Saturday, June 30, 2018

Tom Blake, Part 3


Tom Blake

September, 1906


It is hard to concentrate on my dinner tonight.  I didn’t notice until I sat down at the table that my mother has bruises all over her face.  I have been in my room for most of the evening yesterday, trying to get through my school assignments by candlelight, since I ended up staying late at the butcher shop.  I heard some noises from downstairs, but hadn’t paid much mind at the time.

But now I can see that when my father stumbled home from the saloon last night, he had taken out his drunken fury on my mother’s face.  She has a black eye and her upper lip is swollen to twice its usual size.  And when she gets up from the table to fetch more bread, she winces.

I watch my father shoveling the slices of beef into his mouth—the meat that Mr. Sullivan gave me as a supplement to my meager wages.  I hope he chokes on it.  What sort of man lays his dirty meathooks on a woman a full head smaller than he is?  He’s disgusting. When Mary and I are married, I will never lay a finger on her in anger.

Pa glances at me and notices I’m pushing vegetables around my plate rather than eating them.  “Eat your dinner, boy,” he says.  “My work puts food on your plate and I don’t want to see it wasted.”

I glare at him.

Ma must have caught the look in my eyes, because she chirps brightly, “George, speaking of your work, maybe you can bring Tom with you to the shop again soon.”

“Why should I?” Pa snorts.  “He has no interest.  He wants to hack up meat for a living.”

“I’m sure if he gets to see more of what you do,” Ma says, “he’d be more interested.”  She nods at me. “Isn’t that right, Tommy?”

I can’t make myself answer.  Not even for the sake of keeping the peace.  Not anymore.

The truth is that I want my father to get angry.  I want him to stand up and threaten to whup me if I don’t comply with his wishes.  I want to take him on. 

I’m ready.

But my father just sits there, too exhausted from work and the large meal to pick a fight.  “He doesn’t want to go, Meg. And I don’t want him hanging around the shop, grousing about how bored he is.”

Unfortunately, Ma doesn’t know when to give up.  “Surely he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps though!  He just needs some encouragement.”

“His father’s footsteps! Ha!” Pa squints at me with his beady brown eyes.  “Fred Sullivan is as much his father as I am.”

The fork I’d been toying with falls from my hand.  I look up at my mother, whose face has gone white under the dark purple bruises. 

“George, stop it…” Ma murmurs.

“Stop what?” Pa barks.  “The boy’s seventeen years old.  Don’t you think he’s old enough to know the truth?”

I stare at the man who has raised me for the last seventeen years.  My heart is thudding so loud my chest, everyone at the table can certainly hear it. 

“What?” I manage.

“George, please,” Ma whispers, her voice nearly a sob.

He stands from the table, wiping his big hands on his slacks.  “You really think I could have fathered a lousy kid like you?  Think again.”

With those words, the man I’ve been calling my father stormed away from the table, toppling his chair in his wake.  I just stare at the space he recently occupied, trying to make sense of what I just heard.

“Is it true?” I finally ask my mother, a minute after the front door slams to announce George Blake has left for the saloon.

She doesn’t answer right away.  She takes her sweet time, and when she does, her voice is soft and shaky.  “I’m sorry, Tom.  It’s true.”

I turn to look at her, wincing again at the sight of her bruises.  “How could you not tell me?”

“It was for your own good!” She sticks out her chin.  Everything was for you, Tom.  When I found out that I was… expecting, I thought our lives would be over.  But then George came along and he saved us.  He married me before I was showing and he told everyone that you were his own.”  She shakes her head.  “Do you know what it would have been like if I had you out of wedlock?  Do you know what our lives would have been like?”

At least she wouldn’t be married to a man who puts bruises on her face on a regular basis.  I wouldn’t have the scar on my palm from when he scalded me with metal from the fire. 

“Who is my real father?” I ask.

Ma bites her bruised lip.  “He wasn’t from around here.  He was just… passing through.  He was so charming and so… so very handsome.” She closes her eyes for a moment before opening them again.  I can see blood in the white of her right eye.  “You look just like him, Tom.”

It all suddenly makes sense.  My black hair and dark eyes that nobody can explain.  The way George Blake treats me like an intruder in his home.  Even as a child, I never felt anything resembling love for the man.  Deep down, I must have known we were nothing to each other.

“What’s his name?” I ask her.

She continues to chew on her lip. “Stephen.”

“Stephen what?”

My mother averts her eyes.  “He wouldn’t tell me. It was all very secretive. He was staying at the boarding house—he was only there a few months.  Then he was gone.”

“Do you have a photograph of him?”

She shakes her head no.

Stephen.  His name is Stephen. That is all I will ever know about my real father.  That and he looks like me and is charming enough to seduce a teenaged girl to do things that would permanently destroy her reputation.

“I’m going to my room,” I say, nearly choking on the words.

A line appears between Ma’s eyebrows.  “You’ve hardly eaten…”

“I’m not hungry.”

When I get upstairs, I’m glad I barely ate dinner. I feel like throwing up, even though I hardly have any food in my belly.

George Blake is not my father.  Everything I ever knew or believed has been wrong.

 

October, 1906 

Mr. Sullivan and I are walking to a farm in the next town.  They have a steer for sale and Mr. Sullivan has borrowed a horse and wagon to bring it back to the butcher shop after we kill it.  He dumped our equipment into the wagon, including two knives, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a hoist to help get the animal into and out of the wagon, since a grown cow or steer can weigh about a ton.

We’ll do the butchering back at the shop, so all we’ve got to do is kill the animal and get him back with us—not necessarily an easy task.  Mr. Sullivan has a man who usually helps him, and this is the first time he’s asked me to come along.  “I think you’re ready for this, Tom,” he tells me as we lead the horse down the road to the farm.

