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JUMPER BOY AND THE CANDLE MAN

by Valerie Brook

High schooler Pendelton Gonzales Johnman jumps out his bedroom to escape his abusive home life, made worse by wintertime football and his abusive father’s losing team, to discover a man on the railroad tracks. Penn makes a decision that will forever change his future.

Copyright © 2019 by Valerie Brook. All rights reserved.

Published by Kickit Press/kickitpress.com

Cover and Layout Copyright © 2019 by Kickit Press

Cover Art: revac films&photo/pexels.com

This is a work of fiction. Name, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction, in whole or in part in any form.

____________________

 

PENDELTON GONZALES JOHNMAN lay awake under the prickly blankets, in the wintery dark, while the wet wind charged across the small coastal town. It gusted frantically against the thin walls of the trailer park homes with the wide and steroidal shoulders of a high school football linebacker.

A linebacker like a car accident.

Like a prison sentence.

Penn’s feet were solid cold and little shivers crawled up his ankles like the tiny bites of ice snakes. 

Pizza crumbs pinched under his muscled, naked back on the bare mattress; the idea of being the inventor of college-marketed, pepperoni-scented laundry soap crossing his mind.

Without the realistic crumbs, because—duh, uncomfortable.

And he didn’t even grin at this stupid idea because there was no laugh left in him. 

A line of bright, bare-bulb hallway light shone underneath his thin bedroom door, where mom and dad walked back and forth along the worn linoleum floor a few more times, pushing things toward midnight, getting those normal things done before bed. 

It was the aftermath.

The aftermath was always very hush-hush.

Penn followed their leg shadows with his eyes, whenever they walked by, as if they might be freaky paranormal stick people walking on stick legs with cotton socks.

They were taking forever.

To wind down.

And so was Penn.

His feet just couldn’t get warm, even though his heart was still pumping hot like an Olympian. Kinda shaking in his chest a little, too. Fluttery like a pretty stupid piece of tissue paper.

Creamy moonlight flowed in through his double-hung window because he hadn’t pulled the hanging curtains. Never did.

Then you’d feel blocked in. Cornered in. 

Without a jump—

Those pale pools of moonlight spilled in from outer space and puddled there, in the middle of his room, across the ripped up area of the carpet where that one-time puppy ate it. 

Penn’s Orion SkyQuest telescope stood silhouette, jacked up on the tripod legs, looking forlorn, like hello? Do you even remember I’m here?

Like, how the fuck can you forget to play with me, you creep? I’m your dream machine. I’m your space-trip believer.

But it was pro football season.

So that’s how. 

(And also because Penn had switched to writing poetry. Kept sheets of folded notebook paper in his back pocket, along with a small, ground-down pencil, just the right size.)

And Penn was really tripping out now, because he started thinking, what if the moonlight was really an alien probe, that could move on its own, and roam the floor and walls until it found him in bed, cowering like a sixteen-year-old Sophomore linebacker shouldn’t ever cower, and analyze his weaknesses.

And start laughing at him: Hey, you freaked out little kid, gonna wet the bed? Like you used to do before you manned up with muscles?

Penn’s eyes were sour dry. Eyes dried up like hardened pizza dough. Maybe he was forgetting to blink.

He raised his hands to his face and, yeah—hands were ice cold just like his feet. And also; shaking. He was in his own personal earthquake and it annoyed him.

Fuck Dad. 

Why’d he raise the level? 

There’d never been the pistol before, not gripped in Dad’s fingers, held out in front of his shadow legs like a full-blown nightmare creep. Then, full-on pointed at Mom’s face. Safety off. That cop stance. That cop command.

Dad’s fists locked and loaded? Sure thing; it happened a lot. But never his service gun.

The hallway lights flicked off and went dark like the end of the world. 

Penn thought, time for me to jump. No way I’m saying here, hell no.

He pushed the comforter silently off and it sloughed onto the floor. He was still wearing his blue jeans, so he just slid back on today’s T-shirt and today’s socks, which were folded and hid right under the front of the bed.

His Nike’s were lined up at the baseboard under the window.

In the moonlight, his little bedroom looked stark and tidy as a submarine captain’s quarters. You don’t have much down here, but everything you have matters, and it’s got a place to go that’s been thought out. 

Penn tied his shoes up. Got his Carhartt jacket with the quilt lining out of the closet (he’d stole it, broke-in and tar stained a bit; but warm as an oven) and quietly raised up the wooden frame of the window. Misty air swirled in, carrying the scent of woodsmoke and vanilla. Right under that was the stink of the garbage cans overflowing, right by the carport, covering the truck and Mom’s bicycle.

