He picked up the picture frame, staring at the words carefully stitched on the stained linen and the world became very still as his memories dragged him, unwilling, to another time and place.
Napoleon flopped back onto the grass and waited. He knew the cows couldn’t resist it. They were as bad as cats when it came to being curious. He watched the clouds drift across the summer sky, apparently as lazy as he was.
This was probably the last summer vacation Napoleon was going to have to just goof off, if it could be said that any farmer or their family goofed off. No, farming was a full-time job and one that Napoleon didn’t intend to chase. At twelve, there was a lot in the world that he didn’t understand, but he knew full and well that the quiet stay-at-home life of farming was not for him. He wanted to travel and see the world. He wanted excitement and adventure.
A sniff caught his attention and he looked up and into the brown eyes of a Jersey cow. Several cows, in fact, now surrounded him. He abruptly sat up and they bolted away from him.
“You’re gonna get in trouble.” Napoleon glanced over his shoulder at his sister. “Mama’s warned you before about teasing the cows.”
“I’m not teasing them. I’m just sitting here.” He smiled mischievously. “It’s my magnetic personality.”
“Yeah, maybe, but I heard Mama talking. They’re sending you away.”
“I’m serious. She was talking to Aunt Jerry.” Josie wiped the sweat from her face. “They’re sending you to her. Guess they got tired of you being a lazy bum.”
Napoleon was tempted to tackle her and wrestle her to the ground, just like he used to, but things had changed now. He was starting to have odd feelings. He’d tried to talk to his father and had been brushed off. He couldn’t talk to his mother and after a while, he came to the conclusion that other boys his age had even less of a clue than he did.
Instead he pretended to spot something moving on the ground. He quickly grabbed a stick and threw it at his sister. “Think fast.”
She ran away shriek and that was too much for the cows. They raced away, udders swinging with the effort.
“Girls are almost as gullible as cows.” He told an uninterested butterfly. A few minutes later, he heard his mother calling him. “Girls. Why do we need them?” The butterfly flew away, intent upon another flower.
He got up, brushed off his pants and walked back to the farmhouse. He could see his mother standing on the porch watching him. It would do no good to try and bolt through the woodshed, unless he wanted to visit it later.
“Did you throw a snake at your sister?”
“Nope I tossed her a stick. She assumed it was a snake.”
“Why do you tease her so?”
“She’s my sister. It’s in my contract.”
“Don’t be smart with me, Mister.” His mother’s voice took on a serious edge and Napoleon knew that was his cue to backpedal in order to escape a trip to the woodshed. Even though he was two inches taller than his mother, he knew that he was out-gunned.
“She started it. She said you were shipping me off to Aunt Jerry’s because I’m lazy.”
“Well, it’s half right. We are sending you to Aunt Jerry’s.”
“Aw, Mom, do I have to? I mean, Cousin Earl is weird.”
His mother looked pained. “He’s not weird. He just… marches to a different drummer.” She smoothed down her apron and sat down in one of the metal porch chairs. “Earl never had much of a male influence around the house. We thought it might be good for him to spend some time with you.”
“Well, couldn’t he come here?”
“And end up cowering in the hayloft thinking the Chelsea murderer was after him.”
“That wasn’t my fault,” Napoleon protested. “Well, maybe a little of it was…”
“Uh huh… anyway, your father and I are taking a trip, a second honeymoon, and you can’t stay here by yourself.”
“I’m old enough.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. I’m sorry, Napoleon, but that’s the last word on the matter. Now, go change, apologize to your sister and get ready for your chores.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll do it, but I won’t like it.”
“That’s all that we can ask and it’s only for two weeks.”
Two weeks might as well be two years to Napoleon’s thinking. His plans of baseball, swimming and hanging out with his friends were dashed. He followed his parents up the flagstone path to his aunt’s house. Josie had been lucky. She didn’t have to leave Chelsea or her friends. She was staying with Aunt Jean and helping out in her beauty parlor. Napoleon dropped his suitcase on the front porch of Aunt Jerry’s house and sighed again. Compared to what he was facing, he’s rather be back in school, and that was saying something.
He watched his mother knock on the door and watch patiently. Aunt Jerry had to be sure there weren’t any ‘filthy commies’ waiting to jump her. His dad had commented that if she had gotten jumped, it might improve her outlook on life. Mom had hushed him and looked quickly over to see if Napoleon had heard. He pretended he didn’t. He picked up the best information that way.
