Around nine o'clock, a pickup came down the driveway and parked behind my Chevrolet. The truck was new ¡ª a Dodge Ram so clean and chrome-shiny it looked as if the ten-day plates had just come off that morning ¡ª but it was the same shade of off-white as the last one and the sign on the driver's door was the one I remembered: WILLIAM 'BILL' DEAN CAMP CHECKING CARETAKING LIGHT CARPENTRY, plus his telephone number. I went out on the back stoop to meet him, coffee cup in my hand.
'Mike!' Bill cried, climbing down from behind the wheel. Yankee men don't hug ¡ª that's a truism you can put right up there with tough guys don't dance and real men don't eat quiche ¡ª but Bill pumped my hand almost hard enough to slop coffee from a cup that was three-quarters empty, and gave me a hearty clap on the back. His grin revealed a splendidly blatant set of false teeth ¡ª the kind which used to be called Roebuckers, because you got them from the catalogue. It occurred to me in passing that my ancient interlocutor from the Lakeview General Store could have used a pair. It certainly would have improved mealtimes for the nosy old fuck. 'Mike, you're a sight for sore eyes!'
'Good to see you, too,' I said, grinning. Nor was it a false grin; I felt all right. Things with the power to scare the living shit out of you on a thundery midnight in most cases seem only interesting in the bright light of a summer morning. 'You're looking well, my friend.'
It was true. Bill was four years older and a little grayer around the edges, but otherwise the same. Sixty-five? Seventy? It didn't matter. There was no waxy look of ill health about him, and none of the falling-away in the face, principally around the eyes and in the cheeks, that I associate with encroaching infirmity.
'So're you,' he said, letting go of my hand. 'We was all so sorry about Jo, Mike. Folks in town thought the world of her. It was a shock, with her so young. My wife asked if I'd give you her condolences special. Jo made her an afghan the year she had the pneumonia, and Yvette ain't never forgot it.'
'Thanks,' I said, and my voice wasn't quite my own for a moment or two. It seemed that on the TR my wife was hardly dead at all. 'And thank Yvette, too.'
'Yuh. Everythin okay with the house? Other'n the air conditioner, I mean. Buggardly thing! Them at the Western Auto promised me that part last week, and now they're saying maybe not until August first.'
'It's okay. I've got my Powerbook. If I want to use it, the kitchen table will do fine for a desk.' And I would want to use it ¡ª so many crosswords, so little time.
'Got your hot water okay?'
'All that's fine, but there is one problem.'
I stopped. How did you tell your caretaker you thought your house was haunted? Probably there was no good way; probably the best thing to do was to go at it head-on. I had questions, but I didn't want just to nibble around the edges of the subject and be coy. For one thing, Bill would sense it. He might have bought his false teeth out of a catalogue, but he wasn't stupid.
'What's on your mind, Mike? Shoot.'
'I don't know how you're going to take this, but ¡ª '
He smiled in the way of a man who suddenly understands and held up his hand. 'Guess maybe I know already.'
'You do?' I felt an enormous sense of relief and I could hardly wait to find out what he had experienced in Sara, perhaps while checking for dead lightbulbs or making sure the roof was holding the snow all right. 'What did you hear?'
'Mostly what Royce Merrill and Dickie Brooks have been telling,' he said. 'Beyond that, I don't know much. Me and mother's been in Virginia, remember. Only got back last night around eight o'clock. Still, it's the big topic down to the store.'
For a moment I remained so fixed on Sara Laughs that I had no idea what he was talking about. All I could think was that folks were gossiping about the strange noises in my house. Then the name Royce Merrill clicked and everything else clicked with it. Merrill was the elderly possum with the gold-headed cane and the salacious wink. Old Four-Teeth. My caretaker wasn't talking about ghostly noises; he was talking about Mattie Devore.
'Let's get you a cup of coffee,' I said. 'I need you to tell me what I'm stepping in here.'
When we were seated on the deck, me with fresh coffee and Bill with a cup of tea ('Coffee burns me at both ends these days,' he said), I asked him first to tell me the Royce Merrill-Dickie Brooks version of my encounter with Mattie and Kyra.
It turned out to be better than I had expected. Both old men had seen me standing at the side of the road with the little girl in my arms, and they had observed my Chevy parked halfway into the ditch with the driver's-side door open, but apparently neither of them had seen Kyra using the white line of Route 68 as a tightrope. As if to compensate for this, however, Royce claimed that Mattie had given me a big my hero hug and a kiss on the mouth.
'Did he get the part about how I grabbed her by the ass and slipped her some tongue?' I asked.
Bill grinned. 'Royce's imagination ain't stretched that far since he was fifty or so, and that was forty or more year ago.'
'I never touched her.' Well . . . there had been that moment when the back of my hand went sliding along the curve of her breast, but that had been inadvertent, whatever the young lady herself might think about it.
'Shite, you don't need to tell me that,' he said. 'But . . . '
He said that but the way my mother always had, letting it trail off on its own, like the tail of some ill-omened kite.
'You'd do well to keep your distance from her,' he said. 'She's nice enough ¡ª almost a town girl, don't you know ¡ª but she's trouble.' He paused. 'No, that ain't quite fair to her. She's in trouble.'
'The old man wants custody of the baby, doesn't he?'
Bill set his teacup down on the deck rail and looked at me with his eyebrows raised. Reflections from the lake ran up his cheek in ripples, giving him an exotic look. 'How'd you know?'
