Susan arrived home from Portland a little after three in the afternoon, and came into the house carrying three crackling brown department-store bags - she had sold two paintings for a sum totaling just over eighty dollars and had gone on a small spree. Two new skirts and a cardigan top.
'Suze?' Her mother called. 'Is that you?'
'I'm home. I got - '
'Come in here, Susan. I want to talk to you.'
She recognized the tone instantly, although she had not heard it to that precise degree since her high school days, when the arguments over hem lines and boy friends had gone on day after bitter day.
She put down her bags and went into the living room. Her mother had grown colder and colder on the subject of Ben Mears, and Susan supposed this was to be her Final Word.
Her mother was sitting in the rocker by the bay window, knitting. The TV was off. The two in conjunction were an ominous sign.
'I suppose you haven't heard the latest,' Mrs Norton said. Her needles clicked rapidly, meshing the dark green yam she was working with into neat rows. Someone's winter scarf. 'You left too early this morning.'
'Mike Ryerson died at Matthew Burke's house last night, and who should be in attendance at the deathbed but your writer friend, Mr Ben Mears!'
'Mike . . . Ben . . . what?'
Mrs Norton smiled grimly. 'Mabel called around ten this morning and told me. Mr Burke says he met Mike down at Delbert Markey's tavern last night - although what a teacher is doing bar-hopping I don't know - and brought him home with him because Mike didn't look well. He died in the night. And no one seems to know just what Mr Mears was doing there!'
'They know each other,' Susan said absently. 'In fact, Ben says they hit it off really well . . . what happened to Mike, Mom?'
But Mrs Norton was not to be sidetracked so quickly. 'Nonetheless, there's some that think we've had a little too much excitement in 'salem's Lot since Mr Ben Mears showed his face. A little too much altogether.'
'That's foolishness!' Susan said, exasperated. 'Now, what did Mike - '
'They haven't decided that yet,' Mrs Norton said. She twirled her ball of yarn and let out slack. 'There's some that think he may have caught a disease from the little Glick boy.'
'If so, why hasn't anyone else caught it? Like his folks?'
'Some young people think they know everything,' Mrs Norton remarked to the air. Her needles flashed up and down.
Susan got up. 'I think I'll go downstreet and see if - '
Sit back down a minute,' Mrs Norton said. 'I have a few more things to say to you.'
Susan sat down again, her face neutral.
'Sometimes young people don't know all there is to know,' Ann Norton said. A spurious tone of comfort had come into her voice that Susan distrusted immediately.
'Like what, Mom?'
'Well, it seems that Mr Ben Mears had an accident a few years ago. Just after his second book was published. A motorcycle accident. He was drunk. His wife was killed.'
Susan stood up. 'I don't want to hear any more.'
'I'm telling you for your own good,' Mrs Norton said calmly.
'Who told you?' Susan asked. She felt none of the old hot and impotent anger, or the urge to run upstairs away from that calm, knowing voice and weep. She only felt cold and distant, as if drifting in space. 'It was Mabel Werts, wasn't it?'
'That doesn't matter. It's true.'
'Sure it is. And we won in Vietnam and Jesus Christ drives through the center of town in a gocart every day at high noon.'
'Mabel thought he looked familiar,' Ann Norton said, land so she went through the back issues of her newspapers box by box - '
'You mean the scandal sheets? The ones that specialize in astrology and pictures of car wrecks and starlets' tits? Oh, what an informed source.' She laughed harshly.
'No need to be obscene. The story was right there in black and white. The woman - his wife if she really was - ?was riding on the back seat and he skidded on the pavement and they went smack into the side of a moving van. They gave him a breathalyzer test on the spot, the article said. Right . . . on . . . the spot.' She emphasized intensifier, preposition, and object by tapping a knitting needle against the arm of her rocker.
'Then why isn't he in prison?'
'These famous fellows always know people,' she said with calm certainty. 'There are ways to get out of every?thing, if you're rich enough. Just look at what those Kennedy boys have gotten away with.'
'Was he tried in court?'
'I told you, they gave him a - '
'You said that, Mother. But was he drunk?'
'I told you he was drunk!' Spots of color had begun to creep into her cheeks. 'They don't give you a breathalyzer test if you're sober! His wife died! It was just like that Chappaquiddick business! Just like it!'
