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Under the Dark Leopards of the Moon
by T.R. Healy


The fuming Mercury had already screeched around the corner, its radio blaring as loudly as ever by the time Ned Pitney ran out the door. Breathing hard, he stood by his mailbox, a flashlight shining in his left hand. Sometimes the car circled the block and raced by again so he waited there despite the chill in the air. He had not heard it for a couple of nights, not since he discovered a chunk of brick tossed through a window in his garage. And he was sure someone in that car had thrown it, sure as he was of anything.

A few moments later, Scrowcroft, a neighbor who lived near the mill pond, crossed the street and approached Ned, his lame yellow Labrador at his side. "What're you doing out here with that flashlight?" he asked, smiling. "You practicing to become a crossing guard at school?"

Ned winced at the inane remark. "You hear that car race by here two or three minutes ago?"

"No, I didn't hear anything except Ginger here panting like a furnace."

"Really?"

"No, Ned. Should I have?"

"Lord, it squealed around that corner loud enough to be heard half a mile away I bet."

"Well, when you get around my age, your hearing is one of many things that doesn't function as well as it used to."


He nodded, idly shifting the flashlight back and forth in his hands.

"You figure it was some folks who are mad at you because of your brother?"

"I'm sure of it."

"That's stupid. It really is," Scrowcroft fumed, stroking the throat of his dog. "What your brother did has nothing to do with you. Not in anyway. Some people are just too stupid to be believed."

"You don't have to tell me."

"How long are you going to stand out here?"

He shrugged. "Not much longer. If they haven't come back by now, they're probably through for the night."

"You be careful, Ned. There's no point in getting in a confrontation over something you had nothing to do with."

"Oh, you don't have to tell me that."

"Don't I?"

"Nope."

"Good, I'm glad to hear you say that. But if you should ever find yourself in a corner of some kind, you just give me a holler."

Ned nodded and watched the elderly man follow his dog back across the street, surprised by his unexpected offer of support. Scowcroft was one of the few people in the neighborhood who did not bow his head and turn away when he saw Ned on the street. So many others, some of whom he had known ever since he moved into the neighborhood nearly five years ago, acted as if he were a leper with a bell fastened around his ankle, scurrying away as soon as they became aware of his presence. Those who didn't snub him he found himself breathlessly rambling on to, afraid that if he stopped for a moment they would disappear. About the only time he felt comfortable outside his house now was late at night when it was less likely anyone would see him.

In another moment Ned heard the faint murmur of a car engine from somewhere behind him, and, at once, he turned around, determined to make out the license plate number of the Mercury this time. Gradually the sound grew louder, and soon a pair of bright headlights swept around the corner and headed toward him. His arms started shaking, his shoulders too, and he clamped his hands around himself urgently to keep still. The car moved very slowly, as if the driver was aware he was being watched, then it turned into the driveway four houses down from Ned's. Immediately he relaxed and lowered his flashlight, realizing it was Mrs. Panagakos returning from work, then he scolded himself for being so suspicious.

If it wasn't for that damn river, he thought angrily to himself, snapping the flashlight off and on, none of this would be happening.
***

His younger brother, Warren, was a school bus driver who, in the summer, operated a river guiding business. Ned was his partner, though he seldom did any guiding. Warren had run rivers since he was a kid and had conducted over a dozen float trips down the Saddleback River. He knew it as well as he knew any stretch of whitewater in the state. It was a demanding body of water, strewn with boulders the size of his garage and fierce rapids, but Warren rarely encountered any serious problems on it. Indeed, it was one of his favorite rivers because it offered such a roller coaster of a ride, a view shared by many of his clients who generally felt a real sense of satisfaction when they got through it.

Two weeks ago, Warren was hired to take five friends down the Saddleback, who had never been on it before, though all of them had rafted other rivers. At the boat launch he was cautioned by another guide about the possibility of an approaching storm, but the blue-green river was so calm he was confident they would not encounter any trouble. He was terribly wrong.

Nearly an hour into the trip, the downpour began, pelting them like pebbles, and steadily the level of the river rose, submerging some of the largest boulders in their path. The swollen water became as muddy as the banks, surging so fiercely in places that the rafters felt as if they were aboard a sled. The usual three-foot waves were four times as large, smashing down on them like the increasingly heavy rain showers. Suddenly, as they swerved around a fallen oak tree, one of the huge waves caught them from behind and flipped their raft, hurtling everyone into the river.

Warren and most of his passengers were swept along in the raging current for nearly a mile before each managed to scramble to shore. Breathing hard, their arms hanging limply at their sides, they joined one another in a loose circle, seeking solace, trying to gather their strength. When they were all accounted for, except the lone woman in the party, Libby Gallagher, they saw her floating toward them, face down, her arms and legs splayed out like a battered kite.

Inevitably, as the guide, Warren was held responsible by some members of his party for what happened to the popular high school Spanish teacher. Even some of the other guides were quoted in subsequent news accounts questioning his judgment, for not aborting the trip in the face of such hazardous conditions. He should have realized, they insisted, that melting snow combined with warm rain would cause the river to flow at a much more treacherous pace. The criticism infuriated Warren, since he knew the storm was far worse than anyone had predicted, but he realized there was little chance of changing the minds of his critics. A bright young woman had placed herself in his care, relying on his experience to navigate the river safely, and she had drowned. There was no way he could absolve himself of some responsibility in the eyes of many people.

