One Clear Day
One more damnably interminable semester. Cal put the laptop pc on to the library kiosk desk and lowered long bluejeaned legs from their propped position. He was seeing stars from screen strain and still, the context of the thesis stretched on and on. The research, while interesting, had ceased to motivate him. He wanted out. Or in. Whichever term was more appropriate. By merit of his newest--- patented--- offering in the computer technology field garnering some lukewarm interest, entrepreneurial enterprise was much the preferred subject these days.
Having learned a hard lesson about beggars and choosers long before, the multiple-venue trial balloon method certainly had instilled more respect in smaller dot com start-ups striving to corral that one mercurial breakthrough. Even feedback from megalodons in the computer industry had upgraded under pressure by modern competition. Cal knew there were eyes on him, now, at the least. In spite of it, or maybe resultant to it, necessity for a completed MBA both hung over his head and dangled from around his neck. With any luck, the next two or three months would see to its culmination. Cal couldn’t wait.
Scratching his head and rearranging balls, he gazed distractedly around the fourth floor of Ransom Center. Archives section. The bustling place wouldn’t close for another two hours, yet he was ready to clear out now. B-O-R…. I-N-G played in his subconscious to the cadence of Aretha’s ‘Respect’ while he tapped pencil eraser on desk.
Snippets of low conversations drifted around him as he tried deciding whether to continue or pack up. From a near corner, a conversation arose as a male and female voice combo closed in on his cubicle, “Jake, you need to get out more. All you ever do is study or sneak away to that dumpy old theatre on the Drag. It’s right next to that looney Scientology church and one of these days, those crazy people are going to kidnap you… I’ll wake up one day and you’ll be gone. Boy, think about it. School and that place shouldn’t be your whole life.” Although faint, the trill of her voice cut through to him. He wondered why people didn’t whisper in libraries anymore.
“Well, Abby, it’s top of my list to get through med school and I don’t like missing classes--- it wastes money. Maybe if you were paying your own way, you’d be better about showing up, girl… besides I don’t have a photographic memory like some people.” The mellifluous male voice sounded like a Pachelbel melody. So musical… Cal honed in on it. “And, I don’t get what you have against the Bijou. It plays all the old classics and hardly anyone goes there. For a measly buck I feel like I’m in my own little world.” The flow drew Cal’s notice for some reason.
“Boy, now pay attention to me. Someday soon I am going to drag your ass out to experience some of the world. Pledge week is coming up and Delta Gamma puts on good parties. They network with the Greek men, too. There is a real world, you know, and Jack Nicholson said that ‘all work and no play, makes you a dull boy’…or something…” the girly giggle faded as the two walked on. The couple had turned away from him, voices diminishing as they continued on between stacks of bookshelves.
Suddenly hitting on the words, and the actor’s name, Cal jumped to his feet, peering down one aisle then the next, seeking them. As he came on a distant row, he barely glimpsed a boy and girl turning again at the far end, a hundred feet away. A ski parka topped a set of muscular legs sprouting downward from a delectable little round ass, washed-out blue jeans form-fitting the sexy curves. A headband of some sort tamed a riot of dark golden curls… almost. Above and below the knotted wrap, those ringlets poked and spiraled every direction, splaying around it, long enough to bounce off the parka collar. The Raphael boy, Cal established. It was him!
For close to two years now, Cal had felt sure he would run across the mysterious boy someplace around campus, certain he was a student. He just had to be. But in all that time, never once had similar curls proven quite so untamed, quite so dark golden, or… well… Him. As Cal grabbed his stuff and packed it all inside the canvas shoulder bag, he mentally reprised words just overheard. Paying his own way…Med School… Bijou…old classics… And that voice. Cal’s junk jumped again as he replayed the clip of a chance conversation, absolutely convinced it was the same boy. He dashed down the aisle after them, determined not to let another chance pass by. There was something about him. He just felt it.
Sliding on the polished floor, he barreled past the corner at the far end of the aisle they had passed through. A cursory 360 around the open area of fourth floor found no evidence of the couple’s presence. Where had they gone, he hollered in his head? They must still be here! Flying to plate glass windows overlooking the piazza outside, lamp lit darkness shadowed numerous people walking--- together and separate--- on their ways to somewhere. None were the two he sought.
