On July 3rd of 1998, I threw two suitcases and my Powerbook in the trunk of my mid-sized Chevrolet, started to back down the driveway, then stopped and went into the house again. It felt empty and somehow forlorn, like a faithful lover who has been dropped and cannot understand why. The furniture wasn't covered and the power was still on (I understood that The Great Lake Experiment might turn out to be a swift and total failure), but 14 Benton Street felt deserted, all the same. Rooms too full of furniture to echo still did when I walked through them, and everywhere there seemed to be too much dusty light.
In my study, the VDT was hooded like an executioner against the dust. I knelt before it and opened one of the desk drawers. Inside were four reams of paper. I took one, started away with it under my arm, then had a second thought and turned back. I had put that provocative photo of Jo in her swimsuit in the wide center drawer. Now I took it, tore the paper wrapping from the end of the ream of paper, and slid the photo halfway in, like a bookmark. If I did perchance begin to write again, and if the writing marched, I would meet Johanna right around page two hundred and fifty.
I left the house, locked the back door, got into my car, and drove away. I have never been back.
I'd been tempted to go down to the lake and check out the work ¡ª which turned out to be quite a bit more extensive than Bill Dean had originally expected ¡ª on several occasions. What kept me away was a feeling, never quite articulated by my conscious mind but still very powerful, that I wasn't supposed to do it that way; that when I next came to Sara, it should be to unpack and stay.
Bill hired out Kenny Auster to shingle the roof, and got Kenny's cousin, Timmy Larribee, to 'scrape the old girl down,' a cleansing process akin to pot-scrubbing that is sometimes employed with log homes. Bill also had a plumber in to check out the pipes, and got my okay to replace some of the older plumbing and the well-pump.
Bill fussed about all these expenses over the telephone; I let him. When it comes to fifth- or sixth-generation Yankees and the expenditure of money, you might as well just stand back and let them get it out of their systems. Laying out the green just seems wrong to a Yankee, somehow, like petting in public. As for myself, I didn't mind the outgo a bit. I live frugally, for the most part, not out of any moral code but because my imagination, very lively in most other respects, doesn't work very well on the subject of money. My idea of a spree is three days in Boston, a Red Sox game, a trip to Tower Records and Video, plus a visit to the Wordsworth bookstore in Cambridge. Living like that doesn't make much of a dent in the interest, let alone the principal; I had a good money manager down in Waterville, and on the day I locked the door of the Derry house and headed west to TR-90, I was worth slightly over five million dollars. Not much compared to Bill Gates, but big numbers for this area, and I could afford to be cheerful about the high cost of house repairs.
That was a strange late spring and early summer for me. What I did mostly was wait, close up my town affairs, talk to Bill Dean when he called with the latest round of problems, and try not to think. I did the Publishers Weekly interview, and when the interviewer asked me if I'd had any trouble getting back to work 'in the wake of my bereavement,' I said no with an absolutely straight face. Why not? It was true. My troubles hadn't started until I'd finished All the Way from the Top; until then, I had been going on like gangbusters.
In mid-June, I met Frank Arlen for lunch at the Starlite Cafe. The Starlite is in Lewiston, which is the geographical midpoint between his town and mine. Over dessert (the Starlite's famous strawberry shortcake), Frank asked if I was seeing anyone. I looked at him with surprise.
'What are you gaping at?' he asked, his face registering one of the nine hundred unnamed emotions ¡ª this one of those somewhere between amusement and irritation. 'I certainly wouldn't think of it as two-timing Jo. She'll have been dead four years come August.'
'No,' I said. 'I'm not seeing anybody.'
He looked at me silently. I looked back for a few seconds, then started fiddling my spoon through the whipped cream on top of my shortcake. The biscuits were still warm from the oven, and the cream was melting. It made me think of that silly old song about how someone left the cake out in the rain.
'Have you seen anybody, Mike?'
'I'm not sure that's any business of yours.'
'Oh for Christ's sake. On your vacation? Did you ¡ª '
I made myself look up from the melting whipped cream. 'No,' I said. 'I did not.'
He was silent for another moment or two. I thought he was getting ready to move on to another topic. That would have been fine with me. Instead, he came right out and asked me if I had been laid at all since Johanna died. He would have accepted a lie on that subject even if he didn't entirely believe it ¡ª men lie about sex all the time. But I told the truth . . . and with a certain perverse pleasure.
'Not a single time?'
'Not a single time.'
'What about a massage parlor? You know, to at least get a ¡ª '
He sat there tapping his spoon against the rim of the bowl with his dessert in it. He hadn't taken a single bite. He was looking at me as though I were some new and oogy specimen of bug. I didn't like it much, but I suppose I understood it.
