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Tommy Makepeace hated his parents. They’d decided, without soliciting his opinion, to pack up and move to another town several hundred miles away. He thought that would land him somewhere near the heart of darkest Africa. It didn’t. His worst fears unrealized, he was relieved and perhaps a bit disappointed to find that Middletown, Delaware, was a town virtually identical to the one he’d abandoned in Virginia.
There was one horrible difference. In Middletown, Tommy was the strange kid, the outsider not yet accepted. Sure, Joey Cranston latched on to him like a puppy and that stupid Susan Sullivan kept trying to talk to him in the cafeteria and on the playground, but they didn’t really count. He had no friends. That’s why Tommy loved to play hooky.
The only fun aspect of moving to Middletown was the Everett Theater. His father was the projectionist, so Tommy sat in the projection booth every Friday night to watch the newly released movies and double features. He loved Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Mighty Joe Young, Angel and the Bad Man and other John Wayne westerns, but he especially loved the serials like “Radar Men From the Moon,” “Secret Agent X-9,” “Terry and the Pirates,” “The Green Archer,” ”Mandrake the Magician,” “Captain Marvel,” and “The Phantom.” He loved watching movies with his Dad, who seemed to know everything there was to know about them. “You can’t have a good story without good characters,” he often said. “And you can’t have good characters without a good story.” That was his father’s basic review of just about any film, and Tommy came to value his father’s wisdom more with each one he saw.
Maybe he didn’t hate his parents after all.
Tommy’s mother always said he was a daydreamer. He wouldn’t deny it on a double-dog dare. If anything, he took pride in his ability to escape into his imagination, a place so vivid and real that all his senses were heightened and came into play during his imaginary adventures.
In the evening, Tommy would often sit at the dinner table, playing with his food and only slightly aware that his parents were conversing. Invariably, his mother would ask how his day went in school. By the time she got around to asking the question, however, he was already off on one of his adventures, his eyes seemingly focused on the mash potatoes (to him, the Himalayas crawling with abominable snowmen) on his plate. She would say, “Thomas Gabriel Makepeace, are you listening to me?” then pound the dinner table so hard with her fist that he would snap back from wherever he was as if riding a taut elastic band. “I swear, boy,” his father would say, “someday that daydreaming will be the death of you.” But he would smile when he said it. Tommy had a feeling his Dad daydreamed a lot, too.
* * *
Mr. McCardy, the truant officer, lurked in every shadow, ready to snare any errant student. Yet Tommy had managed to elude his grasp since the beginning of the school year. Tommy knew his luck was running thin, so he planned one last day of hooky to go swimming at Silver Lake. Indian summer had arrived, and he knew the bitter weather was only a week or so away.
He caught up with Joey Cranston in the school hallway the day before his planned excursion. “Joey, let’s play hooky,” Tommy whispered in his ear. “Just one last hooky, down by the lake. Whaddaya say?’
Joey shook his head, as he always did when the topic of skipping school arose. “My Dad would whip the tar outta me.”
“Oh, c’mon! This might be our last chance”
Tommy decided to go solo.
* * *
The small schoolhouse in Middletown catered primarily to farm families in the region, and those students all rode the bus to school. Tommy, however, lived on Main Street, right in the heart of town, and he walked to school with Joey— it was only a three-block hike. The walk to school usually provided Tommy with innumerable opportunities to entertain his fantasies and find novel ways to play. Joey sometimes shared in those fantasies and even seemed to enjoy himself at times, but he always worried about being late. When the bell rang, he often left Tommy behind as he raced to school.
For Tommy, on the other hand, tardiness was a state of mind, heartily embraced and well worth the inevitable penalties. Anything was better than being shackled to a desk while Mrs. Muggeridge droned about prepositional phrases, gerunds, and other bizarre, meaningless topics at the front of the class. He devised exquisite torture scenarios (involving sharp cutlery, dull saws, and various ravenous rodents) for whoever invented grammar.
“Mr. Makepeace, please mind your Ps and Qs and stop looking out the window,” Mrs. Muggeridge bellowed the first day of school. He had seen a picture of a water buffalo in one of his Dad’s National Geographic magazines, and he was sure she sounded (and, considering her moustache, looked) like one of those African beasts. And what in the world were Ps and Qs? He had no clue and no inclination to ask.
So, early in the school year, he learned to refrain from staring out the window. Instead, he would examine some minute thing on his desk, on his arm, in the hair of the girl sitting in front of him, or even in an illustration in one of his textbooks (which, of course, he would never think of reading). This would spark something in his imagination, and a new adventure would begin.
One afternoon during an especially mind-numbing lecture on the proper etiquette of young men and ladies, Tommy stared at a knot in the wood of his desk. The knot was a darker shade of brown than the rest of the desktop, and it seemed to swirl as he focused at its center. The knot enlarged and eventually enfolded him in its darkness, pulling him away from the classroom. He soon found himself in a massive cavern.
