1

The town knew about darkness.

It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul. The town is an accumulation of three parts which, in sum, are greater than the sections. The town is the people who live there, the buildings which they have erected to den or do business in, and it is the land. The people are Scotch-English and French. There are others, of course - a smattering, like a fistful of pepper thrown in a pot of salt, but not many. This melting pot never melted very much. The buildings are nearly all constructed of honest wood. Many of the older houses are saltboxes and most of the stores are false-fronted, although no one could have said why. The people know there is nothing behind those false fa?ades just as most of them know that Loretta Starcher wears falsies. The land is granite-bodied and covered with a thin, easily ruptured skin of topsoil. Farming it is a thankless, sweaty, miserable, crazy business. The harrow turns up great chunks of the granite underlayer and breaks on them- in may you take out your truck as soon as the ground is dry enough to support it, and you and your boys fill it up with rocks perhaps a dozen times before harrowing and dump them in the great weed-choked pile where you have dumped them since 1955, when you first took this tiger by the balls . And when you have picked them until the dirt won't come out from under your nails when you wash and your fingers feel huge and numb and oddly large-pored, you hitch your harrow to your tractor and before you've broken two rows you bust one of the blades on a rock you missed. And putting on a new blade, getting your oldest boy to hold up the hitch so you can get at it, the lirst mosquito of the new season buzzes blood-thirstily past your ear with that eye-watering hum that always makes you think it's the sound loonies must hear just before they kill all their kids or close their eyes on the Interstate and put the gas pedal to the floor or tighten their toe on the trigger of the .30-.30 they just jammed into their quackers; and then your boy's sweat-slicked fingers slip and one of the other round har?row blades scrapes skin from your arm and looking around in that kind of despairing, heartless flicker of time, when it seems you could just give it all over and take up drinking or go down to the bank that holds your mortgage and declare bankruptcy, at that moment of hating the land and the soft suck of gravity that holds you to it, you also love it and understand how it knows darkness and has always known it. The land has got you, locked up solid got you, and the house, and the woman you fell in love with when you started high school (only she was a girl then, and you didn't know for shit about girls except you got one and hung on to her and she wrote your name all over her book covers and first you broke her in and then she broke you in and then neither one of you had to worry about that mess anymore), and the kids have got you, the kids that were started in the creaky double bed with the splintered headboard. You and she made the kids after the darkness fell - six kids, or seven, or ten. The bank has you, and the car dealership, and the Sears store in Lewiston, and John Deere in Brunswick. But most of all the town has you because you know it the way you know the shape of your wife's breast. You know who will be hanging around Crossen's store in the daytime because Knapp Shoe laid him off and you know who is having woman trouble even before he knows it, the way Reggie Sawyer is having it, with that phone-company kid dipping his wick in Bonnie Sawyer's barrel; you know where the roads go and where, on Friday afternoon, you and Hank and Nolly Gardener can go and park and drink a couple of six-packs or a couple of cases. You know how the ground lies and you know how to get through the Marshes in April without getting the tops of your boots wet. You know it all. And it knows you, bow your crotch aches from the tractor saddle when the day's harrowing is done and how the Jump on your back was just a cyst and nothing to worry about like the doctor said at first it might be, and how your mind works over the bills that come in during the last week of the month. It sees through your lies, even the ones you tell yourself, like how you are going to take the wife and the kids to Disneyland next year or the year after that, like how you can afford the payments on a new color TV if you cut cordwood next fall, like how everything is going to come out all right. Being in the town is a daily act of utter intercourse, so complete that it makes what you and your wife do in the squeaky bed look like a handshake. Being in the town is prosaic, sensuous, alcoholic. And in the dark, the town is yours and you are the town's and together you sleep like the dead, like the very stones in your north field. There is no life here but the slow death of days, and so when the evil falls on the town, its coming seems almost preordained, sweet and morphic. It is almost as though the town knows the evil was coming and the shape it would take.

The town has its secrets, and keeps them well. The people don't know them all - They know old Albie Crane's wife ran off with a traveling man from New York City ?or they think they know it. But Albie cracked her skull open after the traveling man had left her cold and then he tied a block on her feet and tumbled her down the old well and twenty years later Albie died peacefully in his bed of a heart attack, just as his son Joe will die later in this story, and perhaps someday a kid will stumble on the old well where it is hidden by choked blackberry creepers and pull back the whitened, weather-smoothed boards and see that crumbling skeleton staring blankly up from the bottom of that rock-lined pit, the sweet traveling man's necklace still dangling, green and mossy, over her rib cage.

They know that Hubie Marsten killed his wife, but they don't know what he made her do first, or how it was with them in that sun-sticky kitchen in the moments before he blew her head in, with the smell of honeysuckle hanging in the hot air like the gagging sweetness of an uncovered charnel pit. They don't know that she begged him to do it.

Some of the older women in town - Mabel Werts, Glynis Mayberry, Audrey Hersey -  remember that Larry McLeod found some charred papers in the upstairs fireplace, but none of them know that the papers were the accumulation of twelve years' correspondence between Hubert Marsten and an amusingly antique Austrian nobleman named Breichen, or that the correspondence of these two had commenced through the offices of a rather peculiar Boston book merchant who died an extremely nasty death in 1933, or that Hubie had burned each and every letter before hanging himself, feeding them to the fire one at a time, watching the flames blacken and char the thick, cream?-colored paper and obliterate the elegant, spider-thin cal?ligraphy. They don't know he was smiling as he did it, the way Larry Crockett now smiles over the fabulous land-title papers that reside in the safe-deposit box of his Portland bank.

They know that Coretta Simons, old Jumpin' Simons's widow, is dying slowly and horribly of intestinal cancer, but they don't know that there is better than thirty thou?sand dollars cash tucked away behind the dowdy sitting room wallpaper, the results of an insurance policy she collected but never invested and now, in her last extremity, has forgotten entirely.

They know that a fire burned up half of the town in that smoke-hazed September of 1951, but they don't know that it was set, and they don't know that the boy who set it graduated valedictorian of his class in 1953 and went on to make a hundred thousand dollars on Wall Street, and even if they had known, they would not have known the compulsion that drove him to it or the way it ate at his mind for the next twenty years of his life, until a brain embolism hustled him into his grave at the age of forty-six.

They don't know that the Reverend John Groggins has sometimes awakened in the midnight hour with horrible dreams still vivid beneath his bald pate - dreams in which he preaches to the Little Misses' Thursday Night Bible Class naked and slick, and they ready for him;

or that Floyd Tibbits wandered around for all of that Friday in a sickly daze, feeling the sun lie hatefully against his strangely pallid skin, remembering going to Ann Nor?ton only cloudily, not remembering his attack on Ben Mears at all, but remembering the cool gratitude with which he greeted the setting of the sun, the gratitude and the anticipation of something great and good;

or that Hal Griffen has six hot books hidden in the back of his closet which he masturbates over at every opportunity; or that George Middler has a suitcase full of silk slips and bras and panties and stockings and that he sometimes pulls down the shades of his apartment over the hardware store and locks the door with both the bolt and the chain and then stands in front of the full-length mirror in the bedroom until his breath comes in short stitches and then he falls to his knees and masturbates;

or that Carl Foreman tried to scream and was unable when Mike Ryerson began to tremble coldly on the metal worktable in the room beneath the mortuary and the scream was as sightless and soundless as glass in his throat when Mike opened his eyes and sat up;

or that ten-month-old Randy McDougall did not even struggle when Danny Glick slipped through his bedroom window and plucked the baby from his crib and sank his teeth into a neck still bruised from a mother's blows.

These are the town's secrets, and some will later be known and some will never be known. The town keeps them all with the ultimate poker face.

The town cares for devil's work no more than it cares for God's or man's. It knew darkness. And darkness was enough.

