DEACON WELLS Part I
A Novel By Quinn Heder
Cole Lambert waited on trembling knees, watching the soot colored
Ozark dust list stubbornly in the stale midday air. Somewhere beyond the trailing cloud, his hatchet, the thing he prized most in the whole world was racing away, buried in the leg of the man responsible for the grizzled scene stretched out in front of him. Thirty paces away, his mother, Rose Marie Lambert, frantically worried over his beaten father, trying desperately to clear the bloody mud caked in his battered nose and mouth.
“Cole!” she pleaded, “…please! …I need your help!” To Cole, the sound of her voice was little more than a distant rumbling, and turning away oblivious to her desperate cries, he walked slowly over to the crumpled form lying nearby. The continuing cries of his mother made hollow echos in his windswept mind, howling near and then far away again as the truth began to register. In black mud made from his own blood, the man he had killed only moments earlier, lay lifeless his open eyes still glazed in death’s surprise.
Suddenly reality’s unmaskable details so graphically displayed before him became too much, and not even shock could stem its stifling gravity. He had killed a man, a sin which according to the good book would surely damn his soul. Fighting a cocktail of emotions no fourteen year old could possibly overcome, his youthful mind ravaged by confusion finally closed the windows to his soul, letting unconsciousness provide blessed salvation from a world too dark to go on living in.
“I wanna go home Ma,” he later cried repeatedly, when consciousness finally returned and the grim realization that he was still alive became too much to bear, “…let me go back to Uncle Deak, …please Ma? Everything’d be better if only he was here.”
“Your father needs us here sweetheart,” she pleaded, torn between her love for her son and loyalty to her well meaning, yet fragile husband, …he’s really bad off.”
“He ain’t my father Ma! …he ain’t never been, not really. Can we go back please, …I don’t wanna be here no more.”
“Shhh Cole, …please don’t speak that way, he is your father! …and I insist you give him a chance.” Defiantly, Cole shook his head.
“No Ma, …Uncle Deak’s my real pa, ‘n I wanna go back to livin’ the way we used to, …back with Grama ‘n Grampa. You heard that man, …he’s comin’ back’n we gotta leave!”
“Stop! Stawwwwp Daddy please?” little Deacon squealed, his five year old body contorting in spastic movements trying to evade his father’s long probing fingers, “…I’m gonna die!” Again he squealed in tortured delight, his high pitched voice filling the small, one room apartment deep in the heart of the Buffalo New York. Sundays were always the best days for Deacon and his sister Rose Marie, filled with fun and family closeness, despite the glaring absence of life’s finer things. To Ira and Hanna Wells’ two children, money and things, or the lack there of, never even entered their eager minds. There was nothing lacking in life as long as their father was home to greet them when they woke each Saturday morning.
“Ira honey,” Hanna coaxed, “…don’t you think it’s time to let the children be and come to bed?”
“Ah Ma!” Deacon protested, “…please don’t make’im come home, we planned a sleep over!” Hanna shook her cocked head, meeting the pleading, almost desperate look on her five year old’s face with a war face of her own, and for a long moment, a fierce standoff ensued. Ira sat frozen with mounting anticipation between his children, while on the opposite wall, in a larger bed of blankets, his wife of eight years kneeled stubbornly, her determined eyes fixed and unblinking. It was moments like these that made his long trek home at the end of each week worth every step. Never a matter of if, mother and son would wage their weekly stare down, the question was when, and once it began, it nearly always ended up the highlight of his weekend. Deacon usually won, but this particular battle would determine whether or not Hanna would spend the night wrapped in the arms of her husband, and she was more determined than ever to win. With only a few feet of bare floor between them, Deacon and his mother set their expressions, waiting for the moment when the other would break. Hanna was a strong woman, and far from a rookie when it came to a battle of wills, but as the minutes wore on, she found she was no match for her little boy’s large, watering, and oh so desperate eyes. Summoning real tears to compliment his convincing expression, he somehow held out allowing his lower lids to well just at the edge of bursting and then he let them slowly blink, squeezing bucket size tears onto his perfect cheeks.
“Oh come on!” his mother exclaimed, “…you can’t do that, it’s not fair!” With happy tears running down his face, Deacon shot his father and sister a satisfied look and crawled over to kiss his defeated mother goodnight.
“You wanna sleep over too Ma?” he asked, “…just bring your blanky, we got room.” Taking up a blanket, Hanna let him lead her the few steps across the room where he showed her to the outside edge just beside him.
“Here Ma, you can have this spot,” he said, patting the bare wooden floor with his little hand.”
Ira smiled at his wife, and grinning wide, kissed her before laying down in his usual spot, sandwiched between the two children.
“Some day you’re going to have to come home to our place to sleep, you know,” she said coyly, batting her eyes and looking as alluring as she could manage in her full length cotton night gown, “…unless you’re happy not having me as a bed companion any longer.” Ira rolled his eyes and countered…,
“Like you’ve ever been able resist me.”
