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Shades of simon gray, p.1
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       Shades of Simon Gray, p.1

           Joyce McDonald
 
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Shades of Simon Gray


  When the police found no skid marks, nothing to indicate that Simon Gray had slammed on the brakes for dear life, that was no surprise. Everyone knew he would have. He was the responsible young man who baby-sat their children, walked their dogs, and watered their plants while they were on vacation. The boy who had cleaned their gutters, mowed their lawns, and run their errands since he was ten.

  They were sure the slick mess on the road would have made finding any trace of tire treads impossible. Not one single person in town doubted that for a minute, and if anyone hinted otherwise, people turned away and wandered off without finishing the conversation.

  Come sunrise, following the accident, what remained of the peeper population had settled back into the streams and the muddy banks of the Delaware, but for the next two weeks they continued their piercing chirps after the sun went down. By the time they finally stopped, everyone in town knew the truth about Simon Gray.

  Or so they believed.

  ALSO AVAILABLE IN DELL LAUREL-LEAF BOOKS

  SHADOW PEOPLE, Joyce Mcdonald

  SWALLOWING STONES, Joyce McDonald

  PLAYING FOR KEEPS, Joan Lowery Nixon

  THE GADGET, Paul Zindel

  CROOKED, Laura McNeal and Tom McNeal

  THE RANSOM OF MERCY CARTER

  Caroline B. Cooney

  THE JUMPING TREE, René Saldaña, Jr.

  PAPER TRAIL, Barbara Snow Gilbert

  PLAYING WITHOUT THE BALL, Rich Wallace

  SIGHTS, Susanna Vance

  Published by

  Dell Laurel-Leaf

  an imprint of

  Random House Children’s Books

  a division of Random House, Inc.

  1540 Broadway

  New York, New York 10036

  Copyright © 2001 by Joyce McDonald

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law. For information address Delacorte Press, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.

  The trademarks Laurel-Leaf Library® and Dell® are registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries.

  Visit us on the Web! www.randomhouse.com/teens

  Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at www.randomhouse.com/teachers

  eISBN: 978-0-307-81978-9

  RL: 6.8

  v3.1

  For my brothers,

  Bob, Jack, and Rick

  Contents

  Cover

  Also Available in Dell Laurel-Leaf Books

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Prologue 1798

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  April is the cruelest month, breeding

  Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

  Memory and desire, stirring

  Dull roots with spring rain.

  Winter kept us warm, covering

  Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

  A little life with dried tubers.

  —T. S. Eliot

  from The Waste Land

  PROLOGUE

  1798

  THE FOUR MEN TRACKED HIM DOWN BEFORE DAWN. HE was sitting beneath an oak tree at the farthermost corner of Joseph Alderman’s property, a young man barely twenty, his clothes bloody with the evidence. He showed only mild surprise when the townsmen came upon him. Each of them, in his heart, knew whom the lad had been waiting for.

  One of the men bound the murderer’s wrists behind his back with leather thongs, then bound his ankles. Another removed the young man’s tricornered hat, slid the noose over his head, and lifted his hair to position the knot behind one ear. He tossed the end of the rope over a low branch, a branch not more than seven feet from the ground, and tied the other end around the neck of one of the horses. The men’s movements were quick and efficient.

  One of them stepped forward, his face only a few inches from the murderer’s. “Do you wish time to pray?” he asked.

  The young man said nothing. He looked his executioner straight in the eye. Then one by one, he held the gaze of the other men, until each of them had to look away.

  In the gray dawn, mist rose up from the ground, hiding the weeds and tall dry grass. It continued to rise until the forms of the men blurred, gray on gray, their bodies nothing more than darkened shadows in the fog.

  They could have put the young man on one of their horses. A stinging swat to the horse’s rump and the man would have dropped almost as fast as he would have through the trapdoor of a scaffold; a quick, humane snap of the neck and it would be over. But not one among them wished to have a man with blood on his hands sitting in his saddle, as if the source of the crime were something contagious.

  It took three of them, one guiding the horse to step back and two others taking hold of the rope, adding their strength to the horse’s, to slowly lift the body eight inches from the ground. The fourth man stood a few feet away, eyes closed, head thrown back, hands extended in a prayer for the soul of the young man who would not pray for himself.

  The knot slipped as the men tugged. The rope twisted on itself as the body danced spasmodically until, finally, the toes dropped downward, pointing at the ground. A few minutes later the men stepped forward, untied the rope from the horse, wrapped it around the base of the tree, and secured it in place.

  From overhead came a loud rustling noise. Startled, the men looked up into a swirling cloud of black wings, beating at the air. When the cloud settled, the men saw hundreds of crows. They clung to the branches like black leaves. They began to caw, a loud mournful sound that swelled in the early-morning mist and echoed throughout the small town of Havenhill.

  The men took wary steps toward each other. They huddled close together. “We are done here,” said one.

  One of them, the man who had been praying for the murderer’s soul, said, “It is now in the hands of the Lord.”

  The others answered with solemn nods and amens. The good people of Havenhill would rest easy in their beds that night, knowing a murderer was no longer among them.

