I fell in love with Addie Mills when I was sixteen and The House Without a Christmas Tree was CBS television's newest Christmas special. She reminded me a lot of myself at that age, except I dearly envied her chutzpah. She enjoyed vocabulary words and loved to draw, and was different than the run-of-the-mill kids. We both had older fathers who were sometimes gruff. My mom was just like Grandma, strict but understanding and loving. It always disappointed me that we didn't follow Addie any further than her first crush. In later years I realized Addie must have spent her childhood against the backdrop of homefront World War II, and I wondered how that had affected her. So this story was born. I hope Gail Rock doesn't mind me playing in her universe, especially as Addie is based on her own memories. I've tried to keep everything as true to the four Addie stories as possible. Evelyn and Benjamin Ladd and some of Addie's classmates and the townspeople are of my own creation. A big thanks to Emma for beta-reading this for me!
Linda M. Young
"I'm an artist now and I live and work in the city. On Halloween night in my apartment building, dozens of children dressed in costumes, most of them purchased at the dime store, come to my door with plastic pumpkin containers or pillowcase sacks and shout 'Trick or treat,' and I admire their costumes and give them each a piece of candy. Several of the costumes are always based on movies, and as a movie lover, I enjoy seeing which movie characters are the favorites that year. It's much different from when I was growing up in Clear River, Nebraska, in the 1940s. Halloween night was a night for parties where we bobbed for apples and told scary stories, and a night for pranks. Most of them were harmless, like soaping a window or moving a farmer's wagon elsewhere, or tying up a gate with an aggravating series of knots.
"But I remember one Halloween, the first after World War II, when I found out that the most innocent times of fun could still hurt a person, and that real life was much different from the movies I loved. It was a cold Halloween that year, after a sweltering summer at the end of a very long conflict..."
It was hot outside that summer afternoon and I really wished I were somewhere else...anywhere else except weeding Grandma's Victory garden. Despite being in just my overalls and a big floppy straw hat Grandma insisted I wear so as not to get sunstroke, I was broiling as I crawled along endless rows of radishes and carrots, plucking out weed after ugly weed. There were even more of them since the last time I'd weeded a few days ago. Weeds just grew like...weeds!
I was eight years old that summer, going to be nine in the fall, and ever since I could remember, we had been at war. It was only a couple of months after my fifth birthday when Mrs. Perkins had come running across the street in her housecoat and slippers and no coat even though there was a foot of snow on the ground to holler at Grandma to turn on the radio. I don't remember much about it except my Dad getting mad about being interrupted reading the Sunday newspaperand then getting really quiet as Grandma did what Mrs. Perkins asked and we found out about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I couldn't recall a lot when I was that age, but I do remember the scary and sad look on Dad's and Grandma's faces when they heard that a lot of men were probably dead. Next day I sat in Grandma's lap while we listened to President Roosevelt on the radio.
Clear River isn't a big townit's not even a stop on the railroad linebut all the young men of draft age volunteered. Soon it was natural to see service flags in windows and the grocer had a list in his window of Clear River boys serving overseas. It was a sad thing when you saw a blue star in a window turn to gold and a star added next to a name on the grocery store list, because it meant a Clear River boy had died in battle. All the kids at school collected scrap and we had contests to see who could knit the most socks or patches for a blanket, or collect the most scrap for the war effort. And of course like everyone else, Dad and Grandma planted a Victory garden. It was my job to help Grandma with the garden and making packages for the Red Cross and canning vegetables in a broiling hot kitchen on a summer day. I hated it all except for the scrap drive. I was a "tomboy," as Grandma put it, and I wanted to be doing something really useful in the war effort instead of tending a garden full of dumb vegetables.
My mother died soon after I was born, so I have never known any other mother but Grandma. She has always been whom I ran to for everything from a hug to treating a skinned knee. My Dad, her son, worked hard at his job running a crane at the gravel yard, but was never a kissing and hugging type. Sometimes I wished I could hug him like the other kids at school talking about hugging their dads, but that didn't happen very often. Dad was most often strict and very stern.
It was hard for Grandma to kneel down too much because of her arthritis, so as soon as I learned to tell the weeds from the real plants I was taught to help her in the garden. When it was cooler in early summer it wasn't so bad digging around in the dirt, because I could get as dirty as I liked. Usually I got scolded for getting so grubby at playing marbles or war with the other kids. But now in August it was hot and miserable.
Grandma always told me in situations like this I should think of the soldiers and so I tried to. The war had ended in Europe a couple of months ago, but we were still fighting the Japanese out in the Pacific and I tried to imagine what it was like for those poor soldiers and sailors out in a place where it was hot like this all the time. But at the same time I envied those men; they were doing something brave for their country. I wanted to be like the Army nurse in the movie I saw, grabbing a rifle and being out there firing a gun and killing Japs like the rest and nobly getting wounded, but surviving to get a medal.
The sweat trickling down my back was becoming itchy when I heard Grandma scream from inside the house. I didn't think a minute, just threw down my spade and ran into the house, dirty bare feet and all, to find Grandma crying in front of the radio and repeating "Glory be! Glory be!" Before she could say anything, the whistle from the gravel pit where Dad worked shrieked. It usually only sounded in the morning for start of work, at lunchtime, and at the end of the day.
The war was over! A few days ago American planes had dropped two new kind of bombs on Japanese cities; they were called atomic bombs and I didn't know then what was so special about them, but I heard they killed or hurt a lot of Japanese people. I guess the Japs didn't want any more people being killed, so they had surrendered.
Grandma didn't even scold me for my dirty feet, but instead joined hands with me and we danced in a circle like kids playing ring-a-rosy. That night we were listening to the radio again, but it was someone far away in New York telling us about the big celebrations in Times Square. We had a big celebration of our own: even Dad was smiling!
A few days later at breakfast I could see a big moving van out the window, stopping at the house next door. "Dad, Grandma, look!"
Dad barely looked up from his oatmeal. "Don't point, Addie."
"Your father's right, dear," Grandma said. "It's rude."
"Well, how are you supposed to know what direction to look?" I asked logically, then said, "There's a van next door at the Swenson house."
"Ain't the Swenson house anymore," Grandma answered. "Mrs. Perkins told me that someone new has bought it."
"Do they have any kids?" I was excited. I'd been without a best friend since Margaret McLeod and her family had moved away so her parents could work in a munitions plant. Maggie wrote me a few letters and then quit.
"No, Addie, I'm sorry." Grandma looked a bit sad. "It's a Miss Ladd and her brother."
"Oh." I settled back down and made a face at my oatmeal. Grandma insists we eat a good breakfast and makes hot oatmeal even when it sizzles in August. I told her we could probably get just as good food using corn flakes and she said that was nonsense. Dad put a stop to it anyway by saying cereal was too expensive.
"Ladd..." Dad looked thoughtful. "Is that Benjamin Ladd?"
"Yes," Grandma said, in a very short voice.
"Poor devil..." Dad began, then took one look at me and knew I'd ask a question about that and got up from the table to gather his things and leave for work.
