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Authors: Silas House

Eli the Good

BOOK: Eli the Good
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or, if real, are used fictitiously.

Copyright © 2009 by Silas House
Cover photograph copyright © 2009 by Getty Images/Digital Vision/Peter Adams

“Trees” from
Flower & Hand
by W. S. Merwin. Copyright © 1997 by
W. S. Merwin, reprinted with permission of the Wylie Agency LLC.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in an information retrieval system in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, taping, and recording, without prior written permission from the publisher.

First electronic edition 2010

The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:

House, Silas, date.
Eli the Good / Silas House. — 1st ed.
p.     cm.
Summary: In Kentucky in the summer of 1976, ten-year-old Eli Book’s excitement over Bicentennial celebrations is tempered by his father’s flashbacks to the Vietnam War and other family problems, as well
as concern about his tough but troubled best friend, Edie.
ISBN 978-0-7636-4341-6 (hardcover)
[1. Family problems — Fiction. 2. Post-traumatic stress disorder — Fiction.
3. Best friends — Fiction. 4. Friendship — Fiction.
5. American Revolution Bicentennial, 1976 — Fiction. 6. Aunts — Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.H81558Eli 2009
[Fic] — dc22 2009004589

ISBN 978-0-7636-5173-2 (electronic)

Candlewick Press
99 Dover Street
Somerville, Massachusetts 02144

visit us at
www.candlewick.com

T
hat was the summer of the bicentennial, when all these things happened: my sister, Josie, began to hate our country and slapped my mother’s face; my wild aunt, Nell, moved in with us, bringing along all five thousand or so of her records and a green record player that ran on batteries; my father started going back to Vietnam in his dreams, and I saw him cry; my mother did the Twist in front of the whole town and nearly lost us all. I was ten years old, and I did something unforgivable.

The first true day of summer for me began with a scream. Only one long, choked, jagged cry, but the sound was full of so much terror that I jumped out of a deep sleep, straight from the bed and onto the cool floorboards. By the time I was on my feet, morning stillness had overtaken the house again, but then I could hear people moving about and I unfroze myself so I could venture out into the hallway.

My sister, Josie, was standing in the doorway of her room, looking down the hall toward my parents’ bedroom, as if expecting some other sound to give us direction as to what we should do. But all we heard was my mother cooing our father’s name.

“Stanton, it’s okay,” she whispered, like wind in big leaves. Then, his whole name, as if to remind him who he was: “Stanton Book. Stanton.”

Josie, who was sixteen and nice to no one except me, put her hand out and I took it. We moved down the hallway with caution, stepping through squares of white sunlight that fell on the floor. She kept hold of my hand but also walked just behind me, her other hand on the back of my neck, as if steering me.

Their door was ajar, so Josie called out, “Loretta? Stanton?” She had taken to calling our parents by their first names that summer, much to their dismay.

“It’s all right,” my mother said, but Josie brought up her toe and pushed the door aside anyway. Only a crack, but enough that I could see in. Daddy was sitting on the edge of the bed with his feet on the floor, and Mom was on her knees in the bed, her hands on his back. Daddy didn’t turn to look at us, but the morning light was falling onto his face so that it shone out to us. His eyes looked far away, like he might not know we were all there.

Mom peered at us as if we were witnessing something we shouldn’t. Her eyes were full of a kind of fright I couldn’t name at that moment, but later I realized that it was a sort of new knowledge there on her face. Maybe for the first time she knew exactly what the war had done to her husband. “Go on, now,” she whispered, nodding. “He’s just dreamed of Vietnam. That’s all. Everything’s all right.”

I kept staring at my father, though. He was rocking on the edge of the bed now, his hands up to his face. The muscles at the top of his back were stretched tight. I hated the fact that I barely knew him. He was most often good to me, sometimes snatching me up to ride me on his shoulders, tousling my hair, even letting me sit in his lap and drive his truck up the road every once in a while. Then there were times when his temper flared for no known reason, so that we always felt like we were walking through a minefield, waiting for an explosion.

