Author’s Note: This story has not had a proper second draft.
It was the summer before our freshman year at Tawesville Central High School that Ben Tork died. Ben was one half of the Tork twins, the other half being his sister Brandy, and by all accounts he was a stand-up guy. He was a good friend, our best friend, and even now thinking back, it’s difficult to think of a time when Ben wasn’t smiling, singing, or dancing to amuse himself and all of us, or whoever happened to be nearby. He’d run a hand through his blonde hair, curl his lip, and do his best Elvis impersonation before grabbing his crotch and moonwalking his tall lanky form across the floor. Ben was the bravest, too, in our eyes, being the first among us to ever venture into the old Storey house that sat empty just across the way on Cornwell Drive. We knew for sure, without any real proof, that it was haunted- maybe by the Storey family, maybe not (we always imagined them being viciously murdered in their sleep by some unknown madman even though we were always told that Mr. Storey died alone, widowed and childless, a decade prior, thus having no one to inherit the house). We thought it Grand Central Station for the spirit world; our parents thought it a decaying deathtrap that needed to be demolished.
The Torks lived in the last house on the right of Walpurgis Lane, directly across from Mrs. Coonce, the neighborhood watchdog. Watchdog was the term some of our parents used for her; Nosy Nelly, Nosy Rosy, busybody, meddlesome, and snoop were some of the other names our parents had for Mrs. Coonce. She was ever at the ready with her binoculars, “For bird watching,” she always said. The Torks, especially Mr. Tork, learned quick not to walk past the open curtains in just a towel fresh from the shower, or in nothing at all, because Mrs. Coonce would inevitably be at one of her many windows watching though her binoculars. “Peeping Tom,” is what Mr. Tork called her.
Summers on Walpurgis weren’t any different than any other time of the year for us with the exception there was no school and we ruled the street and lawns for more hours every day. We didn’t think our neighborhood any different than any other neighborhood in our town, except for the monstrosities that popped up at the country club, the finest of brick and mortar that appeared to sit right on the golf course itself- which to us didn’t seem like a good place for a house. Walpurgis Lane was just a street with modest homes (in varying states of needed repair, admittedly), with working class families, kids running free, dogs barking in backyards, and cats running along fence tops.
Of course we romanticize. That’s what years do to you, make you look through a rose-colored lens at youth. We can remember the bad, if we think hard enough, but the bad never seems to really come along until much later in life. Bad things do happen when you’re young, but in the light of summer, in those days of sunshine, friends, blue skies, and laughter, things still appear perfect. The good remains atop the sieve.
That summer became known as the Long Summer. That’s how we refer to it. Still, to this day, it bothers us all to say ‘the summer that Ben died.’ It was the Long Summer, the Endless Summer, really, since school had been postponed until late September due to construction and remodeling on the middle and high schools. June had brought torrential rains and with it the first severe flooding that Tawesville had seen in nearly fifty years. It was like something from the Bible. Many of the local pastors preached on it in countless sermons for years to come.
As bad as the flooding was, it seemed the only damage was to the schools. There was water damage to a few homes, to some of the shops that set off from the square and downtown area, but it was the middle and high schools that took the water’s anger most of all. Officially, there were no deaths attributed to the flooding. Officially. Unofficially, if you ask us, Ben was the only casualty of the floods of the Long Summer. It was his death that began the events that marked those last days of the Long Summer. And, we suppose, that signaled the downward spiral of what life was once like on Walpurgis.
Normally, on September 8, school would have been firmly in session since the academic year would have routinely started in early August. The flood screwed all that up. Repairs and remodeling on the high school were slightly behind schedule and construction on the new middle school (it had been beyond saving, so it was decided to raze it to the ground and start fresh; when the wrecking crew did its job, a sea of current and former students- with more than a few adults in attendance- ringed the site, cheering as the walls came down and the building disappeared in a cloud of thick dust that resembled atomic bomb footage)was nearly completed. The doors for both schools wouldn’t be opening until September 28.
September of the Long Summer wasn’t exceptional, the days were blistering at times, but the nights had begun the gradual cool that would lead us to Autumn. The eighth of that month dawned from a nippy night that quickly warmed as the sun rose. We shrugged off our blankets, already in a sweat by ten o’clock, and stampeded outside to wavering light of day.
We lounged on our porch steps eating Pop Tarts, skittered in the street, met up with each other, and broke off into our groups. Ben Tork wasn’t just a leader, he was a jester and an idea man. He had some of the best ideas for passing the time: staging water gun wars in the park, organizing neighborhood hide and seek, or the nighttime equivalent Ghost In the Graveyard. Ben procured the ramps for bike jumping on Walpurgis, too; his homemade ones were the best- even as adults, we can’t replicate his expertise for our own kids.
We milled about, shooting the breeze. The guys and girls generally stayed separated when nothing was going on, us looking at them, them glancing at us like aliens for the most part. Each group feigning no interest in the other. The girls didn’t usually join the guys until something appealing was going on. Even then, a lot of times, some of the girls wanted everyone to do something else.
But when Ben suggested something, we noticed, the girls were all for it. They were all over his ideas. Maybe they could see the potential his gangly body could have had. He could have grown into it, into his sharp jawline and strong chin, like most of the boys stuck in an awkward foreign body. But we will never know.
“What about Hollis Creek?”
“What about it?”
“Let’s follow the creek back to the river,” Ben said. “We haven’t done that all summer. Climb Colver Bridge. My dad said there are still trees and stuff caught against it from the flood.”
