Robert R. McCammon's "On a Beautiful Summer's Day, He Was"

On a Beautiful Summer's Day, He Was

by Robert R. McCammon

Originally published in
The Further Adventures of the Joker
1989

A boy.

Junior was smiling, and the sun was on his face. He was fourteen years old, it was the middle of June and summer looked like a long sweet road that went on and on until it was out of sight, swallowed by the hills of autumn a hundred miles away. Junior walked along the street two blocks from his house, his hands in the pockets of trousers that had patched knees, his fingers clenched on bird bones. The warm breeze stirred through his shock of brown hair, and in that breeze he smelled the roses in Mrs. Broughton's garden. Across the street, Eddie Connors and a couple of his buddies were working on the engine of Eddie's red, fire-breathing Chevy. They were big guys, all of them eighteen years old, already getting beer guts. Junior lay in bed at night and listened to the racket of Eddie's red Chevy roaring up and down the street like a tiger looking for a way out of a cage, and that was when the shouting rose up from the Napier house like the wrath of God and—

Eddie looked up from the work, grease all over the front of his sweat-soaked T-shirt, a smear of grease across his bulbous nose like black war paint. He nudged the guy next to him, Greg Cawthen, and then the third of them, Dennis Hafner, looked across the street and saw Junior, too.

Junior knew what was coming. His feet in their bright blue Keds stuttered on the broken pavement, where bottle shards caught the summer sun. He was a tall boy for his age, but gaunt. His face was long, his chin pointed. His eyebrows merged over a thin, sharp nose. Know why your nose is in the middle of your face? his father had asked him once. Because it's the scenter. That's a joke, Junior. It's a joke. Get it?

Smile, Junior!

SMILE, I SAID!

The corners of Junior's mouth upturned. His eyes were dark, and his cheeks strained.

“Hey!” Eddie shouted. His voice came at Junior like a freight train, and Junior stopped walking. Eddie nudged Greg in the ribs, a conspiratorial nudge. “Where ya goin', Gooney?”

“Nowhere,” Junior answered, standing on shattered glass.

“Yes, you are.” Eddie tapped his beefy palm with a socket wrench. “You gotta be goin' somewhere. You're walkin', ain't you?”

Junior shrugged. In his hands, he worked the bird bones deep in his pockets. “I'm just walking.”

“Gooney's too stupid to know where he's goin',” Dennis Hafner spoke up, from a mouth that looked like a puffy red wound. “Skinny little fruit.” His ugly lips spouted a sound of disgust.

“Hey, Gooney!” Greg Cawthen said, his face square and ruddy under a crewcut of red hair. “Your old man home?”

Junior squinted up at the sun. A bird was flying in the sky, alone in all that stark blue expanse.

“We're talkin' to ya, numb nuts!” Eddie said. “Greg asked if your old man was home!”

Junior shook his head. His heart was beating very hard, and he wished he had wings.

“Yeah, right!” Dennis nodded, and punched Greg on the shoulder. “They've got Gooney's old man in the crazy house again. Didn't you hear?”

“Is that so?” Eddie stared balefully at Junior. “They got your old man in the crazy house again? They got him locked up so he can't hurt nobody?”

Junior's mouth moved. “No,” he answered. He felt cold inside, as if his guts were coated with ice.

“Why'd they let him out, then?” Eddie Connors went on, his eyes narrowed into fleshy slits. “If he's crazy, why'd they let him out?”

“He's not...” Junior's voice was weak, and he stopped speaking. He tried again: “My dad's not crazy.”

“Sure!” Dennis let out a mean yawp of laughter. “They only put sane people in the crazy house!”

“It wasn't ... wasn't a crazy house!” Junior said; it came out louder and harder than he'd wanted. “It was a hospital!”

“Oh, yeah! Big difference!” Eddie said, and again his elbow found Greg's ribs. Greg was grinning, his teeth big and white. Junior wondered if Greg Cawthen's bones were as white as his teeth. “So they put him in a hospital for crazy people!”

“My dad's not crazy.” Junior looked back the two blocks to his house, the one with a big elm tree in the front yard. All the houses in the neighborhood were alike: wooden structures with narrow front porches and small, square lawns, most of the houses in need of painting, the grass dried and burnt, the trees throwing blue shadows that moved with the sun. Clothes hung on backyard lines, garbage cans stood dented and beaten, and here and there stood the hulks of old cars waiting to be hauled off to the junkyard. Junior returned his gaze to Eddie Connors, as his fingers played with the bird bones—the bones of a blue jay, to be precise—in his pockets. “He had a nervous breakdown,” Junior said. “That's all.”

“That's all?” Eddie grunted. “Hell, ain't that enough?” He walked out into the street, still popping his palm with the wrench, and he stopped about ten feet from Junior. “You tell your old man it's a free country. You tell him I can drive my car anytime I want, day or night, and if he wants some trouble he ought to call the cops again. You tell him if he wants some trouble, I'll give it to him.”

“Nervous breakdown,” Dennis said, and he laughed again. “That's just another way of sayin' crazy, ain't it?”

“Get outta here!” Eddie told the boy. “Go on, Gooney! Move it!”

“Yeah!” Greg added. And couldn't resist another sharp shot: “I'll bet your old lady's crazy in the head, too!”

“MOVE IT!” Eddie shouted, king of the block.

Junior began walking again, in the same direction he'd been going, away from the house with the elm tree in its dried-up yard and paint peeling in strips from its front porch. His father's voice came to him, and he remembered his father sitting in front of the TV, scribbling on a yellow pad and saying this: Know what a nervous breakdown is, Junior? It's what happens when you spend half your time keeping your mind on your work and the other half keeping your work on your mind.

That's a joke. Get it?

Smile, Junior.

Junior did.

“Skinny little fruit!” Dennis Hafner shouted at Junior's back. And Eddie Connors called out, “It's a free country! You tell him that, you hear me?”

Know what normal is, Junior? It's somebody before a shrink gets hold of him.

Smile, Junior.

He walked on, along the street layered with sunlight and shadows, his fingers grasping the bones in his pockets and his heart dark as a piece of coal.

But he was smiling, on this beautiful summer day.

Junior turned right at the next block. Ahead of him, shimmering in the heat, was the last remaining wooded hillside in this suburb. It was green and thick and held secrets. It was a wonderful place, and it was his destination.

Before he reached the end of the street, where a rugged trail led up the hillside, Junior heard the noise of sneakers on the pavement behind him. Somebody running. His first thought was that Eddie Connors had decided to chase him down, and he spun around to face his attacker and try to bluff his way out of a bloody nose. But it wasn't Eddie Connors, or any of his ilk, at all. It was a gawky, frail-looking boy with curly brown hair and glasses, a dumb grin on his face. The boy wore a T-shirt, short pants that exposed his skinny legs, black socks, and sneakers, and he stopped just shy of running into Junior and said, “Hi, Junior! I saw you from over there!” He pointed at a house further up the block, near the intersection where Junior had turned. The boy aimed his dumb grin on Junior again. “Where you goin'?”

“Somewhere,” Junior said, and he kept walking toward the hillside.

“Can I go with you?” Wally Manfred began to lope alongside. He was ten years old, his blue eyes magnified behind his glasses, and he needed braces in the worst way. Junior thought of Wally Manfred as a little dog that liked to chase cars and follow strangers, eager to be petted. “Can I, huh?”

“No.”

“Why not? Where you goin'?”

“Just somewhere. Go on home, Wally.”

Wally was silent. The noise of his sneakers on the pavement said he was still following. Junior didn't want him to see the secret place. The secret place was his alone. “Go home, Wally,” Junior repeated. The beginning of the forest trail was coming up pretty soon.

“Aw, come on!” Wally persisted, and he darted in front of Junior. “Lemme go with you!”

“Ixnay.”

“I can if I want to!” Wally said, a note of petulance in his voice.

Junior stopped. This wouldn't do. It wouldn't do at all. “Go home, Wally!” he commanded. “I mean it!”

