Egbert Nathan Wallace – "Egg" to everyone he knew in the Northwestern Ozarks of Arkansas – was fifteen during the summer of 1975 when he finally defied his moniker and struggled free of his shell. The summer had started with an unusual growth spurt that left his scrawny wrists and ankles shooting free of his Sunday clothes and now was ending in a prolonged blaze of baking heat and lazy humidity that soothed his overstretched bones and joints. He was suddenly as tall as a man and looked as thin and brittle as his pop's disciplinary hickory switch.
He was scuffing his feet along the dirt path to his friend Possum's house, scowling and ignoring the world around him in the way of teenagers. His body was still baffled by its new dimensions and he tripped twice over his own overlarge feet. The retreat of summer was prompting particular angst this year, since school would bring new tortures associated with his dramatic physical changes, along with the more accustomed annual plagues of books and teachers. Egg was not a scholar; and if it hadn't been for the help of his English teacher, Mr. Salyer, he would have flunked his native language.
As he strolled closer to Possum's house, Egg took an especially vicious kick at an unoffending stone and watched in satisfaction as it sailed in a long arc into the trees. He felt he had scored an unexpected point in the cosmic game he played where the rules were uncertain and the other players unseen. Kicking the stone into the trees had been the right move – although he couldn't say why – and he enjoyed the other team's amazement at his surprise gambit. Take that, shitheads.
Egg immediately glanced around. Pop would scrub his mouth with borax if he ever heard that word uttered. But the trees seemed to be free of mind readers, so Egg relaxed the set of his bony shoulders and continued his sulk. Although he appreciated the help Mr. Salyer had been in the daunting war with sentence diagrams, he did not appreciate the hopeless and flustered feeling he always had around the teacher and the subject he taught. It made him unaccountably angry, as so many things did these days.
The wood and tar shack that Possum lived in was poorer than Egg's own family's home; but its corrugated tin roof and broken windows had become merely the landscape of his childhood, something he took for granted and did not understand as poverty. Egg let himself in the front door, which was really just a large piece of plywood leaning against the doorframe to keep out the rain. He found Possum at the grubby table, holding a fork like a shovel and eating his breakfast of biscuits covered in chocolate gravy. The boy looked up from his meal and gave Egg a messy smile.
Possum was only seven years old, but was Egg's friend despite the vast difference in their ages. The boy's given name was Charles, after his daddy, but not many people called him that for reasons having to do with both the boy and the man.
Egg's Aunt Beauty told him once that Charles Jr. had the "taint," although Egg had no idea what that meant. But he did know that at the age of seven Possum's long, fine hair was already as grey as a grandfather's. In fact, it was remarkably like the color of the native opossum that lived in the mountains around them. Although his hair had started turning grey when he was just a toddler, the family hadn't the funds to see the recommended specialist; so, with no one more knowledgeable to weigh in on the matter, Aunt Beauty's diagnosis stuck and everyone agreed that Possum had the taint.
Possum gestured at the half-empty jar of Bosco on the table. "Want some, Egg?" he asked politely.
"Naw. I ate. Thanks." Egg stretched across the table with his new acquired reach and fondly ruffled Possum's dirty, grey hair. "What we gonna do today, Charles?"
Possum scowled, looking particularly menacing with chocolate around his mouth. "Don't call me that name, Egbert Nathan Wallace."
Egg grinned. "What kind of name is Possum? We can't call you that forever, you know."
"I reckon you got enough first names for both of us," Possum replied, shoveling in his last bite of breakfast, which – by anyone's sober reckoning – ought to have been at least five separate bites.
"I guess we gotta trap the coon that's gettin' in the still," Possum said thoughtfully, around his mouthful of biscuits and Bosco.
Egg nodded without meeting the boy's blackened eye. A wild animal had been getting into the corn mash in Charles Sr.'s still, and Possum had paid the price for his daddy's loss. The stupid drunk thought his son was responsible, although what a seven year old would want with a bunch of sour mash, Egg couldn't begin to guess. Charles Sr. had been laid off from work for two years, and now he spent most of his days half-drunk, ostensibly using his still to make moonshine to sell in the dry county. Egg doubted that any of the moonshine actually made it to customers.
"Then I figure we can go watch them put up the tent for the revival," Possum added, having finally swallowed his enormous bite of breakfast.
"They're here?" Egg wondered. "Really? They made it?"
"Yup. I saw 'em behind the DQ yesterday. I reckon they'll start revival tonight, or tomorrow at the latest. Didn't your pop say nothin' to you about it?"
Pop was a deacon at the local church and would certainly have known when the revival was starting, but Egg was careful to avoid Pop all summer, if possible. Otherwise, the chores and lectures came down upon him like the plagues in Egypt. When he was younger, it was the chores he resented most, but nowadays it was the lectures. Pop acted like Egg didn't know anything about anything.
"I haven't talked to Pop in a while," Egg said carefully.
Possum grinned ruefully and scrunched up his blackened eye. "I might know a thing or two about that," he said, and then pushed himself back from the table. He wiped his mouth on his shirt and stomped barefoot out the door with Egg close behind.
"What you gonna do with the coon once you catch it?" Egg asked the young boy, following him out to the shed which really didn't look much different than the house. Trash cans stood lonely sentinel next to the building. Their lids had been pried off with clever claws and the garbage strewn around. The two boys gathered it up.
At first, Possum joked his revenge on his daddy, "Feed it all the mash it wants, of course," but then he turned serious. "I'll kill it. Wear it to school like a Davy Crocket hat."
That seemed likely to Egg. Possum would be grateful for an excuse to cover up his hair, which probably got him plenty of tormenting from other kids.
When they finished cleaning up, Possum headed into the shed to lay a trap by the mash barrel. When the boy had opened the door, Egg heard him swear like a seven year-old ought not to know how to do, and so he came up behind him to see the problem.
Charles Sr. was laid out unconscious on the floor. With his mouth wide open, Possum's father was snoring loudly, vomit leaking down his face and puddling beneath his head. The worst smell in the small building was clearly not coming from the mash nor the still, nor unfortunately, even the vomit.
Possum's face was white with embarrassment and fury. He spit on the prone body and slammed the door closed again, stalking away toward the road. Egg followed him silently for a long time.
"You reckon your mamma will take you to revival tonight?" Egg asked him quietly.
"I reckon," Possum sighed, sounding lost and thrusting his small hands in his pockets. "I hope it starts tonight. We could use a good revival."
"We could use something, all right," Egg breathed. "Almost anything, really."
They hiked to the Dairy Queen which was not yet open for the day. The morning light reflected off the windows of the building, giving them the pearlescent haze of cataracts. With the bright, stylized lettering, the posters of Dennis the Menace, and the pictures of colorful ice cream treats, the building was an odd mix of a cheerful construct in a forlorn location. It was like an old woman wearing a bright dress and too much makeup to the funeral of a friend.
