Mystery Walk

Chapter 9

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26

John was awake in the dark, thinking.

Ramona shifted softly in the crook of his arm; they'd slept closer in the last three nights, since what had happened at Fayette County Hospital, than they had in many years. His throat was still bruised from where a man's forearm had pressed against it, and he'd been hoarse the next day until he'd accepted a tea of sassafras root and dandelion that Ramona had brewed for him.

The kids who'd died in the accident had been buried the previous day. John's trips into town during the last few days had been brief; at Lee Sayre's hardware store no one would come to wait on him, and when he went to get a haircut Curtis Peel suddenly announced he'd close up for the afternoon. So he drove into Fayette for a bucket of roofing pitch, and decided to let his hair grow longer While he was in Fayette, he heard from a clerk that somebody had hidden two crates of assorted fireworks down inside the bonfire, and the intense heat had made them all go off at once. The troopers had said that the amount of black powder had been equal to a couple of short sticks of dynamite; it had looked like a kid's prank, done by somebody who'd thought the fireworks going off would take the others by surprise, but all that explosive powder in such a small space, the heat of the gasoline-fed fire, and the small, sharp shards of wood had added up to seven deaths and a score of terrible injuries. One boy, a senior football player named Gus Tompkins, was still lingering at the Burn Center Hospital in Birmingham, blinded and shocked dumb.

By the light of the anger he'd felt toward Jimmy Jed Falconer, John had seen amazing things, both true and unsettling, about his own life and beliefs. He hadn't been able to understand why Falconer had deliberately tried to hurt Ramona and Billy, tried to stir up the crowd against them like that; the man had spouted one lie after another about them, had even tried to make it out that Billy had been to blame for the accident! Thinking about these things had started rusted wheels turning in his head; there was pain, yes, but it seemed that for the first time in a very long while he was being powered from his own dynamo, not from the cast-off sparks of someone else's.

Now it seemed to him that Falconer was a man of God, but yet he was still only a man, too. And that boy of his could heal, but not all the time and not everybody. It was too simple to say that a man belonged either to God or to Satan; no, even the best of men had bad days – or bad thoughts – and every once in a while might slip off the righteous path. Did that necessarily damn you to Hell for eternity? Falconer himself had slipped off, by his lies, and so had the boy, by his actions; did that make them more human, or did it mean that Satan was at work in their lives?

And what about Ramona and Billy? What was this power they had, to lay the dead to rest? Where did it come from: God? Satan? Neither one, or a combination of both? And what if he'd been wrong, all these years, about Ramona and her mother?

He started to roll over on his side, but then he realized how quiet it was; usually the crickets in the grass were fiddling fit to bust on a warm summer night like . . .

The house was suddenly filled with a white glare. John sat up abruptly, half blinded, and heard a loud metallic clanging and crashing outside, seemingly all around the house. He grabbed his pants off a chair and struggled into them as Ramona sat up in bed. "What is it?" she asked frantically. "What's that sound?" He drew aside the curtains to look out the small window; bright beams of light cut into his eyes, and he couldn't see a thing out there. He said, "Stay here!" and ran for the front door. He stepped out onto the porch, shielding his eyes from the light. White orbs ringed the house, and now he could make out human shapes, banging together pots and pans and iron pipes. The raucous rough music rang in John's head, and dull terror throbbed within him as he realized the shapes were sheeted in Klan garb. Cars had been pulled up close to the house, their headlights all switched on at the same time. "What do you want?" John shouted, pacing from one side of the porch to the other, like a trapped animal. "Get off my land!"

The clanging went on, in rhythmic cadence. Then the screen door opened and Billy came out on the porch, his face peeling as if from sunburn; there were still thick bandages on his hands, but the doctor had said they'd be fine after the raw places scabbed over. Ramona was behind him, wrapped in her gray robe; she was carrying a long carving knife.

"Stop it! You damned dogs, what do you want?" John thought of the old pistol he had, wrapped in oily rags in a drawer, and he started to go get it when the clanging suddenly died.

One of the hooded shapes stepped forward, silhouetted in bright light, and pointed toward John. "Creekmore," the man said, and John knew it was Lee Sayre's voice even muffled through the mask, "this town's suffered enough misery from that woman and her boy! Surely you know by now they're not gonna renounce their ways! So we've come to set forth our terms. …"

"Terms?" John said. "Lee, what're you talkin' about?"

"No names, Creekmore! You took an oath!"

"That was when I was on the other side of that mask! What are y'all supposed to be? A vigilante squad? A hangin' party? Did you bring your tar and feathers? What right do you have runnin' your cars up on my land and raisin' hell like – "

"Every right!" Sayre bellowed.,"Because of the uniform we wear, and because we live in this town!"

"We've got the right to beat your ass too, Creekmore!" someone called out – Ralph Leighton's voice. "You'd best watch your mouth!"

Sayre said firmly, "We want the woman and the boy out of Hawthorne. We want 'em out tonight. John, you and your parents were all born and raised here, and you've always been a good, God-fearin' man. For years you were able to keep that woman in her place, but now that the boy's got the demon in him too the both of them are too strong for you. But we've decided you can stay here if you want to, John. It's not your fault you've been saddled with this corruption. …"

"NO!" John shouted. "This is our home, damn it! This is my wife and son you're talkin' about!"

"It's been decided," Sayre said. "We want them gone before something else happens around here."

"We want that accursed boy out of this town!" Ralph Leighton stepped forward, jabbing a finger at Billy. "First the crops went bad after he was born, and the land ain't been too good ever since! Then Dave Booker killed his whole family, and guess who was the Booker boy's friend? Then Link Patterson got sliced up at the sawmill, and we all know about that! Now there are fine kids lying in the ground and in the hospital, and just guess who was there to see it happen? My son got a faceful of splinters and broke his arm, but thank God he'll be all right, or I'd be carryin' a gun right now! He told me he heard that boy shout that everybody was going to die, that the boy was cursin' everybody and puttin' some kind of spell on 'em! Even J.J. Falconer himself said the boy's just like the mother! That boy spreads Death with him wherever he goes!"

"You lyin' sonofabitch!" John shouted, trembling with rage.

"Who's stirred you up?" Ramona's voice carried over the angered yelling, and she stepped forward to the edge of the porch. She stared down at the sheeted shapes. "You're like dumb cattle, stampeded this way and that by the sound of thunder! You don't understand a thing about me or my son! Did that evangelist put you up to this?"

"Come on," Leighton shouted. "Time's wastin'!" He moved toward the house, and the ring of Klansmen closed in. "Put that knife down, you squaw-cat, 'fore I have to take it and cut off your tits. . . ." And then he grunted with pain and surprise, because John had leaped upon him, driving him to the ground. They cursed and rolled, grappling at each other as the Klansmen cheered Leighton on.

A rock crashed through the window behind Ramona. Then another stone was flung, hitting her on the shoulder. She gasped and went down on her knees, and then a white hooded shape leaped up onto the porch and kicked the knife from her hand. The Klansman looked up as Billy came at him like a whirlwind; the boy couldn't clench his hands yet to make fists, so he hit him with a shoulder block that lifted the man up and carried him off the porch and onto the ground on his back, sounding like a potato sack as he hit.

John had ripped the hood from Leighton's head and was hammering blows to the man's face. Leighton staggered and fell to his knees, his robes grimed with dirt; he yelled through purple, pulped lips, "Somebody get the bastard!"

Ramona screamed. Billy saw light glint off a length of iron pipe as one of the figures lifted it high. He shouted, "Look out!" John started to turn, but the pipe came down with terrible force upon the back of his head, staggering him forward. Leighton hit him in the stomach, and even as John fell the pipe came down again, its arc ending with an awful crunching sound.

There was a sudden silence. John lay on his stomach, his legs twitching, his fingers clawed into the dirt.

And then Billy, with a scream of rage that ripped through the night, leaped from the porch and flung himself onto the man who'd struck his father; they careened backward, slamming over the hood of a red Chevy. Billy forced his stiff fingers around the iron pipe, and he held onto it as someone gripped his hair and yanked him off. He rammed an elbow back into a set of teeth and pulled free, turning upon the Klansmen. With his first blow he broke a man's nose; he dodged a cast-iron skillet that had been used to make the raucous noise, came up under it, and slammed his weapon into an unprotected shoulder.

An arm caught him around the throat from behind; he kicked back into a shinbone, wrenching free as an aluminum pot swung for his head. He drove the pipe deep into someone's stomach and heard an agonized retching from inside the hood. He spun and struck again, blindly swinging the pipe with all his strength; the man in front of him backed away, but a skillet caught him a glancing blow on the shoulder and drove him to the ground.

"Kill him!" Leighton shrieked. "Go on, finish him off!"

Billy reared up and struck into a blue-jeaned kneecap. The Klansman howled with pain and hopped away like an injured toadfrog. Then someone landed on his back, pushing his face into the dirt. He struggled wildly, expecting the back of his head to be caved in.

Then there was a crack! like a car backfiring and the weight was off him. Around him a forest of legs scurried for the safety of their cars; Billy looked up, saw his mother on the porch holding his father's pistol in a shaky, two-handed grip. Sparks leaped with her next shot, and Billy heard a windshield crack. Engines caught, and now the vehicles were racing away from the house, their tires throwing up tails of mud.

Two cars banged into each other on the narrow drive leading down to the highway. Ramona fired two more shots that went wild before the old pistol jammed up. Then the night was filled with red taillights, and tires shrieked on the highway. As Billy rose to his feet, he saw the last of the red lights disappear He was breathing hard, his head spinning, and his agonized hand let the iron pipe drop to the ground.

"COWARDS!" Billy shouted. "YOU DAMNED DIRTY COWARDS!" And then he heard his mother sob, and he turned to see her leaning over his father's body. He saw how white his father's face was, and how red the blood was that spilled from his mouth and nostrils. "Dad? …" Billy whispered.

Ramona looked up at her son with terror in her eyes. "Go get help, Billy! Run!"

27

Almost every afternoon in June, and now through July, the man and woman had sat together on the front porch. Crickets sang in the high grass, and a single cicada whined in the top branches of the big oak tree, mimicking the sawmill's distant noise. A soft breeze went by, cooling the sweat on Billy's face and back as he worked atop the roof, tearing up the rows of rotten shingles. His hair was a tangle of reddish black curls, commas of it sticking damply to his forehead; the summer sun had tanned him to a rich dark coppery color, and the physical work he'd been doing – the work of two men done by one, since his father had been hurt – had tightened the muscles in his shoulders and back so they were sharply defined under the flesh. The roof had leaked all through June, but this was the first chance he'd had to strip off the shingles and look for holes that he'd later plug with roofing pitch.

Billy had tried to get a job as a mechanic in every gas station for fifteen miles around, but when the owners learned his name their eyes went blank, like shutters being closed over windows. He'd been offered a job sweeping up in a broomcorn warehouse on the far side of Rossland City, but the place stank and was hot as hell and they expected him to be so grateful he'd work almost for free; he'd decided he would do better putting all his time and energy into the farm. All the houses and even the trailers in Hawthorne had electricity now, except for the Creekmore place, which sat so far off the highway no one from Alabama Power ever came to inquire.

Still, Billy felt the stirring of wanderlust in his soul. Yesterday, while tilling the ground for a sprinkling of tomato seeds, he'd looked up into the clear blue sky and seen a hawk, riding the breezes that carried to the east, and he'd wanted to see the land through the hawk's eyes. Beyond the valley's forested crown, he knew, were more towns and people, and roads and woods and cities and seas and deserts; beyond the valley were things both wondrous and fearful. They were calling to him, using such messengers as hawks and high, fast-moving clouds and a distant road seen from the top of a hill.

He ripped up another few shingles and dropped them over the roof's edge to the ground. He could hear his mother's voice, reading the Twenty-seventh Psalm to his father; it was one of his favorites, and hardly a day went by that he didn't ask to hear it. She finished, and he heard his father say, in his slurred unsteady voice, " 'Mona? Where's Billy?"

