Chapter 12

 

We are paid for our suspicions by finding what we suspected.

– A Week on the Concord and Merrimack rivers

Everyone said that he had nothing to be embarrassed about, but Spur was nonetheless deeply ashamed. He had been revealed as unmanly. Weak and out of control. He had no memory of how he had come to be laid out on the couch in his own parlor. He couldn’t remember if he had wept or cursed or just fainted and been dragged like a sack of onions across the yard into the cottage. When he emerged from the nightmare, all he knew was that his throat was raw and his cheeks were hot. The others were all gathered around him, trying not to look worried but not doing a very convincing job of it. He wasn’t sure which he minded more: that the strangers had witnessed his breakdown, or that his friends and neighbors had.

When he sat up, a general alarm rippled among the onlookers. When he tried to stand, Sly pressed him back onto the couch with a firm grip on the shoulder. Comfort fetched him a glass of water. She was so distraught that her hand shook as she offered it to him. He took a sip, more to satisfy the others than to quench his own thirst. They needed to think they were helping, even though the best thing they could have done for him then — go away and leave him alone — was the one thing they were certain not to do.

Maybe I should call Dr. Niss.” Spur’s laugh was as light as ashes. “Ask for my money back.”

You’re right.” Constant Ngonda lit up at the thought, then realized that his enthusiasm was unseemly. “I mean, shouldn’t we notify the hospital?” he said, eyeing the tell on the parlor wall. “They may have concerns.”

Spur knew that the deputy would love to have him whisked away from Littleton, in the hopes that the High Gregory and the L’ung would follow. He wondered briefly if that might not be for the best, but then he had been humiliated enough that morning. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

Good,” said Ngonda. “I’m happy to hear that, Spur. Do you mind, I promised to check in with the Cooperative when we arrived?” Without waiting for a reply, Ngonda bustled across the parlor to the kitchen. Meanwhile, the High Gregory had sprawled onto a chair, his legs dangling over the armrest. He was flipping impatiently through a back issue of Didactic Arts’ True History Comix without really looking at the pages. Spur thought he looked even more squirmy than usual, as if he knew there was someplace else he was supposed to be. Sly Sawatdee had parked himself next to Spur. His hands were folded in his lap, his eyelids were heavy and he hummed to himself from time to time, probably thinking about fishing holes and berry patches and molasses cookies.

I am so sorry, Spur,” said Comfort. “I just didn’t realize.” It was the third time she had apologized. She wasn’t used to apologizing and she didn’t do it very well. Meanwhile her anguish was smothering him. Her face was pale, her mouth was as crooked as a scar. What had he said to her? He couldn’t remember but it must have been awful. There was a quiet desperation in her eyes that he had never seen before. It scared him.

Spur set the glass of water on the end table. “Listen, Comfort, there is nothing for you to be sorry about.” He was the one who had fallen apart, after all. “Let’s just forget it, all right? I’m fine now.” To prove it, he stood up.

Sly twitched but did not move to pull him back onto the couch again. “Have enough air up there, my hasty little sparrow?”

I’m fine,” he repeated and it was true. Time to put this by and move on. Change the subject. “Who wants to see the orchard? Lucky?”

If you don’t mind,” said Sly. “My bones are in no mood for a hike. But I’ll make us lunch.”

I’ll come,” said Ngonda.

Comfort looked as if she wanted to beg off, but guilt got the better of her.

They tramped around the grounds, talking mostly of farm matters. After they had admired the revived orchard, inspected the weed-choked garden, toured the barn, played with the pack of gosdogs that had wandered over from the big house and began to follow them everywhere, walked the boundaries of the corn field which Cape had planted in clover until Spur was ready to farm again, they hiked through the woods down to Mercy’s Creek.

We take some irrigation water from the creek, but the Joerlys own the rights, so there’s water in our end of the creek pretty much all year long.” Spur pointed. “There’s a pool in the woods where Comfort and I used to swim when we were kids. It might be a good place to cool off this afternoon.”

And so you and Spur were neighbors?” The High Gregory had been trying to draw Comfort out all morning, without much success. “You grew up together like me and my friends. I was hoping to bring them along but Uncle Constant Ngonda said there were too many of them. Your family is still living on the farm?”

Mom died. She left everything to us. Now Vic’s dead.”

Yes, Spur said that your brother was a brave firefighter. I know that you are very sad about it, but I see much more luck ahead for you.”

She leaned against a tree and stared up at the sky.

There used to be a pukpuk town in these woods.” Spur was itching to move on. “They built all along the creek. It’s overgrown now, but we could go look at the ruins.”

The High Gregory stepped off the bank onto a flat stone that stuck out of the creek. “And your father?”

He left,” Comfort said dully.

When they were little,” Spur said quickly. He knew that Comfort did not like even to think about her father, much less talk about him with strangers. Park Nen had married into the Joerly family. Not only was his marriage to Rosie Joerly stormy, but he was also a loner who had never quite adjusted to village ways. “The last we heard Park was living in Freeport.”

The High Gregory picked his way across the creek on steppingstones. “He was a pukpuk, no?” His foot slipped and he windmilled his arms to keep his balance.

Who told you that?” If Comfort had been absent-minded before, she was very much present now.

I forget.” He crossed back over the stream in four quick hops. “Was it you, Uncle?”

Ngonda licked his lips nervously. “I’ve never heard of this person.”

Then maybe it was Spur.”

Spur would have denied it if Comfort had given him the chance.

He never knew.” Her voice was sharp. “Nobody did.” She confronted the boy. “Don’t play games with me, upsider.” He tried to back away but she pursued him. “Why do you care about my father? Why are you here?”

