Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Mama died two weeks after I was born. It wasn’t because of me, though; I have that on good authority. If you asked Daddy, he’d probably say it was my fault, but Daddy and I never really got along too good. Still don’t. He didn’t want me born, and even though I’ve been living with him my whole life, I always feel like he still don’t want me around. Heck, there are days when I’m sure nobody wants me around.
Daddy for sure, though. Every now and then, those rare times when we’re home at the same time, he’ll be all drunk or strung out on something and tell me about how, when the doctor looked in Mama’s belly while I was in there, something wasn’t right with me. There was some kind of extra growth around my head and neck that showed up on the machine. He’ll tell me, “I knew right then you was gonna be more trouble than you’d be worth, and I was right.”
The doctor told him and Mama that I might have some condition. That I might be handicapped. I might have special needs.
Or, as Daddy put it, “He said you were probably gonna be a retard.”
Or, “You were probably gonna be riding the short bus.”
That’s usually when I would head off to my room, or the dump, or the train tracks. My getaway places. As much as Daddy doesn’t like me, he’s not much fun to be around, either.
I was born just fine, though, fourteen years ago. I’m not a retard, like Daddy says, and I’m really not much trouble. I can read and write and talk nice and feed myself. I don’t have to wear a helmet or poop in my pants or nothing gross like that. I do my chores, and I stay out of trouble.
I’m little, though. Real little. I was a normal-sized baby, but somewhere along the line, I just kinda quit growing. Truthfully, I’m not much bigger than my cousin Jesse, and he’s only 8. I don’t like being a little kid – I get picked on a lot, mostly by my own family.
Daddy told me a few years ago, “You’re just a little bitty bastard, ain’t you? Just barely even a scrap of a kid.” Uncle Jerry was there, and they both cracked up about that. It stuck. Almost everybody calls me Scrap now. It used to make me mad, but after a while, you just gotta give up being mad about something when you know it’s not going away.
My real name is Richard Lewis Whistler. Before the Scrap thing, everyone called me Richie, but it’s been a while now. Nowadays, I’m just Scrap Whistler.
That right there is part of the problem, my last name. The Whistlers aren’t real popular around this part of Florida. Ever since my granddaddy first bought this land here in Cookeville back in the 1960s, the Whistlers have been a whole lot of trouble. Lots of drinking and fighting and petty crime, run-ins with the law, fighting with the county people about the land, things like that. I don’t know all the details, but I’ve heard enough people talking to know how we Whistlers get thought of: a bunch of white trash ne’er-do-wells.
And I’m young, but I’m sure not dumb. The way we live, all the Whistlers jammed together on about 3 acres of land in a bunch of trailers, like a gypsy camp or something. Almost like our own little third-world country, with our own laws. Everyone one in the family, fearful, untrusting of the outside world. I went to school through fourth grade, but after that, Daddy said, “You know how to read n’ write. Ain’t nothing else left in that system for you now.” He said it like he was looking out for what’s best for me, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that him taking me out of school wasn’t about me at all; it was just him sticking it to the outside world.
Anyway, I know enough to know that this isn’t how normal people live.
I get left alone, pretty much, as a rule. Like I said, Daddy couldn’t care less about me, and the rest of the family likes to pretend I don’t exist, too. I play around with my cousins every now and then, but that’s pretty rare. They can get pretty mean, so it’s no fun, really. For the most part, it’s just me.
And it’s okay like that. I keep busy with my own things. The dump is right over there, and there’s all sorts of neat stuff in it: books and music and clothes and little things to play around with. Yes, I’m a Whistler, but I do like to read. I just ignore Daddy when he says it’s for sissies.
The train tracks aren’t too far away, either. Some days, I just go sit down there and watch the westbound cars go by and count the cars, read the stuff spray-painted all over the sides, wave to the guys sitting in the empty boxes. I like to think about where the trains are going, how long it takes them to get there, how many times they have to stop, things like that. Maybe that sounds boring, but if you haven’t tried it, you’d be surprised. One day, Daddy told me, “If you ever hop on one of them trains and go away, let me know, so I can do something with your room.”
I don’t know what on earth he’d do with my tiny little room, but it wasn’t a real worry. I never seriously thought about getting on a train. At least, not yet.
Anyway, being a Whistler, that’s kind of how it goes: if you don’t learn about the real world, you never have to feel bad that you never got to be a part of it. Seems like a dumb way to think, but what could I do about it? I’m only 14. Too young to drive or get a job or anything, so I just do what I can do, just bide my time. Spend my days knocking around my getaway places, collecting my things, making food for myself, sleeping.
And also, there’s the dead people, the ones who come to see me. They also keep me occupied some of the time. The grown-up ones aren’t very friendly, but the younger ones, the kids, they’re nice. Sometimes, they just want to hang out with me. Sometimes, they ask me to help them with things. Usually I do, but they understand my life, me being a Whistler and all, so they don’t get too demanding.
You know you’re nothing when even dead folks don’t expect much from you.
Whatever the reason, I like the dead kids. They make me feel good, like I have a purpose.
It’s nice to feel needed, you know?
There’s an old garage out behind Papa’s trailer where I keep most of the stuff I’ve taken. It’s an old cinderblock thing, a rusty tin roof on top, an uneven, crumbly concrete floor, and a pit in the ground that I guess was supposed to be used to work on the bottoms of cars. The walls of the garage are lined with different kinds of shelves, some plastic ones, some jerry-rigged wooden ones. Papa built it about 20 years ago, and it never really got used for anything other than storing stuff.
Nobody ever goes out there anymore. It’s all drafty and leaky, not much good for keeping anything valuable in. Uncle Jerry has most of the tools and stuff in a little lean-to next to his place when people need something. The garage is really just a place to throw the things that nobody wants to deal with – a broken lawnmower, a big pile of warped, knotty 2x4s that Daddy was gonna use to build a deck off our trailer (never got around to, of course), a broken refrigerator and clothes dryer, bags of old clothes, things like that. The things that you know are practically useless, but you tell yourself you’ll get around to fixing or using one day. That or it’s just too much of a pain to throw them out.
Really, it’s the perfect place for me.
Most of the time, if I’m not at the dump or the train tracks or walking around downtown (which I do sometimes, if someone in the family has to go), I’m in the garage. I’ve got a little corner for my stuff, mostly kept in old boxes or plastic coolers, and I cover those in an old blue tarp. I do that to protect everything from the Florida rains and humidity as well as the Whistlers, who would have a field day, making fun of me for some of what I collect in there. I just keep whatever I think is neat, though, and there’s a lot of neat stuff in the dump.
I have about 50 books and magazines, 20 dolls (I know dolls are for girls, you don’t have to tell me that, but there’s just something I like about the blank stares on their faces, like they’re always listening), an old portable compact disc player, 18 working compact discs, five wristwatches (one still works), 75 keys, a fancy Zippo lighter (doesn’t work), a pretty good-sized stack of photos, a box full of a bunch of different kind of jewelry (probably all junk), two big hunting knives, a pink music box with a twirling ballerina inside, at least a dozen hats (ball caps and cowboy hats, mostly, all too big for me), $32.61 in change (mostly pennies, but some nickels and dimes, and six quarters, too). There’s a lot more stuff, but that’s the big things. And I’m always finding more.
I’ve got a couple of flashlights, too. I just had to find batteries for them, because there’s no power out in the garage, and I’m mostly out there at night, after the Whistlers are passed out.
Anyway. One night, about a year ago, I was out there in the garage, listening to one of the music discs I had found (some guys talking fast over nothing but drums) and counting my change, when out of nowhere, the disc stopped playing; the pink music box flipped itself open and started playing its little song. I mean, I didn’t see it flip open – I was counting my change – but I know it was closed, and when I looked up, it was going. As soon as I saw it going, I got real cold, like sitting in front of the air conditioner in the window. My whole body was freezing, and I started shivering, my teeth chattering.
It scared me a little bit. I dropped the change back into the Mason jar and slammed the music box shut and ran back to the house, right to my bedroom. It was almost 3 in the morning, anyway. The freezing stopped as soon as I got out of the garage, but I was still shivering, on account of being scared. I crawled under my sheet and went to sleep.
I had a dream about Mama that night. I had only ever seen her in pictures, on account of her dying when I was so little, but I recognized her immediately. She looked the same as she did in the latest picture I have of her, when she was pregnant with me. Except she didn’t look pregnant in the dream. And when she moved, she was kind of blurry, like when people are moving real fast and someone takes a picture. Also, she had a kind of bluish-grayish glow to her.
Anyway, in the dream, I woke up, and there Mama was, sitting on the side of my bed. I opened my eyes and she was smiling away at me, glowy, sitting sideways, her hands folded on her lap.
“Hello, son,” she said. She reached out like she was gonna touch my face, but I didn’t feel anything. Still, it was nice to see her do it.
I didn’t want to be a baby, after all, I was 13 at the time, but I couldn’t help it. I started crying a little. My face got hot and my eyes stung and then the tears started rolling down my cheeks.
“I miss you, Mama.”
“Shh,” she said, trying to calm me down.
“I wish you were here. I want you back. Why couldn’t Daddy-”
I started really blubbering then, like a stupid baby. I couldn’t help it, though.
She shushed me again and reached her arms around me. I tried to lean into her, but it’s like she wasn’t there. It just felt like air. Cold, empty air where my mother should have been.
It took me a couple of minutes, but I finally sucked up the snot running out of my nose and wiped my eyes with the sheet and caught my breath a little bit. Dreams are stupid and end so fast. I didn’t want to ruin it all with my stupid bawling.
“Richard, there’s something I need to tell you. Something very important.”
I stared at her pretty, pale blue-gray face and nodded. Nobody ever called me Richard. It sounded so comforting, coming from her.
“Listen closely, son. Can you do that for me?”
I nodded again. “Yes, Mama.”
“You’re a very special boy, Richard. I always knew you would be, even when you were in my tummy.”
She patted her belly, still smiling at me. Something about the way she did it made me ache, made me want to be back in her tummy more than anything in the world.
“Because you’re so special, you’ve been chosen for something very important. It may sound crazy, but you have to trust mommy, okay?”
I didn’t know what she meant, so I just nodded again. My hands could barely keep themselves from reaching out for her, but I knew it would just be that cold, empty air again, so I just wadded the sheet up to keep them occupied.
“Starting soon, son, you’re going to get some…visitors.”
“Yes, son. Maybe some…strange people. Maybe even a little scary-looking. But they aren’t going to hurt you, I promise. They can’t hurt you, okay?”
What in the world? Strange, scary-looking visitors that can’t hurt me?
“I don’t know what you mean, Mama.”
I could see her face break up just a little bit, like maybe it was her turn to do some crying. Her hand went to her mouth, a fast, glowy blue-gray blur, and her eyes crumbled up a bit.
“I’m sorry, Mama. Don’t be mad.”
