it was a long new hampshire fall, the kind that stayed mild well into October, and the man and the boy had spent the afternoon in the backyard, throwing a ball back and forth between two worn leather gloves the man had found in the garage. The boy was young, five that summer, but the man spoke to him in the easy, playful way he might’ve addressed a teenager, with an obvious affection that the boy repaid with rapt delight. They had come outside wearing jackets, but after a half hour of shagging runaway balls past the old toolshed to the cornfield that bordered the property, the man took off his denim jacket and draped it over a low branch of the maple that towered across the yard. Upon seeing this, the boy immediately shed his jacket too and tossed it on the ground. Anyone watching the two of them would’ve assumed they were father and son.
When he saw the boy winding up to throw the ball underhand, the man turned and began to run back toward the cornfield, where experience had taught him he’d soon be diving to retrieve it. But some eccentricity of wind or gravity interceded, and the ball sailed over his head, momentarily blocking out the midafternoon sun before the man realized its final destination. In a perfect, stretching, never- to- be- repeated arc, the ball closed in on the darkened window of the toolshed, and a moment later, he heard the pop and tinkle of breaking glass.
The boy stood frozen, oval- eyed, the glove dangling from his hand. “Uncle Scott?”
“It’s okay.” The man, still catching his breath, slowed to a walk, approaching the shed with his shadow stretched out in front of him. Peering between the two or three snaggletoothed rectangles of glass remaining in the frame, he smelled musty canvas and ancient motor oil, dead grass and rotten leaves. Vague piles of equipment and tools loitered in the shadows, crouched low to the concrete floor.
“What happened?” The boy sounded astounded by the enormity of his crime.
“Don’t worry about it,” the man said, and looked with a rueful smile at the smudges on his sleeves, where he’d been leaning against the sill. “Piece of advice for you, kiddo. Never let a salesgirl talk you into paying eighty bucks for a shirt.”
Walking around the wooden double doors, the man stopped again to examine the padlock that dangled from them like a slab of stone.
“Ah. The plot thickens.”
“What are we gonna do?” the boy asked.
“For every lock, there’s a key.” He turned from the shed and walked across the yard toward the place where he’d grown up. It was a large, rambling old farmhouse that hadn’t changed substantially since his father had built it here fifty years ago. Here was the same enclosed back porch with the same rooty subterranean smell that he remembered disliking as a child and disliked now. More tools. An old railway lantern. A Coca- Cola sign. In one corner, a smiling wooden policeman, cut out with a jigsaw and hand- painted, raised one hand toward the wall. His father had made that, forever ago.
Inside, the house smelled like a dozen different casseroles and hot dishes mingling into one generic aroma pool of gravy and starch. Entering the living room with the boy at his heels, the man, a nondescript New England exile named Scott Mast, walked past the lump on the sofa, mired in front of the television behind a platoon of empty brown bottles. On TV a pretty blonde in a tight T- shirt and tool belt was talking about rehabbing a hundred- year- old Federal house from the ground up. As she dipped her paintbrush and laid down the initial strokes, the creature on the couch made a noise that could’ve been a belch or a snore and rearranged its extremities among the flattened cushions. Scott and the boy went into the kitchen.
If his mother had been alive, he knew she would’ve been mortified by the influx of perishables that had arrived after his father’s funeral. But Eleanor Mast was fifteen years in her grave, killed in the same fire that had taken Great- Uncle Butch and a dozen others. And now they had buried their father. At the memorial yesterday, Owen had already started making noises about moving out of the rented mobile home where he and Henry lived and coming back to live in the old house. Scott visualized the two of them here in the kitchen, feasting for months off defrosted meat loaf, venison sausage, and turkey and cranberry wreath.
He reached over and retrieved the Mason jar from the shelf above the sink. The jar rattled with spare coins, loose nails and screws, paper clips, bits of scrap wire, and empty wooden spools, a trove of ageless, useless junk. When he and Owen were kids, their mother had always kept a few dollars rolled up inside it for school lunches or ice cream in the summer. The paper money had long since vanished, leaving only the most clamorous and least valuable contents gleaming dully in the rays of afternoon light. Scott dumped it upside down on top of the stove, sorting through sticky pennies and two- cent stamps.
“What the hell’s going on in there?” the voice from the living room called.
“Nothing.” Scott raised his voice but didn’t look up. “Just looking for a key.”
