David Greg Taylor
In the midst of a pine forest outside Biloxi, Mississippi, a black-haired boy of nigh on eleven years old was sitting by the bank of the creek that ran past his back yard. He was bare-chested, wearing only his pajama bottoms, sitting on the wet grass, gazing at an old toad. The frog was looking at him too.
It was a drizzly morning. A fine mist was falling on the child, sitting there since twilight began at six a.m. The rain didn’t bother the toad, and Slocum Healy didn’t mind it either. He spent that time looking at the water flowing and the droplets that produced minute, intersecting waves on the rippling surface. Why he was fascinated by this small spectacle, he couldn’t say. The frog happened by, interrupting his reverie, shifting it onto something else.
“Hello, Brother,” the amphibian said to Slocum. The boy saw the waves reflected in the creature’s eyes, like a spider’s web of sorts. He was about to respond to the frog without expressing awe at a talking toad, when his big brother came up behind him.
“Hey, stupid!” Arnold Healy turned his soaked sibling around by grabbing his right arm and twisting it. He jumped on top of him and held him by the neck.
“How many times do I have to find you out here before Pa kicks your bony butt?” Arnold was a head taller and weighed sixty pounds more than his brother, and all of that weight was now positioned on his chest, while his hands were doing a number on his windpipe. Slocum did not resist.
It was a good day to die.
The small boy was starting to turn blue when his brother came to his senses and let him go. He rolled off and gave him a kick in the side.
“Get inside before everyone wakes up,” he said, then got up and ran to the back door. He looked over his shoulder as he was entering, and saw the goober he called brother stooping over a frog, checking it for what he couldn’t tell.
“I’ll never let him ride in my Corvette,” Arnold thought and slammed the door after him.
Slocum got up and shook the water off of him. “Thank you,” he said, and then walked up to and entered the house. His father was making coffee. He had his back to Slocum, filling the percolator with water. Arnold was in the hallway entrance to the kitchen, giving his brother a mad look, barely containing his fury.
“You gonna make some blueberry pancakes, Pa?” Arnold asked through gritted teeth. Slocum walked into the living room and then into the hall and stood next to his brother.
“Yes, Arnold. I’m giving your mother the morning off,” he said, and then turned to his sons. “Go get Lillian out of bed, and dry yourself off while you’re at it. Both of you.”
Arnold followed his brother.
“You’re gonna get a lickin’ if you don’t get your head on straight,” he whispered.
“I didn’t do anything wrong, did I?” he replied. He walked into his sister’s room and turned on the light. She was still asleep, and he nudged her a few times to get her to wake up.
“Oh no,” she said, turning over and sitting up. “Is it morning already?” She flopped down and put the pillow over her head.
“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” Arnold said. “You’ll live.”
The two walked out into the hall, where Slocum rushed by the mirror hanging there. He turned his face away from the reflection as he passed, tired of seeing that near bald-headed kid with the hawk feather. He saw him when he brushed his teeth. The other one brushed his too, matching every stroke. When he passed by a window, he saw that faint image of the other boy. Riding to school in the morning, he looked at the rearview mirror up front and this head with the elephant ears and the silly smile pasted on it looked back at him. It might’ve been better if he’d said something, but every time Slocum said “What you lookin’ at?” he got no answer.
Not until this morning. That frog outside gave him some advice and he was of a mind it was good advice. He was stewing on it, as he didn’t fully understand what he said, but it was serious stuff.
“At least we’re having blueberry pancakes,” he muttered as he entered the kitchen.
“I thought I told you to get dried off, Slocum,” his father said.
“Sorry, Pa. Slipped my mind,” Slocum said and then ran back to the bathroom to towel down. He messed up and looked in the mirror above the lavatory. Slocum Junior was pulling his lower lip over his chin like a chimp at the zoo.
As he walked out into the hallway, a sound was coming from his parent’s bedroom; one he had heard before. He could just make out a moan, long, slow and accented at the end with a drawing in of the breath. He tiptoed over to the door and opened it gently.
The room was unlit, with the only illumination coming from a parted curtain. Slocum couldn’t see much other than the slight silhouette of Violet Healy turned to the wall. Her shape was heaving up, heaving down, silently now. He made his way over to her side of the bed, hoping to see her face.
“Ma, you alright?” he whispered. She turned toward him; he could swear her eyes were full of tears.