“Yes, sir,” I say.

It is early morning and quiet on the town’s main road.  Mr. Sullivan says it’s good to do the killing early, before the flies come out.  The sound of horseshoes clicking against the pavement is like gunshots.

“You like working for me, Tom?” Mr. Sullivan asks me.

“Yes, sir,” I say.  After a moment, I add, “Very much so.”

“Good,” he replies.  I thought he might say something more, but he doesn’t.

 Once we get to the farm, Mr. Sullivan haggles with the farmer for a few minutes over the arrangement. The farmer wants to give us a cow—a female that has at least one calf—but I know Mr. Sullivan prefers meat from the male steer, which he says is higher quality.  Finally, they shake hands, and Mr. Sullivan grabs the shotgun, motioning for me to follow him.  The farmer leads us to a pen where a smallish steer is waiting inside.  “I’ll leave you fellows to it,” the farmer tells us.

Mr. Sullivan nudges my shoulder and holds out the shotgun to me.  “You ever shoot a gun, Tom?”

“Yes, sir.” Several years ago, George Blake (I can no longer think of him as my father) took me out back with his rifle, reasoning, A boy’s got to know how to shoot.  We practiced on tin cans until he felt confident I could make a shot.  “But not in a while.”

“So here’s what you do,” Mr. Sullivan says.  “You imagine a line drawn from the base of each ear to the opposite eye.  Where the lines cross—that’s where you aim.”

“Okay.” My legs feel rubbery.  “Where should I stand?”

Mr. Sullivan squints at the steer. “About ten feet away is good.  Maybe take one step back.”

I try to get my nerves under control.  I point the shotgun at the steer, keeping both eyes open the way George taught me.  I wait until my hands stop shaking, then I squeeze the trigger.

It’s a perfect shot.  A silver-dollar-sized hole appears in the animal’s skull, and it drops to the ground almost instantly.  Mr. Sullivan claps me on the back. 

“Good job, Tom!  You’re a natural.

We approach the steer together.  Mr. Sullivan puts one foot against the animal’s forelegs and one against its head, exposing its short neck.  He hands me the knife he’d been carrying.

“You want to make a cut along the base of its neck, maybe ten inches long,” he instructs me.  “First expose the windpipe, but you don’t want to cut through it.”

I do as he instructed me.  Blood oozes from the animal’s neck and my heart quickens.

“Next you want to insert the knife to one side of the windpipe with the back of the blade against the breastbone,” he says. “Press the point of the blade down maybe four or five inches.  That will cut the blood vessels.”

This next cut results in a wave of blood that I hadn’t quite expected. It squirts out, drenching my hands and my clothes, which makes Mr. Sullivan laugh.  But I’m not thinking about the fact that I’ll be walking home in blood-soaked clothing.  All I can think about is the way that pig’s blood made me feel the other day, and how I want this so much more.  I want to bury my face in it and drink until my stomach aches.

And as I watch the blood pour from the animal, I feel that presence behind me.  Someone watching.  Someone who knows exactly what I’m thinking.  And then I hear a voice whisper in my ear:

Drink up, Tom.

“Tom?” Mr. Sullivan’s voice sounds very far away.  “You okay, Tom?”

“Uh huh,” I manage.

“You look pale.”  He edges away from the steer and puts his hand on my shoulder.  “Sit down on the ground.  Puts your head between your legs.”

“I’m okay,” I manage, but I oblige by lowering my bottom to the ground.  I close my eyes, trying not to think about all the blood.  But it is no use—I can still smell it.

After about ten minutes, the flow of blood has stopped and I’m able to think clearly again.  I don’t know what has come over me.  If I had buried my face in that animal’s neck, Mr. Sullivan never would have allowed me in his shop ever again.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I know I’ve got to get it under control before it wrecks my life.

I help Mr. Sullivan hoist the steer up into the wagon for the horse to pull it back to town.  We cover it with a tarp, load our equipment back into the wagon, and then we’re ready to go back to the shop.

I walk quietly next to Mr. Sullivan as we travel back into town, ashamed by my behavior at the farm.  It is only after we are halfway back that he breaks the silence.

“You did good back there, Tom,” he says.

I look away from him. “Not really.”

“Yes, really,” he insists. “That was your first time slaughtering a steer.  Truth be told, I got woozy myself when it was my first time.  But you made a clean shot. You killed the animal fast, and… well, I couldn’t have done it without you.”

I venture a look at Mr. Sullivan, who is grinning at me with his yellowed teeth. He has no idea what I’d really been thinking. “Thank you, sir.”

“Enough of this ‘sir’ nonsense,” he barks at me. “From now on, you call me Fred.”

“Yes, sir,” I say.  “I mean… Fred.”

I can’t imagine calling him Fred. The word feels like glue on my tongue.  But I appreciate what he is trying to do.

“Soon you’ll be done with school, won’t you, Tom?” he asks thoughtfully.

I nod.

“So what if I hired you for full time?” he says.  “I mean, after you graduate.”

I stare at him.  “Full time?”

“I’m always paying people to help me with these animals or having to close up the shop so I can get to market,” he says.  “I need another man on board with me.  And you… I trust you.”  He grins at me again.  “You’ll need money if you’re going to buy a house for that girl you’re so keen on, Mary.”

I didn’t realize that Mr. Sullivan knew about Mary.  He is right—I have saved very little from my time working at the butcher shop.  I turn over all my wages to George.  Sometimes customers tip me though, and that money I save, hiding it under my mattress.

“Are you sure?” I ask, hardly able to believe my luck.

“Of course I’m sure!” he booms.  He winks at me.  “Besides, we do better business when you’re working the front of the store.  In case you hadn’t noticed.”