Behind the DQ sprawled the big empty lot that the boys used for softball throughout the summer. Now it was covered in a huge square of canvas while the unemployed men of the church rushed around with ground stakes and advice. Egg had heard his mamma say once that the raising of a revival tent was similar to the raising of a circus big top: all of the clowns, but none of the fun.
A long bus was parked on the packed dirt. It appeared to be a converted school bus, painted over with white paint, amorphous paisley designs, and floating peace signs. The careful lettering on the side announced COLDWATER MINISTRIES and the world-famous COLDWATER FAMILY QUINTET.
They hadn't had the bus the prior year, and Egg knew that his pop would not be pleased about the funky art on the exterior. The Coldwaters were God-fearing folk, but they skirted on the edge of secular culture. Pop had said more than once that he was afraid the Coldwaters were becoming a little too worldly to do Heaven much good. Pop was especially against all the doodads that the Coldwaters brought to sell. Egg had really wanted a medallion necklace on a thick chain he'd seen the prior year. One side had a peace sign embossed on it, and the other simply said, "Keep on Truckin' for Jesus."
The door on the bus pushed open and a young man stepped out. His brown hair was long enough to reach his shoulders, but was currently sticking up like he'd just gotten out of bed. Egg watched him as he stretched out his muscles, flexing unselfconsciously. He was probably about seventeen, and was wearing gym shorts that hugged his hips tightly, and tube socks that encircled his calf muscles with their two bright red rings.
Egg recognized him immediately. Silas Coldwater played the drums for the family singers. He was the oldest son of his evangelist father and shared the man's charisma and handsomeness. He didn't share all the same thoughts on morality, however, and – if you believed the gossip of the church women - left a trail of broken hearts throughout the Ozarks.
Pop liked neither Silas' long hair nor the drums in church. "Drums are from Africa," he'd say to explain his position to the other deacons. He was equally against the sale of religious merchandise in general and the peace medallions in particular. Although his true objection was to jewelry made for men, he'd invoke the clearer principles of the money changers in the temple and remind them all how Jesus overthrew the tables.
"But we'll be in a tent, not the church," Brother Williams would point out.
"The church is not a building," Pop would retort ominously, and they'd all nod in agreement at this sagacity.
Silas Coldwater sauntered over to where Egg stood with Possum and regarded him blurrily. "Mornin'," he offered, in a soft, growly voice. "You live here?"
"Yeah," Egg replied. "I'm Egg," he held out his hand and had it grasped quickly.
"Egg? Bet that's fun at school. I'm Sy Coldwater. You know where I can get some breakfast and coffee?"
"You could eat Egg for breakfast," Possum said, giggling at his simple joke. The words made Egg flush right up to his ears. In the ensuing silence, Silas carefully studied the spreading color on Egg's face, smirking wordlessly, and making Egg even more uncomfortable.
"I think the church women have a table set up over there," Egg finally managed to say, gesturing toward the other side of the field. "Mrs. McKay will set you up with grits and biscuits."
"Awright. Thanks then. Y'all come to revival tonight, okay?" Silas studied Egg some more, then turned and walked away.
"We'll be there!" Possum yelled after him. Egg just nodded at the departing back, but didn't have anything to say.
The boys stayed at the field for the next few hours, watching the tent slowly rise along with the heat of the day. The fabric peaked above the trees to create a vaulted canvas cathedral that stirred something within Egg's chest to see it. The tent was bigger than life, and it had been a long time since Egg had felt any emotion that dared creep out of the shadow of his teenage anger and perpetual disappointment. It wasn't even the tent itself so much that stirred those feelings, as it was watching the beaten-down and unemployed men from the rural town apply themselves successfully to such a large project.
"I reckon I should get back and set that trap, Egg," Possum said finally, squinting against the glaring sun. "Meet you at the swimmin' hole later?"
"Sure," Egg agreed distractedly. His eyes scanned the field carefully, although he would have found it difficult to articulate what he was looking for. He had seen Silas Coldwater a few times through the morning and had garnered a nod and half-smirk once. Otherwise, they hadn't spoken again.
As Possum wandered away to see to his chores, Egg decided he should head home too. If he returned home now, he could avoid his pop without looking too obvious about doing so. The lawn needed mowing, the shed needed to be painted, and Egg knew that the garage needed to be cleaned out. The next time Pop caught him, he'd get all of these chores handed to him along with a blistering lecture on slothfulness. But if he were early enough, Pop would still be at work and Egg could safely slide in for Mamma's hot lunch.
Egg stumbled along the path that led from the DQ to his home. The packed dirt trail ambled through the trees and meandered lazily around a dolomite cliff face before leading Egg finally to the boulders at the edge of the swimming hole.
There, Egg found a dozen children, all boys, screeching and hollering, splashing and diving. This was one of his favorite places, a retreat where the melancholy which had settled into the adults of the town was battled back with sheer joyful exuberance. Complacency, apathy, and depression held no quarter here; the boys drove it back with the tribal pulsating of their ululating cries. Their skinny wet-slick teen bodies glittered like young water gods, hipbones pushing out of their tight skin like handles.
As Egg watched, Hank Ruthford launched himself from the cliff above with a whoop and sent a spray of cold, stagnant water rocketing upward like a geyser.
Egg contemplated shedding his clothes there on the rock with all the others, and joining the pagan cabal, but his stomach reminded him of his hunger, and he remembered he'd promised to meet Possum here later. He enviously watched for a few minutes more before turning regretfully toward the path to continue his trek home.
Only a few minutes further along, Egg saw a flash of movement which turned out to be Mr. Salyer, his English teacher, sitting under a tree. The man's back was pressed against the trunk and he was writing in his notebook, eyes scrunched with concentration. Pop said Mr. Salyer was a queer, and Egg noticed that the man was always scribbling in notebooks, which did seem pretty odd to him.
Although it was a humid afternoon, Mr. Salyer was dressed in a long-sleeved linen shirt rolled up to his elbows, showing strong, tan forearms. The fine, dark hairs on those arms were slick with a sheen of sweat that made Egg's stomach tumble pleasantly.
Mr. Salyer smiled in welcome, shielding his eyes from the sun. "Hello, Egbert."
"Hey, Mr. Salyer. You still scribbling?"
That seemed to amuse the man. He smiled again, kindly, and gestured vaguely at his notebook. "Yep. Still scribbling."
Mr. Salyer had ink on his nose, and Egg scratched at his own in sympathy, loosening a flake of skin from the sunburned bridge.
"How come?" Egg scrunched up his eyes in confusion, and wondered how anyone could waste a perfectly hot, sunny day with a pen and notebook.
Mr. Salyer leaned his head back against the tree and closed his eyes. "Writing allows me to remember things I've never done," he responded, and that sounded important to Egg, but probably queer, too.
