Hill Joe – 1/2 NOS4A2 [Full Horror Sci-Fi Audiobook]

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Hill Joe – 1/2 NOS4A2 [Full Horror Sci-Fi Audiobook]

HarperAudio presents Nosferatu by Joe Hill Performed by Kate Mulgrew DEDICATION To my mom—here’s a mean machine for the story queen EPIGRAPH Die Todten reiten schnell (For the dead travel fast.) —“LENORE,” GOTTFRIED BÜRGER PROLOGUE: SEASON’S GREETINGS DECEMBER 2008 FCI Englewood, Colorado NURSE THORNTON DROPPED INTO THE LONG-TERM-CARE WARD A little before eight with a hot bag of blood for Charlie Manx She was coasting on autopilot, her thoughts not on her work. She had finally made up her mind to buy her son, Josiah, the Nintendo DS he wanted, and was calculating whether she could get to Toys “R” Us after her shift, before they closed She had been resisting the impulse for a few weeks, on philosophical grounds. She didn’t really care if all his friends had one. She just didn’t like the idea of those handheld video-game systems that the kids carried with them everywhere. Ellen Thornton resented the way little boys disappeared into the glowing screen, ditching the real world for some province of the imagination where fun replaced thought and inventing creative new kills was an art form. She had fantasized having a child who would love books and play Scrabble and want to go on snowshoeing expeditions with her What a laugh Ellen had held out as long as she could, and then, yesterday afternoon, she had come across Josiah sitting on his bed pretending an old wallet was a Nintendo DS. He had cut out a picture of Donkey Kong and slipped it into the clear plastic sleeve for displaying photographs He pressed imaginary buttons and made explosion sounds, and her heart had hurt a little, watching him make believe he already had something he was certain he would get on the Big Day Ellen could have her theories about what was healthy for boys and what wasn’t. That didn’t mean Santa had to share them Because she was preoccupied, she didn’t notice what was different about Charlie Manx until she was easing around his cot to reach the IV rack. He happened to sigh heavily just then, as if bored, and she looked down and saw him staring up at her, and she was so startled to see him with his eyes open that she bobbled the sack of blood and almost dumped it on her feet He was hideous-old, not to mention hideous His great bald skull was a globe mapping an alien moon, continents marked by liver spots and bruise-colored sarcomas. Of all the men in the long-term-care ward—a.k.a. the Vegetable Patch—there was something particularly awful about Charlie Manx with his eyes open at this time of year. Manx liked children. He’d made dozens of them disappear back in the nineties. He had a house below the Flatirons where he did what he liked with them and killed them and hung Christmas ornaments in their memory. The papers called the place the Sleigh House. Ho, ho, ho For the most part, Ellen could shut off the mother side of her brain while she was at work, could keep her mind away from thoughts of what Charlie Manx had probably done with the little girls and boys who had crossed his path, little girls and boys no older than her Josiah. Ellen didn’t muse on what any of her charges had done, if she could help it. The patient on the other side of the room had tied up his girlfriend and her two children, set fire to their house, and left them to burn. He was arrested in a bar down the street, drinking Bushmills and watching the White Sox play the Rangers. Ellen didn’t see how dwelling on it was ever going to do her any favors, and so she had taught herself to think of her patients as extensions of the machines and drip bags they were hooked up to: meat peripherals In all the time she’d been working at FCI Englewood, in the Supermax prison infirmary, she had never seen Charlie Manx with his eyes open. She’d been on staff for three years, and he had been comatose all that time. He was the frailest of her patients, a fragile coat of skin with bones inside. His heart monitor blipped like a metronome set to the slowest possible speed. The doc said he had as much brain activity as a can of creamed corn. No one had ever determined his age, but he looked older than Keith Richards. He even looked a little like Keith Richards—a bald Keith with a mouthful of sharp little brown teeth

There were three other coma patients in the ward, what the staff called “gorks.” When you were around them long enough, you learned that all the gorks had their quirks. Don Henry, the man who burned his girl and her kids to death, went for “walks” sometimes. He didn’t get up, of course, but his feet pedaled weakly under the sheets. There was a guy named Leonard Potts who’d been in a coma for five years and was never going to wake up—another prisoner had jammed a screwdriver through his skull and into his brain. But sometimes he cleared his throat and would shout “I know!” as if he were a small child who wanted to answer the teacher’s question. Maybe opening his eyes was Manx’s quirk and she’d just never caught him doing it before “Hello, Mr. Manx,” Ellen said automatically “How are you feeling today?” She smiled a meaningless smile and hesitated, still holding the sack of body-temperature blood. She didn’t expect a reply but thought it would be considerate to give him a moment to collect his nonexistent thoughts. When he didn’t say anything, she reached forward with one hand to slide his eyelids closed He caught her wrist. She screamed—couldn’t help it—and dropped the bag of blood. It hit the floor and exploded in a crimson gush, the hot spray drenching her feet “Ugh!” she cried. “Ugh! Ugh! Oh, God!” It smelled like fresh-poured iron “Your boy, Josiah,” Charlie Manx said to her, his voice grating and harsh. “There’s a place for him in Christmasland, with the other children. I could give him a new life I could give him a nice new smile. I could give him nice new teeth.” Hearing him say her son’s name was worse than having Manx’s hand on her wrist or blood on her feet. (Clean blood, she told herself, clean.) Hearing this man, convicted murderer and child molester, speak of her son made her dizzy, genuinely dizzy, as if she were in a glass elevator rushing quickly into the sky, the world dropping away beneath her “Let go,” she whispered “There’s a place for Josiah John Thornton in Christmasland, and there’s a place for you in the House of Sleep,” Charlie Manx said. “The Gasmask Man would know just what to do with you. Give you the gingerbread smoke and teach you to love him. Can’t bring you with us to Christmasland. Or I could, but the Gasmask Man is better. The Gasmask Man is a mercy.” “Help,” Ellen screamed, except it didn’t come out as a scream. It came out as a whisper “Help me.” She couldn’t find her voice “I’ve seen Josiah in the Graveyard of What Might Be. Josiah should come for a ride in the Wraith. He’d be happy forever in Christmasland. The world can’t ruin him there, because it isn’t in the world. It’s in my head. They’re all safe in my head I’ve been dreaming about it, you know. Christmasland I’ve been dreaming about it, but I walk and walk and I can’t get to the end of the tunnel. I hear the children singing, but I can’t get to them. I hear them shouting for me, but the tunnel doesn’t end. I need the Wraith. Need my ride.” His tongue slipped out of his mouth, brown and glistening and obscene, and wet his dry lips, and he let her go “Help,” she whispered. “Help. Help Help.” She had to say it another time or two before she could say it loud enough for anyone to hear her. Then she was batting through the doors into the hall, running in her soft flat shoes, screaming for all she was worth Leaving bright red footprints behind her Ten minutes later a pair of officers in riot gear had strapped Manx down to his cot, just in case he opened his eyes and tried to get up. But the doctor who eventually arrived to examine him said to unlash him “This guy has been in a bed since 2001 He has to be turned four times a day to keep from getting sores. Even if he wasn’t a gork, he’s too weak to go anywhere. After seven years of muscle atrophy, I doubt he could sit up on his own.” Ellen was listening from over next to the doors—if Manx opened his eyes again, she planned to be the first one out of the room—but when the doctor said that, she walked across the floor on stiff legs and pulled her sleeve back from her right wrist to show the bruises where Manx had grabbed her “Does that look like something done by a guy too weak to sit up? I thought he was going to yank my arm out of the socket.” Her feet stung almost as badly as her bruised wrist She had stripped off her blood-soaked pantyhose

and gone at her feet with scalding water and antibiotic soap until they were raw. She was in her gym sneakers now. The other shoes were in the garbage. Even if they could be saved, she didn’t think she’d ever be able to put them on again The doctor, a young Indian named Patel, gave her an abashed, apologetic look and bent to shine a flashlight in Manx’s eyes. His pupils did not dilate. Patel moved the flashlight back and forth, but Manx’s eyes remained fixed on a point just beyond Patel’s left ear. The doctor clapped his hands an inch from Manx’s nose. Manx did not blink. Patel gently closed Manx’s eyes and examined the reading from the EKG they were running “There’s nothing here that’s any different from any of the last dozen EKG readings,” Patel said. “Patient scores a nine on the Glasgow scale, shows slow alpha-wave activity consistent with alpha coma. I think he was just talking in his sleep, Nurse. It even happens to gorks like this guy.” “His eyes were open,” she said. “He looked right at me. He knew my name. He knew my son’s name.” Patel said, “Ever had a conversation around him with one of the other nurses? No telling what the guy might’ve unconsciously picked up. You tell another nurse, ‘Oh, hey, my son just won the spelling bee.’ Manx hears it and regurgitates it mid-dream.” She nodded, but a part of her was thinking, He knew Josiah’s middle name, something she was sure she had never mentioned to anyone here in the hospital. There’s a place for Josiah John Thornton in Christmasland, Charlie Manx had said to her, and there’s a place for you in the House of Sleep “I never got his blood in,” she said “He’s been anemic for a couple weeks Picked up a urinary-tract infection from his catheter. I’ll go get a fresh pack.” “Never mind that. I’ll get the old vampire his blood. Look. You’ve had a nasty little scare. Put it behind you. Go home. You only have, what? An hour left on your shift? Take it. Take tomorrow, too. Got some last-minute shopping to finish? Go do it. Stop thinking about this and relax. It’s Christmas, Nurse Thornton,” the doctor said, and winked at her. “Don’t you know it’s the most wonderful time of the year?” SHORTER WAY 1986–1989 Haverhill, Massachusetts THE BRAT WAS EIGHT YEARS OLD THE FIRST TIME SHE RODE OVER THE covered bridge that crossed the distance between Lost and Found It happened like this: They were only just back from The Lake, and the Brat was in her bedroom, putting up a poster of David Hasselhoff—black leather jacket, grinning in that way that made dimples in his cheeks, standing with his arms crossed in front of K.I.T.T.—when she heard a sobbing cry of shock in her parents’ bedroom The Brat had one foot up on the headboard of her bed and was holding the poster to the wall with her chest while she pinned down the corners with brown tape. She froze, tilted her head to listen, not with any alarm, just wondering what her mother was worked up about now. It sounded like she had lost something “—had it, I know I had it!” she cried “You think you took it off down by the water? Before you went in the lake?” asked Chris McQueen. “Yesterday afternoon?” “I told you already I didn’t go swimming.” “But maybe you took it off when you put on suntan lotion.” They continued to go back and forth along these lines, but the Brat decided for the time being that she could tune them out. At the age of eight, the Brat—Victoria to her second-grade teacher, Vicki to her mother, but the Brat to her father and in her heart—was well beyond being alarmed by her mother’s outbursts. Linda McQueen’s gales of laughter and overwrought cries of disappointment were the soundtrack of the Brat’s everyday life and were only occasionally worth noticing She smoothed the poster flat, finished taping it, and stepped back to admire it. David Hasselhoff; so cool. She was frowning, trying to decide if it was crooked, when she heard a door slam and another anguished cry—her mother again—and then her father’s voice “Didn’t I know we were headed here?” he said. “Right on cue.” “I asked if you checked the bathroom, and you said you did. You said you had everything Did you check the bathroom or not?” “I don’t know. No. Probably not. But it doesn’t matter ’cause you didn’t leave it in the bathroom, Linda. Do you know why I know you didn’t leave your bracelet in the bathroom? Because you left it on the beach yesterday. You and Regina Roeson had yourselves a bunch of sun and a bucketful of margaritas, and you got so relaxed you kind of forgot you had a daughter and dozed off. And then when you woke up and you realized you were going to be an hour late to pick her up from day camp—”

“I was not an hour late.” “—you left in a panic. You forgot the suntan lotion, and you forgot your towel, and you forgot your bracelet, too, and now—” “And I wasn’t drunk either, if that’s what you’re implying. I don’t drive our daughter drunk, Chris. That’s your specialty—” “—and now you’re pulling your usual shit and making it someone else’s fault.” The Brat was hardly aware she was moving, wandering into the dim front hall and toward her parents’ bedroom. The door was open about half a foot, revealing a slice of her parents’ bed and the suitcase lying on top of it. Clothes had been pulled out and scattered across the floor. The Brat knew that her mother had, in a spasm of strong feeling, started yanking things out and throwing them, looking for the lost bracelet: a golden hoop with a butterfly mounted upon it, made from glittering blue sapphires and ice-chip diamonds Her mother paced back and forth, so every few seconds she flicked into view, passing through the sliver that the Brat could see of the bedroom “This has nothing to do with yesterday I told you I didn’t lose it at the beach I didn’t. It was next to the sink this morning, right beside my earrings. If they don’t have it at the front desk, then one of the maids took it. That’s what they do, the way they supplement their incomes. They help themselves to whatever the summer people leave around.” The Brat’s father was silent for a while, and then he said, “Jesus. What an ugly fuckin’ person you are inside. And I had a kid with you.” The Brat flinched. A prickling heat rose to the backs of her eyes, but she did not cry Her teeth automatically went to her lip, sinking deep into it, producing a sharp twinge of pain that kept the tears at bay Her mother showed no such restraint and began to weep. She wandered into sight again, one hand pressed over her face, her shoulders hitching. The Brat didn’t want to be seen and retreated down the hallway She continued past her room, along the corridor, and out the front door. The thought of remaining indoors was suddenly intolerable. The air in the house was stale. The air conditioner had been off for a week. All the plants were dead and smelled it She didn’t know where she was going until she got there, although from the moment she heard her father dish out his worst—What an ugly fuckin’ person you are inside—her destination was inevitable. She let herself through the side door of the garage and got her Raleigh Her Raleigh Tuff Burner had been her birthday gift in May and was also, quite simply, her favorite birthday gift of all time . . . then and forever. Even at thirty, if her own son asked her the nicest thing she had ever been given, she would think immediately of the Day-Glo blue Raleigh Tuff Burner with banana yellow rims and fat tires. It was her favorite thing she owned, better than her Magic 8 Ball, her KISS Colorforms set, even her ColecoVision She had spotted it in the window of Pro Wheelz downtown, three weeks before her birthday, when she was out with her father, and gave a big ooh at the sight. Her father, amused, walked her inside and talked the dealer into letting her ride it around the showroom. The salesman had strongly encouraged her to look at other bikes, felt that the Tuff Burner was too big for her, even with the seat dropped to its lowest position. She didn’t know what the guy was talking about. It was like witchcraft; she could’ve been riding a broom, slicing effortlessly through Halloween darkness, a thousand feet off the ground. Her father had pretended to agree with the shopkeeper, though, and told Vic she could have something like it when she was older Three weeks later it was in the driveway, with a big silver bow stuck on the handlebars “You’re older now, ain’tcha?” her father said, and winked She slipped into the garage, where the Tuff Burner leaned against the wall to the left of her father’s bike—not a bicycle but a black 1979 Harley-Davidson shovelhead, what he still rode to work in the summer. Her father was a blaster, had a job on a road crew shearing apart ledge with high explosives, ANFO mostly, sometimes straight TNT. He had told Vic once that it took a clever man to figure out a way to make a profit off his bad habits. When she asked him what he meant, he said most guys who liked to set off bombs wound up in pieces or doing time. In his case it earned him sixty grand a year and was good for even more if he ever managed to frag himself; he had a hell of an insurance package. His pinkie alone was worth twenty thou if he blew it off. His motorcycle had an airbrushed painting of a comically sexy blonde in an American-flag bikini straddling a bomb, against a backdrop of flame. Vic’s father was badass. Other dads built things. Hers blew shit up and rode away on a Harley, smoking the cigarette he used to light the fuse. Top that

The Brat had permission to ride her Raleigh on the trails in the Pittman Street Woods, the unofficial name of a thirty-acre strip of scrub pine and birch that lay just beyond their backyard. She was allowed to go as far as the Merrimack River and the covered bridge before she had to turn back The woods continued on the other side of that covered bridge—also known as the Shorter Way Bridge—but Vic had been forbidden to cross it. The Shorter Way was seventy years old, three hundred feet long, and beginning to sag in the middle. Its walls sloped downriver, and it looked like it would collapse in a strong wind. A chain-link fence barred entrance, although kids had peeled the steel wire up at one corner and gone in there to smoke bud and make out. The tin sign on the fence said DECLARED UNSAFE BY ORDER OF HAVERHILL PD It was a place for delinquents, derelicts, and the deranged She had been in there, of course (no comment on which category she belonged to), never mind her father’s threats, or the UNSAFE sign. She had dared herself to slip under the fence and walk ten steps, and the Brat had never been able to back down on a dare, even one she made to herself. Especially on the dares she made to herself It was five degrees cooler in there, and there were gaps between the floorboards that looked down a hundred feet, toward the wind-roughened water. Holes in the black tar-paper roof let in dust-filled shafts of golden light. Bats peeped shrilly in the dark It had made Vic’s breath quicken, to walk out into the long, shadowed tunnel that bridged not just a river but death itself. She was eight, and she believed she was faster than anything, even a bridge collapse. But she believed it a little less when she was actually taking baby steps across the old, worn, creaky planks. She had made not just ten steps but twenty. At the first loud pop, though, she rabbited, scrambled back and out under the chain-link fence, feeling as if she were half choking on her own heart Now she pointed her bike across the backyard and in another moment was rattling downhill, over root and rock, into the forest. She plunged away from her house and straight into one of her patented make-believe Knight Rider stories She was in the Knight 2000, and they were riding, soaring effortlessly along beneath the trees as the summer day deepened into lemony twilight. They were on a mission to retrieve a microchip, containing the secret location of every single one of America’s missile silos. It was hidden in her mother’s bracelet; the chip was a part of the gemstone butterfly, cleverly disguised as a diamond Mercenaries had it and planned to auction the information to the highest bidder: Iran, the Russians, maybe Canada. Vic and Michael Knight were approaching their hideout by a back road. Michael wanted Vic to promise him she wouldn’t take unnecessary chances, wouldn’t be a stupid kid, and she scoffed at him and rolled her eyes, but they both understood, owing to the exigencies of the plot, that at some point she would have to act like a stupid kid, endangering both of their lives and forcing them to take desperate maneuvers to escape the bad guys Only this narrative wasn’t entirely satisfying For starters, she clearly wasn’t in a car She was on a bike, thumping over roots, pedaling fast, fast enough to keep off the mosquitoes Also, she couldn’t relax and let herself daydream the way she usually could. She kept thinking, Jesus. What an ugly fuckin’ person you are inside. She had a sudden, stomach-twisting thought that when she got home, her father would be gone. The Brat lowered her head and pedaled faster, the only way to leave such a terrible idea behind She was on the bike, was her next thought—not the Tuff Burner but her father’s Harley Her arms were around him, and she was wearing the helmet he had bought for her, the black full-head helmet that made her feel like she was half dressed in a space suit. They were heading back to Lake Winnipesaukee, to get her mother’s bracelet; they were going to surprise her with it. Her mother would shout when she saw it in her father’s hand, and her father would laugh, and hook an arm around Linda McQueen’s waist, and kiss her cheek, and they wouldn’t be mad at each other anymore The Brat glided through flickering sunlight, beneath the overhanging boughs. She was close enough to 495 to hear it: the grinding roar of an eighteen-wheeler downshifting, the hum of the cars, and yes, even the rumbling blast of a motorcycle making its way south When she shut her eyes, she was on the highway herself, making good time, enjoying the feeling of weightlessness as the bike tilted into the curves. She did not note that in her mind she was alone on the bike now, a bigger girl, old enough to twist the throttle herself

She’d shut the both of them up. She’d get the bracelet and come back and throw it on the bed between her parents and walk out without a word. Leave them staring at each other in embarrassment. But mostly she was imagining the bike, the headlong rush into the miles, as the last of the day’s light fled the sky She slipped from fir-scented gloom and out onto the wide dirt road that ran up to the bridge. The Shortaway, locals called it, all one word As she approached the bridge, she saw that the chain-link fence was down. The wire mesh had been wrenched off the posts and was lying in the dirt. The entrance—just barely wide enough to admit a single car—was framed in tangles of ivy, waving gently in the rush of air coming up from the river below. Within was a rectangular tunnel, extending to a square of unbelievable brightness, as if the far end opened onto a valley of golden wheat, or maybe just gold She slowed—for a moment. She was in a cycling trance, had ridden deep into her own head, and when she decided to keep going, right over the fence and into the darkness, she did not question the choice overmuch. To stop now would be a failure of courage she could not permit. Besides. She had faith in speed If boards began to snap beneath her, she would just keep going, getting off the rotten wood before it could give way. If there was someone in there—some derelict who wanted to put his hands on a little girl—she would be past him before he could move The thought of old wood shattering, or a bum grabbing for her, filled her chest with lovely terror and instead of giving her pause caused her to stand up and work the pedals even harder She thought, too, with a certain calm satisfaction, that if the bridge did crash into the river, ten stories below, and she was smashed in the rubble, it would be her parents’ fault for fighting and driving her out of the house, and that would teach them. They would miss her terribly, would be sick with grief and guilt, and it was exactly what they had coming, the both of them The chain-links rattled and banged beneath her tires. She plunged into a subterranean darkness that reeked of bats and rot As she entered, she saw something written on the wall, to her left, in green spray paint She did not slow to read it but thought it said TERRY’S, which was funny because they had eaten at a place called Terry’s for lunch, Terry’s Primo Subs in Hampton, which was back in New Hampshire, on the sea. It was their usual place to stop on their way home from Lake Winnipesaukee, located about halfway between Haverhill and The Lake Sound was different inside the covered bridge She heard the river, a hundred feet below, but it sounded less like rushing water, more like a blast of white noise, of static on the radio. She did not look down, was afraid to see the river between the occasional gaps in the boards beneath. She did not even look from side to side but kept her gaze fixed on the far end of the bridge She passed through stammering rays of white light. When she crossed through one of those wafer-thin sheets of brightness, she felt it in her left eye, a kind of distant throb The floor had an unpleasant sense of give She had just a single thought now, two words long, almost there, almost there, keeping time with the churning of her feet The square of brightness at the far end of the bridge expanded and intensified. As she approached, she was conscious of an almost brutal heat emanating from the exit. She inexplicably smelled suntan lotion and onion rings. It did not cross her mind to wonder why there was no gate here at the other end of the bridge either Vic McQueen, a.k.a. the Brat, drew a deep gulp of air and rode out of the Shorter Way, into the sunlight, tires thumpety-thumping off the wood and onto blacktop. The hiss and roar of white noise ended abruptly, as if she really had been listening to static on the radio and someone had just poked the power switch She glided another dozen feet before she saw where she was. Her heart grabbed in her chest before her hands could grab for the brakes She came to a stop so hard, with such force, that the back tire whipped around, skidding across asphalt, flinging dirt She had emerged behind a one-story building, in a paved alley. A Dumpster and a collection of trash cans stood against the brick wall to her left. One end of the alley was closed off by a high plank fence. There was a road on the other side of that fence. Vic could hear traffic rolling by, heard a snatch of a song trailing from one of the cars: Abra-abra-cadabra  . . I wanna reach out and grab ya . .  Vic knew, on first glance, that she was in the wrong place. She had been down to the

Shorter Way many times, looked across the high banks of the Merrimack to the other side often enough to know what lay over there: a timbered hill, green and cool and quiet No road, no shop, no alley. She turned her head and very nearly screamed The Shorter Way Bridge filled the mouth of the alley behind her. It was rammed right into it, between the one-story building of brick and a five-story-high building of whitewashed concrete and glass The bridge no longer crossed a river but was stuffed into a space that could barely contain it. Vic shivered violently at the sight of it. When she looked into the darkness, she could distantly see the emerald-tinted shadows of the Pittman Street Woods on the other end Vic climbed off her bike. Her legs shook in nervous bursts. She walked her Raleigh over to the Dumpster and leaned it against the side. She found she lacked the courage to think too directly about the Shorter Way The alley stank of fried food going bad in the sun. She wanted fresh air. She walked past a screen door looking into a noisy, steamy kitchen and to the high wooden fence. She unlatched the door in the side and let herself out onto a narrow strip of sidewalk that she knew well. She had stood on it only hours ago When she looked to the left, she saw a long stretch of beach and the ocean beyond, the green cresting waves glistening with a painful brightness in the sun. Boys in swim trunks tossed a Frisbee, leaping to make show-off catches and then falling in the dunes. Cars rolled along the oceanfront boulevard, bumper to bumper. She walked around the corner on unsteady legs and looked at the walk-up window of Terry’s Primo Subs Hampton Beach, New Hampshire VIC WALKED PAST A ROW OF MOTORCYCLES LEANING OUT FRONT, chrome burning in the afternoon sun. There was a line of girls at the order window, girls in bikini tops and short-shorts, laughing bright laughter. How Vic hated the sound of them, which was like hearing glass shatter. She went in. A brass bell dinged on the door The windows were open, and half a dozen desktop fans were running behind the counter, blowing air out toward the tables, and still it was too hot inside. Long spools of flypaper hung from the ceiling and wavered in the breeze The Brat didn’t like looking at that flypaper, at the insects that had been caught on it, to struggle and die while people shoved hamburgers into their mouths directly below. She had not noticed the flypaper when she’d eaten lunch here earlier in the day, with her parents She felt woozy, as if she’d been running around on a full stomach in the August heat A big man in a white undershirt stood behind the cash register. His shoulders were hairy and crimson with sunburn, and there was a line of zinc painted on his nose. A white plastic tag on his shirt said PETE. He had been here all afternoon. Two hours before, Vic had stood next to her father while Chris McQueen paid him for their burger baskets and their milkshakes. The two men had talked about the Red Sox, who were on a good run 1986 was looking like the year they might finally break the curse. Clemens was mowing them down. The kid had the Cy Young locked up, with more than a month left to play Vic turned toward him, if not for any reason than because she recognized him. But then she just stood there, in front of him, blinking, no idea what to say. A fan hummed at Pete’s back and caught the humid, human smell of him, wafted it into the Brat’s face. No, she was definitely not feeling too good She was ready to cry, gripped with an unfamiliar sensation of helplessness. She was here, in New Hampshire, where she didn’t belong The Shorter Way Bridge was stuck in the alley out back, and somehow this was her fault Her parents were fighting and had no idea how far away she had got from them. All this needed to be said and more. She needed to call home. She needed to call the police Someone had to go look at the bridge in the alley. Her thoughts were a sickening turmoil The inside of her head was a bad place, a dark tunnel full of distracting noise and whirling bats But the big man saved her the trouble of figuring out where to start. His eyebrows knitted together at the sight of her. “There you are. I was wondering if I was going to see you again You came back for it, huh?” Vic stared at him blankly. “Came back?” “For the bracelet. One with the butterfly on it.” He poked a key, and the register drawer popped open with a clashing chime. Her mother’s bracelet was in the back When Vic saw it, another weak tremor passed through her legs and she let out an unsteady sigh. For the first time since exiting the Shorter Way and finding herself impossibly

in Hampton Beach, she felt something like understanding She had gone looking for her mother’s bracelet in her imagination, and somehow she had found it. She had never gone out on her bike at all. Probably her parents had never really fought. There was only one way to explain a bridge crammed into an alley. She had gotten home, sunburned and exhausted, with a bellyful of milkshake, had passed out on her bed and now was dreaming. With that in mind, she supposed the best thing she could do was get her mother’s bracelet and go back across the bridge, at which point she would presumably wake up There was another dull throb of pain behind her left eye. A headache was rooting itself there. A bad one. She couldn’t remember ever carrying a headache into a dream before “Thank you,” said the Brat as Pete handed the bracelet across the counter to her. “My mom was really worried about it. It’s worth a lot.” “Really worried, huh?” Pete stuck a pinkie in one ear and twisted it back and forth “Got a lot of sentimental value, I guess.” “No. I mean yes, it does. It belonged to her grandmother, my great-grandmother. But I mean it’s also very valuable.” “Un-huh,” he said “It’s an antique,” said the Brat, not entirely sure why she felt the need to persuade him of its value “It’s only an antique if it’s worth something. If it’s not worth anything, it’s just an old thingamajig.” “It’s diamonds,” the Brat said. “Diamonds and gold.” Pete laughed: a short, caustic bark of laughter “It is,” she said Pete said, “Nah. Costume jewelry. Those things look like diamonds? Zirconia. And see inside the band, where it’s goin’ silver? Gold don’t come off. What’s good stays good no matter how much of a beating it takes.” His brow wrinkled in an expression of unexpected sympathy. “You okay? You don’t look so hot.” “I’m all right,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of sun.” Which seemed a very grown-up thing to say She wasn’t all right, though. She felt dizzy, and her legs were trembling steadily. She wanted to be outside, away from the mingled perfume of Petesweat and onion rings and bubbling deep fat. She wanted this dream over with “Are you sure I can’t get you something cold to drink?” Pete asked “Thanks, but I had a milkshake when I was in for lunch.” “If you had a milkshake, you didn’t get it here,” Pete said. “McDonald’s, maybe What we got is frappes.” “I have to go,” she said, turning and starting back toward the door. She was aware of sunburned Pete watching her with real concern and was grateful to him for his empathy. She thought that in spite of his stink and brusque manner he was a good man, the kind of man who would worry about a sick-looking little girl, out on her own along Hampton Beach But she didn’t dare say anything else to him. The ill sweat was damp on her temples and upper lip, and it took a great deal of concentration to clamp down on the tremors in her legs. Her left eye thudded again. A bit less gently this time. Her conviction that she was only imagining this visit to Terry’s, that she was tramping through a particularly forceful dream, was hard to hold on to, like trying to keep a grip on a slick frog Vic stepped back outside and walked swiftly along the hot concrete, past the parked and leaning motorcycles. She opened the door in the tall plank fence and stepped into the alley behind Terry’s Primo Subs The bridge hadn’t moved. Its exterior walls were crammed right up against the buildings on either side. It hurt to look at it dead-on It hurt in her left eye A cook or a dishwasher—someone who worked in the kitchen—stood in the alley by the Dumpster. He wore an apron streaked with grease and blood. Anyone who had a good look at that apron would probably skip getting lunch at Terry’s. He was a little man with a bristly face and veined, tattooed forearms, and he stared at the bridge with an expression located somewhere between outrage and fright “What the motherfuck?” the guy said. He cast a confused look at Vic. “Do you see that, kid? I mean . . . what the motherfuck is that?” “My bridge. Don’t worry. I’ll take it with me,” Vic said. She was herself unclear what she meant by this She gripped her bike by the handlebars, turned it around, and pushed it toward the bridge She ran alongside it two steps and then threw her leg over The front tire bumped up onto the boards, and she plunged into hissing darkness The sound, that idiot roar of static, rose as the Raleigh carried her out across the bridge. On the way across, she had believed she was hearing the river below, but that

wasn’t it. There were long cracks in the walls, and for the first time she looked at them as they flashed by. Through them she saw a flickering white brilliance, as if the world’s largest TV set were just on the other side of the wall and it was stuck on a channel that wasn’t broadcasting. A storm blew against the lopsided and decrepit bridge, a blizzard of light. She could feel the bridge buckling just slightly, as the downpour dashed itself against the walls She shut her eyes, didn’t want to see any more, stood up on the pedals and rode for the other side. She tried her prayerlike chant once more—almost there, almost there—but was too winded and sick to maintain any one thought for long. There was only her breath and the roaring, raging static, that endless waterfall of sound, rising in volume, building to a maddening intensity and then building some more until she wanted to cry out for it to stop, the word coming to her lips, stop, stop it, her lungs gathering air to shout, and that was when the bike thudded back down in Haverhill, Massachusetts THE SOUND CUT OUT, WITH A SOFT ELECTRICAL POP. SHE FELT THAT pop in her head, in her left temple, a small but sharply felt explosion She knew even before she opened her eyes that she was home—or not home, but in her woods at least. She knew they were her woods by the smell of pines and the quality of the air, a scrubbed, cool, clean sensation that she associated with the Merrimack River. She could hear the river, distantly, a gentle, soothing rush of sound that was really in no way like static She opened her eyes, lifted her head, shook her hair out of her face. The late-day sunlight blinked through the leaves above her in irregular flashes. She slowed, squeezed the brakes, and put one foot down Vic turned her head for a last look back across the bridge at Hampton Beach. She wondered if she could still see the fry cook in his dirty apron Only she couldn’t see him because the Shorter Way Bridge was gone. There was a guardrail, where the entrance to the bridge belonged Beyond that the ground fell away in a steep and weedy slope that ended at the deep blue channel of the river Three chipped concrete pylons, bracket-shaped at the top, poked out of the tossing, agitated water. That was all that was left of the Shorter Way Vic didn’t understand. She had just ridden across the bridge, had smelled the old, rotting, sun-baked wood and the rank hint of bat piss, had heard the boards knocking under her tires Her left eye throbbed. She shut it and rubbed it hard with her palm and opened it again, and for a moment she thought the bridge was there. She saw, or thought she saw, a kind of afterimage of it, a white glare in the shape of a bridge, reaching all the way to the opposite bank But the afterimage didn’t last, and her left eye was streaming tears, and she was too weary to wonder for long what had happened to the bridge. She had never, in all her life, so needed to be home, in her room, in her bed, in the crisp folds of her sheets She got on her bike but could only pedal a few yards before she gave up. She stepped off and pushed, her head down and her hair swinging. Her mother’s bracelet rolled loosely on her sweaty wrist. She hardly noticed it there Vic pushed the bike across the yellowing grass of the backyard, past the playset she never played on anymore, the chains of the swings caked in rust. She dropped her bike in the driveway and went inside. She wanted to get to her bedroom, wanted to lie down and rest But when she heard a tinny crack in the kitchen, she veered off course to see who was in there It was her father, who stood with his back to her, can of Stroh’s in one hand. He was running the other hand under cold water in the sink, turning his knuckles beneath the faucet Vic wasn’t sure how long she had been gone The clock on the toaster oven was no help It blinked 12:00 over and over, as if it had just been reset. The lights were off, too, the room cool with afternoon shadow “Dad,” she said, in a weary voice she hardly recognized. “What time is it?” He glanced at the oven, then gave his head a little shake “Damned if I know. The power blinked out about five minutes ago. I think the whole street is—” But then he glanced back at her, eyebrows rising in a question. “What’s up? You all right?” He turned off the water and grabbed a rag to pat his hand dry. “You don’t look so hot.”

She laughed, a strained, humorless sound “That’s what Pete said.” Her own voice seemed to come from way far off—from the other end of a long tunnel “Pete who?” “Hampton Beach Pete.” “Vic?” “I’m all right.” She tried to swallow and couldn’t. She was painfully thirsty, although she hadn’t known it until she saw her father standing there with a cold drink in his hand. She shut her eyes for a moment and saw a sweating glass of chilly pink-grapefruit juice, an image that seemed to cause every cell in her body to ache with need. “I’m just thirsty. Do we have any juice?” “Sorry, kid. Fridge is pretty empty. Mom hasn’t been to the grocery store yet.” “Is she lying down?” “Don’t know,” he said. He did not add, Don’t care, but it was there in his tone “Oh,” Vic said, and she slipped the bracelet off her wrist and put it on the kitchen table “When she comes out, tell her I found her bracelet.” He slammed the door of the fridge and looked around. His gaze shifted to the bracelet, then back to her “Where . . . ?” “In the car. Between the seats.” The room darkened, as if the sun had disappeared behind a great mass of clouds. Vic swayed Her father put the back of his hand to her face, the hand that held his can of beer He had abraded his knuckles on something “Christ, you’re burning up, Brat. Hey, Lin?” “I’m fine,” Vic told him. “I’m just going to lie down for a minute.” She didn’t mean to lie down right there, right then. The plan was to walk back to her room and stretch out under her awesome new David Hasselhoff poster—but her legs gave way and she dropped. Her father caught her before she could hit the floor. He scooped her into the air, a hand under her legs, another under her back, and carried her into the hall “Lin?” Chris McQueen called out again Linda emerged from her bedroom, holding a wet washcloth to the corner of her mouth Her feathery auburn hair was disheveled and her eyes unfocused, as if she had in fact been asleep. Her gaze sharpened when she saw the Brat in her husband’s arms She met them at the door to Vic’s bedroom Linda reached up with slender fingers and pushed the hair back from Vic’s brow, pressed a hand to her forehead. Linda’s palm was chilly and smooth, and her touch set off a shivering fit that was one part sickness, one part pleasure. Vic’s parents weren’t mad at each other anymore, and if the Brat had known that all she had to do to bring them together again was make herself sick, she could’ve skipped going across the bridge to get the bracelet and just stuck a finger down her throat “What happened to her?” “She passed out,” Chris said “No I didn’t,” said the Brat “Hundred-degree fever and falling down, and she wants to argue with me,” said her father with unmistakable admiration Her mother lowered the washcloth she was holding to the corner of her own mouth. “Heatstroke Three hours in that car and then right outside on her bike, no sunscreen on, and nothing to drink all day except that rotten milkshake at Terry’s.” “Frappe. They call ’em frappes at Terry’s,” Vic said. “You hurt your mouth.” Her mother licked the corner of her swollen lips. “I’ll get a glass of water and some ibuprofen. We’ll both take some.” “While you’re in the kitchen, why don’t you grab your bracelet?” Chris said. “It’s on the table.” Linda took two steps before registering what her husband had said. She looked back. Chris McQueen stood in the doorway to Vic’s room, holding her in his arms. Vic could see David Hasselhoff, over her bed, smiling at her, looking like he could barely suppress the urge to wink: You did good, kid “It was in the car,” Chris said. “The Brat found it.” Home VIC SLEPT Her dreams were an incoherent flickershow of still images: a gasmask on a cement floor, a dead dog by the side of the road with its head smashed in, a forest of towering pine trees hung with blind white angels This last image was so vivid and mysteriously awful—those dark sixty-foot-high trees swaying in the wind like stoned revelers in a pagan ceremony, the angels flashing and gleaming in their branches—that she wanted to scream She tried to yell but couldn’t force any sound up her throat. She was trapped beneath a suffocating avalanche of shadow stuff, a mountainous heap of soft, airless matter She fought to claw her way out, shoving desperately, flailing about with all the angry, wiry strength

she could muster, until suddenly she found herself sitting up in bed, her whole body greased in sweat. Her father sat on the edge of the mattress beside her, holding her by the wrists “Vic,” he said. “Vic. Relax. You just smacked me hard enough to turn my head around Lay off. It’s Dad.” “Oh,” she said. He let go of her, and her arms dropped to her sides. “Sorry.” He held his jaw between thumb and forefinger and wiggled it back and forth. “It’s okay Probably had it coming.” “For what?” “I don’t know. For whatever. Everyone’s got summin’.” She leaned forward and kissed his whiskery chin, and he smiled “Your fever broke,” her father said. “You feel better?” She shrugged, supposed she felt all right, now that she was out from under the great pile of black blankets and away from that dream forest of malevolent Christmas trees “You were pretty out of it,” he said “You should’ve heard yourself.” “What did I say?” “At one point you were shouting that the bats were out of the bridge,” he told her “I think you meant belfry.” “Yeah. I mean . . . no. No, I was probably talking about the bridge.” Vic had forgotten, for a moment, about the Shorter Way. “What happened to the bridge, Dad?” “Bridge?” “The Shorter Way. The old covered bridge It’s all gone.” “Oh,” he said. “I heard that some dumb son of a bitch tried to drive his car across it and went right through. Got hisself killed and brought down most of the bridge with him They demoed the rest. That’s why I told you I didn’t want you going out on that damn thing. They should’ve taken it down twenty years ago.” She shivered “Look at you,” her father said. “You are just sick as a dog.” She thought of her fever dream about the dog with the smashed-in head, and the world first brightened, then dimmed When her vision cleared, her father was holding a rubber bucket against her chest “If you have to choke something up,” he said, “try and get it in the pail. Christ, I’ll never take you to frigging Terry’s again.” She remembered the smell of Petesweat and the ribbons of flypaper coated with dead bugs and vomited Her father walked out with the pail of sick He came back with a glass of ice water She drank half in three swallows. It was so cold it set off a fresh shivering fit. Chris pulled the blankets up around her again, put his hand on her shoulder, and sat with her, waiting for the chill to pass. He didn’t move. He didn’t talk. It was calming just to have him there, to share in his easy, self-assured silence, and in almost no time at all she felt herself sliding down into sleep. Sliding down into sleep . . . or riding, maybe With her eyes closed, she had a sensation, almost, of being on her bike again and gliding effortlessly into dark and restful quiet When her father rose to go, though, she was still conscious enough to be aware of it, and she made a noise of protest and reached for him. He slipped away “Get your rest, Vic,” he whispered. “We’ll have you back on your bike in no time.” She drifted His voice came to her from far off “I’m sorry they took the Shorter Way down,” he murmured “I thought you didn’t like it,” she said, rolling over and away from him, letting him go, giving him up. “I thought you were scared I’d try to ride my bike on it.” “That’s right,” he said. “I was scared I mean I’m sorry they went and took it down without me. If they were going to blow the thing out of the sky, I wish they’d let me set the charges. That bridge was always a death trap. Anyone could see it was going to kill someone someday. I’m just glad it didn’t kill you. Go to sleep, short stuff.” Various Locales IN A FEW MONTHS, THE INCIDENT OF THE LOST BRACELET WAS LARGELY forgotten, and when Vic did remember it, she remembered finding the thing in the car. She did not think about the Shorter Way if she could help it. The memory of her trip across the bridge was fragmented and had a quality of hallucination about it, was inseparable from the dream she’d had of dark trees and dead dogs. It did her no good to recollect it, and so she tucked the memory away in a safe-deposit box of the mind, locked it out of sight, and forgot about it And she did the same with all the other times Because there were other times, other trips on her Raleigh across a bridge that wasn’t there, to find something that had been lost There was the time her friend Willa Lords lost Mr. Pentack, her good-luck corduroy penguin Willa’s parents cleaned out her room one

day while Willa was sleeping over at Vic’s house, and Willa believed that Mr. Pentack had been chucked into the garbage along with her Tinker Bell mobile and the Lite-Brite board that didn’t work anymore. Willa was inconsolable, so torn up she couldn’t go to school the next day—or the day after But Vic made it better. It turned out that Willa had brought Mr. Pentack along for the sleepover. Vic found it under her bed, among the dust bunnies and forgotten socks. Tragedy averted Vic certainly didn’t believe she found Mr Pentack by climbing on her Raleigh and riding through the Pittman Street Woods to the place where the Shorter Way Bridge had once stood She did not believe the bridge was waiting there or that she had seen writing on the wall, in green spray paint: FENWAY BOWLING →. She did not believe the bridge had been filled with a roar of static and that mystery lights flashed and raced beyond its pine walls She had an image in her mind of riding out of the Shorter Way and into a darkened bowling alley, empty at seven in the morning. The covered bridge was, absurdly, sticking right through the wall and opened into the lanes themselves. Vic knew the place. She had gone to a birthday party there two weeks before; Willa had been there, too. The pine flooring was shiny, greased with something, and Vic’s bike squirted across it like butter in a hot pan. She went down and banged her elbow. Mr Pentack was in a lost-and-found basket behind the counter, under the shelves of bowling shoes This was all just a story she told herself the night after she discovered Mr. Pentack under her bed. She was sick that night, hot and clammy, with the dry heaves, and her dreams were vivid and unnatural The scrape on her elbow healed in a couple days When she was ten, she found her father’s wallet between the cushions in the couch, not on a construction site in Attleboro. Her left eye throbbed for days after she found the wallet, as if someone had punched her When she was eleven, the de Zoets, who lived across the street, lost their cat. The cat, Taylor, was a scrawny old thing, white with black patches. He had gone out just before a summer cloudburst and not returned. Mrs de Zoet walked up and down the street the next morning, chirping like a bird, mewling Taylor’s name. Mr. de Zoet, a scarecrow of a man who wore bow ties and suspenders, stood in the yard with his rake, not raking anything, a kind of hopelessness in his pale eyes Vic particularly liked Mr. de Zoet, a man with a funny accent like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, who had a miniature battlefield in his office Mr. de Zoet smelled like fresh-brewed coffee and pipesmoke and let Vic paint his little plastic infantrymen. Vic liked Taylor the cat, too. When he purred, he made a rusty clackety-clack in his chest, like a machine with old gears, trundling to noisy life No one ever saw Taylor again . . . although Vic told herself a story about riding across the Shorter Way Bridge and finding the poor old thing matted with blood and swarming with flies, in the wet weeds, by the side of the highway. It had dragged itself out of the street after a car ran over its back. The Brat could still see the bloodstains on the blacktop Vic began to hate the sound of static SPICY MENACE 1990 Sugarcreek, Pennsylvania THE AD WAS ON ONE OF THE LAST PAGES OF SPICY MENACE, THE August 1949 issue, the cover of which depicted a screaming nude frozen in a block of ice (She gave him the cold shoulder  . . so he gave her the big chill!). It was just a single column, below a much larger advertisement for Adola Brassieres (Oomphasize your figure!). Bing Partridge noticed it only after a long, considering look at the lady in the Adola ad, a woman with pale, creamy mommy tits, supported by a bra with cone-shaped cups and a metallic sheen. Her eyes were closed, and her lips were parted slightly, so she looked like she was asleep and dreaming sweet dreams, and Bing had been imagining waking her with a kiss “Bing and Adola, sitting in a tree,” Bing crooned, “F-U-C-K-I-N-Geeee.” Bing was in his quiet place in the basement, with his pants down and his ass on the dusty concrete. His free hand was more or less where you would imagine it, but he was not particularly busy yet. He had been grazing his way through the issue, looking for the best parts, when he found it, a small block of print, in the lower left corner of the page. A snowman in a top hat gestured with one crooked arm at

a line of type, framed by snowflakes Bing liked the ads in the back of the pulps: ads for tin lockers filled with toy soldiers (Re-create the thrill of Verdun!), ads for vintage World War II equipment (Bayonets! Rifles! Gasmasks!), ads for books that would tell you how to make women want you (Teach Her to Say, “I LOVE YOU!!”). He often clipped out order forms and sent in pocket change or grimy dollar bills, in an attempt to acquire ant farms and metal detectors He wanted, with all his heart, to Amaze His Friends! and Astonish His Relatives!—and never mind that his friends were the three feebs who worked under him in the janitorial crew at NorChemPharm and that his only direct relatives had returned to the soil, in the cemetery behind the New American Faith Tabernacle Bing had never once considered that his father’s collection of soft-core pulps—mildewing in a cardboard box down in Bing’s quiet room—were older than he was and that most of the corporations he was sending money to had long since ceased to exist But his feelings as he read, then reread the advertisement about this place Christmasland were an emotional response of a different order. His uncircumcised and vaguely yeasty-smelling penis went limp in his left hand, forgotten His soul was a steeple in which all the bells had begun to clash at once He had no idea where or what Christmasland was, had never heard of it. And yet he instantly felt he had wanted to go there all his life  . . to walk its cobblestone streets, stroll beneath its leaning candy-cane lampposts, and to watch the children screaming as they were swept around and around on the reindeer carousel “What would you do for a lifetime pass to a place where every morning is Christmas morning?!” the advertisement shouted Bing had forty-two Christmases under his belt, but when he thought of Christmas morning, only one mattered, and that one stood for all the rest. In this memory of Christmas, his mother slid sugar cookies shaped like Christmas trees out of the oven, so the whole house took on their vanilla fragrance. It was years before John Partridge would catch a framing nail in the frontal lobe, and that morning he sat on the floor with Bing, watching intently as Bing tore open his gifts. Bing remembered the last present best: a large box that contained a big rubber gasmask and a dented helmet, rust showing where the paint was chipped away “You’re looking at the gear that kept me alive in Korea,” his father said. “It’s yours now. That gasmask you’re holding, there’s three yellowmen in the dirt that’s the last thing they ever saw.” Bing pulled the gasmask on and stared out through the clear plastic lenses at his father With the gasmask on, he saw the living room as a little world trapped inside a gum-ball machine. His father set the helmet on top of Bing’s noggin, then saluted. Bing solemnly saluted back “So you’re the one,” his father said to him. “The little soldier that all the men are talking about. Mr. Unstoppable. Private Take-No-Shit. Is that right?” “Private Take-No-Shit reporting for duty, sir, yes, sir,” Bing said His mother laughed her brittle, nervous laughter and said, “John, your language. On Christmas morning. It isn’t right. This is the day we welcome our Savior to this earth.” “Mothers,” John Partridge said to his son after Bing’s mother had left them with sugar cookies and gone back to the kitchen for cocoa. “They’ll keep you sucking at the tit your whole life if you let them. Of course, when you think about it . . . what’s wrong with that?” And winked And outside, the snow came down in big goose-feather flakes, and they stayed home together all

day, and Bing wore his helmet and gasmask and played war, and he shot his father over and over, and John Partridge died again and again, falling out of his easy chair in front of the TV. Once Bing killed his mother, too, and she obediently crossed her eyes and went boneless and stayed dead for most of a commercial break. She didn’t wake up until he removed his gasmask to kiss her forehead. Then she smiled and said, God bless you, little Bing Partridge. I love you more than anything What would he do to feel like that every day? To feel like it was Christmas morning and there was a real Korean War gasmask waiting for him under the tree? To see his mother slowly open her eyes once again and say, I love you more than anything? The question, really, was what would he not do? He shuffled three steps toward the door before he got around to yanking his pants back up His mother had taken on some secretarial chores for the church after her husband couldn’t work anymore, and her Olivetti electric typewriter was still in the closet in the hall. The O was gone, but he knew he could use the number 0 to cover for it. Bing rolled a sheet of paper in and began to write: DearXXXXXrespected ChristmaslandXXXX0wners, I am resp0nding t0 y0ur ad in Spicy Menace Magazine. W0uld I like t0 w0rk in Christmasland? Y0U BET! I have 18 years 0f empl0yment at N0rChemPharm in Sugarcreek, Pennsylvania, and f0r 12 I have beenXXXXa fl00r manager f0r the cust0dial team. My duties include the care and shipping 0f many c0mpressed gases such as 0xygen, hydr0gen, helium, and sev0flurane Guess h0w many accidents 0n my watch? N0NE! What w0uld I d0 t0 have Christmas every day? Wh0 d0 I have t0 KILL, ha-ha-ha!! There is n0 nasty j0b I have n0t d0ne f0r N0rChemPharm I have cleaned t0ilets packed full and fl0wing 0ver withXXXXXy0u-kn0w-what, m0pped pee-pee 0ff walls, and p0is0ned rats by the dirty d0zen. Are y0u l00king f0r s0me0ne wh0 isn’t afraid t0 get his hands dirty? Well y0ur search is 0ver! I am just the man y0u are l00king f0r: a g0-getter wh0 l0ves children and wh0 isn’t afraid 0f adventure. I d0 n0t want much except a g00d place t0 w0rk. A security j0b w0uld suit me fine. T0 be straight with y0u, 0nce up0n a time I h0ped t0 serve my pr0ud nati0n in unif0rm, like my dad did in the K0rean war, but s0me y0uthful indiscreti0ns and a bit 0f sad family tr0uble prevented me. 0h well! N0 c0mplaints! Believe me, if I c0uld wear the unif0rm 0f Christmasland security, I w0uld c0nsider it just as h0n0rable! I am a c0llect0r 0f authentic military mem0rabilia. I have my 0wn gun and I kn0w h0w t0 use it In cl0sing, I h0pe y0u will c0ntact me at the bel0w address. I am l0yal t0 a fault and w0uld DIE f0r this special 0pp0rtunity. There is N0THING I am n0t ready t0 d0 t0 earn a place am0ng the Christmasland staff XXXXXSeas0n’s Greetings! Bing Partridge BING PARTRIDGE 25 BL0CH LANE SUGARCREEK, PENNSYLVANIA 16323 He rolled the sheet out of the typewriter and read it over, lips moving. The effort of concentration had left his lumpy, potato-shaped body humid with sweat. It seemed to him that he had stated the facts about himself with clarity and authority. He worried that it was a mistake to mention “youthful indiscretions” or “sad family trouble” but in the end decided they would probably find out about his parents whether he said anything or not and that it was better to be coolly up-front about it than look like he was hiding something It was all a long time ago, and in the years since he had been released from the Youth Center—a.k.a. the Bin—he had been a model worker, had not missed a single day at NorChemPharm

