The Cypress House
By Michael Koryta
Little, Brown and Company Copyright © 2012 Michael Koryta
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780316053693
THEY’D BEEN ON THE TRAIN for five hours before Arlen Wagner saw the first of the dead men.
To that point it had been a hell of a nice ride. Hot, sure, and progressively more humid as they passed out of Alabama and through southern Georgia and into Florida, but nice enough all the same. There were thirty-four on board the train who were bound for the camps in the Keys, all of them veterans with the exception of the nineteen-year-old who rode at Arlen’s side, a boy from Jersey by the name of Paul Brickhill.
They’d all made a bit of conversation at the outset, exchanges of names and casual barbs and jabs thrown around in that way men have when they are getting used to one another, all of them figuring they’d be together for several months to come, and then things quieted down. Some slept, a few started card games, others just sat and watched the countryside roll by, fields going misty with late-summer twilight and then shapeless and dark as the moon rose like a watchful specter. Arlen, though, Arlen just listened. Wasn’t anything else to do, because Paul Brickhill had an outboard motor where his mouth belonged.
As the miles and minutes passed, Brickhill alternated between explaining things to Arlen and asking him questions. Nine times out of ten, the boy answered his own questions before Arlen could so much as part his lips with a response. Brickhill had been a quiet kid when the two of them first met months earlier in Alabama, and back then Arlen believed him to be shy. What he hadn’t counted on was the way the boy took to talk once he felt comfortable with someone. Evidently, he’d grown damn comfortable with Arlen.
As the wheels hammered along the rails of northern Florida, Paul Brickhill was busy telling Arlen all of the reasons this was going to be a hell of a good hitch. Not only was there the bridge waiting to be built, but all that sunshine and blue water and boats that cost more than most homes. They could do some fishing, maybe catch a tarpon. Paul’d seen pictures of tarpon that were near as long as the boats that landed them. And there were famous people in the Keys, celebrities of every sort, and who was to say they wouldn’t run into a few, and…
Around them the men talked and laughed, some scratching out letters to loved ones back home. Wasn’t anyone waiting on a letter from Arlen, so he just settled for a few nips on his flask and tried to find some sleep despite the cloaking warmth and the stink of sweating men. It was too damn hot.
Brickhill finally fell silent, as if he’d just noticed that Arlen was sitting with his eyes closed and had stopped responding to the conversation. Arlen let out a sigh, grateful for the respite. Paul was a nice enough kid, but Arlen had never been one for a lot of words where a few would do.
The train clattered on, and though night had settled, the heat didn’t break. Sweat still trickled along the small of Arlen’s back and held his hair to his forehead. He wished he could fall asleep; these hot miles would pass faster then. Maybe another pull on the flask would aid him along.
He opened his eyes, tugged the lids up sleepily, and saw a hand of bone.
He blinked and sat up and stared. Nothing changed. The hand held five playing cards and was attached to a man named Wallace O’Connell, a veteran from Georgia who was far and away the loudest man in this company. He had his back turned, engaged in his game, so Arlen couldn’t see his face. Just that hand of bone.
No, Arlen thought, no, damn it, not another one.
The sight chilled him but didn’t shock him. It was far from the first time.
He’s going to die unless I can find a way to stop it, Arlen thought with the sad, sick resignation of a man experienced with such things. Once we get down to the Keys, old Wallace O’Connell will have a slip and bash his head in on something. Or maybe the poor bastard can’t swim, will fall into those waves and sink beneath them and I’ll be left with this memory same as I’ve been left with so many others. I’d warn him if I could, but men don’t heed such warnings. They won’t let themselves.
It was then that he looked up, away from Wallace under the flickering lights of the train car, and saw skeletons all around him.
They filled the shadows of the car, some laughing, some grinning, some lost to sleep. All with bone where flesh belonged. The few who sat directly under a light still wore their skin, but their eyes were gone, replaced by whirls of gray smoke.
For a moment, Arlen Wagner forgot to breathe. Went cold and dizzy and then sucked in a gasp of air and straightened in the seat.
They were going to have a wreck. It was the only thing that made a bit of sense. This train was going to derail and they were all going to die. Every last one of them. Because Arlen had seen this before, and knew damn well what it meant, and knew that—
Paul Brickhill said, “Arlen?”
Arlen turned to him. The overhead light was full on the boy’s face, keeping him in a circle of brightness, the taut, tanned skin of a young man who spent his days under the sun. Arlen looked into his eyes and saw swirling wisps of smoke. The smoke rose in tendrils and fanned out and framed the boy’s head while filling Arlen’s with terrible recollections.
“Arlen, you all right?” Paul Brickhill asked.
He wanted to scream. Wanted to scream and grab the boy’s arm but was afraid it would be cold slick bone under his touch.
We’re going to die. We’re going to come off these rails at full speed and pile into those swamp woods, with hot metal tearing and shattering all around us…
The whistle blew out shrill in the dark night, and the train began to slow.
“We got another stop,” Paul said. “You look kind of sickly. Maybe you should pour that flask out.”
The boy distrusted liquor. Arlen wet his lips and said, “Maybe,” and looked around the car at the skeleton crew and felt the train shudder as it slowed. The force of that big locomotive was dropping fast, and now he could see light glimmering outside the windows, a station just ahead. They were arriving in some backwater stop where the train could take on coal and the men would have a chance to get out, stretch their legs, and piss. Then they’d be aboard again and winging south at full speed, death ahead of them.
“Paul,” Arlen said, “you got to help me do a bit of convincing here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We aren’t getting back on this train. Not a one of us.”
THEY PILED OUT OF THE CARS and onto the station platform, everyone milling around, stretching or lighting cigarettes. It was getting on toward ten in the evening, and though the sun had long since faded, the wet heat lingered. The boards of the platform were coated with swamp mud dried and trampled into dust, and out beyond the lights Arlen could see silhouetted fronds lying limp in the darkness, untouched by a breeze. Backwoods Florida. He didn’t know the town and didn’t care; regardless of name, it would be his last stop on this train.
He hadn’t seen so many apparitions of death at one time since the war. Maybe leaving the train wouldn’t be enough. Could be there was some sort of virus in the air, a plague spreading unseen from man to man the way the influenza had in ’18, claiming lives faster than the reaper himself.
“What’s the matter?” Paul Brickhill asked, following as Arlen stepped away from the crowd of men and tugged his flask from his pocket. Out here the sight was enough to set Arlen’s hands to shaking—men were walking in and out of the shadows as they moved through the cars and down to the station platform, slipping from flesh to bone and back again in a matter of seconds, all of it a dizzying display that made him want to sit down and close his eyes and drink long and deep on the whiskey.
“Something’s about to go wrong,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Paul said, but Arlen didn’t respond, staring instead at the men disembarking and realizing something—the moment they stepped off the train, their skin slid back across their bones, knitting together as if healed by the wave of some magic wand. The swirls of smoke in their eye sockets vanished into the hazy night air. It was the train. Yes, whatever was going to happen was going to happen to that train.
“Something’s about to go wrong,” he repeated. “With our train. Something’s going to go bad wrong.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do, damn it!”
Paul looked to the flask, and his eyes said what his words did not.
“I’m not drunk. Haven’t had more than a few swallows.”
“What do you mean, something’s going to go wrong?” Paul asked again.
Arlen held on to the truth, felt the words heavy in his throat but couldn’t let them go. It was one thing to see such horrors; it was worse to try and speak of them. Not just because it was a difficult thing to describe but because no one ever believed. And the moment you gave voice to such a thing was the moment you charted a course for your character that you could never alter. Arlen understood this well, had known it since boyhood.
But Paul Brickhill had sat before him with smoke the color of an early-morning storm cloud hanging in his eyes, and Arlen was certain what that meant. He couldn’t let him board that train again.
“People are going to die,” he said.
Paul Brickhill leaned his head back and stared.