"I ain't done lots of things," Egg mused, stuffing his dirty hands in his dirty pockets. "Haven't, I mean," he corrected hurriedly.
"What do you want to do, Egbert?"
This seemed important too, and Egg allowed himself to think about it for a moment. The sultry air was thrumming with insects, and further away he heard a splash and laughing from the swimming hole, but when he looked up he discovered Mr. Salyer watching him intently. The look was neutral but curious, and the tumbling in Egg's stomach turned to queasiness.
"I think I want to ask Mamma for a quarter and go to the DQ," Egg said quickly. Then he turned and walked away with his hands still in his pockets and his stomach fluttering uneasily. He hadn't known what he really wanted to do, but he knew it had more to do with tanned forearms than DQ cones.
Within twenty minutes the path brought him out of the woods to the clearing where his family's house stood. His father's car was not yet in the driveway. Encouraged, Egg left the concealing forest edge and made his way to the front porch where he found Mamma and Aunt Beauty chortling and gossiping to the rhythm of stringing an overflowing bushel of green beans. As they watched Egg approach, their hands and conversation paused. Aunt Beauty took advantage of the loll to puff eagerly on her gnarled pipe and studied her nephew shrewdly.
To the same degree to which Egg's and Possum's names fit their owners, Aunt Beauty's did not. She was squat and warty like a toad, and feisty and lethal as a bog witch. She wore a skirt she'd made herself from a stained and ragged fabric; nylon stockings stretched over varicose veins in a topographical map that no man had ever charted, and runs in the stockings streaked down her legs like pinstripes to her raggedy, laced-up boots. Her loaded shotgun lay on the porch at her feet; she never went anywhere without it. Egg loved her completely.
"Prodigal returns," she growled playfully, bushy eyebrows lifted while smoke curled from her mouth and nose. "It must be lunchtime."
"Yes'm," Egg replied politely.
"Must've worked up quite an appetite avoiding your pop the way you've been," his mother added archly, but her dark eyes twinkled. Wisps of hair had escaped her bun and curled around her ear in a sweat-slicked coil.
"Ahhhh…" Egg gurgled. "Well, I…"
"There's some cold pork out on the table for you with grits and a bit of cornpone. You'll mow this yard and clean it up before you're off again."
Egg ducked his head and flushed. "Yes'm," he said again, and then he was moving past them and pushed the door open to go find his lunch.
An hour later Egg had a full stomach and his neck was prickling uncomfortably in the heat as he raked up grass, leaves and other detritus from his yard work. While he found the labor easy, giving up an hour of his summer was not. He would be sixteen in just a couple months, and he knew he should start behaving more like the man that his body insisted that he was; but it was not easy to choose work when the summer beckoned so compellingly to the boy's spirit still haunting the places within him.
"His wife's a mousy thing," Aunt Beauty observed casually. Her pipe was clamped in her teeth while her hands went through the automatic motions of snapping and stringing the beans. They had been putting up beans for the past two days and would probably continue through the end of the week. Egg was only half-listening to their ongoing gossip, but he suddenly drew in his breath and tried to rake more quietly.
"I think that oldest son gets his personality from his daddy," agreed Mamma disapprovingly. "They say that boy fathered the still-born baby on Eulis Crab's daughter." She was shaking her head wearily.
Aunt Beauty grunted at this. "Eulis Crab looks at his own daughter in an ungodly way, and everyone knows he blames that evangelist boy for something he done hisself." She puffed once on her pipe and grabbed another handful of beans to put in her lap. "Now if it'd been Eulis' son who ended up pregnant, I might've believed that Coldwater boy did it," she said wickedly.
Egg's mamma bit back a quick laugh and covered her mouth. "Beauty, you're awful."
Egg closed his eyes against the surge of adrenaline that rushed his veins and settled uneasily in his stomach. His feelings were abstract and unfocused; they confused him, and that made him angry. Sometimes he felt he could drown in the depths of feelings like these.
He returned the rake to the shed and waved to his mother from the edge of the yard. "I'm heading to the swimmin' hole," he called to her, his voice cracking with emotions he couldn't name. If he was going to drown, he'd rather do it in water.
She nodded from the porch and called back, "You get home early. Revival starts tonight."
"Yes'm," Egg replied automatically, and turned into the cool shelter of the woods.
"How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said—
You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?"
The hymn filled the canopy at the pace of a dirge, and while the words were stirring, the tempo was not. Egg had to stifle a yawn in the middle of the second verse.
He glanced around self-consciously. Possum stood beside him with his small grey head coming up to about Egg's chest and a foul odor wafting from him - probably the stagnant water they'd been swimming in all afternoon. Egg had had a proper bath when he'd gotten home, but Possum evidently had not. The younger boy had arrived alone shortly after Egg; neither of his parents was in attendance.
Mr. Salyer stood a couple rows away, sharing a hymnal with Mrs. Shiner, the organist. There was no instrument for her to play in the tent and so she sat among the rest of the congregation. She was trying to tap out the tempo of the song on the back of a folding chair to help the people around her, but they were weighed down by the many other voices plodding errantly forward.
Egg's mamma and pop sat a few rows behind him, providing him a bit of space and freedom while still allowing them to watch everything he did during the service. Egg could hear Pop's rich baritone lifted confidently, and it made him wish he had inherited more of his voice and less of his somberness. His pop wasn't really a bad sort, but all of his sharp traits seem to match perfectly to each of Egg's raw spots. These days they danced a complicated series of steps that often had them treading on each others' toes, sometimes purposefully.
When the song finally concluded everywhere and in stages, the Coldwater Quintet took up their instruments and microphones and launched into a lively version of "This Land is Your Land." Egg could feel his pop's glowering disapproval somewhere behind him and it made him grin. He wasn't sure why he thought it was funny, but he did. Sy Coldwater happened to catch the expression from his perch on the stage, and smiled back at Egg, lifting his eyebrows comically while twirling his drumsticks expertly. This cracked Egg up and earned him an elbow in his ribs from young Possum.
The Quintet followed up with "Day By Day" from the musical, Godspell, and Egg was shaking with mirth at the idea that somewhere behind him, his pop was certainly apoplectic. It did not help Egg's composure that Sy kept smiling openly at him, handsome and sweaty. Flushed with the heat trapped beneath the tent, Egg realized that for the first time in a long while he felt a stirring in his spirit. At least, he was fairly certain that's where the stirring originated.
When they'd finished their set, the Quintet members all sat, except for the patriarch, the evangelist Reverend Cecil Coldwater. He was a large man, both in height and girth, and he dressed fashionably in a white polyester leisure suit with wide lapels and a print shirt. The white of his shoes matched exactly the white of his suit, which matched exactly the shade of his teeth which were always on display in a wide smile that fell somewhere between that of a politician, and that of a barracuda. He was grinning into the microphone, pacing the stage as he let the silence spin over the crowd, growing along with their anticipation.
