by Kris D'Amato
A tale that follows the descent of a boy's heart into evil.
THE MATCHSTICK BOY
Tommy was an ordinary nine year old boy. He went to school; he had friends; he liked baseball; he laughed and cried just like every other boy of his age. He was a fairly intelligent kid—not a child prodigy, definitely not, but he always got good grades—As and Bs, and a smattering of Cs. Tommy didn’t know his father, and his mother had died in a car accident when he was still an infant, so Aunt Hilda—reasoning that an extra pair of legs would always be helpful on her farm—took him in and raised him with her two boys.
Alas, Tommy took to books better than he did to the plow. It was only after Aunt Hilda’s coaxing descended into outright threatening that the boy marched like an obstinate mule to her husband to lend a hand.
And that was why Aunt Hilda hated the boy.
* * *
It was at the end of the preceding school term that Tommy realized he reciprocated Aunt Hilda's hate. To start off with, he never really enjoyed any of the family's company. The kids were naïve as baby penguins--come to think of it, they did remind him of penguins, both figuratively and not--and he hated pulling off the same tricks on them. They always fell for his schemes, and their version of pulling his leg was so childish that it made him furious.
* * *
Once, Aunt Hilda bought each of the two kids a Mickey Mouse wristwatch (of course, she didn't buy one for Tommy; if hard pressed, she might have mumbled something about buying him one next time, whatever that meant). So during dinner one of the blockheads, with a huge grin on his face, was struck with the marvelous idea of using his brand new wristwatch to reflect the bright sunlight into Tommy's eyes. Tommy was infuriated. Especially when the dimwit had been at it for a good ten, fifteen minutes.
"Stop that already, will you?" Tommy said.
"What?" the dimwit asked with a shrill voice and a grin that almost chopped his head in half.
"Stop it, or I'll kick your teeth in."
The boy was momentarily surprised by the unfettered rancor in Tommy's threat. The family was seated at the long table in the dining room (they called it the dining room, but it was really a kitchen with a dining table), Aunt Hilda at the head of the table on the side furthest from the kitchen appliances, her Dear—this being how she referred to her husband—on her right side, Tommy beside him, and the kids on the opposite side of the table. Nobody sat at the other head of the table. Aunt Hilda was the single, indisputable figure of authority in the house. Upon hearing the last exchange, she froze in the process of munching on a piece of sausage, her fat mouth agape.
"What did you just say?" Aunt Hilda said.
"I said I'll kick his teeth in."
A few seconds hung in suspension, during which the enormity of what Tommy said rolled around in everyone's head--especially Aunt Hilda's head, wherein it seemed to take a rather long time rolling around--and sank in. Aunt Hilda was beside herself with shock. This wretched sonofawitch dared harm her--her--kids? She ought to beat the violent oaf to a pulp herself.
"How dare you? Get outta my sight, you little good-for-nothing!" she screamed.
* * *
The day after they were all seated at the table once again, Aunt Hilda stealing angry glances at Tommy. Naturally, the dimwit resumed with his high ambition of annoying Tommy. What made it worse was that after a while, the dimwit's dimwit brother picked it up as well, encouraged by Tommy's apparent lack of remonstration.
Tommy ate in silence. Every now and then, he lifted his head; each time, he'd find dimwit #1 and dimwit #2 with identical asinine grins, their watches aimed at just the right angle. For all their absurd imbecility, Tommy almost felt sad for the two kids. They had a perseverant turn of mind which would have performed wonders, had their intelligence quotient been a whit higher. But now, their complicitous stupidity was aimed against him; it made him furious. He waited for the right moment, for the expected command at the end of the meal. And eventually it came:
"Tommy, wash the plates."
The rest of the family was still seated at the table, Aunt Hilda's eyes fixed on his like a hawk's. He could now get up from the table and walk behind the dimwits without their being alarmed. Getting up without being asked would have warned them--possibly warned them, given their high mental faculties--and spoiled the whole effort. So now, he calmly walked to the other side of the table and made as if to take their dirty plates; instead, he grabbed the swarthy, bullet-shaped heads and dashed them together with all his strength.
Everybody at the table was shocked motionless. The first to react were the dimwits, who started bawling like newborns; her Dear just stared with a defeated face that said oh no, now the shit hit the fan and I'm gonna get splattered too, his hands resting calmly on the table top. Most dramatic was Aunt Hilda's face; it was a caricature of incredulity, shock, and anger. If Oliver Twist himself were to walk up to her and ask her for more, please give him some more, she wouldn't have been so startled.
Her eyes wide open, her mouth agape--much like the day before, but she had apparently reserved an extra bit of stretch, for it looked positively cavernous today--her bulbous nose pulled down and bent out of shape, her massive cheeks more massive than usual, her lips formed into a perfect O. The racket of the dimwits' bawling decreased in vigor as she got up, slowly, like a suffering leviathan, with the fixed expression stamped on her face.