We hadn’t been hiking to the old bridge since winter break. We were forbidden from going, actually, since the flood had nearly wiped out Colver Bridge. The barrage of limbs, trees, and junk that had washed down the river had all but dislodged it. It was out of use anyway, a dead access that had been rerouted years before, and it really should have been torn down, much more so than the old Storey house, but the bridge had what the Chamber of Commerce called character, and a lot of out-of-towners took pictures of it. A lot of kids had their graduation pictures taken at it, too, as well as people taking engagement photos and wedding pictures.
For us, it was just a place to play and, when we were older and lucky, to make out.
We squinted against the advancing sun, looked over the leaf strewn lawns that would have to be raked before the neighborhood cookout the following week, and thought what better way to spend the day than at the old bridge. The sun would be at high noon before long, and the heat would be winding up its surge towards its peak. The cool of wading in the creek and calm air of the river were what the day craved.
Of the girls, only Brandy, Ben’s sister, and Leigh Hopewell wanted to go. We would feel regret the decision of going, as would Brandy most of all.
Hollis Creek ran through Bowman Park, and that was always our entry point to trekking along the banks to Colver Bridge. We wandered the two blocks to the park, and raced across the dusty softball field to the gently flowing waters that sparkled in the sunlight that drifted through the thick overhang of trees.
“Watch out for snakes,” Lester Hart said, and laughed when Brandy stopped cold to look around and Leigh squealed. She always squealed at the mention of snakes, or anything slimy and crawling or buzzing. There wasn’t much that didn’t scare her.
“I’m sure there aren’t that many still around,” Ben said. “Just the poisonous ones.”
Leigh squealed more, jumping, and it got a laugh out of all of us, even Brandy.
“Such a girl,” we often concluded.
“You jerks leave me alone,” Leigh said. “Snakes are nasty.”
The embankment was slight there at Bowman Park, it would gradually steepen further downstream, but Lester still lent a gentlemanly hand to Brandy and Leigh, blushing at Leigh’s “Thank you.”
It felt at least ten degrees cooler following the curving stream through the shelter of foliage. The limbs all but obliterated the sky, creating a dark tunnel that beckoned us on, the tranquil flow of the creek a siren’s song urging and calling us.
We skipped stones, we hopped across the stream on half submerged rocks until the waters became deeper and deeper and the expanse wider. We hooted and hollered, listening to our voices travel further down the serene channel. Birds answered us, crickets, flies, and bees shouted replies. We climbed the banks to slide down moist earth with glee. We were pirates, complete with salty language, searching for buried treasure; explorers pushing new passages and discovering unknown lands, noting the beauty of this unspoiled paradise.
We took to the high path when the banks became too steep and there was no trail to walk for the water. We traipsed through the growth and began to see where trees on the edge of the banks had fallen, where logs and refuse had gathered where the flood waters had receded.
Colver Bridge was upon us before we knew it; we couldn’t see it at first for the wall of logs and dead trees that cluttered against it like a haphazard dam. It was a wild looking thing, limbs reaching out like spikes to ward off invaders, bony arms pleading the heavens. We stared at it in awe, almost frightened of the monstrosity, and at once knew we had to investigate it.
The impact of all the brush had busted up the railing they rested against, and had splintered several of the boards all along the bridge. We wondered about the weight and force of all that rushing down river to ram the bridge.
“I’m surprised it survived at all,” Leigh said.
We could hear boards moan. Timbers creaked. A trapped log knocked against the side of the bridge.
Lester Hart said, “I guess they don’t make’em like this anymore.” As we can all attest at our age now, they never made anything like they used to.
“Do you think it’s safe?” Errol asked.
Us boys all grinned at each other. “Not but one way to find out,” Ben said.
Brandy snatched hold of her brother’s shirt sleeve. “Ben Tork, you are not gonna walk out on that bridge!”
“No he’s not,” Errol Lucas said, pushing past them, “because I’m going first.”
“Go for it!” Bobby Walsh bellowed.
Ben raced forward and picked him up in a bear hug from behind. “No you’re not!”
“Too late, losers,” Lester Hart said. He had already sauntered past the scuffle and was leaning against a rail halfway across.
“Lester, be careful,” Leigh said.
“It’s completely safe,” Lester said and jumped up and down a couple of times. “See.”
Ben stepped out onto the bridge while Brandy wrung her hands red.
“He’s right,” Ben said, “it’s not gonna fall.”
We walked onto the bridge, one by one, not wanting to tempt it too much. All but Brandy. Even Leigh dared a small step onto it before retreating when us boys began running and wrestling- careful to avoid the splintered boards- and climbing the rails to inspect the pile of brush caught against it.
“Wonder what it was like when all this came down river?” somebody said.
“I’m sure it didn’t all wedge here at once,” Errol corrected whoever the inquisitor was.
“Yeah, but the big trees were enough to hammer it up some,” Ben said.
“Whoa,” we whispered, trying to picture the majesty in our minds. We pictured like a scene from some apocalyptic movie.
Brandy said, “I think we need to be heading back.”
“I do too,” Leigh said. “Let’s find a nice spot to swim.”
Errol smiled. “I’m sold,” he said, and Lester agreed.
Ben lingered behind at the edge of the bridge. “Just think, it was almost wiped off the map.”
