Before Nolan tumbled down the well, he watched as two big men lowered his mother’s casket into the ground. That morning, Nolan lay on his bed buried beneath the covers. The house was the emptiest it had ever been—and the quietest. Nolan took a moment to consider this quietness. It arrived right after the coughing stopped. His mother’s cough rattled throughout the house for months. She coughed so hard and loud for so long that Nolan could hear it in his sleep. Three days ago, the coughing ended. His father’s pacing on the groaning wood floors took its place. Nolan preferred his mother’s cough to his father’s pacing, but either of the two were better than the sound he heard that morning.
For that morning—the morning of the funeral—there was absolute silence.
The silence was far superior in loudness and spread throughout the house, driving the walls farther apart and lifting the ceiling higher. The silence seemed to make the house emptier. Nolan knew ‘silence’ couldn’t really make things bigger and emptier. But still, that’s what he felt.
In fact, it was only after the funeral, when all the people began to come up the drive, that the house felt normal in size again. People filed in through their front door one by one and two by two. They ushered in flowers and food—food in all types of dishes: small dishes, round dishes, aluminum dishes. There was enough food to feed Vatican City. Nolan discovered in his guidebook entitled, The Big Book of Everything and Anything, that Vatican City was the smallest country in the world.
Eventually, the house became so crowded; the only place Nolan could stand was in a nook next to the kitchen. He clutched his guidebook to his chest. He looked about the room at everyone conversing. His very round aunts, Maud and Darlene, were chatting with each other about the food when Nolan overheard them.
“I don’t care for the potato salad,” said Aunt Maud.
Aunt Darlene nodded and spoke with a mouth full of half masticated potato salad. She said, “It’s missing something.”
“It is missing something,” Aunt Maud agreed. “And I’ll tell you what it is.” Aunt Maud took another fork full of the potato salad. She smacked it around in her mouth.
“Well, don’t keep me in suspense, sister. What’s it missing?”
“Dill,” declared Maud triumphantly. “It’s missing dill and some of that zest of orange. For true, it is.”
“Oh my,” said Aunt Darlene.
“Oh my, indeed,” said Aunt Maud. “Any worthwhile potato salad ought to have dill and zest of orange. It enhances the flavor, see?”
His aunts talked and talked about all sorts of things, as did the other people in their home. However, few mentioned his mother. And they spoke as if Nolan wasn’t standing in the nook right next to them. As if they didn’t see him. Actually, it seemed as if nobody saw him. It reminded Nolan of a phenomenon that occurred in nature, which he read about further in his guidebook, The Big Book of Everything and Anything.
In the guidebook, the phenomenon was called cryptic resemblance. Some small animals used cryptic resemblance in order to hide from predators or other harmful creatures. Toads, moths and lizards would mimic their surroundings, completely camouflaging themselves to look like anything: a leaf, the bark of a tree, or in Nolan’s case, a nook.
“Poor Maynard,” said his Aunt Darlene.
Maynard was Nolan’s father’s name.
“Poor Maynard and nephew Nolan, you mean,” said Aunt Maud. She placed her plate of half-eaten potato salad down and rubbed her finger across the nearest windowsill. After she inspected her dirty finger, she said, “And poor house. Good lord above, look at this dust. Who’ll do the cooking or cleaning now that Cissy is gone? Not I and that’s for true.”
Cissy was Nolan’s mother’s name.
“It’s a shame,” said Aunt Darlene. She wiped a smear of potato salad from the corner of her mouth. “Quite the shame.”
“No, sister,” said his Aunt Maud. “It’s a tragedy. This is a tragedy.”
At the mention of the word, Nolan remembered when he first checked the appendix of The Big Book of Everything and Anything for it. The guidebook stated: Tragedy-an unfortunate, sad, or upsetting event that often involves someone’s death. Beneath that were synonyms, words that were similar to tragedy in meaning. The synonyms were: debacle, misfortune and heartache (see also, crisis).
Nolan started to feel uncomfortable. He was under the impression that everyone around him was done being sad for his mother, while his sadness was just beginning. He pushed this feeling way, way back. But no matter how hard he pushed, the feeling kept rising. The sadness made him want to cry but he pushed the tears way, way back too. He wanted to leave and be to himself. When he started to do just that, his cousin Percy walked up to him.
Nolan and Percy were the same age. However, Percy was significantly smaller with glasses as thick as bottles and a perpetual runny nose. His mother made him carry a handkerchief for such runny nose occasions. He also suffered from spells. Not like dizzy spells or magic spells, but paralyzing spells that caused him to stand and stare without saying a word for minutes or hours. During his spells, someone could flick a pebble in his face and he wouldn’t flinch.
Nolan documented Percy’s symptoms for later investigation in his guidebook where he’d learned about all types of weird conditions. There was a condition that caused people to believe they were walking corpses, missing their organs, blood and souls; a condition that turned people into human werewolves who grew hair everywhere, even their feet, elbows and ears; another condition where people would faint, and only be asleep for a few seconds or minutes, and have dreams that lasted days. It was all very interesting but none of those conditions appeared as annoying as Percy’s.
“Hello, Nolan,” said Percy.
“Not now,” said Nolan. “I’m in camouflage.” Nolan suspected cryptic resemblance might also work for people who didn’t want to be bothered.
“What are you camouflaged as?” asked Percy.
“The wall,” said Nolan. “I’m camouflaged as the wall. Go away.”
