by Grasshopper

Chapter 5

Wesley had turned twelve when he learned the actual name for the dirt pit he'd been shoved into so many times. It was odd really. He was just sitting in Mrs. Kane's history class, his mind drifting, doodling the same name over and over along the side of his notebook.

She was showing the class slides of her trip to Europe and as she spoke, the words cut through his daydream:

"This is a chateau in Meung-sur-Loire near Orleans in France. Prisoners weren't treated like they are today in our modern prisons. Many were left to starve in tiny cells. This is a fine example of an Oubliette, a pit with only an opening at the top. It is approximately twelve feet deep and six feet across with no ladder or handholds to climb out. The original use for these pits was grain storage. Perhaps, someone got the bright idea to toss a prisoner down in for safe keeping."

Wes raised his hand. "Mrs. Kane," he asked, his voice choked. "Will you write that word on the board please?"

She smiled and scrawled 'oubliette' across the blackboard. Cole watched Wes write the word carefully at the top of his notebook page in big block letters. Sitting to his left, back a seat, Cole could watch every move Wes made. He'd been watching Wes doodling and drifting in and out of the teacher's droning voice. What had made him suddenly sit up straight and ask to spell that weird name?

Wes wanted to leave. He wanted out of this room. He couldn't get his breath. He suddenly had the feeling that everyone in here knew where he had to go when Father was angry. It had a name now. He went to the Oubliette. He grabbed his textbook and looked in the index. There was the word .. page 153. He thumbed quickly and read:

Oubliette- from the French /oublier/ meaning to forget. A prison cell used when the captors wished only to forget their prisoner, leaving them to die of starvation. Many times, a large spike was placed in the center of the floor, impaling the prisoner as he fell into the pit.

Wes broke out into a cold sweat. There was no big spike thing in his pit. It was just a big hole in the ground and Father always came and got him out. He was hungry, but not starving. This was a French thing. How come there was one here? Who dug it? He felt Cole staring at him. He could always feel Cole. He had to put this away in the back of his mind like he did everything else. For Cole. He did what he always did. He hummed the song in his head:

"Baby's boat's a silver moon sailing in the sky,
Hmm Hmm Hmmm and the clouds go by.
Please baby, don't forget to sail back again to me."

Turning his head, Wes looked at his best friend, not realizing that he could never totally mask the pain in those silver eyes. He smiled and Cole smiled back, but Cole knew something big was wrong. Why would something the teacher said make Wes so upset? He stared at the word she had written across the board. Why did some hole in the ground in France scare Wesley?

"Wait up, Wes," Cole huffed as he ran to catch up. School over for the day, Wes was headed for the bus pickup, looking for Mercy. Karl Jr. had been really mean lately and he didn't want her out here alone. He heard Cole calling and he knew what he was gonna ask. He just didn't have an answer. He was so tired of all the lies. He just wanted to get home, find a few minutes all to himself and think about this. He had a name for that place now. Wes didn't know why that made any difference, but somehow, it did. But, when he turned to look at Cole, Wes saw the worry in his eyes. Slowing down, he sighed, waiting for the question.

"Wes, what got you so rattled in class?"

There it was ... what lie would he tell this time? Would Cole ever forgive him if all the millions of lies he'd told ever ripped open?

Cole saw a hesitation, even fear, racing across Wes' eyes like a night thunderstorm across the prairie. "Never mind," he murmured, "Its okay. You'd tell me if you could, right?"

Wes mumbled, "That place, the one Mrs. Kane talked about." He couldn't say the name, not out loud. It was screaming in his head, but to say it out loud would make it all that much worse.

"What about it? Tell me, Wes."

He couldn't. He wanted to more than anything. To just tell Cole about the nights in the dark, how scared he'd always been and how he figured, one day, Father wouldn't come back and he'd just disappear. But he couldn't.

"There's Mercy. I've gotta go. Don't worry about me, Cole. See you tomorrow."

Cole stood quietly, watching the big yellow bus chuff up clouds of dust as it roared out of the parking lot headed out the highway. He couldn't see Wes' face, but he knew Wes and Mercy always sat in the seat right behind the driver as he lifted his hand to wave. He knew Wes was looking at him.

