Her fingers number every Nerve
Just as a Miser counts his gold;
She lives upon his shrieks & cries—
And she grows young as he grows old.
- William Blake, The Mental Traveller
Bo Griggs and his gang first met Jonathan Crane when both of them were seven years old. It was the middle of summer, and a rainstorm had come recently, darkening the sky and turning the ground to muddy slush. Bo walked along the road with several of his younger friends on their way back home. As the oldest, it was unofficially his job to make sure all of the others reached their homes and families. Most of the kids did as they were told, but a few dragged their feet. One of the littlest kicked a rock, grimacing.
"Bo, I don't wanna go home. It isn't bedtime yet. I wanna have fun."
"Me too," George Dunstan said. Bo sighed - while George was one of the few kids he considered a friend, he argued a lot."Our mas and pas won't care."
"Okay." Bo rolled his eyes. He couldn't believe those kids sometimes. "One more game, then we go home. What do you guys want to play?" The other kids exchanged looks. "Thought so. Now shut up and come with me."
George didn't give up. He was a persistent one, Bo had to give him that. "You're the biggest. Why don't you choose?"
"Because I said so," Bo said, a little harshly. "Look, my pa told me to look out for you guys, which means you gotta do what I say 'cause I'm the boss. Right, George?"
Defeated, George looked down. "Right, Bo."
"I'm always right. Now come on."
One of the kids poked Bo in the shoulder and pointed dead ahead. "Who's that?" Bo was about to grab the other kid's arm, but squinted when he saw a small shape hunched over in the road. He couldn't make much out, but the figure was another boy.
"Beats me. We'll be passing him on our way home, so it can't hurt to say hello."
When they got a bit closer, Bo recognized the other kid with a start. "Hey! That's Crazy Keeny's kid!"
The other boys stopped, eyes bugging out. "No way! Crazy Keeny doesn't have kids. She's too old."
"No! I mean there's a kid who lives with her. Name's Jonathan somethin'-or-other. Crane. I see him in the fields sometimes 'cause he doesn't go out much, or she doesn't let him. He never says anything. Met him once with my pa. Pa gave him a chunk of bread 'cause he was so skinny. He ate it in one bite, no chewing or nothin'. Just gulp and it was gone."
One of the younger kids winced. "Yuck. Hey, remember that time when George rang old Keeny's doorbell and that stupid-looking four-eyed skinny kid came out? He just stood there like an idiot 'til she yelled at him. That musta been him!"
"We oughta mess with him a bit. He never wants to play." Brad Simmons, the second biggest kid there and Bo's right-hand man, spat on the dirt. "Jerk. What's his problem, anyway?"
George folded his arms. "Thinks he's too good for us, I bet. Let's get him!"
Bo could see Jonathan more clearly now, hunched over. The kid was stick-thin, eyes wide behind those goofy glasses. He wore a red, striped shirt which hung off his body like it didn't really fit. Bo, his gang behind him, marched up to Jonathan. Jonathan didn't look up. He was drawing something in the mud.
Jonathan said nothing, drawing a line in the ground with his finger and ignoring the dirt that got on the seat of his pants. Bo drew himself up, standing right beside Jonathan and poking him in a bony shoulder. Jonathan turned his head, blinked, and went back to work without so much as looking at Bo. Some of the other boys snickered. Brad chuckled a little before a glare from Bo silenced him.
"Told ya he was an idiot." somebody said.
"C'mon, don't play stupid. 'Course you hear me." Bo poked Jonathan again, harder, annoyed when the kid didn't react. Jonathan just sat there, more interested in the mud than other people.
"If you ask me," Brad told Bo with a sneer, "he's not worth it. He's too weird to play with us. You know the Keenys." The other gang members snickered. Jonathan's eyes narrowed slightly, but he didn't move or show any other sign of listening.
"You're wasting your time," said another kid, holding back a laugh. "C'mon, Bo, let's go do something else. This was a dumb idea."
Bo was quickly losing face in front of the other kids. He had to put Jonathan in his place, and fast. "Hey! I'm talking to you! Say something, stupid!" He lunged forward, knocked Crane on his stomach, and wiped out the scribble on the ground with a brush of his hand. That got Jonathan's attention, all right. The weird boy scrabbled to his knees, not bothering to dust off his clothes, a little bit of blood dripping from his nose.
"Why did you do that?" he asked, tilting his head like some idiot owl. His voice was soft but nasal, with only a hint of anger behind it. "Leave me alone." Bo grit his teeth. Nobody treated him this way. He was the biggest kid there, and that made him the boss. Jonathan would have to learn to respect his betters.
"Because nobody ignores me, weirdo." Bo dragged Jonathan to his feet and looked into his eyes. For all of Crane's bravado, he saw fear in there. The boy was fairly small, his muscles limp compared to his opponent's, a fact that he recognized with a sigh. "Do you know who I am?"
"No," Jonathan replied, and Bo answered by grabbing the inside of his shirt and yanking it hard, pulling the other boy towards him.
"If you know what's good for you you'll get out of my way. My name's Bo Griggs. Don't forget it." Jonathan blinked again, staring into thin air in a way that made Bo want to punch him in the face.
"I'm not a freak." He struggled in the thicker boy's grasp. "L-l-leave me alone. Please!" This time Bo heard a slight bit of rising alarm in Crane's voice. "Put me down! I don't want to fight. What do you want?"
"I want you to show some respect. I'm the boss around here, and everybody does what I say. That means you, weirdo." Bo got up in Crane's face, but Crane didn't blink.
"Why?" he asked, Bo trying not to punch him. That whining was getting on his nerves.
"'Cause I'm bigger and smarter than you, that's why."
Jonathan nodded, but gave a slight chuckle.
"What's so funny, freak?" Bo said, glaring.
"Stop calling me that," Jonathan told Bo, although his voice shook. "I'm not a freak!"
"'Course you are. Your family's full of freaks. You're crazy as old Mary. 'Least we don't have to look at her." Encouraged, Bo shoved Crane up against a tree, watching him squirm with some satisfaction. "You know what else? I think you look stupid. Can't Crazy Keeny give you something decent to wear? I know your family's really weird and stuff, but still."
"We aren't weird," Crane replied in gasps. Now Bo had something to taunt him with.
"I saw your gran at church one time with your mom and grandma. You wanna know what my dad says about your mom?" Jonathan shook his head. "She looked sick or something, while your grandma wouldn't stop fiddling with that pearl necklace she has." Bo shook his head in mocking sympathy. "You're even worse. Don't you ever comb your hair or clean your clothes?" He ruffled Jonathan's ginger hair, ignoring the kid's pleas for him to stop.
"Gran says pretty clothes are prideful. Things of the devil," Jonathan said, slipping free, his lean body allowing him to wriggle out of the stronger kid's grip. Bo grabbed at his arm, but he darted to the other side of the tree, poking his head out from behind it to confront the other boys. "I'm not allowed to wear them."
"Yeah, well, tell Granny Keeny she's nuts, and so are you." Brad came over, helping Bo recapture Crane and pin him down. This time, Jonathan didn't even try to fight back. "All right, we've got him. What do we do with him?"
"Let me go?" Crane asked, but he was ignored as the gang formed a ring around the tree, blocking all escape routes. Bo roughly pulled him off while Brad tried to pin his hands behind his back. He fought, and Brad gave a yell of pain.
"He bit me! The little-"
While Brad fell to his knees, Jonathan made a run for it. Bo grabbed him and managed to pin him down, Jonathan trying to scratch him. George ran over to help.
"You'll be sorry," Brad told Jonathan, tearing up as he held his arm. "That really hurt!"
Jonathan smirked. "Serves you right."
"We ain't gonna put up with this," George said. "Jon's gotta learn his lesson before we let him go. Your pick, Bo. What do we do with him?"
"Well," said Bo after a few moments' thought, "there's a cornfield not so far from here. Let's take him there."
Jonathan made to complain, but Brad wrenched his arm behind his back, and he swallowed hard to keep from crying out. Judging from the nasty little smile that appeared on his face immediately afterward, Crane wanted to take another bite out of Brad, and would have if a second arm hadn't tightened around his throat.
"All right. Bo says you have to come with us, so you'd better come, freak."
Crane fell quiet, glaring darkly at them, but allowed Brad and Bo to drag him away from the road, giving up escape completely after a few weak attempts. The storm had turned the road soggy, dirtying their shoes and forcing the group to slog their way through. Bo ordered Brad to hold Crane tightly to make sure that the kid didn't attack them or slip away until they were done. In answer, Brad tightened his grip around Crane's hands.
Bo led the boys into the nearest cornfield, which was golden and shimmering from the warm weather and the rainstorm, the ripe ears rustling in the wind. He told them to let go of Crane, who immediately got ready to make a sprint for it. Before he could run away, Bo grabbed his arm and pulled him back. He yelped, either from pain or alarm, and looked as if he had been kicked in the face.
"Don't you dare," Bo said, and Crane reluctantly gave in, sitting hunched in the corn and covering his face with his hands. He moaned softly before looking up, eyes red.
"Why can't you just leave me alone?" he asked, eyes darting around the cornfield. Bo hauled Crane to his feet, forcing the skinny boy to stand. He wanted fear and respect from Crane, and he wouldn't let the kid go until he saw it. Crane had to know who was boss and who was at the very bottom of Arlen's social ladder. He couldn't go around biting and scratching people who were better than him.
"All right. If you want me to let you go, say sorry to Brad."
Jonathan breathed in deeply before he replied, standing his ground. He looked into the other boy's eyes, only his quivering throat betraying his fear. Bo had to admire the kid's pluck.
"Sorry," he told them, backing away like a cornered animal. "He started it, but sorry for biting you. I don't even know what you have against me. I hardly even know you. Why can't you leave me alone, please?" As he talked, he bumped against a wooden pole behind him with a sharp thud and cried out. Rubbing his head, he turned, drawing the boys' attention. For a moment all of them stood there, distracted by the thing which loomed over Jonathan.
It was a scarecrow, not a particularly attractive or well-kept one, hanging slumped in the field with pieces ripped out of its tattered, dark clothes. Skeletal twigs stuck out of its arms like crooked, clawed fingers, and a ragged black witch's hat was perched on its pale burlap head. It was none other than the Keeny scarecrow - both Bo and Jonathan were well familiar with it as a landmark. Jonathan was on his home territory, which explainwd why he was so scared. He was probably afraid that Crazy Keeny would come screaming out of the mansion close by. This also meant that Bo would have to finish punishing Crane quickly. Their fear of Crazy Keeny was the one thing Bo and Jonathan had in common. He wanted something more permanent than a beating.
"You know what you remind me of?" Bo said to Jonathan, pointing at the scarecrow behind them as the other boys quieted. "You look like that scarecrow over there. Those stupid clothes you have wouldn't look half bad on him." A malicious grin came to his face as he saw Jonathan flinch. "Yeah, that's right, you look like a scarecrow!"
"I do not!" Jonathan replied, although he wasn't looking at Bo. From the looks of him, he just wanted to get away, and quickly. If it wasn't for Crane's reaction before, Bo might, just might, have relented. However, the insult was doing exactly what he wanted it to. Jonathan was in tears and visibly trembling.
"Course you don't, scarecrow!" Brad burst out laughing, sealing the nickname, and Jonathan's eyes darted to the figure hanging in the corn. As a mocking chorus of "Scarecrow! Scarecrow!" started up behind him, he burst through the field, yelling so he wouldn't have to hear. A flock of sparrows fluttered away, startled by the intruder and the noise, feathers scattering on the ground. Bo watched, smiling, as the kid darted up the path and rapped on the door, rushing inside when it opened. Clearly he preferred old Crazy Keeny to confronting the gang of bullies.
As for Bo Griggs, the reaction that he'd gotten from the "scarecrow" nickname was all he needed. Calling Crane a freak or a chicken was fun enough, but this was even better. In his opinion, a nickname was better than punching someone in the face. A nickname could stick. Even if he didn't spread it around himself, his friends certainly would. Scarecrow Crane. It had a nice ring to it.
He leaned against the raggedy old Keeny scarecrow, watching his gang split up before setting off for home himself. He didn't want to risk Jonathan's crazy great-grandma coming out and going after him. He knew Mary Keeny well enough to respect how frightening she could be. He'd have his chance for fun with Jonathan Crane later.
The next time they met, in the same spot, Jonathan hunched up and ignored Bo completely. He coughed into his soiled sleeve before turning, face expressionless. Bo tried to restrain himself from lashing out at the kid. Crane was already plenty wary, getting ready to break and run, and Bo would have to calm him down.
"What do you want?" There was a harsh note to Jonathan's voice. "I don't like you and you don't like me, so go away."
"C'mon, Scarecrow, give me a break. I'm just here to say hello."
"I don't believe you." Jonathan leaned back against the tree, drawing a hand into his torn brown satchel and pulling out a book. Bo leaned in to get a look at the title, but Jonathan was too quick for him, shoving it back inside. "Mind your own business, Bo. I don't want to talk."
