Last Night on Findy Sickle Ridgeby Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net
PART ONE: SIGNS AND WONDERS
CHAPTER ONE: Riverbend, Georgia, Three Months Ago
Runners of flame streamed from the heart of the star. Charlie lay on his back and watched them trail away into the darkness of space. He had set up a cot on the back porch trying to escape the heat, but a long afternoon of summer thunderstorms had saturated the air. There was no wind at all. Sweat collected on Charlie's brow, under his arms and between his legs, and ran down his body to soak the sheet underneath. Sleep was impossible, so he lay awake watching the night sky.
Robin was awake too. Every time she shifted gingerly on her own narrow cot, the springs squeaked beneath her. She sighed in exasperation and turned again. The springs squeaked. "Sorry about that," she whispered.
Charlie looked away from the star. "It's all right," he said. "I'm awake too."
"Tell me something."
"Whose bright idea was it to buy a new kiln this year instead of finally installing central air?"
"I'm going to get in trouble no matter how I answer that," he pretended to complain, reaching out to her in the darkness. Her fingers touched his, and he clasped her small, warm hand.
"If you'd exercised your prerogative as man of the house and told me you were sick and tired of suffering for the sake of art, we'd be sleeping in air-conditioned comfort right now."
Charlie tickled Robin's palm with his middle finger. "You want to see my prerogative?"
"Oh hon, not tonight. It's too hot."
Charlie rolled out of bed to crouch on the floor next to Robin's cot. He smoothed her dark curls back off her sweaty forehead and kissed the side of her face. "You sure? It's too hot to do anything else, I think."
"Mmmm. Maybe I just need a little convincing."
"I can do that," Charlie assured her, resting one hand on her collarbone and bending over to kiss her lower lip.
The dogs had been wakened by their conversation, and all three came trotting over, their toenails clicking on the bare wood floor. "No," Charlie said in a stern attempt to stem the canine tide, but he was too late. Max put his front paws onto Robin's cot, and Honey Child thrust her tremendous, bristly snout against Charlie's neck and licked his ear. Lady wound herself around and around the two cots, whining frantically for attention. Her tail thumped vigorously against Charlie's legs.
"Stop it," Robin said. "Go back to bed, you horrible smelly brutes. It's not breakfast time yet. Get out of here."
"Bed," Charlie ordered calmly. None of the dogs paid any attention to him until he yelled, "Go back to bed, you miserable sons of bitches!"
A last wet tongue washed across Charlie's face, and the three dogs retreated disconsolately to their pile of blankets on the far side of the porch.
"Lousy mutts. I'm sending them all to the pound in the morning."
"Of course you are," Robin agreed mildly.
Dog hairs were stuck to Charlie's sweaty chest and legs, and the air was redolent with the smell of big animals in need of a bath. Charlie crawled resignedly back into bed. The dog hairs prickled. He asked Robin suddenly, "Have you been watching that star?"
Robin rolled her head to the side to look out. "There aren't any stars tonight. It's still clouded over from the thunderstorm."
"There's one really bright one," Charlie insisted. "Maybe the pecan tree is blocking your view. Here, sit up."
"Charlie," Robin protested as he pulled her out of bed.
"I want you to see it. It's so bright, and there are red and blue streamers coming down out of it."
"Oh, honey, listen to yourself. You must have been dreaming."
"I don't think so," Charlie said, but now that he thought about it, he wasn't so sure.
"If there's something in the sky trailing red and blue streamers, it's not a star."
"I guess you're right," he agreed reluctantly. "Maybe it was a satellite."
"Or a weather balloon." Robin giggled. "Isn't that what UFO's always turn out to be?"
"What the hell is a weather balloon anyway?"
Robin giggled again, more sleepily this time. "I have no idea." She turned over on her side. The cot springs squeaked. "Sweet dreams."
After a while Charlie opened his eyes again and looked up. The bright star was glittering through the screen. He started to tell Robin, but he didn't want to wake her if she had finally managed to get to sleep. Besides, he felt so peaceful and relaxed, he wasn't sure he could have spoken even if he tried. His arms and legs were light as feathers, and he seemed to be floating a few inches above the cot. The star spun lazily in the night sky, throwing out sparks that flared brilliantly before fading into the clouds.
Robin's right, he thought drowsily. How can that possibly be a star?
And even as he thought it, the ersatz star shot across the sky, zigzagging like a child's drawing of lightning, then flashed out of sight.
Charlie's eyes began to burn. He squeezed them shut, and was instantly asleep.
When he awoke next it was broad daylight outside. He sat bolt upright on the bed, cursing. "Goddamnit, I'm late for work. Robin, how could you have let me--"
His voice died in his throat. It wasn't dawn at all. The sky was still black, but a fierce white light poured out from the woods, silhouetting the tree trunks and throwing the objects on the porch into unnatural relief. The dogs cowered in the far corner, whimpering. Robin was sitting up, the sheet clutched to her neck.
"What's happening?" Charlie whispered harshly.
Robin shook herself as though she were awaking from a dream. She relaxed her grip on the sheets. "I don't know. Oh my God Charlie, I'm glad you're awake. What could possibly be going on out there?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. I don't know what it is. There's nothing --" He forced himself to shut up, and after taking a deep breath he swung his feet around to the floor and said calmly, "You know what it must be? The only thing that bright is the searchlight on a helicopter. It must be a helicopter up from Fort Benning."
Charlie thought she sounded on the verge of hysterics. "Well, what do you think it is? A weather balloon, maybe?"
"If it's a helicopter, why can't we hear anything?"
She was right. There was no sound at all, not even the whirring of summer insects. Everything was hushed and still. "It's landed," he announced, his voice shaking. "It must have landed in the old pasture on the other side of the woods."
"That doesn't make any sense. No one would set down so close to the bluff in the middle of the night."
"Then they must be in trouble," Charlie said stubbornly. There was enough light on the porch for him to see his boots sitting by the back door. He got up and pulled them on his bare feet.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"I'm going out there and see if they need any help."
"You're not going to do any such thing. Charlie, you know as well as I do there's no helicopter out there."
"Maybe you should go ahead and get the Volunteer Rescue Service on the phone. People may be hurt."
"Would you stop being a stubborn jackass and think about this for just one minute?"
Charlie knotted his shoelaces and stood up. "Wait here. I'll be right back." Unlatching the screen door, he stepped out into the night.
The back yard was so brilliantly lit every blade of grass stood out like a sword. Light bled through the green black leaves of the oaks and sycamores and leached past their dark trunks and branches, making them seem attenuated and alive, as though they might pull their roots out of the ground and come marching across the yard. There was no breeze at all. The air had the heavy, wet smell of a hot Georgia night after the rain. Charlie took another, more reluctant step towards the cold white light, and then understanding broke across him.
"Call the fire station!" he shouted hoarsely. "I think I can smell smoke. The woods are on fire."
A moment passed. Then Robin appeared in the back door. Her face was pallid in the light, but her voice was steady. "I can't call. The phone's out."
He considered their meager options. Then he started to run. He called over his shoulder, "I'm going to the barn. You get the dogs in the truck and drive around. We'll walk the horses out of here."
Robin had one hand over her mouth. She nodded quickly, then said, "Wouldn't it be better to drive straight to the Petersons and call the fire department from there?"
"Phones may be out all over the ridge. We can't risk it."
Then the lurid white light in the woods went out, as suddenly as someone flicking a switch, and Charlie was running full tilt through utter darkness. He skidded to a halt, stumbling over roots and stones, then turned around and around, looking for some remaining glimmer of light. But he could see nothing at all, no stars in the sky, not even the silhouette of trees against the clouds.
Robin was shouting across the yard to him, "What happened? Are you all right?"
"I can't see." He was surprised by how calm his voice sounded.
"The light went out. It must not have been a fire after all. Thank God."
He started to tell her that she didn't understand, but he broke off and said, "Turn on the porch light." He managed a short laugh. "I can't see a damn thing out here."
"Oh no, wouldn't you know it? The power's out too. Hold on just a minute. I'll get you a flashlight."
This was ridiculous. "I'm all right," Charlie asserted stoutly, and took a step in the direction of Robin's voice. A root grabbed his ankle and he fell heavily.
"Are you all right?" Robin called.
Charlie rolled over and got to his knees. Darkness still enfolded him like a blanket. He held his hand in front of his face and saw nothing at all.
"Are you all right?" Robin called again. Her voice sounded very far away.
"I'm all right," he lied, climbing carefully to his feet.
"Well, stop thrashing around in the dark before you hurt yourself," Robin said, relieved. "I'll bring you a flashlight in just a minute. There's one under the sink, isn't there?"
Charlie didn't answer her. If he listened very carefully, he could hear faint little sounds in the darkness, leaves rustling in the windless night. He tried to swallow but his mouth had gone dry. He took a cautious step in the direction of the house and found his way choked with underbrush. He must have strayed off the path somehow. He took a step back and turned. This direction, surely. His eyes were open so wide the muscles in his forehead were beginning to ache, but he could see nothing at all. He took one more step without mishap, then another. And then he blundered into the middle of a briar patch.
He swore and tried to back out again, but prickling vines raked across his bare chest and arms. He jerked himself away angrily. The tiny green thorns burned like needles. He groaned in exasperation and ran one hand cautiously across his belly. Dozens of embedded thorns stirred, thin as hairs. He'd be up the rest of the night picking them out. What a hell of a night this was turning out to be. What was he doing running around shirtless in the woods anyway?
"Robin! Found that flashlight yet?
She didn't answer him. She must still be in the kitchen looking for it. At any rate, running into the sticker bushes seemed to have cleared his head, and he remembered now that he'd put the flashlight in his tool chest. "Robin!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs.
Something moved in the darkness, so close that he felt the air stirring. He flung out his arm furiously. "Who is it? Who's there?"
One leaf brushed against another. A cold breath touched the back of his neck, shocking in the hot night air. He whirled around. "Goddamnit, what's going on?"
No answer. He held his breath, waiting. The silence went on so long that he began to relax.
But then something spoke in the darkness.
Charlie went rigid for an instant. Then he broke and ran. Branches slapped against his face and whipped around his legs. Fear closed his throat. He couldn't cry out. He could scarcely breathe.
Then he slammed into a tree.
The force of the impact staggered him. He stumbled back, his knees buckling, then collapsed on his back. He had been running with his eyes closed, and he kept them closed now, even when the sinister red light started to bleed through his lids.
He flung his arms over his face, whimpering. Small, warm hands touched him, and Robin said, "Have you lost your mind?"
He lowered his arms and opened his eyes. Robin crouched over him, anger and concern warring on her face. "What's the matter with you? You could have gone right over the bluff, running around in the dark like that."
"Do you hear it?"
Turn off the lamp for a minute."
She reached for the Eveready lantern sitting on the ground beside them and turned it off without a word.
"Now listen," Charlie insisted.
She remained obediently silent. An owl hooted softly in the distance. June bugs whirred. Robin slapped at a mosquito on her arm. Charlie turned his head from side to side, then looked skyward. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness after the glare of the lantern, he could see leaves dark against the clouds in the night sky.
He rolled over on his side and slowly pushed himself up. She didn't try to help him, asking only, "Can I turn the lamp on now?"
He turned it on himself. Robin's mouth was drawn into a tight, angry line. She took a deep breath to calm herself, then said, "Your face looks like you ran into a tree."
"I did, I think."
"Oh, sweetheart," she said, exasperated. She reached out and touched his scraped nose and cheek very gently. "What's the matter with you, running around like a chicken with its head cut off?"
"I'm all right."
She looked intently into his face. "What scared you so bad? Was it just thinking there was a fire?"
He was suddenly on the verge of tears, and he hugged Robin close so she wouldn't see. She stroked his back and said, "Let's get you off to bed. I've had enough of your manly prerogative for one night."
The power was back on, and Robin had lights blazing all over the house. Charlie submitted meekly while she washed his cuts with soap and water. Then he sat on the edge of the bathtub so she could dig thorns out of his chest with a needle. The dogs pattered eagerly in and out of the bathroom, excited by the change in routine. Max laid his head on Charlie's knee, whimpering for attention. Robin shooed him away, but Honey Child took his place a moment later. Robin sighed and gave Charlie the needle.
"I'm going to feed these mutts breakfast just to get them out of our hair."
Charlie nodded. He knew she was waiting for him to explain what had happened to him out in the woods. She returned at length, saying, "That should take care of the babies for a little while."
Charlie smiled. "But now they're going to expect breakfast at three a.m. every morning."
Robin didn't smile back. She picked up the needle and went to work on a particularly deep thorn embedded just beneath his collar bone.
"Ow," he complained at last. "Can't we just leave that one?"
"Not after I've been digging around for it. It's likely to fester. Besides, you deserve to suffer a little after scaring me half to death like that."
The corners of her mouth turned down, and she attacked the thorn with renewed viciousness.
He covered both her hands with one of his and pushed them away from his chest. "I heard something while I was out there in the woods."
"What was it? A helicopter like you thought?"
"No." Charlie held her hand tightly in his.
"There was a voice."
Robin's expression changed. "My God, Charlie, you mean there really is someone in the woods? Why aren't the dogs barking?"
"It wasn't a person."
"I don't understand. What did you hear?"
"I can't put it in words, exactly. But it knew me. It knew I was alone out there. It knew how scared I was."
Robin rested her forehead against Charlie's without speaking, and Charlie was reminded all over again of how much he loved her. At length he said, "Remember how my dad always used to talk about the devil?"
She raised her head and smiled a little. "He called him the Old Boy. The Old Boy spoiled the hay or lamed the horse or sent a late frost to freeze the butter beans."
"Well you know something, hon? Maybe Dad knew what he was talking about."
CHAPTER TWO: Los Angeles, California, Three Years Ago
Arthur was beginning to wonder how he had ever allowed Colin to talk him into coming to a Russ Meyer film festival. "This is embarrassing," he complained, looking around at the crowd spilling into the lobby.
Colin had just returned from the refreshment stand where two students were dispensing coffee in styrofoam cups. "What's embarrassing? You enjoyed Faster Pussycat as much as I did. I heard you laughing."
"The only people here besides film students are the aging queens."
Colin grinned. "I wouldn't presume to guess where you fall in that grim system, but some of our fellow film students are pretty hot. Have you noticed?"
"I'm trying not to."
"Please, Arthur. We're all getting tired of your lonely bachelor act."