2

Sandy McDougall knew' something was wrong when she woke up, but couldn't tell what. The other side of the bed was empty; it was Roy's day off, and he had gone fishing with some friends. Would be back around noon. Nothing was burning and she didn't hurt anywhere. So what could be wrong?

The sun. The sun wag wrong.

It was high up on the wallpaper, dancing through the shadows cast by the maple outside the window. But Randy always woke her before the sun got up high enough to throw the maple's shadow on the wall  -

Her startled eyes jumped to the clock on the dresser. It was ten minutes after nine.

Trepidation rose in her throat.

'Randy?' she called, her dressin gown bi lowing out behind her as she flew down the narrow hall of the trailer. 'Randy, honey?'

The baby's bedroom was bathed in submerged light from the one small window above the crib . . . open. But she had closed it when she went to bed. She always closed it.

The crib was empty.

'Randy?' she whispered.

And saw him.

The small body, still clad in wash-faded Dr Dentons, had been flung into the corner like a piece of garbage. One leg stuck up grotesquely, like an inverted exclamation point.

'Randy!'

She fell on her knees by the body, her face marked with the harsh lines of shock. She cradled the child. The body was cool to the touch '  

'Randy, honey-baby, wake up, Randy, Randy, wake up - '

The bruises were gone. All gone. They had faded over?night, leaving the small face and form flawless. His color was good. For the only time since his coming she found him beautiful, and she screamed at the sight of the beauty - a horrible, desolate sound.

'Randy! Wake up! Randy? Randy? Randy?'

She got up with him and ran back down the hall, the dressing gown slipping off one shoulder. The high chair still stood in the kitchen, the tray encrusted with Randy's supper of the night before. She slipped Randy into the chair, which stood in a patch of morning sunlight. Randy's head lolled against his chest and he slid sideways with a slow and terrible finality until he was lodged in the angle between the tray and one of the chair's high arms.

'Randy?' she said, smiling. Her eyes bulged from their sockets like flawed blue marbles. She patted his cheeks. 'Wake up now, Randy. Breakfast, Randy. Is oo hungwy? Please - oh Jesus, please - '

She whirled away from him and pulled open one of the cabinets over the stove and pawed through it, spilling a box of Rice Chex, a can of Chef Boy-ar-dee ravioli, a bottle of Wesson oil. The Wesson oil bottle shattered, spraying heavy liquid across the stove and floor. She found a small jar of Gerber's chocolate custard and grabbed one of the plastic Dairy Queen spoons out of the dish drainer.

'Look, Randy. Your favorite. Wake up and see the nice custard. Chocka, Randy. Chocka, chocka.' Rage and terror swept her darkly. 'Wake up!' she screamed at him, her spittle beading the translucent skin of his brow and cheeks. 'Wake up wake up for the love of God you little shit WAKE UP!'

She pulled the cover off the jar and spooned out some of the chocolate-flavored custard. Her hand, which knew the truth already, was shaking so badly that most of it spilled. She pushed what was left between the small slack lips, and more fell off onto the tray making horrid plopping sounds. The spoon clashed against his teeth.

'Randy,' she pleaded. 'Stop fooling your momma.'

Her other hand stretched out, and she pulled his mouth open with a hooked finger and pushed the rest of the custard into his mouth.  

'There, said Sandy McDougall. A smile, indescribable in its cracked hope, touched her lips. She settled back in her kitchen chair, relaxing muscle by muscle. Now it would be all right. Now he would know she still loved him and he would stop this cruel trickery.

'Good?' she murmured. 'Chocka good, Wandyl Will Oo make a smile for Mommy? Be Mommy's good boy and give her a smile.'

She reached out with trembling fingers and pushed up the corners of Randy's mouth.

The chocolate fell out onto the tray - plop.

She began to scream.

3

Tony Glick woke up on Saturday morning when his wife, Marjorie, fell down in the living room.

'Margie?' he called, swinging his feet out onto the floor. 'Marge?'

And after a long, long pause, she answered, 'I'm okay, Tony.'

He sat on the edge of the bed, looking blankly down at his feet. He was bare-chested and wearing striped pajama bottoms with the drawstring dangling between his legs. The hair on his head stood up in a crow's nest. It was thick black hair, and both of his sons had inherited it. People thought he was Jewish, but that dago hair should have been a giveaway, he often thought. His grandfather's name had been Gliccucchi. When someone had told him it was easier to get along in America if you had an American name, something short and snappy, Gramps had had it legally changed to Glick, unaware that he was trading the reality of one minority for the appearance of another. Tony Glick's body was wide and dark and heavily corded with muscle. His face bore the dazed expression of a man who has been punched out leaving a bar.

He had taken a leave of absence from his job, and during the past work week he had slept a lot. It went away when you slept. There were no dreams in his sleep. He turned in at seven-thirty and got up at ten the next morning and took a nap in the afternoon from two to three. The time he had gone through between the scene he had made at Danny's funeral and this sunny Saturday morning almost a week later seemed hazy and not real at all. People kept bringing food. Casseroles, preserves, cakes, pies. Margie said she didn't know what they were going to do with it. Neither of them was hungry. On Wednesday night he had tried to make love to his wife and they had both begun to cry.

Margie didn't look good at all. Her own method of coping had been to clean the house from top to bottom, and she had cleaned with a maniacal zeal that precluded all other thought. The days resounded with the clash of cleaning buckets and the whirr of the vacuum cleaner, and the air was always redolent with the sharp smells of ammonia and Lysol. She had taken all the clothes and toys, packed neatly into cartons, to the Salvation Army and the Goodwill store. When he had come out of the bedroom on Thursday morning, all those cartons had been lined up by the front door, each neatly labeled. He had never seen anything so horrible in his life as those mute cartons. She had dragged all the rugs out into the back yard, had hung them over the clothes line, and had beaten the dust out of them unmercifully. And even in Tony's bleary state of consciousness, he had noticed how pale she had seemed since last Tuesday or Wednesday; even her lips seemed to have lost their natural color. Brown shadows had insinuated themselves beneath her eyes.

These thoughts passed through his mind in less time than it takes to tell them, and he was on the verge of tumbling back into bed when she fell down again and this time did not answer his call.

He got up and padded down to the living room and saw her lying on the floor, breathing shallowly and staring with dazed eyes at the ceiling. She had been changing the living room furniture around, and everything was pulled out of position, giving the room an odd disjointed look.

Whatever was wrong with her had advanced during the night, and her appearance was bad enough to cut through his daze like a sharp knife. She was still in her robe and it had split up to mid-thigh. Her legs were the color of marble; all the tan she had picked up that summer on their vacation had faded out of them. Her hands moved like ghosts. Her mouth gaped, as if her lungs could not get enough air, and he noticed the odd prominence of her teeth but thought nothing of it. It could have been the light.

'Margie? Honey?'

She tried to answer, couldn't, and real fear shot through him. He got up to call the doctor.

He was turning to the phone when she said, 'No . . . no.' The word was repeated between a harsh gasp for air. She had struggled up to a sitting position, and the whole sun-silent house was filled with her rasping struggle for breath.

'Pull me . . . help me . . . the sun is so hot . . . '

He went to her and picked her up, shocked by the lightness of his burden. She seemed to weigh no more than a bundle of sticks.

' . . . sofa . . . '

He laid her on it ' with her back propped against the armrest. She was out of the patch of sun that fell in a square through the front window and onto the rug, and her breath seemed to come a little easier. She closed her eyes for a moment, and again he was impressed by the smooth whiteness of her teeth in contrast to her lips. He felt an urge to kiss her.

'Let me call the doctor,' he said.

'No. I'm better. The sun was . . . burning me. Made me feel faint. Better now.' A little color had come back into her cheeks.

'Are you sure?'

'Yes. I'm okay.'

'You've been working too hard, honey.'

'Yes,' she said passively. Her eyes were listless.

He ran a hand through his hair, tugging at it. 'We've got to snap out of this, Margie. We've got to. You look . . . ' He paused, not wanting to hurt her.

'I look awful,' she said. 'I know. I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror before I went to bed last night, and I hardly seemed to be there. For a minute I . . . ' A smile touched her lips. 'I thought I could see the tub behind me. Like there was only a little of myself left and it was . . . oh, so pale . . . '

'I want Dr Reardon to look at you.'

But she seemed not to hear. 'I've had the most lovely dream the last three or four nights, Tony. So real. Danny comes to me in the dream. He says, "Mommy, Mommy,? I'm so glad to be home!" And he says . . . says . . . '

'What does he say?' he asked her gently.

'He says . . . that he's my baby again. My own son, at my breast again. And I give him to suck and . . . and then a feeling of sweetness with an undertone of bitterness, so much like it was before he was weaned but after he was beginning to get teeth and he would nip - oh, this must sound awful. Like one of those psychiatrist things.'

'No,' he said. 'No.'

He knelt beside her and she put her arms around his neck and wept weakly. Her arms were cold. 'No doctor, Tony, please. I'll rest today.'

'All right,' he said. Giving in to her made him feel uneasy.

'It's such a lovely dream, Tony,' she said, speaking against his throat. The movement of her lips, the muffled hardness of her teeth beneath them, was amazingly sen?sual. He was getting an erection. 'I wish I could have it again tonight.'

'Maybe you will,' he said, stroking her hair. 'Maybe you will at that.'

4

'My God, don't you look good,' Ben said.

Against the hospital world of solid whites and anemic greens, Susan Norton looked very good indeed. She was wearing a bright yellow blouse with black vertical stripes and a short blue denim skirt.

'You, too,' she said, and crossed the room to him.

He kissed her deeply, and his hand slid to the warm curve of her hip and rubbed.

'Hey,' she said, breaking the kiss. 'They kick you out for that.'

'Not me.'

'No, me.'

'They looked at each other.

'I love you, Ben.'

'I love you, too.'

'If I could jump in with you right now - '

'Just a second, let me pull back the spread.'

'How would I explain it to those little candy-stripers?'

'Tell them you're giving me the bedpan.'

She shook her head, smiling, and pulled up a chair. 'A lot has happened in town, Ben.'

He sobered. 'Like what?'

She hesitated. 'I hardly know how to tell you, or what I believe myself. I'm mixed up, to say the least.'

'Well, spill it and let me sort it out.'

'What's your condition, Ben?'

'Mending. Not serious. Matt's doctor, a guy named Cody - '

'No. Your mind. How much of this Count Dracula stuff do you believe?'

'Oh. That. Matt told you everything'

'Matt's here in the hospital. One floor up in Intensive Care.'

'What?' He was up on his elbows. 'What's the matter with him?'

'Heart attack.'

'Heart attack!'

'Dr Cody says his condition is stable. He's listed as serious, but that's mandatory for the first forty-eight hours. I was there when it happened.'

'Tell me everything you remember, Susan.'  

The pleasure had gone out of his face. It was watchful, intent, fine-drawn. Lost in the white room and the white sheets and the white hospital johnny, he again struck her as a man drawn to a taut, perhaps fraying edge.

'You didn't answer my question, Ben.'

'About how I took Matt's story?'

'Yes.'

'Let me answer you by saying what you think. You think the Marsten House has buggered my brain to the point where I'm seeing bats in my own belfry, to coin a phrase. Is that a fair estimate?'

'Yes, I suppose that's it. But I never thought about it in such . . . such harsh terms.'

'I know that, Susan. Let me trace the progression of my thoughts for you, if I can. It may do me some good to sort them out. I can tell from your own face that something has knocked you back a couple of steps. Is that right?'

'Yes . . . but I don't believe, can't - '

'Stop a minute. That word can't blocks up everything. That's where I was stuck. That absolute, goddamned im?perative, word. Can't. I didn't believe Matt, Susan, because such things can't be true. But I couldn't find a hole in his story any way I looked at it. The most obvious conclusion was that he had jumped the tracks somewhere, right?'

'Yes.'

'Did he seem crazy to you?'

'No. No, but - '

'Stop.' He held up his hand. 'You re thinking can't thoughts, aren't you?'

'I suppose I am,' she said.

'He didn't seem crazy or irrational to me, either. And we both know that paranoid fantasies or persecution com?plexes just don't appear overnight. They grow over a period of time. They need careful watering, care, and feeding. Have you ever heard any talk in town about Matt having a screw loose? Ever heard Matt say that someone had the knife out for him? Has he ever been involved with any dubious causes - fluoridation causes brain cancer or Sons of the American Patriots or the NLF? Has he ever expressed an inordinate amount of interest in things such as s6ances or astral projection or reincarnation? Ever been arrested that you know of?'

'No,' she said. 'No to everything. But Ben . . . it hurts me to say this about Matt, even to suggest it, but some people go crazy very quietly. They go crazy inside.'

'I don't think so,' he said quietly. 'There are signs. Sometimes you can't read them before, but you can after?ward. If you were on a jury, would you believe Matt's testimony about a car crash?'

'Yes. . . '

'Would you believe him if he had told you he saw a prowler kill Mike Ryerson?'

'Yes, I guess I would.'

'But not this.'

'Ben, I just can't - '

'There, you said it again.' He saw her ready to protest and held up a forestalling hand. 'I'm not arguing his case, Susan. I'm only laying out my own train of thought. Okay?'

'Okay. Go on.'

'My second thought was that somebody set him up. Someone with bad blood, or a grudge.'

'Yes, that occurred to me.'

'Matt says he has no enemies. I believe him.'

'Everybody has enemies.'

'There are degrees. Don't forget the most important thing - there's a dead man wrapped up in this mess. If someone was out to get Matt, then someone must have murdered Mike Ryerson to do it.'

'Why?'

'Because the whole song and dance doesn't make much sense without a body. And yet, according to Matt's story, he met Mike purely by chance. No one led him to Dell's last Thursday night. There was no anonymous call, no note, no nothing. The coincidence of the meeting was enough to rule out a setup.'

'What does that leave for rational explanations?'

'That Matt dreamed the sounds of the window going up, the laugh, and the sucking sounds. That Mike died of some natural but unknown causes.'

'You don't believe that, either.'

'I don't believe that he dreamed hearing the window go up. It was open. And the outside screen was lying on the lawn. I noticed it and Parkins Gillespie noticed it. And I noticed something else. Matt has latch-type screens on his house - they lock on the outside, not the inside. You can't get them off from the inside unless you pry them off with a screw driver or a paint scraper. Even then it would be tough. It would leave marks. I didn't see any marks. And here's another thing: The ground below that window was relatively soft. If you wanted to take off a second-floor screen, you'd need to use a ladder, and that would leave marks. There weren't any. That's what bothers me the most. A second-floor screen removed from the outside and no ladder marks beneath.'  

They looked at each other somberly.

He resumed: 'I was running this through my head this morning. The more I thought about it, the better Matt's story looked. So I took a chance. I took the can't away for a while. Now, tell me what happened at Matt's last night. If it will knock all this into a cocked hat, no one is going to be happier than I.'

'It doesn't,' she said unhappily. 'It makes it worse. He had just finished telling me about Mike Ryerson. He said he heard someone upstairs. He was scared, but he went.' She folded her hands in her lap and was now holding them tightly, as if they might fly away. 'Nothing else happened for a little while . . . and then Matt called out, something like he was revoking his invitation. Then . . . well, I don't really know how to . . . '

'Go on. Don't agonize over it.'

'I think someone - someone else - made a kind of hissing noise. There was a bump, as if something had fallen.' She looked at him bleakly. 'And then I heard a voice say: I will see you sleep like the dead, teacher. That's word for word. And when I went in later to get a blanket for Matt I found this.'

She took the ring out of her blouse pocket and dropped it into his hand.

Ben turned it over, then tilted it toward the window to let the light pick out the initials. 'MCR. Mike Ryerson?'

'Mike Corey Ryerson. I dropped it and then made myself pick it up again - I thought you or Matt would want to see it. You keep it. I don't want it back.'

'It makes you feel - ?'

'Bad. Very bad.' She raised her head defiantly. But all rational thought goes against this, Ben. I'd rather believe that Matt somehow murdered Mike Ryerson and invented that crazy vampire story for reasons of his own. Rigged the screen to fall off. Did a ventriloquist act in that guest room while I was downstairs, planted Mike's ring - '

'And gave himself a heart attack to make it all seem more real,' Ben said dryly. 'I haven't given up hope of rational explanations, Susan. I'm hoping for one. Almost praying for one. Monsters in the movies are sort of fun, but the thought of them actually prowling through the night isn't fun at all. I'll even grant you that the screen could have been rigged - a simple rope sling anchored on the roof would do the trick. Let's go further. Matt is something of a scholar. I suppose there are poisons that would cause the symptoms that Mike had - maybe unde?tectable poisons. Of course, the idea of poison is a little hard to believe because Mike ate so little - '

'You only have Matt's word for that,' she pointed out.

'He wouldn't lie, because he would know that an examin?ation of the victim's stomach is an important part of any autopsy. And a hypo would leave tracks. But for the sake of argument, let's say it could be done. And a man like Matt could surely take something that would fake a heart attack. But where is the motive?'

She shook her head helplessly.

'Even granting some motive we don't suspect, why would he go to such Byzantine lengths, or invent such a wild cover story? I suppose Ellery Queen could explain it somehow, but life isn't an Ellery Queen plot.'

'But this . . . this other is lunacy, Ben.'

'Yes, like Hiroshima.'

'Will you stop doing that' she whipcracked at him suddenly. 'Don't go playing the phony intellectual! It doesn't fit you! We're talking about wives' tales, bad dreams, psychosis, anything you want to call it - '

'That's shit,' he said. 'Make connections. The world is coming down around our ears and you're sticking at a few vampires.'

"Salem's Lot is my town,' she said stubbornly. 'If some?thing is happening there, it's real. Not philosophy.'

'I couldn't agree with you more,' he said, and touched the bandage on his head with a rueful finger. 'And your ex packs a hell of a right.'

'I'm sorry. That's a side of Floyd I never saw. I can't understand it.'

'Where is he now?'

'In the town drunk tank. Parkins Gillespie told my mom he should turn him over to the county - to Sheriff McCaslin, that is - but he thought he'd wait and see if you wanted to prefer charges.'

'Do you have any feelings in the matter?'

'None whatever,' she said steadily. 'He's out of my life.'

'I'm not going to.'

She raised her eyebrows.

'But I want to talk to him.'

'About us?'

'About why he came at me wearing an overcoat, a hat, sunglasses and Playtex rubber gloves.'

'What?'

'Well,' he said, looking at her, 'the sun was out. It was shining on him. And I don't think he liked that.'

They looked at each other wordlessly. There seemed to be nothing else on the subject to say.

5

When Nolly brought Floyd his breakfast from the Excellent Caf, Floyd was fast asleep. It seemed to Nolly that it would be a meanness to wake him up just to eat a couple of Pauline Dickens's hard-fried eggs and five or six pieces of greasy bacon, so Nolly disposed of it himself in the office and drank the coffee, too. Pauline did make nice coffee ?you could say that for her. But when he brought in Floyd's lunch and Floyd was still sleeping and still in the same position, Nolly got a little scared and set the tray on the floor and went over and banged on the bars with a spoon.

'Hey! Floyd! Wake up, I got y'dinner.'

Floyd didn't wake up, and Nolly took his key ring out of his pocket to open the drunk-tank door. He paused just before inserting the key. Last week's' Gunsmoke' had been about a hard guy who pretended to be sick until he jumped the turnkey. Nolly had never thought of Floyd Tibbits as a particularly hard guy, but he hadn't exactly rocked that Mears guy to sleep.

He paused indecisively, holding the spoon in one hand and the key ring in the other, a big man whose open-throat white shirts always sweat-stained around the armpits by noon of a warm day. He was a league bowler with an average of 151 and a weekend bar-hopper with a list of Portland red-light bars and motels in his wallet right behind his Lutheran Ministry pocket calendar. He was a friendly man, a natural fall guy, slow of reaction and also slow to anger. For all these not inconsiderable advantages, he was not particularly agile on his mental feet and for several minutes he stood wondering how to proceed, beating on the bars with the spoon, hailing Floyd, wishing he would move or snore or do something. He was just thinking he better call Parkins on the citizen's band and get instructions when Parkins himself said from the office doorway:

'What in hell are you doin', Nolly? Callin' the hogs?'

Nolly blushed. 'Floyd won't move, Park. I'm afraid that maybe he's . . . you know, sick.'

'Well, do you think beatin' the bars with that goddamn spoon will make him better?' Parkins stepped by him and unlocked the cell.

'Floyd?' He shook Floyd's shoulder. 'Are you all r - '

Floyd fell off the chained bunk and onto the floor.

'Goddamn,' said Nolly. 'He's dead, ain't he?'

But Parkins might not have heard. He was staring down at Floyd's uncannily reposeful face. The fact slowly dawned on Nolly that Parkins looked as if someone had scared the bejesus out of him.

'What's the matter, Park?'

'Nothin',' Parkins said. 'Just . . . let's get out of here.' And then, almost to himself, he added: 'Christ, I wish I hadn't touched him.'

Nolly looked down at Floyd's body with dawning horror.

'Wake up,' Parkins said. 'We've got to get the doctor down here.'

6

It was midafternoon when Franklin Boddin and Virgil Rathbun drove up to the slatted wooden gate at the end of the Burns Road fork, two miles beyond Harmony Hill Cemetery. They were in Franklin's 1957 Chevrolet pickup, a vehicle that had been Corinthian ivory back in the first year of Ike's second term but which was now a mixture of shit brown and primer-paint red. The back of the truck was filled with what Franklin called Crappie. Once every month or so, he and Virgil took a load of Crappie to the dump, and a great deal of said Crappie consisted of empty beer bottles, empty beer cans, empty half-kegs, empty wine bottles, and empty Popov vodka bottles.

'Closed,' Franklin Boddin said, squinting to read the sign nailed to the gate. 'Well I'll be dipped in shit.' He took a honk off the bottle of Dawson's that had been resting comfortably against the bulge of his crotch and wiped his mouth with his arm. 'This is Saturday, ain't it?'

'Sure is,' Virgil Rathbun said. Virgil had no idea if it was Saturday or Tuesday. He was so drunk he wasn't even sure what month it was.

'Dump ain't closed on Saturday, is it'?' Franklin asked. There was only one sign, but he was seeing three. He squinted again. All three signs said 'Closed'. The paint was barn-red and had undoubtedly come out of the can of paint that rested inside the door of Dud Rogers's caretaker shack.

'Never was closed on Saturday,' Virgil said. He swung his bottle of beer toward his face, missed his mouth, and poured a blurt of beer on his left shoulder. 'God, that hits the spot.'

'Closed,' Franklin said, with mounting irritation. 'That son of a whore is off on a toot, that's what. I'll close him.' He threw the truck into first gear and popped the clutch. Beer foamed out of the bottle between his legs and ran over his pants.

'Wind her, Franklin!' Virgil cried, and let out a massive belch as the pickup crashed through the gate, knocking it onto the can-littered verge of the road. Franklin shifted into second and shot up the rutted, chuck-holed road. The truck bounced madly on its worn springs. Bottles fell off the back end and smashed. Sea gulls took to the air in screaming, circling waves.

A quarter of a mile beyond the gate, the Burns Road fork (now known as the Dump Road) ended in a widening clearing that was the dump. The close-pressing alders and maples gave way to reveal a great flat area of raw earth which had been scored and runneled by the constant use of the old Case bulldozer which was now parked by Dud's shack. Beyond this flat area was the gravel pit where current dumping went on. The trash and garbage, glitter?shot with bottles and aluminum cans, stretched away in gigantic dunes.

'Goddamn no-account hunchbacked pisswah, looks like he ain't plowed nor burned all the week long,' Franklin said. He jammed both feet on the brake pedal, which sank all the way to the floor with a mechanical scream. After a while the truck stopped. 'He's laid up with a case, that's what.'

'I never knew Dud to drink much,' Virgil said, tossing his empty out the window and pulling another from the brown bag on the floor. He opened it on the door latch, and the beer, crazied up from the  bumps, bubbled out over his hand.

'All them hunchbacks do,' Franklin said wisely. He spat out the window, discovered it was closed, and swiped his shirt sleeve across the scratched and cloudy glass. 'We'll go see him. Might be somethin' in it.'

He backed the truck around in a huge wandering circle and pulled up with the tailgate hanging over the latest accumulation of the Lot's accumulated throwaway. He switched off the ignition, and silence pressed in on them suddenly. Except for the restless calling of the gulls, it was complete.

'Ain't it quiet,' Virgil muttered.

They got out of the truck and went around to the back. Franklin unhooked the S-bolts that held the tailgate and let it drop with a crash. The gulls that had been feeding at the far end of the dump rose in a cloud, squalling and scolding.

The two of them climbed up without a word and began heaving the Crappie off the end. Green plastic bags spun through the clear air and smashed open as they hit. It was an old job for them. They were a part of the town that few tourists ever saw (or cared to) - firstly, because the town ignored them by tacit agreement, and secondly, because they had developed their own protective coloration. If you met Franklin's pickup on the road, you forgot it the instant it was gone from your rear-view mirror. If you happened to see their shack with its tin chimney sending a pencil line of smoke into the white November sky, you overlooked it. If you met Virgil coming out of the Cumberland greenfront with a bottle of welfare vodka in a brown bag, you said hi and then couldn't quite remember who it was you had spoken to; the face was familiar but the name just slipped your mind. Franklin's brother was Derek Boddin, father of Richie (lately deposed king of Stanley Street Elementary School), and Derek had nearly forgotten that Franklin was still alive and in town. He had progressed beyond black sheepdom; he was totally gray.

Now, with the truck empty, Franklin kicked out a last can - clink! - and hitched up his green work pants. 'Let's go see Dud,' he said.

They climbed down from the truck and Virgil tripped over one of his own rawhide lacings and sat down hard. 'Christ, they don't make these things half-right,' he mut?tered obscurely.

They walked across to Dud's tarpaper shack. The door was closed.

'Dud!' Franklin bawled. 'Hey, Dud Rogers!' He thumped the door once, and the whole shack trembled. The small hook-and-eye lock on the inside of the door snapped off, and the door tottered open. The shack was empty but filled with a sickish-sweet odor that made them look at each other and grimace - and they were barroom veterans of a great many fungoid smells. It reminded Franklin fleetingly of pickles that had lain in a dark crock for many years, until the fluid seeping out of them had turned white.

'Son of a whore,' Virgil said. 'Worse than gangrene.'

Yet the shack was astringently neat. Dud's extra shirt was hung on a hook over the bed, the splintery kitchen chair was pushed up to the table, and the cot was made up Army-style. The can of red paint, with fresh drips down the sides, was placed on a fold of newspaper behind the door.

'I'm about to puke if we don't get out of here,' Virgil said. His face had gone a whitish-green.

Franklin, who felt no better, backed out and shut the door.

They surveyed the dump, which was as deserted and sterile as the mountains of the moon.

'He ain't here,' Franklin said. 'He's back in the woods someplace, laying up snookered.'

'Frank?'

'What,' Franklin said shortly. He was out of temper.

'That door was latched on the inside. If he ain't there, how did he get out?'

Startled, Franklin turned around and regarded the shack. Through the window, he started to say, and then didn't. The window was nothing but a square cut into the tarpaper and buttoned up with all-weather plastic. The window wasn't large enough for Dud to squirm through, not with the hump on his back.

'Never mind,' Franklin said gruffly. 'If he don't want to share, fuck him. Let's get out of here.'

They walked back to the truck, and Franklin felt some?thing seeping through the protective membrane of drunkenness - something he would not remember later, or want to: a creeping feeling; a feeling that something here had gone terribly awry. It was as if the dump had gained a heartbeat and that beat was slow yet full of terrible vitality. He suddenly wanted to go away very quickly.

'I don't see any rats,' Virgil said suddenly.

And there were none to be seen; only the gulls. Franklin tried to remember a time when he had brought the Crappie to the dump and seen no rats. He couldn't. And he didn't like that, either.

'He must have put out poison bait, huh, Frank?'

'Come on, let's go,' Franklin said. 'Let's get the hell out of here.'

7

After supper, they let Ben go up and see Matt Burke. It was a short visit; Matt was sleeping. The oxygen tent had been taken away, however, and the head nurse told Ben that Matt would almost certainly be awake tomorrow morning and able to see visitors for a short time.

Ben thought his face looked drawn and cruelly aged, for the first time an old man's face. Lying still, with the loosened flesh of his neck rising out of the hospital johnny, he seemed vulnerable and defenseless. If it's all true, Ben thought, these people are doing you no favors, Matt. If it's all true, then we're in the citadel of unbelief, where nightmares are dispatched with Lysol and scalpels and chemotherapy rather than with stakes and Bibles and wild mountain thyme. They're happy with their life support units and hypos and enema bags filled with barium sol?ution. If the column of truth has a hole in it, they neither know nor care.

He walked to the head of the bed and turned Matt's head with gentle fingers. There were no marks on the skin of his neck; the flesh was blameless.

He hesitated a moment longer, then went to the closet and opened it. Matt's clothes hung there, and hooked over the closet door's inside knob was the crucifix he had been wearing when Susan visited him. It hung from a filigreed chain that gleamed softly in the room's subdued light.

Ben took it back to the bed and put it around Matt's neck.

'Here, what are you doing?'

A nurse had come in with a pitcher of water and a bedpan with a towel spread decorously over the opening.

'I'm putting his cross around his neck,' Ben said.

'Is he a Catholic?'

'He is now,' Ben said somberly.

8

Night had fallen when a soft rap came at the kitchen door of the Sawyer house on the Deep Cut Road. Bonnie Sawyer, with a small smile on her lips, went to answer it. She was wearing a short ruffled apron tied at the waist, high heels, and nothing else.

When she opened the door, Corey Bryant's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. 'Buh,' he said. 'Buh . . . Buh . . . Bonnie?'

'What's the matter, Corey?' She put a hand on the door jamb with light deliberation, pulling her bare breasts up to their sauciest angle. At the same time she crossed her feet demurely, modeling her legs for him.

'Jeez, Bonnie, what if it had been - '

'The man from the telephone company?' she asked, and giggled. She took one of his hands and placed it on the firm flesh of her right breast. 'Want to read my meter?'

With a grunt that held a note of desperation (the drown?ing man going down for the third time, clutching a mam?mary instead of a straw), he pulled her to him. His hands cupped her buttocks, and the starched apron crackled briskly between them.  

'Oh my,' she said, wiggling against him. 'Are you going to test my receiver, Mr Telephone Man? I've been waiting for an important call all day - '

He picked her up and kicked the door shut behind him. She did not need to direct him to the bedroom. He knew his way.

'You're sure he's not going to be home?' he asked.

Her eyes gleamed in the darkness. 'Why, who can you mean, Mr Telephone Man? Not my handsome hubby . . . he's in Burlington, Vermont.'

He put her down on the bed crossways with her legs dangling off the side.

'Turn on the light,' she said, her voice suddenly slow and heavy. 'I want to see what you're doing.'

He turned on the bedside lamp and looked down at her. The apron had been pulled away to one side. Her eyes were heavy-lidded and warm, the pupils large and brilliant.

'Take that thing off,' he said, gesturing.  

'You take it off,' she said. 'You can figure out the knots, Mr Telephone Man.'

He bent to do it. She always made him feel like a dry-mouth kid stepping up to the plate for the first time, and his hands always trembled when they got near her, as if her very flesh was transmitting a strong current into the air all around her. She never left his mind completely anymore. She was lodged in there like a sore inside the cheek which the tongue keeps poking and testing, She even cavorted through his dreams, golden-skinned, blackly exciting. Her invention knew no bounds.  

'No, on your knees,' she said. 'Get on your knees for me.'

He dropped clumsily onto his knees and crawled toward her, reaching for the apron ties. She put one high-heeled foot on each shoulder. He bent to kiss the inside of her thigh, the flesh firm and slightly warm under his lips.

'That's right, Corey, that's just right, keep going up, keep - '

'Well, this is cute, ain't it?'

Bonnie Sawyer screamed.

Corey Bryant looked up, blinking and confused.

Reggie Sawyer was leaning in the bedroom doorway He was holding a shotgun cradled loosely over his forearm barrels pointed at the floor.

Corey felt a warm gush as his bladder let go.

'So it's true,' Reggie marveled. He stepped into the room. He was smiling. 'How about that? I owe that tosspot Mickey Sylvester a case of Budweiser. Goddamn.'

Bonnie found her voice first.

'Reggie, listen. It isn't what you think. He broke in, be was like a crazyman, he, he was - '

'Shut up, cunt.' He was still smiling. It was a gentle smile. He was quite big. He was wearing the same steel-?colored suit he had been wearing when she had kissed him good-by two hours before.

'Listen,' Corey said weakly. His mouth felt full of loose spit. 'Please. Please don't kill me. Not even if I deserve it. You don't want to go to jail. Not over this. Beat me up, I got that coming, but please don't - '

'Get up off your knees, Perry Mason,' Reggie Sawyer said, still smiling his gentle smile. 'Your fly's unzipped.'

'Listen, Mr Sawyer - '

'Oh, call me Reggie,' Reggie said, smiling gently. 'We're almost best buddies. I've even been getting your sloppy seconds, isn't that right?'

'Reggie, this isn't what you think, he raped me - '

Reggie looked at her and his smile was gentle and benign. 'If you say another word, I'm going to jam this up inside you and let you have some special airmail.'

Bonnie began to moan. Her face had gone the color of unflavored yogurt.

'Mr Sawyer . . . Reggie . . . '

'Your name's Bryant, ain't it? Your daddy's Pete Bryant, ain't be?'

Corey's head bobbed madly in agreement. 'Yeah, that's right. That's just right. Listen - '

'I used to sell him number two fuel oil when I was driving for Jim Webber,' Reggie said, smiling with gentle reminiscence. 'That was four or five years before I met this high-box bitch here. Your daddy know you're here?'

'No, sir, it'd break his heart. You can beat me up, I got that coming, but if you kill me my daddy'd find out and I bet it'd kill him dead as shit and then you'd be responsible for two - '

'No, I bet he don't know. Come on out in the living room a minute. We got to talk this over. Come on.' He smiled gently at Corey to show him that he meant him no harm and then his eyes flicked to Bonnie, who was staring at him with bulging eyes. 'You stay right there, puss, or you ain't never going to know how "Secret Storm" comes out. Come on, Bryant.' He gestured with the shotgun.  

Corey walked out into the living room ahead of Reggie, staggering a little. His legs were rubber. A patch between his shoulder blades began to itch insanely. That's where he's going to put it, he thought, right between the shoulder blades. I wonder if I'll live long enough to see my guts hit the wall  -

'Turn around,' Reggie said.

Corey turned around. He was beginning to blubber. He didn't want to blubber, but he couldn't seem to help it. He supposed it didn't matter if he blubbered or not. He had already wet himself.

The shotgun was no longer dangling casually over Reggie's forearm. The double barrels were pointing di?rectly at Corey's face. The twin bores seemed to swell and yawn until they were bottomless wells.

'You know what you been doin'?' Reggie asked. The smile was gone. His face was very grave.

Corey didn't answer. It was a stupid question. He did keep on blubbering, however,

'You slept with another guy's wife, Corey. That your name?'  

Corey nodded, tears streaming down his cheeks.

'You know what happens to guys like that if they get caught?'

Corey nodded.

'Grab the barrel of this shotgun, Corey. Very easy. It's got a five-pound pull and I got about three on it now. So pretend . . . oh, pretend you're grabbing my wife's tit.'

Corey reached out one shaking hand and placed it on the barrel of the shotgun. The metal was cool against his flushed palm. A long, agonized groan came out of his throat. Nothing else was left. Pleading was done.

'Put it in your mouth, Corey. Both barrels. Yes, that's right. Easy! . . . that's okay. Yes, your mouth's big enough. Slip it right in there. You know all about slipping it in, don't you?'

Corey's jaws were open to their widest accommodation. The barrels of the shotgun were pushed back nearly to his palate, and his terrified stomach was trying to retch. The steel was oily against his teeth.

'Close your eyes, Corey.'

Corey only stared at him, his swimming eyes as big as tea saucers.

Reggie smiled his gentle smile again. 'Close those baby blue eyes, Corey.'

Corey closed them.

His sphincter let go. He was only dimly aware of it.

Reggie pulled both triggers. The hammers fell on empty chambers with a double click-click.

Corey fell onto the floor in a dead faint.

Reggie looked down at him for a moment, smiling gently, and then reversed the shotgun so the butt end was up. He turned to the bedroom. 'Here I come, Bonnie. Ready or not.'

Bonnie Sawyer began to scream.

9

Corey Bryant was stumbling up the Deep Cut Road toward where he had left his phone truck parked. He stank. His eyes were bloodshot and glassy. There was a large bump on the back of his head where he had struck it on the floor when he fainted. His boots made dragging, scuffing sounds on the soft shoulder. He tried to think about the scuffing sounds and nothing else, most notably about the sudden and utter ruin of his life. It was quarter past eight.

Reggie Sawyer had still been smiling gently when he ushered Corey out the kitchen door. Bonnie's steady, racking sobs had come from the bedroom, counterpointing his words. 'You go on up the road like a good boy, now. Get in your truck and go back to town. There's a bus that comes in from Lewiston for Boston at quarter to ten. From Boston you can get a bus to anywhere in the country. That bus stops at Spencer's. You be on it. Because if I ever see you again, I'm going to kill you. She'll be all right now. She's broke in now. She's gonna have to wear pants and long-sleeve blouses for a couple of weeks, but I didn't mark her face. You just want to get out of 'salem's Lot before you clean yourself up and start thinking you are a man again.'

And now here he was, walking up this road, about to do just what Reggie Sawyer said. He could go south from Boston . . . somewhere. He had a little over a thousand dollars saved in the bank. His mother had always said he was a very saving soul. He could wire for the money, live on it until he could get a job and begin the years-long job of forgetting this night - the taste of the gun barrel, the smell of his own shit satcheled in his trousers.

'Hello, Mr Bryant.'

Corey gave a stifled scream and stared wildly into the dark, at first seeing nothing. The wind was moving in the trees, making shadows jump and dance across the road. Suddenly his eyes made out a more solid shadow, standing by the stone wall that ran between the road and Carl Smith's back pasture. The shadow had a manlike form, but there was something . . . something . . .

'Who are you?'

'A friend who sees much, Mr Bryant.'

The form shifted and came from the shadows. In the faint light, Corey saw a middle-aged man with a black mustache and deep, bright eyes.

'You've been ill used, Mr Bryant.'

'How do you know my business?'

'I know a great deal. It's my business to know. Smoke?'

'Thanks.' He took the offered cigarette gratefully. He put it between his lips. The stranger struck a light, and in the glow of the wooden match he saw that the stranger's cheekbones were high and Slavic, his forehead pale and bony, his dark hair swept straight back. Then the light was gone and Corey was dragging harsh smoke into his lungs. It was a dago cigarette, but any cigarette was better than none. He began to feel a little calmer.

'Who are you?' be asked again.

The stranger laughed, a startlingly rich and full-bodied sound that drifted off on the slight breeze like the smoke of Corey's cigarette.

'Names!' he said. 'Oh, the American insistence on names! Let me sell you an auto because I am Bill Smith! Eat at this one! Watch that one on television! My name is Barlow, if that eases you.' And he burst into laughter again, his eyes twinkling and shining. Corey felt a smile creep onto his own lips and could scarcely believe it. His troubles seemed distant, unimportant, in comparison to the derisive good humor in those dark eyes.

'You're a foreigner, aren't you?' Corey asked.

'I am from many lands; but to me this country . . . this town . . . seems full of foreigners. You see? Eh? Eh?' He burst into that full-throated crow of laughter again, and this time Corey found himself joining in. The laughter escaped his throat under full pressure, rising a bit with delayed hysteria.

'Foreigners, yes,' he resumed, 'but beautiful, enticing foreigners, bursting with vitality, full-blooded and full of life. Do you know how beautiful the people of your country and your town are, Mr Bryant?'

Corey only chuckled, slightly embarrassed. He did not look away from the stranger's face, however. It held him rapt.

'They have never known hunger or want, the people of this country. It has been two generations since they knew anything close to it, and even then it was like a voice in a distant room. They think they have known sadness, but their sadness is that of a child who has spilled his ice cream on the grass at a birthday party. There is no . . . how is the English? . . . attenuation in them. They spill each other's blood with great vigor. Do you believe it? Do you see?'

'Yes,' Corey said. Looking into the stranger's eyes, he could see a great many things, all of them wonderful.

'The country is an amazing paradox. In other lands, when a man eats to his fullest day after day, that man becomes fat . . . sleepy . . . piggish. But in this land . . . it seems the more you have the more aggressive you become. You see? Like Mr Sawyer. With so much; yet he begrudges you a few crumbs from his table. Also like a child at a birthday party, who will push away another baby even though he himself can eat no more. Is it not so? ,

'Yes,' Corey said. Barlow's eyes were so large, and so understanding. It was all a matter of  -

'It is all a matter of perspective, is it not?'

'Yes!' Corey exclaimed. The man had put his finger on the right, the exact, the perfect, word. The cigarette dropped unnoticed from his fingers and lay smoldering on the road.

'I might have bypassed such a rustic community as this,' the stranger said reflectively. 'I might have gone to one of your great and teeming cities. Bah!' He drew himself up suddenly, and his eyes flashed. 'What do I know of cities? I should be run over by a hansom crossing the street! I should choke on nasty air! I should come in contact with sleek, stupid dilettantes whose concerns are . . . what do you say? inimical? . . . yes, inimical to me. How should a poor rustic like myself deal with the hollow sophistication of a great city . . . even an American city? No! And no and no! I spit on your cities!'

'Oh yes!' Corey whispered.

'So I have come here, to a town which was first told of to me by a most brilliant man, a former townsman himself, now lamentably deceased. The folk here are still rich and full-blooded, folk who are stuffed with the aggression and darkness so necessary to . . . there is no English for it. Pokol; vurderlak; eyalik. Do you follow?'

'Yes,' Corey whispered.

'The people have not cut off the vitality which flows from their mother, the earth, with a shell of concrete and cement. Their hands are plunged into the very waters of life. They have ripped the life from the earth, whole and beating! Is it not true?'

'Yes!'

The stranger chuckled kindly and put a hand on Corey's shoulder. 'You are a good boy. A fine, strong boy. I don't think you want to leave this so-perfect town, do you?'

'No . . . ' Corey whispered, but he was suddenly doubt?ful. Fear was returning. But surely it was unimportant. This man would allow no harm to come to him.

'And so you shall not. Ever again.'

Corey stood trembling, rooted to the spot, as Barlow's head inclined toward him.

'And you shall yet have your vengeance on those who would fill themselves while others want.'

Corey Bryant sank into a great forgetful river, and that river was time, and its waters were red.

10

It was nine o'clock and the Saturday night movie was coming on the hospital TV bolted to the wall when the phone beside Ben's bed rang. It was Susan, and her voice was barely under control.

'Ben, Floyd Tibbits is dead. He died in his cell some time last night. Dr Cody says acute anemia - but I went with Floyd! He had high blood pressure. That's why the Army wouldn't take him!'

'Slow down,' Ben said, sitting up.

'There's more. A family named McDougall out in the Bend. A little ten months baby died out there. They took Mrs McDougall away in restraints.'

'Have you heard how the baby died?'

'My mother said Mrs Evans came over when she heard Sandra McDougall screaming, and Mrs Evans called old Dr Plowman. Plowman didn't say anything, but Mrs Evans told my mother that she couldn't see a thing wrong with the baby . . . except it was dead.'

'And both Matt and I, the crackpots, just happen to be out of town and out of action,' Ben said, more to himself than to Susan. 'Almost as if it were planned.'

'There's more.'

'What?'

'Carl Foreman is missing. And so is the body of Mike Ryerson.'

'I think that's it,' he heard himself saying. 'That has to be it. I'm getting out of here tomorrow.'

'Will they let you go so soon?'

'They aren't going to have anything to say about it.' He spoke the words absently; his mind had already moved on to another subject. 'Have you got a crucifix?'

'Me?' She sounded startled and a little amused. 'Gosh, no.'

'I'm not joking with you, Susan - I was never more serious. Is there anyplace where you can get one at this hour?'

'Well, there's Marie Boddin. I could walk - '

'No. Stay off the streets. Stay in the house. Make one yourself, even if it only means gluing two sticks together. Leave it by your bed.'

'Ben, I still don't believe this. A maniac, maybe, some?one who thinks he's a vampire, but - '

'Believe what you want, but make the cross.'

'But - '

'Will you do it? Even if it only means humoring me?'

Reluctantly: 'Yes, Ben.'

'Can you come to the hospital tomorrow around nine?'

'Yes.'

'Okay. We'll go upstairs and fill in Matt together. Then you and I are going to talk to Dr James Cody.'

She said, 'He's going to think you're crazy, Ben. Don't you know that?'

'I suppose I do. But it all seems more real after dark, doesn't it?'

'Yes,' she said softly. 'God, yes.'

For no reason at all he thought of Miranda and Miranda's dying: the motorcycle hitting the wet patch, going into a skid, the sound of her scream, his own brute panic, and the side of the truck growing and growing as they approached it broadside.

'Susan?'

'Yes.'

'Take good care of yourself. Please.'

After she hung up, he put the phone back in the cradle and stared at the TV, barely seeing the Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy that had begun to unreel up there. He felt naked, exposed. He had no cross himself. His eyes strayed to the windows, which showed only blackness. The old, childlike terror of the dark began to creep over him and he looked at the television where Doris Day was giving a shaggy dog a bubble bath and was afraid.

11

The county morgue in Portland is a cold and antiseptic room done entirely in green tile. The floors and walls are a uniform medium green, and the ceiling is a lighter green. The walls are lined with square doors which look like large bus-terminal coin lockers. Long parallel fluorescent tubes shed a chilly neutral light over all of this. The decor is hardly inspired, but none of the clientele have ever been known to complain.

At quarter to ten on this Saturday night, two attendants were wheeling in the sheet-covered body of a young homo?sexual who had been shot in a downtown bar. It was the first stiff they had received that night; the highway fatals usually came in between 1:00 and 3:00 A.M.

Buddy Bascomb was in the middle of a Frenchman joke that had to do with vaginal deodorant spray when he broke off in midsentence and stared down the line of locker doors M-Z. Two of them were standing open.

He and Bob Greenberg left the new arrival and hurried down quickly. Buddy glanced at the tag on the first door he came to while Bob went down to the next.

TIBBITS, FLOYD MARTIN

Sex: M

Admitted: 10/4/75

Autops. sched.: 10/5/75

Signator: J. M. Cody, MD

He yanked the handle set inside the door, and the slab rolled out on silent casters.

Empty.

'Hey!' Greenberg yelled up to him. 'This fucking thing is empty. Whose idea of a joke - '

'I was on the desk all the time,' Buddy said. 'No one went by me. I'd swear to it. It must have happened on Carty's shift. What's the name on that one?'

'McDougall, Randall Fratus. What does this abbrevi?ation inf. mean?'

'Infant,' Buddy said dully. 'Jesus Christ, I think we're in trouble.'

12

Something had awakened him.

He lay still in the ticking dark, looking at the ceiling.

A noise. Some noise. But the house was silent.

There it was again. Scratching.

Mark Petrie turned over in bed and looked through the window and Danny Glick was staring in at him through the glass, his skin grave-pale, his eyes reddish and feral.

Some dark substance was smeared about his lips and chin, and when he saw Mark looking at him, he smiled and showed teeth grown hideously long and sharp.

'Let me in,' the voice whispered, and Mark was not sure if the words had crossed dark air or were only in his mind.

He became aware that he was frightened - his body had known before his mind. He had never been so frightened, not even when he got tired swimming back from the float at Popham Beach and thought he was going to drown. His mind, still that of a child in a thousand ways, made an accurate judgment of his position in seconds. He was in peril of more than his life.

'Let me in, Mark. I want to play with you.'

There was nothing for that hideous entity outside the window to hold onto; his room was on the second floor and there was no ledge. Yet somehow it hung suspended in space . . . or perhaps it was clinging to the outside shingles like some dark insect.

'Mark . . . I finally came, Mark. Please . . . '

Of course. You have to invite them inside. He knew that from his monster magazines, the ones his mother was afraid might damage or warp him in some way.

He got out of bed and almost fell down. It was only then that he realized fright was too mild a word for this. Even terror did not express what he felt. The pallid face outside the window tried to smile, but it had lain in darkness too long to remember precisely how. What Mark saw was a twitching grimace - a bloody mask tragedy.

Yet if you looked in the eyes, it wasn't so bad. If you looked in the eyes, you weren't so afraid anymore and you saw that all you had to do was open the window and say, 'C'mon in, Danny,' and then you wouldn't be afraid at all because you'd be at one with Danny and all of them and at one with him. You'd be  -

No! That's how they get you!

He dragged his eyes away, and it took all of his will power to do it.

'Mark, let me in! I command it! He commands it!'

Mark began to walk toward the window again. There was no help for it. There was no possible way to deny that voice. As he drew closer to the glass, the evil little boy's face on the other side began to twitch and grimace with eagerness. Fingernails, black with earth, scratched across the windowpane.

Think of something. Quick! Quick!

'The rain,' he whispered hoarsely. 'The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. In vain he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts.'

Danny Glick hissed at him.

'Mark! Open the window!'  

'Betty Bitter bought some butter - '

'The window, Mark, he commands it!'

' - but, says Betty, this butter's bitter.'

He was weakening. That whispering voice was seeing through his barricade, and the command was imperative. Mark's eyes fell on his desk, littered with his model mon?sters, now so bland and foolish  -

His eyes fixed abruptly on part of the display and widened slightly.

The plastic ghoul was walking through a plastic grave?yard and one of the monuments was in the shape of a cross.

With no pause for thought or consideration (both would have come to an adult - his father, for instance - and both would have undone him), Mark swept up the cross, curled it into a tight fist, and said loudly: 'Come on in, then.'

The face became suffused with an expression of vulpine triumph. The window slid up and Danny stepped in and took two paces forward. The exhalation from that opening mouth was fetid, beyond description: a smell of charnel pits. Cold, fish-white hands descended on Mark's shoulders. The head cocked, doglike, the upper lip curled away from those shining canines.

Mark brought the plastic cross around in a vicious swipe and laid it against Danny Glick's cheek.

His scream was horrible, unearthly . . . and silent. It echoed only in the corridors of his brain and the chambers of his soul. The smile of triumph on the Glick-thing's mouth became a yawning grimace of agony. Smoke spurted from the pallid flesh, and for just a moment, before the creature twisted away and half dived, half fell out the window, Mark felt the flesh yield like smoke.

And then it was over, as if it had never happened.

But for a moment the cross shone with a fierce light, as if an inner wire had been ignited. Then it dwindled away, leaving only a blue after-image in front of his eyes.

Through the grating in the floor, he heard the distinctive Click of the lamp in his parents' bedroom and his father's voice: 'What in hell was that?'

13

His bedroom door opened two minutes later, but that was' still time enough to set things to rights.

'Son?' Henry Petrie asked softly. 'Are you awake?'

'I guess so,' Mark answered sleepily.

'Did you have a bad dream?'

'I . . . think so. I don't remember.

'You called out in your sleep - '

'Sorry.'

'No, don't be sorry.' He hesitated and then earlier memories of his son, a small child in a blue blanket?suit that had been much more trouble but infinitely more explicable: 'Do you want a drink of water?'

'No thanks, Dad.'

Henry Petrie surveyed the room briefly, unable to under?stand the trembling feeling of dread he had wakened with, and which lingered still - a feeling of disaster averted by cold inches. Yes, everything seemed all right. The window was shut. Nothing was knocked over.

'Mark, is anything wrong?'

'No, Dad.'

'Well . . . g'night, then.'

'Night.' The door shut softly and his father's slippered feet descended the stairs. Mark let himself go limp with relief and delayed reaction. An adult might have had hysterics at this point, and a slightly younger or older child might also have done. But Mark felt the terror slip from him in almost imperceptible degrees, and the sensation reminded him of letting the wind dry you after you had been swimming on a cool day. And as the terror left, drowsiness began to come in its place.

Before drifting away entirely, he found himself reflecting - not for the first time - on the peculiarity of adults. They took laxatives, liquor, or sleeping pills to drive away their terrors so that sleep would come, and their terrors were so tame and domestic: the job I the money, what the teacher will think if I can't get Jennie nicer clothes, does my wife still love me, who are my friends. They were pallid compared to the fears every child lies cheek and jowl with in his dark bed, with no one to confess to in hope of perfect understanding but another child. There is no group therapy or psychiatry or community social services for the child who must cope with the thing under the bed or in the cellar every night, the thing which leers and capers and threatens just beyond the point where vision will reach. The same lonely battle must be fought night after night and the only cure is the eventual ossification of the imaginary faculties, and this is called adulthood.

In some shorter, simpler mental shorthand, these thoughts passed through his brain. The night before, Matt Burke had faced such a dark thing and had been stricken by a heart seizure brought on by fright; tonight Mark Petrie had faced one, and ten minutes later lay in the lap of sleep, the plastic cross still grasped loosely in his right hand like a child's rattle. Such is the difference between men and boys.