A Traveller Family Mystery

by Lint Hatcher

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"Traveling is about seeing new places, and about pointing a camera at squinting people or at things that are usually too far away. Traveling is about spending money on stuff that you'd never dream of buying at home. It's about discovering the different and occasionally the bizarre -- about finding something adventurous, daring, and even romantic in yourself. It's about expanding your perceptions along with the changing view just beyond the windshield."

-- Tom Snyder
The Route 66 Traveler's Guide and Roadside Companion

Chapter 1
Sometimes Graffiti Says Things Best

There's nothing like walking through a school building when you don't have to be in school.

Max felt the first butterflies of summer vacation in his stomach. It was nine o'clock p.m. on the first night of the first day of summer vacation and as Max walked down the half-lit, empty hallway of Waddell County High School a giddy burst of energy crept up into his shoulders and his feet seemed to float with a carefree lilt. "I don't have to be here!" he almost shouted. He began to swagger, and then to weave back and forth -- doing exactly what he would never do if teachers were in all those empty classrooms. For once, the smell of crayons, and glue, and pencil sharpeners didn't make him feel queasy and full of dread. Instead, he possessed the casual self-sufficiency of a free man.

He remembered feeling something like this once before. In March, his mother had come to school to take him out of class for an early afternoon doctor's appointment. On that particular day in the past, the rooms were still full of bland, staring kids. Max had felt nothing but pity for all of them as he had made his way down this same hall to meet his mother in the principal's office. A secret, gloating smile had grown inside his heart and it had broken into echoing snickers and devious laughter the moment his mother led him out the school doors. The sunlight and clear spring air had seemed like a gift from God.

Today, he felt the same tingling excitement again -- only this was no afternoon parole. This was summer vacation -- the thought of which had been cooking on the back burner of every kid's mind for months. This was three months of no homework -- and for weeks now, every kid had been able to smell it in the air with its savory tantalizing suggestions of afternoon trips to the movies, neighborhood football games, homemade lunches at home, family vacations, and just plain doing nothing. This was school is out! -- and the dreary halls of academia were utterly empty. Those concrete walls, that normally seemed only slightly less hard, heavy, and authoritative as most of the teachers, now had no power to contain Max, to make sure he was "where he was supposed to be." The polished floor tiles -- an awful institutional grey with cheerless flecks of silver -- reflected a wavering upside-down image of him, his hands in the pockets of his blue jeans jacket, his stance slightly hunched over as though he were ready to break into a sprint at the slightest whim.

Yet, as cheerful as all this was, the yellow-grey walls echoed his footsteps with a clarity that seemed rare, lonely, even spooky in the empty building this night. Gradually, the sound overcame Max's elation. A strange sadness began build behind his eyes. The emptiness of the classrooms was such a surreal contrast to what the building was meant for and somehow that brought to Max's mind how tiresome, how frustrating school was for him. The quiet of the vacant rooms suggested for a moment that the school was a blank slate, that with the next school year some fresh, new attempt could be made at reaching high educational goals. But, really, nothing was going to change. Everything would go on just as it had been no matter how much Max hated it. He kept moving, straining to make sure that nobody else but himself was sending those footfalls echoing through the building.

Max wasn't supposed to be there.

But, then, he was on a mission. And it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

"Just a little bit more," he said, deliberately speaking aloud. It calmed him a little to hear his own familiar voice.

Drifting in from outside the building came the sounds of students whooping it up at the Summer Carnival (or School's Out Party, as most kids had dubbed it). The carnival was a fund-raising idea that Waddell High had borrowed from the local Catholic schools -- setting up a mini-State Fair, complete with cotton candy, a clattering mini-roller coaster, and a spook house sporting a primitive folk-art mural of ghosts, demons, and vampires. Judging by the noise, there was more energy pouring out of the students, faculty, and parents out there than Max had seen all year. The emotional high everyone seemed to feel probably was due not only to the happy fact of summer vacation, but also to a strange blast of cool air that had blown in from the north. Typically hot and humid summer nights in Georgia had suddenly taken on the briskness of autumn afternoons. There was just enough cold in the air to challenge you, to make you feel the life in your bones, to make you want to risk sudden grinding death on that gyrating Mo-Mo the Monster ride over there.

