The ebon hole of the storm drain some called Cat’s Eye Tunnel. A thin stream of water trickled down the center of the concrete tube. Its sides not quite dry to the touch. Ignoring the faint smells of algae and waste, the boys crawled for what felt like quite a ways in the damp, dark pipe. Their ears strained against the shadows, past the faraway plink-plink-plinks of water dripping somewhere further down the line. Nor was there any mistaking the skritching sounds.
“Rats!” a voice yelled in the dark.
“Oh, snap!” another called out.
Gavain and his younger brothers scrambled on all fours, sloshing through the brackish water, rushing towards the light of the opening until they tumbled out of the pipe. Piling onto one other, they formed a twelve-limbed beast that writhed in its own laughter. Gary and Rath were practically twins; the way their momma raised them. It was easier on the budget and it simplified fights if they both wore the same outfits. Gary, six, bright-eyed and innocent, idolized Gavain. Though a little bigger than Gary and only five years old, Rath had a potty mouth that sailors envied. Both had the scrawny physique of angry twigs. Their youngest brother, Wayne, stayed home with their mother. Sick again.
“Get your butt out my face.” Gary shoved Rath.
“Who yelled ‘rats’?” Gavain asked.
“Get that bad boy,” Gavain said, knowing full well that it was actually he who had made the scratching sound. “Let’s kick his li’l butt.”
Gavain scooped Gary up and tossed him easily over his shoulder. He smacked his little brother’s butt a couple of times, over Gary’s playful squeals of “no” and “stop”, before letting Rath get a piece. Gavain, nine and a half, felt a generation older than the other two. Tallest in his class, with the same weedy thinness of his brothers, Gavain loved both of them, but – in his heart of hearts, in that shadowed place where all secrets lay fallow – he admitted to being partial to Gary. The boy’s unquestioning, unflinching idolization helped, but it was more the simple, no, innocent way that Gary approached the world. Gavain envied him his purity and wished just for a moment he could reclaim any sense of his own.
After letting Gary tumble from his grasp, Gavain leaned back against the grassy creek embankment to stare at the clouds. The thin creek divided their housing complex, Breton Court, from the rest of the neighborhood. Some days, the creek was the same sad stretch of trilling water serving as a receptacle for collecting trash. Other days the creek seemed to stretch out into infinity, an event horizon of adventure and mystery. Today it was both.
They laid on the grass of the sloping hill. The rear fences of houses caged Dobermans and Rottweilers, who barked incessantly at their presence. From their hillside vantage point, they could see all of Breton Court. Gavain liked this spot, the wide creek separating Breton Court from the residential neighborhood. He’d been chased by bullies through the court, his rare black face in the area too tempting a target for the white thugs. His speed kept him out of harm’s way for a long time. Then, nearly cornered, he turned and dashed toward the creek. He leapt its breadth, landing flush on the other side. It was as if he crossed a border check and the bullies didn’t have their papers in order. A natural dividing line.
“Look what I found.” Rath held up a bent piece of discarded metal pipe.
“Here’s another piece.” Gary first held his pipe to his eye, scanning the neighborhood like it was a telescope before mounting it on his shoulder, like a bazooka. “Boom.”
“Yeah, c’mon, we’ve got to kill our enemies,” Rath declared.
Gavain watched the two of them scamper toward the overpass the creek ran under. Stifling heat thickened the air making it akin to breathing steam. His brothers pantomimed shooting at the unsuspecting cars as they drove past. He meandered after them, just in time to break up the inevitable. No matter how much or how little money they had, no matter what school they attended, no matter which doors opened and closed for them in the maze of opportunities life afforded, boys would be boys.
“I said I was going to blow that one up.” Rath swung his pipe at Gary.
Gavain separated them. Forgetting who he was for a moment, they turned at him with a feral grimace. “Don’t hit me with that,” Gavain said in an unmistakable, no longer playing, tone. “F’real. I ain’t playing with you.”
The sternness of Gavain’s voice shocked them back to their senses. Rath slunk a short distance away, pouting, before contenting himself to shoot at more unsuspecting cars, unhindered by his distracted brother. The dreamy, distant stare – which so often filled Gary’s eyes – signaled him drifting into his imagination. Whatever thoughts occupied his mind in that moment would find their way back to his little stack of “his papers” at home. Not quite a journal, more like a collection of stories and day dreams that he chronicled, such as his comic strips with doodles in each corner that depicted two super-heroes fighting when he flipped the pages.
“‘Mother, may I go out to swim?’/‘Yes my darling daughter./Hang your clothes on an alder limb/And don’t go near the water.’” Gary sang, dragging the length of pipe behind him.