“We get back on that train, people are going to die,” Arlen said. “I’m sure of it.”
He’d spent many a day trying to imagine this gift away. To fling it from him the way you might a poisonous spider caught crawling up your arm, and long after the chill lingered on your flesh you’d thank the sweet hand of Providence that you’d been given the opportunity to knock the beast away. Only he’d never been given the opportunity. No, the stark sight of death had stalked him, trailed him relentlessly. He knew it when he saw it, and he knew it was no trick of the light, no twist of bad liquor upon the mind. It was prophecy, the gift of foresight granted to a man who’d never wished for it.
He was reluctant to say so much as a word to any of the other men, knowing the response he’d receive, but this was not the sort of thing that could be ignored.
Speak loud and sharp, he thought, just like you did on the edge of a battle, when you had to get ’em to listen, and listen fast.
“Boys,” he said, getting at least a little of the old muster into his tone, “listen up, now.”
The conversations broke off. Two men were standing on the step of the train car, and when they turned, skull faces studied him.
“I think we best wait for the next train through,” he said. “There’s bad trouble aboard this one. I’m sure of it.”
It was Wallace O’Connell who broke the long silence that followed.
“What in the hell you talking about, Wagner?” he said, and immediately there was a chorus of muttered agreement.
“Something’s wrong with this train,” Arlen said. He stood tall, did his damnedest to hold their eyes.
“You know this for a fact?” O’Connell said.
“I know it.”
“How do you know? And what’s wrong with it?”
“I can’t say what’s wrong with it. But something is. I got a… sense for these things.”
A slow grin crept across O’Connell’s face. “I’ve known some leg-pullers,” he said, “but didn’t figure you for one of them. Don’t got the look.”
“Damn it, man, this ain’t no joke.”
“You got a sense something’s wrong with our train, and you’re telling us it ain’t no joke?”
“Knew a widow back home who was the same way,” spoke up another man from the rear of the circle. He was a slim, wiry old guy with a nose crooked from many a break. Arlen didn’t know his name—hell, he didn’t know most of their names, and that was part of the problem. Aside from Paul there wasn’t a man in the group who’d known Arlen for any longer than this train ride.
“Yeah?” O’Connell said. “Trains talked to her, too?”
“Naw. She had the sense, just like he’s talking about. ’Cept she got her sights from owls and moon reflections and shit like you couldn’t even imagine.”
This new man was grinning wide, and O’Connell was matching it. He said, “She was right all the time, of course?”
“Of course,” the man said, and let out a cackle. “Why, wasn’t but nine year ago she predicted the end of days was upon us. Knew it for a fact. Was going to befall us by that winter. I can’t imagine she was wrong, I just figured I missed being raptured up and that’s how I ended up here with all you sinful sons of bitches.”
The crowd was laughing now, and Arlen felt heat creeping into his face, thoughts of his father and the shame that had chased him from his boyhood home threatening his mind now. Behind him Paul Brickhill was standing still and silent, about the only one in the group who wasn’t at least chuckling. There was a man near Wallace O’Connell whose smile seemed forced, uneasy, but even he was going along with the rest of them.
“I might ask for a tug on whatever’s in that jug of your’n,” O’Connell said. “It seems to be a powerful syrup.”
“It’s not the liquor you’re hearing,” Arlen said. “It’s the truth. Boys, I’m telling you, I seen things in the war just like I am tonight, and every time I did, men died.”
“Men died every damn day in the war,” O’Connell said. The humor had drained from his voice. “And we all seen it—not just you. Some of us didn’t crack straight through from what we seen. Others”—he made a pointed nod at Arlen—“had a mite less fortitude. Now save your stories for somebody fool enough to listen to them. Rest of us don’t need the aggravation. There’s work at the end of this line, and we all need it.”
The men broke up then, drifted back to their own conversations, casting Arlen sidelong stares. Arlen felt a hand on his arm and nearly whirled and threw his fist without looking, shame and fear riding him hard now. It was only Paul, though, tugging him away from the group.
“Arlen, you best ease up.”
“Be damned if I will. I’m telling you—”
“I understand what you’re telling us, but it just doesn’t make sense. Could be you got a touch of fever, or—”
Arlen reached out and grabbed him by his shirt collar. Paul’s eyes went wide, but he didn’t reach for Arlen’s hand, didn’t move at all as Arlen spoke to him in a low, harsh voice.
“You had smoke in your eyes, boy. I don’t give a damn if you couldn’t see it or if none of them could, it was there, and it’s the sign of your death. You known me for a time now, and you ask yourself, how often has Arlen Wagner spoken foolish words to me? How often has he seemed addled? You ask yourself that, and then you ask yourself if you want to die tonight.”
He released the boy’s collar and stepped back. Paul lifted a hand and wiped it over his mouth, staring at Arlen.
“You trust me, Brickhill?” Arlen said.
“You know I do.”
“Then listen to me now. If you don’t ever listen to another man again for the rest of your life, listen to me now. Don’t get back on that train.”
The boy swallowed and looked off into the darkness. “Arlen, I wouldn’t disrespect you, but what you’re saying… there’s no way you could know that.”
“I can see it,” Arlen said. “Don’t know how to explain it, but I can see it.”
Paul didn’t answer. He looked away from Arlen, back at the others, who were watching the boy with pity and Arlen with disdain.
“Here’s one last question for you to ask of yourself,” Arlen said. “Can you afford to be wrong?”
Paul stared at him in silence as the train whistle blew and the men stomped out cigarettes and fell into a boarding line. Arlen watched their flesh melt from their bones as they went up the steps.
“Don’t let that fool bastard convince you to stay here, boy,” Wallace O’Connell bellowed as he stepped up onto the train car, half of his face a skull, half the face of a strong man who believed he was fit to take on all comers. “Ain’t nothing here but alligators, and unless you want to be eating them come dinner tomorrow, or them eating you, you best get aboard.”
Paul didn’t look in his direction. Just kept staring at Arlen. The locomotive was chugging now, steam building, ready to tug its load south, down to the Keys, down to the place the boy wanted to be.
“You’re serious,” he said.
“And it’s happened before?” Paul said. “This isn’t the first time?”
“No,” Arlen said. “It is not the first time.”
THE FIRST TIME Arlen Wagner saw death was in the Belleau Wood. That was the bloodiest battle the Marines had ever encountered, a savage showdown requiring repeated assaults before the parcel of forest and boulders finally fell under American control, and the bodies were piled high by the end. The sight of corpses was not the new experience for Arlen, whose father had served as undertaker in the West Virginia hill town where he was raised, a place where violence, mining accidents, and fever regularly sent men and women Isaac Wagner’s way to be fitted into their coffins. No, in the moonlight over the Marne River on a June night in 1918, Arlen saw something far different from a corpse—he saw the dead among the living.
They’d made an assault on the Wood that day, marching through a waist-high wheat field directly into machine-gun fire. For the rest of his life, the sight of tall, windswept wheat would put a shiver through Arlen. Most of the men in the first waves had been slaughtered outright, but Arlen and other survivors had been driven south, into the trees and a tangle of barbwire. The machine guns pounded on, relentless, and those who didn’t fall beneath them grappled hand to hand with German soldiers who shouted oaths at them in a foreign tongue while bayonets clashed and knives plunged.
By evening the Marines had sustained the highest casualties in their history, but they also had a hold, however tenuous, in Belleau Wood. Arlen was on his belly beside a boulder as midnight came on, and with it a German counterattack. As the enemy approached he’d felt near certain that this skirmish would be his last; he couldn’t continue to survive battles like these, not when so many had fallen all around him throughout the day. That rain of bullets couldn’t keep missing him forever.
This was his belief at least, until the Germans appeared as more than shadows, and what he saw then kept him from so much as lifting his rifle.
They were skeleton soldiers.
He could see skulls shining in the pale moonlight where faces belonged, hands of white bone clutching rifle stocks.