Around 8:50 p.m., Max had carefully slipped away from the carnival crowd. He had been surprised to find the side door to the school unlocked and wondered if he was about to step into a crowd of folks wandering in and out of the restrooms. No one seemed to be in the building, however, and so Max had crept along quietly.

Now, five minutes later, he felt sure nobody was in the building and that, if he managed to find just one more unlocked door, he would reach his goal.

He stepped past the door to the English classroom where he, the rest of his 8th grade class, and Mr. Kimball had spent so many restless hours that year. He stopped. The door was shut, but it provided a single window about two feet square, the glass supported by a thin mesh of what looked like chicken wire. Max couldn't resist looking in.

"Man... ," he said to himself, "I hope I never have to go in that room again." His thick black hair dangled in his face as he peered through the reinforced glass. There was the blackboard. There was the familiar arrangement of desks, row after row made faintly familiar by the memory of Max's "classmates". There was the teacher's desk. And there, almost diagonally opposite from the teacher, as far away as possible, was Max's old desk.

Shaking his head, Max moved on.

Mr. Kimball had not, in Max's opinion, been a very effective English teacher. Heck, he was more like the Anti-English teacher. Max had no doubt that in his own adulthood -- always assuming he would live to adulthood -- most of his school days would fade from memory. The days he had spent in Mr. Kimball's room, however, would not.

For example:

Once, Max had stepped up to Mr. Kimball's desk after class. This was before Max had fully gauged the kind of person Mr. Kimball was and Max had hoped to "shoot the breeze" about Mary Richards, a writer whose short stories had been the center of attention in class the last few days.

"I just thought that short story we read, "Men Walking Like Trees", was great, I guess," Max said, rushing through what he was trying to say. "I didn't really notice until I read the introduction that she was writing from... I guess, a Christian perspective, or a Catholic perspective. I don't really know the difference. Or if there is a difference. I guess I can see pretty clearly that she is a Southern writer, though, like you said. I've probably met some of those characters she wrote about... " Max had stumbled, feeling like he was trying to say too much at once. He hated how he only seemed to realize how unclear his thoughts were when he tried to say them aloud and ended up sounding like an idiot. "I mean, the characters are all such weird people and the whole thing with the escaped killer really did push everything toward some sort of ... meaning, I guess. I mean, when the grandmother and the killer kept talking back and forth and she knew she might be killed any minute -- that was pretty wild. It was as though the grandmother was trying to get the killer to believe in God so that he would do the right thing and let her go, but the killer did believe in God and that was exactly why he didn't do right -- he didn't want God."

Max had hoped to discuss this point in class, but it had never been brought up and it felt too strange to bring it up, all alone, in front of everybody. The impact of the story on Max's mind had left him reeling, searching for a way to put the experience into words, to make it more manageable. And yet the story defied quick explanations.

Mr. Kimball had stared at Max with huge, protruding eyes. They were blue and might have seemed bright and clear if not for a dull shock of black hair that Mr. Kimball kept pushing back from his forehead. He nodded, almost imperceptibly, as if appreciative of Max's comments. "Did you know that Mary Richards was a lesbian?" Mr. Kimball said then.

Max's mind had gone blank for a moment. He was conscious only of the involuntary action of his eyes, blinking.

"Yes, many critics believe she was a lesbian. She never claimed to be. But you can see a hint of it, I believe, in her collected letters," Mr. Kimball added.

Max felt something in him drop down like a barricade. He had been completely thrown by Mr. Kimball's statement. He thought in a quick confused jumble of responses, "A lesbian? Well, what does that have to do with what I just said? Does that have anything to do with what I just said? I don't think it does... " He feared for a second that he looked shocked, as though he was reacting against the idea of lesbianism. But then he realized he wasn't actually sure what he thought about lesbianism, not having given it much thought in his short life. It was simply that this short story of Mary Richards' was very good and deserved some discussion and Mr. Kimball's remark seemed so out-of-the-blue... it didn't seem to fit. Not at all.

At the same time, something in the way Mr. Kimball was staring at Max seemed to express "I wouldn't be saying this to just any of my students. But then, it's you and me here in the room now, Max, and you're one of my smarter students. I am gracing you with this mature observation because I think you are worthy... "

Though all this passed through Max's mind, he didn't say anything. A mumbled "What?" was all he could manage.

"Well," Mr. Kimball shrugged, leaning back in his chair with a disarming nonchalance, "I don't pretend to know how she worked that out with her Catholicism. I'm only pointing out that the suggestion is there... in her collected letters."

They both stared casually at each other.

Inside, Max felt anything but casual. He wanted to blurt out, "But why are you saying this?! Why are you telling me this?!" His mind was rushing frantically to make some sense of it all. He thought he might have missed something and that Mr. Kimball actually was being quite clear-minded and intelligent. He thought that Mr. Kimball might suddenly break out in a loud guffaw and say, "Aw, c'mon! I'm only kidding! It's a great story! Let's talk about it!!" The moment went on for twenty seconds more -- Max full of confusion, Mr. Kimball apparently blank as a slate -- until the illogic and unreality in the room thoroughly soaked Max's mind. Then, suddenly, Max said, "Well. Thanks!" and found himself walking out the door.

That first instance had made Max very suspicious of Mr. Kimball. Not because Max felt that Mr. Kimball had been too informal or "outspoken". It certainly wasn't bad, in and of itself, to mention what kind of life-style a writer may have had. After all, the textbook's introductions to the writers always seemed to mention such things -- including, often enough, that the writer committed suicide. But why was the focus always on sex and death? Why not hobbies? If Mr. Kimball was going to pull some comment out of nowhere, some trivia that had nothing at all to do with what Max had said, why hadn't Mr. Kimball mentioned, "By the way, do you know that she collected baseball cards?" or "Did you know she was very into ballroom dancing?" Maybe it was because sex and death always seemed to be on people's minds.

Even so, Mr. Kimble was supposed to be responding to a question, not rambling. And Max just could not figure out the connection between what Max had said and Mr. Kimball's reply. The question actually haunted him for a while until one day it had suddenly popped into Max's mind to ask, "Is Mr. Kimball gay?" Max didn't think so. "Well, then is he anti-gay?" Again, Max didn't think so. But then, so what if he was either? There still wasn't any connection between Max's comments and Mr. Kimball's response. And then Max decided -- It was simply something about how Mr. Kimball thought. It was as though the man was on some other wavelength. Further, a wavelength that he preferred over Max's wavelength. But it hadn't been like a simple disagreement. Instead, it had been as though Mr. Kimball's view had swallowed up Max's view, as though Mr. Kimball had summoned a mood into the room that so alienated and disoriented Max that he couldn't pursue his own train of thought. But why? And why did it all bother Max so intensely, so that he could hardly go to sleep at night without wondering about it?

Ultimately, Max decided that he couldn't reason his way through that strange conversation and its oddly confusing atmosphere. He also knew it was something that he couldn't talk about with other people to see what they thought it would seem to them that he was making too much out of a little, meaningless incident. So he filed it away.

Max's second "encounter" with Mr. Kimball was just as startling, but not so mysterious. And this experience, unfortunately, simply brought on a clear-headed dislike for the man.

