...Mary Annette went into the tent. A moment later she emerged from the black fold on stage next to Jay.
“There’s no one in there,” she said. “It smells funny, though.”
A guy in the crowd with a ponytail yelled out as he stormed off, “Oh, come on, man! What a freakin’ joke!”
“Here,” said Mary Annette, holding a fold open and exposing the proof of her assertion.
Jay peered in, surveying the small table and two chairs lit by a single bulb. “I guess he went out the back. Well, like they say, when you gotta go. And all that.” Returning his attention to the dwindling crowd he added, “So, um, it looks like the Mesmerizer has received an urgent call requiring the utmost limits of his powers, so if you’ll all just be so good as to return in a little bit or whatever, everything should be back up and running totally fine. Thank you, short break.”
“Come on, Mary Annette,” Randy said as she stepped down, “he must have seen you coming.”
“Shut up, Randy!” she returned, shaking her head and looking marvelously exasperated.
Retreating to the tent, Jay peeked out from a thin slit off to the side. Then with everyone gone, he lifted the drop cloth and slipped out the back, half-expecting to find the dude standing outside. But the dude wasn’t there.
Not knowing what else to do, Jay wandered around the carnival, feeling like a cave man startled by the confusing array of flashing multi-color lights and sudden jarring sounds of excited people and busy machines.
When he’d gotten away from the barkers and the balloons, he sat on a fence at the fringes of the fair, debating whether he should head back for his stuff stashed in the crypt and try to hitch a ride to Bargerville before dark. There he could chill for however long. Except it would suck trying to find the awesome tree where he knew he could go down there, what with the hour drive, plus another hour minimum to get his stuff and hitch a ride. Most definitely he wouldn’t get there until well after dark. For that matter, taking into account the dark clouds gathering and the warm wind picking up, he might be able to head half an hour north back up to Carata and maybe just make it to his little in the community forest behind the university before it rained.
For the life of him he couldn’t figure out why it was he helped the dude. A little cash didn’t hurt, but he didn’t get much, so that sure wasn’t it. It was more like what he read somewhere about looking too long into the abyss. After awhile, it starts looking into you.
The roar from the crowd that coincided with this thought put a whoa on Jay’s face. Then he looked over and realized the cheers were probably for a guy in a white jumpsuit and cape getting ready to jump some trucks.
Randy Manson stood with Mary Annette, eating a hamburger and waiting for the jump, now hastened by the turning weather.
In the middle of talking about stage blocking for the production, Mary Annette turned to see the still and silent figure, ebon cape astir. She and Randy both caught a wince-producing whiff. Chewing a big bite of burger with a grimace, Randy spun around and said with a half-full mouth, “Frickin’ crap, what the hell?”
The eerily lit form in the premature gathering dark seemed carved in stone before suddenly springing to life. A few steps forward with a long purposeful stride and a black gloved hand shot out, swatting the burger from Randy’s grip onto the dirt and straw where it lay open and ugly for all to see, the dead mangled meat of the patty defiled with debris.
“Hey!” Randy shouted. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”
The horizontally spinning Chair-o-Planes seemed to perfectly mesh with the vertical turn of the Ferris Wheel behind the black hat, shades and swathing, from which now came a labored, muffled mumbling, too horribly hoarse and garbled to be understood. A shadowy arm came up, pointing at Mary Annette. More garbled sounds followed–with increased vehemence.
Randy’s voice, starkly contrasted, sounded unnaturally shrill. “Listen man, you’re a frickin’ nut–”
The fist that connected with Randy’s face sent him sprawling to the ground. Largely this was from Randy’s own overreaction in trying to avoid the punch, but he got clocked jarringly enough on the side of the face that he could not say anything, and for a moment could not even see as the figure waded in.
Mary Annette screamed as the revving engine of the carnival stunt rider’s motorcycle blared and the dead flesh fists of her old boyfriend audibly impacted on the long-haired actor’s head.
It was a fair fight. Several times Randy tried to marshal his forces, taking on a film-inspired martial arts pose and simultaneously emitting what he intended to be intimidating screams of warning, but with his boxed ears ringing so hard, his vision blurred so bad and his balance so extremely off, he stumbled into the Test Your Strength apparatus, flailing fingers lucking onto the handle of an oversize mallet.
Randy raised the mallet high overhead at arm’s length, summoning a desperate yell as the black-caped figure appeared in his impaired vision distorted like a cubist painting wielding the glistening blade of a sword swallower distracted by the fight. That the blade was blunt mattered little when the dark figure darted in thrusting forward like a fencer. Mallet in hand, Randy ran.
Carnies came rushing over in increasing numbers, jacked-up and intent on stopping the attacker in black, even as Randy slammed into bystanders in his dazed dash to escape. Yet with unchecked stride the dark one struck at stumbling carnies, eluding the outstretched groping arms that came at him from all sides and gaining on Randy, who, in doubling back toward the Ferris Wheel dropped the mallet and leaped to catch an upward-rising seat, the empty bucket of which rocked and swayed as he struggled to pull himself up over the back.
The Ferris Wheel operator, having joined in the attempt to intercept, lay sprawled among rigged milk bottles and softballs, unable to stop the wheel as Randy managed to pull himself into the seat just past the top of the ride in time to see the dark figure, black cape fluttering, ascend the summit with sword in hand two buckets behind and coming down like a nightmare distilled into corporeal form.
Randy screamed for help. More carnies were coming. The figure leaped free from the descending bucket. Onlookers held in check with the wild waving of the brandished blade coalesced at a wary distance, but fell short of organized pursuit as the caped figure fled from Fernden Field in the lightly falling rain.
LETTER FROM CLAIRE VOYANT TO LINDSAY HEARST
I just got through talking on the phone with you and all I can think is how lucky I am to have you for a friend. That’s a nice change from my usual thought these days: When will they let me see Cyrus? Will they even? I have no idea what’s going on. If his condition is getting worse, that should be all the more reason to just let us visit. If only I could talk to him. He had been acting so strangely, so unlike himself. Evidently, that suddenness of change could have been brought on by any number of neurological conditions. But that wasn’t my feeling at the time. I just feel like something weird was going on. I can’t describe it any other way. And I think if he has some sort of disorder now, it’s been brought on because of what’s happened to me.
That was not my son who stabbed me. Stretched out here like some stitched up Frankenstein monster, I just want my son back. I want my life returned.