“I’ll be fine, son,” she said. “You get to school and have a good day, you hear?”
“Of course I am. You go make some good grades and do me proud.”
“Yes’m,” he said, and moved forward and kissed her on the cheek.
“I love you, Ma.”
“I love you, too, Slocum.”
He stood there a second, looking for something he couldn’t put his finger on. His mother had been getting sicker and sicker since the car wreck last spring. It started out with whiplash and migraines, but she’d been seeing a chiropractic witch-doctor who ran an electromagnetic gadget over her spine to gauge the energy flowing through her vertebra and outwards, and she barely got around with a cane anymore. She spent more and more of her time in bed, barely able to move.
He went to his room and got dressed in dry clothes for school. By the time he returned to the kitchen, breakfast was in full swing. His father had both pancakes and scrambled eggs and bacon on the stove, juggling each of them onto the plates on the counter like he was short order cook. Lillian was standing next to him, watching the acrobatic actions of her father, and funneling food to Arnold as it got ready.
“Did you flip a lot of flapjacks when you were a soldier, Pa?” she asked him.
“I mostly peeled potatoes, Sweetie,” he said. “Your mother taught me how to cook.”
Slocum sat down at the table and sipped on a glass of grape juice. Arnold was on the other side, wolfing down his serving as soon as it was supplied. Eating usually soothed his nerves and cleared the idea of throttling his little brother from his mind. That notion was especially present recently, with Slocum’s behavior taking a turn inward. He hardly spoke a peep anymore, and it got on the big brother’s bad side.
Lillian put a plate in front of Slocum. He put butter and maple syrup in between each pancake and coated the top one too. Then he picked at it for a few minutes before his sister and father sat down.
“Is Ma gonna eat?” he asked.
“I thought I’d let her sleep awhile and then fix her something after I take you all to school,” Parker answered. “Eat what’s on your plate, Slocum.” His pa was real clear about eating what was put before them, so he picked up the pace and finished off the fixings.
“We got a three-day week next week, Pa,” Arnold said between mouthfuls. “Can we go look at cars after Thanksgiving Day, like Friday maybe?”
“I think we can fit something like that in,” his pa said. “You have several years to go before you can think about getting anything to drive, or getting a job to pay for it.”
That wiped the smile off of Arnold’s face. He was for sure his sixteenth-birthday present would be a new car, right off the Chevy dealership lot. The idea he might have to buy it himself took the sheen off his dreams. He stuffed his mouth with bacon and looked across the table at Slocum.
“What’re you all watery-eyed about?” Arnold asked him. Everyone turned to hear the answer to the question.
“I dunno. Maybe I’m coming down with a cold,” he fibbed. He wiped his eyes with his shirtsleeve and returned Arnold’s gaze. His pa broke it up with orders to get set for the ride to school.
“I’ll wash the dishes when I get back, but you three haul yourselves out to the car while I get my keys,” he said.
Slocum was ready to go before the other two, so he went outside to see about King. The dog was curled up on the front porch, and rolled over on his back and raised his paws in the air when he came out the door. He bent down and rubbed his belly and chest. King swayed side to side in ecstasy. Slocum peered at him close to see if his beagle had been talking to the frog any.
Didn’t look like it.
Lillian came out then and they got in the back seat of the Pontiac. Arnold rode shotgun whenever there was just one adult in the car, on pain of pain, as he liked to say. Might makes right was his philosophy, but since he kept Slocum from getting his clock cleaned by bullies on numerous occasions, he felt he’d earned his special place, despite the choking he received this morning. Slocum didn’t envy him none.
The drive to school was uneventful. Slocum turned the frog’s words over in his mind, and made a pact to give weight to the toad’s counsel, since it was the first time he’d ever talked to an animal and it talked back.
The morning session was full of activity, as the teacher wanted to cover a lot of ground before next week’s four-day break. They were doing square roots in math. Perfect squares like 81, 121,169, and 289. It was just memorization. He finished it real quick and read from the class library a book about Thomas Edison, and how he was mostly deaf and that it might’ve helped him concentrate. He thought it was a poor way to set your sights on a subject.
