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Gateway Copyright © 2021 by David C. Cassidy
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“Jared Collado,” Bobby Duncan said, “you are one sick motherfucker.”
Jared gave him a look. It’s a safe bet that if he had known he was going to be in a coma in the next half hour, he would have glued his ass to his bar-room chair and gotten shit-faced with his friends. But it wasn’t as if he could see the future or read tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. Those things were reserved for clairvoyants and frauds. Besides, God had bigger plans for his scattered mind.
He set down his whiskey, then reached across the table and snatched the hardcover book from Bobby’s hand.
“Hey—” Bobby said, half-laughing.
Jared added the book to the small stack of author copies he’d brought in from the car. He hadn’t planned on a book-signing event, but if his agent had succeeded in drilling one thing into his head, it was the mantra of the literary world: Don’t disappoint the fans.
He held up the book and tapped the name on the cover. “It’s Cole now, Bobby. No more coe-YAY-doe. You want this signed or not?”
“Jared Cole,” Bobby shouted above the blaring country music. He adopted a cheesy Spanish accent. “You muss be loco! Sorry, señor, but no ways I get used to dat.”
Jared chuckled. “I don’t think I will, either.” They clinked their glasses together.
“I like it,” a voice purred in Jared’s ear. “It’s very … authory.”
Bobby Duncan elbowed Ricky Cowen. Ricky was tapping his foot to the music, and almost dropped his drink when Bobby nodded to the large and lovely breasts hovering next to their best friend. Jim Tate, a mechanic with one good eye, joined in the ogling.
Jared jumped at the sudden sound of thunder. The lights flickered. He drew back, and his eyes settled on the ample mounds before him. “Y-you think so?”
Bobby Duncan chuckled and shook his head. “Cole, or whatever the hell you call yourself now, what the Christ is wrong with you?”
“Maybe you should sign those for her,” Jim Tate said.
Ricky Cowen laughed and seconded the motion.
Julie Jacobs, a scorching redhead in a low-cut white top and black jeans, looked up with a gorgeous smile of perfect teeth. “Maybe you should, Jared Cole,” she cooed. She placed her pen in Jared’s hand.
“You wouldn’t want that if you actually read his stuff,” Bobby said. “Julie, girl, he really is a sick motherfucker.”
“How sick?” Julie said playfully. She batted her eyes.
“Page 63,” Bobby said. “I couldn’t get any further.” He looked at Jared. “Sorry, man.”
“I’ll have to read it,” Julie said. “Will you sign one for me, Jared?”
Jared signed the book and handed it to her. She thanked him with a kiss on the cheek, took the pen, then tapped her left breast with it.
Jared swallowed. “You’re joking, right?”
“I’ll sign it,” Jim Tate said brightly. He went to snatch the pen but he fumbled with it. It was on his right, which wasn’t good because his right eye was glass. It was misshapen, and his depth perception had always been off since he got it.
Julie snapped up the pen and swatted him. She handed the pen to Jared.
Bobby Duncan prodded him. “Do it, buddy. Maybe that boob’ll be worth something when you die.”
Jim and Ricky laughed.
Jared took a generous swig of his drink. He summoned the courage to raise the pen to that full round breast, but hesitated when the thunder came again.
“First time?” Bobby joked.
“Never touched one, Jared?” Ricky Cowen chimed in. “Lemme know if you need help.”
“Will you two shut it?” Julie said.
Jared glanced at his buddies in turn. “You know fellas, they got lots a this in New York City.” He’d never been there, but he was moving there in four days, the day after Labor Day. He hoped his little boast would shut them up.
“Aw, you’ll miss all this,” Bobby told him with a good belch. “The Big Apple’s got nothin’ on the Big Sky.”
“I give him a month,” Jim said.
Ricky Cowen reached over and took Jared’s hand. He looked at him deeply. “Just don’t let ’em change you, my love.”
Bobby choked on his beer, and it came out through his nose. Jim laughed.
“Seriously, my friend,” Ricky said. “It’s like that Don Henley song. Don’t think it can’t happen.”
Jim Tate led them into a chorus of New York Minute, and Jared had to laugh. On the inside, he was reeling. Montana was all he really knew; in high school, he and the guys had ventured as far east as Chicago. He was scared of New York, scared of the contract he’d signed, scared of … of change. He was a country boy, a country boy with a gift for spinning a good yarn, but he was still a country boy. And still in love with Marisa.
He went to sign that beckoning breast when the lights went out for a good minute. Thunder rocked as heavy winds rattled the walls.
“Easy, bud,” Bobby said when the lights came on. The music started up, and the packed bar picked up where it left off.
Jared sat stiffly. He took a drink to calm himself. “I’m okay. I’m good.”
Julie Jacobs kissed him. She drew back slowly, sucking his lower lip. “I’m gonna miss you, Jared Cole.”
Jared signed her breast under the hoots and hollers of his friends. When it was over, they all watched in horny silence as she made her way to the bar.
Lightning lit up the tall, arched windows. Jared stiffened again.
“Jesus, I’m late,” he said, glancing at his slightly fogged Timex. He started to speak, but stopped when he couldn’t remember what he wanted to say. It was on the tip of his tongue. The storm—and its dizzying change in barometric pressure—had grown in the last hour. That small throb in his brain had grown with it.
He looked blankly at his friends.
“You were heading out,” Ricky reminded him helpfully, not for the first time. He tapped his unsigned book.
Jared nodded. “Right. Thanks, man.” He signed the remaining copies and handed them out. With a hint of sadness, he regarded his friends warmly. “Guys, it’s been a slice.”
Ricky Cowen raised his glass. “To the best damn writer I never read.”
Jim Tate and Bobby Duncan joined the toast.
Jared’s eyes glistened. “You guys really suck, you know that?”
He almost sat back and ordered another round.
But God’s plans were God’s plans.
Jared stood under the narrow awning that covered the entrance to Shelby’s Pub. The rain pelted the concrete like stones, and he rushed past a storm-battered couple who were heading in. He barely made it to his rusting Toyota hatchback before thunder rocked above him. Lightning streaked across the sky in a flurry of jagged bolts.
Soaked in the car, he lit a cigarette and took a long, calming drag. He started the engine and cranked the wipers to full. Thunder pounded again, and his hand trembled.
The black shape of the town’s water tower loomed in the distance. A burst of lightning revealed WELCOME TO TORCH FALLS.
He took another drag. His head was swimming from all the beer, and throbbing from what he knew would be a bruiser of a migraine. He thought of Ricky Cowen, of his sobering prediction. How things could change in a New York minute.
Didn’t he know.
Grampa had been sixty-six; sixty-seven wasn’t in the cards. He had taken his two grandsons out for ice cream, in spite of those dark olive clouds brewing on that hot August night. None of them cared—it was only five minutes to The Olde Pop Shoppe on Main. It turned out to be one of those nasty life lessons, one of life’s little ironies, for it wasn’t the lightning that took the old man. It was the felled power line.
Oh, how things could change.
New York was change. He didn’t want to move there, not really. His agent had wined him and dined him, finally twisting his writing arm just enough to convince him—and the three-book deal had sealed it. He was the “new voice of horror,” as his publisher was promoting him, and when his vampire novel, Luscious, hit number three on the best-seller list, he had started to believe the hype. Still, he knew how dangerous hype could be. It was hard enough finding the courage to put yourself out there, and once you got there, it was even harder to stay there. Could he really come up with three more books in two years?
And what about Marisa?
He could still hear her soft voice when he’d told her he was leaving. I understand. When she had said those two words, lips trembling, eyes lying, he knew he had broken her heart.
A crack of thunder startled him. The dashboard clock read seven-thirty.
He was supposed to be somewhere. And worse, he was running late, he was sure.
Damn these fucking storms.
He took his ratty spiral notepad from his pocket. It held all the little reminders he’d made to himself over the years, hints and cues and facts that most people didn’t need to get through their day. A scribbled history of the memory challenged.
You drive a red Toyota hatchback. Has that duct-taped left taillight. (In case that idiot, Johnny Harris, parks his next to yours at the Thrifty Mart again, just to mess with you.)
Check stove and doors before bed.
You like plain Cheerios.
You do NOT like multi-grain Cheerios.
The President is Bill Clinton. The President is—
It’s 1972 … It’s 1973 …
He flipped through the book to his latest TODAY list. Blank. He’d forgotten to write it down. Of course.
He butted his cigarette in the ashtray. Tapped his finger anxiously on the wheel. There was something about that number.
Jared cursed himself.
It was August 30—Mom and Dad’s anniversary. How the hell could he remember twenty different plot points in a novel when he couldn’t remember something as important as this? He had set this up over a month ago, the day after he’d signed the contract. It was to be an anniversary-slash-going-away party, a gift to them, a gift to himself, nicely wrapped in a fine restaurant—the finest restaurant in Dad’s opinion, at least. Jessie’s Bar and Grill out on Route 2.
He drove as quickly as he could, but the storm refused to let up. The wipers barely kept pace with the rain. He took what he figured was the shortest route, bypassing the Saturday-night party crowd along Main. In a few minutes he was on Old Mill Sideroad, fighting the battering rain and the throbbing in his temples. Already he was thirty minutes late, coming up on the east-west railway tracks that cut through the north end of town.
He passed a young man in a black poncho who was walking on the side of the road—Miles Bailey, of course—and he laid on the horn. Miles was out for his usual stroll in the rain, and as usual, was far too close to the road. It didn’t help that he didn’t wear a stitch of reflective clothing, and to expect him to carry a flashlight was like asking him to find the square root of a hundred. Miles was a brakeman for the Northwoods Railway, made a ton of money, but had the brains God gave a rail.
Jared put his foot over the brake pedal when he saw light flooding the field to his left. The rain diffused the headlights of a speeding train that must have had a good fifty cars. Its horn blared as it approached the level crossing, where the warning lights flickered like demon’s eyes.
He took his foot off the gas, then second-guessed himself. “Screw it.” He floored it and beat the train by breaths. The rush felt good, the same thrill he felt after nailing a great line of dialogue. He pumped a fist with a shout.
He turned right at the second road and carried on toward his parent’s neighborhood. The street lamps were out, which meant they were probably sitting at home in the dark, Dad thumping the kitchen table with his big index finger, cursing his youngest son for being late—again—but especially for being late tonight.
It’ll be okay—Judd’ll be there, Jared thought. Big Brother watching out for you like he always does.
He could hear Judd now, handling the old man with his playful touch. Come on, Dad. You know how it is—you’ve said it a thousand times. ‘Judd’s the brawn, Jared’s the brain.’ Jared didn’t forget. His mind’s just busy, is all. Hell, he’ll be late for his own damn funeral. He’ll have to think about where they’re ditchin’ his body first.
That made him smile. He was the brains, all right, so brainy, in fact, he had a hard time remembering where he’d put his car keys half the time.
Lightning zig-zagged above the houses. Thunder cracked. He made his way around a parked car, and the wheels lost grip on the slick pavement. He regained control as he worked the brakes. His headlamps failed to cut through the rain, barely illuminating the intersection ahead.
Two silhouettes hurried at the stop, the man holding an umbrella over the woman. They were halfway across when a dark Jeep Cherokee ran the stop from the other side.
Jared hit the brakes, screaming. “No!”
The Jeep struck the couple dead on. The woman spun back and shot right out of her short heels. She slammed against the pavement, her neck snapping when her head hit the curb. The man was run down as he bore the brunt of the oversized metal bumper. The Jeep rolled over him and skidded to a stop.
Jared threw the shifter into park. He got out, sheltering his eyes from the rain.
The driver of the Cherokee stepped from the cab and took two steps toward the wounded. The driving rain hid his face. He moved closer and knelt beside the man. He held his hand a moment, but when he saw Jared running for him, he bolted for his vehicle and sped off. Jared reached the intersection, but all he saw was a fading pair of blurry taillights.
Thunder rocked him, and he took a step back. The lights from his headlamps gave a bare glimpse of the woman’s lifeless body. When he rushed to her side, lightning flashed above.
His heart skipped. It very nearly stopped. He stood up and cupped a hand across his lips.
It was not his mother, he told himself. It was not his mother.
He staggered back, away from her twisted body. The storm raged. He nearly fled, his mind spiraling. But then he turned to face his father and summoned the will to go to him. He knelt close. The man was barely alive.
Jared screamed. “Somebody help! Help! Help me!”
“Jared,” his father said. “Jared, my boy. Come closer.”
“Dad. Ohhh, Dad. I’m here.”
“Your … your mother—”
“She’s all right. She’s gonna be all right. She’s—”
Victor Collado coughed up blood. His eyelids flittered as he beckoned with a trembling hand.
Jared moved closer and turned an ear to his father’s lips. Victor whispered in Spanish, his native tongue, yet the words were lost to the storm.
“Dad … what did you say? Dad?” Jared peered into those dying eyes.
Then the lightning struck.
The colt had no head.
Jared turned from the animal, his gut rocking. He steeled himself against the rising swill in his stomach, bracing his side on the rotting wood fence that seemed to stretch for miles across the sprawling ranch. He looked up at that endless spring sky, and it settled him. It was hard to believe it had been seven years since he’d been seduced by its beauty. Seven years of writing, touring, promoting. And for what? A new Land Rover?
He supposed he should be grateful. He had fame; money; a penthouse apartment. A movie deal for Luscious. But maybe had was the operative word here. Sales of his last two books were abysmal. Reviewers had panned them. One of them had gone so far as to say that Luscious was his only “readable” work, that this “new voice of horror” was nothing of the sort, only that Jared Cole’s first novel proved that old adage: Everyone’s got at least one good book in them.
So, here he was, back in Montana, trying to prove the critics wrong.
Maybe it’s deeper than that, he thought. Simpler than that. Like proving it to yourself.
He took a deep breath, then another. Finally, he willed himself to turn to the remains. The torso had been gnawed to shreds. The legs fared little better. They had been severed neatly, carefully placed on each side of the torso, the stiff pairs crossed in a T and bound in baling twine. The front pair lay to the left, the hind legs the right, just as they always were: two hideous cruciforms. The thick smell of death finally made him double over and vomit.
“You gonna be okay, son?” Jack Henneman said. The tanned rancher placed a hand on Jared’s shoulder.
“Yeah. Gimme a minute.”
Jared kept his gaze far from the colt. Maybe he should have stayed in New York. His agent hadn’t liked the idea of him leaving. He should have listened.
“Is it worth it?” Jack asked. “This book a yours.”
Jared stood straight as he steadied himself. He fiddled with his smartphone and took a few shots with its camera. “I hate to say it, given what’s happened to your colt,” he said apologetically. “But there’s a story here.” He prayed there was. His working title was Skinner, a kind of true-crime horror novel about a rich rancher—an alien rancher with a taste for sacrificial blood.
He paused a moment. “Thanks for calling me first.”
The rancher gave him a nod. “Not a problem, son. It’s not like the authorities would do much anyhow. They never seemed to give much of a shit about it when it was a thing. You know, though, one thing sticks. It’s kinda odd it’s happened again now. I mean, after you called me like you done.”
Odd as hell, Jared thought. He was never one to see signs or entertain any kind of hocus-pocus; he was a card-carrying member of the Camp of Shit Happens. Still, maybe the guy upstairs was helping out with his book, just a little. His initial research on the Internet had come up empty, save an obscure blog he’d stumbled upon two weeks ago. There had been a reference to the late Jack Henneman—Jack Jr.’s father—about a series of grim animal mutilations in Madison County in the 1980s. It was one thing to find a local who had first-hand knowledge of something that had happened years ago, quite another to find yourself face to face with the nasty shit as it happened.
