XXVI - Faith
I THOUGHT I HaD KNOWN DEaTH.
I had walked with it, ever since I could remember sitting in front of the television set, or hunkered down with a box of buttered popcorn before the Lyric's silver screen. How many hundreds of cowboys and Indians had I witnessed fall, arrow-pierced or gut-shot, into the swirling wagon train dusti How many dozens of detectives and policemen, laid low by the criminal bullet and coughing out their minutesi How many armies, mangled by shells and burp guns, and how many monster victims screaming as they're chewedi
I thought I had known Death, in Rebel's flat, blank stare. In the last good-bye of Mrs. Neville. In the rush and gurgle of air as a car with a man at the wheel sank into cold depths.
I was wrong.
Because Death cannot be known. It cannot be befriended. If Death were a boy, he would be a lonely figure, standing at the playground's edge while the air rippled with other children's laughter. If Death were a boy, he would walk alone. He would speak in a whisper and his eyes would be haunted by knowledge no human can bear.
This was what tore at me in the quiet hours: We come from darkness, and to darkness we must return.
I remembered Dr. Lezander saying that as I'd sat on his porch with him facing the golden hills. I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to think that Davy Ray was in a place where he could see no light, not even the candle that burned for him at the Presbyterian church. I didn't want to think of Davy Ray confined, closed away from the sun, unable to somehow breathe and laugh even if doing so was only shadow play. In the days that followed the death of Davy Ray, I realized what fiction I had been a witness to. The cowboys and Indians, the detectives and policemen, the armies and the monster victims, would all rise again, at the dimming of the stage lights. They would go home, to wait for a casting call. But Davy Ray was dead forever, and I could not stand the thought of him in darkness.
It got to where I couldn't sleep. My room was too dark. It got to where I wasn't sure what I'd seen, the night a blurred figure spoke to Rebel. Because if Davy Ray was in darkness, so, too, was Carl Bellwood. Rebel was. and all the sleepers on Poulter Hill and all the generations whose bones lay beneath the twisted roots of Zephyr's trees: they, too, had returned to darkness.
I remembered Davy Ray's funeral. How thick the red earth was, on the edges of the grave. How thick, how heavy. There was no door down there when the minister was finished and the people gone and the dirt shoveled in by Bruton men. There was only dark, and its weight made something crack inside me.
I didn't know where heaven was anymore. I wasn't sure if God had any sense, or plan or reason, or if maybe He, too, was in the dark. I wasn't sure of anything anymore: not life, not afterlife, not God, not goodness. and I anguished over these things as the Christmas decorations went up on Merchants Street.
Christmas was still two weeks away, but Zephyr struggled for a festive air. The death of Davy Ray had drowned everybody's joy. It was talked about at Mr. Dollar's, at the Bright Star Cafe, at the courthouse, and everywhere in between. He was so young, they said. Such a tragic accident, they said. But that's life, they said; whether we like it or not, that's life.
Hearing these things didn't help me. Of course my folks tried to talk to me about it, saying that Davy Ray's suffering was over and that he'd gone to a better place.
But I just couldn't believe them. What place would ever be better than Zephyri
"Heaven," Mom told me as we sat together before the crackling fire. "Davy Ray's gone to heaven, and you have to believe that."
"Because whyi" I asked her, and she looked as if I'd just slapped her face.
I waited for an answer. I hoped for one, but it came in a word that left me unsatisfied, and that word was "faith."
They took me to see Reverend Lovoy. We sat in his office at church, and he gave me a lemon candy from a bowl on his desk. "Cory," he said, "you believe in Jesus, don't youi"
"and you believe that Jesus was sent from God to die for the sins of mani"
"Then you also believe Jesus was crucified, dead and buried, and on the third day He arose from the gravei"
"Yes sir." Here I frowned. "But Jesus was Jesus. Davy Ray was just a regular boy."
"I know that, Cory, but Jesus came to earth to show us that there's more to this existence than we understand. He showed us that if we believe in Him, and follow His will and way, we, too, have a place with God in heaven. You seei"
I thought about this for a minute as Reverend Lovoy sat back in his chair and watched me. "Is heaven better than Zephyri" I asked him.
"a million times better," he said.
"Do they have comic books therei"
"Well..." He smiled. "We don't really know what heaven will be. We just know it'll be wonderful."
"Because whyi" I asked.
"Because," he answered, "we must have faith." He offered the bowl to me. "Would you like another candyi"
I couldn't picture heaven. How could a place be any good at all if it didn't have the things there you enjoyed doingi If there were no comic books, no monster movies, no bikes, and no country roads to ride them oni No swimming pools, no ice cream, no summer, or barbecue on the Fourth of Julyi No thunderstorms, and front porches on which to sit and watch them comingi Heaven sounded to me like a library that only held books about one certain subject, yet you had to spend eternity and eternity and eternity reading them. What was heaven without typewriter paper and a magic boxi
Heaven would be hell, that's what.
These days were not all bleak. The Christmas lights, red and green, glowed on Merchants Street. Lamps shaped like the head of Santa Claus burned on the street corners, and silver tinsel hung from the stoplights. Dad got a new job. He began working three days a week as a stock clerk at Big Paul's Pantry.
One day Leatherlungs called me a blockhead six times. She told me to come up to the blackboard and show the class what I knew about prime numbers.
I told her I wasn't coming.
"Cory Mackenson, you get up here right now!" she roared.
"No, ma'am," I said. Behind me the Demon laughed gleefully, sensing a new assault in the war on Mrs. Harper.
"Get. Up. Here. This. Minute!" Leatherlungs' face bloomed red.
I shook my head. "No."
She was on me. She moved a lot faster than I ever would've thought. She grabbed two handfuls of my sweater and wrenched me up out of my desk so hard my knee hit and sent a shiver of pain through my leg, and by the time that pain got to my head it was sheer white-hot anger.
With Davy Ray and darkness and a meaningless word called faith lodged in my mind like thorns, I swung at her.
I hit her right in the face. I couldn't have aimed any better. Her glasses flew off, and she gave a croaking cry of surprise. The anger fled from me just that fast, but Leatherlungs hollered, "Don't you hit me, don't you dare!" and she grabbed my hair and started jerking my head. The rest of my classmates sat in stunned amazement; this was too much, even for them. I had stepped into a mythic realm, though I didn't know it yet. Leatherlungs slung me, I crashed into Sally Meachum's desk and about knocked her over, and then Leatherlungs was hauling me out the door on the way to the principal's office, raging every step.
Inevitably, the phone call brought both Mom and Dad. They were, to say the least, appalled at my behavior. I was suspended from school for three days, and the principal-a small, birdlike man named, fittingly, Mr. Cardinale-said that before I could return to class, I would have to write an apology to Mrs. Harper and have both my parents sign it.
I looked at him, with my parents right there in his office, and I told him I could be suspended for three months for all I cared. I told him I wasn't writing her any apology, that I was tired of being called a blockhead, and I was sick of math and sick of everybody.
Dad came up off his chair. "Cory!" he said. "What's wrong with youi"
"Never in the history of this school has a student struck a teacher!" Mr. Cardinale piped up. "Never! This boy needs a whippin' to remember, is what I think."
"I'm sorry to have to say it," Dad told him, "but I agree with you."
I tried to explain to them on the way home, but they wouldn't hear it. Dad said there was no excuse for what I'd done, and Mom said she'd never been so ashamed. So I just stopped trying, and I sat sullenly in the pickup with Rocket riding in the truckbed. The whipping was delivered by my father's hand. It was swift, but it was painful. I did not know that the day before, Dad had been ragged by his boss at Big Paul's Pantry about messing up the count on boxes of Christmas candy. I did not know that Dad's boss was eight years younger than he, that he drove a red Thunderbird, and that he called my father Tommy.
I bore the whipping in silence, but in my room I pressed my face into the pillow.
Mom came in. She said she couldn't understand the way I was acting. She said she knew I was still torn up about Davy Ray, but that Davy Ray was in heaven and life was for the living. She said I would have to write the apology whether I wanted to or not, and the sooner I did it the better. I lifted my face from the pillow, and I told her Dad could whip me every day from now until kingdom come, but I wasn't writing any apology.
"Then I believe you'd better stay in here and think about it, young man," she said. "I believe you'll think better on an empty stomach, too."
I didn't answer. There was no need. Mom left, and I heard my folks talking about me, what was wrong with me and why I was being so disrespectful. I heard the clatter of dinner plates and I smelled chicken frying. I just turned over and went to sleep.
a dream of the four black girls, the flash of light, and a soundless blast awakened me. I had knocked my alarm clock off the bedside table again, but this time my parents didn't come in. The clock was still working; it was almost two in the morning. I got up and looked out the window. a crescent moon appeared sharp enough to hang a hat on. Beyond the window's cold glass the night was still and the stars blazing. I wasn't going to write any apology; maybe this was the Jaybird showing up in me, but I was damned if I'd give the satisfaction to Leatherlungs.
I needed to talk to somebody who understood me. Somebody like Davy Ray.
My fleece-lined jacket hung in the closet near the front door. I didn't want to go out that way, because Dad might be awake. I put on a pair of corduroy jeans, two sweaters, and a pair of gloves. Then I eased the window up. It squeaked once, a hair-raising sound, but I waited for a minute and heard no footsteps. Then I finished the job and slid out the window into the bitter air.
I closed the window behind me, but for a thin slice I could get my fingers hooked into. I got on Rocket, and rode away under the sharp-fanged moon.
The stoplights blinked yellow as I pedaled through the silent streets. My breath billowed out like a white octopus before me. I saw a few lights in houses: bathroom bulbs left on to ease the sleepy stumbling. My nose and ears got cold mighty fast; it was a night not fit for dog or Vernon Thaxter. On my way to Poulter Hill, I took a left turn and pedaled about a quarter mile more than I had to, because I wanted to see something. I coasted slowly past the house that sat on three acres and had a horse barn.
a light burned in an upstairs room. It looked too bright to be a bathroom bulb. Dr. Lezander was up, listening to the foreign countries.
a curious thought occurred to me. Maybe Dr. Lezander was a night owl because he feared the darkness. Maybe he sat up there in that room under the light, listening to voices from around the world, to reassure himself that he was not alone, even as the clock ticked through the lonely hours.
