Bag of Bones CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Bag of Bones CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

I was finally able to get into the zone, but couldn’t do anything once I got there. I keep a steno pad handy for notes ?? character lists, page references, date chronologies ?? and I doodled in there a little bit, but the sheet of paper in the IBM remained blank. There was no thundering heartbeat, no throbbing eyes or difficulty breathing ?? no panic attack, in other words ?? but there was no story, either. Andy Drake, John Shackleford, Ray Garraty, the beautiful Regina Whiting . . . they stood with their backs turned, refusing to speak or move. The manuscript was sitting in its accustomed place on the left side of the typewriter, the pages held down with a pretty chunk of quartz I’d found on the lane, but nothing was happening. Zilch.

I recognized an irony here, perhaps even a moral. For years I had fled the problems of the real world, escaping into various Narnias of my imagination. Now the real world had filled up with bewildering thickets, there were things with teeth in some of them, and the wardrobe was locked against me.

Kyra, I had printed, putting her name inside a scalloped shape that was supposed to be a cabbage rose. Below it I had drawn a piece of bread with a beret tipped rakishly on the top crust. Noonan’s conception of French toast. The letters L.B. surrounded with curlicues. A shirt with a rudimentary duck on it. Beside this I had printed QUACK QUACK. Below QUACK QUACK I had written Ought to fly away ‘Bon Voyage.’

At another spot on the sheet I had written Dean, Auster, and Devore. They were the ones who had seemed the most there, the most dangerous. Because they had descendants? But surely all seven of those jacks must, mustn’t they? In those days most families were whoppers. And where had I been? I had asked, but Devore hadn’t wanted to say.

It didn’t feel any more like a dream at nine-thirty on a sullenly hot Sunday morning. Which left exactly what? Visions? Time-travel? And if there was a purpose to such travel, what was it? What was the message, and who was trying to send it? I remembered clearly what I’d said just before passing from the dream in which I had sleepwalked out to Jo’s studio and brought back my typewriter: I don’t believe these lies. Nor would I now. Until I could see at least some of the truth, it might be safer to believe nothing at all.

At the top of the sheet upon which I was doodling, in heavily stroked letters, I printed the word DANGER!, then circled it. From the circle I drew an arrow to Kyra’s name. From her name I drew an arrow to Ought to fly away ‘Bon Voyage’ and added MATTIE.

Below the bread wearing the beret I drew a little telephone. Above it I put a cartoon balloon with R-R-RINGG! in it. As I finished this, the cordless phone rang. It was sitting on the deck rail. I circled MATTIE and picked up the phone.

‘Mike?’ She sounded excited. Happy. Relieved.

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘How are you?’

‘Great!’ she said, and I circled L.B. on my pad.

‘Lindy Briggs called ten minutes ago ?? I just got off the phone with her.

Mike, she’s giving me my job back! Isn’t that wonderful?’

Sure. And wonderful how it would keep her in town. I crossed out Ought to fly away ‘Bon Voyage,’ knowing that Mattie wouldn’t go. Not now. And how could I ask her to? I thought again If only I knew a little more . . .

‘Mike? Are you ?? ‘

‘It’s very wonderful,’ I said. In my mind’s eye I could see her standing in the kitchen, drawing the kinked telephone cord through her fingers, her legs long and coltish below her denim shorts. I could see the shirt she was wearing, a white tee with a yellow duck paddling across the front. ‘I hope Lindy had the good grace to sound ashamed of herself.’ I circled the tee-shirt I’d drawn.

‘She did. And she was frank enough to kind of . . . well, disarm me. She said the Whitmore woman talked to her early last week. Was very frank and to the point, Lindy said. I was to be let go immediately. If that happened, the money, computer equipment, and software Devore funnelled into the library would keep coming. If it didn’t, the flow of goods and money would stop immediately. She said she had to balance the good of the community against what she knew was wrong . . . she said it was one of the toughest decisions she ever had to make . . . ‘

‘Uh-huh.’ On the pad my hand moved of its own volition like a planchette gliding over a Ouija board, printing the words PLEASE CAN’T I PLEASE. ‘There’s probably some truth in it, but Mattie . . . how much do you suppose Lindy makes?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘I bet it’s more than any three other small-town librarians in the state of Maine combined.’