The next morning, like every Monday morning, Ira Wells was clearing the outskirts of Buffalo by the time Deacon and Rose Marie opened their sleepy eyes to greet a new week. Although miles from home, having left before midnight, he was just nearing the halfway mark of his walk into the rolling hills of upstate New York by the time the stars began to fade in the twilight sky. Mr. Cordell would be anxious to be returning home, after spending a week in the hospital, but he found himself hoping the crotchety old man was somehow not well enough to travel. It wasn’t that he really disliked his wealthy benefactor, but after spending the previous week without the aging miser looking over his shoulder, he couldn’t help wanting a few more days enjoying the tranquility of his beautiful work place alone. For the past nine years, he had walked to and from the sprawling Cordell Estate, where he worked himself to the bone trying to satisfy his eccentric employer. Not a day went by that he didn’t secretly pray for the day when God would let him pursue his first choice in professions, …that of a preacher. Oh how he wished for his own church, a friendly and willing congregation, and all the time in the world to devote to ministering, but the chilled breeze blowing in from the north served as a stark reminder that for the time being, it was only a pipe dream, and his business lay another twelve miles ahead.
To Ira Wells, this morning felt like nearly every other Monday he could remember, the sweet taste of Hanna’s lips still on his, and the scent of Deacon and Rose Marie lingering on his senses as he walked steadily on, but he couldn’t know the tangled wiles that a few hours later would change the lives of he and his family forever.
The following Saturday arrived right on time, but without the usual Wells reunion, and when Ira failed to return after a second week to pay the rent, Hanna and the children were put out in the street.
“But why can’t the man just wait for Daddy?” Deacon protested, his searching eyes probing his mother’s weary face. Noting the exasperated look in her eyes, Rose Marie, a few weeks beyond her eighth birthday, quickly took his hand and cheerfully whisked him a few doors down the alley to where several of their friends were playing marbles on the hard dirt.
“Momma needs to think right now Deacon,” she explained, “…lets see if Toby will let us in the game.”
“Wull how long’s she gunna be thinkin’?”
“For a little while is all, but don’t worry, she’ll call when she’s finished.”
The Wells children played for nearly two hours with the other alley kids, before Hanna called for them.
“Children, …we’re going on an adventure!” she announced, looking as convincingly cheerful as her downtrodden spirit would allow, “…Papa will return soon I’m sure, and when he does, he’ll have money so we can go home again, but until then, we’re going to be staying in a shanty!”A shanty? …what’s that?” Deacon immediately questioned.
“It’s a hut darling, like the ones you and Rose Marie build out of crates and blankets, …only bigger!” Beaming with excitement, Deacon clapped his little hands, jumping up and down on his toes and yelling at the top of his lungs,
“Hey everybody, …I get to live in a shanty! I get to live in a shanty!” Pulling him tight to her, Hanna picked up her innocent child and held him close so he couldn’t see her tears as she carried the several city blocks to a narrow alley squeezed between two rows of towering buildings.
“This is our shanty,” she announced as she let Deacon slide to the ground.
“Marie!” he squealed, darting under the leaning tin roof supported by thin wooden panels on three sides, “…can you believe it, we got our very own shanty!
Do we really getta live her Mamma? …sleep’n, eat’n, an’ everything?”
“Yes darling, really do,” she sighed, eyeing the heaping pile of garbage and debris mounded up against the tall wall at the alley’s end less than a stone’s throw away. Large rats scurried in and out, busily searching for food.
“I’ll be fine as long as I don’t have to feed the children one of those,” she thought, shivering with disgust, all the while knowing deep inside that if Ira didn’t return soon, …eating such things, and worse, would likely become a reality.
Months passed, as did the changing of seasons, yet no word from Ira Wells ever reached the small shanty. Hanna visited the owner of their old apartment frequently, to see if word of his welfare or whereabouts had arrived, but it was always the same. Then one day, as she opened the door to enter the tiny clerk’s office, she ran smack into a large man in a pin stripped suit.
“Mrs. Wells!” the man behind the tiny desk said, “…what good fortune you are here! These men were just asking about you and the children, …they have news of your husband.” Hanna searched the eyes of the two men before her as the one she had collided with extended his hand.
“I’m Danial Nulac Mrs. Wells,” he greeted. He was smooth, yet in the farthest back sounds of his voice was a hint of unsettled hollowness. Hanna took his hand, but only for a brief moment before an inexplicable impulse compelled her to retract it.
“What do you know about my husband gentlemen?”
“We do have news,” Nulac returned, “however, I would feel more comfortable if you would accompany us to a place more suitable for our business. Allow me Ma’am,” he said, reaching beyond her to swing the door open in front of her, “…I have an associate just a few blocks away that will lend us the use of his office if you’ll accompany us there.”
“You said you have news Mr. Nulac, …yet you insist on referring to it as some sort of business.”
“Oh how clumsy of me,” Nulac apologized, “…I am an attourney representing the dispersal of Mr. Cordell, your husband’s late employer’s’ estate.”
“Pardon me Mr. Nulac, …did you say late employer? But Ira’s been gone for six months!”
“Yes Ma’am, …and that is why we are here to see you. You are interested in claiming what Mr. Cordell left you and the children, …aren’t you? I would think finding a way to better care for your little ones would be the most important thing on your mind.” Hanna nodded, and gestured that he lead on, however when he took her into a filthy warehouse, she felt suddenly ill.
“Is this your friend’s office?” she asked skeptically.
“Well Ma’am, …in truth, I don’t have any associates in Buffalo, I just need to get you to a place where we could talk privately.” Turning abruptly, Hanna started back out into the street, but before she could clear the door, a large hand caught her wrist, yanking her back inside.”
“Un hand me you brute, or I’ll…”
“Or you’ll what?” Nulac laughed. He stood several paces farther into the spacious room, while his partner, confident he could control her with just his grip, carelessly attempted to pull her by him. No stranger to rough men, having grown up an only child in a man’s world, Hanna had, more than a few times taken it upon herself to teach one bully or another a lesson in manners. Drawing even with her captor, she brought her pointed shoe up hard, burying the toe deep in his groin. The result was predictable, and while he doubled over in pain, she made her escape. Nulac tried to follow, but quickly found himself no match for her foot speed and gave up, shouting after her with a profanity laced tirade, including threats and cursings that didn’t end until well after he had reentered the warehouse .
With her back to the tattered canvas door of their tiny shanty home, Hanna Wells listened with worry to the dismal sounds of the blustering winter storm. Deacon lay sandwiched between she and Rose Marie, tucked up inside her heavy wool dress for warmth, with his head nestled just beneath her chin. For two weeks straight, the night time temperatures had continued to dip so low that she feared they would freeze in their sleep. Like the swirling wind, heavy emotions came and went in her mind, worry being the most prevalent, for her husband along with longing thoughts of the last night spent with him, sharing a bed with the children. How she longed to have things as they once were. Nearly a year had passed and all the dreaded possibilities she had once feared most, were now her everyday life, from scavenging through garbage, to eating mice and rats in order to survive.
“How much more?” she asked softly, letting her words trail away on the howling wind. Swallowing, she winced at the sharp tearing sensation that along with a worsening cough, had been weighing heavily on her troubled mind since waking after the first cold night. What would become of her children if she was no longer able to take care of them? In recent days, three other of their alley neighbors had succumbed to the elements and been carted away by the grim looking men who’s job it was to collect the dead bodies of those who fell prey to the bitter cold. Would she be next? With that thought in her mind, she braced against the rising cough, unable to squelch it any longer, and silently screamed as her head, throat and chest became racked with unbearable pain. For hours she lay tormented, in both spirit and body until finally, the winds ebbed to a frigid stillness, and she reluctantly gave in to her exhausted eyes.
“Mommy mommy!” five year old Deacon burst out early the next morning, when with his cheek frozen to his mothers frigid breast, he woke from troubled sleep. Forgetting he was trapped inside her dress, he writhed about wildly, startling Rose Marie, who at the sight of her mother’s ice masked face, grabbed her little brother’s feet and pulled him kicking and screaming out into the frosty air.
“No Marie!” he screamed in heart wrenching protest. Tearing free he rushed back into the shanty and began shaking Hanna’s lifeless form, “…Come on Marie? …we gotta wake her up!” Ducking beneath the low hanging roof, Rose Marie caught his arm, and again began to pull, but Deacon had his fingers so tightly clamped onto the tattered dress that by the time she managed to pry them off, her own fingernails were separated and bleeding.
“We can't Deacon!” she pleaded, her whole body shaking as she sobbed right along with him, “…Mama’s gone, and we can’t bring her back!”
“No she ain’t Marie, …she’s right there! All’s we gotta do is wake’r up!”
Once away from the shanty, Rose Marie tried over and over to reach his five year old understanding, but death was just too much for him to comprehend. Consequently, he continued to fight, surrendering only after all of his strength gave out and he fell asleep.
All through the day and night that followed, Rose Marie held her little brother, while together they kept watch from beneath a nearby pile of rubble, finally, the men in gray jumpsuits came and Hanna’s body was tossed into a cart heaped with other frozen bodies, and carried it away.
Night after night, the two children struggled to keep from freezing in their, scanty, motherless shelter. Weeks passed with nothing on their minds but food and warmth, yet only a few city blocks away, holiday sights and sounds abounded nearly everywhere. But those things weren’t meant for them, …no, they, nor any other of the City’s retched refuse.
Rose Marie shook her head sadly, and guided Deacon away from the
jubilant sounds, silently apologizing to her mother with each retreating step. She had tried begging, but people were cruel, and her several attempts had yielded nothing but abuse. Looking down at her sniffling little brother, she instinctively slapped the finger just leaving his nose away before it reached his mouth.
“Deacon!” she scolded, “…what have I told you at least a million
times?” Jerking free of her, he ran several steps away, all the while making
sure that every bit of disgusting slime on his finger was gone before she could catch up.
“That’s so disgusting,” she muttered, shaking her head, her face drawn and serious, “…Mama would be fit to be tied!”
“I’m hungry Marie, …an’ besides, I like em’.”
“It’s not right,” Rose Marie sighed, trudging over to where he waited, “…nobody should ever be so hungry.” Putting her arm around him, she pulled him to her and together they walked on in search of something to eat.
