I am your boy, he said to the photograph at the end of the hallway. Woodboards creaking, he leaned his head on the wall beneath the picture. Put his hand on the glass of the frame. Whispered words, the etching of a remembered prayer, the fragment of a stray poem. I am your boy, repeated the picture, a deep reckoning of a father long gone and sent away.
At the other end of the hallway, light coming in as though it had known a night before. As though it had grown large with the morning, and bright with a hope strained from starlight.
Deckard Maynes Barlow found his way to the boy’s room. He was still asleep.
“Time,” he said, as he opened the curtains. “Come now.”
“Morning already?” whispered the boy.
“Come over here. Let me dress you with my own hands.” Deckard took the suit from the cupboard and dusted it clear. Little puffs like busted angels wafted to the window and interrupted the flow of the morning’s light. The suit was too small for the boy. The pants came up past his ankles. The jacket scarcely reached his wrists.
“But the tie, that’ll work,” said Deckard, as he manipulated the black and grey thing through knots. He’d forgotten how to do it. Kept trying and failing, as though the morning were meant for him to stand here forever.
“You never showed me how to do that,” said the boy.
“Never saw the need. Don’t see it now either.”
“Someone’s going to teach me, though? Some day?”
Deckard’s head split; his body tightened beyond the constraints it had been born with until he was knotted up too, and scarcely believing that he was going to slip loose, ever. His hands fiddled with the tie, touching the skin of this ten-year-old boy whose life he had witnessed in its entirety, every moment.
“Someone will,” he said finally, after he was done and the tie hung on his boy, the boy who stood surrounded by sunlight in a suit that would not fit, his feet bare, his eyes searching out the face of a father who had to look away. Everywhere but at him, thought Deckard, taking in the ruins of the room, the gaps in the wood panels, the critters sneaking in through the cracks in the window frame.
Downstairs, they ate boiled eggs topped with coarse salt, with a lump of cream and some beans that had been cooked yesterday. “The last of the cream. The salt, too,” said Deckard, smiling. The boy nodded and licked his plate clean. “I have some bread for you.”
Table was quiet. The house groaned. Deckard fancied he could hear whispers upstairs, the ghosts of days past talking about the illusions they perceived in the lives of those who remained alive.
“Are you going to take me all the way?” asked the boy.
“Every step,” promised Deckard. “Every step.”
“And then you’re going to come back here?”
“But it’ll just be you.”
Deckard nodded. “I’ll have the work. Plenty of it to be done in the fields. The house needs fixing too.” He stared at the blue blue of the boy’s eyes, the mist in them lifting as he realized that this was the day, the first of one thing, the last of another, not just another day, not just another few minutes in a tired old house with a tired old man, but something else – something that had just come down the road and over the dusty lane, onto a sagging porch to have done with its business.
They finished the bread. At the front door, the boy was breathing hard. He looked up at his father. “Don’t want to leave. I want to stay here.”
“Be brave about it, and maybe you’ll feel otherwise.”
“I won’t,” he said, like it was endlessly true. One hand clung to the door. The other held the hand of his father.
“Poor house to raise a child. All those drafts, and the bugs. And the stuff that don’t work. This will be better. This will be fine.”
He shook his head and squeezed tighter. But what he really said was, I am your boy, your boy, and that is not something you contain in a house or sift through a screen that removes this truth from the life we have shared, or the memories that we always will own.
Porch creaked. Down the steps. Onto the lane, and then the road. It’s time to walk, thought Deckard. Today is not a day for the car. Today is not a day for walking quickly.
Fields they passed. Birds that lurked in trees that watched. A little parcel of breeze brought by the morning heat. Sunlight, the same as from when the world was born, just a little older, a bit more tired. And the words between a boy and his father, as they kicked stones into the ditch, or pitched them at the fence posts. The names of two brothers and a mother recited as though they had gradually made their way into a song fit only for this morning, only for these moments. A hand in a hand. A pulsing of life and itinerant heartbeats, coming from the same source, risen from the same ground and hardness of earth. The sound of love. The whispers of ghosts. The endless travail of one step after another, leading down a road one last time.
The town came out of no where. It rose as though the breeze had pulled it from the packed earth, nourished by sunlight only – for it’s good enough – to be all these colours and all these sounds and people. Deckard drew his boy into the streets, and nodded at people who knew him, people who might have wondered why the boy was dressed in that suit on this day.
In front of the smithy’s, a truck had parked. The engine was running.
“Could go back with you,” said the boy. His voice was done. It was ruined.
“I would if it could be,” said Deckard, a few precious words not the equal of what he needed to say now, what he had to get out before it became too late. He tried. The words came, familiar ones, practiced ones about how it would be okay, how the future was still bright, how there were so many possibilities in this life.
No more ghosts whispering. No more wind blowing. The small sound that came to Deckard pleaded to stay, first for forever, then just for another year, then finally just for another day, one last day in the house if it could be, if it could be made to be so. “You be brave about it,” returned Deckard. You be brave, for you are my boy. You be whole, and proud of yourself and what you will be, and you think on me, your dad, when you look around you at the world into which you have come. For I’ll be here, and I’ll think on you for the rest of my life, I promise it to you.
“This him?” growled Chad. The old man was sweating, and there was food in his beard. He hobbled around the boy, tugging at the suit. “No need for this finery. Simple clothes would have been just fine.”
“It’s the best he has.”
Chad frowned. “I bet it is. But he’ll have no use for a tie and jacket. I’ll sell them later. Buy him a better cot, maybe.”
Deckard stopped him. “You’ll take care of him. You will. You promise that to me here, while you’re in front of me.”
“I made you all the advertisements I’m going to. There’s no more to be had. You understand that, Deckard.” He didn’t wait for a response. “Listen now. You’ll write no letters. If you do, they’ll be burned. You’ll never try to visit. If you do, you’ll be shot as a trespasser. You’ll not raise hell with the authorities. If you do, something may happen to this boy. What you should try to do is forget. Go drink it out. Work it away. Find something, Deckard – best advice I have for you.”
Chad turned to the boy. “Listen, and carefully. I want you to climb into that truck right now. And I want you to look down at the floorboards. Don’t you look back at this man, your daddy. Don’t you dare stare out the corner of your eye for a last look. You don’t do that, you hear? You keep this moment, your hand in his, as your last of him. That’ll stand you in good stead. I figure in a few years you’ll lose even that. You’ll forget it, what his hand even feels like to cling to so hard. Do as I say now. Do it now. Let go his hand and get in the truck.”
The hesitation was only a second, but it was a lifetime in the making. Deckard felt the fingers slip out of his, leaving a trace of heat. He watched a small back and tight clothes climb the steps into the back of the truck. A head staring at the boards, not moving.
“There, it’s done,” said Chad. Deckard said nothing. The fat man tugged at his beard and spat. “Do yourself a kindness. Go to the pub and drink it away. Your debt’s paid off now, and you’re alone. No one cares if you go down that road again. There’s nothing more to lose, Deckard. Nothing.”
“Debt’s paid,” croaked Deckard.
“It is. All that you owe, we forgive now. You’re free, man. Free.”
Deckard stood there, in the silence of a breeze and within the scrutiny of a sun that judged his every breath. People may have been looking at him, but he wouldn’t have known it. The next thing he knew, diesel fumes gathered around him as an engine roared; then the sound of wheels groaning into motion. Don’t look up, he told himself, only be with yourself and the hardness of the ground on which you stand – for there is nothing else left to consider, nothing at all. But his eyes rose anyway, to watch the truck move down the street, belching fumes into the open air of the new morning. And there in the back of that truck, a little figure sitting there in a suit too small, with a heart too big, with a life too new, given commands not to look back – but looking back anyway. Blue blue eyes staring down the road, and a small hand waving a goodbye, the last treasure that Deckard was ever going to know.
In truth, Deckard walked to the steps of the pub. People inside saw him coming and a few called him over. He made it as far as the porch.
The road was hard. Cars and horses mingled with each other in some insane dance that was only heading in one direction, but he was the only one walking. At the edge of the buildings, the breeze picked up. He kicked a stone into the ditch. He layered his hands with dust as he grabbed other stones and threw them as far as he could into the crisped fields.
The whole way home, he saw no one. Not even a ghost.
The porch creaked. The door opened. He went through the house to the other side, and into the garden and then just beyond, to a small plot where three graves had been dug. One small and so old he couldn’t remember having done it. The second small, too, but newer. And the third, a place where he had put his love not so long ago.
“It’s done,” he said to her. “You told me what it would cost to do the things I did. But you didn’t know what you meant by that. You didn’t. And all I can hope is that you can’t see what’s become of us. I never meant to bring this calamity. I hope you know that. Truth is, I don’t know how it happened. All I know is that I’m here alone now. Seemed not long ago. Seemed not that long ago.”
That night, the house was quiet. Lights were dimmed. And if there were any sifting to be done of starlight or other things belonging to the ether, they were the purview of people far away from that sagging little house. Heat had come, as it would. Breezes had mixed with it, as they were wont to do. And upstairs, at the end of a hallway, Deckard rested his forehead against a wall, one hand touching the glass of a picture frame as his words whispered the night through, I am your boy. I am your boy. I am.