Adam silently glided up the ladder attached to the wall near the west entrance of the church. He nearly flew as he leaped with one bound and slipped into the bell tower room.
Adam’s small hideaway, which was just below the open space where the chimes hung, had ice crystal clusters on the small window pane. All around him was silence, the achy kind that sets in when emptiness is everywhere. There, in the cold, dark, rough room is where he slept each night.
Adam knew the rooms below the belfry were warm, but people came and went from Cranberry Church at all hours. Like a honeybee hive, there was always work to be done. He had to stay out of sight, invisible. He would lie on the floor and listen to the happy voices of people as they bustled in and out just below him.
If he were eighteen, it wouldn’t matter. He could live wherever he wanted. But, that was three years away. People would never let a fifteen-year-old live alone, regardless of how well he could take care of himself. Adam could plow a straight line, plant a field, bag a rabbit and skin a deer, but he wasn’t old enough to choose where he would live.
“I don’t need to be taken care of. That’s gray-haired thinking,” he complained. “Meddling, old fuddy-duddies who won’t mind their own business.”
Alone in the belfry, he curled up on the cold wood-plank floor but found no comfort. The bell tower’s bare floor in December was like an icy barn stall on the farm, but with no hay to cushion his head or animals’ breath for warmth. There in the belfry, he usually had only his jacket to pull over him.
Earlier that evening, however, when there was no movement downstairs and before Alfred came, Adam selected three blankets and a pillow from things the church members donated to the Christmas rummage sale. The war was over and goods of all kinds were in short supply, so the church members cleaned out their dresser drawers and closets to help the returning vets. That holiday season, Adam would have felt blessed, if he believed in a god who blesses.
To meet his own needs, he found a new basketball and a small, forty-eight stared American flag attached to a stick on the donation pile. Up in the belfry, he made up a pallet on the floor with the pillow and blankets, put the ball near his head so he could see it was always there, and wedged the little flag in a chink in a rafter beam. He reviewed the nation’s colors and a sober smile escaped his tight lips.
Adam shook his head and yawned. He had to get to sleep. He had school tomorrow and the hour was getting late. His room was as ready as he could make the dark, cold space.
My own room, Adam mocked himself.
Large, rough, hand-hewed, hand-scraped beams provided the rafters of the old church and long wooden pegs held all the old timbers together.
“The rustic space is kinda pretty,” he admitted, “if you don’t mind the dark, the cold, and
the awful dampness.”
He looked around the dim space that shimmered with air-dust the moonbeams revealed as they streamed in the window. Cobwebs sparkled like Guatemalan Long-jawed spider webs in the rain forest. They added a mystery that felt both intriguing and eerie.
“The heavy cross-beams in the ceiling remind me of our old barn,” he conceded. “But, it smells more like pigeon hooey than sweet straw or new mown hay.”
Suddenly, Adam heard a rattle in the darkest corner of the rafter room and shuddered. He had seen the shadows move downstairs and smelled their terrible odor. Grannie said the spirits that smell bad can be ordered to leave.
“I command you to get out of here,” he demanded, but there was no odor or movement.
Not the shadows. Then, a thought came to mind that disturbed him more than the shadow people.
“Rats!” He shrieked with disgust. He hoped he was wrong. He hated rodents of any kind.
“Wizard?” he called to the darkness. Either make me invisible or the rat. I don’t want to see the ugly thing.” But, the wizard didn’t answer.
Adam heard the ghastly flapping noise again and sniffed the air. It was too cold to smell anything but the shadows and that was good. The shadow people’s foul odor smelled as bad as Uncle George did the day he walked up out of the bog and into Granny’s clean kitchen. The noise couldn’t be demonic shadows. There was no odor to expose their presence.
I can’t go to sleep until I know what is trespassing in my tower. This is my space! I am
“Take courage my son,” the wind whispered through the thin, single-pane window.
Adam calmed. “Yes, Wizard.”
Creak! The old boards loudly and rudely announced Adam’s movement as he searched for the source of the noise.
What if someone comes back into the church downstairs? He screwed up his face with each step, as if a frown would silence the wood as he stepped. It felt like he had anvils strapped to his feet, not clodhoppers. Wish I had taken these boots off.
One of the huge webs in the corner suddenly glowed with crystal green dust.
“No, no, not a wish. Just a thought,” he gasped. “I did not wish for help from Mr. O’Shaughnessy.”
But, his steps would not be silenced. Did he really run silently across the basement floor
just minutes ago or did he imagine it? As he neared the corner of the belfry, he stopped and waited. He knew there was something in the darkness. Nasty old things, rats.
“Where’s Grandpa’s shotgun when I need it?” he wondered Then he laughed at himself. “The blast would reverberate across the ice and snow like a civil war canon. Right! Sneak around in the dark, then blast away at a mouse with a machine gun. Good thinking Shoemaker.”
“Courage does not need a gun, my son,” the wizard encouraged him.
Suddenly, something darted at him from the peak of the roof like a dive bomber from a corner of the black sky. “Bats!” he shrieked without a thought or care to who might hear him. He swung wildly, his arms flailed in the air around his head and shoulders. “Get off me!” he ordered as he smacked at the space within his reach. “Wizard!” he bellowed again.
Thud! Just as quickly as the winged menace lunged at him, the thing dropped to the hard floor, in a puddle of green sparkle from the web.
Adam hoped he didn’t have Mr. O’Shaughnessy to thank. He had called on the Wizard. The leprechaun may have downed the beast, but Adam hadn’t summoned him.
Adam squinted in the meager beams of moonlight that streamed through the small window and strained to see if the creature was a bat or a Cooper’s hawk that had attacked him. It had to be huge.
There on the wood-plank floor lay a little ruby-throated hummingbird. The tiny bird did not move but lay there at the tip of his black leather shoes.
“A hummingbird? You’re supposed to be gone by now, Little One,” Adam whispered as he scooped up the small green feathered creature with its bright red throat. “You must be a boy with all those bright feathers.”
He stroked the little bird’s ruby fluff and blew short puffs of breath over its green head. “You should have left in September along with the rest of them,” he whispered. Grandpa planted sweet honeysuckles along the orchard fence for you. Grandpa and Grandma, Moms and Pops are all gone from the place now. Guess the flowers are gone too,” he whispered.
Despair crept into his voice as he thought of all he had lost. Frozen ice droplets touched the window glass and clung there like the hard, clear glue drops Pops got all over Moms’ good dish when he tried to mend it. Adam smiled faintly as he remember a time when he had a family. Moms was in the hospital and his grandparents had died in an automobile accident. Pops was
drafted in the war, then he was listed as missing. Now the farm lay empty and fallow. Adam had
no one, nothing. He hung his head and rounded his shoulders, the picture of a defeated boy.
He could have stayed in the Schumacher farmhouse. The family had lived there for generations, but he would be too far from town. Besides, he couldn’t stand to be alone on the farm. Not because of fear. Just the unbearably loneliness. Now that winter was here, the house would be cold. The empty coal bin, lack of food in the cupboards, and no electricity made the farm house uninhabitable.
He wouldn’t be able to get to town. The key to the old truck was in Pops’ cuff link box but it would do him no good until he got his driver’s license in four months. To get to the sanatarium where Moms’ was being treated, he had to walk ten miles. People would notice a teenage boy who lived alone in a cold, empty house. Someone would call the Child Welfare League who cared for war orphans and other abandoned kids.
The mayor had even started a Christmas-at-Home program for families to enjoy the holiday season for the first time since the end of the war. All that joy had escaped Adam.
“Adam,” the wizard called on a drafty waft of air, “cover the little bird with your hand.” The wizard was so close he seemed to whisper in the boy’s ear. The breath of his words filled young Shoemaker with hope.
Adam placed his hand over the little guy just as the wizard instructed. The belfry hovered around Adam like a warm presence while the tempest outside buffeted small twigs against the window. Beams of light shimmered and focused on the bird he held in his hands. The glow was not green this time, but more the color of hope. Adam stared at the tiny hummer with trance-like
vision. The little bird appeared to be dead. Then suddenly, like a second life, the hummingbird
began to move.
The boy didn’t know if the miracle he saw was from the wizard’s wise words, Mr. O’Shaughnessy’s response to a foolish wish, his grandfather’s knack of healing animals on the farm, or the warmth of his own hands, but the hummingbird’s wings moved slightly. Who knows why the bird fluttered, except those who believe in miracles. Another amazing thing—the little bird with the long bill didn’t try to fly away. He lay there in Adam’s palm nearly motionless. Then an idea came to the boy.