'I'm going to move into town,' Susan said slowly. 'I've been meaning to tell you. I should have done it a long time ago, Mom. For both of us. I was talking to Babs Griffen, and she says there's a nice little four-room place on Sister's Lane - '
'Oh, she's offended!' Mrs Norton remarked to the air. 'Someone just spoiled her pretty picture of Mr Ben Big?shot Mears and she's just so mad she could spit.' This line had been particularly effective some years back.
'Mom, what's happened to you?' Susan asked a little despairingly. 'You never used to . . . to get this low - '
Ann Norton's head jerked up. Her knitting slid off her lap as she stood up, clapped her hands to Susan's shoulders, and gave her a smart shake.
'You listen to me! I won't have you running around like a common trollop with some sissy boy who's got your head all filled up with moonlight. Do you hear me?'
Susan slapped her across the face.
Ann Norton's eyes blinked and then opened wide in stunned surprise. They looked at each other for a moment in silence, shocked. A tiny sound came and died in Susan's throat.
'I'm going upstairs,' she said. 'I'll be out by Tuesday at the latest.'
'Floyd was here,' Mrs Norton said. Her face was still rigid from the slap. Her daughter's finger marks stood out in red, like exclamation points.
'I'm through with Floyd,' Susan said tonelessly. 'Get used to the idea. Tell your harpy friend Mabel all about it on the telephone, why don't you? Maybe then it will seem real to you.'
'Floyd loves you, Susan ' This is . . . ruining him. He broke down and told me everything. He poured out his heart to me.' Her eyes shone with the memory of it. 'He broke down at the end and cried like a baby.'
Susan thought how unlike Floyd that was. She wondered if her mother could be making it up, and knew by her eyes that she was not.
'Is that what you want for me, mom? A crybaby? Or did you just fall in love with the idea of blond-haired grandchildren? I suppose I bother you - you can't feel your job is complete until you see me married and settled down to a good man you can put your thumb on. Settled down with a fellow who'll get me pregnant and turn me into a matron in a hurry. That's the scoop, isn't it? Well, what about what I want?'
'Susan, you don't know what you want.'
And she said it with such absolute, convinced certainty that for a moment Susan was tempted to believe her. An image came to her of herself and her mother, standing here in set positions, her mother by her rocker and she by the door; only they were tied together by a hank of green yarn, a cord that had grown frayed and weak from many restless tuggings. Image transformed into her mother in a nimrod's hat, the band sportily pierced with many different flies. Trying desperately to reel in a large trout wearing a yellow print shift. Trying to reel it in for the last time and pop it away in the wicker creel. But for what purpose? To mount it? To eat it?
'No, Mom. I know exactly what I want. Ben Mears.' She turned and went up the stairs.
Her mother ran after her and called up shrilly: 'You can't get a room! You haven't any money!'
'I've got a hundred in checking and three hundred in savings,' Susan replied calmly. 'And I can get a job down at Spencer's, I think. Mr Labree has offered several times.'
'All he'll care about is looking up your dress,' Mrs Norton said, but her voice had gone down an octave. Much of her anger had left hey and she felt a little frightened.
'Let him,' Susan said. 'I'll wear bloomers.'
'Honey, don't be mad.' She came two steps up the stairs. 'I only want what's best for - '
'Spare it, Mom. I'm sorry I slapped you. That was awful of me. I do love you. But I'm moving out. It's way past time. You must see that.'
'You think it over,' Mrs Norton said, now clearly sorry as well as frightened. 'I still don't think I spoke out of turn. That Ben Mears, I've seen showboats like him before. All he's interested in is - '
'No. No more.'
She turned away.
Her mother came up another step and called after her: 'When Floyd left here he was in an awful state. He - '
But the door to Susan's room closed and cut off her words.
She lay down on her bed - which had been decorated with stuffed toys and a poodle dog with a transistor radio in its belly not so long ago - and lay looking at the wall, trying not to think. There were a number of Sierra Club posters on the wall, but not so long ago she had been surrounded by posters clipped from Rolling Stone and Creem and Crawdaddy, pictures of her idols - Jim Morri?son and John Lennon and Dave van Ronk and Chuck Berry. The ghost of those days seemed to crowd in on her like bad time exposures of the mind.
