"Ah, Happy years! Once more who would not be a boy?"-Byron
Michael was most definitely bored. This had to be the definitely, infinitely boringest place on the entire planet and maybe on a whole lot of planets. His friends and everything interesting were back in New York along with his Nintendo and VCR and all of his tapes and toys. Didn't they have toys in Iowa? He thought not.
He'd explored the farm, the barn, the grain tower, the ancient rusting equipment. Nothing interested him much. He had two more weeks of torture before he went back home.
Every year he got sent to his different relatives' for three weeks of summer while his parents went to Europe. Next year, at twelve, he'd be old enough to go with them. If they were still together. Meanwhile they traveled someplace in Europe, Whales or Australia or something like that, and he was stuck on his Aunt Elisabeth's farm.
He sat in what used to be his cousin's room on the second floor of the big white farmhouse. His cousin had joined the army and gotten married and had kids even older than Michael and didn't come back to the farm anymore except on some holidays like Christmas. It was still four months until Christmas.
Aunt Elisabeth had gotten down some of her old toys from their hiding place in the attic. The attic was interesting for about two days because of all the boxes and old furniture and spiderwebs and stuff, and then it became as boring as the rest of the farm. The toys were never really interesting.
There was a soldier made out of metal, a dozen old smashed up little cars, most of them missing wheels, that didn't turn into anything and were all sticky, and a metal top with a handle that you pushed down. The top was sort of fun because it made so much noise and he'd played with it for about ten minutes. It was red and blue.
He pulled the drawing pad from his suitcase and carefully withdrew his colored pencils before he wandered down the stairs where his aunt sat sewing curtains in her big oak rocking chair. She was always making things; clothes and cookies and stuff.
"Hi," he mumbled.
"'lo Michael." She didn't look up. "What're you up to?" She looked a lot like his mother, but not enough.
She also talked funny.
"Nothin'. Got nothin' to do."
"Really? Your cousin found plenty to do around here. All it takes is a little imagination. You kids today have no imagination."
"Do too," Michael huffed.
She looked at him. Light red-brown hair in a bowl cut, light blue eyes like her sister's, a spray of freckles across his nose, sunburned a little from his exploration of the farm, face set in what was quickly becoming a permanent frown.
"I mean, Michael, that you could find things to do if you really put your mind to it. There are a thousand books that you could read up in the attic."
"Yeah. I looked at some of 'em."
She spoke of the library in the crates. His cousin had collected all kinds of weird stuff from a bunch of countries, even maybe Whales and Australia. He was an apologist.
"What's an apologist anyway?"
"An apologist. You said he's an apologist."
"No. He was studying to be a cultural anthropologist."
"Yeah. Those books are too hard to read. Neat pictures, though. I'd rather watch T.V. There's a show about ..."
"Television will only make you listless."
"I think you should go explore the woods. All the kids around here do that. You'll like it."
"I don't know. I'm not scared or nothin', but ..." The city, with all its dangers, he could handle, but the woods? "Aren't there like, wild animals?"
"No more bears." She pulled the drawing pad from his hand. "Go on. Some of the kids from town are probably out there by the pond. It's a real nice place. You can use the exercise." She squeezed his ribs and got a desired giggle from him. "Go on. You can stay out 'til lunchtime, okay?"
"Okay. But I really just want to go home."
"Don't you like it here, Michael?"
"Yeah. It's okay, I guess. But I like home more. There's more stuff to do."
He'd seemed so miserable these past few days. Maybe he was right. He'd probably be happier in his own element.
"There's a pond, remember. You do know how to swim, right?"
"Yeah. 'course." He smiled, a rare occurrence these days, and went out the door. She watched him as he wandered slowly towards the woods, across the now barren fields that had been rife with barley.
The woods weren't as boring as he'd feared. Everywhere he could see small animals, from the crazy squirrels arguing with each other in little barks, running up and down tree-trunks, to the birds that kept up a constant racket. He'd never seen most of the birds before. He'd only seen pigeons and sparrows and an occasional crow. The trees had begun the slow change for fall, though it was still very much summer. Their leaves turned crimson and gold, waving between trees that still had shades of deep blue-green above a tawny meadow of brightly colored flowers. The heat didn't seem to intrude much here. A gentle breeze sent ripples across the pond and a duck, squawking at his presence, fled to the far side, disappearing into deep green rushes.
The pond, except for the one duck, was completely abandoned, or, maybe not being used yet, it still being early. Someone used the pond, because many footprints ran along one edge where the plants had been worn completely away. A couple of empty coke cans lay in the bushes.