Wally had stopped, too, and he looked as if he might be about to burst into tears. Junior knew Wally lived with his mother, in a house even smaller than his own, and Wally's father had gone out for a pack of cigarettes a year ago and never come home. Or that was the story, at least. Junior had overheard his parents talking about it, when they thought he was asleep. Parents had their secrets, just like kids. “I mean it,” Junior said. “I don't want you to go with me.”

Wally just stared at him, as the summer sun beat down on both of them.

“Go find somebody else to bother,” Junior told him.

Wally took a backward step. His eyes looked wet behind his glasses. “How come you don't like me?” Wally asked, and something in his voice was terrible. “How come nobody likes me?”

Junior strode past him, and began walking alone again.

“I like you!” Wally called out. “How come you don't want to be friends?”

Know what a friend is, Junior? It's somebody who has the same enemies as you.

Smile, Junior!

He went on. He started up the path, and about fifty yards into the woods he hunkered down and waited to see if Wally Manfred was following. “I don't care!” he heard Wally shout from the street. “I still like you!”

Junior waited for about ten minutes, there in the underbrush. When he was sure Wally wasn't coming after him, he stood up and continued on his way.

The trail led through the last of the neighborhood's woods. Trash and bottles littered the ground, proof that others had followed this path, but Junior's secret place was up higher on the hillside and about a quarter of a mile away. The trail steepened and became a rough climb, and Junior had to struggle up by grasping onto tree roots that emerged from the dirt. He left the last of the trash and bottles behind, and climbed up through green woods. The secret place was well-hidden, and he'd only found it himself by accident, a couple of years before on one of his long solitary treks.

At last, there it was. A rusted, brown water-tank that rose about sixty feet from the crest of the hill and was all but obscured by trees. A ladder led up, and Junior began to ascend with a quick, easy grace. The ladder took him to the top of the tank, where he stood up and looked to the northeast.

The gray towers of Gotham City loomed before him, and in the valley below were thousands of houses and buildings that radiated out from Gotham City on its maze of streets. There seemed to be nothing green in there, nothing but concrete and brick and stone. Factories stood between him and the central city, and the haze today was a pale, shimmering brown that clung close to the earth. One of those factories was the chemical company where his dad used to be a shift manager, last year, before his nervous breakdown. His dad still worked with the company, but now he was a salesman and he was on the road a lot. The factory was the one with the six tall chimneys, and today white streamers of smoke were rising from them into the brown air.

Junior felt like the king of the world, looking down from this height. But he had the bones in his pockets, and there was work to be done.

He went to the tank's hatch, where there was a flywheel. The flywheel had been tough to crack open. He'd had to bring a can of Rust-Eater—one of his dad's products—and a hammer, and even then it had been a hard task to loosen the wheel.

Junior bent down and began to turn the wheel. It was still a tough job that he had to put his shoulders into. But the hatch was coming open, and in another moment he lifted it and looked down the hole. Another ladder led into the empty tank. Hot, dry air rose into Junior's face. He let most of the heat out, and then he eased down into the hole and began to descend the ladder, eagerness working in his brain like a hot little machine full of oiled gears.

He was happy for a while, industrious amid his toys.

He emerged when the afternoon had cooled. His pockets were empty. He resealed the water tank, went back the way he'd come through the woods, and headed for home.

Eddie Connors and his buddies were no longer in sight, but the red Chevy was still there. Junior stopped at Mrs. Broughton's and leaned over her fence to smell a rose, and his gaze ticked back and forth, looking for Eddie or the others. A few beer cans lay on the street near the car. Junior stared at them, and began to shred the petals from a yellow rose. Then he crossed the street to the Chevy, took a handful of dirt and grit from the Connors' yard, and opened the Chevy's gas portal. In went the dirt, quick as you please. He washed it down with some beer left in a can, and then he closed the gas portal and returned the beer can exactly as it had been.

He went home smiling.

And there he found his mother, on her knees in the front room, scrubbing the threadbare carpet around the easy chair that faced the television set.

“He's coming home!” Mom said, and her eyes were wild in her pallid face. “He called! He'll be home by six o'clock!”

Two hours. Junior knew the routine. There was no time to be lost. He shoved down the terror that threatened to rise up within him, and he caged it. Then he hurried past his mother into his small dark room, and he began to straighten his shelves of books and put them all in alphabetical order. If there was one thing his father demanded, it was order in this chaotic world.

