Brent watched the second hand creep around the face of the clock. He could hear Lindsay Harper behind him gathering her books together. Miss VanderPoole talked on about the importance of continuing good reading habits during the course of the summer. No one was listening. A lot of kids hadn't even come to school for the last day, now that report cards were mailed home.
The bell rang.
The class cheered. Brent leaped from his seat as the class swirled around him. Everyone rushed for the door.
Brent could hear Miss VanderPoole shouting after them to have a good summer. He turned and waved at her and she smiled back.
The hallway rang with the sound of banging lockers and running feet. Brent was jostled several times and gave a push or two back.
Tom stopped by Brent's locker and said, «You coming over to the swim club?»
«Maybe,» Brent replied. «I'll see you later.»
Jim ran by and slammed Tom on the head with a book. Tom rushed on down the hall after him.
It was incredible how fast the corridor cleared, Brent thought. He saw the last few people disappearing down the stairs in the distance. The floor was littered with notebook paper and gum wrappers.
Brent opened his locker and took out his sneakers and gym shorts. The banging of the metal echoed in the empty hallway. He checked to make sure there was nothing left inside and then closed the locker door. He turned and walked down the steps. He could hear the roar of the buses as they swung away from the bus loop below.
When Brent got to the first floor, he stopped by the art room. Mr.Samuelson was taking the last few prints down from the wall. The room looked bare and colorless.
«Hi, Brent,» Mr.Samuelson said. «Glad that summer's here?»
«Kind of,» Brent replied. «I just wanted to pick up those watercolors I did this year.»
«Sorry to hear that, Brent. I was hoping you would forget; I need something over my mantel. I hope you'll keep up with it this summer.»
«Oh, I will, Mr.Samuelson. I always get a lot of stuff done when we're up in Maine.»
«Good. It's important not to let yourself get stale.»
«Well, thanks for all the help this year. I really appreciate it.»
«No problem. It's good to have a student like you every once in a while, Brent. Have a nice summer.»
«Thanks. I will.»
Brent rolled the watercolors up and put them under his left arm. He walked from the art room, through the commons and out into the June sunshine. It was hot. It would be a hot summer, he guessed.
For a minute Brent considered walking up to Gino's in the center of Louella for a hamburger and a Coke. Everybody would be there. They'd all be laughing and talking and making plans for the summer. Brent decided not to go. He didn't feel like all that joking and noise right then. He'd see them all plenty of times over at the club anyway.
Brent walked up Windermere Avenue with his paintings under the one arm and his sneakers slung over his right shoulder. The trees made a bright green canopy over the street. Brent strolled slowly through the circles of light and shadow. The sounds of little kids playing drifted from a backyard somewhere. The large houses with their big front porches looked quiet and composed in the June sun.
It's like a Monet painting, Brent thought.
When Brent closed the front door behind him, his mother called from the kitchen, «Is that you, Brent?»
«Yes, Mom,» Brent shouted back.
«Come on into the kitchen. There are some cupcakes if you're hungry.»
Brent walked through the dining room into the kitchen. His mother was stirring something on the stove. It smelled good.
«Your sister's been and gone already. I just got back from running her over to the pool. They're having tryouts for the swim team this afternoon. Listen, Brent, if she doesn't happen to make it, you be nice to her at dinner tonight. She'll be heartbroken.»
«Don't sweat it, Mom,» Brent said. «She's a cinch to make it. She's half frog.»
His mother laughed. «I suppose I worry too much about you two. How's it feel to be out for the summer? I would have thought you'd have gone up to Gino's with the guys this afternoon or over to the pool. Aren't you celebrating?»
«I decided not to. Maybe I'll hitch over to the club later. I'll see more than enough of them in the next few weeks anyway.»
«Well, I think you spend too much time by yourself, Brent.»
«It's okay, Mom. I enjoy it. When will we be headed for the island?»
«Probably not until sometime later in July. Your father's got too many things pressing at the office to get away right now. We'll have plenty of time there, don't worry.»
«I wish we were going up sooner. That's the best part of the summer. I always feel like I'm bumming around and wasting time at home in the summer. Like at loose ends, you know.»
«You can always do some painting, Brent,» his mother said. «And the swim club is always there. I'm sure you'll find plenty to keep you occupied until we go.»
«Oh, I know. I just like the island better, is all.»
