PaRT THREE - Burning autumn
The Magic Box
Dinner with Vernon
The Wrath of Five Thunders
Dead Man Driving
High Noon in Zephyr
From the Lost World
XVII - Green-Feathered Hat
I pretended I didn't hear the ominous whisper.
No. I wasn't going to look. at the front of the schoolroom, Mrs. Judith Harper-otherwise known as "Hairpie," "Harpy," and "Old Leatherlungs"-was demonstrating on the blackboard the division of fractions. arithmetic was for me a walk into the Twilight Zone; this dividing fractions stuff was a mystifying fall into the Outer Limits.
"Coryi" she whispered again, behind me. "I've got a big ole green booger on my finger."
Oh my Lord, I thought. Not again!
"If you don't turn around and smile at me, I'm gone wipe it on the back of your neck."
It was the fourth day of class. I knew on the first day that it was going to be a long year, because some idiot had decreed the Demon a "gifted child" and had double-promoted her, and like the fickle finger of fate, Mrs. Harper had devised a seating chart-boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl-that put the Demon in the desk at my back.
and the worst part, the very worst, was that-as Davy Ray told me and laughed wickedly-she had a crush on me as big as the cheesy green moon.
"Coryi" Her voice demanded my attention.
I had to turn around. Last time I'd resisted, she'd smeared saliva on the back of my neck in the shape of a heart.
Brenda Sutley was grinning, her red hair oily and ratty and her wandering eyes shining with mischief. She held up her index finger, which had a dirt-grimed nail but no booger on it.
"Got'cha," she whispered.
"Cory Jay Mackenson!" Leatherlungs roared. " Turn around this instant!"
I did, almost giving myself whiplash. I heard the traitors around me giggling, knowing that the Harpy would not be satisfied with this display of respect. "Oh, I guess you know all about the division of fractions by now, don't youi" she inquired, her hands on hips as wide as a Patton tank. "Well, why don't you come up here and do some division for us, to show us how it's donei" She held the accursed yellow chalk out to me.
If I am ever on death row, the walk to the electric chair will be no more terrifying than that walk from my desk to the chalk in Mrs. Harper's hand and then, ultimately, to the blackboard. "all right," she said as I stood there shoulder-slumped and hang-doggy. "Write down these fractions." She rattled some off, and when I copied them my chalk broke and Nelson Bittner laughed and in two seconds I had a fellow sufferer up there with me.
Everybody knew by now: we weren't going to be able to defeat Mrs. Harper with a frontal attack. We weren't going to be able to storm her ramparts and yell victory over her scattered math books. It would have to be a slow, insidious war of snipers and booby traps, a painstaking probe to learn her weakness. all us kids had found out by now that all teachers had a sore spot; some went crazy over gum chewing, others insane over behind-the-back giggles, still others nuts over the repeated squeaking and scuffing of shoes on the linoleum. Machine-gun coughs, donkeylike snorts, a fusillade of throat clearing, spitballs stuck to the blackboard: all these were arsenals in the battle against Hitlerian teachers. Who knowsi Maybe we could get the Demon to bring to class a dead, stinking animal in a shoebox, or get her to sneeze and blow ribbons of snot out of those talented nostrils of hers to make Mrs. Harper's hair uncurl.
"Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!" Leatherlungs bellowed at me as I finished my queasy attempt at fraction division. "Go sit down and pay attention, you blockhead!"
Between Leatherlungs and the Demon, I was really in for it.
after the three o'clock bell had rung and Davy Ray, Johnny, Ben, and I had jawed about the events of the day, I pedaled home on Rocket under a dark, glowering sky. I found Mom at home, cleaning the oven. "Cory!" she said when I walked into the kitchen intent on raiding the cookie jar. "Lady from the mayor's office called for you about ten minutes ago. Mayor Swope wants to see you."
"Mayor Swopei" I paused with my hand reaching for a Lorna Doone. "What fori"
"Didn't say what for, but she said it was important." Mom glanced out the window. "a storm's blowin' up. Your father'll drive you over to the courthouse, if you can wait an hour."
My curiosity was piqued. What would Mayor Swope want with mei I looked out the window as Mom continued her oven cleaning, and judged the gathering clouds. "I think I can get there before it starts rainin'," I said.
Mom pulled her head out of the oven, looked at the sky again, and frowned. "I don't know. It might start pourin' on you."
I shrugged. "I'll be all right."
She hesitated, her fretful nature gnawing at her. Ever since my camping trip, though, I could tell she'd been making a mighty effort to stop worrying so much about me. Even though I'd gotten lost, I'd proven I could survive in the face of hardship. Finally, she said, "Go on, then."
I took two Lorna Doones and headed for the porch.
"If it starts comin' down hard, you stay at the courthouse!" she called. "Heari"
"I hear!" I told her, and I got on Rocket and pedaled as I crunched the Lorna Doones between my teeth. Not too far from the house, Rocket suddenly shuddered and I felt the handlebars jerk to the left. ahead of me, the Branlins were pedaling side by side on their black bikes, but they were going in the same direction as me and didn't see me. Rocket wanted to turn to the left at the next intersection, and I followed Rocket's sage advice to take a detour.
Thunder was rumbling and it was starting to sprinkle a little as I reached the dark-stoned, gothic-styled courthouse at the end of Merchants Street. The drops were chilly; summer's warm rain was a thing of the past. I left Rocket chained to a fire hydrant and went into the courthouse, which smelled like a moldy basement. a sign on the wall said Mayor Swope's office was on the second floor, and I climbed the wide staircase, the high windows around me letting in murky, storm-blue light. at the top of the staircase, three carved gargoyles sat atop the black walnut banister, their scaly legs curled up and their claws folded across their chests. One wall was decorated with an old tattered Confederate flag and there were dusty display cases holding butternut uniforms riddled with moth holes. above my head was a darkened glass cupola, reachable only by ladder, and through the cupola I heard thunder resonate as through a bell jar.
I walked along the long corridor, which had a floor of black and white linoleum squares. On either side were offices: License Bureau, County Tax Department, Probate Judge, Traffic Court, and the like. None of their lights were on. I saw a man with dark hair and a blue-paisley bow tie coming out of a pebbled-glass door marked Sanitation and Maintenance. He locked the door from a ring of jingling keys and looked at me. "Can I help you, young fellai" he asked.
"I'm supposed to see Mayor Swope," I said.
"His office is at the end of the corridor." He checked his pocket watch. "Might be gone home by now, though. Most everybody leaves around three-thirty."
"Thank you," I told him, and I went on. I heard his keys jingling as he walked toward the stairs, and he whistled a tune I didn't know.
I passed the council's chambers and the recorder's office-both dark-and at the corridor's end I faced a big oak door with brass letters on it that said OFFICE OF THE MaYOR. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to knock or not, and there was no buzzer. I grappled with the question of etiquette here for a few seconds, as the thunder growled outside. Then I balled up my fist and knocked.
In a few seconds the door opened. a woman with hornrimmed glasses and an iron-gray mountain of hair peered out. Her face was like a chunk of granite, all hard ridges and cliffs. Her eyebrows lifted in a question.
"I'm... here to see Mayor Swope," I said.
"Oh. You're Cory Mackenson."
"Come in." She opened the door wider, and I slipped in past her. as I did, I got a jolt of either violet-scented perfume or hair spray up my nostrils. I had entered a red-carpeted room which held a desk, a row of chairs, and a magazine rack. a map of Zephyr, brown at the edges, adorned one wall. On the desk there was an in tray and an out tray, a neat stack of papers, framed photographs of a baby being held between a smiling young woman and man, and a nameplate that said MRS. INEZ aXFORD and, underneath that in smaller letters, MaYOR'S SECRETaRY.
"Just have a seat for a minute, please." Mrs. axford walked across the room to another door. She rapped softly on it, and I heard Mayor Swope say in his mushmouth accent, "Yesi" from the other side. Mrs. axford opened it. "The boy's here," she said.
"Thank you, Inez." I heard a chair creak. "I believe that finishes us up for the day. You can go on home if you like."
"Want me to send him ini"
"Two minutes and I'll be with him."
"Yes sir. Oh... did you sign that application for the new traffic lightsi"
"Need to study that a little more, Inez. Get to it first thing in the mornin'."
