William Kevin Burke once wrote an article for In These Times that exposed how a corrupt foundation officer had compromised a grass roots environmental group. A cover story in The Progressive exposed how the pest control industry lied about exposing home owners to chemicals that could cause cancer and severe neurological conditions. The environmental group ended up folding and a major lawsuit resulting in $3 million in punitive damages was decided by evidence from that pest control article. Power is not usually happy to have its lies and crimes exposed and the repercussions from these articles were not all friendly, but it felt damn good to tell the truth, no matter what the outcome. That's part of what this story is about. The other part is how the truths we sense, what we know without having to know how we know it, can open our hearts to our own possibilities. I hope you enjoy it.
Near the exact center of the city of Oakwood Heights, along the south side of the railroad yard that divided the already miniature city in half, was a few acre lot that someone still planted in corn. Each June the stalks leafed out and flowered. Gangs of boys, and over the years an increasing number of bold girls, ran up and down the rows playing hide and seek, war in the jungle, or war on Mars. This was in the days when the whole nation was taken up by the excitement of our imminent trip to the moon. Men were traveling to space! Anything was possible! Every Fall, when the kids had been packed off to school, the field was harvested, leaving only stubble and dirt where the corn stalks had been sliced away by a mower. A farmhouse and barn with walls that no longer recalled the touch of new paint sat next to the field. The children who played in the field told wild stories about this never seen farmer. He’d been dead for a hundred years. He didn’t exist at all. He killed kids and kept the bodies on hooks in the basement. The house was said to be filled with tramps and hobos, or ghosts.
One morning in a certain August a cool mist hung in the corn rows, forming thin fingers that reached up to vanish in the first rays of sunlight. Three boys stood at the edge of the field. They had planned their adventure for a week, made sandwiches the night before and woken before dawn to be here. Now, at the very edge of the field, with everything in place, they paused. They dug their sneaker toes into the dirt, pried rocks loose with their heels and fussed with their backpacks. Jack, the tall one, dark haired, thin and accustomed to taking the lead, plucked a stem of grass and chewed it with hands on hips. Beyond the field rose the Turner Street Oak, the tallest and widest tree in town. Its branches spread out towards the railroad yard and the abandoned farm house, so thick with twigs and heavy with leaves that they seemed able to conceal a world with its own secrets. Tucked in the tree’s highest cluster of branches and all but invisible from the ground was a tree house. This was the boys’ destination. Reached only by a difficult and dangerous ladder of boards, each board barely held to the tree by rusty nails, the tree house was a dangerous rumor to the towns’ parents. Opinion was unanimous when adults talked about the tree house. It was dangerous, deadly and off- limits. The notion that the tree house had been dismantled years ago was popular among the firm majority of parents who preferred to linger among thoughts that had been safely digested in the maw of popular opinion. As a result, even though climbing to the treehouse and spending a few hours there reading comics and telling stories was an important rite of passage for all the town’s bolder children, no boy or girl would ever admit to venturing into those branches.
The boys recinched their backpacks one last time and Henry, the stout red haired boy to Jack’s right, kicked a rock that arced into the air and vanished in the corn. He started forward, then stopped. Ethan slenderest and smallest of the three, waited in Jack’s shadow. Jack remained still as a sentry. He watched the last traces of mist hover amidst the corn and savored the passing of each breath. They had cans of pop, sandwiches, candy bars and comic books. Today was their day. Jack had come up with the idea. Henry was going to turn thirteen in a week. Within the next two months the other boys would follow. Everything was going to change. Soon they would be back at school. They had to do something, prove they were ready to be men. Birds chittered in the brush line that masked the rail yard that cut the town in two even halves. Ethan ran ahead a few steps. “Hey guys! Look at that!” Ethan had blonde hair and green eyes and a habit of making himself small and avoiding attention. He was quite proud of the day his father walked right through the room, strap in hand calling his name and never seeing Ethan hunkered down in a wing backed armchair. But Ethan had spied something important and raced forward to point it out. There was a dead possum near the dirt road that circled the field. “C’mon!” Henry chased Ethan as mechanically as a dog that has seen a cat jump off a chair. Jack took time to spit out his grass stem and walked carefully, watching the corn and the line of woods at the end of the street for signs of hobos. The three boys silently studied the grinning clownish corpse, alternating waves of nausea and awe rolled through Jack’s guts as Ethan poked the possum with a stick. “Musta been a car. It crawled here from the road,” Jack said. “You sure it’s dead?” Ethan asked. “You can’t be sure with a possum, ” Jack said. Henry lifted a rock the size of a grapefruit. “I’ll make sure.” “No you won’t.” Jack put a hand on Henry’s chest. “C’mon. It’ll be brains and stuff all over.” “Yeah. Except it won’t.” Jack took the rock from Henry and tossed it into the road’s ditch. It hit with a satisfying thump. Henry rubbed cold dirt from the underside of the rock into his blue jeans. Ethan poked the tip of the Possum’s vile pink tail with a forefinger. “Cold enough to bury.” “Worm food,” Henry said. “Should we dig a hole?” Ethan asked.