I had been close to what is these days called 'a relationship' on two occasions, neither of them on Key Largo, where I had observed roughly two thousand pretty women walking around dressed in only a stitch and a promise. Once it had been a red-haired waitress, Kelli, at a restaurant out on the Extension where I often had lunch. After awhile we got talking, joking around, and then there started to be some of that eye-contact, you know the kind I'm talking about, looks that go on just a little too long. I started to notice her legs, and the way her uniform pulled against her hip when she turned, and she noticed me noticing.
And there was a woman at Nu You, the place where I used to work out. A tall woman who favored pink jog-bras and black bike shorts. Quite yummy. Also, I liked the stuff she brought to read while she pedalled one of the stationary bikes on those endless aerobic trips to nowhere ¡ª not Mademoiselle or Cosmo, but novels by people like John Irving and Ellen Gilchrist. I like people who read actual books, and not just because I once wrote them myself. Book-readers are just as willing as anyone else to start out with the weather, but as a general rule they can actually go on from there.
The name of the blonde in the pink tops and black shorts was Adria Bundy. We started talking about books as we pedalled side by side ever deeper into nowhere, and there came a point where I was spotting her one or two mornings a week in the weight room. There's something oddly intimate about spotting. The prone position of the lifter is part of it, I suppose (especially when the lifter is a woman), but not all or even most of it. Mostly it's the dependence factor. Although it hardly ever comes to that point, the lifter is trusting the spotter with his or her life. And, at some point in the winter of 1996, those looks started as she lay on the bench and I stood over her, looking into her upside-down face. The ones that go on just a little too long.
Kelli was around thirty, Adria perhaps a little younger. Kelli was divorced, Adria never married. In neither case would I have been robbing the cradle, and I think either would have been happy to go to bed with me on a provisional basis. Kind of a honey-bump test-drive. Yet what I did in Kelli's case was to find a different restaurant to eat my lunch at, and when the YMCA sent me a free exercise-tryout offer, I took them up on it and just never went back to Nu You. I remember walking past Adria Bundy one day on the street six months or so after I made the change, and although I said hi, I made sure not to see her puzzled, slightly hurt gaze.
In a purely physical way I wanted them both (in fact, I seem to remember a dream in which I had them both, in the same bed and at the same time), and yet I wanted neither. Part of it was my inability to write ¡ª my life was quite fucked up enough, thank you, without adding any additional complications. Part of it was the work involved in making sure that the woman who is returning your glances is interested in you and not your rather extravagant bank account.
Most of it, I think, was that there was just too much Jo still in my head and heart. There was no room for anyone else, even after four years. It was sorrow like cholesterol, and if you think that's funny or weird, be grateful.
'What about friends?' Frank asked, at last beginning to eat his strawberry shortcake. 'You've got friends you see, don't you?'
'Yes,' I said. 'Plenty of friends.' Which was a lie, but I did have lots of crosswords to do, lots of books to read, and lots of movies to watch on my VCR at night; I could practically recite the FBI warning about unlawful copying by heart. When it came to real live people, the only ones I called when I got ready to leave Derry were my doctor and my dentist, and most of the mail I sent out that June consisted of change-of address cards to magazines like Harper's and National Geographic.
'Frank,' I said, 'you sound like a Jewish mother.'
'Sometimes when I'm with you feel like a Jewish mother,' he said. 'One who believes in the curative powers of baked potatoes instead of matzo balls. You look better than you have in a long time, finally put on some weight, I think ¡ª '
'Bullshit, you looked like Ichabod Crane when you came for Christmas. Also, you've got some sun on your face and arms.'
'I've been walking a lot.'
'So you look better . . . except for your eyes. Sometimes you get this look in your eyes, and I worry about you every time I see it. I think Jo would be glad someone's worrying.'
'What look is that?' I asked.
'Your basic thousand-yard stare. Want the truth? You look like someone who's caught on something and can't get loose.'
I left Derry at three-thirty, stopped in Rumford for supper, then drove slowly on through the rising hills of western Maine as the sun lowered. I had planned my times of departure and arrival carefully, if not quite consciously, and as I passed out of Motton and into the unincorporated township of TR-90, I became aware of the heavy way my heart was beating. There was sweat on my face and arms in spite of the car's air conditioning. Nothing on the radio sounded right, all the music like screaming, and I turned it off.
I was scared, and had good reason to be. Even setting aside the peculiar cross-pollination between the dreams and things in the real world (as I was able to do quite easily, dismissing the cut on my hand and the sunflowers growing through the boards of the back stoop as either coincidence or so much psychic fluff), I had reason to be scared. Because they hadn't been ordinary dreams, and my decision to go back to the lake after all this time hadn't been an ordinary decision. I didn't feel like a modern fin-de-mill¨¦naire man on a spiritual quest to face his fears (I'm okay, you're okay, let's all have an emotional circle-jerk while William Ackerman plays softly in the background); I felt more like some crazy Old Testament prophet going out into the desert to live on locusts and alkali water because God had summoned him in a dream.