“I don’t think it’s working. I can still see you.” Percy reached for his glasses and removed them. “I can even see you without my glasses.”
Nolan tried to ignore Percy, but Percy persisted.
“Your house is so full of people,” Percy said. He had a talent for stating the obvious. “It’s kind of exciting, isn’t it?”
Nolan let out a loud sigh and said, “It’s a tragedy, Percy. This. Is. A. Tragedy.”
He shoved past Percy and fled into the kitchen. Nolan’s father was at the refrigerator holding a rectangular dish of blue gelatin.
“Nolan,” said his father without turning to look at him, “make useful and pump a bucket of water from the cistern for Juniper and Rose. Those hogs haven’t had water this morning.”
“I don’t feel like it,” Nolan said. He didn’t feel like doing anything except for sleeping and piling the covers over his head so that no light or sound of his father’s pacing got through. When that didn’t make him feel better, he dove into his guidebook.
His mother gave him the guidebook, The Big Book of Everything and Anything, for his birthday. She called him into her room while she sat in her recliner by the window, watching Nolan’s father cut wood. But to Nolan, it had seemed his father’s hack-hack-hacking on the wood was angry and maddening.
She told Nolan to look in the closet and that’s where he had found it. It was covered in shiny, blue gift wrap.
“Open it,” his mother said.
When Nolan finished tearing away the gift wrap, he ran his fingers across the title.
After she was done coughing, his mother said, “If I’m not around, and you want to ask me something, you search for the answer in that book. It’ll tell you anything you want to know.”
Nolan buried the thought of his mother deep inside. He was under the foolish notion that all the dirt those two big men shoveled on top of her this morning would keep her down. But it had not. He didn’t want to think of her or that stupid day ever again.
His father turned around to look at Nolan with red, swollen eyes. “I won’t ask you again, son. That water won’t pump itself.”
Nolan knew his father was serious and finally did as he was told.
“Whatever,” Nolan mumbled, and slammed the kitchen door closed behind him.
He stomped out into the backyard and kicked a bucket of chicken feed over. He didn’t care about the feed or the chickens or Juniper or Rose. He wanted to be left alone by everyone and everything. And he knew the faster he completed his chore, the sooner he would.
Nolan saw the cistern to his left. To his right was the old well. He contemplated the distance between the two. A pail full of water from the cistern would be too heavy to carry back to the pigpen. It would be easier to use the old well, even though his father had instructed him never to do so.
Nolan removed his coat and went to the well. He knew he was doing something wrong, but what did that matter? His father didn’t pay attention to him anymore and probably wouldn’t notice.
The well was a circle made of stones and almost half Nolan’s height. He placed the guidebook on the edge next to him and unfastened the rope. The wooden bucket tied to the end of the rope splashed below. He tugged on the rope to return the bucket, but the line became taut.
Nolan leaned over the well and stared down into its darkness. The rope, he could see in the dim light, was snagged between two jagged stones.
He gave the rope a pull.
He gave it another yank, harder this time.
There was only one solution: he would have to go in and free the rope.
Nolan leaned over the well again. He leaned so far over that his feet left the ground. He held onto the wooden post to keep from falling inside and stretched his arm as far as it would go. The rope was almost within reach. A few more inches and a wiggle of his fingers and…and…
Kraaaaaaaack, snapped the wooden post.
Splisssssh, tumbled Nolan’s body into the well water below.
And plunnnnk, went The Big Book of Everything and Anything right behind him.
“Ow!” Nolan cried when he bumped his head. He wasn’t a strong swimmer and splashed around, trying to find the bottom of the well with his feet. But the water was too deep. There was no bottom. He found his grip in between the grooves of the well’s stone wall and wedged his fingers deep inside to keep from sinking.
Nolan tilted his aching head sideways to sweep his soggy dreadlocks away from his eyes. He saw the guidebook floating and waited for it to drift closer before he chanced to grab it.
Everything blurred when he peered up the dark tunnel at the only light coming from above. He yelled, “Help!” and the word echoed all around him. He imagined the word rising up the well’s walls and bouncing along the backyard to find someone to listen to it.
“Hello, Nolan,” said a voice.
Nolan looked up to the opening again. Percy, of all people, stood there looking down at him.
“What are you doing at the bottom of this well, Nolan? It seems like an awfully wet place to be,” said Percy.
There was no guessing the kind of stuff Percy would say. For example, a year ago, when Nolan cried after breaking his arm, Percy asked him if it hurt. Then today, at the funeral, when everyone was quietly sobbing, he asked Nolan, who wasn’t crying, if all his tears had dried up.
It didn’t matter what Percy said. Not really. Nolan could seldom make sense of anything that came out of Percy’s mouth.
“Of course it’s an awfully wet place to be, Percy. It’s a well!” said Nolan.
“I can’t understand you when you talk that slow, Nolan,” said Percy.
But I’m not talking slow, thought Nolan. At least he didn’t think he was.
The bump on Nolan’s head pulsated and he felt tired. He could close his eyes and fall asleep, right there, inside of the water. “Go and get my father!” he yelled to Percy.
Percy nodded. But he didn’t move, not immediately. Unfortunately, he didn’t move at all. He didn’t speak. His eyes glazed over like those of a deer when they stared into bright headlights.
“Jeez Louise,” said Nolan, “He’s having a spell.”
Nolan shivered and his eyes grew heavy. He called out for help again but his plea found no one.
Doomed, Nolan thought, I am doomed.