by Grasshopper

Chapter 2

This place, this cell, this oubliette - thrown down, thrown away, far down in to the dark; a place for forgetting, for remembering, for trying to remember things never known. Where one huddles in the bible black, listening to the sounds that can drive you mad, or can fill you with a strength known by very few.

"Father! Please! No, Please!"

Wesley could hear Mercy pleading, and then nothing but the sound of the truck tires. The night was pitch black, the moon just a fingernail sliver in the sky, dimmed in the cloud-filled sky. He tried to roll himself into a tiny ball, pressing his back against the door. He hadn't meant to go to sleep during prayers, but he was only six after all and sleep called to him after dark. He always knelt down silently and tried to listen, but tonight the sound of Father's voice had lulled him. The parlor had been so hot and his eyes just wouldn't stay open. He felt Mercy pinch his arm, but even that didn't help. He swayed again and when Father jerked him up by the back of his pajama shirt, he knew he was going to be punished.

He knew better than to speak. It just made Father angrier. He hugged his small body, biting his bottom lip until it bled. This was worse than being afraid of his brother. He didn't know where they were going or what was going to happen. Maybe Father was giving him away. Maybe they were going to the church building. Maybe he was going where his mother was. Maybe......

The truck stopped.

"Get out!"

Wesley pulled the door handle and slid down until he hit the ground. It was dark. He could hear animal noises. Dry leaves crunched under his sock feet. Father pushed him toward a darker than the night shape looming in front of him. Wes could make out the outline of a small building. Father rattled his keychain and unlocked a rusted padlock.

"You will contemplate your sin and pray for god's forgiveness."

He shoved the little boy into the windowless room and slammed the door. Wes stumbled into the room only to feel the ground under his feet give way to nothing. He fell, tumbling downwards, smacking his head on something hard. Lying still, he heard Father lock the padlock and, moments later, the sound of the truck pulling away.

No light. Wes squinched his eyes shut and then opened them really wide. Nothing! His legs just gave out. He sat. It felt safer to keep his eyes shut. Straining his senses, he listened as hard as he could and heard night sounds. Rustling! Scraping! Hugging himself as tight as he could, Wesley listened for the scary sounds.

He couldn't call out. Father would hear him. He couldn't cry. Father would know. He was too terrified to reach his arms out. What if there was a monster in here that ate little boys full of sin? He had to be very quiet. He felt the fear begin to choke his throat, but he swallowed it. He began to shake, but he clamped down on his terror. He shivered as the cold began to cover him.

Father would come back and get him, wouldn't he? Wes just didn't know how long it was supposed to take for a boy like him to comtegate his sin. He hoped God wasn't too mad at him. When he got locked in his room for other stuff, he always got let out the next morning. Maybe this was a worser sin. "I'm sorry, God. I didn't mean to go to sleep," he whispered into the dark.

He sat still forever. He could smell dirt, lots of dirt, not the kind of dirt when Karl Jr. dug a fresh hole though. More like old smelly dirt, and, what was that other smell? He sniffed and choked. It was a bad smell like the time he and Mercy had found the body of a rotty old squirrel and when they poked it with a stick, its guts fell out.

Being only six, he wasn't sure how long he had ridden in the truck. He didn't know where he was, but he did know that there wasn't any place like this near his house.

Something that sounded like slow breathing was coming from over to his left. He knew it was his left cause Mrs. Harris had taught them about making the big 'L' with their thumb and pointer. He made the big 'L' and knew that was his left. He wanted away from the soft huffing sound.

He felt something crawling on his leg and he swatted it off. Maybe if he could find the wall, he could lean on it and be real still. Reaching out real slow with one hand, he felt nothing. He reached out the other way.....nothing. He was gonna have to move. There had to be walls.

Scooching on his behind, his eyes opened as wide as they'd go, Wesley inched forward, pulling himself along with the heels of his sock feet. Something landed on his face. Squealing, he slapped it away. Forcing himself not to curl up in a ball, he kept inching until his toes hit something cold. He rubbed his toes back and forth. It was a wall; more dirt, crumbling as he grabbed at it. He felt something long and smooth under his leg.

Somehow, a wall behind him would be safer...safer from the creature that was breathing over there. His hands found the wall and he swung his body around quickly to press his small shoulders against the cold dampness. There! He drew his knees up to his chest, dug his heels into the dirt and listened. A slow hissing sound echoed in his ears.

