Authors: Theodore Sturgeon
“You mean me, no doubt,” said Armand Bluett from the doorway.
Horty didn’t move, and for a long instant his heart didn’t either. He half crouched, half cowered behind the desk, not turning toward the doorway.
“What are you doing?”
Armand belted him across the cheek and ear. Horty whimpered, once, and bit his lip. Armand said, “Don’t lie. You are obviously doing something. You were talking to yourself, a sure sign of a degenerating mind. What’s this—oh. Oh yes, the baby toy that came with you. Your estate. It’s as repulsive as you are.” He took it from the desk, dropped it on the floor, wiped his hand on the side of his trousers, and carefully stepped on Junky’s head.
Horty shrieked as if it were his own head which was being crushed, and leapt at Armand. So unexpected was the attack that the man was bowled right off his feet. He fell heavily and painfully against the bedpost, grabbed at it and missed, and went to the floor. He sat there for a moment grunting and blinking, and then his little eyes narrowed and fixed themselves on the trembling Horty. “Mmm
said Armand in a tone of great satisfaction, and rose. “You should be exterminated.” He grasped the slack of Horty’s shirt and struck him. As he spoke, he hit the boy’s face, back and forth, back and forth, by way of punctuation. “Homicidal, that’s what you are. I was going to. Send you away. To a school. But it isn’t safe. The police will. Take care of you. They have a place. For juvenile delinquents. Filthy little. Pervert.”
He rushed the sodden child across the room and jammed him into the closet. “This will keep you safe until the police get here,” he panted, and slammed the door. The hinge side of it caught three fingers of Horty’s left hand.
At the boy’s shriek of very real agony Armand snapped the door open again. “No use in your yelling. You—My God! What a mess. Now I suppose I’ll have to get a doctor. There’s no end—absolutely no end to the trouble you cause. Tonta!” He ran out and down the stairs. “Tonta!”
“That young devil stuck his hand in the door. Did it on purpose, to excite sympathy. Bleeding like a stuck pig. You know what he did? He struck me. He attacked me, Tonta! It’s not safe to have him in the house!”
“You poor darling! Did he hurt you?”
“A wonder he didn’t kill me. I’m going to call the police.”
“I’d better go up while you’re phoning,” said Tonta. She wet her lips.
But when she reached the room, Horty was gone. There was a lot of excitement for a while after that. At first Armand wanted to get his hands on Horty for his own purposes, and then he began to be afraid of what people might say if the boy gave his own garbled version of the incident. Then a day went by, and a week, and a month, and it was safe to look to heaven and say mysteriously, “He’s in safe hands now, the poor little tyke,” and people could answer, “I understand…” Everyone knew he was not Armand’s child, anyway.
But Armand Bluett tucked one idea snugly away in the corner of his mind. That was to look out, in the future, for any young man with three fingers missing from his left hand.
HE HALLOWELLS LIVED AT THE EDGE
of town, in a house that had only one thing wrong with it; it was at the intersection where the State Highway angled into the end of Main Street, so that the traffic roared night and day past both the front and back gates.
The Hallowell’s taffy-headed daughter, Kay, was as full of social consciousness as only a seven-year-old can be. She had been asked to empty the trash, and as usual she opened the back gate a crack and peeped out at the highway, to see if anyone she knew would catch her at the menial task.
He shrank into the fog-swirled shadows of the traffic-light standard.
“Horton Bluett, I see you.”
“Kay…” He came to her, staying close to the fence. “Listen, don’t tell nobody you saw me, huh?”
“But wh—oh. You’re running away!” she blurted, noticing the parcel tucked under his arm. “Horty—are you sick?” He was white, strained. “Did you hurt your hand?”
“Some.” He held his left wrist with his right hand, tightly. His left hand was wrapped in two or three handkerchiefs. “They was going to get the police. I got out the window onto the shed roof and hid there all afternoon. They was lookin’ all over the street and everywhere. You won’t tell?”
“I won’t tell. What’s in the package?”
If she had demanded it, grabbed at it, he would probably never have seen her again. Instead she said, “Please, Horty.”
“You can look.” Without releasing his wrist, he turned so she could pull the package out from under his arm. She opened it—it was a paper bag—and took out the hideous broken face of Junky. Junky’s eyes glittered at her, and she squeaked. “What is it?”
