The Comfort of Our Kind

Tom Stoner

Thomas Dunne Books

The Comfort of Our Kind
PART ONE
 
 
1
 
 
You know how things happen.
You're thirteen years old, working at your first real job, and one morning while kneeling in the weed-clogged flowerbed you look up because you sense a presence and sure enough, standing over you, watching you from the other side of the iron gate is a small man in a colorless suit and hat, whose face looks like he has just finished smiling; and you look from his face to his hands holding the bars and that's when you see that his two pinkies are split at the tips like snakes' tongues and he is wearing small diamond rings on each of the four clawlike tips.
He grips the gate to show you his hands; he wants you to fear his touch.
He doesn't speak, and you are too startled to do anything but look up, still kneeling and trying to reconcile the weirdness of the moment with the bright summer sun and whatever you were thinking before you noticed him standing above you.
For an eternal minute you look at each other, passing nothing between you.
"So," he finally says, in a voice no different from any man. "You're getting them by the roots?"
"Yessir."
That's it. That's all that happens. You look down because you want him to leave, and he does. Then, with your fingers curled into the dirt, tight around a knot of crabgrass, you glance up, watching him walk away.
When you were thirteen, this was just another intrusion of the adult world.
Now, when you are older, you know that was the first time you saw the Devil.
 
 
You know how things happen.
You have been seven years old for three days, and after Sunday Schoolthe preacher's boy drags you out the back door of Fellowship Hall and knocks the snap out of you in the parking lot because Annette Funicello is his girl. Say I love Darlene, he says as he slaps the side of your head, then yells your name as you run away. You turn, and the rock hits your face before you remember seeing it.
And later, when you are sitting in your parents' car, waiting for them to finish with Coffee Hour and you're trying not to bleed on the upholstery, the floormats, or your church clothes--you promise yourself to avoid worship of any sort.
 
 
Here's another thing that happens.
In the dark one night, in the hallway between your kitchen and the back porch, you bump into a man you soon recognize as your wife's son. He laughs when you jump; then you pat him nervously on the arm because you don't know what he wants. He's lucky you didn't nail him.
"Just dropped in for some of that home cooking?" you ask.
"I'm on my way north," he says, as if direction is the same thing as direction.
"Okay," you say. "Okay."
You both stand in the dark, trying to see each other's eyes. He wants to see if you look much older; you want to see if the spite is still there--like you've remembered.
"Okay," you say again. "Make yourself at home."
"It is," he says.
 
 
Here is the final thing.
At your parents' house is a photograph. In the picture, you are standing between your brother and sister, behind your parents, and everybody is smiling.
Every time you see the photograph you think it's funny how the proof of a moment, a snapshot, comes to represent everything that precedes and follows--even those occasional, elusive things like faith, hope, grace, and the comfort of your kind.
And you remember when you were smiling, waiting for the flash to startle you, thinking to yourself now this is nice.
 
 
I'm from a family of characters. My father, when he was young, was Wes the Cartoon Man, a regionally famous host of a kiddie TV show. These days he is notorious for inventing bad history. My brother, Reggie, was the sports announcer on a Nashua TV station. Last year after he was fired, he fell apart, moved to Orlando, and now he is famous for living undetected in Cinderella's Castle for eight months.
My sister, Veronica, is unhappy, has always been unhappy. Burdened by her strangled blend of doubt and fear, she is America's most misanthropic nurse.
Our mother sees things before they happen. When she was young, she was Sister Donica Lenore, the nun who made a bargain with God.
"If you give me children of my own," she promised, "I will raise them to serve in your Army of Saints and fight for goodness on earth." God was pleased, and when He accepted her offer, Sister promptly left Pope Pius XII for Wes the Cartoon Man.
I'm known as The Man Who Caught Holy Hell.
 
