Gretchen was sulking. This was normally a bad thing, but in this particular instance, it was an extremely bad thing.
Gretchen was the only one who knew any table manners, you see.
"Francis--" Elizabeth Hockenbury always said her son's name the exact same way; the first syllable long and drawn-out, pronounced almost "Fraun", and then the last part sharp and hissing. Despite her side of the family having been Southern gentry since before the Civil War, Elizabeth had somehow escaped the gentle drawl of the land of cotton and soft, slow decay. She had the same greeny-hazel eyes her son did, but in her narrow face they were critical, darting, never missing a thing.
Tonight was no exception.
"Francis," she said, "please do remember that we are not bushmen."
The child she was admonishing blinked at her from behind round black-framed eyeglasses, frozen over his plate. He looked much like her, only a miniature and less angular version; the pointed face and sensitive nose were there and had been a constant irritant to her husband. He considered his namesake to be a strange, effeminate, unavoidable small nusiance to be ignored until the day he should prove himself a man. He'd been waiting ten years, and no sign of manhood yet, so the child was left entirely Elizabeth's province.
She frowned at him, rearranging her white, ladylike hands in her lap. It was a sign of her displeasure, this gesture; Elizabeth refused to eat while improper manners were being displayed. She had a delicate stomach.
Francis Hockenbury frantically tried to cajole Gretchen into telling him what the problem was, which one of the millions of tiny little things he was doing that was so upsetting his mother, but Gretchen remained stubbornly immovable. He gave up and sat straighter in his chair, tucked his elbows in, held his knife and fork at the awkward angles his mother preferred. His napkin was sliding uncomfortably down over his knees, but there was no way she could see that...
He started panicking unreasonably that she'd suddenly developed X-ray vision and could see unlaced shoes and sloppy napkin through the table, but then a nudge from David provided him with the magic answer. Swallowing a sigh of relief, Francis adjusted his greasy fingers, sliding them further up the handles of the cutlery instead of throttling the fork tines and knife blade.
This seemed to be the right move, because Elizabeth picked up her utensils and resumed eating.
The two of them finished their meal in silence, alone at the dining room table.
The rats were there, as usual, but a few stones and some moderate shouting drove them away.
Francis sank thankfully down on the makeshift chair--old crates and cushions, mostly--and relaxed. This was pretty much the only place on the entire Hockenbury estate that he felt completely at ease, which was probably because nobody bothered to come here. They hadn't had need for an overseer in quite some time now, and the tiny shack stuck right along the western end of what used to be a fabulous plantation was tumble-down deserted.
It was also just the right place for a quiet boy who, despite his loneliness, most of the time just wanted to be left alone. Meaning--away from his parents's stern glares.
He'd discovered the place a year ago, when he'd turned ten. His mother had insisted on throwing a birthday party they couldn't afford and inviting people they couldn't impress, many of whom had no children and so brought young Francis either money (deposited directly into the untouchable bank account) or stupid things that no child in his right mind would want. Socks and undervests, protractor sets, a bedspread, ten matching silver teaspoons (?!?)--that sort of thing.
And the children who did come...well, they didn't get along. At all. His father's friend's kids, they were rough, spoiled young 'gentlemen' and prissy, malicious young 'ladies', all of whom showed absolutely no interest in the birthday boy and who gobbled down his birthday cake and who played with and broke many of his birthday gifts. Except one guest, that is.
He looked just like the rest--healthy, strapping, laughing and rich and popular with his nice clothes and his perfect haircut and his blue eyes. But when the others gathered to gossip and scoff at the skinny, wretched creature in whose honor this party was being held, he was different. He waved them off and came over to Francis, who was doing his best to be ignored, and stuck out one smudgy hand.
"I'm Charlie," he said, with an enormously bright, broad smile. "How 'bout you show me around?"
And Francis' meek, silent life shifted its focus.
It was Charlie who'd had the idea to check out the overseer's cabin. Francis had been round it a dozen times, but never had the interest or the gumption to take a look inside. But he didn't stop Charlie from doing it; nobody so amazing had ever shown so much interest in him, and Francis could refuse his new friend nothing.