He folded the letter, then looked in the front closet for an envelope. He found instead a box of unused Christmas cards. A boy and a girl, in fuzzy long underwear, were peeking around a corner, staring in wide-eyed wonder at Santy Claus, standing in the gloom before their Christmas tree. The seat of the girl’s pajamas was partly unbuttoned to show one plump cheek of her ass. John Partridge had sometimes said that Bing couldn’t pour water out of a boot with instructions written on the heel, and maybe it was true, but he still knew a good thing when he saw it. This letter was slipped into a Christmas card and the card into an envelope decorated with holly leaves and shiny cranberries Before he put it into the mailbox at the end of the street, he kissed it, as a priest might bend his head and kiss the Bible THE NEXT DAY HE WAS WAITING BY THE MAILBOX AT TWO-THIRTY WHEN the mailman proceeded up the street in his funny little white truck The foil flowers in Bing’s front yard spun lazily, making a barely audible whir “Bing,” the mailman said. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work?” “Night shift,” Bing said “Is a war starting?” the mailman said, nodding at Bing’s clothes Bing had on his mustard-colored fatigues, what he wore when he wanted to feel lucky “If there is, I’ll be ready for it,” Bing told him There was nothing from Christmasland. But of course how could there be? He had only sent his card the day before THERE WAS NOTHING THE NEXT DAY EITHER OR THE DAY AFTER ON MONDAY HE WAS SURE SOMETHING WOULD COME AND WAS OUT on his front step a half hour before the postman’s usual time. Black and ugly thunderheads towered over the crest of the hill, behind the steeple of the New American Faith Tabernacle. Muffled thunder detonated two miles away and eighteen thousand feet up. It was not a noise so much as a vibration, one that went to Bing’s core, that shook his bones in their sediment of fat. His foil flowers spun hysterically, sounding for all the world like a pack of kids on bicycles, racing downhill and out of control The rumbles and crashes made Bing profoundly uneasy. It had been unbearably hot and thundery the day the nail gun went off (that was how he thought of it—not as the day he shot his father but as the day the gun went off) His father had felt the barrel pressing against his left temple and looked sidelong at Bing, standing over him. He took a sip of his beer and smacked his lips and said, “I’d be scared if I thought you had the balls.” After he pulled the trigger, Bing sat with the old man and listened to the rain rattle off the roof of the garage, while John Partridge sprawled on the floor, one foot twitching and a urine stain spreading across the front of his pants. Bing had sat until his mother entered the garage and began to scream. Then it had been her turn—although not for the nail gun Now Bing stood in his yard and watched the clouds mount up in the sky over the church at the top of the hill, where his mother had worked all the last days of her life . . . the church he had attended faithfully, every Sunday, since before he could even walk or speak One of his first words had been “looya!”—which was the closest he could come to pronouncing “hallelujah.” His mother had called him Looya for years after No one worshipped there now. Pastor Mitchell had run off with the funds and a married woman, and the property had been seized by the bank On Sunday mornings the only penitents in the New American Faith Tabernacle were the pigeons that lived in the rafters. The place frightened Bing a little now—its emptiness frightened him. He imagined that it despised him for abandoning it and abandoning God, that sometimes it leaned forward off its foundations to glare at him with its stained-glass eyes. There were days—days like this—when the woods were full of the lunatic shrilling of summer insects and the air wobbled with liquid heat, and that church seemed to loom Thunder hammered at the afternoon “Rain, rain, go away,” Bing whispered to himself. “Come again some other day.” The first warm drop of rain spattered against his forehead. Other drops followed, burning bright in the sunshine that slanted in from the yawning blue sky to the west. It felt almost as hot as a spray of blood The mail was late, and by the time it came, Bing was soaking wet and huddling under the shingle overhang at his front door. He ran

through the downpour for the box. As he reached it, a twig of lightning stroked out of the clouds and fell with a crash somewhere behind the church. Bing shrieked as the world flashed bluewhiteblue, sure he was about to be lanced through, was about to burn alive, touched by the finger of God for giving his father the nail gun and for what he had done afterward to his mother on the kitchen floor There was a bill from the utility company and a flyer announcing a new mattress store and nothing else NINE HOURS LATER BING CAME AWAKE IN HIS BED TO THE TREMULOUS sound of violins and then a man singing in a voice as smooth and creamy as vanilla cake frosting. It was his namesake, Bing Crosby. Mr. Crosby was dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones he used to know Bing pulled the blankets close to his chin, listening intently. Mingled with the song was the gentle scratch of a needle on vinyl He slid out of his bed and crept to the door The floor was cold under his bare feet Bing’s parents were dancing in the living room. His father had his back to him and was dressed in his mustard-colored fatigues. His mother rested her head on John’s shoulder, her eyes shut, her mouth open, as if she were dancing in her sleep The presents waited under the squat, homely, tinsel-smothered tree: three big green dented tanks of sevoflurane, decorated with crimson bows His parents turned in their slow circle, and as they did, Bing saw that his father was wearing a gasmask and his mother was naked She really was asleep, too. Her feet dragged across the boards. His father clutched her around the waist, his gloved hands on the curve of her white buttocks. His mother’s bare white can was as luminous as a celestial object, as pale as the moon “Dad?” Bing asked His father kept dancing, turning away, and taking Bing’s mother with him “COME ON DOWN, BING!” cried a deep, booming voice, a voice so loud that the china chattered in the armoire. Bing lurched in surprise, his heart misfiring in his chest. The needle on the record jumped, came back down close to the end of the song. “COME ON DOWN! LOOKS LIKE CHRISTMAS CAME EARLY THIS YEAR, DOESN’T IT! HO, HO, HO!” A part of Bing wanted to run back to his room and slam the door. He wanted to cover his eyes and his ears at the same time but couldn’t find the willpower to do either. He quailed at the thought of taking another step, yet his feet carried him forward, past the tree and the tanks of sevoflurane, past his father and mother, down the hall, and to the front door. It swung open even before he put his hand on the knob The foil flowers in his yard spun softly in the winter night. He had one foil flower for every year he had worked at NorChemPharm, gifts for the custodial staff, bestowed at the annual holiday party Christmasland waited beyond the yard. The Sleighcoaster rumbled and crashed, and the children in the karts screamed and lifted their hands to the frozen night. The great Ferris wheel, the Arctic Eye, revolved against a backdrop of unfamiliar stars. All the candles were lit in a Christmas tree as tall as a ten-story building and as wide across as Bing’s own house “MERRY GODDAMN CHRISTMAS, BING, YOU CRAZY THING!” hollered that great booming voice, and when Bing looked into the sky, he saw that the moon had a face. A single bulging bloodshot eye gaped from that starved skullface, a landscape of crater and bone. It grinned “BING, YOU CRAZY MOTHERFUCKER, ARE YOU READY FOR THE RIDE OF YOUR LIFE?!?” Bing sat up in bed, his heart pistoning in his chest—waking for real this time. He was so slicked with sweat that his G.I. Joe pajamas were sticking to his skin. He noticed, distantly, that his cock was so hard it hurt, poking through the front of his pants He gasped, as if he had not awoken but surfaced, after a long time underwater His room was full of the cool, pale, bone-colored light of a faceless moon Bing had been swallowing air for almost half a minute before he realized he could still hear “White Christmas.” The song had followed him right out of his dream. It came from a long way off and seemed to be getting fainter by the moment, and he knew if he didn’t get up to look, it would soon be gone, and tomorrow he would believe he had imagined

it. He rose and walked on unsteady legs to the window, for a look into the yard An old car, at the end of the block, was easing away. A black Rolls-Royce with sideboards and chrome fixtures. Its taillights flashed red in the night and illuminated the license plate: NOS4A2. Then it turned the corner and disappeared, taking the joyful noise of Christmas with it NorChemPharm BING KNEW THAT THE MAN FROM CHRISTMASLAND WAS COMING, well before Charlie Manx showed up to ask Bing to take a ride with him. He knew, too, that the man from Christmasland would not be a man like other men and that a job with Christmasland security would not be a job like other jobs, and on these matters he was not disappointed He knew because of the dreams, which seemed to him more vivid and real than anything that ever happened to him in the course of his waking life. He could never step into Christmasland in these dreams, but he could see it out his windows and out his door. He could smell the peppermint and cocoa, and he could see the candles burning in the ten-story Christmas tree, and he could hear the karts bashing and crashing on the sprawling old wooden Sleighcoaster He could hear the music, too, and how the children screamed. If you didn’t know better, you would think they were being butchered alive He knew because of the dreams, but also because of the car. The next time he saw it, he was at work, out on the loading dock. Some kids had tagged the back of the building, had spray-painted a big black cock and balls, spewing black jizz on a pair of great red globes that might’ve been boobs but that looked, to Bing’s eye, like Christmas ornaments. Bing was outside in his rubber hazmat suit and industrial gasmask, with a bucket of diluted lye, to peel the paint off the wall with a wire brush Bing loved working with lye, loved to watch it melt the paint away. Denis Loory, the autistic kid who worked the morning shift, said you could use lye to melt a human person down to grease. Denis Loory and Bing had put a dead bat in a bucket of lye and left it one day, and the next morning there had been nothing in there but fake-looking semitransparent bones He stepped back to admire his work. The balls had mostly vanished to reveal the raw red brick beneath; only the big black prick and the boobs remained. As he stared at the wall, he saw, all of a sudden, his shadow appear, crisp, sharply delineated against the rough brick He turned on his heel to look behind him, and the black Rolls was there: It was parked on the other side of the chain-link fence, its high, close-set headlights glaring at him You could look at birds all your life without ever knowing what was a sparrow and what was a blackbird, but we all know a swan when we see it. So it was with cars. Maybe you could not tell a Firebird from a Fiero, but when you saw a Rolls-Royce, you knew it Bing smiled to see it and felt his heart fill with a rush of blood, and he thought, Now He will open the door, and he will say, “Are you the young man, Bing Partridge, who wrote about a job at Christmasland?”—and my life will begin. My life will begin at last The door did not open, though . . . not then. The man behind the wheel—Bing could not see his face past the brilliance of the headlights—did not call out or roll down his window. He flashed his high beams, though, in genial greeting, before turning the car in a wide circle, to point it away from the NorChemPharm building Bing removed his gasmask, put it under his arm. He was flushed, and the cool, shady air was pleasant on his exposed skin. Bing could hear Christmas music trickling from the car “Joy to the World.” Yes. He felt that way, exactly He wondered if the man behind the wheel wanted him to come. To leave his mask, leave his bucket of lye, slip around the fence, and climb into the passenger seat. But no sooner had he taken a step forward than the car began to ease away up the road “Wait!” Bing cried. “Don’t go! Wait!” The sight of the Rolls leaving him—of that license plate, NOS4A2, shrinking steadily as the car glided away—shocked him In a state of dizzy, almost panicked excitement, Bing screamed, “I’ve seen it! I’ve seen Christmasland! Please! Give me a chance! Please

come back!” The brake lights flashed. The Rolls slowed for a moment, as if Bing had been heard—and then glided on “Give me a chance!” he shouted. Then, screaming: “Just give me a chance!” The Rolls slid away down the road, turned the corner, and was gone, left Bing flushed and damp with sweat and his heart clapping in his chest He was still standing there when the foreman, Mr. Paladin, stepped out on the loading dock for a smoke “Hey, Bing, there’s still quite a bit of cock on this wall,” he called. “You working this morning or are you on vacation?” Bing stared forlornly down the road “Christmas vacation,” he said, but in a low voice so Mr. Paladin couldn’t hear him HE HAD NOT SEEN THE ROLLS IN A WEEK, WHEN THEY CHANGED HIS schedule and he had to pull a double at NorChemPharm, six to six. It was ungodly hot in the storerooms, so hot that the iron tanks of compressed gas would sear you if you brushed up against them. Bing caught his usual bus home, a forty-minute ride, the vents blowing stinky air and an infant squalling the whole way He got off on Fairfield Street and walked the last three blocks. The air was no longer gas but liquid—a liquid close to boiling It streamed up off the softening blacktop and filled the air with distortion, so that the line of houses at the end of the block wavered like reflections bobbing in a pool of unsteady water “Heat, heat, go away,” Bing sang to himself “Boil me some other—” The Rolls sat across the street, in front of his house. The man behind the wheel leaned out of the right-hand window and twisted his head to look back at Bing and smiled, one old friend to another. He motioned with a long-fingered hand: Hurry up now Bing’s own hand shot into the air helplessly in a nervous return wave, and he came on down the street in a jiggling fat man’s jog It rattled him in some way, to find the Rolls idling there. A part of him had believed that eventually the man from Christmasland would come for him. Another part, however, had begun to worry that the dreams and his occasional sightings of The Car were like crows circling over something sick and close to collapse: his mind. Every step he took toward NOS4A2, he was that much more certain it would begin to move, to sail away and vanish yet again It didn’t The man in the passenger seat was not sitting in the passenger seat at all, because of course the Rolls-Royce was an old English car, and the steering wheel was on the right-hand side This man, the driver, smiled benevolently upon Bing Partridge. At first glance Bing knew that although this man might have passed for forty or so, he was much older than that His eyes had the soft, faded look of sea glass; they were old eyes, unfathomably old. He had a long, harrowed face, wise and kindly, although he had an overbite and his teeth were a little crooked. It was the sort of face, Bing supposed, that some people would describe as ferretlike, but in profile it also would’ve looked just fine on currency “Here he is!” cried the man behind the wheel. “It is the eager young Bing Partridge! The man of the hour! We are overdue for a conversation, young Partridge! The most important conversation of your life, I’ll bet!” “Are you from Christmasland?” Bing asked in a hushed voice The old or maybe ageless man laid a finger to one side of his nose. “Charles Talent Manx the Third at your service, my dear! CEO of Christmasland Enterprises, director of Christmasland Entertainment, president of fun! Also His Eminence, the King Shit of Turd Hill, although it doesn’t say that on my card.” His fingers snapped and produced a card out of thin air. Bing took it and looked down at it “You can taste those candy canes if you lick the card,” Charlie said Bing stared for a moment, then lapped his rough tongue across the card. It tasted of paper and pasteboard “Kidding!” Charlie cried, and socked Bing in the arm. “Who do you think I am, Willy Wonka? Come around! Get in! Why, son, you look like you are about to melt into a puddle of Bing juice! Let me take you for a bottle

of pop! We have something important to discuss!” “A job?” Bing asked “A future,” Charlie said Highway 322 THIS IS THE NICEST CAR I HAVE EVER BEEN IN,” BING PARTRIDGE SAID when they were gliding along Highway 322, the Rolls riding the curves like a stainless-steel ball bearing in a groove “It is a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, one of just four hundred made in Bristol, England A rare find—just like you, Bing Partridge!” Bing moved his hand across the pebbled leather The polished cherry dash and the gearshift glowed “Does your license plate mean something?” Bing asked. “En-o-ess-four-a-two?” “Nosferatu,” the man Charlie Manx said “Nosfer-what-who?” Manx said, “It is one of my little jokes My first wife once accused me of being a Nosferatu She did not use that exact word, but close enough. Have you ever had poison ivy, Bing?” “Not in a long time. When I was little, before my father died, he took me camping and I—” “If he took you camping after he died, my boy, then you would have a story to tell! Here is my point: My first wife was like the rash you get from poison ivy. I couldn’t stand her, but I couldn’t keep my hands off her. She was an itch I scratched until I bled—and then I scratched it some more! Your work sounds dangerous, Mr. Partridge!” The transition was so abrupt that Bing wasn’t ready for it, needed a moment to register that it was his turn to talk “It does?” “You mentioned in your letter your work with compressed gases,” Manx said. “Aren’t tanks of helium and oxygen highly explosive?” “Oh, sure. A guy in the loading bay snuck a smoke a few years ago, next to a tank of nitrogen with an open valve. It made a big shriek and went off like a rocket. It hit the fire door hard enough to smash it off its hinges, and the fire door is made of iron No one died that time, though. And my crew has been accident-free for as long as I’ve been head man. Well—almost accident-free anyway. Denis Loory huffed some gingerbread smoke once, but that doesn’t really count He didn’t even get sick.” “Gingerbread smoke?” “That’s a flavored mix of sevoflurane that we send to dentists’ offices. You can also get it unscented, but the little guys like the old gingerbread smoke.” “Oh? It’s a narcotic?” “It makes it so you don’t know what’s happening to you, yeah. But it doesn’t put you to sleep. It’s more like you only know what you’re told. And you lose all your intuitions.” Bing laughed a little, couldn’t help himself, then said, almost apologetically, “We told Denis it was disco time, and he started humping the air like John Ravolta in that movie. We just about died.” Mr. Manx’s mouth opened to show his little brown teeth in a homely and irresistible grin “I like a man with a sense of humor, Mr Partridge.” “You can call me Bing, Mr. Manx.” He waited for Mr. Manx to say it was all right to call him Charlie, but Mr. Manx didn’t Instead he said, “I imagine most of the people who danced to disco music were under the influence of some kind of drugs. It is the only explanation for it. Not that I would call such silly wiggling a form of dance More like rank foolishness!” The Wraith rolled into the dirt lot of the Franklin Dairy Queen. On blacktop the Wraith seemed to glide like a sailboat with the wind behind it. There was a sense of effortless, silent motion. On dirt Bing had a different impression, a feeling of mass and momentum and weight: a Panzer grinding the clay under its treads “How about I buy us Coke-Colas and we will get down to brass tacks?” Charlie Manx said He turned sideways, one gangly arm hung over the wheel Bing opened his mouth to answer, only to find himself struggling against a yawn. The long, peaceful, rocking ride in the late-day sun had made him drowsy. He had not slept well in a month and had been up since 4:00 A.M., and if Charlie Manx had not turned up parked across from his house, he would’ve made himself a TV dinner and gone to bed early Which reminded him “I dreamed about it,” Bing said simply “I dream about Christmasland all the time.” He laughed, embarrassed. Charlie Manx would think him quite the fool Only Charlie Manx didn’t. His smile widened “Did you dream about the moon? Did the moon speak to you?” Bing’s breath was pushed out of him all

at once. He stared at Manx in wonder and, possibly, just a little alarm “You dreamt about it because you belong there, Bing,” Manx said. “But if you want to go, you’ll have to earn it. And I can tell you how.” MR. MANX WAS BACK FROM THE TAKE-OUT WINDOW A COUPLE OF minutes later. He eased his lanky frame in behind the wheel and passed Bing a chill, sweating bottle of Coca-Cola, audibly fizzing. Bing thought he had never seen a bottle of anything look so good He tipped back his head and poured the Coca-Cola down, swallowing rapidly, one gulp, two, three When he lowered the bottle, it was half gone He inhaled deeply—and then burped, a sharp, raggedy sound, loud as someone tearing a bedsheet Bing’s face burned—but Charlie Manx only laughed gaily and said, “Better in than out, that’s what I always tell my children!” Bing relaxed and smiled shamefacedly. His burp had tasted bad, like Coca-Cola but also weirdly of aspirin Manx spun the wheel and carried them out onto the road “You’ve been watching me,” Bing said “Yes, I have,” Charlie said. “Almost ever since I opened your letter. I was quite surprised to receive it, I admit. I have not had any responses to my old magazine ads in many a season. Still, I had a hunch, as soon as I read your letter, that you were one of my people. Someone who would understand from the get-go the important work I’m doing Still, a hunch is good, but knowing is better Christmasland is a special place, and many people would have reservations about the work I do for it. I am very selective about who I employ. As it happens, I am looking for a man who can act as my new head of security I need a hum hum hum hum to hum hum hum.” It took Bing a long minute to realize he hadn’t heard the last part of what Charlie Manx was saying. The sound of his words had gotten lost in the drone of the tires on the blacktop They were off the highway now, slipping along under the firs, through cool, piney shade When Bing caught a glimpse of the rosy sky—the sun had slipped down when he wasn’t paying attention, and sunset had come—he saw the moon, as white as a lemon ice, drifting in the clear empty “What did you say?” Bing asked, forcing himself to sit up a little straighter and rapidly blinking his eyes. He was dully aware that he was in danger of nodding off. His Coke, with its caffeine and sugar and refreshing fizz, should’ve woken him up but seemed to have had the opposite effect. He took a last swallow, but the residue at the bottom of the bottle was bitter, and he made a face “The world is full of brutal, stupid people, Bing,” Charlie said. “And do you know the worst of it? Some of them have children Some of them get drunk and hit their little ones. Hit them and call them names. Such folk are unfit for children—that’s how I see it! You could line them up and put a bullet in all of them—that would suit me fine A bullet in the brain for each of them . . . or a nail.” Bing felt his insides turn upside down. He felt unsteady, so unsteady he had to put a hand on the dash to keep from tipping over “I don’t remember doing it,” Bing lied, his voice hushed and trembling just slightly “It was a long time ago.” Then he said, “I’d give anything to take it back.” “Why? So your father could’ve had a chance to kill you instead? The papers said before you shot him, he hit you so hard you suffered a cranial fracture. The papers said you were covered in bruises, some of them days old! I hope I do not have to explain to you the difference between homicide and fighting for your life!” “I hurt my mom, too,” Bing whispered “In the kitchen. She didn’t do anything to me.” Mr. Manx didn’t seem impressed by this point “Where was she when your father was giving you the old one-two? I take it she did not heroically attempt to shield you with her body! How come she never called the police? Couldn’t find the number in the phone book?” Manx exhaled a weary sigh. “I wish someone had been there for you, Bing. The fires of hell are not hot enough for a man—or woman!—who would hurt his children. But, really, I am less concerned with punishment than prevention! It would’ve been best if it simply had never happened to you at all! If your home had been a safe one. If every day had been Christmas for you, Bing, instead of every day being misery and woe. I think we can both agree on that!”

Bing stared at him with woolly eyes. He felt as if he had not slept in days, and it was a minute-by-minute struggle to keep from sinking back into his leather seat and slipping away into unconsciousness “I think I’m going to fall asleep,” Bing said “That’s all right, Bing,” Charlie said “The road to Christmasland is paved in dreams!” White blossoms drifted down from somewhere, flicked across the windshield. Bing stared at them with dim pleasure. He felt warm and good and peaceful, and he liked Charlie Manx The fires of hell are not hot enough for a man—or woman!—who would hurt his children It was a fine thing to say: It rang with moral certainty. Charlie Manx was a man who knew what was what “Humma hum hum hum,” Charlie Manx said Bing nodded—this statement also rang with moral certainty and wisdom—and then he pointed at the blossoms raining down onto the windscreen “It’s snowing!” “Ha!” Charlie Manx said. “That is not snow. Rest your eyes, Bing Partridge. Rest your eyes and you will see something.” Bing Partridge did as he was told His eyes were not closed long—only a single moment. But it was a moment that seemed to go on and on, to stretch out into a peaceful eternity, a restful sleeping darkness in which the only sound was the thrum of the tires on the road. Bing exhaled. Bing inhaled. Bing opened his eyes and then jolted upright, staring out through the windshield at The Road to Christmasland THE DAY HAD FLED, AND THE HEADLIGHTS OF THE WRAITH BORED into a frozen darkness. White flecks raced through the glare, ticked softly against the windshield “Now, this is snow!” Charlie Manx cried from behind the steering wheel Bing had snapped from drowsiness to full wakefulness in a moment, as if consciousness were a switch and someone had flicked it on. His blood seemed to surge, all at once, toward his heart. He could not have been more shocked if he’d woken to find a grenade in his lap Half the sky was smothered over with clouds But the other half was plentifully sugared with stars, and the moon hung among them, that moon with the hooked nose and broad, smiling mouth. It considered the road below with a yellow sliver of eye showing beneath one drooping lid Deformed firs lined the road. Bing had to look twice before he realized they were not pines at all but gumdrop trees “Christmasland,” Bing whispered “No,” Charlie Manx said. “We are a long way off. Twenty hours of driving at least But it’s out there. It’s in the West And once a year, Bing, I take someone there.” “Me?” Bing asked in a quavering voice “No, Bing,” Charlie said gently. “Not this year. All children are welcome in Christmasland, but grown-ups are a different case. You must prove your worth first. You must prove your love of children and your devotion to protecting them and serving Christmasland.” They passed a snowman, who lifted a twig arm and waved. Bing reflexively lifted his hand to wave in return “How?” he whispered “You must save ten children with me, Bing You must save them from monsters.” “Monsters? What monsters?” “Their parents,” Manx said solemnly Bing removed his face from the icy glass of the passenger window and looked around at Charlie Manx. When he had shut his eyes a moment earlier, there had been sunlight in the sky and Mr. Manx had been dressed in a plain white shirt and suspenders. Now, though, he had on a coat with tails and a dark cap with a black leather brim. The coat had a double line of brass buttons and seemed like the sort of thing an officer from a foreign country might wear, a lieutenant in a royal guard. When Bing glanced down at himself, he saw he also wore new clothes: his father’s crisp white marine dress uniform, boots polished to a black shine “Am I dreaming?” Bing asked “I told you,” Manx said. “The road to Christmasland is paved in dreams. This old car can slip right out of the everyday world and onto the secret roads of thought. Sleep is just the exit ramp. When a passenger dozes off, my Wraith leaves whatever road it was on and slides onto the St. Nick Parkway. We are sharing this dream together. It is your dream, Bing. But it is still my ride. Come I want to show you something.” As he had been speaking, the car was slowing

and easing toward the side of the road. Snow crunched under the tires. The headlights illuminated a figure, just up the road on the right. From a distance it looked like a woman in a white gown. She stood very still, did not glance into the lights of the Wraith Manx leaned over and popped the glove compartment above Bing’s knees. Inside was the usual mess of road maps and papers. Bing also saw a flashlight with a long chrome handle An orange medicine bottle rolled out of the glove compartment. Bing caught it one-handed It said HANSOM, DEWEY—VALIUM 50 MG Manx gripped the flashlight, straightened up, and opened his door a crack. “We have to walk from here.” Bing held up the bottle. “Did you . . . did you give me something to make me sleep, Mr Manx?” Manx winked. “Don’t hold it against me, Bing. I knew you’d want to get on the road to Christmasland as soon as possible and that you could see it only when you were asleep I hope it’s all right.” Bing said, “I guess I don’t mind.” And shrugged. He looked at the bottle again. “Who is Dewey Hansom?” “He was you, Bing. He was my pre-Bing thing Dewey Hansom was a screen agent in Los Angeles who specialized in child actors. He helped me save ten children and earned his place in Christmasland! Oh, the children of Christmasland loved Dewey, Bing. They absolutely ate him up! Come along!” Bing unlatched his door and climbed out into the still, frozen air. The night was windless, and the snow spun down in slow flakes, kissing his cheeks. For an old man (Why do I keep thinking he’s old? Bing wondered—he doesn’t look old), Charles Manx was spry, legging ahead along the side of the road, his boots squealing. Bing tramped after him, hugging himself in his thin dress uniform It wasn’t one woman in a white gown but two, flanking a black iron gate. They were identical: ladies carved from glassy marble They both leaned forward, spreading their arms, and their flowing bone-white dresses billowed behind them, opening like the wings of angels. They were serenely beautiful, with the full mouths and blind eyes of classical statuary. Their lips were parted, so they appeared to be in midgasp, lips turned up in a way that suggested they were about to laugh—or cry out in pain. Their sculptor had fashioned them so their breasts were pressing against the fabric of their gowns Manx passed through the black gate, between the ladies. Bing hesitated, and his right hand came up, and he stroked the top of one of those smooth, cold bosoms. He had always wanted to touch a breast that looked like that, a firm, full mommy breast The stone lady’s smile widened, and Bing leaped back, a cry rising in his throat “Come along, Bing! Let’s be about our business! You aren’t dressed for this cold!” Manx shouted Bing was about to step forward, then hesitated to look at the arch over the open iron gate GRAVEYARD OF WHAT MIGHT BE Bing frowned at this mystifying statement, but then Mr. Manx called again, and he hurried along Four stone steps, lightly sprinkled in snow, led down to a flat plane of black ice. The ice was grainy with the recent snowfall, but the flakes were not deep—any kick of the boot would reveal the smooth sheet of ice beneath. He had gone two steps when he saw something cloudy caught in the ice, about three inches below the surface. At first glance it looked like a dinner plate Bing bent and looked through the ice. Charlie Manx, who was only a few paces ahead, turned back and pointed the flashlight at the spot where he was looking The glow of the beam lit the face of a child, a girl with freckles on her cheeks and her hair in pigtails. At the sight of her, Bing screamed and took an unsteady step back She was as pale as the marble statues guarding the entrance to the Graveyard of What Might Be, but she was flesh, not stone. Her mouth was open in a silent shout, a few frozen bubbles drifting from her lips. Her hands were raised, as if she were reaching up to him. In one was a bunch of red coiled rope—a jump rope, Bing recognized “It’s a girl!” he cried. “It’s a dead girl in the ice!” “Not dead, Bing,” Manx said. “Not yet Maybe not for years.” Manx flicked the flashlight away and pointed it toward a white stone cross, tilting up from the ice LILY CARTER 15 Fox Road Sharpsville, PA 1980–? Turned to a life of sin by her mother,

Her childhood ended before it began If only there had been another To take her off to Christmasland! Manx swept his light around what Bing now perceived was a frozen lake, on which were ranked rows of crosses: a cemetery the size of Arlington. The snow skirled around the memorials, the plinths, the emptiness. In the moonlight the snowflakes looked like silver shavings Bing peered again at the girl at his feet She stared up through the clouded ice—and blinked He screamed once more, stumbling away. The backs of his legs struck another cross, and he half spun, lost his footing, and went down on all fours He gazed through the dull ice. Manx turned his flashlight on the face of another child, a boy with sensitive, thoughtful eyes beneath pale bangs WILLIAM DELMAN 42B Mattison Avenue Asbury Park, NJ 1981–? Billy only ever wanted to play, But his father didn’t stay His mother ran away Drugs, knives, grief, and dismay If only someone had saved the day! Bing tried to get up, did a comical soft-shoe, went down again, a little to the left. The ray of Manx’s flashlight showed him another child, an Asian girl, clutching a stuffed bear in a tweed jacket SARA CHO 1983–? 39 Fifth Street Bangor, ME Sara lives in a tragic dream, Will hang herself by age thirteen! But think how she will give such thanks, If she goes for a ride with Charlie Manx! Bing made a gobbling, gasping sound of horror The girl, Sara Cho, stared up at him, mouth open in a silent cry. She had been buried in the ice with a clothesline twisted around her throat Charlie Manx caught Bing’s elbow and helped him up “I’m sorry you had to see all this, Bing,” Manx said. “I wish I could’ve spared you But you needed to understand the reasons for my work. Come back to the car. I have a thermos of cocoa.” Mr. Manx helped Bing across the ice, his hand squeezing Bing’s upper arm tightly to keep him from falling again They separated at the hood of the car, and Charlie went on to the driver’s-side door, but Bing hesitated for an instant, noticing, for the first time, the hood ornament: a grinning lady fashioned from chrome, her arms spread so that her gown flowed back from her body like wings. He recognized her in a glance—she was identical to the angels of mercy who guarded the gate of the cemetery When they were in the car, Charlie Manx reached beneath his seat and came up with a silver thermos. He removed the cap, filled it with hot chocolate, and handed it over. Bing clasped it in both hands, sipping at that scalding sweetness, while Charlie Manx made a wide, sweeping turn away from the Graveyard of What Might Be. They accelerated back the way they had come “Tell me about Christmasland,” Bing said in a shaking voice “It is the best place,” Manx said. “With all due respect to Mr. Walt Disney, Christmasland is the true happiest place in the world. Although—from another point of view, I suppose you could say it is the happiest place not in this world In Christmasland every day is Christmas, and the children there never feel anything like unhappiness. No, the children there don’t even understand the concept of unhappiness! There is only fun. It is like heaven—only of course they are not dead! They live forever, remain children for eternity, and are never forced to struggle and sweat and demean themselves like us poor adults. I discovered this place of pure dream many years ago, and the first wee ones to take up residence there were my own children, who were saved before they could be destroyed by the pitiful, angry thing their mother became in her later years “It is, truly, a place where the impossible happens every day. But it is a place for children, not adults. Only a few grown-ups are allowed to live there. Only those who have shown devotion to a higher cause. Only those who are willing to sacrifice everything for the well-being and happiness of the tender little ones. People like you, Bing “I wish, with all my heart, that all the children in the world could find their way to Christmasland, where they would know safety and happiness beyond measure! Oh, boy, that would be something! But few adults would consent

to send their children away with a man they have never met, to a place they cannot visit Why, they would think me the most heinous sort of kidnapper and kiddie fiddler! So I bring only one or two children a year, and they are always children I have seen in the Graveyard of What Might Be, good children sure to suffer at the hands of their own parents As a man who was hurt terribly as a child himself, you understand, I’m sure, how important it is to help them! The graveyard shows me children who will, if I do nothing, have their childhoods stolen by their mothers and fathers They will be hit with chains, fed cat food, sold to perverts. Their souls will turn to ice, and they will become cold, unfeeling people, sure to destroy children themselves We are their one chance, Bing! In my years as the keeper of Christmasland, I have saved some seventy children, and it is my feverish wish to save a hundred more before I am done.” The car rushed through the cold, cavernous dark. Bing moved his lips, counting to himself “Seventy,” he murmured. “I thought you only rescue one child a year. Maybe two.” “Yes,” Manx said. “That is about right.” “But . . . how old are you?” Bing asked Manx grinned sidelong at him—revealing that crowded mouthful of sharp brown teeth. “My work keeps me young. Finish your cocoa, Bing.” Bing swallowed the last hot, sugary mouthful, then swirled the remnants. There was a milky yellow residue there. He wondered if he had just swallowed something else from the medicine cabinet of Dewey Hansom, a name that sounded like a joke or a name in a limerick. Dewey Hansom, Charlie Manx’s pre-Bing thing, who had saved ten children and gone to his eternal reward in Christmasland. If Charlie Manx had saved seventy kids, then there had been—what? Seven pre-Bing things? The lucky dogs He heard a rumbling: the crash, rattle, and twelve-cylinder whine of a big truck coming up behind them. He looked back—the sound was rising in volume with each passing moment—but could see nothing “Do you hear that?” Bing asked, unaware that the empty lid of the thermos had slipped from his suddenly tingling fingers. “Do you hear something coming?” “That would be the morning,” Manx said “Pulling up on us fast. Don’t look now, Bing, here it comes!” That truck roar built and built, and suddenly it was pulling by them on Bing’s left. Bing looked out into the night and could see the side of a big panel truck quite clearly, only a foot or two away. Painted on the side was a green field, a red farmhouse, a scattering of cows, and a bright smiling sun coming up over the hills. The rays of that rising sun lit foot-high lettering: SUNRISE DELIVERY For an instant the truck obscured the land and sky, and SUNRISE DELIVERY filled Bing’s entire visual field. Then it rolled rattling on, dragging a rooster tail of dust, and Bing flinched from an almost painfully blue morning sky, a sky without cloud, without limit, and squinted into The Pennsylvania Countryside CHARLIE MANX ROLLED THE WRAITH TO THE SIDE OF THE ROAD and put it into park. Cracked, sandy, country road. Yellowing weeds growing right up to the side of the car. Insect hum Glare of a low sun. It could not be much later than seven in the morning, but already Bing could feel the fierce heat of the day coming through the windshield “Wowser!” Bing said. “What happened?” “The sun came up,” Manx said mildly “I’ve been asleep?” Bing asked “I think, really, Bing, you’ve been awake Maybe for the first time in your life.” Manx smiled, and Bing blushed and offered up an uncertain smile in return. He didn’t always understand Charles Manx, but that only made the man easier to adore, to worship Dragonflies floated in the high weeds. Bing didn’t recognize where they were. It wasn’t Sugarcreek. Some back lane somewhere. When he looked out his passenger window, in the hazy golden light, he saw a Colonial with black shutters on a hill. A girl in a crimson, shiftlike flower-print dress stood in the dirt driveway, under a locust tree, staring down at them. In one hand she held a jump rope, but she wasn’t leaping, wasn’t using it, was just studying them in a quizzical sort of way. Bing supposed she hadn’t ever seen a Rolls-Royce before He narrowed his eyes, staring back at her, lifting one hand in a little wave. She didn’t wave back, only tipped her head to the side,

studying them. Her pigtails dropped toward her right shoulder, and that was when he recognized her. He jumped in surprise and banged a knee on the underside of the dash “Her!” he cried. “It’s her!” “Who, Bing?” Charlie Manx asked, in a knowing sort of voice Bing stared at her, and she stared right back He could not have been more shocked if he had seen the dead rise. In a way he had just seen the dead rise “Lily Carter,” Bing recited. Bing had always had a good mind for scraps of verse “‘Turned to a life of sin by her mother, her childhood ended before it began. If only there had been another to take her off to  . .’” His voice trailed away as a screen door creaked open on the porch and a dainty, fine-boned woman in a flour-dashed apron stuck her head out “Lily!” cried the woman. “I said breakfast ten minutes ago. Get in here!” Lily Carter did not reply but only began to back slowly up the driveway, her eyes large and fascinated. Not afraid. Just . . . interested “That would be Lily’s mother,” Manx said. “I have made a study of little Lily Carter and her mother. Her mother works nights tending bar in a roadhouse near here. You know about women who work in bars.” “What about them?” Bing asked “Whores,” Manx said. “Almost all of them. At least until their looks go, and in the case of Lily Carter’s mother they’re going fast. Then, I’m afraid, she will quit being a whore and turn to being a pimp. Her daughter’s pimp. Someone has to earn the bacon, and Evangeline Carter doesn’t have a husband. Never married. Probably doesn’t even know who knocked her up. Oh, little Lily is only eight now, but girls . . . girls grow up so much faster than boys. Why, look at what a perfect little lady she is. I am sure her mother will be able to command a high price for her child’s innocence!” “How do you know?” Bing whispered. “How do you know all that will really happen? Are you . . . are you sure?” Charlie Manx raised an eyebrow. “There’s only one way to find out. To stand aside and leave Lily in the care of her mother. Perhaps we should check back on her in a few years, see how much her mother will charge us for a turn with her. Maybe she will offer us a two-for-one special!” Lily had backed all the way to the porch From inside, her mother shouted again, her voice hoarse, angry. It sounded to Bing Partridge very like the voice of a drunk with a hangover A grating, ignorant voice “Lily! Get in here right now or I’m givin’ your eggs to the damn dog!” “Bitch,” Bing Partridge whispered “I am inclined to agree, Bing,” Manx said “When the daughter comes with me to Christmasland, the mother will have to be dealt with as well It would be better, really, if the mother and the daughter disappeared together. I’d rather not take Ms. Carter with me to Christmasland, but perhaps you could find some use for her Although I can think of only one use to which she is really suited. In any event, it is no matter to me. Her mother simply cannot be seen again. And, when you consider what she will do to her daughter someday, if left to her own devices . . . well, I won’t shed any tears for her!” Bing’s heart beat rapidly and lightly behind his breastbone. His mouth was dry. He fumbled for the latch Charlie Manx seized his arm, just as he had done when he was helping Bing across the ice in the Graveyard of What Might Be “Where are you going, Bing?” Charlie asked Bing turned a wild look upon the man beside him. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go in there. Let’s go in right now and save the girl!” “No,” Charlie said. “Not now. There are preparations to make. Our moment will come, soon enough.” Bing stared at Charlie Manx with wonder . . . and a certain degree of reverence “Oh,” Charlie Manx said. “And, Bing Mothers can put up an awful racket when they think their daughters are being taken from them, even very wicked mothers like Ms. Carter.” Bing nodded “Do you think you could get us some sevoflurane from your place of employment?” Manx said “You might want to bring your gun and your gasmask, too. I am sure they will come in handy.” THE LIBRARIAN 1991 Haverhill, Massachusetts HER MOTHER HAD SAID, DON’T YOU WALK OUT THAT DOOR, BUT VIC wasn’t walking, she was running, fighting tears the whole way. Before she got outside, she heard her father say to Linda, Oh, lay off, she feels bad enough, which made it worse, not better. Vic caught her bike by the handlebars and ran with it, and at the far edge of the backyard she threw her leg over and plunged down into the cool,

sweet-smelling shade of the Pittman Street Woods Vic did not think about where she was going Her body just knew, guiding the Raleigh down the steep pitch of the hill and hitting the dirt track at the bottom at nearly thirty miles an hour She went to the river. The river was there So was the bridge This time the thing that had been lost was a photograph, a creased black-and-white snap of a chubby boy in a ten-gallon hat, holding hands with a young woman in a polka-dot dress The woman was using her free hand to pin the dress down against her thighs; the wind was blowing, trying to lift the hem. That same breeze had tossed a few strands of pale hair across her cocky, wry, almost-pretty features The boy pointed a toy pistol into the camera This puffy, blank-eyed little gunslinger was Christopher McQueen, age seven. The woman was his mother, and at the time the photograph was taken she was already dying of the ovarian cancer that would end her life at the ripe age of thirty-three. The picture was the only thing he had left of her, and when Vic asked if she could take it to school to use for an art project, Linda had been against it Chris McQueen, though, overruled his wife Chris had said, Hey. I want Vic to draw her Closest they’ll ever come to spending time together. Just bring it back, Brat. I don’t ever want to forget what she looked like At thirteen Vic was the star of her seventh-grade art class with Mr. Ellis. He had selected her watercolor, Covered Bridge, for the annual school show at Town Hall—where it was the only seventh-grade work included among a selection of eighth-grade paintings that varied from bad to worse. (Bad: innumerable pictures of misshapen fruit in warped bowls. Worse: a portrait of a leaping unicorn with a rainbow erupting from its ass, as if in a Technicolor burst of flatulence.) When the Haverhill Gazette ran a story about the show, guess which picture they chose to run alongside the article? Not the unicorn. After Covered Bridge came home, Vic’s father shelled out for a birch frame and hung it on the wall where Vic’s Knight Rider poster had once been displayed. Vic had gotten rid of the Hoff years ago. The Hoff was a loser, and Trans Ams were oil-leaking shitboxes. She didn’t miss him Their last assignment that year was “life drawing,” and they were asked to work from a photograph that was special to them. Vic’s father had room over the desk in his study for a painting, and Vic very much wanted him to be able to look up and see his mother—in color The painting was done now, had come home the day before, on the last day of school, after Vic emptied out her locker. And if this final watercolor wasn’t as good as Covered Bridge, Vic still thought she had caught something of the woman in the photograph: the hint of bony hips beneath the dress, a quality of weariness and distraction in her smile. Her father had gazed at it for a long time, looking both pleased and a little sad. When Vic asked what he thought, he only said, “You smile just like her, Brat. I never noticed.” The painting had come home—but the photo hadn’t. Vic didn’t know she didn’t have it until her mother started asking about it on Friday afternoon. First Vic thought it was in her backpack, then in her bedroom By Friday night, however, she had come to the stomach-churning realization that she didn’t have it and didn’t have any idea when she had last seen it. By Saturday morning—the first glorious day of summer vacation—Vic’s mother had come to the same conclusion, had decided that the snap was gone forever, and in a state bordering on hysteria had said that the photograph was a lot more important than any shitty junior high painting. And then Vic was on the move, had to get away, get out, afraid if she stood still she would become a little hysterical herself: an emotion she couldn’t bear to feel Her chest hurt, as if she had been biking for hours, not minutes, and her breath was strangled, as if she were fighting her way uphill, not gliding along level ground. But when she saw the bridge, she felt something like peace. No. Better than peace: She felt her whole conscious mind disengaging, decoupling from the rest of her, leaving only the body and the bike to do their work. It had always been this way. She had crossed the bridge almost a dozen times in five years, and always it was less like an experience, more like a sensation. It was not a thing she did, it was a thing she felt: a dreamy awareness of gliding, a distant sense of static roaring It was not unlike the feel of sinking into a doze, easing herself into the envelope of sleep And even as her tires began to bump across the wooden planks, she was already mentally writing the true story of how she found the photograph. She had shown the picture to her friend Willa on the last day of school. They got talking about other things, and then Vic had to run to make her bus. She was gone by

the time Willa realized she still had the photograph, so her friend simply held on to it to give it back later. When Vic arrived home from her bike ride, she would have the photo in hand and a story to tell, and her father would hug her and say he was never worried about it, and her mother would look like she wanted to spit. Vic could not have said which reaction she was looking forward to more Only it was different this time. This time when she came back, there was one person she couldn’t convince, when she told her true-but-not-really story about where the photo had been. That person was Vic herself Vic came out the other end of the tunnel and sailed into the wide, dark hallway on the second floor of the Cooperative School. At not quite nine in the morning on the first day of summer vacation, it was a dim, echoing space, so empty it was a little frightening She touched the brake, and the bike whined shrilly to a stop She had to look back. She couldn’t help it. No one could’ve resisted looking back The Shorter Way Bridge came right through the brick wall, extending ten feet into the hall, as wide as the great corridor itself Was part of it outside as well, hanging over the parking lot? Vic didn’t think so, but without breaking into one of the classrooms, she couldn’t look out a window and check Ivy smothered the entrance of the bridge, hung in limp green sheaves The sight of the Shorter Way made her mildly ill, and for a moment the school hallway around her bulged, like a drop of water fattening on a twig. She felt faint, knew if she didn’t get moving she might start to think, and thinking would be bad news. It was one thing to fantasize trips across a long-gone covered bridge when she was eight or nine and another when she was thirteen. At nine it was a daydream. At thirteen it was a delusion She had known she was coming here (it had said so in green paint, on the other end of the bridge) but had imagined she would come out on the first floor, close to Mr. Ellis’s art room. Instead she had been dumped on the second, a dozen feet from her locker. She’d been talking to friends when she emptied it the day before. There had been a lot of distraction and noise—shouts, laughter, kids running by—but still she’d looked her locker over thoroughly before shutting the door for a last time and was sure, quite sure, she had emptied it. Still: The bridge had brought her here, and the bridge was never wrong There is no bridge, she thought. Willa had the photograph. She was planning to give it back to me as soon as she saw me Vic leaned her bike against the lockers, opened the door to her own, and looked in at the beige walls and the rusted floor. Nothing She patted the shelf, a half a foot above her head. Nothing there either Her insides were bunching up with worry. She wanted to have it already, wanted to be out of here, so she could start forgetting about the bridge as soon as possible. But if it wasn’t in the locker, then she didn’t know where to look next. She started to shut the door—then paused, raised herself up on tiptoes, and ran her hand over the top shelf again. Even then she almost missed it Somehow one corner of the photograph had snagged on the back of the shelf, so it was standing up and pressed flat to the rear wall. She had to reach all the way back to touch it, had to reach to the very limit of how far she could stretch her arm to catch hold of it She pried at it with her fingernails, wiggling it this way and that, and it came loose. She dropped down onto her heels, flushing with pleasure “Yes!” she said, and clanged the locker door shut The janitor stood halfway up the hall. Mr Eugley. He stood with his mop plunged into his big yellow rolling bucket, staring along the length of the corridor at Vic, and Vic’s bike, and the Shorter Way Bridge Mr. Eugley was old and hunched and, with his gold-rimmed glasses and bow ties, looked more like a teacher than many of the teachers did He worked as a crossing guard, too, and on the day before Easter vacation he had little bags of jelly beans for every kid who walked past him. Rumor was that Mr. Eugley had taken the job to be around children, because his kids had died in a house fire years and years ago. Sadly, this rumor was true, and it omitted the fact that Mr. Eugley had started the fire himself while passed out drunk with a cigarette burning in one hand. He had Jesus instead of children now and a favorite AA meeting instead of a bar. He had gotten religion and sobriety both while in jail Vic looked at him. He looked back, his mouth opening and closing like a goldfish’s. His legs trembled violently “You’re the McQueen girl,” he said in a strong Down East accent that obliterated r’s: Yah the McQueen gill. His breathing was strained, and he had a hand on his throat “What’s that in the wall? By Jesus, am I goin’ crazy? That looks like the Shortaway

Bridge, what I haven’t seen in years.” He coughed, once and then again. It was a wet, strange, choked sound, and there was something terrifying about it. It was the sound of a man in gathering physical distress How old was he? Vic thought, Ninety. She was off by almost twenty years, but seventy-one was still old enough for a heart attack “It’s all right,” Vic said. “Don’t—” she began, but then didn’t know how to continue Don’t what? Don’t start screaming? Don’t die? “Oh, dear,” he said. “Oh, dear.” Only he said it de-ah. Two syllables. His right hand shook furiously as he raised it to cover his eyes. His lips began to move. “Deah, deah me. ‘The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.’” “Mr. Eugley—” Vic tried again “Go away!” he shrieked. “Just go away and take your bridge with you! This isn’t happening! You aren’t here!” He kept his hand over his eyes. His lips began to move again. Vic couldn’t hear him but could see from the way he shaped the words what he was saying. “‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters.’” Vic turned her bike around. She put a foot over. She began to work the pedals. Her own legs felt none too steady, but in a moment she thudded up onto the bridge, into the hissing darkness and the smell of bats She looked back once, halfway across. Mr Eugley was still there, head ducked in prayer, hand over his eyes, other hand clutching the mop to his side Vic rode on, photo in one sweaty palm, out of the bridge and into the drifting, lively shadows of the Pittman Street Woods. She knew, even before she looked back over her shoulder—knew just from the musical chuckle of the river below and the graceful sweep of the wind in the pines—that the Shorter Way was gone She pedaled on, into the first day of summer, her pulse knocking strangely. A bone-deep ache of foreboding rode all the way back with her The McQueen House VIC WAS HEADED OUT OF THE HOUSE TWO DAYS LATER TO RIDE HER bike over to Willa’s—last chance to see her BFF before Vic and her parents took off for six weeks on Lake Winnipesaukee—when she heard her mother in the kitchen, saying something about Mr. Eugley. The sound of his name produced a sudden, almost crippling feeling of weakness, and Vic nearly had to sit down She had spent the weekend not thinking about Mr. Eugley with a vengeance, something that hadn’t been hard to do; Vic had been down all Saturday night with a migraine headache so intense it made her want to throw up. The pain had been especially fierce behind her left eye. The eye had felt like it was going to pop She climbed back up the front steps and stood outside the kitchen, listening to her mother bullshit with one of her friends, Vic wasn’t sure which one. She stood there eavesdropping to her mother’s side of the phone conversation for close to five minutes, but Linda didn’t mention Mr. Eugley by name again. She said, Oh, that’s too bad, and Poor man, but she didn’t use the name At last Vic heard Linda drop the phone back into the cradle. This was followed by the clatter and slop of dishes in the sink Vic didn’t want to know. She dreaded knowing At the same time: She couldn’t help herself It was that simple “Mom?” she asked, putting her head around the corner. “Did you say something about Mr. Eugley?” “Hm?” Linda asked. She bent over the sink, her back to Vic. Pots clashed. A single soap bubble quivered, popped. “Oh, yeah. He fell off the wagon. Got picked up last night, out in front of the school, shouting at it like a madman. He’s been sober thirty years Ever since . . . well, ever since he decided he didn’t want to be a drunk anymore. Poor guy. Dottie Evans told me he was down at church this morning, sobbing like a little kid, saying he’s going to quit his job. Saying he can’t ever go back. Embarrassed, I guess.” Linda glanced at Vic, and her brow furrowed with concern. “You okay, Vicki? You still don’t look too good. Maybe you ought to stay in this morning.” “No,” Vic said, her voice odd and hollow, as if coming from inside a box. “I want to get out. Get some fresh air.” She hesitated, then said, “I hope he doesn’t quit. He’s a really nice guy.” “He is. And he loves all you kids. But people get old, Vic, and they need looking after The parts wear out. Body and mind.” Riding into the town woods was going out of her way—there was a far more direct route to Willa’s house through Bradbury Park—but no sooner had Vic climbed onto her bike than she decided she needed to ride around a bit, do a little thinking before seeing anyone A part of her felt that it was a bad idea to let herself think about what she had done, what she could do, the unlikely, bewildering gift that was hers alone. But that dog was loose now, and it would take a while to corner it and get it on the leash again. She had daydreamed a hole in the world and ridden

her bike through it, and it was crazy. Only a crazy person would imagine that such a thing was possible—except Mr. Eugley had seen her. Mr. Eugley had seen, and it had broken something inside him. It had kicked the legs out from under his sobriety and made him afraid to return to school, to the place where he had worked for more than a decade. A place he had been happy. Mr. Eugley—poor old broken Mr. Eugley—was proof that the Shorter Way was real She didn’t want proof. She wanted not to know about it Failing that, she wished there were someone she could talk to who would tell her she was all right, that she was not a lunatic. She wanted to find someone who could explain, make sense of a bridge that only existed when she needed it and always took her where she needed to go She dropped over the side of the hill and into a pocket of cool, rushing air That was not all she wanted. She wanted to find the bridge itself, to see it again. She felt clear in her head and certain of herself, firmly placed in the moment. She was conscious of every jolt and shudder as the Raleigh banged over roots and stones. She knew the difference between fantasy and reality, and she kept this difference clear in her head, and she believed that when she reached the old dirt road, the Shorter Way Bridge would not be there— Only it was “You aren’t real,” she said to the bridge, unconsciously echoing Mr. Eugley. “You fell in the river when I was eight.” The bridge obstinately remained She braked to a stop and looked at it, a safe twenty feet away. The Merrimack churned beneath it “Help me find someone who can tell me I’m not crazy,” she said to it, and put her feet on the pedals and rode slowly toward it As she approached the entrance, she saw the old, familiar green spray paint on the wall to her left HERE That was a funny place to point her toward, she thought. Wasn’t she already here? All the other times she had gone across the Shorter Way, she had ridden in a kind of trance, turning the pedals automatically and thoughtlessly, just another working part of the machine, along with the gears and the chain This time she forced herself to go slow and to look around, even though everything in her wanted to get out of the bridge as soon as she was in it. She fought it, the overriding impulse to hurry, to ride as if the bridge were collapsing behind her. She wanted to fix the details of the place in her mind She half believed that if she really looked at the Shorter Way Bridge, looked at it intently, it would melt away around her And then what? Where would she be if the bridge blinked out of existence? It didn’t matter The bridge persisted, no matter how hard she stared at it. The wood was old and worn and splintery-looking. The nails in the walls were caked with rust. She felt the floorboards sink under the weight of the bike. The Shorter Way would not be willed into nothingness She was aware, as always, of the white noise She could feel the thunderous roar of it in her teeth. She could see it, could see the storm of static through the cracks in the tilted walls Vic did not quite dare stop her bike, get off and touch the walls, walk around. She believed that if she got off her bike, she would never get back on. Some part of her felt that the existence of the bridge depended utterly on forward motion and not thinking too much The bridge buckled and stiffened and buckled again. Dust trickled from the rafters. Had she seen a pigeon fly up there once? She lifted her head and looked and saw that the ceiling was carpeted in bats, their wings closed around the small, furry nubs of their bodies. They were in constant subtle movement, wiggling about, rearranging their wings. A few turned their faces to peer nearsightedly down upon her Each of these bats was identical, and each had Vic’s own face. All their faces were shrunken and shriveled and pink, but she knew herself. They were her except for the eyes, which glittered redly, like drops of blood At the sight of them, she felt a fine silver needle of pain slide through her left eyeball and into her brain. She could hear their high, piping, nearly subsonic cries above the hiss and pop of the static flurry She couldn’t bear it. She wanted to scream, but she knew if she did, the bats would let go of the roof and swarm around her and that would be the end of her. She shut her eyes and threw her whole self into pedaling to the far end of the bridge. Something was shaking furiously. She could not tell if it was the bridge, the bike, or herself With her eyes closed, she did not know she had reached the other end of the bridge until she felt the front tire thump over the sill She felt a blast of heat and light—she had

not once looked to see where she was going—and heard a shout: Watch out! She opened her eyes just as the bike hit a low cement curb in Here, Iowa AND SHE SPILLED ONTO THE SIDEWALK, SANDPAPERING HER RIGHT KNEE Vic rolled onto her back, grabbing her leg “Ow,” she said. “Ow owOW ow.” Her voice running up and down through several octaves, like an instrumentalist practicing scales “Oh, kittens. Are you all right?” came a voice from somewhere in the glare of midday sunshine. “You sh-should really be more careful jumping out of thin air like that.” Vic squinted into the light and was able to make out a scrawny girl not much older than herself—she was perhaps twenty—with a fedora tipped back on her fluorescent purple hair. She wore a necklace made out of beer-can pull tabs and a pair of Scrabble-tile earrings; her feet were stuck into Chuck Taylor Converse high-tops, no laces. She looked like Sam Spade, if Sam Spade had been a girl and had a weekend gig fronting a ska band “I’m okay. Just scraped myself,” Vic said, but the girl had already quit listening She was staring back at the Shorter Way “You know, I’ve always wanted a bridge there,” the girl said. “Couldn’ta dropped it in a better s-spot.” Vic raised herself up onto her elbows and looked back at the bridge, which now spanned a wide, noisy rush of brown water. This river was almost as wide as the Merrimack, although the banks were far lower. Stands of birch and century-old oaks massed along the water’s edge, which was just a couple feet below the sandy, crumbling embankment “Is that what it did? My bridge dropped? Like, out of the sky?” The girl continued to stare at it. She had the sort of unblinking, stuporous stare that Vic associated with pot and a fondness for Phish. “Mmm-no. It was more like watching a Polaroid develop. Have you ever s-s-ssseen a Polaroid develop?” Vic nodded, thinking of the way the brown chemical square slowly went pale, details swimming into place, colors brightening steadily, objects taking shape “Your bridge faded in where there were a couple old oaks. Good-bye, oaks.” “I think your trees will come back when I go,” Vic said—although with a moment to consider it she had to admit to herself she had no idea if this were true. It felt true, but she couldn’t attest to it as fact “You don’t seem very surprised about my bridge showing up out of nowhere.” Remembering Mr. Eugley, how he had trembled and covered his eyes and screamed for her to go away “I was watching for you. I didn’t know you were going to make ssssuch an ass-kicking entrance, but I also knew you might not sssss—” And without any warning at all, the girl in the hat stopped talking, midsentence. Her lips were parted to say the next word, but no word would come, and a look of strain came across her face, as if she were trying to lift something heavy: a piano or a car. Her eyes protruded. Her cheeks colored. She forced herself to exhale and then just as abruptly continued. “—get here like a normal person Excuse me, I have a ss-ss-ssstammer.” “You were watching for me?” The girl nodded but was considering the bridge again. In a slow, dreamy voice, she said, “Your bridge . . . it doesn’t go to the other side of the Cedar River, does it?” “No.” “So where does it go?” “Haverhill.” “Is that here in Iowa?” “No. Massachusetts.” “Oh, boy, you’ve come a long way. You’re in the Corn Belt now. You’re in the land where everything is flat except the ladies.” For a moment Vic was pretty sure she saw the girl leer “Excuse me, but . . . can we go back to the part where you said you were watching for me?” “Well, duh! I’ve been expecting you for months. I didn’t think you’d ever sh-show up. You’re the Brat, aren’t you?” Vic opened her mouth, but nothing would come Her silence was answer enough, and her surprise clearly pleased the other girl, who smiled and tucked some of her fluorescent hair back behind one ear. With her upturned nose and slightly pointed ears, there was something elvish about her. Although that was possibly a side effect of the setting: They were on a grassy hill, in the shade of leafy oaks, between the river and a big building that from the back had the look of a cathedral or a college hall, a fortress of cement and granite with white spires and narrow slots for windows, perfect for shooting arrows through “I thought you’d be a boy. I was expecting the kind of kid who won’t eat lettuce and picks his nose. How do you feel about lettuce?” “Not a fan.” She squeezed her little hands into tight fists and shook them over her head. “Knew it!” Then she lowered her fists and frowned. “Big nose picker?” “Blow it, don’t show it,” Vic said

“Did you say this is Iowa?” “Sure did!” “Where in Iowa?” “Here,” said the girl in the hat “Well,” Vic started, feeling a flash of annoyance, “I mean, yeah, I know, but, like—here where?” “Here, Iowa. That’s the name of the town You’re right down the road from beautiful Cedar Rapids, at the Here Public Library And I know all about why you came. You’re confused about your bridge, and you’re trying to figure things out. Boy, is this your lucky day!” She clapped her hands. “You found yourself a librarian! I can help with the figuring-out thing and point you toward some good poetry while I’m at it. It’s what I do.” The Library THE GIRL THUMBED BACK HER OLD-TIMEY FEDORA AND SAID, “I’M Margaret. Just like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, only I hate when people call me that.” “Margaret?” “No. God. I’ve got a big enough ego as it is.” She grinned. “Margaret Leigh You can just call me Maggie. If we go inside and I get you a Band-Aid and a cup of tea, do you think your bridge will stay?” “Yes. I think so.” “Okay. Cool. I hope your bridge doesn’t disappear on you. I’m sure we could get you home without it—we could hold a fund-raiser or s-s-something—but it might be better if you went back the way you came. Just so you don’t have to explain to your parents how you wound up in Iowa. I mean, it wouldn’t be too bad if you had to ss-ss-ssstay awhile! I have a bed down in Romantic Poetry. I crash here some nights. But you could bunk there and I could camp out with my uncle in his trailer, at least until we raise your bus fare.” “Romantic Poetry?” “Shelves 821-point-2 through 821-point-6 I’m not supposed to suh-ss-sleep in the library, but Ms. Howard lets me get away with it if it’s only now and then. She pities me, because I’m an orphan and kind of weird That’s okay. I don’t mind. People make out like it’s a terrible thing to be pitied, but I say, Hey! I get to sleep in a library and read books all night! Without pity, where would I be? I’m a total pity s-s-ssslut.” She took Vic’s upper arm and helped her to her feet. She bent and collected the bicycle and leaned it against a bench. “You don’t have to lock it up. I don’t think anyone in this town is imaginative enough to think of s-s-stealing something.” Vic followed her up the path, through a sliver of wooded park, to the rear of the great stone temple of books. The library was built into the side of the hill, so it was possible to walk through a heavy iron door into what Vic guessed would be a basement. Maggie turned a key hanging from the lock and pushed the door inward, and Vic did not hesitate to enter It didn’t cross her mind to mistrust Maggie, to wonder if this older girl might be leading her into a dark cellar with thick stone walls, where no one would be able to hear her scream Vic instinctively understood that a girl who wore Scrabble tiles as earrings and called herself a pity slut did not present much in the way of threat. Besides, Vic had wanted to find someone who could tell her if she was crazy, not someone who was crazy. There was no reason to be afraid of Maggie, unless Vic thought the Shortaway could willfully lead her wrong, and on some level Vic knew that it couldn’t The room on the other side of the iron door was ten degrees cooler than the parkland outside Vic smelled the vast vault filled with books before she saw it, because her eyes required time to adjust to the cavernous dark. She breathed deeply of the scent of decaying fiction, disintegrating history, and forgotten verse, and she observed for the first time that a room full of books smelled like dessert: a sweet snack made of figs, vanilla, glue, and cleverness. The iron door settled shut behind them, the weight of it clanging heavily against the frame Maggie said, “If books were girls, and reading was s-ss-ssss—fucking, this would be the biggest whorehouse in the county and I’d be the most ruthless pimp you ever met. Whap the girls on the butts and send them off to their tricks as fast and often as I can.” Vic laughed, then clapped a hand over her mouth, remembering that librarians hated noise Maggie led her through the dim labyrinth of the stacks, along narrow corridors with walls of high shelves “If you ever have to escape in a hurry,” Maggie said, “like, if you were on the run from the cops, just remember: Stay to your right and keep going down the steps. Fastest way out.” “You think I’ll have to escape the Here Public Library in a hurry?” “Not today,” Maggie said. “What’s your name? People must call you something besides the Brat.” “Victoria. Vic. The only person who ever calls me the Brat is my father. It’s just his joke. How come you know my nickname but not my name? And what did you mean, you were expecting me? How could you be expecting me? I didn’t even know I was coming to see you until about ten minutes ago.” “Right. I can help with all that. Let me s-stanch your bleeding first, and then we’ll have questions and answers.” “I think answers are more important than my knee,” Vic said. She hesitated then, and with a feeling of unaccustomed shyness said, “I scared someone with my bridge

