Chapter Twenty-Five

PaRT FOUR  -  Winter's Cold Truth

a Solitary Traveler


Snippets of the Quilt

Mr. Moultry's Castle

Sixteen Drops of Blood

The Stranger among Us

XXV  -  a Solitary Traveler


I had just walked in from school, with Thanksgiving four days behind us. This news hit me like a blow to the belly. Mom's face was grim, her eyes already seeing days of hardship ahead. She knew the red-ink realities of her baking business; Big Paul's Pantry had an immense section of pies and cakes as well as milk in disposable plastic jugs.

"They told him when he went in," she continued. "They gave him two weeks' pay and a bonus, and they said they couldn't afford him anymore."

"Where is hei" I dropped my books on the nearest flat surface.

"Gone somewhere, about an hour ago. He sat around most of the day, couldn't eat a bite of lunch or hardly talk. Tried to sleep some, but he couldn't. I believe he's about wrecked, Cory."

"Do you know where he's gonei"

"No. He just said he was goin' somewhere to think."

"Okay. I'm gonna try to find him."

"Where're you goin'i"

"Saxon's Lake, first," I told her, and I walked out to Rocket.

She followed me to the porch. "Cory, you be care-" She stopped herself. It was time to admit that I was on my way to being a man. "I hope you find him," she offered.

I rode away, under a low gray sky threatening sleet.

It was a good haul out there from my house. The wind was blowing against me. as I pedaled on Route Ten, my head thrust forward over the handlebars, I looked cautiously from side to side at the wind-stripped woods. The beast from the lost world was still at large. That in itself wasn't a fearful thing, since I doubted the triceratops wanted to have much to do with the entrapping mudhole of civilization. What made me cautious was the fact that two days before Thanksgiving Marty Barklee, who brought the newspapers in from Birmingham before the sun, had been driving along this very road when a massive bulk had come out of the woods and slammed into his car so hard that its tires left the pavement. I'd seen Mr. Barklee's car. The passenger side was crushed in as if kicked by a giant steel boot, the window smashed all to pieces. Mr. Barklee had said the monster had literally hit and run. I believed the triceratops had staked out his claim in these dense and swampy woods around Saxon's Lake, and any vehicles on Route Ten were in jeopardy because the triceratops thought they were rival dinosaurs. Whether he would think Rocket was worth a snort and charge, I didn't know. I just knew to keep pedaling and looking. Evidently, Mr. attitude had not realized that instead of a big gray lump that sat snoozing in the mud, he owned a Patton tank that could outrun a car. Freedom will sure speed your legs, that's for sure. and for all its age and size, the triceratops was at heart a boy.

Other than having Davy Ray show up at my front door with a chain cutter, I never let on what I suspected. Johnny didn't either, and we never told Ben because sometimes Ben had a runaway mouth. Davy Ray didn't speak a word about it other than to remark he hoped they just let the creature live out its days in peace. I was never exactly sure, but it seemed like the kind of thing Davy Ray might have done. How was he to know the triceratops was going to do ten thousand dollars' worth of damagei Well, glass could be replaced and metal hammered out. Mr. Wynn Gillie and his wife moved to Florida like they'd been wanting to do for five or six years. Before Mr. Gillie left, Mr. Dollar told him the swamps of Florida were full of dinosaurs, that they came to your back door begging for table scraps. Mr. Gillie turned paste-white and started shaking until "Jazzman" Jackson told him Mr. Dollar was only pulling his leg.

as I turned the curve that would take me past Saxon's Lake, I saw Dad's pickup truck parked over near the red rock cliff. I coasted, trying to figure out what I was going to say. Suddenly I had run out of words. This was not going to be like feeding the magic box; this was real life, and it was going to be very, very hard.

I didn't see him anywhere around the truck as I eased Rocket onto the kickstand. and then I did see him: a small figure, sitting on a granite boulder halfway around the lake. He was staring out across the black, wind-rippled water. as I watched him, I saw him lift a bottle to his lips and drink deeply. Then he lowered the bottle, and sat there staring.

I began walking to him through a morass of reeds and stickerbushes. The red mud squished under my shoes, and I saw my father's footprints in it. He had come this way many times before, because he'd trampled down a narrow trail through the worst of the undergrowth. In doing this he had unconsciously continued his work as a father, by making the path just a little easier for the son.

When I got nearer, he saw me coming. He didn't wave. He lowered his head, and I knew he, too, had run out of words.

I stood ten feet away from him on the boulder, which at one time had been part of the lip of Saxon's Quarry. He sat with his head bowed and his eyes closed, and beside him was a plastic jug half-full of grape juice. I realized he had gone shopping at Big Paul's Pantry.

The wind shrilled around me and made the trees' bare branches clatter. "You all righti" I asked.

"No," he said.