I turned Rocket away from Dr. Lezander's house. I had not pursued the mystery of the green feather any more since Davy Ray had died. a phone call to Miss Blue Glass was too much effort in this time of death and doubt. It was all I could do to fend off my own gathering darkness, much less think of what lay in the mud at the lightless bottom of Saxon's Lake. I didn't want to think that Dr. Lezander had anything to do with that. If he had, then what in this world was real and true anymorei
I reached Poulter Hill. The wrought-iron gates were locked, but since the stone wall around the cemetery was only two feet high, getting in was no feat of magic. I left Rocket to wait there, and I walked up the hill among the moon-splashed tombstones. as Poulter Hill stood on the invisible line between worlds, so, too, did it stand between Zephyr and Bruton. The white dead people lay on one side, the black dead people on the other. It made sense that people who could not eat in the same cafe, swim in the same public pool, or shop in the same stores would not be happy being dead and buried within sight of each other. Which made me want to ask Reverend Lovoy sometime if the Lady and the Moon Man would be going to the same heaven as Davy Ray. If black people occupied the same heaven as white people, what was the point of eating in different cafes here on earthi If black people and white people walked in heaven together, did that mean we were smarter or more stupid than God because on earth we shunned each otheri Of course, if we all returned to darkness, there was no God and no heaven, anyway. How Little Stevie Cauley had managed to drive Midnight Mona through a crack of that darkness was another mystery, because I had seen him clear as I now saw the city of stones rising up around me.
There were so many of them. So many. I remember hearing this somewhere: when an old man dies, a library burns down. I recalled Davy Ray's obituary in the adams Valley Journal. They said he had died in a hunting accident. They said who his mother and father were, that he had a younger brother named andy and that he was a member of the Union Town Presbyterian Church. They said his funeral would be at ten-thirty in the morning. What they had left out stunned me. They hadn't said one word about the way the corners of his eyes crinkled up when he laughed, or how he would set his mouth to one side in preparation for a verbal jab at Ben. There had been no mention of the shine in his eyes when he saw a forest trail he hadn't explored before, or how he chewed his bottom lip when he was about to pitch a fastball. They had written down the cut-and-dried of it, but they had not mentioned the real Davy Ray. I wondered about this as I walked amid the graves. How many stories were here, buried and forgotteni How many old burned libraries, how many young ones that had been building their volumes year by yeari and all those stories, lost. I wished there was a place you could go, and sit in a room like a movie theater and look through a catalogue of a zillion names and then you could press a button and a face would appear on the screen to tell you about the life that had been. It would be a living memorial to the generations who had gone on before, and you could hear their voices though those voices had been stilled for a hundred years. It seemed to me, as I walked in the presence of all those stilled voices that would never be heard again, that we were a wasteful breed. We had thrown away the past, and our future was impoverished for it.
I came to Davy Ray's grave. The headstone hadn't arrived yet, but a flat stone marker was set into the bare earth. He was neither at the bottom of the hill nor at the top; he occupied the middle ground. I sat down beside the marker, taking care not to trample on the slight mound that rain would settle and spring would sprout. I looked out into the darkness, under the cold, sharp moon. In the sunlight, I knew, there was a panoramic view of Zephyr and the hills from here. You could see the gargoyle bridge, and the Tecumseh River. You could see the railroad track as it wound its way through those hills, and the trestle as it crossed the river on its passage through Zephyr to the larger towns. It was a nice view, if you had eyes to see it. I somehow doubted that Davy Ray cared much whether he had a view of the hills and river or if his grave overlooked a swamp bowl. Such things might be important to the grievers, but not so much to the leavers.
"Gosh," I said, and my breath drifted out. "I sure am mixed up."
Had I expected Davy Ray to answeri No, I had not. Thus I was not disappointed at the silence.
"I don't know if you're in darkness or heaven," I said. "I don't know what would be so great about heaven if you can't get in a little trouble there. It sounds like church to me. Church is fine for an hour on Sunday, but I wouldn't want to live there. and I wouldn't want darkness, either. Just nothin' and nothin' and more nothin'. Everythin' you ever thought or did or believed just gone, like a ripple in a pond that nobody sees." I pulled my knees up to my chest, and locked my arms around them. "No voice to speak, no eyes to see, no ears, nothin' at all. Then what are we born for, Davy Rayi"
This question, as well, elicited a burst of silence.
"and I can't figure this faith thing out," I went on. "Mom says I ought to have it. Reverend Lovoy says I've got to have it. But what if there's nothin' to have faith in, Davy Rayi What if faith is just like talkin' on a telephone when there's nobody on the other end, but you don't know nobody's there until you ask 'em a question and they don't answeri Wouldn't it make you go kind of crazy, to think you spent all that time jawin' to thin airi"
I was doing some jawing to empty air myself, I realized. But I was comforted, knowing Davy Ray was lying beside me. I shifted over to a place where the brown grass was unmarked by shovels and I reclined on my back. I stared up at the awesome stars. "Look at that," I said. "Just look at that sky. Looks like the Demon blew her nose on black velvet, huhi" I smiled, thinking Davy Ray would've gotten a kick out of that. "Not really," I said. "Can you see that sky from where you arei"
Silence and more silence.