In the background I heard Ki: ‘Can I talk, Mattie? Can I talk to Mike? Please can’t I please?’

‘In a minute, hon.’ Then, to me: ‘Maybe. All I know is that I have my job back, and I’m willing to let bygones be bygones.’

On the page, I drew a book. Then I drew a series of interlocked circles between it and the duck tee-shirt.

‘Ki wants to talk to you,’ Mattie said, laughing. ‘She says the two of you went to the Fryeburg Fair last night.’

‘Whoa, you mean I had a date with a pretty girl and slept through it?’

‘Seems that way. Are you ready for her?’

‘Ready.’

‘Okay, here comes the chatterbox.’

There was a rustling as the phone changed hands, then Ki was there. ‘I taggled you at the Fair, Mike! I taggled my own quartermack!’

‘Did you?’ I asked ‘That was quite a dream, wasn’t it, Ki?’

There was a long silence at the other end. I could imagine Mattie wondering what had happened to her telephone chatterbox. At last Ki said in a hesitating voice: ‘You there too.’ Tiu. ‘We saw the snake-dance ladies . . . the pole with the bell on top . . . we went in the spookyhouse . . . you fell down in the barrel! It wasn’t a dream . . . was it?’

I could have convinced her that it was, but all at once that seemed like a bad idea, one that was dangerous in its own way. I said: ‘You had on a pretty hat and a pretty dress.’

‘Yeah!’ Ki sounded enormously relieved. ‘And you had on ?? ‘

‘Kyra, stop. Listen to me.’ She stopped at once. ‘It’s better if you don’t talk about that dream too much, I think. To your mom or to anyone except me.’

‘Except you.’

‘Yes. And the same with the refrigerator people. Okay?’

‘Okay. Mike, there was a lady in Mattie’s clothes.’

‘I know,’ I said. It was all right for her to talk, I was sure of it, but I asked anyway: ‘Where’s Mattie now?’

‘Waterin the flowers. We got lots of flowers, a billion at least. I have to clean up the table. It’s a chore. I don’t mind, though. I like chores. We had French toast. We always do on Sundays. It’s yummy, ‘specially with strawberry syrup.’

‘I know,’ I said, drawing an arrow to the piece of bread wearing the beret. ‘French toast is great. Ki, did you tell your mom about the lady in her dress?’

‘No. I thought it might scare her.’ She dropped her voice. ‘Here she comes!’

‘That’s all right . . . but we’ve got a secret, right?’

‘Yes.’

‘Now can I talk to Mattie again?’

‘Okay.’ Her voice moved off a little.

‘Mommy-bommy, Mike wants to talk to you.’ Then she came back. ‘Will you bizzit us today? We could go on another picnic.’

‘I can’t today, Ki. I have to work.’

‘Mattie never works on Sunday.’

‘Well, when I’m writing a book, I write every day. I have to, or else I’ll forget the story. Maybe we’ll have a picnic on Tuesday, though. A barbecue picnic at your house.’

‘Is it long ’til Tuesday?’

‘Not too long. Day after tomorrow.’

‘Is it long to write a book?’

‘Medium-long.’

I could hear Mattie telling Ki to give her the phone.

‘I will, just one more second. Mike?’

‘I’m here, Ki.’

‘I love you.’

I was both touched and terrified. For a moment I was sure my throat was going to lock up the way my chest used to when I tried to write. Then it cleared and I said, ‘Love you, too, Ki.’

‘Here’s Mattie.’

Again there was the rustly sound of the telephone changing hands, then Mattie said: ‘Did that refresh your recollection of your date with my daughter, sir?’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it certainly refreshed hers.’ There was a link between Mattie and me, but it didn’t extend to this ?? I was sure of it.

She was laughing. I loved the way she sounded this morning and I didn’t want to bring her down . . . but I didn’t want her mistaking the white line in the middle of the road for the crossmock, either.

