Vernon Culligan was as good as dead to the town of Drayford, Virginia, for so long that when he actually died, not many folks noticed. For decades, his bloodshot eyes, permanent three-day stubble, rifle held over his head, and snarl meaner than a coon dog's had naturally taught everyone to keep a good distance from his property line. The postal delivery truck did venture all the way to the teetering mailbox, and mail was regularly delivered through its yawning trap into the dark, corrugated steel tunnel. Outgoing letters, mostly bill payments, were collected, the addresses written in shaky black ink, as if little spider legs had grouped themselves into crooked letters. Such was the old man's communication with the world.
Twelve-year-old Gable Culligan Pace lived with his uncle in Vernon's simple home cradled within a valley west of Virginia's Blue Ridge, north of Roanoke County. Gabe had arrived in early spring, two and a half years before. Woodland rhododendrons had splashed their purple heads against spikes of sage green as Gabe whizzed by in the backseat of a social worker's Ford Escort.
Over the space of time and in the shadow of the mountains, Gabe came to appreciate, if not understand, many of Uncle Vernon's habits. For instance, Vernon always kept a fan blowing, no matter the season. He preferred the fan to the cabinet full of smoker's lung medicines. So when Gabe arrived home from school and saw his uncle's electric fan lying on the wooden floor in the study, like a turtle that couldn't right itself, Gabe dropped his backpack at the door. He held his breath and crossed the narrow hall. Vernon's chair lay toppled to one side and Vernon himself lay motionless on the floor, flat on his back.
Gabe had never really touched his uncle, though sometimes he had accidentally brushed Vernon's rough hand while passing the margarine tub or clearing the table. Gabe stood by his uncle's work boots and softly called his name. Vernon, a veteran, had had his left leg amputated below the knee during his final tour in Vietnam, thirty-five years before. But with the latest prosthesis, Vernon walked with barely a limp. "The thing's a chore to get on. Can't mau len, can't hurry it up no more, but can't stub my toe, neither!" Gabe saw that the fake foot wasn't angled quite right to the rest of his uncle's body. That twist gave Gabe a little courage. He knelt and touched the plasticized ankle, then moved up, methodically pushing one finger against his uncle's pant leg. He stopped at the thigh, rolled back on his heels, and looked at his uncle's face. Gently he placed a finger on his uncle's cheek.
The skin was cold. Gabe fetched a thick plaid blanket and lay down with his uncle, covering them both. Gabe closed his eyes. Hours later, after dusk had swept the last particles of light from the room, Gabe awoke. He scrambled out from under the blanket, sat hugging his knees on the floor, and cried. Messy crying, the kind of crying that leaves you swollen, red, and leaky. After a while, he snuffled his nose along his arm and sleeve and stared in the direction of the fan. He crawled toward it, fumbled for the switch, and turned it off. The absence of the low rumble startled him. And then he smiled.
Gabe walked into the kitchen, flipped on the light, and fixed himself a peanut butter and honey sandwich. The first bite brought back the first words his uncle ever spoke to him.
"You as skinny as a starved rat. Don't you eat? Come on, let's eat somepin. What'll it be?" Vernon had scowled at Gabe's silence. "Don't tell me they's foisting a dumb one on old Vernon."
When Ms. Rodriguez, the social worker, had nudged Gabe, he'd whispered, "No, sir."
"No, no," answered Vernon. "Let's get one thing straight. I'm no 'sir.' They can save all they's fancy sirs and salutin' for the dress parade. No, life's a jungle, there's no use for sirs in the jungle." Vernon motioned for Gabe to follow him to the kitchen. He laid out different foods on the counter and told Gabe to point to what he liked. Thus the first peanut butter and honey sandwich had been made and eaten under Vernon's roof.
Gabe now carefully cleaned the top of the bear-shaped honey bottle, the way his uncle had taught him. "Clean him right. He don't want no scabby sores atop his head no more'n you do." Then Gabe sat back down at the table and held on to the bear's smooth, golden tummy.
With night pressing its shadows against the windows, and the trees talking night talk, Gabe was not brave enough to go back into his uncle's study. Every evening since he had left the bumpy, eastbound trail of foster care homes and arrived at his uncle's, Gabe would always tell Vernon that he was going to bed.
"G'night, Uncle Vernon."
"Good night, Gabe," his uncle would always reply. Then Vernon would spoon out a ladleful of philosophy like, "Scum-lickin' pus-suckin' buckets of trouble ken happen whether you're good or bad. But why git spit by skunk muck? Stay low and steer clear of screw-ups, Gabe."
Tonight Gabe couldn't bear not hearing his uncle's voice. So he didn't go to bed. Instead, he dozed, on and off, his head on his arms at the kitchen table. In the morning, he changed his shirt and underpants, brushed his teeth, then stood a long time at his uncle's study doorway.
A fly settled on his uncle's cheek and Gabe's eyes widened in terror as the fly walked into his uncle's nostril. Gabe wanted to scream and stamp and change everything there ever was. Maybe he should turn the fan back on. Maybe Uncle Vernon's been dead a long time and that's why he kept the fan on--to make flies buzz off and hide that he'd been dead for years. No, Gabe, that's crazy thinking--he wasn't dead till yesterday, just turn the fan on. Do it, do it! Instead, Gabe shocked himself and did something that would later fill him with a shame as thick and fevered as blood. Something he could never undo. Gabe wrenched the fan's cord from the socket, picked up the fan, and threw it down. Again and again. He almost tingled to see the wire frame crumple more and more with each crash. The plastic housing cracked, and pieces scattered across the room. He screamed at the fan and its bits running for cover under the desk and bookcase. "I hate you! You're not allowed to live no more! I'm killing you, you hear? You're dead. Dead! Go away! Go away!"
In his rage, Gabe didn't notice the fly leaving his uncle's nostril until the satisfied insect had made several loops in the air and sat preening its forelegs on the windowsill. Gabe dashed to the window, which normally sat open two inches all through the warm months and couldn't be closed again till winter shrank its wood. The fly escaped just as Gabe, with a mighty, grunting heave, slammed shut the window. He stepped back, surprised at his strength, and looked at his shaking hands. Then he knelt at his uncle's side, carefully tucking the blanket around the body and finally covering his uncle's face and head.
He closed the door to his uncle's study, then grabbed his backpack and ran into the morning, off to his second day of sixth grade.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Mailbox by Audrey Shafer. Copyright © 2006 by Audrey Shafer. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.