Gulping to keep the fear down, he whispered, "God, I am really really sorry. I'll never go to sleep in prayer time again. Don't be mad." He heard nothing in the black that enveloped him. Huddled silently for what seemed like eleventy hours, a feeling of quiet slid over him and Wesley's eyes drooped. He wanted to stay awake so the breathing thing couldn't eat him, but the dark was absolute. He slept.

He dreamed a sad dream of Mother. She gathered him in her arms and sang, but no sound came out of her mouth. He wanted so much for her to sing to him. Wesley had never seen his mother, not even a photo, but this was her. She had long brown hair like Mercy's and getle brown eyes. She smiled and kissed him ever so gently. He smiled in his sleep.

Later, in the darkest of the night, the clouds scudded across the sky and the sliver moon appeared, reflecting its light down on the rusted shed and the little boy. A small broken section of the rusted out tin roof allowed a ray of silver moonlight to drift into the shed, down into the pit and touch the earthen floor.

Wesley slapped at something furry crawling on his arm and his eyes jerked open. Light! He could see shapes reflected in the little ray of moonlight. He could see a really old lawnmower, all rusted, upside down on the floor. He heard the hissing sound again. Turning his head, he could just make out the shape of an old garden rake resting against the lawnmower where someone had tossed it. He saw the tines scrape across the push handle. That was his scary creature.

He saw something he could cover up with. Crawling over toward the lawnmower, Wes touched the end of a half buried rolled up, rotting canvas tarp. It smelled really really bad, like cat pee and rotty stuff, but he crawled over to it and wrapped the corner of it around his bare legs and arms.

A little warmer, Wes looked up and saw the moon through the little hole in the roof. He thought about his favorite song from school. He began to hum and then to whisper-sing.

"I see the moon and the moon sees me. The moon sees the somebody I'd like to see. God bless the moon and God bless me. God bless the somebody I'd like to see."

He stared at the moon, so high up in the sky. Up in the sky where God lived. Maybe it was God's light. Maybe God was reading a book or making a peanut butter and jelly samich. Maybe God wasn't mad at him any more. He was sharing his light with Wesley. 'Okay then', he thought, Okay'. He drifted back to sleep thinking about God and his big lamp, maybe sitting in a comfy chair by a big fireplace in a house like Wesley wanted to live in one day when he was loved.

He woke to a tiny beam of weak morning sun shining through the hole in the roof. He could see the lawnmower and the rake. He could see old rotted bags of fertilizer. He could see the little bugs crawling through the dirt floor and bits of old rocks and other stuff lying all around.

There were some crazy looking lines somebody had scratched on the dirt wall. It looked like maybe what the devil would look like, but kinda meaner with horns and mean eyes. Wesley wasn't gonna look over there anymore.

He had to pee really bad. Standing up kinda shaky, he wasn't sure God would like him for doing this in the comtegating place, but he had to go! He went to the fartherest corner and relieved himself. Afterwards, he turned around in a circle. Then he looked up. This wasn't a little house. He was in a big hole. He was in the ground. Reaching up, standing on his tiptoes, he still couldn't reach even halfway up to touch the rim of the hole. It had to be way taller than even Father. He thought about trying to climb out, but then thought about what Father would do if he came and Wesley wasn't in the hole. It was better to just wait.

His stomach growled a little, but he didn't have any food in his pajamas. He giggled wildly, if his pajamas had any pockets, he would have them stuffed with chips and candy bars like the ones Cole and Callie brought him every day.

Cole! Callie! They were at school, well maybe not yet. It was really early. He thought about his friends eating a big breakfast of maybe pancakes and ice cream and then riding to school with their daddy. Would school miss him? He would miss being at school... would miss Mrs. Harris and the songs and the games. He sang Itsy Bitsy Spider, doing all the little finger movements and watching the big daddy long legs crawling across the huge web in the corner of the ceiling. He imagined being a spider, catching his breakfast in a big web he had worked all night to make. Ick .... bug breakfast.

It was no good wondering when Father would come for him. Father would come when he came. That was the law. He knew that Mercy would be so worried. He felt bad for that.

"Excuse me God, will you tell Mercy I'm all right? She will be real worried. Oh, and maybe, if you're not real busy, tell Callie and Cole? I know its probly not too good of me to hope so, but I hope they miss me just a little."

Wesley sat back down, curled into the old tarp, leaned his head back against the dirt wall and sang softly, "God bless the moon and God bless me....."

Mrs. Harris looked at her line of little chicks. She was missing one little one. Ah, Wesley Straihan. That was odd and a bit disturbing. 'The Straihans were never absent,' she considered, thinking back, except that time Karl Jr. was absent for three days without any excuse note. She seemed to remember that he was very sleepy and jittery after those three days. And the time Mercy broke her leg.

