Last Night on Findy Sickle Ridge

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Part III: VIRGINIA'S TRUST

Chapter 26: Christmas Day

Arthur's Aunt Betty was wearing a red mohair sweater with "Merry Christmas" embroidered in gold across her chest. The hospital lights were dazzling on the metallic thread as she leaned across Arthur's bed to answer the phone.

"Hello? April! Oh, honey, we were just about to call you. Arthur's awake now."

She put one hand over the mouthpiece, and her voice dropped to a theatrical whisper. "Arthur, dear heart, it's your mother on the phone. Do you feel well enough to talk to her?"

"Yes, of course I do."

"April, it's a mercy you can't see him right now, with a cast all the way up his leg and his poor little face all bruised and frostbitten. It would break your heart."

"Please don't tell her that," Arthur protested.

"Now don't tire yourself out talking. April, I'm going to put Arthur on the phone now. Here you go."

"Hi, Mom." Arthur said, feeling a little shy. They hadn't talked in nearly two months.

"How are you feeling?"

"I'm going to be fine--oh Mom, please don't cry."

"I don't mean to act like an hysterical mother," April sniffed. "But you don't know what it's been like. Waking up on Christmas morning to be told that your son has almost died."

"I'll try to time my accidents better from now on."

"I've been sitting here all day and thinking if only we had come up for Christmas, you wouldn't have been driving on the ridge by yourself. And I told Betty she had no business letting you go last night, not with the weather so bad."

"It wasn't Betty's fault."

"I can be on the very next plane home. I wanted to fly back this morning, but Betty convinced me to wait until we knew how serious it was."

Arthur silently blessed his Aunt Betty. "I'm going to be fine. There's really no reason for you to come home."

"But you can't possibly stay in that little cabin all by yourself with a broken leg. Who's going to take care of you?"

"It's not broken. It's just my knee."

"You've got a cast on your leg, don't you? I can't imagine how you're going to get up and down the front steps."

Arthur hadn't considered that either, but he said, "I'm sure I can work something out."

"Is she asking you where you're going to stay?" Betty interrupted. "Let me have the phone, dear." She gently pried the phone from Arthur's grip. "April, don't you worry about a thing. Arthur can stay with us."

Arthur's Uncle Clarence was sitting in the corner of the room with his Reader's Digest, and he glanced up at Betty's sudden pronouncement, looking rather startled. "Thank you," Arthur said hastily. "But really, I'll just be going home."

"Hey, Arthur," Gavin stuck his head around the door. "Merry Christmas. Are you well enough for visitors?"

"Oh, April," Betty shrilled, "Guess who just showed up. It's one of those brave men from last night. Hello, I'm Betty Gilbert. I'm Arthur's aunt."

"I know," Gavin said. "We met in the Emergency Room. I'm Gavin Edders."

"Oh, you'll have to forgive me. I was so frightened last night, it's a wonder I could remember my own name."

"It was pretty hectic." Gavin smiled. "How are you feeling, Arthur?"

"Not bad. Except for a big bruise right here." Arthur laid his hand on his chest just below his sternum. "Please don't take this as a complaint, but I always thought the Heimlich maneuver was for choking victims, not car accidents."

"So I panicked." Gavin grinned down at him. "You're alive, aren't you? The next time you turn your car over, do us all a favor and just stay put instead of wandering off to find the nearest body of water."

Clarence laid aside the Reader's Digest and stood up to shake Gavin's hand. "Clarence Gilbert," he said. "It's an honor to meet you. We're all very grateful."

Gavin beamed with innocent pride. "The snow was coming down so hard, we almost didn't see the car at all. I just happened to see one of the wheels over the edge of the ditch as we drove by."

"Well, we're all awfully glad you did, aren't we, Arthur?" Betty said.

"You saved my life," Arthur said.

Gavin blushed. "Well, Dennis deserves most of the credit. When you weren't in the car, I just figured someone else had already stopped and given you a ride. Dennis was the one who didn't believe that anyone else would be out on the ridge highway on Christmas Eve. He found your tracks going into the woods."

"That's what's so frightening," Betty said. "Arthur, your mother and I just can't understand what possessed you to go wandering away. For goodness sake, you couldn't even walk. What were you thinking of?"

"It was lucky for me that you and Dennis were out last night," Arthur said to Gavin. "Were you driving back from Atlanta?"

"No, we'd just had Christmas dinner at Greystone. There's that fancy hotel there."

"Oh, Greystone used to be a lovely place," Betty interrupted. "But I hear it's changed a lot since those new people from Charlotte bought it. Gavin, this is Arthur's mother on the line. She wants to thank you too."

"Is Dennis here?" Arthur asked.

"No, he's at home. Getting your room fixed up."

"My room?"

"You're not thinking of staying in the cabin, are you? How would you get up and down the stairs?"

"Thank you, Gavin," Betty said. "That's exactly what we were telling Arthur. April, guess what. Gavin and Dennis are going to be putting Arthur up at the big house."

"That's very generous of you," Arthur interrupted. "But it's not necessary."

"Honestly, April, your boy's stubborn streak must come from the Drake side of the family," Betty complained. "Arthur, hon, there's no point in arguing. If you're bound and determined to stay in the guest house, then your mother will have to fly up to take care of you. There's no way you can get by on your own right now. And I'm not just talking about the stairs. There's no shower, and that old footed bathtub would be a death trap. You can't bend over to light the gas logs by yourself, and if you slipped and fell, you could freeze to death out there before anyone found you. I'm sure this offends your sense of manly independence, but that's simply the way it is."

"It won't be so bad," Gavin said, smiling. "We thought you could stay in that bedroom on the first floor, the one with the French windows down the hall from the greenhouse."

"Oh that's perfect," Betty said. "April, they've fixed up the White Room for Arthur."

"It's near the back of the house," Gavin went on, "So you wouldn't even have to see Dennis and me if you didn't want to."

"My privacy isn't the problem," Arthur tried to explain, but this argument was exhausting him. His head and his frostbitten fingers and toes were aching, and a deep, persistent throb had begun to pulse through the ripped tendons around his kneecap. And he needed to use the bedpan.

Betty was the one who saw the weariness on his face. "April, hon, we're going to have to let you go now. We're wearing Arthur out with all this chatter. Yes, of course we'll let you know the minute we need you. Arthur sends all his love to you and Frank."

Once she was off the phone, Betty patted his shoulder and said, "Don't fret, dear heart. You don't have to make any decisions right now. We'll talk about it tomorrow when you're stronger."

"Would you mind sending the nurse in here for a minute?"

"Is something the matter? Of course, you poor thing, you haven't had a second of privacy all afternoon. Clarence, let's go see if the cafeteria is still open. I could use a Co'Cola."

"I'll be going too," Gavin said. "I just wanted to see how you were doing, and be sure you knew you've got a place to stay."

"Merry Christmas, Gavin," Betty said on her way out of the room. "If there's anything you ever need, you be sure and let us know. We'll always be indebted to you. Arthur, Clarence and I will look in on you again before we leave, all right? And I'll send a nurse right in for you."

As soon as Betty and Clarence were out of the room, Gavin turned back to Arthur. "I know you're afraid of imposing on us, but really, that house is huge. Dennis and I could put up half the population of Riverbend before we started to feel crowded. Besides, you're going to need some tender loving care, and I don't mean from your mom or your aunt. Mrs. Gilbert seems like a wonderful lady, but I bet arranging conjugal visits are a little out of her league."

Arthur had to smile. "Well, this isn't exactly the way I'd planned on introducing Marc to the rest of the family."

"He doesn't even know what's happened yet, does he? Do you need us to call him for you?"

"No. He's in Santa Barbara with his family. I don't want to spoil his Christmas."

"Oh. You mean like you've spoiled all of ours?"

"I really am sorry to be inconveniencing so many people. Especially on Christmas."

"Give me a break. The fact that you're still alive makes this a great Christmas for everybody. Are you sure you shouldn't go ahead and tell Marc?"

"I will call him. As soon as I'm out of here."

"When's that going to be?"

"I don't know yet. I was hoping I would get to leave tomorrow, but they told me there could be complications from having water in my lungs, and apparently there's still a chance I could lose some toes to frostbite--"

"Oh my god. Arthur, are you sure you don't want me to call Marc? I don't think you should be going through this all by yourself."

"Haven't you noticed? I'm anything but alone. If it weren't for Betty running interference, Mom and Dad would already be here, not to mention the whole Gilbert side of the family--"

"I don't mean just about the accident. Dennis didn't want me to say anything while you were still in the hospital, but if it was me, I'd want to know that I wasn't the only one."

"I'm sorry, Gavin," Arthur said distractedly, wondering if Betty had forgotten about sending a nurse in. "The only one what?"

"Last night the people in the Emergency Room told us it was just the hypothermia making you talk so crazy."

Arthur got very quiet.

"But you're not crazy. Dennis and I both saw the tracks."

Chapter 27: The Conservatory

Salmon-colored bougainvillea blossoms trailed from a wire basket suspended overhead. The vines were crooked and sparse, a far cry from the lush growth Arthur remembered in Los Angeles. Still, the pale flowers were lovely in the afternoon sunlight.

The sides of the conservatory were etched with frost, the bare silhouettes of the denuded oaks and maples visible in broken outline through the glass. The snow was almost gone, lingering only in sheltered spots behind rocks and on the north side of the trees. Despite the sunlight, the winter landscape on the other side of the glass looked brittle and cold. Icicles hung from the green tile roof of the main house, lengthening the points of the wrought iron trim. Arthur craned his head back to look. The gutters must have been neglected this fall. He would be sure they were tended to come spring.

In his grandmother's day, this room had been filled with ornamental palms and dwarf citrus. Gardenias, jasmine, lily-of-the-valley and tuberose were grown to insure there would be fragrant bouquets for her bedside even in the dead of winter. In later years, Arthur's mother had begun seedlings for her kitchen garden here, and his father had indulged in a dilettantish appreciation for orchids.

Though there were far fewer plants now, Gavin and Dennis had seen to it that the conservatory was kept in good repair. The broken tiles of the central walk had been replaced and a fresh layer of marble chips spread across the floor. The fountain in the northwest corner had been repaired. A water lily bloomed on the surface of the water, and underneath, a school of red goldfish darted in and out of the sunlight. One of Grandmother's dwarf lime trees had even been saved. The trunk was gnarled with age, but a scattering of its white blossoms perfumed the warm, humid air.

Arthur lay on a slat wood steamer chair, pillows propped under his back and leg. A blanket was draped over his shoulders in spite of the warmth of the room, and he felt luxuriously like a Victorian invalid taking a rest cure. The Riverbend Historical Society's book A City Under the Hill lay open on his lap, but he'd scarcely read a word all afternoon. He kept drifting in and out of an easy sleep filled with inconsequential dreams.

It was the last day of the year. Aunt Betty had driven him home from the hospital just this morning.

A rattle that sounded like fingers tapping on glass disturbed his reverie. He looked around, curious, but saw no one. The rapping sound came again, more insistent this time, and Arthur awoke with a start.

On the far side of the door which led from the greenhouse to the back veranda stood a child. She continued to rap with earnest intensity upon the glass until the woman who was with her abruptly reached down and took her hand. Still dull from the afternoon nap, Arthur didn't recognize either of the two at first. But then the child caught his eye and grinned, and he remembered his second cousin Samantha from the Christmas Eve party. The woman with her must be her mother, Eddie's first wife. Arthur smiled back and gestured for them to come in. Beaming, Samantha wrenched at the door until it opened, and then came charging across the room to him, the gravel crunching underfoot. "Did you know Mom wouldn't let me come visit you in the hospital?" she demanded angrily. "Isn't it the most unfair thing you've ever heard of? Oh, wait, I forgot, I brought you something."

She turned and ran back to her mother, who gravely handed her a white poinsettia in a nursery pot. Samantha proudly bore it back to Arthur. "This is because I'm sorry you were in a car accident, and I hope you get better soon. "

"It's beautiful. Thank you very much."

"You're welcome. Can I sign your cast?"

"I wish you could, but it's not plaster." Arthur tapped on the mylar splint. "There's nothing to write on."

"Um, Samantha," the woman at the door prompted gently. "Would you like to introduce me?"

"Oh yeah," Samantha said dismissively. "This is my mom."

She came forward to shake Arthur's hand. "Winnie Gilbert," she said. She was a heavy-set woman with green eyes and a pronounced widow's peak. Her unruly black hair was streaked with silver. "I apologize for just dropping by like this, but Betty insisted it would be all right, and Samantha hasn't given me a moment's peace since she heard about the car wreck."

"Nobody would tell me anything," Samantha explained indignantly. "I just wanted to be sure you were OK."

"I'm sorry you were worried, but I'm going to be fine. And look what a beautiful place I have to stay in while I get better. Did you see the goldfish pond?"

"No," she exclaimed, her eyes getting big. She ran across the greenhouse to see, and Arthur told Winnie, "I'm glad you stopped by. It's an honor for me to meet Samantha's mother."

"Uh-huh. I heard my little angel nearly talked your ear off at the Christmas party."

"She was telling me ghost stories. I'd asked her if she knew any."

"Well, it was very kind of you. Nothing delights her more than having an audience." Winnie's eye fell on the book that lay open on Arthur's lap. "She's like her mother, that way. Betty must have told you we would be stopping by."

"No, we haven't talked since this morning." Arthur picked up the book. "Are you a member of the historical society? Betty gave me this right after I moved home, and I'm just now getting the chance to read it."

"Hey," Samantha called from across the conservatory, "That's Mom's book. I told you she was a writer, remember?"

Arthur opened the cover and looked at the title page. There, after a list of the officers and members of the Riverbend Historical Society, and underneath the credo (ab urbe condita), was the modest acknowledgment, "As compiled by Mrs. Edward Filmore Gilbert."

He looked up and smiled. "This is you?"

"Well, you've met the present Mrs. Eddie Gilbert. Which one of us looks more likely to write a book? Oh, I apologize for being tacky. Just pretend I didn't say that."

"Mom's not supposed to say bad things about Phoebe when I'm around," Samantha called nonchalantly from her perch beside the goldfish pond. "It says so in the divorce decree."

"Little pitchers certainly have big ears," Winnie said, one eyebrow raised. "Yes, this book is my modest contribution to local history."

"You don't know how happy I am to meet you." Arthur flipped through the book until he came to his grandmother's picture. "I was about Samantha's age when she died. It's only now that I'm starting to have questions about who she was and the things she did."

Winnie's tone was cautious. "If my book can answer any of those questions for you, I'm glad. But I'm sure you could learn much more just from a long afternoon talking to your parents."

"My parents and I haven't spent any long afternoons together lately." Arthur said. "And they feel very strongly that my memory of Grandmother shouldn't be tainted by exposure to anything uncomplimentary."

"If you're looking for family skeletons, you won't find any in this book," Winnie said bluntly. "Whose money do you think covered the publishing costs?" Taking the book from Arthur, she studied the picture of his grandmother for a moment. "But Virginia Drake must have been quite a woman. Part of me almost wishes I could have met her."

Arthur didn't remark on her tentative phrasing.

"I'll tell you who you should talk to," Winnie said suddenly. "When you read the chapter on the Drakes, you'll see most of the history is devoted to the paternal side of the family. It's not just sexism," she laughed. "For the longest time I simply couldn't find anything about your grandmother's people."

"Grandfather met her in Tennessee, didn't he?" Arthur said, a dim memory of old family stories coming back to him. "He owned copper mines up there."

"That's what threw me off. Your grandmother's maiden name was Clowry, but I couldn't find any family members in Tennessee. It was just before the book went to press that I discovered why. It turns out her family lived right here all along. Her parents had a farm on the back side of the ridge. She was the oldest of twelve children, and in fact, some of her brothers and sisters are living here still."

"Are you sure?" Arthur said wonderingly. "I never knew anything about them."

