There's a moment in every boy's life when he realizes there are no monsters hiding under his bed, only to discover there may be one or two lurking just a block away. By the time I was old enough to watch my first Michael Myers movie, Halloween III, I already knew firsthand that infamous Haddonfield, Illinois, was not the only place where nightmares come true for ordinary kids!
Things began to unravel for my friends and me in December 1982, when I was eleven years old. The Cards had whipped the Brewers in seven games in the Suds Series that fall, and the NFL strike finally ended. Michael Jackson released his Thriller album with Billie Jean climbing America's Top 40. Christmas was just weeks away, but time always moved at a snail's pace in December.
Our small Tennessee town, Columbia, still had enough wide-open spaces so that free-range boys could launch great adventures, and my two best buddies and I made the most of every day. Juju- short for Michael, Jr.- was my cousin, just a month younger, who lived a couple of blocks away over on Stewart Drive. Beamer, Sean Beaman to his folks, had the coolest bike in the neighborhood and lived next door. The guys called me Sifi, a nickname that had stuck with me since I was a baby. Nobody but my parents and schoolteachers ever used Silas, my given name. Juju, Beamer, and I shared the same sixth-grade class at Midtown Middle School and imagined ourselves as the Wild Bunch on bikes.
It was a crisp, wintry eve when we met up at the Christmas Dance sponsored by our school. The gym was decorated with paper chains of red and green construction paper, a flocked Christmas tree bathed in colored lights, and a table laden with goodies and Hawaiian Punch. It was early, so the younger kids were still segregated in camps- girls caught up in giggly, whispered chats behind their hands and boys concealing our discomfort beneath a cool veneer. Without warning, the DJ began to spin Thriller. "It's after midnight, and something evil's lurking in the dark…" The pulsing rhythm sent nearly all the older kids scurrying out onto the dance floor. The three of us stood there feeling kind of dopey.
"I wanna dance," Beamer muttered, glancing across the room. "Who should I ask?"
I nodded toward Meg Whittle. "She's been looking at you ever since we got here. Ask her!"
"Really?" Beamer was jazzed. "You saw her looking at me?"
After a while, he took a deep breath and crossed the dark floor, where he was met by a welcoming smile from Meg. Soon they were grooving together with style. Juju was chattering about extra-terrestrials when two girls from our class, Jenny and Hope, came over to stand with us. After a few awkward minutes that felt like a week, they said we should join them for a dance. The DJ made a perfect segue to Hall and Oates, Maneater, and suddenly I was Tony in Saturday Night Fever!
A few dances later, while Jenny and Hope made a restroom stop, I noticed a kid from my neighborhood standing alone in the shadows. Jeffrey Smoltz was a quiet boy my age who lived a few doors down on Shenandoah Drive. Small for his size, he had slicked-back black hair and always appeared slightly pale, but tonight he looked totally miserable. I walked over just to be nice and offer some encouragement.
"How's it going, Jeffrey?"
He looked away. "I hate dances. I wish I could go home."
"Man, why are you here?" I inquired.
"My stepdad is on a bender. He came home from work hammered and started hollering at everybody and throwing furniture around. My mom locked herself in the bedroom, so I came over here before he got around to me."
"That's crazy! What are you going to do?"
Jeffrey explained this had happened before. His stepdad was usually angry and frequently drunk. In a couple of hours, the creep would topple into an old recliner and fall asleep. That would clear the way for a kid to return home and a beat a hasty retreat to his own room. I asked if he'd like to come home with me and spend the night at our house, but he was sure his mom would be too embarrassed to allow that. I think he had a tear in his eye, but it was dark, and he said everything would be fine.
The speakers amped up with a familiar drumbeat, and Eye of the Tiger began to rock the room. I returned to Jenny on the dance floor, hoping for at least one more dance before the DJ began playing slow songs. Caught up in the moment, I inadvertently noticed the corner where Jeffrey had been standing. Shadows, nothing more. I glanced around the room but realized he had already slipped away.
When I got up on Sunday morning, my dad had already left for our church, where he was the pastor. My mom was a news junkie, and a big, fat newspaper was already unrolled and lying on the table as I sat down with some orange juice and a bowl of Captain Crunch. Some guy named Barney Clark was still alive after receiving the world's first artificial heart. A boy was missing in East Tennessee, apparently a kidnapping victim. I quickly lifted the comics section, looking for Charlie Brown's familiar face. Mom rushed into the kitchen, rattling her car keys, ordering me to stop reading and gulp down my breakfast. We were late for worship.
