The day that Denis Linden Hoedemaker left was the day that everything changed.
He was wise and knowing as an old man that day, with an uppity nose and squinting eyes, standing on the corner of the street in a pair of scuffed shoes whose soles flapped in half-hearted protest against the concrete. He was eighteen, and it was a glorious age.
There was little of the high school version of him left. Most of that twit had evaporated from Denis Linden Hoedemaker’s body over the course of a heat-plagued summer. So he stood, there at the edge of Barrow Road, a stern expression so characteristic of adults etched into his face with some strange sort of chisel. See, Denis Linden Hoedemaker had spent much time considering what this day would be like. Beneath the glaring September sun, scraping his foot in a solemn rhythm against the sidewalk, he was, in fact, still pondering the moment as though it was still stacked neatly in the future, not marching in the startling present, with a grim line of tomorrows trailing behind it.
The other residents of the quaint side street that was Barrow Road, peeked their heads out the door, or gathered around the window to watch him, the recently reincarnated man stepping into Denis Linden Hoedemaker’s flesh to regard the surrounding world with new eyes.
Barrow Road was the sort of place that few people ever managed to leave, but for a short time. The houses were squat and all huddled together, miniature wooden boxes for miniature wooden families who sat stiffly at miniature wooden dining tables and talked about very little at all. The residents all had the same spindly, hollowed out appearance — more bone than flesh.
The local children called it ‘Marrow’ Road. To Denis Linden Hoedemaker it was more simply the ‘Narrow’ Road. He jumped from the curb with a mighty breath which the small leap did not merit. The dusty asphalt below him churned darkly in the heat. It was September for goodness sake, was all he could manage to think. His shoes groaned beneath him, and shrieked as he slid them across the pavement.
He tapped out the sound of tormented ghosts, it seemed.
It was an awful habit.
“Denis Linden Hoedemaker,” his aunt had always told him, “if you are not careful, your sole will get all worn down.” The strangely gray eyebrows had transformed into jagged mountains above her eyes. “And that simply won’t do. For any of us.”
That was the way with Barrow Road. Time was more taxing on the side street the local towns children took such pains to avoid. The alarming skeletal appearance proffered by the frequenters of Barrow Road mirrored the dilapidated nature of the cubed houses. The neighborhood was rundown, a ghost town inhabited by mistake. Everything there was grayer, as though it was all fading, fading, fading.
Denis Linden Hoedemaker looked like he’d been born out of the dusty corners of Barrow Street, with sandy hair and colorless skin. His hair poked out of his head like a cluster of dried weeds or twigs. His flesh was potato skin — washed out and lifeless.
His attire did him little aside from give the overall impression of unraveling. Tan khakis, hitched slightly above the ankle, frayed at the bottom. What had once been a white button down, somehow turned tan. Barrow Road itself seemed to lurk inside him.
But he was eighteen.
And it was a glorious age.
The heat pounded down in its inconsiderate continuity. He could feel the neighbors’ gazes pressing in around him, as he began to whistle. Whistling was always an appropriate way to wait for the bus, he supposed. It made for a rather cinematic picture — a young man, whistling mindlessly, and tracing images with a lazy foot in the dirt-coated asphalt.
“He is just a boy,” they’d said, when they first found him. An orphan or abductee situation, which was always more convenient. “He will do nicely.”
“We mustn’t let him know what we are. Children like him are scarce these days, ever since that President Harding and the welfare program. You’d think a Depression like this would make more orphans. What we need is a war.”
“Doesn’t it ever make you question?”
“The morality of it all?”
“Pha! Morality? We can’t change what we are. We need to survive too.”
“Our people are starving — dying out. What do you propose we do?”
“No, you’re right of course. We need to be prudent. Take care for the future.”
“Precisely. The boy will sustain us for a time. We must guard him carefully.”
“We are lucky he is so young.”
“Yes, but luck can not last for too long.”
“Oh, why must they grow old?”
“They are not like us. They must grow up.”
“What a pity.”
Denis Linden Hoedemaker thought waiting for a bus was a dull way to begin one’s trek into manhood. His mouth had grown too dry to whistle, which had been a dour task as it was, because the wind would sweep suddenly down the street, it seemed, with the sole purpose of snatching the newborn melody away from him. He sat on the curb now, and rocked his elbows against his knees. He’d stopped scraping the ground with his idle foot and stared down the bleak corridor that was Barrow Street, gaze contemplative.
A skinny woman with a sharply cut stature and limbs as knobbed as an old tree branch glided towards him. The warm smile, set firmly beneath a jagged nose, made the world around her melt away. She placed a weak hand on his shoulder, and her expression faltered. “Must you leave, Linden?”
“I’ve told you I must, Aunt.”
She made her signature very well expression, but the words that slipped through her lips were, “What a pity.” Her eyes grew vacant and distant. She’d aged much the past year, he realized. Her long hair was silver and brittle, clinging there to her head like the moss of a weeping willow. Lines were whittled into her skin, giving it the appearance of tree bark.
Her expression splintered into one of lament. “How quickly you became a man. Are you certain you don’t want to stay? Just a bit longer?”
But Denis Linden Hoedemaker was eighteen.
And it was a glorious age.
Far too glorious to waste away in the nooks and crannies of a rotting Barrow Road.
He shook his head. He did not say that he wished he could, or promise to return to Barrow Road to see her, for Denis Linden Hoedemaker was not a liar. Instead he just regarded the woman glumly and stood to his feet.
