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OCTOBER 1988 — HARTSFIELD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT ATLANTA: 11:43 P.M.
Alan Kirby had been away from Georgia for only three days, but in those three days the weather had turned right around.
The early-morning air of October 11, the day he had flown out, had been warm and dense as moist cotton: now, late in the evening of October 13, his lightweight suit did little to keep out the chill. He yawned hugely as he stood on a concrete island, waiting with a straggle of other passengers for the shuttle to take them out to the remote parking areas. Kirby's right arm felt heavy with the weight of his one small suitcase. The fluorescent light overhead burned his eyes, and every twenty seconds or so a jet slanted up into the night sky, roaring loudly enough to make him wince.
With the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, Kirby pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose and massaged his closed eyelids, feeling the abrasive grit of lost sleep against his eyes. Well, at least he had cut a deal with his publishers, if not the deal he wanted. Money would be coming in. The dentist could go ahead with Laura's braces. Janet could get rid of her decade-old car and buy a new one, or at least a new used one. They could buy groceries for a little longer. And all he had to do was crank out another paperback adventure of Chris Slate for Fairway Books, write another hardcover ghost story for the same line, and finish The Smart Boat Buyer's Guide for Marketplace Publishers. An easy year's work.
He jangled the change in his right trouser pocket and debated phoning home. No, it was almost midnight, and on a school night; no use waking Jean and the kids just to tell them he'd be home in an hour or so. A shuttle bus pulled by in an eye-stinging reek of diesel fuel, but the bus was not his: this one bore the blue and gray logo of a downtown hotel. Kirby shifted his weight and idly looked at the other three people sharing the island with him: four people, if you counted the infant. A swarthy man, probably Cuban, leaned against one of the concrete pillars, his liquid brown eyes anxious over a short, straight nose and a thick black mustache. The man was perhaps thirty, slightly built, dark-haired, jumpy. He wore a long-sleeved white Oxford shirt open at the neck and khaki work pants, and he carried no luggage. He kept his chin low, hugged himself, and shivered as if he were freezing. Standing a little away from the man was a Career Woman. Trim in a tweedy gray business suit, she carried a folded Wall Street Journal under her left arm, and she stood in a scatter of overnight case, small suitcase, and attaché case. Her brown hair was done up in a bun, from which a few strands had escaped to trail along her neck. Over the tops of half-frame spectacles she looked not at but through Kirby, and she kept glancing at her watch every two minutes.
The last one waiting was the woman with the baby. Ordinary and dumpy, a white woman somewhere just short of thirty, she wore a navy-blue skirt, white blouse, and a pilled red sweater. Like the baby she carried on her left shoulder, she had curly blond hair. The baby, certainly not yet six months old, was asleep, one hand balled against its mouth, the other clutched absently in its hair. The woman had no luggage other than a pink quilted vinyl diaper bag. She stood near enough to Kirby for him to smell the powdery, sourish odor of the baby.
He looked at his watch: 12:01. The shuttle was slow. A jet blasted overhead again, and the baby stirred. It opened blue eyes, caught his gaze. He smiled at it absently in the way you smile at other people's babies.
It opened its mouth in a fierce grin and showed him its shark teeth.
Kirby gasped and started. The woman looked over her shoulder at him, her eyes blank. The baby's mouth and eyes had closed again. Its little Cupid's bow lips were smiling.
Kirby, still startled, was the last one on. The baby and its mother had taken the seat behind the driver. Kirby went all the way to the rear of the vehicle so he wouldn't have to see them.
The shuttle hissed in. Kirby, still startled, was the last one on. The baby and its mother had taken the seat behind the driver. Kirby went all the way to the rear of the vehicle so he wouldn't have to see them.
Teeth. A row of white curved teeth, pearly and sharp, not like teeth at all, really, but like—like the claws of a cat. Two dozen teeth at least, protruding from pink little gums, clutching inward—
Kirby groaned. God, don't let it be starting again. Not now. He amended his inward prayer: Not ever.
The shuttle lurched forward. He stared out the window, across the sea of car tops. The bus made five stops, and he was the last passenger off. His car, a three-year-old Dodge wagon, was where he had left it. He got in, started the engine, and left the lot at twenty minutes past midnight.
