© 2011 Dennis James Browne











The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening
--Robert Frost




Chapter 1.

ggggggg I committed my first murder at the age of fifteen.
ggggggg She and I were knee deep in the waters of the creek at the back of the estate. It was wide in spots, cold as ice even in the hot July sun. If you looked down, the waters ran fast enough to make your head spin and lose your balance, so you had to hold your eyes on the opposite bank in order to get across. At the time we stood in a quiet spot behind a bend in the creek, smooth as glass with a clean white bottom. She looked much older than she really was, and had long blonde hair, down past her waist that looked quite beautiful in the hot July sun. It was only later, when her mother realized how fast she was growing, how beautiful she was really becoming, that the old lady had it cut, cropped into that horrible tomboy.
ggggggg But at the time it was quite long, she was next to me, and we were alone, looking down into the water for...clams. I say it like that and all the romance is gone, but it was romantic in a way because we thought we might find a beautiful pearl--King Soloman's Pearl, that's what she called it. Today of course it seems a lot different, the way the mind works, holding the two of us forever in that delicate suncrystal, the creek flowing around the side of town, and in the town with the factory being closed and people out of work and all--and even if we did find King Soloman's Pearl, her mother would have just taken it from us and dropped it into her jewel box, with all her other precious stuff.
ggggggg We were climbing out of the water when we heard a noise overhead. In spots the sides of the creek rose sharply to steep dirt banks riddled with hundreds of nest holes by swallows. A pair of swallows was noisily flying over our heads, trying to frighten us off for some reason--either we were too close to their nest or...
ggggggg "Miles, Miles, a baby sparrow--and look at its leg!"
ggggggg In a small patch of grass on the bank lay a baby swallow. Its mouth was open, gasping like crazy, and its little black eyes were filled with terror. One of its legs was broken, bent like a twig.
ggggggg "Miles, what can we do? We can't just leave it here."
ggggggg Of course that would have been the best thing--to just leave it there, I mean, because anyone could see that in a few hours it would be dead anyway. But the way she looked at me with those big sad blue eyes...Its parents dived straight at us, shrieking like mad as I picked it up. We ran up the hill toward the house. The swallows followed after us for a while, still darting and shrieking. Then, when we nearly reached the top of the hill, I looked back over my shoulder and they were gone.
ggggggg We kept the baby sparrow in a cigar box filled with bright pink cotton stuffing from an old doll, then hid it on a dresser in Clare's room, near the sunlight. Clare fixed up its leg with a splint made out of toothpicks and sewing thread while I caught some worms and tried to feed it, but it wouldn't eat. On that same afternoon we gave it a secret code name--Leopold--because we knew Clare's mother, Georgianne, would have a coronary if she ever found out we had a filthy little bird in the house. (She always had a way of making us feel dirty and guilty about everything we did, like we were some kind of secret Nazis.)
ggggggg But Georgianne already knew about the bird, like she seemed to know about everything else. So the next morning at breakfast, when Clare tried to get clever with her...
ggggggg "Miles, did you hear Leopold broke his leg?"
ggggggg My heart nearly dropped into my socks. Georgianne, who had just walked into the kitchen--that was before her stroke and the wheelchair--looked at us with those icy hazel eyes. She poured herself a cup of tea and sat down next to Clare, reminding me exactly of the Ugly Duchess and Alice.
ggggggg "Who's Leopold, Victoria?"
