeah, but don't make it too scary," Ben said. "I don't wanna have bad dreams."
I thought for a while, and then I began. "Did you guys know they had a prison camp for Nazis around herei Dad told me all about it. Yeah, he said they had all these Nazis in this camp in the woods, and all of 'em were the worst killers you can think of. It was right near the air Force base, only this is before it was an air Force base."
"Is this for reali" Ben asked warily.
"Naw, dummy!" Davy Ray said. "He's makin' it up!"
"Maybe I am," I told him, "and maybe I'm not."
Davy Ray was silent.
"anyway," I went on, "there was a fire in this prison camp, and some of the Nazis got out. and some of 'em were all burned up, like their faces were all messed up and stuff, but they got out, right in these woods, and-"
"You saw this on 'Thriller,' didn't youi" Davy Ray asked.
"No," I said. "It's what my dad told me. This happened a long time ago, before any of us were even bora. So these Nazis got out into the woods right near here, and their leader-his name was Bruno-was a big guy with a scarred-up, burned face and he found a cave for everybody to live in. But there wasn't enough food for everybody, and so when some of them died the others cut up the bodies with knives and-"
"Oh, gross!" Ben said.
"and ate 'em, and Bruno always got the brains. He cracked open their skulls like walnuts, scooped out the brains with both hands, and threw 'em down his gullet."
"I'm gonna puke!" Davy Ray cried out, and made retching noises. Then he laughed and Ben laughed, too.
"after a long time-like two years-Bruno was the only one left, and he was bigger'n ever," I continued. "But his face never healed up from the fire. He had one eye on his forehead and the other eye hung down on his chin." This brought more gusts of laughter. "So after all that time in the cave, and eatin' the other Nazis up, Bruno was crazy. He was hungry, but he only wanted one thing to eat: brains."
"Yech!" Ben said.
"Brains was all he wanted," I told my audience of two. "He was seven feet tall and he weighed three hundred pounds, and he had a long knife that could slice the top of your head right off. Well, the police and the army were lookin' for him all this time but they never could find him. They found a forest ranger with the top of his head cut off and his brains gone. They found an old moonshiner dead and his brains gone, too, and they figured Bruno was gettin' closer and closer to Zephyr."
"Then they called in James Bond and Batman!" Davy Ray said.
"No!" I shook my head gravely. "There wasn't anybody to call in. There was just the policemen and the army soldiers, and every night Bruno walked through the forest carryin' his knife and a lantern, and his face was so ugly it could freeze people solid like Medusa and then slash! he cut somebody's head open and splatter! there were the brains down his throat."
"Oh, sure!" Ben grinned. "I'll bet ol' Bruno's still in these woods right now, eatin' people's brains for supper, huhi"
"Nope," I said, formulating the conclusion of my tale. "The police and the soldiers found him, and they shot him so many times he looked like Swiss cheese. But every so often, if you happen to be out in the woods on a real dark night, you can see Bruno's lantern movin' through the trees." I spoke this in an icy whisper, and neither Davy Ray nor Ben did any more laughing. "Yeah, you can see his lantern movin' as he wanders in search of somebody's brains to eat. He casts that light all around, and if you get close to it, you can see the shine of his knife, but don't look at his face!" I held up a warning finger. "No, don't you look at his face, 'cause it'll drive you crazy and it might just make you want to eat some brains!" I yelled the last word and jumped as I yelled it, and Ben hollered with fright but Davy Ray just laughed again.
"Hey, that's not funny!" Ben protested.
"You don't have to worry about ol' Bruno," Davy Ray told him. "You don't have any brains, so that lets you off the-"
Davy Ray stopped speaking, and he just sat there staring into the dark.
"What is iti" I asked him.
"ahhhh, he's tryin' to scare us!" Ben scoffed. "Well, it ain't workin'!"
Davy Ray's face had gone white. I swear I saw his scalp ripple, and the hair stand up. He said, "Guh... guh... guh..." and he lifted his arm and pointed.
I turned around to look in the direction he indicated. I heard Ben make a choked gasp. My own hair jittered on my head, and my heart kaboomed.
a light was coming toward us, through the trees.
"Guh... guh... God a'mighty!" Davy Ray croaked.
