Greener Pastures (5)

Part 5 of 52

Then Sam happened.

Sam the Magnificent had sprung herself from worse traps than this.  Like the Middle School Talent Show.  With the entire student body watching, she’d dislocated a shoulder while shrugging off a straitjacket.  Or performing at that backyard birthday party when she’d scraped her wrists until they’d bled, so slippery with blood she could slip a pair of handcuffs.  So many kids, every kid screaming.  Compared to that . . . Compared to the knots Samantha had untied, the padlocks she’d picked, today should be a piece of cake.

            Today they’d put her inside a heavy wooden box.  Polished ebony with brass handles, a box any magician would be proud to use on stage.  They’d laid her out straight and shut the lid.  Latched and locked it tight.  Air tight.  Organ music played.

            They’d placed the box in front of the altar, with Father Caswell standing by.  The stained-glass window still not replaced, just patched over with plywood. 

            At the foot of the plywood window stood a box marked for donations toward new stained glass.

Samantha Deel’s blood still stained the carpet if you knew where to look.  But carpet doesn’t need the nitrogen.    

            Locked in that box, she might have a few inhales worth of air to breathe.

            Watching now, I wasn’t scared.  My friend was an escape artist.

            No one appeared to worry.  Witness Mrs. Deel standing there, looking anywhere except at the box with her daughter locked inside.  Just look at Mr. Deel, too, twiddling a cigarette, unlit, between the fingers of one hand.  He shrugged and said, “I guess I picked the wrong time to give up smoking!” 

His wife popped out a little laugh.  The corners of her mouth tucked up into little pockets that read as happy.

            Their daughter was locked inside an air-tight box.  No telling how long she’d been inside.  She’d been locked in there since before anyone else had arrived.  Half of the high school stood around.  We’re talking as many people as a town.  The sophomore class had sent a bunch of flowers, a big wreath of carnations in red and gold, the team colors of the Battling Beefeaters.  A gesture that would kill Sam if she could see, Sam the Magnificent who’d never played a sport in her life unless you counted Chess Club and ballet.  The varsity cheerleaders stood beside the box, all long legs, like a team of magic assistants looking sad. 

Even War Dog showed up.  We’re talking the kid with nothing less than hot sperm running through his veins.  And those eyes, sunk so close together they could be touching behind the bridge of his nose.  War Dog, the name every kid called this thug if they didn’t want their snot beat out.  He stood in the back of the chapel where he could keep close to the wall and see everyone.  Only War Dog looked scared—a new look for him.  Someone had stomped his face.  The zigzag of tread marks, Doc Martens or something steel-toed, purple tread marks went across his swelled-up cheeks.  Stitches and bandages held the busted parts shut.  His face swollen meat-red around his eyes. 

            Another nod to Orwell.  A sight worse than Christ getting curb-stomped with a Mary Jane.

Only War Dog looked scared that Samantha might actually climb out of the box. Escape like the hummingbird.

            Breaking and exiting.

            War Dog watched the box.  Only I watched War Dog.

Something pulled at my sleeve.  A hand.  The little hand of my baby sister.  We stood in line to give hugs to Sam’s parents.  One step ahead waited our own parents—Mom standing, Dad in his wheelchair—and at the head of the line stood Mr. and Mrs. Deel.  They’d blown up a photo of Sam and her dog, Paisley, made it the size of a movie poster and stood it on an easel beside the polished box.  The loudest person crying was my mom.  It never failed.  When serious crying needed to be done, my mom would always pitch in.

“Presto-change-o,” I said under my breath.  And—nothing.  “Abracadabra.”  More nothing happened.  I pictured Saint Samantha in her black suit and the cape lined with red satin.  Shucking handcuffs.  Sawing a girl in half.

Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat.

A voice said my name.  “Mr. Stokes.”  A perfume smell stepped closer.  Mrs. Terry from my fourth period Statistics class.  In black she looked like a witch, her dress black.  Black shoes with pointed toes.  The strap of a black purse was looped over one arm.  She looked at me and said, “I guess you’ll be our valedictorian next year.”  She didn’t say it to be mean.  I was the only smart part of our class left.  Mrs. Terry looked down at my baby sister and asked, “Mr. Stokes, do you know where Paisley is?”  Her mouth, lipstick red. 

Sam’s dog, she meant, half Jack Russell, half everything else.  A dog between purse-sized and Marmaduke.  Sam’s mom had named it Paisley.       

            My sister and I shook our heads, No.

            Mrs. Terry continued, “Paisley ran away.”  She looked at me as if I’d raised my hand in class.  Like one of those times when she’d called on a slew of bonehead students and needed me to get her day’s lesson plan out of the weeds.  “Mr. Stokes?”

            I looked at Samantha hugging the dog in the enlarged photo.  Poor Paisley, lost, maybe hurt, maybe starving or locked in a cage to await his execution by lethal injection.

            Nothing up my sleeve . . .

            Standing so close to the box that her face was reflected in the shine, Mrs. Deel lifted one hand and checked the time on her wrist watch.  The watch sparkled with stones too big to be real diamonds.  I’d never seen her wear it.  Her husband said, “Yes, a jackknife.  I kid you not.  Both wrists!”

A man, to judge from the sound of it, blew his nose.  Another guidance counselor or coach.

I whispered, “Open sesame.”

            Nodding like she knew a secret, like the witch she might be, Mrs. Terry said, “Someone ought to go out.  A smart person should walk around and rescue that poor dog.”  She winked.  We’re talking a creepy, gross wink coming from a lady older than my mom, made all the more cringe-worthy by her being my teacher.  She looked away and said, “It’s a pity about Warthog.”