«I know you do. I wish we could be going up earlier too. But then Betsy wouldn't have the time to compete on the swim team, so it all works out for the best. You'll just have to be patient.»
«You know what I'd like to do this weekend?» Brent said.
«Do you think Uncle George would like a painting of his barn for a Christmas present?»
«Oh, I know he would. He'd think that was pretty special.»
«Well, I'd love to get out of Louella for a day or two before the same old summer routine starts. I thought maybe I'd ask Uncle George if I could come out to the farm for the weekend. I'll do a picture of the barn, I just won't tell him it's for him.»
«I think it's a fine idea.»
«And it will get me warmed up for the things I want to paint up at the island this summer. Is it okay with you?»
«Sure. And I know your father won't mind. I'll give Uncle George a call this evening.»
«Thanks, Mom. I figure I can get it pretty well roughed out in a day or so, if only John would leave me alone while I'm there.»
«That might not be so easy.» Brent's mother laughed. «You know how much he looks up to you. You may just have to put up with a lot of him.»
«I guess. But he's a pain.»
«Well, I'm sure you'll live,» his mother chuckled. «You were seven once too, you know.»
Brent finished his cupcake and the glass of milk. He left the kitchen and went upstairs to check over his paint supplies.
It seemed right to him to be going away for a couple of days just after school was out, instead of rushing over to the pool like everybody else and falling into the regular summer pattern.
I'd go crazy by September if we didn't have the island, he thought. The whole idea of getting over to the swim club before noon and hanging around all day every day messing around with the same people all the time turned him off. He liked the idea of getting away by himself.
Brent had been at his Uncle George's place for only a couple of hours
and his younger cousin hadn't left him alone once. He was really
getting into the picture now, sketching out in ochers and grays the
siding of the barn. But John kept butting in and asking questions, and
even had tried once or twice to start a game of tag by punching him on
the shoulder and shouting, «You're it!»
Brent didn't want to be mean to John or anything, but he always found it hard to paint while someone was hanging over his shoulder, particularly someone like John, who couldn't sit still for more than thirty seconds.
«Why don't you run along and find out what time lunch is,» Brent suggested.
«Mom will give us a call when it's ready,» John said.
«Great,» Brent replied and tried to concentrate on mixing just the right shade of gold for the sun streak down the roof of the barn. The cedar shingles turned all hazy and soft in the sunlight and he wanted to get it exactly right.
«How'd you like to play a game down in the pasture, hun? We could look for snakes or something, Brent.»
«No, thanks, John. I want to get this picture done.»
God, why won't the stupid kid just leave me alone? Brent thought.
Suddenly John grabbed the brush out of Brent's hand. He ran off around the side of the barn.
«You got to catch me,» John shouted back.
Brent jumped to his feet. The watercolor pad fell to the ground.
Damn that kid! Brent thought.
Brent chased around the side of the barn and saw John disappear through the large hay doors on the second floor. Brent scrambled up the ladder after him.
The inside of the barn was hot. The smell of hay and horse manure filled the thick air. The light was dim and particles of dust drifted through the sunrays filtering through the roof. A stray chicken fluttered out of the back loft door into the barnyard below. John was standing on a pile of hay waving the paintbrush over his head.
«You got to catch me,» he shouted again.
Brent lunged for John's foot but the younger boy jumped back off the haystack and ran farther into the dimness of the loft. Brent scrambled up the side of the hay mound. He leaped off the stack and landed for a split second on seemingly solid floor which abruptly gave way beneath him. He saw the floor of the loft desappear above him. The fall seemed to take forever. Above him he could just see the dangling form of the open trapdoor, one hinge hanging loose and broken.
Then he was lying flat out on the cement floor of the milking room. His whole body filled with pain.
He was vaguely aware of John yelling somewhere above his head and the distant sound of running steps. He was acutely aware that he was not breathing. Brent thought, Go on, buddy, just breathe in. But nothing happened. No matter how hard he willed his chest to expand and take in air, it refused to move. I'm probably blue by now, he thought He might have laughed if he could have. He felt himself beginning to lose consciousness. Suddenly Uncle George was leaning down above him.
«It's all right,» Uncle George said. «Lie still. You'll be breathing in a minute. Just hang on.»
