"The year of 1969 was a strange one. The crows did not migrate south. Eerie figures were seen in the upper woods and in the Hill Cemetery. An inordinate amount of storm clouds filled the western sky and drenched the town. Heaviest rains in a century, people said. It was the year of the devastating Wilmington Middle School shooting. This is only hearsay, because I wasn't there for it. Be that as it may, 1969 was a year that changed everything for me. I have spoken about Matthew to you before, I think. Matthew Churchill was only a discontented boy, but he saved my life before I was born. All of our stories start before we walk the mortal coil, and they involve more people than you could write about, or even count. If you think much about it, our stories really start with the dawn of creation. My story just happens to be clearly defined by some very inexplicable and wonderful happenings. Father still wanders off into his memories thinking about it, I can tell."
– Lila Wilson Larson, in a conversation with her daughter, 2011
. . . . .
A single envelope from Wilmington Water Works was the lone visitor to a leaning mailbox. It was the last mailbox on the mainstreet of Wilmington, Pennsylvania. Someone had planted daisies around the base. A pair of dusty socks were in the little flowers. The boy who wore them stood peering into the dark container, as if waiting for a magic trick. His mother's words echoed in his brain as the certainty of death and taxes again surfaced from the mental pond. "This is our Egypt, our land of exile. One day we are going to leave it." The Churchills, the family this boy belonged to, were penniless. Mrs. Churchill worked as a typist at the Crossroads Post. Mr. Churchill was "away." Hardworking small town gossips had already carried the news of his actual location, in prison, up to three counties away. It is difficult to blame them when the town's discussion had the slim range of two topics: factory closings and newcomers.
Truth be told, Mr. Churchill wasn't in prison for something small or decent in any way. It was serious stuff, something for his family to be ashamed of. He'd been running a large scale robbery operation with a partner. They were busted. The partner was shot. God only knows how, but the family hadn't known. The children had loved their Dad. Cordelia Churchill had thought highly of her husband. They hadn't been to visit him yet.
. . . . .
Walking out to the driveway end in 1969, Matthew Churchill was fourteen years old, and the only thing he hated worse than the town of Wilmington was Wilmington Middle School, which he restated so frequently in the notebook he used that the packet was essentially a letter of grievances against the city. He refused to call the book either a journal or a diary. As he told his little sister Anne, "Journals are for nerds, and diaries are for girls. This is a notebook." Anne questioned: "Are notebooks just for boys? My teacher said everyone in the class needed a notebook."
Matthew put his pen down and started eating his peanut butter sandwich.
. . . . .
14th April 1969
The only good thing about the mainstreet of Wilmington are the chocolate shakes.
The aforesaid chocolate shakes were sold at a brick building, gothic revival style, whose cheerful red lettering declared it "The Corner Store." Funny thing though, it wasn't on a corner. The beverages were handed out by a man with twinkling eyes and a red nose called Mr. Berry. He had a mustache that drooped to the corners of his chin. Nine year-old Anne struggled to tear her eyes from it whenever the two went inside the oaken doors. Sundays, Wilder Berry, for that was his first name, waxed that grey caterpillar curly and could be seen handing out programs at the church door.
. . . . .
16th April 1969
Philadelphia was a good place. I hate Wilmington.
The rest of the town admittedly didn't have much sparkle to it, between the vacated department stores and the tumbling McDonald's wrappers. There was a large factory of sorts there about twenty years back that had attracted a regular metropolis, but it had caught ablaze in the lightning storm of 51', a storm Wilder Berry tended to speak of when the weather started getting up outside of his shop. Anne and Matthew spent a lot of time in his shop, with all the rain that year, and had heard the story three times or more. Just recently, another, smaller operation, a car parts factory, that had supplied quite a few paychecks to the town, closed its doors. Talk was angry. Men (no longer employed) flocked to the local pub, where they roared their affirmation to statements of anger made by the old foreman, Hallins. He would shake a bottle of liquor outside the hall and speak about the evil of "education obsession." Education and money sharks, that's why Wilmington was ill. None dared to object these sentiments directly.
And there were the wanderers as well. Men without mission. They had driven in four bolts into an engine their whole careers. Now many of these were caught in a bit of a daze, only sparked by reading the morning papers and listening to Hallin's bellowing. There wasn't much chance these could find jobs in their long-time hometown. Bitterness tainted their drinking water, and it tainted the alcohol they drank in "Earl's Place." Mr. Berry frowned in sadness to see them walk past his windows.