Her hand blurred back down to her lap. She said, “Honey, I’m not mad. I just want you to trust me. These visitors I’m talking about…I just want you to know that they won’t hurt you at all. In fact, it’s kind of an honor that you’ll get to see them. You were chosen.”
An honor. Chosen.
“I’m so proud of the young man you’re growing up to be. Your daddy…he’s not a bad man, Richard. He just doesn’t know what to do with you, that’s all.”
I felt the tears coming again when she said that. Nobody had ever been proud of me before.
She stood up, which made me jump. I slid to the end of the bed, kind of panicked. I didn’t want her to leave, ever.
“Don’t go,” I blubbered. Yeah, I was crying again. “Please, Mama, don’t go.”
“I can’t stay, son, I’m sorry,” she said. She was crying, too.
She started fading a little. Her glow had washed out into a pale gray, almost white, like she was turning into smoke or something. “But Mama…”
“One last thing, son,” she said, her voice weird, like she was talking through a tunnel. “No matter what, you can’t tell anybody about your visitors, okay? You’ve got to promise me.”
She was almost gone. Barely a gray shadow against the wall of my room. Shapeless. I was kneeling on the floor by my bed, reaching out for her, finding nothing but cold, empty air. I just wanted to touch my mother, and I couldn’t stop crying.
“I promise, Mama, just please don’t go.”
“I love you, Richard. I’ll see you again sometime.”
And she was gone, just like that. Nothing left, like she had never even been there to begin with. For the first time in my life, I knew what it felt like to really want my mama.
I woke up the next morning on the floor, right under where she had disappeared. My eyes hurt; I guess I had kept right on with the bawling while I was asleep. When I went out to the kitchen to get a glass of orange juice, Daddy saw my face, all red and puffy, and laughed.
“What’s wrong, boy? They close the dump down?”
I ignored him and went back to my room, sad like never before. That had been a powerful dream, the most real thing I’d ever dreamt. A couple of roaches scattered when I dragged the sheet from the floor back onto the bed, and when I looked back, there was something sitting there, underneath where the sheet had been.
It was the little pink ballerina music box.
The Whistler compound (as Uncle Charlie called it) is shaped like a big horseshoe. Come down off the highway about a half-mile, on the little dirt driveway. There’ll be some pine branches that’ll scrape your car, if you’re driving, since it gets kinda overgrown. Also, if you don’t like dogs or cats or spiders or mice or roaches or opossums…well, any kind of critters, really…you probably ought to just not come. The Whistlers aren’t big on visitors, anyway.
Daddy and I live in the first trailer on the right, the dull brown one. Uncle Jerry, his wife Yolanda, and my 3 cousins Britney, Tina, and Naomi live in the blue trailer across from us. Daddy’s cousin Roy and his twin boys, Royce and Royal, live in the brown and white trailer next to him. Aunt Lisa lives in the tan trailer with her two kids, Scott and Chrissie, and her boyfriend Will, right next to Daddy and me. There’s an empty green trailer that Great Uncle Herbert lived in until he died last year; it’s empty now. Across from there is a gray trailer where Harry stays. I’m not sure how I’m related to Harry, but he lives in there by himself and hardly ever comes out or talks to anyone. Anyway, just past Harry’s place and Herbert’s place, at the end of the dirt driveway, is a black doublewide where Nana and Papa live. Kinda the bottom part of the horseshoe.
In the middle part, inside the shoe, is the driveway and where everyone parks their trucks. This part is mostly dirt and pine needles, on account of all the traffic and the way it stays covered with shade almost all the time. There are a few little picnic tables, always covered with beer cans and dirty ashtrays and flies. Roy has a big grill that sits out in front of his place; every now and again, the family will all gather up in the middle and have some burgers and hot dogs. The grown-ups sit around and get drunk and loud, while the kids run all over the place, climbing on everything, sword-fighting with old branches, chasing the dogs around, having pine cone fights, dirt clod fights. You know, normal kid stuff.
On the outside of the horseshoe, there’s only just a little more Whistler property. In fact, about six or eight feet behind our side, the south side, is a big chain link fence the city put up years ago. It runs the length of the property. The story is that the Whistler property was laid out all funny – a pretty narrow sliver of land owned by the county bisected and ran all the way up to almost right behind Harry’s place. The county wanted to buy the land just west of it, right along the highway, and then turn around and sell that land off for some kind of shopping center or something. Papa, who owns all the land, said no, of course. “They ain’t putting no god damned shopping center on the Whistlers!” he had said, according to the story.
Anyway, the county got all upset about it. They aren’t exactly really fond of the Whistlers anyway, like I said, so they said fine, and they turned their little slice of the land into the dump. I guess they thought it might help Papa change his mind about selling, but of course, it only made everyone in the family more stubborn. More determined to be difficult.
So the northern edge of the county dump is about a hundred foot walk from the Whistler compound. That means that, not only do we have every critter imaginable around, but we also get that dump smell. I mean, all the time.
It’s the worst in the summertime. It gets so hot and humid here in Florida that you can just taste the dump in your mouth. The air gets real still, or we get a little south wind in the afternoon, and it just takes you over. Imagine shoving your face down in a hot, wet garbage can, then opening your mouth. I mean, I’m pretty used to it; I’ve been living next to it my whole life. Most of the time, I don’t notice it, but sometimes it gets so bad that it tears my stomach up.
Winter isn’t as bad. Sometimes it gets cold, and the wind comes from the north and pushes the smell the other way. Those days, I can come outside and take a deep breath and smell the pine trees. It’s nice when that happens, but being in Florida and all, it sure doesn’t happen too much.
Tommy Foreman told me once, when I was still in school, that I was probably so runty because of growing up “in that dump.” All that toxic garbage, he said, poisoned me, stunted my development. I got mad when he said it, but now that I’m older and smarter, maybe he was onto something there. Who knows?
So that’s how the Whistlers live. In a trailer horseshoe, under the pine trees, woods on one side, dump on the other, garbage stink and critters everywhere. Not exactly perfect, but it’s all I know.
My first visit came when I was out in the dump, digging through a big black garbage bag full of stuffed animals. I wasn’t particularly interested in the stuffed animals, but you never know what you’ll find mixed in with something else. Just a few months ago, I found a bag of girls’ clothes – bright-colored shirts and socks and stuff like that – and wrapped up in a purple sweater in the middle of the bag was a bunch of photos of a naked girl, about a dozen of them. In a few of the pictures, she was still in clothes or a bathing suit, but in most of them, she was butt-naked. I looked them over slowly, seeing body parts I hadn’t ever seen before. It occurred to me I probably shouldn’t have been looking at them, so I wrapped them back up in the sweater and stuffed it all back in the bag.
Okay, okay. I kept one. The girl had some black bottoms on, nothing else, and stood by a bed, her hands behind her back. She wasn’t smiling and looked real sad. On the white part below the picture, someone had wrote “E.F.G.” in black marker. I know I shouldn’t have done it, but there was just something about the picture, something that told me to keep it. I stuck it down in my green duffel bag, at the very bottom, and took it back to the garage with my stuff. The picture is stuck between the pages of one of my books, tucked down at the bottom of a cooler. I’ve looked at it a couple of times since then, trying to see everything in the picture. I tried to find something that would’ve made her so sad-looking, but I couldn’t. It was too hard to tell, though, ’cause except for her and the bed right behind her, it’s mostly dark and blurry.
So, you never know what you’ll find. If you haven’t been out to the dump, you ought to try it sometime. It’s peaceful and interesting.
Anyway, I was digging through those stuffed animals, listening to the buzzards dropping and lifting and grunting around about twenty feet up in the air, when it got cold real quick. This was just a few days after Mama came and saw me, summer time. I had been all sweaty and hot, tossing stuffed animals to the side, and just like that, I was freezing. It seemed familiar and I looked up to my left, and there was a little boy.
He was glowing, just like Mama was, a blue-gray color. He was a little kid, probably just a kindergartner, sucking his thumb. He had on some kind of cartoon turtle t-shirt and shorts and no shoes. He just stood there in the soft orange clay, sucking his thumb and staring at me with one eye.
Where his left eye shoulda been was nothing. It was a black hole, no eyelids, no eyeball, nothing. It was creepy, and I felt myself ready to grab my bag and run, ‘til I heard Mama’s voice in my head.
They can’t hurt you, okay?
I took a deep breath and got up off my knees and stared right at him, still just standing there, his thumb jammed all the way into his mouth, like everything was all normal. I was still cold, which actually felt kinda nice. The sweat was drying up real good.
“Hi,” I said.
Nothing. Just sucked his thumb and stared at me. The hole where his eye should’ve been was creepy and fascinating altogether. Like, I didn’t wanna look at it, but I couldn’t stop looking at it. He was glowing everywhere except for right there. It was just a dark black and empty.
“My name’s Richie,” I said.
A buzzard did a little flop landing right next to the kid’s left foot. It situated itself, wings out and then back in, and stuck its beak down around the kid’s legs. It had a gray head: a black vulture. A scavenger, looking for something dead to eat.
The kid looked down at the big bird for a second, still acting like he was trying to swallow that thumb, and then went back to staring at me.
This certainly didn’t feel like an honor, like Mama said. Just some weird-looking one-eyed kid staring at me?
I was about to tell him bye and get my bag and head to the garage when another buzzard landed by his feet. This one had a red head: a turkey vulture. Turkey vultures are even worse than black vultures. They scavenge what the black vultures leave behind. Scavenging the scavengers.
Another one landed. Then another. All around the kid’s legs, the kid just staring at me the whole time. Pretty soon there were six of the big birds poking around his legs, sniffing, looking. They didn’t pay no attention to me, and I was just fine with that. Filthy things.
The boy suddenly spoke to me, while I was looking down at the birds. He said, “My mama’s dead, too.”
I looked up. His thumb was finally out of his mouth, except for, there wasn’t any thumb there. It was a raw-looking stump where his thumb should’ve been. I could see a little piece of the bone sticking out of the stump, and just like the eyehole, I couldn’t look away.
Strange people, Mama had said. This little glowing kid was more than strange. He had some real problems.
“Oh, yeah? When did yours die?”
Another buzzard landed in the crowd around his feet and milled about with the rest of them, their nasty beaks and heads passing right through his legs and feet. Either he didn’t notice them or didn’t care.
“The same time as me.”
“Wait. I don’t know you. Ho do you know my mama’s dead?”
He stared at me. The buzzards all sort of stopped moving for a minute, then they all ruffled their wings and feathers and shook their heads and started milling and pecking around again. He fidgeted around with his hands, pulling at his shirt, wiping his hands on his messy hair.
“She told me where to find you. I get scared sometimes.”
“You talked to my mama?”
“She’s a nice lady. Most of the grown-ups there…they aren’t.”
His hand went up and shoved his little thumb-stump into his mouth. The buzzards pecked and sniffed and hissed a little.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
“You don’t know your name?”
He shook his glowy blue-gray head, made a blur.
“What happened to you?” I asked. “Like, where’s your eye? And your thumb?”
Stump in mouth, he shrugged again.
