Wally looked around, hoping that no one else saw his embarrassing ordeal. All was quiet. His curiosity took hold, and he peered into the mahogany box. No harm could come from just looking. . . .
The following is an excerpt from In the Realm of Mist and Mercy, by Susan A. Howard: Chapter 7: Secrets of the Heart.
WALLY kicked open the Pruitts’ gate and gleefully jogged up the back walkway. Memories of the Wood possessed him. All he could think of on his way back from town was Peep, Cullie, and Bo Dog, and the chance to shoot his bow once again. He recalled the pine-scented air and the delicate wild fl owers, riding Maggie through the trails, and fishing the stream off Promise Rock.
He leapt over a mud puddle that had curiously appeared since the morning and then bounded up the porch stairs, two steps at a time. When his foot hit the porch landing, it slipped on a large slick of mud waiting above the last stair. Wally tried in vain to regain his footing, scrambling jig-like and spreading the ooze everywhere. He tumbled down the stairs and landed in the mud puddle, followed by the box of supplies. Dazed, he lay there a moment, muck seeping through his clothes. He waited for the twins to appear. No one came snickering around a corner, no snide comments from a safe distance.
Wally lifted himself slowly. After wiping his muddy hands on his trousers, he began picking up the contents of Mrs. Pruitt’s order: soap, hair clips . . . a box? Mrs. Pruitt hadn’t ordered a box. He examined the red mahogany lid embossed with a golden goat skull. Then he made the connection. He had been so enthralled with the idea of visiting Peep that he had completely forgotten to make the delivery Haden had asked! Wally looked around, hoping that no one else saw his embarrassing ordeal. All was quiet. His curiosity took hold, and he peered into the mahogany box. No harm could come from just looking.
A brilliant ruby heart, as big as a walnut, glinted in the sunlight. It was the most beautiful thing Wally had ever seen. Under it lay a folded slip of paper. Wally couldn’t resist. He pulled it out and tried his hardest to string the letter sounds together. It was useless. He did, however, make out the signature as it was two letters he’d seen before, “J.A.”
All of a sudden, a melancholy overtook Wally. He thought of home, and a keen sense of loss overwhelmed him. The sadness of never having known his mother and father, the frustration of his current situation, the separation from those he loved, all of it came flooding over him at once.
“Waljan!” cried Mrs. Pruitt from inside the house. “Waljan, are you back yet?”
Wally tucked the note back underneath the gem, slammed the box closed, and hid it in his pocket. Something told him that the box was a very personal and private affair. He didn’t want to be responsible for Mrs. Pruitt finding the note and spreading whatever sentiments it might contain.
Hastily, Wally wiped his eyes, cleared his throat, and called back, “Yes, ma’am!” Then, he picked up the crate and carefully climbed the stairs, avoiding the booby-trap. “The Mercantile was really busy today. I had to wait.”
“That was some wait, Waljan. You’ve been gone hours,” Mrs. Pruitt complained from inside the house.
“Well, it didn’t help that I took a spill off the back porch.”
Mrs. Pruitt came to the porch door. “Oh, dear, Waljan! Look at you! Did you get hurt? That was very clumsy of you.”
“I’m okay, but there is mud all over the porch. I should go clean it off before someone does get hurt,” Wally explained.
“Oh . . . how strange. I wonder if the boys know anything about that.” Mrs. Pruitt blushed a bit. “Well, that is surprisingly thoughtful of you to take care of it.” She took the crate from Wally and started to unpack her order. “Considering the lateness of the day, why don’t you take the rest of it off? After you clean the porch, of course.”
“Thank you, ma’am!” Wally replied, relieved that he would have time to deliver the box for Haden after all.
Dutifully, Wally washed down the porch. Then, he changed his clothes and made his way back into town. In strange contrast to his lighthearted trip home, Wally’s return to town exhausted him. The joy of visiting Mortwood that possessed him earlier was replaced by the overwhelming sadness of not being there now. He dragged his feet, stopped often, and lost sight of his purpose more than once.
A group of boys, led by Caddock and Tyre Pruitt, caught up to Wally from behind and surrounded him like gnats.
“Hey, wolf-boy!” Caddock said. “Where are you off to?”
Wally ignored him and picked up his pace. The gang followed.
One of the others taunted him. “Cat got your tongue, orphan?”
“Maybe he bit it off when he fell in the mud, boys!” The group broke out in cruel laughter and jesting. “Too bad we weren’t there to see it!”
“Lay off, guys!” Tyre finally said. Then, toughening, he added, “You’re just wasting your time.”
Wally and the swarm arrived at the street that led to the house with white columns. Wally turned and shot a menacing glance at each of the boys. But he said nothing. Caddock noticed the box Wally clutched protectively at his side.
“Whatcha got there, lodger?” Caddock said.
Wally turned down the side street toward the mansion, marching with renewed purpose. Caddock followed close behind, but his entourage held back.
“Hey, I’m talking to you, wolf-boy!” Caddock grabbed Wally’s arm and swung him around and then reached for the mahogany box. But Wally would not let go. For a split second the boys were locked together.
Caddock was instantly assaulted with feelings of inadequacy and failure. He felt exposed, foolish, irrelevant, and discarded. He turned around to see his gang watching from half a block away and immediately let go of the box.
“Hey! Where are you guys going?” he demanded angrily.
“Come on, Caddock,” Tyre yelled back. “Let’s go play ball.”
Caddock turned back to Wally. “Catch you later, loser,” he quipped and ran off to meet up with the gang.