Adam had watched from a distance the other day when BeeBee Brumble donated the
funny little woven wicker basket she carried as her purse. The boy had stifle a laugh when
he saw it.
“Beatrice Bianca Brumble,” Adam overheard BeeBee’s husband say. “I have taken all the jibs and snickers I can tolerate. The time has come to put that purse to rest. I am tired of the guys asking if I’ve trapped anything yet.” That morning, they plopped the purse in the donation box.
Adam was thankful his mother didn’t carry a humiliating pocketbook. He would have disowned her.
“My mother? No, she’s not my mom,” he would say. “Moms is a country lady, not too fancy and not too dumpy—just right.”
The boy had determined that he could not lay the bird down for fear the little beauty might try to fly before it had healed. The hummer had to be protected. Adam would get that basket from the mission pile. He wanted to keep the little bird around for a while and the protective basket-purse was all he could think of.
“What have you been eating, Little One?” He smiled at the little hummingbird. “All the flowers have been gone for weeks.”
He slipped back down the ladder with the bird in his partially open hand. Silently, he moved into the fellowship hall, a not-so-easy task under any circumstances. A delicate bird in his hand and steel-plated shoes on his feet did not make his silent shuffle easy. Adam Shoemaker also had that toed-in athletic stride that was as agile as a thoroughbred on the basketball court and as clumsy as a new born colt everywhere else.
“Guess you’ve been scrounging for food, the same as me. But, I don’t eat a steady diet of flower nectar.” He looked with surprise down at the tiny bird. The little fellow seemed satisfied to stay in the palm of his hand. Finally, he reached the rummage table that boasted items which included BeeBee Brumble’s basket-purse. As he carefully placed the bird in the basket and closed the lid, he whispered, “Grandpa taught me all about you little guys and you should be down Mexico way.”
Adam was careful not to swing the basket too much as he carried the make-shift birdcage back up the ladder to the belfry. He paused at the top, next to the trap door, and listened for any sound in the rooms below.
“Just for tonight,” he whispered to the bird, “considering your injury and all, I’m going to leave the trap door open so we can get some heat up here.” He sat the basket on the floor beside the bed he had made. “Don’t get used to a warm bed though, Little Hummer. It won’t be safe to leave the trap door open all of the time. If folks saw the opening, we would soon be found. You
wouldn’t have a comfortable basket to sleep in then and I wouldn’t have this glorious mansion to
Adam rolled over onto his back and stared into the blackness above and around him. The darkness made him feel even more alone. The lonely nights would soon roll into Christmas, with all the memories of a time when his family was real. Adam knew he would not be celebrating the holidays this year. There would be no iced cookies or brightly lit tree and no presents under the branches in his life. His world was no longer predictable or full of the sameness he was used to. He thought of the still bird that laid in his hand and the new breaths the hummer finally took. Will the wizard breathe new breath into my life too?
As thoughts danced in his head, he pictured Fritzy Breman again. She sat near him in English class and he wondered what her Christmas would be like. He imagined that Coach Breman’s family would have a wonderful celebration, complete with golden roast turkey and warm pecan pie.
He smiled to himself as he thought about Fritzy. She had talked to him more than usual
recently and there was something different about her words and the crinkles around her eyes.
“God,” Adam prayed as he had each night for four months, “I’ve prayed a lot lately, but the truth is, I don’t really think you’re there. But, Moms says you are and something happened with that bird that I don’t understand. Maybe you are. If you haven’t died in the war, please help Moms. She’s sick and needs your healing. She’s at the West Slope Tuberculosis Hospital. I know you can find the large white building. There’s a Christmas star on top for the holidays and you know all about Christmas stars. Her name is Bridget Schumacher, but she might be going by Bertha Shoemaker now. I know I’ve changed my last name and Pops always called her Bertha.
With the war and all, there are too many bad feelings about names like ours. And God, I know you don’t have pockets full of money up there, but I’ve got to get some cash real soon. If I can pay the deposit on a load of coal, I can get heat back in the farm house and Moms can come home. But the hard part is, we’ll still need an indoor bathroom. Well, if you’re there God, help Moms and thank you for the blankets and pillow. And—let the little hummer live. Another living thing would be nice to have around here when I get home from school every day.”
The blustering snow outside the building blew in around the small window and deposited icy flakes on the windowsill and frosted the inside of the pane. Adam closed his eyes and hoped that God was still there. But, he didn’t see how that could be possible. He had absolutely nothing left of his life. Would God allow that to happen? But, he had to admit, his life had just gotten a little better. He had a few things: some blankets and a pillow and a little bird that flew in from
the cold. Would they be able to stay warm together?
“Sleep well, young one,” the familiar voice whispered into the cold night as Adam’s
breath formed an icy wreath around his head. “And remember—take courage.”
Adam looked around for the source of the voice. In the moon light, a comic book with a muscle man in blue and a red cape gazed at him intently from the cover.
“Not tired my son?” the voice asked.
“I don’t know. But, I wish―”
“One day, you’ll know who you are and you won’t have to wish,” the wizard whispered softly.
“Wizard, what is your name?” Adam had wanted to know but had been afraid to ask.
“My name? What do you call me?”
“I’ll call you Shaddi. Pops said Shaddi means all powerful.”
“That is close, young one. That is close,” the one with the new name answered calmly while the snow storm outside continued to rage.
Adam squinted in the dark and hoped to get a glimpse of the wizard. “Shaddi, maybe I don’t know who I am yet but I wish I had the power of Superman.” Then he remembered that wishes came from Mr. O’Shaughnessy. “Shaddi, I’m not wishing, I’m asking.”
“You will have all you need, when you need it,” Shaddi answered as he seemed to drift away on the rhythm of the blowing wind.
All I need when I need it? Adam wondered if that would be true, but he would trust the wise one who whispered in his ear. If Shaddi were really a wizard, like his name said, then somehow, Adam would have Superman powers when he needed them.
Aoogha! The next morning, a car horn in the street announced reveille. The snowstorm had stopped during the night and sound carried on the thin crystal clear air for blocks.
“Hey Barbara, get a wiggle on!”Aoogha! There was urgency in the insistent car horn.
“Okay, okay,” Adam answered reveille’s call. “Great, another day already,” he moaned as he resisted opening his eyes to his dank existence.
Aoogha! Another blast of his wake-up alarm horn.
The day broke like most other days in recent months, fragile and jagged. At least for Adam, his mornings startled rather than started. At any time, he could be moved away from all he knew, away from Moms, away from his school. His life would change forever if he were found.
He heard the chimes of the grandfather clock in the Honeywell Lounge downstairs and wondered why the clock couldn’t be loud enough to awaken him in the morning. Why did everything have to be so hard? Then he listened again. From high up in the belfry the tones sounded more like a funeral dirge than a cheery wake-up call. Adam decided to stick with his original plan. Hoping for change for change’s sake never works out Grandpa had said.
In spite of his Spartan living, Adam had worked out a weekday plan. Each school day,
Charlie Baker picked up Barbara James out in front of her house, across from the Cranberry Street Church, long before school started. Charlie and Barb liked to spend time at the soda fountain in Crammer’s Drug Store before school.
Charlie’s rooster crow was predictable enough to give Adam time to wash up in the men’s room of the church and hurry out the back entrance before Alfred came in the front door.
That morning, Adam slid down the ladder like a fireman on a firehouse pole with a foot on each side of the rails. He grabbed a dish out of a cabinet in the church kitchen. The whole second shelf smelled like vanilla extract and rich spices. He put a small amount of water in the saucer and sprinkled a bit of sugar over the surface and stirred in the sweetness.
“I think I saw‒” he thought out loud. “There it is.” He fished around behind the salt box and brought out a small bottle. He removed the lid, tipped it up and added a few drops of red food coloring to the homemade nectar. “Flowers are colorful,” he reasoned, “so the bird might be more attracted to the sugar water if the liquid was bright.”
He hurried back up to his space, held his breath, and opened the basket. “Oh please Shaddi,” he whispered. The hummer had to be okay. Adam wouldn’t be able to handle the loss of something else.
