Authors: Howard Owen
Maybe it was the alcohol, although Bobby and Posey hadn't really drunk that much. Jack would be adjudged to Breathalyzer an hour and a half later at a Richmond hospital.
The state trooper had been, as Jack feared, still behind them. He reached the lonely pier at the end of the clay road a full minute after Bobby Witt's Buick launched itself into Luck's Pond. He didn't know at first exactly where the car he was chasing could have gone, sure only that it and its occupants couldn't have gotten past him on the dead-end road, until Jack Stone broke the surface.
The trooper was able to find a rowboat next to the damaged pier and maneuver himself close enough to help the thrashing, crying boy into the boat. He was screaming about his friends, pointing farther out into the pond.
The trooper knew there was nothing he could do, either. He called for the local rescue squad, which was there in 15 minutes. During that time, the trooper had to twice keep Jack Stone from diving back into the water. Finally, he handcuffed him to the door of his car.
They weren't able to retrieve the bodies until the next morning. Bobby Witt, who had always seemed to know what to do in any emergency, had managed to slip halfway out the window but seemed to have gotten his jeans, which were still around his knees, snagged on the door handle. Posey Atkinson appeared to have died trying to fight her way past Bobby for the only exit either of them could think of in their last moments.
Jack Stone was, everyone agreed, fortunate that he did not have to go to jail, that he got away with only a broken jaw. In March, he was convicted of driving while intoxicated and involuntary manslaughter. Judge Edmonds could have sent him to prison for a year. He had passed 18 the month before. He was an adult.
But the judge suspended his sentence, on the condition that Jack enlist in the military upon his graduation from high school.
“Obviously,” he said, his white eyebrows working up and down above bloodshot eyes, “you have some growing up to do.”
Jack Stone sometimes wished, that spring and summer, that he had gotten an active sentence, so that he could go someplace where no one could judge him further. He had to go to area high schools and explain how you could kill a couple of your best friends and ruin your life over a little apricot brandy. He must have gone to 30 of them between March and June. The Navy was almost a relief.
He had to visit the Rev. and Mrs. Robert A. Witt Sr., who, not long after burying their only child, would leave Speakeasy, Virginia, coming back once each year, when no one knew they were coming, to put flowers on Bobby's grave. The man Bobby called the Angel of Death listened to Jack's apology and then asked him to join him and his wife in a prayer for forgiveness. The prayer basically asked God to forgive the unforgivable, “that which mortal man can not forgive.” When he said that part, he squeezed Jack's hand so hard he almost broke it. After the prayer was over, Jack Stone got up and backed out of the room and the house, his apologies echoing in the dead silence that would consume the manse until the Rev. Witt got reassigned.
Even if he hadn't been forced to join the military, Jack knew that his options had shrunk considerably. The bigger schools, where a football coach could get the school president fired if he worked it right, stopped calling, and the others seemed to think they were doing him a favor by staying in touch.
But even if Notre Dame had come through, as he once thought it might, with a full scholarship and total confidence in young Jack Stone, he knew he couldn't do it. He didn't think he could ever hit anybody or anything again. He thought, at 18, that all he ever wanted to do for the rest of his sorry life was try to make amends for all the suffering he had visited on so many people.
His parents were devastated, of course, and their place in their tight little community was diminished. Kenneth and Ellen stopped going to church for a while and hardly left the farm except for business or errands. Sandy and Mike were long gone, but they managed to both weigh in on the subject, hoping aloud that Jack had “learned something from this.”
Jack, who had seen his brother dog-drunk more than once, wanted to ask them: How could you not learn a lesson from something like that?
He did commit one act of violence before he left for the Navy in August, and he didn't really regret it.
The week before he was to report, he went over to Mike's to help him move. Mike and Angela had been married three years, and Kelly was 2. They were leaving the house trailer they'd occupied since their wedding for a real house. Their possessions would still fit in a 24-foot U-Haul, and Mike figured he, Jack and a couple of buddies could handle such furniture as they had.