“Time for that later,” Jack said, very much hoping the possum was only playing at being dead and would be long gone when they returned. Once Ethan had turned over a raccoon they found lying in the woods half rotted. That was a memory Jack would give much to lose. “ Let’s go,” Jack called as he ran toward the corn field. Ethan and Henry followed him. When they burst into the corn the leaves slapped at their faces. Ethan stumbled while pushing through a row of stalks and had to push a hand against the dirt to keep from falling. When he looked up all he could see was corn. Husks smeared with black mold trailed slimy hanks of silk from their ends. He kept moving the direction of the oak. All you had to do was follow the rows of corn then turn right in the middle. He knew this field well. Sometimes he spent whole evenings sitting cross legged under the oak. When the last color slipped from the sky he imagined the home that waited for him was a far different place, with a mother who protected him and a cup of hot cocoa and a stack of comic books waiting by his bed. Henry stomped through the rows, pushing over the stalks that tried to bar his way. Thick armed, belly already broadening, Henry had once landed a punch on the nose of Kyle Kruzzler, the blonde beast of General Hooker Middle School. He had accepted the ensuing beating with the poise and courage of a Spartan warrior, or at least that was what he thought about when he lay on the ground with his head hidden in his forearms while Kyle pounded his belly. Two days ago Henry had walked these fields with Natalie Ash. Natalie was the one. Her dark brown eyes, light brown skin and cascade of dark hair always stilled the boys when she walked into Ms. Thornton’s homeroom just before the first bell. They had slipped carefully down the rows, quiet, barely even stepping on stray strands of grass. Near the center of the field, at the exact moment the sun went behind a cloud, they had kissed. The first real girl kiss of Henry’s life, their lips juicing against each other, their tongues touching, first shyly, then slipping around each other while soft electricity coursed up Henry’s arms. He could still feel that surge and recall how the world looked different when he had opened his eyes and seen it really was Natalie he was holding. He had known where to put his arms! How had he known that? It was a marvel. He had told no one about the kiss. Today was not the day to start. The problem was Jack, Natalie’s brother and Henry’s best friend. Jack had thin arms and mostly tried to avoid fights. But he was tall and had one special gift. When he lost it he lost all of it. He screamed and his eyes didn’t know you. All you could do was run and hope nothing that passed for a weapon was handy. Even Kyle had not bothered Jack since the time in fifth grade that Jack chased him down Prospect Street waving a picket pulled off old Mrs. Mayhew’s fence. Nails had stuck out of the picket and Jack had screamed something that did not even sound like words.
Henry heard a sound, saw through the corn leaves that Ethan had wormed his way ahead. That would not do. He edged through the corn, making no more noise, creeping up on Ethan, silent as a ninja. Ethan had gotten himself turned around and was trying to jump high enough to see the oak. Henry was right behind him, about to engulf the kid in a double deal death clutch when Ethan took off running. Henry chased him, smashing through corn plants, tripping but not falling. He got one hand on Ethan’s T-shirt before they ran into Jack at the edge of the oak clearing. Jack hissed them silent, then pointed to the woods. Watching the boys was a deer, a male with knobby fuzzy half grown antlers. It had been browsing on willow fronds at the edge of the railway woods. The deer’s dark calm eyes held the boys still. Jack felt the cold morning air on his arms and chest. Working his way through the corn had raised a sweat. He felt an urge to speak to the deer, to share his secrets with it. He liked to imagine scenes and he imagined one now, chasing the deer up a steep trail to a wide green meadow where the deer turned and lowered its head, ready for him. They had something to say to each other. Something Jack would never know. Ethan poked his hands in his pockets. They were empty. If he had a sugar cube he would go to the deer and offer it up, pet a cheek with one hand while the deer licked his other for traces of the sugar. Did deer like sugar even? Why not. Who didn’t like sugar? In Henry’s mind the deer had fallen, gracefully, with only the spot of blood, when he fired one dead eye shot through its heart. He had strapped it to the hood of the car he was gonna have one day on the day when he had everything he always wanted. Which was mostly the car. A GTX Special Edition. He drove down the street, right up to Natalie Ash’s house and when she came out Natalie didn’t get all girly and weird but understood. He’d killed it for her. So they could be together.