He raced to the adjoining wall of windows, searching harder, heart sinking with his hope. Then--- there, just disappearing into a glass foyer of the Union Building across the mall--- he caught sight of the shining halo of curls. He recognized them from just the two sightings and appearances in recurring dreams. The Raphael Boy. There he went. Disappearing, in obliviousness to Cal, inside.
Tearing to the stairway, he clambered down four flights, taking three and four steps at a gallop. Bursting into the crisp night, Cal realized he had left his hoodie up at the kiosk and cussed himself. But didn’t stop. Reaching the Union, he yanked open the doors and blasted inside. People scattered out of the tall ebony man’s path as he helter-skeltered every different direction through the building. From cozy fireplace rooms with big easy chairs, to cathedral-ceilinged commons, through food court and adjoining bookstore, back to the lobby and around the whole big place. Up and down three of five levels and the underground parking garage. Twice. Nothing. People were staring. Wondering out loud what the crazy black guy was up to. Cal could not care less. He had to find him…
...But no amount of searching turned up the mystery youth. After thirty minutes of hunting he finally sat down to catch stymied breath. Damn and double damn. Not again.
Arriving at the little efficiency behind Whole Foods grocery after eleven, Cal tossed his pack and the day’s mail on the threadbare couch, flopping down next to it. Deflated. Well, he conjectured, at least this time he came away with more knowledge than the last. He was now aware the boy’s name was Jake--- Jacob, maybe? What a sexy name. And Jake went to the Bijou sometimes, where Cal had seen him that one time. He’d go back, now, even though that tactic hadn’t reaped benefits before. Cal now knew he was a Medical School student. Had he been accepted at the age of twelve, Cal speculated? He couldn’t be more than sixteen, by his looks. So. Sexy as hell and intelligent. Cal’s mind bounced from one place to the next in formulating a plan, probing for additional details, racking his brain through another hour.
At midnight-thirty, Cal noticed the stack of mail strewn over pack and sofa. Absentmindedly gathering and sorting it, still obsessing with newly identified Jake, he suddenly focused on an envelope addressed to his ‘Full Name, Esquire’. Not common. The return address denoted ‘Intel, Incorporated’. The rejection notices all had been addressed to ‘Cal Broadhearst’. Period. His heart leaped.
Ripping open the vellum quality packet--- another anomaly--- he quickly scanned the cover page. A yelp of flabbergasted delight erupted from his lungs, deep-chested whoop sure to waken neighbors. His latest patented invention had been picked up by the computer giant.
He had come up with a method for coordinating home media centers with a regulated concept ratifying manufacturer standards. It would streamline media pc connectivity. The details provided here informed him the technology would more than likely be named ViiV Tech. The company was welcoming him into the corporate world. Cal was ecstatic. This could mean multiple lucrative future contracts. And, millions of dollars.
Calumet Alfrederic Broadhearst II was on his way.
With renewed vigor, Cal set to finishing the thesis for his MBA. Having researched and posed the central question to be addressed, set primary sources, shaped the outline and contextualized a great portion of the work, Cal tweaked the whole project by narrowly focusing on newly marketed technology now contracted to Intel. It eased his struggles by fine-tuning the research to a newly valuable modality. The conclusion and defense became moot points by the success he had achieved, verifying the thesis by real time means.
By March, Cal had polished up supplemental info, verified UT requirements and proofed all. The final version was impressive. At submission, committee members sitting in review were duly swayed and charmed. Positivity for opening future spin-off science in the field added a major boon. Cal felt validated. Graduation at May Commencement was virtually assured. On schedule.
Pressure now lifted and Cal was fortified by a new sense of being. The contracted inventor began feeling out old friendships. Revisiting old haunts and even reinitiating ties with UT Sig Ep House. Confidence soared and he lightened up. BMOC returned as a term used in conjunction with his name; he was close to fulfillment. With one exception.
John Gilbert, Sig Ep brother and current president, a past close confidant, emerged once again. After the ballyhooed ‘harem’ deserted a few years before, Cal had retreated into isolation. Now, the UT Greek world was again including Cal Broadhearst back in the social circuit. His charisma, always infectious, lured pledges by underclassmen in droves. Everyone was taken by the tall, ripped Don Juan; they wanted a piece of him. Cal was responsive. But only on certain levels.