She could almost see the newsprint, standing out on the cheap pulp stock. GOING-PLACES YOUNG WRITER AND YOUNG WIFE INVOLVED IN 'MAYBE' MOTORCYCLE FATALITY. The rest in carefully couched innuendoes. Perhaps a picture taken at the scene by a local photographer, too gory for the local paper, just right for Mabel's kind.
And the worst was that a seed of doubt had been planted Stupid. Did you think he was in cold storage before he came back here? That he came wrapped in a germ-proof cellophane bag, like a motel drinking glass? Stupid. Yet the seed had been planted. And for that she could feel something more than adolescent pique for her mother ?she could feel something black that bordered on hate.
She shut the thoughts - not out but away - and put an arm over her face and drifted into an uncomfortable doze that was broken by the shrill of the telephone downstairs, then more sharply by her mother's voice calling, 'Susan! It's for you!'
She went downstairs, noticing it was just after five-thirty'. The sun was in the west. Mrs Norton was in the kitchen, beginning supper. Her father wasn't home yet.
'Susan?' The voice was familiar, but she could not put a name to it immediately.
'Yes, who's this?'
'Eva Miller, Susan. I've got some bad news.'
'Has something happened to Ben?' All the spit seemed to have gone out of her mouth. Her band came up and touched her throat. Mrs Norton had come to the kitchen door and was watching, a spatula held in one hand.
'Well, there was a fight. Floyd Tibbits showed up here this afternoon - '
Mrs Norton winced at her tone.
' - and I said Mr Mears was sleeping. He said all right, just as polite as ever, but he was dressed awful funny. I asked him if he felt all right. He had on an old-fashioned overcoat and a funny hat and he kept his hands in his pockets. I never thought to mention it to Mr Mears when he got up. There's been so much excitement - '
'What happened?' Susan nearly screamed.
'Well, Floyd beat him up,' Eva said unhappily. 'Right out in my parking lot. Sheldon Corson and Ed Craig went out and dragged him off.'
'Ben. Is Ben all right?'
'I guess not.'
'What is it?' She was holding the phone very tightly.
'Floyd got in one last crack and sent Mr Mears back against that little foreign car of his, and he hit his head. Carl Foreman took him over to Cumberland Receiving, and he was unconscious. I don't know anything else. If you - '
She hung up, ran to the closet, and pulled her coat off the hanger.
'Susan, what is it?'
'That nice boy Floyd Tibbits,' Susan said, hardly aware that she had begun to cry. 'He's put Ben in the hospital.'
She ran out without waiting for a reply.
She got to the hospital at six-thirty and sat in an uncomfort?able plastic contour chair, staring blankly at a copy of Good Housekeeping. And I'm the only one, she thought. How damned awful. She had thought of calling Matt Burke, but the thought of the doctor coming back and finding her gone had stopped her.
The minutes crawled by on the waiting room clock, and at ten minutes of seven, a doctor with a sheaf of papers in one hand stepped through the door and said, 'Miss Norton?'
'That's right. Is Ben all right?'
'That's not an answerable question at this point.' He saw the dread come into her face and added: 'He seems to be, but we'll want him here for two or three days. He's got a hairline fracture, multiple bruises, contusions, and one hell of a black eye.'
'Can I see him?'
'No, not tonight. He's been sedated.'
'For a minute? Please? One minute?'
He sighed. 'You can look in on him, if you like. He'll probably be asleep. I don't want you to say anything to him unless he speaks to you.'
He took her up to the third floor and then down to a room at the far end of a medicinal-smelling corridor. The man in the other bed was reading a magazine and looked up at them desultorily.
Ben was lying with his eyes closed, a sheet pulled up to his chin. He was so pale and still that for one terrified moment Susan was sure he was dead; that he had just slipped away while she and the doctor had been talking downstairs. Then she marked the slow, steady rise and fall of his chest and felt a relief so great that she swayed a little on her feet. She looked at his face closely, hardly noticing the way it had been marked. Sissy boy, her mother had called him, and Susan could see how she might have gotten that idea. His features were strong but sensitive (she wished there was a better word than 'sensitive'; that was the word you used to describe the local librarian who wrote stilted Spenserian sonnets to daffodils in his spare time; but it was the only word that fit). Only his hair seemed virile in the traditional sense. Black and heavy, it seemed almost to float above his face. The white bandage on the left side above the temple stood out in sharp, telling contrast.
