by Terence Patrick Hughes
Tom Tucker said he saw a dead body but when we got there it was gone. I had been minding my business that early evening outside of the house, transistor radio set against the top riser of the front steps, barely catching the signal of the Red Sox game with enough staticky in-and-out data for me to follow with limited frustration. Except, when there’s a hometown home run because it’s always “there’s a drive! . . . ckshckjk . . . way back, way back! . . . crshjkchchskch . . .” and by the time Coleman or Petrocelli’s call breaks through the garbled web of noise it’s too late, the batter’s rounding the bases, or by the deflated tone of Coleman, who seems to live and die with each blast, you know that it was caught on the warning track or at the wall, another spark of glory falling just short of its heroic potential.
It was the bottom of the second or top of the third inning, hard to figure because Petrocelli is detailing a glory-day story about laying down a bunt with a runner barreling home from third and the damn static keeps hitting just when Coleman gives an update to the action.
The rest of my gang were at home resting for the football game tomorrow except for Freaky Freddy who was still grounded for once again demolishing curfew, so I had the place to myself.
Just me and Ken and Rico and the Sox up 3-2 in the bottom of the second or top of the third, still not sure, when Tom appeared out of nowhere, whipping through the waist-high grass and scurrying up to the porch.
“I seen a dead body!”
He was panting and looking pretty weird, not sure how to explain it, there was kind of an energized shock to him.
“Whose?” I asked immediately, then thinking that too personal, I added, “Where?
“By the Godfather’s,” he said, and looked down at the radio, “Is that the Red Sox?
“I always loved the Sox on the radio.”
“Never mind! Let’s go. Show me!”
“I don’t want to . . .” Tom sort of drifted off for a moment.
“Hey!” I shouted and leaped down the steps, “Show me where.”
“I want my mom,” he spoke, and looked at me the same way he had been looking at the radio.
Tom was strange like this, which is why he isn’t in the main gang that hangs around the house. He’s someone who shows up once in a while and stays around until one of the more ornery of the bunch starts a fight with him and he goes home. Tom doesn’t like to fight and Freaky Freddy or Stewie always start something with him because he’s an easy target. First off, there’s the song. What were his parents thinking, naming him after a nursery rhyme? You don’t go a day in school without hearing someone break out in the hallway but especially in the cafeteria with “Little Tommy Tucker sings for his supper . . .!” They should’ve just called him Humpty Dumpty. As for toughness, last fourth of July at the fireworks we got challenged to a big brawl by some kids from another town, and everyone jumped in but Tom, later on explaining that he was watching out for the deputies. Sure. Another time, a few of us found a stolen car left out in the woods and after waiting a gentlemanly couple of hours, we hotwired it and rode it around an apple orchard, except for Tom who said he didn’t want to leave any fingerprints. He isn’t an outright chicken, but even on hot days like this one, he’d back out when we’d all jump off the bridge by the river, whip underneath on the strong and scary current, and then launch out the other side to noisily float by any disturbed customers having dinner on the veranda of an Italian restaurant named Frankie’s. We call the place the Godfather’s on account of the movie and because Frankie and some of his customers seemed more than a little shady. Tom busses tables there on the weekends and his excuse for never jumping off the bridge is that he can’t be seen swimming by and waving the middle finger at confused patrons or he’d lose his job. My gang was convinced it was really because it took some serious effort to swim the rapids under the bridge and either he couldn’t manage it or his yellow streak wouldn’t allow it.
“Cut the crap, Tucker,” I scoffed and then leaned into him, “Or I’ll tell the guys you were crying for your mommy.”
Either the threat of ridicule or the mention of his mom lit a fire under him as Tom took off to the woods and I tried my best to follow. It was his speed that allowed him junior status in our gang, due to the fact that something always needed to be done in a hurry. Forgot to dig worms for night fishing and the general store’s a mile run away and about to close? No problem, Tom will get there with minutes to spare. He didn’t play football or basketball like the rest of us but he ran track last year and did pretty well at first, but his mom is really strange and for some reason made him quit. The coach must have been heartbroken because when I got to the woodline Tom had already left me in his dust. When I pushed out of the woods near the Godfather’s, I spotted Tom at the near side of the bridge, staring down at the water.
It wasn’t exactly a bridge anymore, the region long ago having given up on it as a supply train route, now more resembling an artifact of better (or were they worse?) days gone by.
Girders browned with decades of rust, long stretches of uprooted rails and spikes took, and the softened wood sleepers remained as the only reliable means of traversing the once vital overpass above the wide, strong rush of the river below. I made my way over to Tom and joined him in gazing down at the rolling waves and whitecaps.
“So,” I asked, trying to be heard over the loud run of the river, “This is where you saw it?”
