“You use-ta be my best friend, Footy,”
Junior Studdart mumbled into the ticklish grass under his chin, his green eyes
focused on Chet Lightfoot and Dewie Starr. Their laughter scalded his ears.
Tall Chet pushed tiny Dewie on the swing
that hung from the old oak outside the Napper’s Holler schoolhouse. They
ignored Junior, the snake in their Eden, where Chet was Adam, and pretty Dewie,
Junior’s chubby left arm moved to the
cloth lunch bag by his side, and felt for the apple. He stuffed the apple into
his mouth and bit down hard. He recalled Father Joe’s latest sermon. The
Crack! “Ow! My arm!” Junior’s eyes glowed
with satisfaction. Dewie lay on the grass under the swing, Chet bending over
her. Junior knew she’d broken something more important than a friendship.
When Junior joined the other children in a
circle around blond Dewie and dark Chet, the latter jumped up and grabbed him
by the collar. “I’m telling Teacher,” he grated through gritted teeth.
“Redskin!” spat Junior, his face livid,
his pink cheeks wobbling.
“Cease and desist, Master Lightfoot,
Master Studdart.” Teacher Edwin Thomas’ tattooed arms separated the two boys.
Neither dared look up into his scarred face. “Timothy, go for Doc Starr. And
Freckled Timmy Sanders blanched. Then he
ran as he never had before, his heart and lungs afire. This time Napper’s
Holler students would surely walk the plank. Every bush he passed could hide
Teacher’s pirate crew, ready to stuff children into bags, smuggle them out to
sea, and drown them. Monsters would feast on their soft flesh and grind their
bones. He tripped on Doc Starr’s steps and fell hard, the wind knocked out of
him. He tried to yell for Doc, but no sound emerged.
From inside the chapel near Doc Starr’s
house, off-key singing assaulted Timmy’s ears, adding to his panic. His nose
bloody, he gulped for air like a fish out of water while Ella June Ames, Father
Joe’s old maid housekeeper, pushed her mop and belted out, “We are like the
grass that fadeth, fadeth.” Then the ringing in the boy’s ears drowned her out,
and his red-hued vision blurred to black.
Timmy awoke on Doc Starr’s sofa, a rusty taste in his mouth. Instead of
singing, he heard Dewie screaming and her pa sawing. He could smell blood.
Mercifully, he passed out again.
Later, at Dewie’s funeral, Timmy felt
worse than Chet, who acted like Timmy was invisible. Instead, Chet stood behind
his family and looked daggers at his enemy. Junior, raised by and standing with
his mama’s family, the Hobbs, appeared unmoved. He scratched himself and kicked
the grass. Slow-witted like his ma, Cassie Rae, he was growing into the
meanness of his pa, Day Studdart. No one in Napper’s Holler ever mentioned Day
Senior where Junior might overhear.
The wake, held outdoors under the full
moon, Napper’s Holler style, brought Timmy and Chet together. Chet tackled
Timmy from behind to throw him into the grass, and stoically hunkered down next
to the boy, who spewed forth undigested apple pie.
“We were going to grow up and wed. But you
and Junior put a stop to that, Tim. You owe me. You owe Dewie more.” Chet
forced Timmy’s chin up, making his victim meet his flint-eyed gaze.
“I thought pirates was after me, Chet. You
heard Teacher’s sea talk. I ran and fell. I thought I died…” Timmy stammered.
“I’ll make you wish you had died, unless you help me finish
Junior,” Chet threatened. “Besides, maybe Junior made you fall.”
“What can we do now he’s come into his
“We need to find a way to put him under
the sod, just like the Hobbs did his pa. Stupid Studdart doesn’t deserve to
have powers. Father Joe’s turning folks into sissies. It ain’t like the old
days. Teacher’s probably in cahoots with him.” Suddenly, Chet’s warrior anger
dissolved into boyish tears. He pounded his fist into the grass.
Moved, Timmy put a hand on Chet’s shoulder.
Chet didn’t brush it away. “Swear in blood,” he sobbed, pulling a sliver of
flint from a sheath on his belt. He cut his right hand’s palm, wincing.
Timmy surrendered his matching palm. After
the cut, the two spat into their palms, and then joined them. “Blood brothers
forever,” they whispered. Nearby, an owl hooted. Overhead, tree branches
Plop! Junior Studdart dropped from the
tree onto the horrified pair. He pinned them under him, one of his heavy hands
on each of their throats. “Aunt Suke used to say owl hoots mean someone’s about
to die. It ain’t my turn, so it must be your’n.”
Before the boys could react, a dark shadow
blotted out the moon above them. “Enough, Master Studdart! Let them be. Go wash
up, you two.” The three untangled themselves, Timmy and Chet shrinking from
Edwin Thomas’ helping hands. Junior tried to crawl off into the shadows, but
found himself drawn up by an ear. “Not you, me bucko! I’ve brought some holy
water to wash away your foulness.”
Junior began to squeal like a pig and
flail his arms.
“Don’t do it, Edwin.” Father Joe, who had
spoken, materialized out of the darkness to one side of the teacher. Daddy
Hobb, Junior’s silent maternal grandpa, stood on the other side. “He needs a
proper exorcism. You can’t torture the evil out of him.”
“I’d as soon send him to where the worm
dies not as look at him,” replied Edwin Thomas, his disfiguring scars livid in
the moonlight. “He already killed one innocent. Tonight there would have been
“Hate is never a solution, Edwin.
Remember, only forgiveness heals and saves. Like those who slew Our Savior, he
knows not what he does.” Father Joe could feel his old friend’s arm muscles
bulge and strain to break free. Holy water would inflict scars worse than
Edwin’s on Junior’s already bruised face. They would not only burn soul deep,
but could kill him in the burning.
“Don’t make him even more of an outcast,”
begged Daddy Hobb. “I promised Sukie on her deathbed I’d look after her sister
Rosie’s grandson. As a baby he lost his mama, my only daughter…”
“We can’t let him grow up to beget others
of his ilk,” said Edwin Thomas, gripping Junior’s neck with such terrible
strength that the boy went limp in his grasp. His squeals had subsided to animal
whimpers. “He killed without remorse. His spawn would do likewise.”
In the end, the three men dragged Junior
to the chapel, and the howling arising from it that night was unlike any heard
before or since in Napper’s Holler. Finished, Father Joe looked upon a sleeping
red-haired child who was about to grow into attractive manhood. He shook his
head sadly, and turned to face the stern determination of Edwin Thomas.
“We agreed, Joe Murphy,” said the teacher.
“Let justice be done.”
“It’s like losing Junior’s mama, Cassie,
all over again,” said Daddy Hobb, his shoulders sagging in defeat.
“I’m sorry, Mister Hobb. We can’t take any
chances,” said Father Joe. “Napper’s Holler will be safer for our women this
Doc Starr laid Junior on the same table
where his child had died. He used chloroform. In one hour’s time, that which
had made Studdart seed as abundant as grass was sacrificed for the sake of
humanity. Dead Dewie’s sampler hung above Junior’s cot to welcome him awake.
Amid grass and flowers, she had cross-stitched “Consider the lilies of the