I frown at him.

He laughs.  Don’t tell me you don’t notice how all the women in town come in just to flirt with you!”

I look at him in surprise, but I do have some idea what he is talking about.  I’m not just off the boat.  I know the way women look at me, although it doesn’t matter.  The only woman I want is Mary.

 

April, 1907

Ma took a train up north three days ago to visit her sister, so it is supposed to be just me and George for about a week until she comes back.  Today’s Sunday, so I go to church with Mary and her family in the morning.  George goes to church when my mother makes him, but when she’s not around, he won’t go. “I don’t believe in that nonsense,” he always says.

I never liked going to church as a child. I found it boring, and I don’t like the itchy suit Ma makes me wear.  I always tried to avoid it, but Ma said I’d go to hell if I didn’t go.  So I went.

I still don’t like going to church.  But lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about hell.  The thoughts I’ve been having when I’m around the freshly killed animals in the butcher shop really scare me.  Mr. Sullivan trusts me now, but I don’t know what he’d think if he knew the blood I siphon from the animals whenever I can, and gulp down quickly before I can be caught.  I know I need to stop doing this.  I must stop.

And that’s why I’m going to church this morning.

Mary walks beside me, behind the rest of the family.  We don’t hold hands because her parents are just ahead of us, but I’m itching to touch her.  She has on a worn pink dress with frayed sleeves that looks like it will unravel if I pulled on a single loose thread.  When she’s my wife, I’ll be sure to buy her enough fabric to make herself two brand new dresses right away.  I’ll work seven days a week at Sullivan’s to pay for it if I have to.

“I loved the essay you read in class on Friday,” Mary says.  Her shoulder brushes against mine just enough to make my heart speed up.

“Thanks,” I say.

“Papa says he thinks they need to ban all liquor,” she adds.  “But I agree with what you said on Friday. This is America and people should be allowed to drink what they want.  And anyway, if people want it badly enough, like you said, they’ll find a way to get it, won’t they?”

“If someone wants something bad enough,” I say, “there’s always a way to get it.”

Mary smiles at me.  “I have to confess I’ve never had a drink before.  Papa doesn’t have any liquor in the house.”

“Me either,” I admit.

“Really?” She looks surprised.  “Your father is… well, he drinks quite a bit, doesn’t he?  He must have loads of it stashed away in your home.”

I shrug.  “I don’t have any interest in trying it.”

That is true.  George keeps many bottles of liquor in the house, stashed in a cabinet in our parlor, but I never touch them. Partially because he would have whupped me with his belt till I bled if ever caught me, but also because I just never had any interest.  There is something else I crave much more strongly.

“Your essay got everyone so steamed up,” Mary says.  She sets her bright green eyes on me.  “You’re such a powerful speaker, Tom.  I’m telling you—you could do great things.  President Thomas Blake.”

Tonight at dinner, Mary’s voice is running through my head as George and I eat together.  We are eating the cold meat and vegetables that Ma has left behind for us, and George keeps his head down, staring at the table, shoveling bites into his mouth without even looking at me.  He already smells like whiskey, and I’m sure that when he finishes his food, he’ll head over to the saloon for the rest of the night.

“We need more meat, boy,” George grumbles as he stuffs the last of it into his mouth.  “You still working for Sullivan?”

“Yes,” I say.  “In fact, he actually… he offered me full time work next year, after I finish school.”

George looks me over with his beady little eyes. “You’ll pay me rent then to live here.”

“Actually,” I say, “I’m thinking I’ll get a place of my own.  With… with Mary Eckley.  She and I will be married.”

He snorts.  “You really going to marry Bill Eckley’s pug-ugly redheaded daughter?  I hope he’s going to pay you to take that one off his hands.”

I stare at him, my cheeks growing hot.

“You’re nothing great yourself, but you can do a hell of a lot better than her,” he goes on.  “Real ugly and too smart.  Worst combination there is.  You got to get one that’s pretty and dumb.  Like your mama.  She’s a real dilly.”

My right hand balls into a fist so tight that it hurts.  He has to see how angry he’s getting me, but he doesn’t care.

“’Course,” George says, “I had to train ol’ Meg.  Even she mouthed off sometimes at first, but now I got her trained real good.  Now she knows what will happen to her if she does something I don’t like.”  He grins at me with his rotted yellow teeth.  “And you know too, don’t you, boy?  Still got that scar on your hand?”

Don’t talk about my mother that way,” I say through my teeth.  “And don’t you ever talk about Mary Eckley that way.”

He bursts into loud laughter like I just said the funniest thing he’d ever hear.  “Get used to it, boy.  You’re going to hear a lot meaner stuff about that girl if you go and marry her.”

I stand up so abruptly that it knocks over my chair, my right fist now raised in the air.  George stands up too, turning to face me head on.  He has at least three inches on me and a good fifty pounds.  But I don’t flinch.  I’m not afraid of him.

“You haven’t had a proper beating in a long time,” he muses.  “Too long, looks like.”

We’ll see.”

His eyes fill with amusement.  “You think you can get the better of me?  You sure think a lot of yourself—just like your old man.  You look like him too.  Spitting image.”

His words weaken my resolve.  “You… you knew my father?”

“Of course!” he barks.  “We all knew Stephen.  Came into town, charmed all the ladies, told them lies to get them to sneak off with him.”  He shakes his head.  “But he liked your mama best because she was the prettiest.  I warned her. Told her he was no good.  Then she came crying to me when he got her in trouble and took off.”

I stare at him, trying to imagine how my mother allowed herself to get in that situation.  Despite what he said about her, my mother is a smart woman.  My father must have really been something.

