Alder Street

By Blake Kilgore 

On the August night Simon Kane turned seven years old black clouds gathered and crept slow along the earth. The raindrops whispered at first, but suddenly increased to a drumming roar that commanded silence, awe. The birthday song was drowned out and the nervous singers stopped, giggling. Then a shocking boom shook the house, lights flickered, and the children jumped and shouted. Some started to cry, but Simon turned and walked to the window, pressed his face close to the streaking panes, and gazed into the storm. Simon’s mother steered him away from the darkness, back to his chair, and soon, when the rain faded into the background, everyone returned again to singing, games, gifts and cake.

A week later, Simon’s life changed. The local high school basketball team – the Mortar Hill Pride – was on a long losing streak. A smart, hardworking coach named Johnny Christopher had been hired to resurrect the poor local boys’ chances for the coming season.

The new coach had a lovely wife, Martha, and one child – a son named Seth. The Christopher family moved into the house at the end of Alder Street, just down the block from Simon. Seth was only a year older than Simon, but he was big, athletic, and beautiful. The day he arrived, he became everybody’s favorite.

Before Seth came, Simon, who was a puny child, had been picked on by the older boys. But now he was safe. Coach Christopher had wisely taught his strong son to give protection and dignity to the weak. Seth was a dutiful son, and his own heart was grand.

So Simon had a new beginning and a chance.

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Simon swayed in his mother’s porch swing and the rusty chains creaked rhythmically, almost mournfully, under his heavy load. Years had passed and he had grown into a large and strong man. As he rocked back and forth, his eyes roamed down the block and across the street, to Seth’s childhood home. The lonely mother, Martha, had died recently, and Seth sold the home. Someone new lived there. But as Simon looked far and away, his gaze fell upon the old and heavy door – its wooden surface smooth from Simon’s constant rapping over the years – and he remembered.

            He had come here to remember.

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Seth had gleaming green eyes that really saw you. His smile was an enchantment and his voice an incantation. When he walked into a room, everyone knew his presence and drew near, seeking his warmth. He was light and good, and Simon loved him.

Everyone loved him.

Seth was a ball player and as soon as he moved into town the older boys from the neighborhood wanted him around for their games. He would join them, he said, but only if they left off frightening and hurting little Simon. Some of the older boys had been picked on when they were small. These thought they regained something lost by punishing Simon, so Seth’s demand was difficult. Grudgingly, they conceded.

When Simon was ten and Seth eleven, one of the older boys, Judson Freight – Big Jud – decided he would hurt the smaller boy. Big Jud was fourteen and nearly half a foot taller than Seth. But Seth was better than Jud at almost everything, and this was the real reason for his anger. He grew tired of being told what to do by the younger boy. He wanted to bully Simon, sure. But he really wanted to hurt Seth.

When Simon ran off to join the other boys that day for baseball, his mother offered a simple gift – a candy bar. Mothers sense when their boys are pulling away to stand on their own and Simon’s mother sorrowed at the first stirrings of his independence. But his heart was still sheltered securely within hers. Simon happily brought her gift to the baseball field and was just opening it when Big Jud arrived, announcing that he was hungry. He winked at Simon and asked for the bar.

Simon, safe for so long under the wing of Seth, suddenly felt panic, the blood pounding in his ears. He looked around and could not find Seth. He did not respond to Jud, just stared down at the bar, pained by the remembrance of his mother’s smiling face. Sadness and fear made a combined assault, but he committed to protect the gift. Silly as it was, he felt that giving up that bar would be a betrayal and this distressed him, for he was afraid of Big Jud.

Everyone but Seth was afraid of Big Jud.

“Someone gave it to me,” said young Simon, and he was horrified by the shrill tone of his voice. He instantly knew that he had invited more cruelty.

“A present from your momma?” Big Jud had darkness in his eyes and Simon knew he meant to violate Seth’s protection. The bully smiled and licked his lips.

Then Big Jud rushed Simon and slammed him in the side of his head with an open palm.  Simon stumbled but did not fall, still clutching his candy bar in one hand and his baseball glove in the other. His head throbbed and faintness waved over him.

“Give it, punk!”

One of the other older kids – Pete – warned Big Jud, saying Seth wouldn’t be happy when he showed up. Jud responded by whacking the ball cap off of Simon’s head. He glared back at Pete.

“Come on, leave him alone,” Pete whined as Simon scurried over to pick up the cap and put it back on his head. But Pete was also afraid, and his request was half-hearted. Jud was revving up, radiating an angry energy. Simon could only guess how much more punishment he would have to take. He prayed for Seth’s arrival, though he wondered if Seth could really stop him.

Jud shoved Pete in the chest and then charged Simon, grabbed his baseball glove and threw it toward the outfield. Simon began to whimper and despite his effort, could feel the moist welling of hurt and fear along the lids of his eyes. He backed away instinctively, and put the candy bar behind his back.

“Leave me alone!” His voice cracked and Jud smiled. He saw the tears, which should have touched him and stirred remorse, perhaps gentleness. But Jud was pitiless. Simon’s tears animated him, filling him with joyful hatred. Nevertheless, he stopped and put up his hands to show he was done traumatizing the boy. His voice transformed, becoming soft and pleading.

“Sorry, Simon. I’m just hungry. We don’t got no food in the cupboards this week. My daddy done drank up all the money, you know?”

This was true. Big Jud’s daddy was a cruel man. He brought little home and least of all kindness. One of his father’s favorite tricks when drunk was to call Jud over with kind tones and then when he got close, smack him onto the floor. Then the father would bellow and roll with laughter.

Big Jud now meted out hard lessons learned.

“Could I just have a small bite?”

The other boys were nervous now, because they could see that Jud wasn’t true. They looked at each other in warning of the treachery. But Simon approached the lie meekly, naïve. He was a kind boy. As soon as he considered that Jud might suffer, his whole being forgave and reached out to show compassion. He did not offer only a bite. He broke the bar in two and offered the largest piece to Big Jud. His heart was happy, for he knew that he had made the most of his mother’s gift by passing the larger part of her kindness to another in need.

Big Jud grinned wide in mock thanks and held out his hand to receive the offering.  Simon’s soul warmed at the bridge he thought was being built. Then Big Jud chucked the offering across the field into the dust and began laughing. Simon struggled to breathe. The tears were building again and he turned away, protectively holding the remaining portion of his mother’s gift.

“Where you goin’?” asked Big Jud. There was glee in his voice and again some of the other boys moved to stop the evil brimming at the corners of Big Jud’s mind. A threatening glance stilled them. The bully stalked Simon, who now walked mournfully toward where the rejected piece of chocolate lay in the dirt several feet away.

“Here, I’ll share with you!” shouted Big Jud as he rushed over and picked up the discarded candy bar before Simon could get to it. Simon drew back away from him and turned his head to try and hide the tears that were becoming little rivers sliding down his tender and flushed cheeks.

Big Jud grabbed Simon’s head roughly and began to smash the dirty candy bar into his mouth. Simon squirmed and shrieked and spat. Soon his face was a sloppy mess of snot, tears, and mashed chocolate. He spun away and tried to run, but Big Jud was too fast. He grabbed Simon by the shoulders and threw him on his face, into the dirt, then strutted over to kick the whimpering boy. His soul was soaring with wicked hilarity.

Simon pulled his knees and elbows in to protect against the kick, but it did not come.  Instead he heard a heavy thud and then Big Jud howling in pain and anger. He peeked out from his protective shell and saw a grime covered baseball rolling a few feet away.

“I told you not to bother him!”

It was Seth and he was charging Big Jud, a wooden Louisville Slugger gripped in his hand. He was choking up and swinging, and then Big Jud fell beside Simon, his swagger gone. Now Big Jud was crying big tears, rolling and apologizing a mile a minute, crawling backwards on his hands, looking like a frightened crab.

“Get out of here, Judson Freight!”

Simon climbed to his feet, trying to wipe his face fast so Seth wouldn’t know he’d been crying. Seth tossed him his glove and looked away, telling the other boys to go on home. Pete and the others did not argue, though it was clear they were disappointed.

“We can play tomorrow,” Seth told them, “but Jud better not show”.

