My mother was distant at breakfast the next day.
She answered my father’s questions slowly and with delay. He had also noticed her partial stupor and asked if she was feeling all right. She said she was, just hadn’t slept as well as she normally did.
I wondered why her sleep had been disturbed. Had she heard something in the night? Seen something? Even the sunlight pouring into our kitchen that told of the bright day to come wasn’t enough to stave off the cold pool of fear gathering in my belly.
My father offered to drive me to school again that morning but I declined, assuring him I would be okay. As I think back on it now, he was most likely asking not only for my sake but for his own to boot. I think by then he had an inkling that something was wrong and all the time getting worse, like a cliff inevitably coming closer and closer to our family.
The walk into town was uneventful, not to say that I didn’t keep flicking my gaze over my shoulder every few steps. The heat that had permeated the day before was gone, filled in with a coolness to the air that reminded me of fall more than spring, and I kept shrugging my shoulders to keep warm within my light jacket. When I reached the turnoff for the schoolhouse, a voice whispered from the nearby field and I froze, guts shriveling in on themselves until I realized I knew who had spoken.
Jones poked his head up from behind an overgrown juniper bush that hadn’t greened out yet.
“Over here,” he said again, and I glanced around before jumping down off the gravel road to join him.
“The hell are you doing?”
“Had to talk to you. We gotta skip school.”
“What? Mrs. Shawler’ll skin us, not to mention our parents.”
“They won’t find out. You can do your pa’s handwriting, right?”
“You fooled Shawler last fall.”
“I got moonshine.”
“Got some of pa’s shine that he got offa Nimble back when they were runnin’.”
Truth be told, I’d only had whiskey once. I’d snuck a glassful just as I had with the coffee and run it out behind our barn to drink. The taste had made me gag, but shortly thereafter I got a real light, warm feeling that flowed down to the tips of my toes and back. Thinking I’d found the best thing since Coke, I slugged the rest of it, sure the faster I drank it, the better the result would be.
I’d been wrong.
My parents hadn’t found out, at least my father hadn’t let on that he knew, but I had never been sicker than that long afternoon with the sky spinning above me, ground tilting beneath my back, and the smell of my vomit overwhelming in the grass beside my head.
Needless to say, Jones’s temptation of shine didn’t have the desired effect he’d hoped for.
“I don’t want any shine, Jones. We need to go to school. We gotta work Sara’s field this afternoon and-”
“I seen Danny yesterday,” Jones said.
My mouth felt like the words had been punched out of it. I just stood there, a little unsteady, and studied my best friend’s face.
“What did you say?”
Jones grimaced and it looked like he was going to cry. “I ain’t crazy, Lane, I ain’t. I thought about it all night and I know what I seen.”
“Did you say, Danny?” He nodded and I slowly sat down, letting my school bag settle beside me. After a beat Jones joined me, the stricken look on his face partially replaced with hope.
“You seen him too, didn’t you?” My silence was answer enough. “Oh God, I did think I was going nuts. I stayed up nearly all night going over it. You followed him. That’s why you almost fell into the well.”
Relief and renewed worry battered me. The things I’d seen weren’t in my head. First my father, now Jones. This was real.
“Where’s your shine?”
Jones led me toward his farm on a goat path that wound through a stand of trees behind Missy’s shop and across a field that had grown over since it was cleared years before. We left the field and walked down into a hollow near a high bank that bordered his farm. After some effort of getting through a dead patch of wild raspberry canes, we came into view of an outcropping of rock at the base of the hill. A formation of stone jutted from the bank and several enormous rocks stood on end, creating a makeshift shelter from the cool northern wind that coasted through the hollow. Inside the rock ring was a gouged place in the earth, burnt black by fire along with a pile of birch bark and a stack of dry wood. A clay jug with a cork sat near the bank, nestled in some moss.
“Found it earlier this spring,” Jones said, crouching near the little depression. “Came down here a few times when ma and pa were fightin’. Was gonna show it to you once I made some more additions to it. Want to get another wall up and put a proper roof on it with some tin.”
He sounded apologetic while explaining his plans. I brushed aside his guilt at not bringing me here by walking straight to the jug of shine, popping the cork free, and downing two long swigs. The white lightning burned like unholy fire from the back of my tongue to the base of my stomach. Almost immediately the world took on a softened quality at the edges and a little of my anxiety leaked away.
Jones snapped a match against stone and the sound bothered me so much I took another swig of whiskey while the flames spread through the birch bark and started to gnaw on the wooden tee-pee he’d created above it.
I sat down near the fire and held my hands out. They were cold and the flames felt good. Jones grabbed the jug from me and with a much more practiced tip, took a drink.
