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Authors: Iain Lawrence

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BOOK: Ghost Boy
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Chapter

9

T
he trailer was rounded at the ends and domed at the roof, all smooth and shiny, like an enormous toaster set on wheels. It sounded hollow and tinny when Harold tapped on its side.

“Say, there's someone there.” Tina's squeaky voice came faintly through the walls.

The trailer rocked on creaking springs. The door flew open and Samuel burst out, squeezing sideways—bent double—through its oval shape. “It's the boy,” he said. “That boy from Liberty.”

“Gosh!” said Tina. She came to the doorway, her little arms stretched to touch its sides. “It's a happy day!” she cried. “Oh, it's such a happy day. Give him a hug, Samuel. Give him a great big hug for me.”

Harold cringed as the arms encircled him, the big hairy arms that nearly squeezed his breath away. But they felt so safe—so tender—that he closed his eyes and let himself be hugged. Not for years had he been greeted so warmly.

“Now bring him in,” said Tina. “You big dope. You knucklehead. Say, he must be starved to death.”

They gave him the only chair in a tiny living room that had only that and a sofa. He sank between its overstuffed sides, into cushions as soft as clouds. Samuel towered over him, his head cocked sideways under the ceiling. Tina brought him sandwiches of thick white bread filled with chicken breast, then perched beside him on the arm of the chair.

“How did you find us?” she asked. “Who brought you here?”

“Thunder Wakes Him,” said Harold.

Tina laughed. “Oh, isn't he the sweetest guy? Say, where is he, anyway?”

“He didn't want to stop,” said Harold.

Samuel grunted. “He likes to be alone. It's funny he would take you.”

“And you came through that great big storm?” asked Tina. “Just you and Bob and a horse? Say, don't you know the rivers are flooding? Don't you know the circus is scattered all across the land?”

Harold shook his head.

“It's a mess, all right,” said Samuel. He folded himself onto the sofa, his enormous, ugly head tilted back. He put his clawed fingers over his eyes. “A bridge washed out; a road was closed. The big top's in one place and the Cannibal King's in another. And Lord knows where the Gypsy Magda is.”

“Oh, she'll be all right,” said Tina soothingly. The trailer rocked in a gust of wind. Rain pattered briefly on its top, and Tina looked up at the sound. “Don't you worry, Samuel. She'll be fine out there.”

The trailer was cozy and warm. Harold nodded off, then jerked awake; finally he slept.

He dreamed the old dream, the one that came to him more than any other. He was standing in the doorway of a crowded room, full of people from wall to wall. He saw them very clearly—men in farmer's clothes and business suits, ladies in fine, flowing dresses. They were gathered in bunches—some standing, some sitting—and the room shook with the sound of their talk. Then he stepped inside, and the faces turned toward him. The businessmen touched their spectacles; the farmers chewed tobacco and peered at him with weathered eyes; the ladies held their fingers at their throats. There was one more peal of laughter, and then the room was silent.

Harold, in the dream, saw his hands, and they were tanned by sun. Then he wasn't in himself but was looking down
at
himself. His face was almost golden, his hair as dark as iron. And he realized that he wasn't really white at all, that he never
had
been white. Someone shouted, “Don't be shy!” And all the men and all the ladies waved him in; they beckoned for him to join them.

He woke from the dream, as he always did, with a feeling of tremendous joy to know he wasn't such a freakish white. But a moment later it turned to sadness when he remembered that he was.

The big, comfortable chair hugged him with its softness. Blankets had been tucked around him, tight as a cocoon at his feet. The trailer walls rose in a curve to the shiny dome of the ceiling. And there he saw himself, as he had in his dream, but small and white and lonely.

“He's awake now,” shouted Tina. He hadn't seen her on the sofa, as tiny as she was, camouflaged against its beige ulphostery in a shabby housecoat. “Say, we thought you'd sleep the day away.”

“I'm sorry,” said Harold.

“I don't know why you should be. You have to sleep, you know.” She laughed. “It's not like we're going anywhere.”

“Why not?” asked Harold.

“Well, take a look outside.” She gestured with her little hand vaguely toward the window. “It'll clear your head. Go on and take a look.”

He folded his blankets and left them on the chair. Then he pulled on his helmet and stumbled out through the door, down a step to sodden grass.