"You," she began, "SON OF A WITCH!"
The words were perfectly articulated, and each was followed by a pause for dramatic effect.
"How COULD you?"
It was preposterous, unbelievable, outrageous; an act of pure defiance, an assault on her authority. And the wretched kid stood there, smiling--satisfied, even. It was that slight, satiated smile that did it. Aunt Hilda blew a gasket--or a half dozen--and went crazy. The confusion and surprise in her face disappeared, replaced by a fit of spasmodic twitches and an increasingly red countenance. Faced with this intimidating spectacle, even the bawling stopped. After giving a few strong shakes to the chair that had silently suffered her voluminous bottom, Aunt Hilda screamed and tossed her plate, cutlery and all, at Tommy. Her aim was off (the plate smashed against the wall, flinging bits of mashed potatoes every which way), which incensed her even further. So she grabbed hold of the table, and like a bizarre, nutty version of Samson, pushed it over.
Cutlery, crockery, and cups clattered to the ground. Fortunately for Tommy, none of the projectiles came close, though he was scared witless. He had expected a strong reaction, but this was beyond strong; this was ogreish. He stared, unable to decide what to do. The woman was huffing and puffing like the wolf in Three Little Pigs, winded by her sudden exertion. A furtive glance at her murderous eyes convinced him to run away as fast as he could, and the boy left the room like greased lightning. He was young and nimble; Aunt Hilda was huge and clumsy. Soon he was out of the house and in the fields, the woman chasing after him with a dirty pan in one hand. By the time she gave up, the kids had forgotten the whole incident (but not the plate taking to the air like the Wright Brothers, nor the table turning over).
Tommy slept in the barn, but after a whole week of picking out bits of straw from his hair, Tommy had had enough. That night he climbed into the kitchen through one of the windows overlooking the fields and slept in his bed. Much to the boy's delight, Aunt Hilda ignored him completely for a month, and the dimwits did not dare attempt their ingenious trick again.
* * *
The father wasn't much better. To be sure, he probably was--no, he was--the best of the whole lot, but that wasn't saying much. He was a quiet, strange kind of man; he was a workhorse, worked the fields like a mule and never complained. The man seemed to have been born without any sort of ambition. If he ever had an ambition, it was undoubtedly crushed by his wife before long. However, below all the layers of passivity and detachment was a kind heart. When Tommy was four or five, and the man was less occupied with the fields, he would sometimes take him out and buy him red licorice wheels, the kind that Tommy liked best. That, unfortunately, did not last very long. Aunt Hilda put a stop to it, just as she squashed any dream that she felt was too enthusiastic. In her house, she dictated the dreams, and nobody dared lift a finger if he wasn't given leave. The father became glummer and glummer. Eventually, he wouldn't even make eye contact with Tommy. The woman had had her way.
* * *
At the end of the last school term, the three boys returned from school with their grade results. Tommy was happy; he had gotten an A in the subject he liked best--English--and mostly Bs in the rest--including Mathematics, which he was quite ecstatic about. There were no Cs, but a single D. Religion. He hated Religion. Studying the subject was like watching paint dry. His teacher did not make it any more interesting, except perhaps when he lapsed into a wheezing fit and looked about ready to cash in his chips. Still, he was proud with himself.
Tommy was the last one to enter the house. By the time he made it to the kitchen (where Aunt Hilda would invariably be at this time of the day), the other boys were already talking excitedly with their mother.
"Two Ds, three Es and an F, mom," one of the boys said.
"That's a fail?" Aunt Hilda asked.
The boy hung his head.
She grunted. "Let's see yours."
The other boy handed her the slip of yellow paper. He looked jubilant.
"My oh my! You've done well this year--a C and five Ds. Very good. Very good indeed."
The boy's excitement made him blabber. In all their naïveté, the boys hadn't yet understood one important fact of life--Aunt Hilda despised Tommy. And so the boy said,
"Wait till you see Tommy's grades Ma!"
Aunt Hilda's face went black as thunder. That boy, always that wretched boy. She grabbed his results slip, her eyes burning with repressed rage, took a deep breath, read the grades, and let the breath out slowly--no, she deflated. For a few brief moments, Aunt Hilda felt truly defeated. No matter how hard she tried, no matter how many extra hours she invested in her children's education (by allowing them to stay in and study while the half-orphan toiled in the fields), Tommy always got better grades.
Then, she had another look at the paper, and the truth smacked her like a wrecking ball. There it was, right before her, and she, in her devout ways and the innocent belief that man was inherently good--a belief instilled into her by the fervent sermonizing of the Evangelical Baptist preacher at her church--had never suspected it! The wretched boy was in league with Satan, Beelzebub, the Dark Lord of the Netherworld, and she had this paper as proof.