Oh yes: and one other thing, too.

Smile, Junior! Smile, Wifey!

SMILE, I SAID!

When Junior was finished with his books, he worked on his closet. Blue clothes together, white clothes together, garments with red next, then with green. Laces tied in all the shoes. Socks balled up, just so. A place for everything, and everything in its place. “Help me!” his mother called, her voice getting frantic. “Junior, help me mop the kitchen floor! Hurry!”

“Yes, Mother,” he said, and he went into the kitchen where his mother was working on the yellow linoleum tiles that would never fully be clean, never, never in a hundred years of scrubbing, even with Stain-Away.

At four minutes before six o'clock, they heard his car turn into the driveway. They heard the engine stop, and the driver's door open. They heard him coming, and mom said to her son, “Daddy's home!” She clicked on an awful smile, and went to the front door.

“Darling!” she said, as the tall, slim man in a dark brown suit came into the house, carrying his briefcase of samples. She hugged him stiffly, and drew away as soon as she could. “How was your trip?”

“It was,” Dad answered. “Thank you. This is the only job I know of where you can have breakfast in Lynchton, lunch in Harrisburg, and indigestion in Fremont.” His eyes, darker than his son's, searched their faces. “That's a joke,” he said. “How about a couple of smiles?”

Mom gave a bright, forced laugh. Junior stared at the floor, and smiled with aching jaws.

“Come give me a hug,” Dad said. “Know what a hug is? The freedom of the press.”

Junior walked to his father, and hugged him with labored arms.

“Good boy,” Dad said. “Know what a boy is? An appetite with a skin pulled over it. What's for dinner, Wifey?”

“I was going to put some turkey dinners into the oven.”

“Turkey dinners.” Dad nodded. “Okay, that's all right. It's a good night for the funnies. Turkey: that's a bird who'd strut a lot less if he could see into the future.”

Their smiles weren't quick enough. Dad slammed his briefcase down into his easy chair, and the noise made both mother and son jump. “Damn it, where's the happiness around here? This isn't a funeral home, is it? I've seen bigger smiles on dead people! That's no wonder, since the dead don't have to pay taxes! What's wrong with you two? Aren't you happy?

“We're happy!” Mom said quickly. “We're real happy! Aren't we, Junior?”

Junior looked into his father's face. It was a tight face, with hard, sharp cheekbones. His father's eyes were dark and deep-set, and down in that darkness there was a rage coiled up and waiting. It flew out without warning, but most of the time it lay inside Dad's head and simmered in its stew of perpetual jokes and gritted-teeth smiles. Where that rage had been born, and why, Junior did not know, and he figured his father didn't know either. But jokes were its armor and weapons, and Dad wore them like metal spikes.

“Yes, sir,” Junior answered. “I'm happy.”

“Remember what I told you.” Dad placed a finger against his son's chest. “People like to smile. If you can make people smile, you'll be a success. People like to hear a joke or two. They like to laugh. Know what a laugh is? It's a smile that's exploded.” The finger moved to one corner of Junior's mouth and hitched it up. Then to the other. “There,” Dad said. “That's what I like to see.”

Mom turned away and walked into the kitchen to put three turkey TV dinners in the oven. Then Dad began his weekly inspection of the house—a wandering from room to room as he spouted off jokes and comments he considered funny, punctuated by the opening of drawers and cabinets. The rest of the evening would be spent with John in front of the TV set, watching the sitcoms and scribbling down on his yellow pad jokes and repartee that particularly caught his interest. Grist for the grin mill, he called it.

That's a joke, Junior.

Smile.

Sometimes between the third and fourth comedy show of the night, Junior opened a door and went down the stairs to the dirt-floored basement. He switched on the light bulb, picked up a flashlight, which was always in its proper place, and went to the far corner at the rear of the basement. He lifted a cardboard box and watched roaches scurry in the flashlight's beam.