 
Last month, Veronica and I flew to Orlando to find our brother, Reggie. We wanted him to come home for our parents' fiftieth anniversary. We also wanted him to make peace with our father. Reggie blames Wes for everything wrong in his own life, including his separation from the family--even though he called Wes his "idiot old man" on national TV. Typical Reggie.
We knew he was living in Orlando because we all received cards with Disney World postmarks. We spent three days sleuthing around the Magic Kingdom, watching the crowds and trying to ignore the character following us in the doofus costume.
It was Tuesday, and we were running out of time. Veronica had to be back at work on Thursday, and I had to testify Friday at a parole hearing in Manchester.
It was Veronica's idea to hire the skywriter. It cost $950 to have a stunt pilot fly over Disney World and smear these words on the Tinkerbell sky: REGGIE, WE KNOW YOU'RE HERE. WES AND SISTER'S 50TH? CALL 407-621-6509.
The number was our room at the Courtyard Inn.
We stayed in the room through afternoon and evening, waiting to hear from him. At ten thirty the phone rang.
"Don't yell at him," Veronica said again. "This isn't the time to be mister tough guy."
I listened for a second before speaking, trying to ID some background noise.
"Hello?"
"Hey, Boone," he said.
"Reggie, where are you?"
"At the park. I just got off work."
"Disney? You work at Disney?"
"Sort of. I made a costume that looks like a Disney character. I walk around all day entertaining the crowds."
"You made up a Disney character?"
"Yeah. I'm an older-looking guy with granny glasses and a floppy hat. I look real; nobody can figure out what movie I'm from. Even Security thinks I'm legit."
"Wait a minute," I said. "I saw you. You made me hug you."
"It's a small world after all," he said, laughing in a very different way for Reggie. He didn't sound like a sportscaster anymore, with that breathless grasp of the obvious. He sounded relaxed.
"So, what's up?" he asked.
"Wes and Sister's anniversary party. You need to come home. Do you know it's in two weeks?"
"I'm not coming. I live here now. And I'm still pissed off at that clown."
"You're pissed off? You embarrassed him. You called him an idiot on ESPN."
"So? It's his fault I didn't get that anchor job. I had it locked up until they mentioned him and his freak show; now everybody thinks I grew up in a circus. People make comparisons, Boone. Idiots by association. Aren't you embarrassed by the way he acts?"
"Sure, but that's just the way he is. He's Wes. And besides, he needs our help right now."
"With what?"
"I'll tell you tomorrow. I don't want to talk about it on the phone."
"Whatever it is, he probably deserves it. And I'm not coming back."
"What about Sister?" I said. "She'll be hurt if you're not there. Come on, Reggie, it'll be a big surprise."
"Really? How do you surprise someone who can see the future?"
"Well, can we get together and talk? You, me, and Veronica? We're worried about you."
"Now you're worried? Great timing, guys. Where were you when I got fired and Carolyn threw me out and I was living at the Days Inn, watching some kid do my job on a black-and-white TV? Where were you and St. Veronica the Miserable when my own daughter stole my car and ran up five grand on my credit card and I got tossed out of the motel because I couldn't pay my bill? I left town with nothing, Boone. I went to the bus station with every penny I had and landed here with sixteen dollars in my pocket."
"I tried to help. I stopped by every night. You're the one who wouldn't see me."
"Yeah, that was great, too. Police cars parked outside my room."
"Reggie, it's what I drive. The point is, I tried to help. And I want to help now."
"Then go back to New Hampshire."
"Listen," I said. "I don't want to be here. I didn't come down to Florida to give you a load of shit. I wish I could run away and live in an amusement park, but Veronica and I are trying to put this party together, and it's going to be a complete waste of time if all of us aren't there. This isn't about you, Reggie. This is family, and it's something you've got to do. For once, you've got to help out."
"Okay, okay," he said. "I'll think about it. But I'm in the middle of something good here. I'm finally having a normal childhood, and boy, is it fun. I don't worry about anything anymore. I don't need Wes and his approval and I don't care about the Army of Saints or going to Hell. I'm doing great. I'm actually getting younger."
"That's nice," I said. "Where do you live?"
"Main Street, USA. I'm in the big castle at the end of the block."
"They rent rooms there?"
"Nope. They don't even know I'm here. I found an empty storage closet and I made my own apartment. It's really cool. I've got everything I need--bed, radio, my books--and I've got a great view. It's unbelievable at night."
"Aren't you afraid of getting caught?"
"Not hardly. I've been doing this for seven months. There's tunnels and hidden rooms everywhere. I know my way around the park better than the Mouse."
"Tell me again. What do you do?"
"I get up in the morning and meditate. I do my exercises, I go for a jog, then I put on my costume and walk around all day. I dance a lot. I hug people. In the evening I sit in a rocking chair, drink iced tea, and watch the happy families go home. Sometimes I go out at night and help Maintenance with trash detail, sometimes I help Grounds with landscaping. Last night I planted marigolds for three hours."
"They pay you for this?"
"No, and I don't care. I don't need money."
"What about food?"
"Free. I've got friends who hook me up. Employee perks."
"But you're not an employee. You don't really work there."
"Yes I do. I do what everybody does. I make people happy."
"But they don't know you work there."
"That's why they don't pay me, Boone."
This was going nowhere.
"So, can we see you?" I asked. "Just me and Veronica?"
"Okay," he said. "Meet me tomorrow at Coke Corner. Eleven o'clock. That's when I go on break. And don't try any fancy cop shit--I'm best friends with a bunch of guys in Security."
"I promise. Devil's stones grind my bones. You're in charge."
"Damn right," he said.
"Say God forgive me."
Reggie laughed.
The God-forgive-me prayer is what our mother always makes us say when we cuss.
"Say it," I said.
"God forgive me before my soul enters Hell for all eternity."
"Good boy," I said. "See you tomorrow."
"Sorry I flipped out, Boone. I wasn't expecting to see anybody yet."
"No problem."
We hung up. Veronica hovered, chewing on her thumbnail. "What's he doing?" she asked.
"He walks around all day in a costume. He made up a fake Disney character. He's that flumpy guy with the big head that keeps chasing you around the park."
"That bastard," she said. "Probably laughing all the time, too. Is he coming home for the party?"
"I don't know. He's changed. I can hear it in his voice. Can I have a cigarette?"
"I thought you quit." Veronica poked around in her bag and took out two Parliaments. "I need another Xanax," she said.
We lit up. I lay back on the bed.
"Nothing changes with him," she said. "He's going to ruin everything." She blew smoke at the wall. "Why does everything have to be so hard? Aren't things supposed to be easier when you're older?"
I'm 49. Veronica is 47. Reggie, 45.
Things don't get easier.
These are the judgment years--time to testify for what we have chosen to preserve or allowed to slip away: our dreams, our children, our claims of contentment, or the fading suspense of lives unfinished and our diminished power of making something happen.
For Veronica and me, life is easily measured--it's case by case. She's a nurse, I'm a cop.
Maybe Reggie is at peace with himself and has found some measure of grace. Tomorrow, we'll see. If not, it's his own fault--in spite of what he says about Wes screwing up his life.
 