That stopped us and made us turn. Could it be the last time we saw the old thing? Another storm could rise so easily and take it. Colver Bridge popped somewhere along its underbelly, a shiver running from its supports to our spines carried on a fresh breeze burdened with the smell of timeless forest and raw earth.
“It’s gonna go sometime,” Leigh said, breaking our moment of silence.
“Yep,” we agreed.
Ben turned and jumped from the edge the old access road to our path. His foot slipped and he was gone, falling backwards down the embankment. His head cracked on a log and then he vanished underwater.
We were screaming. Not just the girls, all of us. Lester clamored down the bank, we hold onto him, forming a human chain to keep him from being swept away. Bobby ran for help, crying the whole way. Brandy’s screams halted to shocked silence as her tears fell and tremors took hold. Leigh wrapped her arms around her, lost in her own tearful, stunned, silence.
It happened so sudden, so fast, yet, in our memories he falls in the slowest of slow motions, in minute, graceful movements, burning every twitch of his face in our minds. We all agree, at some point in the arc of his fall, the fear passed away and Ben looked at us and smiled.
We searched fruitlessly. We yelled his name, searching both sides of the bridge, running up and down it and the banks. We wanted to jump in after him, but knew that was foolish. We felt like cowards. Scared, helpless, cowards.
The adults came and found a bunch of screaming, frightened, bawling, kids. The police, ambulances, first responders, firemen, sirens piercing through the cacophony of river music and sobs. It was in the evening, after Mr. and Mrs. Tork had been called from work, that Ben’s body was found. Divers had been called in from the neighboring county and they found him caught in the embrace of tree limbs, nestled neatly among the branches, that rested against the bridge. “Peaceful like, almost,” one of the firemen had commented to Mr. Tork. Mr. Tork had waited at the riverside, smoking cigarettes he had given up two years before. Mrs. Tork waited in the car; she wailed when Ben was brought up from the water, carried by the divers who passed his body off to the firemen and policemen, carrying him up the river bank like a fallen warrior, a divine hero. Mrs. Tork pleaded for her son, for God in all his mercy to bring him back to her.
That night, the lights on Walpurgis Lane seemed to have dimmed. It may have been our imaginations. We gathered on the front porches and wandered to the backyard forts and tree houses, finally ending up in the Hopewell’s camper they kept parked behind their garage. We had all piled inside, hot and cramped, but comforted.
“He was barely underwater. Wonder if we could have saved him?”
It’s something we still wonder. The thick mournful hush that overtook us then still falls on us now.
Brandy Tork wasn’t with us in the camper. She was at home, in her room. Our thoughts and love went to her as she laid in her bed, hugging a stuffed panda bear, and cried herself to sleep in the light of a flickering television.
That was a Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Mr. and Mrs. Tork had funeral arrangements to make. We had all heard our parents talking about it the night before, snippets of how hard it must be to choose a coffin for your child. “We’ve all just about buried parents and relatives, but this…I just can’t imagine.” I just can’t imagine was just about all our parents could say. His death earned us extra hugs and bonus I love you’s. Sometimes the best way to explain how life works is with silence, or to talk about the weather and discuss who’s looking good in the pre-season.
Ben’s death had sobered us to something our parents had known long before, that tragedy can strike freely right out of the blue on a sunny day. He was the first important person many of us had ever lost. Some of us had little-known great-grandparents to pass away, or distant aunts and uncles that lived on the other end of the state, or even all the way on the opposite side of the country, to die. But Ben was the first of our gang taken down. The same coal black sea, will it be waiting?
The viewing was Wednesday night. Some people thought it rather quick. Brandy told us Ernastine Blecherd, the director of Rosehart Memorial Chapel, had suggested to her parents, “It’s best to get it over with when a child passes. Trust me. You don’t want to drag it out.” Brandy divulged all this to us while standing in the funeral home’s parking lot smoking a cigarette she had stolen from her dad. Her face was blank and her eyes were red and swollen. She wore a new black dress and a string of pearls that were too big and had to be strung around her neck twice. She finished her cigarette, looking as unsure as the rest of us.
We congregated at the back of the chapel. We stayed huddled in our group, waiting for the adults to cue us on what to do but never receiving any real instruction. We knew to be on our best behavior, we weren’t barbarians, but we didn’t know what to say to Mr. and Mrs. Tork. We didn’t know what to say to anybody, even each other. We didn’t know the proper way to comfort Brandy other than surround her and ward off people while she seemed other than herself.
It was a closed casket affair. We were half thankful of that; we wanted to see him, but didn’t. Seeing the tragedy was bad enough, feeling we were responsible and failed him was worse. People stopped and shook our hands, but didn’t have a lot to say to us. They placed condolences on Brandy, and we knew what they were thinking, what our parents had told been telling us, or trying to, over and over with those extra hugs and loves: It could have easily been any of us. Accidents happen, some crueler than others. It was their way of saying we’re lucky to be alive every day and we shouldn’t feel guilty. The universe is all one big game of Whack-A-Mole.
People filtered in and slouched out of the chapel. We knocked away tears, we hung our heads and looked at our shoes and swayed in place as though moved by the breeze that passed over Hollis Creek on sunny days in summer shade. The Torks were the last to leave, seeing that Ben was safe for the night and the doors were all locked. Before any of us got home to Walpurgis, it had begun a steady downfall of rain.
The rain continued to Thursday. The funeral was set for ten o’clock. Most of had slept very little, tossing and turning, and were up and dressed by seven, sitting in suits with seldom worn neckties and dull Sunday dresses on the stairs and in rooms painted cold grey by the strangling rain. Today was the day, good buddy, today was the day. Shakespeare was a liar, there was nothing sweet about the sorrow of good-bye.
