I was driving fast when I spotted the sign tacked to a tree.
Yard sales aren’t my thing. From the day I could buy new, I did. But out here, there aren’t shopping options. When I arranged this trip, I hadn’t considered my occasional need for retail therapy.
I turned down a long-ago graveled drive—two ruts middled with grass deep enough to tickle my car’s underbelly. Eventually, a farmhouse came into view, a two-story saltbox with an old metal roof and chickens in the yard.
Sawhorses with doors on top were set up in the yard. Typical yard sale junk—vases and crutches and out-of-style clothes—and praise the Lord! A table covered with books!
I stepped from my car, stooping to scratch the pair of dogs that tumbled over each other. The clap of a screen door caused me to look up. There, in farmer bib-alls, was a fine-looking man so tall his head near reached the top of the frame.
He walked toward me, friendly smile. Straight teeth. Square jaw. Messy mop of home-cut hair. There was an odd blankness to his expression that hid his age. He was either very clean shaven or hadn’t begun growing whiskers.
He had gentle eyes. I didn’t feel the least bit afraid.
Especially when he started clapping. And sort of hop-jumping.
“I thought no one was going to stop.”
He extended his massive hand. Mine was swallowed by his. He shook longer and wilder than people normally do, but it was sweet. He was sweet. The world’s biggest boy.
“Anna,” I said. “What are you selling here, Reggie?”
“Well, I’m not selling those dogs,” his voice playful as he smiled at the homely pair. One dog had an overbite, the other an underbite. Both seemed undecided about whether they were short-haired or long, as there were patches of both. They were living, breathing cartoons. Ugly as hell.
“I’m more of a cat person,” I said.
Reggie turned and raced for the porch, then reached into a box and began pulling out kittens, which he placed on his shoulders to retrieve even more. He was soon walking toward me wearing a circus of kittens.
He dropped first to his knees, and then sat. The kittens were having a time on their human playground, one sucking his earlobe while others whapped at his buttons. I plucked the ear-sucking calico from his shoulder and held her to me.
“Calicos are always female,” Reggie said. “That’s what Dad says. He’s the smartest man in the world.”
I was charmed by this man-boy, who I now saw had touches of gray in his hair. His face was completely unlined, save for a half-inch scar at his temple.
“Do you live here with your dad?”
His nod was much like his handshake—over the top.
“I was about to bring him outside when up you drove and out I came.”
“You can get him while I shop,” I said. “And leave this calico with me. I think I might need her.”
While Reggie returned to the house, I headed for the books. I expected mildewed Reader’s Digest Condensed, maybe some religious titles or books on farming or cars. Instead, I found titles on antimatter, quantum field theory, and particle physics—heavily notated and highlighted throughout.
I poked through a box on the ground. Intracranial Surgical Techniques. Somatics: Reawakening Movement through Mind Control. Many worn from repetitive reading, some with deeply crossed-out paragraphs and the word “BULLSHIT!” scrawled over the page.
I was anxious to meet the person who owned these books. I liked him already.
No matter what they cost, I had to have them, wanted evidence to back up the story I’d be telling friends about finding these books way out in Paradise, West Virginia, at the home of a handsome giant with the mind of a child.
I looked up and saw Reggie backing out the door with a wheelchair.
“Dad says I should offer you some tea,” Reggie said.
“Tea would be wonderful.”
I left the books to introduce myself. The resemblance was undeniable, but there was something more. He looked familiar. I tried to discreetly study his face, to mentally whittle away years that altered his looks and enabled anonymity.
“Have you figured it out? I can tell you’re trying.”
I smiled, then stared openly, as it seemed I’d been invited.
“You probably would’ve been in middle school, maybe elementary. And I wasn’t in a chair then.”
It was Nelson Risk! The youngest presidential advisor in history, before becoming a television personality. He’d been Hollywood handsome. Silver-tongued. Smooth. Nearly as famous for his womanizing as his wit. The person who inspired the creators of Ironman, Tony Stark.
“Give the girl a Kewpie doll. She has her answer.”
“What’s the Boy Wonder doing in the middle of nowhere?”
“Wonder Boy,” he corrected. “It was just a dart at a map at a desperate time, and the only property for sale near the dart hole.”
I suspected Reggie was likely the cause of his “desperate time,” thought how difficult for the world’s smartest to have a mentally-impaired child.
“This place suits us,” Nelson said. “Been good for us.”
We smiled as Reggie’s singing carried out from inside. “This is how we stir the tea, stir the tea, stir the tea. This is how we stir the tea so early in the morning.”
“You don’t miss celebrity life?”
“Not at all. When you’re famous for what’s up here,”—he tapped his head—“the goal of most becomes to prove you aren’t so smart. Your food choices are questioned. Doesn’t he know chips are full of sodium? How smart could he be if that’s what he eats? Every decision, regardless how minor, is critiqued. Clothing. Hairstyle. Women. Jobs I accepted. Advice I gave. And my mind never shut off.”
I could relate. My brain routinely felt as if someone held its remote control and was flipping full speed through the channels.
“I graduated at 14,” I said. “Wasn’t a prodigy, though. Just motivated.”
“And your motivation was…?”
“My dad is Shinehead.”
Nelson laughed. “I’ve heard of him.”
I wasn’t surprised. The legend of Shinehead—homebrew distiller extraordinaire—endured. He’d headed a group of back-to-the-landers who built a compound a few ridges over. Barely renovated old buses, cobbled shacks. They grew their own and brewed their own and birthed their own babies. I’d been the first, consummated when Shinehead was 51 and Mom barely 15.
Shinehead got checks from the government. I never knew why, but at least five every month. Enough to support them and us kids, and their ever-changing collection of hangers-on.
Much as I loved Shinehead, I hated him, too. He infected every child—save for me—with a determination to never hold down a job. He schooled them in fraud, framing it as being clever enough to work the system.
Reggie banged through the door carrying three glasses of tea.
“Just talking to her about moving here,” Nelson said. “Tell her how self-sufficient we are.”
“We raise chickens and eat their eggs,” Reggie said. “And I have a garden and fruit trees and cows. Dad has a deal with this man—every year he trades one of our cows for a whole bunch of meat, all wrapped in white paper.”
“You should show Anna the pond,” Nelson said. “Go for a walk. I can take care of any customers.”
Reggie was so excited I couldn’t say no. Soon, we were heading down a path, with Reggie bounding off to pluck flowers for me, often tearing them so close to the bloom there was nothing to hold, though I’d try.
“Girls love flowers,” he said.
He took my free hand and pulled until we were running. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d run.
When I slowed, Reggie looked concerned.
“I’m a little out of shape,” I said.
“Your shape looks perfect to me.” Reggie smiled, then he winked.
There was a flash of something in his eyes—there and gone—that chilled me, but then he was clap-hopping again, pointing to what looked like an old telephone pole with a basketball hoop jutting from the center of the pond. Several balls floated nearby.
“Dad put that up a long time ago, before he hurt himself.”
“How did he hurt himself?”
Reggie plopped on his butt, began untying his sneakers.
“He didn’t want to be sad anymore,” Reggie said.
Nelson hadn’t seemed like someone who would attempt suicide, especially with the responsibility of Reggie. He was lucky whatever he’d tried only left him disabled and didn’t affect his brain.
“Our pond stays warm most all the time,” Reggie said. “Never freezes, not even in winter.”
“How’s that possible?”
“A geothermal hot spring, I suspect,” Reggie said. “Uncommon in these parts of the country, especially at this elevation, unless perhaps this isn’t a mountain, but a volcano.”
He tugged off his sock. His response was so oddly intelligent, but I supposed he’d heard his father’s explanation enough times to memorize his response.
I dipped my foot in the pond—not bathwater, but close. When I turned to say so to him, I heard a splash.
His clothes were piled on the dock. Even his tighty-whiteys.
When he surfaced, he shook his head and swiped at his eyes.
“I don’t have a swimsuit.”
“Neither do I. You don’t need one.”
He swam toward me, his breaststroke as athletic as any I’d seen.
“I promise I won’t look.” He turned his back. “Please? I have no one to swim with but the dogs, and they only just wade.”
“And they probably can’t shoot worth a darn.”
“I like you. You’re funny.”
“I like you, too, Reggie. But I probably shouldn’t swim naked with a man I just met.”
He looked so pained I doubt I could’ve hurt him worse with a kick to the crotch.