“Tell me,” I said without looking up from the fire.
“After you went to piss I started digging. When you didn’t come back right away I started walking over to the tree you went behind to see if you were all right. I knew you were bothered about something, just couldn’t figure what it was and of course you weren’t telling me. So then I see you start heading off toward the barn and I think you have to go shit now and you’re lookin’ for a biffy. But then I seen him.” Jones clears his throat and his normally cheerful face is anything but. “Told myself that it couldn’t be him, but he was wearing those overalls he used to always have on. Saw his hair moving and I got real cold all of a sudden.” Jones looked up at me and clutched the jug close to his side. “He changed as I lost sight of him round the barn. He didn’t look so small anymore and he didn’t have hair. He was just sickly pale and smooth like a stone at the bottom of a river. But I only seen him for a second, then he was gone and so were you.”
The wind nudged the tops of the trees and sung through a hole in our rock refuge. The fire guttered and surged.
“You were right. Something was bothering me,” I said slowly. Then I told him everything, starting on the night my father brought me to Ellis Wilmer’s. The day stayed bright but cool while I talked and Jones sat still as the stones around us. When I was done I took another drink of shine, even though my mind had started to swim a little and my vision wasn’t keeping up when I turned my head.
Jones stayed quiet for a while before finally saying, “But your pa saw it? Saw whatever crawled out of the puddle?”
“Yeah. But I’m not sure what it looked like to him.”
“What the hell’s happening, Lane?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m not sure I want to go back to Sara’s. Don’t know if I can make myself after yesterday.”
“It’s not Sara’s place, Jones. I don’t think that’s what’s at the center.”
A little fear crept into his voice. “At the center of what?”
I didn’t answer him, just stared into the flames. After a time, Jones added more wood and we each took another slug of shine. I can’t recall falling asleep but I know I did because when I woke the sun had shifted in the sky and there was more warmth in the air.
I stirred and sat up, scowling at the foul taste in my mouth. A hint of booze still played in my head and I walked into the woods a ways to relieve myself. When I came back Jones was crushing out the few remaining embers in the fire pit.
“Think we should work this afternoon?” he said without looking up at me.
“Yeah. I might be able to write a note for you too.”
“Nah. I’ll just take a wuppin. Not like I’ve never had one before.” He grinned a little and in that moment I knew how deeply our friendship went. Jones had listened to me, never questioning any of the things I’d said, never doubting. And beyond that, he was trying to cheer both of us up. You only have a few true friends in a lifetime. Jones was the best I ever had.
We headed back the way we came and when we got in sight of the schoolyard, we both waited, trying to figure out exactly what time it was. It was close to school getting out, we knew that, but neither of us had the guts to go and peek in one of the windows at the clock on the wall. Just as we were beginning to argue who had to leave the hiding place, Sara May came around the side of the school and stood by the stairs, looking at Secondary Road while she waited. Jones and I gave each other a glance and stepped out into the open.
“Sara?” I asked, walking closer.
Her head snapped around but she didn’t seem too surprised to see either of us appearing out of the wilderness. “There you both are,” she said.
“Yeah, here we are,” Jones said, looking around nervously. “What’s going on?”
“Didn’t you see my note?”
“What note?” I asked.
“The one I left beside Mrs. Shawler’s.” We both must’ve looked as dumb as we felt because her eyebrows lowered and she squinted. “You two skipped, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said, not seeing any reason to lie.
“You’re lucky then. Mr. Shawler was awful sick this morning and Mrs. Shawler called off school for the day. She left a note on the door and I put one beside it for when you two showed up saying I’d meet you here about when class normally ended.”
It was the one piece of luck I’d had in several days and it felt good knowing I wouldn’t have to answer for skipping.
“You guys ready to work?” she asked.
Jones and I shared a look and I nodded. “Yep. Sure are.”
The work was easier than the day before.
I’m not sure if it was the cooler temperatures or because of what Jones and I had shared with one another, but the stumps seemed to pull themselves out of the ground. Mr. Tandy was pleased when we took a little break and he inspected our work. He told us if we got four stumps out that day, he’d give us a bonus of ten cents apiece.
With the renewed vigor of promised riches fueling us, we dug harder, faster, and chopped roots with gusto. Mr. Tandy had piled the stumps we’d already pulled out in a heap at the far corner of the field, their tangled shapes looking like a stack of dead spiders.
It was shortly before quitting time that I saw Sara wavering beside her bucket of rocks. I’d been sneaking glances at her all afternoon, goose bumps running over my skin when she was looking back. But her posture this time was off, the unsteadiness in her stance apparent. I dropped my spade and moved toward her quickly. Jones must’ve sensed something was wrong because he asked if I needed him but I just shrugged as I approached Sara.