Michael sat on a rock and surveyed the pond moodily. He should have brought his sketchpad. There was a lot to sketch here. It might help in the eternity before someone showed up. He picked up a stick and began to scratch in the hard mud. Mostly he drew squiggles and designs that he'd seen in one of his cousin's older books.
He drew a circle and stepped inside and then, humming to himself, began to tap each squiggle with the stick, mumbling the funny names that he'd seen in the book. Then he sat down on the rock again.
He wished someone would come. Anyone. His watch said he had to go back soon.
He looked at the trees around him. No birds. He looked at his reflection in the water. Something stirred behind him and he turned, startled.
After a moment he smiled and reached out a hand as his father had taught him.
"Hi," he said, "My name's Michael. I'm staying over there." He shrugged in the direction of Aunt Elisabeth's farm.
"Where's the boy?" Ed Culbertson asked her as he rolled up the hose after watering her sparse lawn.
"Don't know," Elisabeth said, looking across the empty field to the woods. "He was supposed to be back for lunch, but that was an hour ago. I told him to find some company out in the woods."
"Well. Nothing to worry about. Forgot the time's all."
"Maybe he's swimming. Knows how to swim, I hope."
"I don't know. He seemed so despondent. I'm sure he's figured out about the divorce. His parents've been having problems for so long. Maybe he ..."
"Yes. I suppose I'm being silly. He probably met some local boys and they're playing. I wish he'd told me."
"Here he is. Couldn't have gone too far."
She followed his gaze across the field to where Michael ran towards them. She waited for more boys, but none came. He was alone.
When he reached them he radiated joy, all smiles and hard breathing. She forgot to be angry with him.
"Well, Mikey, see you must've found yourself a new friend out there!" Ed smiled.
"Yeah! And he knows everything! And he's so strong, and he knows all about the woods and stuff. I told him all about the city and the farm!"
"That's very good, Michael. Where were you at lunch?"
"Oh." His enthusiasm flagged a little. He panted a little less now. "Sorry. I forgot."
She wrapped one arm around his shoulders.
"That's okay. You made a friend. That's more important." She smiled at him and surveyed the edge of the woods. "Well, where is he?"
"He, uh ... He had to stay there, I think," Michael began, looking sideways, "But he says he'll be there whenever I call for him, for the whole rest of my vacation." His eyes swam with ideas for mischief.
"You still want to go back to the city?"
"Oh no, Aunt 'lisabeth! I want to stay here forever!"
Once inside, she fixed him a sandwich and he watched Ed out of the window as he finished up his work and got into a beat-up red pickup.
"What happened to Uncle Martin?"
"He died five years ago. Heart attack."
"So Mr. Culbertson took over the chores?"
"Yes. He takes care of the fields and I split with him." She brought the sandwich to the oak table and went to the icebox for some milk. "Tell me about your friend, Michael."
"He's real nice. Tough, like people back home, but nice." He tossed his head back and forth. "He calls me 'Mik-ay-el'."
"What's his name?"
Michael began to pick at his sandwich, pulling distractedly at the lettuce. He shifted in the wooden chair.
"He says it's ... Monynocs."
"Moe-nee-nocks," he pronounced carefully, and then took a big bite of sandwich. His eyes studied her seriously, like her sister's did when she had a secret.
"All right, Michael," she said, thinking about the strange name. She thought she knew all the boys in her small town. "As soon as you finish lunch you can go play with ... Monynocs."
They chased an old black dog across the field and then splashed each other at the pond. Towards dark they had wrestled in the grass over who was stronger. Michael lost, naturally. He told all of this to his aunt, warily watching her response. She went back to her knitting, smiling while he lay on the floor with his drawing pad.
"So, Michael, what does this Monynocs look like?"
For a long time it seemed as if he hadn't heard her. She could only see the top of his head as he laboriously worked on his drawing. He raised his head and regarded her critically, unsmiling.
"Sorta ... Sorta like me, you know. Eleven, like me, and kinda small, like me, but real strong." He seemed to look inward. "And real smart. He knows about a zillion questions."
"Well, you stay out of trouble, okay?"
During the next four days, Michael seemed happier than she'd ever seen him. Time enough for the unhappy news, she thought. He wolfed down his breakfast and was out the door before she could even say anything to him. He raced back at noon and drank his milk, foregoing the sandwich, and returned just before dark, drained and laughing.
She sat reading while he lay on the floor working on his latest drawing, ankles crossed and hair hanging over his eyes.
"Michael, why don't you invite your friend in for lunch some time? I'd like to meet him. He sounds like a nice boy."
His hand faltered, and then he continued drawing. He looked at her once and then lowered his head.
"I don't think he eats lunch. I don't think I want lunch anymore either."