"Mom told me."


I dug my hands into the pockets of my fleece-lined denim jacket, and I gazed out over the dark, dark water. Dad didn't say anything for a long time, and neither did I. Then he cleared his throat. "Want some grape juicei"

"No sir."

"Got plenty left."

"No sir, I'm not thirsty."

He lifted his face to me. In the hard, cold light he looked terribly old. I thought I could see his skull beneath the thin flesh, and this sight frightened me. It was like looking at someone you loved very much, slowly dying. His emotions had already been balanced on the raw edge. I remembered his desperately scribbled questions in the middle of the night, and his unspoken fears that he was about to suffer a breakdown. I saw all too clearly that my father-not a mythic hero, not a superman, but just a good man-was a solitary traveler in the wilderness of anguish.

"I did everythin' they asked me to," he said. "Worked a double route. Picked up the slack when it needed pickin' up. Got there early and stayed late doin' stock work. I did whatever they wanted." He looked up, trying to find the sun, but the clouds were plates of iron. "They said, Tom, you have to understand how it is.' They said, 'We've got to cut to the bone to keep Green Meadows afloat.' and you know what else they said, Coryi"

"No sir."

"They said home milk delivery is as dead as the dinosaurs. They said there's no room for it in all those shelves of plastic jugs. They said the future is gonna be easy come and easy go, and that's what people want." He laced his fingers together, a muscle in his gaunt jaw working. "That's not what I want."

"We'll be all right," I said.

"Oh, yeah." He nodded. "Yes, we will be. I'll find somethin' else. I went by the hardware store before I came here and wrote up an application. Mr. Vandercamp Junior might need a truck driver. Heck, I'd work behind a cash register. But I really did think that in three more years I'd be an assistant foreman on the loadin' dock. I really did. Dumb, huhi"

"You didn't know."

"I never know," he said. "That's my trouble."

The water rippled as the wind swept across it, kicking up little wavelets. In the woods beyond, unseen crows cawed. "It's cold, Dad," I said. "We ought to go home."

"I can't wait for your granddad to find out about this." He was talking about the Jaybird. "Won't he have a fine old laughi"

"Mom and me won't be laughin'," I said. "Neither will anybody else."

He picked up the grape juice jug and took another long swig. "Went by Big Paul's Pantry, too. I walked in there and saw all that milk. a white sea of it." He looked at me again. His lips were blue. "I want things to stay the way they are. I don't want a gum-chewin' girl who doesn't know my name to take my money and not even smile when I ask her how she's doin'. I don't want supermarkets open until eight o'clock at night and full of lights that hurt your eyes. Families ought to be home together at eight o'clock at night, not out at the supermarket buyin' stuff that the big banners hangin' from the ceilin' say you ought to buy. I mean... if it goes so far, even in the little ways, we can't ever go back. and someday somebody'll say, 'Oh, it's so fine we can go to the supermarket after dark and we can pick and choose from shelves of stuff we've never even heard of before, but whatever happened to those milkmen, or those fellas used to sell watermelons out of the back of their trucks, or that woman who sold fresh vegetables right out of her garden and smiled like the sun when you said good mornin'i' Somebody'll say, 'Oh, they sell all those things at the supermarket now, and you don't have to go hither and yon to buy what you need, it's all under one roof. and why don't they do that to everythin'i Just put a whole town's stores under one roof so the rain won't fall on you and you won't get cold. Wouldn't that be a jim-dandy ideai'" My father worked his knuckles for a moment. "and then you'll have stores and roads and houses, but you won't have towns anymore. Not the way they are now. and you'll walk into one of those stores under one roof and you'll ask for somethin' and the gum-chewin' girl'll say no, we don't have that. We don't have that, and we can't get it for you because they don't make that anymore. That's not what people want, you see. People only want what the big banners hangin' from the ceilin' tell them to want. We only have those things, and they're made by machines a thousand a minute. But they're perfect, she'll say. Not an imperfection in the lot. and when you use it up or get tired of it or when the banners change, you can just throw it away because it's made to be thrown away. Now! she'll say, How many of these perfect things do you need today, and please hurry because there's a line behind you."

He was silent. I heard his knuckles crack.

"It's just one supermarket," I said.

"The first one," he replied.

He narrowed his eyes, and for maybe a minute he stared out at the lake as the wind scrawled patterns across its surface.

"I hear you," he said softly.

I knew who he was talking to. "Dadi Can we go homei"

"You go on. I'm gonna sit here and listen to my friend."

I heard the wind and the crows, but I knew my father heard another voice. "What's he sayin', Dadi"

"He's sayin' the same thing he always says. He's sayin' he's not gonna let me alone until I come with him, down in the dark."

Tears came to my eyes. I blinked them away. "You're not gonna go, are youi"

"No, son," he said. "Not today."

