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Authors: Joyce McDonald

Shades of Simon Gray

BOOK: Shades of Simon Gray
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When the police found no skid marks, nothing to indicate that Simon Gray had slammed on the brakes for dear life, that was no surprise. Everyone knew he would have. He was the responsible young man who baby-sat their children, walked their dogs, and watered their plants while they were on vacation. The boy who had cleaned their gutters, mowed their lawns, and run their errands since he was ten.

They were sure the slick mess on the road would have made finding any trace of tire treads impossible. Not one single person in town doubted that for a minute, and if anyone hinted otherwise, people turned away and wandered off without finishing the conversation.

Come sunrise, following the accident, what remained of the peeper population had settled back into the streams and the muddy banks of the Delaware, but for the next two weeks they continued their piercing chirps after the sun went down. By the time they finally stopped, everyone in town knew the truth about Simon Gray.

Or so they believed.

ALSO AVAILABLE IN DELL LAUREL-LEAF BOOKS

SHADOW PEOPLE
,
Joyce Mcdonald

SWALLOWING STONES
,
Joyce McDonald

PLAYING FOR KEEPS
,
Joan Lowery Nixon

THE GADGET
,
Paul Zindel

CROOKED
,
Laura McNeal and Tom McNeal

THE RANSOM OF MERCY CARTER

Caroline B. Cooney

THE JUMPING TREE
,
René Saldaña, Jr
.

PAPER TRAIL
,
Barbara Snow Gilbert

PLAYING WITHOUT THE BALL
,
Rich Wallace

SIGHTS
,
Susanna Vance

Published by
Dell Laurel-Leaf
an imprint of
Random House Children’s Books
a division of Random House, Inc.
1540 Broadway
New York, New York 10036

Copyright © 2001 by Joyce McDonald

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law. For information address Delacorte Press, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.

The trademarks Laurel-Leaf Library
®
and Dell
®
are registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries.

Visit us on the Web!
www.randomhouse.com/teens

Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at
www.randomhouse.com/teachers

eISBN: 978-0-307-81978-9

RL: 6.8

v3.1

For my brothers,

Bob, Jack, and Rick

Contents

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

—T. S. Eliot
from
The Waste Land

P
ROLOGUE
1798

T
HE FOUR MEN TRACKED HIM DOWN BEFORE DAWN
. H
E
was sitting beneath an oak tree at the farthermost corner of Joseph Alderman’s property, a young man barely twenty, his clothes bloody with the evidence. He showed only mild surprise when the townsmen came upon him. Each of them, in his heart, knew whom the lad had been waiting for
.

One of the men bound the murderer’s wrists behind his back with leather thongs, then bound his ankles. Another removed the young man’s tricornered hat, slid the noose over his head, and lifted his hair to position the knot behind one ear. He tossed the end of the rope over a low branch, a
branch not more than seven feet from the ground, and tied the other end around the neck of one of the horses. The men’s movements were quick and efficient
.

One of them stepped forward, his face only a few inches from the murderer’s. “Do you wish time to pray?” he asked
.

The young man said nothing. He looked his executioner straight in the eye. Then one by one, he held the gaze of the other men, until each of them had to look away
.

In the gray dawn, mist rose up from the ground, hiding the weeds and tall dry grass. It continued to rise until the forms of the men blurred, gray on gray, their bodies nothing more than darkened shadows in the fog
.

They could have put the young man on one of their horses. A stinging swat to the horse’s rump and the man would have dropped almost as fast as he would have through the trapdoor of a scaffold; a quick, humane snap of the neck and it would be over. But not one among them wished to have a man with blood on his hands sitting in his saddle, as if the source of the crime were something contagious
.

It took three of them, one guiding the horse to step back and two others taking hold of the rope, adding their strength to the horse’s, to slowly lift the body eight inches from the ground. The fourth man stood a few feet away, eyes closed
,
head thrown back, hands extended in a prayer for the soul of the young man who would not pray for himself
.

The knot slipped as the men tugged. The rope twisted on itself as the body danced spasmodically until, finally, the toes dropped downward, pointing at the ground. A few minutes later the men stepped forward, untied the rope from the horse, wrapped it around the base of the tree, and secured it in place
.

From overhead came a loud rustling noise. Startled, the men looked up into a swirling cloud of black wings, beating at the air. When the cloud settled, the men saw hundreds of crows. They clung to the branches like black leaves. They began to caw, a loud mournful sound that swelled in the early-morning mist and echoed throughout the small town of Havenhill
.

The men took wary steps toward each other. They huddled close together. “We are done here,” said one
.

One of them, the man who had been praying for the murderer’s soul, said, “It is now in the hands of the Lord.”

The others answered with solemn nods and amens. The good people of Havenhill would rest easy in their beds that night, knowing a murderer was no longer among them
.

O
N THE NIGHT
S
IMON
G
RAY RAN HIS ’92
H
ONDA
Civic into the Liberty Tree, the peepers exploded right out of the local streams, shrieking like souls of the dead disturbed from their slumber, louder and more shrill than anyone in Bellehaven could remember. Like the plague of frogs converging on ancient Egypt, they were everywhere: in window boxes, on front porch rockers, in mailboxes carelessly left open, in gutters. They even clogged a few exhaust pipes.

Most people in town were absolutely positive the peepers caused Simon’s accident. With squashed frogs all over the road, their blood, like so much oil, made driving slippery. It was bound to happen to somebody. A few suspected that the sudden appearance of the peepers might
be a curse. But this was an unpopular view, Bellehaven being a respectable and upright town.

When the police found no skid marks, nothing to indicate that Simon Gray had slammed on the brakes for dear life, that was no surprise. Everyone knew he would have. He was the responsible young man who baby-sat their children, walked their dogs, and watered their plants while they were on vacation. The boy who had cleaned their gutters, mowed their lawns, and run their errands since he was ten.

They were sure the slick mess on the road would have made finding any trace of tire treads impossible. Not one single person in town doubted that for a minute, and if anyone hinted otherwise, people turned away and wandered off without finishing the conversation.

Come sunrise, following the accident, what remained of the peeper population had settled back into the streams and the muddy banks of the Delaware, but for the next two weeks they continued their piercing chirps after the sun went down. By the time they finally stopped, everyone in town knew the truth about Simon Gray.

Or so they believed.

On the day before the accident, a heat wave settled over Bellehaven like a cloud of steam. It all but sucked the air out of anyone who tried to take a deep breath. Some attributed special significance to its being April Fools’ Day. But most simply found it odd to have eighty-five-degree temperatures in early April, shrugged, and went on about
their business, although they were inclined to move at a much slower pace. Only the Delaware River, swollen with the spring runoff and freshly stocked with brook and rainbow trout, sped along at breakneck speed, spewing white foam over rocky ridges.

When the heat wave persisted through the following day, girls dug out last year’s shorts and tank tops from attic trunks in preparation for school on Monday, and threw away lipsticks that had melted in their backpacks. By nightfall, people found themselves kicking off top sheets, digging window fans out of basements and attics, and wrapping ice cubes in face towels to lay across the backs of their necks. A few even turned on air conditioners, muttering about future electric bills that were sure to leave them paupers.

BOOK: Shades of Simon Gray
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