“There you are!” Aunt Jerry opened the door and hugged his mother. “Oh, look at you! That man is working you to the bone.”
She’s one to talk, Napoleon thought. His aunt was so thin her bones jutted out. He was just glad that he was too big to hug any longer. His aunt was afraid that it would give him ‘thoughts’. Oh, it gave him plenty of thoughts and not of the Christian charity kind his mother talked about. It was like hugging a scarecrow, but not as pleasant.
“Come in and rest yourself.” Aunt Jerry stood aside and the part Napoleon dreaded the most was upon them. Aunt Jerry’s house smelled like the hospital, and everything that wasn’t covered with plastic and been scrubbed to a high polish. Aunt Jerry had been a nurse a long time ago, then she’d gotten pregnant with his cousin, Hector, and quit to raise him. It had been all Uncle Adolphus could do to support them and then along came Cousin Roger, Tony, Louie and finally Earl. In the end, it was too much. He died, Napoleon’s father said, out of a desire to get a decent rest.
“Napoleon, sweetheart, why don’t you go out back and play with your cousin while your mother and I talk.”
Napoleon nodded, “Yes, ma’am.” His aunt liked good manners.
“That’s a good boy. That must be your doing, it’s certainly not his father’s. Why you stay with him, I’ll never know.”
“I love him.”
“Like that’s enough.”
“For me, it is. I knew what I was getting into…”
Napoleon shut the door on that. He hated that his aunt constantly tried to get his mother to leave his father because he was a farmer. Just because she didn’t like farms, it wasn’t her place.
He stood on the porch and looked for a long moment. There were some good things about this place. There was Lake Champlain Just yards away and that meant swimming and fishing. His aunt kept bees and that was fascinating. And there was always the chance that one of his other cousins were there, too. Earl had been a surprise, his closest sibling had been fifteen when Earl came along.
Napoleon looked over at Earl. “Hey, Earl. What’s going on?”
“Nothing. There is never anything going on.” Earl was thin, like his mother with sandy blond hair and blue eyes, really blue eyes. There had been talk since there were no blue eyed blonds in either side of the family, but it was just that. Earl had enough traits from both parents to put everything to rest. He even had a sixth finger on one hand, like his father. There was just a scar now as his mother had had it removed when Earl was just a baby, but it marked him as a Chaloux, to be sure. “Why are you here?”
“Mom and Dad are taken a vacation.”
“And they didn’t want you to come? I thought they loved you.” That evil half smile. “Guess not.”
Napoleon felt his dander rising and knew his cousin was messing with him. “At least I am wanted, not some surprise.”
For a minute, Earl was quiet, his face red, then he started to look at Napoleon in a creepy way. “Maybe, maybe not.”
“Whatever, Earl. I’m going swimming.” Napoleon pulled off his shirt and heard a scream. He froze and immediately Aunt Jerry was there; shielding Earl’s eyes with her hand.
“What are you doing?” she shouted at Napoleon.
He looked at his mother in desperation and then back at his aunt. “Going swimming?”
“Young men do not rip off their clothes to engage in some primal display of their masculinity, Napoleon!”
“She wants you to change clothes inside,” his mother interpreted and Napoleon nodded. So it began.
By the time he was ready for bed, he was convinced that he couldn’t do anything right. For some reason, his aunt made him feel dirty and nasty. Napoleon was beginning to see what his father meant about his uncle just wanting some peace and quiet.
Napoleon changed into his pajamas and looked up at the wall. Over his Cousin Roger’s bed hung a needlepoint. Good Boys Sleep with Their Hands on Top of the Covers was the carefully embroidered message.
“What does that mean?” he wondered out loud.
“Mother made Roger sew that when she discovered he was wicked.”
“Wicked?” Roger was one of the nicest guys Napoleon knew. Sadly, his crippled hand kept him from participating in a lot of things, but he told the best stories. Napoleon really loved any time spent with him, but he always felt badly for the sadness in Roger’s eyes.
“He was engaging in sins of the flesh.”
“Okay,” Napoleon had no idea what Earl was going on about.
“He was touching himself!”
Ever practical, Napoleon answered, “Well, yeah, you have to or you pee all over your feet.”
Any comeback from his cousin was stopped by his aunt’s appearance. “Are you both decent?”