 
The second time I saw the Devil I was eighteen years old. I was an Eagle Scout, hiking home over the ridge, walking back nine miles for a pack of matches. It was late afternoon, and my troop was making camp in the hills behind me--setting up tents, pranking each other, digging latrines. Wes was den leader, and he had forgotten the matches. There would be no campfire until I returned.
I knew my way. I've explored these woods with my father since I was a toddler. Jogging all my shortcuts, I could hike home and back to the campsite before nightfall.
It was the autumn of 1975. In nine months, I would graduate from high school; in less than a year I would be in boot camp.
It was Friday night. Veronica and Reggie were at our high school football game. Veronica was a junior, Reggie a freshman. Because he was so big, he was the only freshman on varsity--a great galloping lunk of a kid who was already too popular for his own good.
Sister was home, making cookies and praying to St. Christopher for the family's safe return from the woods, the bleachers, and the one-yard line.
Wes and I wanted to be at Reggie's game, but we were stuck for a night in the woods with a dozen noisy boys.
I was the oldest Scout in town, pack leader by default; Wes had been a sponsor since my Cub Scout days, leading meetings in our barn and taking us to Pinewood Derbies, Jamborees, and awards banquets. Scouting was our thing, and after eight years, this was our last campout.
It was also the last year we would all live together as a family. During my first tour of duty, Veronica would start college. During my second, Reggie would marry Carolyn and move into his new house across the valley.
 
