Heroes, p.1
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       Heroes, p.1

           Robert Cormier
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Heroes


  The gun is like a tumor on my thigh as I walk through the morning streets against the wind that never dies down. April sunlight stings my eyes but the wind dissipates its heat, blustering against store windows and kicking debris into the gutters.

  At Ninth and Spruce, I pause and look up at the three-decker and the windows of the second floor, where Larry LaSalle can be found at last. Does he suspect my presence here on the street? Does he have a premonition that he has only a few minutes left to live?

  I am calm. My heartbeat is normal. What’s one more death after the others in the villages and fields of France? The innocent faces of the two young Germans appear in my mind. But Larry LaSalle is not innocent.

  OTHER LAUREL-LEAF BOOKS BY ROBERT CORMIER:

  AFTER THE FIRST DEATH

  BEYOND THE CHOCOLATE WAR

  THE BUMBLEBEE FLIES ANYWAY

  THE CHOCOLATE WAR

  EIGHT PLUS ONE

  FADE

  I AM THE CHEESE

  IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT

  THE RAG AND BONE SHOP

  TENDERNESS

  TUNES FOR BEARS TO DANCE TO

  WE ALL FALL DOWN

  Published by

  Dell Laurel-Leaf

  an imprint of

  Random House Children’s Books

  a division of Random House, Inc.

  1540 Broadway

  New York, New York 10036

  Copyright © 1998 by Robert Cormier

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law. For information address Delacorte Press, New York, New York 10036.

  The trademark Laurel-Leaf Library® is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

  The trademark Dell® is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

  Visit us on the Web! www.randomhouse.com/teens

  Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at www.randomhouse.com/teachers

  eISBN: 978-0-307-53081-3

  RL: 5.7

  Reprinted by arrangement with Delacorte Press

  v3.1_r1

  To George Nicholson and Craig Virden

  With thanks

  Show me a hero and I will

  write you a tragedy.

  F. Scott Fitzgerald

  Contents

  Cover

  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  About the Author

  My name is Francis Joseph Cassavant and I have just returned to Frenchtown in Monument and the war is over and I have no face.

  Oh, I have eyes because I can see and eardrums because I can hear but no ears to speak of, just bits of dangling flesh. But that’s fine, like Dr. Abrams says, because it’s sight and hearing that count and I was not handsome to begin with. He was joking, of course. He was always trying to make me laugh.

  If anything bothers me, it’s my nose. Or rather, the absence of my nose. My nostrils are like two small caves and they sometimes get blocked and I have to breathe through my mouth. This dries up my throat and makes it hard for me to swallow. I also become hoarse and cough a lot. My teeth are gone but my jaw is intact and my gums are firm, which makes it possible for me to wear dentures. In the past few weeks, my gums began to shrink, however, and the dentures have become loose and they click when I talk and slip around inside my mouth.

  I have no eyebrows, but eyebrows are minor, really. I do have cheeks. Sort of. I mean, the skin that forms my cheeks was grafted from my thighs and has taken a long time to heal. My thighs sting when my pants rub against them. Dr. Abrams says that all my skin will heal in time and my cheeks will someday be as smooth as a baby’s arse. That’s the way he pronounced it: arse. In the meantime, he said, don’t expect anybody to select you for a dance when it’s Girls’ Choice at the canteen.

  Don’t take him wrong, please.

  He has a great sense of humor and has been trying to get me to develop one.

  I have been trying to do just that.

  But not having much success.

  • • •

  I wear a scarf that covers the lower part of my face. The scarf is white and silk like the aviators wore in their airplanes during the First World War over the battlefields and trenches of Europe. I like to think that it flows behind me in the wind when I walk but I guess it doesn’t.

  There’s a Red Sox cap on my head and I tilt the cap forward so that the visor keeps the upper part of my face in shadow. I walk with my head down as if I have lost money on the sidewalk and am looking for it.

  I keep a bandage on the space where my nose used to be. The bandage reaches the back of my head and is kept in place with a safety pin.

  There are problems, of course.

  My nose, or I should say my caves, run a lot. I don’t know why this should happen and even the doctors can’t figure it out but it’s like I have a cold that never goes away. The bandage gets wet and I have to change it often and it’s hard closing the safety pin at the back of my head.

  I am wearing my old army fatigue jacket.

  So, I am well covered up, face and body, although I don’t know what I am going to do when summer comes and the weather gets hot. Right now, it’s March, cold and rainy, and I will worry about summer when it gets here and if I am still around.

  Anyway, this gives you an idea of what I look like when I walk down the street. People glance at me in surprise and look away quickly or cross the street when they see me coming.

  I don’t blame them.

  • • •

  I have plenty of money.

  I received all this back pay when I was discharged from Fort Delta. The back pay accumulated during the time I spent in battle in France, and then in the hospitals, first in France, then in England.

  My money is in cash. Hundred-dollar bills and twenties and tens. The smaller bills I keep in my wallet but the rest of the money is stashed in my duffel bag, which is always with me, slung over my shoulder. I am like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, my face like a gargoyle and the duffel bag like a lump on my back.

  I am staying in the attic tenement in Mrs. Belander’s three-decker on Fourth Street. She finally answered the door after I had been knocking for a while, and regarded me with suspicion, not recognizing me. This was the proof that the scarf and the bandage were working in two ways: not only to hide the ugliness of what used to be my face but to hide my identity.

  As her small black eyes inspected me from head to toe, I said: “Hello, Mrs. Belander.” A further test.

  She didn’t respond to my greeting and I realized that she didn’t recognize my voice, either. My larynx, which Dr. Abrams called my organ of voice, had also been damaged by the grenade and although I can speak, my voice is much lower now and hoarse, as if I have a permanent sore throat.

  I remembered what Enrico Rucelli in the last hospital had said about how money talks and I began to draw out my wallet when she said:

  “Veteran?”

  I nodded, and her face softened:

  “Poor boy.”

  I followed her up the four flights of stairs, the blue
veins in her legs bulging like worms beneath her skin.

  The tenement is small, with low slanted ceilings. Two rooms, kitchen and bedroom. The bed, only a cot, really. But everything very neat, windows sparkling, the floor gleaming with wax, the black stove shining with polish.

  I glanced out the kitchen window at the steeples of St. Jude’s Church. Craning my neck, I caught a glimpse, between the three-deckers of the neighborhood, of the slanted roof of the Wreck Center. I ought of Nicole Renard, realizing I had not thought of her for, oh, maybe two hours.

  I turned to find Mrs. Belander with her hand out, pink palm turned upward.

  “In advance,” she said.

  She was always generous when I did her errands, and her tips paid for my ten-cent movie tickets at the Plymouth on Saturday afternoons. She baked me a cake for my thirteenth birthday. That was five years ago and it seems like a very long time. Anyway, I paid her a month’s rent and she wrote out a receipt on the kitchen table. The table was covered with a red-and-white-checkered oilcloth like the ones we had at home until the bad times arrived. My caves moistened and I groped for my handkerchief.

  She handed me the receipt. It read Tenant in her shaky handwriting where my name should have been.

  That was fine with me. At that moment I knew that I was really anonymous, that I wasn’t Francis Joseph Cassavant anymore but a tenant in Frenchtown.

  “Thank you, Mrs. Belander.” Testing again.

  “You know my name,” she said, responding this time. Not a question but a statement, suspicion returning to her eyes.

  I thought quickly.

  “On the mailbox downstairs,” I answered, guessing that her name was there. But a good guess, as she nodded, satisfied.

  “Stop later, my place,” she said, her Canadian accent making the words sing. “I make you sturdy soup to help your cold …”

  After she left, I went to the window and looked at the falling rain outside. I was home again in Frenchtown. I thought of the gun hidden away in my duffel bag, and knew that my mission was about to begin.

  • • •

  Later, I light a candle in St. Jude’s Church.

  The smell of burning wax and the fragrance of old incense—the odors of forgiveness—fill the church. I remember the days I served as an altar boy for Father Balthazar and the Latin responses I had trouble memorizing.

  I kneel at the communion rail and say my prayers.

  I pray for Enrico and hope that he will finally go home and adjust to his condition, although those are terrible words: adjust and condition. Enrico is now without his legs and is also missing his left arm. “Thank Christ I’m right-handed,” he once said, but I don’t think he was really thanking Christ.

  I also pray for the souls of my mother and father. My mother died when I was six, giving birth to my brother, Raymond, who lived only five and a half hours. My father died five years ago of a heart attack in the rub room of the Monument Comb Shop, although I always felt he really died with my mother all those years before. I offer up prayers, too, for my uncle Louis, who gave me a place to live until I joined the army.

  I pray, of course, for Nicole Renard, wherever she may be.

  And finally, I pray for Larry LaSalle.

  It’s hard for me to pray for him and I always hesitate before I can bring myself to say that prayer. Then I think again of what Sister Gertrude taught us in the third grade, words that she said came from the mouth of Jesus. Pray for your enemies, for those who have done you harm. It is easy to pray for those you love, she said. But it counts more to pray for those who don’t love you, that you don’t love.

  So I offer up an Our Father and Hail Mary and Glory Be for Larry LaSalle. Then I am filled with guilt and shame, knowing that I have just prayed for the man I am going to kill.

  • • •

  Before going to bed, I stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom.

  My hair is a mess as usual, thin in some spots, thick in others. For some reason, my hair began to fall out in clumps my first few days in the hospital in France and it has grown back the same way.

  I apply Vaseline to my cheeks.