Victoria was Clare's middle name. No one ever called her "Victoria" except her mother, and the way she asked, grim and flat, was more like a command than a question.
ggggggg Clare just kept on eating without looking up.
ggggggg "Nobody, Mother, just somebody I met in school."
ggggggg Georgianne's eyes turned ice cold. They flicked in my direction for a split second, then she lifted her cup to her lips and kept looking at Clare.
ggggggg "Victoria, I've told you a hundred times not to go down to the creek. Or have you forgotten what happened to the Jaeger boy?"
ggggggg Clare must have known right then that the cat was out of the bag. The old lady must have been watching us from the living room window. But Clare kept right on eating her breakfast, playing out her part to the very end.
ggggggg "You're right, mother, I'm sorry...But maybe Bobby Jaeger would still be alive if you were by the window watching him instead of us."
ggggggg Georgianne looked like she'd just been slapped in the face...
ggggggg But then, suddenly, a small, strange smile crept across her face. She leaned over, talking to Clare in a slow, creepy voice--
ggggggg "And how do you know that I wasn't watching him?"
ggggggg Clare and I stared at each other. Georgianne got up from her chair and turned away from the table without looking at us.
ggggggg We knew what she meant of course. The Jaegers were a German family she'd hated for as long as we could remember, so in a way her remark shouldn't have surprised us. It was just the way she said it--so strange and creepy--like maybe she really did watch Bobby Jaeger drown!
ggggggg "--Birds spread disease, Victoria. I want that filthy little creature out of this house immediately!"
ggggggg "But Mother, I--"
ggggggg "Immediately! Do you understand?"
ggggggg Clare bolted from the table in tears. I ran after her. I knew that soon my father would be home and he'd straighten everything out...
ggggggg But by that time it didn't make any difference. We went back upstairs and I could see that Leopold was dying. Clare didn't think so of course, but the way it was just lying there, hardly moving, I knew that something inside it had just snapped, and that in a few hours it would be dead.
ggggggg I couldn't let that happen--it would break Clare's heart, I knew it would.
ggggggg So I settled on a plan. I took the baby swallow and made Clare promise to stay in her bedroom until I got back. Then I hid Leopold down in the basement, and ran outside back down to the creek. Minutes later I was back down in the basement.
ggggggg I decided to use the killing bottle. The one I use for my moths. I only collect cecropias because they're so beautiful and easy to find. In the fall the cocoons stick out on branches like ripe fruit. Quite a few of them have little brown holes, which means that the pupas have been sucked dead by birds. Anyway, I collect the good ones and in the house where it's warm they hatch in a few weeks. Then I mount them in glass cases. In only two years I've collected five beautiful cases in my bedroom, with the largest moth--a real beauty, almost seven inches across--right in the center. I never show my collection to anyone except Clare...
ggggggg She thinks it's beautiful, and that's all that really counts.
ggggggg Anyway, Leopold went with a few weak flutters, almost immediately. In the killing bottle I mean. Of course I didn't use cyanide, just the rubbing alcohol I use for the cecropias, and some of the pink cotton from the cigar box. And when it was over I hid Leopold down in the basement and buried him a few days later out back near the rose garden.
ggggggg At the time I actually felt good about what I'd done because of Clare, and I knew that the baby swallow would only suffer for maybe hours more and then die anyway. It was only years later that I realized how much like children some animals are, and that taking one of their lives is far worse than killing certain people...
ggggggg When I was done I went back to Clare's bedroom and showed her the empty cigar box. At first she didn't understand, but then I took her down to the creek and we climbed up one of the banks not far from where we found Leopold. I managed to get her to peek inside one of the nest holes--the whole colony was crazy as wasps around us. Inside were three baby swallows almost exactly the same size and color as Leopold--that's why I had to go down to the creek, to find a nest with a baby sparrow in it.
ggggggg I made Clare believe that I took off Leopold's splint, but when she tried to take a closer look, I pulled her back--the swallows were getting crazier by the second!
ggggggg That night she gave me a kiss. On the cheek of course, she was so happy. I never told her what really happened because even years later she remembered Leopold with that big happy smile...
ggggggg And that's all that really counted.


Chapter 2.

