It was a late summer afternoon when he found him. A Georgia thunder burst had just finished grinding its swollen belly across the pine studded countryside, spitting spiteful lightning. Matt turned his face towards the sun, relishing the warmth after the storm’s quick chill. He listened to the distant thunder in the distance, his mind pleasantly still. Glistening puddles were beginning to steam, their glossy backs mirroring a clearing sky. Like lost souls, ghostly gray streamers spiraled through the tassels of the emerald pines.
Matt dropped his gaze from the cloud streaked horizon and peered past the weed lined ditch into the beckoning shade of the forest across the road. He knew soon the sun would blaze through the rising mist, turning it into a hot moist glove, smothering the land. He sighed, brow creasing as he looked for a way through the tangled weeds and towering brambles on forest’s ragged edge. Then he saw him.
He would have missed him completely had it not been for the foot protruding from a thin palisade of weeds. Matt froze, heart clenching. His face creasing with suspicion, he squinted. Slowly he unshouldered his faded backpack and let it slide down his arm, fingers catching the frayed strap with familiar ease.
He started across the road, gravel grinding beneath his boots. Pale steam caressed his legs as he walked to the road’s stoney edge. Barely above his subconscious was a dark and enigmatic turning, warning him away, yet drawing him closer. The tall grass painted damp lines across his legs as he stepped through the weeds of the road’s shoulder. Taking a deep breath, he parted the thick growth lining the ditch and looked down.
A boy was sprawled like an unwanted rag doll, arms awkwardly protruding from a muddy t-shirt. He was a mere wisp of a child, about seven or eight, Matt guessed, letting the backpack fall. Long blond hair swayed in the trickling water, and clumps of clay clotted the face. Matt eased into a squat, studying the body. It looked dead. Too bad, Matt thought, glancing at the deserted road, he was a decent looking kid. But dead is dead. There isn’t anything we can do. Let somebody else find it.
He stood, stared, turned, then paused. You can’t just leave him, his conscience was screaming, and other parts agreed. Squatting, he slid down the wet embankment. Did he drown? Matt wondered, shoving reluctance aside, or was he dead when he got here? We’ll just check him – then go. He crouched. So young. Maybe someone had dumped it here like a bag of trash; a used up item to be discarded. Matt unconsciously bit his lip.
Come on, what the hell, it’s only a dead body, a harsh voice said. You’ve seen plenty, what’s one more?. Just check it and go. ‘Cause I’m tellin’ you, you damn sure don’t wanna be around when this thing turns up. There was hard truth to the thought. He forced his fingers against the boy’s neck. Warmth greeted him, followed by a faint flutter. For a moment Matt was paralyzed, then he whipped his hand away as though he’d touched a snake.
He’s alive! It shocked him, and foreboding trickled along his spine. He exhaled, not realizing he’d been holding his breath. You can’t stop now, he realized. Not if he’s alive. He took a deep breath and again forced his fingers against the boy’s neck. His scalp tingled as the slender pulse telegraphed a message of life. Unbidden and unwanted, the thought came: I have to help him. A mental torrent of protests swelled.
He rocked back on his heels and stared at the body, unmindful of the water filling his boots. This would be easier if he was dead, someone said. Then we could leave. He heard muttered agreement. Maybe we should leave, he told them. But what if another storm comes? He might drown. Then it would be our fault.
Matt shook his head, trying to quiet the quarreling voices. It’s a wonder he didn’t drown. I’ll just get him out. That’s all. Then I’ll leave. Someone else can find him. But he had to hurry. The boy came from somewhere – and somebody’s bound to be looking for him. The thought made Matt uneasy. He didn’t want to be around when they found the boy. It would mean questions. Questions were trouble, especially official questions. And he didn’t want any trouble. Especially the official kind
Matt surveyed the boy, then ran his hands over the slack limbs. He knew it would take x-rays to be certain there were no breaks. He gingerly rolled up the loose T-shirt and frowned. A wide bruise ran the length of the boy’s side, disappearing below the waist. Somebody hit him, a voice whispered. A hit and run. He gently palpated the abdomen.
“Maybe you’re okay,” he whispered. He hadn’t felt the rigidity of internal injuries. He let his fingers rest on the boy’s wrist, his face knotted in concentration as he checked the pulse again. The beat rang strong and steady.
Matt sighed, regretting his decision. Leaning forward, he worked his arms under the limp body. This’ll be real good if he has a broken neck, Matt thought, tensing, but then again – what choice do I have? A vision of the empty miles ahead and behind careened through his mind. For a moment it seemed the boy stirred, then he was lifting the child free. He cradled the boy, water running from his elbows.
Turning awkwardly, he laid the boy on the bank’s edge. He eased his arms from beneath the child and shook his hands, sending droplets flying, then wiped them on his pants. His worn boots slipping on the bank, he climbed up beside the boy,. The boy looked out of place in the tall wet weeds.
Matt felt another heavy sigh coming, crushed it, and knelt. He watched the boy’s chest rise and fall. Lonesome cicadas surrounded him with a shrill pulsing song . The sun was hot and the air thick. He felt himself drifting, and he looked at the sky. Far above a crow arced like a dark comma, wings tattered. After a moment he shook himself and glanced at the distant horizon. The subliminal drone of a faraway car echoed against the sky’s brittle bowl.
“Okay, kid.” Matt whispered as if afraid to break the dreaming landscape’s spell. An ominous disquiet had come over him. “You’re on your own. I gotta go.”
He stood, wincing. He had been crouched longer than he thought. He looked at the frail form, frowning. I hate to just leave him, but there’s no other choice. Just let them find him with me and what happened will be my fault. They always blame the nigger.
Matt picked up the pack, eyes sweeping the road. Out there lay the mindless emptiness he craved. Stepping forward, he glanced at the body. A fly was exploring a nostril, hopping in alarm at each exhalation. Matt suppressed an urge to shoo the fly. Best you shoo, an urgent voice declared. Matt knew it was right. He had no stomach for this kind of trouble, nor a desire to see if the horror stories about Southern jails were true. But even so – Matt studied the boy – how could he be certain the boy would be found by someone who would to take him to the authorities? Like a worm crawling from a hole, a voice whispered: What if it’s some pervert who’ll just use him, abuse him, and toss him aside? Or worse – what if that’s what already happened?
Matt felt a familiar nausea. A face emerged from the depths of his mind and he grimaced. Focusing on the boy, he forced the face back into the darkness, frown deepening as he realized a part of him had made a decision. He knew better than to argue – it would be futile, and even if he won, he would pay in long sleepless nights and bouts with his conscience. Matt sighed in disgust, tossing the pack down. It thudded next to the boy. The suspicion he was making a terrible mistake gnawed at him. But you can’t leave him like this. After all, what if he was your kid? It was a sly voice. He bit back bitterness, eyes stinging.
“Damn” Matt whispered, angry at the insidious demon that continued to plague him despite all the miles and years. Resigned, he squatted, studying the body.
“Well, I guess I should check you out before they haul me off, eh?”. There was a fatalistic edge to his cynicism. “After all, I can’t have you dying on me. They’d lynch me for sure.”
The boy gave no response. Expecting none, Matt sighed and edged closer. For a moment he simply stared. I’ve got to get that off him, Matt decided, eyeing the mud. He could be dying and I wouldn’t know it. Kicking aside an empty bottle, he opened the pack. Digging, he pulled out a ragged shirt. He unshouldered the canteen, turning. The fly had given up on the boy’s nose and was exploring an ear. Matt knelt, shooing the fly. He gingerly rolled up the boy’s shirt.
“Jesus,” Matt breathed, tracing fingers over a row of knots pebbling the smooth curve of the boy’s chest. Broken ribs, he realized, counting. Five – but long healed. There was nothing he could do about it, though they were a curious aberration. They had mended out of kilter, as though the boy hadn’t received medical treatment. Curiouser and curiouser, a dry voice said.
Grabbing the T-shirt, he began washing the face, scraping the mud with his hand. He was calm now that he had a task. He watched his hands, contemplating their message. He knew the examine he’d made was neither thorough nor definitive. But why was the boy in the ditch? How had he gotten there? The questions nagged like a river eating at its banks.
Despite rising urgency, Matt methodically worked. He wet the rag and dabbed, concentrating to keep the voices at bay. Under his ministrations eyebrows appeared with wet lashes below. Waving at the unintimidated fly, Matt smiled at the nose’s impish turn. The fly focused its attention on Matt. Matt quietly cursed and kept working, occasionally pausing to wipe sweat from his eyes with water shriveled fingers.
As he’d anticipated, the humidity had risen to an unbearable level. A blue-gray haze in the distance, up close it suffocated its victims, drowning them in sweat. Already the fresh clean feeling left by the storm had evaporated, replaced by sweltering dampness. Matt rocked back to wring the rag and wipe his face, apprehension singing. He leaned forward and trickled water through the boy’s matted hair, watching the clay dissolve. The grit leeched away, leaving behind a pale harvest blond.
Suddenly Matt froze, eyes narrowing. He turned the boy’s head and gingerly parted the hair above the temple. The boy’s scalp was bloated and bruised. There was a ‘V’-shaped laceration, bone deep. He could see skull through the gaping lips. Matt frowned, wondering if it was broken. He stared, listening to the cicadas. Then with the edge of a mud stained fingernail he picked at the side of the wound. To his disgust, but not surprise, it kept coming up. What had appeared to be a bad gash was a ragged flap of meaty skin, held by slimy knots of congealed blood and translucent mucilage streamers. Matt grimaced and laid the flap down, trying to shake the sight of capillaries and smooth white bone; the slime, gunk, and gore.
“Damn,” Matt said flatly. So young to be hurt like this! He couldn’t handle it. This boy needed a hospital room with curtains and gowns and parents hovering nearby – not a social outcast crouched in the weeds by a ditch. He fervently wished a car would come so he could flee into the woods and escape. We got here by taking that first step, you know. Everything’s led to this. It struck Matt as bitterly humorous. There was no turning back – ever. Just another step on the road, he thought, wondering. Walking away would be best, a voice said. The less involved the better.
Maybe it isn’t as bad as it looks, he thought. At least the part he’d seen wasn’t broken. Then again, maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe the boy would die anyway. As if we all don’t, someday. Matt ignored the somber voice, concentrating on the child.
He turned the face up. Grasping an arc of eyelashes he gently opened an eye. For a second he was startled by the iris’s green clarity. Then he shrugged, and peering, passed his hand over the boy’s face. He repeated the procedure for the other eye. Satisfied, he grunted. Disturbed, the gash trickled blood. Matt felt an instinctive fear at the sight. How much blood has he lost? Matt wondered, realizing he couldn’t know. Nor could he correct it.
The odds are against you, buddy, Matt thought, shaking his head. The child would live or die with what he had. Your poor parents; you poor kid, a voice whispered. Matt felt a sudden empathy for the parents. He could envision an uncomprehending young couple staring in horror at their dead son, naked on a cold chrome table, surrounded by the sterile callousness of an even colder medical establishment. He shoved the image away, vainly trying to maintain detachment.
Wadding the muddy rag into a ball, he turned to the pack. Dropping the rag, he rummaged for his first aid kit. Laying the beaten box by the boy, he edged closer, hesitant. After a glance at the empty road, he opened the box. Damn, he thought. I need gloves. But he had none, so tipping the boy’s head, he began feverishly working.
He cautiously peeled back the thick slab of swollen flesh. Tipping the canteen, he trickled water across the wound, rubbing gently at the filth. Red gel slid across the boy’s skull, carrying dirt. Matt put down the canteen and flushed the wound with peroxide. He settled back, watching the foam sizzle. After a moment he wiped the foam away. He applied a few strips of styptic to close the wound, then a layer of greasy antiseptic. Pulling out a roll of gauze, he shut the battered box, and swiveling on his heels, tucked the kit under the backpack’s flap.
He turned to find the boy’s eyes open, their crystalline gaze on Matt. Matt felt his breath stop, and he had the sensation of being transfixed in their clear depths like a diver in an emerald pool. There was a hauntingly strange, yet familiar quality in them, like a soft wind whispering things sad and forgotten. For a long moment they stared, silence betraying mutual paralysis of thought. Then with deer-like swiftness the boy rose on his elbows, gathering his legs as he poised to flee.
“Whoa!,” Matt yelped. The boy froze, eyes locked on Matt’s face. Then he began slithering away, back-pedaling with his legs while his arms crabbed to keep up.
“Wait!,” Matt barked, leaning forward and grabbing the boy’s foot. The boy jerked, then gasped, a hand shooting to his side. He stopped, eyes clenched in pain, his foot jerking with diminishing intensity. Matt noticed a glimmer in the corners of the boy’s frightened eyes.
“Please, mister, don’ hurt me.” The voice was barely discernible above the shrill cicadas. Matt was taken aback by the voice’s strange hoarseness. The rasping whisper, quiet as the rustle of dying autumn leaves, resonated in places he had long turned his back on and wished forgotten. He frowned inwardly, trying to control his surging selves. Control, control, he mentally whispered. Stay on top.
“I’m not going to hurt you – and take it easy. You’re hurt.” Matt said, clenching his teeth. He released his grip on the boy’s foot. “That’s some nasty cut you got on your head, you know.”
The boy looked at him in confusion, then a trembling hand slowly crawled to his temple, touched, then drifted down. The boy looked in incomprehension at the crimson traces. He began slithering away, his fearful eyes swiveling at Matt. The desperate wariness in the boy’s green gaze reminded Matt of a car-struck cat. Wild. Feral. And filled with fear.
Time’s a-wasting, Matt reminded himself. Someone could come at any moment – and he didn’t want to get caught. He’d made it their business. Nothing but trouble, that’s what this is, a sharp voice pointed out, and now you’re in twice as deep.
“Stop,” Matt said. He wasn’t sure if he was talking to the boy or himself. The boy froze. I should walk – right now, Matt thought, regarding the face before him. For a long moment the two stared across the swaying grass. From the woods came a blue jay’s harsh cry.
“Come. Here.” Matt forced each word, fighting his reluctance to help the boy. To his surprise, the boy’s lashes dropped in submission. Matt held his breath, then let it out nervously, hoping to relieve his rising apprehension. It didn’t work. He waited as the boy edged towards him, his body sagging with resignation.
“That’s good,” Matt said, holding out a hand. The boy stopped, flinching from Matt’s outstretched palm.
“What’s your name?” Matt asked, dropping his hand.
The boy remained silent, his gaze falling to the weeds. Matt waited, listening to his heart thud in rhythm to the cicadas’ pulsating whine. Perspiration beaded his forehead and danced on his chin. His calves were beginning to ache, and he shifted uncomfortably. Sweat quivered and fell, the drops glimmering like glass
“Fine,” Matt said, almost growling. “I don’t need to know who you are. Tell you what. Let me finish taking care of that cut, and then we go our separate ways. Okay?”
The boy stared, then nodded.
“This is gonna hurt,” Matt said. He picked up the gauze, opened it, and made a pressure pad. He looked up at the boy. “I’m going to put this on, tape it up, and we’re through.” Thank God.
“Lucky for you, you were out for most of it.” He tried not to imagine what cleaning the wound would have been like had the boy been conscious. Impossible, he realized. Matt sighed heavily, looking at the boy. Hopefully the boy would not fight too much.
“Okay, come here,” Matt said, motioning. The boy stared as if he spoke in tongues.
“It’s okay,” Matt reassured. “I’m not going to hurt you.” Much. “We just need to get this on to keep out the bugs.”
The fly had returned, landing on the boy’s head. It wandered in a spattering of gnats like a cow among crows.. Matt forced a smile, wondering: Given the conditions – the heat, humidity, bugs, and crud – how bad would the wound fester? He inwardly grimaced while tightly maintaining a false smile of reassurance.
The boy hesitated, then inched closer, the pain in his side clear. Another fly had joined the first to feast on the cut’s puckered edge. He froze as Matt’s hands came towards him. At first touch he flinched, then steeled himself.
Matt pressed the bandage on the wound, feeling the boy rock under the pressure. He quickly swirled the cloth around the boy’s head and taped it tight, hoping to slow the scarlet bloom on the gauze. That should help, he reassured his selves, pulling a hair from under the white band. At least it’ll keep the bugs out. The sweltering heat sprinkled beads of sweat across his forehead, and he glanced nervously at the road.
“Okay,” Matt said with a heavy sigh, “I’m done.” He began shoveling his supplies back into the pack. The boy turned, watching intently. A hand crept up, exploring the pristine white bandage.
“You okay?” Matt asked, glancing at the boy. The boy nodded, dropping his hand. Matt smiled wryly, knowing the lie, and picked up the canteen. He shook it, trying to guess how much water was left. Not much. Cleansing the wound had taken most of it. There was muttered anger from some of his selves, seeing it as a risk and a waste of supplies. He ignored them.
“That’s good,” Matt said, turning to the pack and pulling its wrinkled flap closed. He began threading the straps through the buckles. It’s gotta hurt, he thought, but there’s nothing we can do about it. A side of him wondered how the boy had gotten in the ditch – but in this case, ignorance may be bliss. The last thing he needed was getting caught with the child, or blamed for the boy’s condition.
“Okay,” Matt said, leaning back and regarding the boy. “I’m going. You just sit here and take it easy. Sooner or later somebody will come by, and then all you’ve got to do is raise your arm and flag them down. Okay?”
The boy blinked, eyes wary.
“Look – do this.” Matt raised an arm and waved vigorously at an imaginary car. “When they stop, tell them to take you to a hospital – a doctor – or something. Tell ’em you’re hurt. They’ll check you at the hospital to make sure you’re okay, and then they’ll get your parents to come get you. Piece of cake. Okay?”
The boy nodded, his expression guarded.
“And do me a favor, all right,?” Matt stood, knees crackling. He looked at the boy. “You never met me, okay? You never saw me. Can you remember that?”
The boy glanced at Matt and nodded, saying nothing. Looking at the child, Matt knew the boy wouldn’t live up to the promise. The bandage would see to it. Hell, they’ll say you did this before it’s all said and done, a hard voice warned. Probably kidnapping, too! Best get – now!
“Okay,” Matt said, picking up the backpack. He thrust an arm through a strap and swung the pack across his back, his free hand catching the other strap. Tightening the straps, he picked up the canteen and hung it on his shoulder. He began to turn, then paused, glancing back. The boy looked lost in the weeds. Nearby a bottle gleamed, its curved green surface distorting the sky. Beyond glittered a crumpled can, its logo faded.
An urge to take the boy’s hand and lead him somewhere safe flashed through him; then he remembered the reasons he couldn’t. It’s too dangerous, a hard voice said. You’ve got to look out for number one – yourself. But even still . . . it’s wrong to abandon him. He’s hurt . . . so young!
Shoving aside the warring voices, Matt stepped towards the road, his feet moving with someone else’s will. For a moment he was tempted to glance back and he paused, then taking a deep breath he started walking, relieved to feel asphalt beneath his heels. He felt the boy’s eyes following him. He tried to throw off the sensation, keeping his eyes on the road, but the skin on his back tensed anyway. After a few minutes he came to the first curve; rounding it, he risked a glance back.
The boy was gone. Matt’s eyebrows arched as he stopped. Well, shit!, he thought, holding his hand over his brow and leaning forward. He squinted, his eyes searching. Nothing. Not a trace.
Never mind, a voice whispered. It’s none of our business. You shouldn’t have stopped to begin with. Now you’re involved. He’s gonna tell and they’re gonna hunt you down. He felt hair on his neck prickle, and he had the notion if he retraced his steps he would find nothing – not the first bent weed nor muddied footprint.
Or worse, he thought, you’ll just find your own. Matt tried to throw off the eerie sensation, feeling icy fingers trickle down his spine as he turned to resume his trek. Something was there. Something was watching. He could feel it! Keep on truckin’, he thought sternly. It really doesn’t matter. Nothing matters – never did, never will.
Several hours later Matt was sitting beneath a bowed oak on a hill, leaning against his pack with a bottle of cheap whiskey in his hand. From his vantage point he could watch the sun’s fading glory paint the horizon in radiant strokes of changing color. A small pile of flickering coals blinked like accusing eyes from the gray ash of his dying campfire. He tried to keep his attention on the clouds, but the incident with the boy kept creeping into his mind like a loathsome spider, one he couldn’t kill.
Where had the boy gone? Matt wondered. Where had he come from? How had he gotten hurt, and what put him in that ditch? His maps didn’t show any towns nearby – which was exactly why he’d chosen this route. He took a sip of whiskey, wincing at its bite, then set the bottle down. The questions circled like voracious vultures, eating at his peace of mind.
He halfheartedly scraped his spoon in the can of beanie-weenies he cradled, feeling the heat bake into his palm. He didn’t like beanie-weenies, but he hadn’t had time to hunt. The canned food was for emergencies only. The whiskey was for forgetting. Today had come close enough to justify both, he rationalized, scooping another bite with a frown. Had the boy wandered off? Had there been a boy? He’d found muddy footprints – but no boy. That the boy had been there – he sighed. No doubt.
“I didn’t imagine it,” he muttered angrily, chasing a bean clump. His spoon clanked against the can’s bottom. He had combed the woods, gone up and down the road – without finding another trace. After a few hours he’d given up and retreated to call it a day. You should have done more when you had the chance, a soft voice scolded. It sounded suspiciously like his mother. Why didn’t you help him when you could? He felt a guilty twinge.
Fear, from the hollows of his mind an accusing voice whispered. Fear of involvement. Fear of another human being . . .
“No,” Matt said bitterly, denying the accusations. I ran to survive. After all, the last thing I need is the law. They could keep him, throw him in jail – do anything. He remembered an old colored man talking over a burning barrel in a back alley of a small town. It had been winter, and the wind had been biting cold.
“Dey kin beat a man and get by with it, yes sirree, don’ you think they can’t. You in the South now, nigger. Dey kin do anything dey wanna do. Beat you, mistreat you, throw your black ass in a hole. Yes sir, po’ black folks like us don’ stand a chance.”
The small wizen man had cackled bitterly into the brisk wind, rubbing his chaffed hands vigorously above the flame-swept barrel; then, leaning forward he confided: “You listen boy, ‘an listen good. Stay clear o’ Johnny Law an’ if yer lucky you’ll be free the rest yo’ days. Don’ take trouble by the hand – trouble comes enough. You take care o’ number one, and he’ll take care of you. Don’ put your nose where it don’ belong and maybe it won’t get whacked off . ‘dat goes ‘specially fo’ white folks. You deal with them, you dealin’ with the devil. You hear me, boy?”
Matt had nodded goodnaturedly, absently muttering agreement so he could share the fire’s warmth. But as time crept by he’d discovered the dark truth behind the wizen man’s utterance, and the further south he went the truer it got. Jails here were brutal, decades behind the rest of the country, justice slow, and the system ruled by back room politics, cash, and prejudice. Despite their reputation for hospitality, Southerners did not take well to what they saw as ‘Northern invaders’. Especially ones on foot, black, and “just passing through”. He sighed, looking at the bottle. It was barely half full, but despite the numbing effects restless ghosts stirred in his mind’s recesses.
Oh well, he thought, stifling a yawn, he’d had a narrow escape today. Not as narrow as the boy’s, a cynical voice sneered. And you just left him sitting there, hurt, alone, without water, help, or anything, a softer voice accused.
Matt groaned. Leave it be!, he ordered, sitting up with a frown, I did all I could do. He laboriously stood up, knees popping. He was drained by the trek in the woods, coupled with the troubling encounter. Instead of a pleasant fog there was only fatigued apprehension. He leaned and wrestled the blanket and poncho from the pack. Finding a patch of level ground, he used his foot to sweep aside loose acorns and twigs.
He spread the poncho on the ground, topping it with the blanket. Then he went to the fire and kicked sand over the coals, banking it. He gave no thought to what his simple behaviors betrayed – how he knew to bury the fire to survive night, his keen eye for a patch of level ground – unaware how his nearly instinctive actions indicated time-worn habit. You’ve been doing this too long, a voice said and he was inclined to agree. He sat on the blanket, dragging the pack close, and stared at the emerging stars. Only a sullen red band remained in the west.
The boy, a voice said as he leaned against the pack. I wonder what became of him? Matt was angry he couldn’t put the event behind him and took another long pull from the bottle. And what about the kid’s parents? He could just see them, two faceless people, quietly desperate, sitting by a phone in a dim room, waiting for a call to free them from an uncertain nightmare.
You should’ve stayed – made sure. Anybody – anything – could have picked him up and done whatever. It happens every day. You know it! The sharp accusation sent a guilty spike through him.
“It’s not my fault I found him!,” he shouted furiously at the approaching night. “I wish I hadn’t found him! But just because I found him, that doesn’t mean that we have to get involved. After all, he’s not ours, right?” His voice had dropped to a mutter, and he took a furious pull from the bottle.
Right? He wondered, his eyes going to the star-studded dome in a futile effort to ignore his twisting emotions. Right? The voice echoed in his head. Matt ignored it, forcing himself to concentrate on the sounds of nightfall.
A swollen ruddy moon was emerging from the black horizon. In the darkness below a whippoorwill sang fragments of a forlorn song, as if vainly trying to call back the day. Hearing shrill notes, Matt fancied he could see shrieking bats flitting across the stars in a hungry pursuit. All around the constant chorus of a million bits of stalking crawling slithering life shrilled, chirped, and creaked in a mysterious dance of life and death.
Matt felt the brittle edges of his mind softening at the night’s reassuring sounds, and he closed his eyes, willing the voices away. As long as crickets sing and frogs croak it will be all right, he thought, capping the bottle. Life goes on. For some reason, the thought did not reassure him.
He turned on his side and pulled the blanket over his hip. Sighing, he shoved at the lumps in his pack and laid his head down. Tomorrow I want to be out of here, he thought sleepily, and on down the road.
Matt woke suddenly, wondering what woke him. He lay perfectly still, feeling a cool, almost impalpable mist on his face as the morning dew settled on the woods. Something had awaken him. His senses reached like invisible antennae into the woods around him, searching the predawn darkness – and yet – nothing.
But something was out there. His nerves were vibrating like angry hornets and his hair prickled in cold waves. He knew better than to doubt his instincts, though his senses told him nothing. He heard dew dripping through the leaves above, and faintly muffled in the moist fog blanket swelling from the hollows, the distant peeping of frogs.
He opened his eyes in vain. The fog was too thick and dawn hours away. Even if he waved his hand in front of his face he would see nothing. Yet something was out there. He was sure of it.
There! He felt more than heard something slinking in the damp darkness along the camp’s weedy edge. He tensed, waiting, his hand creeping to grasp his knife’s leather hilt. Man’s greatest fear, he thought dryly, the great unknown. He clenched his useless eyes and strained his ears, trying to filter the night sounds and thundering heart from whatever it was out there. For a moment he thought he detected something brushing against a bush.
Maybe it’s just a wild dog poking around, he thought. He wasn’t overly worried about that. He’d dealt with strays before. But this – it didn’t feel like dog. It had a different feel – less bumbling – than a dog. Whatever it is, it’s clever enough to keep quiet. Something was visiting from the dark hollows and black swamps below. Perhaps a raccoon. He didn’t like raccoons. They were vicious and sometimes rabid.
There it was again! Closer now, easing into camp, an irregular sound, like body slithering in wet grass. Too big for a raccoon, he realized, relying on instinct. He imagined he could hear it approaching, its body a heaviness in the mist.
He gripped the knife tighter, muscles straining beneath prickled skin. Whatever it was, it was getting closer to the ash pit. Matt gritted, trying to be still though every vibrating fiber in his body screamed for release. He knew he was seconds from breaking and leaping up with a primordial shriek to chase the thing away. He cautiously turned his head, feeling it coming closer, inspecting him, watching him with predatory intent.
No way, a logical part of him protested, you’re just being paranoid. Nothing could see through this fog. Warm breath feathered against his shoulder and he jumped then realized it was his own. The realization only irritated him. Something was in camp and getting closer.
Metal tumbled over rock and Matt flinched, then realized whatever it was had stumbled on the empty can. Oddly, the sound relieved him, though it didn’t calm his nerves. It confirmed what instinct had been saying, as well as giving the intruder’s position. He may have dismissed the faint pattering on the ground as dew-drops dripping from the trees; the sensation of something crawling towards him as overly active imagination – had it not been for the sound of tin on rock.
Matt gritted his teeth in indecision. Should he jump up and try to frighten the thing? Or lay still and hope it left him unmolested? And would it pass – or attack? He had a sudden vision of a snarling beast bursting through the fog, attacking with unnaturally swift viciousness. Matt shivered. He didn’t like the thought, nor his indecision. As a matter of fact, he thought, I don’t like any of this.
Come on. Tensely waiting, Matt coaxed the unknown. The long wait was preying on his mind as well as nerves. Come on little beastie and let daddy get a look at you. His eyes strained against darkness, his heart jack hammering in his chest. Despite the cool fog, sweat beaded across his face; licking his lips, he tasted salt. Come on, he broadcast. Lets get this over with.
The thing, whatever it was, was staying near the oak. He fancied he heard legs swishing through tall wet grass and paws padding in sand. But that is not my imagination. A shaft of fear lanced through him as a staccato of dew-drops spattered on the ground like velvet-footed tap dancers dancing in the darkness. He tensed, frightened. The only thing he knew for certain was nothing was certain.
A few feet to the right a twig popped, making Matt flinch. His shoulders twitched as he tensed, preparing. It was coming closer. He felt the growing heaviness in the fog and heard moist wet panting, faint greedy snorts, and grunts of exertion. It was coming. It knew where he was and it was coming for him.
Well, Matt thought, raising the knife, I’m not going down easy. And if being scared has anything to do with it, then this thing hasn’t got a chance in hell . . .
He heard hesitant footfalls clearly now with hyper-sensitive senses – weeds softly sweeping up behind the thing, legs passing through sparse grass, and the muffled crunch of sand compressing beneath feet. God, it’s close, Matt thought, trembling. It was right behind him – he was sure – and he dearly wanted to look, but he knew it was useless. It was too dark, and the fog, a moist glove clamped on his face, had grown thicker. Matt’s lips parted, and the tip of his tongue tasted the dew. Soon, very soon, this moment will be history, an abstract part observed. Nothing lasts forever. Not even this.
Yeah, another voice said, both encouraging and demanding, just hang on a few minutes longer and hope it isn’t your life that’s over . . . don’t panic and don’t go crazy. Just hang on a few minutes more . . .
The sounds were so close Matt was sure he could reach and touch whatever it was. It was here, an arm’s breadth away. He slowly turned his head to face it – slowly, ever so slowly. Black on black greeted his straining vision. What is it waiting for?
He suddenly had an impulse to scream a scream that would burst his lungs and rip his throat. Maybe it would scare the thing scaring him. Why doesn’t it attack? Matt felt impatience surge, and he wished it was on him and he was already fighting. He was dimly aware that his teeth ached from jaw clenching. His muscles, past the stage of tense, shivered in anticipation. Any moment, any moment now . . .
He felt more than heard a settling on the ground as if something had stopped beside him. Next there was a long slow exhalation, as if whatever it was had been holding its breath. Matt froze, stomach fear twisted as he waited for the pounce. He was sure it was going to pounce. He heard a faint sniff, as if testing the air. Maybe it’s smelling you over, a dry voice observed, seeing if you are something good to eat. He didn’t like being smelled over like a prime cut, and his upper lip curled to a snarl. Come on, he viciously ordered the unknown, lets get this over with.
Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to hear, for he heard it move in the grass beside him – not close enough to attack, nor far away to give peace. His night was ruined, he thought wryly. You’re not going to be making many miles today, that’s for sure, no sirree!, a sour voice cackled in his head. You’ll make even less if you’re dead, another replied. A hoot of derisive laughter echoed in his mind. Dead, oh yeah, oh my yes – that would be hilarious. You’ve been dead for so long. Don’t you think it’s about time the rest of you caught up?
