American Elsewhereby Robert Jackson Bennett
Some places are too good to be true.
Under a pink moon, there is a perfect little town not found on any map.
In that town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things.
After a couple years of hard traveling, ex-cop Mona Bright inherits her long-dead mother's home in Wink, New Mexico. And the closer Mona gets to
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Some places are too good to be true.
Under a pink moon, there is a perfect little town not found on any map.
In that town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things.
After a couple years of hard traveling, ex-cop Mona Bright inherits her long-dead mother's home in Wink, New Mexico. And the closer Mona gets to her mother's past, the more she understands that the people of Wink are very, very different ...
From one of our most talented and original new literary voices comes the next great American supernatural novel: a work that explores the dark dimensions of the hometowns and the neighbors we thought we knew.
This wonderful offering is perfect for fans of Stephen King and Neil Gaiman."Library Journal"
Highly impressive."Kirkus Reviews"
Bennett's novel may remind readers of the early works of Stephen King, presenting a small town where nothing is what it seems.... Bennett's work also evokes a mood similar to that of Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, where every darkness may swallow a person only to spit them out into a place akin to Wonderland."RT Book Reviews"
Bennett gives the idealized image of the American dream a pan-dimensional twist with this alien invasion tale, part Bradbury and part L'Engle with a dash of Edward Scissorhands... Readers will be captivated from start to finish."Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) on American Elsewhere"
The novel starts out curious and odd but quickly becomes terrifying and haunting, as the author reveals more about the people of Wink, who just may be the most curious and intimidating collection of folks you're likely to meet outside the pages of Stephen King.... A beautifully written, claustrophobic, and deeply memorable horror novel."Booklist"
Mad and humorous, gory and poignant, American Elsewhere is a sort of mid-20th-century retelling of the embodiment of Lovecraftian Elder Gods by way of Alamogordo's legendary atomic tests. It's not to be missed.Seattle Times"
So American Elsewhere is basically so good that I want to camp outside @robertjbennett's house until he tells me his secret."Adam Christopher
Since tragedy struck ex-cop Mona Bright a few years back, she’s traveled from city to city, never staying in one place for long. When her father dies, she learns that she’s inherited a house that was left to him by her mother, who committed suicide when Mona was very young. So, she climbs into her dad’s cherry-red ’69 Dodge Charger and makes her way to Wink, NM, a town not found on any map, frozen in Atomic Age domesticity, and shadowed by the Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory. Everything seems picture perfect in Wink (except for the warning to stay inside at night), and Mona imagines settling down until she learns her mother may have once been much more than the thin, wasted shell of a woman she knew as a child. Soon it is revealed to Mona that there’s more to Wink than meets the eye, and answers seem to lie at Coburn and in her mother’s mysterious past.
Verdict Bennett (Mr. Shivers; The Company Man; The Troupe), winner of the Shirley Jackson Award and the Edgar Award, takes us on a creepy, thrilling journey into a small town under a pink moon, where reality is relative and whose residents are very, very different. You’ll want to linger over this riveting and scary novel that straddles sf and suspense to startling effect. This wonderful offering is perfect for fans of Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.Kristin Centorcelli, Denton, TX
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By Robert Jackson Bennett
OrbitCopyright © 2013 Robert Jackson Bennett
All right reserved.
Even though it is a fairly cool night, Norris is sweating abundantly. The sweat leaks out of his temples and the top of his skull and runs down his cheeks to pool around his collarbones. He feels little trickles weaving down his arms to soak into the elbows and wrists of his shirt. The entire car now has a saline reek, like a locker room.
Norris is sitting in the driver’s seat with the car running, and for the past twenty minutes he’s been debating whether leaving the car running was a good idea or not. He’s made several mental charts of pros and cons and probabilities, and overall he thinks it was a good idea: the odds that someone will notice the sound of a car idling on this neighborhood lane, and check it out and sense something suspicious, feel fairly low; whereas the odds of him fumbling with the ignition or the clutch if he needs to start the car quickly seem very, very high right now. He is so convinced of his own impending clumsiness that he hasn’t even dared to take his hands off the steering wheel. He is gripping it so hard and his palms are so sweaty that he doesn’t know if he could remove them if he tried. Suction, he thinks. I’m stuck here forever, no matter who notices what.
He’s not sure why he’s so worried about being noticed. No one lives in the neighboring houses. Though it is not posted anywhere—in any visual manner, that is—this part of town is not open to the public. There is only one resident on this street.
Norris leans forward in his seat to reexamine the house. He is parked right before its front walk. Behind the car is a small, neat gravel driveway that breaks off from the paved road and curves down the slope to a massive garage. The house itself is very, very big, but its size is mostly hidden behind the Englemann spruces; one can make out only hints of pristine white wooden siding, sprawling lantana, perfectly draped windows, and clean red-brick walls. And there, at the end of the front walk, is a modest, inviting front door with a coat of bright red paint and a cheery bronze handle.
It is a flawless house, really, a dream house. It is a dream house not only in the sense that anyone would dream of living there; rather, it is so perfect that a house like this could exist only in a dream.
Norris checks his watch. It has been four minutes by now. The wind runs through the pines, and the sound of thousands of whispering needles makes him shiver. Otherwise, it is quiet. But it is always quiet near homes like this, and it is always ill-advised to venture out at night in Wink. Everyone knows that. Things could happen.
He sits up: there are noises coming from the garage. Voices. He grips the steering wheel a little harder.
Two dark figures in ski masks emerge from the garage dragging something bulky between them. Norris stares at them in dismay as they begin making their way up to the car. When they finally get close enough, he rolls down the passenger-side window and whispers, “What happened? Where’s Mitchell?”
“Shut up!” one of them says.
“Where is he? Did you leave him in there?”
“Will you shut up and open the trunk?”
Norris starts to, but he is distracted by what they are carrying. It appears to be a short man wearing a blue sweater and khakis, but his hands and feet are tightly bound, and a burlap sack has been pulled down over his face. Yet despite all this the man is speaking very, very quickly, almost chanting: “… Cannot succeed, will not succeed, such a vain hope that I personally cannot imagine, do you understand, I cannot imagine it. You do not have the authorities, the privileges, and without those this is but sand brushing over my neck, do you understand, no more than reeds dancing in violent waters…”
“Open the fucking trunk already!” says one of the men.
Norris, startled, reaches over and pulls the trunk lever. The trunk pops open and the two drag the hooded man back, stuff him in, and slam it shut. Then they scramble back around and jump in the backseat.
“Where’s Mitchell?” asks Norris again. “What happened to him?”
“Fucking drive!” shouts one of the men.
Norris glances at the house again. There is movement in all the windows now—could those be dark figures pacing back and forth in the halls? Pale faces peeping out the windows? And some of the front lights are on, ones Norris could have sworn were dark just a second ago. He tears his eyes away, puts the car in first, and guns it.
They rip through the neighborhood lanes until they reach the main roads. The two men remove their ski masks. Zimmerman is older and bald with a graying beard, his cheeks bulging with the promise of pendulous jowls in later life. Out of the three of them he’s by far the most experienced in this kind of thing, so it’s extra unnerving to see how obviously terrified he is. The other, Dee, is an athletic young man with blond, perfectly parted hair, the sort of hair found only in Boy Scout advertisements. Dee either doesn’t understand what’s going on or is so dazed by everything that he can hardly shut his mouth.
“Jesus,” says Zimmerman. “Jesus. Jesus fucking Christ.”
“What happened?” asks Norris again. “Where’s Mitchell? Is he all right?”
“No. No, Mitchell isn’t all right.”
“Well, what happened?”
There is a long silence. Then Dee says, “He fell.”
“He what? He fell? Fell into what?”
The two are quiet again. Zimmerman says, “There was a room. And… it just seemed to keep going. And Mitchell fell in.”
“And when he fell,” says Dee, “he just didn’t stop… he just kept falling into the room…”
“What do you mean?” asks Norris.
“What makes you think we understand what we saw in there?” asks Zimmerman angrily.
Norris turns back to the road, abashed. He points the car north toward the dark mesa that hangs over the town. Sometimes there is a thud or a shout from the trunk behind them. They all try to ignore it.
“He knew we were coming,” says Dee.
“Shut up,” says Zimmerman.
“That’s why he’d prepared those rooms for us,” says Dee. “He knew. Bolan said it’d be a surprise. How could he have known?”
“Why?” asks Dee.
“Because I’m willing to bet that that thing in the trunk can hear us!”
“So what if this doesn’t go right? What if he gets away? You just gave him one name. What more do you want to give him?”
There is a heavy silence. Norris asks, “How about some music?”
“Good idea,” says Zimmerman.
Norris hits the tuner. Immediately Buddy Holly begins crooning “That’ll Be The Day” from the car’s blown-out speakers, and they all fall silent.
As they climb the mountain road they leave the town behind. The grid of streetlights shrinks until it is a spiderweb beaded with morning dew, stretched across the feet of the mesa. The town sits in the center of a dark fan of vegetation running down the mountain slopes, fed by the little river that winds through the center of the city. It is the only dependable source of water for miles around the mesa, a rarity in this part of New Mexico.
A painted sign swims up out of the darkness ahead, marking the northern border of the town. It has a row of white lights at the bottom, making it glow in the night. It shows a smiling man and woman sitting on a picnic blanket. They are a wholesome, white-bread sort, he square-jawed and squinty, she pale and delicate with cherry-red lips. They are looking out on a marvelous vista of crimson mesas at sunset, and at the top of one mesa is a very small bronze-colored antenna, one that would obviously be much larger if you were close. The clouds in the pink skies seem to swirl around the antenna, and there is something beyond the antenna and the clouds, something the man and the woman are meant to be looking at, but the two rightmost panels of the sign have been torn off, leaving raw wood exposed where there should be some inspiring vision. Yet some vandal has tried to complete the picture with a bit of chalk, though what the vandal has drawn is difficult to determine: it is an outline of a figure standing on the mountains, or where the mountains would be, a giant, titan-size body that would fill up the sky. The figure is generally human but somewhat deformed: its back is too hunched, and its arms are too ill-defined, though that may be an indication of the limits of the artist.
At the bottom of the sign is a line of white words: YOU ARE NOW LEAVING WINK—BUT WHY?
Why indeed, wonders Norris. How he wishes it were not so.
Up in the high mountains the air is unusually thin. It makes the night sky seem very blue and the stars appear very, very close. To Norris they seem closer tonight than normal, and the peak ahead seems unusually tall as well. The road unfurls from its top and comes bouncing down the hills like a silver ribbon. Blue lightning plays in the clouds around other peaks in the distance. Norris shifts uncomfortably. It feels as if the farther they get from town, with its hard little grid of streets and its yellow phosphorous lights, the more unreal the world becomes.
There is a burst of static from the radio, and “That’ll Be The Day” twists until the music is gone and there is only a tinny voice madly chanting: “This is futile, futile. You nudge at boundaries of which you are only half-aware, trade in influences you are blind to. Stop this and let me go and I will forgive you, all will be forgiven, and it will be as if this never happened, never happened…”
“Fucking Christ!” says Zimmerman. “He’s gotten into the fucking radio!”
“Turn it off!” cries Dee.
Norris slaps the tuner again and the chanting stops. They drive on in quiet for a bit.
“God,” says Dee. “Have either of you ever done anything like this before?”
“I didn’t know it could be done,” says Norris.
“Let’s just keep our heads,” says Zimmerman. “We’ve gotten this far. If we follow through, we’ll all be taken care of.”
“Except for Mitchell,” says Dee.
“We’ll all be fine,” says Zimmerman sternly.
“Why is this our job, anyways?” asks Dee. “This isn’t our concern. This is B—”—he rethinks his word choice—“this is the boss’s concern.”
“It’s our concern too,” says Zimmerman.
“What if he said no? What if he told them no, he wasn’t going to have anyone do it?”
“Then he’d be in the hot spot, and not us,” says Norris.
“Oh, and you think they don’t know who works for him? Wouldn’t that make us a concern, too? And wouldn’t you say we all know a little too much?”
There’s a moment of silence. “I don’t know much,” says Dee sullenly.
“They wouldn’t take that risk. We’re all in this together. They tell the boss what to do, and he tells us. And we do it. Even if there are”—he glances out the window at the dark landscape below—“casualties.”
“How do we even know it will work?” asks Norris.
Zimmerman reaches below his seat and picks up a small wooden box. It has been sealed shut with several pieces of tape, both horizontally and vertically, and tied with heavy string. It is clear that whoever prepared the box intended it never be opened unless absolutely necessary.
“It’ll work,” says Zimmerman, but his voice shakes and grows hoarse.
The car keeps climbing, weaving along the little road that dances atop the peaks. Soon the road begins to run parallel to the river in the valley below, and they finally converge where the water tumbles from a rocky outcropping on the cliff side, a discharge of recent rains. The fan of vegetation comes to a point there; above that the soil is too rocky for anything except the hardiest pines.
“There,” says Zimmerman. He points to the foot of the waterfall. Norris pulls over to the shoulder and turns the flashers on. “Damn it, Norris, don’t turn those on!” says Zimmerman.
“Sorry,” says Norris, and turns them back off.
All three of them get out of the car and gather around the trunk. They exchange a glance, and open it.
“… Nothing possible for you to do, nothing conceivable, so I cannot understand what you are planning. Can a fish fight the sky? Can a worm battle the ocean? What can you even dream of accomplishing?”
“He doesn’t shut up,” says Zimmerman. “Come on.” Norris reaches in and heaves their cargo up by the shoulders, and Dee takes his bound feet. Zimmerman turns on a flashlight and leads the way, holding the wooden box in a gloved hand. They carry their captive to where the road ends and begin to navigate down the rocky slope to the waterfall.
The falls lie just beyond an old chain-link fence that staggers across the hills. A rusty tin sign hangs from one post by a corner. Its words are barely legible, though what can be read is printed in a chipper, space-age font that went out of style decades ago: PROPERTY OF COBURN NATIONAL LABORATORY AND OBSERVATORY—NO TRESPASSING! The three men ignore it, and crouch as they carry their ranting burden through one of the gaping holes in the fence.
Norris looks up. This far from the city lights the stars seem even closer than before. It makes him uncomfortable, or perhaps it is the ionized taste that seems to hover in the air around the top of the mesa. It is a Wrong place. Not the Wrongest, God knows that’s so, but still deeply Wrong.
Dee eyes the surrounding cedars and ponderosa pines nervously. “I don’t see it,” he says over the babbling of the hooded man.
“Don’t worry about that,” says Zimmerman. “It’ll come when it’s called. Just set him down beside the falls.”
They do so, gently laying their captive down on the rock. Zimmerman nods at them to back away, and he reaches out and pulls off the burlap sack.
A kindly, plump face looks up at them from underneath a messy mop of gray hair. His eyes are green and crinkled at the edges, and his cheekbones have a happy red tint. It is the face of a bureaucrat, an English teacher, a counselor, a man used to the shuffling and filing of papers. Yet there is a hardness to his eyes that unnerves Norris, as if there is something swimming in their depths that does not belong there.
“There is nothing you can do to me,” the man says. “It is not allowed. I cannot understand what you are attempting, but it is useless.”
“Get back a little bit,” says Zimmerman to his two companions. “Now.” Dee and Norris take a few steps back, still watching.
“Have you gone mad?” asks their captive. “Is that it? Guns and knives and ropes are mere ephemera here, chaff on the wind. Why would you disturb our waters? Why would you deny yourself peace?”
“Shut up,” says Zimmerman. He kneels, takes out a small penknife, and begins to cut at the tape and the string on the small wooden box.
“Have you not heard a word I said?” asks their captive. “Can you not listen to me for one moment? Do you not even understand what it is you do?”
The box is now open. Zimmerman stares at its contents, swallows, and places the penknife aside. “Understanding isn’t my job,” he says hoarsely. Then he picks up the box with both gloved hands, moving gingerly so as not to disturb what is within, and brings it over to where their captive lies.
“You cannot kill me,” says the bound man. “You cannot touch me. You cannot even harm me.”
Zimmerman licks his lips and swallows again. “You’re right,” he says. “We can’t.” And he tips the contents of the box over onto the bound man.
Something very small and white and oval comes tumbling out. At first it looks like an egg, but as it rolls across the man’s chest and comes to a stop before his face it becomes clear that it is not. Its surface is rough like sandpaper, and it has two large, hollow eyes, a short, snarling snout with two sharp incisors, and many smaller, more delicate teeth behind those. It is a tiny rodent skull, lacking its jawbone, and this gives it the queer impression of being frozen mid-scream.
The bound man stares at the tiny skull on his chest. For the first time his serene confidence breaks: he blinks, confused, and looks up at his captors. “W-what is this?” he asks weakly. “What have you done?”
Zimmerman does not answer. He turns and says, “Come on! Now!” Then all three of them sprint over the rocky slopes to the chain-link fence, arms pinwheeling when they misstep.
“What have you done to me?” calls the bound man after them, but he gets no answer.
When they reach the fence they pull open one of the holes and help each other through. “Is that it?” asks Norris. “Is it done?”
Before Zimmerman can answer a yellow light flares to life in the trees beside the waterfall. The three men look back, and each is forced to squint even though the source of the light remains hidden. The light seems to shiver strangely, as if the beam is interrupted by many dancing moths, and the way the light filters through the glade gives it the look of a leaning rib cage.
In between two of the tallest pines is what looks like a man, standing erect, hands stiff at its sides. Norris cannot remember its being there before; it is as if this newcomer has appeared out of nowhere, and with its appearance there is a new scent to the air, an odor of shit and rotting straw and putrefaction. Norris’s eyes water at the barest whiff of it. The figure stares down at the bound man, but its head appears strange: sprouting from the top of its skull are two long, thin ears, or possibly horns. It does not move or speak; it does not seem to even breathe. It simply stands there, watching the bound man from the edge of the pines, and due to the bright light from behind it is impossible to discern anything more.
“Oh my God,” whispers Dee. “Is that it?”
Zimmerman turns away. “Don’t look at it!” he says. “Come on, run!”
As they climb back up to the road the voice of the bound man cuts through the sound of the waterfall: “What? N-no! No, not you! I didn’t do anything to you! I never did anything to you, I didn’t!”
“Jesus,” says Norris. He moves to look back.
“Don’t!” says Zimmerman. “Don’t attract its attention! Just get up to the car!”
When they vault over the highway barrier the shouts from the waterfall turn into screams. The light in the trees begins to shudder, as if more and more moths are coming to flit around its source. From this height the three men could look down and see what is happening there at the foot of the waterfall, but they keep their eyes averted, staring into the starlit asphalt or the lightning in the clouds.
They climb into the car and sit in silence as the screams persist. They are screams of unspeakable agony, yet they do not seem to end. The driver hits the tuner on the radio again. It’s Buddy Holly again, but this time he’s singing “Love Is Strange.”
“Must be playing a marathon or something,” says Dee softly.
Norris clears his throat and says, “Yeah.” He turns the volume up until the song overpowers the shrieks from the valley below.
Dee is right: it is a marathon, and next comes “Valley of Tears,” and after that is “I’m Changing All Those Changes.” The screams continue while the men listen to the radio, swallowing and sweating and sometimes clasping their heads. The scent of sweaty terror in the car intensifies.
Then the unearthly light beside the road dies. The men look at each other. Norris turns the radio down, and they find the screams have stopped.
As the last of that septic yellow light drains out of the pines, dozens more lights appear farther up the mesa. They are common office lights, the lights of many structures standing on the mesa. It’s as if they all share a common power source that’s just been turned back on.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” says Zimmerman. “He was right. The lab’s up and running again.”
There is a moment of shocked silence as the three men stare at the lights on the mesa. “Should we call Bolan?” asks Norris.
Zimmerman takes out a cell phone, then rethinks. “Let’s get the body first,” he says.
“Is it safe?” asks Dee.
“It’ll be done by now,” says Zimmerman, but he does not sound totally sure.
At first they do not move. Then Zimmerman opens his car door. After a moment of reluctance, the other two follow suit. They walk to the side of the road and stare down at the waterfall, which is now dark. There is no sign of anything unusual having transpired on the rocks. There is only the spatter of the waterfall, the hiss of the pines, and the pinkish light of the moon.
Finally they climb back over the barrier and begin the awkward journey down. As they descend, Norris takes one last glance up at the lights on the top of the mesa. “I wonder who it’s bringing here,” he says softly.
There is an angry shush from Zimmerman, as if the trees themselves could hear, and the men continue into the darkness in silence.
Mona Bright’s been to some pretty piss-poor funerals in her day, but she has to admit that this one takes the cake. It even beats her cousin’s funeral in Kentucky, when the grave was hand-dug in a tiny church graveyard. That was a pretty medieval affair, she knows, but at least then the gravediggers were all family members, and they treated the ceremony with a little dignity. Here in this miserable potter’s field in the middle of nowhere, there is no one to attend but her and the gravedigger, a local contractor with a backhoe who currently has his rattling old vehicle parked just beside the open grave. He hasn’t even turned it off, he just has it idling. He sits on the footstep and when he isn’t wiping his face clean of sweat he is eye-fucking her something fierce. Already she can see him formulating any number of lines he hopes might magically translate this sordid little afternoon into a quick fuck in whichever motel is closest.
She asks him what his next job is. He is surprised, and thinks and says, “Well, they got a parking lot they need leveled off in Bayton.”
Christ, she thinks. Gravedigging at two, parking lot at three. What an interesting little county her father chose to die in.
“You got anyone else coming?” he ventures.
“Well. You want to go ahead and get on with the show?”
“There isn’t a minister coming or anything?”
“I believe you have to schedule him.”
“So it isn’t an automatic civil service or whatever?” she asks, and laughs morosely. “I thought this was God’s country.”
“Not for free, it isn’t,” says the gravedigger.
Where they are is Montana City, Texas, which is a joke of a name: it can only be called a city in that it has two traffic lights. One is broken, but they don’t count that against it. Mona had the option of transferring her father up to Big Spring, which is bigger in the sense that a gnat is bigger than a flea, but she doesn’t see why she should foot a dime more than she has to to plant her father, Earl Bright III, deep in this godforsaken soil. After all, he was a horrific skinflint, and it feels appropriate to stick him in a stretch of earth just as begrudging and hostile as he was in life.
The gravedigger climbs into his backhoe. “You want to say something?”
She thinks about it, and shakes her head. “It’s all been said.”
He shrugs, revs the engine, and starts it forward. Mona watches impassively behind her silvered sunglasses as the crumbly clay earth tumbles down to embrace the pine coffin below.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, yadda yadda yadda.
Earl, of course, had not been foresighted enough to write a will, so all of his belongings enter the complicated and cryptic world of probate. Or at least it would be complicated anywhere else, but here the judge plans to go elk hunting in a week, so they cut down the time before the heirship proceeding accordingly, because honestly, who cares.
On the appointed hour, Mona dutifully appears at the local probate court, a low-ceilinged place filled with the reek of burned coffee. It looks as if it moonlights as a VFW hall. There’s a moment of confusion when the officials see Mona, for though Earl was as white as snow, Mona’s looks are all her mother’s, so she is quite Mexican. But Mona was prepared for this—she has to be, in Texas—and the appropriate forms and badges of identification mostly quell the questions. Then they get down to business.
Of a sort. The judge is present, but he’s got his feet up on the table and is utterly absorbed in his newspaper. Mona doesn’t mind. The easier this is, the better, because she’s looking for something specific, a treasure Earl would have never parted with even in his most extreme old age: his 1969 cherry-red Dodge Charger, the pride and joy he spent most of his life on, and which Mona was forbidden from ever driving. As a teenager she often dreamed of sitting in its leather seats and feeling the motor burst to life with the push of the pedal, the vibrations of the pistons dancing up the steering shaft and into her arms. Once, on a hot summer evening when she was sixteen, she tried to steal it for the night. She hadn’t even gotten it out of the garage before he caught her. Even today, the resulting scar has not healed.
So it is a very bitter grin that blossoms on her face when the gray-faced little court officer informs her that yes, that vehicle is still licensed to Mr. Bright, and as the deceased never indicated who it should go to she can claim it if she is willing. “By God, I am willing, sir,” she says. “I am damn willing.”
“All right,” he says, and makes a note. “And what about his other properties?”
This comes as a surprise. Judging by his living conditions, her father had been scratching out a miserable and penniless life in this tiny town. “What other properties did he have?” she asks.
Oh, a fair few, the officer tells her. The car, for instance, is located at a storage unit with several of his other belongings, and these are hers if she wishes. She shrugs and says, why not. There’s a small sum of cash, which she takes. There are also a few parcels of land he still owns, the officer says. These Mona turns down: she is well aware that her father has sold any land worth selling and has been living off the proceeds; the rest is unsellable scrub. The officer nods and tells her that just leaves the matter of the house.
“No sir, I do not want that flea-infested shack he was living in,” she tells him.
“Well, that’s good, because he didn’t own that,” he says. “That he was renting. This would be a house left to him in”—he checks the paper—“New Mexico.”
“It’s what? In New Mexico? I never heard of him owning a house out there.”
The officer turns the document around to show her. “Looks like he didn’t, originally,” he says. “It was left to him, but went unclaimed. In his case, it was left to him by one… Laura Gutierrez Alvarez?”
At that, Mona is almost struck dumb. Though the clerk is nattering on about New Mexico law and uniform probate law, Mona can hardly hear a word of it.
Momma, she thinks? Momma had a house? Momma had a house in New Mexico?
Then, slowly, her shock turns to rage. She cannot believe that the old bastard never told her that. For years she peppered him with questions about her mother, whom she barely remembers save for a few childhood images of a thin, trembling woman who wept constantly and stared out of windows, yet never went outdoors. Mona never knew that her mother had once had a life beyond their tiny West Texas home; yet here, recorded in the fading ink of an ancient typewriter, a paper tells her of a paper that tells her of a deed in her mother’s name, which in turn tells her of another life far from here, a life before Earl, and Mona’s own birth, and all the bitter years they spent together as her father roughnecked across the country.
“What else can you tell me about it?” she asks.
“Well… not much. There’s nothing else in the original will, which is pretty basic. I suppose your father never acted on it.”
“Never? He just sat on it?”
“Seems that way. The will itself has an expiration date of”—he checks—“thirty years.”
Something about this troubles Mona. “Thirty years from Earl’s death?”
“Erm, no,” says the official. He checks the papers. “This would be thirty years from the date of your mother’s death.”
Mona closes her eyes, and thinks—fuck.
“What?” says the official. “Something wrong?”
“Yeah,” says Mona. “That means it expires in”—she does some math in her head—“eleven days.”
“Oh.” The official whistles lowly. “Well. Better get a wiggle on, I suppose.”
Mona gives him a prime no shit glare, then squints to read the home’s address:
WINK, NM 87207
Wink? she thinks. Where the fuck is Wink?
The question stays on her mind as she drives into Big Spring to track down her father’s storage unit. It even pushes out all thoughts of the Charger. She has never felt there was much to know about her father—and what else was there besides the bitter silences, the smell of cordite, and the Silver Bullet tallboy clutched in one hairy fist?—yet now she is given to wonder. If all this is true, if her mother really did leave him a house in a distant town, then he must have known at least a little about it—right? You don’t just inherit a house and then stick all knowledge of it away and forget about it, do you?
It strikes her as she pulls into the storage center that if anyone would ever do such a thing, it would be her daddy. He was just the type.
The storage center attendant is initially suspicious of her. Not just because she’s asking to open someone else’s unit, and has to produce a lot of documents and fumble with a lot of keys to prove her case, but also because that particular unit hasn’t been opened in over two years. Finally he gives in—though Mona suspects his objection was mostly fueled by a reluctance to get out of his chair rather than some professional honor—and he leads her through the maze of boxes and metal doors to one of the larger storage units at the far back.
“Is he dead for reals?” asks the attendant.
“He is for reals dead,” says Mona. “I’ve seen him.”
“If that’s the case, you got a week to clear all this out, just so’s you know,” he says, and he unlocks the unit and sends the door rattling up.
Mona’s eyes spring wide. The court officer described the storage unit as having “several” of his belongings, and she also recalls the term “a fair few” being used. But what confronts her in the storage unit is such an imposing pile of tottering shit that she is almost faint with the idea of sorting it. It’ll take her twelve days at least to get a quarter of the way through it.
She gets a hefty Maglite from the storage clerk and a dolly to wheel some of this stuff away. She is thankful to have driven her old truck here, as it will definitely come in handy. But it does not take long for her to spot a shape on the side of the unit, something long, with sleek angles, draped in a thick tarp. She spies a tire peeking from underneath one fold, and her heart leaps.
It takes her more than a half an hour to get all the boxes off it, but soon the powerful form of the Charger emerges from the beige clutter. When she has enough cleared she rips the tarp off, and a cloud of dust rushes up and balloons out to fill the unit and most of the pathway outside. It is so thick it cakes her sunglasses. She waits for it to settle before she removes them, leaving flesh-colored holes in her now-dusty face.
She blinks. The Charger stands before her. She has not seen this car in fifteen years, and yet it has not aged a day. It is as if it has just fallen out of a memory. Not even the dust can taint its vibrant red color, which seems to fill the unit with a merry glow.
She moves to touch it, wishing to confirm that this moment is indeed happening, when her toe catches one of the cardboard boxes and sends her tumbling over. She falls so fast she does not even have time to cry out or try to stop herself, and the cement floor flies up and cracks her on the forehead.
It is a solid hit, and for a moment she sees nothing but green bubbles of light bursting in a sea of black. Then one light begins to grow steadier, and she hears the Maglite clattering on the floor nearby. Forms calcify in the darkness, blank gray faces all stacked in a column, and on one of the faces is a word: LAURA.
She realizes she is lying on the dusty floor with her cheek on the cement and her feet up on a crushed box. The Maglite is caught in the tarp and shooting a spotlight on one box in a tower of them. But it is the box below it, the one with the word LAURA written on it in Sharpie, that Mona is most interested in. That, and the state of her head.
She sits up and touches her brow. There is a leak of blood forming there, and her fingers shine wetly. “Fuck,” she says, and looks around for something to stanch it. Seeing nothing useful, she tears off a corner of dust-covered newspaper and slaps it to her head. It sticks.
She has entirely forgotten the Charger behind her. She removes the boxes on top of the LAURA one, and pulls the lid off.
She blinks again. Her head is beginning to pound and everything feels woozy. It is hard to see into the box in the dark. She grabs the Maglite and shines it in.
It’s all papers, like the rest of the storage unit. But these are not papers she thinks her daddy would ever normally have. They are too official, too… technical. She sees the initials CNLO in a lot of the corners, next to some kind of corporate logo, and some of them are copies of graph paper with a lot of numbers and equations on them.
Then Mona spies something at the edge of the box. It is a glossy corner of a photo, she is sure. She pulls it out and examines it.
It is a photo of four women on a back porch, seated around a wrought-iron table. They are all well dressed and holding up cocktails and laughing at the camera, which, judging by the hazy shadows and soft colors, was some kind of old Polaroid. Behind the women is an impressive vista: there are tall pines mere yards away, and behind those is a wall of immense pink crags, striated with dusky crimson.
Mona does not know three of the women. But the fourth she recognizes, though never in her life did she see that face in a look of such happiness. For Mona that face was always fearful and sad, the eyes constantly probing the room as if expecting to spy some invisible intruder. But the person in the picture is definitely her mother, decades younger than when Mona knew her, perhaps lives younger, free of years of illness and sour marriage.
Mona turns the picture over. On the back, written in loopy blue ballpoint, are the words: MOUNTAINS ARE PINK—TIME TO DRINK!
She turns it back over and examines the faces. The idea of her mother, a trembling creature who needed dark, empty rooms more than life itself, having a casual cocktail with friends is beyond bewildering.
Mona digs farther into the box. There are more photos, evidently from the same roll of film, documenting the same afternoon party. They are all taken around the same house, and at first she thinks that the house is made out of stone or mud before remembering that they have adobe houses out there, don’t they? She catches only corners and stray walls of the place, but in one photo where her mother, clad in a tight, appealing blue dress, hugs a new arrival on the front walk, Mona manages to see part of the front.
She holds the picture closer. There is a number on the wall beside the front door. She squints, and though the light in the unit is bad and the camera renders everything fuzzy, she believes it reads 1929.
“Nineteen twenty-nine Larchmont,” Mona mutters. She flips back through the photos, taking in the people, the view, but especially her mother and the big house she apparently owned far away from here in some beautiful country, surrounded by happy friends.
Mona’s house, now—if she can get to Wink in time. She has not really realized it until this moment, but now that she has a picture of the thing rather than some vague, ancient papers, she understands what it is she’s walked into. Though she has never laid eyes on this house or even known it existed before, it could belong to her. To Mona, who has had a bad couple of years and has been migrating and renting a lot—and once, in Corpus Christi, even living out of her goddamn truck and bathing in a gas station restroom—the idea is absolutely crazy.