He heard the restless movement of many bats in the black crevices of the stalactites overhead. He could smell the damp earth and rock, feel the chill of being miles underground. At first, he thought he was in a mine, for there were incandescent lights strung along the cavern walls—but the passageway was too wide to be a mineshaft and there were no tracks to transport ore. Then, Tommy heard the roar of a car engine in the distance and immediately knew where he was—the Bat Cave!
Headlights speared around a curve deeper in the cavern. The Batmobile, just like in the comic books! Tires screeched, and then there was the echoing, rippling sound of thousands of bats taking wing above his head, disturbed from their vertical sleep. The streamlined black car braked directly in front of Tommy. He held up his arm to shield his eyes from the headlight glare.
“Is it the Joker?” he heard Robin ask.
“No, it’s just Tommy,” Batman said. “What are you doing, son?”
Batman opened the car door and stepped out. The Caped Crusader was a truly formidable man, taller and more muscular than any human Tommy had ever seen. He was so awed he could not budge or speak. To think, beneath the dark cowl was Bruce Wayne. But, no, as Batman approached him, he recognized another face under the cowl—not Bruce Wayne, but Mrs. Muggeridge. The cowl, the Batmobile, and the cave rapidly dissolved. Tommy was once again in the classroom.
“What am I to do with you, Mr. Makepeace?” she said. “What must I do to make you pay attention in my class? You have forced me to send yet another note home to your parents.” She turned on her heel and stomped like a water buffalo back to her desk.
Tommy sighed. He swore to himself that, someday, he would escape into his imagination and never return.
* * *
The school bell had sounded at least 10 minutes ago. As Tommy ran down Hoffecker Street toward the East Side of town, Mr. McCardy suddenly turned the corner at the end of the block ahead of him. Tommy dove behind the huge hydrangea in front of old lady Tyler’s house. He hunkered down, praying that the truant officer hadn’t seen him. Large black boots stopped on the sidewalk not three feet in front of him. The massive boots reminded him of Frankenstein’s monster. He held his breath. From under the bush, he heard McCardy mutter, “Damn kids.” Then the man moved on down the block.
Once he was sure McCardy was no longer nearby, Tommy ran the rest of the way to the edge of town. From Farmer Green’s fields, he could reach the forest that surrounded Silver Lake by working his way through the millions of rows of dry field corn. A 12-year-old boy could find plenty of places to hide out there.
Tommy loved Indian summer. The days were still warm but getting shorter. The leaves made their magnificent metamorphosis, creating splashes of fiery orange and red throughout the trees. Who needs musty books and cold desks and cranky teachers screeching chalk on blackboards? The forest taught him more in a day than a legion of teachers could in a year.
When Tommy reached the edge of the forest, he quickly made his way to the stream that fed the lake. He was fairly certain that McCardy was still in town looking for him and wouldn’t think (or be bothered) to extend the pursuit beyond the town limits.
Tommy took off his shoes, stuffed his socks inside, and tied the laces so that he could hang the shoes around his neck. He then waded into the stream. He overturned rocks on the bottom to watch crayfish scoot backwards in tiny puffs of mud. Tommy wondered if they were really alien creatures that, if you weren’t careful, would burrow into your flesh. He couldn’t imagine anything worse than being infested with crayfish (except, perhaps, being tutored by Mrs. Muggeridge on the finer points of diagramming a sentence).
Tommy then searched for gold along the path, pretending to be Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He often found chunks of quartz with what looked like gold speckled throughout. As he gathered rocks along the trail, he noticed a rock protruding from the ground like a miniature tombstone. Tommy tugged the stone free and wiped off the soil. The stone was perfectly flat and oval, polished smooth by time. He rubbed it between thumb and forefinger and immediately knew what to do with it. He smiled and stuffed it into his shirt pocket with the other stones he’d collected.
When he reached Mighty Joe Oak, he knew he was nearly to the lake. Tommy named the tree because it was the biggest in the forest, maybe older than time itself. And he had seen Mighty Joe Young, probably his favorite movie of all time, at the Everett with his father.
A squirrel searched for acorns beneath the tree. Tommy slowly pulled a peanut from his pants pocket and then tossed it just short of the squirrel. Tail twitching, the squirrel took a cautious few steps.
“C’mon,” Tommy whispered. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”
The squirrel snatched the peanut and then sat on its haunches to gnaw its reward.
Tommy tossed another peanut, this time a little closer to himself.
The squirrel bounced across the forest floor to grab its next treat.
“That’s the way.” He tossed another peanut.
Ten minutes later, the squirrel snatched peanuts from Tommy’s hand, hoarding them in its cheeks. When Tommy ran out of peanuts, the squirrel seemed to understand, nodded as if to say “thank you.” It then raced back to the base of the enormous oak.