I folded my arms across my chest. It didn't seem so cold, with my back against the earth. My head was next to Davy Ray's. "I got whipped today," I confided. "Dad really blistered me. Maybe I deserved it. But Leatherlungs deserves to get whipped, too, doesn't shei How come nobody listens to kids, even when they've got somethin' to sayi" I sighed, and my breath rose toward Capricorn. "I can't write that apology, Davy Ray. I just can't, and nobody's gonna make me. Maybe I was wrong, but I was only half wrong, and they want me to say I was whole wrong. I can't write it. What am I gonna doi"
I heard it then.
Not Davy Ray's voice, chiding me.
But a train's whistle, off in the distance.
The freight was coming through.
I sat up. Off in the hills I could see the headlight like a moving star as the train wound toward Zephyr. I watched it coming.
The freight would slow down as it approached the Tecumseh trestle. It always did. It would slow down even more as it crossed the trestle, its heavy wheels making the old structure moan and clatter.
as it came off the trestle, it would be slow enough to catch if someone had a mind to.
The moment wouldn't last very long. The freight would pick up speed, and by the time it had reached the far side of Zephyr it would be running fast again.
"I can't write any apology, Davy Ray," I said quietly. "Not tomorrow, not the day after that. Not ever. I guess I can't ever go back to school, huhi"
Davy Ray offered neither opinion nor advice. I was on my own.
"What if I was to go away for a whilei Not long. Maybe two or three days. What if I was to show 'em I'd rather run away than write an apologyi Then maybe they'd listen to me, don't you thinki" I watched the moving star come nearer. The whistle blew again, maybe warning a deer off the track. I heard it say Corrrrryyyyyyyyy.
I stood up. I could make it to the trestle if I ran to Rocket. But I had to go right this minute. Fifteen more seconds and I would face one more day of anger and disappointment from my parents. One more day of being a boy closed up in a room with an unwritten apology staring me in the face. The freight that was about to pass through always returned again. I reached into my pocket, and found two quarters left over from some purchase of popcorn or candy bar at the Lyric last winter when things were good.
"I'm goin', Davy Ray!" I said. "I'm goin'!"
I started running through the graveyard. as I reached Rocket and swung up onto the saddle, I feared I was already too late. I pedaled like mad for the trestle, the breath blooming around my face, I heard the moan and clatter as I pulled alongside the gravel-edged tracks; the freight was crossing, and I could yet meet it.
and then there it was, the headlight blazing. The huge engine came off the trestle and passed me, going a little faster than I could walk. Then the boxcars began going past: Southern Railroad cars, bump ka thud, bump ka thud, bump ka thud on the ties. already the train was starting to pick up speed. I got off Rocket and put the kickstand down. I ran my fingers along the handlebar. For a second I saw the headlamp's golden eye, luminous with the moon. "I'll be back!" I promised.
all the boxcars were closed up, it seemed. But then here came one toward the end of the freight that had a door partway open. I thought of railroad bulls bashing heads and throwing freeloaders face-first into steam-scalded space, but I shook the thought away. I ran alongside the boxcar with the open door. a ladder was close at hand. I reached up, hooked four gloved fingers around a metal rung, got my thumb wedged there, too, and then I grabbed hold with the other hand and lifted my feet off the gravel.
I swung myself toward the boxcar's open door. I was amazed that I had such dexterity. I guess when you hear a few tons of steel wheels grinding underneath you, you can become an acrobat real quick. I went through that opening into the boxcar, my fingers released the iron rungs, and I hit a wooden floor sparsely covered with hay. The sound of my entrance was not gentle; it echoed in the boxcar, which was sealed shut on the other side. I sat up, hay all over the front of my outermost sweater.
The boxcar rumbled and shook. It was clearly not made for passengers.
But someone was indeed along for the ride.
"Hey, Princey!" a voice said. "a little bird just flew in!"
I jumped up. That voice had sounded like a combination of rocks in a cement mixer and a bullfrog's lament. It had come from the dark before me.
"Yes, I see him," another man answered. This voice was as smooth as black silk and had the lilt of a foreign accent. "I think he almost broke his wings, Franklin."
I was in the company of boxcar-riding tramps who would slit my throat for the quarters in my pocket. I turned to jump through the doorway, but Zephyr was speeding past.
"I wouldn't, young man," the foreign-accented voice cautioned. "It would not be pretty."
I paused on the edge, my heart pounding.
"We ain't gonna bite ya!" the froggish cement-mixer voice said. "are we, Princeyi"
"Speak for yourself, please."
"ah, he's just kiddin'! Princey's always kiddin', ain't yai"
"Yes," the black silk voice said with a sigh, "I'm always kidding."
a match flared beside my face. I jumped again, and turned to see who stood there.
a nightmare visage peered at me, so close I could smell his musty breath.