We all three were struck with the kind of horror that makes you want to dig a hole, jump in, and pull the hole in after you. The light was moving slowly, but coming closer. and as it came closer it broke into two, and all of us got down on our quaking bellies in the pine straw. In another moment I could tell what it was: a car's headlights. The car looked like it was going to roll right over our hiding-place, and then it veered away and we watched its red taillights flare as the driver applied the brakes. The car kept going, following a winding trail that was only fifty yards or so from our campsite, and in a couple of minutes it had disappeared amid the trees.
"Did you guys see thati" Davy Ray whispered.
"'Course we saw it!" Ben whispered back. "We're right here, aren't wei"
"Wonder who was in that car, and why they're way out herei" Davy Ray looked at me. "You want to find out, Coryi"
"Probably moonshiners," I answered. My voice trembled. "I think we'd better leave 'em alone."
Davy Ray picked up his flashlight. His face was still pallid, but his eyes shone with excitement. "I'm gonna find out what's goin' on! You guys can stay here if you want to!" He stood up, flicked on the flashlight, and began to stealthily follow the car. He stopped when he realized we weren't with him. "It's okay," he said. "I won't think you guys are scared or anythin'."
"Good," Ben answered, "'cause I'm stickin' right here."
I stood up. If Davy Ray had enough courage to go, then so did I. Besides, I wanted to know who was driving a car way out here in the woods myself. "Come on!" he said. "But watch where you step!"
"I'm not stayin' here alone!" Ben hoisted himself to his feet. "You two are damn crazy, you know thati"
"Yeah." Davy Ray sounded proud about it. "Everybody stay low and no talkin'!"
We crept from tree to tree, following the trail that we hadn't even seen when we'd set up camp at nightfall. Davy Ray kept the flashlight's beam aimed at the ground, so it couldn't be spotted by anyone up ahead. The trail wound back and forth between the trees. The owl was hooting again, and lightning bugs blinked around us. We'd gone a couple of hundred yards more along the trail when Davy Ray suddenly stopped and whispered, "There it is!"
We could see the car ahead of us. It was sitting still, but its lights were on and the engine was rumbling. We crouched down in the pine straw, and I don't know about the others, but my heart was going a mile a minute. The car didn't move. Whoever was sitting behind the wheel didn't get out. "I've gotta pee!" Ben whispered urgently. Davy Ray told him to squeeze it.
after five or six minutes, we saw more lights coming through the woods from the opposite direction. It was another car, this one a black Cadillac, and it stopped, facing the first car. Davy Ray looked at me, his expression saying we'd really stumbled into something this time. I didn't particularly care what was going on; I just wanted to get away from what I figured was a meeting of moonshiners. Then the doors of the first car opened, and two people got out.
"Oh, man!" Davy Ray breathed.
Standing in the crossing of headlights were two men wearing ordinary clothes except until you got to their heads, which were covered by white masks. One of the men was medium-sized, the other was big and fat, with a belly that flopped over the waist of his jeans. The medium-sized man was smoking either a cigarette or cigar, it was hard to tell which, and he angled his masked head and blew smoke from the corner of his mouth. Then the Cadillac's doors opened, and I almost swallowed my heart when Bodean Blaylock slid out from behind the wheel. It was him, all right; I remembered his face from when he'd looked across the poker table at me, same to say he had my granddaddy and wasn't about to let him go. a slim man with slicked-back dark hair and a jutting slab of a chin got out of the passenger side; he was wearing tight black pants and a red shirt with cowboy spangles on the shoulders, and at first I thought it was Donny Blaylock but Donny didn't have a chin like that. This man opened the Cadillac's right rear door, and the whole car trembled as whoever was still inside started to climb out.
It was a mountain on two legs.
His gut was tremendous, straining the front of the red-checked shirt and overalls he wore. When he rose up to his full height, he was maybe six and a half feet tall. He was baldheaded except for a wisp of gray hair circling his acorn-shaped skull, and he had a trimmed gray beard that angled to a point below his chin. He breathed like a bellows, his face a ruddy mass of wrinkled flesh. "You boys goin' to a masquerade partyi" he growled in a voice like a cement mixer, and he laughed hut-hut-hut like a big old engine starting to fire its plugs. Bodean laughed, and the other man laughed, too. The men wearing the masks shifted uneasily. "You fellas look like sacks of shit," the mountainous bulk said as he shambled forward. I swear his hands were the size of country hams, and his feet in their scuffed-up boots looked like they could stomp down small trees.