For the deer’s part it only wanted to finish off some new shoots of willow. The tender leaves gave it a mild high and thrilled its heart with excitement. The boys had no guns and could be ignored, but they were hard to keep in sight and most of the easy to reach leaves were gone already. After the willow the deer planned to work its way through marsh and brush to a farm grove ten miles down the creek where it had smelled a lone female two days ago. One more bite¼ “Kaboo! Kaboo! Kaboo!” Ethan called. The deer stepped to the edge of the brush, gave the boys a look that Jack at least interpreted as disdainful, and stepped out of sight. “Kaboolaloo!” Ethan ran to the oak trunk and fell into a squat legged pose underneath it, as if the air had been let out of him all at once. “You guys see me scare off that big buck?” “Yeah.” Henry said. “I thought it was gonna charge.” “You saved us,” Henry said. “And I found that possum.” “We’re here.” Jack said. He dropped his backpack on the ground. They had made it. He checked his watch. Not even seven AM. The tree house would be theirs.
Jack had planned the whole day. Sandwiches, comic books and warm pop. They only had to watch for hobos at the edge of the railroad woods. Everybody knew what hobos did to kids if they caught them. The fact that no kid could say exactly what those things were only made them worse to think about. Maybe they would see a hobo. They could throw rocks at him from up in the tree. Maybe save some kids. They might have to fight off some high school kids who wanted the tree house for themselves. Once they were up there no one could make them come down. At least not until dinner. All they had to do now was climb up to the tree house. Something Jack had tried three times in his life. And three times failed. The tree house was so high up it seemed a different size from the ground, a toy house perched among branches just strong enough to hold it. But it was a real house, not just a few boards laid among low branches. Nobody knew who built it. There were legends of a brave and ingenious pack of kids, all now long grown and swallowed by the world. There must been a plan, measurements taken, walls of scrap lumber sawed and nailed and hauled up with ropes to fit snugly into the crannies and crevices of the tree. To get up there you had to follow a path of boards loosely nailed to the tree. It was not so hard at first, the boards showed you the way and gave you something to stand on while your hands found the well worn holds. But then you reached Dead Man’s Branch. There you made a leap, you had to actually fly in the air for a couple feet, grab a certain branch and hope your legs found the notched branch that served as a foothold. Twice when Jack had failed and turned away from the leap he had been alone, no one to see when he climbed back the way he had come. The third time his seventeen year old cousin had called to him from the other side of the gap. He had reached out and said Jack would not fall, could not fall. That was a damned lie. Jack saw clearly how he could fall. He could fall real good; bouncing and banging off branches for an awful few seconds while the ground rushed up at him. “Damn Baby!” his cousin had called as Jack started working his way back out of the tree. Jack saw the face of that cousin in his head as he started climbing. Pimples and a scrawny mustache. He was said to be on an aircraft carrier, somewhere off the coast of Vietnam. Jack’s feet and hands remembered the holds. Every reach and grab took him farther from the ground. Leaves brushed his face. He thought of his mother walking out to her garden, certain that Jack was playing baseball with some kids on the other side of town. If he fell she would get a telephone call, she would pick up the receiver, sure that it was one of her friends calling to pass the time on a long slow summer day. Jack found a place to stop, let the sun splash on his face. He had been reading a story about a future world where some unimaginable event had made the surface of the Earth too hot to live. The few remaining people lived deep underground, growing food in underground chambers with sunlight reflected by a series of mirrors, watching as the underground rivers dried up gradually, all their hopes in a space ship that would take them to a new planet. The hero of the story did not want to leave. He said if they just waited long enough the trees would restore the Earth. Trees whisper the truth. Listen to them! Listen to them! the hero kept saying as they tied him in a straightjacket and led him onto the ship. Jack listened to the leaves, felt the fear of that man lost at the end of everything. What would he hear in space? Was how the book ended. Jack reached the gap. There waited dead man’s branch. Kids had cut notches and initials in the branch. The place you grabbed was worn smooth. Henry and Ethan were quiet behind him. Even the breeze held back, barely stirring the brown edged leaves as if the tree were listening to the boys’ breathing. The branch could not have been more than three feet away. It seemed like Jack could just reach out and…