"Then I'll try to be more entertaining," Arthur said dryly.
"Good. You can start by checking out those three young studs over there. Especially the blonde."
Since Arthur resolutely refused to look, Colin egged him on with glee. "I know you're trying to be dignified these days, but I'm telling you, that blonde kid is just your type."
Arthur finally turned. He was still staring when the kid turned around and caught him. The boy's eyes were wide and blue as the sky, and a carefully trained lock of blonde hair hung down over his beautiful brow. For an instant he seemed faintly startled, but then a wicked grin spread across his face. He leaned over to say something to his two companions. Arthur quickly turned away. He could hear the three of them laughing from across the lobby.
"Can we please go back to our seats now?
"I want to finish my coffee first," Colin said innocently. "Besides, Blue Boy's coming this way."
"Oh God is right. How come you always have all the luck? You know what I think it is? These beautiful children all saw Brideshead Revisited at an impressionable age, and they just can't wait to play Sebastian to your Charles Ryder."
"Spare me this, please."
"Not a chance. Turn around, Arthur. Be civil, at least."
Arthur turned reluctantly. The blonde kid was indeed coming their way, smiling with the insufferable self-assurance of the very young and lovely. The strap on his backpack pulled his t-shirt tight across his chest, distorting the silk-screened image of Dick Tracy locked in a passionate embrace with Clark Kent.
"So," he said, as though he'd known Arthur and Colin all his life. "This is pretty cool, isn't it? You like Russ Meyer?"
Colin clapped Arthur on the back and said heartily, "Arthur's a big fan. My name's Colin. I didn't catch yours."
"Nice to meet you, Marc. I was just telling Arthur that Roger Ebert was supposed to show up for the screening of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls later on. Maybe I'll go see if he's arrived yet."
"Colin--" Arthur pleaded.
"If I don't see you after intermission I'll get a ride home with Ted and Louis," Colin announced blandly. "Nice meeting you Marc." And he disappeared into the crowd.
Marc was still grinning broadly. "So do you really like Russ Meyer?" he asked Arthur. "Or did you come to the movies with your friend there just so he could have the fun of embarrassing you in public?"
Arthur relaxed and smiled back. "I do like Meyer, in a sentimental sort of way. I remember sneaking off to see Mudhoney at the Bijou when it was the closest thing my home town had to a porn theater."
"Riverbend. It's a little town in north Georgia."
Marc laughed. "No wonder you left. How long have you been in L.A.?"
"It must be fifteen years now."
"So what was it like growing up in Riverbend? Were there any other little queer boys to play with?"
Arthur raised an eyebrow at him, then said, "I was lucky. My boyfriend lived a couple of farms over."
"You grew up on a farm?"
"Just a big house out in the country."
"And did you and your boyfriend go see the dirty movies together?"
"I went by myself. I must have been what, sixteen, seventeen? And the real reason I went to the Bijou was because the high school guys were always telling jokes about fags in the men's room."
"And you went hoping that the jokes were true?"
"Something like that. I didn't think it out very clearly."
"And you didn't take your boyfriend with you." Marc's eyes shone with amusement. "So were they?"
"Were they what?"
"The fag jokes. Any truth in them?"
"Probably, but I'll never know for sure."
"I chickened out."
"Oh no," Marc snorted. "What a wuss."
"You want to know what really happened?" As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Arthur thought, of course he doesn't want to know. Why should this kid possibly care?
But Marc grinned at him so happily that Arthur felt a sudden, dangerous pang of emotion. "Hah, I knew it," Marc said. "There's a story after all. C'mon, spill it. What happened?"
"The Bijou was one of those movie palaces built in the twenties. To get to the bathrooms you had to go out to the lobby and walk down a winding marble staircase."
"I'm picturing Rhett and Scarlett, right?"
"I got as far as the head of the stairs and looked over the banister, and who did I see going into the men's room but Taylor Starke." Arthur smiled thinly. "Taylor was a campus deity. Football, president of the student council. Even the straight boys were in love with him."
"So the Big Man on Campus was queer," Marc said, grinning. "What an opportunity. What did you do?"
"I got out of there as fast as I could and never went back. If Taylor had seen me it would have been all over school by the next day."
"No way. Why would this Taylor guy have told anyone that he saw you there? He'd be digging his own grave."
"He would have told everyone so that he could look like straight trade. Otherwise, I might tell everyone first, and then he'd be the one getting the shit kicked out of him under the bleachers after the next football game. Back then Brighton was still a military academy."
"Military? You mean with uniforms and stuff?"
"I was squad sergeant my senior year."
"Oh man. What were you doing in a place like that? Were you some sort of juvenile delinquent?"
Arthur shrugged. "It was a good school, and it was close to home. My parents only wanted what was best for me."
Marc rolled his eyes. "Jee-zus. How come you didn't end up a schizo closet case, coming from a background like that?"
"How do you know I'm not?"
"Somehow I don't think you'd be standing here talking to me."
Arthur smiled. "It's like I told you, I was lucky enough to have a steady boyfriend for years. Even though we kept the way we felt a secret, having Charlie all that time, I never felt alone."
"Charlie, was it? Sounds like a real good ole boy to me."
"I think the poets are wrong. I don't think being in love makes you crazy. I think it can keep you sane."
Marc snorted. "I wouldn't know about that." He indicated the cup of coffee Arthur was holding, still untasted. "The coffee in this place sucks. You want to get out of here and find something decent to drink?"
Marc crossed Arthur's living room, opened the French doors to the balcony and stepped out. "Nice view."
"Glad you like it."
"Oh yeah, it's great. I know I'd love to be able to look down on Wilshire Boulevard any time of the day or night."
When he stepped in off the balcony, Marc's eye was drawn by the ranks of identically bound volumes on the bookshelves. "What's all this?" He walked over and began reading off titles. "Journals of the Boston Society for Psychic Research. Journal of the British Society for Paranormal Research and Review. Annals of the Ghosthunters Club, 1848 through 1912. What, these are all ghost stories?"
"More or less."
Marc took down one of the older volumes and flipped through. "Weird." He put the book back. "So, you got a beer or something?"
"I think so." Arthur went to the kitchen. When he came back, a bottle of Dos Equis in each hand, Marc was no longer in the living room. Arthur wandered back through the condominium and found him in the bedroom, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed.
"This mattress is hard as a rock."
"Sorry you don't like it."
"Picked up by a rich guy like you, I at least expect a comfortable bed."
"With lace pillow shams? Flocked wall paper?"
"I didn't say that." Marc came close to apologizing. "But I wouldn't have minded." He leaned back against the headboard, and clasped his hands behind his head. "So what are you waiting for?"
Arthur felt a pang of misgiving. For all I know he makes a hobby of this, he thought morbidly. Or this is the way he's putting himself through school.
But then Marc smiled at him, and Arthur abruptly decided that he didn't give a damn either way. In the morning he would have his life back, safe and sane as before.
But afterwards, he knew he had been wrong.
Oh damn, he thought, still shivering and breathing hard. How could I have been so stupid? Oh damn. Marc's head was buried between Arthur's neck and shoulder, and he was panting and trying to swallow back his sobs. Every puff of his breath raised goose bumps down Arthur's back.
After a moment, Arthur realized that he was actually crying. He tried awkwardly to reach back to him, but Marc only knocked his arm away and rolled to the other side of the bed. When Arthur turned, he caught a glimpse of red eyes and flushed cheeks before Marc buried his head in the pillows.
"Are you all right?"
"Fuck you," Marc snarled in a muffled voice.
Marc turned violently, trying to disentangle himself from the sheets, and his elbow hit Arthur's cheek with a crack Arthur felt all the way down his spine.
"Oh Christ." Marc clambered furiously out of bed, leaving the condom leaking its contents on the sheets. Arthur didn't say a word as Marc pulled on his shirt and jeans, stuffed his underwear into a back pocket and stalked out.
Good, Arthur thought. Let him go.
He listened for the front door to slam, but it never did, and after a little while he got out of bed, picked up the two beers, and carried them into the living room. Marc was sitting on the sofa watching MTV, and he smiled cautiously as Arthur came in. "One of those for me?"
Arthur held a bottle out to him.
"Thanks." He took a sip of the lukewarm beer and his smile broadened a little. "The service around here is great. I especially like the head waiter's outfit."
Arthur sat down on the sofa beside Marc. The leather was cool and slightly sticky under his bare thighs.
"Did I do that?" Marc touched the side of Arthur's face.
"It's all right."
"Man, I'm sorry." He held the beer bottle against Arthur's cheek for a moment. "Does that help? Want me to get some ice for you?"
Arthur pushed the bottle away and lifted Marc's free hand to his cheek instead. "This feels better."
Marc stroked the side of his face. "I don't think I ever socked anyone before."
"Maybe I just bring out the best in you."
"You sure bring out something." Marc drained half his beer in a swallow and set the bottle on the coffee table. "I take it back about the great service. This beer is warm."
"Want a cold one out of the fridge?"
"No" He put his hands on Arthur's shoulders and eased him back until he was lying full length on the sofa. He crouched over him, smiling the smile that tore Arthur apart every time. "Let me show you what I want."
CHAPTER 3: Today
The storm began as a hard, steady patter on the roof of the little rental car, and by the time Arthur was an hour north of Atlanta, rain was pouring across the windshield in sheets. His wipers splashed ineffectually through the flood. Water flumed high from under the wheels of passing cars and splatted against the sides and windows. Eighteen-wheelers came roaring up behind him out of the mist and rain, their lights blinding in his rear-view mirror, changing lanes to pass him at the last possible moment. The tail lights of other cars drew red streaks across the windshield.
He was tempted to get off at the next exit and spend the night in a motel, but he was only an hour from home. Besides, the rain probably wouldn't continue for much longer. He could see a long slash of red in the western sky, glistening like a wound through the lowering clouds. For a moment the farmland sprawled out beyond the freeway lay revealed in dark silhouette, rolling pastures, a stand of pine trees, the solitary barn high on a hill.
Then the heavens opened up, and the car shuddered under the torrential impact. Arthur could see nothing but water smashing headlong into the windshield, and an abstract pattern of red and white lights, murky as the illumination at the bottom of a swimming pool. A moment before he had been stiflingly hot. Now he was shivering with cold, but reluctant to take his hand off the steering wheel to fumble with the unfamiliar controls.
What a hell of a drive. If he'd only left a few hours earlier he would have missed the storm completely. But when he voiced his intention of leaving before lunch, Marc's eyes had gotten big with disappointment. "I thought we were going to have all day Sunday together."
"We'll have Sunday morning. And I'm a little anxious to finally get home."
"And away from me?" Marc asked pitifully.
So Arthur stayed until Marc was ready to let him go, having a late breakfast in the coffee house just down the street from Marc's new place. Arthur thought the restaurant was charming, set as it was in a converted Victorian manor. Marc thought the menu was pretentious, their fellow diners even worse. "Jeez," he muttered, hunched down over his Spanish omelet. "I might as well be back in Beverly Hills." He picked up the leaf of arugula garnishing the omelet. "And what the hell is this? I hate it when they put stuff on your plate that they know you're not going to eat."
"It's a kind of lettuce. It's good. Bitter."
"Bleh," Marc announced without tasting it, and threw it onto Arthur's plate. "You eat it then."
After breakfast they walked to the park. The skies were threatening rain, but the summer had been dry and hot, and the leaves on the dogwood trees were changing early, glowing russet against the golden hillside of dead grass. Arthur felt sentimental and a little sad. He hadn't seen the leaves change in Georgia in nearly twenty years. "I remember coming down here on a high school field trip once," he told Marc, pointing across the lake to the amphitheater carved out of a low hillside. "We saw an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Marc grinned. "You mean they bussed a load of military cadets all the way down from Riverbend just to watch fairies cavorting on the green?"
Arthur smiled back, pleased that Marc's sour mood was finally beginning to lift. "Now that you mention it, our senior English teacher was fairly progressive."
"I bet. Did you ever run into him in the men's room of the Bijou?"
"I can't believe you remember that old story."
Marc's grin faded. He turned slowly around, looking at the sloping hillsides, then down at the lake. A white pagoda stood on a spit of land extending out into the water. A couple sat there together. The surface of the lake was gray, but the wind was kicking up rivulets of white as it whistled across.
"Oh man," Marc said softly. He pulled his jacket tight around his throat. "What's winter going to be like?"
"Colder than Los Angeles, I'm afraid."
"Man oh man. What am I doing here?"
"Having second thoughts about this neighborhood?" Arthur asked, with a sinking heart. Marc had spent a week trying decide whether he should live close to school, or in an area of Atlanta with more character than the grad school ghettoes. He'd chosen this apartment near Piedmont Park only after days of his worried indecision had driven Arthur to the point of distraction.
"Not the neighborhood. I mean my whole life. Is this really what I want to be doing?"
"Marc, I had no idea." Arthur was surprised and concerned. "You always seemed so sure about this. Med school, everything."
Marc shook his head irritably. "I am. Pretty sure, anyway." He looked around again. "Maybe I just didn't know how different Atlanta was going to be."
"In the restaurant you were complaining that it was just like L.A."
"Look at this place. You know who I expect to come over the hill there?"
"Maria von Trapp?"
"No, smartass. I was thinking of what's-his-face in Wuthering Heights."
"Like in the Kate Bush song."
"If I'm not mistaken, there was a book too."
"Jerk," Marc said mildly. He was gazing up at the Atlanta skyline beyond the hills. "I mean, it just seems like it's gonna get really cold and lonely before spring comes, you know?"
Arthur let his hand rest briefly on the small of Marc's back. "But you're not alone."
"You're going to be way the hell up in Riverbend. It's not the same."
"It's only two hours away. We'll have weekends together."
"Things are probably going to get pretty hectic for me. I don't know if I'll be able to get away every week."
"I know. But I can come down to Atlanta too."
"I hope this big move back home wasn't just because of me," Marc suddenly snapped. "I never asked you to come with me, you know."
"What's the matter with you? We talked about this for months."
"I just don't want you to think this means we're married now or some crap like that."
Arthur looked away. All the time they'd been together, and some things never changed. Marc still lashed out at the nearest target whenever he was on edge. For the past three years it had been Arthur's privilege to be the one most often in the line of fire.
"Besides," Marc went on in a different tone of voice, "I don't want you blaming me if things don't work out for you on the old homestead. You've told me about a million times how much you hated that place as a kid. What makes you think you'll like it any better this time around?"