Wally continued on. As he approached the iron gate, it seemed to grow in all directions until it stood before him like a massive sentry bellowing, “No passage here!” He pulled the latch, and the gate screamed opened, nonetheless. Inside the spacious yard, he felt very small. He followed the walkway to a wide staircase that led up through the columns to the door. In the center of the door hung an ornate brass knocker shaped like a goat skull. Its beauty struck Wally. He’d never considered the skull of any animal to be decorative. A brass plate positioned just below the skull had a J and an A engraved on it.
He pulled out the old tattered card that he had retrieved from his desk drawer before leaving the house and compared it. They were the same. Wally reached up and lifted the skull knocker away from its base. When released, the knocker fell hard against the door and sent a hollow, booming echo throughout the house.
A servant opened the door, followed by the homeowner himself, dressed in a housecoat and elegant leather slippers.
“Thank you, Baxter, you may go,” the homeowner said.
“I have a delivery from the Mercantile, sir,” Wally said, holding out the mahogany box. His voice quavered, and his throat tightened up.
“Excellent! It has been found. Thank you,” said the man. He took hold of the box, but Wally’s grip tightened. The man studied Wally’s expression closely and then jerked the box away. “Something torments you,” the man said with an unsettling grin. “You’re Waljan. The orphan that Josephine Pruitt took in, no?”
“Yes, sir,” Wally replied somberly.
“Yes. Well, thank you. Good day.” The man shut the door abruptly, and Wally was left staring up at the door knocker.
As if just awoken from a dream, he felt disoriented. He turned and looked toward town, then back toward the Pruitt’s.
Now what, he thought. With the rest of the afternoon to himself, he had no idea how to fill his time.
Steadily, as he descended the porch stairs and made his way to the front gate, his head cleared. It occurred to him how strange his exchange with the stranger was. He hadn’t even introduced himself. Wally realized that he was just a delivery boy. There was no reason for the man to be polite. It was just that people usually were in that situation.
Thirsty, Wally decided to venture into town for a drink and then explore the surrounding wilderness. One didn’t have to travel too far out of the city limits to forget civilization for an afternoon. He stopped in at Geezer’s Geysers, a little restaurant and bar that hosted evenings of entertainment for hard working Mortinburgans. At this hour, though, Geezer’s was quiet with occasional patron grabbing a quick lunch.
Mingled with the aroma of old wood, the acrid scents of yeasty beer and last night’s tobacco greeted Wally as he passed through the heavy oak door. The restaurant was dark but not gloomy. Wally approached the counter and hopped up on one of the wooden bar stools.
“Well, there, young man,” the proprietor said, “What can I get for you?” He was a hunched old man with smiling eyes and a downy white mustache that hung below either side of his chin.
His bent posture made him smaller than he should have been, judging from his large, gnarled hands.
“Well, sir, I don’t have any money. But I was hoping you could spare a glass of water,” Wally answered.
“Hmm. Well, I don’t know. Have any gold in them teeth?” the man asked, squinting one eye and flashing a sideways smile.
Wally just stared.
“Oh, my, we are serious today, aren’t we!” the man said, chuckling. “Water it is.”
Wally pulled out the card again and studied the letters. They just looked like strings of sticks and noodles. He turned the card around and around in his fingers as he watched the old man grab a glass from the shelf and dust it with a white rag. As the man twisted the white rag around the inside of the glass, Wally noticed a spherical object tucked just under it, pressed into the palm of his hand. As if without thinking, the man tossed the rag to the side, set the object by the sink, and opened an ice box. The object looked exactly like the sap-covered stone that he’d found in his room at Mrs. Pruitt’s, but cleaner. The man turned to speak but paled upon seeing Wally’s eyes fixed on the stone. He quickly grabbed the object and dropped it into his pants pocket.
“So, my dear penniless patron, did you want a slice of lemon with your water?”
“Oh, you don’t need to go to any trouble,” Wally said.
“No trouble at all. I don’t like trouble,” said the bartender mysteriously, as he plopped a slice of lemon and three cubes of ice into Wally’s glass.
Although he had a sense that the question would not be welcomed, Wally mustered the courage to ask, “Sir, if you don’t mind my asking, what was that thing you put in your pocket?”
The man searched Wally’s eyes and set the glass before him.
“Nonpaying customers get water. Maybe even a slice of lemon if they are lucky. But they don’t get to ask personal questions.” Then he smiled with a jaunty air. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.”
“I’m Waljan Woodland, sir. I am a friend of Haden Hunter and Josiah Constance.”
“Oh yes! You’re the one who lives with Josephine Pruitt just outside town. Wow, that must be quite a row to hoe!”
“It can be, sir,” Wally admitted.
“My name is Gerald Guest, but everyone calls me Geezer, or Geez for short.” The man winked playfully at Wally. He glanced over at the calling card that Wally had dropped on the counter, his smile fading. “So, you his friend, too?”
“I’m sorry . . . whose friend?” Wally asked.
“Well, the judge’s of course. You got his calling card there.”
“Oh! Is that what this is? Mrs. Pruitt is teaching me to read. Well, trying to anyway. I was just by his house making a delivery from the Mercantile. He didn’t introduce himself when he answered the door. Do you know the judge?”
“Off-limits, son. That’s a personal question,” Geez objected.
“Okay, but you asked me the same question. And I answered you. I guess that means I can upgrade my water to a soda?”
Geez relaxed and nodded. “You win.” He grabbed a chilled bottle from the ice box, popped off the cap, and set it before Wally.
“Your soda, sir.” Then his voice dropped. “Everyone knows the judge. But don’t mistake that to mean that everyone likes the judge. In fact, if I were you, I would stay as far away from that man as possible, you understand? But you didn’t hear that from me.”
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