For homework one day, Mr. Kimball assigned everyone to write a two page story that had to begin with the words, "The shadows lengthened as the sun set and the solitary man walked along the sidewalk." Max had sat down to work on his story after dinner that night with no idea of how to begin. The next morning he handed in a fourteen page story. It had just happened somehow. A story had poured out of him, down onto fourteen blank sheets of notebook paper. A story with a real beginning, a real rising action, a real climax -- even an epilogue! Max was absolutely ecstatic about it and, when Mr. Kimball said he would like to see Max after class, he felt sure the teacher would be just as excited.

Mr. Kimball's eyes blazed. "I do not appreciate this little stunt of yours," he said.

Max's eyes went wide and his mouth hung half-open -- his mind was blank with astonishment.

"Don't play innocent," the teacher said then. "Just because you can write fourteen pages of story gives you no right to show off in front of the other students. I can't believe you could be so self-centered."

Seconds passed as Mr. Kimball, apparently, waited for an answer.

"But I just wrote ... a story." Max finally managed to say. He suddenly realized that he was actually holding back tears and blinked quickly to get rid of them.

"How do you expect me to grade a fourteen page story? I have thirty-five other assignments to grade in this class alone."

Max actually hadn't thought of that.

"I'm sorry," he said after a moment. "I didn't intend to write that much ... it just happened. And I was so... I dunno, I was so happy about it, I just thought it was good. That it was a good thing."

Mr. Kimball paused, taking a deep breath and letting it whistle slowly out of his nostrils. For a moment, he seemed to be adjusting himself mentally as though he was a little unprepared for what Max had said. Then his face become solid and unyielding again. "Well, you're just lucky I'm not giving you an F for not following instructions," he said finally. "As it is, I am willing to grade the first two pages -- though I guarantee you won't get anything over a C."

All Max could do was sit and stare at Mr. Kimball. His whole vision of the man was tempered now by a heart-rending sense of injustice. In one sense, the complaint was true: Max hadn't followed the assignment. But in another sense, shouldn't this burst of creativity -- maybe even talent -- be encouraged? Over the years, Max had seen plenty of bad movies made just for teenagers in which the teachers were completely two-dimensional. They had always seemed too hard-headed to be real. But Max couldn't help but wonder, at that moment, if it were actually possible for someone to be exactly that narrow, that frozen, that "tunnelvisioned".

Finally, after several other such encounters, Max's idea of Mr. Kimball congealed into one word that Max had never really thought you could use for a real live human being. It was a strange word, but Max's anger and hurt gave it a ring of truth.

The word was "monster".

It was a silly word, one that never seemed to be used in real conversation in real life. But it was the word Max wanted. His father had told him once when Max was a little kid that there was no such thing as monsters. But Mr. Kimball seemed so... selfish, so bent on following his own little program, that he would walk right over any person who got in his way and never even notice. That was exactly how selfish Dracula was, wasn't it? Destroying anyone that got in his way without feeling a hint of remorse was what made Dracula so "monstrous" wasn't it? And so "monster" was exactly the right word.

And this monster had authority over people.

In the midst of Mr. Kimball's confusing, sinister class, Max had discovered three things about himself. First, Max had formerly thought of himself as timid but he found he wasn't, not exactly. Sometimes, he was able to stand up for himself; after all, he had spoken up and told Mr. Kimball his side of the fourteen page story. Other times, however, he had found that he wasn't able to say anything. This was the second insight. Sometimes, he was completely thrown off balance -- made mute, actually -- by meanness in adults. Max called it "meanness," anyhow. By that word, he certainly meant the harsh attitude Mr. Kimball had taken about the fourteen page story. But he also meant a kind of mean-spiritedness when an adult didn't seem to be treating Max as a person, didn't speak to him as though his comments made sense and deserved an answer, but instead would smile and talk to Max as though Max hadn't said anything and then proceed on his or her own wavelength. At such a time, Max felt something wrong was happening, but he didn't understand why it was happening and he didn't necessarily understand the adult's perspective enough to stand his own ground and disagree. Actually, he felt instinctively that it wouldn't matter what he said anyway. There just didn't seem to be anything he could say, anything he could do to get through a strange thick wall between himself and the adult. He didn't understand how the barrier got there, and he didn't know how to defeat it.