The ants were swarming. They'd done a good job. The chipmunk was almost down to the bones, and most of the kitten's bones were showing now, too. It wouldn't be too much longer. But Junior was impatient for his toys. The basement was very damp, the walls mildewed. He wondered if he'd have skeletons faster if he put the dead things in a dryer place. He lifted a second box, looking at his newest acquisitions. He'd found the dead bat in the abandoned house near the church three blocks away, and the robin had been snatched from a cat's jaws just yesterday. They weren't going to smell very good soon. The smell would rise into the house, as the beautiful summer days got hotter. Junior had been wanting to kill a full-grown dog or cat and watch its skeleton come out, but that smell would get up into the house for sure and his mother might come down here and find everything. His father he didn't worry much about; nothing pulled his father away from the comedies and the yellow joke pad.

But if he was going to start finding bigger playthings, maybe he needed somewhere else to keep them.

At nine-forty, Junior was sitting in the living room watching his father snore in his easy chair. His mother was on the telephone in the kitchen, talking to her friend Linda Shapona, who lived a few streets over. They'd gone to high school together, and Linda owned the beauty shop on Kerredge Avenue. Mom was usually on the telephone most of the evening; it was her only route of escape. The television was on, the last of the night's comedies. The yellow pad had slipped to the floor, and Junior picked it up to see what his father had written there.

It was hard to read the writing. The pen had attacked the paper. Junior could only make out a few of the mass of scribbled jokes and puns, the writing running together and overlapping like a nest of thorns.

Boss. A big noise in the office, but at home a little squeak.

What's a diplomat's favorite color? Plaid.

Heaven's where God pays all the bills.

A father always no's best.

Middle age is the time in life when a girl you smile at thinks you know her.

“It's late.”

Junior looked up. His father's eyes were swollen, and he was peering at his wristwatch under the dim lamplight. “Gosh. I went to sleep, didn't I?”

“Yes, sir.” Junior put the yellow pad down beside his father's chair. His father stretched, and his joints popped.

“I get tired early, I guess. I didn't even know my eyes closed.”

“Yes, sir,” Junior said.

Dad picked up the yellow pad and examined it. The way the light caught his face made him look very old, and the sight made Junior think of the collection of skulls at the Gotham Museum, one of his favorite places to spend a Saturday. “People like to smile,” Dad said, in a quiet voice. “They like a man who tells jokes. A happy man.”

Junior suddenly tensed, because he heard the sound of a car's engine racketing. Dad stared at the front door, as if he expected Eddie Connors's red Chevy to come roaring up the porch steps and into the house. Eddie revved the engine a few times, getting ready to lay rubber on the street right in front of the house—and then the car began to pop and sputter, and after a few seconds of that the engine died.

“Thank God,” Dad said, and let out the breath he'd been holding. “I can't stand that noise. It makes my head hurt.”

Junior nodded. Eddie Connors wasn't going to be tearing the street up tonight.

Dad was looking at his son. They stared at each other, their faces similar constructions of flesh and bone. The people in the situation comedy prattled on, and the canned laughter filled the room. “You're my boy, aren't you?” Dad asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“My boy,” Dad repeated. “And you're not going to be one of those people who think the world owes him a giving, are you?”

“No, sir.”

“That's a joke. Smile.”

Junior did, on command.

His father leaned toward him. Closer. And closer still. Junior could see pinpricks of sweat glistening on his father's cheeks and forehead. His father's skin had a sour smell, and the man's eyes were like black glass. “Junior?” his father whispered. “I want to tell you a secret. Know what a secret is? It's anything a woman doesn't know. But I want to tell you, because you're my boy.” His father's face floated before him in the dim light, half of it in shadow like a waning moon. “I'm afraid,” Dad whispered.

He swallowed thickly, as the canned laughter swelled. “I'm afraid I'm getting sick again.”

Junior didn't speak. A small vein was beating very hard at his right temple, and his lips were bloodless.

“Sometimes,” Dad said, “I feel like the world is spinning so fast it's about to throw me off. Sometimes I feel like the sky is so heavy it's crushing me down, and I can't get a breath. They gave me a second chance, at the company. They said I was good with people, and I could make people smile so I ought to be able to sell things.” A grin flickered across his mouth like quicksilver, but his eyes remained black. “A salesman. That's somebody with two feet on the ground who takes orders from a person with two feet on a desk.”

