Authors: Anthony Doerr
“Whatever is asked of us,” the president's wife continues, “I am sure we can accomplish it.”
Papa shakes his head. “These boys have their faces blown off at breakfasts. They burns alives.”
Athena barks again and Mrs. Boydstun clenches her forehead with trembling hands and the hundreds of porcelain children on their shelvesâholding hands, jumping rope, carrying pailsâseem suddenly charged with a terrible power.
“Now,” says the radio, “we will go back to the program we had arranged for the night.”
Papa says, “We will shows these Jap fuck-fuckers. Boys oh boys we will shows them.”
Five days later he and four other men from the sawmill ride to Boise to have their teeth counted and their chests measured. And on the day after Christmas Papa is on his way to something called boot camp somewhere called Massachusetts and Zeno is living with Mrs. Boydstun.
s a newborn, he screeches, howls, bawls. As a toddler, he will eat only circles: Cheerios, freezer waffles, and plain M&M's from a 1.69-ounce package. No Fun Size, no Sharing Size, God help Bunny if she offers him Peanut. She can touch his arms and legs but not his feet or hands. Never his ears. Shampooing is a nightmare. Haircuts = impossible.
Home is a weekly motel in Lewiston called the Golden Oak; she pays for her one room by cleaning the other sixteen. Boyfriends roll through like storms: there's Jed, there's Mike Gawtry, there's a guy Bunny calls Turkey Leg. Lighters flick; ice machines grumble; logging trucks rattle the windows. On the worst nights they sleep in the Pontiac.
At three, Seymour decides he cannot abide the tags on any of his underwear, nor the rustling certain breakfast cereals make against the interiors of their plastic bags. At four, he shrieks if the straw in a juice box rubs the wrong way against the foil it has been struck through. If she sneezes too loudly, he trembles for half an hour. Men say, “What's wrong with him?” They say, “Can't you shut him up?”
He's six when Bunny learns that her great-uncle Pawpaw, a man she has not seen in twenty years, has died and left her his manufactured double-wide in Lakeport. She closes her flip phone, drops her rubber gloves in the tub of Room 14, abandons her cleaning cart in the half-open doorway, loads the Grand Am with the toaster oven, the Magnavox DVD all-in-one, and two trash bags of clothes, and drives Seymour three hours south without stopping once.
The house sits on an acre of weeds a mile from town at the dead end of a gravel road called Arcady Lane. One window is shattered,
the siding has
I DONT CALL 911
spray-painted on it, and the roof curls upward at one end as though a giant has tried to peel it off. As soon as the lawyer drives away, Bunny kneels in the driveway and sobs with a persistence that frightens them both.
Pine forest wraps the acre on three sides. Thousands of white butterflies drift between the heads of the thistles in the yard. Seymour sits beside her.
“Oh, Possum.” Bunny wipes her eyes. “It's just been a long fucking time.”
The trees rising above the back of the property shimmer; the butterflies float.
“Since what, Mom?”
A strand of spiderweb, sailing through the air, catches the light. “Yeah,” he says. “It's been a long fucking time since hope.” And is startled when his mother bursts into laughter.
Bunny nails plywood over the broken window and wipes rodent turds out of the kitchen cabinets and drags Pawpaw's chipmunk-chewed mattress to the road and finances two new ones at nineteen-percent-no-money-down. At the thrift store she finds an orange love seat and douses it with half a can of Glade Hawaiian Breeze before she and Seymour drag it inside. At sunset they sit side by side on the front step and eat two waffles each. An osprey passes high above, heading for the lake. A doe and two fawns materialize beside the toolshed and twitch their ears. The sky turns purple.
,” sings Bunny, “
and the meadow's a-blooming, and the wood's a-coming into leaf nowâ¦
Seymour shuts his eyes. The breeze feels as soft as the blue blankets at the Golden Oak, maybe softer, and the thistles are pumping off a smell like warm Christmas trees, and through the wall directly behind them is his very own room with stains on the ceiling that look like clouds or cougars or maybe sea sponges, and his mother sounds so happy that when she gets to the part in her song about the
ewe bleating, and the bullock prancing, and the billy goat farting, he can't keep himself from laughing.
