The Fourth Book of Five
The boy eased his bedroom window open inch by inch, trying to avoid a midway squeak he had come to know well. Cool night air spilled over his fingers. He paused as the counterweight thumped inside the wooden frame like a dying clock, stopping and starting and stopping again, as if it knew the rhythm of his life.
With the pane half open, he released his grip and turned, reaching for his backpack. That instant the counterweight slipped, dropping the window with a squeal before he could stop it. He froze. Holding his breath, he strained to listen for any sound, dreading the wrath of his foster parents should they have heard. Nothing stirred in the house behind him.
He again lifted the window, this time with his free hand, tossing out the backpack and scrambling after it. Then he eased the window back into place just as the roar of an approaching car echoed over the surrounding hills, mingling with the distant bark of a dog. Careful to keep to the shadows, Nicolai Tate glanced back at the house one last time before hurrying down the gravel driveway, disappearing into the night.
An hour later, he crouched beneath the shadow of a stone and wrought iron gate, the blue and white metal sign next to it reading ‘Manville State Hospital’. A narrow drive curved away from him, disappearing between a cluster of brick buildings, their windows darkened by steel mesh. Fluorescent light spilled from the open door of the closest building, pooling in the dew-dampened grass.
Dodging the streetlight glow, Nicolai scampered from shadow to shadow, making for the open door. Moments later he slipped through. Stepping into a hallway that stretched before him in empty silence, the lights dim due to the late hour, he hurried down the corridor. As he rounded a corner the murmur of voices arose in the distance, stopping him. He backtracked and started again down an adjacent hallway, trying to recall the way, hoping for a familiar landmark.
He had begun to fear he had entered the wrong building when a nurses’ station appeared midway down the hall, the sign over it reading ‘Ward C’. A single nurse sat beneath a dim circle of light. He pressed himself into a doorway, waiting.
After what seemed hours, she stood and disappeared around the corner. Nicolai slipped from his hiding place, hurrying down the hall and past the nurses’ station. Moving along the wall, he paused at each doorway, straining to see the numbers. Moments later, he stopped at an entrance and pushed through.
A lamp covered by a red scarf glowed in the far corner. He glanced at the bed, finding it empty. Fearing he had entered the wrong room and would be caught, he glanced back toward the doorway. Then a familiar voice whispered from the shadows.
Nicolai peered into the darkness. “It’s Nicolai.”
“Do I know you?”
“Mother, it’s me, it’s your son.” He moved toward the sound.
Her form appeared beneath the red glow of the lamp. Sitting on the bare floor with her back against the wall, she held her knees to her chest. Nicolai knelt beside her.
“Don’t you recognize me, mother?”
She stared at him without expression. “I… I don’t know.”
“I’m your son, Nicolai.”
She blinked, running a hand through her hair. “Yes, I think… yes, I did have a son once.”
“I’ve come to see you, mother, to talk to you.” He leaned in and studied her gaunt features.
“You’re a handsome boy.” She reached out, tracing the side of his face. “Were you really my son?”
“Mother, what have they done to you?”
“I had a son but the dark people came and took him from me.”
“But I’m here now.”
“No, only Jesus can bring him back.” She looked around the room as if searching for something. “I haven’t seen Jesus in a long time. Only the devil comes anymore.”
He touched her shoulder and she turned back to face him.
“Mother, I’m here to take you away from this place. I can’t stay in that home any longer. All they care about is making money off me.”
She leaned in, her face inches from his. “Why do you call me mother?”
Nicolai stood and held out his hand, trying his best to sound older than his age. “I’m your son and you have to come with me. I’ve run away and I won’t go back. Come with me and I’ll find us someplace to live.”
“You want me to leave here?”
“Of course I do. Look what they’ve done to you.”
She pointed toward the door. “The dark people are out there. They’re ghosts, you know. They can hear your thoughts and walk through walls. I’ve seen them. But the steel window screens keep them out.”
