Mystery Walk

Chapter 7

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FIVE

Black Aura

20

"Billy?" Coy Granger called out toward the grocery store's small magazine rack. "Found it for you!" He held up a dusty plastic-wrapped needlepoint kit. "It was buried in a box back in the storeroom. Now you say you need some roofin' nails?"

Billy had grown into a handsome young man in the seven years since he'd visited his grandmother and sweated himself into a stupor in her smokehouse. Still, there was a wariness in his eyes, a careful shell to protect himself against the whispers he overheard in the halls of Fayette County High. They could talk about him all they liked; he didn't care, but once he heard his mother's or grandmother's name mentioned, he turned upon the offender with a vengeance. He wasn't mean, though, and was unprepared for the mean tricks used in after-school fights by country boys who were growing up to be the spitting images of their fathers; crotch kicks and eye gouges were common, and many times Billy had found himself ringed by gleefully shouting kids while his face banged into somebody's kneecap. There was no one he could really call a close friend, though he dreamed of being popular and going out on Saturday nights to Fayette with the gregarious bunch of kids who seemed to get along so well with just about everybody. It had taken him a long time to accept the fact that people were afraid of him; he saw it in their eyes when he walked into a room, heard it when conversations were cut off in his presence. He was different – it was difference enough that he was dark-skinned and obviously of Indian heritage – and since entering Fayette County High he'd been effectively isolated. His crust of caution went deep, protecting his self-respect and his still-childlike sense of wonder at the world.

He read a lot – damaged hardbacks and paperback novels he sometimes found at garage sales. He'd come across a real find several weeks ago: a boxful of old National Geographies brought up from someone's basement, where they'd been moldering for a while. His treks – through forests, following the disused railroad tracks and old logging roads – were taking him farther and farther away from home; often, when the weather wasn't too chilly, he'd take a bedroll out into the woods and spend the night, content with his own company and listening to the forest noises that punctuated the darkness. Out in the velvet black you could see shooting stars by the hundreds, and sometimes the faint blinking lights of an airplane headed for Birmingham. In the daytime he enjoyed the sun on his face, and could track deer like an expert, sometimes coming up within twenty feet or so of them before they sensed him.

His curiosity always burned within him to take one more step, to just round the next curve or top the next ridge; the world was beckoning him away from Hawthorne, away from the house where his quiet mother and his grim-lipped father waited for him.

"Here you go," Granger said, and laid the packs of nails on the counter along with the other items – bread, bacon, sugar, milk, and flour – that Billy had come for. John owed Granger a good deal of money, and sent Billy in for groceries these days; Granger knew the Creekmores were just getting by on the skin of their teeth, and that those roofing nails would be used to try to hold that shack they called a house together for one more hot summer The last time that Granger had demanded his money, at the end of winter, Billy had worked for him in the afternoons for free, delivering groceries; now Billy was working out John Creekmore's gasoline and oil tab at the filling station. "Want me to put this on your credit?" he asked the boy, trying to keep a hard edge out of his voice; though he honestly liked Billy, his feelings for John Creekmore's credit were showing through.

"No sir," Billy said, and took out a few dollars from his jeans.

"Well! John go to market early this year?" He started adding up figures on a notepad.

"Mom sold some of her pieces to a dealer in Fayette. I don't think this is enough to take care of what we owe you, but . . ."

Granger took the money and shrugged. "It's all right. I'll still be here." He made change and handed back the few coins. "Too bad John didn't get that job at the sawmill, huh? They pay pretty good up there, I understand."

"Yes sir, but they only hired five new men, and Dad says over fifty showed up to get work." Billy started sacking the groceries. "I guess a lot of folks need the money pretty bad, what with the droughts we've been having."

"Yes," Coy agreed. He couldn't think of any family offhand who needed money any worse than the Creekmores. Perhaps the only business that was really thriving in Hawthorne was the Chatham brothers' sawmill; they had owned the family mill for over forty years, still housed in the same run-down wooden structure with most of the same engines and belts running the saws. "Well, maybe they'll be hirin' more in the fall. Have you given any thought to your own future?"

Billy shrugged. Mr Dawson, who taught auto mechanics at Fayette County, had told him he was pretty quick at catching on to how machines worked and would probably make a good wrench-jockey after high school; the boy's adviser, Mr Marbury, had said his grades were very high in English and reading comprehension, but not quite high enough to get him a junior-college scholarship. "I don't know. I guess I'll help out my dad for a while."

Coy grunted. The Creekmore land hadn't produced a good crop in three years. "You ought to get into the construction business, Billy. I hear some of the contractors up around Fayette are going to be hirin' laborers. That's good pay, too. You know, I think Hawthorne's a losin' proposition for a bright young man like you. I wouldn't say that to just anybody, but there's a real spark in you. You think, you reason things out. Nope. Hawthorne's not for you, Billy."

"My folks need me." He grinned. "I'm the only one who can keep the Olds running."

"Well, that's no kind of a future." The bell over the front door clanged, and Billy looked up as Mrs. Pettus and Melissa – her radiant blue-eyed face framed by a bell of hair the color of pale summer straw – came into the grocery store. Billy forgot to breathe for an instant; he saw her every day at Fayette County High, but still there was a quiver of electric tension down in his stomach. The school dance – May Night – was less than two weeks away, and Billy had been trying to muster the courage to ask her before anyone else did, but whenever he thought he was about to approach her he'd remember that he had no money or driver's license, and that his clothes had been worn by someone else before him. Melissa always wore bright dresses, her face scrubbed and shining. Billy picked up his sacked groceries, wanting to get out before Melissa saw his grease-stained hands and shirt.