"He's gone up on the roof to tear off the old shingles."

"Oh. Yeah. That needs to be done. I meant to do that myself. Think he needs any help?"

"No, I believe he can do it by himself. Do you want another sip of tea?"

There was a slurping sound. Billy ripped off three shingles and tossed them over his shoulder.

"That's mighty good, 'Mona. Think you could read the Twenty-seventh Psalm to me today? Sure is a strong, hot sun up there ain't it? Cornfield'll need a dose of well-water pretty soon, I reckon. …"

Billy concentrated on his work while his father's mind skipped tracks like a scratched-up record. Then John lapsed into silence, and Ramona began to read the psalm again.

The doctor in Fayette had said the first lead pipe blow had fractured John Creekmore's skull; the second had driven bone splinters into the brain. John had lain in a coma for two weeks, in a charity-ward bed. What was left when he came out of the hospital was more child than man; in his eyes there was a look of painful bewilderment, but he seemed to remember nothing at all of what had happened. He recognized Ramona and Billy as his wife and son, but he made no demands on them and the day was just fine if he could sit out on the porch in the shade, or down at the pond listening to the bullfrogs. He slept a lot, and often he would ask the strangest questions, as if things were at a low boil inside his head and there was no telling what might pop up from the soup of memory.

Sometimes the gnaw of guilt got too bad inside Billy, and he'd have to get away by himself into the woods for a day or so. He knew that what had happened to his father would have been averted had he not gone to the May Night dance; no, he'd wanted to show the other kids that he was just like them and he could fit in . . . but he'd been wrong. He wasn't like them; he wasn't like anybody else. And now his father had been made to pay for it. The police had never found out who'd buried those fireworks within the bonfire, just as Sheriff Bromley had never found out who'd struck those blows to the back of John Creekmore's head; everybody had airtight alibis, the sheriff had told Ramona. It was true that Ralph Leighton's face looked as if a mule had kicked it, but his wife and son and three hunting buddies said they'd all been together playing cards the night John was hurt. They'd all sworn that Ralph had tripped down some steps and fallen right on his face.

Billy sensed movement, and looked toward the highway to see dust rising into the air. A black, battered old Volkswagen van had turned off and was coming up the road to the house. The ruts must've been too much for the suspension though, because in another moment the van stopped and a man wearing a straw hat climbed out of the driver's seat. Billy called down, "Mom! Somebody's coming!"

Ramona glanced up from the Bible and saw the figure walking slowly up the road. "Hon? We're gonna have some company."

"Company," John repeated. One half of his face was drawn tight, the other was loose and immobile. He could only speak from one side of his mouth, and on the dead half of his face the eye was a cold blue stone.

Ramona stood up. There was something written across the black van's side, but she couldn't quite make out what it said. The man was short and rounded, and now he paused to shrug off the jacket of his seersucker suit; he pegged the jacket on a finger, let it rest across his shoulder, and then continued up the slight incline, visibly huffing and puffing.

He stopped underneath the spreading oak to catch his breath. "Ma'am, I certainly hope this is the Creekmore property. If it isn't, I'm afraid I'm going to have to sit in this shade and rest."

"It is. Who might you be?"

"Ah!" The man's round, cherubic face brightened. There were spots of color on his cheeks, and he had a gray, neatly clipped mustache above a wildly sprouting goatee. "I stopped at a residence just down the way, but when I asked directions, they were quite rude. These roads around here do twist and turn, don't they? So: are you Ramona Creekmore?"

"I might be, or I might not be. I haven't heard your name yet."

The little man, who reminded Ramona of a short, fat goat, smiled and took out his wallet. The smile faltered a fraction when Billy walked out from around the house to see what was going on. "And you must be Billy," the man said.

"Yes sir."

There was a stony silence from Ramona. She stepped down off the porch as the man produced a dog-eared white business card; she took it, looked at it briefly, and then handed the card to Billy. Written across the card in an ornate script was Dr. Reginald Mirakle, Performer Extraordinaire.

"We don't need any doctors; we've seen enough to last us for a long time."

The man's canny gray eyes darted toward John Creekmore, sitting motionless in his chair with the Bible on his lap. "Oh. No, ma'am, you misunderstand. I'm not a medical doctor. I'm a … a performer."

"You mean a charlatan?"

He raised gray eyebrows as thick as caterpillars. "Some have said so in the past, I'm afraid. But that's neither here nor there. If I may? . . ." He took the card back from Billy and replaced it in his wallet. "Mrs. Creekmore, might I trouble you for a glass of water? I've driven from Haleyville this morning, and it sure is warm on the road."

Ramona paused for a few seconds, mistrustful of the man. But then she said, "All right. Billy, keep the man company, will you?" And then she went back onto the porch and inside the house. John called out to the man, "Howdy!" and then he was silent again.

Dr. Mirakle eyed the house, then looked out toward the cornfield where the scraggly stalks and scarecrow stood. "Billy," he said quietly. "Does anyone ever call you William?"

"No sir."

"How old are you?"

"Seventeen. I'll be eighteen in November."

"Ah, yes. Eighteen usually follows seventeen. Then you're twenty, and thirty; and pretty soon you're fifty-eight." He folded his jacket carefully and laid it on the porch floor, then took off his hat. Sweat gleamed on his balding pate, and two horns of gray hair stood up from each side of his head.

"Billy," Mirakle said, "have you ever been to a carnival?"

"No sir."

"Never?" Mirakle asked incredulously. "Why, when I was your age I could smell candied apples and popcorn in the air two days before the carnival got to town! And you've never been? Why, you've missed out on one of the best things life has to offer: fantasy."

Ramona came out with the man's glass of water. He drank half of it at a gulp. She said, "Now just what can we do for you?"

"Fine house you've got here," Mirakle said. He finished the water at his leisure, pretending not to notice the woman's hard stare. Then he said quietly, "I've searched for this house since the first of June. I had no idea if it was real or not. But here it is, and here are both of you. I've covered most of the northern half of Alabama looking for you."

