Smoke in a Sealed Room

It is summer, 1956. I am playing pirates on the lake with Matchstick and Trev. It is hot, the sun gleaming down on the water, painting it gold. Our lives are about to change, but we do not know this now. And we do not know that this change, when it comes, will be indelible. 
Lake.jpg “Hey c’mon guys, gimme a go at being Captain Hook! I’ve been kidnapped three times now!” Trev complained, pulling the rope from around his wrists.
            “Only ’cause you’re the easiest to catch!” I said, and Matchstick laughed.
            “Aw, whatever then. I gotta get home soon anyway,” he sighed, his chubby cheeks swelling.
            “Yeah, same here. You can be Hook next time Trev, alright?” Matchstick and I only teased him because he was a year younger than us, we having turned twelve a few months ago and feeling very high and mighty because of it. He was our best friend and it never meant anything.
            “Yeah, yeah,” he grinned and picked up one of the oars, pushing it through the water. Matchstick took the other and I sat at the prow of the boat, watching the hands on my Mickey Mouse watch move slowly around. I had known Matchstick since I was a baby, and we’d been like brothers my whole childhood. His real name was Hugo, but we called him Matchstick on account of him being real skinny and tall, with a head of flaming red curls.
            All three of us had been born in the small town of Helensdale, Georgia State. I always thought of the town as having layers, ’cause it was kinda divided in a physical sense. Helens Lake sat on the west side of town, bordered by the forest to the north and the big hills to the east. Atop these hills sat the wealthy residents of Helensdale. I called them the Vaults, ever since Pa told me as a young boy that they have so much money it fills up great big vaults in the bank. On the other side of the Vaults’ hills is the town square, the school and all the normal sort of houses like my friends and I live in. It’s not so bad, pretty tidy and all, and Matchstick only lives three places down from me.
Eventually the lake narrows and becomes Crown Creek, which curves round the town square area, separating the third and final layer from everything. This is known as the slums and the people who come from there, the Slummers. No one from our part of town goes over there as it’s in a pretty poor state and can only be reached by a little bridge anyhow, but one time Matchstick and I rowed further down the creek and got a good look at things. It wasn’t a nice sight, just a collection of run down shacks and folks walking round in dirty overalls and boots. All the Helensdale blacks live over there, but there are a lot of whites too and they’re treated just the same when they venture into town for necessities. Most of them work at the lumberyard, which is why they don’t have much money to get out of that place.
            We were nearly at the dock, which is between Helensdale High and the Slummer’s side of the creek when I spotted a figure pacing past the school in the direction of the Vaults. “Hey guys, ain’t that Mister Werner?” I asked, trying to get a better look.
            “You sure? Not like him to be on this side of town,” Trev said.
            “Yeah, yeah it is him!” Matchstick waved, but the man didn’t notice.
            George Werner was one of the wealthiest residents of the town. He was a lawyer, and worked in a nearby city on account of Helensdale not having its own law office.  I’d only seen him a couple of times, but I knew his wife was mighty pretty, and his son, Michael went to school. He was a few years younger than us, but boy was he a snob! He was known for picking on the few slummer kids that managed to get into school, in particular a quiet boy by the name of Robert Bisby. I wasn’t a fan of his much.
            After pulling our boat up onto the shore we strolled into town and parted at my driveway. I walked into the kitchen, where my mother was baking. My mother, she’s real pretty, and kind, too. “Christopher,” she said, and I knew something was wrong. Nobody called me that unless they were mad – I was Chace, ’cause of the speed my long legs gave me. “Christopher, there’s been an accident. Little Michael Werner…well, he drowned this afternoon.” She took a deep breath.
            “Michael’s dead?” I couldn’t comprehend it. “But mother, I was just at the lake-”
            “No,” she shook her head. “He was found down the end of Crown Creek. By the Slummers.” I thought of Mr. Werner, hurrying from that direction. He must have just found out. “Your father’s at the clinic now, examining the body.” She pulled me close. “Gosh, isn’t it terrible?”
            My Pa was the only doctor in town, and he also wrote part time for the local paper, the Helensdale Headlines. He was well respected round here, but while mother was beautiful, he was something else. He wasn’t bad looking – pretty handsome, in fact – but he was a cripple. He fought in the War with his best friend, Matchstick’s dad John, but while John came out unscathed, my pa got shot in the kneecap, shattering part of the bone. He’s had a limp ever since, dragging his leg behind him a little. The kids at school make fun of him and I can only look away, my cheeks going red, ’cause I know they’re right.