"It was just by chance that I happened to find them at all. If you can believe it, it was because of a local snake handler getting bitten and killed during a service."

"And his name was Clowry," Arthur suddenly interrupted. "Justus Clowry, wasn't it? I've heard about it. You mean he was related to my grandmother?"

Winnie nodded. "When I saw his name in the paper, I decided to check it out. Sure enough, he was one of the younger brothers. I went to the funeral and met a couple of her other siblings there. You've got great aunts and uncles living all over the ridge, Arthur. There's one brother, Moody Clowry, who still lives on the farm where Virginia was born. There's another brother in a nursing home in Chattanooga, and two or three sisters still living, too. I can't call their married names right off. Lillie Catherine, Ida, and Ruby Mae, I think. I'd be glad to look it up for you if you're interested."

"Ida? Ida Burch?"

"Oh, that's right. Ida Burch. She was Virginia's youngest sister. But now that I think of it, she died here recently, didn't she?"

"I went to her funeral." Arthur said in a quiet, distant voice.

"My goodness. And you didn't know who she was?"

"No." Arthur said. "I didn't know." He closed his eyes. "I've been a fool."

"Watcha talking about?" Samantha had forsaken the goldfish pond, a little jealous at being left out of the conversation.

"We're talking about Arthur's family," Winnie said brightly. She showed Samantha the picture in the book. "This is his grandmother. Her name was Virginia Drake, and she was a very important and influential lady."

Samantha studied the picture. "She's dead now?"

"Yes," Arthur said. "She died a long time ago."

"I'm sorry," Samantha said. "I would cry and cry if my grandmother died." Her lower lip trembled in sympathy. "Did you cry?"

"No. I don't think I did."

"You didn't?" This was bizarre and alarming to her.

"Well, boys are like that sometimes," Winnie said. "Sometimes they just won't cry no matter how bad they feel."

Samantha wasn't having any of it. "But why didn't you even cry, Arthur? Weren't you sad?"

The morning of Virginia Drake's funeral, the kitchen had been busy with cooks beginning dinner for the gathered family members and mourners. Arthur's mother and father had been in the library with the new pastor of First Baptist, and Arthur had been alone in the nursery. He'd had a red Swiss army knife and a piece of balsa wood from which he intended to carve the hull for a model ship. But as the hours before the funeral wore away, he kept peeling off strips of soft wood until he had nothing left but a heap of shavings.

The third story had been empty since Virginia Drake's body had been carried away in an ambulance two days before. Nevertheless, all morning he had heard her heavy, slow tread passing to and fro overhead. Freed at last from the body that had kept her bedridden for so long, it seemed Grandmother just couldn't bear to lie still any longer.

"I think I was too overwhelmed to grieve," Arthur told Samantha, and somewhat to his surprise, the explanation seemed to satisfy her. "I wish we had a goldfish pond in our house," she said.

~~~

The sun had set by six, and despite the oil heater set discretely behind the fountain and camouflaged with a Wal-Mart house palm still in its plastic pot, the conservatory was too cold for Arthur to stay there any longer. With a blank, hopeless sense of dismay that had nothing to do with the physical difficulty of crossing the two dozen paces to the bedroom, Arthur hauled himself up on his crutches.

Gavin was standing by helplessly, stymied by Arthur's refusal to accept his aid, and finally he called Dennis, who came to the door and asked, "You doing all right there?"

Arthur nodded, a little breathless. The week in bed seemed to have robbed him of all his strength, and his underarms and the palms of his hands ached from the pressure of the crutches. He took another step, his foot dragging in the marble gravel. The doorway from the greenhouse to the main hall loomed like a dark chasm beyond Dennis' broad shoulders. "Because if you need any help," Dennis continued mildly, "It would be stupid not to just ask for it."

"Don't you have a party to get ready for?" Arthur grumbled.

"Everything's done," Gavin informed him. "The champagne's chilled and the egg whites for Dennis's special nog have been beaten to perfection and dusted with nutmeg. Would you like a glass?

"I'll tell you what, Arthur," Dennis said. "If Gavin and I were convinced that you would actually ask for help when you needed it, then we probably wouldn't feel like we had to watch your every step."

"You can't be planning to keep this up for six weeks, are you?"

Gavin flashed his devastating smile. "It's only your first day home. Humor us, would you?"

Arthur swung the ends of the crutches in front of himself and took another step. "I'm just afraid that if I'm too much trouble, you'll start to regret having saved my life." He smiled at both of them. "Please let me get to the bedroom by myself. I promise I'll call if I need any help."

And at last Gavin and Dennis retreated down the long hall, leaving him to face the darkness of Drake House on his own.

Two more laborious steps, and he stood on the threshold. Behind him the fountain trickled softly. Before him stretched the wainscoted corridor. The White Room was just around the corner. Lights were blazing in the room. He could see the very edge of the bed and the heavy damasked drapery that hung from the canopy above.

Then Arthur set the rubber tips of the crutches over the threshold and pulled himself into his grandmother's home.

Chapter 28: New Year's Eve
(The White Room)

A full length portrait of Virginia Drake in her wedding dress hung over the mantle.

She had been a lovely girl, with her dark hair falling long and straight over her shoulders and her arms filled with white roses. A February bride, she had been painted in a winter landscape. The full moon over her head spread a swath of blue light across the snow-covered hills in the distance and touched her pale cheeks with an otherworldly glow. There were stars in her black eyes, and she did not look anything like the unappeasable matriarch of Arthur's memory. She looked, in fact, like what she must have once been, a country girl with rather large hands and feet, whose beauty would fade as quickly as her youth.

It was half past eight. Gavin and Dennis's party guests had just begun arriving. Voices and music echoed through the house.

Arthur was on the phone with his mother.

"Arthur, sweetheart, I'm so glad you called. How are you doing? Are you home yet? I think Betty said they were going to let you come home today."

"I'm home. Gavin and Dennis have the White Room fixed up for me."

"Oh, that's lovely. I've been thinking we ought to do something nice for them, don't you agree? What about a box of Indian River grapefruit?"

"That's a nice thought, Mom."

"How are you feeling? Does Dr. Mayle think you're going to need surgery? You know they can do wonderful things with lasers these days."

"I don't really know. I guess I'll just have to wait and see."

"Well, happy New Year, baby. You go on to bed now, all right? You shouldn't stay up too late tonight, not on your first day home."

"Wait, Mom, before you go. Something's come up that I wanted to ask you about."

"Oh?"

"I met Eddie's first wife today."

"Did you, now. Isn't Winnie an interesting person? I think she must be very intelligent. I suppose you can't really blame Eddie for divorcing her, but isn't it sad for the children? I know it must be especially hard on little Samantha."

"Winnie was telling me about Grandmother's family. Mom, how come you never told me that Ida Burch was a relative?"

"Oh no," April said with a theatrical groan. "Not again."

"You sent me to her funeral, and I didn't even know she was Grandmother's sister."

"Honey, must you run to the phone and accuse me of keeping secrets from you every time something like this comes up?"

"She was my great aunt. Why wouldn't you have told me that?"

"You're the one who moved to California and wouldn't have anything to do with us for twenty years. It's not really very surprising that you don't know much about your family, now is it?"

"You and Dad both lied to me."

April hung up on him.

Virginia Drake watched impassively from her position of honor over the fireplace.

April called him back a moment later.

"What a cruel thing to say. What's gotten into you? It must be the codeine. You'd better give Dr. Mayle a call and let him know that it's starting to affect your judgment."

"That's why you set up the trust fund for the Burches and paid for Ida's funeral. Why did you let me think it was because of what happened to Clara Kimble?"

"No one ever told you any such thing," April said sternly.

"Would you put Dad on the phone, please?"

"No, I will not. The two of you will just get into another argument."

"I'm going to find Grandmother's surviving brothers and sisters. I need to talk to them."

April sighed. "You're a grown man, Arthur, and you can do what you want. But for goodness sakes, please be careful."

"Careful of what?"

"While you're out there nosing around in other people's business, I'm sorry to have to remind you that your own lifestyle isn't exactly above reproach." There was a long moment of silence. Then April announced triumphantly, "It's not so nice to be on the receiving end, is it? If you can't stand the heat, then I'd suggest you stay out of the kitchen."

~~~

Marc had been driving on empty for nearly ten miles by the time he reached the Riverbend exit. It had been stupid to leave Atlanta without a full tank, but he'd been so tired and strung out after his flight from L.A. he simply hadn't given it a thought until the little red silhouette of a fuel pump lit up on his dashboard. He was a mile past the Rocky Face exit by then, and it was too late to do anything but press on and hope he could find a gas station open in Riverbend.

He was in luck. The Handy Andy just off the exit ramp was lit up like an airport runway. Red and green Christmas lights glowed in the plate glass windows. Marc got out and stretched. He was tired and hungry, and a dull, weary ache was throbbing between his shoulder blades. He was beginning to wonder what the hell he was doing up here in the first place.

But the truth was, he knew exactly why he was here.

Arthur was pretty good at keeping his emotions in check most of the time. But he couldn't disguise the naked joy on his face when Marc turned up unexpectedly on his doorstep. And after the harrowing Christmas he'd just spent with the James Family Lunatics, Marc really needed to have someone look at him with such absolute and unconditional love. He hopped an early flight to Atlanta and drove straight from the airport.

When he went in to pay for the gas, he glanced briefly at the hotdogs, their skin puckered from God alone knew how many days of rolling on the stainless steel rods, and instead picked up a quart of milk and a bag of Doritos.
"Nature's perfect food," he said to the cashier as he passed a twenty under the bullet-proof glass to her. A cigarette dangled on her lips, and her little booth behind the cash register was thick with smoke. She stared at him from underneath a red beehive, and didn't say a word as she passed his change back to him.

"Happy New Year to you, too," Marc said cheerfully. He tore open the carton of milk and chugged down half of it on his way to the door, thinking a little unreasonably that Arthur had better have some chilled champagne waiting for him. He lowered the milk carton just in time to see the battered Cadillac with the rebel flag in the back window pull up.

Marc stopped cold.

He told himself that North Georgia was bound to be full of rednecks driving rusted out Caddies. Nevertheless, he turned aside as though suddenly enthralled by the contents of the dairy case, and watched in the security mirror as three good ol' boys in hunting jackets and baseball caps piled out of the front seat. Marc had never seen the third man before. But he certainly knew the first two.

All of them were loud and drunk. One pumped gas while the other two came in, heading for the beer case that covered the entire back wall of the store.

Marc glanced over at the cashier. He supposed he could count on her to call the police, but probably not until after he'd gotten his head pushed through the Slush Puppy machine.

He waited until they carried their twelve-packs of Milwaukee's Best to the counter, then took a deep breath and strode out to his car, keeping his head down and walking fast. It had been one thing to blow these guys off in broad daylight in the middle of town. It was a hell of another story at ten-thirty at night in a deserted filling station. Besides, there were three of them now, and Marc was alone.

"So I'm a big fucking coward," he grumbled to himself. He threw the Doritos bag into the passenger seat and got in. No one noticed him until he slammed the door. Then the man putting gas in the Caddy looked up sharply, and Marc saw the dull spread of recognition across his pock-marked face.

Marc peeled out of the parking lot, not breathing easier until the lights of the gas station had disappeared from his rear view mirror.

A moment later, the lights were back. He glanced up. Another car was coming up fast behind him, a lumbering dark sedan with its high beams on.

Shit.

He definitely should have stayed in Atlanta tonight.

~~~

The only festivities Arthur had ever known in Drake House were the occasional and rather desultory cocktail parties his parents had held in the first few years after his grandmother's death. Sterile, well-dressed men and women standing around in the library or in one of the parlors, sipping martinis from etched goblets, talking loudly and brightly in a vain attempt to conquer the brooding silence of the dark house.

Gavin and Dennis's New Year's Eve party brought back memories of those long past gatherings. Their guests were resplendent in their holiday finery, and as the evening wore on and empty champagne bottles began to pile up in the kitchen, an occasional shrill voice would echo coldly through the upper stories. For the most part, though, the revelers were subdued, as though a little in awe of the venerable pile, or at least, Arthur thought bleakly, of his presence in it.

He had intended to go to bed early and spare Gavin and Dennis the necessity of introducing him to their guests, but with his grandmother's portrait looming over the fireplace and the entire weight of Drake House hanging heavy over his head, he found he was glad of the company. The White Room was down the same corridor as the kitchen, and as the hours rolled away towards midnight, more and more people began congregating in his room. Idle conversations about art galleries and investments and movies opening in Atlanta were a temporary distraction, but it seemed impossible for anyone to be here long without talking about the house.

A physicist from Georgia Tech whom Arthur had mentally christened Sir Isaac, having forgotten the man's name in the welter of introductions, had been arguing earnestly and at some length with Susan who managed a bookstore in Little Five Points. Arthur listened without joining in. He was rather inclined to agree with Susan that Isaac's fears about the threat academic feminism posed to the scientific community were overwrought, but he'd been away from school too many years to care much about names like Foucault and Kristeva anymore.

Isaac had been striding back and forth on the stone hearth before the fireplace, punctuating his argument with stiff little hand gestures, when all of a sudden he stopped, whirled around, and looked up at Virginia Drake's portrait. "A relative of yours?" he demanded.

Arthur nodded. "My grandmother."

Susan was sitting cross-legged on the bed in stocking feet, her patent leather spike heels in an untidy heap on the floor. She smiled at Arthur. "You've got her eyes."

"No one's ever told me that before."

The smile disappeared from Susan's face. "You don't sound very happy about it."

"I just hope I'm not like her in any other way."

"What a cold thing to say about your own grandmother!"

Arthur looked defiantly up at the portrait. The rye in the eggnog was making him feel a little reckless. "I think she must have been a very cold woman."

Susan followed his gaze, looking at the country bride standing in the snow, and said, "Are you sure she wasn't just tough-minded and independent? Back in those days she would have been criticized for having a mind of her own."

Isaac snorted. "Look, if she was a bitch, she was a bitch. It's not necessarily a conspiracy of the patriarchy if she wasn't a very nice person."

"She was very strong-willed," Arthur said. "She ran the family copper mining business almost single-handed for years after Grandfather was killed. She designed this house herself and oversaw the construction of it."

A sly smile spread across Susan's face. "Is that why she's haunting it now?"

Arthur turned his head slowly to look at her.

"Oops. I forgot. Gavin swore me to secrecy, but honestly, a house like this, how could it not be haunted?"

"Is that what Gavin thinks?"

"Oh, he just wishes it was. Have you ever known such a romantic barracuda? He was beside himself when you finally moved back here this fall. We had to hear all the old stories about this place all over again, and about how uptight you would get if anyone even mentioned the possibility of a haunting, which of course Gavin took as proof positive that there must be some truth to it--"

"I'd get uptight too if people were spreading rumors that could lower my property values," Isaac said.

"Give me a break," Susan complained. "Nobody's property values ever went down because of a ghost."

"You don't think so? You know what I heard? The house in Beverly Hills where the Menendez bothers shot their parents has been on the market for five years now. They can't give that place away."

Susan rolled her eyes. "That's completely different."

"Why is it different? I'm not saying it's rational, but if people are afraid of a house, or of things that happened there, they're not going to want to live in it."

Susan looked at Arthur. "Well, you don't like this house, do you? You're not comfortable here."

"Did Gavin tell you that, too?"

"I guess maybe he did, but talking to you now, I can see it's true. Why is that? This is a beautiful place."

"If I am uncomfortable here, it's not because I shotgunned my parents in the living room," Arthur said, smiling thinly. "I promise, they're both alive and well and living in Myrtle Beach"

"Hey, Arthur," Dennis stopped by on his way to the kitchen, two empty champagne bottles in each hand. "Are these people bothering you? Just say the word, and I'll shoo them away."

It was then that the quality of the light in the room began to change. For an instant, Arthur thought that it was his own vision that was darkening. Then Dennis said, "Oh no. Not tonight."

All the lights were growing dimmer. Shadows sprang up in the corners, and the fire on the hearth grew brighter. No one said a word.

A moment later the lights were back. Dennis shook his head. "I better get Gavin and round up some kerosene lamps. Once it starts this, the power's likely to flicker on and off all night long."

"What's going on?" Isaac demanded. "It's not storming outside, is it?" He went to the French windows and pulled back the heavy curtains. He tried the handle. "How do you unlock this?" There was a click. "Never mind. I got it." He swung open the door and stepped out on to the veranda. A cold breeze came in, making the fire die down momentarily, then flare up brighter than before.

He came back in. "It's clouded over some, and the wind's blowing, but it's not snowing yet."

"Shut the door," Susan said. "I'm freezing."

"Sorry." He reached back, but the wind caught the door and slammed it so violently that one of the panes broke with a sharp, brittle crack.

Chapter 29: New Year's Eve
(The Ridge Highway)

Marc rounded the corner of the town square, swung wide around the statue of the confederate soldier, and pulled up short in front of City Hall. Three patrol cars were parked by the side entrance. Riverbend's entire fleet, Marc thought to himself. He was soaked in a cold sweat, and his heart was pounding with terror. The ten miles from the freeway to downtown Riverbend had been the longest in his life, flying past empty car dealerships, deserted carpet mills, and acres of dark farmland, the Cadillac never more than a quarter of a mile behind him the whole way.

But when he finally reached the outskirts of downtown Riverbend, he had looked up to see that the other car was gone.

He sat for a few moments, letting his pulse return to normal. In the cool glow of the street lights, the entire chase seemed more than a little unreal. Maybe he had imagined the whole thing. They hadn't been after him at all. Just some rednecks out on a joy ride. If they had really meant him any harm, why would they have turned off before he even got to town?

Marc shifted into reverse, pulled out of the town square, and turned towards the ridge highway.