Hard to believe he didn’t know what happened. I mean, he was standing there sucking on a stump, a bone. Of course, the whole thing was hard to believe, I guess. I’m not a genius, but even I know standing in a dump talking to a dead kid isn’t something that happens every day.
“Where’s your mama?” I asked, and got another shrug.
“Do you miss her?”
He nodded slowly, then pulled his stump out of his mouth and talked.
“You miss your mama, too, right?”
“I sure do. Every day.”
“I’ll tell her for you.”
My eyes stung a little then, like tears were coming. I didn’t want to cry in front of a little kid like that, even though he was dead, so I turned my head, like I was looking for something. When I did, I saw the bag of stuffed animals there and focused in on an old, beat up sock monkey lying face down in the clay. I picked it up and gave it a few wipes with my hand, knocked most of the clay off, took a deep breath and turned back around. A thought crossed my mind.
“Can you take this?”
I held the monkey out to him. I didn’t know if it’d work or not, but it was worth a shot. I felt sorry for the poor kid, honestly. Dead, doesn’t know where his mama went. If Mama sent him to me, then she did it for a reason.
He reached out his hand, the one with a thumb, and as soon as his glowy fingers wrapped around the monkey, things exploded in my head.
Everything went black, but then things started happening in my head, like watching TV or something. There was a man, a big one, staring right at me, angry-looking, red-faced. I heard a woman crying somewhere. The man was yelling, yelling, so loud. He said YOU LITTLE BASTARD BABY. He screamed GET THAT THUMB OUT OF YOUR MOUTH, BABY! He swung his open hand, and I felt an explosion in my cheek.
The crying woman, somewhere, screamed NO.
The man yelled SHUT UP.
He said, I’M GOING TO TEACH THIS LITTLE BABY HOW TO STOP SUCKING HIS GOD-DAMNED THUMB RIGHT NOW. He reached down and I felt his hand on my arm. He turned and I felt him drag me behind him. I was sobbing uncontrollably. I was scared to death.
The man slammed my hand onto the coffee table and yelled LAY YOUR HAND FLAT NOW GOD-DAMMIT. He said DO IT LITTLE BRIAN BABY. I felt my hand flatten on the table and he yelled NO MORE BABY SHIT IN THIS HOUSE and then he swung a hammer down and hit my thumb so hard there was cracking and ripping and everything got blurry and I screamed for Mama and when I looked for her she was pointing a gun at the man and he yelled PUT THAT THING DOWN BITCH and she cried no and he lifted me up and showed me to Mama and she screamed and there was a loud bang and
I was sobbing face down in the clay. My body was all curled up, my thumb was in my mouth. It took me a few seconds to realize where I was, what had happened. My face sideways, resting on the filthy clay, the buzzards were about a foot away from me, interested in me now. They plodded in small circles, stared at me, sniffed the air around me.
“Get away,” I muttered, and they hissed and ruffled and backed up.
Once I got myself sitting upright, I saw the boy, still standing there. The sun had lowered in the sky; it was almost dark, which made it easier to see him. Now he was holding a glowy blue-gray sock monkey and staring at me.
“Your name is Brian,” I sobbed. “I saw what happened. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. That ain’t right.”
He stared at me, holding the monkey tight against his chest. As I watched, the blue-gray glow brightened and turned white, and he began rising up off the clay. His feet stayed flat, like he was still standing. I would’ve thought they’d dangle downward.
“Thank you, Richie,” he said. “I’ll tell your mama.”
He drifted upward, turning brighter and brighter, until he was like a star fifty feet over the ground. The buzzards hissed and scattered away, the fluttering and flapping faded. Brian eventually flashed, like a camera or something, and then disappeared.
Like that, it was deathly quiet. The gray sock monkey was lying on the clay, facing me. One of its button eyes was missing, the left one. I picked it up and tossed it into my duffel bag and got myself together. My head hurt, and I was hungry and sad and weak all at once.
I wondered if this is what it felt like to be chosen, like Mama said.
That kid, Brian, his visit haunted me. Like, it wouldn’t get out of my head. The screams. The feeling of that hammer slamming on my thumb. The way his mama accidentally shot that gun at me. All those things kept playing in my head, like a movie or something. It was horrible, not being able to get it out of my brain. Us Whistlers aren’t exactly church-going folks, in fact, I’ve never even been inside a church, but I couldn’t stop myself from praying that there wouldn’t be any more visitors. It don’t matter what Mama said; it didn’t feel like an honor at all. It felt kinda like a curse.
Also, crying like a baby is stupid, and between Mama coming to my dreams and his little visit, all in just a few days, I had been feeling pretty stupid.
The only good part, the part that made it a little bit easier, was the thought that I might’ve done him some good, giving him that stuffed monkey and all. The way he floated up and turned into light and disappeared, that had to mean he was going somewhere good. Somewhere better than here, anyway.
And he thanked me, too, so that had to count for something, too.
So for a few days after that, I was a mess. I couldn’t stop reliving all that stuff, and my time was spent hoping that he was gonna be the only one. I didn’t even go to the dump, being afraid that someone else might show up. I avoided the Whistlers, went to the train tracks, played with the rocks, watched the trains go by. I took a bunch of naps and read one of my books in the garage, something scary about a haunted hotel in the mountains. I hoped and waited for a visit from Uncle Charlie, but he didn’t show up.
Thankfully, it was pretty quiet. Nobody, living or dead, came and bothered me.
That changed, of course. One morning about a week after the Brian thing, just when I was getting it out of me, I found a wristwatch on my pillow. It was one of the ones I found in the dump, a dull silver Timex that had stuck at 12:47 on Wednesday the 14th, not sure what month or year. My attempts to make it work again didn’t do no good – I changed the battery with a battery from a different watch in my box, but it didn’t work. The skinny black second hand just sat still between the 7 and the 8. The little knob on the side was stuck and wouldn’t pull out for me to try and set it.
Anyway, I hadn’t fiddled with it in a few months, but there it was, right there. I woke up, staring at it on my pillow, just a few inches right in front of my face. Made me jump a little, to be honest. When I picked it up and looked it, it said it was 8:40 on Saturday the 12th, which was the right time and date.
After I got dressed, I put the watch on my wrist and decided to go to the dump again. It had been a while, and I couldn’t stop doing my favorite thing anymore, so I headed over. It was hot and humid as all get-out, so there I was, dripping with sweat and looking at a set of old beat up stereo speakers, when the buzzards started flapping right over me. I could hear that beating of their stupid wings, that little hissing sound they make, and I knew. It got cold again, too. I knew what that meant.
About six, eight feet in front of me was a boy, about my age, standing and watching me. He had that glow, even in the bright Florida summer sun. His neck was at a funny angle. Like, his head was tilted too far to the right, and he didn’t seem to be able to hold it upright.
I took a deep breath and said hi to him.
“Your mama told me you’d be here,” he said. His voice was slurred, like Daddy’s gets when he’s on the beer.
The buzzards landed and started gathering around his blue-gray ankles, bumbling and pecking. All the same stuff as Brian.
I said, “Look, I’ll give you something if it’ll help you. I just can’t touch you, okay?”
His mouth was hanging half-open, and he nodded his tilted head as best as he could. It was a weird thing to see, because his neck didn’t work right. The buzzards ruffled their wings a bit, like they didn’t agree or something.
There was a pile of random stuff on the ground to my left: wires, food boxes, an old, ripped up blanket. I dragged the blanket off and kicked at the pile. The sun flashed off something shiny: a class ring. When I picked it up to look closer at it, it said “Paul” and “Class of 2005” and had a picture of a drum and some drumsticks on the side.
I wiped it off on my shirt and said, “Take this.” Then I set it down on a clear patch of clay in front of me.
He shuffled over, moving like a drunk, probably because of his neck and all. The buzzards followed, stayed around his blue-gray legs in jeans. When he was over the right, he asked, “Can’t you hand it to me?”
Brian flashed through my mind, a quick memory of all that awful business. No way, not again.
“No,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
We were both silent for a minute. The only sounds were the buzzards hissing and a backhoe somewhere in the dump, piling the stuff up. His head lolled, made a circle.
He slurred, “It works better if you hand it to me.”
“I can’t do it. I can’t take it. But I’m giving this to you. I want you to have it, to take it and use it for whatever you can.” The last two lines, I just made up right then, thinking maybe it would help make things go the right way.
“Your mama said you’d help.”
“I’m trying to be helpful.”
Silence again. The buzzards shifted, tiny moves left and right, their beaks poked into the boy’s glow, came back with nothing. Miserable creatures. Finally, he bent over, his head flopping forward, and touched the ring with his blue-gray hand, and when he did, he let out a cry. An ugly noise, something you’d do accidentally, unexpectedly. I felt sorry for him immediately, hearing that sound coming from him.
He stayed bent over, his see-through hand on the ring, sobbing. I didn’t know what else to do, so I said, “You can do it. It’s yours.”
Finally, his hand wrapped into a fist, and he stood up. The ring still laid in the clay, glinting in the sun, but when the boy came up, a glowing version of the ring was in the palm of his hand. He smiled.
He stared at the ring he held and slurred, “I did it.”
Relief like I had never known filled me. He got the ring, and I hadn’t had to touch him. I didn’t have to see what happened to his neck. I didn’t have to hear any horrible new screams.
“Sure did,” I replied. “Now what?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll still tell your mother that you helped me.”
Mama. I hoped Mama would know I did good.
“Bye, Richie,” he said, and like Brian, floated up. I had to squint into the sun to watch him, but he went up, up, and then flashed away like a camera.
“So long, buddy,” I said to nobody in the sky.
The buzzards had lost interest, and flapped their way over to something fifteen, twenty feet away from me, the ugly things. Another squint showed a dead rat in the middle of the scavenger circle. Buzzard lunch.
On the other side of the buzzards, there was a man. A glowing man, more gray than blue. He was chubby and almost bald and there was a black hole in his face, right below his left eye. He just stood there, not really even looking at me. He rubbed his eyes with his hands, like he was wiping away some tears, crying. The buzzards didn’t seem to care about him, so I just ignored him and went back to the stereo speakers. The covering was ripped and the wood cracked, but they might still work.
When I looked back up, the man was gone. No idea what it meant, but if he didn’t bother me, I wasn’t gonna question it. Things were weird enough.
Uncle Charlie is the nicest Whistler out of the whole wretched bunch. He’s different than all the other Whistlers: he’s got some compassion, and he don’t spend his days all drunk and angry. (He’s also the only one who doesn’t call me Scrap. He calls me Richie-Lou, which I like a whole lot better).
When he was eighteen, he got caught night hunting and driving drunk. A cop pulled him over when he saw deer blood running down the back of his truck (“Sure was a pretty buck. Ten point, I tell you.”), and then Uncle Charlie couldn’t hardly stand up straight, so he got arrested. The judge gave him a choice: jail or the army.
“That wasn’t really no choice at all, Richie-Lou,” he told me.