I asked permission to leave the table after I finished the last spoonful of oatmeal and drank my milk. I'm tall for my age so I could see clearly out the glass window of the back door as big men in coveralls moved furniture into the house. It was all pretty old-fashioned furniture like we had in our own house, nothing very interesting. A couple of times through the windows I saw glimpses of a woman who would have been about the age of my friends' mothers, giving directions to the movers. Then I saw one of the moving men with a big easel, like painters use. I pressed my nose against the window and saw another man carrying what looked like a wooden case, the kind artists carry their paints and brushes in.
"Isn't polite to stare, either, Addie," Grandma admonished. "Come help me clear the table."
Even clearing the table I could hear the thumps and bumps of the furniture and the low voices of the moving men. Once there was a loud bump and someone said a swear word.
"Mercy!" Grandma said. I know she would have closed the windows if it wasn't so hot.
As I brought her the last plate and glass I asked, "Who's Benjamin Ladd and why is he a poor devil?"
"He's..." Grandma looked undecided at what to tell me. She and Dad didn't believe in hiding the harsher realities of life from me, but Grandma tended to pad what she said to soften things, or put a bright front on. I could see now she looked very unhappy.
"Let me finish up here, Addie," she said, and I was very good until she cleaned the last speck from the counter and realized I had not forgotten what I asked.
"The Ladds used to live here in Clear River," she said finally, sitting next to me at the table. "Evelyn Ladd was a year younger than your dad. He knew her from school. They used to have a big farm on the other side of town. After high school Evelyn Ladd went off to college in Omaha. The family had a run of bad luck on the farm and her dad finally sold up and moved to Fremont, where he worked in a store."
She paused and I waited, then finally asked, "But her brother..."
"Ben was like you, Addie. He loved to draw and paint. After the Ladds moved to Fremont, we still heard about them. When Ben got to be college age, he went to art school in Chicago."
"Wow!" I didn't know what else to say. I have always been good in school, especially in English, but I also have loved to draw and paint since I was old enough to pick up a Crayola crayon. Just lately I decided that's what I wanted to be when I grew up, a painter.
Did Ben Ladd become an artist? I asked Grandma that question.
"He became a commercial artist," she told me and I wrinkled my nose. Commercial art is the stuff you see in magazines and the newspaper. It wasn't really art like I thought of artgreat paintings in art galleries.
"Don't be such a snob," Grandma laughed. "Ben was an excellent commercial artist. He worked with magazines like Liberty and The Saturday Evening Post. In fact, you admired one of his illustrations once."
"Don't you remember that beautiful picture of Columbia that appeared in Liberty a few years ago? You found it in a magazine you collected for the paper drive."
Oh, my gosh. I did remember, because it had been so beautiful, the way he set Columbia overlooking the United States, and the colors he used. It was in an ad for War Bonds. I had wanted to pull it out of the magazine, but Tanya Smithers and Jerry Walsh had made me feel guilty about not donating every scrap of paper to the drive and I had given it up.
"Wow," I said again.
"I'm prattling on like a magpie. Ben went to war, like all the rest. He went to Germany and was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp, but he managed to escape."
By now I was staring at her with my mouth open. This was just like the movies, with the brave hero escaping the Nazis and overcoming death and everything to get back to his unit. Grandma and I love the movies, especially Westerns, and we had seen a couple of war films about brave prisoners of war. A hero and an artist at the same time!
"I know what you're going to ask me next, and it's no," Grandma said before I could open my mouth. "I don't want you going next door and bothering Ben Ladd. He's been through a lot and his sister brought him here to Clear River for some peace and quiet. There's going to be enough gossip in this town about him to float a river when what they really need is to be left alone."
Grandma almost never spoke that sharply to me and I was surprised and a little hurt.
"Can't I even say hi?" I finally managed.
"If they say hello to you, yes. Otherwise, please give them their privacy." Grandma's eyes softened a little and she put a hand on my shoulder. "It's hard to explain to someone your age, Addie."
I would have spent the rest of the morning watching the Ladds move in, hoping to see Benjamin Ladd, but Grandma set me to dusting the living room and the bedroom we shared and by the time I got done, the house was shut up and the movers gone.
* * *
"Well, I think it's just rude," was the first thing I heard when I opened the front door. "All I tried to do was drop off a covered dish and welcome the family back to Clear River."
I had seen Mrs. Smithers' car parked near our back door and was avoiding meeting her. Caroline Smithers was the mother of Tanya Smithers, my worst friend in what would now be fourth grade. Clear River was so small that I'd been in school and friends with all these kids all my life. Some of them were nice, like Gloria Cott and Billy Wild. Then there was Tanya. Her dad owned the gravel pit where my dad worked and Tanya was always putting on airs. She always had new dresses and Mrs. Smithers never walked anywhere. Even back when there was gas rationing Mr. Smithers somehow managed to get extra gasolinelots of the neighbors whispered about the black market, where people got new tires and gas and even extra meat illegally, but Dad said it was just because "old Smithers" knew someone at the Ration Board.
I always tried to disappear when Mrs. Smithers came to visit, especially if Tanya was with her, because then I'd have to entertain her.
I guessed some of the neighbor ladies had come over for coffee with Grandma because I could hear the clinking of cups and then Grandma asking someone if they wanted another cookie. I didn't dare get any closer to the doorway, so just hid against the door to our room and eavesdropped, just like Nancy Drew.
"I think Evelyn will be more amenable to company when she settles in a little," I heard Mrs. Coyne say diplomatically. Mrs. Coyne runs the local restaurant, the Dew Drop Inn, and is really nice. Sometimes if we kids go by the restaurant after school she will bring out leftover doughnuts or pie.
"I was so surprised when I heard they were moving in," said a fourth voice, which I recognized as Gloria Cott's mother. Mrs. Cott is nice, too. The Cotts are as poor as church mice, or so Grandma says, and Mr. Cott works two jobs to support Gloria and her mom and all her brothers and sisters (there are seven Cotts in all!). Grandma is always working up some excuse to send cookies or cakes to the Cotts and I knew she would load up Gloria's mother with the rest of the cookies when she left. "I thought Ben was still in the hospital."
"I heard," and Mrs. Smithers lowered her voice, "that he was released around VE Day, but Evelyn Ladd couldn't keep him at home. I heard there was something wrong with his head. I can't say I like the idea of having a lunatic in town."
Grandma thumped her chair when she sat down. I knew that meant she was angry, but she wouldn't let Mrs. Smithers know that. She said just in the same tone of voice that she used when she passed out the cookies, "Oh, now that's nonsense. There's nothing wrong with Ben Ladd. It's just nerves. Shell shock, they called it in the last war."
I felt a thrill go through me. I'd seen a movie just last spring about a man who came home from the war with shell shock. He was all pale and stayed in bed for a while, and some men had called him a coward. But then the beautiful girl he loved had needed rescuing and he had conquered his shell shock and gone to save her. The love junk was pretty goopy, but the rescue scene had been so exciting. All in all, I preferred Roy Rogers.
I swear Grandma can hear me breathe. "Addie, is that you?"
Of course they quit talking about the Ladds immediately.
But I got lucky. Tanya wasn't with her momshe had another of her ballet lessons, which she bragged endlessly aboutand I even got a cookie out of it.