~~~

The power had been off for forty-five minutes, and more than half of Gavin and Dennis's guests had already made their apologies and left, preferring the drive back to Atlanta to spending a night without electric lights in Drake House. Most of the remaining guests were gathered in the kitchen, cooking an early breakfast over the gas stove.

A handful of others were gathered in Arthur's bedroom. The kerosene lanterns had all been confiscated for the cooks in the kitchen, and Arthur's room was lit solely by a row of candles burning along the mantle. They cast a lurid glare upon the portrait of his grandmother.

"Fifteen minutes to midnight," Dennis announced glumly. He had pulled up a chair next to Arthur's, and the two of them had polished off the last of the eggnog themselves. His lovingly authentic version, frothing dark yellow with raw egg yolks and fragrant with rye and grated nutmeg, hadn't gone over very well with guests raised on the pasteurized supermarket version. "One thing I can say. This is one New Year's Eve everyone's sure to remember."

"My folks never had much luck giving parties here," Arthur said. "I think the problem is just the way the house is designed. Grandmother loved Victorian novels, and I think she wanted a home where she could throw the kind of country house parties she read about in Dickens and Trollope.

"And did she get to have her parties?" Dennis asked.

"I don't really know," Arthur admitted. "By the time I was old enough to notice, she certainly wasn't throwing parties anymore."

Dennis sighed. "Poor Gavin. He's been looking forward to hosting a bash ever since we moved in. This is the first year the work load at the firm has been light enough for him to even consider taking a long weekend over New Year's."

"I'm sorry," Arthur said. "I hope me being here hasn't--"

"Please don't," Dennis interrupted. "Haven't you noticed? You're a bigger attraction than the house."

~~~

Marc was half way up the ridge before he realized he wasn't alone on the highway anymore.

For a while he had thought that the faint roar he was hearing was the wind in the trees, but then, at last, when his mind was filled with nothing but a vague annoyance with Arthur for living in such a remote corner of the world, and a pleasant fantasy about how he would make him pay for his choice in ancestral homesteads, out of the darkness he heard an engine downshifting.

He saw nothing in his rear view mirror. But after he had made it around the next switchback, he craned his head back and saw the red gleam of his own tail lights reflected on the Cadillac's grill.

Marc swallowed.

They must have been behind him for miles, waiting until he left town, holding back, confident of their quarry. Of course they had known where he was headed. Everyone in this godforsaken backwater knew Arthur Drake and that miserable mansion out in the woods. He should have known better than to think he could shake a carload of deer hunters so easily.

He put his foot to his floor, making the tires squeal around the next curve. The high beams came on, flooding the inside of his little convertible. The lights vanished momentarily as the next curve took him out of their sights, and for a frantic, giddy moment, Marc imagined that he had somehow shaken them. Or better yet, that they had driven off the side of the cliff in the darkness. But then the Cadillac rounded the corner behind him, and the lights came back.

What an awful way to go. Just another sidebar story in next month's Advocate. Brilliant med student's promising career cut short. Suspects boasted "We got ourselves a faggot, didn't we?" Local sheriff denies killing was a hate crime.

Maybe they'd even run a picture of him and Arthur. It was always more poignant when there was a lover left behind. He hoped they'd use that shot of the two of them in the tuxedos they'd rented for a friend's commitment ceremony about a year ago. Well, Marc's tuxedo had been rented.

It occurred to him for the first time that Arthur didn't have that picture up in the cabin. Afraid of unexpected visits from family members, no doubt. It looked like it was too late for Arthur to finish coming out gracefully now. Not if he was going to be quoted in every story in the gay press from here to San Francisco calling for stronger anti-hate crime legislation and the abolition of Georgia's sodomy law.

Marc heard the tires of the Cadillac screaming. He looked up in time to see it fishtailing across the highway. But the car straightened out after a moment, in spite of all the beer the driver must have consumed tonight, and Marc thought bleakly that they probably went hunting dead drunk too.

The other car was still right behind him by the time he crested the top of the ridge. He didn't have much hope anymore. He wasn't at all sure he could continue to outrun them. Besides, now they had a clear shot.

His own headlights jumped crazily over the tree trunks. He wondered what he would do if he made it as far as Drake House. Was he really going to lead these three to Arthur's doorstep? If they got Arthur too, there would be no one left to do justice to Marc's epitaph.

And then there was something besides the trees in his headlights. An impossible flurry of movement, like a bird of unimaginable proportions, frantically beating tremendous wings right in front of him. The headlights strobed white, black, white. Marc yelled out in shocked surprise. Something struck the hood with a thump that rocked the entire car, rolled up the windshield, and opened a jagged tear across the top.

"What the hell--" Marc tried to see where the thing had gone, but his headlights were dimming. They turned from white, to yellow, to amber, finally going out altogether.

The engine died at the same moment.

He turned the key in the ignition over and over again as the car slowed. It finally bumped onto the shoulder and stopped. He fumbled in the glove compartment for his flashlight, flung open the driver's side door and hit the ground running. He'd covered half a dozen paces before he realized something strange.

The lights of the Cadillac should have been illuminating the woods like a search light, but they weren't. And now that he listened, he realized that he couldn't hear anything but the pounding of his own heart.

He ducked behind a tree trunk and decided to risk turning on his flashlight for a moment. Nothing happened. The batteries must be dead. He flung it aside and took off running again. He couldn't hear anyone behind him, but he'd already been fooled once tonight. He had no doubt that he was easier game than a deer, but that didn't mean he was just going to lie down and give up.

He ran along the very edge of the woods, staying as close to the road as he dared. It wouldn't do him any good to escape rednecks only to die of exposure in the forest. The wind was piercing, and after the long week in Santa Barbara he felt the cold keenly. He imagined he could hear, from time to time, thin, hollow voices in the wind.

But then, when he stopped to listen, he realized that there was no one but himself. He was all alone in the woods. He was all alone in the world, running forever under the starless sky.

And then he ran into a mailbox.

It knocked the breath out of him. He stopped only long enough to assure himself that he wasn't dreaming. Then a few steps further he came across a gravel driveway, and he turned down it, almost unable to believe that his luck this evening could have finally changed. Eventually he saw a light flickering through the trees, bright and small as a single candle, and he redoubled his pace.

The light went out at the same time a shotgun blast shattered the stillness of the night.

Marc dropped.

A voice came out of the darkness. "You take another step, and I swear I'll blow your fucking head off!"

"Don't shoot!" Marc screamed back.

"Oh god, Charlie, put the gun down," said a woman's voice.

"Shut up, Robin," he barked, and Marc realized who was shooting at him.

"Charlie! It's me, Marc. Arthur's friend. My car broke down on the road--"

"I don't care who you say you are. Keep your mouth shut and do what I say, or god help me I'll kill you right here."

"What's the matter with you?"

"Unless you want a face full of buckshot, you better do what I tell you. Get up and walk over here where I can see you, or I swear, you'll never walk anywhere again."

"It's pitch black out here. How am I supposed to walk towards you when I can't see my hand in front of my face?"

"You got this far, didn't you? Just keep coming."

Marc got slowly to his feet, starting to wonder if he should have taken his chances with Joe Bob and his friends in the Cadillac. "All right, I'm walking towards you. Just don't shoot."

He deliberately kicked up gravel as he went so that Charlie would be able to hear his approach. At one point he stumbled off the driveway and into a tree, and Charlie snapped, "What are you doing out there?"

"Take it easy. Jesus. I'm coming."

He made his way around the curve of the driveway. Charlie said, "That's far enough. Get down on the ground. Hands behind your head."

"I think you've seen way too many episodes of Cops, don't you?"

"Just do it," Charlie snapped.

Marc knelt gingerly in the middle of the driveway. He couldn't see a thing, but he was close enough to hear the rasp of Charlie's breath. He kept waiting for Robin to speak up for him, but she hadn't said a word. Finally he lay down flat, his hands behind his head. The gravel was rough against his face, and colder than ice. He seemed to have left reality all together. This time yesterday he'd been sitting in his mother's living room, surrounded by the hideous monumental ceramics she picked up from artist colonies in Big Sur and Monterey, listening to her favorite harangue about what a mistake he'd made by going to Emory. How could he ever hope to intern at Santa Barbara General attending med school on the other side of the country?

And now here he was face down in the gravel, with an old boyfriend of Arthur's holding a shotgun on him.

A nerve in back of his left knee was jumping uncontrollably. Charlie said, "You make one move, and I'll send you straight to hell."

Marc tried not to move. It was so quiet and still, he could hear the faint hiss of butane. The warm light of a candle flashed up, and Robin said, in a voice that was trembling with relief, "It's all right, Charlie. It's just the kid."

"Can I get up now?" Marc asked quietly.

A hand that felt weighty and solid as a side of beef reached down pulled him to his feet.

Robin was holding a hurricane lamp with a candle flickering inside. In the uncertain light, both of their faces were drawn and scared.

"Jeez, kid," Charlie said at last. "What are you doing out here?"

"What's the matter with you people?" Marc yelled, suddenly furious.

"I'm sorry if I gave you a scare, but I couldn't take any chances," Charlie said shortly. "The Old Boy's in the woods tonight."


Chapter 30: The Barn Door

When the kettle began to whistle, Robin picked it up with a pot holder and poured boiling water into a mug. "Hot blackberry tea," she said cheerfully. "Just what you need to take the chill off."

The kitchen was already so hot from the wood burning stove that Marc had stripped down to his t-shirt and jeans and still felt a sheen of sweat on his forehead. But he said, "Thank you," and accepted the cup of tea anyway.

Charlie stood in the corner of the kitchen, his arms crossed over his chest. The light from half a dozen candles on the breakfast table glowed on his red beard. "You want whiskey with that, kid?"

"Um, no thanks."

There were three oversized dogs in the kitchen too, sitting as close to the stove as they could. They had barked at Marc with half-hearted interest when he came in, but after being hushed by Charlie, they had gone back to shivering in silence before the stove.

"What the hell did you think you were doing, taking on Zeke and his buddies?" Charlie demanded mildly. He splashed a healthy dose of Jack Daniel's into his own tea cup. "Don't you know those boys are as mean as snakes? They'd as soon shoot you as look at you, all three of them would."

"I didn't take anybody on," Marc protested. "I told you. They saw me at a gas station and chased me all the way up the ridge."

"Well, you're just lucky you didn't get chased straight into an early grave. Does Arthur know you're running around up here by yourself?"

"You're the one who was shooting at me," Marc pointed out.

"I shot into the air." Charlie sounded unrepentant. "And I told you, it's been a real bad night."

~~~

At thirty seconds to midnight, Gavin was standing on the bed holding up an apple, and as Dennis counted down the seconds from his wrist watch, he slowly began to lower it, crawling down off the bed, then crouching on the floor, and at midnight on the dot, depositing the apple carefully on the hearth. The handful of people left at the party cheered and embraced. Arthur was more than a little drunk, and seeing Gavin in Dennis's arms, he noticed for the first time in months what a devastatingly beautiful man he was.

Maybe he should have watched that video Marc rented after all.

Still holding Dennis's hand, Gavin made his way over to Arthur and gave him a demure kiss on the cheek. "Happy New Year." Then an impish grin came over his face and he said to Dennis, "Should I? I may never get a better chance."

"Go ahead," Dennis grinned.

Gavin straddled Arthur's legs, took his head in both hands and kissed him long and hard. There was laughter and applause behind them, but when Arthur opened his eyes and looked over Gavin's shoulder, all he could see was the portrait of his grandmother standing in the snow.

~~~

"Well look," Marc said, "I know I've caused enough trouble tonight. If you'll let me use the phone, I'll just call Arthur to come pick me up."

"You can't," Charlie said. "The phone's out."

"You're kidding."

"It went out the same time as the lights. I know because we tried to call the vet for Beau. Something got into the barn when the lights went off and spooked the horses bad. Beau tore a gash in his side trying to kick his way out of his stall."

"I'm sorry. I guess I'd be a little leery of unexpected visitors too after a night like this," Marc admitted. But the memory of being face down in the driveway still rankled, and he couldn't help adding, "But did you really need the gun once I told you who I was? I've had a bad night too, you know."

Charlie's eyes narrowed, but his voice remained calm. "You don't like it, you're free to take your chances with Bobbie Jay and Zeke on the highway."

"Stop it, Charlie," Robin interrupted. "Marc, don't pay any attention to him. The thing is, we've been having problems for months now--strangers who just seem to drop in out of nowhere saying they're from the Electric Power Board, or the tax assessor's office, or the phone company-- Once it was a man who claimed to be one of Charlie's supervisors from Washington. There was even a woman in my studio class. We get phone calls at all hours of the night--there are strange noises in the woods and lights-- Anyway, when we heard you running up the drive it really scared both of us. I'm sorry if we scared you too, but honestly, sometimes we feel like we're living under siege."

Marc looked at the two of them. "So have you tried calling the police?"

"We've told the phone company about the nuisance calls, but there hasn't really been anything for us to tell the police."

If you'd shot me dead, that would have been something to tell the cops about, wouldn't it? Marc thought, but didn't say out loud. There was no sense antagonizing Robin and Charlie. Especially since he still needed their help.

"If the phone's out, then I guess that means I need a ride to Arthur's. It's not far from here, is it?"

"No, it's not far," Charlie said. "Another five miles or so. But neither one of our cars will start."

Marc stared at him. "What's going on around here?"

"You tell me," Charlie said grimly. He picked up a flashlight from the kitchen counter and pushed the switch. Nothing happened. "The battery in every flashlight in the house is out too."

"I can't believe this," Marc said. Despite the heat in the kitchen, he was starting to feel cold again. "That's just what happened to my car, and to the flashlight in my glove compartment." He had a thought. "It must have happened to the guys who were chasing me, too. I couldn't understand why they didn't catch up with me when my engine died."

"So did you see anything?" Charlie asked.

Robin darted a quick glance at her husband.

"Oh yeah, I saw something all right. Don't ask me to tell you what it was, but it was big. My engine died right then, and I was more scared of the guys behind me, so I didn't try to get a better look. But the crazy thing is, when I first saw it, I could have sworn it had wings."

"It must have been a buzzard," Robin said shortly. "Some of them have a wing span of five feet or more."

"It wasn't any kind of bird. Except for the wings, it could have been a bear--or a deer--"

"Marc, I know you're from L.A., but didn't you even watch nature shows when you were a kid? There's a big difference between a bear and a deer, and neither one of them is winged."

"I think I can tell the difference. You want to know what I think? I think Arthur was dead on about this place. He told me he thought there was something on the ridge. Something ugly and bad that's been hanging around in the woods for a long time."

The edges of Robin's mouth turned down, but Charlie said, "Arthur's right. My dad knew about what's in the woods too. He called him the Old Boy."

Robin got up abruptly from the table, and Charlie said to her, very gently, "I know you don't like this, honeybunch."

"It doesn't matter what I like. Right now I'm worried about Beau. I don't think he can wait until tomorrow."

"You feel up to sewing him together yourself?"

"Oh man." Marc sank down in his chair.

Charlie looked sideways at him. "I thought you were in med school."

"I'm just first year. We haven't started stitching things up yet."

Robin took a candle and went out of the kitchen, returning a minute later with a needle and several lengths of thread that she dropped into a saucepan on top of the wood stove, and covered with boiling water. "If you want, I'll be glad to go ahead and fix a bed for you on the sofa, Marc. But actually, we could use your help out in the barn. Someone needs to hold Beau's head."