"But, Michael ..."
"I'm on vacation. I should be able to do what I want. Who knows what things'll be like next year." Nothing truly belligerent, just matter-of-fact. Well, he didn't have to say it twice.
"All right Michael." She watched him draw for a moment, noting his posture, his youth, his vulnerability, troubled a little. A boy whose name she'd never heard, who looked like him, who didn't eat.
"Mikey, I said before you didn't have enough imagination."
"Yeah?" he mumbled around a colored pencil.
"Well ... What I mean is ..." She struggled with the thought. "You do know the difference between what's real and what's not, don't you?"
He looked seriously at her, his light eyes masking whatever thoughts lay behind them, but she saw a hurt there that the cool couldn't mask. "Yes, I do."
"Well ..." She thought suddenly of a line from Dickens: 'You are a human boy, my young friend,' it went, 'A human boy. O glorious to be a human boy!'. She thought about her own almost forgotten imaginings, the fragile dreams of childhood. "Never mind," she said, "Go on with your drawing. It's lovely."
It never occurred to him that anything he and Monynocs did was wrong. Since they'd stolen the cokes and candy from the general store and terrified the small herd of cows at the Reardon farm, he'd come to view it the same way as he did the crime in the city.
They were playing their favorite game; follow the leader, and had tried to start up the grain elevator by hot-wiring it, something that Michael taught the other, but the machine had some hidden kill-switch that defeated them.
Finally they began the long ascent to the top of the grain tower, Monynocs leading, challenging him to keep up. Michael had stopped wondering about his friend's seemingly unlimited curiosity and energy and bravery, and simply climbed along behind him, happy not to be alone with his not-so-happy thoughts.
At the top of the grain tower they could see for miles in every direction, except where the tower interfered with their view. Far off, the silver sparkle of river bordered the dense green line of forest. Beneath them, like his aunt's patchwork, the gold and brown squares of the farmland lay, where, even now, the giant harvesters sewed a ragged line, gathering wheat and barley. It was hard to think that the little ants that scurried around the big machines were people, like them, maybe even Ed Culbertson and his help.
"It's pretty up here," Michael sighed. "This was a good idea. All's you can see back home is more buildings when you're up this high." He caught himself thinking sad thoughts again.
"My parents are prob'ly gonna split up and I won't come here anymore. But it's been a pretty cool summer." He looked at his friend and then silently at the horizon to the east and somewhere his home and even further to where his parents probably were arguing about money and their apartment in some city where they didn't even speak American. He hugged his knees, balancing on the rungs of the ladder. "I wish you could see our place in New York."
He breathed in and realized he was alone. He felt stupid. Ditched by the only person he could even talk to. Great. Looking up, he saw Monynocs on the access ladder heading towards the vents at the top of the tower. He looked back down and fought a slight dizziness, and then followed him up the ladder and into the darkness.
The inside of the grain tower smelled strangely of plants, barley, he decided, and was incredibly damp and dark. The vents blocked most of the strength of the sun and reduced the remaining light to dim twilight. An odd upside-down reflection of the farm flickered on the arches of the ceiling.
He, at first, didn't know where Monynocs had gone, and then, when he saw, wasn't sure whether to follow him.
A bar about an inch thick stretched the width of the building, leading to another access ladder on the far side. Another door led outside and back down, he supposed, to the ground, a hundred-fifty feet down.
Monynocs sat in the middle of the bar, grinning back at him.
"Wait a minute! I can't see!" Michael said, stalling while his eyes adjusted to the dark. He felt little pinprickles in his palms as he looked down into the unyielding darkness below them. There had to be barley down there, but how far down? Surely no one was supposed to be up here. He'd told his aunt he'd stay out of trouble.
"Scared, city boy?" the voice taunted out of the darkness.
"I'm not scared!" He fought to control the tremor in his voice and put one hand firmly on the bar, swallowing hard, though his mouth had gone totally dry. The bar bobbed a little under his weight, but Monynocs' smile shone white against the dark, baiting him, daring him.
He sat on the bar, jerking his legs forward into space every couple of seconds at first, to keep his balance, and then, finding it almost too easy, began to slide slowly towards the center of the bar.
"See! I told you! I'm not scared!" His sweaty hands slipped on the bar, but it wasn't really that hard to keep balance. "Go on!"
"Sure you want to, huh?"
"Yeah, let's go!"
The two slid, by inches, towards their goal, the bar bobbing up and down in a steady rhythm.
"This is fun!" He gasped as the bar made an unexpected lurch sideways. He kicked his legs out straight, and the sideways movement increased. He felt himself losing his balance. His hands locked, sweaty vises, around the bar.