“It could have been worse though,” he says.  “Stephen did worse things to other girls.  Well, nobody could prove it.  But we all knew.”

My stomach sinks.  “What kinds of things?”

But George doesn’t answer my question.  He’s on a roll.  “Your mama would have been branded a whore if I hadn’t married her.  I saved her.  And what do I get?  She couldn’t seem to have any more children and I’m stuck with you. Her bastard.”

I watch as he undoes the buckle on his belt.  I know what’s coming, what he plans to do.  But I’m too old for that.  He isn’t going to lay a finger on me.  Not one finger on me or my mother ever again.

I grab the knife I’d been using to cut the meat from the table.  I grip it in my right hand so George can see it plainly.  He knows I’m not going to just take a whupping.  Not anymore.

But he just laughs, unperturbed.  “What are you going to do with that, boy?”

I don’t reply.  “You’re never going to hit my mother again.  You hear me?”

“You go and get yourself a shotgun,” he says.  “Then maybe you’d be a match for me.  Maybe.”

Mr. Sullivan taught me how to sharpen knives.  After church today, I sharpened the dull blades on all the knives in our kitchen.  At the time, I was doing it because I had a few extra hours on my hands.  But maybe I knew this moment was coming.

“You think you’re going to cut me, boy?” George raises his eyebrows at me.  “Well, go and do it.”

I lunge with the knife, but George is ready for me.  He makes a grab for my right wrist, but I overpower him easily. I can see the surprise on his face when he realizes that I’m now stronger than he is. I topple an end table and the vase resting on it crashes to the floor as I shove my stepfather backwards.  He is bigger than me and heavier than me, but his efforts to overpower me feel flimsy.  Within seconds, I have restrained him against the wall, the sharp blade of our kitchen knife as his throat.

“Tom,” he gasps.  His face is almost purple and his brown eyes are full of fear.  “What are you doing?”

I let the edge of the knife dig into his throat, just enough that blood oozes out. 

“I’m your father,” he manages.  “Without me, you’d have nothing.  You’d be nothing.”

I close my eyes for a moment, conjuring up the image of my mother’s battered face.  You are nothing, George.”

He stands there, gasping for air.  This is what I have wanted for a very long time—to watch this man squirm.  Now I have him right where I want him.  He knows if he beats my mother, he will have me to deal with.  I can let him go now.

Except then I hear that voice, the one haunting me for almost a year now.  I hear it as loud as ever before, a whisper directly in my ear:

Cut his throat, Tom.

In one moment, I’m letting him go. In the next, my hand is digging the blade into his neck, slitting his throat from ear to ear.  I see a split-second shock on his face before he drops to the ground, gushing blood all over our wooden floorboards.  He makes one last gasp for air and bubbles of blood spurt from his lips.

“Oh my God.” I let the knife clatter to the floor. I cover my mouth, backing away from his body.  “Oh my God…”

“What are you doing?”  The voice I heard before is no longer a whisper.  It is now loud and clear.  “After all this time, you’re just going to let him bleed all over the floor?  You’re wasting it, you know.”

I whirl around, expecting to see the same nothing I’ve been seeing for the last year.  But instead, I see a man.  An ordinary-looking man—handsome, yes, but still very much a man.  He appears in his mid-twenties, and he has a shock of black hair and dark, penetrating eyes that make it hard to see his pupils.  It’s like looking into a mirror ten years in the future.

“Who are you?” I demand to know.

“Never mind that,” the man says irritably.  “Drink the blood now, before you have to lick it off the floorboards or else go back to drinking from a pig.”

My eyes widen.  He knows about the pigs?  “How do you…?” 

Before I can get out the sentence, the man all but shoves me in the direction of George Blake’s body.  “Drink!” he snaps at me.

In the end, he nearly has to hold me down.  He pushes me to my knees and presses his hand against the back of my head until my lips are flush with George’s throat.  I would never have done it on my own, but when I’m inches away, the urge is overpowering.

For the first time, I realize how poor a substitute animal blood is for what I really want.  If pig’s blood makes me feel like I can run, this makes me feel like I can fly. I have never been certain if I believed in God, but drinking this makes me feel like I am God. 

I don’t know how long I drink.  I lose all track of time, my face buried in my stepfather’s neck.  But when the flow ebbs, I finally realize what I’m doing.  The euphoria of drinking fades and I’m left with an increasingly ill feeling.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” I tell the man standing over me.

I retch, but nothing comes out.  He shakes his head at me.  “I know it’s your first time but try not to vomit.  It’s such a waste.”

I manage to sit up on the floor, clutching my head in my hands.  I can’t believe what has just happened.  It feels like some sort of horrible dream.  I did not just kill George Blake.  I did not slit his throat.  I did not just drink the blood gushing from his neck.  In five minutes, I will wake up and all will be well.

Except I don’t seem to be waking up.

I look up at the man standing over me.  I can see now that he is wearing a cloak buttoned around his neck that is as dark as his hair.  He is frowning at me, a crease between his eyebrows.

“Better?” he asks.

I nod weakly. 

The man crouches down beside George’s body.  He places a pale hand on my stepfather’s chest.  “His heart has stopped.”

I clutch my knees with my palms. “Who are you?”

The man smiles at me.  He does not appear evil, in spite of what he just told me to do.  Despite everything, I feel that this is a person I can trust. 

“My name is Charles,” he says.  “You can call me Chas.”

“And why are you in my house?”

Chas smiles wider.  Don’t you see the family resemblance, Tom?”

I stare at him.

“I’m your brother,” he says.

***
 

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the whole thing.  This man who does admittedly look very much like me is in my house and is saying that he’s my brother (well, half-brother) and he’s here to help me make “the transition.”  He’s all business, fetching towels to mop up the blood and saying how much easier this will be than usual, because of the luxury of the indoor water pump we have.