            When I came downstairs later that evening I heard mother talking to Pa, who must have just got home. Something about their hushed tone made me stop outside the living room and listen.
            “-you must be wrong, Carson. It can’t be right,” mother was saying.
            “I’m telling you, darling, Michael did not drown. There were bruise marks clear around his neck. He was strangled.” Pa said softly.
            My eyes widened. Strangled? Murder? Here?
            “No…not in Helensdale. That doesn’t happen…”
            “I know it’s hard…we’ll get to the bottom of this. Marcell was with me and he’s already informed George and Elizabeth.” Marcell Bredson was the town sheriff and Trev’s father. Trev would find out about this pretty quick, but Matchstick had to know.
The next day the three of us met up at the school field during recess. “Did you see this?” Trev shoved a copy of the paper at us. Boy, seven, strangled the headline read. It wasn’t by pa – he didn’t write such blunt things.
            “Already knew that, Trev,” I said.
            “Read it! It says the Werner’s are accusing Joe Bisby of the murder! Pa talked to them last night and Mister Werner declared the body was near Joe’s, and he had a motive since Michael’s always bullied Robert!”
            “Gimme that!” Matchstick snatched the paper from him, scanning it hurriedly. “Naw, I can’t read half of these words,” he complained.
            School had been a flurry of whispers and gossip this morning, but I noticed I hadn’t seen Robert at all.  When I mentioned this, Matchstick rolled his eyes. “Probably ’cause his daddy just killed someone, maybe?”
            Trev frowned. “You don’t know that. That’s why it’s called an accusation.”
            “Yeah, alright. Say, I wonder if we’ll get time off school if this thing really blows up?”
            I shrugged. “Maybe. Is that a good reason though?”
            “School’s still school,” he replied.
That afternoon I noticed a strange car in our drive as I came home from school, a shiny silver 1954 Cadillac Fleetwood. I let out a whistle, and shut the front door behind me. As I walked into the living room a man stood up and turned to me. He smiled. “Hi there, son!” I thought I vaguely recognised him as one of the Vaults, Jonathon. He was movie star handsome and his wife was known for being unfriendly.
            “Hello?” I replied, looking behind him to mother, who was adjusting her blouse. She stood, beaming brightly at me and brushing hair from her face.
            “Chace, darling, how are you? Mr. McCoy here was just dropping off Caroline’s blueberry pie recipe for me.” She turned to him. “Thank you again, Mr. McCoy.”
            “My pleasure,” he grinned and patted me on the head. “Goodbye, kid.”
            “I thought you had football after school today, dear?” Mother said.
            “Coach couldn’t make it,” I replied.
            “Oh, pity. Would you like some lemon cordial?” We sat at the table and began a game of checkers. We were on our third match when pa limped briskly into the room. Now, he was a real level-headed man; he rarely raised his voice or cursed, but something in his stare told me he was mad.
            “Carson, what is it?” Mother stood and went to him.
            “You saw the paper today?” He asked.
            “Yes. Bisby, well, I suppose we oughtn’t be surprised. If it was going to be anyone it was going to be a Slummer, and he had a motive.”
            “Joe was egged and stoned on his way home from the yard today,” Pa said through gritted teeth. “Someone painted a slash of red on his front door.”
            “Oh…who did it?”
            “That doesn’t matter. What matters is that it happened at all.”
            “But if he did it-”
            “There’s no proof, Maria. No proof. This isn’t right. Just because he’s from the slums…” he took a deep breath. “I’m going to write about this.”
            “Is that wise, dear?”
            “It needs to be done.” Pa seemed to notice me for the first time. “Chace, son, sorry about that. I’m going to be writing tonight, but how about some catch tomorrow?” He smiled tiredly.
            “Sure.” I shrugged.
The day after pa’s article was printed, I got cornered at school. I’d scanned the paper but hadn’t paid great attention. All pa seemed to write about was injustice and class, things I neither understood nor cared about. But three boys in high school, three Vaults, apparently did.
            I was walking to form room when they pulled me into the corridor. “Saw your pa’s article,” one of them said, a big, burly boy named James.
            “So what?” I said.
            “So my daddy says he’s a Slummer-lover, as well as a cripple,” he retorted, and the others laughed.
            “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
            “Your pa better watch out. And so had you.”
