The oil road stretching into the darkness made me feel queasy, giving me a sense that I’d been there before. Some folks call it déjà vu, but in Lamar County, Texas, we call it swimmy-headed. The dull, sick feeling came from dreams of a flat, empty highway disappearing into a dark fog. The problem was my dreams have a bad habit of coming true.
My grandmother, Miss Becky, says it’s a Poisoned Gift, and she’s right. I’m not the only one who has it. My Uncle Cody sometimes dreams of what’s to come, and not too long ago, I found out my Grandpa Ned once had a vision that no one ever talks about.
That’s another reason I’s half-sick. We were close to that spooky old Ordway Place. I was as afraid of that house as I was of a bear, and it scared the peewaddlin’ out of me to even ride past in the truck. I’d seen ghosts coming down the staircase when Pepper lived there, and then only a few months ago, it was a slaughterhouse when Grandpa, Uncle Cody, and Mr. John Washington had a bloody shootout with a bunch of Las Vegas gangsters.
And here we were within spittin’ distance of it again.
It hadn’t been dark long, and we were shining flashlights every which-a-way, up in trees, and on each other. I bet from a distance that night, the six of us kids looked like a search party coming down the road.
Pepper kept her light pointed at her feet in case there was a snake on the still-warm road. Lots of folks who don’t know us think we’re twins. They can tell right quick though, after they’ve been around us for a while, that we’re nothing alike.
Pepper loved adventure, but I’d rather have been home with a book. Instead, I was out cattin’ around with a bunch of fartknockers to keep her out of trouble.
The head fartknocker was Cale Westlake. He gave me that look that he thought was cool, but it only made me know for sure I still didn’t like him worth a flip. He’d taken to keeping his long hair out of his eyes with a silly strip of leather, like an Indian. I usually didn’t want to have no part of Cale and his gang of jerks, but Pepper’d been acting like she didn’t have good sense because she started liking him again. He found out right quick that Pepper wasn’t going to sneak out of her daddy’s house and go adventuring with him that Friday night without me.
The Toadies rolled their eyes and held flashlights under their chins, making spooky faces. I was already bored with that. “Let’s go over to Mr. Sims’ pool.”
Cale shined his light in my face for pure-dee meanness, blinding me. When I closed my eyes, he grabbed me in a headlock. I tried to push away, but he squeezed tighter. “Holler calf rope.”
He twisted his arm, grinding my head. “Holler calf rope!” I tried to play possum, but it hurt too bad. “Okay! Calf rope!” He turned loose. “You don’t get to talk out here, Mouse.
Remember that. You’re just along for the ride, so shut up.” He’d taken to calling me that to get my goat. “Frankie here says ol’ Doc Daingerfield bought the Ordway house and has a monkey chained to that big pear tree out back. That’s where we’re going.” I felt sick at my stomach again as I rubbed my tingling ears.
Frankie felt pretty important to have information we didn’t know. “Daddy said Doc Daingerfield has more money than he has sense to sink all that cash in putting this house back into shape.”
Cale worked the beam of his flashlight over Pepper while Frankie talked, like he was painting her with a brush. The yellow light went up from her belt, past the fringe vest and big-sleeved shirt, and then stopped on her chest. I don’t think he realized he was a-doin’ it, because when he glanced over and saw me watching, he shined it back on Frankie. “I don’t give a shit about that. Tell them about the monkey.”
“Oh.” Frankie stopped to regain his thought. “Uh, well, him and Daddy were talking about Daingerfield retiring from his vet’nary practice and moving here from town. That’s when I saw the monkey climb out of the tree and pick up something off the ground. Then he shinnied back up there quick as you please. They got a harness on ’im and a long dog chain, so he won’t go nowhere.”
Pepper stuffed her fingers in the pocket of her jeans. “So what difference does it make?”
“We’re gonna steal that monkey.”
To tell the truth, the idea of a monkey was intriguing. “What are you gonna do with a stole monkey?”
My question threw Cale off. “Well…”
The idea popped out of my mouth before I realized it. “Hey, how about letting it loose in the Baptist church on Sunday morning?”
For the first time since I’d come to live in Center Springs a little over three years earlier, the kids looked at me with some respect. Even Pepper was shocked. “Shit! That’s brilliant, but why the Baptist church?”
“Because I don’t want to scare Miss Becky at the Assembly of God, and yours is the biggest one we have, next to the Presbyterians, so there’ll be more people.”
“That’s it, then.” Cale waved his hand, as if he was blessing the idea. His daddy was the Baptist preacher, and he didn’t have much use for any of the other churches. He led off, with the rest of us lined up like baby ducks. “Lights out.”
We used the silvery light of the three-quarter moon to cross the pasture toward the road. Bringing up the rear, Pepper whispered in my ear. “It’s a good idea for these dumbasses, but what’n hell are you doing?”
I realized that I was tired of being by myself all the time with only Pepper to hang out with, and lately, she was being a horses’ ass about anything and everything if it didn’t have to do with them hippies and California.
“Hey, it sounded like a good idea to me.” “Well, it ain’t smart.”