So he got out of the Whistler compound, and far away from Cookeville altogether, for a while. He went all over the world before he got hurt and the army let him go. After that, he came back home, but stayed out of the compound. He knew better. He lives on the other side of town, in a tiny little brown house off of highway 83, a good 8-10 miles from the rest of the Whistlers.
He told me, “I just couldn’t go back to that dump. Not after getting away for a while.”
Who could blame him? I mean, aside from all the other men in the family. They blamed everyone for everything, though. God forbid you do anything in the outside world. You might as well just slap Papa Whistler across his leathery old face!
Anyway, the worst part is that he lives all the way across town, so I don’t get to see him as much as I’d like. Every now and then, I’d get to go to his house for an afternoon. Uncle Charlie would come over in his little red Volkswagen bug once or twice a month and tell Daddy he was gonna take me for a while to help him with the yard work or with the porch he was building, something like that. It always made me happy when that happened.
Daddy would say, “Whatever. Keep him for as long as you want.” Then he’d make some smart-alec comment about me crying if I was away from the dump for too long.
We’d hop into Uncle Charlie’s car and stop at the Hardee’s just a few miles up the road for a milkshake. We never had sweet stuff in our house, so he’d always treat me to a chocolate milkshake that I’d suck down too fast and give myself a headache. A good headache, though. I could almost forget the smell of the dump when I had that soft, sweet, cold chocolate in my mouth. Almost.
He’d play the radio in his car, too. Uncle Charlie was always listening to a band called the Rolling Stones. There was one song he’d play every time I was in there, called “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It was kind a thing with us, I guess. He’d pull out of the compound and turn right onto 331, heading north. While he shifted gears, he’d tell me, “Pop it in, Richie-Lou.” I’d give the plastic tape a little push with my finger, some clicking, and that bunch of high-pitched voices singing at the beginning would make me almost silly happy.
He’d yell, “Turn that son of a bitch up!” when the drums kicked in and then start pounding on the steering wheel, like he was the one playing drums. It was fun, to see a grown-up so happy and not afraid to let it out.
After the music and the milkshakes, we’d go to his house and hang out. Sometimes, he really did have some work for me, which I didn’t mind doing at all. I mean, I’d rake pine straw for Uncle Charlie all day long, if I could’ve. Most of the time, though, he’d just let me hang out at his house and watch some television or take a hot shower, a couple of things I didn’t get to do at home. He’d check my hair for bugs; we’d have tickle fights, wrestle around, stuff like that. Being away from the compound, the dump, all of that, was the most fun ever for me. Also, being talked to like a human was a nice change, too.
When we weren’t goofing around, he’d tell me some of his army stories. Nothing too crazy, but he’d talk about the places he went, like Germany or Korea. The food, the sights, the people. He had photo albums that he’d pull out and show me while he talked. His pictures were fascinating. Castles and temples and mountains and all sorts of fancy-looking things! It was the most opposite thing to ugly little Cookeville ever. I’d flip through the big plastic pages and stare at the pictures and listen to him talk for as long as he’d go.
He’d talk about Mama, too. He had a few pictures of her in a photo book. They went to school together, and I guess they were friendly before he went off in the army. There was one picture of them in the Tastee Freeze parking lot, where he had his arm around her shoulders and they both had big huge smiles on her face, like there was no place else they wanted to be. That picture always made me think. Made me imagine a different kinda life, where maybe Uncle Charlie was my daddy and Mama was still alive. I wonder what that would’ve been like.
It don’t do much good to think about that kinda thing, though, I suppose.
Every time, he’d say, “Your mama was a good woman, Richie-Lou. It’s a real shame how things went for her.” Then he’d get kinda quiet and not say anything for a little while.
He missed my mama a lot more than I did, which made me feel a little bad, but not too much. Like, I should’ve missed her more than anyone, being her boy and all, but heck, I didn’t even know her, being only a couple weeks old when she passed. Uncle Charlie knew her a lot better than me, and he was about the best grown-up I knew, too, so it was okay for him to have those memories.
The idea crossed my mind that maybe I should’ve told him about Mama coming to me in the night, telling me about the strange visitors, telling me she was proud. Uncle Charlie was the only one I would have even thought about telling, but in the end, I just decided to not say anything. It wasn’t just what Mama said to me that night, about not telling anyone, although that was part of it. Mostly, it was also about keeping her visit to myself. Like, it was just mine, only mine, and telling someone else about it would be like giving it away.
Uncle Charlie’s in jail now. Sounds like he’s been in there for a couple of weeks.
I heard Daddy and Uncle Jerry talking about it the other night. They were sitting outside at the little picnic table, smoking and drinking beer and talking too loud, like they always do. One of those candles that’s supposed to keep the bugs away, but never did, was burning on the table, throwing off a little light. I was sitting by the front door of our trailer, the door open, watching a big brown rat scurry around inside a cardboard box between my legs (caught him in my room earlier), when I heard Uncle Jerry tell Daddy that Sherriff Burger picked Charlie up for kidnapping some girl.
My ears perked up for that conversation, you can be sure. After checking to make sure they couldn’t see me, I slid out the door, down onto the warm concrete steps. My interest in the rat was gone all of a sudden, so I dumped the box over and watched the little brown vermin dart under the trailer. Off to find his friends, I supposed. Probably should’ve killed it, but there were just so many of ’em around, it seemed pointless. Kill one, there’s still gonna be a dozen in the house tomorrow. And, really, the rats, all the critters, were just doing what they do: surviving. Why would anyone punish them for it? Kill something just for doing what it’s supposed to do?
And killing things with a heartbeat, with eyes…well, it just seemed wrong, I reckon.
So I leaned forward, all quiet, and listened to Daddy and Jerry. Yeah, it was eavesdropping, being nosey, but it was the only way for me to keep up with things. Nobody ever tells me nothing around here, of course. It’s not like I ever get invited to the table.
“What girl?” Daddy said back.
Jerry, pleased as punch to have the good stuff, leaned forward. “Get a load of this shit: it’s Preston Mortensen’s kid, that little spoiled 17-year old cutie of his. Kenzie, some stupid name like that. Went missing about a month ago.”
“Oh, shit. Mortensen? That sonuvabitch?”
“Yeah, that sonuvabitch.”
Sonuvabitch is a favorite word of the Whistlers. Do anything even slightly un-Whistler-like, and you’re a sonuvabitch. So, if you aren’t a Whistler, you’re a sonuvabitch. Sorry.
“So why in the hell’d the pigs grab Charlie for it?”
“Dunno. Somethin’ about his bug being seen at the last place she was.”
“Them scumbag cops. It don’t matter where his bug was. Mortensen hates Charlie. Always has, since back in school.”
“That football thing?”
“That football thing” meant nothing to me, but I made sure to note it in my head. When I could, I’d find out about “that football thing.”
“And you know the cops are all about kissing Mister Big Shot Mortensen’s butt. They’re all just his little lap dogs, the sonuvabitches.”
Preston Mortensen was a pretty big deal around here. He was some kinda city council member and ran a construction business that built big things down on the beach. I’d seen pictures for his business - PTM Projects – in the newspapers from the dump. They would be, like, half a page big, his big, fat, grinning face and blonde hair taking up most of it. The last one I saw said that his company was building a new school down in the south end of the county.
Uncle Jerry said, “Well, did you talk to Papa? What’re we gonna do about it?”
Daddy took a long drag from his smoke, looking like he was thinking about ideas, and said, “Nothin’, for now, brother. Let’s give it a little more time before we get involved.”
Again, I didn’t know what they were talking about, but by this point, my stomach was feeling sick, way down low, at the thought of Uncle Charlie in jail. He was such a nice guy. It didn’t seem right, or real, that he’d get locked up for kidnapping some girl. Why would he even do something like that? It just didn’t make no sense.
“Light it up already,” Daddy said. Uncle Jerry flicked his lighter and held it to a pipe sticking out of his mouth.
I got up and went back inside the trailer, to my room, confused and sad. The little fan on the floor was humming as I flopped down on the bed, onto my back, and stared up at the ceiling. The nighttime critter noises droned away in the background, crickets and katydids and cicadas and tree frogs, all singing their songs like some kind of crazy, high-pitched heartbeat buzz – I barely noticed it anymore, except at night in bed, when I’d let it sing me to sleep. Brown water stains made patterns here and there on the dingy white ceiling tiles; one of the stains looked like a horse running away. My eyes focused on it, and I wished I could ride that horse into town, to the jail, to talk to Uncle Charlie.
After a few minutes, like always, the shape in the stains washed away, and just like that, it didn’t look like a horse at all. It just looked like a water stain, nothing else. It was like the way a word sticks in your head, but if you think about it too long, you can forget what it means.
I was thinking about going out to the dump in the morning and looking for newspapers to see if there was something about this Mortensen girl or Uncle Charlie. My eyelids were getting heavy, thinking, listening to the fan and that chirpy heartbeat song, staring at the ceiling. My body was getting light as I started to fall asleep, but suddenly, the critter song stopped, and the silence was loud enough to pop my eyes back open.
Then it got real cold in my room. I sat up and looked around my room, half-expecting, hoping, to see Mama somewhere, but she wasn’t there. What there was, though, sitting at the end of my bed and facing me, was one of the dolls from my stuff in the shed. A girl doll with a pale, shiny face and curly red hair and a blue dress that I had found in pretty good condition about a month ago. Now, though, her face and dress was all splattered red, like with blood. Her wide green eyes were just staring at me, all shiny. Waiting, I reckon.
Well, no going to sleep for me now, I guess. I slid out of the bed, put on my sneakers, grabbed the doll, and headed outside.
There wasn’t much moon that night; so I stood outside the house for a few minutes to let my eyes adjust to the dark. If you’ve never been out in the middle of nowhere on a dark night, you know it takes a while to get a sense of the shapes, the things hiding in the dark. The things you don’t give a second glance to when the sun’s shining.
The bugs were still silent, which is a strange kind of quiet. I figured that whatever it is I’m in for, whatever this doll wants me to see, must have scared the bugs, or heck, maybe it killed ‘em all. Who knows? Mama said I was chosen and special and all that, but I felt like I didn’t know anything about anything, except for don’t touch the dead people…that’s one lesson I doubt I’d forget anytime soon.
I was slowly and quietly walking behind the trailers, almost to the shed, when a cranky, ragged voice call out to me, “Where you goin’, boy?”
Crap. It was Papa Whistler. King of the Whistlers. I glanced over to my left and saw his silhouette, hunched over on his cane.
I froze, just staring at his outline. Papa was old and angry and scary and mean, and we hardly ever spoke to each other, me being the little weirdo Whistler and all. Maybe if I just stood still and didn’t speak, he’d just move on and forget about me.
“I’m talkin’ to you, boy!”
He began to shuffle toward me. Cane, step, right foot dragging in the pine straw. I was still frozen in place, too scared to do anything. The doll in my hand started getting warm right then.
