!We Three Kings
The stone clicked against the second floor window then fell back with a dull thud into the snow near Kenny's feet. The blue TV light flickered against the tattered curtains like a dying candle.
"Momma watches movies on Christmas Eve," Dave had said. "It's a tradition."
But it was Puck's round face that spread the curtains, not Dave's, pale features frowning as his fingers struggled to open the window. The blonde head popped out into the cold like a shaken dust mop.
"Get Dave," Kenny whispered, just loud enough for the boy to hear him, but not his mother near the TV. "I need to talk to him."
"Kenny? What you doing out there in the snow?"
"Don't ask stupid questions, just get Dave."
The boy's head vanished and the window closed with a squeak.
Although not yet quite dark, the evening had turned suddenly and solemnly silent, stripped of the usual hustle and bustle of buses and trucks making their way through Paterson for their last stops before seeking their garages. Even the passenger vehicles seemed reduced with only one or two swishing by during Kenny's wait, and those seemingly on some last sacred mission before seeking solace of their homes.
Kenny stared at his own reflection superimposed on the jewelry store window along the first floor of Dave's apartment house, his face the size of God's against the backdrop of snow the store keeper had installed as display -- a tiny train chugging through a wintery landscape that normally contained stops thick with jewelry. But the rings and bracelets, the watches and necklaces had all been taken in for the holiday leaving the chugging little train making rounds that made no sense, tiny little headlight casting a pitiful glow across the artificial snow ahead of it, illuminating the tiny faces of tiny people who stood frozen in their greetings passed houses thick with tiny colored lights and small signs marking post office, hotel, city hall and such.
For Kenny, who had for all but one short ride to Ohio at three, had lived all his life on the boundaries of Paterson, the small town scene made no sense. Even had the jewelry remained, it seemed to perfect, too full of cheer, where people lived their lives in perfect order, suffering through what flavor ice cream they wanted in summer and whether they wanted hot chocolate or soup in winter, never wondering if they would eat that night or whether they would come home to find their families bickering again. He also noticed the snowy window scene lacked a graveyard.
Heavy footsteps sounded, a rolling, bumbling gait down the inner stairway from the second floor Kenny instantly recognized as Dave's, ending finally at the door beside the store window and the appearance of the tall boy himself, barefooted, in shorts and a t-shirt that emphasized his thin legs and arms. Even the kind kids at school called him "string bean." Unkind kids called him "Jolly Green Giant."
"What are you doing here?" Dave hissed, struggling to keep his voice contained, although the shrill whisper could be heard clear upstairs than ordinary speech. "If momma catches you here, she'll have my head."
Kenny eased through the door, warm air making his cold face tingle, even though the gaps around the door had left a trail of snow across the small vestibule, hiding portions of its worn black and yellow tiles. Another door, perfectly paralleling the first but three feet in led to stairs to the basement, while to the right, stairs sagging in their middle from year's of trampling led up to the second floor's apartments.
The hall smelled of stale cigarettes and Vick's Vapor Rub.
"Which means you don't want to come with me," Kenny said, eyeing the taller boy, making note of the nervous tick of Dave's left eye, and the repeated glances he made back towards the stairs -- always wary of his mother's presence, even when she wasn't watching him.
"Go with you? Where?"
"To the Quarry."
"On Christmas Eve? Are you crazy?"
"Maybe," Kenny mumbled, his bare fingers already red and raw from the cold. He had left in such a hurry that he had not thought to bring gloves or a hat. "Grandpa's dying."
Dave's stern expression melted slightly. "I'm so sorry," he mumbled. "But if that's true, why are you here?"
"My relations are hovering over him like vultures," Kenny said. "If I stay in the house with them I'm bound to say or do something stupid and get myself whipped."
"I'd ask you to come up stairs with us," Dave said sadly. "But you know how Momma feel about you."
"I don't want to stay in anybody's house, whether they like me or not. I need to breathe, and the only place I can think of to breathe easy is up at the quarry."
"And you want me to come with you?" Dave asked, his dark eyes tinted a little by the glow of the street lamp and the rare pleasure at being included.
"That's what I said," Kenny said, stamping the snow off his sneakers although the moisture had already seemed through to his toes. The dank smell of old coal bins oozed up from under the basement door with the drafts. It reminded him of home, and his grandfather. Christmas music twittered from somewhere up stairs with the opening of a door.
Dave licked his lips slowly, staring once more up the stairs then at Kenny again.
"I wish I could go with you," Dave said. "But momma would miss me. She likes to have us around while she watches her Christmas movies."
"Movies she generally falls asleep in the middle of," Kenny reminded him. "She wouldn't miss you except to get her a cold drink from the refrigerator, and even your bratty little brother could do that much."
"She would miss me if she woke up and I wasn't in the house," Dave said, "even if she nodded off any time before the midnight Yule log."
"Midnight is way too late," Kenny mumbled, glancing back out to the street where the snow had already thickened, streams seeping down to lick at the curb. The storm hadn't even seriously started yet, but by midnight...
"I'm sure you could find an excuse to get out," Kenny said. "You always have in the past."
"Not on Christmas eve, I haven't," Dave said, leaning back against the wall, his heavy shudder suggesting a reaction to something more serious than the draught. The blue light of the street lamps split his face in two, half dark, half blue. "Momma's got a big surprise for us in the morning."
"You don't sound happy about it."
Dave shrugged. "Puck will be."
"I will?" The blond hair appeared first, floating down into the angled light like a ghost. "What kind of surprise is momma planning?"
Dave's expression soured. "What the hell are you doing out of the house?" he asked.
They shouldn't have been brothers. Where as Dave was unnaturally tall for his age and flesh so drawn out against those long bones he looked skeleton-like, Puck was short and stocky, and would not likely exceed the five foot six inches his father had achieved. Whereas Dave had thin brown hair, Puck had bright blonde, neither of which took after either parent.
"Momma sent me down to see what's taking you so long with the trash," Puck said, gnawingly defiant.
"You didn't say nothing about Kenny, did you?" Dave asked, sadly resigned.
"Not yet," Puck said, his blue eyes glinting with the delight of a suggested threat..
"Don't be a wise ass, Puck," Dave warned, raising the back of his hand as if to hit the boy.
"I'll tell Momma."
"Tell momma what?"
"That you and Kenny are going off to the quarry tonight."
"You little ease-dropper!" Dave roared and dove towards the boy. But Puck danced back up the steps, keeping out of reach.
"I'll tell, I swear I will."
Dave glanced at Kenny, thin eyebrows raised with that resigned look Kenny had frequently seen, that always suffering look Dave bore at school whenever anything went against him, bearing up under the oppression of pestering class mates rather than standing up to them.
A boy that size, Kenny figured, could out reach anybody in a fist fight.
But Dave never fought back.
"See what I mean, Kenny?" Dave said. "There's no use in my planning to go with you. This little prick would blow the whole plan."
"Why would you want to go anywhere on Christmas?" Puck said.
"Because I'm sick of playing these silly games of Momma's," Dave said. "Every year we watch the same movies and hear Momma moan about how better life was back before she got marry and had us to worry about. Maybe you find that comforting, but I don't. And I would much rather go with Kenny than to hear about how little she loves us again this year."
"But why would Kenny want to go anywhere?" Puck asked. "Doesn't he want to have some Christmas?"
"There's no Christmas in my house this year," Kenny said, tugging on the sleeves of his jacket to make them cover more of his still frigid hands. "Look, I'm going to go before the snow gets too deep."
"It's supposed to be the worst storm in fifty years," Puck said. "At least that's why they're saying on the TV."
"All the more reason for me to hurry," Kenny said. "If figure I might get up to the caves before the snow gets too serious. Once there, with any luck at finding firewood, it won't matter how hard it snows or for how long."
Kenny stepped back out onto the walk, the accumulation of snow already a half inch thicker, covering every inch of pavement and most of the roadway, too. He could no longer see the windows on any of the parked cars.
"If you change your mind I'll be down at the sweet shop for a while," Kenny said, shifting the straps of his backpack. "I have to talk with Mr. Paul."
