Another short story from my strainge-fiction persona, Eric Stringer….
Harold Silt strolled along in his pajamas, which were made to look like scrubs so he and the others would feel more normal. In his left fist he carried his tacky-bottom footie socks, which had been issued to be worn outside on the concrete paths that bordered the grounds.
When he left the men’s dormitory each morning, he turned south, walked to the end of the sidewalk that ran along the front of the dorm and slipped off his footies. He couldn’t bear the feel of them on his feet or against his skin.
The little rubber grips on the bottom oozed treacherous fingers through the fabric, grabbing his feet in strips as though the paths were gaining traction to walk on him instead of him walking on them. They were like the tentacles of a tiny octopus with delusions of grandeur. It might stalk him, and it might slap a tentacle across his ankle, but sooner or later it would realize its prey was too large to drag out to sea.
Seemed like someone or something was always trying to slap one kind of tentacle or another on him. Sometimes it seemed like everyone wanted control of his life. Maybe not everyone, but everyone he had come in contact with. They’d even gotten his mama, but they wouldn’t get him.
They’re just like that little octopus. Always thinkin’ they’re more than they really are. But they ain’t… not no more they ain’t.
He squeezed the footies hard. He really didn’t mind carrying them—they weren’t heavy, after all—and he relished the feel of them rolled into a ball. He’d done so carefully, being sure the tentacles were safely tucked inside, and then clasped the whole thing tightly in his left fist. It gave him a sense of being in control of something, at least, in this world that seemed to conspire against him in waves.
He glanced to his right and down at the concrete path that edged the eastern boundary of the spacious grounds. All the paths were strict and firm and this one was different in only one way: it ran alongside a small creek and the proprietors had chosen to allow Nature, in that one instance, to dictate design.
He made his way south in the strip of grass along the outside of the slightly meandering path. There he was and there he’d been each morning for the past six months: the stringent concrete path to his right, then the strip of soft green grass and whatever wildflowers took a mind to grow and Harold himself, then the meandering little stream, then a row of trees of various kinds—mostly elm and hackberry, mulberry in clusters, and the occasional locust tree and honeysuckle bush—and then whatever lay beyond.
A shadow passed over his mind and he thought again about that octopus and grasping, controlling people. Barely lifting his head, he glanced warily to his right oblique, then farther around to the right.
He didn’t go past ninety degrees, though, because knowing what’s coming up behind a person is rarely a treat. If you’re expecting something hard enough, that’s what it’ll be even if it isn’t there.
Trouble’s a lot like that too. Always sneakin’ up on a person….
The night was already nasty even before Caleb Ramsey, the old man who’d been seeing Harold’s mama, drove his old pickup into the yard, set the brake and came stomping in through the kitchen door.
The world was ugly and it was in a bad mood to boot. The air was only about half air and the other half was electricity but without any rain so far, which was unusual. Lightning tore a hot, jagged streak across the sky every few minutes and thunder rumbled almost continually.
Harold wondered whether the old drunk had absorbed some of the bad mood from the air or whether the bad mood had seeped from him into the air as he staggered away from the bar and drove along the dark streets. Didn’t really matter which way it had flowed, it was just all bad.
Ramsey stopped just inside the door, glared at Harold, ripped the oily ball cap off his own head and slammed it across the room. Then he wavered for a moment as if he might fall over.
His hair stood straight up with electricity, and even from across the room Harold could see his eyes were bloodshot and streaked with crazy. His blue Amoco shirt that he’d gotten at Goodwill was filthy and sitting sideways, with every button off by one buttonhole, plus the two top ones were unbuttoned anyway so the small crucifix showed through, nestled in his chest hair, which was standing on end too.
Ramsey raised one grimy hand and pointed at no one in particular, and Harold could’ve sworn he saw electricity arc from the man’s nasty fingertip.
Harold sometimes cleaned his own fingernails with his teeth, and he wondered momentarily whether the old man ever did the same thing. Whatever’s under that fingernail’d taste like shit dipped in oil and heated with a ‘gator fart. His nose scrunched up involuntarily.
