Mitchy is the main character of A DEAD GUY AT THE SUMMERHOUSE, my paranormal suspense novel set in 1968. Most of his short stories aren’t paranormal, but this final Mitch Story A Day in May story is. Is paranormal, I mean.
It’s been great fun, exploring Mitch’s childhood this month. Like Mitch, I was born in 1950, so I’ve been raiding my memory box for details of Mitch’s child psychology. You know what? Little kids are weird. It’s hard being a little kid, having to learn everything from scratch, with grown-ups talking in a code they know but you haven’t learned yet. They tell you lies they all know are lies and expect you to know it, too, except you don’t. Or they don’t tell you things because everybody knows them, except you don’t. It’s a wonder any of us grow up at all, with as many of our brains as we do manage to grow up with.
by Marian Allen
Around 1960, they bulldozed the wasteland, ran the creek through a culvert and covered it, paved over the creek and named it Bailey Creek Street, and built houses on both sides of it. Broke the heart of all us neighborhood kids but relieved all the parents, and especially relieved Mrs. Brandt, the director and house mother of Faelin Municipal Children’s Refuge, where I lived.
Of course, most of the kids at the Refuge who used to play there moved on, adopted or claimed by relatives or reclaimed by their parents when they got out of jail or whatever. I was the only one who remembered.
I’m James Michener Franklin, named by Mrs. Brandt for her favorite writer and her favorite president, found in an alley as a newborn in 1950 and never adopted, claimed, or reclaimed.
We never thought to wonder why there was a rectangular stand of trees running the length of three city blocks between our street and the next street over, not too far from the center of our small town. Kids don’t wonder about stuff like that. Later, I figured everybody called it the wasteland because it wasn’t worth the money it would cost to develop it until the town grew big enough to boost its value.
Whatever the reason, it was there, and us kids didn’t know it was just three blocks wide and two-houses-with-yards-and-a-street wide; to us, it was the woods primeval
“Hey, Mitchy! Let’s go play in the wasteland!”
I just feel sure a lot of kids said that to me over the years, but sometimes the invitation just pops out of my memory box, and it’s always that one kid saying it in his gruff voice, so funny coming out of a skinny, four-year-old body. Michael Peevy.
This was 1957, and “Remember Michael Peevy” was the slogan after that of all the grown-ups who didn’t want us to play in the wasteland. Come to think of it, Michael Peevy might be the reason the town finally developed the wasteland. Not many of us have that much of an impact.
So Michael Peevy, at four and new to the Refuge, thought old and Refuge-savvy seven-year-old Mitchy was his own personal big person.
This was after supper on a mild Friday in late May. It would be light enough to play for a couple more hours, but it was late enough for the fireflies to be out. Up and down the block, you could see kids running around their yards with washed-out peanut butter jars, trying to catch fireflies in them without letting the ones they’d already caught out.
“It’s too late to play in the wasteland,” I said. “It’s too dark in there.”
“Not yet, it i’n’t. Look, you can see the light in there.”
The evening sun was on the far side of the trees, throwing shade toward us, but shining between the trunks on the far side of the stream.
“Okay,” I said. “What’ll we play?”
Sometimes we were Indians, sometimes we were pioneers, sometimes we were bank robbers hiding out, or Robin Hood and his merry men. Sometimes the wasteland was a jungle and we were Tarzan and Bomba the Jungle Boy.
“Let’s be lost,” he said.
It never occurred to me that this was a bad idea. Being lost was the best game ever.
“Okay,” I said. “You go first.”
He was little, so he was better at getting lost, and I knew the wasteland like the inside of my eyelids, so I was certain to find him. When I was the one who got lost, I had to practically draw a map to myself or else he got scared and cried. He couldn’t help it; he was just a little kid. But it was embarrassing, you know?
So I closed my eyes and counted to ten, then went after him.
He always went straight in, so I did, too, and picked up his trail right away. Mrs. Brandt was always telling us to pick up our feet and not shuffle, but Michael was still a shuffler, so it was easy to see where he’d scuffed up the old dead leaves and stuff. It was one of the rules that you had to keep your eyes on the trail and not look up; otherwise, you might catch a glimpse of the person you were looking for, and that would ruin the game.
Michael usually only went a little way, then curled up and pretended to be sunk into an exhausted sleep.
This evening, though, he kept going. He even crossed the creek on the rock ford and recrossed it on the tree trunk ford. The ground inside the wasteland was dark, now, and it was hard to see the trail.