Cole Hewett had everything life had to offer. He was healthy, well off, had parents that loved him and a twin sister who drove him nuts. He would go off to college in five years, choose whatever career he wanted and have a fine life. He was beautiful to look at, blonde haired, blue-eyed, strong of body and mind. He had only one weakness. Wesley Straihan.

From the moment Cole had looked up in that Kindergarten class and looked into those mesmerizing eyes, he had accepted that Wesley was going to be an important part of his life. It had been six years and the feeling had not diminished, had only grown. He had learned when to push at Wes and when to back off. When to offer advice and when to keep his mouth shut. The one thing he'd not learned to do was to stop worrying.

Wes never told him anything about home. Cole never saw any marks. All he knew was that Wes always had to be there, always on time, always watching out for Mercy. Wes could have told him anything ....anything .... And Cole would have stood by him. He hoped Wes knew that.

He saw his dad pull up in the truck and walked slowly over to the road. He opened the door for Callie and waited for her to climb in. Sliding up into the cab, Cole shut the door and slouched down in the seat. Callie chattered on for several minutes all about cute boys, Jenny's hair, the dance on Friday.

Albert glanced over at his son. It was always the same. Cole either jumped into the truck full of news and funny stories or he slouched over there, his thoughts dark. Over the last six years, Albert had figured out that these silent moods always had something to do with Wesley Straihan. He had no idea what to say to his son. Albert liked Wes, but he was living for the day when Cole and Callie went off to college and left Wesley behind. He just hoped when the time came, Cole could let go. His son felt too much, cared too much and Albert didn't see anything in this future except sadness. Wesley had too many strikes against him. It was very doubtful Wes could outgrow his family or the tragedy of his life. Albert sighed, knowing that he was the very one who had taught Cole and Callie to have compassion and loyalty and here he was wishing Cole could shake all this off. Somehow, he knew his son was stronger than that. 'Mixed pride', he cursed.

When Wes got home that day, he went straight to his room and pulled out some paper from under his bed. He began to draw quickly. Harsh lines, deep dark holes in the ground, faces without hope staring up.

One of the fluorescent tubes had blown in the big moon, leaving a crescent moon with a hole in the middle in the blinking sign above the Blue Moon Saloon on Route 16 outside McLaren. The bell above the door jangled, but wasn't heard over the music pulsing out of the ancient jukebox.

"Well, Rev, how's the god business tonight?" Otis had been asking the same question of the Reverend Karl Straihan for years now. Every time, it was the same question and the same answer.

The bartender, Otis McGee, paunchy, red veined, long stringy ponytail draped over a faded Grateful Dead Tour t-shirt, wiped the scratched stained countertop with a sour rag.

The Reverend Straihan, a handsome man if you could avoid ever looking into his eyes, black and bottomless, laid his bible down on the sticky counter. "Where is Wanda?" The name of the woman changed, but what he wanted never did.

"Wanda took off with some truck driver headed for LA. She was about shot anyway. I got a new girl, name of Jessie. She's right up your alley, Rev. She likes it hard and rough. Hey, Jessie, get your tail over here and meet one of my best paying customers."

Jessie, all of eighteen, sidled up to the bar and gave the Reverend a sexy look from under thick false eyelashes. Licking her lips, she asked, "Like what you see?"

"You'll do," he replied, his gaze not seeing her for anything except a whore. He turned toward the door to the back rooms, his bible left lying on the top of the liquor smeared bar. Not even glancing at the girl, he strode quickly through the doorway.

"Get ready to be born again," Otis laughed, calling out toward Jessie's back. She turned long enough to roll her eyes. She'd been tricking since she was fifteen. She thought she'd seen it all. She was wrong. Tonight, she saw cruelty gleam through the eyes of a madman.

Otis rolled his eyes. He'd seen some weirdies, but the Rev was a real nutjob. He reached for the bible, opened it, then headed for the back room where he slipped two small packets of white powder between the pages of Psalms.

Mercy sat quietly in the library staring at her biology book. They were on Chapter 7 Animals in the Wild: Predator and Prey. She had read the chapter carefully for the test tomorrow. Her mind wandered, thinking how, in her world, she was the prey and Karl Jr. was the predator. He had the strength and the cunning and all she had was a will to survive.