Still weaving like an elm tree with a tornado going by, the old man raised his other arm too and pointed with the other hand, again only vaguely, looking a little bit like the Frankenstein monster, and again a small spark flashed from his fingertip.
Harold thought he might spontaneously combust and save the world the eventual trouble of putting him out of everyone’s misery. With that three-day black and grey stubble and his unibrow creased in a permanent frown and his brain dipped in liquor, he had a mean look about him, like he was looking for something to beat, something to stomp on, something to hurt.
That something had usually been Harold’s mama until recently. A year or so earlier Harold had taken to stepping between Caleb and his mama, and Caleb had been just as happy to beat him. His mama would race down the hallway to the bedroom and slam and lock the door behind her, but that same door was always unlocked again when Caleb grew tired and staggered off to bed. He’d sleep it off and the next morning nobody would mention it. Mama would just smile and ask Harold whether he wanted an extra strip of bacon.
The old bastard held the pose a second longer than Harold thought he would, and just as Harold lost interest and returned his attention to what he’d been doing before the man had come in, Ramsey dropped both arms to his side like a seal being shot and slurred, “Whur’s yer mama, boy?”
Harold looked up and shrugged. The last three or four beatings hadn’t really bothered him. He’d been there only physically. His mind and spirit had slipped into a faraway land where it rained just every so often and bullies were banished. Nobody drank or beat anybody else there, and his inheritance, a throne, awaited him.
Caleb had made him realize this couldn’t possibly be the only world, the only existence, and that TV show a couple of months ago about alternate dimensions and that other one a few nights ago about reincarnation had cemented the deal. If Harold had ever drawn a breath, he was the reincarnated king of another land, returned to reclaim his rightful place. It would happen soon, too—he could feel it in his bones—and he’d already made up his mind he would take no more beatings from this old drunk. A king should never allow another to lay a hand on him, and he would prove himself worthy with a rite of passage.
But in this moment he was not yet a king. He was a boy just shy of his fifteenth birthday, sitting on the floor near the front door, his right foot poised over a jagged hole in the hardwood floor that was really pine so the toenail clippings would fall through and he wouldn’t have to try to pick them up. He didn’t mind, but his fingers were large and clumsy when it came to picking up small objects, even if they weren’t really delicate. He could always just sweep them into the hole with his hands, but clipping them straight from his toes through the hole to the perennially damp ground below seemed more sporting.
“Whaddya mean, y’don’ know? You always know whur she is, y’little shitbird! Don’t’cha be lyin’ to me, boy, or I’ll beat’chur ass! Now whur is she?”
Harold focused on his work. He clipped the nail of the fourth toe on his right foot and took a moment to look it over, then clipped the nail off the small toe. He folded the clippers and stood, slipping them into his pocket.
He was almost as tall as the old man. A slight smile spread across his face and he nodded, his eyes bright and clear. “All right. Know what, Caleb? You’re right. I do know where she is, but I ain’t about to tell you.”
“Why th’hell not? She’s my woman! An’ don’t be forgettin’ y’self, boy!” He thumped himself on the chest. “I’m Mr. Ramsey to th’likes’a you!”
Harold decided to ignore the comment. He shook his head. “I won’t tell you because you just ain’t worth a damn, Caleb. Truth is, you wouldn’t make a pimple on the unfeathered part of a hen chicken’s ass, an’ you know it too.” Harold pointed a stiff index finger at him. “I’ve been afraid’a you for years, Caleb, but that’s all over. I ain’t afraid’a you no more.”
His eyes all but shooting flames and a growl building in his gut, the old man lunged at Harold, who easily sidestepped him. As he did, Harold laid hands on him for the first time ever and shoved him hard into the door jamb. It offset his nose a quarter-inch and left a split in his forehead that immediately started seeping blood.
Harold had shifted to the middle of the room before Caleb could even pry himself off the door jamb and turn around. The boy grinned broadly and pointed at Ramsey. “Look at yourself, Caleb! You’re drunker’n four skunks an’ a polecat. You can’t hardly stand up, an’ you come in here thinkin’ you’re gonna beat on my mama! That’s enough all by itself to prove you’re not only drunk, but dumber’n a bag’a ball-peen hammers to boot.”