'Guesswork, but of the educated variety. Her father-in-law called me Saturday night during the fireworks. And while he never came right out and stated his purpose, I doubt if Max Devore came all the way back to TR-90 in western Maine to repo his daughter-in-law's Jeep and trailer. So what's the story, Bill?'
For several moments he only looked at me. It was almost the look of a man who knows you have contracted a serious disease and isn't sure how much he ought to tell you. Being looked at that way made me profoundly uneasy. It also made me feel that I might be putting Bill Dean on the spot. Devore had roots here, after all. And, as much as Bill might like me, I didn't. Jo and I were from away. It could have been worse ¡ª it could have been Massachusetts or New York ¡ª but Derry, although in Maine, was still away.
'Bill? I could use a little navigational help if you ¡ª '
'You want to stay out of his way,' he said. His easy smile was gone. 'The man's mad.'
For a moment I thought Bill only meant Devore was pissed off at me, and then I took another look at his face. No, I decided, he didn't mean pissed off; he had used the word 'mad' in the most literal way.
'Mad how?' I asked. 'Mad like Charles Manson? Like Hannibal Lecter? How?'
'Say like Howard Hughes,' he said. 'Ever read any of the stories about him? The lengths he'd go to to get the things he wanted? It didn't matter if it was a special kind of hot dog they only sold in L.A. or an airplane designer he wanted to steal from Lockheed or Mcdonnell-Douglas, he had to have what he wanted, and he wouldn't rest until it was under his hand. Devore is the same way. He always was ¡ª even as a boy he was willful, according to the stories you hear in town.
'My own dad had one he used to tell. He said little Max Devore broke into Scant Larribee's tack-shed one winter because he wanted the Flexible Flyer Scant give his boy Scooter for Christmas. Back around 1923, this would have been. Devore cut both his hands on broken glass, Dad said, but he got the sled. They found him near midnight, sliding down Sugar Maple Hill, holding his hands up to his chest when he went down. He'd bled all over his mittens and his snowsuit. There's other stories you'll hear about Maxie Devore as a kid ¡ª if you ask you'll hear fifty different ones ¡ª and some may even be true. That one about the sled is true, though. I'd bet the farm on it. Because my father didn't lie. It was against his religion.'
'1923 was many moons ago, Bill. Sometimes people change.'
'Ayuh, but mostly they don't. I haven't seen Devore since he come back and moved into Warrington's, so I can't say for sure, but I've heard things that make me think that if he has changed, it's for the worse. He didn't come all the way across the country 'cause he wanted a vacation. He wants the kid. To him she's just another version of Scooter Larribee's Flexible Flyer. And my strong advice to you is that you don't want to be the window-glass between him and her.'
I sipped my coffee and looked out at the lake. Bill gave me time to think, scraping one of his workboots across a splatter of birdshit on the boards while I did it. Crowshit, I reckoned; only crows crap in such long and exuberant splatters.
One thing seemed absolutely sure: Mattie Devore was roughly nine miles up Shit Creek with no paddle. I'm not the cynic I was at twenty ¡ª is anyone? ¡ª but I wasn't naive enough or idealistic enough to believe the law would protect Ms. Doublewide against Mr. Computer . . . not if Mr. Computer decided to play dirty. As a boy he'd taken the sled he wanted and gone sliding by himself at midnight, bleeding hands not a concern. And as a man? An old man who had been getting every sled he wanted for the last forty years or so?
'What's the story with Mattie, Bill? Tell me.'
It didn't take him long. Country stories are, by and large, simple stories. Which isn't to say they're not often interesting.
Mattie Devore had started life as Mattie Stanchfield, not quite from the TR but from just over the line in Motton. Her father had been a logger, her mother a home beautician (which made it, in a ghastly way, the perfect country marriage). There were three kids. When Dave Stanch-field missed a curve over in Lovell and drove a fully loaded pulptruck into Kewadin Pond, his widow 'kinda lost heart,' as they say. She died soon after. There had been no insurance, other than what Stanchfield had been obliged to carry on his Jimmy and his skidder.
Talk about your Brothers Grimm, huh? Subtract the Fisher-Price toys behind the house, the two pole hairdryers in the basement beauty salon, the old rustbucket Toyota in the driveway, and you were right there: Once upon a time there lived a poor widow and her three children.
Mattie is the princess of the piece ¡ª poor but beautiful (that she was beautiful I could personally testify). Now enter the prince. In this case he's a gangly stuttering redhead named Lance Devore. The child of Max Devore's sunset years. When Lance met Mattie, he was twenty-one. She had just turned seventeen. The meeting took place at Warrington's, where Mattie had landed a summer job as a waitress.
Lance Devore was staying across the lake on the Upper Bay, but on Tuesday nights there were pickup softball games at Warrington's, the townies against the summer folks, and he usually canoed across to play. Softball is a great thing for the Lance Devores of the world; when you're standing at the plate with a bat in your hands, it doesn't matter if you're gangly. And it sure doesn't matter if you stutter.
'He confused em quite considerable over to Warrington's,' Bill said. 'They didn't know which team he belonged on ¡ª the Locals or the Aways. Lance didn't care; either side was fine with him. Some weeks he'd play for one, some weeks t'other. Either one was more than happy to have him, too, as he could hit a ton and field like an angel. They'd put him at first base a lot because he was tall, but he was really wasted there. At second or shortstop . . . my! He'd jump and twirl around like that guy Noriega.'
'You might mean Nureyev,' I said.