He was staring, entranced, when the American gunners opened up. Opened up and mowed them down, sliced the vicious Hun bastards to pieces. All around him men lifted their rifles and fired, and Arlen just lay there without so much as a finger on the trigger, scarcely able to draw a breath.
A trick of the light, he told himself as dawn rose heavy with mist and the smell of cooling and drying blood, the moans of the wounded as steady now as the gunfire had been earlier. What he’d seen was the product of moonlight partnered with the trauma from a day of unspeakable bloodshed. Surely that was enough to wreak havoc on his mind. On anyone’s mind.
There were some memories in his head then, of course, some thoughts of his father, but he kept them at bay, and as the sun broke through the mist he’d done a fine job of convincing himself that this was nothing but the most horrifying of hallucinations.
It was midafternoon and the Marines were readying another assault, seeking to push deeper into the Wood, when he turned to two of the men he’d known best over there, known best and liked best, good boys who fought hard, and saw that their eyes were gone. The flesh remained on their faces but their eyes were gone, the sockets filled with gray smoke that leaked out and formed wreaths around their heads.
Both of them were dead within the hour.
For the rest of the war it was like that—bones showing in the night battles, smoke-filled eye sockets smiling at him during the daylight. That promise of death was all he ever got. Never did a ghost linger with him after the last breath rattled out of tortured lungs, never did a phantom version of one of those lost men return in the night to offer him some sense of the reason behind it all. No voices whispered to him in the dark, no invisible hand guided him in battle or menaced him in sleep.
He spoke of it only once, knew immediately from the looks exchanged around him that if he kept telling the tale he’d soon be hospital-bound with all the other poor shell-shocked bastards who gibbered on about things far from the grasp of reality. Arlen kept his mouth shut and kept seeing the same terrible sights.
As the war went on, he discovered some of them could be saved. They would perish if left to fight alone, but if he could keep them down and out of the fire line, sometimes they made it through. Not often enough, though. Not nearly often enough. And there were so, so many of them.
After the armistice the premonitions ceased, and for a time Arlen thought it was done. Then he’d walked into an Army hospital back in the States to visit a buddy and had seen smoke-eyes everywhere he looked, stumbled back out of the place without ever finding his friend. He’d gone to the first speakeasy he could find and tipped whiskey glasses back until his own vision was too clouded and blurred to see smoke even if someone lit a match right in front of his face.
He’d worked in a railyard for a time, had seen a man with bone hands and a gleaming skull face laughing over a joke just minutes before the chains on a log car snapped and he was crushed beneath one of the timbers. The last time Arlen ventured back into West Virginia—it wasn’t a place of warm memories and welcoming embraces—he’d gone hunting with a friend from the war who’d turned into a bitter drunk with a stump where his left hand belonged. One-handed or not he’d wanted to go hunting, and Arlen had agreed, then saw the smoke swirling in the man’s eye sockets about thirty seconds before he stepped into a snarl of loose brush and a rattlesnake struck him in the calf, just below the knee. Arlen had shot the snake, whose thick coiled body would’ve gone every bit of five feet stretched out full, and cut the wound to bleed the venom, but still the smoke wouldn’t leave those eyes, grew thicker and darker as Arlen dragged his old friend back to town, and he was dead by noon the next day.
So there were incidents, but in this warless world they were far less common, and he worked hard at burying the memories just the same as they’d buried the men who created them. Drinking helped. Even through Prohibition, Arlen always found a way to keep his flask filled.
Like many of the men back from the war, he’d wandered in the years that followed, taking work when and where he could, unable or unwilling to settle. When the Bonus Marchers had moved on Washington, demanding wages for veterans, only to be driven away with tear gas, he’d watched the papers idly, expecting nothing. But after Roosevelt allowed that some veterans might join his Civilian Conservation Corps, out to save the nation one tree at a time, Arlen had some interest. Dollars were getting scarcer, and the idea of laboring outdoors instead of down in a coal mine or inside a foundry sounded mighty fine.
In the end he’d signed on in Alabama as what they called a local experienced man. It was CCC labor, same as any else, but he didn’t have to join up with one of the veteran companies. Instead, he was tasked with providing instruction to a bunch of boys from New York and Jersey, city kids who’d never swung an ax or handled a saw. Was the sort of thing that could try some men’s patience, but Arlen didn’t mind teaching, and just about anyone could be shown how to drive a nail or square an edge.
Paul Brickhill, though… he was something special. The closest thing to a mechanical genius Arlen had ever seen. A tall, dark-haired boy with serious eyes and an underfed frame, same as almost all the rest of them, he had not the first bit of experience with carpentry, but what he did have was the mind. The first thing that caught Arlen’s attention was how quickly the boy learned. In all those early days of instruction, Arlen never repeated himself to Brickhill. Not once. You said it, he absorbed it and applied it. Still, he’d appeared little more than a reliable boy and a quick study until they got to work building a shelter house. They’d laid masonry from foundation to windowsill and Arlen was checking over the rounded logs they’d set above the stone when he caught Brickhill changing his measurements for the framing of the roof.
He’d been ready to light the boy up—took some first-class ignorance to dare pick up a pencil and fool with Arlen’s numbers, make a change that could set them back days—when he looked down and studied the sketch and saw that the boy was right. Arlen had the angle off on the beams. He would’ve discovered it himself once they got to laying boards, but he hadn’t seen it in his measurements.
“How’d you know that?” he asked.
Brickhill opened his mouth and closed it, frowned, then steepled his hands in the shape of a roof and then flattened them out and said, “I just… saw it, that’s all.”
It wasn’t the sort of thing a boy who’d never built a roof should see. Not a fifteen-degree difference without a single board set.
They got to talking a bit after that. Arlen had been in the habit of telling the juniors only what was needed—cut here, nail there—but Brickhill wanted to know more, and Arlen told him what he could. Didn’t take long to see that the boy’s innate understanding of building was such that Arlen’s experience didn’t seem all that impressive. A few months later it was at Brickhill’s suggestion that Arlen approached the camp foreman with the idea of constructing a three-hundred-foot-long chute to get concrete down to a dam they were building. The chute worked, and saved them who knew how many days.
It was getting on toward the end of summer and things were winding down at Flagg Mountain when Brickhill’s six-month hitch finished up. He intended to reenlist—expected he’d continue to for some time, long as they’d let him, he told Arlen—but he didn’t want to stay with his company, which was set for a transfer from Alabama to Nevada.
“I got something else in mind,” Brickhill said. “But I figure it’s going to take your help to get me there.”
The boy proceeded to inform him, in exorbitant detail, of a new CCC project in the Florida Keys. They were building a highway bridge that would conquer the ocean, same grand thing that Henry Flagler had done with the railroad. Labor for the project was being provided by the Veterans Work Program, but the CCC had just taken over the management. As they didn’t have a junior camp down there, it was going to take a bit of work for Paul to join up. Considering how Arlen was an ex-Marine, same as the local officer in charge of enlistment, and might have some pull, Paul was looking for help.
Arlen agreed to it, and what he told the enlistment officer had been true enough—the boy needed to be working on such an endeavor, not planting trees and clearing drainage ditches in Nevada.
“What you have here,” he’d said, “is the next great engineer this country will see.”
It didn’t fly. Seems they’d had trouble in the camps down there, and the old Veterans Work Program was becoming something of a black eye thanks to circulating national news reports about the violent and troubled men who populated the camps in the Keys.
“You want to go down there, we could use you, Arlen,” the enlistment officer had said. “Matter of fact, I’d appreciate it were you willing. We need some steady men in those camps. But we won’t be sending juniors.”
Arlen figured that verdict would close the discussion with Brickhill. It didn’t. The boy simply said that if Arlen accepted the transfer and went south, he’d tag along and talk his way onto the project. It was, Arlen had discovered, a situation typical of the boy. He had a sort of focused determination you just didn’t come across much, and when you did, it tended to be held by men who got things done. Paul Brickhill would surely be such a man.
“Once I’m down there, I bet the tune changes,” Paul promised. “They need workers. And if it doesn’t sort out, I’ll go on to one of the other Florida camps and reenlist.”
“Might be so,” Arlen said, “but that requires me going as well, and I ain’t looking to transfer, son. This is my camp.”
Well, because he’d happened to be in the area when he hired on. It was that simple. A local experienced man, that was what they called him, but truth was he was hardly more local than the boys he supervised. Experienced, yes. Local, no. Wasn’t any place where Arlen could be considered a local.
“You don’t have any reason not to head down there,” Paul said. “You’re not one with family around here, or…”
He stopped as if fearing he’d said something offensive, but Arlen just shook his head.
“No, I don’t have any family here.”
Here, or anywhere. The work at Flagg Mountain was nearing a close—there was a reason these boys were about to be transferred west—and it might be interesting, as Brickhill suggested, to work on an ocean bridge…
That was how Arlen Wagner came to be sitting beside a boy from New Jersey in a muggy train car on the last day of August 1935.
For a time after the train had left, they just stood there in the glow of the station platform and stared off down the dark rails. The flat air billowed up one long gust and pushed the trapped wet heat out of the woods and into their faces, and Arlen dropped his hand for his flask and then stopped when Paul’s eyes followed the motion. He didn’t want the kid to think this was all due to liquor. Wasn’t drinking that caused it, was drinking that could ease it.
“All right,” Paul said at length, “we aren’t going to die on that train tonight. We also aren’t going to get anywhere on it. So unless you intend to spend the night right here…”
“Hold on. We’ll find someone to ask.”
There was a station attendant, a stooped man with a squint that seemed permanent, who met all of Arlen’s questions with the same statement: I don’t understand—why didn’t you get back on your train?
At last he was made to accept the idea, if not understand it, and informed them that there was a boardinghouse five miles up the highway.
“Look here,” he said, “why go five miles away to spend the night if you’re not looking to stay around here anyhow? Now that you got off your train, where is it you’re bound?”
That was a hell of a question. Paul looked at Arlen, a challenging look.
“Next train to the Keys?” he said.
“If’n you still want to go to the Keys,” the attendant said, “why in the hell didn’t you stay on your damn train?”
Arlen ran a hand over his face. The next train for the Keys might well be safe, but it might well not. How could he explain that to the boy? All he knew for certain was that those men they’d just left were heading toward death. And if somehow he’d been wrong, then he wasn’t real eager to chase after them, set up in a camp down where every man looked at Arlen and chuckled and whispered.
“You said you’re with the CCC?” the station attendant said.
“That’s right,” Paul said.
“Well, there’s a camp down in Hillsborough County, out toward Tampa, and I could get you on a train headed that way tomorrow afternoon. Bunch of you boys are down there. Working on a park.”
“We aren’t heading to a park,” Paul said. “We’re going to build a bridge. A highway bridge. In the Keys.”
“Well, don’t know that you can get on another train to the Keys till late tomorrow. If you’re still headed that way, then why did you—”
Arlen interrupted him and pulled Paul aside.
“Here’s the problem, as I see it,” he said, fumbling out a cigarette and lighting it. “It’s not just a matter of finding another train. It’s a veterans’ camp, not juniors, you know that. They didn’t want you down there in the first place. Now those fellows are going to show up ahead of us and tell this tale, and we’re going to have ourselves a reputation before we arrive. Understand?”
Paul gave him a long look, one that said, You’re going to be the one they’ve heard tales about, not me, but he didn’t let the look turn into words.
“So there you’re going to be,” Arlen said, “in a camp where you don’t belong, and now they’ll see you coming and see a problem. That’s my fault, not yours, but it’s the fact of the matter, son. I wasn’t sure I could get you a hitch down there to begin with. Won’t be near as easy now. So could be time we think about a different direction.”
All of this sounded like wheedling even to Arlen, and it dropped Paul Brickhill’s face into a sullen frown. This was the first time in their short acquaintance that Arlen had actually seen him show displeasure.
“We had it all set and planned,” Paul said. “You got a worry with that train, okay. We need to get on another one, though!”
“I don’t know,” Arlen said. “Let’s just hold on a minute here, all right? I’m not sure of what we need to do now.”
What Arlen wanted, now that they were off the train, was to head in the opposite direction, try to forget this had ever happened. He’d drifted on his own for so many years and it was so much easier to do that. Now he had Paul with him, and with every word that came out of the boy’s mouth Arlen wanted to walk off alone, the way he always had before.
“Not sure?” Paul echoed in disbelief. “Arlen, shoot, there’s no question about it! We’re due in the Keys, and we better find the next train!”
That fed Arlen the inspiration he required. The kid was ardent about rules, one of those who just shook and rattled at the idea of balking orders. He was arguing now because Arlen had been trying to convince him instead of giving him the boss voice and the boss attitude.
“Look here,” he said, “ain’t going to be a debate held. Fact is, we got off the train and changed the plan. Something about that you don’t understand? You too dull-minded to realize that your pretty little schedule just got altered, boy? Not going to be a damn thing decided tonight, because there’s no more trains passing through. So let’s get on to this roadhouse and find a bed for the night.”
Paul wanted to argue. He scowled again and then wet his lips and lifted his head as if a retort would be forthcoming. Arlen hit him with the stare then, a partner to the voice, perfected in places he’d rather not remember, and the kid couldn’t hold his eyes.
“He said the boardinghouse was five miles away,” Paul muttered.
“At what point between here and Alabama,” Arlen said, “did you lose the use of your legs?”
IT WAS A LONG, dark walk. The highway was bordered with scrub pines and tall grasses that rustled even when the wind was flat, and the summer night pressed down on them like a pair of strong hands, made each step feel like ten. They were both lugging bags, tossed to them by a sneering Wallace O’Connell as the train pulled away. They’d been at it for an hour, had probably gone four miles, when a car came up behind them and slowed. Cars had been passing occasionally, maybe five during the whole time they’d been walking, but this was the first that had slowed. Neither Arlen nor Paul had stuck out a thumb, and though the boy said, “Hey, they’re stopping!” with delight in his voice, Arlen dropped his bags and put a hand in his pants pocket, near his knife. There were different reasons a car would stop for strangers on a lonely midnight highway, and some drifted far from acts of kindness.
The car was a newer-model sedan with gleaming chrome and whitewall tires. The window cranked down, and the driver called, “ ’Lo there.” Cigarette smoke rolled out in a haze.
“I see two men with bags walking down this road at this hour, I figure they’re either lost beyond hope or headed to Pearl’s.”
“Pearl’s the name of a roadhouse farther up this highway?”
“Not but a mile ahead.”
“That’s good to hear,” Arlen said. “Thanks. We’ll carry on now.”
“Why walk that last mile when you can ride?”
Arlen didn’t much want that, but Paul stepped up close and said, “Yeah, why walk when we can ride? This is an Auburn.”
“The kid knows sense when he hears it,” the man with the shadowed face said, and then he slapped the side of the driver’s door. “And he knows cars—this is indeed an Auburn, and it moves like you won’t believe. Climb on in.”
So they climbed in. The car was clean and new, and Paul was clearly impressed, running his palm over the seat and looking around with appreciation.
“Say, this is nice. The twelve cylinder, isn’t it?”
“It is. Fastest damn car I’ve ever held the wheel of.” To demonstrate, he accelerated—hard. The car’s engine gave a throaty howl and they lunged forward. Paul gave a chuckle and the driver grinned. Tall guy, lean, with big knobby hands wrapped around the steering wheel.
“What’s your name, friend?” Arlen said.
“Sorenson. Walt Sorenson.” He tucked the cigarette back into his mouth and reached a hand out. Arlen clasped it, and then Paul, offering their own names.
“Wouldn’t ordinarily so much as slow for any poor soul walking on this road at night,” Sorenson said. “I’m in no hurry to have a knife stuck in my back.”
Arlen released his hand from the knife in his pocket.
“Bad area?” he said.
“Isn’t everyplace after the sun goes down? Can’t trust the world anymore, you know? Was a time strangers helped strangers. That time’s gone. Too many people out to do harm, is my point. It’s hard to pick good from bad, and takes too much energy trying. But then I see you two, with bags in your hands, and I say, Walt, you’d be a bastard if you drove on by. Where are you headed?”
Arlen kept quiet while Paul explained that they were CCC and had gotten off the train en route to a camp in the Keys.
“Why’d you leave the train?”
“Arlen wanted to get off,” Paul said uncertainly. “He had a bad feeling.”
“A bad feeling?”
“Let’s not worry over it,” Arlen said curtly. Lights glowed ahead of them then, a two-story building with a wide front porch coming into view. When Sorenson came thundering off the road and jerked the Auburn to a stop, Arlen could hear music from inside, somebody plucking at a guitar.
“Pearl’s,” Sorenson said, and then the conversation was done, and Arlen was grateful for that.
The only connection Arlen could see between Pearl and her name was that she was round. Plenty round. Looked to go every bit of three hundred pounds, in fact, and to call her an ugly woman would be an offense to the word—woman or ugly. She was in the midst of a profane shouting match. The argument sounded harsh but didn’t seem to stir much true heat from anyone in the bar, including the participants. She cut it off fast when Walt Sorenson flagged her down and told her that the gentlemen with him would need a room for the night.
Arlen got some dollars out, and Paul started to reach in his own pocket but Arlen waved him off. He wasn’t sure how much money Paul had on him, but it couldn’t be much; the juniors in the CCC were required to send twenty-five of the thirty dollars they made each month directly home to help their parents. Pearl wouldn’t even accept Arlen’s money, though.
“Friend of Walt’s,” she said.
“Lady, we just met him ten minutes ago. Nobody owes us anything.”
“Friend of Walt’s,” she repeated.
Paul was gawking around the bar. It was a rough-looking crowd. One man wore a long knife in a sheath at his belt, and another had a raw red gash down the length of one finger, the sort of thing that could be left behind by a tooth. It wasn’t an old injury. At a table just inside the door, a man with a cigar pinched in the corner of his mouth was talking to a woman in a green dress that was cut so low the tops of her large white breasts were exposed completely. She had red hair and bored eyes.
Pearl led them up a set of stairs so narrow that she had to turn sideways to wedge her way along. She jerked open the first door they came to, then lit an oil lamp and waved her fat hand out over the two cots.
“Privy’s outdoors,” she said. “Wasn’t the Astor family that built this, you might have noticed.”
“It’ll do fine,” Arlen said.
She clomped back out the door and down the hall, and they could hear her let out a grunt as she started down the stairs. Paul caught Arlen’s eye and grinned.
“Don’t be getting any ideas,” Arlen said. “She’s too old for you.”
“Oh, go on.”
“I’m going downstairs to buy that fellow a drink. Thank him for the ride. You get some shut-eye.”
Paul nodded at the wall and said, “Hear that? It’s raining.”
Yes, it was. Coming down soft but steady, would’ve soaked them to the bone if they’d still been out walking on the dark highway.
“Good thing we caught that ride,” Paul said.
“Sure.” Arlen pulled his bag up onto his bed and sorted through it until he found his canteen, unscrewed the cap, and shook the contents down, tugged a few bills out. He had $367 in it, savings accrued over the past twenty months. No fortune, but in this driven-to-its-knees economy, where men bartered heirlooms for bread, it felt close.
Outside, the rain gathered intensity.
Yes, Arlen thought, it was a good thing we caught that ride.
The bar was dim and dusty, with a crowd of men Arlen could smell easier than he could see bunched at one end, keeping conversation with Pearl. The guitar player had given up for the night, but the redheaded woman in the green dress was still at the table with her cigar-smoking companion, and Walt Sorenson sat alone at the far end of the bar, counting out small white balls with black numbers and placing them into a burlap bag. Arlen dropped onto a stool beside him and said, “Mind telling me what you’re doing?”
Sorenson smiled. “You ever heard of bolita?”
“I have not,” Arlen said. The woman in the green dress stood up and walked to the bar, her breasts wriggling like something come alive. Her hips matched the act, but the eyes stayed empty. She disappeared up the stairs, never casting a look back at the man with the cigar who followed her.
“Bolita,” Sorenson said, “is a game of wagering. You should put in a dime, Mr…. what’s your name? Wagner, was it?”
“Arlen Wagner, yes.”
“Well, Arlen Wagner, I’ve developed what some might call an unusual ability—I can feel luck in the air. I mean, just taste it, like when you walk into a room where something good’s been on the stove. And I’m telling you, sir, that luck rides with you tonight. There’s no question about it. Luck rides with you.”
Arlen thought of the station platform again, all those men with bone faces and bone hands climbing back onto the train. His mouth was dry.
“All right,” he said. “Sure. I’ll put in a dime.”
“There you go. Now, pick yourself a number. One through one hundred.”
He waited with a wolf’s grin.
“One,” Arlen said. “As in, how many times I’ll try this game.”
“Very nice, very nice.” Sorenson chuckled and sorted through the balls until he found the number one. He held it up so Arlen could inspect it, then leaned it against his whiskey glass, which was now mostly ice. “I’ll rest it right there so you can keep an eye on it.”
“I’m going to expect such a game is illegal in this state,” Arlen said.
“A good many of the best things are.” Sorenson spent some time studying his betting sheet, cleared his throat, and called, “All right, boys, gather round, the losing is about to begin for most, and the winning for but a single soul.”
He scooped the balls off the bar and into the bag. By now the crowd had gathered around Sorenson, and he wrapped the top of the bag until the balls were hidden from view, then gave it a ferocious shake.
“Here,” he said. “Someone else take a try.”
A man with skeptical eyes stepped forward and took the bag. He shook it for a long time. Sorenson took the bag back, opened the neck, and slid his right hand inside. He closed his eyes and let out a strange humming sound. This persisted for a moment as he felt around the inside, and then he snapped open one eye and told the crowd, “I’ve got to tune into the winner, you know. It’s not so simple as just pulling one out. There’s one man here who deserves to win tonight, one whose destiny is victory, and I must be sure that I hear his selection calling my name.”
“You’re so full of shit,” one onlooker said, “I’m surprised it don’t come out your ears.”
Sorenson smiled, then snapped his hand out of the bag, his fist closed. “Gentlemen, I give you our winner.”
He unfolded his hand and twisted the ball so the number was visible: 1.
“And who had number one?”
Arlen lifted his hand, and a few of the men grumbled.
“He come in here with you,” the one who’d shaken the bag said. “It’s a damn swindle you’re running.”
“Ah, but you’re wrong,” Sorenson said, unbothered. “I’ve not met this man till this evening, and he’ll tell you the same. But if that’s how you feel, then I suggest another round, only this time our current winner must sit out.”
There was no interest in further wagering.
“Hard to believe it here,” Sorenson told Arlen, “but there are places where this little game is treated with respect. I’ve known men who became millionaires off this little game.”
“Running it,” Arlen said, “not playing it. And thanks for cheating me into the profit.”
Arlen nodded at the glass of melting ice near Sorenson’s hand. “You left the ball up there long enough to hold the cold. Then you could pick it out of the rest. It’s a neat trick, but it may get your arm broken with the wrong crowd.”
Sorenson gave a low chuckle. “You’ve got a sharp eye, Mr. Wagner.”
Arlen lifted his hand and got Pearl’s attention, asked for two whiskeys. When she’d shuffled off again, he said, “So is this your business, Sorenson? A traveling entertainment, that’s what you are?”
“Oh, no. This little game is nothing more than a pastime.”
“So what is it that you do?”
Sorenson smiled as Pearl set their drinks on the bar. “You’re an inquisitive man. What I do has evolved a bit, but these days I’m an accounts manager.”
“That’s right, sir. I check in on clients all over the hellish backwoods of this forsaken Florida countryside. And once in a while, I get to the coast to do the same. I’ll assure you, the ladies are of a finer breed on the coast.” He nodded at Pearl’s enormous rear end. “Ample evidence, you might say.”
“Quick with a pun, Sorenson. Mighty quick.”
“Quick with so many things.”
He laughed at that, so Arlen laughed, too. Arlen’s whiskey glass was empty, and Pearl had disappeared, so he slipped his flask out and poured his own. The flask was nearing empty now itself. Sorenson watched him and gave a soft sigh.
“It hasn’t been so long since such an act was illegal.”
“You don’t appear to be a teetotaler, yet you say that with some sorrow.”
“Sorrow for what’s been lost, Mr. Wagner.”
“And what was lost? Purity?” Arlen said with a snort.
“Purity, no. What was lost when Roosevelt kicked Prohibition in the ass was a business environment the sort of which we may never see again.”
“Ah,” Arlen said. “A bootlegger. That’s what you are.”
“Now? No, Mr. Wagner. You can’t bootleg something that’s openly bought and traded. So a new commodity must be found and…” He shrugged. “I just miss the simplicity of booze. But let’s talk about you for a change. You and the young man departed a train in the middle of the night and lit out down an abandoned highway in an unfamiliar place. Due to a bad feeling, the boy said. It strikes me as a most exceptional decision.”
“Paul said all that needed to be said. I had a bad feeling. End of story.”
“I like it. Sounds ominous. A feeling of what? Impending doom?”
“I didn’t see a black cat walking under a ladder or any such foolish shit,” Arlen said, feeling anger rise, Sorenson watching him with calm interest. “If you had any idea…”
He let it die, and Sorenson said gently, “What did you see?”
Arlen shook his head. “Let’s leave it at a bad feeling.”
“And so we will. Make no mistake, Mr. Wagner, I’m a man who appreciates the art of the premonition.”
“Mine are a little different than yours. Less manufactured.”
“Than mine, sure. I’ve known others, though… there’s a village not far from here in which every resident claims to be a medium. The place is called Cassadaga. Anytime I pass close to the area, I pay a visit. A friend introduced me to a fortune-teller there. She’s remarkable.”
“What does she tell you? Winning numbers for your games?”
“Yesterday, she told me there was death in the rain.”
“In the rain?”
“That’s what she said. I asked her if it was my own death, and she said it was not. Then she told me, as she has before, that I worry too much about death. All that dies, she said, is the body. That’s all. And she believes, quite firmly, that she can continue to communicate with those whose bodies are no more. Do you believe in such a thing?”
“Absolutely not,” Arlen said, thinking, I’d better not. Because if I do, then I’ve got something to answer for.
“You say that with conviction,” Sorenson said. “Yet you abandoned a train you needed to be on due to your own unusual perception.”
“There’s a world of difference there,” Arlen said.
Sorenson had set his hat down on the bar and shed his jacket, revealing a sweat-stained white shirt and suspenders.
“The lad who travels with you was not in favor of the change of plans. He did not support the… bad feeling.”
“He supported it enough,” Arlen said. “He got off the train.”
“Hell, man, you’re serious about this, aren’t you?”
Arlen turned to face him, the whiskey wrapping its arms around him now in such a way that he didn’t fear the man’s mocking.
“You think your fortune-teller can sense death coming?” he said. “Well, brother, I can see it. Tell you something else—I ain’t ever wrong. Ever.”
Sorenson gazed at him without reaction. Arlen held the stare for a time and then turned away, at which point Sorenson finally spoke.
“I am most taken with games of chance and those who purport themselves as capable of beating them. And life, Mr. Wagner? That’s the best game of chance in this world. You think you can beat it.”
“No,” Arlen said. “I do not think that.”
“Sure you do. We’ll see if you can. The fate of that train will tell the tale.”
“It may not be the train,” Arlen said, his voice starting to thicken with drink. “Could be something will happen that has nothing to do with the train. But the Keys aren’t safe, damn it, and I want to keep that kid from going.”
“You say that as if you suspect it will be difficult.”
“He’s determined. I’d like to get to Hillsborough County, to the CCC camp there. The boy doesn’t belong down in the Keys.”
“I see.” Sorenson twirled his glass on the bar, watching the warm amber liquid devour his ice. Arlen had a passing notion that he was surprised such a bar even had ice; perhaps this was what Sorenson provided in these days of open liquor trade. “Well, Wagner, what I said during our game holds true—luck rides with you tonight. Not only did you win the game, not only did you escape the train to the Keys, not only did you hitch with me just in time to avoid the rain, but you’ve found a ride to Hillsborough County. I’ll make a few stops along the way, but by sundown I’ll be within twenty miles. Can’t pass on a free ride.”
“Generous offer, but all the same, I think we’ll stick to the trains.”
“You wound me,” Sorenson said. “Think logically—it’s a five-mile hike back to the station and then you’ll have to piece together a day of travel at considerable expense. You will also have to convince the lad to change his plans. He likes that car, Mr. Wagner. I imagine he’d like to drive it.”
Arlen looked up at him and frowned. “Why so interested?” he said. “What’s it to you, Sorenson?”
“There are plenty of reasons. For one, I find you a most fascinating man, you of the bad feelings, you, the seer of death. For another, I could use the company. These highways get lonesome, Mr. Wagner. And a third reason? My fortune-teller in Cassadaga, the one who warned me of death in the rain? Her guidance for me on this visit was quite limited—all she said was that I needed to be aware of travelers in need.”
“You expect me to believe that, you’re crazy.”
“On the contrary,” Sorenson said, “if you’re anything close to the man I suspect you are, I know that you will believe it. Because it’s the truth.”
Arlen held his eyes for a time, then looked away without speaking.
“All right,” he said. “We’ll ride with you tomorrow.”
HE DID NOT SLEEP WELL. In the room beside them, an ancient bed creaked a sad, hollow rhythm beneath first one man’s grunting efforts and then another’s. The redheaded woman who had once worn a green dress did not make a sound. Arlen lay in the dark and listened and wondered if Paul was awake. If he was, he didn’t speak. By three Arlen’s flask was empty and then so was the room beside them, the door swung shut one final time as the voices downstairs fell silent.
He dozed off sometime around four but slept in uneasy fits, jerking awake often to the sound of an unrelenting rain. It was sweltering in the constricted, windowless room, and Arlen’s sweat soaked into the sheets as the night carried on and finally broke to dawn.
“Get on your feet,” Arlen said, giving Paul a shake. “We’ve got a ride. Sorenson’s going to take us south.”
“To the Keys?”
“He isn’t going that far. All I know is he’s going south, and we can ride with him in that fancy car you liked so much. Beats waiting all day for a train.”
Arlen felt a twinge at his own words. It wasn’t a bald lie—Hillsborough County was indeed south, but it was also west, when the train lines that would carry them to the Keys were on the state’s eastern shore.
They drove away in a gray, windy dawn, the Auburn gleaming as if freshly washed after the night of steady rain.
“Shouldn’t take but five or six hours,” Sorenson said. “I’ve a few stops to make along the way, but they’ll be swift enough. I appreciate you joining me on this short sojourn.”
Arlen winced, and Sorenson noted it. “What?” he said.
“Nothing,” Arlen muttered. “You just… it reminded me of something my father used to say.”
They’re only dead to people like you, Arlen. Truth is they’re carrying on, bound to a place where you can’t yet follow. This life is but a sojourn.
“A story you’d like to share?” Sorenson said.
“No,” Arlen said.