Penn angled his legs through the wedge and jumped down to earth, sleek as a panther, quiet as guilt. 

Weak moonlight blinked on and off as blurry clouds rode a wind high up above the pine treetops. 

The trailer park was spazzing out in ho-ho-jolly holiday lights, sparkling in all those unicorn rainbow colors, on all of the porches and bushes around the drive, except Penn’s house. 

’Twas that Christmas time of year.

Pretty stupid time of year, but Penn wasn’t going to think too much about being out of school for winter break. Anyway, he was free to fly.

He put his hands in his pockets, jingling the quarters there, and made his way alone, down to the train tracks where he often walked off his steam, a trail of vapor puffed out from his lips into a blue-black sky like he was his own antique steam engine. 

The low manic clouds had cleared out.

Some night’s he took his telescope out here, did his thing. He’d won it in after school astronomy club last year. But when Mr. Flynn moved away, the school shut the club down because no other teacher cared about stars.

The yellow moon hung right there, right where the flat tracks shot into the horizon, hung like an oncoming train’s 200 watt headlight. 

Penn could play chicken with the moon, run deadly toward each other, see who jumped away into the ditch first.

I’m the chicken because I don’t stand up for Mom.

That’s when Penn saw the dead body. 

Arched on its back over the tracks, one arm jacked up, hand spread and catching the moonlight like the fingers had molten silver tips.

Penn sucked in air.

Jesus. 

Penn was halfway between turning back, like he hadn’t seen anything, and halfway frozen. A little bit more on the frozen side.

He squinted into the darkness. It was like the dead body had two heads. The wind blew. One head rolled over, turned toward him, feverish white eyes?

No, those were eyeglasses. 

Glints of glass; the moon twice reflected. Shadows swirled over the landscape, same as the brown oil distilled from coal tar that makes creosote.

Penn took a coupla steps forward, trying to get his eyes to adjust and focus. Creepy feelings were crawling all over him in waves of ants.

Coupla more steps forward.

Now, Penn could see it, a silver shopping cart toppled over, hunched like a thousand wire coat-hangers had gotten into a world war and twisted themselves into origami.

Objects strewn about.

Wouldn’t a body hit by a train be cut in two? You wouldn’t be laying there, with your arm up? You’d be mush-splat all over.

The moon washed the night in pale milk again, using a watercolorist’s widest brushstroke, and now Penn was right up on the man and could see he was a homeless-type; had that end-of-times haggard look.

“Hey,” Penn whispered. “Hey, man, you dead?”

There was a thin trail of engine steam coming out the man’s nose, which answered the question on its own.

There was no other response. 

Penn spoke louder, and there was still no response. 

Dude, this is not a good place to be laying down. Trains rumble by here most nights. Penn looked all around, up and down the tracks. Not a soul here.

Penn swallowed hard. There was no pizza vapor left on his lips, in his stomach, anywhere. Need to do this.

He huddled up by the collapsed man’s head, feet in the stance he’d use to snap the ball to the quarterback behind him; but instead Penn grabbed the dude’s jacked up hand.

The hand was warm as a baked potato. Squishy, too.

Penn pulled hard. 

All his football muscles flexed as he dragged the heavy dude off the tracks, down into the ditch, and hoped he was comfortable. Sleep it off, or whatever. But before Penn fled, he robbed the man of the cash in his pockets.

____________________

The coastal town of Manitou had an all-night Safeway grocery nearby. That Safeway had an all-night, serve-yourself, deli. 

Penn got a coffee and sugar and four scoops of bullshit macaroni and a cheese roll and pickles because they were out of pepperoni pizza. 

He ate in the dark, in the kiddy park, (under a fat leafy tree that collected moisture and spit it on your head, occasionally.) 

Penn licked the bottom of the container until it had no flavor. 

Quiet cars drove by with the drunks going home from the bars. Some people walked by, arguing. It was lonely. It’s always lonely.

Why the service pistol? Why up the level? How do you go to the cops when a cop is the problem? You don’t.

Penn stabbed his plastic fork into the Styrofoam container lid, a few times, in and out. It made this squeaking, groaning sound. All the tongs broke off.

He had to stop being a chicken at home. He had to do something about Dad.

So a plan started to formulate in his mind.

The next time things heated up when the team lost on a Sunday night, especially if the playoff picture changed for the worse, Penn’d be ready.

When Penn stood up, and headed homeward to sneak back into his room, he didn’t notice the figure following him in the dark.

____________________

Dad didn’t wait for the next game night, he started beating Mom up  the very next night. 