“Michael! I can’t see the trail! We have to quit! Let’s go back out and do fireflies until we have to go in.”
From the back of the Refuge, Mrs. Brandt called, “Mitchy? Michael? Are you in the wasteland? You come back right now, it’s getting dark! Ice cream!”
I relayed her message, as if Michael couldn’t hear it just as well as I could: “Michael! We gotta go! Ice cream!”
He didn’t answer.
I was pretty scared. I would really be in trouble if I came back without Michael, but I would be in trouble if I didn’t mind Mrs. Brandt and come when she called me. Don’t get me wrong, Mrs. Brandt was the next best thing to a mother, but In Trouble is like this huge deal for kids, like we’re going to get the electric chair or something. I’d rather have to stay in the wasteland for the rest of my life in a hopeless search for Michael Peevy than go back and get In Trouble.
Maybe he had curled up like usual and had really gone to sleep. Like a lot of little kids, he was a heavy sleeper.
I almost forgot about him when I saw a big, pale glow up ahead. My first thought was, “All this time, I thought fairies and fairy dances in the woods was made up!” I mean, first, I find out there really were dinosaurs, and now this? A kid just never knows what’s going to turn out to be actual factual and what’s something grown-ups just pretend is real for fun.
The glow didn’t spread out to dance, though, it shaped itself into a man, like a guy covered with fireflies, walking around in the woods.
He was pale in his own glow, wearing overalls and a flannel shirt and work boots.
He looked at me and smiled.
We’re not supposed to talk to strangers, but we’re not supposed to be rude, either. “Hey,” I said. I wanted to ask him why he was shining, but this was back in the children-should-be-seen-but-not-heard days, and asking a grown-up questions was impertinent, which seemed to be just one step below spitting on the sidewalk. So I just said, “I’m looking for a little kid. Michael.”
“Oh, is that his name? I thought I’d call him Toby. I used to have a little boy named Toby.”
Great. Here was another kid going off to a real home, leaving me behind! Ah, but no.
“I’m sorry, Mister,” I said, “but you can’t have Michael. He’s got folks who are coming back for him. His daddy’s just out of work, but they’re coming back for him as soon as they can feed him.”
“I’ll take good care of him.”
The man’s glow faded in and out, just like fireflies blink on and off. I didn’t like it when he faded; I wanted to know where he was. I was starting to think maybe he wasn’t an adopting guy, after all.
“You probably would,” I said, “but his people would be sad if they came back for him and he was gone. He’s really looking forward to them, too.”
“I miss Toby.”
This was getting weird. I wanted to run for Mrs. Brandt to come talk to this peculiar grown-up, but I was afraid he’d leave the wasteland with Michael tucked under his arm or something.
I didn’t know what to say. A lot of kids had been through the Refuge in my seven years, and they all missed the life they’d lost, the people or the circumstances they’d lost that had made them need the Refuge.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Michael misses his folks, so I know what you mean.”
He almost faded away. Shadows rushed in to fill the space where he had been, but he came back and drove them away.
The man said, “He has people.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, kind of hating to disappoint him. “He does.”
He moved closer to me, although I didn’t see him take any steps.
“Do you have people?”
Of course, the answer was No, but it was only kind of No.
“I have Mrs. Brandt.”
Right on cue, she called again, “Mitchy! Michael! You come in right now!”
“That’s her,” I said. “She wants us to come in. I gotta find him and go. I’m real sorry.”
One firefly on his cheek shone brighter than the rest, like a teardrop catching the last of the sun.
The fireflies broke away from each other and rose into the trees, like smoke from a candle you blow out.
Michael called, from where the man had been standing, “Hey, Mitchy, you gonna find me or not? We gotta go in!”
We went in, and I told Mrs. Brandt about the man, although Michael claimed he hadn’t seen or heard anybody.
Mrs. Brandt only heard the part of what I said that scared her most, and she called the police and reported a tramp in the woods and an attempted child abduction. The cops asked me a bunch of questions, which I answered without telling them about the firefly glow. Since Mrs. Brandt hadn’t said anything to them about it, it must not be important.
After that, playing in the wasteland was forbidden and punishable, the reason being that there were tramps who steal children lurking there. “Remember Michael Peevy.”
And, in 1960, the wasteland was bulldozed and built over. Soon after that, I was the only kid at the Refuge who even remembered it. And I would never forget.
MY PROMPTS TODAY: fireflies