The first real heat of summer had just steamed into Angel Rock in a welter of frayed tempers and sunburnt noses the afternoon Tom Ferry, almost thirteen years old and still simple-hearted, made his way down to Coop's Universal from where the school bus had left him. The footpath was baking hot and the grass on either side of it full of bindi-eyes and no easier on his bare feet and his progress was punctuated by spells of hopping to recover from one or the other. When he reached the broad expanse of shade under the hotel verandah he dallied for a minute to let his feet cool down properly. He held up his hand and squinted out at the bright day. Fifty yards away the Universal's awning gave the last respite before home. Faded signs--a sunset-orange Coke, an airy blue Bushell's--hung down from it. The sun faded things, it was true, but it also grew them. It was growing him. He could really feel it. He didn't feel quite like a boy any more--nothing like Flynn--and he liked the sensation; he liked his body growing, the muscles getting bigger on his bones, the ground getting further away.
He licked his lips and set out. Almost immediately the soles of his feet began to burn again. He ran, sucking in warm air through his rounded lips, laughing it out again, lifting his feet, trying to keep them off the concrete for as long as he could. The shop always seemed an age away on days like these, but he finally reached it and then had to stop and bend over and put his hands on his knees for a while to get his breath back. When he had it he went to the big old deepfreeze that sat just inside the shop's doorway and opened up the lid. Four great half-moons of ice curved out from the sides of the cabinet and he leant over them and plunged his hands and head into the chilled air at its centre. He put his cheek down against the ice and breathed in and felt the cold travel right down into his chest. He laughed at the sensation and waved away the mist with his hands until he could see the box of ice blocks at the bottom of the freezer. He sucked in the sweet, cool smell of them--red ice around ice cream--before reaching down and pulling one out by the tail. He let down the freezer's lid and then ran to the counter at the back of the shop.
"Mrs. Coop!" he yelled. "Mrs. Coop!"
There was no sign of the shopkeeper but in the silence after his yelling he could hear her out the back. The bright light from the open back door reached all the way up the hall and came to rest on the stool sitting in the doorway. She was almost always sitting there whenever Tom came in, fanning herself with a piece of old cardboard. Above her stool, high on the wall, was a dusty bank of brown Bakelite light switches and next to that the electricity meter and the fuse box, and next to that, hanging from a nail, calendar over expired calendar counting back from 1969. Over the counter a sticky mess of old flypaper, bejewelled with blowflies and wasps and beetles, swung gently in the breeze--a grisly record of long-gone summer days. At Tom's feet, alongside the shelves, were the tracks of countless customers worn into the wood. He followed them while he waited for Mrs. Coop to come in, tapping the coin in his hand against the shelves as he went. There was no one else in the shop and the lollies arranged on the counter in coloured boxes seemed to wink at him as he circled. He thought about taking some, gulping them down before Mrs. Coop appeared, but his ears immediately began to burn and he had to think about other things to cool them. He closed his eyes and breathed in the smells of the shop. He imagined a calf walking down between the desks at school, collecting books in its dripping mouth, and he imagined his teacher, Mr. May, pointing to the blackboard with a fishing rod instead of chalk, and then he saw the smooth neck of the girl who sat in front of him in class and he wondered, for the first time in his life, what a kiss might be like.
When he opened his eyes again the ice block in his hand was already beginning to melt. He was about to shout down the hall again when he heard the shopkeeper coming, saw her swaying from side to side because of her bad hip, heard her wheeze. A blue dress with pale yellow flowers covered her bulk and on her hip, like a freshly picked crop, was the basket full of laundry she'd just collected. The deep black line of her cleavage caught Tom's eye and held it for a long second.
"Hello, Mrs. Coop," he said, lifting his chin.
"Hello!" she replied, blinking. "Who's that then?"
"Ah. Afternoon, Thomas. School's out then?"
"Plans for the weekend?"
"Good boy! What can I do for you then?"
"This," he said, holding up the ice block by its tip. "How much?"
"They've gone up!"
Tom looked at the ice block despairingly, then at Mrs. Coop. "But I haven't got that much, and I can't put it back because it's melting already."
Mrs. Coop laughed at him and then made a waving movement with her hand that set the flesh on her arms wobbling.
"Well, you'll just have to owe it to me then," she said. "Or, better yet, when you've finished, you could pull up that grass that's coming up at the front there and that'll settle it, I reckon."
"Yes. Now go on, get stuck into it before it's just so much coloured water!"
"All right. Thanks, Mrs. Coop. Thanks very much."
Tom turned to go but then he remembered something. "Oh, a pack of Marlboro too, please. For Henry. On his account."
"All right then."
While Mrs. Coop reached for the packet Tom stuck his head out of the doorway. There was grass a foot long coming up between the cracks in the concrete out the front of the shop, all the way from where the awning posts met the ground to where the shop and the footpath met.
"Can I come back and do it tomorrow, Mrs. Coop?" Tom yelled into the shop.
"Course you can," she answered from the gloom. "Go on now."
"All right. See you tomorrow."
"All right. Bye now."
Tom ran down to where the street ended and the ferry ramp began. He sat down on one of the ramp posts and took a big bite out of the ice block but the cold made his forehead ache almost straight away. When the pain had passed he took smaller bites and caught the melting runoff in the cup of his hand. The ferry was on the far bank and he could see the old ferrymaster sitting in his cabin waiting for cars, the twisting streamers from his pipe vanishing into the breeze. Overhead, fat white clouds clippered across the sky and the wind began to pick up, rippling his shirt, cooling him and the day down. School was over for another week and another Apollo was on its way to the moon and that made even Angel Rock seem a more exciting place. Tomorrow, if it was still hot, he'd take Flynn swimming, or maybe fishing, then later, after dinner, they could lie outside on the grass and try to spot Apollo, or just imagine it soaring out there among the stars.