Are you crazy?” Ngonda caught the High Gregory as he stumbled over a rock and then thrust the boy behind him. “This is my nephew Lucky.”

She knows, friend Constant.” The High Gregory peeked out from behind the deputy’s flair jacket. He was glowing with excitement. “Spur told her everything.”

Oh, no.” Ngonda slumped. “This isn’t going well at all.”

Memsen gave us all research topics for the trip here to meet Spur,” said the High Gregory. “Kai Thousandfold was assigned to find out about you. You’d like him; he’s from Bellweather. He says that he’s very worried about you, friend Comfort.”

Tell him to mind his own business.”

Spur was aghast. “Comfort, I’m sorry, I didn’t know… .”

Be quiet, Spur. These upsiders are playing you for the fool that you are.” Her eyes were wet. “I hardly knew my father and what I did know, I didn’t like. Mom would probably still be alive if she hadn’t been left to manage the farm by herself all those years.” Her chin quivered; Spur had never seen her so agitated. “She told us that Grandma Nen was a pukpuk, but that she emigrated from the barrens long before my father was born and that he was brought up a citizen like anyone else.” Tears streaked her face. “So don’t think you understand anything about me because you found out about a dead woman who I never met.”

With that she turned and walked stiff-legged back toward Diligence Cottage. She seemed to have shrunk since the morning, and now looked so insubstantial to Spur that a summer breeze might carry her off like milkweed. He knew there was more — much more — they had to talk about, but first they would have to find a new way to speak to each other. As she disappeared into the woods, he felt a twinge of nostalgia for the lost simplicity of their youth, when life really had been as easy as Chairman Winter promised it could be.

I’m hungry.” The High Gregory seemed quite pleased with himself. “Is it lunchtime yet?”

After he had spun out lunch for as long as he could, Spur was at a loss as to how to keep the High Gregory out of trouble. They had exhausted the sights of the Leung farmstead, short of going over to visit with his father in the big house. Spur considered it, but decided to save it for a last resort. He had hoped to spend the afternoon touring the Joerly farmstead, but now that was out of the question. As the High Gregory fidgeted about the cottage, picking things up and putting them down again, asking about family pix, opening cabinets and pulling out drawers, Spur proposed that they take a spin around Littleton in Sly’s truck. A rolling tour, he told himself. No stops.

The strategy worked for most of an hour. At first the High Gregory was content to sit next to Spur in the back of the truck as he pointed out Littleton’s landmarks and described the history of the village. They drove up Lamana Ridge Road to Lookover Point, from which they had a view of most of Littleton Commons. The village had been a Third Wave settlement, populated by the winners of the lottery of 2432. In the first years of settlement, the twenty-five founding families had worked together to construct the buildings of the Commons: the self-reliance school, athenaeum, communion lodge, town hall and Littleton’s first exchange, where goods and services could be bought or bartered. The First Twenty-five had lived communally in rough barracks until the buildings on the Commons were completed, and then gradually moved out to their farmsteads as land was cleared and crews of carpenters put up the cottages and barns and sheds for each of the families. The Leungs had arrived in the Second Twenty-five four years afterward. The railroad had come through three years after that and most of the businesses of the first exchange moved from the Commons out to Shed Town by the train station. Sly drove them down the ridge and they bumped along back roads, past farms and fields and pastures. They viewed the Toba and Parochet and Velez farmsteads from a safe distance and passed Sambusa’s lumberyard at the confluence of Mercy’s Creek and the Swift River. Then they pulled back onto CR22.

The only way back to Diligence Cottage was through the Commons. “Drive by the barracks,” Spur called to Sly in the cab. “We can stretch our legs there,” he said to the High Gregory. “I’ll show you how the First Twenty-five lived.” One of the original barracks had been preserved as a historical museum across the lawn from the communion lodge. It was left open to any who wanted to view its dusty exhibits. Spur thought it the best possible choice for a stop; except for Founders’ Day, the Chairman’s birthday and Thanksgiving, nobody ever went there.

The Commons appeared to be deserted as they passed the buildings of the first exchange. These had been renovated into housing for those citizens of Littleton who didn’t farm, like the teachers at the self-reliance school and Dr. Christopoulos and some of the elders, like Gandy Joy. They saw Doll Groth coming out of the athenaeum. Recognizing the truck, she gave Sly a neighborly wave, but when she spotted Spur in the back, she smiled and began to clap, raising her hands over her head. This so pleased the High Gregory that he stood up and started clapping back at her. Spur had to brace him to keep him from pitching over the side of the truck.

But Doll was the only person they saw. Spur couldn’t believe his good fortune as they pulled up to the barracks, dust from the gravel parking lot swirling around them. The wind had picked up, but provided no relief from the midsummer heat. Spur’s shirt stuck to his back where he had been leaning against the cab of the truck. Although he wasn’t sure whether the High Gregory could sweat or not, the boy’s face was certainly flushed. Ngonda looked as if he were liquefying inside his flair jacket. The weather fit Spur’s latest plan neatly. He was hoping that after they had spent a half-hour in the hot and airless barracks, he might be able to persuade the High Gregory to return to Diligence Cottage for a swim in the creek. After that it would practically be suppertime. And after that they could watch the tell. Or he might teach the High Gregory some of the local card games. Spur had always been lucky at Fool All.

It wasn’t until the engine of the Sawatdees’ truck coughed and rattled and finally cut out that Spur first heard the whoop of the crowd. Something was going on at the ball fields next to the self-reliance school, just down the hill a couple hundred meters. He tried to usher the High Gregory into the barracks but it was too late. Spur thought there must be a lot of people down there. They were making a racket that was hard to miss.

The High Gregory cocked his head in the direction of the school and smiled. “Lucky us,” he said. “We’re just in time for Memsen.”