I almost told him about Dr. Lezander. My mouth opened, but my brain posed a question: What would I tell my fatheri That Dr. Lezander didn't like milk and was a night owl, and Vernon Thaxter believed those were the qualities of a killeri What came out of my mouth was: "The Lady knows things, Dad. She can help us if we ask her."

"The Lady," he repeated. His voice sounded thick. "She pulled a good one on Biggun Blaylock, didn't shei"

"Yes sir, she did. She could help us if we go see her."

"Maybe so. Maybe not." He frowned, as if the thought of asking the Lady's help caused him deep pain. It was surely no worse than the pain already lodged and festering. "I'll tell you what," he said as the frown went away. "I'll ask my friend what he thinks."

I was scared for him. Very, very scared. "Please come home soon," I told him.

"I will." He nodded. "Soon."

I left him there, sitting on the boulder under the low gray clouds. When I made my way to Rocket, I looked back and saw him standing on the boulder's edge. His attention was fixed on the water below him, as if he were searching for the trace of a car in those terrible depths. I started to call to him, to warn him away from the edge, but then he walked back to where he'd been and sat down again.

Not today, he'd said. I had to believe him.

I pedaled home the way I'd come, and I had way too much on my mind to even give a thought to the beast from the lost world.

The following days were gray and cold, the hills around Zephyr brown as the grass on Poulter Hill. We entered December, the jolly month. Dad was around some days when I got home from school, and some days he was not. Mom, who suddenly appeared strained and tired beyond her years, said he was out looking for work. I hoped he wasn't back on that boulder, contemplating the future in a mirror of black glass.

The mothers of my friends were supportive. They started bringing over covered dishes, baskets of biscuits, homemade canned goods, and such. Mr. Callan promised to bring us some venison from his first kill of the season. Mom insisted on baking everyone cakes in return. Dad ate the food, but I could tell it was killing him to take such obvious charity. Evidently the hardware store didn't need a truck driver, nor did it need another man behind the cash register. Often at night I heard Dad up and about, rambling around the house. It started being that he slept much of the day, until eleven or so, and remained awake until after four in the morning. It was a night owl's hours.

One Saturday afternoon Mom asked me to ride to the Woolworth's on Merchants Street and pick her up a box of cake pans. I started out, Rocket easy beneath me. I went to the store, bought the cake pans, and started back.

I stopped in front of the Bright Star Cafe.

Mr. Eugene Osborne worked in there. Mr. Eugene Osborne had been in the Big Red One infantry division. and Mr. Eugene Osborne knew German curse words when he heard them.

This had been nagging at me, like a small little demon's voice at the back of my head, since the night we'd gone to the Brandywine Carnival. How could a parrot know German curse words if its owner spoke no Germani and something else I remembered Mr. Osborne saying: Wasn't just cursin', either. There were other German words in there, but they were all garbled up.

How could such a thing bei

I left Rocket outside and walked into the Bright Star.

It wasn't much of a place, just a few tables and booths and a counter where people could sit on stools and jaw with the two waitresses, old Mrs. Madeline Huckabee and younger Carrie French. I have to say that Miss French got most of the attention, because she was blond and pretty and Mrs. Huckabee resembled two miles of bad road. But Mrs. Huckabee had been a waitress at the Bright Star long before I was born, and she ruled the cafe with an iron glance. The Bright Star was by no means very active this time of day, but a few people were inside drinking coffee, most of them elderly retired men. Mr. Cathcoate was among them, sitting in a booth reading a newspaper. The television above the counter was on. and sitting at the counter grinning at Miss French was none other than whale-sized Mr. Dick Moultry.

He saw me, and his grin vanished like a ghost at dawn.

"Hi, there!" Miss French said, offering me a sunny smile as I approached the counter. If it weren't for her buck teeth, she might have been as lovely as Chile Willow. "What can I do for youi"

"Is Mr. Osborne herei"

"Sure is."

"Can I talk to him, pleasei"

"Hold on a minute." She went to the window between the counter and the kitchen. I noticed Mr. Moultry's huge belly pressing against the counter's edge as he leaned forward to get a look at her legs. "Eugenei Somebody wants to talk to you!"

"Whoi" I heard him ask.

"Whoi" she asked me. Miss French didn't move in my circles, and I didn't come into the Bright Star enough to warrant recognition.

"Cory Mackenson."

"Oh, are you Tom's boyi" she inquired, and I nodded. "Tom's boy!" she told Mr. Osborne.

My dad, like the Beach Boys, got around. I felt Mr. Moultry watching me. He took a loud slurp of coffee, trying to get my attention, but I didn't favor him with it.

