By Michael Boatman
Henry Felt hated the Adventure Scouts of America. He hated selling crappy candy bars to complete strangers who smiled and looked at him like one of those poor pitiful “Urban” kids who had nothing better to do with their time than sell crappy candy bars to complete strangers. He hated Ed Crandall, his Scoutmaster, who smiled way too much and always smelled like fresh onions. As he marched up to the front door of Mister Murder’s big old house, Henry decided that it was the smiling he hated most of all.
A confident smile and a firm handshake will carry you far in this world, Hank, Crandall always said. Henry hated it when people call him Hank, but Crandall never seemed to notice.
A confident smile says to the world: Here is a boy to be considered. Here is a boy that matters.
Henry didn’t really believe that he “mattered.” His father left the family before Henry was even born. His mother spent most of her free time in her bedroom with various “Uncles.” By the time he’d turned five he’d lost count of how many “Uncles” he’d known. It was one of those uncles, a smiling cable TV installer, who’d hooked him into the Adventure Scouts: The smiling cable installer was Ed Crandall’s brother-in-law. Henry’s mother had called Crandall, and the next day, Henry’s life, which was already pretty lousy, had slid right down the toilet.
A confident smile lets everybody know, from teachers and preachers to CEOs and Presidents of major corporations: This boy is gonna make something of himself someday. Yessir, this one’s gonna be a worldbeater.
As Henry stomped up Mister Murdock’s long walkway wearing his stupid Adventure Scouts uniform, he didn’t feel like a worldbeater. No. He mostly felt like the biggest loser on the planet. As he raised his fist to knock on the front door, he mentally rehearsed his spiel.
Hi! My name is Henry Felt. I’m here today representing Adventure Scouts of America! Currently we’re having our annual fundraiser to help promote ASA activities such as Arts and Crafts, Community Service, Back to Nature Weekends and Fart Wrangling. Would you care to purchase some crappy chocolates so I can hurry home and kill myself?
The big oaken front door swung open before he could knock. Mister Murdock was standing there, staring down at him. The old mortician looked like he’d been sleeping in a dumpster. His gray hair, normally neat and parted on the right, now stood up in a big goofy afro. He was only wearing a stained undershirt and wrinkled black pants and dusty, battered old shoes.
Jesus , Henry thought. He’s not wearing any socks.
All the kids in the neighborhood were accustomed to seeing Mister Murdock walking home from the Murdock Brothers Funeral Home. His family had owned and operated the place since the last ice age. It was one of the most successful funeral parlors on the South Side of Chicago. Henry always thought of Murdock Bros. as, The Place Where Dead People Went to Freshen Up.
Mister Murdock was tall, about six –feet- six inches tall, willow- thin, his limbs long and crooked as the legs of a great black spider. He was weird, but usually immaculate in his black undertaker’s suit and tie and perfectly polished black shoes. Sometimes he looked at the neighborhood kids, who always paused when he passed. Sometimes he squinted down at them like a man trying to remind himself of some unpleasant but necessary business he’d forgotten. Sometimes he barely acknowledged their presence at all.
Everybody knew old Mister Murdock’s story; how his wife had left him, boning out to no one really knew where. How he sometimes walked unseen through the guts of his big old house at odd hours, crying and singing weird songs in a language no one understood.
And everybody knew about how he’d murdered his own son and gotten away with it. That’s why some kids called him “Mister Murder” behind his back. Everybody knew these things, or thought they did. Nevertheless, they accepted Mister Murdock as a weird, but harmless part of life on Everwood Street.
But now the tall mortician looked…wrong somehow. Henry couldn’t put his finger on exactly what was out of place. Something didn’t feel right, apart from the fact that the old man was only half dressed. There were little red spots on the front of his t-shirt, tiny round circles, like drops of blood.
Guess he could have cut himself shaving, Henry thought. Henry had seen one of his “Uncles” cut himself. The man had bled like a stuck hamster all over their bathroom, leaving little droplets of blood everywhere, just like the ones on Mister Murdock’s scrawny chest. Henry thought that if he ever grew facial hair he would maintain a beard, just to keep from ever having to put a razor to his face. But he was twelve years old that Spring, still years away from shaving.
Get on with it, Hank , a familiar voice chided. Worldbeaters cut to the chase.
Henry winced. He gritted his teeth and cleared his throat.
“Hi,” he began. “My name is…”
“Henry,” Mister Murdock interrupted. “You’re that Felt woman’s son. The one waits tables at the diner over on 79 th Street.”