Hastily, Napoleon pulled on his robe and knotted it. It was too hot for it, but since his cousin was wearing his, he wore one, too.
“Excellent. Napoleon, you will sleep here.” She pointed to the sign. “Remember what good boys do.”
Earl winked at him and walked from the room. It took Napoleon another few minutes to puzzle out what Roger had been doing.
Mom called it masturbating when Napoleon had, in tears, come to her and confessed that there was something very wrong down there. She went on to and explained what it was all about. Somehow, it took some of the fun out of it. The guys at school talked in hushed tones about it and lived in fear of their parents finding out. Napoleon never told them what had transpired; somehow it was more important to fit in.
Napoleon went to sleep that night, making sure that his hands were on top of the covers, just to be on the safe side.
He managed to stay busy with chores, using them as an excuse to avoid his creepy cousin. Earl sat in the shade and watched him with a curious expression. It looked, well, mean, Napoleon decided.
That afternoon, his aunt had relented and let him go swimming. The cold water of Champlain felt good and he worked on strengthening his strokes. He wasn’t a great swimmer, but he still enjoyed it.
He popped up next to the dock and blew out a mouthful of air, then nearly yelled. Earl was sitting on the dock, in the shade, of course because he mustn’t get overheated, according to Aunt Jerry. He stared at Napoleon and made Napoleon feel dirty. He grabbed Napoleon’s arm in a surprisingly strong grip.
“Roger was bad and had to be punished. I still remember the night Mama did it.”
It took Napoleon nearly a minute to realize what Earl was going on about. He jerked his arm free and grabbed onto the dock for support as he climbed up onto it. The bottom of the lake was thick with silt and mud here, so the only way out was the dock. “Did what?”
“Took a hammer to his hand.”
“You lie!” he shouted at his cousin. “You are a dirty dog liar.”
“Says you. Do you want to know what she did to Tony and Hector? They were wicked, too, and she punished them horribly.” Then Earl grinned, a horrible awful thing. “You want to see where we buried that pitiful excuse of a man, my father?”
“Shut up, you stinkin liar!”
“You take that back or I’ll tell Mama what I caught you doing down behind the tree. Then she’ll punish you, too.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“I know that, but who do you think she’s gonna believe?” He suddenly pushed Napoleon backwards, sending him into the lake.
Napoleon choked on a mouthful of water and vainly sought to battle his way back up. As he touched bottom, but it was muddy and he started to sink. That made him even more frantic and momentarily he panicked. Just when he thought it was done for, a hand grabbed his and yanked him to the surface.
Tony was there, his face horrible scarred on one side. Out of instinct, Napoleon clung to him. “Calm down, Napoleon. I got you. Shh…” he murmured as he got Napoleon to the shore.
Over Tony’s shoulder, Napoleon saw Earl’s face, twisted and angry and he mouthed, Pervert! I’m telling, while making a scissors-cutting motion with his fingers.
With a cry, Napoleon grabbed handfuls of grass for purchase and scrambled up onto the lawn. He snatched up his towel as he ran past and headed for the woods.
He didn’t stop until he was well hidden in the thick brush and pulled his towel close. Without meaning or wanting to, hot tears started to trickle down his cheeks. His feet were bruised and scraped from running barefoot through detritus and brambles. His arms and legs were scratched and he was heartsick.
In the distance, he could hear someone shouting his name. That sent him into even more of a panic and he pressed himself to the ground. Once it was dark, he’d go back to the house, get some clothes and then start back for home. He wasn’t sure how he’d make the four hour by car journey, but he didn’t care. Napoleon was not spending another minute in that house, not with Earl there.
As night fell, the heat of the day surrendered to the cool evening and Napoleon shivered, wishing he’d grabbed his clothes along with his towel. Bugs feasted on his skin, but he lacked the energy or will to brush them away, let along start the long walk back to the house. He felt like he was on fire and hadn’t eaten in a month. Granted his aunt’s cooking was nothing to be desired, but even one of her Spam and mustard sandwiches sounded good to Napoleon.
Miserable, he curled up into a tight ball and tried to force himself to sleep. Maybe if he just slept a little, he’d wake and be ready to go. But he was so cold and hot at the same time. Everything hurt and again the tears came, now feeling cool against his skin.