Aunt Hilda glanced at the boy; his evil smile was enough to confirm her fears. And then she did feel afraid. Was not Satan capable of the vilest treachery? Did not Jesus Himself almost fall into Satan's clutches in the Desert? As the wicked fawn regarded her with his knowing smile, Aunt Hilda drew courage from the benign form of the Redeemer by the kitchen sink. A burning candle in front of the small statue ensured that God was unquestionably on her side.
No, she would not be vanquished; not by a child, not by Satan, not by anyone else for that matter. The Dark Lord might as well bow down before her and kiss his own ass than she would accept defeat at his hands.
"I see. You got a D in Religion," Aunt Hilda said.
"Yeah, but I got an A in English and Bs in the rest," Tommy pleaded.
"You got a D in Religion," she repeated. "In Religion. Do you think I--"
"It's boring, Aunty! I hate Religion. And Mr. Tannenbaum is kind of a dork. He makes us remember these very long passages from the--"
"You what? You hate Religion?" Aunt Hilda was incredulous.
"Yes. No, I mean--I don't hate religion. I hate the subject--ouch!"
Aunt Hilda was pulling him by the ear.
"Come here, you little scoundrel, you!"
She led him flailing and lashing--like an evil spirit burning in the Lake of Fire--to the form of the Redeemer, and made him kneel down.
"But I didn't do anything!" Tommy protested.
"You are going to do as I say. Repeat after me. Our Fa--"
Aunt Hilda smacked him one upside the head. The boy shut up.
"Interrupt me once more during prayer and I'll beat you black and blue," she said in a deadly serious voice. It was enough to subdue the child. Aunt Hilda started all over again.
"Our Father who art in Heaven."
"Our Father who are in Heaven," Tommy whispered.
"'Art', Tommy, Our Father who art in Heaven," Aunt Hilda said, smacking him another good one before recomposing herself and joining her hands together. "Our Father who art in Heaven."
"Our Father who art in Heaven," Tommy repeated.
"Hallowed be Thy Name."
"Hallowed be Thy Name."
And so Tommy prayed for a good half hour, by the end of which he was sweating profusely and his knees felt like two lumps of lead. Obviously, Aunt Hilda sat on a chair for the whole duration. She prayed with her eyes closed and lapsed into her preacher's manner of speech--"God" became "Gah-ah-d" and "Name" became "Name-uh". The rage in Tommy's heart multiplied with every word, every syllable the woman uttered. In particular the appended suffixes; those he could not stand. But he kept praying as he was expected to.
At a certain point he laid his eyes on the short, thick candlestick burning in front of the statuette. An idea started to form and slowly take shape in his mind. There was no sudden "Eureka!" moment; no particular moment of discovery. Yet while his mouth formed words of devotion, Tommy's mind churned, turning over all possibilities and permutations and choosing the ones that worked.
He decided he would take his revenge.
* * *
That evening during supper, Tommy was strangely quiet. Even when Aunt Hilda informed him that he would be missing the end-of-school mountain trek--she had booked him for a retreat at Bible Camp instead--the boy hardly showed any emotion. It must be the prayers, she thought. They worked.
She could barely contain her joy when the child gave up his arrogant ways. On weekends, he slogged on the fields all morning; he had never done it before, at least not without a few threats and blows to the head. Aunt Hilda prayed with him every day (him kneeling down and her sitting comfortably, as befitted her Matronship) for months, never tiring in her mission to evict evil from her house. When the summer term results were out, Tommy didn't do as well as he had before. His results were still better than Aunt Hilda's boys', but it pleased her no end that the gap was diminishing. God was on her side, that much was a given.
* * *
Tommy put his plan into action on the same day that Aunt Hilda made him kneel and pray. That night, after everyone had gone to sleep, Tommy went down to the kitchen and stole a good number of long matches. Aunt Hilda stocked up well on matches--she had four or five boxes of the stuff--so his handful of matches wouldn't be missed. He also took a cardboard cutter from the workshop and a clay mortar and pestle that Aunt Hilda used for grinding up nuts.
Back in his room, Tommy cleared his desk, pulled out a folded sheet of paper from the middle of a copybook, laid it on the clean surface, and stripped the matches of their combustible material, which he dropped in the mortar. When he was done, he used the pestle to grind the burgundy-colored bits and pieces into a fine powder. It took much longer than he expected; when all the bits were pulverized, he scraped the powder into the fold of the paper and sealed it with a bit of putty. Then he threw away the match sticks in the trash can outside (opening and shutting the door like a mouse), went back to the kitchen, scrubbed the mortar and pestle, and returned them and the cutter to their proper places. Within a few minutes he was asleep.
* * *
In time, the stash of match powder started to grow. Two days after the first kneeling experience, Aunt Hilda noticed that matches were missing. Her first suspicion fell on Tommy--how could it not?--and she went to his room, pulling out drawers and looking under his bed. She even rummaged through his school bag, saying not a single word. Tommy hid the paper bag with the powder in his room's wall clock's cavity and only took it out to add more powder. Aunt Hilda did not find it. Perhaps owing to his good behavior, or perhaps because she did not think it was such a big deal, she did not bother him any further.
The day after, Tommy bought four boxes of long matches from four different vendors. He didn't want to risk looking suspicious; he was sure that the proprietors would tell Aunt Hilda and that would be the end of it. Tommy had considered buying short matches, because of the small size of their boxes. Somehow, he felt that if Aunt Hilda discovered the boxes, he'd be able to get away with it if they were of the small variety. In the end, he went for the longer ones since their striking heads contained four or five times the amount of powder as the small matches.
Every five days or so, the boy bought a few boxes of long matches. He varied the vendors as much as possible; sometimes he bought the boxes from a shop in a neighboring town. By mid-May, he had three stashes of match powder; a big one and two smaller ones. Tommy planned a trial detonation--two of them, actually--to test the effect of packing on the strength of the explosion. To this end, he bought a couple of M&M tubes, some cotton and a few sparklers. Shops were already stocking up on fireworks for the Fourth of July, with sparklers arriving in great quantities. They made excellent fuses.
After school one day he walked a mile to Pitts' Field, a wooded area out of town. In his schoolbag were two devices wrapped in aluminum foil which he had assembled the night before. They had a few inches of sparkler protruding out of the paper bottoms, and both tubes were filled with match powder; one was loosely packed; the other was densely packed with cotton and bound with tape to keep it tight.
Deep in the thicket, Tommy laid down his schoolbag and took out his two devices. He looked around to make sure he was alone and knelt on his haunches. The earth was damp, which was good. Tommy didn't want to start a fire in the woods--he definitely did not want that kind of attention. Looking down, he noticed he had nothing to dig with, except his bare hands, but he didn't mind getting his hands dirty. Earth washed away easily.
He found a spot that was not too close to the bushes and trees, dug a small hole, and set the first tube--the one with the loose powder--in it. He then replaced some of the earth, careful to leave space around the sparkler. He was set. This is it, Tommy said to himself as he laid a small match against the striking surface of a matchbox (he had bought one to use for lighting purposes only). The boy flicked the match head along the rough surface. The match lit up. Tommy looked at it, fascinated. He always wondered why there was a short pause between striking the head and ignition. Matches seem ... reluctant to light up, Tommy thought. But when they do, they light up with a violent flash.
Tommy stared at the match for a short while, rushed to the sparkler, and touched the flame against the top part. The sparkler lit up immediately, showering the ground and his hand with bright starlets of cheerful heat. He ran back a short distance. Tommy had no idea how strong the explosion would be, so better be safe than sorry, he reasoned. Partially hiding behind a small oak tree (the only small oak tree in the world, probably; he thought oak trees looked old, gnarled and dangerous), Tommy held his breath. The sparkler burned down slowly with a rushing, buzzing sound. The white hot source of sparks disappeared for a moment and then a loud pop. And silence. Tommy walked over, disappointed. He hadn't exactly expected the Earth to split, but at the same time he could hardly call it an explosion. The earth around the tube was almost undisturbed; the tube had split lengthwise and was smoldering, like an unwanted child's toy.
The boy slumped and stood motionless. It was all over. He had depended on it. How could he be so stupid and not realize it was just a fanciful idea? He would never take his revenge. Not on Aunt Hilda, not on anybody. He was doomed to a life of eternal serfdom to the whims of the likes of her, and he could do nothing about it. It was pathetic. He had stripped matches and made them into powder for the last three months of his life--and it was all for nothing. Never mind the lost hours of sleep, never mind the--
Hold it, kiddo. You've still got one more to go.
Yeah, but what good would it do? He didn't expect a miracle; after all, they had the same amount of match powder in them. Still, now that he was here, he had to give it one more try before giving up. And he had to do so quickly; he was sure Aunt Hilda would raise hell when he arrived home late and looked as if he was back from the Battle of Verdun. The boy replaced the smoking tube with the other one, planting it firmly and packing the dirt around it as before.
Tommy struck a match against the same side as before. The match did not burn. He tried again. Nothing. He threw the match away and took out another. Again, the match would not light. I should just go back now, while I still can, said a reasonable, conscientious voice. But going back would mean he had wasted all that time; worse yet, it would mean bowing to Aunt Hilda. It would mean accepting injustice--no, he would not go back now. Besides, he was going to give it only one more try, and if the device was a half-dud like the first one, he would have no choice but to call it off.
This time the match lit up like an angry firefly. Tommy set the makeshift fuse sparkling and ran for cover behind the oak tree. The sparkler had not yet burned to the middle when the tube exploded and hot bits and pieces rained down all around the boy; a bit of dirt struck him on the left cheek. He instinctively shrank behind the tree. When he had counted to ten--very slowly--he peeked around the trunk. His mind was struck dumb. In the middle of the clearance--where the tube had been till a few seconds before--was a round crater half a yard across.
Nothing remained of the tube; not even the metal core of the sparkler. As he looked at the destruction, Tommy wondered why the tube had blown up before the flame reached it. The tube was probably dusty with match powder, and the sparks ignited it. As he thought about it, the more convinced he became that this was true. Next time, he was going to be more careful. Scrupulous, even.
That day was a lucky day; Aunt Hilda was not at home when Tommy arrived, and neither were the boys. Tommy did not give a damn where they were. As long as Aunt Hilda was not around to bother him, he was fine and dandy, really. And now he had his little project to think about.
Later, when Aunt Hilda was back, he knelt down and prayed.
* * *
A week after the summer term ended, Tommy went away to Bible Camp in nearby Redwood Heights. It was anything but a camp; it was a dull, institutional stone building with flaking paint and a large backyard overgrown by weeds. An imposing, high wall surrounded the building and the yard--it looks like a prison compound, Tommy thought. Nor was Redwood Heights anything like Tommy imagined; he had expected a quaint little village tucked up high in the mountains amongst tall, coniferous trees. In reality, it was a large, chaotic town with hardly a shred of green anywhere.
A spritely young redhead with a nametag reading "Bible Camper Stephen" took him around the building and explained the upcoming activities with great enthusiasm. With each activity he mentioned, Stephen's grin widened some more and his voice became bubblier. Tommy's heart sank to new depths. Thank God his stay was only a week long.
Stephen showed Tommy to his room. It had a tiny desk and two bunk beds; two discount copies of the King James Bible lay neatly stacked on each other, and a large wooden cross overlooked the desk. "Before you sleep, you will each read a passage from the Bible. It will be great fun!" Stephen informed him with effervescence; "You'll see!" But Tommy already saw. He saw that it was going to be the most boring week of his life.
The assistant--or whatever they called them, Bible Campers?--was talking like a chatterbox about God, physical exercise, and comradeship--Tommy didn't know which exactly, and neither did he care. As the barrage of words straddled his ears, Tommy nodded at the appropriate points. He had just about had enough of the endless drivel when Stephen left hurriedly to go welcome "the new campies". The boy sighed and lied down on the bottom bunk bed.
Tommy had left his stash of powder in the wall clock's cavity back in his room. He didn't dare bring any with him; for one thing, Aunt Hilda checked his duffel bag thoroughly. He didn't want her to find a fist-sized bag of flammable powder--she would probably send him to juvenile hall. Besides, the powder could get wet, ruining his months-long secret enterprise. He did bring a small pocketknife, however. Just in case.
He was lost in thought when there was a knock and the door opened. Stephen the Bible Camper appeared, along with a younger, rough-looking boy of about the same age as Tommy. Stephen gave the same sermon to the boy, who stood with arms akimbo and stared at the assistant in an impetuous manner. When he was done, the assistant turned towards Tommy and said in a shrill voice, "Now Tommy, be nice to your roommate and enjoy! See you around campies!"
The door shut and the two boys looked at each other.
"Do we have to listen to this crap for a whole week?" said the rough-looking boy.
Tommy took an immediate liking to him.
* * *
The twenty boys at Bible Camp came from different towns and upbringings, but one thing about them was obvious: they were the offspring of Bible thumpers. The spectrum of their parents' beliefs ran from the highly devout to the absolute fundamentalist. And for the most part, the children took after their parents. Tommy felt lucky that his roommate, whose name was Owen, turned out to be a true misfit. A day with the other whiny kids was enough to drive him crazy, let alone reciting passages with a Bible thumper before going to sleep. That part, Tommy and Owen skipped.
Owen had an instinctive dislike towards authority. His father was a fundamentalist who believed in and obeyed the law of the Old Testament to the letter. In Owen's house, fairness was a fancy way of saying "eye for an eye", and the Earth was six thousand years old. Having a different opinion--or being Catholic--made you unwelcome. Owen was the heretic within the family, and when his father caught him skipping Mass once, he almost broke his neck.
The two boys got along well; they stuck together throughout the day. The overgrown backyard was used for all the activities, which had annoying names like "Mini Archery" and "Mini Marathon". When they found the least boring option, the two played the game until an opportunity presented itself for Owen to wreak maximum havoc.
One time, they had had enough of the archery range. Neither Tommy nor Owen was any good at it, and anyway, the bows and arrows were cheap childish alternatives for the real ones. Shooting a piece of balsa wood with a bright yellow sucker on one end was hardly satisfying, particularly when it struck the bull's-eye and bounced off. There was only one other kid at the archery range (if it could be called a range). He was about seven and a decent shot, but he had this irritating habit of passing disapproving remarks when Tommy's or Owen's arrows went wide of the mark; small grunts and comments that irked the hell out of them.