  ON THE NIGHT SIMON GRAY RAN HIS ’92 HONDA Civic into the Liberty Tree, the peepers exploded right out of the local streams, shrieking like souls of the dead disturbed from their slumber, louder and more shrill than anyone in Bellehaven could remember. Like the plague of frogs converging on ancient Egypt, they were everywhere: in window boxes, on front porch rockers, in mailboxes carelessly left open, in gutters. They even clogged a few exhaust pipes.

  Most people in town were absolutely positive the peepers caused Simon’s accident. With squashed frogs all over the road, their blood, like so much oil, made driving slippery. It was bound to happen to somebody. A few suspected that the sudden appearance of the peepers might be a curse. But this was an unpopular view, Bellehaven being a respectable and upright town.

  When the police found no skid marks, nothing to indicate that Simon Gray had slammed on the brakes for dear life, that was no surprise. Everyone knew he would have. He was the responsible young man who baby-sat their children, walked their dogs, and watered their plants while they were on vacation. The boy who had cleaned their gutters, mowed their lawns, and run the
ir errands since he was ten.

  They were sure the slick mess on the road would have made finding any trace of tire treads impossible. Not one single person in town doubted that for a minute, and if anyone hinted otherwise, people turned away and wandered off without finishing the conversation.

  Come sunrise, following the accident, what remained of the peeper population had settled back into the streams and the muddy banks of the Delaware, but for the next two weeks they continued their piercing chirps after the sun went down. By the time they finally stopped, everyone in town knew the truth about Simon Gray.

  Or so they believed.

  On the day before the accident, a heat wave settled over Bellehaven like a cloud of steam. It all but sucked the air out of anyone who tried to take a deep breath. Some attributed special significance to its being April Fools’ Day. But most simply found it odd to have eighty-five-degree temperatures in early April, shrugged, and went on about their business, although they were inclined to move at a much slower pace. Only the Delaware River, swollen with the spring runoff and freshly stocked with brook and rainbow trout, sped along at breakneck speed, spewing white foam over rocky ridges.

  When the heat wave persisted through the following day, girls dug out last year’s shorts and tank tops from attic trunks in preparation for school on Monday, and threw away lipsticks that had melted in their backpacks. By nightfall, people found themselves kicking off top sheets, digging window fans out of basements and attics, and wrapping ice cubes in face towels to lay across the backs of their necks. A few even turned on air conditioners, muttering about future electric bills that were sure to leave them paupers.

  But the heat wasn’t all that kept Simon Gray awake as he paced his airless bedroom that night, wearing only a pair of boxer shorts. He hadn’t slept in two nights, and it didn’t look as if he ever would again. Unlike everyone else in town, he barely noticed the temperature creeping toward ninety. He had other things on his mind.

  When he slipped on a pair of khaki cargo shorts and a black T-shirt, silently sneaked out the back door, got in his car, and headed for the river, it wasn’t in search of cooler air. What he sought was a few moments of peace. A rare minute or two when something or someone besides Devin McCafferty and the others didn’t monopolize his thoughts.

  He parked his Honda near the boat ramp and headed down to his favorite spot a few feet from the Delaware. For the next half hour he watched the moonlight glimmer off the rush of water heading downriver, letting his mind flow along with it. People, he realized, were a lot like drops of water caught up in the spring runoff, shuttled into fast-moving streams that collided into rivers and rushed to join the ocean. If you got caught in the current there was no turning back. The only way out of that racing water was to evaporate into the night air.

  Evaporate. Disappear.

  He wondered what it would feel like to be as light as mist, to no longer be weighted down with a human body filled with leaden fears, in constant dread of being discovered, exposed, humiliated.

  Simon turned his face toward the sky so thick with stars he could almost taste them on his tongue, metallic, like biting into aluminum foil. Moonlight glinted off his thick glasses, and anyone looking at his face would have thought his eyes had melted into two pools of pure light.

  Sitting with his back against the base of a huge white pine, eyes closed, he listened to the gentle hush-hush, the whisper of the wind through the soft needles. For just the tiniest moment Simon thought he might float up into the night air and beyond. Until the piercing shrieks of two raccoons, probably males hell-bent on killing each other over a female, forced him to remember why he was here, why he hadn’t been able to sleep.

  He did not want to think about what would happen to him, to all of them, if they were caught. But then, maybe it was time he was caught, because he’d been fooling everyone for so long he’d started to fool himself. Simon the Eagle Scout. Simon the Responsible. Squeaky clean Simon. Hell, he was Bellehaven’s very own Dudley Do-Right. Who was he kidding?

  Even when he was caught stealing a computer game the previous fall from CompUSA, the manager, who turned out to be his old second-grade teacher, Mr. Grabowski—the upgraded Mr. Grabowski, ex-teacher, now a hotshot manager—had merely given him a friendly pat on the back and said, “Guess you had your head in the clouds, there, Simon.” He had pointed to the box Simon had tucked inside his jacket. “I think you forgot to pay for that.”