Their stops were roadhouses similar to Pearl’s. At each of them, a large black case with two metal locks entered and exited the establishment with Sorenson. The stops were swift indeed, short disruptions as they drove through a green, saturated land. The ditches on either side of the road were swollen with muddy water. Arlen’s father used to caution about dreams of muddy water, claiming they warned of impending trouble. Arlen wondered if his father had such a dream toward the end, or if dreams had failed him.
They pushed west as the heat continued to build and with it the thickness of the air. Sorenson had the windows cranked down on the Auburn, and out on the back roads he opened the engine up and let the big car run, Paul grinning as the speedometer hit seventy, eighty, ninety, one hundred. Sorenson let it fall off then but kept it closer to ninety than eighty for most of an hour. Their next stop was at a place called the Swamp. Unlike the previous roadhouses, this one seemed to be booming—the building was outfitted with electric lamps and glossy wood on the front patio, and cars filled the parking area already, new Plymouths and Chryslers and one Essex Terraplane that turned Paul’s head.
“That one would blow your doors off, Mr. Sorenson,” he said.
“Oh, it’s a fact.”
“Busy place,” Arlen said. “And one with some money.”
“Casino inside,” Sorenson said. “They do it right, too.”
“Let’s have a look,” Paul said, but Arlen shook his head.
“We’ll wait on him.”
“Oh, it can’t hurt to wander around in there a bit, Arlen.”
They leaned against the Auburn and watched people come and go through the doors, women in dresses and heels, men in suits with drinks in their hands. I guess we drove out of the Depression, Arlen thought. Be back in it another mile down the road, but somehow it doesn’t exist right here. Must be nice.
“This is what Key West is supposed to be like,” Paul said. “Saloons all over the place, people having a good time just like here. That writer’s down there, Hemingway, and I saw a picture of Dizzy Dean, taken on his vacation. All sorts of famous people pass through. Why, we could have a drink with them.”
Arlen regarded him with surprise. He wouldn’t have imagined a kid like Paul would give the first damn about saloons and Dizzy Dean. In his mind, the only thing the boy had been after in the Keys was work on the bridge. Well, that had no doubt been a naive, idealized notion. Paul was nineteen, probably wanted himself a taste of many things. All this time Arlen had seen the kid eyeing his flask, he’d assumed Paul was antiliquor. He was probably just curious.
When Sorenson returned, Arlen said, “Say, weren’t you going to let the kid drive?”
“He probably won’t want to if it isn’t that Terraplane he’s so sweet on.”
“I’ll drive,” Paul said, and Sorenson grinned.
The funny thing was, once he got behind the wheel, he was scared to let the big motor run. Wouldn’t take it beyond forty until Sorenson said, “Boy, if I’d wanted my mother to drive, I’d have brought her along.” Then the kid finally laid into it, got them as high as sixty. Arlen wondered when Paul had last driven a car. Hell, if he’d ever driven a car. He handled it well, though, seemed comfortable behind the wheel even if hesitant of the engine’s power.
“Mr. Sorenson?” Paul said after they’d gone about ten miles. “I thought we were going to head south today. We’re driving due west.”
Sorenson flicked his eyes over to Arlen, then looked back and said, “Didn’t know I was required to stick to a specific compass point when I agreed to give y’all a ride.”
“That’s not what I’m saying, I was just wondering—”
“We’ll be southbound shortly. Only one stop left. And it’s on the beach.”
“The beach? Now that’s better. I’ve always wanted to see the ocean.”
Arlen frowned. “Thought you grew up just south of New York.”
“Hell, the ocean can’t be but an hour from there at most.”
“It’s not,” Paul said, and there was something different in his voice, an edge Arlen had never imagined him capable of. “I just never saw it, okay?”
“Okay,” Arlen said. It struck him then how little he knew about the kid. His name, his age, his home. He knew those things and the undeniable fact that he was the closest thing to a mechanical genius Arlen had ever encountered.
Forty-five minutes later they caught a flash of blue, the expanse of the Gulf of Mexico ahead, and for the first time Paul seemed unsteady with the car, drifting across the center line for a blink before he brought it back. Sorenson told Paul that if he wanted to gawk at the water, he’d best give up the wheel.
It did look pretty. The sun had broken through—though there were dark clouds in the mirrors and more massing to the north—and the breakers glittered. There wasn’t a boat in sight, the water an unbroken vastness of prehistoric power.
“Wow,” Paul said. And then, softer, “That is something. It really is.”
The road curled away from the coast again. There wasn’t much development out here, wasn’t much at all except for the road, in fact. Once, they crossed a set of train tracks—Paul going over the rails so gingerly Arlen thought he might get out and try to carry the Auburn across—but then those were gone and nothing showed ahead. Eventually they came to a four-way stop, pavement continuing south, dirt roads to the east and west, and Sorenson told Paul to turn right, west, back toward the Gulf.
They went maybe a mile down this mud track before the trees parted and the road went to something sandier, shells cracking beneath the tires. A moment later the water showed itself, and in front of the shore was a clapboard structure of white that had long since turned to gray. It was a rectangle with a smaller raised upper level, steep roofs all around. At the top of the second story was a small deck with fence rails surrounding it. A widow’s walk. A porch ran the length of the house, and an old wooden sign swung in the wind above: The Cypress House.
“Tell you what,” Sorenson said, “let’s all go in here.”
Paul passed him the keys and popped open the door, eager to step out and gawk at the sea. Arlen started out, too, but Sorenson put a hand on his arm.
“You might want to bring the bags in.”
Arlen tilted his head. “Why?” They’d never been so much as invited in at any previous stop, and now Sorenson wanted the bags out of his car, too?
“This area,” Sorenson said, and let the words hang.
Arlen looked around in every direction, saw nothing but the shore ahead and tangled trees and undergrowth behind.
“Looks peaceful to me,” he said.
“Mr. Wagner,” Sorenson said, and there was a bite in his words, “you ever been here before?”
Sorenson nodded. “Then perhaps you should reconsider my advice.”
Arlen held his eyes for a moment and then turned without a word and grabbed the first bag and hauled it out with him. He tugged them all free from the Auburn and then hailed Paul to help carry them in, and while he worked he pretended not to notice that Sorenson had retrieved a small automatic from beneath the driver’s seat and tucked it into his jacket pocket.
WHATEVER ILL FEELINGS Sorenson had about the Cypress House were not justified by their entrance into its humid, shadowed interior. They were standing in the middle of a long, narrow room without a soul inside. There was a fireplace on their left and a bar on their right. Behind the bar, liquor was displayed on thick wooden shelves, and atop the shelves was a massive brass-ringed and glass-faced mantelpiece clock that went about two feet in diameter and was clearly broken—according to the hands it was noon. Or midnight.
Between the bar and the fireplace were scattered a handful of tables, and the wall opposite them was composed of wide windows that looked out onto another porch and beyond that the ocean.
“Hello!” Sorenson bellowed once they’d stepped inside. Arlen set his bags down beside the door, and Paul followed suit. A minute after Sorenson’s cry, they heard footsteps and then a figure rounded the corner from some unseen room Arlen took to be the kitchen and faced them across the bar.
It was a woman. Her silhouette stood out starkly against the light from the beach, but the front of her was lost to darkness.
“Walter,” she said, in a voice that seemed to come from behind a gate with many locks.
“Becky, baby, how are ya?” Sorenson approached the bar with his big black case in his hand, and Arlen and Paul followed a few paces behind.
“Grand,” the woman said in a tone that implied just the opposite. As they drew close enough to see her, Arlen felt the boy draw up taller at his side and understood the reason—she was a looker. She wore a simple white dress that had been washed many times, but beneath it the taut lines of her body curved clear and firm. Her face was sharp-featured and smooth, framed by honey-colored hair, and she regarded them with cool blue eyes.
“Who are your companions?” she said.
“Road-weary travelers, and parched,” Sorenson said. His standard grandiose demeanor seemed to have risen a notch.
“Might I have a pair of beers and one Coca-Cola?”
She didn’t answer, just turned and slipped into the kitchen and then returned with two beers and a bottle of Coca-Cola.
“Thank you,” Paul said, and even in the shadowed room Arlen could see red rise in the boy’s cheeks. She was that kind of beautiful. The crippling kind. Arlen himself said not a word, just took a seat at the bar. She gave him no more than a flick of the eyes before returning her focus to Sorenson.
“You need to finish your beer, or can we handle our business?”
“No need to rush,” he said, and was met with a frown that suggested she saw plenty of need.
“Well, when you’re ready, I’ll be in the back,” she said. Arlen had the sense that she was unhappy Sorenson had brought strangers along.
“Aw, stay and talk a bit. I’ve neglected to make introductions. This here is Arlen Wagner, and his young companion is Paul Brickhill. They’re CCC men.”
“How lovely,” she said in the same flat voice.
“And this,” Sorenson said, “is beautiful Becky Cady, the pride of Corridor County.”
“Rebecca,” she said.
“Ah, you’re Becky to me.”
“But not to me,” she said. “Walter, I’ll be in the back.”
She turned and went through a swinging door into the kitchen, and then it was just the three of them in the dim bar.
“Another dry county?” Arlen said.
Sorenson shook his head.
“Then what are you doing here?”
“I told you last night, Mr. Wagner, business isn’t about booze these days.”
Sorenson took a drink of his beer, and now Arlen could see that sweat was running down his face in thick rivulets, more sweat than the heat deserved. He looked over his shoulder at the door, had another drink, and then looked again.
“You expecting company?” Arlen said.
“Huh? Um, no.”
Paul said, “Why’s it called Corridor County?”
“The waterways,” Sorenson answered. “There are inlets and estuaries all over the shore here, and they wind around and join the river about ten miles inland. It’s a crazy tangled mess, though, and every storm that blows through shifts things around and puts up sandbars where there didn’t used to be any. Nobody but a handful of locals can navigate the whole mess worth a shit.”
He got to his feet. “If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen.”
He picked up the heavy black case and walked around the back of the bar and through the swinging door where Rebecca Cady had gone. Arlen looked at Paul, saw the question in the boy’s eyes, and shrugged.
“Go look at your ocean,” he said, hoping to distract the kid until Sorenson came back out and they could get on the road.
Paul got to his feet and walked over to the windows, gazed out at the sea, waves rolling in with their tops flattened by a freshening wind, and then went out on the porch. After a moment Arlen picked up his beer and followed. The smell of the sea rode toward them in warm, wet gusts, and seagulls screamed and circled the beach. South, there was nothing but sand and short dunes lined with clusters of grass, but to the north the shore seemed to curve inland and thickets of palms and strange green plants that looked like overgrown ferns traced what Arlen assumed was one of the inlets Sorenson had mentioned. He could see the roof of another structure through the trees. Some sort of boathouse, probably, sheltered from the pounding waves of the open water.
Paul stepped off the porch and walked down to the beach. He slid his shoes off and rolled his pants up to his knees. Arlen leaned on the weathered railing and felt a smile slide across his face as he watched the kid pick his way over the sand and down into the water, wade in until the waves broke over his knees and soaked his trousers. Paul seemed to have forgotten anyone else existed, just stood in the water, staring out at the line where sea met sky.
The wind was blowing steadily now, and that was probably why Arlen didn’t hear the car. As it was, he caught a lucky angle. He’d turned back to glance in the bar, checking to see if Sorenson had reappeared, and saw a flash of movement through the windows at the opposite end of the building. It was gone then, and he took a few steps to the side and still couldn’t see anything. After a glance back at Paul to make sure he was still standing in the surf, Arlen set his beer down on the rail and walked off the porch and around the side of the building. There, parked at the top of the sloping track that led down to the Cypress House, a black Plymouth sedan had pulled in beside the trees. The sun was shining off the glass and Arlen couldn’t see anyone inside, but the car hadn’t driven itself here.
He pulled back, leaning against the wall to get himself out of sight. Felt foolish doing it, but all the same he didn’t want to be seen staring. Sorenson had been acting damn strange since the moment they’d arrived, and now someone had parked up at the top of that hill and stayed in the car as if waiting on something. It didn’t feel right.
Paul was walking along the shore now, shin-deep in the water, his eyes still on the sea. Arlen went quietly back up the porch steps and then stepped inside the bar, taking care to move sideways, keeping out of view of the front windows.
“Hey, Sorenson,” he called, voice soft.
Nobody answered. The place was empty.
“Damn it,” he muttered, and then went around the bar and rapped his knuckles on the swinging door. “Sorenson!”
“Hang on, Wagner.”
There was something in the man’s voice Arlen hadn’t heard before, and it gave him pause. For a few seconds he stood there on the other side of the swinging door, and then he said the hell with it and pushed through and stepped into the tiny kitchen. There was a grill and a stove on one side and a rack of shelves on the other and nobody in sight. Another door stood opposite, closed. He crossed to it and knocked again.
“Damn it, I said give us a min—”
“I think somebody’s looking your car over,” he said. “Or maybe Miss Cady’s used to guests who park at the top of the hill and don’t come inside.”
There was a long silence, and then the door swung open and Sorenson stood before him with the black case wrapped under his arm. All the good humor and genteel demeanor had left his face.
“Where?” he said.
“Just where I said—top of the hill, above where you parked.”
Sorenson shoved past him and walked through the swinging door. He kept the case wrapped under his left arm, pressed against his side, but let his right hand drift under his jacket. Arlen paused just long enough to look back into the room, a cramped little office where Rebecca Cady stood with her hands folded in front of her and a blank look on her face, and then he followed. When he got out to the barroom, Sorenson was standing with the front door open, looking out.
“There’s nobody there.”
“Was a minute ago. Black Plymouth.”
Sorenson reflected on that for a moment, then manufactured an uneasy grin and said, “Good thing I had you bring your bags in, see? This area is fraught with lazy crackers who’ll steal anything they can lift.”
Lazy crackers don’t drive new Plymouths, Arlen thought.
“Where’s the kid?” Sorenson asked.
“Down on the beach.”
He nodded as if that pleased him, then said, “Why don’t you bring him in? I’m going to drive the car down a little closer in case our visitor returns, and then we’ll have another drink and head south.”
“I don’t need another drink. Let’s just head.”
“Not quite yet,” Sorenson said, and then he stepped outside and let the thick wooden door bang shut behind him.
Arlen swore under his breath, wiped sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, and then went onto the porch and hollered for Paul. The kid was nearly out of sight now, well down the beach, but he turned and lifted a hand and started back. Arlen picked his beer up off the rail and drank the rest of it while the boy returned and pulled on his socks and shoes. He jogged up to the porch.
“We leaving already?”
“Soon as we can,” Arlen said. “Sorenson wants to linger, but I’m in favor of pushing on and—”
On the other side of the building, something exploded. A bang and a roar that came so fast they were just a heartbeat from simultaneous, and for a moment the beach disappeared in front of Arlen’s eyes and he saw instead the dark forests of Belleau Wood, snarls of barbwire guarding the bases of the trees, corpses draped over them, grenades hurtling through the air. Then he blinked and found himself staring at Paul Brickhill, whose mouth hung agape.
Arlen ignored him, turned and ran back through the bar to the front door, opened it and then took a half step back and whispered, “Son of a bitch, Sorenson.”
The Auburn was on fire. All of the glass had been blown out, and twisted, burning pieces of the seats lay on the hood. As Arlen watched, there was another explosion, flames shooting out of the engine compartment and filling the air with black smoke, and the thought of running back to the bar for a bucket of water died swiftly in his mind. He let the door swing shut and walked out onto the sandy soil and approached the Auburn with an arm held high to shield his face. Continues...
Excerpted from The Cypress House by Michael Koryta Copyright © 2012 by Michael Koryta. Excerpted by permission.
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