Within seconds, Owen had lumbered into the kitchen doorway, head cocked and eyes squinting at Scott beneath a hood of thatched black hair. At thirty- one, he was three years younger than Scott but seemed both older and slower. He wore a black Jack Daniel’s T- shirt that wasn’t quite long enough to cover the droop of his belly above the low- hanging waist of his Levi’s. With him came the aroma of beer and stale synthetic fabric mingled with chewing tobacco—old, familiar smells that came together in Scott’s nostrils in a weird combination of nostalgia and almost unbearable sadness. Owen took another step, brushing the boy aside, his flushed and faintly perspiring face still turned up to maintain eye contact with Scott. “What key?”
“To the shed.”
“Yeah?” Owen’s eyes narrowed. “What’s out there?”
“Nothing,” Scott said. “We just lost our ball. Went through the shed window and—”
“You kidding me?” Owen finally seemed to notice the boy standing between them. “Henry, what did you do? Did you break that window out there?” He grabbed the boy’s arm hard enough that Scott saw his head jerk forward, upper and lower teeth clicking together, a reaction that only seemed to disgust his father. “Don’t pull that act on me. That didn’t hurt.”
“Owen,” Scott said, “it was my fault. I threw the ball.”
“Yeah?” Owen’s head twisted slightly sideways toward him, sly fascination spreading over his face. “How come?”
“I lost control of it.”
“Typical.” Owen reached around and scratched the back of his thigh. “I guess you figure you can just break Pop’s shit all you want now that he’s gone, just fly on home and not worry about it, huh?”
“Come on, man,” Scott said. “I’ll replace the window before I go.” Throughout the course of this conversation, he’d found three possible keys in the morass of items from the jar and slipped them into his pocket, then scraped up everything else from the range, wanting to be away from his brother as quickly as possible.
“Damn right you will. Just ’cause Pop’s gone don’t mean you can bust the place up and leave.” Owen was following Scott back down the hall, still talking, and noticed the boy was trailing along behind. “Where you think you’re going? This is man talk.”
Letting the screen door bang shut behind him, Owen followed Scott off the porch and fell into step a stride or two behind him, a lurching, trudging shadow in Scott’s peripheral vision. “I don’t really mind about the window,” he said. “Probably nothing out in the shed except a bunch of junk anyway. Pop hardly ever went out there anymore.” Scott realized his brother was afraid he might find something valuable out there and keep it for himself. “I just want the ball back.”
“Bunch of crap,” Owen said. “You never know when you might get lucky, though. Stuart Garvey was telling me about this guy down in Nashua, his grandfather dropped dead of a stroke, and when he went out to the barn, he found about eighty thousand dollars in cash stuffed into coffee cans, packed into a hole in the floor.” He whistled softly.
“Eighty grand, you believe that?”
Scott tried the first key in the lock, but it wasn’t even close. The second one was noticeably larger, not even a possibility. That left only a small brass key. He slipped it in the padlock and felt the internal mechanism of the thing yield with spring- loaded eagerness into his palm. No sooner had he lifted it off than Owen reached past him and swung the doors wide open, throwing a widening trapezoid of daylight across the floor and stepping into the shed. After an interval of breathless silence, a layer of disappointment spread rapidly over Owen’s face, reverberating through his entire body, as the prospect of sudden riches deteriorated before his eyes. Yet again, fate had cheated him out of his fortune.
“Bunch of shit,” he muttered, glaring at the old tools, the rusty wheelbarrow leaned up against the wall, the lawn mower and rakes, the piles of cinder blocks, old bags of mulch, and boxes of seed. “What’d I tell you?” “ Uh- huh.” Squatting down, Scott saw the softball resting on the bottom shelf of the bare- bones workbench their father had built along the back wall of the shed. When he reached down to retrieve it, something else caught his eye, and he stopped thinking about the softball completely.
“What’s that?” Owen asked over his shoulder, instantly attuned to his brother’s heightened interest. “You find something?”
Still squatting down, Scott leaned forward, resting one shoulder against the corner of the workbench for leverage as he dragged the heavy, square object into view. It was an old office manual typewriter, battleship gray, with round black keys. He ran his fingers over them to reveal the gleaming Bakelite laminate beneath a silky layer of dust. “Great,” Owen said, not bothering to hide the disappointment in his voice. “Anything else down there?”
Scott reached deeper. Wedged against the wall, behind the bare spot where the typewriter had been, he saw a bundle of pages tied together with twine. Like the typewriter, they were heavier than he’d expected; only when he pulled the stack out did he realize how thick it was, two inches at least and weighed down with untold seasons of absorbed moisture. It had been rammed back there with such force that the top page had folded crookedly onto itself. Smoothing the page, he read the words:
THE BLACK WING
Scott stood up. Owen was standing in the corner, completing a desultory investigation of a stack of wooden apple crates.