I understood my father's sermon more than usual that day. It was about the good Samaritan and the importance of being a real neighbor at Christmas. He said it's easy to smile and nod at people without really paying attention but being a neighbor means stepping up when someone needs help. It was still on my mind later when we sat down to lunch.
"Dad, how can you be a good neighbor when somebody's problem is private, and he's embarrassed about it?"
Dad studied my face for a moment. "I think most problems can be a little embarrassing, Son. Is one of your friends in trouble?"
"You know the Smoltzes?"
"Of course. Mrs. Smoltz and her son attend our church."
"Jeffrey is afraid of his stepdad. He was at the dance Friday night because Mr. Smoltz came home drunk and crazy."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Dad responded, removing his glasses and brushing his hair aside with his fingers. He didn't say anything for a bit. "Silas, this is one of those problems that adults have to sort out. Why don't you keep Jeffrey in your prayers for a while and let me think about this?"
My mom glanced at him. "I noticed Jeffrey's mother in the vestibule this morning because she looked like she wanted to cry. She was limping a bit and said she twisted her ankle working in the yard."
Giving her a strange look, my dad changed the subject, then finished lunch in silence. Mom collected the dishes, wondering aloud if I'd be playing with friends during the afternoon. She warned we should stick close to home and watch out for strangers. Lenoir City was only three hours away, and a little boy there had been kidnapped and missing for a week. She returned from the kitchen with slices of jam cake fresh from the oven, but we ate it without anyone saying much.
Wednesday after school, we met at Beamer's house for Space Invaders on his Atari 2600. After I outscored my cousin and Beamer clobbered us both, Juju and I headed home for dinner. I was eating at his house so my parents could get to the midweek prayer service early. Pedaling by Jeffrey's house, I spotted him sitting glumly in a swing on the front porch.
"Hey Jeffrey, come out and ride with us!" I shouted.
"Can't. Bike's broken."
"We can walk. We're only going a couple of blocks to Juju's house."
He rose from the swing and came shuffling out to the sidewalk. Juju and I dismounted to walk alongside our bicycles.
"What have you guys been up to?" he asked without much enthusiasm.
Juju grinned and punched my shoulder. "Atari! I let Sifi beat me. Have you been doing homework?"
Jeffrey shook his head. "I wish! It's too noisy at my house. My folks have lost it again! She hides in the bathroom screaming! He goes through the house, cussing and breaking things. Tonight, he punched a hole in the kitchen wall with his fist and broke a mirror with his face!"
Juju stopped walking and turned in horror. "What happened?" I finally asked.
"My stepdad cut his head, but mom was able to stop the bleeding…, unfortunately, !"
"You should come to Juju's house with us," I offered.
Juju tried to help. "Tell your folks we're working on a project together."
Jeffrey managed an ironic laugh. "Not a good time to ask. They started crying and made up. They shut the bedroom door to talk things over." He made air quotes with his fingers.
When we reached Juju's house, Jeffrey turned to walk home, but my tender-hearted cousin couldn't let it go. "Hey Jeffrey, my parents are having a Christmas party Friday night. Sifi and Beamer will be there, and I think a couple of fifth-grade girls whose folks are friends of ours. So come hang out with us. I think it's seven o'clock."
"Alright." Jeff paused and thought about it. "Thanks!"
He walked away as we headed for the garage entrance. I should have been excited to skip church and eat dinner with my favorite relatives. My uncle was going to grill hamburgers, my aunt was famous for her banana pudding, plus there were only two days of school left before the holidays, but all I could think about was a crazy man punching holes in the wall and slamming his face into a mirror. What kind of people act like that? I took another look at Jeffrey. Halfway down the block, he still looked like the loneliest kid on the planet.
When I got to Juju's house Friday night, adults were already streaming inside, cheered by the velvet melodies of An Andy Williams Christmas. Aunt Penny was decked out in a Santa hat, cheerfully serving sausage balls and cubes of pink cheese on toothpicks. She gave me a wink and a couple of sausage balls, then sent me scurrying downstairs with all the kids in the basement. I joined Juju on an old plaid sofa for the Dukes of Hazzard, our favorite TV show. Melissa and Bonnie, the fifth-grade girls, agreed to tolerate our addiction in exchange for the Friday Night Movie at 8:00. We had said goodnight to the Duke boys and were kicking a Hacky Sack around the room when Jeffrey arrived.