I love the man, she thought. Get well, Ben. Get well and finish your book so we can go away from the Lot together, if you want me. The Lot has turned bad for both of us.
'I think you'd better leave now,' the doctor said. 'Per?haps tomorrow - '
Ben stirred and made a thick sound in his throat. His eyelids opened slowly, closed, opened again. His eyes were dark with sedation, but the knowledge of her pre?sence was in them. He moved his hand over hers. Tears spilled out of her eyes and she smiled and squeezed his hand.
He moved his lips and she bent to hear.
'They're real killers in this town, aren't they?'
'Ben, I'm so sorry.'
'I think I knocked out two of his teeth before he decked me,' Ben whispered. 'Not bad for a writer fella.'
'Ben - '
'I think that will be enough, Mr Mears,' the doctor said. 'Give the airplane glue a chance to set.'
Ben shifted his eyes to the doctor. 'Just a minute.' The doctor rolled his eyes. 'That's what she said.' Ben's eyelids slipped down again, then came up with difficulty. He said something unintelligible.
Susan bent closer. 'What, darling?'
'Is it dark yet?'
'Want you to go see . . . '
He nodded. 'Tell him . . . I said for you to be told everything. Ask him if he . . . knows Father Callahan. He'll understand.'
'Okay,' Susan said. 'I'll give him the message. You sleep now. Sleep well, Ben.'
''Kay. Love you.' He muttered something else, twice, and then his eyes closed. His breathing deepened.
'What did he say?' the doctor asked.
Susan was frowning. 'It sounded like "Lock the win?dows,"' she said.
Eva Miller and Weasel Craig were in the waiting room when she went back to get her coat. Eva was wearing an old fall coat with a rusty fur collar, obviously kept for best, and Weasel was floating in an outsized motorcycle jacket. Susan warmed at the sight of both of them.
'How is he?' Eva asked.
'Going to be all right, I think.' She repeated the doctor's diagnosis, and Eva's face relaxed.
'I'm so glad. Mr Mears seems like a very nice man. Nothing like this has ever happened at my place. And Parkins Gillespie had to lock Floyd up in the drunk tank. He didn't act drunk, though. Just sort of dopey and confused.'
Susan shook her head. 'It doesn't sound like Floyd at all.'
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.
'Ben's a lovely fella,' Weasel said, and patted Susan's hand. 'He'll be up and about in no time. You wait and see.'
'I'm sure he will be,' Susan said, and squeezed his hand in both of hers. 'Eva, isn't Father Callahan the priest at St Andrew's?'
'Oh . . . curious. Listen, thank you both for coming. If you could come back tomorrow - '
'We'll do that,' Weasel said. 'Sure we will, won't we, Eva?' He slipped an arm about her waist. It was a long reach, but he got there eventually.
'Yes, we will.'
Susan walked out to the parking lot with them and then drove back to Jerusalem's Lot.
Matt did not answer at her knock or yell Come in! as he usually did. Instead, a very careful voice which she hardly recognized said, 'Who is it?' very quietly from the other side.
'Susie Norton, Mr Burke.'
He opened the door and she felt real shock at the change in him. He looked old and haggard. A moment after that, she saw that he was wearing a heavy gold crucifix. There was something so strange and ludicrous about that ornate five-and-dime corpus lying against his checked flannel shirt that she almost laughed - but didn't.
'Come in. Where's Ben?'
She told him and his face grew long. 'So Floyd Tibbits of all people decides to play wronged lover, is that it? Well, it couldn't have happened at a more inopportune time. Mike Ryerson was brought back from Portland late this afternoon for burial preparations at Foreman's. And I suppose our trip up to the Marsten House will have to be put off - '
'What trip? What's this about Mike?'
'Would you like coffee?' he asked absently.
'No. I want to find out what's going on. Ben said you know.'
'That,' he said, 'is a very tall order. Easy for Ben to say I'm to tell you everything. Harder to do. But I will try.'
'What - '
He held up one hand. 'One thing first, Susan. You and your mother went down to the new shop the other day.' Susan's brow furrowed. 'Sure. Why?'
'Can you give me your impressions of the place, and more specifically, of the man who runs it?'
'Well, he's quite charming,' she said. 'Courtly might be an even better word. He complimented Glynis Mayberry on her dress and she blushed like a schoolgirl. And asked Mrs Boddin about the bandage on her arm she spilled some hot fat on it, you know. He gave her a recipe for a poultice. Wrote it right down. And when Mabel came in . . .' She laughed a bit at the memory.
'He got her a chair,' Susan said. 'Not a chair, actually, but a chair. More like a throne. A great carved mahogany thing. He brought it out of the back room all by himself, smiling and chatting with the other ladies all the time. But it must have weighed at least three hundred pounds. He plonked it down in the middle of the floor and escorted Mabel to it. Took her arm, you know. And she was giggling. If you've seen Mabel giggling, you've seen everything. And he served coffee. Very strong but very good.'
'Did you like him?' Matt asked, watching her closely.
'This is all a part of it, isn't it?' she asked.
'It might be, yes.'
'All right, then. I'll give you a woman's reaction. I did and I didn't. I was attracted to him in a mildly sexual way, I guess. Older man, very urbane, very charming, very courtly. You know looking at him that he could order from a French menu and know what wine would go with what, not just red or white but the year and even the vineyard. Very definitely not the run of fellow you see around here. But not effeminate in the least. Lithe, like a dancer. And of course there's something attractive about a man who is so unabashedly bald.' She smiled a little defensively, knowing there was color in her cheeks, wondering if she had said more than she intended.
'But then you didn't,' Matt said.
She shrugged. 'That's harder to put my finger on. I think . . . I think I sensed a certain contempt under the surface. A cynicism. As if he were playing a certain part, and playing it well, but as if he knew he wouldn't have to pull out all the stops to fool us. A touch of condescension.' She looked at him uncertainly. 'And there seemed to be something a little bit cruel about him. I don't really know why.'
'Did anyone buy anything?'
'Not much, but he didn't seem to mind. Mom bought a little knickknack shelf from Yugoslavia ' and that Mrs Petrie bought a lovely little drop-leaf table, but that was all I saw. He didn't seem to mind. Just urged people to tell their friends he was open, to come back by and not be strangers. Very Old World charming.'
'And do you think people were charmed?'
'By and large, yes,' Susan said, mentally comparing her mother's enthusiastic impression of R. T. Straker to her immediate dislike of Ben.
'You didn't see his partner?'
'Mr Barlow? No, he's in New York, on a buying trip.'
'Is he?' Matt said, speaking to himself. 'I wonder. The elusive Mr Barlow.'
'Mr Burke, don't you think you better tell me what all this is about?'
He sighed heavily.
'I suppose I must try. What you've just told me is disturbing. Very disturbing. It all fits so well . . . '
'What? What does?'
'I have to start,' he began, 'with meeting Mike Ryerson in Dell's tavern last night . . . which already seems a century ago.'
It was twenty after eight by the time he had finished, and they had both drunk two cups of coffee.
'I believe that's everything,' Matt said. 'And now shall I do my Napoleon imitation? Tell you about my astral conversations with Toulouse-Lautrec?'
'Don't be silly,' she said. 'There's something going on, but not what you think. You must know that.'
'I did until last night.'
'If no one has it in for you, as Ben suggested, then maybe Mike did it himself. In a delirium or something. That sounded thin, but she pushed ahead anyway. 'Or maybe you fell asleep without knowing and dreamed the whole thing. I've dozed off without knowing it before and lost a whole fifteen or twenty minutes.'
He shrugged tiredly. 'How does a person defend testi?mony no rational mind will accept at face value? I heard what I heard. I was not asleep. And something has me worried . . . rather badly worried. According to the old literature, a vampire cannot simply walk into a man's house and suck his blood. No. He has to be invited. But Mike Ryerson invited Danny Glick in last night. And I invited Mike myself!'
'Matt, has Ben told you about his new book?'
He fiddled with his pipe but didn't light it. 'Very little. Only that it's somehow connected with the Marsten House.'
'Has he told you he had a very traumatic experience in the Marsten House as a boy?'
He looked up sharply. 'In it? No.'
'He went in on a dare. He wanted to join a club, and the initiation was for him to go into the Marsten House and bring something out. He did, as a matter of fact - but before he left, he went up to the second-floor bedroom where Hubie Marsten hung himself. When he opened the door, he saw Hubie hanging there. He opened his eyes. Ben ran. That's festered in him for twenty-four years. He came back to the Lot to try to write it out of his system.'
'Christ,' Matt said.
'He has . . . a certain theory about the Marsten House. It springs partly from his own experience and partly from some rather amazing research he's done on Hubert Marsten - '
'His penchant for devil worship?'
She started. 'How did you know that.'
He smiled a trifle grimly. 'Not all the gossip in a small town is open gossip. There are secrets. Some of the secret gossip in 'salem's Lot has to do with Hubie Marsten. It's shared among perhaps only a dozen or so of the older people now - Mabel Werts is one of them. It was a long time ago, Susan. But even so, there is no statute of limitations on some stories. It's strange, you know. Even Mabel won't talk about Hubert Marsten with anyone but her own circle. They'll talk about his death, of course. About the murder. But if you ask about the ten years he and his wife spent up there in their house, doing God knows what, a sort of governor comes into play - perhaps the closest thing to a taboo our Western civilization knows. There have even been whispers that Hubert Marsten kid?napped and sacrificed small children to his infernal gods. I'm surprised Ben found out as much as he did. The secrecy concerning that aspect of Hubie and his wife and his house is almost tribal.'
'He didn't come by it in the Lot.'
'That explains it, then. I suspect his theory is a rather old parapsychological wheeze - that humans manufacture evil just as they manufacture snot or excrement or finger?nail parings. That it doesn't go away. Specifically, that the Marsten House may have become a kind of evil dry-cell; a malign storage battery.'
'Yes. He expressed it in exactly those terms.' She looked at him wonderingly.
He gave a dry chuckle. 'We've read the same books. And what do you think, Susan? Is there more than heaven and earth in your philosophy?'
'No,' she said with quiet firmness. 'Houses are only houses. Evil dies with the perpetration of evil acts.'
'You're suggesting that Ben's instability may enable me to lead him down the path to insanity that I am already traversing?'
'No, of course not. I don't think you're insane. But Mr Burke, you must realize - '
He had cocked his head forward. She stopped talking and listened. Nothing . . . except perhaps a creaky board. She looked at him questioningly, and he shook his head. 'You were saying?'
'Only that coincidence has made this a poor time for him to exorcise the demons of his youth. There's been a lot of cheap talk going around town since the Marsten House reoccupied and that store was opened . . . there's been talk about Ben himself, for that matter. Rites of exorcism have been known to get out of hand and turn on the exorcist. I think Ben needs to get out of this town and I think maybe you could use a vacation from it, Mr Burke.'
Exorcism made her think of Ben's request to mention the Catholic priest to Matt. On impulse, she decided not to. The reason he had asked was now clear enough, but it would only be adding fuel to a fire that was, in her opinion, already dangerously high. When Ben asked her - if he ever did - she would say she had forgotten.
'I know how mad it must sound,' Matt said. 'Even to me, who heard the window go up, and that laugh, and saw the screen lying beside the driveway this morning. But if it will allay your fears any, I must say that Ben's reaction to the whole thing was very sensible. He suggested we put the thing on the basis of a theory to be proved or disproved, and begin by - ' He ceased again, listening.
This time the silence spun out, and when he spoke again, the soft certainty in his voice frightened her. 'There's someone upstairs.'
She listened. Nothing.
'You're imagining things.'
'I know my house,' he said softly. 'Someone is in the guest bedroom . . . there, you hear?'
And this time she did hear. The audible creak of a board, creaking the way boards in old houses do, for no good reason at all. But to Susan's ears there seemed to be something more - something unutterably sly - in that sound.
'I'm going upstairs,' he said.
The word came out with no thought. She told herself: Now who's sitting in the chimney corner, believing the wind in the eaves is a banshee?
'I was frightened last night and did nothing and things grew worse. Now I am going upstairs.'
'Mr Burke - '
They had both begun to speak in undertones. Tension into her veins, making her muscles stiff. Maybe there was someone upstairs. A prowler.
'Talk,' he said. 'After I go, continue speaking. On any subject.'
And before she could argue, he was out of his seat and moving toward the hall, moving with a grace that was nearly astounding. He looked back once, but she couldn't read his eyes. He began to go up the stairs.
Her mind felt dazed into unreality by the swift turn?around things had taken. Less than two minutes ago they had been discussing this business calmly, under the rational light of electric bulbs. And now she was afraid. Question: If you put a psychologist in a room with a man who thinks he's Napoleon and leave them there for a year (or ten or twenty), will you end up with two Skinner men or two guys with their hands in their shirts? Answer: Insufficient data.
She opened her mouth and said, 'Ben and I were going to drive up Route 1 to Camden on Sunday - you know, the town where they filmed Peyton Place - but now I guess we'll have to wait. They have the most darling little church . . . '
She found herself droning along with great facility, even though her hands were clenched together in her lap tightly enough to whiten the knuckles. Her mind was clear, still unimpressed with this talk of bloodsuckers and the undead. It was from her spinal cord, a much older network of nerves and ganglia, that the black dread emanated in waves.
Going up the stairs was the hardest thing Matt Burke had ever done in his life. That was all; that was it. Nothing else even came close. Except perhaps one thing.
As a boy of eight, he had been in a Cub Scout pack. ?The den mother's house was a mile up the road and going was fine, yes, excellent, because you walked in the late afternoon daylight. But coming home twilight had begun to fall, freeing the shadows to yawn across the road in long, twisty patterns - or, if the meeting was particularly enthusiastic and ran late, you had to walk home in the dark. Alone.
Alone. Yes, that's the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn't hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym. . . .
There was a ruined church along the way, an old Methodist meeting house, which reared its shambles at the far end of a frost-heaved and hummocked lawn, and when you walked past the view of its glaring, senseless windows your footsteps became very loud in your ears and whatever you had been whistling died on your lips and you thought about how it must be inside - the overturned pews, the rotting hymnals, the crumbling altar where only mice now kept the sabbath, and you wondered what might be in there besides mice - what madmen, what monsters. Maybe they were peering out at you with yellow reptilian eyes. And maybe one night watching would not be enough; maybe some night that splintered, crazily hung door would be thrown open, and what you saw standing there would drive you to lunacy at one look.
And you couldn't explain that to your mother and father, who were creatures of the light. No more than you could explain to them how, at the age of three, the spare blanket at the foot of the crib turned into a collection of snakes that lay staring at you with flat and lidless eyes. No child ever conquers those fears, he thought. If a fear cannot be articulated, it can't be conquered. And the fears locked in small brains are much too large to pass through the orifice of the mouth. Sooner or later you found someone to walk past all the deserted meeting houses you had to pass between grinning babyhood and grunting senility, Until tonight. Until tonight when you found out that none of the old fears had been staked - only tucked away in their tiny, child-sized coffins with a wild rose on top.
He didn't turn on the light. He mounted the steps, one by one avoiding the sixth, which creaked. He held on to the crucifix, and his palm was sweaty and slick.
He reached the top and turned soundlessly to took down ?the hall. The guest room door was ajar. He had left it shut. From downstairs came the steady murmur of Susan's voice.
Walking carefully to avoid squeaks, be went down to the door and stood in front of it. The basis of all human fears, he thought. A closed door, slightly ajar.
He reached out and pushed it open.
Mike Ryerson was lying on the bed.
Moonlight flooded in the windows and silvered the room, turning it into a lagoon of dreams. Matt shook his head, as if to clear it. Almost it seemed as though he had moved backward in time, that it was the night before. He would go downstairs and call Ben because Ben wasn't in the hospital yet -
Mike opened his eyes.
They glittered for just a moment in the moonlight, silver rimmed with red. They were as blank as washed black?boards. There was no human thought or feeling in them. The eyes are the windows of the soul, Wordsworth had said. If so, these windows looked in on an empty room.
Mike sat up, the sheet failing from his chest, and Matt saw the heavy industrial stitchwork where the ME or pathologist had repaired the work of his autopsy, perhaps whistling as he sewed.
Mike smiled, and his canines and incisors were white and sharp. The smile itself was a mere flexing of the muscles around the mouth; it never touched the eyes. They retained their original dead blankness.
Mike said very clearly, 'Look at me.'
Matt looked. Yes, the eyes were utterly blank. But very deep. You could almost see little silver cameos of yourself in those eyes, drowning sweetly, making the world seem unimportant, making fears seem unimportant -
?He stepped backward and cried out, 'No! No!'
And held the crucifix out.
Whatever had been Mike Ryerson hissed as if hot water had been thrown in its face. Its arms went up as if to ward off a blow. Matt took a step into the room; Ryerson took a compensatory one backward.
'Get out of here!' Matt croaked. 'I revoke my invitation!'
Ryerson screamed, a high, ululating sound full of hate and pain. He took four shambling steps backward. The backs of the knees struck the ledge of the open window, and Ryerson tottered past the edge of balance.
'I will see you sleep like the dead, teacher.'
It fell outward into the night, going backward with its hands thrown out above its head, like a diver going off a high board. The pallid body gleamed like marble, in hard and depthless contrast to the black stitches that crisscrossed the torso in a Y pattern.
Matt let out a crazed, terrified wail and rushed to the window and peered out. There was nothing to be seen but the moon-gilded night - and suspended in the air below the window and above the spill of light that marked the living room, a dancing pattern of motes that might have been dust. They whirled, coalesced in a pattern that was hideously humanoid, and then dissipated into nothing.
He turned to run, and that was when the pain filled his chest and made him stagger. He clutched at it and doubled over. The pain seemed to be coming up his arm in steady, pulsing waves. The crucifix swung below his eyes.
He walked out the door holding his forearms crossed before his chest, the chain of the crucifix still caught in his right hand. The image of Mike Ryerson hanging in the dark air like some pallid high-diver hung before him.
'My doctor is James Cody,' he said through lips that were as cold as snow. 'It's on the phone reminder. I'm having a heart attack, I think.'
He collapsed in the upper hall, face down.
She dialed the number marked beside JIMMY CODY, PILLPUSHER. The legend was written in the neat block capitals she remembered so well from her school days. A woman's voice answered and Susan said, 'Is the doctor home? Emergency!'
'Yes,' the woman said calmly. 'Here he is.'
'Dr Cody speaking.'
'This is Susan Norton. I'm at Mr Burke's house. He's had a heart attack.'
'Who? Matt Burke?'
'Yes. He's unconscious. What should I -
'Call an ambulance,' he said. 'In Cumberland that's 841-4000. Stay with him. Put a blanket over him but don't move him. Do you understand?'
'I'll be there in twenty minutes.'
'Will you - '
But the phone clicked, and she was alone.
She called for an ambulance and then she was alone again, faced with going back upstairs to him.
She stared at the stairwell with a trepidation which was amazing to her. She found herself wishing that none of it had happened, not so that Matt could be all right, but so she would not have to feel this sick, shaken fear. Her unbelief had been total - she saw Matt's perceptions of the previous night as something to be defined in terms of her accepted realities, nothing more or less. And now that firm unbelief was gone from beneath her and she felt herself falling.
She had heard Matt's voice and had heard a terrible toneless incantation: I will see you sleep like the dead, teacher. The voice that had spoken those words had no more human quality than a dog's bark.
She went back upstairs, forcing her body through every step. Even the hall light did not help much. Matt lay where she had left him, his face turned sideways so the right cheek lay against the threadbare nap of the hall runner, breathing in harsh, tearing gasps. She bent and undid the top two buttons of his shirt and his breathing seemed to ease a little. Then she went into the guest bedroom to get a blanket.
The room was cool. The window stood open. The bed had been stripped except for the mattress pad, but there were blankets stacked on the top shelf of the closet. As she turned back to the hall something on the floor near the window glittered in the moonlight and she stooped and picked it up. She recognized it immediately. A Cumber?land Consolidated High School class ring. The initials engraved on the inner curve were MCR
Michael Corey Ryerson.
For the moment, in the dark, she believed. She believed it all. A scream rose in her throat and she choked it unvoiced, but the ring tumbled from her fingers and lay on the floor below the window, glinting in the moonlight that rode the autumn dark.