The man lunged again, but Harold easily avoided him and guided him into a wall.
Caleb lay flat against the wall there for a moment, as if he’d suddenly gotten tired while doing vertical pushups.
Harold’s expression softened and his voice grew quiet. “Damn… look man, you’re done. You’re all done. You go sleep it off somewhere. What you come here for….” Harold shook his head. “Well, it just ain’t gonna happen, Caleb… not tonight, not ever again.” Harold wagged one finger side to side in the air. “Never.”
Caleb, still leaning heavily on the wall, rolled to his left until it was against his back, then straightened. His eyes were set deep in a scowl that an undertaker probably couldn’t erase in a week. They radiated hatred and cowardice.
Harold watched the man closely, his voice still quiet. “Look man, I ain’t gonna tell nobody about tonight. I know, an’ you know, an’ that’s enough. Just go sleep it off somewhere. But don’t come back here, Caleb. I’m all through takin’ your beatin’s. I’m tellin’ you, just don’t come back.”
Caleb pushed away from the wall, still glaring hatefully at Harold. Then, his head bobbing, his voice rose a half-octave. An odd gleam crept into his eyes and he sneered into a lopsided grin. “A’ight… a’ight… you said y’piece, boy, an’ a big piece too. Figger you’ all growed up now. Figger you’ a man an’ you got th’right to tell ol’ Caleb what he can and cain’t do. I see how it is.”
His head bobbed again. “Jus’ remember, you called it, boy… you called it an’ mebbe you’ right. We’ll see. ‘At’s one thing for damn sure… we’ll see.” He turned away and staggered a bit as he rounded the corner into the kitchen, then stomped out.
Harold watched him go. It was his first-ever man-to-man run-in and it felt good to know he’d not only headed off what would have been a certain beating of his mama—if she’d been home—but he’d also set things right. Maybe this was the rite of passage he’d been waiting for.
Then a thought struck him. Maybe the kingdom’s a place me an’ Mama could go together. We could leave this ol’ shack and move someplace where it ain’t so miserable. I’ll talk with her when she gets home.
He walked into the kitchen, leaned back against the counter near the refrigerator and just watched the kitchen door for a long moment. He waited awhile, but no sounds came through the door, no voices, no footfalls. Something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t quite put his mind on it.
Finally, he shrugged and turned around to open the fridge and peruse the contents. Boloney and scrambled eggs, he thought. Breakfast for supper. That’d be good for a change. And he could chop up those left-over french fries he’d gotten from Wendy’s yesterday. He moved a carton of milk, then adjusted a gallon pitcher half-full of sweet tea. No gravy. Well, no baloney and eggs and ‘taters then.
He spied a small chunk of roast from their last Sunday dinner and smiled. It had been a picnic out near the bayou. His mama and Caleb rode in the front with the red and white checkered ground cloth and the picnic basket, and he’d ridden in the back. The fumes from the backfire when Caleb had started the truck had nearly choked him.
He took the piece of roast out of the fridge and moved over a few steps to where his mama kept the small carving board. He put the roast on it and reached for a loaf of light bread, took a couple of slices, then pulled a short carving knife from the knife block, and—
A chill ran up his spine. The pickup didn’t backfire! He didn’t leave!
Something exploded right behind him. The corner of the pine cabinet door just above and to the left of his head splintered, and time jerked to a stop. Echoing through a long tunnel came, “You upstart snot-nosed son of a bitch! I’ll teach you t’mess with a real man!”
As if dragging himself through molasses Harold crouched and twisted around, the forgotten carving knife clutched tightly in both hands like a sword, just as Ramsey charged him, his revolver raised for another shot.
The bullet screamed past Harold’s left ear and hit the stove, sounding like someone had slapped an empty oil drum with a hammer.