“Of course,” Chas says, “there would be a lot less mess to clean up if you hadn’t let him bleed all over the floor.  I hope you’ll know not to make that mistake again next time.”

“Next time?” I say numbly. 

What does he think?  That I’m going to go around town, slitting everyone’s throats?

Chas tosses me one of Ma’s towels.  “Clean up what you can from the floor.  I’ll get rid of the body.”

I stare at him. “Get rid of the body?  What are you talking about?”

He sighs.  Fine, Tom.  We’ll just leave him here with his throat slit, and you can explain to your sweetheart Mary’s daddy exactly what happened.  How do you think that will go?”

He has a point.

“What are you going to do with the body?” I ask. 

“Let me worry about that.”

Chas heaves George’s body onto his back with surprising strength.  George has to weigh at least two-hundred pounds, but Chas lifts him like he’s lighter than air.  He stands there for a moment, surveying the room.

“Pick up the pieces of the vase too,” he says. “Put it in a paper sack along with the towels you use to clean up. And that bloody shirt you’re wearing. I’ll be back to get rid of it for you.”

“My mother will notice the vase is gone,” I point out.

“Your mother is the least of our problems.”

I watch as Chas trots off through the back door, leaving me with a shattered vase and a pool of blood to clean up.  It’s the last thing I want to do right now—I’m still not entirely sure I won’t be sick—but I have no choice.  I don’t want the sheriff taking me away for murdering George Blake.  Ma needs me.

And the truth is, George deserved to die.

I already know from my time at Sullivan’s that blood is difficult to scrub from wood.  At the butcher shop, a few blood stains on the floor are not a big deal, and in fact are expected.  But it will not do to have any sign that a man died in this room. 

As I perform this mindless task, I think about George.  I know now that I never loved the man, and I might have even hated him. But I hadn’t meant to kill him.  Every time I think about what I have done, my hands start to shake and I have to take a break from scrubbing.  When I held that blade to his neck, I had every intention of letting him go, but then…

What happened after is even more upsetting.  That man, Charles, in my home, ordering me to drink the blood spilling out of George’s neck.  Even worse, I did what he asked.  And while I was drinking, it felt like the most natural thing in the world.  It felt like what I was meant to be doing all along—that up until now, I’d been holding myself back.

But it is wrong.  There is no denying that what I did tonight was deeply and terribly wrong.

There is something deeply and terribly wrong with me.

I stop scrubbing and sit down on the floor.  I thought doing what Chas told me to do was the right thing—I can’t let myself be taken to prison and leave my mother to fend for herself.  Yet… someone who did what I did tonight deserves to be locked up.  I have to face the music.

After all, I hadn’t intended to kill George.  What if I do it again?

What if I hurt my mother?

“You did a good job.” Chas’s voice interrupts my thoughts.  He has entered the house again without my hearing him.  How does he move so silently? “I can’t see the blood at all.  Well done, brother.  You’re a natural.

I look up at his face—God, he looks so much like me.  “I have to turn myself in, Chas.”

Chas’s dark eyes widen.  “You’re crazy as a bedbug, Tom! Why would you do something like that?”

“Because I killed a man!”  I rub my face, probably smearing blood on it, but I don’t care anymore.  “I’m scared I’ll do it again.  I… I should be locked up.”

“Of course you’ll do it again,” Chas snorts.  “That’s your nature.  But you’re not an animal.  You won’t go around killing people at random.  That would be madness!”

“I didn’t want to kill him.”

“Didn’t you?” He raises his eyebrows.  “It looks to me that you did.  It looks to me that he was an evil man who deserved to die.  And that your dear mother will be much better off without him.  At least, she will be unless her only son gets hanged for murder.”

I don’t know what to say.  He does make an excellent point.

“And once you’re gone,” Chas whispers, his eyes growing darker, “your poor, beautiful mother will be left all alone.  Nobody will be around to protect her.  She’ll be at the mercy of whatever dark creatures are lurking around.”

I stare at him. “Are you… threatening me?”

He smiles benignly and his eyes lighten again.  It is then I realize he has a natural charm he can easily turn on and off at will.  “Of course not.  I’m warning you, Tom.  Don’t breathe a word of this to anyone.  Nothing good will come of it.”

He takes the bloody towels from me as well as the pieces of the vase. I pull my blood-stained shirt over my head and hand that to him as well. And then he is gone.  I’m not sure if he’ll ever return.  I hope he won’t, but I know that is unlikely.  He’s been following me around for this long—why would he stop now?

After he leaves, I fill a bucket of water to clean the blood from my hands.  It is the last piece of evidence that I have murdered my stepfather.  As I let the cold water cleanse my palms, I see for the first time that the scar George gave me has completely disappeared.

 To be continued...

Tom Blake, Part 1

Tom Blake


October, 1905

Over the past several months, I’ve had a feeling someone is watching me.

I have not witnessed anyone actually watching me.  There have been no eyes staring at me through the window of my bedroom, no ominous footsteps crunching leaves behind me as I trudge the half a mile to the schoolhouse. It is a feeling—nothing more.  Yet I have never had such an intense feeling in my life.

Sometimes I feel that prickling on the back of my neck and I whirl around, certain I’ll catch someone only inches behind me.  But there’s never anyone there.

When I don’t find someone, it is relief I feel rather than disappointment.  If Pa found a man following him around town, he would surely punch the fellow square in the nose.  If I were to turn around and find a stranger lurking in my shadows… well, I don’t know what I’d do.  Run?  Yell?  Going on the attack would be far down the list.  Then again, I am only sixteen and do not have arms like tree trunks the way Pa does.