And Arthur finally got it. "I'll be fine, baby. But what about you? Are you trying to tell me that the only reason you picked Emory was because of me?"
Marc took a deep breath. "Nah, don't flatter yourself. Emory's the best school I got into, hands down. None of the other places can touch it in cardiology. I guess I'm just scared that if things don't work out, I'll end up sitting around all by myself in that little apartment in the dead of winter, blaming everything on you. I really don't want to do that."
"But you blame everything on me anyway."
"Screw you." Marc feinted a punch at Arthur's jaw, then danced out of range. "Come on. Let's go a couple of times around the lake."
"Not after that heavy breakfast."
"That's exactly why you need to run." Marc circled him, goading him on. "Work that cholesterol out of your system now, or the first time one of your family ghosts shows up, you're liable to drop dead of a heart attack."
The rain was coming down so hard, and the night was so dark that Arthur nearly missed his exit. But once he was off the freeway, the rain finally began to let up, and the road to Riverbend was as familiar as the back of his hand. He had spent a weekend with his parents nearly two years ago, but besides that brief visit, he hadn't been home in eighteen years. Now there were huge discount stores and strip malls on land that had been forest and pasture when Arthur was a boy, and a cluster of fast-food restaurants near the freeway exit.
The closer he got to the center of town, though, the fewer changes he found. By the time he reached the square, he had the strange sensation that he might have slipped back to his boyhood after all. The Civil War memorial was generously lit, wet marble and brass gleaming under the floodlights. The courthouse across the square was dark. Arthur circled the square once, trying to decide whether this strange pressure on his chest was pleasure or pain. The hardware store was still there, and the Masonic lodge, and the First Baptist Church, proud of its location in the center of town. There were never enough places to park on Sunday mornings, so Arthur's father had always made them arrive half an hour early.
Remembering those long, quiet minutes alone waiting for the teacher and the other children to arrive, Arthur realized now that he had rather enjoyed the solitude. He could vividly recall the smell of chalk and paste, the wax on the floor, and the pungent cherry-scented disinfectant in the nursery. And he had loved the felt-board stories, cloth figures posed on a flat, brown expanse of felt that represented the Holy Land. Being alone those Sunday mornings he could study the tableau as long as he wanted. Adam and Eve, Jacob and Easau, Joseph and his brothers, Ruth and Naomi. The men all had beards and gentle brown eyes. The women were lovely and mild, with downcast eyes and long straight hair. Even Delilah modestly covered her head.
There was only one road up the ridge, a two-lane highway that ascended from downtown Riverbend in a series of steep switchbacks. The rental car groaned at the unexpected strain on its engine. The rain had stopped, but with the higher elevation, the cloud cover grew increasingly heavy. Arthur rounded a particularly steep curve, and was suddenly engulfed. The headlights shone into a bank of fog like a blank, white wall. When he switched to the low beams, he was just able to see the white line on the side of the road. It was better than nothing. He slowed to a crawl, hoping that the road would eventually ascend beyond the clouds, butthe fog only seemed to grow thicker.
He soon lost all sense of time and direction creeping through this perpetual, unchanging present. He thought he should have reached the summit long ago, but no, here was another switchback. A dull sense of panic prickled up the back of his neck. Had he gotten lost somehow? In the old days there had been no turnoffs along the ridge highway, but who knew what changes might have come about in eighteen years? Every mile he drove might be taking him further from home, and in this choking fog he would have no chance to get his bearings before he ran out of gas on the side of a mountain somewhere in the wilds of North Georgia.
Maybe Marc was right after all, and this whole thing was a terrible mistake. Why should he think he would be happy in Georgia after spending almost half his life in L.A.? Arthur deliberately considered worst-case scenarios. He would lose Marc to some hot med student and be stuck out here, alone and miserable, counting the months until the lease on his condominium ran out, and he could return to Los Angeles. Thank God he hadn't sold the place. There was still an escape route if everything turned out as badly as he suddenly feared it might.
In the midst of his gloomy imaginings, he finally glanced down at the clock on the dashboard. Not five minutes had passed since he'd first driven into the fog.
He whistled a few notes of the Twilight Zone theme, but his voice sounded lonely and unnaturally loud within the confines of the little car. He turned on the radio. The only programs on the air tonight were religious. He dialed past an entire gauntlet of preachers, from a fire and brimstone Pentecostal raving about the whore of Babylon, to an Episcopalian minister engaged in a mild discussion of loaves and fishes. The only music he found was an organ recital.
Long, wispy tendrils of fog reached out of the darkness for him, flattened against the windshield in frustration, trailed along the length of the car and then disappeared into the darkness behind him. Arthur realized he was glancing too frequently up at his rear view mirror, and forced himself to stop. It might be a comfort to meet another car on this lonely road, but then again, he wasn't sure he wanted to look up and see a set of pale headlights following silently behind.
He turned the radio dial past the dreary organ music and found another preacher.
"An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign, and there shall be no sign given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonah. My brethren, now is the time to remember Jesus's warning! For he told us, that when ye see the abomination of desolation standing where it ought not, then those that be in Judea should flee to the mountains. Friends, you know the abomination has been seen, and time is growing short."
Arthur left the dial where it was, trying to figure out why the radio preacher's voice sounded so familiar.
"You have all heard of the signs and wonders that the faithful and unbelievers alike have seen on Sickle Ridge.
Good heavens, Arthur thought. That's Reverend Humphrey. It must be.
"Know ye that the Lord your God will not forever suffer the wickedness of this generation. Remember the locusts which were foretold in the final days. The shapes of the locusts will be like horses prepared for battle, and on their heads will be crowns like gold, and their faces will be like the faces of men, and the sound of their wings like the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle."
The Reverend Humphrey had been the pastor at Arthur's church for years, but his preaching had finally become too impassioned for the staid tastes of Riverbend's first families, and he had been replaced by a more decorous man of God. Arthur had never known what had happened to Humphrey. Evidently he had found another church. Or at least a radio station.
"A wicked and adulterous generation has received its sign! My friends, you can go out to Sickle Ridge yourself if, like Thomas, you must put your hand in Jesus' side before you will believe."
What signs? Arthur wondered, interested and bemused. The fog bank, perhaps? But he lost the radio signal at the next switchback.
A light appeared up ahead, glowing dimly through the fog. Arthur drew up beside it and stopped, relieved to come across some sign of civilization.
"Ridge Manor Estates" read the flood-lit billboard. "Coming soon. Gracious Colonial Style Living Amid The Scenic Splendor of Sickle Ridge."
Nothing about signs and wonders, Arthur thought wryly. At least he knew he was headed in the right direction now.
During the last five miles across the top of the ridge a wind blew up, shredding the fog. He slowed down as he passed the gate that led to Charlie's farm, before remembering that Charlie didn't live here anymore. The last Arthur had heard, he had a house up in Fort Oglethorpe, and only came out to the farm occasionally to give his father a hand.
Arthur drove resolutely on. He was almost home.
A light was shining in the gate house at the outer perimeter of the estate. The pine forests loomed on either side of the driveway. Arthur drove very slowly, not trusting himself to remember every serpentine curve after all these years.
Then the trees fell away. The house was only a blacker shadow in the surrounding night, the lit windows bright, square holes punched in the darkness. He pulled slowly around the circle drive to the front door, then turned off the engine. The evening was utterly still. Taking a deep breath, he got out of the car. The sound of the door slamming was soft and brief, quickly lost. Arthur walked up the steps and crossed the porch. A thin layer of water from the earlier rain still stood on the marble tiles, splashing under the soles of his shoes. He knocked rather than ringing the bell. He had no desire to hear those gloomy chimes.
A long time seemed to pass while he waited. He was about to knock again when he heard footsteps crossing the foyer. The door was flung open by a man with luminous brown eyes and a foolishly handsome face.
"You're Arthur," he said, then smiled beautifully. "Welcome home."
CHAPTER 4: Signs and Wonders
The hunting trophies were gone. The man with the beautiful smile saw Arthur looking at the bare place on the wall, and his smile became a little sheepish. "Dennis and I carried that deer head up to one of the third story bedrooms. It was beginning to give us the creeps." His voice matched his face, a sweet Georgia drawl that dropped final consonants and exaggerated vowels. He quickly added, "We were real careful with it. We packed it in mothballs and calcium chloride to keep the damp out."
"It wouldn't have bothered me if you'd just pitched it out in the woods. You're Gavin, right?"
His luminous eyes sparkled. "Where are my manners? Gavin Edders. It's such a pleasure to finally meet you. I suppose this whole thing is a real head trip for you, isn't it? Does the house look very different?"
"No. Not different enough, really."
Arthur's parents had sold or packed away all their personal items before the move, but the furniture was still in place. The vast, dark pieces of oak and cherry seemed to swallow up the new tenants' bright, diminutive possessions.
Gavin was rummaging through the drawers in an old writing desk. Arthur remembered his mother doing household accounts here occasionally, but most of time the desk had served as a pedestal for tremendous sprays of hothouse flowers. Now it supported a little black fax machine and several extra rolls of paper.
"I've got the guest house key for you right here, somewhere," Gavin assured Arthur. "I set it aside special so that I wouldn't lose it, so of course now I can't find it when I need it." He struggled to open the bottom drawer. "Everything sticks when it's humid like this." The drawer finally came open. "Ah, here we go. Found it." He held up the oversized skeleton key. "I don't know, you might want to get a modern lock for the door."
"There's not much to lock out around here, is there?"
"Guess not. Do you need any help with your bags?"
"No, thank you." Arthur turned the key in his hands. "I did want say that I understand how awkward this whole situation is. You didn't plan on having me on the property when you signed the lease."
"It's not a problem," Gavin insisted. "This is your home after all."
"So if I'm ever in the way," Arthur continued, "or you just feel like you're seeing too much of me, please let me know. My parents don't want to lose you as a tenant. Neither do I." Arthur suddenly smiled. "Because then I might have to move back here for good."
Gavin smiled back. "I'm sure things will work out just fine. But I do have the strangest feeling. It's like I've wandered onto the set of one of those old BBC sitcoms with Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles."
Arthur laughed. "I know. I'm sorry."
"Don't be. Everthing's going to be fine. And please don't hesitate to ask if you need anything at all. Dennis--my roommate--is in Atlanta this weekend, and he'll be coming up tomorrow or Tuesday."
"I look forward to meeting him. My lover Marc lives in Atlanta now," Arthur said levelly. "So I'm curious to know how the commute has worked out for you."
"Oh," said Gavin. He smiled. "Then I suppose there's not really much point in keeping the separate bedrooms made up anymore, is there?"
"It's up to you, but I wasn't planning to check up on your sleeping arrangements."
"You're the only one who hasn't. The first few months after Dennis and I moved in, I swear we had people stopping by practically every weekend to see the new tenants of Drake House."
"And since they brought you a casserole or a pound cake to welcome you to the ridge, they felt entitled to a tour of the house."
"I'm really not complaining. People around here are so neighborly I feel guilty saying anything bad about them." Gavin looked faintly worried just the same. "And now I suppose they'll all be coming back since you've moved home again."
"Just send them around to the guest house. You don't even have to be civil."
"Maybe we'll keep the extra bedroom made up just the same," Gavin said, following Arthur back to the front door. "I'll be honest about the commute. It's not turning out quite like we hoped. We still have to keep an apartment in Atlanta for weekends like this when one or the other of us doesn't have time to get away. But I suppose it's worth a little inconvenience to live in this showplace for a few years." He looked back across the great hall and up the main staircase. "You were very fortunate to grow up here."
Arthur only said, "Thank you again for waiting up for me." Then he wished Gavin goodnight, crossed the front drive and got into his car, relieved to be outside. Gavin seemed pleasant enough, but during the whole of their conversation, Arthur had felt the house pressing down all around them like a great, brooding weight. Gavin evidently didn't notice. Arthur couldn't imagine he and Dennis would still be here if the house affected them like it always had him.
The driveway curved around to the back of the main house, forking at the carriage house. Arthur continued down the hill, pulling up at length before the old servants' quarters. Gavin had seen to it that the porch light was on. A pool of yellow light illuminated the facade of mountain stone, a cheerful contrast to the cold, chiseled limestone of the main house.
The atmosphere within the little cabin was cold and damp, but after searching around for a few minutes, Arthur found the thermostat and turned it up. A reassuring blast of warmth rattled the vents, and the faint smell of mildew began to dissipate. His parents had remodeled the servants' quarters into a guest house twenty-five years ago, and it looked to Arthur as though none of the furniture had been replaced since then. The living room suite was constructed of wide, square planks of knotty pine, now yellowing as the varnish aged. The breakfast bar was covered in gold-flecked Formica, and the appliances were all avocado green.
The living room, kitchen and bedroom all together would have fit in the great hall of the main house with room to spare. The old-fashioned wooden siding on the walls and ceiling was comfortable and homey. The furniture might be a quarter of a century out of date, but at least it wasn't ageless like those gloomy antiques in the house up the drive.
Logs were heaped in the little stone fireplace. Arthur thought a fire would be nice on such a bleak, foggy evening, but when he looked more closely, he found that the logs were ceramic, and that they concealed gas jets. He smiled. Up in the main house his parents had painstaking preserved everything just as it had been in his grandmother's day. But out here they had evidently permitted themselves to enjoy the luxury of a little convenience.
He lit the gas jets. The faint hiss of the flame wasn't very romantic, but the glow in the fireplace was reassuringly cheerful and bright.
Arthur slept badly that night. He awoke more than once, and the last time he woke, the bedroom was stuffy and too warm. He pushed back the blanket, wondering whether it was worth the trouble of getting up to turn down the thermostat.
Then he realized someone was outside his window.
He lay perfectly still, but he couldn't control his breathing. He heard himself panting hard and quick, as though there weren't enough oxygen in the room. It's only Gavin, he told himself nonsensically. Gavin's standing outside my bedroom window in the middle of the night in the pouring rain.
There was a cold pressure above Arthur's breastbone that he recognized as the paralysis of fear. In spite of all the time that had passed, little had changed since his childhood after all.
And suddenly the little bedroom was full of light flickering across the walls. My god, Arthur thought. The house is on fire.
He jumped out of bed and ran into the living room, convinced that the gas jets in the fireplace had started a blaze. There were lights in the living room too, dancing along the walls, bright and irregular as a candle guttering in a draft. But he didn't smell smoke, and he realized belatedly the fire must be outside. Out in the woods, or God forbid, up at the main house. He flung open the front door. There were no lights at all up at the big house. The yard was dark, as were the woods. Rain pattered down steadily. After another moment of hesitation, he turned on the porch light. The yellow light didn't penetrate far into the mist that had drifted up the ridge.
He stopped to put on his shoes, then walked around the house, ducking his head against the rain. The ground dropped away sharply at the back of the house, and the slope was covered with ivy. Wet leaves brushed against his ankles. There was no one here, of course, and no sign of fire. He noticed, almost as an afterthought, that the bedroom window was some twelve feet up. No one could have been standing there.
Arthur was out early the next morning, and as he was driving past the carriage house he saw Gavin coming down the walk, carrying a tremendous umbrella with Magritte's cats and dogs raining across it. Arthur stopped the car and wished him good morning.
"I don't know about that," Gavin pretended to complain, though he was smiling. "I've had about enough of this rain. I have to drive down to Atlanta this morning, and I was really hoping it would clear up by today. Where are you off to in such rotten weather?"
"To get a cup of coffee, first of all."
"Oh, you don't have to go out just for that. Here, I'll leave you the key and you can go up to the kitchen and help yourself."
"I'm going to town anyway. I've got an invitation to the art festival. Rivercraft. I thought it would be a nice thing to do on my first day back home."
"Good for you. Get some early Christmas shopping in, right? Dennis and I were planning to go on Saturday." Then Gavin's face fell. "But Arthur, I'm afraid I've got some bad news for you. The first day is only for sponsors. I don't think they're going to let the general public in until this weekend."
Arthur held up his invitation, feeling a little sheepish. "My parents are sponsors."
"Oh, of course they are." Gavin hit his forehead. "Why would I have thought you could do anything in this town without inviting the Drakes?"
"It's a little embarrassing. At least in Los Angeles nobody knew the family name." And then, even though he hadn't meant to say anything about the previous night, Arthur suddenly asked, "Have you had any problems with trespassers lately?"
"Trespassers? Really? Your parents warned me that sometimes you get hunters out in the woods, but I've never seen any sign of them. Why? Did you hear something last night?"
"Wait a minute. Wait a minute." Gavin looked sharply at Arthur from under his umbrella, then a smile spread across his face. "Don't tell me it's true after all."
"If what's true?"
"The stories Dennis and I hear. From the shop people down in Riverbend. From the folks who used to come by when we first moved in. Everyone says this old place is haunted. They say the real reason the only son of Drake House went to California was to get away from the ghosts."
Arthur stared straight ahead through the windshield.
"Oh Lord. I'm sorry, Arthur. I'm a real jackass sometimes."
Arthur shook his head. "It's all right."
"I've got no business repeating that sort of bullshit to you. Dennis is always telling me to watch my big mouth before it gets me into real trouble some day. It's too late, isn't it? Oh god, Dennis is going to kill me. You haven't even been here twenty-four hours, and I've already managed to say something unforgivable."
"Forget it." Arthur finally managed to smile. "The truth is, it wouldn't surprise me if my parents started the stories themselves. They must have decided a haunted house is easier to explain than a faggot son."
CHAPTER 5: The Arts
The Rivercraft festival was held every year in a county park above the TVA dam. By the time Arthur had found a parking spot on the far side of the Ranger's Station and hiked up the hillside the rain had subsided somewhat, but water still rolled off the trees and dripped noisily on the canvas tents and plastic sheeting. A mist clung to the ground and shrouded the underbrush. Bright plastic banners were strung along the path, pointing the way through the woods.
One potter had set up his wares in the open. Water droplets glistened on ceramic urns and pooled in the bottom of darkly glazed punch bowls. The potter himself sat in the midst of his goods, his long dark hair tangled and damply curling, his blue overalls soaked almost black. He eyed Arthur so mournfully that Arthur hurried past without stopping even though some of his pottery was beautiful. Further down the path a woman who worked in stained glass had optimistically suspended a quantity of suncatchers from the branches of a dogwood tree. In the misty gray light, the colors of the glass were muted and dull.
Arthur followed the path deeper into the woods. Straw had been scattered thickly over the mud that squelched underfoot. Bright plastic bunting was draped from tree to tree. Under a blue awning supported by metal poles was an assortment of furniture made from cross-sections of cypress logs, honey-colored and glowing under half an inch of varnish. Arthur paused to run his fingers along the glossy surface of a three-legged coffee table. A piece or two of this furniture scattered around his living room, and the old servants' quarters would be virtually indistinguishable from the House of the Seven Dwarves.
"Beautiful work, isn't it?" demanded a hearty voice. "Look at that craftsmanship. You can't hardly find work like that anymore."
"It's very nice," Arthur agreed politely.
"I see you like the coffee table there. I've got a few more in the van that I haven't unloaded yet. If you want to see them, I'd be just happy as I could be to bring them out for you."
"Thank you, but no, that's really not necessary." Arthur began to inch away, but the salesman planted himself firmly in front of him.
"I've even got a dining room table. Now that's an impressive piece of work, I can tell you that right now. Seats six people, and the table-top carved from a single piece of wood. It's back here behind these beautiful rocking chairs. Why don't you step around and give it a look?"
Arthur smiled. "Mr. Burch, my father always told me that you could have made a living selling walk-in freezers to Eskimos."
The other man's bushy white eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Why I'm as sorry as I can be, but I can't call your name right off."
"It's been a long time. I'm Arthur. Frank and April's son."
"Oh my good Lord. Arthur boy. Are you a sight for sore eyes." He shook Arthur's hand vigorously. "When I heard that Frank and April was moving, I said to Ida, Ida I bet you anything you like that Arthur will be coming home now to take care of the old place. Looks like I should have made that bet, don't it? My goodness, Arthur, how are you doing?"
"I'm fine. It's good to be home."
"I bet it is. I just bet it is. How are your folks? Are they enjoying retirement?"
"The last time I spoke to them they sounded very happy. I think they like not having the responsibility of the big house anymore. And Mother has always loved the sea."
"Imagine that. I would dearly love to be able to take Ida somewhere nice, but honest salesmen just don't make that kinda money."
Arthur could feel his smile beginning to wear a little thin. "So are you still at Phipps Chevrolet, Mr. Burch?"
"No, no, they retired me years ago. That's when I took up furniture making." Mr. Burch's washed-out blue eyes turned crafty. "But call me Billy, Arthur. Call me Billy. Are you sure you're not interested in this table? I bet it would look real fine in that big old dining room of Drake House."
"I'm sure you're right. But you know, Grandmother's table is still in the house. I'm not sure what I would do with two dining room tables."
"But it's your house now, Arthur. Time to make some changes. Out with the old, in with the new."
"Besides," Arthur continued firmly, "the new tenants have a two-year option on their lease yet. I can't go up there and start shifting furniture around on them."
"What? You mean those two sissy boys are still living up at the big house? Well Arthur, my boy, where are you living?"
"There's a guest house, and it's really very comfortable. Mr. Burch, it was a pleasure running into you like this. Please give my best to Mrs. Burch."
Arthur escaped to the safety of the muddy path, but before he was quite out of earshot, Mr. Burch called after him, "You gotta come to dinner some night, Arthur. Ida would just love to see you."
"That sounds nice," Arthur agreed vaguely, backing away down the path.
"I'll have Ida give you a call one night. How would that be?"
Arthur gave a little half-wave and turned away, but not before he noticed the white lettering on the awning above Mr. Burch's furniture. "Stellar Bros. Mortuary."
Mr. Burch had rented the awning from a funeral home.
The rain started again, rustling leaves and whispering along the path. Arthur raised his umbrella as he passed a booth of bright red See-Rock-City bird houses and wind chimes made of old license plates. Ducking into a tent set up beside a stand of mountain laurel, he found corn husk dolls, kitchen witches and embroidered hot plates. A display of crocheted snow flakes were beginning to wilt in the rain.
The path curved sharply around a sandstone boulder, and Arthur was brought up by a display of studio glass. Deep, broad bowls were glistening with rainwater in the gray forest light. Colors subtle as smoke coiled beneath the surface of the glass. A woman with short dark curls sat on a lawn chair in back of the display, holding an umbrella over her head. She had to tilt the umbrella back to see Arthur's face, and when she did she said, "Oh my God."
"Robin?" Arthur felt a shock of pleasure. "What are you doing here?"
She stood up slowly, shaking her head. "What am I doing here? I live here, Arthur Drake. I've lived here for forty-two years." She laid the umbrella aside and stepped carefully the display of glass bowls. "So I think the first thing any sensible person would ask is what you're doing here."
"I had to come home for Rivercraft."
"Oh the hell you did." She threw her arms around him and hugged him tight. "It's so good to see you. How long are you home for?"
"I'm not exactly sure. But at least a few months."
"That's wonderful." She sighed happily and stepped back. "Look at you. The last time I saw you, you had hair down past your shoulders, and that horrible, wispy little mustache that never would grow in right."
"Don't remind me. You've changed too. You're looking great."
"Thank you. I used to be a regular little pudgepot, didn't I?"
"It's the truth, you don't have to be gallant and try to deny it" She patted one hip. "It took a few years of standing in front of glory holes to finally melt away most of the lard."
"The glass, Arthur. It's pretty hard work. Especially when I started doing these larger pieces."
"These are all yours? Robin, they're beautiful. I never knew you were an artist."
"Neither did I. Not in high school anyway."
"I remember now. You were going to be war correspondent, weren't you?"
"The Viet Nam War ended about six yearstoo early for me."
"Journalism's loss was the art world's gain."
"Just stop it, Arthur. I mean it now."
"I'm serious. These pieces are magnificent." He lowered his voice a little. "You should be in a gallery, Robin. Not standing out in the woods."
"Actually there are some fine artists showing here. Besides, I need the exposure. Up until a few years ago I was doing more commercial work. Plates and glasses, you know. Since I started doing art glass, sales have really dropped off."
"I don't understand why." He pointed to one of the broad, shallow bowls. Embedded in the depths of the glass was a faint pattern that reminded Arthur of the first sunlight after heavy rain, shining through the trees in a dense forest. "I like this one especially."
"Do you? So do I. It's one of my more recent ones. I had this image in my head, and it finally came out almost like I wanted."
"If you don't mind visitors, I'd love to see you at work sometime."
"Well, we're practically neighbors," Robin said, beaming. "Come over anytime you like. I've converted the old hay barn into a studio, and it's just glorious. I never had so much space before."
"So you live on the Ridge now ?"
"Charlie and I are living at the farm now."
He felt light-headed. "Charlie? Charlie Johnson?"
"I guess you didn't know. Charlie's dad died, oh, it must be more than a year now. At first Charlie and I were going to sell the farm, but real estate prices were so low--anyway, we finally realized that neither one of us really wanted to let it go, so we ended up moving back from Fort Oglethorpe last year."
Arthur looked down at Robin's hands for the first time and saw the gold band on her finger. Without quite meeting her eye he said, "I don't know what you're going to think of me for having to ask, but--are you and Charlie married?"
Robin's face went blank with surprise. Then she laughed. "I guess you could say that. We celebrated our fifteen-year anniversary six months ago."
The wind began to blow, and reflections of the rain-dark trees overhead shifted across the glass. Arthur hugged Robin tight. "Congratulations. I'm very happy for you. Fifteen years too late. But congratulations just the same."
"We'll have to make up for lost time now that you're back in town. Why don't you come have dinner with us one night?"
"I don't know. My social calendar is pretty full," Arthur joked weakly. "Billy Burch has already invited me to dinner."
Robin snorted. "Oh no. Did he try to sell you some of that horrible cypress log furniture too?"
"He said he had a table that would be just the thing for the main house."
"I bet he does. Well, I promise Charlie and I won't try to sell you anything. Let's see, I'm going to be pretty bushed this week with Rivercraft--what about early next week?"
Arthur hesitated. "Maybe you should check with Charlie first."
Robin knocked her fist lightly against Arthur's forehead. "Hello in there. Twentieth century calling Arthur."
"I didn't mean it like that."
"Come to dinner and all is forgiven."
"I passed the front gate when I got in last night. I didn't realize that Charlie was living there anymore."
Robin frowned. "Is everything all right? You seem a little weird about something."
"It's being back home again. There's a lot to take in all at once."
"Life goes on in Riverbend, even when you're not here."
"Of course it does." Arthur turned back to the glass bowl he had admired before. "Is this one for sale?"
"Not to you, it isn't," Robin said gently. "That's too much money for you to spend just because you didn't know I was married."
"But it's beautiful. When I look at it, it reminds me of someplace I've seen before. Maybe just in a dream."
"I won't sell it to you, but it's funny you should say that. I started working on this piece after Charlie and I saw the ridge lights for the first time. We both would have thought we were only dreaming, except for all the stickers Charlie picked up running around out in the woods that night."
"What are the ridge lights?"
"I don't know. I don't think anybody does, really. They're just funny lights that people have been seeing out in the woods. I guess it's been going on for months now, especially just after a good rain. I'm sure it'll just turn out to be swamp gas or something, but when you actually see that glowing thing out in the woods, it's very strange. Charlie's got such nutty ideas about it, I can't hardly talk to him about it anymore."
"I think I've seen them too," Arthur said slowly. "Last night. I thought at first there must be a fire."
"That's it," Robin said excitedly. "That's it, you've seen it too. What did you think? It nearly scared us out of our wits."
"Has anyone tried to investigate them?"
"Sightseers have been driving up the ridge after rainstorms, but I don't know if anyone has seriously tried to figure out what they are. When Charlie went out to see what was happening, it disappeared before he'd gotten more than a dozen steps across the back yard. I think it must be a mirage, you know? Something you can only see from a distance." Robin suddenly grinned. "Not to change the subject, but you're here as one the invited sponsors, aren't you?"
"Well, I happen to know they've catered some great food for you folks."
He smiled. "Hold on. I'll be right back with lunch."
CHAPTER 6: The Walrus and the Carpenter
In the Sponsors' Tent they were serving sausage balls, shrimp cocktail, crab puffs, oysters, cornbread and tiny biscuits with squares of country ham. Arthur stacked a little pyramid of food on his plate, and then with a bland, apologetic smile to the carefully dressed strangers who surrounded him at the buffet table, backed out of the tent. The rain had started again. He was fumbling to open his umbrella when a spectacularly thin woman with violet eyes and a mink turban on her head bore down upon him from the straw-covered path, her own pink umbrella held high. "Arthur," she shrilled, "oh my goodness, you're finally home."