He sat looking out across the river and soon forgot where he was, his mind enchanted by images of moon landings and rockets, astronauts and parachuting capsules. He wondered if the Apollo 11 patch he'd ordered from the Post would ever arrive. He sat, the ice block dripping onto the ground, until the sound of a commotion filtered through to him. He turned and looked back towards town. The bus from the high school in Laurence had just finished setting down a dozen hot and cranky kids in the main street and now, walking towards him through the rippling heat-waves rising up from the road, was Sonny Steele and his little mate Leonard. He groaned. From about the same spot--just past the bowsers of the Golden Fleece--he'd once seen Jack Webber swing an axe at his brother Joe as if Joe were a tree that needed felling. A summer afternoon just like this one. In the time it had taken him to run to where they faced each other the axe was in Joe--right in his side--though he was still walking, but wrong, like the man up the valley who had polio, and going for his brother with his fists up, the blood draining out of his face. Then Pop Mather, the local copper, had come running up the road and tackled Jack and smacked him one. Then he'd saved Joe's life by jamming his shirt into his wound to keep in the blood. Henry said it was drink and women that had made them fight and he said neither was any good reason to put an axe in someone, especially family.
Tom remembered it as he watched the two older boys increase their pace and he wished wholeheartedly there was an axe handy now. He stood and started walking towards home, jamming the packet of Marlboros down inside the elastic of his shorts. He wouldn't run--he knew there wasn't much point.
When they caught up with him he stopped and turned to face them. Sonny and Leonard stopped too, both dripping with sweat, their mouths open like panting dogs. Sonny stared at him. Sonny had gone to the Catholic primary before high school. Tom thought he must have been like some of the boys in his own class who were always in trouble, who would never do as they were told, whose fathers had short-back-and-sides and wore their trousers up high, whose mothers were heavy and brown-armed and stiff in their floral frocks when they shopped on a Saturday morning. Sonny was one of those. He was nearly three years older than Tom; a foot taller and twice as broad. He had dark curly hair and a curiously flat and featureless face. One eye was dark brown and the other so pale it was almost no colour at all. Tom thought it might once have been blue but had since faded. Wall-eyed,
Henry called him. He said his family was ignorant and not to bother with him but that was hard when Sonny kept bailing him up. He liked Indians and cover and ambushes and pretending to take scalps. This, however, was no ambush--nothing worthy of Indians--just a crude assault from behind. Tom gritted his teeth, a little twist of fear worming around in his stomach despite his contempt.
"Look at this, a pimple eatin' an ice block!" started Sonny. "Look, Leonard, a big pimple with a mouth!"
Leonard giggled. "Yeah!" he said, his idiot chorus to every joke or comment Sonny ever made. Leonard was so lean and freckled he wouldn't have looked out of place in Africa with the leopards and hyenas.
"What do you want?" Tom asked, sighing.
Sonny raised his eyebrows, hung out a smirk, left it there until Tom's irritation outgrew his nervousness. It was Friday afternoon, the world was changing and he along with it and it was unfair that he had to be standing here again, putting up with Sonny just as he'd always done.
"Give us that, shit-for-brains!" the big boy demanded suddenly, pointing to the ice block. Tom looked at it. There was hardly anything left on the stick and a fly was circling the remains like a tiny vulture.
"Give us your damn ice block I said!" Sonny repeated.
Tom shifted the ice block to his left hand and brought up his right fist and spat on the knuckles as he had seen movie men do and Henry once or twice.
"You'll have to take it off me," he said, and immediately there was a contraction of the world between him and Sonny, as though a vacuum had drawn them together, pushed everything else into the background. It had always been this way--a battle of flesh and wills--and Tom had never bothered to question it before.
The sounds of the world faded and soon he could only hear the blood roaring through his ears, the sky now nothing but a silent exhibition of blue and grey overhead. Sonny leapt at him and grabbed his wrist with one hand and twisted the ice block free with the other while Leonard nipped in and out like a cattle dog and pinched him--hard enough to leave little half-moons of broken skin. Then Sonny used his weight to push him backwards and he teetered, flailing his arms, until Leonard stuck his bony shin behind his knee and sent him sprawling.
"Good, Leonard, good!" Sonny shouted.
He sat down hard on Tom's chest before he could squirm free and proceeded to eat the remains of the ice block. Tom struggled for breath and felt his face grow hot and sweat break out on his forehead. Leonard alternated between looking at Sonny for cues and giving Tom's wrist Chinese burns.
"You...fat...bastard...Steele!" he managed to spit.
Sonny didn't answer, but dribbled red-stained spittle across Tom's face from his pursed lips.
"Open his mouth, Len."
Leonard tried, cautiously, but Tom bit his finger and he retreated, cursing. Tom tried to wriggle free from underneath Sonny, but when he failed miserably it occurred to him that he had other weapons he could use. He thought of a question, something to distract him. The question he came up with seemed straightforward and reasonable, and something he wouldn't have minded having the answer to.
"Why do you do this, Sonny?" he spat, panting.
Sonny stared at him for a moment and then looked up and down the street. The time limit on his fun was fast running out. There were adults about who might spot him at any moment. He looked down at Tom again. He seemed to be giving the question serious consideration, but then he flipped Tom over onto his stomach and held his head down in the grass and gravel. He pushed harder and harder and when grit had worked its way into Tom's eyes and nose, and tears were running down his face Sonny leant in close so his smooth, clammy face--lips edged in sticky red, teeth holed by brown decay--filled Tom's field of vision like a noxious moon.
"Because your father's a drunk
and your mother's a rotten whore
!" he hissed, his face contorting.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Angel Rock by Darren Williams. Copyright © 2002 by Darren Williams. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, 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.