Yet my relief is always short-lived.  The feeling something is behind me is so intense, so certain, there are only two other possibilities, neither of which are appealing. 

The first possibility is I am imagining things. Yet I am no longer a child—far too old for imaginary friends.  The only people older than children with that sort of active imagination are people like Harry Cross, who mumbles to himself as he trudges down the road, not looking any of us in the eyes.  Mr. Cross lives with his elderly mother, who cares for him because he is unable to hold down a job.  Pa says Mr. Cross lost his mind.

I do not want to consider the possibility I am imagining things the way Harry Cross does.

But the only alternative is even more disturbing.  If I am right—if there really is someone following me who I am unable to see with my naked eyes—then there is only one other possibility:

Whoever is following me is something other than human.

 

 

October, 1905

 

This afternoon, as I leave the schoolhouse, the feeling that someone is following me is as strong as it has ever been.  I stand with my back to the bushes, scanning the surrounding areas, but see only my classmates. There is someone there.  I am sure of it. 

I am not crazy.

I am concentrating so deeply on the task that I nearly jump five feet when Mary Eckley taps me on the shoulder.

“Tom?” Mary’s reddish-brown eyebrows knit together.  “Are you all right?”

I nod, shaking off the feeling of doom that has been following me around like a shadow the last few months.  I can’t allow Mary to think any less of me.

“I was just…” I force a smile.  “I was looking for you.”

Mary rewards me with a smile of her own.  “Well, look at that—you’ve found me.”

Mary Eckley is the prettiest girl in the entire school.  My friend Harry says it’s Emma Alcock, but I know it’s Mary. Nobody else has hair so red and shimmery in the sun.  Nobody else has freckles on her face that I could spend all day staring at till I’ve counted every last one.

“Now I have to ask,” Mary says, “why are you looking for me?”

Uh…” Mary’s green eyes stare straight into mine.  At a time like this, I would have given anything for my father’s dark, leathery skin that has one hue: tan.  No matter how much time I spend in the sun, my skin never tans. I am white like snow. And when all the blood rushes to my face, I am certain Mary can see it in my cheeks.

“Are you going to walk me home?” Mary prompts me.  “Doing your duty to make sure I arrive home safely, Mr. Blake?”

Mary lives only a few blocks away from my own home, and there was a time when we were much younger when we used to walk home together from school daily, chattering excitedly the whole way. I used to capture butterflies so that she could marvel at the color of their wings before I released them back into the sky. But that was a long time ago—before I started noticing the way Mary filled out her faded yellow dress with the white collar.  I still walk her home about once a week, but now I struggle to find words to say in her presence. I spend most of the time wondering if she wishes she’d stayed behind with her girlfriends.

“If that would be all right with you,” I manage, “I would very much like to walk you home.”

Mary nods solemnly. “It would be all right with me.”

She waves to her girlfriends, who are gathered in front of the schoolhouse, intently watching our interaction as they giggle amongst themselves.  I hear one of them exclaim to another, “Tom is so handsome!”  And I have to look away from Mary so she can’t see how crimson my face has become. 

Mary is holding two schoolbooks of her own, both worn nearly to ashes, having been passed on to her from four older siblings. Without her asking, I take them from her, adding them to the pile of my own books that I’m already carrying.  The books are not heavy, but walking next to Mary has made my hands grow sweaty and it is hard to keep a hold on the texts.

“You’re so quiet, Tom,” Mary comments finally.

I don’t know what to say to that, which doesn’t improve the situation.

“Not in school,” she amends. “In class, you always know the right answer.  Always raising your hand.  But now, here with me…”

I struggle to find something to say to make it better.  The capitol of Massachusetts?  Easy.  The generals of the Civil War?  I know them all by heart.  But whenever I look at Mary, my mind goes blank.  “I like your dress,” I finally say.

Mary bursts into laughter, throwing her head back so that I can see all her molars.  “That’s all you can come up with?  You like this dress?  It’s older than either of us!”

Of course Mary’s dress would be another hand-me-down.  The stitching is fine, but worn.  It must have once been as yellow as a sunflower, but now the color has nearly faded to gray.

No, I don’t particularly like the dress.  That isn’t what I meant to say.

“I like you,” I blurt out.

I can see now that Mary has the same problem as me—pale skin that advertises all her emotions.  When I get up the courage to look at her, I can tell what I said has not displeased her.  Maybe just the opposite.

“Well,” she says, “if you like me so darn much, why don’t you ever hold my hand?”

My heart is beating quickly in my chest.  I transfer the textbooks to my left arm, so that my right is free.  I surreptitiously wipe it on my slacks, then take Mary’s cool, slender hand in my own.

We walk the rest of the way home holding hands.  Holding onto four bulky textbooks with only my left arm free is a struggle though.  I do my best, not wanting to do anything to break the spell and lose my new privilege of holding Mary Eckley’s hand, but halfway to her house, I lose my grip and the books go spilling out all over the pavement. Mary laughs and scoops up her own books.

“I’ll take those,” I offer, holding out my hand to grab them from her.

“Please, Tom,” she says. “I’m hardly helpless.  I’m the daughter of the sheriff, after all.”

William Eckley is the sheriff of Richmond County and has been for as long as I can remember.  He’s a good sheriff—lots of authority and can be tough as nails when he needs to be, but is generally well-liked by all. 

I don’t understand why it bothers me that Sheriff Eckley is Mary’s father.  I am, above all, a law-abiding citizen of the county.  I have committed no crimes in my lifetime and have no intention to ever do so.  I come from a good family and there’s no reason for the sheriff to disapprove when I ask for Mary’s hand.

But somehow, whenever I think of Sheriff Eckley, a chill goes down my spine.