I’m sorry to burden you with all this. I didn’t mean for this letter to go here. At least finally getting out of the hospital is nice. But I do have mixed feelings about being home right now. The upstairs stays off limits. The doorway to my own room still scares me to death.
WILL TODD’S JOURNAL— continued.
I’ve never felt so alive! I was magnificent. All the people were shocked. Except for the carnies. Who the hell did they think they were? No business of theirs. What do they care? No matter. They couldn’t stop me. No one can.
All right in front of her. He was the one who should have gone in, not her. I couldn’t see her like that. Him however I could have given all manner of commands. I still will.
And when I rose to the top, I was higher than the entire town. I could see everything, all the way to Fernden Bridge, the drawbridge over the moat. The whole town is my castle, and I alone reign as king.
I could have given everyone there such a cold hard look. Only by my whim are they lucky that I didn’t. Possibly, if they united, they might be able to pull me temporarily down by sheer prevailing numbers. But whenever I want I can always nuke them. I can afford to be generous. After all, it’s not them I’m after.
Maybe it should be.
The dead are the majority. If all the dead would rise, the living wouldn’t stand a chance. The living don’t know what they’re doing. They need to be controlled. As the leader of the dead, I would hold absolute sway. In my struggle against the living I could unite them. I could use them, mobilize them, hand them purpose from their peaceful slumber against the common enemy.
No longer would I and my followers need to stay underground. Only the dead are truly alive. The living are the most dead to the world of all. Death is life and life is death. There has to be one master hand, one master hand controlling all.
Nights I’ve spent hanging outside windows, listening in on the secrets of the living, gathering information, never sleeping, ever-vigilant, have not been spent in vain. The living can be bought with cold hard cash. I can use that to my advantage for as long as I need.
The true mercy is killing the living so they can die and then live liberated in the true life of death. That’s the real courage, that’s the real winning, that’s the real power, that’s the real good. That’s the single one and only greatest highest truth of all.
I need to come up with a logo. I’ll pay Jay to do it. I’ll have a logo on my chest, a symbol of my wisdom, a standard for the living to fear and banner for the dead to follow. Maybe a sign from the zodiac.
The upper slab slid.
“Dude, there you are.” Jay’s face was wet with rain. He dropped down inside. “I’ve been looking all over. Whoa, were you all like writing just now in the dark? That’s pretty creepy, dude.”
The pen in the hand moved across a blank page. One word appeared in the beam of Jay’s flashlight: KEY.
“Oh, yeah. I had to make a third one, you know? I was all set to leave it, though.” Jay put the key carefully on a crate. “Just got to get my stuff. Time to get rolling. I’ve totally tarried in this town too long. Sure never planned to spend the whole summer here. Of course, I never plan on much of anything. Just take it as it comes, you know?”
“So, I was wondering if you could maybe like sort of pay me for my work out there at the fair. Per the ol’ agreement, right dude?”
“Well, I’ll just take my things and be off.” Grabbing his pack and blanket, Jay headed back up into the exterior crypt, keeping a wary eye out. The dude wasn’t slow like he used to be.
When he got to the top–glad he’d left the gate ajar–he paused just long enough to shut the lock, suddenly certain he heard furtive sounds of movement within, and ran for all he was worth out of the cemetery toward the lights of the wind-swept streets.
Even on his way out of town, looking over his shoulder and occasionally turning around to flash a thumb, Jay was sure he’d see the dude. The rain had stopped, and as the black clouds broke there was just enough light left to barely see the road. A pickup was headed his way. Jay stuck out a thumb and breathed a sigh of relief when the pickup pulled over.
Opening up the cab door, Jay saw a middle-aged guy driving alone. “You going south?” Jay asked.
“Hop in,” said the guy.
“Man,” Jay said, pushing in his tightly rolled blanket and pack and leaving just enough room for his feet while shutting the cab door, “am I glad you pulled over, dude. That was really cool of you.”
The driver merged back into the empty lane. “Get tired of the fair?”
“Oh yeah–hey, how did you know I was there? Good guess, I guess.”
“No, I saw you there, didn’t I?”
“I don’t know. I guess you did.”
“Sure. I saw you talking up that hypnotist, right? The Mesmerizer.” The driver chuckled. “Come on, was there ever even anybody back there?”
“Oh yeah. Most definitely. So what did you think of all that? Was I like, pretty good, or did I totally flail?”
“You did great.”
“Awesome! Right on, dude!”
“I guess you must have seen the fight then, right?”
“Full on, dude.” Jay shook his head. “That was majorly intense.”
“I’ll say. Things like that never happen around here. I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“Your whole life? Whoa. But wait, you must have heard about the book store lady getting stabbed. That can’t be totally normal.”
“True. You heard about that, huh?”
“By her own kid, too.”
“That’s his name?”
The driver nodded, paused a moment, then added, “Claire’s his mom. She’s staying with my sister-in-law for awhile out in Meadows.”
“I think I’ve been out there once. That’s toward the coast, right?”
“Yep. I’m headed out there now. I’m Art by the way.” He put out his hand.
“Right on, bro, I’m Jay,” he said, shifting the shake to a less formal soul-grip. “I was stranded on the road of life and got saved by Art. A first for everything. Well, if you’re headed to Meadows, that’s good with me. Most definitely. I can hitch a ride into Bargerville from there.”
“Sure, fine with me. I have to stop off a minute at the creamery coming up here is all. A friend of mine works here.”
“Gorgonzola? Hell yeah. I can tell you about workin’ the ‘zola. Don’t let anybody kid you, it’s hard work. Cheeseman’s work. Everything at Fernden Farms gets made in the tradition of the master cheesemakers of old.” The cheeseman, Frank, handed Jay a sample of the gorgonzola, and closely watched while Jay took a bite. “Bitchin’, huh?”
“Awesome, dude.” Examining the array of samples presented before him on a rolling metal cart equipped with removable shelves, Jay’s eyes fell on a large yellow wedge. Frank observed.
“Muenster?” The cheeseman’s manner reminded Jay of a well-scrubbed fraternity pledge beaming at the sight of a buddy cracking a can of beer. “A Muenster man! Do it!” Jay popped a bite while Frank nodded with a knowing gleam.
