Last Night on Findy Sickle Ridge

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

PART IV: THE GOOD LIFE

Chapter 38: Foolery

Robin came out and said, "Elbert wasn't in, but I talked to one of the deputies at the front desk. They're going to send someone right up." She'd been in the studio when Winnie arrived, and her face was still beet red, ringlets of hair plastered to her forehead from the heat of the furnaces.

"Arthur hadn't called them yet?" Winnie asked.

Robin shook her head. "I tried to call him, but the phones must be out."

"Well, thank goodness he asked me to stop. They ought to do something about the phone lines up here. It's just not safe."

"I don't know what things are coming to," Robin agreed sadly. "A year ago Charlie and I wouldn't even lock our doors half the time. But these days you never know what might be lurking out in the woods."

Samantha was patting Honey Child's tremendous gray head through the open window of the car while her little brother kicked his feet and cooed in awe. Charlie was standing morose and silent, his arms crossed over his chest. Robin turned to him suddenly and said, "I hate to think of Arthur waiting all alone up there. Why don't we run over and at least let him know Elbert's on the way?"

"Oh, I wish you would," Winnie said. "I didn't feel right about leaving, but he was so insistent. Because of the kids, I think."

Charlie said, "Let me get my coat," and stalked into the house. By the time he came back, Winnie had already driven away, and he said, "You know whose fault this is, don't you?"

"It must be those troublemakers who chased Marc up the ridge that night."

"Zeke and Bobbie Jay never would have noticed Arthur if it hadn't been for Marc," Charlie interrupted explosively. "I'd like to wring that little punk's neck. He's liable to get Arthur killed."

~~~

"Gin-Gin was always the greedy one," Ruby Mae Mackey had told Arthur, smiling. "She was the oldest, and I suppose she thought that entitled her to the first and the best of everything. And she wasn't shy about helping herself, no sir!" She laughed. "We never went hungry on the farm, but with twelve kids at the table, you can bet it was lean going sometimes. All the rest of us would start to look like skinny old hound dogs come February and March sometimes, but not Gin-Gin."

"I've seen her wedding portrait at Drake House," Arthur said. "In that picture she looks like the first strong puff of wind might blow her away. By the time I knew her, she was a big woman, but--"

"Honey, Virginia was never no waif. She weighed two hundred pounds on her wedding day if she weighed an ounce."

Arthur smiled thinly. More lies, then. But for some reason, this one seemed different. If only because discovering the vanity behind the self portrait of his grandmother robbed the painting of much of its sinister import. "How did she meet Grandfather?" he asked. "I'd always heard they met in Tennessee, but you all grew up right here, didn't you?"

"Why do you think she had to go all the way to Tennessee to meet him? There was no way a little country girl from the back side of the ridge was going to meet Stonewall Drake here in Riverbend."

"So she planned it?"

"Lord, there wasn't nothing that happened to Gin-Gin by chance. Now, she knew daddy was never going to let her go to secretary school like she wanted, but she was bound and determined that she wasn't going to be no farmer's wife. So what did she do? She set her cap at the richest man in town. She went to stay one summer with our cousin Maudie Lee in Copper Hill, and she managed to catch Stonewall's eye while he was up there looking over operations at the mines. The engagement was announced before he went back to Riverbend that fall."

"I always knew she was quite a woman. I never knew she was a femme fatale." Arthur grinned at the notion of his grandmother as a great, fleshy Venus.

"You ain't married, are you, Arthur?"

"No, ma'am, I'm not."

"Well, you just be careful around these back country girls," she said seriously. "Some of them got ways."

"Ways?"

"Mama and Papa were good Christian folks, and they didn't hold with any of that foolery, but Gin-Gin, now, she wasn't the sort to let anything stand between her and something she wanted. She was my sister, and I loved her, but Arthur, honey, she never won your granddaddy's heart with no coy looks or dropped handkerchiefs."

"I don't think I understand."

Ruby Mae smiled up at him. "Of course you do, dear. Isn't that why you came to see me?"

~~~

Arthur passed over the threshold of his grandmother's bedroom, and found her lying on the crisp white sheets that had always been freshly ironed and laundered every morning. Her corpulent form was draped in a pristine white nightgown and bed jacket, and she didn't look up from the Wilkie Collins novel she was reading as he came in. Flowers were everywhere. The light in the room seemed filtered and thick, like the light in the midst of a hemlock grove on a bright summer's day. He moved to the window and looked out.

The forest had come up to very eves of the house. Feathery fronds blotted out the sky overhead, and the ground far below was blanketed with a lush undergrowth of ferns. Arthur had seen this place before, and he felt a sense of pleased recognition, as though he had rediscovered a secret garden, or found his way back to a landscape visited only in dreams. Something was moving in the forest, and although Arthur saw it clearly for a moment, he could not say whether it was man or beast. He turned back to his grandmother, and she finally looked up from her novel. She didn't have her teeth in, and her mouth was a gaping black hole. She said, "Did you bring me my easel? I want to paint something for you."

"No, I didn't. I'm sorry. Your arthritis had gotten so bad, I didn't know you could still hold a brush."

She wriggled the pudgy fingers on her right hand and said, "Don't you worry about me, my dear, I can still wield a palette knife with the best of them."

Her words reminded Arthur of something horribly unpleasant, and with a wrench, he found himself back on the front lawn. Zeke was saying, "Give it up, man. That wussy little knife won't even cut a finger bone."

Bobbie Jay giggled. "Then I'll cut off his dick instead."

"Are you crazy? You touch a faggot's dick and you'll get AIDS for sure."

"Oh, fuck, man, I've got his blood all over me." Bobbie Jay dropped the knife and jumped back, squealing in fright. "Oh Jesus, man, what am I going to do?"

Zeke roared with unsympathetic laugher. "That's what you get for being such a fag lover."

"It's all over you too, asshole."

Their voices receded into the distance. Arthur heard an engine revving back near the carriage house, and a moment later the Cadillac came tearing past, close enough for Arthur to see the silver blur of the hubcaps.

He lay still, trying to gather his strength. He wanted to get back to his grandmother's bedroom. There was so much she needed to explain to him. The first time it had been an effortless journey up the stairs, but now it seemed to take all his strength just to turn his head to look towards the house. The remaining windows on the third story were blank and black as slate. The front door stood open, and on the threshold lay something smudged and dark, the size of a large cat, with a broad, smoothly undulant back.

Chapter 39: In the Great Hall

Sheriff Kettering's patrol car was pulled up before the gatehouse, and Elbert Kettering was standing by a broad, burned swath of ground shaking his head when Charlie and Robin arrived. He strolled over to them. "Afternoon, folks. Ain't this something? Used to be the Drake name meant something in these parts. You never would have seen something like this in the old days, would you?"

"No, you wouldn't," Robin agreed. "Winnie Gilbert and I were just saying the same thing."

"Of course, part of the problem is the people living here now," Elbert said. "If you ask me, old Mr. Drake made a real mistake by renting the house out to those two queer boys. I guess he just didn't realize. It don't matter to me what somebody does in their own bedroom, but this ain't Atlanta, and not everybody is as open-minded. Specially not that trash from east of the river."

"Have you picked up Zeke and Bobbie Jay yet?" Charlie demanded.

"Well, no, I need to talk to Arthur first. You all called it in, didn't you? What's going on? The phones gone out again?"

"Arthur's has, anyway," Robin said.

"That's peculiar," Elbert mused, settling back down into his patrol car and turning the key in the ignition. "Usually the whole ridge goes out at the same time, don't it?"

"Yes, it does," Charlie agreed grimly. Putting the truck in gear, he turned down the drive. The patrol car was right behind. The early winter dusk had dropped like a curtain over the woods. Charlie began to drive faster, the truck jouncing over the ruts and potholes the past three months of bad weather had opened in the winding gravel road. Robin braced herself with a hand on the dashboard.

They rounded the last curve before the house, and the gravel gave way to smooth brick. The last of the daylight fell on the long expanse of lawn leading up to the house. "Oh, my God," Robin groaned in sorrow and disgust. "What a mess. It'll cost thousands to clean this up."

"Money's never been a problem for the people in this house," Charlie muttered. He saw something on the grass that he couldn't quite make out. It looked like a long bundle of dirty rags. He pulled up close to it and suddenly flushed hot with horror. Yanking on the emergency brake, he jumped from the cab. The warning beep from the key in the ignition was loud in the January dusk. Robin reached over and pulled it out. Elbert's car door slammed.

"He's still alive," Charlie yelled. "Get a chopper up here."

Elbert came up and swore, "Jee-zus H. Christ," and ran back to his patrol car.

Charlie knelt beside Arthur. "Just hold on. You're gonna be OK. Everything's gonna be OK."

"I know," Arthur said. "Don't worry. It doesn't hurt."

"Oh my God," Charlie said, and began to weep. Robin brought a blanket from the truck, and Charlie tucked it around his shoulders. Then he lifted Arthur gently in his arms. He seemed almost weightless.

Elbert called, "Life Force is on the way."

"Maybe you shouldn't move him," Robin said.

"I'm not leaving him to die in the yard like a goddamned dog," Charlie snapped. He crossed the lawn, kicked open the front door, and laid Arthur down on one of the upholstered benches in the great hall. Bricks and broken glass littered the floor.

Robin had followed, but she stood back, both fists pressed hard against her mouth. Elbert followed a moment later and knelt down beside Arthur. "Can you hear me, Arthur?" he asked. "It's Elbert. I need to ask you something."

Charlie pulled him back. "Can't this wait?"

"No, Charlie, I'm sorry, but it can't. Do you want the sons-a-bitches to get away with it?"

"Come on, Charlie." Robin took his arm, but he shook her off.

"Listen to me a minute," Elbert said. "Who was it done this to you?"

When Arthur didn't respond, Elbert gently slapped his face until he opened his eyes. "Arthur. You hear me? Who was it?"

He sighed deeply, and a thin froth of blood bubbled at the corner of his mouth.

"Was it them same boys who've been causing all the trouble? Zeke Womack? Bobbie Jay Jewell?"

"Yes," Arthur whispered.

"Just them two? There wasn't nobody else?"

Arthur shook his head.

"OK, Arthur, you done good. We're gonna hang their sorry asses out to dry, don't you worry about that."

"Elbert!" Robin said in a sudden harsh whisper. "There's somebody upstairs."

He drew his gun. "You sure?"

"I saw a shadow of something going up the stairs."

Elbert sidled into the stair hallway and looked up. The only light came from the fading daylight in the west windows. Elbert said, "Robin, honey, I want you to keep real calm. Just walk out to Charlie's truck and lock yourself in, can you do that?"

Her mouth tightened, but she didn't argue with him. She stepped over the sill of one of the smashed windows, crossed the stone veranda and ran lightly down the hill to the truck. Elbert said, "Charlie, you wait here with Arthur, and if you see anybody, you sing right out."

Broken glass ground and crunched underfoot as Elbert made his way to the staircase. Charlie took Arthur's hand and bent his head close to his. "Help's on the way. Stay here with me, now. Don't you go anywhere."

Arthur's hand tightened momentarily in response. Charlie half wished that Zeke and Bobbie Jay were still hanging around. There wouldn't be any need for the expense of a trial once he got through with them.

The setting sun moved from behind a cloud, and red light streamed through the high rose window at the western end of the gallery. It gleamed on the broken glass like geometric pools of blood, much cleaner and brighter than Arthur's blood, which had soaked through the blanket and begun dripping on the floor beneath. It was cold in the house. Charlie took off his coat and tucked it around Arthur over the blanket. "How you doing there? Does that help?"

"Charlie?" Arthur breathed.

"I'm here. I'm not going anywhere, don't you go anywhere either. Help's on the way. They're going to fly you to Chattanooga in a helicopter, and you're going to be just fine."

"Oh, Charlie, it's starting to hurt."

"What the hell do you expect? You been stuck full of more holes than a pin cushion, and you think it's not going to hurt?" He laid a hand on Arthur's forehead. "Just a little bit longer now."

"Please help me."

"I'm doing everything I know how," Charlie said, despairingly. "Help's gonna be here in just a minute. You've got to hold on."

"I need to talk to Grandmother, but I'm scared."

"Your grandmother's been dead and buried for thirty years. You're not going to be talking to her anytime soon."

"She's here," Arthur moaned. "She's coming down the stairs."

"Knock it off," Charlie snapped, resisting the urge to look over his shoulder. "I want you to shut up and listen to me a minute First of all, you've got to set down that spoiled little pissant you call a boyfriend these days and get his head turned around right. You hear me, Arthur?"

"She's almost here, and oh, Charlie, I'm afraid she's angry with me."