The rain didn’t slack. The service concluded in the chapel and the pallbearers (Ben’s uncles and older cousins) hefted the sleek navy blue coffin. The funeral director opened the double doors to the outside, and, as they swung open, a clap of thunder and flash of lighting swept through with the moist draft. Ben would’ve liked that.
The funeral procession from Roseheart Memorial Chapel to the cemetery lasted all of twenty minutes. We marveled at traffic stopping, our faces pressed against glass at strangers standing still paying their respects as a squad car led the way with flashing lights.
A tent was erected over the grave, tarps covered the large loose mound of dirt. We filed out of cars, standing at the periphery of the crimson crushed velvet tent. The Torks were seated on the front row of folding chairs, the other two rows were occupied by more Torks we didn’t know, most of them women or the elderly. They all stared down into the grave, and we caught glimpses of it between the shifting tides of our parents from beneath umbrellas. It was a black hole that was pulling us all towards it.
The pallbearers pulled the coffin from the back of the hearse and made their way through the rain and the mud to the grave. Mrs. Tork had collapsed into herself; Mr. Tork and Brandy both had their arms around her.
Pastor Monroe Paoletti, of the Tawesville First Church of Christ, where the Torks attended services, said a few words. They were nice words, and what you would expect, but they were nothing too inspiring, and we could tell he didn’t really know Ben at all. Pastor Paoletti didn’t mention Ben’s humor, how he would act goofy to get a smile out of anyone. His curiosity, always wanting to know how something worked, all the times we spent taking RC cars apart and reassembling them with mix-matched parts, or blowing up action figures and soda cans (empty and full) with leftover firecrackers from the Fourth of July. The good pastor didn’t tell about Ben’s classic practical jokes, or him leading the exploration of the Storey house. Pastor Paoletti didn’t mention any of these things. It’s always been us to remember.
A screech of metal and the pulleys turned, lowering Ben down, down, down into the gaping maw. A hush fell over us as the rain beat its tattoo on the world. Mrs. Tork’s sobs had become soft whimpers, her body rested against Mr. Tork, her head on his shoulder.
Brandy waved a quiet good-bye as Ben’s coffin vanished from view.
The rain didn’t stop at all that Thursday. All the grown-ups had taken the day off, and they now stalked their living rooms, holed up in their houses and garages not just because of the rain, but out of respect for their fellow parents, the Torks.
Our parents kept us close that Thursday. They checked in on us as we ruminated behind our bedroom doors, they engaged us in conversation whenever our paths crossed. Our moms said, “I’m here if you want to talk.” Our dads said, “I guess we need all this rain.”
The rainy day became a rainy night. We stayed at home, relaying the snippets of conversations overheard from our parents once they finished with their phone calls for the evening. “My mom says Mrs. Tork is a mess.” “They said they’re holding up as well as expected.” “Mom told me not to be surprised if they move.”
We went to our beds for the third of many nights without Ben, hoping not to lose Brandy as well.
Friday was business as usual for most of Walpurgis Lane. Our parents returned to work, we walked out into a dreary soggy world. Mrs. Coonce, binoculars slung around her neck, fetched her morning paper from the bushes, complaining about Patrick Kincaid’s aim. “He gets benched on the baseball team, what makes them think he can throw a gosh dang paper on the stoop?”
Brandy Tork didn’t venture out until sometime after noon. Her parents were home, their car still sealed behind the garage door. Mr. Tork walked out to get the mail as Brandy crossed the street to join us. He waved at us, we waved back.
Brandy didn’t say much. We didn’t expect her to. We talked about the usual things, what we had watched on television, what new music videos we saw. But it was different not having Ben there, and we all felt the difference. We felt the vacancy in our group, the emptiness that was haunting us.
Lester Hart had his hands on his hips, trying to meet Brandy’s gaze. “How are you?” he asked.
Brandy shrugged her shoulders. “Who wants to play Mario Kart?” she said. And that’s how we mourned with her that Friday. Errol Lucas’s dad had new big screen television in his study, where he could watch football and basketball away from his wife, Errol, and Errol’s two younger sisters (Errol’s brother, Bradley, the oldest of the Lucas kids, seemed to perpetually be at a juvenile detention center). We weren’t supposed to be in his dad’s study, we weren’t supposed to play video games on his dad’s new television. But Errol hooked up the game system to the massive t.v. anyway. It was bravery on Errol’s part- his dad was not someone any of us wanted to cross, and Errol for sure would not go unscathed if caught. It was a brave move, and it lifted all our spirits, especially Brandy’s.
We have wondered if Errol’s courageous act is the reason he saw the stranger first.
Saturday was dry, and Walpurgis was drying out in the calm temperatures. Us boys raked leaves, and bagged them. Some of us burned them, but most found them to be still too wet. Leigh Hopewell had invited her closest friends, Brandy Tork and Rachel Castler, to stay with her for a backyard sleepover in her family’s camper. She was bragging about it as she passed by on her way to the corner market for slumber party supplies with her weekly allowance for washing dishes and cleaning the perpetually spotless Hopewell house.
“A slumber party,” Lester Hart said. “Imagine that.”
“I can,” Bobby Welsh said. “Think it’s like in the late night dirty movies- pillow fights in their bras and panties and feathers floating around?”
“Oh shut up, that’s all fake!”