The small, cramped shack was dank and smelled of fustering wood. The floor was littered with dead and decaying leaves, and the sounds of scurrying roaches and rodents terrified the younger boy.
"Stay frosty, kid," Charlie held on to Francis' arm and produced a Zippo from his pocket, lighting it with an expert flick. He gave a low whistle as they looked around, eyes rounding with each new instrument they alighted on.
The shack hadn't been the overseer's living quarters--those were long since torn down--but where he ran the plantation operations from. It had been here since the grand old days before Sherman, and had been maintained up until the Second World War, when economic constraints had forced the Hockenburys to let many of their black plantation workers go. The tobacco had rotted in the fields and set the trend for what was to come.
This was where the overseer brought the plantation servants when they first started, or when they needed to ask him something, or when he wanted to discipline them. Oh yes, black servants were still beaten in the South. They might be free, but they certainly weren't equal. The shack had been built this far from the house so the family wouldn't be troubled by any screaming.
Rusty metal implements hung on hooks on the wall, their wood or leather or rope components decomposed, leaving cruel-looking points and jags. A thick pair of manacles jingled creakily as Charlie stepped up to it, his movements on the floorboards shifting the entire shack. He took down the rusted cuffs and held them up.
"The Old fucking South," he spat.
Francis stared, mouth open, as Charlie proceeded to tear down all the disciplinary instruments, ripping up an already weak termite-eaten board in the floor and dumping them all there. He didn't say a word, didn't stop, until the walls were bare of everything but mould and water stains. Then he went outside and sat on the grass just in front of the shack, Francis following and sinking down silently next to him. Charlie lit an oddly-shaped cigarette and took a few deep drags, eventually handing it to Francis and kindly ignoring the boy's muffled choking.
"You'll understand when you're my age," he finally said, and Francis knew he wasn't referring to the cigarette.
"How old are you?"
"Thirteen." Charlie squinted thoughtfully at the setting sun, his eyes narrowing almost menacingly. "Old enough to realize that our parents are slavers. They're still Confederates at heart, kid, every man jack of them. That's the inheritance they're leaving us with these dirty old estates--slavery and torture and all of it built on the backs of Negroes."
Francis started involuntarily at the word; in his family, they were called 'niggers' by his father and 'coloreds' by his mother. Charlie's words were too fast, too deep, too much for his brain to process, but they were settling in. They were imprinting themselves on a mind that had always been trained to accept the status quo and not make a fuss, and they were beginning to cause trouble.
Clapping Francis on the back, Charlie said in a lighter tone of voice, "But we'll be different, won't we?"
He'd never been allowed to see Charlie again.
That boy came from one of the lower families, his mother said. That boy was throwing away his future in his father's law firm and looking to move up North. That boy's head was filled with dangerous ideas.
Most ideas, according to Elizabeth, were dangerous ones.
So Francis had made better use of his free time (which he had ample amounts of) and had painstakingly cleared out the old shack, lugging everything down to the garbage pile that sat at the bottom of their lands. He kept the better pieces of wood, and even managed to get a hold of some crates and candles and old pieces of carpeting and paneling. The inevitable scrapes and scratches turned out to be an asset more than anything else; so long as he kept himself clean, the cuts were taken to be a sign of burgeoning manlihood.
The metal hidden under the floor, he'd pitched into the little mucky brown pond that bordered their property; the pond that nothing could live in.
Francis lit a few candles and resettled himself. He felt uneasy tonight, a sort of shuddery-shivery sensation that made him feel like a book getting ruffled in the wind. Being in his hidey place had only brought that feeling once before, and he'd run like a scared bunny back to the house before it could take full hold.
But tonight, he wanted to be as far away from the house as possible. He'd made a bad impression at dinner, and his father was in an awful mood, getting steadily drunker by himself in his study. Elizabeth would no doubt report Francis' bad behaviour to her husband, who would then decide whether or not it warranted a spanking. Violence was one of Frank Hockenbury's favoured methods of childrearing. No, that wasn't fair--it was his favoured method of living life. Elizabeth had sacrificed her grand name to gain his grand money and pretended that Frank's rough coarseness was simply "the way men were." But it wasn't the way their son was.
