The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
It was dusk when Erthelene lit the kerosene lamps. Deep purple shadows covered the house and the sounds of Black Water Swamp filled the humid air. In the beginning these strange noises frightened her, but now she was accustomed to them, even the bobcat’s screech, which could send shivers up anyone’s spine.
Erthelene had hoped Uncle Mabus would be back by now with news of Snake Dog. God, she prayed the animal would be all right. Otherwise it would break Billy Joe’s heart. The pain of that thought jabbed at her and she fought back tears when the boy’s name crossed her mind.
Erthelene had no interest in eating but was finishing a cup of tea at the kitchen table when the flash of automobile headlights lit the screen door.
“At last,” she thought, rushing to the front porch, “Uncle Mabus.”
A combination of fear and panic gripped her as she realized it was not the old red pick-up truck she had expected. The shiny dark sedan came to a stop in the dirt driveway and the black driver hurried around the car to open the rear passenger door. Erthelene knew the car. It belonged to Otilla Harrison, a woman she both feared and hated. The woman who had taken Billy Joe away was about to come face to face with her for the first time.
* * *
Uncle Mabus felt weary as he climbed into the red pick-up truck. He ran his hands over his white hair, elbows leaning on the steering wheel. It had taken over four hours of waiting for the examination and then the emergency surgery on Snake Dog to be completed.
The animal’s hind leg had been fractured with considerable damage to the surrounding muscle and tissue. The vet assured Uncle Mabus that the operation was successful and Snake Dog would make a good recovery with only a minor limp in the injured leg. He also informed Uncle Mabus that the expense of Snake Dog’s care would be paid for by Otilla Harrison.
Uncle Mabus had decided he would stay with Erthelene for a few days. There were some repairs he could make at the cabin and it would give him an excuse to keep an eye on the girl.
* * *
Erthelene was surprised at how small she was, under a wide-brimmed red hat with red shoes to match, as she climbed the steps to the front porch. Her driver preceded her, holding a flashlight to show the way.
Even though she was barefoot and still wearing the wrinkled skirt she had scrubbed the kitchen floor in earlier, Erthelene pushed the screen door open and stepped out onto the porch.
“I am Otilla Harri—” the woman started to say, but was cut off in mid-sentence.
“I know who you are,” Erthelene interrupted. “You took Billy Joe away.” There was an awkward silence as both women stared at one another. “You might as well come in, if you have a mind to,” Erthelene said at some length, holding the screen door open.
“Johnson, wait in the car,” Otilla Harrison ordered, dismissing her driver.
The kitchen was filled with light from a kerosene lamp that glowed on the table alongside Erthelene’s empty tea cup and saucer.
“Do you care to sit?” Erthelene asked, motioning toward a hard back chair.
“No thank you,” came the quick reply. “I hardly think that’s necessary. I only came to tell you how much I regret the injury to your dog.”
“Snake Dog does not belong to me,” Erthelene replied, looking squarely into Otilla Harrison’s eyes. “He belongs to Uncle Mabus and Billy Joe.”
“In any case,” Otilla replied, returning Erthelene’s hard gaze, “I have a request to ask of you.”
Erthelene tried hard not to show her surprise at this unexpected response. Otilla Harrison was not the type person to make a request of many people.
“I would like you to come to my home and visit with the boy,” she said, clasping her white gloved hands nervously. “I believe it would help him to adjust,” she finished.
Anger flashed in Erthelene’s eyes and she could feel its heat burning through her body. The boy she had just coldly referred to had a name and it was Billy Joe Smith.
“And why would I want to help him adjust?” Erthelene replied, stressing the word. “You have taken him away from the people who love him and now you ask my help in making it easier for you?”
“No,” Otilla Harrison replied, “I’m asking for your help to make it easier for Billy Joe.”
“I’ll think on it,” Erthelene replied. “Now it’s time you left my house.”
* * *
Uncle Mabus passed the dark sedan on the lonely country road a few minutes later. He recognized the car and felt a cold chill as the bright headlights sped by.
Erthelene was sitting on the front porch when his old red truck turned into the driveway. She met him at the porch steps and he could see the tear stains on her cheeks even in the semi darkness.
“Snake Dog is going to be all right,” he assured her, putting an arm over her shoulder. “I passed Otilla Harrison’s car on the road. What did she want?”
“She wants me to come to her home and visit with Billy Joe,” Erthelene replied softly.
“What did you say to her?” Uncle Mabus asked as they entered the cabin.
“I told her I would think on it and then I told her it was time she left my house.”
“Oh Lord!” Uncle Mabus exclaimed. “Erthelene, girl, you’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest that may be the death of us all!”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen