An Honorable Mention in the Summer of Love Contest
Thunder Egg
Download PDF | 5411 Words | August 10 2016 | Rate This |
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A woman's scream broke through the sound of a neighborhood of televisions murmuring through open windows.

James and I sat up in Jack's and Connie's recliners, shared a glance, and then jumped over to the sliding glass door. It was a Saturday night, and before going to bed Connie had reminded us to keep it quiet if we stayed up late. We'd been clicking around the five channels available back in 1964, and absolutely nothing was on. As the echoes of the scream we'd heard reverberated into silence, we looked up the grass embankment that divided the fenceless backyards of Goshawk and Harrier Streets. Atop the rise of crabgrass, sitting darkly at this late hour, sat the house that Connie derisively called the rental.

"Let's go," said James.

I never thought twice about following him, and always had for the two years of our friendship. We were both in our thirteenth year, but James seemed older, wiser, cooler. I attributed these traits to the influence of his father. Though Jack Penningram traveled a lot, and was away on business that very night, James was an only child. I was the oldest of four. Even with the frequent flyer miles, Jack simply had more time to spend one-on-one with his son than my father did with me.

Another scream--this one sounded throttled--disturbed the breezeless early August night.

We were in our last summer before high school, friends forever with more time and latitude than we knew what to do with. I followed James out the slider, both of us barefoot.

In shadowy, backyard darkness, we clambered up the crabgrass embankment, knelt and listened. The cathode murmur was back with a vengeance. Two bloodcurdling screams had bounced us off the best seats in the Penningram family room, screams the like of which I'd never heard outside a horror film. After a span of seconds, James motioned, and we crept along a hedge toward Harrier Street. Just as we reached the front yard, the front door of the rental flew open.

A woman in her young thirties had recently moved in, and there she was now, fleeing the house, tumbling over her nightgown. As we gawked, half hidden in an angle of streetlight, she ran to the house directly across the street and began pounding on the front door with both hands. An older couple, pajama-clad, appeared in the flicked-on porch light. Both women disappeared into the house, but the husband, lingered, peering out from the doorway toward where James and I crouched. We ducked into darkness before he saw us.

I had just started to wonder what being James's unquestioning companion had gotten me into when from inside the rental came a creak of nail and wood loud enough to hear outside. I was on my best friend's heels down the shadow of the hedge. At the edge of the embankment we very nearly collided with a dude I figured to be a few years older than James and me. Sandy-blond flat top, slacks and a yellow windbreaker, a hair's breadth taller than us. He smirked right at us, almost a smile, as if we were two cocker spaniels loosed to check on trouble in the neighborhood.

"Who the fuck is that?" James's whispered after the older kid passed without a word.

"I think he was in there," I said.

"What?" James hushed back.

"I think that guy was in the rental."

"How do you know?"

I wasn't sure how I knew.

Neighbors had awakened, people in bathrobes, roused from sitcom stupors, coming out under Harrier's streetlamps. Seconds later, a whirl of intermittent blood-blue light strobed the house fronts--a police prowler had pulled up. We watched a cop with a flashlight enter the rental, while another knocked on the door across the street.

"We gotta tell them," I said.

"No," said James, and I got the odd sense that he was somehow protecting the stranger who'd walked out of the screaming night and looked down his nose at us.

"But the rapist," I said, "It might have something to do with the Arbor Glen Rapist." There'd been two rapes in our comfortable bedroom community outside the San Francisco Bay Area. We knew all about them from poring over the pages of the Glen Herald, our local paper, in search of news about the British Invasion that was usurping the popularity of our idols, Elvis, the Beach Boys, and the Four Seasons. That afternoon we'd learned that the Beatles were in production for their second movie, the follow up to A Hard Day's Night, and that neither of the rapist's elderly victims could recall her rapist's face.

"I highly doubt that punk kid is the Arbor Glen Rapist," James scoffed. Returning to the Penningram house, we were in for another shock. Connie stood at the open sliding glass door holding her pearl-handled revolver.

"What in God's name?" she hissed, finger on the trigger.

"Careful, Mom."

"Running around all hours, the way things are in this town right now."