"My, my!" Coy said. "Don't you two look lovely this afternoon!"

"That's what ladies do best!" Mrs. Pettus said merrily. She put a protective arm around her daughter as the Creekmore boy stepped past.

"Hi," Billy blurted out.

Melissa smiled and nodded her head, and then her mother pulled her on into the store.

He watched her over his shoulder as he neared the door, and saw her look quickly back at him. His heart pounded. And then the cowbell clanged over his head and he ran into someone who was coming through the door.

"Whoa there, Billy!" Link Patterson said, trying to sidestep. "You gatherin' wool, boy?" He grinned good-naturedly; in another instant the grin had frozen on his face, because Billy Creekmore was staring at him as if he'd sprouted horns from the top of his head.

Billy's blood had gone cold. Link Patterson looked healthy and well fed, possibly because he was one of the few men who'd gotten a job at the sawmill and his life had taken a turn for the better; his wife was expecting their second child in October, and he'd just made the first payment on a trailer parked outside the town limits. But Billy saw him enveloped in a purplish black haze of light, a hideous cocoon that slowly writhed around him.

Link laughed nervously. "What's wrong? Looks like you'd seen a . . ." The word ghost lay in his mouth like cold lead, and he swallowed it.

Billy slowly reached out; his fingers touched the haze, but felt nothing. Link shrank back a step. "Boy? What the hell's wrong with you?"

Coy Granger, Mrs. Pettus, and Melissa were watching. Billy blinked and shook his head. "Nothing, Mr Patterson. Sorry. I . . . sorry." And then he was out the door and gone, hurrying along the road with the sack of groceries clamped in the crook of an arm. With a few more steps he began running, feeling scared and sick. What did I see? he asked himself, and didn't stop running even when he passed the green, grown-over ruin of the Booker house.

"Pack of Kents, Coy," Link Patterson said. As Granger got his cigarettes, Link stepped to the window and peered out, watching Billy running away. He could hear the high singsong of the saws; in fifteen minutes he'd be on the line, called in to fill the shift for a man who'd gotten sick and had to go home. "That Creekmore boy is . . . really strange, ain't he?" Link said, to no one in particular.

Mrs. Pettus answered. "He's got that wicked seed in him, that's what. My Melissa sees him at school every day and he's always picking fights, isn't he?"

"No, Momma," she replied, and pulled away from her mother's arm. "That's not how it is."

"Always picking fights. And he's such a nice-lookin' boy, too, to have such bad blood in him."

"Billy's all right," Coy said. "He's a smart boy. He'll go far if he can cut himself loose from that farm. Link, here're your cigarettes. How's work at the mill?"

"In bits and pieces," Link joked, trying to summon up a grin. The way Billy had stared at him had made him jittery. He paid for the cigarettes, went out to his pickup truck, and drove on toward the mill.

Link parked his truck in the gravel lot, took a few pulls from a cigarette to calm his jittery nerves, then crushed it out and put on his heavy canvas safety gloves. Then he walked the few dozen yards to the main building, past bunks of yellow pine logs sitting alongside the railroad tracks; they were newly arrived, oozing sap, and ready to be hauled into the small pond behind the mill before the hot weather made them harden and swell. He went up a flight of rickety stairs to the main hall.

Before he opened the door, the noise of the saws was simply irritating; when he stepped inside, into a golden haze of sawdust and friction heat thrown off by the whirring circular saws, band saws, and ponies, the shrill scream of machinery pounded into his forehead like a sledgehammer. He fished earplugs from his pocket and screwed them in place, but they helped hardly at all. The smell of raw lumber and sawdust in the air scratched the back of Link's throat. He clocked in next to the glassed-in office where Lamar Chatham sat at his desk, the telephone to one ear and an index finger plugging the other.

The mill was working at full speed. Link saw where he was needed – the master sawyer, Durkee, was operating the headrig and and aligning the logs, a two-man job that was slowing down the flow of timber – and hurried toward the far end of the line. He took his place next to the whining headrig and began operating the long lever that sped up or braked the circular saw, while grizzled old Durkee judged the raw logs and maneuvered them so they'd go into the headrig at the proper angle and speed. Link worked the lever, adjusting the saw's speed to Durkee's shouted orders.

The logs kept coming, faster and faster Link settled down to the routine, watching the oil-smeared gauge set into the machinery next to him, reading the saw's speed.

Bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling, illuminating the mill with a harsh and sometimes unreliable light: many men who'd worked the mill were missing fingers because they couldn't judge exactly where a fast-spinning sawrim was, due to poor lighting. Link let himself relax, became part of the trembling headrig. His mind drifted to his new trailer. It had been a good buy, and now that his second child was on the way it was good that he, Susie, and his son Jeff were out of that shack they'd lived in for years. It seemed that finally things were working out his way.

Durkee shouted, "This one's as punky as a rotten tooth!" and jabbed at the wood with a logger's hook. "Damn, what sorta shit they tryin' to pass through here!" He reached out, pushed the log's far end a few inches to line it up correctly, and made a motion with his forefinger to give the saw more speed. Link pushed the lever forward. The log started coming through, sawdust whirling out of the deepening groove as the teeth sank in. The headrig vibrated suddenly, and Link thought: This sonofabitch is gonna come a –

And then there was a loud crack! that vibrated through the mill. Link saw the log split raggedly as the saw slipped out of line. Durkee roared, "SHUT HER DOWN!" and Link wrenched the lever back, thinking I've screwed up, I've screwed up, I've . . .

