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Six-year-old Alex Payton had never laughed out loud, and he wasn't about to start now. His mother pulled up in front of tiny Pendleton Elementary, where a circle of Kentucky bluegrass gave way to a border of marigolds dyed blue and gold, the school colors. A group of brightly clothed boys kicked a soccer ball around the small courtyard and high-fived each other when they scored goals through the door of Mr. Hiawatha's sixth-grade classroom.
"It's Mrs. Hazelton's first year," Jane said. "She's really enthusiastic. I spoke to her about everything. I just know you'll love it here."
Alex stared at her. His mother was beautiful--black hair, eyes bluer than the bluest sky--but she was a bad liar. She looked everywhere but at him and clenched her hands so tightly he was sure she could bend steel. Last week, when she'd been packing up the last of their things for the move to his grandmother's house in Pendleton, he'd actually seen her break a broomstick in half with her bare hands.
Since they'd moved back to her hometown three days ago, her lying had only gotten worse. She'd told him she was happy to be back, that this was a new start for him, but she had permanent half-moon indentations on her palms. The truth was, she was getting nervous. He could feel it, even taste it in the air around her. When wind bounced off her, it reeked of mint and perspiration.
Alex opened the door and got out. Before he was halfway to the wrought-iron gate, his mother had leaned over to the passenger side and stuck her head out the window.
"Alex," she said, and Alex turned around. She hesitated, and in that hesitation he knew she waited for him to ask her what, to say something.He looked at a fat caterpillar crawling toward his shoe. He already knew the color of disappointment; it turned his mother's blue eyes black.
"It's only a semester," Jane went on when he said nothing. "Think of this as a fresh start, a chance to make new friends."
Alex nodded. What else could he do? He was six years old and had no choice in anything. His mother picked out his sheets--Batman and Robin, even though he wanted race cars--and made the final decision between Nikes and Reeboks. He didn't even get to part his own hair; if he combed it to the right, his mother licked her fingers and halved it down the middle. Whenever she piled peas on his plate without asking, he glared at her; he didn't care how old he was, he ought to get a vote on something.
It was worse when someone died. In fact, it had screwed up his entire life. He'd lived his whole life in Middlebury in his great-grandmother's house, and if he wasn't exactly happy there, at least he'd known what kind of misery to expect. Then last month his grandmother, Salvation, had not only died, but left her house to his mother.
"I'm just going to sell it," Jane had said to Alex's great-grandmother, Esther, after they'd read the one-page will.
"You won't be able to get a dime for the place the way it is," Esther had said. "You know how your mother lived. All those animals. It'll need a good six months' airing just to get out the smell of urine."
Then Esther had turned that steady gaze of hers on him, and he'd known he was done for. "They practically ran you out of kindergarten," she'd said. "Don't tell meyou don't want to move. I wouldn't believe it for a minute."
Alex had looked at his mother, but Jane just shook her head. "Alex and I need a pool."
"If you'd stepped foot in Pendleton in all these years, Janie," Esther said, "you'd have known the high school put one in three years ago."
"But Pendleton . . ."
"It's just a town," Esther told her. "It can't haunt you."
Alex's great-grandmother had been wrong. His mother did look haunted. Ever since they'd moved into his grandmother's house, Jane had woken with dark circles beneath her eyes. He had hardly known his grandmother, Salvation. They had never gone to her house and she had visited them only on holidays, and then always with two or three of her dogs, usually the ones in diapers. She had looked like the kind of woman who could haunt a town. Tall, with wild black hair streaked with gray, and a voice hoarse from too many cigarettes.
With a vote, Alex could have saved his mother from a haunting. In fact, he would have swooped her out of Vermont entirely. Right now, they'd be on a cruise ship to an island no one had ever heard of, they'd be conjuring up new lives. They'd be where the air was so sweet and wet, it slid down the back of the throat like ice.
Instead, he was walking across the bright green grass of a school so clean he didn't want to breathe on it. He put his hand on the arm his mother rested on the car window. The crows flying overhead suddenly stopped their screeching and Jane looked up. She frowned, but when she turned back to him she'd replaced it with a smile.
"Have a good day," she said.
Alex nodded, though he thought it was highly unlikely.
As soon as his mother turned the corner, Alex squared his shoulders. He walked fast and straight, causing girls in his path to leap out of his way. He was tall for his age, which had always been a help; the boys boasting that they'd never gotten up before eleven all summer long took one look at him and did not even risk a hello.
He reached the first-grade classroom, decorated with the alphabet and glossy posters of the planets, and looked over the students. He picked out two boys who might be trouble; they were already flinging sharpened pencils at the back of some girl's head. He took a seat in the rear and flung his legs out in front of him, so the other kids would have to take a wide path to get around him.
He tensed when the bell rang, and one of the boys he'd been watching took the seat beside him. The boy was a redhead, with more freckles than skin. He picked up the lid of the desk, then slammed it shut and smiled. Alex smiled back at him, because sometimes he could fake it. Sometimes he could go for hours before they realized there was something wrong with him.
Mrs. Hazelton raced through the door. She was his mother's age, he figured, but she dressed older, in a blue polyester dress with a bow at the collar. She was so plump and pudding-like, the thin silver band of her watch disappeared in the folds of her wrist. She wrote her name on the board in perfect block letters, then underlined it three times. Within fifteen minutes, there were two dark stains on the blouse beneath her fleshy arms.
The boy beside him nudged Alex with his elbow. "You could swim in those armpits," he said, smiling.
Alex nodded, but he curled his legs up beneath him.
The boy jabbed him again. "You new here? You move into one of those new houses out past Hagerman's Woods?"
Alex pressed his hands flat on his desk. He pressed until his fingers got white and tingly, while Mrs. Hazelton went on about reading groups and the physical fitness tests they'd have to take, though she couldn't see how any girl could be expected to do a chin-up.
"Hey," the boy said, louder this time, so that the two girls sitting in front of them turned their heads and told them to shush. "Hey, you hear me? You deaf?"
Alex stared straight ahead. Mrs. Hazelton was looking their way now, so the boy had stopped jabbing him. He had even, Alex thought, leaned slightly away. That's always what happened. Alex's silence leeched through his skin and fouled the air around him, and nobody with any brains wanted to get too close.