~~~

The crash came even before the first minute of the New Year had even ticked away. "Oh my lord," Susan gasped in the moment of shocked silence that followed. "Did the roof just cave in?"

"I don't know," Dennis said, recovering with an effort. "I don't know what that was."

The reverberations from the crash were still echoing through the house.

"It sounds like someone pushed over a wardrobe, doesn't it?" Gavin said.

"I didn't know anyone was upstairs," Dennis said grimly. He picked up a candle from the mantle. "I better go see what it is."

"C'mon, you guys, this is a put on, isn't it?" Susan said skeptically. "You set this whole thing up, didn't you?"

"What?" Gavin said.

"The old haunted house--the power going out--none of the flashlights working, and now this. This is all just a set up, isn't it?"

"Oh, of course it is," Dennis said shortly. "Chasing away most of our guests before midnight was carefully planned too."

Susan picked up a candle. "Well, lead on, then. I don't want to spoil your show."

And it wasn't long before everyone else had picked up candles as well. Arthur noted that for all the discussion, no one seemed very eager to actually lead the way upstairs. Gathered in the hallway clutching their candlesticks, they looked like a reluctant mob out of a Frankenstein movie.

~~~

Marc was relegated to holding the lantern for Robin while Charlie twisted one of Beau's ears hard to make him hold still. The skin on Beau's flanks twitched and rolled nervously, but otherwise he didn't move as Robin worked.

The cut was a long, clean one. Charlie and Robin had looked in vain for the protruding nail or splinter that could have caused such a gash.

"I can't figure it out," Charlie said. "You poor old son of a bitch, what did you do to yourself?"

"Hold that light steady, would you?" Robin asked Marc.

With much persistence, Robin and Charlie had managed to coax the three big dogs out to the barn with them. They sat just outside the stall, ears cocked and alert. The biggest of the three, a massively built hound of some kind with a stiff, wiry gray coat and a head the size of a portable T.V. hadn't stopped whining since they'd gotten out here. Marc was no expert on canine behavior, but he thought if Robin and Charlie expected the dogs to provide any kind of protection from whatever it was that lurked in the woods, they were going to be severely disappointed.

"Oh shut up, Honey Child," Charlie finally snapped, exasperated.

The big dog's ears turned briefly in Charlie's direction. Her whining went up an octave or two.

Marc shifted from one foot to the other. He was so tired that he had begun to hear a ringing in his ears, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to take any of this seriously, not even the horse's torn flank, or the bucket of bloody water at Robin's feet. With a dreamy sense of unreality, he looked at Charlie and tried to see him as Arthur's first lover.

Considered in this light, it didn't seem so strange anymore. Marc knew he and Arthur'd had a fling just a couple of years ago, while Arthur had been home for some family crisis. Marc and Arthur had been going through a rough patch at the time and much later, after he had badgered a confession out of Arthur, Marc had assumed he must have done it out of spite. But now he was beginning to think he had been wrong to dismiss Charlie so casually, married or not. With those burly forearms and that red beard, Marc could see there was something attractive about the man, if you liked bears.

Marc suddenly realized that Charlie was watching him, too, and the expression on his face reminded him forcefully that only half an hour ago, Charlie had been holding a shotgun on him.

Marc quickly looked back towards Robin. Her plain, determined face was calm in the lamplight as she held the flaps of skin together for the needle. Her fingers were blunt and strong. Arthur had told Marc that she was an artist, but just now Marc could see nothing of the ethereal in her. He couldn't help contrasting her to Arthur. Arthur was about as practical as an ermine teacup, but god knew, he was lovely in his bones.

He wondered if it was hard for Charlie to have Arthur back in the neighborhood, even if he did really love Robin. And did he love his wife? Marc hazarded another quick look at Charlie. The two of them seemed as comfortable together as any old married couple he had ever known, gay or straight. A little prickly tonight, perhaps, but then, like Charlie kept reminding him, it had been a bad night.

"Hold that light steady, would you please?" Robin snapped, sounding less tolerant this time. Marc shook his head, realizing he'd been on the verge of drifting off to sleep right in the middle of his soap opera musings about Charlie Johnson's love life.

"Sorry." He yawned and stretched carefully, so as not to jiggle the lamp.

Then he heard something outside the barn. "What was that?"

"It's just Simon," Robin said, without taking her eyes from Beau's flank. "He's in the box stall on the other side."

Marc was momentarily reassured, but then he glanced over the stall door and saw all three of the dogs standing rigid. Then he looked at Charlie and saw the whites of the man's eyes showing round with fear.

"Robin--" Marc began nervously.

Honey Child, the big gray hound, put her head back and howled. Beau snorted in terror and rocked up on his hind legs.

"Easy boy, easy," Charlie shouted, dragging the gelding's head down. Beau kicked the boards at the back of his stall, and Marc flinched. He'd never been this close to so much scared, angry horseflesh before. The bucket of water tipped over, and Robin, scrabbling out from under those hooves, suddenly slipped and sat down hard.

Charlie yelled, "Robin!" Marc dropped the hurricane lamp and grabbed her coat, dragging her back. Something hit his forearm, and his fingers went numb. The spilled oil flared brightly for an instant, then winked out. The only light came from a lantern hanging at the entrance to the barn, thirty feet away. Robin clutched at Marc's shoulder and hauled herself to her feet. Beau was snorting and plunging. At the other end of the barn, Simon whinnied piercingly.

"Get out of the way!" Robin shouted at Marc, giving him a shove. He fumbled blindly for the latch and pushed at the stall door, falling when it unexpectedly swung open. He stumbled to his feet and looked back. Robin and Charlie were both trying in vain to quiet Beau. After hesitating for an instant, Marc turned and went for the lantern. He couldn't help them with a scared horse, but at least he could bring them light.

The barn door stood wide open. Marc was reaching for the lantern when he caught a whiff of something that stopped him in his tracks. He suddenly understood why the horses were going crazy and the dogs were nowhere to be seen. The wild, bitter musk of fur and teeth and blood filled his head, and he reeled back from the darkness beyond the open door.

But then it stepped forward into the light.

Marc saw the horns curving out from its head, the black hooves, and the limpid eyes that regarded him with such calm and utter contempt.

With a slow shake, the massive head turned, and then it disappeared back into the darkness from which it had come.

Chapter 31: Salt Pork

Arthur listened to the progress of the ghosthunters as their leather-soled shoes and high heels crossed the ballroom floor, then clicked noisily over the marble-tiled foyer and began to ascend the main staircase. Susan laughed once, her voice echoing hollow and shrill back through the empty rooms.

It was getting cold in the big house. The power had been off for more than an hour now, and the fire Gavin had built in Arthur's room early this evening had been intended to be decorative, not to provide much heat.

Outside the wind was blowing hard, rattling the glass in the windowpanes and the shutters on the north side of the house. It whistled in the chimneys, and through the pane that Isaac had broken earlier, billowing the white curtains at the window and the heavy damask hanging from the oak canopy over the bed. The draft made chills run up Arthur's spine, and he decided he would try and cover the broken pane himself, rather than waiting until morning.

He groped for the crutches lying on the floor beside his chair and pulled himself to his feet. There ought to be some masking tape in the kitchen.

A sense that the light in the room had changed made him look back towards the fireplace. The hearth fire had become an inferno. White hot flames rose as high as the damper. Arthur had to shield his face from the intensity of the blaze, but the room was still growing colder.

Here it comes, Arthur thought, and his good leg buckled beneath him. He tried to make it to the bed, but one of the crutches slipped on the polished floor. He stumbled forward, grabbing desperately at the curtains above the bed. The frame groaned, and the heavy fabric tore near the curtain rings, but it held long enough for him to lower himself to the floor, his hands whiter than the curtains and trembling with strain.

The cold nuzzled close to him, leeching the remaining strength from his bones. He regretted all the whiskey he'd drunk tonight. He'd known what was going to happen, and he should have kept a clear head.

But he had been afraid.

He'd spent more than a decade deliberately seeking out the nightside, so that the next time he came face to face with the other side of his home he would be ready. He had lingered cautiously on the borders since he came back this fall, gauging its strength, steeling himself against the fluttering, tentative tendrils that had reached out for him in the cabin, all the while telling himself and others that he didn't intend to look into the dark heart of Drake House. Conserving his strength for the confrontation that would come eventually, no matter how far he tried to run.

And still he was afraid.

He found he couldn't let go of the bed curtains. His stomach was churning, and he tasted bile at the back of his throat. The boy who had grown to adulthood in Drake House had come home again, and it was no different from before. He had only the bleak comfort of knowing now that this house on the ridge wasn't unique. In the years he had been away, he had seen other places where the membrane was stretched thin, or had ruptured altogether, other places where a door swung open from time to time.

"All right, I'm here," he said to his grandmother, and his voice sounded like a stranger's. "I've been doing the best I can, but you kept too many secrets. I don't know what you want."

All the life went out of her portrait. In the garish light of the fire the individual brush strokes lost their cohesion, and he could make out nothing but the dramatic blue highlights on the snow, and the smear of white paint intended to represent the lace on her dress.

He looked around the room. He was not alone, but he didn't know what was here with him.

How badly had he misjudged?

Something was in the hallway.

The tendons in Arthur's neck seemed to have turned to ice. He could almost hear them creaking as he forced himself to turn his head and look at it.

A muddy pool of light had collected just beyond the threshold, and in the center was something small and black. No larger than a cat, it sat staring at him with eyes that were smudged and red and harbored no spark of sentience. If it had any other features, they were lost in the blackness of a smooth, wet coat that glistened like sealskin in the firelight. It rocked on its haunches, watching him steadily. Arthur didn't know how long he sat staring back. He thought he should speak, but he had used up the last of his willpower just turning to look at it.

Then a thin cry welled up, wavering and pitiful. Arthur's head snapped up. The sound was coming from overhead, upstairs where Dennis and Gavin's hapless New Year's Eve guests had gone looking for ghosts. It was the sound of a baby crying.

The unnatural fire on the hearth dropped as suddenly as it had flared up. A thick puff of gray smoke billowed up from the smoldering logs. The small dark thing was gone, but it had left a smell in the air, perceptible even over the smoke.

Turnip greens and salt pork. His stomach heaved.

From the furthest reaches of the house, far overhead, someone screamed only once, then began to laugh.

~~~


Marc awoke to the smell of fried eggs, coffee and bacon. He opened his eyes cautiously. A leaden, uninteresting daylight seeped past half-opened curtains. He took in as much of the room as he could without moving his head. The furniture was frayed and leaking wisps of stuffing. The arm chairs all had deep, permanent indentations in the cushions. On the recliner in front of the T.V. the blue tick hound was curled up with his head draped over one arm and a back leg resting on the floor. Honey Child was sitting on the carpet nearby, regarding Marc reproachfully.

Marc shrugged the quilt off his shoulders. The ache in his hip bone and shoulder testified to the inadequate state of the springs on the couch he'd spent the night on.

But despite the gloomy winter light and the battered furniture, the living room itself wasn't dreary. A line of glass bowls were set in a row on a console table in front of the window, and the walls were covered with pictures. In the center was a small oil painting of a stone wall bordering an orchard. The ornate gilt frame seemed out of place next to the clean lines of brushed aluminum or plain blonde wood that framed the other pictures.

Taking his time, he swung his feet around to the floor and sat up, wincing at an unexpected pain in his forearm. Charlie and Robin's voices drifted back to him from the kitchen. He tried to make out what they were saying, but they kept their voices down, probably thinking he was still asleep.

He stood up, and Honey Child raised herself to her full, impressive height. When she was practically nose to nose with Marc, she woofed once.

"Oh, shut up." Marc said. "I've been here all night."

"Good morning!" Robin came to the door, holding a cup of coffee in one hand. Her hair was damp from the shower. "Did you sleep all right?"

Marc nodded, wiping the sleep out of his eyes with the back of his hand.

"Oh, Marc." She said.

"What?"

She set her coffee cup down and turned his arm so he could see the back of his forearm below the elbow. A livid bruise had raised a knot the size of a golf ball. "Is it sore?" she asked, touching it gently.

Marc stared in fascinated dismay. "How did I get that?"

"You got that by not knowing enough to get out of the way of Beau's back feet." Robin answered severely.

"Fine," Marc said, taking his arm back. "Next time I'll just leave you under the horse."

"It was my fault. I never should have asked you to help us, but usually Beau is the sweetest old boy in the world. I don't know what got into him last night."

Marc was silent.

"Let's get some ice on that before it swells up any bigger." Ignoring his protests she probed gently at the bruise. "And you might want to see a doctor, just to be safe. You never know, there might be a little hairline fracture."

"I'm fine."

She looked at him closely. "It was very brave of you," she said seriously. "Thank you." A smile quirked up the corner of her mouth. "I hope Arthur knows how lucky he is have found someone like you. And you can tell him I said so."

Marc grinned back. "Yeah. I will."

"You want a cup of coffee? Charlie's frying some bacon, and we've got some cheese eggs and toast."

"It smells great. Um, could you show me where your bathroom is?"

"It's right back at the end of the hall. Last door on the right. There's towels and wash rags in the closet if you want to take a shower. Just help yourself."

"Thanks. Is your phone working yet? I thought I'd call Arthur to come pick me up."

"Everything was working when we got up this morning, thank goodness. If you don't mind, though, Charlie wants to drive you to your car himself, just to be sure it starts OK. It's the least he can do after last night."

Half an inch of snow had fallen since midnight, and a few flakes were still drifting down in a desultory sort of way. While Charlie and Robin were coaxing the dogs into the back of the van--it not occurring to them, apparently, that it might be possible to drive a quarter of a mile without taking the dogs along--Marc strolled over to the barn and looked at the ground in front of the door. The earth had been churned up by passing feet and dusted with snow.

"Marc," Robin called, "Are you ready to go?"

"Sure. I'm coming."

"See something?" Charlie asked.