“…they’re sugary you know,” Deacon said out of the blue.
“Eeuuugh…” she returned, stopping to glare incredulously into his large, innocent eyes, “…you couldn’t have just said that!”
“I shore’nuff did, an’ I meant it, …boogers’re better’n a lot’a stuff we eat, an’ I always got some. Seems almighty wrong to waist em’.” Rose Marie was speechless, her face white with disbelief, and all she could do was shake her head.
“Y’ aughta try em’, ya know?” he added a few seconds later, unable to rid his thoughts of the unsavory subject, “…I know you got em’ too.” Rose Marie’s jaw dropped, and without a word turned away and quickly walked ahead, leaving him running to catch up and looking lost and confused.
“Marie? …wait up!” he called, but even when he caught her, she continued on in silence, skipping the usual route and turning immediately in the direction of their alley home.
“What’s the matter Marie?” he pleaded, “…come on, don’t be sore bout my booger eatin’, …you ain’t gotta try em’ if ya don’t wanna!” Still, …the blank stare on his sister’s face remained unchanged and she said nothing until well after dark when they were huddled together in their shanty.
“They’re not sugary…”
“What?” Deacon asked confused as he woke from his half sleep.
“Boogers, …they’re salty, not sugary.” Deacon scrambled bleary eyed up from her lap to face her, but in the dark only the outline of her head was visible, keeping him from seeing her smile, but he was sure it was there all the same.
“Wait,” he said coyly, “…how do you know?”
“Never mind,” she replied, “…come on, let’s go find something to eat before I get so hungry I, …well never mind, come on, let’s go.”
During daylight hours, it was the rats scurrying about the refuse pile that were the object of the Wells Children’s attention, but when night came, they took to the streets for the chance of finding food scraps discarded in trash cans behind restaurant kitchens. Late one afternoon after leaving the shanty, they hadn’t gone far before Rose Marie drew up sharply pulling Deacon quickly over against the rough brick and mortar wall rising up above them.
“What?” Deacon protested loudly, but slapping her hand over his mouth, Rose Marie stifled any further outburst, glaring sternly into his surprised eyes.
“It’s them, shhhh!” Rose Marie warned, making sure he would stay, mum before removing her hand, “…it’s the men Mamma warned us about!” A couple hundred feet down the alley, two men in official looking suits and hats, had a their friend Toby pressed into a corner less than fifty feet from the one room apartment that had once been their home.
“What do they want Marie?” Deacon whispered, peaking around the folds of her skirt.”
“I don’t know, but they’re bad, and we can’t let them see us! Come on, let’s go the other way.” Slowly, they backed away, hugging the rough wall until reaching the corner. After running several city blocks, fate kindly offered their most bounteous meal in days, by way of table scraps thrown into the alley from the back entry of a Restaurant.
“Marie, …Marie,” Deacon’s little voice whimpered, as he squirmed and rooted about trying to force himself between his nine year old sister’s frightfully thin body and the ground, “…I’m cold Marie, …too cold.”
“Here,” she sighed sleepily, “…do you want to crawl up inside my dress like you used to with Ma.”
“Eeuuugh, that’d be sick! …you’re a girl, I could never do that!” Fully aware that it was no joking matter, Rose Marie resisted the urge to tease, and immediately tried another, less offensive approach.
“I’m not really a girl, …I’m your sister, and that’s just like a mommy.”
“No,” he objected, “…mommies got soft bodies, and pillows. You ain’t got neither. ”
“I’m only boney because we haven’t had enough to eat, …and I’m too young to have pillows like Mamma. If you don’t believe me, …well then I guess you’ll have to just do with being cold.” For several minutes, Deacon shivered, trying his best not to utter any further complaint, but when he couldn’t take it any longer, he whimpered,
“You sure you ain’t no girl Marie?”
“Not to you Deacon, ...when it’s cold, you can just pretend I’m a blanket with arms, Ok?”
“Ok,” he replied, rooting down until he could slide up inside her thick, wool dress. Finally, after much wiggling, he felt her chin against the top of his head, and settled in, soaking up the warmth of her chest on his cold cheeks.
“Oh!” she gasped, stiffening as his ice sickle like fingers touched her stomach, “ …oh my gosh Deacon!”
“What?” he began to cry, mistaking her shock for anger, “…I’m sorry, …wha’d I do Marie?”
“No no, come here, …it’s Ok,” she soothed, ignoring the shooting cold pains coursing through her entire body, “…you didn’t do anything, I just didn’t expect your fingers to be that cold, is all, but they don’t feel cold to me anymore, so you just rest easy, …and go to sleep.” She was lying, but that was nothing new to her, …at least not since the death of their mother. There were a lot of things about their station in life that needed embellishing in order to make sense to a heart broken, six year old boy. She wondered about her father, …where was he? Had he really done the unthinkable and…
“No!” she scolded herself angrily, “…he wouldn’t, …couldn’t have done that.” But what was she supposed to tell Deacon? What if their father had died somehow, and never did come back like she’d been promising him?
