The Broken Light
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“The Broken Light,” Tambuli, June 1992, 8

The Broken Light

“There it is,” I whispered to Randy as we watched the magpie glide through the air and land in the poplar trees just this side of Jed Franklin’s place. We clutched our rocks and glared at the shiny black bird with the white tips on its tail and wings. Dad had said that he didn’t like magpies eating our vegetables, so Randy and I had chased it out of the garden. Chasing magpies was lots more fun than weeding.

“Do you think we ought to follow it over there, Russell?” Randy asked.

I thought about going back to the garden to finish weeding. I scratched my head. “Dad said that if they’re not chased miles away, they just come back.”

Randy swallowed. “But it’s on Mr. Franklin’s place now.”

I shuddered just a little. Jed Franklin was the meanest man I knew. He lived alone on a little run-down farm just down the road from us.

“I figure we can sneak over there through the trees without his seeing us,” I whispered.

Before Randy could answer, I started down the dirt lane toward the Franklin place. I heard Randy scramble after me. The magpie was still in the poplar tree when we got there. We each threw a rock.

“We didn’t throw close enough to it,” I muttered as I watched the magpie fly away, then perch itself right on top of Mr. Franklin’s new light pole. “We can chase it a lot farther away from there,” I said excitedly.

“But, Russell,” Randy gasped, “we can’t go into Mr. Franklin’s yard!”

I started ahead and suddenly grinned. “He’s not even there. His truck’s gone.”

A few moments later Randy and I were hunched down by the corner of Mr. Franklin’s barn, looking almost straight up at the magpie. “Be careful,” I said.

I don’t know which rock went where. All I know is that we shattered Mr. Franklin’s new light! Glass flew everywhere.

We ran for home—past the poplar trees, across the dirt lane, and to the garden, where we should have been all afternoon. We grabbed our hoes and started chopping weeds as fast as we could. Even when we were finished, we kept looking for weeds where there weren’t any. And every few minutes we glanced toward the Franklin place.

It was almost suppertime when we heard Jed Franklin’s old truck rumble down the road past our place to his. We didn’t dare stay in the garden after that. We put our hoes away and went into the house.

That night after we’d gone to bed and should have been sleeping, I lay on my pillow with my eyes wide open and a thousand things going through my mind. When I’d said my prayer that night, the words didn’t seem to go anyplace. They just stayed in the room with me. “Are you awake?” I whispered down to Randy, who was on the bottom bunk.

Randy kicked his covers back and muttered, “Yes. I can’t go to sleep. I keep thinking.”

“We didn’t mean to do it,” I argued. “It was an accident.”

“I know,” Randy came back, “but Mr. Franklin still lost his light.”

“Well, there’s nothing we can do about it now,” I muttered.

The next morning, Randy and I were helping Dad fix a sagging barn door when Mr. Franklin pulled up in his truck. I took a step backward, bumping Randy and spilling a sack of nails on the ground. Mr. Franklin leaned out his pickup and glared at us. “Well, they’ve done it again,” he said angrily.

Dad straightened up. “Who did what?” Dad asked.

Mr. Franklin stared at Randy and me. I gulped, wondering how he’d found out. “They broke my new light,” he growled. “It hasn’t been in a week, and they shot it out yesterday while I was away.”

“Who did it?” Dad asked.

I got ready to turn and run. I just knew Mr. Franklin was going to point a finger at Randy and me and yell, “They did!”

“Kids!” Mr. Franklin snorted. “Probably those kids on the motorcycles. They’re always racing through my yard and driving up into the hills. They leave gates open, tear things up, and scare my stock. Now they’ve gone and knocked my light out. If I ever get my hands on them … !”

“Those guys on the motorcycles sure saved us,” I muttered after Mr. Franklin had left and Dad had gone into the house to answer the phone. “And we didn’t even have to lie or anything,” I said, smiling, but still feeling dark and sick inside. I kept thinking of something Mom had told us once. She had said that you could tell a huge lie without saying anything, just by being quiet when you knew the truth.

“Why does Mr. Franklin have to be such a mean old guy?” I asked Dad when he came back.

Dad thought for a moment, then answered, “Oh, he’s not mean. Just lonely.”

“He sure seems mean to me,” Randy said, “always running around with that ugly frown.”