A nice old guy back home. I might’ve really messed up his life.” Maggie looked across at her, eyes shining brightly in the darkness of the stacks. She gave Vic a careful once-over, then said, “That’s not a very bratty thing to s-say. I’ve got doubts about this nickname of yours.” The corners of her mouth moved in the smallest of smiles. “If you upset someone, I doubt you meant it. And I doubt you did any lasting damage. People have pretty rubbery brains They can take quite a bit of bouncing around Come on. Band-Aids and tea. And answers. They’re all right this way.” They emerged from the stacks into a cool, stone-floored, open area, a sort of shabby office. It was, Vic thought, an office for a private investigator in a black-and-white movie, not a librarian with a punk haircut It had the five essential props for any PI’s home base: a gunmetal gray desk, an out-of-date pinup-girl calendar, a coatrack, a sink with rust stains in it—and a snub-nosed .38 in the center of the desk, holding down some papers. There was also a fish tank, a big one, filling a five-foot-long socket in one wall Maggie removed her gray fedora and tossed it at the coatrack. In the soft light from the fish tank, her metallic purple hair glowed, a thousand burning neon filaments. While Maggie filled an electric teakettle, Vic wandered to the desk to inspect the revolver, which turned out to be a bronze paperweight with an inscription on the smooth grip: PROPERTY A. CHEKHOV Maggie returned with Band-Aids and motioned for Vic to get up on the edge of the desk Vic sat where Maggie pointed and put her feet on the worn wooden chair. The act of bending her legs brought the stinging sensation in her knee back to the forefront of her mind With it came a deep, nasty throb of pain in her left eyeball. It was a feeling like the eye was caught between the steel prongs of some surgical instrument and being squeezed She rubbed at it with her palm Maggie touched a cold, damp washcloth to Vic’s knee, cleaning grit out of the scrape. She had lit a cigarette at some point, and the smoke was sweet and agreeable; Maggie worked on Vic’s leg with the quiet efficiency of a mechanic checking the oil Vic took a long, measuring look at the big fish tank set into the wall. It was the size of a coffin. A lone golden koi, with long whiskers that lent him a wise appearance, hovered listlessly in the tank. Vic had to look twice before her eyes could make visual sense of what was on the bottom of the tank: not a bed of rocks but a tumble of white Scrabble tiles, hundreds of them, but only four letters: F I S H Through the wavering, green-tinted distortion of the tank, Vic could see what lay on the other side: a carpeted children’s library About a dozen kids and their mothers were gathered in a loose semicircle around a woman in a neat tweed skirt, who sat in a chair that was too small for her and who was holding up a board book so the little guys could look at the pictures. She was reading to them, although Vic could not hear her through the stone wall, over the bubbling of the air handler in the fish tank “You’re just in time for story hour,” Maggie said. “Ss-story hour is the best hour of the day. It’s the only hour I care about.” “I like your fish tank.” “It’s a whore to clean,” Maggie said, and Vic had to squeeze her lips together to keep from shouting with laughter Maggie grinned, and the dimples reappeared She was, in her chubby-cheeked, bright-eyed way, more or less adorable. Like a punk-rock Keebler elf “I’m the one who put the Scrabble tiles in there. I’m kind of nuts for the game Now twice a month I’ve got to haul them out and run them in the wash. It’s a bigger pain in the ass than rectal cancer. Do you like Scrabble?” Vic glanced at Maggie’s earrings again and noticed for the first time that one was the letter F and the other was the letter U “I’ve never played it. I like your earrings, though,” Vic said. “You ever get in trouble for them?” “Nah. No one looks too closely at a librarian People are afraid of going blind from the glare of ssss-ssso much compressed wisdom Check it out: I’m twenty years old, and I’m one of the top five SS-Scrabble players in the whole state. I guess that might say more about Iowa than it says about me.” She pasted the Band-Aid over Vic’s scrape and patted it. “All better.” Maggie crunched out her cigarette in a tin can half filled with sand and slipped away to pour the tea. She returned a moment later with a pair of chipped cups. One said LIBRARIES: WHERE SHHH HAPPENS. The other said DO NOT MAKE ME USE MY LIBRARIAN VOICE. When Vic took her mug, Maggie leaned around her to open the drawer. It was the drawer where a PI would’ve kept his bottle of hooch. Maggie came up with an old purple faux-velvet bag with the word SCRABBLE stamped into it in fading gold letters “You asked me how I knew about you. How

I knew you were coming. SSS-SS-SSS—” Her cheeks began to color with strain “Scrabble? It has something to do with Scrabble?” Maggie nodded. “Thanks for finishing my sentence for me. A lot of people who sss-stammer hate that, when people finish their sss-sentences But as we’ve already established, I enjoy being an object of pity.” Vic felt heat rise into her face, although there was nothing sarcastic in Maggie’s tone. Somehow that made it worse. “Sorry.” Maggie appeared not to hear. She planted herself in a straight-backed chair next to the desk “You came across the bridge on that bike of yours,” Maggie said. “Can you get to the covered bridge without it?” Vic shook her head Maggie nodded. “No. You use your bike to daydream the bridge into existence. And then you use your bridge to find things, right? Things you need? Like, no matter how far away they are, the thing you need is always right on the other s-ss-side of the bridge?” “Yeah. Yeah. Only I don’t know why I can do it, or how, and sometimes I feel like I’m only imagining all my trips across the bridge Sometimes I feel like I’m going crazy.” “You’re not crazy. You’re creative! You’re a s-ss-ss-strong creative. Me, too You’ve got your bike, and I’ve got my letter tiles. When I was twelve, I saw an old SS-Suh-Scrabble game in a garage sale, going for a dollar. It was on display, the first word already played. When I saw it, I knew I was s-ss-suh—had to have it. I needed to have it. I would’ve paid anything for it, and if it wasn’t for sale, I woulda grabbed it and run. Just being close to this Scrabble board for the first time threw a kind of shimmy into reality. An electric train turned itself on and ran right off its tracks A car alarm went off down the road. There was a TV playing inside the garage, and when I saw the SSS-Suh-Scrabble set, it went crazy It started blasting s-ss-suh—” “Static,” Vic said, forgetting the promise she had made to herself only a moment before, not to finish any of Maggie’s sentences for her, no matter how badly she stammered Maggie didn’t seem to mind. “Yes.” “I get something like that,” Vic said “When I’m crossing the bridge, I hear static all around me.” Maggie nodded, as if she found this the least surprising thing in the world. “A few minutes ago, all the lights blinked off in here. The power died in the whole library. That’s how I knew you were getting close. Your bridge is a short circuit in reality. Just like my tiles. You find things, and my tiles spell me things. They told me you’d be coming today and I could find you out back. They told me the Brat would ride across the bridge They’ve been chattering about you for months.” “Can you show me?” Vic asked “I think I need to. I think that’s part of why you’re here. Maybe my tiles have a thing they want to spell for you.” She undid the drawstring, reached into the sack and took some tiles out, dropped them clattering onto the desk Vic twisted around to look at them, but they were just a mess of letters. “Does that say something to you?” “Not yet.” Maggie bent to the letters and began to push them around with her pinkie “It will say something?” Maggie nodded “Because they’re magic?” “I don’t think there’s anything magic about them. They wouldn’t work for anyone else. The tiles are just my knife. Suh-s-something I can use to poke a hole in reality. I think it always has to be a thing you love. I always loved words, and Scrabble gave me a way to play with them. Put me in a Scrabble tournament, someone is going to walk away with their ego all slashed up.” She had by now shuffled the letters around to spell THE BRAT HAD LUNCH TO RIDE F T W T “What’s F-T-W-T mean?” Vic asked, turning her head to see the tiles upside down “Not a damn thing. I haven’t figured it out yet,” Maggie said, frowning and moving the tiles around some more Vic sipped at her tea. It was hot and sweet, but no sooner had she swallowed than she felt a chill sweat prickle on her brow. Those imaginary forceps, clenching her left eyeball, tightened a little “Everyone lives in two worlds,” Maggie said, speaking in an absentminded sort of way while she studied her letters. “There’s the real world, with all its annoying facts and rules. In the real world, there are things that are true and things that aren’t. Mostly the real world s-s-s-suh-sucks. But everyone also lives in the world inside their own head An inscape, a world of thought. In a world made of thought—in an inscape—every idea is a fact. Emotions are as real as gravity Dreams are as powerful as history. Creative people, like writers, and Henry Rollins, spend a lot of their time hanging out in their thoughtworld S-s-strong creatives, though, can use a knife to cut the stitches between the two worlds, can bring them together. Your bike. My tiles Those are our knives.” She bent her head once more and shifted the tiles around in a decisive way. Now they read, THE BRAT FOUND HER CHILD A RICH TWIT

“I don’t know any rich twits,” Vic said “You also look a little young to be with child,” Maggie said. “This is a hard one I wish I had another essss-s-s.” “So my bridge is imaginary.” “Not when you’re on your bike. Then it’s real. It’s an inscape pulled into the normal world.” “But your Scrabble bag. That’s just a bag. It’s not really like my bike. It doesn’t do anything obviously imposs—” But as Vic spoke, Maggie took up her bag, unlaced the strings, and shoved her hand in Tiles scraped, clattered, and clicked, as if she were pushing her hand down into a bucket of them. Her wrist, elbow, and upper arm followed The bag was perhaps six inches deep, but in a moment Maggie’s arm had disappeared into it up to the shoulder, without so much as putting a bulge in the fake velvet. Vic heard her digging deeper and deeper, into what sounded like thousands of tiles “Aaa!” Vic cried On the other side of the fish tank, the librarian reading to the children glanced around “Big old hole in reality,” Maggie said It now looked as if her left arm had been removed at the shoulder, and the amputation was, for some reason, capped by a Scrabble bag. “I’m reaching into my inscape to get the tiles I need. Not into a bag. When I say your bike or my tiles are a knife to open a s-s-slit in reality, I’m not being, like, metaphorical.” The nauseating pressure rose in Vic’s left eye “Can you take your arm out of the bag, please?” Vic asked With her free hand, Maggie tugged on the purple velvet sack, and her arm slithered out. She set the bag on the table, and Vic heard tiles clink within it “Creepy. I know,” Maggie said “How can you do that?” Vic asked Maggie drew a deep breath, almost a sigh “Why can some people s-s-speak a dozen foreign languages? Why can Pelé do the over-his-head bicycle kick? You get what you get, I reckon Not one person in a million is good-looking enough, talented enough, and lucky enough to be a movie s-s-star. Not one person in a million knew as much about words as a poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins did. He knew about inscapes! He came up with the term. S-some people are movie stars, some people are soccer stars, and you’re a suh-s-strong creative It’s a little weird, but so is being born with mismatched eyes. And we’re not the only ones. There are others like us. I’ve met them. The tiles pointed me toward them.” Maggie bent to her letters again and began to push them here and there. “Like, there was a girl I met once who had a wheelchair, a beautiful old thing with whitewall tires She could use it to make herself disappear All she had to do was wheel her chair backward, into what she called the Crooked Alley. That was her inscape. She could wheel herself into that alley and out of existence, but s-s-ss-still see what was happening in our world. There isn’t a culture on earth that doesn’t have stories about people like you and me, people who use totems to throw a kink into reality. The Navajo . . .” But her voice was sinking in volume, dying away Vic saw a look of unhappy understanding cross Maggie’s face. She was staring at her tiles Vic leaned forward and looked down at them She just had time to read them before Maggie’s hand shot out and swept them away THE BRAT COULD FIND THE WRAITH “What’s that mean? What’s the Wraith?” Maggie gave Vic a bright-eyed look that seemed one part fright, and one part apology. “Oh, kittens,” Maggie said “Is that something you lost?” “No.” “Something you want me to find, though? What is it? I could help you—” “No. No. Vic, I want you to promise me you aren’t going to go find him.” “It’s a guy?” “It’s trouble. It’s the worst trouble you can imagine. You’re, like, what? Twelve?” “Thirteen.” “Okay. S-s-s-ss-suh-suh—” Maggie got stuck there, couldn’t go on. She drew a deep, unsteady breath, pulled her lower lip into her mouth, and bit down, sank her teeth into her own lip with a savagery that almost made Vic cry out. Maggie exhaled and went on, without any trace of a stammer at all: “So promise.” “But why would your Scrabble bag want you to know I could find him? Why would it say that?” Maggie shook her head. “That’s not how it works. The tiles don’t want anything, just like a knife doesn’t want anything I can use the tiles to get at facts that are out of reach, the way you might use a letter opener to open your mail. And this—this—is like getting a letter with a bomb inside It’s a way to blow your own little self up.” Maggie sucked on her lower lip, moving her tongue back and forth over it “But why shouldn’t I find him? You said yourself that maybe I was here so your tiles could tell me something. Why would they bring this Wraith guy up if I’m not supposed to go looking for him?” But before Maggie could reply, Vic bent forward and pressed a hand to her left eye. The psychic forceps were squeezing so hard the eye felt

ready to burst. She couldn’t help it, made a soft moan of pain “You look terrible. What’s wrong?” “My eye. It gets bad like this when I go across the bridge. Maybe it’s because I’ve been sitting with you for a while. Normally my trips are quick.” Between her eye and Maggie’s lip, it was turning out to be a damaging conversation for the both of them Maggie said, “The girl I told you about? With the wheelchair? When she first began using her wheelchair, she was healthy. It was her grandmother’s, and she just liked playing with it. But if she stayed too long in Crooked Alley, her legs went numb. By the time I met her, she was entirely paralyzed from the waist down. These things, they cost to use. Keeping the bridge in place could be costing you right now. You oughta only use the bridge s-s-sparingly.” Vic said, “What does using your tiles cost you?” “I’ll let you in on a secret: I didn’t always s-s-s-s-s-suh-suh-suh-stammer!” And she smiled again, with her visibly bloodied mouth. It took Vic a moment to figure out that this time Maggie had been putting her stammer on “Come on,” Maggie said. “We should get you back. We sit here much longer, your head will explode.” “Better tell me about the Wraith, then, or you’re going to get brains all over your desk. I’m not leaving till you do.” Maggie opened the drawer, dropped her Scrabble bag into it, and then slammed it with unnecessary force. When she spoke, for the first time her voice lacked any trace of friendliness “Don’t be a goddamn—” She hesitated, either at a loss for words or stuck on one “Brat?” Vic asked. “Starting to fit my nickname a little better now, huh?” Maggie exhaled slowly, her nostrils flaring “I’m not fooling, Vic. The Wraith is s-s-someone you need to stay away from. Not everyone who can do the things we can do is nice. I don’t know much about the Wraith except he’s an old man with an old car. And the car is his knife. Only he uses his knife to cut throats He takes children for rides in his car, and it does something to them. He uses them up—like a vampire—to stay alive. He drives them into his own inscape, a bad place he dreamed up, and he leaves them there. When they get out of the car, they aren’t children anymore They aren’t even human. They’re creatures that could only live in the cold s-s-space of the Wraith’s imagination.” “How do you know this?” “The tiles. They began telling me about the Wraith a couple years ago, after he grabbed a kid from L.A. He was working out on the West Coast back then, but things changed and he moved his attention east. Did you see the ss-s-story about the little Russian girl who disappeared from Boston? Just a few weeks ago? Vanished with her mother?” Vic had. In her neck of the woods, it had been the lead news story for several days Vic’s mother watched every report with a kind of horror-struck fascination; the missing girl was Vic’s own age, dark-haired, bony, with an awkward but attractive smile. A cute geek. Do you think she’s dead? Vic’s mother had asked Chris McQueen, and Vic’s father had replied, If she’s lucky “The Gregorski girl,” Vic said “Right. A limo driver went to her hotel to pick her up, but someone knocked him out and grabbed Marta Gregorski and her mother That was him. That was the Wraith. He drained the Gregorski girl and then dumped her with all the other children he’s used up, in some fantasy world of his own. An inscape no one would ever want to visit. Like your bridge, only bigger. Much bigger.” “What about the mother? Did he drain her, too?” “I don’t think he can feed off adults Only children. He’s got s-ss-someone who works with him, like a Renfield, who helps him with the kidnappings and takes the grown-ups off his hands. You know Renfield?” “Dracula’s henchman or something?” “Close enough. I know that the Wraith is very old and he’s had a bunch of Renfields He tells them lies, fills them up with illusions, maybe persuades them they’re heroes, not kidnappers. In the end he always s-suh-sacrifices them. That’s how they’re of the most use to him. When his crimes are uncovered, he can shift the blame onto one of his handpicked dumb-asses. He’s been taking children for a long time, and he’s good at hiding in the shadows. I’ve put together all kinds of details about the Wraith, but I haven’t been able to learn anything about him that would really help me identify him.” “Why can’t you just ask the tiles what his name is?” Maggie blinked and then, in a tone that seemed to mix sadness with a certain bemusement, said, “It’s the rules. No proper names allowed in S-S-Scrabble. That’s why my tiles told me to expect the Brat instead of Vic.” “If I found him, found out his name or what he looked like,” Vic said, “could we stop him then?” Maggie slapped one palm down on the desktop, so hard that the teacups jumped. Her eyes

were furious—and scared “Oh, gee, Vic! Aren’t you even listening to me? If you found him, you could get dead, and then it would be my fault! You think I want that on my conscience?” “But what about all the kids he’ll take if we don’t do anything? Isn’t that also sending children to their . . .” Vic let her voice trail off at the look on Maggie’s face Maggie’s features were pained and sick But she reached out, got a tissue from a box of Kleenex, and offered it to Vic “Your left eye,” she said, and held up the dampened cloth. “You’re crying, Vic Come on. We need to get you back. Now.” Vic did not argue when Maggie took her hand and guided her out of the library, and down the path, under the shade of the oaks A hummingbird drank nectar from glass bulbs hanging in one of the trees, its wings whirring like small motors. Dragonflies rose on the thermal currents, their wings shining like gold in the midwestern sun The Raleigh was where they had left it, leaned against a bench. Beyond was a single-lane asphalt road that circled around the back of the library, and then the grassy margin above the river. And the bridge Vic reached for her handlebars, but before she could take them, Maggie squeezed her wrist “Is it safe for you to go in there? Feeling like you do?” “Nothing bad has ever happened before,” Vic said “That’s not a very reassuring way to ph-ph-phrase things. Do we have an agreement about the Wraith? You’re too young to go looking for him.” “Okay,” Vic said, righting her bike, putting a leg over. “I’m too young.” But even as she said it, she was thinking about the Raleigh, remembering the first time she’d seen it. The dealer had said it was too big for her, and her father agreed, told her maybe when she was older. Then, three weeks later, on her birthday, there it was in the driveway. Well, her father had said You’re older now, ain’tcha? “How will I know you made it across the bridge?” Maggie said “I always make it,” Vic said. The sunlight was a steel pin, pushing back into Vic’s left eyeball. The world blurred. Maggie Leigh split into twins for a moment; when she came back together again, she was offering Vic a sheet of paper, folded into quarters “Here,” Maggie said. “Anything I didn’t cover about inscapes and why you can do what you can do is explained here, by an expert on the subject.” Vic nodded and put it in her pocket “Oh!” Maggie called. She tugged at one earlobe, then the other, and then pushed something into Vic’s hand “What are these?” Vic asked, looking into her palm at the Scrabble-tile earrings “Armor,” Maggie said. “Also a concise s-s-stuh-stammerer’s guide for dealing with the world. The next time someone disappoints you, put these on. You’ll feel tougher That’s the Maggie Leigh guarantee.” “Thank you, Maggie. For everything.” “’S what I’m here for. Fount of knowledge—that’s me. Come back to be s-s-sprinkled with my wisdom anytime.” Vic nodded again, didn’t feel she could bear to say anything else. The sound of her own voice threatened to bust her head open, like a lightbulb under a high heel. So instead she reached out and squeezed Maggie’s hand Maggie squeezed back Vic leaned forward, bearing down on the pedals, and rode into darkness and the annihilating roar of static Haverhill, Massachusetts THE NEXT THING SHE WAS CLEAR ON WAS WALKING UP THE HILL, through the Pittman Street Woods, her insides feeling bruised and her face fevery hot. Vic weaved, unsteady on her legs, coming up out of the trees and into her yard She could not see out of her left eye. It felt as if it had been removed with a spoon The side of her face was sticky; for all she knew, the eye had popped like a grape and was running down her cheek Vic walked into one of her swings, knocking it out of her way with a rattle of rusty chains Her father had his Harley out in the driveway, was wiping it down with a chamois. When he heard the clatter of the swings, he glanced up—and dropped the chamois, his mouth opening as if to cry out in shock “Holy fuck,” he said. “Vic, are you all right? What happened?” “I was on my Raleigh,” she said. She felt this explained all “Where is your bike?” he asked, and looked past her, down the road, as if it might be lying in the yard It was the first Vic realized she wasn’t pushing it. She didn’t know what had happened to it. She remembered hitting the bridge wall, halfway across, and falling off the bike, remembered the bats going shree-shree in the dark and flying into her, striking her with soft, felty impacts. She began to shiver uncontrollably “I was knocked off,” she said “Knocked off? Did someone hit you with their car?” Chris McQueen took her in his arms “Jesus Christ, Vic, you’ve got blood all over you. Lin!” Then it was like the other times, her father

lifting her and carrying her to her bedroom, her mother rushing to them, then hurrying away to get water and Tylenol Only it was not like the other times, because Vic was delirious for twenty-four hours, with a temperature that climbed to 102. David Hasselhoff kept coming into her bedroom, pennies where his eyes belonged and his hands in black leather gloves, and he would grab her by a leg and ankle and try to drag her out of the house, out to his car, which was not K.I.T.T. at all. She fought him, screamed and fought and struck at him, and David Hasselhoff spoke in her father’s voice and said it was all right, try to sleep, try not to worry, that he loved her—but his face was blank with hate, and the car’s engine was running, and she knew it was the Wraith Other times she was aware that she was shouting for her Raleigh. “Where’s my bike?” she shouted, while someone held her shoulders “Where is it? I need it, I need it! I can’t find without my bike!” And someone was kissing her face and shushing her. Someone was crying It sounded awfully like her mother She wet the bed. Several times On her second day home, she wandered into the front yard naked and was out there for five minutes, wandering around, looking for her bike, until Mr. de Zoet, the old man across the street, spotted her, and ran to her with a blanket. He wrapped her up and carried her to her house. It had been a long time since she had gone across the street to help Mr de Zoet paint his tin soldiers and listen to his old records, and in the intervening years she had come to think of him as a cranky old Nazi busybody who once called the cops on her parents, when Chris and Linda were having a loud argument. Now, though, she remembered that she liked him, liked his smell of fresh coffee and his funny Austrian accent. He had told her she was good at painting once. He had told her she could be an artist “The bats are stirred up now,” Vic told Mr. de Zoet in a confidential tone of voice as he handed her to her mother. “Poor little things. I think some of them flew out of the bridge and can’t find their way home.” She slept during the day, then lay awake half the night, her heartbeat too fast, afraid of things that made no sense. If a car drove by the house and its headlights swept the ceiling, she would sometimes have to cram her knuckles into her mouth to keep from screaming The sound of a car door slamming in the street was as terrible as a gunshot On her third night in bed, she came out of a drifting fugue state to the sound of her parents talking in the next room “When I tell her I couldn’t find it, she’s going to be fuckin’ heartbroken. She loved that bike,” her father said “I’m glad she’s done with it,” said her mother. “The best thing to come out of this is that she’ll never ride it again.” Her father uttered a burst of harsh laughter “That’s tender.” “Did you hear some of the things she was saying about her bike the day she came home? About riding it to find death? That’s what I think she was doing in her mind, when she was really sick. Riding her bike away from us and off into . . . whatever. Heaven The afterlife. She scared the shit out of me with all that talk, Chris. I never want to see the goddamned thing again.” Her father was silent for a moment, then said, “I still think we should’ve reported a hit-and-run.” “You don’t get a fever like that from a hit-and-run.” “So she was already sick. You said she went to bed early the night before. That she looked pale. Hell, maybe that was part of it. Maybe she had a touch of fever and pedaled into traffic. I’ll never forget what she looked like coming into the driveway, blood leaking from one eye like she was weeping . . .” His voice trailed off. When he spoke again, his tone was different, challenging and not entirely kind. “What?” “I just . . . don’t know why she already had a Band-Aid on her left knee.” The TV babbled for a while. Then her mother said, “We’ll get her a ten-speed. Time for a new bike anyway.” “It’ll be pink,” Vic whispered to herself “Any money says she’ll buy something pink.” On some level Vic knew that the loss of the Tuff Burner was the end of something wonderful, that she had pushed too hard and lost the best thing in her life. It was her knife, and a part of her already understood that another bike would, in all likelihood, not be able to cut a hole through reality and back to the Shorter Way Bridge Vic slid her hand down between the mattress and the wall, and reached beneath her bed, and found the earrings and the folded piece of paper. She had possessed the presence of mind to hide them the afternoon she came home, and they had been under the bed ever since In a flash of psychological insight, uncommon for a girl of thirteen, Vic saw that soon enough she would recall all of her trips across the bridge as the fantasies of a very imaginative child and nothing more. Things that had been

real—Maggie Leigh, Pete at Terry’s Primo Subs, finding Mr. Pentack at Fenway Bowling—would eventually feel like nothing more than daydreams Without her bike to take her on occasional trips across the Shorter Way, it would be impossible to maintain her belief in a covered bridge that flicked in and out of existence Without the Raleigh, the last and only proof of her finding trips were the earrings cupped in her palm and a folded photocopied poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins F U, the earrings said. Five points “Why can’t you come up to the lake with us?” Vic’s mother was saying through the wall—the sound of a whine creeping into her voice. Linda and Chris had moved on to the subject of getting out of town for the summer, something Vic’s mother wanted more than ever, in the aftermath of Vic’s illness “What could you have to do down here?” “My job. You want me to spend three weeks up on Lake Winnipesaukee, get ready to stay in a tent. The goddamn place you have to have is eighteen hundred bucks a month.” “Is three weeks with Vic all by myself supposed to be a vacation? Three weeks of solo parenting, while you stay here to work three days a week and do whatever else you do when I call the job and the guys tell me you’re out with the surveyor. You and him must’ve surveyed every inch of New England by now.” Her father said something else, in a low, ugly tone that Vic couldn’t catch, and then he turned the volume up on the TV, cranking it loud enough that Mr. de Zoet across the street could probably hear it. A door slammed hard enough to make glasses rattle in the kitchen Vic put on her new earrings and unfolded the poem, a sonnet that she did not understand at all and already loved. She read it by the light of the partially open door, whispering the lines to herself, reciting it as if it were a kind of prayer—it was a kind of prayer—and soon her thoughts had left her unhappy parents far behind As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme; As tumbled over rim in roundy wells Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came Í say móre: the just man justices; Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is— Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his To the Father through the features of men’s faces —GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS DISAPPEARANCES 1991–1996 Various Locales THE RUSSIAN GIRL WHOM MAGGIE LEIGH HAD MENTIONED WAS named Marta Gregorski, and in Vic’s neck of the woods her abduction was indeed big news for several weeks. This was partly because Marta was a minor celebrity in the world of chess, mentored by Kasparov and ranked a grandmaster by the age of twelve. Also, though, in those first days after the fall of the USSR, the world was still adjusting to the new Russian freedoms, and there was a feeling that the disappearance of Marta Gregorski and her mother should’ve been the stuff of an international incident, an excuse for another Cold War showdown. It took a while to realize that the former Soviet republic was too busy disintegrating to even take notice. Boris Yeltsin was riding around on tanks, shouting until he was red in the face. Former KGB agents were scrambling to find good-paying jobs with the Russian mafia It was weeks before anyone thought to denounce the decadent, crime-ridden West, and the denouncing wasn’t very enthusiastic at that A clerk working the front desk of the Hilton DoubleTree on the Charles River had seen Marta and her mother exit through the revolving door a little before six on a warm, drizzly evening. The Gregorskis were expected at Harvard for a dinner and were meeting their car. Through the rain-smeared window, the clerk saw Marta and then her mother climb into a black vehicle

She thought the car had running boards because she saw the little Russian girl take a step up before sliding into the back. But it was dark out and the clerk was on the phone with a guest who was pissed he couldn’t open his mini-fridge, and she hadn’t noticed more Only one thing was certain: The Gregorski women had not climbed into the right car, the town car that had been rented for them Their driver, a sixty-two-year-old named Roger Sillman, was parked on the far side of the turnaround, in no condition to pick them up He was out cold and would remain parked there, sleeping behind the wheel, until he came to at nearly midnight. He felt sick and hungover but assumed he had simply (and uncharacteristically) nodded off and that the girls had caught a cab. He did not begin to wonder if something more had happened until the next morning and did not contact the police until he was unable to reach the Gregorskis at their hotel Sillman was interviewed by the FBI ten times in ten weeks, but his story never changed and he was never able to provide any information of value. He said he had been listening to sports radio, with time to kill—he was forty minutes early on his pickup—when a knuckle rapped on his window. Someone squat, in a black coat, standing in the rain. Sillman had rolled down the glass and then— Nothing. Just: nothing. The night melted away, like a snowflake on the tip of his tongue Sillman had daughters of his own—and granddaughters—and it ate him alive to imagine Marta and her mother in the hands of some sick Ted Bundy–Charles Manson fuck who would screw them till they were both dead. He couldn’t sleep, had bad dreams about the little girl playing chess with her mother’s severed fingers. He strained and strained with all his will to remember something, anything. But only one other detail would come “Gingerbread,” he sighed to a pock-scarred federal investigator who was named Peace but looked more like War “Gingerbread?” Sillman looked at his interrogator with hopeless eyes. “I think while I was passed out, I dreamed about my mom’s gingerbread cookies Maybe the guy who knocked on the glass was eatin’ one.” “Mm,” said Peace-not-War. “Well. That’s helpful. We’ll put an APB out on the Gingerbread Man. I’m not hopeful it’ll do us much good, though. Word on the street is you can’t catch him.” IN NOVEMBER 1991, A FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD BOY NAMED RORY McCombers, a freshman at the Gilman School in Baltimore, met a Rolls-Royce in his dorm’s parking lot. He was on his way to the airport, was joining his family in Key West for Thanksgiving break, and believed that the car had been sent for him by his father In fact, the driver that Rory’s father had sent for him was passed out in his limo, half a mile away. Hank Tulowitzki had stopped at a Night Owl to gas up and use the bathroom, but he could remember nothing at all after topping off his tank. He woke up at one in the morning in the trunk of his own car, which was parked a few hundred feet down the road from the Night Owl in a public lot. He’d been kicking and screaming for most of five hours before an early-morning jogger heard him and summoned the police A Baltimore pedophile later confessed to the crime and described in pornographic detail the way he had molested Rory before strangling him to death. But he claimed not to remember where he had buried the body, and the rest of the evidence didn’t fit; not only did he not have access to a Rolls-Royce, he didn’t have a valid driver’s license. By the time the cops decided the kiddie fiddler was a dead end—just a perv who got off on describing the sexual assault of a minor, someone who confessed to things out of boredom—there were new abductions to work on and the ground on the McCombers investigation was very cold Neither Rory’s driver, Tulowitzki, or the Gregorskis’ driver, Sillman, had his blood tested until more than a day after the abductions took place, and any lingering presence of sevoflurane in their bodies went undetected For all they had in common, the disappearance of Marta Gregorski and the kidnapping of Rory McCombers were never connected One other thing the two cases had in common: Neither child was seen again Haverhill CHRIS MCQUEEN TOOK OFF THE AUTUMN VIC BEGAN HIGH SCHOOL Her freshman year was already off to a rocky start. She was pulling straight C’s, except for art. Her art teacher had put a comment on her quarterly summary, six hastily scrawled words—“Victoria is gifted, needs to concentrate”—and given her a B Vic drew her way through every study hall She tattooed herself in Sharpie, to irritate her mother and impress boys. She had done a book report in comic-strip form, to the amusement of all the other kids who sat in

the back of the class with her. Vic was getting an A-plus in entertaining the other burnouts The Raleigh had been replaced by a Schwinn with silver-and-pink tassels on the handlebars She didn’t give a fuck about the Schwinn, never rode it. It embarrassed her When Vic walked in, home from an after-school detention, she found her mother on the ottoman in the living room, hunched over, her elbows on her knees, and her head in her hands. She had been crying . . . still was, water leaking from the corners of her bloodshot eyes. She was an ugly old woman when she wept “Mom? What happened?” “Your father called. He isn’t going to come home tonight.” “Mom?” Vic said, letting her backpack slide off her shoulder and fall to the floor “What’s that mean? Where’s he going to be?” “I don’t know. I don’t know where, and I don’t know why.” Vic stared at her, incredulous. “What do you mean you don’t know why?” Vic asked her. “He isn’t coming home because of you, Mom. Because he can’t stand you. Because all you ever do is bitch at him, stand there and bitch when he’s tired and wants to be left alone.” “I’ve tried so hard. You don’t know how hard I’ve tried to accommodate him I can keep beer in the fridge and dinner warm when he gets home late. But I can’t be twenty-four anymore, and that’s what he really doesn’t like about me. That’s how old the last one was, you know.” There was no anger in her voice. She sounded weary, that was all “What do you mean, ‘the last one’?” “The last girl he was sleeping with,” Linda said. “I don’t know who he’s with now, though, or why he’d decide to take off with her. It’s not as if I’ve ever put him in a position where he had to choose between home and the girl on the side. I don’t know why this time is different. She must be some nice little piece.” When Vic spoke again, her voice was hushed and trembling. “You lie so bad. I hate you I hate you, and if he’s leaving, I’m going with him.” “But, Vicki,” said her mother in that strange, drifting tone of exhaustion. “He doesn’t want you with him. He didn’t just leave me, you know. He left us.” Vic turned and fled, slamming the door shut behind her. She ran into the early-October afternoon. The light came at a low slant through the oaks across the street, gold and green, and how she loved that light. There was no light in the world like you saw in New England in early fall She was up and on her embarrassing pink bike, she was riding, crying but hardly aware of it, her breath coming in gasps, she was around the house and under the trees, she was riding downhill, the wind whining in her ears. The ten-speed was no Raleigh Tuff Burner, and she felt every rock and root under its slim tires Vic told herself she was going to find him, she would go to him now, he loved her and if she wanted to stay with him, her father would find a place for her, and she would never come home, never have to listen to her mother bitch at her about wearing black jeans, dressing like a boy, hanging with burnouts, she just had to ride down the hill and the bridge would be there But it wasn’t. The old dirt road ended at the guardrail overlooking the Merrimack River Upriver, the water was as black and smooth as smoked glass. Below, it was in torment, shattering against boulders in a white froth All that remained of the Shorter Way were three stained concrete pylons rising from the water, crumbling at the top to show the rebar She rode hard at the guardrail, willing the bridge to appear. But just before she hit the rail, she dumped her bike on purpose, skidded across the dirt in her jeans. She did not wait to see if she had hurt herself but leaped up, gripped the bike in both hands, and flung it over the side. It hit the long slope of the embankment, bounced, and crashed into the shallows, where it got stuck. One wheel protruded from the water, revolving madly Bats dived in the gathering dusk Vic limped north, following the river, with no clear destination in mind Finally, on an embankment by the river, under 495, she dropped into bristly grass, among litter. There was a stitch in her side. Cars whined and hummed above her, producing a vast, shivery harmonic on the massive bridge spanning the Merrimack. She could feel their passage, a steady, curiously soothing vibration in the earth beneath her She didn’t mean to go to sleep there, but for a while—twenty minutes or so—Vic dozed, carried into a state of dreamy semiconsciousness by the thunderous roar of motorcycles, blasting past in twos and threes, a whole gang of riders out in the last warm night of the fall, going wherever their wheels took them

Various Locales IT WAS RAINING HARD IN CHESAPEAKE, VIRGINIA, ON THE EVENING of May 9, 1993, when Jeff Haddon took his springer spaniel for the usual after-dinner walk. Neither of them wanted to be out, not Haddon, not his dog, Garbo. The rain was coming down so hard on Battlefield Boulevard that it was bouncing off the concrete sidewalks and the cobblestone driveways. The air smelled fragrantly of sage and holly. Jeff wore a big yellow poncho, and the wind snatched at it and rattled it furiously. Garbo spread her back legs and squatted miserably to pee, her curly fur hanging in wet tangles Haddon and Garbo’s walk took them past the sprawling Tudor home of Nancy Lee Martin, a wealthy widow with a nine-year-old daughter Later he told the investigators with Chesapeake PD that he glanced up her driveway because he heard Christmas music, but that wasn’t quite the truth. He didn’t hear Christmas music then, not over the pounding roar of the rain on the road, but he always walked past her house and always looked up her driveway, because Haddon had a bit of a crush on Nancy Lee Martin. At forty-two she was ten years older than him but still looked much like the Virginia Tech cheerleader she had once been He peered up the lane just in time to see Nancy coming out the front door, with her daughter, Amy, racing ahead of her. A tall man in a black overcoat held an umbrella for her; the girls had on slinky dresses and silk scarves, and Jeff Haddon remembered his wife saying that Nancy Lee was going to a fund-raiser for George Allen, who had just announced he was running for governor Haddon, who owned a Mercedes dealership and who had an eye for cars, recognized her ride as an early Rolls-Royce, the Phantom or the Wraith, something from the thirties He called out and lifted a hand in greeting Nancy Lee Martin might’ve waved back, he wasn’t sure. As her driver opened the door, music flooded out, and Haddon could’ve sworn he heard the strains of “Little Drummer Boy,” sung by a choir. That was an odd thing to hear in the spring. Maybe even Nancy Lee thought it odd—she seemed to hesitate before climbing in. But it was raining hard, and she didn’t hesitate long Haddon walked on, and when he returned, the car was gone. Nancy Lee Martin and her daughter, Amy, never arrived at the George Allen fund-raiser The driver who had been scheduled to pick her up, Malcolm Ackroyd, vanished as well His car was found off Bainbridge Boulevard, down by the water, the driver’s-side door open. His hat was found in the weeds, saturated with blood IN LATE MAY OF 1994, IT WAS JAKE CHRISTENSEN OF BUFFALO, NEW YORK, ten years old and traveling alone, flying in from Philadelphia, where he attended boarding school. A driver had been sent to meet him, but this man, Bill Black, suffered a fatal heart attack in the parking garage and was found dead behind the wheel of his stretch limo. Who met Jake at the airport—who drove him away—was never determined The autopsy revealed that Bill Black’s heart had failed after absorbing near-lethal doses of a gas called sevoflurane; it was a favorite of dentists. A faceful would switch off a person’s awareness of pain and make him highly suggestible—a zombie, in other words Sevoflurane wasn’t so easy to get—you needed a license to practice medicine or dentistry to obtain it—and it seemed a promising lead, but statewide interviews with oral surgeons and the people they employed went exactly nowhere IN 1995 IT WAS STEVE CONLON AND HIS TWELVE-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER, Charlie (Charlene, actually, but Charlie to her friends), on their way to a father-daughter dance in Plattsburgh, New York. They ordered a stretch limo, but it was a Rolls-Royce that turned up in their driveway instead. Charlie’s mother, Agatha, kissed her daughter on the forehead before she left, told her to have fun, and never laid eyes on her again She saw her husband, though. His body was found, bullet through the left eye, behind some bushes, in a rest area off Interstate 87. Agatha had no trouble identifying the body, in spite of the damage to his face Months later, in the fall, the phone rang in the Conlon house, a little after two-thirty in the morning, and Agatha, only half awake, answered. She heard a hiss and crackle, as of a long-distance connection being made, and then several children began to sing “The First Noel,” their high, sweet voices quivering with laughter. Agatha believed she heard her daughter’s voice among them and began to scream her name: “Charlie, Charlie, where are you?” But her daughter did not reply, and in another moment the children hung up on her

The phone company, however, said no call had been made to her house at that time, and the police wrote it off as the late-night fantasy of a distraught woman AROUND FIFTY-EIGHT THOUSAND NONFAMILY CHILD ABDUCTIONS occur each year in America, and in the early nineties the disappearances of Marta Gregorski, Rory McCombers, Amy Martin, Jake Christensen, Charlene Conlon, and the adults who vanished with them—with few witnesses, in different states, under various conditions—were not connected until much later. Not until well after what happened to Vic McQueen at the hands of Charles Talent Manx III Haverhill IN LATE MARCH OF VIC’S SENIOR YEAR, HER MOTHER WALKED IN ON her and Craig Harrison in Vic’s bedroom at one in the morning It wasn’t like Linda caught them screwing, or even kissing, but Craig had a bottle of Bacardi and Vic was pretty drunk Craig left with a shrug and a smile—G’night, Mrs. McQueen, sorry we woke you—and the next morning Vic took off for her Saturday shift at Taco Bell without speaking to her mother. She wasn’t looking forward to getting home and certainly wasn’t ready for what was waiting when she did Linda sat on Vic’s bed, which was neatly made up with fresh linens and a plumped-up pillow, just like a bed in a hotel. The only thing missing was the mint Everything else was gone: Vic’s sketchbook, Vic’s books, Vic’s computer. There were a couple of things on the desk, but Vic didn’t immediately register them. The sight of her cleaned-out room made her short of breath “What did you do?” “You can earn your things back,” Linda said, “as long as you stick to my new rules and my new curfew. I’ll be driving you to school from now on, and work, and anywhere else you need to go.” “You had . . . you had no right . . .” “I found some things in one of your drawers,” her mother continued, as if Vic had not spoken “I’d like to hear your explanation for them.” Linda nodded at the other side of the room Vic turned her head, this time really taking in what was sitting on her desktop: a pack of cigarettes, an Altoids tin containing what looked like red and orange Valentine’s Day candies, some sampler bottles of gin, and two banana-scented condoms in purple packages One of the condom wrappers was torn open and empty Vic had bought the condoms from a vending machine at the Howard Johnson’s and had torn one open to make a balloon character out of it, inflating the rubber and drawing a face on the side. She had dubbed this character Dickface and had amused the kids in third-period study hall with him, walking him across her desk while the teacher was out of the room When Mr. Jaffey returned from the men’s, the room smelled so strongly of bananas that he asked who had brought pie, which caused everyone to bust up Craig had left the cigarettes one night when he was over, and Vic had held on to them She didn’t smoke (yet), but she liked to tap a cigarette out of the packet and lie in bed smelling the sweet tobacco: Craig’s smell The Ecstasy tablets were what Vic took to make it through the nights when she couldn’t sleep, when her thoughts whirled shrieking through her head like a flock of crazed bats Some nights she would close her eyes and would see the Shorter Way Bridge, a lopsided rectangle opening into darkness. She would smell it, the ammonia stink of bat piss, the odor of mildewed wood. A pair of headlamps would blink on in the dark, at the far end of the bridge: two circles of pale light set close together Those headlights were bright and terrible, and sometimes she could still see them glowing before her, even when she opened her eyes Those headlights made her feel like screaming A little X always smoothed things out. A little X made her feel like she was gliding, a breeze in her face. It put the world into a state of smooth, subtle motion, as if she were on the back of her father’s motorcycle, banking into a turn. She didn’t need to sleep when she was on Ecstasy, was too in love with the world to sleep. She would call her friends instead and tell them she loved them. She would stay up late and sketch tattoo designs to help her across the gap between girl next door and fuck-you-dead stripper. She wanted to get a motorcycle engine above her breasts, let the boys know what a great ride she was, and never mind that at seventeen she was, pathetically, almost the last virgin in her class The little gin samplers were nothing. The gin was just something she kept on hand to swallow Ecstasy “Think what you want,” Vic said. “I don’t give a fuck.” “I suppose I should be grateful you’re at least using protection. You have a child out of wedlock, don’t expect me to help you. I won’t have anything to do with it Or you.” What Vic wanted to tell her was that that was a pretty good argument for getting pregnant as soon as possible, but what came out was “I didn’t sleep with him.” “Now you’re lying. September fourth. I

thought you slept over at Willa’s. In your diary it says—” “You looked in my fucking diary?” “—you slept with Craig all night long for the first time ever. You think I don’t know what that means?” What it meant was that they had slept together—with their clothes on, under a comforter, on Willa’s basement floor, with six other kids. But when she woke, he was spooned against her, one arm over her waist, breathing against the back of her neck, and she had thought, Please don’t wake up, and had for a few moments been so happy she could hardly stand it “Yeah. It means we screwed, Mom,” Vic said softly. “Because I was tired of sucking his cock. Nothing in it for me.” What little color was left in her mother’s face drained out of it “I’m keeping your personal items locked up,” she said. “I don’t care if you are almost eighteen, you live under my roof, and you’ll live by my rules. If you can follow the new program, then in a few months  . .” “Is that what you did when Dad disappointed you? Locked up your pussy for a few months to see if he’d get with the program?” “Believe me, if I had a chastity belt somewhere in the house, I’d have you wearing it,” her mother said. “You dirty-mouthed little hooker.” Vic laughed, a wild, agonized sound “What an ugly person you are inside,” she said, the most vicious thing she could think to say. “I’m out of here.” “If you leave, you’ll find the door locked when you come back,” her mother said, but Vic wasn’t listening, was already on her way out the bedroom door Out in the Cold SHE WALKED The rain was a fine sleet that soaked through her army-navy jacket and made her hair crunchy with ice Her father and his girlfriend lived in Durham, New Hampshire, and there was some way to get to them by using the MBTA—take the T to the North Station, then switch to Amtrak—but it was all a lot of money Vic didn’t have She went to the T station anyway and hung around for a while, because it was out of the rain. She tried to think who she could call for train fare. Then she thought fuck it, she would just call her father and ask him to drive down and get her. She was honestly not sure why she hadn’t thought of it before She had only been to see him once in the last year, and it had gone badly. Vic got into a fight with the girlfriend and threw the remote control at her, which by some wild chance had given her a black eye. Her father sent her back that evening, wasn’t even interested in her side of the story. Vic had not talked to him since Chris McQueen answered on the second ring and said he’d accept the charges. He didn’t sound happy about it, though. His voice rasped The last time she’d seen him, there had been a lot of silver in his hair that hadn’t been there a year ago. She had heard that men took younger lovers to stay young themselves It wasn’t working “Well,” Vic said, and was suddenly struggling not to cry again. “Mom threw me out, just like she threw you out.” That wasn’t how it happened, of course, but it felt like the right way to begin the conversation “Hey, Brat,” he said. “Where are you? You okay? Your mom called and told me you left.” “I’m at this train station. I don’t have any money. Can you come get me, Dad?” “I can call you a cab. Mom will pay the fare when you get home.” “I can’t go home.” “Vic. It would take me an hour to get there, and it’s midnight. I have work tomorrow at five A.M. I’d be in bed already, but instead I’ve been sittin’ by the phone worrying about you.” Vic heard a voice in the background, her father’s girlfriend, Tiffany: “She’s not coming here, Chrissy!” “You need to work this out with your mother now,” he said. “I can’t go choosing sides, Vic. You know that.” “She is not coming here,” Tiffany said again, her voice strident, angry “Will you tell that cunt to shut her fucking mouth?” Vic cried, almost screamed When her father spoke again, his voice was harder. “I will not. And considering you beat her up the last time you were here—” “The fuck!” “—and never apologized—” “I never touched that brainless bitch.” “—okay. I’m going. This conversation is finished. You’n spend the fucking night in the rain as far as I’m concerned.” “You chose her over me,” Vic said. “You chose her. Fuck you, Dad. Get your rest so you’re ready to blow things up tomorrow It’s what you do best.” She hung up Vic wondered if she could sleep on a bench in the train station but by two in the morning knew she couldn’t. It was too cold. She considered calling her mother collect, asking her to send a cab, but the thought of asking for her help was unbearable, so she walked Home SHE DID NOT EVEN TRY THE FRONT DOOR, BELIEVING THAT IT WOULD be bolted shut. Her own bedroom window was ten feet off the ground, not to

mention locked. The windows out back were locked, too, as was the sliding glass door But there was a basement window that wouldn’t lock, wouldn’t even close all the way. It had been open a quarter of an inch for six years Vic found a pair of rusting hedge shears and used them to slice away the screen, then pushed the window back and wiggled in through the long, wide slot The basement was a large, unfinished room with pipes running across the ceiling. The washer and dryer were at one end of the room, by the stairs, and the boiler was at the other end. The rest was a mess of boxes, garbage bags stuffed full of Vic’s old clothes, and a tartan easy chair with a crappy framed watercolor of a covered bridge propped up on the seat. Vic vaguely remembered painting it back in junior high. It was ugly as fuck No sense of perspective. She amused herself by using a Sharpie to draw a flock of flying pricks in the sky, then chucked it and pushed down the back of the easy chair so it almost made a bed. She found a change of clothes in the dryer. She wanted to dry her sneakers but knew that the clunk-te-clunk would bring her mother, so she just set them on the bottom step She found some puffy winter coats in a garbage bag, curled up in the chair, and pulled them over her. The chair wouldn’t flatten all the way, and she didn’t imagine she could sleep, kinked up like she was, but at some point she closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them, the sky was a slice of brilliant blue outside the long slot of the window What woke her was the sound of feet thumping overhead and her mother’s agitated voice She was on the phone in the kitchen. Vic could tell from the way she was pacing “I did call the police, Chris,” she said “They told me she’ll come home when she’s ready.” And then she said, “No! No, they won’t, because she’s not a missing child She’s seventeen fucking years old, Chris They won’t even call her a runaway at seventeen.” Vic was about to climb out of her seat and go upstairs—and then she thought, Fuck her Fuck the both of them. And eased back into the chair In the moment of decision, she knew it was the wrong thing to do, a terrible thing to do, to hide down here while her mother went out of her head with panic upstairs. But then it was a terrible thing to search your daughter’s room, read her diary, take things she had paid for herself. And if Vic did a little Ecstasy now and then, that was her parents’ fault, too, for getting divorced. It was her father’s fault for hitting her mother. She knew now that he had done that. She had not forgotten seeing him rinsing his knuckles in the sink. Even if the mouthy, judgmental bitch did have it coming. Vic wished she had some X now. There was a tab of it in her backpack, zipped into her pencil case, but that was upstairs. She wondered if her mother would go out looking for her “But you’re not raising her, Chris! I am! I’m doing it all by myself!” Linda almost screamed, and Vic heard tears in her voice and did, for a moment, almost reconsider And again held back. It was as if the sleet of the night before had been absorbed through her skin, into her blood, and made her somehow colder. She longed for that, for a coldness inside, a perfect, icy stillness—a chill that would numb all the bad feelings, flash-freeze all the bad thoughts You wanted me to get lost, and so I did, Vic thought Her mother slammed the phone down, picked it up, slammed it again Vic curled under the jackets and snuggled up In five minutes she was asleep again The Basement NEXT SHE WOKE, IT WAS MIDAFTERNOON AND THE HOUSE WAS empty. She knew the moment she opened her eyes, knew by the quality of the stillness Her mother could not bear a perfectly silent house. When Linda slept, she ran a fan. When Linda was awake, she ran the TV or her mouth Vic peeled herself from the chair, crossed the room, and stood on a box to look out the window that faced the front of the house Her mother’s rusty shitbox Datsun wasn’t there. Vic felt a nasty pulse of excitement, hoped Linda was driving frantically around Haverhill, looking for her, at the mall, down side streets, at the houses of her friends I could be dead, she thought in a hollow, portentous voice. Raped and left for dead down by the river, and it would be all your fault, you domineering bitch. Vic had a headful of words like “domineering” and “portentous.” She might only be pulling C’s in school, but she read Gerard Manley Hopkins and W H. Auden and was light-years smarter than both her parents, and she knew it Vic put her still-damp sneakers in the dryer to bang around and went upstairs to have a bowl of Lucky Charms in front of the TV. She dug her emergency tablet of Ecstasy out of her pencil case. In twenty minutes she was feeling smooth and easy. When she closed her

eyes, she felt a luxuriant sensation of moving, of gliding, like a paper airplane on an updraft She watched the Travel Channel, and every time she saw an airplane, she held her arms out like wings and pretended to soar. Ecstasy was motion in pill form, as good as flying through the dark in an open-top convertible, only you didn’t have to get off the couch to go for a ride She washed out her bowl and the spoon in the sink and dried them and put them back where they belonged. She turned off the TV. The hour was getting late, she could tell by the slant of the light through the trees Vic went back into the basement to check her shoes, but they were still wet. She didn’t know what to do with herself. Under the stairs she found her old tennis racket and a can of balls. She thought she might hit against the wall for a while, but she needed to clear a stretch first, so she started moving boxes—which was when she found it The Raleigh leaned against the concrete, hidden behind a stack of boxes marked for the Salvation Army. It baffled Vic, seeing her old Tuff Burner there. She had been in some kind of accident and lost it. Vic recalled her parents talking about it when they didn’t know she could hear Except. Except maybe she hadn’t heard what she thought she’d heard. She remembered her father saying she would be heartbroken when he told her the Tuff Burner was gone For some reason she had thought it was lost, that he couldn’t find it. Her mother had said something about being glad the Tuff Burner was out of the picture, because Vic was so fixated on it And she had been fixated on it, that was true Vic had a whole framework of fantasies that involved riding the Tuff Burner across an imaginary bridge to faraway places and fantastic lands. She had ridden it to a terrorist hideout and rescued her mother’s missing bracelet and had taken it on a ride to a book-filled crypt where she’d met an elf who made her tea and warned her about a vampire Vic moved a finger across the handlebars, collected a thick gray pad of dust on her fingertip. All this time it had been down here gathering dust because her parents hadn’t wanted her to have it. Vic had loved the bike, and it had given her a thousand stories, and so naturally her parents took it away She missed her stories about the bridge, missed the girl she had been then. She’d been a better person then and knew it Vic continued to stare at the bike as she put her sneakers on (they were now both toasty and stinky) The spring was in almost perfect balance, felt like July in the direct sunshine and like January in the shade. Vic didn’t want to walk along the road and risk having her mother spot her on the way back, so she steered the Raleigh around to the rear of the house and the path into the woods. It was the most natural thing in the world to put her leg over it and start riding Vic laughed when she climbed onto it. It was too small for her, almost comically so. She imagined a clown squeezed into a tiny, tiny clown car. Her knees rapped the handlebars, and her butt hung over the seat. But when she stood on the pedals, it still felt right She took it downhill, into shade that was ten degrees colder than out in the sun, winter breathing her in the face. She struck a root, grabbed air. She didn’t actually expect to come off the ground, and she screamed, a thin, happy scream of surprise, and for a moment there was no difference between who she was and who she had been. It still felt good, two wheels spinning below and the wind grabbing her hair She did not take it straight to the river but instead followed a narrow trail that cut sidelong across the face of the hill. Vic burst through some brush and came out among a pack of boys standing around a fire in a trash can. They were passing a joint “Gimme a toke!” she shouted as she rode by and mock-snatched at the little reefer The kid with the joint, a scrawny doof in an Ozzy Osbourne T-shirt, was so startled he choked on the lungful of smoke he was holding Vic was grinning as she rode away, until the kid with the joint cleared his throat and yelled, “Maybe if you come suck us, you fuckin’ hoor!” She continued on and away through the chill A parliament of crows, roosting in the branches of a thick-trunked birch tree, discussed her in the gravest of terms as she rode beneath them Maybe if you come suck us, she thought, and for one cold moment the seventeen-year-old girl on the child’s bike imagined turning around and going back to them and getting off and saying, All right. Who’s first? Her mother already thought she was a whore Vic hated to disappoint her She had felt good for a few moments, racing across the face of the hill on her old bike, but the happy feeling had burned itself out and left behind a thin, cold rage. She was no longer entirely sure who she was angry with, though. Her anger didn’t have a fixed point. It was a soft whir of emotion to match the soft whir of the spokes

She thought about riding to the mall, but the idea of having to put on a grin for the other girls at the food court irritated her Vic wasn’t in the mood to see people she knew, and she didn’t want anyone giving her good advice. She didn’t know where to go, just that she was in the mood to find some trouble. She was sure that if she rode around long enough, she would come across some For all her mother knew, Vic had already found trouble, was lying naked and dead somewhere Vic was glad to have put such an idea in her head. She was sorry that by this evening the fun would be over and her mother would know she was still alive. She half wished there were a way to keep Linda from ever finding out what had happened to her, for Vic to vanish from her own life, to go and never come back, and how fine that would be, to leave both of her parents wondering if their daughter was alive or dead She relished the thought of all the days and weeks they would spend missing her, tormented by dreadful fantasies about what had happened to her. They would picture her out in the sleet, shivering and miserable, gratefully climbing into the back of the first car that pulled over for her. She might still be alive somewhere in the trunk of this old car (Vic was not aware that it had, in her mind, become an old car of some indeterminate make and model). And they would never know how long the old man kept her (Vic had just decided he must be old, because his car was), or what he did with her, or where he put the body It would be worse than dying themselves, never knowing what dreadful person Vic had come across, what lonely place he had taken her to, what ending she had found for herself By then Vic was on the wide dirt road that led to the Merrimack. Acorns popped beneath her tires. She heard the rush of the river ahead, pouring through its trough of rocks It was one of the best sounds in the world, and she lifted her head to enjoy the view, but the Shorter Way Bridge blocked her line of sight Vic squeezed the brake, let the Raleigh gently roll to a stop It was even more dilapidated than she remembered, the whole structure canting to the right so it looked as if a strong wind could topple it into the Merrimack. The lopsided entrance was framed in tangles of ivy. She smelled bats. At the far end, she saw a faint smudge of light She shivered in the cold—and also with something like pleasure. She knew, with quiet certainty, that something was wrong in her head. In all the times she’d popped Ecstasy, she had never hallucinated. She supposed there was a first time for everything The bridge waited for her to ride out across it. When she did, she knew she would drop into nothing. She would forever be remembered as the stoned chick who rode her bike right off a cliff and broke her neck. The prospect didn’t frighten her. It would be the next-best thing to being kidnapped by some awful old man (the Wraith) and never heard from again At the same time, even though she knew that the bridge wasn’t there, a part of her wanted to know what was on the other side of it now Vic stood on the pedals and rode closer, right to the edge, where the wooden frame rested upon the dirt Two words were written on the inside wall, to her left, in green spray paint SLEIGH HOUSE 1996 Haverhill VIC BENT, GRABBED A PIECE OF SHALE, AND FLUNG IT UNDERHANDED out onto the bridge. It hit the wood with a bang, skipped and bounced There was a faint rustle of movement from above. The bats It seemed a sturdy enough hallucination. Although maybe she had also hallucinated the piece of shale There were two ways to test the bridge. She could roll forward another twelve inches, put the front tire on it. If it was imaginary, she might be able to throw herself back in time to keep from falling Or she could just ride. She could shut her eyes and let the Raleigh carry her forward toward whatever waited She was seventeen and unafraid and liked the sound of the wind rustling the ivy around the entrance of the bridge. She put her feet on the pedals and rode. She heard the tires bumpety-thump up onto the wood, heard the planks knocking beneath her. There was no sensation of drop, no ten-story plunge into the arctic cold of the Merrimack River. There was a building roar of white noise. There was a twinge of pain in her left eye She glided through the old familiar darkness, the flicker of the static blizzard showing in the gaps between boards. She was already a third of the way across and at the far end could see a dingy white house with an attached garage. The Sleigh House, whatever that was The name held no meaning for her and didn’t need to. She knew, in an abstract sense, what she was riding toward, even if she didn’t

know the specific where She had wanted to find some trouble, and the Shorter Way Bridge had never steered her wrong The Other End of the Bridge INSECTS MADE A SAWING NOISE OFF IN THE HIGH BRUSH. IN NEW Hampshire, spring had been a cold, mucky slog, but here—wherever here was—the air was warm and breezy. At the edge of her vision, Vic saw flashes of light, glimmers of brightness out in the trees, but in those first few moments she didn’t give it any thought Vic slipped off the bridge and onto firmly packed dirt. She braked to a stop, put her foot down. She turned her head to look back into the bridge The Shorter Way had settled among trees, to one side of the house. It stretched back and away through the hardwoods. When she peered through it, she saw Haverhill on the other end, green and shadowy in the last light of afternoon The house, a white Cape Cod, stood alone at the end of a long dirt lane. The grass grew waist-high in the yard. Sumac had invaded from the trees, growing in bunches as tall as Vic herself The shades were drawn behind the windows, and the screens were rusted and bellied out, and there was no car in the drive and no reason to think anyone was home, but Vic was immediately afraid of the place and did not believe that it was empty. It was an awful place, and her first thought was that when the police searched it, they would find bodies buried in the backyard When she had entered the bridge, she had felt like she was soaring, as effortlessly as a hawk carried on an updraft. She had felt she was gliding and that no harm could come to her. Even now, standing still, she felt like she was moving, sailing forward, but the sensation was no longer pleasant. Now it felt like she was being pulled toward something she didn’t want to see, to know about From somewhere came the faint sound of a TV or a radio Vic looked back again at the bridge. It was only a couple feet away. She exhaled deeply, told herself she was safe. If she was seen, she could wheel the bike around, get back into the bridge, and be gone, before anyone had time to so much as shout She got off the bike and began to walk it forward. With each soft crunching footfall, she felt more sure that her surroundings were real, not a delusion engineered by Ecstasy The radio sounds grew in volume by subtle degrees as she approached the cottage Looking out into the trees, Vic saw those glimmering lights again, slivers of brightness hung in the surrounding pines. It took a moment to make sense of what she was seeing, and when she did, she held up and stared. The firs around the house were hung with Christmas ornaments, hundreds of them, dangling from dozens of trees. Great silver and gold spheres, dusted with glitter, swayed in the drifting pine branches. Tin angels held silent trumpets to their lips. Fat Santas put chubby fingers to their mouths, advising Vic to proceed quietly As she stood there looking about, that radio sound resolved into the bluff baritone of Burl Ives, encouraging all the world to have a holly jolly Christmas, and never mind it was the third week of March. The voice was coming from the attached garage, a dingy building with a single roll-up door and four square windows looking into it, milky with filth She took one baby step, then a second, creeping toward the garage in the same way she might creep out onto a high ledge. On the third step, she looked back to make sure the bridge was still there and that she could get into it in a hurry if she had to. She could Another step, and a fifth, and then she was close enough to see through one of the grimy windows. Vic leaned her Raleigh against the wall, to one side of the big garage door She pressed her face up to the glass. The garage contained an old black car with a small rear window. It was a Rolls-Royce, the kind of car Winston Churchill was always getting out of in photographs and old films. She could see the license plate: NOS4A2 That’s it. That’s all you need. The police can track him down with that, Vic thought You have to go now. You have to run But as she was about to step away from the garage, she saw movement through the rear window of the old car. Someone sitting in the backseat shifted slightly, wiggling to find a more comfortable spot. Vic could dimly see the outline of a small head through the foggy glass A child. There was a child in the car—a boy, she thought. The kid had a boy’s haircut Vic’s heart was by now beating so hard her shoulders shook. He had a child in his car, and if Vic rode back across the Shorter Way,

maybe the law would catch up to the man who owned this old ride, but they would not find the kid with him, because by then he would already be under a foot of dirt somewhere Vic didn’t know why the child didn’t scream or let himself out of the car and run. Maybe he was drugged or tied up, Vic couldn’t tell. Whatever the reason, he wasn’t getting out unless Vic went in there and got him out She drew back from the glass and took another look over her shoulder. The bridge waited amid the trees. It suddenly seemed a long way off. How had it gotten so far away? Vic left the Raleigh, went around to the side of the garage. She expected the side door to be locked, but when she turned the handle, it popped open. Quavering, high-pitched, helium-stoked voices spilled out: Alvin and the Chipmunks singing their infernal Christmas song Her heart quailed at the thought of going in there. She put one foot over the threshold, tentatively, as if stepping onto the ice of a pond that might not yet be safely frozen over. The old car, obsidian and sleek, filled almost all the available space in the garage What little room was left was jammed with clutter: paint cans, rakes, ladders, boxes The Rolls had a roomy rear compartment, the back couch done in flesh-toned kidskin. A boy slept upon it. He wore a rawhide jacket with buttons of bone. He had dark hair and a round, fleshy face, his cheeks touched with a rose bloom of health. He looked as if he were dreaming sweet dreams; visions of sugarplums, perhaps. He wasn’t tied up in any way and didn’t look unhappy, and Vic had a thought that made no sense: He’s fine. You should go. He’s probably here with his father and he fell asleep and his father is letting him rest, and you should just go away Vic flinched from the thought, the way she might’ve flinched from a horsefly. There was something wrong with that thought. It had no business in her head, and she didn’t know how it had got there The Shorter Way Bridge had brought her here to find the Wraith, a bad man who hurt people She had gone looking for trouble, and the bridge never pointed her wrong. In the last few minutes, things she had suppressed for years had come surging back. Maggie Leigh had been real, not a daydream. Vic really had gone out on her bike and retrieved her mother’s bracelet from Terry’s Primo Subs; that had not been imagined but accomplished She tapped on the glass. The child did not stir. He was younger than her, twelve or thereabouts There was a faint, dusky wisp of hair on his upper lip “Hey,” she called to him in a low voice “Hey, kid.” He shifted, but only to roll onto his side so his face was turned away from her Vic tried the door. It was locked from the inside The steering wheel was on the right side of the car, the side she was already on. The driver’s-side window was rolled most of the way down. Vic shuffled toward it. There wasn’t much space between the car and the clutter piled against the wall The keys were in it, the car running off the battery. The face of the radio was lit a radioactive shade of green. Vic didn’t know who was singing now, some old Vegas dude, but it was another one about Christmas. Christmas was almost three months in the rearview mirror, and there was something awful about Christmas music when it was nearly summer. It was like a clown in the rain, with his makeup running “Hey, kid,” she hissed. “Hey, kid, wake up.” The boy moved slightly, and then he sat up and turned around to face her. Vic saw his face and had to bite back a cry It wasn’t anything like the face she had seen through the rear window. The boy in the car looked close to death—or beyond death His face was lunar in its paleness, except for the hollows of his eyes, which were bruise-colored Black, poisoned veins crawled beneath his skin, as if his arteries were filled with ink, not blood, and erupted in sick branches at the corners of his mouth and eyes and in his temples. His hair was the color of frost on a windowpane He blinked. His eyes were shiny and curious, the one part of him that seemed fully alive He exhaled: white smoke. As if he stood in a freezer “Who are you?” he asked. Each word was a new puff of white vapor. “You shouldn’t be here.” “Why are you so cold?” “I’m not,” he said. “You should go It isn’t safe here.” His breath, steaming “Oh, God, kid,” she said. “Let’s get you out of here. Come on. Come with me.” “I can’t unlock my door.”