"Did Wesley mention that he wouldn't be here today?" she asked Cole.

Cole was already fretting. He had a bad feeling in the bottom of his stomach even though Callie said that Wesley probly had the sniffles. . It was almost like he could hear Wes whispering to him. Maybe Daddy would go by his house today and they could make sure Wesley was okay.

"No, Mrs. Harris," Cole answered. "I don't know where he is." He spent the day very quiet, his mind concerned about his best friend.

As the weak November sun began to fade, Wesley's little ray of light dimming, he heard the truck. He jumped to his feet and stood in the center of the dirt floor of the pit.

The padlock rattled, the door flew open and Father stood towering in the doorway looking down at him.

"You have contemplated your sin?"

Wes kept his eyes lowered. He knew that rule. "Yes, Father."

"What have you learned?"

Wes, eyes down, knew better than to say that he had watched the daddy long legs, listened to the wind play music through the trees and especially not that God had let Wes use his light when he was most scared.

"I learned that I need to stay awake during prayer time."

"Will that sin against god ever happen again?" Father's voice thundered.

Wesley felt his chest tighten. In years to come, he would feel this tightening again and know that it was his will fighting against that of Father, but right now, at six, a skinny little sockfooted boy clad only in thin cotton Bugs Bunny pajamas shivering against the cold November wind, Wes just wanted to go home. He would say anything to go home to Poppy and Leo.

"No, Father. I promise. It will never happen again."

He crawled into the truck and, once again, curled up into the smallest possible ball. He didn't even try to look out to see where he'd been. Maybe he'd never be bad again and have to come to the big hole in the ground.

Home! He saw Mercy peeking out the front window curtains. He slipped from the truck and started toward the house.

"Go to the parlor. It is prayer time!"

Wesley felt hot tears burn his eyes. He was so cold and he wanted something, anything to eat. He wanted Leo. He wanted Poppy. He walked up the steps behind Father and turned slowly in the parlor door to drop to his knees beside Mercy. As Father began his readings, he felt Mercy's small hand touch his back. Just that touch gave him the strength to stay upright, to stay awake.

Father's voice intoned, "Forgive my children. Make them see the sins of their ways and show them your mighty power."

Wesley began to sing softly in his mind, a song that would sustain him through night after night of kneeling in prayer to a god he did not believe in. His God turned on a soft warm glowing light when Wesley was in the dark. Even at six, Wesley knew that his God was not Father's god.

"I see the moon. The moon sees me. The moon sees the somebody I'd like to see. God bless the moon and God bless me. God bless the somebody I'd like to see."

Mercy shook Wes hard. "Get up, Wes. Don't make us late!" She was already dressed and had their little lunch bags in her hand.

Wes groaned and rubbed his eyes. After extra long prayer time last night, he ran upstairs to find that Poppy and Leo were gone. He knew just where he'd left them, so it wouldn't do any good to search. He just prayed that Karl Jr. had hidden them, and Father had not taken them away. Sometimes, Karl Jr. wasn't terrible mean and gave them back.

Just as he began to cry desperate tears, Mercy snuck in the door carrying a half-burned pork chop and some lima beans wrapped in a kitchen towel. "Here, Wes. Eat quick. I saved these from dinner."

"Mercy! Poppy! Leo!" he gulped.

"Shhh, I have them. I knew what Karl Jr. would do. They're safe. Eat quick." She sat beside him on the cot and tore little bites off the chop for him. "Now go wash your face. It's too late for an all over bath. Go to sleep quick before Karl Jr. gets here."

Now, it was morning and here she was, shaking him awake and he had just put his head on the pillow. Yawning wide, he sat up and pulled his school shirt off the peg. Tiptoeing past his brother's sleeping form, he ran into Mercy's room. She had Poppy and Leo sitting on her bed. He grabbed them up, hugging them to his chest. "I missed you sooo much," he whispered.

Wesley slipped Leo into his pocket, hid Poppy under Mercy's dresser and zipping up their worn jackets, the two children headed down the dirt road toward the bus stop.

Just as the bus rattled its way along the main road, Karl Jr. sidled up. "You have a good time in the pit, you little pansy? I bet you peed yourself all night."

Wes thought for a minute, then asked timidly, "You ever been in there, Karl?"

His brother's eyes narrowed. "Yeah, no big fuckin' deal. I been there lots a times."

Wes remembered the pictures drawn on the dirt wall and how scared they had made him feel, even more scared than being in the pit alone in the black of night. "Did you," he asked timidly, "Karl, did you draw stuff in there?"