            “Aw, get outta here. I ain’t done nothing wrong,” I said stubbornly.
            “Now you look,” he said, stepping closer.
            Just then Mrs Stanley rounded the corner. “What’s going on here?” she asked.
            “Nothing, mam,” the boys said, and left quickly.
            “Were those boys bothering you, Chace?”
            “Naw,” I shrugged, but that night while playing catch with pa I dropped my mitt and said: “some boys at school said you’re a Slummer-lover today.”
            “They said what?” Pa frowned and sat down on the grass. After a minute, I sat down too. “Son, those boys are young. They don’t understand.”
            “Understand what?”
            “Why I wrote that article.”
            “They said their daddy’s called you that, too.”
            He smiled gently. “Their daddy’s don’t understand either.” He looked up at the slowly sinking sun. “There are people in this world, Chace, who don’t realise that we are all just that – people. There is no proof that Joe Bisby killed Michael, but the Vaults on that hill will jump to that notion straight away,  because they view the Slummers as lowly, and themselves as better.”
            “But they do have more money, and better houses and jobs,” I pointed out.
            “That’s true,” pa agreed, “but does that make them better people? I don’t blame you for thinking that, growing up in this town. But it isn’t a person’s wealth or possessions, or appearance which makes them great, son. It’s the quality of their character and their attitude towards others.”
            I nodded slowly. “Maybe I understand.”
            “Good,” he smiled and scuffed my hair. “Let’s get cleaned up for tea.”
I awoke that night to the sound of voices coming from below. Looking at my Mickey Mouse watch, I saw that it was after eleven. Curious to see who could be calling so late, I padded downstairs and followed the sound to the closed door of pa’s study.
            “I’m sorry, George – about your son. But I can’t take this,” Pa was saying in his mild tone.
            “It’s a lot of money, Carson.”
            “I can see that. But I won’t take it.”
            “All you have to do is refrain from printing articles in that Slummers,” Mr Werner spat the word out, “favour – or print a retract, perhaps highlighting him as the murderer he is. Let the killer get his justice.”
            I heard a chair scrape back. “George, it’s late. I appreciate the offer, but my mind will not change, not until there is proof in any case. Now goodnight.”
            I ducked down the hall and up to my room before I was discovered, going over the conversation in my head as I drifted to sleep.
I knew something had changed when I arrived home from school the next day. Pa was home for a start, and mother was not. I found him sitting at the table, a tumbler of whisky in his hand and Elvis Presley playing on the radio. An envelope sat in front of him and when I entered he held it out to me. It was blank.
            “Where’s mother?” I asked.
            Pa sighed and rubbed his eyes wearily. “Maria has moved onto the hillside,” he said.
            “The hillside? What do you mean?”
            “This is going to be hard to understand, Chace, but your mother has gone to live with Jonathon McCoy.”
            “But he’s married.”
            “And so is she. But your mother wants a better life.” He smiled wryly. “She left you that envelope.”
            “Is this something to do with Mister Werner visiting last night?”
            Pa straightened up. “You heard that?”
            I nodded.
            “Well, yes.” He sighed again. “Your mother hasn’t been happy for some time, son. She wants a better house, better things, and when she found out I turned down the money George offered me, it was her last straw.”
            “So she’s gone.” I said flatly, looking at pa’s twisted leg, not feeling all that surprised. Mother was beautiful. When he nodded, I said: “why does Mister Werner want you to stop printing so much? Just ’cause Michael died?”
            “It isn’t just because of Michael; this is bigger.” He pushed the drink away. “In a town as small as this one, son, a problem this big is like smoke in a sealed room. You can try and escape it, but it’s everywhere you go, and even if you find a bit of breathing space it’s still there, lingering in the air.”
            I left the room silently, trying to understand what he meant. Upstairs I stared at the envelope and fiddled with my watch, deciding whether to open it or not. Finally, I did.
            Darling Chace,
                                    I am going away for a while and could not bear to say goodbye. I will not be far, and will visit often. Please try hard at school and be good to your father. I know you do not think the best of him, but he is a wonderful man. He never told you how he was shot in the kneecap, and he is so modest he asked me not to tell you either. Your father was wounded because he rushed back into battle to save Matchstick’s father John, who sprained his ankle sprinting to cover. Carson carried him around his shoulders, right to the edge of the battlefield where he was hit. He is a brave man, Chace, but he cannot give me what I need anymore.
