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 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.
SMILE, I SAID!
The corners of Junior's mouth upturned. His eyes were dark, and his
“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
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
“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
“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
“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
“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?
“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
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
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
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
“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?”
“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!”
“I can if I want to!” Wally said, a note of petulance in
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
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
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
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 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
“He's coming home!” Mom said, and her eyes were wild in
her pallid face. “He called! He'll be home by six
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
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
“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?
“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.
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
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
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,
“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
“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
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
Junior nodded. Eddie Connors wasn't going to be tearing the street up
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.
“My boy,” Dad repeated. “And you're not going to be
one of those people who think the world owes him a giving, are
“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
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
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
“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, 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
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,
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
“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,
“Is this where you go all the time? It sure is high!”
“Climb up,” Junior repeated. “The ladder's
“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.
“Maybe I can come up halfway,” Wally said, and he started up the
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
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?”
Wally turned to look at the city. “Wow,” he said, his back
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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, 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
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
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
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
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.