He offered a hopeful smile and slumped into a beanbag chair near the stairs. There was a discoloration on the underside of his face. When he looked away, his left ear was red, almost purple.
"You made it!" We welcomed him. "You okay?"
We quickly huddled on the floor at his feet. Juju asked what we could do to help.
Jeffrey said there was nothing anybody could do. Then, after a deep breath, he gave us a blow by blow of his evening. His stepdad had come home surly and staggering, complaining the house was a wreck and dinner wasn't ready. When Mrs. Smoltz attempted to shove him away in the kitchen, he slapped her so hard she fell. Jeffrey rushed in to help his mom, but the bully picked him up by the throat, hurling him across the room. Then he pulled a handgun out of his jacket and began muttering threats. Things were going to change around there or else! Before long, he stormed out the front door and drove away in his pickup truck.
I nearly choked. "You should have called the police!"
"I wanted to, but my mom wouldn't let me. She said they'll just lock him up overnight and then send him home with a warning. That would make him angrier than ever!"
I had another idea. "Hey, my dad is really good at keeping secrets. What if he promised not to tell anyone without your permission? Would you come over and talk to him tomorrow?"
Jeffrey hung his head. "My mom will kill me if she finds out."
"She doesn't have to know, I promise."
Juju chimed in, "His dad won't rat you out. Sifi and I get in trouble at his house all the time, and his dad never tells my parents!"
Jeffrey promised to think about it overnight, and he would come over the next day either way. Dad was usually home on Saturday mornings, so Jeff could easily have the conversation if he decided to go through with it. We had a deal, so we all shook hands.
The kissy-face movie had another hour left, but it was too dark to do anything outdoors, so Juju opened his closet and found his Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. It was only a two-player game, so I let Jeffrey go first. Juju had more experience with it and could usually beat me, but Jeffrey really got into the game. His Blue Bomber brutally pummeled Juju's Red Rocker until the red guy's head popped up in defeat.
"Yessss!" the little guy laughed, swinging his fist in the air. "If only that was my stupid stepdad!"
Jeffrey didn't show up the next morning. I wondered if something bad might have happened overnight. Juju and Beamer figured he just backed out because of his mother. A rented Star Wars video was still lying beside the TV, waiting to be returned, so we stayed indoors to watch it while we were waiting. Skywalker and Solo got their medals, Wookie growled, and the end credits began to roll. After a few wrestling matches and fart jokes, we decided it was a great day for a homerun derby. The three of us went pedaling down the street for one of our favorite rituals.
Three adjoining vacant lots on Stewart Drive, not even a block from Juju's place, had become the perfect arena for our epic batting competitions. I took my first ten pitches from Beamer, managing a couple of decent hits but nothing worthy of the occasion. I muttered something surly and unpleasant and headed for the outfield as Beamer came to the plate.
"You whiffed it, Sifi!" he taunted. "Allow me to show you how it's done. Just call me Wade Boggs! Put it here, Juju Baby! Right here!"
His third hit sailed over my head, landing well behind me. Running back to retrieve the ball, I noticed a kid watching us from behind the fence next door. I waved, but he didn't respond. The next hit fouled left and went bouncing down the street with me chasing it frantically before it could get lost in somebody's shrubbery. Beamer finished with a few more hits but nothing remarkable. It was in our fourth round that he crushed it and broke all our records!
Juju mustered a solid pitch, fast and right through the heart of the strike zone. Squaring his shoulders like a pro, Beamer watched the ball approaching and played it late. There was this legendary crack of the bat, and the ball lifted off! It was already well over my head when a gust of wind caught it, lofting it even higher. Beamer was whirling the bat wildly and dancing around the plate as we watched the baseball soar beyond our derby park and land over the fence next door.
"Is that a grand slam or what?" Beamer hollered.
"It was just the wind!" Juju snapped. "You're so lucky!"
The boy I'd seen earlier was playing a black Walkman with headphones. He picked up the baseball but didn't throw it back. Instead, he brought it over to the fence and waited.
"Thanks," I said as he offered me the ball. "I'm Sifi."
"Sifi?" the kid asked, lifting the headphones away. "Like science fiction?"
I laughed. "No, my real name is Silas, but everybody calls me Sifi."
He grinned. "I'm Joe. I'm visiting my grandparents for the holidays."
"So, where do you live?"
"California," he said with his lip trembling. He removed his glasses for a moment and rubbed his eyes with the knuckle of his index finger.