Jack went for it, before he had another thought he had launched himself into the air and was falling towards the branch. His hands reached for the holds. What have I done? He heard himself think in the forever moment flying among the leaves. Please help me. I want to live. His arms grabbed the branch. He scraped his feet across the foothold but they came free. He dangled, kicking twigs and leaves, fear drained his strength, filled his arms with a terrible creeping cold. Stubs of twigs dug into the soft insides of his wrists. His feet thrashed the stupid useless twigs and leaves that clutched at his legs. He looked down. All he saw was the writhing of branches and leaves; a world of endless green. “You’ve got to swing back and forth. It’s the only way.” Henry called. Jack could be such a girl. Everybody knew what to do on Dead Man’s Branch. “Yeah. I know.” “Do it.” “Be careful,” Ethan said. Ethan came up here all the time. Twice he had slept up on the floor of the tree house after his father had hit his mother and she had run off to her sister’s house with the other kids. But Ethan never talked about the tree house. Maybe he did not want to embarrass Jack. He needed to believe in someone. Jack would figure it out. Jack had to kick out with his legs then swing his butt back and forth to get moving. He felt his arms loosen and locked the grip of his hands tighter. His skin was slippery, fingers losing feeling. Some kids never made it. They hung from Dead Man’s Branch until their eyes rolled back in their heads and they fell all the way down. At least that’s what kids said. Got it! Jack found a foothold. Now he had to slide his arms around and under the branch. Easy now. Reach up for that board. He hoisted himself onto the branch that ran up to the tree house door. He had made it. He reached behind himself to make sure his backpack had stayed shut. “C’mon guys. Be careful,” he called out. He scooted up the branch, turned around so he could reach down to help his friends, but Henry and Ethan both made the jump on their first try. Anything is easy when you see it can be done. Jack thought. Until then all you think about are the reasons you can’t do it.
“If I had known I was going to have a guest I would have brought more food,” a voice said while Jack was still blinking, trying to see into the shadows.
Jack lifted himself through the hole in the floor of the tree house that served as a door and took a cross legged seat. The boy was older. High school at least. He had dark hair and wore black jeans and a black jacket and a black T shirt. He had a sleeping bag bunched up behind him so he could sit facing the window that opened towards the railroad right of way. He closed a composition notebook that he had braced on a book that he held between his knees. “What’s going on?” Henry called. “Are there kids up there? I’ll take ‘em.” “It’s just one.” “I could say I want to be by myself,” the kid said. “You could.” Henry and Ethan climbed up through the tree house floor. The three boys set up in the corner farthest from the kid. The kid had a flashlight and a water bottle tucked under the window. The top of a cigarette pack showed in his shirt pocket. “It’s the faggot Crothers,” Henry said. “Nice to see you too, Henry.” “Not as nice as you’d like it.” “Lucky me.” “You been here all night?” Ethan asked. “I have. “ “What you been doing?” “Reading forbidden books. Thinking the worst kind of thoughts.”
“You go to Memorial?” “Yeah.” “Tell him how you cried like a big fat baby the day Coach kicked you off football,” Henry said. “I’m past that. You can be too. If you would like.” “Coach caught him dogging it in monkey jumps. Smacked him with his golf club. The big baby cried. They sent him home right then.” “At least we got that out of the way.” Crothers said. They had this kid three to one. High School or not. Henry pulled a sandwich and a Silver Surfer comic out of his backpack. “This place is ours today,” Henry said. He made a fist and smacked it into his open hand. His arms were thick, a bit soft with what Henry’s Dad called baby fat, but they were big and his shoulders were solid. The football coach said he might place varsity line as a freshman. “So that’s how it is.” Crothers said. “That’s how it is,” Henry said. “God does favor the big battalions,” Crothers said. He tapped a cigarette out of his pack then offered the pack around. Nobody took one. When he took in the first puff he rolled shut his eyes and started humming a tune. Crows called from a dead tree on the edge of the railway swamp. Jack could see the tall rushes that hid the swamp. In their center was a small pond and in the pond a rock. Once he and Henry had seen a turtle on that rock. They kept it their own secret. Turtle Pond. They had been only seven years old. Second grade. For a few weeks they returned every Saturday to see the turtle catch his rays. When you startled him the turtle slid under the water with a soft plop. Crothers was not a greaser, but not a jock. He had quit football even though he was a starting end. In Oakwood Heights that was like quitting being a God. Jack had never heard what he had to say for himself. “How about you get out of here so we don’t have to beat your butt?” Henry said. “I propose a game,” Crothers said. “Sure. We’ll call it you leave. Now.”
