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By Robert R. McCammon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Robert R. McCammon
All rights reserved.
Struggling through his arithmetic homework in the warm glow of the hearth, the dark-haired ten-year-old boy suddenly looked up at the window. He was aware that the soft crooning of the wind had stopped and a deep silence had filled the woods. He could see bare branches waving against a gray slice of sky, and a quiver of excitement coursed through him. He put aside his pencil, pad, and book—gladly—and then rose from where he'd been lying on the floor. Something was different, he knew; something had changed. He reached the window and stretched upward to peer out.
At first nothing looked different, and he was mildly disappointed; all those numbers and additions and subtractions were rattling around in his head, clinking and clattering and making too much noise for him to think. But then his eyes widened, because he'd seen the first flurry of white flakes scatter down from the sky. His heart skipped a beat. "Daddy!" he said excitedly. "It's snowing!"
Reading his Bible in his chair before the fireplace, John Creekmore looked out the window and couldn't suppress a grin. "Well, it sure is!" He leaned forward, just as amazed as his son. "Glory be, weatherman was right for once." It rarely snowed this far south in Alabama; the last big snowfall he could recall was back in 1954, when Billy had been only three years old. That had been the winter they'd had to accept charity canned goods from the church, after the stone-scorching summer had burned the corn and bean crops to stunted cinders. Compared to that awful year, the last few crops had been real bounties, though John knew it was never a good thing to feel too blessed, because the Lord could easily take away what He had provided. At least they had enough to eat this year, and some money to see them through the rest of the winter. But now he was infected with Billy's giddy excitement, and he stepped to the window to watch the flurries beside his son. "Might fall all night long," he said. "Might be up to the roof by mornin'!"
"Gosh!" Billy said, his light hazel eyes—so striking against the darker coloring he'd inherited from his mother—widening with pleasure and a bit of fear too; he could imagine them all getting very cold and hibernating like bears, snowed in until April when the flowers came out. "It won't be that deep, will it?"
John laughed and ruffled the boy's curly, reddish brown hair. "Naw. Might not even stick. The way it's comin' down now, it's just bein' windblown."
Billy stood watching it fall for a moment more, then he shouted, "Momma!" and scuttled across the room, through a short hallway, and into the room where Ramona Creekmore sat propped up on pillows in bed, patiently mending a brown sweater she'd stitched for Billy as a Christmas present. It was less than a month since Christmas, and already Billy had worn the elbows out climbing trees and running wild in the woods. "Momma, it's snowing outside!" he told her, pointing out the small window near her bed.
"I told you those were snow clouds, didn't I?" she said, and smiled at him. There were deep wrinkles around her eyes, and strands of gray in her hair. Though she was only thirty-four, the years had been hard on her, she had almost died of pneumonia just after Billy was born, and she'd never fully recovered. She stayed in the house most of the time, doing her intricate needlepoint, and drank homemade herbal potions to fight off chills and fevers. Her body had garnered weight from lack of exercise, but her face was still fine-boned and lovely but for the faint dark circles under her eyes; her hair was still long and lustrous, her Indian complexion giving her a false appearance of perfect health. "Coldest weather of the year is still ahead, long as those blackbirds perch in the trees," she said, and returned to her work. It constantly amazed her how fast he was growing; clothes that fit him one month were the next ready to put back into the Hawthorne cycle of hand-me-downs.
"Don't you want to come see?"
"I know what it looks like. It's white."
It suddenly struck Billy that his mother didn't like the cold or the snow. She coughed a lot at night sometimes, and through the thin wall he could hear his father trying to soothe her. "You don't have to get up, then," he said quickly. "It's better if you stay right here."
John came up behind him and pressed a weathered hand against the boy's shoulder. "Why don't you bundle up and we'll take a walk."
"Yes sir!" Billy grinned widely and hurried to the closet for his battered green hooded parka.