The voice was comforting to Brent and so was the first small racking gasp of air that crept into his lungs. The air burned and Brent heard the wheezing sound of his first breathing. Soon the air returned more easily and Brent was able to lie on the cement and inhale without noise and pain in his chest.
«Okay,» Uncle George said, «can you move at all now that you have your breath back? Took quite a spill, you know.»
Brent pulled his legs up, bending them at the knees. He tried to sit up. The pain made him yell.
«You just lie there quietly and I'll call an ambulance. No sense having you up and marching around when you got so much pain. Hang on a little while. I'll be back.»
Uncle George left at a trot and Brent lay back on the cement floor. The pain was bad now. Maybe I broke a bone or something, Brent thought. He wiggled his toes and was reassured that they still moved.
Brent noticed John standing nearby. The little kid's probably scared to death, Brent thought.
«It's all right, John. I'll be fine. It wasn't your fault anyway.» It was an effort to talk.
«I shouldn't have made you chase me,» he said.
«You couldn't have known that the trapdoor was broken,» Brent said. «Could have happened anytime. Don't worry about it.»
«I wish you hadn't come to paint your stupid picture,» John shouted and ran
from the milking room.
«I couldn't agree with you more, kid,» Brent muttered.
He thought he remembered the ambulance coming but he wasn't sure. He
felt cold all over and the pain continued to rush up and down his
body. The ambulance attendants moved him carefully to a stretcher and
he sensed the trees rushing past on the way to the hospital.
His parents were at the hospital when he arrived.
«Hi, Mom,» Brent tried to say but it came out garbled and fuzzy. He couldn't seem to keep his tongue in line. «Hi, Dad. I'll be okay, huh?»
«Sure you will,» his father said.
They moved him onto a rolling bed, and all of a sudden Dr.Matthias was beside him.
«We're going to send you down for a quick X ray, Brent. Don't try to move. Here's something for the pain.»
Brent felt the sharp jab of the needle and waited for the rush of numbness. His back still throbbed constantly but it seemed as if the pain belonged to someone else.
He remembered the ceiling going by over his head and the nurse in the X-ray room gently turning his body to various positions. The X-ray machine lowered in, whirring, and rose again. It lowered and rose several times.
Soon he was moving through the halls again. The ceiling was just a blur now.
«Can you listen, Brent?» Dr.Matthias was saying. «Try to listen, and then you can just sleep it all away.»
Brent heard his mother crying beside him as he moved on the rolling bed through the hallways.
«Brent, listen,» the doctor was saying again. «You've a fracture of one of your vertebrae. It's a broken back, but you're very lucky. There should be no problems at all. You'll be fine.»
«Broken back?» Brent managed to say.
«Yes, but it's not like it sounds. Don't worry. Just lie back and enjoy the next month,» he said.
«Forget it, Doctor. I'm not staying for any month. I don't have the time.»
«You've got it now,» Dr.Matthias said. «You've got a compression fracture of lumbar one. With a month of lying flat and a few months in a brace, you'll be as good as new. No complications from what I can see now. Just remember, because you'll be asleep in a minute: When you wake up tomorrow, don't sit up. If you have a lot of pain, don't hesitate to ask the nurse for something. I'll leave orders and see you tomorrow. It won't be bad, Brent. It's a clean fracture and there's no damage to the spinal cord. You're a very lucky boy.»
Brent drifted into sleep before he even reached his
Brent felt the slant of light across his eyelids. He was awake and the
sun was making spots behind his eyes.
He could feel the pain again. It was steady and aching up and down his spine. He felt a sensation of falling and grabbed the criblike sides of the bed. He still felt drugged from the night's sleep, but he thought he would ring for the nurse for more pain relievers anyway. If I've got to be here, I might as well get zonked and enjoy it, he thought.
«Good morning, Supertube,» a voice said.
Brent opened his eyes and looked to the right. The other bed in the room was about six feet away. A kid his own age was sitting up, propped against the pillow. He had dark hair and a sharp, angular face. He was smoking a cigarette.
Brent noticed an intravenous tube running from his own arm to a large bottle dangling from a stand. He didn't remember the doctor hooking him up to it.
«The only nice thing about eating through your arm is you don't have to taste the s… they serve here,» the boy in the next bed smiled. «I guess we'll be seeing a lot of each other. Heard the doctor tell your folks that you were going to be here about a month. I've got seventy years to go.»