Just as they were about to leave, Owen motioned towards Tommy to stay a while longer.
"The knife," he worded silently.
Tommy produced it from his back pocket. Owen grabbed it and with a swift, discreet thrust of the hand, cut a small nick in the taut string of his bow, before returning it to Tommy without a word. The young kid was pulling back on the string and concentrating hard.
"Come-on-shoot-it-already!" Owen shouted.
The kid released the string, scoring a perfect bulls'-eye. Owen marched up to him.
"Hey kid, I know why you can shoot better," he said with faux indignation.
"Because you cheat."
"That's not true."
"Yes it is. Your bow is better."
"No it's not!"
"Yes it is! Let's see how well you do with my bow instead--if you dare."
"Okay! Gimme," the kid said with a significant pout.
They exchanged bows and the kid stomped off to the shooting position. Tommy and Owen held their breath. The kid drew, aimed carefully, and released the arrow. The shot was nothing spectacular. "See!" interjected Owen; the kid lined up another arrow without saying a word. Again, he pulled back on the string. The arrow flew straight and true, landing in the bulls'-eye with a smacking sound. The kid turned around with a smug righteousness; "See that!" he burst out, and picked another arrow. But this time, the string--perhaps because it was already frayed from the repeated drawings, or perhaps because he drew too much, owing to his indignation--broke just as he was about to release it. It snapped with a whizzing sound and lashed the kid's neck. The boy stared at his hands in disbelief, still holding the bow and arrow, and started crying; simultaneously, Tommy and Owen broke into a fit of laughter and the kid ran off sobbing.
Owen's aversion for authority often displayed itself in the form of a bold attitude when talking to his superiors--who he didn't consider his superiors at all--and sometimes downright rude remarks. It was not the first time that Tommy saved him from getting into trouble because of his brash manners.
One day during bible study--the most boring of all activities--Tommy and Owen were playing tic-tac-toe at the back of the group. The children were mostly gathered in a rough semi-circle around the Bible Camp assistant--a rotund, pale youth with thick spectacles and a tendency to snivel--while the less keen among them sat further away. The assistant was reading from the book of Isaiah. Of course, the boys had no idea what he was talking about, but towards the end of the study he said something that hurled them from their stupor like a gunshot.
"... fatling together, and a little child shall lead them."
Tommy and Owen looked at each other; at the Bible Camper; and back at each other. Owen burst out laughing and Tommy joined him a short while later. The assistant jerked his large head in their direction, jowls quivering in surprise. Owen couldn't help himself. He doubled over and fell to the ground laughing, tears running down his cheeks, repeating "fatling" under his breath over and over again. Tommy was in no better position. After the two had sobered up a bit, the assistant (whose eyes were squinted angrily and was sniveling at what seemed a rather accelerated rate) addressed them,
"What is so funny?" (A snivel); "Care to share?"
"Sorry, it's--it's nothing--you know," said Tommy.
"No, I don't."
"It was just--just a joke. Sorry."
Silence. Finally, after a long pause (during which the boys recollected themselves and bit their tongues to prevent themselves from laughing),
"I'm going to read this verse again and I want you to listen. It is the Word of God, and you should be paying close attention; His Word is Salvation. Alright, quoting Isaiah 11:6: 'The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,'" (A good, loud snivel); "'and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion,'" (another hearty honk); "'and the fatling together; and a little child--'"
The boys tried to hold in their laughter. Obviously, that made everything way funnier, and it was Tommy who fell to the ground first this time. A second later, Owen joined him. They were flailing around and shouting "the fatling!" and "the little fatling!", hardly able to breathe, and soon the other children (except the ones who really had the fear of God instilled in them) were laughing along with them. The assistant--the fatling, from then on--looked at Tommy and Owen with hateful eyes. This time he did not wait till they calmed down.
"You two, let's talk outside."
That worked like dumping a bucket of icy water onto a napping cat. Everyone hushed up.
"I don't get what was funny," the fatling said when they were outside.
"Uh--sorry, sir. I--we really mean it this time," said Tommy.
Tommy was afraid Owen would say something brash and get them in trouble. The fatling gave them a good, hard look.
"Do you think you can just go around making fun of people?" he said in an offended tone.
Tommy spoke before Owen could open his mouth.
"Make fun of people? Who--us? No sir, I think you got it all wrong."
"Illuminate me, then."
"Well, you see--that word was a bit strange, and it struck both of us as really funny. We didn't mean any harm. I thought that by putting it there, God wants us to know that we should laugh as well as be good and pray--that's all we were doing. Sorry, we won't do it again."
Both Owen and the fatling looked at him sideways. After a while, he let them go.