Once I had asked him to tell me about the war and his only response had been a tightening of his jaw before he said, “No. Never,” and then walked away without looking back. My mother had felt no pity for me in this moment. “Drop it,” she’d said, in her I’m-not-budging voice. But most of all he was just quiet, a man who lived in the shadows of his family. That was the hardest part, and it left me a boy surrounded by all these women, all the time. Not a bad thing, but sometimes it was confusing and lonesome.

“Josie,” Mom hissed, and nodded to me, so that Josie grabbed hold of my hand again and we moved away with hesitation, even walking backward for a few steps. Finally Josie directed me back down the hallway, dropping my hand at her bedroom door so she could yawn with balled-up fists going into the air. Her oversize Led Zeppelin shirt rode up too high and showed her panties.

“Now that I’ve been scared to death properly,” Josie said, “I believe I’ll go back to bed for a little while.”

Daddy had been awaking us all with his screams lately, so once Josie knew that it was another Vietnam dream, she saw no reason to be upset. I suppose she thought she was used to living with screaming and war, but I had not been able to convince myself of this yet. There was no way I would be able to go back to sleep, and my nerves would be on edge the rest of the day. I worried a lot about Daddy. I worried about everything. I worried about the Russians dropping a nuclear bomb on us. About Josie talking mean to our mother. I worried that Daddy would snap one day and let his anger go too far and hurt one of us.

“Well, go on,” Josie said, nudging me toward my room while she ground a fist into her eye. “Get back in the bed. It’s not even seven o’clock yet, and it’s
summer.

“I’m going riding,” I announced.

Josie nodded. She would have agreed to anything if it meant she could go back to sleep. She ran a hand through her hair and stumbled into her room. “Be careful, little man,” she said, and eased her door shut.

I pulled on a pair of blue-jean cutoffs and a muscle shirt. Chuck Taylor shoes with no socks. Last I put on my Uncle Sam hat, which we had made on the last day of school. Mine had turned out especially good, so I wore it every day when I went riding on my bicycle. I ran on out and found my bike where I had left it, a layer of cool dew standing on my seat.

It was only six thirty, but the world was wide awake like me, and white with summer light. The air was still cool with morning, and even though it held the heat of yesterday beneath, there were goose bumps all down the underside of my arm. The trees behind our house were filled with birdcall. I straddled my bike and stood listening, watching the trees for a sign of the birds. My mother could name every bird by its song, but I had never been able to do this.

I had brought along my transistor radio, so I latched it to the handlebars. There was nothing on yet except for the tobacco reports, so I snapped the radio back off and tried to figure out where to go. Before I had a chance to jump on, I heard someone calling my name.

It was Edie. She was my best friend, but I never would have admitted this to anyone back then. If I had let it be known that a girl was my best friend, the boys never would have let me live it down.

She was in her backyard, which bordered ours, leaning against the big old willow she loved. Her father was always threatening to cut it down, saying its leaves made too much of a mess in the fall. So far Edie had been able to talk him out of it. She was crazy over that willow tree.

“You coming or not?” she said, since I was standing there, looking at her. She didn’t have to raise her voice, as it carried well on the morning air. “Or are you just going to stare at me like a retard?”

I walked my bicycle across our backyards and put the kickstand down — I couldn’t stand kids who let their bikes fall to the ground — and squatted next to her. “What’re you doing up so early?” I asked.

She shrugged. “I just woke up, wide awake. I think the birds woke me up. Listen at ’em.” She put her forehead against the tree. “What about you?”

“Daddy woke us all up early. He had another bad nightmare, about the war.”

She sat up straighter, interested. “What’d he do?”

“He just hollered out. But it scared us all to death.”

“Does he ever talk to you, about the war?”

“No. Not about being over there.”

“You ought to ask him about it.”

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