How much time had passed was a mystery, but the forest grew strangely silent, as if in vigil over him. Vaguely he heard someone shout, “He’s here! I’ve found him.” But he was too miserable to care. Suddenly he was floating. His last thought was. I wonder if this is what it’s like to die.
Napoleon managed to drag one eyelid open and the world was covered with a mist, making it dim and out of focus. He reached out and then he felt his hand caught. The mist cleared as the side of the oxygen tent lifted revealing his mother’s worried face.
“Napoleon. Oh, thank God.” His father appeared beside her and Napoleon was confused.
“Mom? Dad? What are you doing here in Burlington?” His voice sounded thick and raspy. He wanted to cough, but it felt like there was a bale of hay resting on his chest. Just breathing was a struggle.
“Napoleon, you’ve been really ill.” His mother brushed his hair from his forehead and he saw the dark circles under her eyes.
A thought suddenly occurred to him and he let his hand drift towards his penis. There. “It is still there.”
His father misunderstood. “I know that catheter feels funny, son. Now that you’re awake, they’ll take care of it.” Napoleon’s father was misty eyed. “We thought we’d lost you. You caught pneumonia because of almost drowning. What happened?”
Slowly, the memories started coming back and Napoleon felt a surge of panic. “Earl! He pushed –“
“You don’t have to worry about Earl.” Mom’s voice was scary serious as she caressed Napoleon’s cheek. “He won’t be bothering anyone for some time to come. You just concentrate on getting well.”
Napoleon didn’t think about him, either. It was as if his cousin never existed. He didn’t see Aunt Jerry for a very long time after that and that was fine with him. When he was a junior in high school, she came by during Thanksgiving for a couple of hours. She was a changed woman and he didn’t even recognize her at first, save the funny-smelling perfume. She seemed tiny now or perhaps it was because he’d grown. ? She was younger than his mother and looked fifteen years older.
Had she always been that stooped and wrinkled? He wondered as she hesitantly offered a hand to him. He didn’t wish her any ill will, but he kept an eye open for the sudden appearance of Earl. That never happened and in time, he wondered if the boy had even existed.
It wasn’t until a family reunion that he even the need had to reflect back upon those memories. They were closing the house in Burlington, so the cousins decided to throw one last party. A final good bye to the house on the lake. Relatives poured in and Napoleon was expected to at least put in an appearance. As luck would have it, he was stateside for the moment. It wasn’t until he convinced Illya to come with him that Napoleon even considered going. It had turned out to be a good trip. Illya was in rare humor and kept Napoleon distracted most of the time. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder every time he looked at the shore and the path into the woods. He’d almost died that day and his lungs were never completely right afterwards. He’d also had to combat a fear of water, after that. He won, but it wasn’t an easy victory.
Once the house had stood tall and proud against the backdrop of Lake Champlain, but time had beaten it down into a shell of its former glory. The white clapboard his aunt was once so proud of was now stained with dirt and mildew. The second story porch, which afforded a spectacular view of the lake, was too rotted to even walk upon and the railing had long since vanished. It was sad in a way, but none of the brothers had any interest in living there. When his aunt died, the house fell empty.
“I wonder why,” Napoleon said as his partner collapsed onto the blanket beside him, rubbing his arms with a towel.
“You wonder why what?” Illya started to towel his hair dry. Then he pulled on his shirt.
“I wonder why none of my cousins wanted to live here after my Aunt passed.”
“It’s pretty isolated and I imagine the snow makes it fairly difficult.” Illya turned his attention to his legs. “It must have been something when it was in its prime, though.”
“It was a showcase in its day. It had fantastic gardens, my aunt even kept bees to help with the pollination. The grass was always cut just so. We used to joke that Aunt Jerry bleached the walls to keep them white.”
“Actually, I think it was to kill the mold. She really had a problem with it.” Cousin Hector appeared awkwardly carrying a box that overflowed with stuff. He dropped the box in front of Napoleon and, gritting his teeth, he managed to maneuver his twisted body into a lawn chair. “Oh, that’s better. Damn back doesn’t like all this moving.” He toed the box. “I thought I’d see if there was anything you wanted as a keepsake of the place that nearly killed you.”
“Don’t remind me,” Napoleon muttered even as Illya sat up suddenly interested.
“I don’t think I’ve heard this story,” Illya said. He took a swig of beer from his bottle and looked expectantly.
“I came here one summer when my folks went on a second honeymoon. It ended badly.” Napoleon suddenly stood. “I’m going to get a beer.”