"And if you need me to hold him down, just let me know. On second thought, you better take care of him yourself. If I ever get my hands on him I'm liable to break his scrawny neck, because goddamnit, Arthur, he's nearly gotten you killed--" He broke off with a long, shuddering gasp.

Arthur opened his eyes. All the pain had washed away from his face, and he seemed very calm. "She's here."

Charlie whirled around. He was alone with Arthur in the great hall. "Damnit Arthur--"

There was a whisper of movement on the veranda. Charlie got up and went to the broken window. A dark thing sat on the stone balcony looking in at them.

Then lights appeared over the trees, fantastically bright. Charlie had to shield his eyes. The dark thing slipped down the stairs and was gone. "Oh, thank God. Arthur, they're here. Everything's going to be all right."

Behind him was only silence. He rushed back and laid his head on Arthur's chest. After a long moment, he finally heard the dull, slow beating of his heart.

"You can't have him!" Charlie shouted to the house in sheer defiance. As the helicopter settled down on the lawn, the curtains began to blow wildly, and Elbert came pounding down the stairs.

"Shit, Charlie, there could be a whole army hiding up there, but I can't find a living soul."

Chapter 40: The Homosexual Agenda

It was a bitterly cold, clear day. The sun was dazzling on the wings of the plane circling above Lovell Field. Betty clutched at Clarence's arm with manicured nails. "Oh my gracious, I'm sure that's their flight. Whatever are we going to say to them?"

Clarence freed his arm. Betty's shrill question had attracted glances from around the terminal. "I'm sure you'll think of something, dear," he said quietly. "You might start by telling them that their son's not dead yet."

"Oh, Clarence, how can you be so cold? You almost sound like you expect Arthur to die."

"I certainly hope I'm wrong," he answered gruffly. "But there's no use fooling ourselves. We have to be prepared for the worst."

"But he's doing so well! He made it through the night just fine."

"You heard the doctor the same as I did. If peritonitis sets in, he could be dead in a matter of hours."

Tears sprang to her lovely violet eyes. She rooted in her handbag for a handkerchief and blotted her face delicately to avoid smearing her makeup. "Now look what you've done. And I wanted to be cheerful for April. She and Frank both need to see a smiling face."

"If Arthur doesn't make it, all the smiling faces in the world won't make a lick of difference. After we drop them off at the hospital, I think we should go ahead and call a realtor to get our house on the market."

"You can't be serious."

"If we wait until he dies, it may be too late."

"But think how that will make Frank and April feel."

"If they had been here in Riverbend where they belonged, Arthur wouldn't be laying in that hospital bed right now. Now you know that's the truth."

"Even if you're right, this isn't the time or the place, Mr. Gilbert, and I'm not going to listen to another word."

The little commuter plane taxied to the gate. Betty went to the window and watched the passengers disembark and cross the tarmac, shielding their eyes from the glare of the sun and shivering in the cold wind. "Oh, there they are." She waved frantically down at April and Frank. "Doesn't April look just precious in that tweed suit? Poor darling! And do you see how tan she and Frank both are? The two of them are dark as red Indians."

By the time Arthur's parents had climbed the stairs from the tarmac up to the terminal, Betty had worked up a fresh flood of tears. "Oh, April," she wailed, embracing her. "Oh, my poor dear, what a terrible homecoming this is for you."

April patted her sister's back mechanically and freed herself. Her face was wooden with grief, her eyes dry. "How is he?" she asked.

"Arthur's going to be just fine, I'm sure of it. He was doing wonderfully this morning, and the doctor is very hopeful, isn't he, Clarence?"

"He said Arthur was lucky to be alive."

"Have they caught the people who did it?" Frank demanded.

"Not yet," Clarence said. "But Elbert's on top of it. He'll have them locked up in no time at all."

"He hasn't picked them up yet? Good God Almighty, do you think Arthur's safe while those two are still on the loose?"

"Now calm down, Frank," Clarence said. "Nothing's gonna happen. Bobbie Jay Jewell and that Zeke fella both have wives and families in Riverbend, so they ain't going to run far. They'll show up sooner or later, and Elbert will be ready for them."

"Is that Elbert's idea of police work? Counting on the paternal impulses of a pair of maniacs who stabbed my boy and left him to bleed almost to death on his own front lawn?"

"Frank," his wife murmured.

"This is the second time Arthur's ended up in the hospital since he's been home. What the hell's going on around here? For God's sake, Clarence, you promised you would explain things to Arthur. You said you'd look out for him."

Clarence took a deep breath. "You're scared and angry about your boy, and I guess if it was Eddie or Jerome laying up there in that hospital bed, I might not think too carefully about what came out of my mouth either. But don't you dare tell me that this was my fault, because I won't stand for it. No, sir."

"Clarence is right," Betty said, "You're being completely unfair about this, Frank. After all, you're the one who rented Drake House to a couple of boys from Atlanta that everybody says--well, I don't know, but everybody says they must be homosexuals. Elbert thinks that's why that white trash went up there in the first place. You can't imagine the filthy things they wrote on the walls. They never would have bothered Arthur otherwise."

"Oh, for God's sake, Betty," Frank said wearily. "I have no idea if our tenants share a bedroom or not, and frankly I can't see how it would have made any difference. If Zeke and Bobby Jay went up there to get themselves a queer, then they found one sure enough."

"Lord Jesus," Betty said, after a moment of shocked silence. "How can you even joke about a thing like that?"

"Arthur is a homosexual," Frank said carefully. "Does that sound like a joke to you? It sure as hell is no joke for his mother and me." He turned and strode away towards the luggage claim.

"Oh no. I can't believe it." Betty appealed to her sister. "April, how do you know? Surely it's just a phase. People can change. I'm sure if he started coming to church with us and maybe sat down and had a nice talk with the pastor--"

"Please stop it," April interrupted. "Arthur's practically married to some first year med student down at Emory. That's the real reason he moved back to Georgia. It had nothing to do with Drake House or the estate. He just wanted to be near that boy down in Atlanta. Now Betty, if you don't mind, I'd like to go straight to the hospital. Frank's going to wait behind to get our luggage and rent a car."

"Oh, now, there's no need for you to spend money on that," Clarence said.

"I think it will be easier for everyone. Could we please go now?"

~~~

Clarence and Betty drove most of the way to the hospital in silence. But finally Betty couldn't stand it anymore. She turned around and said, "April, honey, please forgive us. I know you and Frank have been wonderful parents. It's just the shock. So many dreadful things all at once."

April reached forward and clasped her sister's hand reassuringly for a moment. "We appreciate all you've done for Arthur, we really do."

Clarence kept his eyes on the road in front of him, and both hands on the wheel.

After another moment, Betty ventured to say, "But what does it mean for Drake House? If Arthur never has any children --"

"There's not going to be an heir. I'm afraid Arthur's made that abundantly clear."

"But does he know what that means for all the rest of us?" she insisted plaintively. "What right does he have to make a decision for everyone else? Surely he just doesn't realize."

"Arthur's been reading Virginia's trust. He knows what it means."

Clarence glanced up at the rearview mirror to see April's face. He seemed to be working hard to keep his anger in check. "I was right, wasn't I? You're not going to hold Arthur to his responsibilities. You're going to overturn the trust."

"Could you blame us if we did? How can we insist that Arthur stay here now?"

"It doesn't have anything to do with him getting hurt. You've been planning this for years. That's why you moved to Myrtle Beach. You knew good and well Arthur was never going to settle down here."

April didn't flinch. "We moved because I've always wanted to live on the beach, and at sixty-five, it seemed high time to do what I wanted for a change. Besides, everything else aside, is it really so surprising that a grown man wouldn't want to move in with his parents? We thought Arthur might at least consider coming back to Georgia if we weren't here. Then when that boy started school at Emory, you know, it seemed like everything might work out after all. Frank and I were hoping against hope that after being here for a little while, Arthur might start to feel like a part of his family again. Maybe his responsibility to his heritage would even come to outweigh his personal . . . proclivities. It wouldn't be the first time, would it?"

"April, I apologize from the bottom of my heart," Clarence said. "I know you and Frank only want what's best for the family."

April looked out the window. The skyline of Chattanooga seemed very gray and bleak from the freeway. "Don't apologize to me. I'm not sure Frank and I think that way anymore."

Betty turned around in the seat. "What do you mean?"

"We've been doing a lot of talking lately. Even before this terrible thing happened. You know, Betty, when you live here, you take it all for granted. Everything Virginia believed about the importance of the family to Sickle Ridge and Riverbend. But when you're away for a few years, your perspective starts to change."

"April," Clarence said in a warning tone, "I know that the past twenty-four hours have been terrible for you. But don't say something you're going to regret later."

"I'll tell you this. The half-baked schemes of a domineering old woman start to seem a lot less important at a time like this. I love Arthur because he's my son, not because he's critical to Virginia Drake's grand plan. Arthur wants us to help him overturn the trust. If he survives this, I don't see how Frank and I could say no to him, do you?"

"Clarence!" Betty shrieked in warning as the car drifted into the next lane of traffic. He wrenched the wheel back.

"I told you not to say anything," Clarence told her in a voice that was heavy with sorrow.

Chapter 41: Someone to Watch Over Me

It was after one when Marc got home from the library. He was dog tired, but his mind was still racing too hard from a long night of studying to get any sleep. If it hadn't been for his morning classes, he would have been tempted to jump in the car and drive up to Riverbend to see Arthur. Instead, he put a Robert Johnson CD on the stereo, turned it up loud enough to hear over the shower, and stood under the hot water for a good fifteen minutes. It was only after he got out and went looking for a towel that he saw the light blinking on his answering machine. He found a towel draped over the back of his futon, dried his hair and hit the playback button.

There was only one message. "Marc? This is Gavin. Um, Gavin Edders. We've met a couple of times. Dennis and I are the guys living in Drake House. I found your number with Arthur's things."

Robert Johnson was moaning about the hellhound on his trail. Marc abruptly reached over and shut off the stereo.

"Something's happened," Gavin said.

~~~

In Charlie's dream, he and Arthur were walking by the shore of a gray sea. Smooth, round pebbles the same color as the ocean rolled underfoot. The day was overcast and cold, with a stiff breeze blowing in off the water. Still, Arthur was as happy as Charlie had ever seen him. His old lover was actually grinning with pleasure, and walking beside him, careful of his footing, Charlie realized that Arthur's happiness made him a little nervous. Arthur seemed too carefree to worry much about keeping secrets anymore.

Further up the pebble beach was a line of striped canvas beach chairs. Arthur was gesturing and talking animatedly as the two of them walked on, but Charlie slowly realized that he didn't have the faintest idea what he was saying. He walked closer to Arthur and inclined his head towards him, but either the wind was whipping his voice away, or perhaps Arthur's words were reaching him, and Charlie was simply failing to understand them. At length he stopped walking, and let Arthur go on without him.

Arthur went a few steps further before he saw that Charlie was no longer beside him. He turned and asked with perfect clarity, "Aren't you coming?"

Charlie hesitated, but finally shook his head. Something flashed across Arthur's face, but then he smiled to let Charlie know that it was all right, and turned and walked alone up the strand towards the gaily colored beach chairs.

Charlie looked out over the ocean. The sun was high in the sky, shrunken and white behind heavy cloud cover. A wave rushed up as far as the toes of his boots. The beach pebbles clacked and rolled as the water receded, and Charlie glanced back up the beach.