A sharp look of regret showed in Dave's dark eyes as he closed and locked the door, leaving Kenny alone on the sidewalk. Kenny's footprints leading down the hill from his grandfather's house had almost completely vanished with only traces of the last few steps to mark his having passed through here. But his gaze remained fixed for a moment on the high house and its multitude of lights, glowing behind the veil of falling snow like one of the jewelry store display homes, an image of holiday cheer no one intended.
A shudder shook Kenny and he turned the other way, down hill towards the sweet shop, the railroad tracks and "that" part of town against which his family perpetually warned him. The snow, as thick as it was, could not hide the trail of street lights that outlined his passage, although little else was visible. The shroud covered the bodies of buildings so thoroughly that these appeared only as he came upon them, each utterly familiar from a childhood of wandering these streets, yet each a remarkable shock as they popped out from nowhere ahead of him and vanished back when he had passed.
The street lights and the street he followed did not extend all the way up to the mountain and the quarry. After crossing the tracks, he would eventually have to turn off onto Mountain Road and make his way along the narrow space between the city and the valley at its feet, that road climbing gradually to Valley Road itself, which ran along the foot of the mountain.
In summer, in daylight, it was no great feat. Kenny had accomplished hundreds of times, often when he was considered too young to even cross a busy street. Yet now, with the bulk of the mountain hidden in the dark, its dark face veiled by snow, Kenny sensed the impossibility of his mission, envisioning a thousand possible catastrophes he might suffer before reaching those caves.
Even the familiar streets, mere blocks from his grandfather's house, seemed stark, flat faced grave stones staring back at him with street numbers instead of names, the few glowing windows hinting of fading warmth and passing time. A handful glistened with cheeriness, Christmas trees aglow inside with smiling faces around them, children's eyes glinting with visions of grand things for the morning. They waited for Santa Claus, Kenny thought, not the grim reaper.
Kenny had not gone too far down the block when the thudding of running footsteps sounded in the snow behind him, and someone called out his name from beyond the shroud of snow -- too high pitched to be his uncles.
Kenny halted, turning to squint against the stinging snow, struggling to make out the two shadowy shapes struggling to catch up with him.
"God, Kenny, you don't hear very well," Dave said, his long stride bringing him into view first, the pointed top of his hooded sweatshirt making him look a little like a perverted elf, snow clinging to his shoulders and his hood. "I've been calling to you for a half block already."
Dave seemed have no hands having stuffed them into stained gym socks.
"So you changed your mind?" Kenny said
"Sort of," Dave said.
"Which means what?"
"Which means my mother needed cigarettes and the only store open now is the sweet shop," Dave said, just as his brother appeared.
Puck looked better fitted to the season, wearing a hunter style hat and a cloth black and white checkerboard jacket. He had bright red wool gloves that seemed to glow unnaturally in the dark. His impish face might have served as a model for a Norman Rockwell painting, one that might have hung well in the jewelry store window above the artificial railroad and village.
"Why on earth did you bring him?" Kenny asked.
"Like I could stop him," Dave said, breathing heavily from his hurried walk. Steam swirled around his face with every breathe. "He threatened to tell Momma I was going to the quarry with you. But don't worry. He'll go home once we reached the sweet shop. Someone has to bring Momma her cigarettes."
"Won't the wicked witch get mad if you're not with him?"
Dave shrugged. “I don't care as long as I'm not there to hear about it."
"She'll punish you later."
"I know. But later is later and meanwhile, you and I can hide out like we used to."
"What about the surprise your mother is planning?"
"I already know what it is," Dave said. "And frankly, I don't want any part of it."
"Well, we'd better get a move on," Kenny said. "This storm has gotten worse. I thought I would be up at the mountain before it got too serious, but it looks like we'll be plowing through some drifts before long."
"Worst storm in fifty years," Puck said.
"Yeah we know, Puck," Kenny growled. "Just come on."
The snow grew deeper, piling on top of the icy remains of previous storms store keepers and home owners had shoveled aside. Each step was a test of balance as the slippery under surface threatened to cast them down.
The storm grew furious, a rage of intensity that threw its terrible fists down upon the three travelers, each blow slowing their advance, each icy sting wearing away their resolve to continue.
Kenny alone grew more determined, glaring up at the face of the storm, his thought challenging it to do its worst.
But the real assault came from inside his own head, the storm stirring up memories of tales his grandfather used to tell, the old man sitting a much younger Kenny on his knee to relate how much more terrible mother nature was in bygone days. Storms back then didn't merely cover the landscape, they carved it, leaving a wake of desolation for the survivors to repair. While modern storms created drifts three or four or five feet deep, storms back then laid such levels in the shallow parts.
"Damn you, old man," Kenny thought angrily. "You were such a fucking liar."
Or perhaps not.
The storm circled them, swirling its winds like whips against their faces, carving the landscape into unrecognizable forms just the way the old man said they once did, each house gradually entombed by the perpetually falling flakes. The storm breathed its fury into Kenny's face, pressing its weight upon Kenny back, placing its embankments before Kenny's feet.
He could hardly walk, and Dave, taller by more than a head, and less stout, bent under the weight of it, his thin legs struggling to keep up their long-stride.
Light-hearted Puck seemed unfazed by the storm, dancing ahead of both older boys, laughing at the storm's intensity, holding his mouth open wide to ingest its bounty.
"So what's this big surprise your mother has planned?" Kenny asked as they neared the corner. "Or am I not supposed to know?"
Dave, with snowflakes on his hood and eyebrows, peered through the storm to where Puck was, and determining the boy was far beyond hearing, said, "Poppa's coming home."
"You mean they let him out?"
"Sometimes," Dave said. "But only if Momma goes and gets him."
"So you don't want to see him?"
"I want to see him all right," Dave said. "Momma says she's bringing him out for us. But I know she only wants him to sign some checks."
"Doesn't he catch on?"
"Maybe. He's so sick he doesn't care. I'm the one that gets peeved about it. He always looks so grateful, even when she's stealing his pension. I want to shake him some sense into him, and know that if I do, Momma will throw me out of the house. I'm only her kid. He's her meal ticket."
"So you'd rather freeze in the mountains with me?"
"At least I won't have to pretend like nothing's wrong."
"You'll have to see him when you get back."
"By that time it won't be Christmas."
Just when the sound began, Kenny could not quite recall later, but he remembered a buzzing and thought it strange that bees should be alive in the middle of all that furious snow. Then buzzing became something more concrete, a rumbling or grumbling that rose from out of the ground itself, more a feeling than a sound at all, as if the earth would cast itself open at any moment and bury all three alive. By that time, Kenny realized he heard the sound of some mechanical institution working its way through the storm -- a riot of cylinders and pumps charging through the streets to challenge the storm's hegemony, a huffing and puffing that echoed through the veil from some distant point still on the far side of Kenny's family's house, its sound growing more intense as it narrowed the distance between them.
"Cars!" Puck shouted and leaped off the base of a lamp post to take up a position near the curb where he might catch sight of the machines. "I hear cars."
"Some idiot is driving in this storm?" Dave muttered.
Kenny glanced up the road the way they had come, the flashing of yellow lights indicating the two intersections between them and the hump of the hill. He could only see the lights dimly, and not yet the headlights of the approaching cars.
"I know who it is," Kenny said, having heard that rumble frequently outside the junior high, the growling, grunting hotrods high school thugs used to impress the younger girls. "You want three guesses?"
Dave's face grew more pale than before, his dark eyes staring painfully towards the distant object not yet visible. "Are you telling me that Minks is in one of those cars?" Dave asked.
"He usually hangs out with that crowd," Kenny said. "My guess is that if they're out, so is he."
A yellow, wobbling haze grew at the top of the hill, like an early indication of a dawn, the light emphasized by the thick reflective veil of snow. When the actual headlights appeared, they seemed disappointingly small, two sets of yellow eyes struggling to peer through the massive storm that brewed before them, each set slightly askew from the bumps and bruises suffered during their everyday transactions with city traffic.