I was in trouble, my life was a moderate-going-on-severe mess, and not being able to write was only part of it. I wasn't raping kids or running around Times Square preaching conspiracy theories through a bullhorn, but I was in trouble just the same. I had lost my place in things and couldn't find it again. No surprise there; after all, life's not a book. What I was engaging in on that hot July evening was self-induced shock therapy, and give me at least this much credit ¡ª I knew it.
You come to Dark Score this way: 1-95 from Derry to Newport; Route 2 from Newport to Bethel (with a stop in Rumford, which used to stink like hell's front porch until the paper-driven economy pretty much ground to a halt during Reagan's second term); Route 5 from Bethel to Waterford. Then you take Route 68, the old County Road, across Castle View, through Motton (where downtown consists of a converted barn which sells videos, beer, and second-hand rifles), and then past the sign which reads TR-90 and the one reading GAME WARDEN IS BEST ASSISTANCE IN EMERGENCY, DIAL 1-800-555-GAME OR * 72 ON CELLULAR PHONE. To this, in spray paint, someone has added FUCK THE EAGLES.
Five miles past that sign, you come to a narrow lane on the right, marked only by a square of tin with the faded number 42 on it. Above this, like umlauts, are a couple of. 22 holes.
I turned into this lane just about when I had expected to ¡ª it was 7:16 P.M., EDT, by the clock on the Chevrolet's dashboard.
And the feeling was coming home.
I drove in two tenths of a mile by the odometer, listening to the grass which crowned the lane whickering against the undercarriage of my car, listening to the occasional branch which scraped across the roof or knocked on the passenger side like a fist.
At last I parked and turned the engine off. I got out, walked to the rear of the car, lay down on my belly, and began pulling all of the grass which touched the Chevy's hot exhaust system. It had been a dry summer, and it was best to take precautions. I had come at this exact hour in order to replicate my dreams, hoping for some further insight into them or for an idea of what to do next. What I had not come to do was start a forest fire.
Once this was done I stood up and looked around. The crickets sang, as they had in my dreams, and the trees huddled close on either side of the lane, as they always did in my dreams. Overhead, the sky was a fading strip of blue.
I set off, walking up the right hand wheelrut. Jo and I had had one neighbor at this end of the road, old Lars Washburn, but now Lars's driveway was overgrown with juniper bushes and blocked by a rusty length of chain. Nailed to a tree on the left of the chain was NO TRESPASSING. Nailed to one on the right was NEXT CENTURY REAL ESTATE, and a local number. The words were faded and hard to read in the growing gloom.
I walked on, once more conscious of my heavily beating heart and of the way the mosquitoes were buzzing around my face and arms. Their peak season was past, but I was sweating a lot, and that's a smell they like. It must remind them of blood.
Just how scared was I as I approached Sara Laughs? I don't remember. I suspect that fright, like pain, is one of those things that slip our minds once they have passed. What I do remember is a feeling I'd had before when I was down here, especially when I was walking this road by myself. It was a sense that reality was thin. I think it is thin, you know, thin as lake ice after a thaw, and we fill our lives with noise and light and motion to hide that thinness from ourselves. But in places like Lane Forty-two, you find that all the smoke and mirrors have been removed. What's left is the sound of crickets and the sight of green leaves darkening toward black; branches that make shapes like faces; the sound of your heart in your chest, the beat of the blood against the backs of your eyes, and the look of the sky as the day's blue blood runs out of its cheek.
What comes in when daylight leaves is a kind of certainty: that beneath the skin there is a secret, some mystery both black and bright. You feel this mystery in every breath, you see it in every shadow, you expect to plunge into it at every turn of a step. It is here; you slip across it on a kind of breathless curve like a skater turning for home.
I stopped for a moment about half a mile south of where I'd left the car, and still half a mile north of the driveway. Here the road curves sharply, and on the right is an open field which slants steeply down toward the lake. Tidwell's Meadow is what the locals call it, or sometimes the Old Camp. It was here that Sara Tidwell and her curious tribe built their cabins, at least according to Marie Hingerman (and once, when I asked Bill Dean, he agreed this was the place . . . although he didn't seem interested in continuing the conversation, which struck me at the time as a bit odd).
I stood there for a moment, looking down at the north end of Dark Score. The water was glassy and calm, still candy-colored in the afterglow of sunset, without a single ripple or a single small craft to be seen. The boat-people would all be down at the marina or at Warrington's Sunset Bar by now, I guessed, eating lobster rolls and drinking big mixed drinks. Later a few of them, buzzed on speed and martinis, would go bolting up and down the lake by moonlight. I wondered if I would be around to hear them. I thought there was a fair chance that by then I'd be on my way back to Derry, either terrified by what I'd found or disillusioned because I had found nothing at all.