“Actually, I call it prophecy.” “How do you play that?” Ethan asked. “We wager.” “What do we bet?” Ethan asked. “Our lives,” Crothers said. “And winner keeps the tree house.” “I like my game better,” Henry said. “What do you mean our lives?” Jack asked. “I’m going to tell you about your future. If I’m right you go find somewhere else for your day. If I’m wrong I’ll leave.” “How will we know if you are right?” Ethan asked. “You’ll know.” “What if we lie to you?” “You’ll be cursed. For the rest of your life you’ll think about this day. Whatever you do you’ll ask yourself, am I just doing this to prove Crothers wrong?” “No wonder they kicked you off the football team,” Ethan said. “It gave me more time to practice.” “Practice what?” “Being myself.” “I’ll play.” Ethan said. “This is stupid,” Henry said. “Okay,” Jack said. “We’ll play under one condition.”
“I accept.” “Don’t you want to know the condition?” “I know it.” Crothers let the smoke from his cigarette ease out of his mouth while his eyes held Jack’s gaze. They were dark brown. The black pupils filled Jack’s mind. He was the kid you weren’t supposed to know. And he was right here. “Let’s play his damn game.” Henry said. Crothers flipped the smoke out the window and tapped out a fresh one. He stuck the cigarette behind his ear before pulling an apple out of his pile of belongings and holding it up. A burst of morning sun painted the apples skin in layers of red, yellow and green. “Who wants to go first?” “I’ll go.” Henry said. “Fine,” Crothers tossed the apple without any warning. Henry juggled it once then snapped it out of the air one handed. “I wasn’t ready.” “Now you are. You have to hold it up in front of your face. Watch it while I talk. Watch it close.” “This is stupid.” “Go ahead,” Jack said. “We’ll all do it.” Henry held up the apple. Crothers closed his eyes and sat there with a calm smile. Nothing happened. They heard distant yelling and the slamming of a boxcar door. After a while Crothers opened his eyes.
“There’s a problem.” Crothers said. “There’s always going to be a problem. The same one all your life. All you let yourself be was tough, but there was always someone tougher than you. You tried to hide your fear. But it never worked. Not really. After football ended you never found another place where the world made sense. You got through school, had a few girls. You found a job. Weekend nights you picked fights when you thought you could win. Sundays you leaned against your car with the hood up, telling how you were going to really trick it out. Make it cherry. One of these days. You played softball and grew a full beer belly. A few years ago you ran into Jack. You guys talked about everything except this day, except how right I was, how alone you are. Sometimes, when you’re sipping a beer and having a smoke, you remember me. You remember hearing this and then you sip real hard or double drag your smoke. There’s a quiet voice in your head that comforts you. ‘Don’t worry,’ it says. ‘This heart won’t beat forever.’” Henry had closed his eyes while listening to Crothers. The crows called from their distant tree, all of them at once. He thought about how Natalie had ignored him in school the next day. As he had approached her she had turned away to talk to her crowd. Her hair was held back with a barrette of wood painted a glossy red. He had pretended not to care about Natalie turning her back. He walked right past the girls, felt them looking at him as he walked away. He kept on walking and he knew that Natalie had only kissed him because he was the kid bold enough to try. It would be someone else next. Now that she knew what to do. “This is a bunch of crap.” Henry said. He opened his eyes. The tree house was still here. They still had this kid three to one. “I wanna go next!” Ethan said. “Can I have my apple back?”