“Cal, the mixer next Wednesday is going to be killer. I’m pretty sure we have everything covered.” John and Cal shared a beer while summarizing the itinerary. “Thirty-three pledges are invited, dude, and that is our biggest group in three years. Whoa. We gonna get down, now, bro.” John was ebullient. He recognized that Cal’s presence had been instrumental and was gratified by his old friend’s reappearance.
Yet he remained perplexed at the sudden rejuvenation. While he grasped the fact of Cal feeling bummed after getting dumped, and identified with buckling down on the study aspect, John had picked up on a piece that wasn’t fitting. Something was not quite adding up but it couldn’t be pinpointed. Maybe he was still just missing his ladies… who wouldn’t?
Cal hadn’t told anyone---anyone at all--- about the Intel contract. Nor was it his intention. There would be time for that later. In the meantime, fun was the guiding light. He was gradually recalling how to make that happen. “It’s all good, John. I’m stoked. Be here at 5 on Wednesday for set-up?” He hopped down off the bar in the big makeshift main floor party room and headed for the door. There was a matinee at the Bijou on Cal’s search schedule. Funny Girl was showing.
“Sure, Cal. We’ll be ready,” John replied. The thoughtful half-grin pensively studied his friend even after the latch clicked shut.
True to his word, Cal knocked on the chapter house front door the following Wednesday. Three matinees over four days during the week of Spring Break, such as it was, had been nostalgic. At least there was that, he rationalized.
The kegs were arriving; the slip-n-slide was already wet down and sluicing in back by the pool. The bar was fully stocked, bartender taking inventory, and fresh ice was on its way. House dwellers were trickling down from their residence rooms above and the DJ joined Cal as Schultz opened. Cal made certain to put in his two cents of advice for the tune-spinner--- excuse him: Musicologist--- knowing what music he wanted to hear. Like the guy would listen. That was OK, thought Cal, he could dance to anything.
Four hours later, five Negro Modelos downed and a girl on each side, Cal waltzed to the DJ booth. His tastes were eclectic, to say the least, but put on the spot, the disc jockey succumbed. Then, before hearing the request played, he was pulled outside. Passing the pool on the way to a group around the fire pit, two conspiring girls proceeded to push in synchrony ever so slightly, on a mission. Equilibrium impaired by the beer, tipsiness propelled him head over heels into the deep-end. A lazy underwater sortie around the pool cleared his head a little. Sputtering upon surfacing and threatening retaliation, Cal climbed out in amusement as two dozen partiers followed suit. Voluntarily. The pool was filled with fully clothed disrobers in seconds.
The temperature notched up as clothes came off, not the fewest of which were shed by Cal. Just as the girls had intended. From their vantage point in the now well-populated pool, Cal put on a slow striptease for their benefit, slinging clothing different directions. Then hopped back in the pool. A few minutes later, bulging biceps bracing the pool edge, the big man accepted a primo blunt. He inhaled deeply before passing it on. Yes, he sighed contentedly, what a contrast between pre-and-post thesis author mindset. Pushing away from the tiled side, a leisurely backstroke offered momentary respite. He desultorily arced pool water from his mouth, mind fuzzy and meandering.
Emerging after a ten-minute swim, the slip-n-slide was graced as well. By now, clad in only the dripping wet skin tight drawers which covered very little and disguised less, the fire pit again called out. Warming up before it, the contents were anatomically sketched in erotic detail by flickering flames. Men and women alike were captivated. But after another deep hit, this time from a power hit offering, Cal caught the onset of the call tune he had asked of the DJ earlier.
Departing the bogarting tokers, the smooth and dripping big barefoot stud made his way back inside, stopping to peruse the room for a moment at the doorway. Then, without more hesitation, the six-foot-six frame vaulted lightly up on the twenty-foot mahogany bar in an agile bound, feeling the tune. Every eye in the big party room became fixated. Most mouths were salivating. The pledges were raptly awed to be rushing the Sig Ep Chapter which claimed this member as brother. The drawers clung graphically around junk filling the pouch, limber length and girth quite discernible. Even the sexy foreskinned cowl stood out plainly through sopping cloth.
Cal was not only aware; he was working the knowledge. The wall mirror behind the bar allowed for indulgent self-appraisal more than one time. He felt like an unabashed hedonist by the deed. Erogenous body gyrations projected the cocky attitude being cultivated. ‘Why not, for once?’ the giddy party animal theorized. ‘Hell, if you got it, go ahead and flaunt it’. An inflating super-ego caroused with abandon.