“Basically, you got your hard and your semi-soft cheese. You got your mouldering and your brining, your cheddaring and your hooping, your salting and your curd manufacture. You like that Swiss? It’s the bacteria that makes the gases in the cheese burst. It’s a gassy cheese. That’s how come the holes. Hell, most people don’t even know what goes into cheese. They just take it for granted. Most people wouldn’t even know a cheese vat from a whey strainer.” The cheeseman’s chin rose on these last words as he viewed Jay through narrowed eyes in a prideful manner, so high it was as though invisible hands were at his throat. “And your American cheese, it’s not even a natural cheese. The trick is, it’s imitation. Half comes from oils and leftover milk solids. Well, gotta gear up. Here comes your buddy.”
Frank put on what looked to Jay like a shower cap. “Take some samples. Take some of that Ementaller. Take it. Yo, Barry! Let’s go! Let’s do this thing!”
Jay slipped some samples into a pocket. “This’ll be good right here. Whoa–that dude’s name is Barry?”
Frank nodded. “Gotta pull double-duty on the creamer and the dressin’ tank.”
“So you dudes are Frank and Barry?”
Art’s friend Barry came up slipping his thumbs in the sides of his smock. “I heard that. Sounds like Frankenberry. The cereal. That’s real goddam funny.”
“Oh, hey, dude, I’m not knocking you.”
“It’s okay, chief. I used to know a guy who said that all the time.”
After Randy told everything to the cops with a bitter mouthful of blood, Mary Annette assumed the role of nurse for the night. The huge house–which Randy had in recent years inherited–reminded her with its ivy-covered walls of the Collinwood estate on “Dark Shadows.”
Swinging open the windows of Randy’s second-story room, she breathed in deeply of the fresh night air. “You know,” she said, “your face isn’t very bruised. What with makeup by opening night, I bet no one will be able to tell.”
There was long silence. Randy pulled the ice packs away from his face and said through a painful half-whisper, “I never let anybody drive my Mustang before.”
If this admission touched Mary Annette in the way it was intended, she did not register the fact. “Randy, there’s something about the play I’m not that comfortable with. It’s the nude scene. Before you say anything, I have to get this off my–my conscience. Seeing how you always say you’re kind of like co-director and all, would it really be such a hard thing to pull off for me to just wear a bathing suit?”
The groan that came from his swollen mouth sounded like, “That stinks.”
“I’m only asking. If I have to do it for the play, I will. But I mean, I know these people. I don’t want everybody from the store seeing me right out there in my birthday suit!”
He pulled away the ice. “No. Something outside. Something stinks.”
Mary Annette took a whiff and winced. The scent was coming from the open window. Outside, there was a soft rustle of ivy.
“It’s him!” Randy hissed. Then, raising his voice as best he could, “I’ve got a gun!”
There was a strained silence. A light breeze fluttered the curtains. The black shape suddenly filling the aperture swung into view like a solid shadow.
The two shots that were fired did not come from either the pistol or the rifle stowed in Randy’s downstairs den closet, but from the weapon issued to one of the cops stopping by in a somewhat less than official capacity, impressed as he was with the clout which the Manson family name commanded in town, with the intention of checking up on Randy, and allowing him to become aware, with plenty of time to defend himself, of a probable impending lawsuit from some crybaby at the fair Randy elbowed in the face during the course of his frantic flight.
In the process of adjusting the heavily laden belt which pinched his waist painfully, he looked up to see the figure standing on the upstairs window ledge turn at the command to freeze and leap full into the firing shots. The cop got the cape, and blasted a big hole in the gutter, but went down with a broken collarbone and badly twisted ankle on Randy’s rather excessively slick walkway beneath the black mass which plummeted unscathed and ran clean away.
The rolling back hills on the night trek out to Meadows were putting Jay to sleep. He felt a semi-queasy lethargy from free quantities of cheese, and the scratchy radio reception that seemed to go on forever provided the white noise that eased his consciousness into a gently receptive daze, until Jay opened his eyes to find the road now wound along the unnerving edge of an imposing precipice. Hundreds of feet down, a river glinting in the silver moonlight threaded below on his right, and the sheer rock cliff which the thin road hugged towered sharply on the left. His attention had been roused from intermittent stretches of half-sleep by Art’s casual mention that his sister-in-law, April Gilman, who owned the health food store in Meadows, happened also to be a witch.
“Dude, you’re kidding.” Art had already invited him to stick around and meet everybody, assuring him it would be okay. Touched by the gesture, Jay had no wish to seem rude. Returning some of his lank hair behind an ear he added in a tactful tone, “She can’t really fly on a broom though, right?”
“Not that I’ve ever seen,” Art said, slowing down to take a left up a steep unmarked road. “April’s into Goddess power, you know? Earth cycles, herbal remedies. Wiccan stuff. I don’t really know too much about it myself. You might like that sort of thing. I guess you’re used to all kinds around the fair.”
“The fair? Oh man, you caught my one and only time.”
A few minutes later they were pulling through an open gate while barking dogs came running up into the headlights wagging tails and bodies madly. Art parked behind a motorcycle with a sidecar while someone was calling out for the dogs to be quiet.
“Hey Booper,” Art said as he and Jay approached the deck. “Claire still here?”
“She’s inside with Mom.”
“Jay, this is my nephew Shayne.”
They gave each other a nod wading toward the door through the wiggling dogs. Jay was sure he’d seen the kid somewhere before, yet as they went inside, his attention turned to the overriding impression of plant life dangling not just from planters on the deck, but twining along the walls and down from the ceiling as well.
“Hello hello,” said Art without ceremony as he stepped in. Two women were in the living room. One was reclining on a couch, and the other sat cross-legged on pillows in a hanging wicker chair.
“Jay this is April–” Art said of the woman in the softly swaying chair.
“Hi, come on in.”
“–and this is Claire.”
Jay waved. “Howdy.”
In her black turtleneck Claire’s bandages did not show.
“Jay’s a friend of mine thumbing out to Bargerville.”
“Go get some stuffed mushrooms still on the stove,” April said. “We just finished dinner.”
Her strikingly attractive face was framed in a mass of silvery hair that did not so much hang as radiate. Young enough to have given birth to a thirteen year-old, she was graying prematurely, and because she had the features and the figure to remain well preserved, she exuded an aura of indeterminate age.
“So are you taking Shayne to the fair tomorrow or what?” she said.
“Taking. I already checked it out earlier, too.”
“Why’d you do that?”
“Because I felt like it.”
“Oh, well, la dee da.”
