Everyone knew him as Old Man Whitling. Jenny Dearborn said it sounded more like a description than a name, and he had been known to take a pen-knife to a piece of wood from time to time, although he hadn’t the knack that Charlie had. Percy Cox said they’d called Mr. Whitling that even before he was old. He had been that kind of man almost since birth, it was said, going on about how things were better “back in the day”, although what day this referred to was never precisely specified.
Charlie managed to withstand the old man’s piercing blue gaze for all of five minutes, then decided he didn’t like being stared at by strange old men. It was creepy, and rude besides, and it was distracting him from bridge building. Charlie put the last of the foundation stones in place, and straightened up, looking the old man square in the eyes. He was tall enough now, taller than most everyone at school, even the teachers.
“Hello,” he said. Then, because his mother had taught him to be polite, “My name’s Charlie.”
“I know,” Old Man Whitling said. His voice was like marbles rolling around in a clay bowl. The rattle turned into a cough, and then a black gob of spit that arched out over the stream. “Whole county knows who you are. ‘The boy who found the body’, that’s what they say.”
“Is it?” Charlie couldn’t help feeling pleased that people he had never met might know who he was.
“It is.” Old Man Whitling pointed a thick-knuckled finger at the stones, and the piles of carefully hewn branches. “That won’t hold you up. Wouldn’t hold up a squirrel.”
“It’s not for me,” Charlie explained patiently. “Not for squirrels, either.”
“For who, then?”
Charlie shrugged, embarrassment making his cheeks hot. Old Man Whitling did not seem like the type who would understand about the Walkers, and so Charlie said, “It’s just practice. Like making a model, before you make the real thing.”
“Sounds like a waste of time,” Old Man Whitling said. “Why not just build the real thing first time out?”
“It’s not as easy as that,” Charlie said.
Old Man Whitling pushed himself away from the tree and stumped forward, leaning heavily on the walking stick. He squinted at the pile of sticks, and spat again, this time into the tangle of water mint that was curling around the submerged stones, teased there by the slow current.
“It’s engineering,” Charlie said.
In his mind this was all the explanation that was required, but the old man stared at him, clearly waiting for him to continue.
“If you want it to work,” Charlie said, “You have to fix it so that the force and torque balance without exceeding the strength of any individual piece. Otherwise it falls down.” He said it slowly, the way you might explain something to a not-very-bright child. It was one of those things he thought everybody knew, like how lift makes birds fly. He wondered what the old man had been doing all his life, that he had missed out on such basic information.
Old Man Whitling looked at Charlie as if he had starting speaking in a foreign language.
After a moment, the old man said, “So, read a lot of books, do you?”
Charlie shrugged. “Some. For school, mostly.”
Old Man Whitling pulled out a dirty grey handkerchief, put it to his nose, and proceeded to make a sound somewhere between a fog-horn and an elephant’s roar. He then stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket. “And what do you do when you’re not reading books, for school mostly?”
Charlie looked at the sticks and stones, and back at the old man, wondering if this was a trick question. “I build things,” he said. “Sometimes I have to take them apart first. But I usually manage to put them back together again.”
“Usually.” This time the wheezing sound the old man made sounded almost like a laugh. Then his massive brows dove together, forming a deep cartoonish V, and he glared at Charlie from under them like a troll peering out from under a ledge. “So then, Mr. Charlie Dreydon, the builder-book-reader. What, exactly, are your intentions?”
Charlie considered this. Either the old man was having trouble grasping the simple concept that a twelve-year-old boy might want to build a bridge out of sticks on a sunny summer day, or he was referring to something else.
“With regard to what?” Charlie asked, as neutrally as possible.
Old Man Whitling made that wheezing sound again. “With regard to what,” he echoed, and slapped his thigh. “Ha. I mean, of course, with regard to our Abigail.”
Charlie felt the heat in his cheeks spreading out to his ears and down his neck, and knew he was blushing, and that his freckles would surely be standing out like a thousand brown polka dots on a bright red field. He tried to hide his face behind his hair, which was over-long – Grandma Dreydon would soon be after him with a pair of sharp shearing scissors – but not quite long enough.
“Ah,” Old Man Whitling said, as if Charlie had answered him. “Your silence speaks volumes, my young friend.”
Charlie felt a surge of anger, and clenched his fists to keep it from spilling out into words. He wanted to tell the old man that he was most definitely not his friend, and that he had a gob of spittle on his scruffy grey beard, and would he please go away and stop bothering him, but he gritted his teeth and said none of these things.
Charlie gave another shrug, and resumed his work by the stream’s edge, putting his back to the old man, doing his best to pretend that he didn’t care.
“I don’t even know her,” he said. By which he meant, of course, she doesn’t even know that I exist. But that would have made him sound like a pathetic, love-lorn sheep, which he most certainly was not.
“Oh, but you will,” Old Man Whitling declared. “And I need to know that your intentions are of the noble variety, pure as the driven snow, utterly without guile or mischief, because otherwise you and I will have to have a serious Conversation, and it won’t be pretty.”
The old man said the word ‘conversation’ in such a way as to make it plenty clear that he really meant something else, something more along the lines of ‘confrontation’, but infinitely less pleasant.
Charlie turned and faced the old man. “She’s never even said a single word to me. So it seems to me, my intentions don’t matter one way or the other.” He kept his voice calm and matter-of-fact. It was what his mother liked to call his diplomat’s voice. She was sure that someday her youngest boy would cease his incessant dabbling with tree houses and bridges and old short-wave radios, and grow up to become a famous politician. He had given up trying to dissuade her of this notion, since telling her that he would rather earn his wages as an organ grinder’s monkey, or perhaps a rotten apple taster, had not made much of an impact on her convictions.
“Look here, boy.” Old Man Whitling took two long strides forward, so that his spit-speckled beard was almost touching Charlie’s nose, his rank tobacco breath rolling out like a cloying fog. He stuck out a long, gnarled digit and poked Charlie’s chest with it, twice, so that Charlie had to take a step back to keep his balance, the heel of his boot splashing into the mud at the stream’s edge.
“I’ll tell you this once, and never again,” the old man snarled. “One day that girl will see you for what you are. And if you break her heart, so help me God I will end you.”
Fear found Charlie then, a sick, sharp heat that rose from his stomach up to his Adam’s apple and turned his limbs rigid. He understood, now, why everyone always kept their distance from Old Man Whitling, why even the tall, horse-strong farm-hands nodded their head in deference whenever he walked by. Charlie decided if it ever did come time for a confrontation, he would prefer to have it with the snaggle-toothed old Grizzly bear who had taken to rummaging through the town dump and stealing all the carp from Mary Godstone’s fish pond.
It was only after Old Man Whitling had stomped off down the path that led to the Miller’s house, muttering under his breath all the while, that Charlie grasped the implication of what had been said.
One day Abby Whitling would see him for what he was, and that would somehow lead to the possibility of his breaking her heart. It was, he thought, by way of being the oddest back-handed compliment he had ever received. Charlie realized his mouth was hanging open, and pressed it shut. When he resumed his construction, he did so whistling, with a smile on his lips.