“Yeh but . . .” he looked at me as if I was about to hurt him, “ . . . it’s gone.”
I glanced at the churning river as the expiring daylight brought a slight amber to its rocky, jagged bank.
“Maybe it floated away,” I suggested.
“No,” Tom said quickly, seeming more agitated and scared, “Somebody took it.”
“Let’s go ask at the Godfather’s.”
I looked up the hill and saw that the patio lights were on and the top of some heads could be seen moving about just over the thick line of hedges. I started off to make the steep climb toward the restaurant but somehow Tom got between me and the path.
“No,” he straight-out pleaded, “I can’t. They’re looking for me.”
“Who?” I demanded, it seemed too much like he was chickening out again.
“These two guys.”
“They saw it, too?”
“I don’t know,” he said, still not getting out of my way, “They were there, though. After I seen it. These two guys. One of them had a suit on and the other one . . . he had this . . . kind of . . .”
The light up near the restaurant started to get wavy for a second and then became fully bathed in a familiar cast of shuttering blue.
“Shoot, it’s the sheriff.” I damned the loss of opportunity to see a corpse up close.
“I gotta go.” Tom bolted back toward the woods.
“What’s the matter?”
I wasn’t a fan of getting mixed up with the law, but Tom was in outright flight.
“I’m in trouble!” he squealed, and then he was gone.
I suddenly got to thinking that timid Tom might be mixed up in some foul play. He certainly didn’t seem like the type that would disagree with let alone hurt anyone. But you always read about that guy who was so quiet and unassuming until one day he snaps and picks up serial killing. Or maybe he saw it happen? And those two guys? My first sleuthing thought was to head up to the Godfather’s to see if there were any thugs drinking scotch and cokes and eating oysters at the bar but if the sheriff saw me snooping up there, at the very least I’d get a bunch of questions. Forget them. The best plan is to drill Tom for more information, if I could catch the speeding bullet. Running back to the house through the woods, I called for him a few times to no avail.
“Stupid crazy-legged dork,” I muttered, nearly out of breath, ignoring the pinch in my side as I ran most of the return trip to the house.
I wasn’t returning to my own house, nor was it one of my gang’s, and certainly not Tom, who lived in an apartment. The big, old farmhouse belongs to a lady who had a lot of money, but as the townies say she “married bad,”’and mysteriously one day she and her poor choice of a husband simply disappeared. About a month later, a rough-looking man came into town and sold every last item in the place at auction and left enough of the proceeds behind for the tax collector to keep the house, empty and untouched for the last thirteen years. Because it’s located a few miles out of town with no neighbors, my friends and I have used it for our headquarters since we were old enough to wander. No heat, no lights. In its dark and weirdly quiet way, it’s the best clubhouse a bunch of moderately well-behaved teenagers could ask for.
Upon return, I sat on the steps to rest before gathering the radio hidden under the staircase, greedily flicking it on for a score update, but no sound came out. I knocked it against my leg a couple of times, and then performed the last-ditch operation of removing and re-installing the batteries, even touching the positive end to my tongue for some trace of bitter life, but no luck. I must have been careless and left it on while we were gone. Damning the cruel fortunes of the evening and deciding to fall back into the comfort of the comic books inside, I pushed open the door to the house and fumbled my way along the dark hallway. In the bare, expansive living room, as the last hint of daylight merely illuminated the outlines of the smudgy windows, I found the pile of candle stubs that we’d amassed over time and set two of them on the mantle above the fireplace. As I held my t-shirt close to my neck, it suddenly struck me that the place had never felt this cold at the end of summer.
“Hey,” a voice whispered.
It was just as I lit the match, not yet even touching it to the candle’s trace of wick. I spun around so fast that it snuffed out the flame. With my heart racing, I struck a second match and, sure enough, there in the dim light was Tom, slumped against the wall at the far corner of the room.
“You scared me, man.” I was annoyed but it came out nice enough, “What the hell?”
Tom didn’t say anything. He just sat there with that blank stare he had on earlier. I went over to retrieve one of the wood stumps that we’d carried in to use as chairs and later on they’d feed the early winter blazes in the fireplace.
“So . . .” I started off as I dragged the stump near him, “ . . .that body you saw . . . was it . . . a guy or a girl?”
“A guy, stupid,” he dealt the playful remark rather grimly.
“What happened, Tom?” I had to know, and it felt like Tom had to confess something. “What’s going on? Tell me, we’re friends.”
“We’re not friends.” He chuckled but his face showed no sign of emotion, “Don’t think I’m here ‘cause we’re friends. You never, ever stopped those guys from starting with me. You laugh when they . . .do you know what I could do to them? Do you?”