For a second, his big brother's eyes blazed with a fire Wes couldn't understand, then he swung out his arm and pushed Wesley into the dirt. "Shut up, asswipe."

When the bus stopped in the bus circle at McLaren School, Mercy jumped up, pulling at Wesley's hand and they hopped off first. He saw Cole waiting for him by the big kindergarten doors. "You go to your friend, now, okay? I'll be here for you as soon as I can after school."

"Okay, Mercy. Don't forget me," he begged, not wanting to let go of her hand.

"I never do."

Wes walked slowly over to where his best friends were standing. "Where were you, Wes? We worried," Cole asked.

Wes thought about where he had been. It was a place Cole and Callie would never understand. He knew Cole had never been to a bad place. Wesley knew he was different. He knew he had to be very careful or they wouldn't like him or want to be his friends anymore.

"I had a bellyache." It was the first of a bazillion lies he would tell Callie and Cole, and then just Cole. He couldn't lose the only friends he'd ever had.

Mrs. Harris looked at the three children. Callie and Cole Hewett were spanking clean, clothes pressed, hair brushed and shining. Wesley Straihan, on the other hand, was filthy. She could see that he had made an attempt to wash his face, but there were streaks of dirt running down his arms and she was sure he was dirty under Mercy's old jacket and the same faded shirt he wore every day. He had red welts on his arms that looked like bug bites. She watched as Cole held out his clean little hand. She saw Wesley wipe his hands on the sides of his pants and then, shyly, slip his fingers into Cole's.

Mrs. Harris had learned the hard way, when she had Karl Jr. in her class, that she could not give the Straihan family any charity. She had bought him new jeans and a new shirt at the dollar store. He had been very reluctant to accept. The next day, the clothes were returned in a paper bag with a note attached:

"Pride goeth before destruction. Straihans do not accept charity. Our god takes care of us."

After he returned the new clothes, Karl Jr. had gotten into two fights that week at school. He had started them both over not much of anything. It was as if he just wanted to hit someone.

The teacher knew she wouldn't try that with Wes but she could get him clean. While the class was watching a short film about not talking to strangers, she called Wesley up to her desk. "Wesley, take this note to Mrs. Garrison in the office for me, please."

Wes loved to be the messenger. He loved to walk down the high ceilinged hallways and go into the busy office. There was this really nice lady that would always ask him what his business was. He would say importantly that he had a note for Mrs. Garrison, the principal. Sometimes, he would be told to wait and sometimes he was just told to go back to class.

Mrs. Porter read the note, glanced at Wes, smiled, told him to sit on the bench by the door and carried the note into the principal's office. A few minutes later, Mrs. Garrison came out, a tall pretty lady who always smelled good like the pastures in summer. "Good morning, Wesley. How are you today?"

"Okay," he answered.

She sat down beside him, looking at all the bites on his arms. "Wesley, I see you got into some bees or something. I guess your plumbing was out at your house. I know how much they must itch. Would you like to take a wash in the office washroom?"

Wes frowned. He looked at his arms. He hadn't even noticed the bites except that he kept scratching. He kinda guessed that he smelled bad, but he didn't think anyone else knew. He thought carefully, scratching his neck. Would Father find out? Would he go back to the big hole? He thought about Cole's clean hands and how nice he always smelled. "Okay then," he said quietly, "Okay."

Mrs. Garrison knew enough about the Straihans not to offer Wes any clean clothes, but soap and hot water was a different matter. She would simply think of this as a health issue.

Wesley was shown into the nurse's room, given a fluffy clean white towel and Mrs. Porter turned the water in the shower on to a good temperature. "I'll be right out here at my desk when you're done," she said, smiling. 'Poor little lad', she thought, as she closed the door.

Wes washed all over, even his long shaggy hair. The soap smelled like flowers and the hot water felt good on the bites. He stayed in the warm water as long as he dared. This was nothing like at home where he and Mercy had to take turns in the cold water in the old claw footed tub. He wanted to just sit down and let the warm water pour over him, but he knew he didn't dare.

Shutting off the water, drying off with the towel that smelled like fresh air, he sighed, then put his dirty clothes back on. At least he was clean underneath. Shaking his damp hair and combing it back with his fingers, he sat down on the floor to pull on his socks and boots. He folded his towel up carefully and laid it next to the shower.

Opening the door, he peeked out. Mrs. Porter looked up and smiled happily. "Well, you look mighty shiny now, Mr. Straihan."

