Read an Excerpt
By Richie Tankersley Cusick
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Richie Tankersley Cusick
All rights reserved.
"She'll have to be watched," the voice said.
It came like a dream, and floating deep ... deep ... I sensed it rather than heard it. It was a voice I didn't recognize, yet somehow it was pulling me, on and on, up through black, silent layers of sleep.
"You understand, don't you?" It spoke again. "What I'm saying?"
Through the twilight of unconsciousness, I seemed to see two figures moving like ghosts, talking in whispers, and I'm dead, I thought, I'm dead and these are angels and soon they'll take me to see Brad and Kerry ...
"Please," I mumbled, but my own voice, like that other one, was eerie and faraway.
"Watch her," it said again. "Watch her close."
And as the last thin veil of shadows peeled away, I felt my eyelids open to a curious brightness.
I was in a bedroom, but it wasn't my own.
I was lying in an unfamiliar bed, staring at an open window I had never seen before.
As panic gripped me, I tried to sit up, falling back almost immediately with a cry of pain and surprise. My hands flew to my forehead, feeling the bandage there, then lowered slowly, coming to rest upon a nightgown I knew I'd never owned. The long sleeves, mended in several places, had worked themselves partway up to reveal more bandages on my arms. Frowning, I ran my fingers over coarse sheets, a faded patchwork quilt—and I realized that my sensation of floating came from the thick feather mattress beneath me. A hospital? Surely not ...
This time I eased myself up on one elbow, pressing my other hand against my head. For a second everything spun around me, but then, as things began to settle, the room came together into one uncomplicated picture. It was small and sparsely furnished—other than the bed I occupied, there was only a small table beside it, a plain wooden trunk against the opposite wall, and a straight-backed chair standing solemnly beneath one window. As I squinted against sunshine, my heart clutched in fear. But it was dark, darker than this, I remember it was much darker than this and raining ... As I tried to raise myself higher to see, a chilly breeze crept in over the sill and trailed across the foot of the bed. Shivering, I glanced toward the open doorway and saw the tall figure who stood there watching me.
His presence filled the room. As I drew back in alarm, I felt my eyes helplessly drawn into his, the steady intensity of his gaze both awesome and frightening. His lean, tanned face was streaked with dirt and sweat, yet his cheekbones were high, his nose straight, and his dark mustache flowed softly into his short beard. His brows sat low and stern over his dark eyes; his beard, tracing up angular jaws, joined a thick cascade of hair swept back from his forehead.
Releasing me at last, his eyes began to move slowly down from my face to the blankets bunched at my waist. "So you're better." His voice was harsh and authoritative, and I detected displeasure beneath the impassive mask of his face.
"Are you ... a doctor?"
That look again, stern yet peculiarly wary. He stared at me several long minutes, as if trying to reach some decision. "You don't remember," he said at last.
Yes ... yes, I do ... I tried the pills but they didn't work and—no, that's not right, I'm confused, that was months ago, and now I'm on a trip ... my car ...
"My car. I had an accident."
An almost imperceptible nod. "You have some bad cuts and bruises. You hit your head pretty hard."
"The tree," I mumbled. "There was a storm ... I got lost." Again I fingered the bandage. "Where am I? How did I get here?"
"You shouldn't move, it'll only hurt worse." He shifted his weight, melting momentarily into the half-light of the hallway behind him.
"Don't go!" As my voice rose, he reappeared again, expression unchanged. "Please listen to me. I have to leave, I can't stay here—"
"Try and rest. I'll tell Rachel to bring you some food."
"No, wait—" My hands pressed to my throbbing temples. "Where am I? I need to get—"
The doorway was empty.
Trembling, I eased myself deep beneath the covers, clenching them tightly to my chin. I could still see him, even though he was gone, his dark image leaning there in the doorway, his dark eyes sliding over me. Glancing round the room again, I forced back another wave of panic and tried to think rationally. Maybe if I held onto the furniture, I could make it to the door and find my way out, get to my car and—
I heard the sound of approaching footsteps, as if someone were climbing stairs, then coming down a hall toward my room. No, not just one person, I guessed now, and as my heart began to pound, there was a light tapping on the door frame and they walked in.
"So you are better! Seth said you were awake and—why, look at her, Rachel, she's—"
"Hush now," came the soft reply, and as I stared, the two women paused a respectful distance from the bed.
They looked as if they'd stepped from another time. As my mind groped to place them, I was struck with a whirlwind of images—photographs I'd seen of the Depression ... of Appalachia ... of the Amish ... yet these women didn't exactly fit any of these categories, only pieces taken here and there, patched together like the old quilt I was holding around myself. The one who had spoken first looked to be in her late teens, her calico jumper hanging nearly to her ankles, just brushing the tops of clumsy, laced-up boots. Her hair was straight and shoulder-length, the color of straw, and her green eyes twinkled mischievously as she grinned at me, a grin so contagious that I couldn't help smiling cautiously back. That broke the spell somehow. As our smiles met, the other woman moved forward and held out a tray for me to see.
"I reckon you must be hungry," she said quietly. "It'll do you good to eat something."
I couldn't stop staring at her, the contrast was so striking. While the first girl was all sparkle and light, this woman in her baggy dress and crumpled bib apron seemed more a pale shadow. She was older than the girl—probably in her thirties, nearer my own age—but her eyes, glancing at me both shyly and curiously, were those of an old, old woman. Her forehead was high and wide, her mouth an unsmiling line beneath gaunt cheeks. Her black hair was pulled back unbecomingly, knotted at the nape of her neck. Like the girl, she wore no makeup. But it was the left side of her face which caused me to first drop my gaze and then steal another look in morbid fascination. A jagged scar split her cheek, puckering its way from her chin to a spot just beneath her eye. It looked painful and grotesque on that plain, sweet face, an accident that should never have happened. Yet despite her whole appearance of poverty, despite the horrible disfigurement of her features, there was something so beautiful there—so tragically and hauntingly beautiful—that I found myself wondering what could possibly have happened to her in such a short lifetime. I could identify with that kind of pain.
As my mind focused back, I heard the woman say, "Franny, I forgot the bread. Fetch it for me, will you, please?" And then we were alone, just the two of us. I watched her place the tray on the nightstand, noting how thin she was, her work-reddened knuckles. A dull gold band hung loosely from the third finger of her left hand.
"Please listen to me," I said, and she jumped a little as if she'd forgotten I was there. "I don't know what's happening. I don't know where I am and—"
"You're safe," she said gently. "Just rest your mind."
"But you must listen to me! I was on the highway and the colors were so beautiful and I turned off and followed them and ... and ... it was like I had to follow them, don't you see? Like they wanted me to follow them ... and I couldn't find my way back to the road, and I kept getting more and more lost...." I heard my words tumbling out, helpless to stop them, fear and terrible confusion pumping through my brain. "You think I'm crazy, I know. You think I'm crazy, but I'm not. It was like—"
"You have to eat something," she insisted, in that same quiet way. Her voice had a soft, slow drawl which was strangely comforting. She patted my wrist, her fingertips lingering there. "You've been lying here these three whole days without a bite of food in you."
Three days! "That's not true. I don't believe you. I can't have been here that long."
"Don't you remember?" she asked worriedly. And when I looked blank, she added, "Seth found you out on the road. It was raining and that tree came down right on your car." She thought a moment. "Lightning can do funny things."
"My car. Do you know where it is?"
She shook her head. "I reckon you're just lucky to be alive."
"You mean ... I almost died."
She nodded. "You surely had us all scared."
"Died ..." My lips moved soundlessly, my face draining, as all the memories of the last ten months flooded back in a relentless rush. Brad ... Kerry ... A shudder went through me, and before I even thought, I heard myself say, "But I should have died. Why didn't you let me die?"
There was a long silence as she looked at me with those tired, sad eyes. I watched her hands again, quick and capable, tucking the covers around me as if I were a child. "Why do you wish that?" she asked at last.
My head sank back upon the pillow, tears welling up in my throat, choking me. "I should have known better. I should never have left on my own. I've never done it before, you know. Brad always took care of those things. But he's not here now, so I have to. I don't want to. But I don't have a choice."
"Rest easy now. We can talk about all of it later on."
"But you don't understand—no one understands." Oh, Brad, I can't, I can't do anything without you, why did you have to die and leave me so afraid of living ... My eyes snapped back to her face. "I'm not crazy," I said defensively, yet part of me seemed to be standing apart, gazing in mute horror at the wild-eyed, rambling patient in the bed. "I'm not. I acted like it before, but that was a long time ago, and I'm fine now. You've got to believe me."
"But I do believe you."
"Someone was here. A man. I didn't dream that."
"No. That was Seth." She said that name as if I should have recognized it.
"Then I'm not in a hospital. He's not a doctor."
"Seth," she said again. "Why, he's hardly left your room since he brought you here."
I stared at her, reality struggling slowly into my thick brain.
"I'm Rachel Whittaker," she went on, pouring a strange-smelling liquid into a cup. "And Franny—she's gone to get the bread. You're in our house. And you don't have to be worried about anything, cause there's nobody here who'll hurt you. There now." She handed me the cup, steadying my hand with her own. "Drink this nice and slow. You have to get your strength back."
I hesitated, but she guided the cup to my mouth. Whatever it was tasted terrible, but it did succeed in warming a path to my empty stomach. For a minute I thought it might come up again, and I shook my head, pushing the cup away. "What is that?"
"Just some herb tea. Now, don't you fret. I know how to make lots of things to help you feel better. Just a little more," Rachel coaxed, and as I steeled myself for another swallow, Franny bounced back into the room.
"Oh, Rachel, she looks mighty awful—"
"Shush!" Rachel cast the girl a withering look, and my fingers crept cautiously up to my head before Rachel could gently lower them.
"Do I? I feel like I do. I'm sorry ...I feel so strange."
"No need for you to be sorry," Rachel chided good-naturedly. "I reckon Franny was under the porch when they passed the manners."
"Sorry," Franny grinned, not looking sorry at all. "So what are you doing wandering around out here all by yourself?"
"Franny," Rachel sighed and passed me a half-filled bowl of broth. "Just try to eat as much as you can. And this bread—just try it."
"I really don't think I—"
"Please." Her voice was so kind that I found myself trying to eat, just to please her. The broth was rich and golden, and after the first forced mouthful, it was easier to get down.
"So what's your name?" Franny demanded. "You do remember your name, don't you?"
Rachel gave her a warning look, but I spoke up tentatively. My head suddenly felt very heavy. "Pamela. Pamela Westbrook." They stared at me with no sign of recognition and I stared back. But why should they know the name ... Brad's reputation as an artist was mainly on the West Coast ...
"Well, you surely don't look like you're from around these parts, Pamela Westbrook," Franny cocked her head at me.
"No. I'm from ..." The room seemed to sway a little, and I gripped the edge of the bed to steady myself. That's not a hard question, I know the answer to that ... "I'm from California."
"California!" Franny's eyes widened. "Well, I've surely heard of that! What on earth are you doing way out here?"
Rachel didn't say anything, but busied herself smoothing the covers at the foot of the bed.
"But that's what I'm trying to tell you," I said earnestly, trying to sit up, wincing from the effort. "I'm supposed to be in St. Louis. I'm surprising my sister in St. Louis, only I got lost, and I couldn't find the highway—"
"The highway? Well, you are off the track," Franny giggled. "You're not even close to where you want to go."
"Then where am I? You haven't told me where I am."
"Mercy," Rachel sighed. "You're just about as far from anywhere as you can be. It's a wonder you even got yourself found at all."
"Ozarks," I mumbled. "I was driving through the Ozarks."
"Yes, that's right. See, you do remember something, don't you?"
"He always said it was beautiful ... that's why he wanted to paint it someday ... he said it was beautiful ..."
"Who, honey? Who said that?" Rachel's face swam before me, and I swallowed hard, trying to follow her with my eyes.
"Why, Brad. Brad said that before ..." I frowned. "It was my doctor's idea, to take a trip. Not mine. I've made a mess of things ..."
"You haven't done anything wrong," Rachel said. "Everything's just fine. Just fine."
"Only I wanted to come through the Ozarks because he always said it was so beautiful this time of year ..." But you never want to get stranded there, he'd said, you never want to get stranded in the Ozarks because there are back-hill places you'd never find your way out of, ever again ...
I glanced up guiltily as Rachel's kind voice brought me back. "What did you say? Someone's name?"
"Brad," I said, my throat tightening, that choking, dying feeling I'd lived with since the funeral. "I must have said Brad. I'm sorry. It doesn't matter."
Rachel and Franny exchanged looks, and I blurted out, "But I thought I was on some sort of main road. How could I have gotten lost that quickly?"
"Oh, there's lots of back roads around these parts that folks don't know about," Franny nodded wisely. "It's easy to get lost before you realize."
A chill crept up my spine. "But I didn't feel lost, not at first, I felt like ... didn't I tell you? Like I was being led ..." I looked toward the door, my breath coming out in a gasp. "Can you get me my clothes now? I have to go."
"You're still too weak to be going anywhere," Rachel said matter-of-factly. "And you shouldn't be up doing too much too soon. That bump on your head needs time to heal itself up. And those scratches, too."
Once more I groped at my bandage. The room was moving again, a faded merry-go-round of old furniture and calm, watchful faces. "But if it was really that serious, I'd be in a hospital."
Franny looked up, eyes bright. "But we don't have hospitals around here. No doctors, either. It was Girlie who said you'd come around in three days, and you did."
I stared at her, her words disappearing down a long, echoing tunnel. "Girlie?"
"Girlie," Rachel said. "She's my little one. She's the one who saved you."
"But you said ... someone named Seth—"
"Rachel's husband," Franny finished. "He found you. But it was Girlie who told him where to look. She just had that knowing again about somebody in trouble. No, we don't have doctors here. Don't need any. Girlie takes care of all that." She glanced toward the hallway as a door slammed downstairs. "There's Micah—I gotta go help."
"Don't be late for supper," Rachel called after her, then turned back to me. "Micah won't care if you use his room while you're here. He can have the storeroom downstairs."
Excerpted from Scarecrow by Richie Tankersley Cusick. Copyright © 1990 Richie Tankersley Cusick. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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