“What if it ain’t,” Errol Lucas said. “Imagine them- Brandy, Leigh, and Rachel- in their undies bashing away at each other with pillows.”
“Yeah, just imagine,” Lester said.
“Let’s scare the crap out of them,” Bobby said, and that’s all it took for us to depart the USS Erotica and jump aboard the night boat Scare Their Panties Off.
Once we had finished raking leaves at our houses, and some of us through with cleaning the gutters with our dads (who supervised while we climbed the ladders), we met up and discussed our plan of attack.
“We surround the camper, see, and just go ape crazy on it. Beat on the sides and rock it back and forth. We can wear Halloween masks and pop up in the windows.”
“Brandy’s gonna be there,” Lester said. “Should we scare her?”
We hadn’t thought of that.
“Maybe just a small scare,” Bobby said. “Enough to let her know we care.”
“Yeah, that sounds good,” we agreed.
Just a small scare. Brandy wouldn’t mind that. She would even find it fun. Nothing says friendship, or school boy crush, like a good natured scare. No matter what we did, Leigh Hopewell would scream her head off, and that’s all we really wanted.
The plan went thusly: We would sneak into the Hopewells’ backyard and Errol (who drew the shortest straw) would pull the camper door open and scare the bejesus out of Leigh, Brandy, and Rachel. We reasoned that flinging the door open would be awesome just in case they had stripped down to the bare essentials and engaged in routine, fantastical, pillow fighting.
We waited anxiously for night to fall. We had guys night at Errol’s house which was right next to the Hopewells. Guys night was essentially pizza and horror movies. Horror movies to get us into the frightening mood, and horror movies with plenty of nude buxom babes just in case that mythical, elusive, slumber party pillow fight didn’t pan out.
We waited until ten o’clock, putting our heads together for what the itinerary of a slumber party would be. The girls would gossip, paint toenails and fingernails, talk about us guys- which ones of us they had crushes on, who they thought we were crushing on- then maybe make-overs and cold creams like meringue pies applied to their faces. We figured ten would be a safe bet, they’d still be awake and talking with their faces in cream masks. Or pillow fighting.
We snuck out the back door and jumped the fence into the Hopewells’ backyard. Mr. Hopewell had pulled the camper into the center of the yard for the girls, away from the garage and closer to the house. We crouched low and approached it.
We stopped at the side of the camper. Errol stepped lightly to the door. We peeked around the corner and he gave us a thumbs up. It was already dark inside the camper, they must be asleep- awful early, we thought, for a sleepover. That’s why we brought a flashlight, the girls were so unpredictable.
Errol scanned the windows in the Hopewell house and found all was quiet with a faint light flickering in an upstairs room. He pulled the flashlight from his waistband where he had carried it like a thug in movie would carry a gun. He switched it on and held the light against his chest to conceal it.
We watched in excruciating joy. Would their hair be in rollers? Probably not. Would they jump up from their sleeping bags and freak out? Most definitely.
Errol flung the door open, shining the light inside and giving his best demonic roar. But just as we started to laugh, Errol started to scream and slammed the door.
“Run!” he yelled at us as he passed by, fleeing for home. “Rundammit!”
We ran in a panic, tripping over each other in the clamor to get away from whatever had scared the hell out of Errol and made his eyes as big as pie plates and skin as pale as moon glow. We retreated and scaled the fence that Errol seemed to have cleared in a single bound. Lights glared on in the Hopewell house, voices capered at the windows. Our stampede through Errol’s house woke his mother and sisters, but his dad snored on, thankfully- dynamite going off at his ear wouldn’t wake Mr. Lucas.
“What was it? What the hell just happened?”
Errol’s heart was still racing, he was still trying to catch his breath behind the locked door of his bedroom.
The doorknob jiggled and Mrs. Lucas yelled through the door, “Errol, what is going on?” She tried the knob again then beat on the door. “Errol!”
Bobby Welsh opened the door. Mrs. Lucas’s nostrils were flaring beneath the rollers in her hair, hands on her hips in yellow pajamas. “What is going on for you to come running through my house like a bunch of raging cattle?” She looked at all of us and we shrank in the intensity.
“We’re sorry, Mrs. Lucas,” Lester Hart said. “We got carried away. We were trying to scare each other.”
She looked at Errol. He was bone white and trembling. “Quit playing these damn games, boys. Jumping out and scaring one another is for the birds. It’s just plain silly.”
“Shut that off,” she pointed at Errol as she left the room. He still held the flashlight, and it was still on. None of us had noticed. He clicked it off.
Bobby would later tell us, “I could see right through Mrs. L’s pajamas. She wasn’t wearing a bra.”
But that would be later. At that moment, the room was quiet and stayed quiet after Mrs. Lucas left. All eyes were on Errol. Waiting.
“There was somebody in there,” Errol said. Those words, in his trickling whisper, made us shiver.
The girls had decided not to sleep in the camper. They stayed inside, spread out in Leigh Hopewell’s bedroom watching romantic comedies. It was what Brandy had wanted to do, and her friends were pleased to oblige. It was their voices we heard at the windows, laughing at us scurrying for our lives.
“Who…who was it?” we asked.
Errol shook his head. “I don’t know.” His eyes were large and lost, thinking back, looking back to what he had seen.