*


The following Monday I was waiting on Goshawk with my skateboard for James to return from what he'd described as a "three-filling" dental appointment. Waiting for his arrival in the passenger seat of Connie's new red Mustang, a rolling testament to the distance between James's family and mine. Either boredom, or rebellion against my cocksure friend's weakened condition, prompted me to set off alone up the embankment, to retrace our steps from the night of the assault.

There were only several different model homes in our neighborhood, all of them single story ranches. One window blind was cattywampus in what I knew was the rental's master bedroom window. I climbed the uphill curve of Harrier Street a few houses, intending to kill time skateboarding down.

Grinding over softened asphalt in a skateboarder's crouch, I saw that while my back had been turned, walking the curve, the renter had pulled into her driveway. She was bending over the open trunk of her sedan. Her hands fumbled, and something round fell from them and rolled down the driveway and out into the street. Goshawk drops pretty steeply there, so I sped up and grabbed the object before it reached the sewer grate. A cool weight in my hand, cobalt blue with robin's egg splatters. I recognized the object from science class at Arbor Glen Middle School. A molten rock, expelled in somesuch geologic time. Polished to a high sheen by earthling hands. The science teacher had called it a thunder egg.

"Almost lost my egg," the rental woman said brightly as I placed it in her hand. She was built like my mother, curvy, dark hair, five-foot-plus-not-much. I found myself searching her face for bruises, maybe a blackened eye under her sunglasses. For some reason I didn't believe for a second that the thunder egg was hers. I could not imagine why an adult would lie, or why a young man would skulk around a screaming house, but understood that something about being near the godforsaken rental seemed to bring unbidden intuitions to the surface. Down on Goshawk, the Mustang rolled home. In his room, I told James about meeting the renter, and the thunder egg I'd rescued.

James was already three steps ahead. "She's out, we're in," he said, his tone characteristically confident around a cheek shot with anesthetic.

I nodded, looking convincingly agreeable, as he divulged his plan to make the rental ours for as long as it remained on the market.


*


Sunday next, and Jack was due home. I'd been cleared for a sleepover. What James's father did for Simulations Inc. was "classified," James loved to say, and I suspected it had to do with the war. James and Connie adjusted to his absences by honoring little traditions, like crash-shopping for his favorite foods and beverages on the eve of his return. When included in Jack's homecoming, I felt like a Penningram myself. Never once in the two years of our friendship did James spend the night at my house. It was understood, with all my siblings and the bedrooms full up, that the freewheeling style of our relationship would be unthinkably cramped there.

Connie darted the Mustang through stop-and-go traffic, a lock of platinum twitching on a warm draft from the wind-wing. The subject of the assault on the renter and the Arbor Glen Rapist had inevitably come up. Connie imparted some neighborhood gossip. "The couple across the street told Lauri Dysinger that it was her ex-husband who broke in," she said, batting purple-shaded eyelids in the rearview mirror.

'That's bad, but it's better than some crazed rapist."

"I knew it wasn't that kid," said James.

"What kid?" asked Connie.

"Just some doofus we saw on the embankment."

Connie slowed enough to provoke an irritated toot from a motorist who'd been tailgating her. "You saw what on the embankment?"

"No way was the kid we saw her husband," said James.

"Then who was he?" I ventured.

"Some dude, no reason to bust his ass," said James. Another freedom at the Penningram house: James got away with swearing now and then, as long as he kept it in the realm. I never dared. I let the subject drop, not wanting to press the luck of my invite to the coming home dinner.

"He cut off power to the house," said Connie of the menace who'd caused her to unlock the nightstand and get her gun. "Poor thing never knew till he was right in the room with her." Pulling up to the Penningram house, we looked up on Harrier and saw an orange-and-white moving van parked in the driveway of the rental. Connie had a good natured rant against renters, a common theme in our town, which we loved hearing. "It's always pins and needles," she'd say, "waiting to see who you're going to get."

"I guess we can start wondering who we're going to get," she said, as we helped carry in Jack's booty: a rump roast, an NFL season guide, and two six-packs of his favorite beer.


*


I clammed up all through Sunday dinner, giving the Penningram rhythm its due. We joked about Connie's TV dinners, but that night the roast was perfect, and she'd baked a batch of scrumptious cream puffs for desert. James and I were on our best behavior. The Kinks were making their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, opposite Jack's favorite, Bonanza, and there was only one television in the house. Our chances improved with Jack's second beer. Thirty minutes before show time, James formally made our request: Sullivan over Bonanza.