Theirs was a staggering approach, a weaving, heaving dance that spun from one side of the street to the other, wheels twisting back to save the vehicles from what seemed an inevitable encounter with the curb. The two cars trading places in a fantastic sequence that luck, fate or perhaps God kept from collision with each other, one set of headlights suddenly careening one way as the other did the reverse.
As the cars approached, these lights grew in size and intensity, but not nearly to the degree their sound did, buzzing long surrendering to the monstrous roar. Finally, they came close enough for Kenny to see shadowy faces floating behind their steamed windshield, spirits of the night drawing down on them, swerving towards their position at the corner.
Dave shrank back from the curb, but not nearly far enough to avoid the wave of slush the cars sent flowing towards him, staining his legs and chest as the vehicles swerved away again.
"They did that on purpose!" Puck shouted, shaking his fist at the cars as they vanished in the direction of the tracks.
"Of course they did," Kenny said, wiping away the slush from the front of his own jacket.
"But what's he doing out tonight?" Dave asked, staring down the street the way Minks had gone. "Doesn't he have family?"
"He's got a father who beats him from what I've heard," Kenny said. "He's probably just as afraid to go home as we are."
"But where's he going now?"
"To get drunk most likely. There's a few bars open on the other side of the tracks and they'll sell his high school buddies beer if they ask."
Kenny stepped off the curb, then stopped when Dave did not immediately follow. "Are you coming, or what?"
"I don't like Minks being out here," Dave said.
"Don't tell me you're still afraid of that idiot?"
Puck, who still found enough energy to prance around, paused at the far corner and stared back. With his blonde hair now frozen around the fringes of his hat, he looked a little like a scarecrow, but a nervous scarecrow, staring not at Kenny or at Dave, but back the way they had come, back towards his mother's house and the Christmas movies, back towards the Christmas morning surprise.
"Of course I'm not afraid of him," Dave said, staring down at his hands, at the movement of his cold fingers inside the stained socks.
"That hardly sounds convincing," Kenny said.
Dave looked up, pain tinged his dark eyes. "Well, he has given me a turn or two at school over the years."
"But you're bigger than he is."
"That doesn't make me tough enough to take him on."
"You have to be tough to his kind or they keep picking on you. He doesn't pick on me."
"That's because you scare him."
"Me, scare him? Why?"
"You know what it means to fight. You've been over there," Dave said, waving his sock in the general direction of North Paterson. "He knows you spent time in the projects, and that he's just a junior high school bully."
"And you know he's just a bully, too," Kenny said. "You can beat him up if you tried."
"Let's not talk about it, all right?" Dave said. "It's getting cold. I can hardly feel my toes."
"We can warm up in the sweet shop," Kenny said.
They hobbled across, Kenny vaguely conscious of the street's distinction as the one time extreme boundary of his earlier childhood wanderings, when his whole world was comprised of a handful of blocks with their handful of institutions he could freely wander on his own: Ollie's Drug Store, the Second Street Market, the Corner Liquor Store (where he bought clear cream soda) and the meat market. Crossing the street for the first time at some point marked some new stage in his growth, introducing him to new institutions with more complex relationships, the bakery, the market, and, of course, the sweet shop. For a time, when Kenny still cared for such things, he had risen each morning to pick up bundles of the Morning Call for delivery throughout the neighborhood, one of his desperate money-making schemes he believed would eventually set him free.
The labor of the effort nearly broke him, too much, too early, for too little.
He generally spent more than he made on keeping himself supplied with candy and coco along the route.
The block got even more quiet, as store front windows replaced even the handful of front lawns the previous block offered, windows thick with strings of Christmas lights blinking on and off inside shops closed for the holidays, their colors spilling out onto the snowy sidewalk in alternating reds, blues, greens and yellows. The window lettering announced each institution's purpose, drug store, ground coffee supplier, hardware store and finally bakery.
This last was the first store in a group, and its well-illuminated window testified to its occupation, pale light pouring over the sidewalk as the Christmas lights had, but giving the snow a paler, more ghoulish color, shroud-white with the bodies of a park bench, fire hydrant and trash can beneath.
Puck paused at the window to stare through the steamy glass at the large figure moving around in the back -- the baker, busy with his breads and his pastries, taking no notice.
Kenny nudged Puck on passed the parade of dark stores which finished the block, then across another narrow street to the block on which the sweet shop rested.
These couple of blocks marked the ultimate boundary of Kenny's childhood, with the railroad tracks as the definitive division between his world and the dark shapes of the more terrible Paterson beyond. The sweetshop, even on the brightest of days and the clearest of nights, had always shimmered like a little jewel against the backdrop of smoke stacks, factories and security fences hovering along the "good" side, while on the far side, a different eerie glow of more stark lights hinted of another kind of Paterson along Main Street, flashing reds in tune to the moody blues oozing out of open barroom doors -- fly traps for the factory workers each payday.
Kenny halted in front of the sweetshop window, where a few tattered paper decorations paid tribute to the holiday instead of the holiday lights other stores posted. Even softened by the steady climb of snow along the window's ledges, the store bore a similar starkness as the factories and the few stores along the other side of the tracks, as if it had wandered onto this side by mistake and got stuck here.
A pasty glow from florescent lamps hanging from the low ceiling inside spilled out through the frosted class and onto the snow covered sidewalk, shaping this space into the last island of serious light before the tracks. A small clear patch of wet pavement near the door marked the tentative efforts of the store owner to shovel, although this was abandoned after less than a yard. Footprints leading up to the door already seemed old, nearly filled in by the constant snowfall.
Through the glass, Kenny could make out dark shapes near the rear of the store, shuffling, unhurried figures who seemed to have an eternity to get from one place to another, haunting in their lack of concern for the storm or the holiday. These were part of the entourage of old black men the old black owner allowed to hang out at the rear table, perpetual guests playing perpetual games of cards in a perpetual haze of cigar smoke and small talk.
"You're going in there?" Dave asked, squinting from under eyelashes thickly crusted with snow.
"Why not? We've been in there a million times," Kenny said.
"Not like this-- not when there were only..."
"You've been listening to your mother again," Kenny growled. "Next you'll be asking if it's safe!"
"You know it is, damn it!" Kenny said.
"Safe for you, maybe," Dave said. "You spent that time in projects."
"Come off it, Dave," Kenny said and shoved through the glass door.
A gust of warmth struck his frigid face like a soft slap, warmth thick with the scent of newsprint and candy, coffee and cigar smoke, stale cakes and oil heat. The memory of that particular smell brought him back to his early morning trips here for his paper route, and the fear he felt for the first time so fresh after his return from the projects, Mr. Paul's broad black face floating over him, asking what he wanted and had he mistakenly come to this place instead of the white-owned store a few blocks up.
Kenny halted just over the threshold, holding open the door as if he sought to make a quick escape. Dave and Puck stirred outside amid of swarm of snowflakes. The black faces at the rear of the store turned, grumbling around cigar butts about the cool air.
All were old. All were wrinkled. All were black.
One of their number rose, the broad face grinning a little from the memory of his earlier encounter with Kenny, bright eyes full of life Kenny's family lacked.
"Well, well, if it ain't Kenny McDonald," Mr. Paul said as he placed his cards flat down on the table, then hobbled towards the front of the store. "It has been a dog age since I've seen you."
"I haven't had a chance to get down this way in a long time," Kenny said in an apologetic tone.
"I know how that gets," the old man said, making his way around the back end of the counter and up along its inside towards where the cigarettes and cash register sat.
The old man had aged badly during the few months apart, more bent, less able to get his legs to work the way they aught. But his smile remained, the gap between the teeth giving it character.
"You look well, boy, although I must say I can't see what you might be doing out in weather like this, especially on this night of all nights," Mr. Paul said.
"I got my reasons," Kenny mumbled, and eased into the store, letting the door close out his friends and the storm that occupied them.
The old man's smile eased into a frown. "One reason wouldn't be your grandfather's health, would it?"
"You heard about Grandpa?"
"I heard he wasn't doing well," the old man said.