Henry nodded. Sometimes his mother picked up extra cash over at the Greek place. It was funny, but he’d never imagined Mister Murdock eating at the place where his mother worked. He’d never imagined Mister Murdock eating. The man looked like a walking skeleton.
“Yessir,” Henry continued. “Anyway, I’m here representing Adventure Scouts of…”
Mister Murdock lurched, as if suddenly prodded by someone standing behind him. His eyes widened like the eyes of a man who had just received a powerful electric shock.
“Will you help me, boy?” he gasped. “I need… help.”
Henry winced again. He really didn’t have the time or the patience to deal with the old fart and his problems.
“I don’t know, Mister Murdock,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of stops to make before dinner.”
Murdock looked around him, as if he were trying to remember how he’d gotten there. His gaze travelled up over the lintel of his front door and down to the mailbox which was situated next to the doorbell.
“Murdock,” he said. “That’s right. My name is Lionel Murdock.”
The old man glared down at Henry, as if he’d just discovered him crouching with a bag of dog turds in one hand and a lit match in the other.
“Who are you?” he snarled. “What do you want?”
Henry stared at the old man, uncertain of what to say.
“I…I…”, he stammered.
When confronted with an opportunity, don’t stand there mumbling like a moron. Stick out your chest and speak your piece. Worldbeaters know how to command the listener’s attention.
“I’m here representing the Adventure Scouts,” Henry said, forcefully. “Remember? I…”
“Come in,” the old man snapped. “Let me get my wallet.”
Without another word Mister Murdock turned and disappeared inside the big old house. Henry stood there for a moment, still uncertain. Something about the old man was… off.
Probably that old people’s disease , he thought. The one where you forget stuff.
Fear didn’t put Americans on the moon, boys, Ed Crandall would say. Fear is for sissies. And what’s the rule on sissies in the Adventure Scouts?
No sissies allowed!
That last lesson had been reserved for Crandall’s Scout troop only. After a series of class action lawsuits, Scoutmasters everywhere were forbidden from discriminating against any boy, “sissy” or not.
“Come in, Boyd,” Mister Murdock shouted. “Need help with a problem. Then I can… purchase something.”
Henry stepped over the dark threshold and into the house.
“My glasses,” the old man said from the shadows under the stairway. “Left my glasses in the greenhouse. Blind now.”
He turned and shuffled into the darkness.
Henry followed him through the shadows of the old house. It was warm inside; warmer than seemed comfortable. Then again, Henry remembered that old people liked to keep warm. Something about brittle bones and cold weather. They walked through the house, moving past darkened rooms filled with shadowy shapes. In one of them, Henry thought he saw a collection of manikins lying on a bed. The manikins were all laid out in a row, fully clothed, their heads hairless, and shining, almost like dried skulls. But they didn’t look like store manikins. To Henry, they looked more like something you’d find at one of those old novelty shops that sold practical joke items: Voodoo dolls and “shrunken heads.”
“Practice,” the old man grunted. “Needs more practice.”
Henry nodded. By now he was more than ready to get out of the old house. Something about those life-sized manikins lying across the bed, their bald heads shining, their faces lost amid sprawled limbs and piles of clothing.
A Scout never backs away from a challenge, Hank. Challenges build character.
Finally, they came to a door that led into the kitchen. Mister Murdock shuffled across the kitchen, humming and muttering a strange, tuneless little song to himself. Every other word sounded like a half-moaned grunt, the sound of a man being kicked in the stomach, followed by a weird little chuckle.
As he looked around, Henry found himself remembering the stories he’d heard about Mister Murdock; how his wife had left him after the death of their son. How sometimes he spent nights in the funeral parlor, even when there were bodies there. Especially young bodies.
“Need my glasses to see two feet in front of my face these days,” Mister Murdock said. “Getting old. Damn waste.”
Henry remembered the worst story he’d heard about Mister Murdock, about his son Lloyd; how he’d come back from Vietnam all messed up on drugs; how he’d attacked Mrs. Murdock one day, nearly strangled her to death. Then Mister Murdock had walked in and found them, his only son trying to murder his wife. Mister Murdock had screamed at him, tried to pull him off of Mrs. Murdock, but Boyd, yes, that was his name, Boyd, had beaten Mister Murdock nearly unconscious. Mister Murdock had grabbed a big metal lantern and struck Boyd on the head, killing him instantly.