I didn’t like this. Tom always gave off a nutty sort of vibe but was never so alarming.
“Is something wrong, Tom? I mean with . . . the body?”
He looked at me—almost through me, to be honest. The candlelight darkened his eyes and cast shadows under his cheekbones.
“I did something really bad.”
We sat in silence for a long time. Longer than I could stand, but the only movement either of us made was my tipping the candle so the wick wouldn’t succumb to the waxy pool. I’m pretty sure Tom knew I was waiting to hear him out and finally, after a good long while, he spoke.
“You were nice to me when we were kids.”
“Oh . . . ”
“At the Berryman school,” he went on, still sitting on the floor against the wall but now with a glint of remembrance in his eyes, “You stopped me from getting beat up, a bunch of times.”
“The Berry was tough,” I recalled.
It wasn’t worth mentioning that I was vying with a couple of other boys for command of the schoolyard in those days. So the job was just the job, as they say.
“I remember . . . it was 5th grade and . . .” Tom turned to me and the glint was gone, in its place was just a whole bunch of sadness, “. . . my . . . my dad died that summer . . . and when school started, I cried a lot. I couldn’t help it. And . . . you were nice to me . . . back then. Maybe not now . . . but then.”
“Geez,” I said, surprising myself with the gentleness of my voice, “I didn’t know.”
“It meant a lot to me.”
Tom stood up suddenly and I jumped back enough that it tipped the stump and I fell to the dusty hardwood floor.
“I have to go see my mom.”
He moved out of the candlelight. I got to my feet and started after him but one of my idiot cohorts had left a bag of empty soda cans in the hallway and as I tumbled over its clanking resistance, I shouted out to Tom.
“Wait!” I was calling him back but really I didn’t want to, “You have to tell me what you did. Hold on!”
And then he was gone. That was it. I had to tell the sheriff. Tom was acting way too weird to let it go. If he just did something terrible, then who’s to say he won’t do it again?
But what will they do to him? What about me? I’ll probably get arrested for accessory to something bad and that looks terrible on a college application. I sat there and tried to figure out how to explain the whole thing while watching the candle burn itself almost out. Just as I was lighting another stub from the pile, a loud set of footsteps sounded outside on the porch. Before I could decide where to hide, a pounding on the door began and a loud voice announced.
“I seen your light in there. Come on out!”
It felt like I was executing the walk of the damned down that pitch-dark hallway toward the glare of light showing under the front door. When I opened it, the sheriff didn’t throw me in cuffs but instead led me out onto the porch and flicked off his flashlight, leaving us in the glare of the near-full moon. He asked me who I was and what I was doing there. Surprisingly, he wasn’t too bothered by us hanging out at the house but now that we’d been discovered, I figured those days were numbered. Then out of the blue, he asked me directly.
“You been with the Tucker boy at all today?”
The sheriff was a man with a constant squint and though he wasn’t much taller than me, it felt like a heat was shooting out of his sliver of a stare and melting any chance of a lie right inside my brain.
“Yes,” I confessed and it felt good so I continued, “He just left here about ten minutes ago and I think he . . .”
“What’d you say?” the sheriff interrupted and gripped a hand to my shoulder.
“I said he just left and I . . .”
“Tom Tucker died a few hours ago, son,” the sheriff said gently, “drowned under the bridge over by Frankie’s. His mother just identified the body.”
Whatever despondent look gripped my face made the sheriff reach out just as my knees were buckling, and I did my best to answer his final few questions. I was certain there were more to come. When I was ready, we walked down to his car and started our way back to town. During the ride, he filled the time with chatter, but I hardly heard a word.
“. . . damn foolish thing, his boss at the restaurant said the kid couldn’t swim. Told me a bunch of hooligans are always riding the rapids by the back patio and bothering customers. Hope you ain’t one of them, son. There was an old couple out there having an early dinner. Nearly gave the lady a heart attack, body bobbing along like that. Anyway, you know any reason that boy would want to take his own life?”
“I was nice to him,” I replied, fighting back the many tears that would flow later on.
I turned from the sheriff to look out the window. In the black sky, the moon was following us along the country lane, as if it, too, had something to tell me.
“Well,” the sheriff sighed, sad yet indifferently, “I’m sure he appreciated that.”
I looked back at him and then again out the window. It was getting late. My folks will be mad.
“You got to be nice to people,” I whispered.
Terence Patrick Hughes writes drama, fiction, and poetry. The New York Times noted that his work “…explores heavy subject matter with humorous dialogue and strong characters”. Born in Lawrence, MA, Hughes lives with his wife and two children in Woodstock, NY.
Michael Moreth is a recovering Chicagoan living in the micropolitan City of Sterling, the Paris of Northwest Illinois.