Why is it taking so long? Matt shifted his attention to the mysterious thing in the fog as if sheer willpower could illuminate the unknown and silence the bitter voices, the mocking voices, the warring ones he carried inside. It should have attacked by now. What was it doing – waiting for him to make the first move?
The silence was making him as edgy as the sounds. Maybe it was moving, he thought with alarm – but so softly he couldn’t hear it! Panic shot through his mind. Maybe even now it was reaching for him with talons and teeth! His ears, ringing from listening so intently, carried only the rush of breathing and thudding of his heart. Where was it?
There. Next to him. He heard it over his body’s roar when he held his breath – a soft regular sigh. For a long moment Matt listened, puzzled. It’s breathing, he realized.
Of course it is, you damned fool, a contemptuous voice said. It’s something most living things do. Slowly – ever so slowly – incredulity bloomed alongside a growing conviction. It’s asleep? Its breathing had become too steady to be anything else. But what sort of creature would do such a thing? He was confused, his mind torn between terror and curiosity.
Matt turned his head to fully face whatever it was. Yes, he was sure of it. Whatever it was, it was there – not moving. Matt’s panic gradually dissolved in puzzlement.
What in the hell is this?, he wondered. What sneaks up in your camp, scares the living shit out of you, curls up, and falls asleep? A dog? It must be a dog. It has to be a dog, he rationalized, a stray, thinking to adopt a handout. That had to be it. Wild animals wouldn’t do such things – they would run away or attack. This one was doing neither.
Matt almost sighed in relief, but uncertainty stayed him. He could theorize, he told himself, and hypothesize, but until he laid eyes on the thing, he couldn’t be sure what it was that had scared him so badly.
Matt gingerly rolled over, dragging the blanket. The poncho rustled, making him freeze. Had it heard him? He listened carefully. There was no change in the breathing. Perhaps it was so deep asleep it wouldn’t hear. Perhaps, a vicious part of him thought, I can sneak up on it and stick this knife in it and put an end to that breathing for once and for all!
Matt adjusted his grip on the knife and inch by cautious inch wormed across the ground towards the sound. Invisible blades of grass licked his face with thin wet tongues and the fog seemed to condense around him. He was almost there, he was sure of it. Just a few more inches and he’d be on top of the thing.
Matt paused, fervently wishing for his flashlight. But the flashlight was in the pack – useless now. If I live through this, Matt firmly resolved, I’m gonna sleep with that damned thing in my hand forever. No more of this poking around in the dark, waiting to get my arm bit off.
Here. Right here. Right in front of me, Matt froze, senses tingling. Hope it’s not a bear, he thought wryly. He carefully rose up, trying to guess where a strike would be.
If it’s a large animal, wounding it might just be the last mistake I’ll ever make, he thought, waiting for a clue. The thought gave comfort. No more mistakes, no more struggling, no more pain. No more anything, and most of all, no more regrets – ever.
There was a muffled grunt, a whine, and something rolled over, striking him lightly. Like a startled cat, Matt leapt back with a hiss, raising the knife. His eyes darted in the darkness.
“Don’, da-deeee. Please – ” a sleepy whisper, fog muffled, came from the ground before him. Matt froze. I know that sound, he thought in disbelief. The voice . . . that soft, rasping voice. He shook himself from immobility and leaned forward, hand searching the dark. His fingers brushed something soft and wet – cloth, he realized in confusion. Soft cloth – cotton . . .
“Damn,” Matt finally spat, voice incredulous. “No way.”
Something stirred in front of him.
“Is that you – boy?” Matt asked the darkness.
There was a long pause, then something shifted again.
“Yes sir. Please don’ hurt me.” A whisper pleaded. There was no mistaking the rasp. “I’ll go ‘way if you want.” There was movement.
“No – stop – it’s okay,” Matt said automatically, mind reeling. Just as automatically, he sheathed the knife. “You startled me.” Too say the least, the wry voice in his mind declared. He felt a cold finger trace the nape of his neck as he realized how close he had come to killing the thing – the boy. Jesus, he thought, perspiration suddenly beading his brow. I almost killed him. I almost did it again . . .
Matt knelt, struggling for control. For a moment he had an urge to unsheathe the knife and plunge it in his throat, ending the screaming voices and pain. As seconds ticked Matt could swear the boy was watching him, the mysterious green eyes supernaturally piercing the dense fog.
This is the last thing I need, Matt heard a voice say, and he felt something shudder. Some snot nosed kid coming out of the dark, left field, hitting below the belt, that’s what this is . . . the voice trailed off, whining. He turned towards the blanket, fighting the nausea certain memories left.
Where is that damn pack?, he wondered in exasperation as he stooped and felt around. Finally he found it, and flipping the flap, groped for the flashlight. After a frustrating moment fumbling fingers found the smooth cylinder and he turned it on. The switch snicked and a beam of light lanced out. The fog, milky innards exposed, sucked the light, bleeding it into the hungry darkness. He walked towards the boy, the light a dancing finger. The boy gradually appeared like a materializing ghost, the muddied T-shirt a pale patch, the mud caked jeans fading into blackness. He watched Matt warily, eyes hidden in his brow’s shadow, the bandage a jauntily slash tilted on his head.
“Please don’ hurt me, mister,” the boy pleaded, his hoarse voice quivering with uncertainty. “I’m sorry – I ain’ done nuthin’, I swear. I jus’ come up here . . .” He trailed off. Foggy tendrils caressed his face with ghostly fingers as Matt approached. The boy stepped back fearfully as Matt drew near, one leg nearly buckling and an arm rising to ward off blows.
“I won’t hurt you,” Matt said. He stopped, face grim. “I’m just wondering what in the hell you’re doing sneaking up on me. As a matter of fact, I’m wondering what you’re doin’ here at all. I thought I told you to stay by the road and flag someone down. What happened?”
The boy looked at Matt for a long moment, features twisted, then he dropped his head, hiding his face. Leaves and twigs were tangled in his fine blond hair.
“Well?” Matt demanded, leaning to shine the accusing beam in the boy’s pallid face. The boy sniffed and looked up, his eyes pleading under dark lashes.
“I got scared,” The boy whispered, glancing nervously at the darkness. “They’s things down there.” Matt considered the hollows below the hill. Creeks, wet-weather and dry; fallen logs, small bogs, and brier covered ravines. Possums and ‘coons, deer and fox, and bunches of other things that go bump in the night. All that – and one small boy. He glanced at the child, feeling beginnings of respect. But it doesn’t matter – he shouldn’t be here, a scolding voice reminded, and he hardened his heart.
“How’d you find me?” Matt demanded, trying to keep the harshness from his voice.
“Ain’t no one never did come, so I follered you,” the boy shamefully admitted, voice dropping. His temple was a searing slab of agony, his injured leg trembled uncontrollably, and he was afraid he would cry. But he didn’t dare.
“And you’ve been down there in the woods all night?” Matt snorted in disbelief. He saw the boy sagging, and with it his resolve.
“Yessir,” the boy answered meekly, then he glanced fearfully at Matt, adding, “You ain’t gonna make me go back down there, are you mister? Please, sir – don’t. I ain’t got nowhere to go. You can whup me if you want to. Jus’ don’t make me go back down there.” His eyes darted towards the unseen bottoms. Things had crawled on him, and something big had lumbered in the woods.
“I might,” Matt growled halfheartedly, knowing he wouldn’t. He turned the flashlight towards the damp ash pile. “Might as well make a fire while I’m up. You must be cold in those clothes.”
The boy silently watched him. He had hidden when the man had looked back earlier in the day; then he’d followed the man soundlessly, ducking in the undergrowth at each suggestion of the man turning around. If asked he couldn’t have said why he’d followed the man – just that there had been no where else to go.
“Well, lucky for you I figured it might get a little damp,” Matt said, going to the oak. He kicked aside a pile of leaves, revealing a cache of firewood. Grabbing a few twigs he walked back and carefully stacked them on the ashes, forming a teepee.
Then he dropped to his knees, and blowing gently, sent a cloud of ash into the fog. Ruddy eyes winked in the coals and an acrid smokey tongue licked him. Blinking at the sting, he pushed more twigs into the ember glow, then gently blew again. Tiny motes danced, then there were flickers of flame. Matt gingerly adjusted the twigs, feeding the fire. Reaching for more sticks, Matt glanced up. The boy seemed fascinated by the tongues of light.
“Well, come here,” Matt said plaintively, pointing the flashlight at the boy’s feet to light the way. “You’re not going to get warm way over there.”
“Yessir,” the boy said, ducking his head. He hesitantly followed the circle of light. Matt studied the boy’s labored limp with growing curiosity as the boy stopped beside the crackling glow.
The heat coaxed gray swirls of fog from the darkness, only to expel them in the flickering flames. Matt shoved a larger branch in the fire, sending a twirling geyser of multicolored sparks shooting skyward like a swarm of escaping fireflies. The ruddy glow, reaching through the predawn darkness, warmed his face. Matt turned off the flashlight, and going to the pile of sticks, retrieved another handful. Returning, he set the branches on the ground, intentionally putting them opposite from where the boy stood.
“Put those in the fire – slow,” Matt said, pointing at the sticks. “One at a time. Don’t feed it too fast or it’ll smother.”
The boy gingerly stepped around the fire, favoring his leg, then eased to the ground, leg extended, eyes boring into the flames. Matt stepped back and watched, his amazement at the child’s appearance flooding his mind. It was obvious the boy’s leg was injured. After a moment, he shook his head and went to the blanket and poncho.
“Here,” he said, returning. “Sit on this.” He tossed the poncho next to the boy and put the blanket on top. The boy glanced at the pile, then at the fire, shadows dancing on his face. Matt watched, then shrugged, bent over, and spread the poncho’s corners.
“Sit here,” Matt said, nudging the poncho’s rumpled surface with his toe. “It’ll keep your butt dry.”
The boy glanced again at the poncho, then back at Matt with sorrow. Matt stared, then belatedly realized the boy’s clothes were already soaked. How stupid, a sneering voice declared. How you.
Shut up, he angrily told it, feeling a bitter wave.
“Go ahead – it won’t bite,” Matt said gruffly, pushing at the poncho to illustrate. The boy clumsily lifted himself onto the poncho, folding a leg beneath him. The other he kept straight.
“Cold?” Matt asked, bending to smooth the green plastic. The boy absently nodded, entranced by the fire. Matt picked up the blanket and draped it over the boy’s shoulders as the boy fed the flames. He felt the boy flinch beneath his fingertips.
Going around the fire, Matt squatted, watching the solemn face. They sat for a long while, allowing the fire to coat them with uneven warmth. Matt studied the boy with weary eyes, questions popping in his head like sparks from the fire, the answers as formless as surrounding darkness.