"No," Marc said. "I don't."

~~~

"Oh God. My poor car."

It was just where he'd left it on the side of the road, a dent in the hood, the windshield cracked, and a rip in the canvas roof. "Oh, my car," he groaned again.

Robin surveyed the damage more philosophically. "Looks like you hit a deer, all right."

"I didn't hit any deer."

"So what was it?"

"I told you what I saw."

"If I were you," Robin said pragmatically, "I'd tell your insurance company it was a deer."

"Hop in and see if it'll start," Charlie said.

Marc patted his pockets, looking for his keys. "Don't tell me I've lost them."

"You left them in the ignition," Charlie observed.

Marc slid into the seat and turned the key. The engine started without a hitch. "Well that's a relief," he said bleakly. "It'll drive to the body shop under its own power."

Robin was walking back down the road. "Look at this, Charlie," she called.

"What is it?"

When Charlie turned to follow her back, Marc found himself tempted to put the car into drive and not stop until he pulled into the parking garage under his apartment in Atlanta. Instead he pocketed his car keys carefully this time and walked back to them.

The snow had stopped, and a thin, cold sunlight struggled through the clouds. The forest loomed close on both sides of the highway. Under the crowded trunks sprawled briars and ramblers, still covered with the dead leaves of last summer.

"Look at all the oil and antifreeze on the road here," Robin said, pointing to a greasy patch by the shoulder. "You were right, Marc, about Zeke's car dying at the same time yours did. It looks like they must have sat here most of the night."

"Serves them right," Marc muttered. "I hope they froze their redneck asses off last night."

"Hey, hey, watch your language," Robin said. "Some of my best friends are a little rosy under the collar."

Charlie was pacing the ground as though searching for something, stopping every now and then to look speculatively out at the woods. It made Marc feel nervous and vulnerable, the three of them clinging to this narrow strip of civilization asphalted through the wilderness. Scrub pines towered thin and ugly between the hardwoods. Probably this whole region had been logged within the past century. Marc had seen virgin woodland in Oregon, and city boy that he was, he had been moved by the purity of the forest primeval. But there was nothing serene about these woods, where nature had reclaimed its own.

Marc thought about what had come out of the forest to the barn door last night and said abruptly, "So anyway, I appreciate the ride, and breakfast and everything, but I guess I better be going now."

"You're driving to Arthur's?" Charlie said. "We'll follow you there."

"I'm OK. You don't need to do that."

"I want to talk to Arthur."

"Charlie." Robin sounded surprised.

"You said he knows about what's going on up here. And if he does, then I think it's time I had a word with him."


Chapter 32: The Morning After

"I don't understand this at all," Marc complained, banging noisily on the cabin door. "Where the hell is he?"

"Last night was New Year's Eve," Robin pointed out. "He was probably up late."

"Oh, great." Marc cupped his hands against the glass and tried to see into the dark living room. "He was out partying all night with Johnny Reb while I was getting run down and shot at--"

"Johnny Reb?" Robin asked.

"It's a long story." Marc went back to pounding on the door.

"There are cars parked behind the carriage house. Do you think he might be up at the main house?"

"He better not be," Marc growled. "Hey Arthur! Are you in here? Open up the damn door."

Charlie was standing on the lawn in front of the cabin, his arms crossed over his chest in his usual stance. "You don't have a key?" He asked mildly.

Marc bristled. "He usually doesn't keep it locked. Aren't things supposed to pretty safe out here in the woods? Of course, I know better after last night."

Robin lifted a corner of the doormat and picked up a tarnished skeleton key. "Apparently Arthur thinks it still is."

Marc took the key from her without a word, and after struggling with the ancient lock for a minute, finally managed to get the door open. The air inside the cabin was cold and dank.

"Arthur? You in here?"

He walked back to the bedroom, even though he already knew what he would find. The bed was neatly made and quite empty. He picked up a pillow and buried his face in it. It smelled faintly of mildew, but not of Arthur. He flung it aside and went to the bathroom. Arthur's robe was missing from the back of the door, and his razor wasn't in the medicine cabinet. "Oh man, where is he?"

"Maybe he was planning to get away over the holidays," Robin suggested. "Could he have flown down to visit his parents?

This hadn't occurred to Marc. "It's possible, I guess. I bet they would know up at the big house." He turned and strode out. Robin lingered long enough to lock the front door and replace the key under the mat.

Outside, the sun had finally broken through the clouds. The limestone blocks of the main house glowed in the light. There were figures visible in the conservatory on the eastern exposure. "Goddamnit, he has been staying with Reb," Marc exclaimed, breaking into a run. He could just see Arthur sitting under one of the ornamental palms. His back was to the hill, and there was something unnatural about his posture.

A cold fist seemed to close around Marc's heart. He bounded up the broad slate steps from the lawn and crossed the veranda.

Snow lingered in the shade of the stone finials. Marc found a door and wrenched it open. Warm, humid air spilled out in to the cold morning, redolent of humus and growing things. Arthur's head turned. There were other people in the greenhouse, but Marc didn't have time for them now. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he shouted at Arthur. "Don't you know you scared me to death?"

Arthur's startled look gave way to a surprised smile. "Marc," he said, delighted, "What are you doing here?"

"I nearly got killed last night, and here you were the whole time sipping champagne under the banyan tree."

"Marc, I know you've met Gavin before," Arthur interrupted smoothly. He gestured to the other people on the far side of the fountain. "This is Dennis, and Susan and Elaine and Fritz and Michael--"

"Hey, Happy New Year," said Susan, a frazzled blonde woman in stocking feet. She had a glass of champagne in her hand and a coffee cup on the bench in front of her. "So you're Marc? I'd be pissed too if I hadn't been invited to the party. You missed all the excitement."

And Marc finally saw the reason for Arthur's stiff posture. The splint on his left leg extended from his ankle to the top of his thigh. "Oh my God, what happened to you?" He had a terrible thought. "Jesus, it wasn't Zeke and Bobby Jay, was it? Did they come here last night when they couldn't find me?"

"What are you talking about?" Arthur asked in alarm.

"He's been fightin' with the local boys again," Charlie drawled, as he and Robin came in behind Marc. "You really need to have a word with him, Arthur, before somebody gets hurt."

Taking in Arthur's leg and the disheveled guests, he went on, "Looks like you had quite a party yourself last night. Anybody else break anything?"

"This happened a week ago. I turned the car over in that ice storm."

"And you didn't tell me?" Marc said, wounded.

Arthur reached for his hand.

"I didn't want to worry you. It was Christmas."

"Oh Arthur," Robin said, "You shouldn't have been out in that storm. How bad is it?"

"I just dislocated my knee. I'll be out of the cast in four or five weeks. Listen everyone, this is Charlie and Robin. They're neighbors of mine. Charlie and I went to school together."

"Four or five weeks?" Marc said.

"Nice to meet you all," Robin said.

"Are you all right?" Arthur asked Marc. "You didn't really get into a fight last night, did you?"

Marc darted a glance at Charlie. "I'll tell you about it later."

"I wanted to talk to you about some things," Charlie said shortly, "But I don't guess this is the time. Are you going to be staying at the big house until your leg heals up? I'll come by one evening."

"Stop by whenever you like," Arthur said.

Marc frowned. "It's just about the spooky stuff that's going on out in the woods," he said, wanting to be sure there were no misunderstandings about Arthur's invitation. "I told Charlie you had some ideas about what's going on."

"What about the woods?" Gavin asked.

"Is it the ridge light?" said Fritz, the Georgia Tech physicist Arthur had been calling Sir Isaac all night. "I saw an article in the Constitution a couple of months ago. I thought it was just some religious nuts, like those people in Conyers."

"Charlie and I have both seen the lights," Robin said.

"Did the Virgin Mary appear and warn you not to trust Red China?" Fritz asked, grinning.

"It's not just the lights, either," Gavin said, uncharacteristically serious. "There are all the power outages, and the tracks we found where Arthur's car went off the road--"

"What tracks?" Marc asked, but Susan broke in, "And all that noise last night? How do you explain that?"

"We all heard a huge crash upstairs last night, just a few minutes after midnight," Gavin explained to Robin and Charlie. "We never did find out what it was."

"That's your mystery?" Fritz asked, rolling his eyes. "If I were you, Arthur, I'd be getting sick and tired of this whole thing by now."

"Look, just because I got a little nervous doesn't mean there's nothing going on--" Susan defended herself.

Fritz said, "We were upstairs trying to see what had made the noise--"

Susan interrupted, "And I opened the door at the end of the second floor--I guess it must have been the baby's room once upon a time. I had a candle, and when I was looking around, I saw something white and I guess I over reacted a little."

"She screamed her lungs out," Fritz said. "It just about gave the rest of us coronaries too. I don't know what you must have thought, Arthur. That we were all being murdered or something."

"So what was it?" Robin asked.

"That's the embarrassing part," Susan admitted. "It wasn't anything. Just the white bars of a baby crib reflecting in a mirror."

~~~

"I wish you would let me call Paul and have him swear out a criminal complaint," Arthur said. It was the third or fourth time he'd made the suggestion this afternoon.

Marc grunted. He was lying on his stomach on a garden bench, his head resting on his crossed hands, watching the koi in the fountain. The last of the party guests had departed hours ago, and the house was quiet.

Arthur went on, "It's about time someone at Daugherty & Daugherty did something to earn their retainer besides managing trust funds for my long lost relatives."

Marc apparently didn't think that needed an answer from him. He watched one fat-bellied fish with a black mane and a tail touched with copper swim lazily to the surface and then disappear slowly back into the green depths.

"Marc?"

"I'm sorry, Arthur. I don't think so."

"Are you even listening to me? Zeke and his friends could have killed you. Charlie thinks that Bobby Jay Jewel is out on parole right now. If you'd swear out a complaint, we might be able to get him back in jail where he belongs."

"I dunno. I don't really have time for all the legal stuff. I couldn't get up here on a weekday anyway."

"So I'll talk to Judge Hobert, and we'll have the hearing on a Saturday. Marc, I'm worried about you. Please."

"Getting someone thrown in jail isn't really my thing."

"What is this, the code of the schoolyard? I don't understand why you're protecting them. They wrecked your car."

Marc rolled over and sat up. He leveled a finger at Arthur. "Oh no," he said. "You know what wrecked my car. It was the same thing that wrecked yours. And don't hand me Robin's line about deer or buzzards. It wasn't any damn buzzard."

"I know it wasn't," Arthur agreed quietly. "But that doesn't mean it's dangerous."

"You don't think so? Then what are you doing in a cast up to your crotch?"

"There was ice on the road."

"Are you trying to tell me there's nothing out there?" Marc was starting to get mad. "Even Gavin said he's seen tracks in the snow."

"Gavin's a very nice guy, and he and Dennis saved my life, but frankly, he's not much of a naturalist. The first time it snowed last December, he came running out to the cabin to tell me there had been deer in the garden, and proudly pointed to the rabbit tracks all over the yard."

Marc frowned suspiciously. "So is Gavin in the habit of just running down to your cabin?"

"No, he isn't," Arthur said mildly. "Marc, you know I believe there's something very strange out in the woods, but it's been there for a long time, and no one's gotten to the bottom of it yet. We're not going to do any better if we make the same mistakes everyone else has."

"Please God, don't let this be a lecture of scientific objectivity."

"All I'm saying is, if I don't want to end up handling snakes on Sunday mornings, I've got to be able to suspend judgment until I have more information."

"Well I've got some information for you. I saw it, Arthur, face to face, closer than I am to you now."

"You mean when it hit your windshield? I'm not doubting you, Marc, but you were scared, it was dark, and you couldn't have seen it for more than a split second."

"Not then. I mean later. The thing that came to Charlie's barn."

"You saw it twice last night?"

"Not the same thing. I mean, maybe it's part of the same thing, like thunder and lightning are part of the same storm, and what wrecked my car was only the thunder. But it's lightning that flashes down out of the clouds without any warning and before you know it, baby, you're fried."

"Why didn't you tell me before?"

"I didn't want to say anything while Charlie and Robin were here. They don't know I saw it. Charlie was acting so psycho last night, I didn't want to do anything that might send him over the edge, but it came right to the door of their barn. I saw it up close."

He took a deep breath. "This is really bad news, Arthur. I know when I first met you I was a snot-nosed brat who thought the scariest thing in the world was the chance Bush might get elected to a second term. I've seen a lot of weird, scary shit since then, thanks to you, but sweetheart, this is different. It's not--maybe this sounds stupid--but it's not human. It's not anything that used to be human, or might be human sometime in the future. It just doesn't have any connection to us at all."

"What did it look like?" Arthur asked quietly.

"You'd laugh if I tried to explain it. I'll send you a picture."

"What?"

"I'll try to mail it to you this week if I get a chance."

"Where are going to get a picture?"

"And finding you like this doesn't exactly make me feel any better. All last night I kept thinking if I could just talk to you, you would have some reasonable explanation for everything, and, you know, make me feel kind of stupid for being so scared--"

"Marc--"

"But jeez, Arthur, it's already chewed you up and spit you out again. The only thing that makes me feel any better now is knowing you can't go out and get into any more trouble right now, not with that cast on your leg."

He shook his head suddenly. "So are you going to be OK? I've got classes in the morning, and if it's all the same to you, I'd kind of like to get off the ridge before dark."

"I know," Arthur said. "It's all right. Come here." When Marc was close enough, Arthur pulled him down and kissed his face. "It was wonderful to see you. I'm sorry about everything that's happened."

"Me too," Marc said. "Especially my car. And this," he added as an afterthought, patting Arthur's splinted leg. He smiled a little. "And hey, there is one good thing. As bad as that is out there, at least you know now it doesn't have anything to do with your family."

Arthur looked at him. "I do?"

"C'mon, I told you. I've seen it up close and believe me, it doesn't have anything to do with anything human, not even any of the ghouls in your family. So you can knock off your witch hunt through the family tree, and let your poor old grandmother rest in peace."

Chapter 33

From A City Under the Hill,
An Informal History of Riverbend, Sickle Ridge,
And Outlying Regions,

by the Riverbend Historical Society,
As Compiled by Mrs. Edward Filmore Gilbert
Section VII The Drakes of Sickle Ridge

Fortunate indeed are the Old-Timers among us who can remember when the high point of the Rivercraft Arts Festival was a slice of Virginia Drake's famous apple walnut cake, made with apples fresh from the Drake orchard, and graciously served in the sponsors' tent by Miss Virginia herself. These days, Rivercraft showcases the talents of artisans drawn from all over the Southeast, but in its early years, Rivercraft was the most important social event of the autumn season, an opportunity for the ladies of Riverbend to display their own watercolors and needlepoint--as well as their cooking--and maybe even catch the eye of an eligible bachelor.

And the gifts of Miss Virginia, as she was affectionately known by everyone from the laborer in the fields to the Mayor of Riverbend, were not only evident at the refreshment table in the sponsors' tent. Though she received little formal training, Miss Virginia was widely acknowledged as one of the region's most accomplished artists. Her beautiful oil paintings of Riverbend's best known people and places still grace many of our community's finest homes.

Arthur looked up from his book. After a moment, he laid it aside and got laboriously to his feet. A gray January rain had been pattering down all day long, and the light in the conservatory was muted, the green of the palms rich and intense.

Gavin and Dennis had driven to Atlanta yesterday morning, and would be gone for the rest of the week. Arthur was alone, and the house was quiet. The tumult of New Year's Eve seemed to have exhausted its resources, or perhaps it required an audience of more than one for its most spectacular displays. At any rate, Arthur had been sleeping the nights through, and even his dreams were untroubled.

Yesterday afternoon, he had called his associate Lil in Santa Monica, and asked her to ship his equipment to him. It was high time he started keeping systematic records of what was happening here.

He made it at last to the White Room, and stood leaning on his crutches in front of the painting above the fireplace. His family had kept so many secrets, he wasn't really surprised that no one had ever told him that the picture was a self-portrait.

But of course, he admitted to himself, he had never taken the trouble to look at it so closely before. There at the bottom of the canvas the artist had signed her name in full, and dated the picture as well.

Leah Virginia Drake. 1935.