Papa finally made his way to about a couple feet in front of me and stopped. His face was only slightly more visible, the crags and the bleary, washed-out eyes were there, but not as severe. I stared up at him, the doll getting warmer and warmer in my hand. My palm was actually getting sweaty from holding it.
“You know what time it is, boy?” he growled at me.
I nodded, slowly and nervously. The doll was getting red hot now; I was afraid it was going to burn through my skin. Without thinking, I switched it from my right hand to my left, which Papa noticed.
“What in the ever-loving hell is that? A doll? Are you some kinda sissy, boy?”
My body was a big ball of nerves, adrenalin pumping through my guts like crazy. I didn’t know what to say to him, so I couldn’t do anything but stand there, that doll burning up my left hand now.
Next thing I knew, he smacked me across my face, hard enough so that I had to catch myself with my feet to keep from falling. My cheek stung. Tears burned my eyes.
“Answer me, boy!”
I stared down at the doll in my hand, hot, its blank eyes staring at me in the darkness. My eyes kept blinking, stinging, trying to keep the tears in. I was angry, ashamed, scared. My whole body trembled, and I tightened my grip on the doll, embracing the heat of it.
I looked up at Papa in time to see him raising his hand again, ready to give me another smack, but about that time, a buzzard swooped down out of nowhere and jabbed its filthy beak at Papa’s outstretched hand.
“What in the hell?” Papa yelped, and almost immediately, another buzzard flew in and butted him in his scrawny chest with its head.
Papa gasped real loud. After just a couple more seconds, there were about six buzzards hovering around him, standing on his feet, jumping and flapping their wings against his body. I just stood and watched as he cursed and tried to swing his cane at the birds, falling over in the process. Once he was on his back, the buzzards stepped on him, walked all over him.
“Boy,” he barked. “Get these damn things off of me! Help your Papa up!”
The sting in my cheek had almost completely faded, and I just stood and watched as the buzzards rooted around, over, on my grandfather. Papa, the stubborn, stupid leader of the Whistlers.
After another moment, I said, “Go.” The buzzards immediately flapped and lumbered off, gone within a few seconds. Papa still kicked and swatted, whimpering a little, not realizing they were gone. After another little bit, he lowered his hands and feet and lay still, his breathing all heavy and raspy.
The doll in my hand suddenly cooled down and my body started relaxing, not as tense now. Papa raised himself up onto his elbows and looked at me, his craggy old face wide-eyed and confused. He looked scared of me, little weirdo me.
It was a strange feeling, seeing him look at me like that. Nobody’s never been scared of me before, and I didn’t know what to do with it. It felt kinda good, like powerful, almost. Underneath that, though, I felt bad that Papa got a little beat up. I stepped toward him, my empty hand extended, and offered to help him up. He swatted my hand away, though, and rolled onto his side, pushing himself up to his knees, then grabbing his cane.
“Boy,” he said, weakly, and brought himself upright, wobbly, using the cane for just about all his balance. “I ain’t got no idea what the hell’s with you, but you stay the hell away from me. You understand?”
He tried to sound angry, but really, he just sounded all nervous. He wouldn’t look at me.
He shuffled around in a half-circle and pointed himself back to his home, still shaky and wobbly and all loose-acting.
“Can I help you home, Papa?” I asked him, knowing the answer already.
“No!” he snapped. “I told you: stay away from me.”
With that, he slowly shuffled off, foot dragging in the pine straw, leaving just the quiet, fading sound of his raspy breathing.
I looked down at the doll in my hand and muttered, “Look at the trouble you’re getting me into.” It just stared back at me, bloody faced and shiny eyed.
Papa was probably gonna tell Daddy about what happened, and I was probably gonna be in for a whooping. Nobody messes with Papa without trouble, not even another Whistler. And the weird little one? My guts turned to water when I thought about what Daddy might do. Definitely the belt, but maybe fists.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glow, barely showing from behind a thick pine tree trunk. As I watched, it darted out from behind the tree and ran off, away from me, until it disappeared in the thick black of the woods. Looked like a girl, long hair and all, but I guess she didn’t want no help from me.
I let the doll fall out of my hand and land on the ground, not wanting no part of this business tonight, this being chosen stuff. I wanted to go home and try to sleep and not worry about what Daddy was gonna do to me. It was gonna be bad, I just knew it.
I made my way back through the trees, to the trailer. Tried to be real quiet as I opened the door, but about the time I was going to sneak in and slip back to my room, something hit me on my head and fell on the ground next to the little concrete stairs. When I looked up, a buzzard was flapping away, its stupid wings lumbering, a disgusting hiss coming from its beak.
Down on the ground next to me: a newspaper. So the buzzard dropped a newspaper on my head, which I reckoned meant something, so I grabbed the paper and went inside, all quiet, right back to my room.
No sign of Daddy, at least not yet. But he’d be coming, I was sure. I went into my room and took my jeans off and put on all three extra pairs of underwear in my drawer, then put my jeans back on. A little extra padding might help.
Probably not. I messed with Papa Whistler. There probably ain’t enough underwear in the world to help me outta this one. I just laid back on my little bed and stared at the water stains on the ceiling again, waiting, wondering. I didn’t even look at the stupid buzzard newspaper. Just closed my eyes and waited.
Next thing I knew, I woke up, ugly daylight shining through my little window. The television was blasting real loud from the living room – I heard someone say “the baby is NOT yours,” followed by a buncha screaming and hollering. This was followed by Daddy letting out a loud laugh and yelling, “Dumb sonuvabitch!”
Daddy. The memory of last night’s business in the woods suddenly washed over me, made me feel cold and nervous. I got up quietly and went to the bathroom and washed my face with a dirty old washcloth soaked in cold water, then took off my t-shirt and wiped my armpits and chest and neck, getting myself clean. I kept the extra underpants on.
Snuck back into my room and grabbed a clean t-shirt and glanced down at the newspaper from last night. The headline read: NO NEW LEADS IN MORTENSEN DISAPPEARANCE, OFFICIALS SAY. Under the headline, a picture of a pretty blonde girl: Kenzie Mortensen. I kicked the paper under my bed and went back out into the hallway.
Nervously, I walked down the hall, and saw Daddy sitting on the couch, feet on the coffee table, smoking a cigarette and watching whatever that loud show was on the TV. After standing in the entry way to the living room, too terrified to walk in, Daddy looked over and yelled, “Boy, quit lurkin’ around like that. Damn weirdo.” Then back to his show.
I walked through the living room, into the kitchen, kicking a few dead roaches under the oven on the way to the fridge. A glance back at Daddy; he was still watching his show and laughing at whatever it was. Papa must not have said anything yet. I pulled the bottle of orange juice out of the fridge and poured some into a dirty glass on the counter, mine from yesterday, and took a long drink.
The chosen one drinks his breakfast, I thought to myself for no reason.
A knock at the door startled me, then Jerry walked into the living room. Daddy turned the sound off on the TV and asked, “What’s up?”
Jerry glanced over at me, standing there holding my juice, and told Daddy, “We gotta run into town. Papa needs some medicine from the drug store.”
“Medicine?” Daddy repeated back, making a question out of it. “What’n the hell for?”
“Says he was out in the woods last night and took a tumble. Got a little scratched up, a couple of ‘em are pretty deep. Need some, what do you call it…antibiotic stuff so he don’t get all infected.”
Daddy sighed loudly and stood up. “Why the hell is he out walking around in the damn woods at night, anyway?”
Jerry just shrugged, said, “Who knows? Anyway, wanna go with me?”
The Whistlers didn’t like to visit the outside world alone. If they had to go into that wretched, despicable town, it was always a team effort. Daddy nodded, and I had an idea, but I had to be fast.
I dropped my glass in the sink and ran through the living room, between Jerry and Daddy, toward the back door. “What in the hell’s your problem, ya little freak?” Jerry called to my back.
Ignored him and ran back to the barn. After making sure nobody was around, I dug out a handful of my change and dropped it in my pocket, and then decided to bring an Old Timer pocketknife I had found a few weeks ago. After covering everything back up, I slowly crept into the middle of the Whistler horseshoe compound, trying to be invisible, and went to Uncle Jerry’s pickup truck. It was an old Ford, the bed always filled with junk and tarp and trash bags and whatnot.
After a look around to make sure nobody seen me, I slid into the bed of the truck, moved around some of the empty beer cans and covered myself up with a couple of black garbage bags filled with something light – pine straw or newspaper, maybe – and waited.
They’d never let me go with them if I asked, but I wanted to go to town, so this is what I had to do. After about fifteen minutes, I heard Daddy and Jerry’s voices, and the truck rocked as they climbed in, doors slammed shut, and the truck started moving. Slowly at first, turning around in the horseshoe, then up the driveway, bumpy, branches scraping the sides of the truck.
After a stop, the truck turned right, heading north on 331, and picked up speed. I pushed aside the bag covering my face and stared up into the sky. It was a typical Florida morning sky – puffy, popcorn-y clouds scattered all about, blue sky between them, the sun pushing everything down with its humid weight. Watching the sky as the truck rolled along, I wondered if Mama was up there, watching me. I wondered if she knew what I was going to do, and if she’d approve.
Then I saw an airplane, way the heck up in the sky, looking smaller than a palmetto bug, heading somewhere else. Somewhere away from here. I wished I could get on that airplane. I wished I could pick up a toy from the junk yard and float away, all the way up to that airplane, and just go wherever it took me.
But I wasn’t going nowhere but into town. The outside world.
After a few more minutes, the truck slowed down, made a couple of stops and turns, and then a final stop on Main Street, in a parking spot right in front of King’s Drugstore. The truck doors opened and everything rocked as they got out and slammed their doors. I counted one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, and then sat up and looked around – we were right in downtown, which is what I had hoped for.
Nobody was around, so I snuck out of the back of the truck and quickly ran down to the end of the block and turned right on Cooke Avenue. Daddy and Uncle Jerry hadn’t seen me, which was good. Doubtful anyone’d notice I was gone, anyway. I wasn’t sure how I’d get home, but that was something to worry about later.
For now, what I needed was one more block up, across highway 90, in the big tan, brick building – the Walden County Courthouse and jail.
First, though, I stopped into G&L Hot Dog Stand, a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that’s been a Cookeville thing forever. Uncle Charlie had took me there a couple of times, gotten me giant hot dogs with mustard and relish and a Coke, and they were delicious. It was right on the way to the courthouse, so I opened the door and quickly slipped into the corner and stood there shyly, embarrassed, never having gone somewhere like this alone.
The smell hit me almost immediately, and my stomach started grumbling in protest real loud right then. I wasn’t sure the last time I ate something…maybe a couple pieces of peanut butter toast yesterday afternoon? Anyway, the smell of the hot dogs and French fries and everything was almost too much for me to take. I reached in my pocket and pulled all the change out and slowly approached the counter. Behind the counter, two big old ladies worked, their backs turned to me, cleaning or grilling or whatever it was they were doing. Uncle Charlie had told me they were sisters and had been running the hot dog place together for at least thirty years.
