FICTION

THE FLASHLIGHT

FRANK BENNETT May 15 1946
FICTION

THE FLASHLIGHT

FRANK BENNETT May 15 1946

THE FLASHLIGHT

It was very hard for a heartsick small boy to understand that even the bitterest loss must be accepted . . - and that life and love so on

FRANK BENNETT

THIS day had been the worst since school began, and there had been some pretty bad days for Eddie Turner this year. But today things had

been so bad that he didn’t think about the new flashlight until he turned up the old grass-grown, crumbling brick walk that lay between the two maple trees and led up to the side porch of the house. Even remembering the flashlight didn’t help much. Inside he felt empty and unhappy. And afraid.

He’d washed the crying off his face in the little brook that ran along the edge of the cemetery. But nothing could wash the crying out of his heart. Not even remembering the new silvery flashlight that his dad had given him for his eleventh birthday.

The porch creaked under his small, square-toed shoes. “You’re late,” it seemed to say. “You’re late, late, late!”

He stopped and looked back at the low sun. His round, freckled face tightened, looking stubborn and older than a small boy’s face had a right to look. He didn’t care if he was latí-, and he didn’t care if he’d made Mary worry about him.

He turned toward the door and went in quietly. He’d slip upstairs and look at the flashlight. Maybe he’d take it out to the barn and flash it around in the dark bin where his dad kept the cracked corn for the chickens. And maybe no one would remember this .was report card day.

He was halfway along the cool hall to the stairs when Mary saw him through the living room door.

“There you are,” she said, a note of relief in her soft voice. “What in the world has made you so late, Eddie?”

He stood stock-still in the hall, keeping the report card out of sight of her clear blue eyes. He saw that she looked worried, and he was glad.

Mary laid the baby on the pink-and-white blanket spread on the living room floor and gave Eddie a friendly little smile that didn’t quite hide the worry in her face. She was slim and young and golden. There had been a time when he’d liked her. That was before she’d brought the baby into his world. The baby made a difference in everything that mattered. Even in his schoolwork.

He didn’t smile back or answer her question. He couldn’t tell her how the teacher had kept him in to scold him about his marks. Mary had taught school and she believed that marks were important. She wouldn’t understand how, since his mother went away, the words in the books didn’t seem tornean anything, because inside of him there was always a feeling of terrifying a loneness.

“What made you so late, Eddie?” Mary asked again.

He looked past her bare, long, slim legs at the baby. His own mother had been small and dark. “I stopped to play,” he mumbled.

“You shouldn’t have,” Mary said. “I’m to meet your father at the office with the car, and I didn’t want to go until you came.”

He stood in the hall shadows, not moving, keeping the report card behind him. The sun came through the long front windows of the living room, splashing orange rectangles on the soft, reddish rug and throwing the shadow of a high-backed chair against the tiled fireplace that couldn’t be used because it smoked. His dad, he reasoned, must be coming home from the newspaper office earlier than usual tonight. Lately his dad hadn’t had much time for him.

“You stay with your sister,” Mary went on, slipping her slim arms into a woolly sweater that matched the bright yellow of her soft, swept-back hair. “I won’t be gone long.”

She gave his brown, unruly hair a friendly tug as she went past him. Unmoved, he watched her disappear through the door, heard her quick steps crunch through the dry leaves from the lilac bush. The car started and turned out of the drive, and Eddie walked slowly into the living room. He looked down at the baby, thinking how ugly she was with her toothless gums and large unwinking blue eyes and how she’d entered into his world, changing everything.

“You’re not my sister,” he said again. “I won’t stay with you!”

HE TURNED, flung out of the room, and raced up the stairs. His own room was large and clean, with east windows that looked across Mr. Manners’ pasture. Sometimes, when the grass was tall and waving, it looked like a green sea. He slipped the report card under the dresser cover and got the new silvery flashlight from where he’d hidden it in the closet.

His thumb pressed the button, and the bright beam leaped out across the dark closet like a white finger. He smiled, and some of the bitterness lifted from his spirit.

“You’re mine,” he whispered to the flashlight, turning it on and off, remembering that if you didn’t leave it on much at a time the batteries would last longer. “All mine!” And the feeling-of aloneness left him.

Flashlights had always fascinated him. He’d wanted one, it seemed, ever since he could remember. One like this that could be focused, one that could be snapped on and off with thumb pressure on a tiny button so that you could spell out words with dots and dashes. He’d spent hours learning the Morse code. Now he spelled out, “SOS, Edward Turner, captain.” It was fun.

The wail of the baby broke rudely in upon him. The wail turned to frantic crying. Reluctantly he put the flashlight back in the closet and went slowly down the steps. At the foot of the stairs he could see the baby, her small face twisted and red, her feet kicking wildly.

He went into the living room. “Go ahead and cry,” he said. “Bawl your head off. You’re not my sister, not all of you.”

The baby kept crying.

“Shut up,” he said, “or I’ll give you something to cry about!”

The baby wasn’t interested in his words. She wanted to be picked up, and he knew it, but didn’t go near her. He sat down on the ottoman beside the cold fireplace and cupped his chin in his hands. Let her cry, he didn’t care.

Then Mary ran into the room, her bare legs flashing and her yellow hair flying. His dad came in right behind her, his brown face looking tired, his grey eyes worried. His dad seemed a lot older than Mary. Maybe that was because he didn’t laugh as much as Mary did and because he had some grey in his dark hair. Eddie could remember how he and his dad and mother used to go across Mr. Manners’ pasture to the creek to fish. That had been fun. But since dad had married Mary he didn’t seem to have time for things like fishing.

Mary dropped down beside the pink-and-white blanket and took the baby into her arms and began to make soft cooing sounds to her.

“What happened, Eddie?” his father asked anxiously.

“She just started bawling,” Eddie answered without looking at his father.

“Why didn’t you pick her up—try to hush her?” his father asked.

Eddie’s eyes fixed on his dad’s brown shoes. He didn’t say anything. His dad bent over Mary and the baby, and the aione feeling flooded through Eddie, making him turn all tight and unhappy inside. The baby was the important thing. It was as if he, Eddie, didn’t exist any more.

“There’s nothing wrong with her,” Mary said. “She’ll be all right in a moment.”

Eddie got up and quietly

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The Flashlight

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left the room. At the top of the stairs he stopped and glanced back. The baby was quieter now.

“I can’t understand what would make her cry like this,” he heard his father say between the baby’s sobs.

“It’s nothing,” Mary said. “I’ve just spoiled her. She wanted to be picked up.”

Eddie went on into his room and got his flashlight. When he came back down the stairs and into the hall, he heard Mary say, “It worries me, Mas¿. He seems unhappy. I’m afraid—” He went on through the hall and out the side door. A robin hopped along the brick walk, and he flashed the light at it. The robin didn’t seem to notice. He went on around the lilac bush, kicking through the dry leaves, and out to the bam.

The barn was shadowy, and the flashlight beam made a solid silver streak across the empty stall and landed with a bright circle on the cornbin door. Carefully he spelled out “SOS.” A rat popped his sharp-nosed head out from under the bin and blinked at the light. Eddie laughv. softly. This was fun. This was the most wonderful flashlight in the world. It was his. It was like a friend who helped you forget the unpleasant things.

His dad came in a little later. “Oh, there you are,” he said. “How’s the flash working?”

“Swell!” Eddie answered.

His dad came across to him, a tall, solid man, a little stooped from long hours at his desk.

“What do you say we go frog hunting tonight?” he asked. “This is Friday, and you don’t have to go to bed so early, you know.”

Eddie turned off the light, saving the battery. “Frog hunting?”

“Mary thought you’d like to go. Don’t you think it would be fun?”

“I don’t know,” Eddie answered. “I’d like to go fishing sometime.”

“Maybe we can sometime.” His dad’s eyes lifted to the door. There was a faraway look in them. “But tonight we’ll go frog hunting with your flashlight.”

Eddie felt a warm glow begin deen inside him. “Can you hunt frogs w'th a flashlight?”

“Sure,” his dad laughed. “We’ll borrow Mr. Manners’ boat. There’ll be a lot of moon tonight. Just you and me, Eddie. We’ll have fun.”

The boy was suddenly very happy. Everything that had happened these last hours, the report card, the baby’s crying, the feeling of aloneness, all belonged to the past. They didn’t matter now.

“When can we start?” he asked eagerly.

“Right after dinner, son. ’

Eddie’s eyes shone. “Gee!” he breathed. And all at once he felt very hungry.

Dinner that evening was fun, with his dad telling how if you flashed a bright light into a frog’s eyes he’d sit perfectly quiet and let you pick him up. The baby was asleep upstairs, and Mary, her red lips smiling, her clear blue eyes laughing at him, was more like she’d been when she’d first come to live with them.

It was dark when he and his father walked across the pasture to Mr. Manners’ house. Old Shep, Mr. Manners’ dog, came to meet them. He ran circles around them and blinked when Eddie flashed the light into his eyes. Eddie laughed happily.

He turned the light on the Manners’ barn, where the old circus poster showed girls swinging by their feet.

“It’s the best flashlight in the world!” he said. His dad laughed, and said, “Better save the battery for the frogs, son.”

Mr. Manners said sure they could use the boat, and they followed the rocky path down to the water. The frogs were making a great deepthroated fuss all up and down the creek, and Eddie felt his heart race. This was going to be exciting, he knew. It was almost like old times, when his mother had lived in the big old house and the three of them had come here to fish.

AS ALWAYS, when he thought of his . mother he thought of Mary. Mary, so different, yet somehow the same. Odd how his mother’s face was only a blurred memory with Mary’s face coming between it and him. Funny that it should be this way. Sometimes he worried about it, but not tonight.

He stepped into the rocking boat, gripping the flashlight tightly, and sat down in the bow. His father climbed in, lowered himself carefully on the middle seat and picked up the oars. The moon smiled down at them through the still trees. Looking into the water Eddie could see the wavery face of the moon smiling up at him. It was a wonderful night with two round moons to watch.

“Quiet, Eddie,” his father whispered “We’ll follow this bank. When you spot a frog keep the light shining in his eyes. We’ll row right up to him and lift him out.”

The boat moved soundlessly. A willow branch leaned down and brushed Eddie’s excited face. It was like a soft kiss. He pressed the button on the flashlight and groped with the bright beam along the damp, black bank. Two little eyes gleamed back at him. The first frog!

“There!” he whispered tensely, holding the beam steady.

“Too small,” his father said.

The white circle moved on and next time came to rest on a huge, green

bullfrog.

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Continued from page 41

“Steady,” his father whispered.

Eddie felt his heart pound in his throat. He gripped the light with both hands. The frog sat transfixed, motionless as a green rock, except for his white underneath which swelled with his breathing.

Eddie’s father reached out, caught the frog and dropped him into an old gunny sack. Eddie let out his breath in a long hiss.

“Gee!” he said. “This good ol’ light sure holds ’em!”

They went down the creek as far as the riffle and caught three more large frogs. They crossed to the other bank and started back.

The boat slid under an overhanging tree. Eddie reached up with both hands to ward off the low branches. He was never sure how it happened. Perhaps a limb struck his wrist. Perhaps his fingers relaxed a little. Anyway, the flashlight slid from his hand. He made a grab for it, missed, and in stunned horror saw it fall into the black water.

He could see the bright globe of light dim as it sank, and then it went out. He could neither move nor speak. Under the tree the darkness was complete and cold. Inside he felt sick and weak. And the old feeling of aloneness swept over him.

“Tough luck,” his father said, and swung the boat out from under the tree into the bright moonlight. “You should have been careful.”

Eddie fought for his voice. It came hoarse and unnatural. A tiny, hopeless voice that was not his own. “Can’t we get it? Please, dad, can’t we try?”

His father bent forward and leaned back, putting his full weight on the oars. The boat shot forward like a live thing.

“No,” he answered. “It’s pretty deep there.”

A sob shook the boy. He put his hands over his face and felt the hot tears burn between his fingers.

“Now don’t be a baby,” his father said a little crossly. “Things like that happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it afterward.”

Eddie choked down the lump in his throat and fixed his eyes on the dim, approaching bank. His father didn’t like crying, so he didn’t cry. He held all the deep hurt and sickness and

aloneness down inside. There his unhappiness seemed to swell and grow until he thought he would explode. But he didn’t cry.

“That’s better,” his dad said. “Crying won’t bring it back.”

But it wasn’t better. It was worse than all the crying in the world. And he remembered the day in school, the report card, *'d the stone in the cemetery with his i .other’s name carved on it. And the baby who was not all his sister. But he didn’t cry, and a numbness crept over him that made it difficult for him to climb out of the boat when they reached the landing. That numbness held him silent all the way home.