The storm had passed, and the sky was full of ragged clouds. The truck and trailer were pulled off beside a dirt road—now only mud—that ended just yards away, at the edge of a swollen river. Water swept around the stumps of a washed-out bridge and covered the road from shoulder to shoulder. Samuel stood there, but to Harold he looked like only a stump, until he turned and came across the grass.

“Almost drove right off the road,” he said. “The rain the way it was, mud all over the headlights, I couldn't see a thing. Not a thing.” He was rubbing his hairy fists together. “I just hope old Bob saw it. What if he rode himself straight into the river?”

“The horse wouldn't let him,” said Harold.

“Maybe not. Maybe not.” Samuel's claws clicked as he wrung his hands. “No, I suppose you're right. Of course that's true.”

The river went by in a dark, silent rush. Harold watched it oozing through the grass, and he thought what a sad, tiny thing the Rattlesnake was. And suddenly he felt very far from home, and remembered his dog and his mother.

Samuel was watching him, staring down from his great height. “What's wrong with your eyes?” he asked.

“Nothing,” said Harold.

“They're kind of moving. They're jumping like Mexican beans.”

Harold blushed. He felt in his pockets for his glasses.

“Do things look wobbly?” asked Samuel, bending closer. “Is everything you see sort of moving?”

“No,” said Harold.

Samuel straightened. “Can you see what I look like?”

He was the ugliest thing that Harold had ever seen. Below the big, thick brows his face was squashed and flat. The hair that grew from it hung in tufts, thickened by dirt and rain.

“Can you?” asked Samuel again.

“Not really,” lied Harold.

“You're lucky.” The little eyes seemed sad. “You wouldn't believe how lucky you are.”

         

T
HE CLOUDS BROKE UP
and the sun came out, but the river didn't fall; it rose higher. Samuel drove a stick into the ground at its edge, and they sat on a bit of canvas—the midget, the monster and Harold the Ghost—watching the water creep up the stick. It spread through the grass toward them.

A milking stool went past, and then a chicken coop turning circles, with a rooster crowing at its top.

“If a rocking chair goes by,” said Samuel, “I'm going to fetch it. I always wanted a rocking chair.”

“And a chest of drawers,” said Princess Minikin. “With a big old mirror that tilts and turns. That's what I'd like.” Then she looked at Harold. “What about you?”

Harold leaned back on his arms. He thought of all the things he wanted, and imagined it would take a raft to hold them all. He tried to picture it coming slowly down the river, stacked with fishing poles and Daisy rifles, towing kites with long tails of red ribbons. He saw a television set and an army of toy soldiers. He saw a huge heap of boxes. And then, balanced on top of it all, his brother, David, was sitting in his uniform, waving as he came, and there at the front was Honey. He even heard her bark.

Suddenly he was crying. He wasn't making a sound, but tears were trickling out from his glasses. The raft disappeared and he saw Honey instead, lying on the floor where he'd left her.

“Say, I'm sorry,” said Tina. “Gosh, I didn't want to make you feel bad.”

“I guess he misses his home,” said Samuel.

“Of course he does, you lug.”

Samuel shifted to his knees. “Jolly jam!” he said. “Let's give him a jolly jam.”

They closed around him, Tina standing up to throw her arms around his neck, Samuel folding down to take him in those enormous, hairy fists. They crushed him from either side; they rocked him back and forth.

They squeezed the sadness from the Ghost. They squeezed it up so it filled him at first—more than it ever had—then poured from him like the sour juice of a lemon. In its place came a glow of warmth and peace, and Harold smiled and hugged them back.

“You see?” said Samuel. “That's what he needed. A good old geezer-squeezer.” He smiled, his teeth so sharp and crooked, his eyes bright as little stars. Harold stared back at them, and for the first time saw something other than ugliness. He saw—or thought he did—a normal person inside those eyes, a different person trapped in all that hair and sagging flesh. It was a funny little man in there, one he would love in a moment if he looked the way he should.

Tina's hands clung to Harold's wrists. “Don't you worry,” she said. “Everything goes for the best. The Gypsy Magda said it would. Tell him, Samuel. Didn't she say that anyway?”

Samuel nodded. “Yes, she did.”

“She said a boy would come. He would be on a journey, she said. He would start in the dead of night, and at the end he would find contentment.”

“I've never met her,” said Harold.