All the friends Tommy had ever known were like that squirrel. They took until he had no more to give and hurried away. Why couldn’t he find a best friend, someone who would play hooky with him?
The squirrel spiraled up the trunk and disappeared into the tangle of branches above. Tommy decided to follow it. He had climbed the tree many times, but this day he went up higher than he’d ever braved before. He pretended to be Mighty Joe Young saving the little girl from the burning orphanage, hanging from a branch by one hand miles above the ground.
Tommy froze, instantly aware that someone was watching him. A faint rustling noise came from below. McCardy? No, McCardy wouldn’t venture into the forest. Maybe Joey had changed his mind? Not likely. Joey was too chicken. Because the leaves were so dense, he could only see the forest floor directly below him. Was that a moving shadow? Or just a play of sunlight through the limbs? Probably just another squirrel.
Tommy sat perfectly still on the branch until the eerie sense of being watched had passed. He shimmied down the tree. It was time for one last swim in Silver Lake.
* * *
The lake was unusually quiet. A subtle breeze rippled its surface. Tommy walked to the edge of the water and looked down at his distorted reflection.
Something stirred behind him, near the huge willow that stretched its feathery limbs across the water.
Oh no! Tommy thought. Not McCardy. Not now!
As he slowly turned, he heard a giggle.
Sitting beneath the willow was Susan Sullivan.
“I thought you’d be here, Tommy Makepeace,” she said. She smiled at him the way she always did. She never smiled like that at anyone else. “Where’s Joey Cranston?”
“Joey’s too chicken to skip school,” he said. He tried not to look into her eyes. They were traps to snare his soul. “I didn’t think girls played hooky.”
“Most don’t. I do.”
His eyes met hers. For some reason, he felt that years, long years, bridged that gaze, as if he’d known her forever. He had to look away, break the spell, but could not. She instead broke the gaze. He immediately wondered who was bewitching whom.
“It’s nice here by the lake,” she said. “I think I know why you come.”
“I come ‘cause I want to be alone.”
“That’s not true. You hate being alone. This is the only place that makes you happy.” She sighed. “I’ve been waiting here for you for so long.”
Tommy turned again to the lake. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out some stones.
“I like to skip stones,” he said. “That’s why I come out here.”
“How good are you?”
He tested a stone in his hand, and then hurled it. The stone hopped twice, then tilted too steeply and plunged into the water. The next stone skipped five times. He wasn’t satisfied. Joey had skipped a rock seven times and Joey was just a sissy. Besides, Susan was watching.
He pulled out the special stone, the one that reminded him of a tiny tombstone. It was all in the wrist and letting go at the precise moment, putting a perfect spin and angle on the stone. He closed his eyes, concentrated. Then he let it fly.
The stone skipped eight times!
He turned to Susan with a victorious grin.
“I could never do that,” she said. She returned his smile.
“That’s ‘cause you’re a girl.” Just a stupid girl, he thought. But he liked the way she smiled at him.
He sat under the willow beside her. They stared at the placid water. He wanted to say something to Susan, anything, but the words would not come. Maybe he didn’t have to say anything.
He pulled at tufts of grass by his side. A long, thin blade happened into his fingers. He plucked it from the earth, rolled it gingerly between his fingers just to feel its wonderfully green texture, then inserted it between his two top-front teeth. The blade of grass tasted like autumn. He could almost savor the waning sun, the slight chill in the air. He lay back in the soft grass to watch the clouds drift above the willow branches. The only sound, high in the tree, was that of a cicada, its raspy drone getting louder and louder. The sound was irritating at first but became strangely comforting.
Susan stretched out next to him in the grass. Her hand touched his. He didn’t resist.
He closed his eyes and found himself smiling.
Tommy didn’t see the long shadow extend across his prostrate form or McCardy’s dark, massive hand reaching down for him....
* * *
The green line on the EKG monitor flattened.
Dr. Kahlil switched off the monitor to end the drone of the alarm. He then turned to Joe Cranston, who sat alone next to the hospital bed. “I’m sorry.”
Cranston took Tom’s hand in his own. The hand wasn’t cold yet. “He had a heart as big and as strong as a horse.”
“The cancer had pretty much spread from the prostate to the bone and then throughout his lymphatic system,” Dr. Kahlil said. “There was nothing more we could do other than ease his pain.”
Joe nodded. “He called me Joey last night. Hadn’t called me that since we were kids.” He sighed, shook his head. “Ever since Susan died three years ago, I guess he had nothing left. No kids. Not like they didn’t try. They were childhood sweethearts. You’d think they’d invented love, they were so compatible.”
Joe wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He looked up to the doctor.
“Last night, Tom was lucid for just a moment. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Joey, let’s play hooky. Just one last hooky, down by the lake. Whaddaya say?’ Before I could answer, his eyes had lost their focus, and I knew he’d left me behind. He always left me behind. I guess I’ve always been afraid.
“Tommy loved playing hooky.”