"Gretchen," he said reproachfully, "you got me in trouble."
Gretchen tugged at her cornrowed hair and stuck out her tongue at him, startlingly pink against the rich dark black of her skin. She never spoke much, and when she did, it was only a few words in a husky voice that sounded the way coffee smelled.
"Lucky you got me, huh?" David grinned at Francis, his almond-shaped eyes warm and friendly as he plopped down on the ground near the 'chair', his straight black hair reflecting the candlelight. Francis grinned back.
"Yep," he agreed. "Although, y'can't stay mad at Gretchen too long."
Which was true enough, considering that both David and Gretchen existed entirely in Francis Hockenbury's imagination. He'd dreamed them up nearly five years ago and they'd become his closest companions--a notion which scandalized his mother when he'd mentioned them. Of course, in those days, Gretchen had looked a lot like Heidi of the Alps and David had been a spitting image of Davy Crockett, but after being forbidden to speak to 'imaginary friends' anymore, Francis had defiantly changed their looks. And he'd clung to them much longer than he would have otherwise.
Every once in a while, it occurred to Francis that this might be a bit pathetic, having two best friends who were entirely imaginary, but then his mother would scold him or his father would give him a strapping and the only people he could run to were Gretchen and David. They were there whenever he needed them, especially if, like now, he was afraid of one of the many nameless terrors that seemed to haunt the place.
The wind, which had been picking up all evening, blew through the sycamores outside, making an eerie keening sound that shot chills through the boy as he snugged his jacket closer. "Windy," he remarked inanely. His voice sounded pale and hollow and he wished he hadn't said anything. Gretchen's eyes were rolling like a snared rabbit's, the whites alarmingly glossy; David seemed paralyzed and sat hugging his knees. They both seemed transfixed by something outside.
He didn't ask them what was wrong, because he already knew.
It happened so suddenly that Francis barely even had time to react. The door of the shack slammed open, shaking the entire structure and knocking over some of the candles, which guttered with evil-sounding hisses. A tall, dark form filled the doorway--the overseer! screamed Francis' fevered mind--and reached for the boy, who closed his eyes in a desperate attempt to make it all disappear, make this unreal, make it not happen.
"Your mother told me what you've been up to, boy." The words were heavy, weighted with whiskey fumes that made Francis dizzy as he was lifted by the hands twisted in his coat, being shaken in the air. His father--it was his father, he knew that--but there was an old, old rage on his face that was more than just drunken anger. It was the decaying hatred he'd felt from those pieces of metal that were lying at the bottom of the pond. It was the roiling, soaked-in terror that had driven him from this place that time before.
"Please, daddy...." he choked, "...I won't come down here no more...I'll be good...s'okay...." He trailed off into an incoherent, pleading murmur as his father dumped him facefirst onto the chair and he slid off, landing with a thump on his knees, clinging to the seat.
"I'll teach you to set up house like some girl!" his father ranted, jostling the boy about as he tore his coat and shirt off and tossed them aside. "When are you gonna be a man? Huh?!? You're a goddamn shame to this family, upsetting your mother, never acting like a normal boy, always creeping around, sly and sneaky...." Frank Hockenbury paused in his tirade to point one thick finger at his cowering son, barking, "Stay put, you," before banging out of the shack.
Trembling so hard he couldn't even focus his eyesight, Francis stayed where he was, kneeling on the floor and clutching the chair, terrified to move an inch. He could barely make out Gretchen and David, frozen in the same positions they'd been in when his father burst in, only now they were transparent, fading, misty.
"Don't..." he gasped, thin voice rising with hysteria. "Don't you go tooooo--"
And his father was back, and he heard the unfriendly wind underscored by a sharper, faster whistle, and then the switch biting into the goosefleshed skin on his back.
The shack had been built far from the house, and Elizabeth Hockenbury was not troubled by the screaming.