"Aren't your grandparents fun?"
"They're nice. I just miss my mom and dad, even my little brother. Mom cooks the best food at Christmas, like pecan pie and red velvet cake. Dad makes hot chocolate and puts Cool Whip on top."
I thought instantly of Jeffrey and all the bedlam at his house. People like Joe and me were lucky to have two great parents. Poor Jeffrey didn't even have one.
"Your grandma will probably cook anything you like for Christmas!" I noticed his Walkman wasn't blue like others I'd seen. "Is that a Sony?"
"Nope." Jeffrey smiled and looked at the little black player in his hand. "I have a real Walkman back home. This is an RCA my grandfather bought me. The Sony is a lot better."
When Juju and Beamer trekked over to the fence, I introduced them to Joe and told them where he lived. Beamer was impressed!
"That's so cool! What's it like living in California?"
Joe rolled his shoulders. "You can call me Jonathan if you want to. California is okay. You know, movie stars and surfers. I just go to school."
Hey Jonathan, wanna join our homerun derby?" Juju asked.
"Can't today, but you guys are good." Joe looked at Beamer. "Man, you're killing it!"
Something snapped! An image instantly crystallized inside my head. Killing it! I had this vision of Jeffrey's robot crushing Juju's last night. "Too bad it wasn't my stepdad!" His stepfather had pulled a gun. Jeffrey said his mother would kill him if he talked to anyone. He was afraid his stepfather would track them down and try to hurt them. What if both his parents were mad at him today? That might be why he hadn't shown up at my house. He would have come over unless something terrible had happened. I ripped off my fielder's glove and jogged over to my bike.
"We've gotta check on Jeffrey!" I called out to Juju and Beamer. "Something's wrong!"
Less than five minutes later, we rounded the corner onto Ferguson Street and saw the Smoltz place coming up on the left. Their black Dodge pickup truck stood in the drive. The blinds were closed, and there was no sign of life. I raced onto the porch and knocked on the screen door. Nothing. I knocked again, a little harder this time, rattling the door. I could hear something or someone moving about inside. I waited a while and knocked again. More noise… Slowly, the front door swung open, and the stepdad glared at us through the screen. Even with the shadows inside, you could see something was wrong with his eyes. He was wearing a soiled white undershirt, a wife-beater, and clearly needed the support of the doorframe to remain upright.
"What?" he snarled.
"Can Jeffrey come out and hit some balls with us?"
"He ain't here! Scram!"
I was not about to give up this easily. I tried peering around him, but it was too dark in the house. "Well, can he hang out with us later this afternoon?"
"Look, kid! I told you he's not home! Now get the hell off my porch!"
Smoltz was so unsteady that he wobbled, shifting his weight to the edge of the door and inadvertently opening it a bit wider. I could see something dark red splattered across his undershirt. It looked like ketchup. Or blood?
Adrenalin raced through my arteries! For a moment, I was ten feet tall. "Is Jeffrey okay? When will he be back?"
The stepdad rose to stand as straight as possible. Above his head, you could see three of his fingers gripping the edge of the door. The black tip of a gun barrel jutted from behind.
"None of your business, kid!" he barked. "I don't know when he'll be back. He and his mom went to Lewisburg. For the last time, beat it, and don't come back!"
He slammed the door so hard that the windows rattled. Back on the sidewalk, Juju and Beamer were frozen in place, still standing astride their bikes. Their eyes were like saucers! It seemed like a good idea to get out of there pronto.
The last Sunday before Christmas, there were always desserts in the gym after church. Back at home, we had a light lunch, and I joined my dad in the den to watch the Dolphins play the Jets. Unbelievably, the Jets scored the first touchdown but missed the extra point! The Dolphins went on to win the game by one point!
I finally had the courage to tell Dad about my visit with Mr. Smoltz, so I asked him if we could talk. He switched off the television and walked over to join me on our rust-colored sofa. Instantly, everything that had happened the night before spilled out in one panicky, breathless narrative that climaxed with a gun! I waited nervously for my father to either call the police or lay down the law. He did neither.
"Maybe we should cool our jets, Silas," he said kindly. "Your concerns are justified, but this is not an Alfred Hitchcock movie. There might be a crime here, or perhaps there's another explanation. Let's not rush to judgment."
I was incredulous. "Why would Jeff and his Mom suddenly decide to go away?"
"It's Christmas time, li'l man. Lots of people visit relatives at this time of year."