Arthur had nearly reached the canvas chairs, but something had changed. The air seemed much colder, and there were strange shadows shifting along the beach and moving across the surface of the water. Worst of all, Charlie saw monstrous, half-visible shapes lurking among the flapping canvas chair backs. Arthur was walking right into the midst of them. Charlie tried to go to him, but he was suddenly waist deep in sea water, and slogging against an undercurrent that seemed to drag him back two steps for every step he pressed on. He shouted a warning, but the roar of the sea drowned his voice, and it was all he could do to maintain his footing as the cold gray currents swirled around him.

~~~

Robin said, "Charlie, wake up."

He opened his eyes.

"A car just pulled into the driveway."

"What time is it?"

"Three o'clock."

"What now?" Charlie groaned. He groped for the shotgun he had started keeping under the bed, and told Robin, "Stay here. Don't turn on any lights."

He crept down the hall to the front of the house. The car in the driveway had its lights on and the engine still running. Charlie positioned himself by the front door and peered out cautiously through the blinds.

The engine died. The lights went out. There was a long moment of silence. The car door finally opened then slammed shut. Charlie switched on the porch light, flung open the front door and leveled his shotgun.

Marc James stood blinking in the illumination of the yellow bug lights.

Charlie swore loudly and lowered his gun. "Don't you have any more sense than to show up here like this?"

"You're not going to shoot me, are you?" Marc tried to smile, but it was a poor attempt. He looked very young and sick and scared.

"I might if I thought it would do any good."

"I'm sorry it's so late. I didn't know what else to do."

"Who is it, Charlie?" Robin came in from the bedroom. "Oh, Marc. Bless your heart. Come in, come in."

He came in, shivering. "Gavin left a message on my answering machine, but he didn't tell me what hospital Arthur is in or anything."

"So you just hopped in the car and drove up here in the middle of the night?" Charlie exploded. "Do you have any idea how stupid that was? They haven't caught the men who tried to kill Arthur. You don't think they'd love a second chance to get it right?"

"I can take care of myself. Arthur needs me."

"He needs you like he needs a fucking hole in the head."

"Charlie!" Robin exclaimed.

With a snort of disgust, he turned and stalked out of the room.

"You know what his problem is?" Marc said furiously.

"Just ignore him. It's not your fault."

Marc took a deep breath. "I'm really sorry about barging in on you in the middle of the night, but I didn't know what else to do. I called the hospital in Riverbend, but they said Arthur hadn't been admitted here, and I tried to call Gavin back, but I could only get his answering machine, and I wanted to call you, but I didn't know your last name--"

"It's Johnson. Now you know. C'mon, I'll fix you a bed on the couch like last time. The springs aren't too bad, are they?"

Marc didn't budge. "I've got to see Arthur. Can you just tell me what hospital he's in? Why isn't he in Riverbend?"

"They airlifted him to Chattanooga."

"You're kidding," Marc said in a small voice. "Was it that bad?"

"It's pretty bad."

"I've got to get up there."

"There's no point in driving to Chattanooga. For one thing, it really is too dangerous. That little car of yours is like a red flag."

"I don't care about that."

"You'd better start caring," Robin snapped, starting to lose patience with him. "If you'd seen what they did to Arthur--"

"Have you seen him?" Marc asked, suddenly getting quiet again.

"Charlie and I were there when the sheriff arrived. I thought you knew."

"I don't know anything," Marc said miserably. "Is there more than one hospital in Chattanooga? How do I get there?"

"Marc, you can't go. Besides being dangerous, you wouldn't be able to see him even if you did drive up. I don't think they're letting anyone but his mom and dad into the room."

"He's going to be all right, isn't he?"

She couldn't lie to him. "I don't know. I'm sure every hour that goes by his chances are getting better, but he lost so much blood he went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. The last time I talked to his Uncle Clarence, they were saying it was still touch and go."

"Wait a minute," Marc interrupted, loud and scared. "Wait a minute, I don't understand any of this. I thought he just got beat up bad."

"Marc, honey," Robin said, as gently as she could. "Didn't anyone tell you they had a knife?"

~~~

When Robin finally got back to bed it was nearly five. She found Charlie was lying wide awake with the light on, his hands laced behind his head, staring up at the ceiling.

"Have you been awake all this time?"

"Pretty much. Thank you for looking after our guest." He pulled Robin down into bed and kissed her. "I didn't think I could stay in the same room with that kid any longer without being severely tempted to give him a black eye."

"Please stop it. I'm too tired for any more of this."

"He's caused nothing but trouble since his first day in town, and now he's treating our house like a Motel 6. I'm sorry, but I've got my limits."

"I know you're angry and scared about Arthur. I am too. But it's not Marc's fault." She bent down and kissed his furrowed brow. "Anyway, I told Marc I'd drive up to Chattanooga with him in the morning."

"You're not going to do any such thing."

"Yes, I am," she told him mildly. "We'll take my van. It was the only way I could keep him from heading up there on his own."

"Then you should have just let him go."

"I know you don't mean that."

"Arthur's family is really going to love having him show up at a time like this."

"I thought if we got to the hospital early enough, there probably wouldn't be anyone there but his mom and dad, and they already know. Marc's not sure about the rest of the family."

"I'd be pretty damn careful about relying on his view of the situation. He's reckless and incredibly selfish, and I seriously doubt whether he can see anything five inches past the head of his own dick."

"That's just a crude way of saying that he's young and in love. You don't have to like him, Charlie, but I wish you could cut him some slack."

He sighed irritably and pulled Robin close. "I know you think the real problem I have with Marc is the fact that he's a guy, but it's not. It's Arthur. I've known him since he was six years old, and he's got a lot of good in him, but what he doesn't have is common sense. What Arthur really needs is somebody to hold his hand and look out after him. Marc may be a perfectly nice kid, but he'll never really be there for Arthur. Do you know what I mean? I just think Arthur deserves better."

Robin leaned back on her elbows and looked at her husband with new respect. "I had no idea you thought like that."

"That's what love's for. It's not just having the hots for someone. It's knowing that as bad as the world is, there's somebody out there you can always count on."

"Honey." A misting of tears came to Robin's eyes and she laid her head on Charlie's chest. He stroked her hair, and thought of gray ocean currents swirling cold around his feet.

Chapter 42: By the Sword

"There he is."

Through the double-paned glass doors of a smoking lounge Robin could see two men in animated conversation. One of them was Arthur's father. The other had his back to them. "That's Frank," she told Marc. "The kind of thin man in the flannel shirt."

"Oh yeah," Marc said. "Yeah, I can see the resemblance. Um, look Robin, you've been really great, but if you don't want to be here for the introductions, I understand."

She shrugged. "It doesn't matter to me, but I would like to know how Arthur's doing. Unless this would be easier for you if I split. Is that what you mean?"

"No, that's not what I meant." Marc walked a step or two in the opposite direction and came back. "To be honest, if you don't mind, I could kind of use the support. I don't know what Arthur's dad is going to think about me."

"I'm sure he'll like you just fine," Robin said, hoping that she sounded convincing.

The man Frank was talking to turned his head, and Robin saw that it was Elbert Kettering. She hadn't recognized him out of uniform.

"That's the sheriff. I wonder if something's happened?"

"Oh God." Marc started forward, but Robin grabbed his arm.

"I don't know if we should interrupt them."

He shook his arm free and paced as far as the elevators and back again. "I told Arthur he had to get out of this place. I told him it wasn't safe." He looked back towards the lounge. "What the hell are they saying in there?"

Elbert and Frank finally shook hands, and then Elbert came out of the smoking lounge by himself. He spotted Robin and came up to them.

"Robin, honey, I'm glad to see you. I didn't get the chance to tell you and Charlie the other day how much I appreciated the way you acted up at Drake House. It could have been a real difficult situation if you hadn't kept such a cool head."

He looked at Marc with frank curiosity.

"I didn't feel very cool-headed at the time," Robin said. "Elbert, this is Marc. He's a friend of Arthur's from Atlanta."

"Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, son. I hope you won't judge everybody in Riverbend on the basis of this. This was a terrible thing, just terrible, but nobody's going to have to worry about the likes of Bobbie Jay and Zeke again."

"You got them?" Robin said. "Oh, thank goodness."

"I wish I could take credit for it, but it was the Lord and their own sinful ways that caught up with them, not me. You know Mike Humphrey, the reverend of that holiness church up on the ridge? Them crazy snake handlers?"

"I think so. I've heard of him, anyway."

"Well it seems Bobbie Jay and Zeke didn't have any more sense than to go and break into Brother Mike's barn last night and try to carry off a crate of the reverend's rattlers and copperheads."

"Why would they do something like that?"

"You can be damn sure they weren't up to any good but it's too late to ask them now. We found both of 'em about a hundred yards from the back of the Reverend's barn, swelled up like water balloons from all the venom."

"You mean they're dead?" Marc asked, incredulous. "The men who hurt Arthur are both dead?"

"They're dead all right. I came in this morning to give Frank the news. He's real relieved about it, you can bet. Everybody is. It's funny how things work out, ain't it?"

"How's Arthur doing?" Marc asked. "Does he know what's happened?"

"Frank wants to wait till he's a little stronger before telling him anything, but he was saying to me that the doctors haven't seen any trace of sepsis yet, so he just may pull through. I don't mind telling you, when we found him up at Drake House, I was sure he was a goner. I bet you thought the same thing, didn't you Robin? But he must have inherited his grandmother's tough hide. I'm convinced Miz Virginia would be alive to this day if the Old Boy hadn't decided to claim his own."

"Not you too," Robin said with an uneasy smile. "My husband blames everything that goes wrong around here on the devil out in the woods."

"Well, maybe you oughta listen to your husband, don't you think?" Elbert winked at her. "But I wouldn't call the Old Boy the devil. I mean, nobody's gonna shed a tear over him gettin' Zeke and Bobbie Jay, are they?"

Marc was rapidly losing patience with this conversation. "I thought you said they got bit trying to steal snakes."

Elbert looked at him. "There's a difference between what happens and why it happens, ain't there? Now if you two would excuse me, I need to be getting back to Riverbend."

When the elevator doors had shut behind the sheriff, Marc turned back to Robin and said, "Is your whole town as crazy as him?"

"Elbert's not a bad guy. It's just that things have been a little strange around here lately."

"Robin? Robin Johnson?"

They turned. Frank Drake had come up behind them.

"Mr. Drake," Robin said immediately. "I'm so sorry about Arthur."

He nodded slightly, seeming frail and brittle as a bundle of dry twigs. "Elbert's been telling me that you and Charlie were quite a help," he said. "I certainly want to thank you for that. April and I both do."

"Mr. Drake, we haven't had the chance to meet before now," Marc interrupted. "And I'm sorry it has to be at a time like this."

Frank straightened his shoulders a little.

Marc held out his hand and managed to smile. "I guess Arthur probably mentioned me."

"You must be Marc," Frank said.

~~~

For a long time Arthur survived in two worlds. In one, he floated on pools of blood and fluid, needles in his arms, tubes in every orifice, and a bitter chemical taste on the back of his tongue that he could never swallow away. He was always thirsty, everything hurt, and he was surrounded by strangers in a difficult, bright place where he was never allowed to sleep the night through.

In the other place he was almost entirely alone, and there was no pain while he wandered through the empty corridors of Drake House looking for Virginia. He felt certain she was in the house with him, but he seemed to keep missing her. While he was in the kitchen pantry, he would hear her heavy tread far upstairs, but when he ran up the back staircase, he heard far below him the creaking of the cellar door.

He suspected he was going to have to make a decision sooner or later, and with a kind of exhausted resignation, he thought that if it was his destiny to wander here forever, then perhaps there was no need to return to the needles and blood.

Towards the end, he walked back and forth through the great hall. The half-dusk lasted forever, and long shadows lay on the floor and shrouded the corners. There was somebody on one of the uncomfortable padded benches under the rose window. That was odd, Arthur thought. No one ever sat there. He moved closer to see, momentarily putting aside the search for Virginia. He always lost his nerve in her presence anyway.

The figure on the bench stirred restlessly and groaned. The base of Arthur's left thumb started to itch. He scratched absently, and the itch became a sharp, burning pain.

He looked down and saw a tiny green snake wrapped around his palm, its fangs buried deep in his thumb. Suddenly he recognized the person who lay on the bench, even though the features were rigid as a mannequin's. Glass eyes rolled in their sockets with an audible click. The hinged jaw dropped open and Bobbie Jay Jewell said in a voice that was not his own, "You murdering faggot, look what you've done to me."

Arthur returned to find a nurse changing his catheter. He turned his head away from the impersonal intimacy, and saw that his mother was in the room, standing with her back to him. After the nurse had covered him and left the room, he tried to moisten his chapped lips with a dry tongue and finally whispered to her, "Mom?"

~~~

They moved him out of intensive care a day later, but Arthur had known long before then that he would not be returning to the twilit Drake House, at least not because of what Bobbie Jay Jewell and Zeke Womack had done to him on the front lawn.

His parents were with him constantly. His father slept on a roll-away cot in the corner of the room at night, and his mother sat in a chair by the window working crossword puzzles and watching the soaps during the day. He was glad to have them so near. They were soft-spoken and gentle with him, and as he got stronger, Arthur began to remember that he loved his parents very much, even though they had been so distant from him for such a long time.

His mother told him calmly the afternoon he was moved into a private room, "Marc drove up to see you on Tuesday. You might give him a call when you feel up to it."

"Marc's been here?"

"He looked in on you for just a minute. You weren't awake, and he had to get back to Atlanta. I guess it's not so easy to catch up missed classes in med school. I think he's going to try to come back this weekend."

"Did you tell him I was going to be all right?"

"I didn't get to meet him, but I'm sure your father told him you were going to be just fine."

Arthur sighed too deeply, and hurt the stitches between his ribs. "You and Dad are both being very brave."

She blew him a kiss. "Dearheart, you'll never know."

"What did Dad think of Marc?"