The older boys walked away with their heads down, quiet. They had known Big Jud was wrong. Pete had even had the courage to speak up. But they hadn’t stopped him. They had been too afraid. And now shame stalked home with them, chastising them for their weakness.

Seth smiled and patted Simon on the back.

“You wanna get ice cream?”

Simon nodded yes and they went to the ice cream parlor together. Seth sent Simon to the bathroom to wash his face while he bought a chocolate sundae smothered in hot fudge and grabbed two spoons. When Simon came to the table he was clean again, fresh. And Seth didn’t mention Big Jud. He just smiled and ate a little of the sundae. But he left most of it for Simon.

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As the years passed Seth and Simon became almost like twins, not to be parted for any reason. They played sports together, they camped together, and they fished and hunted together.  When they started noticing girls, they went on double dates.

Then one day, a dark heaviness, negotiated out of time and before joy, fell upon Seth, and his tenderness was crumpled under its awesome weight.

It was January of Seth’s junior year of high school. Seth was playing power forward and Simon was the point guard on the basketball team. The Pride had just finished crushing another conference foe, putting their undefeated team into first place and securing a ranking in the regional newspaper’s sport section. The two had been photographed and interviewed for the piece, which would be in the Sunday paper. In the picture they were all smiles and both were hanging about the shoulders of the coach, Seth’s father.

Coach Johnny Christopher was a good man, good father and good coach. Seth was kind because his father was kind. Simon had been saved from bullies because Seth had learned from his father to protect the weak. Johnny Christopher did not smoke or drink or overeat. He went to bed early so that he could rise early. And so the day after their victory photograph for the newspaper, Coach Christopher got up in the dark of the morning to jog as he always did; it was part of his ritual warfare against the gravity of age.

Mr. Freight – Big Jud’s father – was also out early that morning. Only he was coming in, not going out. He had sipped his first bourbon, neat, about the time the happy photo for the newspaper had been taken. He kept the tumblers pouring all night and when he couldn’t stand anymore, one of his lady friends drove him to her apartment. When he woke his head hurt, so he found the girl’s liquor and turned his buzz back on. Once his head stopped pounding and he was sure that he was thinking clearly, he stole the girl’s car and headed for home.

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Simon looked down Alder street, all the way to the end, where the road just began to turn.  He saw the home at number 32. It was different from the others in the neighborhood, a constant reminder. The porch and most of the front of the house had needed to be reconstructed after the accident. Seth’s father had been crushed into the porch; the damage to his kindly frame was irreparable.

All at once, the candle was snuffed out – its radiance gone.

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Seth was reborn then, but it was not a happy rebirth. His intellect, athleticism and charm continued to outshine all others. But before his strength had been a boon to his classmates, teammates and friends. They were blessed and carried by him, for he had always served and loved everyone he encountered.

A black and poisonous bitterness took root in Seth’s heart, tainting his every thought and action. He no longer aided the weak or comforted the wounded or led the strong. Now he used his might to crush the arrogant and dominate all. He was still magnificent and all respected him. But fear replaced love.

Seth became haughty. He formerly celebrated those he had beaten in academics or games so that they left defeat with dignity and confidence. Now he gloated over and demeaned his opponents, damaging their souls.

The girls had always loved Seth, but he had never misbehaved, misspoke or strung along. He had been honest, and even rejections were filled with soothing kindness that encouraged. Now he became a great user, taking from all and caring for none.

His poor mother Martha lost husband and son, for though she sought the boy she had raised, she could not find him. He abandoned her to sorrow and did not raise eyes in compassion or his hands in consolation.

Before his father died, Seth had been dutiful on Sundays, serving in the altar and partaking of the mysteries every week. The parish priest even wondered if he might be chosen by God for the priesthood, so beloved and pure was he. But now he did not enter a church.  Outwardly Seth had become indifferent, selfish, and unkind. Simon understood that Seth was angry at God for taking away his hero, and wondered why God had been so careless. Seth had been the champion of the community. Now he was also gone, replaced by a cunning and merciless strongman.

Yet Seth still succeeded in every task, for he was truly marvelous. Now he worked furiously, for bitterness became an unquenchable fire, the only thing that kept his grief from burying him.