The little bird lay motionless in the basket. Adam’s chest gripped tight with fear. Everything inside and out was so still it felt like Adam was standing in a magic void. Then, the tiny bird fluffed his feathers and stood up. To the boy’s surprise, the hummingbird didn’t try to fly or escape. Adam held out his hand and the little hummer hopped up and perched on his
finger, midway between his first and second knuckle. The bird’s trust was amazing. How could the little thing warm up to him so quickly?
After seeing the bright eyes and colorful feathers, Adam didn’t want to leave the little fellow and go to school. If he had a choice, he would have chosen differently, but he had learned to take care of responsibilities first and play second, if there was any time lift.
Adam placed the synthetic nectar in the basket, closed the led and looked around the belfry. The space looked different in the daylight. Every corner was lit in light and the shadows were gone. It was still cold and damp and colorless, but the light added interesting accents of brightness against the dull. He slid down the ladder again and darted out the back door just as a key turned in the front lock.
Adam loped through the alley, past the back of Donley’s Furniture Store. It was harder walking back there but he thought the short cut was worth it. Suddenly, a souped-up pale blue coup skidded up behind him and sent heavy cold snow down his collar.
“Sorry, Schumacher,” Ernie Clifford mocked out the jalopy window. “Hey, has your Daddy come home from Germany yet? Or did he decide to stay in the Mother Land?”
“What did you say to me?” Adam bellowed. As he clenched his fist in the air, his rage foamed within him.
“You heard me, Kraut!” Ernie shouted back as he sped off.
Shadow people, the color of Adam’s anger, darted out of the shack behind Donley’s store. They were as black as bitter-weed, puffed up and mean.
“We will lock his brakes and make him crash,” they seethed.
Adam refused to look at them and jerked his eyes to the frozen ground. The sun slipped out and tried to shine through the ever present clouds to burn a hole in his emptiness and bring some joy to his life. The brightness of the sun on the fresh clean snow drove the demons
back into the gloom of the shed.
Adam shook his shoulders and arms and tried to dissipate the tension and anger that had strangled his body. Shaddi, get the rage away from me.
He kept his focus on the icy rocks and gravel in the alley and kept moving until he came out at Norman Avenue. His head down to brace himself against the cold and the dark influences that were around him, he chose to think about the hummingbird and smiled.
A lone cardinal twittered from the top branch of a maple tree, the only spot of color in the all-white world around him. He thought of the hummingbird and wondered if Ruby would be a good name. But, he’s a boy. I’ll call him Rudy.
“Shaddi, take care of the little hummer,” Adam whispered. “You’re always in the belfry when I need you. Be there for the little guy too. Right now, Shaddi, the little hummer is all I have.”
Out on Norman Avenue, the whole town looked like a cover from The Saturday Evening Post. The curbs were camouflaged in deep white drifts so he couldn’t tell the sidewalk from the street. Normally, school would have been cancelled due to a snow storm like the one the previous night. It was so close to Christmas, however, Adam figured that the school superintendent wanted to plow on, so they could get in as many school days as possible before the holiday break.
“Good morning, Adam Shoemaker,” Frederica Breman called as she hurried out her door as Adam passed. “Who were you talking to?”
“Just the bats in my belfry I guess,” he smoothed over the slip. Right big-mouth, walk around talking to yourself. That’s impressive.
They hit a patch of ice and teetered in their balance. “Careful there Fritzy. The sidewalk has gotten very icy and the curbs have disappeared altogether.”
“You would pick me up if I fell, wouldn’t you Adam?”
“Your pa wouldn’t like that very much.”
“Well, he wouldn’t want me to lie in the snow on the cold, hard ice, would he?” she giggled as she took wider strides to keep up with the tall, long-legged boy.
He said nothing as he trudged through the deep snow but his smile was evidence enough of his feelings for the girl. More words could have produced silly giggles to accompany the grin—and a truly awkward moment.
“How’s your mother, Adam?” Fritzy asked.
“Doctor says Moms has to stay in the hospital another couple of months, ‘til the weather warms up a bit.” That was true but the real problem was, the house had no heat. And, Adam had no money for a deposit on the coal that would get the old farmhouse warm again. There would be no need for furnace heat in the warmer weather of Spring. But then, there was the problem with the bathroom. There was none. Adam didn’t know what he was going to do about that.
Fritzy tried to match his steps, stride for stride, crunchy boot beat by boot beat. “A log stay in the hospital must get awfully expensive, Adam. My grandma was in the hospital for a
whole week and that cost hundreds of dollars.”