Later, after the ladies had left and I had helped Grandma tidy up the kitchen, I heard the thump of the newspaper against the front door. I ran to get it so I could read the funnies before anyone else and then put the paper carefully back on Dad's chair, folded neatly. Dad hated it when the paper was messed up.
As I was turning to the back page, my eye fell on the "About Town" column. Mostly this was a bunch of boring articles about meetings of the Ladies' Flower Club or the latest work of the Methodist Woman's Society, but my eyes about fell out of my head when I saw the following:
WAR HERO RETURNS TO CLEAR RIVER
We at the Clear River Herald would like to welcome Miss Evelyn Ladd and her brother, the former Sergeant Benjamin Ladd, back to our fair city. The Ladd family, former Clear River residents, left for greener pastures in 1930, after the Platte National Bank failure.
Mr. Benjamin Ladd served in the Armed Forces for two years, signing up the day after Pearl Harbor. He trained at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and was stationed in occupied France. In 1943, his platoon was attacked by a contingent of German troops. Mr. Ladd was the first to give the alarm and because of his quick response, the majority of his platoon escaped alive. He, however, was captured by the Nazi troops due to his refusal to leave an injured comrade behind, and incarcerated in a prisoner-of-war camp for six months before he joined five other men in tunnelling to safety and escape.
For his heroism in the face of the enemy, Mr. Ladd was awarded the Bronze Star...
There was more in the article about Miss Ladd and her background, but I barely paid attention. A war hero who'd also won a medal! I hoped I would get to meet Mr. Ladd someday. What would it be like, I wondered, to speak to a tall, handsome war hero, just like someone in the movies?
* * *
"Grandma, may I have that?" I asked, pointing to one of the pieces of fat she had trimmed off the pot roast that was cooking for supper.
She smiled without looking up. "For your project?"
"No," I said with a straight face, "I'm going to eat it."
Now she laughed and I took the piece of fat outside.
I had been working on a project all this summer. In the spring Mrs. Perkins had taken in a stray dog. He was small, mostly brown, with sharp ears like Rin-Tin-Tin and a face like Asta in the Thin Man movies that Grandma liked. Because he was brown, Mrs. Perkins called him "Rusty." She thought someone had hurt him, because when she first found him he would run under the porch when she came out to feed him. Finally he was comfortable with Mrs. Perkins, but he wouldn't come near anyone else.
I liked dogs, but Dad wouldn't allow me to have one. He said I would probably take care of it a couple of weeks then leave all the feeding and other things to Grandma. He said she had enough to do without looking after a dog. Besides, he said, they were noisy and had fleas. I didn't get too upset about it. What I really wanted was a horse, but I had about as much chance of getting one as becoming President of the United States.
But I was determined to make friends with Rusty, and so far what I was doingbringing him extra fat now that Grandma didn't have to save it for the war (before I brought him leftovers even we wouldn't eat)was working. Rusty had gone from cowering under the porch to coming out of Mrs. Perkins' yard to meet me when I had something to eat. Then he allowed me to pet him and he would follow me for a little while before something would scare him and he'd run for home. But now he seemed to be cured for good and followed me most of the time.
We walked together today, past the Ladds' house, and I stopped on the corner of their property to give him the piece of fat. He gobbled it up and then stared at me as if hoping for more.
"That's a nice dog you have," someone said in a low voice behind me.
I turned around slowly because even now sometimes when a person approached him, especially a man, Rusty would whine and make like he wanted to run home. But instead he had stopped with me and was timidly looking at the man who was standing at the end of the sidewalk of the Ladd house. He was very thin, about Dad's height, but had a nice face with sad, pale blue eyes and a long thin nose. He looked younger than Dad, but older, too, and his light brown hair was already turning gray at the temples. Was this Mr. Ladd? I was a little disappointed. He didn't look anything like Errol Flynn or the other handsome actors who played war heroes in the movies.
"He isn't mine," I answered.
The man squatted down and put out a thin hand to pet Rusty. I was sure Rusty would stand his ground, but when the man's hand got too close he turned and fled for home.
"I'm sorry. He's kind of scared. You see, he's scared of people-" And without thinking I started telling him about Mrs. Perkins and my making friends with Rusty. When I got done he was smiling.
"That is a nice thing to do," he said.
Dad and Grandma always say I'm impulsive, which I guess I am because the next thing I knew I was asking him if he was Benjamin Ladd. He gave me an almost scared look and said he was.
"I'm Addie Mills," I said politely, offering him my hand like Grandma had taught me. "We're neighbors. I live next door."
His hand was clammy when I shook it and I tried to rub the sweat off without him noticing as he said, "Pleased to meet you, Addie. I'm Benjamin Ladd."
I was dying to ask him about the war and escaping from the Nazis but for once I remembered Grandma's face, so instead I blurted out, "I've seen your artwork. I think it's nifty!"
That made him smile. "Thank you, but I've really only been a vendor of alphabet soup and hardware! I hoped to be Monet!"
"Oh, but I bet you can be, now that the war is over," I said eagerly. "I loved your Columbia! It was so beautiful. I wanted to keep a copy, but I gave it to the paper drive."
"We all had to make sacrifices in war," he said.
In the distance, the whistle at the gravel plant shrieked. I turned my head to listen and said "That means my dad will be home soon. Good! I'm star-"
I broke off in mid-word because I had turned back to him. I never saw a person so white before.
"Mr. Ladd? Are you okay?" I could see he was staring in the direction of the whistle. "That's from the gravel pit, Mr. Ladd. It's quitting time. My dad will be coming home and-"
He just turned and left. He wasn't running, but it was a fast, fast walk. And I could tell he was scared. It made me shiver.
* * *
We had finished dinner. I was very careful to eat everything on my plate, keep my elbows off the table, and not do anything of the dozen other forbidden things that would make Dad annoyed at me because I wanted to ask him a question and he never answered if he was annoyed at me. So while Grandma was getting a freshly-baked apple pie from the pie safe I asked, very respectfully and carefully, "Dad, what's shell shock?"
He looked at me, startled. "What?"
"Shell shock. You and Grandma mentioned it the other night at dinner. What is it?"
"Why do you want to know?" he asked suspiciously.
"So I can learn things," I answered. "You always say that to learn things I have to ask questions. So I'm asking you."
Dad had to quit high school to go to work when he was a boy and he always insists I do well in school. So I used Dad's own logic against him and he gave me "that look." Grandma raised her eyebrows as she set the pie on the table, but she was keeping out of this one.
Dad finally said, reluctantly, "It's something that happens to soldiers." I could see he wasn't comfortable talking about it, and I knew it was partially because he wasn't allowed to join the Army in the first World War because he had flat feet. It embarrassed him.
"Like getting shot?" I persisted. "Does the soldier get hit by a shell to get shell shock?"
Finally he said roughly, "Nah, that's just the name for it. There's a lot of noise in wars, artillerycannons, big guns, rifles, grenadesgoing off again and again. Like fireworks, banging all the time, night and day. The noise...the people dying near you...it gets to some people. I had a buddy who served at the Somme. That was a battle in the last war. He told me about it. Blood, dirt, ra-"
"James!" Grandma warned.