It was the aftermath again. 

Penn had been hiding in his dark closet, heart pounding. He could smell his clothes hanging over his head because they were all in the gallows together, suffocating to death.

(Penn religiously did his laundry every weekend, when he had enough quarters; but his clothes still smelled funky because the wooden panels in the closet had a milky mold growing. He’d fought the mold with a scrubber and bleach, but it still came back because there was some kind of moisture leaking back there, on the other side of the wall, from the master-bedroom bathroom. Penn had not gone in there and looked. There were things you maybe didn’t want to see.)

There was also the smell of cigarettes, stale beer, condoms, rotted take-out; all that bullshit from the rest of the mobile home wafting into his closet, too. 

It was concentrated evil in here.

Penn needed to jump out, right now.

He opened the closet door, pulled out the Carhartt, tied his shoes, pulled open the double-hung window, and jumped out into the night.

The air hit him with cold fists.

The shadows were all gathered to watch the moon’s performance, but the moon was too lazy to show up for the first act of the show.

It was pretty dark tonight.

Penn stuffed his fists into his blue jeans pockets and walked out to the barren train tracks. He kicked small rocks.

A real astronomer would live where the weather was better, where there wasn’t all those coastal clouds. Penn had two more years to survive here and then he could get a student loan and fly across the country and go to community college in the most bone-dry city he can Google up.

What if he doesn’t survive ’til then?

Things were a lot worse than he’d let himself think about. He would never tell anybody how much worse. There are things you don’t tell.

Some kind of shiver snuck up Penn’s back. 

It was a warning shiver. It was that feeling you get when someone is secretly observing you.

Penn turned around and a man was standing behind him on the tracks. All flat black, a human-shaped shadow cut out of the night. 

Penn heard himself suck in a little air, a small gasp.

“You the Space-Trip Believer?” the man said. “You the Jumper Boy?”

Jesus. 

Penn felt freaked out in the same way as when he watches a professional horror movie and the music cranks up. Penn froze. He couldn’t even think what he should say next.

“I followed you home that night, kid. I know where you live. I followed you out here, too. Creatures of the troubled night find each other, isn’t that right?”

The man stepped forward. 

Penn stumbled back.

“You left your diary under the tree where I found it. I like these poems, Pendleton Gonzales Johnman. They worry me so deeply, though; I do like them very much.”

Oh shit, no way. 

Penn stabbed his fingers into his jeans pockets and came back only with the pencil stub. “It’s not a diary,” Penn defended himself. “Give them back.”

Penn didn’t think he sounded like a tough footballer. He sounded like a chicken. Manitou has a stupid football team that always loses. They’re the most losingest team in the whole state. 

“Robbing my cash is one way to get some dinner,” the man said, “but the only way you’re going to get this diary of poems back is if you come sit and have dinner with me.”

Double shit. 

That homeless man sure wasn’t dead, was he.

____________________

Safeway had four pepperoni pizza slices left in their sneeze-proof buffet. 

Those food gems sat under the penitentiary-bright glare of the deserted deli area, with its white formica tables and chairs bolted to the footprint-scuffed tile floor.

Penn chewed his three slices obediently, in order, while the man who’d introduced himself as Stew held Penn’s poems for ransom. 

The pizza had a soggy bottom and you had to hold it with two hands.

Stew had bright blue eyes when they were open, reddish stubble, had on a clean gray hoodie and gray slacks, and sounded a lot like an Irishman, but only in his accent.

“Since you’re not feeling up for answering my questions, let me tell you a few things first, so we can get to know each other,” Stew said. “And you can see I’m an okay guy.”

Stew had his one slice of pizza greasing-out in a wide, darkening circle on his white paper plate, but he wasn’t touching it.

He explained how he had this condition called narcolepsy, which made him not allowed to have a driver’s license and drive. So, he did a lot of walking all around and he knew all kinds of town shortcuts. But the holidays were a hard time of year for Stew, because it’s when his teenaged son died five years ago, and when Stew got distraught over things. These facts made Stew more likely to fall asleep. There was no medicine for it. It could just strike like lightning.

Stew said that lightning had hit him on the tracks the other night.

“Thanks for pulling me away from the trains, boy. I watched you walking away. I figured out what happened. That was good of you.

“I’m not going to say thanks for liberating me of my cash money. But my situation in life affords me the luxury of not worrying about that kind of thing. This is all I’m asking of you to pay me back. Just sit here.”

This fact perked Penn right up. 

He’d never been caught for petty theft, but he wasn’t stupid; good luck can run out. And technically, he’d just been caught.