Her sudden turnabout had me off balance. I never did understand how her mind worked. “None of this is smart, but we’re out here ’cause you been making goo-goo eyes at that fool up there in the lead.”
“They’re not goo-goo eyes. He’s not so bad to hang out with now that he’s let his hair grow out, and besides, he hates Center Springs as much as I do. I’m scared to death I’ll never get anywhere other’n where I’m from.”
She’d been complaining about our community for quite a while, mostly after she started listening to that new kind of rock ’n’ roll music and watching them hippie kids talk about peace and love and the new generation.
“You’re only going to get in trouble hanging around with him.” I sounded like Grandpa.
A ball of fear caught up with me again when that big ol’ spooky house full of bloody murder and ghosts came into view. It rose above the trees like a nightmare and it took everything I had to get moving. Stomach clenched like a condemned man walking to the gallows, and shivering like a Chihuahua, I crossed the road.
We stopped beside the tired old garage. I’d already spotted the chain wrapped around the pear tree. Pepper leaned around me and then ducked back against the peeling boards. Her whisper wasn’t much more quiet than her everyday voice. “Shit! That chain’s on there with a bolt. We don’t have any tools with us.” “No problem.” Cale unfolded a sharp pocketknife. “Frankie says Cheeta there is wearing a harness. Rex, we’ll cut it off and use your belt as a collar until we find some rope.”
“It won’t fit around a monkey’s neck, it’ll be too big.” “We’ll poke another hole in it.”
“Nope, it’s new and Mama will kill me if she found out.”
Cale glared like Rex owed him money. “All right, then. We can wrap it around his chest a couple of times and pull it tight like a girth.”
I wanted to tell him that I doubted the monkey would sit still while strangers hacked at his harness with a pocketknife and then strapped him tight with a belt, but I decided not to open my mouth.
Goosebumps rose as I snuck up to that gnarly pear tree. The chain disappeared into the darkness. I shuddered, staring upward, every muscle in my body twitching like I’d stuck my finger in a light socket.
Cale and the others strolled right up to it like they were supposed to be there. Frankie grabbed the chain and gave it a tug. He must have felt that since he’d been the first one to see the monkey, he knew all about them.
He gave it a second yank, harder, like pulling on a vine. I guess he thought the monkey might just fall out, or come down like a puppy. “It’s tight up there. You think it’s wrapped around a limb or something?”
Cale studied on it like he was doing an arithmetic problem, but I knew his grades and there wasn’t any hope he could figure it out. “Swing on it and see.”
Before Rex could bear down on the chain, I aimed my light up in the tree and the whole world went to pieces. Two dogs came roaring at us from under the porch. I guess they were sound asleep and woke up when we started yammering at one another. We were lucky they were chained to the porch or I believe they’d have eaten us alive. Instead of trying to bite us, they got tangled up and went to fighting.
I wanted to scream, but nothing worked right. Pepper grabbed my arm and for a moment, I couldn’t breathe. That’s when I thought I was gonna die.
I guess that old monkey didn’t like for anyone to shine a light on him in the middle of the night, or maybe he was laying asleep on a limb and the barking dogs startled him. He fell.
I’ve been scared before, but nothing like the horror I felt when that chain-rattling creature suddenly dropped on me and grabbed aholt with hands. The monkey clawed at me and I went to squalling and a-running. It was screaming in my ear and all I could see were lips pulled back to show a mouth full of man-eating teeth.
If I’d been one of them dope-smoking hippies, I would have probably understood strange sensations on and in my head, but it was the monkey’s tail wrapped around my throat that sealed the deal. That kind of thing is unnatural.
Pepper dropped her light and fled the scene, running across the yard, thinking there might be another killer monkey about to attack her. Racing through the darkness, she was short enough to run under the empty, sagging clothesline. Cale wasn’t so lucky and dang near throttled himself.
While they went one way, I skinned off away from the Death House. Despite the monkey, I was making a pretty clean getaway too and had a good head of steam when I hit the end of that chain. The monkey had such a tight grip on my head that when we ran out of slack it yanked me right off my feet.
The last thing I saw was my P.F. Flyers rising in the moonlight. I slammed to the ground like a poleaxed steer and lay there with the wind knocked out of me, which is probably what saved me from further monkey molestations. Cheeta didn’t like being on the ground, so he bit my ear for good measure and scampered back up his tree to sit there, jabbering and throwing rotten pears at anything that moved.
Somebody picked me up and set me on my feet. “You all right, son?” My head spun for a second until I could focus on Doc Daingerfield. His white head almost glowed in the moonlight. “I said you all right?”
“You’re Top Parker, right?” “Yessir.”
“C’mon in the house. Let’s doctor that bite on your ear.” I didn’t answer, because there was nothing to say.
Once on the porch, Doc Daingerfield held the door. I stopped in the spill of yellow light. Cale, Pepper, and the Toadies were long gone.
He gave me a little nudge into the foyer. “Did you learn anything tonight?”
“Yessir. Don’t mess with a monkey in a pear tree.”