“Pop ever say anything to you about this?” Scott asked. Owen didn’t look up. “What is it?”
“Some kind of manuscript. It’s got his name on it.” He flipped through the pages. They were numbered in the upper right- hand corner, and the last page was marked 138. Each one crammed to the margins with single- spaced type. There were occasional words x-ed out and corrections handwritten between the lines. “I didn’t know he ever tried writing.”
“Who knows?” Owen straightened, wiping his hands on his jeans.
“After Mom died, Pop did a lot of crazy shit. Wandering around, not making any sense. Frank Whipple told me he saw him just a couple months ago, parked outside the old Exxon on 743, trying to pump gas from a phone booth.”
There was more to this remembrance, but Scott wasn’t listening. Grasping the stack of pages in his hand, letting it dangle off his index finger by the neatly squared and knotted twine that held it together, he stepped out of the shed and into the afternoon. It felt cooler outside now, the light slanted a bit lower between the mostly empty branches, another slice of autumn irretrievably lost in the shadow of the waning year. Scott was halfway across the yard when he saw Henry standing on the porch, still wearing the leather glove, and realized that he’d forgotten the ball in the shed. When he looked again, the boy was gone.
“Where’d Henry go?”
“Who the hell knows. Kid’s like his mother. You never know what he’s doing, half the time he doesn’t even know.” They went back into the house, and Owen shot a glance at the clock above the fireplace.
“Quarter to four. Too early for a cold one?”
Owen snatched two clinking bottles of lager from the refrigerator and banged them on the table. Of the case Scott had brought home the day of their father’s funeral, only three bottles now remained. The rest had flowed through his younger brother in a steady river of barley and hops that seemed to propel him through the days, and wherever he sat, the clear empties gathered around him like friends who had nothing more to say.
“We still on for dinner tonight?” Owen asked. “One last family meal before you sail on out of here?”
“Sure.” Since coming home for the funeral, Scott had taken them out to dinner every night. The town didn’t offer many more options than the ones he remembered from childhood: the Pantry on Main Street, Fusco’s, and Captain Charlie’s, a steak and seafood place just outside of town that still sold “freedom fries.”
“Hot damn.” Owen grinned. “Happy hour starts in fifteen minutes at Fusco’s.” Already invigorated at the prospect of a night of free drinking, he grabbed the stack of pages from the table, riffling through them like a dirty magazine. “So the old man thought he was Stephen King, huh?” He dropped the manuscript on the table, where it landed hard enough to rattle Scott’s beer bottle. “I’ll have to check it out.”
“He must have kept it private.” Scott picked up the bundle and tucked it under his arm, heading out of the kitchen and up the stairs. Reaching the room at the top of the steps where he was staying— Owen had immediately staked his claim on the bedroom they’d shared as boys—he took his wallet from the dresser and stopped to look around one last time.
The air hummed with familiarity. When they were young, this had been his mother’s sewing room; for years it had been the wheelhouse from which she had steered the goodwill of the town. In perfect counterbalance to their father’s stoicism, Eleanor Mast had been chatty and extroverted, an organizer, a volunteer, facilitating countless bake sales and fund-raising events for the Milburn Fire Department, somehow finding the spare time to take in sewing for extra money. In town people still spoke of her as a kind of female folk hero.At his father’s funeral yesterday, Conrad Faulkner from the Chronicle had come up to Scott with the remembrance that it was almost the fifteen- year anniversary of her death—the night of the Bijou fire. When he’d noticed Scott’s anguished expression, Conrad had attempted to change the subject. Hey, speaking of the Bijou, it looks like somebody finally bought that old eyesore. Maybe they’ll make something out of it. Stranger things have happened, right?
Scott looked around the sewing room, aware that his breathing had become shallower, more deliberate. The past was here, had never left. Yellowed envelopes of Singer patterns still occupied the built- in shelves beside the window, next to a worn mannequin, above the oldfashioned sewing machine that folded down into a flat table in the corner. Tiny bits and scraps of fabric lay in the gap between the rug and the wall.
“Yo, Bro, you ready?” Owen bellowed from the bottom of the stairs, voice lubricated by fresh drink. “You’ve got hungry men down here.”
“I’m coming,” Scott said. Descending the stairs, he felt his chest beginning to unclench, expanding with a sensation he didn’t immediately recognize. They were halfway to town before he identified it as relief. It was an old habit—whenever he put the past in his rearview mirror, he inevitably felt as if he had saved his own life.
From the Trade Paperback edition.