Sometime later Matt noticed shapes. He realized dawn was breaking. Sighing, and he went to the firewood cache. There wasn’t much left. He gathered the last and brought it to the boy, dropping it next to the poncho. The boy flinched, glancing up at him. Matt retreated to the fire’s other side and sat, wishing for a cup of coffee. How long has it been since you sat in a restaurant, drinking coffee?, a voice asked. He didn’t know.
“So – tell me – how’d you end up in that ditch?” Matt finally asked, his voice soft as he watched the fire. There was no answer. After a moment, Matt looked over the dancing flames, eyes flat.
“I found you, you know. Pulled you outta that ditch; patched you up. You might’ve drowned if I hadn’t rescued you. The least you can do is tell me how you got there. You owe me that much, don’t you?”
The boy drew into himself, pulling the blanket closer. His eyes remained fixed on the fire.
“I dunno,” he answered, his voice a rustle. Matt was again disquieted by the low rasp, and he shook his head. He knows how he got there, a firm voice said, and anger flickered at the lie.
“Well – what about your name?” Matt asked, trying a different tact. “You gotta have a name.”
The boy looked up at Matt, the green eyes flickering. He considered Matt’s face, meeting the steady gaze. The man was unreadable. The boy felt a tremor and his head sank, concealing his face. He couldn’t stand the sadness in those eyes. It was like looking at a ghost.
“Jeff,” the boy whispered, then looking at Matt, he repeated, voice firm. “My name is Jeff.”
“Jeff,” Matt echoed thoughtfully, eyes scanning the fog. He could see weed clumps. “Jeff what?” He looked back at the boy with forced nonchalance.
“Jeffery Thompson,” the boy answered wearily, turning away. There was haggard resignation. Matt decided to press.
“Well, Jeffery Thompson, you from around here?”
“I dunno.” Jeff replied honestly, leaning to feed the fire a stick. He wasn’t sure where ‘here’ was, only it was not home.
“You don’t know?” Matt asked, unable to suppress disbelief.
The boy stared at the stick, his face stony as the flames climbed the twisted bark. “Yessir,” he slowly answered, voice low. “I don’ know.” A dull fear threaded through his pain, but he was too tired to care. His side hurt and it was too late to run.
“You a runaway?” Matt asked suspiciously, stating his hunch. He has to be, a voice whispered. Why else be so evasive? He knew his instincts were right. He had dealt with runaways before. They were usually miserable.
Miserable, and miserable to be around, a snide voice sneered. The older ones were suspicious from broken trusts, which made him sad. The younger ones . . . he shuddered inwardly. Trusting, exploited, trusting again. Stupid, just like you. Trying to run away from the past while carrying it with them. Caught in the same trap over and over. Wanting love or something like it and getting only pain. He swallowed hard.
“I ain’t no runaway,” the boy said defiantly. Fear shadowed his voice.
“Well then – how’d you get in the ditch?” Matt repeated his question.
There was a long silence. Below Matt heard inquiring chirps of waking birds as the fog continue to whiten, surrounding them in a damp curtain.
“I dunno. Sir. I – I guess I just fell in,” the boy whispered, almost to himself. He looked up at Matt, anxious eyes pleading. “I ain’t sure. Really.”
Staring, Matt pondered the reply. People often don’t remember accidents they’ve been in, he recalled. Maybe whatever happened knocked it out of him. Given the head wound, Matt thought it possible.
Jeff’s gaze fell to the fire. Matt wrestled his logic and conscience with growing dread. He couldn’t just push the kid back into the woods – and yet, couldn’t I? Yes, I could . . . a hard part of him sneered. Yet he couldn’t – wouldn’t! – be saddled with a kid – runaway, lost, or otherwise. Never again, he’d sworn. Never. He found himself blocking painful memories seeping from half-forgotten places like smoke from cracks in a shattered mountain, threatening to engulf him.
This is nothing to get involved in, he warned, eyes dropping to the fire. But it’s too late – you’re already involved, a voice reminded. He felt like an animal being driven towards an inevitable and dangerous decision.
“Where do you live?” Matt finally asked, looking at the boy. Beyond he could make out the faded green backpack, and behind, the tree.
“I dunno,” Jeff replied, voice sinking. “Aways away I reckon.” He kept his eyes on the fire.
“How far is ‘aways away’?” Matt smiled faintly at the vague colloquialism.
The boy looked at the ground, evidently thinking. His hand dropped and he began plucking at a strand of grass, picking at the seeds.
“I dunno,” the boy finally said, clearing his throat and glancing up at Matt. “Aways away.” For a moment it seemed he had more to say, then the moment passed. His gaze fell to ground, and he began tugging at the grass stem.
“Do you know how to get home? From the road, I mean,” Matt asked, listening to wings flit above them. Around them the woods were coming to life.
“No sir, not really,” the boy said softly, the wet grass squeaking as he wound it around his finger. “I dunno which way home is.”
“How ’bout an address? You know where you live, don’t you?”
“Yessir,” the boy glanced at him. “I live in a house.”
Matt stared at the boy, dumbfounded. Well, you can’t argue with that!, an astonished voice said. But he didn’t believe the boy didn’t know where home was. He has to be lying. There was no way around it. He knows where he came from – how else could he have gotten here?
The boy stopped twisting the tortured grass and stared at the fire. Matt shifted. It doesn’t matter, he decided. He would dump the kid at the first place. If it was the house the kid lived in, great – otherwise . . . who cares? a callous voice said. As long as he’s out of our hair and in someone else’s. A slight breeze had sprung and the fog was thinning. Matt knew the coolness wouldn’t last. It would die in the sun, leaving the land to swelter.
“Gonna be a scorcher today,” Matt casually commented, mind made up. He stood, wandered to the pack, and picked up the canteen. “I’ve got to get some water; see if I can find some food. You want the last bit?” He shook the canteen at the boy. Jeff looked at him, fatigue, pain, and resignation etched on his face. He numbly shook his head. Matt looked at him doubtfully.
“You sure?” Matt asked as he walked to the fire, unscrewing the cap. “Have you drank anything since yesterday – since I found you? Say.”
Jeff looked down, swallowing. His head was singing agony, and his parched throat was among the least of his discomforts.
“No sir,” he murmured. The sound of water had awakened his thirst.
“Not since yesterday?” Matt said cynically. “And you’re not thirsty?”
“No sir,” Jeff lied, “I ain’t thirsty none.”
Matt looked at the boy doubtfully. The boy was lying. He had to be.
“Look,” Matt said in exasperation, bending over and thrusting the canteen against the child’s chest. “Drink it. It’s just water – and you need it. I can tell. I don’t want you passing out on me.”
As the boy hesitated, Matt let go. Jeff instinctively grabbed the canteen, then looked up resentfully as if Matt had tricked him.
“There,” Matt said, quickly standing before the boy could protest. “Drink. Finish it off. It’ll do you good and it gives me an excuse to wander. Go ahead – it won’t hurt you.”
Jeff’s gaze followed Matt as Matt went to the pack and rummaged in it. While Matt’s back was turned, Jeff quickly upended the canteen and greedily drained its cool contents in hard forceful gulps, the stale water tearing at his throat. He was disappointed when the third gulp prematurely ended and there was no more.
Why did he give me his water? The concept bewildered the boy. As Jeff put the canteen down and licked precious drops off his lips Matt came, a can of meat in his hand. Matt dropped it next to the boy. It landed with a dull thump, its gaily colored label a startling contrast to the faded green plastic.
“Open that up and set it up on a rock by the fire so it can get hot,” Matt instructed, “and give me the canteen so I can refill it.” He held out his hand.
Jeff hesitated, then handed back the canteen, watching Matt. Matt took it, screwed the cap on, and slung it over his shoulder. Jeff looked down, intimidated by the man’s gaze and his own guilt. He could tell the man was bothered.
“You didn’t happen to stumble across any creeks last night, did you?” Matt asked as he went back to the pack. Hearing no answer, he glanced over his shoulder.
Jeff was hunched, head bowed, the woolen army blanket wrapped tightly around him. His disheveled hair fell over his brow in a ragged veil, hiding his face. Matt shrugged, turned to the pack, got his slingshot out and tucked it in his back pocket. Then he straightened, rising to the balls of his feet as he stretched and listened to his bones creak. The fog had lightened enough to make out shapes in the hollows, and he felt the temperature rising. He walked through the wet grass to the boy. The can was sitting on the poncho edge, untouched.
“I’m going to go get some water,” Matt matter-of-factly said. “I might be gone awhile. You gonna be all right?”
“Yessir,” the boy whispered quietly to the grass, head still bowed. He flicked a dry tongue between moist lips, the wound on his head throbbing to his heartbeat.
“You sure?” Matt persisted. He nudged the can of meat. “You need me to open that?”
“No sir,” the boy said, then to illustrate, he picked up the can and popped the lid. Then leaning stiffly forward he set it down on a rock next to the fire. Matt felt relieved. The boy wasn’t resisting.
“You stay put,” Matt said firmly. He turned and began walking towards the woods below, mind churning.
Jeff watched the man disappear, heart thudding. He’s gonna leave me, he thought, panic rising. He glanced at the can. It stared with a meaty eye, blisters forming around its periphery, and he looked up at the deserted campsite. Matt’s pack was nearby, flap open. He could see dim shapes in it and curiosity flickered, then faded as fear returned. He didn’t dare touch the pack. It might make him mad, he thought. He didn’t want the man mad. But his fear of abandonment subsided. He won’t leave that behind, he wordlessly rationalized, and if bad got worse, he could follow the man, shadow him to the road. He’d heard a car, but he wasn’t exactly sure where the road was. The man, he innocently assumed, knew. That he didn’t know which way to go once they hit the road didn’t bother him. That was in the future, and he did not think about the future, just like he tried ignoring his past.
His appetite piquing, he picked a piece of meat. It was barely warm, though steam huffed between the can contents and rim. His sharpened appetite overruled fear and without thought he began quickly pinching off moist chunks of meat and stuffing them in his mouth.
Matt zigzagged down the hill, his short, fast strides carrying him through tall grass and around low clumps. You’ve got to get rid of the kid – dump him, and dump him fast. Matt’s face twisted. He didn’t like the boy and he liked the idea of meeting the boy’s family less – or worse, the local authorities. Yeah, they’ll say you did it – whatever ‘it’ is – and string your black ass up, an old bitter voice declared.
He thrust through the brush towards the trees, letting instinct guide him. The woods enveloped him. Translucent shafts of golden light slanted through the morning, spearing through trees. He slowed, watching his feet, and only occasionally glancing up to plot a path through the creepers and thorny brush. Snake country, he thought, pushing aside a leafy mass, and a hell of a place to get bit. He stomped, hoping to scare away snakes.
The boy. The thought popped to mind like a corpse that wouldn’t stay down. He frowned, intuition leading him on a deer path. The boy had cost him breakfast – he’d given the boy almost all the food he had. And water – he would have been able to get it leisurely instead of a special trip if it weren’t for the boy. No, he thought, this isn’t the place for children, especially one so young or injured. And he’s both! What in the hell is he doing here? What the hell am I doing here?
