Black House Chapter Five

Black House Chapter Five

5

WE GLIMPSED A janitor on our whirlwind early-morning tour of Maxton Elder Care ?? do you happen to remember him? Baggy overalls? A wee bit thick in the gut? Dangling cigarette in spite of the NO SMOKING! LUNGS AT WORK! signs that have been posted every twenty feet or so along the patient corridors? A mop that looks like a clot of dead spiders? No? Don’t apologize. It’s easy enough to overlook Pete Wexler, a onetime nondescript youth (final grade average at French Landing High School: 79) who passed through a nondescript young manhood and has now reached the edge of what he expects to be a nondescript middle age. His only hobby is administering the occasional secret, savage pinch to the moldy oldies who fill his days with their grunts, nonsensical questions, and smells of gas and piss. The Alzheimer’s assholes are the worst. He has been known to stub out the occasional cigarette on their scrawny backs or buttocks. He likes their strangled cries when the heat hits and the pain cores in. This small and ugly torture has a double-barreled effect: it wakes them up a little and satisfies something in him. Brightens his days, somehow. Refreshes the old outlook. Besides, who are they going to tell?

And oh God, there goes the worst of them now, shuffling slowly down the corridor of Daisy. Charles Burnside’s mouth is agape, as is the back of his johnny. Pete has a better view of Burnside’s scrawny, shit-smeared buttocks than he ever wanted. The chocolate stains go all the way down to the backs of his knees, by God. He’s headed for the bathroom, but it’s just a leetle bit late. A certain brown horse ?? call him Morning Thunder ?? has already bolted from its stall and no doubt galloped across Burny’s sheets.

Thank God cleaning ’em up isn’t my job, Pete thinks, and smirks around his cigarette. Over to you, Butch.

But the desk up there by the little boys’ and girls’ rooms is for the time being unattended. Butch Yerxa is going to miss the charming sight of Burny’s dirty ass sailing by. Butch has apparently stepped out for a smoke, although Pete has told the idiot a hundred times that all those NO SMOKING signs mean nothing ?? Chipper Maxton could care less about who smoked where (or where the smokes were butted out, for that matter). The signs are just there to keep good old Drooler Manor in compliance with certain tiresome state laws.

Pete’s smirk widens, and at that moment he looks a good deal like his son Ebbie, Tyler Marshall’s sometime friend (it was Ebbie Wexler, in fact, who just gave Jack and Henry the finger). Pete is wondering whether he should go out and tell Butch he’s got a little cleanup job in D18 ?? plus D18’s occupant, of course ?? or if he should just let Butch discover Burny’s latest mess on his own. Perhaps Burny will go back to his room and do a little fingerpainting, kind of spread the joy around. That would be good, but it would also be good to see Butch’s face fall when Pete tells him ??

“Pete.”

Oh no. Sandbagged by the bitch. She’s a fine-looking bitch, but a bitch is still a bitch. Pete stands where he is for a moment, thinking that maybe if he ignores her, she’ll go away.

Vain hope.

“Pete.”

He turns. There is Rebecca Vilas, current squeeze of the big cheese. Today she is wearing a light red dress, perhaps in honor of Strawberry Fest!, and black high-heeled pumps, probably in honor of her own fine gams. Pete briefly imagines those fine gams wrapped around him, those high heels crossed at the small of his back and pointing like clock hands, then sees the cardboard box she’s holding in her arms. Work for him, no doubt. Pete also notes the glinting ring on her finger, some sort of gem-stone the size of a goddamn robin’s egg, although considerably paler. He wonders, not for the first time, just what a woman does to earn a ring like that.

She stands there, tapping her foot, letting him have his look. Behind him, Charles Burnside continues his slow, tottery progress toward the men’s. You’d think, looking at that old wreck with his scrawny legs and flyaway milkweed hair, that his running days were long behind him. But you’d be wrong. Terribly wrong.

“Miz Vilas?” Pete says at last.

“Common room, Pete. On the double. And how many times have you been told not to smoke in the patient wings?”

Before he can reply, she turns with a sexy little flirt of the skirt and starts off toward the Maxton common room, where that afternoon’s Strawberry Fest! dance will be held.

Sighing, Pete props his mop against the wall and follows her.

Charles Burnside is now alone at the head of the Daisy corridor. The vacancy leaves his eyes and is replaced with a brilliant and feral gleam of intelligence. All at once he looks younger. All at once Burny the human shit machine is gone. In his place is Carl Bierstone, who reaped the young in Chicago with such savage efficiency.

Carl . . . and something else. Something not human.

He ?? it ?? grins.

On the unattended desk is a pile of paper weighed down with a round stone the size of a coffee cup. Written on the stone in small black letters is BUTCH’S PET ROCK.

Burny picks up Butch Yerxa’s pet rock and walks briskly toward the men’s room, still grinning.

In the common room, the tables have been arranged around the walls and covered with red paper cloths. Later, Pete will add small red lights (battery powered; no candles for the droolers, gosh, no). On the walls, great big cardboard strawberries have been taped up everywhere, some looking rather battered ?? they have been put up and taken down every July since Herbert Maxton opened this place at the end of the swingin’ sixties. The linoleum floor is open and bare.

This afternoon and early evening, the moldy oldies who are still ambulatory and of a mind to do so will shuffle around out there to the big-band sounds of the thirties and forties, clinging to each other during the slow numbers and probably dampening their Depends with excitement at the end of the jitterbugs. (Three years ago a moldy oldie named Irving Christie had a minor heart attack after doing a particularly strenuous lindyhop to “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me.”) Oh yes, the Strawberry Fest Hop is always exciting.

Rebecca has all by herself pushed together three wooden flats and covered them with a white cloth, creating the basis for Symphonic Stan’s podium. In the corner stands a brilliantly chromed microphone with a large round head, a genuine antique from the thirties that saw service at the Cotton Club. It is one of Henry Leyden’s prize possessions. Beside it is the tall, narrow carton in which it arrived yesterday. On the podium, beneath a beam decorated with red and white crepe and more cardboard strawberries, is a stepladder. Seeing it, Pete feels a moment’s possessive jealousy. Rebecca Vilas has been in his closet. Trespassing bitch! If she stole any of his weed, by God ??

Rebecca sets her carton down on the podium with an audible grunt, then straightens up. She brushes a lock of silky chestnut hair off one flushed cheek. It’s only midmorning, but the day is going to be a genuine Coulee Country scorcher. Air-condition your underwear and double up on the deodorant, folks, as George Rathbun has been known to bellow.

“Oi thought you’d never come, me foine bucko,” Rebecca says.

“Well, I’m here,” Pete says sullenly. “Looks like you’re doing fine without me.” He pauses, then adds:”Foine.” For Pete, this is quite a witticism. He walks forward and peers into the carton, which, like the one by the mike, is stamped PROPERTY OF HENRY LEYDEN. Inside the box is a small spotlight with an electrical cord wrapped around it, and a circular pink gel that is meant to turn the light the color of candy canes and sugar strawberries.

“What’s this shit?” Pete asks.

Rebecca gives him a brilliant, dangerous smile. Even to a relatively dull fellow like Pete, the message of that smile is clear: you’re on the edge of the gator pool, buddy; how many more steps do you want to take?

“Light,” she says. “L-I-G-H-T. Hangs up there, on that hook. H-O-O-K. It’s something the deejay insists on. Says it gets him in the mood. M-O-O ?? “

“What happened to Weenie Erickson?” Pete grumbles. “There was none of this shit with Weenie. He played the goddamn records for two hours, had a few out of his hip flask, then shut it down.”

“He moved,” Rebecca says indifferently. “Racine, I think.”

“Well ?? ” Pete is looking up, studying the beam with its intertwined fluffs of red and white crepe. “I don’t see no hook, Miz Vilas.”