“It’s Junky. I had him since before I was born. Armand, he stepped on it.”
“Is that why you’re running away?”
“Kay! What are you doing out there?”
“Coming, Mother! Horty, I got to go. Horty, are you coming back?”
“Gee”… that mister Bluett, he’s so
“Kay Hallowell! Come in this instant. It’s raining!”
“Yes, Mother! Horty, I wannit to tell you. I shouldn’ta laughed at you today. Hecky brought you the worms, and I thought it was a joke, thass all. I didn’t know you really did eat ants. Gee… I et some shoe-polish once. That’s nothin’.”
Horty held out his elbow and she carefully put the package under it. He said, as if he had just thought of it—and indeed he had—“I
come back, Kay. Someday.”
“’Bye, Horty.” And she was gone, a flash of taffy hair, yellow dress, a bit of lace, changed before his eyes to a closed gate in a board fence and the sound of dwindling quick footsteps.
Horton Bluett stood in the dark drizzle, cold, but with heat in his ruined hand and another heat in his throat. This he swallowed, with difficulty, and, looking up, saw the broad inviting tailgate of a truck which was stopped for the traffic light. He ran to it, tossed his small bundle on it, and squirmed up, clawing with his right hand, trying to keep his left out of trouble. The truck lurched forward; Horty scrabbled wildly to stay on. The package with Junky in it began to slide back toward him, past him; he caught at it, losing his own grip, and began to slip.
Suddenly there was a blur of movement from inside the truck, and a flare of terrible pain as his smashed hand was caught in a powerful grip. He came very close to fainting; when he could see again he was lying on his back on the jolting floor of the truck, holding his wrist again, expressing his anguish in squeezed-out tears and little, difficult grunts.
“Gee, kid, you don’t care how long you live, do you?” It was a fat boy, apparently his own age, bending over him, his bowed head resting on three chins. “What’s the matter with your hand?”
Horty said nothing. He was quite beyond speech for the moment. The fat boy, with surprising gentleness, pressed Horty’s good hand away from the handkerchiefs and began laying back the cloth. When he got to the inner layer, he saw the blood by the wash of light from a street-light they passed, and he said “Man.”
When they stopped for another traffic signal at a lighted intersection, he looked carefully and said, “Oh, man,” with all the emphasis inside him somewhere, and his eyes contracted into two pitying little knots of wrinkles. Horty knew the fat boy was sorry for him, and only then did he begin to cry openly. He wished he could stop, but he couldn’t, and didn’t while the boy bound up his hand again and for quite a while afterward.
The fat boy sat back on a roll of new canvas to wait for Horty to calm down. Once Horty subsided a little and the boy winked at him, and Horty, profoundly susceptible to the least kindness, began to wail again. The boy picked up the paper bag, looked into it, grunted, closed it carefully and put it out of the way on the canvas. Then to Horty’s astonishment, he removed from his inside coat pocket a large silver cigar case, the kind with five metal cylinders built together, took out a cigar, put it all in his mouth and turned it to wet it down, and lit up, surrounding himself with sweet-acrid blue smoke. He did not try to talk, and after a while Horty must have dozed off, because he opened his eyes to find the fat boy’s jacket folded as a pillow under his head, and he could not remember its being put there. It was dark then; he sat up, and immediately the fat boy’s voice came from the blackness.
“Take it easy, kid.” A small pudgy hand steadied Horty’s back. “How do you feel?”
Horty tried to talk, choked, swallowed and tried again. “All right, I guess. Hungry… gee! We’re out in the country!”
He became conscious of the fat boy squatting beside him. The hand left his back; in a moment the flame of a match startled him, and for an etched moment the boy’s face floated before him in the wavering light, moonlike, with delicate pink lips acrawl on the black cigar. Then with a practiced flick of his fingers, he sent the match and its brilliance flying out into the night. “Smoke?”
“I never did smoke,” said Horty. “Some corn-silk, once.” He looked admiringly at the red jewel at the end of the cigar. “You smoke a lot, huh.”
“Stunts m’growth,” said the other, and burst into a peal of shrill laughter. “How’s the hand?”
“It hurts some. Not so bad.”