"Why?" Ramona asked.

"In my line of work," the man said, "I travel a great deal. I meet a lot of people, and I hear a great many stories. Most of them untruths, or at best half-truths, like the tale of the giant ghost boy who walks the forest near Moundville. Or the rebel who still haunts his ruined plantation and fires at hunters who stray too near. Or the black dog that runs the road between Collinsville and Sand Rock. Maybe there was a grain of truth there once, but who knows? A gnarled oak on a moonlit night could become a giant boy. A plantation house creaks and groans with age, and someone hears a ghost walking. A wild dog runs from a car's headlights. Who knows?" He shrugged and ran a hand through his unruly hair to smooth it. "But . . . when one hears a tale about living people; well, that makes a difference. An old man in Montgomery told me that what I did was pretty fair, but had I ever heard of the Indian woman in north Alabama who could lay the dead to rest!"

Ramona's spine stiffened.

"I disregarded that story at first. But my profession draws the type of person who might be interested in the spirit world, and in four months on the road I might hit a hundred small towns. Soon I heard the story again, and this time I heard a name as well: Creekmore. In the next town, I began asking some questions. It wasn't until much later that I heard about the boy. But by then I had to know if you were real or simply a half-truth. I began searching, and asking questions along the way." He smiled again, lines crinkling around his eyes. "It wasn't until several days ago that I heard of Hawthorne, from a man who lives in Chapin. It seems there was an accident involving a pickup truck and a large oak tree. …"

"Yes," the woman said.

"Ah. Then I believe my search is over." He turned his gaze toward Billy. "Are the stories about you true, young man? Can you see and talk to the dead?"

The way that question came out caught Billy off-guard. He glanced at his mother; she nodded, and he said, "Yes sir, I can."

"Then is it also true that you exorcised a demon from a house where a murder took place? That you have a power over Death itself? That you called up Satan in a deserted sawmill?"

"No. All those are made-up stories."

"That's usually the way tales are spread. A grain of truth is taken and a luster is spun around it, like an oyster with a pearl. But there is the grain of truth in those stories, isn't there?"

"Sort of, I guess."

"People talk to hear their damned lips flap!" Ramona told him. "I know full well what's said about us. Now I'd like to hear why you searched us out so long and hard."

"No need to get upset," Mirakle said. "Folks are afraid of you, but they respect you, too. As I said, I'm a performer. I have my own show, and I travel with carnivals. . . ."

"What kind of show?"

"I'm pleased you ask. It's a show that goes back to the rich vaudeville heritage of England. As a matter of fact, I learned it from an aged magician who'd performed the very same show in his heyday, in London before the Second World War."

"Mister," Ramona said, "your tongue takes more turns than a snake on wet grass."

Mirakle smiled. "What I perform, Mrs. Creekmore, is a ghost show."

An alarm bell went off in Ramona's head. She said, "Good day, Mr. Doctor Mirakle. I don't think we're interested in – "

But Billy asked, "What's a ghost show?" and the sound of curiosity in his voice made his mother uneasy. She thought of ghost-chasing charlatans, false seers, seances in dark rooms where painted skeletons danced on wires and "dire warnings" were spoken through voice-distorting trumpets: all the nasty tricks her grandmother had seen and told her to be wary of.

"Well, I'll just tell you. What I'd like to do, though, is sit down underneath that oak tree there and rest my legs, if that's okay." Billy followed him, and Ramona came down off the porch as Mirakle eased himself to the ground at the tree's base. He looked up at Billy, his gray eyes sparkling with crafty good humor "The ghost show," he said reverently. "Billy, imagine a theater in one of the great cities of the world – New York, London, Paris perhaps. Onstage is a man – perhaps me, or even you – in a black tuxedo. He asks for volunteers from the audience. They tie him securely into a chair. Then a black cloth is draped around his body, and the cloth tied to the chair's legs. He is carried into a large black cabinet. The cabinet's doors are padlocked, and the volunteers go to their seats as the houselights dim. The lights go out. The audience waits, as a minute passes. Then another. They shift nervously in their seats." Mirakle's gaze danced from Billy to Ramona and back to the boy again.

"And then … a muted noise of wind. The audience feels it across their faces; it seems to come from all directions, yet from no direction in particular. There is the scent of flowers on the edge of decay and then … the distant, echoing sound of a funeral bell, tolling to twelve midnight. Above the audience there is a scattering of bright lights that slowly take on the shape of human faces, hovering in midair: the spirit guides have arrived. Music sounds; the blare of trumpets and rattle of drums. Then . . . boom!" He clapped his hands together for emphasis, startling both of his listeners. "A burst of red flame and smoke at center stage! BOOM! Another, stage right, and BOOM! on the left as well! The air is filled with smoke and the odor of brimstone, and the audience knows they are on a perilous voyage, into the very domain of Death itself! A wailing dark shape darts across the stage, leaps high, and soars to the ceiling; strange blue and purple lights dance in the air; moans and clanking noises fill the theater. A chorus of skeletons take center stage, link arms and kick their bony legs, accompanied by the dissonant music of a spectral orchestra. Sheeted spirits fly through the air, calling out the names of some members of the audience, and predicting events that only the all-seeing dead could know! And when the audience is driven to a peak of excitement and wonder, Old Scratch himself appears in a grand burst of red sparks! He clutches his pitchfork and prowls the stage, casting fireballs from the palms of his hands. He glares at the audience, and he says in a terrible, growling voice: 'Tell your friends to see Dr Mirakle's Ghost Show . . . or I'll be seeing you!' And Satan vanishes in a grand display of pyrotechnic artistry that leaves the eyes dazzled. The lights abruptly come up; the volunteers return, unlocking the black cabinet. The form within is still securely covered with the shroud, and underneath that he is still tied exactly as before! He rises, to the applause of a stunned and pleased audience."

Mirakle paused for a few seconds, as if regaining his breath. He smiled at Billy. "And that, young man, is a ghost show. Mystery. Magic. Delicious terror. Kids love it."