"Hold still!" The voice hissed out of the darkness. "Just move along real slow. It'll be okay."
His hands hurt, and now he shook so much that the bar refused to stop its wobbling. He couldn't hold on much longer. He wasn't strong enough. With their movement the bar stilled for a moment and he sighed, and then it gave one last violent wave up and down.
The scream trailed off into the darkness and echoed off the metal walls until it stopped with a thud. The boy sat on the bar, gazing down into the musty dark.
"Michael?" Elisabeth said as she looked worriedly at her nephew. "Michael, you haven't eaten any of your dinner. Is there something wrong?"
The boy at first looked frightened, and then gave a sweet smile.
"Nothing, Aunt 'lisabeth. Just not hungry. Can I go to bed?"
"Aren't you feeling well?"
"A little tired's all."
"That's because you haven't eaten. Why don't you have some cake. Hmm? Sound good?"
Michael ran one finger around the edge of his plate, never lifted his eyes.
"No. I'm just not hungry."
"Well ..." She picked up his uneaten dinner. "What would you like to eat?" He smiled but said nothing. "I'll put this in the icebox for later, if you decide to eat."
"Yeah." He looked at her. "May I be excused?"
He shrugged and started to walk away.
"But you'd better shower before bed, Michael. You're full of dust. I can't imagine what you were into today."
"Okay, ma'am." He walked dejectedly up the stairs.
The next morning when she went to wake him he was already dressed and staring out the window at the grain tower. She walked up behind him.
"Good morning, Michael. Are you hungry?"
"Already ate, thanks," he said without turning from the window. "What's Ed doing?"
"Ed?" She walked up beside him, put her hands on his shoulders. He felt like an elf, hardly there. "Ed's getting ready to take the barley out of the tower, that's all. It'll take almost a week, about. The tower's half full. Good crop this year. Lot of rain."
Ed Culbertson had backed up what looked like a giant tilted screw against the double steel doors at the base of the grain tower. Another man waited to back a huge truck up beneath the machine.
"See, that takes the barley out and drops it into the truck. Ed says there'll be three or four truckloads. That's a good year." She put her chin on top of his head, crossed her arms over his chest. He'd be too grown up for this the next time she saw him, she thought. If she saw him again.
"What did you have for breakfast. I'm surprised I didn't hear you." She looked at her wan nephew, who stared, unsmiling at the men working below.
"Some toast and milk an' stuff."
"You didn't leave a mess, did you?"
He shook his head.
"I suppose you will want lunch today."
"I don't eat lunch anymore." He moved from the window, pulling away from her. He laid one hand on his drawing pad. "I don't think I'm going out today."
"Oh ... Because." He picked up a pencil and drew an awkward circle, flexed his hand a few times, put the pencil down.
"What about Monynocs? Did you have a fight? Is that why you don't want to go out?"
Michael's pale blue eyes fixed hers intently and he breathed heavily and then looked away with a serious frown.
"He wasn't real. He was just made up."
"I know, Mikey." Her tone was gentle. "Real life's tough sometimes. It's okay to make things up. I had an imaginary friend when I was little, too. I forget what I called her."
Michael shrugged and continued to draw, looking stiff. He seemed so sad again. She couldn't think of what to say.
"Well, come down later and let me know if you change your mind about lunch."
She closed the door and went downstairs. He seemed so distant, suddenly. Growing up certainly could be a rotten experience sometimes.
The boy looked after her, at the window, and then at his bad circle. He put the pencil aside and lay down again on the bed.
Three days of Michael's refusal to eat lunch or dinner had made her almost frantic when the letter arrived.
His parents were returning home early, as she'd secretly expected, and asked that he be sent home. Her sister hinted that the separation would probably begin soon, but asked her not to tell Michael. His train ticket was enclosed.
When she told Michael, instead of the joy that she'd expected, she met only indifference. He spent almost all day at his second story window watching the machines load grain into the trucks.
She helped him pack his clothes as the sun went down. He didn't know how to fold clothes, a typical boy, and she had to remind him not to forget anything. Afterwards he sat on the floor of the room, playing with the metal top.
"I thought you said that was a toy for babies."
He shrugged. The top roared again.
"Don't you want to go home? You don't seem very excited."
"You know your parents love you, Michael. No matter what ..." She caught herself. "Do you want to come back? You seemed awfully miserable most of the time you were here, except ..."
The top kept spinning. His attention never left it.
"Don't you want to talk to me?"
Another shrug. He seemed not to hear her. His drawing pad lay on the table where he'd left it days before. Everything else had been packed. Only the top moved now as he sat looking sullenly at it.