The umbrellas they were holding prevented an embrace, but the woman bent her neck forward with snakish dexterity to kiss his face. "Isn't this weather dreadful? I declare it rains every year though, doesn't it? At the next committee meeting don't you know that Mindy Speller is going to make her perpetual suggestion to hold Rivercraft in the high school gym next year. As if anyone would come to a tacky little affair like that."
"I'm sure you're right. How are you, Betty? How's Uncle Clarence?"
"Just listen to me rattling on like a crazy old woman. I told your mama more than once that the real reason you left home was to get some peace and quiet. Lord knows you never got a word in edgewise at the old place when the family was around."
Arthur smiled. "Well, it does seem quieter these days."
"My lord, I don't doubt that for one minute. How is the guest house working out for you? I can't imagine that tiny little cabin has enough space. I told Frank he was a fool to let those tenants have the house for three years. And the rent he's charging isn't hardly enough to cover upkeep, much less property taxes. The renters are bigshot Atlanta attorneys, aren't they? They should be able to pay what the property's worth. This is your inheritance that's being frittered away, Arthur. The time comes when a man has to stand up for himself."
"Actually, the guest house is very comfortable."
"And when were you planning to tell us you were back in town?"
"I only got in last night."
Betty's face brightened. "But you came straight to Rivercraft. Good for you, Arthur. This always meant so much to your mother, you know. It just hasn't been the same this year without her."
She peered at Arthur's plate of food. "The hors d'oeuvres look all right, though." She helped herself to some of the shrimp. "I know they say you can get all sorts of dreadful diseases, but the day I can't have seafood is the day they lay me down in my grave." She returned the lipstick-stained tails to his plate and patted his cheek. "I must run, dear. I'm on the panel of judges this year. Clarence and I will stop by and see you one evening."
"I'd love to see you," Arthur said politely.
"Maybe we'll come by on Saturday afternoon. I hate for Clarence to drive up the ridge after dark." She shook a bejeweled finger at him. "And you be careful driving on the ridge yourself, young man. You've been away too long. I'm sure you've forgotten how to drive on mountain roads."
"Saturday wouldn't be a good day for a visit, Betty. I'm planning to be in Atlanta this weekend."
She stared at him as though he'd told her he was going to be on the moon. "Atlanta? What's in Atlanta? Don't tell me you're tired of home already."
"Just give me a call before you stop by. Almost anytime this week or the next would be fine. I'd love to show you and Clarence around. You'll see the guest house is really very comfortable. And much more practical for one person than the main house."
She smiled at last. The expression carved deep wrinkles in her unnaturally smooth skin, and Arthur felt a surge of affection for her.
"I'm sure you won't be alone for long, Arthur dear. Don't get discouraged. Los Angeles is no place to find a wife. That's what a man comes home to do. You may not be a boy anymore, but whether you realize it or not, you've grown into quite a handsome fellow, and besides, girls appreciate maturity. You're the most eligible bachelor in Riverbend."
He laughed. "It sounds like I just walked into a Jane Austin novel."
"Mark my words, young man. I hear wedding bells in your future." She stole another shrimp off his plate. "Must run. Take care, dear."
Robin's stand was on the other side of the hill, and Arthur felt rather guilty carrying the plate of hor d'oeuvres past all the wet, hungry looking artists grouped along the path. It was with a sense of relief that he finally ducked behind Robin's display of glass and handed the plate to her.
"Oh, you angel," she said, balancing the plate on her knees and popping a piece of cornbread into her mouth. "It does help to have friends in high places. Do you want to sit down? There's another lawn chair behind that pedestal there. Just a little wet, I'm afraid."
"I don't mind."
"And what's this?" Robin poked at the shrimp tails stained with Betty's lipstick. "It's all over your face too."
"Oh no, really?" Arthur wiped ineffectually at his cheek.
"Hold still, I'll get it." She licked her thumb and swiped the lipstick off both his cheeks with two firm, quick strokes.
"Thank you. And I thought everyone was staring at the food."
"Who's the lucky girl who gets to take such liberties with you?"
"I ran into my aunt. Betty Gilbert."
"Mrs. Gilbert? You know she's one of the judges, don't you? Did you put in a good word for me?"
"I'm sorry, Robin. I guess I just wasn't thinking."
"I'm kidding, you idiot. Here, have some of the oysters. Don't let me eat them all."
"I'm not really hungry."
"Being home ruined your appetite?"
"Of course not. I just had a big breakfast."
"Right," Robin agreed seriously. Then she grinned. "I can hardly believe you're sitting here next to me. Tell me what you've been up to all these years. Charlie told me some ridiculous story about you once, but I'm sure he had it wrong."
"What did he say?"
"Nothing bad, just silly. Somewhere he got the idea that you were a real-life ghostbuster. I tried to tell him that was just the movies, but you know how Charlie is once he gets an idea in his head."
"Well he's right, more or less."
Her jaw dropped. "You're kidding. I was sure he had gotten confused--everyone says Drake House is haunted, you know."
"So I've heard," Arthur said dryly.
Robin shook her head. "So explain this to me. You actually go around doing--what? Exorcising ghosts?"
A patron stopped by Robin's display. She handed the plate of oysters back to Arthur, saying, "Excuse me a minute, would you?" She jumped up to help the woman, who seemed to be asking about the same bowl that had attracted Arthur's attention. After speaking for a few minutes she moved on, and Robin sat down again. "Thanks. What were we saying?"
"How much you were asking for that bowl."
"We already settled that it's not for sale to you. Tell me how somebody gets started hunting ghosts. It seems a little like being a lion trainer to me. Like you'd have to be born into a family of them."
"Sometimes I think I was. You're right about Drake House, in a way. Growing up there I saw lots of things that I couldn't explain, things that my parents never seemed to notice."
"You're kidding. No, you're not, are you? Good grief. I had no idea. Don't take this the wrong way, Arthur, but I don't even believe in ghosts. Is that rude of me?"
"I'm not sure I believe in them either. That's probably why I've been looking for all these years."
"What a wonderful story -- real Southern Gothic. And now you've come home to settle the family ghosts for once and for all, is that it?"
"Nothing so dramatic. I'm living in a guest house on the estate, not in the main house."
"Is it the ridge lights? You think they're supernatural?"
"I'd never even heard of them until this morning. I didn't come home to look for ghosts."
"So what are you doing here?"
He smiled a little. "Do I have to have a reason?"
"I'm just as nosy as all the rest of the gossipy biddies around here, aren't I?"
Arthur tilted his umbrella back and looked up. The autumn leaves were uniformly dark with rain. Gray clouds roiled layer upon layer across the sky. Maybe Robin had a point, he thought, and he had forfeited his right to some of his secrets by coming home.
And maybe that wasn't entirely a bad thing.
"A couple of reasons," he told her. "Hecate Publishing up in Berkeley has commissioned me to write a book. I thought the peace and quiet would be good for writing."
"How exciting! What about? Your ghostbusting?"
"There have been some interesting cases over the years. And there's so much nonsense published in the field of parapsychology that I'd like to do something a little more responsible."
"If it's possible to write a responsible book about ghosts, I'm sure you can do it. And the other reason you came home?"
"My lover just started med school at Emory. I didn't want to be on the other side of the country from him."
Robin sat back abruptly in the folding chair. The plate of food tumbled off her knee, scattering oyster shells across the muddy ground.
"Oh damn." She scrambled to pick them up.
Arthur knelt to help her. "Want me to get another plate for you?"
"No. I'm fine. I've had enough."
"I'm sorry. It doesn't matter a bit to me, really. I just didn't know. How long have you been, you know, that way?"
"I'm fairly certain I was born this way."
Robin suddenly laughed. "Then I guess it's safe to tell you now. I had the worst crush on you when we were kids. You must have known. And just now, when you seemed so weird about me and Charlie, I had this crazy idea that maybe you used to feel the same way about me."
"You know you were always a dear friend."
"Oh my God." She buried her face in her hands. "My humiliation is complete. You never even noticed me." She looked up again. "Is that why you didn't want to come to dinner? Does Charlie know?"
"I think he--probably suspects."
"Well I'm sure it doesn't make any difference to him either. He's got the good-ol-boy act down pat, but underneath that crusty exterior he's the sweetest guy I've ever known, even after all these years. Especially after all these years. And he's going to be so happy to know that you've finally come home."
CHAPTER 7:Electrical Problems
Honey Child settled her big head on Charlie's knee and gave a long canine sigh of contentment as Charlie scratched her absently behind the ears. Rain drizzled down on the roof of the back porch and disturbed the surface of puddles in the back yard. Sunset was less than an hour away now, and Robin was due home any minute. Charlie had intended to surprise her by having dinner ready, but he had been lulled into a pleasant lassitude by the sound of the rain, and somehow he just hadn't gotten around to it.
The trees in the woods were stenciled in gray. Somewhere nearby two squirrels were fussing, their voices rising in squawks of rage. Charlie wondered what was upsetting them so. A hawk circling overhead, maybe, or a fox in the woods.
He didn't move from his chair when he heard the car pull into the drive around front. No sense trying to hide the fact that he'd been a lazy good-for-nothing this evening. Robin would come marching back through the house, find him sitting here with a beer in his hand and Honey Child's head on his lap, and pretend to scold him for his sloth.
Then he would take her out to dinner. Maybe they should try that new place that had opened up downriver from the landing. He'd heard their catfish was good. And Robin deserved a celebration. She'd been working for months to get ready for Rivercraft.
Honey Child whimpered and pressed closer to Charlie.
"What's the matter with you, you big coward? It's just Robin."
Honey Child rolled her big brown eyes to look up miserably into Charlie's face, then slunk away to the corner of the porch.
Charlie set the beer down, feeling a prickle of cold at the base of his scalp, and looked around for the other dogs. Lady and Max were huddled together behind the wood burning stove, their bellies flat on the floor, and their hair standing up in a ridge down their backs.
Charlie stood up. "Robin! How did it go today?"
No one answered him. The rain continued to patter down in the woods. He stepped from the back porch into the kitchen. The room was almost dark. Thin gray light filtered in from the window above the sink. "Robin?"
He saw a flash of movement from the corner of his eye, a dark shadow across the windowpane. He went quickly to the sink and looked out. No one was there. He had almost convinced himself that he was imagining things when he heard the squeak of hinges. He spun around. The screen door was open, and a man stood on the back steps.
"Sweet Jesus! What do you mean by sneaking up on me like that?"
The other man let the door swing shut behind him. He seemed very young, and he was wearing an expensive suit that looked too stylish to have been purchased locally. Charlie was no expert, but there was something strange about the gray herringbone weave. He must be from New York or Atlanta. Or Los Angeles, even. Charlie thought of Arthur Drake with a momentary, treacherous stab of emotion. Then it passed, and he felt merely tired, and older than his years. "Can I help you?" he asked. "Did you get lost on the ridge highway?"
The young man shook his head. His skin was a uniform, coppery brown. "I was looking for you, Charles Johnson. My name is Mr. Sam."
After an awkward moment, Charlie realized the man was waiting to shake his hand. Charlie's original surprise had begun to give way to anger, and he just let him wait. Eventually Mr. Sam dropped his arm to his side again. Charlie noticed that he was wearing thin black leather gloves. "I'm from the D.C. office, Charles. I'd like to talk to you about the Cherokee River facility."
Now that Charlie looked at the man closely, he wasn't sure that he was really so young after all. Mr. Sam's eyes were black, and they watched Charlie with unblinking intensity.
"Let me get this straight," Charlie said carefully. "You come up to my house without even the courtesy of a phone call, and you expect me to drop everything to give you a tour? Well I'm sorry, I don't know how they do things in Washington, but if you want to look around the Cherokee River Dam, you give me a call at the office tomorrow, and I'll be glad to see what I can do for you then."
"You misunderstand," Mr. Sam said mildly. His voice had the sing-song quality of a very young child. "I'm not interested in a tour. My concerns are of a more confidential nature."
"What are you talking about?" Charlie demanded, taking a step towards Mr. Sam. He was a big man, accustomed to having others back down at his approach. But Mr. Sam only tilted his head back a little so that he could continue to look Charlie in the eye and said, "Where's your wife this afternoon, Charles?"
"And just what the hell does that matter to you?"
Mr. Sam's lips curled back into a cold smile. "I'm here to discuss a potential security breach at the Cherokee River facility."
"Security breach?" Charlie asked incredulously. "There must be some mistake. This is Riverbend, not Oak Ridge. What agency did you say you were from?"
"I understand you've been witness to the luminescent phenomena manifesting itself along the ridge."
"How do you know about that?"
"Don't you agree that a man with your responsibilities ought to stay out of the woods?"
"Listen here, Mr. Sam," Charlie growled, "You tell me what agency you're from right now, or I'm going to kick your ass the hell off my property."
"Don't upset yourself, Charles. I thought I told you. I'm D.O.E."
"What office of the Energy Department? I need to see some kind of identification.
Mr. Sam's eyes flickered for the first time. He patted his breast coat pocket, and without looking down said, "I seem to have left my papers in the car."
"Then let's walk around and get them," Charlie said firmly. He was furious with himself for letting this strange conversation go on as long as it had.
"I'm sure that's not necessary," Mr. Sam said smoothly, but he took a step backwards. One of his legs dragged stiffly across the wooden floor.
"Yes it is. Come on. I'll walk you to your car."
"I'll be contacting you later, Charles Johnson." Mr. Sam pushed open the screen door, and Charlie realized another peculiar thing about the man. Despite the rain, Mr. Sam's expensive suit was bone dry.
Then the front door slammed, and Robin called, "Lu -cy! I'm home."
Mr. Sam slipped away down the back steps in spite of the lameness in his leg. Charlie was tempted to follow him, but after an instant of hesitation he went to Robin instead.
She stood in the foyer, shedding her wet raincoat and galoshes. "Lord, what a day I've had."
Charlie felt ridiculously pleased that she was home safe and sound. He kissed her wet forehead and ran his hand through her rain-soaked curls. "Look at you. You're sopping wet."
Robin kissed him back. "What's all this? Let me guess. You haven't made dinner yet, have you?"
"Why don't you go run yourself a hot bath before you catch your death of pneumonia. Then I thought I'd take you out to eat."