Swinging in a wide arc, arms and belly rippling, he felt acutely aware of an ongoing metamorphosis from introverted grad student to abounding extrovert on the edge. Cal’s dark eyes roved the crowd egging him on. Grinning, ear-to-ear, he observed almost every eye locked on to some part of his anatomy. The awareness grew a slow swell…
Then, abruptly, his vision wavered.
On the far corner wall, nursing a glass with a curled straw, no less, arms drawn up and crossed as if in defense of something, stood a boy. By himself. Pouting lips sucked on the straw as long-lashed sea green eyes stared, unblinking, directly at Cal. Myopic in their lovely intense scrutiny. Scrutiny of Cal. Everything slowed to pause. The music muddled in his ears and Cal suddenly felt over-exposed.
A breeze wafting through the open window raised a ruckus amongst the dark golden ringlets fluttering about the cherubic face. The Raphael boy appeared as he had while tunnel-visioning Barbra on one long ago clear day in a dark theatre. Sans tears this time.
Cal didn’t quit dancing--- hell, for the first time, he had the youth’s attention. The erotic boogie and prance now intimated a private invitation for the angel. His eyes completed a steady loop with the boy named Jake. He wasn’t about to let go. The next few minutes passed trapped in surreal suspension. Everything went still in Cal’s psyche. Raucous surroundings existed only on a parallel plane; beat of the music sustained a lone connection to reality. Cal knew he looked good and he was damn well gonna milk that fact. Jake hadn’t taken his eyes from him. Not once.
A static eternity later, the tune melded to a less strident beat of another carrying on. Without breaking eye contact, Cal bounced nimbly from bar top, straight-lining toward him. Interested roisterers lining the path he took grabbed and grasped for attention. Cal made his way, undeterred, having eyes for no one… but Him.
Desperately eager to not screw up this chance, a split-second decision stuck with the aura of cocky confidence. He took a gamble, swooping in on the doe-eyed target, brazenly sliding to within a bare inch of the adorable pug nose. A flush of epic proportion permeated the tanned young face. Wisps of Irish Spring emanated from him, altering Cal’s first choice in soap at that moment.
Cal felt strangely vulnerable in his presence, aware that his own musky body odor must surely be assaulting the boy.
Despite hidden misgivings, he leaned in close, cheekily querying, “Hey sexy, come here often?”
* Footnote: In the chapter denoted ‘July, 1997’, an idea on old age was borrowed from the TV series, ‘This Is Us’. A poignantly meaningful scene there engendered my interest to incorporate it into ‘One Clear Day’. The attribution could not go without properly having been noted. I hope anyone noticing the similarity will take the compliment to those writers as it is intended. That group constitutes an amazing group of talent. My thanks.
Gander a few minutes at the opening chapter of the upcoming third volume of ‘The Mandrakes’: Call of the Loon.
Volume III: Call of the Loon
“Noooooooooooo!” The crescendo of the long, woebegone wail was meant to make a point. And split eardrums. From a head-covered position and squinch-faced demeanor, I hazarded a single-eyed peek from inside protective hands, surveying the damage. All three persons in the room appeared in ear-covered distress. I deemed the broadside successful.
It proved only temporary, however. After a minute’s recovery, the man in the striped shirt with the sharp weaponry--- who had strapped me into position for the beheading--- came again. This time, the broom sweeper aide and Mamma plastered my shoulders against the swiveling death chair in apparent collusion with the beast’s murderous intent. Pointed scissors waved ever closer while dastardly abettors attempted reassurance by the most transparent of felonious lies, saying anything they thought might engender cessation of attempting salvage of my head.
I wasn’t at all certain my body would do well detached from the familiar anatomy, and less, that it wouldn’t leave a scar… a bad one. Could it even be put back, it occurred to me to worry? I needed to alert an authority of the cruelty threatening me. The banshee shriek was the last-ditch effort left in my sparse arsenal of protections for self-preservation. So, I tried it again.
“Nooooooooooooooo!!” Under the heavy hands pressing me into the death seat it was all I could do to inflate five-year-old lungs with enough air to get the message out but even then, the effect was not near as shrill as would’ve been preferred.