The porch light was burning, he saw as he followed his father up the crumbling brick walk. Mary sat in the big chair near the fireplace that wouldn’t draw, the lamplight bright on her golden head, her slim fingers busy with needle and thread and a fluffy little dress for the baby.

She looked up and smiled. “So the hunters are back. Do we have frog legs for dinner tomorrow?”

His dad stepped over to her chair and kissed the top of her bright head. “Yes, we do. Golden-brown frog legs. A dish fit for a king.”

“How nice!” Mary was looking at Eddie, smiling in her friendly way. “Was it fun, Eddie?”

Plis face felt frozen, and he couldn’t smile back at her. He could only nod his head.

“Eddie traded his flashlight for the frogs,” his dad said. “He lost it in the water.”

“Oh, that’s too bad!” Mary exclaimed, her face losing its smile. “I’m sorry, Eddie.”

“I don’t care if I lost it,” Eddie said stoutly. “I don’t care a bit.”

He turned and walked stolidly out of the room. The bannister of the stairs blurred before his eyes. Quickly he climbed to his room and closed the door. The moonlight came through the east windows and lay in two white squares on the floor. He undressed without switching on the light and stepped into his pyjamas.

He went over to the windows and stared across the sea of grass in Mr. Manners’ pasture. In the distance he could see the dark line of timber along

the creek. Someplace under the cold water of the creek lay his wonderful silvery flashlight. It was like a voice stilled forever. Like his mother’s voice.

HE FLUNG himself across the bed, and the tears came. Hot, sticky tears. And he buried his face in the pillow to hush the sobs that wouldn’t stay down any longer.

The door opened softly, and a narrow path of light from the hall cut across the floor to the head of his bed.

“Eddie!” Mary said, a quick little catch coming into her voice.

She turned on the soft, green-shaded dresser light and came over to him. He tried to stop crying, but that was beyond his power. He could only burrow his face deeper into the pillow.

He felt Mary’s fingers through his shock of stubborn hair. They were soft and very gentle.

“Look, darling,” she whispered, “I’ve brought you something. See. It’s another flashlight. I bought it when I was teaching school in the country years ago. It’s been in my trunk all the time. I’d even forgotten about it until tonight. Tomorrow your father will get new batteries for it.”

He turned his face from the pillow and looked. The flashlight was black and small, and there was no button to press to make dots and dashes. His eyes moved up to Mary’s face.

She smiled at him. Not her bright, happy smile, but a sad little smile of longing.

“Of course,” she said gently, “it isn’t as nice as the one you lost. But, Eddie, life is like this. You lose something bright and shining and very dear to you. And then you have to take something else in its place. Something that is hard to accept, and perhaps isn’t as good as the thing you lost. But something, if you try real hard, that you can learn to accept.

Even to love.”

He had stopped crying now. The longing in her clear eyes and the pleading note in her voice held him quiet. He knew she had something more to say and he knew he wanted to hear it.

“Don’t you see, Eddie,” she went on, her arms tightening about his small shoulders, “I’m sort of like this old flashlight. I’m trying to take the place of someone you loved very much and lost. No matter how you feel, Eddie, either about this flashlight or about me, I want you to remember always we’re doing our best to make up for what you’ve lost.”

He understood then. Understood how it was with Mary, and the terrifying feeling of aloneness was suddenly gone. He reached out, took the black flashlight and gripped it tightly.

“Thanks, Mary,” he whispered. “This is a swell flashlight. I like it. Honest!”

He snuggled against her shoulder. There was a faint perfume to her hair. It made him think of the pink blossoms that came each spring to the plum tree in the garden. Then he remembered something that made him sit up.

“I got my report card today,” he said. “It’s not very good.”

“It’ll be better next time,” Mary said, and he knew she was right.

The baby began to cry softly.

“Goodness!” Mary exclaimed. “It’s past her feeding time.”

“Can I help?” he asked timidly.

“I should say you can,” she answered. “You can hold her and keep her from crying while I warm her bottle.”

They went into the nursery. Eddie picked the baby up carefully, and she stopped crying. She was sweet and cuddly and tried to get hold of his nose with her tiny fingers.

He felt warm and happy inside. “My little sister,” he said softly, and held her close.