"Now he's doing worse than usual," Kenny said. "The doctor says he won't likely survive the night."
The old man's worn hands settled palms down on the counter as he stared into Kenny's eyes.
"I'd heard as much," he said. "He's worked too hard on those boats of his."
"A lot of people work hard but don't die from it," Kenny said.
"They do if they don't get what they wanted from it."
Just how Mr. Paul knew all he knew about Kenny's family, Kenny never knew. But the black man seemed aware of even late developments as if he had spies in Kenny's living room. The old man seemed to have a deeper history with the family he did not speak about, and the soft glow visible in his dark eyes hinted of great sorrow no occasional contact could explain.
"And you don't want to be there to witness it?" the old man asked.
"Something like that."
"So where did you intend to go?"
"To the mountain."
The old man's thick white brows folded down over his wary eyes. "Ain't it a bit chilly for a trip like that?
"The snow won't be a problem once we get there," Kenny said. "There's caves up there we can stay in and plenty of fire wood all around."
"Me and my friend, Dave. He's outside."
"You left your friend out in the cold? What's wrong with you, boy. Fetch him in here this instant."
"He's a bit shy about coming in here," Kenny said. "You know like most white kids."
"So he'd rather freeze than be seen in a black man's store?"
"It's not the being seen so much as him fearing other things."
This raised the brows into a question. "What kind of things?"
"He never spent time down along the north side like I did," Kenny explained. "He only believes what he hears from other white kids and from his mother."
"Oh, I see," Mr. Paul said. "But I suspect by now the cold might have made him chilly enough to get over those prejudices. You get him in here and I'll get you both something warm."
"Pardon me, Mr. Paul," Kenny said, halting the black man as he turned towards the glass pot full of hot water. "If you're going to make a warm drink, could you make it for three of us. We have Dave's little brother with us, too."
"You're planning to take a child up into the mountains with you?" Mr. Paul said, his tone nearly as scalding as the water he readied to pour into the paper cups. "Do you know how dangerous that place is, and how likely it is any boy to break a leg or worse?"
"We aren't taking him with us," Kenny said. "We wouldn't have brought him this far if his mother didn't want to get some cigarettes for her. We figure to send him back home with the cigarettes as soon as we're through here."
Mr. Paul's face grew less stern. And while he didn't smile, he nodded thoughtful. "Go fetch them, then," he said and turned back to his fixings.
Kenny pushed open the glass door, wind and stinging snow grinding immediately at his exposed hands and face. Dave and Puck huddled against the glass window, struggling to keep out of the path of the furious gusts.
"What hell is taking you so long?" Dave asked.
"The old man wanted to know about my grandfather."
"So while we're freezing out here, you and the nig -- the old man are talking old times."
"He wants you both to come inside."
"It's warm inside and he's making something for us to drink."
"If it's a choice between freezing to death and going inside, I'll freeze," Dave said.
"Me, too," Puck agreed.
"Just do what I'm telling you," Kenny said. "This isn't a bad place and the old man isn't a bad man, no matter what you've heard about black people from your mother."
"Leave my mother out of this!" Puck shouted, stepping towards Kenny as if ready to fight.
"Behave, Puck," Kenny said, "or I'll stick your head in a snow drift."
"You just try and..."
"I said behave," Kenny said, grabbing the boy the shoulder, and shoving him into the store, then turned to Dave. "Do I have to drag you in, too?"
Dave's dark eyes registered his terror, like a doe caught in the headlights of two oncoming cars, helpless to whatever fate decided for him. Kenny shoved him through the door into the warm, humid interior where Puck looked just as lost among the racks of candy and magazines as Dave did. Both of them melting snow men turning in place in expectation of some attack their mother had predicted for them, unable to fathom why the attack did not come.
Mr. Paul studied them from across the soda counter, his grave and wrinkled face breaking into a soft smile as his own deep eyes gave recognition of their fears.
"You boys seem lost in a lost world," the old man said sadly, his gentle voice doing as much to unnerve them as if he had shouted some racial epithet.
Puck stiffen, his small hands forming fists at his side, glaring at the old man, and then at the store full of black old men just like him. Dave sagged, shoulders growing so slanted the melting snow slid from them to the floor.
"They're all right," Kenny said. "They don't mean no harm. They just don't know any better."
The old man nodded slowly, his gaze turning towards Kenny with a startled admiration.
"And you know better?" Mr. Paul asked.
Kenny shrugged. "I don't know much about anything," he admitted. "So I don't make up my mind so quick as other people do."
"But you've made up your mind to go up to that mountain?"
"To think," Kenny said. "Away from everybody's talking about dying."
Mr. Paul let out a long sigh.
"Well if there's no talking you out of it, the least I can do is get you and your friends something to warm your bones. Would you like a little hot coco for your trip?"
Kenny smiled, stirred by the recollection of those early mornings when he'd come to pickup his paper and the old man made the same offer, handing him a warm cup as a reward for diligence and a brace against the chill.
"That would be a very fine thing," Kenny told him.
The old man put three paper cups on the counter, then found three packets of mix from some hidden alcove beneath, shook each slowly to gather the contents then tore off the top, and poured powder -- one packet to each cup. This act so exactly repeated, Kenny could have closed his eyes and monitored the motions, the way he often did when forced to attend church service, watching in his mind each predictable movement, opening his eyes finally to find he had accurately envisioned the ritual. The old man's hands shook a little as he poured the hot water into each cup, fingers struggling to keep hold of the pot's handle -- as if the great weight of the water was more than he could bear. Finally, he placed the pot back into its cradle and found a bottle of cream, which he added to the broth, stirring each with a long silver spoon meant for summer ice-cream sundaes. Eventually, the stirring stopped and these same worn hands found plastic tops to cover each cup, hands that pressed down to make certain the tops did not come loose during transition.
Mr. Paul pushed the three cups towards the patron side of the counter.
"Come, come," he told Kenny and his friends, "don't be shy."
They came forward hesitantly, glancing at Kenny in alarm.
"It's all right," Kenny said.
"You're the Fetterland boys, aren't you?" the old man asked, creating a surge of panic in Dave's eyes. The old man laughed as Dave glanced at Kenny. "Don't blame him. I knew your father. He used to come here, too, when he was your age. He always talked about that mountain, too."
"Thanks, Mr. Paul," Kenny said, taking his cup from the counter, its contents still hot enough to scald his palms through the bag.
"Just mind your step on that mountain, boy," the old man said, staring sternly into Kenny's eyes, something stirring deep in those dark pools. "It's more dangerous up there than you think."
Puck stirred and ordered his Momma's cigarettes. The old man stuffed two packs of Old Gold into a bag. Puck stuffed it into his pocket.
"Thanks again," Kenny said and pushed back out into the cold. Outside, the snow swirled and slashed like a surgeon's knife,, cutting across their faces.
"Okay, Puck, home," Dave said, pointing up the way they'd come, though the mark of their passage had already largely vanished.
"I don't want to," Puck said, melted snow re-freezing on his forehead like scars.
"Don't argue with me, boy!" Dave warned. "You agreed to go home from here."
"What about Momma's surprise?" Puck asked. "Aren't you going to be there for it?"
"Then neither am I," Puck said and planted his feet in the snow.
"Listen, jerk!" Dave said, grabbing his brother by the coat collar, the hood tightening around the face as if to strangle it. "One of us has got to be there-- so Momma can see how surprised we are. You want to spoil Christmas for her?"
Puck's shoulders sagged as Dave released him. "I don't want to disappoint Momma," he muttered and slowly turned away, retracing his steps along the sidewalk till he faded through the swathe of falling snow. Dave watched until the figure vanished, then grinned at Kenny.
"That was easier than I thought. Come on before he changes his mind."
Kenny nodded and started across the tracks to the city's dark side. Deep crusted drifts formed along the roadside from where the city had plowed previous snow. It was hard under the new fall and crunched as they feet broke through. Shattered street lights hung overhead with dim pools of illumination creeping through the fence from the factories on either side. The red neon bar lights blinked from the distant corner like winking eyes, and before the brick tavern the two hotrods sat dripping slush. The windshields had frosted over on the inside with smoke and steam. The deep base rumble of music vibrated the metal.