There is a knock at the door of the unit. The storage center attendant looks in warily. “Everything okay in here? Thought I heard a shout.”
Mona looks up at him, and he withdraws a little to see this short, dark-haired, dust-covered woman glaring at him with a shred of newspaper and a trickle of blood on her forehead. Mona does not know it, but the shred of newspaper blares AUTHORITIES APPALLED.
“Doing good,” she says, and her voice is raspy from the dust. She nods at the Charger. “Where can I get some gas and a mechanic for that?”
It takes most of the day to take care of Earl Bright’s last possessions. A lot of it she’ll leave for the attendant to trash. Most of the papers are about land purchases, as her father apparently tried to elbow into the speculation racket, with poor results. There are a shocking number of bowling trophies, none of them for first place. There are also some photos. Most of them are of him and his family. These Mona throws away. The pictures of him, Mona, and her momma she keeps, at least for today: she promises herself she’ll toss them too, in the morning.
She manages to sell her old truck for 250 dollars, and in her frank opinion the buyer overpaid, though she definitely does not say so. The Charger takes minimal work at the mechanic’s to get it running like a charm. God can damn her father for a whole host of things, but he was handy with a car. The only sticking point is the tires: naturally, a mechanic’s in Big Spring doesn’t have the stock to service a classic car like this, and Mona’s not interested in waiting around, so after grilling the mechanic rather mercilessly she purchases a set that should be “serviceable” until she can find a place that can get her something real. She’s pretty sure that will eliminate most of the small pile of cash she’s just inherited, but feels certain it will be worth it. When the mechanic’s done, she loads her meager possessions into the car, and she moves the most important ones last: her Glock 19, its holster, and a box of rounds.
By the time the sun sets Mona is richer than she’s been in years. Not only does she have over a thousand dollars, she now owns a flashy car, a box of her mother’s papers and photos, and a goddamn house in New Mexico.
She sits in the driver’s seat and does some thinking.
Eleven days left. Maybe fewer. She’ll have to seriously book it.
That night at the motel she orders takeout from a barbecue joint and sits on the bed eating and reading her mother’s things. Lots of them—most of them—she doesn’t understand. They look like data reports from some old computer system—the kind, she imagines, whose screen is rendered in black with dark green letters. There are reams and reams and reams of data, and sometimes there are words but she doesn’t understand a damn lick of it—“cosmic bruising” gets tossed around a lot, as well as “aphasic,” and there’s a lot of talk about “binary states,” which Mona doesn’t get. There are also some other papers, interoffice memos, all of which originate from the same laboratory: CNLO, Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory, whose name is always paired with the same corporate logo, an atomic model of an element (hydrogen, Mona guesses) encased in a drop of water, or possibly a ray of light.
And it appears her mother was once employed there, probably as some sort of engineer. She sees “Alvarez” on several of the memos, even “Dr. Alvarez.” Mona’s been getting surprised all day, but this surprises her most of all: she cannot imagine her mother having a PhD in anything, especially advanced stuff like this.
She looks at a few old family photos from her father’s belongings. The one she lingers on the most was taken in front of their old cinder-block house. The house is as small and white and drab as she remembers, drenched in sun and dust. Mona, Earl, and her mother stand before the front door, smiling a little, a snapshot taken on the way to church. Mona cannot imagine who took the picture—maybe a neighbor?—but even in this moment, early in their family’s history, Mona thinks she can detect some brittleness in her mother’s eyes, something ready to break.
Mona can still remember the last time she saw her mother. Alive, that is. It took place right there, on that step in the photo. She remembers the hot, red day when her mother ventured out onto that front step—her first time outside in months—and called to Mona, playing in the yard, hardly seven years old. Her mother was wearing a teal bathrobe and her hair was wet, and Mona remembers how embarrassed she was when the wind rose and the bottom of her mother’s bathrobe lifted up and Mona saw coarse pubic hair and realized her mother was nude under that robe, just naked as a jaybird. Her mother called to her to come, and when Mona obeyed her mother knelt and whispered into Mona’s ear that she loved her, she loved her more than anything, but she couldn’t stay here, and she was so sorry. She couldn’t stay because she was not from here, not really, she was from somewhere else, and she had to go back now. Mona, terrified, asked where it was, and was it close and could she visit, and her mother whispered that no, no, it was far, far away, but she said not to worry, everything would be fine; one day she would come and get her little girl and everything would be fine. Then her mother said to stay in the yard, to just stay there until the ambulance came and took care of everything, and with one last profession of love she kissed Mona and walked back inside.
Mona’s last memory of her mother is of her walking down the long, dark hallway, teetering uneasily on pale, skinny legs, her hands mindlessly probing her ears. After that, though Mona was not there to see it (having minded her mother), Laura Bright wrapped her head in two towels, climbed into the bathtub, shut the curtain, put her husband’s shotgun to her chin, and painted the aquamarine tiles of the shower with the wet, simple matter that composed her mind and soul.
Judging from her mother’s preparations, she had evidently tried to make a clean job of it, but the grout kept a pink stain that never went away, no matter how her father scrubbed. Mona hated the house after that, and she was thankful when her father moved to a new job. And to this day Mona has never forgotten the way her mother looked when she apologized to her on that front step: she looked more sensible and saner than she had in many years. It was not until later, when Mona became a cop, that she learned how unusual it was for a woman to kill herself with a firearm, especially one as devastating as a shotgun. To this day, it still bothers her.
She keeps forgetting that in eleven days it will have been thirty years ago. Even though all of her adult life has occurred after that moment, it still feels as if it happened only yesterday, like Mona is still waiting on the front lawn, waiting for her mother to tell her to come back inside.
She remembers almost nothing of her mother apart from that moment and brief snatches of other memories that amount to nothing. Yet in this dingy motel room, with the sounds of Jeopardy! bleeding through the bedroom wall, Mona is confronted with the fact that her mother was much more than that sad, confused woman. How she got to West Texas and into Earl Bright’s life is something Mona cannot imagine.
Yet it is something Mona decides she will find out. She will go to this town in New Mexico and find out what her mother was doing there and what turned her into the weeping wreck of a human being Mona knew. And after all, Mona has no reason to stay in Texas: she’s had a rocky couple of years since her divorce, and though after her resignation the Houston PD made it obvious they’d welcome her back, she does not feel like being a cop anymore. She has become comfortable with drifting, with the endless chain of cheap motel rooms and the scents of diesel gas and watery beer. God only knows how many W2s she’s filled out for a month’s or two months’ wages. She has been all over Texas and Louisiana and, in one rock-bottom fit, Oklahoma, and though she has seen many miles she is now unsure if she’s actually found anything during her sojourn. Certainly never a house, or a car, or the ghost of her mother’s history.
Mona shoves the papers aside and starts trimming and filing her toenails (she has always taken very good care of her feet), and she watches the curtains change color with the neon lights outside.
She wonders how she will get there. She wonders what Wink is like, and why she’s never heard of it before. And she wonders if she will find any more to the stranger she has just unearthed in this little cardboard box.
On the outskirts of Wink, nestled in the western side of the mesa so it is shielded from the worst of the midday sun, there is a narrow, wandering canyon that is curiously treeless and silent. It is almost hidden within a thick thatch of pinyon pines, yet none of them has managed to penetrate this canyon despite having successfully invaded far harsher regions. It is mostly invisible to the town itself, but if the inhabitants wished, it would be an easy thing to climb down to the forest and hike their way over. Yet despite the canyon’s scenic appeal and accessibility, none of the residents of Wink ever enters. At least, not without an invitation.
Because this is where Mr. First resides, and Mr. First values his privacy.
It is early morning, and pink hues are just beginning to seep into the dark sky above, blanching out the stars. A flock of sparrows suddenly takes flight from the forest in a rush, and they wheel about before settling on the opposite side of Wink. A family of white-tailed deer also flees the mesa’s shadow, springing through the pines as if startled by a hunter, yet there is none. Even a pack of coyotes hurries away, an anomaly if ever there was one, as they’d normally be asleep by now.
Soon a heavy silence pervades the forest. There is no sound but the wind in the pines. For Mr. First is waking, and most creatures around the mesa know it’s wise to make themselves scarce at such times.
This occurrence is unusual, and Mr. First realizes this, for it is not his time to wake. He observes that it is morning, not evening, and more so he has set a very rigorous schedule for himself, and if he’s gauged the current date correctly he is well short of his appointed time. He should still be slumbering here, hidden from the raw, new world in the many rocky folds of the canyon. It is very curious.
Something must have awoken him, he decides. This is concerning, for few are the things that can awake Mr. First. So, in a series of slow, complicated movements, he unfurls himself and begins to examine his surroundings: he tastes the air, the moisture, the sandy canyon floor, and many other things besides.
It is this ability for perception (along with his seniority) that differentiates Mr. First from his many siblings. For example, while his family is unique in a variety of ways, only he is able to perceive the shape and shift of time itself: he can glimpse ahead and make out the rough, tumbling shape of things to come, like looking down into the sea and discerning a swell of silver and identifying it as a school of fish—and, if he concentrates very, very hard, he might even be able to make out the form of things that could have happened (or even should have happened) but did not.
Now, trembling and quaking in the cool morning air, Mr. First realizes this is what awoke him: the shape of the future has just violently shifted. A multitude of possibilities were eliminated, and everything has just been forced onto a single track. He exercises his talent for perception, and peers ahead at the blurry shape of future events, and sees…
He stops almost immediately. If Mr. First had eyes to widen, they would be quite wide right now.
He thinks about what he has just seen, and two thoughts enter his mind:
One is that someone has been murdered. This is unprecedented, and rightly so: such a thing should be impossible here. Yet merely by glancing at the next few hours, he can see it is true.
The second is far more confusing, far more ominous, and totally perplexing to Mr. First. Yet he knows what he saw, and though it was as vague and shadowed as all glimpses of things yet to come, it is clear as day to him:
She is coming.
Mr. First hunches down in his canyon, withdrawing utterly until there is nothing to distract him. He begins thinking, very hard and very fast, which is difficult for him, for his thoughts usually proceed with the pace and implacability of tectonic shifts.
Things are changing. They are changing here, in a place that should not ever, ever change. Even he, eldest of his siblings (give or take), could never have anticipated this.
Should I tell them? he asks himself. He extends his attention to the tiny town threaded through the valley before the mesa. They are all still asleep, for the most part.
No, he decides: they will know soon enough, and besides, it would make no difference.
But his own preparations will have to change, he knows. They’ll have to be sped up, for one. That is all he can do. And soon he will have visitors, and he will have to get ready for them.
He sighs a little. He was quite enjoying it here. They all were. But such things happen, he supposes.
Anyone who wants to rhapsodize about the beauty of nature should drive from Texas to New Mexico, Mona thinks. There is about a hundred-mile stretch of nothing, genuinely nothing, no crops or buildings of any kind, though of course it’s hard for her to tell how big it is because it all looks the same. It is just flat, gray, sunbaked scrub, flatter than any land Mona’s seen before. She’s pretty sure that if she were to pull over and stand on the hood of her car she’d be able to see for miles in every direction. There are barbed-wire fences everywhere, but Mona can’t figure out for the life of her what they’re fencing out.
I-40 just keeps going. It has almost no intersections, and it passes through no towns. This is an empty country, untamed simply because there is nothing here to tame.
Except, Mona learns, the wind. It is when she first enters the hills that she sees the wind turbines, and she’s so surprised she nearly drives the Charger off the road. They are so unexpected, these shining white machines standing on the ragged mountaintops. She knew they had built wind farms out here, but she hasn’t returned to West Texas in over fifteen years, so she has never seen one. The turbines seem limitless, dotting the farthest hilltops. It is an alien sight.
Mona sees there is a gap in the fence beside one of the turbines, and she decides now is a pretty good time to take a break. She pulls over and grabs her maps and her lunch—a bean burrito that’s been warming in the sunlight on the passenger seat—and she hops out and starts up the hill to where the turbine stands. It is probably trespassing, but she doubts there is anyone around to object. She can’t remember the last time she saw another car.
The turbine is farther away than she thought, for she underestimated its size. It seems like the biggest thing she’s ever seen, though it can’t be, she thinks. It is about five stories tall, and she’s seen buildings much larger than that, yet this seems bigger, somehow. When she gets close she finds it makes a hum so deep and loud it makes her sinuses vibrate. It is a terrifying and strange contraption, rotating so slowly under the blindingly blue sky. But it’s also the only source of shade around here, so Mona sits down in its shadow and unpacks her burrito and opens up her maps.
She looks them over, and thinks.
It took three days to figure out where, approximately, Wink is. Three wasted, frustrated, furious days, for as it turned out, Mona wasn’t the only person who’d never heard of it: no mapmaker, including Rand McNally and the goddamn Department of Transportation, had heard of it, either. The DOT kept referring her to the state level, which in turn referred her to national, and so on and so forth. She spent nearly a whole day finding every highway map she could and scouring it for the town, but her search was fruitless. She even called the tax appraisal district for the county, hoping to check the property tax rolls, but the county had no record of it.
Mona then tried another route: she had several official documents saying she now owned the house, so presumably the offices and institutions that had issued them should be able to tell her where it was, right? But she was wrong: all anyone had was the address. The rest of the information about the house—like where it was—was conspicuously absent. Mona argued that clearly the house was real, so the town had to be real as well, and real things generally show up on maps, but the clerk on the phone responded that no, actually, they did not know if the house was real, they could only confirm that her inheriting the house was real; the rest, the clerk primly said, might be either an error or a fraud, and the way she told Mona this made it plain she now considered her suspect. Mona then said a lot of things she’d never say in church, and the clerk hung up on her.
She was so angry that it took her a long while to calm down and figure out a solution. While Wink now seemed unfindable, there was something else she realized she could search for: Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory, whose logo was emblazoned on the corner of almost every paper of her mother’s. This idea came to her on the way to Amarillo, since she’d decided to start moving in the general direction of New Mexico to avoid wasting any more time. When she arrived she swung by the public library to see what she could find on it.
Again, what she found was negligible, but it was at least more than what she’d found on Wink. Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory was referenced in seven places, all of them old scientific magazines from the sixties and seventies. The one with the most detail was the oldest, from 1968, a sort of profile on the lead scientist done by Lightfirst Magazine, which itself went out of business in 1973.
The article featured a large picture of an elderly but robust man smiling and standing in front of a magnificent mountain panorama. Though it was rendered in black and white and the photo had turned a dull yellow from age, Mona could tell the region was astonishingly beautiful. The man was dressed a little like an explorer, with big boots and a vest with many pockets, one of those adventurer-intellectuals who seem inspired by the previous century. There was a lot of construction going on behind him at the foot of one of the biggest mountains. The caption read:
Dr. Richard Coburn, standing before the future site of Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory at the base of the Abertura Mesa.
Abertura Mesa, thought Mona. She wrote that down, then scanned the rest of the article for something usable. It was mostly an interview with Dr. Coburn (rendered, bizarrely, in transcript—she guessed this just appealed to those of the scientific persuasion), centering on physics stuff, which frankly bored her to tears, so she couldn’t make heads or tails of it. The interviewer mostly fawned over Dr. Coburn, who must have been some big-shot physicist back in the day, and though he was enthusiastic he didn’t seem eager to talk details. She zeroed in on one section in particular:LFM: So what expectations do you have for the project? If your recent publications are anything to go by, they must be very high. RICHARD COBURN: Well, really, I think it’s only healthy to enter into any new endeavor with the highest of expectations. I mean, you want to make yourself work, naturally, and you won’t work if you don’t think you can accomplish anything. I sort of become an enemy of myself, in a way. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but I tend to assume I’m failing all the time. There is so much more I can be doing at any moment. Perhaps it’s unhealthy, I’m not sure. LFM: What more do you think you can be doing, then? RICHARD COBURN: I’m sorry, I don’t believe I understand the question. LFM: What I mean is, you say you’re going into this expecting great accomplishments. What would those accomplishments be? RICHARD COBURN: Well, unfortunately, since our funding is largely through government avenues, there’s not much I can say about our plans. You know, it’s the kind of thing that has all sorts of clearance levels and such. It’s all a bit irritating, honestly. There is so much I’d like to talk about, yet I can’t. But I will say that this just might be—and I do not think I am overestimating myself, here—the first really genuine American foray into the quantum realm. And with each new thing we learn, the possibilities become more and more amazing. We’ve assembled a great team here, and though we’re all pretty much camping in the desert for now, I expect that’ll change soon. LFM: They have you camping out there? In tents? RICHARD COBURN: Oh, no, they have temporary housing set up. It’s fairly comfortable. I believe there are some plans to make something more permanent, but I’m only peripherally involved in those. It should be very pleasant, I think. They’re allowing us some say in the aesthetics. But I honestly cannot wait to get started. We will be examining the way the world works at the smallest level possible, and I can’t overstate how important this research will be. Things we’ve assumed, things we’ve taken for granted for hundreds if not thousands of years are being brought into question. It really is quite startling. I’d be unnerved by the whole thing, really, if I didn’t love the research so much.
