II - Down in the Dark
THE GREEN FEaTHER WENT INTO MY POCKET. FROM THERE IT found its way into a White Owl cigar box in my room, along with my collection of old keys and dried-up insects. I closed the box lid, placed the box in one of the seven mystic drawers, and slid the drawer shut.
and that was how I forgot about it.
The more I thought about seeing that figure at the edge of the woods, the more I thought I'd been wrong, that my eyes had been scared from seeing Dad sink underwater as the car went down. Several times I started to tell Dad about it, but something else got in the way. Mom threw a gut-busting fit when she found out he'd jumped into the lake. She was so mad at him she sobbed as she yelled, and Dad had to sit her down at the kitchen table and explain to her calmly why he had done it. "There was a man at the wheel," Dad said. "I didn't know he was already dead, I thought he was knocked cold. If I'd stood there without doing anything, what would I have thought of myself after it was overi"
"You could've drowned!" she fired at him, tears on her cheeks. "You could've hit your head on a rock and drowned!"
"I didn't drown. I didn't hit my head on a rock. I did what I had to do." He gave her a paper napkin, and she used it to blot her eyes. a last salvo came out of her: "That lake's full of cottonmouths! You could've swum right into a nest of 'em!"
"I didn't," he said, and she sighed and shook her head as if she lived with the craziest fool ever born.
"You'd better get out of those damp clothes," she told him at last, and her voice was under control again. "I just thank God it's not your body down at the bottom of the lake, too." She stood up and helped him unbutton his soggy shirt. "Do you know who it wasi"
"Never saw him before."
"Who would do such a thing to another human beingi"
"That's for J.T. to find out." He peeled his shirt off, and Mom took it from him with two fingers as if the lake's water carried leprosy. "I've got to go over to his office to help him write it up. I'll tell you, Rebecca, when I looked into that dead man's face my heart almost stopped. I've never seen anything like that before, and I hope to God I never see such a thing again, either."
"Lord," Mom said. "What if you'd had a heart attacki Who would've saved youi"
Worrying was my mother's way. She fretted about the weather, the cost of groceries, the washing machine breaking down, the Tecumseh River being dirtied by the paper mill in adams Valley, the price of new clothes, and everything under the sun. To my mother, the world was a vast quilt whose stitches were always coming undone. Her worrying somehow worked like a needle, tightening those dangerous seams. If she could imagine events through to their worst tragedy, then she seemed to have some kind of control over them. as I said, it was her way. My father could throw up a fistful of dice to make a decision, but my mother had an agony for every hour. I guess they balanced, as two people who love each other should.
My mother's parents, Grand austin and Nana alice, lived about twelve miles south in a town called Waxahatchee, on the edge of Robbins air Force Base. Nana alice was even worse a worrier than Mom; something in her soul craved tragic manna, whereas Grand austin-who had been a logger and had a wooden leg to show for the slip of a band saw-warned her he would unscrew his leg and whop her upside the head with it if she didn't pipe down and give him peace. He called his wooden leg his "peace pipe," but as far as I know he never used it for any purpose except that for which it was carved. My mother had an older brother and sister, but my father was an only child.
anyway, I went to school that day and at the first opportunity told Davy Ray Callan, Johnny Wilson, and Ben Sears what had happened. By the time the school bell rang and I walked home, the news was moving across Zephyr like a crackling wildfire. Murder was the word of the hour. My parents were fighting off the phone calls. Everybody wanted to know the grisly details. I went outside to ride my rusted old bike and lead Rebel for a chase in the woods, and it came to me that maybe one of those people who called already knew the details. Maybe one of them was just trying to find out if he'd been seen, or what Sheriff amory knew.
I realized then, as I pedaled my bike through the forest and Rebel ran at my heels, that somebody in my hometown might be a killer.
The days passed, warming into the heart of spring. a week after Dad had jumped into Saxon's Lake, this was the story: Sheriff amory had found no one missing from Zephyr or from any of the surrounding communities. a front-page article in the weekly adams Valley Journal brought forth no new information. Sheriff amory and two of his deputies, some of the firemen, and a half dozen volunteers got out on the lake in rowboats and dragged nets back and forth, but they only came up with an angry catch of snapping turtles and cottonmouths.
Saxon's Lake used to be Saxon's Quarry back in the twenties, before the steam shovels had broken into an underground river that would not be capped or shunted aside. Estimates of its depth ranged from three hundred to five hundred feet. There wasn't a net on earth that could scoop that sunken car back to the surface.
The sheriff came by one evening for a talk with Dad and Mom, and they let me sit in on it. "Whoever did it," Sheriff amory explained, his hat in his lap and his nose throwing a shadow, "must've backed that car onto the dirt road facin' the lake. We found the tire marks, but the footprints were all scuffed over. The killer must've had somethin' wedged against the gas pedal. Just before you rounded the bend, he released the hand brake, slammed the door, and jumped back, and the car took off across Route Ten. He didn't know you were gonna be there, of course. If you hadn't been, the car would've gone on into the lake, sunk, and nobody would ever have known it happened." He shrugged. "That's the best I can come up with."
"You talked to Marty Barkleei"
"Yeah, I did. Marty didn't see anything. The way that dirt road sits, you can drive right past it at a reasonable clip and never even know it's there."
"So where does that leave usi"
The sheriff pondered my dad's question, the silver star on his hat catching the lamplight. Outside, Rebel was barking and other dogs picked up the tribal call across Zephyr. The sheriff spread his big hands out and looked at his fingers. "Tom," he said, "we have a real strange situation here. We've got tire marks but no car. You say you saw a dead man handcuffed to the wheel and a wire around his throat, but we don't have a body and we're not likely to recover one. Nobody's missin' from town. Nobody's missin' in the whole area, except a teenaged girl whose mother thinks she ran off with her boyfriend to Nashville. and the boy don't have a tattoo, by the way. I can't find anybody who's seen a fella with a tattoo like the one you described." Sheriff amory looked at me, then my mother, and then back to my dad with his coal-black eyes. "You know that riddle, Tomi The one about a tree fallin' in the woods, and if there's nobody around to hear it, does it make a noisei Well, if there's no body and no one's missin' anywhere that I can tell, was there a murder or noti"
"I know what I saw," Dad said. "are you doubtin' my word, J.T.i"
"No, I didn't say that. I'm only sayin' I can't do anything more until we get a murder victim. I need a name, Tom. I need a face. Without an identification, I don't even know where to start."
"So in the meantime somebody who killed another man is walkin' around as free as you please and doesn't have to be scared of gettin' caught anytime soon. Is that iti"
"Yep," the sheriff admitted. "That about sums it up."
Of course Sheriff amory promised he'd keep working on it, and that he'd call around the state for information on missing persons. Sooner or later, he said, somebody would have to ask after the man who had gone down in the lake. When the sheriff had gone, my father went out to sit on the front porch by himself with the light off, and he sat there alone past the time Mom told me to get ready for bed.
That was the night my father's cry awakened me in the dark.
I sat up in bed, my nerves jangled. I could hear Mom talking to Dad through the wall. "It's all right," she was saying. "It was a bad dream, just a bad dream, everything's all right."
Dad was quiet for a long time. I heard water running in the bathroom. Then the squeak of their bedsprings. "You want to tell me about iti" Mom asked him.
"No. God, no."
"It was just a bad dream."
"I don't care. It was real enough."
"Can you get back to sleepi"
He sighed. I could imagine him there in the darkened bedroom, his hands pressed to his face. "I don't know," he said.
"Let me rub your back."
The bedsprings squeaked again, as the weight of their bodies shifted. "You're awful tight," Mom said. "all up in your neck, too."
"That hurts like hell. Right there, where your thumb is."
"It's a crick. You must've pulled a muscle."
Silence. My neck and shoulders, too, had been comforted by my mother's supple hands. Every so often the springs spoke, announcing a movement. Then my father's voice came back. "I had another nightmare about that man in the car."
"I figured so."
"I was lookin' at him in that car, with his face beat all to pulp and his throat strangled with a wire. I saw the handcuff on his wrist, and the tattoo on his shoulder. The car was goin' down, and then... then his eyes opened."
I shivered. I could see it myself, and my father's voice was almost a gasp.
"He looked at me. Right at me. Water poured out of his eyeholes. He opened his mouth, and his tongue was as black as a snake's head. and then he said, 'Come with me.'"
"Don't think about it," Mom interrupted. "Just close your eyes and rest."
"I can't rest. I can't." I pictured my father's body, lying like a question mark on the bed as Mom kneaded the iron-tight muscles of his back. "My nightmare," he went on. "The man in the car reached out and grabbed my wrist. His fingernails were blue. His fingers bit hard into my skin, and he said, 'Come with me, down in the dark.' The car... the car started sinkin', faster and faster, and I tried to break loose but he wouldn't let me go, and he said, 'Come with me, come with me, down in the dark.' and then the lake closed over my head and I couldn't get away from it and I opened my mouth to scream but the water filled it up. Oh Jesus, Rebecca. Oh, Jesus."
"It wasn't real. Listen to me! It was only a bad dream, and everythin's all right now."
"No," Dad answered. "It's not. This thing is eatin' at me, and it's only gettin' worse. I thought I could put it behind me. I mean, my God, I've seen a dead person before. Up close. But this... this is different. That wire around his throat, the handcuff, the face that somebody had pounded into putty... it's different. and not knowin' who he was, or anythin' about him... it's eatin' at me, day and night."
"It'll pass," Mom said. "That's what you tell me whenever I want to worry the warts off a frog. Hang on, you tell me. It'll pass."
"Maybe it will. I hope to God it will. But for right now, it's in my head and I can't shake it loose for the life of me. and this is the worst thing, Rebecca; this is what's grindin' inside of me. Whoever did it had to be a local. Had to be. Whoever did it knew how deep the lake is. He knew when that car went in there, the body was gone. Rebecca... whoever did this thing might be somebody I deliver milk to. It might be somebody who sits on our pew at church. Somebody we buy groceries or clothes from. Somebody we've known all our lives... or thought we knew. That scares me like I've never been scared before. You know whyi" He was silent for a moment, and I could imagine the way the pulse throbbed at his temple. "Because if it's not safe here, it's not safe anywhere in this world." His voice cracked a little on the last word. I was glad I wasn't in that room, and that I couldn't see his face.
Two or three minutes passed. I think my father was just lying there, letting Mom rub his back. "Do you think you can sleep nowi" she finally asked him, and he said, "I'll try."
The springs spoke a few times. I heard my mother murmur something close to his ear. He said, "I hope so," and then they were silent. Sometimes my dad snored; tonight he did not. I wondered if he lay awake after Mom had drifted off, and if he saw the corpse in the car reaching for him to drag him under. What he'd said haunted me: if it's not safe here, it's not safe anywhere in this world. This thing had hurt my father, in a place deeper than the bottom of Saxon's Lake. Maybe it was the suddenness of what had happened, or the violence, or the cold-bloodedness of it. Maybe it was the knowledge that there were terrible secrets behind closed doors, even in the kindest of towns.
I think my father had always believed all people were good, even in their secret souls. This thing had cracked his foundations, and it occurred to me that the murderer had handcuffed my father to that awful moment in time just as the victim had been handcuffed to the wheel. I closed my eyes and prayed for Dad, that he could find his way up out of the dark.
March went out like a lamb, but the murderer's work was unfinished.
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