            I love you; I’ll be seeing you,
                                                            Mother.
I read the note seven times before bed that night.
I had had two more close encounters with James and his friends in the past few days, each time being saved at the last moment by a teacher or the bell. When I was walking home from school with Matchstick and Trev one afternoon, I was not so lucky.
            The day before, pa had printed another article, following the sheriff’s clueless search for the murderer and speaking out against the actions directed at the Bisby’s, whose windows had been smashed in. James held this out to me as he and his friends stepped from the shadows of a building. The street was deserted; a back road shortcut few knew about.
            “What now?” I said, trying to act tough.
            “…‘no human deserves this treatment, so why do some think it acceptable to do this to the Bisby’s?’” James read from the paper. “Your pa has gone too far. That cripple needs to be taught a lesson.”
            I glared at him. Since my mother’s letter I had thought differently of pa. He had saved John, who I had always admired so much – he must be some kind of hero! And maybe I was beginning to realise that his articles were in some way heroic too. “Don’t call him that,” I said.
            “Well it’s true, ain’t it?” The boy smirked. “He’s a cripple.”
            “Yeah,” laughed one of his companions, imitating pa’s limp.
            “That ain’t funny,” I said, stepping forward.
            “Well, if you love your cripple daddy so much,” James said, “you must agree with his sick way of thinking.”
            “Chace…” Trev said quietly, fear thick in his voice. They were all several years older and a lot bigger.
            I shook my head. “Maybe pa ain’t wrong. Maybe you are.”
            “I knew it!” James shouted, and in one quick move he grabbed me, pinning my arms back. I kicked and bit, but he was too strong, his grip never loosening. To my horror, his friends set on Matchstick and Trev, punching them in the face, the gut, kicking their legs when they collapsed. “You bastards, why don’t you hit me instead!” I screamed, and kept on screaming until they stopped, my friends unmoving on the ground.
            “Oh, we ain’t going to hit you,” the voice behind me said, and he released me, his friends grasping one of my arms each. Smiling, he drew a switch knife from his pocket and flicked the blade out. My eyes widened.
            “Are you crazy?”        
            He didn’t answer, simply advanced while I struggled. “Hold his face still!” His friends gripped my head tightly, and I watched as the knife came closer and closer, until it penetrated my skin, slicing from the corner of my eye down to my jaw. “Maybe now your pa will stop all this nonsense,” James chuckled, and the three walked off as I watched my blood drip from my chin onto the pavement.
Somehow the cut I received didn’t seem like a big deal on account of what happened to my friends. Matchstick came out of it black and blue with a line of stitches above one eye, but Trev broke two fingers and a rib, as well as being pretty badly beat up. After a few days my cut began to look a bit better, but there was no doubt that it would scar.
            Pa didn’t write any more articles on Bisby, and the boys who hurt us went unpunished because of the alibis their families presented to the sheriff.
            No hard evidence on the case had been found yet, and it looked like Bisby would be arrested soon if nothing was discovered.
            Trev, Matchstick and I were lounging on the grass at the foot of the Vaults’ hill, by Helens Lake when we heard it. A scream, high pitched and long, followed by a bang. We looked at each other and took off running, up the hill to the house the noise had come from. The front door was open, so we walked tentatively inside and there, hunched over her husband’s body, sobbing, was Elizabeth Werner. A silver pistol rested on the hard wood floor beside her, blood seeping stealthily towards it.
            Without a word, Trev and I sprinted towards town, me to pa’s clinic and Trev to the sheriff station.
Helensdale went into shock when Mrs Werner explained how her husband had always beaten her and Michael, one day losing control when his son accidentally scratched his car with a toy plane. He had strangled him and thrown him in the creek by the Bisby’s to frame Joe. Mrs Werner had been a wreck and had shot George after he nearly beat her to death, worried she would give him up to the sheriff. She was sentenced to a short term in jail and the house on the hill sat empty, watching over the town.
            For a long time after we found Mrs Werner, Trev and Matchstick and I didn’t speak, I think not sure how to be normal anymore. I stared at myself in the mirror, my eyes tracing the deep, fine scar running down my face and thought back to that day on the lake, playing pirates in the summer sun. Looking away, I unbuckled my Mickey Mouse watch, glanced at it once, quickly, and placed it at the back of my cupboard under a box of old toys.
            Then I shut the door and went downstairs to join pa for tea.
Written for a creative writing paper at The University of Auckland, 2013.
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