 
I've lived in Franklin Notch my whole life.
I was three years old when Wes and Sister bought the ancient house on Talbert's Ridge. On top of East Mountain, empty and neglected for sixteen years, it was the oldest house in the county, the only house they could afford. The day we moved in, Wes and I hiked the property and discovered the Talbert graveyard, forgotten in the woods.
Inside the tumble-stone wall was a cluster of graves, their markers knocked flat and covered with weeds.
"Look here, Danny," he said. "These are famous people, the Talberts. They built our house. I'll bet they lived here when these woods were full of Indians."
I didn't see any people. All I saw was headstones broken in pieces like the cracked sidewalk in front of our church.
Wes pulled the branches and weeds out of the plot and tossed them over the fallen wall. He crawled around the small graveyard, raising the broken stones, cleaning them with the flats of his hands and laying them together like pieces of puzzles. I stumbled behind him, picking up sticks. When we finished, we sat on a rock and Wes looked around the burying ground, scratching his beard and nodding to himself.
"Yep, Danny, that's what we'll do. This will be our project, you and me. We're going to fix up the Talberts."
Over the months, Wes restored the plot and researched the Talbert family, original settlers and founders of Franklin Notch. He studied the history of the valley, driving to Manchester to copy documents he discovered in the State Archives. Somewhere, he picked up a collection of arrowheads. He speculated about a tribe of Indians he called the Sagawehs and claimed hefound evidence of a treaty signed by William Talbert and the Sagaweh sachems that guaranteed peace in the valley between settlers and Indians. Wes called it Talbert's Treaty.
At the time, he was selling advertising for a Nashua radio station, and as he traveled through southern New Hampshire he kept notebooks full of folk stories and historical tidbits.
With Sister's help, he organized all his anecdotes, typed a manuscript, and had it mimeographed. He called it History and Mystery: Stories in the Hills and left stacks of his pamphlets in general stores and motels around the state. Nobody had ever bothered to publish anything before, so Wes became the authority on local history.
He was invited to give lectures at the library, the schools, and Kiwanis. He appeared regularly on local radio and TV, loaded with quirky homespun tales about southern New Hampshire.
When I was in the fourth grade, Wes helped me write a heritage presentation for my Citizenship badge. Sister made the costumes. I played Jimmy Talbert, wilderness boy, and Wes dressed up as Chief Konatowitt of the Sagaweh Indian Nation. I memorized the Declaration of Independence, and Wes plagiarized Chief Logan's speech from the Ohio Valley Mingos.
I wore a three-cornered hat, britches, and a vest, and I carried a toy musket--Fess Parker issue. Wes wore a chamois shirt with strips of fringed leatherette sewn on the sleeves and a headband made from an old belt and two turkey feathers. He soaked his face and hands in Man-Tan and talked with an accent somewhere between Tarzan and Czechoslovakian.
The climax of our little sketch was the signing of Talbert's Treaty, securing peace in the valley between the Indians on East Mountain and settlers on the western side of the Notch.
At the close of the play I stood at the edge of the stage, musket at ease, giving my final speech glorifying the cooperative nature of all mankind. Wes posed behind me, his arms crossed over his chest like a shelf.
"And so after agreeing on the terms of the treaty, the two mighty civilizations worked out their differences and lived in harmony for as long as the Indians stayed in the valley," I droned while Wes nodded sagely.
Our father-son history show was so popular, Wes made it part of his lecture package. We performed at least twice a month for five years in front of every civic group from Nashua to Littleton. We appeared for a luncheon at the governor's mansion when I was in the sixth grade. I hated doing theshow, but I did it five years for Wes, finally calling it off when I began the ninth grade.
Until last month, Wes was still giving lectures on local history.
 
 
As I hiked through the woods, I remembered one of his soliloquies.
"Before there was man--sachem or settler--there were secrets in the forest, mysteries in the land, deep as the stone sunk to the center of this mighty continent. And likewise, after man has gone his way--the way of all species, back to the earth--those secrets will remain, still hidden from History, guarded by Time."
I jogged through the clearings, walking where the brush was too thick, scrabbling through stands of eye-high brambles an acre deep. After an hour of running through the woods, I was finally on the backside of Talbert's Ridge, climbing over its jutting granite face. All this for a box of matches.
Near the top of the rise, I squeezed through a split rock twenty feet high and nearly fell over a boy my own age who was sitting in the middle of the crevice. He had black hillbilly hair, dark narrow eyes, and a sallow face marked with fingernail-size acne scars. He was wearing a dirty denim jacket, black jeans, and workboots with pointed toes. He was squatting in the narrow opening with his elbows on his knees, holding a burning cigarette between yellowed fingers.
"Excuse me," I said. "I just want to slide through here."
"You can wait," he said, in a voice no different from any boy.
"I'm in kind of a hurry," I said.
"Tough shit. I'm smoking." He took a leisurely drag, squinting at me through the gray cloud. The ends of his fingernails were black.
We looked at each other. I couldn't guess what his game was. I didn't want to fight him, but there was something in his arrogance that kept me from standing down, turning, and taking the long way around the rock. I leaned on the slant of the stone and crossed my arms. I wouldn't back down. I could wait him out.
I watched him smoke. I looked up the face of the rock to the fading afternoon sky. I pretended to be interested in my own feet while waiting for him to finish.
Finally, he stood up. He was very short and muscular. With his thumb and forefinger, he shot the butt at the rock above my head. Sparks scattered around me.
"Now you can move," he said. "I'm coming through."
I pushed myself against the wall, trying to make room for him to pass. He came toward me without turning and kicked me hard on the hip. I went down on my back like a loose fence post, wedged into the V of the split rock. He jumped on my chest with his knees, knocking the wind out of me. I couldn't move, I couldn't breathe.
Kneeling on my chest, he bent over me and put his hands behind my head. He pulled my face toward him, jammed his fist under my chin, then covered my nose with his mouth. I thought he was going to bite off my nose, but he blasted his breath into me instead. My ears popped and the smell of rotting meat filled my lungs.
He pushed my head back hard on the stone. I coughed and gagged. He jumped off my chest and scampered straight up the face of the rock on all fours like a dog.
I lay in the wedge of the rock for a while, trying to catch my breath and clear my head. I was mad at myself for letting him ambush me, and I knew Sister would be upset because I forgot the prayer to make him leave. I knew my prayer as well as my name, but I had panicked. With the Devil's knees pressed hard on my chest, I forgot everything my mother taught me.
 