Although to them it seemed like winter would last forever, warm days of spring finally did bring relief to the Wells children, followed quickly by the sweltering heat of summer, but just like that the warmth seemed to vanish. All of six years old, and well on his way to seven, Deacon was growing out of his skin, and with it came an appetite to match.
“We gotta find a better way to get food Marie,” he muttered, as three mean looking boys made their way out of the darkness toward them as they huddled eating scraps put out for the cats.
“You’re eatin’ our supper,” the larger of the newcomers warned, his eyes leaping hungrily across the distance at the tantalizing plate of dinner scraps.
“Nu, uh,” Deacon returned with attitude, “…I looked, and there weren’t no name on it, so it’s ours.” Stuffing a half eaten biscuit in his mouth, he stood up to face them.
“Come on Deacon,” Rose Marie warned, “…we’ll find more somewhere else.”
“Nope, …ain’t no way we’re leavin’,” Deacon returned stubbornly, “…they ain’t takin’ our food.”
“But there’s three of them! …you can’t possibly fight them.”
“Don’t much care, …they ain’t takin’ what’s ours.” Stooping down, he grabbed several rocks before walking out into the moonlit street.
“Leave us be or I’ll plug you’n I ain’t funnin’ one bit.” Unsure just what to make of the threat, the three boys halted and jeered back, laughing, but with an uncertain hollowness in their voices.
“We’ll beat the dog snot outa ya kid, …don’t ya know you ain’t got a chance against three of us?”
“Wanna bet?” Deacon took two steps, skipped and threw, drawing a croaking gasp from the ringleader who reeling backward several steps, crumpled to his knees from the rock striking him square in the throat. Surprised, the two other boys, leaped back, but their hungry bellies, wouldn’t allow a full retreat, and well accustomed to having their way, they quickly regained their courage and bull rushed him, yippng like savages with every step. Deacon’s second rock found its mark in the solar plexus of the closest boy, doubling him over, and suddenly the “would be” alley bandits found themselves the attacked rather than the other way around. With the last stone gripped tightly in his closed fist, Deacon raced past the two thwarted attackers and straight into their leader who was struggling back to his feet. Driving his stone loaded fist straight into the bigger boy’s nose, he wheeled and drove his loaded right into the belly of the incoming third assailant, who was following close behind him. Air wooshed from the smaller boys mouth, and unable to inhale again, he dropped to his knees, opening and closing his mouth as tears squeezed out of his tightly shut eye lids and trickled down his tortured face.
Ready for more, Deacon eyed the other two, but with no fight left in them, they simply helped the third boy up and without any parting words, disappeared into the darkness.
“Are you crazy?” Rose Marie’s frantic voice sounded just behind him, “…what if you had missed? …then what?”
“I wouldn’t, …all I ever do is pitch rocks at rats, …ain’t no way I’d miss them big lurpy kids?”
“Still, you can’t just haul off and go at people like that, …sometimes it’s better to be sensible, …I learned that from Ma.”
“Yeah, but Ma died, …and probably cause she was sensible, …or whatever it was you said. Tarnations Marie, …sometimes I just can’t cipher the stuff you’re sayin’ Marie, …what I can figure though, is how dang hungry I am right now! …and, no matter what you say, at least I got somethin’ to eat.”
“All I’m saying Deacon, is that you should think about what might happen before you go to fighting like that.”
“We shouldn’t have to fight though,” he mumbled, gleaned the scanty clinging strings of chicken off a bone. Leaving the empty tin on the porch, they crossed the street and entered an alley behind a long row of tall buildings where a pile of broken furniture offered an inviting place to rest.
“Seems like to me, that since we ain’t got nobody, folks that can, aughta be lookin’ after us some, …ya know?” Deacon continued, once they were settled beneath an old tattered couch, “…maybe give their throw-outs to us stead of the cats, …or pigs.
“You can’t blame folks for not thinking about us,” Rose Marie sighed sadly, “…they have their own troubles.”
“Not even an apple core? …or bad part of an onion?” he protested, “…what’s so hard about tossin’ em our way? It’s like they don’t know we’re here like we was nothin’! We ain’t nothin’ Marie, …We’re somethin’, …whether they think so or not.”
“They don’t,” Rose Marie returned in almost a whisper.”
“Don’t what?” Deacon questioned.
“See us as bein’ more than rats, …they know we’re here alright, but it’s up to us to give them a reason to care.”
“That don’t make no sense, Marie, …see rats? …see us? Make em’ care? What does that even mean? …besides, thanks to my rock pitchin’, we pretty much ate all the rats in the alley.”
“What I’m trying to explain is,” Rose Marie began again, “…that in their eyes, we’re not really people, so they don’t wonder or even think about whether or not we’re hungry, …sick, …or, cold, …no more than they would worry about rats.”
“She’s right,” a voice came from somewhere in the darkness a few feet away. Deacon moved quickly between the stranger and his sister.
“Who are you, and wha’d’ya want?” he challenged.
“Just a tired old man Son,” the voice from the darkness returned, “…sorry to meddle, …I meant no offense by it, it’s just that the young lady is right about them people out there.”
“What? …you mean about us bein’ rats or worse in their eyes?”
“Sort of, but more about it being on us to give them reason to acknowledge us as people too. You ever hear the saying, “Love me or hate me as you wish, but in the end, you’re gonna respect me”?
“No, …can’t say as I have. We don’t get around proper people much.”
“All the same, …think about it and tell me what you think it means.”
“Is it saying we can’t make people like us, but we have some say in whether they respect us or not?” Rose Marie asked.
“Pretty close young lady, …pretty close,” the invisible stranger returned, “…you see, …love and hate are emotions people can choose to have, but respect? Nobody chooses to respect another human being, it’s an involuntary virtue that can’t be commanded by them that give it. Unlike voluntary emotions, like love, or patience, respect is involuntary, ordered only by the actions of the respected, not the respecter. Make something of yourself, and people will be powerless to ignore you, and they will respect you.” A long silence followed as the two Wells siblings thought about what they had just heard.
“You hungry?” Deacon finally asked into the darkness. Taking a bone still laden with ample scraps of meat and sinew, he held it out, until unseen fingers took it from him.
“You’ll do well boy,” the voice said, …I seen plenty in my day, and you’ll do just fine. Bless you, and thank you Jesus for this bounteous feast, thanks to this kindness of these kids, now I can come knocking at your gate with a full belly.”
The following morning, Deacon looked for the man belonging to the voice in the night, but he was nowhere to be found.
“You think that old man made out okay last night Marie?”
“He didn’t sound too worried about it, one or the other,” Rose Marie returned, …it kind of sounded to me like he was on his way to see Jesus.”
“Wish I could be like that, …’n not worry. I’m starved, and can’t help but wonder how I’m gonna fill my belly after givin’ him my breakfast.”
“Don’t worry little brother,” Rose Marie soothed, “…I have a feeling you’ll be more than paid back for your kindness.”
With growling stomachs, the charitable duo, determined to take matters into their own hands and leaving their shelter, headed straight for the heart of the city. All day they searched in vain, but then, just as the sun was about to disappear for another night, they approached dining hall filled with wealthy patrons who carried on so quietly that it was hard to believe it was really a restaurant. Not one of their usual targets, the restaurant was well away from the familiar security of their alley home, but undeterred, Deacon and Rose Marie followed the tantalizing smells all the way to the back alley door, which had swung partially open. Since the passing of their mother, they had maintained the moral code she has taught them, never so much as even thinking of taking something that didn’t belong to them. But, on this night, hunger drove them beyond the reach of conscience, and with gluttonous eyes, they stared longingly at the bounty laid out on a counter just inside the door.
“You ever seen anythin’ like that plate ‘a food, Marie?”
“No,” she answered slowly, almost tasting the savory delicacies heaped high on a large platter near the end of the counter.
“It wouldn’t really be stealing,” she heard herself whisper, “…not when it’s just leftovers, …would it?” The justification sounded good, but in her stomach, Rose Marie couldn’t deny the thrill sensation telling that stealing was exactly what they were planning to do.
“We’ll never get it,” he whispered back to her, “…best not even try.” Rose Marie laughed.
“We’ve made do missing supper before Deacon, …plenty of times?”
“Yeah, …but I ain’t ate since a whole day ago an’ I’m about done in!”
“Still, they’re all standing too close,” Rose Marie argued, “…we’ll get caught!” Just then, one of the cooks carelessly splashed grease from his large frying pan onto the stove, causing instant flames that exploded upward from the red hot surface.
“I got it!” she whispered with a mischievous grin, …stay here, I’ll be right back.”
Unaccustomed to being the voice of reason, Deacon shook his head as he watched her disappear around the front of the building, not at all happy with the unsettled feeling surging up from his stomach.
“C’mon Marie, …this is stupid,” he muttered to himself, one eye glued to the tantalizing platter less than a dozen feet away, while the other watched watching the street ahead for Rose Marie to re-appear. When she did, an even bigger smile than before had completely taken over her face.
“This is going to work perfectly,” she said rifling through the nearby garbage until she found what she was looking for.
“What’cha gonna’do with that?” Deacon asked, eyeing the wad of packing paper she had collected.
“You’ll see,” she said, opening the door just enough retrieve the grease pan unnoticed from just inside the short hallway. Once fully in the alley with her pan full of greasy paste, she began working her wad of paper into brownish goo until it was no longer recognizable.
“Okay, …start counting as you make your way around to the front door, and when you reach thirty, run inside and start screaming fire till they
all start running out. Once they do, …don’t wait, just get back here as fast as you can and I’ll do the rest."
With doubt written all over his face, Deacon started toward the street, counting slowly while, with the long handled pan containing her soaked wad stretched out in front of her, Rose Marie slipped inside and scooted silently toward the open oven. Chuckling inside, and surprisingly giddy about what she planned to do, she eyed the two cooks on either side of the oven, so occupied rushing their food orders, that they didn’t even notice the pan extending across the open space between them. Instantly the hungry oven belched flames, eagerly attacked the grease soaked paper ball, and just as Rose Marie pulled it out onto the floor, Deacon’s high pitched alarm pierced the air. So shocked were the cooks, that they dropped their utensils and raced for the doors without even looking to see what had caused the blaze. three chose the front door, while the fourth, caught on the wrong side of the fire, nearly stepped on Rose Marie without even noticing her, as he rushed out the back.