"But Dad, there was blood on his shirt!"
"Maybe it was blood. Or maybe it was barbeque sauce." Dad replied evenly. "Are you sure what it was?"
"Why was he holding a gun behind the door?" I was frantic.
"Did he threaten you with the pistol, Son? Or was he was trying to keep it out of sight?"
I could feel my sense of injustice rising. "Dad, something's wrong over there! What if something really bad has happened?"
"I promised you I'd look into it, Silas, so I spoke to my friend Lanny on the police force. Look, it was probably cheap wine you saw spilled on Tom's shirt. This is not the first time he's come home loaded and looking for a fight. Cruisers are dispatched over there at least a couple of times every year. Sometimes she calls. Sometimes the neighbors report them. Even when they haul Tom in and lock him up, Miriam won't press charges, so he goes right back home for more. Jeffrey's parents repeat this vicious cycle year after year."
"Can't we do anything to help?"
"We can't force grownups to do the right thing, Son. Faith can move mountains, but you must want that mountain removed. Here's the deal: I'll pay more attention and look for an opening to intervene or offer help. But you and your pals- you stay far away from the Smoltz house. Deal? If somebody does get hurt, I don't want it to be you!"
On Monday, Mom took Juju and me to the mall with her and gave us extra money to blow in the food court and the arcade, so we played Donkey Kong for nearly an hour. After supper, we met up at Beamer's house for a night of Space Invaders. We looked at Beamer's baseball cards and talked about our Christmas lists when my mind drifted back to Jeffrey's predicament.
"Do you really think Jeffrey and his Mom are at a relative's house?" I asked.
"What if his stepdad has locked them up in the basement?" Juju asked.
"You saw his pistol!" Beamer jumped into the fray. "What if he killed 'em?"
"Don't say that!" I tried to cut him off, but he would have none of it.
"Was the gun barrel still smoking? Did it have a silencer? I'm telling ya, they could be dead, and nobody would know!"
We decided to man a stakeout. Naturally, we'd need to do it covertly lest Beamer's parents get suspicious and tell us to mind our own business. We picked up a basketball and strolled casually through the house, lifting a high-beam flashlight from a closet as we passed, then bounding out the back door to the basketball goal. We dropped the ball under a bush and ran around to our bikes at the front.
It was a starless night. The new moon huddled nervously behind an advancing army of dark clouds. The air was cold enough that we could see our breath as we rolled out. When we turned left on Ferguson, we could instantly see that Mr. Smoltz's black pickup truck was not in the driveway. That was good. Two minutes later, we glided silently into the drive. I braked and stepped off my bike, walking it over onto the grass just beyond the reach of the streetlight. Juju and Beamer followed suit and were soon huddled around me in the shadows.
The house was shut up as tight as a fortress. The blinds were drawn, and the whole place was entombed in a suffocating silence. You could hear crickets chirping and frogs croaking from some dense overgrowth on the sides.
"Bring the flashlight," I muttered to Beamer. "Follow me, and everybody zip it!" I brushed my finger along my lips to make the point, and we began to move.
The front door was locked, so we crept over to the garage door. It was one of those old models with a narrow row of windows across the top. None of us could reach the glass, so Beamer hurriedly fetched a red plastic chair from the front porch. Shining the Rayovac through the clouded glass, I could make out Jeffrey's bike, the chain still in need of repair, and a workbench littered with tools.
"Headlights!" Juju whispered sharply, so we scurried around behind some overgrown bushes. A car drove slowly by, then we returned to our work.
I used the edge of my t-shirt to wipe away some of the smudges. As my eyes readjusted to the light and shadows, I looked again at that workbench. There was a hand saw, a couple of hammers, some pliers…and a long, camo-colored bag with one end jutting off the edge. It was a rifle bag! It stuck straight out past the edge of the bench, so there was obviously a gun inside!
"He's got a rifle in there!" I gulped.
"Lemme see!" Beamer jerked the flashlight from my hand, took my place in the chair, and gazed into the dark garage. He whistled softly before handing the light to Juju.
My cousin looked intently into the dark space for a minute or two. Then he lowered the Rayovac and turned to us. The beam pointed upward, drawing dark shadows beneath his nose and eyes.
"Oh man!" he said grimly. "Take another look."
Once again, I stepped up into the chair, shone the light through the glass, and studied the part of the workbench that wasn't blocked by the tan Ford Fairlane. "What did you see?" I snapped.