"Well, heavens, surely it doesn't matter what we think, does it?"

"Of course it does."

"No, I'm finally starting to realize that it shouldn't matter, not really. Arthur, honey, we almost lost you. By the grace of God we've been given a second chance, and believe me, dear, we're going to do everything we can to make things right. Frank and I have both been reconsidering a lot of things, and you'll have to be patient with a couple of old fools, but this time around, I think we're finally going to get some things straightened out around here."

Arthur was not sure he understood exactly what his mother was talking about, but then, expressions of unconditional love had never come easily to her.

"Would you mind handing me the phone? I need to call Marc."

He was disappointed to get only Marc's answering machine, but he said hello, and that he was going to be fine, and asked him not to drive up to Riverbend again until Bobbie Jay and Zeke were behind bars.

When he put the phone down, his mother was looking at him curiously. "Honey," she said, "there's something you need to know."

He listened silently while she told him what had happened.

"Somehow I already knew," he told her at last. "I dreamed about it. I suppose you and Dad must have been talking while I was asleep."

"Perhaps we were. It's a relief, isn't it? A trial would have been such an embarrassing ordeal for everyone. I suppose Elbert will need to talk to you for a few minutes when you feel strong enough, but that should be the end of it."

"It certainly is."

A cloud passed over his mother's face. "They tried to murder you. Don't ask me to shed a tear for them. As far as I'm concerned, the two of them died a better death than they deserved."

His mother's vehemence brought back his moments of terror on the lawn with dreadful clarity, and he said quickly, "No, Mom, don't worry about it. I can't say I'm sorry either."

But it came up again that night. His father had been morose and silent all evening, and after April left, he finally sat down by Arthur's bed and said seriously, "Young man, I've got a bone to pick with you. Winnie Gilbert stopped by Betty's this afternoon, and told me something that I find very disturbing. I'm hoping you can set my mind at rest."

"Well, I don't know, Dad. I will if I can."

"She just feels terrible for leaving you behind when you all found the house had been vandalized, but of course she didn't dream that anyone was still around. But she's thought about what happened since then, and now she's afraid that you did know Bobbie Jay and Zeke were still there. She thinks that's why you were so eager to get her and the kids away. She's very upset, and so am I. So for God's sake, Arthur, tell me that's not the way it happened. Tell me you didn't bring this disaster down on your own head."

Arthur turned his face away. "Of course not."

"Don't you lie to me. That's exactly what happened, isn't it? What the hell's the matter with you? If you had gotten back in the car and driven away, none of this would have happened."

"It might have been worse," Arthur said quietly. "I didn't think they would follow Winnie and the kids if I stayed behind."

"Oh, good God. What a time to play hero. If you wanted to do something brave, why didn't you just try getting married and raising a kid of your own?" Frank stalked across the room and back. "I'm sorry, Arthur. Just promise me you won't let your mother hear anything about this. It would send her straight to her grave."

"I know I wasn't thinking very clearly. But when I saw what they had done to Grandmother's house, it seemed like I had to do something to make amends."

Frank stared at him. After a moment, he sank down into a chair. "Arthur, I don't want you to worry about a thing anymore. I promise you we're going to take you away from here."

Chapter 43: The Widow

Marc showed up early Sunday morning. He stuck his head around the door, and then, seeing that Arthur was alone, walked in carrying an extravagant and frankly erotic purple orchid that soared above its leathery green leaves.

"Hey, baby," Arthur said softly, delighted to see him. "That's a hell of a flower."

"Didn't want your parents thinking I was cheap or anything," Mark said, avoiding Arthur's eyes. "I'll put it in the window here." He squinted, trying to see the sliver of winter gray sky visible above the brick wall of an adjoining wing. "I don't think you need to worry about it getting too much sunshine. Are they around?"

"Mom went to the cafeteria. She'll be gone half an hour or so." Arthur smiled at him, but Marc was still looking out the window. "I heard you met Dad the other day. I hope he wasn't awful to you."

Marc shrugged and shook his head. "Nope. He was fine."

"Thanks for driving up. I know you're busy with school."

Marc snorted. His hands were shoved deep in his pockets. "How you feeling?"

"A lot better."

"Have you looked in a mirror recently?"

"No. Is it pretty scary?"

"Your hair's turned white."

"You're kidding."

"Right here at the temples. White as a sheet overnight."

"No, Marc, I've been going gray for a long time. You just never noticed before."

"I don't mean just a few more gray hairs. All of a sudden you're looking like Doctor Strange after a real bad night." Marc was still standing on the far side of the room. "You need anything?"

"Just you. There's a chair on the other side of the bed. Sit down."

"I can't stay."

"You drove two hours just to turn around and drive straight back?"

"Sorry. Anatomy's keeping me really busy."

"What's wrong with you?"

"That's a funny thing to ask me. I'm not the one laying in a hospital bed with tubes up my nose," Marc snapped at him. Then he turned his back to Arthur and began to cry. Arthur could see his shoulders shaking, and he heard the sobs Marc couldn't swallow.

"Marc," he said, helplessly. "Marc."

Marc crossed his arms over his chest and didn't turn around. After a little while his sobs grew quieter. "I know it looks bad," Arthur said softly. "But I'm going to be all right."

Marc finally turned. He snatched a handful of tissues out of the box on the bedside table and blew his nose, and then said in a muffled voice, "Everybody thinks it's my fault."

"That what's your fault?"

"You know what I mean. Your dad, Robin and Charlie, Johnny Reb, everybody."

"Has someone said something to you?"

"They don't have to say anything. I can tell by the way they look at me. I'm just wondering if you think it's my fault too."

"How could I think that?"

"Maybe because it's true." Marc's eyes began to water again and he dashed the tears away furiously. "If I'd sworn out that complaint like you wanted me to, none of this would have happened."

"You don't know that. Even if Zeke and Bobbie Jay had been in jail, I'm sure they have friends, and they would have been madder than ever. Listen to me, Marc. This was not your fault."

"I'm sorry. I've gotta go."

"Please don't." Arthur said quietly. "Don't you know how much I need you?"

Marc gave a sniffling, bitter laugh. "What do you need me for? You've got your family to take care of you, you've got Charlie and Johnny Reb to scratch the stray itch. You haven't needed me since the day you came home. And don't look at me like that. You could have died, and I wouldn't have known a thing about it unless Gavin bothered to leave a message on my answering machine. Well this sucks, man. I can't live like this. I thought everyone would be freaked out by me, but they're not. Everyone's just sort of tolerant and a little embarrassed, like they found a jar of vaseline and some dirty books stowed under the bed, not like they're meeting somebody you love."

Arthur waited out the tirade and then said, "If this is the way you react to the sight of somebody in a hospital bed, then I don't think you're getting your money's worth out of medical school yet."

Marc looked at him furiously, but then as suddenly as it had come, all his anger seemed to melt away. "Screw you," he said. He wiped his eyes with the heels of both hands and laughed for real, his voice quiet and still a little choked. "I guess meeting your Dad and everybody was a little rough."

"I'm so sorry you had to go through it alone."

"I was expecting a big scene, screaming and fainting and everybody calling therapists and sponsors, like it would have been in my family. Like it really was in my family, come to think of it. But everyone here was so damn polite. It sort of wierded me out."

Arthur smiled. "Exaggerated courtesy can be one of my family's more unnerving vices."

"So how bad is it, really? Robin said your heart stopped on the way to the hospital."

Arthur winced. "I didn't know that. I guess there's a lot they haven't told me yet."

"How many times did you get stabbed?"

"I didn't keep count."

"You mind?" Marc asked, carefully lifting Arthur's nightshirt. "Ugh. Look at the bruises. Did the doctor slap you around while he was stitching you up?" He laid his hand gently on Arthur's chest. "You're lucky they didn't get your heart. It must not have been a very big knife. Or deflected off your ribs. And this big hole looks different, the one down here at your fifth rib. I bet this is where the ER doctor punched in a chest tube to get the blood out of your pleural space."

"Please, baby." Arthur had gone very white around the lips.

"Sorry." Marc pulled a chair to the bedside and sat down, holding Arthur's free hand tightly. "When do you get out of here?"

"Some time next week, I hope."

"What are you going to do? Move back home? I'm warning you, if you tell me Johnny Reb's gonna be playing nursemaid, I'm going to get real unhappy again."

Arthur was quiet for a long time. Marc finally said, "Hello in there. You still with me?"

"I'm not sure what I'm going to do. Dad's planning to stay for a while to oversee repair work at the big house. But I'm just not ready to go back there yet."

"Yeah, I can understand that." Marc looked a little worried. "But where will you go? I wish you could stay with me, but with classes and everything, I just don't know if I could really be there for you right now."

"Don't worry, I wasn't inviting myself to Atlanta."

"I didn't mean it like that."

"Mom's asked me to go back to Myrtle Beach with her, and I think I may do it."

"You're kidding."

"It would be nice to see the ocean again. I've missed it. Haven't you?"

"It's February, Arthur. I think long walks on the beach are a little out the question."

"It's warm down there. Mom's been telling me about the view across the salt marshes to the ocean. It sounds beautiful."

"Are you serious about this?"

"I'd like to put some distance between me and Riverbend while I figure things out."

"You mean your investigation? Your family and the monster in the woods and everything?"

"It's too old and too entrenched. I'm not strong enough anymore. Probably I never was. Once I can get by on my own again, I think I may just go back to L.A."

"What? But what about your inheritance? Arthur, what about me?"

"We'll still see each other. Maybe even more than we do now. It takes you two hours to drive to Riverbend. The flight from L.A. to Atlanta would only be an hour or two longer than that."

"I don't believe I'm hearing this."

"Weren't you the one who wanted me to get out of Riverbend? Where did you think I was going to go?"

"I don't know. Atlanta, I guess, But I always thought you were in danger from your nutty family. I never thought you'd get queer bashed in front of your own house like a barfly on Santa Monica Boulevard."