“Stand up, mother.” He bent, grabbing her hand.
“They took my son.”
“I’m here and we need to get moving.”
“But I can’t leave. They’re out there.”
“It’ll be fine, mother, you’ll see.” He tried to raise her from the floor. “Come on.”
Her eyes grew wide as she struggled to pull away, her voice rising with each word.
“Let me go! Who are you? What are you doing?”
“Keep quiet, mother.” He started for the doorway, sliding her across the slick floor. “Your son is taking you away from here.”
“But the dark people are out there!”
She grabbed the bedrail, her shrieks echoing off the walls. “Help me! Help me!”
In a flash of light the door flew open and two men rushed into the room. Nicolai released his grip, running between the bed and the wall. An instant later he was out the door. Rounding the nearest corner, he backtracked down the unlighted corridors, ducking into doorways at the sound of passing footsteps. His mother’s fading screams echoed down the hallway. Moments later he burst through the exit and slipped into the night.
Nicolai stumbled along the edge of a narrow blacktop, keeping to the shadows as much as possible. He looked behind him, dismayed by the sight. An hour had passed yet the hospital glow still lit the horizon. A roll of thunder moved over the hills.
All at once the flashing lights of a patrol car topped the rise, slicing the highway into shards. He jumped from the roadside, sliding down the shoulder and splashing across a shallow creek before scrambling beneath the low bridge. The car slowed as it reached the crossing. Then a spotlight pierced the brush lining the creek, its beam jerking from side to side, up and down.
He listened to the footsteps passing above him. Moments later a radio crackled to life and the spotlight vanished as the car’s engine roared to life. The cruiser strained to climb the sloping roadway, its flashing lights fading into the night. Nicolai huddled against the hard cement, shivering in his wet clothes but afraid to venture out. Time slipped past.
The night seemed to engulf him, dense, silent, water-like. He held up his hand but saw nothing, no reflection, no silhouette. In the blackness his mother appeared before him, her face twisted with fear, her eyes wild, staring at him without recognition, without affection. Struggling to free herself, she looked about then opened her mouth but no scream shattered the silence.
Instead a car sounded in the distance. He sat up, trying to shake off the image as the roar grew louder. Scanning the tree line, he could find no sign of flashing lights. He started toward the road then stopped, fear again gripping him, the thought of returning to the foster home too much to bear. He turned and scurried behind the cement column.
The creaking car slowed as it drew near, pulling onto the shoulder and stopping. He listened as a door opened and footsteps again sounded on the bridge directly above him. Lightning slit the darkness. Then a man’s voice called out.
“You’d be needing a warm spot to hide and I know a place. Them that run trust no one, but trust you must or be lost. I offer small help and want nothing in return.
“A bad time is coming, boy. We must do what we can. There’s no good to be had for a young feller on his own when the evil times come. Will you go with me then? We best get moving. The deputy has a bad wheel bearing and I hear his car over that ridge and moving fast.”
Nicolai clutched his knees to his chest, wrestling with himself at the thought of the man’s offer, puzzling over how he had known he was there. He wanted nothing more than to leave and be warm. Yet he trusted no one, just as the voice said.
Then he realized dawn would soon break and in the light of day he would be spotted immediately. The thought of many more hours under the bridge seemed as bad as getting caught. He took a breath and stood.
Backtracking away from the bridge, he turned and looked up. A man with a halo of white hair looked down at him. The old man looked as if he could have just crawled from beneath a bridge himself.
He motioned Nicolai up the slope and minutes later they were bumping down the highway in a rattling pickup, the dashboard casting the old man’s gnarled hands in a green glow. Nicolai turned as the flashing lights of the deputy’s cruiser appeared briefly before fading into the night. He glanced at the man’s stubble-strewn face, wondering where he would take him and if it would be better or worse than where he’d just been.
He turned back to the windshield. Above the road, fingers of light pierced the black horizon, signaling the approach of dawn. He again thought of his mother, wishing she could be like other mothers, fixing his breakfast and sending him off to school on a morning like this, but such hopes belonged to the child he was no longer. His future lay elsewhere.
Truman Birdsong peered through the windshield of his creaking camper van, the land before him dense with wood, thick and impenetrable. Brush crowded the road, leaving only the brief appearance of an occasional pump jack or stock tank to break the monotony. He cared little. The dark scene seemed to match his mood.
That he had returned to this remote place, a land forgotten by all but misfits and castoffs, the malcontented and reactionary, seemed a just reward for his many failures. At least he would have a job and, in time, a place to live. The van would have to suffice until then.
He topped a rise and a building came into view, the green metal sides melding with the trees beyond. Pickup trucks crowded the gravel lot. He parked and soon stood before the office door. He rapped on the frosted glass twice, turning the knob and stepping through. Veiled by a cloud of blue smoke, a man stared at him from behind a cluttered desk. His face had the look of tanned leather.
Studying him, the man took a long pull on his cigarette, no welcome in his eyes. Thin arms poked from his shirtsleeves, pale, bonelike. Without a word of greeting, he motioned Truman to a chair as he pulled a second cigarette from a pack, lighting it with the first. The dry paper crackled to life. He plucked a thin file from the desktop and held it up.
“Too bad you got the name you do instead of Jones or Smith.”
“You know who I am?”
“Of course I do, Mr. Birdsong. We small town folks aren’t as stupid as you city people think.”
“What does that have to do with Smith or Jones?”
“Well, I’d have to say you came all this way for nothing.”
“What do you mean? I was promised a job.”
“That was before we found out about you and your disgusting past.”
“You did what?”
“You haven’t heard of the internet, Mr. Birdsong? With a name like yours it was just too easy to find out you have a fondness for young girls.”
“I was cleared of those charges.”
“The Weeks brothers, owners of this plant, may be millionaires but they’re still God-fearing country folk that have no toleration for the abomination of child abuse.”
“My wife lied to the police. She wanted me gone so she could carry on with her boyfriend. I cared more about my step-daughter than she did.”
“Is that what you call what you did?”
“I’ve already told you…”
The man interrupted. “Everyone knows criminals are compulsive liars.”
“You don’t know what you’re…”
He pointed a finger in Truman’s face.
“The assault and public disturbance record didn’t help either, although we do have our share of rough men here. I suppose you’re going to deny that too.”
Truman sighed, his sense of failure once again taking hold. “I know I have a problem with my temper.”
“That explains all the drifting from town to town, job to job.”
“Something like that.”
“Then I believe we’re done here, Mr. Birdsong.”
“But what am I supposed to do now? I have no work, no place to live.”
“I’m told you have family from around here. Why don’t you go home to your mother? Isn’t that what child molesters do?”
“She died when I was twelve.”
The man sneered at him. “Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?”
Truman stood and leaned over the desk. “Listen, you little twerp…”
The door opened and a thick-necked man appeared beside him. The little man pointed toward the door.
“Like I said, Mr. Birdsong, we’re done here.”
Truman followed the narrow highway across the county line, turning onto the main street of a nearby town, the closest with a bar. He needed a drink. Pulling to the curb outside a barn-like building that had once served as the town ice house, he pushed through the door into an open, rectangular room. A high, rough-beamed ceiling topped the limestone walls.
Taking a seat at the bar, he ordered a beer. Other than a single couple in the far corner, the place appeared to be empty. He took a breath. He was in no mood to see a familiar face. Though he had moved away after his mother died, he still remembered a few of the locals. Most of them had never left the area, unable to free themselves from family obligations and small town mores.
He glanced at the bar mirror then looked away, disgusted by the sight of himself. As much as he hated to admit it, there was truth in the little man’s words. He was far from blameless. His bad decisions and latent anger had led him to this place.
A shadow falling over his shoulder pulled him from his thoughts. Then an old man appeared next to him, a haze of white stubble crossing his jaw. He stared at Truman without speaking, his watery eyes holding a strange and disturbing wildness. After a moment, he waved his hand through the air as if tracing the outline of an invisible object and then tapped the bar with his middle finger.
“You’d be looking for work.” His voice held no question. “And I’m the one to tell you where it is.”
Truman studied the man’s wizened face, puzzling over his words.
“How could you…”
He tapped the bar again. “But first, you’d be buying me a drink. Just one is all.”
Truman considered how little he had left in his savings, but something about the man made him want to hear what he had to say. He hailed the bartender over. The old man held his thumb and forefinger apart.
“Whiskey, a double shot.”
He waited for the glass before emptying it in one swallow. Then he turned back to Truman, his eyes flashing as he spoke.
“There are bad times coming to this here place, real bad. Dark times they are, too. We best steel ourselves for the darkness. But some need the help of a willing hand, them that don’t have the blessings of folks like you and me. Do you follow?”
Truman began regretting his decision.
“I don’t know.”
“Them they call special are who I mean and special they are, make no mistake. They need a willing man to do their work, to fight against what’s coming, a hired hand maybe but no matter. A hand is a hand long as it’s willing. And in time their truth will reveal itself and the hand will understand, hired or no.”
“What sort of work do you mean?”
“That too will reveal itself in time.”
“But it’s a paying job we’re talking about?”
“You’d be good with your hands then?”
“I know my way around a hammer and saw, if that’s what you mean.”
The man waved his hand through the air again and pointed toward the highway. “You take yourself the main road there back to the town of Mohan, and on from there to Clayton. Past a tall brick building, the oil company that built the town, you turn. At the top of the hill stands the old house, a tall Victorian, forest green and white with a curved porch across the front.”
“It’s someone’s home?”
“The name is Mercer.”
“Mercer? That name is familiar.”
“Well, it would be wouldn’t it?”
“But how so?”
The man ignored his question.
“He owns the boarding house but no ordinary house it is.”
“That’s where I’d find a job?”
“The old man is too fat and lazy to keep up the place anymore. He needs a hired hand. But beware the greedy bastard.”
Truman turned as the man stood and started toward the door. “What’s your name?”
“Parfit’s the name, just Parfit.”
“What about the darkness?” Truman called after him.
He called back over his shoulder. “A man must steel himself, hired or no.”
The road passed through thick stands of scrub oak and cedar, crossing brush-choked creeks running quick and muddy. Tattered clouds hugged the horizon. In the occasional clearings, mobile homes stood alongside crumbling shacks gray with neglect, their yards cluttered with castoff furniture and rusted farm machinery. Truman turned from the familiar sight, keeping his eyes to the highway, trying to avoid thoughts of his childhood, his ruined father, his dying mother. In the years since he had left, he had scarcely allowed himself think of the place.
The trees fell away all at once as Clayton appeared in a broad swale below him. He remembered little of the town except for its sense of decay. Beyond a railway crossing, the road opened onto a wide street flanked by a ramshackle line of buildings, many of them empty. The entire town seemed to be made of brick, even the streets. Truman slowed as the he approached a four-story building, the collapsed roof visible through its broken windows. A sign hanging above the doorway read ‘Clayton Oil and Gas’.
Turning onto a rutted side-street, he passed between an abandoned hotel and train station before climbing a steep incline. Vacant lots littered the unpaved road. He crested a rise and a house appeared on the hilltop, its curved porch deep in shadow. Green shutters stood dark against the dull white of the house. He angled the van beneath a sprawling live oak and climbed out.
A dim remembrance arose in the back of his mind and he again recalled his parents, realizing with a tinge of regret they rarely crossed his thoughts anymore. Something about the house had stirred his memory. He turned toward the broken horizon and surveyed the maze of hills stretching below him. The scene seemed vaguely familiar, like an image from a long-forgotten dream. Standing in the shade of the massive oak, he puzzled over how he had been drawn back into this forgotten place, a place he had no wish to be.