. . . . .
27th April 1969,
Hooper spilled his stupid grape soda on my new Levis. RIP my new jeans.
Matthew didn't have many friends at school, but he did play at backyard paintball tournaments with a neighbor named Hooper Wilson. Only, Hooper, a stuttering and grape soda-addicted redhead, wasn't much of a friend to kindle feelings of fondness. He usually ended up turned against Matthew by the school bully. On the occasion of Matthew's fourteenth birthday, the bully, Leroy Horton, pushed Hooper against the gym wall enough times (once) to get the truth of Matthew's whereabouts inside the bathroom. Leroy and Co. gave him quite a present in one of the cramped stalls. Mrs. Churchill ended up throwing away the offended t-shirt worn that day. Superman was printed on the front, and it had been Matthew's favorite, but the lingering stink wasn't good for memory or company.
. . . . .
28th April 1969,
Found a cool place today, up on the hill.
The western woods of the town were Matthew's one place of peace, where he'd walk the family mutt, Snoopy, and whistle back at the birds in the old hickorys and beeches. One place in particular near the wood spoke to the soul. There was a sloping wheat field at the dark wood edge named Walter's Acre. To my knowledge, no one ever did see a Walter there, but the name adorned a board nailed to the oak at the slope's crest. With his back against the knobs of the oak and Snoopy drooling on his knee, Matthew would watch the sun sink over the distant mainstreet structures. They almost looked picturesque in those last rays, when the evening blushed crimson to see the night come, and a body could dream that it lived in a better town, maybe even in a better world. Matthew dreamed of one where he wasn't crammed into chipped lockers and where Mr. Berry didn't have gum spit on his storefront sidewalk and windows by boys the likes of Leroy Horton.
Life wasn't all bad though. Lucky Charms kept the family in good nutritional health, and the three Churchills liked to play and cheat at ridiculously long rounds of card games in front of a fire Mrs. Churchill usually kept crackling. Snoopy would bark frenziedly if they shouted too loud in their competitive spirits. Anne was the member in charge of tackling the dog and would preach at him to keep calm. She'd place her finger on his nose, and the others would roll with laughter to see Snoopy's eyes cross into oblivion trying to stare at it.
. . . . .
31 April 1969,
Took Hooper up to the hill today.
One evening, not so long after the terrible dunking, Matthew and Hooper were trudging up to Walter's Acre. A little smolder of anger still burned in the pit of Matthew's stomach against Hooper about the birthday dunking, but the redhead had since bought the reject some hero figurines and comic books, presented with a very remorseful, soda-stained face. Matthew's eyes had stopped glaring in protest when Hooper sat at his lunch table. He had decided to give him some grace. They were nice comic books. So, Matthew had invited Hooper, though he was still calling him "ex-friend" to watch the sunset on the hill and throw rocks at the big tree. On the way, Hooper, Snoopy, and Matthew, walking single file, had to pass a derelict cemetery in a clearing not farther than two hundred yards from the oak and the field. Matthew stopped short of the cemetery arch, and chewing his forefinger, made a decision to walk into a place that he usually avoided like optional homework. He did so because of something that Mr. Berry had told him a couple days previous.
. . . . .
29 April 1969
Mr. Berry down at the corner store loaned me a book today. It's about a horse. Horses aren't as cool as dogs, but I'm trying to read it to get some ice creams.
Mr Berry leaned over the counter and swept some crumbs off with his sun-stained hands.
"Say, Scout," (Mr. Berry called all kids by that moniker), "you're looking a bit under the weather."
"I hate this town, Mr. Berry. Like I've told you before."
"Oh, I forgot – Matt, I've got a book in my office you need to read. Let me go fetch it."
"I don't care too much for reading, Mr. Berry."
"Mm. I really think you'd like this one. It was my son's favorite. How about two free shakes in trade for reading it?"
Going up stairs, Wilder Berry was wild, hopping up two-a-time with his shiny sperry's, apron strings a-fly. A grin snuck up on Matt as he rocked back on his stool a bit to watch the old man go. He rumbled back down in a moment.
"Here you go – a tale by C.S. Lewis, "The Horse and His Boy." No cowboys and Indians I'm afraid, but it's got even better stuff. Personally, the bear is my favorite character."