Mona had expected government funding—it was a national lab, after all—but this sounded distinctly more… secret. As if whatever they’d been doing out there required housing and domesticities that were very much off the books, like a federal enclave.
Which might explain why there was absolutely nothing to be found about Wink. Having once been a reservist, Mona was dimly aware of how the government operates in situations like this: first they build the facilities, then they construct the residential area for its staff. Maybe Wink was a federal town built to house the staff of CNLO, which would explain why it never showed up on any maps, and why so many state and federal institutions had no record of it.
And this was what her mother had been wrapped up in? She’d been a government research scientist? The more Mona learned about her mother’s past, the more bizarre it all seemed.
As she copied the article, she realized it all put her in a hell of a spot: she’d been entrusted a house, but it just might be in a fucking federal enclave. How could that have happened? What would she have to do, climb a barbed-wire fence to get to it? Was any of this legal? Mona had no experience with federal law on this scale. And she still hadn’t found anything definite about the exact location of the town. All she had was the name of the mesa that might or might not be nearby.
But after checking another map, she found that at least the mesa was real—the Abertura Mesa, just on the north tip of the Jemez Mountains, to the northwest of Santa Fe and Los Alamos. It looked fairly accessible, as well.
That just left one question—was she willing to drive all the way out there to see if either Coburn National Laboratory and Observatory or Wink was around?
She looked up and saw her reflection in the library window. Ever since finding the old photos of her mother, Mona had been reminded of how similar they looked: Mona was a little shorter, and her skin a little browner, but besides that they were almost the same.
It had been so powerfully strange to see her mother happy. Not just happy: effervescently happy, incandescently happy. As Mona stared at her reflection in the library window, she tried to remember if she’d ever seen her mother in such a state. What had she possessed in Wink that made her so happy?
Then Mona tried to remember the last time she herself had felt that way.
She could. But it was a long time ago, and she’d never wanted to remember it. To forget, to shut down entirely, had always been the better option.
Though Mona did want the house, she realized she would go to Wink even if she missed the deadline. It would be worth it if she could catch just a glimpse of that smiling woman in the photos.
And maybe Mona could find what her mother had found in Wink, as well.
She stacked up all the papers and stood up. Maybe it’s still there, she thought as she walked out. It’s got to still be there.
So now here Mona is, squatting on a hilltop beside a huge, humming wind turbine on the Texas border with not a soul around for miles. She looks over her maps for the hundredth time. Most of them she’s notated by hand (Mona was far too poor for a GPS for a long while, and even though she now has the funds her practicality scoffs at the very idea), since many don’t acknowledge the Abertura Mesa at all, and none of them make any reference to Wink, of course. It is a queer thing to be traveling in such a manner. It’s like sailing without a rudder. Sometimes she thinks she is making her own maps so she can figure out how to get back from wherever she’s going.
She sets the maps down, finishes her lunch, and stares off into the west. The sky is huge and bright, yet it is rent in a thousand places by the slowly swirling blades of the turbines. With the sun at the right angle they make a million dancing shadows on the barren hills. She takes a breath, lets it out, and wonders if she really wants to get back in the Charger.
She doesn’t want to think of this as a second chance. Because Mona Bright has never really believed she ever got a first one. Not really.
A powerful ache begins seeping into her stomach.
Don’t think about that. Pick it up and put it away.
She opens the door to the Charger, puts it in gear, and continues on her way west.
Eight days. She can make it in eight days.
Slowly, the country changes.
It happens in the distance, initially. The horizon begins to crumple; then shadows form on it like thunderstorms in a cloud line. Soon the shadows gain a red tint, and Mona sees that they are mountains. Beside her the earth changes from colorless gray barrens to orange steppes rendered fuzzy and indistinct by the clusters of chamisa. The little feathery plant clings to everything out here, making Mona feel like she has glaucoma: it is as if someone has painted pale green and yellow brushstrokes over a bright orange canvas.
It is much cooler in the high countries than anywhere else Mona has been recently. She rolls the windows down and lets the cool afternoon air come rushing in around her, and she smiles as she points the Charger up another slope. It is not hard to believe that this is the land that birthed the nuclear age: anything feels possible out here. There is even something electric in the air, though that may just be the sky: if God painted the sky piece by piece then He surely finished this country last, for here the sky is so fresh and new it almost hurts to look at it.
Mona is enjoying herself so much that she almost forgets to start checking the road signs. When she finally does she sees that she is much closer to her general target than she expected. She begins to pull over at little stops to ask if the people there have ever heard of Wink.
At first, not many have. They stare at her uncertainly, and after they say no they ask if she wants something else, as if she should buy a gallon of gas or a soda just out of politeness. But Mona has neither money nor politeness to spare, and she hops back in her car and speeds along to the next stop.
Yet then the name produces a reaction: they stare at her, puzzled, but direct her down the road (this instruction is needless—there is only one road) and tell her to keep an eye out for a well-paved road leading north.
One woman tells her, “Odd that you’re going there. Can’t remember the last time someone went there. Come to think of it, can’t remember the last time someone came from there, either.”
If Mona’s lucky, she’ll make it before nightfall. Then she’ll have a whole week to try to get the house. She hopes that will be enough.
Mona finds the paved road very easily. It is impossible to miss, so smooth and unbroken and black. It is easily the nicest road she’s seen in a while. It winds down the mountain slope into fuller and taller pines, away from the rocky heights of the plateaus. It becomes rather shocking how far the road keeps going down; she wonders if this town, if it’s still around, exists at the bottom of a hole in the ground. But then there is a break in the trees, and she sees it is not quite a hole but rather a steep, narrow valley.
When the road reaches the bottom of the valley it curls around itself, toward the mesa. A large, painted sign stands on the right-hand side of the turn. Mona slows to a stop to look at it.
The sign must mark the southern entrance to Wink, she thinks. It is large and colorful, and depicts two men and a woman standing at the mouth of a valley, staring at a sun-dappled mesa before them. All of them, Mona notes, are exceedingly white. The men have their hands on their hips (very authoritative), while the woman has her hands clasped together below her breasts. The men have smooth, parted hair, virtually the same except that one’s is blond and the other’s is brown, as if they’re different versions of the same doll. They wear khakis and plaid shirts with the sleeves rolled up, as if there’s work to do and darn it, they plan to do it. The woman has long, curly blond locks and a bright white-and-red sundress. They look like the kind of adults all children expect to be when they grow up.
But it is what they are gazing at that Mona finds odd. There is something on top of the mesa at the end of the valley. It looks like a tiny bronze antenna, like the kind that used to sit on top of the world in the old RKO Pictures logo. It is such an antiquated addition to the picture, yet there is something else strange about it. Are there streaks in the sky all pointing to the antenna? They look almost like very faint bolts of lightning.
At the bottom, the sign reads: WELCOME TO WINK—WHERE THE SKY TOUCHES THE EARTH! Below that, in much smaller writing: POP.: 1,243.
Mona realizes that the valley looks familiar. She gets out of her car, steps back, and looks around.
After a while she realizes it is this valley, and the mesa in the sign is the one just ahead of her, yet the trees have grown so tall that they obscure nearly everything below it. She can see no antenna on it. Perhaps there are buildings, but it is hard to see from so far away…
She finds the sign puts a bad taste in her mouth. She climbs back into the Charger and starts off down the road again, happy to leave it behind.
A twist of dark road, a leaning fence, the grasping brush of a soft pine branch. On and on and on the road goes… Mona feels sure she’s driven the length of the whole valley, but there’s always more, as if the landscape is unfolding as she travels.
Then she spots something pink out of the corner of her eye, something bulbous and smooth gliding through the air. She can see it only through the gaps in the trees. There is writing on one side, though she can see just two letters: WI.
She sees it is not flying, but standing on a tall, round post. A water tower, she thinks. But she didn’t see any tower before, and she definitely should have…
As she ponders this a splash of red comes swooping out from between the pines: a stop sign. Startled, she comes to an abrupt stop, and discovers she has arrived.
She’s at an intersection, but it’s completely different from those of the rough country roads she’s been traveling: on her left is a small white wooden house with green trim, and on her right is another house, this one of adobe, the walls and corners smooth and brown like a sculpted chocolate cake. Each one expands back into the uneven terrain, disappearing behind thick beds of flowers. The change is so sudden that for a moment Mona sits and stares around, confused.
She realizes she has entered the street grid of Wink. She sees small shops ahead, and telephone wires, and tall pines in the parks. And yet there is no one on the streets that she can see, nor is there any sound at all besides the wind.
This is the town on the federal enclave? she wonders. She saw no signs warding trespassers away, or border guards; the only thing that hindered her arrival was the downward incline of the road.
She starts off into the streets. It is nearly evening, and the first thing she plans to do is ask someone where a motel is. She’ll tackle the issue of her mother’s house in the morning. So long as she presents her identification to the right people tomorrow, the house should be hers.
But she finds no one to ask. As she roves through the street grid (each block is nearly perfect—if she took out a protractor and measured the corners, she is sure they would be at an even ninety degrees) she does not spot a single soul. Every street and every shop and every home is deserted. There aren’t even any cars parked in the lots.
This is why Wink wasn’t on any maps, she thinks. No one fucking lives here anymore. It is just her luck to inherit a house in a ghost town.
But it can’t be abandoned, not really, she decides. It is too well maintained for that: the neon lights of the diner, though unlit, look functional; the cafés all have (somewhat) fresh coats of paint; and as the sun sets the streetlamps all flicker on, bathing the streets in a white, phosphorescent glow, and none of the bulbs are out.
But though it is deserted, the town is quaintly beautiful. Many of the shops and buildings have a faint Googie influence to them, which contrasts hugely with the New Mexican stylings: standing beside a smooth, earthy adobe home might be a metal porthole window and an angular, upswept roof, or an amalgam of glass and steel and neon. Both the diner and the café have parabola-shaped signs done in soft, Easter-egg blue. It feels inappropriate to be cruising these streets in the Charger. What she needs is an Eldorado with tail fins and rocket-ship taillights. Or, she thinks as she passes a round-walled adobe house with pine corbels, maybe a horse-drawn wagon. It is a strangely schizophrenic place, but not unwelcoming.
She tries to imagine her mother living here. Maybe she went to that diner, bought flowers from this shop on the corner, walked her dog down that sidewalk. Jesus, Mona thinks—could she have had a dog? For some reason, this fairly irrelevant possibility confounds her.
Then Mona turns one corner, and she sees the street ahead is lined with parked cars. They are not, as she expected, vintage cars, but Chevy trucks and the like. She speeds up a little, wondering if this could be something, and as she does a wrought-iron railing emerges from the bushes along the sidewalk, and at the next corner is a white wooden church with a tall steeple.
When she pulls up alongside the fence she finally sees what is on the other side, and she slams on the brakes in surprise. The tires squeal a little as she comes to a halt.
Just on the other side of the wrought-iron fence is a huge crowd of people, hundreds of them.
When her tires squeal they all jump, turn, and look at her.
Mona looks back, and sees they are all wearing black, or at least dark gray, and some of the women’s faces are veiled.
The yard with the wrought-iron fence, she realizes, is a graveyard. And at the center of the crowd is a lacquered casket hanging over an open grave.
Wink is not deserted: everyone is attending a funeral. Which Mona has just interrupted, in her rumbling muscle car with squealing tires.
“Ah, shit,” says Mona.
For a moment she has no idea what to do. Then, haltingly, she waves. Most of the people do nothing. Then a small boy, about seven, smiles and waves back.
An older man in a black suit says something to the woman beside him, and walks to the iron fence. Mona rolls down the passenger window, and he asks, “Can I help you?”
Mona clears her throat. “I-is there a motel around here?”
The man stares blankly at her. But not, she feels, in shock or reproach: it is as if his face can make no other expression. Then, without taking his eyes off her, he raises one arm and points down the road ahead. “On the left,” he says, slowly but clearly.
“Thanks,” says Mona. “I’m real sorry for interrupting everything.”
The man does not respond. He stays stock-still for a couple of seconds. Then he lowers his arm. The rest of the crowd keeps watching her.
“Sorry,” she says again. “Real sorry.” She rolls up the window and drives away, but when she looks in the rearview mirror they are all still watching her.
There are probably worse first impressions, but right now Mona cannot think of any. She’s come from one awkward, unhappy funeral to another. She wonders what they will think when they hear she’s inherited a house in town.
Her face is still bright red when she finds the motel, a low, long, dark building at the edge of town. The motel sign reads PONDEROSA ACRES in orange neon, and below that, in smaller red letters, is the word VACANCY. It looks a little like a cabin, with walls made of—or made to look like they’re made of—huge pine logs. There are no lights on in any of the rooms except the office.
She gets out and scans the parking lot. There are no other cars here, not even any on the street.
She walks into the office with her bag over her shoulder. The office is surprisingly spacious, with green marble floors and wood-paneled walls. It smells of beeswax and dust and popcorn. There is only one light in the room, a yellow ceiling lamp that casts a spotlight on a small desk in the corner, littered with papers. In the corner she can just make out an old yellow sofa. Keys glint on the wall behind the desk, and somewhere a handheld radio tinnily plays “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Besides that corner, the office is oppressively dark. She can barely make out a dead palm in a pot before the desk. Its curling brown leaves are still scattered on the floor. On the wall is an old calendar turned to the wrong month; it is brown with age and unmarked, the tool of someone who has had nothing to do for a long, long time.
The office appears to be empty. “Damn it,” she says, and wonders where she will go now.
“Can I help you?” asks a deep, soft voice.
Mona turns around, looking for the speaker. The room is so dark that it takes her eyes a moment to adjust. Then she sees there is a card table in the corner of the room beside the door, and seated at it is an old man with a board of Chinese checkers in front of him. He is bald and gray-bearded, and his pock-marked skin is so dark that initially his gray beard appears to simply float in the darkness. In one of his hands is a Styrofoam cup of steaming coffee. He wears a gray zip-up sweater, red-and-black-striped pants, and alligator shoes, and he watches her over a pair of half-moon spectacles with calm, reserved eyes.
“Oh,” she says. “I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t see you there.”
The old man sips his coffee but says nothing, as if to mean—Obviously.
“I’d like to rent a room, please, sir. Just for tonight.”
The old man looks away, thinking. After nearly a full thirty seconds of meditation, with nothing but Hank Williams to break the silence, he says: “Here?”
“You want to get a room here?”
“What? Yes. Yeah, I want to get a room here.”
The old man grunts, stands up, and goes to the keys on the wall. There are about twenty hanging there on the corkboard. He surveys them very carefully, as if searching a bookshelf for the appropriate tome, and with a quiet aha! he selects one from the bottom corner of the board. What marks this key as different from any of the others, Mona cannot tell. Then he lifts it to his lips and blows. A significant cloud of dust flies up from the key to dance around the ceiling lamp.
“Been a while since you guys had customers?” asks Mona.
“It has been a very long while,” says the old man. He smiles and holds the key out to her.
Mona reaches for it. “How much?”
“How much?” He pulls the key back, confused. “For what?”
“For… the room?”
“Oh,” says the old man, a little irritated, as if this were a needless formality he’d forgotten. He lowers the key, grunts again, puts his cup of coffee down, and begins to sort through the papers on his desk. As he does, he notices the dead plant on the floor. He stops and leans forward, examining it. Then he looks up at Mona and sternly says, “My plant has died.”
“I’m… real sorry to hear that.”
“It was a very old plant.”
He seems to be waiting for her to say something. She ventures, “Oh?”
“Yes. I had it for nearly a year. It was my favorite plant, because of this.”
“Well. That’s understandable.”
The old man just looks at her.
She adds, “You get attached to things if they’re around long enough.”
He keeps staring at her. Mona is beginning to feel quite disturbed. She wonders if he is senile, but there is more to it than that: it feels very unsafe in this big, dark office, where only one corner is lit and tangible, and the rest is hidden from her. For some reason she gets the sense that they are not alone. When the old man returns to his papers, Mona checks the corners—still nothing. Maybe it’s just a weird feeling she got from seeing that funeral.