  I make myself look at my caves and the way the shape of my mouth has changed because of the dentures. I roll the dentures around in my mouth and remember what Dr. Abrams said, that I should have a better-fitting pair made in a few months when my gums stop shrinking. He also gave me his address in Kansas City, where he will be in practice when he returns from the war. “Great strides have been made in cosmetic surgery, Francis,” he said. “One of the few benefits of the war. Look me up when you’ve a mind to.” He was tall and looked like Abraham Lincoln. And should practice his cosmetic surgery on himself, Enrico said.

  Enrico always had something to say. About anything and everything. I sometimes think that he talked so much to cover up the pain. Even when he laughed, making a sound like a saw going through wood, you could see the pain flashing in his eyes.

  “If you want to forget Nicole,” he said one afternoon when we were tired of cards and checkers, “here’s what you do.” He put down the deck of cards he was practicing on, to shuffle with one hand. “You get out of the army and get yourself to a home for the blind. There must be a good-looking blind girl somewhere just waiting for a nice guy like you.”

  I looked to see if he was joking. Even when he was joking, though, it was hard to tell because his voice was always sharp and bitter and the pain never left his eyes.

  “You’re a big hero,” he said. “A Silver Star hero. You should have no trouble finding a girl as long as she can’t see your face.” He tried to shake a cigarette from his pack of Luckies and three or four fell to the floor. “A blind girl, now, is right up your alley …”

  I am not a hero, of course, and I turned away in disgust but later that night, lying awake, I wondered if I could really find a blind girl to love me. Ridiculous. What made me think that a blind girl would automatically fall in love with just anyone at all?

  “Forget it,” I said to Enrico the next day.

  “Forget what?” His voice was a gasp from the pain in his legs, which were not there anymore. He kept massaging the air that occupied the space his legs used to fill.

  “About the blind girl.”

  “What blind girl?”

  “Never mind,” I said, closing my eyes against the sight of his hand clawing the air.

  “It’s still Nicole, isn’t it?” he said.

  I did not have to answer because we both knew it was true.

  It would always be Nicole Renard.

  And even though I am home from the war, I wonder if I will ever see her again.

  I saw Nicole Renard for the first time in the seventh grade at St. Jude’s Parochial School during arithmetic. Sister Mathilde was standing at the blackboard illustrating a problem in decimals when the piece of chalk in her hands broke and fell to the floor.

  I leaped to my feet to retrieve the chalk. We were always eager to keep in the good graces of the nuns, who could be ruthless with punishments, using the ruler like a weapon, and ruthless, too, with marks on our report cards.

  As I knelt on the floor, the door opened and Mother Margaret, the Sister Superior, swept into the classroom, followed by the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.

  “This is Nicole Renard. She is a new student here, all the way from Albany, New York.”

  Nicole Renard was small and slender, with shining black hair that fell to her shoulders. The pale purity of her face reminded me of the statue of St. Thérèse in the niche next to Father Balthazar’s confessional in St. Jude’s Church. As she looked modestly down at the floor, our eyes met and a flash of recognition passed between us, as if we had known each other before. Something else flashed in her eyes, too, a hint of mischief as if she were telling me we were going to have good times together. Then, the flash was gone and she was St. Thérèse once more, and I knelt there like a knight at her feet, her sword having touched my shoulder. I silently pledged her my love and loyalty forever.
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  Sister Mathilde directed her to a vacant seat in the second row nearest the window. She settled herself in place and didn’t give me another glance for the rest of the day.

  After that first meeting of our eyes Nicole Renard ignored me, although I was always aware of her presence in the classroom or the corridor or the schoolyard. I found it hard to glance at her, both hoping and fearing she’d return my glance and leave me blushing and wordless. She never did. Was the look that passed between us that first day a wish of my imagination?

  Luckily, she became friendly with Marie LaCroix, who lived above my family on the third floor of our house on Fifth Street. The girls often walked home from school together—Nicole lived one street over on Sixth—and I trailed after them, happy to be following in Nicole’s footsteps. They giggled and laughed, their schoolbooks pressed against their chests, and I hoped that one of Nicole’s books would fall to the ground so that I could rush forward and pick it up.

  Once in a while Nicole visited Marie on the third floor, and I lurked on the piazza below, trying to listen to their conversations, hoping to hear my name. I heard only the murmur of their voices and occasional bursts of laughter.

  Standing at the banister in an agony of love and longing, like a sentry on lonely guard duty, I waited for Nicole to come down the stairs so that I could get a glimpse of her and perhaps catch her attention. She’d come into view, my mouth would instantly dry up, and I would look away, afraid that my voice would emerge as a humiliating squeak if I tried to say hello. A moment later, I’d hear her footsteps fading away and I’d plunge into an agony of regret, vowing to talk to her the next time.

  Often, in the evening, when families gathered on the piazzas, the men drinking beer they had brewed in big crocks in the dirt-floored cellars and the women mending socks and knitting as they chatted, I’d seek out Marie and try to get her to mention Nicole Renard. Although we were separated by that chasm of being twelve years old, when boys and girls barely acknowledged each other’s existence, Marie and I spoke to each other once in a while because we lived in the same three-decker.

 
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