Peyton McKenzie changed her name when she was six years old, on the first day of her first year in elementary school. For all her short life she had been called Prilla or sometimes Priscilla, her first name, the latter usually when she was In Trouble, but that stopped with rocklike finality when the first scabby classmate began to chant, "Prilla, Prilla, mother-killer." By the time the entire first grade in the Lytton Grammar School had taken up the refrain, Peyton McKenzie had been born, and there was no chance at all that she would return to the womb.
"It's a man's name, for heaven's sake, Priscilla," her Aunt Augusta said in exasperation for the fourth or fifth time, after Peyton's father had given up on her. "What's wrong with 'Priscilla'? It's a lovely name. Generations of your mama's family have named their daughters Priscilla. I believe the first was Priscilla Barnwell, who came over to Virginia well before the American Revolution. You should be proud."
"Peyton is my middle name," Peyton muttered. "It's as much mine as Priscilla." Both she and Augusta McKenzie knew there would be no changing of Peyton's mind, but Augusta saw it as her duty as the dominant woman in Peyton's life to do battle with the granite streak of willfulness in her niece. On the death of Peyton's mother at her birth, Frazier McKenzie had tacitly placed the day-to-day shaping and pruning of his daughter in his sister-in-law's hands. By the time of Peyton's first great rebellion, aunt and niece were old and experienced adversaries. Each knew the other's strengths and vulnerabilities. Augusta McKenzie knew full well she wasn't going to win this one. But she would never know why, because Peyton never told anyone about the cold, whining little chant at school that morning, not until much later, and none of the other children would tell, either. Her beleaguered teacher soon forgot about the name change entirely. She was the first in a long procession of teachers to forget about Peyton McKenzie for long stretches of time.
Only Peyton remembered, each day of her life and deep in her smallest cell, that she had, indeed, killed her mother. If her father never so much as hinted to her that he held her undistinguished being responsible for the extinguishing of the radiant flame her mother had been, Peyton put it down to Frazier McKenzie's natural reticence. He had been, all her life, as politely remote as a benign godparent. He was so with everyone, except Peyton's older brother, Buddy. When Buddy died in an accident in his air-force trainer, when Peyton was five, Frazier McKenzie closed up shop on his laughter, anger, small foolishnesses, and large passions. Now, at twelve, Peyton could remember no other father than the cooled and static one she had. Her father seemed to remember her only intermittently.
She told the Losers Club about the name change on a February day when it seemed as if earth and air and sky were all made of the same sodden gray cloth. It happens sometimes in the Deep South when winter can no longer muster an honest cold but will not admit the warm tides of spring lapping at the gates. It is a climatic sulk, not a great tantrum, and like any proper sulk it can last for days and even weeks, exhausting spirits and fraying nerves and sucking open hearts with its sluggish tongue. Ernie had been so petulant that Boot had told him to shut up if he didn't have anything to add to the day's litanies of inanities and abasement. Even Boot seemed more dutiful than enthusiastic over his contribution to the club's itinerary, a lusterless account of wiping out the Canaday children's hopscotch grid with his orthotic boot.
"Well, if I couldn't do better than that, I just wouldn't say anything," Ernie sniffed, affronted. Ernie was plagued this day by demons. His small shed was so humid that the lone window was sweated over and the pages of his copy of The Inferno, laid casually with its title up on his bookcase, were glued together. His overalls stuck to him, and his thinning, spindrift hair frizzed with the damp, and he was starting a sinus infection. He had also forgotten to return his mother's library books.
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