Henry handed the apple to Crothers, who tossed it to Jack. “Hey,” Ethan said. “Not your turn.” “Why not.” “Cause I say. Now you. Hold it up. Just like your friend did.” “Let him go,” Jack said. He handed the apple to Ethan. Henry nudged Jack and whispered in his ear. “This guy’s whacked, he’s beyond whacked. He’s what you get when the whacked ones get whacked on something really whacked.” “That’s not how it works,” Crothers took a paperback book out of his jacket pocket and flipped through the pages. The book was old, the paper had turned yellow and Crothers was as much holding it together as holding it open. “You going to ignore us?” Jack asked. “I’m consulting my gods.” “Make him tell about me,” Ethan said. Jack slid closer to Crothers and put his hand on the book. The paper even felt old, the edges crumbling under Jack’s touch. “C’mon,” Jack said. “We’re in this.” “Really?” “Yes. Just let him go. I’ll be last.” “Well, in that case I will want a boon.” “A boon?” “Yes. You will have to give me something.” “Like what?” “I get to decide when I ask.” “Well that makes no goddamn……oh whatever. Fine. I will grant you a boon.” “If that’s what you want,” Crothers said. He closed the book and slid it back into his pocket. Ethan held the apple in front of his face. “Close your eyes.”
“They’re closed.” Ethan thought about the comic books Henry had brought for them to read. Three Silver Surfers and the new Creepy. They were going to stay all day. The apple was smooth against his hand and getting heavy as he held it. Was this kid ever going to start? “You’re going to be special. All the time these two spend fighting each other for the best view of everything they can never really see, you’ll spend watching and listening and thinking. Thinking your own thoughts. That’s going to be your gift. You’re going to be free to think your own thoughts. And each thought will make a world and each world will flower in a hundred ways you’ll never know. You won’t be cruel and you won’t make yourself stupid to fit in and you won’t close your eyes to any of it. You’ll see it all. You won’t be one of those people who work all day at shutting their eyes then claim there’s nothing worth looking at.” “This is dumb,” Ethan said. “Tell me what I’m going to be. A fireman? A car guy?” “You don’t want to hear that part.” “Yes I do. I want hear about me being a cop. Shooting guys. Taking them down.” But Ethan wasn’t thinking about shooting guys. He was thinking about hiding in the closet under the basement stairs. How dark it was when he closed the door. How his father had never yet found him there, behind the boxes of old stuff. His Mom had never ratted him out, no matter how much Dad whipped her. “I won’t tell.” “What if we make you?” Henry said. Crothers was thin. He was supposed to be fast, but that meant squat up here in the tree house. “What if you do?”
Henry was already picturing how it would go down. He’d get things started, but the key was to get Jack going. Then Henry would be free to get a hold on Crothers’ arms while he fended off Jack. “Tell me.” Ethan begged. “Is that what you really want?” Crothers asked. “Tell me what you see.” “You’re not going to be anything.” “What do you mean?” He dropped the apple. Someday somebody would think about the closet. The door would open and his father would poke his head in the door. “Your Daddy already killed you.” Crothers scooped up the apple and held it between his hands. “I’m right here.” “No you aren’t. You hide. You hide all the time. From your Dad. From his strap. His nasty words. You hear them right now. Don’t you.” “I don’t hear nothing.” “Yes you do. There’s nothing ahead of you. As long as you go on breathing your life will be nothing but hiding. Part of you has escaped. But wherever you go in this life he’ll always be waiting for you.” “No!” Ethan cried. He noticed that tears had wet his cheeks. “This guys whacked. Let’s take him,” Henry said. “Tell him you’re wrong,” Jack said. “Tell him you made that stuff up.” Crothers had his eyes closed now and hummed softly.
“I don’t like what he said,” Ethan said. He wiped his face on his T shirt. “Let’s beat his ass,” Henry said. “Not before my turn,” Jack said. Crothers opened his eyes. Jack had the apple. He put an arm around Ethan’s shoulder, whispered “BS” in his ear. “I’m ready.” Jack said. “Okay then.” Crothers closed his eyes and started again with the humming. The apple had one side smashed and felt soft and lumpy in Jack’s hand. “You won’t have what you want,” Crothers said. “That’s the first thing you need to know. Not now. Not soon. Not ever. Maybe it will pass right in front of you and you won’t even see it. You’ll be so busy being who you think you’re supposed to be that your whole life will pass you right on by.”