* * *
That night, back in their room, Owen recalled the ease with which Tommy handled the fatling. He was sure that if he had spoken rather than Tommy, they would now be in Dutch. Tommy (who secretly knew it was true) smiled and said little. With the lights off and in bed, he thought about the fickleness of human beings. The episode with the fatling taught him a small lesson; people transformed and molded their beliefs in every possible manner to get an easy way out--even if that belief was supposedly rooted in the Word of God. The fatling chose to accept what Tommy had told him, farfetched as it was, for one reason only--to save himself the trouble of truth. And worst of all, he really believed it.
* * *
On the last day, the children had chapel service with Pastor Willis. Tommy and Owen were in a dazed torpor by the time the Pastor finished, but his concluding remark struck them with its unexpected wrath. And it was obviously directed at them.
"Before we go," said Pastor Willis, "I want to bring up something that has bothered me these last few days. I have been told--by some of the Bible Campers--that amongst you are individuals who choose the path of evil." The pastor's eyes gleamed with fury. "You choose to belittle your fellow Christians; you choose to ignore the Word of God; you choose to enjoy yourselves when you should be toiling and suffering in preparation for the Final Judgment. So let it be known, young lads--and you know who I am speaking to--that God has a watchful eye on you. He knows all about your sin, and unless you reject the path of evil and repent--now!--you will be cast into the infernal blackness of hell wherein you will be made to suffer that which you choose to neglect. 'For the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.' Matthew 13, verses 49 and 50. And let it also be known that God is a vengeful God. What you neglect now He will burden you with tenfold. For 'God is jealous, and the Lord revengeth; the Lord revengeth, and is furious; the Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries, and He reserveth wrath for His enemies. The Lord is slow to anger, and great in power, and will not at all acquit the wicked.' 'Who can stand before His indignation? And who can abide in the fierceness of His anger? His fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by Him. The Lord is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and He knoweth them that trust in Him. But with an overrunning flood He will make an utter end of the place thereof, and darkness shall pursue His enemies.'"
Silence echoed in the morose chapel.
* * *
The world took on a drab, gray hue after Tommy left the Camp; it seemed like the beginning of a new chapter that was written by another author--perhaps it was a different story altogether. Everything looked different, yet the boy felt he could now see the world as it really was. Gone was the jovial brilliance which Tommy had perceived in the world; gone was his impulsive character and his cheery outlook, replaced by a grim determination and a wooden face. Tommy had always been a benevolent child, even when he was persecuted for no true fault of his. When he had resolved to take his vengeance, he had only done so out of a childish anger. It had affected him--deeply--but in spite of all that, he had still allowed himself to hope. Now it was not like that anymore; something inside him snapped when the Pastor quoted the Bible. His words still rang in his ears--not because he was afraid of a vengeful God, not at all--but because life took on a new sheen after he heard those words. Now, vengeance had become his duty. He had been surreptitiously consumed by the desire for revenge for the past few months, but what Pastor Willis said penetrated his soul through an unexpected vein. It justified his intentions. No, not justified; what Tommy felt was far too strong for the notion of justice to be applicable. It gave him a new role. He was no longer a young boy fantasizing about payback; now he was the harbinger of wrath; he was Justice Herself.
He had suffered at Aunt Hilda's hands; unjustly so. Even when she was in a better mood, which was rare enough, the woman treated him with scornful disdain. Tommy never realized that she did this out of a motherly attachment to her own children, destructive as it may be to others', but he had silently endured its effect. Tommy felt irrevocably changed. Iron had entered into his soul. He could blame none of it on the Pastor or his righteous words; he was only the final straw. It was the woman; the woman had blackened his heart and poisoned his mind. Stone by stone, she had dismantled the pillars of his sanity and now he tottered before the collapse.
On his way home that day, Tommy said little. Aunt Hilda and her husband--he could not bear to think of him as her Dear anymore; that title was too buoyant for a man that had abandoned him; that had left him to suffer the whip of the malevolent woman--Aunt Hilda and her husband had come for him in the man's truck. Although it was summer, the air was electrified by an imminent thunderstorm and the roads were colorless, devoid of life. The boy rested his head against the shuddering pane of glass and closed his eyes. After a while, it started to rain. The cold rain beat against the window and Tommy's breath misted. He could only hear the roar of the truck's engine and the pattering of the rain. His mind was encumbered with heavy thoughts; he soon nodded off to sleep. When he opened his eyes again, they had arrived at the farmstead, but the scene had not changed; it was still dull and cold outside.
It was still lifeless and hopeless.