Mr. Osborne walked through a swinging door. He was wearing an apron and a white cap, and he wiped his hands on a cloth. "afternoon," he said. "What can I do for youi"

Mr. Moultry was leaning forward, all ears and belly. I said, "Can we sit downi Over there, maybei" I motioned toward a back booth.

"Guess so. Lead the way."

When we'd gotten situated, with my back to Mr. Moultry, I said, "I was at Miss Glass's house when you brought Winifred in for her piano lesson."

"I remember that."

"You remember the parroti You said it was cursin' in German."

"If I know German, it was. and I do."

"Do you remember what else the parrot was sayin'i"

Mr. Osborne leaned back in the booth. He cocked his head to one side, his hand with its U.S. aRMY tattoo on the fingers toying with a fork from the place setting. "What's all this about, if you don't mind me askin'i"

"Nothin' special." I shrugged. "It just got my curiosity up, that's all."

"Your curiosity, huhi" He smiled faintly. "You came in here to ask me what a parrot saidi"

"Yes sir."

"That was almost three weeks ago. How come you didn't want to know before nowi"

"I guess I had other things on my mind." I had wanted to know, of course, but with the escape of the beast from the lost world and Dad's losing his job, I hadn't given it the highest priority.

"I don't rightly remember what it said, except for the spicy words I couldn't repeat to you without Tom's permission."

"I didn't know my dad came in here."

"Sometimes he does. He came in to fill out an application."

"Oh. Gosh," I said. "I didn't know my dad could cook."

"Dishwasher," Mr. Osborne said, watching me carefully. I think I flinched a little. "actually, Mrs. Huckabee does all the hirin'. Runs this place like boot camp, she does."

I nodded, trying not to meet his steady gaze.

"That parrot," he said, and his smile widened. "That blue parrot. Cursed a blue streak. Not surprisin', though, is iti Since he belonged to Miss Blue Glass, I mean."

"I guess not." I hadn't known any adults called her Miss Blue Glass.

"What's this about, Coryi Really."

"I want to be a writer," I answered, though I don't know why. "Stuff like this is interestin' to me."

"a writeri Like writin' stories and alli"

"Yes sir."

"Seems like that would be a hard row to hoe." He put his elbows on the table. "Is this... like... research for a story or somethin'i"

"Yes sir." I saw a ray of light. "Yes sir, it sure is!"

"You're not writin' a story about Miss Blue Glass, are youi"

"I'm writin'... a story about a parrot," I said. "That speaks German."

"are you, nowi Well, how about that! When I was your age, I wanted to be a detective or a soldier. I got my wish on one count." He looked at his tattooed fingers. "I think I might've been better off bein' a detective," he said with a quiet sigh that spoke volumes about what real-life soldiering was as opposed to playing out scenes from Combat in the woods.

"Can you remember what else that parrot said, Mr. Osbornei"

He grunted, but his smile was still friendly. "If you've got to have determination to be a writer, you're well on your way. Is knowin' all this so important to youi"

"Yes sir. It's real important."

Mr. Osborne paused, thinking it over. Then he said, "It was all jumbled up, really. Didn't make a whole lot of sense."

"I'd just like to know."

"Let's see, then. Got to crank my mind back some. I'll tell you a secret." He leaned forward a little. "When you work with Mrs. Huckabee, you hear a lot of blue language." I looked around for her, but she was either in the kitchen or the rest room. "I remember the parrot sayin' somethin' about-" He closed his eyes, bringing it back. "Who knowsi"

"Can't you rememberi" I prodded.

"No, that's it." His eyes opened. "'Who knowsi' That's what the parrot was sayin' when it wasn't spoutin' off the curses."

"Who knows whati" I asked.

"Search me. Just 'Who knowsi' is all I could get out of it. That, and what I thought sounded like a name."

"a namei What was iti"

"Hannaford, I think it was. at least it sounded like it was close to that."

Hannah Furd, I thought.

"I could be wrong, though. I only heard the name once. But I'm not wrong about the cursin', believe you me!"

"Do you remember somethin' Miss Green... uh... Miss Katharina Glass said about the parrot goin' crazy when that song was playedi" I tried to think of the name of it. "'Beautiful Dream'i"

"'Dreamer,'" he corrected me. "Oh, yeah. That's the song Miss Blue Glass taught me."

"Taught youi"

"That's right. I always wanted to play a musical instrument. I took lessons from Miss Blue Glass... oh, I guess it was four years ago when she was teachin' full-time. She had a lot of older students, and she taught us all that song. Now that you mention it, I don't recall that parrot screamin' around back then like he did that night. Funny, huhi"

"Strange." It was my turn to correct him.

"Yeah. Well, I'd best get back to work." He'd seen Mrs. Huckabee emerge from the rest room, and she was dragon enough to scare a soldier. "Does that help you anyi"

"I think so," I said. "I'm not sure yet."