First grade at Lakeport Elementary = twenty-six six-year-olds in a twenty-four-by-forty-foot portable presided over by a seasoned ironist named Mrs. Onegin. The navy-blue desk she assigns to Seymour is hateful: its frame is warped and its bolts are rusted and its feet make squeaks against the floor that feel like needles perforating the backs of his eyeballs.
Mrs. Onegin says, “Seymour, do you see any other children sitting on the floor?”
She says, “Seymour, are you waiting for a specially engraved invitation?”
She says, “Seymour, if you don't sitâ”
On the principal's desk, a mug says,
SMILING IS MY FAVORITE
. Cartoon roadrunners jog across his belt. Bunny is wearing her brand-new Wagon Wheel Custodial Services polo, cost to be deducted from her first paycheck. She says, “He's pretty sensitive,” and Principal Jenkins says, “Is there a father figure?” and glances for a third time at her breasts, and later, in the car, Bunny pulls onto the shoulder of Mission Street and dry-swallows three Excedrin.
“Possum, are you listening? Touch your ears if you're listening.”
Four trucks whizz past: two blue, two black. He touches his ears.
“What are we?”
“And what does a team do?”
“Helps each other.”
A red car passes. Then a white truck.
“Can you look at me?”
He looks. The magnetized name-tag clipped to her shirt says,
HOUSEKEEPING ATTENDANT BUNNY
. Her name is smaller than her job. Two more trucks rock the Grand Am as they pass but he cannot hear what color they are.
“I can't leave work in the middle of a shift because you don't like
your desk. They'll fire me. And I can't get fired. I need you to try. Will you try?”
He tries. When Carmen Hormaechea touches him with her poison ivy arm, he tries not to scream. When Tony Molinari's Aerobie hits him in the side of the head, he tries not to cry. But nine days into September, a wildfire in the Seven Devils chokes the whole valley with smoke, and Mrs. Onegin says the air quality is too low for outside recess, and they'll need to keep the windows closed because of Rodrigo's asthma, and within minutes the portable reeks like Pawpaw's microwave when Bunny defrosts a freezer fajita.
Seymour makes it through Group Math, through Lunch, through Fluency Tubs. But by Reflection Time, his endurance is fracturing. Mrs. Onegin sends everyone to their desks to color their North Americas, and Seymour tries to draw faint green circles in the Gulf of Mexico, tries to move only his hand and wrist, not shifting so the desk frame doesn't go
, not breathing so he doesn't smell any smells, but sweat is trickling down his ribs, and Wesley Ohman keeps opening and closing the Velcro on his left shoe, and Tony Molinari's lips are going
, and Mrs. Onegin is writing a huge, terrible A-M-E-R-I-C- on the whiteboard, the marker tip rasping and squeaking, the classroom clock ticktickticking, and all these sounds race into his head like hornets into a nest.
The roar: all his life it has rumbled in the distance. Now it rises. It obliterates the mountains, the lake, downtown Lakeport; it smashes across the school parking lot, tossing cars everywhere; it growls outside the portable and rattles the door. Black pinholes open in his vision. He clamps his hands over his ears but the roar eats the light.
Miss Slattery the school counselor says it could be sensory processing disorder or attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity disorder or some combination thereof. The boy is too young for her to know for sure. And she's not a diagnostician. But his screaming frightened
the other children and Principal Jenkins has suspended Seymour for Friday and Bunny should make an appointment with an occupational therapist as soon as possible.
Bunny pinches the bridge of her nose. “Is that, like, included?”
Manager Steve at the Wagon Wheel says, you bet, Bunny, bring your kid to work, so long as you want to get fired, so on Friday morning she plucks the knobs off the stove burners, sets a box of Cheerios on the counter, and puts the
DVD on repeat.
On the Magnavox Starboy drops from the night in his bright-shining suit.
“Touch your ears if you're listening.”
Starboy finds a family of armadillos trapped in a net. Seymour touches his ears.
“When the microwave timer says zero zero zero, I'll be home to check on you. All right?”
Starboy needs help. Time to call Trustyfriend.
“You'll sit tight?”