“So climb into the front seat,” she said “I can’t,” he said again. He spoke like one sedated, and it came to Vic that he had to be drugged. Could a drug lower your body temperature enough to make your breath steam? She didn’t think so. “I can’t leave the backseat. You really shouldn’t be here He’ll come back soon.” White, frozen air trickled from his nostrils Vic heard him clearly enough but didn’t understand much of it, except for the last bit. He’ll come back soon made perfect sense Of course he was coming back—whoever he was (the Wraith). He wouldn’t have left the car running off the battery if he weren’t going to be back soon, and she had to be gone by the time he returned. They both did She wanted more than anything to take off, to bolt for the door, tell the kid she would come back with police. But she could not go If she ran, she would not just be leaving a sick and abducted child behind. She would be abandoning her own best self, too She reached through the window and unlocked the front door and swung it open “Come on,” she said. “Take my hand.” She reached over the back of the driver’s seat, into the rear compartment He looked into her palm for a moment, his gaze thoughtful, as if he were attempting to read her future, or as if she had offered him a chocolate and he was trying to decide whether he wanted it. That was the wrong way for a kidnapped child to react, and she knew it, but she still didn’t pull her hand back in time He gripped her wrist, and she screamed at his touch. His hand, blazing against her skin, was as bad as pressing her wrist to a hot frying pan. It took her an instant to register the sensation not as heat but as cold The horn sounded with a great blast. In the confined space of the garage, the noise was almost too much to bear. Vic didn’t know why it went off. She hadn’t touched the steering wheel “Let go! You’re hurting me,” she said “I know,” he said When he smiled, she saw that his mouth was full of little hooks, rows of them, each as small and delicate as a sewing needle. The rows of them seemed to go all the way down his throat. The horn sounded again The boy raised his voice and shouted, “Mr Manx! Mr. Manx, I caught a girl! Mr. Manx, come see!” Vic braced a foot against the driver’s seat and threw herself backward, thrusting hard with her leg. The boy was yanked forward She didn’t think he was going to let go—his hand felt as if it were fused to her wrist, his skin frozen to hers. But when she drew her hand back across the rear divider, into the front seat, he released her. She fell back into the steering wheel, and the horn went off again. Her fault this time The boy hopped up and down on the rear seat in excitement. “Mr. Manx! Mr. Manx, come see the pretty girl!” Vapor extruded from his nostrils and mouth Vic dropped out of the open driver’s-side door and onto the concrete. Her shoulder hit a mess of stacked rakes and snow shovels, and they fell over on top of her with a crash The horn went off again and again, in a series of deafening blasts Vic shoved the lawn tools off her. When she was on her knees, she looked at her wrist It was hideous, a black burn in the rough shape of a child’s hand She slammed the driver’s-side door, took one last glance at the boy in the backseat His face was eager, glistening with excitement A black tongue lolled out of his mouth and rolled around his lips “Mr. Manx, she’s running away!” he screamed His breath frosted over the window glass “Come see, come see!” She picked herself up and took one clumsy, off-balance step back toward the side door to the yard The motor that ran the electric garage door roared to life, the chain overhead pulling it up with a grinding clatter. Vic caught herself, then began going back, fast as she could. The big garage door rose and rose, revealing black boots, silver-gray trousers, and she thought, The Wraith, it’s the Wraith! Vic lurched around the front of the car. Two steps led up to a door that she knew would open into the house itself The knob turned. The door eased back onto darkness Vic stepped through and pushed the door shut behind her and began to move across A Mudroom WHERE DIRT-SCUFFED LINOLEUM WAS PEELING UP

IN ONE CORNER Her legs had never felt so weak, and her ears were ringing from a scream that was stuck in her head, because she knew that if she screamed for real, the Wraith would find her and kill her. About this there was no doubt in her mind—he would kill her and bury her in the backyard, and no one would ever know what had become of her She went through a second inner door and into A Hallway THAT RAN ALMOST THE ENTIRE LENGTH OF THE HOUSE AND WAS CARPETED in green wall-to-wall shag The hall smelled like a turkey dinner She ran, not bothering with the doors on either side of her, knowing they would only open into bathrooms and bedrooms. She clutched her right wrist, breathing through the pain In ten paces the hall arrived at a little foyer. The door to the front yard was on the left, just beyond a narrow staircase climbing to the second floor. Hunting prints hung on the walls. Grinning, ruddy-faced men held up bunches of dead geese, displaying them to noble-looking golden retrievers. A pair of swinging batwing doors opened into a kitchen on Vic’s right. The smell of turkey dinner was stronger here. It was warmer, too, feverishly warm She saw her chance, saw it clear in her mind The man called the Wraith was entering through the garage. He would follow her through the side door and into the house. If she bolted now, rushed across the front yard, she could reach the Shorter Way on foot Vic lunged across the foyer, banging her hip on a side table. A lamp with a bead-trimmed shade wobbled, almost fell She grabbed the doorknob, turned it, and was about to pull it open when she saw the view through the side window He stood in the yard, one of the tallest men she had ever seen, six and a half feet at least. He was bald, and there was something obscene about his pale skull, crawling with blue veins. He wore a coat from another era, a thing with tails and a double line of brass buttons down the front. He looked like a soldier, a colonel in the service of some foreign nation where an army was not called an army but a legion He was turned slightly away from the house and toward the bridge, so she saw him in profile He stood before the Shorter Way, one hand on the handlebars of her bike Vic couldn’t move. It was as if she had been injected with a paralytic. She could not even force her lungs to pull air The Wraith cocked his head to one side, the body language of an inquisitive dog. In spite of his large skull, his features were weasel-like and crowded close together in the center of his face. He had a sunken chin and an overbite, which gave him a very dim, almost feeble look He looked like the sort of rube who would say every syllable in the word “ho-moh-sex-shu-al.” He considered her bridge, the vast length of it reaching back into the trees. Then he looked toward the house, and Vic pulled her face from the window, pressed her back flat against the door “Good afternoon, whoever you are!” he cried. “Come on out and say how do! I will not bite!” Vic remembered to breathe. It was an effort, as if there were restricting bands strapped around her chest The Wraith shouted, “You dropped your bicycle in my yard! Wouldn’t you like it back?” After a moment he added, “You dropped your covered bridge in my yard as well! You can have that back, too!” He laughed. It was a pony’s whinny, heeeeee-eee! It crossed Vic’s mind again that the man might be feeble She shut her eyes and held herself rigidly against the door. Then it came to her he hadn’t said anything for a few moments and that he might be approaching the front of the house She turned the bolt, put the chain on. It took three tries to get the chain in place Her hands were slippery with sweat, and she kept losing her grip on it But no sooner had she locked the door than he spoke again, and she could tell by his voice that he was still standing out in the middle of the overgrown yard “I think I know about this bridge. Most people would be upset to find a covered bridge sitting in their front yard, but not Mr. Charles Talent Manx the Third. Mr. Charlie Manx is a man who knows a thing or two about bridges and roads turning up where they do not belong I myself have driven some highways that don’t belong. I have been driving for a long time You would be surprised if you knew how long, I bet! I know about one road I can only get to in my Wraith. It isn’t on any map, but

it is there when I need it. It is there when I have a passenger who is ready to go to Christmasland Where does your bridge go? You should come out! We sure do have a lot in common! I bet we will be fast friends!” Vic decided then. Every moment she stood there listening to him was one less moment she had to save herself. She moved, pushed off from the door, raced down the foyer, batted through the batwing doors and into The Kitchen IT WAS A SMALL, DINGY SPACE WITH A YELLOW FORMICA-TOPPED TABLE in it and an ugly black phone on the wall, under a sun-faded child’s drawing Dusty yellow polka-dot streamers dangled from the ceiling, hanging perfectly motionless in the still air, as if someone had thrown a birthday party here, years ago, and had never entirely cleaned up. To Vic’s right was a metal door, open to reveal a pantry containing a washer and dryer, a few shelves of dry goods, and a stainless-steel cabinet built into the wall. Beside the pantry door was a big Frigidaire with sloopy bathtub styling The room was warm, the air close and stale A TV dinner baked in the oven. She could envision the slices of turkey in one compartment, mashed potatoes in another, tinfoil covering the dessert. Two bottles of orange pop stood on the counter. There was a door to the backyard In three steps Vic was there The dead boy watched the rear of the house She knew he was dead now, or worse than dead That he was a child of the man Charlie Manx He stood perfectly still in his rawhide coat and jeans and bare feet. His hood was pushed back to show his pale hair and the black branches of veins in his temples. His mouth was open to show his rows of needle teeth. He saw her and grinned but did not move as she cried out and turned the bolt. He had left a trail of white footprints behind him, where the grass had frozen at the touch of his feet His face had the glassy smoothness of enamel His eyes were faintly clouded with frost “Come out,” he said, his breath smoking “Come on out here and stop being so silly We will all go to Christmasland together.” She backed away from the door. Her hip bumped the oven. She turned and began pulling open drawers, looking for a knife. The first one she opened was full of kitchen rags. The second held whisks, spatulas, dead flies. She went back to the first drawer, grabbed bunches of hand towels, opened the oven, and threw them in on top of the turkey dinner. She left the oven door parted a crack There was a frying pan on the stove. She grabbed it by the handle. It felt good to have something to swing “Mr. Manx! Mr. Manx, I saw her! She’s being a goof!” the boy shouted. Then he yelled, “This is fun!” Vic turned and plunged through the batwing doors and back to the front of the house She peered through the window by the door again Manx had walked her bicycle closer to the bridge. He stood before the opening, considering the darkness, head cocked to one side: listening to it, perhaps. Finally he seemed to decide something. He bent and gave the bicycle a strong, smooth shove out onto the bridge Her Raleigh rolled across the threshold and into the darkness An invisible needle slid into her left eye and back into her brain. She sobbed—couldn’t help herself—and doubled over. The needle withdrew, then slid in again. She wanted her head to explode, wanted to die She heard a pop, like her ears depressurizing, and the house shuddered. It was as if a jet had screamed by overhead, breaking the sound barrier The front hall began to smell of smoke Vic lifted her head and squinted out through the window The Shorter Way was gone She had known it would be, the moment she heard that hard, piercing pop! The bridge had collapsed into itself, like a dying sun going nova Charlie Manx walked toward the house, the tails of his coat flapping. There was no humor in his pinched, ugly face now. He looked instead like a stupid man, set upon doing something barbaric She glanced at the stairs but knew if she went up there, she would have no way back down. That left the kitchen When she stepped through the batwing doors, the boy was at the rear door, his face up against the glass of the window set into it He grinned to show his mouthful of delicate hooks, those fine rows of curving bones. His

breath spread feathers of silvery frost across the pane The phone rang. Vic yelped as if someone had grabbed her, looked around at it. Her face batted against the yellow polka-dot streamers hanging from the ceiling Only they weren’t streamers at all. They were strips of flypaper, with dozens of withered, dead fly husks stuck to them. There was bile in the back of Vic’s throat. It tasted sour-sweet, like a frappe from Terry’s gone bad The phone rang again. She grabbed the receiver, but before she picked it up, her gaze fixed on the child’s drawing taped directly above the phone. The paper was dry and brown and brittle with age, the tape gone yellow. It showed a forest of crayon Christmas trees and the man called Charlie Manx in a Santa hat, with two little girls, grinning to show a mouthful of fangs. The children in the picture were very like the thing in the backyard that had once been a child Vic put the phone to her ear “Help me!” she cried. “Help me, please!” “Where are you, ma’am?” said someone with a childlike voice “I don’t know, I don’t know! I’m lost!” “We already have a car there. It’s in the garage. Go get in the backseat, and our driver will take you to Christmasland.” Whoever was on the other end of the line giggled “We’ll take care of you when you get here We’ll hang your eyeballs from our big Christmas tree.” Vic hung up She heard a crunch behind her, whirled, and saw that the little boy had slammed his forehead into the window. A spiderweb of shattered glass filled the pane. The boy himself seemed uninjured Back in the foyer, she heard Manx force the front door open, heard it catch against the chain The child pulled his head back, then snapped it forward, and his forehead hit the window with another hard crunch. Splinters of glass fell. The boy laughed The first yellow flames licked out of the half-open oven. They made a sound like a pigeon beating its wings. The wallpaper to the right of the oven was blackening, curling. Vic no longer remembered why she had wanted to start a fire. Something about escaping in a confusion of smoke The child reached through the shattered windowpane, his hand feeling for the bolt. Jagged glass points scraped his wrist, peeled up shavings of skin, drew black blood. It didn’t seem to bother him Vic swung the frying pan at his hand. She threw herself into her swing with her whole weight, and the force of the blow carried her straight into the door. She recoiled, stumbled backward, and sat down on the floor The boy jerked his hand outside, and she saw that three of his fingers had been smashed out of true, grotesquely bent the wrong way “You’re funny!” he shouted, and laughed Vic kicked her heels, sliding backward on her ass across the cream-colored tiles. The boy stuck his face through the broken windowpane and waggled his black tongue at her Red flame belched out of the oven, and for a moment her hair was burning on the right side of her head, the fine hairs crinkling and charring and shriveling up. She swatted at herself. Sparks flew Manx hit the front door. The chain snapped with a tinny, clinking sound; the bolt tore free with a loud crack. She heard the door smash into the wall with a house-shaking bang The boy reached through the broken window again and unlocked the back door Burning strips of flypaper fell around her Vic shoved herself up off her ass and turned, and Manx was on the other side of the batwing doors, about to step into the kitchen. He looked at her with a wide-eyed and avid fascination on his ugly face “When I saw your bike, I thought you would be younger,” Manx said. “But you are all grown. That is too bad for you. Christmasland is not such a good place for girls who are all grown.” The door behind her opened . . . and when it did, there was a feeling of all the hot air being sucked out of the room, as if the world outside were inhaling. A red cyclone of flame whirled from the open oven, and a thousand hot sparks whirled with it. Black smoke gushed When Manx swatted through the batwing doors, coming for her, Vic shied away from him, squirming out of reach and ducking behind the big bulky Frigidaire, stepping toward the only place that remained to her, into The Pantry SHE GRABBED THE METAL HANDLE OF THE DOOR AND SLAMMED IT shut behind her It was a heavy door, and it squalled as she dragged it across the floor. She had never moved such a heavy door in all her life

It had no lock of any kind. The handle was an iron U, bolted to the metal surface. Vic grabbed it and set her heels apart, her feet planted on the doorframe. A moment later Manx yanked. She buckled, was jerked forward, but locked her knees and held it shut He eased off, then suddenly pulled again, a second time, trying to catch her napping He had at least seventy pounds on her, and those gangly orangutan arms of his, but with her feet braced against the doorframe her arms would come out of their sockets before her legs gave Manx stopped pulling. Vic had an instant to look around and saw a mop with a long blue metal handle. It was just to her right, within arm’s reach. She pushed it through the U-shaped door latch, so the mop handle was braced across the doorframe Vic let go and stepped back, and her legs wobbled, and she almost sat down. She had to lean against the washing machine to keep her feet Manx pulled the door again, and the mop handle bashed against the frame He paused. When he pulled at the door the next time, he did so gently, in an almost experimental way Vic heard him cough. She thought she heard childlike whispering. Her legs shook. They shook so forcefully that she knew if she let go of the washing machine, she’d fall over “You have got yourself in a tight spot now, you little firebug!” Manx called through the door “Go away!” she screamed “It takes a lot of brass to break into a man’s house and then tell him to git!” he said. But he said it with good humor. “You are scared to come out, I suppose. If you had any sense, you would be more scared to stay where you are!” “Go away!” she screamed again. It was all she could think to say He coughed once more. A frantic red firelight glimmered at the bottom of the door, broken by two shadows that marked where Charlie Manx had placed his feet. There was another moment of whispering “Child,” he said to her, “I will let this house burn without a second thought I have other places to go, and this hidey-hole has been burned for me now, one way or another Come out. Come out or you will smother to death in there and no one will ever identify your burnt remains. Open the door. I will not hurt you.” She leaned back against the washing machine, gripping the edge with both hands, her legs wobbling furiously, almost comically “Pity,” he said. “I would’ve liked to know a girl who had a vehicle of her own, one that can travel the roads of thought Our kind is rare. We should learn from one another. Well. You will learn from me now, although I think you will not much care for the lesson. I would stay and talk longer, but it is getting a trifle warm in here! I am a man who prefers cooler climes, to be honest. I am so fond of winter I am practically one of Santa’s elves!” And he laughed again, that whinnying shit-kicker laugh: Heeeeee! Something turned over in the kitchen. It fell with such an enormous crash that she screamed and almost leaped up onto the washing machine The impact shook the whole house and sent a hideous vibration through the tiles beneath her. For a moment she thought the floor might be in danger of caving in She knew from the sound, from the weight, from the force of it, what he had done. He had gripped that big old fridge, with the sloopy bathtub styling, and overturned it in front of the door VIC STOOD A LONG TIME AGAINST THE WASHING MACHINE, WAITING for her legs to stop shaking She did not, at first, really believe that Manx was gone. She felt he was waiting for her to throw herself against the door, hammering against it and pleading to be let out She could hear the fire. She heard things popping and cracking in the heat. The wallpaper sizzled with a crispy fizzling sound, like someone pitching handfuls of pine needles into a campfire Vic put her ear to the door, to better hear the other room. But at the first touch of skin to metal, she jerked her head back with a cry. The iron door was as hot as a skillet left on high heat A dirty brown smoke began to trickle in along the left-hand edge of the door Vic yanked the steel mop handle free, chucked it aside. She grabbed the handle, meant to give it a shove, see how far she could push it against the weight on the other side—but then she let go, jumped back. The curved metal handle was as hot as the surface of the door Vic shook her hand in the air to soothe the burned feeling in her fingertips

She caught her first mouthful of smoke. It stank of melted plastic. It was so filthy-smelling she choked on it, bent over coughing so hard she thought she might vomit She turned in a circle. There was hardly space in the pantry to do more than that Shelves. Rice-A-Roni. A bucket. A bottle of ammonia. A bottle of bleach. A stainless-steel cabinet or drawer set into the wall. The washing machine and the dryer. There were no windows There was no other door Something glass exploded in the next room Vic was aware of a gathering filminess in the air, as if she stood in a sauna She glanced up and saw that the white plaster ceiling was blackening, directly above the doorframe She opened the dryer and found an old white fitted sheet. She tugged it out. Vic pulled it over her head and shoulders, wrapped some fabric around one hand, and tried the door She could only barely grip the metal handle, even with the sheet, and could not press her shoulder to the door for long. But Vic flung herself hard against it, once, and again It shuddered and banged in the frame and opened maybe a quarter of an inch—enough to let in a gush of vile brown smoke. There was too much smoke on the other side of the door to allow her to see anything of the room, to even see flames Vic drew back and pitched herself at the door a third time. She hit so hard she bounced, and her ankles caught in the bedsheet, and she fell sprawling. She shouted in frustration, threw off the sheet. The pantry was dirty with smoke She reached up, gripped the washing machine with one hand and the handle of the stainless-steel cabinet with the other. But as she pulled herself to her feet, the door to the cabinet fell open, hinges whining, and she crashed back down, her knees giving out She rested before trying again, turned her face so her brow was pressed to the cool metal of the washing machine. When she shut her eyes, she felt her mother pressing one cool hand to her fevered forehead Vic reclaimed her feet, unsteady now. She let go of the handle of the metal cabinet, and it clapped shut on a spring. The poisonous air stung her eyes She opened the cabinet again. It looked into a laundry chute, a dark, narrow metal shaft Vic put her head through the opening and looked up. She saw, dimly, another small door, ten or twelve feet up He’s waiting up there, she knew But it didn’t matter. Remaining in the pantry wasn’t an option She sat on the open steel door, which swung down from the wall on a pair of taut springs Vic squirmed her upper body through the opening, pulled her legs after her, and slid into The Laundry Chute VIC WAS, AT SEVENTEEN, ONLY FORTY POUNDS HEAVIER AND THREE inches taller than she had been at twelve, a skinny girl who was all leg But it was tight inside the chute just the same. She braced herself, back to the wall, knees in her face, feet pressing to the opposite side of the shaft Vic began to work her way up the shaft, pushing herself with the balls of her feet, six inches at a time. Brown smoke wafted around her and stung her eyes Her hamstrings began to twitch and burn. She slid her back up another six inches, walking up the shaft in a hunched, bent, grotesque sort of way. The muscles in the small of her back throbbed She was halfway to the second floor when her left foot slipped, squirting out beneath her, and her ass dropped. She felt a tearing in her right thigh, and she screamed. For one moment she was able to hold herself in place, folded over with her right knee in her face and her left leg hanging straight down. But the weight on her right leg was too much The pain was too much. She let her right foot slide free and fell all the way back to the bottom It was a painful, ungraceful fall. She clouted into the aluminum floor of the shaft, spiked her right knee into her own face. Her other foot banged through the stainless-steel hatch and shot back into the pantry Vic was, for a moment, dangerously close to panic. She began to cry, and when she stood up in the laundry chute, she did not try to climb again but began to jump, and never mind that the top was well out of reach and there was nothing in the smooth aluminum shaft to grab. She screamed. She screamed for help The shaft was full of smoke, and it blurred her vision, and midscream she began to cough, a harsh, dry, painful cough. She coughed on and on, did not think she would ever stop She coughed with such force she almost threw up and in the end spit a long stream of saliva that tasted of bile It was not the smoke that terrified her, or the pain in the back of her right thigh, where she had definitely yanked a muscle. It was

her certain, desperate aloneness. What had her mother screamed at her father? But you’re not raising her, Chris! I am! I’m doing it all by myself! It was awful to find yourself in a hole, all by yourself. She could not remember the last time she had held her mother: her frightened, short-tempered, unhappy mother, who had stood by her and put her cool hand to Vic’s brow in her times of fever. It was awful to think of dying here, having left things as they were Then she was making her way up the shaft again, back to one wall, feet to the other. Her eyes gushed. The smoke was thick in the chute now, a brownish, billowing stream all around her Something was terribly wrong in the back of her right leg. Every time she pushed upward with her feet, it felt as if the muscle were tearing all over again She blinked and coughed and pushed and wormed her way steadily up the laundry chute. The metal against her back was uncomfortably warm She thought that in a very short time she would be leaving skin on the walls, that the chute would burn to the touch. Except it wasn’t a chute anymore. It was a chimney, with a smoky fire at the bottom, and she was Santa Claus, scrambling up for the reindeer. She had that idiot Christmas song in her head, have a holly jolly fucking Christmas, going around and around on endless loop. She didn’t want to roast to death with Christmas music in her head By the time she was close to the top of the chute, it was hard to see anything through all the smoke. She wept continuously and held her breath. The big muscle in her right thigh shook helplessly She saw an inverted U of dim light, somewhere just above her feet: the hatch that opened on the second floor. Her lungs burned. She gasped, couldn’t stop herself, drew a chestful of smoke, began to cough. It hurt to cough She could feel soft tissues behind her ribs rupturing and tearing. Her right leg gave, without warning. She lunged as she fell, shoving her arms at the closed hatch. As she did, she thought, It won’t open. He pushed something in front of it, and it won’t open Her arms banged through the hatch, out into beautifully cool air. She held on, caught the edge of the opening under her armpits Her legs dropped down into the chute, and her knees clubbed the steel wall With the hatch open, the laundry chute drew air, and she felt a hot, stinking breeze lifting around her. Smoke gushed out around her head She couldn’t stop coughing and blinking, coughing so hard her whole body shook. She tasted blood, felt blood on her lips, wondered if she was coughing up anything important For a long moment, she hung where she was, too weak to pull herself out. Then she began to kick, digging her toes against the wall Her feet clanged and banged. She could not grab much purchase, but she did not need much Her head and arms were already through the hatch, and getting out of the chute was less a matter of climbing, more a thing of simply leaning forward She tipped herself out and onto the shag carpet of a second-floor hallway. The air tasted good. She lay there and gasped like a fish What a blessed if painful thing, this business of being alive She had to lean against the wall to get to her feet. She expected the entire house to be filled with smoke and roaring fire, but it was not. It was hazy in the upstairs hallway, but not as bad as it had been in the chute Vic saw sunshine to her right and limped across the bushy 1970s-era carpet, to the landing at the top of the stairs. She descended the steps in a stumbling, controlled fall, splashing through smoke The front door was half open. The chain hung from the doorframe, with the lock plate and a long splinter of wood dangling from it The air that came in was watery-cool, and she wanted to pitch herself out into it, but she did not She could not see into the kitchen. It was all smoke and flickering light. An open doorway looked into a sitting room. The wallpaper on the far side of the sitting room was burning away to show the plaster underneath. The rug smoldered. A vase contained a bouquet of flame Streams of orange fire crawled up cheap white nylon curtains. She thought the whole back of the house might be in flame, but here in the front, in the foyer, the hallway was only filled with smoke Vic looked out the window to one side of the door. The drive leading up to the house was a long, narrow dirt lane, leading away through the trees. She saw no car, but from this angle she could not see into the garage. He might be sitting there waiting to see if Vic would

come out. He might be down at the end of the lane watching to see if she would run up it Behind her, something creaked painfully and fell with a great crash. Smoke erupted around her. A hot spark touched her arm and stung And it came to her that there was nothing left to think about. He was waiting there or he wasn’t, but either way there was no place left for her to go except Out THE YARD WAS SO OVERGROWN IT WAS LIKE RUNNING THROUGH A tangle of wire. The grass made snares to catch her ankles. There was really no yard to speak of, only an expanse of wild brush and weeds, and forest beyond She did not so much as glance at the garage or back at the house, and she did not run for the driveway. She didn’t dare test that long straight road, for fear he might be parked along it, spying for her. Instead she ran for the trees. She did not see that there was an embankment until she was going over it, a three-foot drop to the forest floor She hit hard on her toes, felt the back of her right thigh grab with a painful force She crashed into a drift of dry branches, struggled free of them, and dropped onto her back The pines towered above her. They swayed in the wind. The ornaments that hung in them twinkled and blinked and made flashing rainbows, so it was as if she had been lightly concussed When she had her breath back, she rolled over, got on her knees, looked across the yard The big garage door was open, but the Rolls-Royce was gone She was surprised—almost disappointed—at how little smoke there was. She could see a steady gray film rising from the rear of the house. Smoke spilled from the open mouth of the front door. But she could not hear anything burning from here and could not see any flame. She had expected the house to be a bonfire Then Vic was up and moving again. She could not run, but she could hurry in a limping jog. Her lungs felt baked, and every other step there was a fresh ripping sensation in the back of her right thigh. She was less aware of her innumerable other hurts and aches: the cold burn on her right wrist, the steady stabbing pain in her left eyeball She stayed parallel to the drive, keeping it fifty feet off on her left, ready to duck behind brush or a tree trunk if she saw the Rolls. But the dirt lane led straight and true away from the little white house, with no sign of the old car, or the man Charles Manx, or the dead boy who traveled with him She followed the narrow dirt road for an uncertain period. She had lost her usual sense of time passing, did not have any idea, then or later, how long she made her way through the woods Each moment was the longest single moment of her life until the next. It seemed to her later that her staggering escape through the trees was as long as all the rest of her childhood By the time she saw the highway, she had left her childhood well behind her. It smoldered and burnt to nothing, along with the rest of the Sleigh House The embankment leading up to the highway was higher than the one she had fallen down, and she had to climb on her hands and knees, grabbing clumps of grass to hoist herself up. As she reached the top of the slope, she heard a rat-a-tat buzzing sound, the whine and blast of an approaching motorcycle. It was coming from her right, but by the time she found her feet, it was already past, big guy in black on a Harley The highway ran on a straight line through forest, beneath a confusion of stormy clouds To her left were lots of high blue hills, and for the first time Vic had a sense of being somewhere high up herself; in Haverhill, Massachusetts, she rarely gave a second thought to altitude, but now she understood that it wasn’t the clouds that were low but herself that was high She reeled out onto the blacktop, chasing the Harley, shouting, and waving her arms He won’t hear, she thought; there was no way, not over the rowdy tear of his own engine But the big man looked back over his shoulder, and the front wheel of his Harley wobbled, before he straightened out and swerved to the side of the highway He didn’t have a helmet on and was a fat man with beard on both of his chins, his brown hair curled at the nape of his neck in a luxuriant mullet. Vic ran toward him, the pain stabbing her in the back of the right leg with each step. When she reached the motorcycle, she did not hesitate or explain herself but threw one leg over the seat, getting her arms around his waist His eyes were amazed and a little frightened He had black leather gloves with the fingers snipped off and a black leather jacket, but the coat was unzipped to show a Weird Al T-shirt, and from this close she could see he was not the grown-up she had first taken him for

His skin was smooth and pink beneath the beard, and his emotions were almost childishly plain He might’ve been no older than her “Dude!” he said. “Are you all right? You been in an accident?” “I need the police. There’s a man. He wanted to kill me. He trapped me in a room and set fire to his house. He’s got a little boy. There was a little boy, and I almost didn’t get out, and he took the boy with him. We need to go. He might come back.” She was not sure any of this made sense. It was the right information, but it seemed to her she had arranged it poorly The bearded fat man goggled at her, as if she were speaking to him frantically in a foreign tongue—Tagalog, perhaps, or Klingon Although as it turned out, if she had addressed him in Klingon, Louis Carmody probably would’ve been able to translate “Fire!” she shouted. “Fire!” She stabbed a finger back in the direction of the dirt lane She could not see the house from the highway, and the faint wisp of smoke that rose over the trees might’ve been from someone’s chimney or a pile of burning leaves. But it was enough to break him out of his trance and get him moving “Hold the fuck on!” he cried, his voice cracking, going high-pitched, and he gave his bike so much throttle that Vic thought he was going to pop a wheelie Her stomach plunged, and she squeezed her arms around his gut, so the tips of her fingers could almost-but-not-quite touch. She thought he was going to dump it; the bike weaved dangerously, the front end going one way, the back end going the other But he straightened it out, and the center white line began to flick by in machine-gun staccato; so did the pines to either side of the road Vic dared one look back. She expected to see the old black car lurching up out of the dirt road, but the highway was empty. She turned her head and pressed it into the fat kid’s back, and they left the old man’s house behind, riding toward the blue hills, and they were away and they were safe and it was over Above Gunbarrel, Colorado THEN HE BEGAN TO SLOW DOWN “What are you doing?” she cried They had traveled less than half a mile down the highway. She looked back over her shoulder She could still see the dirt road leading up to that awful house “Dude,” the kid said. “We, like, need to get us some help. They’ll have a phone right in here.” They were approaching a pitted and cracked blacktop lane, leading off to the right, and at the corner of the intersection was a country store with a couple pumps out front. The kid ran the bike right up to the porch It died all of a sudden, the instant he flipped the kickstand down; he had not bothered to put it in neutral. She wanted to tell him no, not here, this was too close to the guy’s house, but the fat boy was already off and giving her his hand to help her down She stumbled on the first step going up to the porch and almost fell. He caught her in his arms. She turned and looked at him, blinking at tears. Why was she crying? She didn’t know, only knew that she was—helplessly, sipping at the air in short, choked breaths Curiously, the fat boy, Louis Carmody, just twenty, a kid with a record of stupid crimes—vandalism, shoplifting, smoking underage—looked like he might start crying himself. She didn’t learn his name until later “Hey,” he said. “Hey. I won’t let anything bad happen to you. You’re all right now. I’ve got your back.” She wanted to believe him. Already, though, she understood the difference between being a child and being an adult. The difference is that when someone says he can keep the bad things away, a child believes him. She wanted to believe him, but she couldn’t, so she decided to kiss him instead. Not now, but later—later she would kiss him the best kiss ever. He was chubby and had bad hair, and she suspected he had never been kissed by a pretty girl before. Vic was never going to be modeling in an underwear catalog, but she was pretty enough. She knew he thought so, too, from the reluctant way he let go of her waist “Let’s go in there and bring a whole mess of law down here,” he said. “How about that?” “And fire trucks,” she said “That, too,” he said Lou walked her into a pine-floored country grocery. Pickled eggs floated like cow eyeballs in a jar of yellowing fluid on the counter A small line of customers led to the lone cash register. The man behind the counter had a corncob pipe in the corner of his mouth With his pipe, squinty eyes, and bulging chin, he bore more than a passing resemblance to Popeye the Sailor Man A young man in military fatigues stood at the head of the line, holding a few bills in his hand. His wife waited beside him, baby in arms. His wife was, at most, only five years older than Vic herself, her blond hair held back in a ponytail by an elastic loop

The towheaded infant in her arms wore a Batman onesie with tomato-sauce stains down the front, evidence of a nutritious lunch by way of Chef Boyardee “Excuse me,” Lou said, raising his thin, piping voice No one so much as looked around “Didn’t you have a milk cow once, Sam?” said the young man in fatigues “It’s true,” said the guy who looked like Popeye, punching some keys on the register “But you don’t want to hear about my ex-wife again.” The old boys gathered around the counter erupted into laughter. The blonde with the baby smiled indulgently and looked around, and her gaze settled on Lou and Vic. Her brow furrowed with concern “Everyone listen to me!” Lou screamed, and this time they all heard and turned to stare. “We need to use your phone.” “Hey, honey,” said the blonde with the infant, speaking directly to Vic. The way she said it, Vic knew she was a waitress and called everyone honey, or hon, or darling, or doll. “You okay? What happened? You have an accident?” “She’s lucky to be alive,” Lou said “There’s a man down the road had her locked up in his house. He tried to burn her to death The house is still on fire. She only just got out of there. The fucker still has some little kid with him.” Vic shook her head. No—no, that was not exactly right. The little kid was not being held against his will. The little kid wasn’t even a little kid anymore. He was something else, something so cold it hurt to touch him But she couldn’t figure out how to correct Lou, and so she said nothing The blonde looked at Lou Carmody while he was speaking, then back, and when her gaze returned to Vic, it was subtly altered. It was a look of calm, intense appraisal—a look Vic knew well from her own mother’s face. It was the way Linda sized up an injury, judging it on a scale of severity, settling on the appropriate treatment “What’s your name, darling?” the blonde asked “Victoria,” Vic said, something she never did, refer to herself by her whole first name “You’re okay now, Victoria,” said the blonde, and her voice was so kind that Vic began to sob The blonde took quiet command of the room and everyone in it then, all without raising her voice or ever setting down her toddler Later, when Vic thought about what she liked best in women, she always thought of the soldier’s wife, of her certainty and her quiet decency She thought of mothering, which was really another word for being present and caring what happened to someone. She wished for that certainty herself, that grounded awareness, that she saw in the soldier’s wife, and thought she would like to be a woman such as this: a mother, with the steady, sure, feminine awareness of what to do in a crisis In some ways Vic’s own son, Bruce, was really conceived in that moment, although she would not be pregnant with him for another three years Vic sat on some boxes, to one side of the counter. The man who reminded her of Popeye was already on the phone, asking for an operator to give him the police. His voice was calm No one was overreacting, because the blonde didn’t overreact, the others taking their emotional cues from her “Are you from around here?” the soldier’s wife asked “I’m from Haverhill.” “Is that in Colorado?” asked the soldier, whose name was Tom Priest. He was on two weeks’ leave and was due to head back to Saudi Arabia by way of Fort Hood that evening Vic shook her head. “Massachusetts. I need to call my mom. She hasn’t seen me in days.” From that moment on, Vic was never able to work her way back to anything like the truth She had been missing from Massachusetts for two days. Now she was in Colorado and had escaped a man who had her locked up in his house, who’d tried to burn her to death Without ever saying she had been kidnapped, it became clear to everyone that this was the case That became the new truth, even for Vic herself, in the same way she was able to persuade herself she had found her mother’s bracelet in the family station wagon and not at Terry’s Primo Subs in Hampton Beach. The lies were easy to tell because they never felt like lies at all. When she was asked about her trip to Colorado, she said she had no memory of being in Charlie Manx’s car, and police officers traded sad, sympathetic looks. When they pressed her, she said it was all dark Dark like she had been locked in the trunk? Yes, maybe. Someone else wrote her statement She signed it without ever bothering to read it The soldier said, “Where’d you get away from him?” “Right down the road,” Louis Carmody said, answering for Vic, who could not find her voice. “Half a mile away. I could lead you back there. It’s out in the woods. Dude, they don’t get the fire trucks there pretty quick, half the hill will be on fire.” “That’s the Father Christmas place,” said Popeye, moving his mouth away from the phone

“Father Christmas?” the soldier said A gourd-shaped man in a red-and-white-checked shirt said, “I know it. I been by there hunting. It’s weird. The trees outside are decorated for Christmas all year-round. I’ve never seen anyone there, though.” “This guy set fire to his own house and drove off?” the soldier asked “And he’s still got a kid with him,” Lou said “What kind of car is he in?” Vic opened her mouth to reply, and then she saw movement, outside, through the window in the door, and looked past the soldier, and it was the Wraith, pulling up to the pumps, arriving as if summoned by this very question Even from a distance, through a closed door, she could hear Christmas music Sam’s Gas & Sundries VIC COULDN’T CRY OUT, COULDN’T SPEAK, BUT SHE DIDN’T NEED TO. The soldier saw her face and where she was looking and turned his head to see what had stopped at the pumps The driver climbed from the front seat and walked around the car to gas up “That guy?” the soldier asked. “The limo driver?” Vic nodded “I don’t see a kid with him,” Lou said, craning his neck to look out the front picture window This was met by a moment of sickened silence, everyone in the store taking stock of what it might mean “Does he have a gun?” the soldier said “I don’t know,” Vic said. “I didn’t see one.” The soldier turned and started toward the door His wife gave him a sharp look. “What do you think you’re doing?” The soldier said, “What do you think?” “You let the police handle it, Tom Priest.” “I will. When they get here. But he’s not driving away before they do.” “I’ll come with you, Tommy,” said the hefty man in the red-and-white-checked shirt “I ought to be with you anyway. I’m the only man in this room got a badge in his pocket.” Popeye lowered the mouthpiece of the phone, covered it with one hand, and said, “Alan, your badge says ‘Game Warden,’ and it looks like it came out of a Cracker Jack box.” “It did not come out of a Cracker Jack box,” said Alan Warner, adjusting an invisible tie and raising his bushy silver eyebrows in an expression of mock rage. “I had to send away to a very respectable establishment for it. Got myself a squirt gun and a real pirate eye patch from the same place.” “If you insist on going out there,” said Popeye, reaching under the counter, “take this with you.” And he set a big black .45 automatic next to the register, pushed it with one hand toward the game warden Alan Warner frowned at it and gave his head a little shake. “I better not. I don’t know how many deer I’ve put down, but I wouldn’t like to point a gun at no man Tommy?” The soldier named Tom Priest hesitated, then crossed the floor and hefted the .45. He turned it to check the safety “Thomas,” said the soldier’s wife. She jiggled their baby in her arms. “You have an eighteen-month-old child here. What are you going to do if that man pulls a pistol of his own?” “Shoot him,” Tom said “Goddamn it,” she said, in a voice just louder than a whisper. “Goddamn it.” He smiled . . . and when he did, he looked like a ten-year-old boy about to blow out his birthday candles “Cady. I have to go do this. I’m on active duty with the U.S. Army, and I’m authorized to enforce federal law. We just heard that this guy transported a minor across state lines, against her will. That’s kidnapping I am obligated to put his ass on the ground and hold him for the civilian authorities Now, that’s enough talk about it.” “Why don’t we just wait for him to walk on in here and pay for his gas?” asked Popeye But Tom and the game warden, Alan, were moving together toward the door Alan glanced back. “We don’t know he won’t just drive away without paying. Stop your fretting. This is going to be fun. I haven’t had to tackle nobody since senior year.” Lou Carmody swallowed thickly and said, “I’ll back your play,” and started after the two men The pretty blonde, Cady, caught his arm before he could make three steps. She probably saved Louis Carmody’s life “You’ve done enough. I want you to stay right here. You might have to get on the phone in a minute and tell your side of the story to the police,” she told him, in a voice that brooked no argument Lou sighed, in a shaky sort of way, and his shoulders went slack. He looked relieved, looked like he wanted to lie down. Vic thought she understood—heroism was exhausting business “Ladies,” Alan Warner said, nodding to Cady and Vic as he went by Tom Priest led the other man out the door and pulled it shut behind them, the little brass bell tinkling. Vic watched the whole thing from the front windows. They all did She saw Priest and Warner cross the asphalt, the soldier in the lead, carrying the .45 down by his right leg. The Rolls was on the

far side of the pumps, and the driver had his back to the two men. He didn’t look around as they approached, continued filling the tank Tom Priest didn’t wait or attempt to explain himself. He put his hand in the center of Manx’s back and shoved him into the side of the car. He planted the barrel of the .45 against his back. Alan stood a safe distance away, behind Tom, between the two pumps, letting the soldier do the talking Charlie Manx tried to straighten up, but Priest shoved him into the car again, slamming him into the Wraith. The Rolls, built in Bristol in 1938 by a company that would soon be engineering tanks for the Royal Marines, did not so much as rock on its springs. Tom Priest’s sunburned face was a rigid, unfriendly mask. There was no hint of the child’s smile now; he looked like a vicious son of a bitch in jackboots and dog tags. He gave an order in a low voice, and slowly, slowly, Manx lifted his hands and set them on the roof of the Rolls-Royce Tom dipped his free left hand into the pocket of Manx’s black coat and removed some coins, a brass lighter, and a silver wallet. He set them on the roof of the car At that point there was a bang, or a thump, at the back end of the Rolls. It was forceful enough to shake the whole vehicle on its frame Tom Priest glanced at Alan Warner “Alan,” Tom said—his voice was loud enough now that they could hear him inside “Go around and get the keys out of the ignition Let’s see what’s in the trunk.” Alan nodded and started around the front of the car, pulling his hankie out to squeeze his nose. He made it to the driver’s-side door, where the window was open about eight inches, and reached in for the keys, and that was when things began to go wrong The window went up. No one was sitting in the car; there was no one to turn the crank But the glass rose smoothly, all at once, slicing into Alan Warner’s arm, trapping it in place. Alan screamed, throwing his head back and shutting his eyes, rising up on his toes in pain Tom Priest glanced away from Charlie Manx for a moment—only one—and the passenger door flew open. It caught the soldier in the right side, knocked him into the pump, and turned him halfway around. The gun clattered across the blacktop. The car door seemed to have opened itself. From where Vic stood, it appeared no one had laid a hand on it She thought, automatically, of Knight Rider, a show she had not watched in ten years, and the way Michael Knight’s slick Trans Am could drive itself, think for itself, eject people it didn’t like, open its doors for people it did Manx dropped his left hand and came up holding the gas hose. He cracked the metal nozzle into Tom’s head, banging him across the bridge of the nose and squeezing the trigger at the same time, so gasoline gushed into the soldier’s face, down the front of his fatigues Tom Priest issued a strangled cry and put his hands over his eyes. Manx hit him again, slamming the nozzle of the hose into the center of his head, as if trying to trepan him with it. Bright, clear gasoline flew, bubbled over Priest’s head Alan screamed and screamed again. The car began to creep forward, dragging him by the arm Priest tried to throw himself at Manx, but the tall man was already stepping back and out of the way, and Tom fell to all fours on the blacktop. Manx poured gasoline all down his back, soaking him as a man might water his lawn with a garden hose The objects on top of the car—the coins, the lighter—slid off as the car continued to roll gently forward. Manx reached and caught the bright brass lighter as effortlessly as a first baseman reaching for a lazy infield fly Someone shoved Vic from the left—Lou Carmody—and she staggered into the blonde named Cady Cady was screaming her husband’s name, bent over almost double from the force of her own yells. The toddler in her arms was yelling too: Waddy, Waddy! The door flew open. Men spilled onto the porch. Vic’s view was momentarily obscured by people rushing past her When she could see the blacktop again, Manx had stepped back and flicked his lighter He dropped it onto the soldier’s back, and Tom Priest ignited in a great blast of blue fire, which threw a burst of heat with enough force to rattle the windows of the store The Wraith was rolling steadily now, dragging the game warden named Alan Warner helplessly along with it. The fat man bellowed, punching his free hand against the door, as if he could pound it into letting him go. Some gasoline had splashed up the side of the car. The rear passenger-side tire was a churning hoop of flame Charlie Manx took another step back from the burning, writhing soldier and was hit from behind by one of the other customers, a skinny old man in suspenders. The two of them went down together. Lou Carmody leaped over them both, pulling off his jacket to throw it on Tom Priest’s flaming body The driver’s-side window abruptly went down,

releasing Alan Warner, who dropped to the blacktop, half under the car. The Rolls thumped as it passed over him Sam Cleary, the store owner who looked like Popeye, rushed past Vic, holding a fire extinguisher Lou Carmody was hollering something, swinging his jacket into Tom Priest, beating at him It was like he was swatting a stack of burning newspaper; big black flakes of ash drifted through the air. It was only later that Vic understood those were flakes of charbroiled skin The toddler in Cady’s arms slapped a chubby hand against the storefront window. “Hot! Hot Waddy!” Cady seemed to suddenly realize that her child could see everything and turned on her heel and carried him across the room, away from the window, sobbing as she fled The Rolls trundled another twenty feet before coming to a stop with the bumper against a telephone pole. Flames painted the whole back end, and if there was a child in the trunk, he would’ve been suffocated or burned to death, but there was no child in the trunk There was a purse belonging to a woman named Cynthia McCauley, who had disappeared three days before from JFK Airport, along with her son Brad, but neither Brad nor Cynthia was ever seen again. No one could explain the thumping noise that had seemed to come from the rear of the car—like the window rolling up or the door flying open and smashing into Tom Priest, it seemed almost that the car had acted with a mind of its own Sam Cleary reached the two old men fighting on the ground and used the fire extinguisher for the first time, bringing it down two-handed to hit Charlie Manx in the face. He would use it for the second time on Tom Priest, not thirty seconds later, by which time Tom was well dead Not to mention well done INTERLUDE: THE SPIRIT OF ECSTASY 2000–2012 Gunbarrel, Colorado THE FIRST TIME VIC MCQUEEN TOOK A LONG-DISTANCE CALL FROM Christmasland, she was an unwed mother, living with her boyfriend in a double-wide, and it was snowing in Colorado She had lived in New England her whole life, and she thought she knew about snow, but it was different in the Rockies. The storms were different. She thought of the blizzards in the Rockies as blue weather. The snow came down fast and hard and steady, and there was something blue about the light, so it was as if she were trapped in a secret world under a glacier: a winterplace where it was eternally Christmas Eve Vic would walk outside in her moccasins and one of Lou’s enormous T-shirts (which she could wear like nightgowns) to stand in the blue dimness and listen to the snow fall It hissed in the branches of the pines like static, like white noise. She would stand there breathing in the sweet smell of woodsmoke and pines, trying to figure out how in the hell she had wound up with sore tits and no job, two thousand miles from home The best she could work out, she was there on a mission of vengeance. She had returned to Colorado, after graduating from Haverhill High, to attend art school. She wanted to go to art school because her mother was dead set against it and her father refused to pay for it. Other choices her mother couldn’t bear and her father didn’t want to know about: Vic smoking pot, skipping class to go skiing, making out with girls, shacking up with the fat delinquent who had rescued her from Charlie Manx, getting pregnant without bothering to get married. Linda had always said she wouldn’t have anything to do with a baby born out of wedlock, so Vic had not invited her after the birth, and when Linda offered to come, Vic said she’d rather that she didn’t. She had not even bothered to send her father a picture of the baby She still remembered how good it felt to look into Lou Carmody’s face, over coffees in a yuppie café in Boulder, and to say, bluntly and pleasantly, “So I guess I should fuck you for saving my life, huh? Least I can do Do you want to finish your coffee, or should we just split now?” After their first time, Lou admitted he had never slept with a girl before, his face glowing dark red, from both his exertions and his embarrassment. Still a virgin in his early twenties: Who said there was no wonder left in the world? Sometimes she resented Louis, for not being satisfied with sex alone. He had to love her, too. He wanted talk as much as he wanted sex, maybe more; he wanted to do things for her, buy her things, get tattoos together, go on trips. Sometimes she resented herself, for letting him corner her into being his friend It seemed to her she had planned to be stronger: to simply fuck him a time or two—to show him she was a girl who knew how to appreciate a guy—then drop him and get herself an alternative girlfriend, someone with a pink streak in her hair and a few beads in her tongue. The

problem with that plan was, she liked guys better than girls, and she liked Lou better than most guys; he smelled good and he moved slow and he was roughly as difficult to anger as a character from the Hundred Acre Wood Soft as a character from the Hundred Acre Wood, too. It irritated her that she liked to touch him and lean against him. Her body was constantly working against her, toward its own unhelpful ends Lou worked out of a garage he had opened with some cash given to him by his parents, and they lived in the trailer in back, two miles outside of Gunbarrel, a thousand miles from anything. Vic didn’t have a car and probably spent a hundred and sixty hours a week at home. The house smelled of piss-soaked diapers and engine parts, and the sink was always full In retrospect Vic was only surprised she didn’t go crazy sooner. She was surprised that more young mothers didn’t lose it. When your tits had become canteens and the soundtrack of your life was hysterical tears and mad laughter, how could anyone expect you to remain sane? She had a single occasional escape hatch Whenever it snowed, she left Wayne with Lou, borrowed the tow truck, and said she was going into town for an espresso and a magazine It was something to tell them. Vic didn’t want to let them in on the truth. What she was actually going to do felt like a curiously private, possibly even shameful, personal matter So it happened one day, all of them trapped inside together: Wayne was banging on a toy xylophone with a spoon, Lou was burning pancakes, the TV was blaring Dora the fucking Explorer Vic let herself into the yard for a smoke It was blue outside, and the snow fell hissing in the trees, and by the time she had smoked her American Spirit down far enough to burn her fingers, she knew she needed a ride in the tow She borrowed the keys from Lou, put on a Colorado Avalanche hoodie, and crossed to the garage, locked up on that frozen blue Sunday morning Inside, it smelled of metal and spilled oil, an odor very like blood. Wayne had that smell on him, all the time, and she hated it. The boy, Bruce Wayne Carmody—Bruce to his paternal grandparents, Wayne to Vic, and The Bat to Lou—spent most of the day cooing to himself in the safe enclosure of a tire meant for a monster truck. It was what they had instead of a playpen. Her baby’s father was a man who owned only two pairs of underwear and had a tattoo of the Joker on his hip. It was something, going over all the things that had led her to this place of high rock, endless snows, and hopelessness. She could not quite work out how she had found her way here. She used to be so good at finding the place she wanted to go In the garage she paused, one foot on the running board of the truck. Lou had picked up a job, painting a motorcycle for a pal He had just finished putting a coat of dull black primer on the gas tank. The gas tank looked like a weapon now, like a bomb On the floor, beside the bike, was a sheet of transfer paper with a flaming skull on it and the words HARD CORE written below Vic took one glance at what Lou had painted on the transfer paper and knew he was going to fuck up the job. And it was a curious thing: Something about the crudity of his illustration, its obvious failings, made her feel almost ill with love for him. Ill—and guilty. Even then some part of her already knew she was going to leave him someday. Even then some part of her felt that Lou—Lou and Wayne both—deserved better than Vic McQueen The highway switchbacked for two miles down to Gunbarrel, where there were coffeehouses, candle shops, and a spa that did cream-cheese facials. But Vic got less than halfway there before turning off the highway onto a dirt side road that dropped through the pines into deep lumber country She flicked on the headlights and buried the gas pedal. It felt like plunging off a cliff It felt like suicide The big Ford crashed through brush, banged through ruts, tipped over ledges. She drove at unsafe speeds, slewing around corners and throwing snow and rocks She was looking for something. Vic stared intently into the headlights, which cut a hole in the falling snow, a white passageway The snow flurried past, as if she were driving through a tunnel of static Vic felt that it was close, the Shorter Way Bridge, waiting just beyond the farthest reach of the headlights. She felt it was a matter of speed. If she could just go fast enough, she could force it back into existence, leap off the rutted logging road and onto the old boards of the bridge. But she never dared push the truck beyond the speed at which she could control it, and she never reached the Shorter Way Maybe if she had her bike back. Maybe if it were summer Maybe if she were not stupid enough to have had a baby. She hated that she’d had the baby. Now she was fucked. She loved Wayne

too much to press the pedal to the floor and go flying into the darkness She’d thought love had something to do with happiness, but it turned out they were not even vaguely related. Love was closer to a need, no different from the need to eat, to breathe. When Wayne fell asleep, his hot cheek against her naked breast, his lips smelling sweetly of the milk from her own body, she felt as if she was the one who had been fed Maybe she could not bring forth the bridge because there was nothing left to find. Maybe she had found everything the world had to offer her: a notion very like despair It was no good being a mother. She wanted to start a website, a public-awareness campaign, a newsletter, to get the word out that if you were a woman and you had a child, you lost everything, you would be held hostage by love: a terrorist who would only be satisfied when you surrendered your entire future The lumber road dead-ended at a gravel pit, which was where she turned back. As was often the case, she drove back toward the highway with a headache No. Not a headache. It wasn’t a pain in her head. It was a pain in her left eye. A slow, soft throb She drove back to the garage, singing along to Kurt Cobain. Kurt Cobain understood what it tasted like to lose your magic bridge, the transport to the things you needed. It tasted like a gunbarrel—like Gunbarrel, Colorado, perhaps She parked in the garage and sat behind the wheel in the cold, watching her breath smoke She might’ve sat there forever if the phone hadn’t rung It was on the wall, right outside the door to the office Lou never used. It was old enough to have a rotary dial—like the phone in Charlie Manx’s Sleigh House. Its ring was harsh and brassy Vic frowned The phone was on a separate line from the one in the house. It was comically referred to as “the business line.” No one ever called them on it She dropped from the front seat, a good four feet to the concrete floor. She caught the phone on the third ring “Carmody’s Car Carma,” she said The phone was painfully cold. Her palm, clutching the receiver, made a pale frost halo on the plastic There was a hiss, as if the call were coming from a great distance. In the background Vic heard carolers, the sounds of sweet children’s voices. It was a little early for that—mid-November A boy said, “Um.” “Hello? Can I help you?” “Um. Yes,” the boy said. “I’m Brad Brad McCauley. I’m calling from Christmasland.” She recognized the boy’s name but at first she couldn’t place it “Brad,” she said. “Can I help you? Where did you say you’re calling from?” “From Christmasland, silly. You know who I am. I was in the car,” he said. “At Mr. Manx’s house. You remember. We had fun.” Her chest was icy. It was hard to breathe “Oh, fuck you, kid,” she said. “Fuck you and your sick motherfucking joke.” “The reason I’m calling,” he said, “we’re all getting hungry. There hasn’t been anything to eat forever, and what’s the point of having all these teeth if you can’t use them on something?” “Call back and I’ll put the cops on you, you deranged fuck,” she said, and banged the phone down in the cradle Vic put a hand over her mouth and made a sound somewhere between a sob and a cry of rage She bent double and shook in the freezing garage When she had recovered herself, she straightened, lifted the phone, and calmly called the operator “Can you give me the number that just rang this line?” Vic asked. “We were cut off I want to be reconnected.” “The line you’re on?” “Yes. I was cut off just a moment ago.” “I’m sorry. I have a phone call from Friday afternoon for an 800 number. Do you want me to connect you?” “A call came in just a moment ago. I want to know who it was.” There was a silence before the operator replied, a caesura in which Vic could make out the sounds of other operator voices speaking in the background “I’m sorry. I don’t have any calls to this line since Friday.” “Thank you,” Vic said, and hung up She was sitting on the floor, beneath the phone, with her arms wrapped around her, when Lou found her “You been, like, sitting out here for a while,” he said. “Do you want me to bring you a blanket or a dead tauntaun or something?” “What’s a tauntaun?” “Something like a camel. Or maybe a big goat. I don’t think it matters.” “What’s Wayne doing?” “He snoozed off. He’s cool. What are you doin’ out here?” He looked around the dimness, as if he thought there was a chance she might not be alone She needed to tell him something, make up some explanation for why she was sitting on the floor in a cold, dark garage, so she nodded at the motorcycle he had primed

“Thinking about the bike you’re working on.” He considered her through narrowed eyes. She could tell he didn’t believe her But then he looked at the motorcycle and the transfer paper on the floor beside it and said, “I’m worried I’m going to fuck it up. You think it’ll come out okay?” “No. I don’t. Sorry.” He shot her a startled look. “For real?” She smiled weakly and nodded He heaved a great sigh. “Can you tell me what I did wrong?” “‘Hardcore’ is one word, not two. And your e looks like the number 8. But also, you have to write in reverse. When you stick the transfer paper on and make the copy, ‘hardcore’ is going to be backward.” “Oh. Oh, shit. Dude. I’m such an idiot.” Lou cast her another hopeful glance. “At least you liked my skull, right?” “Honestly?” Lou stared at his feet. “Christ. I was hoping Tony B. would throw me fifty bucks or something for doing a good paint job. If you didn’t stop me, I’d probably have to pay him fifty for ruining his bike. Why am I not good at anything?” “You’re a good dad.” “It ain’t rocket science.” No, Vic thought. It was harder “Do you want me to fix it?” she asked “You ever painted a bike before?” “No.” He nodded. “Well. Okay. If you fuck it up, we’ll just say I did it. No one will be surprised. But if you kick its ass, we should tell people who really painted it. Might pull in some more jobs.” He gave her another long look, sizing her up. “You sure you’re all right? You aren’t out here pondering dark female thoughts are you?” “No.” “You ever think, like, you shouldn’t have quit on therapy? You’ve been through some shit, dude. Maybe you ought to talk about it. About him.” I just did, she thought. I had a nice little chat with the last kid Charlie Manx kidnapped He’s some kind of cold vampire now, and he’s in Christmasland, and he wants something to eat “I think the talking is done,” she said, and took Lou’s hand when he offered it “Maybe I’ll just paint instead.” Sugarcreek, Pennsylvania EARLY IN THE SUMMER OF 2001, THE NEWS REACHED BING PARTRIDGE that Charlie Manx was bad sick Bing was fifty-three by then and had not put his gasmask on in five years Bing found out from an article on AOL, which he accessed using the big black Dell computer he had received from NorChemPharm for thirty years of service. He looked at AOL every day for news out of Colorado about Mr. Manx, but there had been nothing for ages until this: Charles Talent Manx III, age unknown, convicted murderer, suspect in dozens of child abductions, had been moved to the hospital wing of FCI Englewood when it proved impossible to wake him up Manx was examined by prominent Denver neurosurgeon Marc Sopher, who described his condition as one for the medical books “The patient appears to suffer from adult progeria or a rare form of Werner syndrome,” Sopher said. “In the simplest terms, he has begun to age very rapidly. A month is more like a year for him. A year is close to a decade. And this guy was no spring chicken to begin with.” The doctor said there was no way to tell if Manx’s condition could partially explain the aberrant behavior that led to his brutal slaying of PFC Thomas Priest in 1996. He also declined to describe Charlie Manx’s current state as a coma “He doesn’t meet the strict definition [of coma]. His brain function is high—as if he’s dreaming. He just can’t wake up anymore. His body is too tired. He doesn’t have any gas left in the tank.” Bing had often thought of writing Mr. Manx, to tell him he was still faithful, still loved him, would always love him, would be there to serve him until the day he died. But while Bing was maybe not the shiniest bulb on the Christmas tree—ha, ha—he was smart enough to know that Mr. Manx would be furious with him for writing, and correct to be. A letter from Bing would for sure lead to men in suits knocking on the door, men in sunglasses with guns in armpit holsters. Hello, Mr. Partridge, would you mind answering a few questions? How would you feel about us planting a shovel in your basement, digging around for a bit? So he had never written, and now it was too late, and the thought made him feel sick Mr. Manx had passed a message to Bing once, although by what means Bing didn’t know A package had been dropped on the doorstep with no return address on it, two days after Mr. Manx was sentenced to life in Englewood

Inside were a pair of license plates—NOS4A2/KANSAS—and a little card on ivory laid stock, with a Christmas angel stamped into the front Bing had the license plates in the root cellar, where all the rest of his life with Charlie Manx was buried: the empty stolen tanks of sevoflurane, his daddy’s .45, and the remains of the women, the mothers that Bing had brought home with him after many a mission of salvation with Mr. Manx . . . nine missions in all Brad McCauley had been the ninth child they had saved for Christmasland, and his mother, Cynthia, the last whore Bing had dealt with in the quiet room downstairs. In a way she had been saved as well, before she died: Bing had taught her about love Bing and Mr. Manx had planned to save one more child in the summer of 1997, and that time Bing would go all the way to Christmasland with Mr. Manx, to live where no one grew old and unhappiness was against the law, where he could ride all the rides and drink all the cocoa and open Christmas gifts every morning When he thought about the cosmic unfairness of it—of Mr. Manx being ripped away right before he could swing wide the gates of Christmasland to Bing at last—he felt smashed inside, as if hope were a vase that had been dropped from a height, crunch The worst of it, though, was not losing Mr Manx or losing Christmasland. It was losing love. It was losing the mommies His last, Mrs. McCauley, had been the best They had long talks in the basement together, Mrs. McCauley naked and tanned and fit, clasped against Bing’s side. She was forty but stringy with muscle that she had built up coaching girls’ volleyball. Her skin radiated heat and health. She stroked the graying hair on Bing’s chest and told him she loved him better than her mother or father, better than Jesus, better than her own son, better than kittens, better than sunshine. It felt good to hear her say it: “I love you, Bing Partridge I love you so much it’s burning me. I’m all kindling inside. It’s burning me alive.” Her breath had been sweet with the smell of the gingerbread smoke; she was so fit, and so healthy, he had to dose her with his flavored sevoflurane mix once every three hours. She loved him so much she cut her own wrists when he told her they couldn’t live together They made love one last time while she bled out—while she bled all over him “Does it hurt?” he asked “Oh, Bing, Bing, you silly thing,” she said. “I’ve been burning with love for days. A couple little cuts like these, they don’t hurt at all.” She was so pretty—had such perfect mommy tits—he couldn’t bear to pour the lye on her until she began to smell. Even with flies in her hair, she was pretty; extra pretty, really. The bluebottles glittered like gems Bing had visited the Graveyard of What Might Be with Mr. Manx and knew that if Cynthia McCauley had been left to her own devices, she would’ve killed her son in a steroid-fueled rage. But down in his quiet room, Bing had taught her kindness and love and how to suck cock, so at least she ended her life on a good note That was what it was all about: taking something awful and making something good of it. Mr Manx saved the children, and Bing saved the mommies. Now, though, the mommies were over and done. Mr. Manx was locked-up gone, and Bing’s gasmask hung on a hook behind the back door, where it had been since 1996. He read the story in the news about Mr. Manx falling asleep—into a deep, endless sleep, a brave soldier under a wicked enchantment—and then printed it and folded it and decided to pray on it some In his fifty-third year, Bing Partridge had become a churchgoing man once again, had returned to the New American Faith Tabernacle in the hopes that God would offer some comfort for one of his loneliest children. Bing prayed that one day he would hear “White Christmas” playing in the driveway and would push back the linen curtain and see Mr. Manx behind the wheel of the Wraith, the window rolled down and the Good Man gazing out at him. Come on, Bing! Let’s go for a ride! Number ten is waiting for us! Let’s go grab one more kid and take you to Christmasland! Heaven knows you’ve earned it! He climbed the steep hill, in the smothering heat of a July afternoon. The foil flowers in his front yard—twenty-nine of them—were perfectly still and silent. He hated them

He hated the blue sky, too, and the maddening harmonic of the cicadas throbbing in the trees Bing trudged up the hill with the news story in one hand (“Rare Condition Befalls Convicted Murderer”) and Mr. Manx’s final note in the other (“I might be a while. 9.”) to speak to God about these things The church stood in a hectare of buckled blacktop, shoots of pale grass as high as Bing’s knees sticking up through the cracks. A loop of heavy-duty chain and a Yale lock held the front doors shut. No one except for Bing himself had prayed there for going on fifteen years The tabernacle had belonged to the Lord once, but now it was property of the moneylenders; a sun-faded sheet of paper in a clear plastic envelope tacked to one of the doors said so The cicadas buzzed in Bing’s head, like madness Out at one end of the lot was a big sign like they’d have out in front of a Dairy Queen or a used-car lot, telling people which hymn they’d be singing that day. ONLY IN GOD and HE’S ALIVE AGAIN and THE LORD NEVER SLEEPS. DEVOTIONS were promised for 1:00 P.M The sign had been promising those same hymns since Reagan’s second term Some of the stained-glass windows had holes where kids had chucked rocks at them, but Bing didn’t climb in that way. There was a shed out to one side of the church, half hidden back in the dusty poplars and sumac A rotting cord doormat lay in front of the shed’s door. A bright brass key was hidden beneath it The key opened the padlock on the sloped cellar doors at the back of the building. Bing let himself below. He crossed a cool subterranean room, wading through the smell of old creosote and mildewed books, and came up into the big open theater of the church Bing had always liked church, back in the days when he still went with his mother. He had liked the way the sun came through the twenty-foot-high stained-glass windows, filling the room with warmth and color, and he had liked the way the mommies dressed, in white lace and heels and milky-white stockings Bing loved white stockings and loved to hear a woman sing. All the mommies who stayed with him in the House of Sleep sang before they took their last rest But after the pastor ran away with the whole treasury and the bank locked the church up, Bing found that the place troubled him. He did not like the way the shadow of the steeple seemed to reach for his house in the late of day. Bing found after he started taking mommies back to his home—a place Mr. Manx had christened the House of Sleep—he could hardly stand to look at the top of the hill anymore. The church loomed, the shadow of the steeple an accusing finger that stretched down the slope and pointed at his front yard: HERE IS A DEADLY KILLER! NINE DEAD WOMEN IN HIS BASEMENT! Bing tried to tell himself he was being foolish He and Mr. Manx were heroes, really; they did Christian work. If someone wrote a book about them, you would have to mark them down as the good guys. It did not matter that many of the mothers, when dosed with sevoflurane, would still not admit to their plans to whore their daughters or beat their sons and that several contended they had never taken drugs, did not drink to excess, and did not have criminal records. Those things were in the future, a wretched future that Bing and Mr Manx worked hard to prevent. If he was ever arrested—because of course no lawman would ever understand the importance and basic goodness of their vocation—Bing felt he could talk about his work with pride. There was no shame in him about any of the things he had done with Mr. Manx Still, he occasionally had trouble looking up at the church He told himself, as he climbed the steps from the basement, that he was being a ninny, that all men were welcome in God’s house and Mr. Manx needed Bing’s prayers—now more than ever. For himself, Bing had never felt so alone or forlorn. A few weeks earlier, Mr. Paladin had asked Bing what he was going to do with himself after he retired. Bing was shocked and asked why he would retire He liked his job. Mr. Paladin blinked and said after forty years they would make him retire. You didn’t get a choice in the matter Bing had never thought about it. He had assumed that by now he would be drinking cocoa in Christmasland, opening presents in the morning, singing carols in the night The vast empty sanctuary did not put his mind at ease that afternoon. Just the opposite, in fact. All the pews were still there, although they were no longer lined up in neat rows but had been shoved this way and that, were as crooked as Mr. Manx’s teeth. The floor was littered with broken glass and chunks of plaster, which crunched underfoot. The room smelled rankly of ammonia, of bird piss

Someone had been in here drinking. The bottles and beer cans left behind littered the pews He went on, pacing the length of the room His passage disturbed the swallows in the rafters. The sound of their beating wings echoed, a noise like a magician spraying playing cards into the air The light that slanted in through the windows was cold and blue, and motes of dust turned within the bars of sunshine, as if the church were the interior of a snow globe just beginning to settle Someone—teenagers, homeless—had made an altar in one of the deep-set window frames Deformed red candles stood in hardened puddles of wax, and set behind the candles were several photographs of Michael Stipe from R.E.M., a scrawny queer with pale hair and pale eyes Someone had written “LOSING MY RELIGION” on one of the photographs in cherry lipstick Bing himself felt there had not been a single thing worth listening to in rock music since Abbey Road Bing set the card from Mr. Manx and the printout from the Denver Post in the center of this homemade altar and lit a couple candles for the Good Man. He cleared some space on the floor, kicking aside chunks of broken plaster and a dirty pair of panties—little hearts on them, looked like they’d fit a ten-year-old—and got on his knees He cleared his throat. In the vast echoing space of the church, it sounded as loud as a gunshot A swallow rattled its wings, gliding from one rafter to another He could see a line of pigeons leaning forward to stare down at him with their bright, rabies-red eyes. They watched him with fascination He shut his eyes and put his hands together and spoke with God “Hey, there, God,” Bing said. “It’s Bing, that old dumb thing. Oh, God. Oh, God God God. Please help Mr. Manx. Mr. Manx has the sleepies, bad, and I don’t know what to do, and if he doesn’t get better and come back to me, I’ll never have my trip to Christmasland. I tried my best to do something good with my life. I tried my best to save children and make sure they’d have cocoa and rides and things. It wasn’t easy. No one wanted us to save them. But even when the mommies screamed and called us awful names, even when their children cried and wet themselves, I loved them. I loved those kids, and I loved their mommies, even if they were bad women And I loved Mr. Manx most of all. Everything he does, he does so other people can be happy Isn’t that the kindest thing a person can do—spread a little happiness around? Please, God, if we did any good at all, please, help me, give me a sign, tell me what to do. Please, please, please, pl—” His face was tipped back and his mouth was open when something hot hit his cheek, and he tasted something salty and bitter on his lips. He flinched; it was like someone had cum on him. He swiped at his mouth and looked at his fingers, now coated with a whitish green crud, a sloppy liquid mash. It took a moment to identify it as pigeon shit Bing groaned: once, then again. His mouth was full of the salt-crème taste of bird shit. The stuff cupped in his palm looked like diseased phlegm. His moaning rose to a scream and he pitched himself backward, kicking plaster and glass, and put his other hand down on something damp and sticky, with the soft texture of Saran Wrap. He glanced down and discovered he had planted his hand on a soiled condom crawling with ants He lifted his hand in horror, in revulsion, and the condom stuck to his fingers, and he flicked his hand once, twice, and it flipped up and landed in his hair. He shrieked. Birds exploded from the rafters “What?” he screamed to the church. “What? I came here on my knees! I CAME ON MY KNEES! And you do what? WHAT?” He grabbed the rubber and yanked, tearing out a fistful of his own wispy gray hair at the same time (when had it all turned gray?) Dust swirled in the light Bing Partridge went down the hill in a shambling jog, feeling defiled and ill . . . defiled, ill, and outraged. He reeled like a drunk past the foil flowers in his front yard and banged the door shut behind him It was the Gasmask Man who stepped out twenty minutes later, a bottle of lighter fluid in

each hand Before he lit the place up, he boarded over the holes in the windows so the birds couldn’t get out. He drizzled most of one bottle over the pews and the heaps of broken wood and plaster on the floor: perfect little premade bonfires. The other bottle he emptied on the figure of Jesus, mounted on his cross up in the apse. He looked cold in his little loincloth, so Bing flicked a match and dressed him in a robe of flame. Mary gazed sadly down at this latest indignity inflicted upon her son from a mural above him. Bing tapped two fingers to the mouthpiece of his mask, blew her a kiss Give him a chance to grab child number ten with Mr. Manx, Bing thought, and he didn’t care if he had to gas and kill Christ’s own mama to get the little bastard Besides. There wasn’t anything the Holy Ghost had done in Mother Mary’s pussy that Bing couldn’t have done better, if he had three days alone with her in the House of Sleep Gunbarrel, Colorado THE CHILDREN NEVER CALLED WHEN SHE WAS PAINTING It was months before Vic understood this consciously, but on some level of her mind that existed beneath reason, she got it almost right away When she wasn’t painting, when she didn’t have creative work to occupy her, she became aware of a growing physical apprehension, like she was standing beneath a crane that was holding a piano aloft; at any moment she felt that the cables could snap and all that weight could fall upon her with a fatal crash So she lined up every job she could get and spent seventy hours a week in the garage listening to Foreigner and airbrushing motorcycles for men with criminal records and offensive racial notions Vic painted flames and guns and naked chicks and grenades and Dixie flags and Nazi flags and Jesus Christ and white tigers and rotting ghouls and more naked chicks. She didn’t think of herself as an artist. Painting kept Christmasland from calling and paid for Pampers All other considerations were of little importance Sometimes, though, the jobs dried up. Sometimes it seemed she had painted every motorcycle in the Rockies and there would never be another gig. When that happened—when she had more than a week or two without painting—she found herself grimly waiting. Readying herself Then one day the phone would ring It happened in September, on a Tuesday morning, five years after Manx went to jail. Lou had gone out before the sun came up to tow someone out of a ditch, left her with Wayne, who wanted hot dogs for breakfast. All those years smelled of steaming hot dogs and steaming baby shit Wayne was parked in front of the tube, and Vic was squirting ketchup into cheap hot-dog rolls when the phone rang She stared at the receiver. It was too early for the phone to be ringing, and she already knew who it was, because she had not painted anything in almost a month Vic touched the receiver. It was cold “Wayne,” she said The boy looked up, finger in his mouth, drool down the front of his X-Men T-shirt “Do you hear the phone ringing, Wayne?” she asked He stared at her blankly, uncomprehendingly for a moment, then shook his head It rang again “There,” she said. “There, did you hear it? Don’t you hear it ringing?” “No, Em,” he said, and wagged his head heavily from side to side He turned his attention back to the television Vic picked up the receiver A child—not Brad McCauley, a different child, a girl this time—said, “When is Daddy coming back to Christmasland? What did you do with Daddy?” “You aren’t real,” Vic said In the background she could hear the children caroling “Yes I am,” the girl said. A white breath of frozen air seethed through the small holes in the earpiece of the receiver. “We’re just as real as what’s happening in New York this morning. You should see what’s happening in New York. It’s exciting! People are jumping into the sky! It’s exciting, and it’s fun. It’s almost as fun as Christmasland.” “You aren’t real,” Vic whispered again “You told lies about Daddy,” she said “That was bad. You’re a bad mother. Wayne should be with us. He could play with us all day. We could teach him how to play scissors-for-the-drifter.” Vic slammed the phone into the cradle. She picked it up and slammed it down once more Wayne glanced around at her, his eyes wide and alarmed She waved a hand at him—never mind—and

turned away, struggling not to cry, breath hitching The hot dogs boiled over, water jumping out of the pot and spattering into the blue flame of the gas burner. She ignored them, sank down onto the kitchen floor, and covered her eyes. It was an act of will to contain her sobs; she didn’t want to scare Wayne “Em!” her boy called, and she looked up, blinking. “Sumfin’ happened to Oscar!” “Oscar” was his word for Sesame Street “Sumfin’ happened, an’ Oscar went bye-bye.” Vic wiped at her streaming eyes, took a shuddering breath, turned off the gas. She walked unsteadily to the television. Sesame Street had gone to a news break. A big jet had hit one of the World Trade Towers in New York City. Black smoke churned into blue, blue sky A few weeks later, Vic made space in the closet-size second bedroom, tidied and swept. She moved an easel in there and mounted bristol board on it “Whatchu doing?” Lou asked, pushing his head through the door the day after she set herself up “Thought I’d draw a picture book,” Vic said. She had the first page sketched in blue pencil, was almost ready to start inking Lou peered over her shoulder. “Are you drawing a motorcycle factory?” he asked “Close. A robot factory,” she said. “The hero is a robot named Search Engine. On each page he has to work his way through a maze and find some items of importance. Power cells and secret plans and stuff.” “I think I’m popping a boner for your picture book. Awesome thing to do for Wayne He’s going to shit.” Vic nodded. She was happy to let Lou think she was doing it for the kid. She had no illusions, though. She was doing it for herself The picture book was better than painting Harleys. It was steady work, and it was there every day After she started drawing Search Engine, the phone never rang unless a credit agency was calling And after she sold the book, the credit agencies quit calling, too Brandenburg, Kentucky MICHELLE DEMETER WAS TWELVE THE FIRST TIME HER FATHER LET her drive it. A twelve-year-old girl driving a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith through the high grass in the first days of summer with the windows rolled down and Christmas music playing on the radio. Michelle sang along in a big, happy, braying voice—off-key and off-time. When she did not know the lyrics, she made them up Come! All ye faithful! Jiggy and triii-umphant! Come all ye faithful, sing yay for the Lord! The car swam through the grass, a black shark slicing through a rippling ocean of yellows and greens. Birds scattered before it, darting into a lemon sky. The wheels banged and thudded in unseen ruts Her father, crocked and getting crockeder, sat in the passenger seat fiddling with the tuner, a warm Coors between his legs. Only the tuner didn’t do anything. The radio jumped from band to band, but everything was white noise. The only station that came in at all was distant, crackling, and awash with background hiss and playing that goddamn holiday music “Who is playing this shit in the middle of May?” he asked, and burped, enormously and grotesquely Michelle giggled in appreciation There was no way to turn the radio off or even down. The volume dial spun uselessly, adjusting nothing “This car is like your old man,” Nathan said, pulling another Coors out of the six-pack at his feet, popping another top. “A wreck of its former self.” That was just more of his silly talk. Her father wasn’t doing so bad. He had invented some kind of valve for Boeing, and it had paid for three hundred acres above the Ohio River. They were driving around it now The car, on the other hand, really had left its best days behind it. The carpet was gone, and where it belonged was bare, humming metal There were holes under the pedals, and through them Michelle could see grass whipping by below. The leather on the dash was peeling One of the back doors didn’t match the others, was unpainted and caked with rust. There was no rear window at all, just a round open hole No backseat either, and a char mark in the rear compartment, where it looked as if someone had tried to light a campfire once The girl worked the clutch and the gas and the brake expertly with her right foot, just as her father had taught her. The front seat was cranked all the way forward, and still she had to sit on a pillow so she could see over the high dash and out the window

“One of these days I’m going to get around to working on this beast. Roll my sleeves up and bring the old lady all the way back to life. Be a hell of a thing to have it completely restored so you could take it to the prom,” her father said. “When you’re old enough for proms.” “Yah. Good call. Plenty of room in the backseat to make out,” she said, twisting her neck to look over her shoulder into the rear “It’d also be a nice ride to take you to the nunnery in. You keep your eyes on the road, why don’tcha?” Gesturing with his beer can at the rise and fall of the land and the tangles of grass and brush and goldenrod, no road in sight in any direction, the only sign of human existence the distant barn in the rearview mirror and the jet contrails overhead She pumped the pedals. They wheezed and gasped The only thing Michelle didn’t like about the car was the hood ornament, a creepy silver lady with blind eyes and a flowing gown. She leaned out into the lashing weeds and grinned manically as she was flagellated. That silver lady should’ve been magical and pretty, but the smile on her face ruined it. She had the demented grin of a madwoman who has just pushed a loved one off a ledge and is about to follow him into eternity “She’s awful,” Michelle said, lifting her chin in the direction of the hood. “Like a vampire lady.” “The bloofer lady,” her father said, remembering something he had read once “The who? She is not called the bloofer lady.” “No,” Nathan said. “She’s called the Spirit of Ecstasy. She’s classic. She’s a classic part of a classic car.” “Ecstasy? Like the drug?” Michelle asked “Wow. Trippy. They were into that back then?” “No. Not like the drug. Like fun. She’s a symbol of never-ending fun. I think she’s pretty,” he said, although in fact he thought she looked like one of the Joker’s victims, a rich lady who had died laughing “I been driving out to Christmasland, all the livelong day,” Michelle sang softly For the moment the radio was just a roar of static and whine, and she could sing without competition. “I been driving out to Christmasland, just to ride in Santa’s sleigh!” “What’s that one? I don’t know it,” her dad said “That’s where we’re going,” she said “To Christmasland. I just decided.” The sky was trying on a variety of citrus hues. Michelle felt perfectly at peace. She felt she could drive forever Her tone was soft with excitement and delight, and when her father glanced at her, there was a dew of sweat on her forehead and her eyes had a faraway look “It’s out there, Daddy,” she said. “It’s out there in the mountains. If we kept going, we could be in Christmasland by tonight.” Nathan Demeter narrowed his eyes and peered out through the dusty window. A vast, pale mountain range towered in the west, with snow-touched peaks higher than the Rockies, a mountain range that had not been there this morning, or even when they set out on this drive, twenty minutes ago He looked quickly away, blinking to clear his vision, then looked back—and the mountain range resolved into a looming mass of thunderheads, crowding the western horizon. His heart continued to run a three-legged race in his chest for a few moments longer “Too bad you have homework. No Christmasland for you,” he said. Even though it was Saturday and no dad anywhere made his twelve-year-old do algebra on a Saturday. “Time to turn us around, sweetheart. Daddy has things to do.” He slouched back in his seat and had a sip of beer, but he didn’t want it anymore He felt the first dull edge of tomorrow’s hangover in his left temple. Judy Garland was tragically wishing everyone a merry little Christmas, and what the fuck was the deejay smoking, playing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in May? But the music only lasted until they reached the weedy edge of their property and Michelle laboriously turned the Wraith around to point them back toward home. As the Rolls wheeled in a semicircle, the radio lost what little reception it had and once more became a low roar of white noise, of mad static It was 2006 and Nathan Demeter had himself an old junker to fix up, bought in a federal auction, something to play with in his spare time. One of these days he was going to get around to really working on it. One of these days he was going to make the old lady shine New York (and Everywhere Else) HERE IS WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT THE SECOND SEARCH ENGINE BOOK in the New York Times Book Review, Children’s Book section, Sunday, July 8,

2007—the only time any of Vic McQueen’s books were reviewed there Search Engine’s Second Gear By Vic McQueen 22 pages. HarperCollins Children’s Books $16.95. (Puzzle/Picture Book; ages 6 to 12) If M. C. Escher were hired to reimagine Where’s Waldo?, it might look something like Ms. McQueen’s fascinating and deservedly popular Search Engine series. The eponymous hero, Search Engine—a cheerful and childlike robot who resembles a cross between C-3PO and a Harley-Davidson—pursues Mad Möbius Stripp across a series of dizzying impossible constructions and surreal mazes One confounding puzzle cannot be solved without placing a mirror against the edge of the book; another mind bender requires the children to roll the page up into a tube to make a magical covered bridge; a third must be torn out and folded into an origami motorcycle so Search Engine can continue his pursuit at full throttle. Young readers who complete Search Engine’s Second Gear will find themselves faced with the most terrible puzzle of them all: How long until the next one?! FCI Englewood, Colorado NURSE THORNTON DROPPED INTO THE LONG-TERM-CARE WARD A little before eight with a hot bag of blood for Charlie Manx Denver, Colorado THE FIRST SATURDAY IN OCTOBER 2009, LOU TOLD VICTORIA MCQUEEN he was taking the kid and going to his mother’s for a while. For some reason he told her this in a whisper, with the door shut, so Wayne, out in the living room, couldn’t hear them talking. Lou’s round face shone with nervous sweat. He licked his lips a lot while he spoke They were in the bedroom together. Lou sat on the edge of the bed, causing the mattress to creak and sag halfway to the floor. It was hard for Vic to get comfortable in the bedroom. She kept looking at the phone on the night table, waiting for it to ring. She had tried to get rid of it a few days ago, had unplugged it and shoved it into a bottom drawer, but at some point Lou had discovered it there and plugged it back in Lou said some other stuff, about how worried he was, about how everyone was worried. She didn’t catch all of it. Her whole mind was bent toward the phone, watching it, waiting for it to ring. She knew it would. Waiting for it was awful. It angered her that Lou had brought her inside, that they couldn’t have this conversation out on the deck. It shook her faith in him. It was impossible to have a conversation in a room with a phone It was like having a conversation in a room with a bat hanging from the ceiling. Even if the bat was asleep, how were you supposed to think about anything else or look at anything else? If the phone rang, she would yank it out of the wall and get it out to the deck and throw it over the side. She was tempted not to wait, to just do it now She was surprised when Lou said maybe she should go see her mother, too. Vic’s mother was all the way hell and gone back in Massachusetts, and Lou knew they didn’t get on. The only thing that would’ve been more ridiculous was suggesting that Vic go see her father, whom she had not spoken to in years “I’d rather go to jail than stay with my mom. Jesus, Lou. Do you know how many phones my mother has in her house?” Vic asked Lou gave her a look that was somehow both distraught and weary. It was a look, Vic thought, of surrender “If you want to talk—like, about anything—I’ve got my cell on me,” Lou said Vic just laughed at that, didn’t bother to tell him she had pulled his cell phone apart and shoved it in the garbage the day before He took her in his arms, held her in his bearish embrace. He was a big man, glum about being overweight, but he smelled better than any guy she had ever met. His chest smelled of cedar and motor oil and the outdoors. He smelled like responsibility. For a moment, being held by him, she remembered what it had been like to be happy “Got to go,” he said at last. “Got a lot of driving to do.” “Go where?” she asked, startled He blinked, then said, “Like, Vic . . . dude  . . were you listening?” “Closely,” Vic said, and it was true She had been listening. Just not to him. She had been listening for the phone. She had been waiting for it to ring After Louis and the kid were gone, she walked through the rooms of the brick town house on Garfield Street that she had paid for with the money she made drawing Search Engine, back when she still drew, back before the children in Christmasland started calling again, every day. She brought a pair of scissors

with her, and she cut the lines leading into each of the phones Vic collected the phones and brought them to the kitchen. She put them in the oven, on the top rack, and turned the dial to BROIL Hey, it had worked the last time she needed to fight Charlie Manx, hadn’t it? As the oven began to warm, she shoved open the windows, switched on the fan After that, Vic sat in the living room and watched TV in her panties and nothing else First she watched Headline News. But there were too many ringing phones in the CNN studio, and the sound unnerved her. She switched over to SpongeBob. When the phone in the Krusty Krab rang, she changed the channel again She found a sports-fishing program. That seemed safe enough—no phones in this kind of show—and the setting was Lake Winnipesaukee, where she had spent her childhood summers. She had always liked the way the lake looked just after dawn, a smooth black mirror wrapped in the white silk of early-morning fog At first she drank whiskey on the rocks. Then she had to drink it straight, because it smelled too bad in the kitchen to go in there and get ice. The whole town house stank of burning plastic, despite the fan and the open windows Vic McQueen was watching one of the fishermen struggle with a trout when a phone began to chirp, somewhere near her feet. She looked down at the scatter of toys on the floor, a collection of Wayne’s robots: an R2-D2, a Dalek, and of course a couple of Search Engine figures. One of the robots was a Transformers thing, black with a bulky torso and a red lens for a head. It visibly shivered as it chirped once more She picked it up and began to fold the arms and legs inward. She pushed the head down into the body. She snapped the two halves of its torso together and suddenly was looking at a plastic, nonfunctional, toy cell phone The plastic, nonfunctional, toy cell phone rang again. She pressed the ANSWER button and held it up to her ear “You’re a big fat liar—” said Millicent Manx. “And Daddy is going to be mad at you when he gets out. He’s going to stick a fork in your eyes and pop them out, just like corks.” Vic carried the toy into the kitchen and opened the oven. Poisonous black smoke gushed out The cooked phones had charred like marshmallows dropped in a campfire. She threw the Transformer in on top of the melted brown slag and slammed the oven shut again The stink was so bad she had to leave the house. She put on Lou’s motorcycle jacket and her boots and got her purse and went out She grabbed the whiskey bottle and pulled the door shut behind her, just as she heard the smoke detector begin to blat She was down the street and around the corner when she realized she hadn’t put anything on besides the jacket and her boots. She was tramping around greater Denver at two in the morning in her faded pink panties. At least she had remembered the whiskey She meant to go home and pull on a pair of jeans, but she got lost trying to find her way back, something that had never happened before, and wound up walking on a pretty street of three-story brick buildings. The night was aromatic with the smell of autumn and the steely fragrance of freshly dampened blacktop How she loved the smell of road: asphalt baking and soft in high July, dirt roads with their dust-and-pollen perfume in June, country lanes spicy with the odor of crushed leaves in sober October, the sand-and-salt smell of the highway, so like an estuary, in February At that time of the night, she had the street almost to herself, although at one point three men on Harleys rolled by. They slowed as they went past to check her out. They weren’t bikers, though. They were yuppies, who were probably creeping home to wifey after a boys’ night out at an upscale strip club. She knew from their Italian leather jackets and Gap blue jeans and showroom-quality bikes that they were more used to Pizzeria Unos than to living brutal on the road. Still. They took their time looking her over. She raised her bottle of whiskey to them and wolf-whistled with her free hand, and they grabbed their throttles and took off, tailpipes between their legs She wound up at a bookstore. Closed, of course It was a little indie, with a big display of her books in one window. She had given a talk here a year ago. She had been wearing pants then She squinted into the darkened store, leaning close to see which one of her books they were peddling. Book four. The fourth book was out already? It seemed to Vic she was still working on it. She overbalanced and wound up with her face smooshed to the glass and her ass sticking out She was glad book four was out. There had been moments when she didn’t think she would finish it When Vic had started drawing the books, the phone never rang with calls from Christmasland That was why she had started Search Engine in the first place, because when she was drawing, the phones were silent. But then, midway through

the third book, radio stations she liked started playing Christmas songs in the middle of the summer and the calls began again. She had tried to make a protective moat around herself, a moat filled with Maker’s Mark, but the only thing she had drowned in it was the work itself Vic was about to push away from the window when the phone in the bookstore rang She could see it lighting up over at the desk, on the far side of the shop. In the gusting, warm silence of the night, she could hear it quite clearly, and she knew it was them Millie Manx and Brad McCauley and Manx’s other children “I’m sorry,” she said to the store “I’m not available to take your call If you’d like to leave a message, you’re shit out of luck.” She shoved away from the window, a little too hard, and reeled across the sidewalk Then the sidewalk ended and her foot plunged over the edge of the curb, and she fell, sat down hard on her ass on the wet blacktop It hurt, but not as much as it probably should’ve She wasn’t sure if the whiskey had muted the pain or if she had been on the Lou Carmody diet for too long and was now carrying a bit of extra padding back there. She worried she had dropped the bottle and broken it, but no, it was right there in her hand, safe and sound. She took a swallow. It tasted of the oak cask and sweet annihilation She struggled back to her feet, and another phone rang, in another shop, a darkened coffeehouse The phone in the bookstore was still ringing, too. Then another went off, somewhere on the second floor of a building over to her right And a fourth and a fifth. In the apartments above her. Both sides of the street, up and down the lane The night filled with a choir of phones. It was like frogs in the spring, an alien harmony of croaks and chirrups and whistles. It was like bells ringing on Christmas morning “Go the fuck away!” she screamed, and threw the bottle at her own reflection in a store window across the street The plate glass exploded. All the phones stopped ringing at the same time, revelers shocked into quiet by a gunshot A half beat later, a security alarm went off inside the store, an electronic wang-dang-doodle and a flashing silver light. The silver light silhouetted the wares on display in the window: bicycles The night caught and held in place for one lush, gentle moment The bicycle in the window was (of course) a Raleigh, white and simple. Vic swayed. The sensation of being threatened shut itself off as quickly as if someone had flipped a switch She crossed the road to the bike shop, and by the time she was crunching across the broken glass, she had her plan worked out. She would steal the bicycle and ride it out of town She would ride it out to Dakota Ridge, into the pines and the night, would ride until she found the Shortaway The Shorter Way Bridge would take her right over the walls of the Supermax prison and on into the hospital ward that held Charlie Manx. That would be a hell of a sight, a thirty-one-year-old in her underwear, gliding along on a ten-speed through the long-term-care ward of a maximum-security lockup at two in the morning. She pictured herself sailing through the dark, between convicts sleeping in their beds. She’d ride right up to Manx, put the kickstand down, yank the pillow out from under his head, and suffocate the filthy man-burner. That would end the calls from Christmasland forever She knew it would Vic reached through the broken glass and picked the Raleigh up and carried it out to the road She heard the first distant wail of a siren, a yearning, agonized sound that carried a long way in the warm, damp night She was surprised. The alarm had only gone off half a minute ago. She didn’t think the cops would respond so quickly But the siren she heard wasn’t cops. It was a fire truck, heading toward her town house, although by the time it arrived, there was not much left to save The cop cars showed up a few minutes later Brandenburg, Kentucky HE SAVED THE HARDEST PART FOR LAST: IN MAY 2012, NATHAN Demeter hauled the engine out of the Wraith with a chain fall and spent two days rebuilding it, cleaning pushrods, and replacing the head bolts with parts ordered from a specialty shop in England. The engine was a big 4,257-cc straight-six, and sitting on his worktable it looked like some vast mechanical heart—which was what it was, he supposed. So many of man’s inventions—the syringe, the sword, the pen, the gun—were metaphorical cocks, but the internal combustion engine had to have been dreamt up by a man

who had looked upon the human heart “Be cheaper to rent a limo,” Michelle said. “And you wouldn’t get your hands dirty.” “If you think I’ve got a problem with getting my hands dirty,” he said, “then you weren’t paying much attention the last eighteen years.” “Something to do with your nervous energy, I guess,” she said “Who’s nervous?” he asked, but she just smiled and kissed him Sometimes, after he had been working on the car for a few hours, he would find himself stretched across the front seat, one leg hanging out the open door and a beer in hand, playing it back in his head: the afternoons when they went low-riding in the west field, his daughter behind the wheel and the weeds slapping the sides of the Wraith She had passed her driver’s test on her first try, just sixteen years old. Eighteen now, and she had her own car, a sporty little Jetta, was planning to drive it all the way to Dartmouth after she graduated. The thought of her out on the road by herself—checking into shabby motels and being checked out by the man behind the cash register, by the truckers in the hotel bar—made him antsy, revved him up with nervous energy Michelle liked to do the wash, and he liked to let her, because when he came across her underwear in the dryer, colorful lace from Victoria’s Secret, he began to worry about things like unwanted pregnancy and venereal disease. He had known how to talk to her about cars. He had liked watching her figure out how to work the clutch, how to steer true He had felt like Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird then. He didn’t know how to talk to her about men or sex and was unsettled by his sense that she didn’t need his advice on these matters anyway “Who’s nervous?” he asked the empty garage one night, and toasted his shadow Six days before the big dance, he put the engine back in the Wraith and closed the hood and stood back to consider his work, a sculptor studying the nude that had once been a block of marble. A cold season of banged knuckles and oil under his fingernails and rust flakes falling in his eyes: sacred time, important to him in the way transcribing a holy text was important to a monk in a monastery. He had cared to get it right and it showed The ebony body gleamed like a torpedo, like a polished slab of volcanic glass. The rear side door, which had been rusty and mismatched, had been replaced by an original, sent to him by a collector in one of the former Soviet republics. He had reupholstered the interior in kidskin leather, replaced the foldout trays and drawers in the rear of the limo with new walnut components, handmade by a carpenter in Nova Scotia. It was all original, even the vacuum-tube radio, although he had toyed with the idea of installing a CD player, bolting a Bose subwoofer into the trunk. In the end he had decided against it. When you had a Mona Lisa, you didn’t spray-paint a baseball cap on her He had promised his daughter on some long-ago, hot, thunderstormy, summer afternoon that he would fix the Rolls up for her prom, and here it was, finished at last, with just under a week to spare. After prom he could sell it; fully restored, the Wraith was good for quarter of a million dollars on the collectors’ market. Not bad for a car that cost just five thousand dollars American when it was released Not bad at all, when you considered he had paid just twice that to buy it in an FBI auction, ten years earlier “Who do you think owned it before you?” Michelle asked one time, after he mentioned where he got it “Drug dealer, I imagine,” he said “Boy,” she told him, “I hope no one was murdered in it.” It looked good—but looking good wasn’t enough. He didn’t think Michelle belonged in it, out on the road, until he had clocked a dozen miles on it himself, seen how it handled when it was all the way up to speed “Come on, you beautiful bitch,” he said to the car. “Let’s wake you up and see what you can do.” Demeter got behind the wheel, banged the door shut behind him, and turned the key The engine slammed roughly to life—a ragged, almost savagely triumphant blast of noise—but then immediately settled down to a low, luxuriant rumble. The creamy leather front seat was more comfortable than the Tempur-Pedic bed he slept in. Back in the days when the Wraith had been assembled, things were built like tanks, built to last. This car, he felt sure, would outlive him He was right He had left his cell phone on his worktable, and he wanted it before he took the car out, didn’t want to wind up stranded somewhere if the Wraith decided to throw a rod or some such shit. He reached for the latch, which was when he got his first surprise of the afternoon. The lock slammed down, the sound

of it loud enough that he almost cried out Demeter was so startled—so unprepared—that he wasn’t sure he had really seen it happen But then the other locks went down, one after another—bang, bang, bang—just like someone firing a gun, and he couldn’t tell himself he was imagining all that “What the fuck?” He pulled at the lock on the driver’s-side door, but it stayed down as if welded in place The car shuddered from the idling force of the engine, exhaust piling up around the sideboards Demeter leaned forward to switch the ignition off, which was when he received his second surprise of the day. The key wouldn’t turn He wiggled it forward and back, then put his wrist into it, but the key was locked into place, fully engaged, couldn’t be yanked out The radio popped on, playing “Jingle Bell Rock” at top volume—so loud it hurt his ears—a song that had no business playing in the spring. At the sound of it, Demeter’s whole body went rough and cold with chickenflesh He poked the OFF switch, but his capacity for surprise was running thin, and he felt no special amazement when it wouldn’t turn off. He punched buttons to change the station, but no matter where the tuner leaped, it was “Jingle Bell Rock” on every channel He could see exhaust fogging the air now He could taste it, the dizzying reek, making him light-headed. Bobby Helms assured him that Jingle Bell time was a swell time to haul around in a one-horse sleigh. He had to shut that shit up, had to have some quiet, but when he spun the volume dial, it didn’t go down, didn’t do anything Fog churned around the headlights. His next breath was a mouthful of poison and set off a coughing fit so strenuous it felt as if it were tearing away the inner lining of his throat. Thoughts flashed by like horses on an accelerating carousel. Michelle wouldn’t be back home for another hour and a half The closest neighbors were three-quarters of a mile away—no one around to hear him screaming. The car wouldn’t turn off, the locks wouldn’t cooperate, it was like something in a fucking spy movie—he imagined a hired killer with a name like Blow Job operating the Rolls-Royce by remote control—but that was crazy. He himself had torn the Wraith down and put it back together, and he knew there was nothing wired into it that would give someone power over the engine, the locks, the radio Even as these notions occurred to him, he was fumbling on the dash for the automatic garage-door opener. If he didn’t get some air in the garage, he would pass out in another moment or two. For a panicky instant, he felt nothing and thought, Not there, it’s not there—but then his fingers found it behind the raised hump of the housing for the steering wheel. He closed his hand around it, then pointed it at the garage door and pressed the button The door rattled up toward the ceiling. The gearshift banged itself into the reverse position, and the Wraith jumped back at the door, tires shrilling Nathan Demeter screamed, grabbed the steering wheel—not to control the car but just to have something to hold on to. The slender whitewalls grabbed at the pebble drive, throwing rocks against the undercarriage. The Wraith fell straight back like a kart on some mad backward rollercoaster, plunging three hundred feet down the steep grade of the drive toward the lane below. It seemed to Nathan that he screamed the whole way, although in fact he stopped well before the car was halfway down the hill. The scream he heard was trapped in his own head The Wraith didn’t slow as it approached the road but sped up, and if anything was coming from either direction, he would be T-boned at close to forty miles an hour. Of course, even if nothing was coming, the Wraith would shoot across the road, into the trees on the other side, and Nathan assumed he would be launched through the windshield on the recoil. The Wraith, like all the cars of its period, had no safety belts, not even lap belts The road was empty, and when the rear tires hit the blacktop, the wheel spun in Nathan’s hands, whirring so fast it burned his palms and he had to let go. The Wraith snapped around, ninety degrees to the right, and Nathan Demeter was flipped across the front seat and into the left-hand door, bashed headfirst into the iron frame For a time he didn’t know how badly he was hurt. He sprawled on the front seat, blinking at the ceiling. Through the passenger-side window, he could see the late-afternoon sky, a profoundly deep blue, with a feathering of cirrus clouds in the upper atmosphere He touched a tender spot on his forehead, and when his hand came away he was looking at blood on his fingertips, as a flute began to play the opening bars of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The car was moving, had clunked down through the gears to fifth all on its own. He knew the roads around his house, felt they were

moving east along Route 1638 to the Dixie Highway. Another minute and they would reach the intersection and—and what? Blow right through it, maybe catch a truck coming north and be torn apart? The thought crossed his mind as a possibility, but he couldn’t feel any urgency attached to it, didn’t think the car was on a kamikaze mission now. He had in some dazed way accepted that the Wraith was operating of its own agency. It had business and meant to do it. It had no use for him, was maybe not even really aware of him, any more than a dog might be aware of the tick stuck in its fur He climbed up onto one elbow, swayed, sat up the rest of the way, and looked at himself in the rearview mirror He wore a red mask of blood. When he touched his forehead again, he could feel a six-inch gash traversing the upper curve of his scalp He probed it lightly with his fingers and felt the bone beneath The Wraith began to slow for the stop sign at the intersection with the Dixie Highway He watched, mesmerized, as the gearshift dropped from fourth to third, clunked down into second He began to scream again There was a station wagon ahead of him, waiting at the stop. Three towheaded, chubby-faced, dimple-cheeked children were crammed into the backseat. They twisted around to look at the Wraith He slapped his hands on the windshield, smearing rusty red prints on the glass “HELP!” he screamed, while warm blood leaked down his brow into his face. “HELP HELP HELP ME HELP ME HELP!” The children inexplicably grinned as if he were being quite silly and waved furiously He began to scream incoherently—the sound of a cow in the abattoir, slipping in the steaming blood of those who went before The station wagon turned right at the first break in traffic. The Wraith turned left, accelerating so quickly that Nathan Demeter felt as if an invisible hand were pressing him back into his seat Even with the windows up, he could smell the clean, late-spring odors of mown grass, could smell smoke from backyard barbecues and the green fragrance of new-budding trees The sky reddened, as if it, too, were bleeding The clouds were like tatters of gold foil stamped into it Absentmindedly, Nathan Demeter noted that the Wraith was handling like a dream. The engine had never sounded so good. So strong He thought it was safe to say the beautiful bitch was fully restored HE WAS SURE HE DOZED, SITTING UP BEHIND THE WHEEL, BUT HE DID not remember nodding off He only knew that at some point before it was fully dark, he closed his eyes, and when he opened them, the Wraith was racing through a tunnel of whirling snow, a tunnel of December night. The front windows were blurred with his own bloody handprints, but through them he could see snow devils unspooling across the black asphalt of a two-lane highway that he didn’t recognize. Skeins of snow moving like living silk, like ghosts He tried to think if they could’ve gone far enough north while he slept to catch a freak spring snowstorm. He discarded the idea as idiotic. He weighed the cold night and the unfamiliar road and told himself he was dreaming, but he did not believe it. His own moment-by-moment tally of tactile experiences—throbbing head, face tight and sticky with blood, back stiff from sitting too long behind the wheel—was too convincing in its depiction of wakefulness The car held the road like a panzer, never slipping, never wobbling, never slowing below sixty The songs played on: “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” “Silver Bells,” “Joy to the World,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Sometimes Demeter was aware of the music Sometimes he wasn’t. No ads, no news, just holy choirs giving thanks to the Lord and Eartha Kitt promising she could be a very good girl if Santa checked off her Christmas list When he shut his eyes, he could picture his cell phone, sitting on the worktable in the garage. Would Michelle have looked for him there yet? Sure—as soon as she got home and found the garage door standing open and the garage itself empty. She would be, by now, out of her mind with worry, and he wished he had his phone, not to call for help—he believed he was well beyond help—but only because he would feel better if he could hear her voice. He wanted to call and tell her that he still wanted her to go to her prom, to try to have fun. He wanted to tell her he wasn’t scared of her being a woman—if

he had any true anxiety, it had been about himself getting old and being lonely without her, but he didn’t think he was going to have to worry about that now. He wanted to tell her she had been the best thing in his life. He had not said that to her lately and had never said it enough After six hours in the car, he felt no panic, only a kind of numb wonder. On some level he had come to view his situation as almost natural. Sooner or later a black car came for everyone. It came and took you away from your loved ones, and you never got to go back Perry Como warned Nathan in a chipper tone of voice that it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas “No shit, Perry,” Nathan said, and then, in a hoarse, cracking voice, he began to sing as he thumped on the driver’s-side door He sang Bob Seger; sang about the old-time rock ’n’ roll, the type believed to soothe the soul. He belted it out as loud as he could, one verse and another, and when he fell quiet, he found the radio had shut itself off Well. That was a Christmas gift right there Last one he’d ever get, he thought NEXT TIME HE OPENED HIS EYES, HIS FACE WAS PRESSED TO THE STEERING wheel and the car was idling, and there was so much light it hurt his eyes He squinted, the world a bright blue blur Not at any time in the night had his head hurt as bad as it hurt now. The ache in his skull was so intense he thought he might vomit It was behind his eyes, a somehow yellow glare of pain. All that sunlight was unfair He blinked at tears, and the world sharpened, began to come into focus A fat man in a gasmask and fatigues stared through the driver’s-side window at him, peering in past the smeared bloody handprints on the glass. It was an old gasmask, WWII era or thereabouts, a kind of mustardy green “Who the fuck are you?” Nathan asked The fat man seemed to be jiggling up and down Nathan was unable to see the guy’s face but thought he was bouncing on his toes with excitement The lock on the driver’s-side door shot up with a loud, steely bang The fat man had something in one hand, a cylinder—it looked like an aerosol can. GINGERSNAP SPICE AIR FRESHENER, it said on the side and showed an old-fashioned painting of a cheerful mommy type pulling a pan of gingerbread men out of the oven “Where am I?” Nathan Demeter asked. “Where the hell is this?” The Gasmask Man twisted the latch and opened the door onto the fragrant spring morning “This is where you get out,” he said St. Luke’s Medical Center, Denver WHEN SOMEONE INTERESTING WAS DEAD, HICKS ALWAYS TOOK A picture with them There had been a local news anchor, a pretty thirty-two-year-old with splendid white-blond hair and pale blue eyes, who got wasted and choked to death on her own puke. Hicks had slipped into the morgue at 1:00 A.M., pulled her out of her drawer, and sat her up. He got an arm around her and bent down to lap at her nipple, while holding out his cell phone to take a shot. He didn’t actually lick her, though. That would’ve been gross There was a rock star, too—a minor rock star anyway. He was the one in that band that had the hit from the Stallone movie. The rock star wasted out from cancer and in death looked like a withered old woman, with his feathery brown hair and long eyelashes and wide, somehow feminine lips. Hicks got him out of the drawer and bent his hand into devil’s horns, then leaned in and threw the horns himself, snapped a shot of them hanging out together. The rock star’s eyelids sagged, so he looked sleepy and cool Hicks’s girlfriend, Sasha, was the one who told him there was a famous serial killer down in the morgue. Sasha was a nurse in Pediatrics, eight floors up. She loved his photos with famous dead people; she was always the first person he e-mailed them to. Sasha thought Hicks was hilarious. She said he ought to be on The Daily Show. Hicks was fond of Sasha, too. She had a key to the pharmacy locker, and Saturday nights she’d filch them something good, a little oxy or some medical-grade coke, and on breaks they’d find an empty delivery room and she’d shimmy out of the bottoms of her loose nurse jammies and climb up into the stirrups Hicks had never heard of the guy, so Sasha used the computer in the nurses’ station to pull up a news story about him. The mug shot was bad enough, a bald guy with a narrow face and a mouthful of sharp, crooked teeth His eyes were bright and round and stupid

in their hollow sockets. The caption identified him as Charles Talent Manx, sent to the federal pen more than a decade before for burning some sorry motherfucker to death in front of a dozen witnesses “He’s not any big deal,” Hicks said “He just killed one dude.” “Un-uh. He’s worse than John Wayne Stacy He killed, like, all kinds of kids. All kinds He had a house where he did it. He hung little angels in the trees, one for ever’ one he cut up. It’s awesome. It’s like creepy symbolism. Little Christmas angels. They called the place the Sleigh House. Get it? Do you get it, Hicks?” “No.” “Like he slayed ’em there? But also like Santa’s sleigh? Do you get it now?” she said “No.” He didn’t see what Santa had to do with a guy like Manx “The house got burnt down, but the ornaments are still there, hanging in the trees, like a memorial.” She tugged at the drawstring of her scrubs. “Serial killers get me hot All I can think about is all the nasty shit I’d do to keep ’em from killing me. You go take a pic with him and e-mail it to me And, like, tell me what you’re going to do if I don’t get naked for you.” He didn’t see any reason to argue with that kind of logic, and he had to make his rounds anyway. Besides, if the guy had killed lots of people, it might be worth taking a pic, to add to his collection. Hicks had already done several funny photographs, but he felt it would be good to have a snap with a serial killer, to demonstrate his darker, more serious side In the elevator, alone, Hicks drew his gun on his own reflection and said, “Either this is going in your mouth, or my big cock is.” Practicing his lines for Sasha It was all good till his walkie-talkie went off and his uncle said, “Hey, dumb-ass, keep playing with that gun, maybe you’ll shoot yourself and we can hire someone who can actually do this fuckin’ job.” He had forgotten there was a camera in the elevator. Fortunately, there was no hidden microphone. Hicks pushed his .38 back into the holster and lowered his head, hoping the brim of his hat hid his face. He took ten seconds, fighting with his anger and embarrassment, then pressed the TALK button on his walkie, meaning to snap off something really fucking harsh, shut the old turd up for once. But instead all he managed was “Copy that,” in a pinched little squeak that he hated His Uncle Jim had gotten him the security job, glossing over Hicks’s early departure from high school and the arrest for public drunkenness. Hicks had been at the hospital for only two months and had been cited twice already, once for tardiness, once for not responding to his walkie (at the time it had been his turn in the stirrups). His Uncle Jim had already said if there was a third citation, before he had a full year under his belt, they’d have to let him go His Uncle Jim had a spotless record, probably because all he had to do was sit in the security office for six hours a day and watch the monitors with one eye while perusing Skinemax with the other. Thirty years of watching TV, for fourteen dollars an hour and full benefits That was what Hicks was angling for, but if he lost the security job—if he got cited again—he might have to go back to McDonald’s That would be bad. When he had signed on at the hospital, he had given up the glamour job at the drive-thru window, and he loathed the idea of starting from the bottom rung again. Even worse, it would probably be the end of Sasha, and Sasha’s key to the pharmacy locker, and all the fun they had taking turns in the stirrups. Sasha liked Hicks’s uniform; he didn’t think she’d feel the same way about a McDonald’s getup Hicks reached basement level one and slouched out. When the elevator doors were closed, he turned back, grabbed his crotch, and blew a wet kiss at them “Suck my balls, you homosexual fat-ass,” he said. “I bet you’d like that!” There wasn’t a lot of action in the basement at eleven-thirty at night. Most of the lights were off, except for one bank of overhead fluorescents every fifty feet, one of the hospital’s new austerity measures. The only foot traffic was the occasional person wandering in from the parking lot across the street by way of an underground tunnel Hicks’s prized possession was parked over there, a black Trans Am with zebra upholstery and blue neon lights set in the undercarriage, so when it roared down the road, it looked like a UFO right out of E.T. Something else he’d have to give up if he lost this job No way could he make the payments flipping burgers. Sasha loved to fuck him in the Trans Am. She was crazy for animals, and the faux-zebra

seat covers brought out her wild side Hicks thought the serial killer would be in the morgue, but it turned out he was already in the autopsy theater. One of the docs had started in on him, then abandoned him there to finish tomorrow. Hicks flipped on the lights over the tables but left the rest of the room in darkness. He pulled the curtain across the window in the door. There was no bolt, but he pushed the chock in under the door as far as it would go, to make it impossible for anyone to wander in casually Whoever had been working on Charlie Manx had covered him with a sheet before going. He was the only body in the theater tonight, his gurney parked under a plaque that said HIC LOCUS EST UBI MORS GAUDET SUCCURRERE VITAE Someday Hicks was going to Google that one, find out what the hell it meant He snapped the sheet down to Manx’s ankles, had himself a look. The chest had been sawed open, then stitched back together with coarse black thread. It was a Y-shaped cut and extended all the way down to the pelvic bone. Charlie Manx’s wang was as long and skinny as a Hebrew National. He had a ghastly overbite, so his crooked brown teeth stuck out into his lower lip. His eyes were open, and he seemed to be staring at Hicks with a kind of blank fascination Hicks didn’t like that much. He had seen his share of deaders, but they usually had their eyes closed. And if their eyes weren’t closed, there was a kind of milky look to them, as if something in them had curdled—life itself, perhaps. But these eyes seemed bright and alert, the eyes of the living, not the dead. They had in them an avid, birdlike curiosity No; Hicks didn’t care for that at all For the most part, however, Hicks had no anxieties about the dead. He wasn’t scared of the dark either. He was a little scared of his Uncle Jim, he worried about Sasha poking a finger up his ass (something she insisted he would like), and he had recurring nightmares about finding himself at work with no pants on, wandering the halls with his cock slapping between his thighs, people turning to stare That was about it for fears and phobias He wasn’t sure why they hadn’t put Manx back in his drawer, because it looked like they were done with the chest cavity. But when Hicks got him sat up—he propped him against the wall, with his long, skinny hands in his lap—he saw a dotted line curving around the back of his skull, drawn in Sharpie Right. Hicks had seen in Sasha’s newspaper article that Manx had been in and out of a coma for more than a decade, so naturally the docs would want to poke around in his head. Besides, who didn’t want to peek at a serial killer’s brain? There was probably a medical paper in that The autopsy tools—the saw, the forceps, the rib cutters, the bone mallet—were on a wheeled steel tray by the corpse. At first Hicks thought he’d give Manx the scalpel, which looked pretty serial-killerish. But it was too small. He could tell just by looking at it, it wouldn’t show up good in the picture he snapped with his shitty camera phone The bone mallet was a different story. It was a big silver hammer, with a head shaped like a brick but pointed at one end, the back edge as sharp as a meat cleaver. At the other end of the handle was a hook, what they used to dig under the edge of the skull and pull it off, like a cap from a bottle. The bone mallet was hardcore Hicks took a minute to fit it into Manx’s hand. He pulled a face at the sight of Manx’s nasty-long fingernails, split at the ends and as yellow as the guy’s fuckin’ teeth He looked like that actor from the Alien movie, Lance Henriksen, if someone had shaved Henriksen’s head, then smashed him a couple times with the ugly stick. Manx also had thin, pinkish white, saggy tits that reminded Hicks, horribly, of what his own mother had under her bra Hicks picked out the bone saw for himself and stuck an arm around Manx’s shoulders Manx sagged, his big bald head resting against Hicks’s chest. That was all right. Now they looked like drinking buddies who’d had a few. Hicks dug his cell phone from its holster and held it out from his body. He narrowed his eyes, struck a menacing grimace, and took the shot He lowered the corpse and glanced at the phone It wasn’t a great picture. Hicks had wanted to look dangerous, but the pained expression on his face suggested that Sasha had finally wiggled her pinkie up his ass after all. He was thinking about reshooting when he heard loud voices, right outside the autopsy room’s door. For one terrible moment, he thought the first voice belonged to his Uncle Jim: “Oh, that little bastard is in for it. He has no idea—” Hicks flung a sheet over the body, his heart going off like someone speed-shooting a Glock Those voices had hitched up right beyond the door, and he was sure they were about to start pushing to come in. He walked halfway to the

door to pull out the chock when he realized he was still holding the bone saw. He set it on the tool cart with a shaking hand He was already recovering by the time he paced back to the door. A second man was laughing, and the first was speaking again: “—have all four molars yanked. They’ll gas him out with the sevoflurane, and when they smash the teeth, he won’t feel a thing But when he wakes up, he’s gonna feel like he got fucked in the mouth with a shovel—” Hicks didn’t know who was having his teeth removed, but once he heard a little more of the voice, he could tell that it wasn’t his Uncle Jim out in the hall, just some old bastard with a creaky old-bastard voice. He waited until he heard the two men walk away before he bent to pull the chock free. He counted to five, then slipped out. Hicks needed a drink of water and to wash his hands. He still felt a little trembly He took a long, soothing stroll, breathing deeply. When he finally reached the men’s room, he didn’t just need a drink, he needed to unload his bowels. Hicks took the handicapped stall for the extra leg room. While he was parked there dropping bombs, he e-mailed Sasha the photo of him and Manx together and wrote, “Bend over & drop youre pants daddee is cumming w/teh saw if u dont do what i say u crazee bitch. Wait 4 me in the room of punishmint.” But by the time he was leaning over the sink, slurping noisily at the water, Hicks had begun to have worrisome thoughts. He had been so rattled by the sound of voices in the hallway that he could not remember if he had left the body the way he’d found it. Worse: He had a terrible idea he had left the bone mallet in Charlie Manx’s hand. If it was found there in the morning, some smart-ass doc would probably want to know why, and it was a safe bet that Uncle Jim would grill the entire staff. Hicks didn’t know if he could handle that kind of pressure He decided to wander back to the autopsy theater and make sure he had cleaned up properly He paused outside the door to peek through the window, only to discover he had left the curtains drawn. That was one thing to fix right there. Hicks eased the door in and frowned In his haste to get out of the autopsy theater, he had switched all the lights off—not just the lights over the gurneys but also the safety lights that were always on, in the corners of the room and over the desk. The room smelled of iodine and benzaldehyde. Hicks let the door sigh shut behind him and stood isolate in the darkness He was running his hand across the tiled wall, feeling for the light switches, when he heard the squeak of a wheel in the dark and the gentle clink of metal on metal Hicks caught himself and listened and in the next moment felt someone rushing across the room at him. It was not a sound or anything he could see. It was something he felt on his skin and a sense in his eardrums, like a change in pressure. His stomach went watery and sick. He had reached out with his right hand for the light switch. Now he dropped the hand, feeling for the .38. He had it partway out when he heard something whistling at him in the darkness, and he was struck in the stomach with what felt like an aluminum baseball bat. He doubled over with a woofing sound The gun sank back into the holster The club went away and came back. It caught Hicks in the left side of the head, above his ear, spun him on his heel, and dropped him. He fell straight back, out a plane and down through frozen night sky, falling and falling, and try as hard as he could to scream, he made not a sound, all the air in his lungs pounded right out of him WHEN ERNEST HICKS OPENED HIS EYES, THERE WAS A MAN BENT OVER him, smiling shyly. Hicks opened his mouth to ask what had happened, and then the pain flooded into his head and he turned his face and puked all over the guy’s black loafers. His stomach pumped up his dinner—General Tso’s chicken—in a pungent gush “I am so sorry, man,” Hicks said when he was done heaving “It’s okay, son,” the doc said. “Don’t try to stand. We’re going to take you up to the ER. You’ve suffered a concussion I want to make sure you don’t have a skull fracture.” But it was coming back to Hicks, what had happened, the man in the dark hitting him with a metal bludgeon “What the fuck?” he cried. “What the fuck? Is my gun . . . ? Anyone see my gun?” The doc—his tag said SOPHER—put a hand on Hicks’s chest to prevent him from sitting up “I think that one’s gone, son,” said Sopher “Don’t try and get up, Ernie,” said Sasha, standing three feet away and staring at him with a look of something approximating horror on her face. There were a couple of other nurses standing with her, all of them looking pale and strained “Oh, God. Oh, my God. They stole my .38

Did they grab anything else?” “Just your pants,” said Sopher “Just my— What? Fucking what?” Hicks twisted his head to look and saw he was bare naked from the waist down, his cock out for the doc and Sasha and the other nurses to look at. Hicks thought he might vomit again It was like the bad dream he got sometimes, the one about showing up at work with no pants on, everyone staring at him. He had the sudden, wrenching idea that the sick fuck who had ripped his pants off had maybe poked a finger up his asshole, like Sasha was always threatening to do “Did he touch me? Did he fucking touch me?” “We don’t know,” the doctor said. “Probably not. He probably just didn’t want you to get up and chase him and figured you wouldn’t run after him if you were naked. It’s very possible he only took your gun because it was in your holster, on your belt.” Although the guy hadn’t taken his shirt He had grabbed Hicks’s windbreaker, but not his shirt Hicks began to cry. He farted: a wet, whistling blat. He had never felt so miserable “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. What the fuck is wrong with people?” Hicks cried Dr. Sopher shook his head. “Who knows what the guy was thinking? Maybe he was hopped up on something. Maybe he’s just some sick creep who wanted a one-of-a-kind trophy. Let the cops worry about that. I just want to focus on you.” “Trophy?” Hicks cried, imagining his pants hung up on a wall in a picture frame “Yeah, I guess,” Doc Sopher said, glancing over his shoulder, across the room. “Only reason I can think why someone would want to come in here and steal the body of a famous serial killer.” Hicks turned his head—a gong went off in his brain and filled his skull with dark reverberations—and saw that the gurney had been rolled halfway across the room and that someone had yanked the dead body right off it. He moaned again and shut his eyes He heard the rapid clip-clop of boot heels coming down the hallway and thought he recognized the goose-stepping gait of his Uncle Jim on the march, out from behind his desk and not happy about it. There was no logical reason to fear the man. Hicks was the victim here; he had been assaulted, for chrissake. But alone and miserable in his only refuge—the dark behind his eyelids—he felt that logic didn’t enter into it. His Uncle Jim was coming, and a third citation was coming with him, was about to fall like a silver hammer Hicks had literally been caught with his pants down, and he saw already that at least in one sense he was never going to be stepping into those security pants again It was all lost, had been taken away in a moment, in the shadows of the autopsy room: the good job, the good days of Sasha and stirrups and treats from the pharmacy locker and funny photos with dead bodies. Even his Trans Am with the zebra upholstery was gone, although no one would know it for hours; the sick fuck who’d clubbed him senseless had helped himself to the keys and driven away in it Gone. Everything. All of it Gone off with dead old Charlie Manx and never coming back BAD MOTHER DECEMBER 16, 2011– JULY 6, 2012 Lamar Rehabilitation Center, Massachusetts LOU BROUGHT THE BOY TO VISIT FOR AN EARLY CHRISTMAS, WHILE Vic McQueen was in rehab, doing her twenty-eight days. The tree in the rec room was made of wire and tinsel, and the three of them ate powdered doughnuts from the supermarket “They all crazy in here?” Wayne asked, no shyness in him, never had been any “They’re all drunks,” Vic said. “The crazies were in the last place.” “So is this an improvement?” “Upward mobility,” Lou Carmody told him “We’re all about the upward mobility in this family.” Haverhill VIC WAS RELEASED A WEEK LATER, DRY FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HER adult life, and she went home to watch her mother die, to witness Linda McQueen’s heroic attempts to finish herself off Vic helped, bought her mom cartons of the Virginia Slims she liked and smoked them with her. Linda went on smoking even when she had only one lung left. A battered green oxygen tank stood next to the bed, the words HIGHLY FLAMMABLE printed on the side above a graphic of red flames. Linda would hold the mask to her face for a hit of air, then lower the mask and take a drag off her cigarette “It’s okay, innit? You aren’t worried—”

Linda jerked a thumb meaningfully at the oxygen tank “What? That you’ll blow up my life?” Vic asked. “Too late, Mom. Beat you to it.” Vic had not spent a day in the same house with her mother since leaving the place for good the summer she turned eighteen. She had not realized, as a child, how dark it was inside her childhood home. It stood in the shade of tall pines and received almost no natural light at all, so that even at noon you had to switch lights on to see where the hell you were going. Now it stank of cigarettes and incontinence. By the end of January, she was desperate to escape. The darkness and lack of air made her think of the laundry chute in Charlie Manx’s Sleigh House “We should go someplace for the summer We could rent a place up on The Lake, like we used to.” She didn’t need to say Lake Winnipesaukee. It had always just been The Lake, as if there were no other body of water worth mentioning, in the same way The Town had always meant Boston. “I’ve got money.” Not so much, actually. She had managed to drink up a fair portion of her earnings. Much of what she hadn’t swallowed had been devoured by legal fees or paid out to various institutions There was still enough, though, to leave her in a better financial position than the average recovering alcoholic with tattoos and a criminal record. There would be more, too, if she could finish the next Search Engine book. Sometimes she thought she had gotten sane and sober to finish the next book, God help her. It should’ve been for her son, but it wasn’t Linda smiled in a sly, drowsy way that said they both knew she wasn’t going to make it to June, that she would be vacationing that summer three blocks away, in the cemetery, where her older sisters and her parents were buried. But she said, “Sure. Get your boy offa Lou, bring him along. I’d like to spend some time with that kid—if you don’t think it would ruin him.” Vic let that one go. She was working on the eighth step of her program and was here in Haverhill to make amends. For years she had not wanted Linda to know Wayne, to be a part of his life. She took pleasure in limiting her mother’s contact with the boy, felt it was her job to protect Wayne from Linda She wished now there had been someone to protect Wayne from herself. She had amends to make to him, too “You could introduce your father to his grandson while you’re at it,” Linda said “He’s there, you know. In Dover. Not far from The Lake. Still making things go boom I know he’d love to meet the boy.” Vic let that one go, too. Did she need to make amends to Christopher McQueen as well? Sometimes she thought so—and then she remembered him rinsing his raw knuckles under cold water and dismissed the notion It rained all spring, cornering Vic inside the Haverhill house with the dying woman Sometimes the rain fell so hard it was like being trapped inside a drum. Linda coughed fat blobs of red-specked phlegm into a rubber trough and watched the Food Network with the volume turned up too loud. Getting away—getting out—began to seem a desperate thing, a matter of survival. When Vic shut her eyes, she saw a flat reach of lake at sunset, dragonflies the size of swallows gliding over the surface of the water But she didn’t decide to rent a place until Lou called one night from Colorado to suggest Wayne and Vic spend the summer together “Kid needs his mom,” Lou said. “Don’t you think it’s time?” “I’d like that,” she said, struggling to keep her voice level. It hurt to breathe It had been a good three years since she and Lou had hung it up. She couldn’t stomach being loved so completely by him and doing so poorly by him in return. Had to deal herself out It was one thing to quit on Lou, though, and another to quit on the boy. Lou said the kid needed his mother, but Vic thought she needed Wayne more. The prospect of spending the summer with him—of starting again, taking another shot at being the mother Wayne deserved—gave Vic flashes of panic. Also flashes of brilliant, shimmering hope. She didn’t like to feel things so intensely. It reminded her of being crazy “You’d be okay with that? Trusting him with me? After all the shit I pulled?” “Aw, dude,” he said. “If you’re ready to get back in the ring, he’s ready to climb in there with you.” Vic didn’t mention to Lou that when people climbed into the ring together, it was usually to clobber the shit out of each other. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad metaphor. God knew Wayne had plenty of valid reasons for wanting to throw a few roundhouses her way. If Wayne needed a punching bag, Vic was ready to take the hits. It would be a way of making amends

How she loved that word. She liked that it almost sounded like “amen.” She began to hunt, feverishly, for a place to spend the summer, somewhere that would match the picture in her head. If she’d still possessed her Raleigh, she could have found her way to the perfect spot in a matter of minutes, one quick trip across the Shortaway and back. Of course, she knew now that there had never been any trips across the Shorter Way Bridge. She had learned the truth about her finding expeditions while she was in a Colorado mental hospital. Her sanity was a fragile thing, a butterfly cupped in her hands, that she carried with her everywhere, afraid of what would happen if she let it go—or got careless and crushed it Without the Shorter Way, Vic had to rely on Google, same as everyone else. It took her until late April to find what she wanted, a spinster’s cottage with a hundred feet of frontage, its own dock, float, and carriage house. It was all on one floor, so Linda wouldn’t have to climb any stairs. By then a part of Vic really believed that her mother was coming with them, that amends would be made. There was even a ramp around the back of the house, for Linda’s wheelchair The real-estate agent sent a half dozen full-page glossies, and Vic climbed up onto her mother’s bed to look at them with her “See the carriage house? I’ll clean it out and make an artist’s studio. I bet it smells great in there,” Vic said. “Bet it smells like hay. Like horses. I wonder why I never went through a horse phase. I thought that was mandatory for spoiled little girls.” “Chris and me never exactly killed ourselves spoiling you, Vicki. I was afraid to. Now I don’t even think a parent can. Spoil a child, I mean. I didn’t figure nothing out until it was too late to do me any good. I never seemed to have much of a feel for parenting I was so scared of doing the wrong thing I hardly ever did the right thing.” Vic tried out a few different lines in her head. You and me both was one. You did your best—which is more than I can say of myself was another. You loved me as hard as you knew how. I’d give anything to go back and love you better was a third. But she couldn’t find her voice—her throat had gone tight—and the moment passed “Anyway,” Linda said. “You didn’t need a horse. You had your bike. Vic McQueen’s Fast Machine. Take you farther than any horse ever could. I looked for it, you know. A couple years ago. I thought your father stuck it in the basement, and I had an idea I could give it to Wayne. Always thought it was a bike for a boy. But it was gone. Don’t know where it disappeared to.” She was quiet, her eyes half closed. Vic eased off the bed But before she could get to the door, Linda said, “You don’t know what happened to it, do you, Vic? Your Fast Machine?” There was something sly and dangerous in her voice “It’s gone,” Vic said. “That’s all I know.” Her mother said, “I like the cottage. Your lake house. You found a good place, Vic. I knew you would. You were always good at that At finding things.” Vic’s arms bristled with gooseflesh “Get your rest, Mom,” she said, moving to the door. “I’m glad you like the place We should go up there sometime soon. It’s ours for the summer after I sign the papers We should break it in. Have a couple days there, just the two of us.” “Sure,” her mother said. “We’ll stop at Terry’s Primo Subs on the way back. Get ourselves milkshakes.” The already dim room seemed to darken briefly, as if a cloud were moving across the sun “Frappes,” Vic said, in a voice that was rough with emotion. “If you want a milkshake, you have to go somewhere else.” Her mother nodded. “That’s right.” “This weekend,” Vic said. “We’ll go up there this weekend.” “You’ll have to check my calendar,” her mother said. “I might have plans.” The rain stopped the next morning, and instead of taking her mother to Lake Winnipesaukee that weekend Vic took her to the graveyard and buried her beneath the first hot blue sky of May SHE CALLED LOU AT ONE IN THE MORNING EAST COAST TIME, ELEVEN o’clock Mountain time, and said, “What do you think he’ll want to do? It’s going to be two months. I don’t know if I can keep Wayne entertained for two days.” Lou seemed utterly baffled by the question “He’s twelve. He’s easy. I’m sure he’ll like all the things you like. What do you like?” “Maker’s Mark.” Lou made a humming sound. “You know, I guess I was thinking more like tennis.” She bought tennis rackets, didn’t know if Wayne knew how to play. It had been so long for herself that she couldn’t even remember

how to score. She just knew that even when you had nothing, you still had love She bought swimsuits, flip-flops, sunglasses, Frisbees. She bought suntan lotion, hoping he wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time in the sun. In between her stints in the crazy house and rehab, Vic had finished getting her arms and legs fully sleeved in tattoos, and too much sun was poison on the ink She had assumed that Lou would fly to the East Coast with him and was surprised when Lou gave her Wayne’s flight number and asked her to call when he got in “Has he ever flown alone?” Lou said, “He’s never flown at all, but I wouldn’t worry about it. Dude. The kid is pretty solid at taking care of himself He’s been doing it for a while. He’s, like, twelve going on fifty. I think he’s more excited about the flight than he is about getting there.” This was followed by an awkward, embarrassed silence. “Sorry. That totally came out more douchey than I meant it to.” “It’s okay, Lou,” she said It didn’t bother her. There was nothing Lou or Wayne could say that would bother her She had every bit of it coming. All those years of hating her own mother, Vic had never imagined she would do worse “Besides. He isn’t really traveling alone He’s coming with Hooper.” “Right,” she said. “What’s he eat anyway?” “Usually whatever is on the floor. The remote control. Your underwear. The rug. He’s like the tiger shark in Jaws. The one Dreyfuss cuts open in the fisherman’s basement. That’s why we named him Hooper. You remember the tiger shark? He had a license plate in his stomach?” “I never saw Jaws. I caught one of the sequels on TV in rehab. The one with Michael Caine.” Another silence followed, this one awestruck and wondering “Jesus. No wonder we didn’t last,” Lou said Three days later she was at Logan Airport at 6:00 A.M., standing at the window in the concourse to watch Wayne’s 727 taxi across the apron and up to the Jetway. Passengers emerged from the tunnel and streamed by her, hurrying in silent bunches, rolling carry-ons behind them. The crowd was thinning, and she was trying not to feel any anxiety—where the hell was he? Did Lou give her the right flight information? Wayne wasn’t even in her custody yet, and she was already fucking up—when the kid strolled out, arms wrapped around his backpack as if it were his favorite teddy bear. He dropped it, and she hugged him, snuffled at his ear, gnawed at his neck until he laugh-shouted for Vic to let him go “Did you like flying?” she asked “I liked it so much I fell asleep when we took off and missed the whole thing. Ten minutes ago I was in Colorado, and now I’m here Isn’t that insane? Going so far just all of a sudden like that?” “It is. It’s completely insane,” she said Hooper was in a dog carrier the size of a baby’s crib, and it took both of them to wrestle him off the luggage carousel. Drool swung from the big Saint Bernard’s mouth Inside the cage the remains of a phone book lay around his feet “What was that?” Vic asked. “Lunch?” “He likes to chew on things when he’s nervous,” he said. “Same as you.” They drove back to Linda’s house for turkey sandwiches. Hooper snacked on a can of wet food, one of the new pairs of flip-flops, and Vic’s tennis racket, still in the plastic wrap. Even with the windows open, the house smelled of cigarette ash, menthol, and blood Vic couldn’t wait to go. She packed the swimsuits, her bristol boards and inks and watercolors, the dog, and the boy she loved but was afraid she didn’t know or deserve, and they hauled it north for the summer Vic McQueen Tries to Be a Mother, Part II, she thought The Triumph was waiting Lake Winnipesaukee THE MORNING WAYNE FOUND THE TRIUMPH, VIC WAS DOWN ON THE dock with a couple of fishing rods she couldn’t untangle. She had discovered the rods in a closet in the cottage, rust-flecked relics of the eighties, the monofilament lines bunched up in a fist-size snarl. Vic thought she had seen a tackle box in the carriage house and sent Wayne to look for it She sat on the end of the dock, shoes and socks off, feet trailing in the water, to wrestle with the knot. When she was on coke—yeah, she had done that, too—she could’ve struggled with the knot for a happy hour, enjoying it as much as sex. She would’ve played that knot like Slash hammering out a guitar solo But after five minutes she quit. No point There would be a knife in the tackle box You had to know when it made sense to try to untangle something and when to just cut the motherfucker loose Besides, the way the sun was flashing on the water hurt her eyes. Especially the left Her left eye felt solid and heavy, as if it

were made of lead instead of soft tissue Vic stretched out in the heat to wait for Wayne to return. She wanted to doze, but every time she drifted off, she twitched awake all of a sudden, hearing the crazygirl song in her head Vic had heard the crazygirl song for the first time when she was in the mental hospital in Denver, which was where she went after she burned the town house down. The crazygirl song had only four lines, but no one—not Bob Dylan, not John Lennon, not Byron or Keats—had ever strung together four lines of such insightful and emotionally direct verse No one sleeps a wink when I sing this song! And I’m going to sing it all night long! Vic wishes she could ride her fucking bike away! Might as well wish for a ride in Santa’s sleigh! This song had woken her on her very first evening in the clinic. A woman was singing it somewhere in the lockdown. And she wasn’t just singing it to herself; she was serenading Vic directly The crazygirl scream-shouted her song three or four times a night, usually just when Vic was drifting off to sleep. Sometimes the crazygirl got to laughing so hard she couldn’t carry the tune all the way through to the end Vic did some screaming, too. She screamed for someone to shut that cunt up. Other people yelled, the whole ward would get to yelling, everyone screaming to be quiet, to let them sleep, to make it stop. Vic screamed herself hoarse, until the orderlies came in to hold her down and put the needle in her arm In the day Vic angrily searched the faces of the other patients, looking for signs of guilt and exhaustion. But all of them looked guilty and exhausted. In group-therapy sessions, she listened intently to the others, thinking the midnight singer would give herself away by having a hoarse voice. But they all sounded hoarse, from the difficult nights, the bad coffee, the cigarettes Eventually the evening came when Vic stopped hearing from the crazygirl with her crazy song. She thought they had moved her to another wing, finally showing some consideration for the other patients. Vic had been out of the hospital for half a year before she finally recognized the voice, knew who the crazygirl had been “Do we own the motorcycle in the garage?” Wayne asked. And then, before she had time to process the question, he said, “What are you singing?” She hadn’t realized she was whispering it to herself until that very moment. It sounded much better in a soft voice than it did when Vic had been scream-laughing it in the loony bin Vic sat up, rubbing her face. “I don’t know. Nothing.” Wayne gave her a dark and doubtful look He made his way out onto the dock in mincing, effortful steps, Hooper slouching along behind like a tame bear. Wayne carried a big, battered yellow toolbox, clutched the handle in both hands. A third of the way out, he lost his grip, and it dropped with a crash. The dock shook “I got the tackle box,” Wayne said “That’s not a tackle box.” “You said look for a brown box.” “That’s yellow.” “It’s brown in spots.” “It’s rusted in spots.” “Yeah? So? Rust is brown.” He unbuckled the toolbox, pushed back the lid, frowned at the contents “Easy mistake,” she said “Is this maybe for fishing?” he asked, and pulled out a curious instrument. It looked like the blade of a dull miniature scythe, small enough to fit in his palm. “It’s shaped like a hook.” Vic knew what it was, although it had been years since she’d seen one. Then she registered, at last, what Wayne had said when he first walked out onto the dock “Let me see that box,” Vic said She turned it around to stare in at a collection of flat, rusted wrenches, an air-pressure gauge, and an old key with a rectangular head, the word TRIUMPH stamped into it “Where’d you find this?” “It was on the seat of the old motorcycle Did the motorcycle come with the house?” “Show me,” Vic said The Carriage House VIC HAD ONLY BEEN IN THE CARRIAGE HOUSE ONCE, WHEN SHE FIRST looked at the property. She had talked to her mother about cleaning the place out and using it as an artist’s studio So far, though, her pencils and paints hadn’t made it any farther than the bedroom closet, and the carriage house was as cluttered as the day they had moved in It was a long, narrow room, so crowded with junk it was impossible for anyone to walk a straight line to the back wall. There were a few stalls where horses had been kept. Vic loved the smell of the place, a perfume of gasoline, dirt, old dry hay, and wood that had baked and aged for eighty summers If Vic were Wayne’s age, she would’ve lived in the rafters, among the pigeons and flying squirrels. That didn’t seem to be Wayne’s thing, though. Wayne didn’t interact

with nature. He took pictures of it with his iPhone and then bent over the screen and poked at it. His favorite thing about the lake house was that it had Wi-Fi It wasn’t that he wanted to stay indoors He wanted to stay inside his phone. It was his bridge away from a world where Mom was a crazy alcoholic and Dad was a three-hundred-pound car mechanic who had dropped out of high school and who wore an Iron Man costume to comic-book conventions The motorcycle was in the back of the carriage house, a paint-spattered tarp thrown over it but the shape beneath still discernible Vic spotted it from just inside the doors and wondered how she could’ve missed it the last time she’d stuck her head in here But she only wondered for a moment. No one knew better than Vic McQueen how easy it was for an important thing to be lost amid a great deal of visual clutter. The whole place was like a scene she might paint for one of the Search Engine books. Find your way to the motorcycle through the labyrinth of junk—without crossing a trip wire—and escape! Not a bad notion for a scene, really, something to file away for further thought. She couldn’t afford to ignore a single good idea. Could anyone? Wayne got one corner of the tarp and she got the other, and they flipped it back The bike wore a coat of grime and sawdust a quarter inch thick. The handlebars and gauges were veiled in spiderwebs. The headlight hung loose from the socket by its wires. Under the dust the teardrop-shaped gas tank was cranberry and silver, with the word TRIUMPH embossed on it in chrome It looked like a motorcycle out of an old biker movie—not a biker film full of bare tits, washed-out color, and Peter Fonda but one of the older, tamer motorcycle films, something in black and white that involved a lot of racing and talk about the Man. Vic loved it already Wayne ran a hand over the seat, looked at the gray fuzz on his palm. “Do we get to keep it?” As if it were a stray cat Of course they didn’t get to keep it. It wasn’t theirs. It belonged to the old woman who was renting them the house And yet And yet Vic felt that in some way it already belonged to her “I doubt it even runs,” she said “So?” Wayne asked, with the casual certainty of a twelve-year-old. “Fix it. Dad could tell you how.” “Your dad already told me how.” For eight years she had tried to be Lou’s girl. It had not always been good, and it had never been easy, but there had been some happy days in the garage, Lou fixing bikes and Vic airbrushing them, Soundgarden on the radio and cold bottles of beer in the fridge She would crawl around the bikes with him, holding his light and asking questions. He taught her about fuses, brake lines, manifolds She had liked being with him then and had almost liked being herself “So you think we can keep it?” Wayne asked again “It belongs to the old dame renting us the house. I could ask if she’d sell.” “I bet she’ll let us have it,” he said He wrote the word “OURS” in the dust on the side of the tank. “What kind of old lady is gonna want to haul ass around on a mother like this?” “The kind standing right next to you,” she said, and reached past him and wiped her palm across the word “OURS.” Dust fluffed up into a shaft of early-morning sunshine, a flurry of gold flakes Below where the word “OURS” had been, Vic wrote “MINE.” Wayne held up his iPhone and took a picture Haverhill EVERY DAY AFTER LUNCH, SIGMUND DE ZOET HAD AN HOUR TO himself to paint his tiny soldiers It was his favorite hour of the day. He listened to the Berlin Orchestra performing the Frobisher sextet, Cloud Atlas, and painted the Hun in their nineteenth-century helmets and coats with tails and gasmasks. He had a miniature landscape on a six-foot-by-six-foot sheet of plywood that was supposed to represent an acre of Verdun-sur-Meuse: an expanse of blood-soaked mud, burned trees, tangled shrubbery, barbed wire, and bodies Sig was proud of his careful brushwork. He painted gold braid on epaulets, microscopic brass buttons on coats, spots of rust on helmets He felt that when his little men were painted well, they possessed a tension, a suggestion that they might, at any moment, begin to move on their own and charge the French line He was working on them the day it finally happened, the day when they finally did begin to move He was painting a wounded Hun, the little man grabbing at his chest, his mouth open in silent cry. Sig had a daub of red on the end of the brush, meant to put a splash of it around the German soldier’s fingers,

but when he reached out, the Hun backed away Sigmund stared, studying the one-inch soldier under the bright glare of the lamp on its articulated arm. He reached with the tip of the brush again, and again the soldier swayed away Sig tried a third time—Hold still, you little bastard, he thought—and missed entirely, wasn’t even close, painted a crimson slash across the metal lampshade instead And it wasn’t just that one soldier moving anymore. It was all of them. They lurched toward one another, wavering like candle flames Sigmund rubbed his hand across his forehead, felt a hot and slimy sweat there. He inhaled deeply and smelled gingerbread cookies A stroke, he thought. I am having a stroke Only he thought it in Dutch, because for the moment English eluded him, and never mind he had spoken English as his first language since he was five He reached for the edge of the table, to push himself to his feet—and missed and fell Sig hit the walnut floor on his right side and felt something snap in his hip. It broke like a dry stick under a German jackboot The whole house shook with the force of his fall, and he thought—still in Dutch—That will bring Giselle “Hulp,” he called. “Ik heb een slag Nr. Nr.” That didn’t sound right, but he needed a moment to figure out why. Dutch She wouldn’t understand Dutch. “Giselle! I have fallen down!” She didn’t come, didn’t respond in any way. He tried to think what she could be doing that she wouldn’t hear him, then wondered if she was outside with the air-conditioning repairman. The repairman, a dumpy little man named Bing something, had turned up in grease-stained overalls to replace a condenser coil as part of a factory recall Sig’s head seemed a bit clearer, down here on the floor. When he had been up on the stool, the air had started to seem soupy and slow, overheated, and faintly cloying, what with that sudden smell of gingerbread. Down here, though, it was cooler, and the world seemed inclined to behave. He saw a screwdriver he had been missing for months, nestled among some dust bunnies under the worktable His hip was broken. He was sure of that, could feel the fracture in it, like a hot wire embedded under the skin. He thought if he could get up, though, he could use his stool as a makeshift walker to get across the room to the door and out into the hall Perhaps he could reach the door and shout for the air-conditioning man. Or to Vic McQueen, across the street. Except: no. Vicki was off in New Hampshire somewhere with that boy of hers. No—if he could get as far as the phone in the kitchen, he would just have to call emergency services and hope Giselle found him before the ambulance pulled in to the driveway. He didn’t want to shock her more than was necessary Sig reached up with one gangly arm, got the stool, and struggled to his feet, keeping his weight off the left leg. It hurt anyway He heard bone click “Giselle!” he screamed again, his voice a throaty roar. “Gott dam, Giselle!” He leaned over the stool, both hands on its edge, and took a long, trembling breath—and smelled the Christmassy odor of gingerbread again. He almost flinched, the fragrance was so strong and clear A stroke, he thought again. This was what happened when you were stroking out. The brain misfired, and you smelled things that weren’t there, while the world drooped around you, melting like dirty snow in a warm spring rain He turned himself to face the door, which was not twelve paces away. The door to his studio hung wide open. He could not imagine how Giselle could fail to hear him shouting, if she was anywhere in the house. She was either outside by the noisy air conditioner or shopping or dead He considered this array of possibilities again—outside by the noisy air conditioner, shopping, or dead—and was disquieted to find the third possibility not quite preposterous He lifted the stool an inch off the floor, moved it forward, set it down, hobbled forward with it. Now that he was standing, the inside of his head was going light again, his thoughts drifting like goose feathers on a warm breeze A song was running around and around in his head, stuck in an idiot loop. “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly. I don’t know why she swallowed the fly—Perhaps she’ll die!” Only the song grew in volume, building and building until it no longer seemed to be inside his head but in the air around him,

coming down the hall “There was an old lady who swallowed a spider that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her,” sang the voice. It was high-pitched, off-key, and curiously hollow, like a voice heard at a distance, through a ventilation shaft Sig glanced up and saw a man in a gasmask moving past the open door. The man in the gasmask had Giselle by the hair and was dragging her down the hall. Giselle didn’t seem to mind. She wore a neat blue linen dress and matching blue heels, but as she was hauled along, one of the shoes pulled loose and fell off her foot. The Gasmask Man had her long chestnut hair, streaked with white, wrapped around one fist. Her eyes were closed, her narrow, gaunt face serene The Gasmask Man turned his head, looked in at him. Sig had never seen anything so awful It was like in that movie with Vincent Price, where the scientist crossed himself with an insect. His head was a rubber bulb with shining lenses for eyes and a grotesque valve for a mouth Something was wrong in Sig’s brain, something maybe worse than a stroke. Could a stroke make you hallucinate? One of his painted Huns had strolled right off his model of Verdun and into his back hallway, was abducting his wife. Maybe that was why Sig was struggling to stay upright. The Hun were invading Haverhill and had bombed the street with mustard gas Although it didn’t smell like mustard. It smelled like cookies The Gasmask Man held up a finger, to indicate he would be back shortly, then continued down the hallway, towing Giselle by the hair. He began to sing again “There was an old lady,” the Gasmask Man sang, “who swallowed a goat. Just opened her throat and swallowed a goat. What a greedy bitch!” Sig slumped over the stool. His legs—he couldn’t feel his legs. He reached to wipe the sweat out of his face and poked himself in the eye Boots clomped across the workshop floor It took an effort of will for Sig to lift his head. It felt as if there were a great weight balanced on top of it, a twenty-pound stack of iron The Gasmask Man stood over the model of Verdun, looking down at the cratered ruin, stitched with barbed wire. His hands on his hips. Sig recognized the man’s clothes at last: He wore the oil-stained jumpsuit of the air-conditioner repairman “Little men, little men!” the Gasmask Man said. “I love little men! ‘Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen, we daren’t go a-hunting, for fear of little men.’” He looked at Sig and said, “Mr. Manx says I’m a rhyming demon. I say I’m just a poet and didn’t know it. How old is your wife, mister?” Sig had no intention of answering. He wanted to ask what the repairman had done with Giselle But instead he said, “I married her in 1976 My wife is fifty-nine. Fifteen years younger than myself.” “You dog, you! Robbing the cradle. No kids?” “Nr. No. I have ants in my brain.” “That’s the sevoflurane,” the Gasmask Man said. “I pumped it in through your air conditioner. I can tell that your wife never had kids. Those hard little tits. I gave ’em a squeeze, and I can tell you, women who have had babies don’t have tits like that.” “Why are you doing this? Why are you here?” Sig asked “You live across the street from Vic McQueen And you have a two-car garage, but only one car,” the Gasmask Man told him. “When Mr. Manx comes back around the corner, he’ll have a place to park. The wheels on the Wraith go round and round, round and round, round and round. The wheels on the Wraith go round and round, all day long.” Sig de Zoet became aware of a series of sounds—a hiss, a scratch, and a thump—repeating over and over. He couldn’t tell where they were coming from. The noise seemed to be inside his head, in the same way that the Gasmask Man’s song had seemed to be inside his head for a while. That hiss, scratch, and thump was what he had now, in place of thoughts The Gasmask Man looked down at him. “Now,

Victoria McQueen looks like she has a real set of mommy titties. You’ve seen them firsthand What do you think of her tits?” Sig stared up at him. He understood what the Gasmask Man was asking but could not think how to reply to such a question. Vic McQueen was just eight years old; in Sig’s mind she had become a child again, a girl with a boy’s bicycle. She came over now and then to paint figurines. It was a pleasure to watch her work—painting little men with quiet devotion, eyes narrowed as if she were squinting down a long tunnel, trying to see what was at the other end “That is her place across the street, isn’t it?” the Gasmask Man said Sig intended not to tell him. Not to collaborate “Collaborate” was the word that came to his mind, not “cooperate.” “Yes,” he heard himself say. Then he said, “Why did I tell you that? Why am I answering your questions? I am not a collaborator.” “That’s the sevoflurane, too,” the Gasmask Man said. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things people used to tell me after I gave ’em some of the sweet old gingerbread smoke. This one old grandma, like sixty-four years old at least, told me the only time she ever came was when she took it up the pooper. Sixty-four! Ugh, right? ‘Will you still need me, will you still ream me, when I’m sixty-four?’” He giggled, the innocent, bubbling laughter of a child “It is a truth serum?” Sig said. It took a profound effort to verbalize this question; each word was a bucket of water that had to be laboriously drawn up from a deep well, by hand “Not exactly, but it sure relaxes your intuitions Opens you up to suggestion. You wait till your wife starts to come around. She’ll be gobbling my cock just like it’s lunch and she missed breakfast. She’ll just think it’s the thing to do! Don’t worry. I won’t make you watch. You’ll be dead by then Listen: Where is Vic McQueen? I’ve been watching the house all day. It doesn’t look like there’s anyone home. She isn’t away for the summer, is she? That’d be a pain That’d be a pain in the brain!” But Sigmund de Zoet didn’t answer. He was distracted. It had come to him, finally, what he was hearing, what was producing that hiss, that scratch, that thump It wasn’t inside his head at all. It was the record he had been listening to, the Berlin Orchestra playing the Cloud Atlas sextet The music was over Lake Winnipesaukee WHEN WAYNE WENT TO DAY CAMP, VIC WENT TO WORK ON THE NEW book—and the Triumph Her editor had suggested maybe it was time for a holiday-themed Search Engine, thought a Christmas adventure could be a big seller The notion, at first, was a whiff of sour milk; Vic flinched from it reflexively, in disgust. But with a few weeks to turn it over in her mind, she could see how brutally commercial such an item would be. She could picture, as well, how cute Search Engine would look in a candy-cane-striped cap and a scarf. It never once occurred to her that a robot modeled on the engine of a Vulcan motorcycle would not have any need for a scarf. It would look right. She was a cartoonist, not an engineer; reality could get stuffed She cleared a space in a back corner of the carriage house for her easel and made a start That first day she went for three hours, using her blue nonphotographic pencil to draw a lake of cracking ice. Search Engine and his little friend Bonnie clutched one another on a chunk of floating glacier. Mad Möbius Stripp was under there in a submarine crafted to look like a kraken, tentacles thrusting up around them. At least she thought she was drawing tentacles. Vic worked, as always, with the music turned up and her mind switched off. While she was drawing, her face was as smooth and unlined as a child’s. As untroubled, too She kept at it until her hand cramped, then quit and walked out into the day, stretching her back, arms over her head, listening to her spine crack. She went into the cottage to pour herself a glass of iced tea—Vic didn’t bother with lunch, hardly ate when she was working on a book—and returned to

the carriage house to think about what belonged on page two. She figured it couldn’t hurt to tinker with the Triumph while she mulled it over She planned to bang at the motorcycle for an hour or so and then go back to Search Engine Instead she worked three hours and was ten minutes late to pick Wayne up from camp After that it was the book in the morning and the bike in the afternoon. She learned to set an alarm so she’d always be on time to get Wayne. By the end of June, she had a whole stack of pages roughed out and had stripped the Triumph down to the engine and the bare metal frame She sang while she worked, although she was rarely aware of it “No one sleeps a wink when I sing this song I’m gonna sing it all night long,” she sang when she worked on the bike And when she worked on the book, she sang, “Dad been driving us to Christmasland, just to ride in Santa’s sleigh. Dad been driving us to Christmasland, just to pass the day away.” But they were the same song Haverhill ON THE FIRST OF JULY, VIC AND WAYNE PUT LAKE WINNIPESAUKEE in the rearview mirror and drove back to her mother’s house in Massachusetts Vic’s house now. She kept forgetting Lou was flying into Boston to spend the Fourth with Wayne and see some big-city fireworks, something he had never done before. Vic was going to spend the weekend going through the dead woman’s stuff, and trying not to drink She had a notion to sell the house in the fall and move back to Colorado. It was something to talk about with Lou. She could work on Search Engine anywhere Traffic was bad on 495. They were trapped on the road, under a headache sky of low, fuming clouds. Vic felt that no one should have to put up with a sky like that cold sober “Do you worry much about ghosts?” Wayne asked while they were idling, waiting for cars in front of them to move “Why? You creeped out about staying the night at Grandma’s? If her spirit is still there, it wouldn’t wish you any harm. She loved you.” “No,” Wayne said, his tone indifferent “I know ghosts used to talk to you, is all.” “Not anymore,” she said, and finally traffic loosened up and Vic could ride the breakdown lane to the exit. “Not ever, kid. Your mom was screwed up in the head. That’s why I had to go to the hospital.” “They weren’t real?” “Of course not. The dead stay dead. The past is past.” Wayne nodded. “Who’s that?” he asked, looking across the front yard as they turned in to the driveway Vic had been thinking about ghosts, not paying attention, and hadn’t seen the woman sitting on her front step. As Vic put the car into park, the visitor rose to her feet Her visitor wore acid-washed jeans, disintegrating to threads at the knees and thighs, and not in a fashionable way either. She had a cigarette in one hand, trailing a pale wisp of smoke In the other hand was a folder. She had the stringy, twitchy look of a junkie. Vic could not place her but was sure she knew her. She had no idea who the visitor was, but felt in some way she had been expecting this woman for years “Someone you know?” Wayne asked Vic shook her head. She was temporarily unable to find her voice. She had spent most of the last half year holding tight to both sanity and sobriety, like an old woman clutching a bag of groceries. Staring into the yard, she felt the bottom of the bag beginning to tear and give way The junkie girl in the unlaced Chuck Taylor high-tops raised one hand in a nervous, terribly familiar little wave Vic opened the car door and got out, came around the front to get between Wayne and the woman “Can I help you?” Vic croaked. She needed a glass of water “I hope s-ss-ss-sss—” She sounded as if she were hung up on a sneeze. Her face darkened, and she forced out, “So. He’s f-f-fuh-free.” “What are you talking about?” “The Wraith,” Maggie Leigh said. “He’s on the road again. I think you sh-sh-should use your bridge and try to f-f-f-f-find him, Vic.” SHE HEARD WAYNE CLIMBING OUT OF THE CAR BEHIND HER, HIS DOOR thumping shut. He opened the rear door, and Hooper leaped from the backseat She wanted to tell him to get back in the car but couldn’t without signaling her fear The woman smiled at her. There was an innocence and a simple kindness to her face that Vic very much associated with the mad. She had seen it often enough in the mental hospital “I’m s-s-ss-sorry,” the visitor said “That wasn’t how I mm-mm-muh—” Now she sounded like she might be gagging. “—mmmMMmmeant to begin. I’m m-mm-mm—oh, God. Mmm-mm-mMMM-MAGGIE Bad st-stammer. S-s-s-s-suh-suh—apologies

We had tea once. You s-scraped your knee Long time ago. You weren’t much older than your s-s-suh-ss-ss—” She stopped talking, drew a deep breath, tried again. “Kid here But I think you really m-must remember.” It was awful listening to her try to talk—like watching someone with no legs dragging herself along a sidewalk. Vic thought, She didn’t use to be so bad, while at the same time remaining convinced that the junkie girl was a deranged and possibly dangerous stranger. She found herself able to juggle these two notions without any sense of contradicting herself whatsoever The junkie girl put her hand on Vic’s for a moment, but her palm was hot and damp, and Vic quickly pulled away. Vic looked at the girl’s arms and saw they were a battlefield of pocked, shiny scars: cigarette burns. Lots of them, some livid pink and recent Maggie regarded her with a brief look of confusion that bordered on hurt, but before Vic could speak, Hooper barged past to poke his nose into Maggie Leigh’s crotch. Maggie laughed and pushed his snout away “Oh, gee. You have your own yeti. That’s adorbs,” she said. She looked beyond the dog to Vic’s son. “And you must b-b-be Wayne.” “How do you know his name?” Vic asked in a hoarse voice, thinking a crazy thing: Her Scrabble tiles can’t give her proper names “You dedicated your first s-ss-s—book to him,” said Maggie. “We used to have them all at the library. I was so suh-suh-sssssssspsyched for you.” Vic said, “Wayne? Take Hooper into the house.” Wayne whistled and clicked and walked by Maggie, and the dog shambled after. Wayne firmly shut the door behind both of them Maggie said, “I always thought you’d write You said you would. I wondered if I mm-mm-my-mm-my—might hear from you after M-M-Muh-MmmManx was arrested, but then I thought you wanted to put him behind you. I almost wrote you a few times, b-but first I worried your puh-p-puh-pp-p—I worried your folks would question you about me, and later I thought muh-mm-mm—perhaps you wanted to put m-me behind you as well.” She tried to smile again, and Vic saw she was missing teeth “Ms. Leigh. I think you’re confused. I don’t know you. I can’t help you,” Vic said What frightened Vic most was her feeling that this was exactly backward. Maggie wasn’t the one who was confused—her whole face glistened with lunatic certainty. If anyone was confused, it was Vic. She could see it all in her mind’s eye: the dark cool of the library, the yellowing Scrabble tiles scattered on the desk, the bronze paperweight that looked like a pistol “If you don’t know me, how come you know my last name? I didn’t mention it,” Maggie said, only with more stuttering—it took close on half a minute to get this sentence out Vic held up a hand for silence and ignored this statement as the absurd distraction it was. Of course Maggie had mentioned her last name. She had said it when she introduced herself, Vic was sure “I see you know quite a bit about me, though,” Vic continued. “Understand that my son knows nothing about Charles Manx. I’ve never talked to him about the man. And I’m not having him find out from . . . from a stranger.” She almost said a crazy person “Of course. I didn’t m-muh-mm-mean to alarm you or s-s-suh-s—” “But you did anyway.” “B-b-buh-b-but, Vic.” “Stop calling me that. We don’t know each other.” “Would you prefer if I called you the B-B-Buh-Brat?” “I don’t want you to call me anything I want you to go.” “B-b-but you had to know about Mm-Mm-Mmm—” In her desperation to get the word out, she seemed to be moaning “Manx.” “Thank you. Yes. We have to d-d-d-decide how to d-d-deal with him.” “Deal with what? What do you mean, Manx is on the road again? He isn’t up for parole until 2016, and the last I heard he was in a coma. Even if he woke up and they did set him free, he’d have to be two hundred years old. But they didn’t cut him loose, because they would’ve notified me if they had.” “He’s not that old. Try a hundred and

ffff-ff-f-f”—she sounded like she was imitating the sound of a burning fuse—“fifteen!” “Jesus Christ. I don’t have to listen to this shit. You’ve got three minutes to beat it, lady. If you’re still on the lawn after that, I’m calling the police on you.” Vic stepped off the path and into the grass, meaning to walk around Maggie to the door She didn’t make it “They didn’t notify you they released him ’cause they didn’t release him. They think he died. Last Mmmm-MmMay.” Vic caught in place. “What do you mean, they think he died?” Maggie extended the manila folder She had written a phone number on the inside cover. Vic’s gaze caught and held on it, because after the area code the first three digits were her own birthday and the next four numbers were not four numbers at all but the letters FUFU, a kind of obscene stammer in and of themselves The folder contained perhaps a half dozen printouts from various newspapers, on stationery that said HERE PUBLIC LIBRARY—HERE, IOWA The stationery was water-stained and shriveled, foxed at the edges The first article was from the Denver Post ALLEGED SERIAL KILLER CHARLES TALENT MANX DIES, LEAVES QUESTIONS There was a thumbnail photo of his mug shot: that gaunt face with its protruding eyes and pale, almost lipless mouth. Vic tried to read the article, but her vision blurred over She remembered the laundry chute, her eyes streaming and her lungs full of smoke. She remembered thoughtless panic, set to the tune of “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” Phrases from the article jumped out at her: “degenerative Parkinson’s-like illness  . . intermittent coma . . . suspected in a dozen kidnappings . . . Thomas Priest  . . stopped breathing at 2:00 A.M.” “I didn’t know,” Vic said. “Nobody told me.” She was too off balance to keep her rage focused on Maggie. She kept thinking, simply, He’s dead. He’s dead, and now you can let him go. This part of your life is done because he’s dead The thought didn’t bring any joy with it, but she felt the possibility of something better: relief “I don’t know why they wouldn’t tell me he was gone,” Vic said “Mmm-mm—I bet ’cause they were embarrassed Look at the next page.” Vic glanced wearily up at Margaret Leigh, remembering what she had said about Manx being on the road again. She suspected they were getting to it, to Maggie Leigh’s own particular madness, the lunacy that had driven her to come all the way from Here, Iowa, to Haverhill, Massachusetts, just so she could hand this folder to Vic Vic turned the page ALLEGED SERIAL KILLER’S CORPSE VANISHES FROM MORGUE SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT BLAMES “MORBID VANDALS” Vic skimmed the first few paragraphs, then closed the folder and offered it back to Maggie “Some sicko stole the body,” Vic said Maggie said, “D-d-d-don’t think so.” She didn’t accept the folder Somewhere down the street, a lawn mower roared to life. For the first time, Vic noticed how hot it was here in the front yard. Even through the overcast, the sun was baking her head “So you think he faked his death. Well enough to fool two doctors. Somehow. Even though they had already begun an autopsy on the body No. Wait. You think he really died but then, forty-eight hours later, he came back to life Pulled himself out of his drawer at the morgue, got himself dressed, and walked out.” Maggie’s face—her whole body—relaxed in an expression of profound relief. “Yes I’ve c-come so f-f-fff-far to see you, Vic, because I knew, I just knew you’d b-b-buh-believe me. Now look at the next article. There’s a mm-mm-muh—a guy in Kentucky who disappeared f-f-from his home in an antique Rolls-Royce Mmm-Mmuh-Manx’s Rolls-Royce. The article d-d-doesn’t say it was the one that belonged to Manx, buh-buh-but if you look at the p-p-p-p-picture—” “I’m not going to look at shit,” Vic said, and threw the folder in Maggie’s face “Get the fuck out of my yard, you crazy bitch.” Maggie’s mouth opened and closed, just like the mouth of the big old koi in the fish tank that was a central feature of her little office in the Here Public Library, which Vic could remember perfectly, even though she had never been there Vic’s rage was boiling over at last, and she wanted to scald Maggie with it. It was not just that Maggie was blocking the way to Vic’s door, or that with her mad babble she threatened to undermine Vic’s own sense

of what was true—to steal from Vic her hard-won sanity. It was that Manx was dead, really dead, but this lunatic couldn’t let Vic have that. Charlie Manx, who had kidnapped God knew how many children, who had kidnapped and terrorized and nearly killed Vic herself—Charles Manx was in the dirt. Vic had escaped him at last. Only Margaret fucking Leigh wanted to bring him back, dig him up, make Vic afraid of him again “Pick that shit up when you go,” Vic told her She stepped on some of the papers as she proceeded around Maggie to the door. She was careful not to put her foot on the dirty, sun-faded fedora sitting on the edge of the bottom step “He’s not d-d-done, Vic,” Maggie said “That’s why I wanted—was hoping—you could try to f-f-find him. I know I told you n-not to b-b-b-back when we first met. But you were too young then. You weren’t ready Now I think you’re the only one who can fff-find him. Who can stop him. If you still know how. Because if you don’t, I’m worried he’ll try and f-fuh-fuh-find you.” “The only thing I plan to find is a phone to call the police. If I were you, I wouldn’t be here when they show up,” Vic said. Then, turning back and getting into Maggie Leigh’s face, she said, “I DON’T KNOW YOU. Take your crazy somewhere else.” “B-b-b-buh-but, Vic—” Maggie said, and lifted a finger. “Don’t you remember? I g-guh-gggave you those earrings.” Vic walked inside and slammed the door Wayne, who was standing just three paces away and who had probably heard the whole thing, jumped. Hooper, who was right behind him, cringed and whined softly, turned and trotted off, looking for someplace happier to be Vic turned back to the door and leaned her forehead against it and took a deep breath It was half a minute before she was ready to look through the fish-eye spyhole into the front yard Maggie was just straightening up from the front step, carefully placing her filthy fedora on her head with a certain dignity. She gave the front door of Vic’s house a last forlorn look, then turned and limped away down the lawn. She didn’t have a car and was in for a long, hot, six-block walk to the closest bus station. Vic watched her until she was out of sight—watched and idly stroked the earrings she was wearing, favorites since she was a kid, a pair of Scrabble tiles: F & U By the Road WHEN WAYNE WENT OUT HALF AN HOUR LATER, TO WALK Hooper—no, check that, to get away from his mother and her mood of pressurized unhappiness—the folder was sitting on the top step, all the papers neatly shuffled back into it He glanced over his shoulder, through the still-open door, but his mother was up in the kitchen, out of sight. Wayne shut the door. He bent and picked up the folder, opened it, and glanced at a thin stack of printouts “Alleged Serial Killer.” “Morbid Vandals.” “Boeing Engineer Vanishes.” He folded the sheaf of paper into quarters and put it in the back pocket of his shorts He shoved the empty folder down behind the hedges planted along the front of the house Wayne was not sure he wanted to look at them and, at just twelve years old, was still not self-aware enough to know he had already decided to look at them, that he had made his decision the moment he shoved the folder out of sight behind the hedge. He crossed the lawn and sat on the curb. He felt as if he were carrying nitroglycerin in his back pocket He stared across the street, at a lawn of wilted, yellowing grass. The old guy who lived over there was really letting his yard go The guy had a funny name—Sig de Zoet—and a room full of little model soldiers. Wayne had wandered over the day of Gram’s funeral, and the old guy had showed them to him, being nice. He had told Wayne that once upon a time his mother, Vic, had painted a few of his figures. “Your mother hoff a fine brush even then,” he said, with an accent like a Nazi. Then his nice old wife had made Wayne a glass of frosted iced tea with slices of orange in it that had tasted just about like heaven Wayne thought about going over there to look at the old guy’s soldiers again. It would be out of the heat, and it would take his mind off the printouts in his back pocket that he probably shouldn’t look at He even got as far as pushing himself up off the curb and getting ready to cross the street—but then he looked back at his own house and sat down again. His mother wouldn’t like it

if he wandered off without saying where he was going, and he didn’t think he could head back into the house and ask permission yet. So he stayed where he was and looked at the wilting lawn across the street and missed the mountains Wayne had seen a landslide once, just last winter. He had been up above Longmont with his father, to tow a Mercedes that had slid off the road and down an embankment. The family that had been in the car were shaken up but unhurt. They were a normal family: a mom, a dad, two kids. The little girl even had blond pigtails. That’s how normal they were Wayne could tell, just looking at them, that the mom had never been in a mental asylum and that the father didn’t have storm-trooper armor hanging in his closet. He could tell that the children had normal names, like John and Sue, as opposed to bearing names lifted from a comic book. They had skis on the roof of the Mercedes, and the father asked Lou if he took AmEx. Not American Express. AmEx Within minutes of meeting them, Wayne loved the whole family with an irrational fierceness Lou sent Wayne down the embankment with the hook and the winch line, but as the boy edged toward the car, there came a sound, from high above: a splintering crack, loud as a gunshot Everyone looked up into the snowy peaks, the sharp-edged Rockies rising above them through the pines As they stared, a white sheet of snow, as wide and long as a football field, came loose and began to slide. It was half a mile to the south, so they were in no danger. After the first crack of its letting go, they could barely even hear it. It was no more than a low roll of distant thunder. Although Wayne could feel it. It registered as a gentle thrum in the ground beneath him That great shelf of snow slid a few hundred yards and hit the tree line and exploded in a white blast, a tidal wave of snow thirty feet high The father who had an AmEx lifted his boy up and set him on his shoulders to watch “We are in the wild now, little guy,” he said, while an acre of mountaintop forest was smothered under six hundred tons of snow “Isn’t that a goddamn,” Lou said, and looked down the embankment at Wayne. His father’s face shone with happiness. “Can you imagine being underneath it? Can you imagine all that shit coming down on you?” Wayne could—and did, all the time. He thought it would be the best way to die: wiped out in a brilliant crash of snow and light, the world roaring around you as it slid apart Bruce Wayne Carmody had been unhappy for so long that it had stopped being a state he paid attention to. Sometimes Wayne felt that the world had been sliding apart beneath his feet for years. He was still waiting for it to pull him down, to bury him at last His mother had been crazy for a while, had believed that the phone was ringing when it wasn’t, had conversations with dead children who weren’t there. Sometimes he felt she had talked more with dead children than she ever had with him. She had burned down their house. She spent a month in a psychiatric hospital, skipped out on a court appearance, and dropped out of Wayne’s life for almost two years. She spent a while on book tour, visiting bookstores in the morning and local bars at night. She hung out in L.A. for six months, working on a cartoon version of Search Engine that never got off the ground and a cocaine habit that did. She spent a while drawing covered bridges for a gallery show that no one went to Wayne’s father got sick of Vic’s drinking, Vic’s wandering, and Vic’s crazy, and he took up with the lady who had done most of his tattoos, a girl named Carol who had big hair and dressed like it was still the eighties. Only Carol had another boyfriend, and they stole Lou’s identity and ran off to California, where they racked up a ten-thousand-dollar debt in Lou’s name. Lou was still dealing with creditors Bruce Wayne Carmody wanted to love and enjoy his parents, and occasionally he did. But they made it hard. Which was why the papers in his back pocket felt like nitroglycerin, a bomb that hadn’t exploded yet He supposed if there was any chance it might go off later, he ought to have a look, figure out how much damage it could do and how best to shelter himself from the blast. He pulled the papers out of his back pocket, took a last secretive glance at his house, and folded the pages open on his knee The first newspaper article featured a photo of Charles Talent Manx, the dead serial killer Manx’s face was so long it looked like it had melted a little. He had protruding eyes and a goofy overbite and a bald, bulging skull that bore a resemblance to a cartoon dinosaur

egg This man Charles Manx had been arrested above Gunbarrel almost fifteen years ago. He was a kidnapper who’d transported an unnamed minor across state lines, then burned a man to death for trying to stop him No one knew how old he was when they locked him up. He didn’t thrive in jail. By 2001 he was in a coma in the hospital wing of the Supermax in Denver. He lingered like that for eleven years before passing away last May After that the article was mostly bloodthirsty speculation. Manx had a hunting cottage outside Gunbarrel, where the trees were hung with hundreds of Christmas ornaments. The press dubbed the place the “Sleigh House,” which managed two puns, neither of them any good The article implied he had been imprisoning and slaughtering children there for years It mentioned only in passing that no bodies had ever been discovered on the grounds What did any of this have to do with Victoria McQueen, mother of Bruce Wayne Carmody? Nothing, as far as Wayne could see. Maybe if he looked at the other articles, he would figure it out. He went on “Alleged Serial Killer’s Corpse Vanishes from Morgue” was next. Someone had broken into St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver, slugged a security guard, and made off with dead old Charlie Manx. The body snatcher had swiped a Trans Am from the parking lot across the street, too The third piece was a clipping from a paper in Louisville, Kentucky, and didn’t have a damn thing to do with Charles Manx It was titled “Boeing Engineer Vanishes; Local Mystery Troubles Police, IRS.” It was accompanied by a photograph of a tanned and wiry man with a thick black mustache, leaning against an old Rolls-Royce, elbows resting on the hood Bruce frowned his way through the story. Nathan Demeter had been reported missing by his teenage daughter, who had returned from school to find the house unlocked, the garage open, a half-eaten lunch on the table, and her father’s antique Rolls-Royce gone. The IRS seemed to think Demeter might’ve skipped out to evade prosecution for income-tax evasion. His daughter didn’t believe it, said he was either kidnapped or dead, but there was no way he would’ve run out on her without telling her why and where he was going What any of this had to do with Charles Talent Manx, Wayne couldn’t see. He thought maybe he had missed something, wondered if he ought to go back to the start and reread everything He was just about to flip back to the first of the photocopies when he spotted Hooper, squatting in the yard across the street, dropping turds the size of bananas in the grass. They were the color of bananas, too: green ones “Aw, no!” Wayne cried. “Aw, no, big guy!” He dropped the papers on the sidewalk and started across the street His first thought was to haul Hooper out of the yard before anyone saw. But the curtain twitched in one of the front windows of the house across the street. Someone—the nice old guy or his nice old wife—had been watching Wayne supposed the best thing he could do was go over there and make a joke out of it, ask if they had a bag he could use to clean up the mess. The old guy, with his Dutch accent, seemed like he could laugh at just about anything Hooper rose, unfolding from his hunch. Wayne hissed at him. “Yer bad. Yer so bad.” Hooper wagged his tail, pleased to have Wayne’s attention Wayne was about to climb the steps to the front door of Sigmund de Zoet’s house when he noticed shadows flickering along the lower edge of the door. When Wayne glanced at the spyhole, he thought he saw a blur of color and movement. Someone stood three feet away, right on the other side of the door, watching him “Hello?” he called from the bottom of the steps. “Mr. de Zoet?” The shadows shifted at the bottom of the door, but no one acknowledged him. The lack of a response disquieted Wayne. The backs of his arms prickled with chill Oh, stop it. You’re just being stupid because you read those scary stories about Charlie Manx. Go up there and ring the bell Wayne shook off his unease and began climbing the brick steps, extending one hand for the doorbell. He did not observe that the handle of the door was already beginning to turn, the person on the other side preparing to swing it open The Other Side of the Door BING PARTRIDGE STOOD AT THE SPYHOLE. IN HIS LEFT HAND WAS the doorknob. In his right was the gun, the .38 Mr. Manx had brought from Colorado “Boy, boy, go away,” Bing whispered, his voice thin and strained with need. “Come again some other day.”

Bing had a plan, a simple but desperate plan When the boy reached the top of the steps, he would throw open the door and pull him into the house. Bing had a can of gingerbread smoke in his pocket, and as soon as he had the kid inside, he could gas him out And if the kid began screaming? If the kid screamed and struggled to get free? Someone was having a barbecue down at the end of the block, kids in the front yard chucking a Frisbee, grown-ups drinking too much and laughing too loud and getting sunburned. Bing might not be the sharpest knife in the kitchen, but he was no fool either. Bing thought a man in a gasmask, with a pistol in one hand, might attract some notice wrestling with a screaming child. And there was the dog. What if the dog lunged? It was a Saint Bernard, big as a bear cub. If it got its big bear-cub head in through the door, Bing would never be able to force it back out. It would be like trying to hold the door shut on a herd of cattle Mr. Manx would know what to do—but he was asleep. He had been asleep for more than a day now, was resting in Sigmund de Zoet’s bedroom. When he was awake, he was his good old self—good old Mr. Manx!—but when he nodded off, it sometimes seemed he would never wake again. He said he would be better when he was on his way to Christmasland, and Bing knew that it was true—but he had never seen Mr. Manx so old, and when he slept, it was like seeing him dead And what if Bing forced the boy into the house? Bing was not sure he could wake Mr. Manx when he was like he was. How long could they hide here before Victoria McQueen was out in the street screaming for her child, before the cops were going door-to-door? It was the wrong place and the wrong time. Mr. Manx had made it clear they were only to watch for now, and even Bing, who was not the sharpest pencil in the desk, could see why. This sleepy street was not sleepy enough, and they would only get one pass at the whore with her whore tattoos and her lying whore mouth. Mr. Manx had made no threats, but Bing knew how much this mattered to him and understood what the penalty would be if he fucked it up: Mr. Manx would never take Bing to Christmasland. Never never never never never The boy climbed the first step. And the second “I wish I may, I wish I might, first star I see tonight,” Bing whispered, and shut his eyes and readied himself to act. “Have the wish I wish tonight: Go the fuck away, you little bastard. We’re not ready.” He swallowed rubber-tasting air and cocked the hammer on the big pistol And then someone was in the street, shouting for the boy, shouting: “No! Wayne, no!” Bing’s nerve endings throbbed, and the gun came dangerously close to slipping out of his sweaty hand. A big silver boat of a car rolled down the road, spokes of sunshine flashing off the rims. It pulled to a halt directly in front of Victoria McQueen’s house. The window was down, and the driver hung one flabby arm out, waving it at the kid “Yo!” he shouted again. “Yo, Wayne!” “Yo,” not “no.” Bing was in such a state of nervous tension that he had heard him wrong “What’s up, dude?” yelled the fat man “Dad!” the child yelled. He forgot all about climbing the steps and knocking on the door, turned and ran down the path, his fucking pet bear galloping alongside Bing seemed to go boneless; his legs were wobbly with relief. He sank forward, resting his forehead against the door, and shut his eyes When he opened them and looked through the spyhole, the child was in his father’s arms The driver was morbidly obese, a big man with a shaved head and telephone-pole legs. That had to be Louis Carmody, the father. Bing had read up about the family online, had a general sense of who was who but had never seen a picture of the man. He was amazed He could not imagine Carmody and McQueen having sex—the fat beast would split her in two Bing wasn’t exactly buff, but he’d look like a fucking track star next to Carmody He wondered what hold the man had on her to have induced her to have sex with him. Perhaps they had come to financial terms. Bing had looked the woman over at length and would not be surprised. All those tattoos. A woman could get any tattoo she liked, but they all said the same thing. They were a sign reading AVAILABLE FOR RENT The breeze caught the papers the boy had been looking at, and they drifted under the fat man’s car. When Carmody set his child back on the ground, the boy looked around for them and spotted them but didn’t get down on all fours to retrieve them. Those papers worried Bing. They meant something. They were important

A scarred, scrawny, junkie-looking lady had brought those papers and tried to force them on McQueen. Bing had watched the whole thing from behind the curtain in the front room Victoria McQueen didn’t like the junkie lady. She yelled at her and made ugly faces She threw the papers back at her. Their voices had carried, not well but well enough for Bing to hear one of them say “Manx.” Bing had wanted to wake Mr. Manx up, but you couldn’t wake him up when he was like he was Because he isn’t really asleep, Bing thought, then shoved the unhappy notion aside He had been in the bedroom once to look at Mr. Manx, lying on top of the sheets wearing nothing but boxer shorts. A great Y was cut into his chest and held shut with coarse black thread. It was partially healed but seeped pus and pink blood, was a glistening canyon in his flesh. Bing had stood listening for minutes but did not hear him breathe once Mr. Manx’s mouth lolled open, exuding the slightly cloying, slightly chemical odor of formaldehyde. His eyes were open, too, dull, empty, staring at the ceiling. Bing had crept close to touch the old man’s hand, and it had been cold and stiff, as cold and stiff as that of any corpse, and Bing had been gripped with the sickening certainty that Mr. Manx was gone, but then Manx’s eyes had moved, just slightly, turning to fix on Bing, to stare at him without recognition, and Bing had retreated Now that the crisis was past, Bing let his shaky, weak legs carry him back to the living room. He stripped off his gasmask and sat down with Mr. and Mrs. de Zoet to watch TV with them, needed some time to recover himself He held old Mrs. de Zoet’s hand He watched game shows and now and then checked the street, keeping an eye on the McQueen place. A little before seven, he heard voices and a door banged shut. He returned to the front door and watched from the spyhole. The sky was a pale shade of nectarine, and the boy and his grotesquely fat father were wandering across the yard to the rent-a-car “We’re at the hotel if you need us,” Carmody called to Victoria McQueen, who stood on the steps of the house Bing didn’t like the idea of the boy leaving with the father. The boy and the woman belonged together. Manx wanted them both—and so did Bing. The boy was for Manx, but the woman was Bing’s treat, someone he could have some fun with in the House of Sleep. Just looking at her thin, bare legs made his mouth dry. One last bit of fun in the House of Sleep, and then it was on to Christmasland with Mr Manx, on to Christmasland forever and ever But no, there was no reason to get in a sweat Bing had looked at all the mail in Victoria McQueen’s mailbox and had found a bill for a day camp in New Hampshire. The kid was registered there through August. It was true, Bing was probably a few clowns short of the full circus, but he didn’t think anyone was going to sign their kid up for a camp that cost eight hundred dollars a week and then just decide to blow it off. Tomorrow was the Fourth of July. The father was probably just here to see the child for the holiday The father and the son drove away, leaving behind the unholy ghost of Victoria McQueen The papers under the car—the ones that Bing wanted so badly to see—were grabbed by the Buick’s slipstream and tumbled after it Victoria McQueen was leaving, too. She went back into the house but left the door open, and three minutes later she came out with her car keys in one hand and sacks for the grocery store in the other Bing watched her until she was gone and then watched the street some more and finally let himself out. The sun had gone down, leaving an irradiated orange haze on the horizon A few stars burned holes through the darkness above “There was a Gasmask Man, and he had a little gun,” Bing sang to himself softly, what he did when he was nervous. “And his bullets were made of lead, lead, lead. He went to the brook, and shot Vic McQueen, right through the middle of her head, head, head.” He walked up and down along the curb but could find only a single sheet of paper, crumpled and stained Whatever he was expecting, it wasn’t a photocopy of a news story about the man from Kentucky who had arrived at Bing’s house two months ago in the Wraith, two days ahead of Mr. Manx himself. Mr. Manx had turned up, pale, starved-looking, bright-eyed, and bloody in a Trans Am with zebra-print upholstery and a big silver hammer propped next to him on the passenger seat By then Bing already had the plates back on the Wraith and NOS4A2 was ready to roll The Kentucky man, Nathan Demeter, had spent

quite a while in the little basement room in the House of Sleep before going on his way. Bing preferred girls, but Nathan Demeter knew just what to do with his mouth, and by the time Bing was done with him, they’d had many long, meaningful, manly talks of love It appalled Bing to see Nathan Demeter again, in a photo accompanying an article titled “Boeing Engineer Vanishes.” It made his tummy hurt. He could not for the life of him imagine why the junkie woman had come to Victoria McQueen with such a thing “Oh, boy,” Bing whispered, rocking. Automatically, he began to recite again: “There was a Gasmask Man, and he had a little gun. And his bullets were made of lead, lead—” “That’s not how it goes,” said a small, piping voice from behind him Bing turned his head and saw a little blond-headed girl on a pink bicycle, with training wheels She had drifted down from the barbecue at the end of the street. Adult laughter carried in the warm, humid evening “My dad read me that one,” she said. “There was a little man, and he had a little gun He shoots a duck, right? Who is the Gasmask Man?” “Oooh,” Bing said to her. “He’s nice Everybody loves him.” “Well, I don’t love him.” “You would if you got to know him.” She shrugged, turned her bike in a wide circle, and started back down the street. Bing watched her go, then returned to the de Zoets’, clutching the article about Demeter, which was printed on stationery from some library in Iowa Bing was sitting in front of the TV with the de Zoets an hour later when Mr. Manx came out, fully dressed, in his silk shirt and tails and narrow-toed boots. His starved, cadaverous face had an unhealthy sheen to it in the flickering blue shadows “Bing,” Manx said, “I thought I told you to put Mr. and Mrs. de Zoet in the spare room!” “Well,” Bing said, “they aren’t hurting anyone.” “No. Of course they’re not hurting anyone They’re dead! But that’s no reason to have them underfoot either! For goodness’ sake, why are you sitting out here with them?” Bing stared for the longest time. Mr. Manx was the smartest, most observant, thinkingest person Bing had ever met, but sometimes he didn’t understand the simplest things “Better than no company at all,” he said Boston LOU AND THE KID HAD A ROOM ON THE TOP FLOOR OF THE LOGAN Airport Hilton—one night cost as much as Lou made in a week, money he didn’t have, but fuck it, that was the easiest kind to spend—and they weren’t in bed that night until after Letterman. It was going on 1:00 A.M., and Lou thought for sure that Wayne had to be asleep, so he wasn’t ready for it when the kid spoke up, voice loud in the darkness. He said just nine words, but it was enough to make Lou’s heart jump into his throat and jam there, like a mouthful of food that wouldn’t go down “This guy, Charlie Manx,” Wayne said “Is he a big deal?” Lou thumped his fist between his big man boobs, and his heart dropped back where it belonged Lou and his heart weren’t on such great terms. His heart got so tired when he had to walk up stairs. He and Wayne had marched all over Harvard Square and the waterfront that evening, and twice he had needed to pause to get his wind back He was telling himself that it was because he wasn’t used to being at sea level, that his lungs and heart were adapted for the mountain air. But Lou was no dummy. He had not meant to get so fat. It had happened to his father, too. The guy spent the last six years of his life buzzing around the supermarket in one of those little golf carts for people who were too fat to stand. Lou would rather take a chain saw to his layers of fat than climb into one of those fucking supermarket scooters “Did Mom say something about him?” Lou asked Wayne sighed and was briefly silent: time enough for Lou to realize he had answered the kid’s question without meaning to “No,” Wayne said at last “So where did you hear about him?” Lou asked “There was a woman at Mom’s house today Maggie someone. She wanted to talk about Charlie Manx, and Mom got really mad. I thought Mom was going to kick her ass.” “Oh,” Lou said, wondering who Maggie someone had been and how she had gotten on Vic’s case “He went to jail for killing a guy, didn’t he?” “This Maggie woman who came to see your mother? Did she say Manx killed a guy?” Wayne sighed again. He rolled over in his bed to look at his father. His eyes glittered like ink spots in the dark “If I tell you how I know what Manx did, am I going to get in trouble?” he asked “Not with me,” Lou said. “Did you Google him or something?” Wayne’s eyes widened, and Lou could see he hadn’t even thought of Googling Charlie Manx. He would now, though. Lou wanted to slam the heel of his hand into his forehead Way to go, Carmody. Way to fucking go. Fat and stupid “The woman left a folder with some newspaper articles in it. I kind of read them. I don’t think Mom would’ve wanted me to. You aren’t going to tell her, are you?” “What articles?” “About how he died.” Lou nodded, thought he was beginning to get it Manx had died not three days after Vic’s mother had passed away. Lou had heard about it the day it happened, on the radio. Vic had been out of rehab only five months and had spent the spring watching her mother waste away, and Lou had not wanted to say anything, was afraid that it would kick the legs out from under her. He had meant to tell her, but the opportunity never presented itself, and then, at a certain point, it became impossible to bring it up. He had waited too long Maggie someone must’ve found out that Vic was the girl who got away from Charlie Manx The only child to escape him. Maybe Maggie someone was a journalist, maybe she was a true-crime author working on a book. She had come by for a comment, and Vic had given her one: something definitely unprintable and probably gynecological “Manx isn’t worth thinking about. He doesn’t have anything to do with us.” “But why would someone want to talk to Mom about him?” “You have to ask your mom on that one,” he said. “I really shouldn’t say anything If I do, like, I’ll be the one in trouble You know?” Because this was the deal, his bargain with Victoria McQueen, the one they had settled on after she knew she was pregnant and decided she wanted to have the baby. She let Lou name the kid; she told Lou she’d live with him; she said she’d take care of the baby and when the baby was sleeping, the two of them could have some fun. She said she would be a wife in all but name. But the boy was to know nothing of Charlie Manx, unless she decided to tell him At the time Lou agreed, it all seemed reasonable enough. But he had not anticipated that this arrangement would prevent his son from knowing the single best thing about his own father That his father had once reached past his fear for a moment of real Captain America heroism. He had pulled a beautiful girl onto the back of his motorcycle and raced her away from a monster. And when the monster caught up to them and set a man on fire, Lou had been the one to put out the flames—admittedly too late to save a life, but his heart had been in the right place and he had acted without any thought to the risk he was taking Lou hated to think what his son knew about him instead: that he was a walking fat joke, that he made a mediocre living towing people out of snowbanks and repairing transmissions, that he had not been able to hold on to Vic He wished he had another chance. He wished he could rescue someone else and Wayne could be watching. He would’ve been glad to use his big fat body to stop a bullet, as long as Wayne was there to bear witness to it Then he could bleed out in a haze of glory Was there any human urge more pitiful—or more intense—than wanting another chance at something? His son heaved a sigh, tossed himself onto his back “So tell me about your summer,” Lou asked “What’s the best part so far?” “No one is in rehab,” Wayne said Beside the Bay LOU WAS WAITING FOR SOMETHING TO DETONATE—IT

WAS COMING, any moment now—when Vic wandered over with her hands shoved down in that army jacket of hers and said, “This chair for me?” He glanced over at the woman who had never been his wife but who had, incredibly, given him a child and made his life mean something The idea that he had ever held her hand, or tasted her mouth, or made love to her, even now seemed as unlikely as being bitten by a radioactive spider To be fair, she was certifiable. There was no telling who a schizophrenic would drop her pants for Wayne was on the stone wall overlooking the harbor with some other kids. The entire hotel had turned out for the fireworks, and people were crammed onto the old red bricks facing the water and the Boston skyline. Some sat in wrought-iron deck chairs. Others drifted around with champagne in flutes. Kids ran around holding sparklers, drawing red scratches against the darkness Vic watched her twelve-year-old with a mix of affection and sad longing. Wayne hadn’t noticed her yet, and she didn’t go to him, did nothing to let him know she was there “You’re just in time for everything to go boom,” Lou said His motorcycle jacket was folded into the empty seat next to him. He grabbed it and put it over his knee, making room for her beside him She smiled before she sat—that Vic smile, where only one corner of her mouth turned up, an expression that seemed somehow to suggest regret as much as happiness “My father used to do this,” she said “Light the fireworks for Fourth of July He put on a good show.” “You ever think of making a day trip to Dover with Wayne to see him? That can’t be more than an hour away from The Lake.” “I guess I’d get in touch with him if I needed to blow something up,” she said “If I needed some ANFO.” “Info?” “ANFO. It’s an explosive. What my dad uses to take out stumps and boulders and bridges and so on. It’s basically a big, slippery bag of horseshit, engineered to destroy things.” “What is? ANFO? Or your dad?” “Both,” she said. “I already know what you want to talk about.” “Maybe I just wanted us to have Fourth of July together as a family,” Lou said. “Couldn’t it be that?” “Did Wayne say something about the woman who turned up at the house yesterday?” “He asked me about Charlie Manx.” “Shit. I sent him inside. I didn’t think he could hear us talking.” “Well. He caught a bunch of it.” “How much? Which parts?” “This and that. Enough to be curious.” “Did you know that Manx was dead?” she asked Lou swiped damp palms on his cargo shorts “Aw, dude. First you were in rehab, then your mom was dying—I didn’t want to lay another thing on you. I was going to tell you at some point. Honestly. I don’t like to stress you out. You know. No one wants you to go . . .” His voice faltered and trailed off She gave him her lopsided smile again. “Batshit crazy?” He stared off through the dark at their son Wayne had lit a new pair of sparklers. He waved his arms up and down, flapping his hands, while the sparklers burned and spit. He looked like Icarus just as everything began going wrong “I want things to be easy for you. So you can be around for Wayne. Not, like, I’m laying guilt!” he added quickly. “I’m not giving you a hard time about . . . having a hard time. Wayne and me have been doing okay, just the two of us. I make sure he brushes his teeth, gets his homework done. We go out on jobs together, I let him run the winch He loves that. He’s totally into winches and stuff. I just think he knows how to talk to you. Or maybe you know how to listen. Or something. It’s a mom thing.” He paused, then added, “I should’ve given you a heads-up about Manx dying, though. Just so you knew there might be reporters coming around.” “Reporters?” “Yeah. This lady who turned up yesterday—wasn’t she a reporter?” They were sitting under a low tree, and there were pink blossoms in it. A few petals dropped, caught in Vic’s hair. Lou ached with happiness, and never mind what they were talking about It was July, and he was with Vic, and there were blossoms in her hair. It was romantic, like a song by Journey, one of the good ones “No,” Vic said. “She was a crazy person.” “You mean someone from the hospital?” Lou asked Vic frowned, seemed to sense the petals in her hair, swiped a hand back and brushed them away. So much for romance. She was, in truth, about as romantic as a box full of spark plugs “You and me have never talked about Charlie Manx much,” she said. “About how I wound up with him.” This conversation was headed in a direction he didn’t like. They didn’t talk about how she wound up with Charlie Manx because Lou didn’t want to hear about how the old fuck sexually assaulted her and kept her locked in the trunk of his car for two days. Serious conversations always gave Lou the stomach flutters. He preferred casual banter about the Green Lantern “I figured if you wanted to talk about it,” he said, “you’d bring it up.” “I never talked about it because I don’t know what happened.” “You mean you don’t remember. Yeah. Yeah, I get that. I’d block that shit out, too.” “No,” she said. “I mean I don’t know I remember, but I don’t know.” “But . . . if you remember, then you know what happened. Aren’t remembering and knowing the same thing?” “Not if you remember it two different ways In my head there are two stories about what happened to me, and they both seem true. Do you want to hear them?” No. Not at all He nodded anyway “In one version, the version I told the federal prosecutor, I had a fight with my mom. I ran away. I wound up at a train station, late at night. I called my dad to see if I could stay with him, and he told me I had to go home. When I hung up, I felt a stinging in my backside. As I turned around, my vision blurred and I fell into Manx’s arms. Charlie Manx kept me in the trunk of his car all the way across the country. He only took me out to keep me drugged. I was aware, vaguely, that he had another child with him, a little boy, but he mostly kept us apart. When we got to Colorado, he left me in the trunk and went off to do something with the boy. I got out. Forced the trunk open. I set fire to his place to distract him and ran to the highway I ran through those awful woods with all the Christmas ornaments swinging from the trees I ran to you, Lou. And you know the rest after that,” she said. “That’s one way I remember things happening. Do you want to hear the other way?” He wasn’t sure he did but nodded for her to go on “So in a different version of my life, I had a bicycle. My father gave it to me when I was a little girl. And I could use this bicycle to find lost things. I would ride it across an imaginary covered bridge, and the bridge would always take me wherever I needed to go. Like once my mother lost a bracelet and I rode my bike across this bridge and came out in New Hampshire, forty miles away from home. And the bracelet was there, in a restaurant called Terry’s Primo Subs With me so far?” “Imaginary bridge, superpowered bike. Got it.” “Over the years I used my bicycle and the bridge to find all kinds of things. Missing stuffed animals or lost photos. Things like that. I didn’t go ‘finding’ often. Just once or twice a year. And as I got older, even less. It started to scare me, because I knew it was impossible, that the world isn’t supposed to work that way. When I was little, it was just pretend. But as I got older, it began to seem crazy. It began to frighten me.” “I’m surprised you didn’t use your special power to find someone who could tell you there was nothing wrong with you,” Lou said Her eyes widened and lit with surprise, and Lou understood that in fact she had done just that “How did you—” she began “I read a lot of comics. It’s the logical next step,” Lou said. “Discover magic ring, seek out the Guardians of the Universe Standard operating procedure. Who was it?” “The bridge took me to a librarian in Iowa.” “It would be a librarian.” “This girl—she wasn’t much older than me—had a special power of her own. She could use Scrabble tiles to reveal secrets. Spell messages from the great beyond. That kind of thing.” “An imaginary friend.” She gave him a small, scared, apologetic smile and a brief shake of the head. “It didn’t feel imaginary. Not ever. It felt real.” “Even the part where you bicycled all the way to Iowa?” “Across the Shorter Way Bridge.” “And how long did it take to get from Massachusetts to the corn capital of America?” “I don’t know. Thirty seconds? A minute, tops.” “It took you thirty seconds to pedal from Massachusetts to Iowa? And that part didn’t feel imaginary?” “No. I remember it all like it really happened.” “Okay. Got you. Go on.” “So like I said, this girl in Iowa, she had a bag of Scrabble tiles. She could pull letters out and line them up into messages Her Scrabble letters helped her unlock secrets, in the same way my bicycle could help me find lost objects. She told me there were other people like us. People who could do impossible things if they had the right vehicle. She told me about Charlie Manx. She warned me about him. She said there was a man, a bad man with a bad car. He used his car to suck the life out of children. He was a kind of vampire—a road vampire.” “You’re saying you knew about Charlie Manx before he ever kidnapped you?” “No, I’m not. Because in this version of my life, he didn’t kidnap me at all In this version of my life, I had a dumb fight with my mom, and then after, I used my bicycle to go looking for him. I wanted to find some trouble, and I did. I crossed the Shorter Way Bridge and came out at Charlie Manx’s Sleigh House. He did his best to kill me, but I got away from him and ran and met you And the story I told the police, all that stuff about being locked in his trunk and being assaulted—that was just something I made up, because I knew no one would believe the truth. I could tell any story I wanted about Charlie Manx, because I knew that stuff he had really done was worse than any lie I could make up. Remember: In this version of my life, he’s not a dirty old kidnapper, he’s a fucking vampire.” She was not crying, but her eyes were wet and shiny, luminous in a way that made Fourth of July sparklers look chintzy and dull “So he sucked the life out of little kids,” Lou said. “And then what? What happened to them?” “They went to a place called Christmasland I don’t know where that is—I’m not sure it’s even in our world—but they get great phone service, because the kids there used to call me all the time.” She looked out at the children standing on the stone wall, Wayne among them, and whispered, “They were ruined by the time Manx drained the life out of them. Nothing left in them but hate and teeth.” Lou shuddered. “Jesus.” A small knot of men and women erupted into laughter nearby, and Lou glared at them. It didn’t feel as if any people in their general vicinity had any right to be enjoying themselves at this particular moment He looked at her and said, “So to recap: There’s one version of your life where Charlie Manx, a dirty ol’ fuckin’ child murderer, kidnapped you from a train station. And you only barely got away from him. That’s the official memory. But then there’s this other version where you crossed an imaginary bridge on a psychically powered bicycle and tracked him down in Colorado all on your own. And that’s the unofficial memory. The VH1 Behind the Music story.” “Yes.” “And both of these memories feel true to you.” “Yes.” “But you know,” Lou said, eyeing her intently, “that the story about the Shorter Way Bridge is bullshit. Deep down you know it’s a story you told yourself, so you don’t have to think about what really happened to you. So you don’t have to think about . . . being kidnapped and all the rest of it.” “That’s right,” Vic said. “That’s what I figured out in the mental hospital My story about the magic bridge is a classic empowerment fantasy. I couldn’t bear the thought of being a victim, so I invented this vast delusion to make me the hero of the story, complete with a whole set of memories of things that never happened.” He sat back in his chair, his motorcycle jacket folded over one knee, and relaxed, breathed deep. Well. That wasn’t so bad. He understood now what she was saying to him: that she had been through something awful and it made her a crazy person for a while. She had retreated into fantasy for a time—anyone would!—but now she was ready to put the fantasy away, to deal with things as they were “Oh,” Lou added, almost as an afterthought “Shit. This kind of got away from what we were talking about. What does all this have to do with the woman who came to your house yesterday?” “That’s Maggie Leigh,” Vic said “Maggie Leigh? Who the hell is that?” “The librarian. The girl I met in Iowa, when I was thirteen. She tracked me down in Haverhill to tell me that Charlie Manx is back from the dead and coming after me.” LOU’S BIG, ROUND, BRISTLY FACE WAS ALMOST COMICALLY EASY TO read. His eyes didn’t just widen when Vic told him she’d met a woman from her own imagination. They popped, making him resemble a character in a comic strip who has just had a swig from a bottle marked XXX. If there had been smoke jetting from his ears, the picture would’ve been complete Vic had always liked to touch his face and could only barely resist doing it now. It was as inviting as a rubber ball is to a child She had been a child the first time she kissed him. They both had been, really “Dude. What the fuck? I thought you said the librarian was make-believe. Like your covered bridge of the mind.” “Yep. That’s what I decided in the hospital That all those memories were imagined. An elaborate story I’d invented to protect myself from the truth.” “But . . . she can’t be imaginary. She was at the house. Wayne saw her. She left a folder behind. That’s where Wayne read about Charlie Manx,” Lou said. Then his big, expressive face came alive with a look of dismay. “Ah, dude. I wasn’t supposed to tell you that. About the folder.” “Wayne looked in it? Shit. I told her to take it with her. I didn’t want Wayne to see.” “You can’t let him know I told you.” Lou made a fist and rapped it on one of his elephantine knees. “I am so shitty at keeping secrets.” “You’re guileless, Lou. That’s one of the reasons I love you.” He lifted his head and gave her a wondering stare “I do, you know,” she said. “It’s not your fault I made such a rotten mess of everything. It’s not your fault I’m such a colossal fuckup.” Lou bowed his head and considered this “Aren’t you going to tell me I’m not so bad?” she asked “Mmm-no. I was thinking how every man loves a hot girl with a history of making mistakes Because it’s always possible she’ll make one with you.” She smiled, reached across the space between them, put her hand on his. “I have a long history of making mistakes, Louis Carmody, but you weren’t one of them. Oh, Lou. I get so fucking tired of being in my own head The screwups are bad, and the excuses are worse. That’s what both versions of my life have in common, you know. The one thing. In the first version of my life, I’m a walking disaster because Mommy didn’t hug me enough and Daddy didn’t teach me how to fly kites or something. In the other version, I’m permitted to be a crazy fucking mess—” “Shhh. Stop.” “—and ruin your life and Wayne’s life—” “Stop kicking yourself.” “—because all those trips through the Shorter Way Bridge messed me up somehow. Because it was an unsafe structure to begin with, and every time I went across it, it took a little more wear. Because it’s a bridge, but it’s also the inside of my own head I don’t expect that to make sense. I hardly understand it myself. It’s pretty Freudian in there.” “Freudian or not, you talk about it like it’s real,” Lou said. He looked out into the night. He took a slow, deep, steadying breath. “So is it?” Yes, Vic thought with a wrenching urgency “No,” she said. “It can’t be. I need it not to be. Lou, do you remember that guy who shot the congresswoman in Arizona? Loughner? He thought the government was trying to enslave humanity by controlling grammar. To him there was no question it was happening. The proof was all around him. When he looked out the window and saw someone walking the dog, he was sure it was a spy, someone the CIA had sent to monitor him. Schizos invent memories all the time: meeting famous people, abductions, heroic triumphs. That’s the nature of delusion Your chemistry fouls up your whole sense of reality. That night I stuck all our phones in the oven and burned our house down? I was sure dead children were calling from Christmasland I heard the phones ringing even though no one else did. I heard voices no one else heard.” “But, Vic. Maggie Leigh was at your house The librarian. You didn’t imagine that Wayne saw her, too.” Vic struggled for a smile she didn’t really feel. “Okay. I’ll try and explain how it’s possible. It’s simpler than you think There’s nothing magic about it. So I have these memories of the Shorter Way Bridge and the bike that took me finding. Only they aren’t memories, they’re delusions, right? And in the hospital we had group sessions where we’d sit and talk about our crazy ideas Lots of patients in that hospital heard my story about Charlie Manx and the Shorter Way Bridge. I think Maggie Leigh is one of them—one of the other crazies. She latched onto my fantasy and made it her own.” “What do you mean you think she was one of the other patients? Was she in your group sessions or not?” “I have no memory of her in those sessions What I remember is meeting Maggie in a small-town library in Iowa. But that’s how delusion works. I’m always ‘remembering’ things.” Vic lifted her fingers and made imaginary quotation marks in the air, to indicate the essentially untrustworthy nature of such recollections “These memories just come to me, all at once, perfect little chapters in this crazy story I wrote in my imagination. But of course there’s nothing true about them. They’re invented on the spot. My imagination provides them, and some part of me decides to accept them as fact the instant they come to me Maggie Leigh told me I met her when I was a child, and my delusion instantly provided a story to back her up. Lou. I can even remember the fish tank in her office. It had one big koi in it, and instead of rocks it had Scrabble tiles on the floor. Think about how crazy that sounds.” “I thought you were on medicine. I thought you were okay now.” “The pills I take are a paperweight. All they do is pin the fantasies down. But they’re still there, and any strong wind that comes along, I can feel them rattling around, trying to slip free.” She met his gaze and said, “Lou. You can trust me. I’m going to take care of myself. Not just for me. For Wayne I’m all right.” She did not say she had run out of Abilify a week earlier, had to spread the last few pills out so she didn’t come down with withdrawal. She didn’t want to worry him any more than necessary, and besides, she planned to refill her prescription first thing next morning. “I’ll tell you something else. I don’t remember meeting Maggie Leigh in the hospital, but I easily could’ve. They had me pumped so full of drugs in there I could’ve met Barack Obama and I wouldn’t remember it. And Maggie Leigh, God bless her, is a lunatic. I knew it the moment I saw her. She smelled like homeless shelters, and her arms were scarred from where she’s been shooting junk or burning herself with cigarettes or both. Probably both.” Lou sat next to her, head lowered, frowning in thought. “What if she comes back? Wayne was pretty freaked.” “We’re headed to New Hampshire tomorrow I don’t think she’s going to find us up there.” “You could come to Colorado. You wouldn’t have to stay with me. We wouldn’t have to stay together. I’m not asking for anything But we could find you a place where you could work on Search Engine. The kid could spend the days with me and the nights with you We got trees and water in Colorado, too, you know.” She sat back in her chair. The sky was low and smoky, the clouds reflecting the lights of the city so that they glowed a dull, dirty shade of pink. In the mountains above Gunbarrel, where Wayne had been conceived, the sky was filled to its depths with stars at night, more stars than you could ever hope to see from sea level. Other worlds were up in those mountains. Other roads “I think I’d like that, Lou,” she said “He’ll go back to Colorado in September, to go to school. And I’ll come with him—if it’s all right.” “Of course it’s all right. Are you out of your mind?” For a single instant, long enough for another blossom to fall into her hair, neither of them spoke. Then, at a shared glance, they burst into laughter. Vic laughed so hard, so freely, she had to gasp to get enough air into her lungs “Sorry,” Lou said. “Probably not the best choice of words.” Wayne, twenty feet away, turned on the stone wall to peer back at them. He held a single dead sparkler in one hand. A ribbon of black smoke drifted from it. He waved “You go back to Colorado and find me a place,” Vic said to Lou. She waved back at Wayne “And at the end of August, Wayne will fly back, and I’ll be with him. I’d come right now, but we’ve got the cottage on the lake until the end of August, and he’s still got three more weeks of day camp paid for.” “And you’ve got to finish working on the motorcycle,” Lou said “Wayne told you about that?” “Didn’t just tell me. He sent me pictures from his phone. Here.” Lou tossed her his jacket The motorcycle jacket was a big, heavy thing, made of some kind of black nylonlike synthetic and with bony plates sewn into it, Teflon armor. She had thought it was the coolest jacket in the world from the first time she put her arms around it, sixteen years before The front flaps were covered in faded, frayed patches: ROUTE 66, SOUL, a Captain America shield. It smelled like Lou, like home. Trees and sweat and grease and the clean, sweet winds that whistled through the mountain passes “Maybe this will keep you from getting killed,” Lou said. “Wear it.” And at that moment the sky above the harbor pulsed with a deep red flash. A rocket detonated in an eardrum-stunning clap. The skies opened and rained white sparks The barrage began I-95 TWENTY-FOUR HOURS LATER, VIC DROVE WAYNE AND HOOPER BACK to Lake Winnipesaukee. It rained the whole way, a hard summer downpour that rattled on the road and forced her to keep to under fifty miles an hour She was across the border and into New Hampshire when she realized she had forgotten to refill her prescription for Abilify It required all her concentration to see the road in front of her and stay in her lane But even if she had been checking the rearview mirror, she would not have noticed the car following at a distance of two hundred yards At night one set of headlights looks much like any other Lake Winnipesaukee WAYNE WOKE IN HIS MOTHER’S BED BEFORE HE WAS READY. SOMETHING had jolted him out of sleep, but he didn’t know what until it came again—a soft thump, thump, thump at the bedroom door His eyes were open, but he didn’t feel awake, a state of mind that would persist throughout the day, so that the things he saw and heard had the talismanic quality of things seen and heard in a dream. Everything that happened seemed hyperreal and freighted with secret

meaning He did not remember going to sleep in his mother’s bed but was not surprised to find himself there. She often moved him to her own bed after he nodded off. He accepted that his company was sometimes necessary, like an extra blanket on a cold night. She was not in bed with him now. She almost always rose before him “Hello?” he said, knuckling his eyes The knocking stopped—then started again, in a halting, almost questioning way: Thud? Thud? Thud? “Who is that?” Wayne asked The knocking stopped. The bedroom door creaked open a few inches. A shadow rose upon the wall, the profile of a man. Wayne could see the big bent crag of a nose and the high, smooth, Sherlock Holmes curve of Charlie Manx’s forehead He tried to scream. He tried to shout his mother’s name. But the only sound he was able to produce was a funny wheeze, a kind of rattle, like a broken sprocket spinning uselessly in some tired machine In the mug shot, Charles Manx had been staring straight into the camera, his eyes bulging, his crooked upper teeth pressed into his lower lip to give him a look of dim-witted bafflement Wayne couldn’t know him by his profile, and yet he recognized his shadow in a glance The door inched inward. The thump, thump, thump came again. Wayne struggled to breathe He wanted to say something—Please! Help!—but the sight of that shadow held him silent, like a hand clamped over his mouth Wayne shut his eyes, snatched a desperate breath of air, and shouted, “Go away!” He heard the door ease inward, whining on its hinges. A hand pressed heavily on the edge of the bed, right by his knee. Wayne forced out a thin, whinnying cry, almost inaudible He opened his eyes and looked—and it was Hooper The big, pale dog stared urgently into Wayne’s face, forepaws on the bed. His damp gaze was unhappy, even stricken Wayne looked past him at the partly open door, but the Manx shadow wasn’t there anymore On some level Wayne understood it had never been there, that his imagination had stitched together a Manx shape out of meaningless shadow Another part of him was sure he had seen it, a profile so clear it might’ve been inked on the wall. The door was open wide enough so Wayne could see into the corridor that ran the length of the house. No one was there Yet he was sure he had heard a knock, could not have imagined that. And as he stared down the hall, it came again, thump, thump, and he looked around and saw Hooper beating his short, thick tail against the floor “Hey, boy,” Wayne said, digging into the soft down behind Hooper’s ears. “You scared me, you know. What brings you?” Hooper continued to gaze up at him. If someone had asked Wayne to describe the expression on Hooper’s big, ugly face, Wayne would’ve said it looked like he was trying to say he was sorry. But he was probably hungry “I’ll get you something to eat. Is that what you want?” Hooper made a noise, a wheezy, gasping sound of refusal, the sound of a toothless gear spinning uselessly, unable to engage Only—no. Wayne had heard that sound before, a few moments ago. He had thought he himself was making it. But the sound wasn’t coming from him, and it wasn’t coming from Hooper It was outside, somewhere in the early-morning dark And still Hooper stared into Wayne’s face, his eyes pleading and miserable. So sorry, Hooper told him with his eyes. I wanted to be a good dog. I wanted to be your good dog Wayne heard this thought in his head, as if Hooper were saying it to him, like a talking dog in a comic strip Wayne pushed Hooper aside, got up, and looked out the window into the front yard. It was so dark he could at first see nothing except his own faint reflection on the glass And then the Cyclops opened one dim eye, right on the other side of the window, six feet away The blood surged to Wayne’s heart, and for the second time in the space of three minutes he felt a yell rise into his throat The eye opened, slow and wide, as if the Cyclops were just rousing itself. It glowed a dirty hue located somewhere between orange Tang and urine. Then, before Wayne could produce a cry, it began to fade, until there was only a burning copper iris glimmering in the darkness A moment later it went out completely Wayne exhaled unsteadily. A headlight. It was the headlight on the front of the motorcycle His mother rose from beside the bike and swiped her hair back from her face. Seen through the old, rippled glass, she didn’t seem to really be there, was a ghost of herself She wore a white halter top and old cotton shorts and her tattoos. It was impossible to make out the details of those tattoos in the dark. It looked as if the night itself were adhering to her skin. But then Wayne had always known that his mother was bound to some private darkness Hooper was out there with her, whisking around her legs, water dripping off his fur. He had obviously just come from the lake. It took Wayne a moment to register that Hooper was beside her, which didn’t make sense, because Hooper was standing beside him. Except that when Wayne looked around, he saw he was alone He didn’t think about it long. He was still too tired. Maybe he’d been awoken by a dream dog. Maybe he was going crazy like his mother Wayne pulled on a pair of cutoffs and went out into the predawn cool. His mother worked on the bike, rag in one hand and a funny tool in the other, that special wrench that looked more like a hook or a curved dagger “How’d I get in your bed?” he asked “Bad dream,” she said “I don’t remember having a bad dream.” “You weren’t the one having it,” she said Dark birds dashed through the mist that crawled across the surface of the lake “You find the busted sprocket?” Wayne asked “How do you know it’s got a busted sprocket?” “I don’t know. Just from how it sounded when you tried to turn it over.” “You been spending time out in the garage? Working with your dad?” “Sometimes. He says I’m useful because I have little hands. I can reach in and unscrew things he can’t get to. I’m great at taking stuff apart. Not so good at putting stuff together.” “Join the club,” she said They worked on the bike. Wayne was not sure how long they were at it, only that by the time they quit, it was hot and the sun was well up above the tree line. They hardly spoke in all the time they worked. That was okay There was no reason to ruin the greasy, knuckle-scraping effort of fixing the bike with a lot of talk about feelings or Dad or girls At some point Wayne sat back on his heels and looked at his mother. She had grease up to her elbows and on her nose, was bleeding from scrapes on her right hand. Wayne was running steel wool over the rust-flecked tailpipe, and he paused to look at himself. He was as filthy as she was “I don’t know how we’re going to get this crap off us,” he said “We got a lake,” she said, tossing her hair and gesturing toward it with her head “Tell you what. If you beat me to the float, we can have breakfast at Greenbough Diner.” “What do you get if you beat me?” “The pleasure of proving that the old woman can still thrash a little piker.” “What’s a piker?” “It’s a—” But he was off and running, grabbing his shirt, snapping it off over his head, flinging it in Hooper’s face. Wayne’s legs and arms pumped fast and smooth, bare feet slashing through the burning-bright dew in the high grass Then she was sailing past him, sticking her tongue out as she reached his side. They hit the dock at the same time. Their bare feet smacked on the boards Halfway to the end, she reached out and put her hand on Wayne’s shoulder and shoved, and he heard her laughing at him as he lurched drunkenly off balance, his arms pedaling in the air. He hit the water and sank into murky green. He heard the low, deep bloosh of her diving off the end of the dock a moment later He flailed, came up spitting and hauling ass for the float, twenty feet offshore. It was a big platform of splintery gray boards floating on rusty oil drums; the thing looked like an environmental hazard. Hooper woofed furiously from the dock behind them. Hooper disapproved of merrymaking in general, unless he was the one making it Wayne was most of the way to the float when he realized he was alone in the lake. The water was a black sheet of glass. His mother was nowhere to be seen, anywhere, in any direction “Mom?” he called. Not afraid. “Mom?” “You lose,” she said, her voice deep, hollow, echoing He dived, held his breath, paddled underwater, came up under the float She was there, in the darkness, her face glistening with water, her hair shining. She grinned at him when he came up beside her “Look,” she said. “Lost treasure.” She pointed at a trembling spiderweb, at least two feet wide, decorated with a thousand gleaming beads of silver and opal and diamond “Can we still go to breakfast?” “Yeah,” she said. “Got to. Victory over a piker is a lot of things, but it isn’t very filling.” Gravel Driveway HIS MOTHER WORKED ON THE BIKE ALL AFTERNOON The sky was the color of a migraine. Thunder sounded once. It was a boom-and-bang, like a heavy truck going over an iron bridge. Wayne waited for rain None came “Do you ever wish you had adopted a Harley-Davidson instead of having a kid?” he asked her “Would’ve been cheaper to feed,” she said. “Hand me that rag.” He handed it to her She wiped her hands and fitted the leather seat over a brand-new battery and threw her leg over the saddle. In her cutoff jeans and oversize black motorcycle boots, tattoos scrawled on her arms and legs, she looked like no one anyone would call “Mom.” She turned the key and hit the run switch The Cyclops opened its eye She put one heel on the kickstart, lifted herself up, slammed her weight down. The bike wheezed “Gesundheit,” Wayne said Vic rose and came down hard again. The engine exhaled, blew dust and leaves out the pipes Wayne didn’t like the way she threw all her weight down on the kickstart. He was afraid something would shatter. Not necessarily the bike “Come on,” she said in a low voice. “We both know why the kid found you, so let’s get on with it.” She hit the kickstart again, and then again, and her hair fell into her face. The starter rattled, and the engine produced a faint, brief, rumbling fart “It’s okay if it doesn’t work,” Wayne said. Suddenly he didn’t like any of this Suddenly it seemed like crazy business—the sort of crazy business he had not seen from his mom since he was a small boy. “Get it later, right?” She ignored him. She raised herself up and set her boot squarely on the kickstart “Let’s go find, you bitch,” she said, and stomped. “Talk to me.” The engine ba-boomed. Dirty blue smoke shot from the pipes. Wayne almost fell off the fence post he was sitting on. Hooper ducked, then barked in fright His mother gave it throttle, and the engine roared. It was frightening, the noise of it Exciting, too “IT RUNS!” he hollered She nodded “WHAT’S IT SAYING?” he yelled She frowned at him “YOU TOLD IT TO TALK TO YOU. WHAT’S IT SAYING? I DON’T SPEAK MOTORCYCLE LANGUAGE.” “OH,” she said. “HI-YO, SILVER.” “LET ME GET MY HELMET!” WAYNE YELLED “YOU’RE NOT COMING.” Each of them screaming to be heard over the sound of the engine battering the air “WHY NOT?” “IT’S NOT SAFE YET. I’M NOT GOING FAR BE BACK IN FIVE MINUTES.” “WAIT!” Wayne shouted, and held up one finger, then turned and ran for the house The sun was a cold white point, shining through the low piles of clouds She wanted to move. The need to be on the road was a kind of maddening itch, as hard to leave alone as a mosquito bite. She wanted to get on the highway, see what she could make the bike do. What she could find The front door slapped shut. Her son came charging back, carrying a helmet and Lou’s jacket “COME BACK ALIVE, RIGHT?” he called “THAT’S THE PLAN,” she said. And then, as she was putting the jacket on, she said, “I WILL BE RIGHT BACK. DON’T WORRY.” He nodded The world vibrated around her from the force of the engine: the trees, the road, the sky, the house, all of it shuddering furiously, in danger of shattering. She had already turned the bike to face the road She punched the helmet down onto her head She wore the jacket open Right before she let the handbrake out, her son bent down in front of the bike and snatched something out of the dirt “WHAT?” she asked He handed it to her—that wrench that looked like a curved knife, the word TRIUMPH stamped into it. She nodded thanks and pushed it down into the pocket of her shorts “COME BACK,” he said “BE HERE WHEN I DO,” she said Then she put her feet up, dropped it into first, and she was gliding The moment she started moving, everything stopped shaking. The split-tie fence slid away on her right. She leaned as she turned onto the road, and it felt like an airplane banking. It didn’t feel as if she were touching the blacktop at all She shifted into second. The house dropped away behind her. She cast a last glance over her shoulder. Wayne stood in the driveway, waving. Hooper was out in the street, gazing after her with a curiously hopeless stare Vic gave it throttle and shifted into third, and the Triumph lunged, and she had to squeeze the handlebars to keep from falling off. A thought flashed through her mind, the memory of a biker T-shirt she had owned for a while: IF YOU CAN READ THIS, THE BITCH FELL OFF Her jacket was unzipped, and it scooped up the air and ballooned around her. She rushed on into low fog She did not see a pair of close-set headlights come on down the road behind her, glowing dimly in the mist Neither did Wayne Route 3 TREES AND HOUSES AND YARDS FLASHED BY, DARK, BLURRED SHAPES only dimly apprehended in the mist There was no thought in her. The bike rushed her away from thought. She had known that it would, had known the first moment she saw it in the carriage house that it was fast enough and powerful enough to race her away from the worst part of herself, the part that tried to make sense of things She triggered the gearshift with her foot again, and then again, and the Triumph jumped forward each time, swallowing the road beneath it The fog thickened against her, blowing into her face. It was pearly, evanescent, the sunlight striking through from somewhere up and to the left, causing the whole world to glow around her as if irradiated. Vic felt that a person could not hope for more beauty in this world The damp road hissed like static under the tires A gentle, almost delicate ache caressed her left eyeball She saw a barn in the shifting mist, a long, tall, tilted, narrow structure. A trick of the billowing vapor made it appear to be sitting in the middle of the road, not a hundred yards away, although she knew that the highway would hook off to the left in another moment and swing her past it. She half smiled at how much it looked like her old imaginary bridge Vic lowered her head and listened to the susurration of the tires on wet asphalt, that sound that was so like white noise on the radio. What were you listening to when you tuned to static? she wondered. She thought she had read somewhere that it was the background radiation in which the entire universe bathed She waited for the road to hook left and bring her around the barn, but it kept on straight That tall, dark, angular shape rose before her until she was in its shadow. And it wasn’t a barn at all, and she only realized that the road ran straight into it when it was too late to turn aside. The mist darkened and went cold, as cold as a dip in the lake Boards slammed under the tires, a rapid-fire knocking sound The mist was snatched away as the bike carried her up and out of it and into the bridge She sucked at the air and smelled the stink of bats She drove her heel down on the brake and shut her eyes. This isn’t real, she thought, almost whispered to herself The foot pedal for the brake went all the way down, held for a moment—and then came completely off. It fell onto the boards with a deep, hollow thud. A nut and a collection of washers went jingling after it The cable that carried the brake fluid flapped against her leg, spurting. The heel of her boot touched the worn boards beneath her, and it was like putting her toe into some nineteenth-century threshing machine. A part of her insisted she was hallucinating. Another part felt her boot striking against the bridge and understood that her hallucination would snap her in two if she dumped the bike She had time to look down and back, trying to process what was happening. A gasket spun through the air from somewhere, carving a whimsical arc through the shadows. The front tire wobbled. The world slurved around her, the back tire skidding out and around, slamming madly across loose boards She lifted herself up from the seat and slung her weight hard to the left, holding the bike up more by will than by strength. It slid sideways, rattling across the boards. The tires grabbed at last, and the bike came to a shuddering stop and immediately almost fell over. She got a foot down first, held it up, although only barely, gritting her teeth and struggling against the sudden weight Vic’s breathing echoed raggedly in the barnlike interior of the Shorter Way Bridge, unchanged in the sixteen years since she had last seen it She shivered, clammy in her bulky motorcycle jacket “Not real,” she said, and shut her eyes She heard the gentle, dry rustling of the bats overhead “Not real,” she said White noise hissed softly, just on the other side of the walls Vic concentrated on her own breath, inhaling slowly and steadily, then exhaling again through pursed lips. She stepped off the bike and stood beside it, holding it up by the handlebars She opened her eyes but kept her gaze pointed at her feet. She saw the boards, old, grayish brown, worn. She saw flickering static between the planks “Not real,” she said for a third time She closed her eyes again. She wheeled the bike around, to face back the way she had come. Vic began to walk. She felt the boards sink under her feet, under the weight of the little Triumph Bonneville. Her lungs were tight, and it was hard to draw a full breath, and she felt sick. She was going to have to go back to the mental hospital. She was not going to get to be Wayne’s mother after all. At this thought she felt her throat constrict with grief “This is not real. There is no bridge. I am off my meds and seeing things. That’s all.” She took one step and another step and another and then opened her eyes again and was standing with her broken motorcycle in the road When she turned her head and looked back over her shoulder, she saw only highway The Lake House THE LATE-AFTERNOON FOG WAS A CAPE THAT FLAPPED OPEN TO ADMIT Vic McQueen and her mean machine, then flapped shut behind her, swallowing even the sound of the engine “Come on, Hooper,” Wayne said. “Let’s go in.” Hooper stood on the margin of the road, staring at him uncomprehendingly Wayne called again when he was in the house He held the door open, waiting for his dog to come to him. Instead Hooper turned his big, shaggy head and peered back along the road—not in the direction Wayne’s mother had ridden but the other way Wayne couldn’t tell what he was looking at. Who knew what dogs saw? What the shapes in the mist meant to them? What odd, superstitious notions they might hold? Wayne was certain dogs were as superstitious as humans. More, maybe “Suit yourself,” Wayne said, and shut the door He sat in front of the TV with his iPhone in one hand and texted with his dad for a few minutes: Are u at the airport yet? Yep. They pushed my flight back to 3 so I’m going to be sitting here awhile That sux. What r u gonna do? Gonna hit the food court. Gonna hit it so hard it CRIES Mom got the bike going. She’s out riding around She wearing her helmet? Yes. I made her. Coat too Good for you. That coat adds +5 to all armor rolls LOL. I love u. Have a safe flight If I die in a plane crash remember to always bag and board your comics. Love you too Then there was nothing more to say. Wayne reached for the remote control, switched on the TV, found SpongeBob. His official stance was that he had grown out of SpongeBob, but with his mother gone he could dispense with the official stance and do what he liked Hooper barked Wayne got up and went to the picture window, but he couldn’t see Hooper anymore. The big dog had vanished into the watery white vapor He listened intently, wondering if the bike was coming back. It felt as if his mother had been gone longer than five minutes His eyes refocused, and he saw the TV reflected in the picture window. SpongeBob was wearing a scarf and talking to Santa Claus. Santa stuck a steel hook through SpongeBob’s brains and threw him into his bag of toys Wayne jerked his head around, but SpongeBob was talking to Patrick and there wasn’t any Santa Claus He was on his way back to the couch when he heard Hooper at the front door at last, his tail going thump, thump, thump, just as it had that morning “Coming,” he said. “Hold your horses.” But when he opened the door, it wasn’t Hooper at all. It was a short, hairy, fat man in a tracksuit, gray with gold stripes, the sleeves pushed back to show his forearms. His head was a patchy bristle, as if he had mange His eyes protruded from above his broad, flattened nose “Hello,” he said. “Can I use your phone? We’ve had a terrible accident. We’ve just hit a dog with our car.” He spoke haltingly, like a man reading his lines from a cue card but having trouble making out the words “What?” Wayne asked. “What did you say?” The ugly man gave him a worried look and said, “Hello? Can I use your phone. We’ve had a terrible accident? We’ve just hit a dog With our car!” They were all the same words, but with emphasis in different places, as if he were not sure which sentences were questions and which were declarations Wayne looked past the ugly little man. Back down the road, he saw what looked like a dirty roll of white carpet lying in front of a car In the pale, drifting smoke, it was hard to see either the car or the white mound clearly Only it wasn’t a roll of carpet, of course Wayne knew exactly what it was “We didn’t see it, and it was right in the road. We hit it with our car,” the little man said, gesturing over his shoulder A tall man stood in the mist, next to the right front tire. He was bent over, his hands on his knees, considering the dog in a speculative sort of way, as if he half expected Hooper to get back up The little man looked down at his palm for a moment, then back up, and said, “It was a terrible accident.” He smiled hopefully “Can I use your phone?” “What?” Wayne said again, although he had heard the man perfectly well, even through the ringing in his ears. And besides, he had said the same thing, three times now, with almost no variation at all. “Hooper? Hooper!” He pushed past the little man. He did not run but went at a fast walk, his gait jerky and stiff Hooper looked as if he had dropped onto his side and gone to sleep in the road in front of the car. His legs stuck out straight from

his body. His left eye was open, staring up at the sky, filmy and dull, but as Wayne approached, it moved to track him. Still alive “Oh, God, boy,” Wayne said. He sank to his knees. “Hooper.” In the glare of the headlights, the mist was revealed as a thousand fine grains of water trembling in the air. Too light to fall, they blew around instead, a rain that wouldn’t rain Hooper pushed creamy drool out of his mouth with his thick tongue. His belly moved in rapid, panting breaths. Wayne couldn’t see any blood “My Lord,” said the man who stood looking down at the dog. “That is what you call bad luck! I am so sorry. The poor thing. You can bet he does not know what happened to him, though. You can take some consolation from that!” Wayne looked past the dog at the man standing by the front of the car. The man wore black boots that came almost to his knees and a tailcoat with rows of brass buttons on either side of the placket. As Wayne lifted his gaze, he took in the car as well. It was an antique—an oldie but a goodie, his father would say The tall man held a silver hammer in his right hand, a hammer the size of a croquet mallet The shirt beneath his coat was watered white silk, as smooth and shiny as fresh-poured milk Wayne lifted his gaze the rest of the way Charlie Manx stared down at him with large, fascinated eyes “God bless dogs and children,” he said “This world is too hard a place for them The world is a thief, and it steals your childhood from you and all the best dogs, too. But believe this. He is on his way to a better place now!” Charlie Manx still looked like his mug shot, although he was older—old going on ancient A few silver hairs were combed across his spotted, bare skull. His scant lips were parted to show a horribly colorless tongue, as white as dead skin. He was as tall as Lincoln and just as dead. Wayne could smell the death on him, the stink of decay “Don’t touch me,” Wayne said He got up on unsteady legs and took a single step backward before he thumped into the ugly little man standing behind him. The little man gripped him by the shoulders, forcing him to remain facing Manx Wayne twisted his head to look back. If he had the air, he would’ve screamed. The man behind him had a new face. He wore a rubber gasmask with a grotesque valve where his mouth belonged and glossy plastic windows for eyes If eyes were windows to the soul, then the Gasmask Man’s offered a view of profound emptiness “Help!” Wayne screamed. “Help me!” “That is my aim exactly,” said Charlie Manx “Help!” Wayne screamed again “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream,” the Gasmask Man said. “Keep shouting. See if that’s what you get. Big hint, bucko—no ice cream for screamers!” “HELP!” Wayne shouted Charlie Manx put his gaunt fingers over his ears and made a pained face. “That is a lot of filthy noise.” “Boys who make filthy noise don’t get any toys,” the Gasmask Man said. “Boys who yelp get no help.” Wayne wanted to vomit. He opened his mouth to scream again, and Manx reached out and pressed a finger to his lips. Shhh. Wayne almost flinched at the smell of it, an odor of formaldehyde and blood “I am not going to hurt you. I would not hurt a child. There is no need for a lot of caterwauling. My business is with your mother I am sure you are a fine boy. All children are—for a while. But your mother is a lying scallywag who has given false witness against me. That is not the end of it either. I have children of my own, and she kept me from them for years and years. For a decade I could not see their sweetly smiling faces, although I heard their voices often enough in dreams I heard them calling for me, and I know they went hungry. You cannot think what it is like, to know your children are in need and that you cannot help them. It will drive a normal man to madness. Of course, some would say I did not have far to drive!” At this both men laughed “Please,” Wayne said. “Let me go.” “Do you want me to gas him out, Mr. Manx? Is it time for some gingerbread smoke?” Manx folded his hands at his waist and frowned “A short nap might be the best thing. It is hard to reason with a child who is so overwrought.” The Gasmask Man began to force-march Wayne around the front of the car. Wayne saw now that it was a Rolls-Royce, and he flashed to one of Maggie Leigh’s newspaper articles, something about a man disappearing in Kentucky along with a 1938 Rolls “Hooper!” Wayne screamed He was being propelled past the dog. Hooper twisted his head, as if snapping at a fly, moving with more life than Wayne would’ve guessed possible. He bit, shutting his teeth on the Gasmask Man’s left ankle The Gasmask Man squealed and stumbled. Wayne thought, for an instant, that he might leap free, but the little man had long, powerful arms, like a baboon’s, and he got his forearm around Wayne’s throat “Oh, Mr. Manx,” the Gasmask Man said “He’s biting! The dog is biting! He’s got his teeth in me!” Manx raised the silver hammer and dropped it on Hooper’s head, like a man at a fair, using a sledgehammer to test his strength, hitting the target to see if he could ring a bell. Hooper’s skull crunched like a lightbulb under a boot heel. Manx hit him a second time to be sure. The Gasmask Man tore his foot free and turned sideways and kicked Hooper for good measure “You dirty dog!” the Gasmask Man cried “I hope that hurt! I hope that hurt a lot!” When Manx straightened up, there was fresh, wet blood glistening on his shirt in a rough Y shape. It seeped through the silk, trickling from some wound on the old man’s chest “Hooper,” Wayne said. He meant to scream it, but it came out as a whisper, barely audible even to himself Hooper’s white fur was stained all red now It was like blood on snow. Wayne couldn’t look at what had been done to his head Manx bent over the dog, catching his breath “Well. This pup has chased his last flock of pigeons.” “You killed Hooper,” Wayne said Charlie Manx said, “Yes. It looks like I have. The poor thing. That is too bad. I have always tried to be a friend to dogs and children I will try to make it up to you, young man Consider that I owe you one. Put him in the car, Bing, and give him something to take his mind off his cares.” The Gasmask Man shoved Wayne ahead of him, hopping along, keeping his weight off his right ankle The back door of the Rolls-Royce popped and swung wide. No one was sitting in the car No one had touched the latch. Wayne was baffled—amazed, even—but did not linger on it. Things were moving quickly now, and he couldn’t afford to give it thought Wayne understood that if he climbed into the backseat, he would never climb out again It would be like climbing into his own grave Hooper, though, had tried to show him what to do. Hooper had tried to show him that even when you seemed completely overpowered, you could still show your teeth Wayne turned his head and sank his teeth into the fat man’s forearm. He locked his jaw and bit down until he tasted blood The Gasmask Man shrieked. “It hurts! He’s hurting me!” His hand opened and shut. Wayne saw, in close focus, words written in black marker on the Gasmask Man’s palm: PHONE ACCIDENT CAR “Bing!” hissed Mr. Manx. “Shhh! Put him in the car and hush yourself!” Bing—the Gasmask Man—grabbed a handful of Wayne’s hair and pulled. Wayne felt as if his scalp were being ripped up like old carpet. Still, he put one foot up, bracing it against the side of the car. The Gasmask Man moaned and punched Wayne in the side of the head It was like a flashbulb going off. Only instead of a flash of white light, it was a flash of blackness, behind his eyes. Wayne dropped the foot braced against the side of the car As his vision cleared, he was pushed through the open door and fell onto all fours on the carpet “Bing!” Manx cried. “Close that door! Someone is coming! That dreadful woman is coming!” “Your ass is grass,” the Gasmask Man said to Wayne. “Your ass is so much grass. And I am the lawn mower. I’m going to mow your ass, and then I’m going to fuck it. I’m going to fuck you right in the ass.” “Bing, mind me now!” “Mom!” screamed Wayne “I’m coming!” she shouted back, tiredly, her voice arriving from a great distance and without any particular urgency The Gasmask Man slammed the car door Wayne rose onto his knees. His left ear throbbed where he had been struck, burned against the side of his face. There was a nasty aftertaste of blood in his mouth He looked over the front seats and out the windshield A dark shape walked up the road. The mist played fun-house tricks with the optics, distorting and enlarging the shape. It looked like a grotesque hunchback pushing a wheelchair “Mom!” Wayne screamed again The front passenger-side door—which was on the left, where the steering wheel would’ve been in an American car—opened. The Gasmask Man climbed in, pulled the door shut behind him, then twisted in his seat and pointed a pistol in Wayne’s face “You want to shut your mouth,” the Gasmask Man said, “or I’ll drill you. I’ll pump you full of lead. How would you like that? Not too much, I bet!” The Gasmask Man considered his right arm There was a misshapen purple bruise where Wayne had bitten him, enclosed in parentheses of bright blood where Wayne’s teeth had broken the skin Manx slid behind the steering wheel. He put his silver mallet on the leather between him and the Gasmask Man. The car was running, the engine producing a deep, resonant purr that was felt more than heard, a kind of luxurious vibration The hunchback with the wheelchair came through the mist, until all at once it resolved into the shape of a woman walking a motorcycle, pushing it laboriously by the handlebars Wayne opened his mouth to shout for his mother again. The Gasmask Man shook his head. Wayne stared into the black circle of the barrel It was not terrifying. It was fascinating—like the view from a high peak at the edge of a straight drop “No more laughing,” the Gasmask Man said “No more fun. Quaker Meeting has begun.” Charlie Manx dropped the car into drive with a heavy clunk. Then he glanced over his shoulder once more “Do not mind him,” Manx said. “He is an old spoilsport. I think we can manage to have some fun. I am all but certain of it In fact, I am about to have some right now.” Route 3 THE BIKE WOULDN’T START. IT WOULDN’T EVEN MAKE HOPEFUL noises. She jumped up and down on it until her legs were worn out, but not once did it produce the low, deep, throat-clearing sound that suggested the engine was close to turning over. Instead it made a soft puff, like a man blowing a contemptuous sigh through his lips: fffftt There was nothing to do except walk She bent to the handlebars and began to push She took three effortful steps, then paused and looked over her shoulder again. Still no bridge. There had never been any bridge Vic walked and tried to imagine how she would begin the conversation with Wayne Hey, kid, bad news: I shook something loose on the motorcycle, and it got broke. Oh, and I shook something loose in my head, and that got broke, too. I’m going to have to go in for service. When I get settled in the psycho ward, I’ll send you a postcard She laughed. It sounded, to her ears, much like a sob Wayne. I want more than anything to be the mom you deserve. But I can’t. I can’t do it The thought of saying such a thing made her want to puke. Even if it were true, that didn’t make it feel any less cowardly Wayne. I hope you know I love you. I hope you know I tried The fog drifted across the road and felt as if it were passing right through her. The day had turned unaccountably chilly for early July Another voice, strong, clear, masculine, spoke in her thoughts, her father’s voice: Don’t bullshit a bullshitter, kid. You wanted to find the bridge. You went looking for it That’s why you stopped taking your meds That’s why you fixed the bike. What are you really scared of? Scared that you’re crazy? Or scared that you aren’t? Vic often heard her father telling her things she didn’t want to know, although she had spoken to him only a handful of times in the last ten years. She wondered at that, why she still needed the voice of a man who had abandoned her without a look back She pushed her bike through the damp chill of the mist. Water beaded up on the weird, waxy surface of the motorcycle jacket. Who knew what it was made out of—some mix of canvas, Teflon, and, presumably, dragon hide Vic removed her helmet and hung it off the handlebars, but it wouldn’t stay there, kept dropping into the street. Finally she jammed it back on her head. She pushed, trudging along the side of the road. It crossed her mind she could just leave the bike, come back for it later, but she never seriously entertained the notion. She had walked away from the other bike once, the Raleigh, and had left the best of herself behind with it. When you had a set of wheels that could take you anywhere, you didn’t walk away from it Vic wished, for maybe the first time in her life, that she owned a cell phone. Sometimes it seemed as if she were the last person in America not to have one. She pretended it was a way of showing off her freedom from the twenty-first century’s technological snares. In truth, though, she could not bear the idea of having a phone on her all the time, wherever she went. Could not be at ease knowing she might get an urgent call from Christmasland, some dead kid on the line: Hey, Ms. McQueen, did you miss us?!? She pushed and walked and pushed and walked She was singing something under her breath For a long time, she wasn’t even aware she was doing it. She imagined Wayne standing at the window at home, staring out into the rain and fog, shifting nervously from foot to foot Vic was conscious of—and tried to quash—a gathering feeling of panic out of proportion to the situation. She felt she was needed at home. She had been gone far too long. She was afraid of Wayne’s tears and anger—and at the same time looked forward to them, to seeing him, to knowing that everything was all right. She pushed. She sang “Silent night,” she sang, “holy night.” She heard herself and stopped, but the song continued in her head, plaintive and off-key All is calm. All is bright Vic felt feverish in her motorcycle helmet Her legs were soaked and cold from the fog, her face was hot and sweaty from her exertions She wanted to sit down—no, lie down—in the grass, on her back, staring up at the low, curdled sky. But she could see the rental house at last, a dark rectangle on her left, almost featureless in the fog The day was dim by now, and she was surprised there were no lights on in the cottage, aside from the wan blue glow of the TV. She supposed she was surprised, too, that Wayne wasn’t in the window watching for her But then she heard him “Mom!” he shouted. With her helmet on, his voice was muffled, a long way off She hung her head. He was fine “I’m coming,” she called back wearily She had almost reached the foot of the driveway when she heard a car idling. She looked up Headlights glowed in the fog. The car they belonged to had been pulled over at the side of the road, but the moment she spotted it, it began to move, sliding up onto the blacktop Vic stood and watched it, and as the car came forward, shedding the fog, she could not say she was entirely surprised. She had sent him to jail, and she had read his obituary, but some part of her had been waiting to see Charlie Manx and his Rolls-Royce again for her entire adult life The Wraith slid out of the mist, a black sleigh tearing through a cloud and dragging tails of December frost behind it. December frost in July. The roiling white smoke boiled away from the license plate, old, dented, rust-shot: NOS4A2 Vic let go of the bike, and it fell with a great crash. The mirror on the left handlebar exploded in a pretty spray of silver splinters She turned and ran The split-rail fence was on her left, and she reached it in two steps and jumped onto it. She made the top cross-tie when she heard the car lunging up the embankment behind her, and she jumped and landed on the lawn and took one more step, and then the Wraith went through the fence A log helicoptered through the air, whup-whup-whup, and nailed her across the shoulders. She was slammed off her feet and over the edge of the world, dropped into a bottomless chasm, fell into cold, roiling smoke without end The Lake House THE WRAITH STRUCK THE FENCE OF SKINNED POLES, AND WAYNE WAS flung off the rear seat and onto the floor. His teeth banged together with a sharp clack Logs snapped and flew. One of them made a clobbering sound, drumming against the hood In Wayne’s mind that was the sound of his mother’s body hitting the car, and he began to scream Manx thumped the car into park and turned on the seat to face the Gasmask Man “I do not want him to have to watch any of this,” Manx said. “Seeing your dog die in the road is pitiful enough. Will you put him to sleep for me, Bing? Anyone can see he has exhausted himself.” “I ought to help you with the woman.” “Thank you, Bing. That is very thoughtful No, I have her well in hand.” The car rocked as the men climbed out Wayne struggled to his knees, lifted his head to look over the front seat, through the window, and into the yard Charlie Manx had that silver mallet in one hand and was coming around the front of the car. Wayne’s mother was flat on the grass amid a scattering of logs The back left-hand door opened, and the Gasmask Man climbed in next to Wayne. Wayne lunged to his right, trying to get to the other door, but the Gasmask Man caught his arm and pulled him over beside him In one hand he had a little blue aerosol can It said GINGERSNAP SPICE AIR FRESHENER on the side and showed a woman pulling a pan of gingerbread men out of an oven “I’ll tell you about this stuff right here,” the Gasmask Man said. “It may say Gingersnap Spice, but what it really smells like is bedtime. You get a mouthful of this, it’ll knock you into next Wednesday.” “No!” Wayne cried. “Don’t!” He flapped, like a bird with one wing nailed to a wooden board. He wasn’t flying anywhere “Oh, I won’t,” the Gasmask Man said “You bit me, you little shit. How do you know I don’t have AIDS? You could have it You could have a big, dirty mouthful of my AIDS now.” Wayne looked over the front seat, through the windshield, into the yard. Manx was pacing around behind Wayne’s mother, who still hadn’t moved “I ought to bite you back, you know,” the Gasmask Man said. “I ought to bite you twice, once for what you did and once more for your dirty dog. I could bite you in your pretty little face. You have a face like a pretty little girl, but it wouldn’t be so pretty if I bit your cheek out and spit it on the floor. But we’re just going to sit here instead. We’re just going to sit here and watch the show. You watch and see what Mr. Manx does with dirty whores who tell dirty lies. And after he’s done with her . . . after he’s done, it’ll be my turn. And I’m not half so nice as Mr. Manx.” His mother moved her right hand, opening and closing her fingers, making a loose fist Wayne felt something unclench inside him It was as if someone had been standing on his chest and had just stepped off, giving him his first chance in who knew how long to inhale fully. Not dead. Not dead. She was not dead She swept the hand back and forth, gently, as if feeling in the grass for something she had dropped. She moved her right leg, bending it at the knee. It looked like she wanted to try to get up Manx bent over her with that enormous silver hammer of his, lifted it, and brought it down Wayne had never heard bones break before Manx struck her in the left shoulder, and Wayne heard it pop, like a knothole exploding in a campfire. The force of the blow drove her back down onto her belly He screamed for her. He screamed with all the air in his lungs and shut his eyes and lowered his head— And the Gasmask Man grabbed him by his hair and yanked his head back. Something metal smashed Wayne in the mouth. The Gasmask Man had clubbed him in the face with the can of Gingersnap Spice “You open your eyes and watch,” the Gasmask Man said Wayne’s mother moved her right hand, trying to lift herself up, crawl away, and Manx hit her again. Her spine shattered with a sound like someone jumping on a stack of china plates “Pay attention,” the Gasmask Man said He was breathing so hard it was steaming up the inside of his mask. “We’re just getting to the good part.” Under VIC SWAM She was underwater, she was in the lake. She had plunged almost all the way to the bottom, where the world was dark and slow. Vic felt no need for air, was not conscious of holding her breath. She had always liked going deep, into the still, silent, shadowed provinces of fish Vic could’ve stayed under forever, was ready to be a trout, but Wayne was calling her from the surface world. His voice was a long way off, yet she still heard the urgency in it, heard that he was not yelling but screaming It took an effort to kick for the surface Her arms and legs didn’t want to move. She tried to focus on just one hand, sweeping it at the water. She opened her fingers. She closed her fingers. She opened them again She opened her hand in the grass. Vic was in the dirt, on her stomach, although the sluggish underwater feeling persisted. She could not fathom—ha, ha, fathom, get it?—how she had wound up sprawled in her yard. She could not remember what had hit her. Something had hit her. It was hard to lift her head “Are you with me, Mrs. Smarty-Pants Victoria McQueen?” someone said She heard him but couldn’t register what he was saying. It was irrelevant. Wayne was the thing. She had heard Wayne screaming for her, she was sure of it. She had felt him screaming in her bones. She had to get up and see that he was all right Vic made an effort to push herself onto all fours, and Manx brought his bright silver hammer down on her shoulder. She heard the bone crack, and the arm caved beneath her She collapsed, bashed the ground with her chin “I did not say you could get up. I asked if you were listening. You will want to listen to me.” Manx. Manx was here, not dead. Manx and his Rolls-Royce, and Wayne was in the Rolls-Royce She knew this last fact as certainly as she knew her own name, although she had not laid eyes on Wayne in half an hour or more. Wayne was in that car, and she had to get him out She began to push herself up once more, and Charlie Manx came down with his silver hammer again and hit her in the back, and she heard her spine break with a sound like someone stepping on a cheap toy: a brittle, plasticky crunch. The blunt force drove the wind out of her and slammed her back to her stomach Wayne was screaming again, wordlessly now Vic wished she could look around for him, get her bearings, but it was almost impossible to pick her head up. Her head felt heavy and strange, unsupportable, too much for her slender neck to bear. The helmet, she thought. She was still wearing her helmet and Lou’s jacket Lou’s jacket Vic had moved one leg, had drawn the knee up, the first part of her plan to get back on her feet. She could feel the dirt under her knee, could feel the muscle in the back of her thigh trembling. Vic had heard Manx pulverize her spine with his second swing, and she was not sure why she could still feel her legs. She was not sure why she wasn’t in more pain. Her hamstrings ached more than anything else, bunched tight from pushing the bike half a mile. Everything hurt, but nothing was broken. Not even the shoulder

she had heard pop. She drew a great shuddering breath, and her ribs expanded effortlessly, although she had heard them crack like branches in a windstorm Except it had never been her bones breaking She had heard the snapping of those Kevlar plates fitted into the back and shoulders of Lou’s bulky motorcycle jacket. Lou had said you could catch a telephone pole at twenty miles an hour wearing his coat and still have a chance at getting back up The next time Manx hit her, in the side, she shouted—more in surprise than pain—and heard another loud snap “You will want to answer me when I am speaking to you,” Manx said Her side throbbed—she had felt that one But the snap had only been another plate going Her head was almost clear, and she thought if she made a great effort, she could heave herself to her feet No you don’t, said her father, so close he might’ve been whispering in her ear You stay down and let him have his fun. This is not the time, Brat She had given up on her father. Had no use for him and kept their few conversations as short as possible. Did not want to hear from him. But now he was here, and he spoke to her in the same calm, measured tone of voice he’d used when he was explaining how to field a grounder or why Hank Williams mattered He thinks he’s busted you up real good, kiddo. He thinks you’re beat. You try and get up now, he’ll know you aren’t as bad as he thinks you are, and then he will get you. Wait. Wait for the right time. You’ll know it when it comes Her father’s voice, her lover’s jacket For a moment she was aware of both the men in her life looking after her. She had thought they were both better off without her and that she was better off without them, but now here, in the dirt, it came to her that she had never really gone anywhere without them “Do you hear me? Can you hear my voice?” Manx asked She didn’t reply. She was perfectly still “P’hraps you do and p’hraps you don’t,” he said after a moment of thought. She had not heard his voice in more than a decade, but it was still the dumb-ass drawl of a country rube. “What a whore you look, crawling in the dirt in your skimpy little denim shorts I remember a time, not so long ago, when even a whore would have been ashamed to appear in public dressed like you and to spread her legs to ride a motorbike in lewd parody of the carnal act.” He paused again, then said, “You were on a bike the last time, too I have not forgotten. I have not forgotten the bridge either. Is this a special bike like that other one? I know about special rides, Victoria McQueen, and secret roads I hope you gallivanted to your heart’s content You will not be gallivanting anymore.” He slammed the hammer into the small of her back, and it was like catching a baseball bat in the kidneys, and she screamed through clenched teeth. Her insides felt smashed, jellied No armor there. None of the other times had been like that. Another blow like that one and she would need crutches to get to her feet. Another blow like that one and she would be pissing blood “You will not be riding your bike to the bar either, or to the pharmacy to get the medicine you take for your crazy head. Oh, I know all about you, Victoria McQueen, Miss Liar Liar, Pants on Fire. I know what a sorry drunk you are and what an unfit mother and that you have been to the laughing house I know you had your son out of wedlock, which of course is quite usual for whores such as yourself. To think we live in a world where one such as you is allowed to have a child Well! Your boy is with me now. You stole my children away from me with your lies, and now I claim yours from you.” Vic’s insides knotted. It was as bad as being struck again. She was afraid she might throw up in her helmet. Her right hand was pressed hard against her side, into the sick, bunched feeling in her abdomen. Her fingers traced the outline of something in her coat pocket. A crescent-sickle shape Manx bent over her. When he spoke again, his voice was gentle “Your son is with me, and you will never have him back. I don’t expect you to believe this, Victoria, but he is better off with me. I will bring him more happiness than you ever could. In Christmasland, I promise you, he will never be unhappy again. If you had a single grateful bone in your body, you would thank me.” He prodded her with the hammer and leaned closer. “Come now, Victoria Say it. Say thank you.” She pushed her right hand into her pocket Her fingers closed around the wrench that was shaped like a knife. Her thumb felt the ridges of the stamp that said TRIUMPH Now. Now is the moment. Make it count, her father told her Lou kissed her on the temple, his lips brushing her softly Vic shoved herself up. Her back spasmed, a sick flexing in the muscle, almost intense enough to cause her to stagger, but she did not even allow herself to grunt in pain She saw him in a blur. He was tall in a way she associated with fun-house mirrors: rail-thin legs and arms that went on forever. He had great, fixed, staring eyes, and for the second time in the space of minutes she thought of fish. He looked like a mounted fish. All his upper teeth bit down into his lower lip, giving him an expression of comic, ignorant bafflement It was incomprehensible that her entire life had been a carousel of unhappiness, drinking, failed promises, and loneliness, all turning around and around a single afternoon encounter with this man She jerked the wrench out of her pocket. It snagged on fabric, and for one terrible instant it almost dropped out of her fingers. She held on, pulled it loose, and slashed it at his eyes. The blow went a little high. The sharp tip of the wrench caught him above the left temple and tore open a four-inch flap of his curiously soggy, loose skin. She felt it grinding raggedly across bone “Thank you,” she said Manx clapped one gaunt hand to his forehead His expression suggested a man who has been struck by a sudden, dismaying thought. He staggered back from her. One heel slipped in the grass. She stabbed at his throat with the wrench, but he was already out of reach, falling across the hood of his Wraith “Mom, oh, Mom!” Wayne screamed from somewhere Vic’s legs were loose and unstable beneath her. She didn’t think about it. She went after him. Now that she was up and on her feet, she could see he was an old, old man He looked like he belonged in a nursing home, a blanket over his knees, a Metamucil shake in one hand. She could take him. Pin him to the hood and stab him in the fucking eyes with her pointy little wrench She was almost on top of him when he came up with the silver hammer in his right hand He gave it a big, swooping swing—she heard it whistle musically in the air—and caught her in the side of her helmet, hard enough to snap her around a hundred eighty degrees and drop her to one knee. She heard cymbals clash in her skull, just like a cartoon sound effect. He looked eighty going on a thousand, but there was a limber, easy strength in his swing that suggested the power of a gangly teenager. Glassy chips of motorcycle helmet fell into the grass. If she had not been wearing it, her skull would’ve been sticking out of her brain in a mess of red splinters “Oh!” Charlie Manx was screaming. “Oh, my Lord, I have been sliced open like a side of beef! Bang! Bang!” Vic got up too quickly. The late afternoon darkened around her as the blood rushed from her head. She heard a car door slam She reeled around, holding her head—the helmet—between her hands, trying to stop the dreadful reverberations resounding within it. The world was jittering just a little, as if she sat on her idling motorcycle again Manx was still collapsed across the hood of the car. His harrowed, stupid face shone with blood. But there was another man now, standing at the back end of the car. Or at least it had the shape of a man. It had the head, though, of a giant insect from some 1950s black-and-white movie, a rubbery monster-movie head with a grotesque bristling mouth and glassy blank eyes The insect man had a gun. Vic watched it float up and stared into the black barrel, a surprisingly tiny hole, not much bigger than a human iris “Bang, bang,” the insect man said The Yard WHEN BING SAW MR. MANX SPRAWL ACROSS THE HOOD OF THE car, he felt it as a kind of physical jolt, a sensation of recoil. He had felt much the same thing travel up his arm the day he had fired the nail gun into his father’s temple, only this was a slam of recoil into the very center of his being. Mr. Manx, the Good Man, was stabbed in the face, and the bitch was coming at him. The bitch meant to kill him, a thought as unimaginable, as horrible, as the sun itself blinking out. The bitch was coming, and Mr. Manx needed him Bing gripped the can of Gingersnap Spice, pointed it in the boy’s face, and blasted a hissing stream of pale smoke into his mouth and eyes—what he should’ve done minutes ago, what he would’ve done if he hadn’t been so awful mad, if he hadn’t decided to make the boy watch. The kid flinched, tried to turn his face, but Bing held him by the hair and kept spraying. Wayne Carmody shut his eyes and clamped his lips shut “Bing! Bing!” Manx screamed Bing screamed himself, desperate to be out of the car and moving, and aware at the same time that he had not dosed the boy well. It didn’t matter. There was no time, and the boy was in the car now, couldn’t leave Bing let go of him and dropped the can of Gingersnap Spice into one pocket of his tracksuit jacket. His right hand was pawing for the pistol in the other pocket He was out then, slamming the door behind him and pulling out the big oiled revolver She had on a black motorcycle helmet that showed only her eyes, wide now, seeing the gun in his hand, seeing the last thing she was ever going to see. Three steps away at most, right in his kill zone “Bing Bing,” he said, “time to do my thing!” He had already begun to apply pressure on the trigger when Mr. Manx pushed himself up off the hood, putting himself right in the way. The gun went off, and Manx’s left ear exploded in a spray of skin and blood Manx screamed, clapped his hand to the side of his head where raggedy pieces of ear now hung from the side of his face Bing screamed, too, and fired again, into the mist. The sound of the gun going off a second time, when he wasn’t prepared for it, startled him so badly that he farted, a high squeak in his pants “Mr. Manx! Oh, my God! Mr. Manx, are you all right?” Mr. Manx dropped against the side of the car, twisting his head around to look at him “Well, what do you think? I have been stabbed in the face and my ear is shot to pieces! I am lucky my brains are not running down the front of my shirt, you dumbbell!” “Oh, my God! I am such an asshole! I didn’t mean it! Mr. Manx, I would rather die than hurt you! What do I do? Oh, God! I should just shoot myself!” “You should shoot her is what you should do!” Manx yelled at him, dropping his hand from the side of his head. Red strings of ear dangled and swung. “Do it! Shoot her already! Put her down! Put her down in the dirt and have done with it!” Bing wrenched his gaze away from the Good Man, his heart slugging in his chest, ka-bam-bam-bam like a piano pushed down a flight of stairs in a great crash of discordant sound and slamming wood. His gaze swept the yard and found McQueen, already on the run, loping away from him on her long brown legs. His ears were ringing so loudly he could hardly hear his own gun as it went off again, flame shredding through the ghost-silk of the fog Logan Airport LOU CARMODY CLEARED SECURITY AND STILL HAD AN HOUR TO kill, so he hit Mickey D’s in the food court. He told himself he would get the grilled chicken salad and a water, but the air was full of the hungry-making odor of french fries, and when he got to the cash register, he heard himself telling the pimply kid he wanted two Big Macs, large fries, and an extra-large vanilla milkshake—the same thing he’d been ordering since he was thirteen While he was waiting, he looked to his right and saw a little boy, no more than eight, with dark eyes just like Wayne’s, standing with his mother at the next register. The boy stared up at Lou—at Lou’s two chins and man tits—not with disgust but with a strange sorrow. Lou’s father had been so fat when he died that they had to pay for a special-order coffin, a fucking double-wide that looked like a dinner table with the lid shut “Just make it a small milkshake,” Lou told his server. He found himself unable to look at the boy again, was afraid to see him staring What shamed him was not that he was, as his doctor said, morbidly obese (what a qualifier, “morbidly,” as if at a certain point, being overweight were morally similar to necrophilia) What he hated, what made him feel squirmy and ill inside, was his own inability to change his habits. He genuinely could not say the things he needed to say, could not order the salad when he smelled french fries. The last year he had been with Vic, he knew she needed help—that she was drinking in secret, that she was answering imaginary phone calls—but he could not draw the line with her, could not make demands or issue ultimatums. And if she was blasted and wanted to screw him, he could not say he was worried about her; all he could do was clap his hands to her ass and bury his face in her naked breasts He had been her accomplice right until the day she filled the oven with telephones and burned their house to the ground. He had done everything but light the match himself He settled at a table designed for an anorexic dwarf, in a chair only suitable for the ass of a ten-year-old—didn’t McDonald’s understand their clientele? what were they thinking, providing chairs like this for men like him?—pulled out his laptop, and got on the free Wi-Fi He checked his e-mail and looked at cosplay honeys in Power Girl outfits. He dropped in on the Millarworld message boards; some friends were debating which color Hulk should be next Comic dorks embarrassed him, the dumb shit they argued about. It was obviously gray or green. The other colors were stupid Lou was wondering if he could look at SuicideGirls without anyone walking by and noticing when his phone began to hum in the pocket of his cargo shorts. He lifted his rear end and began to dig for it He had his hand on it when he tuned in on the music playing over the airport sound system It was, improbably, that old Johnny Mathis song “Sleigh Ride.” Improbable because Boston was roughly as temperate as Venus on that particular afternoon in July; it made Lou sweat just looking outside. Not only that—the airport sound system had been rocking something else right up until the moment the phone rang Lady Gaga or Amanda Palmer or something. Some cute lunatic with a piano Lou had his phone out but paused to look at the woman at the next table, a MILF who bore a scant resemblance to Sarah Palin “Dude,” Lou said, “you hear that?” Pointing at the ceiling. “They’re playing Christmas music! It’s the middle of the summer!” She froze with a forkful of coleslaw halfway to her bee-stung lips and stared at him with a mixture of confusion and unease “The song,” Lou said. “You hear that song?” Her brow furrowed. She regarded him the way she might’ve regarded a puddle of vomit—something to avoid Lou glanced at his phone, saw Wayne on the caller ID. That was curious; they had just been texting a few minutes ago. Maybe Vic was back from her ride on the Triumph and wanted to talk to him about how it was running “Never mind,” Lou said to Almost Sarah Palin, and waved a hand in the air, dismissing the subject He answered “What up, dawg?” Lou said “Dad,” Wayne said, his voice a harsh whisper He was struggling not to cry. “Dad. I’m in the back of a car. I can’t get out.” Lou felt a low, almost gentle ache, behind his breastbone, in his neck, and, curiously, behind his left ear “What do you mean? What car?” “They’re going to kill Mom. The two men There’s two men, and they put me in a car, and I can’t get out of the backseat. It’s Charlie Manx, Dad. And someone in a gasmask Someone—” He screamed In the background Lou heard a string of popping sounds. His first thought was firecrackers But it wasn’t firecrackers Wayne cried, “They’re shooting, Dad! They’re shooting at Mom!” “Get out of the car,” Lou heard himself say, his voice strange, thin, too high. He was hardly aware he had come to his feet “Just unlock the door and run.” “I can’t. I can’t. It won’t unlock, and when I try and get in the front seat, I just wind up in the back again.” Wayne choked on a sob Lou’s head was a hot-air balloon, filled with buoyant gases, lifting him up off the floor toward the ceiling. He was in danger of sailing right out of the real world “The door has to unlock. Look around, Wayne.” “I have to go. They’re coming back. I’ll call when I can. Don’t call me, they might hear it. They might hear even if I turn it to mute.” “Wayne! Wayne!” Lou screamed. There was a strange ringing in his ears The phone went dead Everyone in the food court was staring at him. No one was saying anything. A pair of security cops were approaching, one of them with his hand resting on the molded plastic grip of his .45 Lou thought, Call the state police. Call the New Hampshire State Police. Do it right now But when he lowered the phone from his face to dial 911, it slipped from his hand. And when he bent to reach for it, he found himself grabbing at his chest, the pain there suddenly doubling, jabbing at him with sharp edges It was as if someone had fired a staple gun into one tit. He put his hand on the little table to steady himself, but then his elbow folded and he went down, chin-first. He caught the edge of the table, and his teeth clacked together, and he grunted and collapsed onto the floor. His shake went with him. The wax cup exploded, and he sprawled into a cold, sweet puddle of vanilla ice cream He was only thirty-six. Way too young for a heart attack, even with his family history He had known he would pay for not getting the salad Lake Winnipesaukee WHEN THE GASMASK MAN APPEARED WITH HIS GUN, VIC TRIED TO backpedal but couldn’t seem to get a signal to her legs. The barrel of the gun held her in place, was as captivating as a mesmerist’s pocketwatch. She might as well have been buried in the ground up to her hips Then Manx stood up between her and the gunman and the .38 went off and Manx’s left ear tore apart in a red flash Manx screamed—a wretched cry, not of pain but of fury. The gun went off a second time Vic saw the agitated mist swirl to her right, a very straight line of cleared air running through it to mark the passage of the bullet If you stand here one moment longer, he will shoot you to death in front of Wayne, her father told her, his hand in the small of her back. Don’t stand here and let Wayne see that She darted a look at the car, through the windshield, and her son was there, in the backseat. His face was flushed and rigid, and he was furiously swiping one hand in the air at her: Go, go! Get away! Vic didn’t want him to see her running either, leaving him behind. All the other times she had failed him before were nothing to this final, unforgivable failure A thought lanced through her, like a bullet tunneling through mist: If you die here, no one can find Manx “Wayne!” she shouted. “I’ll come! Wherever you go, I’ll find you!” She didn’t know if he heard her. She could hardly hear herself. Her ears whined, shocked into something close to deafness by the roar of the Gasmask Man’s .38. She could barely hear Manx yelling to Shoot her, shoot her already! Her heel squeaked in the wet grass as she turned. She was moving at last. She lowered her head, grabbing at her helmet, wanting it off before she got where she was going She felt comically slow, feet spinning furiously beneath her, going nowhere, while the grass bunched up under her in rolls, like carpet There was no sound in the world but for the heavy drumming of her feet on the ground and her breath, amplified by the inside of the helmet The Gasmask Man was going to shoot her in the back, bullet in the spine, and she hoped it killed her, because she did not want to lie there sprawled in the dirt, paralyzed, waiting for him to shoot her again. In the back, she thought, in the back, in the back, the only three words her mind could seem to string together. Her entire vocabulary had been reduced to these three words She was halfway down the hill She yanked the helmet off at last, threw it aside The gun boomed Something skipped off the water to her right, as if a child had flung a flat stone across the lake Vic’s feet were on the boards of the dock The dock heaved and slammed beneath her. She took three bounding steps and dived at the water She struck the surface—thought of the bullet slicing through the fog again—and then she was in the lake, she was underwater She plunged almost all the way to the bottom, where the world was dark and slow It seemed to Vic that she had, only moments before, been in the dim green drowned world of the lake, that she was returning to the quiet, restful state of unconsciousness The woman sailed through the cold stillness A bullet struck the lake, to her left, less than half a foot from her, punching a tunnel in the water, corkscrewing into the darkness, slowing rapidly. Vic recoiled and lashed out blindly, as if it could be slapped away. Her hand closed on something hot. She opened her palm, stared at what looked like a lead weight for a fishing line. The disturbed currents rolled it out of her hand, and it sank into the lake and only after it was gone did she understand she had grabbed a bullet She twisted, scissored her legs, gazing up now, lungs beginning to hurt. She saw the surface of the lake, a bright silver sheet high over her head. The float was another ten, fifteen feet away Vic surged through the water Her chest was a throbbing vault, filled with fire She kicked and kicked. Then she was under it, under the black rectangle of the float She clawed for the surface. She thought of her father, the stuff he used to blast rock, the slippery white plastic packs of ANFO Her chest was packed full with ANFO, ready to explode Her head burst up out of the water, and she gasped, filling her lungs with air Vic was in deep shadow, under the boards of the float, between the ranks of rusting iron drums. It smelled of creosote and rot Vic fought to breathe quietly. Every exhalation echoed in the small, low space “I know where you are!” screamed the Gasmask Man. “You can’t hide from me!” His voice was piping and raggedy and childish He was a child, Vic understood then. He might be thirty or forty or fifty, but he was still just another of Manx’s poisoned children And yes, he probably did know where she was Come and get me you little fuck, she thought, and wiped her face She heard another voice then: Manx. Manx was calling to her. Crooning almost “Victoria, Victoria, Victoria McQueen!” There was a gap between two of the metal barrels, a space of perhaps an inch. She swam to it and looked through. Across a distance of thirty feet, she saw Manx standing on the end of the dock and the Gasmask Man behind him. Manx’s face was painted with blood, as if he had gone bobbing for apples in a bucket full of the stuff “My, oh, my! You cut me very well, Victoria McQueen. You have made a hash out of my face, and my companion here has managed to shoot off my ear. With friends like these! Well I am blood all over. I will be the last boy picked at the dance from here on out, you see if I am not!” He laughed, then continued, “It is true what they say. Life really does move in very small circles. Here we are again You are as hard to keep ahold of as a fish The lake is a fine place for you.” He paused once more. When he began to speak again, there was almost a note of humor in his voice. “Maybe

it is just as well. You did not kill me. You only took me away from my children. Fair is fair. I can drive off and leave you as you are. But understand that your son is with me now and you will never have him back. Although I expect he will call sometimes from Christmasland He will be happy there. I will never hurt him. However you feel now, when you hear his voice again, you will see how it is. You will see it is better that he is with me than with you.” The dock creaked on the water. The engine of the Rolls-Royce idled. She struggled out of the soggy, heavy weight of Lou’s motorcycle jacket. She thought it would sink straightaway, but it floated, looking like a black, toxic mess “Of course, maybe you will be inclined to come and find us,” Manx said. His voice was sly. “As you found me before. I have had years and years to think on the bridge in the woods. Your impossible bridge. I know all about bridges like that one. I know all about roads that can only be found with the mind. One of them is how I find my way to Christmasland. There is the Night Road, and the train tracks to Orphanhenge, and the doors to Mid-World, and the old trail to the Tree House of the Mind, and then there is Victoria’s wonderful covered bridge. Do you still know how to get there? Come find me if you can, Vic. I will be waiting for you at the House of Sleep. I will be making a stop there before I arrive in Christmasland. Come find me, and we will talk some more.” He turned and began to clump back up the dock The Gasmask Man heaved a great unhappy sigh and lifted the .38, and the gun burped flame One of the pine boards above her head snapped and threw splinters. A second bullet zipped across the water to her right, stitching a line in the surface of the lake. Vic flung herself backward, splashing away from the narrow crack through which she had been spying A third bullet dinged off the rusted stainless-steel ladder. The last made a soft, unremarkable plop right in front of the float She paddled, treading water Car doors slammed She heard the tires crunching as the car backed down across the yard, heard them thud over fallen fence rails Vic thought it might be a trick, one of them in the car, the other one, the Gasmask Man, remaining behind, out of sight, with the pistol She shut her eyes. She listened intently When she opened her eyes, she was staring at a great, hairy spider suspended in what was left of her web. Most of it hung in gray shreds. Something—a bullet, all the commotion—had torn it apart. Like Vic, it had nothing left of the world it had spun for itself SEARCH ENGINE JULY 6–7 The Lake AS SOON AS WAYNE FOUND HIMSELF ALONE IN THE BACKSEAT OF THE Wraith, he did the only sensible thing: He tried to get the fuck out His mother had flown down the hill—it seemed more like flying than running—and the Gasmask Man lurched after her in a kind of drunken, straggling lope. Then even Manx himself started toward the lake, hand clutched to the side of his head The sight of Manx making his way down the hill held Wayne for an instant. The day had turned to watery blue murk, the world become liquid. Lake-colored fog hung thickly in the trees. The fog-colored lake waited down the hill. From the back of the car, Wayne could only barely see the float out on the water Against this background of drifting vapor, Manx was an apparition from a circus: the human skeleton crossed with the stilt walker, an impossibly tall and gaunt and ravaged figure in an archaic tailcoat. His misshapen bald head and beaky nose brought to mind vultures The mist played tricks with his shadow, so it seemed he was walking downhill through a series of dark, Manx-shaped doorways, each bigger than the last It was the hardest thing in the world to look away from him. Gingerbread smoke, Wayne thought He had breathed some of the stuff the Gasmask Man had sprayed at him, and it was making him slow. He scrubbed his face with both hands, trying to shake himself to full wakefulness, and then he began to move He had already tried to open the doors in the rear compartment, but the locks wouldn’t unlock no matter how hard he pulled at them, and the windows wouldn’t crank down. The front seat, though—that was a different story. Not only was the driver’s-side door visibly unlocked, the window was lowered about halfway. Far enough for Wayne to wriggle out, if the door refused to cooperate He forced himself off the couch and made the long, wearying journey across the rear compartment, crossing the vast distance of about a yard Wayne grabbed the back of the front seat and heaved himself over and— Toppled down onto the floor in the back of the car The rapid leaping motion made his head spinny and strange. He remained on all fours for several seconds, breathing deeply, trying to still the roiling disquiet in his stomach Trying as well to determine what had just happened to him The gas that had gone up his snoot had disoriented him so that he hardly knew down from up. He had lost his bearings and collapsed into the backseat again; that was it He rose to try once more. The world lurched unsteadily around him, but he waited, and at last it was still. He drew a deep breath (more gingerbread taste) and heaved himself over the divider and rolled and sat up on the floor of the backseat once again His stomach upended itself, and for a moment his breakfast was back in his mouth. He swallowed it down. It had tasted better the first time Down the hill, Manx was speaking, addressing the lake, his voice calm and unhurried Wayne considered the rear compartment, trying to establish to himself how he had managed to wind up here again. It was as if the backseat went on forever. It was like there was nothing but backseat. He felt as dizzy as if he had just climbed off the Gravitron at the county fair, that ride that spun you faster and faster until centrifugal force stuck you to the wall Get up. Don’t quit. He saw these words in his mind as clearly as black letters painted on the boards of a white fence This time Wayne ducked his head and got a running start and jumped over the divider and out of the rear compartment and . . . back into the rear compartment, where he crashed to the carpeted floor. His iPhone leaped out of the pocket of his shorts He got up on all fours but had to grab the shag carpet to keep from falling over, was that dizzy and light-headed. He felt as if the car were moving, spinning across black ice, revolving in a great swooping, nauseating circle. The sense of sideways motion was almost overpowering, and he had to briefly shut his eyes to block it out When he dared to lift his head and look around, the first thing he saw was his phone, resting on the carpet just a few feet away He reached for it, in the slow-motion way of an astronaut reaching for a floating candy bar He called his father, the only number he had stored under FAVORITES, one touch. He felt that one touch was almost all he could manage “What up, dawg?” Louis Carmody said, his voice so warm and friendly and unworried, Wayne felt a sob rise into his own throat at the sound of it Until that moment he had not realized how close he was to tears. His throat constricted dangerously. He was not sure he would be able to breathe, let alone speak. He shut his eyes and had a brief, nearly crippling tactile memory of his cheek pressing to his father’s bristly face, his father’s rough, three-day growth of spiky brown bear fur “Dad,” he said. “Dad. I’m in the back of a car. I can’t get out.” He tried to explain, but it was hard. It was hard to get all the air he needed to speak, hard to speak through his tears. His eyes burned. His vision blurred. It was hard to explain about the Gasmask Man and Charlie Manx and Hooper and gingerbread smoke and how the backseat went on forever. He wasn’t sure what he said. Something about Manx. Something about the car Then the Gasmask Man was shooting again. The gun went off over and over as he fired at the float. His pistol jumped in his hand, flashing in the dark. When had it gotten so dark? “They’re shooting, Dad!” Wayne said in a hoarse, strained tone of voice he hardly recognized. “They’re shooting at Mom!” Wayne peered out through the windshield, into the gloom, but couldn’t tell if any of the bullets had hit his mother or not. He couldn’t see her. She was part of the lake, the darkness How she took to darkness. How easily she slipped away from him Manx did not stay to watch the Gasmask Man shoot the water. He was already halfway up the hill. He clutched the side of his head like a man listening to an earpiece, receiving a message from his superiors. Although it was impossible to conceive of anyone who might be superior to Manx The Gasmask Man emptied his gun and turned away from the water himself. He swayed as he began to mount the hill, walking like one supporting a great burden on his shoulders They would reach the car soon. Wayne did not know what would happen then but still had his wits about him well enough to know that if they saw his phone, they would take it away “I have to go,” Wayne told his father “They’re coming back. I’ll call when I can. Don’t call me, they might hear it They might hear even if I turn it to mute.” His father was shouting his name, but there wasn’t time to say more. Wayne hit END CALL and flicked the phone over to mute He looked for a place to stick the phone, thinking he would shove it down between the seats. But then he saw there were walnut drawers with polished silver knobs set beneath the front seats. He slid one open, flipped the phone in, and kicked it shut as Manx opened the driver’s-side door Manx slung the silver hammer onto the front seat and climbed halfway in. He held a silk handkerchief to the side of his face, but he lowered it when he saw Wayne kneeling on the carpeted floor. Wayne made a small, shrill sound of horror at the sight of Manx’s face Two distinct strings of ear dangled from the side of his head. His long, gaunt face wore a dull red wash of blood. A flap of skin hung from his forehead, some of his eyebrow sticking to it. Bone glistened beneath “I suppose I look quite a fright,” Manx said, and grinned to show pink-stained teeth He pointed to the side of his head. “Ear today, gone tomorrow.” Wayne felt faint. The back of the car seemed unaccountably dark, as if Manx had brought the night in with him when he opened the door The tall man dropped behind the wheel. The door slammed itself shut—and then the window cranked itself up. It wasn’t Manx, couldn’t be Manx doing it. He was clutching one hand to his ear again, and the other was gently pressed to that loose flap of skin across his brow The Gasmask Man had reached the passenger-side door and pulled on the handle—but as he did, the lock slammed down The gearshift wiggled and clunked into reverse The car lunged a few feet backward, rocks spitting from under the tires “No!” the Gasmask Man screamed. He was holding the latch when the car moved and was almost dragged off balance. He stumbled after the car, trying to keep one hand on the hood, as if he could hold the Rolls-Royce in place “No! Mr. Manx! Don’t go! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it! It was a mistake!” His voice was ragged with horror and grief He ran to the passenger door and grabbed the latch and pulled again Manx leaned toward him. Through the window he said, “You are on my naughty list now, Bing Partridge. You have big ideas if you think I ought to take you to Christmasland after the mess you have made. I am afraid to let you in. How do I know, if I allow you to ride with us, that you will not riddle the car with bullets?” “I swear, I’ll be nice! I’ll be nice, I will, I’ll be nice as sugar and spice! Don’t leave! I’m sorry. I’m so sawwwwwwreee!” The inside of his gasmask was steamed over, and he spoke between sobs. “I wish I’d shot myself! I do! I wish it was my ear! Oh, Bing Bing, you stupid thing!” “That is plenty of your ridiculous noise My head hurts enough as it is.” The lock banged back up. The Gasmask Man yanked the door open and fell into the car. “I didn’t mean it! I swear I didn’t mean it. I will do anything! Anything!” His eyes widened in a flash of inspiration. “I could cut my ear off! My own ear! I don’t care! I don’t need it, I have two! Do you want me to cut off my own ear?” “I want you to shut up. If you feel like cutting something off, you could start with your tongue. Then at least we would have some peace.” The car accelerated in reverse, thudding down onto blacktop, undercarriage crunching. As it hit the road, it slopped around to the right, to face back in the direction of the highway. The gearshift wiggled again and jumped into drive In all this time, Manx did not touch the steering wheel or the stick but remained clutching his ear and turned in his seat to look at the Gasmask Man The gingerbread smoke, Wayne thought with a kind of dull-edged wonder. It was making him see things. Cars didn’t drive themselves Backseats didn’t go on forever The Gasmask Man rocked back and forth, making piteous noises and shaking his head “Stupid,” the Gasmask Man whispered. “I am so stupid.” He banged his head on the dash, forcefully. Twice “You will quit right this instant or I am leaving you by the side of the road. There is no reason for you to take out your failures on the handsome interior of my car,” Manx said The car jolted forward and began to rush away from the cottage. Manx’s hands never left his face. The steering wheel moved minutely from side to side, guiding the Rolls along the road. Wayne narrowed his eyes, fixed his stare upon it. He pinched his cheek, very hard, twisting the flesh, but the pain did nothing to clear his vision. The car went on driving itself, so either the gingerbread smoke was causing him to hallucinate or—But there wasn’t an “or” in this line of reasoning. He didn’t want to start thinking “or.” He turned his head and looked out the rear window. He had a last glimpse of the lake, under its low blanket of fog. The water was as smooth as a plate of new-minted steel, as smooth as the blade of a knife. If his mother was there, he saw no sign of her “Bing. Have a look in the glove compartment and I believe you will find a pair of scissors and some tape.” “Do you want me to cut out my own tongue?” the Gasmask Man asked hopefully “No. I want you to bandage my head. Unless you would rather sit there and watch me bleed to death. I suppose that would be an entertaining spectacle.” “No!” the Gasmask Man screamed “Well then. You will have to do what you can for my ear and my head. And take off that mask. It is impossible to talk to you while you have that thing on.” The Gasmask Man’s head made a popping sound as it came out of the mask, much like a cork popping from a bottle of wine. The face beneath was flushed and reddened, and there were tears streaked all down his flabby, quivering cheeks He rummaged through the glove compartment and came up with a roll of surgical tape and a pair of little silver scissors. He unzipped his tracksuit to reveal a stained white muscle shirt and shoulders so furry they brought to mind silverback gorillas. He stripped off the undershirt and zipped the jacket up The blinker clicked on. The car slowed for a stop sign, then turned onto the highway Bing scissored several long strips of undershirt He folded one neatly and put it against Manx’s ear “Hold that there,” Bing said, and hiccupped in a miserable sort of way “I would like to know what she cut me with,” Manx said. He glanced into the backseat again, met Wayne’s gaze. “I have had a history of poor dealings with your mother, you know It is like fighting with a bag of cats.” Bing said, “I wish maggots were eating her I wish maggots were eating her eyes.” “That is a vile image.” Bing looped another long strip of undershirt around Manx’s head, binding the pad to his ear and covering the slash across his forehead He began to fix the undershirt in place with crosswise strips of surgical tape Manx was still looking at Wayne. “You are a quiet one. Do you have anything to say for yourself?” “Let me go,” Wayne said “I will,” Manx said They blew past the Greenbough Diner, where Wayne and his mother had eaten breakfast sandwiches that morning. Thinking back on the morning was like thinking back on a half-remembered dream. Had he seen Charlie Manx’s shadow when he first woke up? It seemed he had “I knew you were coming,” Wayne said He was surprised to hear himself saying such a thing. “I knew all day.” “It is hard to keep a child from thinking about presents on the night before Christmas,” Manx said. He winced as Bing pressed another strip of tape in place The steering wheel rocked gently from side to side, and the car hugged the curves “Is this car driving itself?” Wayne asked “Or am I just seeing that because he sprayed stuff in my face?” “You don’t need to talk!” the Gasmask Man screamed at him. “Quaker Meeting has begun! No more laughing, no more fun, or we cut out your stupid tongue!” “Will you stop talking about cutting out tongues?” Manx said. “I am beginning to think you have a fixation. I am speaking to the boy. I do not need you to referee.” Abashed, the Gasmask Man returned to snipping strips of tape “You are not seeing things, and it is not driving itself,” Manx said. “I am driving it. I am the car, and the car is me. It is an authentic Rolls-Royce Wraith, assembled in Bristol in 1937, shipped to America in 1938, one of fewer than five hundred on these shores. But it is also an extension of my thoughts and can take me to roads that can exist only in the imagination.” “There,” Bing said. “All fixed.” Manx laughed. “For me to be all fixed, we would have to go back and search that woman’s lawn for the rest of my ear.” Bing’s face shriveled; his eyes narrowed to squints; his shoulders hitched and jerked with silent sobs “But he did spray something in my face,” Wayne said. “Something that smelled like gingerbread.” “Just something to put your mind at ease If Bing had used his spray properly, you would be resting peaceably already.” Manx cast a cool, disgusted look at his traveling companion Wayne considered this. Thinking a thing through was like moving a heavy crate across a room—a lot of straining effort “How come it isn’t making you two rest peaceably?” Wayne asked finally “Hm?” Manx said. He was looking down at his white silk shirt, now stained crimson with blood. “Oh. You are in your own pocket universe back there. I don’t let anything come up front.” He sighed heavily. “There is no saving this shirt! I feel we should all have a moment of silence for it. This shirt is a silk Riddle-McIntyre, the finest shirtmaker in the West for a hundred years Gerald Ford wore nothing but Riddle-McIntyres I might as well use it to clean engine parts now. Blood will never come out of silk.” “Blood will never come out of silk,” Wayne whispered. This statement had an epigrammatic quality to it, felt like an important fact Manx considered him calmly from the front seat. Wayne stared back through pulses of bright and dark, as if clouds were fleeting across the sun. But there was no sun today, and that throbbing brightness was in his head, behind his eyes. He was out on the extreme edge of shock, a place where time was different, moving in spurts, catching in place, then jumping forward again Wayne heard a sound, a long way off, an angry, urgent wail. For a moment he thought it was someone screaming, and he remembered Manx hitting his mother with his silver mallet, and he thought he might be sick. But as the sound approached them and intensified, he identified it as a police siren “She is right up and at them,” Manx said “I have to give your mother credit. She does not delay when it comes to making trouble for me.” “What will you do when the police see us?” Wayne asked “I do not think they will bother us. They are going to your mother’s.” Cars ahead of them began to pull to either side of the road. A blue-silver strobe appeared at the top of a low hill ahead of them, dropped over the slope, and rushed toward them. The Wraith eased itself to the margin of the road and slowed down considerably but didn’t stop The police cruiser punched past them doing nearly sixty. Wayne turned his head to watch it go. The driver did not even glance at them Manx drove on. Or, really, the car drove on Manx still hadn’t touched the wheel. He had folded down the sun visor and was inspecting himself in the mirror The bright-dark flashes were coming more slowly now, like a roulette wheel winding down, the ball soon to settle on red or black. Wayne still felt no real terror, had left that behind in the yard with his mother. He picked himself up off the floor and settled on the couch “You should see a doctor,” Wayne said “If you dropped me off somewhere in the woods, you could go to a doctor and get your ear and head fixed before I walked back to town or anyone found me.” “Thank you for your concern, but I would prefer not to receive medical treatment in handcuffs,” Manx said. “The road will make me better. The road always does.” “Where are we going?” Wayne asked. His voice seemed to come from a distance “Christmasland.” “Christmasland,” Wayne repeated. “What’s that?” “A special place. A special place for special children.” “Really?” Wayne pondered this for a time, then said, “I don’t believe you. That’s just something to tell me so I won’t be scared.” He paused again, then decided to brave one more question. “Are you going to kill me?” “I am surprised you even need to ask. It would have been easy to kill you back at your mother’s house. No. And Christmasland is real enough. It is not so easy to find. You cannot get to it by any road in this world, but there are other roads than the ones you will find on a map. It is outside of our world, and at the same time it is only a few miles from Denver. And then again it is right here in my head”—he tapped his right temple with one finger—“and I take it with me everywhere I go. There are other children there, and not one of them is held against his or her will. They would not leave for anything. They are eager to meet you, Wayne Carmody. They are eager to be your friend You will see them soon enough—and when you finally do, it will feel like coming home.” The blacktop thumped and hummed under the tires “The last hour has seen a lot of excitement,” Manx said. “Put your head down, child. If anything interesting happens, I will be sure to wake you.” There was no reason to do a thing Charlie Manx told him, but before long, Wayne found he was on his side, his head resting on the plump leather seat. If there was any more peaceful sound in all the world than the road murmuring under tires, Wayne didn’t know what it was The roulette wheel clicked and clicked and stopped at last. The ball settled into black CONTENTS Dedication Epigraph Prologue: Season’s Greetings, December 2008 FCI Englewood, Colorado Shorter Way, 1986–1989 Haverhill, Massachusetts Terry’s Primo Subs Hampton Beach, New Hampshire Haverhill, Massachusetts Home Various Locales Spicy Menace, 1990 Sugarcreek, Pennsylvania NorChemPharm Highway 322 The Road to Christmasland The Pennsylvania Countryside The Librarian, 1991 Haverhill, Massachusetts The McQueen House Here, Iowa The Library Haverhill, Massachusetts As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme Disappearances, 1991–1996 Various Locales Haverhill

Various Locales Haverhill Out in the Cold Home The Basement Sleigh House, 1996 Haverhill The Other End of the Bridge A Mudroom A Hallway The Kitchen The Pantry The Laundry Chute Out Above Gunbarrel, Colorado Sam’s Gas & Sundries Interlude: The Spirit of Ecstasy, 2000–2012 Gunbarrel, Colorado Sugarcreek, Pennsylvania Gunbarrel, Colorado Brandenburg, Kentucky New York (and Everywhere Else) FCI Englewood, Colorado Denver, Colorado Brandenburg, Kentucky St. Luke’s Medical Center, Denver Bad Mother, December 16, 2011–July 6, 2012 Lamar Rehabilitation Center, Massachusetts Haverhill Lake Winnipesaukee The Carriage House Haverhill Lake Winnipesaukee Haverhill By the Road The Other Side of the Door Boston Beside the Bay I-95 Lake Winnipesaukee Gravel Driveway Route 3 The Lake House Route 3 The Lake House Under The Yard Logan Airport Lake Winnipesaukee Search Engine, July 6–7 The Lake The Lake The Kitchen The Bedroom The St. Nicholas Parkway Sugarcreek, Pennsylvania The Lake The House of Sleep Bing’s Garage The Lake The House of Sleep Route 3, New Hampshire Shorter Way The House of Sleep Christmasland, July 7–9 The St. Nicholas Parkway Indiana The House of Sleep Shoot the Moon Fireworks, Illinois The House of Sleep Laconia, New Hampshire Here, Iowa The Library Laconia Here, Iowa Hampton Beach, New Hampshire Real Life The Dark Dover, New Hampshire Christopher McQueen’s House Outside Inside Out Back The Sleigh House In the Trees Triumph, One Eternal Christmas Eve Christmasland Beneath the Great Tree Gumdrop Lane Come All Ye Faithful, October Gunbarrel Acknowledgments About the Author Also By Joe Hill Credits Copyright About the Publisher