Mr. Osborne stood up. "Hey, how about puttin' me in that storyi"

"What storyi"

He looked at me oddly again. "The story you're writin' about the blue parrot."

"Oh, that story! Yes sir, I sure will!"

"Say somethin' nice about me," he requested, and he started toward the kitchen door again. Some man in a brown uniform was on television, raising a ruckus.

"Hey, Eugene!" Mr. Moultry hollered. "Get a load of this jackass!"

"Mr. Osbornei" I asked, and he gave me his attention before he looked at the television set. "Do you think Miss Blue Glass would mind playin' that song again, with the parrot in the roomi and maybe you could listen to it and see what it was sayin'i"

"I think that'd be kinda difficult," he said.


"Miss Blue Glass took that parrot to Dr. Lezander a couple of weeks ago. It had a brain fever or somethin' birds get. That's what the doc told her. anyhow, the parrot kicked the bucket. What is it, Dicki"

"Lookit this guy!" Mr. Moultry said, motioning to the man snarling on the television screen. "Name's Lincoln Rockwell! Sonofagun's the head of the american Nazi Party, if you can believe that garbage!"

"american Nazisi" I saw the back of Mr. Osborne's neck redden. "You mean I helped beat their butts over in Europe, and now they're right here in the U.S. of a.i"

"Says they're gonna take over the country!" Mr. Moultry told him. "Listen to him go on, it'll split your ribs!"

"If I could get hold of him, I'd split his ugly head!"

I was on my way out, my mind heavy with thoughts. Then I heard Mr. Moultry-whom ex-Sheriff amory had said was a member of the Ku Klux Klan-laugh and say, "Well, that's one thing he's got right! I say ship all the niggers back to africa! I sure as blazes wouldn't want one in my house, like a certain somebody invites that Lightfoot nigger right into their front door!"

I had caught this remark, and I knew who it was aimed at. I stopped and looked at him. Mr. Moultry was grinning and talking to Mr. Osborne, the man on the television screen going on about "racial purity," but Mr. Moultry was watching me from the corner of his eye. "Yeah, my house is my castle! I sure as blazes wouldn't stink my castle up by askin' a nigger to come in and make hisself at home! Would you, Eugenei"

"Lincoln Rockwell, huhi" Mr. Osborne said. "That's a hell of a name for a Nazi."

"Seems like some people would know better than to be friends with niggers, don't it, Eugenei" Mr. Moultry plowed on, baiting me.

at last what was being said got through to Mr. Osborne. He regarded Dick Moultry as one might look at rancid cheese. "a man named Ernie Graverson saved my life in Europe, Dick. He was blacker'n the ace of spades."

"Oh... listen... I didn't mean no..." Mr. Moultry's grin was pathetic. "Well," he said as he struggled for his dignity, "there's always one or two gonna have the brains of a white man instead of a gorilla."

"I think," Mr. Osborne said, clamping that U.S. aRMY hand on Mr. Moultry's shoulder and putting some muscle into his grip, "you'd better shut your mouth, Dick."

Mr. Moultry didn't make another peep.

I left the Bright Star, and the brown-uniformed man who was being interviewed on television. I pedaled Rocket home, the cake pans in Rocket's basket. But all the way I was puzzling over the blue parrot-the recently deceased blue parrot, that is-who spoke German.

When I got home, Dad was sleeping in his chair. The alabama game on the radio had ended before I went to the Woolworth's, and now the radio was tuned to a country music station. I delivered the cake pans to Mom and then watched my father sleep. He was curled up, his arms gripped across his chest. Trying to hold himself together, I thought. He made a soft husking noise, his mouth on the verge of a snore. Something passed through his mind that made him flinch. His eyes came open, red-rimmed, and he seemed to stare right at me for a couple of seconds before his eyes closed again.

I didn't like the way his face looked in sleep. It looked sad and starved, though our food was plentiful. It looked defeated. There was honor in being a dishwasher, of course. I'm not saying there's not, because every labor has its share of honor and necessity. But I couldn't help thinking that he must be on despair's front porch, to have to walk into the Bright Star Cafe and apply to be a dishwasher when assistant foreman of the dairy's loading dock had been so very close. His face suddenly twisted in the grip of a daymare, his mouth letting loose a quiet groan. Even in sleep, he couldn't escape for long.

I walked into my room, shut the door, and I opened one of the seven mystic drawers. I brought out the White Owl cigar box, lifted its lid, and looked at the feather under my desk lamp.

Yes, I decided, my heartbeat quickening. Yes.

It could be a parrot's feather.

But it was emerald green. Miss Blue Glass's German-cursing parrot had been turquoise, not a speck of any other color on it except for the yellow of its beak.

Too bad Miss Green Glass hadn't been the one with the parrot, I thought. That way it would've been emerald green for-

- sure, I thought. and suddenly I felt as if I'd just leaped off a red rock cliff.

