Mike Mason's The Blue Umbrella
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
David C. Cook; New edition (October 1, 2009)
Mike Mason is the best-selling, award-winning author of The Mystery of Marriage, The Gospel According to Job, Practicing the Presence of People, and many others. He has an M.A. in English and has studied theology at Regent College. He lives in Langley, BC, Canada, with his wife, Karen, a family physician. They have one daughter, Heather, who is pursuing a career in dance and the arts. The Blue Umbrella is Mike’s first novel.
Visit the author's website.
List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: David C. Cook; New edition (October 1, 2009)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Not many people are killed by lightning.
Zac’s mother was.
Zachary Sparks, though small for ten years old, had a look perpetual astonishment that made him seem larger than life. His eyes were nearly the biggest part of him, round and wide, and his eyebrows had a natural arch as if held up with invisible strings. His voice was high and excitable and his whole body
seemed full of little springs. Even his hair, fiery red and frizzy, looked as if he was the one hit by lightning. Everything about Zac Sparks was up, up, up.
Until his mother died and everything changed.
Zac lived with his mother beside a golf course. Every day after school he picked up balls from his backyard to sell for fifty cents apiece. He was happy and carefree and his mother was good to him. He had no father. At least, he’d never known his father.
At night, when there were no golfers, Zac’s mother liked to go walking across the wide, rolling lawns of the course. To her it was like a big park. She never met anyone else out there. This was a small town and it was quite safe (except for lightning). She liked being in nature and she loved all kinds of weather, especially weather that had what she called character, the kind you could feel on your skin: wind, cold, hail, pelting rain, thunder, and lightning.
Whenever a good electrical storm happened in the middle of the night, Zac’s mother would wake him up and they’d sit on the veranda listening to the long, almost articulate rumbles and watching the lightning illuminate the great treed corridors of grass. The two wouldn’t say much. They didn’t have to. The sky did the talking for them. Some of Zac’s happiest memories were of sitting up with his mother at night to revel silently in storms.
The irony was that Zac’s mother was killed by something she loved. It happened one night when she went walking in the pouring rain, carrying, as usual, her umbrella. Of course, she knew better than to go walking on a golf course with an umbrella in a thunderstorm. But this was not a thunderstorm. On this night there just happened to be one stray bolt of lightning.
One was all it took. Her crumpled body was found the next morning in the center of a fairway. The canopy of her umbrella had been completely consumed, leaving nothing but the skeletal metal frame.
It was the first day of December, just weeks before Christmas, and Zac Sparks was an orphan.
That day and the next were a blur. Even the funeral, on the third day, Zac scarcely remembered—except for the moment when the coffin was being carried outside through the church doors. The weather was unseasonably mild; instead of snow a light drizzle fell. As the coffin moved down the steps and was
loaded into the hearse, the rain turned to sleet, then to hail. Small white pellets of ice filled the air and bounced all around like popcorn—one bounce, then still—as though the ground were alive. The clatter, especially loud on open umbrellas and on the wood of the coffin, was like applause.
Then Zac saw something he’d never seen before: a hailbow. Though he didn’t know to call it that, he knew it was special. It was one of those days when about five kinds of weather were in the sky at once. There were towering clouds, black ones very black and white ones very white and fierce-looking. Between the two the sun came out and brilliantly illuminated the hail. It was like being inside a living diamond. Then the ice wall began to move away and against its glitter he saw the hailbow. It was like a rainbow but pale, almost white, with just the loveliest hint of ghostly hue. The whole scene was so dramatic—huge clouds, falling ice, sunshine, the bow—and in a few minutes it was all over. But it stayed in Zac’s memory, just as if his mind’s eye had snapped a photograph.
After that, everything was swallowed up by the Aunties. Zac didn’t know them; they lived far away in a place called Five Corners. When he first met them at the funeral reception in his home, he began to understand why his mother had never mentioned them. They were horrible.
They were very, very old. Auntie Esmeralda, especially, was so ancient she looked ready to crumble away like a frail piece of lace. Her skin, where not obscured by a thick paste of makeup, was an unnatural, papery white, and she was draped in a long white fur coat. Very tall, she carried a cane, held herself rigid as a ruler, and wore her gray hair long and straight like a girl’s.
As Zac stood bewildered in the midst of the reception crowd, that gray curtain brushed his face and a thin, metallic voice rasped in his ear, “You poor, dear boy. How tragic to lose your mother. And in such a horrid way.” Auntie Esmeralda sounded as if she had a file stuck in her throat, scraping the human warmth off every word. “But don’t you worry. You’re coming home with us, isn’t he, Pris?”
Home with them? Zac’s home was here. With his mother gone, Mrs. Pottinger from next door had been staying with him, just as she had every evening when his mother went walking.
“Dear boy, you have nothing to fear. Your Aunties will take good care of you.” This came from Auntie Pris in a voice two octaves lower than Esmeralda’s. Much shorter than her sister, Pris seemed almost as wide as the other was tall. More than fat, she was big: squarish, broad-shouldered, solid as a stump. In contrast to Esmeralda’s fur, Pris was dressed in a short pink skirt with matching polka-dotted blouse. Perched on top of her blockish head was a pink pillbox hat. Zac was torn between amusement and horror.