Juju seemed to be gazing into space. "Her car. Her car is still here. How did Jeffrey and his mother drive fifty miles to Lewisburg if her car is still here?"
My friends and I were trapped on the horns of a dilemma. We were alarmed about the mysteries at the Smoltz house, but my dad had ordered us to stay away from there. In fact, all our parents would ground us for a month if they found we were sneaking around a stranger's house at night. Why do adults make it so hard for kids to do the right thing?
Wednesday night, my parents left me alone at home while they went over to decorate the sanctuary for the Christmas Eve candlelight service. They warned me sternly to keep out of the attic and refrain from searching for Santa's stash of presents. However, they didn't tell me to stay inside. Beamer was grounded for fighting with his sister, and Juju's family was out to dinner with relatives, so I was alone when I grabbed a small green penlight from dad's desk, mounted my bike, and returned to the crime scene.
The black pickup truck was again in the driveway. The garage door had been raised, but the light was off. Somewhere inside, a radio or tape was playing country music, maybe George Jones. I laid my bike down on the edge of the yard next door and crept over to the open garage. There was a shovel waiting there at the entrance, leaning on the doorway. Keeping the Fairlane between me and the garage entrance to the house, I moved furtively to the workbench and switched on the penlight. The rifle was missing. Nothing else seemed out of the ordinary. As I made my way out, sneaking alongside the car, a sudden noise in the house startled me. I turned to look behind me, stumbling over that shovel at the entrance. It clanged against the concrete floor! I darted past it, crouching in the shadow of the pickup truck outside. I was still trying to catch my breath when the door inside the garage squealed open.
"Who's there?" I couldn't see Mr. Smoltz, but he was clearly irritated.
He flipped a switch, and the front yard was bathed in light. I could hear him walking around his wife's car. Still in the shadow, I crawled toward the rear of the pickup and hunkered down, holding onto the open tailgate to steady myself. My hand brushed against something wet and sticky, so I wiped it off on my jeans. The bed of the truck reeked. I was fairly sure I could identify that smell, but I had larger concerns. Smoltz was moving around beyond my line of sight, so I lifted my head for a better look. That's when my eyes glimpsed the light falling on the wet stuff spilled in the truck bed. It was blood! I gasped and tumbled backwards.
A second later, a dark figure was towering over me. With the light glaring behind him, I couldn't make out Smoltz's face, but I could see the rifle in his hands. I closed my eyes and braced for the gun blast.
"Looking for something?" came the faceless voice.
"That's… that's blood in your truck!" I could barely speak. My knees were trembling.
"Who are you burying? Where is Jeffrey?"
I heard him exhale, a long sigh of resignation. "Get up, kid. Get up and come with me."
"Where are we going?" I managed to say as I rose.
I knew what this meant. My stomach was knotted. "Are you going to kill me, too?"
"What's your name, kid?" he asked.
"You don't need to be afraid, Silas. I'm not going to hurt you. Walk with me."
With the gun at his side, he led me around back. There was an old charcoal grill and a couple of faded plastic chairs scattered around. I could scarcely breathe as I walked towards the trees at the back of the yard. Then I saw it. From one of those trees, a body was suspended on a rope, dripping blood. It was the carcass of a deer, a small buck, slit open at the belly.
"You have to bury the parts you can't eat."
"Oh!" My racing brain was beginning to slow down. "That's deer blood in your truck?"
"Uh huh." I could finally see Mr. Smoltz's face. He wasn't angry. "What did you think it was?"
"I thought you'd murdered your family."
"No, my in-laws came over on Saturday and took them to Lewisburg. I'm going over to bring them home tomorrow."
It felt like my face was on fire. "I must look pretty goofy," I confessed. "I'm sorry, sir."
"Don't apologize, Silas. You weren't that far off. I have been killing them- very slowly and for a few years. Jeffrey is afraid of his own stepdad. When you and your friends came looking for him on Saturday, I was about to blow my head off- had the gun barrel in my mouth. After I threatened your life just for caring about the kid, I came to my senses. I really wanted to live- just not like that! So, I cleaned up the house for them yesterday and went to an A.A. meeting last night. This is my second day of so…. … sober… sobriety."
I felt so happy and so stupid at the same time. We looked at the buck he was field dressing, and he told me how much his wife enjoyed venison. Deer season had ended more than a week earlier, so he asked me to keep his secret. I agreed, and he walked me back to my bike.
"I hope you have a merry Christmas, Mr. Smoltz."
"A while back, I found Jeffrey moping around his room," he replied. "He told me he didn't have any friends here in the neighborhood, not even one. It looks to me like he was wrong, Silas."
When my mom and dad got home about an hour later, I ushered them to the kitchen table. I couldn't wait to tell them the news, even the part about snooping around Jeffrey's house with Juju and Beamer. It was a crazy story, and they listened wide-eyed to all my misadventures. Mom clutched her chest when I got to the part about Mr. Smoltz coming outside with a rifle. She teared up- so did Dad- when they heard what he told me in the backyard.
"It was a brave thing you did, Silas," Dad told me. "It was reckless but brave."
Mom gave him one of those looks, "Honey, he could have been killed! I'm glad this turned out well, and I hope Mr. Smoltz has changed, but this could have ended very differently."
"I'm sorry, Mom," I offered, not very convincingly, I suppose.
"Silas, you are growing up in a very dangerous world. Things aren't like they used to be. You don't have to go looking for trouble. Sometimes it comes looking for you."
Dad attempted to rescue me. "Marcella, let's not rob Silas of this moment. Something really special…"
He stopped talking when Mom began to cry. She reached across the table and picked up the Sunday morning newspaper. "I'm sorry, but this is all so terrifying! I keep thinking about this little Matthews boy from Lenoir City. He's been missing for two weeks, and there's no doubt he's been taken by a stranger! Look at that innocent face and tell me not to worry about Silas and his friends!"
She pushed the newspaper toward my father and me, pointing to a picture on the front page. It was a boy with blonde hair and a few light freckles on his cheeks. He must have been ten years old and was wearing glasses. He looked like….
"I know this kid! I talked to him Saturday."
Mom was annoyed. "Silas, this is not funny! Are you even hearing me?"
Dad reached over and placed his hand on her wrist. "Son, you aren't joking, are you?"
"I'm serious. Beamer, Juju, and I were playing homerun derby on those vacant lots over on Stewart Drive. This kid was in the backyard next door- you know- that dark green house you can hardly see for all the trees around it."
Dad was tuned in. "That's the Peck place, Milton Peck's house. Go on…"
"He said he's with his grandparents for Christmas. They bought him a Walkman, but it's just a knock-off. His grandmother is going to cook a big Christmas meal, whatever he wants."
Mom was stunned. "Mr. Peck doesn't have a wife- not anymore. She died in that terrible accident, falling down the stairs, five or six years ago. They say he's a recluse."
Dad shook his head. "I don't know him very well. He came to church a couple of times after the funeral… seems like he asked about helping with the kid's ministry. So strange…" Dad had trouble finishing his sentence.
My mom turned back to me, pointing to the newspaper photo again, "Silas, are you sure this child was in that particular yard- the big, green house and not one of the others nearby?"
"It was that yard right beside the vacant lots. He said his name was Joe, and he's from California. He told us we could call him Jonathan."
"Jonathan Matthews," my mom said to no one. Then she turned to Dad. "Honey, the little boy from Lenoir City, is Jonathan Matthews."
Dad jumped to his feet. He reached for the car keys, and a decorative can of homemade fudge one of the church members had brought over as a gift. "You two wait here. I need to deliver a Christmas gift to one of our neighbors."
He was out the door before Mom could finish her sentence about calling the police or being careful. She seized the telephone directory, searching for the name of my dad's friend on the police force, and never saw me slip quietly out the back door.
It seldom snows in Middle Tennessee, but there were tiny flakes drifting down from the heavens and melting in the street as I pedaled furiously down Shenandoah to make the turn onto Ferguson. When I veered left onto Stewart a block later, I could see the big green house looming ominously three doors to the left. My father's silver Cutlass was parked by the curb out front. The driveway ran uphill to the house, and there was an old, white cargo van parked there, the engine running and the red taillights gleaming in the dark. On the side, faded black lettering read Peck's Laundry and Dry Cleaning. Dad stood on the porch, still holding the candy, apparently talking to Mr. Peck through the screen door.
I left my bike in the grass and approached the house, trying to pick up the words being exchanged at the front door. Mr. Peck said something about being diabetic and not eating sweets. Then my father indicated I had met Mr. Peck's grandson here a few days earlier. Maybe he would enjoy the fudge. A truck came by, drowning out whatever was said next.