“You little bitch,” Rath chased after him, in his half stalking lope which indicated a mood to bully or get into mischief. He knew he was the tougher of the two. He hated the softness his brother had and hoped to toughen him up. It was either that or spend the bulk of his days as his brother’s shadow protector. Which, all told, he didn’t mind too much.
“Watch your mouth!” Gavain yelled.
The word spat at him with the venom of an ill-considered epithet. Gavain loved going to church, especially Sunday School. His class was small, so the teacher lavished extra attention on him; easy to do with an eager student. So at his instigation, the brothers often played church, building blanket cathedrals in the living room. Gavain recited his favorite Old Testament stories (Noah, Moses, Jonah) and led songs while his brothers Amen-ed and sang along, happy just to be playing any variation of forts with him. They all knew it would only be a matter of time before his friends claimed him and he spent his days running around with them instead of spending time with his little brothers. At nine, the called of the streets beckoned with its siren song.
“Momma used to sing that to me,” Gary said.
“Cause she thinks you’re a girl. She still tucks you in too,” Rath said. Gary lowered his head, with a splash of shame as if hit with too close a truth, obviously too sensitive to play insult games with Rath. He always took them too personally and hated the idea of hurting people for amusement.
“I know where we can go,” Gavain changed topics, speaking more under his breath than to anyone in particular.
“Shut up.” Gary had pretty much exhausted his comebacks in one shot.
“No, you shut up,” Rath retorted.
Gavain stage-sighed. “Forget it. I’m going without either of you. I don’t have time to baby sit, no how.”
It didn’t matter who said what, the apologies rang with the same cheery melody, a chorus of “Wait up, Gavain” and “Yeah, we’re sorry.” Whenever they turned on him, or even got too out of line, the simple threat of abandoning them was usually enough to straighten things out. Gavain reveled in the adulation that bordered on respect and the power that accompanied it. He smiled a wan, yet victorious, smile.
“Where we going?” Gary asked.
“To the lake,” Gavain said.
“But that’s so far.”
“We’re almost there already.” Gavain’s tone didn’t invite debate.
“Quit whinin’, you can’t come anyway. You too little,” Rath said.
“Momma said I could go with you,” Gary whispered.
Their momma’s parting words slowed Gavain’s steps. Look after your little brothers.
“Fine. C’mon then.”
The trio followed a trail known only to Gavain. This marked the first time he had taken them to his special spot. He retreated there to read, and think, be by himself, away from his brothers and the responsibilities of them. Though they only lived two miles from the park, Gavain had deemed his brothers too young to make the trip before; but now they walked along a creek bed, its low flow revealed slippery rocks under the late afternoon sun.
Across from the Indianapolis Colts training facility, Eagle Creek Park, a national reserve spread out in open invitation. A brief traipse through the woods allowed the boys to by-pass both the main gate (with its honor box: 50 cents for walk-in visitors to the park) and the ranger stations along the main roads (police, even wanna-be police, was still police). When they reached the old rusted-out fence, he knew that they neared their final destination. Long gashes, wounds of age and curious teenagers, marred the evenness of the links. Gavain pushed back the torn bit of fence barring their path. Flecks of rust painted his hand orange as he pushed through the low-lying branches occluding the dirt-worn and matted grass that served as their walkway.
His spot was a natural alcove of shore and trees, as if a giant mouth had taken a bite out of the park forest and backwashed sand. Dark sand, far from sun-bleached, lined the small inlet as waves lapped against it. The tree line dropped off sharply at the water, skeins of roots revealed by erosion. A tire on a rope hung in forlorn innocence from an old tree whose branches shaded a good chunk of their spot. Constructed to launch canoes before it dawned on the bureaucrats running the park to do so near the main beach and charge people for the privilege, the rickety boat launch bobbed on tires. Testing its mildewed boards, Gavain imagined himself walking the plank of a dilapidated pirate ship. The sun glinted from the water, its shards of light held Gary and Rath in rapt attention.
“You sure it’s alright to be here?” Gary asked in an almost awe-struck whisper. “We didn’t bring any clothes to swim in. Or towels.”
“Damn, fool. You know momma wouldn’t let us go swimming.” Rath said.
“Just swim in your underwear. It’ll dry out on the way home,” Gavain reassured him with a smile.
That was all the encouragement the boys needed, shucking their clothes over near the tree roots and running to the water’s edge. Warm gusts of wind blew towards them; tiny, lazy waves sloshed against the shoreline. The alcove lay around the bend from the main beach, like a forgotten part of the park, fenced off (or fenced in) to keep people from wandering off. With the occasional boat horn belching in the distance, he knew they weren’t alone. On such a beautiful picnicking day, the beach proper had to be crowded and all the shelters full.
