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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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!