Shayne appeared with a duffle bag that he plunked near the door. “You already went?”
“Ease up, Boop. I didn’t go on any of the rides. Saw a fight, though.”
“You saw a fight? Who?”
“Randy Manson got his ass whipped by somebody dressed like Zorro.”
“What’s all this?” April called out.
As Art recounted carefully for Shayne, and April left the hanging chair to better hear what happened, Jay snagged a beanbag near Claire.
“I’ve seen you before,” she said. “Weren’t you at the town clerk’s office a few weeks ago?”
“Town clerk...yeah...yeah! That’s right. Cool. I thought I’d seen you before, too.”
“You were with him.”
It took everything he had not to look away from her eyes. He almost said, “Who?”
The tilt of her head and quizzical expression toward the conversation carrying from the kitchen sufficed.
“Yeah, I know,” Jay confessed. “I was there. I saw pretty much most of the whole deal go down. And I totally didn’t dig that at all. Basically that’s why I’m here. That was a scene I majorly had to split.”
“Who is he?”
“Oh, yeah. Well, it’s like, I don’t even know. He’s just this trippy dude. And really like, persuasive, you know?”
“But didn’t you help him fill out the paperwork? I don’t understand.”
“All I know is, he calls himself the Mesmerizer.”
“Right. His stage name for the fair.”
The other three drifted back in. Politely shifting topics, Claire said, “So what’s going on with the Art Ridge family?”
“Nada. Same old. Becky’s taking piano.” Art turned to April and asked, “Where’s Les?”
“Way the hell out in Newbrook.”
“Newbrook,” he repeated. “I always see that one sign, but I’ve never been there in my life. Where exactly is Newbrook?”
“You’re not missing anything,” she said. It’s exactly way out in the middle of nowhere–even more so than here–on the old road between Glynville and Arbora.”
“What’s he doing there?”
“Fixing up somebody’s property.”
Standing next to the door with duffle bag in hand, Shayne said, “Let’s go.”
His mother made a sound like crapping from her mouth. “You just can’t wait to go bond, can you? Well, come here and give me a hug before you go.” With her boy in her arms she said to Art, “You’re a bad influence on him.”
“Thanks for at least trying to get him in to see Cy,” said Claire.
April clapped Art on the shoulder. “Good for you. I meant to tell you that earlier, too.”
“They’ve got him so whacked-out on their meds. He couldn’t see anybody. It’s sickening.” The look in Claire and April’s eyes said they’d had the conversation before. It was drained completely dry. As was the subject of her life-altering hospital bills. Taken into account with the presence of Shayne and a new guy in their midst, it was best to change the subject. “Take it easy, Jay,” Art said, attempting an ebullient tone. “It’s a big county in a small world. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”
“Full on, dude. You’re way awesome. And hey, thanks again for the ride.”
April turned to Jay. “You don’t have to go tearing off. You’re welcome to stick around awhile if you want.”
“He has to,” said Claire. “I’m not done talking with him.”
In the shadowy forest of the deep green room sometime later, Jay sat cross-legged on a purple cushion absorbed in the multi-colored tinted glass lampshade from which tassels depended. Still stiff with stitches from the stabbing, Claire reclined with closed eyes off to the side in a wooden chair, emanating the calm of a meditative presence.
African drums and Indonesian masks adorned the walls. Charts of hands and heads marked like maps hung framed, as did those depicting phases of the moon. The significance of varieties of gemstones and quartz crystals were made clear. A clay Earth Mother figure, as April also liked to say, rounded out her collection. She expanded on this to Jay when she gave him the earlier tour, pointing out, too, divination rod properties stemming from varieties of wood. She said she felt she needed a broad sense of humor to understand existence. Cross people can’t see when they’re blinded by lack of exposure. The difference between myth and religion was agreed.
In the hardwood floor a pentacle was seared, and in the center of the five-pointed star within the circle a small metal bowl on a tripod was placed between a rectangular box, not much bigger than a paperback book, and a chunk of obsidian as big as a fist. Glowing coals that looked like incense cones produced thin trails of smoke. April entered the room to the sound of hanging beads realigning as she carefully conducted a glass of red wine and sat down opposite from Jay.
“So,” she said, taking a sip of the wine, “Claire tells me you were living in a tree.” No sooner had these words left her mouth than she set the glass on the floor and rose again, indicating with polite gestures that she wanted to hear what Jay had to say even as she inspected some plants in a window sill.
“I stay in lots of trees, actually,” he said. “The one I was telling her about is this big old redwood like all burned out on the inside, but still totally green and growing.”
April took a glass of water from the sill and gave each plant a drink while gently lifting up the leaves. “Lightning,” she said.
“There’s more wine out there if you want.”
“I roamed around when I was your age.”
Jay had the feeling she was on the verge of asking him why he didn’t go to college. Probably she was going to say that some of the smartest people she ever met either didn’t finish college or never started, and that that was perfectly fine, and she wasn’t judging, but he wasn’t getting any younger, and he really needed to have all the help he could get in his corner because he couldn’t camp out in the forest for the rest of his life.
“You learn a lot from trees,” she said.
“Whoa. That is so true.”
She took another sip. “They put you in touch with the cycles of life.”
“Absolutely! You totally see it in the fall. Like when trees drop leaves, those leaves don’t stop just midway down and like hang all in the air forever. They go back down. And the soil totally reclaims. But it doesn’t stop there. The roots of that tree pull the energy right back up and make new leaves. And every single leaf you see is one unique leaf–looks a lot like all the others–but even though that exact one won’t ever come back, it’s energy never really leaves at all. It all stays in nature. Always flowing, always growing. Life is here and life is now. This is it. Nothing ever stops. Nothing leaves the cycle, sits back and watches life happen from afar. Except maybe the dude.” Jay paused a moment to give that further thought. “Nope, not even him.”
“You said you saw him saying something to Shayne and Cyrus.”
“And two other kids, too.”
“I’m sure I know who they are,” she said, exchanging a glance with Claire.
“You say he has some way of making people do whatever he says?”
“That’s the really weird part. He never does actually say anything.”
“Bandages,” said Claire.
“Well, we need some help here.”
From the box and into the bowl April tossed some cypress and thyme. Two candles were also within. These she lit. The glimmering reflection on the obsidian looked to Jay like a black heart beating. Carefully, Claire left the chair and came down to the floor.
“The moon is waxing,” April said, “and that’s positive. It’s Saturday, too, and that’s good for protection and banishment of negativity. We light the white candle for truth, and the orange for attraction and encouragement. We want to invoke a spirit helper. We want to combine our mental energy. We are united for this purpose. Close your eyes now, Jay. Just relax your body while you concentrate your thoughts.
“We have the man in the tree before us,” he heard Claire say. “With hawthorn wand we inscribe the air.” Jay began to feel sleepy.
He imagined shining sheets of falling water as the voice drifted along. As though from in a cave hidden behind a waterfall, he saw the sheets of water ceaselessly tumbling down.
Jay opened his eyes and found he was lying on the floor. Disoriented, it took him several moments to remember where he was. Dawn light dimly sifted through a window. From somewhere not far away came the soft sounds of a flute, or perhaps a pipe.
Rising from the pentacle, he followed the sound through an open door and came to a flower garden patio. Hanging redwood wind spinners, widest in the middle and twisted into double-helix stairs, gently turned.
The forest struck with its beauty. The trees were ringing with their silent volume, resonant yet voiceless, the vociferous pitch unhurried, the undulating thrust leaning from the land a vulnerable might, simultaneously malleable and frozen mid-sweep. Carrying no meaning, and meaning everything, the starting point destination gave the experience of being alive.
Jay saw a woman standing on a slope quietly watching him. She wore a supple leather shift which draped down from her shoulders like a poncho. In the skin were stitched intricate designs partially obscured by the many long necklaces she wore, most composed of small white shells. To the young woman’s face was a keen and caring tilt. In Jay’s eyes, this woman with the cool dark river of hair, so like Susan Dey’s, immediately seemed a genuine regal presence, the calm, proud embodiment of wisdom and endurance, so attractive that he totally fell in love with her even before he broke the misty silence saying, “Oh, hey, good morning, hello. It’s so awesome here.”
The wind moved. The woman smiled. Turning, she seemed to float up the hill.
Following along, Jay eventually asked her what was her name. She told him it was Little Fox.
“Mine’s Jay.” Looking up as they wandered along, he rolled his head in wonder. “I’ve seen a lot of amazing forests, but nothing like this one, though.”
In a meadow around a bend some figures distantly appeared cavorting through the grass. It was perhaps mid-morning. They were too far away for Jay to clearly hear. The colorful troupe sported wildly in esoteric finery consisting of loose vests with beaded fringe, and billowy sleeved shirts smacking of other times in other places.
“Whoa,” Jay said, under his breath. “Who are they?”
“The spirit of Humbaba,” Little Fox replied.
Down the redwood cathedral they strode, coming at length to a patch of huckleberries from which Jay ate. Little Fox did not. After he had eaten, treading a trail studded with rock and arching roots, Jay asked Little Fox if she was really real.
She looked at him.
“Well, I mean,” he returned some hair behind an ear, “are you here...to help?”
Softly she laughed. “Yes. I think so.”
“Oh, right on, that’s awesome. Except, I guess I’m supposed to figure out now what I’m supposed to say. Let’s see....”
Little Fox sat on a log and watched as he nodded to himself and paced about with an occasional, “Uh, just a second,” trying to determine what it was he should be asking or doing. Finally he said, “So, my friend Claire, she was like all stabbed, with a knife, from her own kid–I guess it was kind of touch-and-go there for awhile, but now she’s getting better, except the kid–he’s like thirteen–they sent him to a total crazy house place, so she’s all bummed, and the really weird part is, there’s this trippy dude who calls himself the Mesmerizer, and one time I saw him all mesmerizing the kid and plus the kid’s three other buds besides.”
Little Fox looked at Jay a long time.
“Once he waited in the woods,” she said in a measured tone, “till the boy, Cyrus, showed up by himself. The man did not speak, but used recorded messages to tell the boy what to do.”
“Whoa. Stab his mom? So the Mesmerizer made him do it. You’re not going to, like, take me to that time to see the whole thing, are you? I don’t know if I could handle that.”
“Take you to that time?”
“I don’t know. I mean, you know.”
“No,” she was shaking her head now, and blinking. “Listen, I was only in the woods there myself. All I did was overhear. And not very clearly.”
“Weird. So, you were like summoned, right? How did you hear the call? What’s that like?”
“On CB. We all have CBs out here.”
“Anyway, at the time, I didn’t really know what I was hearing. It was only later on after I read in the paper about Claire. I knew she was friends with April, so I told April what I heard in the woods that day, and then last night she told me on CB you’d had a similar experience, so I came over this morning. She said you were about to do a seance. I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“You, like, live around here?”
“Not too far from April. She said you’re on your way to Bargerville.”
“Wha–oh, right. Yeah, actually, I’m like totally having a majorly hard time right now coping with what happened to that kid and his mom. I mean, I feel like, I don’t know, maybe even partially responsible.”
They were sitting down now on the grass. Facing each other, they picked at tiny blue flowers in the small space between them as Jay confided, eventually concluding, “I can’t believe I totally enabled the dude.”
“What are you going to do?”
“The best thing, I think, would be to just get the two of them reunited. That would totally feel so good. But somehow I’d have to like break him out, I guess.”
“Oceanside Health Center? That’s nothing. It’s not like a prison or anything. My grandfather used to work there.”
“Oh, right on.”
“You know why so many actors fall in love working together?” Sarah, Mary Annette’s best friend since the ninth grade, waited for a couple of the other actors to pass by where they waited backstage in the shadows. “It’s because you have to look at somebody, in the eyes, listening, when you act. And when you say something, it’s your turn, and it means something, and you say it with feeling, and passion. And it seems important because people are watching. But you’re not even listening.”
It was Sunday night. First full dress rehearsal. With the show opening in just a few days, the last thing Mary Annette needed was the added distraction in her life of Randy getting attacked. She could hardly believe it was only a day before at the fair, and thinking about how his assault impacted her already had her feeling guilty.
“Admit it,” Sarah said. “How much do you really even know about him? I mean, this guy could be Jack the Ripper, for all you know.”
“What? What’s gotten into you?”
“Mary Annette, I’ve been your best friend since freshman year, and you know I’d never lie to you. You know that. Well, listen–” They flattened themselves against the wall as actors with afros, beads and buckskin vests passed by. “Listen honey,” Sarah hurriedly resumed, “I’ve never had a stronger feeling in my life than I do about you and Randy Manson. And that’s the honest truth. Now come on, we’re on soon,” she added, tugging Mary Annette by the arm.