However nary a sound drifted into their alcove.
A strong breeze rushed off the water. It was downright frigid in the shadows where Gavain watched the boys play. They wobbled on slick rocks, their arms flailing to steady their balance as they acted out king fu movies. Gavain already regretting letting them watch The Five Deadly Venoms
. Discarded in their frolic, the branches piled at the dock. He feared that he’d have to confiscate their improvised weapons, especially if it occurred to them to battle any unsuspecting underwater enemies. The last thing he wanted was some sort of light saber duel in the water. Their private hideaway did its job, enchanting the boys. It wasn’t often that they played near anything that wasn’t concrete or plastic. They had some relatives that owned a farm or something down in Jeffersonville, but they were their father’s side of the family. Momma never quite fit in with the family.
The innocuous chattering of the boys strained Gavain’s nerves, but only in a bemused-by-the-familiar sort of way. The boys beamed, amusing themselves, and that gave him time to read. He pulled a tattered copy of Danny Dunn and the Smallifying Machine
from his back pocket, surprised by how much he enjoyed the ludicrous series. There was a quaintness to them that he liked.
Then something at the back of his mind nagged him, an unscratched itch. He searched for a word to describe the feeling. The water mesmerized him. Breathing in the loamy smell of leaves, the stiffness of the breeze, he realized what the feeling was that he couldn’t shake. The weight of eyes followed his every movement. Someone watched him, exactly the way the little Korean beauty salon owners watched him when he bought stuff for momma. Someone on a rock down the beach, barely within sight; a body, light as bleached bark, nearly white in the furtive sun and slight of build, a woman perhaps, watched them.Making sure those children didn’t cause any trouble
, he thought. He’d been on alert for indignant park rangers, full of their authority, coming to scare them off. The possibility of a chase gave him a thrill to look forward to. Not that he expected anyone else to be here: it kind of ruined his illusion that only he knew about the place. The woman stole away into the trees.
“Hey, did you see her?” Gavain asked.
“See who?” The boys answered in unison. Sand somehow managed to dust both of their fresh faces though neither was even up to their knees in the water.
“The woman over by the trees. She was staring at us.”
“Probably a park ranger,” Gary turned from Rath as if the two of them had to caucus before deciding the proper response.
“Then why didn’t she come chase us?” Gavain asked.
“Probably one of those sun bathers then.”
“Was she naked?” Rath finally chimed in.
“Don’t listen to him. There probably wasn’t no woman. He just trying to scare us again.” Gary’s eyes widened in a tacit plea to not taunt them anymore.
“I wasn’t, but that does remind me of a story.” Gavain squatted over an overturned log, drawing in the sand with a twig, waiting for the boys to come over to him. They did, they always did. “You remember that nursery rhyme you were singing earlier, Gary? Do you know what it’s about?”
“No.” Gary searched for his own twig and began to draw in the sand.
“There was this old witch without a name but folks called the Lady of the Lake.”
“I don’t believe in witches,” Gary said, not quite looking into Gavain’s eyes.
“Do you want to hear this story or what? Anyway, you see there was a woman who lived by a lake much like this one. One day she goes out for a swim, but the water…” Gavain trailed off, making his voice sound haunted, for good effect, especially if he wanted to frighten the boys into caution around the water. “Water can be a powerful thing, scary, but they don’t make movies about it. It’s not something that puts on a mask and chases you through an old house. It’s deep. Strong. Mysterious. And things live in it. Things that scientists don’t know about or can’t explain. Maybe the Lady of the Lake got caught by one of those things. Maybe she became one of them. Maybe she was the mother of all of those creatures. All folks say is that she drowned, but every seven years, she comes back to claim a life, a life that should’ve been hers. Sort of a guilt offering. She comes for those who wander too close to the water’s edge, grabbing their ankles with those long arms of hers, and pulls them to her, draws them to her underwater kingdom. And you don’t want to see her in the water. Her skin is slightly blue and puffy from being drowned and all. She has long hair, greenish like it’s wrapped in seaweed or somethin’. And she greets them with a kiss, a kiss full of her long sharp teeth. She stares at you with those big dead eyes of hers. She couldn’t help herself. It was in her nature. They’re the last thing that you see before you take your last breath.
“BOO!” Gavain yelled and jumped suddenly.
The boys reared back and screamed before hitting each other and laughing.
“Bitch done wet hisself,” Rath said.
“Boy, I ain’t gonna tell you again.” Gavain tossed his stick at him. “Watch your mouth.”