'You funny little man, said Strickland.'
I didn't know I was going to speak until the words were out of my mouth, and why those words in particular I had no idea. I remembered my dream of Jo under the bed and shuddered. A mosquito whined in my ear. I slapped it and walked on.
In the end, my arrival at the head of the driveway was almost too perfectly timed, the sense of having re-entered my dream almost too complete. Even the balloons tied to the SARA LAUGHS sign (one white and one blue, both with WELCOME BACK MIKE! carefully printed on them in black ink) and floating against the ever-darkening backdrop of the trees seemed to intensify the d¨¦j¨¤ vu I had quite deliberately induced, for no two dreams are exactly the same, are they? Things conceived by minds and made by hands can never be quite the same, even when they try their best to be identical, because we're never the same from day to day or even moment to moment.
I walked to the sign, feeling the mystery of this place at twilight. I squeezed down on the board, feeling its rough reality, and then I ran the ball of my thumb over the letters, daring the splinters and reading with my skin like a blind man reading braille: S and A and R and A; L and A and U and G and H and S.
The driveway had been cleared of fallen needles and blown-down branches, but Dark Score glimmered a fading rose just as it had in my dreams, and the sprawled hulk of the house was the same. Bill had thoughtfully left the light over the back stoop burning, and the sunflowers growing through the boards had long since been cut down, but everything else was the same.
I looked overhead, at the slot of sky over the lane. Nothing . . . I waited . . . and nothing . . . waiting still . . . and then there it was, right where the center of my gaze had been trained. At one moment there was only the fading sky (with indigo just starting to rise up from the edges like an infusion of ink), and at the next Venus was glowing there, bright and steady. People talk about watching the stars come out, and I suppose some people do, but I think that was the only time in my life that I actually saw one appear. I wished on it, too, but this time it was real time, and I did not wish for Jo.
'Help me,' I said, looking at the star. I would have said more, but I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what kind of help I needed.
That's enough, a voice in my mind said uneasily. That's enough, now. Go on back and get your car.
Except that wasn't the plan. The plan was to go down the driveway, just as I had in the final dream, the nightmare. The plan was to prove to myself that there was no shroud-wrapped monster lurking in the shadows of the big old log house down there. The plan was pretty much based on that bit of New Age wisdom which says the word 'fear' stands for Face Everything And Recover. But, as I stood there and looked down at that spark of porch light (it looked very small in the growing darkness), it occurred to me that there's another bit of wisdom, one not quite so good-morning-starshine, which suggests fear is actually an acronym for Fuck Everything And Run. Standing there by myself in the woods as the light left the sky, that seemed like the smarter interpretation, no two ways about it.
I looked down and was a little amused to see that I had taken one of the balloons ¡ª untied it without even noticing as I thought things over. It floated serenely up from my hand at the end of its string, the words printed on it now impossible to read in the growing dark.
Maybe it's all moot, anyway; maybe I won't be able to move. Maybe that old devil writer's walk has got hold of me again, and I'll just stand here like a statue until someone comes along and hauls me away.
But this was real time in the real world, and in the real world there was no such thing as writer's walk. I opened my hand. As the string I'd been holding floated free, I walked under the rising balloon and started down the driveway. Foot followed foot, pretty much as they had ever since I'd first learned this trick back in 1959. I went deeper and deeper into the clean but sour smell of pine, and once I caught myself taking an extra-big step, avoiding a fallen branch that had been in the dream but wasn't here in reality.
My heart was still thudding hard, and sweat was still pouring out of me, oiling my skin and drawing mosquitoes. I raised a hand to brush the hair off my brow, then stopped, holding it splay-fingered out in front of my eyes. I put the other one next to it. Neither was marked; there wasn't even a shadow of scar from the cut I'd given myself while crawling around my bedroom during the ice storm.
'I'm all right,' I said. 'I'm all right.'
You funny little man, said Strickland, a voice answered. It wasn't mine, wasn't Jo's; it was the UFO voice that had narrated my nightmare, the one which had driven me on even when I wanted to stop. The voice of some outsider.
I started walking again. I was better than halfway down the driveway now. I had reached the point where, in the dream, I told the voice that I was afraid of Mrs. Danvers.
'I'm afraid of Mrs. D.,' I said, trying the words aloud in the growing dark. 'What if the bad old housekeeper's down there?'
A loon cried on the lake, but the voice didn't answer. I suppose it didn't have to. There was no Mrs. Danvers, she was only a bag of bones in an old book, and the voice knew it.
I began walking again. I passed the big pine that Jo had once banged into in our Jeep, trying to back up the driveway. How she had sworn! Like a sailor! I had managed to keep a straight face until she got to 'Fuck a duck,' and then I'd lost it, leaning against the side of the Jeep with the heels of my hands pressed against my temples, howling until tears rolled down my cheeks, and Jo glaring hot blue sparks at me the whole time.