First recess was reserved for playing marbles with the three Billy Coopers. The Coops weren’t greedy when playing, since they had thousands of shooters and cat-eyes, and Slocum only had a few hundred. If they took them all he wouldn’t play with them any more. They were good boys anyhow. They made up for all the jerks in the city school. They drew a circle in the dirt and put their marbles in, trying to pop someone else’s out of the ring with their big, cat-eyed orbs anyone would drool to get their mitts on, and claim the other’s like chess pieces, except this was for keeps. You had to have thumbs like Hercules to win.
Slocum was just finishing up a game when he looked up to see if the teacher was at the door to ring the bell. That’s when he saw a glimpse of none other than his big-eared friend, freed from the mirror, peering around the corner of the fourth-grade classroom. That big bird feather stuck in his hair, and his red-painted face gave him away. It was a shock for sure, but the words from this morning were with him, and he didn’t let on. When the bell rang, he went back to the sixth-grade class like nothing was the matter, and got ready for civics.
The teacher this year was Mrs. Horseman, a thirty-year-old who graduated from the University of Mississippi just two years before. She was everything old lady Mackleroy was not, which is to say she liked Slocum. She reminded him of Miss Helen Martin, his first-grade teacher in Eugene, Missouri. They only lived in that town for five months before they packed off to Conway, Arkansas, where his pa was promised a good job that didn’t pan out. What he recalled was the way she taught him to speak clearly, and how pleased she was that he could spell when he reached her class, even though he didn’t go to kindergarten. He thought she was some young movie star, but she was forty-two, and taught school in Asia and Europe and pretty much all over the world before settling down outside Jefferson City, Missouri. She was a master teacher and recognized Slocum for a gifted child, and he responded in kind, soaking up everything he could from her before fate dragged him away from her care.
Mrs. Horseman was like that, except she wasn’t pretty and didn’t make Slocum’s feet curl up and his head spin with love like the other schoolmarm, but she was a good woman, and he appreciated her. She got into the day’s lesson about the government, how it was by the people and for the people, but seeing his reflection in the flesh had unnerved him some, and he didn’t catch much of it. He kept spying at the windows and the door to see if he could catch sight of that runt, but he didn’t show up.
At lunchtime, Slocum sat between Billy Dan Cooper and Billy John Cooper, but he didn’t talk, other than to ask for the ketchup from Billy Kyle Cooper across the table. They finished up and went outside to play catch. Slocum got out his glove and the four of them loped baseballs one to the other, until Billy Kyle threw a high one up at Slocum whose arch coincided with the top of an old oak tree, and isn’t it fitting that the floppy-eared boy, decked out in war paint and buckskin, was standing on the top limb, waving at him?
The ball smacked Slocum in the head and made him stagger a bit, but the angle wasn’t very acute and it bounced off his ball cap and into Billy Dan’s glove. They all laughed at it, since Slocum never missed. He took the cap off and looked up to check if he’d been seeing things, but the scamp had vamoosed. Disappeared.
“Maybe I’m nuts,” he said to himself.
He sat down on the second step of the bleachers behind the baseball diamond and rubbed the spot where the ball beaned him. He looked up at the oak again, and wondered if he was doing things right. The bell rang and he got up to go back in.
His mind wasn’t fixed on science that day. Mrs. Horseman was talking about the capillaries within leaves and carbon dioxide turning into oxygen. He knew that already, and was doodling in the margins of his three-ring binder, when he heard a wail from outside. It snapped him out of his doldrums. The teacher from across the hall, Mrs. Daley, opened the door, breathless and heaving sobs, and behind her came his constant companion, caterwauling, almost mimicking the teacher, but set to a singsong that was different than hers.
The teacher told Mrs. Horseman to turn on the television, but Slocum was fixed on the chant he heard coming from the boy. He looked around real quick and no one noticed him. He didn’t think anything of that. No one ever did. The boy was yowling in some foreign tongue. It went up high and then went low, high then low, high and low. He danced up to Slocum in his seat in the middle of the third row, and got right up in his face, his eyes wide and wild. He jumped clean over his desk to the other side and repeated the routine. He did this three more times in the space of a minute.
Slocum watched him, making sure not to react to what he was seeing. He didn’t want to stand out in this school for anything but grades and baseball, being his marble collection was no big deal. His tormentor stopped and sat down cross-legged on top of the desk facing Slocum Healy.
“Do you not recognize this song?” the flop-eared boy said. Slocum didn’t say anything, but looked him straight in one crooked eye.
“You said this is a good day to die,” he said. “You remember that, do you not?” He let out the same whoop, lifting his head and swinging it slowly, to and fro.