"Yes sir. I'll be goin' on, then." She retreated from the mayor's domain and closed the door and said to me, "He'll be with you in two minutes." as I waited, Mrs. axford locked her desk, got her sturdy brown purse, and straightened the photographs on her desk. She wedged her purse up under her arm, took a long look around the office to make sure everything was in its proper place, and then she walked out the door into the hallway without saying boot, shoot, or scoot to me.
I waited. Thunder boomed overhead and rolled through the courthouse. I heard the rain start-slowly at first, then building up to a hammering.
The door to the mayor's office opened, and Mayor Swope emerged. The sleeves of his blue shirt were rolled up, his initials in white on the breast pocket, his suspenders striped with red. "Cory!" he said, smiling. "Come in and let's have us a talk!"
I didn't know what to make of this. I knew who Mayor Swope was and all, but I'd never spoken to him. and here he was, smiling and motioning me into his office! The guys would believe this about as much as they believed I'd stuck a broomstick down Old Moses's throat!
"Come in, come in!" the mayor urged.
I walked into his office. Everything was fashioned of dark, glistening wood. The air smelled of sweet pipe tobacco. There was a desk in the office that seemed as big as the deck of an aircraft carrier. Shelves were full of thick, leatherbound books. They looked to me as if they had never been touched, because none had bookmarks in them. Two burly black leather chairs faced the desk over an expanse of Persian carpet. Windows afforded a view of Merchants Street, but right now the rain was streaming down them.
Mayor Swope, his gray hair combed back from a widow's peak and his eyes dark blue and friendly, closed the door. He said, "Have a seat, Cory." I hesitated. "Doesn't matter which one." I took the one on his left. The leather pooted when I sat down in it. Mayor Swope settled himself in his own chair, which had scrolled armrests. On his flattop of a desk was a telephone, a leather-covered jar full of pens, a can of Field and Stream tobacco, and a pipe rack cradling four pipes. One of the pipes was white, and had a man's bearded face carved into it.
"Gettin' some rain out there, aren't wei" he asked, his fingers lacing together. He smiled again, and this close I saw his teeth were discolored.
"Well, the farmers need it. Just so we don't have another flood, huhi"
Mayor Swope cleared his throat. His fingers tapped. "are your folks waitin' for youi" he asked.
"No sir. I came on my bike."
"Oh. Gosh, you're gonna have a wet ride home."
"I don't mind."
"Wouldn't be good," he said, "if you had an accident on the way. You know, with that rain comin' down so hard, a car could hit you, you could go down in a ditch and..." His smile had slipped. Now it crept back. "Well, it wouldn't be good."
"I suppose you're wonderin' why I wanted to see youi"
"You know I was on the panel that judged the writin' contesti I enjoyed your story. Yessir, it deserved a prize." He picked up a briar pipe and popped open the can of tobacco. "It surely did. You're the youngest person ever to win a plaque in the contest." I watched his fingers as he began to fill the pipe's bowl with bits of tobacco. "I checked the records. You're the youngest by far. That ought to make you and your folks very proud."
"I guess so."
"Oh, you don't have to be so modest, Cory! I sure couldn't write like that when I was your age! Nosir! I was good at math, but English wasn't my subject." He produced a pack of matches from his pocket, struck one, and touched it to the tobacco in his pipe. Blue smoke bloomed around his mouth. His eyes were on me. "You've got a keen imagination," he said. "That part in your story about seein' somebody standin' in the woods across the road. I liked that part. How'd you happen to come up with thati"
"It really-" Happened, I was going to say. But before I could, somebody knocked at the door. Mrs. axford looked in. "Mayor Swopei" she said. "Lord, it's pourin' cats and dogs! I couldn't even get to my car, and I just had my hair fixed yesterday! Do you have an umbrella I might borrowi"
"I believe so, Inez. Look in that closet over there."
She opened a closet and rummaged around in it. "Should be one in the corner," Mayor Swope told her. "Smells awfully musty in here!" Mrs. axford said. "I believe somethin's mildewed!"
"Yeah, gotta clean it out one of these days," he said.
Mrs. axford came out of the closet clutching an umbrella. But her nose was wrinkled, and in her other hand she was clutching two articles of clothing that were white with mildew. "Look at these!" she said. "I believe mushrooms are growin' in here!"
My heart seized up.