“No!” Mary Annette hissed, pulling herself and Sarah back. “Randy Manson is the kindest, bravest man I’ve ever met. Why don’t you just admit it, you’ve always liked Randy–you’re just jealous! Jealous of what I’ve got!” Her outstretched arms trembled in frustration. Then as quickly as it arose, her flare of temper passed, and her arms flopped down dejectedly at her sides. “Oh, I don’t know, maybe I won’t even want to stay with him anyway, but if I’m the one to ever break it off, it’ll be because it’s my choice, not because of what anybody else tries to tell me to–”
“You guys, you’re on! Go!” A coterie of cast members interrupted, arms windmilling, exaggerated faces lined with makeup mouthing the words, “Go! Go!” But singing “Aquarius” moments later did nothing to diminish Mary Annette’s ardor on the subject of her personal life. Whereas ordinarily she and Sarah would have sat together on break, halfway through rehearsals she returned to her chair in the dressing room alone.
Huge wigs with rainbow hues topped costumes hanging like empty bodies slack in the wardrobe rack. Beads jingled as she tried to push the rack further from a folding chair, but the castors on the other side were stuck. Stuck like the wheels of an overloaded U-boat in the backroom of the store. Giving up, she flopped down on the chair trying not to cry, fighting back the tears, afraid it would ruin her makeup. She noticed something sticking out of her purse. It was a letter. Mary Annette looked around. No one else was there. Lifting the folded flap of the unsealed envelope, she read the typed, anonymous contents.
One with your best interests at heart bids you not soil yourself with the filth of this production. You are too good for the part.
Let the sight of your body belong to better than the leering rabble. Never forget, my Mary Annette. You shall yet be cleansed of this stain.
But you must quit the play.
Mary Annette ran out of the dressing room still clutching the note in her hand.
“Juicy Fruit?” Little Fox’s grandfather extended the yellow package in his sizeable grip. Jay took the offered silver foil stick.
“Oh, thanks, dude.”
“Everybody calls me Chimney.”
It had taken Jay and Little Fox the rest of the afternoon and into the evening to hoof it to her place, both of them talking with April and Claire on CB soon after, and it took them until after eight to get some dinner and talk about the plan. When the sun began to set, Little Fox was riding on her ATV, with Jay seated behind. Bisecting the road cut the nine miles to her grandfather’s down to a fraction, even averaging only twenty-five miles per hour.
“Whoa, why does everybody do that?”
“They call me Chimney because I used to smoke like one.”
“Right on. I thought maybe because you were tall.”
“That, too. My white man’s name is James Taylor. But my real name is Gray Wolf.”
“I don’t know what to call you now.”
“Right on.” Jay unwrapped the gum and folded it into his mouth. A moment later, his face worked into a massive grimace.
Chimney smiled. “Trick gum,” he said. His low, calm voice carried to his granddaughter pouring herself some coffee. “Bernie, how was it crossing the creek?”
The steepness of the hill on one side of the creek which the shortcut crossed was notorious to the two. But she knew that wasn’t why he asked.
“Little Fox is my tribal name,” she called out to Jay. “My white name is Bernadette Taylor. He calls me Bernie. That’s why he’s Gramps.”
“Right on. What tribe?”
“Yupa,” Chimney said.
“Oh yeah, I’ve been up there. Some friends of mine in Carata took me out one time. Wow, that’s really cool.”
Little Fox stood with a steaming mug of coffee. “There’s more in there if anybody wants it.”
“Donuts, too,” Chimney said, looking at Jay. “Go get a donut.”
Having just finished wadding his half-chewed spitty trick gum back into the foil, Jay politely declined.
“So Gramps, we need your help.”
Chimney regarded Little Fox with an expression of receptive curiosity. It was a face that said, “Go ahead. But I reserve the right to look as though I might say no.”
“There’s somebody at Oceanside we want to spring.”
“How does that involve me? You want me to hold your hands, huh? It’s not too hard to get in.”
“Maybe you can just tell us how. And can we use one of your ATVs? In case somebody sees, we don’t want to have to be on the road with plates.”
“Well, I guess that’s better than asking for the truck.”
Little Fox took a sip. Jay secured the gum more tightly in the foil.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll ride mine. Burt said he’d be through working on that old one on Friday. Till then, I’ve got a pile of rounds out back from those tan oaks that fell on the fence.” He looked at Jay. “They need to get split.”
Five days later, after nightfall, Chimney showed Jay how to operate the loaner. The bats that chased the moths attracted to the artificial light seemed to be a distraction. Not one to stress, Chimney nonetheless emphasized that this instruction was not meant to be a crash course.
“We’ll go down on the flats for a good ways,” he said. “That’s all dirt road. The speedometer goes up to fifty-five, but don’t take it past thirty on this one. At that rate it’ll take us almost an hour to get out there.”
“This is really awesome of you, man. Taking the time and the effort and all.”
Squeaky screen door banging shut, Little Fox appeared with a loaded-up backpack.
“Well,” Chimney said, “you did a pretty good job on the wood. Fence still needs fixing. You’ll probably like riding at night. I just put the headlights on this year.”
“Usually when I need to be somewhere I have to thumb a ride. Now I’m way stylin’.” A swooping sound made Jay duck. “Or maybe I’ll thumb a bat! These ones are big enough to ride. Whoa, there’s a Gothic thought.”
Chimney handed Jay the ATV keys. “Sounds more like Goth Hick.”
Opening night on the way to the play, the rotted corpse prowled the tunnels below the town, emerging periodically beneath partially lifted manhole covers to ascertain whereabouts. It was a tactic that had proven generally tenable before. Having emerged on one occasion near Statuary or Bust, what was Will Todd escaped detection from unexpected passersby by holding still among the statues displayed in the shadowy yard. Another instance, fifteen minutes passed posing as a scarecrow before a change in the wind worked in the corpse’s favor. Being able to somewhat simulate, but not requiring breath, it could stay stock still till all the cows came home and died of old age, if necessary.
But on opening night when the corpse got caught, the preference for secrecy had greatly abated.
In raising the manhole cover, and bothering less with stealth, the corpse determined to descend and progress further past two more manholes in the tunnel. Yet at the grating sound of the heavy lid angled up from below and settling back again flush, two young men of college age noticed from an alley on the other side of the street.