ggggggg Clare and I rarely saw each other during school hours because I was two grades ahead of her and I would have been a senior at Benson Memorial High School when she was a sophomore. But that never happened--my graduating from Benson High, I mean--because of the scandal and everything that happened afterward...
ggggggg We were a very important family in Benson. My father, Robert Morris Spaulding, was owner of Fairfield-Cody, Ltd., one of the town's two big manufacturing plants. Since Benson is a blue-collar town, my father provided work for a lot of people--including the parents of quite a few of the kids we went to school with.
ggggggg But that didn't stop some of the people in Benson from resenting us--even hating us because we were outsiders. And the fact that Georgianne kept her maiden name, Rothstein, didn't help either. Some of the old German workers who'd been with Fairfield-Cody for years even threatened to quit when we first came to town and bought the Walters estate. But my father could charm the socks off a snake, and when he made his weekly tour of the plant and they all saw what a really decent man he was, all the fuss just sort of died down.
ggggggg In a way I can't blame them though. We aren't your typical All-American family. There's a lot of mystery surrounding our past, and to this day even Clare and I don't know much about our parents...
ggggggg What we do know is that we were both born in London and came to America when my father landed a big government contract for navy ship diesel engines. He bought out the Fairfield-Cody plant when old Leon Cody died, leaving Frank Fairfield's widow the only owner. We all moved to Wisconsin in 1963.
ggggggg Georgianne is Clare's mother. She was married to a lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. His name was Vincent Crittendon. Georgianne's twin sister, Marianne Rothstein, was my mother, who married my father just after World War II. My father once told me that the Spaulding name is well known in England and can be traced all the way back to the royal family of Plantagenets.
ggggggg On the other hand Clare and I know nothing whatsoever about the Rothstein family. Georgianne likes it that way. It was only pure luck that Clare and I eventually found out that my mother and Clare's father drowned together in a boating accident on the Thames! Right away Clare and I assumed that they were having an affair.
ggggggg And if they were lovers, why on earth would Georgianne and my father come to America together--with us? They certainly weren't lovers, even though they'd been living together for years, hardly saying a word to each other.
ggggggg As soon as we found out about the boating accident, Clare made the mistake of asking Georgianne about how our parents died. A big mistake. Georgianne's hand lashed out like a whip and caught Clare full in the face...I don't think she ever realized how much Clare hated her after that.
ggggggg Georgianne and my father are about as much alike as sulphuric acid and water, and heaven only knows what mysterious bond holds them together. It's not love, that's for sure. In fact, at times I think my father hates Georgianne as much as us and some of the old Germans in town--especially when she treats Clare and me like dirt.
ggggggg And it can't be money either. Though we can't be sure, Clare and I are almost positive that Georgianne is even richer than my father, though we have no idea where all her money came from.
ggggggg Anyway, when we found out that my mother and Clare's father died together, Clare was in tears for days. For her sake, I pretended that I was just as upset...but I wasn't really. Whatever happened to our parents happened years ago in another world, and whatever Clare and I did or found out couldn't possibly make a difference...
ggggggg It was that simple.
ggggggg You see, in many ways I'm a lot older, a lot more mature than Clare--and worldly too, though I haven't traveled further than Madison or Chicago. Don't misunderstand me. I did care what happened to our parents, but it was more out of curiosity than remorse. I don't even remember my mother, and it all happened so long ago that it really doesn't mean that much to me...
ggggggg Besides, I have my own problems.
ggggggg As you may have already guessed, I'm a mute.
ggggggg I say it like that and I can tell right away you assume that something else is wrong with me--psychologically I mean. But that's all right, I'm used to that kind of response. It means nothing to me...
ggggggg Besides, it could have been worse, couldn't it? I mean I could be blind--that's worse!--or I could have been born normal and had an accident or contracted some disease like cancer when I got older--and then lost my speech. I think that would have been a lot worse too.
ggggggg As it is, since I've been this way since I was born, I'm used to it. Georgianne thought I should go to a private school, but my father insisted that I go to public schools like everyone else and learn to deal with my "problem" like a real man (He loved John Wayne).
ggggggg But I'm not John Wayne, and the first few years in school were pretty rough, especially since I was one of the richest kids in town and some of the other kids' parents worked at my father's plant. That built up a lot of resentment--especially when we had the strike in '64. In those days more than a few times I went home with a black eye and bruises. But after a few years I got to know everyone, they knew me, and things settled down. Now it's only strangers who give me trouble.