As Harold frantically urged himself upright, Ramsey stumbled and fell against him, almost bending him backward over the stove. Harold’s hands came forward and the knife found its way through Ramsey’s Amoco shirt just left of the buttons and up beneath his ribcage. He made a sound like a man who had run out of air all at once.
As Ramsey sagged, Harold straightened, putting more pressure on the knife. For a seemingly interminable moment the two men were eye to eye, sharing the same look of complete surprise.
Then Ramsey’s head lolled onto Harold’s right shoulder. “You… you go to hell… you bastard!”
Suddenly normal time came racing up and plowed into the slow motion, shattering it into a billion jagged fragments, all seemingly moving at light speed. Adrenaline fueled by fear surged through Harold.
Rite of passage! Defend yourself!
Harold gritted his teeth, desperately slapped his left arm around Ramsey’s back, withdrew the knife, then plunged it harder and deeper into the man’s chest.
Ramsey sagged again and his bladder let go. A soggy warmth grew over Harold’s right thigh as he thrust again, then again. When he was sure Ramsey was dead, he withdrew the knife and stepped aside.
Ramsey collapsed face-down on the braid rug, just left of center.
Watching the inert form carefully, Harold stepped over it, then turned around. He squatted to his haunches and wiped the sweat from his brow and face with his left shirt sleeve in the crook of his elbow.
Both his hands and wrists were sticky with cooling blood, and his right thigh felt wet. The stain ran from the top of his pocket to his knee. Must’a pissed himself… figgers he’d die pissin’ on me… bastard. And in the braid rug was another stain, a red stain, and it was spreading very slowly, siphoning out away from the body.
That won’t do. Better get him outta here.
Harold stood and moved to the sink. He washed his hands and forearms and the knife with Dawn and a sponge, then dried the knife and put it back in the knife block. Then he moved to the short side of the braid rug, where only a few feet of it was sticking out beneath Ramsey, and flopped it over the body.
He carefully folded the end up over Ramsey’s feet, then quickly rolled the rug over again, body and all, so the end where the feet lay was tucked inside. He rolled the rug-body combination again, then one more time. Then he ran outside to retrieve a few lengths of bailing twine from a nail in the lean-to that served as a carport. When he got back inside, he trussed up the braid rug. When he was through, he stood to consider his handiwork.
He bent and finally managed to work the rolled-up braid rug onto his left shoulder just as a car door slammed out front. There were some muffled voices, and then the car drove off. He overbalanced and staggered back a few steps from the kitchen to the point where the living room started.
Just as Harold got the rug balanced on his shoulder again, his mama came through the kitchen door. She yelled, “Harold, I’m ho—” Confusion flashed across her face and she frowned.
Her shoes were grinding gritty dirt into the linoleum where she should have felt only braid rug. She took in the shattered corner of the cabinet and the neat hole in the front of the stove, centered in a rough circle of clean, thin steel and spiderwebbed enamel.
Her mouth dropped open and she looked at her own shoes, then at Harold’s footprints in the dirt. She traced them to his boots, then up to his expanded chest and his raised left arm, then to his calm eyes and his odd grin.
She didn’t want to see the rolled-up braid rug balanced on his left shoulder, but finally she could avoid it no longer. The rug was trying hard to drape but was unable to do so, as if it were full of something gone bad.
She shook her head slightly and looked at Harold, then back to the rug. Barely audibly, she said, “Harold, what’s going on?” Then she glanced just past her son and saw Caleb’s ball cap lying against the wall. Her eyes grew wide. “Harold, where’s Caleb? Is Caleb here?”
Harold thought, Yes Ma’am, he was, and he nodded. Then he thought, This here rug’s full of something that used to be awful and nasty and hurtful, only it ain’t no more.
But all that would come from his throat was, “S’okay, Mama. Just go on to bed now, y’hear? I’ll be back in a bit.”
His mama’s hands went to her mouth as she gaped.
Patiently, quietly, Harold said, “Go on, Mama. It’s okay now.”
She ran past him and turned down the hallway. Her bedroom door slammed and a lock snapped home. Soft sobbing sounds, as if muffled in a pillow, drifted down the hallway.