Driving north toward Atlanta on I-85, he turned on the radio. He punched the third button from the left for WSB, the station he habitually listened to while driving through the city. During the day they had good traffic information. At night he found the noise the least objectionable on the AM dial.
Past the gold-domed capitol building, north, under the Peachtree MARTA station. Sparse traffic this late. By a quarter to one, Kirby was well north of the city, settling in to the last leg of his drive. A tractor-trailer rumbled past in the fast lane, and the radio signal faded out.
He punched a couple of other buttons, trying to pick up another station. Though WSB should have been clear and strong —
The radio laughed at him.
Kirby jerked his hand away as though the pushbuttons had glowed red-hot. The radio laughed again, a papery, staticky hissing sound. "This time," it promised, "you will die."
Kirby snapped the radio off.
"One of your friends," the implacable voice went on, a voice he remembered from years past, a voice heard not in his ears but in his head, "is already mine."
"Shut up!" Kirby screamed. He suddenly became aware that the tractor-trailer, only a few hundred yards ahead of him, had stopped dead. He jammed on the brakes. The wagon screeched and slewed left, then right. It came to a stop with its hood only inches from the rear of the truck. The truck crept forward at five miles an hour. Kirby followed, shaking.
He passed a nasty accident, one small red sports car split in half, a heavier American car — a Ford? — upside down on the median. Troopers clustered, blue lights flashed, and someone waved him past the carnage.
The radio remained silent for the rest of the drive. Nothing else happened.
Until he reached the exit ramp.
It led down off the interstate into pine thickets and darkness. He followed it, sick at heart, nauseated. He had a feeling, now, that something was about to happen.
The mother and child stepped out from the shoulder of the ramp. She stood in front of the car. He couldn't miss her, he knew he couldn't, even as his foot stamped the brake —
She threw the baby at him —
He closed his eyes as the body slammed against the windshield —
Opened them to see one tiny, pudgy hand gripping the wiper, which was pulled up, out from the blood-smeared windshield—
The car crunched over the mother's body—
Kirby stamped hard on the accelerator, left a patch, sped to the foot of the ramp, and as suddenly jammed on the brakes.
The small body lost its grip on the wiper and went hurtling out into the dark, somewhere ahead of the car's lights.
Kirby reached for the flashlight in the glove compartment, got out, flashed it behind him. No body. The wiper was in place, unwarped. And no trace of an impact showed on the front of the car. He did not go into the dark to seek the baby. He drove to the west, across a truss bridge over a dark expanse of water, an inlet of the sprawling Lake Lanier.
Home was only six miles away. He parked his car next to his wife's ten-year- old Toyota, got out, and stepped lively over to the front door. He thought he heard something rustling behind him in the dark, nearly dropped his keys, retrieved them, got the door unlocked, got inside, slammed it again, locked it, and stood breathing hard.
The house was too quiet. Oh, God, not the kids.
But ten-year-old Jay and twelve-year-old Laura were sound asleep. Janet woke up long enough to give him a sleepy kiss. He went into the kitchen, took the phone off the hook, and dialed a familiar number.
She answered before one ring had finished. "Alan?"
"Yes. You, too?"
"One of the dreams. It was bad. Are you all right?"
He exhaled, a relieved sigh, and hooked a chair over from the counter with his foot. "Yes. You?"
"Another false alarm all the way around."
"I shouldn't have left town."
"Nonsense. You can't be a prisoner there."
"I wonder about — about the others."
"So do I. What time is it now?"
He looked at his watch. "Nearly two."
"You get to bed."
"Will you be all right?"
She laughed. "As much as I have been in the past thirty years." She paused and whispered, "I love you."
"I love you, too," he replied, so softly that his wife, had she been awake and in the same room, could hardly have heard him.
She hung up.
Kirby got up from the kitchen chair, hung up the telephone, and stared out the kitchen window. The town lay down there, just about a mile distant. From this vantage point it looked almost the same as it had when he was a boy. You didn't see the differences so much at night. The businesses on the Square had almost all changed, though. The store his father had owned was long gone, in its place a parking lot for the office block that had been a hotel. And up the street—well, the theater building was still there, but it was empty, or almost so. A furniture store was using it as a makeshift warehouse.