Wes grinned. He felt shiny. "Thank you, Mrs. Porter. I need to go back to class now. I don't want to miss singing." The secretary and the principal exchanged a look as the little boy closed the office door quietly.

"You have to have a license to go fishing or to drive a car, but anyone can have a child," Mrs. Porter said sadly. "There ought to be a law. Where is that child's mother?"

Wes crept back into the classroom and slipped into his chair. Cole saw the damp hair and smelled the soap. He frowned. Where had Wesley gone?

Wes was quiet during singing until Mrs. Harris asked if anyone had a favorite they wanted to sing. His hand flew up. "Yes, Ma'am, please. Could we sing the moon song?"

"Of course," she smiled, launching into I See the Moon with all the children joining in. For some reason, Wesley's little face seemed so happy to be singing just this song. For the first time, proud that his hands were so clean, Wes reached for Cole's hand and then Callie's. They sang the moon song very loud.

The 'Penny Money' game started that day. As the two little boys sat on the wooden bench that faced the craggy hills to the north, Wes wondered outloud, "How far do ya think to the other side of the world?"

"You mean straight down?" Cole asked.

"Well, Mrs. Harris says we live on a big ball planet and so, if we dig, would we come out on the other side?"

They dropped to their knees, pushed aside dead fallen leaves and stared at the hard winter soil. "We need shovels," Cole said as he jumped up and ran to the toy basket. Pulling two plastic sand shovels, he raced back and they began to dig.

They worked on the hole everyday at recess for a week, searching for China and any treasure along the way. When Wes hit something that clunked, they found an old empty Mason jar. Mrs. Harris let them wash it and keep it at school. Whenever they found a penny, or lucky lucky, a nickel, dime or quarter, they'd put it in the jar.

"I bet we'll have ninety megajillion dollars soon," Wes would grin.

The look of happiness on Wes' face made Cole start bringing pennies and dimes to school each day to let Wes 'find' them in the playground dirt. Even at six years old, Cole had seen the big difference between Wes and him. Cole never thought about money and Wes never had any.

"My daddy has somethin' in the truck for you," Cole whispered excitedly to Wes as they walked out toward the bus/car circle. He'd been waiting all day for their surprise.

Mr. Hewett climbed down out of the truck and reached back in for a blue bundle, "Hey, kiddos."

"Give me, Dad," Cole grabbed at the bundle. He turned and shoved the blue backpack at Wes. "For you, Wes, me and Callie got this for you."

Wes stared at the backpack. He couldn't take it. He would get in so much trouble. He remembered when Karl Jr. had brought things home from school that teachers had given him. Karl Jr. had been locked in the bedroom and Wes had to sleep on the floor in Mercy's room and the next day, the things went back to school.

Albert Hewett watched the emotions fly across the child's face, none of them good. Fear. Anxiety. Pain. Desperation. He wanted that backpack badly, but he couldn't take it. What kind of home does he live in?

Wes reached his hands out, and then dropped them to his sides. "Thank you, but no." he couldn't look at Cole or Callie.

"But, Wes, we buyed it for you with our own money. For you, Wes." Cole was starting to cry.

Albert jumped in. "I think Wesley is afraid it might get lost on the bus, right Wes?"

Wes thought for a minute. "Okay then," he said softly, "Okay."

"Then I have the answer. We'll keep it in the truck for you. It will just live in the truck until school every morning. How about that?"

As much as Wes was dying to carry the new backpack home and show Poppy and Leo, he knew he couldn't. He would be brave and even go back to the pit to have the backpack so Cole wouldn't cry, but Father still wouldn't let him have it. He looked at Cole, at Callie.

Callie sensed his desperation. "Good idea, Daddy." She patted Wes.

Cole stared from his dad to Wes over to Callie and then back to Wes's eyes. He had never felt so sad before. "Yes, we will keep it for you, Wesley." He grabbed the backpack and opened it. "Look, we got you crayons and pencils and paper and all kinds of stuff." He carried the pack over to a bench and he and Wes examined every item closely, their small shoulders bumped up together.

"You did a good thing, Miss Callie," Albert smiled at his little girl.

"Wesley belongs to us, Daddy, to Coley and me. We will take care of him." She ran over to look at the crayons, their three little heads touching.

Albert Hewett watched his children chattering happily with this odd little stranger. One person can't belong to another. He should have tried to explain that to Callie, but for some reason, when she said it, it made sense.

He glanced up at the afternoon sky. No snow yet, but a full moon tonight. The cattle would be restless and the coyotes would be crying all night. Their howling always made him nervous. He hoped he didn't lose any cattle to them tonight, but bad things always seemed to happen on a full moon.

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