The Boy Next Door
by Ron Van Sweringen
The next day was busy for Billy Joe, but all he could think of was his visit with Erthelene and Uncle Mabus. The only thing that could have made it better would have been to hold Snake Dog in his arms.
As soon as breakfast was over, Johnson brought the car around and Gladys hustled Billy Joe into the back seat beside Otilla Harrison.
“Where are we going?” he finally asked as the sedan pulled out of the drive way.
“Shopping. You need school clothes and at least two more pairs of shoes, a dark blue blazer, underwear and several white dress shirts and neckties,” was Otilla Harrison’s reply.
“Why can’t I wear my overalls to school?” Billy Joe asked with frustration.
“Because you’re going away to a private school where overalls are not allowed. You’re going to become a well educated young gentleman and after that you’re going to a fine college.”
Everything Otilla Harrison said faded to a blur in Billy Joe’s head, except for two words. “Going away!”
Johnson drove them forty miles to Harper City, a thriving town about four times the size of Opalville. They shopped in a large department store . Billy Joe did not like the new experience of being measured by salespeople, or the itchy wool pants he was forced to try on.
That evening Billy Joe ate his meal in the kitchen. Otilla Harrison was having dinner guests and he was to be kept out of the way. When he had finished eating, Gladys led him through the pantry and down the long hall to the stairway.
“You go up to your room, honey, and put on your pyjamas,” she said returning to the kitchen. “And don’t forget to brush your teeth now.”
Billy Joe stood on the stairway for a moment. He could hear a man’s voice through the partially opened dining room door.
“Sending the boy away to a Military Academy is an excellent idea, Otilla. They’ll educate him and make a man out of him at the same time.”
“Morrison has a wonderful reputation,” she replied, “and its only a two-hour drive, so Johnson can bring him home for holidays.”
There it was again, they were sending him away!
* * *
Uncle Mabus was resting in his rocker on the porch and Erthelene was finishing up the dinner dishes. Snake Dog, his hind leg still in a splint, lay sleeping on an old quilt, on the floor beside the black man. Lightning flashes showed on the horizon as Erthelene joined the two of them. The evening air, thick with humidity, warned of the approaching thunderstorm.
“I better put the windows up in the truck,” Uncle Mabus remarked, standing up. Snake Dog pulled himself up to watch him leave. The old man faltered as he reached the porch steps, suddenly clutching his chest and collapsing to his knees.
“Uncle Mabus!” Erthelene shouted, kneeling and lifting his head in her arms.
“Hush, girl,” he said softly to her. “I’m an old man. I got a right to fall down once in a while.”
“Oh, Lord,” Erthelene whispered, tears welling in her eyes, “don’t let him die. Please don’t let him die now.”
“I ain’t going yet, girl,” Uncle Mabus replied, the rich dark color returning to his face as his breathing became easier.
* * *
The thunderstorm was severe, sending swirling sheets of rain pounding against the bedroom windows of the house on Walnut Street. Billy Joe pulled the lace curtains back and watched the bending trees in the garden, where he had been so happy the day before. His heart ached for Erthelene’s touch or the smell of her clean, starched apron.
He stood watching the storm for a long time, lost in its fury. After a while, he sat on the edge of the big bed, looking around the room that had become his new home and his prison. Flashes of lightning lit the heavy dark furniture and the crystal chandelier.
Nothing about the room reminded him of his bedroom at home. He pictured the small wooden bed in the corner and the hooked rag rug on the floor beside it, where Snake Dog slept, the small window where he watched the orange sun come up in the morning and listened to Big Red’s crowing. This was where he belonged. Billy Joe suddenly realized it was time to go home.
The house had grown quiet. There were no voices drifting up the stairs from the dining room and no sounds coming from the kitchen, only the rain hitting the bedroom windows. Billy Joe turned the doorknob slowly, trying hard not to make any noise. Finally the latch released and the door opened. It was dark in the wide hallway, lit occasionally by flashes of lightning. There was no light under the door to Otilla Harrison’s bedroom, across from his.
Billy Joe stepped quietly on the Persian runner, trying not to make the wooden floor beneath it squeak. At the top of the stairs, he slid his hand over the thick banister and slowly began descending the steps. The lightning made strange patterns on the walls, with shapes that seemed to move, as though following him.
After what seemed an eternity, he finally stood at the wide front door and gently turned the brass knob to the lock. As the latch released, the door swung open in a rush of wind and rain. The wet drops streaked down his face as Billy Joe pulled the door shut. He quickly disappeared with pounding heart, into the violent night.
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen