Shadows of Tockland - Sample Chapter


Shadows of Tockland - Sample Chapter

David saw him first, the old man with the scabs on his head lurching out of his seat on the front row, clapping his big, gnarled hands and shuffling toward the stage. Bubbles the Clown was the current performer, a petite woman in a loose, silvery costume. She had a bamboo pole balanced on her open palm, a large ceramic plate spinning on top of it. Every eye was drawn upward, watching the plate wobble, so the old man managed to get all the way to the stage without anyone hindering him. He gave one last clap, did a little hop on his bare feet and lunged at Bubbles, snagging one of her billowing pant legs.
            Bubbles uttered a squeak of surprise and swayed, the bamboo pole tipping to one side. She took a corrective step to keep the plate from falling, but the old man held fast, mumbling and gurgling and hooting. The audience took it all in as if it were part of the act, clapping and laughing, but young David Morr watched from the back corner of the tent, his hands tucked into his armpits, fighting a sudden wave of nausea. He wondered if he was the only one who heard the sickness in the old man’s voice, the threat of violence in that strange hooting sound.
            Finally, another clown leapt through a part in the curtains and landed on the stage just behind Bubbles. Telly, the ringmaster, a tiny man in a top hat and tails, stubby fingers covered in white silk gloves, black shoes polished to a mirror shine, he crossed the stage as nimbly as a pouncing cat. The scabby-headed old man gave a throaty snarl and pulled at Bubbles, forcing her toward the edge of the stage, foam dripping from the corners of his mouth. He would have dragged her down, David had no doubt, and pulled her right out of the tent while the whole crowd, still clapping and smiling and patting each other on the back, did nothing about it. But Telly fell upon him. He had a walking stick of dark, knotted wood, and he took it in both hands, tucking it against his body. As he approached Bubbles, he leapt into a somersault, sailing through the narrow gap between her legs. Then, in mid-spin, he whipped the walking stick over his head and used his forward momentum to bring it down against the old man’s forehead.
            The crack of the bulbous handle against the man’s skull echoed in the high tent like a gunshot, and the laughter of the crowd turned to gasps. David hated all forms of violence. He had seen so much of it in his life. It made his heart pound in his chest, made the blood rush to his head. He hunkered down in the corner, wanting to avert his gaze but afraid not to see. The old man raised both hands above his head in a gesture of surrender and fell backward, slamming into one of the low wooden benches that lined the inside of the tent and sliding limply onto the dirt floor.
            A third clown stepped through the curtain, the biggest of the lot, with a grizzled face and a crooked smile. The little one had introduced him earlier in the show as Touches. A barrel-chested giant of a man, he had arms like massive hams and an enormous mustache that billowed out on either side of his face. He stepped around Bubbles and hopped off the stage, bowing to the audience. Then he stooped to retrieve the old man, who lay twitching and bleeding on the ground.
            “Pardon the mess, ladies and gentlemen,” Touches said in a voice harsh as gravel. “Let me take this one out back and show him a thing or two. I’m the only one around here that gets to grab the ladies!” 
            This brought another round of laughter and applause and a burst of raucous cheers. He bent down, grabbed the old man’s bare, grime-caked foot and proceeded to drag him down the aisle. As they passed near David’s corner, he saw the bloody welt above the old man’s left eye, saw the tracks of purple scabs running in uneven rows across his scalp and the slurry of saliva and sickness dribbling from his mouth. Touches had a massive white face, grease paint mingled with sweat dripping down his thick neck, soaking into the collar of his shirt. He glanced in David’s direction as he passed, if only for a second, and David ducked his head.
            “A minor interruption, ladies and gentlemen,” Telly said from onstage. “Pay no heed! Pay no heed!” He stood beside Bubbles, making flourishes with his hands to draw attention back to the performers, but most of the audience continued watching Touches drag the old man out of the tent.
            Finally, the small clown gave a loud whistle, flipped the top hat off his head and threw it into the air. It hit the spinning plate, knocking it off the pole. As it fell, Bubbles stepped out of the way, the small clown tumbled backward, narrowly avoiding her, and caught the plate in his hand just before it shattered on the stage. With one more deft somersault, he wound up on his feet, balanced the plate on the tip of his finger and gave another dramatic flourish with the other hand. The crowd cheered.
            The knot of fear in David’s belly melted, and he joined in the applause. Telly bowed and walked over to retrieve the hat, passing the plate to Bubbles. She took it, curtseyed and danced offstage.
            “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” he said, setting the hat back on his head. “This concludes our evening’s entertainment, and we do thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your enthusiasm.”
            Shouts of approval turned to cries of Encore! and More, more! The tiny clown held up his hands.
            “Please, please,” he said. “We’ve given all we have to give.”
            But the cries persisted. Telly glanced over his shoulder, then back at the audience, and winked.
            “Ah, well, then again, we might have one more act waiting in the wings,” he said, tapping a finger against the side of his nose.
            Now most of the people were out of their seats, pumping fists in the air.
            “One more act,” they chanted. “One more act!”      
            David dared a step out of the corner, if only to get a better look.
            “One more act!”
            “Very well, dear friends,” the tiny clown announced, “I present to you the one, the only, the inimitable, Cakey the Clown!”
            The name meant nothing to them, but their cheers intensified into howls. Suddenly, a flash of silver came from backstage. A knife, sailing end over end, flew through the air. The handle of the knife hit the small clown’s top hat, knocking it off his head hard enough to send it into the crowd, while the knife rebounded and landed on the stage. There was a wrestling match in the audience as half a dozen people fought for possession of the hat, and Telly, his baldness revealed, clapped both hands over his head and dashed offstage.
            Cakey sprang out from behind the curtain. Tall and lanky, with a shock of orange hair and a patchwork costume of eye-straining colors, he was a sight to behold. His make-up was particularly neat, smooth as porcelain, with a single blue eyebrow, half as tall as his forehead, stretching from temple to temple, a small green circle on the tip of his nose and a broad, blood-red mouth that curled into a grin on the left side and sank into a frown on the right. The crowd shouted his name and flailed their arms at him, as he took a great leap to the edge of the stage. David saw the glint of blades and realized Cakey had knives tucked between the fingers of both hands. While he was still in mid-air, he tossed the knives, all of them, carelessly above his head. Straight up they went, some sailing high enough to touch the canvas roof.
            “Gimme back the hat,” he shouted to the crowd. He had a coarse and rasping voice, but it boomed in the tent. “Give it back, or I’ll stick the lot of you!”
            As the knives fell, he caught them, one by one, and began to juggle them. Two, then four, then all eight, under his leg, over his shoulder, behind his back.
            “I said gimme back the hat, you rubes,” he cried.
            From deep within the pressing crowd, the hat came sailing back. Cakey, still juggling the knives, stepped to one side and caught the brim between his teeth, then dropped the hat, caught it on the end of his oversized shoe and kicked it aside.
            David felt the cry of excitement burst out of him, and because he was so used to silence, he had no practice at making respectable loud noises. The cry came out as a strangled squawk. A few in the back of the crowd glanced in his direction with disapproving frowns, as if they thought he was mocking them.
            Telly crept out from backstage, walking on tiptoes, scooped up his hat and slipped up behind Cakey. Though some in the audience pointed and laughed, Cakey did not seem to notice him. The small clown had his strange walking stick in one hand, and, as Cakey continued to juggle, oblivious, he jabbed him right in the small of the back with the narrow end.
            “They got me,” Cakey cried, flinging the knives high into the air and stumbling backward.
            Some of the younger folk covered their eyes. David heard a great, heaving gasp escape his mouth and pressed both hands to his lips. Cakey glanced over his shoulder, saw the small clown standing there grinning and took a swing at him. And then the knives fell all around him, flashes of silver on gleaming blades. Cakey acted as if he did not notice them, but somehow they missed, impaling themselves in the wooden stage one after the other with a series of loud thumps. Some landed within inches of his feet. The last one he caught between thumb and forefinger, twirling it around his fingers for a moment. Then he turned to the audience and bowed.
            “Thank you ever so much,” he said.
            He bent down to retrieve the rest of the knives, as the audience cheered and called his name. The curtain fell, the crowd went wild, and the whole tent shook with the force of it. The applause went on for long minutes, until even David was swept up in it. Finally, the curtain parted again, and all of the performers took the stage. Bubbles came out first, small and shapely, a white face with small kissing lips painted in bright crimson over her real lips. She curtseyed daintily. Touches came out next. Somehow, he had slipped backstage after disposing of the old scabby-headed man. A giant compared to Bubbles, half again as tall, in a button-up blue shirt and loose khaki pants, he cut an imposing figure. Then came Cakey, leaping across the stage, landing on one foot and sinking into a deep bow. Telly appeared last, all of four feet tall, his makeup consisting of a white face with a black circle around his lips and two small triangles under his eyes. The performers linked hands and bowed as one.
            “The Klown Kroo thanks you, one and all,” Telly said. “Have a wonderful evening, ladies and gentlemen, good night and, until we meet again, goodbye.”
            And with that, they turned and dashed offstage, and the curtain closed behind them. The applause persisted. David clapped until his hands hurt, cheered until his voice broke. Only when some in the back grew bored and began to leave did he remember his place, and he stepped back into the corner and slunk his hands into his pockets. He remained there, huddled in the shadows, as the audience slowly filed out of the tent. Eventually, he was the only one left, gazing at rows of empty benches and scattered bits of trash. The air still felt electric, and he did not want to leave. More than that, he knew—it had come to him early in the show, like a candle flame awaking in a dark room—what he had to do.
            He was still there when the small clown reappeared, stepping through the curtain to survey the empty tent. His gaze wandered the rows until they happened upon David.
            “Hey, you there,” he said, pointing with his walking stick. “Show’s over, kid. It’s been over for half an hour. Go home.”
            David rose and stepped out of the corner. “Can I…?” He swallowed and cleared his throat. “Can I stay?”
            The clown laughed. “Of course you can’t stay,” he said. “We’re taking the whole tent down. Go home. You got your money’s worth.”
            David did not move. This was his chance, his only chance, and, terrified as he was, he would not waste it. If he walked out of the tent now, it was back to the misery and drudgery of life with Vern. But the small clown had an unfriendly look on his face, a cold glint in his eyes, and David withered.
            “Look, do I need to get Karl to come out here and haul you away?” Telly said.
            “I wanna…I wanna…” The word kept sticking in his throat, but David tortured it out. “I want to per-per…perform!” He said the word too loudly and winced. Vern would have smacked him for it.
            “What are you talking about, you rube?” Telly said with a sneer. He turned, pulled back a fold of the curtain and poked his head backstage. “Karl, get out here. Drag this dumb kid outside, would you?”
            From behind the curtain came the gruff reply, “Be right there.”
            “I want to be a clown,” David said. “I can…I can…” He took a step toward the stage, hit the corner of one of the benches with his shin and fell in a heap.
            The small clown laughed himself into a coughing fit. “Yeah, that’s what we need,” he said, doubled over, clutching his belly. “A clown who can’t speak and can’t walk across a room. Get out of here.”
            “No. Wait. Watch,” David said, picking himself up.
            Touches appeared, rolling up his shirt sleeves to reveal the bulging muscles of his forearms. “What’s the problem here, boss?”
            David knew he had only a few seconds to prove himself before Touches—the small clown had called him Karl—dragged him outside and roughed him up. He shook his arms and legs to limber them up.
            “Kid’s wasting my time, Karl,” Telly said. “Get him out.”
            “Sure thing,” Karl said. He grabbed the fingers of one hand in the other and pulled until his knuckles cracked. Then he climbed down off the stage.
            David, trying not to see Karl out of the corner of his eye, did a little hop and took off running down the aisle. He had practiced it so many times, it felt like second nature. A half dozen steps and he leapt into a round-off. His palms hit the dirt, first the left, then the right, twisting his body in mid-air. The round-off led into back handsprings, three complete rotations, before finishing with a solid landing on his feet, kicking up a plume of dust.
            And then Karl’s arms, thick as tree trunks, wrapped around his torso and drew him in.
            “Alright, kid, enough with the tricks,” he said. “We’re the performers here. Let’s go.”
            He crushed David to his chest and hoisted him off the ground. David, though winded, his wrists aching from the handsprings, laughed. Somehow, despite a lifetime of cowering in corners, he had done what he’d set out to do. He felt giddy.
            Karl had him halfway down the aisle when Telly spoke up.
            “Hey, wait a second, Karl,” he said. When Karl kept going, he spoke louder. “I said wait, you big dummy.”
            Karl stopped, grunted unhappily, and turned to the stage. Telly had both hands on his walking stick, leaning forward, eyes narrowed.
            “Kid, where’d you learn to do flips like that?”
            “Taught myself,” David said. The press of Karl’s arms around his torso made speech difficult, and he struggled to take a breath afterward.
            Telly frowned, tapped his walking stick on the stage and nodded. “Alright, put him down.” Karl did not move. “Drop the kid!”
            Karl opened his arms, and David dropped, landing off-balance on his feet and sliding onto his butt. He picked himself up without complaint and dusted off the seat of his pants.
            “It was just a little flip-flop, nothing any of us couldn’t do,” Karl said. “Why waste your time with it? Let me drag him out.”
            Telly tapped the walking stick again then jabbed it at Karl. “I didn’t ask your opinion, did I? Go out back and help Gooty.”
            Karl grunted again, pushed past David, clambered up on stage and disappeared through the curtain. Telly stood a moment in silence, staring at David. He reached into the front pocket of his jacket and pulled out a handkerchief, drawing it across his forehead and wiping away some of the grease paint.
            “Taught yourself, you say?”
            “Yes, sir,” David said. His giddiness wilted into uncertainty, and he dropped his gaze to the dusty ground. “I’ve got this old book on gymnastics, found it in a trunk inside an abandoned house when I was a kid.”
            “You’re still a kid. Show me that trick again.”
            David nodded and turned. His moment of confidence had passed, and he knew his only hope now was to pretend nobody else was in the tent with him. Alone, as he had always been when practicing. He shook his arms and legs again, took a deep breath and attempted another round-off into back handsprings. It was his best move and his most impressive, but it didn’t go quite as well this time. He lost his footing on the final flip and missed his landing, crashing to the ground on his back and kicking his legs up over his head.
            Telly tapped the walking stick and chuckled. “That’s pretty good, kid. What do you call that?”
            David picked himself up again, wincing at what would no doubt be fresh bruises on his backside. “Round-off and back handspring,” he said. “According to the book.”
            “And what do you call that spectacular fall at the end?”
            David attempted a smile, but it crumbled. He felt a flush creeping up his cheeks. “It’s called messing up,” he said.
            “Let me tell you something. The rubes will enjoy the handsprings, but they’ll really love the fall. That’s your real gag right there.”
            “Rubes?”
            “The audience,” Telly said. “The people. We call ‘em rubes.” He sat down on the edge of the stage and laid the walking stick across his lap. “Alright, what do you want?”
            “What do I want?”
            Telly frowned. “Look, kid, you didn’t risk Karl’s wrath just so I could see your little trick there and give you a pat on the head, did you? What do you want?”
            “I want to be a clown,” he said.
            “Fine, no one’s stopping you from being a clown. Go forth with my blessing.”
            “I mean, I want to join your clown troupe and go with you. I can do other things, too.”
            “Can you fall down consistently?”
            David wasn’t sure how to take the question. If Telly hadn’t looked so serious when asking it, David would have thought he was being made fun of. “I don’t usually fall,” he replied. “That was a mistake.”
            “Yeah, but you gotta be willing to fall,” Telly said. “You want the rubes to like you, you gotta fall down sometimes. You gotta get hurt. Can you do that?”
            David hesitated. No, he didn’t like the sound of that. He didn’t want to get hurt. But this was his open door, and he knew he had to take it. “I’ll fall if I have to,” he said. “Sure. Whatever you want.”
            “Not whatever I want,” Telly said. “Whatever the rubes want.”
            “Okay,” David said.
            Telly stared at him a moment longer, eyes narrowed. “How old are you, kid?”
            “Seventeen.”
            “Seventeen,” Telly echoed, drumming his fingers on the walking stick. “Alright, tell you what. You go home, pack up some clothes and meet me at our camp before sunrise. How’s that sound?”
            David had to fight an urge to shout. Escape! Glorious escape! He wrung his hands to keep them from trembling. “It sounds good, sir. It sounds really good.”
            “Nobody at home gonna want to stop you from leaving?”
            David shook his head. It wasn’t the truth, of course, but what did it matter? He would sneak in and sneak out, and the old lady and Vern would scarcely know he’d been there.
            “Go on, then,” Telly said, waving him away. “You just got yourself hired.”
            David gave a little whoop, spun on his heel and ran out of the tent. He was so excited, and so caught up in the moment, that he almost ran right into the big metal sign. It stood just outside the tent flap, twice his height and three times as wide, comprised of many old street signs bolted together. The Klown Kroo, it read, in bright yellow letters that towered over him, and beneath it, in dark red, The One and Only. David did a little dance to avoid smacking his face on a sharp edge of the sign and in the process almost stepped on the body sprawled nearby. It was the old man with the scabby head, laid out on his back, half-lidded eyes staring at the night sky. David thought he was dead until he saw the old man’s chest rise and fall. Still alive, if barely. David hopped over him and headed back into town.
            Hickory Road followed a winding course from the edge of the clearing through a stand of trees and into the small, decaying town of Mountainburg. Gas lamps atop bronze poles lit the way. A few stragglers meandered here and there or crouched in the bushes, sipping whatever drink was on hand, but for the most part, David was alone all the way back to town. He didn’t mind. He hated gaslight, he hated drunks, and he hated empty places, but he felt no worries tonight. He scarcely felt the ground beneath his feet.
            Mountainburg was comprised of three dozen ramshackle buildings in a vale beneath a high limestone wall. The bluish glow of gaslight hovered over the town like incandescent fog. Some had gathered on the broad porch of the general store, still energized by the show, and chatted away, laughing, drinking and smoking. It would go on long into the night, David knew, and probably end in arguing, vomiting, fighting. It didn’t take much to get this sad lot going. He avoided the crowd by moving around behind the houses and slinking through yards. There were people in some of the yards, but they paid no attention to him.
            His own home—if one could call it a home—was a two-story shack of aluminum sheets and scrap lumber tucked behind a fence on the edge of town. He smelled it before he saw it, the rotten stink of the garbage that filled the trench in the backyard, a cloud of odor wafting through the surrounding area like a warning to potential trespassers. Neighbors had complained more times than David could recall about the smell, but nobody was willing to take action. Nobody wanted to cross mean old Vern. Light burned in a single window, not the harsh glare of gaslight but the flicker of candles. Ma was awake.
            David crept around the garbage trench and up to the back door. Yes, he did imagine, in his euphoric state, that he could somehow open the door, a rusty aluminum sheet hanging on crooked hinges, without making noise. Instead, it made possibly the loudest sound in the world the moment he pulled the handle.
            “Davey?” came the voice from the living room, a nasally voice with an edge as sharp as a blade. “Davey, is that you?”
            David sighed and opened the door the rest of the way.
            “It’s me,” he said.
            “Took you long enough to get home,” Ma said. “Get up to bed. You got work tomorrow, helping Vern unclog the drain pipe.”
            David stepped through the door and pulled it shut behind him. He was in the kitchen, or what passed for a kitchen. Two plastic chairs, a broken table lying at an angle in the corner, a gas stove that didn’t work and an icebox with no ice and no door. Mice scattered out of his way as he crossed the room.
            “You hear me?” Ma said. Her chair squeaked, as if she meant to get up and come after him. He knew she would do no such thing. Ma had melted into a great big blob in that old chair. She did not get up for much these days.
            “I heard you,” David said. “I’m going right up to bed. I swear.”
            “Good.”
            David peeked into the living room. Ma, in her old gray house dress, had a drink in one hand, the stub of a cigar in the other. She looked at him over her shoulder, two narrow eyes set beneath a high forehead as pale and pasty as bread dough.
            “Was it worth it?” she said.
            David didn’t know what she meant, so he just stared.
            “The clown show, Davey. Was it worth it? It took up the whole evening and cost you two months’ earnings. Was it worth it just to see some jackasses prance around on a stage?” She did not wait for his answer but took a long sip of the amber-colored liquid in her glass and turned away.
            “Good night, Ma,” he said, after a moment.
            “Get to bed,” she replied, waving the unlit cigar at him. “And keep quiet. Vern’s already asleep. You wake him up, you’ll regret it.”
            “I know.”
            He made his way up the narrow staircase. Each step shrieked in protest, no matter how gently he tried to walk. His was the only room upstairs. Ma and Vern slept in the downstairs bedroom on a real bed with a brass frame. David had a bare mattress in a corner beneath an open window. He didn’t complain. It was more than some people had. He sat on the edge of the mattress and considered his predicament. Rounding up some clothes and personal effects was not the problem. Getting out of the house was the problem. Still, if it came down to it, he supposed he could just make a run for it.
            He had a big wooden crate that served as a dresser. He picked up his pillow, a burlap sack stuffed with rags, and tore the stitching out of one end. He dumped the guts onto the floor, tattered bits of old shirts and socks, rags and blankets, and swept them into the corner. Then he crammed some clothes from the crate into the sack, an extra pair of shoes and his most cherished possession—Introduction to Gymnastics, the title faded to gray on the tattered cover. Vern had gotten rid of all of his other books, selling a few and using the others to kindle fires. With the sack mostly full, he twisted the end shut and flung it over his shoulder.
            Out the window or down the stairs? That was the big question. Down the stairs was treacherous because of the noise. Out the window was a ten foot drop onto hard-packed dirt. Ma would hear him either way, he fully expected that, but the window gave him a greater head start, if he could avoid twisting an ankle or breaking a leg in the fall.
            He rose and turned to the window, brushing back the plastic curtain with his free hand. The view beyond was of the lifeless yard and the crumbling fence that outlined the property. David sat on the windowsill, dangled his feet over the side, and braced himself for the drop. In the distance, he heard the cackle of drunks, the barking of dogs, and it occurred to him that this might be his last night to hear any of it. The smell of garbage from the trench, the whistle of wind through cracks in the wall, the scampering of mice, the grinding snores of Vern, all of it gone from his life forever. It was almost too wonderful to believe.
            He jumped. His plan was to tuck and roll as soon as he hit, hop to his feet and take off running. Perhaps Ma and Vern wouldn’t find him missing until sunrise, and, by then, he would be long gone. But he landed on his heels, and the weight of the sack over his shoulder tipped him backward. He slammed into the side of the house with a crash that shook the whole building to its foundation. As he picked himself up, he lost his grip on the burlap sack. It fell, flopped open and gushed clothes into the dirt.
            “Vern! Vern, what was that?” Ma shouted, her voice warbling with terror. No doubt she assumed crazy drunks had attacked the house. “Vern! Get up and go see!”
            Cursing under his breath, David stuffed clothes back into the sack, twisted the end shut again and slung it back over his shoulder. Vern, rising from the depths of his bedroom, unleashed a string of profanities that put David’s cursing to shame.
            “Go and see,” Ma shouted again. “Go and see!”
            David dashed across the yard, dodging debris, most of it trash blown out of the trench. He tossed the sack over the fence and proceeded to climb. Behind him, the back door flew open with a shriek. David grabbed the top of the fence and pulled himself up.
            “What’s goin’ on out there?” Vern’s voice was like a nail raked over glass, a high-pitched howl quite in contrast to the bloated mass of flesh that was the rest of him. “Who is that?”
            David did not bother looking back. He dragged his legs over the fence and dropped down on the other side, landing on his hands and knees and smashing the burlap sack. Again, his clothes burst out onto the dirt.
            “Ma, I seen him,” Vern called. “It’s Davey! I seen him jump the fence!”
            “Go after him,” came the distant response. “Drag him back here, black and blue!”
            David clawed frantically at the clothes, cramming them into the sack, but they had scattered far and wide, and it was hard to see them all in the darkness. Finally, he gave up, grabbed the sack between his arms and took off running. The space beyond the fence was a hilly patch of high grass that caught at his pant legs as he ran. He heard Vern start after him, bare feet slapping the ground, and then a great crash as he slammed into the fence. The fence was made of scrap lumber held together with scavenged nails and bits of wire. It shattered like dry twigs under the force of Vern’s considerable weight.
            “Run from me, will you?” Vern said, out of breath. “Run from me?”
            David dared a glance over his shoulder and saw Vern closing the gap, moving with surprising speed for one so enormous and unhealthy.
            “You gonna scare your mama like that, Davey?” Vern said. “I’ll give you a beating you won’t never forget.”
            When David turned back around, he saw the shadow of the neighbor’s fence looming up in front of him. He tried to stop, but one foot came down wrong, and he fell. He managed to turn the fall into a somersault, but this brought him right up against the fence. He caught himself, sprang to his feet and turned. Vern was like a vast wall of darkness bearing down on him.
            “Vern, wait,” David said. “Vern, I got a job.”
            “A job?” Vern snarled. “Your job is helping me take care of your mama.”
            “A paying job!”
            “I’m gonna…knock you…through that fence,” Vern said, through gasps for breath.
            He took a swing at David, his fat fist moving up and over his head in a great arc, blotting out the stars. David dropped into a crouch and flung himself out of the way, and Vern’s fist smashed into the fence. He cursed so loud, it echoed in the distance. Dogs ceased barking, and some of the drunks in town got quiet. David turned toward the line of trees at the edge of town, a maze of shadows and looming trunks. He saw his best hope of escape in that direction and took off running.
            “Davey, I swear to God…you make me chase you into them trees…you’ll never leave the house again.”
            David heard Vern take another couple of steps, but apparently he’d expended whatever little reserve of energy he had. He gave a last heaving gasp for air and collapsed.
            “You gotta come home eventually,” Vern shouted. “And when you do…” He paused to take another gulp of air. “When you do…it’s gonna be worse for you, you brat. The beating of your life! You hear me? The beating…of your life!”
            David passed into the shadows, low-lying branches whipping at his hair, scratching his cheeks, clawing at his clothes. The forest seemed to close in behind him, like a curtain at the end of an act, and Vern disappeared, the house disappeared, David’s whole life disappeared. He moved farther into the darkness, his hands thrust out in front of him, the half-empty burlap sack flopping about. He didn’t know if Vern would get a second wind or not—he hadn’t really expected Vern to get a first wind—but he wouldn’t risk it. There was no going home now. Vern would never forget. David knew that all too well. When the old man threatened a beating, he always came through. David ran until his lungs burned and finally stumbled to a stop. Bent over, his hands pressed to his thighs, he struggled to catch his breath.
            He stood in the shadows for a long time and felt, if only fleetingly, a sick sense of regret. The thought of escaping had seemed wonderful, but now the realization hit him—he had no home. No home, no family, only the promise of a job with people he did not know. Madness. It was absolute madness. He couldn’t even remember now why he’d done it. Seeing people performing on stage, hearing the cheers and applause, somehow it had all gotten to him.
            One fateful decision and everything was different. David rose, hoisted the sack onto his shoulder and trudged back across town. He had made his choice, madness or not, and there was no going back.

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