"Sin," the reverend said simply and finally, letting the word roll out like thunder to fill the tent and the people with its power. He stopped moving and turned to face the congregation, repeating the word once more as if he were giving them a vicious, condescending slap: "Sin."
Egg knew he was in the hands of a mighty man of God, and shivered at the power of his voice. He settled back to hear a night's worth of ranting about sin as the reverend found his rhythm and set forth calling down the brimstone. He didn't spare anyone, managing to fit in the drinkers and the wife-beaters and those that gambled or swore. He went on for a time about the abomination of unnatural love without ever revealing what that entailed for those who might want to avoid it. He railed against those who were slothful, and Egg felt the back of his neck burning where he was sure his pop was glaring at him.
Reverend Coldwater also denigrated many modern television shows and helpfully supplied a quick list of those he felt did not pass muster; however, there were only a few families in the whole county who owned a television set and they weren't in attendance that evening, presumably having other things to do. Egg wondered if those families – friends of his - would continue to watch The Jeffersons and Match Game PM without understanding their mortal peril.
The sermon ended in the way Egg had grown accustomed to most tent meetings concluding, with about four hundred verses of "Just As I Am." It was obvious that the Reverend would not be dismissing the crowd until at least half of them came down during the invitation, and so after thirty or so minutes of wanting to be home, some reluctant volunteers started ambling forward. Egg was pretty sure he saw more than one wife pushing her husband into the aisle, and once the confused man discovered himself there, he just walked on down.
The final tallies seemed a bitter disappointment to the Reverend, but he finally gave in to the clock and let everyone leave well after the fall of darkness, knowing that he still had a couple more evenings to reach the others.
Business at the merchandise tables seemed to be a bit more brisk than at the altar. The entire Coldwater family was staffing the tables grabbing cash and turning over bibles, crosses, watches, tie clips and puka shell necklaces. Egg was examining the song list on the back of "A Coldwater Christmas" 8-track tape.
"I can let you have that at a discount," Sy confided to him with a wink. Egg grinned at the offer, but shook his head shyly.
"I'm afraid the discount would have to be about one hundred percent in order for me to be able to afford it," he replied quietly.
Silas nodded at this, holding his eye and sliding the conversation easily away from Egg's embarrassment. "There any good fishin' spots around here?"
"I know some good ones," Egg confirmed quickly. "There's a pond off the McKay's land that's real good if you're there early in the morning."
"Hey! That's our place, Egg," Possum objected from somewhere at his elbow. Egg had forgotten he was there.
"I reckon we can loan it to Silas for the few days he's here, don't you?"
Possum set his mouth in a grimace, but then recalled the sin of selfishness that Reverend Coldwater had just been shouting about, and reluctantly nodded his approval.
"Good, then," Silas smiled. "Could you show me where it is?"
"I could come by the bus in the morning around sun-up if you'd like a guide," Egg offered.
Silas nodded. "Awright. I'll see you in the mornin' then."
Egg nodded back.
"See you then," Possum said loudly, as if he'd been invited. Sy's lips twitched as he caught Egg's eye, and then he was off to help another customer.
Egg looked around the crowded area and finally located Pop standing in the shadow of the DQ building with Mr. Tribien. The men had obviously and purposefully stepped away from the other people. Mr. Tribien was worrying one hand through his thinning hair and glanced about furtively as he spoke quietly to Pop.
The impromptu meeting looked covert and sneaky, characteristics he would never associate with his father, so Egg ambled in that direction, eventually picking up the gentle murmur of their conversation. After only a moment Pop interrupted the man gently, raising one hand while his other reached for his wallet. He said something that made Mr. Tribien shake his head roughly, but Pop removed several bills and pressed them into his hand.
Mr. Tribien looked up to see Egg's eyes on them and even in the dark Egg could see the flush that suddenly colored his face. The man's rough hand balled up the bills and shoved them in his pocket. He murmured a final word to Pop, and then drifted away quickly into the dark.
"Would you like a ride home, Charles?" Pop asked Possum, who was still in his perpetual orbit around Egg. He placed an easy hand on each of their shoulders and led them toward the DQ parking lot.
"No sir," Possum answered quickly. "I'll walk thanks. See you in the mornin', Egg." He shrugged his bony shoulder out from under the large hand and ghosted away into the darkness. Pop seemed puzzled at the disappearing boy, but all he said to Egg was, "I think Charles needs a bath."
He led his son toward the car with gentle pressure from his hand. Egg chafed under the suffocating touch, and finally raced ahead to get out from under it. His father's hand hung unsupported in the air for a moment until he let it drop, empty.
Egg gratefully slid into the backseat of the Oldsmobile, a space that was his alone, and he immediately cranked down the window to entice the cooler night air inside the stuffy car.
"Good news today from Brides'," Pop said softly to Mamma after he'd started the car. He was carefully navigating the narrow dirt streets, hands perfectly at ten and two on the steering wheel as he avoided the townsfolk in the dark who were sharing the road to walk home. Egg would have preferred to walk, too, using the forest path, but he wasn't allowed when wearing his church clothes.
"They going to open the quarry?" She asked with a hitch in her voice. This caught Egg's attention and he swiveled his head to catch the conversation.
"Looks like it," Pop answered. "They say there's plenty of Boone chert left to quarry."
Mamma dabbed at the sweat on the back of her neck with the hanky she carried all summer. "Well hallelujah for answered prayers," she sighed. "That should get a lot of men back to work."
"Most of 'em," Pop agreed. His voice held repressed hope, as if he clamped down on it to keep it from breaking free and hurting someone. "They say they'll need up to forty men."
"Lord," Mamma breathed. "That'd cover all of them plus some over in St. Joe's."
Pop nodded stoically. Egg knew how to read his father, though, and the tightened hands on the steering wheel belied the calm exterior. The poverty of his neighbors weighed heavily upon him; and the tendons in his strong forearm tensed beneath the black band of the digital watch that Mamma had bought him for their anniversary.
Pop was inordinately proud of that futuristic watch. Its face was dark until you pressed a button on the side, and then the time lit up in a space-age red glow. Pop never failed to show it to new acquaintances, allowing them to push the button for themselves. He'd point out that it could even be used in complete darkness and never needed winding. Pop showed an unexpected enthusiasm for the timepiece that surpassed most any other thing in his life.
"Hey Pop? What time is it?" Egg asked in the quiet car, offering a type of apology for the innumerable crimes of adolescence. His mamma caught his eye and smiled.
