Buddy by Nathan Toplis

Photo by Justin Lim on Unsplash

Buddy Baier woke in the night feeling lost and began to search the darkness for the great landmarks of his room. The lamp that cast shadows of men on horseback, the models of mustangs and hellcats, the small painted prairie scenes in plain wooden frames – every shape that he could make out told him he was safe in his bed. And if he had any lingering doubts, the underwater sound of the television coming through the floor put an end to them. He was in his bedroom, in his house, in Burlington, in Vermont, in America. This calmed him down and, for a while, he tried to go back to sleep. He turned side to side, put his hands between the pillows, and took one leg out from under the covers, all with his eyes tightly closed. But his mind was too active for any of the usual tricks. He knew then that he would be awake for at least another hour.

Lying on his back staring at the ceiling, he tried to understand why he had woken up so suddenly and so disorientated. He felt warm, but not uncomfortably so. The television was loud enough for him to catch some words of the news, but his parents often stayed up late to read and hear the headlines. Perhaps he was thirsty. Although his throat did not feel dry, he determined to go to the kitchen for a glass of water.

On the landing, he began to be able to tell the drone of the newsman from the quiet comments of his parents. When he reached the head of stairs, the frequency and animation of these comments increased. He decided to get the water himself and return without interrupting them, seeing as he could reach the sink.

To this end, he crept down to the hall one step at a time. They didn’t notice him when he paused in the doorway.

‘We interrupt this program for a special news bulletin,’ said the authoritative voice that suddenly took the place of the nightly drone. Buddy had never heard a special news bulletin before. ‘Three young singers who soared to the heights of show business on the current rock and roll craze were killed today in the crash of a light plane, in an Iowa snow flurry.

‘The singers were identified as Ritchie Valens, 17, Buddy Holly, 22, and JP Richardson – known professionally as “The Big Bopper” – 28.’

From here the bulletin summarised the careers of the dead, and described the crash at length, but Buddy had stopped listening at the second name and heard none of it. He could only watch the movements of the reporter’s grey lips.

Deep in their armchairs, his parents reacted with a mild surprise that rose almost to pity when it was mentioned that Valens was currently third in the charts. Then it was over, and they returned to their books.

It took Buddy much longer than them to realise that the reporter would not return. When he did, his body was racked by a dry cough tethering him to the spot. His parents jumped up, the cough disturbing them more than the events they had just been informed of, and his mother rushed for the Vicks. His father came into the hall and stood over him with his arms folded, telling him he’d be alright, and that they’d get him back to sleep. His mother reappeared with the ointment and they led him upstairs together.

The Vicks burned his chest, but they said he could read for half an hour while it worked, so Buddy was happy again. He took out the book he kept hidden under his pillow and opened it in his lap. He had read less than a page when he noticed the warplanes on his dresser were all arrayed against him. Until they were put out of sight, he was unable to fall back asleep.

At school the next day, Buddy was listless and unfocused from morning bell until lunch. His teachers noticed but said nothing, either assuming tiredness or simply reluctant to talk to a student about their home life. Yet everyone was united in confusion regarding the universal disinterest he showed towards subjects he had formally loved or hated.

During lunch break, he approached Ms Lane, a small, quiet teacher who had only recently completed her own education. She was well liked by the student body for her inexperience, which they saw as honesty, and for her lack of connections with the locals. They felt their secrets were safer with her than with, for example, the English teacher who attended football games with their parents.

Buddy saw her talking to an older teacher in the hall and approached them. Mr Lemmis – who had been smiling and nodding like a bobblehead whenever Ms Lane spoke – seemed annoyed by this interruption. Buddy was confused; they hadn’t been having a conversation, as far as he could tell, since Mr Lemmis hadn’t been saying anything, only murmuring his agreement. Ms Lane seemed to agree and led Buddy into the classroom with only a backwards glance dismissing her colleague.

She took a chair from the front row and placed it next to her own, then sat down and waited for him to speak. She would never begin the conversation if she sensed that a student had something important to tell her, preferring to let them explain at their own pace. Buddy took an unusually long time.

While waiting, she found the previous class’s books in her drawer and marked their cursive, watching the boy out of the corner of her eye. She liked him because she found it difficult to tell how intelligent he was – the comfortably clever and the boldly stupid left nothing to discover.

The clock moved quickly towards one, approaching the bell signalling the end of lunch, but she knew he would speak before it sounded without her having to ask. Sure enough, he started to talk as she reached the end of her work.

He asked if she had seen the news, and she replied that she read it every morning, so he began to talk about Buddy Holly. His name was really Charles, he explained to her – not knowing it was written on the register – and the dead man’s name was really Charles. This connected them, and he was convinced that he would never have been nicknamed Buddy if Mr Holly had not been first. So he was named after him, in a way. Here he paused, clearly expecting some response to this revelation. Ms Lane asked if he wanted people to stop calling him that; he said no, but that he was worried he would be killed in a plane crash.

Ms Lane’s first instinct was to laugh, but she resisted and chastised herself for even thinking it. She searched for a more reasonable response but, to her discomfort, found nothing. She could only stand and turn away to cover her uncertainty, picking up the blackboard eraser as an excuse.

She decided to promise that the students would use his full name from then on, but when she turned around, she found she still couldn’t speak. Sitting on that little wooden chair with his head bowed down, he appeared to her as a penitent cherub, as a small expression of tragedy lost among all the stonework of a high cathedral somewhere far above the alter.

Dropping the eraser, she rushed from the classroom and left him without an answer.

When Buddy was discovered, his situation was considered so odd and beyond categorisation that all the staff could agree was that he had done something wrong. His parents were called, but they were as mystified as anyone else when the “unique disciplinary situation” was explained to them by the headmaster. They couldn’t understand where he had picked up such a morbid sense of predestination – they certainly had never discussed the concept at home.

On the same evening, American Airlines Flight 320 crashed into the East River of New York City, killing 65 people. Buddy swore he would never fly again.

Despite the protection of this promise, his mood continued to decline. He would eat and play, but his parents struggled to get him to engage with anything resembling work, or to sleep. Although they allowed, even encouraged, his determination not to set foot on an aeroplane, he was still convinced that he would somehow be killed by one. He failed to see the point of schoolwork, or of family gatherings, or even of reading in the face of this inevitability.

His father found him standing in the basement with a shoebox full of mustangs and hellcats. He said he couldn’t sleep while they were in his room. When Mr Baier asked his son why he didn’t simply throw them away, he frowned and had no answer. The box was left on a shelf in the corner.

It was a Friday in June, almost five months from the day of the crash, when his sudden and inexplicable recovery occurred.

The week had started out mild but had gotten increasingly warm, with a humidity not usually felt in Vermont, until it broke into a thunderstorm. Buddy’s mother blamed this heat for the sickness that kept her son away from school and forced him into bed even earlier than usual.

Shivering with a fever under his heavy duvet, Buddy listened to the thunder and rain that pulsed on the window. He had finished the pint glass of water left in his room in case he woke up with a dry throat, and felt the need for another.

In the living room, his father was sitting by the radio listening to a description of the heavyweight championship. When he saw his son pass the doorway, he called excitedly for him to come back. Buddy explained he was just going to get some water, but Mr Baier was too busy repeating that the boy ought to hear this to listen. He sat Buddy down on the floor near the radio and told him to pay close attention.

The contest was between Ingemar Johansson and Floyd Patterson, he explained, and whoever won would be considered the best fighter in the world. Mrs Baier answered on Buddy’s behalf that he understood and said he should be allowed to get his drink. But Mr Baier wanted him to stay and hear the rest of the fight; it would be good for him, for his constitution.

At first, things went as expected – the clipped commentary from the radio reported that Patterson, the champion, was pursuing Johansson around the ring; the Swede could only retreat and throw light jabs. Johansson had spent his time drinking with models, Mr Baier explained, while Patterson had trained hard. Even though he was the champion, he didn’t let his guard down – that was what it took to be a winner, he told his son.

In the third round this conviction began to falter. He had just been explaining to Buddy how the champions had to defend themselves from constant challenges when Patterson went down for the first time. This reversal was exciting to begin with, but when the voice said that he had stood up and turned away before going down again, Mr Baier became nervous. The referee will stop the fight if the man is dazed, he told Buddy and himself. But down he went again. Six times in all he was allowed to fall before the fight was stopped. By the end, he was going to the canvas without any assistance from his opponent.

The family sat in silence at the end of the broadcast, until Mr Baier told his son to go back to bed and sank into his chair, looking as if he himself had lost the fight. Buddy stayed where he was, staring, so his mother took his hand, led him into the kitchen, filled his glass, and sent him up. He opened and closed his bedroom door, but instead of entering, he returned to the top of the stairs and listened to his parents argue in hushed tones about the fight and about exposing their son to such violence (as his mother put it.) His father maintained that it would have been no problem if that goddamn referee Goldstein had stopped things faster. Then they became subdued, talking about the plane crash again, and about his strange behaviour, and whether this would change things. They wondered what they could do. It was true that he would die, of course, but this preoccupation with aviation accidents was beyond their understanding. There was nothing they could do but try to encourage him to return to normal life, and to avoid reminders of planes or flying. And to remove all traces of violence from their life. It was, after all, a reminder of death, even in its mildest forms. Mr Baier grumbled at this, but when Mrs Baier asked if that boxer could have been killed, he was unable to deny the possibility.

Buddy listened to all this from the head of the stairs and felt an overwhelming sense of security, a warmth spreading from his chest. The care he heard in their voices seemed to put distance between him and his destiny. Or perhaps it wasn’t his destiny after all; perhaps he hadn’t allowed for the influence of others over the world. They would never allow any plane he was on to crash. Their love would keep it in the air. The coldness that had seeped into him since that day in February retreated at the thought.

Then he heard them head for the stairs and scrambled to his room. When the door opened and closed for the second time, they knew he had been listening and wondered if this, too, would hurt him. But he slept without waking again, and when his mother went into his room after school the next day, she saw the mustangs and hellcats back in their rightful place.

About The Author

Nathan is an emerging writer from Nottingham, who is currently studying in Leeds. He infuses his interest in pop culture, paranoia and childhood into his short stories and screenplays. Buddy is his first published work.

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