CHAPTER 1: SMALL BLUE MARBLE (conclusion)
Jacob soon complained to James and expressed his overall disappointment in the army-issue bag.
“What the heck is wrong with this thing? It pokes me no matter how still I lay, and it’s kind of hot, too.”
James looked at Jacob like he was nuts.
“What do you expect, goofus? It’s stuffed with goose feathers. Tons and tons and tons of goose feathers. They’re not made to be comfortable; they’re made to keep a soldier warm in cold climates, like a goose. Warm and awake and alert in case an enemy sneaks up on you.”
“I didn’t make it; I just took what was issued.”
“What can I tell you?” James said, and gave Jacob a soft pat on the head. “Maybe you should have tried it out before donating your old sleeping bag.
“Caveat emptor!” James huffed, switching from English to Latin as if Jacob even had a clue.
Jacob caught up with Mike later that day.
“Did you ask your brother what’s wrong with that thing?”
“What’d he say?”
“He said it’s full of goose feathers and isn’t supposed to be slept in.”
“That’s stupid. Did you tell him that’s stupid?”
‘Yup. He said ‘caviar emperor.’”
“What the heck does that mean?”
“I don’t know. I guess it’s army talk. I’m doomed.”
Brow furrowed, Mike thought about his army-issue sleeping bag.
“You better be careful, Jacob, because somewhere on a hillside in northern Ohio there’s got to be twenty, thirty featherless geese.”
“Why northern Ohio?”
“I don’t know. Isn’t that where geese are from? They’re probably there, and they’re probably really mad that the army plucked their feathers for a bunch of sleeping bags.”
“So? You’ve got all their feathers. What do you think is going to happen if the geese decide to seek out their missing feathers?”
“You think they’ll come looking for me? Track me down?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. I’m just saying is all.”
So, despite that his sleeping bag was unique, Jacob had little if any appreciation of it. He began to have nightmares. The dreams never varied. Hundreds of geese sweeping down from the sky like dive bombers, desperate to reclaim their feathers.
Jacob’s brief love affair with the bag was over before it began, and he soon asked his parents for a new one.
“You already have a sleeping bag, and you donated your old one to the church,” his mom reminded her youngest son.
“But Mom, what about the angry geese?”
“What angry geese?”
“The ones whose feathers I got in that bag! What if they really do want their feathers back? What if they walk all the way from Ohio and track me down? I could end up dead. Dead or worse than dead!”
Jacob’s mom looked dumbfounded.
“I never heard of any goose coming to get its feathers back. If that was true those rich stars wouldn’t buy goose-feather coats to ski with. Besides, GI-issue bags are better than the junk they have at Woolworth. You’ll never get a chill on a sleepout with that bag.”
“It’s got too much insulation. It’s too hot.”
“Nah, it’s good to be warm in the night air. It’ll keep you from catching a summer cold.”
“But it looks awful. How’s about a super-hero bag that matches my lunchbox?”
Most of Jacob’s friends who camped owned newer, store-bought sleeping bags. They were water-resistant on the outside with brown and yellow printed images of pheasants and hunting dogs, and bright red or blue plaid on the inside, like lumberjack shirts. As far as Jacob knew, no kid in Millsburg owned a super-hero sleeping bag.
“Maybe next year. Yours is good enough for now, and that’s about all I have to say on the subject. Head upstairs and clean up your room; it’s an absolute mess.”
Defeated, Jacob dragged the hot thing upstairs. While his sleeping bag was almost getting him labeled a poor kid, Mike owned what most of the neighborhood considered to be the coolest sleeping bag ever made. The exterior was bright orange, and printed dead center was the Mattel Hot Wheels logo. The hip-looking letters surrounded by orange flame were widely regarded as the baddest logo ever conceived. The interior of the bag was black and featured printed images of the most popular Hot Wheels vehicles of the time.
Mike’s life was sweet. His dad worked for a toy distributor in McKeesport. Each July he attended a huge distributor’s convention in New York. For Mike (and by extension, Jacob) it was a golden time. His dad would invariably pull the big blue Lincoln into the driveway of their home, blowing on the car’s powerful horn several times to attract the boys’ attention. The car’s trunk was typically crammed tighter than Santa’s sled with new or experimental products.
Whenever possible, Mike’s dad brought two of everything, and Mike and Jacob divided the bounty; it was literally Christmas in July. But the Hot Wheels sleeping bag was a promotional item and had been in great demand among convention goers.
“Sorry, Jacob, I could only get one,” the old man said with a look of disappointment on his face.
“That’s okay,” Jacob lied.
“I’ll let you borrow it,” Mike said a while later, as the boys sat surrounded in a sea of toys and games.
“I don’t know. I’m kind of starting to like old green. And anyway, it’s kind of special. I mean, no other kids in town have one.”
“Yeah, well, Steve Kapovich might be the only kid in Millsburg still riding with training wheels on his Schwinn, but that doesn’t make me jealous.”
Jacob did his duty to God and country by adapting to the military-approved sleeping bag, but after several uses found it had another serious design flaw. He mentioned it to his brother James on a rainy June afternoon.
“Lucky for you that you never got shipped off to the war,” Jacob told James, “or you might be dead.”
“Lord. This isn’t about the sleeping bag is it?”
“Of course it is.”
“Let’s say you got shipped off to war and you had to camp out and sleep in that thing. And let’s say one night while you’re snoring, some enemy soldiers attacked.”
“The zipper sticks. No way you’d have gotten out of that thing fast enough; no way.”
“Zippers get stuck, birdbrain. You have to apply a little WD-40 is all.”
“That reminds me,” James said, “I need you to give me a hand.”
The siblings walked up the stairs to James’s bedroom. Jacob was handed a bag filled with army gear such as fatigues, jackets, shoes, stripes, and pins. James grabbed hold of another bag full of additional items from his short military career. He opened the attic door and climbed the winding staircase to the top floor of the house with little brother close behind.
“Scary up here,” Jacob said, staring at the unpainted, cracked walls and countless cardboard boxes that held all sorts of childhood memories as well as seasonal items such as Christmas tree ornaments and Halloween decorations. He looked to his left at the attic’s lone window. The bare wooden floor was covered with dead flies. It was always covered with dead flies.
“I tell you,” James said, setting the bags in a corner of the room, “this is where youth dies. Look around this room. Old books, old toys. Every box, a fading memory of childhood.”
“Let’s get outta here. This place gives me the creeps.”
“What do you mean?” Jacob asked.
James paused before answering. He lowered his voice.
“You don’t know? I thought… I mean, the way you talked and all–I thought you knew.”
“Knew what? Quit messing with me.”
James’s voice dropped to just above a whisper.
“Attics. This attic. Your friend Mike’s attic.”
“What about them?” Jacob asked, as gooseflesh began to race up the back of his neck.
“They’re haunted. They’re all haunted. Geez, Jacob, don’t you remember what happened to Mrs. McGarrity?”
“You’re full of it.”
“Am I? Where do you think ghosts rest when they’re not roaming the earth? Attics. Empty, cold, abandoned attics. Just like ours.”
James started down the stairs. Jacob’s feet wouldn’t move. A bead of sweat dripped down the back of his neck. Or was it a spider? His legs suddenly returned to life as he raced past James and descended the attic stairs two at a time.
NEXT: BANANA SEAT SUMMER – WHAT LIES ABOVE BEGINS