Connie was sitting on the arm of Jack's recliner, and I was positioned perfectly to see the little nudge she delivered to her husband's ribcage. Jack--who mostly went for the Muzak played on Simulation Inc.'s intercom system--wouldn't play the heavy his first night back.

Shecky Greene was the headliner. I didn't quite get the jokes, but Ed Sullivan was cracking up. After some juggling cyclists, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme sang "Fly Me to the Moon," a high point for Jack and Connie.

Like minstrels out of favor with the Queen Mother, the Kinks delivered "You Really Got Me." James and I sat transfixed on two floor pillows, our stomachs knotted. It seemed to me that Jack and Connie were quietly appalled. After Steve and Eydie's second song, Connie began straightening up the family room, and reminded James and I to be especially quiet so that Jack could get a good night's sleep. Before we got out of the room, a tease from the local news station broke in, evaporating all the fluid happiness of Jack's return.

The Arbor Glen Rapist had struck again.


*


Jack had four full days before Simulations flew him out again, and the following morning he set us up for miniature golf at Glen Acres Country Club, while he played eighteen holes with some business associates. I actually bested James, getting my ball through the final windmill hazard first, a turnabout in James's fortunes just enough to keep things interesting. He was good-natured about getting beat, in a good mood for having his father in town. On the ride home, we passed city hall. From the Glen Herald's front page we'd learned that the third rape victim was another elderly woman living alone. The assailant had put a pillowcase over her head. Another late-night entry, through an unlocked sliding glass door.

"Why would anyone want to rape an old woman?"James asked from the passenger seat.

Jack thought for a minute, and then said, "It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with who the person is for these sickos." James's wise father then addressed me directly, bringing me upright in my seat.

"I understand you saw a suspicious-looking character in our backyard?"

I floundered. James and I had not mentioned my gut feeling about Yellow Windbreaker's guiltiness since the night of the assault. James being right, being the leader of our pack, was the deep weave of why our friendship worked. James needed an acolyte, and along with the shared values and interests I brought to the relationship, I brought that alpha-beta dynamic. The intuition I'd had about the kid on the embankment challenged the perfect balance of our bond, and foretold change that neither of us wanted.

"I don't know, sir," I managed. "He just seemed guilty somehow."

"Well," said Jack, closing the subject, "at least the poor woman has moved on, and hopefully will take her troubles with her." As we pulled into the driveway, he added a postscript softly. "I do worry, with me being out of town so much."


*


After the third rape, I read in the paper about an emergency meeting to be held the following evening at the Grange Hall. My parents attended, and after sending my younger brother and sisters to the family room to watch Lassie, my mother recounted Police Chief Danfeld's report. She looked as tired as ever after a day with four children, and news from the meeting was not helping her mood. Dad had fallen asleep on the couch.

"They're following up some promising leads," Mom said, "and talking to everyone who might be suspicious. Mayor Eisenberg promised that everything that can be done is being done."

Ivan from Ivan's Hardware had taken the podium, offered advice on which locks were best and how to install them.

"I sure hope they catch him," was all I could think to say. I hadn't told my parents about what had happened at the rental for fear of being banned from future Penningram sleepovers. After hearing about the meeting, I was ready to divulge, but the timing wasn't right. Mom was as exhausted as I'd ever seen her that night, so I just kissed her and went to bed.

The following morning news came that the rapist's second victim, Hazel Smythe, a retired school teacher, died after ten days in the hospital. She was eighty-one, and talk of a possible murder charge circulated.

"Weird," said James. "You can murder somebody after the fact like that."

By that Friday, the day Connie drove thirty miles round trip to drop Jack at San Jose International Airport for his flight to Minneapolis, a siege mentality had set in. Wives with late-shift husbands were gathering so no one would be alone; they played cards while their children slept on couches. Detectives parked unmarked cars on Arbor Glen's soft shoulders. The Glen Herald screamed WHO IS HE?, and feverishly covered the hottest local story since native son Col. Phil "Ripcord" Somersby was killed in a freak air collision in Vietnam.

Despite the fact that the rapist's victims had all been elderly, every woman in town was on edge. Their husbands vowed vigilance, delivered with extreme prejudice if necessary.


*
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Mark Ellis is a Portland, OR journalist and writer.

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