The masked man with the bulbous belly said, "We're incog... incog... We don't wanna be recognized."
"Shit, Dick!" the bearded monster said, and he guffawed again. "Have to be a blind fuckin' fool not to recognize your fat gut and ass!" Talk about the pot calling the kettle black, I thought.
"awwww, you're not supposed to recognize us, Mr. Blaylock!" the man who'd been called Dick answered with a whine of petulance, and I realized with a double start that this man was Mr. Dick Moultry and the other was Biggun Blaylock, the fearsome head of the Blaylock clan himself.
Ben realized it, too. "Let's get outta here!" he whispered, but Davy Ray hissed, "Shut up!"
"Well," Biggun said, his hands on his massive hips, "I don't give a shit if you wear sackcloth and ashes. You bring the moneyi"
"Yes sir." Mr. Moultry reached into his pocket and brought out a wad of bills.
"Count it," Biggun ordered.
"Yes sir. Fifty... one hundred... hundred and fifty... two hundred..." He kept counting, up to four hundred dollars. "Take the money, Wade," Biggun said, and the man in the spangled shirt walked forward to get it.
"Just a minute," the second masked man said. "Where's the merchandisei" He was talking in a low, gruff voice that sounded false, yet I knew that voice from somewhere.
"Bodean, get what the fella wants," Biggun told him, and Bodean took the Cadillac's keys from the ignition and walked back to the trunk. Biggun's gaze stayed fixed on the man with the false voice. I was glad it wasn't directed at me, because it looked so intense it could puddle iron. "It's fine, quality work," Biggun said. "Just what you boys asked for."
"It oughta be. We're payin' enough for it."
"You want a demonstrationi" Biggun grinned, his mouth full of gleaming teeth. "If I were you, friend, I'd get rid of that cheroot."
The masked man took a final pull on it, then he turned and flicked it right where we were hiding. It fell into the pine straw about four feet in front of me, and I saw its chewed plastic tip. I knew who smoked cheroots with a tip like that. It was Mr. Hargison, our mailman.
Bodean had opened the trunk. Now he closed it again, and he approached the two masked men carrying a small wooden box in his arms. He carried it gently, as if it might hold a sleeping baby.
"I want to see it," Mr. Hargison said in a voice I'd never heard Mr. Hargison use.
"Show him what he's buyin'," Biggun told his son, and Bodean carefully released a latch and opened the box's top to reveal what lay within. None of us guys could see inside the box, but Mr. Moultry walked over to peer in and he gave a low whistle behind his mask.
"That suit youi" Biggun asked.
"It'll do just fine," Mr. Hargison said. "They won't know what hit 'em until they're tap-dancin' in hell."
"I threw in an extra." Biggun grinned again, and I thought he looked like Satan himself. "For good luck," he said. "Close it up, Bodean. Wade, take our money."
"Davy Ray!" Ben whispered. "Somethin's crawlin' on me!"
"Shut up, goofus!"
"I mean it! Somethin's on me!"
"You hear anythin'i" Mr. Moultry asked, and that question froze the marrow in my bones.
The men were silent. Mr. Hargison gripped the box with both hands, and Wade Blaylock had the fistful of money. Biggun's head slowly turned from side to side, his blastfurnace eyes searching the woods. Hoot-hoot, went the distant owl. Ben made a soft, terrified whining noise. I hugged the earth, my chin buried in pine straw, and near my face Mr. Hargison's cheroot smoldered.
"I don't hear nothin'," Wade Blaylock said, and he took the money to his father. Biggun counted it again, his tongue flicking back and forth across his lower lip, and then he shoved the cash into a pocket. "Okey-dokey," he said to the two masked men. "I reckon that concludes our bidness, gents. Next time you want a special order, you know how to find me." He started trudging back to get into the Cadillac again, and Bodean moved fast to open the door for him.