He felt frustrated anger at his warring mind, like a bystander watching friends fight. Muscles knotted, he plunged through a bush and the ground disappeared. Suddenly he was falling. He barely had time to register the water below. He fell badly, crashing sideways, mouth agape. He felt his feet sink in the stream bed. Instantly he brought his boots up while sweeping arms down, and he burst to the surface, sputtering.
Shaking his head, he looked around. Nearby a clay wall towered from the rippling water like a crumbling fortress, with thick battlements and ominous black holes, topped by a weedy shag and the bottom root buttressed. He turned and swam toward the creek’s far side. The murky bottom sucked his feet. Muttering, he lumbered onto the sand of the creek’s edge – but now I gotta cross again, he thought dismally, eyes sweeping for a fallen log or ford’s ripple. There were fallen trees, but none spanned the stream.
First yesterday, then this morning – and now this – and this being for – no, because of! – the boy. A dark rage shook him. How could he be so careless? First stopping – then helping – getting involved! – and now this! You should have just kept walking, a harsh voice whispered. A vision of the foot peeping through the grass floated across mind’s eye. You could’ve ignored it. Should’ve ignored it.
Oh, well, he replied fatalistically, shaking his head and looking at the water. Too late. He unshouldered the canteen, and crouching in the coarse sand, submerged it beneath the ruffled surface. A soft burble accompanied the stream’s ripple. He listened to the forest, feeling the buoyancy diminish. The gurgle turned to a whisper and a pop, then he lifted the canteen from the water. Fishing in his pocket, he dropped water softened tablets in its narrow neck.
They should still work, he tried convincing himself. Scraping the tablet residue in the neck, he screwed the cap on and began vigorously shaking the canteen. Not as tasty as boiled, he thought, dreading the pill’s aftertaste, but it gets the job done.
Now to get across and find breakfast, he thought, stomach cramping with hunger. He ignored it, eyes scanning for an easy downstream route. Eventually there would be a log, or the stream would widen to swamp.
Wasting no time, he plunged through the brush, following the sinuous creek. It didn’t take long to find an oxbow where the creek had undercut the bank, toppling a giant sweet gum across the swiftly flowing water.
Threading through the dead and dying limbs, he scrambled, grumbling under his breath. If it weren’t for the boy, a sly voice whispered in his mind’s depths, you wouldn’t have fallen into the creek. You wouldn’t be fighting these limbs. The voice harassed every step, blaming every misfortune on the child.
It was mid-morning when Matt trekked up the hill, hating the death shroud feel of damp clothes. He had eight assorted birds plucked, cleaned, and tucked in his belt. As he’d hoped, there were abundant wild onions in the clearings, and he paused to dig the pungent, pearly white bulbs with his knife. It might not be the most interesting diet, a voice said, but it sure beats the hell out of starving.
The boy was as he’d left him, slumped in front of the dying fire, the blanket close around his shoulders. The can of meat sat nearby, half eaten. At first Matt thought the boy was asleep, then Jeff looked up at him. The eyes were puffy, but wide with fear, and Matt realized he’d startled him.
“It’s just me,” Matt reassured, lengthening his stride. He stopped at the fire and looked down. Beyond the veil of sleep was obvious relief.
“Why didn’t you finish it?” Matt asked, nudging the can as he unhooked the dead birds. Bloodless, they were cool and moist. The boy’s eyes widened at the pale bodies.
“I was savin’ you some,” the boy whispered. “I . . . I didn’ think you had no mo’ to eat
“I didn’t,” Matt admitted, “But now I do. Go ahead and finish. No sense in wastin’ chow. Then there’ll be some more. Hope you like onions cuz’ I got some – and you’re gonna eat ’em. They’re good for you. But lets get this fire going first.”
The boy appraised him for a moment, then picking up the can, scooped a wad of meat with his finger and stuck it in his mouth. A moment later he did it again, then with voracity, he rapidly finished the remainder. Matt was faintly surprised – not at the boy’s hunger, but at the manner which the boy allowed it to consume him.
He cast around for wood, and finding a few sticks and twigs, soon had the fire going. He was careful to keep a smokeless fire; the road, he knew, was about a half mile away through the woods and he didn’t want any suspicious farmer poking about. After the fire was a pile of shimmering coals, he got the salt and pepper. Seasoning the birds, he placed them on a green oak spit above the fire. The boy watched with interest.
“Hungry?” Matt asked nonchalantly as he squatted.
“What is it?” Jeff finally asked, shifting uncomfortably. Matt saw a flicker of pain cross the boy’s face as the hungry eyes watched the steaming bits of meat and bone.
“Dove mostly,” Matt said matter-of-factly, turning his attention to the birds. “Plus a couple cardinals and whatnot.”
He waited for the disgust and revulsion. When it didn’t come, he looked at the boy. Jeff’s face hadn’t changed; beneath the fatigue and pain was curious interest.
Matt entertained himself by watching the boy watch the birds, shoving his troubled thoughts aside and trying to ignore his headache. The boy’s gaze followed Matt’s hands as Matt turned the fleshy fragments.
Small greasy pimples began beading the dimpled skins as a succulent aroma wafted across the camp. Matt’s aching stomach grumbled. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was – but now – closing his eyes, he leaned in the smoke and inhaled the aroma, breathing it with primitive pleasure.
Yeah, he thought, his mouth suddenly filling with saliva, just right. He went to the pack and pulled out a tinfoil roll. He tore a small square off, and going to the fire, laid it in front of the boy. Jeff looked at it blankly as Matt pulled the spit off the fire and waved it in loose circles to cool the sizzling meat. After a moment he plucked two cooling birds from the sharp stick and laid them on the tinfoil. Then he plucked a bird for him and set the spit across the fire.
“Watch out for bones,” Matt warned as he began nibbling. “They’re as bad as fish, only worse.”
The boy nodded, picking up a browned bird and imitating Matt. After a few moments, Matt pulled the onions from his pocket and offered them. Jeff took one, and holding it to his nose, sniffed delicately, then glancing at Matt, nibbled. His eyes widened.
“Onions,” he said with amazement. “Where’d you get ’em? Sir?”
“Dug ‘em up over there,” Matt replied casually, tossing his head to indicate somewhere behind him, “You like ‘em?”
The boy’s eyes reflected surprise again, wondering why the man asked.
“Yessir. Sir,” he said, picking another and eating it. He wondered why the man was being nice. He hadn’t done anything to deserve kindness. He’s strange, Jeff thought, watching the man.
They ate in silence, sucking the stringy flesh from the fine, thin bones, each intent on quelling their aching belly. Jeff finished and watched Matt. He’d never met anyone like Matt. He was curious about the man who had rescued him from the ditch, and he felt a connection to the dark skinned stranger.
Already the sun was high in the east and heat fell from the sky, humidity rising to meet it. Soon the landscape would be caught in a soft oppressive vise. The woods were stirring, the animals instinctively choosing morning for their rounds; they would nap for the bulk of the day. The singing, quarreling birds punctuated the forest, and cicadas fitfully buzzed. In the distance crows cawed. Matt listened thoughtfully, jaws working as he tried to interpret the messages. Jeff looked around as if sensing something, and then sat still, watching Matt listen.
“It’s gonna be a hot one today,” Matt finally declared, looking over the trees. Pines thrust over patchworks of undergrowth, interspersed with oak and sweet gum. The boy followed Matt’s gaze, but Matt’s words meant nothing. They were all long hot days, or long cold ones. Some were nice; more often not. It didn’t matter. Now was now. He accepted each day, moment by moment, much as any simple being absorbs fate.
Matt threw the last bone to the fire and looked at the camp. His ears caught an engine’s far off drone – a car, he realized. He studied the boy, noting the exhausted pallor, the way the boy guarded his movements, betraying wounds. I hate forcing him back on the road, he thought, his resolve weakening. But the boy had made it here – he could make it back, bare feet and all. And it’s what’s best, an insidious voice whispered. If you can’t help him, then get rid of him. He gritted his teeth and stood, looking at the boy.
“Let me take a look at your head. I want to make sure it’s not infected or something. And I probably should change that bandage, too.” He stepped around the dying coals and squatted beside the boy. Jeff watched warily, unconsciously leaning away.
“It’ll be okay,” Matt said, trimming emotion from his voice. Jeff looked at him distrustfully. Matt forced a wry smile, then reached for the bandage. Jeff flinched, then stood his ground, expression fearful.
“It’s okay,” Matt said, “It shouldn’t hurt much, and I’ll try to be careful. We just need to take a look at it, okay?”
Jeff shifted uneasily, eyes dropping. Matt cautiously unwound the gauze and eased the pressure pad from the swollen flesh. It was too early to tell if infection had set in, he decided, turning to the pack and pulling out the first aid kit. He should have already seen a doctor, he thought, because this patch job won’t hold him forever.
He didn’t like the way the wound’s edges gaped despite the styptic. If he didn’t get it properly taken care of, and soon, that lump was going to die, then there would be a greater mess to deal with. Narcosis leading to secondary infection, possibly gangrene – the boy’s head will peel like an overripe grape and he will die. The thought was faintly nauseating. Sighing, he knelt before the boy, and gently clasping the boy’s chin, lifted the child’s face. The clear green eyes, flecked in uncertainty, regarded Matt unflinchingly. But there was fear, too – Matt saw it clearly.
“Look,” Matt said reluctantly. “You hurt your head bad. Real bad. And I’m going to have to put some stitches in to keep the meat from falling off.”
Matt paused, waiting for a reaction. There was none. The boy stared in incomprehension. Matt continued, knowing his words weren’t reassuring. “It’s going hurt. Probably a lot. There’s nothing I can do about it. But . . . if we don’t do something, you’re gonna get sick fast . . . then you’ll die.”
The boy’s alarmed green eyes widened. Pain or death. He didn’t know which to choose. And while the man’s eyes were calm, his voice betrayed him. Jeff didn’t know what the man wanted to do. Just that it would hurt. That was clear. The man had said so. He shook his head, feeling pain sing as the morning air burrowed into it.
“Look,” Matt said, knowing the child didn’t understand. “You’ve got a bad cut on your head. Bad enough I can see bone. Feel it?”
Jeff nodded, his hand rising to probe the tender meat. His fingers delicately spidered over the wound, then retreated. He looked at the blood on his hand, brows knitted with puzzlement, then up at Matt.
“That cut . . . do you know what germs are?” Matt pressed, gently grasping the boy’s arm. Jeff slowly nodded, his gaze boring into Matt’s. He wasn’t sure, but suspected they were bad.
“Well, those germs – they’re in your cut. And your cut is really bad. If I don’t stitched it up, those germs are going to start eating the meat. And that’s your head. And then you’ll get sick and die. You don’t want to die, do you?” Matt’s fingers unconsciously tightened.