At fourteen, Mercy had no idea of how she looked to other people. She never looked in the mirror to see the shine in her long brown hair or the soft spray of freckles that danced across her nose. You are as pretty as you feel and Mercy Straihan never felt the slightest bit pretty. The shame that lived in her eyes made her hunch her shoulders and drag her leg even more than necessary. She still wore hand me down clothing, Karl Jr.'s old jeans and flannel shirts, but Wesley had gone to the Dollar Store in town and gotten her two t-shirts. She wore them at school and then folded them up and stuck them in her locker before she got on the bus. Her favorite was this lavender one with flowers on the front. It was the color of the rainbow.

Sitting at the library table, listening to the other students whispering about anything except schoolwork, she felt totally alienated. When someone sat down in the chair next to her, she didn't even look up. A shadow fell across her textbook as a small bunch of violet wildflowers plopped onto the pages.

"Hi, Mercy."

She frowned. Was someone making fun of her? Turning her head, she looked into eyes the color of the sky on a warm summer day, blue and smiling. Craig Harold had the most beautiful eyes in her world.

"I know you like violet. These grow right outside the library door," he said, his smile crinkling the corners of his eyes.


They sat silently for a few minutes. Mercy couldn't have gotten a word out if the world was on fire. She touched the flowers with the tip of her finger.

Finally, she asked timidly, "How did you know I like violet?"

Craig blushed, "Every time the teachers give us choices about folders or teams or like in Art class, you always choose purple, oh and you always get a purple tray at lunch. I just figured you liked it."

A strident voice called from the next table, "Craig, what are you doing over there? All your friends are sitting at this table." The sarcasm was heavy and Mercy felt it crush her little daydream. She looked over to see that all the popular kids were crowded around the long table and at the center, her golden hair glowing, sat Callie Hewett.

"I better go," Craig said.

"Thanks for the flowers." Mercy didn't look up; she just held the wilting flowers. He smiled, and for just a moment, her life turned golden.

The voices, meant for her ears, struck at her like hard, sharp rain:

"What were you doing over there ..... with HER?"

"Everybody knows her family's fucked up."

"Stay where you belong. The Straihan's are nothing but trouble."

Closing her textbook, she pressed the flowers into the pages, gathered her things and walked as invisibly as possible out the library door. She glanced over to the flowerbed beside the front door and almost smiled as she saw the little violet wild flowers struggling to survive. The flowers were like her; struggling, holding on, strong, but yet so vulnerable.

Craig Harold watched Mercy walk out the door and wished he had the nerve to walk with her. His parents had told him never to have anything to do with "those Straihan people"; that they were trash. He'd believed it about Karl Jr. That guy was gonna be dead before he was twenty if he didn't watch himself, but Mercy and Wes were different.

Wes played on the volleyball team with Craig and he was always fair and friendly, just really quiet unless Cole Hewett was around. They were best friends and had been as long as Craig had known either of them.

Craig had had a thing for Mercy Straihan since fifth grade. She was just so pretty. She didn't even act like she knew it. Craig knew they were dirt poor, but she just kinda went beyond that somehow. Craig never told anyone, but he always thought Mercy had some kind of angel in her. Like maybe God was waiting to use her for some really good purpose. He knew that sounded crazy, but sometimes she almost glowed with something special.

Craig's dad was the mayor of McLaren and knew pretty much everything about everyone. When he said don't mess with the Straihans, he meant it. Maybe one day, when they were older, he'd be able to ask Mercy out on a date. Maybe ... til then, he'd just watch and see what happened and maybe give her some more little violet wildflowers.

Callie watched Craig. Why was he talking to Mercy Straihan, of all people?

She was so plain and mousey. Callie didn't really want Craig for herself, all she'd ever wanted was Wesley, but she didn't like him looking at Mercy either. Callie knew the way she was feeling wasn't good, but things just came so easily to her and, right this minute, she wanted Craig's attention. Knowing Wes would never ask her or even go, she turned to Craig and smiled, "You going to the dance Friday night?"

Mercy sat on the bus bench, her books clutched in her hands. She could see Wes and Cole crossing the ball field heading this way. She looked over as Callie plopped down beside her. "Hey, Callie," she said softly.