The man would've made a railroad tie look like Charles atlas. He was emaciated, his black eyes submerged in shadow pools and the cheekbones thrust against the flesh of his face. and what flesh! I had seen summer-baked creekbeds that held more moisture. Every inch of his face was cracked and wrinkled, and the cracks drew his mouth back from his yellow teeth and continued up like a weird cap over the hairless dome of his scalp. His long, skinny fingers, exposed by the matchlight, were likewise shriveled, as was the hand on which they were fixed. His throat was a dried mass of cracks. He wore a dusty white costume of some kind, but where shirt and pants met I couldn't tell. He looked like a stick in a bag of dirty rags.
I was frozen with terror, waiting for the blade to slice my neck.
The wrinkled man's other hand rose like an adder's head. I tensed.
He was holding a package with a few Fig Newtons in it.
"Well, well!" the foreign man said with obvious surprise. "ahmet likes you! Take a Fig Newton, he doesn't speak."
"I... don't think I..."
The match went out. I could smell ahmet next to me, an odor so dry it threatened to crisp the hairs in my nostrils. He breathed like the rustle of dead leaves.
a second match was struck. ahmet had a black streak across his pointed chin. He still held the Fig Newtons, and now he nodded at me. When he did so, I thought I heard his flesh creak.
He was grinning like warmed-over Death. Baked and crusted Death, to be more exact. I slid a trembling hand into the package and accepted a Fig Newton. This seemed to appease ahmet. He shambled over toward the boxcar's other side, and he knelt down and touched the match to three candle stubs stuck with wax to the bottom of an upturned bucket.
The light grew. and as it grew, it showed me things I wished I didn't have to look at.
"There," the foreign man said from where he sat with his shoulder against a pile of burlap sacks. "Now we see eye-to-eye."
I wished we'd been back to back with five miles between us.
If this man had ever seen the sun, the Lady was my grandmother. His skin was so pallid, he made the moon appear as dark as Don Ho. He was a young man, younger at least than my father, and he had fine blond hair combed back from a high forehead. a touch of silver glinted at his temples. He was wearing a dark suit, a white shirt, and a necktie. Only I could tell right off that his suit had seen better days from the patches around the shoulders, the cuffs of his shirt were frayed, and brown blotches marred his tie. Still, there was an elegance about this man; even sitting down, he commanded your attention with a stare that had a trace of well-bred haughtiness in it. His wingtips were scuffed. at first I thought he was wearing white socks, but then I realized those were his ankles. His eyes bothered me, though; in the candlelight, the pupils gleamed scarlet.
But this man, and ahmet the dried-up one, looked like Troy Donahue and Yul Brynner compared to the third monstrosity in that boxcar.
He was standing up in a corner. His head, which was strangely shovel-shaped, almost brushed the ceiling. The man must have been over seven feet tall. His shoulders looked as wide as some of the wings on the planes at Robbins air Force Base. His body appeared bulky and lumpy and altogether not right. He was wearing a loose brown jacket and gray trousers with patches on the knees. The trousers looked as if they had gotten drenched and shrunken while he was still in them. The size of the man's shoes astounded me; to call them clodhoppers is like calling an atomic bomb a pregnant grenade. They were more like earthmovers.
"Hi dere," he said as his shoes slammed on the timbers and he came toward me. "I'm Franklin."
He was grinning. I wished he hadn't been. His grin made Mr. Sardonicus look unhappy. What was worse than his grin was a scar that sliced across his Neanderthal forehead and had been stitched together, it seemed, by a cross-eyed medical student with a severe case of hiccups. His huge face looked flattened, his shiny black hair all but painted on his skull. In the candlelight, he appeared as if something he'd recently eaten hadn't agreed with him. The misfortunate oaf was a sickly, grayish hue. and lo and behold! There from each side of the man's bull-thick neck protruded a small rusted screw.
"You want some waddai" he asked, and he held up a dented canteen. In his hand, it seemed the size of a clamshell.
"Uh... no sir. No thank you. Sir."
"Wadda washes down da Fig Newton," he said. "Udderwise get stuck in da troat."
"I'm okay. Really." I cleared my throat. "Seei"
"Hokay. Dass fine, den." He returned to his corner, where he stood like a grotesque statue.
"Franklin's a happy sort," Princey explained. "ahmet's the quiet one."
"What are youi" I asked.
"I'm the ambitious type," he said. "What type are youi"
"Scared." I heard the rush of wind behind me. The freight train was speeding now, leaving Zephyr sleeping in peace.
"Sit down if you like," Princey offered. "It's not too clean in here, but neither is it a dungeon."
I looked longingly out the door. We must've been going...
"...sixty miles an hour," Princey said. "Sixty-four, it feels to me. I'm a good judge of the wind."
I sat down, keeping my distance from all three of them.
"So." He slid his hands into the pockets of his coat. "Favor us with your destination, Cory."
"I guess I... wait a minute. Did I tell you my namei"
"You must have, I'm sure."
"I don't remember,"
Franklin laughed. It sounded like a backed-up drain being Roto-Rootered. "Haw! Haw! Haw! Dere he goes again! Princey's got da best sense'a yuma!"
"I don't think I told you my name," I said.