Harold turned, careful not to let that nasty old braid rug fling a vindictive tentacle that might knock something off the fridge or clear Mama’s favorite flowered-plate clock off the wall.
He crossed the living room, the bare boards creaking beneath his newly weighted feet. With his left palm he slapped the screen door open and ducked through the void, then flinched as the screen rebounded and slapped the clapboard side of the house.
When the old man was drunk, he wouldn’t notice, but when he was hungover, which was anytime he wasn’t drunk, he’d levy a pretty severe penalty for letting the screen door slap the house.
A light grin tugged at Harold’s mouth. Right now he ain’t noticin’ for sure. But he flinched again, a little, when the screen door slammed home again. He stopped on the porch for a long moment. He considered turning around and slamming the screen door again just for good measure, but the rug was getting heavier.
Hysterical sobbing seeped out of the house, then morphed into raucous laughter. Harold was sure it was the kind of laughter one might hear from someone who has been indentured for a long time and is rapidly warming to the idea of freedom. He smiled as he stepped off the porch and walked toward Caleb’s pickup.
Crickets serenaded the deep rural night. Their song mixed with his mother’s laughter followed him off the porch and onto the dirt yard, where he dumped the braid rug into the bed. He opened the door and slid in behind the wheel. The key was in the ignition where it always was. He grasped it between his thumb and forefinger, then hesitated and leaned back, compacting his neck to look through the bottom of the steering wheel.
He’d driven this pickup only once before, when he’d snuck it out while the old man was drunk. The moonlight, peeking out from behind a cloud and streaming through the back window of the truck, dimly illuminated the floorboard and, when he moved his foot a bit to the side, let him see the starter switch.
He straightened in the seat, turned the key in the ignition, wiggled the gear shift to make sure the pickup was in Neutral, then depressed the clutch and the starter switch with his left foot. The old flathead six roared to life with a backfire that rattled the bed and shook the cab just as a lightning bolt flashed nearby, throwing an eerie shadow through the cab.
The hair on the back of Harold’s neck stood straight up. For just a second he was certain the old man, minus the braid rug, was standing up in the back, trying his best to twist the top off the cab of the pickup.
Fighting the urge to throw open the door of the pickup and run, Harold realized this was all part of his rite of passage. He put his right arm up on the back of the seat and twisted around to look out through the back window. That nasty old braid rug was still right where he’d put it, and once again he was glad to be done with old Caleb. He turned back to the steering wheel, shifted the pickup into Reverse and backed out into the road.
The drive down to the bayou was pleasant enough. Halfway through town he waved at Sheriff Conley, who looked at Harold a little oddly as he passed, but returned his wave.
A short time later Harold drove right past Cubber and three girls too, all sitting on the hood of Cubber’s cherry-red ’67 Pontiac GTO. The Goat looked really good under the streetlights, though even just driving by you could see the diluted glow from the tiny scratches in the paint Cubber had left with his constant polishing.
As Harold passed in the old man’s rust-bucket ’52 Chevy pickup, Cubber pointed Harold out to the girls. “Lookit that, ladies! Harold Silt’s a’drivin’!” He laughed out loud and all the girls giggled.
Harold just smiled and waved back.
He didn’t see anyone else on out Main Street all the way out past where the speed limit changed to 45 and then 55 and the mile and a half or so past that out to the bridge. It was a long bridge with two spans elevated above the swamp on reinforced concrete pillars. Each span carried two lanes of traffic, one east and one west, and the spans were connected with a single-lane crossover every mile.
The crossovers were posted with signage declaring them For Official Use Only, but that was mostly for tourists. All the locals used them. Opposite the crossover, each span also had a turnout off the right lane.
Two miles along the bridge, Harold pulled off well into the second turnout and climbed out of the pickup, then dropped the tailgate and dragged that nasty old braid rug out of the back. He squatted a bit, placed the bulk of the weight on his right shoulder, then straightened his legs.
The load didn’t seem as heavy as it had before. He grimaced. Mebbe some of the evil’s leaked out.