Jeff regarded him wide eyed, remembering the blood. He knew he was hurt – how bad, though? His side – head, too – felt flame engulfed. He wanted to throw his head back and howl the way he done when he’d been a little boy. But he had learned not to. He’d learned to bear pain without screaming – or at least not until the last second, when it got so bad he could do nothing else. But this was different. This was a different man. The thought reassured him.
He studied Matt. Thus far the man hadn’t intentionally hurt him – and yet he was telling him he would – and it was to help. He repressed a sniff, not knowing whether to trust the man. No matter what he did, it ended in pain. Always. But something about the man called him. The thought popped in his mind: He wouldn’t hurt me if he didn’t have to.
“Okay mister,” Jeff said, his voice so low and soft Matt had to strain to hear it. Matt released the boy’s arm, gut knotting in apprehension at the task ahead. He turned to the pack, hiding nervousness. He wished he had more than just primitive doctoring skills and an antiquated med kit. And the boy is going to need more than just grit. He knelt and unrolled the freshly rolled poncho and blanket.
This is dangerous, a voice cautioned. He acknowledged the warning, pulling the blanket’s corners straight. But he knew enough to know the decision had been made by him or a part of him. There was no going back. He laid out the supplies he would need from the kit. Jeff watched, eyes wary. Matt glanced at the pinched face, remembering how he’d found him the day before. Sighing, he settled on his heels and turned to the boy. Jeff, sensing the moment had come, shivered slightly.
“Here,” Matt said, leaning forward and patting the blanket. “Sit down.”
Jeff limped heavily onto the blanket and clumsily eased to a crouch, almost toppling. Matt caught his arm, catching him before he fell. Jeff gasped, jerking in Matt’s grip. The sudden movement had startled him.
“Easy now,” Matt said smoothly. “We don’t want you to get hurt.” At least not more than you are, he wryly thought. He helped the boy sit, carefully straightening Jeff’s hurt leg, knowing every movement was painful. That, he suddenly realized, is something we can do something about . . . a little. Turning, he pulled the whiskey from the pack
“Here, drink this”, Matt said, unscrewing the cap and holding the bottle out. “Two big swallows – no more.”
The boy took the bottle and cautiously sniffed its opening. His nose crinkled and he looked at Matt, obviously unhappy.
“Go ahead – it won’t hurt you. It won’t taste good – but it won’t hurt you,” Matt encouraged, smiling.
“Liquor.” The single word slipped from the boy’s lips. He looked at Matt suspiciously.
Matt felt surprise. How does he know that? a voice wondered.
“Yeah. It’s liquor. It’ll help kill the pain – some,” Matt said flatly, trying to keep his churning conflict at bay. I could use some of that myself, he thought, but – not now, not with this.
Jeff nodded and with a rapid movement that surprised Matt, upended the bottle and took two big swallows, then handed it back to Matt with a grimace.
“Ugghh,” the boy breathed, shivering, fire burning his throat and belly.
“Yeah – I know,” Matt chuckled dryly. “Rot gut tastes pretty bad, doesn’t it? But it’ll help cut the pain. For awhile, anyway.”
Jeff nodded, not understanding, but feeling warmth in his belly.
“Where’d you learn about liquor?” Matt asked, curiosity piqued. He knew it would take time for the alcohol to permeate the boy.
“My daddy give me some,” Jeff said hoarsely, tongue burning. He, too, was waiting for the effects – with dread.
Matt felt relief. That’s it, he thought, envisioning an indulgent father letting a son sip from a glass of liquor. He studied the boy’s eyes carefully. They were stone steady. Again Matt was caught by their strange quality – a sense of age, as though they’d seen too much too soon, and yet there was an innocent child’s curiosity. Fear and mistrust as well – but something else, something undefined. Feeling transfixed, he wanted to shake his head and tear his eyes away, but resisted the urge.
“How are you feeling?” Matt asked, watching. There was a drone in the distance – another car, he realized. Oddly, the sound did not bother him. Only what lay before him – the mission – mattered.
“Okay,” Jeff remarked blandly.
Matt considered, listening to the hum diminish. Another missed opportunity to dump him, a voice pointed out. He saw the road in his mind – and himself alone on it. For a moment he teetered on indecision, not wanting more involvement.
“Here,” he said reluctantly, sighing. He held the bottle back out. He hated the part which resented the child using his resources. “Take three more swallows. Big ones.”
Jeff took the bottle, the amber liquid dancing in the sunlight. Looking at Matt, he put the bottle to his lips and upended it. Frowning, Matt noted the diminished contents as Jeff lowered the bottle and handed it back. This time the boy did not shiver; he merely gasped wetly and wiped his mouth with his arm. Just like an old pro, Matt thought humorously, screwing the cap on. He dared not let the child have more – you don’t want to poison him!, a voice warned – and he slipped the bottle back under the backpack’s canvas flap.
They stared at each other, green gaze to brown eyes, waiting. The heat had risen, filling the air with heavy humidity. Matt shooed the occasional fly as he studied the boy. Did he detect a slight waver? Was the boy finally drunk? His eyes seemed crossed. Would he be able to operate on a drunk child? How much would the boy resist? He shook his head, his ever present headache stronger.
Jeff watched, the alcohol slowly befuddling him. A warm wave passed through him and he closed his eyes, then remembering the stranger he opened them again. It wasn’t a feeling he was unfamiliar with – but he didn’t like it. It always led to something bad. It would now, too. The stranger had told him so.
“It will hurt,” the man had said. But true, the pain was diminished, it didn’t bother him. He felt loosely connected, as though he were a ghost. His stomach was warm, skin flushed. He shook his head, drifting, watching the man fade in and out of focus. His eyes felt heavy. This too was familiar, but he was comfortable with it. It meant he was falling asleep. That everything would be fine.
Maybe there wouldn’t be any pain.
Matt watched the boy’s head nod. It’s time, he decided, reaching in the kit. He opened a roll of gauze, then laid a suture packet next to an iodine prep pad and razor.
“Here – turn around and lay down, head between my legs,” Matt said, settling back. Jeff wordlessly wavered and would have toppled had it not been for Matt’s guiding hand. As he put his head between Matt’s thighs, his eyes wandered over Matt’s face in wonder.
“Have you had stitches before?” Matt asked as he wiped his hands with alcohol and rubbed them briskly.
Jeff shook his head, making the world spin. Matt smiled and looked at the wound, the cool alcohol evaporating from his fingers. A soft breeze puffed his face, and he looked at the blue plated sky.
”All right,” Matt said, gingerly parting the fine hair around the wound. “You’re going to have to be still. Don’t move or I might poke you in the wrong place, and that’d hurt, okay?” Jeff absently nodded, half slit eyes going to the sky.
As if it won’t hurt like hell anyway, Matt thought, turning the boy’s head to give access. He eased the boy’s head deep in his lap so he could grip the boy’s skull with his thighs.
Using the razor, Matt began to shave the wound, applying the prep pad to wipe blood matted hair and crusts from the purple flesh. The boy twisted and flinched, moaning, and Matt clamped his legs tighter.
This is going to be impossible, Matt realized, flushing the wound with precious water. There was no way he could hold his patient and suture the wound. He would have to depend on the boy’s endurance and his own strong legs to keep the boy’s head still. Opening the sutures, Matt took a couple deep breaths, swabbed the wound generously, then steadied his hand against the delicate arc of the boy’s skull.
The boy flinched and cried out as the needle touched torn skin. Matt, expecting this, waited for the boy to settle before trying again.
“Shhh, shhh,” Matt said softly, concentrating on the wound. “You’ve gotta be still. I know it hurts. Trust me – I know – and I’m sorry.”
Matt glanced at the boy’s face, eyes tracing the delicate profile. Why in the name of hell should he have to endure this?, he wondered. It isn’t fair. Not to him and not to me. Sighing, he lowered the needle. No one ever said life is fair, a curt voice reprimanded. It sounded suspiciously like his mother.
The boy flinched again as the needle’s point pierced his skin, and then lay still, an occasional gasp escaping parted lips. Matt tried to be quick, but was handicapped by holding the boy, keeping the wound’s edges together, and putting in the sutures. Matt felt his head throb. I should be doing this in a hospital, with gowns and masks and nurses and extra hands and a local anesthetic in a sterile environment. Not out here in the woods under open sky with nothing but a few tools and a bottle of booze!
“Shhh, shhh, quiet there, we’re almost done,” Matt lied to himself and the boy. “It’ll be okay. Only a few more to go.”
He felt the boy relax at the hypnotic pulse of words and alcohol. A child, he thought, a child, a child. Oh my God, what in the hell are we doing? Won’t somebody help me? Help him? A hard lump formed in his throat as he began murmuring in a soothing, sing-song voice, his mind going to a time when he had used the same voice to quiet a different child. For a moment he was trapped in memory as past and present blended, then choked, he buried it.
“Hush, now, don’t you cry; it’ll be over, by and by. Shhh, now, don’t be scared. I’ll be done soon. We’re almost done. You’ll be fine, you’re okay, it’ll be okay, it’s all right, I’ll be done soon. Don’t worry. Just a few more . . . “
He kept the patter up as he watched his hands perform the delicate task. He was secretly proud of his hands. They had their own intelligence, knowing the work with minimal direction. They told him tales – whether someone was sick, bones broken, or organs ruptured. He had used them to heal and hurt, sometimes to kill – and it fascinated him what they were capable of doing.
Without them we’d be nothing, he thought. He watched them set the last stitch, locking the minuscule threads in a tiny complex knot that would come neatly undone when a doctor pulled the strand. The doctor – Matt smiled at the thought of the doctor’s face when he saw this. The doctor would know he was looking at professional experience – but the boy’s story would throw him. A bum on the road, performing minor surgery. It would be an idiosyncrasy to puzzle a poor country doc for years.
There, Matt thought, hands pausing. Done. His eyes flickered beneath sweat flecked brows as he studied the work. The stitches were narrow and even, just as they should be, and the wound’s edges met cleanly.
There shouldn’t be much of a scar, Matt thought as he gave the wound an antiseptic dose and covered it with gauze. Gently, so not to pull the stitches, he swung a loop of gauze around the boy’s head, tucking the end under. He was acutely aware of cooling dampness on his leg as he raised the boy, and wondered if it was sweat or tears.
“Okay, we’re done,” Matt said, turning to the kit. Jeff, wavering, stared, a hand creeping to the bandage. Just as slowly, the hand crept down, and Jeff hung his head, hiding his face. He didn’t want the man to see him cry.
Matt, preoccupied with packing, didn’t see the tears fall on the blanket. Then from the corner of his eye he glimpsed the shoulders hunching convulsively, and then diamond sparkles on the velvet green. Matt could almost see waves of pain radiating from the boy. A long buried compassion rose like a shackled butterfly, shaking him.
