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The Poddington Project: Stories

Going Home


Classes were ending for the noontime meal at King's College in Cambridge, and students were pouring out into the hallway, a river of formal navy jackets and leather satchels. There was mostly the sound of laughter and light conversation, though one could also hear the occasional speculation on an upcoming match or the lingering ends of philosophical debates begun in the classrooms. Amid the noise and hubbub, if one listened close enough and was in the right place, one could also hear a small, tight, voice buried under the layers of sound.

"Excuse me. P-Pardon me, please. Sorry." it said. "Sorry." it said, again. It said "sorry" a lot.

The voice's owner, Jory August Moon, held his satchel up close to his chest, like armor against the sea of young men that coursed through the hallways. He was thin, pale, gawkish, a faded autumn leaf tossed in a flood-swollen river. No one noticed him. They barely acknowledged him when they would bump or jostle him as they pushed past. For his own part, Jory moved slowly towards the exits, out towards the sunlight playing on the green lawn. He kept his head bowed, his teeth gritting, his eyes looking up just enough to navigate, and his lips moving in the quiet litany of apologies.

Jory was tired. This was not unusual for him. Jory rarely slept. He was given a room alone, not for any particular social problem, but that he had constant night terrors and would wake up screaming or would thrash about in the bed for hours. The solitary life suited Jory fine. He didn't like the company of most of his peers. He found them arrogant, shallow, or dull, or all of the above.

One of those boys, Christian Babcock, a sophomore, plowed right into Jory from behind, sending him sprawling into another pair of students Jory did not know. "One side, Moon!" called Christian, laughing, while the other pair exclaimed their distaste with having been intruded upon by a freshman. Jory muttered his apologies, watching Babcock depart. Arrogant and shallow, thought Jory.

As he finally stepped out into the lawn, squinting his dark-circled, bespectacled eyes at the glare, Jory could only think about getting back to his room and sitting in silence for a while. Maybe he'd do some sketching, or maybe he'd catch twenty minutes of sleep or so, if the dreams weren't so bad.

"I say, Moon!" called a voice. Jory looked up. He half expected it would be Christian come to harass him some more, but this voice was older. He blinked in surprise as he spied its source, the black-robed figure of Dean Whitehead. "There you are." the Dean said, trotting up to stand next to Jory. His face was solemn, and Jory felt a knot twist in the pit of his stomach. Something was wrong.

"Look, Mr. Moon would you come with me? There's well, there's been an accident."

The Dean's office was quite spacious and comfortable, especially so for a campus as old as King's college. The rich red-brown wood that paneled the walls seemed to absorb the sunlight that streamed in from the large arch-topped window. Jory felt quite small in the leather chair before the Dean's desk. His hands were curled around a small glass of brandy, untouched. The Dean was pouring himself one, too.

"You're from Poddleton, aren't you?" the Dean asked, dropping the stopper
back into the crystal decanter.

"P-Puh-Poddington, sir. P-Poddington-on-Slossip." said Jory, correcting him, softly. "It's not far from T-T-Tuh-Tewiff." Jory licked his lips, embarrassment working his way onto his face to join the quiet solemnity it currently wore. His stutter sounded so much worse in quiet, intimate settings, and it bothered him.

The Dean nodded. "Yes, yes, that's right. The cable came from Tewiff." He took a tiny sip of the brandy. "I'm dreadfully sorry, Jory."

Jory looked down into the amber brandy, his eyes defocused and distant as he replayed the Dean's earlier words over in his head. His mother was dead. He thought about that again, feeling strangely detached and distant from the idea. His mother was dead. And she died because. . . .

"Do you have any family, there, Jory?" The Dean's voice interrupted his thoughts.

Jory glanced up, then back down to the brandy. "No, sir." he said. "My father"

Dean Whitehead nodded. "Yes, your father died in the War, I heard. No brothers or sisters? Aunts or uncles?"

Jory sighed heavily, shoulders slumped. "Not around here. I imagine I have kin in Ireland on my father's side. And my mother's side of the family well, we were never close."

The Dean made a little tsking noise. "How old are you, Jory?"

"Eighteen, sir."

"Well do you have anyone you can go to? Someone to, you know, look out for
you during all this?"

Jory did not reply. He simply stared at the brandy, past it, through it, into some inscrutable space that held the answers he needed but couldn't understand. He did not know why, but this seemed like something he expected. Events in his life replayed themselves in his head, like so many puzzle pieces dancing about, but they didn't seem to fit, nor did he have any idea what the final picture was to look like.

After a moment more, Jory spoke. "Sir are you sure she died that way?"

The Dean closed his eyes and shook his head, faintly, as if to display how tragic he thought the situation was. "I'm afraid so. When we got the cable, naturally, we rang up the office to find out if it was true. We eventually spoke to the Vicar there Williams?"

"Warrenton." said Jory, mechanically. "

Warrenton, yes. He said the storm was really something terrible. Apparently, the wind knocked a tree over into your mother's house, and when she went outside to have a look well, they say these things are quick and painless." The Dean sighed. "Father Rothchild is caught up in the dedication of the new chapel library, otherwise he'd be here. He would like to see you, though, later on." Dean Whitehead took another small drink of brandy. "I'm dreadfully sorry, Jory. The chances of something like this happening are just vast. It must be a terrible shock."

Jory did not feel shocked. In fact, in a kind of unhinged way, he felt a little laugh start to bubble up from his throat. He swallowed it, though he couldn't prevent the corners of his pale lips from turning up.

"Sir. I've never t-told anyone this outside my own family." he said. "But d-duh-did you know how my mother's sister d-d-died?"

The Dean frowned a little. He didn't like the somewhat crazed expression on the lad's pale face. He wasn't taking this terribly well. "Er, no, Moon, I don't."

"She was on holiday, on a b-boat off the Channel." Jory said, looking into the middle distance at nothing at all. "A storm came up suddenly. A buh-bolt of lightning struck the mast, just as she was holding onto it t-t-to keep from getting tuh-tossed over-b-board. She was killed, instantly."

The Dean's eyebrows plunged further together. "Is that right?" asked, incredulous. "That's incredible! Your aunt and your mother both"

Jory continued, cutting the Dean off, still staring vacantly ahead. "I had a second cousin on my mother's side as well. P-Puh-Playing golf in Edinburgh. Apparently had t-t-too much scotch, and d-duh-decided to keep p-playing through a sudden storm. A lightning b-bolt killed him on the eighteenth green."

The Dean scowled. "This can't be true," he thought. "The boy's distraught, and making things up."

"There was my great-grandmother on my mother's side. The d-details around her d-d-death are a little sketchy, b-but one night a lightning storm set the house on fire and she p-puh-perished inside. My great-grandfather swears that a b-bolt of lighting came duh-down the chimney, rounded a corner, b-blasted through a closed d-door, and struck my great-grandmother while she was standing in the kitchen."

Dean Whitehead didn't know what to say. He stood there, looking at the boy in a mixture of concern and confusion. A moment passed, the sunlight pouring through the window creeping across his desk as the day wore on. Jory spoke again.

"Eleven d-different members of my family have duh d d-died b-by lightning, all on my mother's side. Those are just the one's we know about." Jory, hunched and small, looked down at the floor. His glasses were slipping down to the tip of his nose and strands of his tousled black hair tumbled across his face. "I guess I'm really not surprised."

The Dean set his glass of brandy down on the desk, and leaned over toward the pale lad, concerned. "Look, Moon I really think you should see Father Rothchild. Talk it over with him, what? He's got a good ear for listening. I'm sure he can help you find a way to work things out."

Jory lifted his thin hands and placed the glass of brandy on the desk, untouched. "I think I have a b-buh-better idea."

Back in his room, in the quiet of the evening, Jory methodically packed his clothes into a valise. Something caught his attention out of the window in his room, and he glanced up at it. It was Christian Babcock, along with several other students. They were following, and harassing, a couple of local women. No doubt making suggestive comments and hoping for an illicit rendez-vous later on. If any of the faculty saw them, they'd be in hot water for such behavior, but Jory didn't care anymore. He went back to packing.

As he moved on to his art supplies, he paused, pulling out several charcoal sketches. He looked at them in turn, slowly. The first was a very private sketch, one that he showed no one, and one likely to get him in trouble should anyone else see it. It was a picture of a young man, nude, reclining on a bed, a smile on his face. Jory's face fell a little as he looked at it. His lips pursed a couple of times, and then he tucked the sketch deep into his portfolio. The others he looked at were likely to be dismissed by most as rustic landscapes. They depicted the Cornish countryside, and the numerous small buildings and roads associated with rural life. Backwater life, by Cambridge standards. A cursory inspection would reveal nothing special, but Jory knew about the little details he had put into them. The details like how the shadows of the buildings seemed to have different shapes than the buildings themselves. Or how some of the buildings were sketched at angles that would require being in a tree or a hot-air balloon to depict accurately. Or how some of the roads seemed to glow as they ran over the moors. They had a dream-like quality to them, and Jory had to force himself to put them away. "It's alright." he thought to himself. "I'll go have another look at them tomorrow."

Jory's mother was dead, and it seemed for all the world like his connection to that tiny little town he grew up in was finally severed. But the puzzle pieces danced before him still, and somewhere down in his soul he knew that the final picture would only be revealed to him there. The Dean had tried to talk him out of it. "Think of your future." he had said. Jory was. Jory was going home.