“One of those things,” he shrugged in agreement. “I think the last one was six years ago.”
“Sure enough,” Henneman said. “Like clockwork, too. You could pretty much count on one at seedin’, one at harvest. Went on in these parts for as long as I can remember. Thirty years, easy. Then it just stopped.”
“It doesn’t make sense it would start up again like this. Not after so long.”
“It’s him,” Henneman said.
Jared ignored the lingering look the old man gave his scarred hands. “How can you be sure?”
The evidence aside—his doubt aside—he knew the history. Animals had been butchered across the county for years. Ritualistic killings. They were placed just so, and the head had always been left behind. Sawed off, yes, but left behind, a cross carved into its forehead. Its placement was crucial, set precisely above the torso. Coupled with the two crosses fashioned from the limbs, it created one all-encompassing cruciform. Sonia Wheaton, a self-proclaimed “reporter-slash-blogger” for The Torch Falls Monthly, had been so reckless as to call it the Trinity—which, sadly, caught on with a number of locals—yet Jared had never subscribed to such nonsense. He was not the religious sort, and while he had no alternate explanation other than this being the work of a sick and depraved mind, as a young boy he had accepted an alternate label. What his father had called la mano del diablo—the hand of the devil.
The rancher led him past the colt and down a steep bank toward a dried-up creek. He pointed to a patch of tall weeds.
Jared stepped past him and stopped shy of the severed head. His gut began to turn again. He gathered himself and examined what remained. With the edge of his boot, he turned the head for a better look. He slipped a wrinkled photograph out of his pocket, straightened it, and compared the cross on the grainy black-and-white print of the cow’s forehead to this one. Bang on.
Still, one thing didn’t make sense. “Why’s the head down here?”
“What kinda stories you write, mister?”
“This ain’t no mystery,” Henneman said. “So if that’s what you write, son, maybe you should pick another kinda book.”
Jared gave him a blank look.
“Jesus,” Henneman said. “You really think it’s some kid playin’ a nasty prank? A copycat?” He aimed an old finger at the remains. “Look at them bite marks. Likely wolves draggin’ it about, fightin’ over it. Gravity did the rest.”
Jared couldn’t argue the point. “So you do think it’s … uh … you think it’s him.” He had the name on the edge of his lips, but it wouldn’t come.
“It’s him,” Henneman insisted. His down-home friendliness had evaporated. “The Phantom.”
El Fantasma, Jared thought as he drove away. He recalled the first time he’d heard it: It was September 27, 1978, when the larch and the aspen had turned yellow and gold. He and Judd had been sprawled out on the living room floor in front of the old black-and-white RCA, smack in the middle of Happy Days. Mom was knitting a blue scarf with a winding white pattern. Dad was wedged into his big cushy chair lost in his newspaper, smoke from his cigar wafting from behind. ABC had cut to a commercial when the Perdomo dropped from Dad’s lips, and his paper went up like a Christmas tree. Mom snuffed the flames with her half-knitted scarf and what remained of her tea. Dad had always been a God-fearing soul, and had stood there, hands shaking, eyes growing, rambling on about the article on page three—about la mano del diablo. The Phantom had struck for the second time that year.
The Land Rover took Jared south back to town, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember where his new home was. He cruised Main, passing a number of shops, some familiar, some not, hoping something might jog his memory. He had the address in his smartphone, a definite upgrade from his ratty spiral notepad, but it was just so damn frustrating having to resort to a computer database, like a mindless old man who has lost his way.
How the Christ can you remember every stupid detail about some night with the Fonz thirty years ago, but not remember where you live?
It had been this way for most of his life. Ever since he was a kid, his busy mind was always forgetting one thing or another. What day it was, or dates and times for appointments. Or something as simple as remembering to brush his teeth before bed—or if he already had. Had he turned off the stove? Locked the front door?
And what of that night?
Even now, seven years on, he could write a book about what happened—at least some of it. Signing Julie Jacobs’ breast, Ricky Cowen toasting him, beating that train by seconds—but once the lightning struck and sent him into a coma for two weeks, everything changed. The gaps in his memories had grown wider and deeper. At times, it was almost painful trying to force himself to remember. It was one thing to forget your address, quite another to forget the last words of the dying.
The accident was like watching an old silent film where some of the frames were missing. He remembered those faceless figures hurrying through the intersection, the driving rain … the Jeep … but after that, most of it was lost in that cold blackness of his mind. Sometimes he would bolt awake out of a nightmare screaming his father’s name, his heart pounding, his sheets soaked in sweat. Over the years, bits and pieces had revealed themselves to him in those dreams, yet how strange they were, how fleeting and fuzzy. It was as if there were some locked room in his mind and he held a ring with a thousand keys, or worse, one key before a thousand locked rooms.
He tried to remember where his house was; it wouldn’t come. He passed a coffee shop and turned off Main, not with any destination in mind, but because he thought that driving around for a few minutes might settle his mind and let him remember. In the old days he could have called up his brother, and Judd would have given him directions. How many times had he wandered about town after school, trying to find his way home? Judd had dropped out of high school in second year, but there he was, Big Brother to the rescue, finding Lost Little Brother and showing the way.
But now? Even if he got past the embarrassment and actually called—not that Judd would know where his house was, he hadn’t told anyone he was back—he could imagine how the conversation would go. They hadn’t spoken since he came out of the coma, and Judd’s last words to him had been brutal and cold.
You shouldn’ta been late, Little Brother. For once in your miserable, brain-fucked life, you shoulda remembered.
And Judd had been right. If only he’d been on time, Mom and Dad wouldn’t have gone for that walk. If only he’d been the good son for once in his miserable, brain-fucked life. But no. He had to be the big-shot writer, had to celebrate the new Jared Cole, the new voice of horror. Had to sign Julie Jacobs’ left tit, like his useless scribble was gold or something.
He drove for another few minutes, only to find himself back on Main, no closer to remembering where he lived. He refused to check his phone. His doctor in New York had asked him not to give in so easily, to try and make himself remember. It was maddening.
Main Street was busy for a Saturday afternoon. Glancing left, he did remember Hung Fat, the best—okay, the only—Chinese restaurant in town, partly because of its hilarious name, but mostly because it used to have killer szechuan chicken. Even better than what he could get back East.
He recognized a few of the faces walking along the sidewalks, but most of them he didn’t know—or couldn’t remember. He felt a hankering for a soft drink, and he parked the Land Rover outside the Eight-Ball convenience store. He smiled. He and Judd used to come here as kids for the latest Marvel comics, and later, he and Marisa had come to get ice cream and cigarettes. She didn’t smoke, he was a chimney, and while she had hounded him to stop, he never did.
He got out and looked across the street at the old Strand Theater. The last movie he saw here had been with Marisa: Reign Over Me with Don Cheadle and Adam Sandler. The memory upset him. Like Sandler’s character, Charlie Fineman—who’d suffered a severe mental break after losing his family in the 9/11 attacks—he’d suffered his own personal hell of dealing with the horror of the everyday. The reality.
His shrink in New York had tried to get him to talk about these things. He didn’t want to. The truth was, he couldn’t talk about them. Not his dirty little secret.
In front of the theater, a teenager with earbuds was up on a ladder, grooving to the beat of his music as he updated the marquee. He was setting a big red K after The Jungle Boo.
Jared took the first of three steps to the store, when growing shouts stopped him. He turned to look back, and froze in horror.
“Oh my god!” Jared shouted.
A black Buick shot through a stop at the four-way intersection. The driver was slumped over the wheel. The car cut sharply left, clipping another vehicle that was crossing the other way. It headed straight for the theater and rocked over the curb.
The Buick struck the ladder and crashed through the front doors. The sound of grating metal and exploding glass drowned out the screaming that filled the street. The car came to rest, buried in debris, half of it inside the main lobby. Part of the steel door frame had smashed through the windshield and had rammed through the driver’s head.
The teen on the ladder hadn’t heard the car. The impact spun the ladder away from the building, the force so great that it flung him over the car and into the street. His body slammed to the pavement with an audible smack. A delivery truck squealed its tires, stopping a few feet short of him. People rushed to the scene, most of them shouting, all in a panic.
Jared shot into the street and knelt beside the boy. “Somebody call an ambulance!”
A crowd quickly gathered. A smaller group hovered near the Buick, some of them trying to get to the driver. Jared took the boy by the hand. He still had one earbud lodged in his ear. Blood dribbled from his lips. His body quivered.
“Jesus,” Jared muttered. He had thought the kid looked familiar. It was Bobby Duncan’s son.
“Stay with me, Kyle.”
The boy looked up at him, dazed. He was fading fast.
Jared searched the crowd. His heart was racing. “Does anyone know first aid? Has anyone called 9-1-1?”
He took out his smartphone. As he started to call the emergency number, the boy coughed up blood. Jared dropped the phone.
It was coming. And he couldn’t stop it.
No—not now. Not with all these people here—
His eyes locked with Kyle Duncan’s. He couldn’t look away if he tried; it was simply impossible. His body became cold and stiff, but he felt the fading warmth of Kyle’s hand, the rapid beat of his dying heart. His own pulse rocketed as his head began to pound.
Already it was too late.
The gateway had opened.
He tried to fight it. Tried to close it. But that crippling force, that damnable curse, had an iron will. It held him in its inescapable grip. He was helpless, useless. All he could do was stare into Kyle’s dying eyes.
“It’s all right, son,” he said softly. He feared what was coming next, coming through. He knew full well the terrors that could come for him, but no. Not this time. His body trembled, overwhelmed by a sweeping contentment that quickly consumed him.
His lips curled into a smile. He couldn’t help it. “It’s all right, Kyle. I know. I know.” Tears slipped from his eyes.
Kyle Duncan drew a final breath, tried to speak, and died.
Jared slumped back, overcome. He couldn’t focus. The world was a haze. He still held a slight grin.
The crowd stood hushed. A young woman wept as she knelt beside Jared. “Are you all right? Your nose … it’s bleeding.”
“Why are you smiling?” a man said, his voice biting.
“Yeah, what’s that shit?” another said. “What did you do?”
“That’s Jared Cole,” someone said. It was Tom Greenwood, the assistant manager of the Eight-Ball. “Holy smokes, that’s Jared Cole!”
Jared groaned, dizzy. His head throbbed.
The woman reached into her purse and drew a small tissue. She offered it, but he didn’t take it.
Gently, Jared set the boy’s hand to the ground. It felt cold, like death itself. He struggled to rise.
“Sir! Are you okay?” the woman asked.
Jared stared at the stunned faces around him. The crowd looked like ghosts. Blood slid down his lips and his chin. He staggered back to the Land Rover and steadied against it.
The woman hurried up to him. “Are you going to be all right? Please. Take this.”
Jared looked at her. She was coming into focus now. He nodded as he took the tissue, and he stemmed the flow of blood from his nostril.
She handed him his phone. “You dropped this.”
“Thank you,” he said. He looked over at the dead boy. This was all too familiar. He couldn’t believe it was really happening.
He got in behind the wheel. His mind was racing, and he panicked as two men approached. One rapped hard on the tinted window. Rapped again.
He started the engine and hit the power locks. He tried to call up his address on his phone, but he fumbled it, cursing it as it tumbled to the floor between his legs.
Why the hell didn’t you update your fucking GPS? Why the fuck can’t you remember something so goddamned simple?
He sped down Main.
It was a good ten minutes before Jared stopped. He couldn’t push Kyle Duncan from his mind. He just kept driving, turning down one street after another. Now he was out near the tracks on Old Mill Sideroad.
He pulled off the road and buzzed his window down for some air. His headache had ebbed. The nosebleed had stopped quickly as it usually did, and he tossed the tissue he’d drawn from his glove box on top of the mound of bloodstained others on the passenger floor beside him.
He killed the engine and checked his face in the mirror. “Shit.” He dabbed the tip of his finger on his tongue, then cleaned up the last few specks of blood on his chin.
He was reeling. This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, but it was the first time it had happened in public. The first time he’d been exposed.
He tapped a finger on the wheel, going on like a machine until he realized he was doing so.
Maybe it’ll blow over, he thought. It’s not like you grew claws out of your ears.
For the next hour he smoked one cigarette after another. He sat quietly, savoring the soft breeze coming in. His mind swam with images and emotions, and he found himself smiling from time to time. What he had seen in the gateway—what he had lived—was bliss. He had been wrapped in a soft, warm blanket on a bitter winter night.
He drifted off.
It was half past five when Jared awoke in the Land Rover. He’d been asleep for over two hours, but he still felt fatigued. The gateway had taken its toll.
He gave his head a shake trying to kickstart his brain. He closed his eyes a moment and focused. Nothing.
Well, old boy, you can’t very well sit here until nightfall, wondering where the fuck you live.
He picked his phone off the floor of the vehicle and gave his lame brain one more chance. Nothing. Zip. He caved, and the Notes app gave him what he needed. His GPS beeped as he updated it with his new address, and with one bitter cuss, he headed for home.
Home was five miles off the beaten path, well beyond the town limits. Home was also a six-bedroom, two-story ranch house on three acres of lush forest, complete with a guest house, solarium, and in-ground swimming pool. He didn’t need all of this, but he’d gotten it for a great price. Besides, it was isolated, with no neighbors. Best of all, it had the perfect study upstairs at the back, with a walk-out deck and tall, west-facing windows overlooking the winding Boone River that led to the falls.
He parked in the stone circular driveway and went inside. For the most part he was moved in, but the study and master bedroom still held stacks of sealed boxes. The kitchen wasn’t much better.
He fixed himself a stir-fry and ate in the living room. Sipping his wine, he glanced above the arched stone hearth, admiring the oil painting there. An American bald eagle. His father had painted it before he was born.
“To you, Dad,” he said, raising his wine glass. “I miss you.” He regarded the photograph of his parents on the marble end table. “I miss you both.”
He binge-watched four recorded episodes of The Blacklist and drifted off. He woke up in blackness. The 80-inch widescreen TV had turned itself off.
He went upstairs. The study was at the end of the hall, and like his old workspace back in New York, was the usual mess. Taking to his cozy leather chair, he slid a hand to the ancient black Underwood at the corner of his desk. Of all the expensive toys that he now enjoyed, of all the grand furnishings, all the creature comforts, only this made him smile. He had always wanted a No. 5, wanted one just like this, but he had never found the time to really look for one. It was beaten and worn and the platen was cracked; it was perfect. In its day it might have been used by a secretary to type boring business correspondence, might have inspired nothing more than an invoice. None of that mattered. For him it stood graced with time, its stories locked inside its rounded keys; it had lived a thousand lives, and could live a thousand more. It had created magic with every page. It inspired him.
He remembered the day he received it, and considering all the things he had forgotten, he was thankful he could. He’d been up in his cramped bedroom, still living at home, still driving that wreck of a car. He was working on the first draft of Luscious, still struggling with the ending, still a year away from its first rejection. Marisa had come knocking, and when he opened the door, she smiled coyly and handed him an envelope. His short story Blinded had been accepted for publication, and though it was only a third-rate horror rag called Dark Skies, his dream had come true. Marisa then surprised him with a large and heavy gift-wrapped box, and when he saw the No. 5, he’d asked her what she would have done with it if he’d never gotten published. It was never a question of if, she’d said, kissing him.
He ran his fingers along the spacebar, then tapped the four keys that he always did before work. L,U,C,K.
He powered up his laptop to do some research, only to find that his web connection was down.
That’s what you get for eight-hundred G’s. A nice place in the sticks with no Internet.
He shut down the computer and turned off the desk lamp. He took the French doors to the deck, which ran all the way round to the master bedroom. The night air chilled him. The black sky was filled with glitter, the Milky Way a creamy glow. He brought out his 4-inch Takahashi refracting telescope for a spell, finishing up with a breathtaking view of the waning moon.
The quiet seduced him. He had almost forgotten what it was like. New York City really was the city that never slept, certainly the noisiest—at any time of day, he had quickly discovered—and he didn’t miss it.
There were too many of everything in the Big Apple. Too many cars, too many streets, too many restaurants.
Too many souls.
Too many chances to be discovered.
Maybe that’s the real reason you came back, he thought. You thought you’d be safe.
Safe? Like Kyle Duncan?
God, how everything could change. All in a Torch Falls minute.
He cocked an ear, hoping to hear the muted rush of the falls. They were too far off, miles away, but he saw them in his mind. He saw Judd leading him through the woods on that rocky trail, each of them with a small pack on his back, each clutching a rod and a reel; each of them perched on that rope bridge, grinning at the first catch of the day. Sometimes it had been the only catch, sometimes there was no catch at all, but it was always an adventure. And mostly, the happiest times of his life.
He went inside, and sleep came quickly.
He dreamt of Marisa.
Jared woke early and made a fine breakfast of peameal back bacon and scrambled eggs. He took his tea upstairs to his study, cracked a window to take in the cool morning air, and sat at his desk. With his laptop, he examined the photographs of the colt he had uploaded from his smartphone.
They were gruesome, and while his research typically led down dark paths like this, he had never really had the stomach for it. He could write about this nasty stuff, but watch it? It left him ill. If only his fans knew the truth. Give him a rom-com over a zombie flick any day.
He perused the images quickly. It was the Phantom, all right. El Fantasma.
He opened a browser window and got a connection error. A reboot did nothing. A call to a tech was its usual exercise in frustration.
Looks like we’re kickin’ it old school, he thought.
The Torch Falls Public Library was on the west side of town, and as Jared pulled into the parking lot at precisely ten o’clock, the music from the Land Rover’s radio cut to the local news. While there had been no mention of a Cole or Collado—the only good news—the lead story confirmed what Jared had assumed: The driver of the Buick had suffered a heart attack. Brian Kirkland, 52, was survived by his wife and three daughters. The newswoman went on to report that fifteen-year-old Kyle Duncan died at the scene.
Jared switched off the radio. Fifteen, for Christ’s sake.
The last time he’d seen Kyle, the boy was two feet shorter and had a mouthful of braces. His father worked at the beer store, probably still did, and Debbie, Bobby Duncan’s childhood sweetheart, had, as far as he knew, remained the stay-at-home mom.
Fifteen. And to think he was so in love with Ricky Cowen’s daughter, Jennifer. But not just in love. The kind of love that makes a kid want to kill himself if he can’t be with her. The kind that makes him walk into the middle of the street without looking, just wanting to run to her and sweep her off her feet.
He had wanted to go to Bobby yesterday, but he hadn’t; the last thing he wanted was to be the one to deliver the news. That was the police’s burden, and he wanted to be certain that Kyle’s name had been officially announced before extending his condolences. He would call on his old friend this afternoon.
After all these years, the librarian at the front desk was still Merritt DeWitt. Merritt was a prudish snob of a woman, horn-rimmed glasses and all. She didn’t remember him—didn’t recognize him—and she directed him to one of the library computers. He searched the digital archives on the network, only to be frustrated time and again by a glitch in the database. And now, the terminal had locked up.
He looked around for a library assistant and found one placing books on a shelf. He stood just outside the aisle.
“Excuse me, miss,” he said. And when she turned, his heart skipped three beats.
Jared looked at Marisa Judge just as she looked at him—as if he’d seen a ghost. Her crystal blue-green eyes seemed to gloss over. That long auburn hair was tied back in that cute ponytail he’d always loved. Those perfect lips opened just a bit, as she held back whatever it was she wanted to say.
“Marisa,” he said. “Marisa.”
She set a large book she’d been holding on the trolley next to her. She hesitated, and in the next moment was standing before him. The natural light coming in from the windows flattered her as it always had. She was a flower in bloom.
She said nothing, and for an instant he thought he might turn for the exit. But then there it was, those first words from that sweet, sweet voice.
“Jared Cole,” she said, a little distant. “It is Cole, right?”
“Yeah. But I’m still the same old Jared.”
“Same old Jared,” she echoed. “I hope not.”
He went to say something, paused, then started again. “I’m sorry. I never meant … I mean … you know what I mean.”
“What’s wrong, Jared? No words? It was New York, or me. And it was always New York.” She stopped him before he could respond. “I don’t blame you, you know. I just don’t like being lied to.”
“I never lied to you.”
“You promised we’d be together.”
“I meant it,” he said, and knew it the wrong thing to say. “I broke a promise, yes. But I never lied.”
“Always the word man.”
“I really am sorry, Mar.”
“Don’t call me that, Jared. Not now.”
“Look,” he said, apologetically. “Why don’t I walk around this aisle and we start again?”
She crossed her arms. “Really? You might forget where I am.”
Jared couldn’t hide the hurt as he bit back a lip.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That was a cheap shot.”
“I had it coming. It’s been a long time.”
“It has, Jared.”
A stilted pause hung between them, and Jared grew anxious. He switched gears and changed course. “Could you help me with the computer? It froze up on me.”
Marisa followed him to the terminal and sat down. She reset his database application with a few keystrokes, and he was able to continue his research.
“Thanks,” Jared said, taking the chair when she got up.
“So you’re back,” she said. “For a book, no doubt.”
“I hope so.”
“Same old Jared, for sure. You never did believe in yourself.”
“That was your job,” he said, smiling. “I mean that.”
“I know you do. Thank you.” She regarded the terminal. “So, what’s it about? Death and more death, I imagine.”
He laughed. “Same-old, same-old. Actually, this one might be right up your alley. I know how you love true-crime novels. It’s about this alien rancher with a thirst for a bloody good time with his victims. Sound okay?”
“Sounds disgusting. But I’ll read it.”
Her eyes deepened. “I spent the last seven years getting over Jared Collado. But I’ve always loved his writing. I’ve read all of his books.”
“I’m really sorry, Marisa.” He paused, his finger drumming the desk.
“Jared … what is it.”
“What do you mean?”
She glanced at his finger-work. “Remember who you’re talking to. Something’s ticking in that zany brainy.”
Zany brainy, he thought happily. She always called it that.
Somehow he summoned the nerve to ask what he’d wanted to ask the instant he saw her. “Mar … Marisa … would you like to grab some lunch later? Cuppa joe, maybe?”
She laughed softly. “Cuppa joe? You’ve been in New York way too long.”
Jared shrugged. “The city rubs off on you, believe me. It has a way of getting into you. Truth be told, the people are pretty nice.” He looked her straight in the eye. “So, how about it?”
“I should be getting back to work.”
“Oh. Okay. Yeah. Sure.”
Marisa regarded him soberly. “It’s been seven years, Jared. Things change. People change.”
He nodded. “I know.”
“Have you seen Judd?”
He shook his head. “Don’t see the point, really.”
She put a hand to his shoulder. “He’s all you have. That’s the point.”
He said nothing.
“Can I ask you something, Jared?”
“Why did you come back?”
“It was New York,” he said, after some hesitation. “The whole situation … it just wasn’t working any more. I don’t belong there.”
“Well,” she said, “I kinda told you so.”
“You did. I should have listened.”
“Never your strong point.”
“Can’t argue that. Ask my editor. Or my agent.”
They shared a chuckle, and Ms. DeWitt cast them a disapproving glare above her glasses.
“I really should get back to work,” Marisa said.
“Yes. Of course. I don’t want to keep you.”
Marisa turned to go, and Jared’s heart fell. He stood up before she got too far. “Marisa?”
She stopped with her back to him. “Yes?”
“It was good seeing you.”
Marisa hesitated. “You, too, Jared.” She left him.
Just knowing that Marisa was only a few steps away made Jared’s head spin. The research went so poorly that after a measly ten minutes, he logged out of the library network and made a beeline for the exit.
He didn’t realize how much he had missed Marisa Judge, in every way.
God, he did.
He missed those long walks at sunset along the river; sitting on a rock by the falls with their bare feet in the rushing water. The spring rodeos and summer picnics; the fall fair. Curling up by the fire on those blustery winter nights.
But most of all, he just missed her.
At ten past one, Jared parked in front of Bobby Duncan’s house on Hill Street. Bobby’s candy-apple ’67 Camaro sat in the gravel driveway. A faded FOR SALE sign was taped inside the windshield. Slick bird droppings ruined an otherwise pristine hood.
Bobby had inherited a pretty, well-kept home after his parents had passed. It had once boasted sculpted trees and rosebushes along the perimeter, and a perfectly lush lawn that was the envy of the street. But now? The grass was brown and dead, overrun with weeds. The once white wood siding was chipped, flaked and dingy. Even the mesh on the screen door was ripped, the left side hanging limply. One of the windows in the upstairs bedrooms was boarded up. Bobby’s old room.
This was no longer the “home away from home” of his teenage years. He must have spent every weekend here during the summers, Ricky and Jim, too, all four of them crammed into the Duncan’s fold-out trailer out back. On clear nights, they’d stay up until the wee hours, sitting round the big rock fire pit that Bobby’s dad had made, trying to scare the shit out of each other with taller and taller tales. Being the writer even then, he usually had the best stories, but Jimbo had come up with a doozy from time to time. The four of them were as inseparable as magnets, as busy as bees, and deep down, he just knew that each of them trusted the other with their lives.
He pressed the doorbell. Broken. He knocked. He waited and knocked again, a little louder this time. The dull beige door creaked open.
Jesus. He looks like death.
“Jared Collado,” Bobby said from behind the screen door. His black hair, usually thick and styled neatly, was cropped short. He was unshaven. His eyes were cold and dark.
“I … I’m so sorry for your loss, Bobby. I wish these were better circum—”
Bobby’s eyes fell. He turned, but left the door open.
Jared opened the screen door and stepped into the living room. An oscillating fan buzzed in a corner. The place was a mess.
He extended a hand, half-expecting a guy-hug. Bobby left him hanging.
What did you expect? he thought. The guy just lost his son. He’s still in shock.
“Beer?” Bobby said flatly. He already had one going, next to the half-dozen empties beside it.
“You know me,” Jared said. “Nothing this early.”
“Same old Jared.” Bobby took a seat. He drank.
Jared sat on the sofa. A cockroach scampered along the floor and scurried under the television stand. “You all right, man? Is there anything I can do?”
Bobby sat very still.
“I saw your car’s up for sale,” Jared said. Again, no response. “Is Deb here?”
“Deb,” Bobby said. “She’s out.”
Jared nodded. “I wish I had the words. Something reassuring, you know?”
Bobby stirred. “You’re the writer. The word man.”
“Yeah,” Jared said anxiously. “How is Deb? How’s she holding up?”
“Is she with her mom? She should—”
“She should what.”
“Hey, I’m just trying to help,” Jared said. He regarded the mess around them. “I’m worried about you guys.”
Bobby sat forward. “What’s that look for? My place not good enough for you any more?”
“I never said that.”
“Didn’t have to.”
“Bobby,” Jared said. “It’s me, man. I practically lived here.”
“Yeah,” Bobby snapped. “The good old days. Remember?”
“I remember just fine. I miss those days.”
“Sure you do. Like ridin’ around in your old rust-bucket. Instead of that hundred-grand luxury liner out front.”
“Look, I’m the same guy. I haven’t changed.”
“No? When’s the last time you called? Oh, that’s right. Never.”
“You’re right. I should have. I didn’t. That’s on me.”
“And Marisa? Is that on you, too?”
Jared felt smaller. “Yeah. That’s on me, too. But I can only say I’m sorry so many times.”
“Yeah? Well say it again.”
“I’m sorry. I really am. You know, I missed you. I missed Rick and Jim, too. Everyone.”
Bobby Duncan shook his head. “I tried calling you a few times. Talked to your agent once. Bitch hung up on me.”
“Sorry. She does that.”
“I emailed that address on your website. Hell, I even tried to friend you on Facebook. Nothing.”
“I have people for that,” Jared said. “Sorry. That didn’t come out right. What I mean is—”
“I know what you meant. The great Jared Cole’s too good for it.”
“That’s not it. I just don’t get on it very much. My agent’s always on my case about it. Writing, promoting … it’s tough.”
Bobby sat back and took a drink. He plunked his bottle on the table. “Tough? Look around, my friend. Look around.”
“Bobby,” Jared said. “What happened to you?”
“I doubt you remember that last night. Do you?”
“Like it was yesterday.”
“You remember what Ricky told you? How things can change?”
“Well,” Bobby said. “Things changed.”
“What things? And where’s Deb?”
“Deb, Deb, Deb. What the fuck do you care?”
“Of course I care. Where is she, Bobby?”
Bobby got up and fetched another beer. He sat down and drank. “She left me. She’s a cunt.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know, man.”
“Like everything else, huh? Maybe you didn’t call ’cause you just couldn’t remember who the fuck your friends were.”
“Okay. This has gone far enough,” Jared said. He got up to go.
Bobby rose with him. “Where you goin’? We’re not done.”
Jared stood silent.
“Sit down, Jared.”
Jared sat. “Okay, Bobby. I’m still here.”
Bobby drank. “She fucked off five years ago. Fucked my cousin and fucked off. I got drunk. Been drunk ever since. You know, like Big Brother.”
Judd’s drinking again? Jared thought. Jesus. I thought he’d finally beat it. Hoped, anyway.
“Christ, look at you,” Bobby said. “You don’t even know what’s going on with your own family. What’s left of it, anyway.”
Jared stood up, agitated. “Take that back, Bobby. Take it back.”
Bobby stood up. Anger filled his eyes. “Take it back? Like Kyle? Like Kyle?”
Jared stepped back. “Bobby, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Where the fuck were you yesterday, Jared?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know damn well what I mean, you son of a bitch. What the fuck were you doing with my boy?”
“I was there, yes. But I—”
“So you were there. You saw my son die, and you didn’t even call?”
“I … I wanted to, I—”
“You were smiling? Smiling? Tom Greenwood told me everything.”
“No,” Jared said. “You don’t understand.”
“What did you do to him? What did you do to my boy?”
Bobby stepped forward. Like his father, he was a large man, as tough as rock. “You held his hand. You told him, ‘I know. I know.’ What did that mean?”
“I … I don’t remember that.”
“Liar. You did something to my boy.”
“I didn’t do anything! I tried to comfort him. I wanted to help him.”
“Tom said your eyes were all fucked up. Like you were in some kinda trance. Said you got a nosebleed. You did something to Kyle. And it cost him his life.”
“That’s not true. Jesus, Bobby! Why would I do anything to hurt him?”
“The ambulance came quick, you know. If you’d kept your hands off my son, the paramedics might have saved him.”
“I swear, Bobby. I didn’t do anything.”
Bobby suckered Jared with a punch to the abdomen. Jared doubled over and slipped to his knees, winded. Bobby struck him again with a shot to the jaw. Jared crumpled to the floor in a daze.
Bobby snatched an empty and smashed it against the end table. He got down on one knee and held the jagged glass to Jared’s throat.
“One chance, Jared Cole. One. Tell me what the fuck you did to my son.”
“I swear, Bobby. I didn’t do anything.”
“Liar!” Bobby pressed the glass harder against Jared’s throat. “You’re hiding something.”
“You don’t want to do this,” Jared croaked. “Please, Bobby. Please.”
Bobby Duncan stilled. Finally, he drew the bottle back. He dropped it. Tears streamed down his face. He fell back and curled up on the floor. And sobbed.
Jared started to get up. Blood dribbled from his lips.
“Get the fuck away from me, you son of a bitch,” Bobby said. “Just … get away.”
Jared stood trembling, unable to speak. He stepped back, stumbling, and rushed out the door.
Jared drove so fast he very nearly struck a parked car at the end of Hill Street. He had no idea where he was going, but knew he needed to be as far from Bobby Duncan as possible. Only when he stopped across from the theater did he realize where he was.
There was dried blood in the street. Kyle Duncan’s blood.
Was it true? Did the gateway cost Kyle his life? Maybe it sucked the last breath out of him—it certainly beats the hell out of me.
He didn’t really believe that, but what did that matter? Kyle was dead, and no matter what happened from here on, Bobby would hold him responsible.
“Hey!” someone shouted.
Jared turned to the passenger window. Tom Greenwood was standing on the top step of the convenience store, a broom in his hand.
“Jared Cole!” The assistant manager was coming down the steps now.
Jared panicked. He looked in the mirror. Blood on his lip.
He sped away.
Jared punched the HOME button on his GPS, followed the directions for a couple of turns, then braked hard and turned around. Five minutes later he parked outside the library, his heart still racing.
Merritt DeWitt met him at the front desk with all the warmth of a corpse. She said nothing, but her narrowed eyes spoke volumes as he hurried past her, clearly agitated. He searched aisle after aisle for Marisa, and when he found her, she rushed up to him, wide-eyed.
“Jared? What’s wrong?”
“I didn’t know what else to do,” he said. His hands were still shaking.
She led him to a vacant desk at the back and sat next to him. “What happened to you? You’ve got blood on your chin.”
He thought he’d cleaned up in the car. Maybe he hadn’t. He couldn’t remember.
“It was Bobby Duncan,” he said. “I went to see him.”
“Bobby did this? He hit you?”
“You haven’t heard?”
“Kyle Duncan. He was killed yesterday.”
“Oh my god.” Then: “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I … I don’t know. I would have. I guess finding you here threw me off.”
“You’re shaking,” she said, and put her arm around him. She stroked his temple gently.
He steadied. “Thank you. That helped.”
“It always did,” she said. “Now tell me what happened to Kyle. And with Bobby.”
He told her about the accident, deliberately sparse with the details. It felt as if he were reading a news teleprompter. He hoped she didn’t notice. Or probe.
“That poor kid,” she said. “I remember that cute little smile he used to have with those braces. Adorable.”
Jared nodded. “He was so full of life. Used to run Bobby and Deb ragged.”
“She left him, you know.”
“He told me.”
“Bobby crumbled,” she said. “It wasn’t long before he lost his job. Now this.”
“I can’t even imagine what he’s been through. What he’s going through.”
“What happened when you saw him?”
Jared rubbed his eyes. “He just wasn’t Bobby, you know? He’d been drinking.”
“Why did he hit you?”
“He was angry. Angry at me for … for not keeping in touch.”
“Can’t say I blame him,” Marisa said, and Jared took it in stride. “But to hit you?”
“He was really out of it. Still in shock over Kyle, I guess.”
“I guess,” she said, sounding as if she didn’t believe him. “It’s sad, what’s happened to him. It all went to pot after Deb left.”
Her voice had trailed off. “Marisa?”
“Nothing,” she said.
“You were never a good liar. Spill it.”
“… I was just thinking about Judd, that’s all.”
“Did you know he’s drinking again? Bobby told me.”
“He was. But as far as I know, he’s not. I ran into him about nine months ago. He said he’d been dry for eight weeks.”
“That’s good. For Judd, that’s really good.”
“He’s had a rough go, too, Jared.”
“We both have.”
“You know I don’t preach. But you and I both know you should go to him.”
“I wouldn’t know how. I wouldn’t know what to say.”
“I didn’t say it would be easy.”
“And if he told me to shove it?”
“Then you’ll know,” she said. “Better to know now than spend the rest of your life wondering.”
“You don’t understand. He’ll never forgive me.”
She took his hand. “It wasn’t your fault. It never was.”
He pulled away. “Of course it was.”
“This guilt you’re carrying … you have to let it go.”
“… I can’t.”
“You mean you won’t.”
He had to pause. “Won’t. Can’t. Either way.”
“Jared,” she said, the way she used to whenever she knew she was right.
“I could never win with you,” he chuckled. “You always made too much sense.”
“So you’ll see him?”
“I’ll think about it.”
“That’s the best I can do right now. If I’m going to extend an olive branch, I need to be ready if it gets chopped off.”
Marisa rolled her eyes. “The melodrama is choking me. What’s the worst that can happen?”
“I write horror,” he told her. “The worst always happens.”
“Same old Jared.”
His eyes fell.
“What is it?” she said.
He shook his head. “Nothing.”
“I know that look, Jared. You’re going to the funeral. You owe Bobby that.”
“I know,” he admitted. “But he doesn’t want me there.”
“Of course he does. You were his best friend. He’s hurting, Jared.”
Jared looked at her. It was all over his face.
Marisa sighed. “Fine. I’ll go with you.” She shook him when he didn’t respond. “Jared. Nothing’s going to happen.”
The final viewing for Kyle Duncan was at noon on Saturday. Jared picked up Marisa in the Land Rover and parked down the street from the Westhaven funeral home. A dismal drizzle fell, and he walked with Marisa holding her umbrella. He felt as if he was walking into a mine field.
“Try to relax,” she said when they reached the doors. “This isn’t about you. It’s about Bobby and Kyle. Okay?”
Inside, Jared closed the umbrella and set it with several others. A few of the visitors recognized him. The assistant manager of the Eight-Ball, Tom Greenwood, regarded him with narrowed eyes. Sonia Wheaton, the wannabe reporter, approached him for an autograph. She had bold olive eyes that seemed to study his every move.
“Time and place,” Jared said.
Marisa gave the woman a disapproving glance.
Sonia placed a hand on Jared’s arm. “Can I ask one thing, Mr. Collado? I mean, Mr. Cole?”
Jared surveyed the lobby and glanced past her into the reposing room. A sign above the entrance read King Room. There were dozens of people present. Bobby had always had a lot of friends.
“Give it a rest,” Marisa said. “Honestly, Sonia, show some respect.”
Sonia Wheaton gave her a look. “It’s about Kyle’s accident,” she said to Jared. “Can—”
Marisa took Jared by the arm and led him through the lobby and into the reposing room. Family and friends were clustered here and there, the stylish room filled with the muted sounds of reserved chatter.
“Thank you,” Jared said.
“I hate that bitch,” Marisa said. “Everything’s a story with that one.”
Jared scanned the room. No sign of Bobby. Kyle Duncan’s body lay in a modest casket on the far side of the room.
“Relax. Please,” Marisa said. She took his hand. “You’re all clammy. Breathe.”
“I’m okay. We should pay our respects.”
There was a small line-up, and as they started for the line, a voice stopped them.
“Jared Collado,” it said.
Jared and Marisa turned. Jared paused at the man before him. The priest was gaunt, with deep-set eyes beyond black-rimmed glasses. His hair was cropped short, with a touch of black mixed with his grays. Jared had known him for years, but at the moment, the man’s name escaped him.
“Father Horn,” Marisa said, helping out. She put out her hand and shook. Horn shook with Jared next.
“Father,” Jared said. Everett C. Horn, he now recalled. He wanted to slap himself for forgetting. While he had been in a coma, the man had watched over him for days. He’d been a close friend of his father’s, had performed his parents’ marriage ceremony. Had baptized Judd and him. Had been the first person he’d seen when he’d stirred from that brain-hell back to the living.
“Ah, for a moment there, I thought you didn’t remember me,” Horn said jokingly. He raised a finger, waving it teasingly with a smile. “I thought I’d spotted the Falls’ favorite son coming in.”
Horn looked around. “It’s so good to see you both again. In spite of this tragic, tragic event.”
“Yes,” Jared agreed.
“So, Jared. How long has it been?”
“Seven years,” Horn repeated, surprised. “Where does the time go? The last time I saw you … oh … forgive me.”
“No, no,” Jared said. “You were there for me.”
“And your brother? Well, I trust?”
Jared glanced at Marisa. “Judd’s fine.”
“Is he here?” Horn asked.
“He couldn’t make it,” Marisa said.
“Unfortunate. He always had a way about him. He could always make me laugh.”
“Me, too,” Jared said.
“So tell me, Jared Collado. When’s—I’m sorry. Where are my manners? Do you prefer Cole?”
“Uh … yes. Cole.”
Horn nodded. “I hope you don’t mind me asking. I feel like a star-struck fan. But when’s a sequel to Luscious coming?”
Jared raised a brow. He didn’t know what to say.
“Oh, don’t be so surprised,” Horn said. “I watch The Walking Dead, too.” He winked at Marisa, and despite the somber atmosphere, she found a small grin.
Jared reddened. “I’m trying to picture you reading my books. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
Horn squeezed Jared’s shoulder with a hearty grin. “I forgive you, my son. But your books, while wildly entertaining, are no match for the Good Book. Sodom and Gomorrah will curl your hair.”
Marisa blushed in embarrassment.
“So,” Horn said to Jared. “About that sequel.”
“I’m not sure there will be one.”
Horn pondered. “Shame. I think there’s more to that story. I really do.”
Jared was about to mention there would be a movie—eventually—but remembered where they were. He felt guilty talking about himself, especially with a man of the cloth—and especially the man who he considered was next of kin to his guardian angel. It just didn’t feel right. His eye wandered, searching for Bobby Duncan.
“Jared?” Horn said.
“Jared,” Marisa said. She tugged at his arm.
“Huh? Oh! Sorry.”
“Are you in town long?” Horn asked. “I imagine you’ve got to get back. New York, isn’t it?”
Jared was about to answer when a thirtyish woman in a plain black dress and matching pumps stepped beside the priest. She apologized for the intrusion and informed Horn that the service was in fifteen minutes.
“Well,” Horn said, shaking Jared’s hand. “It’s been a pleasure seeing you again. And you as well, Marisa.” He turned to go, and turned back. “You know, I have Insanity at home. I’d be thrilled if you’d come by to sign it.”
Jared nodded. “Uh … yes. Of course, Father.”
Marisa led Jared to the line-up. An elderly couple stood ahead of them in the line. A teenaged girl knelt at Kyle Duncan’s casket, weeping. Her mother stood beside her, and when Jared looked closer, recognized her. It was Ricky Cowen’s wife, Gwen. The girl was his daughter, Jennifer.
Jared looked around. No sign of Ricky. No sign of Jim Tate. They were here, he was certain. Most likely pall bearers. And most likely comforting Bobby right now.
That’s where you should be, he thought. Not standing here shaking in your boots looking over your shoulder.
He looked at the girl. He wondered whether she really knew just how deeply Kyle Duncan loved her. Love that hurt.
Jennifer Cowen rose to her feet, and her mother comforted her. They turned around and stopped.
“Jared,” Gwen Cowen said. “My God … Jared.”
“Gwen,” Jared said, hugging her.
Gwen smiled at Marisa.
“It’s good to see you,” Marisa said. She hugged Gwen, too.
“You, too. Both of you. I wish it were better circumstances.”
“I know,” Jared said.
“You haven’t changed a bit,” Gwen said.
“A little wiser, I hope.” He chuckled anxiously.
“I heard you were there,” Gwen said. “At the accident.”
Jared nodded. He hoped her prying would end there.
“It must have been awful,” Gwen went on. “I can’t imagine.”
“I’d rather not discuss it.”
“I’m sorry. Of course you don’t.” Gwen motioned to her daughter. “You remember Little Jen?”
“Mom,” Jennifer Cowen said. She sniffled. Her moca eyes were bold and teary.
“Not so little any more,” Jared said. “I’m so sorry for—” He caught himself. What was he thinking?
“Sorry?” the girl said. “Sorry for what?”
“Uh … like your mom said … for having to see you under these circumstances.”
Marisa gave him a look.
“Is Rick here?” Jared asked, trying to change the subject.
“Of course,” Gwen said. “And Jim, too. They’re going to be saying a few words at the service. They should be around in a few minutes.”
“Good. Great,” Jared said. He looked at Marisa. “Let’s pay our respects.”
“We’ll talk,” Gwen said. “After the service?”
Jared and Marisa nodded. Gwen left with her daughter.
The elderly couple paid their respects, and Jared found himself unable to step forward. He didn’t want to see Kyle Duncan again, not like this. He recalled the terror, the futility, in those dying eyes. The hopelessness.
In his mind he saw his father, eyes searching, lying in the rain.
Dying in the rain.
“Jared? Are you okay?” Marisa whispered.
Jared nodded. He moved with her to the casket. Kyle Duncan was dressed in a new black suit. His hair was slicked back. His skin held the tenuous hue of a faded watercolor.
Jared set down on the wide kneeler and Marisa joined him.
“Such a waste,” she said.
Jared closed his eyes and bowed his head. He said a silent prayer. He tried to relive that bliss in his mind, tried to feel the soul of Kyle Duncan swimming through him. Nothing. Nothing but sorrow.
Marisa stood, and just as Jared opened his eyes, the room erupted with a shout.
Jared stood up and turned. Too late. Already Bobby Duncan was gunning for him.
“You killed my boy!” Bobby shouted again. Jim Tate stood beside him. A step behind them, Ricky Cowen stood with his wife and daughter. The chatter in the room had silenced, everyone gawking at Bobby Duncan.
Bobby tackled Jared and drove him back. Jared tripped on the kneeler and struck the table supporting the casket. The casket rocked and the table jostled. Bobby pummelled Jared, screaming one obscenity after another. Dazed, his jaw throbbing, Jared thought he smelled liquor on Bobby’s breath.
Bobby snatched Jared by the throat. Jared croaked, begging for Bobby to let him go.
“Do something!” Marisa shouted at Jim Tate.
Jim shot forward and threw his arms around Bobby. Bobby drove an elbow into his groin, and Jim slipped back, doubling over. He fell to his knees, and the glass eye didn’t see the fist that came its way. He flopped to the floor in a groan.
Ricky Cowen moved on Bobby then, but Marisa was there first. She grabbed Bobby by the wrist as he brought his arm back to pound Jared. Bobby yanked his hand free, and Marisa snatched it again. Ricky grabbed Bobby’s other arm, and they pulled him off of Jared. Screaming like a man in misery, Bobby broke free and lunged forward.
Jared backed up, and Bobby bowled him over. The impact rocked the casket. The table legs caved, and the whole thing came crashing down. The casket spilled over them, crushing Bobby Duncan’s right leg. Bobby screamed, and screamed again when his dead son flopped out of the casket and landed right on top of him.
Everyone was shouting now. Jared crawled away from the casket and got to his feet. Marisa went to him and stood beside him. Bobby Duncan was sobbing.
“You killed him,” Bobby said, his voice failing. “You killed my boy.”