“I don’t’ know what her stay will cost when she is finally done with treatment, Fritzy. The bill will be a lot. I know that.”
“How . . . ?” Frederica stopped. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t ask. Your family’s accounts are none of my business.”
“That’s okay,” he thought about the stack of bills that already stuck out of every cubby of the roll-top desk in the farm parlor. “I don’t have any idea about the cost of things or when she can come home.” He really wanted to say, “And, I don’t know where the money will come from either.” But, he was from a family of private people and Adam had learned to be silent. He had lived alone. The sound of the empty wind was all he heard. Maybe that’s all that Shaddi is, the winter wind.
“Sorry to get nosy, Adam.” She hurried, slipped and slid as she pressed deep footprints in the fresh snow of the sidewalk and seemed to try to catch Adam’s eye whenever she could.
He slowed and touched her sleeve. “Wait, Fritz.” Maybe he could trust her. He had to talk to somebody. He and Fritzy had been friends since grade school. Lately, he had begun to feel silly around her, awkward.
He let go of her coat as quickly as he had made contact. What if she didn’t want him to touch her. “The problem is just that, my dad—well, I never told you—but―” he caught himself before he continued. “Never mind.” How could he tell her that his dad had been missing in action for over a year?
His grandfather had always said, “Your name is your ticket to the good life.” A kid with
no dad and a sick mom was not part of the pedigreed families. Adam believed that.
If Pops is dead, that’s one thing, he thought again and again. Death is okay. It has respectability with it. People sympathize with the family when a loved one dies. But, if Pops is a deserter, that’s a whole other thing. If Pops is a deserter, the Shoemaker name would be shattered like broken glass and there would be no hope of their reputation ever being mended.
months since the war was over. He wanted to tell her. “Pops—” he started. “Forget it, Fritzy. I’m talking way too much.”
“You!? Talking too much? Adam you put fewer words together than anyone I know,” Fritzy laughed and slipped a little on an icy patch beside him. “It sure is slick out her,” she said as she caught herself. “Besides, I can’t say I know how you feel ‘cause I don’t. Daddy’s eyesight is what kept him out of the Army.”
Adam had to change the subject. Shaddi, help me, he pleaded silently. Immediately, a distraction on the street presented itself, like the wizard had waved a sparkling wand.
“Hey Shoemaker,” a boy leaned out of his car window at the four-way stop, “you goin’ out for basketball or not? We’ve already played some games but Coach said he could still use you.”
A delivery man in a milk truck honked his horn and the boy drove on. As he moved down the street, the boy shouted back, “We need you Shoemaker!”
“We need you, Shoemaker,” Carl Benton mocked from the open door of his milk truck.
“We need you, Shoemaker,” a ten-year-old boy teased as he darted across the street, a
made his getaway.
“Watch out!” Fritzy shouted as the grade-schooler stepped into the cross-street and into the path of a large truck.
The truck driver slammed on his breaks and geared down but his swift reaction was too late. His truck was a torpedo, aimed at the fourth-grader.
Shaddi, speed! Let me fly with a winged cape. Adam flung himself into the busy street, both arms extended toward the boy. The velocity felt like flying but it happened too fast for him to grasp the wonder of the miracle.
“Adam! No!” Fritzy screamed.
Adam’s body flew horizontally across the road, with enough speed to propel him, canon ball style, directly at the boy. He grabbed the child and tucked him under his arms like a large, leggy football. Then, Adam aimed for a high snow drift beyond the street and hit the ground in a roll. Adam laughed as he let loose of the boy.
“Wow!” The kid jumped to his feet and shook his head. “I thought I was a goner!” he squealed. “Thanks Adam, thanks. We must have been flying.” Just as quickly as he had slid into the street, the boy slipped and slopped off in the direction of Pasadena Grade School.
“Adam,” Fritzy gasped as she grabbed his arm, “you just saved that boy’s life. It all happened so fast. How did you do that?”
“I don’t know. We do what we have to do, when we have to do it,” Adam said.
Then he remembered, You will have all you need, when you need it.
Escape from the Shadows, the seguel to Escape from the Belfry,
will be available after the first of the year.
Escape from the Belfry is available on Amazon.com, b&n.com, cokesbury.com and others.