            I almost corrected her.  Instead I followed her gaze to where War Dog was pulling on his coat and slinking out the church doorway.  A blank spot on his scalp showed where the hair had been shaved.  Black stitches pulled the skin tight. 

People were already leaving.  Someone from the student newspaper took a picture of the flowers and the cheerleaders looking sad in their short red-and-gold skirts and tight sweaters, each with a capital B on her chest.  

            My baby sister took a step and tugged at my hand.  We were bringing up the rear.  I didn’t want to join our parents and hug Sam’s folks goodbye.           

            Under my breath I said, “Alakazam.”  I never wanted to leave. 

            Just because.

Because when nobody else was around to see, someone would take the box with my friend still inside.  They’d slide the box into an oven and shut the door.  Creating a trap within a trap.  And they’d turn up the flames until only ash was left.  The ashes, they’d pour into a metal urn.  The urn, they’d stick inside a concrete vault. The vault they’d seal behind a slab of marble, forever.

An escape no Master of Illusion could ever pull off.

            A For Sale sign stood at the foot of the Deels’ driveway.  A Sold sticker already plastered across the Sale Pending part.  The drapes had been left open in the windows to show no television.  No sofa.  Nothing in the dining room beyond the living room.  No beds in the bedrooms.  A black wreath still hung on the front door.

            Someone had left casserole dishes on the doorstep.  A lot of people, from the look of it.  A banquet covered in crimped aluminum foil.  Bowls of potato salad under sweaty plastic wrap, the plastic wrap swollen and bulging from decomposition.  A feast of food poisoning.  Black flies hovered over it all.  A possum, scaly and pink, like a lizard with sparse white fur, ate with its snout buried in elbow macaroni.

            Piled against the door were wilted bouquets.  The dying stubs of candles flickered black smoke.

            At the funeral Mr. Deel had presented everyone with the sad truth.  Samantha was nothing her friends would want to lay eyes upon.  Honor Student Sam, Girl Scout Gold Award winner, curve breaker Sam, crossing guarder, extra creditor, book wormer, tooth flosser Sam had cut her wrists.  Yes, Mr. Deel added, “In the bathtub, after we’d gone to bed.”    

            I pictured Sam’s face like a pale island breaking the surface of a red-red lake, rubber ducks bobbing around her chin.  Toy boats.  A floating cake of Ivory soap.  Bubble-bath foam, made pink by her blood.

            Hence another closed casket.

            Heaped around the base of the real estate agent’s sign, a stack of cardboard boxes offered left-behind stuff.  The night’s dew had soaked the cardboard.  Some corners had split to spill out clothes.  Larger boxes had split across the word FREE written in black marker on the sides.  These had dumped books onto the sidewalk.  Morning joggers, joggers and dog walkers, had pulled out skirts and shoes and dropped what they couldn’t salvage.

            The framed eye of Jesus leaned against the box.  The blue eye watching me.  A green buzz dove in for a closer look.

            The green blur hovered over the glass eye.  Kissed it like a flower.  A couple generations of hummingbirds could’ve lived and died since Sam had busted out that window. 

            All hummingbirds are the same hummingbird in this story.

The green flutter zipped away.

            Magic tricks lay strewn all over.  Chinese linking rings dropped in the driveway.  A deck of playing cards strewn around.  The detachable thumb trick.  The Inexhaustible Bottle.

            Pick a card, any card.

            Scattered across the yard, the cut-off hands and fingers that had been Sam’s stage props.  Each with a bloody end that showed a stump of splintered bone.  Her break-away ears and phony eyeballs.  Cut-off feet.  Complete sets of her teeth.  Like religious relics.  The leftover bits of various saints.            

            The stuffed animals from her bed looked soggy.  One teddy bear sprouted something wooden from its chest.  The wooden handle of a jackknife.  The jackknife Sam had started to carry.  All the time, everywhere. 

            Wherever she was, it was good to know she wasn’t scared anymore.

            My imagination put this knife next to the bathtub.  Smeared with red and balanced on the edge of the tub where she’d set it. 

            I yanked the knife from the bear and wiped the blade against the leg of my jeans.  Dagger long.  Surgery silver.  I folded the blade shut.

            The eye of Jesus fit inside Sam’s old book bag, frame and all.  As did the knife.  As did the scrap of paper that showed only the two boobs, a piece of trash Sam had framed under glass, hung on the wall in her bedroom.          

            Littered around were plastic bones riddled with teeth marks.  Loose fur covered a discarded dog bed.  I leaned down and took a rubber toy molded to look like a bright red T-bone steak.  I squeezed the steak and it gave a loud squeal.

            Across the street, a curtain parted.  A face appeared in a window.  A woman in a bathrobe holding a cup of coffee, she hovered there and disappeared.

            I squeaked the T-bone steak and called out, “Paisley!”  My voice sounded thin and shrill in the chilly air.

            Elsewhere, a dog barked behind a fence.  Another barked inside a window.  Neither was Paisley. 

            On the front stoop the possum lifted its snout from the casserole and looked my way. 

            Among the books lay one with a peanut butter-colored cover.  The color of nothing you’d look at.  The spine showed no title, but white type on the cover read Your Practical Guide to Greener Pastures.  I took it because this book was the only one here I hadn’t read.

Inside the front cover, someone had written:

            Luthor, I hope you find this.  This book is my legacy to you.

            Without looking at the sloppy signature, I knew the handwriting.  It belonged to Samantha.  A message to me from beyond the grave.

            I turned the page and started to read, A note from our founder . . .

Stay Tuned for Part 6…