Except, maybe -- silent protest.

Except for non-violent civil disobedience.

This was the third insight.

One day, Max had begun to do a peculiar thing, without even thinking about it before he started. With his Eagle Mirado Number 2 pencil, he had began to draw on the top of his desk during class.

First, it was mythical figures. A flying Pegasus. A fleet-footed Centaur. There was something about Greek mythology that had hung around in his mind since the year when they had read parts of the Odyssey in that Edith Hamilton book. In some unspoken, unconscious way, it felt right to bring the characters in those stories to life in the middle of a Waddell High classroom -- while a pencil sharpener growled somewhere, while chalk tapped across a blackboard, while kids chewed on their Bic pens and wished for a bomb threat. The slickly coated wood surface of the desk top was surprisingly friendly to the soft cross-hatching and washes the No. 2 performed. Max's desk was far away from the front of the room and Mr. Kimball never seemed to leave the chalkboard while lecturing. So whenever Max felt he should, he let his thick English textbook, "The Magic, The Words, and You," hide his little masterpiece.

Strangely, Max didn't feel finished with just a Pegasus on one corner of the desk and a Centaur on the other. So he worked on his hidden "work in progress" for the next two days, trusting that Mr. Kimball didn't often venture from his desk and chalkboard between classes.

And then a neat thing happened. The first day, Max had left class feeling not so much afraid that Mr. Kimball would discover the desktop mural, but that other students would find it and destroy it. The second day, Max found the drawing untouched. Ditto for the third day. The fourth day, he found a note on the bottom right corner of the mural, "Good work whoever you are." It was written in a hand Max felt sure did not belong to Mr. Kimball. The fifth day, there was Zeus, thunderbolts in hand, drawn by someone else! A different style, a different touch, but a good drawing. Every day afterward, the mural grew. There was Hercules, the nine-headed Hydra, Cerberus (the dog that guards the gates of Hades), and was that Athena or somebody else? A couple of rock and roll idols crept in, but in some other person's drawing style. Max thought about erasing them, but he never did.

So he continued to draw, adding to the pantheon of gods on his bland, anonymous school desk. It was exhilarating. He had no idea what this meant, but he knew he liked it and he knew that it was somehow a reaction against Mr. Kimball and, Max supposed, school in general. He also knew that his desk no longer felt like a ball and chain; now it seemed more pleasant, interesting, friendly. Max found himself appreciating the "aesthetics" of the woodgrain behind his drawings and the smoothness of the shellacked surface that held sharp lines so well, but also allowed for smooth, subtle washes. He wondered if the other contributors to the drawing were having the same odd feeling of freedom and fun, plus the satisfaction of experiencing these things despite Mr. Kimball.

Every day, Max left class wanting to hang around a little, to risk being late for Biology just to catch sight of who settled down into that seat. But each day he decided to keep it a mystery. Each day, he let his connection with that other kindred spirit (or spirits, maybe?) remain secret and privileged -- through their art alone.

By the time when the end of the year seemed just over the horizon, the whole thing looked glorious. It seemed a double miracle to Max -- (1) that Mr. Kimball never went around cleaning up his room and noticed it, and (2) that somebody else seemed to give a crap about these heroes and monsters and could draw them with the same... intensity.

And then, four weeks before school ended, Max came to class and the mural was gone.

A different desk, dull and anonymous, stood in its place. Though Max had known the day must come, he was startled at how surprised and angry he felt. Nevertheless, quietly and even stealthily, he concealed his emotions and calmly slid into the seat. He looked up then and was not at all surprised to find Kimball staring at him.

Kimball opened his mouth.

"All right, class, settle down," was what came out of it. Then, "Someone please begin reading on page 243 at the top of the page... "

And that was it.