The next morning found Egg stumbling out of bed in the half-dark of the coolest time of day. His teenage body found it an unnatural time to be ambulatory, and it responded leadenly to each of Egg's commands. His thoughts were as blurry as his vision and he almost curled up on the floor once when he'd sat down to pull on his socks; but he eventually made it out the door just as dawn was painting the clouds and the rooster in the coop down the road was bawling its fool head off. He'd tried to make a thermos of coffee, but was dismayed by the chunks that were floating around in it; nevertheless, he had the thermos grasped in one hand when he arrived at the DQ to find Silas and Possum already waiting. The boys stood a bit awkwardly in each other's company, both awaiting Egg to provide a common touch point.
At first, Egg thought the dark circles under Possum's eye was from lack of sleep, but as he drew closer, he saw the boy had a new shiner to match his other one. There were also dark bruises blooming like violet cuffs around his arms, and when he grinned crookedly, there was a tooth missing.
Egg hissed out a curse, and Possum looked quickly away from the concern he found on Egg's face. "I'm awright, Egg. Honest."
Egg nodded, but didn't trust himself to say anything. His brain was in a foggy haze and he couldn't think of how to best offer comfort to his small friend, who didn't seem to want it anyway.
Egg hadn't slept very well the night before, his mind abuzz with considering how he would ask what he most wanted to know about Silas without tipping his own hand. After lying awake for interminable hours, he finally decided he would simply ask where Sy's girlfriend lived and see what came of that. He worked out his wording and tone until he felt he had it nailed down perfectly in his mind before he finally allowed himself to fall into an exhausted slumber.
They were already in the boat and sunrise was behind them when Silas broke the morning stillness.
"Are you dating one of the girls in town, Egg?" Sy asked casually as he cast his line across the glassy pond. Tiny ripples gently corrugated from the entry point of his bait until they reached the small rowboat where they apparently knocked Egg off his narrow bench. He scrabbled gracelessly on the floor of the boat until he righted himself, blushing furiously.
Silas watched him flounder quizzically while Possum actually answered the question. "Egg don't date nobody. 'Course Rita Snowfeld don't seem to know that, or take 'no' for an answer."
"That right?" Sy asked in a serious drawl while Egg regained his seat and eased his fishhook out of the thigh of his cutoffs. "Tell me about her, Possum."
"Well," said Possum, squinting. "She's fat."
Egg rolled his eyes but said nothing, keeping his attention on the task of baiting his hook. His face still burned and the blood was pounding in his ears, but not so loud that he didn't catch every word Silas said.
"Sort of curvy, eh? I like that," Silas confided.
"Um, no…" Possum said. "Mostly she's just fat. And she has more whiskers than a catfish."
Egg glanced up to see Silas biting his lip to keep from laughing. The mirth he found there on Silas' face was too infectious for Egg to become angry, so he merely swiped a hand through his short hair and offered a rueful grin.
"You like curvy women, huh?" Egg wondered.
"And the more whiskers, the better." Sy winked at him and Possum fell to a fit of giggles, but Silas held Egg's gaze steady with his own until Egg's mouth went so dry he couldn't swallow.
The morning wore away slowly while the boys made far too much noise to have any hope of catching a fish. Around all the talk, Sy and Egg had traded multiple glances that just missed each other, but of which both were well aware. In fact, after they had been in the cramped boat for about two hours, Egg felt he was going to go crazy. The heat was starting to rise, and Egg could smell the faint tang of Sy's sweat each time he cast his rod.
There was a sudden lull in the conversation and Possum had gotten up to pee over the side of the boat; his small back was to the older boys and the faint splashing the only sound that filled the morning. Silas turned to peer intently at Egg, suddenly filling the small space with buzzing, nervous energy. Egg watched the other boy's Adam's apple bob in an anxious swallow, and then Silas was suddenly standing and reaching over to push Possum into the pond with a spectacular splash.
Egg's mouth fell open in surprise, but before he could say anything at all, Sy was there in front of him again, stooping down for a fast sloppy kiss on Egg's gaping lips.
Egg had just regained his senses enough to want to kiss him back when Silas whirled back around to haul a sputtering Possum back into the boat.
"I'm so sorry, Possum," Silas was saying, thumping Possum on the back and helping him catch his breath. "I think I'm too big to turn around in this li'l boat. You okay, buddy?"
But Possum was spitting mad. "I think you done that on purpose!"
"Why would I do that?" Silas asked reasonably.
Possum glared at him with reddened eyes that flicked back and forth between the two older boys, looking for signs of betrayal. "I don't know," he grudgingly admitted, water streaming down the furrow between his eyes.
"There now," Silas slapped his small shoulder. "You're awright. I would have gone in after you if I needed."
"You did haul me out," Possum allowed. His eyes finally landed on Egg and stayed there. "What's wrong with you?" he demanded.
Egg realized his mouth was still open and he snapped it shut then shrugged non-commitally, still incapable of speech. His lips tingled, his stomach squirmed, and his brain flatly refused to function.
Even as they hauled the boat out of the water a bit later, Egg wasn't much help. His legs had gone all wobbly.
"Been sitting too long," he managed to mutter to Possum.
"Waste of a mornin," Possum groused, still angry. "We didn't catch one dad-blamed fish."
"Wasn't so bad," Silas offered, "I got what I came for." He led the way from the pond, whistling tunelessly.
Possum glared a silent question to Egg, but Egg just shrugged and then fell in to follow Silas. Possum's squelching footsteps finally joined them.
The homily at the revival meeting that night was the exhortation to become fishers of men. The irony was not lost on Egg, but the coincidence solidified his resolve to do what he was planning to do anyway. The plan was to get Silas alone the next day and now he felt he had a sign that God was on his side, and that never hurt. Unless you were a martyr, reconsidered Egg, and then it hurt a whole lot.
He dreamed that night of an overweight mermaid who called him down into the water where she gave him cold, anchovy-tasting kisses. He tried to pull away from her, but she held him fast, kissing him gently while he slowly drowned. He thrashed uselessly in her icy grasp until his lungs finally couldn't wait any longer. His mouth gaped open, instinctively gulping for oxygen, but only succeeding in sucking in lungfuls of foul, green water.
He awoke in a terrible mood, bone-weary of wrestling mermaids and metaphors, as well as tired of being led around by the leash of hormones that seemed tightened around his neck. He breathed deeply, letting the air expand his chest slowly, loosening the anxiety within him. His bones, testicles and soul ached to varying degrees; it was hard to say which the greater torment was this morning.
He sniffed his armpits and decided a shower wouldn't be detrimental to his day's goals, so he slouched and stumbled his way to the sole bathroom. The steam filled the small room, clouds roiling against the mirror over the sink. Egg kept his mind carefully blank, concentrating only on soaping and rinsing. The warmth and water were confusing to him, a confounding sensory deprivation where he couldn't quite tell if the burning in his eyes could be blamed on shampoo and if the vague taste like salty tears came only from hard water. While toweling, he noticed his Pop's prized watch lying on the sink, the display dark with technological secrets and beaded with moisture from the damp bathroom air. He picked it up before he could consider the theft and strapped it on his wrist, wrestling briefly with the unpracticed movements. Too poor to buy a music tape? This would impress Silas, surely. He tried not to think of his pop's disapproval as he ran a comb through his unruly, wet hair, glad he couldn't meet his own guilty eyes in the fogged mirror.
