Mystery Walk

Chapter 10

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SEVEN

Ghost Show

30

Satan came shambling out into the red spotlight. There was a chorus of screams and jeers. Behind the foul-smelling mask, Billy said, "Don't forget to tell your friends to see Dr. Mirakle's Ghost Show . . . or I'll be seeing you!" He shook his plastic pitchfork at the dozen or so people who sat before the stage, and heard the muffled thump! as Dr. Mirakle sneaked back inside the black cabinet and closed the lid. Haze drifted in the air from the smoke bombs Mirakle had exploded. At the tent's ceiling bobbed papier-mache ghosts and skeletons as eerie tape-recorded organ music played.

Billy was glad to get backstage and take off the mask of his Satan suit. Last night someone had pelted him with a tomato. He switched the laboring engine to reverse, which drew all the wires and dangling figures backward behind the stage curtain. Then Billy turned on the tent's lights. Dr. Mirakle was "freed" from the black cabinet – though the lock was a fake and had never been locked at all – and the night's last show was over.

Billy checked all the chains and wires that operated the Ghost Show figures, then went out to pick up the litter of cigarette butts and empty popcorn boxes. Dr. Mirakle went backstage, as he did every night, to place the prop figures in their little individual boxes, like small white coffins. They had one more day in a shopping-center parking lot south of Andalusia; about this time tomorrow night the carnival would be on its way to another small town.

When he was finished, Billy went backstage and washed his hands in a bucket of soapy water, then changed into a fresh shirt.

"And where are you going?" Mirakle asked, carefully placing a ghost into a styrofoam box.

Billy shrugged. "I thought I'd just walk up the midway, see What's going on."

"Of course, even though you know every game on the midway is as crooked as a pig's tail. Let's see: clean hands, fresh shirt, combed hair – if I recall my ancient history, 'spiffing up' is what I used to do when I was about to meet a member of the opposite sex. Do you have a certain young lady in mind?"

"No sir."

"Walking up the midway, eh? You wouldn't be planning to visit a certain sideshow that's got all the roustabouts in such agitation, would you?"

Billy grinned. "I thought I might look in on it." The Jungle Love show, down at the far end of the midway, had joined the carnival at the first of the week. There were pictures of the girls out front, and a red-painted legend read see tigra! santha the pantha! barbie balboa! leona the lioness! Not all of the girls were so attractive, but one picture had caught Billy's eye when he'd strolled over there a few days before. The girl in it had short, curly blond hair, and it looked as if all she wore was a black velvet robe. Her legs were bare and shapely, and her pretty gamine face sent out a direct sexual challenge. Billy felt his stomach do slow flipflops every time he looked at that picture, but he hadn't had the time yet to go inside.

Mirakle shook his head. "I did tell your mother I'd look after you, you know, and I hear some rough customers hang around that exhibition.'"

"I'll be all right."

"I doubt that. Once a young man sees a nude woman gyrating on stage a few feet from his face, he's never quite the same again. Well, go ahead if your hormones are in such a galloping fit. I'll just finish putting the kiddies to bed."

Billy left the tent, walking into the humid August night. Around him the air glowed with lights. Some of the sideshows were closing down, but most of the rides still jerked and swung their passengers through the night, their engines growling like wild beasts. The carousel, topped with white and blue bulbs, was spinning merrily as recorded calliope music rang out. The Ferris wheel was a jeweled pendant set against the darkness.

Billy had received a letter from home today. The letters sometimes caught up with him late, though he tried to let his Mother know in advance where the carnival would be stopping. There was a message in his father's scrawl: Hope you are fine. I went to the doctor yesterday. I feel good. Love, Dad. He'd written back that he was doing fine, and business was good; he left out the fact that he had to dress up as Satan. He also didn't mention that he'd seen the black aura several times in the throng of customers.

He'd found out that Dr. Mirakle's real name was Reginald Merkle, and that he had a real affinity to J.W. Dant bourbon. Several times the man had gone through his Ghost Show routine barely able to stand. Dr. Mirakle had started out to be a dentist, he'd told Billy, until he realized he couldn't stomach the idea of peering into people's mouths all day long. Billy at one point had inquired about Mirakle's family, but the man quickly said he had no family except for the little figures of ghosts and skeletons. He had names for all of them, and he treated them like children. Billy was puzzled about the picture of the young man Dr. Mirakle carried in his wallet, but it was obvious Dr. Mirakle didn't want to discuss his personal life.

