It was October of 1997 and his brother came home from a movie about a boy with teeth too big for his mouth. Dewey and his friends would call him Solomon for weeks after that, in the cruel way only an older brother and his friends could. Dewey snuck him into the theater after days of pleading and Atticus had nightmares for weeks after, a certain inclination towards a sense of unease at the sight of a child on an overpass or the corpse of a cat on the side of the road. That was the year Mama started slapping Dewey upside the head a lot more often because, they guessed, she was still mad about him calling her a fat bitch.
They spent a lot of time outside that fall. The school days were short, and sometimes Dewey would pick him up in their Daddy’s white pickup early so Atticus could do stupid things that would make Dewey and his friend laugh. They hung out under the highway. Sometimes Dewey would leave without telling him and Atticus would have to walk home by the side of the interstate.
It was Tuesday that he saw Father Abraham.
He was a pianist, first. That’s what everyone always said. He was a pianist and then he found God during the war. In some stories he was German, in the others he was French, sometimes (only sometimes) just good old fashioned American. He wore wire framed glasses and would only stop wandering to deliver a sermon. They called him Father Abraham because he looked old enough to have been at the founding of Babylon.
It used to be that older kids would drive in their trucks beside him and see how far he could go but that got boring fast. He just walked, didn’t stop for much of anything. Walked like he had everywhere and nowhere to be all at once.
Now, a housewife would sometimes venture out and give him a cup of water on particularly hot days but that was the extent of the town’s interactions with him. When he would pass through people would stop and stare, maybe bring it up in conversation the next day like they would a bout of rain or a brilliant sunrise. He was skeletal, and his skin was browned and freckled by the sun. Only a downy fuzz of white hair dusted his skull, but his eyebrows were thick and his eyelids droopy in nature.
Atticus kneeled on the couch with his arms propped against the back cushions to peer out the window as he passed. Mama was smoking a cigarette on their front step and she hesitated for a second as Father Abraham rounded the corner before taking a long pull only to push the smoke back out of the corner of her mouth.
He walked with his spine curved into itself. Atticus was friends with a girl who went to the church he preached at two towns over. She said he smelled bad but not bad enough that anybody was complaining and the only time she saw her daddy cry was when he delivered a sermon after that girl’s body was found in the bayou. She said she shook his hand, she swore she did. She said it was warm but dry, like all that sun he soaked up during his wandering decided to stay there a while. Like he was one of those miracle August days when things weren’t too humid at all and no one cared about how hot it got because of it. She told Atticus her mama said maybe his walking was something for the soul. Like playing the piano or painting a pretty picture.
Someone should chase him away with a rifle, was the first thing Dewey said when he looked out the window over Atticus’s shoulder. He ain’t human. Swear it.
Atticus told him it isn’t his fault because he can’t stop walking. Couldn’t stop even if he tried. Though he never heard that before, he wanted to defend him in some way for some reason. He didn’t know why, just felt like he should. Maybe it was something about having respect for a man that could make someone’s daddy cry. Maybe that was it.
It’s bullshit, Dewey told him. That’s something only horses get. A rot in the liver. That’s what Dad told me, it’s bullshit.
Atticus didn’t believe him, because Dewey always held the words of that ghost like they were a lost sacrament. He was always wrong when it came to saying something like that.
That night, Atticus opened all the windows in his room and crawled into bed more tired than he had ever felt before. He stared, out the frame and into the yard, as the brush turned into dark shapes etched into a blue-black sky. He closed his eyes and thought he could hear the gentle call of cicadas.