Authors: Jonathan Friesen
THE LAST MARTIN
Yes, you were right.
“A great new story needs a great first line.”
Martin Boyle licked the tip of his pen. “Oh, dumb!” He reached for the antibacterial spray resting on his desk, lifted it mouthward, and squeezed the trigger. His face contorted. The stuff tasted terrible. The taste alone could kill — That was it!
Martin grabbed his notepad.
“Why not kill him now? He’s in your grasp!”
the motionless body. “Or let me do it for you.”
The Black Knight kicked the beast and spat. “Everything in me wants to run him through with his own sword.” He turned toward the giant stone and stroked its smooth face. From the center of the rock, a light dimmed.
“What’s the matter, my lady? Do you not look forward to our union?”
The Black Knight brought the hilt of his sword down onto the rock. The blade flew from the knight’s hands and he swung around. “I need him. I need this sickening, unconscious knight to free my bride! I need him to wake up!” He kicked the body, and a faint groan rose from the floor.
The jackal slumped nearer. “So you do believe in prophesies.”
The Black Knight paused. “No.” He knelt down and grabbed the White Knight’s chin. “I’ve known this boy from birth, and I assure you, he is not pure in heart.” He released the prisoner’s mud-caked face, stood, and jumped on top of the stone.
“But an heir to the king? Yes, he is
who bears the name.
And if the old words are true, if he
can free Alia, then his death can wait a little
“Martin! Come down from that bedroom! Your spaghetti is cold.”
“Okay, Mom,” Martin whispered. He stared at the page. “White Knight, you’re in a heap of trouble.”
WAS BORN DEAD.
Lani adds stupid and scrawny, but my little sister wasn’t there. Mom was the only witness and she owns the tale. She loves to tell the story — usually on spaghetti night — of an evil umbilical cord that coiled like a python around my neck. I came out purply-gray. Silent. Still.
Dr. Underland’s quick hands untangled me. She whacked and squeezed and inflated my limp lungs. But my wrinkled skin turned cold, and soon the doctor conceded to Death. “I’m so sorry.” She shook her head, held me up for the light to glimmer off wet, raisined skin. “It’s been too many minutes.”
Mom pursed her lips and nodded. “Of course it has.” For months, Elaina Boyle prepared herself for this moment — the one when disaster would strike. She knew I would die.
“I fear this was meant to be.”
Mom always pauses here for dramatic effect. She reaches over the table and tousles my curly hair, hard. My glasses break free from their perch on my nose and fall lens-down into the spaghetti sauce.
Mom doesn’t notice. She’s in her glory throughout this tragic epic. “Dead. Limp. Lifeless.” She perks up. “Another meatball, Martin?”
I grab a napkin and smear lumpy red off my lenses.
“I was certain your birth would be a tragedy,” she says.
Dad clears his throat. I sit quietly. Lani can’t.
“It was!” She grins and sneezes.
“Would you be quiet?” I say.
Mom lunges over the table and snatches up our centerpiece, a soap-filled gravy dish surrounded by fake fruit. A minute later, Lani is lathered and cleansed. Mom breathes deeply and continues. “Maybe if your father had been around — “ She shoots Dad a sharp glance. His garlic toast pauses halfway between plate and mouth, then finishes the trip.
“Had he been home, I wouldn’t have needed to find
my own way
to the hospital. Oh, the stress. You could have lived.”
“But I did live!”
“Yes, I know.” She looks at me and sighs. “Such a strange day that was. Cheese, anyone?”
Mom’s in no hurry to retell the rest. But it’s Dad’s favorite part, so it’s my favorite too.
The doctor placed my tiny carcass on Mom, and she cried — big, fat Mom tears. Three minutes later, she launched into her what-a-dangerous-world-this-would-have-been speech. It must have been a stirring version because I hiccupped. Again. And again. Then I coughed.
Mom sniffled and sat up. “What’s happening?”
Dr. Underland dropped her clipboard and rushed toward the bed. “Touch him! Rub him. Your son is trying to live.”
Mom lifted up my arm and let it flop back down. “Can’t be happening.”
It took a while for me to convince her, but by evening I had earned “miracle child” status, and Mom was overjoyed. As was Dad.