Jack closed his eyes. Crothers words went on, blurring together, each bit something that could not be false because it was hardly anything at all. Jack realized that was the trick of prophecy. Say something that almost sounds like something you heard before but really could meand anything at all. If you attack a great empire will fall. An oracle once. The emperor attacked and his empire fell. The wanting something to be true is what hooks you. Well, Jack knew something that Crothers could never know. Jack did not want anything. He only wanted to see life unfold. It started when he was a boy. A dream of an eye looking in the window at him sleeping in his first big boy bed. But was it a dream? The eye filled his window. He had woken up, walked through a party his parents were having. He had to go outside, see what was going on. Who was looking in at him? No one was there. His mother followed him and carried him back in to put him to bed. He can’t have been more than three. He was almost back to sleep when he heard something like a voice. Listen. Wait. Watch. Not words really. Just a sort of soft knowing that would beat under everything he had ever thought or done since that night. He was slightly to the edge, watching the world happen. It was what he knew. Crothers was still talking. “You’ll never let it out. You’ll lose everything.” When the anger gripped Jack it was like complete freedom. He could take anything, do anything. The kids scattered from him. Nobody laughed at his habit of using long words. Not while they were running away. But Dad was always waiting. When he hit Jack it was like the wall of everything saying this is where you stop. At least his Dad did not chase him. Not like Ethan’s. “You’ll lose it all,” Crothers said. Was he finished? Jack opened his eyes. What had Crothers been talking about? Just stuff. Typical. Just trying to hurt people so nobody would look at him. “You’re better than you know,” Jack said. “What do you mean?” Jack handed him the apple. “Now your turn.” Above the swamp Jack could see two small birds harassing a crow, diving at it and swooping away. The crow kept veering back to a steady flight path. It must be after their nest, Jack thought. “Okay,” Crothers said. Jack closed his eyes. He had no idea what to say. Henry’s Dad loved Henry, how his thick arms could throw kids around. Just wait till my boy gets his growth, Henry’s Dad would say and take another suck of his beer while he leaned on the fender of his car. Ethan’s dad was thin as death. His belt was always loose in the loops, ready to slip out and be knotted in his hands. But Jack had it easy. The guys always said so. Jack’s Dad only ever got angry if he had to stop talking and notice Jack. Why was he thinking about their Dads? He was supposed to be talking to Crothers. He was talking. What was he saying? He heard himself talking and watched himself in the treehouse. It was the strangest sensation of his life. And somehow he knew it would be the strangest thing he would ever experience. “This world is not what anyone thinks it is. People see what they have been trained to see and say that must be all that there is. You think you are so smart because you see that, but you are still stuck. You only let yourself see what you think. So you are going to be as trapped as the next guy. You will wear your black clothes and stare everybody down. Making fun of everything is not being free. It’s hiding your prison by avoiding looking at its walls. Now you will always think of this day, of how you pretended to be beyond it all but were really just as afraid as the next kid. You should have just borrowed a comic book from us and hung out. We could have had fun and made friends,but your pretending was more important to you than your living.” “They’re going to beat you down. You think you can hide but no one can hide. Not forever. Not for real. You’ll read your books and make your cracks but it won’t be enough. You’ll be all by yourself. You’ll just be this guy who wore black and used to know something, something he never learned how to tell.”
Jack reached over and took the apple. Ethan had his eyes wide, watching every move Jack made. Henry had his shoulders hunched, head bent like the floor had just gotten real interesting. “Cool game, “ Ethan said. “I guess we win.” Henry chewed a twig in a corner of his mouth and while he let his eyes slant half shut. Something he did before a fight. Crothers looked from face to face. “I guess you do.” “Make him say he’s wrong,” Ethan said. “I’m wrong. I’m a liar,” Crothers said. “I knew it.” “You can keep the apple,” Crothers tucked his book, notebook, smokes and water bottle into a gray bag that he hung across his back. He bundled up the sleeping bag and tossed it out the window. They could hear it thumping its way down from branch to branch. Crothers lowered himself through the hole in the floor.
When Crother’s head slipped through the hole the treehouse was quiet enough to hear the wind ease through the leaves of the oak. The boys pulled out their sandwiches and comic books. The sun was warming the tree house floor through the window. “Hey look!” Ethan called them to the window. In the clearing below a mother possum lead her babies towards the wall of thorny shrubs that lined the railroad track. At a darkened opening they all trundled into the shadows and vanished. Jack leaned back on his pack and bit into his first sandwich as he read the new Silver Surfer. Near the end of the story he thought about Crothers . He looked up. Henry was watching him and looked away quickly. Let it go. Not like he could control Natalie anyway. He thought about Crothers and his game. Why do do we have to hurt each other to know each other? Maybe we don’t but we do it anyway. Maybe we are all just scared of anyone knowing how scared we are. Maybe that was what Crothers knew. Jack went on reading. That was the last thought he had about Crothers for a long time.