Mrs. axford was holding a mildew-blotched overcoat and a hat that appeared to have been run through a washer and wringer.
and in the band of that battered hat was a silver disc and a crumpled green feather.
"Whew! Just smell it!" Mrs. axford made a face that might've stopped a clock. "What're you keepin' this stuff fori"
"That's my favorite hat. Was, at least. It got ruined the night of the flood, but I thought I could get it fixed. and I've had that raincoat for fifteen years."
"No wonder you won't let me clean out your closet! What else is in herei"
"Never you mind! Run on, now! Leroy's waitin' at home for you!"
"You want me to throw these in the garbage on my way outi"
"No, Lord no!" Mayor Swope said. "Just put 'em back in there and close the door!"
"I swear," Mrs. axford said as she returned the items to the closet, "you men are worse about hangin' on to old clothes than little babies with their blankets." She closed the door with a firm thunk. "There. I can still smell that mildew, though."
"It's all right, Inez. You go on home, and be careful on the road."
"I will." She gave me a quick glance, and then she walked out of the office with the umbrella.
I don't think I had drawn a breath during that entire exchange. Now I pulled one in, and I shivered as the air burned my lungs.
"Now, Cory," Mayor Swope said, "where were wei Oh yes: the man across the road. How'd you come up with thati"
"I... I..." The green-feathered hat was in a closet ten feet from me. Mayor Swope was the man who'd worn it that night when the floodwaters had raged in the streets of Bruton. "I... never said it was a man," I answered. "I just said... it was somebody standin' there."
"Well, that was a nice touch. I'll bet that was an excitin' mornin' for you, wasn't iti" He reached into another pocket, and when his hand came into view there was a small silver blade in it.
It was the knife I'd seen in his hand, that night when I was afraid he was going to sneak up behind my dad and stab him in the back for what he'd seen at Saxon's Lake.
"I wish I could write," Mayor Swope said. He turned the blade around. On its other end was a blunt little piece of metal, which he used to tamp the burning tobacco down in his pipe. "I've always liked mysteries."
"Me too," I managed to rasp.
He stood up, rain pelting the windows behind him. Lightning zigzagged over Zephyr, and the lights suddenly flickered. Thunder crashed. "Oh my," Mayor Swope said. "That was a little too close, wasn't iti"
"Yes sir." My hands were about to break the armrests of my chair.
"I want you," he said, "to wait right here for a minute. There's somethin' I want to show you, and I think it'll explain things." He crossed the room, the pipe clenched between his teeth and a scrawl of smoke behind him, and he went out into the area where Mrs. axford's desk was. He left the door ajar, and I could hear him opening the drawer of a filing cabinet.
My gaze went to the closet.
The green feather was in there. So close. What if I was to pluck it from its hat and compare it to the green feather I'd found on the sole of my shoei If the feathers matched, what theni
I had to move fast if I was going to move at all.
The filing cabinet's drawer closed. another opened. "Just a minute!" Mayor Swope called to me. "It's not where it's supposed to be!"
I had to go. Right now.
I got up on rubbery legs and opened the closet. The reek of mildewed cloth hit me in the face like a damp slap. But the coat and the hat were there on the floor, nudged up into a corner. I heard the drawer slide shut. I grasped the feather and tugged at it. It wouldn't come loose.
Mayor Swope was coming back into the office. My heart was a cold stone in my throat. Thunder boomed and the rain slammed against the windows, and I grasped that green feather and jerked it and this time it tore loose from the hatband. It was mine.
"Coryi What're you doin' in-"
Lightning flared, so close you could hear the sizzle. The lights went out, and the next crack of thunder shook the windows.
I stood in the dark, the green feather in my hand and Mayor Swope in the doorway.
"Don't move, Cory," he said. "Say somethin'."
I didn't. I edged toward the wall and pressed my back against it.
"Coryi Come on, now. Let's don't play games." I heard him shut the door. a floorboard creaked, ever so quietly. He was moving. "Let's sit down and talk, Cory. There's somethin' very important you need to understand."
Outside, the clouds had gone almost black, and the room was a dungeon. I thought I could see his tall, thin shape gliding slowly toward me across the Persian carpet. I was going to have to get through him to the door.
"No need for this," Mayor Swope said, his voice trying to sound calm and reassuring. It had the same hollow ring as Mr. Hargison's false voice. "Coryi" I heard him release a long, resigned sigh. "You know, don't youi"
Darned right I knew.
"Where are you, soni Talk to me."
I didn't dare.
"How'd you find outi" he asked. "Just tell me that."
Lightning flickered and hissed. By its split-second glare I could see Mayor Swope, white as a zombie, standing at the center of the room with pipe smoke drifting around him like a wraith. Now my heart was really hammering; a spark of lightning had jumped off something metal clenched in his right hand.
"I'm sorry you found out, Cory," Mayor Swope said. "I didn't want you to get hurt."
I couldn't help it; in my panic, I blurted it out: "I wanna go home!"
"I can't let you do that," he said, and his shape began moving toward me through the electric-charged dark. "You understand, don't youi"
I understood. My legs responded first; they propelled me across the Persian carpet toward the way out, and my lungs snagged a breath and my hand gripped the green feather. I don't know how near I passed to him, but I got to the door unhindered and tried to twist the doorknob but my palm was slick with cold sweat. He must've heard the rattle, because he said, "Stop!" and I could sense him coming after me. Then the doorknob turned and the door opened and I shot through it as if from the barrel of a cannon. I collided with Mrs. axford's desk, and I heard the photographs clatter as they fell.
"Cory!" he said, louder. "No!"
I caromed off the side of the desk, a human pinball in motion. I went into the row of chairs, striking my right knee on a hard edge. My lips let out a cry of pain, and as I tried to find the door into the hallway it seemed that the chairs had come to malevolent life and were blocking my way. a cold chill skittered up my spine as Mayor Swope's hand fell on my shoulder like a spider.
"No!" he said, and his fingers started to close.
I pulled loose. a chair was beside me, and I shoved it at Mayor Swope like a shield. He stumbled into it, and I heard him say "Oof!" as his legs got tangled up and he fell to the floor. Then I turned away from him, frantically searching for the door. at any second I expected a hand to seal itself around my ankle, and that hand to draw me to him like the tentacle of the glass-bowled monster of Invaders from Mars. Tears of terror were starting to burn my eyes. I blinked them away, and suddenly my hand found the cold knob of the door that led out. I twisted it, pushed through, and ran along the storm-darkened corridor, my footsteps ringing on the linoleum and thunder echoing through the halls of justice.
"Cory! Come back here!" he hollered as if he really thought I might. He was coming after me, and he was running, too. I had the mental picture of myself beaten to a pulp, my hand cuffed to Rocket, and Rocket tumbling down, down, down into the awful netherworld of Saxon's Lake.
I tripped over my own flying feet, fell, and skidded on my belly across the linoleum. My chin banged into the bottom of a wall, but I scrambled up and kept going, Mayor Swope's footsteps right behind me. "Cory!" he shouted, fury in his voice. It was surely the voice of a crazed killer. " Stop where you are!"
Like hell, I thought.
and then I saw dank gray light streaming through the cupola over the staircase and I started running down the stairs without even holding on to the railing, which was enough right there to cause my mother to go white-haired. Mayor Swope was puffing behind me, and his voice was losing its steam: "No, Cory! No!" I reached the bottom of the staircase, and I ran across the entrance lobby and out the front door into the chilly rain. The worst of the storm had already swept over Zephyr, and now squatted above the hills like a massive grayish-blue toad-frog. I got Rocket unlocked, but I left the chain hanging. I pedaled away from the courthouse just as Mayor Swope came through the door hollering at me to stop.
The last thing he hollered-and I thought this was strange, coming from a crazed killer-was "For God's sake, be careful!"
Rocket flew over the rain-pocked puddles, its golden eye picking out a path. The clouds were parting, shards of yellow sunlight breaking through. Dad had always told me that when it rained while the sun showed, the devil was beating his wife. Rocket dodged the splashing cars on Merchants Street and I hung on for the ride.
at home, Rocket skidded to a stop at the front porch steps and I ran inside, my hair plastered down with rain and my hand gripping the soggy green feather.
"Cory!" Mom called as the screen door slammed. "Cory Mackenson, come here!"
"Just a minute!" I ran into my room, and I searched the seven mystic drawers until I found the White Owl cigar box. I opened it, and there was the green feather I'd found on the bottom of my shoe.
"Come here this instant!" Mom shouted.
"Wait!" I placed the first green feather down on my desk, and the green feather I'd plucked from the mayor's hatband beside it.
"Cory! Come in here! I'm on the phone with Mayor Swope!"
My feeling of triumph cracked, collapsed, cascaded around my wet sneakers.
The first feather, the one that had come from the woods, was a deep emerald green. The one from the mayor's hatband was about three shades lighter. Not only that, but the hatband feather was at least twice as large as the Saxon's Lake feather.
They didn't match one iota.
"Cory! Come talk to the mayor before I get a switch after you!"
When I dared to walk into the kitchen, I saw that my mother's face was as red as a strangled beet. She said into the telephone, "No sir, I promise you Cory doesn't have a mental condition. No sir, he doesn't have panic attacks, either. Here he is right now, I'll put him on." She held the receiver out to me, and fixed me with a baleful glare. "Have you lost your mindi Take this phone and talk to the mayor!"
I took it. It was all I could do to utter one pitiable word: "Helloi"
"Cory!" Mayor Swope said. "I had to call to make sure you'd gotten home all right! I was scared to death you were gonna fall down those stairs in the dark and break your neck! When you ran out, I thought you were... like... havin' a fit or somethin'."
"No sir," I answered meekly. "I wasn't havin' a fit."
"Well, when the lights went out I figured you might be afraid of the dark. I didn't want you to hurt yourself, so I was tryin' to get you settled down. and I figured your mom and dad wouldn't want me to let you try gettin' home in that storm, either! If you'd gotten sideswiped by a car... well, thank the Lord it didn't happen."
"I... thought..." My throat choked up. I could feel my mother's burning eyes. "I thought... you were tryin' to... kill me," I said.
The mayor was silent for a few seconds, and I could imagine what he must be thinking. I was a pure number-one nut case. "Kill youi Whatever fori"
"Cory!" Mom said. "are you crazyi"
"I'm sorry," I told the mayor. "My... imagination got away from me, I guess. But you said I knew somethin' about you, and you wondered how I'd found out, and-"
"No, not somethin' about me," Mayor Swope said. "Somethin' about your award."
"Your plaque. For winnin' third place in the short story contest. That's why I asked you to come see me. I was afraid somebody else on the awards panel had told you before I could."
"Told me whati"
"Well, I wanted to show it to you. I was bringin' your plaque in to show you when the lights went out and you went wild. See, the fella who engraves the plaques misspelled your name. He spelled Cory with an 'e.' I wanted you to see it before the ceremony so you wouldn't get your feelin's hurt. The fella's promised to do your plaque again, but he's got to do some softball awards first and he can't get to it for two weeks. Understandi"
Oh, what a bitter pill. What a bitter, bitter pill.
"Yes sir," I answered. I felt dazed, and my right knee was really starting to throb. "I do."
"are you on... any medicationi" the mayor asked me.
He grunted quietly. That grunt said, You sure ought to be.
"I'm sorry I acted a fool," I said. "I don't know what got into me." If he figured I was crazy now, I thought, just wait until he saw what I'd done to his hat. I decided to let him find that out for himself.
"Well," and the mayor gave a little laugh that told me he was finding some humor in this mess, "it's been a real interestin' afternoon, Cory."
"Yes sir. Uh... Mayor Swopei"
"Uh... the plaque's okay as it is. Even with my name spelled wrong. You don't have to get it fixed." I figured this was penance of a sort; every time I looked at that plaque, I'd remember the day I shoved a chair at the mayor and knocked him down.
"Nonsense. We'll get it changed for you."
"I'd just as soon have it the way it is now," I told him, and I guess I sounded firm about it because Mayor Swope said, "all right, Cory, if that's what you really want."
He said he had to go get into a bathtub full of Epsom salts, and then he said he'd see me at the awards ceremony. When he hung up, I had to face my mother and explain to her why I'd thought Mayor Swope was going to kill me. Dad came in during this explanation, and though by all rights I should have been punished for my foolishness, my folks simply sent me to my room for an hour, which was where I was going to go anyhow.