Billy saw the blinking red neon sign ahead: jungle love . . . jungle love. He could hear the faint booming of bass drums.

Another new sideshow had been added to the midway as well. It stood between the Ghost Show and the Tiltawhirl on the other side of the midway, its white clapboard structure festooned with garish paintings of snakes with venom-dripping fangs. The entrance was through the open mouth of a huge snake, and above the entrance the sign read alive! see killer snakes of the world! alive!

It was a strange thing, Billy thought, but after four days he still hadn't seen the man who ran the snake show. The only sign of life over there, besides the paying customers, was that the entrance was open at three in the afternoon and closed at eleven. Right now he saw that the door was slightly ajar. The huge red-painted snake eyes seemed to watch Billy as he hurried past.

"Stop it!" he heard someone wail.

"Please . . . going too fast . . . !"

Between Billy and the Jungle Love sideshow loomed another new ride that was shaped like the skeleton of a huge umbrella. Pour gondolas – yellow, red, purple, and one still wrapped up in a Protective green tarpaulin – whirled on the end of thick metal spokes connected to a central piston mechanism. Hydraulics hissed, and the gondolas wildly pitched up and down. Screams erupted as the ride went faster and faster, the gondolas dipping to within three feet of the ground and then quickly pitching upward to almost thirty feet. The entire mechanism groaned, swinging in a fierce circle. Two people were riding in each of the three gondolas, which had safety canopies of wire mesh that closed down over their heads. At the control lever, his foot poised above a metal brake pad, was a thin man with lank, shoulder-length brown hair. A sign with mostly burnt-out bulbs said octopus.

"… please stop it!" a voice wailed from one of the gondolas.

Billy saw the man give it more speed. The Octopus was vibrating, the noise of pounding pistons was almost shaking the ground. The man was grinning, but Billy saw that his eyes were dead. The machine seemed barely in control.

Billy stepped closer to him and touched his shoulder. "Mister – "

The man's head whipped around. For an instant Billy saw a red gleam in his eyes, and he started, remembering the way the beast had grinned at him out on that highway in the dead of night. Then the man blinked. "Shitfire!" he shouted, and stomped down on the brake as he disengaged the gears. With a high metallic shriek, the Octopus began to slow. "Damn it, boy!" the man said. "Don't you sneak up on people like that!" A jagged scar ran through the man's right eyebrow, and in a breath of wind from the Octopus his hair lifted to show he was missing an ear. One hand had only three fingers.

The Octopus was slowing. The whine of brakes had faded. But in the absence of noise Billy imagined he heard another sound: a high-pitched, eerie screaming – like a dozen voices at once. The sound faded in and out, and Billy felt his flesh crawl.

The man went to each gondola and unlocked the mesh canopies, letting out angry and tearful kids. "So sue me!" he shouted at one of them.

Billy stared at the Octopus. He saw scaly, rust-eaten metal behind a hanging flap of tarpaulin. The faint screaming went on and on, drifting in and out. "Why's that gondola covered up?" he asked the man.

"Needs work. Gonna repaint it. Don't you have nothin' better to do?" He glared up at a couple of approaching teenagers and snapped, "We're closed!"

Abruptly, the eerie voices stopped, as if they'd been silenced by a stronger force. Billy felt himself stepping closer to the hidden gondola. He had the sudden urge to climb into it, to close the canopy over his head, to let the Octopus whirl him high into the air. It would be the best ride in the world, he thought. The most thrilling ever. But for the most excitement, the very most, you have to ride in the covered gondola. . . .

He stopped in his tracks, and he knew.

There was something deadly in that scabrous gondola.

"What're you lookin' at?" the man said uneasily. When Billy turned toward him, he saw a heavy set woman with a sad face and coarse blond hair coming out of the shadows.

"Buck?" she said tentatively. "Buck, it's time to close down now."

"Don't bother me, woman!" he shouted, and then he paused, frowning. "I'm sorry, hon," he said wearily, and then he looked again at the Octopus. Billy saw a strange combination of fear and love on his face. "You're right. It's time to shut it down for tonight." Buck started walking to the generator that powered the ride.