They started at 9, and by 11:30, they were almost done. Jack would have preferred to just keep going; he felt like odd man out around Mike and his friends, all much older guys. And they still had to unload everything at the other end.
But Mike wanted to take a break. He'd bought plenty of beer, and the other three had already drunk one apiece. With the end in sight, they plopped down on the doorstep and a couple of cinder blocks and dove into the Miller Hi-Lifes with a vengeance.
Mike had already offered Jack one, and now he offered again, insisted really. Jack said he'd just have a Coke, which Angie got for him.
“Hey,” one of Mike's buddies said, “you can drink now, big man. You're 18. You're legal.”
“Aw, c'mon, Bubba,” Mike said, crushing one empty and tossing it away, then reaching in the iced-down wash-tub for another. “Knock yourself out. You won't be gettin' cold Millers once you hit Great Lakes. I can assure you of that.”
Jack just looked off into the distance. He hadn't really told anyone else that he had taken his last drink of alcohol. He just assumed they knew.
Then he felt something tickle his right ring finger, and when he swatted at it, it was as if someone had used that finger for an ashtray. The yellow jacket fell to the ground, and he stomped it with one of his heavy boots while he shook his burning hand and cursed.
The other three thought this was beyond hilarious. Jack quickly yanked off the friendship ring, the one Bobby Witt's cousin from Dinwiddie had given him and which he somehow had not removed in all this time, before the swelling got worse. He flung it far into the dying cornfield beyond the stunted yard.
Mike reached in for a cold beer.
“Here, Little Man,” he said, “hold this next to it. And then drink it.”
He was walking away when he added, “Don't worry. It won't hurt you. It ain't apricot brandy.”
There was a short silence, and then he heard one of the friends go, “Ooooh.”
Jack had the beer in his hand. Before he could think, he had thrown it at his brother. Jack, who had been an fairly effective pitcher for the high school baseball team his sophomore and junior years, caught him squarely in the back of the head. As Mike staggered forward, Jack was on him from behind. He pinned him there for a good half-minute before the two friends succeeded in pulling him off.
Jack and Mike did not speak again until after the four-year Navy hitch was almost over. When Jack would come home on leave, Mike would make sure he wasn't there.
They did make their peace, but only eventually and partially.
For the first time in a month, it rains. The far western fringes of a hurricane have brushed against central Virginia, and Jack spends the entire morning and early afternoon dashing in and out of the van, covering his packages better than himself. On the radio, they're calling for three inches, the whole fading month's worth in one miserable day.
By 2 o'clock, he's been soaked for hours. He's not even fit for the casual and familiar company of the Speakeasy Diner, and he's been putting off lunch at home until he's sure the mail has come.
He makes a run for the front door, taking off as much of his waterlogged clothing as he can in the foyer, then throwing his raincoat around his bare legs.
“Wow,” Shannon says, coming out from her room, trailed by Wesley, who growls, then recognizes him and leaps up to lick his dripping hand. “Tough day to be out. They closed school at noon. Because of flooding, they said.”
Shannon looks at his pants on the floor and shakes her head at the general ungainliness of adults.
Five minutes later, he comes out of the bedroom in jeans and an old, navy-blue T-shirt.
He realizes he forgot to check the mailbox in his hurry to get inside, but he sees that Shannon has beaten him to it. He leafs through the pile on the dining room table, with the rain tattooing the skylights.
“Anything else?” He realizes how pathetic it sounds. Gina and his daughter are very much aware of what he's waiting for. They seem embarrassed for him every time they have to say no.
Shannon shakes her head. “Sorry.”
He shrugs and goes to make himself a sandwich.
He's feared for some time that he would reach this day: the day that he finally has to call Gerald Prince, the boy he once felt sorry for.
At first, he told himself he wouldn't do it, that he would be solid and inscrutable as the Sphinx, never speaking unless spoken to, never a pest. He'd be above all that.
