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Growing up North.

Marcus watched as North ambled his way toward him. Northrop Surla was 13, two years older than Marcus. They were both in Miss Duncan's sixth-grade class. This was North's third consecutive year in sixth grade. He didn't seem dumb, but Marcus was sure somewhere deep down North thought he was. Heck, Marcus had passed every grade, and he knew North thought he was dumb. Of course, Marcus already knew who North was before Miss Duncan's class. Everyone knew who North was. He was one of the Surla boys. He was trouble, born and bred. He could, would, and usually did fight everyone he met. He'd beat Marcus up three times before they became best friends. Marcus still couldn't pinpoint how this turn in their relationship had happened. He only knew it had proved to be a much-needed boost to his own social standing.

North approached him with his usual smirk laced across his face. He had a pocket full of firecrackers and a mind full of ideas. He also had his 4-year-old sister in tow, so whatever mischief North had in mind would have to wait. It being summer, he had baby-sitting duty almost every day till noon. His mother cleaned houses and would leave Becca with North while she worked in the houses with the most expensive breakables. Thus, a rather odd trio was born: North, a virtual legend in his own time; his best friend, the nerd; and Becca. Becca had Down's syndrome, but as far as Marcus could tell, North hadn't noticed.

"What do you want to do today?" Marcus asked. North thought a moment, then spit. Becca spit, too. "Don't do that." North turned to her. "Girls don't spit."

"OK."

North returned his attention to Marcus. "Want to go out to Mr. Martin's pasture later?"

"Sure," Marcus said.

"Hungry," Becca said.

North looked down at her. "You just ate, Becca."

"We can get a sandwich at my house," Marcus offered.

"Cookies!" Becca smiled.

"You're not supposed to ask for stuff," North scolded, shaking his head at her.

"Please, cookies?"

"It's OK," Marcus said. "My mom has some." He knew North was relieved. Another please from Becca, and he would be walking a mile to the store to get some.

"Come on," North instructed, lifting her on his shoulders.

Mrs. Carron not only had cookies, she had freshly baked cookies. Lunch was a sure thing at Marcus' house. Sandwiches and chips were a given, and on a good day, there might even be leftover meatloaf or fried chicken. Becca sat at the table, eyeing the platter. North cut her sandwich and gave her a look.

"So, what do you boys have planned for today?" Mrs. Carron asked.

"Nothing much. We might go to the pond later," Marcus said, not mentioning Mr. Martin's pasture.

"Yeah," North nodded in agreement.

Mrs. Carron eyed the two but said nothing more. Satiated and under suspicion, they wandered upstairs. Marcus flounced on his bed, shooting hoops into the garbage can while North read comics and Becca looked at the pictures. A wad of paper soon bounced off North's head and landed in the can. Both boys breathed applause from the stands. The next rebound, however, rolled into the closet. North retrieved it, tossing it effortlessly into the can. Lying back now, with his arms behind his head and staring into the overstuffed closet, North spoke. "You know what I always wanted? A tie."

"A tie?" Marcus croaked. "What do you want a tie for?"

"I don't know. I just always wanted one."

"So, why don't you just get one?"

"My mom says we aren't going anywhere that I'll need one."

Marcus didn't say he should be so lucky, but he definitely thought it.

"I've got five; take three or four."

A horn sounded outside and North rose quickly. "Come on, Becca, that's Mom."

With Becca safely deposited into her mother's arms, the boys had nothing left to do but stay out of their parents' hair. That left every other living as well as inanimate object up for grabs. Marcus followed, knowing North had a plan. He grinned, pausing before the azalea bushes in the Martins' yard, bent down, and began handing Marcus his mother's canning jars. There were a dozen of them hidden beneath the lush branches. Marcus stuffed what he could in his oversized shirt, and soon they were on their way. The pasture beyond was their destination. It didn't have to be spoken. Mr. Martin was stone cold deaf and wouldn't hear a thing.

They set up the jars in a row and filled them with firecrackers and gasoline. The explosions were impressive but short lived. They were soon out of jars as well as firecrackers. Menace, the bull, was out of patience, too. The fence was about a hundred feet away, and Menace was up for the chase. Breathless and laughing, they dove under the fence, just escaping his charging horns.

They were rolling in the clover, still laughing, when the voice of Chris Surla interrupted their glee. Chris was every bit as infamous as North, only meaner.

"What?" North growled, sitting up.

Chris stared at his younger brother. "You need to come home."

"What for?" North frowned.

Marcus glanced between the two. North never seemed to have much recall of past encounters with his brother. Marcus feared for him now. Chris peered back with an annoyed frown of his own, but his voice returned oddly subdued. "Just come on, North."

"No! You can't make me."

Chris was still frowning but had not, so far, lunged forward to pummel his brother. "North, don't make this worse."

"Make what worse?" He had North's attention now.

Chris looked away. "Not here, North."

"You're so full of ..."

"North," he almost pleaded. "What?"

"North," he sighed. "Pop's dead. Mom just got a call. They're sending his body here to be buried."

"He can't be!" North spouted instantly. He shook his head in adamant denial. "I didn't get to explain about the library window."

Chris stared back as if North had lost his mind. "What in the hell are you talking about?"

"The window at the library." North stared back with equal incredulity. "If he'd have just given me a chance to explain. I paid for it with my own money. He could have come back home." North was yelling now.

"North." Chris grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. "Get a hold of yourself."

North jerked away. He'd waited so long to explain. He ran a hand through his hair, his eyes darting about as if panicked. He shook his head. It couldn't be true. His eyes found his brother as if beseeching understanding. "He could have come home. I could have explained. He didn't have to leave."