About a block away from Mary’s house, I let go of her hand.  Mrs. Eckley might be hanging laundry outside the house and I don’t want her to see I have been touching her daughter.  I’ll likely have to call on Mary formally and announce my intentions to the Eckleys, but it’s too soon to think about that now.  Mary and I are both still in school, and I have no money to buy a house if I am to marry her.

Sure enough, Mrs. Eckley is hanging the wash in front of her house when we come around.  The Eckleys have nine living children, Mary being fifth oldest.  I take a step away from Mary, wishing I hadn’t relinquished her books.  I don’t want Mrs. Eckley to see me allowing her daughter to carry her own schoolbooks home.

“Well, if it isn’t Tom Blake!” Mrs. Eckley exclaims, rewarding me with a broad smile that reminds me of Mary’s.  Mary has clearly gotten her hair color and freckles from her mother.  “Thank you for making sure our Mary got home safely.”

Uh… you’re welcome, ma’am,” I say, and Mary giggles softly.

Mrs. Eckley’s eyes twinkle.  “I hope you’ll come join us for dinner one night in the near future, Tom.”

I nod.  “I… I will.”

I glance over at Mary, who is shifting her books in her arms.  The binding slipped on one of her textbooks and I can see it is close to splitting in two.  I look down at my own books, still gleaming and new.  I don’t have eight siblings like Mary does.  In my home, there’s only me.

Listen,” I murmur to Mary.  I held out my books to her.  “Let’s trade.

Her eyes widen.  “Tom!  I can’t take your books.”

“I want you to have them,” I say firmly, thrusting them toward her chest.  “You never get to have new things.”

“Well,” Mary says quietly, her green eyes meeting mine, “maybe someday you could buy me new things.”

I swallow hard. “Yes,” I agree, my voice low enough that Mrs. Eckley can’t hear.  “Someday I will.”

My fingers brush against hers one last time as we exchange books. I’ll have to be careful not to allow my father to see the used textbooks.  If he discovers what I’ve done, he’ll be fit to be tied. And if he finds out after a night at the saloon, he’ll surely get out his belt and rip up my backside.  He’s done it more times than I can count.  It never hurts any less, but I don’t cry anymore the way I did when I was six or seven. 

Instead of continuing home after dropping Mary off, I make a detour.  Ma gave me money in the morning to stop at Sullivan’s, the butcher shop, and pick up some meat.  I would never have suggested Mary accompany me there, so I have to turn around and go back the way I came.

Our local butcher shop is run by a man named Fred Sullivan.  Mr. Sullivan is tall, rotund, and bald-headed, with arms as beefy as a side of cattle.  In all the years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him without that white apron, stained with splotches of crimson. 

Sullivan’s has meat everywhere you look.  Mr. Sullivan always positions himself behind the large wooden counter with its giant scale, but to either side of him hangs large, dried sides of beef, many of them as tall as I am and possibly heavier.  The smaller animals hang behind him.  The poultry is plucked and cured with salt, hanging by their legs, several with the heads still intact.  Today he has three whole pigs hanging behind him, legs spread and tied separately.

I inhale deeply as I walk into the store, my nostrils filling with the scent of salt and smoke and… something else.

“Hi, Tom!” Mr. Sullivan says cheerfully.  “What can I get for you today?”

I inhale one more time.  “Do you have fresh meat today?”

Only about once a month, Mr. Sullivan has fresh meat.  He buys animals at the market in the next town over to butcher, but the majority of the meat is cured for preservation.  He has a small cooler that can keep meat fresh for a few days, although he can only get ice for it during the colder months.  There’s no chance of fresh meat in July.

Mr. Sullivan gives me a quick sideways glance before his face breaks into a smile.  “You’re in luck, boy.  We most certainly do.”

I nod.  “I’ll take five pounds of sirloin please, if you have it.”

Ma will cook up the steak for dinner tonight on our gas stove.  Pa and I like our steak the same way—bloody, barely kissed by the cast iron skillet.  It is one of the few things we agree upon.

“Coming right up,” Mr. Sullivan says.

He goes into the back, where he keeps the cooler.  I can tell when he’d thrown it open by the smell.  The “something else” I’d detected has grown exponentially stronger.  My stomach clenches as I wait for Mr. Sullivan to return.

When he comes back, the five pounds of beef are on a piece of paper, dripping with fresh blood.  Mr. Sullivan lays it down on the table and wraps it up for me.

“How come you always know, Tom?” he asks me.

I shift Mary’s schoolbooks from one arm to the other.  “What do you mean?”

“Whenever I have fresh meat, you always come in here and ask for it,” he says.  “But when I don’t have it, you never ask.”

I shrug.  “Well, I smell it.”

Mr. Sullivan raises his dark, bushy eyebrows at me.  I wonder how a man with no hair on his head could have such thick eyebrows.  “You can smell the fresh meat from here?  All the way in the cooler in the back?”

My mouth feels dry.  The amazement is plain on the butcher’s face—he is surprised I can smell the meat from here.  This is a revelation to me.  I had no idea everyone isn’t able to smell a fresh carcass the way I can.  I don’t think I have a particularly keen sense of smell—I barely notice the smell of the fresh flowers that Ma keeps in a vase in our living room at all times.

I decide not to mention to Mr. Sullivan that I could smell the meat all the way out on the street.

“I was joking,” I say.  “I heard you went to the market, of course.”

“Ah!” The smile returns to his face.  “Well, you’ve gotten nearly the last of it till next month.”

The thought that there will be no more fresh meat for another month fills me with… well, it’s hard to describe.  A sense of disappointment going down to my very core.  Funny how such an insignificant thing should make me feel that way.