"Well, don't be stubborn," Princey answered. "Everybody has a name. What's yoursi"
"Co-" I stopped. Were these three insane, or was Ii "Cory Mackenson. I'm from Zephyr."
"Going to...i" he prompted.
"Where does the train goi" I asked.
"From herei" He smiled slightly. "To everywhere."
I glanced over at ahmet. He was squatting on his haunches, watching me intently over the flickering candles. He wore sandals on his shriveled feet, his toenails two inches long. "Kinda cold to be wearin' sandals, isn't iti"
"ahmet doesn't mind," Princey said. "That's his footwear of choice. He's Egyptian."
"Egyptiani How'd he get all the way herei"
"It was a long, dusty trail," he assured me.
"Who are you peoplei You look kinda-"
"Familiar if you're a devotee of the sweet science. Boxing, that is," Princey said, shoveling words in my mouth. "Ever heard of Franklin Fitzgeraldi Otherwise known as Big Philly Franki"
"Then why did you say you hadi"
"I... did Ii"
"Meet Franklin Fitzgerald." He motioned to the monster in the corner.
"Hello," I said.
"Pleased ta meet ya," Franklin replied.
"I'm Princey Von Kulic. That's ahmet Too-Hard-to-Pronounce."
"Hee hee hee," Franklin giggled behind a massive hand with scarred knuckles.
"You're not american, are youi" I asked Princey.
"Citizen of the world, at your service."
"Where're you from, theni"
"I am from a nation that is neither here nor there. It is an unnation, if you will." He smiled again. "Unnation. I like that. My country has been ransacked by foreign invaders so many times, we give green stamps for raping and pillaging. It's easier to make a buck here, what can I sayi"
"So you're a boxer, tooi"
"Mei" He grimaced as if he had a bad taste in his mouth. "Oh, no! I'm the brains behind Franklin's brawn. I'm his manager. ahmet's his trainer. We all get along famously, except when we're trying to kill each other."
"Haw haw!" Franklin rumbled.
"We are currently between opponents," Princey said with a slight shrug. "Bound from the last place we were to the next place we will be. and such, I fear, is our existence."
I had decided that no matter how fearsome this trio appeared, they really meant me no harm. "Does Mr. Fitzgerald do a lot of fightin'i" I asked.
"Franklin will take on anyone, anywhere, at any time. Unfortunately, though his size is quite formidable, his speed is quite deplorable."
"Princey means I'm slow," Franklin said.
"Yes. and what else, Franklini"
The huge man's overhanging brow threatened to collapse as he pondered this question. "I don't have da killer instink," he said at last.
"But we're working on that, aren't we, Silent Sami" Princey asked the Egyptian. ahmet showed his hooked yellow teeth and nodded vigorously. I thought he'd better be careful, in case his head flew off.
I began staring at Franklin's neck. "Mr. Princey, why does he have those screws in therei"
"Franklin is a man of many parts," Princey said, and Franklin giggled again. "Most of them of the rusted variety. His meetings with other individuals in the squared circle have not always been pleasant. In short, he's had so many broken bones that the doctor's had to wire some of him together. The screws are connected to a metal rod that strengthens his spine. It's painful, I'm sure, but necessary."
"aw," Franklin said, "it ain't so bad."
"He has the heart of a lion," Princey explained. "Unfortunately, he also has the mind of a mouse."
"Hee hee nee! Dat Princey's a laff riot!"
"I'm thirsty," Princey said, and he stood up. He was tall, too, maybe six four, and slender though not nearly the beanpole ahmet was.
"Here ya go." Franklin offered him the canteen.
"No, I don't want that!" Princey's pale hand brushed it aside. "I want... I don't know what I want." He looked at me. "Has that ever happened to youi Have you ever wanted something but you can't figure out what it is for the life of youi"
"Yes sir," I said. "Like sometimes when I think I want a Co'Cola but I really want root beer."
"Exactly. My throat's as dusty as ahmet's pillow!" He walked past me and peered out at the passing forest. There were no lights out there, under the firmament. "So!" he said. "You know us now. What about youi I presume you're running away from homei"
"No sir. I mean... I'm just gettin' away for a little while, I guess."
"Trouble with your parentsi With schooli"
"Both of those," I said.
He nodded, leaning against the boxcar's opening. "The universal tribulations of a boy. I, too, had such troubles. I, too, set out to get away for a little while. Do you really think this will help your problemsi"
"I don't know. It was all I could think of."
"The world," Princey said, "is not like Zephyr, Cory. The world has no affection for a boy. It can be a wonderful place, but it can also be savage and vile. We should know."
"Why is thati" I asked.
"Because we have traveled all over. We've seen this world, and we know the people who live in it. Sometimes it scares me to death, thinking about what's out there: cruelty, callousness, utter disregard and disrespect for fellow human beings. and it's not getting better, Cory; it's getting worse." He gazed up at the moon, which kept our pace. "'O world,'" he said. "'But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee, life would not yield to age.'"
"ain't dat preddyi" Franklin asked.
"It's Shakespeare," Princey replied. "Talking about the universal tribulations of men." He turned from the moon and stared at me, his pupils scarlet. "Would you like some advice from an older soul, Coryi"
I didn't really want it, but I said, "Yes sir" to be polite.