Ramona grunted. "If you can find a way to put all that in a sack, you could go into the fertilizer business."

Mirakle laughed heartily; as his face reddened, Billy saw the broken blue threads of veins in his nose and across his cheeks. "Ha! Yes, that's a possibility I hadn't thought of! Ha!" He shook his head, genuine mirth giving his face a rich glow. "Well, well. I'll have to consider it."

"You're a faker," Ramona said. "That's what it boils down to."

Mirakle stopped laughing and stared at her. "I'm a performer. I'm a supernatural artiste. I admit the ghost show isn't for everyone's taste, and I suppose that with movies and television the effect of a ghost show has taken a beating, but rural people still like them."

"You haven't answered my question yet. What are you doing here?"

"In a few days I'm going to be joining Ryder Shows, Incorporated. I'll be touring with them on the carnival circuit for the rest of the summer; then, in the fall, Ryder Shows becomes part of the state fair, in Birmingham. I need to upgrade my ghost show, to give it style and dazzle; there's a lot of work to be done, maintaining the machinery – which is in a Tuscaloosa warehouse right now – and getting the show in shape for Birmingham. I need an assistant." He looked at Billy. "Have you finished high school yet?"

"Yes sir."

"No," Ramona snapped. "My son workin' with a … a fake thing like that? No, I won't hear of it! Now if you'd please get your caboose on down the road, I'd be grateful!" She angrily motioned for him to get up and leave.

"The pay would be quite equitable," Mirakle said, looking up at the boy. "Forty dollars a week."

"No!"

Billy dug his hands into his pockets. Forty dollars was a lot of money, he thought. It would buy tar and shingles for the roof, caulking for the windows, white paint for the weathered walls; it would buy new brake shoes for the Olds, and good tires too; it would buy gasoline and kerosene for the lamps, milk and sugar and flour and everything his folks would ever need. Forty dollars was a world of money. "How many weeks?" he heard himself ask.

Mirakle smiled. "The state fair ends on the thirteenth of October. Then I'll need you to help get my equipment back to Mobile, for winter storage. You'll be home by the sixteenth, at the latest."

Ramona grasped his arm and squeezed it. "I forbid it," she said. "Do you hear me? This 'ghost show' stuff is blasphemy! It mocks everything we stand for!"

"You sound like Dad used to," Billy said quietly.

"I know what you're thinkin'! Sure, forty dollars a week is a lot of money and it could be put to good use, but there's better ways of makin' an honest dollar than . . . than puttin' on a sideshow!"

"How?" he asked her.

She was silent, the wheels turning fiercely in her brain for an answer. How, indeed?

"You'd be my assistant," Mirakle said. "You'd get a real taste of show business. You'd learn how to work in front of an audience, how to hold their attention and make them want more. You'd learn . . . what the world is like."

"The world," Billy said in a soft, faraway voice. His eyes were dark and troubled as he looked back at his father again, then at his mother. She shook her head. "It's a lot of money, Mom."

"It's nothing!" she said harshly, and turned a baleful gaze on Mirakle. "I didn't bring my son up for this, mister! Not for some sham show that tricks people!"

"Fifty dollars a week," Billy said. Mirakle's smile disappeared. "I'll do it for fifty, but not a red cent less."

"What? Listen, do you know how many kids I can get to work for thirty a week? A few thousand, that's all!"

"If you looked so long and hard to find my mother and me, I figured you must think I could add something to that show of yours that nobody else could. I figure I'm worth the fifty dollars to you, and I think you'll pay me. Because if you don't, I won't go, and all that looking you did will be wasted time. I also want a week's pay in advance, and I want three days to fix the roof and put brake shoes on the car."

Mirakle shot up from the ground, sputtering as if he'd been dashed with cold water. His head barely came up to Billy's shoulder "Nope! Won't have it, not at all!" He strode to the porch, got his seersucker jacket, and put his hat on; the seat of his trousers was dusty, and he brushed it off with red-faced irritation. "Try to take advantage of me, huh?" He marched past Ramona and Billy, dust stirring up around his shoes. After ten steps his stride slowed; he stopped and let out a long sigh. "Forty-five dollars a week and two days," he said, looking over his shoulder.

Billy kicked at a pebble and considered the offer. He said, "Okay. Deal."

Mirakle clapped his hands together? Ramona clutched her son's arm and said, "So fast? Just like that, without talkin' it over? …"

"I'm sorry, Mom, but I already know what you'd say. It won't be so bad; it'll just be . . . pretending, that's all."

Mirakle walked back to them and thrust out his hand. Billy shook it. "There's no business like show business!" the man crowed, his face split by a grin. "Now did you say you wanted thirty dollars in advance?" He brought out his wallet again, opening it with a flourish. Billy saw, sealed in a plastic window, a yellowing picture of a smiling young man in a service uniform.

"Forty-five," Billy said, evenly and firmly.

Mirakle chuckled. "Yes, yes of course. I like you, William. You drive a hard bargain. And speaking of driving, do you have your license? No? You can drive a car, can't you?"

"I've driven the Olds a few times."

"Good. I'll need you at the wheel some." He counted out the bills. "There you are. It just about breaks me, too, but … I suppose you'll put it to good use. Is there a motel around here that might take a personal check?"

"The Bama Inn might. It's in Fayette. There's a Travel-Lodge, too." Behind him Ramona abruptly turned and walked back toward the house.

"Ah, that's fine. I'll see you, then, in two days. Shall we say at four in the afternoon? We'll be meeting Ryder Shows in Tuscaloosa, and I'd like to get on the road before dark." He put his wallet away and shrugged into his jacket, all the time staring at Billy as if afraid the boy might change his mind. "We're set then? It's a deal?"

Billy nodded. He'd made his decision, and he wouldn't back down from it.

"You'll have to work hard," Mirakle said. "It won't be easy. But you'll learn. In two days, then. A pleasure meeting you, Mrs. Creekmore!" he called out, but she stood with her back to him. He walked off down the road, his stubby legs moving carefully as he avoided sliding on loose stones; he turned around to wave, and from the porch John suddenly called out, "Come back soon!"

28

"It's finished," Billy said, and stood on the ladder to appraise his work. It was a good job; chinks and holes in the roof had been filled in with pitch, and new shingles laid down smoothly and evenly. Midafternoon sunlight burned down upon Billy's back as he descended the ladder with his jar of roofing nails and his hammer. The gloves he wore were matted with pitch, and black streaks of it painted his chest and face. He scrubbed his face and hair with strong soap, then put away the ladder and the pitch bucket.

He let the sun dry his hair as he stood and looked in all directions. I'll be back, he told himself. Sure I will be, in mid-October. But something within him told him that when he did come back, he wouldn't be the same Billy Creekmore who'd left. He walked past the Olds – new brake shoes installed, the tires put back on but one of them already dangerously flat – and around the house to the front porch. John was in his favorite chair, a glass of lemonade at his side, the Bible in his lap. John smiled at him. "Sun's sure hot today."

Something clenched hard in Billy's stomach and throat; he managed to return the smile and say, "Yes sir, sure is."

Inside, Ramona was sitting in the front room, in the old gray easy chair. Her hands were gripping the armrests; beside her, on the floor, was a battered brown suitcase packed with her son's clothes.

"I'll be fine," Billy said.

"Tuscaloosa isn't so far away, y'know. If you don't like what you've gotten yourself into, you can just catch the bus and come home."

"I won't give it up at the first sign of trouble, though," he reminded her. "I'll stick with it as long as I can."

"A carnival." Ramona frowned and shook her head. Her eyes were red and puffy, but all of her crying was done. Her son was going out into the world, following the winding road of his Mystery Walk, and that was what the Giver of Breath had decreed. "I went to one of those once, when I was a little girl. The lights cut your eyes, and the noise sounds like a tea party in Hell. They show freaks at those things, poor people who can't help the way they were born. And folks stand around and laugh." She was silent for a moment. "Don't let them make a freak out of you, son. Oh, they'll try, just like the folks in Hawthorne have tried; but don't let them. You'll be tested, mark my words."

"I know."

"Do you understand" – she turned her face toward him – "that the Mystery Walk is more than the ritual your grandmother took you through? The ritual was to get your head opened up, to expand your senses; it was to make you ready for what's ahead. You began your Mystery Walk when you were ten years old and saw the Booker boy's revenant, but your whole life will be a Mystery Walk, just like mine has been. Events will hinge on events, like a series of opening doors; people will touch and be touched by you, and you must never belittle the power of the human touch. It can work wonders."

She leaned slightly toward him, her eyes shining. "You'll have to go into places that are dark, son, and you'll have to find your way out alone. What you saw in the smokehouse – the shape changer – isn't the only kind of darkness in this world. There's human darkness, too, misery and pain and torment that comes right from the soul. You'll see that kind, too.

"But the shape changer will be back, Billy. I'm sure of that. It's still picking at you, maybe even without you knowing it. Your grandmother was never certain of what the shape changer's limits were, or what it was capable of doing. I'm not, either … but expect the unexpected, always."

He thought of the boar-thing, and its whispered promise: I'll be waiting for you.

"How did you feel," she asked, "after . . . what you did at the sawmill?"

"I was afraid. And I was mad, too." For a couple of weeks afterward he'd had nightmares of a spinning saw blade grinding his arm down to bloody pulp. Sometimes he felt a fierce, jagged pain stabbing his left eye. Worse then the pain, though, was a hot center of anger that had raged in him until he'd attacked the Klansmen in the front yard; afterward both the phantom pain and the rage had steadily faded.

"Those were the emotions that kept Link Patterson chained to this world," Ramona said. "When you persuaded the revenant to give them up, he was able to pass on. You'll have those feelings inside you again; what will you do with them? The next time might be worse. You'll have two choices: you can turn the emotions into something creative, or into something mean and violent. I don't know, that's up to you."

"I'll handle it."

"And then there's the other thing." She gazed out the window for a moment, dreading to see dust rise off the road. That man would be here soon. "The black aura."

Billy's heart gave a cold kick.

"You'll see it again. That's why I stopped goin' out, stopped goin' to church or to town; I just don't want to know who'll be the next to die. That night at the tent revival, I saw it around a couple of people who that Falconer boy said was healed; well, those people were near death, and so they stopped takin' their medicine and went home and died. I believe that the human mind can work miracles, Billy: mighty, earth-movin' miracles. The human mind can heal the body; but sometimes the mind can make the body sick, too, with imagined ailments. What do you think went on in the minds of those families whose loved ones went to the Crusade and were told to throw away their medicines and not to go to the doctor anymore? Well, they probably cursed the name of God after their loved ones died, because they'd been filled with false hope and then death struck. They were made to turn their backs on the idea of death, to close their eyes to it; and that made it so much more terrible when they lost their loved ones. Oh, I'm not sayin' give up hope, but everybody gets sick, Christians and sinners alike, and medicines are to be used to help . . . plus a good old-fashioned dollop of sunshine, laughter, and faith. The human touch spreads; when Wayne Falconer played God, he turned good people with brains into stupid sheep ripe for the shearing."

"Are you sure those people died afterwards?" Billy asked. "Maybe the black aura got weaker, and they regained their health. …"

She shook her head. "No. I saw what I saw, and I wish to God I hadn't because now I know. I know and I have to be silent, because what can one aging old witch do?" She paused for a moment, and Billy saw in her eyes a deep concern that he couldn't fully understand. "The worst evil – the very worst – wears the robes of a shepherd, and then it strikes down those who've trusted in it. Oh, Lord. …" She gave a deep sigh, and then was silent.

Billy put his hand on her shoulder, and she covered it with her own. "I'll make you proud of me, Mom. You'll see."

"I know. Billy, you're goin' a long ways. …"

"Just to Tuscaloosa. . . ."

"No," she said quietly. "First to Tuscaloosa. Then . . . your Mystery Walk will be different from mine, just as mine was different from my mother's. You'll walk a further path, and you'll see things I never dreamed of. In a way, I envy you; and in a way, I fear for you. Well …" She rose up from her chair, and in the afternoon light Billy saw all the strands of silver in her hair. "I'll make you some sandwiches while you get dressed. Lord only knows when you'll have a chance to eat."

He went to his chest of drawers and got out the clothes he'd planned to wear on the trip – clean blue jeans and a green-and-blue madras shirt. He dressed hurriedly, wanting to have time to talk to his father before he had to go. Then he took the gleaming piece of good-luck coal from the dirty jeans he'd worn atop the roof, and put it in his pocket. His heart was beating like a drum corps. He took his suitcase out to the porch, where his father was squinting toward the road, his head cocked to one side as if listening.

"Hot day," John said. "Listen to that corn rustic"

"Dad?" Billy said. "I don't know if you can understand me or not, but . . . I'm going away for a while. See? My suitcase is all packed, and . . ." There was a lump in his throat, and he had to wait until it subsided. "I'll be gone until October." A sudden thought speared him: Your Dad won't be here, come October. He forced it away, looking at the good side of his father's face.

John nodded. "Crickets sure like to sing on a hot day, don't they?"

"Oh, Dad …" Billy said. His throat constricted and he grasped one of his father's leathery hands, dangling over the chair arm. "I'm sorry, it was because of me this happened to you, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. …" Tears burned his eyes.

"Splash!" John said, and grinned. "Did you see that? Old bullfrog jumped down at the pond!" He squinted and leaned forward, visoring his eyes with his free hand. "Looky there. Company's comin'."

Dust was rising off the road. Not now! Billy said mentally. It's too soon! Birds scattered up out of the lumbering van's path; the vehicle didn't stop this time, but braved the rocks and ruts all the way up to the front yard. On the van's sides, written in spooky-looking white letters, was dr. mirakle's ghost show.

"Who's our company today?" John asked, the grin stuck lopsided on his face.

"The man I told you about, hon," Ramona said from behind the screen door; she came on out carrying a paper sack with a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, a bologna sandwich, and two red apples in it. Her eyes glazed over as the van's door opened and Dr. Mirakle, looking as if he'd slept in his seersucker suit and straw hat, stepped out.

"Fine afternoon, isn't it!" he called and approached the house on his stubby legs; his wide smile lost wattage with every step he took, as he felt Ramona Creekmore's icy glare on him. He cleared his throat and craned his neck to see the roof. "All finished?"

"He's finished," Ramona said.

"Good. Mr. Creekmore, how are you today?"

John just stared at him.

Mirakle stepped up to the edge of the porch. "Billy? It's time to go now."

As Billy bent to pick up his suitcase, Ramona caught at his arm. "Just a minute! You promise me one thing! You take good care of my boy! You treat him like you'd treat a son of your own! He's a hard worker, but he's nobody's mule. You treat my boy fair. Will you promise me that?"

"Yes, ma'am," Mirakle said, and bowed his head slightly. "I do so promise. Well . . . I'll take this on to the van for you, then." He reached up and took the suitcase, then carried it to the van to give them a moment alone.

"Billy." John's voice was slow and sluggish; his blue eyes were dull, hazed with half-remembered days when the young man standing before him was a little boy. A smile worked around the good edge of his mouth, but wouldn't take hold.

"I'm going away, Dad. I'll work hard, and I'll mail you money. Everything'll be fine. …"

"Billy," John said, "I … I want … to read you something." Emotion had thickened his speech, made it more difficult for him to say the right words. He was trying very hard to concentrate; he turned in the Bible to the Book of Matthew, and searched for a particular passage. Then he began to read, with difficulty: "Matthew seven, verses thirteen and fourteen. 'Enter ye in . . .at the strait gate; for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that . . . leadeth to destruction, and . . . many there be which … go in thereat. Because strait is the gate and . . . narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be . . . that find it.' " He closed the Bible and lifted his gaze to his son. "I'm readin' better," he said.

Billy leaned down, hugged him and kissed his cheek; he smelled of Vitalis, and Billy was reminded of the times they used to get their hair cut together at Curtis Peel's. When he raised up, his father's eyes were shining. "Good-bye, Dad," Billy said.

Ramona put her arm around her son, and they started walking toward Dr. Mirakle's van. "Be careful," she said, her voice husky with emotion. "Be strong and proud. Brush your teeth twice a day, and hang your clothes up at night. Just remember who you are: you're Billy Creekmore, there's Choctaw blood in your veins, and you can walk with the likes of anybody!"

"Yes ma'am. I'll send the money every week, and I'll . . ." He glanced up at the van, and a shadow of true fear passed over him; he felt like a shipwrecked sailor, slowly drifting away from land. "I'll be fine," he said, as the feeling began to fade. "You should take the car down to the gas station and put air in the tires. I meant to do it myself, but . . . time just got away. . . ."

"You write now, you hear? Mind your manners, and say your prayers. …"

Mirakle had leaned over and opened the passenger door. Billy climbed up into the slightly greasy interior; when he closed the door, his mother said, "Remember who you are! You've got Choctaw blood in your veins, and …"

Mirakle started the engine. "Are you ready, Billy?"

"Yes sir." He looked toward the house, waved at his father, and then said to Ramona, "I love you." The van started moving.

"I love you!" she called back, and walked alongside the van as it eased over the ruts. "Get your sleep, and don't stay out until all hours of the night." She had to walk faster, because the van was picking up speed. Dust blossomed from beneath the tires. "Do right!" she called out.

"I will!" Billy promised, and then his mother was left behind as the van moved away. Ramona stood shielding her face from the dust as the black van reached the highway. It turned left and disappeared behind the curtain of full green trees, but Ramona stood where she was until the sound of its engine had faded, leaving faint echoes in the hills.

29

Ramona turned away and walked back to the house through the hanging layers of dust. She sat on the porch with John for a few minutes more, and told him she was going to take the car down to the gas station, then drive in to Fayette for a little while, and she'd be gone for maybe two hours. He nodded and said that was fine. In the house, she took two dollars from the kitchen cookie jar, made sure John would have everything he needed while she was gone, then took the car keys from where they lay on the mantel. It was four-twenty when she got on the road, and she wanted to reach a particular shop in Fayette before it closed at five.

In Fayette, Ramona parked the Olds near a rather run-down pawnshop and loan service. Arranged in the window were displays of cheap rhinestone rings, radios, a couple of electric guitars, a trombone, and a few cheap wristwatches. Above the doorway a sign read hap's pawns and loans and you're always happy when you trade with hap. She stepped into the shop, where a single ceiling fan stirred the heavy, dusty air "Is Mr. Tillman in today?" she asked a sallow-faced woman behind one of the counters.

"Hap?" The woman had flame-red dyed hair and one glass eye that looked off into empty space; with her good eye she quickly appraised Ramona. "Yeah, he's back in his office. What do you want to see him a – " But Ramona was already moving, heading back along an aisle toward the shop's rear "Hey! Lady! You can't go back there!"

Ramona stepped through a green curtain into a narrow, dank corridor. She rapped on a door and entered the office without being asked in.

"Hap" Tillman's thick body was reclining in his chair, his legs up on the desktop, as he smoked a Swisher Sweet cigar and paged through a Stag magazine. Now he sat up, outraged that someone had dared to invade his inner sanctum, and was about to curse a blue streak when he saw it was Ramona Creekmore. The red-haired woman stuck her head in. "Hap, I told her not to come back here."

"It's okay, Doris." He had a fleshy, square-jawed face and wore a stark-black toupee that was entirely at odds with his gray eyebrows. "I know Mizz Creekmore. You can leave us be."

"I told her not to come back," Doris said; she shot Ramona a black look and closed the door.

"Well! Mizz Creekmore, what a surprise to see you of all people!" Tillman tapped ash off his Swisher Sweet and plugged the cigar into his mouth. Around his desk was a sea of stacked boxes; over in one corner were black filing cabinets, and on the wall hung a calendar that showed a well-endowed woman in a bikini straddling a watermelon. "Whatever can I do for you today?"

She said, "I want to know."

"What?" he asked. "Did I hear you right?"

"Yes, I want to know. Now."

"Shit you say!" Tillman leaped up, belching out smoke like a furnace, and stepped past Ramona to throw open the door. He peered out into the empty corridor, then closed the door again and locked it. "That bitch Doris listens outside my office," he told her. "I've caught her at it twice. Damn it, lady, you've got an awful short memory! We did business. Know what that means? Business means we got a binding contract!"

"I think I already know, Mr. Tillman. But I … I have to make sure. It's important. …"

"My ass is important, too! We may have done business, but a lot of it was out of the kindness of my heart. I pulled a lot of strings!" He tried to stare her down and failed. Shaking his head, he puffed on his cigar and retreated behind the fortress of his boxes and desk. His eyes glinted. "Oh, I see. Sure. It's blackmail, is that it?"

"No. It's not that at – "

Tillman's head darted forward. "It better not be! I may be in deep, but you're in deeper! You just remember that, if you try to get me in trouble!"

"Mr. Tillman," Ramona said patiently, and stepped closer to his desk. "I wouldn't be here asking you about this if I didn't think it was very, very important. I'm not going to blackmail anybody. I'm not going to cause any trouble. But I'm not leaving here until I know."

"Lady, you signed a goddamned contract. …"

"I don't care if I signed ten contracts!" Ramona shouted, and instantly the man winced and put a finger to his lips to shush her.

"Please . . . please," Tillman said, "keep your voice down! Sit down and calm yourself, will you?" He motioned toward a chair, and reluctantly Ramona sat down. He puffed on his cigar for a moment, trying to think what to do.

"Shitfire, lady!" Tillman crushed the cigar in an ashtray, and sparks jumped like tiny red grasshoppers. "It's just . . . it's just not ethical! I mean, there's a lot to think about, and I wish you'd – "

"I've thought about it," Ramona said. "Now do you tell me or do I have to go see a policeman?"

"You wouldn't," he sneered. Tillman sat down, and faced Ramona in silence for a moment. Then he sighed deeply and said, "I'm a born fool for doin' business with a crazy woman!" He slid the top drawer out of his desk and reached into the slot, his fingers searching for the strip of masking tape; he found it, peeled it off, and brought it out. Stuck to the tape was a small key. He looked up at Ramona. "Don't you ever show your face in my shop again," he said gravely. "Do you understand me, lady?" He stood up, went to one wall, and lifted a framed paint-by-numbers picture of a harbor scene. There was a combination safe behind it. Tillman dialed it open, careful to stand in front of it so Ramona couldn't see the numbers.

"You may fool everybody else," he said, "but not me, lady. Nosir! You and that boy of yours are natural-born con artists! Pretendin' to talk to ghosts! That's the biggest fool thing I ever heard tell of!" He brought a small metal strongbox out of the safe, laid it on his desk. "Everybody else might be afraid of you, but I'm not! Nosir!" He opened the strongbox with the little key, and flipped through index cards. "Creekmore," he read, and brought the card out. It was slightly yellowed with age; Tillman couldn't suppress a wicked grin as he read it. Then he handed it to the woman. "Here!"

Ramona looked at it, her mouth set in a tight, grim line.

"Ha!" Tillman laughed. "Bet that galls your Indian ass, doesn't it?"

She handed the card back and rose from her chair. "It's as I thought. Thank you."

"Yeah, that's a real hoot, ain't it!" Tillman returned the card to the strongbox, closed the lid, and locked it. "But you know my motto: You're always happy when you trade with Hap!"

She looked into his ugly, grinning face and felt the urge to slap it crooked. But what good would that do? Would it change things, or make them right?

"Yeah, that's a real dipsy-doodle!" Tillman chuckled, put the box away in the safe, and closed it, spinning the combination lock. "Forgive me if I don't see you to the door," he said sarcastically, "but I've got a business to – " He turned toward Ramona, but she was already gone. He opened the door and yelled out, "AND DON'T COME BACK!"

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