 
Our mother always told us how the Devil can appear any time to confuse us and keep us from the goodness that is rightfully ours. Mr. Sticks, we called him.
She told us the story of the Fallen Angel--how the Devil rebelled, then God expelled, and the Devil claimed earth for his proxy domain. Behaving like a bitter child, he became less than human, filled with cruelty, greed, and carnal whimsy. Spiteful in exile, he still taunts God, spoiling the plan for goodness on Earth, confusing men, bungling their dreams with his antic distractions.
We learned how the Devil seduced a host of lesser angels, deceiving his demons with boasts of victory. When they destroyed the less clever angels of Heaven, they would be free to behave any way they chose, enjoying the bully pleasures of Playground Earth. They could indulge their vices, toy with people, even mate with them without consequence. Come on, he said. It will be fun.
Man has suffered since.
From the time we were babies, we were taught to believe we had thepower to beat him, to make him leave our family in peace. We learned the slogans and prayers to defeat Old Sticks. With credos in couplets, homilies, and hymns, Sister taught us to fight the Devil for goodness on Earth. We were raised as three warriors in God's vast Army of Saints--the brigades of believers, both living and dead, who battle the Devil on both sides of Heaven's divide.
"Who's the best little soldier?" my mother would say.
"Me."
"And what do we do?"
"We fight for goodness on Earth."
"Good boy, Daniel. Good boy."
I asked why the Devil doesn't leave us alone.
"Because we enjoy earth the way it was intended--as a place full of goodness. He's a twisted spiteful thing, and since he can't go back to his paradise, he tries to ruin ours. That's why it's our duty in the Army of Saints to stop him."
 