When he finally shouldered through the front door, he found Possum already waiting for him, sitting in the newly mown grass and studying some ants. The bruises around his eyes were lightening from midnight purple to jaundiced yellow. He grinned lopsidedly at Egg as the older boy approached him, showing off the recent gap made in his smile.
"How come you waited out here, Possum? Mamma woulda made you breakfast."
Possum just shrugged and glanced away, but Egg immediately knew the boy didn't want his folks to see his face all battered. They'd ask all kinds of questions, and Possum was not a good liar.
"You'll never guess, Egg. I caught that thieving critter; it came back for more mash. You wanna come over and…"
The restlessness within Egg suddenly punched out, quick and ruthless. "I can't spend time with you today, Possum. I have plans for today." He didn't meet the other boy's eyes.
"Won't take long, Egg, we'll just…"
But Egg was already jogging toward the path and threw a quick unaimed wave over his shoulder, "I'm already late. But I'll see you tomorrow, Possum; we'll take care of your critter then!"
He let the trees swallow him before he increased his speed, trying to ensure the younger boy couldn't follow, yet not wanting his uncoordinated feet to send him sprawling. In a few minutes he slowed the pace to ease the stitch in his side which he suspected might have been just a cramp of guilt.
The door on the Coldwater's tour bus was partially ajar, and Egg knocked on it awkwardly.
"Anyone home?" He called.
"Nobody's home, cuz we're all here in this stupid bus," replied a girl's voice. After a bit of scraping, the door opened more fully and the Coldwater's youngest daughter stared out at Egg.
He couldn't quite remember her name. She played the tambourine and sang backup vocals. He always just thought of her as Tracy from the Partridge Family, which he'd seen on a friend's TV a few times.
"Hey, good morning," Silas said, squeezing easily past his sister and joining Egg in the late morning air. His half-smirk was in place and he looked Egg up and down. "Just ignore her. She's tired of being on the road. You need me for something?"
"Naw, just wondered if you wanna hang out today. I figured to go swimming for a start."
"Awright." It was as easy as that.
Egg threw a small wave at Silas' sister, but she just closed the bus door in response.
"Do you have a little sister?" Silas asked him as they began to saunter toward the trees.
"Naw. It's just me."
"God has been good to you, Egg," Sy said somberly.
"I can't imagine having a houseful of people to blame things on."
"That's because it's not like that. It's more like a houseful of people who try to blame you for things they done."
"But more people to share all the chores."
"More chores because of all the people."
They turned and grinned at each other. Egg's face hurt from the breadth of his smile.
"Is this a private swimmin' hole?" Silas asked lightly.
"Naw. Everybody goes there. Well, the guys anyway. The girls go there too, but they stay in the bushes to watch and we all pretend we don't know they're there."
"But I figured after we've swum for a while I could show you some caves… they're all through the cliffs."
"Yeah. Everybody knows about them, but nobody goes in them. Hellbenders."
"Hellbenders. Ozark Hellbenders. Lizards."
"Uh huh. They're about as long as my arm. Only come out at night though, and they're scared of people. Everyone stays out of the caves cuz of the lizards, but I go in 'em all the time and the Hellbenders won't hurt you. Everyone thinks they're poisonous, but they're not. My pop said so, and he got bit when he was a kid."
"Nobody else goes in there?" Silas confirmed softly.
Sy met his eye steadily. "I think I'd like to see them caves when we're done swimming."
"Yeah, me too."
There were only a few boys already at the swimming hole, and they shouted a loud greeting to the newcomers. Egg and Silas shed their clothes on the rocks which were already warm in the early sun.
"That's a very cool watch."
"Yeah? It don't need winding. You just press this button to see the time. Even in the dark."
"Looks like something that'd be in that Star Wars movie they're making. I wanna see that when it comes out."
"Pop don't let us go to movies," Egg said heavily. He dropped the last of his clothes at his feet, then tucked the watch under the pile to keep it dry.
Silas glanced over at his naked new friend and grinned broadly. "I think I wanna see those caves pretty soon."
"Yeah, me too," Egg took a quick look beside him, caught a firm impression of smooth skin and round muscle, and then he jumped into the cool water before his body could betray them both. With a resounding whoop, Silas joined him, showering the rocks with his entrance.
"Well, why'd we bother taking off our clothes if you were just gonna soak 'em?" Egg wondered aloud when Silas finally surfaced.
Silas glanced around to see if the other boys were listening, and decided upon just a grin as an answer. Then he dived deep and began an hours-long game of sliding fast and wet against Egg in a strange game of tag where the object seemed to be to tag the other person using any part of the body except hands. The rules seemed to allow plenty of dunking and diving and shouting and sputtering. And wanting. God Almighty, Egg had never felt such wanting.
He'd only expected they'd swim for an hour or two, so it was a surprise to Egg when the other boys all started to disappear for lunchtime. Silas had just finished a mock baptism of them all, and when the hollering and laughter had died, the boys slowly evaporated leaving Egg looking at Silas. The sun had raised a constellation of freckles across the older boy's chest, a map to the destination Egg wished to travel.
"Only if you have lunch stashed in those caves."
Egg scowled. "I didn't think of that. Sorry."
"Then I ain't hungry."
Egg nodded. "I think I'd throw up if I ate anything."
"You need to practice your pick-up lines a bit. C'mon, then. Lead on, oh kinky turtle."
That garnered a puzzled frown.
"The hymn: Lead On, Oh King Eternal. When I was a kid, I thought the lyrics were a little different."
Egg snorted and felt his stomach unclench a bit. "Gotcha. Personally, I was always wondering who Round John Virgin was."
The boys were cool from their water play, but the air was heavy with afternoon heat and shimmered with the chittering of the insects that relished the sweltering temperatures. It weighed upon them like a stifling blanket. They stood looking at one another, feeling the sharp tension like a spur that suddenly kicked them into simultaneous motion.
"We gotta grab our shoes," Egg told him. "The caves are rocky."
They retrieved all of their clothes, but only donned their shoes and Egg strapped on his pop's watch. Then they made their way carefully around the rocky walls for about a half hour until Egg spotted the opening he was searching for.
He'd always thought it looked like the den of a coyote rather than an opening a man could walk right into. He was a bit worried that Silas' larger frame might find the first few turns a very tight squeeze. In fact, he kept watching behind him as his friend followed him trustingly, and Silas did have to put himself through a few uncomfortable contortions that pressed his warm skin against the cool rocks. But he twisted himself through the limestone gauntlet, following Egg closely until he could stand upright in the dim, rocky cavern.