“I opened the door and shined the light in there,” Errol said. “I shined it in there and gave my yell…but it was somebody…sitting there on the camper floor. He was smiling. It was a he, and he was smiling and it was like I didn’t need the flashlight to see him.” He swallowed a lump down his throat. “Then it was like he was laughing and I was screaming and then he was screaming in my head, like it was sounds in my head.”
“Did you recognize him?”
“What did he look like?” Lester asked.
“I don’t know,” Errol said.
“What do you mean you don’t know? You said he was smiling.”
“I know,” Errol said. “He was smiling all right. I saw him. But it was like I couldn’t see him. Somehow I saw him, but I couldn’t see him.”
The air had grown thick in the room, like pressure building; none of us dared to move.
The next day, the girls teased us relentlessly. Even Brandy found the tables being turned on us very amusing. What disturbed us, though, was that a stranger had broken into the camper, or wandered into since the door didn’t lock.
“It could have been anybody.”
“I didn’t see anybody leave the camper,” Leigh said. “We watched from my window. My dad went down and checked it out after you scaredy cats raised such a noise. We watched the whole time. My daddy didn’t find anybody in there. It was empty.”
Errol was across the street talking with Bobby. Lester eyed him and said, “Maybe he imagined it. Spooked himself, you know.”
“That had to be it,” Leigh said.
“Yeah,” Brandy said. “With everything that’s happened. Stress.”
We agreed that had to be it, though we wouldn’t dare mention a word of it to Errol who insisted what happened, what he saw, was real. We all wondered why more people hadn’t flipped out. Especially Brandy. That Sunday gave us a hint that the Torks were really feeling it- Mrs. Tork didn’t drag her husband and Brandy to church. She didn’t go, which was highly unusual. Mrs. Tork never missed a service. It was said around our houses that the family needed time to themselves, and nobody blamed her. They needed to rest. Even the ever faithful Mrs. Coonce didn’t thumb down her nose at Mrs. Tork for missing Sunday services; she thought those families heathens that didn’t attend church somewhere. She didn’t care what kind of church, “Jewish, Catholic, it don’t matter,” she was quoted as saying, “or a real Christian church like mine.”
Mr. Tork emerged that evening to join some of the other neighborhood men. They gathered in Mr. Hopewell’s garage to discuss the neighborhood block party, cookout, or, to quote Mrs. Coonce once more, “the yearly racket.” The thought had been bandied about to cancel that year’s neighborhood shindig in light of Ben’s passing.
“No,” Mr. Tork told our dads and others. “We need it.” That’s all he said with a nod and downcast glance before launching into the finer details of his world famous barbecue ribs.
Mrs. Tork was officially endorsing it, too. She didn’t leave their house that Sunday, but she did phone the ladies who had gathered in the Hopewell living room to exchange recipes and decide who was to cook what and to joke about the men commandeering the grills.
Of course with the block party set for the following Saturday, that meant there was work to be done. Every one of us had chores that week, more than usual as if it were a major holiday. We had to mow the lawns, trim the hedges, whack the weeds, clean the gutters, wash the windows, and some of us had to pressure wash the siding of our houses. Everyone that didn’t have a job had to do all this, i.e., us summer vacationers.
The pall that had settled over our neighborhood, or rather us and those who knew and/or were related to Ben, had lifted slightly. It was still so recent that we lost him, as if it had only been yesterday, yet if seemed as though we had been feeling his absence for a decade. Mr. and Mrs. Tork both returned to work that Monday morning, but even we could feel the change that accompanied them. It held sway over Brandy, too, and though we could identify with her grief, with her parents’, most of us wouldn’t be able to fully grasp the extent of the loss they felt for years to come.
We toiled full days, and often into the hours of darkness, preparing Walpurgis for the festivities. At night we retreated, tired, to our homes, seeking the succor of hot showers and soft beds. We were our usual selves, watching television or slipping on headphones to listen to music until we fell asleep. We thought of Ben, reminisced privately until our eyes, completely out of our control, closed and we dreamed nothing significant.
By Saturday morning, all the properties of Walpurgis Lane were immaculate. Manicured, washed, and set. The grills were ignited, and the smells of sizzling meats stormed our senses. This was the day of emancipation for us after slaving the week before. We celebrated by lounging and drinking cans of sodas we took from coolers packed with ice that sat everywhere the eyes could see. The people of Walpurgis converged on the streets, music played, and if we had been older we would have been as proud of our landscaping services as our parents were.
It was a beautiful day that Saturday. The temperature, the sky, the breeze- everything- was perfect. We all seemed to momentarily set aside our mourning and enjoyed the day. Even the Torks were having a good time. Mrs. Tork even smiled, looking at the bright clear perfect blue above, and said, “Ben has painted the day for us.” He always did love the neighborhood cookout. Tall and skinny, the boy could pack away the food.
The talked shop and sports, the women commanded from their cliques for the mean to mind the grills. Tables were set up, red and white checkered table clothes spread over them. Bowls of food were set out, potato salad, macaroni salad, rolls, hamburger buns waiting for the all-beef patties, salivating mouths waiting for anything from the barbecue chefs.
We drank our sodas, we palmed handfuls of chips, and stole cookies and brownies. Our moms shooed us off, and Mrs. Hopewell threatened to beat us with her broom.
“Five minutes more,” Mr. Lucas said. “Just five minutes,” for the fifth time for chops to be done.
We gathered at the table with the plates and plastic cutlery. “Look,” Lester said and licked his lips. “Mrs. Tork made her strawberry cake.”