"...things you shouldn't hear about. He wasn't the same afterwards. Couldn't stand guns. We used to go hunting before he went over, but he shook when he got home, even just seeing a shotgun. Couldn't workif the foreman criticized him he cursed and walked out. He finally had to go away."
"To a hospital?" I asked, staring at him. "Like a mental hospital?"
"Yeah." Dad stabbed his pie with his fork.
"Did he...did he scream and yell and stuff?"
Now Dad was glaring at me. "Where did you get that from?"
I said very smally, "I saw it in a movie."
"If that's the kind of movies you're seeing," he scowled, "I don't want you going anymore."
"I didn't go to see that one," I admitted honestly. "It was on the bill with Bells of Rosarita with Roy Rogers."
Dad muttered something about the movies they were allowing kids to see, then went back to his pie, but I persisted.
"Well, did he?"
"Eat your pie, Addie," Grandma said hastily.
"No." Dad put his fork down and was staring off at the opposite wall. "One day I had to go to the feed and seed, pick up something for Dad." He meant my grandpa, who had died before I was born. "Pete was there, doing some errand, and George Walsh, too, and some gossipy old biddy whose name I can't remember. There was a storm coming up out of the west and it had gotten dark outside, clouds were really low. All of a sudden there was an almighty clap of thunder and the power flickered and went out. The old lady let out a scream and Pete dived down to the floor. Old Man Hartwell was getting George a bag of feed and dropped it. I remember it broke open and made a hell of a mess, but he just made a joke about the noise and the rest of us laughed, and then we noticed Pete wasn't laughing. He wasn't even getting up. Instead he was sitting crouched up with his arms over his head. Well, everyone in town knew about the shell shock, so Hartwell says, "'It's okay, Pete, it's just thunder.'
"Pete didn't answer him for a minute, then he started talking funny. He called Old Man Hartwell 'Sarge,' and talking about cannonades and sappers and a whole bunch of nonsense."
"Whadja do, Dad?" I asked. I was remembering Mr. Ladd's reaction to the whistle.
"Finally I just pretended I was one of his war buddies," Dad recalled. "He said, 'Is that you, Corporal Groves?' and I just played along and so did George Walsh. We told him the sergeant wanted to see him and led him along home. Then the old lady yapped all over town about it. Pretty soon after that he went away."
He stared at the wall for a few more minutes, then recalled where he was and glared at me, furious. "Why on earth did you make me drag out all that old stuff for? Eat your dessert and get to bed!"
And he pushed his pie away and stalked upstairs to his room. I'd done it again.
* * *
Before I knew it, it was school time again. Grandma took me in town to Hasler's Dry Goods and bought me new underwear. It would have been embarrassing had not almost every other kid in town and his mom been there, too. Tanya Smithers gave me this snooty superior look when I noticed her mom was buying fancy underthings with lace edgings on them. I didn't care anyway; I hated lace and girly things.
Grandma bought me a new dress that year. I was "growing like a weed," she had argued to Dad, who was pretty tightfisted, and I needed a nice school dress. She made a lot of my clothes herself but she always liked me to have one store-bought thing so that some of the other girlslike Tanya, of coursewouldn't make fun of me. She chose a nice cherry-red corderoy jumper with black tape trim and big patch pockets, which was nifty as far as I was concerned: at least I would have a pocket for marbles and anything else I wanted to carry.
I'd been in school with the same kids since kindergarten, so nothing much was a surprise that first day in September. We were in a different classroom, the fourth grade classroom, that had different pictures on the wall, and the flag on the right instead of on the left. Fourth graders always got Miss Hazeltine, who was an older woman who used a lorgnette (those are glasses you don't wear on your nose but hold up to your eyes with a handle). The boys called her "Miss Ovaltine" behind her back and you could kind of see why, since she was pretty much brown all over, brown hair turning grey and clothes mostly in shades of brown, just like the drink.
Gloria and a couple of the other girls and I were talking about our math lesson at recess when Jerry Walsh came swaggering over with a couple of the other boys behind him, including Billy Wild. Billy lives near the edge of town and he has a horse, a major point of envy on my part.
"So what's it like living next to a mental guy, Addie?" Jerry asked.
I rolled my eyes at him. "What are you talking about?"
"The mental guy. Mr. Ladd. My dad says he was in a hospital for crazy people."
"Wow," said Amy next to me. "Is that true, Addie?"
"My dad says he has shell shock. It's something a lot of soldiers get. It's from the noise of the guns and the bombs." I paused. "It doesn't mean you're crazy."
"Oh, yeah?" Jerry pushed himself closer to me.
I put my hands on my hips, glaring at him. "Yeah."
"Addie lives near a crazy man, Addie lives near a crazy man!" he chanted.
I had no idea why I was even sticking up for Mr. Ladd; maybe it was just because he had been an artist. Or maybe it was just because of how nice he had been and how scared the whistle had made him. I shoved my face right into Jerry's. "He is not crazy. And if I hear you say that again, I'll punch you in the nose."
It occurred to me just then that not even Grandma would forgive me if I got in a fight with my new jumper on, so it was lucky that the bell rang. Jerry just made another face at me and we went back inside.
* * *
Right after I got done with my chores on Saturday Grandma shooed me out of the house. The weather was beautiful, she said, and I should be out getting fresh air or else I would get rickets. I had no idea how I would get rickets with all the oatmeal and milk she made me drink, but I did as she said, even though I really wanted to sit and read the new Hardy Boys book that June had loaned me (it was her brother's, so I had to read it fast before he noticed it was missing).
Instead I took my drawing pad and a pencil outside. I knew if I wanted to become an artist I should be drawing things, so I thought I might walk down to Haskell's barn and see if any of the horses were in the paddock.
Then I saw that an easel had been set up in the back yard of the Ladds' house, with a kitchen chair next to it and what looked like a palette on the chair. I couldn't see the front of the painting from where I was, so I walked kinda quietly around to where I could. Something was pencilled in lightly and I couldn't make it out.
"Good afternoon, Addie," said a voice and I jumped. It was Mr. Ladd in the doorway. He had some brushes in his hand and a cup of water, just like me when I pulled out my watercolors. "Is that a drawing pad?"
I put my head down. I wasn't usually shy, but here I was talking to a published artist, even if it was only magazine illustrations. "Yes. I was looking for something to draw."
When I looked up he was looking at me steadily and looked so friendly that all of a sudden I blurted out my desire to be an artist when I grew up. Of course I had talked to Grandma about it, but it wasn't the same as telling someone who worked as an artist. I wondered if he would laugh, but he only said seriously, "It's nice to meet a kindred spirit."
"What is it you're working on?" I asked, craning my neck to see his canvas.
"'Working' is a bit of an overstatement," he said with a tiny smile. "I haven't...worked on anything in a long time."
"I guess they didn't let you draw while you were...in prison," I said timidly, remembering Dad's story and not knowing how he would react.
To my surprise, he did smile then. "Oh, I managed to draw. Any piece of paper, any pencil or pensometimes even sticks burnt in the fire. I used to draw a little animal mascot for the guys in my platoon."
He looked embarrassed. "It was just a little dog character. Kinda looked like your friend there who ran away."
I said confidently, "He won't run away from you soon. You'll be friends with him in no time."