Something Miss Blue Glass had said when Miss Green Glass refused to feed the parrot a cracker for fear of losing her fingers.

Three words.




Your whati Parroti

Had both Glass sisters, who lived their lives in a strange agreement of mimicry and competition, each owned a parroti Had there been a second parrot-this one emerald green and missing a feather-somewhere else in that house, as silent as the first was raucousi

a phone call would tell me.

I gripped the feather in my palm. My heart was pounding as I left my room, headed for the telephone. I didn't know the number, of course; I'd have to look it up in the slim directory.

Before I could get to the Glass number, the phone rang.

I said, "I'll get it!" and picked it up.

I would remember for the rest of my life the voice that spoke.

"Cory, this is Mrs. Callan. Let me speak to your mother, please."

The voice was tight and scared. Instantly I knew something was terribly wrong. "Mom!" I shouted. "Mom, it's Mrs. Callan!"

"Don't wake your father!" Mom scolded when she came to the phone, but a grunt and rustle told me it was too late. "Hello, Diane. How are-" She stopped. I saw her smile break. "Whati" she whispered. "Oh... my Jesus..."

"What is iti What is iti" I asked. Dad came in, bleary-eyed.

"Yes, we will," Mom was saying. "Of course. Yes. as soon as we can. Oh, Diane, I'm so sorry!" When she returned the receiver to its cradle, her eyes were full of tears and her face bleached with shock. She looked at Dad, and then at me. "Davy Ray's been shot," she said. My hand opened, and the green feather drifted away.

Within five minutes we were in the pickup truck, headed to the hospital in Union Town. I sat between my folks, my mind fogged with what Mom had told me. Davy Ray and his father had gone hunting today. Davy Ray had been excited about being with his dad, out in the winter-touched woods on the trail of deer. They had been coming down a hill, Mrs. Callan had said. Just an ordinary hill. But Davy Ray had stepped into a gopher hole hidden under dead leaves and fallen forward, and as he'd fallen his rifle had gotten caught up beneath him, aimed at his lungs and heart. The rifle had gone off on the impact of body and earth. Mr. Callan, not a man in the best physical shape, had picked up his son in his arms and run a mile through the woods with him back to their truck.

Davy Ray had gone into emergency surgery, Mom said. The damage was very bad.

The hospital was a building of red stone and glass. I thought it looked small to be such an important place. We went in through the emergency entrance, where a nurse with silver hair told us where to go. In a waiting room with stark white walls, we found Davy Ray's parents. Mr. Callan was wearing camouflage-print hunting clothes with blood all over the front, a sight that knocked the breath out of me. He had daubed olive green greasepaint on his cheeks and across the bridge of his nose. It was smeared, and looked like the most horrible bruise. I guess he was in too much shock to even wash his face; what was soap and water compared to flesh and bloodi He still had forest dirt crusted under his fingernails. He was frozen in the instant of disaster. Mrs. Callan and Mom hugged each other, and Mrs. Callan began to cry. Dad stood with Mr. Callan at a window. Davy Ray's little brother andy wasn't there, probably dropped off at a relative's or neighbor's house. He was much too young to understand what a knife was doing inside Davy Ray.

I sat down and tried to find something to read. My eyes couldn't focus on the magazine pages. "So fast," I heard Mr. Callan say. "It happened so fast." Mom sat with Mrs. Callan and they held hands. a bell bonged somewhere in the hospital's halls, and a voice over a loudspeaker called for Dr. Scofield. a man in a blue sweater looked into the waiting room, and everybody gave him their rapt attention but he said, "any of you folks the Russellsi" He went away, searching for some other suffering family.

The minister from the Union Town Presbyterian Church, where the Callans belonged, entered and asked us all to link hands and pray. I held one of Mr. Callan's hands; it was damp with nervous moisture. I knew the power of prayer, but I was through being selfish. I wanted Davy Ray to be all right, of course, and that's what I prayed for with all my heart, but I would never dream of wishing Rebel's death-in-life on a force of nature like Davy Ray.

Johnny Wilson and his mother and father showed up. Johnny's father, a stoic like his son, spoke quietly to Mr. Callan but showed no emotion. Mrs. Wilson and my mom sat on either side of Mrs. Callan, who couldn't do much but stare at the floor and say, "He's a good boy, he's such a good boy," over and over again, as if preparing herself to argue with God for Davy Ray's life.

Johnny and I didn't know what to say to each other. This was the worst thing either of us had ever been through. Ben and his parents came in a few minutes after the Wilsons, and then some of Davy Ray's relatives. The Presbyterian minister took Mr. and Mrs. Callan away with him, for more intimate prayer, I presumed, and Ben, Johnny, and I stood out in the hallway talking about what had happened. "He's gonna be okay," Ben said. "My dad says this is a real good hospital."

