It snowed for Christmas ¡ª a polite six inches of powder that made the carollers working the streets of Sanford look like they belonged in It's a Wonderful Life. By the time I came back from checking Kyra for the third time, it was quarter past one on the morning of the twenty-sixth, and the snow had stopped. A late moon, plump but pale, was peeking through the unravelling fluff of clouds.
I was Christmasing with Frank again, and we were the last two up. The kids, Ki included, were dead to the world, sleeping off the annual bacchanal of food and presents. Frank was on his third Scotch ¡ª it had been a three-Scotch story if there ever was one, I guess ¡ª but I'd barely drunk the top off my first one. I think I might have gotten into the bottle quite heavily if not for Ki. On the days when I have her I usually don't drink so much as a glass of beer. And to have her three days in a row . . . but shit, kemo sabe, if you can't spend Christmas with your kid, what the hell is Christmas for?
'Are you all right?' Frank asked when I sat down again and took another little token sip from my glass.
I grinned at that. Not is she all right but are you all right. Well, nobody ever said Frank was stupid.
'You should've seen me when the Department of Human Services let me have her for a weekend in October. I must have checked on her a dozen times before I went to bed . . . and then I kept checking. Getting up and peeking in on her, listening to her breathe. I didn't sleep a wink Friday night, caught maybe three hours on Saturday. So this is a big improvement. But if you ever blab any of what I've told you, Frank ¡ª -if they ever hear about me filling up that bathtub before the storm knocked the gennie out ¡ª I can kiss my chances of adopting her goodbye. I'll probably have to fill out a form in triplicate before they even let me attend her high-school graduation.'
I hadn't meant to tell Frank the bathtub part, but once I started talking, almost everything spilled out. I suppose it had to spill to someone if I was ever to get on with my life. I'd assumed that John Storrow would be the one on the other side of the confessional when the time came, but John didn't want to talk about any of those events except as they bore on our ongoing legal business, which nowadays is all about Kyra Elizabeth Devore.
'I'll keep my mouth shut, don't worry. How goes the adoption battle?'
'Slow. I've come to loathe the State of Maine court system, and DHS as well. You take the people who work in those bureaucracies one by one and they're mostly fine, but when you put them together . . . '
'I sometimes feel like a character in Bleak House. That's the one where Dickens says that in court nobody wins but the lawyers. John tells me to be patient and count my blessings, that we're making amazing progress considering that I'm that most untrustworthy of creatures, an unmarried white male of middle age, but Ki's been in two foster-home situations since Mattie died, and ¡ª '
'Doesn't she have kin in one of those neighboring towns?'
'Mattie's aunt. She didn't want anything to do with Ki when Mattie was alive and has even less interest now. Especially since ¡ª '
' ¡ª since Ki's not going to be rich.'
'The Whitmore woman was lying about Devore's will.'
'Absolutely. He left everything to a foundation that's supposed to foster global computer literacy. With due respect to the numbercrunchers of the world, I can't imagine a colder charity.'
'How is John?'
'Pretty well mended, but he's never going to get the use of his right arm back entirely. He damned near died of blood-loss.'
Frank had led me away from the entwined subjects of Ki and custody quite well for a man deep into his third Scotch, and I was willing enough to go. I could hardly bear to think of her long days and longer nights in those homes where the Department of Human Services stores away children like knickknacks nobody wants. Ki didn't live in those places but only existed in them, pale and listless, like a well-fed rabbit kept in a cage. Each time she saw my car turning in or pulling up she came alive, waving her arms and dancing like Snoopy on his doghouse. Our weekend in October had been wonderful (despite my obsessive need to check her every half hour or so after she was asleep), and the Christmas holiday had been even better. Her emphatic desire to be with me was helping in court more than anything else . . . yet the wheels still turned slowly.
Maybe in the spring, Mike, John told me. He was a new John these days, pale and serious. The slightly arrogant eager beaver who had wanted nothing more than to go head to head with Mr. Maxwell 'Big Bucks' Devore was no longer in evidence. John had learned something about mortality on the twenty-first of July, and something about the world's idiot cruelty, as well. The man who had taught himself to shake with his left hand instead of his right was no longer interested in partying 'til he puked. He was seeing a girl in Philly, the daughter of one of his mother's friends. I had no idea if it was serious or not, Ki's 'Unca John' is closemouthed about that part of his life, but when a young man is of his own accord seeing the daughter of one of his mother's friends, it usually is.
Maybe in the spring: it was his mantra that late fall and early winter. What am I doing wrong? I asked him once ¡ª this was just after Thanksgiving and another setback.
Nothing, he replied. Single-parent adoptions are always slow, and when the putative adopter is a man, it's worse. At that point in the conversation John made an ugly little gesture, poking the index finger of his left hand in and out of his loosely cupped right fist.
That's blatant sex discrimination, John.
Yeah, but usually it's justified. Blame it on every twisted asshole who ever decided he had a right to take off some little kid's pants, if you want,' blame it on the bureaucracy, if you want,' hell, blame it on cosmic rays if you want. It's a slow process, but you're going to win in the end. You've got a clean record, you've got Kyra saying 'I want to be with Mike' to every judge and DHS worker she sees, you've got enough money to keep after them no matter how much they squirm and no matter how many forms they throw at you . . . and most of all, buddy, you've got me.
I had something else, too ¡ª what Ki had whispered in my ear as I paused to catch my breath on the steps. I'd never told John about that, and it was one of the few things I didn't tell Frank, either.
Mattie says I'm your little guy now, she had whispered. Mattie says you'll take care of me.
I was trying to ¡ª as much as the fucking slowpokes at Human Services would let me ¡ª but the waiting was hard.
Frank picked up the Scotch and tilted it in my direction. I shook my head. Ki had her heart set on snowman-making, and I wanted to be able to face the glare of early sun on fresh snow without a headache.
'Frank, how much of this do you actually believe?'
He poured for himself, then just sat for a time, looking down at the table and thinking. When he raised his head again there was a smile on his face. It was so much like Jo's that it broke my heart. And when he spoke, he juiced his ordinarily faint Boston brogue.
'Sure and I'm a half-drunk Irishman who just finished listenin to the granddaddy of all ghost stories on Christmas night,' he said. 'I believe all of it, you silly git.'
I laughed and so did he. We did it mostly through the nose, as men are apt to do when up late, maybe in their cups a little, and don't want to wake the house.
'Come on ¡ª how much really?'
'All of it,' he repeated, dropping the brogue. 'Because Jo believed it. And because of her.' He nodded his head in the direction of the stairs so I'd know which her he meant. 'She's like no other little girl I've ever seen. She's sweet enough, but there's something in her eyes. At first I thought it was losing her mother the way she did, but that's not it. There's more, isn't there?'
'Yes,' I said.
'It's in you, too. It's touched you both.'
I thought of the baying thing which Jo had managed to hold back while I poured the lye into that rotted roll of canvas. An Outsider, she had called it. I hadn't gotten a clear look at it, and probably that was good. Probably that was very good.
'Mike?' Frank looked concerned. 'You're shivering.'
'I'm okay,' I said. 'Really.'
'What's it like in the house now?' he asked. I was still living in Sara Laughs. I procrastinated until early November, then put the Derry house up for sale.
I nodded, but that wasn't completely true. On a couple of occasions I had awakened with a sensation Mattie had once mentioned ¡ª that there was someone in bed with me. But not a dangerous presence. On a couple of occasions I have smelled (or thought I have) Red perfume. And sometimes, even when the air is perfectly still, Bunter's bell will shiver out a few notes. It's as if something lonely wants to say hello.
Frank glanced at the clock, then back at me, almost apologetically. 'I've got a few more questions ¡ª okay?'
'If you can't stay up until the wee hours on Boxing Day morning,' I said, 'I guess you never can. Fire away.'
'What did you tell the police?'
'I didn't have to tell them much of anything. Footman talked enough to suit them ¡ª too much to suit Norris Ridgewick. Footman said that he and Osgood ¡ª it was Osgood driving the car, Devore's pet broker ¡ª did the drive-by because Devore had made threats about what would happen to them if they didn't. The State cops also found a copy of a wire-transfer among Devore's effects at Warrington's. Two million dollars to an account in the Grand Caymans. The name scribbled on the copy is Randolph Footman. Randolph is George's middle name. Mr. Footman is now residing in Shawshank State Prison.'
'What about Rogette?'
'Well, Whitmore was her mother's maiden name, but I think it's safe to say that Rogette's heart belonged to Daddy. She had leukemia, was diagnosed in 1996. In people her age ¡ª she was only fifty-seven when she died, by the way ¡ª it's fatal in two cases out of every three, but she was doing the chemo. Hence the wig.'
'Why did she try to kill Kyra? I don't understand that. If you broke Sara Tidwell's hold on this earthly plane of ours when you dissolved her bones, the curse should have . . . why are you looking at me that way?'
'You'd understand if you'd ever met Devore,' I said. 'This is the man who lit the whole fucking TR on fire as a way of saying goodbye when he headed west to sunny California. I thought of him the second I pulled the wig off, thought they'd swapped identities somehow. Then I thought Oh no, it's her all right, it's Rogette, she's just lost her hair somehow.'
'And you were right. The chemo.'
'I was also wrong. I know more about ghosts than I did, Frank. Maybe the most important thing is that what you see first, what you think first . . . that's what's usually true. It was him that day. Devore. He came back at the end. I'm sure of it. At the end it wasn't about Sara, not for him. At the end it wasn't even about Kyra. At the end it was about Scooter Larribee's sled.'
Silence between us. For a few moments it was so deep that I could actually hear the house breathing. You can hear that, you know. If you really listen. That's something else I know now.
'Christ,' he said at last. 'I don't think Devore came east from California to kill her,' I said. 'That wasn't the original plan.'
'Then what was? Get to know his granddaughter? Mend his fences?'
'God, no. You still don't understand what he was.'
'Tell me, then.'
'A human monster. He came back to buy her, but Mattie wouldn't sell. Then, when Sara got hold of him, he began to plan Ki's death. I suspect that Sara never found a more willing tool.'
'How many did she kill in all?' Frank asked.
'I don't know for sure. I don't think I want to. Based on Jo's notes and clippings, I'd say that there were perhaps four other . . . directed murders, shall we call them? . . . in the years between 1901 and 1998. All children, all K-names, all closely related to the men who killed her.'
'I don't think God had much to do with it . . . but she made them pay, all right.'
'You're sorry for her, aren't you?'
'Yes. I would have torn her apart before I let her put so much as a finger on Ki, but of course I am. She was raped and murdered. Her child was drowned while she herself lay dying. My God, aren't you sorry for her?'
'I suppose I am. Mike, do you know who the other boy was? The crying boy? Was he the one who died of blood-poisoning?'
'Most of Jo's notes concerned that part of it ¡ª it's where she got started. Royce Merrill knew the story well. The crying boy was Reg Tidwell, Junior. You have to understand that by September of 1901, when the Red-Tops played their last show in Castle County, almost everyone on the TR knew that Sara and her boy had been murdered, and almost everyone had a good idea of who'd done it.
'Reg Tidwell spent a lot of that August hounding the County Sheriff, Nehemiah Bannerman. At first it was to find them alive ¡ª Tidwell wanted a search mounted ¡ª and then it was to find their bodies, and then it was to find their killers . . . because once he accepted that they were dead, he never doubted that they'd been murdered.
'Bannerman was sympathetic at first. Everyone seemed sympathetic at first. The Red-Top crowd had been treated wonderfully during their time on the TR ¡ª that was what infuriated Jared the most ¡ª and I think you can forgive Son Tidwell for making a crucial mistake.'
'What mistake was that?'
Why, he got the idea that Mars was heaven, I thought. The TR must have seemed like heaven to them, right up until Sara and Kito went for a stroll, the boy carrying his berry-bucket, and never came back. It must have seemed that they'd finally found a place where they could be black people and still be allowed to breathe.
'Thinking they'd be treated like regular folks when things went wrong, just because they'd been treated that way when things were right. Instead, the TR clubbed together against them. No one who had an idea of what Jared and his prot¨¦g¨¦s had done condoned it, exactly, but when the chips were down . . . '
'You protect your own, you wash your dirty laundry with the door closed,' Frank murmured, and finished his drink.
'Yeah. By the time the Red-Tops played the Castle County Fair, their little community down by the lake had begun to break up ¡ª this is all according to Jo's notes, you understand; there's not a whisper of it in any of the town histories.
'By Labor Day the active harassment had started ¡ª so Royce told Jo. It got a little uglier every day ¡ª a little scarier ¡ª but Son Tidwell flat didn't want to go, not until he found out what had happened to his sister and nephew. He apparently kept the blood family there in the meadow even after the others had taken off for friendlier locations.
'Then someone laid the trap. There was a clearing in the woods about a mile east of what's now called Tidwell's Meadow; it had a big birch cross in the middle of it. Jo had a picture of it in her studio. That was where the black community had their services after the doors of the local churches were closed to them. The boy ¡ª Junior ¡ª used to go up there a lot to pray or just to sit and meditate. There were plenty of folks in the township who knew his routine. Someone put a leghold trap on the little path through the woods that the boy used. Covered it with leaves and needles.'
'Jesus,' Frank said. He sounded ill.
'Probably it wasn't Jared Devore or his logger-boys who set it, either ¡ª they didn't want any more to do with Sara and Son's people after the murders, they kept right clear of them. It might not even have been a friend of those boys. By then they didn't have that many friends. But that didn't change the fact that those folks down by the lake were getting out of their place, scratching at things better left alone, refusing to take no for an answer. So someone set the trap. I don't think there was any intent to actually kill the boy, but to maim him? Maybe see him with his foot off, condemned to a lifetime crutch? I think they may have gotten that far in their imagining.
'In any case it worked. The boy stepped in the trap . . . and for quite awhile they didn't find him. The pain must have been excruciating. Then the blood-poisoning. He died. Son gave up. He had other kids to think about, not to mention the people who'd stuck with him. They packed up their clothes and their guitars and left. Jo traced some of them to North Carolina, where many of the descendants still live. And during the fires of 1933, the ones young Max Devore set, the cabins burned flat'
'I don't understand why the bodies of Sara and her son weren't found,' Frank said. 'I understand that what you smelled ¡ª the putrescence ¡ª wasn't there in any physical sense. But surely at the time . . . if this path you call The Street was so popular . . . '
'Devore and the others didn't bury them where I found them, not to begin with. They would have started by dragging the bodies deeper into the woods ¡ª maybe up to where the north wing of Sara Laughs stands now. They covered them with brush and came back that night. Must have been that night; to leave them any longer would have drawn every carnivore in the woods. They took them someplace else and buried them in that roll of canvas. Jo didn't know where, but my guess is Bowie Ridge, where they'd spent most of the summer cutting. Hell, Bowie Ridge is still pretty isolated. They put the bodies somewhere; we might as well say there.'
'Then how . . . why . . . '
'Draper Finney wasn't the only one haunted by what they did, Frank ¡ª they all were. Literally haunted. With the possible exception of Jared Devore, I suppose. He lived another ten years and apparently never missed a meal. But the boys had bad dreams, they drank too much, they fought too much, they argued . . . bristled if anyone so much as mentioned the Red-Tops . . . '
'Might as well have gone around wearing signs reading KICK US, WE'RE GUILTY,' Frank commented.
'Yes. It probably didn't help that most of the TR was giving them the silent treatment. Then Finney died in the quarry ¡ª committed suicide in the quarry, I think ¡ª and Jared's logger-boys got an idea. Came down with it like a cold. Only it was more like a compulsion. Their idea was that if they dug up the bodies and reburied them where it happened, things'd go back to normal for them.'
'Did Jared go along with the idea?'
'According to Jo's notes, by then they never went near him. They reburied the bag of bones ¡ª without Jared Devore's help ¡ª where I eventually dug it up. In the late fall or early winter of 1902, I think.'
'She wanted to be back, didn't she? Sara. Back where she could really work on them.'
'And on the whole township. Yes. Jo thought so, too. Enough so she didn't want to go back to Sara Laughs once she found some of this stuff out. Especially when she guessed she was pregnant. When we started trying to have a baby and I suggested the name Kia, how that must have scared her! And I never saw.'
'Sara thought she could use you to kill Kyra if Devore played out before he could get the job done ¡ª he was old and in bad health, after all. Jo gambled that you'd save her instead. That's what you think, isn't it?'
'And she was right.'
'I couldn't have done it alone. From the night I dreamed about Sara singing, Jo was with me every step of the way. Sara couldn't make her quit.'
'No, she wasn't a quitter,' Frank agreed, and wiped at one eye. 'What do you know about your twice-great-aunt? The one that married Auster?'
'Bridget Noonan Auster,' I said. 'Bridey, to her friends. I asked my mother and she swears up and down she knows nothing, that Jo never asked her about Bridey, but I think she might be lying. The young woman was definitely the black sheep of the family ¡ª I can tell just by the sound of Mom's voice when the name comes up. I have no idea how she met Benton Auster. Let's say he was down in the Prout's Neck part of the world visiting friends and started flirting with her at a clambake. That's as likely as anything else. This was in 1884. She was eighteen, he was twenty-three. They got married, one of those hurry-up jobs. Harry, the one who actually drowned Kito Tidwell, came along six months later.'
'So he was barely seventeen when it happened,' Frank said. 'Great God.'
'And by then his mother had gotten religion. His terror over what she'd think if she ever found out was part of the reason he did what he did. Any other questions, Frank? Because I'm really starting to fade.'
For several moments he said nothing ¡ª I had begun to think he was done when he said, 'Two others. Do you mind?'
'I guess it's too late to back out now. What are they?'
'The Shape you spoke of. The Outsider. That troubles me.'
I said nothing. It troubled me, too.
'Do you think there's a chance it might come back?'
'It always does,' I said. 'At the risk of sounding pompous, the Outsider eventually comes back for all of us, doesn't it? Because we're all bags of bones. And the Outsider . . . Frank, the Outsider wants what's in the bag.'
He mulled this over, then swallowed the rest of his Scotch at a gulp.
'You had one other question?'
'Yes,' he said. 'Have you started writing again?'
I went upstairs a few minutes later, checked Ki, brushed my teeth, checked Ki again, then climbed into bed. From where I lay I was able to look out the window at the pale moon shining on the snow.
Have you started writing again?
No. Other than a rather lengthy essay on how I spent my summer vacation which I may show to Kyra in some later year, there's been nothing. I know that Harold is nervous, and sooner or later I suppose I'll have to call him and tell him what he already guesses: the machine which ran so sweet for so long has stopped. It isn't broken ¡ª this memoir came out with nary a gasp or missed heartbeat ¡ª but the machine has stopped, just the same. There's gas in the tank, the sparkplugs spark and the battery bats, but the wordygurdy stands there quiet in the middle of my head. I've put a tarp over it. It's served me well, you see, and I don't like to think of it getting dusty.
Some of it has to do with the way Mattie died. It occurred to me at some point this fall that I had written similar deaths in at least two of my books, and popular fiction is heaped with other examples of the same thing. Have you set up a moral dilemma you don't know how to solve? Is the protagonist sexually attracted to a woman who is much too young for him, shall we say? Need a quick fix? Easiest thing in the world. 'When the story starts going sour, bring on the man with the gun.' Raymond Chandler said that, or something like it ¡ª close enough for government work, kemo sabe.
Murder is the worst kind of pornography, murder is let me do what I want taken to its final extreme. I believe that even make-believe murders should be taken seriously; maybe that's another idea I got last summer. Perhaps I got it while Mattie was struggling in my arms, gushing blood from her smashed head and dying blind, still crying out for her daughter as she left this earth. To think I might have written such a hellishly convenient death in a book, ever, sickens me.
Or maybe I just wish there'd been a little more time.
I remember telling Ki it's best not to leave love letters around; what I thought but didn't say was that they can come back to haunt you. I am haunted anyway . . . but I will not willingly haunt myself, and when I closed my book of dreams I did so of my own free will. I think I could have poured lye over those dreams as well, but from that I stayed my hand.
I've seen things I never expected to see and felt things I never expected to feel ¡ª not the least of them what I felt and still feel for the child sleeping down the hall from me. She's my little guy now, I'm her big guy, and that's the important thing. Nothing else seems to matter half so much.
Thomas Hardy, who supposedly said that the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones, stopped writing novels himself after finishing Jude the Obscure and while he was at the height of his narrative genius. He went on writing poetry for another twenty years, and when someone asked him why he'd quit fiction he said he couldn't understand why he had trucked with it so long in the first place. In retrospect it seemed silly to him, he said. Pointless. I know exactly what he meant. In the time between now and whenever the Outsider remembers me and decides to come back, there must be other things to do, things that mean more than those shadows. I think I could go back to clanking chains behind the Ghost House wall, but I have no interest in doing so. I've lost my taste for spooks. I like to imagine Mattie would think of Bartleby in Melville's story.
I've put down my scrivener's pen. These days I prefer not to.
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