He burst into the newborn nursery the next day, fresh from the airport and still wearing his army fatigues. He grabbed the first child he saw, raised him to heaven, and christened him Martin, Martin Boyle. The child already had a name — Ahmad — and this caused quite a commotion. A husky nurse yanked the double-named brown kid from Dad and pointed to the bluish boy in the corner. Dad said he’d never been so proud.
He scooped me into strong arms, as every firstborn male born into the Boyle clan has been scooped. He
spoke the words every firstborn Boyle has heard:
“I name you Martin.”
And for the first time in my brief life, I cried.
I drop my fork with a clink. Mom’s holler interrupts her own spaghetti story, and she scurries over to the cowbell that hangs above the kitchen sink. Lani and I cover our ears.
Mom sounds the alarm. Children beware. Get off the tracks, a train rumbles near.
She feels them coming deep in her bowels. I’m not sure where exactly that is, but her saying the b-word makes me squirm.
Of course, there are no children on the tracks, but Mom says she sleeps better knowing she did her part.
“What if?” She points to the three of us in turn. “What if there had been children at play on the rails? And they were deaf or dead? And the railmen fell asleep and rounded the bend?” She folds her arms and raises eyebrows in victory. “What would you say then?”
Lani shrugs. “Deaf kids couldn’t hear your bell and dead ones don’t need to?”
Mom puffs out air, plops down in her chair. “But my conscience is clear.”
Clearly disturbed. Clearly paranoid. So yeah, clear.
But Mom’s right about one thing. There are trains. Lots of them. House rattlers that rumble so near our home, the glasses tinkle in the cupboard.
It’s what comes from living In Between, in the no-man’s-land between downtown and the suburbs. It’s an odd middle place filled with steel factories and smokestacks and train yards. It’s where the Burlington line tires of heading north, hangs a U-ey, and heads west. And in the middle of the concrete and steel stand six old houses, built before there was concrete or steel. Huge houses that don’t belong.
“Still,” Mom continues, “train infestations are safer than animal infestations. In that regard, you’re safe as safe can be,” Mom says. “Surrounded by activity, out of the city, near a hospital, and far from the
She fires Dad another harsh look. This time he sets down his fork and folds his hands. His cool eyes catch Mom off-guard, his words slow and carefully chosen.
“I can’t help it my brother and Jenny chose to live in the
.” He glances around the table. “Don’t worry. It’s not for another week, and we won’t stay long.” He lowers his voice, so that I think only I hear. “Hate to see you mauled by a squirrel.”
“Can’t Martin and I stay with Uncle Landis while you two go to the cemetery?” Lani squirms. “All those dead bodies — “
“Yeah.” I bite my lip. “We could wait for you both at the farmhouse. I never met those buried people anyway.”
Mom pushes back from the table. “Do you hear them, Gavin? The children are terrified and for good reason. They understand that cemeteries are breeding grounds for germs and —”
“No.” Dad stands, and his eyes flash. “We will all go — Lani, without your attitude; Martin, without your fantasy books; and please, Elaina — without your paranoia.”
Dad whips his napkin onto the table and storms down the stairs to Underwear World.
It’s silent until Mom clears her throat. “Don’t worry. I’ll talk to your father.”
I can’t look at her. If Dad walked up, I couldn’t look at him either.
So much for making him proud.
GROAN, STRETCH, AND WHACK THE SNOOZE BUTTON.
Curtains hide the morning, but I feel it — it’s April. Today even Industrial Boulevard, the service road that leads to our chunk of In Between, will feel springy. There’ll be warm sun and warm smiles and nobody at school will understand. But the April flowers lining the sidewalk? They know. They smile all innocent, but from their roots rise a mocking mutter, “Woe to you, Martin. Your time is near.”
I’m six days from D-Day. Dead Day.
I collapse onto my back and bury myself beneath covers.
My mind fills with life’s little horrors: The smile of wicked Dr. Devlin, a dentist who doesn’t believe in happy gas; the pierce of Lani’s fish hook, cast into my left nipple. Then there was our one camping trip — poison oak leaves certainly look like suitable toilet