Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Year Halloween Fell on a Thursday
~
Charity Anderson had polished off three quarters of a bottle of her favorite Merlot. The subject for this evening’s homily—her own sad joke—was “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” All she wanted for her shy little boy was for him to grab just the teensiest portion of the life out there for us all. She had been so clever, gone in the train store and found what she wanted, laughed all the way home—this would do the trick. She had schemed on such a small scale, for such small purposes. How could she know what trick it would do? How could she be expected to know?
~
If Tom hadn’t run off to Australia two years before (good riddance, she had thought) he might have told her to leave it well enough alone, let the boy be himself, whoever that self turned out to be. He would have been right, that’s what hurt the most. She shouldn’t have been so proud—too clever by half. She took another hit off the cigarette before she slowly, methodically set the glowing ember into the soft, white skin of her inner arm, among the bright and fading flowers there.
~
She remembered the year Halloween fell on a Thursday as vividly as if it had come yesterday, or earlier today, for God’s sake, as if it was happening right now all the time. There was Billy, her only child, telling her he had too much homework, but she wanted him to go trick-or-treating. I'm too old, he said.
~
Fifth grade—that's too old? Eleven years, too old? But she knew the problem all along: masks frightened him. That’s how she knew he wasn’t ready for this world. That’s what scared her. When masks are all we know, you can’t be scared of masks—be scared of the real face, that’s what she would have told him if she could.
~
She imagined him across from her at the kitchen table, a grown young man of twenty-two. When you were little, you mistook the mask for the reality. You didn't like knocking on strangers' doors, and you didn't want to admit you were afraid. I was the original aging hippy. We once watched a children’s show together because I wanted you to see Ringo Starr, the former Beatle, playing Mr. Conductor. So…knowing you wouldn’t want to go trick-or-treating, I bought a conductor's hat and jacket, a long, wooden whistle that sounded like a passing train.
~
You might have been a little fifth grader, but you were a smarty, good in math and science like I had never been—your father’s genes at work. But, smart or not, you were still a kid. The whistle interested you, so you tried the hat and jacket. It didn't feel too bad—hardly a costume. The sound of the whistle excited you. You went out as soon as it got dark enough, carrying a hemp bag your old hippy mother provided. Several neighbors remembered you at their door. You seemed to be enjoying yourself, blowing the whistle as you went from house to house collecting candy. A boy named Jimmy Samson remembered saying, “Cool whistle.” That comes back at night, when I don’t know that I’m awake.
~
That girl in your class, Julie Jenkins, said hello to you. You smiled back at her but were too shy to say anything. The ghosts and goblins must have seemed pretty harmless. You wondered why you had been afraid—a little cute one then, with the bluest eyes and lightest brown hair that almost floated as you walked. And when you put your glasses on I wanted to cry.
~
You might have been out an hour, heading for one of the last houses you intended to hit, when you ran into Ralph Bunch, who only co-operated because his friend Kip Green mentioned seeing you. Once the parents and police started asking everyone, Kip couldn’t keep quiet. Keeping a secret is holding a balloon underwater—it wants out.
~
It had gotten dark by this time, and chilly. You weren’t dressed warm enough, and later on it started to rain. I hate to think of you out in that weather, no one paying attention to whether you were warm, whether you were dry. You blew your whistle as you passed the trees bordering old man Hager’s house—that drew their attention. Kip had wrapped himself in ace bandages and painted his face brown with yellow lips. Ralph was a tall seventh grader who had gone as a vampire. You didn't recognize either of them.
~
All you saw was a chubby zombie and a tall vampire with a white face, red blood dripping from his black lips and fluorescent fangs. It must have terrified you to see them standing there, blocking your way—a zombie and a vampire. You must have lowered the whistle and looked at the vampire’s eyes, glittering green in blackened sockets. The cape spread out on one side as the vampire's arm drew back. The fist shot out, slamming you in the nose—this according to Kip who thought it looked cool when the fist in the white glove came out. For no reason but he wanted to, that’s why I blame him.