Slocum responded by returning to his doodling. The boy stopped the singing and jumped down from the school desk. He squatted next to it, face-level with Slocum.
“You will never see your mother again. This is her day.”
Slocum snapped his eyes up and met his. He stared into them, trying to bring the words into his mind. Around him was the sound of the two teachers talking, watching the television they turned on to a news flash. For everything else but the thing crouching by his side, he had milk in his ears. He could see nothing but this creature that was threatening his mother.
“You leave my ma alone,” he said in a low voice.
The other boy squinted his eyes. “I am honoring her by singing her death song. I do not sing it for sport.”
Slocum tried to clear his thoughts, to get a hold of what was happening. His vision was clouding with tears, like he was watching the world from underwater, his throat shut tight, seeking the surface for air to fill his lungs.
With all the commotion around the television at the front of the room, his reaction went unnoticed. He was the only child that remained in his seat. He didn’t hear the breaking report or Walter Cronkite telling the country the news from Dallas.
Slocum was on the border of another world, sitting in the third row, fourth seat of a sixth-grade classroom at Woolmarket Elementary School outside Biloxi, Mississippi.
The two sat there for what seemed to Slocum an eternity, until he noticed the waves from water drops, intersecting and canceling each other, in the eyes of this imp.
“Take me instead.”
The spirit inched closer to the boy. “What are you saying, Slocum Healy?”
“I’ll do anything to save my ma.”
“Anything, young one?”
He whispered, “Yes.”
“Would you give-away your life for hers?”
“Would you leave everything and everyone you know, and go with me?”
“Are you sure?”
The bugbear lifted his hand and touched Slocum’s forehead. He felt a chasm opening before him. Within it was a dark hollow, and he seemed to descend into it, where he saw innumerable people, young and old, male and female, bound and blindfolded, as if waiting for wild beasts to tear them apart. He could hear screams and the roar of animals and gunfire nearby.
“Would you willingly journey here?” he heard in his ear.
Slocum swallowed hard, and whispered, “Yes.”
He landed on the ground before a young woman holding a child in her arms, just before it was snatched from her and impaled on a sword. The infant’s blood splattered on Slocum’s face.
He turned to face the killer.
“The flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at one p.m., two o’clock Standard Time, some thirty-eight minutes ago.” Walter Cronkite took off his glasses and wiped his eyes, looking up at the clock on the wall. Slocum directed his attention to the sound of the news bulletin on the television. Mrs. Horseman came up to him and put a handerkerchief over his face.
“Please go take care of that nosebleed, Slocum,” she said, and returned to the front of the room. He could taste the blood on his lips and feel it on his chin. There was a stain on his shirt. It was semi-circular and splayed out like a boot had splashed water from a mud puddle onto his clothes.
He went outside to the restroom. He washed his face and tried to get his shirt clean, but all he could do was make it pink against the blue plaid. He looked at his image in the mirror, but he was alone.
The teacher called for recess. Slocum begged off on account of his nose and went to the woods where the children played tag amongst the trees. There was a clearing with a canopy of shade, and almost knee-deep orange and brown leaves. He sat in the cushion of debris and tried to think. He thought of the frog’s instructions.
“Make no bargains today with the boy who is following you,” it had said. He put his head in his hands and pondered how he might have done it different, but he could see no other path than the one he chose. The only thing that dismayed him was all this blood.
He’d never had a nosebleed his entire life.
He sat there until the bell rang to come back. School was kind of ruined for that particular Friday. Mrs. Horseman regained her composure during the break, and decided the news reports were too graphic and disturbing for her charges, so they practiced writing and penmanship for the remainder of the time left to them. Everyone was well behaved, making sure to create cursive letters in the way they’d been instructed.
The end of the day came and Slocum went to the front of the school. Lillian was already there, waiting for their father to pick them up. He sat down on the bench next to his sister.
“Did you hear what happened?” Lillian asked him.
“Yeah. It was awful,” he said. “I wonder what’s gonna happen now.”
They fell silent and waited for their ride. It was a good twenty minutes before the Pontiac pulled up beside them. Everyone else was on the way home on the bus, or their parents picked them up already.
“Mama!” Lillian exclaimed, and jumped up to open the door on the passenger’s side.
“Hey, Sweetie. Get inside, you two,” she said. “Arnold gets out in a few minutes. We have to hurry.” Big brother was in middle school a few miles away. He didn’t like to wait for anything.
The two children piled into the back seat. Lillian wanted to talk about the news and what it meant. Slocum spoke over her.
“How you feeling, Ma?” he asked. He poked his head over the front seat next to the driver. “I was worried about you this morning.”
“Oh darling, don’t fret about me. I got up this afternoon when your father left for his appointment, and I swear I haven’t felt this good in years,” she said. “I cleaned up the house and baked a chocolate cake.”
“You sure you’re okay?” he said.
Violet brought the car to a halt at a stop sign and turned around to face her son.
“I told you. I feel like a new woman.“ She looked at the stain on his clothing. ”What happened to your shirt?”
Slocum didn’t answer. He didn’t see his ma’s cane in the front seat. He sat back and let Lillian talk.
“Is the President really dead, Ma?” she asked.
“Of course not. How could that be?” Violet said.
“Somebody shot President Kennedy, Ma,” Lillian said, and then began to cry.
“That can’t be true,” she said. “Who told you such a story?”
“It’s all over the news,” Lillian answered. “It’s on television, but they shut it off and wouldn’t let us watch it.”
Mrs. Healy turned on the radio, and heard about the assassination for the first time.
“Lord have mercy on his soul and his poor family,” she said. They came up to Arnold’s school. He was just getting out and ran to the car and got in the front seat.
“Didja hear what happened?” he said, between breaths.
“Yes, just now, son,” his mother said. “It’s horrible. What’s this world coming to?”
“They blew his brains out!” Arnold was nearly yelling.
“You stop that!” Violet grabbed hold of Arnold’s arm and swung him around to her. “I don’t want you talking about this dreadful thing that way. You have some respect, or you’ll be hearing from your pa.”
Arnold drew back and rubbed his arm where his ma had nearly wrung it in two. He turned to look out the window and stayed still the rest of the ride.
When they arrived home, they turned on the TV. It was on all three channels. The cartoons and The Little Rascals were pre-empted by the ongoing bulletins, which announced that the assassin murdered a police officer before he was caught in a movie theater a few miles away from Dealey Plaza. The family was glued to the reports, and would be the rest of the weekend.
Toward sundown, Slocum went out to the back yard to spend some time with the dog. He fed him and brushed his coat and checked him for ticks. He picked a few, told them he was sorry and squished them between his fingernails. He then retired to the creek, where he found the frog.
He waited for quite a time for it to speak, but was disappointed. The toad sat and looked at him like he did that very morning, but said nothing. Eventually, it hopped into the stream and swam away.
“Be like that,” Slocum said, and threw a pebble into the water after him. A commotion was coming from the house. His father was home, but he stayed put. After a bit, Parker Bull Healy came out the back door with a bundle under his arm.
He came to where Slocum was sitting and gathered up some dry twigs and leaves into a pile. He unwrapped his package and took out a length of wood and a rod made of what looked like the same material.
He set the long piece on the ground, and in a burnt-looking hole on one end put the stick into the notch, and positioning his hands at the top of it, twirled it between them as they traveled down its shaft. Applying a lot of force, he did it very quickly several times. Before Slocum could figure what was happening, a small ember appeared at the base, which his pa picked up and placed on the tiny mound of leaves and twigs. He bent over and blew on it until it burst into flame.
When it got going good, he tossed more stems on the fire and then larger pieces until he had a compact blaze. He picked up a handful of the grass and laid it in the midst of it. A trail of smoke began to rise into the windless air, and Parker began to chant a singsong and sway his head from side to side, with his eyes closed. It went up high and then went low, high then low, high and low.
It continued on like this until the grass was spent and the fire died some. Parker then went over to the stream and picked up handfuls of water to douse the fire, and stirred the ashes until he was sure the fire was all finished. He took his fire bundle and wrapped it up securely, and placed it under his arm. Then he got up and went to the back porch, where he bent down to pet King. He looked back into the pitch black night as he went in, to make sure he’d put out the fire completely.
When he entered the kitchen, supper was on the table, and Violet and Parker and their children sat down to eat Friday night cheeseburgers, a treat the whole family looked forward to. The four of them sat and ate quietly, the events of the day weighing heavy on them all.
THE END OF BOOK ONE
to be continued in
Driving Down Pass Road
©2011 David Greg Taylor