Max hadn't had the courage -- or maybe the stupidity -- to look for the "graffiti" desk while school was still going on. For all Max knew, Mr. Kimball might be watching him, waiting for him to incriminate himself. As if having sat in that desk all year wasn't incriminating enough.

Only now, after school was out and the halls were empty and everyone was at the carnival, had Max worked up the guts to sneak into the school to try and find the desk. He had no idea what he would do with it, beyond a vague hope that the desktop might be pulled off the seat somehow. He didn't really know if the mural still existed. For some reason, however, he suspected that when Mr. Kimball had discovered the graffiti desk there hadn't been time to bring in some Comet and scrub the thing down. Somehow, Max knew that the desk simply and quickly had been replaced. And he knew almost certainly where the desk was hidden -- a large storage room near the teachers' lounge.

The hall was empty, still, and quiet. As he stepped up to the storage room door, Max reassured himself that Kimball just didn't care enough to be anywhere nearby, waiting to catch him. He paused to look behind himself. But then how could you predict a person as weird as Mr. Kimball? For a moment, the most outrageously demonic caricature of Mr. Kimball seemed to be strolling down the hall toward Max, pointing and saying, "I'll see you in detention hall HELL!!!" But then Max jerked his head back round to the storage room door and the mental imagery disappeared. There was just enough adrenaline in Max's blood to make his heart sound like it was beating inside his ears.

Max looked into the two foot square window on the door. Mops, brooms, an old 8 millimeter projector, TV sets on rolling stands, and desks everywhere -- many more desks than Max had thought a school would have "extra" -- all draped in careless shadows. He put his hand to the doorknob.

It was locked!

"Crap!" he said under his breath. Looking back in the window, he carefully scanned the room. There was a window across the room, opposite this door, that allowed the moonlight to pour in with a pale, reluctant glow. Finally, Max found it. It was close enough to the door for Max to make out the shape of Pegasus. Then Zeus. Then the Centaur, Cerberus, and the Hydra. The rock stars and, perhaps, Athena.

He twisted the doorknob with all his strength, then shook the door in frustration. He reached into his pocket for his mother's Blockbuster Video card as he stared into the crack where the door fit into the frame. He put the card back into his pocket. The door had a bolt lock.

He couldn't get to it. He couldn't save it.

A janitor that had probably never met Mr. Kimball or Max or the other mystery artist would pull out a scrubbing brush and a bucket of soapy water and erase two months of ... of something so important Max could not conjure up words for it.

Max stood there, staring in the window, letting the emotions build. Somehow, in a manner that went beyond Max's ability to reason, this seemed to sum up his whole experience with school. He kicked the door suddenly with a loud Ker-Wham! that disappeared down the hall. "Stupid!" he shouted at the door and searched to find a good four-letter word. Even the worst words seemed weak, though.

Without looking away from the door, he walked backward across the hall until he collided with the opposite wall. He slid down into a crouch and stared. Gradually, he ceased focusing on the door and the desk and became aware again of the empty hall and the empty classrooms. For a few seconds, then, his frustration was appeased slightly by the personal accomplishment of breaking into school and shouting and kicking doors. But all that was weak, too. He waited for a while, thinking that maybe the other person who had worked on that wonderful Athena or that frightening Cerberus would show up, not noticing Max at first and peering in the storage room window as he had. Then Max could say, "So you're the one," and a great friendship would begin in this very unlikely spot. But a few minutes passed, and the person never came walking down the hall.

"Trapped in a world I never made!" Max said then, a part of him flinching at the self-pity, another part of him knowing that there was more in it than just puberty and "Do girls like me?" and "I hate school". But the meaning in the statement hit him like Mary Richard's short story: there was no way to express what he felt about his own life in two or three sentences, maybe no way to put it other than through a story. "It's my story," he thought then, "I don't like my story. But I'm not allowed to put the book down." And, with that, he got up and left to blend his way back into the crowd at the Summer Carnival.

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