"Don't stop," Kenny hissed. "They'll see you."
But his warning came too late. A howl wet up inside one of the cars and the doors bust open, releasing a gaggle of limbs and cloud of cigarette smoke.
"I don't believe it!" a stubby, leather-faced boy shouted as his sneakered feet hit the ground, his small ape-like features echoed by three larger boys. All four were dressed in black leather jackets, zippers gleaming like war metals on their chests. "It's Featherbrain! Out in the fucking snow like one of Santa's helpers!" He stepped in front of Dave and stared up into the larger boy's face. "How about it, Big guy? You a dwarf?"
The others laughed as Dave blinked. "My name is Fetterland," he stuttered.
"Leave him alone, Minks," Kenny said, stepping closer to Dave. "Nobody's bothering you."
"And nobody's talking to you, McDonald," Minks said, deep red filtering up into his puffing cheeks. "So why don't you just butt out?"
"He's with me, Minks," Kenny said slowly, his hands balling into fists at his side.
"So?" Minks asked.
"So leave off or we're all going to regret it. Dig?"
Minks glared and briefly glanced at his drunken friends, then let out another howl. "Hey, man! No need to get riled. I just wanted to wish the boy a Merry Christmas. You telling me there's something wrong in that?"
"If you're done, we'll be on our way," Kenny said, tugging Dave's sleeve to go. But Minks grabbed Dave's other arm.
"Not so fast!" he said. "We should drink to Christmas. How about it, Featherbrain? You want a drink?"
"I-I don't drink," Dave stuttered.
"You mean you're refusing to drink with me?" Minks asked, his thin brows rising high onto his wrinkled forehead.
"N-No," Dave said again, glancing sharply at Kenny for help.
"Get the boy a beer!" Minks said. One of Minks cronies stuck a bottle into Dave's sock covered hand.
"One drink. Come on, boy! It's going to waste."
Dave lifted the bottle to his lips. Minks' hand slashed out, tipping up the bottom. Amber foam ran down Dave's chin to his chest. Minks and his companions roared.
"Look at that! The boy can't hold his booze!"
"Ah, damn," Kenny moaned, moving towards Minks again. "What did you go and have to do that for?"
But the snowball beat Kenny to him, striking Minks' face in mid-laugh, snow filling the open mouth while drawing open the eyes.
"You leave my brother alone!" Puck yelled, his small shape slipping out from between the cars, hand lifted to fire yet another snowball.
The laughter died. Minks thugs stared. First at Minks. Then at Puck. Kenny took a deep breath and grabbed both brothers.
"Run!" he hissed, pushing them towards Main Street, Puck picking up on the suggestion more quickly than his brother.
"Come on, Davey! Come on!"
"Where?" Dave asked, looking and sounding stunned.
"There's an alley on the other side," Kenny told him. "Just get to it."
Ragged wooden buildings cluttered the far side, like a row of dark brown teeth sticking up from concrete gums. A few meager Christmas lights blinking in some of the windows, though most of the windows were dark or broken with torn shades flapping in the wind.
"The old city?" Dave said, bristling back to semi-consciousness. "You want us to go in there?"
"Yes, and quickly," Kenny said, pushing him into the slushy street while Puck pulled. Minks roared from behind, spitting out chunks of snow.
"I'll kill that bastard!" he roared, motioning his friends towards them, though they seemed stunned, too, staggering like clumsy giants on the slippery sidewalk.
Kenny leaped after Dave and Puck, yanking them into the darkness of the alley, the snow drifts burying trash cans and wooden fruit carts its thick white envelop.
"Damn, Puck," Dave said, glancing over his shoulder as they ran. "Now you've done it."
"But he was hurting you, Davey," Puck said. "I couldn't let him hurt you like that."
"Now they're going to hurt us all," Kenny said, plowing ahead, remembering the tales his grandpa had told him about this part of town, about living here, about working his way up out of this world. Their feet slipped on the icy cobblestones beneath the snow. He could hear Minks shouting over the starting engines. Here, between the wooden buildings they sounded distant, like animals dying in the snow.
"He just wouldn't stop," Dave said, glancing back, the stream of frozen beer still clinging to his jacket. "Even on Christmas Eve."
"Get use to it," Kenny said. "I hear there are worse than him up at the high school."
"Then I don't want to ever go there," Dave mumbled.
"Me neither," added Puck.
"If that son of a bitch catches us, we won't," Kenny laughed.
"Do you know where you're going?" Dave asked.
"Once upon a time, I did," Kenny mumbled, aware of dark things scurrying ahead of them in the shadows, struggling things digging themselves out of the snow.
"But can you find your way out?"
"Everything leads to Mountain Road eventually," Kenny said, though he knew there were dead ends, collapsed buildings that had sealed sections of the alleys forever. He didn't like the idea of back tracking later with Minks behind them.
Bright lights exploded in the alley mouth as one of the cars turned in, its headlight like large yellow eyes. The wheels spun at they hit ice.
"They're coming in after us!" Puck yelped.
"They can't," Kenny said, grabbing the boy's arm to keep him from bolting away in a panic. "It's not wide enough."
Indeed, the car stalled and a string of curses rose.
"You're gonna get us stuck!" Minks screamed. "Back the fucker up!"
"We are stuck! Can't you hear the wheels?" one of the older boys screamed back as the wheels whined.
"Then get out and push, damn it!"
Something popped-- metal grinding on metal as the lights retreated again, and the downpour of snow dampened their voices. Kenny heard Minks curse again, and the muffled roar of the freed car, celebrating its release with a sudden surge away. It left behind it a deep quiet.
"They're not going to let it go with that," Kenny said. "They'll criss-cross down on the side streets trying to head us off."
"Can they catch us like that?" Dave asked.
"Only if we let them. Come on."
As he predicted, the sound of the engines floated in from the west, hot, mechanical voices searching the perimeter of the underworld.
Kenny led them through the drifts, making a passage with his arms and hips through which Puck could follow. They came out on one of the cross streets. It was empty, but signs of Minks were everywhere, slipping and sliding tire tread marring the snow-covered road.
"He's peeved all right," Kenny mumbled. "Minks wouldn't waste gas on us if he wasn't."
"Will he hurt us?" Dave asked.
"Not if you stand up to him," Kenny said, stamping the snow from his feet on a wind-swept piece of concrete. He could barely feel his toes.
"I couldn't do that," Dave mumbled.
"No, of course not," Kenny said, parading across the street into the mouth of another alley. More trash. More drifts. Less light. The sound of crying babies escape through cracked windows like ghosts haunting the night. He crossed two more streets before coming to the end.
"Well, so far so good," He said. "Now we've got to chance the roads."
"What about Minks?" Puck asked. "I can still hear him."
"But far away. Down on the south end. Maybe he figures we're coming out that way. Or he might have given up on us altogether. In either case, we've got no choice. We have to get to mountain road and there's only one way now."
It wasn't a long walk. And even when they reached it, the engines still sounded distant. Kenny sighed. The city ended here, and the valley opened out before them like a set of cupped hands, most of it now invisible in the falling snow. Yet a string of lights twinkled from the railroad yard like wavering candles. On a clear day, flat-roofed warehouses collected on either side of the tracks. Now, there were merely shadows, looming heavy in the dark.
"Are we going down there?" Puck asked, his frosted brows lifted in an expression of awe.
"I'd like to," Kenny said. "Just to get off this road. But there's just too much snow. We'll have to hope Minks has given up on us and chance the road."
Dave stared south in the direction of the still roaring engines, the snow inches thick on the bill of his hat. He looked like a stuffed duck on Kenny's uncle's mantel. His Adam’s apple bobbed twice as he swallowed.
Northward, the faint outline of the road showed despite the storm, turning finally west when it reached the mountain, pulling tight along its belly like a belt -- the trees and stone all heavily covered in white. Unmoving and silent.