“I’m not a bad man! I’m not!”
“Then why won’t you swim?”
I thought about that disconcerting wink and his strangely intelligent phrasing, and then met his gaze. It was as blankly hopeful as a Labrador when someone’s holding a stick.
“Turn around. Don’t look until you hear me in the water.”
He turned. I disrobed. Standing naked on the dock, the cool breeze tickling my skin, was so instantly erotic that I felt dirty. Inappropriate.
When I surfaced, Reggie lifted the basketball over his head and threw it toward the hoop, though we were too far away.
I took off. Water had been my refuge for years. My apartment’s indoor lap pool was open 24 hours. When sleep wouldn’t come, I’d spend my nights mindlessly swimming.
Reggie still beat me to the ball. He aimed at the hoop and threw. Swoosh!
He swam to retrieve it. Shot again. Another perfect shot. Reggie was splash-bouncing the ball on the water. He threw it to me, and without thinking, I jumped to catch it.
Felt the cool air on my breasts.
Saw his expression.
Shit! He was so very much a boy, but also clearly a man.
He was striding toward me. The water was shallower here. I turned and threw the ball back toward the dock, then took off swimming toward it.
I’d almost reached it when I felt his hand grab my ankle. I yanked myself free from his grasp, but in doing so, took in a snoot full of water. I resurfaced coughing.
“You okay?” he asked. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Fine.” I coughed.
Reggie pointed at my chest.
“Do you have milk in those?”
Here I was thinking I was about to be assaulted, and he was looking at me as a cow. I shook my head no.
“Oh.” He snatched the ball and threw it hard toward the net, and we were again racing after it. This time I won.
Soon, I was attempting shots without worrying about exposing myself. We were playing. I was playing. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d played. Or hell—if I ever had.
Growing tired, I threw the ball toward the dock again. We swam easier this time, a slow-motion race. When we arrived, he turned his back without my having to ask and stayed turned until I’d dressed.
I retrieved my flowers and we walked back without talking. His goofy dogs spotted us and started trotting our way, tails wagging in circles.
Nelson waved from the porch, his large hand seemed a labor to lift. The kittens tumbled out of box. Reggie scooped my calico, kissed her on the nose, then handed her to me.
“I see you went for a swim,” Nelson said.
I touched my wet hair.
“That water is amazing.”
“It’s a geothermal hot spring,” Nelson said. “Uncommon in these parts of the country, especially at this elevation, unless perhaps this isn’t a mountain, but a volcano.”
I was struck by a swell of déjà vu.
“We played basketball!” Reggie said. “She shoots like a girl, but swims like a man.”
“I’m so out of shape.”
“Your shape looks perfect to me,” Nelson said. Then he winked.
My stomach twisted.
“I’d better go,” I said. “Have to stop and get some kitten supplies.”
Reggie spotted a vase on the yard sale table.
“I’m gonna’ fill this with water for your flowers!” He galloped back to the house.
“I appreciate you playing with him,” Nelson said. “We used to have a great time together.” He slapped the arms of his chair. “But I screwed that up.”
We were beside the table of books.
“Metaphysics. Language Patterns of the Mind. This is some heavy reading.”
He laughed. “And that was for fun.”
I flipped through the heavily-notated pages.
“I was such an arrogant ass when he was born,” Nelson said. “Wanted him to be just like me. That’s exactly what I got. Not a trace of his mother. He was my duplicate.”
“In every way, save for one,” I said.
Nelson shook his head.
“Every way,” he said. “The older he got, the more like me he became. And just as unhappy.”
Reggie bounded out the door.
“But I fixed that,” Nelson said.
He was smiling sadly.
“Most sons want to be like their fathers,” Nelson said. “Now, I’d give anything to be like my son. He was so happy after. But…”
He touched the scar at his own temple—identical to one I’d noticed on Reggie—then slapped the arms of his chair once again.
The book slipped from my hand. Nelson caught it, then handed it back.
“All I wanted was to be Reggie’s playmate. I ended up being his burden instead.”
Confused, I tried to collect my thoughts while pretending to read a page.
“These are amazing books,” I finally said. “Any idea what you want for them?”
“You’ll have to ask Reggie,” Nelson said. “They’re his.”
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