 
When we were children, Sister sat with us every night and told us bedtime stories. We didn't know it at the time, but the stories were visions she had seen about each of us. It wasn't until we were older, in our early teens, and we started comparing stories and matching them with real events, that we realized she had been telling us versions of our own future lives.
As the oldest, I was first. We held hands and prayed for everybody--our family, all the people in the hospital, all the people in jail. We prayed for the United Nations, President Eisenhower, and the boys and girls with no parents to tuck them in. We prayed to see the return of Jesus, the defeat of the Devil, and freedom for all the people living behind the Iron Curtain.
When we had prayed for every component of a perfect universe, Sister told my bedtime story.
"Once upon a time, there was a wonderful family. There was a father, a mother, and three children. Like a puzzle, this family was made up of many pieces, and when all the pieces came together, it made a beautiful, happy picture. The problem was, each member of the family was missing one piece from their own collection, and when everybody laid their pieces out, they could see what the picture was supposed to look like--and it was still very pretty--but there were empty places where the missing pieces belonged.
"Well, wouldn't you know it? That was God's plan. He kept one piecehidden from each person, as a gift for them to find when they grew older. He hid wonderful gifts like Faith, Hope, and Grace inside the stories that happened later in their lives.
"The oldest boy in this family was so strong, he could do the work of twelve people. He was the best soldier in the Army of Saints, and he fought many battles against evil. He was very honest and always followed the rules. Anyone who had a problem could call this boy and he would help them.
"Because he was so good at fixing problems, he put faith in his own strength instead of trusting God's plan. He believed that his family was protected because of his own hard work. He needed to learn that his efforts alone couldn't make things right. As he grew older, he needed to find God's gift of Faith."
She smiled.
"Faith is the hardest gift to find," she said, "because it only appears when everything else is gone. Do you think the man will find his gift?"
"I hope so."
"I do, too, honey. We'll need him to keep our family together. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Not really."
"We're good people, Daniel, so the Devil tries to keep us apart. I'll bet you wonder how you can help."
"Sure."
"You're very important to this story. God and the Devil often bet on people's souls, and God lets the Devil test the faithful--just to beat him at his own game. As it turns out, they've made a special bet for you. Since God trusts you so much, He's letting the Devil try to keep you from finding your gift of Faith, and He's letting Old Sticks visit you seven times. You're very lucky, Daniel. Most people don't know how many times they're going to be tempted." .
She squeezed my hand and looked in my eyes.
"You must remember: Never take anything from the Devil," she said. "Even it if looks like something good--something to help someone else. Promise me you'll remember?"
"I promise. Was the man scared?" I asked. "When he saw the Devil?"
"Not really, because he knew the right prayer to make him leave. Do you remember your Axis Mundi?"
"It's kind of hard."
"Let's say it together."
"Heaven and Hell, forever apart,
Met for battle in my wavering heart.
While Goodness and Evil struggled within,
Faith was the sword that brought death to sin."
"Good boy. Say it again."
A few years later, I realized what she was really saying: If I don't find my Faith before the seventh visit, I die and the devil gets my soul.
I never saw much goodness in that.
In fact, it's a curse--a bad place to be--stuck between my mother and the Devil. Their fifty-year battle never abates. He attacks, and Sister fights back. She has her visions, the three of us mumble our rhymes and prayers, and on the near edge of darkness the Devil crouches, keen for the moment to lure us away.
There were happier stories.
"One night, after the boy became a man, God rewarded him for his hard work. It was a cold night, and he had gone to the top of a mountain to be alone and watch for shooting stars. He didn't know it, but a shooting star with an angel inside had already fallen to earth, where she lay broken and helpless beneath him in the valley. She was too hurt to cry for help, but the light of the fallen star itself glowed like a heartbeat in the night and caught the lonely man's eye. He rescued the angel and saved her life. When she recovered, she became his own guardian angel on earth, to watch over him and be his best friend."
As the second oldest, Veronica was next in the prayer cycle.
Sister sat on the bed and told her story.
"The girl in this family was a compassionate person who wanted to ease the suffering in the world, whether it was injured little animals or people in pain. This girl was blessed with the ability to see the world through the eyes of those suffering, but there was so much pain in the world she became filled with hopelessness. The harder she worked, the more the Devil confused the people she was trying to heal. He made them covet the pity that comes with sickness. She grew discouraged and disappointed, and at the price of her happiness--and the happiness of her own family--she saw the world as a hopeless place.
"Well, wouldn't you know it? That was part of God's plan, because the little puzzle piece that He hid for her to find later in life was the gift of Hope.
"The girl craved happiness her whole life; then, one beautiful morning, she woke up in a place where a thousand eyes were winking at her. When she saw the eyes, she was finally filled with hope and joy and she was able to rise above the suffering and see the goodness all around her. From that moment, she saw the world as a beautiful place, and she lived in peace and harmony with her children and her children's children."
Sometimes I pretended to be asleep when Sister returned to pray with Reggie. She sat on his bed, across the room from mine.
"Hello, angel. Are you ready for your prayers?"
"Do we have to pray tonight? Can't we just do the stories?"
Sister prayed for world peace, Reggie prayed for the Sox to place. Then she told his bedtime story.
"This is the story of the Little King," Sister would begin. "Once upon a time there was a little boy who always got his way. Since he was so favored, he grew up believing he was better than everyone else, even his family--and especially his own father, a common man with a heart of gold.
"The boy promised himself that he would never be common, and so he pretended to be different and better than everyone else. After all, his name meant that he was a king."
"Hey, that's like me," said Reggie.
"As he grew older, he became a famous man. He lived in the company of giants, and when he spoke, thousands of people heard his voice. Acting like a king, he watched the court from a crystal chamber high above the multitude. His family still loved him, but they couldn't see him since he had placed himself so far above them. He became very confused and dizzy in his loftiness.
"Strange as it seems, this was part of God's plan. The hidden gift the Little King needed to find was his gift of Grace--the gift of comfort and love when you deserve it the least. Grace is very hard to find. Do you know why?"
"No."
"Because Grace, like a sparrow, is quick to hide From Vanity's glare and the glow of Pride."
"And that's what finally happened," Sister said. "The Little King glowed so brightly in his own pride that he finally burnt himself out and got lost in the darkness. God had to send the Angel of Grace to find him, toshow him the light of a new day and bring him home. When he returned, he was helpful and considerate to his family. It's important for the Little King to find his gift of Grace, isn't it?"
"I suppose," said Reggie.
"It is," said Sister. "If he doesn't, his piece of the puzzle will always be missing. The picture of his family will always have an empty place in it, and he will never have a heart of gold himself."
"Oh, yeah," Reggie said every night when Sister left the room. "King Reggie."
 