“Christ on a bicycle,” she says, and mounts the stepladder. “Here. Are you blind?”

Pete, most definitely not blind, has rarely been so grateful for his sighted state. From his position below her, he’s got a clear view of her thighs, the red lace froth of her panties, and the twin curves of her buttocks, now nicely tensed as she stands on the fifth step of the ladder.

She looks down at him, sees the stunned look on his face, notes the direction of his sight line. Her expression softens a bit. As her dear mither so wisely observed, some men are just fools for a flash of panty.

“Pete. Earth to Pete.”

“Uh?” He looks up at her, mouth agape, a dot of spittle on his lower lip.

“There is no hook of any kind on my underwear, I’m sure of that as of few things in life. But if you will direct your gaze upward . . . to my hand instead of my ass . . .”

He looks up, face still dazed, and sees one red-tipped nail (Rebecca is a through-and-through vision in strawberry red today, no doubt about it) tapping a hook that just gleams out of the crepe, like a fisherman’s hook gleaming murderously out of a gaudy lure.

“Hook,” she says. “Attach gel to light, attach light to hook. Light becomes warm pink spotlight, as per deejay’s explicit instructions. You get-um message, Kemo sabe?”

“Uh . . . yeah . . .”

“Then, if I may coin a phrase, will you please get it up?”

She comes down the ladder, deciding Pete Wexler has gotten the biggest free show he can reasonably expect for one lousy chore. And Pete, who has already achieved one erection, pulls Symphonic Stan’s pink pinspot out of its box and prepares to achieve another. As he mounts the stepladder, his crotch rises past Rebecca’s face. She notes the bulge there and gnaws the inside of one cheek to suppress a smile. Men are fools, all right. Lovable fools, some of them, but fools, all the same. It’s just that some fools can afford rings and trips and midnight suppers at Milwaukee nightspots, and some fools cannot.

With some fools, the best you can get them to do is put up a lousy light.

“Wait up, you guys!” Ty Marshall calls. “Ebbie! Ronnie! T.J.! Wait up!”

Over his shoulder, Ebbie Wexler (who really does look like Nancy’s not-too-bright boyfriend, Sluggo) calls back: “Catch us, slowpoke!”

“Yeah!” Ronnie Metzger yells. “Catch us, po-sloke!” Ronnie, a kid with a lot of hours in the speech-therapy room ahead of him, looks back over his own shoulder, almost crashes his bike into a parking meter, and just manages to swerve around it. Then they are fleeing, the three of them filling the sidewalk with their bikes (God help the pedestrian headed the other way), their racing shadows fleeing beside them.

Tyler considers a final catch-up dash, then decides his legs are just too tired. His mother and father say that he will catch up in time, that he’s just small for his age, but brother, Ty has his doubts. And he has had increasing doubts about Ebbie, Ronnie, and T.J., too. Are they really worth keeping up with? (If Judy Marshall knew of these doubts, she would stand and applaud ?? she has wondered for the last two years when her bright and thoughtful son will finally tire of hanging out with such a bunch of losers . . . what she calls “low-raters.”)

“Suck an elf,” Ty says disconsolately ?? he has picked up this harmless vulgarity from Sci-Fi Channel reruns of a miniseries called The 10th Kingdom ?? and dismounts his bike. There’s no real reason to speed after them, anyway; he knows where he’ll find them, in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven, drinking Slurpees and trading Magic cards. This is another problem Tyler is having with his friends. These days he’d much rather trade baseball cards. Ebbie, Ronnie, and T.J. could care less about the Cardinals, the Indians, the Red Sox, and the Brew Crew. Ebbie has gone so far as to say that baseball is gay, a comment Ty considers stupid (almost pitiable) rather than outrageous.

He walks his bike slowly up the sidewalk, catching his breath. Here is the intersection of Chase and Queen streets. Ebbie calls Queen Street Queer Street. Of course. No surprise there. And isn’t that a big part of the problem? Tyler is a boy who likes surprises; Ebbie Wexler is a boy who doesn’t. Which makes their opposite reactions to the music pouring out of the pickup a little earlier that morning perfectly predictable.

Tyler pauses at the corner, looking down Queen Street. There are shaggy hedges on both sides. Above those on the right rise a number of interconnected red roofs. The old folks’ home. Beside the main gate, some sort of sign has been placed. Curious, Tyler remounts his bike and rides slowly down the sidewalk for a look. The longest branches of the hedge beside him whisper against the handlebar of his bike.

The sign turns out to be a great big strawberry. TODAY IS STRAWBERRY FEST!!! is written below it. What, Ty Marshall wonders, is a Strawberry Fest? A party, something strictly for old folks? It’s a question, but not a very interesting one. After mulling it over for a few seconds, he turns his bike and prepares to ride back down to Chase Street.

Charles Burnside enters the men’s room at the head of the Daisy corridor, still grinning and clutching Butch’s pet rock. To his right is a line of sinks with a mirror over each one ?? they are the sort of metal mirrors one finds in the toilets of lower-class bars and saloons. In one of these, Burny sees his own grinning reflection. In another, the one closest the window, he sees a small boy in a Milwaukee Brewers T-shirt. The boy is standing astride his bike, just outside the gate, reading the Strawberry Fest! sign.

Burny begins to drool. There is nothing discreet about it, either. Burny drools like a wolf in a fairy tale, white curds of foamy spit leaking from the corners of his mouth and flowing over the slack, liver-colored roll of his lower lip. The drool runs down his chin like a stream of soapsuds. He wipes at it absently with the back of one gnarled hand and shakes it to the floor in a splatter, never taking his eyes from the mirror. The boy in the mirror is not one of this creature’s poor lost babies ?? Ty Marshall has lived in French Landing his whole life and knows exactly where he is ?? but he could be. He could very easily become lost, and wind up in a certain room. A certain cell. Or trudging toward a strange horizon on burning, bleeding footsies.

Especially if Burny has his way. He will have to move fast, but as we have already noted, Charles Burnside can, with the proper motivation, move very fast indeed.

“Gorg,” he says to the mirror. He speaks this nonsense word in a perfectly clear, perfectly flat midwestern accent. “Come, Gorg.”

And without waiting to see what comes next ?? he knows what comes next ?? Burny turns and walks toward the line of four toilet stalls. He steps into the second from the left and closes the door.

Tyler has just remounted his bike when the hedge rustles ten feet from the Strawberry Fest! sign. A large black crow shrugs its way out of the greenery and onto the Queen Street sidewalk. It regards the boy with a lively, intelligent eye. It stands with its black legs spread, opens its beak, and speaks. “Gorg!”

Tyler looks at it, beginning to smile, not sure he heard this but ready to be delighted (at ten, he’s always ready to be delighted, always primed to believe the unbelievable). “What? Did you say something?”

The crow flutters its glossy wings and cocks its head in a way that renders the ugly almost charming.

“Gorg! Ty!”

The boy laughs. It said his name! The crow said his name!

He dismounts his bike, puts it on the kickstand, and takes a couple of steps toward the crow. Thoughts of Amy St. Pierre and Johnny Irkenham are ?? unfortunately ?? the furthest things from his mind.

He thinks the crow will surely fly away when he steps toward it, but it only flutters its wings a little and takes a slide-step toward the bushy darkness of the hedge.

“Did you say my name?”

“Gorg! Ty! Abbalah!”

For a moment Ty’s smile falters. That last word is almost familiar to him, and the associations, although faint, are not exactly pleasant. It makes him think of his mother, for some reason. Then the crow says his name again; surely it is saying Ty.

Tyler takes another step away from Queen Street and toward the black bird. The crow takes a corresponding step, sidling closer still to the bulk of the hedge. There is no one on the street; this part of French Landing is dreaming in the morning sunshine. Ty takes another step toward his doom, and all the worlds tremble.

Ebbie, Ronnie, and T.J. come swaggering out of the 7-Eleven, where the raghead behind the counter has just served them blueberry Slurpees (raghead is just one of many pejorative terms Ebbie has picked up from his dad). They also have fresh packs of Magic cards, two packs each.

Ebbie, his lips already smeared blue, turns to T.J. “Go on downstreet and get the slowpoke.”

T.J. looks injured. “Why me?”

“Because Ronnie bought the cards, dumbwit. Go on, hurry up.”

“Why do we need him, Ebbie?” Ronnie asks. He leans against the bike rack, noshing on the cold, sweet chips of ice.

“Because I say so,” Ebbie replies loftily. The fact is, Tyler Marshall usually has money on Fridays. In fact, Tyler has money almost every day. His parents are loaded. Ebbie, who is being raised (if you can call it that) by a single father who has a crappy janitor’s job, has already conceived a vague hate for Tyler on this account; the first humiliations aren’t far away, and the first beatings will follow soon after. But now all he wants is more Magic cards, a third pack for each of them. The fact that Tyler doesn’t even like Magic that much will only make getting him to pony up that much sweeter.

But first they have to get the little slowpoke up here. Or the little po-sloke, as mush-mouthed Ronnie calls him. Ebbie likes that, and thinks he will start using it. Po-sloke. A good word. Makes fun of Ty and Ronnie at the same time. Two for the price of one.

“Go on, T.J. Unless you want an Indian burn.”

T.J. doesn’t. Ebbie Wexler’s Indian burns hurt like a mad bastard. He gives a theatrical sigh, backs his bike out of the rack, mounts it, and rides back down the mild slope of the hill, holding a handlebar in one hand and his Slurpee in the other. He expects to see Ty right away, probably walking his bike because he’s just . . . so . . . tiyyy-urd, but Ty doesn’t seem to be on Chase Street at all ?? what’s up with that?

T.J. pedals a little faster.

In the men’s room, we are now looking at the line of toilet stalls. The door of the one second from the left is closed. The other three stand ajar on their chrome hinges. Beneath the closed door, we see a pair of gnarled, veiny ankles rising from a pair of filthy slippers.

A voice cries out with surprising strength. It is a young man’s voice, hoarse, hungry, and angry. It echoes flatly back from the tile walls: “Ab-balah! Abbalah-doon! Munshun gorg!”

Suddenly the toilets flush. Not just the one in the closed cubicle but all of them. Across the room the urinals also flush, their chromed handles dipping in perfect synchronicity. Water runs down their curved porcelain surfaces.

When we look back from the urinals to the toilets, we see that the dirty slippers ?? and the feet that were in them ?? are gone. And for the first time we have actually heard the sound of slippage, a kind of hot exhale, the sort of sound one hears escaping one’s lungs when waking from a nightmare at two in the morning.

Ladies and gentlemen, Charles Burnside has left the building.

The crow has backed right up against the hedge now. Still it regards Tyler with its bright, eerie eyes. Tyler steps toward it, feeling hypnotized.

“Say my name again,” he breathes. “Say my name again and you can go.”

“Ty!” the crow croaks obligingly, then gives its wings a little shake and slips into the hedge. For a moment Tyler can still see it, a mixture of shiny black in the shiny green, and then it’s gone.

“Holy crow!” Tyler says. He realizes what he’s said and gives a small, shaky laugh. Did it happen? It did, didn’t it?

He leans closer to where the crow reentered the hedge, thinking if it shed a feather he will take it for a souvenir, and when he does, a scrawny white arm shoots out through the green and seizes him unerringly by the neck. Tyler has time to give a single terrified squawk, and then he is dragged through the hedge. One of his sneakers is pulled off by the short, stiff branches. From the far side there is a single guttural, greedy cry ?? it might have been “Boy!” ?? and then a thud, the sound of a pet rock coming down on a small boy’s head, perhaps. Then there’s nothing but the distant drone of a lawn mower and the closer drone of a bee.

The bee is bumbling around the flowers on the far side of the hedge, the Maxton side. There is nothing else to be seen over there but green grass, and closer to the building, the tables where the elderly inhabitants will, at noon, sit down to the Strawberry Fest Picnic.

Tyler Marshall is gone.

T. J. Renniker coasts to a stop at the corner of Chase and Queen. His Slurpee is dripping dark blue juice over his wrist, but he barely notices. Halfway down Queen Street he sees Ty’s bike, leaning neatly over on its kickstand, but no Ty.

Moving slowly ?? he has a bad feeling about this, somehow ?? T.J. rides over to the bike. At some point he becomes aware that what was a Slurpee has now dissolved into a soggy cup of melting goop. He tosses it into the gutter.

It’s Ty’s ride, all right. No mistaking that red twenty-inch Schwinn with the ape-hanger handlebars and the green Milwaukee Bucks decal on the side. The bike, and ??

Lying on its side by the hedge that creates a border between the world of the old folks and the world of regular people, the real people, T.J. sees a single Reebok sneaker. Scattered around it are a number of shiny green leaves. One feather protrudes from the sneaker.

The boy stares at this sneaker with wide eyes. T.J. may not be as smart as Tyler, but he’s a few watts brighter than Ebbie Wexler, and it’s easy enough for him to imagine Tyler being dragged through the hedge, leaving his bike behind . . . and one sneaker . . . one lonely, overturned sneaker . . .

“Ty?” he calls. “Are you jokin’ around? Because if you are, you better stop. I’ll tell Ebbie to give you the biggest Indian burn you ever had.”

No answer. Ty isn’t joking around. T.J. somehow knows it.

Thoughts of Amy St. Pierre and Johnny Irkenham suddenly explode in T.J.’s mind. He hears (or imagines he hears) stealthy footsteps behind the hedge: the Fisherman, having secured dinner, has come back for dessert!

T.J. tries to scream and cannot. His throat has shrunk down to a pinhole. Instead of screaming, he hunches himself over the handlebars of his bike and begins pedaling. He swerves off the sidewalk and into the street, wanting to get away from the dark bulk of that hedge just as fast as he can. When he leaves the curb, the front tire of his Huffy bike squashes through the remains of his Slurpee. As he pedals toward Chase Street, bent over his handlebars like a Grand Prix racer, he leaves a dark and shiny track on the pavement. It looks like blood. Somewhere nearby, a crow caws. It sounds like laughter.

16 Robin Hood Lane: we’ve been here before, as the chorus girl said to the archbishop. Peek through the kitchen window and we see Judy Marshall, asleep in the rocking chair in the corner. There’s a book in her lap, the John Grisham novel we last saw on her bedside table. Sitting beside her on the floor is half a cup of cold coffee. Judy managed to read ten pages before dozing off. We shouldn’t blame Mr. Grisham’s narrative skills; Judy had a hard night last night, and it’s not the first. It’s been over two months since she last got more than two hours of sleep in one stretch. Fred knows something is wrong with his wife, but has no idea how deep it runs. If he did, he would be a lot more than frightened. Soon, God help him, he is going to have a better picture of her mental state.

Now she begins to moan thickly, and to turn her head from side to side. Those nonsense words begin to issue from her again. Most of them are too sleep-fuzzy to understand, but we catch abbalah and gorg.

Her eyes suddenly flash open. They are a brilliant, royal blue in the morning light, which fills the kitchen with summer’s dusty gold.

“Ty!” she gasps, and her feet give a convulsive waking jerk. She looks at the clock over the stove. It is twelve minutes past nine, and everything seems twisted, as it so often does when we sleep deeply but not well or long. She has sucked some miserable, not-quite-a-nightmare dream after her like mucusy strings of afterbirth: men with fedora hats pulled down so as to shadow their faces, walking on long R. Crumb legs that ended in big round-toed R. Crumb shoes, sinister keep on truckin’ sharpies who moved too fast against a city background ?? Milwaukee? Chicago? ?? and in front of a baleful orange sky. The dream’s sound track was the Benny Goodman band playing “King Porter Stomp,” the one her father had always played when he was getting a little shot, and the feeling of the dream had been a terrible darkwood mix of terror and grief: awful things had happened, but the worst was waiting.

There’s none of the relief people usually feel upon waking from bad dreams ?? the relief she herself had felt when she had been younger and . . . and . . .

“And sane,” she says in a croaky, just-woke-up voice. ” ‘King Porter Stomp.’ Think of that.” To her it had always sounded like the music you heard in the old cartoons, the ones where mice in white gloves ran in and out of ratholes with dizzying, feverish speed. Once, when her father was dancing her around to that one, she had felt something hard poking against her. Something in his pants. After that, when he put on his dance music, she tried to be somewhere else.

“Quit it,” she says in the same croaky voice. It’s a crow’s voice, and it occurs to her that there was a crow in her dream. Sure, you bet. The Crow Gorg.

“Gorg means death,” she says, and licks her dry upper lip without realizing it. Her tongue comes out even farther, and on the return swipe the tip licks across her nostrils, warm and wet and somehow comforting. “Over there, gorg means death. Over there in the ?? “

Faraway is the word she doesn’t say. Before she can, she sees something on the kitchen table that wasn’t there before. It’s a wicker box. A sound is coming from it, some low sleepy sound.

Distress worms into her lower belly, making her bowels feel loose and watery. She knows what a box like that is called: a creel. It’s a fisherman’s creel.

There is a fisherman in French Landing these days. A bad fisherman.

“Ty?” she calls, but of course there is no answer. The house is empty except for her. Dale is at work, and Ty will be out playing ?? you bet. It’s half-past July, the heart of summer vacation, and Ty will be rolling around the town, doing all the Ray Bradbury?CAugust Derleth things boys do when they’ve got the whole endless summer day to do them in. But he won’t be alone; Dale has talked with him about buddying up until the Fisherman is caught, at least until then, and so has she. Judy has no great liking for the Wexler kid (the Metzger or Renniker kids, either), but there’s safety in numbers. Ty probably isn’t having any great cultural awakenings this summer, but at least ??

“At least he’s safe,” she says in her croaky Crow Gorg voice. Yet the box that has appeared on the kitchen table during her nap seems to deny that, to negate the whole concept of safety. Where did it come from? And what is the white thing on top of it?

“A note,” she says, and gets up. She crosses the short length of floor between the rocker and the table like someone still in a dream. The note is a piece of paper, folded over. Written across the half she can see is Sweet Judy Blue Eyes. In college, just before meeting Dale, she had a boyfriend who used to call her that. She asked him to stop ?? it was annoying, sappy ?? and when he kept forgetting (on purpose, she suspected), she dropped him like a rock. Now here it is again, that stupid nickname, mocking her.

Judy turns on the sink tap without taking her eyes from the note, fills her cupped hand with cold water, and drinks. A few drops fall on Sweet Judy Blue Eyes and the name smears at once. Written in fountain-pen ink? How antique! Who writes with a fountain pen these days?

She reaches for the note, then draws back. The sound from inside the box is louder now. It’s a humming sound. It ??

“It’s flies,” she says. Her throat has been refreshed by the water and her voice isn’t so croaky, but to herself, Judy still sounds like the Crow Gorg. “You know the sound of flies.”

Get the note.

Don’t want to.

Yes, but you NEED to! Now get it! What happened to your GUTS, you little chickenshit?

Good question. Fucking good question. Judy’s tongue comes out, slathers her upper lip and philtrum. Then she takes the note and unfolds it.

Sorry there is only one “kiddie-knee” (kindney). The other I fryed and ate. It was very good!

The Fisherman

The nerves in Judy Marshall’s fingers, palms, wrists, and forearms suddenly shut down. The color drops so completely from her face that the blue veins in her cheeks become visible. It’s surely a miracle that she doesn’t pass out. The note drops from her fingers and goes seesawing to the floor. Shrieking her son’s name over and over again, she throws back the lid of the fisherman’s creel.

Inside are shiny red coils of intestine, crawling with flies. There are the wrinkled sacs of lungs and the fist-sized pump that was a child’s heart. There is the thick purple pad of a liver . . . and one kidney. This mess of guts is crawling with flies and all the world is gorg, is gorg, is gorg.

In the sunny stillness of her kitchen Judy Marshall now begins to howl, and it is the sound of madness finally broken free of its flimsy cage, madness unbound.

Butch Yerxa intended to go in after a single smoke ?? there’s always a lot to do on Strawberry Fest! days (although kindhearted Butch doesn’t hate the little artificial holiday the way Pete Wexler does). Then Petra English, an orderly from Asphodel, wandered over and they started talking motorcycles, and before you know it twenty minutes have passed.

He tells Petra he has to go, she tells him to keep the shiny side up and the rubber side down, and Butch slips back in through the door to an unpleasant surprise. There is Charles Burnside, starkers, standing beside the desk with his hand on the rock Butch uses as a paperweight. (His son made it in camp last year ?? painted the words on it, anyway ?? and Butch thinks it’s cute as hell.) Butch has nothing against the residents ?? certainly he would give Pete Wexler a pasting if he knew about the thing with the cigarettes, never mind just reporting him ?? but he doesn’t like them touching his things. Especially this guy, who is fairly nasty when he has his few wits about him. Which he does now. Butch can see it in his eyes. The real Charles Burnside has come up for air, perhaps in honor of Strawberry Fest!

And speaking of strawberries, Burny has apparently been into them already. There are traces of red on his lips and tucked into the deep folds at the corners of his mouth.

Butch barely looks at this, though. There are other stains on Burny. Brown ones.

“Want to take your hand off that, Charles?” he asks.

“Off what?” Burny asks, then adds: “Asswipe.”

Butch doesn’t want to say Off my pet rock, that sounds stupid. “Off my paperweight.”

Burny looks down at the rock, which he has just replaced (there was a little blood and hair on it when he emerged from the toilet stall, but cleanup is what bathroom sinks are for). He drops his hand from it and just stands there. “Clean me up, bozo. I shit myself.”

“So I see. But first tell me if you’ve gone and spread your crap around the kitchen. And I know you’ve been down there, so don’t lie.”

“Warshed my hands first,” Burny says, and shows them. They are gnarled, but pink and clean for all that. Even the nails are clean. He certainly has washed them. He then adds: “Jackoff.”

“Come on down to the bathroom with me,” Butch says. “The jack-off asswipe will get you cleaned up.”

Burny snorts, but comes willingly enough.

“You ready for the dance this afternoon?” Butch asks him, just to be saying something. “Got your dancing shoes all polished, big boy?”

Burny, who can surprise you sometimes when he’s actually home, smiles, showing a few yellow teeth. Like his lips, they are stained with red. “Yowza, I’m ready to rock,” he says.

Although Ebbie’s face doesn’t show it, he listens with growing unease to T.J.’s story about Tyler Marshall’s abandoned bike and sneaker. Ronnie’s face, on the other hand, shows plenty of unease.

“So what’re we gonna do, Ebbie?” T.J. asks when he’s done. He’s finally getting his breath back from his rapid pedal up the hill.

“What do you mean, what’re we gonna do?” Ebbie says. “Same things we were gonna do anyway, go downstreet, see what we can find for returnable bottles. Go down the park and trade Magics.”

“But . . . but what if ?? “

“Shut your yap,” Ebbie says. He knows what two words T.J. is about to say, and he doesn’t want to hear them. His dad says it’s bad luck to toss a hat on the bed, and Ebbie never does it. If that’s bad luck, mentioning some freako killer’s name has got to be twice as bad.

But then that idiot Ronnie Metzger goes and says it anyway . . . sort of. “But Ebbie, what if it’s the Misherfun? What if Ty got grabbed by the ?? “

“Shut the fuck up!” Ebbie says, and draws back his fist as if to hit the damn mushmouth.

At that moment the raghead clerk pops out of the 7-Eleven like a turbaned jack out of his box. “I want none of that talk here!” he cries. “You go now, do your filthy-talk another place! Or I call police!”

Ebbie starts to pedal slowly away, in a direction that will take him farther from Queer Street (under his breath he mutters dune coon, another charming term he has learned from his father), and the other two boys follow him. When they have put a block between them and the 7-Eleven, Ebbie stops and faces the other two, both his gut and his jaw jutting.

“He rode off on his own half an hour ago,” he says.

“Huh?” says T.J.

“Who did what?” says Ronnie.

“Ty Marshall. If anyone asks, he rode off on his own half an hour ago. When we were . . . ummm . . .” Ebbie casts his mind back, something that’s hard for him because he has had so little practice. In ordinary circumstances, the present is all Ebbie Wexler needs.

“When we were looking in the window of the Allsorts?” T.J. asks timidly, hoping he isn’t buying himself one of Ebbie’s ferocious Indian burns.

Ebbie looks at him blankly for a moment, then smiles. T.J. relaxes. Ronnie Metzger only goes on looking bewildered. With a baseball bat in his hands or a pair of hockey skates on his feet, Ronnie is prince of all he surveys. The rest of the time he’s pretty much at sea.

“That’s right,” Ebbie says, “yeah. We was lookin’ in the window of Schmitt’s, then that truck came along, the one playin’ the punk-ass music, and then Ty said he hadda split.”

“Where’d he have to go?” T.J. asks.

Ebbie isn’t bright, but he is possessed of what might be termed “low cunning.” He knows instinctively that the best story is a short story ?? the less there is, the smaller the chance that someone will trip you up with an inconsistency. “He didn’t tell us that. He just said he hadda go.”

“He didn’t go anywhere,” Ronnie says. “He just got behind because he’s a . . .” He pauses, arranging the word, and this time it comes out right. “Slowpoke.”

“You never mind that,” Ebbie says. “What if the . . . what if that guy got him, you dummocks? You want people sayin’ it was because he couldn’t keep up? That he got killed or somethin’ because we left him behind? You want people sayin’ it was our fault?”

“Gee,” Ronnie says. “You don’t really think the Misherfun ?? Fisherman ?? got Ty, do you?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Ebbie says, “but I don’t mind it that he’s gone. He was startin’ to piss me off.”

“Oh.” Ronnie contrives to look both vacant and satisfied. What a dummocks he is, Ebbie marvels. What a total and complete dummocks. And if you didn’t believe it, just think of how Ronnie, who’s as strong as a horse, allows Ebbie to give him Indian burn after Indian burn. A day will probably come when Ronnie realizes he doesn’t have to put up with that anymore, and on that day he may well pound Ebbie into the ground like a human tent peg, but Ebbie doesn’t worry about such things; he’s even worse at casting his mind forward than he is at casting it back.

“Ronnie,” Ebbie says.

“What?”

“Where were we when Tyler took off ?”

“Um . . . Schmitt’s Allsorts?”

“Right. And where’d he go?”

“Didn’t say.”

Ebbie sees that for Ronnie this is already becoming the truth and is satisfied. He turns to T.J. “You got it?”

“I got it.”

“Then let’s go.”

They pedal off. The dummocks pulls a little ahead of Ebbie and T.J. as they roll along the tree-lined street, and Ebbie allows this. He swings his bike a little closer to T.J.’s and says: “You see anything else back there? Anybody? Like a guy?”

T.J. shakes his head. “Just his bike and his sneaker.” He pauses, remembering as hard as he can. “There were some leaves scattered around. From the hedge. And I think there might have been a feather. Like a crow feather?”

Ebbie dismisses this. He is grappling with the question of whether or not the Fisherman has actually come close to him this morning, close enough to snatch one of his buddies. There is a bloodthirsty part of him that likes the idea, that relishes the thought of some shadowy, no-face monster killing the increasingly annoying Ty Marshall and eating him for lunch. There is also a childish part of him that is terrified of the boogeyman (this part will be in charge tonight as he lies awake in his room, looking at shadows that seem to take form and slink ever closer around his bed). And there is the older-than-his-years part of him, which has taken instinctive and immediate measures to avoid the eye of authority, should Tyler’s disappearance turn into what Ebbie’s father calls “a fuckarow.”

But mostly, as with Dale Gilbertson and Ty’s father, Fred, there is a continent of fundamental disbelief inside of Ebbie Wexler. He simply cannot believe that anything final has happened to Tyler. Not even after Amy St. Pierre and Johnny Irkenham, who was carved into pieces and hung up in an old henhouse. These are kids of whom Ebbie has heard on the evening news, fictions from the Land of TV. He didn’t know Amy or Johnny, so they could have died, just as make-believe people were always dying in the movies and on TV. Ty is different. Ty was just here. He talked to Ebbie, Ebbie talked to him. In Ebbie’s mind, this equals immortality. Or should. If Ty could be snatched by the Fisherman, any kid could be snatched. Including him. Hence, like Dale and Fred, he just doesn’t believe it. His most secret and fundamental heart, the part of him that assures the rest of him that everything is fine on Planet Ebbie, denies the Fisherman and all his works.

T.J. says: “Ebbie, do you think ?? “

“Nah,” Ebbie says. “He’ll turn up. Come on, let’s go to the park. We can look for cans and bottles later.”

Fred Marshall has left his sport coat and tie in his office, rolled up his sleeves, and is helping Rod Tisbury unpack a new Hiler rototiller. It’s the first of the new Hiler line, and it’s a beaut.

“I’ve been waiting for a gadget like this twenty years or more,” Rod says. He expertly inserts the wide end of his crowbar at the top of the big crate, and one of the wooden sides falls to the concrete floor of the maintenance garage with a flat clap. Rod is Goltz’s chief mechanic, and out here in maintenance he is king. “It’s gonna work for the small farmer; it’s gonna work for the town gardener, as well. If you can’t sell a dozen of these by fall, you’re not doing your job.”

“I’ll sell twenty by the end of August,” Fred says with perfect confidence. All his worries have been temporarily swept away by this splendid little green machine, which can do a hell of a lot more than rototill; there are a number of sexy attachments that snap in and out as easily as the lining in a fall jacket. He wants to start it up, listen to it run. That two-cylinder engine looks pretty sweet.

“Fred?”

He looks around impatiently. It’s Ina Gaitskill, Ted Goltz’s secretary and the dealership receptionist. “What?”

“You’ve got a call on line one.” She points across the floor ?? alive with clanging machinery and the noisy whir of pneumatic screwdrivers loosening bolts on an old Case tractor ?? to the phone on the wall, where several lights are blinking.

“Can you take a message, Ina? I was going to help Rod get a battery in this little beast and then ?? “

“I think you should take the call. It’s a woman named Enid Purvis. A neighbor of yours?”

For a moment Fred blanks, and then his salesman’s mind, which stores up names compulsively, comes to his rescue. Enid Purvis. Wife of Deke. Corner of Robin Hood and Maid Marian. He saw Deke just this morning. They waved to each other.

At the same time, he becomes aware that Ina’s eyes are too big and her normally generous mouth is too small. She looks worried.

“What is it?” Dale asks. “Ina, what is it?”

“I don’t know.” Then, reluctantly: “Something about your wife.”

“Better take it, hoss,” Rod says, but Fred is already crossing the oil-stained concrete floor to the phone.

He arrives home ten minutes after leaving Goltz’s, peeling out of the employees’ parking lot and laying rubber like a teenager. The worst part had been Enid Purvis’s calm and careful delivery, how hard she’d been trying not to sound frightened.

She had been walking Potsie past the Marshall house, she said, when she heard Judy scream. Not once, but twice. Of course Enid had done what any good neighbor would, God bless her: gone up to the door, rapped, then pushed open the letter slot and called through it. If there had been no answer, she told Fred, she probably would have phoned the police. She wouldn’t even have gone back home to do it; she would have crossed the street to the Plotskys’ house and called from there. But ??

“I’m all right,” Judy had called back, and then she had laughed. The laugh was shrill, ending in a tittery gasp. Enid had found this laugh somehow even more upsetting than the screams. “It was all a dream. Even Ty was a dream.”

“Did you cut yourself, dear?” Enid had called through the letter slot. “Did you fall down?”

“There was no creel,” Judy had called back. She might have said keel, but Enid was quite sure it was creel. “I dreamed that, too.” Then, Enid reluctantly told Fred, Judy Marshall had begun crying. It had been very upsetting, listening to that sound come to her through the letter slot. It had even made the dog whine.

Enid had called through one more time, asking if she could come in and make sure Judy wasn’t hurt.

“Go away!” Judy had called back. In the midst of her crying, she’d laughed again ?? an angry, distracted laugh. “You’re a dream, too. This whole world is a dream.” Then there had been the sound of shattering glass, as if she had struck a coffee mug or water tumbler and knocked it to the floor. Or thrown it at the wall.

“I didn’t call the police, because she sounded all right,” Enid told Fred (Fred standing with the phone jammed up against one ear and his hand plastered over the other to cut out all the yammering mechanical sounds, which he ordinarily enjoys and which at that moment seemed to go into his head like chrome spikes). “Physically all right, anyway. But Fred . . . I think you ought to go home and check on her.”

All of Judy’s recent oddities went through his mind in a whirl. So did Pat Skarda’s words. Mental dysfunction We hear people say “So-and-so snapped,” but there are usually signs . . .

And he has seen the signs, hasn’t he?

Seen them and done nothing.

Fred parks his car, a sensible Ford Explorer, in the driveway and hurries up the steps, already calling his wife’s name. There is no answer. Even when he has stepped through the front door (he pushes it open so hard the brass letter slot gives a nonsensical little clack), there is no answer. The air-conditioned interior of the house feels too cold on his skin and he realizes he’s sweating.

“Judy? Jude?”

Still no answer. He hurries down the hall to the kitchen, where he is most apt to find her if he comes home for something in the middle of the day.

The kitchen is sun-washed and empty. The table and the counter are clean; the appliances gleam; two coffee cups have been placed in the dish drainer, winking sun from their freshly washed surfaces. More sun winks from a heap of broken glass in the corner. Fred sees a flower decal on one piece and realizes it was the vase on the windowsill.

“Judy?” he calls again. He can feel the blood hammering in his throat and at his temples.

She doesn’t answer him, but he hears her upstairs, beginning to sing.

“Rock-a-bye baby . . . on the treetop . . . when the wind blows . . .”

Fred recognizes it, and instead of feeling relieved at the sound of her voice, his flesh goes even colder. She used to sing it to Tyler when their son was little. Ty’s lullabye. Fred hasn’t heard that particular ditty come out of her mouth in years.

He goes back down the hall to the stairs, now seeing what he missed on his first trip. The Andrew Wyeth print, Christina’s World, has been taken down and set against the baseboard heater. The wallpaper below the picture hook has been scraped away in several places, revealing the plasterboard beneath. Fred, colder than ever, knows that Judy did this. It isn’t intuition, exactly; not deduction, either. Call it the telepathy of the long married.

Floating down from above, beautiful and on-key yet at the same time perfectly empty: “. . . the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall . . .”

Fred is up the stairs two at a time, calling her name.

The upper hall is a scary mess. This is where they have hung the gallery of their past: Fred and Judy outside Madison Shoes, a blues club they sometimes went to when there was nothing interesting going on at the Chocolate Watchband; Fred and Judy dancing the first dance at their wedding reception while their folks happily looked on; Judy in a hospital bed, exhausted but smiling, holding the wrapped bundle that was Ty; the photo of the Marshall family farm that she always sniffed at; more.

Most of these framed photographs have been taken down. Some, like the one of the farm, have been thrown down. Glass litters the hall in sparkling sprays. And she has been at the wallpaper behind half a dozen. In the spot where the picture of Judy and Ty in the hospital had hung, the paper has been torn almost completely away, and he can see where she scraped at the wallboard beneath. Some of the scratches are dappled with drying spots of blood.

“Judy! Judy!”

Tyler’s door stands open. Fred sprints the length of the upstairs hall with glass crunching under his loafers.

“. . . and down will come Tyler, cradle and all.”

“Judy! Ju ?? “

He stands in the door, all words temporarily knocked out of him.

Ty’s room looks like the aftermath of a rough search in a detective movie. The drawers have been yanked out of his bureau and lie everywhere, most overturned. The bureau itself has been pulled away from the wall. Summer clothes are spread hell to breakfast ?? jeans and T-shirts and underwear and white athletic socks. The closet door is open and more clothes have been struck from the hangers; that same spousal telepathy tells him she tore Ty’s slacks and button-up shirts down so she could make sure nothing was behind them. The coat of Tyler’s only suit hangs askew from the closet’s doorknob. His posters have been pulled from the walls; Mark McGwire has been torn in half. In every case but one she has left the wallpaper behind the posters alone, but the one exception is a beaut. Behind the rectangle where the poster of the castle hung (COME BACK TO THE AULD SOD), the wallpaper has been almost entirely stripped away. There are more streaks of blood on the wallboard beneath.

Judy Marshall sits on the bare mattress of her son’s bed. The sheets are heaped in the corner, along with the pillow. The bed itself has been yanked away from the wall. Judy’s head is down. He can’t see her face ?? her hair is screening it ?? but she’s wearing shorts and he can see dapples and streaks of blood on her tanned thighs. Her hands are clasped below her knees, out of sight, and Fred is glad. He doesn’t want to see how badly she has hurt herself until he has to. His heart is hammering in his chest, his nervous system is redlining with adrenaline overload, and his mouth tastes like a burnt fuse.

She begins to sing the chorus of Ty’s lullabye again and he can’t stand it. “Judy, no,” he says, going to her through the strewn minefield that was, only last night when he came in to give Ty a good-night kiss, a reasonably neat little boy’s room. “Stop, honey, it’s okay.”

For a wonder, she does stop. She raises her head, and when he sees the terrified look in her eyes, he loses what little breath he has left. It’s more than terror. It’s emptiness, as if something inside her has slipped aside and exposed a black hole.

“Ty’s gone,” she says simply. “I looked behind all the pictures I could . . . I was sure he’d be behind that one, if he was anywhere he’d be behind that one . . .”

She points toward the place where the Ireland travel poster hung, and he sees that four of the nails on her left hand have been ripped partly or completely away. His stomach does a flip-flop. Her fingers look as if they have been dipped in red ink. If only it was ink, Fred thinks. If only.

“. . . but of course it’s just a picture. They’re all just pictures. I see that now.” She pauses, then cries: “Abbalah! Munshun! Abbalah-gorg, Abbalah-doon!” Her tongue comes out ?? comes out to an impossible, cartoonish length ?? and swipes spittishly across her nose. Fred sees it but cannot believe it. This is like coming into a horror movie halfway through the show, discovering it’s real, and not knowing what to do. What is he supposed to do? When you discover that the woman you love has gone mad ?? had a break with reality, at the very least ?? what are you supposed to do? How the hell do you deal with it?

But he loves her, has loved her from the first week he knew her, helplessly and completely and without the slightest regret ever after, and now love guides him. He sits down next to her on the bed, puts his arm around her, and simply holds her. He can feel her trembling from the inside out. Her body thrums like a wire.

“I love you,” he says, surprised at his voice. It’s amazing that seeming calmness can issue from such a crazy cauldron of confusion and fear. “I love you and everything is going to be all right.”

She looks up at him and something comes back into her eyes. Fred cannot call it sanity (no matter how much he would like to), but it is at least some sort of marginal awareness. She knows where she is and who is with her. For a moment he sees gratitude in her eyes. Then her face cramps in a fresh agony of grief and she begins to weep. It is an exhausted, lost sound that wrenches at him. Nerves, heart, and mind, it wrenches at him.

“Ty’s gone,” Judy says. “Gorg fascinated him and the abbalah took him. Abbalah-doon!” The tears course down her cheeks. When she raises her hands to wipe them away, her fingers leave appalling streaks of blood.

Even though he’s sure Tyler is fine (certainly Fred has had no premonitions today, unless we count his rosy sales prediction about the new Hiler roto), he feels a shudder course through him at the sight of those streaks, and it is not Judy’s condition that causes it but what she’s just said: Ty’s gone. Ty is with his friends; he told Fred just last night that he, Ronnie, T.J., and the less-than-pleasant Wexler boy intended to spend the day “goofing off.” If the other three boys go somewhere Ty doesn’t want to be, he has promised to come directly home. All the bases seem to be covered, yet . . . is there not such a thing as mother’s intuition?

Well, he thinks, maybe on the Fox Network.

He picks Judy up in his arms and is appalled all over again, this time by how light she is. She’s lost maybe twenty pounds since the last time I picked her up like this, he thinks. At least ten. How could I not have noticed? But he knows. Preoccupation with work was part of it; a stubborn refusal to let go of the idea that things were basically all right was the rest of it. Well, he thinks, carrying her out the door (her arms have crept tiredly up and locked themselves around his neck), I’m over that little misconception. And he actually believes this, in spite of his continued blind confidence in his son’s safety.

Judy hasn’t toured their bedroom during her rampage, and to Fred it looks like a cool oasis of sanity. Judy apparently feels the same way. She gives a tired sigh, and her arms drop away from her husband’s neck. Her tongue comes out, but this time it gives only a feeble little lick at her upper lip. Fred bends and puts her down on the bed. She holds up her hands, looks at them.

“I cut myself . . . scraped myself . . .”

“Yes,” he says. “I’m going to get something for them.”

“How . . . ?”

He sits beside her for a moment. Her head has sunk into the soft double thickness of her pillows, and her eyelids are drooping. He thinks that, beyond the puzzlement in them, he can still see that terrifying blankness. He hopes he is wrong.

“Don’t you remember?” he asks her gently.

“No . . . did I fall down?”

Fred chooses not to answer. He is starting to think again. Not much, he’s not capable of much just yet, but a little. “Honey, what’s a gorg? What’s an abbalah? Is it a person?”

“Don’t . . . know . . . Ty . . .”

“Ty’s fine,” he says.

“No . . .”

“Yes,” he insists. Perhaps he’s insisting to both of the people in this pretty, tastefully decorated bedroom. “Honeybunch, you just lie there. I want to get a couple of things.”

Her eyes drift closed. He thinks she will sleep, but her lids struggle slowly back up to half-mast.

“Lie right there,” he says. “No getting up and wandering around. There’s been enough of that. You scared poor Enid Purvis out of a year’s life. You promise?”

“Promise . . .” Her eyelids drift back down.

Fred goes into the adjoining bathroom, ears alert for any movement behind him. He has never seen anyone in his life who looks more bolt-shot than Judy does right now, but mad people are clever, and despite his prodigious capacity for denial in some areas, Fred can no longer fool himself about his wife’s current mental state. Mad? Actually stark raving mad? Probably not. But off the rails, certainly. Temporarily off the rails, he amends as he opens the medicine cabinet.

He takes the bottle of Mercurochrome, then scans the prescription bottles on the shelf above. There aren’t many. He grabs the one on the far left. Sonata, French Landing Pharmacy, one capsule at bedtime, do not use more than four nights in a row, prescribing physician Patrick J. Skarda, M.D.

Fred can’t see the entire bed in the medicine-cabinet mirror, but he can see the foot of it . . . and one of Judy’s feet, as well. Still on the bed. Good, good. He shakes out one of the Sonatas, then dumps their toothbrushes out of the glass ?? he has no intention of going all the way downstairs for a clean glass, does not want to leave her alone that long.

He fills the glass, then goes back into the bedroom with the water, the pill, and the bottle of Mercurochrome. Her eyes are shut. She is breathing so slowly that he has to put one hand on her chest to make sure she’s breathing at all.

He looks at the sleeping pill, debates, then gives her a shake. “Judy! Jude! Wake up a little, hon. Just long enough to take a pill, okay?”

She doesn’t even mutter, and Fred sets the Sonata aside. It won’t be necessary after all. He feels some faint optimism at how fast she’s fallen asleep and how deep she has gone. It’s as if some vile sac has popped, discharged its poison, left her weak and tired but possibly okay again. Could that be? Fred doesn’t know, but he’s positive that she isn’t just shamming sleep. All of Judy’s current woes began with insomnia, and the insomnia has been the one constant throughout. Although she’s only been exhibiting distressing symptoms for a couple of months ?? talking to herself and doing that odd and rather disgusting thing with her tongue, to mention only a couple of items ?? she hasn’t been sleeping well since January. Hence the Sonata. Now it seems that she has finally tipped over. And is it too much to hope that when she wakes from a normal sleep she’ll be her old normal self again? That her worries about her son’s safety during the summer of the Fisherman have forced her to some sort of climax? Maybe, maybe not . . . but at least it has given Fred some time to think about what he should do next, and he had better use it well. One thing seems to him beyond argument: if Ty is here when his mother wakes up, Ty is going to have a much happier mother. The immediate question is how to locate Tyler as soon as possible.

His first thought is to call the homes of Ty’s friends. It would be easy; those numbers are posted on the fridge, printed in Judy’s neat back-slanting hand, along with the numbers of the fire department, the police department (including Dale Gilbertson’s private number; he’s an old friend), and French Landing Rescue. But it takes Fred only a moment to realize what a bad idea this is. Ebbie’s mother is dead and his father is an unpleasant moron ?? Fred met him just once, and once is more than enough. Fred doesn’t much like his wife labeling some people “low-raters” (Who do you think you are, he asked her once, Queen of the doggone Realm?), but in the case of Pete Wexler, the shoe fits. He won’t have any idea of where the boys are today and won’t care.

Mrs. Metzger and Ellen Renniker might, but having once been a boy on summer vacation himself ?? the whole world laid at your feet and at least two thousand places to go ?? Fred doubts it like hell. There’s a chance the boys might be eating lunch (it’s getting to be that time) at the Metzgers’ or Rennikers’, but is that slight chance worth scaring the hell out of two women? Because the killer will be the first thing they think of, just as sure as God made little fishes . . . and fishermen to catch ’em.

Once more sitting on the bed beside his wife, Fred feels his first real tingle of apprehension on his son’s behalf and dismisses it brusquely. This is no time to give in to the heebie-jeebies. He has to remember that his wife’s mental problems and his son’s safety are not linked ?? except in her mind. His job is to present Ty, front and center and all squared away, thus proving her fears groundless.

Fred looks at the clock on his side of the bed and sees that it’s quarter past eleven. How the time flies when you’re having fun, he thinks. Beside him, Judy utters a single gaspy snore. It’s a small sound, really quite ladylike, but Fred jumps anyway. How she scared him when he first saw her in Ty’s room! He’s still scared.

Ty and his friends may come here for lunch. Judy says they often do because the Metzgers don’t have much to eat and Mrs. Renniker usually serves what the boys call “goop,” a mystery dish consisting of noodles and some gray meat. Judy makes them Campbell’s soup and baloney sandwiches, stuff they like. But Ty has money enough to treat them all to McDonald’s out by the little mall on the north side, or they could go into Sonny’s Cruisin’ Restaurant, a cheap diner with a cheesy fifties ambience. And Ty isn’t averse to treating. He’s a generous boy.

“I’ll wait until lunch,” he murmurs, completely unaware that he is talking as well as thinking. Certainly he doesn’t disturb Judy; she has gone deep. “Then ?? “

Then what? He doesn’t know, exactly.

He goes downstairs, kicks the Mr. Coffee back into gear, and calls work. He asks Ina to tell Ted Goltz he’ll be out the rest of the day ?? Judy’s sick. The flu, he tells her. Throwing up and everything. He runs down a list of people he was expecting to see that day and tells her to speak to Otto Eisman about handling them. Otto will be on that like white on rice.

An idea occurs to him while he’s talking to her, and when he’s done, he calls the Metzgers’ and Rennikers’ after all. At the Metzgers’ he gets an answering machine and hangs up without leaving a message. Ellen Renniker, however, picks up on the second ring. Sounding casual and cheerful ?? it comes naturally, he’s a hell of a salesman ?? he asks her to have Ty call home if the boys show up there for lunch. Fred says he has something to tell his son, making it sound like something good. Ellen says she will, but adds that T.J. had four or five dollars burning a hole in his jeans when he left the house that morning, and she doesn’t expect to see him until suppertime.

Fred goes back upstairs and checks on Judy. She hasn’t moved so much as a finger, and he supposes that’s good.

No. There’s nothing good about any of this.

Instead of receding now that the situation has stabilized ?? sort of ?? his fear seems to be intensifying. Telling himself that Ty is with his friends no longer seems to help. The sunny, silent house is creeping him out. He realizes he no longer wants Ty front and center simply for his wife’s sake. Where would the boys go? Is there any one place ?? ?

Of course there is. Where they can get Magic cards. That stupid, incomprehensible game they play.

Fred Marshall hurries back downstairs, grabs the phone book, hunts through the Yellow Pages, and calls the 7-Eleven. Like most of French Landing, Fred is in the 7-Eleven four or five times a week ?? a can of soda here, a carton of orange juice there ?? and he recognizes the lilt of the Indian day clerk’s voice. He comes up with the man’s name at once: Rajan Patel. It’s that old salesman’s trick of keeping as many names as possible in the active file. It sure helps here. When Fred calls the man Mr. Patel, the day clerk immediately becomes friendly, perfectly willing to help. Unfortunately, there isn’t much help he can give. Lots of boys in. They are buying Magic cards, also Pok?¦mon and baseball cards. Some are trading these cards outside. He does recall three that came in that morning on bikes, he says. They bought Slurpees as well as cards, and then argued about something outside. (Rajan Patel doesn’t mention the cursing, although this is chiefly why he remembers these boys.) After a little while, he says, they went on their way.

Fred is drinking coffee without even remembering when he poured it. Fresh threads of unease are spinning spider-silky webs in his head. Three boys. Three.

It means nothing, you know that, don’t you? he tells himself. He does know it, and at the same time he doesn’t know it. He can’t even believe he’s caught a little of Judy’s freakiness, like a cold germ. This is just . . . well . . . freakiness for freakiness’s sake.

He asks Patel to describe the kids and isn’t too surprised when Patel can’t. He thinks one of them was a bit of a fat boy, but he’s not even sure of that. “Sorry, but I see so many,” he says. Fred tells him he understands. He does, too, only all the understanding in the world won’t ease his mind.

Three boys. Not four but three.

Lunchtime has come, but Fred is not the least bit hungry. The spooky, sunny silence maintains itself. The spiderwebs continue to spin.

Not four but three.

If it was Ty’s bunch that Mr. Patel saw, the fattish boy was certainly Ebbie Wexler. The question is, who were the other two? And which one was missing? Which one had been stupid enough to go off on his own?

Ty’s gone. Gorg fascinated him and the abbalah took him.

Crazy talk, no doubt about it . . . but Fred’s arms nevertheless break out in a lush of goose bumps. He puts his coffee mug down with a bang. He’ll clean up the broken glass, that’s what he’ll do. That’s the next step, no doubt about it.

The actual next step, the logical next step, whispers through his mind as he climbs the stairs, and he immediately pushes it away. He’s sure the cops are just lately overwhelmed with queries from hysterical parents who have lost track of their kids for an hour or so. The last time he saw Dale Gilbertson, the poor guy looked careworn and grim. Fred doesn’t want to be marked down as part of the problem instead of part of the solution. Still . . .

Not four but three.

He gets the dustpan and broom out of the little utility closet next to the laundry room and begins sweeping up broken glass. When he’s done he checks on Judy, sees she’s still sleeping (more deeply than ever, from the look of her), and goes down to Ty’s room. If Ty saw it like this, he’d be upset. He’d think his mom was a lot more than a Coke short of a Happy Meal.

You don’t have to worry about that, his mind whispers. He won’t be seeing his room, not tonight, not ever. Gorg fascinated him and the abbalah took him.

“Stop it,” Fred tells himself. “Stop being an old woman.”

But the house is too empty, too silent, and Fred Marshall is afraid.

Setting Tyler’s room to rights takes longer than Fred ever would have expected; his wife went through it like a whirlwind. How can such a little woman have such strength in her? Is it the strength of the mad? Perhaps, but Judy doesn’t need the strength of the mad. When she sets her mind to something, she is a formidable engine.

By the time he’s finished cleaning up, almost two hours have passed and the only obvious scar is the scratched-out rectangle of wallpaper where the Irish travel poster hung. Sitting on Ty’s remade bed, Fred finds that the longer he looks at that spot, the less he can stand the white wallboard, peering through as brazenly as a broken bone through outraged skin. He has washed away the streaks of blood, but can do nothing about the scratch marks she made with her nails.

Yes I can, he thinks. Yes I can, too.

Ty’s dresser is mahogany, a piece of furniture that came to them from the estate of some distant relative on Judy’s side. Moving it really isn’t a one-man job, and under the circumstances, that suits Fred just fine. He slides a rug remnant under it to keep from marking up the floor, then pulls it across the room. Once it’s been placed against the far wall, it covers most of the scratched area. With the bald spot out of sight, Fred feels better. Saner. Ty hasn’t come home for lunch, but Fred didn’t really expect he would. He’ll be home by four, at the latest. Home for supper. Take it to the bank.

Fred strolls back to the master bedroom, massaging the small of his back as he walks. Judy still hasn’t moved, and once again he puts an anxious hand on her chest. Her breathing is slow, but steady as she goes. That’s all right. He lies down beside her on the bed, goes to loosen his tie, and laughs when he feels his open collar. Coat and tie, both back at Goltz’s. Well, it’s been a crazy day. For the time being it’s just good to lie here in the air-conditioned cool, easing his aching back. Moving that dresser was a bitch, but he’s glad he did it. Certainly there’s no chance he’ll drop off; he’s far too upset. Besides, napping in the middle of the day has never been his thing.

So thinking, Fred falls asleep.

Beside him, in her own sleep, Judy begins to whisper. Gorg . . . abbalah . . . the Crimson King. And a woman’s name.

The name is Sophie.