I was huddled behind the van, choking on exhaust fumes, trying to imagine what Agent 007 would do if he were in my shoes when my knee came to rest on something that hurt. Still trying to see or hear anything from the front door, I carefully shifted my knee and brushed the pavement underneath with my hand. It felt like eyeglasses. I looked down to see a familiar pair of boy's glasses lying there on the drive.
"Jonathan!" In my shock, I said it louder than I intended. Almost immediately, something began banging against the rear doors of the cargo van.
"I don't care what your son told you," I could hear Mr. Peck shouting at the front door. "I don't have a grandson! And I don't eat candy!"
Rising quickly, I gripped the handle of the rear door, pressing the button and pulling it open. An interior light popped on. There on the floor of the cargo section, lay the kid from the backyard, surrounded by some suitcases and a stack of boxes. His hands and feet were bound, and there was duct tape across his mouth and his eyes. He was kicking the doors with his feet and moaning!
"Dad!" I screamed. "He's over here!"
My father turned and came racing toward the van, shouting, "Silas, I told you to stay at home!" When he saw Jonathan wrapped in rope and duct tape, he quickly turned back to the house, but it was too late. Mr. Peck stood behind, aiming a double-barreled shotgun. His face was distorted and red like a demon from Hell.
"Get in the truck, both of you!" He snarled, tossing a roll of duct tape into the back. "Get in! Now!" He cocked the gun, ready to fire.
My dad stepped directly between the gun and me. He calmly told me to step up into the van and reassure Jonathan. Then he turned back to Peck. "It's over, Milton. My wife has called the police department. Why don't we end this quietly right now and let this little boy go home to his parents for Christmas?"
Peck coughed, spitting mucus on the grass. "Get in the van, or it's about to be over for you," he snarled, shoving the barrel even closer to Dad's chest. "I'm gettin' out of Dodge, so I don't need to kill you. I can drop you and your boy off in another state tomorrow. You'll be tied up, but you'll be alive. Or I can shoot you now!"
Unexpectedly, Dad looked out toward the street and smiled broadly. When Peck instinctively shifted his eyes in that direction, my father lunged forward, forcing the gun barrel to his left, then shoving it skyward. Shouting for me to stay down, he kneed the old man in the groin and shoved him sprawling to the ground. Peck lay there moaning, his hands between his legs, with my father wielding the shotgun and warning him not to move.
"Son, untie Jonathan. Then run to a neighbor's house and call 911."
I had only stripped the tape from Jonathan's eyes and mouth and was still trying to get the rope off his wrists when a car whipped into the driveway. Dad's friend Lanny leaped out of his family vehicle, weapon in one hand and badge in the other.
"Franklin, what's going on?" he asked my Dad.
"Just making a pastoral visit," my father answered with a nervous grin. "After you cuff this guy, Silas has a friend he wants you to meet."
The police chief, some officers, and a physician waited with Jonathan at our house until his parents could make the three-hour drive from Lenoir City. He told the detectives how his abduction had unfolded. He had been riding his bike near his home when Peck's van nearly struck him, causing him to crash in a ditch. Peck had pretended it was an accident and offered to help, but that was just a ruse to get him into the van. Later, Mr. Peck made up the story about Jonathan being his grandson Joe from California. He kept him indoors most of the time and threatened to murder Jonathan's family if he tried to escape or told anyone who he was.
It was after midnight when Jonathan's parents arrived, so Christmas Eve began early with a celebration like we'd never seen before. The doctor assured them their son was in good health and had not been harmed physically. Chief Ruskin explained how the investigation would proceed and what they could expect.
Then we left them all alone together in the living room for a while. There were lots of hugs and heartfelt expressions of gratitude. After 3:00 AM, two weary parents ushered their newfound son out to the family station wagon and headed home.
When I woke up a few hours later, the world was different! Jonathan was back home with his family for Christmas, my dad was a superhero, and there were reporters and TV cameras standing in the street out front. In the kitchen, I found Juju and Beamer waiting for me, along with doughnuts delivered by the Columbia Police Department. The police chief would arrive shortly to help my parents speak to the press without damaging the investigation. My buddies hustled me out the back door and over to Beamer's backyard. We lifted my bike over the fence as well, and the three of us began pedaling down the street to Juju's house.
On the way, we saw Mr. Smoltz. He was lugging a big Scotch pine into the house, but he paused to grin and give us a thumbs up. In a few hours, Jeffrey would be home for a joyful celebration and a better life. I remembered what my mom had said about trouble, and I smiled. You don't have to go looking for happiness, either. Sometimes happiness comes looking for you.