~
You went down flat on your back. That Ralph didn’t want to admit this either, but Kip told us he snatched the cap off your head and spun it in the trees. That’s where I found it, no one else thought of going in and looking for it. I kept thinking I saw you behind a bush, or lying under a tree. In my dreams I see you running here and there, in and out of trees, giggling or crying, which wasn’t your style at all, I know that. You would have been quiet.
~
They left you there, on the ground where he had knocked you, didn’t even go back to see if you were all right. Ran on, laughing, never thinking they might have seriously injured my sweet little boy. Left him for dead, thought no more of him than that. Was he still conscious? Was he lying in the dirt wiping his mouth or blacked out to the world? They did that, left him there, the last anyone saw of him that night, my Billy boy, or the years since.
~
How many nights have I walked out there to stand, smoking a cigarette, looking at the spot where he lay on his back, unattended how long? There was the empty house, the dark windows from which Jim Hager could have watched the moment when the white glove shot out from the black cape. Did he have a moment’s good intentions? Did he come out to see if my boy was all right and find him there unconscious, semi-conscious, wakeful but ashamed? How did he get Billy to come inside? Was it that Billy recognized him as the kindly old fellow? Had he been inside the house before? Or was it entirely different? Had Ralph Bunch and Kip Green done more than they said, done something worse and dragged him off into the trees? Or was it something else?
~
She would walk out back of the Hager house and stand where bones had been found by a neighborhood dog fond of digging, with a sense of smell that went back years. He had come home, this mangy black and white, one blue eye and one brown, with a rib bone in his mouth. What possessed Sarah Miller to take it from him, turn it over in her hands, and show it to her husband?
~
When she let him out again he ran back to the same spot, came up with another—a dog with a bone. Over here, here’s where I found that one. Come look, come and look now. Was her tail wagging high? Why now? Why this time? Had it simply been long enough in the ground?
~
Was there some key to everything in the length of time such things must go undiscovered. She walked around the Hager house, looking in the windows, sometimes found a way inside and gravitated to the basement, even though she found nothing to indicate anything that would make some awful sense to her. Sometimes going home she saw the faces at the windows, watching the mother in her bathrobe, smoking another cigarette, coming back from they knew where.
~
How long had it taken kids at school to get used to your empty desk? No one asked much more, except one teacher and a couple friends of mine, once in a while, but even they avoided me when you became a scary story: Billy Anderson, the boy who disappeared the year that Halloween fell on a Thursday.
~
It came as a shock when bones were found by Happy, Sarah Miller’s black and white dog, inside the woods behind the Hager house, less than a mile from where we live. No one wanted to remember you, but there you were, your little bones, as they had been when they were planted in the dirt.
~
Oh, I knew immediately. Police said they found a rotting wooden whistle nearby, the kind that sounded like a train. I kept covering my face with my hands, looking between my fingers, as if I couldn’t keep myself from seeing the last moments or hours of your precious life. Behind the Hager house—what did that mean? Hager had been dead for seven years, by his own hand, with a shotgun in it. But he had always said he hadn’t seen a thing, and who could doubt a poor old man, with all his liver spots and sagging skin, those enormous watery eyes swimming behind aquarium lenses?
~
Cleaning crews had spent a couple of weeks there but didn’t find a thing to make them suspicious he was anything more than a lonely old man. Now, I’m turning forty-three, and all the years you didn’t live have been collected with the bones in loose dirt behind the Hager house. Those who still remembered you had a little fear some retribution might be exacted from those who did nothing to save you. But the one that suffered, little man, besides you, was me, who ceased to think of anything except the fact that I insisted you go out that night.
~
The little cap, the rotted whistle on the table, she keeps hoping they tell her something more. All they can say is, I am dead, I died an ugly death, and it was your own fault. So when she sets the ember to her wrist, between the roses burned in there already, it doesn’t hurt. She keeps them fresh. She holds it there until she feels the spark of something left.
~
One rose for every year that he’s been gone.

About Me

My photo
I write short stories and essays. I have published over seventy stories and essays in magazines, as well as a novel, Jack's Universe, and a collection of stories, Private Acts. I grew up in a military family, so I'm not from anywhere in particular except probably Akron, where I've lived for forty years. Before I came here, I never lived anywhere longer than three years.