The murk came back and transformed that Sunday night's dusk into a thing of decadent beauty. The sun turned red as it slid down toward the hills and the haze picked up the glow, turning the western sky into a nosebleed. I sat out on the deck and watched it, trying to do a crossword puzzle and not getting very far. When the phone rang, I dropped Tough Stuff on top of my manuscript as I went to answer it. I was tired of looking at the title of my book every time I passed.
'What's going on up there?' John Storrow demanded. He didn't even bother to say hi. He didn't sound angry, though; he sounded totally pumped. 'I'm missing the whole goddam soap opera!'
'I invited myself to lunch on Tuesday,' I said. 'Hope you don't mind.'
'No, that's good, the more the merrier.' He sounded as if he absolutely meant it. 'What a summer, huh? What a summer! Anything happen just lately? Earthquakes? Volcanoes? Mass suicides?'
'No mass suicides, but the old guy died,' I said.
'Shit, the whole world knows Max Devore kicked it,' he said. 'Surprise me, Mike! Stun me! Make me holler boy-howdy!'
'No, the other old guy. Royce Merrill.'
'I don't know who you ¡ª oh, wait. The one with the gold cane who looked like an exhibit from Jurassic Park?'
'Bummer. Otherwise . . . ?'
'Otherwise everything's under control,' I said, then thought of the popped-out eyes of the cat-clock and almost laughed. What stopped me was a kind of surety that Mr. Good Humor Man was just an act ¡ª John had really called to ask what, if anything, was going on between me and Mattie. And what was I going to say? Nothing yet? One kiss, one instant blue-steel hard-on, the fundamental things apply as time goes by?
But John had other things on his mind. 'Listen, Michael, I called because I've got something to tell you. I think you'll be both amused and amazed.'
'A state we all crave,' I said. 'Lay it on me.'
'Rogette Whitmore called, and . . . you didn't happen to give her my parents' number, did you? I'm back in New York now, but she called me in Philly.'
'I didn't have your parents' number. You didn't leave it on either of your machines.'
'Oh, right.' No apology; he seemed too excited to think of such mundanities. I began to feel excited myself, and I didn't even know what the hell was going on. 'I gave it to Mattie. Do you think the Whitmore woman called Mattie to get it? Would Mattie give it to her?'
'I'm not sure that if Mattie came upon Rogette flaming in a thoroughfare, she'd piss on her to put her out.'
'Vulgar, Michael, tr¨¨s vulgarino.' But he was laughing. 'Maybe Whitmore got it the same way Devore got yours.'
'Probably so,' I said. 'I don't know what'll happen in the months ahead, but right now I'm sure she's still got access to Max Devore's personal control panel. And if anyone knows how to push the buttons on it, it's probably her. Did she call from Palm Springs?'
'Uh-huh. She said she'd just finished a preliminary meeting with Devore's attorneys concerning the old man's will. According to her, Grampa left Mattie Devore eighty million dollars.'
I was struck silent. I wasn't amused yet, but I was certainly amazed.
'Gets ya, don't it?' John said gleefully.
'You mean he left it to Kyra,' I said at last. 'Left it in trust to Kyra.'
'No, that's just what he did not do. I asked Whitmore three times, but by the third I was starting to understand. There was method in his madness. Not much, but a little. You see, there's a condition. If he left the money to the minor child instead of to the mother, the condition would have no weight. It's funny when you consider that Mattie isn't long past minor status herself.'
'Funny,' I agreed, and thought of her dress sliding between my hands and her smooth bare waist. I also thought of Bill Dean saying that men who went with girls that age always looked the same, had their tongues run out even if their mouths were shut.
'What string did he put on the money?'
'That Mattie remain on the TR for one year following Devore's death ¡ª until July 17, 1999. She can leave on day-trips, but she has to be tucked up in her TR-90 bed every night by nine o'clock, or else the legacy is forfeit. Did you ever hear such a bullshit thing in your life? Outside of some old George Sanders movie, that is?'
'No,' I said, and recalled my visit to the Fryeburg Fair with Kyra. Even in death he's seeking custody, I had thought, and of course this was the same thing. He wanted them here. Even in death he wanted them on the TR.
'It won't fly?' I asked.
'Of course it won't fly. Fucking crackpot might as well have written he'd give her eighty million dollars if she used blue tampons for a year. But she'll get the eighty mil, all right. My heart is set on it. I've already talked to three of our estate guys, and . . . you don't think I should bring one of them up with me on Tuesday, do you? Will Stevenson'll be the point man in the estate phase, if Mattie agrees.' He was all but babbling. He hadn't had a thing to drink, I'd've bet the farm on it, but he was sky-high on all the possibilities. We'd gotten to the happily-ever-after part of the fairy tale, as far as he was concerned; Cinderella comes home from the ball through a cash cloudburst.
' . . . course Will's a little bit old,' John was saying, 'about three hundred or so, which means he's not exactly a fun guy at a party, but . . . '
'Leave him home, why don't you?' I said. 'There'll be plenty of time to carve up Devore's will later on. And in the immediate future, I don't think Mattie's going to have any problem observing the bullshit condition. She just got her job back, remember?'
'Yeah, the white buffalo drops dead and the whole herd scatters!' John exulted. 'Look at em go! And the new multimillionaire goes back to filing books and mailing out overdue notices! Okay, Tuesday we'll just party.'
'Party 'til we puke.'
'Well . . . maybe us older folks will just party until we're mildly nauseated, would that be all right?'
'Sure. I've already called Romeo Bissonette, and he's going to bring George Kennedy, the private detective who got all that hilarious shit on Durgin. Bissonette says Kennedy's a scream when he gets a drink or two in him. I thought I'd bring some steaks from Peter Luger's, did I tell you that?'
'I don't believe you did.'
'Best steaks in the world. Michael, do you realize what's happened to that young woman? Eighty million dollars!'
'She'll be able to replace Scoutie.'
'Nothing. Will you come in tomorrow night or on Tuesday?'
'Tuesday morning around ten, into Castle County Airport. New England Air. Mike, are you all right? You sound odd.'
'I'm all right. I'm where I'm supposed to be. I think.'
'What's that supposed to mean?' I had wandered out onto the deck. In the distance thunder rumbled. It was hotter than hell, not a breath of breeze stirring. The sunset was fading to a baleful afterglow. The sky in the west looked like the white of a bloodshot eye.
'I don't know,' I said, 'but I have an idea the situation will clarify itself. I'll meet you at the airport.'
'Okay,' he said, and then, in a hushed, almost reverential voice: 'Eighty million motherfucking American dollars.'
'It's a whole lotta lettuce,' I agreed, and wished him a good night.
I drank black coffee and ate toast in the kitchen the next morning, watching the TV weatherman. Like so many of them these days, he had a slightly mad look, as if all those Doppler radar images had driven him to the brink of something. I think of it as the Millennial Video Game look.
'We've got another thirty-six hours of this soup to work through and then there's going to be a big change,' he was saying, and pointed to some dark gray scum lurking in the Midwest. Tiny animated lightning-bolts danced in it like defective sparkplugs. Beyond the scum and the lightning-bolts, America looked clear all the way out to the desert country, and the posted temperatures were fifteen degrees cooler. 'We'll see temps in the mid-nineties today and can't look for much relief tonight or tomorrow morning. But tomorrow afternoon these frontal storms will reach western Maine, and I think most of you are going to want to keep updated on weather conditions. Before we get back to cooler air and bright clear skies on Wednesday, we're probably going to see violent thunderstorms, heavy rain, hail in some locations. Tornados are rare in Maine, but some towns in western and central Maine could see them tomorrow. Back to you, Earl.'
Earl, the morning news guy, had the innocent beefy look of a recent retiree from the Chippendales and read off the Teleprompter like one. 'Wow,' he said. 'That's quite a forecast, Vince. Tornados a possibility.'
'Wow,' I said. 'Say wow again, Earl. Do it 'til I'm satisfied.'
'Holy cow,' Earl said just to spite me, and the telephone rang. I went to answer it, giving the waggy clock a look as I went by. The night had been quiet ¡ª no sobbing, no screaming, no nocturnal adventures ¡ª but the clock was disquieting, just the same. It hung there On the wall eyeless and dead, like a message full of bad news.
I knew the voice, but for a moment couldn't place it. It was because she had called me Mr. Noonan. To Brenda Meserve I'd been Mike for almost fifteen years.
'Mrs M.? Brenda? What ¡ª '
'I can't work for you anymore,' she said, all in a rush. 'I'm sorry I can't give you proper notice ¡ª I never stopped work for anyone without giving notice, not even that old drunk Mr Croyden ¡ª but I have to. Please understand.'
'Did Bill find out I called you? I swear to God, Brenda, I never said a word ¡ª '
'No. I haven't spoken to him, nor he to me. I just can't come back to Sara Laughs. I had a bad dream last night. A terrible dream. I dreamed that . . . something's mad at me. If I come back, I could have an accident. It would look like an accident, at least, but . . . it wouldn't be.'
That's silly, Mrs M., I wanted to say. You're surely past the age where you believe in campfire stories about ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties.
But of course I could say no such thing. What was going on in my house was no campfire story. I knew it, and she knew I did.
'Brenda, if I've caused you any trouble, I'm truly sorry.'
'Go away, Mr. Noonan . . . Mike. Go back to Derry and stay for awhile. It's the best thing you could do.'
I heard the letters sliding on the fridge and turned. This time I actually saw the circle of fruits and vegetables form. It stayed open at the top long enough for four letters to slide inside. Then a little plastic lemon plugged the hole and completed the circle.
the letters said, then swapped themselves around, making
Then both the circle and the letters broke up.
'Mike, please.' Mrs. M. was crying. 'Royce's funeral is tomorrow. Everyone in the TR who matters ¡ª the old-timers ¡ª will be there.'
Yes, of course they would. The old ones, the bags of bones who knew what they knew and kept it to themselves. Except some of them had talked to my wife. Royce himself had talked to her. Now he was dead. So was she.
'It would be best if you were gone. You could take that young woman with you, maybe. Her and her little girl.'
But could I? I somehow didn't think so. I thought the three of us were on the TR until this was over . . . and I was starting to have an idea of when that would be. A storm was coming. A summer storm. Maybe even a tornado.
'Brenda, thanks for calling me. And I'm not letting you go. Let's just call it a leave of absence, shall we?'
'Fine . . . whatever you want. Will you at least think about what I said?'
'Yes. In the meantime, I don't think I'd tell anyone you called me, all right?'
'No!' she said, sounding shocked. Then: 'But they'll know. Bill and Yvette . . . Dickie Brooks at the garage . . . old Anthony Weyland and Buddy Jellison and all the others . . . they'll know. Goodbye, Mr. Noonan. I'm so sorry. For you and your wife. Your poor wife. I'm so sorry.' Then she was gone.
I held the phone in my hand for a long time. Then, like a man in a dream, I put it down, crossed the room, and took the eyeless clock off the wall. I threw it in the trash and went down to the lake for a swim, remembering that W. E Harvey story 'August Heat,' the one that ends with the line 'The heat is enough to drive a man mad.'
I'm not a bad swimmer when people aren't pelting me with rocks, but my first shore-to-float-to-shore lap was tentative and unrhythmic ¡ª ugly ¡ª because I kept expecting something to reach up from the bottom and grab me. The drowned boy, maybe. The second lap was better, and by the third I was relishing the increased kick of my heart and the silky coolness of the water rushing past me. Halfway through the fourth lap I pulled myself up the float's ladder and collapsed on the boards, feeling better than I had since my encounter with Devore and Rogette Whitmore on Friday night. I was still in the zone, and on top of that I was experiencing a glorious endorphin rush. In that state, even the dismay I'd felt when Mrs M. told me she was resigning her position ebbed away. She would come back when this was over; of course she would. In the meantime, it was probably best she stay away.
Something's mad at me. I could have an accident.
Yes indeed. She might cut herself. She might fall down a flight of cellar stairs. She might even have a stroke running across a hot parking lot.
I sat up and looked at Sara on her hill, the deck jutting out over the drop, the railroad ties descending. I'd only been out of the water for a few minutes, but already the day's sticky heat was folding over me, stealing my rush. The water was still as a mirror. I could see the house reflected in it, and in the reflection Sara's windows became watchful eyes.
I thought that the focus of all the phenomena ¡ª the epicenter ¡ª was very likely on The Street between the real Sara and its drowned image. This is where it happened, Devore had said. And the old-timers? Most of them probably knew what I knew: that Royce Merrill had been murdered. And wasn't it possible ¡ª wasn't it likely ¡ª that what had killed him might come among them as they sat in their pews or gathered afterward around his grave? That it might steal some of their force ¡ª their guilt, their memories, their TR-ness ¡ª to help it finish the job?
I was very glad that John was going to be at the trailer tomorrow, and Romeo Bissonette, and George Kennedy, who was so amusing when he got a drink or two in him. Glad it was going to be more than just me with Mattie and Ki when the old folks got together to give Royce Merrill his sendoff. I no longer cared very much about what had happened to Sara and the Red-Tops, or even about what was haunting my house. What I wanted was to get through tomorrow, and for Mattie and Ki to get through tomorrow. We'd eat before the rain started and then let the predicted thunderstorms come. I thought that, if we could ride them out, our lives and futures might clarify with the weather.
'Is that right?' I asked. I expected no answer ¡ª talking out loud was a habit I had picked up since returning here ¡ª but somewhere in the woods east of the house, an owl hooted. Just once, as if to say it was right, get through tomorrow and things will clarify. The hoot almost brought something else to mind, some association that was ultimately too gauzy to grasp. I tried once or twice, but the only thing I could come up with was the title of a wonderful old novel I Heard the Owl Call My Name.
I rolled forward off the float and into the water, grasping my knees against my chest like a kid doing a cannonball. I stayed under as long as I could, until the air in my lungs started to feel like some hot bottled liquid, and then I broke the surface. I trod water about thirty yards out until I had my breath back, then set my sights on the Green Lady and stroked for shore.
I waded out, started up the railroad ties, then stopped and went back to The Street. I stood there for a moment, gathering my courage, then walked to where the birch curved her graceful belly out over the water. I grasped that white curve as I had on Friday evening and looked into the water. I was sure I'd see the child, his dead eyes looking up at me from his bloating brown face, and that my mouth and throat would once more fill with the taste of the lake: help I'm drown, lemme up, oh sweet Jesus lemme up. But there was nothing. No dead boy, no ribbon-wrapped Boston Post cane, no taste of the lake in my mouth.
I turned and peered at the gray forehead of rock poking out of the mulch. I thought There, right there, but it was only a conscious and unspontaneous thought, the mind voicing a memory. The smell of decay and the certainty that something awful had happened right there was gone.
When I got back up to the house and went for a soda, I discovered the front of the refrigerator was bare and clean. Every magnetic letter, every fruit and vegetable, was gone. I never found them. I might have, probably would have, if there had been more time, but on that Monday morning time was almost up.
I dressed, then called Mattie. We talked about the upcoming party, about how excited Ki was, about how nervous Mattie was about going back to work on Friday ¡ª she was afraid that the locals would be mean to her, but in an odd, womanly way she was even more afraid that they would be cold to her, snub her. We talked about the money, and I quickly ascertained that she didn't believe in the reality of it. 'Lance used to say his father was the kind of man who'd show a piece of meat to a starving dog and then eat it himself,' she said. 'But as long as I have my job back, I won't starve and neither will Ki.'
'But if there really are big bucks . . . ?'
'Oh, gimme-gimme-gimme,' she said, laughing. 'What do you think I am, crazy?'
'Nah. By the way, what's going on with Ki's fridgeafator people? Are they writing any new stuff?'
'That is the weirdest thing,' she said. 'They're gone.'
'The fridgeafator people?'
'I don't know about them, but the magnetic letters you gave her sure are. When I asked Ki what she did with them, she started crying and said Allamagoosalum took them. She said he ate them in the middle of the night, while everyone was sleeping, for a snack.'
'Allamagoosalum,' Mattie said, sounding wearily amused. 'Another little legacy from her grandfather. It's a corruption of the Micmac word for "boogeyman" or "demon" ¡ª I looked it up at the library. Kyra had a good many nightmares about demons and wendigos and the allama-goosalum late last winter and this spring.'
'What a sweet old grandpa he was,' I said sentimentally.
'Right, a real pip. She was miserable over losing the letters; I barely got her calmed down before her ride to VBS came. Ki wants to know if you'll come to Final Exercises on Friday afternoon, by the way. She and her friend Billy Turgeon are going to flannelboard the story of baby Moses.'
'I wouldn't miss it,' I said . . . but of course I did. We all did.
'Any idea where her letters might have gone, Mike?'
'Yours are still okay?'
'Mine are fine, but of course mine don't spell anything,' I said, looking at the empty door of my own fridgeafator. There was sweat on my forehead. I could feel it creeping down into my eyebrows like oil. 'Did you . . . I don't know . . . sense anything?'
'You mean did I maybe hear the evil alphabet-thief as he slid through the window?'
'You know what I mean.'
'I suppose so.' A pause 'I thought I heard something in the night, okay? About three this morning, actually. I got up and went into the hall. Nothing was there. But . . . you know how hot it's been lately?'
'Well, not in my trailer, not last night. It was cold as ice. I swear I could almost see my breath.'
I believed her. After all, I had seen mine.
'Were the letters on the front of the fridge then?'
'I don't know. I didn't go up the hall far enough to see into the kitchen. I took one look around and then went back to bed. I almost ran back to bed. Sometimes bed feels safer, you know?' She laughed nervously. 'It's a kid thing. Covers are boogeyman kryptonite. Only at first, when I got in . . . I don't know . . . I thought someone was in there already. Like someone had been hiding on the floor underneath and then . . . when I went to check the hall . . . they got in. Not a nice someone, either.'
Give me my dust-catcher, I thought, and shuddered.
'What?' Mattie asked sharply. 'What did you say?'
'I asked who did you think it was? What was the first name that came into your mind?'
'Devore,' she said. 'Him. But there was no one there.' A pause. 'I wish you'd been there.'
'I do, too.'
'I'm glad. Mike, do you have any ideas at all about this? Because it's very freaky.'
'I think maybe . . . ' For a moment I was on the verge of telling her what had happened to my own letters. But if I started talking, where would it stop? And how much could she be expected to believe? ' . . . maybe Ki took the letters herself. Went walking in her sleep and chucked them under the trailer or something. Do you think that could be?'
'I think I like the idea of Kyra strolling around in her sleep even less than the idea of ghosts with cold breath taking the letters off the fridge,' Mattie said.
'Take her to bed with you tonight,' I said, and felt her thought come back like an arrow: I'd rather take you.
What she said, after a brief pause, was: 'Will you come by today?'
'I don't think so,' I said. She was noshing on flavored yogurt as we talked, eating it in little nipping bites. 'You'll see me tomorrow, though. At the party.'
'I hope we get to eat before the thunderstorms. They're supposed to be bad.'
'I'm sure we will.'
'And are you still thinking? I only ask because I dreamed of you when I finally fell asleep again. I dreamed of you kissing me.'
'I'm still thinking,' I said. 'Thinking hard.'
But in fact I don't remember thinking about anything very hard that day. What I remember is drifting further and further into that zone I've explained so badly. Near dusk I went for a long walk in spite of the heat ¡ª all the way out to where Lane Forty-two joins the highway. Coming back I stopped on the edge of Tidwell's Meadow, watching the light fade out of the sky and listening to thunder rumble somewhere over New Hampshire. Once more there was that sense of how thin reality was, not just here but everywhere; how it was stretched like skin over the blood and tissue of a body we can never know clearly in this life. I looked at trees and saw arms; I looked at bushes and saw faces. Ghosts, Mattie had said. Ghosts with cold breath.
Time was also thin, it seemed to me. Kyra and I had really been at the Fryeburg Fair ¡ª some version of it, anyway; we had really visited the year 1900. And at the foot of the meadow the Red-Tops were almost there now, as they once had been, in their neat little cabins. I could almost hear the sound of their guitars, the murmur of their voices and laughter; I could almost see the gleam of their lanterns and smell their beef and pork frying. 'Say baby, do you remember me?' one of her songs went, 'Well I ain't your honey like I used to be.'
Something rattled in the underbrush to my left. I turned that way, expecting to see Sara step out of the woods wearing Mattie's dress and Mattie's white sneakers. In this gloom, they would seem almost to float by themselves, until she got close to me . . .
There was no one there, of course, it had undoubtedly been nothing but Chuck the Woodchuck headed home after a hard day at the office, but I no longer wanted to be out here, watching as the light drained out of the day and the mist came up from the ground. I turned for home.
Instead of going into the house when I got back, I made my way along the path to Jo's studio, where I hadn't been since the night I had taken my IBM back in a dream. My way was lit by intermittent flashes of heat lightning.
The studio was hot but not stale. I could smell a peppery aroma that was actually pleasant, and wondered if it might be some of Jo's herbs. There was an air conditioner out here, and it worked ¡ª I turned it on and then just stood in front of it a little while. So much cold air on my overheated body was probably unhealthy, but it felt wonderful.
I didn't feel very wonderful otherwise, however. I looked around with a growing sense of something too heavy to be mere sadness; it felt like despair. I think it was caused by the contrast between how little of Jo was left in Sara Laughs and how much of her was still out here. I imagined our marriage as a kind of playhouse ¡ª and isn't that what marriage is, in large part? playing house? ¡ª where only half the stuff was held down. Held down by little magnets or hidden cables. Something had come along and picked up our playhouse by one corner ¡ª easiest thing in the world, and I supposed I should be grateful that the something hadn't decided to draw back its foot and kick the poor thing all the way over. It just picked up that one corner, you see. My stuff stayed put, but all of Jo's had slid . . .
Out of the house and down here.
'Jo?' I asked, and sat down in her chair. There was no answer. No thumps on the wall. No crows or owls calling from the woods. I put my hand on her desk, where the typewriter had been, and slipped my hand across it, picking up a film of dust.
'I miss you, honey,' I said, and began to cry.
When the tears were over ¡ª again ¡ª I wiped my face with the tail of my tee-shirt like a little kid, then just looked around. There was the picture of Sara Tidwell on her desk and a photo I didn't remember on the wall ¡ª this latter was old, sepia-tinted, and woodsy. Its focal point was a man-high birchwood cross in a little clearing on a slope above the lake. That clearing was gone from the geography now, most likely, long since filled in by trees.
I looked at her jars of herbs and mushroom sections, her filing cabinets, her sections of afghan. The green rag rug on the floor. The pot of pencils on the desk, pencils she had touched and used. I held one of them poised over a blank sheet of paper for a moment or two, but nothing happened. I had a sense of life in this room, and a sense of being watched . . . but not a sense of being helped.
'I know some of it but not enough,' I said. 'Of all the things I don't know, maybe the one that matters most is who wrote "help her" on the fridge. Was it you, Jo?'
No answer. I sat awhile longer ¡ª hoping against hope, I suppose ¡ª then got up, turned off the air conditioning, turned off the lights, and went back to the house, walking in soft bright stutters of unfocused lightning. I sat on the deck for a little while, watching the night. At some point I realized I'd taken the length of blue silk ribbon out of my pocket and was winding it nervously back and forth between my fingers, making half-assed cat's cradles. Had it really come from the year 1900? The idea seemed perfectly crazy and perfectly sane at the same time. The night hung hot and hushed. I imagined old folks all over the TR ¡ª perhaps in Motton and Harlow, too ¡ª laying out their funeral clothes for tomorrow. In the doublewide trailer on Wasp Hill Road, Ki was sitting on the floor, watching a videotape of The Jungle Book ¡ª Baloo and Mowgli were singing 'The Bare Necessities.' Mattie was on the couch with her feet up, reading the new Mary Higgins Clark and singing along. Both were wearing shorty pajamas, Ki's pink, Mattie's white.
After a little while I lost my sense of them; it faded the way radio signals sometimes do late at night. I went into the north bedroom, undressed, and crawled onto the top sheet of my unmade bed. I fell asleep almost at once.
I woke in the middle of the night with someone running a hot finger up and down the middle of my back. I rolled over and when the lightning flashed, I saw there was a woman in bed with me. It was Sara Tidwell. She was grinning. There were no pupils in her eyes. 'Oh sugar, I'm almost back,' she whispered in the dark. I had a sense of her reaching out for me again, but when the next flash of lightning came, that side of the bed was empty.