I stood silently and looked up at the menu on the wall, a black rectangle with white plastic letters pushed into it and felt bad; I was pretty sure I didn’t have nearly enough change to get nothing.
About that time, one of the big ladies turned around and looked at me, eyes all squinty, like she thought I was about to, what? Steal something?
“You’re Angus Whistler’s grandson, ain’t you?” she finally asked, her voice deeper than I expected.
Angus. I forgot Papa’s real name was Angus. Funny to think about.
I nodded slowly, figuring I was about to get thrown out or scolded or something for being a Whistler, but she just said, “What do you want to eat, boy?”
Not sure of what to do, I put my fist on the counter and opened it and let the change fall from my hand, a sad little pile of dimes and pennies, and asked, “What can I get for this?”
She had a nametag on her giant bosom, it said Gertrude. Gertrude looked down at my little pile of change and then pushed it back toward me with a big, meaty, manly hand, shaking her head.
She leaned forward onto her thick forearms and said almost in a whisper, “Angus Whistler is a friend of mine. You get what you want, boy.”
I looked in her face, confused. She stared back at me, her washed-out green eyes almost buried in wrinkles, frazzled gray hair pulled back in a thick bun on the back of her head, her closed mouth moving, like she was chewing on something.
“Can I – can I have a hot dog with mustard and relish?” I squeaked out. “And maybe a Coca-Cola?”
She straightened up a smiled real big, only a few teeth in there, and said, “You got it, boy.” She whispered quietly, “Shame about your uncle.”
Then she turned around and bustled around a bit, her wide body avoiding her sister’s wide body, kinda like a strange dance they had down after so many years squeezed behind that counter. I watched as Gertrude whispered something in her sister’s ear while she spread relish on my hot dog. My mouth was watering by the time she set it down on the counter in front of me.
“Here you go, boy,” she said, pushing my change back toward me again. “Put that back in your pocket. You may need it somewhere else, but not here. Your grandpa once did a favor for me, maybe the biggest favor ever anyone ever done for me. Ain’t no Whistlers gonna pay here.”
Then she turned and opened the cooler behind her and pulled out a red can of Coca-Cola and set it next to my hot dog. “Go eat, son. You look like you ain’t had a bite in a coon’s age. Get another one after that one, if you want.”
All I could do was stare, unused to kindness from anyone, much less a total stranger, and especially being a Whistler. It briefly occurred to me to ask her what Papa did for her, but I figured it best to just shut my mouth.
“Thank you, Miss Gertrude,” I said quietly, putting my change back in my pocket. She smiled and turned and went back to her kitchen work, so I grabbed the hot dog and the cold red can and went and sat at a wobbly little table and devoured the entire hot dog in about four bites. It was the best thing I’d ate in weeks. Since the last time Uncle Charlie took me out.
Uncle Charlie. I was brought back to the reality of why I snuck into town, so I sucked my Coca-Cola down real fast, so fast I couldn’t help but letting out a loud burp afterward. The few other customers in the place looked over at me, and I blushed and whispered, “Excuse me.”
After throwing away my trash, Miss Gertrude called out, “Tell your grandpa hello for me, boy.” I nodded and headed for the exit, genuinely confused and curious.
Out the door, I turned right and walked toward the courthouse. Could it be that all Whistlers aren’t all bad? Maybe there’s some kindness in there, way down deep somewhere? That would be a dirty family secret, for sure.
I wasn’t sure what to do once I got into the courthouse. It was confusing, people walking all around, talking loudly into their little phones, elevators, stairs. There were a couple of guys in uniforms standing by a big, open, plastic box, which looked to be the only way to get any further inside.
One of the uniform guys, a black guy, eyeballed me as I walked up to him slowly, feeling tinier and more insignificant than ever. I stared up at him and he said, “Empty your pockets into the bowl.” He waved his giant hand at a small plastic bowl sitting on some contraption behind him.
I did as I was told, pulling the change and the Old Timer out and dropping them into the bowl and then just standing there, trying to be invisible. The man looked in the bowl and picked up the knife.
“You want to bring a knife into the courthouse, son?” he said, leaning down, holding the worn out Old Timer in front of my face.
The other uniformed guy leaned over from behind me and said, “Well, shoot, how about that? I ain’t seen an Old Timer like that in forever. My grandpa used to carry one of those all the time, Bill. It’s just a tiny little thing. Ain’t gonna hurt nobody with that,” he finished.
Bill stood up and smiled and said, “Hell, the boy’s just about littler than the knife. I don’t reckon it’s a big deal.”
He waved his hand at the open plastic box and told me to walk through. I did as I was told, scared something was going to happen, although no idea what. Once I was through, I turned around to see if I was done, and Bill gave me my change back. He slid the Old Timer into his pants pocket, though.
“You can get it back from me when you leave.”
I nodded obediently. I wasn’t even really sure why I brought the stupid knife to begin with; I just thought it might come in handy, no idea what for, though.
Stepping forward, I saw signs hanging from the ceiling with arrows. One said “Jail,” so I went that way, which eventually led me to a dead end hallway with a caged-in window that I could barely see into, I was so short. Green movement behind the cage indicated someone was back there, but I reckon they couldn’t see me.
On my tiptoes, I tapped the metal cage gently and said, “Excuse me.”
“Jesus!” came a woman’s voice. “You scared the life out of me, boy!” She leaned forward enough so that I could see her face. It was round and kind-looking.
“I’d like to visit my uncle, please,” I said. “Charlie Whistler.”
“You by yourself?”
“How old are you, boy?” she asked.
“You got any kinda ID on you?”
“ID?” I repeated, dumbly.
“Identification,” she said, patiently. “Something that shows who you are.”
My face fell as I shook my head and said, “No, ma’am. But my name is Richard Louis Whistler.”
She stared down at me for a moment and said, “Hang on just a minute, sweetie.”
She disappeared, and I could hear her mumbling something to someone else, and after a moment, a different person, a man, appeared behind the cage. Something buzzed to my left, and he said, “Go ahead with Officer Gossett.”
I looked over and saw a heavy steel door open, and the lady from before, Officer Gossett, holding it open and waving me through, a little smile on her kind face.
I walked through the door as she said, “Normally, minors ain’t allowed to visit inmates alone, but you’d be the first visitor Charlie’s had, and I’m sure he’d like to see his nephew. Just stay with me and do what I say, boy. Understand?”
Nodding, she took my hand and led me down a hallway, into a big, open room with round metal tables and benches for seats. She pointed at one of the tables and I quickly sat down, my hands folded in my lap. The room was big and cold and empty, white cinderblock walls, a heavy steel door at the back.
“Stay here,” Officer Gossett ordered me. Then she went back to the door and picked up a phone next to it and talked for a minute. After she hung up, she walked back to me and said, “It’ll be just a few minutes, okay?”
A big smile crossed her face and she sorta leaned back and looked at me funny. I was just starting to feel uncomfortable when she said, “Good to see a Whistler with some manners, I gotta say. Maybe you’ll be different.”
Blushing was my only response to that. My hands were fidgety in my lap, and I moved them to the smooth metal surface of the table in an attempt to keep them still, but they wouldn’t stop grabbing each other, pulling fingers, drumming, kneading.
“Hey,” Officer Gossett said in a soothing voice. I glanced at her but only saw the pistol holstered on her wide hip. “It’s gonna be okay. Just try to relax, boy.”
Nodding, my hands involuntarily slid themselves under my thighs, but then my feet started swinging and kicking.
“Just gotta let the justice system do its job, okay?”
Nodding again, unsure about the justice system. Other than hearing Daddy talking about “there ain’t no justice in this world,” I’d never heard anything about a justice system.
I was about to ask Officer Gossett what it meant, but a loud buzz at the door sent her to her feet and to the back of the room, to the big door. She opened it. My eyes widened and a smile crossed my face as I saw Uncle Charlie there, wearing an orange jumpsuit. He smiled back at me as Officer Gossett removed his handcuffs and took him by the arm and led him to the table I sat at. I stood up, ready to hug him, but I froze and looked in her direction.
“Go ahead, boy.”
I scooted around the table and wrapped my arms around his neck, probably too hard, and he hugged me back and said, “Good to see you, Richie-Lou!” We hugged for another moment before Officer Gossett nudged me back to my side of the table.
There were tears in my eyes as I sat back down, a hundred questions bunched up in my stupid little mouth, all trying to get out at once, none of them making it. A sob was the only thing that came out.
“Hey, hey, Richie-Lou,” he said, and reached out to take my little hands in his big, rough ones. “It’s okay, son. I’m okay in here.”
He glanced at Officer Gossett, who took a few steps back away from the table. Still close enough to hear, but not close enough to be a distraction.
“What…what happened?” I finally blubbered. “Daddy and Uncle Jerry said you took some - ”
“Shhh,” he cut me off. “I did no such thing, Richie-Lou. I promise. Look at me.”
I stared into his eyes, which looked very tired, his chin covered in brownish-grey stubble. He squeezed my hands and said, “I promise you, I’m innocent. It’s just a, what do you call it, a formality that they’ve got me in here. I’ll be out soon, okay?”
I nodded, believing him.
“But what about what they’re saying?”
“They’re wrong, boy. They couldn’t be more wrong.” He glanced at Officer Gossett and said, “Little girls aren’t my thing, Richie-Lou.”
In between sobs, I blurted out, “Mama came to see me, Uncle Charlie. She came to my room a few nights ago and told me…told me…I was special.”
There, it was out. I didn’t feel no better, but I wanted Uncle Charlie to have something happy to think about.
“You are special, boy, I promise,” he agreed. “Your mama knows that, always has. She knew it when you were in her belly, and she still knows it, even from heaven.”
“She…she said I was chosen.”
“Richie-Lou, your mama’s been gone fourteen years now, but if she came to see you and tell you that, then you better listen to your mama, you understand?”
“Yes sir,” I sniffled.
It was quiet for a minute before I finally asked, “When can you come home?”
He let go of my hands and leaned back and hunched down all in one kinda motion.
“I don’t know yet, son,” he said, the negative in his voice made my head hurt.
It was silent again for a moment until Officer Gossett said, “Alright, boys, time to wrap it up.”
I glanced at her quickly, my eyes all stingy and red-rimmed and wide. It seemed like I just got there. She stepped forward to the table and pulled the handcuffs out of a pouch on her hip.
Unable to stop myself, I scooted back around the table and gave Uncle Charlie another big squeeze, and he bear-hugged me back. As he did, he whispered in my ear, “Richie-Lou, do what your mama says. Maybe you can help me with your, whatever, powers. Your chosenness. I swear to you that I didn’t do what they say I did. Make them believe.”
I sobbed and said wetly into his neck, “I’ll try, Uncle Charlie, I promise.”
Officer Gossett gently pushed me off Uncle Charlie and stood him up, snapping the handcuffs on his wrists and leading him back to the heavy steel door.
“I love you, Uncle Charlie,” I called.
“I love you too, Richie-Lou,” he replied. “Show them. Please.”