"Well, come on then and let's have our last dinner together."
"I'm not hungry, thank you."
"At least look at me when you talk to me, Michael. You have to eat. You're going to make your mother think I've been starving you or something."
"I'll explain." He looked up at her briefly. "You can go now."
Alone, downstairs, she felt her anger begin to rise. Where did that child get off speaking to an adult that way? She had thought him a polite little boy! She dropped her fork as the roar of the top cut through the ceiling above her head.
She tried to eat. The top's infernal noise only served to make her angrier.
She stamped heavily up the stairs, hoping the boy would get the message. The top continued its noise. When she opened the door, he looked up at her for a second, and then back at the top spinning along the scratches it had made on the polished hardwood.
She strode across the floor and picked the toy up with a sweep. Michael regarded her for a moment and then got up and slowly walked over to the cot where he sat down. He folded his hands in his lap and stared silently.
For some reason she couldn't bring herself to say anything. She walked out of the room and down the stairs without saying anything. She went outside to the tool shed by the back door, tossed the top inside and then locked it. When she went back up the stairs Michael's light was out.
She'd be glad to be rid of him, she admitted.
The following morning she fixed breakfast for Ed and the others on the crew. Their noise and rough humor contrasted with the silence that she'd been having with Michael so much that she was loathe to wake the boy up and have to leave for the station.
She found Michael already dressed and sitting by the window when she went to get him.
"Breakfast, Michael, then off to the station."
"I already had breakfast," he lied.
"Yes, I know," she lied.
All the time they were on the road to town and the train station, Michael kept his face to the window, staring at the shadow in the distance of the forest.
When they got to the station the conductor helped her load the boy's bags onto the train. Michael kept his eyes on the distant line of trees and, somewhere beyond, the grain tower he could no longer see.
She touched his shoulder and he spun around, then seemed to relax.
"Have a good trip, Michael," she said, though he didn't respond.
When she lightly kissed his cheek she felt the cool tension of his skin. He looked sullen and sick.
Maybe he would eat on the train.
She could see him through the window. When the train started to move, she waved. Michael's face went white and his eyes opened with terror. He looked like a trapped wild animal. The conductor pushed him back into his seat when he tried to get up. Her last view of him was through the glass of the window, hair flying, struggling with the conductor.
"Well, I tell you, I never could understand that boy," Ed Culbertson told her as he wiped his face with his handkerchief.
"He's a little monster, I tell you. I just didn't know what to do with him!" she called from the second story where she'd opened the windows to Michael's former room.
When she'd changed clothes and come downstairs, she could hear Ed cursing outside.
She found him standing on top of the loading machine, a shovel in his hand.
"Don't know. Thing's stopped. Something stuck in the machinery. Probably a piece of wood."
"You need help?"
"No! No! Turn off the machine! Can't hear m'self think!" The engine went dead. "Elisabeth, you still have that long-handled crowbar?"
"Yeah. In the tool shed."
"Think I might need it." He started to scoop out barley, trying to dig down to the obstruction if he could.
The door of the tool shed was torn open, splintered wood scattered on the ground. She got the crowbar and went back out to the tower.
"Looks like a bear's been after my tulip bulbs again."
"Yeah? I'll set some traps. Some poultry over east 've been killed, I hear. You had bears before, right? Long time ago, seems."
"Yeah. Years. They always did love my flower bulbs, though."
Ed jammed the crowbar into the opening between the machine and tower. His face twisted and then barley started to flow around his arm. He pulled and something came loose.
"JEsus!" he yelped, and jumped back.
"What's wrong? Snake?"
Ed said nothing, but dug carefully around with the crowbar. After a moment he pulled something out of the screws of the machine. In the blazing noon sun she couldn't tell immediately what it was, then ...
"Oh my GOD!"
Ed dropped the stiffened form onto the ground after he carried it down from the machine. He wiped the barley dust from its face.
"No. Can't be. This boy's been dead three, four days at least. Broken neck, looks like. Must've fallen from inside the top of the tower."
"That's Michael! That is! I know my own nephew!" Her mind filled with noisy confusion.
Ed examined the boy's face, pale with a spray of freckles across the nose. A trickle of dried blood had caked on the boy's mouth, open in a last silenced shriek.
"Damn! You're right, Elisabeth. This is your nephew!" He looked at her quizzically, brushing dust from the boy's hair.
Her mind was awash in jumbled racket, panic, and finally a horror that grew and grew within her. Her voice trembled.
"If that's Michael, then ... who ...?
They both looked up to the second story window, where the curtains billowed with a calm breeze.
From inside came the unmistakable roar of the metal top against the floor.