I could see the mark about three feet up on the trunk of the tree, the white seeming to float above the dark bark in the gloom. It was just here that the unease which pervaded the other dreams had skewed into something far worse. Even before the shrouded thing had come bursting out of the house, I had felt something was all wrong, all twisted up; I had felt that somehow the house itself had gone insane. It was at this point, passing the old scarred pine, that I had wanted to run like the gingerbread man.
I didn't feel that now. I was afraid, yes, but not in terror. There was nothing behind me, for one thing, no sound of slobbering breath. The worst thing a man was likely to come upon in these woods was an irritated moose. Or, I supposed, if he was really unlucky, a pissed-off bear.
In the dream there had been a moon at least three quarters full, but there was no moon in the sky above me that night. Nor would there be; in glancing over the weather page in that morning's Derry News, I had noticed that the moon was new.
Even the most powerful d¨¦j¨¤ vu is fragile, and at the thought of that moonless sky, mine broke. The sensation of reliving my nightmare departed so abruptly that I even wondered why I had done this, what I had hoped to prove or accomplish. Now I'd have to go all the way back down the dark lane to retrieve my car.
All right, but I'd do it with a flashlight from the house. One of them would surely still be just inside the ¡ª
A series of jagged explosions ran themselves off on the far side of the lake, the last loud enough to echo against the hills. I stopped, drawing in a quick breath. Moments before, those unexpected bangs probably would have sent me running back up the driveway in a panic, but now I had only that brief, startled moment. It was firecrackers, of course, the last one ¡ª the loudest one ¡ª maybe an M-80. Tomorrow was the Fourth of July, and across the lake kids were celebrating early, as kids are wont to do.
I walked on. The bushes still reached like hands, but they had been pruned back and their reach wasn't very threatening. I didn't have to worry about the power being out, either; I was now close enough to the back stoop to see moths fluttering around the light Bill Dean had left on for me. Even if the power had been out (in the western part of the state a lot of the lines are still above ground, and it goes out a lot), the gennie would have kicked in automatically.
Yet I was awed by how much of my dream was actually here, even with the powerful sense of repetition ¡ª of reliving ¡ª departed. Jo's planters were where they'd always been, flanking the path which leads down to Sara's little lick of beach; I suppose Brenda Meserve had found them stacked in the cellar and had had one of her crew set them out again. Nothing was growing in them yet, but I suspected that stuff would be soon. And even without the moon of my dream, I could see the black square on the water, standing about fifty yards offshore. The swimming float.
No oblong shape lying overturned in front of the stoop, though; no coffin. Still, my heart was beating hard again, and I think if more firecrackers had gone off on the Kashwakamak side of the lake just then, I might have screamed.
You funny little man, said Strickland.
Give me that, it's my dust-catcher.
What if death drives us insane? What if we survive, but it drives us insane? What then?
I had reached the point where, in my nightmare, the door banged open and that white shape came hurtling out with its wrapped arms upraised. I took one more step and then stopped, hearing the harsh sound of my respiration as I drew each breath down my throat and then pushed it back out over the dry floor of my tongue. There was no sense of d¨¦j¨¤ vu, but for a moment I thought the shape would appear anyway ¡ª here in the real world, in real time. I stood waiting for it with my sweaty hands clenched. I drew in another dry breath, and this time I held it.
The soft lap of water against the shore.
A breeze that patted my face and rattled the bushes.
A loon cried out on the lake; moths battered the stoop light.
No shroud-monster threw open the door, and through the big windows to the left and right of the door, I could see nothing moving, white or otherwise. There was a note above the knob, probably from Bill, and that was it. I let out my breath in a rush and walked the rest of the way down the driveway to Sara Laughs.
The note was indeed from Bill Dean. It said that Brenda had done some shopping for me; the supermarket receipt was on the kitchen table, and I would find the pantry well stocked with canned goods. She'd gone easy with the perishables, but there was milk, butter, half-and-half, and hamburger, that staple of single-guy cuisine.
I will see you next Mon., Bill had written. If I had my druthers I'd be here to say hello in person but the good wife says it's our turn to do the holiday trotting and so we are going down to Virginia (hot!!) to spend the 4th with her sister. If you need anything or run into problems . . .
He had jotted his sister-in-law's phone number in Virginia as well as Butch Wiggins's number in town, which locals just call 'the TR,' as in 'Me and mother got tired of Bethel and moved our trailer over to the TR.' There were other numbers, as well ¡ª the plumber, the electrician, Brenda Meserve, even the TV guy over in Harrison who had repositioned the DSS dish for maximum reception. Bill was taking no chances. I turned the note over, imagining a final P.S.: Say, Mike, if nuclear war should break out before me and Yvette get back from Virginia ¡ª
Something moved behind me.
I whirled on my heels, the note dropping from my hand. It fluttered to the boards of the back stoop like a larger, whiter version of the moths banging the bulb overhead. In that instant I was sure it would be the shroud-thing, an insane revenant in my wife's decaying body, Give me my dust-catcher, give it to me, how dare you come down here and disturb my rest, how dam you come to Manderley again, and now that you're here, how will you ever get away? Into the mystery with you, you silly little man. Into the mystery with you.
Nothing there. It had just been the breeze again, stirring the bushes around a little . . . except I had felt no breeze against my sweaty skin, not that time.
'Well it must have been, there's nothing there,' I said.
The sound of your voice when you're alone can be either scary or reassuring. That time it was the latter. I bent over, picked up Bill's note, and stuffed it into my back pocket. Then I rummaged out my keyring. I stood under the stoop light in the big, swooping shadows of the light-struck moths, picking through my keys until I found the one I wanted. It had a funny disused look, and as I rubbed my thumb along its serrated edge, I wondered again why I hadn't come down here ¡ª except for a couple of quick broad daylight errands ¡ª in all the months and years since Jo had died. Surely if she had been alive, she would have insisted ¡ª
But then a peculiar realization came to me: it wasn't just a matter of since Jo died. It was easy to think of it that way ¡ª never once during my six weeks on Key Largo had I thought of it any other way ¡ª but now, actually standing here in the shadows of the dancing moths (it was like standing under some weird organic disco ball) and listening to the loons out on the lake, I remembered that although Johanna had died in August of 1994, she had died in Derry. It had been miserably hot in the city . . . so why had we been there? Why hadn't we been sitting out on our shady deck on the lake side of the house, drinking iced tea in our bathing suits, watching the boats go back and forth and commenting on the form of the various water-skiers? What had she been doing in that damned Rite Aid parking lot to begin with, when during any other August we would have been miles from there?
Nor was that all. We usually stayed at Sara until the end of September ¡ª it was a peaceful, pretty time, as warm as summer. But in '93 we'd left with August only a week gone. I knew, because I could remember Johanna going to New York with me later that month, some kind of publishing deal and the usual attendant publicity crap. It had been dog-hot in Manhattan, the hydrants spraying in the East Village and the uptown streets sizzling. On one night of that trip we'd seen The Phantom of the Opera. Near the end Jo had leaned over to me and whispered, 'Oh fuck! The Phantom is snivelling again!' I had spent the rest of the show trying to keep from bursting into wild peals of laughter. Jo could be evil that way.
Why had she come with me that August? Jo didn't like New York even in April or October, when it's sort of pretty. I didn't know. I couldn't remember. All I was sure of was' that she had never been back to Sara Laughs after early August of 1993 . . . and before long I wasn't even sure of that.
I slipped the key into the lock and turned it. I'd go inside, flip on the kitchen overheads, grab a flashlight, and go back for the car. If I didn't, some drunk guy with a cottage at the far south end of the lane would come in too fast, rear-end my Chevy, and sue me for a billion dollars.
The house had been aired out and didn't smell a bit musty; instead of still, stale air, there was a faint and pleasing aroma of pine. I reached for the light inside the door, and then, somewhere in the blackness of the house, a child began to sob. My hand froze where it was and my flesh went cold. I didn't panic, exactly, but all rational thought left my mind. It was weeping, a child's weeping, but I hadn't a clue as to where it was coming from.
Then it began to fade. Not to grow softer but to fade, as if someone had picked that kid up and was carrying it away down some long corridor. . . not that any such corridor existed in Sara Laughs. Even the one running through the middle of the house, connecting the central section to the two wings, isn't really long.
Fading . . . faded . . . almost gone.
I stood in the dark with my cold skin crawling and my hand on the lightswitch. Part of me wanted to boogie, to just go flying out of there as fast as my little legs could carry me, running like the gingerbread man. Another part, however ¡ª the rational part ¡ª was already reasserting itself.
I flicked the switch, the part that wanted to run saying forget it, it won't work, it's the dream, stupid, it's your dream coming true. But it did work. The foyer light came on in a shadow-dispelling rush, revealing Jo's lumpy little pottery collection to the left and the bookcase to the right, stuff I hadn't looked at in four years or more, but still here and still the same. On a middle shelf of the bookcase I could see the three early Elmore Leonard novels ¡ª Swag, The Big Bounce, and Mr. Majestyk ¡ª that I had put aside against a spell of rainy weather; you have to be ready for rain when you're at camp. Without a good book, even two days of rain in the woods can be enough to drive you bonkers.
There was a final whisper of weeping, then silence. In it, I could hear ticking from the kitchen. The clock by the stove, one of Jo's rare lapses into bad taste, is Felix the Cat with big eyes that shift from side to side as his pendulum tail flicks back and forth. I think it's been in every cheap horror movie ever made.
'Who's here?' I called. I took a step toward the kitchen, just a dim space floating beyond the foyer, then stopped. In the dark the house was a cavern. The sound of the weeping could have come from anywhere. Including my own imagination. 'Is someone here?'
No answer . . . but I didn't think the sound had been in my head. If it had been, writer's block was the least of my worries.
Standing on the bookcase to the left of the Elmore Leonards was a long-barrelled flashlight, the kind that holds eight D-cells and will temporarily blind you if someone shines it directly into your eyes. I grasped it, and until it nearly slipped through my hand I hadn't really realized how heavily I was sweating, or how scared I was. I juggled it, heart beating hard, half-expecting that creepy sobbing to begin again, half-expecting the shroud-thing to come floating out of the black living room with its shapeless arms raised; some old hack of a politician back from the grave and ready to give it another shot. Vote the straight Resurrection ticket, brethren, and you will be saved.
I got control of the light and turned it on. It shot a bright straight beam into the living room, picking out the moosehead over the fieldstone fireplace; it shone in the head's glass eyes like two lights burning under water. I saw the old cane-and-bamboo chairs; the old couch; the scarred dining-room table you had to balance by shimming one leg with a folded playing card or a couple of beer coasters; I saw no ghosts; I decided this was a seriously fucked-up carnival just the same. In the words of the immortal Cole Porter, let's call the whole thing off. If I headed east as soon as I got back to my car, I could be in Derry by midnight. Sleeping in my own bed.
I turned out the foyer light and stood with the flash drawing its line across the dark. I listened to the tick of that stupid cat-clock, which Bill must have set going, and to the familiar chugging cycle of the refrigerator. As I listened to them, I realized that I had never expected to hear either sound again. As for the crying . . .
Had there been crying? Had there really?
Yes. Crying or something. Just what now seemed moot. What seemed germane was that coming here had been a dangerous idea and a stupid course of action for a man who has taught his mind to misbehave. As I stood in the foyer with no light but the flash and the glow falling in the windows from the bulb over the back stoop, I realized that the line between what I knew was real and what I knew was only my imagination had pretty much disappeared.
I left the house, checked to make sure the door was locked, and walked back up the driveway, swinging the flashlight beam from side to side like a pendulum ¡ª like the tail of old Felix the Krazy Kat in the kitchen. It occurred to me, as I struck north along the lane, that I would have to make up some sort of story for Bill Dean. It wouldn't do to say, 'Well, Bill, I got down there and heard a kid bawling in my locked house, and it scared me so bad I turned into the gingerbread man and ran back to Derry. I'll send you the flashlight I took; put it back on the shelf next to the paperbacks, would you?' That wasn't 'any good because the story would get around and people would say, 'Not surprised. Wrote too many books, probably. Work like that has got to soften a man's head. Now he's scared of his own shadow. Occupational hazard.'
Even if I never came down here again in my life, I didn't want to leave people on the TR with that opinion of me, that half-contemptuous, see-what-you-get-for-thinking-too-much attitude. It's one a lot of folks seem to have about people who live by their imaginations.
I'd tell Bill I got sick. In a way it was true. Or no . . . better to tell him someone else got sick . . . a friend . . . someone in Derry I'd been seeing . . . a lady-friend, perhaps. 'Bill, this friend of mine, this lady-friend of mine got sick, you see, and so . . . '
I stopped suddenly, the light shining on the front of my car. I had walked the mile in the dark without noticing many of the sounds in the woods, and dismissing even the bigger of them as deer settling down for the night. I hadn't turned around to see if the shroud-thing (or maybe some spectral crying child) was following me. I had gotten involved in making up a story and then embellishing it, doing it in my head instead of on paper this time but going down all the same well-known paths. I had gotten so involved that I had neglected to be afraid. My heartbeat was back to normal, the sweat was drying on my skin, and the mosquitoes had stopped whining in my ears. And as I stood there, a thought occurred to me. It was as if my mind had been waiting patiently for me to calm down enough so it could remind me of some essential fact.
The pipes. Bill had gotten my go-ahead to replace most of the old stuff, and the plumber had done so. Very recently he'd done so.
'Air in the pipes,' I said, running the beam of the eight-cell flashlight over the grille of my Chevrolet. 'That's what I heard.'
I waited to see if the deeper part of my mind would call this a stupid, rationalizing lie. It didn't . . . because, I suppose, it realized it could be true. Airy pipes can sound like people talking, dogs barking, or children crying. Perhaps the plumber had bled them and the sound had been something else . . . but perhaps he hadn't. The question was whether or not I was going to jump in my car, back two tenths of a mile to the highway, and then return to Derry, all on the basis of a sound I had heard for ten seconds (maybe only five), and while in an excited, stressful state of mind.
I decided the answer was no. It might take only one more peculiar thing to turn me around ¡ª probably gibbering like a character on Tales from the Crypt ¡ª but the sound I'd heard in the foyer wasn't enough. Not when making a go of it at Sara Laughs might mean so much.
I hear voices in my head, and have for as long as I can remember. I don't know if that's part of the necessary equipment for being a writer or not; I've never asked another one. I never felt the need to, because I know all the voices I hear are versions of me. Still, they often seem like very real versions of other people, and none is more real to me-or more familiar ¡ª than Jo's voice. Now that voice came, sounding interested, amused in an ironic but gentle way . . . and approving.
Going to fight, Mike?
'Yeah,' I said, standing there in the dark and picking out gleams of chrome with my flashlight. 'Think so, babe.'
Well, then ¡ª that's all right, isn't it?
Yes. It was. I got into my car, started it up, and drove slowly down the lane. And when I got to the driveway, I turned in.
There was no crying the second time I entered the house. I walked slowly through the downstairs, keeping the flashlight in my hand until I had turned on every light I could find; if there were people still boating on the north end of the lake, old Sara probably looked like some weird Spielbergian flying saucer hovering above them.
I think houses live their own lives along a time-stream that's different from the ones upon which their owners float, one that's slower. In a house, especially an old one, the past is closer. In my life Johanna had been dead nearly four years, but to Sara, she was much nearer than that. It wasn't until I was actually inside, with all the lights on and the flash returned to its spot on the bookshelf, that I realized how much I had been dreading my arrival. Of having my grief reawakened by signs of Johanna's interrupted life. A book with a corner turned down on the table at one end of the sofa, where Jo had liked to recline in her nightgown, reading and eating plums; the cardboard cannister of Quaker Oats, which was all she ever wanted for breakfast, on a shelf in the pantry; her old green robe hung on the back of the bathroom door in the south wing, which Bill Dean still called 'the new wing,' although it had been built before we ever saw Sara Laughs.
Brenda Meserve had done a good job ¡ª a humane job-of removing these signs and signals, but she couldn't get them all. Jo's hardcover set of Sayers's Peter Wimsey novels still held pride of place at the center of the living-room bookcase. Jo had always called the moosehead over the fireplace Bunter, and once, for no reason I could remember (certainly it seemed a very un-Bunterlike accessory), she had hung a bell around the moose's hairy neck. It hung there still, on a red velvet ribbon. Mrs. Meserve might have puzzled over that bell, wondering whether to leave it up or take it down, not knowing that when Jo and I made love on the living-room couch (and yes, we were often overcome there), we referred to the act as 'ringing Bunter's bell.' Brenda Meserve had done her best, but any good marriage is secret territory, a necessary white space on society's map. What others don't know about it is what makes it yours.
I walked around, touching things, looking at things, seeing them new. Jo seemed everywhere to me, and after a little while I dropped into one of the old cane chairs in front of the TV. The cushion wheezed under me, and I could hear Jo saying, 'Well excuse yourself, Michael!'
I put my face in my hands and cried. I suppose it was the last of my mourning, but that made it no easier to bear. I cried until I thought something inside me would break if I didn't stop. When it finally let me go, my face was drenched, I had the hiccups, and I thought I had never felt so tired in my life. I felt strained all over my body ¡ª partly from the walking I'd done, I suppose, but mostly just from the tension of getting here . . . and deciding to stay here. To fight. That weird phantom crying I'd heard when I first stepped into the place, although it seemed very distant now, hadn't helped.
I washed my face at the kitchen sink, rubbing away the tears with the heels of my hands and clearing my clogged nose. Then I carried my suitcases down to the guest bedroom in the north wing. I had no intention of sleeping in the south wing, in the master bedroom where I had last slept with Jo.
That was a choice Brenda Meserve had foreseen. There was a bouquet of fresh wildflowers on the bureau, and a card: WELCOME BACK, MR. NOONAN. If I hadn't been emotionally exhausted, I suppose looking at that message, in Mrs. Meserve's spiky copperplate handwriting, would have brought on another fit of the weeps. I put my face in the flowers and breathed deeply. They smelled good, like sunshine. Then I took off my clothes, leaving them where they dropped, and turned back the coverlet on the bed. Fresh sheets, fresh pillowcases; same old Noonan sliding between the former and dropping his head onto the latter.
I lay there with the bedside lamp on, looking up at the shadows on the ceiling, almost unable to believe I was in this place and this bed. There had been no shroud-thing to greet me, of course . . . but I had an idea it might well find me in my dreams.
Sometimes ¡ª for me, at least ¡ª there's a transitional bump between waking and sleeping. Not that night. I slipped away without knowing it, and woke the next morning with sunlight shining in through the window and the bedside lamp still on. There had been no dreams that I could remember, only a vague sensation that I had awakened sometime briefly in the night and heard a bell ringing, very thin and far away.