Marisa looked at Jared, clearly bewildered.
Jared was trembling. His heart was racing as quickly as his mind. The room was staring him down.
“Jared—” Marisa said.
But already he was rushing from the room, all eyes chasing him.
Jared sat in the Land Rover. His brisk steps through the rain had soaked him, and the humidity and the air pressure had conspired to give him a throbbing headache. His index finger drummed on the steering wheel. Only when Marisa rapped at his window did he stop.
“What the hell is going on?” she said through the glass.
Jared buzzed down the window a couple of inches. The drizzle had turned to a downpour, and Marisa’s umbrella barely protected her. He motioned for her to get in and closed the window.
Marisa hurried to the passenger side and got in, setting the drenched umbrella between her legs. “Jared,” she said softly. “Talk to me.”
Already he was tapping his finger again.
She grabbed it. “Jared.”
He stared straight ahead into the street.
“What happened back there?” she said.
He looked at her, then turned back to the street. Shook his head.
“You don’t know?” she said. “Bobby said—”
“I know what he said.”
“What was he talking about?”
Why didn’t you stay in New York? he thought. What the hell were you thinking? It doesn’t matter how far you run. The truth will always find you.
He bit his lower lip. “I don’t know.”
“What happened at the accident? There’s more to this than you’re telling.”
“There isn’t. Kyle died. I was at his side, just like I told you.”
“Then what’s with Bobby?”
Jared sighed. He turned away from the street and faced her. “I guess he needs someone to blame.”
“What about her?”
“She was asking about the accident.”
Jared turned back to the street. He shrugged. “Just looking for a story, I guess.”
Marisa pondered. “Can I ask you something? And I want the truth.”
“Is there anything you’re not telling me about the accident? Anything at all?”
“No. Nothing.” He turned to her. “Nothing.”
She drew back, just a little. She looked into his eyes. “I believe you.”
Jared drove Marisa home and parked in the driveway behind her gold Mazda hatchback. The rain had ebbed to a drizzle.
“Have you talked to Judd?” she said. “You haven’t … have you.”
He paused. Shook his head.
“You need family,” she told him. “There’s nothing you need more.”
He looked at the dashboard clock. It was almost one. “You never did give me an answer.”
“The other day. Lunch.”
“How can you think about food at a time like this? After what just happened?”
“Jared,” she said, a little flustered.
He couldn’t tell whether she was interested, put off by his timing, or if she didn’t want to let him down. He figured Door Number Three. “It’s okay, Marisa. I understand.” He shrugged. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
He stroked his hands, and suddenly became very aware of his scars. He folded his arms. “I, uh … I’d better be going.”
She nodded. “Think about your brother, okay?”
“I will,” he said. She got out into the rain, and he had started to back into the street when he heard a rap at his side window. He hit the brake and buzzed the window down.
“Next Saturday,” she said. “Seven o’clock.”
He smiled. She smiled back.
Jared drove with a small grin stuck on his face. He felt guilty about it given all that had happened, but he couldn’t deny the power in the smile that Marisa had given him. It lifted him. Inspired him. Just as it always had.
Energized, he drove home and spent the next week hitting the web. His flaky Internet decided to behave for the most part, and the research went well. But by two-forty-five on Saturday morning, he was beat. His mind was mud. He’d had enough of the Phantom.
He switched off his laptop and killed the light of the desk lamp. He got up, stretched, and stepped out onto his deck. A light breeze kissed him as the glow of the moon rippled across the river.
Think about your brother, Marisa had said. The thing was, not a day went by when he didn’t.
He would see him next week. Maybe invite him over for a nice steak dinn—
A wolf bayed. He thought of the colt. How Jack Henneman had said that wolves had fought over the head.
His research had uncovered some interesting facts. While his first experience with the Phantom had been in ’78, the first recorded incident had taken place in 1965. Incredible as it seemed, for the next forty-three years—like clockwork, indeed, as the gruff rancher had pointed out—there were mutilations every spring and fall. The last had occurred in May of 2008.
Had the Phantom died? Since there had been no event in the fall of that year, it seemed the logical conclusion. Seemed the only one. After nearly four and a half decades, surely the beast had perished.
Yes. Despite the colt and its eerie similarities to the previous killings, his earlier belief that el Fantasma was back was shadowed by doubt. Clearly, this had to be the work of a copycat. Didn’t it?
Digging deeper, he had discovered that there had been previous mutilations in the county, most of them occurring right in town. The thing was, the killings held no ritualistic bent. They were disturbing, but seemed more the work of unfocused anger than meticulous sacrifice. Moreover, the victims were not farm animals, but dogs and cats. Some squirrels. Further, there was no pattern to the location or timing. They had occurred at random intervals in ’54, ’57, and ’59. And, like the later events, simply stopped.
It’s a copycat, he thought. After six years of nothing, it has to be. Either that, or it really is some alien, and your book really is a true-crime novel.
The notion was ridiculous, of course. The perpetrator was no more alien than he was. And the more he thought about it, the more he realized that it wasn’t the Phantom.
It just couldn’t be.
The date the colt was killed—May 11—was the same day that the killings had started back in 1965. It gave him the chills.
Look—it’s just a copycat. They found the date the same way you did: research.
It was easy to believe that.
Way too easy.
Sleep did not come easy, but a nightmare did. His father died in his arms, gasping for air. Jared heard his faint whispers … and then it all went black.
For Jared, the day passed slowly—and quickly. He longed to see Marisa, couldn’t see her soon enough. And yet, so nervous was he that time seemed to quicken with his growing anticipation, and by the time he picked up the bouquet of orange Gerbera daisies, he had forgotten where she lived. Thank God he had saved her address in his phone. Fuck that quack in New York.
He turned down Elm and stopped at 31. Marisa’s hatchback sat in the driveway of the modest brick-and-siding home. It took two rings of the doorbell before the door opened. Big brown eyes, slightly gauzy, slightly distorted, looked up at him through a pair of nerdy black-rimmed glasses. Bulky magnifiers sat attached to the top rim of each lens.
Jared raised his brows. He glanced back at the car. Checked the number on the mailbox. Thirty-one.
“Uh … is Mar here? I mean, is Marisa Judge here?”
The boy was thin and pale. He nodded. “Are you Mr. Cole?”
“Yes,” Jared said, smiling. “And you are?”
Jared crouched unimposingly and put out his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Christian Judge.”
The boy gave him a look, smiled, and shook. “My mom’s upstairs. You know, preening.” Christian ran his tiny fingers through his cropped black hair. “I’ll get her.” He disappeared and called out for his mom.
When Marisa finally came to the door, Jared was tongue-tied. “Wow. I mean … wow.”
Marisa was stunning. Her hair was curled down around her shoulders, teasing the top of her flowered dress. Her lips were perfect, her eyes alive. She looked exactly the way he had always remembered her.
She smiled. “Thank you, Jared. It’s been a long time since I’ve done myself up. Motherhood.”
“Motherhood,” he echoed.
“Surprise!” she joked. “Life goes on. Come in.” She led him to the living room and offered him a chair. “Don’t be so nervous.”
“Nervous? I’m not nervous.” He sat.
“You’re practically hiding behind those flowers.”
“Oh!” He held them out. “These are for you.”
“Thank you,” she said happily, taking them. “They’re beautiful. You remembered.”
He poked his temple. “Not quite senile yet. How could I forget your favorites?”
“Kit?” she said, turning.
Another one? Jared thought. But then, almost comically, Christian poked his head out from the entrance to the kitchen.
“Kit, did you take your pill?”
“Did Sarah call while I was upstairs? I thought I heard the phone ring.”
“Yes. She said she’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“Sarah’s the sitter,” Marisa explained. “Lives across the street.”
She looked at the bouquet. “Give me a few minutes to put these in a vase, okay? And try to relax. He’s just a boy.”
“I’m fine,” Jared insisted. He sat back, feeling every bit as stiff as he probably looked.
“Same old Jared,” Marisa said, chuckling. She disappeared into the kitchen.
Kit joined him, sitting across from him on the sofa. His small legs kicked back and forth. Silence stood between him and Jared like a brick wall.
Kit put a hand to his glasses. “I can take them off if they bother you.”
Jared sat up. He didn’t realize he’d been staring. “No, no, that’s fine. I mean, they look good.”
“It’s okay,” Kit said. “I know they look silly. I don’t like them, either.”
“They’re really something. And they don’t look silly.”
“They do. But I need ’em. I don’t see so good.”
“How do they work?”
“Trifocals,” Kit said. He pointed to the tiny telescopes at the top of the lenses. “These are for when I need to see far stuff. And these little things on the bottoms are bifocals. For reading stuff. The middle has normal lenses. You know, to see regular stuff. Like you.”
Jared noticed the telephone on the end table next to him. It had oversized buttons and a large LCD display.
“Are you okay, Mr. Cole?”
“Me? I’m fine. Why?”
“You seem a little tense.” Kit nodded to Jared’s index finger tap-tap-tapping on his right knee.
Jared stopped and put his hands together. He pulled them apart. They were clammy. He set his arms on the armrests.
“What are those scars?” Kit said. “On your hands.”
“That’s not polite, Kit,” Marisa said from the kitchen.
Kit stood up and stepped in front of Jared. He reached into his pocket and drew out his hand. “You should try this.”
“A stone? What do you mean?”
“It’s hematite,” Kit said. “A calming stone. Hold it for a bit. It’ll help.”
Jared spied the jet-black gem. “Thanks. But I’ll be all right. I’m okay.”
“Like this,” Kit said. He clasped his hands around the stone and closed his eyes. Gently, he caressed the stone between his palms. He started to count backwards from ten, breathing deeply, slowly, and methodically. At one, he opened his eyes. Again, he offered Jared the stone.
Jared waved him off politely. “I’m sure it helps.”
“Dr. Vogel says it’s silly,” Kit said, stuffing the stone in his pocket. “But it works.”
“Do you use it much?”
“Only when I need to.”
The boy seemed so calm, it was hard to imagine him being anxious about anything. Jared was about to ask when that might be when the doorbell rang.
“Kit? Can you get that?” Marisa said.
Kit opened the door and invited the sitter in. She was tall and slim, no more than sixteen, with stylish blonde hair curled along her face. When Jared saw it, he immediately thought of Jennifer Aniston’s iconic style, “The Rachel.”
The girl had her arms crossed, holding a paperback behind them. “Oh … my … God,” she said, as Jared rose to greet her. “You’re Jared Cole.” She went to shake his hand, and the book dropped to the floor. “Oh! I’m such a klutz!”
Jared reached down for it. It was Insanity, his latest novel.
“Well?” he said, rising, flipping it to the front cover. “What do you think?”
“I love it!” she blurted out. “It’s awesome. It’s just awesome.”
“It is,” Marisa said, joining them. She set the flowers on the coffee table.
Jared thanked them.
“Would you sign it for me?” the girl asked.
“Of course,” Jared said. “Do you have a pen, Marisa?”
Marisa fetched him one and handed it to him. He flipped the book open. “Sarah, right?”
“Sarah Coleman,” she said. Jared started to write, but she stopped him. “Just Sarah.”
“To Sarah,” he said, echoing the words he was writing, “my awesomest fan.” It was lame, he knew, but when he signed his name and handed the book back to her, her eyes lit up like his father’s newspaper back in 1978.
“And you call yourself a writer?” Marisa said, almost laughing.
Jared shrugged and handed her the pen.
“No, I love it,” Sarah said. “I love all your books, too. But Luscious is still my favorite. Are you going to write a sequel? You should.”
“Maybe I should,” Jared said. “My agent has said the same thing.”
“Can I read it?” Kit said, asking the sitter.
“Not a chance, Kit,” Marisa told him. “Maybe in ten years or so.”
“Does it have bad people in it?” Kit said, directing the question more toward Jared than his mother.
“Uh … yeah. Kinda,” Jared said.
“Why do you write about bad people?”
Marisa raised a brow to Jared. She grinned, folding her arms. “Yes, Mr. Cole. Why do you write about bad people?”
Jared squirmed, a little embarrassed. “I don’t know,” he said, turning to Kit. “But you know what? The bad people in my stories always get what’s coming to them.” He looked at Marisa, his eyes begging for her to bail him out.
“Not always,” Sarah said, glancing at Jared knowingly. She blushed. “I mean … yes, they do, Kit. In Mr. Cole’s stories, the bad people always get punished.” She looked at Marisa and mouthed, “Sorry.”
“Kit,” Marisa said, “why don’t you and Sarah play a game?”
“Sounds good,” Sarah added. “How about Scrabble?”
“Okay,” Kit groaned. “I know when I’m asking too many questions.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cole,” Sarah said, tapping the book.
“Jared,” he said. “And thank you for reading it.”
“Can I call you Jared?” Kit asked.
“He’s Mr. Cole,” Marisa said. “And it’s ‘May I.’ Manners, Kit.”
Jared gave her a look, one that said, Come on, Mar, gimme a break. She rolled her eyes in agreement.
“Jared’s fine,” Jared said. “May I call you Kit?”
“Everyone does,” Kit said. “Either way.”
“We really should be going,” Marisa said, glancing at the wall clock. Like the telephone, it was more utilitarian than attractive, with large, clearly defined numbers.
“Where you guys going?” Sarah said. “Somewhere special?”
Jared turned to Marisa. “Yeah. Somewhere special.”
“To old times … and new times,” Jared said as the main course arrived.
Marisa clinked her glass with his and returned his toast with a smile.
They had driven into Bozeman and had made it just in time for their reservation at Valentino’s, an upscale Italian restaurant. They had a cozy table for two, dimly lit with three candles. Jared had ordered their finest wine.
“This is wonderful,” Marisa said. “Thank you for this.” She looked about, glancing at the classical Italian art that adorned the walls. “We always wanted to come here, remember?”
“I know,” he said, chuckling. “We could never afford it! And honestly, it’s still overpriced. But way cheap compared to New York.”
“What was it like?”
“New York? God, it’s only been a little while since I left, but it’s like a fog in my mind. But seriously, it’s a big monster of a place. A maze of everything. It’s all going a mile a minute, and you can never find your way out. That’s a little over the top, I know, but for me, that’s what it felt like. I could never fit in.”
“I can’t even imagine it,” Marisa said. “Still, I’d like to see it someday.”
“Maybe you will,” he said hopefully.
“Jared,” she said, and stopped.
“What is it?”
She gazed at another couple sitting in a booth along the wall. They were staring into each other’s eyes. “The flowers … Valentino’s … it’s going a little fast, you know?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, trying to hide his disappointment. “You’re right.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I just don’t want to move too fast … or too far.”
He nodded. “I understand. Of course. I guess I need to work on my subtlety.”
“Don’t try so hard. You never had to,” she said. “And stop that.”
He was tapping his finger on the table. He didn’t even know.
“Jared. You’ve got to calm down. We’re here. I’m here.”
He drew his hand back, flexing his fingers as he did.
“You still get it?” she said tenderly. “The prickling?”
He rubbed his numb hands together. They felt as if they had fallen asleep. The candlelight deepened the shadows along the scars on his pallid skin. His face, which had also grown pale after the lightning struck him, seemed to fade in the golden light.
“I know you’ve told me a hundred times,” she said. “But I can never remember what it’s called. Para-something or other.”
“Parasthesia. And yeah, it’s still a bitch.” He chuckled.
“How about sleep?”
“I’m a writer. We don’t sleep, remember? Even when we do, our brains are riding the rails to Crazyville.”