Mr. Ladd finally took pity on my strained neck and asked me if I wanted to see what he was working on. I was disappointed to find out he was only painting one of the old trees a little ways down the street. Then he started pointing out to me all the things about the tree that appealed to him: the gnarled bark, the peculiar knot of branches halfway up the trunk, the way the leaves were slowly changing from summer green to autumn yellow. Eventually I sat down cross-legged on the grass next to him and tried to sketch the tree while he worked on his painting. Neither of us spoke and we worked over an hour before Miss Ladd came outside to tell her brother it was time for lunch. They both liked my tree drawing and Mr. Ladd said I had real talent.
I hoped that I would see him outside painting again the next day, or the day after, but he and his sister were away for the rest of the week. I heard Grandma tell Dad that they had gone to Omaha to see a doctor. I wondered if this meant Mr. Ladd was getting better or getting worse. I didn't want to ask.
It wasn't until the beginning of October that I saw the easel outside again. The leaves were turning color in earnest now and dropping from the trees and when Dad wasn't in earshot I would scuffle through the leaves and make them crunch. It was an Indian summer type day and I didn't even need a jacket. I was done with homework and chores, so I approached the gate. He was still working on the painting of the tree, or at least I thought he was. It looked more like he was just staring off into space. I pretended to clear my throat and he jumped, then smiled and asked me inside the yard. I remembered what Grandma had said, about not reminding him of the war, and starting talking about art, but after a while he started telling me about the war anyway.
It was funny, but he didn't have any scary stories. I was dying to hear how he had gotten away from the Nazis and his narrow escapes. In the days since I saw him for the first time, I had begun building a story about him in my head, one like the man in the movie I had seen. But the only story he mentioned about being on the run from the Germans was that he had found a little fawn huddled near what was left of a tree. He was cold and hungry and he just sat there and held that little fawn. But finally its mother started bleating for it and he had to let it go.
Most of what he talked about was the prisoner-of-war camp and how he drew cartoons to make the other men laugh, but none of the drawings survived but were burnt in the stove, partially to keep warm and partially because the Nazis would have punished them if they saw the cartoons.
As we sat there, me pretending to draw, and him with a brush in his hand, we both heard Rusty's funny little bark. To my surprise, he was standing at the gate. I got up to let him in, and, after running back on the sidewalk a couple of times, while we both coaxed him, he followed me into the yard.
Mr. Ladd extended a thin hand and Rusty cringed. And then he spoke in the softest voice I ever heard a man use. It was not much louder than a whisper.
"It's all right. Come to me." He repeated those words a few more times, and step by step, Rusty came closer to him. I dropped my jaw, but made no sound.
"We're a lot alike, aren't we, boy?" Mr. Ladd said. "Two lost souls."
I didn't understand. Mr. Ladd wasn't lost; he had a home like me, and a sister who loved him. But Rusty must have understood, because he finally moved, tail between his legs, next to Mr. Ladd's side and let him pet his head. It was amazing.
And it might have lasted had not Mr. Rhenquist driven by.
Almost nobody in Clear River had much money, except for the Smithers and a couple of other families. Folks thought it was more important to buy good farm machinery than cars, and of course there were no cars built during the war. So most of the cars in town were old, but none as old as Old Man Rhenquist's. I had never met him because he lived on a farm way on the other side of Clear River, but I'd seen his jalopy some. It was old and worn out even by Clear River standards, and when he drove into town for groceries or when he came to the feed store, you always knew it because of the rattling and banging.
Today as it rounded the corner, it backfired.
Rusty yelped, then fled with his tail between his legs. I jumped up, knocking my drawing pad and pencil to the ground, starting to run after him. Then Mr. Ladd cried out and I whirled back to look at him. He had thrown himself on the ground with his hands over his head, and he was saying "Don't shoot! Schießen Sie mich nicht! Bitte!"
I was frozen with fear for a moment, then I went to his side and tried to talk to him. "Mr. Ladd, it's me, Addie. I won't hurt you. I promise. Mr. Ladd, I won't shoot you..."
Miss Ladd was home and now she came rushing out, her hands still wet with dishwater and with her apron on. "I heard the backfire...I hoped...Ben, oh, Ben!" She knelt by his side, petting his head and talking to him like I talked to Rusty at first, soft and soothing, while he cried and begged not to be shot. After he was a little quieter, she looked up at me, her face tear-streaked and red, and said gently, "You had better go home, Addie. He won't be outside again for a few days. This...incapacitates him for a little while." She smiled faintly at me. "He's getting better, really he is. When he first came home it would take weeks for him to get over a loud sound like that."
"Okay," I whispered, picking up my drawing pad and pencil, leaving them alone.
* * *
At recess on Monday, I was with Amy and Gloria when we saw a group of kids huddled together at the far end of the playground. I saw a couple of fifth grade boys and Billy Wild on the edge of the group.
"Come on," I said, "let's see what they're up to."
"Addie, those are sixth graders!" Amy said. "They won't like us hanging around."
I tossed my head. I was in a bad temper anyway because Miss Hazeltine had scolded me twice for being out of my seat. I had to get up because I couldn't make out what she had written on the blackboard. It wasn't my fault her handwriting was so hard to understand! "Don't be such a dodo. I'm not scared. And Billy's there."
"But he's a boy!" Gloria protested.
"So what? Girls are just as good as boys."
As we got closer we could hear Penny Blair talking. You couldn't miss her voice because she had just moved to Clear River from Chicago and she sounded funny. Grandma had told me her parents had moved them back to the family farm to keep Penny and her brothers away from gangs. That was funny because we had gangs of kids in Clear River, but nobody thought they were bad. I guess it's different in Chicago. Someday I want to visit there, to see the art museums, but after I see Paris and New York City.
Anthony Wild spoke up just as she finished. "You mean that's it? That's baby stuff!"
Penny said hotly, "It is not baby stuff."
We had reached Billy Wild and I whispered to him, "What's everyone talking about?"
"Something called trick or treat," he whispered back.
His older brother was laughing at Penny. "So you ring folks' doorbells and they give you taffy and popcorn balls for free?"
"That's right," Penny said proudly. "I guess they don't do stuff like that in little hick towns like Clear River."
Bob Olson spoke up then and everyone listened to him because Bob is nearly as tall as my dad and older than everyone because he stayed back twice. Bob can work side by side with his dad plowing the best furrows in Nebraska, but he hasn't mastered fractions yet so they won't let him go on to seventh grade. "I've never heard anything so stupid. Who's gonna give out free candy to kids? We have a lot better time than that."
"Yeah, so what do you do?" Penny asked. She was a big heavyset girl and when she put her hands on her hips I knew I wouldn't like to tangle with her.
"We just go around," Jerry Walsh's older brother Will spoke up. "We hide people's stuff."
"Yeah, last year a bunch of the eighth graders put Mr. Nordstrom's wagon on top of his barn," another sixth grader put in.
"We tied Old Man Rhenquist's gates shut. Boy, was he mad!" chimed in someone else.
"And then there's the party that old lady Smithers always throws," Anthony added, "and the bonfire."
"Yeah, we gotta start getting ready for the bonfire!" chimed in someone else and everyone forgot about the trick or treat thing.