Mr. Sullivan wraps the meat up in paper for me.  I watch his thick fingers, always stained with cow’s blood.  Surely there is animal blood permanently etched into the creases of his hands.  Before I can stop myself, I blurt out, “Do you need any help here, Mr. Sullivan?”

The butcher looks up at me in surprise.  “Help?”

Now that the words are out, I don’t regret them.  I’ve been thinking about working here ever since my mother took me here as a small boy.  “You don’t have anyone else who works here,” I point out.  “I could come help you.  After school.  And during the summer.”

He looks me up and down, appraising me.  He has no wife and no children of his own—nobody to become his apprentice.  I have been coming here since I was a child and he knows my family well.  I’m young and healthy, with a strong back.  And I’ll take whatever he can pay me.

“What about your father?” he finally says.  “Doesn’t he want your help at the shop?”

I cringe.  Pa works as a blacksmith, as did his father before him.  He’s good at what he does, which is why we can afford fresh meat and have an indoor water pump, unlike many other families in our town.  There’s always been a general expectation that as his only son, I would take over for him someday, but the truth of it is that neither of us seems eager for that day to arrive. He seems to want me with him at the shop even less than I want to go there.

“He won’t mind,” I say.

Mr. Sullivan gives me a skeptical look.

“I’ll talk to him about it,” I promise.

“If George Blake says it’s okay,” he says thoughtfully, “well, you seem like a good boy, Tom.  I would take you on if that’s what you want.” He adds with a grin, “As long as you’re willing to work hard for not much pay.”

“Whatever you want to pay me is fine,” I tell him.  And it is true.  After all, any money I earn will have to be turned over to my father.

I tell Mr. Sullivan I’ll return within the next few days to let him know what my father has decided.  I leave the butcher shop clutching five pounds of fresh steak and feeling even better than I did when Mary let me hold her hand.

But then the second I leave the store, it happens again.  That feeling.

Someone is watching me.

 

October, 1905 

It takes me two days to work up the nerve, but today I finally speak to Pa about my job at the butcher shop.

I wait until his stomach is full from dinner and he isn’t too drunk—a combination that does not occur as frequently as I wish it would.  Pa works late at the shop most nights.  He is the only blacksmith for miles and he brags that he makes most of the tools used in the town.  He used to take me with him to the shop some days when I was a young boy.  He showed me how he holds the piece of iron under the fire until it changes color from blackened silver to red-orange. When iron is very hot, it becomes pliable, but only for seconds.  He has to make the most of those seconds to quickly hammer the metal into the shape he wanted, whether it be bending it to give it a curve, drawing it to make it longer and thinner, or upsetting it to make it shorter and fatter.

“I need to speak to you, sir,” I say to my father as he stuffs the last chunk of potato into his mouth.

Pa frowns at me, as if already displeased by what I have to say.  When my father is home, he is nearly always frowning.  He’s a large man with sparse light brown hair and blurry features on his face—thick lips, a bulbous nose, and beady brown eyes that are always squinting. When my father is not around, my mother will sometimes joke, “You are lucky you get your looks from me, Tom.”

My mother is one of the most beautiful women in town, even now that she is getting on in years.  But I don’t look like her.  She has hair the color of corn silk and pale blue eyes.  I may share her fair complexion, but my eyes are so dark that you can barely discern my pupils and I have a shock of black hair.  Ma swears she has an uncle with dark hair like mine, but I never met this uncle or saw photographs of him.  She was vague when I asked her his name.

“What do you want, boy?” Pa barks at me. 

Ma is clearing the table and her eyes are beseeching me to keep my mouth shut.  Most days, I would have obliged.  The last thing I want is to anger my father and put my mother in danger.  But today I persist.

Sir,” I say, “Mr. Sullivan has offered me an after school job.”

My father’s eyes widen.  “The butcher?”

“Yes, sir.”

I glance over at my mother and see that her already pale skin has gone white.  She turns away from us and crosses herself.

“What do you want to do that kind of dirty work for?” Pa barks at me.  “If you want to work, you can come to the shop with me!”

There is no good answer to that question.  I can’t remind my father of the last time I was at the shop with him, how he took a piece of metal still glowing from heat and poked the tip against my bare palm.  I screamed with pain that took days to disappear and the molten iron left behind a scar that remains to this day. 

I only wanted to show him what would happen if he wasn’t careful, he explained to my mother as she rubbed salve over my injured flesh.  I just touched him with the tip.  I don’t know why he won’t stop crying. 

I was six years old.

Instead, I say, “He’ll pay me wages.  You can have them.”

I don’t want to turn over my wages to my father—I want to save them for when I might ask for Mary for her hand.  But it is clear that it is the only way to get him to agree.

“That’s really the sort of work you want to do?” Pa sneers at me. 

“Yes, sir.”

If he’d had a drink in him, he might have hit me.  My hand balls into a fist around the scar on my palm that still aches sometimes.  The last time he hit me, I took the blow—he has several inches and quite a bit of weight on me, and my chances of getting even one punch in are minimal.  But one of these days, I’ll be able to punch him hard enough that he’ll know he’s got a real fight on his hands. 

That will be my last day living in this house.

But it’s not today.  Today Pa throws down his fork and shrugs his big shoulders.  “You want to go work for the butcher like a fool, go do it.  But every cent you make is mine.”

I nod. “Yes, sir.”

It is fair—the best I could have hoped for.  My father acts like he is doing me a great favor, but I know the truth—he doesn’t want me working in his shop any more than I want to be there.

 
To be continued....

If you want to keep reading this side story, PLEASE COMMENT.  If there aren't many people reading, I'm not going to keep posting this because it isn't vital to the other story.  But if you like it and want to hear more of Tom's story, let me know!