"Wow," Silas breathed in awe, as his eyes adjusted to murky light.
"This is really…"
The air was much cooler here, and smelled of earth and minerals, sweat and nervousness. Deeper in the interior there were stalactite straws and glistening curtains of calcium, but here in the first chamber there was only a giant open space with a ceiling that vaulted overhead and disappeared into the shadows. The stone walls loomed in the distance, giving the impression that they had entered a massive cathedral; ancient, sleepy, and sacred. The floor was somewhat soft with grey powdered silica, but with chunks of rocky debris scattered liberally around. Slithery tracks provided evidence of the lizards, but none could be seen.
Egg watched his own hand reach toward Silas as if it belonged to someone else. It hovered in midair with only a brief tremor to betray him before Silas grasped it in his own warm hand and pulled him closer.
"I'd have drowned him if you'd brought him today," Silas half-growled softly, as if they'd just been discussing the subject.
"I think you tried that already."
And then Egg was being kissed and he forgot about Possum completely. He forgot about summer chores and demanding fathers, English lessons and pesky friends. In fact, he almost forgot to breathe. His whole world was only slick tongues, warm lips, sweat-slippery skin and pounding need. His blood beat a tempo in his ears and his taut body rocked to the pummeling rhythm, chest rubbing against chest and hip frantically seeking friction against hip until he could taste a bit of that blood, tangy and coppery in his mouth from the frantic bites. He felt he was being devoured, and he wanted more. He groaned incomprehensible things, his skin, bone and sinew igniting in a crucible where he burned bright and pure, at some point melting to the sand when his legs could no longer support him.
The cave floor was cool against his stomach, but Silas was urgent and warm against his back. With a searing, torturous pain, Silas entered him, the hurt bad enough to kill a childhood. Egg squeezed his eyes shut against the brutal, terrifying, perfect agony and choked on his sob. From where his teeth clamped down on his own forearm, a thin trickle of blood and saliva seeped an outline around his pop's watch like a crimson shadow. He trembled so hard he thought he'd shake himself apart.
Recurrence substituted for duration, and they did not emerge from the cave for many hours, finally driven out by the fact they hadn't eaten since early morning. It was now clearly evening, and as they made their way over the rocks toward the forest path, Egg finally pressed the button on his pop's watch to check the time.
"We're in trouble, Sy," he croaked. His throat burned, rough and raw in a way that made him flush to remember.
"It's almost seven. Revival will be starting soon. We're gonna be late."
Silas took the news badly, hissing through clenched teeth as he picked up his pace. "They're gonna kill me when I'm not there to sing with them. I don't even have time to change my clothes. And I'm starving. I don't know what I was thinking."
They were dressed, at least, but wearing their shorts and t-shirts from the day and those looked exactly like they'd been stretched out on a cave floor and then rolled around on. As they jogged along the path, Egg detoured into the surrounding woods to bring Silas back a fallen, ripe pawpaw.
Sy took it gratefully. He looked like he still wanted to be angry, but a shy grin escaped him as he peeled back the thick skin and ate the soft flesh within. Egg devoured the one he kept for himself, and they both spit the large back seeds along the way. They were going to be late and dirty, there was no way to avoid it, and the knowledge actually seemed to settle Sy. They paused from their run for a long moment.
"Thank you," Silas said quietly.
"Just a fruit."
"I didn't mean for the pawpaw, Egg."
"I wasn't talkin' about the pawpaw neither."
There was a short, shocked silence and then Silas howled with laughter. He slung his arm over Egg's shoulder and they walked companionably toward their doom.
When they emerged at the lot behind the DQ, they were stunned into paralysis. The boys stood gaping around the area, eyes wide and mouths open. There wasn't a soul anywhere around. The top of the large canvas tent was flapping like a giant bird, but otherwise the grounds were still and silent. Egg checked his pop's watch once more and frowned at it.
"It says it's twenty after seven. Maybe it's wrong."
Silas looked up and studied the sky a moment. "It's not wrong."
Egg pushed forward and looked inside the tent, just to be sure. "Empty," he called to Silas, who had jogged over to the bus and pushed the door open. He emerged in a moment, shaking his head.
"Maybe they all decided to meet somewhere else?"
"No note on the tent. They woulda left a note for stragglers. And our instruments are still in the bus. Wherever everybody's at, they're not having a revival meeting."
"Obviously." Silas' fleeting smile turned into a scowl as he looked around again. "I don't like it, Egg. I've never known Daddy to cancel a revival meeting."
"There's not a single person who accidentally showed up."
They looked at each other as apprehension began to grow. "Let's go to my house and see if anyone's there. My Aunt Beauty don't go to revival meetings. She might know where everyone's got to."
Silas nodded and followed as Egg again pushed himself into a jog.
Dusk was falling, but at this time of year it took its time about it. Twilight shadows slowly lengthened as the boys ran through the forest, and the sudden call of a bobwhite quail whistled uncertainly in the air. Everything suddenly had a surreal quality about it, and Egg slowed briefly, wondering if he were dreaming. But the soreness within him was convincing that he had really done the things he remembered doing, and he could tell his body would ache with that remembrance for a long while. He was glad about that.
"Yeah, I'm good," Egg replied, picking up the pace once more.
They emerged into Egg's yard to find complete chaos. It looked like the entire town had shown up, and was milling about, inside and outside the home. As the boys slowly walked toward the house, they were spotted by a little girl.
Heads snapped up from all around the yard, and a murmur started as people caught a glimpse of him and started moving quickly in his direction. Egg's eyes opened wide and he took a step back. Did they know what he'd done? How did they all find out?
Mrs. Shiner was the first to reach him, and almost suffocated him in a hug. "Get his mamma!" She cried. "Tell her now!"
The rest of the crowd was suddenly upon him, everyone touching him, some shyly and some with a rough thwap on his shoulder. They were like a wave that swept him away from Silas, and Egg's last look of his friend showed the boy with a bewildered and lost look upon his face.
A sudden commotion revealed Mamma running across the lawn as quickly as she could, yelling his name repeatedly. The crowd fell back a pace as she threw herself at him and sobbed into his shoulder. He held her tightly, more scared than he'd ever been in his life.
She couldn't speak, her body wracked with her crying. Egg looked through the cloud of her hair to find his pop standing silently behind her, unshed tears glowing in his eyes.
"You all right, son?"
"He didn't touch you?" His voice was steely, angry.
Egg stopped breathing and looked around slowly for Silas, not seeing him anywhere. "Who, Pop?" He finally managed to ask, his voice ragged.
"Charles McCain." Pop's voice trembled just a bit as he spoke Possum's daddy's name.
The people on the lawn were very still as Egg fought his confusion, awaiting his response.