Chris stared back helplessly. "For God's sake, North, you don't think he left 'cuz you broke some window at the library, do you?"

"I know there was other stuff." North was prepared to explain about them, too.

Chris shook his head. "He didn't leave because of you, North."

It was too late for pity now. His brother could spare him the act anyway. He stomped off several feet, attempting to gather his thoughts. He tried to breathe but found his lungs unable to take in air.

Chris gestured helplessly at the rigid set of his brother's back. "North, he left because of Becca." He glanced uneasily in Marcus' direction as if airing this family laundry was worse somehow than the usual gossip. "He said he wasn't raising Mongoloid baby."

For a long moment, North just stared at the ground. He didn't move. Slowly, he raised his head, a snarl twisting his face. "You liar!" he hissed at his brother. "Don't you say that about Becca! Don't you dare? He lunged forward, pounding on the larger boy's chest in complete abandon.

Chris' only defense was to shield his face. For what seemed like forever to Marcus, Chris just let North beat on him. Then finally he grabbed the younger brother about the middle with his arms pinned at his side. "It's OK. It's OK."

North moaned, and his shoulders began to shake. Chris glanced beyond at Marcus, who stood staring at the dirt at his feet. "We'll see you later, Marcus."

"Sure," Marcus replied. It was the first time Chris had ever spoken to him. He wasn't sure until that moment that he even knew his name. He wanted to say that he needed to speak to North or at least offer some condolence. He turned to go, glancing back at the brothers huddled beyond the fence line.

North never spoke of his father, not a word. What Marcus knew he'd overheard. Mr. Surla had abandoned the family years ago, leaving North's mother with six kids to raise. Most people said his absence wasn't much of a loss anyway. He was a drunk and by most accounts meaner than the devil himself. Marcus trudged home to find the news of Mr. Surla's return the talk of the town.

"The man could have at least had the decency to divorce her. At least then she wouldn't have to pay for his burial ..." Marcus's father stopped at the sight of his son. "Chris was just here looking for North. Do you know where he is?"

"He found him," Marcus replied. "I didn't know what to say."

He still didn't know what to say when he arrived at the wake two days later. Mrs. Surla smiled kindly at the wide-eyed youngster. "Thank you for coming. North will be glad to see you. He's just through those doors," she pointed.

"I'm real sorry for your loss," Marcus mumbled.

"Thank you."

He walked on through the maze of people, avoiding further eye contact. He stepped out of the door and onto a small alcove. North was there, perched on the railing.

He didn't turn at the squeaking of the door or at the sound of Marcus clearing his throat. "I'm sorry for your loss."

North turned then on his friend with bloodshot eyes and a half smile. "Did you practice that line all the way here?"

Marcus hung his head, hoping he wouldn't ask if his mother made him come next.

"Are you OK?" he finally managed.

North bounced off the rail, landing before his friend and flicking a finger along his tie. "Nice tie."

"I see you got one, too."

"Finally a tie occasion," North quipped.

Marcus swallowed and looked away.

"So you want to go fishing or something?"

Marcus gawked at his friend. "Huh?"

"My mom said I don't have to go to the funeral if I don't want to," North said. "And I don't want to." There was a bitter edge to his voice as he stood there waiting for a response.

"My mom said funerals are good for closure, you know, like a formal ending to things," Marcus offered. North gave him a look. Marcus knew he was missing the bigger picture. He often missed the bigger picture, and this really bugged North. Sometimes North missed the bigger picture, too, a fact he did not like pointed out. "It's just something to think about," he said.

North smirked. "He's been gone for four years. I got all the closure I need." He stomped back over to the rail, his voice stilted. "He called Becca a Mongoloid and a retard. She needed him more than any of us, and he left her." The sheer shock was wearing off but not the rage. "I hope he rots in hell."

Marcus knew this was the ultimate sin. Becca was, in North's mind, the only pure soul on Earth. And he was her protector.

"All this time, I thought he left because of me," North said. "I thought if he just gave me another chance, I could show him how I could change. I used to imagine all the things I could do to prove it to him. I was going to impress him." He looked to his friend now. "Pretty pathetic, huh?" He tugged at his tie till it hung loosely about his neck. "But I could understand it, him leaving because of me. At least that would make sense. But not 'cuz of Becca."

"It doesn't make sense either way," Marcus said.

Brushing aside his friend's attempt at consolation, North hitched a leg over the railing and walked away. Marcus rose to follow. "Give him some time," Chris said from the doorway.

The service began and ended without North's return. Marcus followed the small proceeding out to the cemetery plot. His eyes scanned the trees in the distance. He saw North then, walking slowly, the tie hanging loosely from his hand. His expression was unreadable. Marcus edged his way through the crowd. They were maybe 20 feet from the others when he caught up with him. His eyes searched his friend's countenance.

North nodded in understanding. "Don't worry, I'm not going to do anything stupid."

"What made you come back?" Marcus asked.

"I figured there's got to be some point in life when everything makes sense. When you understand things you didn't understand before. It's got to come before you die, or the whole heaven and hell thing just wouldn't be fair. So," North said, "wherever my pop is now, I know he can see Becca. And I know he hates himself more than I ever could."

He moved on, edging past the other mourners. He stood before the coffin, laid out his tie next to the flowers there, carefully smoothed out the wrinkles, and turned away. He backed into the crowd, taking his place next to Becca.

M. H. HODGSON is a writer living in Pearl River, Louisiana.
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Author:Hodgson, M.H.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Short Story
Date:Mar 1, 2002
Words:2281
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