  Yeah, right. Was the guy that dense?

  Simon had lifted the box from its hiding place and said, “Oh, yeah. Sorry.” And that was all there was to it. Later he realized that Mr. Grabowski hadn’t wanted to believe Simon would stoop to stealing from his store. Simon himself still had no idea why he’d done it. It was the only thing he’d ever tried to steal in his life, and now he couldn’t even remember the name of the computer game.

  What was it with people anyway? Why did they trust him? Especially with their kids? Lately he’d taken to letting the kids do exactly what they wanted, eat Oreos and fistfuls of Froot Loops and Cocoa Puffs until they spun like twirling tops from all that sugar. He let them watch cartoons until their eyes popped right out of their heads. He liked to see the kids happy. It made him feel good.

  When that didn’t work, he would sometimes set them in their cribs or their playpens and let them cry until their throats were hoarse and their noses so clogged they could barely breathe. Their sobs brought him much too close to the edge, much too close to his own tears, tears he’d worked hard to control. That was when he would walk right out the back door, sit under the nearest tree, and wait for the silence, because he couldn’t bear to listen to their cries. Because he didn’t know how to take away their pain.

  Simon folded his arms and tucked his hands beneath them. He stared out over the river. If those same moms had followed him around this past year, they would have been horrified. They would have locked their children in their rooms for safekeeping, kept their pets in their basement, shuttered their windows, pulled down their shades, and shunned the very sight of him. He imagined that even his own mother, if she had still been alive, would have turned away from him.

  Sometimes, on nights when the sky had just begun to turn violet, and strange shadows seemed to hover along the edge of his backyard where it ran into the neighbor’s field and to the cemetery beyond, Simon thought he saw his mother rising from her restful place beneath the pines, where she had been buried more than a year earlier, to shake her head in disapproval. On such nights, he would see her at the edge of the field, and if he stared long and hard enough, squinting into the thin line of muted orange on the horizon, if he blurred his vision ever so slightly, he could almost make out the disappointment on her face.

  On these nights, he was convinced she knew everything he had ever done and considered him beyond redemption. On other nights, when he was willing to cut himself a little slack, he told himself such notions were childish fantasy. Still, despite this rationale, he had discovered he preferred the shadowy form of disapproval, hovering beyond the edge of his yard, to nothing at all.

  It was almost midnight and Simon’s eyelids felt heavy. The lack of sleep was catching up with him, and now it seemed his mind was beginning to play tricks, because suddenly tiny frogs were springing out of the weeds, leaping off rocks, and sending their shrill calls into the night. They flew into Simon’s lap, landed in his hair, crawled into the pockets of his cargo shorts.

  Frantic, he jumped to his feet, beating the frogs from his head, all the while trying not to step on any of them as he made a dash for his Honda. Dozens of frogs crawled over his car. Fortunately he had left the windows up. Still, the peepers clung to the windshield like tiny suction-cup toys. Simon pounded his fist at them from the inside, but they refused to budge. If he turned on the windshield wipers he could launch the peepers right into outer space. Then again, maybe not. Maybe he would end up with a windshield smeared with frog guts, making it even harder to see. Forget the windshield wipers.

>   The rearview mirror was useless. The entire rear window was coated with frogs. So were the side windows. The only way he could see to back out was to roll down his window and risk letting the frogs inside the car. He rolled the window down a few inches, enough to peer out, then pulled out of the parking lot, hoping that once he was away from the river the frogs would disappear. But to his amazement, they were everywhere. They rose out of neatly manicured lawns and bounced along the tops of boxwood hedges; they were all over the road. And the sound, as he drove over them—hundreds, maybe thousands—was the sound of tar bubbles popping on a sun-scorched road.

  He had never seen anything like this before—not in all the years he’d lived in Bellehaven—not in his entire life.

  As Simon approached the community park with its fifteen-mile-an-hour speed limit, the car continued to speed along—fast, then faster. With any luck at all, the frogs would blow right off the windshield. But they hung on. The faster Simon went, the louder the popping noises from beneath his tires. Desperate, he turned the radio up full blast to drown out the horrible sound.

  As he passed the park—a perfect square surrounded on three sides by stately Victorian homes and the county courthouse on the fourth—he had the bizarre sensation of being in a dream. Maybe all this was a hallucination brought on by lack of sleep. He’d heard of such things. Or maybe the hallucination was the result of the heat.

  As he squinted through a clear space of glass in between the frogs, Simon’s eyes fell on the huge white oak up ahead. It was the oldest tree in the county, dating back to the Revolutionary War. A battle-scarred soldier. The road had been lovingly built to curve around its thick roots. Beneath its sprawling branches a tarnished bronze plaque proclaimed this the Liberty Tree.

  But Simon and the other kids at school called it the Hanging Tree because more than two hundred years before, a drifter named Jessup Wildemere was hanged from its branches for murdering Cornelius Dobbler right in his own bed while he slept, stabbing him so many times the blood formed a pool on the floor, seeped through the crevices, and stained the ceiling of the parlor below.

 
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