Ned was never subjected to all the vilification his brother had to endure but he did receive a considerable amount. Not only because he was his partner, but because he resided in the same neighborhood as the teacher had. He didn't really know her other than to exchange smiles with when they passed one another, but many of his neighbors did and they directed their outrage over the accident at him. For them, and for those people in the Mercury who raced past his house shouting obscenities almost every other night, he was as much of a pariah as his brother. As responsible for her death as if he had shoved her overboard, seemingly.

Eventually his brother moved out of his home into a motel out by the airport to escape the glares and insults, but Ned refused to buckle under the pressure and continued to try to act as if the accident had never happened. He had done nothing wrong nor, he believed, had his brother, so he saw no point in avoiding his neighbors. If they chose to look away when they saw him that was their decision, but he had no intention of isolating himself in his house. Indeed, he was so determined to assert himself that almost every evening after dinner he went for a walk around the neighborhood, something he seldom did before the accident occurred.

One evening, he came across Doc Higgins, out in his front lawn staring up at the shoe-leather-black sky through a pair of yellow binoculars. Not wishing to disturb his concentration, Ned started to move around him but as soon as the pharmacist heard his footsteps, he lowered his binoculars and announced with a sparkle in his eyes, "You're up there in lights tonight, son."

"Excuse me?"

"Sometimes the sky is just like a mirror, reflecting whatever happens below it. Here," he said, extending the binoculars to him, "have yourself a peek."

He carefully peered through the eyepieces at the sky, which was brilliant with stars. They were so bright they hurt his eyes, but he continued to stare as the pharmacist pointed out Orion pursuing doves across the sky with his dog, Sirius.

"It looks just like you chasing sparrows across the yard with your dog," Higgins chuckled, after identifying the doves as the daughters of Atlas and Pleione.

As he listened to the pharmacist, Ned was reminded of someone from his old neighborhood. His name was Paul Schorske, but everyone called him Papa Paul, even those near Paul’s age. The owner of a small shoe repair shop downtown, he often sat on his front porch after work and gazed at the sky, which he was convinced was far more interesting than anything shown on television. Sometimes he would identify different stars and planets to Ned when the youngster was playing outside, as he would to anyone who passed by his house in the evening. And one summer he helped him build a three-and-a-half-inch refracting telescope out of old cardboard tubes and a surplus porthole window so he could observe the sky whenever he wished. Nearly every night for the rest of that summer, Ned lugged the rickety contraption out on his porch half an hour before it was tine to go to bed. Then, as if the sky were a gigantic mural, he searched for the star clouds of the Milky Way and the craters on the moon and all the other sights in the solar system that Papa Paul had introduced him to that summer.

Ned did not know if he still had the old telescope so as soon as he got home that evening he searched for it among the boxes of things in the attic that he had taken from his mother's house after she moved into an apartment. Somewhat to his surprise, he found it wrapped in brown butcher paper in a carton of antique model-airplanes he had painstakingly assembled as a youngster. Smiling, he peered through the dusty eyepiece and located a water stain on the ceiling that was almost as orange as Jupiter. Then he took the telescope outside and found Sirius again, luminous as ever, and suddenly wished someone was there whom he could show, as Papa Paul had shown him.
***

"Hey, you'll never guess what I found tonight?" Ned hollered to the accountant who lived on the corner.

"What's that, Pitney?"

"Come on over and find out."

"I'm kind of busy right now."

"It'll just take a minute," he persisted.

Sighing, the sullen man crossed the street and lumbered over to the telescope, bent down and peered through the eyepiece, and almost at once a faint smile emerged from the corners of his mouth.

"The rings of Saturn," Ned informed him, encouraged by the smile of this neighbor who had scarcely acknowledged him since the accident, let alone exchanged any words with him.

"They look like some kind of toy you'd find in a crib."

Ned laughed, then went on to tell him what else he knew about the planet.

The accountant was the ninth person Ned had invited to look through his homemade telescope and the fourth to accept his invitation, which was more than had accepted last night. He had set up the telescope on his front lawn not because he was particularly interested in looking at the rings of Saturn or the polar caps of Mars, but because he hoped by engaging the people who had been ignoring him lately he could help diminish some of the tension in the neighborhood. Ned had scarcely done little to the telescope except paint the tube a bright canary yellow, but he had spent the weekend recalling what Papa Paul had told him and paging through several volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica , so he would have something intelligent to relate to those who dared to come over to look through his telescope.

Abruptly, the rumble of a car engine rose through the still night air and Ned sprang back from the telescope, his arms prickled with goose-bumps. He expected to see the Mercury heading toward him but instead it was the long black Lincoln that belonged to a widow, Mrs. Neustadter, who also lived near the mill pond. Relieved, Ned motioned for her to stop but she drove by as if she didn't see him. He was skeptical, though, since she was someone who had routinely ignored him since the accident was first reported.

Tomorrow, he thought, he might take his telescope to the mill pond, set it up, and invite people like Mrs. Neustadter to look through it. Maybe, if he got up the nerve, he might even set it up on the street where the Spanish teacher had lived. It was only a few blocks away, though it seemed as distant as anything in the sky.




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Document last modified on: 08/19/2002

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