Something flew up like a yellow dagger. The three-inch-long shard of wood pierced Link's left eye with a force that snapped his head back. He screamed in agony, clutched at his face, and stumbled forward, off-balance; instinctively he reached out to keep himself from going down . . . and the saw's scream turned into a hungry gobbling.

"Help!" Durkee shouted. "Somebody cut the master switch!"

Link staggered, blood streaming down his face. He lifted his right hand to clear his eyes, and saw in his hazed half-vision the wet nub of white bone that jutted from the mangled meat of his forearm. His hand, the fingers still twitching, was already moving down the conveyor belt wrapped in its bloody canvas glove.

And then the stump of his ruined arm shot blood like a firehose.

Voices cut through the haze above him. ". . . call the doc, hurry . . ."

"… bandage it . . . tourniquet in the. . . !"

". . . somebody call his wife!"

"My hand," Link whispered. "Find … my hand. . . ." He couldn't remember now which hand was hurt, but he knew it had to be found so the doctor could stitch it back on. The sawdust around him was wet, his clothes were wet, everything was wet. A black wave roared through his head. "No!" he whispered. ". . . Not fair, not this way!" Tears streamed down his cheeks, mingling with the blood. He was aware of someone knotting a shirt around his forearm; everything was moving in slow motion, everything was crazy and wrong. . . .

"… too much blood, the damned thing's not gonna . . ." a disembodied voice said, off in the distance. A shout, full of sharp echoes: "… ambulance!" and then fading away.

The black wave came back again, seemingly lifting him up from where he sat. It scared him, and he fought against it with his teeth gritted. "NO!" he cried out. "I WON'T LET IT . . . be . . . like this. . . ." The voices above him had merged into an indistinct mumbling. His eye hurt, that was the worst of it, and he couldn't see. "Clean my eye off," he said, but no one seemed to hear. A surge of anger swelled in him, searing and indignant. There was still so much to do, he realized. His wife to take care of! The new baby! The trailer he was so proud of and had put so much work into! I won't let it be like this! he screamed inwardly.

The light was fading. Link said, "I don't want it to get dark."

Above him, an ashen-faced and blood-spattered Durkee looked at the ring of stunned men and said, "What'd he say? Anybody hear him? Jesus, what a mess!" Durkee went down on his knees, cradling the younger man's head. Now that all the saws were quiet, they could hear an ambulance coming, but it was still on the other side of Hawthorne.

There were droplets of blood across the front of Lamar Chatham's white shirt. He was trembling, his hands curled into helpless fists at his sides. His brain was working furiously on two tracks: how to make up the work that was being lost and how to smooth this thing over with the safety inspectors. He saw Link Patterson's gloved hand lying on a conveyor belt like a large squashed spider; the air was rank with blood and icy with shock.

Durkee rose to his feet. He let out a long sigh and shook his head. "Somebody else'll have to close his eyes. I've had enough." He walked past Chatham without looking back.

21

John Creekmore stood stiffly in an ill-fitting black suit, the sun hot on his neck through a break in the pines. As Reverend Laken spoke, John looked back over bis shoulder at the figure sitting up the hill perhaps fifty yards away, watching the funeral through the rows of small granite tombstones. Billy had been up there since John had arrived, before the funeral had started. The boy hadn't moved a muscle, and John knew the others had seen him up there too. John looked away, trying to concentrate on what Hawthorne's new minister was saying, but he could feel Billy sitting back amid the pines; he shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other, not knowing what to do with his hands.

"Amen," Reverend Laken finally said. The coffin was cranked down into the ground, and Susie sobbed so terribly John had to walk away from her. He stood and stared up at his son for a moment. Billy was motionless. John thrust his hands into his pockets and walked carefully toward him between the mounds of earth, his shoes slipping on the carpet of fresh pine needles. The boy's face was a tight mask of secrets; John knew that Ramona and Billy kept a world of secrets from him – dark things that had to do with the time Billy had spent at his grandmother's house. John didn't want to know what they were, fearing contamination, but for one thing he could be happy: Rebekah Fairmountain had gone to her hellish reward two years ago. Ramona and Billy had found her on the day after Christmas, sitting with her eyes closed in her easy chair, a yellowed picture of her late husband and a red vase full of wild flowers on a table at her side.

John reached his son. "What're you doin' here?"

"I wanted to come."

"People saw you sittin' up here. Why didn't you come down?" He shook his head, amber lights glinting in his eyes; he was unable to explain his feelings, but when he'd seen that strange black haze clinging to Link Patterson he'd known something terrible was about to happen. He hadn't told his mother about it until later, after Mr Patterson was lying dead up at the sawmill and the whole town knew there'd been an awful accident. As he'd watched the coffin being lowered, he'd wondered if he had had the power to change the man's destiny, perhaps with a single word of warning, or if the accident was already waiting for Link Patterson to step into it and nothing Billy could've said or done would've mattered.

"What did you come for?" John asked. "I thought you were supposed to be workin' at the gas station this afternoon."

"I asked for the afternoon off. It doesn't matter anyway."