“I am not sure what to do with it now,” he says grudgingly. “I liked the plant very much. But I suppose these things happen.” He sniffs, and produces a tiny note card from the mountain of old papers on his desk. This he consults carefully, as if it is the ace in his poker hand, and pronounces, “Twenty dollars.”
“For a night?”
“It seems so,” says the old man solemnly, and he places the card back on the desk.
“So… you don’t know how much your own rooms are?”
“There are several rooms, with several prices. I forget them. And we have not had any visitors in some time.”
Mona, glancing at the piles of paper and dust, can completely believe that. “Mind if I ask how you stay open, then?”
He thinks about it. “I suppose you could say,” he concludes, “that there is no shortage of goodwill around here.”
For some reason, Mona feels he is telling the truth. But this does not exactly comfort her. “Just curious—is this the only motel in town?”
Again, he ponders her question. “If there is another motel, I am unaware of it.”
“I guess that’s an honest answer.” She reaches into her bag, takes out a twenty, and hands it to him. He takes the bill and clutches it tight in his hand, as a child would, and looks hard at her again. “Have you ever been here before?” he asks.
“Here? In Wink?”
“Yes. In Wink.”
“No. This is my first time.”
“Hm. Allow me to show you to your room, then.” He picks up the key, the twenty-dollar bill still clutched in his hand, and walks out the office door.
As she follows, Mona glances behind the desk. She sees no gun, no weapon, nothing suspicious. But she does not feel entirely satisfied. It is as if there’s a tiny wound in her mouth she can’t quit playing with. Something is wrong with this.
On the way out, she looks at the Chinese checkers board. There is something different about it now. She cannot say why—after all, it is dark, and she didn’t get a good look at the board—but she is sure the checkers have been rearranged, as if someone has just made a complicated play. But perhaps the old man just jostled the table when he stood up.
He leads her down the row of motel-room doors. Night has fallen very quickly. The sky was bright blue, then streaked with pink, but now it is a soft and dusky purple cut short by the dark mesa surging into the heavens. The air has chilled considerably with the onset of evening, and Mona wishes she’d brought some winter wear.
“What is your name?” the old man asks.
“I am Parson, Mona. It is very nice to meet you.”
“It’s good that you are staying the night here.” He gestures into the dark trees that crawl up the slopes. “The area around Wink can be a little treacherous, especially at night. I would not advise going out at night, especially outside of downtown. People get lost very easily.”
“I can imagine,” says Mona, remembering the steep hills and sudden precipices. “Can I ask you something?”
He stops to consider it, as if this is a very serious proposition. “I suppose so,” he says finally.
“I tried to find this place on a lot of maps before I came, but—”
“Really?” he says. “Why?”
“Well… I don’t really want to get into it too much now, since nothing’s settled yet… but I inherited a house here, supposedly.”
Parson stares off into the distance. “Did you,” he says softly. “Which house would that be, if I might ask?”
“It’s on Larchmont, or so they tell me.”
“I see. You know, I believe I know the residence in question. It is abandoned. But it is in fairly good shape. And you say you inherited it?”
“That’s what all these papers say.”
“How curious…” says Parson. “I cannot remember the last time someone new moved here. You will be quite the oddity, if so.”
“That’s kind of what I wanted to ask about. You might not have anyone moving here because no one knows this town’s here. It’s not on any map. Is there some reason for that? Something to do with the lab on the mountain?”
“Lab?” asks Parson, puzzled.
“Yeah. Coburn National Lab. And, uh, Observatory.”
“Oh,” he says, and smiles. “Goodness. If you’re looking for a job there, I’m afraid you’re about thirty years late.”
“What do you mean?”
“Coburn was shut down years ago. End of the seventies, if I recall. I’m not sure why, exactly. I think they just never produced what they said they would. Lost funding. Wink was originally built around it, you know.”
“Yeah, I figured.”
“Did you?” he says. “Well. When it was shut down, it just left us all here. Where were we going to go? I suppose they took us off most maps to keep the place undisturbed. No spies sniffing around the lab, or some such. But now that we are forgotten, they never remembered to put us back on. To be honest, I like the peace and quiet. Even if it is bad for business.”
“Can I ask you something else?”
“You have done so already—I see nothing barring you from doing so again.”
“Did you ever know a Laura Alvarez here?”
“Here in Wink?”
“Yeah. She would have left about thirty years ago or so. She worked at the lab up on the mountain. I’m trying to find out more about her. She’s—she was my mom.”
“Hm,” he says. “I am afraid I cannot help you. I am not the most social of people. I remember very few names.”
“Even in a town this small, you don’t know?”
“Small?” he says. “Is it so small?” He looks up, examines the room numbers, and selects one. “Ah. Here we are. Our bridal suite.” He smiles at her, but does not open the room.
“Thanks,” she says.
“We do not really have a bridal suite,” he says. “It was a joke.”
“Okay,” she says.
He unlocks and opens the door and shows her in. The carpet is brown shag, and the lamps on the walls are made out of deer horns. The bedspread is done in a colored diamond pattern that Mona identifies as Native American, and it looks comfortable enough.
“The TV,” says Parson firmly, “does not work.”
“I will help you move in,” he says, and begins to walk back to her car.
“That’s okay,” she says. “I have all my things in my bag.”
He stops and peers at her bag. “Oh,” he says, both irritated and disappointed. “All right, then.”
“Is there a good place to eat around here?” she asks.
“There is the diner, but it is likely closed for the funeral.”
“Oh. Yeah, I saw. Who died, the mayor or something?”
“Someone important,” he says. But he adds, “Ostensibly.”
“And you didn’t go to the funeral?”
He gives her a cryptic look, face suddenly closed. “I do not go to funerals. It would not befit my station. Luckily for you, I do offer a complimentary breakfast. I may provide it now, if you wish, rather than in the morning.”
“I’d be much obliged.”
“Excellent,” he says. “I will return shortly.” Then he turns and shuffles back across the parking lot.
Mona has had a lot of weird encounters in her life, but she feels like this one has just made top seed. But before she can think on it more, there is a flicker of light in the sky. Startled, she looks and sees that blue clouds have gathered around the mountains behind the mesa. They are small but violent: each one flickers with lightning every thirty seconds or so, which makes the mountains look like they’re crowned with a tangle of blue neon lights. It is a powerfully unearthly sight to see this island of chaos in an otherwise peaceful night sky.
It is then that she sees the moon is up, but there is something strange about it. It takes her a few moments to put her finger on it.
“It’s pink,” she says out loud. “Why is the moon so pink?”
Parson’s voice comes from behind her. “It always is, here.”
She looks and sees the old man has sneaked up on her. He’s carrying an aluminum tray with an egg sandwich and sausage that look like they came out of a vending machine. To her amusement, the meal is paired with a Corona and a Pop-Tart.
“Bon appétit,” says Parson.
Every night it is the same, Bolan thinks. Every night the truckers spill into the Roadhouse, reeking of cheap tobacco and old sweat, sleep-deprived and claustrophobic and half-blind from the sight of endless highways. Every night they order the same drinks and demand the same songs and shriek the same half-intelligible catcalls. There is always some lout who gets too hopped up on whichever substance is available that night and has to get hauled out and spanked in the parking lot. (And just three months ago Zimmerman and Dee laid one man out and left him breathing under a timber truck, yet in the morning they found him frigid and pale and still, one eye dark with blood and his fingers at many angles; the boys admitted they’d been overzealous, and the man still sleeps somewhere out in the woods under the stones and pine needles, and sometimes Bolan wonders who else is out there with him.) Then, finally, the truckers approach the downstairs girls in stages, and they’ll spend the rest of their evening in the back rooms, coaxing favors out of the girls, or the girls coaxing money out of them. Sometime around three or four they will come stumbling out of their wretched fog and wander out to the parking lot to sleep in the cabs of their trucks. And then, just before dawn, once she’s made all the totals and rechecked the registers, Mallory will stalk upstairs to Bolan’s office, and tell him what the night’s take is.
It’s almost always good. Often it’s very, very good.
And every night, Bolan thinks as he stares out his office window, there is lightning on the mountains, and the bulbous red-pink moon. It does not matter what phase the moon is in, nor does it matter what the weather is like. These are the things that compose Bolan’s world: the red-pink moon, the Roadhouse, and the blue lightning on the mount.
Well. Maybe not just those things, Bolan thinks, perhaps a little bitterly. There will always be the little favors he has to do for the people in charge. But without those, where would he be? Certainly not here, listening to David Dord, occupant of the absolute bottom rung at the Roadhouse, except maybe for the downstairs girls. Or some of them, at least. A couple of the whores are pretty canny, more so than Dord.
Bolan turns back to him. “What do you mean, you think it went well?” he asks over the thumping music from downstairs. “How does a funeral go well? How would you deem one a success, Dave?”
“Well, I don’t know,” says Dave. “You stick the fucking guy in the ground and hopefully he stays there. Then the preacher says all the appropriate whatnot and you’re done. That’s how I judge it.”
Bolan blinks slowly. “That’s a very low bar, Dave,” he says. He wishes the Roadhouse were not doing such good business tonight: this is a conversation he’s been dreading all day, and he wants to hear every bit as clearly as he can. “Think, Dave,” he says. “Think real hard for me. Did anyone say anything? Did anyone do anything at all? Anything out of the ordinary? I’m just curious here, Dave. Enlighten me.”
David Dord, who in his funeral garb looks like a child wearing Daddy’s suit, simply shrugs and shakes his head. “Tom, it was a funeral. It wasn’t a hot spot for talking. No one was particularly eager to discuss their affairs or any such fucking thing.”
“As far as you saw it.”
“Yes, as far as I saw it.”
Bolan slowly blinks again. He is already regretting sending Dord. If he could have he would’ve sent Zimmerman, who is in charge of security at the Roadhouse, and is always very dependable. But after their little job up on the mesa, Bolan knew Zimmerman would be far too hot to send to the funeral. He’s given Zimmerman the next two weeks off, and hopefully the man is spending his time somewhere indoors and quiet, maybe with one of the house girls, which might make everything a lot less quiet. The other two—Norris and Dee—Bolan is keeping close to the Roadhouse. They’re both young and, like a lot of the help Bolan seems to get, quite stupid, and the other night was their first real trial. Bolan needs to know if they’re going to crack. So far Dee seems steady, which does not surprise him: the boy has coasted by on looks and muscle for so long that his mind is too underdeveloped to realize how dangerous their job on the mesa really was. But Norris, well… he isn’t so sure. The kid is definitely messed up. Bolan doesn’t think he should’ve sent him along at all now, not even as the driver.
But he can’t really blame Norris. Zimmerman told Bolan what happened to Mitchell in that place. The room that just didn’t stop… and even though Norris never actually went inside, Bolan is aware of how disturbing those kinds of places can be. There are places in Wink you just don’t go.
But all this means he had no one better to send to the funeral than Dord. Dord is not a man Bolan would trust with buttering a piece of toast. He hates looking into Dord’s soft, pasty face and seeing those dull little eyes peeping back at him. He wishes now that he had sent Mallory. Mallory would’ve done a good job, and come back with simply piles of information. But because she is so good, Bolan has Mallory off doing another little errand tonight, one he is even more nervous about than the funeral.
He checks his watch. It should not be long now.
“So it all went quietly,” says Bolan.
“And nobody mentioned anything of note.”
“Nothing about, oh, foul play.”
“No,” says Dord.
Bolan smiles at him coldly. “That seems pretty unlikely, Dave.”
“Why? I thought you said things went well up there.”
“They went well. Well enough, I guess. But they know what’s up.” He swivels in his chair to stare out the window again. It is a black night with a strong wind, and he can see the ponderosas waving in the blue luminescence of the parking lot lights. “They know something’s wrong. They just don’t know if they can do anything about it.”
“And they can’t, right?”
Bolan stares out the window for a moment longer, watching the dancing trees. Bolan is the sort of person who has looked like he’s in his late fifties for the past thirty years. He has no hair on his head except for his eyebrows and a small, snow-white goatee, and his eyes are puffy and hooded. His face does not emote particularly well: the best expression it makes is one of cynical disappointment, as if he’s expected this sour turn of events and it has confirmed his worst suspicions about the world. Luckily for Bolan—or perhaps unluckily—this is the exact expression he needs to make most of the time.
From downstairs there is the sound of breaking glass, and a whoop. Bolan absently says, “Go downstairs and help Norris. It sounds like we’ve got a real crowd on our hands.”
“Fucking truckers,” says Dord, standing up.
“Yes. Fucking truckers.” He does not watch as Dord leaves. He just hears the sudden burst of music as his office door opens, then closes. He’s tried to soundproof his office as much as possible, for although he runs a roadhouse, he cannot stand country, specifically Nashville country. But it always finds its way in somehow.
He opens a drawer in the side of his desk. In the drawer are his two most important fallbacks: a loaded .357 Magnum, and fourteen bright pink bottles of Pepto-Bismol. With a soft grunt, Bolan plucks out one bottle, strips the cap of its protective plastic, and cracks it open. He throws away the cup that came taped to the top—the suggested dose became insufficient about a year ago—and opens up another drawer, this one containing highball glasses and paper napkins. He takes one glass and fills it to the brim with the thick, pink fluid, and then, without a moment of hesitation, he downs the entire thing. He sighs a little as he sets the glass down, its sides now coated with milky pink residue. Perhaps this will mollify the ocean of acid currently swirling around his esophagus, or perhaps not. Bolan then picks up the now-empty bottle of Pepto, gauges the distance between the desk and the trash can beside the liquor cabinet, leans back in his chair, and shoots. The bottle twirls through the air and bounces off the lip of the can to fall clattering to the floor. Bolan lets out another irritated grunt and stands to walk over to it.
As he stands he glances out the window again, and stops. The ponderosas are still dancing outside, and the parking lot is still mostly empty.
Will they call tonight? he wonders. They would have to. Too much has happened for them not to drop in. But then, they might not. They have been getting harder to predict and understand recently. Which is saying something, for them.
Bolan is not actually a resident of Wink, nor is the Roadhouse part of the town. His proximity to it is entirely coincidental: Bolan was told ten years ago that this highway route would soon be open to more trucking, and so would be a prime spot for a roadhouse, but the people who told him this were quite wrong: all the traffic to Santa Fe chose a very different route, one that bypassed him entirely. Bolan, desperate, wondered then if any of the nearby towns could possibly sustain the Roadhouse, yet all of them were too far away. Except, of course, for Wink.
For the first few years of his time at the Roadhouse, Bolan was not sure that Wink still existed. He had been told about it by several locals—something about government work decades ago—but he never met anyone from Wink, and he sure as hell didn’t sell anything to them. The signposts to Wink never even seemed to lead anywhere. But one morning as he was cruising through the mountains, wondering what to do with his crumbling business, he looked down and spotted the prettiest little town square he’d ever seen, nestled at the bottom of the valley.
It stunned him. He’d had no idea it was there. It took several hours to find the way down. Perhaps, he wondered, this was why he never saw anyone from Wink—it was too hard to decipher the goddamn roads in or out. But as he drove along the town’s streets, marveling at this quaint little burg he’d been living right next door to for God knew how long, he began to get a different idea.
Wink seemed to be a singularly pleasant place. The sunlight felt different here, and the trees were so big and the sidewalks so pristine and white… he actually parked his car and watched a group of boys play baseball. Bolan had no memory of something so blissfully pleasant as that short little game of three innings, but he wished he did.
Maybe no one left Wink because you’d be crazy to leave. It certainly wasn’t a boomtown by any stretch of the imagination, but everyone here seemed so content.
He eventually noticed a few suspicious glances coming his way, mostly from parents. He realized what an odd figure he must cut, sitting in his bright red Camaro, watching the children play. Some residents, coming in from some errands, actually stopped on their lawns to look at him. No one said anything, but the message was clear: We’ll tolerate you for now, but that doesn’t mean you’re welcome here.
Small towns, Bolan thought. Always so damn hostile to outsiders. He started the car, pulled away, and watched in the rearview mirror as the town disappeared in the hills. It’d seemed an interesting discovery, but a useless one—none of those people seemed like the kind to visit the Roadhouse.
Yet one day, about three years ago, he had a visitor from Wink. And the damnedest thing about it is, he cannot now remember what this visitor looked like. Bolan remembers the bright light shining down from his office lamps, and there was a man with a briefcase in the chair in front of his desk… and Bolan thinks he remembers a blue-gray suit, and a panama hat, yet the way the light struck the hat made the face below nothing but shadow…
But what the man told him he remembers very well.