"Thank you kindly, Mr. Blaylock." Something about Mr. Moultry's voice made me think of a ratty dog trying to lick up to a mean master. "We sure do appreciate the-"
The world ceased its turning. The owl went dumb. The Milky Way flickered on the verge of extinction.
Ben hollered it again: "Spiders!" He started thrashing wildly amid the pine needles. " They're all over me!"
I couldn't draw a breath. Just couldn't do it. Davy Ray stared at Ben, his mouth hanging open as Ben writhed and yelled. The five men were frozen where they stood, all of them looking in our direction. My heart thundered. Three seconds passed like a lifetime, and then Biggun Blaylock's shout parted the night: "Get 'em!"
"Run!" Davy Ray hollered, scrambling to his feet. "Run for it!"
Wade and Bodean were coming after us, their shadows thrown large by the crossing of headlights. Davy Ray was already running back in the direction we'd come, and I said, "Run, Ben!" as I got up and fled. Ben squawked and struggled up, his hands madly plucking at his clothes. I looked over my shoulder and saw Wade about to reach Ben, but then Ben put on a burst of frantic speed and left Wade snatching at empty air. "Come back here, you little bastards!" Bodean yelled as he chased after Davy Ray and me. "Get 'em, damn it!" Biggun bellowed. "Don't let 'em get away!"
Davy Ray was fast, I'll say that for him. He left me behind pretty quick. The only trouble was, he had the flashlight. I couldn't see where I was going, and I could hear Bodean's breath rasping behind me. I dared to glance back again, but Ben had headed off in another direction with Wade at his heels. Whether Mr. Hargison and Mr. Moultry were coming after us, too, I didn't know. Bodean Blaylock was reaching for me, about to snag my collar. I ducked my head and changed directions on him, and he skidded in the pine straw. I kept going, through the dark wilderness. "Davy Ray!" I shouted, because I no longer could see his light. "Where are youi"
"Over here, Cory!" he called, but I couldn't tell where he was. Behind me, I heard Bodean crashing through the underbrush. I had to keep running, the sweat leaking from my face. "Cory! Davy Ray!" Ben shouted from somewhere off to the right. "Goddammit, bring 'em back here!" Biggun raged. I dreaded finding out what that monstrous mountain and his brood would do to us, because whatever had been going on back there was definitely something he'd wanted to keep a secret. I started to call for Ben, but as I opened my mouth my left foot slid on pine needles and suddenly I was rolling down an embankment like a sack of grain. I rolled into bushes and vines, and when I stopped I was so scared and dizzy I almost upchucked my toasted marshmallows. I lay there on my belly, my chin scraped raw by something I'd collided with, while I waited for a hand to winnow from the darkness and grab the back of my neck. I heard branches cracking; Bodean was nearby. I held my breath, fearing he could hear my heartbeat. To me it sounded like a drum corps all slamming an anvil with sledgehammers, and if Bodean couldn't detect it, he was surely as deaf as a post.
His voice drifted to me, from my left. "Might as well give up, kid. I know where you are."
He sounded convincing. I almost answered him, but I realized he was just as much in the dark as I was. I kept my mouth shut and my head low.
a few seconds later, Bodean shouted from a little farther away: "We're gonna find you! Oh yeah, don't you worry, we'll find every one of you sneakin' bastards!"
He was moving off. I waited a couple of minutes longer, listening to the Blaylocks calling to each other. Evidently, Davy Ray and Ben had both escaped and Biggun was furious about it. "You're gonna find those kids if it takes you all goddamn night!" he roared at his sons, and they meekly answered "Yes sir." I figured I'd better get out while the getting was good, so I got up and crept away like a whipped pup.
I sure didn't know where I was going. I knew only that I needed to put as much distance between my skin and the Blaylocks as possible. I thought about doubling back and trying to find the other guys, but I was scared the Blaylocks would nab me. I just kept walking into the dark. If bobcats and rattlers were anywhere around, they couldn't possibly be worse than the two-legged beasts behind me. Maybe I walked for half an hour before I found a boulder to crouch on, and under the stars I realized my predicament: my knapsack, with all it contained, was back at the campsite, wherever that might be from here. I had no food, no water, no flashlight, no matches, and Davy Ray had the compass.
I had a crushing thought: Mom had been right. I should've waited until I was thirteen.
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