All I could do was nod, and like that, he was gone. The heavy steel door shut and Officer Gossett turned back to me and said, “Okay, boy, time to go.”
She led me out, silent and miserable, but I remembered my manners and told her, “Thank you very much, ma’am.”
“No problem, boy,” she answered and tousled my hair. I glanced over in time to see her looking at the hand she just had in my hair, a disgusted look on her face. She wiped it hard, several times, on her pants and said, “Now go on.”
I wandered back out to where the uniformed guys still stood, thinking about what Uncle Charlie had said: “Show them.” Officer Bill was in the same place, so I asked, “May I please have my knife back, sir?”
He smiled and said, “Sure, boy.” Fished around in his pocket and handed me my little Old Timer. I put it in my pocket and wandered outside, into the steamy sun, made it about halfway down the giant concrete stairs and just sat down.
I looked up at the sky, squinting in the midday sunlight, hoping more than ever mama would appear and tell me what to do, how to help Uncle Charlie. It seemed unlikely in the middle of the day, however, so I dropped my face back down.
A shuffle of footsteps grew louder and someone’s voice, close to me, said, “There’s one of the little Whistler vermin now.”
Looked up, and there, in the flesh, half-blocking the sun, Preston Mortensen. Three other guys around him, all in fancy business suits and ties and carrying briefcases and all very serious-looking as they stared down at me.
Preston Mortensen stared down at me, and I squinted up at him.
“Which one are you? Charlie’s nephew?”
One of the men behind him said, “Sir, that’s Richard Whistler. He is indeed Charlie’s nephew. They call him Scrap.”
My name never sounded as foreign as it did coming from that fancy mouth. Preston lowered himself, squatted next to me.
“Scrap.” He stared at me, his blue eyes icy and tired at the same time.
“You know what your Uncle Charlie did, boy?” he asked angrily. “You know why he’s in that jail cell right now?”
“He…” I started, scared at the men over me. “He didn’t do nothing.”
Preston Mortensen leaned in very close to me. I could smell some fancy perfume or something on him as he whispered, “Bull. Shit.”
I leaned back, intimidated. All I could do was just shake my head nervously.
“He took my daughter,” he said. “He took my daughter and he won’t tell anyone where she is, and he’s going to fry in the electric chair, boy. He is going to fry. I’ll see to it personally.”
Shaking my head, I babbled, “No. No, no.”
“You Whistlers are the scourge of this town. You rob, cheat, lie. You take no responsibility. You serve no purpose on this earth, except to take and ruin things. You’re cockroaches, all of you.” His growl got louder as he talked, his eyes got wider.
My nerves were buzzing, and I had to get away from him, from this. I scooted back on the step and stood up, my knees shaky. My whole body shaky. Trying to back away from him, he all of a sudden snarled, “Where’s my daughter?” He rushed at me and grabbed my shirt. “WHERE IS MY DAUGHTER, GODDAMN YOU?” His eyes were wide, quivery, insane, like he wouldn’t think twice about snapping me over his knee like a stick.
The men in suits rushed up beside him then, slowly got him to let go of my shirt, and then nudged him backward, away from me. One of them, the one who said my name, stepped toward me, reached inside his jacket. He tossed a piece of paper and then a wadded-up twenty-dollar bill at me. They both landed at my feet. I stared at them dumbly, then looked up at him. His eyes were dark and, well, kinda evil looking.
“You keep your mouth shut about what just happened, and you think real hard about where Kenzie is, Richard, do you understand? Mr. Mortensen is not a man you want to lie to.”
He turned away, joined the small crowd surrounding Preston Mortensen, and led them up the stairs, into the courthouse. I was still all shaky, nervous-like, almost like I was gonna pee my pants. The crazy look in Mortensen’s eyes when he had my shirt told me all I need to know about him.
After a minute, I bent over and picked up the twenty-dollar bill and the piece of paper. The paper was a flyer, the word MISSING in bright red letters at the top. Under that, a large picture of Kenzie, different from the one from the newspaper. Under that: REWARD OFFERED FOR INFORMATION LEADING TO KENZIE’S WHEREABOUTS. Under that, her age, height, weight. Last seen at Tastee Freeze around 12:45 a.m. on June 14th, wearing denim shorts and a pink tank top.
I folded the flyer up, stuck it in my back pocket along with the twenty-dollar bill, and went down the stairs, looking up and down the street, hoping for some kind of guidance.
Where are you, mama? What do I do now?
No reply, of course, so I turned right for a bit and then turned right again, just letting my feet guide me. I looked up after a few minutes and realized I was heading north on highway 83 – towards Uncle Charlie’s house. It would be a long walk, but it was as good a place to go right then as anywhere.
Show them, Uncle Charlie had said. Make them believe.
The sun was just about down by the time I got to Uncle Charlie’s house. It was strange walking into his yard by myself, his bug nowhere to be seen, no chocolate milkshake taste lingering in my mouth. His little brown house was dark, yellow police tape making a large X over his front door. I walked up the steps, onto the patio, and tried the door: locked. A walk around to the back door revealed the same thing: a large yellow X and a locked door. That yellow cop tape seemed so bright and out of place here; it made my eyes hurt.
I knew Uncle Charlie never locked his windows, though, so I grabbed a big gray trashcan from the side of the house and turned it over under the living room window. Climbing up and using all the strength left in me, I managed to slide the window open enough for me to wiggle my tiny little body in.
And just like that, I was back in Uncle Charlie’s house. It smelled the same, and looked mostly the same, except for a little messy. Probably from the police going through it.
I was so tired from the walk that I just flopped down onto his couch and stretched out. I was filthy, exhausted, scared, and unsure about what to do about anything. My nerves got the better of me, though. Ants in my pants, as Charlie would say. I popped back up, decided to take a hot shower. It had been a while since I’d done anything besides wipe myself down with a cold washcloth.
Stripping down in the bathroom (all four pairs of underwear), I turned the hot water on and let it run for a minute. There was a picture stuck to the bathroom mirror: Uncle Charlie and me sitting together on the couch. I remember him taking it, putting the timer on his camera then sitting right up against me. It made me smile, that memory.
It got all good and steamy in the bathroom, and I stepped into the shower. That hot water felt real good, let me tell you. I just stood there and let it run all over me for a while before I picked up a bar of soap and scrubbed myself good, head to toe. The water had turned lukewarm by the time I was finally finished up, and I dried myself off with a big green towel hanging by the shower.
I put on the outermost pair of underpants I had been wearing since last night and walked out of the bathroom, to the kitchen. In the fridge was a plastic tub with spaghetti in it; I would have eaten it, but there was green mold on it. He did have some Coca-Colas, though, so I took one and opened it and took a long drink from it, letting another big burp out, but not caring this time.
There was a can of tuna fish in the cabinet next to the refrigerator, so I took that out and rustled around the drawers and found a can opener and opened it over the sink. After draining the juice, I used my fingers and shoved chunks of it into my mouth hungrily. I felt much better once the whole can was in my belly and there wasn’t any scraps left in the can. All that walking gets you an appetite going.
Still in just my underpants, I wandered around the house aimlessly, half-hoping to find some kind of clue that’d prove Uncle Charlie didn’t do nothing to that stupid girl. Nothing jumped out at me, though, so I strolled into his bedroom and opened his closet and was surprised to see that a good one-third of the stuff hanging up in there was women’s clothes. Like, pretty dresses and blouses and whatnot. On the floor under the women’s clothes: high heels and women’s sparkly flip-flops and sandals. The rest of the stuff in the closet was standard Whistler-wear: t-shirts, flannels hanging over work boots and some beat up old sneakers.
Uncle Charlie hadn’t never been married that I knew of, and I couldn’t remember him ever having a girlfriend. Seems weird that he’d have them women’s clothes hanging up in there, but what did I know?
There was a medium-sized cardboard box next to the women’s shoes, and even though it felt nosy, I knelt down and opened it up. Wigs, a bag of makeup stuff, other things that I didn’t know what they were.
I closed that side of the closet, went to the normal men’s stuff, pulled Uncle Charlie’s grey US Army t-shirt down from a hanger, and put it on. It was huge on me, but it was comfy, and it made me feel good, wearing his shirt.
My Coca-Cola was waiting back in the kitchen, and my eye caught the little green bottle next to the toaster, what Uncle Charlie called his “magic beans.” A smile crossed my face when I thought about them; he’d give me half a magic bean sometimes if I was spending the night. They weren’t actually beans, just football-shaped pills, but he was always joking around like that. He said it was actually some kinda natural herb to help boys grow big and strong, which made me want to take more and more, but he’d only ever let me have half of one.
And it was always “our secret.” He said that Daddy and Uncle Jerry and Papa and all them wouldn’t like me getting big and strong, so the magic beans were just between him and me. I liked that, having something just between him and me.
The beans made me giggle and feel all silly and relaxed and happy. Then, after a while of that, I’d fall asleep and not wake up for a long time afterward. Uncle Charlie always said the growing happens when the magic bean makes you sleep, because it’s the deepest sleep ever, and my body didn’t have to worry about nothing but growing.
I stared at the bottle and finally just said, why not? I popped one of the magic beans out, and put the whole thing in my mouth and swallowed it down with my Coca-Cola.
Lord knows I could stand to do some growing. Bigger and stronger and all that. Little runt me. Little Scrap of nothing. A whole one had to be better than a half, right?
After swallowing the bean down, I went and sat on the couch and pulled out one of his photo books, the one I knew had pictures of mama in it. I started flipping through the pages, looking at Uncle Charlie and mama being silly together, happy, being all smiley for the camera. It was nice to see, as always. I finished that book and went to put it back when I saw a piece of newspaper hanging out from one of the other books.
It was old and kinda yellowed, so I was real gentle as I slid the newspaper out of the book. It was a page from the Cookeville Times, December 11, 1987. Sports. The headline read: CHS STAR QB OUT FOR SEASON WITH KNEE INJURY.
With the Cookeville High Braves on the verge of the Florida state 2A semi-finals, a devastating, freak injury has sidelined star quarterback Preston Mortensen for the rest of his senior year. The injury to his knee is believed to be not just season-ending, but possibly even career-ending. The injury, which occurred at yesterday’s practice, was caused when tight end Glenn Hunting was violently blocked back into Mortensen by defensive end Charles Whistler. Hunting’s 230-pound body was essentially thrown into Mortensen’s knee as he dropped back to pass, hyperextending the knee, as well as tearing both the MCL and ACL, dislocating the patella and fracturing both the fibula and the tibia. Mortensen was taken by ambulance to Walden County Medical Center, where he is expected to undergo the first of possibly many surgeries tomorrow.
“I mean, what can you do?” Coach Jiffy Webb said in an interview immediately following Mortensen’s diagnosis. “Football’s a rough game, and this stuff happens. You like to be able to say ‘next man up,’ but it’s hard when you’re talking about a special player like Preston. I’ll say this: it’s the only time I’ve ever seen a 230-pound tight end get blocked like that, so hard.”