Of course, the Aunties were terribly nice to him, hugging him to pieces, patting his extraordinary hair, crooning condolences, and plying him with cookies. Zac hated it all. These strange women were more suffocating than the stiff collar and suit he had to wear.
Sure enough, their tune soon changed. When the reception was over and everyone but the Aunties had left (including even Mrs. Pottinger), they began barking orders: Do this, do that, shut up, stop moping or we’ll give you something to mope about. Finally Zac was sent to his room, where he listened restlessly to a fitful wind that developed into driving rain, horrific lightning, and great claps of thunder exploding like bombs. Amidst this clamor, for some reason the most terrible sound was the occasional tap-tap-tapping of Esmeralda’s cane.
Early the next morning he was roughly awakened as the Aunties, each yanking one of his arms, dragged him from the house and shoved him into the backseat of their big black Cadillac. Throughout that long, stormy day they drove, stopping just once for gas and food. Where did these old women get such energy? It was bizarre—their mysterious vitality combined with an appearance of decrepitude. Throughout the trip
Zac sat silent, dozing or staring out the window, his left leg jiggling in a nervous tic.
Only once did the Aunties speak to him. Esmeralda, who was at the wheel, turned to him and glared. “Zachary”—she spoke his name as if it were a dead rat she held at arm’s length by its tail—“is a ridiculous name. From now on we’ll call you Boy.”
And so they did. But his name wasn’t all Zac lost that day. He’d had no chance to pack any of his belongings or toys—not his giant monkey, nor his collection of soldiers, nor his box of interesting bits of metal. Not even a toothbrush or his army camouflage pajamas. All he had was the suit on his back and a
photograph of his mother that he’d slipped into his pocket.
In this rude fashion was Zachary Sparks uprooted from his childhood home and whisked away to the town of Five Corners to live in a mansion with a plaque by the door that read THE MISSES ESMERALDA AND PRISCILLA HENBOTHER. The Aunties were, it seemed, his only living relatives; there was no one else to take him in. Their house, built of stone—even the floors were marble—had the bleak, dank feel of a castle. No
wonder Auntie Esmeralda always wore furs, though Auntie Pris huffed and puffed about in short sleeves, her bright pink skin glistening with sweat.
The place was loaded with china. Hundreds of figurines occupied coffee tables, glass cabinets, windowsills, every available surface. Zac noted a preponderance of elephants, but there were also large vases, luridly painted plates, baskets of swollen fruit. All were made of the most delicate-looking porcelain, as fragile as they were ugly. How did two such large and ancient ladies manage to navigate this glass jungle without breaking anything? All Zac knew was that it was no place for him.
From the moment they arrived, the Aunties bombarded him with warnings: “Don’t sit there, Boy … Be careful around that lamp … Do try to keep your leg still …” What was Zac to do? At least the Aunties’ silence in the car had left him to sort through his own thoughts. Now every word they spoke froze him tighter until he felt like one of those awful china figurines, condemned to hold one position forever. He was so nervous that, while trying to avoid a row of plates, he backed into a whatnot (a piece of furniture whose only purpose, he decided, was to hold knickknacks in ambush for boys) and broke a small pink elephant.
“Idiot! What have you done!” screamed Auntie Esmeralda in a voice itself like breaking glass. Auntie Pris, down on all fours to scoop together the fragments, sobbed as though tears might glue the elephant back together. How strange to see this huge woman crying over a trinket! Meanwhile Auntie Esmeralda, tall as a thunderhead, planted herself directly in front of Zac and croaked, “You … you wicked, clumsy imbecile! Go straight to your room.”
Zac didn’t move. He didn’t breathe.
“You heard me, young man. March!”
Still he didn’t move. He’d turned to stone.
“What’s wrong with you?” she demanded.
“Auntie,” he finally managed, “I don’t know where my room is.”
Esmeralda’s pale head on its long, wrinkled neck turned once to the left and then around to the right, like a bird’s, as though examining him with each eye separately. “Well, we’ll soon fix that. Pris, escort this boy to his room. Something tells me he’ll be spending a lot of time there.”
Leaving her precious pile of shattered china, Auntie Pris, with considerable effort, heaved herself to her feet. Drying her eyes with an enormous pink hankie, she growled, “That boy needs a cage, not a room.” Spinning him around with surprising force, and poking him in the back with a finger stiff as a billy club, she marched him out of the parlor, up a broad staircase, and along the hall to a door on the right. There, completely filling the door frame, she panted, “You’d better change your ways, Boy, or you won’t survive long around here.” Thrusting him inside, she shut the door and rattled a key in the lock.
So there he was. The room had a bed, an end table, a wooden chair. Its one window was already claimed by darkness. Though the storm had abated, a wind still blew and tree branches scraped against the pane. Rain drummed steadily.
For a long time Zac sat on the edge of the bed, his mind numb. Eventually he recalled the picture of his mother, still in his suit pocket. He pulled it out, but it was too dark to see and he couldn’t find a light. Cold, he climbed under the thin quilt and lay there, stiff as a corpse. He returned the photograph tohis pocket but kept his hand on it.
And so concluded Zachary Sparks’s first day in Five Corners, the first day of the end of his life. The Aunties might as well have put him in the coffin along with his mother and let the dull rain pound them both into the ground.
©2009 Cook Communications Ministries. The Blue Umbrella by Mike Mason. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.