Huddled low on the floor, Rose Marie filled her lungs with the clean air and hurried to the counter where cradling the heaping platter she raced out to meet Deacon. Having regained his wits, the cook was about to step back inside when Rose Marie came barreling out of the smoke filled hallway and plowed him over, sending her precious cargo flying while they both went sprawling into the dirt. Arriving just in time to see the collision, Deacon began scooping everything he could into his oversized shirt before running on, but as soon as he realized Rose Marie wasn’t with him, he turned back to see her still standing where he’d left her, paralyzed in horror of what she had caused. Flames boiled from the windows, and inside leaped hungrily along the walls gobbling up curtains and furnishings with demonic fury.
“Hurry Marie!” Deacon cried, his heavy laden shirt protruding in front of him like a maternal belly. Not far away, the lone cook had turned and was walking toward Rose Marie with a meat cleaver gripped tightly in his hand.
“Come on Marie!” Deacon cried again in desperation, letting his treasure fall as the apron clad cook raised his threatening hand. Rose Marie’s eyes nearly popped out of their sockets in panic, as her attention turned from the fire to the menacing little man who seemed intent on chopping her into bits.
Suddenly, an apple splattered against the cook’s head, knocking him sideways and almost down.
“You better back off her mister,” Deacon warned from the darkness, still fifty feet away. Stepping into the flickering light cast by the growing fire, he picked up a rock half the size of the apple he’d just thrown, “…I’ll bust you again, and this here rock’ll do a nasty business on ya.” Wiping the soggy goo off his head, the angry man spewed a string of guttural sounds and raising his cleaver, turned to face his attacker. Deacon’s rock struck him square in the forehead before he had finished his threatening, and shrieking like a tortured witch, he dropped to his knees, his face dipping dangerously close to the dirt before he caught himself. Starting up again, he nearly reached his feet, but stumbled and went down hard again. Again and again he tried to rise, but each try was met with the same result as he stumbled and flopped all the way out to the street.
Hurrying back, Deacon helped Rose Marie along until her paralysis had eased, and reaching his pile of kitchen spoils, he gathered it back up and led the way to an abandoned shed on a bluff overlooking the city. Rose Marie was sick, so much so that she couldn’t eat even a bite of the bounteous feast she had stolen from the restaurant. Instead, her eyes were fixed on the distant red-orange flames shooting angrily into the night sky, quickly engulfing the entire building.
“It ain’t your fault ch’know,” Deacon said, stuffing another chicken leg into his already full mouth, “…that they was so stupid an’ run off stead’a putin’ it out your piddly fire.”
“It is my fault Deacon,” she returned angrily, guilty tears filling her eyes, “…I saw all that food and just went crazy...” She glared at Deacon who continued to gorge himself, seemingly devoid of conscience. “Don’t you feel even a little bad?” she demanded harshly, “…how can you eat when practically the whole city is about to burn down?”
“What’d I do?” he asked, his mouth so full she could barely understand him.
“Nothing Deacon, …I’m sorry. I’m going to the police though, and turn myself in.”
“Huh?” Deacon choked, spitting his precious food out so he could properly protest, “…no you ain’t, cause I ain’t goin’! …and you gotta take care’a me, …it’s your job!”
“But I have to do something,” she replied, “…I can’t live with myself knowing what I’ve done to those poor people.”
“Poor people? …they ain’t poor Marie, they’re rich, and plumb mean about it ta’boot. This wouldn’t a happened if they’d just give their scraps to us kids stead’a the pigs, …the way I figure, they had it comin’.” Rose Marie bowed her head and trudged dejectedly back, plopping to the ground next to him.
“I can’t help it though, I still feel terrible! Still, …I know you’re right.”
“Bout em’ bein’ mean and deservin’ it?”
“No, …about it being my job to watch after you, so I guess I’ll have to live with being an outlaw. If we get caught though, …it’ll be off with our heads!” Deacon’s eyes widened, his jaw dropping open so wide some of the food he’d just stuffed back in his mouth spilled onto his lap.
“Yup,” she said, nodding in dead seriousness, “…if the police catch us now, they’ll hang us sure, or worse, and order our heads chopped off.” Swallowing hard, Deacon thought for a second, but after wrapping his mind around what she’d said, he grabbed a turkey leg and started eating again.
“Fine with me,” he said as he chewed, “…but I ain’t goin’ quiet. If they try’n lay a hand on you or me, I’ll play hell, …you can bet on it.
Rose Marie smiled to herself as she reached over and took a wedge of sharp cheddar off the platter, …pleased that at the very least she had attempted to teach her brother a lesson on choice and consequence.
“I’ll just have to make up for what I did when I’m grown up and have enough money to pay for the damage I caused,” she sighed, “…yeah, that’s what I’ll do.”
“Can I help?” Deacon asked excitedly.
“You’d better,” Rose Marie answered sternly, “…you’ve got all that food you just ate to pay them back for too.”