"Why not? You're fun, Scarecrow."
"I'm Jonathan Crane, not Scarecrow. Use my real name." Jonathan got to a half-sitting position, hunched over to avoid hitting his head on a low branch. "Please."
Bo nodded, although he had no intention of doing so. It would mean losing an especially fun target. "It's just for a little joke. A game. Not that you know what that means."
"Gran says that games will make me soft and stupid," Jonathan said, hanging his head so that Bo couldn't see his eyes. The larger boy sat beside the thin one, waiting until Jonathan sat up again.
"If you ask me, your granny's the stupid one," Bo told the skinny kid, who gave a weak laugh and looked behind him, as if making sure that no one would hear them. Bo knew that Crazy Keeny wasn't a nice woman, and wasn't surprised that Jonathan was scared of her. Still, she was only a weak old lady. What could she do to the kid to make Jonathan so afraid? Part of Bo didn't even want to know. "C'mon. I'll get some of my friends and we can play tag."
"I don't want to," Crane replied, pushing himself up and looking at Bo with eyes as hollow and dark as the Keeny scarecrow's. "I'll get in trouble. Gran will get angry with me."
"So what?" Bo took Jonathan by the arm with a grin and clapped him on the back. "C'mon, Scarecrow, loosen up a bit. She's just an old lady. I'm sure she ain't that bad."
Crane gave a loud gulp, blinking several times before he answered. "I can't. I..." He fell quiet, trembling in a way that made Bo feel a little sorry for him.
"Come on. Get a life. We won't be too hard on you. We'll play a round or two of tag and let you go. What do you say?" Bo offered a meaty hand, waiting for Crane to accept it. Crane sat there, hunched over, before he gave his own and shook on it. Bo was surprised by how thin it was - he could feel the kid's bones underneath his skin. Clearly Crazy Keeny hadn't been feeding him right. "The boys and I were just having a little fun yesterday. It was nothing personal. Had to put on an act for Brad and his crowd." He smiled, knowing what would get the kid's attention. "Tell you what, Scarecrow. If you play with us, I'll let you be part of my gang for the day."
"Thanks for the offer, but no." Jonathan pulled his hand back with a sudden jerk. "Gran will kill me if she catches me."
"God, Scarecrow! Why are you so scared of her? She's old and crazy, that's all." The kid's hands were wet and he'd turned a little pale in the face. Bo already knew that Jonathan Crane was chicken, but he looked downright terrified. "I don't think she'd kill you over a little game of tag." Jonathan swallowed again, eyes darting back. "A deal's a deal, Scarecrow."
Jonathan stood up, wiping sweat off his brow that wasn't from the summer sun. "You're right, Bo. I made a deal. Guess I have to keep it. Make this fast, though. If Gran knows I played with you..."
"Aw, who cares? She's just an old bat. My pa says she can hardly walk. You don't have nothing to worry about." Bo laughed, pulling Jonathan close. The kid squirmed, but a little more weakly than before. "Guess I have to make a better deal. If she comes, I'll tell her that it was my idea. Then I'll get in trouble, not you."
"Promise?" Jonathan asked, his voice barely louder than a squeak.
Bo smiled, although he wasn't as sure that Crazy Keeny wouldn't come, especially where he wanted to play. Not that he'd tell Jonathan. "Promise, Scarecrow."
Jonathan agreed to wait by the tree while Bo went to find his gang, scattered around the well-to-do neighborhoods of Arlen. There were Brad and George, of course. When Bo told them that they were playing tag, they were quick to join in, and Brad was still keen to get even with Crane. Then there was Jason Bludhorn, Brad's older neighbor, whose family had moved over from the neighboring town of Latham a year ago. He was a solidly built boy with short, blond hair, big for his age and already one of the best football players in town. He liked any excuse for roughhousing, and a game of tag was as good as any other.
When Jonathan saw Brad, he turned to run before Bo grabbed his arm. "You promised, Scarecrow," he said, this time with a note of threat that wasn't lost on Crane. "A deal's a deal."
"Wait a minute. We're playing with Jonathan Crane?" Jason faced Bo, both surprised and disgusted, jabbing a trembling finger at a very confused Jonathan. "Look at him! He doesn't even know how to play! He'll mess everything up! If he's in, I'm outta here." Brad whispered something in Jason's ear that Bo couldn't quite make out, Jonathan coming closer to listen in. A look from Bo ended his curiosity at once. "Fine, just this once. You'd better enjoy this, Crane."
Jonathan nodded, fingers twitching. The only thing keeping him there was probably his fear of breaking the deal with Bo. "I'll try to. How do I play?"
"It's easy," Bo said, trying to keep his patience. "You run, and one of us chases you. If I catch you, you're 'it', and you have to run after us next. Nothing to it."
"So I'm 'it'?" Jonathan asked, wringing his hands and blinking behind his glasses. "I think I understand."
"No, Jason's 'it'. You run."
"You won't be too rough?" Crane tensed his lean muscles, getting ready to bolt when told to.
Bo gave Jason a wink and the blond boy nodded. "We'll try to go easy on you. It is your first game, after all." As Jonathan crouched, Jason started the countdown. "Three, two, one, now!"
Jonathan was off in an instant, Jason hot on his trail, completely ignoring Bo and Brad. Bo followed them, more out of curiosity than concern for Crane. The kid was close to the Keeny house, probably in case the game turned violent and he had to appeal to Crazy Keeny as the lesser of two evils. Smart kid, Bo thought with a smirk. Knowing Jason Bludhorn, Jonathan would be in for quite the game. Bo ran up ahead, taking a shortcut he knew through the cornfield.
Seeing Jason running after him, Crane ran past the slouching scarecrow, breathing heavily while Jason barely slowed down, struggling to stay in front. Bo, unable to restrain himself, burst out laughing. Jonathan shot him a glare, too angry to notice Bo stick out a foot to trip him up. With a strangled cry, Jonathan collapsed into a mess of grimy clothes and twisted limbs while Jason caught up. Smirking, he touched Crane lightly on the back, listening to the kid's groans.
"Tag, you're it. Thanks, Bo." Brad jerked his head, stepping back to let Crane stand. The kid was absolutely livid, but Bo found the scene too funny to be scared. However, he was genuinely surprised when, furious, Jonathan ran yelling at him.
"Oh, God! Look at this! It's too funny! I think I made him mad, guys!" Bo, more in the mood to taunt Crane than afraid of him, ran for it, heading to the Keeny house. It wasn't as imposing a sight during the day, but it still reminded Bo of a half-eaten piece of carrion, complete with a pair of crows perched on the roof and watching the boys through beady black eyes. Crane followed, too angry to hear Jason and Brad's laughter from behind him.
At last he managed to catch up with Bo, who stood right outside the old manor's door and waved, taunting Jonathan and startling the crows, which flew away with piercing caws.
"Nice going, Scarecrow! Surprised it took you so long."
Jonathan was clearly exhausted; his breathing was now a sickly rasp and his face was red, both from the heat and his anger. Bo half-expected him to fall down from heatstroke on the spot. However, Crane was clearly tougher than they gave him credit for, as he staggered over, grabbed Bo by the arm, and whispered two vicious words in his ear.
The door rattled open and, knowing what was about to happen, Brad abandoned the game and disappeared up the path, followed by Jason. It was every boy for himself now. Bo managed to wriggle free from Crane's grasp as the weird kid froze in his tracks, eyes widening by the second. Grim old Crazy Keeny stormed out, her face dark and stern as death itself, wearing her black widow's dress. She hit Bo once on the back with the front end of her ragged umbrella and strode past him as he protested. Ignoring him, she went right for Jonathan Crane, who immediately collapsed, begging and pleading as she advanced on him. He was absolutely scared out of his wits. For once, however, it wasn't funny.
"Please, Gran, I can explain! It was their idea, they wanted to play with me, and I -" She grabbed the squirming boy by the ear and hauled him upright, dragging him toward the yawning door. "Bo can tell you! Gran! Please! No!" He gestured to Bo, wordlessly pleading for the other boy to back up his story. Come on! I kept my end of the deal. Help me!
Bo shrugged as he got up, his back still stinging from where the umbrella hit him. It wasn't his problem. The last thing Bo saw before Crazy Keeny pulled her great-grandson inside and slammed the old door shut was the look of mingled anger, pain, and, above all, raw fear on Jonathan's face.
When he heard muffled sounds of the old lady screaming at the boy, Bo turned and sprinted for home while he still had the chance. He tried not to listen, and he didn't look back once. Sure, he'd broken his promise, but he didn't feel bad about it. It was better that Jonathan got it than him.
As for Jonathan Crane, that was the first night he spent alone in the old Keeny chapel, with only the flock of crows which nested there for company.