He nods; the Pontiac rattles down Arcady Lane. Trustyfriend the Owl soars out of the cartoon night. Starboy lights the way while Trustyfriend tears through the net with his bill. The armadillos squirm free; Trustyfriend announces that friends who help friends are the best friends of all. Then something that sounds like a giant scorpion starts scratching on the roof of the double-wide.
Seymour listens in his room. He listens at the front door. At the sliding door off the kitchen. The sound goes:
tap scratch scratch
On the Magnavox a big yellow sun is coming up. Time for Trustyfriend to fly back to his roost. Time for Starboy to fly back to the Firmament.
Best friends best friends
, Starboy sings,
We're never apart,
I'm in the sky,
And you're in my heart.
When Seymour opens the sliding door, a magpie sails off the roof and lands on an egg-shaped boulder in the backyard. It dips its tail and calls
wock wock wock
A bird. Not a scorpion at all.
An overnight storm has cleared the smoke and the morning is bright. The thistles nod their purple crowns and tiny insects sail everywhere. The thousands of pines stacked against the back of the property, rising toward a ridge, seem to breathe as they sway. In out in out. It's nineteen paces through waist-high weeds to the egg-shaped boulder and by the time Seymour climbs on top, the magpie has flapped to a branch at the edge of the forest. Splotches of lichenâpink, olive, flame orangeâdecorate the boulder. It's amazing out here. Big. Alive. Ongoing.
Twenty paces past the boulder, Seymour reaches a single strand of barbed wire sagging between posts. Behind him is the sliding door, the kitchen, Pawpaw's microwave; ahead are three thousand acres of forest owned by a family in Texas no one in Lakeport has ever met.
, calls the magpie.
It's easy to duck under the wire.
Beneath the trees, the light changes entirely: another world. Pennants of lichen sway from branches; snippets of sky glow overhead. Here's an ant mound half as tall as he is; here's a granite rib the size of a minivan; here's a sheet of bark that fits around his midsection like the chest plate of Starboy's armor.
Halfway up the hill behind the house, Seymour comes to a clearing ringed by Douglas firs with a big dead ponderosa in the center like the many-fingered arm of a skeleton-giant thrust up from the underworld. Parachuting through the air around him, blown out of the firs, are hundreds of pine needles bundled in twos. He catches one, imagines it as a little man with a truncated torso and long slender legs. The NeedleMan ventures across the clearing on his pointy feet.
At the foot of the dead tree, Seymour constructs a house for the NeedleMan from bark and twigs. He is installing a lichen mattress inside when a ghost shrieks ten feet above his head.
Every hair on Seymour's arms stands up straight. The owl is so well camouflaged that it vocalizes three more times before the boy sets eyes on it, and when he does he gasps.
It blinks three times, four. In the shadow against the bark, with its eyelids closed, the owl vanishes. Then the eyes open again and the creature rematerializes.
It is the size of Tony Molinari. Its eyes are the color of tennis balls. It is looking right at him.
From his spot at the base of the big dead tree, Seymour gazes up and the owl gazes down and the forest breathes and something happens: the unease mumbling at the margins of his every waking momentâthe roarâfalls quiet.
There is magic in this place
, the owl seems to say.
You just have to sit and breathe and wait and it will find you.
He sits and breathes and waits and the Earth travels another thousand kilometers along its orbit. Lifelong knots deep inside the boy loosen.
When Bunny finds him there's bark in her hair and snot on her Wagon Wheel polo and she yanks him to his feet and Seymour could not say if a minute or a month or a decade has passed. The owl vanishes like smoke. He twists to see where it might have gone, but it's nowhere, sucked deeper into the woods, and Bunny is touching his hair, she's sobbing, “âabout to call the cops, why didn't you stay put?â” she's swearing, pulling him home through the trees, ripping her jeans on the barbed wire; the microwave timer in the kitchen is going
, Bunny is talking on her phone, she's getting fired by Manager Steve, she's throwing her phone at the love seat, she's squeezing Seymour's shoulders so he can't squirm away, she's saying, “I thought we were doing this together,” she's saying, “I thought we were a team.”
After bedtime he crawls to his window, slides it open, thrusts his head into the dark. The night exudes a wild, oniony smell. Something barks, something goes
chee chee chee
. The forest is right there, just past the barbed wire.
“Trustyfriend,” he says. “I name you Trustyfriend.”