* * *
The summer was a mild one. It rained almost every day and it was far cooler than other summers. Tommy's mood reflected the weather, and when thunderstorms overshadowed the plains, he enjoyed the lashes of swift fire and the flooding rain. To the rest of the family, the bad weather was wholly unexpected and unwelcome. The children had to stay indoors, while their father grumbled--an unusual occurrence in and of itself--that the rain was ruining the topsoil. Aunt Hilda seemed anxious as well. Tommy bided his time; he studied the habits and routines of the woman. With her recent preoccupation with the bad weather, she spent more time praying in front of the statue of the Redeemer than before. Which was very good as far as Tommy was concerned; in fact, it was perfect.
* * *
One dreary Friday afternoon Tommy was sitting by the window of his room, looking outside. The fields that had so neatly been separated by short rubble walls had lost their identity and became stains of gray shades that ran into each other on one big canvas. The rubble walls were gone, and muddy water inundated parts of the fields. As Tommy looked on in silence, reflections of lightning forked in his eyes, but the thunder that reached his ears was distant and weak; more like the blunt edge of a worn knife than the crisp edge of a razor. The thunder he awaited, however, was much closer. Tommy lifted his eyes to the sky. It was an intricate, tumultuous picture of grandeur; of vigor; of fortitude; and yet it was also a picture of turmoil; of fear; of solitude. He sighed and looked down. The spot where the truck usually was was vacant. The kids' father had left the house on some unknown business. The boy did not care where he went; his mind did not even wonder about the possibilities. Indeed, that inner voice that sometimes spoke to him had departed. His mind had become a mechanical machine whose purpose of existence was singular.
There comes the expected, dull explosion; a thud that shakes the walls of the house. Screaming. The patter of light footsteps. The kids are running down to see what happened. More screaming. The device worked. The screaming gives way to pained, throaty groans. Tommy gets up. He walks to the window and looks out. The children scream as well. A bolt of lightning lands surprisingly close. In that instant Tommy sees his reflection in the glass. He is afraid for the first time. He walks to the landing and looks down. Smoke wafts up from below. He goes down the stairs and hesitates for a moment. The stench of burning flesh--it is horrible. Tommy feels terrified. He walks to the kitchen. There. He sees her. The sight is terrible. Her hair is burning and her face is on fire. She is mouthing screams but nothing comes out. Tommy is paralyzed. He does not want to see. But his eyes would not close--he sees. He sees the woman flailing and thrashing in the wrath of the fire. The wrath that consumes her as it consumed him--he sees. He sees the ring of fire that surrounds the statuette. He sees the Redeemer. Above all, he sees that He is looking at him, His eyes burning. Tommy screams--he sees. He wants to unsee--but he sees. He sees that no deluge would ever quench this fire. No flood would ever carry it away--he sees. He sees.
* * *
Three days later, a drenched, trembling boy of about ten walked in the sheriff's office at eight in the morning. Only the sheriff and a deputy were present. They hadn't expected anyone at all--not in this weather. Let alone a boy who could barely stand on his feet. The deputy almost spilled his cup of tea but saved it just before it was too late--he did knock the chair over.
"Kid? Jesus Christ kid--what were you doing in--" he began.
The boy was saying something. The deputy went down on his knees and touched the boy's shoulders. They were cold, very cold. But what he was saying chilled him to the bone.
"John! John! Come over here--quick!"
* * *
Matchstick Boy Murder!
A murder in the state of A-- has recently shaken the country with its gruesome details and the shocking revelation that the perpetrator was a preadolescent child. Nine-year-old Thomas Rader lived with his foster parents, 42-year-old Hilda and 40-year-old Ramon Westmeyer, on their farm in S-- county, A--. The body of the woman was reportedly found burned in the house Friday, the result of a bizarre incident that had investigators baffled. Prior to an interesting turn of events that we shall be returning to shortly, inconclusive evidence from samples taken from the site indicated the presence of some kind of incendiary device containing potassium chlorate--a chemical widely used in domestic matches and explosives. An intriguing detail uncovered by the investigation suggested that an explosion occurred in close proximity to a small religious statue. Sources have informed us that the woman was alone when the incident occurred, and that she was badly burned and died shortly thereafter at the location.
The investigation had an unforeseen development late Saturday, a day after the fatal incident, when young Thomas Rader walked up to the sheriff's department and claimed that he was responsible for the killing. Thomas apparently admitted to stripping match sticks of their flammable material and grinding it up into fine powder, before compacting it into a dense solid by applying pressure and a binding fluid. How the incendiary device was employed remains somewhat of a mystery, but the boy claimed that he "put it in a candle". Findings of splashed candle wax seem to confirm the boy's assertion.
An inexplicable detail revealed during the initial investigation remains unexplained. The statue in question, which suffered external burns, broke apart when it was picked up by forensic experts, revealing an internal cavity with an unscathed note inside. Written on the piece of paper was the mysterious message "N-1-2". The child suspect has denied writing this note, and preliminary lie detection tests to corroborate his claims have indicated perfect agreement. [Article snipped here]