“In the sky?”
“He was flying across the sky. Like the sun at noon. All ablaze. In the dream, I mean.”
Robert’s face twisted, torn by misery and uncertainty. Had she told the child about him? Had she painted a picture for him, an idealized picture? The Duck God. The Great Duck in the Sky, descending all ablaze. Then perhaps it was so. Perhaps he was not really the boy’s father. Perhaps — It was too much to bear.
“Well, I won’t bother you any more.” Robert said. He turned away, toward the house.
“Robert?” Stephen said.
“Yes?” He turned quickly.
“Robert, what are you going to do?”
Robert hesitated. “How do you mean, Stephen?”
The boy looked up from his work. His small face was calm and expressionless. “Are you going inside the house?”
“Robert, in a few minutes I’m going to do something secret. No one knows about it. Not even mother.” Stephen hesitated, slyly studying the man’s face. “Would — would you want to do it with me?”
“What is it?”
“I’m going to have a party in the garden here. A secret party. For myself alone.”
“You want me to come?”
The boy nodded.
Wild happiness filled up Robert. “You want me to come to your party? It’s a secret party? I won’t tell anyone. Not even your mother! Of course I’ll come.” He rubbed his hands together, smiling in a flood of relief. “I’d be glad to come. Do you want me to bring something? Cookies? Cake? Milk? What do you want me to bring?”
“No.” Stephen shook his head. “Go inside and wash your hands and I’ll make the party ready.” He stood up, putting the crayons away in the box. “But you can’t tell anyone about it.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” Robert said. “I’ll go wash my hands. Thanks, Stephen. Thanks a lot. I’ll be right back.”
He hurried toward the house, his heart thumping with happiness. Maybe the boy was his after all! A secret party, a private, secret party. And not even Peg knew about it. It was his boy, all right! There was no doubt of that. From now on he would spend time with Stephen whenever Peg left the house. Tell him stories. How he was in North Africa during the war. Stephen would be interested in that. How he had seen Field Marshal Montgomery, once. And the German pistol he had picked up. And his photographs.
Robert went inside the house. Peg never let him do that, tell stories to the boy. But he would, by golly! He went to the sink and washed his hands. He grinned. It was his kid, all right.
There was a sound. Peg came into the kitchen with her arms full of groceries. She set them on the table with a sigh. “Hello, Robert,” she said. “What are you doing?”
His heart sank. “Home?” he murmured. “So soon? I thought you were going to get your hair fixed.”
Peggy smiled, small and pretty in her green dress and hat and high heeled shoes. “I have to go back. I just wanted to bring the groceries home first.”
“Then you’re leaving again?”
She nodded. “Why? You look so excited. Is something going on? What is it?”
“Nothing,” Robert said. He dried his hands. “Nothing at all.” He grinned foolishly.
“I’ll see you later today,” Peggy said. She went back into the living room. “Have a good time while I’m gone. Don’t let Stephen stay in the garden too long.”
“No. No, I won’t.” Robert waited, listening until he heard the sound of the front door closing. Then he hurried back out onto the porch and down the steps, into the garden. He hurried through the flowers.
Stephen had cleared off the little low table. The crayons and paper were gone, and in their place were two bowls, each on a plate. A chair was pulled up for him. Stephen watched him come across the grass and toward the table.
“What took you so long?” Stephen said impatiently. “I’ve already started.” He went on eating avidly, his eyes gleaming. “I couldn’t wait.”
“That’s all right,” Robert said. “I’m glad you went ahead.” He sat down on the little chair eagerly. “Is it good? What is it? Something extra nice?”
Stephen nodded, his mouth full. He went on, helping himself rapidly from his bowl with his hands. Robert looked down at his own plate, grinning.
His grin died. Sickened misery filled his heart. He opened his mouth, but no words came. He pushed his chair back, standing up.
“I don’t think I want any,” he murmured. He turned away. “I think maybe I’ll go back in.”
“Why?” Stephen said, surprised, stopping a moment.
“I — never cared for worms and spiders,” Robert said. He went slowly back, into the house again.
The King of the Elves
It was raining and getting dark. Sheets of water blew along the row of pumps at the edge of the filling station; the tree across the highway bent against the wind.
Shadrach Jones stood just inside the doorway of the little building, leaning against an oil drum. The door was open and gusts of rain blew in onto the wood floor. It was late; the sun had set, and the air was turning cold. Shadrach reached into his coat and brought out a cigar. He bit the end off it and lit it carefully, turning away from the door. In the gloom, the cigar burst into life, warm and glowing. Shadrach took a deep draw. He buttoned his coat around him and stepped out onto the pavement.
“Darn,” he said. “What a night!” Rain buffeted him, wind blew at him. He looked up and down the highway, squinting. There were no cars in sight. He shook his head, locked up the gasoline pumps.
He went back into the building and pulled the door shut behind him. He opened the cash register and counted the money he’d taken in during the day. It was not much.
Not much, but enough for one old man. Enough to buy him tobacco and firewood and magazines, so that he could be comfortable as he waited for the occasional cars to come by. Not very many cars came along the highway any more. The highway had begun to fall into disrepair; there were many cracks in its dry, rough surface, and most cars preferred to take the big state highway that ran beyond the hills. There was nothing in Derryville to attract them, to make them turn toward it. Derryville was a small town, too small to bring in any of the major industries, too small to be very important to anyone. Sometimes hours went by without —
Shadrach tensed. His fingers closed over the money. From outside came a sound, the melodic ring of the signal wire stretched along the pavement.
Shadrach dropped the money into the till and pushed the drawer closed. He stood up slowly and walked toward the door, listening. At the door, he snapped off the light and waited in the darkness, staring out.
He could see no car there. The rain was pouring down, swirling with the wind; clouds of mist moved along the road. And something was standing beside the pumps.
He opened the door and stepped out. At first, his eyes could make nothing out. Then the old man swallowed uneasily.
Two tiny figures stood in the rain, holding a kind of platform between them. Once, they might have been gaily dressed in bright garments, but now their clothes hung limp and sodden, dripping in the rain. They glanced half-heartedly at Shadrach. Water streaked their tiny faces, great drops of water. Their robes blew about them with the wind, lashing and swirling.
On the platform, something stirred. A small head turned wearily, peering at Shadrach. In the dim light, a rain-streaked helmet glinted dully.
“Who are you?” Shadrach said.
The figure on the platform raised itself up. “I’m the King of the Elves and I’m wet.”
Shadrach stared in astonishment.
“That’s right,” one of the bearers said. “We’re all wet.”
A small group of Elves came straggling up, gathering around their king. They huddled together forlornly, silently.
“The King of the Elves,” Shadrach repeated. “Well, I’ll be darned.”
Could it be true? They were very small, all right, and their dripping clothes were strange and oddly colored.
“I’ll be darned. Well, whatever you are, you shouldn’t be out on a night like this.”
“Of course not,” the king murmured. “No fault of our own. No fault. . .” His voice trailed off into a choking cough. The Elf soldiers peered anxiously at the platform.
“Maybe you better bring him inside,” Shadrach said. “My place is up the road. He shouldn’t be out in the rain.”
“Do you think we like being out on a night like this?” one of the bearers muttered. “Which way is it? Direct us.”
Shadrach pointed up the road. “Over there. Just follow me. I’ll get a fire going.”
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