"No, Pop. Charles Senior didn't touch me. I been hanging out with Silas today, swimming and caving. I'm sorry we're late."
The tear finally escaped his pop's eye and tracked slowly down his cheek. Egg was astonished.
"Son… Possum's gone." He swallowed slowly and more tears streaked his face. "His daddy beat him until he… well, Possum died, son. We all thought you were with him. We all thought maybe he'd got to you, too."
His pop was crying openly now, and Egg watched in wonder as the face he thought he knew so well was transformed before him.
It was all so confusing. Possum wasn't dead.
"He can't be dead, Pop. I saw him just this morning." Egg released the tight hold he had on his mamma, but she didn't step away. That was probably a good thing, because he was feeling a little wobbly. But he had to make sure they understood that Possum was okay. He was probably hiding out in the woods somewhere. He did that sometimes when his daddy was drunk.
"Sheriff thinks it happened around lunchtime, Egbert. I'm sorry."
There seemed like a hundred people around the yard, stone silent and looking at Egg.
"But I don't think he coulda…"
"The Sheriff has the body, son. He's really gone. All these folks came out to look for you this afternoon. We searched the forest for you, afraid that he…" Pop trembled to a stop and looked away toward nothing.
Aunt Beauty shuffled through the crowd and wrapped Egg in another hug. She smelled of bread and body odor and she spoke several things in his ear that he couldn't hear over the buzzing white static in his head. The crowd started moving slowly around him, approaching Pop and shaking his hand, touching Egg's shoulder briefly and saying words he didn't comprehend. Why were they leaving? Who would look for Possum?
The static became louder, growing from a whispered question to a droning cacophony until it drowned out everything and covered it in whiteness.
Egg was on the dirt path to Possum's house again, scuffing his feet like always. He'd spent the prior day in his room, slowly absorbing information from the mutterings of his parents. Charles Sr. was in jail over in St. Joe's, and Possum's mom was in the hospital across the street from the jail, with a broken arm, cracked ribs, and internal bleeding. They said she just stared at the ceiling and wouldn't talk. Nobody seemed to know what to do about a funeral with both of his folks unable to attend.
The blankness inside Egg was still there, acting as a buffer to anything that tried to touch him. It was like he somehow had used up all his feelings and no matter how deeply he dug, there was just nothing down inside him. He aimed a kick at a stone and didn't bother to watch where it went.
He came upon Possum's ramshackle house and hardly glanced at it, walking past it and the fluttering plastic streamers of yellow crime tape to get to the shed. When he pulled open the door the strong, sour smell of the mash attacked him, making his eyes water. And there, in the corner, in a small cage-trap was the furry mash thief. It was curled up, dead already; it had probably died from thirst in the hot oven of the shed. Rather than the raccoon they had suspected, it was a small, grey opossum. Its face was pale and long, it's tiny feet clawed and delicate. Egg picked up the cage carefully and carried the corpse outside, setting it under a tree. Then he picked up a stray two-by-four, about four feet long, and returned to the shed, holding it like a baseball bat.
He stood in the doorway, trembling. The whiteness inside him was rising again, this time a hot fury that roared in his ears and streamed down his face, salty and wet. He yelled himself hoarse as he lay about him with his weapon, smashing the still and everything inside it. He pummeled the mash barrel into a splintery mess of wood and corn juice, broke the shed window in an explosion of glass and fury, and beat the walls until the nails came loose and the boards gaped widely in a smile like his friend's. He didn't stop until his arms were too weak to lift his piece of wood again, and he slumped in the floor among the spilled mash, too exhausted to care about his bleeding hands, full of splinters.
An unexpected breeze found him there, carrying away the stench of the place, and promising him that summer was almost over. Except for the breeze, the morning air was completely quiet, his violence having left a scar of silence, white and jagged, across everything in the area. He roused himself, grasped the handle of the cage in his blood-slick fingers, and headed home.
His pop found him in their backyard digging a hole. There was an empty wire cage-trap set next to the tree where Egg was digging, and there was a small bundle wrapped in old cleaning rags - prepared for burial – lying next to it. Egg, fully concentrating on his task of digging, was surprised when his pop appeared next to him with a shovel of his own. Neither said a word as Pop started digging, helping to widen the hole while Egg made it deeper.
"I took your watch the other day without asking," Egg told him suddenly. "I found it in the bathroom and I wore it so Sy Coldwater wouldn't think I was poor."
His pop studied him with an undecipherable look in his eye. Egg held his gaze steadily.
"Okay, son." He bent back to his task and lifted another shovelful of dark soil.
The grave didn't need to be very big, so working together they were done in just a few minutes. Pop reached for Egg's shovel and stood solemnly beside the hole while Egg bent to lift the wrapped bundle from the ground.
But the rags fell away to show that they held nothing. He looked around in confusion until his pop pointed his finger across the yard where the possum was scurrying quickly toward the forest. The small grey body raced blindly for freedom, dragging its bare, pink tail behind it in the grass. The possum turned just once at the edge of the yard, its eyes glinting like obsidian beads, and then was gone. Egg stood and watched the empty spot for a long time while his father wordlessly refilled the hole in their lawn.
At some point in the early afternoon Egg found himself back at the DQ lot to help take down the revival tent and say his farewells to the Coldwaters, but once again discovered that he was out of sync with his surroundings. He found that the tent was already gone from the grounds, and so was the converted school bus. The softball field showed the outlines of the giant tent with a flattened, yellowed square. It looked forlorn and dying, unfit for games or fun.
But the space was not empty. A table had been erected and a large sign taped to the front proclaimed: "Bride Stone Company. Applications. Use Ink."
Egg watched the line of men as they waited their turn at the table. They stood speaking quietly to one another, somehow managing to look both pensive and animated, as if they lived in a different world from Egg. He saw the air as a white, hazy curtain, separating him from the drama on the stage. He was only a member of the audience, watching the action from the bitter darkness of his seat.
Mrs. McKay was pouring lemonades for the men in line until she caught sight of Egg. She straightened herself and brushed a hand down her skirt, grabbing something from her purse before she walked to where he stood.
"Hello, Egbert," she said softly. "How are you?"
Egg looked at her, somewhat surprised that she could see him. He regarded her mutely for a few moments until she glanced away uncomfortably.
"That oldest Coldwater boy? He asked me to give you this." She pressed a small brick of plastic into his hand. He watched her retreat to the lemonade thermos before he glanced down at the Coldwater Christmas 8-track tape. It was still wrapped in cellophane, shiny and foreign, feeling like Silas' skin – smooth and slick – under his fingers.
Egg looked up to the sky, the blue mostly overtaken by the white glare of the sun. It was a summer sky, hot and open and filled with the thrumming of insects. He only realized his hands had tightened into fists when he heard the crackle of the cellophane, whispering something he couldn't understand.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]