In my room, I looked at the two mismatched green feathers. One bright, one sober. One small, one large. I picked up the Saxon's Lake feather and held it in the palm of my hand, and I found my magnifying glass and examined the feather's rills and ridges. Maybe Sherlock Holmes could've deduced something from it, but I was as confounded as Dr. Watson.
Mayor Swope had been the man in the green-feathered hat. His "knife" had been his pipe-cleaning tool. This feather in my hand had nothing to do with Mayor Swope's hat. Did it have anything to do with the figure I thought I'd seen standing at the edge of the woods, or the dead man at the bottom of the lakei One thing I knew for sure: there were no emerald-green birds in the woods around Zephyr. So where had that feather come fromi
I put the mayor's feather aside, intending to return it to him though I knew deep down in my heart I never would, and I slid the Saxon's Lake feather back into the White Owl box which was deposited once more into one of the seven mystic drawers.
That night I dreamed again about the four black girls, all dressed up as if for church. I guessed the youngest was maybe ten or eleven, the other three around fourteen. Only this time they stood talking to each other under a green, leafy tree. Two of them were holding Bibles. I couldn't hear what was being said. One of them laughed, and then the others laughed and the sound was like water rippling. Then there was a bright flash so intense I had to close my eyes, and I was standing at the center of thunder and a hot wind yanked at my clothes and hair. When I opened my eyes again, the four black girls were gone and the tree was stripped bare.
I woke up. There was sweat on my face, as if I had actually been kissed by that scorching breath. I heard Rebel barking in the dark from the backyard. I looked at the luminous dial of my alarm clock, seeing that it was almost two-thirty. Rebel barked on and on, like a machine, and his voice was igniting other dogs, so I figured since I was awake I'd go out and calm him down. I started out of my room, and I saw at once that a light was on in the den.
I could hear a scratching noise. I followed it to the den's threshold, and there I saw my father, wearing his pajamas, sitting at his desk where he wrote out the checks for the bills. He gripped a pen in his hand, and under a pool of light he was writing or drawing something on a sheet of paper. His eyes looked feverish and sunken, and I saw that moisture glistened on his forehead just as it did on mine.
Rebel's barking broke. He started to howl.
Dad muttered, "Damn it," and stood up, being careful not to scrape his chair on the floor. I shrank back into a shadow; I'm not sure why I did this, but Dad looked like he didn't want to be disturbed. He walked to the back door, and I heard him go out to hush Rebel.
Rebel's howling ceased. Dad would be back in a minute or two.
I couldn't help it. I had to know what was so important for him to be up at two-thirty doing.
I walked into the den, and I looked at the sheet of paper.
On it, my father-who was by no means an artist-had drawn a half-dozen crude skulls with wings growing from their temples. There was a column of question marks, and the words Saxon's Lake repeated five times. The Lady was written there, followed by another series of question marks. Down in the dark was there, the pen's point almost tearing through the paper. It was followed in capital letters by two desperate questions: WHOi WHYi
and then a progression that made me feel sick to my stomach:
I am afraid.
I am about to have a breakd
The back door opened.
I retreated to my shadow, and watched as Dad entered the den. He sat down again, and he stared at what he'd drawn and written.
I had never seen his face before. Not the face he wore now, at this quiet hour before the sun. It was the face of a frightened little boy, tortured beyond his understanding.
He opened a drawer and took out a coffee cup with Green Meadows Dairy stenciled on the side. He brought out a pack of matches. Then he folded the sheet of paper up, and began to tear it into small pieces. The fragments of it went into the coffee cup. When the paper was all torn up, Dad struck a match and dropped it into the cup, too.
There was a little smoke. He opened a window, and then there was none.
I slipped back to my room and lay down to think.
While I was dreaming of the four black girls in their Sunday dresses, what was my father being visited byi a mud-covered figure rising from the lake's murky depths, borne up by a fleet of moss-backed snapping turtlesi a beaten and misshapen face, whispering Come with me, come with me, down in the darki a handcuff on the wrist of a tattooed armi Or the knowledge that it could be any man and every man who ends his life alone, forgotten, drifting down into oblivioni
I didn't know, and I was afraid to guess. But I knew this for sure: whoever had murdered that unknown man was killing my father, too.
at last sleep overtook me, and gentled me away from these tribulations. I rested, while around me my monsters kept their watch.
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