Bolan eyed this strange, indistinct figure, sitting up ramrod-straight in his office chair, and he cocked an eyebrow when the man said, I am told you are a man in dire straits.
Well, fuck whoever told you that, then, Bolan told him.
A moment of silence. Yet Bolan did not get the impression the man was either intimidated or offended. We have a business opportunity for you, he said.
And Bolan said, Oh? And what kind of opportunity would that be?
And the man said, Please lower your blinds.
Yes. The blinds on the window behind your desk. Then I will show you.
And when he did this the man opened his briefcase, and there inside, packed tightly as one would pack socks and underwear, were plastic bags containing a very bright, clean white powder. We have a business opportunity for you, the man said again.
And Bolan listened.
Even today, Bolan is not sure where the heroin comes from. Presumably they have someone somewhere, probably Mexico, he guesses, because God knows what’s up with the border these days. But Bolan, who already did a small amount of dealing when the visitor from Wink made his offer, has now managed to build a fairly respectable little kingdom up here in the mountains, and gotten quite rich. It is mostly a ferrying industry: he is not an outlet, but a warehouse. He is also not entirely sure how this happened, or why the visitor from Wink put it all in motion. What the hell did Wink, a tiny town out in the middle of nowhere, have to do with the drug trade?
Bolan does not know. But though he is indisputably the ruler of his little kingdom, he knows there is a bigger kingdom out there, one of which he’s but a part. He is not sure who its king is, or even if there is one; he just knows that he makes fortunes only on the whims of someone else, and that he, like Dord and Norris and Zimmerman and Mitchell (who, he has to remind himself, is now Out of Service), takes orders and follows them without question. Now it is no longer a question of their turning off the tap on him; now he wonders what they would do if he refused.
Bolan is not stupid. He does not bite the hand that feeds him. But he has looked closely at the hand, and what he saw deeply disturbed him.
There is a reason Bolan has never gone back to Wink after that first visit. He would not even go there if you held a gun to his head. He knows what’s there now.
He walks to the trash can, picks up the bottle of Pepto, and throws it away. As he returns to his desk he sees there is something on the corner: a soft pink blob of fluid. It must have been flung off the bottle when he made his shot. He wipes at it with a finger. It does not come off, but smears.
A knock at the door. “Come in,” he says.
The door opens, and in walks Mallory. To his amusement, she has on a floral sundress that is yards longer than anything she usually wears. This wardrobe choice is not incidental, of course: in Wink her normal garb would attract a lot of eyes and clucking tongues, and entirely too much attention.
Mallory scowls at him. “What are you smiling at?”
“The head of the PTA, I think,” he says.
“Fuck you.” She walks to the liquor cabinet, a heavy canvas satchel swinging from her shoulder, and pours an absolute vat of scotch. Mimicking Bolan’s own feat with the Pepto, she downs it without even blinking. Mallory is a marvelously talented woman, Bolan knows that, yet she has always been a virtuoso drinker. Back when the Roadhouse was first founded, she was its original downstairs girl, taking the boys riding high off their payday to the basement for a half hour’s indulgence. After the visitor from Wink, the establishment gained customers and they hired more girls, and she became the downstairs manager, tending to all the needs and issues the girls inevitably had. And to manage it efficiently, Bolan knew, you had to have a sharp eye for human weakness, and the ruthlessness and shrewdness to act on it. As such, Mallory has assumed the unspoken role of number two at the Roadhouse.
She pours herself another, but before she can drink Bolan walks to her and gently takes the glass. “How’d it go?” he asks.
“I got it, didn’t I?” She raises and lowers the shoulder with the satchel.
Bolan watches her carefully.
“I did,” she says. “It went fine.”
“Who did you use?”
“A junkie,” she says.
“Who?” Bolan insists.
“A girl named Bonnie,” says Mallory. “You don’t know her.”
“The same girl you used last time?”
“Yes. But I don’t know if we can use her again.”
Bolan cocks an eyebrow. “And why is that?”
“She’s all screwed up, Tom,” says Mallory. She takes the scotch back and downs it, throat clicking, and grits her teeth as it settles. “And not just because she’s a goddamn junkie. She knows what we’re having her do is fucking weird. She just doesn’t know how.”
Bolan gives a faint, unpleasant laugh. “I’m not surprised,” he says. He takes the satchel off her shoulder and walks back to his desk, where he unzips it.
Inside the satchel is a polished wooden box, about the size of a cigar box. It has not been taped and tied shut; these precautions are not yet necessary. But he still feels extremely anxious holding it.
“She says she’s being followed,” says Mallory.
Bolan looks up. “By who?”
“She doesn’t know. She doesn’t actually see anyone, she says. But she knows it’s there.”
“That’s what she said.”
Bolan purses his lips, then sits down on the floor behind his desk. Underneath the desk on the left-hand side is a thick metal safe. “Is that all she said?”
He hears the clink of the scotch bottle against the lip of the glass, then another click as her throat forces the scotch down. “Christ, no. She was babbling. But she says when we send her to go get… that thing, that someone watches her. She feels something there, Tom, in that place underground. It watches her come in, and it watches her take that thing, and it watches her leave. But she says when she leaves, it follows her, and it keeps watching her.”
Bolan twists the dial back and forth and opens the safe. Supposedly, the salesman said, this thing is so dense and impenetrable you could store uranium in it and sleep next to it and go cancer-free for years. What Bolan is about to store there is not radioactive—at least, he doesn’t think it is—but he would still prefer more protection if he could get it. But if this safe were any denser it would probably break through the damn floor.
He sets the little box in his lap. Before he undoes the clasp, he asks, “Do you believe her?”
“Believe her? Are you kidding? Of course I don’t believe her, she’s out of her gourd.”
He smiles a little. He expected that answer. Mallory is not the type to suspend her disbelief for anything. Which is a pity, because Bolan probably knows more about what is going on in Wink than anyone else, and he knows not to scoff at stories like that. So many of them turn out to be true.
He carefully undoes the bronze clasp on the box, takes a little breath, and opens it up.
Sitting inside on a cushioned interior of dark green velvet is a tiny skull. To most people it would appear grotesque but unremarkable, simply a fleshless, bleached rodent skull like that of a rat or mouse. Bolan knows it is actually a rabbit skull. Or it appears to be a rabbit skull. He’s studied their messages, and though they did not state outright what they needed him to get—and what he in turn had someone else get for him—he can read between the lines as well as anyone.
It only looks like a skull. Bolan knows it is really much more than that.
He closes the box, rehooks the clasp, and places the box in the safe and shuts it. Then he sighs a little. It is getting so goddamn hard not to bite the hand that feeds him these days.
When he stands back up he sees Mallory is looking into the mirror behind the liquor cabinet shelves. She appears a little rattled, which is odd: Bolan has seen Mallory take care of stabbings and ODs without even blinking an eye, so the idea that anything could upset her is new to him.
“What is it?” he asks.
“Hm? Oh. Nothing. I was just thinking about something she said.”
“Yeah. She wanted to come with me. Back to here, if you can believe it. But not for a hit or anything like that. She doesn’t like being alone at night anymore. She says her dreams have changed.”
“She says she dreams about the same thing every night now,” Mallory says faintly, still staring at herself in the mirror. “She dreams about a man, standing in her bedroom. He’s very tall, dressed in a dirty blue canvas suit. And he’s got little wooden rabbit heads sewn all along his suit. And his head… she said she doesn’t know if it’s a helmet, or a mask, like an Indian mask or something, but it’s all wooden too, all painted up like a rabbit head, with two pointy ears. He just stands there, and though she can’t see his eyes she’s sure he’s watching her. Can you believe that, Tom?”
Bolan is silent. Again he remembers what Zimmerman told him: there was a light in the trees, and then a man was there, watching them. And they could see nothing about him except two points on his head, like horns or maybe ears…
He watches Mallory carefully. He told the boys a little bit about what they were doing on the mesa—not much, but enough—but Mallory is now coming very close to a truth Bolan would prefer to keep hidden.
“Come here,” he says to her, and gestures. She walks over to the desk.
“Sit,” he says, and she does so, curious.
“Let me tell you what we’re going to do here, Mallory,” he says. “This is some delicate work. And you’ve handled it delicately. But we’re going to need to be even more delicate from here on out.”
“What does delicate mean?”
Bolan opens a drawer on his desk, reaches in, and produces a small plastic baggie containing a white powder. He places it on the edge of the desk before her.
“You offering me a bump?” Mallory asks, entertained.
Bolan smiles humorlessly and shakes his head. “No. No, I am not. That shit is not pure, Mal. It is quite the opposite of pure. If you were to partake of that, why, you’d be pale and stiff within an hour. Do you see?”
Mallory glances at the baggie again. “No.”
“Well, let me explain. Sometime soon—not now, but soon—you’re going to go back to that girl of yours…”
“Right. Bonnie. You’re going to go back to her and make her run that route in the tunnels again.”
“She’s not going to want to do that, Tom,” says Mallory. “She’s shook up as it is.”
“Well, that’s tough, because you’re going to make her. She’s not going to have a choice. Not the way her good friend Mallory sells it.”
Mallory is quiet for a bit. “And how is she going to sell it?”
He smiles again. “Mallory’s going to say that she’s carrying some seriously quality shit, and she’d be all too happy to pass it along if Bonnie does this one little favor again for her,” says Bolan. “For us.”
For a while there is silence, broken only by the whoops from downstairs.
Mallory looks back at the little white baggie. “And where does that enter into it?” she asks.
Bolan stares at her balefully with his hooded, puffy eyes. “Are you fucking stupid, Mal?” he asks. “Don’t tell me you’re fucking stupid. Because I know you, and I know you’re not fucking stupid. You’re a very smart girl. That’s why I keep you around, right?”
“I’m not… I can’t do something like that.”
“But you can, and you will. You’re going to do it, Mal. It’s going to happen. That girl has too many stories rolling around in her head. She did some real choice work for us, sure, but things are getting too hot to just leave her walking around.” He nods at the baggie. “This is the easy way. We don’t want to do it the hard way. I know the hard way, Mal, and it’s hard on everyone.”
Mallory looks from the baggie to Bolan, and her eyes gain a steely glint. “Who’s saying to do this? Is it you? Or is it them?”
Bolan stares back impassively. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter.”
“No, it doesn’t. Because it’s going to happen, one way or another, so who gives the order is irrelevant.”
Mallory loses a little color, but the steely glint grows. Bolan is amused and surprised by this reaction: Mal’s never personally killed anyone, sure, but he knows she’s seen people die. What does it matter, he thinks, whose hand does the actual act?
“Who’s it for?” she asks.
“Who’s what for?”
“The skulls. I know who the last one was for. They just buried him today, for God’s sakes. So who is this one meant for?” Her eyes thin. “And, if you’re making me run her again, the next?”
Bolan, who has been perfectly still throughout this, grows even stiller. Then he stands up, walks around his desk, and sits down in the chair beside her. He watches her with his hooded eyes, disappointed. Because they are not discussing a murder: this is business, and Mal is inconveniencing him.
He takes a breath, the air whistling through his nostrils, and lets it out. Then he snatches out with his thick boxer’s hands and grabs Mallory’s head by the temples. Mallory cries out and tries to push back, but Bolan is extremely strong, and this is a dance he knows too well.
He pulls her close, close enough that his breath washes over her face. “Are you going to fucking do it?” he asks. “Huh? You had better, girl, you had fucking better. Because though I need you, and I do need you, you got an easy job here. I ain’t asking you to put a bullet in her or cut her any, but I could and I’d expect you to do it. I’m just asking you to give her a dose. And you’re going to give her a dose, Mal. Because like I said, the hard way is hard on everyone, but it’ll be especially hard on you.”
Mallory groans and screams and struggles against him, but Bolan knows no one can hear over the noise from downstairs. “What do you say?” he breathes. “What do you say, Mal? What do you fucking say?”
Then he stops. She stops moving as well.
A small white light has just lit up on his desk. Both of them freeze and look. Then they look back at one another, wondering what to do next.
Bolan’s mouth twists. He shoves her away and stands up. “Stay right there,” he says.
Mallory laughs and looks up at him, grinning. “They whistle and you come running, is that it?”
Bolan makes a move to hit her, and she flinches and raises an arm. But he lowers his hand and adjusts his collar. “Stay right fucking there,” he says again, and he goes to his closet door and opens it.
Behind it is a low, dark hallway with foam-soundproofed walls. There is only one light, a bare bulb hanging by a wire from the ceiling at the very end. This bulb is always on. Bolan has to change it every two weeks.
Below the light is a very curious contraption. It stands on a small iron pedestal, and is protected by a tall glass dome. It has a wide, round, heavy base, and a bronze frame, and many small gears and wheels laid against one another. The biggest wheel holds a large roll of white tape, and the machine is clacking and clicking away merrily, writing something out on the tape. Once, decades ago, the machine was used to print out the prices of stocks, recording the falling and rising of fortunes and making a small pile of financial data on the ground. But Bolan knows that what it is printing now is definitely not stock prices.
He shuts the door carefully behind him and locks it. This side of the door has been soundproofed as well. He cannot afford to have anyone listening to the conversations he has in here.
He takes a breath and walks to the stock ticker. It has just printed out a very small message, composed in neat, staggered writing. He picks it up (trying hard not to notice his trembling hands) and reads:
WHO WAS THE GIRL
“What?” Bolan asks. He does not direct this to the stock ticker, but to the air just above it. “What girl? Which girl do you mean?” He wonders if they mean Bonnie, or Mallory, or maybe even some other girl they used for… whatever. Bolan has so many plates spinning on so many poles, sometimes it’s hard for him to keep them straight.
And then, despite all the soundproofing, and no one being nearby that Bolan can see, a response ticks out. As it always does.
THE GIRL AT THE FUNERAL IN THE RED CAR
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Bolan. “I had a man at the funeral. He didn’t see…” He pauses. Then he sighs, shuts his eyes, and pinches the bridge of his nose. Fucking Dord! he thinks, but he dares not say this out loud. Fucking dumbshit fucking Dord! Didn’t see or hear anything, did you?
Bolan swallows. “You may be right,” he says. “I apologize for missing this. What would you like me to do?”
The stock ticker comes to life again. It prints out:
FIND OUT WHO SHE IS
“I will,” says Bolan. “I promise I will. I’ll find out right away and let you know. Is that all you want me to do?”
The stock ticker does not answer. It is not dead, he knows, but dormant. Sometime, maybe soon, it will come to life again.
He tears off the tape, takes out a lighter, and sets it alight. Then he drops it on the floor and watches it wither into ash before stamping it out. The floor is black and ashen there. It has been for years. How many secret orders has he taken here? he thinks. How many cryptic little messages has he burned at this spot? Sometimes they are so simple: pick up a box there, mail it here; have someone put a line of paint on this window; threaten this man, and mention this woman; or, perhaps, go trawling through the sewers of Wink looking for a dark, tiny passageway that ends in a round chamber, and in this chamber will be a pile of many, many little skulls, and you must bring one skull to this person at this place, but you must be so, so careful not to touch it…
And now this. There is someone new in Wink, something that has not happened in years, and Bolan missed it.
He charges back down out of the hall and storms into his office. Mallory is at the liquor cabinet again, hair fixed and dress arranged as if nothing has happened: she is a creature used to abuse, both the giving and receiving of it.
“Bad news?” she asks.
“Go and get Dord,” Bolan snarls.
Bolan marches over to her, takes the glass out of her hand, and flings it against the wall. It shatters, leaving a dark stain spreading on the crimson wallpaper. “Go and get fucking Dord,” he says. “Or so help me God you will be drinking out of a fucking straw, you hear me?”
“Fine,” Mallory says mildly, and—with an intentionally slow, graceful pace—walks out the door and down the stairs.
Bolan stands in his office for a moment, fists clenched. Then he looks back down the hall at the stock ticker. He half expects it to move, printing out some other harrowing little request. But it does not, and thankfully remains silent. He shuts the closet door, locks it, and leans up against it as if there were something behind it fighting to get out. Then he lets out a breath.
The stock ticker was installed in his office not long after he made his agreement with the visitor from Wink. There was no explanation offered: the installation crew, all blank-faced little men in gray jumpsuits, just handed him an envelope with his name on it before walking into the Roadhouse and going to work. Inside was a card that read:
And for the past three years it has ticked out orders for him now and again, and each time he obeyed his fortunes improved. Only once did he dare get curious: he examined the cord running to the ticker and followed it throughout the Roadhouse, through the walls and across the ceilings and down the stairs (and how did the installation men do that in an hour? Had they been, he wondered, secretly entering the Roadhouse during closed hours and laying yet more line?) until it went outside, snaking into the lot behind in a small tin pipe… where it finally ended in the woods, the end of the pipe unsealed and open. When Bolan found this, he stared at it. The pipe went nowhere? How could that be? But his confusion increased when he knelt and peered into the pipe, and saw the end of the fraying wire exposed, unconnected to anything at all.
The night after he followed the pipe into the woods, the stock ticker printed out a single command, and this time it was familiar:
Now, whenever the ticker springs to life, Bolan’s heart almost stops. He does not know how it receives any signal, but, like so many things in his new endeavors, he does not really want to know.
But sometimes they send someone along to make sure he gets the message. And tonight, as Bolan waits for Dord to come lumbering up the stairs to explain why he missed the arrival of this new girl in the red car, he wonders again if they will come.
He walks to the window, but does not look out. He shuts his eyes, hoping to see nothing. Then he opens them.
There, standing in the center of the blue spotlight of the farthest parking lot lamp, someone looks back at him. The figure is so far away that it is tiny… but Bolan is sure he can make out a blue-gray suit, and a white panama hat, and below that a face lost in shadow…
The white hat inclines slightly, then rises up again: a nod. Then its owner steps back into the darkness, and is gone.
Mona’s night at the Ponderosa Acres did not go well. She found no restful sleep in a place where the air felt so stale and undisturbed, and though she knew there were no other boarders she never felt alone. And sometime around one thirty she awoke—or she thinks she awoke, because the whole thing might have been a dream—with the strong conviction that something was wrong, and she went to the window and saw someone standing in the parking lot perfectly still with his hands at his sides, his face and front darkened by the yellow streetlight behind him. Though Mona felt a great unease at the sight of this person, she was not sure if he saw her or not; he might not have been looking at the motel at all. He made her think of an escapee from a mental institution, wandering aimlessly and wondering what to do with all this freedom in a strange new world. She must not have been terribly disturbed by this, she thinks as she fumbles through her morning routine in the motel room, if she went back to bed after.
Once she gets herself cleaned up she goes to see Parson. The morning sky is blindingly blue, and the air is crisp and cold. She finds it hard to reconcile this sky with the one last night, dark and wreathed with blue lightning and burdened with the pink moon.
When she enters the front office she sees that the darkness from last night was concealing absolutely nothing: the office is completely empty save for the card table and the desk. It feels like an awful waste of space. Parson is sitting at the table playing Chinese checkers as if he’s never left the spot. He is too involved in his game to look at her when she enters: he purses his lips judiciously, scratches a temple, and begins to make a move before suddenly rethinking, his hand darting back as if the checkers were poison. He shakes his head, silently scolding himself for considering such a poor choice.
“Do you often play checkers by yourself?” Mona asks.
He looks up, surprised. “By myself?” he asks. Then he smiles and laughs, as if this is a grand joke. “Ah, I see. By myself… very good.”
Mona chooses to change the subject. “Any idea how the probate courts work around here?”
Parson sets his coffee aside to think. “I am not sure about probate courts. There is only one court, though, and only one court officer—Mrs. Benjamin.”
“There’s only one officer? How does that work?”
“Very well, apparently,” says Parson. “There is not exactly much to do in the courts here. I believe it is overstaffed with just one person, really.”
“And where is this Mrs. Benjamin?”
“In the courthouse. Her office occupies the majority of the basement. You need only find a set of stairs there—any stairs will do—and go down them. Inevitably, you will find her.”
“Where’s the courthouse at?” Mona asks, slipping on her sunglasses.
“It’s in the center of the park, which is in the center of the town. Go inward. If you find yourself on the border of town—and it would not take very long—then you have missed it.”
“You can’t give me any street directions?”
“I could,” says Parson, “but they would not be as good.”
“Fine,” says Mona, and thanks him.
“Are you hungry?” asks Parson earnestly, as if her allowing herself to be hungry would be an abominable crime. “I can spare you another complimentary breakfast, if so, even though you have already eaten yours.”
As Mona has kicked the habit of morning beers, she politely declines. “When’s checkout time?”
Parson appears to debate getting up and going to his desk and rifling through his cards and papers again, but instead he just shrugs. “Whenever you check out, I suppose.”
“Is it okay if I leave my stuff here until I figure out how long I’ll be staying? I don’t expect that they’ll let me have the house too easy.”
But Parson has glanced at his board of checkers again and spied some brilliant move hidden among the pattern of marbles. With an impatient wave he returns to the game and the unoccupied seat across from him, and does not notice when Mona leaves.
As Mona drives across Wink all the sprinklers start to come on, not instantly, but in a slow, graceful procession, like water jets in a huge fountain, starting at the corner of one block and moving down to the next. In the morning light the streams of water take on a white glow, and when they begin waving back and forth, each one a little more delayed than the last, Mona feels like she’s watching a synchronized-swimming performance. It isn’t until she’s near the end of the block that she realizes the idea of watering a lawn here is strange: they’re in the high desert mountains, with barren scrub less than half a mile away. It feels impossible that she should find so many soft, verdant lawns lining the streets, and Mona glances up at the mountains and the mesa to confirm they’re still there.
All around her the town is coming to life. An old woman wobbles out on her porch with a watering can to fuss with a splendid bougainvillea that appears to need no attention at all. Fathers climb into their sedans and trucks and—rarely—their luxury cars and slowly cruise out onto the cement streets. Eventually Mona realizes she does not think of them as just men: they are all fathers, they have to be, for why else would they wear such bland but imposing suits and plaid shirts, and choose such stolid, unassuming hairstyles? For God’s sake, one of them is even smoking a pipe.
On one street a clutch of aproned mothers herd their children out onto their driveways and into cars, each child swinging a tiny tin lunchbox. Mona slows a little as she passes them. Though she wants to ignore it, the perfection of the scene is powerfully striking.
No, she thinks. Not today. I won’t go there today.
She speeds up.
She passes the diner, whose enormous, curving neon sign says CHLOE’S. It’s evidently a hot spot, with parking spaces rapidly disappearing even as Mona watches. But what she finds most curious about it is what is happening in the back alley. She slows again to watch: there are two women there, each in pale pink waitress uniforms with their hair up and little white caps nestled in the exact center. One is much older and more mature, holding herself with the posture of a confident, seasoned veteran. She stands to the side and watches the other, a girl not even out of her teens. The girl is walking down the alley in a measured stride with a waiting tray balanced in one hand. The veteran watches keenly and barks out an order, and the girl makes an abrupt turn and paces from one side of the alley to the other. On the tray, Mona sees, are five pie pans, but they do not contain pies, but marbles. One pan shifts a little bit—just a centimeter to the left or so—and the marbles clatter around in the pan. The girl blanches but recovers, ferrying the tray of marbles back across the alley with a grim face and more care than a surgeon. Practice, Mona thinks, and she smiles as she passes them.
Mona has not yet considered living here in Wink. She’s inherited a house but not a life, and she has determinedly avoided having a life for several years, choosing instead barren roads and empty motel rooms. Yet now, somewhere in one of the closets in the back of her mind, she imagines what it would be like to live in this tiny town, where carrying pies is a serious, studied art and the sprinklers put on a balletic performance every morning.
She warms to the idea. The world has been so big to her for the past years that it is very inviting to imagine it so small.
No wonder her mother was happy here. Though the town is odd, it seems it would be difficult to be unhappy here. It is like a place Mona dreamed about once, but she can’t remember when or what exactly she dreamed about. There is something to these clean streets and swaying pines that sends a stir of echoes fluttering up in her mind.
Her tour of the town is not entirely peaceful, she notices. Everywhere she goes, people watch her. She can’t blame them: she cannot imagine anything more out of place than the Charger, with its bright red paint and guttering engine, not to mention its driver, who is looking back at them from behind silvered glasses and years of careful cynicism. But they are not just surprised, nor are they mistrustful: it is as if they are waiting for something, like this bright red muscle car and its strange driver are just a loose end someone will soon take care of.
The park at the center of town is quite large, constructed in a perfect circle with the clean white stone courthouse in one half. But it is the structure in the other half that attracts Mona’s attention: at first she thinks it is just a huge white ball the size of a small building, but as she pulls into the courthouse parking lot she sees its curves are actually angled, formed of tiny triangles. It looks like a smaller version of that enormous, spherical structure she always glimpsed in the ads for Walt Disney World as a kid. There is no sign indicating why this space-age-looking sculpture sits in this picturesque little park. It is as if it’s rolled here from down out of the mountains, and no one’s bothered to move it.
Mona immediately stops when she walks through the front doors of the courthouse, for the interior is in such extreme contrast to the exterior that it takes her brain a moment to process it. On the outside it is a happy little white building, yet its interior, or at least its lobby, is musty and dim. She takes off her sunglasses, but it makes no difference: the floors are a dark, sick yellow marble, and the walls are neglected imitation wood. Somewhere an air-conditioning unit clunks asthmatically, and there is a dusty breeze rippling through the close air.
An obese security guard at the front desk looks up from his book when she enters. She watches as his eyes perform a motion very familiar to her: they widen a little, then leap down to her feet and slowly trail up her body, taking in every detail. It is disappointingly predictable, a ritual that must be completed before she can begin a conversation with nearly any man (and the occasional woman). With his eyes still fixed on her, the guard mindlessly turns a page in his book—The Secret Joys of Lake Champlain—but says nothing.
“I’m here to see Mrs. Benjamin,” says Mona.
The guard continues staring at her with his little eyes. Then he nods his head. Mona is not sure what this gesture means, but she walks ahead into the dark hallway. She glances back and sees the guard is leaning forward in his seat, head craned out to stare at her. Even while he is in this position one of his hands turns another page in his book, though his attention is nowhere near the text.
The hall ends in a series of strange decorations. First is a large, colorful mural that is familiar to Mona, though she can’t say where she saw it: it shows a green atomic model of an element encased in a ray of gold light. Beside this optimistic sight is a display case with many taxidermied specimens of local fauna. The little songbirds are fixed in the same position as the hawks—wings raised up and head ducked forward, a raptor beginning its dive-bomb—as if the taxidermist knew only one pose for birds. Next to the display case is a door with a framed picture hanging from the exact center. Its frame is curling and gilded, like something in a museum, though it needs dusting. Under the glass is a piece of parchment with a single word written on it in careful calligraphy. It reads STAIRS.
Mona looks back again. The guard is still in the same pose, leaning forward and watching her with unabashed fascination. She hears a little flit and though she cannot see she knows he’s turned another page. Then she opens the door and starts down the stairs.
When Mona reaches the bottom it’s so dark it takes her eyes a moment to adjust. It looks almost like a forest, many trunks with spindly branches at the top and a thin white light filtering through from above…
It is not a forest, she sees: she is looking at dozens and dozens of immense wooden filing cabinets all along the walls. Piled on the tops of the cabinets are mounted heads, mostly deer, lying on their backs with their horns rising up in spiked tangles. There are so many horns that they look almost like tree branches, and now that her eyes have adjusted she sees that there are many types of horns, some the traditional twelve-point, some curling rams’ horns, so there must be many species.
Mona walks forward into the labyrinth of filing cabinets. As she moves she finds there is another scent in the air, buried below the aroma of old paper and formaldehyde, something like rotten pine. She rounds a corner and sees there is a big wooden table ahead, and unlike the rest of the furniture in this place it has a surface that is clear, except for four things: a box labeled OUT, a box labeled IN (both empty), a small desk light, and a cup of tea sitting on a saucer. Hanging from the front of the desk is a sign so similar to the one on the stairway door she’s sure it was made by the same person. This one reads M. BENJAMIN!
Mona walks to the front of the desk. The tea stinks horribly: it is a thick, muddy, piney concoction that has left a dark brown residue on the sides of the cup. It does not look like something the human digestive system could make any sense of.
“Hello?” she calls.
There is a flurry of noise from among the cabinets behind the desk. “Hello?” says a voice, surprised. Then a woman emerges from some hidden passageway in the back. Though she is quite elderly, seventy at least, she is still enormous, over six feet tall, with wide shoulders and big hands. Yet she is dressed in the most matronly way possible: her hair is an immense, gray-blond cloud, and her dress suffers from an abundance of purple fabric and gray polka dots. A string of thick pearls rings her skinny neck. She blinks quickly as she totters out of the shadows to the desk. “Oh,” she says when she sees Mona. “Hello.” With a long, soft grunt, she sits down, face politely puzzled.
“I’m here about a house, ma’am,” Mona says.
“Which house?” asks the woman, and she fixes a set of spectacles to her nose.
“Uh, this one on Larchmont here. I inherited it.”
“Inherited it?” asks the woman. “Oh. And… are you a current resident?”
“No, ma’am, I’m not, but I have all the paperwork here, or at least, you know, a hell of a lot of it,” says Mona. She produces her folder with all the documentation and begins to hand the pages out to the woman, who is presumably Mrs. Benjamin.
Mona expects her to begin sorting through them officiously, like any world-weary bureaucrat, but Mrs. Benjamin simply holds one paper—the copy of the will—and stares helplessly at the rest of the pile. “Oh,” she says. Then, hopefully, “Are you sure?”
“Are you sure you inherited a house here? I must admit, it’s not very common. Most properties bequeathed are usually bequeathed to people already living here.”
“I’m just going by what the paper says,” says Mona. “I had a couple of courts say it was all legit back in Texas, and I’d hate to have come all this way for nothing. I understand the will expires in less than a week, too.”
“I see,” says Mrs. Benjamin. Finally she begins to pick through the paperwork. “And you would be Mrs. Bright?”
Mona expects her to ask for identification, but she says, “Wait. I remember you… weren’t you in the red car yesterday? At the funeral?”
“Uh, yes. That was me.”
“Ah,” says Mrs. Benjamin. “You were the source of a bit of gossip, my dear.”
“Oh, these things happen,” says Mrs. Benjamin carelessly. “Honestly, it helped lighten the mood a little.”
“Who passed away, if I might ask?”
“Mr. Weringer.” She looks at Mona like this should mean something. When Mona does not react, she asks, “Did you know him?”
“I just got in last night, ma’am.”
“I see. Well, he was… a very well-respected member of the town. We’ve been all in a tizzy ever since.”
“How’d he die?”
But Mrs. Benjamin has turned her attention to the papers, squinting at the faint, staggered writing. “I don’t recall any Brights ever living here…”
“The original owner was Laura Alvarez.”
“I do not recall any Alvarezes, either,” she says, with an inflection that implies—and I would. A thought strikes her, and she peers up at Mona and asks, “Can you please step back a little?”
“Can you step back? Into the light? So I can see you better.”
Mona obliges her, and Mrs. Benjamin peers at her through her tiny spectacles. Through their lenses the old woman’s eyes appear very far back in her head, like they are too small for their sockets, and she looks at Mona as if searching for something in her face, some familiarity or flaw that would tell her far more about Mona than any crumbling old paperwork.
“Are you really sure about this, my dear?” she asks finally. “You don’t seem like someone who should be here… perhaps you ought to go home.”
“Excuse me?” says Mona, indignant.
“I see,” says Mrs. Benjamin mildly. “Well. If you are sure, then you are sure. Your paperwork seems to all be in order. It shouldn’t be an issue. Let me check a few things.” She stands, smiles at Mona, and hobbles off into the cabinets.
“I am so sorry for my rudeness,” says Mrs. Benjamin’s voice from the back. “You surprised me. We have not had any new arrivals here for years. I should’ve introduced myself—my name is Mrs. Benjamin.”
“Yeah, I kind of figured,” says Mona. “You do all the court work here?”
“I do. There’s not a lot of activity. So I mostly do crosswords, but please don’t tell anyone.” She laughs. Mona suspects it’s a well-worn joke she enjoys trotting out.
“You seem to, uh… have quite a few deer heads in here.”
“Oh, yes. Storage, you see. They used to have them all throughout the courthouse. I am not sure why, but dead things were the primary decoration in Wink for many years. Now I’m stuck with them down here. But they do make me feel a little less lonely on slow days.”
Mona glances into the frozen amber stare of one ratty old buck’s head. She has no idea how anyone could take comfort from such a thing.
There is the sound of old, creaky drawers being pulled. “Larchmont… I believe I know the house, actually,” says Mrs. Benjamin. “It is abandoned.”
“For a while it wasn’t. After its initial abandonment, possession was ceded to the town. Someone scooped it up and it was rented out to a family who lived there for a short time.”
“But you don’t have any record of a previous owner?”
“My records go back to 1978, and indicate it was abandoned,” says Mrs. Benjamin. “But then my predecessor was not the most organized of people. It was swiftly abandoned again, though.”
“Oh. There was a mishap.”
“What, is it haunted or something?”
A goose cry of laughter sounds from the cabinets. “Haunted?” says Mrs. Benjamin, delighted. “Oh, no, no. It was one of the buildings struck by lightning. Hit the little girl, who was bathing in the tub at the time.”
“My God,” says Mona. “Was she all right?”
“No,” says Mrs. Benjamin primly. She hobbles back out of the cabinet passageways. “Here we are. This will only take a moment for me to get everything filled out and filed. I have the number of the locksmith. You should be able to move into the house this afternoon, if you’d like.”
“That fast? I thought there’d be more of a turnaround time.”
“Well, I suppose there normally would be, as it needs to be approved by various officials of several different agencies… but luckily for you, these are all me. And I approve. Isn’t that nice of me?” She takes out a tackle box full of rubber stamps and begins applying them to Mona’s paperwork with a surprising ferocity.
“What happened to the house after it got struck by lightning? Is it all right?”
“Oh, it’s fine,” says Mrs. Benjamin. “Unlike some of the others. But it was never rented out again after, I know that. It was eventually abandoned again.”
“Pardon me, but did you say other buildings were hit by lightning?”
“Like… in the same storm?”
Mrs. Benjamin looks up at her. “Oh, has no one told you about the lightning storm yet?”
“I just got in last night,” she says again.
“It was a historic event for the town,” says Mrs. Benjamin, with the relish of a gossip revisiting an old tragedy. “Many buildings were struck and burned down. Some pessimistic people believe we never recovered. I don’t agree with that, but it certainly was something. Why, it hit one of the trees in the park and split it in half. It even hit the dome, but, well, the dome being the dome, no damage was done.”
“Is that that… ball thing out front?”
“Yes, in the park. It is a”—she thinks—“a geodesic dome. A model of what they thought future architecture would look like. They constructed it long ago, back when the town was first built, I think. They were dead wrong, of course.” Mrs. Benjamin takes a breath. “My God, I’ve just about used up all the air in here, haven’t I? And heaven knows there wasn’t much to start with.” She glances at Mona, sensing an audience, and asks, “Are you interested in the town’s history much, dear?”
At first Mona wants to say no, she isn’t. Small-town history is the same all over. Yet this is not just any town: this is her mother’s hometown. She feels an unexpected duty to hear more of this place, to give its history context and color in her head, and perhaps doing so would color in a bit of her mother, too. She might even learn why her mother was here, and why she left. “You know what, I think I’d enjoy that,” she says.
“Excellent. You must come around tomorrow and have lunch with me and the rest of the girls. It’ll serve as a good greeting from all of us. Now, don’t get the wrong impression—they are not all old hens like me. Some of them are sprightly young things, like yourself. And I assure you, I keep my house in much better order than I do my office. I’ll be curious to hear what you think of my tea.”
Mona glances down at the cup of stinking brown swill. She is speechless at the idea of drinking it.
“Do you know what the secret ingredient is?” asks Mrs. Benjamin, and her eyes grow wide and her voice a little soft. Somewhere a clunking air conditioner gets louder, building to a moan.
“No,” says Mona.
“It’s resin,” says Mrs. Benjamin. “The blood or pitch of a pine. You find it while walking in the woods, usually. All the trees will be hale and hearty, but then you’ll see one that will have a ragged wound, or some unsightly bulge. The tree will look a little bent, perhaps, or its leaves will have an orange tint to them. That is because the tree is dying, you see. It is bleeding out. The bulges are what I prefer, their resin is white or yellow and is quite viscous. It looks almost like butter. It gives such a good taste to the tea. Of course, it is pretty solid stuff. They use it to make torches, after all. You have to dissolve it in a little bit of wood alcohol… it’s the only way to get it down.” She smiles, and Mona sees her teeth are small and amber-brown, just like the eyes of the goats and deer around her, and they glisten queerly in the faint light of the basement. “Perhaps I’ll make you some. It makes the rest of the day go so much better.”
“I guess I can see that,” says Mona, who suddenly wants nothing more than to get away from this strange place filled with cabinets and dead things and the perfume of wood alcohol and pitch.
“Well, I won’t hold you up,” she says. “I am sure you want to see the house. Run along, and I’ll look forward to hearing all about it later.”
“All right,” says Mona. She begins backing away, papers clutched tightly in her hands.
“Good day,” says Mrs. Benjamin, and she laughs quietly, as if enjoying some private joke, and she returns to her work, muttering and humming to herself in several clashing octaves.
The careful striae of small towns. Invisible boundaries, reflecting pay grade, church attendance, model of home. Blue-collar neighborhoods with open garages packed to bursting; houses deeply set in wooded copses, accessible only by winding driveways—the upper crust, surely; then packed, denuded, Puritanical homes, white and harsh and cauterized. The value of the cars (all American) fluctuates wildly from street to street. Crowds of children at play burst out of hedges, then disappear like flocks of pigeons wheeling over cityscapes. In all yards and at all corners, people wave constantly, at everything and everyone, hello hello and how d’ye do, and how d’ye do again.
And there, just on the corner ahead, below a big, leaning spruce, is a low adobe home she’s seen before, though last time it was rendered in the yellow hues and dusky shadows of instant film taken decades ago.
Mona pulls up in front of her mother’s house. The sense of déjà vu is overpowering. She sits in the car for a while, just staring at it. She knows she has never been here, but she can’t help but feel as if she has, as if Earl and Laura once swung by this house on a summer vacation when Mona was still terribly young, and she now has only echoes of the memory.
Once, she knows, a woman in a tight blue dress greeted her friends on that front walk, and then they had a pleasant afternoon in the backyard, with cocktails and gossip and, maybe later in the evening, a little too much candor. Perhaps she or a friend commented, “Mountains are pink—time to drink!” and laughed and thoughtlessly scrawled it on the back of a photo and forgot about it, leaving it to be tossed in with some meaningless papers from work and travel hundreds of miles to the bleak oil flats of West Texas.
It all feels so impossible. It was one thing to learn via papers and photos that her mother had once been happy and whole, but it is quite another to actually see the real, definite place where she lived her life.
Mona feels like the victim of a crime. It is wrong for her mother to have been someone else once. It is not just that Mona was stuck with the frail, decaying husk she became.
But finally she climbs out, legs wobbling and eyes watering, and she sits down on the front step like a latchkey kid and waits for the locksmith to come.
She gets enough control over herself to take stock of the house while she waits. Parson was right—the house is in very good shape. There isn’t a weed in the yard, the grass is watered, and unless she’s wrong the house even has a new layer of adobe.
When the locksmith comes she asks him about it. “It was probably your neighbors,” he says. “I’m sure they didn’t go in, they just kept the place tidy.”
“Well, that’s kind of them. Do you know which neighbor? I’d like to thank them. I’m willing to bet this adobe stuff isn’t cheap.” She looks at the neighboring houses. There are no visible cars, and all the garages are shut. There’s only one old man, who sits in his front yard in a lawn chair and watches her with open curiosity.
Mona memorizes his address and makes note of his shoes and his watch. Stop it, she thinks. He’s just an old man. And you, Miss Bright, are not a fucking cop anymore.
“Oh, no,” says the locksmith. “We just take care of things here. Or someone does.” He looks at the red Charger, and she can see he recognizes it from the funeral. He begins to look a little worried. “You’re new here, right?”
He hesitates, as though he is about to say something against his better judgment. “You know not to go out at night, right?”
“I think I was told the mountains can be dangerous… is that it?”
“Sort of,” he says, discomfited.
“Is there a curfew?”
“No, nothing official like that. It’s kind of a rule. It’s probably okay here, where it’s so close to downtown. But I wouldn’t go too far. People get lost real easy. It’s hard to see where you’re going in the night.” He looks across the street and at the tall pines behind the houses, as if he’s already making sure everything around him is safe, even though it is hardly mid-afternoon. He’s so eager to leave he gets all the locks changed within a half hour and even undercharges her. He practically sprints to his truck. Mona watches him go, and then opens the front door to her house.
The interior has been done in what Mona thinks of as a ranch style, or maybe a lodge or cabin style, with lots of knotty natural-wood surfaces. The rooms are low and wide with cedar or ponderosa crossbeams, Mona can’t tell which. There isn’t a stick of furniture in here, except in one corner, where there’s a single wooden chair and, interestingly enough, an aquamarine rotary phone that’s plugged into the wall. She walks to it and sees it is covered in ages’ worth of dust. She grimaces and picks up the receiver, her hand immediately smearing with gray, and holds it close to her ear. To her surprise, there’s a dial tone.
She hangs it up and walks throughout the house, wiping her hand on her shorts. There is a wide foyer that ends in a set of rustic wooden stairs leading to a second-floor balcony. She can see light spots on the wooden floor where furniture stood for years on end. The same faint patches appear in spots on the wall where pictures once hung. It’s like she’s in a room of reverse shadows.
She walks through the hallway to the living room and kitchen in the back. Everything is done in Mid-Century Modern, with butcher-block countertops and huge, bulky sinks. The oven has only one dial, and she’s pretty sure that if she uses the microwave, which is the size of a couch, she’ll be sterile for the rest of her life.
So this was Momma’s kitchen, she thinks. Mona herself hasn’t had a real one in years. But she chose that, of course, preferring wandering purgatory over a real life, so burned was she by her last attempt. She is not sure she wants to try again here. Thinking about it makes her stomach hurt.
She walks through a set of French doors to the backyard. Unlike the front, it hasn’t been maintained at all. There’s no grass on the ground, but dull orange gravel, and ivy has taken over, strangling what might have once been a small tree and bowing down the back of the fence. Beyond the fence are pink crags striped with crimson. Mona tilts her head, thinking. They’re the same crags she saw in the background of the photo of afternoon cocktails, unchanged after decades.
There is a lump of ivy in the center of the yard. She walks to it and takes one huge vine and pulls. Whatever it’s attached to is heavy as hell, but there’s a squawk of iron on stone. She plants a foot on the lump, wraps the twist of ivy around her wrist, and tugs.
A significant strip tears away. Below it is a rust-covered wrought-iron table. The very iron table her mother and her friends sat around for cocktail hour, she thinks.
The sense of déjà vu increases. She turns around and looks at the back of the house, which is just as picturesque as the front, despite the messy backyard. Some of the clay hanging pots have even been left behind, though now of course they are empty. Once, though, they were probably bursting with geranium blooms or drapes of ice plants. She feels an intense happiness when she imagines this.
This house, though it is empty, feels perfect in some way. It’s all anyone could ever want. This is a place to raise children, to live a life. This is the kind of house you dream of living in as a kid.
But she glances to the side and sees the neighboring homes, and she thinks that the same could be said of them, and the ones across the street. There is something strangely perfect about this part of town. It is like she’s walking through old photographs or home movies, images layered with longing and nostalgia. Even if they are hollow or overgrown with ivy on the inside.
She walks back inside and resumes her tour. She has no idea what her mother did with all this room, nor can she imagine how she afforded such a big place. She must have been a pretty big wheel at Coburn, whatever it was they did there. Upstairs are smaller rooms, ones probably used as kids’ rooms by the family that rented this house in the interim. Which means that somewhere around here would be…
She opens one small door at the end of a hallway and is greeted by a tiny bathroom with one wooden wall of a much lighter color than the other four. It’s newer, she guesses, and unvarnished. Up against the wall is a white bathtub, and running down the center of it in a thin, long V is a stain of deep black with faint, spidery edges, and she notices the linoleum around the tub is bubbled and curling, like it’s been cooked.
This is where the lightning struck. It must’ve split the wall like an ax and come shrieking down on anyone who was in the tub. Much of the bathroom is still smoky and charred. The faucet is even fused shut, and its knobs droop a little, like a Dali painting.
Mona steps out of the room and shuts the door. She is relieved to have the sight hidden from her, for the ruined bathroom feels very out of place with the rest of the house. It’s as if it belonged to another house entirely, one dark and broken and empty, not at all part of this happy, rustic place.
Suddenly there is the peal of a high-pitched bell, and Mona gasps and jumps. She leans up against the wall to catch her breath as the bell rings again. She wonders if it could be the doorbell, but it is not.
She walks downstairs to the aquamarine phone sitting in the corner beside the wooden chair, the one that looks like it’s been sitting there for years, and stares as it rings again and again. Finally she answers it.
There is the hiss of static, as if the call is coming from a very long way away. But there is no voice in it, no greeting back.
“Hello?” she says again.
Still nothing. But somewhere in the static she hears something: someone is breathing, lowly and slowly.
“Hello?” she says. “I can hear you. Did you get the wrong number?”
She expects the caller to hang up, but he or she does not. There is just the breathing, the whine of the static rising and falling like a theremin.
“I think there’s something wrong with the phones, whoever this is,” she says. “You can’t hear a damn thing I say, can you?”
“I’m hanging up now,” she says. “Goodbye.”
She drops the receiver onto the cradle and stares at it. She almost expects the phone to start ringing again, but it does not.
Mona will be damned if she’s come all this way and done so much work just to sleep on a wooden floor, so she cruises around for a department store to put together something resembling livable conditions. She finds Macey’s, a sort of general store, though like so many shops here at first it seems totally abandoned. She isn’t worried, however: she knows many stores in small towns keep wildly irregular hours, often opening whenever the owners feel.
It is not abandoned. She is walking by the lines of mannequins in dresses when she hears the sound of someone weeping. Curious, she turns around and sees the door to a back room is open, and seated within are two women with their faces in their hands. She can see a pair of feet wearing men’s shoes just before them, like someone is standing or leaning against the front of a desk. She can hear a man’s voice talking quietly, as if giving comfort or condolences. Then the feet shift, and a small, bald head wearing Coke-bottle glasses pokes past the side of the door frame. The man looks at her and says, “With you in a minute.”
He wraps up the discussion with the two crying women pretty quick. It is a little bizarre to see them having such an emotional moment in what appears to be no more than a closet. The two women shuffle out, still dabbing at their eyes, and the storekeeper follows.
He is an elderly gnome of a man, dressed in a button-up white shirt, red bow tie, and suspenders. He smiles wearily at Mona as he approaches, and says, “Sorry about that. They were a bit distraught.”
“What was wrong? If it’s not too rude to ask.”
“Oh, nothing. Well. Not nothing. We had someone pass away just recently, you see.”
“Oh, right,” says Mona. “The funeral. I’m sorry, I should have known.”
“Yes,” he says. He looks Mona over and smiles. “I suppose you’d be the new arrival in town.”
Mona coughs. “That’s right. I’m Mona.”
Excerpted from American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett Copyright © 2013 by Robert Jackson Bennett. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Robert Jackson Bennett was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Winner of the Shirley Jackson Award, the Sydney J. Bounds Award, and an Edgar Award, he is the author of the novels Mr. Shivers, The Company Man, The Troupe, and American Elsewhere. Find out more about the author at www.robertjacksonbennett.com.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This book is as good as his other books Troupe and Company Men.I started reading it and couldn't stop turning the pages.I don't mention any parts of the story specifically as that would spoil reading the book.I can't wait for his next book.
Fantastic read from Bennett. I was sorry to see it end. Very reminiscent of American Gods. Bennett is an underrated talent.
I know the flap copy calls this book a Twilight Zone, but I thought it was definitely more of an Outer Limits. There was no true overarching moral to the story, no zealous-yet-sober narration, and I couldn't hear Rod Sterling once while reading. The setup is engaging and the ending is worth it, but those middle 400 pages or so...whew. Half the characters have a distinct voice when they are speaking, but where the writer loses me is when he's narrating as a 16-year-old boy rather than an omniscient narrator or the main character. The voice sounds not like a voice that lives in your head with your own distinct attitude, or in this case, the distinct attitude of a teenage guy, but the voice of a puppeteer who is moving the strings of a teenage boy. I'll admit, it was only once, but it was a doozy and quite enough to yank me out of the pages long enough to start examining the stage craft rather than enjoying the story. However, I will be picking up another book by this author so I gave American Elsewhere 4 stars because even though the middle bit threw me, it wasn't enough to make me put it down and the ending was a fantastic pay-off. I would compare this just a tiny bit to American Gods or a similar multi-character cast with omniscient narrator who describes wonderfully creepy and at times, downright gory, vignettes that serve to create a wild picture of aliens and gods and what small town America could have been but never quite was.