He shrugged. 'Point is, he was somethin to see. And folks liked him. He fit in. It's mostly young folks that play, you know, and to them it's how you do, not who you are. Besides, a lot of em don't know Max Devore from a hole in the ground.'
'Unless they read The Wall Street Journal and the computer magazines,'' I said. 'In those, you run across the name Devore about as often as you run across the name of God in the Bible.'
'Well, I guess that in the computer magazines God is more often spelled Gates, but you know what I mean.'
'I s'pose. But even so, it's been sixty-five years since Max Devore spent any real time on the TR. You know what happened when he left, don't you?'
'No, why would I?'
He looked at me, surprised. Then a kind of veil seemed to fall over his eyes. He blinked and it cleared. 'Tell you another time ¡ª it ain't no secret ¡ª but I need to be over to the Harrimans' by eleven to check their sump-pump. Don't want to get sidetracked. Point I was tryin to make is just this: Lance Devore was accepted as a nice young fella who could hit a softball three hundred and fifty feet into the trees if he struck it just right. There was no one old enough to hold his old man against him ¡ª not at Warrington's on Tuesday nights, there wasn't ¡ª and no one held it against him that his family had dough, either. Hell, there are lots of wealthy people here in the summer. You know that. None worth as much as Max Devore, but being rich is only a matter of degree.'
That wasn't true, and I had just enough money to know it. Wealth is like the Richter scale-once you pass a certain point, the jumps from one level to the next aren't double or triple but some amazing and ruinous multiple you don't even want to think about. Fitzgerald had it straight, although I guess he didn't believe his own insight: the very rich are different from you and me. I thought of telling Bill that, and decided to keep my mouth shut. He had a sump-pump to fix.
Kyra's parents met over a keg of beer stuck in a mudhole. Mattie was running the usual Tuesday-night keg out to the softball field from the main building on a handcart. She'd gotten it most of the way from the restaurant wing with no trouble, but there had been heavy rain earlier in the week, and the cart finally bogged down in a soft spot. Lance's team was up, and Lance was sitting at the end of the bench, waiting his turn to hit. He saw the girl in the white shorts and blue Warrington's polo shirt struggling with the bogged handcart, and got up to help her. Three weeks later they were inseparable and Mattie was pregnant; ten weeks later they were married; thirty-seven months later, Lance Devore was in a coffin, done with softball and cold beer on a summer evening, done with what he called 'woodsing,' done with fatherhood, done with love for the beautiful princess. Just another early finish, hold the happily-ever-after.
Bill Dean didn't describe their meeting in any detail; he only said, 'They met at the field ¡ª she was runnin out the beer and he helped her out of a boghole when she got her handcart stuck.'
Mattie never said much about that part of it, so I don't know much. Except I do . . . and although some of the details might be wrong, I'd bet you a dollar to a hundred 1 got most of them right. That was my summer for knowing things I had no business knowing.
It's hot, for one thing ¡ª '94 is the hottest summer of the decade and July is the hottest month of the summer. President Clinton is being upstaged by Newt and the Republicans. Folks are saying old Slick Willie may not even run for a second term. Boris Yeltsin is reputed to be either dying of heart disease or in a dry-out clinic. The Red Sox are looking better than they have any right to. In Derry, Johanna Arlen Noonan is maybe starting to feel a little whoopsy in the morning. If so, she does not speak of it to her husband.
I see Mattie in her blue polo shirt with her name sewn in white script above her left breast. Her white shorts make a pleasing contrast to her tanned legs. I also see her wearing a blue gimme cap with the red W for Warrington's above the long bill. Her pretty dark-blonde hair is pulled through the hole at the back of the cap and falls to the collar of her shirt. I see her trying to yank the handcart out of the mud without upsetting the keg of beer. Her head is down; the shadow thrown by the bill of the cap obscures all of her face but her mouth and small set chin.
'Luh-let m-me h-h-help,' Lance says, and she looks up. The shadow cast by the cap's bill falls away, he sees her big blue eyes ¡ª the ones she'll pass on to their daughter. One look into those eyes and the war is over without a single shot fired; he belongs to her as surely as any young man ever belonged to any young woman.
The rest, as they say around here, was just courtin.
The old man had three children, but Lance was the only one he seemed to care about. ('Daughter's crazier'n a shithouse mouse,' Bill said matter-of-factly. 'In some laughin academy in California. Think I heard she caught her a cancer, too.') The fact that Lance had no interest in computers and software actually seemed to please his father. He had another son who was capable of running the business. In another way, however, Lance Devore's older half-brother wasn't capable at all: there would be no grandchildren from that one.
'Rump-wrangler,' Bill said. 'Understand there's a lot of that going around out there in California.'
There was a fair amount of it going around on the TR, too, I imagined, but thought it not my place to offer sexual instruction to my caretaker.
Lance Devore had been attending Reed College in Oregon, majoring in forestry ¡ª the kind of guy who falls in love with green flannel pants, red suspenders, and the sight of condors at dawn. A Brothers Grimm woodcutter, in fact, once you got past the academic jargon. In the summer between his junior and senior years, his father had summoned him to the family compound in Palm Springs, and had presented him with a boxy lawyer's suitcase crammed with maps, aerial photos, and legal papers. These had little order that Lance could see, but I doubt that he cared. Imagine a comic-book collector given a crate crammed with rare old copies of Donald Duck. Imagine a movie collector given the rough cut of a never-released film starring Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe. Then imagine this avid young forester realizing that his father owned not just acres or square miles in the vast unincorporated forests of western Maine, but entire realms.
Although Max Devore had left the TR in 1933, he'd kept a lively interest in the area where he'd grown up, subscribing to area newspapers and getting magazines such as Down East and the Maine Times. In the early eighties, he had begun to buy long columns of land just east of the Maine-New Hampshire border. God knew there had been plenty for sale; the paper companies which owned most of it had fallen into a recessionary pit, and many had become convinced that their New England holdings and operations would be the best place to begin retrenching. So this land, stolen from the Indians and clear-cut ruthlessly in the twenties and fifties, came into Max Devore's hands. He might have bought it just because it was there, a good bargain he could afford to take advantage of. He might have bought it as a way of demonstrating to himself that he had really survived his childhood; had, in point of fact, triumphed over it.
Or he might have bought it as a toy for his beloved younger son. In the years when Devore was making his major land purchases in western Maine, Lance would have been just a kid . . . but old enough for a perceptive father to see where his interests were tending.
Devore asked Lance to spend the summer of 1994 surveying purchases which were, for the most part, already ten years old. He wanted the boy to put the paperwork in order, but he wanted more than that ¡ª he wanted Lance to make sense of it. It wasn't a land-use recommendation he was looking for, exactly, although I guess he would have listened if Lance had wanted to make one; he simply wanted a sense of what he had purchased. Would Lance take a summer in western Maine trying to find out what his sense of it was? At a salary of two or three thousand dollars a month?
I imagine Lance's reply was a more polite version of Buddy Jellison's 'Does a crow shit in the pine tops?'
The kid arrived in June of 1994 and set up shop in a tent on the far side of Dark Score Lake. He was due back at Reed in late August. Instead, though, he decided to take a year's leave of absence. His father wasn't pleased. His father smelled what he called 'girl trouble.'
'Yeah, but it's a damned long sniff from California to Maine,' Bill Dean said, leaning against the driver's door of his truck with his sunburned arms folded. 'He had someone a lot closer than Palm Springs doin his sniffin for him.'
'What are you talking about?' I asked.
''Bout talk. People do it for free, and most are willing to do even more if they're paid.'
'People like Royce Merrill?'
'Royce might be one,' he agreed, 'but he wouldn't be the only one. Times around here don't go between bad and good; if you're a local, they mostly go between bad and worse. So when a guy like Max Devore sends a guy out with a supply of fifty- and hundred-dollar bills . . . '
'Was it someone local? A lawyer?'
Not a lawyer; a real-estate broker named Richard Osgood ('a greasy kind of fella' was Bill Dean's judgment of him) who denned and did business in Motton. Eventually Osgood had hired a lawyer from Castle Rock. The greasy fella's initial job, when the summer of '94 ended and Lance Devore remained on the TR, was to find out what the hell was going on and put a stop to it.
'And then?' I asked.
Bill glanced at his watch, glanced at the sky, then centered his gaze on me. He gave a funny little shrug, as if to say, 'We're both men of the world, in a quiet and settled sort of way ¡ª you don't need to ask a silly question like that.'
'Then Lance Devore and Mattie Stanchfield got married in the Grace Baptist Church right up there on Highway 68. There were tales made the rounds about what Osgood might've done to keep it from comin off ¡ª I heard he even tried to bribe Reverend Gooch into refusin to hitch em, but I think that's stupid, they just would have gone someplace else. 'Sides, I don't see much sense in repeating what I don't know for sure.'
Bill unfolded an arm and began to tick items off on the leathery fingers of his right hand.
'They got married in the middle of September, 1994, I know that.' Out popped the thumb. 'People looked around with some curiosity to see if the groom's father would put in an appearance, but he never did.' Out popped the forefinger. Added to the thumb, it made a pistol. 'Mattie had a baby in April of '95, making the kiddie a dight premature . . . but not enough to matter. I seen it in the store with my own eyes when it wasn't a week old, and it was just the right size.' Out with the second finger. 'I don't know that Lance Devore's old man absolutely refused to help em financially, but I do know they were living in that trailer down below Dickie's Garage, and that makes me think they were havin a pretty hard skate.'
'Devore put on the choke-chain,' I said. 'It's what a guy used to getting his own way would do . . . but if he loved the boy the way you seem to think, he might have come around.'
'Maybe, maybe not.' He glanced at his watch again. 'Let me finish up quick and get out of your sunshine . . . but you ought to hear one more little story, because it really shows how the land lies.
'In July of last year, less'n a month before he died, Lance Devore shows up at the post-office counter in the Lakeview General. He's got a manila envelope he wants to send, but first he needs to show Carla DeCinces what's inside. She said he was all fluffed out, like daddies sometimes get over their kids when they're small.'
I nodded, amused at the idea of skinny, stuttery Lance Devore all fluffed out. But I could see it in my mind's eye, and the image was also sort of sweet.
'It was a studio pitcher they'd gotten taken over in the Rock. Showed the kid . . . what's her name? Kayla?'
'Ayuh, they call em anything these days, don't they? It showed Kyra sittin in a big leather chair, with a pair of joke spectacles on her little snub of a nose, lookin at one of the aerial photos of the woods over across the lake in TR-100 or TR-110 ¡ª part of what the old man had picked up, anyway. Carla said the baby had a surprised look on her face, as if she hadn't suspected there could be so much woods in the whole world. Said it was awful cunnin, she did.'
'Cunnin as a cat a-runnin,' I murmured.
'And the envelope ¡ª Registered, Express Mail was addressed to Maxwell Devore, in Palm Springs, California.'
'Leading you to deduce that the old man either thawed enough to ask for a picture of his only grandchild, or that Lance Devore thought a picture might thaw him.'
Bill nodded, looking as pleased as a parent whose child has managed a difficult sum. 'Don't know if it did,' he said. 'Wasn't enough time to tell, one way or the other. Lance had bought one of those little satellite dishes, like what you've got here. There was a bad storm the day he put it up ¡ª hail, high wind, blowdowns along the lakeshore, lots of lightnin. That was along toward evening. Lance put his dish up in the afternoon, all done and safe, except around the time the storm commenced he remembered he'd left his socket wrench on the trailer roof. He went up to get it so it wouldn't get all wet n rusty ¡ª '
'He was struck by lightning? Jesus, Bill!'
'Lightnin struck, all right, but it hit across the way. You go past the place where Wasp Hill Road runs into 68 and you'll see the stump of the tree that stroke knocked over. Lance was comin down the ladder with his socket wrench when it hit. If you've never had a lightnin bolt tear right over your head, you don't know how scary it is ¡ª it's like havin a drunk driver veer across into your lane, headed right for you, and then swing back onto his own side just in time. Close lightnin makes your hair stand up ¡ª makes your damned prick stand up. It's apt to play the radio on your steel fillins, it makes your ears hum, and it makes the air taste roasted. Lance fell off the ladder. If he had time to think anything before he hit the ground, I bet he thought he was electrocuted. Poor boy. He loved the TR, but it wasn't lucky for him.'
'Broke his neck?'
'Ayuh. With all the thunder, Mattie never heard him fall or yell or anything. She looked out a minute or two later when it started to hail and he still wasn't in. And there he was, layin on the ground and lookin up into the friggin hail with his eyes open.'
Bill looked at his watch one final time, then swung open the door to his truck. 'The old man wouldn't come for their weddin, but he came for his son's funeral and he's been here ever since. He didn't want nawthin to do with the young woman ¡ª '
'But he wants the kid,' I said. It was no more than what I already knew, but I felt a sinking in the pit of my stomach just the same. Don't talk about this, Mattie had asked me on the morning of the Fourth. It's not a good time for Ki and me. 'How far along in the process has he gotten?'
'On the third turn and headin into the home stretch, I sh'd say. There'll be a hearin in Castle County Superior Court, maybe later this month, maybe next. The judge could rule then to hand the girl over, or put it off until fall. I don't think it matters which, because the one thing that's never going to happen on God's green earth is a rulin in favor of the mother. One way or another, that little girl is going to grow up in California.''
Put that way, it gave me a very nasty little chill.
Bill slid behind the wheel of his truck. 'Stay out of it, Mike,' he said. 'Stay away from Mattie Devore and her daughter. And if you get called to court on account of seem the two of em on Saturday, smile a lot and say as little as you can.'
'Max Devore's charging that she's unfit to raise the child.'
'Bill, I saw the child, and she's fine.'
He grinned again, but this time there was no amusement in it. ''Magine she is. But that's not the point. Stay clear of their business, old boy. It's my job to tell you that; with Jo gone, I guess I'm the only caretaker you got.' He slammed the door of his Ram, started the engine, reached for the gearshift, then dropped his hand again as something else occurred to him. 'If you get a chance, you ought to look for the owls.'
'There's a couple of plastic owls around here someplace. They might be in y'basement or out in Jo's studio. They come in by mail-order the fall before she passed on.'
'The fall of 1993?'
'That can't be right.' We hadn't used Sara in the fall of 1993.
''Tis, though. I was down here puttin on the storm doors when Jo showed up. We had us a natter, and then the UPS truck come. I lugged the box into the entry and had a coffee ¡ª I was still drinkin it then ¡ª while she took the owls out of the carton and showed em off to me. Gorry, but they looked real! She left not ten minutes after. It was like she'd come down to do that errand special, although why anyone'd drive all the way from Derry to take delivery of a couple of plastic owls I don't know.'
'When in the fall was it, Bill? Do you remember?'
'Second week of November,' he said promptly. 'Me n the wife went up to Lewiston later that afternoon, to 'Vette's sister's. It was her birthday. On our way back we stopped at the Castle Rock Agway so 'Vette could get her Thanksgiving turkey.' He looked at me curiously. 'You really didn't know about them owls?'
'That's a touch peculiar, wouldn't you say?'
'Maybe she told me and I forgot,' I said. 'I guess it doesn't matter much now in any case.' Yet it seemed to matter. It was a small thing, but it seemed to matter. 'Why would Jo want a couple of plastic owls to begin with?'
'To keep the crows from shittin up the woodwork, like they're doing out on your deck. Crows see those plastic owls, they veer off.'
I burst out laughing in spite of my puzzlement . . . or perhaps because of it. 'Yeah? That really works?'
'Ayuh, long's you move em every now and then so the crows don't get suspicious. Crows are just about the smartest birds going, you know. You look for those owls, save yourself a lot of mess.'
'I will,' I said. Plastic owls to scare the crows away ¡ª it was exactly the sort of knowledge Jo would come by (she was like a crow herself in that way, picking up glittery pieces of information that happened to catch her interest) and act upon without bothering to tell me. All at once I was lonely for her again ¡ª missing her like hell.
'Good. Some day when I've got more time, we'll walk the place all the way around. Woods too, if you want. I think you'll be satisfied.'
'I'm sure I will. Where's Devore staying?'
The bushy eyebrows went up. 'Warrington's. Him and you's practically neighbors. I thought you must know.'
I remembered the woman I'd seen ¡ª black bathing-suit and black shorts somehow combining to give her an exotic cocktail-party look ¡ª and nodded. 'I met his wife.'
Bill laughed heartily enough at that to feel in need of his handkerchief. He fished it off the dashboard (a blue paisley thing the size of a football pennant) and wiped his eyes.
'What's so funny?' I asked.
'Skinny woman? White hair? Face sort of like a kid's Halloween mask?'
It was my turn to laugh. 'That's her.'
'She ain't his wife, she's his whatdoyoucallit, personal assistant. Rogette Whitmore is her name.' He pronounced it ro-GET, with a hard G. 'Devore's wives're all dead. The last one twenty years.'
'What kind of name is Rogette? French?'
'California,' he said, and shrugged as if that one word explained everything. 'There's people in town scared of her.'
'Is that so?'
'Ayuh.' Bill hesitated, then added with one of those smiles we put on when we want others to know that we know we're saying something silly: 'Brenda Meserve says she's a witch.'
'And the two of them have been staying at Warrington's almost a year?'
'Ayuh. The Whitmore woman comes n goes, but mostly she's been here. Thinkin in town is that they'll stay until the custody case is finished off, then all go back to California on Devore's private jet. Leave Osgood to sell Warrington's, and ¡ª '
'Sell it? What do you mean, sell it?'
'I thought you must know,' Bill said, dropping his gearshift into drive. 'When old Hugh Emerson told Devore they closed the lodge after Thanksgiving, Devore told him he had no intention of moving. Said he was comfortable right where he was and meant to stay put.'
'He bought the place.' I had been by turns surprised, amused, and angered over the last twenty minutes, but never exactly dumbfounded. Now I was. 'He bought Warrington's Lodge so he wouldn't have to move to Lookout Rock Hotel over in Castle View, or rent a house.'
'Ayuh, so he did. Nine buildins, includin the main lodge and The Sunset Bar; twelve acres of woods, a six-hole golf course, and five hundred feet of shorefront on The Street. Plus a two-lane bowlin alley and a softball field. Four and a quarter million. His friend Osgood did the deal and Devore paid with a personal check. I wonder how he found room for all those zeros. See you, Mike.'
With that he backed up the driveway, leaving me to stand on the stoop, looking after him with my mouth open.
Bill had told me roughly two dozen interesting things in between peeks at his watch, but the one which stayed on top of the pile was the fact (and I did accept it as a fact; he had been too positive for me not to) that Jo had come down here to take delivery on a couple of plastic goddam owls.
Had she told me?
She might have. I didn't remember her doing so, and it seemed to me that I would have, but Jo used to claim that when I got in the zone it was no good to tell me anything; stuff went in one ear and out the other. Sometimes she'd pin little notes ¡ª errands to run, calls to make ¡ª to my shirt, as if I were a first-grader. But wouldn't I recall if she'd said 'I'm going down to Sara, hon, UPS is delivering something I want to receive personally, interested in keeping a lady company?' Hell wouldn't I have gone? I always liked an excuse to go to the TR. Except I'd been working on that screenplay . . . and maybe pushing it a little . . . notes pinned to the sleeve of my shirt . . . If you go out when you're finished, we need milk and orange juice . . .
I inspected what little was left of Jo's vegetable garden with the July sun beating down on my neck and thought about owls, the plastic god-dam owls. Suppose Jo had told me she was coming down here to Sara Laughs? Suppose I had declined almost without hearing the offer because I was in the writing zone? Even if you granted those things, there was another question: why had she felt the need to come down here personally when she could have just called someone and asked them to meet the delivery truck? Kenny Auster would have been happy to do it, ditto Mrs. M. And Bill Dean, our caretaker, had actually been here. This led to other questions ¡ª one was why she hadn't just had UPS deliver the damned things to Derry ¡ª and finally I decided I couldn't live without actually seeing a bona fide plastic owl for myself. Maybe, I thought, going back to the house, I'd put one on the roof of my Chew when it was parked in the driveway. Forestall future bombing runs.
I paused in the entry, struck by a sudden idea, and called Ward Hankins, the guy in Waterville who handles my taxes and my few non-writing-related business affairs.
'Mike,' he said heartily. 'How's the lake?'
'The lake's cool and the weather's hot, just the way we like it,' I said. 'Ward, you keep all the records we send you for five years, don't you? Just in case IRS decides to give us some grief?'
'Five is accepted practice,' he said, 'but I hold your stuff for seven ¡ª in the eyes of the tax boys, you're a mighty fat pigeon.'
Better a fat pigeon than a plastic owl, I thought but didn't say. What I said was 'That includes desk calendars, right? Mine and. Jo's, up until she died?'
'You bet. Since neither of you kept diaries, it was the best way to cross-reference receipts and claimed expenses with ¡ª '
'Could you find Jo's desk calendar for 1993 and see what she had going in the second week of November?'
'Td be happy to. What in particular are you looking for?'
For a moment I saw myself sitting at my kitchen table in Derry on my first night as a widower, holding up a box with the words Norco Home Pregnancy Test printed on the side. Exactly what was I looking for at this late date? Considering that I had loved the lady and she was almost four years in her grave, what was I looking for? Besides trouble, that was?
'I'm looking for two plastic owls,' I said. Ward probably thought I was talking to him, but I'm not sure I was. 'I know that sounds weird, but it's what I'm doing. Can you call me back?'
'Within the hour.'
'Good man,' I said, and hung up.
Now for the actual owls themselves. Where was the most likely spot to store two such interesting artifacts?
My eyes went to the cellar door. Elementary, my dear Watson.
The cellar stairs were dark and mildly dank. As I stood on the landing groping for the lightswitch, the door banged shut behind me with such force that I cried out in surprise. There was no breeze, no draft, the day was perfectly still, but the door banged shut just the same. Or was sucked shut.
I stood in the dark at the top of the stairs, feeling for the lightswitch, smelling that oozy smell that even good concrete foundations get after awhile if there is no proper airing-out. It was cold, much colder than it had been on the other side of the door. I wasn't alone and I knew it. I was afraid, I'd be a liar to say I wasn't . . . but I was also fascinated. Something was with me. Something was in here with me.
I dropped my hand away from the wall where the switch was and just stood with my arms at my sides. Some time passed. I don't know how much. My heart was beating furiously in my chest; I could feel it in my temples. It was cold. 'Hello?' I asked.
Nothing in response. I could hear the faint, irregular drip of water as condensation fell from one of the pipes down below, I could hear my own breathing, and faintly ¡ª far away, in another world where the sun was out ¡ª I could hear the triumphant caw of a crow. Perhaps it had just dropped a load on the hood of my car. I really need an owl, I thought. In fact, I don't know how I ever got along without one.
'Hello?' I asked again. 'Can you talk?'
I wet my lips. I should have felt silly, perhaps, standing there in the dark and calling to the ghosts. But I didn't. Not a bit. The damp had been replaced by a coldness I could feel, and I had company. Oh, yes. 'Can you tap, then? If you can shut the door, you must be able to tap.'
I stood there and listened to the soft, isolated drips from the pipes. There was nothing else. I was reaching out for the lightswitch again when there was a soft thud from not far below me. The cellar of Sara Laughs is high, and the upper three feet of the concrete ¡ª the part which lies against the ground's frost-belt ¡ª had been insulated with big silver-backed panels of Insu-Gard. The sound that I heard was, I am quite sure, a fist striking against one of these.
Just a fist hitting a square of insulation, but every gut and muscle of my body seemed to come unwound. My hair stood up. My eyesockets seemed to be expanding and my eyeballs contracting, as if my head were trying to turn into a skull. Every inch of my skin broke out in gooseflesh. Something was in here with me. Very likely something dead. I could no longer have turned on the light if I'd wanted to. I no longer had the strength to raise my arm.
I tried to talk, and at last, in a husky whisper I hardly recognized, I said: 'Are you really there?'
'Who are you?' I could still do no better than that husky whisper, the voice of a man giving last instructions to his family as he lies on his deathbed. This time there was nothing from below.
I tried to think, and what came to my struggling mind was Tony Curtis as Harry Houdini in some old movie. According to the film, Houdini had been the Diogenes of the Ouija board circuit, a guy who spent his spare time just looking for an honest medium. He'd attended one s¨¦ance where the dead communicated by ¡ª
'Tap once for yes, twice for no,' I said. 'Can you do that?'
It was on the stairs below me . . . but not too far below. Five steps down, six or seven at most. Not quite close enough to touch if I should reach out and wave my hand in the black basement air . . . a thing I could imagine, but not actually imagine doing.
'Are you . . . ' My voice trailed off. There was simply no strength in my diaphragm. Chilly air lay on my chest like a flatiron. I gathered all my will and tried again. 'Are you Jo?'
Thud. That soft fist on the insulation. A pause, and then: Thud-thud.
Yes and no.
Then, with no idea why I was asking such an inane question: 'Are the owls down here?'
'Do you know where they are?'
'Should I look for them?'
Thud! Very hard.
Why did she want them? I could ask, but the thing on the stairs had no way to an
Hot fingers touched my eyes and I almost screamed before realizing it was sweat. I raised my hands in the dark and wiped the heels of them up my face to the hairline. They skidded as if on oil. Cold or not, I was all but bathing in my own sweat.
'Are you Lance Devore?'
Thud-thud, at once.
'Is it safe for me at Sara? Am I safe?'
Thud. A pause. And I knew it was a pause, that the thing on the stairs wasn't finished. Then: Thud-thud. Yes, I was safe. No, I wasn't safe.
I had regained marginal control of my arm. I reached out, felt along the wall, and found the lightswitch. I settled my fingers on it. Now the sweat on my face felt as if it were turning to ice.
'Are you the person who cries in the night?' I asked.
Thud-thud from below me, and between the two thuds, I flicked the switch. The cellar globes came on. So did a brilliant hanging bulb at least a hundred and twenty-five watts ¡ª over the landing. There was no time for anyone to hide, let alone get away, and no one there to try, either. Also, Mrs. Meserve ¡ª admirable in so many ways ¡ª had neglected to sweep the cellar stairs. When I went down to where I estimated the thudding sounds had been coming from, I left tracks in the light dust. But mine were the only ones.
I blew out breath in front of me and could see it. So it had been cold, still was cold . . . but it was warming up fast. I blew out another breath and could see just a hint of fog. A third exhale and there was nothing.
I ran my palm over one of the insulated squares. Smooth. I pushed a finger at it, and although I didn't push with any real force, my finger left a dimple in the silvery surface. Easy as pie. If someone had been thumping a fist down here, this stuff should be pitted, the thin silver skin perhaps even broken to reveal the pink fill underneath. But all the squares were smooth.
'Are you still there?' I asked.
No response, and yet I had a sense that my visitor was still there. Somewhere.
'I hope I didn't offend you by turning on the light,' I said, and now I did feel slightly odd, standing on my cellar stairs and talking out loud, sermonizing to the spiders. 'I wanted to see you if I could.' I had no idea if that was true or not.
Suddenly ¡ª so suddenly I almost lost my balance and tumbled down the stairs ¡ª I whirled around, convinced the shroud-creature was behind me, that it had been the thing knocking, it, no polite M. R. James ghost but a horror from around the rim of the universe.
There was nothing.
I turned around again, took two or three deep, steadying breaths, and then went the rest of the way down the cellar stairs. Beneath them was a perfectly serviceable canoe, complete with paddle. In the corner was the gas stove we'd replaced after buying the place; also the claw-foot tub Jo had wanted (over my objections) to turn into a planter. I found a trunk filled with vaguely recalled table-linen, a box of mildewy cassette tapes (groups like the Delfonics, Funkadelic, and. 38 Special), several cartons of old dishes. There was a life down here, but ultimately not a very interesting one. Unlike the life I'd sensed in Jo's studio, this one hadn't been cut short but evolved out of, shed like old skin, and that was all right. Was, in fact, the natural order of things.
There was a photo album on a shelf of knickknacks and I took it down, both curious and wary. No bombshells this time, however; nearly all the pix were landscape shots of Sara Laughs as it had been when we bought it. I found a picture of Jo in bellbottoms, though (her hair parted in the middle and white lipstick on her mouth), and one of Michael Noonan wearing a flowered shirt and muttonchop sideburns that made me cringe (the bachelor Mike in the photo was a Barry White kind of guy I didn't want to recognize and yet did).
I found Jo's old broken treadmill, a rake I'd want if I was still around here come fall, a snowblower I'd want even more if I was around come winter, and several cans of paint. What I didn't find was any plastic owls. My insulation-thumping friend had been right.
Upstairs the telephone started ringing.
I hurried to answer it, going out through the cellar door and then reaching back in to flick off the lightswitch. This amused me and at the same time seemed like perfectly normal behavior . . . just as being careful not to step on sidewalk cracks had seemed like perfectly normal behavior to me when I was a kid. And even if it wasn't normal, what did it matter? I'd only been back at Sara for three days, but already I'd postulated Noonan's First Law of Eccentricity: when you're on your own, strange behavior really doesn't seem strange at all.
I snagged the cordless. 'Hello?'
'Hi, Mike. It's Ward.'
'That was quick.'
'The file-room's just a short walk down the hall,' he said. 'Easy as pie. There's only one thing on Jo's calendar for the second week of November in 1993. It says 'S-Ks of Maine, Freep, 11 A.M.' That's on Tuesday the sixteenth. Does it help?'
'Yes,' I said. 'Thank you, Ward. It helps a lot.'
I broke the connection and put the phone back in its cradle. Yes, it helped. S-Ks of Maine was Soup Kitchens of Maine. Jo had been on their board of directors from 1992 until her death. Freep was Freeport. It must have been a board meeting. They had probably discussed plans for feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving . . . and then Jo had driven the seventy or so miles to the TR in order to take delivery of two plastic owls. It didn't answer all the questions, but aren't there always questions in the wake of a loved one's death? And no statute of limitations on when they come up.
The UFO voice spoke up then. While you're right here by the phone, it said, why not call Bonnie Amudson? Say hi, see how she's doing?
Jo had been on four different boards during the nineties, all of them doing charitable work. Her friend Bonnie had persuaded her onto the Soup Kitchens board when a seat fell vacant. They had gone to a lot of the meetings together. Not the one in November of 1993, presumably, and Bonnie could hardly be expected to remember that one particular meeting almost five years later . . . but if she'd saved her old minutes-of-the-meeting sheets . . .
Exactly what the fuck was I thinking of? Calling Bonnie, making nice, then asking her to check her December 1993 minutes? Was I going to ask her if the attendance report had my wife absent from the November meeting? Was I going to ask if maybe Jo had seemed different that last year of her life? And when Bonnie asked me why I wanted to know, what would I say?
Give me that, Jo had snarled in my dream of her. In the dream she hadn't looked like Jo at all, she'd looked like some other woman, maybe like the one in the Book of Proverbs, the strange woman whose lips were as honey but whose heart was full of gall and wormwood. A strange woman with fingers as cold as twigs after a frost. Give me that, it's my dust-catcher.
I went to the cellar door and touched the knob. I turned it . . . then let it go. I didn't want to look down there into the dark, didn't want to risk the chance that something might start thumping again. It was better to leave that door shut. What I wanted was something cold to drink. I went into the kitchen, reached for the fridge door, then stopped. The magnets were back in a circle again, but this time four letters and one number had been pulled into the center and lined up there. They spelled a single lower-case word:
There was something here. Even back in broad daylight I had no doubt of that. I'd asked if it was safe for me to be here and had received a mixed message . . . but that didn't matter. If I left Sara now, there was nowhere to go. I had a key to the house in Derry, but matters had to be resolved here. I knew that, too.
'Hello,' I said, and opened the fridge to get a soda. 'Whoever or whatever you are, hello.'
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