He wore a bemused expression, as if he knew my thoughts. "I'll give it to you anyway. Don't be in a hurry to grow up. Hold on to being a boy as long as you can, because once you lose that magic, you're always begging to find it again."
That sounded vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn't remember where I'd heard it before.
"Do you want to see something of the world, Coryi" he asked me.
I nodded, transfixed by his bloodred pupils.
"You're in luck, then. I see a city's lights."
I stood up and looked out. and there in the distance, over the dragon's spine of twisted hills, the stars were washed out by earthly phosphorescence.
Princey explained to me that we would come to a part of that city where the freight slowed as it entered the yards. It was then that we could abandon our boxcar without breaking our legs. Gradually the city grew around us, from wooden houses to brick houses to buildings of stone. Even at this late hour, the city was alive. Neon signs blinked and buzzed. Cars sped along the streets, and figures trudged the sidewalks. Then the freight train clattered over the crisscrossed railyard tracks where other trains lay sleeping and began to slow. When it was going the speed of a walking man, Franklin's huge shoes touched the ground. Then ahmet went out, dust whuffing from his body as he hit. "Go on, if you want to go," Princey told me, standing at my back. I scrambled out and landed all right, and then Princey made his exit. We had arrived in the city, and I was a long way from home.
We walked across the railyard, the sounds of whistles and chugging engines drifting around us. The air smelled burnt, though it was a cold fire. Princey said we'd better find some shelter for the night. We kept going, deeper along the gray streets that stood beneath the tall gray buildings, though several times we had to stop and wait for Franklin, who indeed was a slow mover.
We came to a place where alleys cut the walls, and neon reflected off standing pools of water on the cracked concrete. as we were passing an alley, I heard a grunting noise followed by the smacking of flesh. I stopped to look. One man was holding another with his arms behind him, while a third methodically beat the second man in the face with his fist. The second man was bleeding from the nose and mouth, his eyes dazed and wet with fear. The man who was doing the beating did this as if it were a common labor, like the hacking down of a wayward tree. "Where's the money, you motherfuckeri" the first man said in a voice of quiet evil. "You're gonna give us the money." The beating continued, the third man's knuckles red with blood. The victim made a groaning, whimpering noise, and as the fist kept rising and falling, his bruised face began to change shape.
a pale hand gripped my shoulder. "Let's move along, shall wei"
Up ahead, a police car had pulled to the curb. Two policemen stood on either side of a man with long hair and dressed in dirty clothes. They were stocky and their guns gleamed in their black leather holsters. One of the policemen leaned forward and shouted in the long-haired man's face. Then the other policeman grabbed a handful of that hair, spun him around, and slammed his head against the windshield's glass. The glass didn't break, but the man's knees sagged. He didn't try to fight back as he was shoved into the police car. as they drove past us, I caught a glimpse of the man's face peering out, tendrils of blood creeping from his forehead.
Music throbbed and thumped from a doorway. It sounded like all rhyme and no reason. a man sat against a wall, a puddle of urine between his legs. He grinned at the air, his eyes demented. Two young men came along, and one of them held a tin gasoline can. "Get up, get up!" the other one said, kicking at the man on the ground. The demented one kept grinning. "Get up! Get up!" he parroted. In the next second, gasoline sloshed over him. The other young man pulled a pack of matches from his pocket.
Princey guided me around a corner. Franklin, slogging behind ahmet, sighed like a bellows, his face daubed with shadow.
a siren wailed, but it was going somewhere else. I felt sick to my stomach, my skull pressured. Princey kept his hand on my shoulder, and it was comforting.
Four women were standing on a corner, under the stuttering neon. They were all younger than my mother but older than Chile Willow. They wore dresses that might have been applied with paint, and they appeared to be waiting for somebody important to come along. as we passed them, I smelled their sweet perfume. I looked into the face of one of them, and I saw a blond-haired angel. But something about that face was lifeless, like the face of a painted doll. "Motherfucker better do me right," she said to a dark-haired girl. "Better fuckin' score me, goddammit."
a red car pulled up. The blond-haired angel switched on a smile to the driver. The other girls crowded around, their eyes bright with false hope.
I didn't like what I saw, and Princey guided me on.
In a doorway, a man in a denim jacket was standing over a woman sprawled in a doorway. He was zipping up his pants. The woman's face was a pulped mass of black bruises. "There you go," the man said. "Showed you, didn't Ii Showed you who's boss." He reached down and grabbed her hair. "Say it, bitch." He shook her head. "Say who's boss!"
Her swollen eyes were pleading. Her mouth opened, showing broken teeth. "You are," she said, and she began to cry. "You're the boss."
"Keep going, Cory," Princey told me. "Don't stop, don't stop."