"A bear?" Matt wasn't all that interested in all these animals.
"My son loved this book. He's the one who lived with it until the cover fell off. You could depend on seeing an oatmeal cream pie and this book in his hands or pocket at any given time."
"Where's your son now?"
"He isn't here anymore, Matt. He died in a farming accident up by the old oak. Why I gave up farming. Tom's buried in the Hill Cemetery."
"My word, you would have liked him. That boy could make a body laugh, especially his momma. He put down oatmeal cream pies like a hummingbird drinking sugar. But rail thin."..
Mr. Berry chewed on his lip and Matt pushed some crumbs around, unsure what to say.
"He had trouble at school, too, Matt. You're not alone. Came home one night and could barely see out of his eyes. He loved people. But there are hurting people out there that hate to be confronted with love. Love hurts, and you know it. But that school bully of yours I've seen, the one that slinks around like a beaten dog, he could tell you that absence of love hurts worse. Here's that shake. Cheer up, Matt."
. . . . .
"What the heck are you going in there for?" Hooper bleated out as he scratched some dirt clods from Snoopy's ear.
"Quiet, Hooper," Matthew said, stepping further into the cemetery.
"I sure didn't sign up for grave-digging. You know, my mom told me not to go in here."
"Since when do you listen to her?"
Hooper followed Matt in after a couple seconds with a burp, and pulling some gravel pebbles out of his front pocket, preceded to launch them in a lackadaisical manner at the headstone of one "Alma Birtle, Dead 1903." One can assume Hooper disliked the name as it seems unlikely that he had a personal history with Alma.
Matthew wandered in further, scanning the stones for a name. The place wasn't being kept up. Limbs from the towering oaks lay broken over the grave ground. Weeds were sprouting. Wildflowers, nothing store bought, adorned the stretching rectangles. The wind was blowing, like chill breath on Matt's neck. At last, his eyes found the grave marked "Tom Berry." Very recent, this site. There were no dates, inscribed, oddly. Only the words,
"I am only going over Jordan.
I am only going over home."
A pebble hit the inscription. "Stop that, Hooper. This is Mr. Berry's son."
"What are you staring at his grave for? Let's go to Walter's Acre. You didn't say we were coming in here."
Matt knelt down. There was something in the flowers. A wrapper? He picked it up in spite of himself. An oatmeal cream pie wrapper.
"Alright, let's go," Matthew turned back towards Hooper.
Snoopy started barking at the far end of the plot. A low song rose into their ears.
"I am a poor wayfaring stranger…
I am only going over Jordan.
I am only going over home."
A pebble hit Matt in the back. The boys were facing each other. Hooper stared at him, open-mouthed, grape-stained and aghast.
Hooper hit his knees on a gravestone sprinting out and was groaning. They ran on towards the hill peak, refusing to look back. Moving closer, they could see a lone man at the hilltop by the tree, one of the wanderers. The oak's branches were heavy with crows.
"Uhh, I've had enough spooks for today." went Hooper.
They turned right and plunged home through the gorse.
. . . . .
2 September 1969
Second day of school. It's just as bad this year. I'm writing because I don't want to go down to breakfast. Mom's asking questions a lot lately.
I finally finished The Horse and His Boy though. Mr. Berry's son was strange I think. He had underlined this one thing that Aslan said to Shasta: 'I do not call you unfortunate.' Shasta was my age, and he complained that he was having lots of troubles. But really, this lion came and told him, they were really blessings, and he explained it all to him. The line was written all over the book in pen. I didn't like it much when I read that line, but I liked the story, especially the bear.
Gave it to Anne to read.
That day during the third period, which contained Spielmen's Physical Science class, Matthew was squeaking along newly mopped floors on his way back from the "little boy's room," as Spielmen termed it. He used the restroom during class, so he wouldn't end up cornered by Leroy and Company. He turned the corner to the main hall, and that's when he heard some loud bangs. Loud bangs from a gun. He heard guns on movies and from Walter's Acre. Slowly as he had come, he was quick in leaving, making for the back gym exit in a cacophony of tennis shoe screeches. Seemed unlikely that these shots were coming from speakers. They vibrated the walls, tore through him with terror. Then there were yells. A high-pitched shriek.
He was now in the gym and shoved open the back door without stopping his run.
But something resisted his push and he thudded into solidity. Peering at him through the crack in the door was a pale face, close.
"Where are you going, Matthew?" There was a boy, a few years older than him, standing in overalls and a frown, holding the door more firmly then he would have expected. Rail thin.
"You let me out! There's shooting. Can't you hear the shooting??"
"I hear it. Matthew, your friends are still inside. And you can get them out. You know this way's clear. You goin' to leave your whole class?"
"I don't have friends here. Say, let me out now!" He pushed hard again.
Nothing doing. That's when he noticed the oatmeal cream pie in the boy's free hand, and that he was using only one hand to hold the door. And how did he know his name? Matt had never seen the boy before. And there was a worn copy of a book peeping from his front overall pocket. A chill fell on him like a stream from a faucet.
"Look there's no time. You're going back in. No buts."
"I won't. Let them die. They're a pack of rats, anyhow," his lips started trembling.
"You GET to save these people, and you're gonna. Save Hooper. Save Leroy. Be a coward today, and you'll regret it forever. Trust me on this. There are consequences for sin. It's hell. Remember your father." The door was beginning to close in Matt's face, as if by an iron fist.
"What the heck, man. Just let me out!" And he started to blubber.
"Hey!" The boy put a hand on his shoulder. A hand that he didn't feel. "I do not call you unfortunate." At this, Matthew looked into the kid's eyes. Tom was crying too.
Before Matthew could shove or kick or punch or scream his horror, the boy's brow furrowed, concentrated. His lips pursed and began to blow a stream of icy air. His color seemed to flicker. He pulled out the book and shook it. It was missing the cover. The air became a gale. Quick as a wink, Matthew was sailing to the gym entrance, running down the hallway on wings of wind, so scared he had peed himself, adding to the mop moisture already on the floors.
There he was, turning that corner for the second time, five minutes later? He could scarcely think. There was a man at the far end of this leftward hallway, back to him, with a long object in hand. Matt back-tracked with a squeak, chill still running through him, and spun to face an oncoming Mr. Berry, at full tilt from the right hallway. Where had he come from? Teeth were gritted. Shoes squeaking.
His apron strings were streaming out behind him, as if waving a frantic goodbye.
"Run, Matthew," was all he panted out.
The man with the object turned.
Matthew jumped and plunged into the door of Spielmen's classroom.
No doubt in his mind as Matthew was pushed by that chilling blast, he had met Tom Berry, a boy dead for a year or more. He didn't believe that Tom had been killed in a farming accident any longer; he'd been killed doing something dishonorable. There'd been a handcuff on that one exposed wrist. A penny-sized hole in the overalls. "He knew my father" came over his mind with a bizarre certainty.
. . . . .
"Yeah, I thought I was going to die in a freaking science classroom cabinet. But a miracle happened. Your brother, Matthew, he got us out. I don't know what made him turn around. He didn't much like me. I was a coward back then, and I got him hurt, bad. You know it. I didn't deserve to be saved. Maybe Matt thought a coward could be redeemed. Maybe he had a guilty conscious. But he did the bravest thing I ever saw. Because of your brother, I am alive. I've got a family. My Martha just had our baby girl, Lila, a couple months back. We live in a new cabin on Walter's Acre, where Matthew took me a few times. Prettiest place in Lancing County. I think you've been there. Though I will tell you. It's the strangest thing… I'm thinking of moving. Martha and I have found the window by Lila's crib open a few times, though it had been shut the night before. Lila is fine, but the thought of a body opening it gives me the willies. I called the police, but they said there was no trace of the culprit. No footprints on a rainy night. No clue what to think of that, but I love Lila too much to stay there. Martha is fearful to even stay there alone in the day time. The Hill Cemetery, too, is a bit too close for my liking. I still remember the day Matt and I got spooked there. And then him telling me inside the hell that the school became that he had seen Tom Berry, a dead boy. No disrespect to your brother, but that loony stuff gives me the willies. Say hello to your mother for me, and say sorry for me too. Matthew Churchill was a better man than me. He knew something about love, I think. He showed me what it looks like. I know I'd give my life for that baby girl, quick as a wink. What he did, it haunts me. Would you like a grape soda?"
– Hooper Wilson, to Anne Churchill in his office in Wilmington Middle School, 1981
. . . . .
"Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." – Matthew 5:44
"Greater love has no man than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." – John 15:13
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