ggggggg As I got older, I also came to know that my blood runs back much further than the Plantagenets--to a race of ancient and wise men who ruled by their actions, not their words. Only they knew the truth--that speech is mankind's greatest curse, leading to endless lies, confusion, deceit, misery and war. Without speech politicians would be seen as the impotent little worms they really are. Hitler would have died in obscurity, and slaughters by religious fanatics would end overnight.
ggggggg I've come to accept my silence as a mantle of dignity and wisdom. At times I can tell that others--the sensitive ones--can also feel this deep inner strength of mine, but only after they get to know me.
ggggggg That's why I hate sign language. My father forced me to learn it, but I never use it because of those silly movements--all those birdlike gestures are so foolish and degrading.
ggggggg I never associate with other mutes for the same reason. Once at the estate Georgianne threw a big birthday party for Clare. We all sat out by the veranda under a big tent. Seated next to me was a little girl my age in a pink pinafore. Her name was Mary, and her mother was a close friend of Georgianne.
ggggggg At first I thought Mary was just shy. Then, suddenly, she started working her fingers like crazy right in front of me--and smiling!
ggggggg Georgianne had deliberately seated me beside another mute!
ggggggg I was so humiliated I thought I'd explode! I could have strangled the little bitch right there--smiling at me and working her fingers like a deranged clown. I looked around. People were staring at us. They too were smiling.
ggggggg I ran to my bedroom and slammed the door behind me, humiliated and blinded by tears of rage. That was the closest I think I ever came to murdering Georgianne outright.
ggggggg And the others--the fools!
ggggggg Didn't they know that God intended me to be with only one woman in my life?
ggggggg Clare...
ggggggg Clare Victoria...
ggggggg Clare Victoria Rothstein.
ggggggg The only woman I could ever protect. The only woman I could ever love...
ggggggg And the only woman I could ever hate.
ggggggg To know the way I felt, you had to know her. In one way Clare was the prettiest, sweetest person you'd ever meet. I mean even at the age of thirteen she had the kind of face that made men stop right in the middle of the street and gawk at her. She was that beautiful. She had very pale white skin, just the opposite of her mother. And her eyes were blue, but not an ordinary blue. When she got up in the morning and had no makeup on they seemed ordinary enough--but at night, at night when she dressed up or put on dark eyeliner, those eyes...they'd just take your breath away they were so beautiful. She used to say she was turning on her high beams--and she knew exactly what effect they had on me.
ggggggg But there was something else. A lot of women are so attractive they seem untouchable, like Deanna Connors. She was so beautiful no one asked her out until she was a junior. With Clare it was just the opposite--and it drove me crazy. And it wasn't her fault either. She was too shy to ever wear sexy clothes--which Georgianne would never allow anyway--and she went shopping or walked down the street, she always kept to herself.
ggggggg But that didn't make any difference. Once at the mall some old guy walked right up to her and offered her money--and another time some stranger in a Rolls Royce practically grabbed her right off the street! She just had that look that drove men crazy enough to want to grab her and do terrible things to her...
ggggggg Like that stupid dago Angelo. He was the first man to make love to Clare, I know he was. She always denied it, but I could tell.
ggggggg Angelo and I hated each other from the second we met. He was in high school--fours years older than Clare. Georgianne would have had a coronary if he knew Clare was dating such a druggie motorcycle dago scumbag...but I guess that's part of the reason she went out with him in the first place.
ggggggg "Here, Miles, have a drag."
ggggggg The three of us, Angelo, me and one of his brain-dead buddies--I don't even remember his name--were sitting on the bleachers, watching our football team scrimmage and waiting for Clare. Angelo was smoking dope--right in the open like he owned the world.
ggggggg I shook my head. The dago laughed.
ggggggg "Come on, Miles, loosen up--have a drag."
ggggggg Again I shook my head. I guess he could see I was getting angry. He winked at his creep sidekick and looked at me.
ggggggg "You don't like me, do you, Miles?"