"Knock knock!" April's voice was piercing in the stillness of the hospital corridors on Sunday morning. "Arthur, dear, look who I found in the cafeteria! Your Aunt Betty and Uncle Clarence skipped church this morning to come visit you."

~~~

It was early the next evening, and Arthur had been sleeping fitfully, when without warning, the door to his room opened and someone walked in. He didn't open his eyes, assuming that the interloper was one of the hospital staff. Heavy footsteps crossed the room to his bedside and stopped. A woman said, "You're Mr. Drake, ain'tcha?"

Arthur finally opened his eyes and found himself looking at a tremendous white face. The woman leaning over his bed was hugely overweight, wearing dirty blue jeans and a stained white blouse with some pathetic ruffles and a plunging neckline.

He glanced around for the call button. It had slipped off the bed and was dangling between the bed and the night table. He reached for it cautiously, but she saw what he was doing and grabbed it away from him. "Just listen to me, would you? I've been waiting around for a week trying to see you, and now that I'm here, I'm going have my say, and you're gonna listen."

"What do you want?"

"My name's Serena Jewell. Bobbie Jay was my husband. What do you think I want?"

Arthur flinched, suddenly seeing Bobbie Jay's broken nose, the little pocket knife, the blood suspended in the air all around him..

"I bet you didn't even know that I've got three little boys to raise all on my own now. My oldest had his sixth birthday two days ago. You think it was a happy birthday party? It wasn't. It wasn't a bit. It was the saddest thing I ever seen."

"Mrs. Jewell, I'm sorry," Arthur managed to say, wondering what in the world the floor nurses had been doing while this immense woman lurked outside his door. "But you should go now. My father will be here any minute."

"Bobbie Jay may not have been perfect, but he was a good provider for his wife and family. Now we got nothing. Do you think his little boys deserved that?"

"He almost killed me." Arthur was a little stunned by her demand for his sympathy. "How was he planning to provide for you from a jail cell?"

"His family ain't from around here. He didn't know no better than to go messing with Miz Virginia. If I'd of known, I would have stopped him, but I just didn't know. Please don't take it out on his innocent little children. They ain't done nothing to you."

"I'm not going to take it out on anyone."

"The sheriff keeps coming around. He says you're gonna sue the estate. We don't have no estate, just the little ole pension from the carpet mill. If you take that away from us, you might as well turn us out in the street."

"Elbert's wrong," Arthur said wearily. "I'm not going to sue you or anybody else. But I'm afraid if anyone sees you here, it might make things worse for you."

"How can things get worse? Bobbie Jay done crossed Miz Virginia. If you don't do something, my little boy might not live to see his seventh birthday, and you know that's the truth."

"My grandmother's been dead for thirty years. She didn't have anything to do with your husband's death, and she certainly can't hurt your children."

She leaned over Arthur, her eyes narrowing to angry slits. "What do you think I am, stupid? I don't care if your name is Drake, I got a right to protect my babies."

Someone knocked at the door.

Serena sprang back, brushing her lank hair out of her face.

"Arthur?" his father called. "It's me."

Serena pushed her way out quickly as Frank entered the room.

"Who was that?" Frank demanded, looking after her.

"Serena Jewell." Arthur realized that he was trembling violently. "Bobbie Jay's widow."

The color drained from Frank's face. "Are you all right? I'm calling hospital security."

"It's all right. I don't think she wanted to hurt me."

"She sure didn't mean you any good either. Damnit, how did she get in here? What did she want?"

"She said Elbert had been harassing her, and she wanted me to stop it."

"Once I tell him that Serena had the nerve to show up here, he'll show her what harassment means."

"I don't want Elbert to go anywhere near her. I'll call him myself if I have to. I want him to leave her and her family alone."

"You've always been too soft-hearted for your own good. Don't you know the best thing for Bobbie Jay's family to do is to get on out of town? Zeke Womack's people have already packed up and moved back to Tennessee. The sooner Serena takes Bobbie Jay's kids out of here, the better."

"It's not right. She shouldn't have to leave her home because of what her husband did."

"You've been away for a long time, son. You don't know how things are in a small town."

"No," Arthur protested. "That's what everyone's been telling me ever since I came home, but that doesn't explain anything. Why are people still afraid of Grandmother thirty years after her funeral? Why am I still afraid of her? Oh, damn--" Gesturing incautiously with his right arm, he suddenly felt a sharp metallic pain in the flesh of his forearm. "I think the IV's slipped out again."

"Lay still. I'll get a nurse."

The aide who returned with Frank a few moments later took one look and said angrily, "What in the name of heaven have you been up to? You've been messing around and gotten your fever up, that's what you've done. You ought to be ashamed of yourself."

Frank turned on her. "It's no wonder he's upset. You know who got into his room just now? The wife of one of the men who tried to kill him. Haven't you heard of security of this place?"

She went pale. "Oh my lord."

"It's all right," Arthur protested, but no one paid any attention to him.

"You hang on for just one second, hon. With any luck they'll grab her before she gets out of the hospital." Picking up the phone she dialed and said, "Barbara, is that you dearie? It's Myra. We got a code fifty."

"You know I don't want this," Arthur said in frustration to his father. "I want everyone to leave the poor woman and her children alone." The misplaced needle in his arm was throbbing, and he felt a pain deep in the joints of his fingers.

"Then you better hope that she gets picked up by the Chattanooga cops, and not by Elbert or his boys."

Arthur felt cold and sick. "Please, I just want this to stop."

"Excuse me," Myra said. "Do you know her name? What did she look like?"

"Serena Jewell," Frank supplied. "She's a big fat girl with black hair. She was wearing blue jeans. She could have strangled Arthur here in his bed, and no one would have known a thing until it was too late."

"It's going to be all right, sir," Myra said efficiently. "I think they've picked her up at the door. Do you want to come identify her?"

"Dad, please."

"Will someone stay here with Arthur?"

"I'll be here, honey," Myra said. "I'm staying right here with you."

Chapter 44: Myrtle Beach

Arthur was awakened before dawn by the pain in his half-severed thumb, emerging from a nightmare about Drake House to find himself clawing at the bandages in a frenzy. Gasping with shock and pain, he reached desperately for a light. He had the confused idea that he was in the White Room, and nearly panicked when he couldn't find the bedside table in its familiar place. But then his groping hand touched rattan, and at last he remembered where he was.

He took a deep breath and sat up slowly in bed. A clean thin light was shining through the balcony door, and as his initial fright and confusion subsided, he made out the floor lamp a few feet away. He reached out and turned it on, almost scared to look down at his hand. The bandage was still in place. He felt gingerly under the swaddling of gauze and surgical tape, and decided that his palm didn't feel hot. He could see no tell-tale streaks running up his veins, and now that he was beginning to calm down, the pain was fading as well. It was nothing after all. Just a nightmare.

He dragged a blanket off the bed and went to the balcony. The outside air was warm and smelled of the sea. He lay down on one of the chaise lounges, wrapping the blanket around himself. There were lights on the water, and a handful of bright stars overhead. The pain in his thumb ebbed and flowed, familiar as the beating of his pulse. He was relieved to think that he was nowhere near Drake House. When he began to drift off to sleep, he slipped imperceptibly back into the nightmare, but it was not so powerful as before. The chaise lounge became the canopy bed in the White Room, and the warm sea breeze the damask curtains that hung around the bed on four sides. His right thumb itched and burned, and something was pacing on the other side of the bed curtains, back and forth, to and fro, on and on until morning, when his mother awakened him, chiding, "What on earth do you think you're doing? Do you want to catch your death of cold?"

The ocean was gray and smooth save for the silvery red path of the sun. April was wearing a white house robe and terrycloth turban that accentuated her tan. She looked younger than her sixty-five years, but haggard with concern.

"I didn't mean to worry you," Arthur said. "But it was so nice last night, I just wanted to be outside."

She frowned. "You've got a doctor's appointment in town this morning. Since you're so keen on the open air, you should come to Waterway with me afterwards. I know you can't hold a golf club just yet, but I think you'll enjoy seeing the course. It's absolutely beautiful." Her voice softened. "And if you get tired, we can come right home."

~~~

The doctor in Myrtle Beach was comfortably brusque and uninterested. Arthur told him about the nocturnal pain in his thumb, and, with some reluctance, about the nightmares as well. He never would have said so much to Dr. Mayle in Riverbend.

But Dr. Cavanaugh merely nodded and frowned. His skin was tanned as dark as April Drake's from innumerable afternoons of golf, and although he was younger than Arthur, there were deep creases around his eyes and at the corners of his mouth. "There's no sign of infection, but as I'm sure your doctors at home must have explained to you, there is extensive nerve damage. It's unlikely you'll ever recover anything like full use of that thumb again. Frankly, you were lucky not to lose it."

"I understand that, but I thought--"

"The other symptoms you describe sound like classic post traumatic stress disorder, and I'm afraid that's a bit out of my league. I'd be happy to refer you to a therapist if the symptoms persist."

After the appointment, Arthur felt a brittle sense of his own mortality. It seemed too much trouble to beg off his mother's golf date, so he went without complaint.

The course was on a spit of land between the ocean and an intracoastal waterway. They rode over on an enclosed cable car, and Arthur had to admit that the great, incongruous swathes of fairway spread between sand dunes and the ocean were breathtaking. "It's a Robert Trent Jones course," April told him proudly.

He sat in the cart while his mother played her nine holes, unconsciously cradling his right hand to his side, and enjoyed the sea air and the expanse of green. After six months on Sickle Ridge, he found this total subjugation of nature very restful.

They ate lunch in town afterwards, feasting on chicken sandwiches and iced tea. His mother chatted about her acquaintances here, and about one of the amateur tournaments coming up this Spring that she was thinking of entering, and her favorite home decorating programs on the cable channel, cheerfully holding up both sides of the conversation.

They lingered over lunch as the other diners left one by one, and the waiters, all tan and lean college students and golf junkies, began to congregate at the bar, making their plans for the evening.

April said, "I forgot to tell you. Your father called last night after you'd already gone to bed. The contractor has found a supply of antique glass from a house being demolished outside Atlanta. It's a bit older than what Virginia put in, but he thinks it will work out just fine. I'm so relieved, aren't you? It was getting to the point where we would have had to install something soon. Gavin and Dennis have been very patient, but a month of plywood is long enough."

"I'm glad too," Arthur said.

April put her hand over her mouth. "Oh dear. I'm sorry. I'm sure the house is the last thing you want to talk about right now."

"It's all right."

"You've been so quiet," she said sadly. "It almost breaks my heart to look at you. Frank and I were so happy when you decided to come home, and look what it's all led to. We got what we thought we had wanted for so long, and it almost ended with us losing the only thing that really matters to us."

"What if you had?" Arthur asked quietly.

She chose not to understand the question.

"I mean, what if I had died?"

She looked at him steadily. "Our lives would have ended the same day yours did. Don't you know that? God have mercy on your father and I both if you can doubt for one moment how much we love you."

"I'm sorry. I just meant, what would happen to me?"

"Honey, I don't understand what you're asking."

Arthur picked up an ice tea spoon and turned it around and around in his hand. "At first, and for a long time, I didn't understand where I was or what was happening to me."

"You had been terribly hurt. I'm sure it was a mercy you didn't know exactly what was going on."

"I remember Charlie finding me, but not the helicopter flight. Until I woke up in intensive care and saw you, I had thought all that time that I was in the house."

She knew what house he meant, and said quickly, "You were delirious. That's all it was."

"No, I don't think so. It seemed like being in the house was the reality, and from time to time I would slip into a dream about blood and needles--" He trailed off. April waited, and at last he simply asked her what he wanted to know. "If I had died, I'm afraid that my soul, or some part of me, would have been trapped in Grandmother's house forever. Do you think that's possible?"

"I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. There's nothing in the Bible about ghosts."

Arthur smiled a little. "Just the holy one. And what about the Witch of Endor?"

"You're not the Prophet Samuel. I don't think you have anything to worry about."

"You believe in damnation, don't you?"

"Not for my son, I don't."

"But you think the way I feel about Marc is a sin."

She took a deep breath. "Affection and caring aren't sins."

"It's just what we do in bed that's sinful? Is that the way you think about it?"

Her brow wrinkled in distaste. "Frankly, dearheart, I don't like to think about it at all."

"I know this is difficult for you, Mom, but please, it's very important to me right now."

"I believe what I read in the Bible." Her voice dropped. "Sodomy is a sin. If you doubt it, look at all the pain and suffering it's caused you and the people who love you. But if you're asking me if I believe it's the unpardonable one, no, of course not. We're told that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Why are you asking all these questions? Hon, if you're starting to have doubts about your way of life, I want you to know, I'm sure it's never too late--"

"I'm sorry, but it doesn't work like that."

She reached out and patted his hand. "I'm surprised to hear you asking me about sin and damnation and the afterlife. I would have thought you would consider yourself the expert on life after death."

Arthur only shook his head, smiling thinly. April hesitated, then said, "If I'm overstepping my boundaries, I'm sure you'll tell me, but I think it's time I asked you something."

"What's that?"

"Please don't be insulted, but over the years, your father and I have done a lot of reading, trying to understand people like you."

Arthur smiled. "Gay people?"

"Actually, people who--see things."

"What kind of things?"

"Ghosts, UFO's, the future, the Virgin Mary, whatever. I mean psychics, hon."

"Nut cases."

"No, that's not what I mean at all. It's people with a special way of seeing the world. Like you."

Arthur was touched. "I never knew you were interested in my ghost hunting."

"Sweetheart, you're my baby boy. Everything about you is interesting. Even if it's very different from me. Honestly now, don't you know that your father and I could spend the night in the most haunted place you've ever investigated, and never get so much as goosebumps?"

"I know. We all lived in that house for years, and you never saw anything, did you?"

April looked grim. "There's something that's been worrying Frank and I both for some time now. In the studies I've read, so many psychics report that they were abused as children."

"I've read the same studies. It's interesting, isn't it?"

"It's no accident that you've been obsessed with Virginia ever since you came home, is it?"

Arthur felt the hairs on the back of his neck start to prickle. "You've been shielding me for so long. Please just tell me the truth."

"I don't know it. You're the only one who does. Arthur, honey, did your grandmother ever hurt you?"

He was honestly shocked. "No. No, of course not. I can hardly remember her ever touching me, not a hug, not a kiss, or a pat on the head. She certainly never raised a hand against me. Do you mean that's what you suspected? You've been so evasive whenever I asked questions about her. Is that why?"

"I never really suspected physical abuse." She looked distressed and relieved at the same time. "But from the time you were very young, Virginia was obsessed with the idea that you might grow up to be--well, the way you are."

"Grandmother knew I was gay?"

"That wasn't her word. At the time, I hardly knew what she meant. Frank had been in the army, so he did, but it seemed ludicrous to be talking that way about our baby boy. You couldn't have been anymore than three or four when it started. She finally badgered Frank into taking you down to see a psychiatrist in Atlanta. Do you remember that?"

Arthur was stunned. "No, I don't remember anything about that. It's incredible. How could she have known?" He forced himself to laugh a little. "It couldn't have been because I was playing with tea sets or Barbie dolls. I wasn't lucky enough to have any sisters."

April didn't smile. "We thought she was going senile, and we tried never to leave you alone with her. But we couldn't be there all the time, and lately we've begun to wonder if she could have said or done something to hurt you. Something you may not even remember anymore."

"If I don't remember it, then it probably doesn't matter. It's not the things I've forgotten about growing up in Drake House that have haunted me, it's what I remember." Then realization struck. "That's why she wrote the trust the way she did. She knew how much I hated the house. She was trying to blackmail me into having kids." Betrayed and astonished, he demanded, "How could you have gone along with something so cynical?"

She met his eyes levelly. "Because the truth is, honey, your father and I didn't believe Virgina. She was very strange in her later years, and just a little frightening. It seemed easiest not to cross her. Besides, what she wanted and what we wanted were very similar, and you always were so eager to get away, it didn't seem so wrong to hedge our bets--to make sure that you would come home someday. Honey, I'm so sorry, now. It was wrong of us."

Arthur shook his head. "So my big coming-out wasn't such a surprise, after all, was it?"

April shrugged apologetically.

"Why did I have to put up with all the tears and hysterics? You'd had twenty years to prepare yourself."

"I'm sorry about that, baby, but it's not nice to hear your worst fears confirmed." She hastened to add, "I don't think that way anymore. Especially not after the past few months. Your life and happiness are all that matter to your father and me, and we're not going to have anything more to do with Virginia's posthumous attempts to influence you. Your father's already talked to Paul about changing the trust. If you ever return to Drake House, it will because of what you want for yourself, and no other reason."

Chapter 45: The Apple

On that dark, rainy day in early November, Arthur had been playing on the floor of the library all afternoon with dinosaur pictures cut out of National Geographic and glued onto cardboard. Thirty years later, he could still remember the smell of the paste and the ripples that formed on the shiny magazine paper no matter how he tried to smooth them down.

He built fortifications from stacks of books, and his dinosaurs defended their territory against the encroachments of an army of lead soldiers. The afternoon grew darker, and the dinosaurs and toy soldiers founded twin kingdoms on opposite sides of a mountain range constructed from weighty volumes bound in smooth black leather.

Then footsteps crossed the library floor, muffled by the thick carpet. Sprawled on his stomach with his face inches from his warring kingdoms, Arthur was too engrossed to look around.

"Miz Virginia wants to see you."

At that, he sat up. One of grandmother's attendants stood there with her hands on her hips, a woman who looked to Arthur's young eyes nearly as broad as she was tall. The starched white cuffs of her uniform gleamed in the dusk of late afternoon.

"Don't just sit there like a bump on a log, honey. Didn't you hear me?" She took pity on his look of utter bewilderment and said, more kindly, "Sugar pie, your grandmama's asking for you. Is you deaf?"

Arthur shook his head solemnly."

"Then let's get a move on."

He scrambled to his feet and followed her.

She took the back staircase up to the third floor, ascending steadily and slowly, stopping to rest at every landing. Arthur stopped with her. She regarded him with an expression he did not understand. "You're a funny little thing, ain't you?" she asked, sounding so sympathetic that Arthur impulsively reached out and took her hand.

"You can play dinosaur if you want. I made them myself."

"Well, bless your heart. But right now we got to go see Miz Virginia."

The air was sweet on the third floor landing. Urns stood every twenty feet down the length of the corridor, overflowing with freshly cut boughs of Russian olive. The speckled white flowers were almost hidden under silvery leaves, but they filled the air with an overpowering fragrance. Arthur's nose tickled, and his eyes began to water. Outside Virginia's door, the attendant stopped and released Arthur's hand. "Go on, now."

He looked up at her nervously.

"Go on. It's your grandmama. You got nothing to be scared of. I tell you what, I promise I'll be waiting right out here for you, OK?"

She pushed open the heavy bedroom door for him, and he sidled into Virginia's room.

She lay prone on the great bed, pillows heaped on every side. Pots filled with tuberoses coaxed into late bloom were ranked upon the mantle, and before the window was a vast arrangement of autumn roses, white and pink and yellow and red, interspersed with fantastically contorted twigs from a corkscrew willow.

"Come here where I can see you, Arthur."

He inched closer. Her button bright eyes winked at him out of a face like a full moon. "Hello, my young man. And how are you this afternoon?"

"Fine," he whispered.

"What have you been up to on a rainy day like this?"

"Playing."

"Speak up. I can hardly hear a word you're saying."

He enunciated more carefully. "I've been playing."

"Well, I wonder if you would do a favor for your poor grandmother, now that I can't get around like I used to."

He nodded, biting his lip.

"Come here closer. You act like you're scared of me."

"I'm not," he breathed in a voice softer than ever, and obediently come up to the very side of the bed. She reached out and grasped his elbow with her cold, fleshy paw.

"Do you know what I would like more than anything in the world?"

He shook his head.

"A shiny red apple. Lida Belle already checked for me, and she says there aren't any in the kitchen. Do you think you could run out and fetch me one?"

Arthur's heart sank.

The dark places of Drake House were to be avoided at all costs, and the apple cellar under the maid's quarters was one of the very darkest of all. He couldn't go there. He couldn't, he couldn't, he absolutely, positively, COULD NOT--

"But mind you, now, I don't want an apple that's been sitting in that dingy cellar for six weeks with spiders and ants likely as not crawling all over it. No, thank you. What I want you to do is go out to the orchard and see if you can't find me an apple that's still on the tree. Do you think you could do that for me?"

"Oh, yes ma'am," he agreed, ecstatic with relief.

"You are Grandmother's brave little man, aren't you? You don't mind climbing a tree on a cold, rainy afternoon to fetch me an apple, do you?"

He shook his head.

"You be sure to put a hat on your head before you go out in the rain, and don't say a word to your mother, all right? She might think you would be afraid to go to the orchard all by yourself. She just doesn't understand what a brave fellow you really are."

Arthur agreed with this, and went running out of Virginia's room with a very high opinion of himself.

Waiting outside the door as she had promised, Lida Belle smiled to see Arthur grinning so proudly and said, "What did I tell you? You ought to come up and see your grandmother more often."

But Arthur didn't have time for conversation. He dashed down the back stairs and let himself out through the conservatory. He didn't stop to put on a hat and coat. There was too great a risk of his mother seeing him and asking questions.

The rain had finally stopped. The sun was sinking behind the trees. The back lawn was a mosaic of red and yellow leaves just downed by the storm. Arthur ran down the broad steps to the grass and fled down the hill, past the kitchen garden and the herb beds, the carriage house and then past the maid's quarters, that dark cabin crouched under the eaves of the encroaching forest. The dreaded fruit cellar was on the other side, through a low door that faced the trees and was never touched by sunlight, but he wasn't going there. His grandmother didn't want a nasty old apple from that ugly, dark place.

Arthur had the sudden, happy thought that perhaps his grandmother understood more about him than he had ever realized.

The clay tennis courts were dark from the rain, the stream behind them swollen and white-capped. He crossed the stone bridge and followed the path around the rose beds and the gardener's hut.

The orchard grew in a low meadow, through which the stream meandered to and fro before disappearing under a stone wall erected in a futile attempt to keep out deer. The apple trees had already lost most of their leaves. The branches were gnarled and thick, and wandering under them, looking for an apple that the harvesters might have missed, Arthur was reminded of the crooked little forelegs on the pictures of the dinosaurs he had been playing with all afternoon.

There weren't many apples, though.

The few he saw still on the trees were shriveled up, or riddled with worms. He went to each tree, leaning against the trunk and peering earnestly up through the branches. Dusk was creeping from the forest, crossing the stone wall and beginning to steal across the orchard. Arthur's head was full of the smell of apples from the windfalls rotting underfoot, and it was maddening not to be able to lay his hands on a single one good enough to present to his grandmother.

His self confidence faded with the light. He hadn't imagined it could be so difficult to find an apple in an orchard.

It was already too dark for him to clearly see the higher branches of the trees. He ran from tree to tree with increasing desperation. He even crouched down and examined the windfalls underfoot, but they were all rotten, slick papery skin barely holding mushy guts together.

Perhaps, he thought, he should just climb the next likely looking tree. He wasn't going to find any apples so near the ground. The very next tree had a thick knothole a few feet below a propitious lower branch. He clambered up.

The last rays of the sun broke through the clouds, and there it was, far overhead, the last apple of the year, radiant in the golden light of sunset. Arthur could have wept with relief. He climbed from branch to branch, rainwater dropping from the leaves and running down the back of his collar. He pulled himself up at last into a narrow place and perched uncomfortably on one foot between forking branches. His red cowboy boots weren't very good for climbing. Holding tightly to the rough, wet bark, he looked at his apple, tantalizing just behind reach. He could probably shake it down, but it was so dark by now that he was afraid he wouldn't be able to find it again once it fell into the grass.

Maybe he could inch his way out there if he supported most of his weight on the two branches above.

But all at once, he felt a maddening tickle at the base of his scalp, as though a thousand tiny insects had crawled up under his hair. His stomach knotted up, and he was thought for a moment that he was going to be sick. A bright light flashed at the edge of his vision, and a whirl of vertigo nearly toppled him from his perch. He flung both arms around the nearest branch and held on for dear life, his cheek pressed hard against the scratchy bark.

Something was coming.

A great, clumsy weight splashed noisily down the creek bed. He heard it getting closer, but the intervening branches obscured his view. The evening had grown very dark. He could hardly see the ground under the tree.

It left the creek bed and came lumbering across the meadow. Arthur's teeth were chattering with cold and fear.

It came unerringly to the tree and circled it once, and then a second time.

Arthur could see nothing. He heard its heavy breaths, though. He pressed his face harder against the trunk of the tree and squeezed his eyes shut.

Something scrabbled at the trunk. A moment later the tree was violently shaken, and Arthur heard a soft thump as something hit the ground--no doubt the apple he had worked so hard for. Arthur held on so hard and tight that his fingers began to go numb.

The tree stopped shaking. Footsteps moved through the meadow. He heard the soft sound of wet grass parting with the passage of something unseen. He opened his eyes, thinking that it was moving away from him.

A few feet from the base of the trunk stood a man who was plainly visible to Arthur despite the darkness of the evening. Heavy folds of cloth were wrapped around his brow, and he gazed up at Arthur with an expression of such abject despair that Arthur began to weep.

Night dropped upon the figure in the orchard. Arthur stayed right where he was. More than two hours passed before George Kimble found him, still perched in the fork of two branches, helpless as a cat up his tree. His arms and legs were knotted with cramps, and he was half dead with cold. While his mother and father paced below the tree, his father scolding furiously and his mother calling him her poor little lamb, the light from their lanterns throwing fantastic shadows through the haunted orchard, Mr. Kimble fetched a ladder from the gardener's hut, propped it against the tree and climbed as close to Arthur as he could. "Come along now," he coaxed. "I'm sure you don't really wants to spend the whole night in an apple tree."

Arthur shook his head, but for the life of him, he couldn't let go of the trunk. Mr. Kimble finally crawled precariously to one of the uppermost rungs so he could reach out and wrap his strong arm around Arthur's shoulders.

Arthur let go so suddenly that both of them nearly fell. Mr. Kimble grabbed him by his shirt collar and made it down the ladder a step at a time until Arthur's father was close enough to catch him.

He was bundled into bed under half a dozen quilts, a hot water bottle on his feet, and one of the house maids sitting in a chair by the fire to keep watch on him during the night. Arthur resolutely refused to admit why he had gone to the orchard. Nevertheless, he awoke hours later to find his grandmother, who in Arthur's memory had never left her room, standing at the foot of his bed. The maid was sound asleep, and the fire had burned low.

He clutched the blankets to his chin.

Virginia smiled. "Arthur," she said, "Where's my apple?"

Chapter 46: The Apple Redux

The sun was sinking behind the pink stucco spires of the condominium complex by the time Arthur finished. April listened without interrupting him, much to his amazement. His parents had never had any patience with the visions and terrors of his childhood, and he had grown up knowing that no matter how frightening life became in Drake House, he could expect no help from his mother and father. The sympathetic concern in April's eyes now was like a candle in the shuttered rooms of his soul. It almost seemed worth getting stabbed, if that's what it took to finally get her to listen.

After a few moments of silence, April got up and adjusted the blanket around his shoulders. "It's getting windy," she said. "You should really be inside."

"The sea is so beautiful in this light, isn't it?"

"Your father will have both our heads on a platter if I let you catch pneumonia."

"Just a little while longer."

She frowned. "You've had a long day."

"I'll go to bed early."

"And I don't want to find you back on the balcony tomorrow morning either. You're old enough to know better.

He grinned. "I'll be good. And Mom--thank you."

"For what? My patience? It's been strained lately, believe me."

"I meant for listening. I know this has always been difficult for you and Dad."

She patted his shoulder. "It just makes me sorry to think I was so wrong for so many years. Your father was rather inclined to listen to you, I think, but from somewhere or other I got the notion that it was a mistake to encourage your fantasy life. You were always such a little dreamer anyway. When the dreams started to turn so dark, I was afraid--well, you know they always blame the mother. I thought if I didn't let you talk about your nightmares, they would eventually go away."

Arthur looked away. "I wasn't dreaming," he said tightly.

In the old days, April would have stormed away from this discussion, but now she said calmly, "Arthur, honey, your grandmother broke her hip a year before you were born. She certainly couldn't have come creeping down that steep back staircase in the middle of the night."

He relaxed. "Well, maybe not. I felt so betrayed that night, knowing she had sent me out there on purpose. But at the same time, I had wanted so much to make her proud of me. I might have just dreamed that she came down to scold me. She couldn't possibly have gotten into the room and talked to me without waking up the maid, could she?"

April stood up. "Let's get you inside. It's much too cold for you out here."

"You must have wondered what I'd been doing out in the orchard. Did you ever suspect Grandmother was the one who sent me?

She didn't answer.

"Is that what you meant when you asked if Grandmother had ever hurt me?"

"I was talking about real life. I don't think we can hold Virginia responsible for your dreams."

"I'm talking about real life too. She sent me to the back of the estate on a cold rainy night just to fetch her an apple. I think she did it because she knew I would see and hear the things I did. Whether you can believe that part of it or not, at the very least, she was a greedy old woman who didn't mind sending her five-year-old grandson out on a winter night and then didn't tell anyone what she had done when I turned up missing. What if Mr. Kimble hadn't found me?"

"Honey, please," April said in distress. "I don't want to argue about this."

"We're not arguing. I'm just telling you what happened."

"I'm sure you probably did sneak off and climb an apple tree once or twice, but I don't think you can blame your grandmother for that."

"She's the one who sent me."

"I don't want to fight about this."

"What do you mean?"

"Please don't get angry."

"I'm not angry. I'm just trying to understand what you're telling me."

"I'm only asking you to be sensible. Grandmother's attendants had strict orders. They all knew you weren't to be left alone with her. Lida Belle especially was with our family for years. I'm sure she never would have disregarded our instructions like that."

"Grandmother could be an irresistible force when she set her mind to something. You know that better than I do. And her own sister has told me incredible stories about her. You really think it's so impossible that she could have intimidated Lida Belle into doing what she wanted? I remember she stayed right outside the door while I was talking to Grandmother. She probably didn't think anything could happen while she was so near. Believe me, Mom, I was not a very brave kid. I never would have climbed a tree at that hour of the night on my own initiative. Why is this so difficult for you to believe?"

"Dearest, because I certainly would remember if you'd ever gotten yourself stuck up a tree in the middle of the night."

He felt a sudden rush of weakness. His thumb began to itch and burn under the bandages. "You don't remember it?"

She shook her head, a sympathetic smile on her face. Arthur began talking very fast, as if she would certainly remember it if he could just give her enough details. "But you and Dad were both there. Dad had one of those old kerosene lanterns, and he was furious with me. You wrapped me up in that scratchy checkered wool blanket and carried me to the house yourself. I couldn't stop shivering. I had to take a steaming hot bath, and you poured in a capful of rosewater from a little blue bottle. To this day the smell of rosewater reminds me of being scared and guilty and cold. One of the maids built a fire in my room, and wrapped a hot water bottle in a pillow case and put it at the foot of the bed. I can remember it all so clearly. How can you possibly have forgotten?"

"Arthur, honey, it just didn't happen."

"Then why do I remember it?"

"When you were five years old, you had got a very bad ear infection. You ran a high fever for two days. Don't you think your whole story is probably just a confused memory of being so sick? The hot bath and the cold night, the maid sitting up in the room with you. If you'll calm down and try to think about it rationally, you must see that makes a lot more sense than a story about your grandmother sending you out to see ghosts and monsters in the apple orchard."

The candle went out. Arthur was alone again.

"Psychiatrists call it confabulation," he said in a flat voice. He felt a little like crying. "When your brain makes up a story to fill in memory gaps."

April smiled with relief. "I'm right, aren't I?"

The last of daylight disappeared from the eastern sky. The sea turned black. Arthur closed his eyes, and let the roar of the waves fill his head. He couldn't bear to look at his mother right now.

"Can we go in?" April asked brightly. "The sun's finally set."

Chapter 47: Bulbs

The major repairs to the house had been completed by early March, and Frank Drake returned to Myrtle Beach full of stories about the venality and incompetence of the contractors. But the Polaroids he had snapped before he left showed a gleaming facade of limestone and glass that seemed as cold and inviolate as ever. Studying the pictures, the only evidence Arthur saw of the bloody disruption six weeks ago were the square black holes in the driveway where paving bricks hadn't yet been replaced.

He handed the photographs to April. "It looks like they did a beautiful job."

"At least they haven't been leaving their Co'Cola cans and fast food wrappers laying around all over the place," she pronounced. "How did you like staying in the cabin, Frank? Was it warm enough?"

"It was fine. Now I can see why Arthur prefers living there. It's much cozier than those drafty upstairs corridors in the big house. And the darndest thing. It looks like jonquils are coming up all over the lawn in front of the cabin, and I swear I don't remember any being there before."

"I planted them," Arthur said.

"Did you?" April beamed at him. "Did you really? Nobody plants bulbs if they don't mean to stick around to see them bloom."

Frank looked seriously at his son. "You need to start putting on some weight. You're getting positively gaunt."

"I've been telling him the same thing," April agreed. "And don't you think he ought to rinse that gray out of his hair? It makes you look so old and serious, honey."

"Have you heard anything recently about Serena Jewell?" Arthur asked.

"I think her trial date's coming up at the end of March."

"So they decided to try her."

"Oh, let's not get into this again," April suggested a little desperately.

"Arthur, they found enough methamphetamine in her glove compartment to keep half the population of Riverbend hopping."

"It certainly wasn't very bright of her to be carrying her drugs around like that," April pronounced.

Arthur looked at both of them. "No, it wasn't, was it?"

"For the last time, this was the Chattanooga police. I don't know what sort of dark suspicions you're harboring about the Riverbend Police Department, but Elbert didn't have anything to do with them finding those drugs."

"Elbert saved your life," April said. "You would have bled to death if he hadn't been there to radio for a helicopter. Whatever is the matter with you?"

"It just seems to me that if Serena had really been on crank, she probably would have been a lot thinner."

"Elbert's told me a lot of those people on the east side of the river manufacture the stuff to sell in Atlanta and Chattanooga," Frank said. "Can you believe that woman was raising two children?"

"She told me she was afraid for her children," Arthur said bleakly. "She wanted me to help her."

"What she wanted was to strangle you in your hospital bed," April said. "It's a blessing they took her children away from her when they did. Get them into a good foster home, and at least they'll have a chance to make something of themselves."

"It's more likely they'll grow up hating the Drake family name as much as Augustus Kimble does."

"Don't tell me you're still fretting over Uncle George and his tramp of a daughter-in-law. For God's sake, Arthur, would you please just give it a rest?"

"Both of you stop it right now," Aril said. "Frank, I'd think you would have more sense. And Arthur, I'm asking you to just leave it alone. If you're not careful you're going to worry yourself into a fever. You'll have plenty of time to save the world after you're all better."

She surveyed the two of them, and not meeting any opposition, went on, satisfied, "Now then, what are we going to do about dinner tonight? I thought it might be nice to drive up the coast to Bolineau. You haven't been there yet, have you, Arthur? The broiled snapper is scrumptious."

"You and Dad go on. I'm not very hungry."

"Oh dear. See, Frank? You ought to be ashamed of yourself, getting Arthur all worked up."

"I'm fine. I just feel like staying in tonight and giving Marc a call."

Frank and April practically fell over themselves in their haste to leave Arthur alone.

~~~

Marc cracked up. "What do they think? That we have phone sex every time you call?"

"I have no idea what they're thinking. I'm almost afraid to ask."

"How are you feeling?"

"A lot better. I've even started taking little walks on the beach."

"Way to go. You'll be running marathons in no time."

"I am feeling stronger. And no nightmares in almost a week now."

"So I guess it's working out pretty good for you. The condo on the beach and everything."

"The weather's been beautiful."

"Great. It's been totally crappy here. I think it's rained nonstop since January."

"I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault. Well, maybe it is in a way. Are you still planning to move back to L.A.? Just so you'll know, I'm going to be royally pissed off at you if you do."

"Actually, I was wondering if you would be able to meet me at the airport if I flew to Atlanta this weekend."

"Are you serious? Of course I could."

"I could rent a car if you're too busy with school."

"I'll pick you up, Arthur. Just let me know when you're coming in. What's up? Had enough of your folks?"

"They've been wonderful to me. I know how difficult all this has been for them, but they've been completely nurturing and supportive."

"But--"

"But now that Dad's back, I'm thinking it might be a good idea to leave while we're still on speaking terms."

~~~

Somewhat to Arthur's surprise, Frank and April met his decision to return to Georgia with cautious optimism. When Frank was out of the room, April said, "But you be sure to tell Marc to stay off you until you're stronger. You don't want to rip any stitches."

"Mom."

"He's waited for you this long," she said calmly. "He can stand to wait a little longer."

~~~

The Saturday morning before his flight, Frank took Arthur out to breakfast at a faux diner that overlooked yet another oceanside golf course. Arthur picked at the dish his father had insisted he try, fried eggs piled atop quantities of corn beef hash, and watched the tan golfers in white shorts and sunglasses strolling along the vivid green.

Frank was reading the sports section of the paper, but he looked up suddenly and asked, "Everything all right?"

Arthur swallowed a bite of eggs and smiled. "It's very good."

"I meant, are you all right?"

"I'm getting there. You and Mom have been wonderful. I'm so sorry to put you through all this."

He scowled with mock severity. "You should be sorry. But we agreed we weren't going to talk about it anymore."

"And I really do appreciate you letting me stay here. It's made all the difference in the world."

The expression on Frank's face softened. "You always have a home with us. I hope you know that by now."

"I do. And it means a lot to me."

"So have you decided yet what you want to do about the house? You don't mind talking about it now, do you?"

"No, of course not."

"Gavin and Dennis have another sixteen months on their lease yet, but in light of everything that's happened, I'm inclined to think we ought to be pretty lenient with them."

Arthur nodded. "What about the trust?"

"Well, I've talked to Paul about modifying some of the sterner conditions. Problems may come up with some the other heirs, you know, but I think Paul is making things out to be more difficult than they really are. You know how these shysters operate. Anything to run up their fees. But don't worry, I'm sure we'll get it worked out." Frank paused. "Of course, if you're going to live at Drake House anyway, it would certainly save us a bundle if we could just leave the trust the way it is."

Arthur looked away. "I won't let Grandmother blackmail me."

"Oh for heaven's sake, son. Then of course we'll change the trust. April's told me that you two talked a lot about Mother. I was hoping you were starting to get over some of your bitterness."

"You don't think I have any reason to be bitter?"

"What I think is that it's time for you to try to forgive her. Her senility must have been frightening to a young boy, but I know she loved you. That's why she wrote the trust the way she did. She loved you so much she wanted to be sure Drake House would always be yours."

"I think she wrote the trust that way to be sure I would get married and have children."

Frank laughed. "Well, she could be very perceptive, you have to give her that. Even in her last years when her mind was nearly gone, she could still call a spade a spade."

Arthur looked at his father, then said, "No, maybe you were right to begin with. Maybe a lot of it was just senility. Like that present she gave me the last Christmas before she died."

"What present was that?"

"You remember. It was the year we opened all our presents up in her room."

Frank was frowning a little, but he didn't say anything.

"My present from her came in a huge, heavy box, five feet long at least, and I was sure it was the chemistry set I'd wanted so much. Do you remember what it really turned out to be?"

"No, I don't, son," Frank said slowly.

Arthur felt an icy trickle down his spine. "Dad, you have to remember. It was that pickax, all muddy and crusted over with red clay."

"Arthur--"

"I looked up, and the expression on Grandmother's face was worse than the present. You scolded me for not thanking her, but I couldn't say a word. I just couldn't. She was the one who finally smiled and said it had been my grandfather's, and now I could go to the copper mines just like he used to do. After Christmas dinner I took it out to the gardener's shed and left it there, and nobody ever said anything about it again."

Frank looked down at the table. "Arthur, Mother always had me pick out a new car for your model train. That's what you got for Christmas from her every year."

"You don't remember the pickax," Arthur said flatly. It was not so grave a shock this time, but he still felt dizzy and a little ill. The fresh scar tissue at the base of his right thumb began to itch.

"Mother never could have arranged something like that without help, Arthur. Now who do you think would have helped her do something so ridiculous?"

"Mud got all over the floor when I opened the box," Arthur said numbly. "All the maids were off since it was Christmas, so finally the cook came storming up from the kitchen to clean up the mess, and she told us if the sauce got burnt, it would be on our heads. I didn't understand. I thought she meant she would actually pour the sauce on our heads--"

Frank was slowly shaking his head. "We never even opened Christmas presents in Mother's room. We always went up after Christmas dinner, remember?"

Arthur pushed the plate of hash away, his appetite gone.

"Are you done?" Frank glanced at his watch. "We should swing back around to the condo and pick up your mother. I'm sure she'll want to ride to the airport with us."

Chapter 48: Scratch

Fifteen years ago Arthur had been a graduate student in UCLA's fledging folklore department. His unfinished dissertation had been an attempt to trace the survival of European folk memorates in modern haunted house narratives, and in his search for source material, he had cultivated the acquaintance of psychics from Tijuana to San Francisco, eventually meeting a CPA and part time ghostbuster named Lillian Arceneaux.

Curt and skeptical, Lil had scant belief in the goodness of mankind, and no hope whatsoever for the survival of the soul. "There's no need to look past the funeral service," she once told Arthur irritably. "Ashes to ashes and dust to dust."

At the time, the two of them had been sitting in the shadow of the monumental reproduction of Michaelangelo's David in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, the city of Glendale spread beneath them in the distance. Every evening for the past week they had been there to watch as a pinpoint of light rose from one of graves, traveled slowly toward the road, and then vanished in the dusk as the sun set west of the Hollywood Hills.

Arthur rechecked the camera set up on a tripod near the grave and observed mildly, "You've been hearing the voices of the dead since you were three years old."

"Which only proves my point. If anything survives the dissolution of the body, I can't understand why it would hang around to talk to an accountant, can you?"

~~~

Arthur stood at the bathroom sink in red flannel pajama bottoms, solemnly flossing his teeth. Marc glanced up from his work, and seeing him there, was startled all over again by the scar tissue that checkered his ribs and belly.

Arthur looked over and saw Marc watching him. He smiled as best he could around the dental floss.

Marc turned away, and Arthur pushed the bathroom door shut. When he came out a few minutes later, he had knotted one of Marc's bathrobes tightly around himself to hide the battlefield of scars.

Sick with sudden guilt, Marc made himself smile and asked, "So how are you feeling?"

"All right."

"You sure you're going to be OK driving up to Riverbend by yourself?"

"I'll be fine."

"You seemed pretty tired this afternoon."

"We spent four hours at car dealerships. You were looking pretty bushed yourself by the time we got home."

Replacing the car totaled on Christmas Eve had been Arthur's first order of business in Atlanta, though to Marc's disappointment, he'd bought a sensible Toyota instead of the electric blue pickup truck Marc spotted in the Dodge showroom with V10 and grillwork like a vast chrome sneer.

Marc shrugged, grinning. "And I still think you should reconsider that truck. No one would mess with you if you were driving that monster up the ridge."

Arthur just looked down at his hands.

Marc followed his gaze, then looked away quickly from the puckered white scars. He knew he had to stop doing that, but he just couldn't seem to help himself. This afternoon had been all right, picking Arthur up at the airport, going around to car lots, arguing about the kind of car Marc thought he should buy. He'd been too busy to stop and take a good look at Arthur.

But in the quiet of the evening, he couldn't help but really see him, and every time he did, he felt the same hot, sick fire. Arthur's scars and pallor, the shock of white hair at his temples, the slow, deliberate way he walked now, even the softness of his voice, everything reminded Marc of those butchers at work. He couldn't stop the pictures of them hacking at a body that was almost as familiar to Marc as his own, trying to mutilate hands that had touched him with such tenderness--

Belatedly, Marc realized that Arthur was talking to him.

"There won't be anymore trouble," he was saying. "Zeke and Bobbie Jay are dead, their families broken up or run out of the state. It wouldn't surprise me if the Riverbend police department has sown salt in their trailer park."

Marc lost his temper. "Listen, maybe I don't really believe that those two decided to take up snake handling on their own, but so what? Christ, Arthur, if you ask me, they got exactly what they deserved.

He wouldn't look at Marc. "You were trying to study. I'll just read a book for a while."

"Are you sure going home is such a hot idea?" Marc demanded suddenly.

"You weren't happy about me moving back to Los Angeles, you complained while I was in Myrtle Beach. I have to live somewhere."

"Hey, forgive me for worrying about you. You just seem tired and preoccupied, like there's something really bothering you."

"You've been staring at me all night like I've sprouted a third eye. That might to start to bother anyone after a while."

"Sorry. But we haven't seen each other in six weeks, and I sort of had this crazy idea that you'd be all better, and everything could finally get back to normal again."

"I don't think I know what normal is anymore."

"You and me both. But at least everything's cool with your parents now, and that's a major step in the right direction, isn't it?"

When Arthur didn't answer, Marc insisted, "They are going to change the will, aren't they?"

"Dad did talk to the family lawyers while he was in Riverbend."

"So you're a free man at last? That's fantastic."

"The trust hasn't actually been changed yet."

"Shit. You think they might not do it after all?"

"I don't know. Dad seemed sincere."

"You make him sound like a game show host. This is your own father, Arthur. What the hell's going on?"

"Nothing. It's just some things Mom and Dad told me before I left. Not really anything to do with the trust or the estate."

"Oh man. I knew things weren't really as great with your Mom and Dad as you were acting like. People don't go along for thirty or forty years giving you the kind of grief they always did, and then suddenly turn into Ward and June Cleaver overnight. I'm sorry, Arthur, I really am. What did they do to you?"

Arthur was absently rubbing the scar around his thumb as though it was hurting him. "Nothing but take care of me around the clock for weeks. They stayed up all night in my hospital room with me, they woke me up when I had nightmares, helped me to the bathroom, carted me back and forth to doctors' offices and physical therapists, stood in endless lines at the pharmacy--"

"All right, fine, they ought to be sainted. I'll alert the pope."

Arthur shook his head. "No, you're right. They've been so good to me since this happened, but the truth is, our relationship hasn't really changed much. In some ways it's gotten worse." He broke off, shaking his head. "You know what Mom told me? Grandmother suspected that I was queer all along. She even sent me to a psychiatrist when I was five years old, hoping to straighten me out."

Marc grinned. "And you've been chasing skirts ever since. Chalk up another one for psychotherapy."

Arthur's answering smile was a little hollow.

"Well, so what if she did figure you out? She was right. That's not what's got you so down is it?"

"Not exactly. It's everything else about Grandmother. The things I remember, anyway. Or thought I remembered. You know what I've been thinking about lately?"

"What?"

"A poltergeist haunting that Lil and I investigated years ago, back when I was still in grad school. There was this nice family who lived in Sherman Oaks, I think, or somewhere in the Valley. The mother had called Lil for help, and we went out there one evening to see what we could do. Have I ever told you about this?"

"I don't know. I don't think so."

"The phenomena seemed to be centered around the twin boys in the household. They were six or seven years old, which is a little young for something like this, but not unheard of. Poltergeist hauntings that turn into full-fledged instances of possession often begin with children that small."

"You were even younger when you started seeing things, weren't you?"

Arthur nodded shortly. "The boys' mother told us there had been rapping on the walls, small objects broken or missing, scratching sounds under the floorboards and down in the basement. She said the boys had begun talking about an invisible friend named Jeffrey who whispered things to them and pulled the bedcovers off at night.

"I was impressed by how calm the mother was. Their father was withdrawn and hardly spoke to us at all, but she answered all our questions as carefully as she could, and she didn't take offense when Lil raised the possibility that the twins might be behind it all. She admitted that she had suspected the same thing at first.

"But then she called one of the two boys over and lifted his shirt up so we can see that his stomach was covered with welts. She told us she had first started seeing the marks a week or so ago. The family pediatrician assured her they were scratching themselves in their sleep, and suggested she tape cotton gloves on their hands when they went to bed.

"It was when more welts appeared during an afternoon nap that she finally gave in and called Lil. Their fingernails and toenails had been trimmed, and they had socks secured over their hands and feet. It didn't seem possible that they could have hurt themselves."

"You know what it reminds of?" Marc said. "That thing that happened to you down in the basement or the cellar or some place when you were a little kid. Didn't you get scratched up pretty bad once?"

"That's right," Arthur admitted. "In the apple cellar underneath the servant's quarters."

"But you weren't asleep. How old were you?"

"Four or five, maybe a little younger. Our caretaker, George Kimble, had told me he would help me build a fort if I would gather the scrap wood, and I thought I could salvage some from the old apple crates under there." He smiled bleakly. "I was still mapping out the bad places around Drake House, and I didn't know yet that was one of the worst. While I was down there the wind or something blew the door shut behind me. Then while I was stumbling around, trying to find the way out, something came at me."

"What was it?"

Arthur swallowed. "I don't remember very much about it now. By the time I got out I was covered with welts. They were up under my shirt and down my pants, between my legs, on the soles of my feet--I must have looked like I'd been rolling naked in a briar patch. I ran screaming up to the house. Mom had one of Grandmother's nurses put iodine on the scratches, and told me stop making up such ridiculous stories." He stopped, seeing Marc's face darken with emotion. "It's all right. This was a long time ago."

"Whenever you tell me about growing up in that house, baby, I'm amazed that you ever reached puberty. Childhoods like that turn people into serial killers."

"Charlie saved me. He listened to everything, and he always believed me. If it hadn't been for him, I don't know what I would have done."

Marc didn't look much happier. "Just be sure he's not trying to rekindle that boyhood romance. He hates my guts, and it's no big mystery why."

"He doesn't hate you. He's just a little brusque. He's always been that way. Besides, he's a happily married man."

"Maybe. So what happened with this case?"

"Oh, well, I was completely swept up in it right from the first. Those little boys were so frightened. They hardly said a word, just huddled together on the sofa, holding hands, looking at Lil and me with big scared eyes, while their mother tried to protect them from something none of them could see or understand-- I was already making arrangements to set up monitoring equipment and be sure the boys were watched at all times, when Lil pulled me aside.

"We went out to the car, and she told me flat out that the whole thing was a fake, and that we shouldn't have anything else to do with this family, except maybe for contacting child welfare."

He shook his head. "I didn't want to believe her. I couldn't. She accused me of losing my objectivity, of thinking too much about my own childhood."

"Was she right?"

"Of course she was. The whole time I was talking to the mother of those boys, all I could think about was how different my life would have been if Mom had ever believed me."

Marc was looking so sad and angry that Arthur added quickly, "But I don't know anymore. Probably in the long run it made me stronger, understanding from such a young age that my folks couldn't--or wouldn't--do anything to protect me."

"That's not right. You're supposed to get a childhood. Everyone deserves a time in their life when they feel safe."

"That's probably why I insisted on going on with that investigation. I wanted to do whatever I could to make sure those kids had a shot at a happy childhood. Since Lil refused to have anything more to do with it, I carried on for about two weeks on my own. I sat up in their bedroom during the night and left cameras running during the day. Not much happened. Some rearranged furniture, knocking on the walls, nothing conclusive, so I took a break one night and stayed home to sleep in my own bed."

He drew a deep breath. "The boys' mother must not have known that the camera in their room was motion-activated, or maybe she didn't realize how clear infrared images could be. That night I got beautiful footage of her walking into their bedroom at three in the morning. She went to each bed in turn, put one hand over their mouths to keep them from crying out loud, and proceeded to scratch their stomachs bloody with her fingernails."

"Oh, Jesus."

"There are investigators who come across that sort of thing and excuse it as an aspect of the haunting, but even as naive and credulous as I was back then, I couldn't accept that. Paranormal phenomena are rare. Child abuse isn't. I turned the tape over to the police, and I never went back to that house. I thought I would be called on to testify at some point in the future, and I was dreading it, but as it turned out, no one ever got back in touch with me about it. I don't even know if their mother was charged, or if the boys were ever removed from the house.

"They would be twenty-one or twenty-two by now. Lately I've been wondering if they remember what their mother did to them. Recollections are so malleable, so easy to influence." Arthur's voice became softer. "I wouldn't be surprised if they believe with all their hearts that they were at the center of a poltergeist haunting when they were little boys. If someone tried to tell them now what really happened, I don't think they could believe it."

Marc finally made the connection.

"What are you telling me here?" he asked nervously. "Are you starting to doubt your own memories?"

Arthur didn't answer. He was staring down at the kitchen table.

Marc touched his shoulder. "Hey. Sweetheart."

Arthur looked up then. His eyes were red and brimming with tears.

"Oh my God," Marc said. "Arthur."

to be continued

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