She had done the self portrait in her wedding dress fifteen years after her husband's death.

~~~

Uncle Clarence stopped by later that afternoon with a basket of cold fried chicken, potato salad, rolls, green beans and half a pound cake. Aunt Betty was afraid he might not be getting enough to eat, Clarence explained, seeing as there weren't any womenfolk up at the big house.

Freed from the company of his wife, he shed his usual air of slight discomfort, as though his pants were always too tight or his shoes pinching his toes, and lapsed into a comfortable garrulousness that seemed to be profound relief at being in the company of men.

"I thought time might be weighing a little heavy on your hands, so I brought you something to read," he announced, handing over a stack of Reader's Digest condensed novels. Leon Uris, Arthur Halley and James Michener were featured prominently on their spines.

"Thank you," Arthur said, accepting them with a smile. "It's very thoughtful of you."

"Oh well, I know sitting around all day with nothing to do is rough going. If it was summertime, at least we could prop you up beside Missionary Lake and let you do a little fishing, but Lord, in this weather, what are you going to do?" He looked around the conservatory. "Hey, and you don't have a TV set out here. Betty's got a little ol' twelve-inch in the guest bedroom back home. Next time I come out this way, I'll bring it along."

"Thank you, but I don't really need one."

"Nobody needs a racket box, that's not the point. I'll bring it the next time I'm here. It won't be any trouble at all. Now, I've left all that food on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Betty packed enough to share if you want to, but don't you let those two fellas eat it all up."

"Dennis and Gavin are in Atlanta this week."

"I didn't know you were up here all by yourself. Can you make out all right? Because we can work out something else if we need to."

"I'm fine. I'm enjoying the peace and quiet."

"You've got a point there. A man needs a little peace and quiet in his life. But I'll tell you what. Let me fix you up a plate of chicken before I go. That way you won't have to get up and get to the kitchen by yourself."

"Please fix yourself a plate too," Arthur said. "I'm sure Betty sent along more than I can possibly eat by myself."

"No, I'm gonna leave it for you, and you better eat it," Clarence protested. "You need to keep your strength up. I'll just have a little slice of the pound cake to keep you company."

He came back a few minutes later with two plates piled high. "You know, Betty and your mother these past few years have really been the ones for putting their heads together and clucking like a couple of old hens about what a shame it is about you."

"Oh?" Arthur was a little startled by this change in the conversation.

"Now me, I've always held that a young man has to sow a few wild oats, and that when you were good and ready to come home and take care of things, you would. And I guess I was right, wasn't I?"

"I'm here, but it looks like everyone else got stuck taking care of me."

For just an instant, the good humor died in Uncle Clarence's eyes. "No joke, now. You got to be a little more careful with yourself. If that car had rolled over one more time, or if those two fellas hadn't stopped by when they did, there wouldn't be no heir to Drake House anymore."

Arthur smiled thinly. "That's not quite true, is it? There must be at least a dozen people in line for this place, counting my cousins and all your and Betty's grandchildren."

Clarence laughed out loud. "Now where would you have gone and gotten a crazy idea like that?"

Arthur blinked.

Clarence was still laughing. "Unless there's a nigger in the woodpile somewhere, you're the last in line from Miz Virginia. Lord, son, why do you think everyone's so antsy for you to find a wife? Nobody wants to leave Riverbend, but try to see it from our point of view. Do you think anyone will stick around if there's no heir to Drake House?"

Arthur shook his head slightly, trying very hard to keep smiling. I ought to be used to this by now, he was thinking desperately to himself. Why am I always so surprised?

Clarence looked at him closely. "Is there something going on here?" He frowned. "Your daddy isn't up to some kind of monkey business with the estate, is he? Oh my good Lord." The color drained from his face. "Is that why he and your momma moved to South Carolina?"

"Clarence, I don't know anything about that," Arthur said honestly.

Clarence set down his plate of food, the slice of pound cake untouched, and said slowly, "Well, God have mercy on us all. Miz Virginia must be turning in her grave."

~~~

Paul Daugherty III returned Arthur's call later that afternoon.

"I'm sorry I missed you before," he said, his tone so bluff and hearty that Arthur immediately surmised that Paul Daugherty II was listening in on their conversation. "I wanted to let you know I've talked to Sheriff Kettering, and he's going to have a word or two with Bobbie Jay Jewell and Zeke Womack about what happened on New Year's Eve. We're both real sorry about your friend being bothered, but what can you expect from trash like Bobby Jay and Zeke? Their families aren't from around here, you know. Most of those folks on the east side of the river moved here from Tennessee and North Alabama when the carpet mill opened on Highway 65. Sometimes I think we'd all be a hell of a lot better off with Mexicans. Anyway, you see so much as a hair on Bobbie Jay's head, you just call Elbert Kettering and it'll get taken care of."

"Thanks, Paul, I appreciate it. I wanted to ask you--"

"Hey, and everybody missed you at the alumni dinner. I made your apologies for you, and everybody was just as sorry as they could be about you being laid up. Buddy Fritts wanted me to ask you if you've started physical therapy yet. His wife Arlene has an office right downtown. Are you seeing Dr. Mayle? Oh, of course you are. I'm sure he'll send you to Arlene. The old school's got to stick together, doesn't it? If you need anything, anything at all, all you have to do is call."

"Actually, I do need something," Arthur interjected when Daugherty paused for breath. "If it's not too much trouble, I'd like to see a copy of the family trust."

There was a long pause. Arthur said conversationally, "That's what I signed when I was eighteen, isn't it? All I can remember are hundred of pages of legalese that didn't mean anything to me at the time."

Paul laughed uncomfortably. "You must be getting pretty bored cooped up in that big house if looking at trust documents is your idea of a nice way to spend an afternoon. Why don't you let me have Joy stop by the video store and bring you some tapes. What would you like? James Bond? What about a couple of Die Hard movies?"

"I'm not asking you to divulge anything about my parents' private financial matters," Arthur said flatly. "The trust is a matter of public record. If I have to get a copy from the county register, I will. And if managing the affairs of my parents at the same time you're handling mine is creating a conflict of interest for the firm, then it's only fair that you tell me now so that I can find a new attorney."

"Now Arthur, you know I didn't mean anything of the kind." Paul said quickly. "Tell you what. I can have the trust copied and up to you by five o'clock, will that be all right? Or I could fax it up there right now if you've got a machine. It is several hundred pages, though. It might be easier just to have Joy deliver it. Do you need anything else? Groceries? Anything from the pharmacy? Joy can stop on her way."

"Just the trust agreement will be fine. Thanks Paul."

Arthur put down the phone and took a deep breath. He had no doubt that someone from Daugherty & Daugherty was already on the phone to Frank and April Drake. He braced himself for the outraged call from Myrtle Beach.

But two hours later, when Joy arrived bearing the trust documents, a stack of videotapes, and a pot of narcissus in full bloom, complete with a get-well card signed by the entire staff of the firm, he was still awaiting his parents' call.

Chapter 34: Heir Apparent

Arthur had remembered the Daugherty's receptionist Joy as a vague, inconsequential woman with frightened blue eyes and bad teeth, pale as a ghost at the front desk while a riot of autumn color blazed outside.

But now that the world was gray and colorless and cold, her winter white skin and white blonde hair made her the animate embodiment of the season. And sitting under a tree fern in the conservatory, she seemed rare as an icicle in a rain forest.

"I appreciate your driving up here," Arthur told her. "I know I've made you very late getting home from work."

"It don't matter. Jimmy can open a can of beanie weanies for the kids as easy as me."

"And thank you for the flowers. They smell like springtime."

"Oh, I love them too," Joy said, with a sweet smile that was marred only by the decayed stain of her teeth. "I think Mr. Daugherty really expected me to get cut flowers, but these will last so much longer. You can even plant them in the yard, and if the winter's not too bad, they'll bloom again next year. I plant them every fall in my kitchen garden. If we don't have a hard frost too early, oh, they're the prettiest thing you can imagine, paperwhites blooming in December."

Arthur smiled back at her. "I'll have to give it a try. I planted jonquils in the back lawn last fall and I'm waiting to see if they come up this spring."

"I'm sure they will. You can't possibly go wrong with jonquils. It's the narcissus that are more of a gamble. Plus, me and Jimmy live down by the dam, and you know it hardly ever gets as cold down there as it does up here on the ridge."

"I don't want to keep you," Arthur told her, since she was darting glances around the conservatory, as if eager to make her exit. But she turned back to him, looking a little surprised and disappointed, and Arthur realized he had misunderstood.

"Have you ever been in Drake House before?"

"No, I never have."

"I'm sorry I can't give you a tour. But you should go out the front door when you leave. That way you can at least see the main staircase and the great hall. The oak really is beautiful, if you're interested in that kind of thing."

Her face lit up. "Thank you. I will. Mamaw's always telling stories about the big parties Miz Virginia would give, with a jazz band up from Atlanta, and fresh oysters that someone would have to drive all night from Pensacola to get here in time, and so many flowers it would clean out every florist between here and Chattanooga."

"You know stories about Grandmother?"

"Mamaw does. My great-grandmother Ruby Mae. She's living in the old folks' home right downtown. Hey, when your leg gets better and you're up and around again, you should go see her, if you want to. She loves visitors. She's ninety-two, but her mind's still sharp as a tack."

The name sounded familiar to Arthur. "Ruby Mae Clowry?"

"That was her maiden name."

"One of my grandmother's sisters?"

Joy looked surprised. "Well, sure. You mean you didn't know?"

~~~

Friday was too cold and drafty for Arthur to spend the day in the conservatory, and he ended up staying in the White Room most of the afternoon. Despite Grandmother's portrait, it was still the most comfortable room in the house. After his morning cup of coffee he had tried to work in the breakfast room, but even with the sun pouring in through the open blinds, and the berries on the American holly outside the kitchen window glittering red in the crisp winter air, he had felt unhappy and nervous the whole time, keeping one ear cocked for the soft little sounds that trickled down through the empty house.

He was trying to decipher some of the stranger passages in the trust agreement with the help of Black's and a few volumes of the Georgia Statutes, but he couldn't concentrate, and finally, he'd retreated to the bedroom where he could keep an eye on his grandmother's portrait.

Charlie stopped by late that afternoon with a week's worth of Arthur's mail.

"I ran into your Aunt Betty in town this afternoon," he explained nonchalantly. "Since I was coming up to see you anyway, I told her I'd bring it along."

He stood on the hearth with his arms crossed over his chest and looked up at Virginia Drake. "So this is the old woman herself. I don't know if I ever saw this picture before. How old were we when she died?"

"I had just turned nine," Arthur said. "Her funeral was about two weeks after my birthday."

"You took me upstairs one time to meet her, do you remember that?"

"No, I don't guess I do."

"I think your Mom must have pushed you into it. She was always trying to instill some social graces in me. I was kind of glad, actually. About getting to see more of the house, I mean. I always wanted to explore this place, but you never wanted to play inside."

"I hated the house as a kid."

"I know. You were always spooky as a thoroughbred. No wonder, I guess, growing up here." He looked back at Virginia Drake's portrait. "So we go creeping up the back stairs like a couple of ghosts, and when we get to the third story, the first thing that hit me was the smell of the flowers."

"She loved tuberoses and gardenias. To this day I can't smell either one without thinking of her."

"Really?" Charlie said. "That sweet flower smell always reminds me of sex. The first time you ever kissed me was in the greenhouse here."

"I know. I remember. That big gardenia Grandmother always loved so much was in full bloom. She must have been dead six or seven years by then. But I still kept expecting her to walk in on us."

Charlie gave a dry little laugh. "That old woman really got her claws into you deep, didn't she? Even laying in bed so helpless she couldn't get up to take a shit by herself, she was still ruler of this house and everybody in it. Her dying didn't make that much of a difference, did it?"

Arthur didn't answer.

"That's why I couldn't believe it when I heard you had moved back. Don't you know how I finally got over you? I kept telling myself you weren't really leaving me, you just had to get away from this house."

"Charlie," Arthur said softly.

"And here you are back again, just as screwed up and helpless as you were as a kid. It was stupid of me, but back then I always wanted to rescue you. The two of us would saddle up Patches and ride away together, leaving all of this behind. But you're the only one who rode away."

"You could have left too. What was holding you here?"

"Nothing much. Just my dad getting older, trying to take care of this farm by himself, plus all my other family, friends, and responsibilities. Sure, I could have abandoned everything like you did." He shook his head. "Sorry, Arthur. I didn't come over here to talk about old times. Not about our old times, anyway. Things are messed up bad around here, and if you know anything, then I want to hear it. I think you owe me that much. I never realized that everything wrong on the ridge had to do with your crazy family. My dad knew, I think, but I never listened. Now I wish I had. Is that why you came home, Arthur? To try to straighten things out? You're doing a hell of a job so far. Next time it's liable to kill you, and then where will we be?"

"I came home to be near Marc," Arthur said. "That was the only reason."

Charlie looked at him darkly.

"I thought that was the only reason, anyway. But you're right. There is something here that I can't run away from anymore. My parents did everything they could to shield me from it. They're still trying to protect me, I think. But they always knew I would be back here sooner or later."

He pointed to the copy of the trust. "I signed that when I was eighteen years old. I didn't realize it then, but the day I signed it, Drake House became mine. All these years, my folks have only been holding it in trust. For twenty years I've walked down the third floor hallway in my nightmares, and woken up sick with relief because I didn't live here anymore. And it was mine all along. I can't even get rid of it. If I sell it, the entire estate has to be liquidated, and the proceeds distributed to every descendant of the Clowries and Drakes who can prove to the executor's satisfaction that they intend to leave Riverbend and never return."

"What? That's nuts. Who in their right mind would draw up a will like that?"

"Grandmother and the senior Paul Daugherty wrote it to be sure that this house would always be my responsibility. Me, or at least a child of mine has to be living here on the day I turn fifty. Otherwise everything gets sold, and the money given to every descendant who agrees to leave town. There's no way out."

"Sure there is. Take the money and run. Even if you have to share it with your relatives, it's still more than me and Robin are likely to see in our lifetime, am I right?"

"No. I'm not included in the disbursement."

Charlie wasn't entirely sympathetic. "So they'd cut you off without a cent? That's pretty cold. I'd like to see you going out and trying to find your first job at the age of fifty. But maybe your little friend Marc will be a rich doctor by then and can support you in the manner to which you've become accustomed."

Arthur didn't say anything.

"And I guess fathering a child is out of the question?" Charlie laughed.

"I wouldn't wish this place on anyone. Least of all a child of mine."

"I'm sorry, Arthur. But the whole thing's crazy. I can't believe that a trust with provisions so bizarre would stand up in court."

"I don't know. I haven't talked to an impartial lawyer yet. I thought I'd see if Gavin can recommend someone in Atlanta. But everybody in this town seems to think I've come home to straighten things out, or at least hold them in check. Even you, Charlie, and you've got less faith in me than anybody. Do you really think the probate judge in the courthouse downtown would let me out so easily?"

"So what you're telling me is that the monster in the woods and all the rest of it is really so bad that if you're not here to take care of it, your entire family is going to run away? Christ, Arthur, what are we talking about here?"

Arthur ran one hand wearily over his face. "I don't know."

"Then what good are you?" Charlie smiled a little. "I guess it would be too easy to just call your mom and dad and ask them?"

"I haven't talked to them since I read the trust agreement. I want to be sure I understand it first. Sometimes if I'm lucky, I can surprise them into letting something slip."

"You think they're protecting you by keeping you in the dark, but I want to ask you something. How many other people know about the provisions of the trust?"

"I don't know. My Uncle Clarence seems to. Anybody could get a copy from the register's office if they wanted to."

"Uh huh. If you ask me, I think your parents have all but put a price on your head by letting you come home without telling you the truth. Because the bottom line is, half the ridge would be better off financially if you were dead and gone."

After Charlie had left, Arthur dutifully sorted through his mail, paid his bills and stacked the envelopes neatly for Uncle Clarence to take to the post office the next time he stopped by. It was a relief to spend a little time taking care of such ordinary matters. There was a letter from Marc that he saved to read last, and a second letter with an Atlanta post mark and a return address that he didn't recognize. Slitting open the envelope he found a note from Susan Benedict, thanking him for the most unique New Year's Eve party in recent memory, and enclosing an article clipped from the Atlanta Earth - Body Times.

The accompanying photograph was of a very round man with a bald, equally round head and very serious eyes, wearing a pinstriped suit decades out of date, and holding up a large silver model of a flying saucer. The article was captioned cheerfully, "According to UFO Researcher C. E. Urbach, the Little Green Men are Already Here."

Except, as Urbach would be the first to tell you, they're not green, they're usually gray. Or an opalescent white. And if you think they all come from flying saucers, well, you'd be wrong again.

"While there's no question that many anomalous humanoid sightings are closely associated with periods of frequent UFO sightings--or 'flaps' as researchers call them--it would be a mistake to assume that this close association is necessarily one of cause and effect," Urbach explained at a recent lecture to Atlanta's own Chapter of UFON, one of the country's oldest groups of UFO enthusiasts. "Researchers have been pursuing technological and hardware-based explanations for the mysterious lights in the skies for half a century now, and we may reasonably question whether we know any more now than we did fifty years ago when Kenneth Arnold first saw cigar shaped objects in the skies above Washington State.

"What's so interesting and mysterious about mass UFO sightings," Urbach explained to a receptive audience, "is the amount of related phenomena that seldom gets reported because it doesn't seem to fit into our paradigm of little green men from Mars

"Consider, for instance, the flap that's been escalating for months now in the little town of Riverbend just an hour and a half north of Atlanta. On New Year's Eve lights were seen circling above the ridge near town. But I've also heard reports from reliable witnesses of a winged creature the size of a mule deer that was sighted over the main highway, and in whose presence car engines stalled and electrical systems shorted out."

And according to Urbach, these are just the most recent annoyances suffered by the residents of Riverbend, Georgia. There have also been inexplicable power outages, sightings of mysterious fauna--everything from black panthers and gigantic catfish to Big Foot--and strange visits from individuals who claim to be government or local officials, who subsequently disappear without a trace, and who, needless to say, turn out to have no connection with the stated agencies.

"In light of such a spectacular and ongoing breakdown of the boundaries of the ordinary, I would submit to you that we're missing the boat if we look for a mechanical explanation--even an explanation involving alien technology. I would put to you that what we are actually seeing is the intrusion of an alternate reality--the fringes of an alternate universe, if you will, seeping past the edges of our own."

Urbach intends to test his theories by examining the evidence firsthand. "Based upon my investigation of similar flaps, it's my belief that the phenomena around Riverbend will continue to intensify. It's important to take first hand witness reports as soon as possible. Faced with the incredible, the human mind almost immediately begins a process of rationalization that is anathema to the work of an impartial researcher such as myself."

Arthur opened the letter from Marc last. Inside he found a note scrawled on a torn sheet of notebook paper.

"This is what I saw outside Charlie's barn. See? I knew you'd laugh at me."

On the next page was a picture of a buffalo that had apparently been xeroxed out of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Marc had used a ballpoint pen to color its eyes a vivid, soulless blue.

Chapter 35:The Red Tide

From A City Under the Hill: An Informal History of Riverbend, Sickle Ridge, and Outlying Regions

If the marriage of Leah Virginia Clowry to Arthur "Stonewall" Jackson Drake was the most joyous event of 1920, then surely the gunshot that widowed Mrs. Drake scarcely six months later was the most tragic. Riding home alone one night along the old River Road (now long underwater since the construction of Cherokee Dam), Stonewall Drake was laid low by a single bullet. His young wife, outside admiring her beloved tuberoses at dusk, was the first to espy the Stonewall's favorite walker Old Blue galloping home riderless, the empty saddle smeared with blood.

Stonewall's assassin was never apprehended, but the Drake copper mines in east Tennessee had been plagued with labor unrest for months, and the strike breakers Stonewall had brought in to keep the mines operational had not endeared him to the clannish mountain folk who had worked the mines for two generations. There was little doubt that Stonewall's killer came from the ranks of these men.