His grades were exceptional, and he was a superior athlete. Accepted into an elite university, he continued his ascendance. He graduated top of his class, having used and dominated all beneath him. Wounded hearts and minds were left in his wake. Most of his professors were glad to see him go, for though awed by his brilliance, they feared him.

Nevertheless, businessmen who seek gain at any cost know that one like Seth might become a powerful weapon they can use to annihilate competition. So he was enticed with an avalanche of job offers from respectable firms before the end of his junior year.

As soon as he took a job, he followed his now familiar pattern. He climbed over and crushed any in his way and rose to the top of the corporate ladder. His company thrived and by his mid-twenties, he was being groomed for an executive position with the firm.

There was one thing that carried over from the time of his Eden, before Seth’s father died.

Simon.

Seth did not even know why he let Simon stay close, for his presence sometimes caused discomfort, a reminder from happier times. But Seth could not live without some remnant of that content life, and so he retained this one treasure.

And Simon could never forget how Seth had saved him time and again and how he had taught him to be strong.

So Simon followed him everywhere, first to school. He struggled four long years, but with the help of Seth, survived. As his lone companion, Simon also helped Seth survive, empowering him with a lingering hope of what might still be if he ever wished to return to his true self. And Seth was grateful. He carried Simon to graduation and secured employment for him in his company.

When they were young, Seth protected Simon. Now, Simon protected Seth, restraining him and cleaning up the messes he left behind. This taught him his own strengths and also how to control people. He would never be as crafty or strong as his friend. But he was confident. Meanwhile, Seth’s friendship was becoming heavy, an unrelenting burden and apprehension.

A dark lie began to slither just beneath his consciousness.

Seth was lost. Many times Simon tried to reach him, to impart the hope that had once been given. But Seth was blind, arrogant in his own power. Insulted by the notion that he might need aid, each attempt to throw him a lifeline resulted in further entrenchment around his darkening and lonely soul. He began to lash out.

Simon wore down.

Their firm had been working on a technological breakthrough. Seth, who had made Simon his personal assistant, pushed his entire staff to find the crucial data first. None could work harder than Seth or so ruthlessly drive others. Thus, Simon split time trying to keep pace with Seth and trying to mellow the fires of discontent that were always waiting to ignite. Seth would never admit that he needed anyone. But Simon knew they needed their colleagues. Seth would push them and eventually take all of the credit. But success would only come if Simon could keep the others motivated.

His skill at damage control made Simon irreplaceable to Seth. But it also endeared him to the team. Many began to drop subtle hints that were he to lead, to betray Seth, the others would follow. The roots of his discontent sunk deep, enriching themselves on the hope that he might be relieved the great burden he had been given.

Soon Jonas, the eccentric genius on their team, came privately to him, rambling in nearly incoherent phrases that he had found the answer, but that Seth would never believe him, and that he wanted credit and Seth would never give it, and that perhaps he would give his findings to another office just to embarrass the overbearing executive. Simon calmed him, warned against putting himself in the hands of greedy strangers. Would they give him credit? Would he even be safe?

Their company was constructed for the purpose of taking. The technology they were researching would only enable them to do so more efficiently. It was not a discovery that would better mankind, only one that would enrich the firm, but more particularly a few very powerful men. Small fries like Jonas could only hope to be rewarded by small presents like vacation days or inconsequential increases in salary. Project managers like Seth could hope to one day move into the inner circle.

All of the managers in their own and in competing companies were fighting and scratching for this breakthrough and some were not above intimidation or even violence to succeed. Simon knew he had to protect Jonas. Seth would use him, sure, but the others would maul him and leave him on the refuse pile.

And, Simon had a lot to gain.

He took the research Jonas provided and evaluated the studies, finding them veritable. Then he met the eccentric man privately and looked him in the eye, swearing on his own mother that he would protect him from Seth. Jonas believed.

Next Simon called Seth and asked for a meeting in an out of the way part of the city, reminding Seth that he was probably being watched by competitors. Everyone knew how hard he was pushing and that he was getting close.