Mamma tried soothing me with obviously faked compassion, “Jake, Jake… listen to me, honey. This is for your own good. It has just gotten too out-of-control, my little one, and we are trying to make things easier. That is all. It won’t hurt in the slightest. But it must be cut. Your Daddy says we must and it will be a whole lot better. Now calm down and sit still for us, or it really could hurt you, dear.”
Well… that sure worked, I screeched inside. Not!
Easier? Better? For whom? Duh, I reflected, insanely ill-at-ease, you really think so? Of course, it will hurt. And that man--- Wilbur, or whatever you call him--- is NOT my Daddy. My Daddy would never try something like this. And he would surely be here to save me from this Devil with the sharp scissors. Totally freaked, I opened my mouth to renew complaints.
A sweaty palm clamped suddenly over mouth and nose, immediately cutting off the attempt, but worse, my breath as well. Big eyes widened in terror as I realized now that the broom sweeper’s nasty paw was only an additional method for inflicting torture. It would be better for them, my mind reasoned, to render me unconscious--- or worse--- before implementing the decapitation process just verified as coming.
I had to do something.
Much as I didn’t want to, I pushed my tongue through pressed lips, wiggling it against the gross out palm bearing the warts which I had seen layering it upon entering the death chamber. All red and gooey with thick pus, or something. I had been nearly nauseous by the glimpse. The feel of them against my tongue was far, far worse.
“Yuckkk!” came the outcry from the mouth attached to the warty-palmed man. Boy, I thought, did that gripe have it backwards. It was my tongue on those revulsions. Yet, he did loosen his grip a tad. It gave me just enough of an angle to open my teeth and chomp down on one finger. “Ouch! That hurts, ya little turd bucket. Leggo!” I held fast, clamping down as hard as possible, hoping to sever the stupid thing. I could already taste blood, and dearly hoped it wasn’t my own. Scissor man was out of view…
Shrieking now, in his own banshee rendition, the glass-eyed sweeper wailed in agony.
Just as I thought I was making progress, Mamma’s hand slapped the bejeebers out of me. I let go in shock. She had never before struck me. I was more forlorn than ever in knowledge that evil intent had invaded all those present.
“Jacob Winslow! You stop this. Right this instant! I will not have this kind of behavior from you, young man. Just wait until we get you home and I tell your Father!” She was almost frothing as she hurled this at me. The wild-eyed look scared me almost as much as Mouth-clamper and Head-chopper. I pulled up short and sat deathly still, staring from one to the next in sheer horror that three grown adults would do such things.
Watching, quietly now, I saw the bleeding pinky rushed to the nearby sink and stuck under a streaming faucet. Mamma implored the two executioners, “Please forgive me. I don’t understand what has gotten into him.” Her sidelong hard look daggered me with venom, as surely as if I had been bitten by a pit viper. It hurt. Bad.
Head-chopper went to a cabinet, removing bandage and nursing materials. Returning to help the injured--- but not enough--- warthog who was now blotting a blood-seeping gash. The two worked at medicating and securing the wound.
Mamma came back and bent down over me, hissing not at all kindly through clenched teeth, “This is just abominable behavior Jacob. I will not have it. Now sit up straight and act like a big boy. Mind your manners. I cannot believe you would do this to these nice men. Your Father is going to be angry when we tell him.”
That broke through my arrested psyche. “Well, I’m sure not gonna tell him. And, he is NOT my Father, and you know it, Mamma. You should be ashamed of yourself--- all of you,” looking from one of them to the next, “you shouldn’t be trying to knock me off just to get me out of the way. He hates me! And you know that, too! Just let me out of here and I promise to leave and never come back!”
All the words just tumbled out in a heap. I pulled up short again, amazed at myself for the very grown-up response to this barbary. Scissor-wielder cocked his head at Mamma as he taped a bandage on the wart-covered pinky. “Ma’am. Mrs. Howard. I don’t think I am going to be able to help you and your son today. There seem to be issues that may be needing more attention than just a haircut will help.” He glanced my direction. “What’s more, we won’t be incurring any more damages at this time. So, if you would be so kind as to remove my barber drape, you and your son can take off. That would probably be for the best.” The man’s jaw set decisively.
Firmness in the tone left no real basis for debate. Mamma huffed her way through doing as requested, removing the death cape from its snug tightness around my neck--- no doubt meant to keep blood from dripping down my headless body and making a mess--- then hustling the two of us out the front door.