~~~

Marc was appalled.

"I never thought I'd see the day when I would agree with your gun-toting ex, but jeez, Arthur, he may be right. Look at all the crazy stuff that's happened since you moved home, and now it turns out that all your scary redneck relations stand to cash in big time over your dead body. What's to keep Billy Burch or that receptionist down at the law firm or any of those cousins of yours that you've barely spoken to in twenty years from creeping up there one night with a squirrel gun and solving all their financial problems with a couple of rounds?"

Arthur shifted the phone to his other ear. "Marc, what's a squirrel gun?"

"You're all alone up there in the middle of nowhere with a cast on your leg, and half the population of your lovely little home town has every reason in the world to wish you were dead. Now listen to me. I want you to lock all the doors and windows--and please don't leave the key under the welcome mat like you've been doing--and don't let anybody in, period. Especially not family. I'll be up first thing Saturday morning and get you packed and out of there."

"Where will I be going?"

"You're going to move in with me."

"T hat's very sweet, but it's not very practical, is it? There's hardly enough room for one person in your apartment, much less two."

"Are you even listening to me? I think I can stand to be a little crowded if it means saving your life."

"Calm down. I'm not in danger from my own relatives. I'm a lot more concerned about this house hanging like a millstone around my neck."

"You're liable to end up hanging by your neck from the top of the cellar stairs if you don't take this a little more seriously. We're talking about money here, and people kill each other all the time over a lot less than you've got."

"If I were a character in an Agatha Christie novel I might have cause for concern, but we're talking about my family. No one's planning to kill me for the inheritance. Besides, they would have to leave Riverbend to get any disbursement from the estate."

"Oh, like that's a real deterrent, having to give up Hicksville USA in order to inherit a fortune. They're probably already counting their money."

"I'll tell you what is really strange. Ever since I got here I've wondered why everyone seemed so relieved that I was home. Like you said, people I haven't seen in twenty years. People I didn't even know were related to me."

"Probably just establishing an alibi," Marc grumbled.

"But now that I've read the trust agreement, it's starting to make sense."

"What possible kind of sense?"

"I'm supposed to be here, Marc, and everyone seems to understand that, even if they don't exactly know why. If I had lived here all my life, I'm sure I would have accepted it without question. But something went wrong. Virginia Drake didn't plan on having a queer grandson who would miss all the cues growing up and run away from home as soon as he could. Now that I'm here again on a trial basis, Mom and Dad must be frantic not to scare me off before I've committed to returning home for good. That's why they were so upset when I started asking questions about Clara Kimble. They didn't really care that I would find out what Grandmother did to her. They just didn't want me to know what Billy Burch and Brother Mike saw in the woods that night."

~~~

From A City Under the Hill: An Informal History of Riverbend, Sickle Ridge, and Outlying Regions?

During the whole of that sad, grim autumn of 1920, the townsfolk of Riverbend might well have been excused for assuming that the assassination of Stonewall Drake meant the end of a dynasty. His widowed bride was a slip of a girl who had yet to be fully accepted into Riverbend's society, despite her husband's name. The Drake copper mines in East Tennessee were convulsed by increasingly violent labor disputes, and it was even whispered darkly that the young Virginia, whom Stonewall had met on one of his business trips to Tennessee, might well harbor sympathies for the strikers.

But such gossip failed to take into account the iron will of Leah Virginia Drake. Knowing she carried Stonewall's child, she had every intention of preserving the wealth and power that had been associated with the Drake family since Riverbend's pioneer days.

Her first act was to take steps to end the labor dispute at the Drake Mines once and for all. Overcoming the reluctance of the board of directors, she brought in Pinkerton detectives to sow dissension in the ranks of the miners' fledgling union, and, when necessary, to defend the mines at gun point. On February 11, 1921, a group of miners who had gathered with their families in an attempt to stop production at the Toe String Valley Mine were fired upon by the Pinkertons. Seven lost their lives in the resulting melee, including two women and a ten-year-old boy. It was an age when labor unions were widely associated with Bolshevism, and Virginia Drake and her Pinkertons were praised for taking decisive action to stem the red tide. Besides, the gunshots rang out at dusk, and the Pinkertons may not have known that women and children were present.

But regardless of what the world thought of her, Virginia had made her point. The strike was over within days.

"Well sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph," Gavin said cheerfully, thumbing through pages of the Drake trust. "This is really something. Frankly, I just don't know, Arthur. I'll make some phone calls Monday and see if I can hook you up with somebody in Atlanta who specializes in estate law."

"Thank you," Arthur said quietly. "I appreciate the time you've spent on this."

Dennis flipped through a few of the back pages. "Gavin's right. You really need an expert, so take all this with a grain of salt, but what it boils down to is, your grandmother and her attorney tried to get around Georgia's ban on perpetuities by skipping a generation and deeding the estate directly to you. You could always challenge it in court, but there might be an easier way. If you and your parents could come to some kind of agreement before you reach the magical age of fifty, then it might be possible to nullify some of the most objectionable terms of the trust."

Arthur managed a wan smile for Dennis and Gavin. "Well, this does answer one question. I wondered why Mom and Dad didn't give me a call when I asked Paul for a copy. Now I know. They're not looking forward to the fireworks when I tell them they have to help me change Grandmother's trust."

From A City Under the Hill: An Informal History of Riverbend, Sickle Ridge, and Outlying Regions

But perhaps the stern measures Virginia Drake had taken to quell the strike of '21 weighed on her conscience more heavily than she ever admitted to her few friends and associates from that time. Or perhaps it was just shrewd business sense that led her to gradually sell off the mines and diversify into a dozen different fields, most profitably steel mills in Birmingham and South Pittsburg and light industry in Chattanooga and Atlanta.

But it seems that something was missing from Virginia's life. In 1930, a decade after her husband's death, and not long, indeed, after her son Franklin's tenth birthday, Virginia bought a thousand acres on Sickle Ridge, and set about building what she herself described as a fitting monument to her long-departed husband.

Drake House was completed five years later. The country was in the depths of the Depression, but fifteen years of shrewd investments had secured the family fortune. Virginia retired from the business world to assume the position she had perhaps desired all along, not a captain of industry, but the lady of the manor.

It is in that role that she is best remembered by those of us who love the gracious spirit of Riverbend that Miss Virginia did so much to foster during the next thirty years of her life.

Monday morning, Arthur awoke from hazy dreams to find Gavin's face only inches from his own. "Hey Arthur. Are you awake?"

"I'm awake," Arthur murmured.

"I hate to bother you at this hour, but something's happened."

"What is it?" he asked, noticing how clear and dark Gavin's brown eyes looked in the predawn light.

"We were just on our way out when Dennis saw a burned patch of ground in front of the gatehouse. We figured someone had tossed a cigarette away, but then we found the broken bottle and some singed rags. It looks like somebody pitched us a molotov cocktail."

"Oh my god," Arthur said, fully awake. "Is there much damage?"

"No, everything's OK. The ground was too wet for anything to really burn. Just some leaves and a little smoke damage on the limestone."

Arthur struggled to sit up in bed. Gavin gave him a hand, leaning close enough for Arthur to catch the faintest whiff of sandalwood. "I'm sure it's probably nothing," Gavin went on. "Just stupid kids or something, but we didn't want to leave without letting you know. Dennis has a nine o'clock appointment with a client, but if you like, I can stay until you call the sheriff, or whatever you want to do, and take another car down later."

"No, it's all right," Arthur said. "My aunt will be along in a few hours to drive me to a doctor's appointment. If Betty thinks I need to report it, I will then. Just lock up when you leave."

"Well, all right, but keep an eye out, would you? You're all alone up here."

Chapter 36: The Hobby

"Dearheart, I want to ask you something, and I hope you won't think I'm being a nosy old woman."

Arthur was propped uncomfortably sideways in the back seat of Betty's white Lincoln. He braced himself as she swung wide around a steep switchback and said, "You can ask me anything in the world, I hope you know that. You and Clarence have done more for me these last weeks than I can ever repay--"

"You're family, dear, that's what families are for. It doesn't count if you're expecting anything in return."

"I know you're not expecting anything back from me," Arthur said, and wondered if he was telling her the truth. "What do you want to know?"

"Well, you may think I'm being silly, but Clarence came home the other day with the crazy notion that your momma and daddy are planning to overturn Virginia's trust."

Arthur looked up sharply. Reflected in the rear-view mirror, Betty's mascaraed eyes were wide open and innocent. Paranoia was an insidious state of mind, he thought. While he couldn't possibly take Marc's fears of a family plot on his life seriously, he had noticed that Betty hadn't been nearly as upset about the fire in front of the gatehouse as he had expected her to be. After putting an angry call in to Sheriff Kettering's wife to demand that Elbert do something about the hooligans running wild on Sickle Ridge, she had seemed far more concerned with getting Arthur to the doctor on time.

"Betty, until Clarence brought it up, the truth is I hadn't thought about the trust in almost twenty years. If anything was in the works, I'm sure Mom and Dad would have said something to me long before now."

"Oh, there now, you're angry with me," Betty fretted. "I told you I was a nosy old woman. And you're quite right. It's none of my business at all.

When she drove Arthur back home after his appointment, they found a stack of boxes covered with UPS stickers left trustingly on the front veranda in their absence.

"My goodness, what on earth is all this?" Betty demanded, opening the car door for Arthur. "Can you manage by yourself?"

"I think so. I feel like I've been set free."

"Don't get too frisky now," she cautioned.

Dr. Mayle had removed the long mylar splint, and Arthur was now wearing a brace that extended only from ankle to knee. "I think I'm ready to move back to the cabin," Arthur said optimistically, taking a few steps across the lawn with the help of a cane.

"Better give it another week just to be sure." Betty went up to look at the boxes. "They're all from somebody in Santa Monica, California. Is it a friend of yours?"

"Oh, it's from Lil. This is my equipment."

"Equipment? Honey, what sort of equipment?"

"A camcorder and an infrared camera, some audio equipment, timers, motion detectors, a magnetometer--"

"Oh, for your little hobby! Well, I think that's wonderful. You really are starting to feel at home here, aren't you? Where are you going to be doing your spooky ghost hunting? Surely not here in Drake House."

Arthur smiled. "Why not here?"

"Because I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. The house is too modern to have any ghosts, don't you think? Although, heavens, if anybody had enough sheer gumption to come back from the dead, it would have to be your grandmother."

Arthur said, just as cheerfully, "Betty, I've been meaning to ask you something. Do you know if Billy and Ida's baby ever stayed in Drake House?"

She looked at him. "That poor little angel," she said at last. "They brought him here from the hospital because Ida wasn't in any condition to take care of him herself. You were just a tiny little boy, and April sent you to stay with us until it was all over."

"I think I remember that."

"My goodness, do you really? You couldn't have been any more than three, and the quietest little thing with those big eyes of yours, always so solemn and shy. But by the time you'd been with us a week, you were running around with your cousins yelling and playing like a little wild Indian. You cried when you had to go home again."

"How long did I stay with you and Clarence?"

"Oh, it wasn't long. Poor little Bill Junior died just a few days after they brought him home from the hospital. You stayed with us until after the funeral."

"Why would they let a baby that was so sick go home in the first place?"

"Because it wasn't like these days, where they keep you hooked up to all sorts of terrible machines whether there's any chance that you'll make it or not."

"So they sent him here to die."

"My goodness, you are being morbid. They sent the poor dear home so he could be with his family, instead of surrounded by strangers."

"What was the matter? I remember Billy mentioning some kind of physical deformity."

"It was something like that. Why are you so interested?"

"Betty, on New Year's Eve, I'm sure I heard a baby crying upstairs."

~~~

Arthur's parents didn't return any of the messages he left on their answering machine that week.