Mister Murdock had insisted on embalming Boyd himself. Afterward, Mrs. Murdock had gone back to Louisiana, where their family had come from way back in the 30s, or so the neighbors said. Henry shuddered. People in his neighborhood said strange things about people from Louisiana.
You stay away from those people, his mother would always warn him. And no matter what happens: Never eat at that house.
Why not, ma? he’d asked.
Because they’re from New Orleans, and people from New Orleans consort with spirits .
Later, Mister Murdock had bought his brother’s share of the family business. His brother, Ephraim, had retired, while Mister Murdock kept right on working, sleeping with the dead bodies sometimes, the neighbors said, walking around his house and crying to himself at three in the morning.
“In here,” Mister Murdock said. “Home sweet home.”
They were standing on a raised platform that looked out over a dark sunken area the size of a small dancehall. The place was enclosed in a ring of tall windows. Here and there were rows of potted plants, and small trees that Henry recognized from his science classes: miniature Banzai and Eucalyptus trees. Some plants were arranged alongside cacti of varying shapes and sizes, some stood in the shadows of trees he’d never seen before. The smell of jasmine hung heavy in the warm air, high and sweet yet cloying, as if the air itself were too dense, too thick to be tamed by perfume. There were rows of yellow sunflowers, some as big as a dinner plate, rows of red, yellow and white roses, wildflowers of every conceivable color. Here and there, Henry could smell the scent of citrus, perhaps from an orange tree somewhere in the vastness of the greenhouse. For a moment he was too stunned to react; so much color and fecundity buried in the recesses of Old Man’s Murdock’s musty old house. Who knew?
Overhead, the late afternoon sunlight had faded away from the windowed ceiling. The floor of the greenhouse was slipping into darkness. One section of the floor, near the back of the greenhouse, was covered with a large tarp.
Mister Murdock stepped down into the rich dirt that lay everywhere and walked toward the far end of the greenhouse.
“Workin’ out here last night,” he grumbled. “Left muh glasses.”
Henry followed him, fascinated by the riot of color and life all around him. It seemed that, as they walked deeper into the gloom of the greenhouse, he was entering an alien world, a magical land where maybe people didn’t smile funny, and where Scoutmasters were whipped publicly. The stench of decay was barely noticeable at first. Then Mister Murdock stopped in front of the tarp. With a grunt, he stooped, lifted the tarp and flung it aside.
The smell of decay grew more present, almost overwhelming.
“What’s that smell?” Henry said.
“Fertilizer,” the old man wheezed. “Look there,” he said, pointing toward the tarp. Henry looked.
There was a hole in the dirt. From where Henry stood, the opening looked about ten feet wide and twice as long. He couldn’t see the bottom.
“Dug it myself, back in 59. Had to blast through Chicago bedrock to do it. Filled it in with rich red bayou Earth.”
Henry wondered at the strange way the old man said “Oith,” almost like a gangster from one of those old black and white movies.
Those people consort with sprits, Henry .
“Left muh glasses down there,” the old man said.
Henry looked into the hole. For just one moment he thought he saw something buried in the darkness down there, a flash of white. And for one utterly ridiculous moment, Scoutmaster Ed’s voice came to him as if he were standing at his side.
That’s a skull, Hank, the voice said. You’re in deep doo-doo now.
Suddenly, for no reason that Henry could think of, he was afraid. He stepped back from the hole, took a deep breath. Whatever was going to happen next, he definitely did not want to look down there again.
“I…I gotta go,” he stammered. “My mom’s waiting outside for me.”
Mister Murdock just stared at him. His brows furrowed, as if he was concentrating fiercely on something Henry couldn’t see. Then he chuckled.
Cold terror extended icy fingers along Henry’s spine.
“You’re lyin,’ boy,” the old man said. “There’s no one outside. Know how I know?”
Henry managed to nod and shake his head at the same time.
“I know because the Green told me so.”
Mister Murdock lunged, faster than Henry would have believed possible, and grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him in close, breathing heavily into his face, grinning.
“The Green tells me lots of things.”
That was when Henry noticed his teeth. They were like stumps, fat little nubbins of something that looked like teeth but weren’t. And they were green. Even worse, each nubbin seemed to pulse, to move independently of the others. Henry thought of a nature video he’d seen once, of tube worms living at the base of an undersea volcano, pale, blind creatures waving to no one in the darkness of the ocean’s depths.
Worms living inside the old man’s mouth.