"Hey yourself. You going to the dance Friday night? Oh, my bad, you don't go to the dances, do you?" Callie said, cutting her eyes toward Mercy.

"No, I don't," Mercy answered quietly.

"I've got to get a new dress. Craig has already seen my blue one and I know that's his favorite color."

Mercy felt her heart break just a little. She knew all the kids went to the dances, but she didn't know that Craig took Callie. But then, of course he would. Callie was the most beautiful girl in school.

"You'll look real pretty, Callie."

"I saw you talking to Craig today in the library," Callie said casually. "You helping him study?"

"He gave me some ..........," Mercy stopped herself. That was her secret. "Yes, he asked about the test."

"He's a big flirt, you know. Don't take anything he says seriously. You don't have a crush on him, do you?"

Mercy sighed, "No, Callie."

"Good. Well, here come Cole and Wesley. I'll see you later." Callie bounced up off the bench and ran to meet her brother and Wes, laughing and flirting for all she was worth. Mercy heard Callie ask Wes if he was going to the dance.


"You going, Coley?"


Mercy stopped listening. She thought about Craig and the flowers and how sincere he had looked, how sweet he had sounded. Was he really just a big flirt? Well, it didn't matter much anyway. Callie had him. Mercy looked down at her faded jeans and the blue plaid flannel shirt. Why would anyone give her a second glance ever? Callie had it all.

Karl Jr. watched Callie sitting on the bench talking to his stupid sister. Why anyone would waste their time talking to her he'd never understand. She was a fuckin' mess with that gimp leg and that arm she couldn't use much and her hair all in her face. He just used her when he was feeling itchy and had no where else to get some. She oughta be glad someone used her for sumthin'.

But say now, that Callie Hewett ..... she was a whole different can a worms; all that blonde hair and a body that didn't quit. Karl Jr. shot his load lotsa times just thinking about her. He'd have her before he left this crap of a town, one way or another. He'd fuck her brains right out of her head and she'd love it. Yeah, one day!

Albert Hewett pulled up in the loading zone at the school and watched them all. He saw Callie trying to get Wes' attention away from Cole. He watched as Karl Jr. approached his sister Mercy and hit her on the head with the palm of his hand. She didn't react except to rub her head. He saw Wes break away from Callie and run over to the bench and take Mercy's books. They talked and then started walking toward the bus. Karl Jr. shoved Wes and Wes shouted for him to leave them the fuck alone. Albert's hand grasped the door handle when he saw Cole head for what looked like a fight starting.

Karl Jr's two buddies, Ace and Freddy, backed him up and, just when Wes and Cole, smaller and younger, were headed into the fight, Mr. Cogswell, the bus driver, strode off the bus with a baseball bat in his hands.

"You punks walk home today. The exercise will do you good. Get on the bus, kids."

"We'll get you for this, old man," Karl Jr. growled. "You better watch your back."

"Oh, man, my ma's gonna cream me if I'm late," Freddy whined.

"Shoulda thought about that afore you followed this fool," Mr. Cogswell replied, pointing the bat toward Karl Jr. "Your daddy needs to set you right, Karl Straihan. Failin' your senior year. You love it here so much you had to stay another year?"

"Fuck off, old man. I'll get you some dark night." Karl Jr. muttered under his breath as he, Ace and Freddy started walking down the long dirt road that led to the highway.

Albert relaxed against the truck seat. That Karl Straihan kid was gonna end up in jail, sure as anything. He watched Cole touch Wes' arm and saw Wes nod his head to Cole. It was almost as if they had a language all their own.

Cole and Callie piled into the truck for the ride home. "Did ya see that creep, Dad? He was gonna fight with Wes for nothin'."

"And you thought you had to wade in there?"

"It was Wes, Dad." That was Cole's answer to most everything.

It was Wes.

Headline: McLaren Gazette – November 1, 2001

Tragic Halloween Accident

James E. Cogswell, local school bus driver for twenty-six years, died last night when he lost control of his car and ran off the road at the dangerous Hangman's Curve out on Route 16 two miles past the Blue Moon Saloon. Cogswell is survived by his wife of thirty-one years, Esther Mae, four children and seven grandchildren.

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