A collective sigh of relief escaped us. We had worried she wouldn’t make the cake that year, and we would have understood, but we were elated to see her set it on the dessert table. Plump strawberries crowned the top, nestled in velvety pink icing. We were as restless as race horses at the starting gate to dig into that cake.
Mrs. Tork saw us. “There’s enough for you all, and a second one in the house,” she said.
It was like Christmas had come early.
The grilling was all but done, another shout of “Five more minutes,” echoed from the flames. The littlest of the kids ran around and crawled under tables, people danced in the street. Even Mrs. Coonce was having fun.
We looked around and didn’t see anyone at first. Mrs. Tork was standing in the middle of the street, her back to us, and all we could see were heat waves shimmering her profile.
Then she cried and fainted, hand reaching for something. Reaching for someone standing there before her. We couldn’t make out who it was, the gleam of heat danced out the details.
Mr. Tork was the first person to his wife, scooping her up. People rushed, gathered round. We ran, too, and broke through the crowd. Everyone was concentrated on Mrs. Tork. We sought who she was talking to.
Whoever it was, they were already vanished.
Mr. Tork carried his wife inside. She held a cold rag to her head. Her hands shook. The color had vacated her face.
“Did you get too hot?” Mr. Tork asked her. “Too exhausted,” he said to us. “I’m sorry.” He patted her hand.
“Dear Lord,” she said. Silent tears fell down her cheeks.
“It’ll be okay,” Mr. Tork said.
“That…man,” Mrs. Tork said.
“Who was it?” It was Errol Lucas who asked.
Mrs. Tork squeezed her husband’s hand. “He just came up to me. I didn’t know who he was. He asked me how I was doing.” Her mouth was dry, she fought it. “I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t know,” she stressed, “I didn’t recognize him. I said I was doing good. I was being polite. And then he says, ‘Don’t you know me?’ And I looked at him. And I thought maybe I did. Then he says, ‘Mom, don’t you know me?’ And then I saw him. I saw him!”
She sat up, excited, hysterical, joyous.
“It was him,” she said and hugged Mr. Tork, crushing him. “It was Ben!”
Mr. and Mrs. Tork stayed in their house the rest of the day. Brandy joined us, but we left the speculation to the adults who scattered off into their groups out of earshot. We suffered that daub of embarrassment for her.
By the end of the day, the excitement of Mrs. Tork’s breakdown had dwindled only to be picked up again behind closed doors. After the trash was disposed of, the food refrigerated, and the tables stored away for another year, we all had things to talk about. The adults lamented Mrs. Tork’s mental status, but found it reasonable. We gathered in our group and wondered about the events.
Was it possible the stranger was Ben?
Errol hadn’t recognized the stranger, if he did indeed see somebody in the camper, as Ben. To our way of thinking, though it would seem impossible for there to have been someone in the camper that night, we were firmly on Errol’s side.
As for Mrs. Tork, she definitely saw someone. We could only see a blur from our viewpoint, but down through the years testimony has emerged from that day of the block party in the Year of the Summer of the Flood, eyewitness testimony, from Misters Hopewell and Lucas, that there was indeed somebody talking to Mrs. Tork. “It looked like a man,” Mr. Lucas would later attest, “slender, tall, definitely a man. I know I saw him, but the sun was bright and I couldn’t see him clearly.”
Mr. Hopewell would confirm that statement. “Yeah, it was a young man. A young man, I think. Don’t quote me on that, though, the sun was playing shining fierce and I had to squint. Couldn’t really see.”
“Funny how he vanished,” they would both agree. It echoed the sentiments of all Walpurgis the years before. Funny how he vanished. Weird, he was there then he was gone, poof, like that.
Was it Ben, was he pranking us one last time? Was he merely wanting us to know he was okay? Was he trying to console us?
We would know soon enough.
The weekend was over and the days marched on. Soon, school would be starting and our endless summer would be yet another memory to collect dust into adulthood.
Those last days came and went too fast for our pleasure, and before we knew it the eve of our enslavement was upon us. Our school supplies had been bought and tucked into economical backpacks and school bags; new clothes hung in our closets, waiting mordantly. It was the last day of summer, and we felt it like a hundred crushing blows.
We charged the street with fierce vigor, we seized that last day. We would not let it go quietly into that good night, into eternal obscurity with every other day. Yes, we seized it, the day was ours. We attacked Walpurgis Lane, we owned it and we ruled it one final time with the passion of free men before we were trapped in formal learning and before Winter began its siege. We stormed the park. We braked hard in the street so our bikes left skid marks on the blacktop. We chased each other through the mazes of our yards, around our houses, across the streets, trampling flower beds, snapping shrubs. We conquered our world once more, and we did it all in honor of Ben, our fallen warrior.
“Let’s go to the old Storey house,” Bobby Welsh said. He was huffing, trying to catch his breath. We had been racing, boy vs. bicycle.
“Yeah, that would be perfect,” Lester said.
A perfect end to the day. The sun was already hid behind the trees on the horizon, casting streaks of purple and pink across the sky, allowing darkness to slither and a chill air to thrive.
“For Ben,” Brandy said. A smile spread over her face. “He would do it.”
That roused our spirits to peak form. We hollered a rallying cry, a song of war for youth, and we set out in the swallowing dark telling Ben’s jokes, telling Ben’s stories, telling Ben we would rule the haunted house the way he once did.
Lights flickered on as we marched, parents watched from windows and doorways at their dirt covered sons walking with their arms around each other’s shoulders laughing and singing Ben’s favorite songs while their daughters cheered and joined the choruses.