ggggggg I kept ignoring him, but you could see he was getting high--and totally obnoxious. His buddy kept egging him on--
ggggggg "Come on, Miles--cat got yer tongue?"
ggggggg I got up to leave, but just then Clare showed up with her girlfriend, Becky Anderson.
ggggggg "Hi, guys. Sorry we're late."
ggggggg I just looked at Clare and started walking away.
ggggggg "Miles, where are you going?"
ggggggg I didn't even look back. I felt her hand on my jacket. She stood glaring at Angelo.
ggggggg "Did you say something to him?"
ggggggg Angelo and his cretin friend looked at each other.
ggggggg "I just offered him a drag and he freaked out."
ggggggg Clare frowned at the joint in Angelo's hand.
ggggggg "I don't believe you're smoking that here!"
ggggggg "Come on, Clare--you're not jealous of good ol' Mary Juana, are you?"
ggggggg Clare just shook her head.
ggggggg "Let's go, Becky. Miles and I are walking home."
ggggggg Becky laughed--along with the other two. She was one of them.
ggggggg Clare and I walked home. The dago, his creep buddy and Becky followed alongside us in their big Harleys, making clever little wisecracks and trying to impress Clare. By the time we got home he had her laughing, but she never left my side.
ggggggg Clare only went out with him once or twice after that. He kept following her home from school and playing the clown on his flashy bike, but I think Clare just outgrew the thrill of his motorcycle mentality a lot quicker than she thought she would--and when she dropped someone that was it. She never looked back...
ggggggg Except for the Greek of course, but that was years later.
ggggggg Anyway, that was the last either of us had to do with Angelo Burgoni--except for the incident with Frank Haley...
ggggggg In his senior year, Frank was the only student in the country to have perfect scores on his SAT's. He also looked like a Greek god and could have been the best athlete in school, but wasn't. Frank's father left his mother when she got sick and I guess Frank went a little crazy. He stayed to himself, worked full time as a night watchman at my father's plant and never said a word to anyone.
ggggggg Needless to say, a biker and pothead loafer like Angelo hated a guy like Frank Haley from the day they met. And since Angelo was a big shot senior and Frank only a freshman, he probably thought Frank was afraid of him. I saw him shove Frank around a few times in gym class, but nothing came of it.
ggggggg Then one day Frank found a note in his gym locker. It was signed Angelo and said something real rotten about his dying mother. I watched Frank walk right out into the basketball court with the note in his hand. His eyes were like a man from another planet. Frank handed Angelo the note and asked him if he wrote it. Angelo frowned like he knew he was being set up--but then he made a big mistake. He laughed and said yeah, he did write the note--and Frank's mother was great!
ggggggg All the other kids laughed. I guess they didn't know how sick Frank's mother was and how much he loved her.
ggggggg Anyway, it was over in a second. Frank's fist moved so fast I didn't even see it. Angelo's head made a real sickening sound when it hit the basketball court. I thought he was dead right there!
ggggggg But Frank wasn't finished. He picked up a javelin lying near the tarpaulin and stuck it right through Angelo's face, from one side of his jawbone to the other. The javelin was sticking straight up in the air, pinning Angelo's head to the basketball court...
ggggggg There was blood all over the place.
ggggggg The incident made headlines and Frank was arrested, but Angelo recovered and Frank was back in school a few days later...
ggggggg Any girl in school would have gone out with Frank Haley and done anything he asked, but he never asked.
ggggggg Except for Clare, I never had any close friends while I was in school. If I did it would have been Frank Haley, because we're so much alike. Aside from being a lot wiser and more mature than his classmates, Frank carries wounds in his heart--secret wounds--that would destroy lesser men...He too is a member of that ancient and wise race who despise words and let their actions do their talking. Frank Haley hated Angelo Burgoni as much as I did, and he had to be directed in his actions only by the secret bond between us...
ggggggg That's why I never told him. I mean about me being the one who put the note in his locker. I didn't have to...
ggggggg I knew that Frank already understood.