Read Long After Midnight Online

Authors: Ray Bradbury

Long After Midnight (3 page)

 
          
 

 

One Timeless
Spring

 

 
          
 

 
          
That
week, so many years ago, I thought my mother and father were poisoning me. And
now, twenty years later, I'm not so sure they didn't. There's no way of
telling.

 
          
It
all comes back to me through the simple expedient of an examined trunk in the
attic. This morning I pulled back the brass hasps and lifted the lid, and the
immemorial odor of mothballs shrouded the unstrung tennis rackets, the worn
sneakers, the^ shattered toys, the rusty roller skates. These implements of
play, seen again through older eyes, make it seem only an hour ago that I
rushed in from the shady streets, all
asweat
, the cry
of "Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free!" still excitedly trembling on my lips.

 
          
I
was a weird and ridiculous boy then with brooding and uncommon ideas; the
poison and the fear were only part of me in those years. I began making notes
in a lined nickel tablet when I was only twelve. I can feel the stubby pencil
in my fingers now, writing in those timeless mornings.

 
          
I
paused to lick my pencil, thoughtfully. I sat in my upstairs room at the
beginning of a clear endless day, blinking at the rose-stamped wallpaper, my
feet bare, my hair shorn to a hairbrush stubble, thinking.

 
          
"I
didn't know I was sick until this week," I wrote. "I've been sick for
a long time. Since I was ten. I'm twelve now."

 
          
I
scrouged
up my face, bit my lips hard, focused
blurrily on the tablet. "Mom and Dad have
made
me sick. Teachers at school also gave this—" I hesitated.
Then I wrote:
"Disease
to
mel
The only ones who don't scare me are the other kids.
Isabel Skelton and Willard Bowers and Clarisse
Mellin
;
they aren't very sick yet. But I'm
really
bad off. ..."

 
          
I
laid the pencil down. I went to the bathroom mirror to see myself. My mother
called me from downstairs to come to breakfast. I pressed close to the mirror,
breathing so fast I made a big damp fog on the glass. I saw how my face was—changing.

 
          
The
bones of it. Even the eyes. The pores of my nose. My ears. My forehead. My
hair. All the things that'd been me for such a long time, starting to become
something else. ("
Douglas
,
come to breakfast, you'll be late for school!") As I took a quick wash I
saw my body floating under me. I was inside it. There was no escape. And the
bones of it were doing things, shifting, mixing around!

 
          
Then
I began singing and whistling loud, so I wouldn't think about it; until Father,
rapping on the door, told me to quiet down and come eat.

 
          
I
sat at the breakfast table. There was a yellow box of cereal and milk,
white-cold in a pitcher, and shining spoons and knives, and eggs planked with
bacon, Dad reading his paper, Mom moving around the kitchen. I sniffed. I felt
my stomach lie down like a whipped dog.

 
          
"What's
wrong, son?" Dad looked at me casually. "Not hungry?"

 
          
"No,
sir."

 
          
"A
boy should be hungry in the morning," said Father.

 
          
"You
go ahead and eat," said Mother at me. "Go on now. Hurry."

 
          
I
looked at the eggs. They were poison. I looked at the butter. It was poison.
The milk was so white and creamy and poisonous in its pitcher, and the cereal
was brown and crisp and tasty in a green dish with pink flowers on it.

 
          
Poison,
all of them, poison! The thought ran in my head like ants at a picnic. I caught
my lip in my teeth.

 
          
"Unh?"
said Dad, blinking at me. You
said?"

 
          
"Nothing,"
I said. "Except I'm not hungry."

 
          
I
couldn't say I was ill and that food made me ill. I couldn't say that cookies,
cakes, cereals and soups and vegetables had done
this
to me, could I? No, I had to sit, swallowing nothing, my heart
beginning to pound.

 
          
"Well,
drink your milk at least, and go on," said Mother. "Dad, give him
money for a good lunch at school. Orange juice, meat, and milk. No candy."

 
          
She
didn't have to warn me on candy. It was worst of all the poisons. I wouldn't
touch it again, ever!

 
          
I
strapped my books and went to the door.

 
          
"
Douglas
, you didn't kiss me," said Mom.

 
          
"Oh,"
I said, and shuffled to kiss her.

 
          
"What's
wrong with you?" she asked.

 
          
"Nothing,"
I said. " 'Bye. So long, Dad."

 
          
Everybody
said good-bye. I walked to school, thinking deep inside, like shouting down a
long, cold well.

 
          
I
ran down through the ravine and swung on a vine, way out; the ground dropped
away, I smelled the cool morning air, sweet and high, and I screamed with
laughter, and the wind threw away my thoughts. I tossed myself in a flip
against the embankment and rolled down as birds whistled at me and a squirrel
hopped like brown fuzz blown by the wind up around a tree trunk. Down the path
the other kids fell like a small avalanche, yelling. "
Ahh

eee
—yah!" Pounding their chests, skipping rocks on the
water, jumping their hands down to catch at crayfish. The crayfish jetted away
in dusty spurts. We all laughed and joked.