“You got a lot of grit, kid. I’d be screamin’ for morphine if I was you. What happened to it?”
Horty told him. The story came out in snatches, out of sequence, but the fat boy got it all. He questioned briefly, and to the point, and did not comment at all. The conversation died after he had asked as many questions as he apparently wanted to, and for a while Horty thought the other had dozed off. The cigar dimmed and dimmed, occasionally sputtering around the edges, once in a while brightening in a wavery fashion as vagrant air touched it from the back of the truck.
Abruptly, and in a perfectly wide-awake voice, the fat boy asked him, “You lookin’ fer work?”
“Work? Well—I guess maybe.”
“What made you eat them ants?” came next.
“Well, I—I don’t know. I guess I just—well, I wanted to.”
“Do you do that a lot?”
“Not too much.” This was a different kind of questioning than he had had from Armand. The boy asked him about it without revulsion, without any more curiosity, really, than he had asked him how old he was, what grade he was in.
“Can you sing?”
“Well—I guess so. Some.”
“Sing something. I mean, if you feel like it. Don’t strain y’self. Uh—know
Horty looked out at the starlit highway racing away beneath the rumbling wheels, the blaze of yellow-white which turned to dwindling red tail-light eyes as a car whisked by on the other side of the road. The fog was gone, and a lot of the pain was gone from his hand, and most of all he was gone from Armand and Tonta. Kay had given him a feather-touch of kindness, and this odd boy, who talked in a way he had never heard a boy talk before, had given him another sort of kindness. There were the beginnings of a wonderful warm glow inside him, a feeling he had had only once or twice before in his whole life—the time he had won the sack-race and they gave him a khaki handkerchief, and the time four kids had whistled to a mongrel dog, and the dog had come straight to him, ignoring the others. He began to sing, and because the truck rumbled so, he had to sing out to be heard; and because he had to sing out, he leaned on the song, giving something of himself to it as a high-steel worker gives part of his weight to the wind.
He finished. The fat boy said “Hey.” The unaccented syllable was warm praise. Without any further comment he went to the front of the truck body and thumped on the square pane of glass there. The truck immediately slowed, pulled over and stopped by the roadside. The fat boy went to the tailgate, sat down, and slid off to the road.
“You stay right there,” he told Horty. “I’m gonna ride up front a while. You hear me now—don’t go ’way.”
“I won’t,” said Horty.
“How the hell can you sing like that with your hand mashed?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t hurt so much now.”
“Do you eat grasshoppers too? Worms?”
“No!” cried Horty, horrified.
“Okay,” said the boy. He went to the cab of the truck; the door slammed, and the truck ground off again.
Horty worked his way carefully forward until, squatting by the front wall of the truck-body, he could see through the square pane.
The driver was a tall man with a curious skin, lumpy and grey-green. He had a nose like Junky’s, but almost no chin, so that he looked like an aged parrot. He was so tall that he had to curve over the wheel like a fern-frond.
Next to him were two little girls. One had a round bush of white hair—no; it was platinum—and the other had two thick ropes of pigtails, bangs, and beautiful teeth. The fat boy was next to her, talking animatedly. The driver seemed not to pay any attention to the conversation at all.
Horty’s head was not clear, but he did not feel sick either. Everything had an exciting, dreamlike quality. He moved back in the truck body and lay down with his head on the fat boy’s jacket. Immediately he sat up, and crawled among the goods stacked in the truck until his hand found the long roll of canvas, moved along it until he found his paper bag. Then he lay down again, his left hand resting easily on his stomach, his right inside the bag, with his index and little fingers resting between Junky’s nose and chin. He went to sleep.
HEN HE WOKE AGAIN THE TRUCK HAD
stopped, and he opened unfocussed eyes to a writhing glare of light—red and orange, green and blue, with an underlying sheet of dazzling gold.
He raised his head, blinking, and resolved the lights into a massive post bearing neon signs: ICE TWENTY FLAVORS CREAM and CABINS and BAR—EAT. The wash of gold came from floodlights over the service area of a gas station. Three tractortrailer trucks were drawn up behind the fat boy’s truck; one of them had its trailer built of heavily-ribbed stainless steel and was very lovely under the lights.
“You awake, kid?”