 
Tired and dirty from my scrape with the Devil, I walked through the back door, into the kitchen. Sister was putting a tray of cookies into the oven, Veronica was sitting at the table, crying. At seventeen, with her wide dark eyes, brown hair, and tiny body, Veronica looked like a copy of our mother. When she saw my face, she went bug-eyed and stopped crying.
"Sweetie, what happened to you?" Sister asked, holding my head and looking at my nose. I still smelled rotting meat every time I took a breath.
I told her about my encounter in the woods. "Was it him?" I asked. "Does it count?"
"I'm afraid so," she said. "I'm sorry, honey."
I went to the bathroom mirror. I looked terrible. My nose and the skin around it were burnt bright red and beginning to blister, as if I had stuck my face in a can of boiling water.
"You could have warned me," I said. "This isn't cool. Now I've only got five times left, and I'm only eighteen."
"I didn't know," said Sister. "I don't know everything that's going to happen."
I sat across from Veronica with a cold washcloth across my face. The table between us was littered with wads of wet Kleenex. "What's wrong with you?" I asked.
"Reggie's being such an idiot," Veronica said. "He's hanging out with my friends, and he actually asked one of them to go out with him."
"One of your friends would go out with a freshman?"
"He's just doing it to make me mad."
"So don't get mad. If that's why he's doing it, he'll stop when he sees it doesn't work."
"So now I can't hang out with my friends? What am I going to do? Sit around here all night?"
"Take my car. That way, you won't get stuck with them after the game."
"You're letting me drive your car?"
"Sure," I said. "Have fun."
"Thanks, Daniel," Sister said after Veronica left the room. "I knew you'd have the solution. Let me put some Bactine on that burn."
She pulled up a chair and sat in front of me, her knees between mine while she patted my face with a cotton ball. "I'm so sorry this happened to you," she said. "You didn't remember your Axis Mundi, did you?"
"No. I was too busy fighting for my life. And I don't believe this guy is going to leave just because I say the right prayer."
"Oh, he will, Daniel. That's why you need to practice it. You need to keep your prayer sharp like a weapon."
"He was waiting for me. Why did he do that?"
"He's trying to distract you, to keep you from finding your gift of Faith. Don't worry, sweetie, he is the weaker power. That's why he sneaks around and ambushes people. In the end, we will win."
"I don't know how I can beat him. He went straight up the cliff like a spider."
"The only way to beat him is not to play his game. Let's say your Axis Mundi together. Come on, say it with me."
"Heaven and Hell, forever apart,
Met for battle in my wavering heart.
While Goodness and Evil struggled within,
Faith was the sword that brought death to sin."
"I don't even know what that means," I said. "And I don't want to see him again. I only have five more visits."
"That's plenty of time to figure it out," she said, giving me a hug. "In a way, it's a compliment, honey. He only surprises the righteous. Weak souls seek him on their own."
This was small consolation. I still had to walk nine miles back to the campsite. I might see him again, and at this rate, I could be dead by twenty.
While Veronica got ready for the game, I collected supplies for my hike. Flashlight, jacket, knife, matches.
"Will you wait for cookies?"
"No, thanks. I've got to get back. It's getting dark and they don't have a fire."
Before we left, Sister made us hold hands for a prayer.
Veronica rolled her eyes. "Oh, for Godsakes, I don't have time for this. The game has already started."
"Say God-forgive-me," Sister said.
"God forgive me," Veronica said flatly.
"The whole thing, sweetie. Say it."
"God forgive me before my soul enters Hell for all eternity."
"Good girl," Sister said, giving her a kiss on the forehead. "Have fun."
I kissed Sister good-bye. Veronica drove me to the river at the edge of town.
"He makes me so mad." She was still angry about Reggie. "He thinks he's God's gift to everybody."
"He's fifteen, Vee, and he plays varsity. That's something to be proud of."
"Big deal," she said. "I hope we lose. I seriously can't take any more of his bragging."
"Why do you let him bother you so much?"
"Because everything always goes his way. It's so annoying. Nobody should be that selfish and have that much good luck. I have to work so hard to get anything I want, and he just walks into a room and everybody's his best friend. It's not fair."