Seth consented, and Simon could hear the anticipation in his voice. His normally controlled demeanor was almost unraveled by greed. Simon sensed that he would not reward Jonas, but this was his last hope. He questioned Seth and the curt reply cut a chasm of despair in his soul. The insecure, peculiar researcher would get burned. Seth would expect him to repair the damage. He would make Simon share in his guilt again.

The roots of gloom and resentment began to throb with unrighteous virility and a wedge grew, hewing Seth out of Simon’s heart at last. Bitterness burned his devotion to ashes; the unthinkable wormed into his soul.

He knew the break would have to be clean, total. And he knew that some of his spirit would be destroyed in the rupture. He needed to count the cost.

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So, he had come home to remember.

Simon looked across at the stump which had once been a grand oak with thick spreading branches. Coach Johnny Christopher had worked with the two boys, guiding them as they built a rickety summer home in the tree. The two spent countless companion hours in that hideout, confessing hopes and fears while marveling in faith at the majestic expanse of the flickering skies.

Seth had saved him time and again when they were children. They had loved one another more than brothers. Seth and Simon, Simon and Seth – that was their name. Simon’s life had been changed for the better at every turn by the intervention of Seth. But since the death of Coach Christopher, there was always too much burden with the blessing. And Seth was hurting too many people. The guilt of covering all that injury was festering in Simon’s soul, an unrelenting remorse that filled him with panic. Seth was dragging him to hell.

He thought of Seth’s mother Martha, who had never given up finding her little boy. Seth visited his mother rarely and mostly at the bidding of Simon. She died hoping she would see the pure child she raised. That child stared blankly down upon her when she was set beneath the earth and had not even rewarded her faithfulness with a single tear. Simon considered – perhaps the Seth he loved might have been buried long ago, when his father died. 

A new family lived in Seth’s old house. They had chopped down the old dead oak; the treehouse had come down after the death of Coach Christopher. Almost all of the reminders of the boy hero who had saved Simon were gone.

Sorrow streaked Simon’s face.

The sun faded to blood red, gradually baptized into the suffocating blue black of cloudy night. Simon rose and kissed his mother on the brow before he left. He had a woeful look.

“Has he never come back to himself?”

“No, Momma – I don’t think he ever will.”

“Maybe you should let him go, son. I know you tried hard, you really have, but only God can save him.”

“If I let go, he’ll die. I have failed; what will become of my soul?”

Simon Kane drove down Alder Street, past the gloomy and dimming reminders of the boy he loved most of all, and grief energized his clarity and transformed his heart into a blade of stone.

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The headlines in the paper the next day told of a junior executive from a big firm and his assistant who had been found, beaten, in an out of the way part of the city. The executive had traumatic brain injury, was in a coma, and wasn’t expected to live through the week. The assistant had a collection of nasty scrapes and bruises, a broken nose and a few bruised ribs. But, he had survived.

Authorities suspected foul play. The two victims had been working tirelessly on research that would set their firm on solid ground for decades to come. Suspects included several competing firms and other teams of researchers within the company itself.

A few days later, the assistant – whose injuries were already mostly healed – was promoted in the interim to the position formerly held by the now comatose junior executive. The two had indeed made a ground breaking discovery and the firm’s stock soared.

The eccentric – Jonas – received a week’s vacation and a pay raise.

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A new agony hounded the spirit of Simon Kane. It was the remembrance of a chilling encounter on a bright day three weeks before the assault. Tormented, Simon had sought refuge inside a corner bar outside of the city. Sitting in the last booth at the back of the bar was a disheveled and grimy ruffian sipping on cheap bourbon, neat. The boy, now grown to misshapen manhood, at once recalled in Simon every nearly forgotten childhood dread. But inside the shady haze of betrayal and revenge, beneath the neon advertisements for amnesiac tonics, the monster became an escape. It was a lie – the door of freedom opened instead to a haunting dishonor.

There had been many attackers; Simon could only remember the pounding rhythm of Judson Freight’s boots stomping an abandoned friend to nothingness upon the cold, damp cobblestones of the obscure alleyway, where trust laid down to die beside all that was already lost.

It was August and a storm slowly gathered gloom as it crept somberly above Alder Street.