Junior did not smile.

“I feel like ... the wind's about to take me away, Junior. I feel like I can't get steady. I don't know why. It's just... I can't stay happy.”

Junior didn't move. He could hear his mother, talking on the telephone. He thought of the toys in the basement, slowly being whittled down to the bones by ants and roaches, a little more hour after hour.

“I can't go back to that hospital,” his father whispered, right in his face. “I couldn't stand that place. They don't know how to smile there. That's what Hell would be for me, Junior. A place where people wouldn't smile. If I had to go back there ... I don't know what I might do.”

“Dad?” Junior's voice cracked. “I ... wish you wouldn't ... talk like this.”

“What's wrong with wanting to be happy?” his father asked. The whisper was gone. “Is it a sin to be happy? Is it a damned sin?” His father was getting louder, and he drew his face back from Junior's. “You know, that's what's wrong with this world! They take everything away from you, and then they try to cut the smile off your face! Well, I won't let them! I'll see them in Hell before they break me down! They broke down my old man, and he was crying with that bottle in his hand and I said I'll make you smile again, I will, I'll make you smile, I'll do anything to make you smile, but the world broke him down! Because a man who smiles is a dangerous man! They want to cut the smile off your face, and make you weak! But I won't have it. I swear to God I won't have it! And you're part of me, Junior, you're my boy, you're my flesh and bone!” One of Dad's sinewy hands grasped his son's shoulder. “The world's not going to break us down, is it?”

“No, sir,” Junior said, lifelessly, but in his chest his heart was pounding.

“Junior?” It was his mother. She was standing in the doorway between the front room and the kitchen, and her hands had seized the wall like white spiders. Her eyes tracked back and forth from the boy to his father, and over the noise of the television laughter Junior could hear his father's harsh, slow breathing. “Why don't you get ready for bed? All right?”

A silence stretched. And then Dad said, “Mom's the word,” and released his son. As Junior walked toward the hallway that led to his room, his father said, “Know what a mother is, Junior? It's a woman who spends twenty years making a boy into a man so another woman can make a fool of him in twenty minutes.” Junior kept going, his insides quaking. He had taken three more steps when his father said, easily, “Lock your door tonight.”

Junior stopped. Terror had crippled him. Those words were not said very often, but Junior understood them. He looked at his mother, who seemed to have diminished in size, her skin turned a sickly gray.

“Lock your door,” Dad repeated. He was staring at the television screen. “Say your prayers, will you?”

“Yes, sir,” the boy answered, and he went to his room and locked the door. Then he lay in bed and stared at the ceiling, where cracks riddled the plaster.

In the morning, he could pretend he had had a particularly terrible nightmare. He could pretend he had not heard, as the clock's hands crept past midnight, the muffled noise of his father's voice beyond the wall, speaking stridently—commanding—and his mother's weak begging. He could pretend he had not heard his father shouting for her to laugh, to laugh, to fill the house with laughter. To laugh and laugh until she screamed. And there was the slapping noise of the belt and a lamp going over and the bed creaking savagely and his mother's sobbing in the silence that followed afterward.

Smile, Junior.

SMILE, I SAID!

His teeth gritted in a rictus, he lay with night pressing in on the house and darkness coiled within.

When he got out of bed, the sun was shining again. His father was gone, and so was the briefcase and the yellow pad. His mother made him breakfast. She had a split lip, but most of her bruises never showed. She smiled and laughed, a brittle sound, as she moved around the kitchen, and when she asked Junior what he was going to do today he said he had plans.

He left home early, bound for the secret place. He passed Eddie Connors's red Chevy, a deballed stallion at the curb. It would take more than a wrench to get the fuel line unclogged. He continued along the street where sunlight and shadows intermingled, and he went his way alone.

Atop the water tower on the high hill, Junior stood staring toward the spires of Gotham City. The chimneys of the factories were pumping out smoke, the arteries were clogged with traffic, and life went on whether your old man was crazy or not.