Their names were Trent and Christopher. Trent was working the summer at the Fernden branch of Rodeo Video. It was smaller than the one in Carata, but if you watched the commercial–“Yee-hah! Just a buck! Wrassle up a passel of moo-moo-moovies!”–there was a moment where the Fernden branch was acknowledged, and you could see Trent was the one handing a video to a smiling and nodding customer. He hated the job, and had plans on becoming a director. It was his brother, Ron, who had turned him on to attending the university in Carata in the first place. But now he rarely saw Ron at all.
His friend, Christopher (that was the name by which he always introduced himself, and never liked anyone who called him Chris), also from down in the city, was tall, overweight around the hips, and had a rich dad. Christopher was absolutely certain he carried a superior air. Trent thought that, too. It was what had gravitated him to Christopher, down in the city, at a party. Now he was trying to sell Christopher on the area in general and the university in particular. Christopher, already sold, was also absolutely certain he was much too bright to be a very good student, and had privately committed himself to trying to sell his dad on the prospect by showing an interest in the fraternity.
In a mutually emboldening display promoted by the way they felt two college guys who had some drinks should act, and aided by a flashlight on Trent’s key chain, they removed the cover and climbed down.
The dank black tunnel extended further behind, to the south, than to the north where it terminated at a lefthand bend fifteen feet ahead. “I didn’t know you could go down here,” Trent said.
“It’s not like anybody has anything else to do around here,” Christopher snorted, bowing alongside Trent and trying not to get his clothes dirty. “It’s all gross down here. I can’t even stand up. Where’d that sucker go?”
“I don’t know, man,” Trent said, raising his voice. Already his legs were fluttering from maintaining his knees bent at a forty-five degree angle in an excessive effort to avoid touching anything. “Where did that sucker go?”
“You know what? You know what? We ought to go kick his ass. Kick his freakin’ ass!”
“Holy crap, Christopher!” Frankly impressed with his friend, Trent wanted Christopher to know how messed up those drinks really got him, too. He swung his flashlight in an arc across the confines that settled on the figure directly behind them.
The crouching corpse punched Trent in the face with a stiff left. Then hooked him again on the side of the head, and on the neck. Half a dozen thudding punches before in desperation Christopher reacted, extending his arms and clawing ineffectually on what felt corded and grooved like the bark of a tree. Even as Trent slumped in the muck, legs quivering spasmodically, Christopher’s buffeted head slammed against the damp wall with a sickening crunch, and the felled body hit the grime like an animal in a slaughterhouse.
The tunnel was suddenly quiet. Both of the young men were dead.
The corpse ascended the metal rungs and returned the cover into place, then climbed back down and crushed the flashlight. Unhindered by the absence of illumination, it detected in the utter blackness two distinct parts of a single worm severed in the fray, each piece wriggling separate in the filth. The corpse stood silent for a spell before continuing along, decayed mass crackling in the clothes like a giant strip of jerky.
Skreeling gulls and sea-scented mist hit the riders when they topped the rise and faced the great dark of the endless ocean blending indistinguishably with the black night sky. High in the tree line above the bluffs, Jay, Little Fox and Chimney turned off the ATVs and surveyed the lights of Oceanside Health Center gleaming through the murky drifts of fog.
“Let’s have a bite before heading down,” Little Fox said.
Jay nodded, entranced by flashes of a ghostly green glow in the rolling surf below. “For sure. I could totally go for a bagel and cream cheese.” He pulled off and unzipped his pack. “I’ve got three beers in here, too.”
“I’ll do one,” said Little Fox.
“You two can fight over mine,” Chimney said.
Little Fox opened her pack and broke out the banana bread. “Haven’t had to fight over anything yet.”
“You know what’s weird?” Jay dug into a sticky garlic bagel sliced in half and spread with cream cheese. “If you just hold still, bugs will start to crawl on you. Basically, you could totally be all consumed alive just by not moving and allowing it to happen. Whoa, you know?”
Little Fox nodded.
“Shit,” Chimney said. “I should go ahead and have that beer. Don’t want to get tired, is all.” He helped himself to some donut holes he brought and waved the bag around for takers. “You know what I think’s weird, is how a sweet-tooth today is a result of our ancestors’ diet a hundred thousand years ago. Loading up is a holdover from hunter-gatherer times, when you didn’t know where your next calories were coming from.”
“Not to mention fear of the dark,” Little Fox said, taking a swig.
“Some nights, camping out, like in a hollow tree by myself, I totally feel like one of those Dawn of Man dudes in ‘2001.’”
Chimney used a key to pry off the cap on a brew. “Those are pretty good suits Kubrick used on those dancers. You ever seen that Patterson Bigfoot footage?”
“That one where it’s walkin’ away?”
“Take a look at it again sometime. That Bigfoot has breasts.”
Scattered patches of dissipating fog along the coast below revealed a steadily widening array of habitation. Jay surveyed the building at the bottom of the bluffs. “After we power up here, I’m gonna see if I can get in that back door there on the right. According to Claire, Shayne says he heard Cyrus is in room number nine at the top story on the front right corner.”
“Sounds like it can’t go wrong. Who the hell’s Shayne?”
“April’s kid,” Little Fox said.
“Well, they’ll have to have not changed the locks in the last while. I think that’s a safe bet.”
When they had shaken out the empties of the last drops and packed up the rest of the trash, they put the ATVs in neutral and pushed them back from the summit a little way before firing them up and cruising slowly with the lights off around the bend and down to level grass. In the shadows of some trees they left the ATVs, then crept across the field. When they got as close as they dared, Jay half-whispered, “Dude, can I have that key, now? I’m goin’ in.”
“I should go. I can find the room faster. If I see anyone, I can say I’m just back to pick up my tool box.”
“Can’t let you, bro. Not this time. If anything should happen, like problem-wise, man, I’d be way bummed if it was you. I totally have to expedite my responsibility with this quest.”
“Expiate. All right, here you go.” Chimney handed Jay a copy of the back door key that he hadn’t bothered to return and never thought he’d use. “I really do need that tool box, though.”
“Where is it?”
“In the basement. Follow along to the right when you go in. It’s the last door. Should be at the bottom of the steps, on a bucket along the wall. You can’t miss it. I can just about guarantee it’s still there.”
“You guys, shut up,” Little Fox hissed. Inside, someone was passing by a window. Chimney whispered a few last minute instructions directly into Jay’s ear.