He pointed into the distance, where other roads slithered through the city squalor. “Look,” he said. “The bus.”
But the woman did not search for the bus in the distance. Her eyes were fixed on his face. “Tell me, aunt, can you see it?”
She studied the curiously firm jawline, the squared shoulders, the squinted eyes. “Yes,” she replied. “I see.”
“We must keep the boy here longer.”
“Why — there is hardly any childhood left in him.”
“We must! Do you understand? We need him.”
“There’s not any childhood left to feed on! What good will keeping him on Barrow Road do? Once he is a man –”
“Enough! Do you want our people to starve?”
“You’re the one who told me he would have to grow up. They all have to grow up, and once they do, what good are they to us?”
“Well, then. We need to find another child.”
“And where do you propose we find one? All of the children avoid Barrow Road like the plague. We must be growing weaker. They can sense what we are. Do you know what they call us? ‘Marrow’ Road!”
“They are children. They do not understand what they sense.”
“They don’t have to understand. It doesn’t change that they won’t come near us.”
“Well, if the children won’t come, we must hold onto the child we do have.”
“Is that what you call him?”
“He calls me ‘Aunt’.”
“You must keep him here.”
“What good will it do? There is nothing left of his childhood.”
“If you let him go, you will be condemning us all to death.”
“If he stays, we die anyway.”
The bus wobbled towards them, rickety engine roaring in the heat. It halted at the edge of Barrow Street, and then refused to roll any further. A layer of dust flamed across the side of the automobile. Dirty faces pressed against the window to watch Denis Linden Hoedemaker in wide-eyed curiosity. They were young men too, all of them tight-lipped and silent. Some fidgeted. Others stared unblinkingly into the distance, or had nodded off and slept with their caps pulled down low over their faces, and their chins nuzzled deeply into their chests.
Denis Linden Hoedemaker had never seen a vehicle like this, one that appeared like it had crawled out of a pile of grimy, factory ash, an odd, industrialized and mechanical phoenix. It must have wheezed and teetered a long ways to get here. The faces in the window were not familiar one’s. Faces of wanderers, vagrants — the people with nothing to lose and little left to give.
Their faces blended together, like blots of paint on a tan canvas, indistinct and forgettable. Denis Linden Hoedemaker considered this while the boys on the bus carefully considered him: the young man waiting there on the corner of Barrow Road, his surroundings swallowing him up. For a moment, it was as though all of the color had vanished from the world, but then they had to but blink, and Denis Linden Hoedemaker was more than a shady figure beneath the yellow September sun. The image of him came into focus, and then he did a very peculiar thing.
He began to speak, to nobody in particular — to thin air, in fact.
“I suppose this is farewell, then.”
“Farewell, Aunt.” He raised a hand up to shield his eyes, and studied the bus the way one studies a new pair of shoes that need to last for a very, very long time. He faced the wizened woman with the gray hair clinging to her head. “They cannot see you,” he realized.
“They cannot see me,” she agreed.
His face paled. “Are you a ghost?”
“Ghosts do not exist.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I am my own entity, Linden, not a mere memory of one that has died and is fading.”
Someone hollered from the vehicle. Denis Linden Hoedemaker glared at it, briefly, before walking towards it.
A greasy man with a stubble of gray beard and heavy eyebrows awaited him. His head was leathery, and shaped like a gourd. He smiled, but there was no humor in his eyes, just several yellow, pointed teeth. He was an orphanage man — one could tell by the fingers curling restlessly, waiting to box somebody’s ears. “Who was ya talking to?”
“The Lord,” Denis Linden Hoedemaker lied.
“Good,” the man said. “Because — ya know what I always tell ‘em new ones when I take ‘em in? — if ya don’t believe in a God, ya will soon enough.” He pat the side of the vehicle affectionately and motioned Denis Linden Hoedemaker forward. “What you looking at, man? Don’t tell me you see the Lord too, because I may believe in a God, but that don’t mean I’ll put up with them visions-folk.” He pushed Denis Linden Hoedemaker towards the vehicle. “Oh hurry up, will you? Still more of ya to pick up. Lordie, man — what are you looking at?”
Denis Linden Hoedemaker boarded. “Nothing.”
“Don’t tell me you live on this street. The place is deserted. You orphans and your vagrancy. Looks like a place somebody could waste their life away in.”
“The lucky boy. He survives. Why is it they always survive, and we must die?”
“I am hungry.”
“We’re all hungry.”
“Why must we die this way?”
“The lucky boy. He survives. They always survive.”
“Ya know what I always tell ‘em new ones when I take ‘em in? War’ll turn you into a man real fast. It always do. People at home always complaining about sending our boys out to die, but here’s something you all’ll learn real fast — the moment they sent you off, ya became men. So, here’s yer moment, boys. You’re men now. Ready to fight for your country? Good, because you very well may have to die for it.”
Denis Linden Hoedemaker was eighteen.
And it was a glorious age.
Barrow Road crumbled in on itself.
It was, indeed, vacant. Dusty, decaying slowly, and reeking of a terrible, terrible sadness. Yet, if one walked very slowly by it, they could hear first the strange wind that haunted that lane, carrying the distinct sound of someone whistling. Then, if one listened hard enough, there were whispers — faint, nearly forgotten whispers, but they were there all the same. “I’m sorry for taking your childhood,” they said.
And even fainter, but the most mournful whisper of all : “I’m sorry it was not enough to save us.”
By Ellis Wright
Mischief managed. – Padfoot