John took his blue denim jacket with the sheepskin lining out of the closet; he slipped it on and then worked a black woolen cap onto his head. In the ten years that had passed, John Creekmore had grown lean and rugged, his wide shoulders stooped slightly from his seasonal labors in the field and the constant work of keeping the ramshackle cabin together through summer heat-wave and winter frost. He was thirty-seven, but the lines in his face—as rough and straight as any furrow he'd ever plowed for a crop of corn—made him out to be at least ten years older; his lips were thin and usually set in a grim line, but he was quick to smile when the boy was around. There were those in Hawthorne who said that John Creekmore was a preacher who'd missed his calling, settling for earth instead of reaching toward Heaven, and they said that when angered or antagonized his steely blue gaze could drill holes through barn planking; but his eyes were always soft when he looked at his son. "I guess I'm ready," he said. "Who wants to go walkin'?"
"Me!" Billy crowed.
"Time's wastin'," John said, and reached out to his son. They linked hands and John felt the immediate warm pleasure of contact with the boy. Billy was so alive, so alert and curious; some of his youth rubbed off on John when they could be together.
They pushed through the plain pine door and the screen door and out into the cold gray afternoon. As their boots crunched on the frozen dirt road that connected the Creekmore property, all two acres of it, with the main highway, Billy could hear the soft hiss of the tiny snowflakes falling through the dense evergreens. They passed a small round pond, now muddy brown and veined with ice. A white mailbox dotted with .22 holes leaned toward the paved highway, and bore the legend J. CREEKMORE. They walked along the roadside, toward the main part of Hawthorne less than a mile ahead, as the snow fluctuated between flakes and sleet; John made sure the boy's hood was up good and snug, and the cord tied securely beneath his chin.
It had already been a hard winter with January not even half over yet. There had been several freezing rains, and a fierce hailstorm that had shattered windows all across Fayette County. But as sure as day followed night, John thought, spring would follow winter and the real work of farming would start again; there would be corn and beans, tomatoes and turnips to plant. A new scarecrow would have to be put out in the field, but in these troubled times it seemed that even the crows were willful and refused to be bluffed. He had lost much of his seed to birds and bugs in the last several plantings, and his corn had grown weak and stunted. This was good land, he thought, blessed by God; but it seemed that finally the earth was beginning to give out. He knew about rotation planting and nitrites and all kinds of chemical soil foods the county agent tried to sell him, but all those additives—except for plain old fertilizer, which was as basic as you could get—were violations of God's plan. If your land was played out, so be it.
But times were troubled everywhere, John thought. That Catholic was president now, the Communists were on the march again, and people were talking about going up into outer space. Many autumn and winter afternoons John ambled down to Curtis Peel's barbershop, where the men played checkers in the warm wash of a potbellied stove and listened to the news from Fayette on the ancient Zenith radio. Most people, John was sure, would agree that these were the Final Days, and he could point to the Book of Revelations to show scoffers just exactly what evils would befall humanity in the next ten years or so—if the world lasted that long. Things were even troubled right here in the Hawthorne Baptist Church; Reverend Horton did his best, but there was no fire nor brimstone in his sermons, and worst of all he'd been seen over at the church in Dusktown helping the blacks with their potluck supper. Nobody liked to shake Horton's hand anymore after the services were over.
Billy's gloved hand was thrust out, trying to catch snowflakes. He snagged one on a fingertip and had a second to examine it—tiny and as lacy as his mother's Sunday tablecloth—before it vanished. She'd told him about the weather, and how it speaks in many voices when its moods change, but to hear it speak you have to be very quiet and listen. She had taught him to watch the beautiful pictures the clouds made, and to hear soft sounds in the forest that meant shy animals wandering near. His father had taught him how to gig for frogs and had bought him a slingshot to bring down squirrels, but he didn't like the way they squeaked when they were hit.
They were passing the small wood-frame houses outside Hawthorne's single main street. Billy's best friend, Will Booker, lived in a green house with white shutters just up the road; he had a little sister named Katy and a dog called Boo.
There was a light scattering of snow on the road. A black pickup truck came crawling along the highway toward them, and when it reached them the driver's window rolled down and Lee Sayre, who owned the hardware and feed store where John Creekmore worked on weekends, stuck his crewcut head out. "Hey there, John! Where you goin'?"
"Just takin' the boy for a walk. Say hello to Mr. Sayre, Billy."
"Hello, Mr. Sayre."
"Billy, you're growin' like a weed! Bet you'll top six-four before you quit. How'd you like to be a football player?"
"Yes sir, that'd be fine."
Sayre smiled. In his ruddy and slightly overfed face, Sayre's eyes were as pale green as a jungle cat's. "Got some news for you about Mr. Horton," he said in a quieter tone of voice. "Seems he's been doin' more than socializin' with his darky friends. We need to have a talk."
John grunted softly. Billy was entranced by the white puffs of exhaust that were billowing from the rear of Mr. Sayre's truck. The tires had made dark lines in the faint white spread of the snow, and Billy wondered where the air came from that filled tires up.
"Real soon," Sayre said. "You come down to Peel's tomorrow afternoon around four. And pass the word along." Sayre waved to the boy and said cheerfully, "You take good care of your daddy now, Billy! Make sure he don't get lost!"
"I will!" Billy called back, but Mr. Sayre had already rolled up his window and the truck moved away along the road. Mr. Sayre was a nice man, Billy thought, but his eyes were scary. Once Billy had stood in the middle of the Ernest K. Kyle Softball Field on an April afternoon and watched a storm coming over the forested hills; he'd seen the black clouds rolling like a stampede of wild horses, and bolts of lightning had jabbed from clouds to earth. Lightning had struck very near, and the boom of thunder had shaken Billy to the soles of his battered Keds. Then he'd started running for home, but the rain had caught him and his father had given him a good whipping.
The memory of that storm wheeled through Billy's head as he watched the pickup drive away. There was lightning behind Mr. Sayre's eyes, and it was looking for a place to strike.
The snow had almost stopped. Nothing was even white, Billy saw, but instead a wet gray that meant there would be school tomorrow, and he would have to finish that arithmetic homework for Mrs. Cullens.
"Snow's about quit, bubber," John said; his face had gone red with cold. "Gettin' a bit chillier, though. You about ready to turn back?"
"Guess so," he answered, though he really wasn't. That seemed to him to be a matter of great concern: no matter how far you walked the road still went on to somewhere, and there were all the dirt trails and forest paths that led off every whichaway too, and what lay at the far end of them? It seemed to Billy that no matter how far you walked, you never really got to the end of things.
They walked on a few minutes longer, to the single blinking amber traffic light at the center of Hawthorne. The intersection was bordered by the barbershop, Coy Granger's Quick-Pik grocery store, a rundown Texaco gas station, and the Hawthorne post office. The rest of the town—clapboard-and-brick structures that looked like blocks a baby's hand had strewn into disarray—sat on either side of the highway, which swept on across an old gray trestle bridge and up into the brown hills where an occasional chimney spouted smoke. The sharp white steeple of the Hawthorne First Baptist Church stuck up through the leafless trees like an admonishing finger. Just on the other side of the disused railroad tracks was the jumble of stores and shanties known as Dusktown; the tracks might have been an electrified fence separating the black and white sections of Hawthorne. It disturbed John that Reverend Horton was leaving his rightful duties to go into Dusktown; the man had no cause to go over to the other side of the tracks, and all he was doing was trying to stir up things that were best kept buried.
"Better head on home now," John said, and took his son's hand.
In another few moments they came up even with the small but neatly kept green house on their right. It was one of the newer houses built in Hawthorne; there was a white-painted front porch at the top of a few steps, and white smoke curled from the chimney. Billy looked at the house, looked again, and saw Mr. Booker sitting up there on the porch. The man was wearing his yellow John Deere cap and a short-sleeved blue shirt. He waved to his best friend's father, but Mr. Booker seemed to be looking right through him. He said uneasily, "Daddy? ..."
John said, "What, bubber?" Then he looked up and saw Dave Booker sitting there like a rock. He frowned and called out, "Afternoon, Dave! Pretty cold to be outside today, ain't it?"
Booker didn't move. John stopped walking, and realized that his old fishing partner was staring out at the hills with a blank, frozen expression, as if he were trying to see clear to Mississippi. John saw the summery short-sleeved shirt, and he said quietly, "Dave? Everything all right?" He and Billy came up the brown lawn slowly and stood at the foot of the steps. Booker was wearing fishing lures stock in his hat; his square, heavy-jowled face was white with the cold, but now the man blinked and at least John knew he wasn't frozen to death.
"Mind if we come up for a spell?" John asked.
"Come on up, then. Long as you're here." Booker's voice was empty, and the sound of it scared Billy.
"Thanks kindly." John and Billy climbed the steps to the porch. A window curtain moved and Julie Ann, Dave's wife, peered out at them for a few seconds before the curtain closed. "How about that snow? Came down for a few minutes, didn't it?"
"Snow?" Booker's thick black brows knitted together. The whites of his eyes were bloodshot, his lips liver-red and slack. "Yeah. Sure did." He nodded, making one of the chrome lures jingle.
"You okay, Dave?"
"Why shouldn't I be?" His gaze shifted away from John, and he was staring into Mississippi again.
"I don't know, I just ..." John let his voice trail off. On the floor beside Dave's chair was a scattering of hand-rolled Prince Albert cigarette butts and a baseball bat with what looked like dried blood on it. No, John thought, must be just mud. Sure, that's all it is. He gripped Billy's hand tightly.
"Man can sit on his own front porch, can't he?" Dave said quietly. "Last I heard he could. Last I heard it was a free country. Or has that changed?" His face turned, and now John could clearly see the terrible, cold rage in his eyes. John felt his spine crawl. He could see the wicked prongs of a hook protruding from the man's cap, and he recalled that they would've gone fishing last Saturday on Semmes Lake had it not been for one of Dave's frequent migraine headaches. "It's a fuckin' free country," Dave said, and suddenly grinned viciously.
John was jarred; it wasn't right that Dave should use such a word in front of the boy, but he decided to let it pass. Dave's gaze had clouded over.
The front door opened and Julie Ann peeked out. She was a tall, fragile-looking woman with curly brown hair and soft pale blue eyes. She smiled—grimaced, John thought—and said with tense good cheer, "John Creekmore! What brings you uptown? Billy, you takin' care of your daddy today? Step on in and let me offer you a cup of hot coffee, John."
"No, thank you. Billy and I've got to get on back...."
"Please," Julie Ann whispered. Her eyes were luminous with tears. She motioned with a quick tilt of her head. "Just one cup of coffee." She opened the door wider and raised her voice: "Will? Billy Creekmore's here!"
"KEEP YOUR DAMNED VOICE DOWN, WOMAN!" Dave thundered, twisting around in his chair; he plastered one hand against his forehead. "I'LL STROP YOU! I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL!"
John, Billy, and Julie Ann formed a frozen triangle around the man. From within the house Billy could hear little Katy sobbing in a back room, and tentatively Will called out, "Mom?" Julie Ann's grin hung by one lip, and she stood as if motion might cause Dave to explode. Dave abruptly looked away, dug into a back pocket, and brought out a bottle of Bayer aspirin; he unscrewed the cap and tilted the bottle to his lips, then crunched noisily.
"Strop you," he whispered, to no one in particular. His eyes bulged above dark blue circles. "Strop the livin' shit out of you...."
Excerpted from Mystery Walk by Robert R. McCammon. Copyright © 1983 Robert R. McCammon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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