"My dad says Davy Ray was lucky it didn't kill him right off," Johnny said. "He says he knew a boy who shot himself in the stomach, and he didn't last but a couple of hours."

I checked my Timex. Davy Ray had been in the operating room for four hours. "He'll make it," I told the others. "He's strong. He'll make it."

another hour crept slowly past. Night had fallen, and with it a cold mist. Mr. Callan had washed the greasepaint from his face, scrubbed the dirt from beneath his fingernails, and accepted the loan of a green hospital shirt. "That's my last huntin' trip," he said to my father. "I swear to Jesus it is. When Davy Ray gets out of this, we're strippin' the gun rack clear to the wood." He put his hand to his face and choked back a sob. Dad put his arm around Mr. Callan's shoulder. "Know what he said to me today, Tomi Wasn't ten minutes before it happened. He said, 'If we see it, we won't shoot at it, will wei We're just out huntin' deer, aren't wei We won't shoot it if we see it.' You know what he was talkin' abouti"

Dad shook his head.

"The thing that ran away from the carnival. Now, what do you think got that in his mindi"

"I don't know," Dad said.

It hurt me to hear these things.

a doctor with short-cropped gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses came in. Instantly the Callans were on their feet. "May I speak with both of you outside, pleasei" he asked. Mom gripped Dad's hand. I knew, as well, that this was not good news.

When they returned, Mr. Callan told everyone Davy Ray was out of the operating room. Davy Ray's condition was guarded, and the night would tell the tale. He thanked everyone for coming and showing their support, and he said we all ought to go home and get some sleep.

Ben and his parents stayed until ten, and then they left. The Wilsons went home a half-hour later. Gradually, the relatives thinned out. The Presbyterian minister said he would stay as long as they wanted him there. Mrs. Callan grasped my mother's hand, and asked her not to go just yet. So we waited in that room with the stark white walls as the mist turned to rain, the rain stopped, fog drifted across the windows, and mist returned.

Past midnight, Mr. Callan went to get a cup of coffee from a machine down the hall. He returned a few minutes later with the gray-haired doctor. "Diane!" he said excitedly. "Diane, he's come to!"

They rushed out, their hands linked.

Ten minutes passed. Then, after what seemed an eternity, Mr. Callan walked back into the waiting room. I have seen cigarette burns with more life than his eyes possessed. "Coryi" he said softly. "Davy Ray wants to see you."

I was afraid.

"Go on, Cory," my father urged. "It's all right."

I stood up, and I followed Mr. Callan.

The doctor was standing outside Davy Ray's room, talking to their minister. They made a grim picture. Mr. Callan opened the door, and I walked in. Mrs. Callan was in there, sitting in a chair beside a bed enveloped by a filmy oxygen tent. Plastic tubing snaked up from the figure that lay under a pale blue sheet and connected with bags full of blood and clear liquid. a machine showed a green dot, blipping slowly on a round black screen. Mrs. Callan saw me and leaned over toward the head under that tent. "Davy Rayi He's here."

I heard the sound of labored breathing, and I smelled Clorox and Pine Sol. Rain began to tap against the window. Mrs. Callan said, "Cory, sit here," and she stood up. I went to her. Mrs. Callan picked up one of Davy Ray's hands; it was as white as Italian marble. "I'll be right here, Davy Ray." She summoned up a smile with a mighty effort, and then she lowered his hand to the bed once more and moved away.

I stood next to the bed, looking through the oxygen tent at my friend's face.

He was very pale, with dark purplish hollows under his eyes. Somebody had combed his hair, though. The comb had been wet. He was all covered up, so I saw no indication of the wound that had brought him here. Tubes came out of his nostrils, and his lips were gray. His face looked waxen, and his eyes were staring right at me.

"It's me," I said. "Cory."

He swallowed thickly. Maybe the green blip had picked up a little, or maybe it was my imagination.

"You took a fall," I said, and instantly thought that was the stupidest thing ever uttered.

He didn't answer. He couldn't speak, I thought. "Ben and Johnny were here," I offered.

Davy Ray breathed. The breath became a word: "Ben." One side of his mouth hitched up. "Numb nuts."

"Yeah," I said, and I tried to smile. I wasn't as strong as Mrs. Callan. "Do you remember much about what happenedi"

He nodded. His eyes were feverishly bright. "Tell you," he said, his voice crushed. "Have to tell you."

"all right," I said, and I sat down.

He smiled. "Saw him."

"You didi" I leaned forward conspiratorially. I caught a whiff of something that smelled bloody, but I didn't show it. "You saw the thing from the lost worldi"

"No. Better." His smile went away as he swallowed painfully, then came back. "Saw Snowdown," he said.