The woman came toward Billy. "Get away from that machine, boy. Get away from it right now!" she warned him. And then the Octopus sign went out.

"What's wrong with it?" he asked her, quietly so the man wouldn't hear.

She shook her head, obviously afraid to say any more.

"Go on about your business!" Buck shouted at him. "This is a good ride, boy!" Something was about to break behind the man's eyes. "I was in control all the time!"

Billy saw the torment in both their faces, and he hurried away. Lights were flickering off all over the midway. He saw the Jungle Love sign go out, and knew he'd missed the last show.

The Octopus had just gone up this morning. He remembered that one of the roustabouts had split his hand open on a bolt, but then he'd thought nothing of it because accidents were common. The roustabout had bled a great deal. He decided to stay away from that machine, because he remembered his mother telling him that evil could grow in the most unexpected places – like an oak tree.

Or a machine.

The screams were silenced, Billy thought, as if the machine had offered them up to whet his curiosity. When he looked over his shoulder, the man and woman were gone. The midway was clearing out.

Billy glanced over at the Jungle Love sideshow. There was a figure standing near the entrance, where the sexy photographs were tacked to a display board. He decided to walk over, to find out if the man worked with the sideshow. But before Billy could reach him, the man stepped into the darkness between the Jungle Love trailer and the Mad Mouse maze.

When Billy reached the display board, he saw that the photograph of the blond girl – the one who troubled his dreams so much – had been ripped away.

31

"You'd better slow down," Helen Betts said. "Wayne won't like it."

At the wheel of his fire-engine-red Camaro, Terry Dozier was watching the speedometer climb to sixty-five. Before the headlights, the highway – ten miles north of Fayette – was a yellow tunnel cut through the mountain of night. Terry smiled, his eyes full of devilment. No one, not even his steady girl friend, Helen, knew that one of Terry's favorite hobbies was beating out the brains of stray cats with a Louisville Slugger.

Wayne was stretched out in the backseat, his legs sprawled on a half-empty box of Falconer Crusade Bibles, the last of a dozen boxes that Terry and Helen had helped Wayne hand-deliver. Fayette County residents who'd donated upward of one hundred dollars during the highly publicized "Bible Bounty Week" got a Bible and a visit from Little Wayne Falconer. It had been a long, tiring day, and Wayne had healed whole families today of everything from inner-ear trouble to nicotine addiction. His restless sleep was haunted by two recurring dreams: one of a snake of fire fighting an eagle of smoke; and one in which the Creekmores were standing in that hospital waiting room, the woman's eyes fixed on him as if she could see right through his skin to the soul, her mouth opening to say Do you know what you're doing, son?

He feared he was falling under some kind of spell, because he couldn't get his mind off the woman and boy. They were using strong power on him, he thought, to draw his mind from the straight-and-narrow path. He'd been reading a lot lately about demon possession, about demons that were so strong they could inhabit both the living and the dead, and nothing scared him any worse. Praying in the chapel at home seemed to ease his brain for a while.

Wayne came up out of a light sleep and saw Helen's autumn hair blowing in the breeze from the open window. Both she and Terry were going to college in a few weeks on Falconer Crusade scholarships. Helen was a pretty girl, he mused. Her hair smelled nice, like peppermints. He was horrified when he realized he was getting an erection, and he tried to blank out the thought of sinful sex. Nude girls sometimes cavorted in his mind, begging him to take off his clothes and join them. Stop it! he told himself, squeezing his eyes shut. But as he drifted off again he thought: I'll bet Helen and Terry do it do it do it. . . .

"Where are you going?" she asked Terry in a nervous whisper. "You missed the turnoff!"

"On purpose, babe. Don't worry, it's cool."

"Tell me where, Terry!"

"Steve Dickerson's having a party, isn't he? We were invited, weren't we?"

"Well . . . sure, but . . . that's not exactly Wayne's type of crowd. I mean . . . with everybody going off to college and all, it might be kinda wild."

"So what? It'll do old Wayne good." He squeezed her thigh and she gave his hand a little love-slap. "And if somebody gets drunk, Wayne can just touch his hand and draw out the deeeemon of al-ke-hall!" He giggled as Helen looked at him, horrified. "Oh come on, Betts! You don't take that healing crap seriously, do you?"

Helen blanched, turning quickly to make sure Wayne was still sleeping. She was sure glad it was such a clear August night, no thunderstorms around – struck by lightning would be a bad way to go.

The Dickerson house was a two-story colonial on the edge of a six-acre lake. There was a long expanse of emerald green lawn, dew glittering in the squares of light cast from the windows. Terry whistled softly when he saw the tough specimens of high-horsepower cars parked along the curb.

He parked the Camaro and winked at Helen. "Wayne? We're here."

"Huh? We're home?"

"Well . . . no, not just yet. We're at Steve Dickerson's house."

Wayne sat up, bleary-eyed.

"Now, before you say anything," Terry told him, "there's a party goin' on. Steve's folks are out of town this weekend, so he invited everybody. I thought we could all . . . you know, unwind."

"But" – Wayne stared at the house – "Steve Dickerson isn't saved."

"Helen and I worked hard today, didn't we? By the time we take you home and come back, it'll be pretty late. So why don't we go in for a while, just to be social?"

"I don't know. My . . . my father's expecting me home by . . ."

"Don't worry about it!" Terry was getting out. Helen was irritated at him for dragging Wayne to this party, because she knew the hell-raisers of Indian Hills High would be here, the kind of people Terry associated with before he'd been saved. Sometimes she thought that Being Saved was rubbing off Terry like old paint.

Uneasily, Wayne followed them up the flagstone walkway. They could hear the muffled thump of loud music from inside. Helen said nervously, "Wayne, it'll be fun. I bet there are a lot of girls who'd like to meet you."

Wayne's heart skipped a beat. "Girls?"

"Yeah." Terry rang the doorbell. "Girls. You know what they are, don't you?"

The door opened, and the riotous noise of a party in full swing came crashing out. Hal Baker stood on the threshold, his arm around a skinny blond girl who looked drunk. "How's it hangin', Terry!" Hal said. "Come on in! Old Steve's around here some – " His blurry gaze fell upon Wayne Falconer, and his face went into shock. "Is that . . . Little Wayne?"

"Yep," Terry chortled, "sure is. Thought we'd stop by to check out the action!" Terry and Helen stepped into the house, but Wayne paused. Laughter and music were thunderous inside there.

The blond girl's nipples were showing through the purple halter-top she wore. She smiled at him.

"Comin' in?" Terry asked.

"No … I think I'd better …"

"What's wrong, man?" the girl asked him, a foxy grin on her face. "You afraid of big bad parties?"

"No. I'm not afraid." And before he'd realized it, Wayne had taken a step forward. Hal closed the door behind him. The Amboy Dukes singing "Journey to the Center of the Mind" blasted from the rear of the house. Sinful drug music, Wayne thought, as he followed Terry and Helen through a mass of people he didn't know. They were drinking and smoking and running as wild as bucks through the entire house. Wayne's spine was as stiff as pineboard. He felt as if he'd stepped onto another planet. An aroma of burning rope scorched his nostrils, and a boy stumbled past him stinking drunk.

Terry pressed a paper cup into Wayne's hand. "There you go. Oh, don't worry. It's just Seven-Up."

Wayne sipped at it. It was Seven-Up, all right, but it had gone flat and tasted like the inside of an old shoe. It was as hot and smoky as Hades inside this house, and Wayne sucked on the ice in his cup.

"Mingle, Wayne," Terry told him, and pulled Helen away into the crowd. He didn't dare tell her that he'd laced Wayne's drink with gin.

Wayne had never been to an unchaperoned party before. He wandered through the house, repelled and yet fascinated. He saw many pretty girls, some wearing tight hotpants, and one of them even smiled at him across the room. He blushed and hurried away, trying to hide the stirring in his pants. On the patio that overlooked the dark, still lake, people were dancing to the roar of a stereo. Dancing! Wayne thought. It was inviting sin! But he watched the bodies rub, transfixed. It was like watching a pagan frenzy. That burned-rope smell followed him everywhere, and he saw people smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. His eyes began to water. Across the patio he saw Terry talking to a girl with long black hair. He tried to catch Terry's attention, because he was feeling a little light-headed and needed to get home; but then Terry and Helen had started dancing to Steppenwolf music, so Wayne went off toward the lakeshore to get away from the noise.

The party, to him, was like the inside of a nervous breakdown.

He almost stumbled over a pair of bodies entwined on the ground. Catching a glimpse of exposed breasts, he apologized and continued on as a boy cursed at him. Walking far away from the house, Wayne sat down on the shore near a couple of beached canoes and sucked on his ice. He was trembling inside, and wished he'd never stepped across that doorway.

"You all alone?" someone asked. A girl's voice, with a thick backhills accent.

Wayne looked up. He couldn't see her face, but she had thick waves of black hair and he thought she was the same girl Terry had been talking to. She was wearing a low-cut peasant blouse and bell-bottoms, rolled up as if she'd been wading in the water "Want some company?"

"No, thank you."

She swigged from a can of beer. "This party's fucked up. I hear Dickerson put acid in the punch. That would really fuck everybody's mind, huh?"

He winced at the first use of that awful four-letter sex word; the second gave him a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach. She was the kind of girl who did it, he realized.

"Pretend I'm blind," the girl said, and crouched down in front of Wayne. She ran her hand all over Wayne's face. He flinched because she smelled so strongly of beer. "See, I'm blind and I've got to feel what you look like. You go to Indian Hills?"

"I graduated." Beneath the beer odor was another aroma: the rich, musky, forbidden scent of a woman. He told himself to get up and go back to the car. But he didn't move.

"My name's Lonnie. What's yours?"

"Wayne." He almost said Falconer, but the name hung on his lips. He shifted his position, hoping she wouldn't notice his swelling penis. Tell her who you are, he told himself, so she'll get up and leave you alone!

"You know Randy Leach? Well me and him broke up tonight. Sonofabitch is going to Samford University in Birmingham, says he's got to date other girls. Shit!" She drank from the beer and offered it to him, but he shook his head. "I wasted a whole summer on that bastard!"

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Well, that's how it goes I guess." She looked at him and laughed. "Hey, what's wrong? You look like a whore in church, you're so tense!"

Blasphemy and sacrilege! Wayne thought. He looked at her in the darkness, but could only make out the pale oval of her face, He couldn't tell if she was pretty or not, but he knew she was a lost sinner. "Are you saved, girl?" he asked.

There was a moment of shocked silence. Then the girl laughed uproariously. "Oh, wow! I thought you really meant that! You sounded just like my damn momma, always after me to go to churchy-wurchy! Are you rich?"

"Rich?" Wayne echoed. "I . . . guess I am," he said truthfully.

"I knew it. Know how I knew? 'Cause there's somethin' so squeaky-clean about you. And you don't even drink beer, do you, 'cause it's too low-class for you. Where you going to college?"

"Up in Tennessee." Tell her it's the Southeastern Bible College!

He could sense the girl staring at him. "You're sweet," she said softly. "Who'd you come here with?"

"Terry Dozier and Helen Betts."

"Don't know them." She sat close to him and looked out toward the lake. Wayne could feel her body heat, and again he shifted uncomfortably. The images tumbling through his mind were nasty and sinful, and he knew he was walking close to the Pit. "I've went with a lot of boys," Lonnie said after a while. "How come every boy I ever go with just wants to have sex?"

Jezebel! Wayne thought.

"I mean, I know I've got a good body and all. I was in the Miss Fayette Junior High contest last year, and I got the most points in the swimsuit competition. But seems like everybody tries to take advantage of me. Wonder why that is?"

"I don't know," Wayne said in a husky voice. From a black part of his mind a sibilant voice said, She wants to do it and she uses the four-letter sex word.

Then, before Wayne could shift away again, Lonnie leaned toward him and whispered in his ear, "Why don't we go out in one of them canoes?"

"I can't. I've . . . I've got my good clothes on."

She giggled and tugged at his shirt. "Then take your good clothes off."

"You'd better get back to the party. Somebody'll miss you."

"Miss me? Naw! Randy left with somebody else! Come on, sweet thing, let's go out in a canoe. Okay? You're so tense, what's wrong? Little Lonnie make you nervous?" She took his hand and tugged at him until he stood up, and then she pulled him with her to the nearest canoe.

Wayne's head was dizzy, throbbing from the echo of the rock music from way up on the patio. Lake water lapped softly at the shore. "I don't see any paddles in there."

She climbed in carefully and rummaged around, then held up a paddle. "Here you go. Just one, though, so you'll have to drive the boat." She sat down. "What're you waitin' for, sweet thing?"

"I . . . don't think we should go out on the lake in the dark."

She said softly and invitingly, "I trust you."

Wayne looked over his shoulder at the house, where kids were dancing on the patio. He had a strange sense of isolation, a feeling that all wasn't right and he should know what was wrong, but it evaded him. Wasn't it right, he thought, that he should be a human being too?

"Let's do it, sweet thing," the girl whispered.

Wayne had to step through the water to shove the canoe off. He slipped into it, almost capsizing them and bringing a squeal of laughter from her; then they were gliding through the dark water, leaving the party noise behind.

"See?" Lonnie said. "Ain't this nice?"

Wayne heard water rolling in the bottom of the canoe. His expensive loafers were getting ruined. The moon was rising, an amber scythe that looked so close and sharp you could cut your throat on it. Bullfrogs croaked from the shore, and the night closed around the drifting canoe.

Lonnie sighed deeply, a sexy, needful sigh, and Wayne thought his head might crack open like an eggshell. "There's somethin' awful familiar about you," she said. "It's your voice, I guess. Do I know you from somewhere?"

"No."

The music faded to a low murmur. The Dickerson house was a distant glow on the shore.

A dark object lay ahead. Wayne said, "What's that?" and then the canoe grazed a square wooden diving platform. He took the paddle out of the water and held it over his knees. His heart was beating harder, and when Lonnie's voice came, it was like balm on a fever blister. "We could rest here for a little while."

He almost laughed. Rest? Oh, she was a sinful Jezebel! She wanted him, he knew. She wanted to be naked for him, and to do it, "If you want to," he heard himself say, as if from a stranger's mouth.

Wayne found a rope trailing from the platform and tied up the canoe. Then he was helping Lonnie out onto the platform, and she was pressing herself against him and he could feel her breasts, her nipples jutting against his chest. His heart was pounding, his head was filled with heat and he couldn't think.

"I'm cold," she whispered. "Please hold me, I'm cold."

He put his arms around her, and realized it was he who was trembling.

Lonnie pulled him down onto the platform, as lake water chuckled around them and the smell of moss drifted up. A dam of pent-up passions cracked inside Wayne – she wants to do it and there's nobody to see, nobody to know! – and he fumbled at her clothes, his breathing harsh. His hands roamed over her body, as she held him close and whispered urgings in his ear. Her blouse came open. Wayne worked at her bra and then her breasts were free and warm against his hands. Her body pressed against his as his penis throbbed with heat. She rubbed at his crotch and then began pulling his belt loose, her teeth nipping at his neck. His pants started coming down. "Hurry," she whispered. "Hurry hurry, please …"

His penis was exposed as his underwear came down, and the girl put her hand on it.

And Wayne heard in his head the crack of his father's voice like a lash across his back: Sinner! Would you lie down with Jezebel?

He was excited and dizzy, his eyes squeezed shut, his mind tormented between what he wanted and what he knew he shouldn't do. She gripped his penis, and he opened his eyes.

He was no longer in the embrace of a girl.

It was something that looked like a beast, a wild boar, red-eyed and grinning.

Wayne tried to pull away, but then the vision passed and it was Lonnie again, dark-haired Lonnie, faceless Lonnie.

Sinner! Would you lie with Jezebel?

"No!" Lonnie said. "Make it big again! Make it big!"

"I . . . can't . . . I . . ." He was concentrating, trying as hard as he could. His father's voice rang in his brain, a bass rumble of Doom: Sinner! He'd go to Hell for lying with a harlot, he'd been tricked by Satan into coming out here!

"Make it big!" Lonnie was saying, a note of anger and frustration in her voice. She handled his penis like a small twig. "Come on, can't you get it up?" After another minute or two, she released him and sat over on the platform's edge, putting her bra and blouse back on.

"I'm sorry," he said, hurriedly getting his pants on. He felt slimed by the Jezebel's touch, but wicked needs and desires still coursed through him. "Next time," he said. "It's just … I don't feel right about this. Okay?"

"Forget it. I need a man, not a little boy who can't even get it up! Come on, take me back to shore!"

Her voice was ugly. The sound of it scared Wayne. "I just . . . you won't tell anybody about this, will you?"

"What's wrong with you? Are you queer?"

"No! Please . . . you won't tell anybody, will you?"

Lonnie buttoned her blouse. He saw her head tilted to one side, as if in concentration. Then, slowly, she turned toward him. "Why not? It'd be somethin' for a laugh, wouldn't it?"

"Satan's in you," he whispered. "That's it, isn't it?"

"What?" He thought she smiled in the darkness.

"You're a Jezebel, a dirty sinner and oh God I shouldn't have come out here!"

"Now I know where I've heard your voice!" the girl said and Wayne cringed. "My momma made me listen to that Crusade crap on the radio! You're – oh, wow! You're the little healer himself, ain't you?" She whooped with laughter. "Yeah! You're Little Wayne Falconer! Oh, wow, everybody's gonna laugh their – "

"No," he said forcefully, and she was silent. "You're not going to tell anybody."

"Who says? Take me back or I'll start screamin'!"

He had to make her understand! He had to make her see he was a righteous boy! He took a step toward her.

And then Lonnie abruptly turned toward shore and yelled, "HELP!"

"Shut up!" he hissed, and pushed her. She staggered across the platform.

"HELP!" she shouted again, her voice echoing across the water.

Wayne exploded. He pushed her as hard as he could, and suddenly Lonnie's feet slipped out from under her on the moss-slick boards. She fell backward, her arms windmilling. There was a violent, sickening crunch! as the side of her head hit a corner of the platform.

She fell into the lake, and the black water covered her.

At once Wayne reached down to grasp her, but she was gone. Bubbles burst upward, smelling of lake mud. He leaned down, whining with panic, and thrust his arms underwater to find her. He got up, ran across the platform to the canoe to retrieve the paddle, and used that to probe the depths. He looked up toward the house, and started to scream for help. No! he thought. She's not hurt, she's all right! She only bumped her head a little bit, she'll come up in just a few seconds!

"Lonnie!" he whispered. "Come on up, now! Come on!"

Black water sighed around the platform. He reached underwater again – and felt her hair. He gripped it and wrenched upward. It was a rotten tree limb with a green mane of algae.

He started to ease himself into the water to look for her, but realized that if he got wet everyone would know at the party. She was probably swimming to shore.

"Lonnie?" he called out, a little louder. Only crickets and bullfrogs answered.

After a while he began to cry, and he prayed as he'd never prayed before. The dark voice in his mind whispered, She was a Jezebel a dirty sinner and she deserved what she got! He sat on the platform for a long time, shaking, his head bowed.

Wayne was sitting in the Camaro's backseat when Terry and Helen found him about an hour later. His face was very pale. The gin got to him, Terry thought.

"Where've you been, Wayne?" Terry asked as he slipped behind the wheel. "We were lookin' for you."

Wayne's smile made his face look like a skull. "Just around. I went for a long walk. The music was too loud."

"You meet any of those pretty girls?" Helen asked.

"No. Not a one."

"Great party, huh?" Terry started the engine. "Listen, Wayne. Since I'm on a scholarship, you . . . uh . . . won't tell your dad about this, will you? I mean, I didn't smoke or drink."

"No, I won't tell."

"Good." Terry winked at Helen. "It'll be our secret, right?"

"Right," Wayne said. "Our secret."

32

It was after eleven o'clock, and Wayne was way late getting home. Jimmy Jed Falconer, in his robe and slippers, stood on the front porch in the cool night air and looked out toward the highway.

He'd slipped out of bed without waking Cammy, because he didn't want her to be worried. His belly bulged the knot at the front of his robe, but still his stomach growled for food. Where could the boy be at this time of night? he wondered. He stood on the porch for a few minutes longer, then went back through the large, rambling house to the kitchen.

He switched on the lights, opened the refrigerator, and brought out a piece of blueberry pie Esther the cook had baked just that afternoon. Pouring himself a cold glass of milk, he sat down for a late-night snack.

The summer was almost over. And what a glorious summer it had been, too! The Crusade had held tent revivals throughout Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana – hitting the larger towns and the cities – and next year would be ready for expansion into Texas and Arkansas. An ailing Fayette radio station had been purchased, as well as a South Carolina publishing company, and the first issue of Forward, the Crusade's magazine, would be out in October. Wayne had touched and healed a few thousand people over the course of the summer: the boy was a masterful orator, and could hold that stage like he'd been born on it. When Wayne had finished the healing segment of the program, the offering plates came back filled to the brim. Wayne was a good boy, and he was as smart as a whip; but he had a stubborn streak in him, too, and he persisted in going out in the airfield where his Beechcraft Bonanza was hangared and flying without a co-pilot, getting up m the sky and doing all kinds of crazy loops and rolls. That sort of thing scared Falconer to death: what if the plane should crash? Wayne was a good pilot, but he took a lot of risks, and he seemed to enjoy the danger.

Falconer gulped down the milk and chewed on a bite of pie. Yessir! It had been a glorious summer!

Suddenly he realized his left arm was tingling. He shook the hand, thinking it had somehow fallen asleep. It was very hot here in the kitchen, he noticed; he'd begun sweating.

Do you know what you're doing, son?

Falconer stopped with another piece of pie right at his mouth. He'd thought about the night in May many times, and the question the Hawthorne witch-woman had posed to Wayne. That question had surfaced in his mind as he'd watched the pale and hopeful faces of the sick and infirm passing by in the Healing Line, reaching up with trembling hands toward Wayne. Suddenly, the blueberry pie tasted like ashes. He put the fork down on his plate, and touched his chest where a quick needle-jab of pain had pierced. Now it had passed. The pain was gone. Good.

But his mind was wandering in dangerous territory. What if -  what if – the witch-woman was right? And he'd known it all along, that Wayne's internal battery was getting weaker and weaker, and that was why he never dared ask Wayne to heal his diseased heart. And what if Wayne knew it, too, and was continuing to play the part because . . . because it was all he'd ever been taught to do.

No! Falconer thought. Wayne healed Toby, didn't he? And thousands of letters came in from people who said they were healed by Wayne's touch and presence!

He recalled a letter from long ago, sent to the Crusade office a week or so after the tent revival in Hawthorne. It had been from a woman named Posey, and Falconer had thrown it away as soon as he'd read it:

Dear Rev. Falconer, we just want to tell you that our son Jimmie has been took by Jesus. Your boy healed him at the revival in Hawthorne, but Jesus must have a purpose for our Jimmie in Heaven. I have paid my sin for selling my baby to Mr. Tillman. May the Lord be with you, and all of your teachings. Sincerely, Laura Posey.

Falconer had made sure Wayne would never see that letter, nor the few dozen letters similar to it that the Crusade had gotten. No, it was better that the boy never, never doubt himself.

Rising unsteadily from the kitchen table, Falconer went to the den and sat down in his easy chair. The framed Falconer Crusade poster, with him looking much younger and braver and stronger, was spotlit by a ceiling light.

Pain speared his chest. He wanted to get up now, and go upstairs to bed, but he couldn't make his body respond. Maybe he needed to take some Tums, that was all. His mind was tormented with the thought of Ramona Creekmore looking at his son and knowing it was all a lie; she had the eyes of Satan, and that boy of hers was walking Death, and it wasn't until he'd met them that his heart had begun to get worse.

Do you know what you're doing, son?

YES HE KNOWS! Falconer raged. HE KNOWS, YOU SATAN-SPAWN BITCH! When Wayne got home, Falconer would tell the boy how they would run the Creekmores out of Hawthorne, drive them off like dogs, far away to where their wicked influence couldn't seep back into the Falconer Crusade. Pain ran up and down his body, lancing across his ribs. "Cammy!" he moaned. "Cammy!"

Pluck them out! he thought. PLUCK THEM OUT!

"CAMMY!"

His hands curled around the armrests, the knuckles whitening. And then the pain struck him full-force, and his heart began to twist and writhe in his chest. His head rocked back, his face turning a deep reddish blue.

From the doorway, Cammy screamed. She was shocked, couldn't move.

"Heart …" Falconer said in a hoarse, agonized voice. "Call . . . somebody. . . ."

She forced her legs to move, and raced for the telephone; she heard her husband moan for Wayne, and then as if from an awful fever dream he cried – or Cammy thought she heard – "Creekmore . . . pluck them out . . . oh, God, pluck them out. …"

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