The boys scrabbled off, unphased, splashing into the water.
“You comin’ in?” Gary turned and asked. Gary had a way of asking for things that sounded not only like a command, but as if his whole life depended on you giving into him.
“Yeah, in a minute,” Gavain lied. “Hey, if you can’t stand up and be above the water, you need to come back closer.” He didn’t want to have to get wet if he could help it. His brothers might have bought the idea of their clothes drying out on the walk home, but the idea of wet, bunched-up underwear rubbing against him for an hour didn’t appeal nearly as much to him as it did them. Visions of having to swim after one of the knuckleheads caused his fear of deep water to rear itself again. He wanted to spend more time in the water, but the shore was as close to the water’s edge as he dared go. He shielded his eyes with his hand to better study the deceptive calm of the flat surface of the water. Gary jumped into the water. Not used to the acoustics of the woods, Gavain thought he heard a second splash a little further away. It might’ve just been an echo. He scanned the periphery anyway.
The water exercised a strange fascination over him. He lost track of time, idling his minutes away, not really reading his book but only holding it in front of him while he studied the water. The splashes of his brothers grew faint. The book fell from his limp grasp. The lolling waves lapped against the sheltering embankment. The swishing sussurus made it easy to ignore the rising uneasiness that washed over him. The sobering shimmer of light, the dispassionate gaze of the deep, the sibilant call of the waves, held him in a spell that reached to an ancient, yet familiar part of his soul. The seaweed, like trees helplessly caught in a strong wind, unfurled, forming a chain that pointed toward the deeper part of the lake. The brown murkiness of kicked-up lake bottom swooshed about, as if something stirred to life. The water. A war waged within the waves, breaking the smoothness of the water.
That was when he noticed that Gary was in trouble.
Gary slapped at the surface, his head cocked up at an odd angle, as he fought the water rather than swam in it, spitting out mistakenly inhaled gulps of water. Rath was nowhere to be seen. Gavain clambered down the embankment, each bob of Gary’s head an eternity whenever it ducked under the waves. The drooping branches whipped at Gavain. He stumbled over an exposed tree root and fell face down into the wet sand. Lines of smallish footprints criss-crossed the dark sand. They could’ve been the boys’ footprints, but there were so many. Gavain stumbled to his feet and waded frantically into the water. Not a strong swimmer; he swam well enough to get where he wanted to go, but had no technique beyond his floundering variation of the dog paddle. His lungs burned as he took in gulps of water. He splashed about in near panic and tried to reach Gary who seemed only a few yards away from him. Frustrated tears stung his eyes. The water flowed thick and heavy, the painful rush of it towed against him like bottled-up rage. He strained against the water, but made little progress. The tide, too strong, swept them further out into the lake. Gavain thought that he glimpsed someone. A woman.
“Help them! Help them! They’re drowning!” he cried out.
Gavain swam across the sucking, parallel to the shore; it was all he knew to do, desperately fighting against the watery vacuum that threatened to yank him under. He scanned for any sign of his brothers. Gavain stretched out his arm, almost within reach of Gary’s outstretched hand. Gary’s face turned toward him, blanched and exhausted, like a boy who’d seen a ghost, but was too tired to run.
“Gary.” Gavain dug his arms into the water, his measured strokes like swimming through quicksand. He reached out toward him, spotting Gary’s terrified eyes, his body seized in some invisible, powerful grip. The water climbed higher along Gavain’s chest. The tug gnawed at him. He shivered, suddenly aware of how cold the water was; too cold for such a day. The water seemed so dark, murky. A cloud covered the sun and created deeper pockets of shadows beneath the waves. No, this shadow was small, heading towards him just out of reach.
Rath. Eyes bulged out, his face frozen in a rictus of panic.
Something scraped against Gavain with the bite of coral, like the sharp, thick nails of a large hand. The splashing ceased. Gavain searched for any sign, any shade, that could’ve been Gary. Nothing. The waves, its anger spent, subsided. Gavain imagined how his brothers spent their last moments. Their arms outstretched, fighting for air, their minds wondering where he was. Where was their big brother? He was supposed to look after them, protect them from bad things. Bad people. That was when he knew.
She had come for them, with her yellowed sinews, black blood pulsing through her veins. The Lady of the Lake, her belly bloated with the rage of the sea; head lolling from side to side, caught in its own current. He remembered something like hands brush against him. Like hands, but not hands.
He never forgot the hands.
Excerpted from King's Justice by Maurice Broaddus. Copyright © 2011 by Maurice Broaddus. Excerpted by permission of Angry Robot, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.