Henry fought then. He kicked at the old man’s kneecaps, his shins, tried to knee his crotch. The old man drew him in tighter, and Henry felt a sharp pain in his arms. When he looked down, he saw thorns, long black thorns where Mister Murdock’s fingernails should have been. Thorns were growing out of the old man’s arms, sinking into Henry’s flesh, pinning him fast.
“Practice,” the old man whispered.
“Please,” Henry whispered. “That…hurts!”
The old man grinned his wide green grin. Then he spun Henry around to face the pit.
Something was crawling out of the hole. A nearly skeletal hand with black fingernails reached up and grabbed for purchase among the roots and sod at the edges of the hole, then another hand, pale, grayish brown, the color of sick, lifeless flesh followed by a long, bony arm draped in the tattered remnants of some kind of uniform.
“What…?” Henry whined. “What…? What…?”
Find your voice, boys. A worldbeater speaks with authority.
“What is that?” Henry cried. “What is that thing?”
Then a dead man’s face stuck up out of the hole, its eyes as empty as the face of the moon, but green, as green as the first blush of Spring across new grass. The uniform the dead man wore was green too, but old and tattered, the black shoes rotted through so that the toe bones clicked together as the thing climbed out of the hole. The thing that wore Boyd Murdock’s body pulled itself to its feet and stood ramrod straight. Then it saluted.
“My Boyd,” Mister Murdock said. “Brought him home after the government killed him. But the Old Gods demanded sacrifice. They demanded blood.”
Henry shook his head, kicking out with his feet, trying to free himself. But the thorns held him.
“His mama was first. When she saw my gifting, saw how we could bring him back, she gave gladly of herself. But he needed more. She gave until she couldn’t give any more. Then I put her down there with him. It takes blood to let my son walk like the man he should have been.”
The thing in the uniform grinned, little more than a half-fleshed skull with green stubs where its teeth should have been.
“I’m old now,” Murdock said. “Would have died long ago if not for him, his spirit…eternity in the Green. We looked after each other, didn’t we, boy?”
“No more practice,” the thing in the uniform hissed. “Ready.”
“My time’s up, boys,” the old man said. “It took too long for Boyd to find his way back. His flesh is all worn out, and I’m too old.”
Henry shook his head, screamed his throat raw, but the old man’s hand covered his mouth, his thorns like pins, pierced his jaws, his cheeks, his throat, stifling him. The thing in the uniform staggered closer, its claws reaching for him, thorns extending like creeping vines.
“He’s ready now,” the old man hissed into Henry’s ear. “Ready to claim the life the war stole from him. You’ll do just fine. For a start.”
The thing in the uniform lifted its hands, its fingerbones clicking as it shambled forward and grabbed Henry. Its thorns tore though his Adventure Scouts uniform and sank into the flesh of his biceps.
Then it dragged him toward the pit.
And Henry Felt found his voice.
* * *
Scoutmaster Ed Crandall was still yelling at his wife when Henry walked up to their house. Henry could hear them arguing as he made his way up the walkway. They were loud enough to hear even without the Green’s help. But Henry didn’t mind. Through their potted plants and flowers, through the mold on their walls and the tiny flora living in their intestines, he could hear them all; people, arguing and laughing and rutting and scheming their little schemes. In every house on Everwood Street there was plant- life, and so there was the Green. Henry Felt was seeing things from a different perspective now.
Sometimes a man’s got to reconsider his options, boys, Scoutmaster Ed would say. The world can change in the blink of an eye. Above all a Worldbeater’ gotta be flexible.
The new Henry Felt was nothing if not flexible. The old man was dead now, consumed, his empty corpse a drying husk destroyed with all the others; nearly two- dozen in all. Drifters, hustlers; people no one would miss. The old man had provided much for his only son, even in death. This new body was young and strong, the mind of its original owner still fresh enough to master with little effort. Everything the original had ever witnessed, everything it retained of its old life of bone and blood, was now a part of the Green.
It savored its’ most recent memories: the screams of the boy’s mother, the stabbing thrust of its thorns as it overpowered her lover. The memory of their terror was sweet, their blood and flesh even sweeter. It had fed well.
But that was yesterday. Now it was hungry again, and the Old Gods demanded blood for their investment.
As it raised its fist to knock on Scoutmaster Ed’s door, it rehearsed its spiel. And when Scoutmaster Ed flung open the door, demanding to know what the hell Hank was doing out at this hour, the new Henry Felt spoke right up.
“Hello,” it said.
Yessir, this boy is gonna be a worldbeater.
And its smile was wide and bright and green.
# # #