"I'm tired, Davey," Puck said, leaning his elbows back on the bridge banister. Below, the trickling water of a frozen brook sounded.
"We all are," Kenny said, prying off the cover from his luke-warm chocolate. The others had lost theirs. He passed the cup for them to sip.
"Why can't we go home?" Puck asked, wiping the excess chocolate from his mouth with his frozen sleeve.
"Nobody asked you to come," Dave growled. "You followed us. Now we're too far along to turn back..."
"They're coming," Kenny said, turning towards the south. The sound of the motors had changed, growing louder. He glanced around. An indentation showed at the end of the rail, where kids had climbed down to the brook, wearing a path into the soil. It barely showed under the snow. "Down here."
The lights grew across the roadway, spreading ahead of the cars like yellow fire. Dave hesitated at the descent.
"It's all ice," he said. "We'll break our necks."
"And what do you think Minks'll do if he catches us?"
Dave shuddered and plunged down, his brother immediately behind him. But Kenny lingered, watching the headlights grow. Then, he leaped after the other two as the roaring, slipping machines became visible. They didn't even slow, roaring across the bridge and beyond it. Down below, Dave and Puck had huddled beneath the concrete arch, feet cracking loose bits of ice.
"Where did they go?" Dave asked.
"Towards the mountain," Kenny said softly.
"Oh no," Dave moaned.
"You worry too much. They couldn't be heading for the quarry," Kenny said. "Not with their cars. There hasn't been a road up into that place since my grandfather worked there."
"Where else would they go?"
"The old mansions, most likely."
"But we've got to go right pass them on the way," Dave protested.
"Passed their driveways," Kenny corrected. "Those old places are set well back from the road."
"Davey," Puck said. "I'm cold. I want to go home."
"Maybe we should," Dave said, looking in the direction of the mountain as if he see Minks' cars through the haze and the side of the hill.
"You go back if you want," Kenny said. "I didn't get this far for nothing."
Dave stared at his sock-covered hand, wiggling his fingers through the crust of ice left by the spilled beer.
"No," he said. "I'll go on, too."
"What about Christmas?" Puck complained. "And Momma's surprise?"
"It'll be there when we get back," Dave said.
"If we're going, let's do it," Kenny said. "The boy's right about it being cold."
They climbed back up the slippery path using twigs for handholds. The road up top had become very quiet, though Kenny heard the echo of the engines and a whir that might have been wheels struggling in the snow for traction.
The snowfall seemed heavier than ever, striking at Kenny's exposed wrists and neck. He pulled his collar up and took the lead, following in the trail Minks' cars had left. Even that faded over time, leaving them to weave their own path along the drifting dunes.
On the east side of the road sagging buildings indicated the edge of the city, tattered flags of used car dealers giving way to ragged unpainted shacks.
"How far?" Dave asked, sagging as much as the scenery.
"Can't tell yet," Kenny mumbled. "But we haven't reached the train trestle yet."
"Puck's not holding up well."
Kenny glanced back. Puck's hair had frozen to his face. He could barely see through it.
"You all right?" Kenny asked.
"I can't feel my toes."
"Want us to carry you?"
"I want to go home and sit with momma."
"Tomorrow," Dave said. "When the storm's stopped." But he didn't sound remotely hopeful.
The mouth of the trestle appeared suddenly, yawning over them with a deep darkness and lack of sound. No snow fell inside it and they stamped their feet on the uncovered concrete, aware of the two sets of white lines, marking Minks' previous passage.
"Well, we know they made it this far," Kenny said grimly. "But farther up it can't be too easy for their cars."
"Maybe we should stay here," Dave said, peering around nervously.
"We'd freeze," Kenny said. "Up in the caves we'd have a fire."
"But it's all uphill from here."
"It's only about a mile more on the road, and much less than that to the cave."
"Won't we get lost in all this snow?" Puck asked, staring out at the curtain of swirling snow. "How do we know when we have to turn up into the mountain?"
"There's a boulder at the foot of the path," Kenny said. "Still we should be careful. There's dozens of old Indian paths all through here. We take the wrong one we won't find out way out till morning."
"Or wind up sleeping with Minks in the mansions," Dave reflected.
"Haunted mansions?" Puck asked, looking suddenly intrigued.
"Hardly," Kenny said. "They used to belong to the Silk Barons before the strikes."
Grandpa had talked about those days, about how he had driven passed the entrances with a buckboard full of stone, how fancy men and women and looked down their noses at him, bells on their horses and hats on their heads.
"But who uses them?"
"No one's supposed to," Kenny said, shivering. "Their death traps now. Lovers go up there in summer. Some hobos camp there before it gets too cold. They've set fire to a few. If we get lost, we'll wind up there, but I'd prefer the quarry."
Then out again they went, following the rough trail left by the cars. The mountain appeared on their right, its slopes cluttered with broken boulders and fallen trees. The snow hung heavy over everything, making even the living things look dead.
On the left, the valley deepened, dropping off precariously at the edge of the road. Few lights illuminated its interior. But the shadows moved as other things traveled in the darkness with them.
The snow grew deeper as they climbed. A wall of snow seemed to pack in the trunks on the mountain side. Dave and Puck sagged as they walked, moving slower and slower, like two of the dwarves Minks claimed to have seen.
"Look!" Puck cried. pointing a mittened hand to where two hotrods sat at the side of the road. One car rested at an angle, its rear wheels dug deep in an icy ditch. The other had been parked in front of it. A chain linked their bumpers.
"They got stuck," Dave said in amazement.
"Minks got careless," Kenny said, circling the stuck vehicle, noting the sideward slip of its wheels. "He played around too much and got punished for it."
"Punished?" Puck asked. "Who punished him?"
Kenny shrugged. "God, maybe, or fate."
"You don't believe in God," Dave laughed.
Kenny stared up hill into the tangle of snow-covered trees where the mountain seemed vulnerable as frozen streams cut through its face.
"I don't know what I believe any more," he mumbled.
"Take that!" Puck shouted and kicked the fender of the stranded car. The echo carried up the mountain side despite the snow.
"Hey! Stop that!" Dave howled, grabbing the boy before he could kick again. "Minks can't be far away."
"I don't see them," Puck said. But Kenny did. A wisp of yellow light shimmered through the trees.
"Fire," Kenny hissed and dragged Puck down.
Dave peered over the snowy hood. "I thought you said they'd head for the mansions?"
"I thought they would," Kenny mumbled. "I guess they're afraid to leave their cars."
"Who's going to mess with them in this?" Dave asked.
"Ask them," Kenny said. "I suggest we scoot out of here...."
Out of the woods came the sound of crunching snow, and two voices arguing.
"I told you, you're crazy," one of the thugs said. "First you get us stuck with your lousy driving and now you've got me chasing ghosts."
"My driving? You're the one who slammed on the brakes."
They stopped on the far side of the ditch, one with his hands on his hips.
"So?" he asked. "I don't see anyone messing with your car."
"It sounded like it came from here."
"It sounded like something falling off a mountain."
"Damn it, I know metal when I hear it. Let's look on the other side. Someone might have side-swiped it."
"Damn it, I'm cold. There's no one here."
"I'm just gonna look."
"You look. I'm going back to the fire before Minks sucks up the last of our beer."
"And leave me alone out here?"
"What are you afraid of you're a big boy."
"Not big enough if I run into a bear."
"There's no bears in this part of the country. And besides, bears sleep in winter. Didn't you do anything but sleep in school?"
"Just let me look at my car. We'll get back to the fire quick enough."
"All right, look, but don't be all night about it."
The boy jumped across the ditch. He landed badly, and slipped down into a push-up position in the snow. When he looked up, he saw Kenny's face, peering around the rear bumper of the lead car.
"It's the dwarves!" he cried. "Messing with our cars! Go get Minks!"
"Run!" Kenny shouted and shoved Dave. He bumped into his brother and both fell. But so did the two trying to scramble at them. Kenny grabbed Dave's collar and yanked him up, then both lifted Puck and ran.
Behind them, the thugs let out a roar, and shadows leaped out from the woods, dark shapes against the backdrop of flickering flames. Minks' voice rose above the others.