"The hell it don't!" John felt a flush of unreasoned anger heat his face. "People see you sittin' up here among the graves, what are they gonna think? Damn it, boy! Don't you have a lick of sense anymore?" He almost reached down and hauled Billy to his feet, but restrained himself; lately his nerves had been on edge all the time, and he lost his temper like a shatterpated fool. A pang of shame stabbed him. This is my son! he thought. Not a stranger I don't even know! He abruptly cleared his throat. "You ready to go home now?"

They walked down the hill together, past the new grave with its bright bouquets of flowers, and to the Olds. The car was held together with more wire and odd junkyard pieces than Frankenstein's monster. The engine, when it finally caught, sounded as if it were gargling nuts and bolts. They drove out of the cemetery and toward home.

John saw it first: a white pickup truck with Chatham brothers stenciled on its side in red was parked in front of the house. "Now what?" he said, and then thought: could be it's a job! His hands tightened around the steering wheel. Sure! They needed a new man on the line, since Link was … He was sickened at what he was thinking, but – sickened or not – his heart was beating harder in anticipation.

Lamar Chatham himself was sitting on the front porch with Ramona. He rose to his feet, a short heavy man in a seersucker suit, as the Olds approached.

John stopped the car, then stepped out. He was sweating profusely in the dark suit. "Howdy, Mr Chatham," he called.

The man nodded, chewing on a toothpick. "Hello, Creekmore."

"My son and I went to pay our respects to Link Patterson. That was a terrible thing, but I guess a man can't be too careful around those saws. I mean, when you're workin' fast you've got to know what you're doin'." He caught Ramona's dark gaze on him, and again he felt a hot surge of anger. "I hear the mill's gonna be shut down for a while."

"That's right. I've been waitin' to speak to you."

"Oh? Well . . . what can I do for you, then?"

Chatham's fleshy face looked loose and slack, and there were gray patches beneath his blue eyes. He said, "Not you, Creekmore. I've been waitin' to speak to your boy."

"My boy? What for?"

Chatham took the toothpick from his mouth. "I meant to go to the funeral," he said, "but I had business. I sent some flowers, you probably saw 'em there. Orchids. One thing about funerals: they're supposed to be final, ain't they?"

"I guess so," John agreed.

"Yeah." He gazed off at the field for a moment, where a new crop of corn and pole beans were straggling out of the dusty earth. "I came to see your wife, and we had a good long talk about . . . things. But she says I should speak to Billy." He looked at John again. "Your wife says that Billy can do what has to be done."

"What? What has to be done?"

"Billy," the other man said quietly, "I need to talk to you, boy. …"

"Talk to me, damn it!" John's face flamed.

Ramona's voice was as soft as a cool breeze, but carried strength as well. "Tell him," she said.

"All right." Chatham inserted his toothpick again, looking from Billy to John and back again. "Yes ma'am, I will. First off, I want you all to know I don't believe in … in haunts." He gave a little lopsided grin that slipped off his uneasy face like thin grease. "Nosir! Lamar Chatham never believed in anything he couldn't see! But, you know, the world's just full of superstitious folks who believe in rabbit's feet and demons and . . . and especially haunts. Now you take rugged men who work hard for a livin', and who work in a place that maybe – maybe – is dangerous. Sometimes they can be more superstitious than a gaggle of old farm women." He let out a nervous burp of a laugh, his cheeks swelling like a bullfrog's. "Link Patterson's been dead three days, and now he's buried. But . . . sometimes superstitions can get hold of a man's mind and just gnaw at him. They can chew a man down to nothin'."

"Like that damned saw did to Link," John said bitterly, all hopes of a job dashed to the winds. And worse, this bastard Chatham wanted Billy!

"Yeah. Maybe so. Sawmill's closed now. Shut down."

"About time some work was done to make that place safe. Those belts and drive gears ain't been changed for years, I hear tell."

"Maybe. Well, that ain't the reason the mill's shut down, Creekmore." He poked the toothpick at an offending bit of barbecue. "The mill's shut down," he said, "because the men won't work. I hired new ones. They walked out on me in less than an hour, yesterday. Production's fallin' behind. We turn a pretty fair profit, but too many days like these last few and" – he whistled and drew the stump of his index finger across his thick neck in a slashing gesture – "the whole town suffers for it. Hell, the sawmill is Hawthorne!"

"So what's that to us?"

"I came to see your wife because of who she is, and what her reputation says she can do. . . ."

"Get off my land."

"Now just a min – "

"GET OFF, I SAID!" he roared, and rushed the porch. Chatham stayed planted like a slab of wood, his thickset body tensed for a fight. He'd been a logging man since he was old enough to swing an ax, and he'd never run from a tangle yet in any of the rough camps where muscle was king. His posture and steady glare flared a warning, and John stopped halfway up the porch steps, his fists knotted and the cords in his neck as tense as piano wires. "Maybe you've got money," John snarled, "and maybe you wear fancy suits and fancy rings and you can work men like dogs, but this is my land, mister! And I'm tellin' you to move off of it, right now!"

"Creekmore," Chatham said with a hiss of breath between his teeth, "I own half this town. My brother owns the other half. Paper can be torn up, do you understand me? It can be misplaced. Listen, I don't want no trouble. Hell, I'm tryin' to offer your boy a job and pay him for it, too! Now back off, man!"

In the porch swing, Ramona saw the trapped-animal look in her husband's eyes, and her heart ached. She sat with her hands clasped in her lap as John said, "I don't … I don't . . . want you here. …"

And then Billy was coming up the steps, passing his father. He walked right up to Lamar Chatham and looked him directly in the eyes. "Are you threatening my father, Mr Chatham?"

"No. 'Course not. Hell, there's a lot of steam needs to be blowed off around here! Ain't that right, John?"

The other man whispered, "Damn you . . . damn you. …"

"What is it you want with me?" Billy asked him.

"Like I say, I had a long talk with your mother We came to an understandin', and she's asked me to talk to you. …"

John made a strangling sound; then he stepped back down the stairs and stood facing the pond. He clamped his hands to his ears.

Chatham paid him no attention. "I don't believe in haunts, Billy. No such thing in my book. But a lot of the men do. They won't work and I had to close the mill because . . . because of the saw Link Patterson stuck his hand into."

"The saw? What about it?"

Chatham glanced uneasily at Ramona Creekmore, then looked back into the boy's face. There were amber glints in Billy's eyes, and his gaze seemed so deeply penetrating Chatham thought he felt the short hairs at the back of his neck stir. Chatham said, "The saw screams. Like a man."

22

Twilight framed the sawmill against a sky of blue and gold. Shards of sunlight lay across the gravel parking lot like pieces of broken glass, and bunked piles of timber threw dark blue shadows.

"You drink yet, boy?" Lamar Chatham asked as he switched off the pickup's ignition and took the keys out.

"No sir."

"Time you started. Open that glove compartment there and fetch the bottle."

It was a flask of moonshine that Billy could smell even before Chatham uncapped it. The man took a swig and closed his eyes; Billy could almost see the veins in his bulbous nose lighting up. "You believe me when I say I don't think there's such a thing as a haunt?"

"Yes sir."

"Well, I'm a goddamned liar, boy. Sheeeit! My old daddy used to tell me ghost stories that made the hair on my ass curl! You won't catch me closer than a mile to a cemetery, that's for truth!" He passed the flask to Billy. "Mind you now, I don't care what you or your momma can or can't do. I've heard the stories about your mother, and I was there that night at the Falconer tent revival. That was one hell of an uproar. Once you go in my mill and … do whatever it is that has to be done, then I figure my men will come on back to work. And I'll make sure every last one of them knows what you did . . . even if you don't do a damned thing. Get my drift?"

Billy nodded. His insides were quaking. When he'd said he would help Mr. Chatham, his father had looked at him as if he were a leper But Mr Chantham had said he'd pay fifty dollars and so wasn't it right, Billy reasoned, that he help out the family as much as he could? Still, he didn't know exactly what he was supposed to do; he'd brought his good-luck piece of coal, but he knew that whatever had to be done would have to come from inside him, and he was on his own. Before he'd left the house, his mother had taken him inside and talked to him quietly, telling him that his time had come now, and he would have to do the best he could. Oh, she'd said, she could go with him this time to give him confidence, but it would all be his work anyway; there might not even be anything in the sawmill, she'd told him, but if there was it could be part of Link Patterson, in agony and unable to find its way across. Draw it to you with trust, and remember the lessons your grandmother taught you. Most importantly: blank the fear out of your mind, if you can, and let the revenant find you. It'll be searching for help, and it'll be drawn to you as if you were a candle in the dark.

As Billy had climbed into the white pickup truck, Ramona had stood on the porch and said to him, "Remember, son: no fear. I love you."

The light was slowly fading. Billy sniffed at the moonshine and then took a drink. It felt like lava at the back of his throat, and bubbled down his gullet searing tissues all the way to his stomach; it reminded him of the stuff Gram had made him drink to clean his stomach out before he'd gone into the smokehouse.

Sometimes at night, on the edge of sleep, he seemed to relive that entire strange experience. He'd stayed inside that sweltering smokehouse for three days, wrapped in the heavy blanket, with nothing to eat and only home-brewed "medicines" to drink. Lulled by the fierce heat, he'd drifted in the dark, losing all sense of time and space; his body had seemed cumbersome, like a suit of armor, trapping his real self within it. He was aware, though locked into sleep, of his mother and Gram looking in on him, and sitting with him for a while: he could tell the difference in their heartbeat, in their rhythms of breathing, in the aromas of their bodies and the sound of air parting around them as they moved. The crackling of the burning wood and leaves had become a kind of music alternating between soft harmony and rough pandemonium; smoke at the ceiling rustled like a silk shirt as it brushed the boards.

When he'd finally awakened and had been allowed out of the smokehouse, the morning sunlight had pierced his skin like needles, and the quiet forests had seemed a riot of cacophonous noise. It was several more days yet before his senses had settled down enough for him to feel comfortable again, yet even so he was and had remained fantastically aware of colors, aromas, and sounds; thus the pain was terrible when they'd returned home from Gram's, and his father had hit Ramona a backhanded blow across the face and then stropped Billy with a belt. Then the house was filled with his father's voice, torn between begging their forgiveness and loudly reading Bible verses.

Billy looked at the golden streamers of cloud across the sky and thought of how the papier-mache decorations would look in the Fayette County High gym on May Night. He wanted very much to go to that dance, to fit in with all the others; he knew it might be his last chance. If he said no to Mr Chatham now, if he let everybody know he was just a scared kid who didn't know anything about haunts or spirits, then maybe he could ask Melissa Pettus, and maybe she'd go with him to May Night and he'd get a job as a mechanic in Fayette and everything would be just fine for the rest of his life. Anyway, he'd hardly known Link Patterson, so what was he doing here?

Chatham said nervously, "I want to get through with this before it gets dark. Okay?"

Billy's shoulders slowly sagged forward. He got out of the truck.

They walked in silence up the wooden steps to the sawmill's entrance. Chatham fumbled with a ring of keys and then unlocked the door; before he stepped inside he reached in and switched on several banks of dimly glowing blubs that studded the raftered ceiling.

Greased machinery gleamed in the mixture of electric light and the last orange sunlight that filtered through a series of high, narrow windows. The smells of dust, woodsap, and machine oil thickened the air, and the place seemed hazed with a residue of sawdust. Chatham closed the door and motioned to the far end of the building. "It happened up there, right at the headrig. I'll show you." His voice sounded hollow in the silence.

Chatham stopped ten feet away from the headrig and pointed at it. Billy approached the saw, his shoes stirring up whorls of dust, and gingerly touched the large, jagged teeth. "He should've been wearin' safety glasses," Chatham said. "It wasn't my fault. Punky timber comes in all the time, it's a fact of life. He … he died about where you're standin'."

Billy looked at the floor. Sawdust had been spread over a huge brown stain; his mind went back to the stained floor in the Booker house, the hideous mark of death hidden with newspapers. The saw's teeth were cold against his hand; if he was supposed to feel anything here, he didn't: no electric shock, no sudden sure realization, nothing.

"I'm gonna turn it on now," Chatham said quietly. "You'd best stand back."

Billy retreated a few paces and put his hands in his pockets, gripping in his right hand the lump of coal. Chatham unlocked a small red box mounted to the wall; there was a series of red buttons and a red lever. He slowly pulled the lever down and Billy herd a generator come to life. The lights brightened.

A chain rattled, and an engine moaned as it gained power. The headrig's circular saw began spinning, slowly at first, then rapidly picking up speed until it was a silver-blue blur. It hummed – a machine sound, Billy thought; not a human sound at all. He could feel Mr. Chatham watching him. He thought of faking it, of pretending to hear something because Chatham seemed to expect it. But no, no, that wouldn't be right. He looked over his shoulder and raised his voice to be heard above the saw's metallic noise. "I don't hear any . . ."

The saw's voice abruptly changed; it made a shrill sound like a startled cry of pain, then what might have been a harsh grunt of surprise. The noise rippled and faded, and then the machine-humming had returned again.

Billy stared at it, his jaw slack. He wasn't certain what he'd heard; now the saw was quiet, running almost silently but for the clatter of chains. He stepped away from it a few paces, and heard Chatham's harsh breathing behind him.

And then there was a high, terrible scream – an eerie union of a human voice and the sound of the spinning saw – that reverberated through the mill.

The scream faded and died; then came back, stronger than before, more frantic and anguished. With the third scream the windows rattled in their loose casements. Billy had broken out in a cold sweat, the urge to flee from this place gnawing at the back of his neck; he put his hands to his ears to block out the next scream, but he heard it in his bones. He twisted around, saw Chatham's bleached face and terror-stricken eyes; the man was reaching for the lever, to cut power to the headrig.

The scream carried a high note of desperate pleading; and it was the same scream over and over, rising in the same pattern of notes to an abrupt end. Billy's decision was made: whatever this was, he wouldn't run from it. "No!" he shouted. Chatham froze. "Don't turn it off!" Each scream was seemingly louder than the one before, each one freezing his spine a little harder. He had to get outside to think, he had to figure out what to do, he couldn't stand this sound anymore and his whole brain was about to burst open. . . .

Billy turned and started for the door, his hands clamped over his ears. Just a machine noise, he told himself. That's all . . . that's all . . . that's . . .

The sound suddenly changed pitch. Through the screaming there was a hushed metallic whisper that stopped the boy in his tracks.

Billlleeeee. . . .

"Jesus Christ!" Chatham croaked. He was plastered against the wall, his face shiny with sweat. "It . . . knows you're here! It knows you!"

Billy turned and shouted, "It's just a noise, that's all! It's just a . . . just a . . ." The words choked in his throat; when his voice bubbled up again it was in a frantic yell: "You're dead! You're dead! You're . . . !"

Above the headrig a light bulb popped and exploded, raining hot fragments of glass. Then another, in the next row of bulbs; blue sparks of electricity leaped from the sockets.

"It's a demon! It's the goddamned Devil himself!" Chatham grasped the red lever and started to throw it. Above his head a bulb exploded and glass hornets stung the man's scalp; he yelped in pain and huddled to the floor, his arms up to protect his head. Two more blubs blew at the same time, zigzagging arcs of electricity. The air was full of ozone, and Billy could feel his hair dancing on his head.

Billlleeeee . . . Billlleeeee . . . Billlleeeee. . . .

"STOP IT!" Bulbs were popping all across the mill now, glass tinkling down into the machinery like off-key piano notes. An instant of sheer panic shook through Billy, but he stood firm until it had passed. No fear, he remembered his mother saying. And then he tasted blood in his mouth and realized he'd bitten into his lower lip. He concentrated on rooting himself to the floor, on clinging to what his mother had told him before he'd left the house. The mill's air had turned tumultuous, thick and hazed; most of the bulbs had exploded, the rest throwing harsh shadows. "STOP IT!" Billy shouted again. "STOP IT, MR. PATTERSON!"

Down at the other end of the mill, another bulb popped. The saw's scream faltered, fading to a low moan, a rumbling that seemed to shake the floor He'd called the thing by name, Billy realized, and that had made a difference. It was, in its own way responding. He stepped past the cowering man on the floor "You don't have to stay here anymore!" Billy shouted. "You can . . . you can go on to where you're supposed to be! Don't you understand?"

Softer: Billlleeeee . . . Billlleeeee. . . .

"You don't belong here anymore! You've got to go on!"

Billlleeeee. . . .

"LISTEN TO ME! You . . . you can't go home anymore, not to your wife and kids. You've just got to . . . stop trying so hard to stay here. There's no sense in . . ." And then something seemed to crash into him, staggering him back; he moaned, feeling panic bloom in his head like a dark flower. He went to his knees in the sawdust, and his head was jarred as a savage pain sliced into his left eye. There was a burning fever of rage and agony in him, bubbling up to the top of his throat; and then his mouth opened as if it had been forced by rough, spectral hands, and he heard himself cry out, "No no it's not my time yet! I want to be back again, I'm lost, I'm lost and I can't find my way back! …"

Chatham whined like a dog, watching the boy writhe and jerk.

Billy shook his head to clear it. He shouted, "You can't come back! I saw Link Patterson buried today! You can't come back, you have to let everything go! No no I'm lost, I've got to find my way back! You have to rest and forget the pain! You have to help me I'm lost oh God help me!" And then he howled in torment, because he'd had the quick and clear vision of his right hand being chewed away to bloody bone; he cradled the phantom injury to his chest, and rocked back and forth with tears streaming down his cheeks. "I feel it!" he moaned. "I feel how it was for you! Oh God . . . please . . . just let the pain go, let everything go . . . just rest and let go. No fear … no fear . . . no . . ."

The headrig vibrated, about to tear its cleats from the floor. Billy looked up, saw something like a thin blue haze between him and the machine. It undulated and began to take on the shape of a man. "You don't have to be afraid," Billy whispered. His arm was on fire, and he gritted his teeth to hold back a scream. "I've got the pain now. Just …"

And then the blue haze moved toward him, thickening and roiling; when it touched him he was enveloped with cold and sheer dread, and he recoiled from it, trying to crawl away through the dust. Terror of the unknown swept through him, and he clenched his hands against the floor as if resisting a huge frigid wave. He heard himself shrieking, ". . . let gooooooooo! . . ."

The windows shattered with the noise of shotguns going off, all exploding outward as if from a terrible, awesome pressure.

And then the saw was humming again, the headrig slowing its rocking motions, slowing, slowing . . .

A last light bulb flickered, flickered, and went out. The remaining few buzzed and blinked, and raw sparks jumped from the open sockets. The saw's sound pitched softer, until there was only the noise of the humming generator.

Lying on his side in the dust, Billy heard the mill's door slam shut. Then, in another moment, an engine started. Tires threw gravel. He raised his head with an effort, one side of his face pasted with sawdust, and saw that Mr. Chatham had fled. He lay back down again, totally exhausted; within him flowed the currents of desperate emotions, of fear and confusion and loss. He was sure that he now held within himself the emotions that had bound Link Patterson to this sawmill, to this world, perhaps even to the moment of physical death. He wasn't certain if he'd done it right or not, but he didn't think there was anything left of Mr. Patterson; the revenant had passed on, leaving its pain behind.

Billy forced himself to his feet. The saw was spinning silently, and he turned off the power. Billy clutched his right wrist and worked his hand. There was a needles-and-pins sensation in it, as if the blood flow had been cut off. A soft, warm breeze was blowing in through the shattered windows; in the last blue light a fine mist of golden dust was stirred up and floated through the air to coat the silent sawmill machinery.

When he was strong enough to move, Billy started home. His legs were leaden, and a dull pressure throbbed at his temples; for one thing he was grateful though – the feeling was slowly seeping back into his right hand. He took a shortcut through the dark and quiet forest, with the man in the moon grinning down, and prayed he'd never have to do anything like what happened tonight again. I'm not strong enough, he told himself. I never was.

Nearer Hawthorne, he was startled by something moving at the crest of a rise, there amid pines and boulders. It looked like a large man in the moonlight, but there was something animalish and disturbing about it. Billy stood still for a moment, his senses questing, but the figure was gone. As he skirted the rise, he thought he'd seen moonlight glinting wetly off what might have been curved, sharp tusks.

And he remembered the beast's warning and promise.

I'll be waiting for you.

23

"Feed the fire, brothers and sisters!" Jimmy Jed Falconer roared, his face licked with firelight above the bright yellow suit. "Feed the fire and starve the Devil!"

He stood on a wooden platform out in the middle of a dusty dumping ground near Birmingham. A backdrop had been constructed to hold the huge FALCONER CRUSADE banner.

Falconer grinned. Before him was a huge crackling circle of fire, feeding on hundreds of pounds of paper and several hundred black vinyl discs. There was a line of teen-agers waiting to throw their record albums into the flames and people with boxes of books obtained from school and public libraries. The service had been going on for almost three hours, starting with psalm singing, then one of J.J. Falconer's most searing sermons on the Devil trying to consume America's youth, followed by an hour-long healing session that had left people dancing and talking in tongues.

Burning pages wafted into the air like fiery bats. Embers puffed out and drifted down. Records cracked and melted. "Here, gimme those, son." Falconer carefully leaned over the platform's edge and took several records from a heavyset young man with newly cropped black hair and acne scars. He looked at the jacket art, all psychedelic drawings and pictures, and held up one of them, by a group called Cream. "Yeah, this'll 'blow your mind,' won't it? It'll send you to Hell, that's what it'll do!" He sailed the record into the fire, to shouts and applause. The Jefferson Airplane flew into the flames next, followed by Paul Revere and the Raiders. "Is this what the Lord wants you to hear?" he asked, baiting the crowd. "Does He want you to grow your hair to your knees and take drugs and 'blow your mind'?" He tossed Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs into the flames.

There were resounding cheers as Falconer broke a Beatles record over his knee, then held it at the jacket's edge, with his other hand clamping shut his nostrils. He threw it in to burn. "Folks, if somebody tells you that everybody's growin' long hair and fillin' themselves full of LSD and runnin' away from the Commies like yellow cowards, then you tell them this: I'm the American majority, and I'm proud to . . ."

Suddenly he couldn't draw a breath. A sharp, cold pain ripped across his chest, and he felt as if he might pass out. He held the microphone at his side, afraid that it might pick up his whimper of agony; then he was sinking down to his knees, his head bent over, and he heard people clapping and hollering, thinking that this was all part of his message. He squeezed his eyes shut. Oh God, he thought. Not again . . . please . . . take this pain away. He struggled to draw in air, his chest heaving, but he stayed crouched on his knees so no one could see his graying face.

"Burn it!" he heard a high, merry voice shout.

A hand gripped his fleshy shoulder "Dad?"

Falconer looked up into his son's face. The boy was growing into a handsome young man, with a lean strong body that looked trim in the tan suit he wore. He had a long, sharp-chinned face topped with a mass of thickly curled red hair, and now his deep-set, electric-blue eyes glinted with concern. "You all right, Dad?"

"Lost my breath," Falconer said, and tried to struggle to his feet. "Let me rest for just a minute."

Wayne glanced out at the congregation, and realized they were waiting for someone to lead them. He grasped the microphone his father held.

"No, Wayne," Falconer said, grinning, with the sweat running down his face. "I'm fine. Just lost my breath is all. It's the heat."

"The TV cameras are on us, Dad," Wayne said, and pulled the microphone away from his father As Wayne straightened up and turned toward the congregation, his face abruptly pulled tight, the blue eyes widening and the perfect white teeth showing in a wide smile that hung on the edge of a grimace. His body tensed, as if gripping the microphone had sent a charge of power through him.

"The glory of the Lord is with us tonight!" Wayne crowed. "It's cracklin' in the air, it's fillin' our hearts and souls, it's put my daddy on his knees because it's not a weak thing, no it's not a frail thing, no it's not a feeble thing! If you want to listen to sex- and drug-music and you want to read sex- and drug-books, you'll be real happy in Hell, neighbors! Lord says WHAT?"

"BURN IT!"

Wayne balanced on the edge, seemingly about to leap into the fire himself. "Lord says WHAT?"

"Burn it! Burn it! Burn …"

Falconer knew the boy had them now. The local TV station cameras were aimed at the young healer. Falconer rose unsteadily to his feet. The pain was gone and he knew he'd be all right. But he wanted to get back to the Airstream trailer to rest, then he'd return and give the benediction. He made his way across the platform to the steps. All eyes were on Wayne. Falconer stopped for a moment to turn back and watch his son. Wayne's entire body seemed to glow with energy, with wonderful strength and youth. It was Wayne who'd come up with the idea of holding a "sin-burning," sure that there would be local media coverage. The ideas and plans just seemed to pop out of the boy's head fully formed; Wayne had suggested they move the Crusade into Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia, and into Florida where they could work year-round. The schedules had been drawn up, and for the past seven years the Crusade had expanded like a tick on a bloodhound. Now Wayne was talking about pushing the Crusade into Texas, where there were so many little towns and so far apart, and he wanted Falconer to buy a Fayette radio station that was about to lose its license. Wayne was taking flying lessons, and had already piloted the Crusade's Beechraft on short business trips.

The boy was strong and had God in his heart, Falconer knew, but still . . . something ate at Wayne, day and night. Something drove him, and tried to control him. He had fits of moods and temper, and sometimes he locked himself in the prayer chapel at home for hours on end. And Wayne had been complaining of a strange recurring nightmare lately, some nonsense about a snake and an eagle. Falconer couldn't make heads or tails of it.

Falconer was tired. He felt a sudden and awful pang of jealousy, and of anger at growing older and heavier and weaker.

He walked toward the trailer. His heart was deteriorating, the doctors had told him. Why, as he'd asked himself many times, was he afraid to ask Wayne to heal his heart, to patch up the leaks and make him strong again?

His answer was always the same as well: Because he was deeply afraid that Wayne's healing Toby had been a strange – and terrible – fluke. And if Wayne tried to heal him and nothing happened, then . . . What had stayed with him for seven years was the voice of that Creekmore woman, the Hawthorne Valley witch, raised to tell everybody that he and his young son were murderers of the worst kind. Down deep inside, far from the light, in a dark place that knew neither God nor Satan but was instead wholly frightened animal, a nerve of truth had been trembling for seven long years. What if? What . . . if . . . ?

What if Wayne already knew? And had known since he'd touched the legs of a little girl whose frightened mind had kept her from wanting to walk.

"No," Falconer said. "No. The Lord's workin' through my son. He healed a dumb animal, didn't he? He's healed more than a thousand people." He shook his head. He had to shut off his thinking before it was harmful. He reached the shining silver trailer, unlocked it, and stepped inside. There was a plaque on the wall that said believe, and that was good enough for him.

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