Junior opened the tower's hatch, and that was when he heard the voice.

“Hey, Junior! Hey, I'm down here!” He walked to the edge, looked down at the green earth, and there stood Wally Manfred in his T-shirt and shorts, this time wearing purple socks with his sneakers. Wally was grinning, and the sun sparked off his glasses. Wally waved up at him. “I see you!”

Junior felt his eyes narrow. Felt his face tighten, around the bones of his father. Felt rage open inside him like the unfolding of a dark flower, and black seeds spewed forth.

“I followed you!” Wally said. “Fooled you, huh?”

Junior trembled. It was a quick trembling, over and done with, but it was like an inner earthquake and left cracks in his foundation.

The secret place had been found. His haven of solitude was no longer his. And what did he own on this earth, except the toys that were stored within?

“What're you doin' up there?” Wally called.

Junior made his face relax. He made a smile rise up, through the hot flesh. He opened his mouth, and he said,

“Climb up.”

“Is this where you go all the time? It sure is high!”

“Climb up,” Junior repeated. “The ladder's strong.”

“I don't know.” Wally kicked at a stone with the toe of his sneaker. “I might fall.”

“I won't let you fall,” Junior said. “Honest.”

“Maybe I can come up halfway,” Wally said, and he started up the ladder.

What he was going to do about this, Junior didn't know. Sooner or later, Wally would tell somebody else about the secret place. Wally might even come up here alone, open the hatch, and see what was inside. Wally might go tell his mother, and then his mother might tell Junior's mother, and then....

They might get the wrong idea. They might think he was like his father. They might want him to go to that hospital where his father had gone, and where his father would be returning to soon. They might think something was wrong with him, and that something had been wrong with him for a long time but he'd been very good at hiding it.

“I'm halfway up!” Wally called out. He sounded scared. “I'd better stop!”

Junior was staring toward Gotham City, a garden of stones. “Come on the rest of the way,” he said quietly. “I've ... got a joke to tell you.”

“I'd better get down!”

“It's a good joke. Come on up, Wally. Come on up.”

Silence. Junior waited. And then he heard the noise of Wally climbing the rest of the way up, and Junior said, “That's a good boy. Know what a boy is? An appetite with a skin pulled over it.”

Wally reached the top of the tank. There was sweat on his face, and his glasses had slid down to the end of his nose. He was shaking as he got off the ladder and stood up.

“There's a good view of Gotham City from here. See?” Junior pointed.

Wally turned to look at the city. “Wow,” he said, his back to Junior.

One push.

Sixty feet down.

Drag Wally into the bushes. Hide him. Who was Wally, anyway? He was a little nothing, and he should never have sneaked up here to the secret place. One push, and the secret would be a secret again. But Junior didn't move, and then Wally turned around again and saw the open hatch. “What's in there?” he asked.

And it all came clear to Junior, what should be done, like a burst of brilliant light in his brain.

“Want to see?” Junior asked, smiling. He was cold, even standing in the sunshine, and he trembled though he could feel sweat on his back.

Wally walked carefully to the hatch and looked in, but it was dark in there and he could see nothing. “I don't know.”

“I'll go down first. I've got a light in there. Want to see?”

Wally shrugged. “I guess.”

“Just come down the ladder slow and easy,” Junior told him. “Wally? You like me, don't you?”

“Yeah.” Wally nodded, but he was looking at the open hatch.

“Follow me down,” Junior said, and he slid into the hatch and descended the ladder.

In another moment, Wally Manfred followed. Junior reached the bottom and picked up a flashlight he'd brought from home. He didn't switch it on yet, and Wally said nervously, “Where's the light?”

“I've got it. Just come on down.”

“It smells bad in here. It's hot, too.”

“No, it's not,” Junior said. “It's just right.”

Wally reached the tank's floor. His hands found Junior's arm. “I can't see anything.”

“Here's a light,” Junior said, and he switched it on. A heat was building in his skull, and his temples were pounding. “See my toys?” he asked, as he swung the light slowly back and forth. “I made them, all by myself.”

Wally was silent.

Wires dangled from pipes overhead, and from those wires hung the bones.