I kind of hung back listening because I was wondering if this year I would be allowed to go the bonfire alone and out with the kids pulling pranks. Last year and the year before the bonfire was small, although it looked huge to me, because we were saving scrap for the war. But this year we didn't have to save anything and I was thinking of how big the fire would be.
So that night at supper I broached the subject. Grandma had taken me to the bonfire the previous two years, but my ninth birthday would be pretty soon. Even Gloria Cott's little brothers and sisters got to go out on Halloween night by the time they were seven and eight.
I braced myself for Dad's immediate "No!" and was a little surprised when he looked up at me hard and actually thought a minute before answering. "I don't know, Addie. You're still pretty young. I don't think so."
Grandma said mildly, "Land's sake, James. You were going out pranking on Halloween when you were seven."
He flicked an irritated glance at her as he put his fork down and lit a cigarette. "I was with Carl, if you remember." Carl was my uncle who had died of the Spanish influenza a long time ago.
"And Addie will be with her friends. She's invited to the Smithers' Halloween party anyway. No harm in her going out a little early with the other children."
I held very still as Dad looked at me again. "You won't do anything I'll have to pay and apologize for?"
"Like the night you and your brother put Mr. Haskell's wagon on top of his barn?" Grandma asked with a twinkle in her eyes.
He glared at her. "Mother, you're not making this any better."
"I won't, Dad!" I spoke up hastily, in a rush to get all the right words out in the right order. "I was going to help pick up wood for the bonfire, but I won't even do that if you don't want me to. I promise. Cross my heart. King's X!" and I made a big cross on the front of my blouse. I even prepared to spit in my hand to take an oath and Dad harrumphed and said that was enough and Grandma looked scandalized and I tried to eat the rest of my dinner, but most of it wouldn't go down because I was so excited.
On the way to school next day I looked hard at the Ladds' house, but not a curtain moved. I hadn't seen Mr. Ladd since he got so spooked by the backfire. Sometimes Miss Ladd would say hello to me, but I just said hi back. Grandma said it wouldn't be polite to ask when he might come outside again, so I didn't.
* * *
Halloween was on a Wednesday and I spent all weekend with Grandma working up a costume. It wasn't like there was any surprise; everyone usually just dressed up in old clothes, but Grandma was so handy turning old clothes into something else, like an apron or a bib for neighbors with new babies or a quilt, that it was actually hard to find old clothes in our house. Grandma found an old hat of Grandpa's and an old blouse of hers with a pattern that had run when she bleached it and a pair of overalls I had pretty much grown too tall for. Then I put on some of Dad's old argyle socks to cover my legs. I couldn't wear really old shoes though, like some of the kids were talking about. Since Dad got turned down for the Army on account of his feet I always had to wear sturdy Oxfords. But I could wear my last year's school shoes that I used for playingthey were pretty scuffed, and I ran around in the yard and got dirt in the creases to make them look worse.
We had a Halloween party at school that afternoon, mostly baby stuff like pin the tail on the donkey, but they gave away popcorn balls and homemade taffy. So when time came for supper I wasn't hungry and in a fever to get dressed. This put Dad in a bad temper and it didn't help when I asked Grandma for one of her old stockings.
"What do you want that for?" he asked.
"To put ashes in," I said. All the kids did it. You put cold ashes from the stove in an old stocking and hit each other. Everyone came home covered in soot. It was fun.
"Nope." He said, going back to his newspaper. "Bad enough you're going to wander around town looking like a tramp. I don't want you to come back in here trailing soot for your Grandmother to clean up."
"But Dad..." Grandma put her hand on my arm and I shut up.
I put up another fight when I got dressed and I lost that one, too. The temperature was supposed to drop into the 30s that night and Grandma insisted I put on long underwear. I looked like a stick in my red "Union suit" and I hated the drop seat. If I had to wear long underwear against the Nebraska cold, I at least wanted to wear two-piece cotton underwear I could go to the bathroom in without embarrassing myself. But Grandma swore by one-piece red wool suits and I was stuck in it.
"How do I look, Dad?" I said a few minutes later as I presented myself before him.
He put down the paper and looked at me, then grunted, "Okay, I guess." I nodded, then he added, "You behave yourself, you hear? I don't want to hear about your destroying anything."
"No, Dad," I said in a little voice.
"Okay," and he went back to his paper. I was hoping he would kiss me goodbye, or say something else about my outfit, but he didn't. I gave a sigh and went on the front porch where Grandma was waiting. She closed the door behind her, which surprised me, because it really was cold and I figured I probably would appreciate the long underwear, even though I wouldn't admit it in a hundred years.
"Shhh," she said, and handed me two things, a patched stocking filled with ashes and a nickel Halloween noisemaker from the dime store. I started to spin it, but she stopped me, then gave me a kiss. "You skedaddle. Be careful, don't go near the edge of town, and remember when the town clock strikes seven you're to go to the Smithers. I will be there to pick you up at nine."
"Yes, Grandma," I said happily and ran off with my stocking scattering soot; when I was a block from our house I started spinning the noisemaker for all it was worth. Grandma had gotten a really nifty one, with a scary witch face on it and so loud it sounded like the tommy guns on the Gangbusters radio show, and I resolved to help her with the dishes for the rest of the week with no arguments.
Almost immediately I ran into Amy and the Walsh brothers and the Cotts. Everyone was dressed in old clothes, except for Will Walsh. He was wearing an Army uniform!
"It's my brother's," he bragged. "He said he's never ever gonna wear it again, so I could."
"And look what else he's got," Jerry added. He had a clown wig on with his old clothes, which was appropriate as far as I'm concerned since he's such a clown.
At that Will brandished a big rifle. Everyone stopped talking and stared.
"Is that a real gun?" one of Gloria's little brothers whispered finally.
"Yeah, it's from a Nazi!" Will said. "My brother got it off a Nazi and he said I could carry it."
"It doesn't have bullets in it, does it?" I asked, a little scared.
"No, you dope." Will looked scornful. "Not real ones, anyway. Fake bullets called blanks. You don't carry real bullets unless you're going hunting. It's not safe."
Gloria's little brother Melvin said, "Shoot it off!" and Jerry chimed in, but Will shook his head. "My Dad's over tending the bonfire. He said I could shoot up in the air when we got the bonfire lit, but if I tried it anywhere else he'd tan me. I don't want any whipping just 'cause you can't wait."
"Then let's go see how the bonfire's coming," Jerry urged, disappointed.
Most of the action was two more blocks away, in downtown Clear River. There was a war memorial from the last world war in the center of town, with a big bronze cannon. Behind it was grass and that's where the kids were gathering wood for the bonfire. Before I even got there other kids started smacking me with their soot-filled stockings and I stuck the noisemaker in my pocket and hit back and soon black ashes were flying under the streetlamps and we were covered in soot and shrieking with laughter.
Some of the big boys and a few men were still dragging old tree branches and fence rails to the pile. It was huge, way over my head and even taller than the mouth of the cannon. Most of what was in it were pruned branches from trees and bushes, rotten fence rails, and old fence posts, but I saw some broken chairs, a stool, a bashed up table, and other things jumbled up there as well.