Winnie Gilbert showed up on Friday afternoon with both Samantha and little brother Joey in tow. Samantha had the pleased look of an operative whose plans have come to fruition. Joey was whiny and bored, twisting restlessly in his mother's arms. Arthur thought he looked too old to be carried around, but Winnie held on to him gamely. Her black hair was pulled back into a careless french twist that accentuated the thick shock of gray.

"I'm sorry about all the company, but Phoebe decided at the last minute that she couldn't take Joey this weekend, and Samantha's home with a highly suspicious sore throat that I feel sure she cooked up on the spur of the moment when she heard I was coming to see you today."

"Hi, Arthur," Samantha said. "Mom, I want to show Joey the goldfish pond."

"Just don't get too near the edge."

"I won't."

"With a little sigh of relief, Winnie lowered Joey to the ground. He immediately began to whimper and lifted his feet up, refusing to stand on his own. Samantha reached out for his hand. "Joey," she said, "Hey Joey, hey Joey. You want to go see the goldfish?"

Joey wrapped his pudgy fingers around his sister's hand and stopped crying. Winnie shook her head at the two of them as they crossed the conservatory, Joey beaming up at his big sister the whole way. "I've got your copy for you," she told Arthur, digging around in her cavernous shoulder bag. "But you were right, the register's office wasn't at all happy about giving it to me."

"What happened?"

"The clerk at the front desk kept asking what I wanted it for, and when I said it was for the Historical Society's archives, she went around to the Clerk and Master's office and talked to someone back there for a good ten minutes. Then she tried to tell me that I had to give them a week to prepare the copy. But for once having Joey with me came in handy. He was driving everybody crazy with his whining and crying. I think they finally gave it to me just to get rid of us."

She handed a thick sheaf of papers over to Arthur. "Anyway, here you go. They may have had time to call Daugherty & Daugherty, but I don't see how they could have made any changes."

Arthur laid the trust document out on a wide teak garden table and flipped through the pages. "I don't really think there will be any discrepancies, but there's such a cult of secrecy about everything, I just want to be sure the copy Paul gave me really is identical to what was filed. Thank you for going to all this trouble. What do I owe you?"

She laughed. "You don't owe me anything."

"I know they charged you for the copies, and I want to reimburse you for your mileage."

"Keep your money, Arthur, and just keep me informed. This stuff is great. To think I was married into such a crazy family. I've even started thinking I should write the real history of Riverbend and the Drakes. I bet it would make me a fortune, what do you think?"

Arthur smiled ruefully. "No one would believe it. You'd have to sell it as fiction. But I wish you wouldn't be so nice about running my errands, because I'll just keep taking advantage of your good nature."

She grinned. "What do you need?"

"Well, I've got an invitation to go see Ruby Mae Mackey. She's living in Heritage Home downtown."

"Your grandmother's sister? That's wonderful! The stories she must know. Want me to drive you down there? If you don't mind riding in the car with the little monsters we could even go this afternoon. Just let me know all the sinister revelations about Miss Virginia's secret past."

"Mommy!" Joey cried ecstatically. "Lookit!"

"What is it, honey?" Winnie asked without turning around.

Samantha shouted, "Joey, no!"

Winnie was already running. Arthur saw Samantha dragging Joey back from the edge of the koi pond. Winnie reached them and caught Joey up. "Samantha, you were supposed to be watching him." she said, controlling her voice with an effort. Joey began to howl.

"I was watching him," Samantha defended herself. "He just started running before I could stop him."

"Hush, Joey. Stop crying. It's all right." Winnie jogged him in her arms. "I know you like the pretty fish, but you have to mind your sister when she tells you no."

Joey pushed irritably away from his mother. "Want to see the baby," he insisted.

"What a dope," Samantha pronounced. "That's what got him all worked up. His own reflection in the water."

~~~

"You know what Gin-Gin's biggest secret was?" Ruby Mae beckoned Arthur to lean closer. The hand which she laid confidentially on his arm was cool and light as a feather, the thin, wrinkled skin very clean and soft.

"No, what?" Arthur asked.

"No one ever knew this but me. But ever since she was a tiny little thing, she'd had her heart set on going to secretary school over in Polk City."

Chapter 37: Why the Cedar is Red

"You're very quiet," Winnie observed on the way back up the ridge.

"What? I'm sorry." Arthur was sitting in the back seat next to Joey, who was strapped into a safety seat facing backwards.

"I had a ice cream cone," Joey announced proudly.

Samantha turned around from the front. "Everybody can tell you did. It's all over your shirt."

Joey kicked his feet happily and looked out the window.

"Did you like getting to meet your grandmother's sister?" Samantha asked.

"I did," Arthur said. "She's a lovely lady."

"Did seeing her make you miss your grandmother?"

"No," Arthur said. "She was nothing at all like Grandmother."

~~~

The nursing home had been constructed in the twenties, with hardwood floors that were almost black from decades of wear and waxing, and once-elegant plaster work on the walls now painted in shades of green and brown. The halls smelled powerfully of disinfectant and of age, and the attendants were all very young, or nearly the age of the patients, with the sullen look of the chronically overworked and underpaid. But the young nurse at the front desk mustered a smile for Arthur when he introduced himself and asked if Mrs. Mackey would be able to see him.

"Oh, good heavens, she's done nothing but talk about your visit all week. These poor old things get an idea in their heads sometimes, and you have no idea if there's anything to it. Come on back. Her room's around this way." She led the way briskly down a long corridor, then looked over her shoulder and stopped to let Arthur catch up. "Did you do that skiing?"

"That would have been more fun than what really happened. I was in a car accident in the ice storm at Christmas."

"That was a bad one," she agreed. "Our power was out all Christmas day." Patients in wheelchairs lined the corridor. A woman strapped in by a contraption of mesh, buckles and ties reached out for him as he passed by, catching hold of his shirt. He stopped. "Good afternoon," he said to the wizened face staring up at him with such greedy interest. "How are you?"

"You're not old enough to need a cane!" she shrieked at him, then cackled with pleasure.

"Behave yourself, Maizie, or you'll have to go back to your room," the nurse said, and pried the clutching fingers loose.

Around a turn in the hall they came to a closed door. The nurse pushed her way in without bothering to knock. "Wake up, Ruby. You've got a visitor. Go on in," she said to Arthur, who was hesitating on the threshold. "She's a little confused when she first wakes up, but she'll come around in a minute or two."

The shreds of sunlight that made it into the room past the metal shades did little to counter the gloom. The only bright spot was a single narcissus blooming in a water glass. Arthur thought he recognized Joy's touch. "Hello, Mrs. Mackey. Thank you for seeing me. I hope I'm not disturbing you."

The white head turned on the pillow. Gentle blue eyes blinked, then focused on him with an effort.

"Are you Gin-Gin's grandson?"

"Yes ma'am, I am. My name's Arthur."

"Bless your heart, dear, I know that. Come over here so these weak old eyes of mine can see you."

"Would you like me to turn on the light?"

"I'd rather you opened the shades. There's never enough sunshine in the winter. A body starts to feel starved for it."

Arthur came around the bed and raised the blinds. He was thinking of his grandmother's last years in the sun-drenched room on the third story, surrounded by a nursery of fragrant blooming flowers and attended to by a small army of nurses and aides.

He turned to look down at Ruby Mae, half afraid that in the better light he would find his grandmother alive again in this unhappy place. The sheet was folded down to her feet. Her knees, hips, pubic bone, rib cage and sunken breasts were all clearly visible through the worn nylon gown. Her eyes looked enormous above the protruding cheek bones. Her lips were blue, and her hands were trembling.

"You're cold," Arthur said. "May I?" He pulled the sheet up. "Is there a blanket?"

"This is fine. Thank you, honey." Her hand reached out for his and held it tight. "As I live and breathe. Joy told me you would be coming to see me, but I almost couldn't believe it. She said you wanted to hear stories about Gin-Gin." She smiled up at him. "I was the only one who could get away with calling her that, you know. Anyone else tried it, and whoo, wouldn't she give you a smack!"

~~~

"Do you know anything about Heritage Home?" Arthur asked Winnie. "I'm a little worried about the kind of care Mrs. Mackey may be getting."

"Well, I've never heard of patients being neglected or abused, if that's what you mean. And it's certainly better then the county-run nursing home on the other side of the river. Last winter an Alzheimer's patient wandered away from there and died of exposure not two hundred yards from the back door."

"What's exposure?" Samantha asked.

"Turn around and sit down, young lady. I'm not going to tell you again. Exposure is when someone is outside in bad weather without shelter or a good coat."

"Oh. Hey, Arthur, I almost forgot to tell you. I know another scary Indian story about Sickle Ridge. Would you like to hear it?"

"I'd love to."

"Where do you keep coming up with these stories?" Winnie asked.

"From Ashley and Heather, mostly. They're in Girl Scouts, and they know all kinds of Indian stories."

"All of them completely authentic, I'm sure."

"Oh Mom, don't be so cynical." Samantha was proud of the word.

"Well, excuse me, young lady."

"OK, this is the story. This was back in Indian times, before Daniel Boone or anybody. The Cherokee Indians had a village right here on the ridge, but the only problem was, an evil sorcerer lived on the ridge too. You know the caves under the bluffs? That's where his home was. What he would do is, he would come out at dark, and go the teepee of an Indian who had gotten sick, and try to steal his soul."

"I don't think the Cherokees lived in teepees, honey," Winnie said.

Samantha accepted the correction gravely. "OK, I don't know for sure, but he would go to the home of a Cherokee who was sick, and you know how everyone could tell he was there? They would hear strange rapping and tapping sounds, like little pebbles falling on the ground, and that would mean the evil sorcerer was trying to steal the sick person's soul."

"How interesting," Arthur said, meaning it.

"So anyway, the Cherokees got their very best hunters, and they went to the sorcerer's cave and waited. When it got dark enough, a big black raven came flying out of the cave, and the best warrior of all, he shot an arrow at the raven, and it turned into a man, but he was still alive even with an arrow shot through him, and that's because he was such an evil sorcerer. So, they cut off his head, but even that didn't kill him, because he had stolen so many souls."

"Samantha, Arthur must think I'm the worst mother in the whole world, hearing my innocent little daughter repeat such gory tales."

Samantha rolled her eyes and continued with her story.

"They didn't know what to do, so they decided to tie the sorcerer's head to the top of a tall tree. But the next morning, you know what? The Indians found the head right back at the bottom of the tree again, and it was still alive. So they did this over and over again, but every morning the sorcerer's head would be back on the ground again. But finally, you know what they did? They tied the head to the top of a cedar tree, which is the most magic tree in the forest, and the sorcerer's head couldn't get down from there. It hung up there for a long, long, time, with the blood dripping down the tree--"

"Oh, honestly, Samantha. You're going to give Joey nightmares."

"And the head finally died, and the Indians never had to worry about the evil sorcerer again. But ever since then, cedar trees have always had red wood."

"What a wonderful story," Arthur said. "I can see I'm going to have to start reading Cherokee legends myself."

"Oh for heaven's sake, please don't encourage her, Arthur," Winnie said brightly as she turned past the gatehouse and down the front drive.

Arthur knew something was wrong even before the house came into view.

"Oh, my lord," Winnie said. She let the car roll to a stop before the front entrance.

Arthur hardly saw the broken windows or graffiti. Amid so much destruction, his eyes were drawn first to the tire tracks torn through the fragile winter lawn.

Samantha quietly sounded out the obscenities spray-painted across the white limestone in two-foot-tall letters until Winnie took her hand and said gently, "That's enough, honey."

Arthur got out of the car, shaking and stunned as Winnie said, "I'm so sorry."

Samantha unfastened her seat belt and started to follow him, but her mother stopped her. "No, dear, wait in the car."

Winnie got out. "Who would have done such a terrible thing?"

"I think I know who's responsible," Arthur said. "We've had trouble before." Then he said, "Oh, my God," wearily, and turned his face away.

Every window on the first two stories had been smashed with bricks pried out of the driveway. The gaping holes where windows had once been were mirrored by the square black spaces in the drive. The stench of excrement was heavy in the cold January air.

Winnie covered her nose with her hand until the wind shifted. "Come on, let's get away from here," she said. "You can call the police from my house."

"I can't leave."

If Winnie thought he was being irrational, she didn't say so. "How can I help?"

Arthur glanced down at Samantha, sitting very straight and tall in the front seat. "Please take the kids home."

"I'd rather not leave you alone here. Arthur, this is terrible."

"You can do one thing for me. We've been having problems with the phone since New Year's. Stop by Charlie Johnson's farm on your way down the ridge and ask him to call the police. Just in case I can't get through from here."

"Are you sure you don't want me to wait with you?"

"I'm sure. Please go on. " Leaning heavily on his cane, he bent down until he was eye to eye with Samantha and said, "It's going to be all right. See if you can hear any more Cherokee stories for me."

As Winnie's car turned out of sight, Arthur finally looked back at Drake House. His hands were cold and his knee ached, and he wanted more than anything to escape to some bright, warm place, far away from the responsibility of this mausoleum. Some caretaker he was turning out to be, he thought bleakly as he made his way across the lawn. That's what his grandmother got for saddling him with this place. "I'm sorry, Gin-Gin," he said out loud.

Then he heard the crack of shattering glass, and a moment later Bobbie Jay rounded the corner of the house, still holding a broken brick. Seeing Arthur, he stopped dead and let it roll guiltily out of his hand. Then he realized Arthur was alone.

"Hey, faggot, where you been hiding?"

"Get out of here," Arthur said. "The police are on the way."

"I don't think so. We cut the lines." He groped himself and swaggered up. "I got an idea. You get me off, and maybe I won't make you eat your own balls."

Most of the third story windows were still intact. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw a dull gleam of red behind one of them, though it might have been only the reflection of the setting sun.

"Hey, cocksucker, how'd you get to be such a fag anyway? How'd you get to be such a rich ol' queer?" He feinted a punch at Arthur's face and another at his belly, then danced back. "What's the matter with you? I guess you'd rather suck my dick than fight, huh?"

He leaned in gingerly and knocked the cane away, and Arthur smashed the flat of his hand hard against Bobbie Jay's nose, feeling bone and cartilage give under his palm.

Bobbie Jay dropped like a stone.

Arthur limped towards the house without stopping to retrieve the cane, but he'd barely covered a dozen steps before he heard the footsteps behind him. He started to turn, but Zeke grabbed him from behind screaming, "Bobbie Jay! What'd he do to you, man? Bobbie Jay, what's wrong?"

Arthur slammed his elbow back into Zeke's belly, and Zeke grunted but didn't let go. Arthur threw his weight back, one foot hooked around Zeke's leg, trying to throw him off balance. With his bad knee, he had no leverage. They reeled for a moment, but Zeke braced himself and wrenched Arthur's head back, and by then, Bobbie Jay had gotten up and was on him too. A flurry of hard, sloppy punches knocked the wind out of Arthur. He sagged in Zeke's arms, trying to swallow mouthfuls of air, and dimly surprised that it was no worse. Then he became aware of something strange. Time seemed to be slowing down, his senses becoming preternaturally sharper despite the confusion and pain. He could see every inflamed blood vessel in Bobbie Jay's streaming eyes. He heard Zeke panting in noisy excitement. What he didn't understand was the spray of red suspended in the air all around them.

And then he finally saw the pocket knife in Bobbie Jay's fist. Bright drops were spilling from the stubby blade, and every time the knife rose there were more of them. Arthur could see them even with his eyes closed.

"Goddamn faggot," Zeke said, and pushed him to the ground.

Arthur lay where he had fallen.

"I'm getting me a souvenir," Bobbie Jay gasped, his voice so choked he sounded as though he were weeping. He knelt down and began to saw determinedly at the base of Arthur's thumb. Arthur got up and walked away from the bloody mess on the lawn. The front door was open, so he ascended the main staircase to the third floor to see Virginia.


continued

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