There were over a hundred. Constructions of wire and small skeletons—birds, kittens, puppies, chipmunks, squirrels, lizards, mice, snakes and rats. Junior had not killed all of them himself; most of the carcasses he'd found, on his long solitary treks. He'd only killed maybe forty of them, the kittens, puppies, and some birds with broken wings. But the skeletons had been reformed, with wire and patience, into bizarre new shapes that did not resemble anything that had ever lived. There were birds with the skulls of kittens, and kittens with wings. There were comminglings of rats and puppies, squirrels with beaks, and other things with eight legs and three heads and ribcages melded together like strange Siamese twins. There were things freakish and hellish, constructed from Junior's imagination. And here, on these wires, was the result of the only thing that excited Junior and made him truly smile: Death.

“I... think... I'd better go home,” Wally said, and he sounded choked.

Junior's hand closed on the boy's wrist, and held him. “I wanted you to see my toys, Wally. Aren't they pretty?” He kept moving the light, going to one grotesquerie after another. “It takes hard work to do this. It takes a careful hand. Do you see?”

“I've gotta get home, Junior! Okay?”

“I do good work,” Junior said. “I make things that not even God can do.”

“Junior, you're hurtin' my arm!”

“You like me, don't you?” Junior asked, as he moved the light from monster to monster.

“Yeah! I like you! Lemme go, okay?”

Junior swallowed thickly. His face was damp with sweat, his heart racing. “Nobody who likes me,” he said, “is worth anything.”

He let Wally go, and he picked up the hammer that lay near the bottom of the ladder, next to the coil of wire, the wire-cutters and glue and the can of Rust-Eater. Wally was pulling himself up on the first rung of the ladder, but Junior grinned and swung the hammer and as the hammer crunched into the back of Wally Manfred's skull, Junior was filled with a blaze of joy.

Wally gave a little cry, and he fell backward off the ladder. In the wind of his passage, the freakish skeletons danced. Wally tried to get up to his knees on the floor, and Junior watched him struggle for a moment. The red was coming out of Wally's head.

Junior thought of his father, scribbling fevered jokes on the yellow pad. He thought of his mother, and how she sobbed through the wall on the nights when Junior locked his door.

Smile, Junior.

SMILE, I SAID!

Wally was mewing, like a wounded kitten.

“Know what a laugh is?” Junior asked.

Wally didn't answer.

“It's a smile,” Junior said, “that explodes.”

He hit Wally with the hammer again, in the back of the head. Again. And again. Wally was on his stomach and he was making no noise. Junior lifted the clotted hammer to strike Wally Manfred once more, but he stopped himself.

There was no use breaking the skull anymore.

Junior sat down beside the corpse, making sure not to get any blood on his clothes. He listened to the rustling of his toys overhead. The secret place was a secret again, and all was right with the world.

After a while, he prodded dead Wally with the hammer. Poked him all over, seeing how much meat there was on the bones. Wally was a skinny kid. It wouldn't be long. Wally had never known he was a walking Erector Set, with so many different neat parts.

Junior switched off the flashlight and he smiled in the darkness.

He was a happy boy.

He left the hammer in its proper place. Atop the tank, he sealed the hatch good and tight. Maybe he'd come back in a month and see how things were going. It would be like opening a Christmas present, wouldn't it?

Junior stood up and stared toward Gotham City with dark, hollowed-out eyes.

The chemical factory's chimneys were spouting a mixture of white, reddish-brown, and pale green smoke. The haze filmed the sky between him and Gotham's towers, and it shimmered like a mystery on this beautiful summer's day.

Junior descended the ladder to the earth and started walking home through the woods. The replay of a hammer striking flesh reeled itself over and over in his brain, and it got better every time.

On the way home, he came up with a joke of his own that he'd have to tell his father: Why is a dead person like an old house?

Because they're both morgue-aged.

Smile, Dad.


Copyright © 1990 by Robert R. McCammon. All rights reserved. This story originally appeared in the anthology The Further Adventures of the Joker, first published in 1990. Reprinted with permission of the author.
© 2017 Robert McCammon Last updated 16-AUG-2017 04:37:33.12 Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha