Beverly Wood had steel strings and he set himself to strum. His teacher had taught him not to grip the neck of his old, blue guitar, but he did anyway. His teacher had taught him that gripping the neck might interfere with his fretting and would slow it down if the interference didn’t get to it. His teacher was an old black woman named Martha Abigail and everything she did was slow with one exception. When she took the old, blue guitar from Beverly, she played like lightening struck. The first time Beverly saw her do it, he found himself split between two emotions, wide-eyed amazement at her towering talent and fear that the speed of her feverish picking would cause her fingers to work themselves apart. They hadn’t, of course. Martha just stopped playing and handed the guitar back to Beverly. Now Martha was gone and it was just Beverly, strumming as he walked down the empty streets of Ash Water, his hometown.
What had happened? Beverly had asked himself that again and again. Everyone was gone and all he had was his guitar to keep him company. He played it because he couldn’t stand the absolute silence that seemed to echo somehow. It felt like the silence was coming after him, eating up the sound his old, blue guitar made. Beverly would even have taken Todd Allen, who reminded Beverly that ‘Beverly’ was a girl’s name, almost daily. Beverly and Todd had gone through elementary and high school with Todd beating Beverly’s ass all the way. It had been the summer before college that the tables had been turned. His mother had called him a late-bloomer and he only began to believe when he found himself needing a whole new wardrobe. Everything he owned had become too tight. His pants choked at his meaty calves and his shirts exposed his flat belly button. He had transformed into a new man in time for his legal manhood. Todd Allen had recognized him and therefore didn’t understand why his nose had been broken.
Todd noticed some similarities between Beverly and this new man and Todd wondered vaguely if Beverly had sent a cousin after him. It was after this new man dislocated Todd’s jaw that Todd thought to start defeating himself. Beverly had won that fight by many accounts but he got a broken hand and a few bruised ribs for his trouble. He also got arrested for assault and battery.
Beverly’s uncle had defended him in court, but Beverly’s nonexistent police record and his pronounced limp did most of the work. His uncle had recognized this and had rolled up Beverly’s shirt sleeve and jacket to show off the cast on Beverly’s arm.
“Don’t ham it up, but limp when you’re in there. Let them see you got as good as you gave.”
Even that wasn’t absolutely necessary. Of the twelve jurors, six were a few years older than Beverly and Todd and knew the both of them from school. They remembered the time that Todd had pushed Beverly on a nature hike led by Mr. Wilson, the science teacher, Mr. Nope, the gym teacher and Ms. Sadie, the Vice Principal. Beverly tumbled down a rocky slope, slashing his jaw open and breaking his arm. None of the three adults had seen Todd do it, but nearly all the students had. The six jurors remembered Mr. Nope spilling down the slope after Beverly and coming back up with the sobbing, bleeding Beverly in his arms. They remembered that and Beverly didn’t even get community service for beating Todd unconscious.
Now, he was playing his old, blue guitar while he walked the streets, wishing that a wind would kick up. He wished that the world would make some noise, but it didn’t. He working through the chords of B.B. King’s “No Sunshine When She’s Gone” and the melody fell died like shot birds in the air. Beverly’s feet hurt, back he didn’t want to stop walking. He had a subconscious fear that something was coming for him and if he stopped to rest, it would pounce upon him. It would stand to reason that playing B.B. King’s old standard would attract the thing stalking him, but felt as though the thing was repelled by the thing. His fingers hurt from the vibration of the steel strings, but he played even still. He had a sub-subconscious fear about what would happen when his fingers were ran too raw to play.
“No Sunshine When She’s Gone” gave way to a somber, mournful “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” It sounded like the kind of song someone would play at a funeral. Beverly couldn’t play as fast as Martha had and he didn’t want to try. He walked down Ash Water’s Main street, moving past darkened store windows and clay brick doorways. The Beatles love song never made it to the bricks to bounce or to the glass. His subconscious fear suddenly because a conscious one. The moment he realized that he was afraid of something following him, he heard a trashcan crash onto its side. Glass bottles clinked and broke and it sounded like something had clamped down on one of the bottles. He had feared the thing before he had any possible proof that it existed and he didn’t even have that. Not really. A few broken bottles didn’t make a monster. It did make something and Beverly was afraid that it made something awful.
When his subconscious fear rose to his conscious mind, his sub-subconscious fear rose up one level as well. His fingers started dancing across the steel strings, moving faster and faster. His footsteps started giving way to heavy footfalls. He wasn’t quite running, but he wasn’t walking anymore. It became difficult to play the guitar and hurry along at the same time, but he kept up with both of them. There were new sounds raining down from the gray stone, one-story buildings like hard stones and rotten vegetables from a jeering, hateful crowd. The world was suddenly noisy and Beverly wished for the silence that had terrified him before. Beverly remembered the old saying: ‘Be careful what you wish for.’
Something funny happened. A new fear flooded up to his vacant sub-subconscious. He didn’t know that he was thinking it, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if he saw Todd Allen looking to pay him back for the ass-kicking he had dealt. The two of them had gone to two different colleges, but Beverly had gotten word that Todd spent the first semester of his freshmen year passing notes instead of being able to speak. His jaw had been wired shut and the jaw had healed badly anyway. A year after college, Beverly walked into Mr. Walter’s general store and Todd was there, speaking with a lisp that must have been embarrassing for Todd. Beverly remembered thinking that Todd Allen had become the white Mike Tyson, big as hell with a ridiculous voice. Beverly walked back out the door and went to the seven /eleven door the street, knowing that he would laugh at the thought, Todd would know Beverly was laughing at him and then there would be a fight. Beverly had remained strong and didn’t fear Todd anymore, but he didn’t want a repeat of the arrest that had occurred six years prior.
Beverly thought that Todd would come walking around a corner, his face twisted up in some crazed glee. He imagined Todd coming to settle up with him, possibly brandishing a wooden baseball bat, possibly the one he used back in high school for baseball in the spring. Todd wasn’t exactly an athlete. He smoked too much in high school for that. If he didn’t hit the ball out of the park, he was almost always tagged out. He was a big, lumbering thing, but he was meant to hit. When he swung his bat, ball flew like bullets and god help any birds flying overhead. When Todd had broken Beverly’s nose in a bathroom, senior year, Todd had been kicked off the baseball team. The broken nose had been a large part of the reason why Beverly had gone off on Todd in the summertime before college.
Todd hadn’t turned a corner with a baseball bat, but Beverly kept hurrying along, sweating and breathing hard. He ran as though Todd Allen was chasing him, calling after him, reminding him that Beverly was a girl’s name. He had ultimately grown taller than Todd, but Beverly couldn’t help but remember a time when Todd was a juggernaut knocking him down a rocky slope. He couldn’t help but remember a time when Todd broke his nose, a time when Todd had kicked him in the balls and drove him into a wall headfirst, a time when Todd had pinned Beverly down and popped in the face, over and over again. Todd Allen had been a terrorist in Beverly’s life and Beverly couldn’t remember what exactly started it. As long as Beverly could remember, Todd beat the hell out of Beverly, until Beverly beat the hell out of Todd.
Beverly changed chords into “A Boy Named Sue” and he suddenly wondered where was his father.