Penn looked down at the last pizza slice.

Stew nodded and pushed it over.

“Thanks.” This was the first word he’d spoken to Stew since they walked to the grocery together. “So, when do I get my papers back?”

“After I say some more hard things to say.”

This made Penn roll his pizza bite around in his mouth. It felt harder to chew, suddenly. His hands wanted to ball into fists.

Now Stew’s voice sank into his throat, almost a whisper. “Long ago, my son was being abused. There were things I didn’t know about, after the divorce. I should have known. Those kinds of things are described in your diary.”

“It’s not a diary.” He needed his fucking papers back now.

“You’re a beautiful writer. You brought me to tears, to my goddamn knees in tears. I just couldn’t let your voice go. The same way, I think—the same way you just couldn’t leave a stranger laying asleep across live tracks.”

The doughy mush of pizza in Penn’s mouth went sour. It seemed to swell. Penn got it down.

“I thought at first you were dead.”

Stew said: “My son killed himself there on those tracks with my gun he stole.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

They were silent.

Safeway deli music played through a speaker. Then a radio announcer explained all the variations of the coming weather for tomorrow, which was cloudy. And there were some exciting sales at local stores. Finally, if you wanted to call in, you could.

“Would you walk back to the tracks with me? Light candles for my boy? This is the night he left us. I made up a holiday in his honor, so he knows I love him. He’s in another place now. So he knows I would do anything to go back in this world to save his life.”

Penn shrugged. “Dessert?”

“Of course.”

“My papers, first.”

Stew handed them over.

____________________

They walked back on city sidewalks and then cut across the outsider’s dirt path under the highway bridge, where homeless sometimes slept, and back to the iron tracks. They were sharing a crinkly bag of soft-baked chocolate chip cookies. 

They just chewed together.

Passed the bag back and forth.

It was dark as fuck but both knew their way around, knew the same trails easy. The same location cheats that regular folks didn’t know.

You had to be in the club.

Penn had an extra heavy plastic bag swinging in his left hand. Just for him. Swinging hard like a land mind row exercise from football practice.

The bag had his food picks in it. Two cans of cold Coke, jerky jalapeño sticks, Rice Crispy cereal box, a milk which was as heavy right now as the actual cow; and Stew had made Penn get an apple and just pick one vegetable, please. 

So there was also carrot.

The moon broke its petulance and shined. This was the second act. 

Stew led them back to the exact spot where he had seemed very dead a coupla nights ago.

“I have stuff I keep here during the holidays,” Stew said. “The first part is what I’d buy for him if he were one year older. I put those presents here for my boy. Playstation, and the top games. I research it. An electric scooter. New York Times bestsellers in case he’d need them for English class. I bought him skis this year, because I realized, of course. We’d love it. I don’t ski but wouldn’t that be cool?”

Penn couldn’t help himself. “But random people steal those presents.”

“So?”

Penn nodded. Right. So.

“What’s his name?”

“Marcus Perry.”

“Hey, Marcus Perry,” Penn said. “Good to meet you.”

Stew cried, but it was manly. It was silent. Penn only knew because Stew rubbed his eye.

“What do we do now?”

“The candle part.”

Penn looked around blankly. But Stew stood and walked a trail only he knew, to a bramble of blackberry bushes, and came back with a sack.

“So we light these.”

It looked like forty tea-light candles spilled out. They had little white amoeba stems.

“It won’t hurt the train, it’ll crush them fine. We can put them all up on the tracks. Put them anywhere. Here’s a lighter.”

They each laid them out pretty and lit them. It was fucking gorgeous.

Each candle was a star, softest yellow twinkling lights Penn had ever seen, the tracks transformed into a universe of possibility.

“Now we just talk to him about anything,” Stew said. “Will you talk to him?”

Penn nodded, sure. He told Stew and Marcus, merry Christmas, and to call him Penn.

____________________

So everything was different now.

Dad was in jail.

Penn quit football.

Mom was in counseling.

Stew had a really big house where three wiggly Weiner dogs lived, where a Harley Street Rod motorcycle sat in the garage that Stew admired but never rode, a summertime pool, wintertime sauna, and Penn had a bedroom in the basement if he ever needed it, with a separate entrance. His own key.

Penn sometimes slept there on his own. And left there on his own. He kept it very clean.

Oh, and the college fund.

Which he was sure he’d use, because he’d Googled the best astronomy schools, and picked one out.

But Stew still wanted to read every single thing Penn wrote for his classes in school.

So Penn always shared his poems.

Copyright © 2019 by Valerie Brook. All rights reserved. 

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