The volunteer fire department had the pumper wagon stationed next to the bonfire and Mr. Donnell was standing with the hose ready, just in case. A bunch of the kids started climbing all over the fire engine and Sheriff Waters had to shoo them down.
Then Mr. Ramsey came from the hardware store with two big containers of tar that the farmers use for roofing chicken coops and sheds. Sheriff Waters helped him spatter tar into the pile of junk and spread it around the base of the bonfire.
"All you kids get back now. Back up, you hear me?" the sheriff shouted. "Bud Walberg, if you don't back up, I'm not lighting this bonfire. I'll have it taken it away."
Someone yelled, "Bud, you damned dope, get out of there!" and one of the high school boys backed away from the fire hastily.
"And I won't have any cussing, either," the sheriff added loudly. "This isn't a barroom. I hear you cussing and I'm letting your parents know. Anyone have a problem with that?"
You could hear a pin drop. I wished everyone would just be quiet so we could start.
"It all safe back there?" the sheriff called out and someone called from the other side of the pile that it was.
Mr. Ramsey had a big brand already burning and he touched it against several spots of tar and then shoved it into the pile. There was a crackle and a pop and then a small "whooomph!" and the fire just burst on like the burners on Mrs. Smithers' gas stove. Some of the boys gave a whoop and we all started yelling.
Mr. Walsh came around from the other side of the bonfire where he could see Will standing with us. Will joined him and Mr. Walsh watched as he pointed the rifle straight up to the sky so it wouldn't hurt anyone and then Will pulled the trigger.
Gloria Cott's older brother Sidney has a .22 rifle that he uses for hunting rabbits and squirrels for the Cotts to have for supper. One day Gloria and I tagged after him and heard him shoot the rifle. It had a sharp little sound like a firecracker.
The big German rifle didn't sound like that at all; it was a sharp, piercing crack in the cold air, echoing in the dark, and the sound kind of took your breath away. Some of the littler kids screamed and a bunch of the girls squealed and covered their ears like babies, including Tanya Smithers, who was lording around in a fairy costume her mother had bought for her. I didn't cover my ears, but as Will shot into the air for the second and third and fourth time I remembered what Dad said about the sound of the guns everyday, all the time, and I thought I could understand why his friend didn't want to go hunting anymore.
At the first shot all the dogs in town started barking and we started yelling again, too, once Will was finished.
Will came swaggering back to us and Jerry and Billy Wild and Delmer Doakes were all asking him how it felt to shoot the rifle. He said the "kick," whatever that was, was pretty bad, but after a while he got used to it.
Then Mrs. And Mr. McCauley, who run the grocery store, came outside with bags of marshmallows. These had just come back to the stores after being gone because of rationing and we all grabbed handfuls of them and stuck them on thin tree branches that had been put aside before making it into the bonfire. I stuck six of them on my branch and we stuck them as far as we dared into the flame of the bonfire and then stood talking and eating marshmallows.
I was licking the last of the sticky, rare sweet from my fingers when I heard a familiar voice behind me cry out.
"Sheriff Waters! Sheriff Waters! Please, I need to speak with you!"
I turned around and saw Evelyn Ladd talking with the sheriff. She looked like she had just run out of the house and had no coat on and her face was wild. The sheriff spoke to her a few minutes, then took her hands and squeezed them and took off his coat and draped it around her shoulders.
The big town clock started to chime, then count up the hours to seven. Tanya proclaimed, "Come on, it's time for my party! We have five cakes this year and lots of candy!" The Smithers do throw a great Halloween party and I was just about to follow the other kids. Then I said to Gloria, "I'll be with you in a minute" and ran to see Miss Ladd.
"Miss Ladd, it's Addie," I said, taking her hand. She was crying. "What's wrong?"
"Someone shot off a gun," she said, after wiping away her tears.
"I know. It was Will Walsh. It's his brother's gun. He got it off a German. He just shot it in the air. It didn't hurt anyone!"
"A German gun," she repeated. "A German gun! Ben said it was a German gun."
I remembered Mr. Rhenquist's car backfiring. "What happened, Miss Ladd? Did...did Mr. Ladd get scared?"
She started to cry again. "He had put his coat on to sit on the porch so he could pet that dog. Rusty. Rusty's been coming to our house at night and Ben goes out and sits with him. I've gotten used to it; I didn't think... I...I had started to take a bath when the gun went off. It was so loud it sounded like it was just next door and I could hear him screaming all the way in the house about the Germans attacking. By the time I had put something on he was gone. I called and called and he didn't answer."
I didn't know what to say so I stayed there for a few minutes and held her hands until Sheriff Walters came back with a blanket and led her away. I could hear him say as he put his jacket back on that a group of men were going to help him search for Mr. Ladd.
I started to follow the other kids, thinking. When Mr. Rhenquist's car had backfired, Mr. Ladd had just thrown himself on the ground. Had he really been able to tell that Will had shot off a German gun? And why did he run away? He was a war hero. He wasn't supposed to be afraid of anything. And where would he go to, anyway, in the dark, in the cold, on Halloween night?
The moon had been full a couple of nights ago, so it wasn't quite as big now as it rose over the edge of town. I could see barns and houses against the horizon, with electric lights like little stars in their windows. The wind was starting to pick up and leaves from the big cottonwoods swirled around my legs. Despite that horrible old Union suit I was cold.
There was a dog still barking. It almost sounded like Rusty. He has a funny, sharp bark, not like the big barks of the sheepdogs on the farms outside town.
Miss Ladd said her brother had been petting Rusty when the gun went off.
One of the boys in my class yelled, "Come on, Addie!" but I hardly heard him. I guess I didn't think; I just started to run toward that bark. I ran past our house, and past the Ladds, and the grammar school. Then I stopped to listen. The barking had stopped.
"Rusty!" I hollered. "Rusty!"
The bark came again, from further on down the street where the houses ran out and the street turned from paving to dirt. Dad and Grandma said I wasn't to go near the edge of town. Ever.
Well, I'd just run to the last house then. That's all. It wasn't going out of town. I wouldn't go any further to the feed store or the Nordstrom farm. If I didn't find Rusty I would go back and go to the party, like I was supposed to.
I was out of breath and stopped running. My legs ached and now I was hot. I stil had my stocking of coal dust in one hand, although it was getting pretty limp. I kept walking.
There is a little stream that runs off Clear River. On the maps it's Clear Branch, but everyone just calls it "the branch." It runs under the road out of town to the east and there is a metal culvert where it passes through. The barking was echoing now, like it was coming from that culvert.
I slowed down as I approached it. The moon was overhead now, flooding everything with silver light and around me the wind swirled, raising little wind dogs of dirt, making a moaning sound. It was a perfect Halloween night and I wouldn't have been surprised if an owl had hooted or if a witch had flown by the moon on her broomstick. But all I could hear was the water running in the branch and the wind over it.
I could see the little footpath that led down from the road's edge to the water. Rusty stopped barking and then his head popped up from under the culvert and he came running up the path. Ben Ladd's voice called after him, "No, Scout, no!"
It was deathly quiet a minute, then he said, "Joe, is that you?"
Who was Joe?
"Joe, is that you?" His voice sounded more frantic now.
Suddenly, as if he were speaking right next to me, I could hear Dad's voice in my head, telling that story from so many weeks ago. "Pete didn't answer him for a minute, then he started talking funny."