"Snowdown," I whispered. The great white stag with antlers like oak trees. Yes, I decided. If anyone deserved to see Snowdown, it would be Davy Ray.

"Saw him. That's why I fell down. Wasn't watchin'. Oh, Cory," he said. "He's so pretty."

"I'll bet he is," I said.

"He's bigger than they say! and he's a whole lot whiter, too!"

"I'll bet," I said, "he's the most beautiful stag there ever was."

"Right there," Davy Ray whispered. "He was right there in front of me. and when I started to tell my dad, Snowdown leaped. He just leaped, and he was gone. Then I fell down, 'cause I wasn't watchin'. But it wasn't Snowdown's fault I fell, Cory. Wasn't anybody's fault. Just happened."

"You're gonna be fine," I said. I watched a bloody bubble of saliva grow at the corner of his mouth.

"I sure am glad I saw Snowdown," Davy Ray said. "I wouldn't have missed it. For nothin'."

He was silent, but for the soft wet rattling of his breath. The machine blip... blip... blipped. "I guess I'd better go," I said, and I started to stand up.

His marble-white hand grasped my own.

"Tell me a story," he whispered.

I paused. Davy Ray watched me, his eyes needful. I settled back down again. He kept hold of my hand, and I didn't try to pull loose. He felt cold.

"all right," I said. I would have to put this together as I went, like the tale of Chief Five Thunders. "There was a boy."

"Yeah," Davy Ray agreed, "gotta be a boy."

"This boy could just think of it, and he could go to other planets. This boy could get the red sand of Mars on his sneakers, or he could skate on Pluto. He could ride his bike on Saturn's rings, and he could fight dinosaurs on Venus."

"Could he go to the sun, Coryi"

"Oh, sure he could. He could go to the sun every day, if he wanted to. That's where he went when he needed a good suntan. He just put on his sunglasses and went there, then he came back brown as a berry."

"Must've gotten awful hot, though," Davy Ray said.

"He took a fan with him," I said. "and this boy was friends with all the kings and queens of the planets, and he visited all their castles. He visited the red sand castle of King Ludwig of Mars, and the cloud castle of King Nicholas of Jupiter. He helped stop King Zanthas of Saturn and King Damon of Neptune from fightin', when they got into a war over who owned a comet. He went to the fire castle of King Burl of Mercury, and on Venus he helped King Swane build a castle in the tall blue trees. On Uranus King Farron asked him to stay all year, and be an admiral in the ice fleet navy. Oh, all the royalty knew about this boy. They knew there'd never be another boy just exactly like him, even if all the stars and planets burned out and were struck to light again a million times. Because he was the only one on the whole earth who could walk on the planets, and he was the only one whose name was written in their invitation books."

"Hey, Coryi"


His voice was getting drowsy. "I'd kinda like to see a cloud castle, wouldn't youi"

"I sure would," I said.

"Gosh." He wasn't looking at me anymore. He was looking somewhere else, like a solitary traveler about to wish himself to a fabled land. "I never was afraid of flyin', was Ii"

"Not a bit."

"I'm awful tired, Cory." He frowned, the red saliva beginning to thread down his chin. "I don't like bein' so tired."

"You oughta rest, then," I said. "I'll come see you tomorrow."

His frown vanished. a smile sneaked across his mouth. "Not if I go to the sun tonight. Then I'll have me a suntan and you'll be stuck here shiverin'."

"Coryi" It was Mrs. Callan. "Cory, the doctor needs to get in here with him."

"Yes ma'am." I stood up. Davy Ray's cold hand clung to mine for a few seconds, and then it fell away. "I'll see you," I said through the oxygen tent. "Okayi"

"Good-bye, Cory," Davy Ray said.

"Good-" I stopped myself. I was thinking of Mrs. Neville, on the first day of summer. "I'll see you," I told him, and I walked past his mother to the door. a sob welled up in my throat before I got out, but I clenched it down. as Chile Willow's mother had said, I could take it.

There was nothing more we could do. We drove home, along misty Route Sixteen, where Midnight Mona arrowed in search of love. We didn't say much; at a time like this, words were empty vessels. at home, the green feather lay on the floor where it had drifted; it went back to its cigar box.

On Sunday morning I awakened with a start. Tears were in my eyes, the sunlight lying in stripes across the floor. My father was standing in the doorway, wearing the same clothes he'd had on all day yesterday.

"Coryi" he said.

Traveling, traveling: to see Kings Ludwig, Nicholas, Zanthas, Damon, Farron, Burl, and Swane. Traveling, traveling: to castles of red sand, hewn of blue trees, formed of fire, shaped of sculpted clouds. Traveling, traveling, with planets and stars beyond and invitation books open to a single name. The solitary traveler has left this world. He will not pass this way again.

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