“Zany brainy,” she said. “You still have bad dreams?”
“Sometimes,” he said, after some length.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“It’s okay. It’s not like I can stop it.” He sipped his wine. “You know, bad dreams aren’t always a bad thing. Insanity came out of a nightmare.”
“Jeez,” she said, cringing. “You dreamt that?”
“Only the insanity parts,” he joked. “The rest I made up.”
“Speaking of which, I’ve been thinking about your new book. Mostly about the Phantom.”
“Well,” she said, “when you told me what it was about, there was something missing.”
“What about him? Assuming it’s a he, of course. It could be an alien.” He winked.
“You were holding something back,” she said. “I can always tell.”
He regarded her with a look that said, You got me.
“Spill it,” she said, excitedly. “It’s driving me crazy. I mean, if it’s going to spoil the ending, I understand.”
“No, no,” he said. “It’s nothing like that.”
“Do you remember the last time the Phantom struck?”
She considered. Shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe three or four years ago.”
“Six,” he said. “The year after I left. Until now.”
“Do you know Jack Henneman?”
“He died years ago,” she said. “Tractor accident.”
“No, no. His son. Jack Jr.” He told her of the mutilation.
“My God,” she said. “Do you think it’s really the Phantom? Do you think he’s back?”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know. My gut is telling me that it must be. But my brain is telling me that I’m nuts.”
She shivered. “God, I remember those killings growing up. They were horrible. Your dad refused to talk about it.”
“We should eat before we lose our appetites,” he said, and she agreed.
They finished their three-course meal, and though the waiter tempted them with mouth-watering desserts, they settled for tea. After driving back to Torch Falls, Jared took them downtown and pulled up across the street from the theater. The entrance awas covered with scaffolding wrapped in opaque plastic, the sidewalk littered with bricks and mortar. Despite the twilight, they could see dried blood in the street.
“Why are we stopping here?” Marisa said. “I really didn’t need to see this.”
“I’m sorry,” Jared said. “But I told your sitter we were going somewhere special.” He nodded toward her side window, to the steps of the Eight-Ball.
“Two scoops of Chocolate Almond Fudge,” he said. “Zany brainy didn’t forget.”
Ice cream secured, Jared drove to the park, three streets from Marisa’s home. Out in the evening chill, he wrapped his jacket around her, and they sat on a cedar bench overlooking a pond. A stone fountain glowed, illuminated by soft blue lights from below.
“Are you warm enough?” he said.
“Yes, thank you. But you must be cold.”
“I’m fine.” He licked his ice cream. “So how long have you worked at the library?”
“Four years. But I still work some nights at Shelby’s. And yes, Julie Jacobs still works there.”
“Julie Jacobs … I don’t think I remember her.”
She swatted him playfully. “Oh, yeah, right. You always had a thing for her. Hell, I’d do her.”
He shook his head and worked his dessert.
“Jared,” she said softly, and paused.
He was mid-lick. “Something wrong?”
“You’ve been meaning to ask.”
He nodded knowingly. “Was it that obvious?”
“At the house it was. You hid it well over dinner, though.”
“He just turned seven,” she told him. “But he’s not yours.”
Jared said nothing. His expression said it all.
“Breathe,” she told him.
Again, his expression said it all.
“It’s no one you know,” she said. “Just a guy. It didn’t last.”
“Okay,” she said, submitting. “When you left, I was hurting. More than you know. I went on some dates. A few guys, no big deal. At least, that’s what I thought.”
“So the guy took off when he found out you were pregnant.”
“He doesn’t know,” she said. “I broke it off when the stick flashed that little plus sign.”
Jared paused. “I know it’s none of my business. But does he live in town?”
“That was another thing,” she said. “He was moving to southern California. I sure as hell wasn’t going there. Earthquakes? No thanks.”
“What about support? Why are you doing this on your own?”
“I’m not helpless, Jared. Pardon the expression, but the guy isn’t exactly prime Montana beef. He wouldn’t have made a good father. And it wasn’t like I knew him very long. I wasn’t going to tie him down because of my mistake.”
Jared nodded. “You always had a good head on your shoulders. Your son’s a lucky child.”
“Thank you. That means a lot. But given his struggles, I might just be the luckiest part of his life. He’s epileptic.”
“That’s gotta be rough,” he said. “For both of you. Was he born with it?”
“It struck him when he was four. Just like that. One day you’re playing catch with your little boy, and the next day he can’t focus on the ball. It’s amazing how quickly things can change.”
“Has he … that is, does he have seizures?”
“Not as often as he used to, thank God. Sometimes, they’d come in spurts. He’d go for months without one, then bam—maybe two or three in a week. Even the same day. His last one was almost a year ago. He can be very sensitive to bright lights. Flickering. His eyesight started failing within months. Dr. Vogel has no idea why his eyes look the way they do. He figures it’s some kind of side-effect of the epilepsy.”
Jared remembered her asking Kit if he’d taken his pills. “He’s on medication?”
“Carbatrol, twice a day,” she said. “It’s the only thing that keeps the seizures in check. It can make him drowsy, though. Sometimes a little dizzy.”
He looked at her warmly. “You’re amazing, you know that?”
“Why do you say that?”
“He’s polite. Respectful. That’s on his mom.”
“And clearly he takes after you. He’s got his mother’s smarts.”
Marisa smiled. “He reads everything. I mean, with his condition he can’t watch TV or play video games anyway. Even if he could, I wouldn’t have them. No zany brainies in our house.”
Jared was just finishing the last of his ice cream, and laughed at her joke. Some of his dessert slipped from his lips. “Thanks,” he said, still chuckling.
“Here,” she said. She leaned over and wiped the mess from his chin with her napkin. She dabbed his lower lip, and when she looked into his eyes, seemed to hesitate. Seemed to linger.
“Got it all?” he asked.
“Yes … that’s … that’s better.”
Marisa shivered. “Oooh. It’s chilly.”
“We’d better get you home,” he said, and they headed out. Standing on her stoop, he wondered if he should kiss her goodnight.
“I had a wonderful time,” she said.
“Me, too.” He paused. “Hey … would you like to have a picnic tomorrow at the park?”
“I would. I can ask Sarah, but it’s pretty short notice.”
“No, no,” he said. “The three of us. I think your son would enjoy it, too.”
She brightened. “He would. Thank you.”
“Great. I’ll take care of everything. Around noon?”
“Noon works.” She looked at him warmly.
“Uh … I guess I should be going,” he said.
She kissed him. It was short and sweet, more courteous than tender, but after seven years, her lips felt warm and alive. He felt alive.
“Noon,” she said, and slipped inside.
Jared woke refreshed on Sunday morning. Sleep had been dreamless for the first time in a long time, as long as he could remember, and he rose with a spark in his heart. He skipped breakfast, showered and shaved, and found he couldn’t focus on his research. It was impossible to get Marisa out of his mind. Not that he wanted to.
He showed up at her house just past noon. It was warm and sunny with a slight breeze. When she asked him in, she looked vibrant in her white top and blue-jean shorts. She was slipping on her sandals when she asked her son if he’d taken his meds.
“Yeah, Mom,” Kit said. “You already asked me.”
“Good to go, then? Not dizzy from the pills?”
“Good to go.” He turned to Jared. “This is my first picnic.”
“Well,” Jared said. “I’ve got a surprise.”
“What is it?” Kit said.
Marisa gave Jared a cheerful look that said, What did you do?
“You’ll see,” he said, and winked.
At the park, Jared parked on the side of Raleigh Avenue and unloaded the cooler from the back of the Land Rover. Marisa led him through the arboretum and found a picture-perfect spot near the Boone River, the narrowest leg that wound through the middle of town. She laid out the checkered table cloth she’d brought, placing it over a picnic table that sat apart from the others. A pair of ancient Rocky Mountain junipers provided welcome shade. They had the picnic area all to themselves, and from what Jared could tell, the rest of the park was empty. It was a welcome change from the bustle of the city.
Kit could barely contain himself. His gauzy eyes seemed to grow behind his middle lenses. “What’s the surprise?”
“Kit,” Marisa said. “That’s not polite.”
Jared chuckled. He gave Marisa a goofy grin.
“What?” she said.
“Oh, nothing. Just reminds me of a girl I once knew. You know, the one who would always beg to open a present on Christmas Eve.”
“That’s funny,” she said. “From what I remember, that girl came by it honestly. Wasn’t it you who started her on that?”
They shared a smile, and Jared excused himself to return to the Land Rover. He came back a minute later holding a kite. It had a couple of tiny tears on one edge of the canvas sail, but still looked perfectly ready for flight.
“Cool!” Kit said.
“Oh my god,” Marisa said. “You kept it?”
“I didn’t have the heart to throw it out,” Jared said. He set it down on the table.
Kit examined it closely. “It looks really old. Does it still work?”
“I guess we’ll see,” Jared said. “My father built this. Your Mom and I used to fly it. Right over there.” He pointed to the open field just beyond the picnic area.
“You did, Mom? You flew this with Jared?”
“I did,” Marisa said.
“When you were kids?”
Kit seemed to ponder. “Did you used to be his girlfriend?”
“I did,” Marisa admitted, after a moment. “A long time ago.”
Jared found himself okay with it. He knew she hadn’t mentioned him and understood why. Kit didn’t need yet another variable in trying to guess who his father was.
Marisa mouthed “I’m sorry” when Kit wasn’t looking.
Jared waved her off reassuringly. He clapped his hands together. “Well. We can fly it now, or fly it later. Who votes for now?” He shot his arm up.
Kit shot up his arm. Marisa did the same.
In the field, Jared set the kite down carefully. He unfolded the spars, revealing a hand-painted dragon across the thin canvas sail. He laid out the tail and had Kit hold the frame in place while he let out some nylon string from the spool. He looked up. The clouds were moving at a good pace, the wind just right.
“Cool dragon,” Kit said. “Your dad made this?”
“Sure did,” Jared said. “He was pretty good with his hands.”
About ten yards away, Marisa sat on top of the picnic table, her feet on the seat. “Do you remember that painting he did of the eagle, Jared?”
“Still have it.”
“He was so talented,” she said. “And your mom could knit anything. Me? I can barely make a sandwich without screwing it up.”
He laughed. “Me, neither. That’s why I write. I have an editor to clean up after me.”
Jared directed Kit. “Can you hold the kite up over your head?”
Kit did as he was asked. The kite was much wider than he was tall, the tail just as long, and he struggled to steady it. Jared could see a grin as big as the boy’s face behind the keel flap near the bottom.
“That’s great,” Jared said. “Can you spread it wider? As wide as you can go.”
Kit spread the kite.
Jared backed up as he let out more string. “Okay, Kit. Now, try to hold the kite as high as you can. That’s it. When I say so, give it a push toward the sky, okay?”
Jared waited for the wind to pick up, and when it did, he gave the word. Kit released the kite with a shove, and it took off. It looped out of control and threatened to crash, but Jared guided it out of danger. It rose quickly and soared. A few minutes later, he had it hovering high in the sky.
“Your turn,” he said, and offered the spool to Kit.
“Cool!” Kit took it in his hands, and Jared stood behind him, imparting his kite-flying wisdom over the next ten minutes. Kit proved to be a quick study, and Jared patted him on the back.
“Great job, Kit. Fantastic. Now, I’m gonna be right over there with your mom. Have fun.”
Jared joined Marisa at the table, sitting beside her. “He’s doing great.”
She put her hand on his knee and stroked it. “Thank you for this, Jared. Look at that smile.” Kit was beaming.
They spent the next twenty minutes relaxing, taking in the breeze. As Jared was about to offer Marisa some lemonade from the cooler, a gust spun the kite toward the ground.
Kit did his best to keep the kite airborne, but it swirled in loops and started to nosedive. “Jared!”
“It’s all right! Just let out some string!” Jared shouted back.
Kit fumbled with the spool. Instead of granting more string, he started rolling it back. The kite dove faster and struck the ground like a bullet.
“I’m sorry!” he said. “I’m so sorry, Jared!”
“It’s okay,” Jared told him, coming up beside him. “What goes up, always comes down.”
“I’ll get it,” Kit said. He rolled up the slack as he headed off to the kite, and Jared returned to Marisa.
Three boys approached Kit when he reached the kite. They were much older, maybe fifteen. When Kit went for the kite, the tallest of the bunch snatched it away.
Marisa got down off the table and started running. Jared joined her, rushing beside her.
The kids were teasing Kit now, the three of them forming a triangle around him. They were taunting him with the kite, offering it, then snatching it back before he could snag it. They passed it from one to the other, Kit struggling to keep up as he turned round and round. The catcalls grew louder. It was a simple refrain that Jared could make out as he got closer.
“Milky eyes, Look like sludge, Here he is, Christian Smudge! Milky eyes, Look like sludge—”
“Leave him alone!” Marisa screamed.
“Stop it!” Jared shouted. “Stop it!”
The tallest boy had rugged looks for his age, with dark hair and a chiseled jawline. He wore a deep blue T-shirt that had a colorful drawing of a hand flipping the bird. He dropped the kite, then placed a hand to the artwork on his chest and flipped it at Jared. He stood his ground, and his buddies joined him.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Marisa snapped, out of breath. Jared stepped up beside her.
Marisa knelt beside her son. Kit was okay, but clearly upset. He sniffled, and did his best to put on a brave face.
“I should have known,” Marisa said, stabbing a glare at the tall one.
Parker Brooks snickered. “Hear that, guys? I’m famous.” He looked squarely at Kit. “What do you think of that, Smudge?”
“Don’t call him that,” Marisa barked. “Don’t you dare.”
Jared stepped forward, directing himself to Parker Brooks. “You got a problem, kid?”
“Yeah. You, old man.”
“You know him, Parks?” It was Nelson Kurtz, another good-looking kid. His spiked blonde hair had too much gel, and stood razor-straight in the breeze.
“Yeah, I know him,” Parker said. “He’s the bozo on that stupid billboard just outside of town.”
“Jared Cole?” Nelson asked. “You sure?”
“I thought that’s who it was,” Darren Philips added. He had dazzling blue eyes and black hair. “Maybe we should get his autograph.”
Parker Brooks chuckled.
“Why don’t you three just move along,” Jared said. “Go read a book or something. If you can.”
“Ohhh, good one,” Parker said. “Just a whiz with words, eh?” He stepped on the kite, putting his foot through the dragon.
Jared grimaced. “Wow,” he said sarcastically. “You killed a kite. It’s pretty clear you’re going to be a real success when you grow up.”
Parker Brooks laughed. “Whatever.” He gave Kit a grin and a curt salute. “See ya at school, Smudge.”
“Get out of here,” Marisa said. “Before I call the police.”
“Oh! Let me help with that,” Parker said. He reached into his back pocket and drew out his iPhone. He looked as if he was starting to dial a number, but instead he angled the phone in the sunshine, reflecting it. The light was blinding, and he shifted the angle of the phone up and down, producing a strobe-like effect. It caught Kit square in the eyes, and by the time anyone realized what was happening, it was too late.
Marisa watched in horror as Kit slumped in her arms. His head listed a moment, then turned slowly, side to side. He smacked his lips. His eyes began to pitch and roll.
“Jesus, Parks!” Nelson Kurtz said. “What did you do? Jesus!”
Parker Brooks laughed out loud—and bolted. His friends bolted with him. Jared started to go after them, but found himself quickly out of breath. His years behind a cigarette had caught up with him, and he stopped, gasping. When he could, he hurried to Marisa’s side.