He stood still for a moment, as if waiting for something to happen, some sort of formality, but this wasn’t your garden variety funeral. This was a disposal of garbage. Still, he wondered momentarily whether he should say a few words.
Ashes to ashes didn’t seem an appropriate sentiment. He ain’t gonna see no earth, an’ he definitely ain’t gonna be surrounded by it.
Harold shrugged, adjusted his load slightly, then stepped up on the curb and shifted the load again. He leaned slightly forward, his left hand on the three-inch brushed aluminum pipe that served as the top safety rail. The metal was silver in the moonlight, damp and cool under his hand.
He shrugged again, purposefully this time, and launched the braid rug full of filth and bad memories from his shoulder. His right hand joined his left on the fat rail and he leaned forward just as several ‘gators slipped from the bank of the bayou. “See’ya, Caleb.”
With that, Harold walked around the pickup, got in, started the engine, turned left onto the crossover, then left again and headed back to town.
As he drove up Main Street the second time there was nobody on the street, but he was accompanied by an odd sensation, one he’d never experienced before. Something didn’t feel quite right.
Of course, he hadn’t yet felt the constraint of the rubber strips. He hadn’t felt tentacles grasping at him or the sense of impending doom. None of that had found a context in his life before. When he drove the pickup into his mama’s yard, Sheriff Conley was there, comforting his mama. They were waiting for him.
In a cloud of dust, he parked the pickup, turned off the key and contemplated the floorboard for a long moment. All part of your rite of passage. Whatever it is, it’s all good. He opened the door and stepped out.
The next couple of weeks were a flurry, all mixed up with images of his mama and Sheriff Conley and his mama and Caleb Ramsey and his mama and any number of other “uncles” who had visited over the years. There was an overworked public defender in the mix somewhere, but mostly he came into Harold’s cell, opened his briefcase, shuffled through some official looking papers, sighed a lot, shook his head and left.
Apparently they’d fished what was left of Caleb Ramsey out of the bayou. It wasn’t much, but enough of the torso was left for them to find the knife wounds. For some reason, they matched those to the small carving knife in his mama’s knife block. And those knife wounds were enough for some doctor who hadn’t even been there during the fight to determine that they, not the ‘gators, were the official cause of death for Caleb Ramsey.
Nobody—not the doctor, not the police who’d found the knife, not even the lawyer—ever asked Harold any questions except whether he understood his rights, which he did.
The last time the lawyer visited him, he sat on the end of Harold’s cot, as usual, opened his briefcase and shuffled through those same papers. He finally glanced up at Harold and asked, “You needin’ anything?”
Harold shook his head, but the lawyer didn’t see that. He was already studying his papers again. Then he asked, “You holdin’ up okay in here?”
Harold nodded, but again the lawyer was looking at his notes. “The coroner ruled this a homicide and the DA’s filing first-degree murder charges. They’re trying you as an adult.” He sighed a final time. “I’ll do what I can, but it looks to me like it’s open and shut. Caleb came in a little drunk and you were waiting for him with a carving knife. You jumped him without provocation an’ stabbed him to death.” He glanced through some more papers. “That about it?”
“What? N-no Sir! He… he was always hurtin’ my mama an’—”
The attorney shook his head. “Says right here your mama wasn’t home.”
“No Sir, she wasn’t, but—”
“Like I said, open an’ shut.” He sighed. “Chances are they’ll send you to a nice hospital someplace where you can take time to get well… you know, up here.” He tapped his temple with a forefinger.
Harold stood up. “But that ain’t what—”
The lawyer slammed his briefcase shut and leapt toward the front of the cell. He yelled, “Jailer! Help!”