Napoleon heard Illya say, “Did I ask the wrong question?” as he walked away and his attention went to the woods. A vise clamped onto his chest. Standing there just at the forest’s edge was a tall, nearly skeletal man, pale and with a look of pure evil on his face. He made a scissor cutting motion with one hand. Napoleon blinked and the man was gone.
Beer forgotten, he headed back to the blanket and his partner. “Hector, is Earl here?”
“Not likely. Bastard finally got what he deserved.”
“And that was?”
“A one way ticket to Hell. He’s buried in the same cemetery as Ma is. I tell you that night was the first one I’d felt safe since Earl was born.”
“He’s dead?” Napoleon asked slowly.
“As a door nail and I made sure of it. I think we all did. It was sort of reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express.” He sighed. “Dad was especially glad to see the back of him.”
“Uncle Adolphus is alive?”
Hector looked confused. “Yeah, he wanted to come, but his health isn’t great these days. Why? What did you think?”
“Earl told me he was dead and buried in the woods.” Napoleon didn’t look back towards the forest, just in case.
Hector laughed. “Man, he hated those woods. From the time he was a kid, he tried to get Ma to cut them down. He even set them on fire once. Earl accused Dad of molesting him and for some reason Ma believed him. Dad got carted away to prison and stayed there until we were able to get him out years later. That’s one reason why I became a lawyer. He was my first case. I can’t believe you fell for that, Napoleon.”
“Give me a break. I was twelve!”
Illya chuckled. “I’m trying to think of you as an innocent, Napoleon. And I’m failing.”
“We were all innocents once upon a time,” Napoleon murmured suddenly feeling very old.
“Who is this Earl character you keep talking about?” Illya asked, a slight smile on his lips.
“The one responsible for this.” Hector gestured to his twisted body. “Bastard pushed a box of car parts over on me. Oh, it was never proven, of course. Nothing ever was. Nearly blinded Tony by sending him into a metal roof and started a lawn mower that Roger was fixing. That nearly cost him his hand. And he very nearly drowned Napoleon.” He took a long swig of beer. “Finally, even he went too far. They discovered he’d molested and killed a little boy and Ma had no choice. She had him committed. It was either that or jail, but he was just fourteen at the time and she didn’t have the heart. She told him he was never welcomed in that house again and that was it. She became a little old lady overnight. It was heartbreaking, but Earl never came back. He went from the institution to jail as soon as he turned twenty one. Never got out, to our great relief. ”
“I’m sorry I missed him.” Illya’s voice grew cold. “I’d like to have had a chat with him.”
“Don’t be.” Hector bent over slowly and rummaged through the box. “Remember this?” He pulled a small frame from the box. Embroidered upon the fabric were the words, Good Boys Sleep with Their Hands on Top of the Covers. “I hated that thing.” He dropped it on the blanket as if burned by it.
Napoleon choked on his beer and Illya pounded him on his back. “I’m okay.” He took the frame and studied the stained needlepoint. “He told me Aunt Jerry took a hammer to Roger’s hand when she found him masturbating one night and then made him do this as punishment.”
“Second part is right. He did do it, but it was at Earl’s ‘suggestion’ although why Ma agreed to it was a mystery. Why she agreed to anything he wanted was a mystery, but she always did. I think she was as terrified of him as we were.” Hector held up his bottle. “To Earl, may he never rest in peace.”
Napoleon glanced quickly at the woods and just for a moment thought he saw something, someone lurking. “You may have gotten your wish. I keep thinking I see --”
“Yeah, you and everyone else. That’s another reason why we are razing the place. The rumor is Earl, denied coming back into the house, haunts the woods now. It’s just a rumor, of course, but weird stuff happens there now and Earl really hated you, Napoleon, although we never knew why. That’s why Tony was here that day. Ma asked us to come and watch out for you. She was terrified Earl would try something.”
“Thank you, “Illya said quietly.
“Just do me a favor and stay out of the woods, especially at night. Okay? Promise?” Hector held out his hand. “Don’t let the bastard win.”
Napoleon took the hand and shook it firmly. “Somehow, I don’t think I’ll have any trouble keeping that promise.” With that, he felt the last hold Earl had on him disappear and it was as if color and life had returned to this spot. He slapped Illya on the back. “C’mon, let’s go for a swim.”