‘Mattie, you still need to be careful, okay? Just because Lindy Briggs offered you your old job back doesn’t mean everyone in town is suddenly your friend.’

‘I understand that,’ she said. I thought again about asking if she’d consider taking Ki up to Derry for awhile ?? they could live in my house, stay for the duration of the summer if that was what it took for things to return to normal down here. Except she wouldn’t do it. When it came to accepting my offer of high-priced New York legal talent, she’d had no choice. About this she did. Or thought she did, and how could I change her mind? I had no logic, no connected facts; all I had was a vague dark shape, like something lying beneath nine inches of snowblind ice.

‘I want you to be careful of two men in particular,’ I said. ‘One is Bill Dean. The other is Kenny Auster. He’s the one ?? ‘

‘ ?? with the big dog who wears the neckerchief. He ?? ‘

‘That’s Booberry!’ Ki called from the middle distance. ‘Booberry licked my facie!’

‘Go out and play, hon,’ Mattie said.

‘I’m clearun the table.’

‘You can finish later. Go on outside now.’ There was a pause as she watched Ki go out the door, taking Strickland with her. Although the kid had left the trailer, Mattie still spoke in the lowered tone of someone who doesn’t want to be overheard. ‘Are you trying to scare me?’

‘No,’ I said, drawing repeated circles around the word DANGER. ‘But I want you to be careful. Bill and Kenny may have been on Devore’s team, like Footman and Osgood. Don’t ask me why I think that might be, because I have no satisfactory answer. It’s only a feeling, but since I got back on the TR, my feelings are different.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Are you wearing a tee-shirt with a duck on it?’

‘How do you know that? Did Ki tell you?’

‘Did she take the little stuffed dog from her Happy Meal out with her just now?’

A long pause. At last she said ‘My God’ in a voice so Low I could hardly hear it. Then again: ‘How ?? ‘

‘I don’t know how. I don’t know if you’re still in a . . . a bad situation, either, or why you might be, but I feel that you are. That you both are.’ I could have said more, but I was afraid she’d think I’d gone entirely off the rails.

‘He’s dead!’ she burst out. ‘That old man is dead! Why can’t he leave us alone?’

‘Maybe he has. Maybe I’m wrong about all this. But there’s no harm in being careful, is there?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘Usually that’s true.’

‘Usually?’

‘Why don’t you come and see me, Mike? Maybe we could go to the Fair together.’

‘Maybe this fall we will. All three of us.’

‘I’d like that.’

‘In the meantime, I’m thinking about the key.’

‘Thinking is half your problem, Mike,’ she said, and laughed again. Ruefully, I thought. And I saw what she meant. What she didn’t seem to understand was that feeling was the other half. It’s a sling, and in the end I think it rocks most of us to death.

I worked for a while,’ then carried the IBM back into the house and left the manuscript on top. I was done with it, at least for the time being. No more looking for the way back through the wardrobe; no more Andy Drake and John Shackleford until this was over. And, as I dressed in long pants and a button-up shirt for the first time in what felt like weeks, it occurred to me that perhaps something ?? some force ?? had been trying to sedate me with the story I was telling. With the ability to work again. It made sense; work had always been my drug of choice, even better than booze or the Mellaril I still kept in the bathroom medicine cabinet. Or maybe work was only the delivery system, the hypo with all the dreamy dreams inside it. Maybe the real drug was the zone. Being in the zone. Feeling it, you sometimes hear the basketball players say. I was in the zone and I was really feeling it.

I grabbed the keys to the Chevrolet off the counter and looked at the fridge as I did. The magnets were circled again. In the middle was a message I’d seen before, one that was now instantly understandable, thanks to the extra Magnabet letters:

help her

‘I’m doing my best,’ I said, and went out.

Three miles north on Route 68 ?? by then you’re on the part of it which used to be known as Castle Rock Road-there’s a greenhouse with a shop in front of it. Slips ‘n Greens, it’s called, and Jo used to spend a fair amount of time there, buying gardening supplies or just noodling with the two women who ran the place. One of them was Helen Auster, Kenny’s wife.

I pulled in there at around ten o’clock that Sunday morning (it was open, of course; during tourist season almost every Maine shopkeeper turns heathen) and parked next to a Beamer with New York plates. I paused long enough to hear the weather forecast on the radio ?? continued hot and humid for another forty-eight hours at least ?? and then got out. A woman wearing a bathing suit, a skort, and a giant yellow sunhat emerged from the shop with a bag of peat moss cradled in her arms. She gave me a little smile. I returned it with eighteen per cent interest. She was from New York, and that meant she wasn’t a Martian.

The shop was even hotter and’ damper than the white morning outside. Lila Proulx, the co-owner, was on the phone. There was a little fan beside the cash register and she was standing directly in front of it, flapping the front of her sleeveless blouse. She saw me and twiddled her fingers in a wave. I twiddled mine back, feeling like someone else. Work or no work, I was still zoning. Still feeling it.

I walked around the shop, picking up a few things almost at random, watching Lila out of the corner of my eye and waiting for her to get off the phone so I could talk to her . . . and all the time my own private hyperdrive was humming softly away. At last she hung up and I came to the counter.

‘Michael Noonan, what a sight for sore eyes you are!’ she said, and began ringing up my purchases. ‘I was awfully sorry to hear about Johanna. Got to get that right up front. Jo was a pet.’

‘Thanks, Lila.’

‘Welcome. Don’t need to say any more about it, but with a thing like that it’s best to put it right up front. I’ve always believed it, always will believe it. Right up front. Going to do a little gardening, are you?’ Gointer do a little ga’adnin, aaa you?

‘If it ever cools off.’

‘Ayuh! Isn’t it wicked?’ She flapped the top of her blouse again to show me how wicked it was, then pointed at one of my purchases. ‘Want this one in a special bag? Always safe, never sorry, that’s my motto.’

I nodded, then looked at the little blackboard tilted against the counter. FRESH BLUBERRYS, the chalked message read. THE CROPS IS IN!

‘I’ll have a pint of berries, too,’ I said. ‘As long as they’re not Friday’s. I can do better than Friday.’

She nodded vigorously, as if to say she knew damned well I could. ‘These were on the bush yest’y. That fresh enough for you?’

‘Good as gold,’ I said. ‘Blueberry’s the name of Kenny’s dog, isn’t it?’

‘Ain’t he a funny one? God, I love a big dog, if he’s behaved.’ She turned, got a pint of berries from her little fridge, and put them in another bag for me.

‘Where’s Helen?’ I asked. ‘Day off?.’

‘Not her,’ Lila said. ‘If she’s in town, you can’t get her out of this place ‘less you beat her with a stick. She and Kenny and the kids went down Taxachusetts. Them and her brother’s family club together and get a seaside cottage two weeks every summer. They all went. Old Blueberry, he’ll chase seagulls until he drops.’ She laughed ?? it was a loud and hearty one. It made me think of Sara Tidwell. Or maybe it was the way Lila looked at me as she did it. There was no laughter in her eyes. They were small and considering, coldly curious.

Would you for Christ’s sake quit it? I told myself. They can’t all be in on it together, Mike!

Couldn’t they, though? There is such a thing as town consciousness ?? anyone who doubts it has never been to a New England town meeting. Where there’s a consciousness, is there not likely to be a subconscious? And if Kyra and I were doing the old mind-meld thing, could not other people in TR-90 also be doing it, perhaps without even knowing it? We all shared the same air and land; we shared the lake and the aquifer which lay below everything, buried water tasting of rock and minerals. We shared The Street as well, that place where good pups and vile dogs could walk side-by-side.

As I started out with my purchases in a cloth carry-handle bag, Lila said: ‘What a shame about Royce Merrill. Did you hear?’

‘No,’ I said.

‘Fell down his cellar stairs yest’y evening. What a man his age was doing going down such a steep flight of steps is beyond me, but I suppose once you get to his age, you have your own reasons for doing things.’

Is he dead? I started to ask, then rephrased. It wasn’t the way the question was expressed on the TR. ‘Did he pass?’

‘Not yet. Motton Rescue took him to Castle County General. He’s in a coma.’ Comber, she said it. ‘They don’t think he’ll ever wake up, poor fella. There’s a piece of history that’ll die with him.’

‘I suppose that’s true.’ Good riddance, I thought. ‘Does he have children?’

‘No. There have been Merrills on the TR for two hundred years; one died at Cemetery Ridge. But all the old families are dying out now. You have a nice day, Mike.’ She smiled. Her eyes remained flat and considering.

I got into my Chevy, put the bag with my purchases in it on the passenger seat, then simply sat for a moment, letting the air conditioner pour cool air on my face and neck. Kenny Auster was in Taxachusetts. That was good. A step in the right direction. But there was still my caretaker.

‘Bill’s not here,’ Yvette said. She stood in the door, blocking it as well as she could (you can only do so much in that regard when you’re five-three and weigh roughly a hundred pounds), studying me with the gimlet gaze of a nightclub bouncer denying re-entry to a drunk who’s been tossed out on his ear once already.

I was on the porch of the neat-as-ever-you-saw Cape Cod which stands at the top of Peabody Hill and looks all the way across New Hampshire and into Vermont’s back yard. Bill’s equipment sheds were lined up to the left of the house, all of them painted the same shade of gray, each with its own sign: DEAN CARETAKING, No. 1, No. 2, and No. 3. Parked in front of No. 2 was Bill’s Dodge Ram. I looked at it, then back at Yvette. Her lips tightened a little more. Another notch and I figured they’d be gone entirely.

‘He went to North Conway with Butch Wiggins,’ she said. ‘They went in Butch’s truck. To get ?? ‘

‘No need lying for me, dear heart,’ Bill said from behind her.

It was still over an hour shy of noon, and on the Lord’s Day to boot, but I had never heard a man who sounded more tired. He clumped down the hall, and as he came out of its shadows and into the light ?? the sun was finally burning through the murk ?? I saw that Bill now looked his age. Every year of it, and maybe ten more to grow on. He was wearing his usual khaki shirt and pants ?? Bill Dean would be a Dickies man until the day he died ?? but his shoulders looked slumped, almost sprained, a-s if he’d spent a week lugging buckets that were too heavy for him. The falling-away of his face had finally begun, an indefinable something that makes the eyes look too big, the jaw too prominent, the mouth a bit loose. He looked old. There were no children to carry on the family line of work, either; all the old families were dying out, Lila Proulx had said. And maybe that was a good thing.

‘Bill ?? ‘ she began, but he raised one of his big hands to stop her. The callused fingertips shook a little.

‘Go in the kitchen a dight,’ he told her. ‘I need to talk to my compadre here. ‘T’won’t take long.’

Yvette looked at him, and when she looked back at me, she had indeed reached zero lip-surface. There was just a black line where they had been, like a mark dashed off with a pencil. I saw with woeful clarity that she hated me.

‘Don’t you tire him out,’ she said to me. ‘He hasn’t been sleepin. It’s the heat.’ She walked back down the hall, all stiff back and high shoulders, disappearing into shadows that were probably cool. It always seems to be cool in the houses of old people, have you noticed?

Bill came out onto the porch and put his big hands into the pockets of his pants without offering to shake with me. ‘I ain’t got nothin to say to you. You and me’s quits.’

‘Why, Bill? Why are we quits?’

He looked west, where the hills stepped into the burning summer haze, disappearing in it before they could become mountains, and said nothing.

‘I’m trying to help that young woman.’ He gave me a look from the corners of his eyes that I could read well enough. ‘Ahuh. Help y’self right into her pants. I see men come up from New York and New Jersey with their young girls. Summer weekends, ski weekends, it don’t matter. Men who go with girls that age always look the same, got their tongues run out even when their mouths are shut. Now you look the same.’

I felt both angry and embarrassed, but I resisted the urge to chase him in that direction. That was what he wanted.

‘What happened here?’ I asked him. ‘What did your fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers do to Sara Tidwell and her family? You didn’t just move them on, did you?’

‘Didn’t have to,’ Bill said, looking past me at the hills. His eyes were moist almost to the point of tears, but his jaw was set and hard. ‘They moved on themselves. Never was a nigger who didn’t have an itchy foot, my dad used to say.’

‘Who set the trap that killed Son Tidwell’s boy? Was it your father, Bill? Was it Fred?’

His eyes moved; his jaw never did. ‘I dunno what you’re talking about.’

‘I hear him crying in my house. Do you know what it’s like to hear a dead child crying in your house? Some bastard trapped him like a weasel and I hear him crying in my fucking house!’

‘You’re going to need a new caretaker,’ Bill said. ‘I can’t do for you no more. Don’t want to. What I want is for you to get off my porch.’

‘What’s happening? Help me, for Christ’s sake.’

‘I’ll help you with the toe of my shoe if you don’t get going on your own.’

I looked at him a moment longer, taking in the wet eyes and the set jaw, his divided nature written on his face.

‘I lost my wife, you old bastard,’ I said. ‘A woman you claimed to love.’

Now his jaw moved at last. He looked at me with surprise and injury. ‘That didn’t happen here,’ he said. ‘That didn’t have anything to do with here. She might’ve been off the TR because . . . well, she might’ve had her reasons to be off the TR . . . but she just had a stroke. Would have happened anywhere. Anywhere.’

‘I don’t believe that. I don’t think you do, either. Something followed her to Derry, maybe because she was pregnant . . . ‘

Bill’s eyes widened. I gave him a chance to say something, but he didn’t take it.

‘ . . . or maybe just because she knew too much.’

‘She had a stroke.’ Bill’s voice wasn’t quite even. ‘I read the obituary myself. She had a damn stroke.’

‘What did she find out? Talk to me, Bill. Please.’

There was a long pause. Until it was over I allowed myself the luxury of thinking I might actually be getting through to him.

‘I’ve only got one more thing to say to you, Mike ?? stand back. For the sake of your immortal soul, stand back and let things run their course. They will whether you do or don’t. This river has almost come to the sea; it won’t be dammed by the likes of you. Stand back. For the love of Christ.’

Do you care about your soul, Mr. Noonan? God’s butterfly caught in a cocoon of flesh that will soon stink like mine?

Bill turned and walked to his door, the heels of his workboots clodding on the painted boards.

‘Stay away from Mattie and Ki,’ I said. ‘If you so much as go near that trailer ?? ‘

He turned back, and the hazy sunshine glinted on the tracks below his eyes. He took a bandanna from his back pocket and wiped his cheeks. ‘I ain’t stirrin from this house. I wish to God I’d never come back from my vacation in the first place, but I did ?? mostly on your account, Mike. Those two down on Wasp Hill have nothing to fear from me. No, not from me.’

He went inside and closed the door. I stood there looking at it, feeling unreal ?? surely I could not have had such a deadly conversation with Bill Dean, could I? Bill who had reproached me for not letting folks down here share ?? and perhaps ease ?? my grief for Jo, Bill who had welcomed me back so warmly?

Then I heard a clack sound. He might not have locked his door while he was at home in his entire life, but he had locked it now. The clack was very clear in the breathless July air. It told me everything I had to know about my long friendship with Bill Dean. I turned and walked back to my car, my head down. Nor did I turn when I heard a window run up behind me.

‘Don’t you ever come back here, you town bastard!’ Yvette Dean cried across the sweltering dooryard. ‘You’ve broken his heart! Don’t you ever come back! Don’t you ever! Don’t you ever!’

‘Please,’ Mrs. M. said. ‘Don’t ask me any more questions, Mike. I can’t afford to get in Bill Dean’s bad books, any more’n my ma could afford to get into Normal Auster’s or Fred Dean’s.’

I shifted the phone to my other ear. ‘All I want to know is ?? ‘

‘In this part of the world caretakers pretty well run the whole show. If they say to a summer fella that he should hire this carpenter or that ‘lectrician, why, that’s who the summer fella hires. Or if a caretaker says this one should be fired because he ain’t proving reliable, he is fired. Or she. Because what goes once for plumbers and landscapers and ‘lectricians has always gone twice for housekeepers. If you want to be recommended ?? and stay recommended ?? you have to keep on the sunny side of people like Fred and Bill Dean, or Normal and Kenny Auster. Don’t you see?’ She was almost pleading. ‘When Bill found out I told you about what Normal Auster did to Kerry, oooo he was so mad at me.’

‘Kenny Auster’s brother ?? the one Normal drowned under the pump ?? his name was Kerry?’

‘Ahuh. I’ve known a lot of folks name their kids alike, think it’s cute. Why, I went to school with a brother and sister named Roland and Rolanda Therriault, I think Roland’s in Manchester now, and Rolanda married that boy from ?? ‘

‘Brenda, just answer one question. I’ll never tell. Please?’

I waited, my breath held, for the click that would come when she put her telephone back in its cradle. Instead, she spoke three words in a soft, almost regretful voice. ‘What is it?’

‘Who was Carla Dean?’

I waited through another long pause, my hand playing with the ribbon that had come off Ki’s turn-of-the-century straw hat.

‘You dassn’t tell anyone I told you anything,’ she said at last.

‘I won’t.’

‘Carla was Bill’s twin sister. She died sixty-five years ago, during the time of the fires.’ The fires Bill claimed had been set by Ki’s grandfather ?? his going-away present to the TR. ‘I don’t know just how it happened. Bill never talks about it. If you tell him I told you, I’ll never make another bed in the TR. He’ll see to it.’ Then, in a hopeless voice, she said: ‘He may know anyway.’

Based on my own experiences and surmises, I guessed she might be right about that. But even if she was, she’d have a check from me every month for the rest of her working life. I had no intention of telling her that over the telephone, though ?? it would scald her Yankee soul. Instead I thanked her, assured her again of my discretion, and hung up.

I sat at the table for a moment, staring blankly at Bunter, then said: ‘Who’s here?’

No answer.

‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Don’t be shy. Let’s go nineteen or ninety-two down. Barring that, let’s talk.’

Still no answer. Not so much as a shiver of the bell around the stuffed moose’s neck. I spied the scribble of notes I’d made while talking to Jo’s brother and drew them toward me. I had put Kia, Kyra, Kito, and Carla in a box. Now I scribbled out the bottom line of that box and added the name Kerry to the list. I’ve known a lot of folks name their kids alike, Mrs. M. had said. They think it’s cute.

I didn’t think it was cute; I thought it was creepy.

It occurred to me that at least two of these soundalikes had drowned ?? Kerry Auster under a pump, Kia Noonan in her mother’s dying body when she wasn’t much bigger than a sunflower seed. And I had seen the ghost of a third drowned child in the lake. Kito? Was that one Kito? Or was Kito the one who had died of blood-poisoning?

They name their kids alike, they think it’s cute.

How many soundalike kids had there been to start with? How many were left? I thought the answer to the first question didn’t matter, and that I knew the answer to the second one already. This river has almost come to the sea, Bill had said.

Carla, Kerry, Kito, Kia . . . all gone. Only Kyra Devore was left.

I got up so fast and hard that I knocked over my chair. The clatter in the silence made me cry out. I was leaving, and right now. No more telephone calls, no more playing Andy Drake, Private Detective, no more depositions or half-assed wooings of the lady fair. I should have followed my instincts and gotten the fuck out of Dodge that first night. Well, I’d go now, just get in the Chevy and haul ass for Der ??

Bunter’s bell jangled furiously. I turned and saw it bouncing around his neck as if batted to and fro by a hand I couldn’t see. The sliding door giving on the deck began to fly open and clap shut like something hooked to a pulley. The book of Tough Stuff crossword puzzles on the end-table and the DSS program guide blew open, their pages riffling. There was a series of rattling thuds across the floor, as if something enormous were crawling rapidly toward me, pounding its fists as it came.

A draft ?? not cold but warm, like the rush of air produced by a subway train on a summer night ?? buffeted past me. In it I heard a strange voice which seemed to be saying Bye-BY, bye-BY, bye-BY, as if wishing me a good trip home. Then, as it dawned on me that the voice was actually saying Ki-Ki, Ki-Ki, Ki-Ki, something struck me and knocked me violently forward. It felt like a large soft fist. I buckled over the table, clawing at it to stay up, overturning the lazy susan with the salt and pepper shakers on it, the napkin holder, the little vase Mrs. M. had filled with daisies. The vase rolled off the table and shattered. The kitchen TV blared on, some politician talking about how inflation was on the march again. The CD player started up, drowning out the politician; it was the Rolling Stones doing a cover of Sara Tidwell’s ‘I Regret You, Baby.’ Upstairs, one smoke alarm went off, then another, then a third. They were joined a moment later by the warble-whoop of the Chevy’s car alarm. The whole world was cacophony.

Something hot and pillowy seized my wrist. My hand shot forward like a piston and slammed down on the steno pad. I watched as it pawed clumsily to a blank page, then seized the pencil which lay nearby. I gripped it like a dagger and then something wrote with it, not guiding my hand but raping it. The hand moved slowly at first, almost blindly, then picked up speed until it was flying, almost tearing through the sheet:

I had almost reached the bottom of the page when the cold descended again, that outer cold that was like sleet in January, chilling my skin and crackling the snot in my nose and sending two shuddery puffs of white air from my mouth. My hand clenched and the pencil snapped in two. Behind me, Bunter’s bell rang out one final furious convulsion before falling silent. Also from behind me came a peculiar double pop, like the sound of champagne corks being drawn. Then it was over. Whatever it had been or however many they had been, it was finished. I was alone again.

I turned off the CD player just as Mick and Keith moved on to a white-boy version of Howling Wolf, then ran upstairs and pushed the reset buttons on the smoke-detectors. I leaned out the window of the big guest bedroom while I was up there, aimed the fob of my keyring down at the Chevrolet, and pushed the button on it. The alarm quit.

With the worst of the noise gone I could hear the TV cackling away in the kitchen. I went down, killed it, then froze with my hand still on the OFF button, looking at Jo’s annoying waggy-cat clock. Its tail had finally stopped switching, and its big plastic eyes lay on the floor. They had popped right out of its head.

I went down to the Village Cafe for supper, snagging the last Sunday Telegram from the rack (COMPUTER MOGUL DEVORE DIES IN WESTERN MAINE TOWN WHERE HE GREW UP, the headline read) before sitting down at the counter. The accompanying photo was a studio shot of Devore that looked about thirty years old. He was smiling. Most people do that quite naturally. On Devore’s face it looked like a learned skill.

I ordered the beans that were left over from Buddy Jellison’s Saturday-night beanhole supper. My father wasn’t much for aphorisms ?? in my family dispensing nuggets of wisdom was Mom’s job ?? but as Daddy warmed up the Saturday-night yelloweyes in the oven on Sunday afternoon, he would invariably say that beans and beef stew were better the second day. I guess it stuck. The only other piece of fatherly wisdom I can remember receiving was that you should always wash your hands after you took a shit in a bus station.

While I was reading the story on Devore, Audrey came over and told me that Royce Merrill had passed without recovering consciousness. The funeral would be Tuesday afternoon at Grace Baptist, she said. Most of the town would be there, many folks just to see Ila Meserve awarded the Boston Post cane. Did I think I’d get over? No, I said, probably not. I thought it prudent not to add that I’d likely be attending a victory party at Mattie Devore’s while Royce’s funeral was going on down the road.

The usual late-Sunday-afternoon flow of customers came and went while I ate, people ordering burgers, people ordering beans, people ordering chicken salad sandwiches, people buying sixpacks. Some were from the TR, some from away. I didn’t notice many of them, and no one spoke to me. I have no idea who left the napkin on my newspaper, but when I put down the A section and turned to find the sports, there it was. I picked it up, meaning only to put it aside, and saw what was written on the back in big dark letters: GET OFF THE TR.

I never found out who left it there. I guess it could have been any of them.