Harold’s jaw dropped and he sat back down. “I didn’t mean nothin’, Sir. I was just tryin’ to tell you, that ain’t what happened. He—Caleb—he even shot at me… twice. One bullet hit the cabinet an’ one hit the stove. You can see ’em right there in the house an’—”
The jailer opened the door and the lawyer walked through, having regained his composure. As the door clanged shut behind him, he looked back at Harold, shook his head and sighed. “The police asked about the cabinet and the stove. Your mama said the cabinet’s been that way for years and that the stove was that way when she bought it at the second-hand store. Stray bullet from a hunter or something. She said you might try to blame Caleb.” He glanced at the floor, then looked at Harold again. “Like I said, I’ll do what I can.”
So that was that. The food was pretty good and the cot was comfortable enough, and more than once some girl had hollered up from the street wanting Harold to come to the window.
But all Harold wanted was to be left alone. The one person he’d thought he could count on was his mama. This is some rite of passage, he thought. Still, anytime anyone passed his cell, he endeavored to stand up straight, to constantly show kingly bearing. Of one thing he was certain: all of this would pass.
A few days after the lawyer’s last visit, Sheriff Conley brought him a suit and a pair of shoes he’d gotten at Goodwill. He hung the suit on the bars and pushed the shoes through. “Be ready in the mornin’, Harold. Eight a.m.”
Harold did a lot of thinking over night about why things were going this way. He thought about how people have to be who they are and live their own lives, even his mama. He realized a rite of passage wouldn’t be worth as much if it were easy. And most important of all, he remembered that no matter what happened, it was leading him closer to the realm he was destined to inherit. That understanding kept him sane.
He was calm, dressed and waiting for the sheriff the next morning. By two p.m. that same day, the judge had enlightened Harold about paths. “Obviously, young man, you set foot on the wrong path. I hope someday you can correct that, and I strongly suggest you take great care in choosing your future.”
Harold looked at the judge and nodded. He thought, Oh, I will, Your Honor… count on it. It’s almost over… others have had their trial by fire, and this is mine.
Then the judge started talking about “rehabilitation” and “facilities” and “fresh air” and “mental stability” and other things that simply didn’t matter to Harold. He either already had them or he didn’t need them. Finally the judge slapped a wooden hammer down on a chunk of wood like he was angry with it (only it didn’t split), and Harold looked around for his mama.
She must have mistaken the anger and hurt in his frown for confusion. She grabbed his bicep over the low wall and actually smiled. “You’re gonna like it where you’re goin’, Harold. You’re gonna live in a pretty place with a big yard and lots of grass like you wanted. An’ there’s gonna be lotsa other nice people there too, so you’ll have lotsa friends if you want ’em. An’ you shouldn’t worry ’bout me ’cause I’m gonna be fine, you know. I’ll be just fine. All right, Honey?”
Harold looked at her. “Yeah. I mean, yes Ma’am. you’ll always be fine, won’t you? ” He shook his head, his gaze still locked on hers. “You could’a had it all, right alongside me. Everything I did was for you, for my mama, and you betrayed me. You’re just another fake. Just another Judas.” He turned away and looked at Sheriff Conley. “Let’s go, Sir, please.”
His mama just smiled and looked at his back. “You don’t understand, Harold. You’ll be fine. You’ll see. Really, you’ll be fine.”
That moment in the courtroom had been a kind of release point for Harold. It signified the severing of ties with his old life—the one in which he was son, servant and subject—and served as tacit approval to search for the next.
He squeezed the footies tightly, smiled and continued south in the grass alongside the concrete path. As promised, the ground here wasn’t wet all the time and the turf didn’t move under his feet, but the grass was always damp and cool with dew because of its proximity to the stream, and that was just right.
He glanced, now and again, at the path. Occasionally, when his feet became colder than was comfortable, he’d step laterally up onto a fake stone to let them warm for a moment, but then he went right back into the grass. He called it his Reverse Lizard Move, and he’d learned that and a great deal more from a lizard he’d seen on a TV show set in southwest Arizona.
A small lizard, a distant cousin of the well-fed Louisiana alligators Harold was familiar with, was crossing the hot sand at what must have been close to the speed of sound, and the little ‘gator cousin had something in its mouth.
Oddly, it had zipped to a stop only a few feet from the camera, then dropped the item, which Harold could finally see was a small stick. The lizard climbed aboard the stick to give its feet a respite from the hot sand, and it looked directly into Harold’s eyes the entire time it was standing there.
Follow me, Harold thought it had said. Follow me. After a long moment, the lizard had stepped off the stick, grabbed it in the middle with his mouth, glanced a final time right at Harold, then sped away on the heated comfort of the sand.
Just as it flashed past a small creosote bush, the lizard had disappeared. Harold thought about that.
He and his little friend were similar in many ways, he thought, in experiences and destiny if not in physicality. The lizard had disappeared by entering a defined space at a precise time: a portal.
That’s it! Harold thought. A portal! And that portal has to be here, on these grounds! He’d endured his rite of passage and had done so with honor. It had led him here, so here is where the portal must be. For six months he’d walked south, then back north every day. He’d allowed himself to be led, but he hadn’t watched. He hadn’t known what to watch for. Now he did. He needed only to recognize it.
At a little over 300 acres, the grounds were much longer going north to south, just over a mile and a half, and much shorter going east to west, just over 500 yards.
The main building, which housed Receiving, the administrative offices, the clothing and bedding supply, the infirmary, a small gymnasium and a cafeteria, was nearly 300 feet long and was situated at the center of the north end of the grounds, just south of a broad, circular driveway.
Two long wings spread out from the main building at a slight southerly angle, one running east-southeast for the men and the other going west-southwest for the women. A massive fountain was centered about 100 feet south of the main building, and all around it was a concrete patio, littered with benches.
The men and women were allowed to congregate and talk and even touch in non-threatening and non-sexual ways as long as they were north of the southern edge of the patio. Of course, they were not allowed into each others’ dorms and they were not allowed to fraternize anywhere south of the patio. A concrete ridge called the Meridian Crest began just south of the fountain and faded into the distance, splitting the grounds in the center, women to the west, men to the east.
Harold didn’t care either way. Once he’d determined to watch for the portal, the gently trickling stream whispered constantly to him as he walked south. Most often he looked forward and down, watching and listening to the stream near his feet and the wind whispering through the trees.
Even while hoping to find the portal, he preferred to enjoy the moment he was in and not get too far ahead of himself. When it was time, he was certain, he’d know. And when it was time, he did.
There, not far short of the southeast corner of the grounds, a little over one and one-half miles from the main building, he glanced up and to his left and saw the flattest, most elegant, most grandiose mulberry tree he’d ever seen.
Where the tree fronted against the stream, which was barely two feet wide at this point, the tree was completely flat and a good three feet wide. It still was covered with the usual rough, irregularly ridged bark, but the overall surface was as flat as a geometric plane. What’s more, as Harold faced the tree across the stream, the side of the tree to his right was exactly like the front: completely flat, perfectly vertical and about three feet wide… or deep, since it was going away from him. And it was beautiful.
Harold stared at the tree for a long time, unable to tear away his gaze. When he finally did, he allowed it to follow the vertical right side of the tree up to a stately limb that arched perfectly upward to the right at an angle of forty-five degrees.
In a flash of memory, he saw the twin of this tree, reversed, arching an identical limb upward to the left to intertwine with the limb on the original tree and complete the arch. Allowing his gaze to run down the tree, he saw that a series of three large, primary roots ran parallel to the ground for about three feet along the stream. The root bundle was as flat as the trunk, except that a small rib ran along the center of the middle root, creating an effective threshold.
For the first time since he’d been in this place, Harold turned and stepped across the concrete path. Excitement tugged an involuntary smile onto his face as he closed his eyes, then turned around. Visualizing the mulberry, he faced what he was certain was the right direction, then flung open his eyes.
For an instant, he saw the portal. The two stately identical mulberry trees, one on either side; the perfect archway; the threshold—and beyond.
As the vision faded, he waited for his mouth to drop open, but it didn’t. This was his destiny, his future. He looked at the footies in his hand, then clapped his hands hard and they disappeared into dust. Then he stepped back across the concrete path, turned for a final look at his former world, and stepped through the portal, glad, at last, to be home.
* * * * * * *