"Featherbrain!" It was as if he had just been struck in the face again.
"What the hell are you doing?" Kenny asked.
"It's no use," Dave said. "He'll only catch me in the end. I might as well let him do what he wants."
"Don't be stupid," Kenny growled and shoved the boy after his brother. "We'll be all right once we get higher up."
The road angled upward, and the pavement beneath them grew slippery. The city rarely salted this high up and never plowed, and the layers of storms built up over the season, writing out an unofficial history of events. Each step crunched through the days and weeks. Behind them, flashlights flickered to life, bobbing up and down in the darkness like a creature with multiple eyes.
"I saw Minks beat a kid up once," Dave said. "He just sat on the kid's back twisting his arm till it broke. I swear he laughed about it the whole time. Even when the kid begged him to stop."
"You think he'll do that to you?" Kenny asked.
"I think he's wanted an opportunity since the day he first laid eyes on me," Dave mumbled.
The boulder appeared to the right, its stern jaw poking out of the snow-covered mountain side as if seeking escape. Kenny stopped and glanced back. The lights had slowed but still came on.
"Up," he said. "The ground's slippery. So just be careful. Grab hold of the tree limbs if you have to."
Dave went first, clinging to trees and stringy yellowed reeds as he pulled himself up the incline. Puck followed, leaving Kenny at guard at the bottom, the sound of their scampering covering some deeper, more horrid sound alive in the woods around them. Part of the darkness and the things moving within it.
When they were far enough up, Kenny followed, struggling on the slippery slope despite the handholds. Below, the voices sounded from behind the lights as they paused at the bottom of the path.
"Where did they go?" one of the thuds asked.
"Don't be stupid," Minks growled, swing a light up the path where Kenny's struggling footprints showed indenting the snow. "Our little dwarves have decided they like mountain climbing. Come on."
"Up there? Are you nuts?"
"Don't argue with me, Bozzo," Minks snarled. "You saw what they did to me back at the bar."
"I saw," the thug said. "But that's no reason to go getting ourselves killed. Its dangerous up there. People have been known to fall in things."
"Don't tell me you're scared?"
"I'm not scared. I'm just too smart to waste my time chasing shadows."
"You saw them by the cars. You know what they were up to."
"So we get even with them later at school."
One of the others grumbled, too. "We've heard bad things about that place, Minks."
"Don't be a fool. The only ghosts up there are those three and when I get through with them, they will be ghosts. Now come on, or when I get back to school I'll tell everyone how chicken you are."
"Maybe we should beat you up, huh?"
"You won't," Minks said, scampering up, then stopping again. "I said come on. I don't want to have to chase those bastards all night."
And they came, slipping and sliding the way Dave and Puck had before them, all their dignity vanishing in curses and broken handholds. Kenny hurried ahead of them, and found his friends perched on a ridge waiting for him.
"What happened?" Dave asked. "Did they turn back."
"Hardly," Kenny said, breathing hard as he leaned against a tree trunk. "Minks is pushing them hard to get us."
"So what do we do now?" asked Puck.
Kenny's gaze surveyed the frozen landscape, the floor of the woods stuffed with lumpy shapes. He bent close to a football-sized shape and wiped the snow free of its surface, revealing one of the million chunks of stone left from grandpa's time at the quarry. He rocked it loose of the earth, drawing a horrified expression from Dave.
"You can't do that!" Dave hissed. "One of them could get hurt."
Kenny stared up at the tall boy. "Don't tell me you're worried about Minks after what you told me about that kid at school."
"I'm not worried about him," Dave said. "I just don't want for us to be like him."
"And what do we do when he gets up here, kiss him on the cheek?"
"We can run."
"Where? Into Quarry? You forget there's no way out."
"We could climb out like we did last summer."
"Not with all the ice that's coming off them. And floor of the place is filled with pits. We fall into one of them, we won't need Minks to murder us."
Dave bit his lip and looked down at the rising lights. "Couldn't we warn him?"
"Sure, and ruin our element of surprise."
"We don't need surprise, Kenny," Dave said. "Just tell him and if he doesn't listen, well then...."
Kenny sighed, then cupped his hands around his mouth. "Hey Minks!" he shouted, the word echoing around him. The lights stopped on the path.
"What do you want, McDonald?" Minks asked. "Mercy?"
"No," Kenny said. "I just figured you ought to know we have a Christmas present for you. You keep coming and we'll give it to you."
"Is that supposed to be some kind of threat?"
"Take it anyway you want," Kenny said. "But don't say we didn't warn you."
"Warn me?" Minks roared. "We our hands on you, we'll see who threatens who."
Dave cringed as Kenny pushed the rock over the lip of land. It rolled end over end, but didn't keep to the path, veering left just before it reached the on-coming lights.
Minks screamed. But Kenny had already sent a second stone after the first, this one sticking to the path better like a bowling ball headed for a line of pins. The lights leaped apart amid roars of protest.
"That's it, Minks. No more," one of the gang said. "We're not here to get our heads bashed in."
"Chickens!" Minks yelled as all but one of the lights turned back down the path. Then, slowly the last light started up the path again. Kenny waited and released the third stone only when he could see the shadowy shape of Minks behind the light.
Minks stopped, the light rising to catch the rolling stone in its beam. For a moment, the figure didn't move, then leapt to one side as the stone crashed right where he had stood.
"I'll get you for this, Featherbrain. See if I don't."
But the flashlight turned down, following its companions, and didn't stop until it reached the others on the road. Then all moved in unison back in the direction of the cars.
"Well that's that," Kenny said, wiping the snow from his hands as he rose. But Dave stared down at the retreating lights, his hands wreathing at his side.
"Minks is right, you know. He doesn't have to get me tonight. He can wait and do it anytime."
"If you let him," Kenny said, then turned towards the upward trail, and started to climb. It was harder now. His legs ached and the cold had seeped through his clothing to his skin. Nor was he certain of the ground, poking at it in a slow advance as to not fall into any of the mountain's traps.
The trees on either side were bent with some limbs broken under the weight of the snow, like old men struggling to keep from falling, barren maples mingling with still-green pines.
"I'm cold," Puck complained.
"We all are," Kenny said. "We'll be there soon enough."
The land grew less steep as they neared the mouth of the quarry, some of the original landscaping remained, the path widened out into the width of a road. Grandpa had ridden here, carrying stone in and out of the canyon. But the tall towers of stone on either side of the gap remained hazy giants under the fall of snow. No longer real except in memory.
"We're not going in there, are we?" Puck asked, his eyes growing large as he stared up into the vacant space. None of the chiseled interior showed.
"No," Kenny said. "The caves are on this side. It's too dangerous to chance anything there. The whole floor's pitted with shafts. Some of them are as deep as twenty feet."
They moved slowly forward, passed the mouth of the canyon to the woods on the other side.
"Wood," Kenny said, pointing towards several dead trees that had fallen across the path. "Grab what you can, we'll need it later."
"But it's wet," Dave said. "It won't burn like that. I thought you said you had dry wood."
"Not enough to last all night. This'll dry once we get the fire started."
They gathered what they could and stumbled on, the flat land hinting of the original road beneath each step. An splinted sign stood guard, it original lettering long gone under spray paint slogans of lovers and gangs. The caves hid along the east wall partially buried by dirt and stone, their open mouths, dark and private like waiting graves. Six of them lined this wall. There were others inside the canyon itself.
Kenny stopped and fished through his pocket for a small pen light, waving its dim beam inside. Leaves and newspapers filled most of this cave. He moved on to the second, then the third. The fourth contained a stack of wood and he grinned.
"This is the one," he said and ducked to go in. Puck resisted.
"I don't like it in there," he said. "It smells."
"Of dirt and stone," Kenny said. "Those are good smells. But you can stand out there all night if you like."
Kenny went inside, dumping his armful of sticks into one corner. A moment later, Puck eased in, looking around uncomfortably at the cramped interior. A small bed of charcoal said there had been other fires here. But not recently. And the smoke hole above the coals had icicles dripping down from outside. He put some of the dry sticks over the coals and pulled a box of blue tipped matches from his pocket.