Dad scratched his head. “Sometimes Jed looks mean and angry with everyone because nobody ever seems very nice to him.”

After we had finished the door, Randy and I sat in the barn and talked.

“I wish we hadn’t done it,” Randy said.

I nodded. “We ought to pay him for the light.”

Randy gasped. “But then we’d have to tell him we broke it in the first place.”

“Well, maybe we could work for him. We wouldn’t tell him why, and that way we could pay for the light without his even knowing it.”

It was the best idea we had had. We hated to hoe corn, but we knew Mr. Franklin had a little patch that needed hoeing, so we headed for it. The sun was hot, bugs buzzed around our heads, sweat trickled down the sides of our faces, our backs ached, and I even wore a blister on my hand. But for the first time since Randy and I had broken the light, I felt good because we were making up for what we had broken.

“What are you kids doing?” a voice boomed out at us as we were finishing the last two rows.

We turned around, and there stood Mr. Franklin leaning against a fence post.

I gulped and licked my lips. “We’ve been hoeing your corn.”


“The corn needed hoeing,” Randy spoke up.

“We wanted to,” I added. “You don’t mind do you?”

“No, I don’t mind.” He almost smiled. “Mighty fine work.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a worn brown wallet. “I guess you boys could use a little spending money.”

“We didn’t do it for money,” I burst out.

Mr. Franklin looked at me, then at Randy, who was nodding in agreement.

“But I’d like to pay,” Mr. Franklin said, counting out some money. “I don’t remember any kids ever helping me before. Sometimes kids come over and shoot my lights and windows out, but this is the first time any showed up to help.” He held the money out. “I insist that you take it.”

We couldn’t make ourselves tell him about the light, so we took the money and headed for home, feeling worse than we’d felt before we hoed the corn.

“Why don’t we feel good, Russell?” Randy asked me. I thought you were supposed to feel good after you did something good. I just feel rotten.”

“I guess it’s because we did something good just to cover up something bad.”

For a long time we stayed in the barn, thinking. We both knew that there was only one thing we could do to make us feel better, but we were both scared to do it.

“I’m going back,” I finally announced.

“Going back!” Randy gasped.

“I’m giving the money back.”

“But what will you tell him?”

I took a deep breath. “I guess I’ll just tell him the truth. That’s what we should have done to start with.”

It was hard going back to Mr. Franklin’s place, one of the hardest things I’d ever done in my life. I would rather have hoed a dozen fields of corn than explain what we had done to his light.

We found him by his old truck. The hood was up, and he was hunched over the engine, banging and tugging with a wrench. His hands were greasy, and his face was red.

As soon as he looked up and saw us, I pulled the money from my pocket and set it on the fender of the pickup. Then I stepped back and looked directly at him. I could see out of the corner of my eye that Randy was doing the same.

Mr. Franklin looked at the money. “What’s this for?” he demanded gruffly.

I swallowed hard and looked down at the ground. I watched a tiny ant tug and pull at a piece of straw that was ten times bigger than it was. “We didn’t hoe the corn for money,” I explained in a raspy whisper. “We did it to pay for your light.”

“My light?” He straightened up and wiped his hands of his pants.

My heart was hammering so hard in my chest that I thought it was going to burst. I opened my mouth to answer, but I didn’t have any breath to speak. I sucked in some air. “The kids on the motorcycles didn’t break your light,” I said. “We did.”

“But we didn’t mean to,” Randy got out. “We weren’t trying to be mean or anything. We were just trying to chase away that old magpie.”

“Did your dad make you come over here?” Mr. Franklin asked.

We shook our heads. “We’re sorry,” I mumbled. “That’s why we wanted to hoe your corn. To make things right.”

For a long time he just stared at us without saying anything. I could feel little drops of sweat trickle down my back. And a fat, pesky fly kept buzzing around my head, but I didn’t slap at it or anything.

Finally he spoke. “Thanks, boys.” He even sounded nice. “I appreciate what you’ve done. Telling me about the light is more important than hoeing my corn.” He actually smiled. “Everybody makes mistakes, but only those who are really grown-up take the blame for them and make up for them.”

When Randy and I finally left the Franklin place, that dark, ugly feeling inside us was gone. I knew that that night I wouldn’t have any trouble saying my prayers or going to sleep.

Illustrated by Jerry Harston