"That sounds nice. Thank you."
"How did it go today?"
She made a so-so gesture with her hand. "No sales. But a couple of people acted as though they were interested. Maybe they'll come back this weekend. Charlie, you'll never guess who was at Rivercraft."
He was looking over Robin's shoulder through the front door. Mr. Sam's car was already gone. "I give up. Who was there?"
Robin turned to look over her shoulder. "What are you looking at?"
"Nothing. Tell me who you saw at Rivercraft."
"Arthur?" For a moment Charlie forgot all about Mr. Sam. "Arthur's here?"
"He's moved into that little guest house at the back of the family property."
"Well, what do you know." Charlie turned away. "You go get in the tub. I'll bring you a glass of wine."
While Robin was running the bath water, Charlie went to the front door and looked out at the drive. Robin's aging Chevy van was pulled up to the front walk. It was strange that she hadn't seen Mr. Sam when she drove in. Charlie walked through the house to the back porch. The three dogs were standing at the door, ears cocked, noses pressed to the screen. "Some watchdogs you are," he scolded.
Honey Child looked back at Charlie, whining a little.
"Robin's home. You better go see her before she gets her feelings hurt."
Honey Child thumped her tail once, then resumed staring out the back door with Max and Lady. There was only a glimmering of light left in the yard. The woods rose darkly on the far side of the clearing. A break in the clouds on the western horizon shone red and reflected in standing puddles in the yard, and Charlie was glad he had already tended to the horses. He latched the screen door carefully, then went back to the kitchen, poured a glass of white wine from the jug in the refrigerator, and opened another can of beer for himself.
Robin lay back in the tub with her head against the tiled wall, looking utterly content as the bubbles rose around her. The atmosphere in the small bathroom was thick with the Calgon fumes. "Here you go." Charlie handed her the glass.
"Thank you, honey. Hey, before I forget, I'd like to invite Arthur to dinner one night. Is that all right with you?"
He put the toilet lid down so he could sit on it. "That's fine."
"I thought you'd be glad to see him. Is something wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong. How is Arthur?
"He seems fine. You know you were right about him after all?"
"Oh?" Charlie said noncommittally.
"You know. Remember when you told me he investigated haunted houses for a living, and I didn't believe you?"
"Well, you were right. He told me one reason he came home was to write a book about all his cases."
"Don't they have typewriters in California?"
"Charlie Johnson, what's the matter with you?"
"I'm more interested in how your day went. Tell me about the two sales you almost made."
She put her wine glass down on the side of the tub and scooped up a double handful of Calgon bubbles. "Not much to tell. They were both gallery owners up from Atlanta, and they said they'd be coming up this weekend. We'll see. They were probably just being polite."
"I'm sure they'll be back."
"Whether they are or not, I've been thinking it's time for me to get serious about having my work placed in a gallery. If not in Atlanta, at least in Chattanooga."
"That's what I've been saying all along. I don't want you having to sit out in the rain to sell your glass anymore."
"It wasn't so bad. Arthur stuck around for a couple of hours to keep me company."
"Did he?" Charlie said flatly.
"It was fun catching up after all these years. I even told him about the crush I had on him back when I was a teenager."
He laughed shortly. "Was it mutual?"
"No." Robin hesitated. "It turns out Arthur's gay."
Charlie took an angry swallow of beer. "He told you that?"
"Eventually. I was pestering him to tell me why he'd come home after all these years. There's the book he wants to write. But the real reason he came back to Riverbend was so he could be near his, uh, boyfriend. Some guy from L.A. who just started med school in Atlanta."
"Well, good for him." Charlie said in an ugly voice.
Robin looked at him. "Arthur thought you already knew."
"He's right. I saw Arthur when he came home a year, maybe a couple of years ago. Just before his folks moved. We were still living up in Ooltewah."
"I think I remember that, now that you mention it. You were out here one weekend to give your Dad a hand weren't you?"
"Arthur was supposed stay for a couple of months to help his folks out. He was even talking about moving back for good. But as it turned out, he went back to L.A. the very next day. Something to do with a boyfriend getting bashed in a parking lot."
"Oh my God. You didn't tell me that part."
"No. I guess not."
Robin shook her head. "You could have saved me a little embarrassment if you had mentioned this two years ago. When Arthur told me he was gay I was so surprised I dropped a plate of food in my lap."
"Sorry, hon. I didn't know how open Arthur wanted to be."
"But I'm your wife," Robin said severely. "And I've got another bone to pick with you while we're on the subject. Do you know Arthur had no idea you and I are married?"
"No, he didn't. And he was so mortified he tried to buy one of my pieces to make it up to me."
"Great. How much did you make?"
"Charlie. You don't really think I'd let him do that, do you?"
"Why not? He's got the cash."
"You're terrible," Robin scolded. "No wonder Arthur stayed in California for so long. His best friend in Riverbend is a big, insensitive jerk."
"And you're married to him," Charlie said placidly, leaning over to kiss the top of Robin's head.
"Seriously though, if he's not going to live in Drake House, why not just stay in Atlanta with his friend? I hear the way people talk about those two guys who are renting the big house, and I don't even know for sure that they're gay."
"C'mon, Robin. Those two are queer as three dollar bills."
She looked pained. "See what I mean? I can't imagine that Riverbend is going to be very comfortable for him."
"Yeah, well, I never did think Arthur had a whole lot of sense." Charlie stood up. "I'm gonna go set the VCR to record tonight's game."
"OK." Robin sank down until just her eyes were visible above the diminishing soap bubbles. "I'll be ready in a little while."
When Charlie went into the living room, he found double zeroes blinking infuriatingly at him from the VCR timer. The power must have gone out some time during the day. Cursing under his breath, he began to hunt for the owners' manual.
The rain was still coming down when Arthur got home. He unloaded two sacks of groceries, then carried in the coffee maker and the answering machine he'd bought at the Wal-Mart near the freeway. The guest house was cozy and warm, but he couldn't stop shivering, even after changing into dry clothes and fixing himself a cup of hot lemon tea. He felt a persistent tickle at the back of his throat which seemed to be getting worse.
He felt homesick for Los Angeles, and he wondered how Marc was doing. After unpacking the answering machine and getting it hooked up, he tried to call him, but there was no dial tone. He tried the telephone in the bedroom too. Nothing. That's what he got for buying such a cheap machine, he thought irritably. His worsening cold made every annoyance insurmountably aggravating. He was tempted to pull the phone out of the wall and throw it across the living room. Instead he merely unplugged the answering machine and repackaged it in styrofoam blocks so he could return it to the store in the morning. But when he picked up the phone again, there was still nothing but a brooding, lonely silence on the other end of the line.
Two hours later Arthur's head was throbbing with fever. His joints ached, the surface of his eyes felt gritty, and there was a foul, metallic taste in the back of his mouth. He had tried to call Marc half a dozen times more, childishly unwilling to admit that he was getting sick, and that all of Bell South's promises to the contrary, his phone hadn't been connected yet. By ten o'clock he was seriously considering getting into the car and driving straight to Atlanta.
Instead, he turned up the gas under the ceramic logs in the fireplace and settled down on the living room sofa with a quilt over his shoulders, a fresh pot of lemon tea, and the latest edition of the Skeptical Inquirer. Usually he enjoyed the magazine's curmudgeonly impatience with the entire field of the paranormal, but tonight he just wasn't in the mood. Halfway through an exasperated analysis of the statistical errors in a laboratory study of telekinesis, he closed his eyes and let the magazine drop to the floor. The heat from the fireplace had become oppressive, and the room felt as though it were spinning slowly around him.
He wrestled his way free of the quilt and stumbled to bed. The rain had finally stopped, and the woods outside were utterly silent. No matter how he tried to sleep, his thoughts kept returning to Charlie.
Nearly two years ago, now. Marc had just walked out on him after yet another fight. For good this time, Arthur had been convinced, and he had fled home, returning to Riverbend for the first time since college. He had only stayed for a weekend, but it had been long enough. His second night home, Charlie had come to dinner.
The rain had been pattering down on the green tile roof of Drake house that evening, and the branch on the far side of the clay tennis courts had overflown its banks. And after Arthur's parents went to bed, he and Charlie had gone up to Arthur's old bedroom together.
Arthur turned restlessly under the sweat-soaked sheets, remembering. A bird called somewhere in the darkness.
As much as Arthur had loved Marc then, as much as he still loved Marc, being with Charlie again had felt like coming home. As boys they had believed they would be together forever. During their long afternoons down on the river or out in the woods, they had spent hours planning the way their life would be when they were grown up and didn't have to hide anymore.
Just before dawn Arthur dreamed that he was waiting for Charlie to come back to him. He could hear him as he shuffled noisily through the fallen leaves and ivy around back. Muffled thumps hit the side of the guest house. Windows rattled. The front door opened, and footsteps crossed the living room to stop at the bedroom door. Arthur lay still, waiting.
And then he realized his mistake.
That wasn't Charlie at all, but something that had been waiting in the woods beyond Drake House for a long, long time. Arthur turned his head slowly on the pillow. He caught a glimpse of darkness, then awoke with a violent start.
Sunlight shone in past the half-open curtains. He lay still for a moment, feeling his heart pounding hard in his chest. At length he sat up in bed and reached for the telephone. The old-fashioned receiver was so heavy it slipped out of his hand and dropped into the midst of the pillows with a soundless splat. Picking it up again, he heard the flat buzz of the dial tone. He dialed Marc's number.
The phone rang only once before Marc picked up. "Yeah?"
"Sweetheart. Good morning."
"Arthur? What's going on? You sound like you just woke up."
"I'm sorry I couldn't call before. The phone was out."
"Are you sick or something? You're all stuffed up."
"It's just a cold. I wanted to see how you were doing."
"Well, I don't really have time to talk now. I'm on my way out the door."
"Oh. I'll let you go, then. Classes have started already?"
"Wednesday. I was just gonna get breakfast with some people I met at orientation. How about if I call you tonight?"
"But you're all right? The apartment's working out?"
"C'mon, Arthur. I've been here like two days. There's not enough time for anything to have gone wrong."
"I miss you."
"Yeah, me too. Look, I'm late. I've really got to go."
"I'll talk to you later."
"Hey." Marc's tone softened. "Everything OK with you up there? The family ghosts aren't chasing you around?"
"OK then. Chew on some zinc for that cold."
"Med school's paying off already, isn't it?"
"Am I going to have to put up with four years of this?" Marc groaned. "Stay out of trouble. I'll catch you later."
Arthur said good-bye to the click of Marc's phone hanging up, put the receiver down and rolled out of bed. He had planned to start unpacking files today, but after he showered and shaved, he put his pajamas back on and napped on the sofa for the rest of the morning. His throat was raw, and his head felt as though it were muffled in cotton wool. It was past noon before he roused himself sufficiently to fix a glass of ginger ale and some dry toast.
Outside the skies were cobalt blue. The leaves on the maple tree growing by the kitchen window had turned bright orange. The hickories were yellow and the oak leaves rust red, the color of drying blood. It was such a beautiful day, Arthur thought, and seemed so fragile after L.A.'s ceaseless tropical vigor.
He put on a house robe and went to sit on the front porch. A breeze was blowing, making branches groan in the tree tops. Arthur could hear the murmuring of the creek on the other side of the hill, flowing down towards the ancient apple orchard. A wide circle of mown lawn lay in front of the cabin, but the woods pressed close by. Growing next to the front porch were blackberry bushes laden with glossy fruit. Arthur rocked slowly, the porch boards creaking. Los Angeles seemed like nothing but a chaotic past-life dream. He closed his eyes.
Then he opened them again.
A rangy, dark-haired man was coming up the concrete path. He was dressed in expensive tweeds, and he carried a bottle wrapped in printed foil. At the foot of the porch steps he stopped and asked formally, "Mr. Drake?"
Arthur pulled his robe tight against his throat, irritable and self-conscious at being caught in his pajamas this late in the day. "I'm Arthur Drake."
"Dennis Wright. Your tenant.
"Oh. Of course." Arthur got slowly to his feet.
"I hope I'm not intruding. I saw your car parked in the drive and thought I would come down and introduce myself." His deep voice was beautifully modulated and controlled, but he'd retained just enough of a drawl to avoid alienating Southern jurors.
"You're not interrupting anything," Arthur said, backing away from Dennis's outstretched hand. "But I've got a terrible cold. You don't want to get too close."
"Oh I'm sorry. Then you probably shouldn't be drinking this." He held the wrapped bottle out to Arthur. "You can save it till you're feeling better."
Arthur took the bottle. "How thoughtful. Thank you."
Dennis grinned. The unaffected smile made his raw boned face almost handsome. "Go ahead. Open it."
Arthur peeled back the foil. When he read the label he laughed out loud. "Riverbend Vineyards?"
"Welcome home," Dennis said proudly.
"I had no idea we had a local vintner."
"Don't get too excited. They're only about ten years old, and so far all they're marketing is this muscadine wine. Nothing like the wine your family's got laid away, I'm sure."
Arthur sighed at the reminder of another unpleasant responsibility. "I'm going to have to go through the cellar eventually and sell off the mature vintages. Heaven knows how many bottles are already undrinkable. I don't suppose you and Gavin would be interested, would you?"
"I guess I'd have to talk to Gavin first."
Arthur couldn't tell if he were seriously interested, or just being polite. "Well, you can let me know. I'm sure I won't be getting around to the wine cellars any time soon."
Dennis backed away down the stairs. "Can I bring you anything for that cold? We've got Nyquil up at the house."
"Thank you but no, I'll be fine."
"And if the power goes out again, feel free to come up to the big house. You'll freeze down here without any heat."
"Have you been having trouble with the power?"
"One of the hazards of country living, I guess. The past three months have been especially bad. Gavin lost most of a brief just a few hours before an arbitration this summer."
"I remember the power always used to go out during thunderstorms," Arthur said. "Is it worse now?"
"I don't know, but it's pretty unreliable. Anyway, please promise you'll come up if the power goes out during the night. I'd feel awful to think you're trying to tough it out down here, especially when you're sick."
"I'm sure I'll be fine. But thank you."
"Oh, and you've got company," Dennis said. "Apologize for me. I didn't mean to take up so much of your time. I'm as bad as Gavin sometimes."
Arthur wondered if he'd missed something. "Company?"
"Have I put my foot in it? I really am as bad as Gavin."
"I don't know what you're talking about. There's no one else here."
Dennis had a funny look on his face, half pitying, half sympathetic. "Believe me, I understand. You've got to be careful out here in the boondocks. But I hope you know that neither one of us would ever do anything to compromise your privacy."
"I appreciate that, Dennis," Arthur said a little impatiently. "But there's no one else here."
The look of pity on Dennis's face gave way to annoyance. "Then who's that watching you in the window?"
The bottle of muscadine wine slipped from Arthur's nerveless fingers and smashed on the stone steps. A frothing purple tide ran across the walk.
"Oh no." Dennis knelt and began to pick up the larger pieces of glass.
Arthur crossed the porch in two steps and flung open the front door. The living room was empty. He walked back through the cabin, checking behind the sofa, under the bed, in the closet, in the kitchen cupboard. Dennis stood hesitating in the front door, shards of broken green glass cradled carefully in his hands. "Everything all right?"
"There's no one here," Arthur said flatly. He picked up the trash bin under the sink and held it out to Dennis. "What did you see?"
He dropped the glass into the can with a clatter. "It must have been our reflection. Arthur, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."
Dennis looked miserable. "You must think Gavin and I are the rudest people on the planet. Gavin told me what he said to you yesterday. About people in town thinking the big house is haunted or something. And then I come down here and see ghosts in the window--"
"Because I want to tell you," Dennis persisted, "Gavin and I both felt completely comfortable in Drake House right from the start. If there are any spirits up there at all, I'm certain they're kindred."
"I'm sorry about dropping the wine. And after you were so thoughtful to bring it."
"It wasn't great wine." Dennis smiled sheepishly. "I'll leave you in peace now. If there's anything Gavin and I can do to make your return home any more uncomfortable, just give a yell." He turned to leave, then looked back, still smiling. "The gardener will be out tomorrow. I'll tell him to bring the hose around and wash off the front steps. It looks like someone was murdered out here."
When he and Arthur talked on the phone that evening, Marc sounded excited and happy, full of news about other students, the campus and his new neighborhood. Arthur let him chatter away, his spirits lifted immeasurably by the sound of Marc's voice.
Then Marc said, "Look, about this weekend."
Arthur's heart sank. "What about it?"
"Don't go all pathetic on me. It's just that I'm going to be really busy, so I was thinking maybe you could put off coming down till later."
Arthur looked around the little bedroom. The grooved, dark paneling on the ceiling and walls made the room feel like a box about to shut up on him. "How much later?"
"Hey, I'm under enough pressure right now. It's not my problem if you're already starting to get lonely up there in the butt-end of nowhere."
Arthur sighed. "I know you've got a lot going on. But I was looking forward to seeing you."
"We can talk about it later. It's late. I've really gotta go."
CHAPTER 9 A Dinner Party
Arthur had been serious when he told Robin he had no intentions of investigating Drake House. But later that week he was in town to pick up a vaporizer and some cough syrup, and he found himself studying a display of cheap microcassette recorders set up on the electronics counter between the Swatch watches and the disposable cameras, and thinking about the face Dennis had seen in his window.
Standing in line at the checkout counter a few minutes later with a voice-activated recorder balanced on top of the vaporizer, he rationalized to himself that there was a difference between beginning a serious investigation, and merely seeing whether the footsteps he heard crossing his living room floor in the quiet hour before dawn could be recorded on tape. And if they could, then maybe he would have his video equipment shipped from Los Angeles. It would be a shame to lose the opportunity to document promising phenomena, just because he didn't happen to be in the ghost hunting business right now.
He had made it to the parking lot when he heard a voice calling tremulously, "Arthur! Is that you Arthur?"
Turning, he saw an elderly woman in a gingham house dress and inexpensive open-toed shoes too cold for the weather smiling and waving to him, hobbling across the parking lot to catch up. Though she was so thin that skin hung from her jaw in flaps, there was a bulge in her midsection that even the shapeless dress couldn't hide. Her gray head was bald in spots, her hair uncut and unstyled, pulled into a sloppy bun with her arthritic fingers.
"Arthur. Imagine running into you like this."
He smiled and said, "Here, let me help you with that," since she was staggering under the weight of her packages. He had absolutely no idea who she was.
"Thank you, dear. Isn't it nice to have a Wal-Mart so convenient? Remember when we used to have to drive all the way up to Chattanooga?"
She unlocked the passenger side door of a Dodge pickup truck and opened it for Arthur. The dashboard was covered with styrofoam coffee cups and crumpled fast food wrappers. "Just put it on the floor there. Thank you so much."
When Arthur turned she said, "What a lucky thing, finding you like this. You know Bill Senior wanted you to come to dinner one night. I've got a big pot of turnip greens sitting on the eye right now. I could fix up some biscuits and gravy to go with it and feed you a real down home meal tonight."
So this was Ida Burch. Arthur was shocked by the change in her. He remembered her as round and cheerful as Billy, but she looked decades older than her husband now.
When Arthur hesitated, she said wheedlingly, "I bet you haven't had a decent plate of greens in twenty years."
Her breath was so rank that Arthur recoiled, but he felt a flood of pity. He had been at too many deathbeds during the plague years in Los Angeles not to recognize the stench of mortal decay. No wonder she looked so old. She was dying. Cancer, he supposed, or cirrhosis or kidney failure-- "I wouldn't want you to go to any trouble on my account, Mrs. Burch." he said.
"Why it's no trouble. Not for Miz Virginia's grandson. Your grandmama was the kindest woman on the face of the earth. Bill Senior and I never will forget how good she was to us when we lost our boy."
Arthur remembered that the Burch's only child had died in infancy. He himself must have been very young at the time. His only memory was of comings and goings late in the night, and hushed conferences when the adults thought he couldn't hear.
Ida grasped one of Arthur's hands in her own withered, yellowish claw. "Your grandmama came to visit me in the hospital nearly every day, did you know that?"
"No," Arthur said gently. "I was too young to really know what was happening."
"And the reverend never would tell us who paid for the funeral, but of course we knew. And there was the finest spray of red roses on the coffin. Billy Senior had been so strong up till then, but when he saw those flowers he cried like a baby." Ida kept a firm grip on Arthur's hand. "Sometimes it's hard to submit yourself to the Lord's will, ain't it?"
Robin expected that the crowds would pick up again over the weekend, but this Thursday afternoon Rivercraft felt like a ghost town. She hadn't seen a sign of a customer in over an hour. At least the rain had stopped, though, and the day was beautiful. If nothing else, it was good to get out of the studio for a few days.
A potter named Leroy Trent stopped by her booth to complain about the lack of customers. His hang-dog brown eyes were sadder than ever, and even though it hadn't rained all day, his long hair was tangled and damp looking as though he'd been caught in a squall.
"It just gets worse every year," he said morosely, pulling up a lawn chair uninvited and sitting down heavily next to her.
"What gets worse?"
"It's all just a prestige thing. The committee doesn't care a rat's ass about promoting the arts. They just want artists who are big name enough not to have day jobs. So we all end up sitting around in the rain waiting for the weekend when we can actually make a sale or two. It's makes me sick to my stomach."
"It's not raining today."
"You know what I mean."
"Mmm." Robin said noncommittally, hoping he would go away.
"And it's not like I can afford the time away from the studio. You know I lost my biggest kiln a couple of months ago? I was hoping I could make enough money at Rivercraft to buy a new one, but so far it's a bust."
"What happened to it?" Robin was thinking of the new kiln she and Charlie had bought this past summer. "Did the coils blow out? They could probably be replaced."
"No, I lost the whole thing. I was using some clay I dug from that quarry on the ridge, and the whole mess melted into slag. Biggest goddamn mess you ever saw."
"I'm sorry. You think it was the glaze?"
"Nuh-uh. It was that fucking clay. Last time I use clay from the ridge, I'll tell you that." Leroy looked up. "Whoops, you've got a customer. Looks like he might have cash in hand, too." Leroy stood, but before he left he patted Robin's shoulder with unwelcome familiarity. "Good luck. Be seeing you."
I hope not, she thought.
She looked up the path. Coming down from the woods was a slight, sallow faced man in an expensive suit. He stopped at Robin's booth but didn't seem interested in any of the glass. Staring straight at her, he smiled insincerely and said, "Hello, Robin Johnson. My name is Mr. Sam."
The Burches lived in one of a cluster of ranch houses built in a dark hollow down the back side of the ridge. Arthur followed the winding road through the woods cautiously in the early twilight. Little had changed here since his childhood. The road was paved now, but treacherous with potholes and loose gravel. What must have seemed like a promising new subdivision when Billy Burch had bought his house in 1960 had been entirely bypassed when the freeway went east around Riverbend instead of west. The corner grocery was boarded over, and the woods had moved in to reclaim the bulldozed lots. Red slopes of erosion, raw as open wounds, were still visible through the underbrush.
The concrete drive in front of the Burch's house was cracked and crumbling into pebbles. The boxwood hedges had been allowed to grow up into vast, amorphous shapes that loomed on both sides of the screen porch, and ivy covered not only the house but all the trees in the front yard as well, and was even making inroads upon the satellite dish.
Getting out of the car, Arthur crossed the front walk, lined with monkey grass that looked black in the twilight. He could smell the promised greens simmering. Billy met him at the door. "Well, don't just stand out there in the cold, my boy. The missus has got us a real fine dinner on the way."
Arthur held out his offering. "They're from the orchard."
"Well you didn't need to do that," Billy accepted the basket of apples reluctantly. "So that old orchard behind Drake House is still there, is it? What kind of apples are they?"
"You know, I'm not really sure."
"Ida and I don't much care for apples, unless they're them Golden Delicious. So you take them back with you when you go, you hear? I'm sure you can use them."
The inside of the Burch's home was almost as dark as their yard. The living room was lit by a single low-watt bulb tucked away behind an ornate shade. The television set was turned to the Court T.V. channel, where an impassioned prosecutor with an overly broad drawl seemed to be making closing arguments in a murder case, outlining in gruesome detail the atrocities the victim had suffered before death. He waved the broken shaft of the murder weapon before the eyes of the jury.
"Terrible world we live in, ain;t it?" Billy commented mildly. "Now why would you want to put something like that on television in the first place?"
"How is Rivercraft going?" Arthur asked. "I hope you've made a lot of sales."
Billy shrugged without looking away from the television. "People don't seem very eager to part with their money this year. How 'bout you, Arthur? You changed your mind about that dining room table?"
Arthur smiled. "Can I do anything to help with dinner?"
"You just sit there. Being a bachelor all these years, I guess you don't know that a woman won't thank you for messin' around in her kitchen." He laughed, showing yellow teeth. "We're gonna have to get busy and find you a wife now that you're home."
Billy resumed staring at the T.V. set. Arthur looked around. The walls of the Burch's living room were barnacled with commemorative plates that showed the destinations of a hundred long-past vacations. Indian reservations, state capitals, rock formations. Crowded on the end table beside the sofa was an extensive collection of plastic Disney figurines, and a ceramic castle adorned with Austrian crystals that reflected the light from the television set.
Ida came to the door of the living room. Lines of exhaustion were etched across her face, but her eyes lit up when she saw Arthur, and she exclaimed in delight, "I thought I heard a car pull up in the drive. Bill Senior, why didn't you ask Arthur if he wanted a glass of ice tea?"
"Woman's trying to turn me into a waiter," he grumbled.
"How do you like your tea, dear? With lemon and sugar?"
"Just lemon thank you. But I'm afraid you're going to a lot of trouble. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"You just sit down and I'll bring you a nice glass of tea."
"That's all right," Arthur said quickly, appalled at the thought of Ida making a single extra trip from the kitchen on his behalf. "I'll fix it myself, if you don't mind."
"Now, Arthur--" she began ominously.
"I like just the right amount of lemon. It's easier for me to do it."
She smiled. "Now isn't that something? Bill Senior's particular about his ice tea too."
The kitchen was as thickly encrusted as the living room. Arthur wondered where Ida found room to cook. Appliances, mason jars, cook books and newspapers were piled in dusty heaps as high as the bottom of the cabinets. Stumbling over a box on the floor, Arthur looked down and saw it was filled with turnips, some soft with rot, others beginning to bristle with roots.
"Here's the lemon," Ida said. "Here's the tea." She set a chipped brown tea pot down, tea bag strings trailing from under the lid. "If you don't like it so strong, you can add a little water."
Having once ensconced himself in the kitchen, it was easier for Arthur to make himself useful. At Ida's direction, he lifted the kettle off the stove, and ladled the steaming turnip greens into a blue china serving bowl. Ida fluttered around him, uncomfortable with his help but flattered by the unfamiliar attention. She was panting a little with the effort of cooking, and sweat stood out in beads across her withered brow. A thin brown crust was visible on her lower lip, and the open sore on the inside of her left wrist looked as though it had been there for a very long time.
The dining room table was set with the same blue china, chipped from decades of use. Arthur carried in the greens, a platter of biscuits, and then the pitcher of thick white gravy. Billy snorted in derision from the living room, "Next thing you know she'll have you doing the dishes."
"You leave the boy alone," Ida said. "He's our guest. Come to the table, Bill Senior. We're ready for you to say grace."
He didn't turn off the television before joining them in the dining room, and throughout his long, extemporaneous prayer for the bounty spread before them, Arthur could hear the D.A. pleading for a verdict of murder in the first degree.
There was little conversation during dinner. Ida and Billy ate with single-minded concentration. No one had drawn the dining room curtains, and as evening came on, the view of the ivy-choked trees out front was replaced by a reflection of the three of them sitting at the dining room table. Arthur was surprised to see how ordinary they looked. He might have been an adult son sharing dinner with his aging parents, so comfortable their image seemed in the glass.
And then Billy Burch laid his fork down and said, "I don't mean to judge you, my boy, but you know you did wrong, staying away out there in California after your folks had already left Drake House. Two years now, there haven't been any Drakes living on the ridge, and you know that ain't right."
Arthur blinked in surprise. Ida shifted in her chair, as if she were in physical pain, but she was smiling at her husband's words. Both of them were watching him expectantly, but Arthur, after allowing another moment of silence to go by, simply took another bite of greens.
The air of disappointment around the table was almost palpable. Billy and Ida exchanged meaningful looks, and then Billy pushed his plate aside and declared, "Arthur, the missus and I feel we have a responsibility, and it's not right to let things go on as they are without saying something."
"Now you just hear me out, if you would."