"Damn," he said.
"What's the matter?" Dave asked, slipping into the cave behind Puck.
"The matches are wet. Some snow must have gotten into my pocket."
"All of them?"
"It looks that way," Kenny mumbled, dumping the contents of the box out onto the leaves and trying each match against the striker, each leaving the blue mark of crumbling sulfur where it was struck.
Dave stared. "What do we do now? Can we let them dry?"
"Not in time to do us any good," Kenny said. "Maybe if we had some paper we could hope for a spark."
Dave patted his pockets and came up empty. "Maybe we can rub sticks together like the boy scouts."
"Maybe," Kenny said. "But I've never seen a boyscout make it work."
Kenny picked two sticks out of the pile of try tinder and bent over the coals, rubbing them the way he had seen boyscouts at camp do. He rubbed furiously for some time, Dave and Puck watching over his shoulder. He felt the wood. Barely warm. He threw down the sticks.
"This is bullshit!" he said.
"What else can we do?" Dave asked.
"Davey, I'm cold," Puck announced. "I want to go home."
"We can't go home," Dave growled.
"But Momma's gonna miss us."
"Momma's sleep by now, dreaming of what she can buy with Poppa's checks when she brings him home tomorrow..."
"Poppa?" Puck's eyes glowed in the reflected light like coals. "Poppa's coming home? That was Momma's surprise?"
"Yeah, Puck," Dave said, swallowing slowly. "But she might not with the storm this bad."
"But you don't know she won't," Puck said, stepping forward as if to hit his brother, mittens up like boxing gloves. "We got to get back and be there when Poppa comes..."
"Both of you shut up," Kenny said, rising from his crouch before the coals. "We need fire, not bullshit."
"But we tried the matches," Dave said. "What else can we do?"
Kenny stared at the doorway and the flecks of snow poking their way through from the outside. "There's construction going on not far from here," he said. "Some houses going up on the side of the hill near the highway. No one's in them yet, but there might be someone watching over them."
"Tonight?" Dave said.
"I didn't say for certain. But it's a shot. I can hike down and see if we can get some matches. Even if no one's around, I might find some in one of the buildings."
"And leave us here?"
"What are you afraid of, Dave?" Kenny laughed.
"I'm not afraid. I'm just not sure it's a good idea us splitting up. You said this place is dangerous."
"Dangerous if you wander around. Why don't you try the sticks while I'm gone. Maybe you'll get lucky."
Kenny plunged back out into the snow. The footprints of their arrival had already vanished, like prints of ghosts unable to leave their mark in the real world. He crossed them, and searched for signs of the path down. The houses, he remembered, were farther up the road, nearer the highway. Construction had stopped with the first snow. But other houses, occupied houses, existed on the valley side. Grandpa used to complain about them on their sunday drives, noting the rising waves of pitched roofs slowly devouring the mountain.
The lights shimmered through the trees like low-lying stars, emphasizing the spidery shadows of the newer houses higher on the hill. He could smell the burning yule logs and half expected to hear the jingle of Christmas carols floating on the wind. His feet stumbled over hidden things in the snow as he plummeted forward, going too fast, hurrying towards the lighted windows. He wanted to rush to the door with the brightest lights and beg whoever answered to let him in. No dead or dying man in the upstairs bedroom. No ghoulish family waiting to have his bones.
But he came upon the house frames first, roofed buildings without walls or windows. He wandered through several, kicking over bits of trash left by the workmen, finding no matches among the skeletons. Nor guard. The lighted houses were several hundred yards farther on. He shook his head and retraced his step back up hill. He found Dave seated in the dark cave still rubbing the sticks.
"Where's Puck?" Kenny asked.
"You mean he's not with you?" Dave said looking up startled.
"And why would he be with me?" Kenny asked, leaning against the inside wall of the cave, his legs frozen. He couldn't feel anything below his ankles.
"He left right after you did," Dave said, dropping the sticks and rising. "He said you wanted him to come."
"Shit!" Kenny said, and pushed himself outside again, studying the ground with the weakening beam of the penlight. In the confusion of coming and going, Kenny discovered Puck's prints.
"He's headed back the way we came," Kenny said.
Dave squinted into the snow. "Can he really make it back?"
"If he's lucky," Kenny said. "He might follow our trail. But most of that'll be covered by now. If he takes a wrong turn, he could get lost or hurt. Come on. Let's find the idiot."
The trail wasn't hard to follow. The snow had gotten too deep for Puck and at some points it was more the mark of a swimmer than anyone walking, arms shoving snow out of his path. Dave yelled Puck's name, but only the echoes returned, a haunting lonely echo that struck Kenny oddly. He wanted to make the boy stop, yet said nothing.
Then, the trail changed direction.
"Oh no!" Kenny said.
"What is it?"
"He's turned the wrong way. The ground here slants down into the canyon. He's probably confused and thinks it's the path down to the road."
"Don't think, just hurry," Kenny said and started to run, his frozen feet pounding over the path left by the boy.
Dave shouted frantically, and received frantic echoes in return, the meaning lost to the cracks and crevices neither boy could see above them. The red columns appeared momentarily on either side, then vanished again as the trail plunged sharply downward.
Kenny's light winked as the batteries died. He shook it. The light brightened, then dimmed again almost instantly.
"PUCK! You asshole!" Dave screamed. "Where are you?"
A faint reply answered. It was not an echo. But it sounded far away.
"What the...?" Kenny said.
"Maybe he climbed out?" Dave suggested.
"Or fell down something!" Kenny said and charged ahead again, though more cautiously, searching the ground head of him until the trail stopped suddenly at the mouth of a gaping hole.
"Puck?" Kenny called.
"Davey? Is that you?"
"I'm here, Puck," Dave said, leaning close to Kenny. But the small light wouldn't pierce the darkness. "Are you all right?"
"I'm hurt, Davey. It's my leg..."
Dave glanced at Kenny, the lines around his eyes cutting deep into the flesh. "How far down do these things go?"
"Some go as deep as twenty feet."
Dave squinted into the darkness again, the snow thick on the bill of his hat. "I'm going down," he said.
"And what am I going to do with two of you stuck?" Kenny growled.
"Get help," Dave said, then slipped over the edge, dropping feet first into the darkness. Kenny counted the seconds, but heard nothing from below to indicate Dave's landing.
"Well?" he asked.
"It's not too deep," Dave said, his voice rising out of the hole as if from a grave. "Maybe seven feet. But Puck's leg looks broken."
"Which means he can't climb out."
"I could lift him out if you grab him from the top."
"Risky," Kenny said. "We could all wind up down there. But I'll try."
He heard Dave grunt and saw Puck's uncovered head rising out of the hole as if by magic. Kenny dropped the light and grabbed the boy's shoulder's hauling him onto the snow-covered ground, the grimace of pain written in deep lines across his face. Dave scrambled up a moment later and knelt beside the boy.
"It hurts, Davey," the boy muttered. "It hurts real bad."
"I know, Puck," Dave said, guilt thick in his eyes as he looked up at Kenny. "We've got to get him help."
"I know," Kenny said, thinking of the houses and the lights and the fire places filled with flame. He would have to beg at them after all.
I just want to use the phone, Ma'am, I know it's Christmas.
And they'd look at him as if he was crazy, and they would call the police.
"A fire would help keep him warm in the meantime," Kenny mumbled. "If only we had a match..."
Puck squinted, an odd little grin breaking through the pain. He motioned for his brother to bend near and whispered.
Dave sat back shocked.
"Give them here!" he demanded as Puck reached into his pocket and pushed two packs of matches into Dave's palm. Matches from Momma's cigarettes.
Kenny stared, as Dave pushed them into his own deep pocket to keep them dry.
"All right," Kenny mumbled. "Let's get him back to the cave."
Then, slowly, they followed the trail back, and as they came passed the pillars, Kenny heard something sad in the wind, not a sound so much, though it reminded him of an echo, and somehow he knew Grandpa was dead.