I focused on the red, white and blue whirly cylinder on the pole outside, trembling at the near-death experience and wincing by the hard grip of Mamma’s hand over my wrist. She dragged me with her to our station wagon parked in front, loaded me ungently into the restrictive child seat without so much as a word, started the old car and screeched out of the strip-center lot.
Thirty minutes later found us sitting in the bathroom at the forest home. Me on a closed commode seat, boosted by a telephone book; Mamma on the kitchen stool, bending my head back over an adjacent sink edge. She wielded Spotty’s dog clippers and fairly spat the first words from her mouth since the chamber of horrors. “Now, Jacob Winslow Howard, I don’t want a single movement or word from you. Keep your head leaning back into the sink, just like it is.”
With that, and the fear of God paralyzing me, she proceeded to strip the wild mess of curls in curved path after curved path by progressive arcs from brow, up over the crown and down my neck. Within seconds, my riot of lifelong ringlets lay orphaned in the porcelain sink. Limply staring up at me as if to say, ‘What did we do, Jake?’ I turned my neck when given license to move, peering from there up to the mirror. The bald pate staring back bespoke naked overexposure; my face lent credence to tragedy. In unspoken defiance, I yelled mindfully: It is NOT Howard. It is Marshall!
But, I also sighed in relief. My head was still attached to my shoulders. At least there was that.
Later that evening, ‘Father’ arrived home. Indeed, the man was more than unhappy. “He bit the barber?” The shouted sentence resonated through the house, alerting us four to take shelter in the basement.
Not waiting to hear Mamma make the moot point, “No Burt, he only bit the helper,” we abandoned ship. Luckily, the basement door was right next to our bedrooms and coast was clear for scurrying down steep dark stairs. Shelves bearing preserves, drying produce and herbs provided a hiding spot, yet we all knew it would provide very little more than a temporary respite.
Jill, Michael and Avery all conspired, right there in front of me, to throw the guilty one of us--- me--- out into the open area when He came bellowing. The voice alone was monstrously scary; feared belt medieval in its efficiency. My little butt bore scarred witness.
Reading the writing on the wall, I came to a snap decision. Making myself very small, I silently slipped down the back-shelf line. A handful of freshly pulled carrots and potatoes, some drying apples, a plastic bag and several bottles of water were collected. Heading for ‘The Place’.
Guarding against being seen by conniving sibs, I scrambled inconspicuously behind wall shelves to a secret pocket first stumbled on in grieving search for hidden haven the previous spring. When I was only four. Under circumstances more dire than those presently building: that time when Real Daddy had left.
Prying plywood backing from the wall, I squeezed soundlessly through a narrow cleft. Carefully drawing the shelf back into place after entry, a pitch black five-foot track toward the earthy smell marking the broken cement bulwark was crawled.
A foot-wide hole where ancient concrete had disintegrated offered a worm-riddled pouch of a cubby. The fecund odor of rich earth was not horrible. I didn’t like the occasional worm or tiny critter as they strayed over me on their travels but the alternative seemed grimmer.
From previous sequestrations, I had left a moth-eaten blanket. The thing smelled a bit worse for the wear. I felt around it for alien inhabitants. Thankfully finding none, the bagged produce was poked into a corner. Wrapped into the blanket, I planned on ‘laying up sorry’. In hopes the storm would blow over without my presence.
Last time, Wilbur had departed on a salesman’s road trip during the self-imposed banishment. Mamma had been so relieved my dead body hadn’t washed up downstream from the forest home on Elkin Brook that I had been spared bodily harm. A result worth repeating.
The first time discovering the site, I was bereft with sorrow. It was late in the night, having withdrawn to solitary confinement upon forced comprehension that Daddy--- my dearest hero and real Daddy--- had left. Never to return. And without saying goodbye.
I had crawled by sheer accident between shelf and wall, burrowing my sorrowful self deep from reality. There had been no goal, just determination to get away. The narrow wedge of an opening had presented itself and without reasoning, I pushed past it. Reaching the unlit little lair, I curled up and slept. Then, stayed in the cozy little hole in the wall for a better part of six days. Until I had felt like Daddy looked. Mamma was distraught by the act, thinking she had lost two family members. She almost did. Though hounded for weeks, I resolved to never let go of my secret. She had finally given up probing.
Earlier in the day leading to that night, Mamma informed us that Daddy had ‘gone to Heaven’ after a Blackhawk helicopter crash over in a land named Ethiopia. Somewhere far away. He wouldn’t be coming home. Even at four years old I was aware that didn’t add up. She couldn’t just erase the fact that he had been there only hours before.
I had found out the truth.
Eavesdropping a conversation between Mamma and Dr. Aston late in that dreary afternoon following her telling us that story, it came clear to me that Daddy had gotten sick a long time before and the reason was a cause for shame. I didn’t understand. As told by Dr. Aston, after returning from a tour of duty a year before, a sickness carried by green monkeys and ‘unnatural’ men had sneaked in and overwhelmed him.
I remembered observing it all. Month after month, he lost more and more weight, eating next to nothing and shriveling before my sad young eyes. From the tall, vibrant, fearless protector who sang to me, took me fishing and hoisted me on broad shoulders for romps around the yard with a leaping Spotty, Daddy had diminished to a sunken-eyed ghoul who rarely spoke. When he did, he sucked air in through crusty nostrils. Concave cheeks had puffed out words in stuttered phrases.
All over his once strong body there blossomed dark blotchy circles that hurt… and sometimes drained a smelly stew. A broken-hearted promise was pledged to him then that I would grow up--- fast--- to become a doctor. I would save him. He hugged me and smiled at that pronouncement, promising in return. He would hold me to it.
Mamma hated him though. I could tell. Under her breath, she muttered once, disgustedly, that he deserved it all. I heard.
We were finally barred from going to him or even speaking. So, he lay there. By himself. Withering and rasping in the darkened spare room. Alone.
One somber gray morning, a long black station wagon had rumbled into our driveway, backing up to the garage. Peeking unseen through front window curtains, I beheld a narrow bed roll out of the garage opening. A lumpy mass lay on it, covered by a sheet. The whole thing was loaded by two uniformed men into the back of the strangely shaped vehicle. It then slipped away into mist. Sad, wispy, swirling fog trails arose behind it, gathering as if by a witch’s spell, to gradually obscure the entire silhouette. Like a dissolving spectre.
We were told nothing at first. While fearing the worst, we held out hope he would get up from bed and come out of the gloomy, reeking room. After hours of terrible waiting, Mamma tearfully described a tragic helicopter wreck with another craft, crying as she affirmed Daddy would not be coming back home. One thing I knew for certain was that last sentence. The rest, I had gleaned, was a big fib. The overheard conversation later that afternoon cut deep.
It was not long afterwards--- only a few unhappy months--- that replacement Daddy, Wilbur Howard, had come into our grieving lives and sorry home. A poor substitute who disliked all things children. Even Spotty was despised. I figured all that out in ten minutes flat. The man knew that I knew, too. Spotty never once set foot inside again.
Now, ensconced in my portal to underground, I listened to sisters and brother plan my sacrifice, then bore their aggravation at yet another discovery of my ghosting. They detested me for doing it, spying incessantly in trying to figure what I did and where I went. But without success. Covering my tracks well, no one ever guessed.
True to form, within thirty minutes, three exposed children sat shivering in their boots as the trumpeting baritone voice of evil traipsed on leaden feet around and around rooms upstairs. Demanding obeisance. Mamma finally slithered downstairs, ushering the three upstairs to face the music. I listened as they were excoriated in ‘covering’ for me. Threats of dire consequences led to nothing, of course. Finally, the house quieted to an uneasy peace.
I spent the next five days in that spot, only coming out to relieve myself at the open septic tank vat in a far corner and to gather more food and water. Recognizing my strange method, the five gradually went about their normal routine, deducing that somehow an outdoor hiding place offered refuge which they could not locate. It proved baffling to them that even Spotty couldn’t track me. They commonly sent the furry friend of mine on wild goose chases around the acreage in the Green Mountain Forest tract. Without success. Never was my friend and confidant let to search the basement, for some reason. Else, I would have probably been outed.
After those days, my creeping trip up the stairs, clandestine escape to outdoors and subsequent hike through surrounding woods over a day with nature brought me, roundtrip, to the back door. A sullen welcome was met as the sun was setting. A disgusted Wilbur ignored my reappearance. Not even deigning to acknowledge the return. Boy, this was the best answer to problems, I rationalized. Success was measured in this fashion and I went to bed exhausted, hungry, bald and alone. Perfectly whole, I reflected. Without a mark.
I was a quick learner. With a good memory.