“Is that a lot? …of money I mean?” Rose Marie chuckled in side, loving her little brother’s simple, unspoiled mind, and how much fun it was to mess with it.
“Yeah…,” she said slowly, “…judging by the size of that thing an how much you ate, I’d say it’ll be almost as much as the building, …maybe more.”
“Nu..uh!” he gasped, “…there ain’t no way!”
“I’m afraid so little brother, …but don’t worry, I’ll pitch in, since it was my idea in the first place. Besides, I am eating this cheese.” Satisfied, Deacon went back to eating, but from that moment on, visions of police chasing him and trying to chop off he and Rose Marie’s heads haunted his dreams as well as idle waking hours when his mind was free to wander.
“We’re not just thieves now you know,” Rose Marie said as they lay staring up at the gaps between the ceiling boards over their heads, “…we’re outlaws, criminals, …scum.”
“Fine with me,” Deacon returned, “…least ways we ain’t rats. And,” he added, “…we’re gonna have full bellies for days ta boot.”
“Mamma would die if she knew…”
“You always talk bout her like that, Marie, …n’ I don’t rightly get it. We both seen her and she was all the way dead, froze up’n hard, …so why do you always talk like she’s alive’n watchin’ us?”
“That’s because I feel her inside me, just where she said she would be when I needed her, …so I don’t think of her as being all the way gone like you said. I even talk to her, …and sometimes, when I listen really careful, …I think I hear her voice.”
“That’s impossible, …dead people can’t talk, …can they?”
“It’s not like how you’re thinking Deacon, …I don’t really know how to explain it, just that it makes me feel better.”
“What about Pa, …do ya hear him too?” Rose Marie shook her head thoughtfully,
“No, …can’t say as I’ve ever felt anything from him.”
“Z’that mean he ain’t dead then? …since he don’t talk ta’your insides?”
“Deacon! …don’t talk about him like that, of course he’s not dead.”
“Ok, now I’m real mixed up. Live folks who can talk, don’t cause they ain’t dead, while dead ones like Ma who can’t really talk, somehow do? And if Pa ain’t dead, an’ he’s good clean through like you say, …why ain’t he come lookin’ for us?” Rose Marie looked at her inquisitive brother with sorrowful eyes and shook her head, unable to hide the doubt.
“I don’t know, …I really don’t, but every day, I just keep hoping he’ll come sweeping in and snatch us out of this horrible life.”
“He’ll come,” Deacon sighed, “…if he’s like you say, …someday, he’ll come."
“Come on you leettle rat!” the gruff voice growled as a massive hand clamped around Deacon’s ankle. Lashed out with his free foot, Deacon grabbed a hold of the back support post of the shanty, and unleashed holy hell on the big hairy arm and hand.
“Stop fighting me keed, or I beat you like cracy!” Deacon’s unwelcome assailant may as well have been putting out a barn fire with just his spit, because there was no way his little captive was going anywhere without a fight. With one last mighty kick, Deacon dug his heal into the thick fingers, and feeling them relax he scooted away just as the flimsy shelter came crashing down.
“You ain’t takin’ me alive!” he screamed, squirming from beneath the fallen debris, “…you ain’t never gonna get me!” In an instant, he was racing away, his little legs churning up alley dust with every step.
“Oh no you don’t,” he heard from behind his ear, just before vice like fingers grabbed a fistful of his moppy hair, lifting him off his feet and sending him flying through the air. With every bit of seven years of life behind him, Deacon was a long way from surrendering, and like an alley cat, hit the alley floor running like his pants were on fire. Once again, the longer legs of his pursuer prevailed, however, but at the precise moment the hairy hand was about to grab him again, Rose Marie came flying in from out of nowhere, landing on the burly man’s back, and with her legs locked around his waist, she sent her claw like fingers savagely digging for eyes and cheeks.
“Run Deacon!” she screamed, “…run and don’t look back!” Deacon did as he was told, scrambling quickly up the mountainous garbage pile and beyond to the crumbling brick wall, catching the top with his hooking fingers, and pulling his body up over the lip like he had done at least a thousand times before. Happy to have escaped, he started to swing his leg over and drop to freedom, but Marie’s cry caused him to look back in time to see the two men throw her into the back of their enclosed wagon box. The wooden doors slammed shut, evoking screams of terror from the other children trapped inside, but no amount of noise could deafen the terrible steel clunking sound as the long key turned in the massive lock. Turning away from the cart, the two men eyed Deacon up on his perch, the smaller one even starting up the alley toward him, but at the sound of his partner’s voice behind him, he stopped.
“Come on Voldo,” the larger of the two called in a gruff Russian, accent “…he’s too much trouble, and Frawnk vill never pay for um.”
“Marie!” Deacon called after the departing cart, tears streaming from his eyes, and a grapefruit sized ball swelling in his throat. Sliding off the wall and ran after the quickly disappearing trail of dust left by the heavy wagon wheels.
“I’m coming Marie!” he choked, the tracks of tears streaking down his dirty face and pains of panic burning in his parched throat, clear down to his racing heart. “What if I never catch up?” he thought, his little mind churning with anxiety as the distance between he and the wagon quickly grew.