Hillyard struggled up the last few steps as he climbed to the top of the silo, some 300 feet high, as he did every year at about this time. He was making certain, after so many seasons, that its walls were still sound enough to receive the harvest, the barley gathered at its full growth before it began to wither back into the ground it came from. Even though he wanted to make the trip himself, he had to confess that the climb had gotten harder in the last few years.
Still, to tell the truth, he liked looking at things from this perspective, the stark relief of the land spreading out all around him, its hills and hollows, its farms and forests, the Methodist church with its steeple and cemetery behind it — all things made by either man or his Maker. The mist rising off the ground covered it in a phosphorescent blanket that blurred the line between reality and the unknown. What could lie beneath? North of the silo along a stream on the border of his property were several dozen tall oaks. The men at the sawmill told him he could make a pretty penny by selling them, but no, he would not, he could not cut them down. These giant trees had stood there for decades, long before he’d been born, the many rings inside their rugged bark marking their years on the planet like layers of old thick bones. Most probably, the trees had been planted when farmers first arrived more than a hundred years before and had watched as sons went off to fight in the Civil War, as great grandsons went off to fight in Europe. By virtue of their very standing here for so many years, they’d acquired wisdom he himself would never come by in his lifetime, and, from time to time, he came down among them to borrow some of it. He took a minute to listen to the wind whistling through their leaves before heading down the silo and back to the house.
Now, Hillyard had told Lena before she passed the prior year that he’d look after Jelly, raise her up right, protect her, and he aimed to keep his promise, including keeping away certain types of boys, like those McEvoys. No McEvoy boy from these parts had ever amounted to much, present crop included, every single one of them ornery. Until now, he’d done fine keeping them away, but after the oldest one went off the road with a belly full of rye, well, that was another story.
Why couldn’t it ever be that the nice ones came back after they passed, like his Lena? Never seemed to work that way with earthbounds, though, at least so far as he ever knew. They’d only planted that McEvoy boy in the ground a week ago but, plain as day, he’d seen the boy that Saturday wandering around the house near Jelly’s room. Jelly’d just started her tenth grade and it seemed every boy from 20 miles around had come sniffing after her. He’d seen the McEvoy boy eyeing his Jelly at the county fair last summer, but at least this one didn’t have the courage to talk to her back then. But Hillyard didn’t want to think what a spirit might be able to get away with! Now that the boy had died, though, it wouldn’t do to try to shoo him away with a shotgun. No sir, not at all.
He needed to do it like, years ago, his granny had taught him: go to a kind, gentle place in his mind first, then try to coax the boy over to the other side. Treat the boy more like a scared, stray cat, not like some young hungry hound out for his Jelly. So, after getting Jelly off to school, he sat down at the table and saw in its polished reflection his own weathered face, framed with gray hair and beard, reflecting an age far greater than his years, a lined map of sorrows and joys his life had borne. The dark walnut table, even without the center leaves, was several cords across — more than the three of them ever needed. Still, it had been the belief of his elders who’d bought it years ago that, whatever house the family lived in, there should always be room at the table for all the relatives, plus a few visitors as necessary.
He took out of his wallet a picture of the three of them, back when Jelly was just a little girl, with both Lena and Jelly dressed in white lace, he in his Sunday clothes. He tried to think about it like it was all just the other day, that he’d look over and see Lena sitting across the table, her glasses slipping down her nose as she read the morning paper, her blond curls falling on her face, while Jelly’s brown pigtails bounced as he danced around the room. In his mind’s eye, he saw Lena’s pale hand, her long thin fingers on his shoulders; he heard Jelly’s cries as a baby and felt the deep satisfaction when the cries turned to sleeping breath against his chest; he felt her tugging on his trousers to show him this or that the way she did as a little girl. When a warm feeling came over him, he knew it was time.
He walked into Jelly’s room and saw the faint outline of the boy in his overalls and boots sitting on Jelly’s bed, his hands outstretched over the crochet roses on the bedspread, his fingertips touching their soft pink petals. Hillyard flushed in anger. Damned boy had no shame. Not only in her bedroom but right there on her bed, he was.
And in the blink of an eye, the boy was gone.
The next moment, Hillyard could have kicked himself. There wasn’t any use trying to scold the boy and, besides, he’d seen enough of the boy’s sort that he knew better by now. He’d let his temper get the better of his thoughts and, in a split second, he’d lost the boy. After all, that was the way it always worked with earthbounds. They could hide from you if they wanted to, but you sure couldn’t hide from them. You could say that, in different ways, you could both see through each other whenever you came upon one. The irony made Hillyard smile.
He wondered to himself if he’d gone and done it now, if there was any chance the boy would trust him enough to appear again. As it was, he didn’t really know this boy. Surely, he had to be wily as any other McEvoy ever was. But then, ornery or no, the boy didn’t deserve to have his life snuffed out before it’d hardly begun, did he? Especially with the young ones, like this boy, you just had to have a heart when it came to earthbounds.
He stepped into the lavatory in the hall to wash his hands. He started when he saw the boy’s face looking back at him in the mirror, but it vanished when he gasped gently at its sight. If only he’d had a second more. He groaned out loud and wanted to kick himself again.
Not really knowing what he might do at this point to get the boy to show himself again, Hillyard sat back down at the table, closed his eyes, and surrendered to the stillness of the morning. He thought to himself what Lena would say about the boy. Sometimes, it was as though he could still hear her voice speaking to him, even if he couldn’t see her. It came to him best in quiet moments, like this one; it was why he had come to like the mornings so much. Her voice was a comfort to him and helped guide him to his better thinking. He knew she’d remind him of what he’d been like at 19, that she, too, had been younger than him by several years when they’d met, how her father had been uncertain of him, at first.
Across the table, turned to his side, the boy appeared, sitting with his hands folded in his lap. Then, the boy’s face, shielded by a mess of brown hair, turned to look at him, and a freeze shot clear through his skeleton as he caught sight of the desperation in the boy’s eyes. Poor soul. Maybe he’d had the good sense when he’d been the boy’s age not to drink the whole bottle before driving back home from wherever he’d been; maybe he’d just had the good luck not to go over the side of the road. The boy hadn’t seen his 20th year, the age Hillyard had been when he’d married Lena a quarter-century earlier.
“Now, you just look up,” he said, steady and low. “Look up until you see the light …” His voice left off as he saw the boy’s head tilt toward the ceiling and then, bit by bit, disappear from view.
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