But now, wet and discouraged, tired and hungry, he knows the time has come.
But just then, Shannon looks up from across the table.
“Oh,” she says. “I almost forgot. Brady left a message on the voice-mail. He said he needed to, like, talk to you?”
“Dunno. He called about 11, I think it said.”
Brady's working here and there, now and then. He's supposed to be in a production of
they're putting on at some theater in Richmond that Gina says seats only about 80 people. Jack thinks it's such a waste, driving in to Richmond to practice night after night for something that, if it's like the last play he was in, will be gone in a week. At least the review in the newspaper had a couple of nice things to say about him, and Jack supposes Brady could use a little praise.
He's seen his son only twice since the day Brady almost shot him.
The days of rent-free living at the farm are drawing to a close. Just in the last two weeks, the heirs have gotten an offer on Kenneth and Ellen Stone's old place, only $5,000 below what they asked, from a Korean couple who want to run a dental appliances shop out of one of the bedrooms. Mike thought they should hold out, try to get full price, but Sandy and even Jack, tired of the whole drawn-out process, insist that they take it. It was the first real offer they've had, and they're already eight days into fall. They were beginning to think their real estate agent, a recently divorced woman with gray roots and an inability to imitate enthusiasm as well as Jack thought a Realtor should, had given up.
“Damn,” Mike said, “I just hate the idea of a couple of Orientals living in our home. The place'll smell like that weird stuff they cook. They're probably Buddhists or something. Probably be burying cabbage or sacrificing cats.”
“They're Presbyterian,” Jack said. He'd learned that much from the agent, who threw it out as if that tidbit might make everything more acceptable. “And none of us have lived there in years.
“If you hate to sell it, why don't you just let Brady stay there, like I asked you? Or move back yourself.”
This shuts Mike up. He does want the money. He just wanted a little more.
Jack goes into the den and calls the same number the Stones had when he was in high school.
The phone rings four times, and then he hears Brady's voice telling him, to the accompaniment of rap music so loud he has to hold the phone away from his ear, that “Brady's out,/nom' sayin'? He's missin'; he ain't home/But he'd be glad to hear your message/Wait two seconds for the tone.”
For two months after Ellen died, her voice was still on the recording, uncomfortably reciting the number and asking whoever was calling to please leave a message. Jack knows he should be glad not to have her ghost greeting him.
After the beep, he is halfway into an exasperated first sentence when he hears a click, and Brady answers with a terse, “It's me.”
“I guess famous actors have to screen their calls.”
Brady's voice warms a little, apologizing, but there's something below the surface. Fear? Drugs?
“Can I come over? I need to talk about something.”
Jack hesitates only for a beat. It is true that Gina does not like Brady. Actually, she'd just as soon never have him in her house again after the time last year when she realized the next morning he had been smoking dope in their guest bedroom.
Gina was as upset about Shannon recognizing the smell of marijuana as she was about Brady using it in their house, Jack figures.
Now, though, Gina is feeling a little guilty about not even making an offer as Brady finds himself staring at his last month of guaranteed shelter. She won't complain too much if he stays for supper.
“Yeah,” he says. “Come on over, if you can get here in this rain.” He says it knowing that Brady has a tendency, when he gets somewhere, to stay much longer than a normal person would. With Brady, a body at rest tends to stay that way.
“Brady â¦” Jack begins, before they hang up.
“Yeah, right. I'll leave the dope behind.”
Brady makes something of a mess getting in and out of his wet outer garments. Jack is reminded of Brady at 6 or 7, always being told to hang up his things when he came in from outside, always forgetting. They usually forgave him his little acts of carelessness. This was partly because he was such a little charmer, always smiling, always seeming as if he wanted to do right but somehow couldn't, and partly because of guilt.
Shannon gets a towel and wipes up most of the water on the foyer's tile floor. She and Brady get along pretty well, all things considered, and the dog adores him, sees in him a kindred spirit. He follows him around the room, jumping and barking for joy.