[ppp_patron_only level=”1″ silent=”no”]
The brisk fall wind shook the trees along RR #324, the road leading to and from Black Hills. The leaves were changing color, dropping free and drifting to the ground, more and more with each passing day. The fields were barren and crisscrossed with rock hard furrows of dark earth. Cattle huddled inside barns and people in town readied themselves for the approaching winter.
The Farris home was perched alone in a clearing high on a hill. A rutted, gravel driveway connected the property to RR #324. One of the windows in the garage door was broken. A forgotten child’s swing hung from the branch of an enormous weeping willow in the yard. The wooden seat blew in the wind, twisting and falling back to the ground after every gust. The branches of the weeping willow whispered in the breeze.
From the porch there was a breathtaking view of the town and the rest of the valley, including some bends in the Slade River and Black Rock Lake to the east, but the picturesque scenery wasn’t why the original owner had built the house there. He didn’t care to be one with nature. It wasn’t meant to be his Walden without the pond. Kurt Farris had been motivated by his desire to escape Black Hills. To escape his past.
On this particular morning, his great grandson Eddie Farris was walking with no great urgency down the gravel driveway with his backpack slung over his shoulder. His ride to school was still a good five or ten minutes away from arriving, but he had wanted some time alone. His father was in one of his moods and staying in the house felt like being trapped in a room without enough oxygen.
Eddie thought about everything and nothing, as teenage boys on their way to school are apt to do. His girlfriend, Rachel, was at the top of his mind, but he was also contemplating how he might dodge the bullet of giving his speech in Spanish class today. Yet how could he? Ms. Rodriguez always went in alphabetical order and there was no way the few students before him would use up the entire period.
“Ah, shit,” Eddie muttered, coming to an abrupt stop and kicking some gravel. “My speech!”
The class would prove to be an even greater challenge without the two pages of lined paper that were still sitting on his desk in his bedroom.
Eddie turned and made his way back up the hill, moving with a little more purpose now. The world was at peace, maybe for one of the last times in his life, although he certainly didn’t know it then. Our last peaceful moments are almost always only realized in hindsight.
Eddie opened the front door. The morning sun blazed through the picture window, causing the room to radiate with an odd, orange light. The colors were surreal, like an expressionist painting in some museum, possibly a work by Salvador Dali.
Laura Farris, who was only in her late thirties but was already cursed with numerous gray hairs, was on her knees on the floor in the kitchen. She was crying softly as she used a towel to soak up a puddle of spilled milk. There was a white carton a few feet away, still dripping on the linoleum. There was also a glass that hadn’t quite shattered, but had a long crack from top to bottom.
Michael Farris loomed over his wife. He was bear of a man with broad shoulders and a bulging chest. He was dressed for work, his blue uniform pants neatly pressed and creased. Attached to his belt were a metal key ring and a black pouch holding a can of pepper spray.
Two long white scars dashed across the flesh directly below his lips. They formed a slightly crooked cross. He wore the mark with pride. It was the result of the last time an inmate had given him trouble. There had been what he called a discipline issue, but it didn’t last long. The inmate spent a month in the hospital.
“Mom, are you okay?”
His mother’s head snapped up at the sound of her son’s voice. She nodded and said: “Yes, Eddie, get on to school, everything’s fine.”
He could see the red welt on her face. Later on, his mother would use make-up to hide the bruise as best she could. She always did. Eddie locked eyes with his father but said nothing. A current of anger crackled just under his skin.
“No, no, son, stay here for a moment,” Michael Farris said, his lips forming a malicious grin. “You and I have something to discuss. Come with me.”
Eddie knew better than to object. He followed his father to the garage where he had spent much of his childhood playing on the concrete floor with his toy trucks while his father toiled at some project or another at the work bench: a bird house for the pole in the backyard, a new window frame to replace the one rotting in the kitchen, or even the swing tied to the weeping willow.
Michael Farris pointed to the red gasoline can sitting next to the lawn mower beyond the workbench. “Get that.”
“But why?” The words left Eddie’s mouth before he could stop them.
“Son, I’m teaching you a lesson.”
Eddie nodded, just happy not to have been clobbered. He picked up the red container. The liquid inside sloshed around, shifting the weight from left to right, right to left. The handle was cold against his hot flesh.