“What’s happening?” he said. Kit was groaning now.
“The light’s a trigger,” Marisa told him. “He’s about to have a seizure.”
“What can I do?” Jared said, hearing panic in his voice.
“Stay calm,” she said. “Just stay calm.”
She held her son close. “Easy, baby. That’s it.”
Kit slid his hand into his pocket. He seemed semi-lucid, as if drifting in and out of a dream. He pulled out his hand, and Marisa helped him clasp both hands around the hematite.
“Count with me,” she whispered. “Count with me, baby.”
They counted down together. Jared counted with them, silently, not realizing he was doing so.
Kit opened his eyes. Saliva dribbled from the side of his mouth. He seemed to be coming out of it.
Marisa held him closer. “It’s okay,” she said, her voice soft and steady. She stroked his hair gently.
“You all right, Kit?” Jared said.
Kit drew a slow breath. “Just a bit dizzy.” He looked up at his mother. He smiled, and then wiped away a tear that had slipped down her cheek.
She kissed him on the top of the head. “Any blurriness?”
“No more than usual,” Kit said jokingly. “And no spots.”
“Spots?” Jared said.
“Sometimes I see colored spots,” Kit said. “Sometimes people.”
“Just shapes, mostly. But that’s usually when I’ve had a real event.”
“A seizure,” Marisa explained.
“So you’re okay?” Jared said. “No seizure?”
Kit gave him a thumbs-up. “Crisis averted.”
“I’m so sorry about this,” Jared said.
Kit responded with a woeful frown. “I’m sorry about your kite.”
The kite was damaged beyond repair, and as Jared stuffed the last of it into the trash receptacle in the picnic area, he thought about how it would feel to stomp his foot through Parker Brooks’ face. Still, when he sat down beside Marisa and watched Kit sitting down by the shore, he realized things could have been worse. Far worse.
“Is he all right?” he asked. “All clear?”
“Fingers crossed,” Marisa said. “You never know, believe me.”
“I kinda panicked. I feared the worst.”
“Join the club. It never gets easier.”
“You seemed pretty calm.”
“Ahhh, my mom poker face,” she said with an anxious laugh. “You learn how to bluff fast in this game.”
Jared shook his head. “God, I can’t believe that kid did that to him.”
“Parker Brooks? He’s a total jackass. A spoiled, me-me-me rich kid. His friends are just as snotty.”
“Are you going to press charges?”
“Why bother?” she said, downcast. “Even if I wanted to, he’s only fourteen. It’s not like anything would come of it.”
Jared shared her disappointment. “That kid needs a swift kick in the ass.”
“In the balls.”
Jared looked at her, and they both laughed.
“I don’t know how you do it,” he said. “All this, and a bully, to boot.”
Marisa sighed. “You just do.”
Jared, Marisa, and Kit spent the next hour enjoying their picnic, and despite what had transpired, each of them finished a full plate of sliced ham, rolls, deviled eggs, and generous portions of potato salad. When they were finished, Jared drew out a pack of Camel cigarettes he’d tossed into the cooler.
“Oh … my … God,” Marisa said. “You’re still smoking?”
Jared had just cracked the seal. He hesitated, clearly embarrassed, and tossed the package into the cooler. “Jeez,” he said, feigning surprise. “Who the heck put that in there?”
“I’m not your keeper. All I ask is that you don’t smoke around Kit.”
Kit was sitting next to Jared. The boy looked up, his eyes wide. “It’s not good for you, Jared.”
Jared nodded. “You’re right. And you know what? It’s time I stopped.” He took out the pack and carried it to the trash bin. He buried it with the kite remains, then wiped his hands with a motion of finality. “Done.”
“Jared,” Marisa said. “You don’t have to do that.”
“Done,” he repeated. “The truth is, when I ran after that Brooks kid, I barely made ten yards before my lungs gave out.” Not to mention the heart attack you almost had, he thought.
Jared sat with Marisa for the next half hour. Kit amused himself on the swings, and when it was time to go, Marisa called him to come. They all headed out to the Land Rover, Marisa beside Jared, who lugged the cooler. Kit followed, several steps behind.
“Can you get my keys?” Jared asked her when they reached the street. “Left pocket.”
Marisa went to get them, and was nearly run down by a group of cyclists racing by. She got out of the way just in time, and Jared shouted at them to watch where they were going. One of them gave him the finger, telling him to do the same.
“Real nice,” he said, turning to her. “You’d think we were in New Yor— ”
He almost dropped the cooler, setting it down quickly with a thud.
Marisa whirled round.
Kit was on the ground. His body trembled. He tried to find his calming stone, but his hand got stuck in his pocket. The left side of his face began to twitch and jerk. His head rolled to the side, and saliva slid from his mouth and down his cheek. He groaned.
“Kit!” Marisa shouted. She raced to his side.
Jared knelt opposite to her. Kit’s eyes seemed larger, even murkier than before.
“He can’t see,” she said to Jared, as calmly as she could.
“He’ll be all right,” she assured him. “It won’t last.”
Jared looked at her, dumbfounded. Afraid. His heart pounded.
Kit’s eyes shifted slowly, as if struggling to focus on something that wasn’t there. As if his mind insisted something lurked at the edge of his senses, but whatever it was lay hidden, refusing to show itself. He jerked suddenly, his hand free of his pocket. The stone slipped from his grasp and fell to the ground.
Jared panicked. He reached for the stone, and at that moment, fear overwhelmed him. His eyes locked with Kit’s.
No, no, not now—
Yet no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he wanted to … he could not look away.
Jared’s eyes burned. His temples throbbed. He battled the awesome power rising within him, but his efforts were futile. The gateway was open, and he knew that in the next moment his mind would be overrun and overwhelmed, trampled by knowing.
Things were blurry; all was silent. Marisa was an indistinct shape. Her lips moved rapidly, but her words were lost. He felt dizzy, punch drunk, and he braced himself for what was coming.
His body jerked. It was as if someone had shocked him with charged cables. Something struck the back of his head, and he cried out.
Cold gripped him, so raw that it choked him from the inside. His heart froze. It felt as if something had entered him, had taken him whole. As if it were eating him alive.
Kit’s body convulsed. His face contorted. His eyes grew bloodshot. The veins around them began to thicken, the skin there souring to a sickly green. He started to speak, his voice not his own. Marisa screamed.
Another shot to the back of the head sent Jared reeling. It felt like he’d been whacked with a crowbar. Nothing physical had actually struck him—the force he felt should have knocked him forward, but didn’t—and yet the explosion of pain was all too real.
Blood filled the whites of his eyes, and the veins around them thickened. The skin about them turned that same sickly hue as Kit’s.
“Kit!” Marisa shouted. She tried to hold him, tried to steady his rocking body. His right hand flung up and struck her square in the face. She slipped back and landed on her side. Stunned, it took her a moment to get up, and when she did, her jaw dropped.
Jared trembled. His nose bled, first a little, then a lot. The blood was dark and thick. It gushed from his nostrils, streaming down his lips and his chin. Marisa was screaming for him now, screaming for help, yet still he heard nothing. All he could hear were muffled, garbled words from Kit, words that pounded inside his brain like a hammer.
Something black and inhuman—something sinister—coursed through him, flooding him, drowning him. His mind spun, and as always, he found himself adrift in that terrifying darkness that so crippled. It was brutal and raw, a river of ice, and the cold current swept him away. He could not fight it, nor did he try. Whatever had come through this dark door drove deeper into his mind and into his body, and in the next breath he fell back and struck the pavement, falling unconscious.
Jared could hear Marisa now—her cries for help. He was coming out of it. When he opened his eyes, he squinted at the blinding sun. He could feel the warmth of his blood on his skin.
“Jared! Thank God! Are you okay?”
He rolled over, dizzy. He shook it off and rose to his knees. His head was pounding. His eyes were still burning. He rubbed them until the fuzziness ebbed.
Marisa was holding her son. “He’s okay. The reflectors on those bikes triggered him.”
Kit was lucid. He regarded Jared with a silly grin.
“You okay, Kit?”
“My head’s a little woozy. I can’t see very good right now, but I will in a few minutes. Are you okay?”
Jared sniffled and wiped some blood from under his nose. The flow had stopped, but this had been a bad one. He could taste the blood on his lips.
“I’m all right,” he said. His mind was racing.
“Are you sure?” Marisa said.
“How long was I out?”
“Not long,” she told him. “Maybe a minute. I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. Kit came out of his seizure, and I had to be sure he was okay. I called for help, but no one came.”
“You did the right thing,” Jared said. “I’m really sorry. I don’t know what happened to me. I guess I fainted.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” she said. She looked at him closely.
“What is it?” he said.
“This wasn’t just fainting, Jared. Something happened. To both of you.”
He didn’t answer. Something had happened, all right—the gateway—something he couldn’t hope to explain. And something else had happened, too, something that scared the hell out of him. Something that had never happened before. He tried to remember what it was, but his memory failed him. All he had was this unsettling feeling inside of him … a feeling of dread. Or—
“Your eyes,” Marisa said, when he didn’t respond. “They’re so bloodshot. And your skin …”
“You look a little pale, even for you. A little yellow. And the veins around your eyes—they’re dark. They’ve faded a lot, but you can still see them.”
Jared looked at Kit.
“It happened to him, too,” Marisa said. “Everything except the nosebleed.”
“I’ve never had one,” Kit said. “I don’t think I want to.”
“You seem okay,” Jared said, giving him a quick once-over.
“He looked just like you until you blacked out,” Marisa said. “It all faded away in a few seconds.”
“Has this ever happened before?” Jared said.
Marisa shook her head. She looked confused. Frightened. “Has this ever happened to you?”
“Just the nosebleed. But that’s nothing new.”
She gave him a look.
She doesn’t believe you, he thought. Fact is, she wouldn’t believe you.
“We’d better get off the road,” he said, realizing where they were. He turned to Kit. “Can you stand?”
“Yeah, I’m good.”
Marisa helped him up.
Jared got slowly to his feet. His head was still swimming. Still pounding. He staggered.
“Take it easy,” Marisa said.
“I’m okay. Just got up too fast.” He gave her the keys, and she helped her son into the back seat. Jared was rubbing his eyes when she came round to the back of the vehicle.
“You should see a doctor,” she said.
He shook his head. “Just a tad woozy. It’ll pass.” He pointed to the cooler. “Can you help me with that?”
They packed it into the cargo area, and she closed the trunk. She rubbed his arm. “Jared,” she said soberly. “We need to talk.”
Standing in Marisa’s living room, again Jared asked Kit if he was all right. Kit looked none the worse for wear, and gave him a priceless grin.
“Thanks for the picnic,” Kit said. “The kite was cool.”
“We can always go again,” Jared said. He looked at Marisa. “How about next week?”
Marisa brightened. “I’d like that.”
“Great,” Jared said. He smiled at Kit. “I’ll pick up a new kite.”
“Kit,” Marisa said, “can you give Mommy some time with Jared? I have to clean him up a little.”
“Sure.” Kit thanked Jared again, and went upstairs.
“And wash up, too!” Marisa shouted after him. She led Jared into the kitchen and offered him a chair at the table. When she finished cleaning the blood from his nose and chin with some paper towels, she took a seat next to him.
She looked at him squarely. Raised her brows. “Well?”
“Well, what?” Like he didn’t know.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Marisa said sarcastically. “Maybe something like, what the hell happened back there? Let’s start with that.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Has your son ever had a seizure like that?”
“That’s it? Just a shrug?”
“I don’t know what to tell you.”
“You were clearly in pain,” she said. “Both of you, from what I can tell. It’s like you both had a seizure.”
“I didn’t have a seizure. I’m pretty sure of that.”
“You froze up, Jared. It’s like you just stopped breathing or something. It scared me. Aren’t you worried?”
“Worried? I’m fine. Kit said he was okay.”
“He seems okay. I pray that he is. At least his eyes are back to normal. His normal, anyway.”
“I’m fine.” He wasn’t. His eyes ached a little, but his head was another story. He could almost feel the vibrations of the freight train running through it.
“Fine?” she said. “Your color is off. Your eyes are still a little bloodshot. And it’s like you have varicose veins around them.”
He rubbed his eyes. Blinked a few times. “Better?”
“Look. I don’t know what happened. To either of us.”
She stared him down.
“What?” he said.
“Look what happened to you! To Kit! I mean, if that’s not the definition of weird, I don’t know what is. It was like something out of your books.”
“I’m guessing it was some kind of reaction to Kit’s seizure. Had to be.”
“For both of you?”
Again he shrugged. “It’s all I’ve got. Sorry.”
“What about the words?”
“Did you hear what Kit said? During the seizure?”
“He spoke? People can speak during a seizure?”
“Yes. But he never has. That’s what’s so scary. You really didn’t hear him?”
“No. I was kind of out of it. It all happened so fast.” He paused. “What did he say?”
Marisa said nothing.
“Marisa?” He had heard something, but it had been a voice in his head. More like a thought, one that someone—some thing—had driven into him. He tried to remember what it was, but his memory failed him.
“I don’t know what he said,” she said, finally. “Maybe it was nothing. Maybe I imagined it. He was groaning … I guess I could have mistaken it for words.”
“What did it sound like?”
She paused, considering, then threw up her hands. “I don’t know. It was almost gibberish. It wasn’t English, I know that much.”
No, Jared remembered. It wasn’t English. It almost sounded alien.
“It must have been the groaning,” he said. It was the only thing that made sense. “Try not to think about it. Any of it.”
“How? Aren’t you the least bit concerned? Maybe you should see a doctor. I should have Kit checked out, too.”
“It wouldn’t hurt. But not me.”
“Don’t tell me you’re still afraid of doctors.”
“More than lightning,” he joked.
“I hope Kit is all right.”
“He seems pretty lively. Honestly, I don’t think you need to worry.”
“It was just so scary,” she said. “And your nosebleed—that was awful, even for you. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Good as gold. But I could use a hot cup of tea.”
Marisa put a kettle on the gas stove, and when it whistled, prepared each of them a cup. Switching off the burner, her sleeve caught the spout. The kettle slipped off the stove and crashed to the floor, the hot water scalding her left shin.
“Shit!” she said, limping to the counter. “Owww!”
Jared shot up to help her. He checked her leg, and cringed at the pair of thumb-sized scalds just above her ankle.
“It hurts,” she said, wincing. “How bad is it?”
“You’ll be limping for a bit.” He helped her to her chair and got her a cold damp cloth. He placed it on her shin and asked her to hold it.
“I’ll clean up,” he said. When he finished up, he set their cups on the table. He sat. “I thought I was the klutz in the family.”
She stuck out her tongue. “It’s not funny. It really hurts.”
“Do you have any aloe?”
“I think there might be a bottle in the washroom under the sink.”
He fetched it and got down on one knee beside her. He removed the cloth and gently rubbed the lotion on her burns.
“Oh!” she said. “It’s cold.”
He looked up at her tenderly, and she smiled anxiously. It was the first time he’d touched her like this in years.
“Jared,” she said, clearly unsettled. “It’s … it’s better—”
He gazed into her eyes, those precious round hearts that had always stolen his. He went to kiss her, and she stopped him.
“Jared,” she said. “It’s … it’s too soon.”
She fell into his arms, fell into his kiss.