“Say, you think that matters? The Gypsy Magda sees visions. She can look at your hand and tell you everything that's happened and everything that will.”

“She's never wrong,” said Samuel.

They sat in a row, facing the river. It crawled through the grass and rippled past Samuel's stick, hardly an inch from its top.

“Where's the Gypsy Magda now?” asked Harold.

Samuel grunted. “I guess she's lost. She's always getting lost somewhere.”

Chapter

10

T
he river crept higher, and then no farther. It flowed past like a great moving lake, carrying whole trees from a distant forest, carrying a horse trough and a bucket and an old wagon with its wheels poking up in the air.

Then the sun went down, and a silver curve of moon drifted up behind it. Far away the coyotes called.

“Listen,” said Samuel suddenly.

The prairie seemed to hum with the noise of the night. The crickets, the frogs, the river in the grass; a rush of tiny noises churned in Harold's ears.

Samuel stood up. “The Gypsy Magda's coming.”

Harold felt a tingle through his back and down his arms. Walter Beesley had made him scared of Gypsies; he saw them as thieves that came crawling in packs.

Above the prairie noises he heard the growl of the engine and looked up, to the east. A prick of light floated there, between the land and sky. It split in two, a pair of yellow eyes. They glared down the road and shone in leaping flashes on the trailer. And Samuel ran to meet them. He sprinted through the grass, hunched and gangly, like something prehistoric. The eyes caught him and pinned him on the road, and his shadow stretched for a quarter mile, rippled on the river.

The truck slowed, grinding through its gears. It shimmied sideways, straightened again, then stopped beside the other one. It was shorter and fatter than the Ford that Samuel drove, clotted with mud around its fenders. The lights went out and the engine stopped. A door creaked open.

“That boy, is he here?” said the Gypsy Magda. “That boy on his journey, that traveling boy. Is he here?”

“Yes,” said Samuel. He stood below the door, reaching up into a void of shadows. “We were worried about you,” he said.

“Has he seen the Cannibal King?”

“No.”

“Much I have to tell him.”

Samuel stretched his arms toward the cab. A hand floated out of the darkness, a face above it, but nothing to join them. The hand fluttered down like a moth and lighted on Samuel's shoulder. He took the woman in his arms and set her down on the grass.

She came into the light from the trailer windows, a woman dressed all in black, in layers of scarves that flowed around her. She was thin and shriveled and gray; her arms were nothing but bones. But on her wrists and her ankles she wore silver bracelets, and bells below the scarves, and she walked with a jingling and a tingling of metal. Tina ran to greet her, and the Gypsy Magda dropped to her knees to hug the little princess.

“Where have you been?” asked Tina.

“She's so big, this land of America,” said the Gypsy Magda. “I drive and drive across her steppes. The same fence post, thirteen times he passes me.” Her face turned, gaunt and yellow in the light. She found Harold in the darkness, and her eyes seemed to burn. “Why does he stand in shadows?”

“He's kind of shy,” said Tina.

With a shimmering of bells the Gypsy Magda stood. She beckoned to Harold, and he went to her, his arms in a cross on his chest, his feet scuffing, as though she
dragged
him to her.

“Yes, you're the one,” she said, and smiled a toothless grin. “Let me see your hands.”

She didn't wait; she snatched them. She took them and turned them sharply over, and her thumbs—with thick, yellow nails—scraped across his palms. Then she shook, and her bracelets rang. Her voice went high and keening, and it shivered through his skin. “Beware the ones with unnatural charm. And the beast that feeds with its tail.”

Gooseflesh rose on Harold's skin. He saw his snow-white hands, her dark thumbs laid across them. He saw her head roll back. And again her voice scraped at his spine like a fiddler's bow.

“A wild man's meek and a dark one's pale. And there comes a monstrous harm.”

Her voice faded off. Then a coyote called, and then another, in the same shrill and eerie tones as the Gypsy Magda. A third answered them, and a fourth in the distance, as though they sang her warning across the prairie, from den to lonely den.

“Gosh!” said Tina. “Jeepers, that was good.” Her little face was smiling, her adult's face like a child's again, gazing up at Harold. “Say, didn't I tell you she was something else?”

Harold couldn't answer. He felt a heat from the old Gypsy's thumbs, but it was the look in her eyes that startled him. The Gypsy, he thought, was frightened.

BOOK: Ghost Boy
11.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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