Mortensen, a 5-star rated player who had verbally committed to Florida State University earlier this year, could be in danger of losing his scholarship and, worse, never playing football again.
“We’re going to press on and prepare for the next game. That’s all we can do. That and pray for Preston to recover as quickly as possible,” Webb said.
The Braves face the Freeville Tigers this Friday night, with the winner advancing to the state semi-finals.
So, that must’ve been the “football thing” that Daddy and Jerry had been talking about. The reason why Mortensen is not a fan of the Whistlers, and especially Uncle Charlie. Big shot football star’s career all ruined by some freak accident at practice. Still carrying around some kinda grudge about it, almost 30 years later.
A vision of Preston Mortensen’s eyes, inches away from my face, all crazy as he tells me that my Uncle Charlie is going to fry enters my mind, and I push it right back away somewhere else.
My head was starting to get light and just a little fuzzy from the magic bean, and the newspaper article slipped from between my fingers and landed on the floor. This made me giggle for some reason, all stupid sounding, sitting there alone in Uncle Charlie’s house.
I looked around the room, from the front door to the windows facing out the back of the living room, and everything moved in slow motion. Well, not exactly slow motion, but like, everything was dragging. Everything was slower than my eyes. Waving my hand in front of my face had the same effect and fascinated me.
I said out loud, “I’m all special and chosen” to the house, my voice all funny-sounding. Slow and deep. Like it wasn’t even me, it was coming from somewhere else.
My eyes, despite their slowness, caught something on the bookshelf next to the TV – a doll. Held my head real still, squinted my eyes, focused as best as I could. Yep, it was the doll from last night. Curly red hair, blue dress, bloody-faced, shiny-eyed. The doll I left lying on the ground in the woods after seeing Papa. It was here now somehow, staring right at me, its little hands sticking out, like it was reaching for me.
“Shoot,” I mumbled, but it didn’t come out. Just a kind of groan is what it sounded like.
Slowly, gently, I leaned forward and put my hands on the coffee table and pushed myself upright, stood up, wobbly, the room all spinning around. My eyes focused on the doll, and I tried to get to it, but my feet wouldn’t work right, and all that happened was me tripping and falling down on the floor like a big dummy, which made me giggle again. But when I rolled onto my back, the doll was sitting on the floor, right next to me, little arms and hands stuck out. So I grabbed it, held it close, but my eyes wouldn’t stay open no more, it was all just so danged relaxing.
Just lay here a minute or two, my mind said somewhere, like a movie playing in another room, my arm clutching the doll against me. Just for a couple of minutes, rest my eyes, then I’ll get up and do what I gotta do. Just a couple of…
I suppose it was just a dream, but heck, who knows anymore? Mama came to me again, this time in Uncle Charlie’s living room, where I was lying on the floor like a dummy, holding that stupid doll. She was glowing, like before, and she sure was beautiful. She took a long look around Charlie’s living room, maybe a little smile on her face, couldn’t be sure. My head wasn’t right.
Finally, she looked down at me. “Richard, honey,” she said, kneeling. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do here, but Uncle Charlie’s house isn’t where you need to be. You need to be home, at the Whistler compound.”
“But mama,” I slurred. “I hate it out there. I like Uncle Charlie’s place. And I want to help him.”
She reached her glowy hand down and tried to stroke my face, but it just felt like a cold breath against my skin.
“You can help your Uncle Charlie, son. But you have to go home.”
I tried to sit up, doll clutched in my arm, but my head was foggy, and my whole body moved slow, like a wasp when it gets cold outside. Out of nowhere, a thought popped into my head.
“Mama,” I said, holding the doll out. “Can you take this doll from me?”
She tensed up and pulled her hands back, looking at the doll like it was a pile of dog poop or something else nasty.
“Honey, no,” she said, her voice totally soothing. The tears coming, but I didn’t fight it this time. A boy ought to be able to cry about his dead mama, right? Especially when her ghost just shows up?
“Please, mama,” I whined. I wanted to see. I wanted to know. I was ready to face whatever it was that mama faced.
“You don’t want to see this, Richard,” she said, backing away. “You listen to your mama, now.”
“But…” I didn’t know what to say. My hands still held the doll out to her, dumbly.
“I don’t know how you died, Mama. Nobody tells me nothing. Nobody even cares if I’m here or not.” I hung my head and dropped the doll and let the hot tears leak out. One drips on the doll’s bloody face. Saying those words made me feel sadder than anybody ever felt before.
“You’ll know when you need to, son, I promise,” she said, her voice getting quieter, wispy. “Right now, you need to go home.”
Tried to pull myself up with my hands on the coffee table, but I was still too wobbly, too magic-beaned to do anything.
“I can’t hardly move, Mama.”
“Shh,” she said. “I’ll help you, my baby boy. Get your doll and close your eyes, lay back. Mama’s going to help.”
Stupid tears, still leaking from my eyes as I lay back.
She started singing, and it was the sweetest thing I’d ever heard.
“A cherry when It’s bloomin’…it has no stone…a chicken when it's pippin’…it has no bone…the story of I love you…it has no end…a baby when it’s sleeping…it’s not cryin’…”
Her voice lulled me somewhere, somewhere far, far away from there on Uncle Charlie’s floor. The doll’s body still squeezed against me, the last thing I remember, her voice, the song “the story of I love you…it has no end…”
Her beautiful voice. My eyes squeezed shut, hot tears running down into my ears, and then…then…
A sudden blast of loud music jerked me awake, scared and confused, Mama’s singing voice suddenly gone, replaced with someone singing “now I know my place in life…and it devours me more each day.”
My eyes peeled open slowly, a headache buried behind them, and behind that, a brain with no idea what was going on. A few blinks later, I realized I was staring at the water stain on my bedroom ceiling. It didn’t look like a horse this time; it looked like a man in a suit throwing a twenty dollar bill on the ground.
“You keep your mouth shut about this,” his voice echoed in my brain.
Slowly, I propped myself up on my elbows and looked around my room. How did I get back here? The last thing I remembered was not being able to move on Uncle Charlie’s living room floor, Mama singing something, holding the doll against me. Mama, telling me I had to go home.
A glance down at myself; I was still wearing the big US ARMY t-shirt, and my jeans were on. My body felt soaked in sweat, jeans all twisted and stuck sideways. Next to my left arm, the doll laid there on its side and stared at me, shiny-eyed, bloody-faced, its little arms still poking out to me.
“I don’t know what you want, stupid!” I growled at it, angrily, and knocked it down onto the floor. I sat up and pulled my knees to my chest and thought about Mama and Uncle Charlie and dead kids and didn’t know anything. The music still blared from the living room, and I heard the line “now I know my place in life…and it devours me more each day” again. It stuck in my aching head.
The sun shone brightly into the window; I had no idea what time it was, or even what day it was. I was hot and sweaty and confused and didn’t know my place in life, even though I sorta felt devoured more each day. I swung my legs over the side of the bed, that stupid doll staring up at me from the floor.
“You stupid doll,” I hissed. “I hate you!”
Got me in trouble with Papa, followed me to Uncle Charlie’s, always just staring at me like I’m supposed to know what to do with it. I got real angry and reached into my jeans pocket and pulled out the Old Timer and opened the little blade. Dropped to my knees and felt hot anger on my face as I stabbed at the doll’s belly with the knife; at the exact moment the blade hit the fabric of the blue dress, something crashed against my bedroom window, made me drop the knife and jump back.
Outside the window, a buzzard, grabbed against the window with its talons, its stupid wings flapping against the side of the trailer. The ugly beak, smacked against the glass, making all kinds of racket.
“Go away!” I yelled and threw the doll at the window. It bounced off the glass and fell to the floor, but the buzzard wouldn’t move; it just clung to the side of the place, frantically hanging on. Stupid, ugly bird.
“Scrap!” Daddy’s voice from the living room. “Shut the hell up back there, Jesus!”
The buzzard hung on, and a horrible sigh fell out of me, full of confusion and anger and just feeling stupid. My head flopped back against the bed, eyes squeezed shut. I was close to crying again, but a scraping noise distracted me. Lifted my head, opened my eyes, looked – a medium-sized grey rat was pushing the doll from where it landed toward me, using its twitchy little pink, whiskery nose. The buzzard stared through the window, and we watched the rat nudge the doll until it was against my leg. Then the rat sat up and stared at me, its whiskers twitching all around, little pink feet dangling. Ugly little eyes right on me.
I picked the doll up and held it in my lap, stared at it. There was a tiny little slit in the dress where I hit it with the Old Timer, but other than that, it was the same stupid doll, staring at me.
All of a sudden, the buzzard flapped off and the rat darted back into the corner of my room, under a pile of dirty clothes. I wondered if there were any rat babies under them clothes. Suppose I ought to clean that mess up.
The music in the living room ended, and the TV came on. Loud, as always. I swear, sometimes I thought Daddy was deaf. Everything had to be so danged loud all the time.
Gotta do something with this doll, I reckoned. We stared at each other for a minute, then I set it down and grabbed my sneakers. After shaking a roach out, I slid them on, stood up and found a brown paper bag to put the doll in. Didn’t want Daddy to see it. Opened my bedroom door and headed toward the kitchen for a drink of orange juice, carrying the bag on my right side so maybe he wouldn’t see it. The TV blasted something about protecting your loved ones with insurance.
“Where the hell you been, boy?” Daddy yelled. “Ain’t seen you in a couple o’ days.”
A couple o’ days.
Barely looking in his direction, I just mumbled, “I been around.”
In the kitchen, I found the last glass I used in the pile of dishes in the sink, got the OJ and poured half a glass. There was a bottle of aspirin on the counter, and I shook four of the little white pills out and swallowed them down with my juice.
About to head out the door, Daddy says, “So what’re your big plans for the day, boy? Playin’ with your toys at the dump like a nice, normal kid?” He cackled after that.
I looked back at him, wobbly doorknob in one hand, bag of doll in the other, and tried to sound nice and innocent when I asked, “Daddy, how did Mama die?”
His face went from a crinkly, leathery pie of happiness to an angry stone statue head. He took a drag off his cigarette, stood up and walked over to me. He smelled like stale beer and sweat, like always. Even though I knew it was coming, my body still cringed involuntarily as he whacked the back of my head, hard.
“Get the hell outta here,” he muttered. “Go be a little freak somewhere else.”
He reached out, shoved the door open, and pushed me. It was unexpected, so really, all I could do was tumble down the little steps backwards and hit the dirt on my back. It didn’t hurt that much, but my face felt on fire, angry and embarrassed.
The bag had fallen out of my hand and was lying in the dirt next to me. The doll’s face was peeking out of the top. Somewhere behind me, I heard my twin cousins, Royce and Royal, wrestling around. I sighed, stood up, got the bag and made my way back to through the compound, toward the dump. Royce and Royal, all tangled up in headlocks and leg locks in the dirt stopped and stared at me as I walked by.
“Weirdo,” one of them snickered behind my back.
Now I know my place in life, and it devours me more each day.