August 10, 1957
No, Pete did not pick graveyard flowers for Beth. If you really wanted to split hairs, he got them from the hillside just above the cemetery, where probably no one was buried. There were other fields he could have hunted for flowers, sure, but these were unlike any flower he’d ever seen. Sweet little translucent bells, so delicate the petal disintegrated if you touched them. Lovely. Off-putting scent, though. Oddly sweetish and cloying, like meat just about to turn. The perfume only got stronger as he carried them down that hill tucked in one sweaty hand.
It didn’t matter, anyway. Beth didn’t want the flowers. Beth didn’t want him. She stood there in that yellow checkered dress with her hair up in a daffodil-colored scarf, looking like sunshine incarnate, as she told him that her and Billy Voss had been going steady for weeks now, didn’t he know that?
At some point on the walk home, Pete looked down to find the flowers had wilted in his grip, so he let them fall on the ground. Their scent lingered, gave him a headache that bloomed into a migraine that spread to his body. At home Ma sat in her easy chair, watching her soaps, didn’t even look up when Pete came in pouring sweat and stumbling. He got himself upstairs somehow, and his clothes made it to the floor. After that it was all a blur of aches and fever and night sweat. His dreams were restless things where he ran endlessly, the elastics of his leg chewing onward without input from him. At one point he glanced in a window and saw the ghost of a devil-face grinning back at him.
Pete woke in farmer Lubbock’s sorghum field, quite nude. It was before dawn, thank God, so he only had to dodge Dan Lubbock on his way home naked as a jaybird. At home he could see the window to his second-story bedroom wide open, curtains blowing out of the frame. Was that how he’d gotten out? The back door was still locked, so it seemed like that. But he didn’t feel like he’d fallen off the roof. Pete just shook his head and shimmied up the lattice leaning against the side of the house. Crazy fever. Nothing to worry about.
September 9, 1957
Pete’s errand took him past the drug store. He detoured behind some parked cars because in the window he could see Beth and Billy sharing a malt. Disgusting how they had to flaunt it around town.
Not looking where he was going, Pete stumbled into Doc Nelson. Doc’s Airedale went rigid and started growling, every curly hair standing at attention.
“Sorry about that.” Pete could feel red spread across his face.
“Shucks, Petey, Rider’s small but he ain’t invisible,” Doc teased. He knelt down and began rubbing his dog’s shoulders. “Hush now, boy. You know it’s just Petey.” Other people paused to rubberneck at the scuffle.
Pete’s face flushed deeper. He snuck a peek across the street and yes, Beth and Billy had their heads craned out the drugstore window.
“Doc I-I’m late, I gotta run these things for my ma,” he blurted, trying to edge around them.
Rider jumped, teeth showing. He tented his back and turned so he faced Pete no matter where he moved.
“Hell, Petey, you got a sausage in your pocket?” someone crowed.
Pete turned and ran, the dog catching the end of his pant-cuff and tearing it off. The sounds of laughter and doc admonishing his dog faded as he ran down the sidewalk, errand forgotten. He kept up the pace until he reached the scrub outside the town’s pumpkin patch. Pete grasped his chest, sinking to the ground. His skin felt hot and prickly as the sweat evaporated. His bones burned.
Christ. No point in going back to town for a while. Beth had seen, and Billy was probably already laughing about it. Pete walked around the far side of the patch, to the weathered wood shed that seemed to belong to nobody in particular. It wasn’t empty.
“Oh,” Pete blurted, making to close the door.
“Don’t mind, young man.” The bum sat on an old axle gestured him in. “plenty of room.”
The man smelled of stale piss, but it was the most welcome Pete had felt all day, so he sat. A bottle of whisky with the label peeled off passed back and forth between them and the day grew hazy. It was probably close to sundown when Pete stood up.
“I have to go water the plants,’ he said. His conversation partner just waved him away.
Pete remembered opening the door. Yes, clear as a bell, he opened the door and…just felt pierced. Just pierced through. Like someone had shoved a white-hot brand through his whole body. He might have screamed, he might have fallen to the ground. The world seemed to wobble and bend like aspic.
And then suddenly…
Suddenly he woke outside. Naked, and comfortably full. As he opened his eyes, he saw the letters R-I-D-E-R just before his face. Pete sat up. Before him, white with red letters, was the doctor’s doghouse. The interior stank like blood and deep claw marks rent the white paint.
Snatching a shirt and pants from the clothesline, Pete ran home.
October 18th, 1957
It had taken a while, but the buzz about Rider was dying down. As far as people figured, a passing tramp with a vicious dog had stopped in the Doc’s yard to steal some clothes. Rider had died a hero protecting his master’s dress shirt. Pete had burned the clothes in the incinerator as soon as he’d gotten home. Ma had chided him for making the house stink, but she didn’t ask what he was doing the night before. Hell, he could’ve come in with a mortar round sticking from his gut and she wouldn’t have asked. She never had.
For the first week he’d walked around jumpy at the prospect of being fingered. That someone would magically sense what he’d done and call him to the floor. But no, all that happened was Beth and Billy walking through town, holding hands, in sickening proximity.
Pete began testing himself. He snuck portions of ma’s gin, making sure to keep it topped off with water, and when that didn’t bring out the result he would purchase bottles “for” her at the store. It didn’t work. No matter how drunk he got, he never felt the liquid rage of that night. Perhaps the bum had slipped him something in the whiskey. But then he himself had drunk from the same bottle. Had he felt the same thing? Pete went back to the shed the next day, but only found a torn-open bindle. Three yards from the shed, a discarded shoe. He had run away in a hurry, but from what?
Pete finally left the mystery in a jumble. No point in straining himself too much. He sank back into his normal routine of avoiding everyone he could whenever he could. Beth and Billy were regular fixtures around town, so he tried to avoid it. He took long walks around the farmlands that bordered town, which was how he ran into Clint Willoughby and his goons.
Pete had already been feeling under the weather. The air had that sort of wobbly quality that made him think he was getting the flu. He stood on the old stone bridge that had been a carriage-way but now was just a footpath littered with orange maple leaves that crunched under his feet.
“Oh, she’s a beaut. Hand her over here, will ya?”
The nasal tone floated up to Pete like a mosquito, piercing his peace. Clint had never gotten over middle school, where he’d grown hard and fast like a weed and towered over everyone else at twelve. Pete had always been a favorite target of his. Maybe he could sneak away in the other direction.
No such luck.
“Hey Petey’s here,” Clint crowed. In one hand he had a girlie mag, glossy black and white pictures of Betty Page and some other blonde in bondage gear. In the other he had a flick-knife. Behind him were Nate and Gary and Rob, the mouth-breather’s club from Franklin High.
Pete teetered. It felt like he was wading deeper into warm water, his limbs uncoordinated and his balance gone.
“Please,” he mumbled, “please not right now.”
Rob and Nate grabbed his arms, Gary got his head by the scalp and brought him under the bridge. They flicked matches on him and then they made him drink out of the tin can they’d used for chewing tobacco and after a while they got bored and simply kicked him.
The sun was sinking behind Clint’s shoulders as he hefted a big rock.
“My dad told me about this tradition in darkest Africa,” he said, “they got this warrior test where they take a man out to the desert and pile rocks on him. The more rocks, the braver the man.”
“Clint, when your dad ever been to Africa?”
“Shut up,” Clint said without looking away from Pete. “You want to show me how brave you are?”
Pete was splitting, just splitting in half. Like a maggot in a peach pit, he was ripping right in half and something was coming out.
“Please,” he said.
And then he woke up.
It was still night, or early enough morning it looked like night. It would have been very easy to write it all off as a fever dream, only he was so clear-headed now it hurt. He knew he was naked. His foot hit a wet sharp chunk of something and he shut his eyes and felt his way back up to the road. Whatever was under that bridge, he didn’t want to see.
November 7th, 1957
The town was abuzz about the wolf attacks. That’s what they called it. Wolves or wild dogs. The gun shop had a special on shotgun shells. Farmers doubled up their fences. The lover’s lane was cordoned off indefinitely, leading to a lot of rushed gropings behind barns and outhouses.
Some were forced out into the open. Beth wore Billy’s school pin like a crucifix; they kissed between classes and on lunch breaks and any time the sun was up. Pete had developed a sort of low-grade heartburn that was present at all times.
Clint’s mother had shown up to school assembly the first Monday after the his death with his bloody shirt, tearfully reminding everyone to stay where there were people. Pete kept his head down not out of respect but of fear. He suspected eyes on him at all times.
What had happened that night? Anything he’d done was almost certainly in the act of self defence. Yet he knew instinctively he could not confess his presence at the scene to anyone, because it would be taken the wrong way. So what if he was sick? That didn’t mean he was a murderer.
Pete watched Bill Voss tilt his girl’s head up and kiss her like Cary Grant in the movies. He wrung his sweaty hands, one against the other. The last thing he needed was another thing to draw attention to him. It wasn’t his fault, whatever it was.
He walked down the sidewalk after school, head down. His forehead met the steady surface of a chest. Looking up he found it was Doc Nelson, his face held no trace of his former joviality.
“Oh, Petey,” he said, “how’s your ma holding up? It’s been a good while since our last visit. She needs her scrip filled, don’t she?”
Pete mumbled something, looking down at the sidewalk. He’d become so sweaty lately, nervousness oozing out of his pores.
“You might come in for a check up yourself, looking a little green around the gills.”
His hand moved to feel Pete’s neck, and Pete instinctively slapped him away. Doc stepped back, startled.
“Or don’t,” he said, “you’re old enough to know when you need to go.”
Pete ducked into his collar and hustled down the sidewalk. Everyone was staring at him. God damn this town. God damn Billy Voss and Beth Palmer. God damn the people who pointed their eyes at him like he’d done something wrong. God damn it all.
Ma was in the easy chair, watching her soaps. She sat too close to the TV and smiled witlessly at the actors pretending to live.
“Ma,” Pete choked out. He knew it was coming on, he could feel it rushing down the track like a burning boxcar. He fell to his knees.
Ma flapped her hand. “Keep quiet, child. Got no time for your nonsense.”
Pete grasped sweatily for her hand. “Ma, please. I gotta tell you something. I think…I done something bad.”
For the first time in what felt like years, his mother’s eyes drifted from their nine-inch television screen and to his face, floating like goldfish behind her thick rimless glasses.
‘Whatchu say?” she scowled. “Whatchu say to me?”
“Something’s wrong with me, ma. I’m sick. I think I’ve done something wrong and I don’t know what.”
She stared at him.
“Ma…it hurts.” A pain was parked at the base of his spine. “It all hurts. I don’t know what to do, ma. Please help me.”
Ma reached out, slowly, to touch his cheek.
And slapped it.
“You,” she hissed, “you—you—dirty boy! Wicked boy!” She rained weak blows down on his head and bent back. “You’re filthy, do you hear me? Dis-gust-ting!”
Pete hurt, the pain came from within and without. “Ma,” he sobbed, “don’t, please don’t.”
“Get away! Nasty thing!” She spat on him. “You should die!”
The fluid transition from now to then was oddly comforting. Pete closed his eyes as if in sleep and when he woke he was lying in the patch of violets under Beth Palmer’s window with an erection. His breath misted the glass as he looked down on her sleeping form, the charming twist of her cupid’s bow mouth. How hatefully calm she looked, never had a problem once in her life.
Pete walked home starkers, completely calm. As he drew close to home, he debated hiding from the men lingering in front of his splintered front door. But then Leo Palmer saw him and ran, shotgun balanced on his forearm.
“Petey,” he said, “oh damn, you too?”
Pete’s naked body was scratched and bruised from a dash through the undergrowth. Someone threw a horsehair blanket over him while they shielded him from the view of his living room.
“It’s a mess, son,” Leo said, “how’d you get away?”
“Guess I ran,” Pete said truthfully, “don’t remember much.”
His eyes were dry.
December 7, 1957
It was generally agreed that Pete should finish up the winter semester. His uncle that lived in the city was paged to take him on, at least for a few months. After all, he was nearly the age of majority, he could be responsible for himself.
Leo Palmer put him up. Pete slept on an army cot in a room with Beth’s little brother Ted and saw Beth Palmer at breakfast and supper. She made a study of not looking at him. At other times, her displeasure might have needled him, but Pete took a strange satisfaction from it now. She couldn’t escape into Billy’s lips, not at home. Pete relished in buying her mother fresh daffodils from the town florist and sticking them in a vase on the piano as Beth practiced her scales. Beth walked to the end of the driveway to meet Billy now, hair tucked under a scarf like a philandering housewife. It didn’t sting anymore. He would be gone soon. Nothing much mattered anyway.
Pete took to long walks around the fields. He was not fleeing anymore, he was etching their shape in memory. He felt he would miss them in the city.
In a dell that was blown over with snow, he found Beth and Billy locking lips.
“Supposed to stay close to town,” he said, savoring their startle as they pulled apart.
“Awjeez,” Billy exclaimed, dabbing Beth’s lipstick from his lips.
Beth stared at Pete, cold fury behind her eyes. “You’re a peeping tom, Pete Patton.”
“S’not peeping if you’re putting it out there for all to see,” Pete said. He wore no jacket, flush with his odd warmth.
“Well I wouldn’t have to, if you’d give me a moment’s peace,” Beth snapped.
“Calm down, sugar. He’s just lost his ma, he’s bound to be a little…” Billy gestured vaguely.
“Oh not even. Petey, you were a creep before and you’re a creep now,” she hissed, “and I don’t believe you’re sorry at all that your mama died.
The sunset was setting in a shade pink as Beth’s winter coat. Pete let the light fill up his eyes and drank it all in. The crisp snow, the dead gray stalks in the field, the couple shivering in their winter wear.
“Believe what you want,” he said, back prickling pleasantly. “makes no nevermind to me.”
Billy was glancing beyond his shoulder, puzzled. “What you lookin’ at?”
Pete smiled. “Wanna see something?”
December 8, 1957
Pete moved on.