The hammering began shortly after dawn and continued until it roused me from a deep sleep. I was grateful the steady pounding was not the result of a hangover, but from some sort of fracas in the workshed in the back yard. I lifted my face into the golden morning sun that streamed in through the opened window and peeled my eyelids apart. If there was ever a good day for a hangover, this would have been it. I had spent the greater part of the previous evening at a bush party down by Dunbar Lake, the first such celebration of the summer of 1959. Eustace was already snoring in his own bed by the time I staggered into our bedroom sometime around three in the morning. I tried to be quiet as I undressed for bed, but I was so tipsy I fell over with my jeans still tangled around my knees and fell asleep where I landed. I don’t know how I ended up tucked between the sheets the next morning.
I sat up and a lock of tangled hair fell into my eyes. Brushing it aside, I noticed Eustace’s bed empty; the thin coverlet with cartoonish Superman emblazoned across the hem lay in a heap next to the pillow that still bore an indentation where his head had been. Molly, his threadbare teddy bear with mismatching button eyes, had fallen onto the floor and lay on her side under the chair where Aunt Paula laid out his jeans and clean socks for the next day. His clothes were gone and the bedroom door was opened. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and rested my elbows on my knees, burying my face in my hands. The pounding continued and I tried my best to ignore it.
It wasn’t until I heard splintery wood crashing against something metallic that I hoisted myself from bed and pulled my jeans back over my hips. The hammering had abruptly stopped; the chirp of the first morning birds took its place. Aunt Paula and my sister Dana were still asleep when I crept out into the hallway. I marveled that they could sleep at all through that racket, especially Dana who was a notorious light sleeper.
I crossed the rear yard in bare feet; cold dew sent shivers coursing through my body, despite the warmth of the early summer morning. I opened the workshed door and found Eustace standing by the workhorse in a puddle of sawdust, a pine plank in one hand and a hammer in the other. At his feet lay a half finished wooden crate with a few crooked nails still poking from the edges. He smiled broadly when his saw me, his face coated in sawdust.
“Hey, Brent!” he said. “What are you doing up so early in the morning?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” I replied.
He grinned back at me, a gap in his smile where his front tooth had broken in half. Each time I saw it I was reminded of that day when we were kids. It was his first day at school after his mother had died and he came to live with us. I never thought of him as any more different than the other kids I knew. Though he was two years older than me, he attended the same grade. Veronica Dubois and her brother Ed had gathered a posse of other kids to torment him with names like “dummy” and “retard”. Eustace thought they were playing a game with him, even when the kids began whacking him in the behind with long twigs; he laughed as they kicked the dust in his face after he fell, tripping on his own untied shoelaces. By the time Dana and I got word of the fracas and rushed from the soccer field to break it up, Eustace had wet his pants and his front tooth hung broken from his jaw by a strip of bloody skin. Dr. Triply, our dentist, nailed the half tooth back into his gum, but couldn’t do more because we didn’t have the money to pay for further repairs. Eustace never went back to school again
“What are you doing there, Eustace?” I asked and pointed to the lopsided container on the floor while smothering my yawn with the other hand.
“I’m building crates,” Eustace declared proudly. His thick shoulders broadened even wider as he puffed out his chest. At almost six and a half feet he towered over me.
“Is that so,” I said and bent to examine the crate, feigning interest in the workmanship. “Found a new hobby?”
“It’s not a hobby,” Eustace replied, “It’s a job.”
“And a fine job it is,” I said, “But please, can you at least work a little later in the morning? You can hear the banging all the way into town.”
“I’m sorry, Brent.” When Eustace frowned it was as though his whole being sank into desolation. His humped shoulders sagged and his thick straw-coloured hair drooped over his eyes.