July 22nd, 1954: Alison, NC
The light was blinding bright, blowing away the night like a bomb. The night that now seemed so surreal and strange. Ronnie had dreamed again of burning down the house, seen his parents succumb to the smoke without even waking up. The smoldering ruins looked perfectly natural now, the blackened metal stove and water heater cartoonish. He thought about the movie theater cartoons. He’d miss them. It was almost all that he'd miss. He wouldn't miss the noisy house with all the yelling and fighting. That was what had finally done it, the explosions in his head from the clanging, banging noise. He wished that he'd saved his little green army men. They were in a blackened lump on the stone porch. He'd really meant to take them. He'd been so entranced by the flames that he'd forgotten about everything else.
It was time to leave now, to walk through the pumpkin field to the woods on the other side. Ronnie remembered how the scarecrow had terrified him when he was younger, and there were rows of corn instead of pumpkins. He was headed for the train tracks. He knew about hopping trains. Jay had told him all about it before he finally left for good. There was an old carnival up in Helix where Jay had worked once. He figured he'd try to find it and get a job there. Walking among the pumpkins, he almost felt normal. Birds chattered overhead in the bright July sun. He thought that some of them were trying to talk to him, but he didn't know the language.
The woods darkened the sky, and the birds here sounded darker as well. He passed old tombstones leaning at crazy angles. Beloved wife, beloved son, all of them were from the 1800s to the early 1900s. The biggest ones were all Morrison. They'd been a rich family who owned factories long ago. Some of his aunts and uncles had worked for them. He remembered stories. He didn't think anyone was sad that the Morrisons were all dead now. The thought suddenly hit him that his parents were really dead. There was no turning back, even if he wanted to. Suddenly tired, he decided to lie down on the soft leaf-covered ground and take a nap.
He dreamed that stars were talking to him, twinkling around his head. They were warm and loving, and wanted to take care of him. That dream faded, and he awoke with a start. The last dream had been of his father beating him with a belt while his mother looked on, hands covering her mouth. He realized that he’d slept the day away and had lost his bearings. An owl spoke to him through the darkness. He answered, trying to imitate the owl’s sound. His throat was dry, though, and his stomach empty. Fully awake now, he realized that he was almost out of the woods. Not only that, but he could see a dim light in the distance. A house, maybe, where he could find some food and drink. He walked towards the light, a little faster now. The owl seemed to be following him, although he couldn’t see it in the darkness. That was OK with Ronnie, he could use a friend.
Out of the woods, he walked through a little garden behind an unpainted old farmhouse. There were big juicy tomatoes growing there; he picked one and stuffed it into his mouth. It was the best tomato he’d ever had. He walked quietly up to the window where the light was shining and looked in. An old woman was dozing in a rocking chair, a black cat on her lap. Suddenly the cat leapt off her lap, startling both of them. The old woman saw his face at the window, and picked up a shotgun that he hadn’t noticed standing against the wall beside her.
“Damned thieves and scoundrels! Get out of here before I fill you full of buckshot!”
Ronnie ducked down and ran, crouching, to the nearest tree.
She couldn’t see him when she walked out on the porch holding the gun.
“That’s right” she muttered, “better git from here.”
His hopes of a sweet old lady serving him apple pie and ice cream were dashed. He never really expected it anyway. He’d learned not to expect much from people. But he knew she had food and water in there, and he knew that he needed it. He sat behind the tree and waited a long time. At last the light in the house went out.
Ronnie had The Dream again. A hundred little children standing in a vast field all dressed in white, each holding a black balloon. They released them all at once, and they floated up into the sky. Time seemed to slow down as he watched them rise, but he knew what was coming. The balloons suddenly turned into cawing crows, thousands of them filling the sky.
When he opened his eyes he was in the house. The old lady lay motionless in her bed, a pillow over her face. The cat sat guard beside her. He went into the kitchen and ate some beans and fried chicken cold from her refrigerator. Then he grabbed a few cans from the cabinet and wrapped them in a towel, remembering to find the can-opener. He wished that he could carry more, but this would have to do. He finished a bottle of milk, rinsed it out, and filled it with water. Finding some money in her purse, he jammed it into his pockets. The house was so quiet and peaceful now that he hated to leave. He felt sorry for the cat, and put some food and water out for it. He didn’t feel sorry for the old woman. All she had to do was be nice, but she wasn’t. He walked out and didn’t look back. He was afraid that he might see crows following him.
The sun rose shortly after he began walking the ten miles to Monroe where the train yard was. The road was little-used, but he hid in the bushes whenever he heard a car, just in case. He was sure that they assumed that he had died in the fire, but better to be safe. He rationed the water, even though the day was hot and muggy. Stopping when he got hungry, he opened a can of Vienna sausages and ate them with his fingers. His thoughts wandered as he walked. He thought about his army men. He knew that at twelve he was too old to be playing with them, but they symbolized something that he just couldn’t let go of. The fighting was in Korea last, but he fought and re-fought World War II. Americans against Nazis, good versus evil. In this world, the good guys always won. There was something satisfying to him about that. He thought of his Maw-Maw. Before she died last year, her house was a sanctuary of peace and quiet that he could escape to now and then. He remembered her odd old sayings, like “Don’t wash clothes on New Year’s Day, you’ll be washing for a funeral,” or “When it rains while the sun is shining, the devil’s beating his wife.” She was good to him, though. She cooked the best chicken and dumplings he’d ever had. Thinking about it made him hungry again, but a can of beans wasn’t appealing. Walking, walking, thinking, thinking. Ronnie figured that by nightfall he was close to Monroe, so he went a short distance into some woods, ate the beans, and fell asleep.
It was not a restful night. The stars twinkled around his head like fireflies as he fell asleep, soothing him, but they didn’t stay long. He was fighting someone in his dreams, someone he couldn’t quite see. Once he awoke, thinking that he was in his old bed at home. Falling back to sleep, he dreamed of witches with black cats, and crows over a pumpkin field. He dreamed of a scarecrow chasing him through the darkness. He dreamed of school, with everyone pointing and laughing at him. At last, just before dawn, he dreamed of being in Maw-Maw’s feather bed, sinking down deep into sleep. Ronnie didn’t want to wake from that dream, but he did, just as the sun crept over the horizon.
He ate a breakfast of more beans, washing them down with the last of the water. He tried to remember everything that Jay had told him about hopping trains. He remembered that the crew at the Monroe train yard were nice guys, and was sure they’d help him catch the right train.
He passed a pond just before the Monroe town limits, drank, and re-filled his water bottle. He wasn’t sure how he’d find the train yard without asking someone, and he really didn’t want to go into the town proper. Still, he did have money, and he’d love to have a decent meal. Ronnie had never been to a restaurant alone before. Maybe he could find a little diner somewhere, eat, and get the information he needed. He walked into the small town trying to look as inconspicuous as a twelve year old runaway could.