"Yes," I said, thinking frantically about the last war movie I had seen and what they had said to each other, and finally just tried to make my voice sound deeper, like a man's. I thought it only made me sound more scared.
"Is it the Germans? Have they seen us?"
I swallowed. "N-N-No, they haven't."
"You sound funny, Joe. Are you okay?"
"S-Sure," was all I could think of.
"Smart of you to send Scout after me. Come on down."
"Yeah," I said, as I walked slowly down the path, step after step and peered in the culvert. To my ears my footsteps sounded like boots tramping on a road.
I thought as soon as he could see me he would know I was a little kid named Addie and not someone named Joe, but he was looking right past me, over my head to the Nebraska fields bathed in moonlight.
"I heard them shoot and knew we had to get undercover. I don't have my rifle, though. Do you have yours?"
"No...I uh...I have a..." I shoved the stocking in his hand. It was cold. He was standing ankle deep in cold water and shivering. "I'm going back for it...my rifle. I dropped it. You stay here. Take this, too."
He looked at the noisemaker I handed him, dazed. "What is it?"
"It makes noise. Like a tommy gun." I could barely breathe. "You make that noise and they'll think you have a gun."
"Are you sure?" He sounded afraid.
"I'm sure. I used it."
And then I ran, ran past the furthest house and past the school, and past the Ladds, and burst into our back door just as Grandma and Dad were sitting down for a cup of coffee, and stood in the middle of the floor in my dirty clothes, dripping soot on the clean kitchen floor, gasping and crying.
* * *
"Is Dad awfully mad?" I asked Grandma as she brought me a cup of hot tea.
I was lying in the bed I shared with her, in my pajamas and socks and a thick robe. I was still shivering, my teeth chattering, and that's why she was bringing me the tea, chamomile, with honey in it, so I would settle down.
She had brought one of the kitchen chairs by my bedside and smoothed my hair as I sipped the tea. I will never forget their faces as I stood there, my face "white as an angel's robe," as Grandma said later, crying. I had managed to stammer out "Mr. Ladd...Will Walsh shot a gun...Mr. Ladd's in the culvert over the branch...he's talking crazy, just like Dad talked about..." and Dad glared at me, jumped out of his chair, pulled on his coat, and disappeared out the back door. I was too stunned to do anything but have Grandma lead me to the bathroom, where she gave me a hot bath and then rubbed Vicks on my chest and put me to bed.
"Your dad was just worried about you," she said. "What were we supposed to think when you came looking like that and talking wild about Mr. Ladd?"
"I don't understand, Grandma. He didn't even know me. He thought I was somebody named Joe."
She started and I asked her what was wrong; she gave a big sigh before she answered. "Evelyn told me that when Ben was captured by the Germans, he had a friend with him who was hurt. His name was Joe Carpelli."
"I remember. It was in the newspaper. I read it." I paused, looking at Grandma's face. "What happened to Joe?"
"He...he died, Addie."
At that point I heard the front door slam. My stomach did a flip and I handed the tea to Grandma. Dad could be heard stomping into the kitchen (to hang up his coat) and then came into our bedroom through the door from the kitchen. He stood staring at me for a minute and then said angrily, "What the hell were you playing at, Addie? You were told never to go near the edge of town."
Grandma started to say something but I spoke up bravely, "I know you did and I'm sorry. I didn't think. I just knew Rusty was barking and thought he might be with Mr. Ladd. I didn't intend to go past the Runsons' house. If he wasn't there I was going to turn back. I swear."
His face was still scarlet and he started to speak, but Grandma indicated her armchair. "Sit down, James, and leave the child alone. She's had enough of a scare tonight. What's happened with Ben Ladd?"
"It was the damnest thing," he conceded, lowering himself in the chair. Grandma glared at him for the "damn," and he arched his eyebrows in apology.
"Is Mr. Ladd okay?" I asked anxiously.
"Yeah, he's okay. I went down there with Len Waters and George Walsh. Ben was down in the culvert with that little mutt Alma Perkins has been taking care of. I think the darn dog thought he was guarding him. He was still talking crazy about 'Krauts' and the war, so George went back and got his boy Tim and Shep Fuller, too. They talked to him like they were his Army buddies and they were able to convince him the Germans weren't attacking and it was okay to go back to the barracks."
He gave me this funny look. "Crazy thing was that when we got there Ben had a cosh with hima sock filled up with soot. And a Halloween noisemaker he kept rattling and rattling. He said it would scare off the Germans because it sounded like a tommy gun. He said his buddy Joe gave it to him. I asked his sister about it; she says this Joe was killed over there."
Grandma said mildly, without looking at me, "One of the children must have dropped them, and he picked them up hoping to protect himself. Did Evelyn tell you what's to be done next?"
"Doc Spencer said he needed to go back to the hospital as soon as possible. He and Tim Walsh are helping Evelyn take him to Omaha tonight."
"You mean the mental hospital?" I said softly.
"It's the best place for him now, Addie," Grandma said, giving me a hug. "There are doctors there who will know how to help him. It's obvious he wasn't ready to come home."
"I know." I leaned my head against her; she made me feel warm and safe. "It's just..."
"It'll be all right." Grandma gave me a kindly look and then glanced at Dad. He was getting up and starting for the door, then he turned back and came to stand over me. I thought for a minute he was about to yell at me again, but instead he looked a little sad. He asked gruffly, "You okay?" and I looked up and nodded.
"Good. Get some sleep." Then his voice roughened again. "You have school tomorrow unless you get sick from this damn fool stunt."
When Dad was gone, Grandma smiled at me again, then made me sit up while she slid my pillows down so I could sleep. "I'll be to bed in a little while. In the meantime I want you to sleep." She tucked me in. "I'm sorry you had to miss Tanya's Halloween party."
I yawned. "I suppose. But it was more important to help Mr. Ladd. I wish I could have done more for him."
"You've done quite a lot for him already, Addie," she said softly and turned out the light.
"I never found out how Dad managed it, but he never told anyone that I was the one who had found Mr. Ladd in the culvert, so the gossip next day in Clear River didn't include me. The big news the next day, in fact, was how three boys from Clear River High had injured a prize cow after pulling a prank. The farmer was furious and so were their parents.
"By next year, the town council would decide there would be no more pranking. They thought we might try out the new trick or treat custom that was spreading in some of the larger cities and after that year it was as if the bonfire and pranking had never existed.
"I would like to say that Benjamin Ladd eventually recovered enough to return to Clear River, but it wasn't to be. He remained in the institution for some time, then lived with his sister for the rest of his life in an apartment that was close to the hospital. The house next door to us went up for sale once more and during the summer the Carter family moved in. They had a daughter my age, Carla Mae, who became my best friend.
"We never heard from the Ladds again, but one Christmas a few years later a little book arrived addressed to me. It was a children's picture book about a little terrier who was afraid of thunder. Ben Ladd had done the illustrations, his firstand lastpost-war project.
"Now on October 31, after I have run out of candy and can settle down once more, I take out that worn little book and think about the Ladds and how the horrors of World War II came back to haunt us on that cold and frightening Halloween of 1945."
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