We crossed over to Cornwell Drive and carried our rowdy band down the cul-de-sac to the Storey house. It’s leering silhouette in the blackening twilight slowly siphoned our humor until we stared at it wide eyed and silent.
Our brio waned as we confronted the monster. For Ben, though, and we looked to each other and took ourselves right up the steps, slowly, letting the nerve-wrenching shriek of each board lodge in our bones.
Our approach stopped altogether as the door opened on its own.
Leigh Hopewell clung to Lester Hart for dear life. Her freshly manicured fingernails cut through his shirt sleeve and into his skin; he discovered the damage the next day.
“It’s a trick,” we said.
“Who’s in there?” Bobby yelled.
A wail of wind answered, and nothing else.
It was dark beyond that door, and dead.
We huddled up.
“Somebody’s trying to prank us,” Leigh sniffled.
Brandy broke from the heart of the group and pushed free. She marched into the house.
“Wait,” we screamed, the door slammed like a cannon firing at the Independence Day parade.
We scattered across the porch, Leigh still attached to Lester. We tried to look through the front windows, wiping away the grime and scum.
“It’s locked!” Bobby yelled as he fought with the door. “It won’t turn it’s locked!” He beat at it.
“I see her,” Errol said.
He watched her cross the living room in evening gloom. She walked through an arched entry and disappeared into a hall.
A figure dashed by the doorway after Leigh. Errol stumbled back and yelped.
“It’s him,” he said. He pointed a shaky hand. “It’s him.”
“From the camper?”
Bobby beat his fists on the door, tried kicking it in.
Lester shrugged off Leigh and jumped down from the porch.
“Break the window,” Leigh screamed.
“You’ll cut your arm off,” Lester said. “Let’s try the back door. Doesn’t this place have a cellar?”
We were running around the house when we saw the light. Lester had stopped and we crashed into him.
“What’s that?” Errol pointed to a window on the second floor.
“It don’t have electricity,” Leigh said. “What is it, Lester?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“It’s him,” Errol said. “That’s the stranger. That’s the light! That’s what I saw in the camper!”
“It’s gone!” Bobby said.
The window was dark again, lost in the night.
We heard the grating hinges of the front door. We ran around the house, tripping over each other. Brandy was already walking down the steps, headed for Walpurgis.
“Brandy!” we ran to her. “Brandy! What happened?”
We followed her home. She was crying, wiping tears away, but it wasn’t a bad cry, not like when Ben died. This cry was different.
“I saw the stranger,” Brandy said.
We sat in the Hopewells’ camper. We bunched in, elbow to elbow, making sure to give Brandy room to breathe.
“I told you he was real,” Errol said.
“Is it Ben?” Leigh asked.
“Yes, it’s him,” Brandy said.
We hugged ourselves against the waves of frigid bumps.
“But it’s not him, too,” Brandy said. “It is but it’s not.”
“What do you mean?”
Lester spoke to himself, “For I am not yet ascended…”
Brandy took a breath and slowly exhaled. She wrapped a sweater tight around her.
“I went in that house because I knew it was a special place for Ben. I wanted to do something special for him, and going to the Storey house was it. He was the first of us to go inside it. I thought if we went there, we would really be paying our respects to him.
“Errol saw the stranger behind me, but he was in front of me the whole time, knocking on the wall, saying, ‘Over here.’ I knew it was him.”
“Playing,” we said, barely breathing above a whisper.
“Playing his tricks,” Brandy said. “I found him upstairs in a room. It was kids room. There were cowboys and Indians on the wallpaper. And I could see it plain as day because there he was, sitting there waiting on me. There was Ben. And he smiled so big-“
Fresh tears came that she had wipe on the sleeve of her sweater.
“He was smiling so big. That Ben smile, you know.”
And we did. We thought back to each time we had seen it. On the schoolyard, in our rooms, that day at Colver Bridge.
“’Hey, Brandy’, he said. ‘Slow poke.’ Said it just like always. And I started to cry and he stood up and I thought he was gonna wipe them away, but he stopped. He said, ‘Don’t cry, lil sis. Nothing to cry about. Nothing to cry about.’
“I wanted to hug him so bad,” she said. “Just one last hug. It was like he could read my mind. I think he always could. He said, ‘Not yet, sis. But one day.’ And then he was gone. I wasn’t in the room anymore, I was at the front door and he was gone. I closed my eyes in the dark and opened them and there was the door.”
We sat in silence for a long time. We let each other have a moment to think, to cry, to be to ourselves. We didn’t want to go home, we slunk off grudgingly before our mothers had a chance to yell for us from the kitchen windows and porches.
Ben was our brother, our best friend, and he had come back for a visit, just to tell his twin sister not to worry, don’t cry, it will be okay. This too shall pass. He brought us comfort after all. One last act of kindness. Another case of Ben being Ben.
We never told anyone else about that night. We discuss it with each other sometimes. We talk about Ben, rehash old times, tell our stories about old Walpurgis that has been flattened like our old middle school and paved over, about the stranger and about how it would be just like Ben to do something like that, to prank us and his mom.
Still we speculate, we probably will all our lives. We question those events as adults always do, try to pick them apart and rationalize instead of just accepting the miraculous like we did when we were children. We find inspiration in that Long Summer, though, we find life in it. No definitive answers, but we find life. And mystery, always mystery and wonder. That should be only natural. Like Errol read once, wonder is of the soul.