The decongestant Arthur had taken earlier made him feel as though someone had cracked open his skull and scooped out all the contents. He sat waiting for whatever it was Billy and Ida had decided he needed to hear, with the not entirely unpleasant sense of being a million miles away.
"Have you been saved, Arthur?"
"It's a simple question. Have you accepted Jesus into your heart?"
"Forgive me, Mr. Burch," Arthur said, after a moment of hesitation. "I don't mean to seem rude. Especially after you and Mrs. Burch have been so kind. But my--spiritual life is private."
"If you knew Jesus as your savior, you wouldn't be to be hemming and hawing like that."
"I can't see that the state of my soul is any of your business," Arthur said sharply, finally beginning to lose his temper, but Billy only laughed.
That's right, boy. It's all right to get a little het up. It shows the spirit's workin on you."
Since there didn't seem to be any way out of this conversation short of physically removing himself, Arthur said, "Mrs. Burch, thank you for a lovely dinner. I'm afraid I do have to be going now."
"The state of your soul is everybody's business," Billy said as Arthur got up from the table. "Don't you know that the Lord's vengeance is visited on the little children, even unto the seventh generation? Why do you think my son was born with no face and his heart on the outside of his chest?"
Arthur backed away.
"'They have dealt treacherously with the Lord,' Hosea said. 'And they have begotten strange children.'"
By the time Arthur got home that evening, he was seriously wondering if he ought to talk to someone at county social services about the Burches. Neither one of them seemed quite right in the head, and although Ida was clearly in desperate need of medical attention, Arthur suspected they were doing nothing but allowing God to wreak His evidently vengeful will upon her.
He was letting himself in the front door in darkness when his foot hit something on the threshold. He groped for the porch light switch inside the door. A slender book with a glossy gray cover had been propped up against the door panels. He picked it up. A City Under the Hill, read the cover. And underneath, An Informal History of Riverbend Published by the Riverbend Historical Society.
Arthur turned to the title page. The frontispiece depicted an etching of Pioneer Ridge before Riverbend had grown up at its foot. Beneath the title was a note in his aunt's mannered hand.
"Arthur! So sorry we missed you! Clarence & I will stop by another time. Thought you would enjoy this. Hugs & kisses. Betty."
He shut the front door behind himself and locked up. On the way back to the bedroom he flipped through the book looking at the illustrations. A lush painting of the river valley, an artist's conception of the Battle of Riverbend, with Union and Confederate troops both grim faced and boyish, a sepia-toned photograph of downtown Riverbend with the courthouse only half-finished, a WPA-era photograph of Cherokee Dam.
And then Arthur found the photograph of his grandmother, and the hairs on the back of his neck prickled. She gazed out at him from the page with that pitiless stare that he remembered so well from his childhood, and it took a conscious effort not to slam the book shut.
CHAPTER 10: Malibu
Saturday morning Arthur was awakened by a violent knocking on his front door. He sat bolt upright in bed, gasping with shock, but then thinking, with a certain grim triumph, that his new voice recorder was certain to pick up a racket like that.
Then Marc yelled, "Hey Arthur, you in there? Open up."
He bounded out of bed and flung open the front door. "What are you doing here?"
"Yeah, it's good to see you too. Do you know who that guy is up at the big house?"
"You didn't wake up Gavin and Dennis, did you?"
"Just one guy came to the door. The real pretty blonde. What's the other one look like?"
"You woke up Gavin."
"So that's what he's calling himself these days." Marc stepped around Arthur into the living room and examined it appraisingly. "Kind of a dump compared to that mansion up the hill, isn't it?"
Arthur shook his head, but he was smiling. "It's wonderful to see you."
"You still sick?"
"I'm getting over it."
"Then don't get too close," Marc said sternly, putting his palm over Arthur's mouth and kissing the back of his own hand. "Do you know who your tenant really is?"
"I wish you hadn't bothered them at this hour of the morning."
"How else was I supposed to find you? This place is laid out like Hearst Castle. I know you always told me the place was big, but I was only thinking L.A. big. You can't even see your neighbors from here. Do you even have any neighbors?"
"Five miles down the road or so. I can't believe you drove up here. I thought you had too much work."
"Well I was awake at four this morning anyway, and I was too wired from studying to sleep. I thought I might as well drive up here to see if I could get breakfast out of you. But would you shut up and listen to me for half a minute? I'm telling you, that Gavin person is Johnny Reb."
"Who's Johnny Reb?"
Marc groaned in exasperation. "Don't tell me you've never heard of him. Reb used to be one of Malibu's biggest stars."
"Malibu?" Arthur asked, still puzzled.
"Oh, you know. Malibu Video. They do that great calendar every year. The one I had in my bedroom back in L.A."
Wait a minute," Arthur said slowly. "You mean a porn house? You think Gavin was a model? Come off it, Marc. The man's a corporate lawyer."
Marc grinned. "And now we know how he put himself through law school. You know he has a ten inch dick?"
"No," Arthur said, exasperated. "He hasn't shown it to me."
"He better not. I hope you've made it clear you're already spoken for."
"Don't be ridiculous. He can't possibly be the same person."
"Oh yes he is. I even had this real thing for him for a while. There was this one scene in 'Gestapo Boys' with him and two other guys that I used as a j.o. fantasy for months."
Arthur frowned. "'Gestapo Boys'?"
"They weren't really Nazis," Marc said impatiently. "But believe me, that's one face I'm not likely to forget."
"I doubt his face is what you were concentrating on."
"Don't be gross," Marc sniffed. "You can believe me or not, but I know that guy is Johnny Reb. The same sexy Southern accent and everything. Here I thought I was finally getting away from the West Hollywood meat market, and what do I find? My own boyfriend's renting the family house to a porn star."
"You didn't say anything to him, did you?"
"It took me a minute to figure out why he looked so familiar."
"Just promise me you won't say anything to Gavin."
"Relax already. Reb's secret identity is safe with me." Marc began browsing through the kitchen cabinets. "So you got anything for breakfast around here?"
"There's toast. I'll make us some coffee."
"I drove up from Atlanta for toast and coffee? I bet you don't even have sugar for the coffee."
"If I'd known you were coming--"
"Forget it. Let's go out. Is that dive I passed on the way through town any good?"
"I don't know if the same people are running Hank's now, but they always had wonderful grits and country ham."
Marc made a face. "It's better than nothing. Hurry up and get dressed. I'm starving."
"I'll be just a minute."
"Hey, and you haven't seen my car yet." Marc pulled open the living room curtains. "Check it out."
Arthur looked out. Parked in front of the cabin was a fire engine red convertible.
"A Miata? Marc, I thought your parents wanted you to get a Saturn."
"Yeah, well, they're not going to be driving it, are they?"
"Do you know how cold it gets here? How often it rains?"
"Don't nag." Marc came up behind Arthur and wrapped his arms around him. "It's a great car. And I had a blast driving it up here."
The warmth of Marc's chest pressed to his bare back made Arthur close his eyes.
"Besides, I would have thought you'd want me to have a cool set of wheels," Marc went on, his lips almost touching Arthur's ear. "It gives me an incentive to drive up here and see you once in a while."
Arthur smiled, his eyes still closed. "I think it's a beautiful car."
At dawn Charlie was standing on the sandstone bluffs that overlooked the river valley. Behind him lay a narrow strip of woods, then the meadow where Simon and Beau were pastured. A mist was rising from the surface of the river far below, spreading slowly up through the valley until just the backs of the hills were visible through the white sea.
It made the back of Charlie's scalp crawl to stand here like this with his back to the woods, but he held his ground, watching the mist as it obscured the autumn colored leaves far below. He would not turn around. He refused to glance back, even when leaves began to rustle nearby. It was only a squirrel burying hickory nuts, or a late robin, he told himself, his hands curled into tight fists at his side. There was nothing else in the woods, and there never had been.
A mockingbird erupted into noisy song just overhead. Charlie grunted in surprise and looked up. The sky was a pale, pristine blue, growing brighter as the sun rose. It was going to be a beautiful day.
At length he turned and followed the path back through the woods. He was a little surprised, when he reached the pasture, to find Beau and Simon standing in the middle of the field instead of having their noses buried in the trough.
"What's the matter with breakfast?" Charlie called across the field to them. "If I get up at this hour to feed you nags, the least you can do is eat.
Twin pairs of huge brown eyes rolled in Charlie's direction, but neither horse moved. Charlie crossed the pasture to them. "Here boy," he said, reaching a hand out to stroke Beau's withers. "What's the matter with you?"
The gelding was sweating and shivering as if he'd just galloped around the field, but Charlie would have heard the horses if either one had been running. Simon was in the same state, snorting and blowing, a froth on his lips and his flanks glossy with sweat. Charlie turned slowly, looking at the woods all around them, still misty in the dawn light.
Then he saw it, moving fast along the far edge of the meadow. He had an unobstructed view of the thing just for an instant, silhouetted pale against the dark underbrush. Then it turned, breaking through a stand of mountain laurel and rhododendron, and vanished into the woods.
Robin was already up and showered by the time he got back to the house, sitting at the breakfast table spooning blueberry yogurt out of a cup.
"Where have you been?" she asked him.
"Taking care of the horses."
"All this time?"
"I had to put them in the barn." Charlie found a box of shredded wheat in the cabinet and sat down at the table across from Robin.
That made her look up. "Why'd you do that? Does it look like rain?"
"I don't think it's safe for them out in the pasture."
"Oh, Charlie. You're not still seeing things out in the woods, are you? I thought we were finally done with all that."
Charlie raised his head and look balefully across the table at her. Her hair was still damp from the shower, her face scrubbed red. For an instant he thought that he hated her more than he had ever hated anyone in his life.
"I saw it this morning at the edge of the pasture. In broad daylight, Robin."
There was a long silence. Then Charlie lied, "It must be a wild dog. Somebody's German Shepherd gone feral, I guess. Or rabid."
"Then we ought to call animal control and get someone up here to take care of it."
"No," Charlie said, "I'll take care of it."
She frowned. "Not today, I hope. I'm counting on you. It's going to be the busiest day of Rivercraft."
"Of course not today. I said I would be there to help, and I will be."
"Is everything OK at work?"
The question surprised him. "Why wouldn't it be?"
She put down the spoon and crossed her arms on the table, smiling at him faintly. "Don't take this the wrong way, honeybunch, but you haven't exactly been a barrel of fun lately.
"Everything's fine at work."
"There was a guy at the festival yesterday. He said he was from Washington to tour the Cherokee River Dam, so I figured you must be in the middle of a review or something. Is it about those downsizing programs? If you're worried about losing your job, Charlie, I wish you'd talk to me about it instead of keeping it all bottled up inside."
"There's no review going on. Who was he?"
Robin shrugged. "I don't remember his name. But he said he knew you--that's why he stopped by to see my booth. A creepy little guy. I was feeling sorry for you if you were having to show him around the dam."
"Why the hell didn't you tell me about this before?"
"Don't yell at me," Robin said, very quietly.
Charlie got up violently from the table, turned around and slammed his fist into a cabinet door with such force that dishes rattled inside.
"OK, that's it." Robin stood up. "I need to go set up for the show. If you can act like a civilized human being I could use your help, otherwise, I think I'd be better off doing it myself."
She stopped in the kitchen door on her way out and stood with her back to him. It took a painful effort for Charlie to swallow his anger and say, in a reasonably level tone, "I'm sorry."
She turned around slowly.
"The man at Rivercraft. I've seen him before, but not at work. He came to the house one afternoon while you were away."
Robin looked puzzled.
"He told me he was D.O.E. But I called the Energy Department the next day, and they don't know a thing about him."
At this hour on a Saturday morning the streets of Riverbend were crowded with pickup trucks, mostly farmers coming in early to pick up supplies from the Feed & Seed. Marc's red Miata drew stares as he rounded the town square. All the parking places in front of Hank's diner were full. "Popular place," Marc grumbled. "I guess folks around here just can't get enough grits."
"Go around the square one more time," Arthur directed, smiling. "I think there was a space right in front of the court house."
An ancient Cadillac with a rusted trunk and a confederate flag stretched across the back window pulled out in front of them so suddenly that Marc had to slam on the brakes and swerve to keep from hitting them. "Fucking rednecks," Marc snarled, and leaned on the horn. The din was shocking in the little town square.
Arthur knocked his arm off the horn. "Cut it out. This isn't L.A."
The Cadillac stopped so violently that the car rocked on its threadbare tires.
"Back up," Arthur said quietly. "Pull around them and keep going."
"Are you nuts? They pulled out right in front of me." He hit the horn again and yelled, "Get that piece of junk out of the road "
Doors swung open on both sides of the Cadillac. The two men who got out weren't much older than Marc, but a diet of fried chicken and biscuits, moon pies and Budweiser had already taken its toll. Dirty t-shirts were stretched tight over premature beer guts. Lank hair hung down long in the back. "Hey faggot," one of them said. "You talkin' to me?"
"Get the fuck out of the road," Marc yelled back.
"You wanna make me?"
Marc turned off the ignition.
"Don't do this," Arthur pleaded quietly.
With a quick look of disgust in Arthur's direction, Marc got out of the car, slamming the door behind him. With a sense that he wasn't really here and this couldn't really be happening, Arthur slowly got out as well.
A white pickup truck pulled up and stopped. The driver rolled down the window. "Hey, how about gettin' out of the road?"
Arthur's head snapped around. "Charlie?"
Charlie's big shoulders winced a little. Then he shook his head. "I shoulda known."
Robin leaned out the passenger side window, smiling. A big dog sat on the seat between them. "Morning, Arthur. Nice car."
With the arrival of witnesses, Marc and the other two had begun to look a little foolish. Charlie called to them, "Zeke, Bobbie Jay, what do you boys think you're doing blocking traffic like that? Get that car outta the way and get on home."
They bristled. "Aw, c'mon Charlie," the driver said. "Don't tell me you know these assholes."
Charlie opened the door and got down out of the cab. "I mean it, now. Get on out of here before the sheriff sees how far out of date the tags on that rattletrap are."
"Well, you tell your friends to watch their effing manners, 'scuse my French," the driver said, nodding to Robin. They climbed into the Cadillac and roared off in a cloud of greasy black smoke.
Charlie turned back to Marc and Arthur. He was not smiling, and he looked at Marc for a long moment before saying, "Well. This has sure been one hell of a morning."
"Hello, Charlie," said Arthur.
Next: The Death of Clara Kimble