The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
Sheriff Roberts nodded to Uncle Mabus as he and his deputy approached the front porch. “Good day, Mabus,” he said, removing his sunglasses to reveal the bluest eyes Erthelene had ever seen. The hair showing under his hat was graying and she noticed his red, sunburned neck. For some reason she couldn’t help but wonder if he’d ever worn a white sheet over it.
“This is my niece, Erthelene Carter,” Uncle Mabus said, taking her hand in his. “The young man in the truck is Billy Joe Smith.” Then he added, “How can we help you, Sheriff?”
“Actually it’s the boy I’m here about,” Sheriff Roberts answered. “I have a request from Judge Horton for information about the boy’s parents or his legal guardian, if his parents are deceased.”
Erthelene had attempted a weak smile earlier when first meeting Sheriff Roberts. Now there was no pretense, his words froze her heart.
“Maybe we should go inside and sit down at the table,” Uncle Mabus suggested, “away from the boy’s hearing.”
“Keep the boy company, Tom,” Sheriff Roberts instructed his deputy, as he followed Erthelene and Uncle Mabus into the cabin. Erthelene sat at the kitchen table, her brown hands clasped so hard that the knuckles showed white. Uncle Mabus poured them each some coffee and placed the cups on the table.
“My niece will tell you everything she knows about the child,” Uncle Mabus said, turning to Erthelene.
* * *
Otilla Harrison was still in her robe and nightgown, sitting at the dressing table in her bedroom, the remainder of her uneaten breakfast on a silver tray.
She opened the dressing table drawer to reveal a small velvet-covered box. She caressed the box with her fingertips before gently opening it.
Inside was a picture frame holding the photograph of a handsome young man with smartly combed blonde hair. He wore an officer’s uniform and his smile was not easily forgotten. She dwelled on the photograph for a long while, touching it occasionally.
How much the boy reminded her of him. “He could have been our child, if only fate had been kinder,” she thought. With tears in her eyes, she closed the box and returned it to the drawer.
* * *
Billy Joe and Uncle Mabus spent most of the afternoon fishing on the old dock over Miller’s Creek. Snake Dog lay close to Billy Joe, his head resting on the boy’s leg. Billy Joe was quiet and the old man thought it best to wait for the questions he was sure would come.
“Will they take me away, Uncle Mabus?” Billy Joe finally asked, staring into the dark water, tears welling in his eyes.
“It’s possible,” the old man replied, putting his arm around Billy Joe’s shoulder and drawing him close. “The Lord may have a different path for you to walk, but I can tell you this, no one will ever take you out of our hearts. Erthelene and I will always love you.”
Erthelene had cornbread in the oven and a big pot of field greens cooked with fat back when the two fishermen returned, holding up a string of good-sized catfish.
“Well, would you look here,” she smiled, “enough catfish for half of Opalville. Clean ’em up, Uncle Mabus, while I get the grease hot.”
Erthelene’s smile did not fool Billy Joe. He knew her far too well. He gently put his arms around her waist and buried his face in her apron. The smell of its clean starched material always reminded him of her and made him feel better.
The fish was delicious with its crunchy cornmeal batter. Erthelene surprised everyone when she pulled two fat sweet potatoes out of the oven. Billy Joe and Uncle Mabus ate well. Even Snake Dog rattled his pie tin on the front porch, licking it clean. Erthelene ate little, but no one made mention of it.
After dinner, they moved to the front porch, Uncle Mabus and Erthelene sitting in the old rockers and Billy Joe and Snake Dog on the porch steps. The air was balmy with just a slight breeze, enough to carry the perfume of honeysuckle through the night. An army of lightning bugs appeared, sending Billy Joe into the kitchen for a jar to catch them. Snake Dog bounded around the boy, jumping up, trying to catch his own.
Moonlight broke through the clouds, turning the Spanish moss to silver strands, and a mockingbird sang its heart out to the captive audience below. Erthelene and Uncle Mabus spoke little. They knew this time was precious, these hours together. This happiness could be taken away so quickly. In her heart, Erthelene prayed that tomorrow would never come.
But tomorrow did come, at shortly before six a.m. the next morning. The big rooster let out his welcoming crow for the slowly rising fire ball in the eastern sky.
Billy Joe and Snake Dog watched the orange glow fill the room. Through the window, Billy Joe could see the grey cypress trees that marked the beginning of Black Water swamp. Beyond them, a thick green jungle of vines and leaves devoured everything. He closed his eyes and wished that the swamp would reach out and cover the house, that no one would ever find it and things could always remain the same as they were now.
Uncle Mabus stayed the night, sleeping in Erthelene’s bed while she took the sofa in the living room. The old man sensed the moment of reckoning was near for the two people he loved most in the world. He would do what he could to lessen their pain, leaving his own misery to be dealt with later.
* * *
It was shortly after ten in the morning when two automobiles pulled into the drive way. The sheriff’s car was first. It was followed by a dark sedan with a lone passenger in the back seat. Uncle Mabus came out of the house, followed by Erthelene with Billy Joe at her side.
“I have a court order here, to take custody of the minor child known as William Joseph Smith,” Sheriff Rogers read from an official document of several pages. “Said minor child to be remanded as a ward of the court, until legal guardianship status can be determined. Signed by the honorable Judge William T. Horton, this twenty-sixth day of August, l946.”
At this point a woman stepped out of the dark sedan. She was dressed in a grey suit and she carried a leather briefcase.
“I’m Mrs. Stockwell,” she announced coldly, “from Child Welfare Services.” She took Billy Joe’s hand. “Come along young man, it’s time to go.”
The terrified boy looked up at Erthelene as she let go of his hand, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Go along now, honey,” she said softly to him. “Be a good boy. Uncle Mabus and I will see you soon.” Then she turned, putting her hands over her face.
Uncle Mabus watched as the woman hustled Billy Joe into the sedan and closed the door. “Remember what I told you, boy,” the old man said through the open car window. “We will always love you.”
The sheriff tipped his hat to Uncle Mabus. “I’m sorry it has to be this way,” he said.
“Where are they taking the boy?” Uncle Mabus asked. “Where can we go to see him?”
The sheriff hesitated a moment. “According to these papers, Otilla Harrison has been appointed his temporary guardian. The boy is to reside with her for the time being.” Then the sheriff reached out and shook the old man’s hand. “Take a word of advice, Mabus. Don’t make trouble over this. It’s for the boy’s own good in the long run.”
As the caravan started down the driveway, Snake Dog bounded off the porch. He jumped up at the open window of the sedan in a desperate effort to reach Billy Joe. The frantic animal then raced around in front of the moving automobile, disappearing beneath it with a piercing yelp of pain.
“God!” the driver exclaimed, turning to the woman in the back seat. “I think I hit the dog!”
“Don’t stop,” she replied rolling the window up. “Keep on going.”
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen