(A quick novel for you to read while I'm traveling to Zytron.)
THE FOURTH OF JULY: Chad watched the colorful trail of bottle rockets. His careful brown eyes focused on the sharp colors against their black-sky backdrop. Mr. Zellhoffer was shooting off fireworks three houses down the block.
Jamie was there. Chad's younger brother Jamie hung out at Mr. Z's most evenings, watching the man working in his garage. Chad was home from college for the summer. He turned and looked at his parent's house dark and silent behind him. Their own huge garage dominating the driveway was closed.
Chad didn't want Jamie to miss dinner-- a drive to a fastfood restaurant outside the isolated subdivision. Chad walked across perfect lawns without sidewalks to Mr. Z's house.
"Hey, there he is," Mr. Zellhoffer said as he squatted over a pin-wheel contraption, looking up at his neighbor's tall oldest son. "You came just in time, Chad. This is my super-rocket. My ICBM. State of the art."
They stood on Zellhoffer's front lawn. Chad glanced at the house to determine which lights were on.
"This ought to be really cool," skinny Jamie, with the wary look of an abused yellow dog, remarked in a quiet voice. If Jamie spoke at all it signified extreme enthusiasm on his part.
Mr. Z lit the fuse and stepped quickly back. The display of spinning explosions and rocket sounds impressed someone of Zellhoffer's childlike attitude.
"Man!" Jamie said. "I told you it'd be cool."
"Rockets," Zellhoffer said with the calm authority of a mad scientist. "Explosions. They'll ward off outsiders and their evil spirits."
He drank now from a bottle of beer, the patriotic display over for the moment. His small eyes were unreadable. Zellhoffer handed another bottle of beer to Chad.
"Outsiders?" Chad asked him.
Zellhoffer motioned toward the dark world outside the subdivision. In the far-off distance stood a tall freeway overpass, tiny cars traveling back and forth between pockets of the civilized, in this vast Midwest. Set apart was the quiet detached pseudo-community of the subdivision, built a scant five years before. Chad wasn't even sure what city their little neighborhood was a suburb of-- so far across the landscape had thoughtless development spread.
"You've sensed them out here, haven't you?" Zellhoffer asked him. "I'm sure you have. One can't live here without doing so. Though of course you don't know the story about Barker there across the street."
Mr. Barker's house was lit like a blazing palace. He was a religious fanatic of some sort who lived alone. They could see through his curtainless front window a huge wall painting of Jesus, spotlights inside the house focused on it, as if the house were a cathedral.
Chad looked at the other spread-out houses, most of them dark. Zellhoffer's was the only one showing a flag. This was a holiday. Where was everyone? Out of town? In Chicago? At the shore? Working like his dad?
Chad wondered where Zellhoffer's wife and youngest daughter were while his crazy rockets went off. Maybe watching TV inside the house. Chad knew Z's wife held Z in contempt, viewing his every action scornfully as if he were a ridiculous little kid. She was a tall, dark, stern woman-- the reason Mr. Z spent so much time working on his lawn or in the garage.
"Tell me about Mr. Barker," Chad asked the man.
"Look at his glowing painting," Zellhoffer pointed. "Glowing Jesus! What's that about? It's because of the evil spirits that surround us. He put the painting there to ward them off-- as a declaration of war against the pagan world. Three years ago Barker's wife vanished into the darkness. One dark summer evening like this. He insists she was abducted. Mrs. Barker has never been found."
The three stared at the bright yellow-blue fire-like display of the painting throwing its light as a challenge against the shrouding blackness of night. They saw striking red color dripping from the portrait's hands.
"Time for the M-80's!" Zellhoffer said. "Keep back!"
He lit one after another at the curb. Boom! Boom! Boom! The explosions ran through their bodies and shook the neighborhood. There appeared no sign of Barker in his window, only the large glowing figure of Jesus, unmoved. Despite the booming noise, Mrs. Zellhoffer and the young daughter Emily remained within the house.
"Explode! Explode!" Zellhoffer yelled. "Ward off the spirits! Chase away demons! They'll not come for us!"
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Chad glanced at his younger brother, whose eyes were alive, reflecting light, tangibly vibrant. Chad felt the throbbing excitement within himself also as the explosions continued.
(Next: Zellhoffer Tells a Story.)