“Shhh, shhh,” Matt said thickly. “It’s okay.” He put a clumsy hand on the slumped back. Jeff instinctively turned to him, raising a tear soaked face.
The emerald eyes tugged Matt’s heart and before realizing it, he gathered the boy in his arms and cradled him to his chest. The long shuddering sobs seemed to rip from the boy’s core, shaking Matt with their intensity. Matt, feeling the narrow chest heave against his, hugged the child closer, hot tears of pity stinging his eyes.
“There, there,” Matt said uselessly, his tongue a thick club in his dry mouth. “Here, here.” He began rocking the boy, crooning under his breath, mindlessly feeling pain. There is more to this than just stitches, he thought, and realized: I’d cry, too, if I was injured and abandoned alongside the road. Especially if I was as young as this. He aimless wondered what it meant
Jeff, his head pulsing pain, dimly felt the man’s soothing warmth through his soft cotton shirt. He was suddenly glad the man was here. His temple felt hot and full of pins, as though someone had smashed a hornet’s nest against his head. Inside his brain was pounding his skull. Even his eyes hurt, as though they were about to erupt. Every fiber screamed exhausted agony, refusing to move. The deep throb in his leg was a half-step behind his heart.
He gasped, feeling pain lance his ribs, and wondered if he was dying. Breathing was agony. He felt hot tears but was not ashamed; he hurt too much for that. The man’s arms shifted, holding him closer, and the comforting croon was distant surf. The man’s grip, the soothing voice – deep inside rose old anguish.
He wrapped his arms around the man and moaned, shivering, lost in a chaotic universe, a universe in which he had no control, and one intent on destroying him. His anchor was the man who had saved him, and the only solid thing left. Even then the man was a stranger. His sense of loneliness grew like a cloud, terrifying him. He tightened his grip, as though the man could save him from a soul sucking tide, one that threatened to drown him in an endless sea of sorrow.
Matt held the boy, feeling warm tears spread on his chest. The thin arms grasped with surprising strength. Jeff’s face was buried against his neck, and as he gazed over the boy’s head at the forest the dying breeze lifted the boy’s silken hair like a soft veil.
A pair of sparrows danced from the woods and spiraled to the sky, their drab brown bodies twisting in ecstasy of flight. Matt smiled and drew the boy closer, lost in thought. He knew the moment would pass; the boy would calm and be all right. But now the boy needed human contact and comfort – a need he knew he could never fill, but one in which he was thrust. Just hold him and wait, he realized, watching the swallows flutter further and further west. Just give him time.
Matt waited, watching grass bow under the hot, humid breeze, and observing the small creatures. The sun, approaching zenith, slowed to a stop until it was a sharp white orb in the washed out sky. Matt, comfortable in the oak’s sheltering shade, listened as the sobs subsided to gentle breathing. Beyond the shade the land baked beneath scorching rays. A seeking finger of light found its way through the leafy lattice above Matt’s head, setting the boy’s hair ablaze in yellow and gold. Matt felt the sun’s warmth against his cheek and closed his eyes against the glare, lost in memory.
A sharp voice full of rocks and gravel. “Here. Hold this.” A warm beer in a hard fist swings through the dark and thuds painfully into his chest.
The old truck is hurtling through the night, fenders chattering and waving like a lunatic flapping his arms in terror, its howling engine a banshee gone wild. Twin headlights, aged yellow, peer at the dark like the eyes of a malevolent beast. Trees flip past, disappearing at the edge of sight. Tires whine and cry like tormented souls.
A bony man hunches behind a wriggling wheel, tall and thin in the dash’s ghostly light. The man’s cold eyes glitter in the yellowish reflection, the whites bloodshot. The feral face turns.
“Don’t spill it,” the voice spits, flat and terrible from a thin lipped slit. Fathomless pupils masked by yellow shift like demons. Then the eyes are gone, focusing on the road. The boy sits, petrified and deathly tired. His father has been partying all night with his friends; forcing him to party with them, do things he rather not remember, things he does not want to think about.
“My little man,” father had said, laughing. Jeff, eager, had smiled uncertainly, unsure if he was praised or scorned, but proud to be noticed.
The boy’s head jerks up, he sits straight, back stiff, both hands clenched around the beer, pressing the cool metal to his chest. The smell of fresh beer and stench of old surrounds him like the truck’s litter. He is exhausted, and that, too, is old and familiar.
It is a regular night, just like any night, like many nights to come, like many nights past. It is home – the sudden edge of terror, the smell of fear, and swift strike of pain. The strict observance of rules, the cruel punishments behind them, and the almost unnatural desire to please to gain the affection and escape the wrath of the god sitting next to him.
To him it is a terrifying situation rendered comfortably familiar by weary repetition and ignorance. He knows no other life. This is his world, ruled by a stern and heavy fist. All others are unknown and therefore feared. He gathers the smells, the comfortable familiar smells, watching the trees go by, mind blotted by exhaustion. This is how he lives, therefore how everybody lives – in a fearful uncertain world dominated by an angry god.
Something large and brown flashes in front of the truck, something skittish that hesitates, then dances in the road. His daddy curses and hisses; the truck swerves wildly and tires squeal shrill protest.
Like a dancer lifting her skirts to avoid a puddle, the truck seems to lift its fenders to avoid the deer; they dance sideways in the road. The beer forgotten, he instinctively slams a hand to the dash to brace for the inevitable crash as worn tires grip and the truck begins to tip up and up . . . until they are wavering . . . then it slams down with such force it chokes him.
Raising his head, he looks out the window to see a deer looking at him with big soft eyes that for a moment – an all too brief moment – remind him of his mother – then with an amazingly graceful bound, the deer leaps into the darkness, its disappearing tail a white flag of alarm.
Sudden quiet. Outside he hears crickets sing, the engine’s soft erratic tick-tick as over heated metal cools, and his motionless father’s labored breathing. His father stares into the night, unseeing, pale face furrowed in post-fear rage. Jeff shivers, feeling the rising anger, and desperately hopes the storm leaves him unscathed.
“Damn.” His father says, striking the steering wheel with a thud; then beating it louder and faster. “Damn, damn, damn, damn! Damn it to hell and back and then damn it all over again! Goddamn lousy ever-loving’ stinkin’ piece of shit for brains lousy’ fuckin’ deer!”
Jeff feels cold metal press his back as he draws into the corner between the seat and door, trying to be inconspicuous.
“Gimme my beer,” the man says, not bothering to look. He stares through the dust pitted windshield as if daring the deer to reappear.
A hand thrusts from the darkness, fingers writhing. Jeff ‘s heart freezes, mind petrified with fear. There is cool wetness on his shirt; he smells the bitter sharpness of fresh spilt beer, and realizes he dropped it. Like an incriminating eye, the can glimmers from the darkness beneath the dash.
“I said, ‘gimme my beer’,” his father growls, voice low, rough, and threatening. He looks at the boy, eyes filled with an angry glow. They follow the boy’s gaze to the faint twinkle.
“You spilt my beer.” The statement is as hard and accusing as the glittering eyes. “You knew that was my last one. I bet cha meant to spill it. Tryin’ to keep me from drinkin’ any more, huh? Just like your momma. Your ever lovin’ bitchin’ momma.”
Jeff whimpers, knowing the outcome. His heart races as his mind twists for a safe avenue. He knows what will happen. Still a glimmer of hope remains. A cruel glimmer of hope always remains.
“I dinna’ mean to spill it, daddy.” His voice, soft as night, issues from trembling lips. “I couldn’ help it.”
“Couldn’t help it?” The man mocks, his face a sneer. “I feed you, I cloth you, I look out for your dumb ass – the least you could do would be hold my beer! You useless shit.”
The eyes transfix him. He cowers against the door, feeling the handle dig in his back. There is a terse, silent moment, and then a hand lashes out, sears his face, and disappears. For a moment there is no pain, then it begins. A tear haze instantly springs to his eyes. He hears keys in the ignition, the motor shudders, then roars to life. Gears grind, grind again, then a lurch and movement. The tires begin to wind up, night crawls past the windows.
“You spilled my last goddamn beer,” his father says to the windshield. “After I told you not to. You worthless shit. It’s twenty miles to the goddamn store, an’ it ain’t open. I don’t know why I put up with your silly ass. You’re about the most useless little shit I ever saw. I wish to God I’d never hooked up with your momma, you fucking bitch.”
The boy listens, cowering in the corner as his father works to a tirade. His heart beats in terror and his soul withers at the mention of his mother. “You ain’t worth the shit I go through to keep you, you know. I shoulda let that damn nigger bitch from dee-facts take your sorry ass and put you where you belong – with a bunch of other shit-head niggers in some rat hole down in the projects . . . “
The boy draws into a defensive ball, waiting for the lightning that accompanies thunder. Another clash of gears, the engine growls as if thinking, and the truck accelerates again. The boy quivers with the knowledge the storm is about to break, knowing there is no escape.
It strikes suddenly, a bolt to the side of his head, turning vision white. Sparks explode and pinwheel into darkness as the meaty thwack of bone against bone echoes in the cab.
The boy, stunned senseless, looks around like a car-struck animal, his head jerking. There is a screaming ring in his ears; he feels he is falling through darkness.
The knotted fist comes again, unseen by dazed eyes, striking dead center in his forehead. As his head snaps back the door strikes a second blow. Even the truck is against him.
A sharp punch in his stomach rips the air from his lungs in a throat searing burst – and now! Oh now! Now is when sweet consciousness swarms to the top in a petrified gasp for survival, now is when he becomes most aware of who he is and what is happening.
Panting, knowing the danger of resistance, he defends, curling his forearms before him as a flimsy shield, an outclassed boxer caught in a fight he can’t win, knees curled to his stomach.
A hand pierces his defenses, grabs his shirt, and yanks him from his fetal curl like a turtle from its shell. An angry twisted face, snarling, thrusts into his. The smell of beer and vomit seem to fill the truck. A nearly unintelligible voice explodes; the face is replaced by a swiftly moving hand; the taste of beer by coppery blood. His blood. It is just another night on the town.
The hand lifts him, draws him close, shakes him like an old rag and throws him back across the cab. Something stabs his back as though the truck, too, seeks vengeance. Then the hand, then the door. The hand, the door. Again, and again. And then . . .
Wind explodes as the door flies open. Strangely, the door tries to push him back, as though the truck has a last minute change of mind and is trying to save him. For a split second he sees his dad’s frozen face and clawing hand – then the seat vanishes and he is flying through cold night air, his confused body twisting and cart wheeling, smashing and tumbling and rolling and then pain blossoms. There is a singularly brilliant flash of blue-white light, and then . . .
Please feel free to add your opinions and comments regarding this novel’s beginning . . . 673 pages . . . especially interested in how the above story line made you FEEL.