I didn't know what to say. She was right. Reggie was likable; Veronica always looked like she wanted to clean something.
"He doesn't have it that easy," I said.
"Oh, please. He's already got a car and he doesn't even have a license. He's a local sports god and he's got the perfect job--announcing college games."
"It's just an internship. He doesn't get paid much."
"Doesn't get paid much? He makes more than I do in a week at the Bob-O-Link, and he still steals money from my purse. He took eight dollars last night, Boone. I asked him about it and he just laughed."
"I'll talk to him," I said. "I'll get your money back."
"No, you won't. You'll say something, he'll deny it, and you'll give me eight bucks to keep the peace. He gets away with murder in school, he can go out with anybody he wants, and he never gets grounded like you or me because he never gets caught. Even his bedtime story sounds like fun.Think about it, Boone. You see the Devil seven times, then you die. What's mine? I'm not going to be happy until I wake up in a strange room and a thousand eyes are watching me. No wonder I'm afraid of the dark. What the hell's that?"
"Say God-forgive-me."
"Shut up," she said, punching my arm. "Meanwhile, Reggie gets to be a king somewhere. See what I mean? Since he was a baby, they've been encouraging him to think he's better than everybody else. Our family is so weird."
"Everybody thinks their family is weird."
"Everybody thinks our family is weird," she said. "Who calls their mother Sister? I'm the sister. Not that it matters--I hate my name anyway. I'm named after a scarf with blood on it."
We were at the south end of town, at the little bridge that crosses the river.
"Don't worry," I said. "I'll talk to him. I'll work things out."
"Good luck," she said.
I walked down the culvert to the riverbed, then started my hike back to the campsite.
"Thanks, Boone," she yelled as she drove away. "Love you."
I followed the river upstream into the hills, slinking along the bank, watching every shadow.
I felt like prey.
Two hours later, I walked into the collection of tents. A grand campfire was burning, dinner was cooking. Wes was in great spirits; he had already set up my tent.
"Darndest thing," he said. "Right after you left, some little guy showed up, walking through the woods by himself, and he gave us a box of matches."
"Did he have pointy little workboots?"
"Actually, he did. Whoa, Danny! What happened to your face?"
"I'll tell you later."
After burgers, root beer, and s'mores, the kids played capture-the-flag while Wes and I sat at the campfire talking. He was smoking his pipe.
"What's going on back at the house?"
"Veronica's pitching one of her fits, Reggie's being himself, I saw the Devil on the way home, and Sister is making cookies."
"What kind of cookies?" he asked.
"Peanut butter chocolate chip."
"Those would taste good now, wouldn't they?"
"Do you want me to hike back and grab a couple?"
Wes laughed. "You probably would, if I asked you."
In the woods behind us, boys war-gamed in the dark. There were stretches of silence, then bursts of motion and noise. I told Wes what happened with the Devil.
"You can't worry about this stuff," he said. "I know what your mother thinks, but she sees things different than the rest of us. It's the way she was raised."
"Are you saying she's wrong? I know what I saw. This really happened to me." I pointed to my nose.
"No," he said, relighting his pipe. "Of course it happened. All I'm saying is, there are a million ways to live your life, and whichever way you follow is the way things turn out. It's your choice."
I broke sticks and tossed the pieces into the fire.
Wes put his hand on my shoulder. "Let me tell you about life," he said. "It's a wreck in the fog. Nobody sees everything."
We sat quietly, watching the fire. I thought of demons dancing.
"I'd like to meet this Mr. Sticks," Wes said. "I'll knock him down the stairs."
He went in the woods to take a leak.
"I hate to miss Reggie's game," he said from behind a tree. "He's having such a great year. Is he mad because I didn't go?"
"Probably. But you can't be two places at once."
"I can't seem to stay on his good side," Wes said. "I don't think he likes me anymore."
"He likes you. He thinks you don't like him."
"See what I mean?" he said. "Nobody sees the whole picture."
The noise of the boys in the woods behind us was slowly winding down. In the steady fire, sticks turned to ash.
"Oh, yeah," said Wes. "These kids filled your sleeping bag with shaving cream."
"Thanks for the warning. I guess I'd better play along."
Lyric quote from "Cream Puff War," by Jerry Garcia, copyright ©