She was staring at the horizon that had become a bloody mess of clouds snagged on the tree line. Her eyes were vacant dots sunk into her skull and her mouth was moving when I stopped a few feet from her.
“Sara? Are you all right?”
She blinked and her jaw opened wide as if she were yawning before her pupils focused on me. “I don’t know,” she said. “I feel a little faint. Think I need some water.”
I picked up the pitcher she’d brought us not an hour ago but it was bone dry. “Here, come with me,” I said, and took her by the arm. She walked beside me and I ignored the racing thoughts that accompanied touching the girl I was in love with. I led her toward the barn, waving once to Jones who nodded and went back to work on the stump. Inside the shade of the barn Sara sat down on a hay bale and I started for the house to get some water when she stopped me.
“There’s a hand pump in the corner,” she said, pointing to the red spigot and handle attached to it. I pumped the pitcher partially full of icy water and brought it to her, helping hold it as she took several long drinks. When she was finished I sat down beside her and studied her face.
“I’m okay. I feel silly now,” she muttered, her cheeks coloring. “Think I got winded and a little lightheaded from bending over so many times to pick up rocks.”
“It can happen,” I fumbled, trying to keep the conversation going. “You’re a really hard worker.”
She smiled. “Daddy didn’t get a son like he wanted so I had to fill in.”
“You can outwork a lot of boys I know.”
“You’re sweet.” I didn’t know what to say to that.
The barn creaked around us and a tabby cat slunk between the hay bales and then out of sight. It was nice just sitting beside her in the quiet of the barn. I could’ve stayed there for the rest of my life and been content. Sometimes I go back to that moment and relive it as well as my aging mind can remember.
“I’m glad you and Jones agreed to help clear the field,” she said. “It’s nice having company after school.”
“Don’t you ever have any of the other girls over from class?” I asked.
“No, not really. Darlene came and stayed a couple times but she started being kinda mean so I told momma I didn’t want her to come over anymore.”
“Don’t you get lonely?”
“Sometimes. But momma and daddy and I play cards a lot. They’re teaching me Rook now. It’s really fun.”
“Never played that one before.”
“Maybe you can have your dad bring you over sometime and I’ll teach you.”
“That’d be really nice,” I said, feeling stupid at the reply. I struggled for something else to say but the well of conversation had dried up.
I was about to rise from the bale and tell her I was going back to the field when she said, “Do you like me, Lane?”
I blinked stupidly at her, not daring to hope. “Like you? Absolutely, Sara.”
“I mean like me more than a friend? I’ve seen how you look at me and you have to see I’m looking back at you the same way.”
“Well…y…you…” I swallowed the knot that had formed in my throat. “You’re wonderful,” I managed. “You’re so quiet.” I could’ve kicked myself. I would have tried if I hadn’t been sitting down.
“I was quiet, wasn’t I?” She seemed to be asking herself. “I’ve always liked watching and listening rather than talking. Is that strange?”
“Not strange at all.”
“You’re the same way.”
“Yes. You don’t say nearly as much as Jones.”
“No one does.”
She laughed and reached out to hold my hand. I could’ve died happy then. Right there. If God had come off his holy throne and stepped down, pointing an enormous finger at me, I would’ve been able to go without pretense. Despite the nervousness racing inside me, something was happening below my midsection. I knew what it was, but there was no stopping it what with Sara’s smooth fingers laced within my own. My experience with girls consisted of facts Mills had told Jones and I on several occasions that didn’t leave the realm of scientific anatomy, and what had happened within the barn in the last several minutes.
To my horror Sara glanced down at my lap.
And her voice changed to something deeply guttural and poisonous. “Oh Lane. Looks like a little worm is standing up. Careful not to get it snipped off.” Sara clacked her teeth together an inch from my face and I leapt away.
I trembled in the barn’s doorway, ready to flee if she said anything in the baritone voice again that shouldn’t have been able to come from a fourteen-year-old girl. Sara yawned and she shook her head like a dog that has something in its ear.
She looked up at me, eyes watery and confused. “Lane? What happened? Why are you over there?”
“You said something…”
“What? I said I liked you.”
“After that. You said something about biting off a worm. Your voice changed.”
She frowned. “No, I didn’t.”
I started to argue but a coldness sank into me. It was happening again. This time to Sara May, the very last person I wanted affected by the shadow that was hovering over my life.
“Do you feel okay?” I asked, trying to keep the waver out of my voice.
“I think so. Thanks for getting me the water. I suppose we should get back to the field,” she said, her words somewhat clipped. I nodded and followed her out into the setting sun.