They spent the afternoon together, and when Marisa asked him to stay for dinner, Jared happily accepted. She made spaghetti and meatballs with a zesty sauce, and afterward they had a slice of peach pie and ice cream that Jared picked up while dinner was on the stove. Kit seemed perfectly fine, and after he went up to bed, Marisa and Jared shared some tea. They shared another kiss at the end of the evening.
Jared was still smiling when he pulled into his driveway. He hadn’t even used the GPS.
He watched some TV, then went upstairs for a shower in the en-suite bathroom. Afterward, he stood at the right sink in the double-sink vanity. He put some toothpaste onto his toothbrush, and when he raised it to his lips, dropped the brush in the sink, reeling in pain.
His hands throbbed. If he didn’t know any better, he would have thought it arthritis. It wasn’t the parasthesia. Not the usual prickling, not the usual burning. This was cold hard pain.
He rubbed his hands, but it did no good. The throbbing persisted, and only when it became unbearable did he cry out. And then it ebbed.
His hands shook. He flipped them over and back. They were pallid, buttery in color. He made two fists, working his fingers until the pain slipped away.
He cleared the steam from the mirror and leaned in. His eyes were still a little bloodshot. The skin around them held that same sallow tone. He could still see a hint of his veins.
These weren’t there yesterday, he thought. Something happened today.
He tried to remember. It was all like a fog. A thick, black fog. What he did recall was a sound—a voice—inside the gateway.
He couldn’t be sure. Still, Marisa believed that her son had said something. Something that wasn’t English.
No. It wasn’t English.
He tried to force it, but it wouldn’t come. It was lost to him.
What the hell happened?
The gateway had opened, but it had been the strangest experience, even for him. There had been no sense of Kit, no all-consuming emotion—no window to the soul. No knowing.
The gateway. Something had been there, lurking within it.
Something had come through.
The idea was absurd. Whatever he’d felt, it wasn’t concrete. It wasn’t real. The whole thing seemed more like a dream.
A bad one.
But that wasn’t right, either. He recalled a sensation of cold. Of dread. Of—
Something had entered him.
That too, was ridiculous. Ludicrous.
But what about Marisa’s son?
During the seizure, Kit had had the same experience. The bloodshot eyes. The veins. The changes in skin tone. The only differences were that Kit hadn’t suffered a nosebleed … and his physical reactions had only been temporary.
Still … Kit’s odd changes had started first. Just seconds before his.
Yes, he thought. It was almost as if what had happened to Kit had passed through the gateway into you.
He stared at his hands. The scars had taken on an even deeper hue.
Give it a rest, man. Kit’s fine. You’re fine. It’s just your zany brainy working overtime.
He brushed his teeth and climbed into bed.
Jared screamed awake. He clutched his bed sheets, fighting the throb in his chest. As it began to ebb, he groaned in the darkness.
He sat up slowly. The clock on the night stand showed just past three. His head ached. His hands were cold and numb, his lower extremities, too. He tried to stand, but the prickling in his feet left him no choice but to sit.
He rubbed his chest. A little better.
Mental note—no more spicy meatballs. Check that—just three, not eight.
He’d been dreaming. Dreaming of Kit.
Dreaming of the gateway.
He’d been wandering lost in the dark, in a place as black as his mind could imagine. There were only sounds. Voices.
Yes. It had been there, whispering in the dark.
Whispering. Over and over—
There was more. That sense of dread, permeating the blackness like a thick oil. And—
And something was in the dark.
A shape, and—
A bead of sweat slipped from his brow. His parched throat felt as if he’d swallowed a brick.
He couldn’t remember what he’d seen. Or if he’d seen anything at all.
But he did remember that voice.
And now, he remembered that word.
His Spanish was a little rusty, but he knew the translation.
Jared slept past ten on Monday morning. He felt tired, and when he washed up, the bathroom mirror gave him some comfort. His eyes were not as bloodshot, and the veins around them had faded a little. The color in his hands and face seemed better, too.
He had planned on contacting a local farmer, about an incident twenty-two years ago involving the Phantom. But just as he was about to tap in the man’s number, he received a text message. Marisa. She asked him to lunch, and he accepted. He met her on the library steps just past noon, and they took a short walk down the street to Remi’s Pizza. Now, sitting across from her in a booth, he sipped his Coke as their slices arrived.
“You look better,” she told him, giving him a closer look.
“Whatever it was, it’s on the outs,” he said. “Speaking of which, how’s your leg?”
He wanted to tell her about his dream, about the voice. But of course, he couldn’t. After all these years, all that time alone in New York, he was finally beginning to feel normal again. Happy. Things were going so well between them, and the last thing he wanted was to fuck things up by freaking her out. He knew all too well how quickly things could change.
Besides, he thought. You really think you heard what you think you heard? And that somehow, her son’s crazed rambling in Spanish was some kind of premonition of her burning her leg? Get a grip, man. It was a dream, remember?
Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had heard that voice.
“Actually,” she said, “my leg is why I called you.”
“Is something wrong?”
“Jared,” she said, doubtfully. “Promise me you won’t laugh. And promise me you won’t think I’m crazy.”
“Zany brainy? You?”
“Promise me, okay?”
“Not until I hear it,” he joked. “Come on, you can’t just throw that out there.”
“Okay,” he said, half-laughing. “I promise.”
“You’d better. This isn’t easy for me.” She took a sip of her iced tea. “I almost didn’t call.”
Jared bit off some pizza. “Just tell me.”
“It’s about Kit’s seizure. What he said yesterday. That is, what I thought he said.”
She looked at him, clearly reticent.
“What is it?” he said.
“You promised, remember?”
“Well,” she went on, “I don’t know exactly how to say it. So I’ll just say it. You remember when you asked if people could speak during a seizure? And if Kit ever had?”
“You said he didn’t.”
Again she hesitated. “He has.”
“Just a few times,” she said. “Four or five, maybe. The first time he did it was a long time ago. That was a bad time for him. He was having several events every week. Needless to say, the first time it happened I wasn’t prepared for it. Afterward, he told me he saw spots. A shape. A person.”
“What did Kit say?”
“Just a single word. In fact, they’ve all been just one word. The first time, it was cake.”
“Not chocolate, or carrot, or—”
“Don’t make fun of me, Jared. You said you wouldn’t.”
She sipped her iced tea and took a moment. “I didn’t think anything of it. It threw me, sure. I mean, my child was having an event, and suddenly he throws out a word like that. It would mess with anyone.”
“And he saw a shape? A person?”
“I guess … I don’t know. You tell me.” She stopped.
“Well?” he said.
“I went to work the next day. I was still working for Clem Richmond at the dollar store. That’s who Kit saw. I mean, I think that’s who he saw.”
“How can you be sure?”
“The girls surprised him with a birthday cake. And if you must know, it was chocolate, smarty pants.”
Jared took another bite of his pizza and washed it down with some Coke. “A coincidence.”
“Of course I thought that.”
“But it happened again. Didn’t it.”
“About six months later. And probably a year after that for the next one. But they were all the same kind of thing. Just a single word, then whammo—something happened, just like he’d said.”
“Nothing bad, or anything like that. Like the one time when he said dog. A week later, Sarah Coleman’s dad came home with a pug.”
“Your sitter? Maybe she told Kit they were getting a dog.”
“She wasn’t my sitter then. Kit didn’t know her.”
“Oh, don’t give me that look,” she said. “Yes. It sounds nuts, I know.”
“I was just wondering—and no, I’m not teasing here—did he ever say any numbers?”
“Like the lottery? If he had, you can bet I would have played them. Why the heck not?”
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “I never thought Kit had any special power or anything, okay? Like some third eye, or something.”
“But you think there is something to it. You wouldn’t have told me, otherwise.”
She took a bite of her pizza and chased it with her drink. “It was easy to dismiss it. But then, about three years ago, I did a little digging. It opened my mind.”
“What did you find?”
“Kit was born with a caul.”
Jared shrugged at Marisa. He had no idea what a caul was.
“It’s a membrane that covers a newborn’s face,” she said. “The doctor removed it, of course. It’s perfectly harmless—and quite rare—but old legends say that a child born with it can have second sight.”
“So … you think he’s clairvoyant?”
She smiled. “I’m just saying that I’ve embraced this odd quirk of his. Something happened that pretty much clinched it for me.”
“I was sitting at home one night watching TV. I remember because it was the season premiere of Grey’s Anatomy. Kit was upstairs when the seizure struck. A mild one. Nothing strange about it. But just as he was coming out of it, he said Gramma. It was over a year since he’d spoken during an event, so I didn’t really pay much attention to it. Honestly, it kind of sounded more like a groan than a real word. I was just glad he was okay, of course. When I got back downstairs, the show was over. About thirty minutes later, the phone rang. I have to tell you, it scared me to death. After what Kit had said … I thought it was Dad, calling with bad news about my mom.”
Jared bit into his pizza.
“It wasn’t Dad on the phone,” Marisa went on. “It was Mom. She was rambling like a crazy person. I had to calm her down. She just checked her numbers in the lottery. She won five-thousand dollars!”
“Do you believe me? I mean, about Kit?”
“I do. Despite the innate skepticism we writers cling to, I like to think I’ve got an open mind. On some things, anyway.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I really thought you were going to laugh about this.”
He reached over and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. “Not a chance, Mar.”
He leaned back in his seat. “How are your parents? Your dad still working?”
“Still,” she said. “He’s got about a year before he retires. He’s not doing great, though. He’s been having these headaches. Migraines. On top of that, I keep telling him he’s got to shed about forty pounds. Problem is, Mom’s gotta stop baking.”
Jared laughed. “She can always bake for me, you know. I used to love her apple pie.”
“Me, too. Good thing that baking’s not in the genes, though. I’d never fit in my jeans.”
Jared chuckled, but his expression dimmed.
“Oh, stop worrying,” she said. “Mom always liked you.”
“Your mom’s not the problem.”
“I know,” she admitted. “But it’ll be all right. You know my dad. His bark is way worse than his bite.”
“If only that were true,” Jared said. “The man scares the shit out of me. You know that.”
“Don’t be such a baby.” She munched on a few bites of her slice.
Jared finished his. “So,” he said, after some deliberation, “what do you think Kit said yesterday?”
She sipped. “I tried all night to figure it out. I went to bed still trying to. It was only when I woke up in the middle of the night that it came to me. I have to admit, it still sounds like gibberish. But it’s definitely a word.”
“What is it?”
“Quemar,” she said, pronouncing it cue-mar. “I Googled it. This should interest you. It’s Spanish. It means burn.”
“Kay-MAR,” he said, pronouncing it slowly. “You think Kit spoke Spanish?”
She shrugged. “It’s not like he’s ever taken it in school. But he reads a lot. He could have heard it anywhere. Some of the kids in school, maybe. It was just a single word. It’s not like he’s one of those people you read about. You know, the ones who bump their heads and suddenly start speaking another language.”
“And you think, what—that he had some premonition of you getting a burn?”
“What do you think?”
“You think it’s nuts, don’t you.”
“No. It’s not that. You said yourself that these premonitions—if that’s what they are—were always about good things. Harmless things.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s kinda freaky.”
“The good news is, it wasn’t like he predicted an earthquake.”
“Well, if he had, and we had one, would that make you believe?”
He finished his Coke too fast and stifled a burp. “I might,” he said.
He just might.
They finished lunch, and Marisa picked up the bill. “Call your brother,” she insisted.
At the library steps, he asked her to dinner.
“I can’t,” she said. “I’ve got shifts at the bar all week.” She kissed him. “Call him.”
At home in his study, Jared nodded off in his chair. He woke with a start, pain rippling through his chest. His eyes were burning. It passed quickly, and he sat up, out of breath. His hands ached.
The digital clock on his desk read 10:44. He went out to the deck for some air. The night was still.
What’s happening to you?
And what the hell did you see?
He tried to remember. All his broken brain could come up with was a shape. A dark shape. Something in the gateway.
He went back inside and curled up in his bed.
Tom Greenwood rang up the total on the Eight-Ball’s register.
“Six-ninety-six,” he said, smiling. The pretty teenager paid for the potato chips and pop and left with her friends. He followed them to the front door of the convenience store and flipped the sign to CLOSED. He closed the cash and cleaned up, double-checked the delivery door at the back before heading out, and started out on his usual six-minute walk home.
He was thinking about Kyle Duncan. He’d tried to bury that horrible scene in the back of his mind, but every time someone came in to the store, he’d look up and see that smeared patch of dried blood in the street. It didn’t help when people kept asking what happened. What was it that old loon Rose Tillman always said? Small town … big doin’s.
The good news was, at least most of them had turned the page and just whined about the heat.
He passed Sonia Wheaton’s house and stopped. Guilt swallowed him. He’d been married for nineteen years, all of them happy. All of them wonderful. He loved his wife, but the truth was, Sonia was different. Sonia was wild.
There was more, too; she had brains. Besides her blog and two romance books, she had a column in The Torch Falls Monthly, writing everything from what she called op-ed (he still had no idea what that was) to entertainment pieces. After sex—great, uninhibited sex—she always had something to say. Interesting stuff, too, not like that mind-numbing small-talk from his wife. Yes, he loved his partner, but Jesus, how much of that drivel can any man take?
He checked his watch. Nine-fifteen. He should go, he knew, for all the right reasons.
Still—he had time for a quickie.
And that was the thing he loved most about Sonia: No strings. No pressure. No bullshit.
He called her on his cellphone as he continued down the street. She met him with her minivan three streets over, in the rear parking lot of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church. It was one of their usual spots, and she rode him in the back until he came. She kept it short and sweet, and when he got home after savoring a short walk with his Pall Mall, his good wife was waiting for him with a kiss.
“Busy night,” he said. “That damn Brooks kid and his moron friends knocked over a candy bar rack again. Idiots.”
“That’s like the third time they’ve done that,” Linda Greenwood said. “Why don’t you just ban them from the store?” She took up on the sofa in front of the TV.
Tom joined her, and they watched together. A half hour later, she got up with a yawn.
“I’m beat,” she said. “You coming, honey?”
“I’m gonna make some tea.”
“You’ll be up half the night. You know what caffeine does to you.”
He got up and kissed her tenderly. “I love you, Linda Greenwood.”
“I love you, too,” she said, and they kissed again.
“I’ll be up soon, okay?”
He patted her rear and watched her go. In the kitchen, the clock on the stove read a quarter to eleven. He filled the kettle with water and set it onto the gas burner. From the cupboard he fetched the tea, and suddenly, he stiffened at the deep throb in his eyes. They were burning.
He rubbed them. It felt like someone had sprayed him with mace. He staggered, backing up against the counter near the kitchen window.
He straightened. The pain stopped, just like that.
He went out back to his tool shed and returned with an adjustable wrench. The old stove was a heavy beast, and he moved it out slowly, careful not to make a sound. He loosened the nut around the flexible gas supply hose and drew the line free. The smell of rotten eggs made him turn away.
He set the wrench on the counter. It wasn’t long before his dear wife called from upstairs.
“Tom! Do you smell gas? Tom?”
She came down and met him in the kitchen. She had a hand cupped over her mouth to help her breathe.
“Tom! Tom! What are you doing?”
His eyes were bloodshot. The veins around them were the color of grapes. They deepened, growing longer. Thicker.
“Lo siento,” Tom whispered. He did not know Spanish—how it had come to him he could not possibly fathom—yet he knew in his heart that he was truly sorry. For everything.
Tom Greenwood raised his left hand. The hand that held his lighter.
End of Part One (of Seven)
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