I staggered on. Everywhere I looked, there was only mean concrete. I saw not a hill nor a trace of green. I lifted my face, but the stars were blanked out and the night a gray wash. We turned a corner and I heard a clatter. a small white dog was searching desperately through garbage cans, its ribs showing. Suddenly a hulking man was there, and he said, "Now I've got you" as the dog stood staring at him with a banana peel in its mouth. The man lifted a baseball bat and slammed it down across the dog's back. The dog howled with pain and thrashed, its spine broken, the banana peel lost. The man stood over it, and he lifted the baseball bat and brought it down and then the dog had no more muzzle or eyes, just a smashed red ruin. The white legs kept kicking, as if trying to run.
"Little piece a shit," the man said, and he stomped the skinny ribs with his boot.
Tears burned my eyes. I stumbled, but Princey's hand held me up. "Move on," he said. "Hurry." I did, past the carnage. I was about to throw up, and I fell against a wall of rough stones. Behind me, Franklin rumbled, "Da kid's too far from home, Princey. It ain't right."
"You think I like thisi" Princey snapped. "Numb nuts."
I came to the edge of the wall, and I stopped. I seemed to be looking into a small room. I could hear voices raised in argument, but only a boy sat in the room. He was about my age, I thought, but something in his face looked older by far. The boy was staring at the floor, his eyes glassy as the arguing voices got louder and louder. and then he picked up a sponge and a tube of glue, the kind my buddies and I put plastic models together with. He squeezed glue into the sponge, and then he pressed the sponge over his nose and closed his eyes as he inhaled. after a minute he fell backward, his body starting to convulse. His mouth was open, and his teeth began to clamp down again and again on his tongue.
I shivered, sobbed, and looked away. Princey's hand touched the back of my head, and drew my face into his side.
"You see, Coryi" he whispered, and his voice was tight with strangled rage. "This world eats up boys. You're not ready yet to shove a broomstick down its throat."
"I want to... I want to..."
"Go home," Princey said. "Home to Zephyr."
We were back at the railyard, amid the whistles and chugs. Princey said they'd go back some of the way with me, to make sure I caught the right train. Here came a Southern Railroad freight train, with one of its boxcars partway open. "This is the one!" Princey said, and he jumped up into the opening. Franklin went next, moving fast on those big old shoes when he had to. Then ahmet, his cracked flesh puffing dust with every step.
The train was picking up speed. I started running alongside the boxcar, trying to find a grip, but there was no ladder. "Hey!" I shouted. "Don't leave me!"
It began pulling away. I had to run hard to keep up. The boxcar's opening was dark. I couldn't see Princey, Franklin, or ahmet in there. "Don't leave me!" I shouted frantically as my legs began to weaken.
"Jump, Cory!" Princey urged from the darkness. "Jump!"
The tons of steel wheels were grinding beside me. "I'm scared!" I said, losing ground.
"Jump!" Princey said. "We'll catch you!"
I couldn't see them in there. I couldn't see anything but dark. But the city was at my back, part of the world that ate up boys.
I would have to have faith.
I lunged forward, and I leaped upward toward the dark doorway.
I was falling. Falling through cold night and stars.
My eyes opened with a jolt.
I could hear the freight train's whistle, moving somewhere beyond Zephyr on its way to that other world.
I sat up, next to Davy Ray's grave.
My sleep had lasted only ten minutes or so. But I had gone a long way, and come back shaken and sick inside but safe. I knew the world beyond Zephyr wasn't all bad. after all, I read National Geographic. I knew about the beauty of the cities, the art museums, and the monuments to courage and humanity. But just like the moon, part of the world lay hidden. as the man who had been murdered on Zephyr earth lay hidden from the moonlight. The world, like Zephyr, was not all good and not all bad. Princey-or whatever Princey had been-was right; I had some growing up to do before I faced that monster. Right now, though, I was a boy who wanted to sleep in his own bed, and wake up with his mother and father in the house. The apology to Leatherlungs still stuck in my craw. I'd hack through that jungle when I got there.
I stood up, under the blazing stars. I looked at the grave, sadly fresh. "Good-bye, Davy Ray," I said, and I rode Rocket home.
The next day, Mom commented on how tired I looked. She asked if I'd had a bad dream. I said it was nothing I couldn't handle. Then she made me some pancakes.
The apology remained unwritten. While I was in my room that evening, my monsters watching me from the walls, I heard the telephone ring four different times. Dad and Mom came in to talk to me. "Why didn't you tell usi" Dad asked. "We didn't know that teacher was raggin' the kids so hard." He was, as I've said before, familiar with being ragged.
One of the callers had been Sally Meachum's mother. another had been the Demon's mustachioed mater. Ladd Devine's dad had called, and Joe Peterson's mother. They had told my parents what their kids had told them, and suddenly it appeared that though I was certainly wrong for flying off the handle and whacking Leatherlungs' glasses off, Leatherlungs herself was responsible for some of this.
"It's not right for a teacher to call anybody's child a blockhead. Everybody deserves respect, no matter how old or young they are," Dad told me. "Tomorrow I believe I'll have a little talk with Mr. Cardinale and straighten this thing out." He gave me a puzzled look. "But why in the world didn't you tell us to begin with, Coryi"
I shrugged. "I guess I didn't think you'd take my side of it."
"Well," Dad said, "it seems to me we didn't have enough faith in you, did we, partneri"
He ruffled my hair.
It sure was nice, being back.
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