“Come on,” Michael said, leading his son to the living room where notebooks were stacked neatly on the chipped coffee table. They were green and spiral-bound. The lined pages were filled with Eddie’s stories, essays, and poems.
“How?” Eddie stuttered. When he was done writing his stories, he took special care to hide the notebooks behind the short bookcase in his bedroom. Everywhere else seemed far too obvious: under his bed, in his closet, in his dresser. So he stacked the notebooks, spine to spine, leaving barely a gap between the bookcase and the wall. He had been certain his father wouldn’t stumble across his writings there.
“My job is to know how the cons hide their contraband. You thought you could fool me?” Michael laughed, but the sound was completely void of warmth. “This is garbage, Eddie. Farris men are better than this. We don’t hide away in our rooms and scribble nonsense about the flowers and the wind and other bullshit. We act like men. It’s time you grew up. I allowed this hobby of yours to go on too long. That was my mistake, but I’m fixing it now. Put that shit in the fireplace.”
“No,” Eddie whispered, closing his eyes and bracing for the sudden impact he was certain was on the way. Yet when he wasn’t hit or kicked or thrown to the floor, he opened his eyes.
His father was dragging his mother by the arm. White marks were forming on her flesh where the huge hand squeezed into her. She winced, gritting her teeth, but said nothing.
“Eddie, don’t make me ask you again. I’m doing this for your own good. It’ll help make you right.”
Pain flashed in his mother’s eyes. Her body twitched under the force exerted by her husband’s hand, and Eddie knew he had no choice. If he disobeyed his father, his mother would pay for the defiance. He understood how this game was played. He had chosen to take a risk and he had lost. Now he had to pay-up, the loser in a big gamble.
Hands trembling, Eddie gathered his notebooks. Three years of his thoughts filled their lined pages. Three years of dedication and devotion. Page after page contained the images he developed during the day and then composed onto the paper. There wasn’t anything he could do to save them. He walked to the fireplace, his legs heavy.
“Son, this is for the best,” his father said, his voice suddenly aching with sympathy. “It really is. You’ll understand eventually when you’re a real man.”
Eddie didn’t respond. He opened the glass doors of the fireplace, but he held onto the notebooks as long as he could. Then, when he heard his father grunt and take another step toward him, he tossed the spiral-bound pages onto the pile of charred logs. They landed there, helpless and pitiful, a couple of them open to random stories he would never read again. He wanted to dive in and pull the notebooks out, but there really wasn’t any reason to try. His father would beat him and his mother and then destroy the contraband himself. Or maybe he’d do something worse.
“Now the gas,” Michael coaxed.
Eddie unscrewed the rusted cap. Acrid fumes drilled straight into his nose. He held his breath and fought the urge to run from the house. He splashed the harsh liquid onto the notebooks. The paper soaked up the gas, the white pages growing dark, the darkness spreading to the edges, to the metal spiral binding, saturating the thin cardboard covers Eddie had carefully labeled with titles and dates when the works were created. Once the notebooks were coated, he put the container on the floor.
Michael’s calloused fingers handed his son a single wooden match. Eddie took the tiny piece of wood. Tears dribbled from his eyes and his entire body shuddered. He swiped the red tip on the mantle. The match flared to life. The flame chewed down to his skin, the sulfur smell reaching his nose, burning his eyes. His flesh stung.
Eddie wished for a reprieve, prayed for a miracle, but he knew none was coming. Breathing deeply, he tossed the match into the fireplace. The notebooks burst into flames, a loud whoosh engulfing the room, fire reaching out for him on the fumes, a plume of black smoke rising into the chimney.
Vomit rushed into Eddie’s throat, but he managed to choke it down, the acid burning in his mouth. He coughed. His chest hitched.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all that jazz,” Michael whispered into Eddie’s ear. “Don’t fuck with me, son. Don’t ever break my rules again.”
Eddie remained motionless, his eyes locked on the fire and his notebooks.
“I’ll be home at five tonight,” Michael stated. “But you’d better be here right after school. Understand me, boy?”
Eddie nodded, but he didn’t look away from the smoke and the flames.
* * *