Jay scuttled toward the door. When he got there, heart pounding, he tried to put the key in the door. It didn’t fit. Then he realized he’d had it upside-down. He tried again. This time the handle turned. With a last look back at his friends on the fringe, he gave a thumbs up and slipped inside.
The environment was not exactly antiseptic. The place was definitely underfunded. To Jay’s left ran a hall with unadorned concrete walls painted pale green. The hall terminated at the length of the building and took a right. From the glowing flashes on the wall and cacophony of discordant sounds–cymbals clashing, guns firing, hands clapping, explosions, laughing, snatches of music–Jay surmised several TVs and possibly radios were competing. Some sort of common room down there.
Past a little jog, an unlit hall ran down the right side of the building. But straight ahead, a stairwell went up and turned, extending parallel over the unlit ground floor hall. Jay took the stairs, repeating to himself the number of the room for which he was looking.
At the top of the stairs, Jay’s footsteps echoed. It sounded also like somewhere someone was tapping the keys on a piano. Seeing the 9 on the door directly before him, Jay shrugged and tried the handle.
“Oh, right,” he thought. He looked to his left down the hall. The door to the first room was open and the lights were off, just like Chimney said. On a desk near the door was some sort of control panel. A black switch on the right side pointed up to On. Jay flipped it down to Off. Then he walked back down the hall.
He went to the door and looked inside.
“I want to take you to your mom.”
“I’ll take you to her. My name’s Jay. Come with me. Come on.”
Groggily, Cyrus rose from a creaky cot wearing white stretch pants and a white t-shirt. Jay hustled over and gave him a hand.
“Oh, dang, no shoes. Should’ve brought some. Well, you’ll be riding most of the way. Come on.”
Halfway down the stairs, Cyrus said, “Where are we going?”
“To see your mom.”
The flickering glow on the pale green walls remained, but the cacophony of competing sounds had lessened. Letting go of the hand draped over his shoulder and helping to hold up Cyrus solely with the other arm around him, Jay turned the handle of the door which he had entered, pushed it open and promptly tripped the alarm. He forgot to hit the button by the door on the way out, the one Chimney said was there for patient safety.
“Come on, dude!” Jay shifted himself, grabbing Cyrus’s other arm as well, and hoisted him up into a piggy-back ride. “Get on! Let’s go! We totally have to get out of this place!”
“I kept up–with my—journal assignments,” Cyrus said, his voice registering Jay’s effort puffing along the field. “I’ve been writing—in my mind. Wait till—Mom sees. She won’t–believe–what I wrote!”
When they were halfway across the field, the patients began to spill. Among them, someone in an official capacity gesticulating wildly screamed at the top of his lungs, “I see you, Chimney! You son of a bitch!”
Half a minute later when Chimney had reached his ATV from the edge of the field under the trees and burned over toward the suddenly less blustery speaker he replied, “Up yours, Ed! I see you!”
Little Fox came over on hers with Jay and Cyrus right behind. Chimney stood up on his ATV, as did Little Fox, which gave the appearance of riding in chariots. Ed gave up pretending being able to do anything about it and got out of the way as the last handful of patients–the door to whose rooms Jay had inadvertently unlocked–tasted the night, impelled to swiftly wander. Like white ghosts they glided over the rolling mist-draped hills, heedless of the three roaring ATVs in whose headlights they periodically were caught slipping up through windswept trees into the deep and abiding forest beyond.
Packed to capacity crowd, the theater buzzed with anticipation, and from caffeine-loaded truffles and local wine in plastic cups.
Gerry from Yoga Yogurt, Celeste and Anton from Wide-Eye Tie-Dye, Arnelle, Sarah’s boss at Sofa, So Good, Felix from Automatons, Frank and Barry from Fernden Farms Creamery, Darla, Judy, and many more from Viscount Discount, comprised just some of those present for the opening of “Hair.”
Animatedly people spoke of their work, and of what they had seen at the theater before, and what they expected to see in the coming season, and they talked about trips to stores and friends they’d seen, and about health issues, and the costs of things, and some among them, Barry included, sat tapping playbills on knees. The people in front of him were talking about the cast.
“Randall Manson,” someone said, examining an upheld playbill. “Oh, he’s that good-looking young man we see around town.”
“Mary Annette Reynolds–didn’t she used to go with that young man killed in the hit-and-run a few months ago?”
“Will or Bill something or other. That was terrible. Yes, I think they did go together for awhile.”
“They never did find out who did that, did they?”
“No, I don’t think they ever did.”
Behind, listening in, no longer tapping the playbill on his knee, Barry stared straight ahead, lightheaded and nauseous, doing his level best not to throw up.
Then the performance started, and Barry watched with everyone else the colorful spectacle of the musical, looking forward to some sort of nude scene he heard was coming up, when there suddenly appeared on stage a figure unexpected to the cast and to those in the audience familiar with the show.
The animated form of Will Todd, obscured in black–black as a black hole, black as a barrel of crude oil–strode across the stage to a bare-chested Randy Manson in bell bottoms and buckskin, grabbed him from behind by the hair in one hand, produced from a fold a large knife in the other, and slammed it into the shocked actor’s chest in front of the audience, creating a single simultaneous gasp of horror which quickly turned to earsplitting screams as the knife sank into the chest four more times.
Red blade drenched in dripping blood, deftly the knife-hand removed a black pair of shades from a face wrapped in black bandages. Upon removal of the twin thin lenses, beneath the dark hat’s wide brim, green gleamed.
The corpse spun a circuit, bathing the eyes of all those on the stage and in the audience with the grim unspoken command to remain still, and quietly watch.
The knife-hand ripped downward, spilling Randy Manson’s intestines on the stage with a horrible, audible slap. The upheld body danced as the silent figure slashed. When the carcass was eviscerated, and the forceful blade had met the neck, what was Will Todd kicked what was Randy Manson off the stage in front of the audience, and held by the hair the streaming head swaying in the air.
It had all been a matter of moments. From backstage, others among the cast and crew appeared. Rapidly the dreadful figure went about unleashing more of the poisonous glow, yet stopped on sight of the horrified Mary Annette. Dropping both bloody knife and severed head, the corpse ran over, swept her up, and disappeared in a shadowy maze of props and backdrops, while of the mesmerized zombie-like onlookers watching at that moment, and after the spell wore off, none so much as mouthed a single word, or indeed ever even remembered...