 
          
A
girl passed by on the green wooden bridge above us. Her name was Clarisse
Mellin
. We all hee-hawed at her, told her to go on, go on,
we didn't want her with us, go on, go on! But my voice caught and trailed off,
and I watched her going, slowly. I didn't look away.

 
          
From
way off in the morning we heard the school bell ring.

 
          
We
scrambled up trails we'd made during many summers over the years. The grass was
worn; we knew each snake hole and bump, each tree, every vine, every weed of
it. After school we'd made tree huts here, high up over the shining creek,
jumped in the water naked, gone on long hikes down the ravine to where it
emptied lonely and abandoned into the big blue of
Lake Michigan
, near the tannery and the asbestos works
and the docks.

 
          
Now,
as we panted up to school, I stopped, afraid again. "You go on
ahead," I said.

 
          
The
last bell tolled. The kids ran. I looked at the school with vines growing on
it. I heard the voices inside, making a high, all-the-time noise. I heard
little desk bells tinkle and sharp teacher voices reaching out.

 
          
Poison,
I thought. The teachers, too! They want me sick! They teach you how to be
sicker and sicker! And —and how to
enjoy
being
sick!

 
          
"Good
morning,
Douglas
."

 
          
I
heard high-heeled shoes on the cement walk. Miss Adams, the principal, with her
pince-nez and wide, pale face and close-cropped dark hair, stood behind me.

 
          
"Come
along in," she said, holding my shoulder firmly. "You're late. Come
along."

 
          
She
guided me, one two, one two, one two, upstairs, up the stairs to my fate. . . .

 
          
Mr.
Jordan
was a plump man with thinning hair and
serious green eyes and a way of rocking on his heels before his charts. Today
he had a large illustration of a body with all its skin off. Exposed were
green, blue, pink, and yellow veins, capillaries, muscles, tendons, organs,
lungs, bones, and fatty tissues.

 
          
Mr.
Jordon nodded before the chart. "There's a great similarity between cancer
and normal cell reproduction. Cancer is simply a normal function gone wild.
Overproduction of cellular material—"

 
          
I
raised my hand. "How does food—I mean—what makes the body grow?"

 
          
"A
good question,
Douglas
." He tapped the chart. "Food,
taken into the body, is broken down, assimilated, and—"

 
          
I
listened and I knew what Mr. Jordan was trying to do to me. My childhood was in
my mind like a fossil imprint on soft shale rock. Mr.
Jordan
was trying to polish and smooth it away.
Eventually it would be all gone, all my beliefs and imaginings. My mother
changed my body with food, Mr.
Jordan
worked on my mind with words.

 
          
So
I began to draw pictures on paper, not listening. I hummed little songs, made
up a language all my own. The rest of the day I heard nothing. I resisted the
attack, I counteracted the poison.

 
          
But
then after school I passed Mrs. Singer's store and I bought candy. I couldn't
help it. And after I ate it I wrote on the back of the wrapper: "This is
the last candy I'm going to eat. Even at the Saturday matinee, when Tom Mix
comes on the screen with Tony, I won't eat candy again."

 
          
I
looked at the candy bars stacked like a harvest on the shelves. Orange wrappers
with sky-blue words saying "Chocolate." Yellow and violet wrappers
with blue words on them. I felt the candy in my body, making my cells grow.
Mrs. Singer sold hundreds of candy bars each day. Was she in conspiracy? Did
she know what she was doing to children with them? Was she jealous of them
being so young? Did she want them to grow old? I wanted to kill
herl

 
          
"What
you doing?"

 
          
Bill
Arno
had come up behind me while I was writing on the
candy wrapper. Clarisse
Mellin
was with him. She
looked at me with her blue eyes and said nothing.

 
          
I
hid the paper. "Nothing," I said.

 
          
We
all walked along. We saw kids playing hopscotch and kick the can and playing
mibs
on the hard ground, and I turned to Bill and I said,
"We won't be allowed to do that next year, or maybe the year after."

 
          
Bill
only laughed and said, "Sure, we will. Who'll stop us?"

 
          
"They
will," I said.

 
          
"Who's
they?" asked Bill.

 
          
"Never
mind," I said. "Just wait and see."

 
          
"Aw,"
said Bill. "You're crazy."

 
          
"You
don't understand!" I cried. "You play and run around and eat, and all
the time they're tricking you and making you think different and act different
and walk different. And all of a sudden one day you'll stop playing and have to
worry!" My face was hot and my hands were clenched. I was blind with rage.
Bill turned, laughing, and walked away. "Over Annie
Overl
"
someone sang, tossing a ball over a housetop.

 
          
You
might go all day without breakfast or lunch, but what about supper? My stomach
shouted as I slid into my chair at the supper table. I held on to my knees,
looking down at them. I won't eat, I told myself. I'll show them. I'll fight
them.

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