The lights around the Square were what you noticed most of all at night. They shone blue now, not yellow as in the old days. Mercury vapor had exorcised the shadowy ghosts cast by the old incandescents. The Square looked safe at night now.
But there had been a time ...
Kirby caught his breath. A pale shape was making its slow way up the slope of the backyard toward the house, crawling with deliberation, with obvious intent. He thought of the baby, of the teeth it had shown him —
No. The shape came within the rectangle of light cast by the kitchen window, looked up, and meowed. It was only Long John, the piratical cat. Kirby opened the kitchen door, let Long John in (the cat writhed and twined between his feet, purring like a hovering helicopter), and opened a can of Little Friskies tuna. Except for the black fur patch over his left eye, Long John was truly silver, not a stripe on his long gray body, and he tucked into the cat food as if he had been long at sea on short rations.
Kirby was not sleepy. He sat in the same kitchen chair and watched Long John eat. When the cat had cleaned the plate and had washed himself, he came and jumped up in Kirby's lap. He smelled strongly of fish. Kirby tickled his chin. "See any ghosts tonight, L.J.?" he asked.
The cat shook his head, his ears making a soft burring sound.
"Then you're one up on me." Kirby grinned. He felt better now. Maybe it wasn't starting again, maybe this was no rebirth but only a stirring, a blind malevolence reaching across the years to claw impotently at him. Something like this had happened half a dozen times before, a crazy nightmare world of hallucination breaking into his everyday perception. True, the nightmares had almost killed him once or twice, coming the closest in a steamy Asian jungle when he thought for a moment that an enemy soldier was his father, clamped in the grip of a tall, thin, inhuman man. But that had passed, too. Now, if the pattern held, there should be still another telephone call, and then he could go to bed — if indeed it was not starting again, if his luck held. He hoped his luck would hold.
Because that last time, the first time, had been more than enough for him. He held the cat, stroked its head, and trusted himself enough to think back to that bad season, to that fall thirty-one years ago, and to the summer before it, the last summer of his life when he had been completely happy....CHAPTER 2
It is a clear, unseasonably cool August night in 1957 in the cotton-mill village of New Haven, not far north of the town of Gaither, Georgia.
Harmon Presley, a duly appointed deputy of Frye County, sits in his year-old Ford patrol car, parked on the shoulder of Highway 199, near its intersection with Mill Street. It is twenty minutes to twelve. A couple of hundred yards to the east is the mill itself, and its parking lot. In twenty minutes the mill shift will change and Presley will get out of the patrol car, stand in the intersection, and direct traffic. But his mind tonight is not on law enforcement. It is on his belly.
This morning he weighed two hundred and thirteen pounds by the bathroom scales, up from last month's two hundred and eight. His uniform pants are tight in the waist and in the butt now. He knows he will have to do something about his weight before long. He takes a stick of Wrigley's Spearmint Gum from a pack in his pocket, unwraps it, thrusts it into his mouth. As his jaws work, his big hands are also busy: he folds the silver inner liner around the yellow outer wrapper, doubles, it, doubles it again, working with speed and delicacy. He makes a neat aluminum package of the wrappers, the size of his thumbnail. He drops it in the ashtray to keep company with twenty others. Presley does not smoke. He cut out smoking nine years ago when he took Coach Crossland's pregame lectures seriously. He never started again.
His problem is food, not cigarettes. It's Eula's fault, he decides. His wife is too accomplished a cook for his own good. He sighs, releasing a cloud of minty scent. The mill, off to his right, hums. It is a red-brick building as long as an aircraft carrier, five stories tall, and its noise is the most constant fact of life in this part of Gaither. Inside the doors, in the humid air of the plant itself, the sound is a physical pressure, overwhelming, penetrating, felt in the bones. It is the reason that most mill hands go deaf in the upper registers before they hit forty. But out here, it's almost soothing, partly electric, partly the distant crash of a waterfall. It is so utterly familiar that, if it ceases, as it sometimes does in power failures, people all through the mill village wake up and wonder what has happened.
Presley checks his watch: 11:49. Already a few cars are showing up, battered old Plymouths, Chevys, and Fords, a few cars even older, banged-up Hudsons, Studebakers, or even Kaisers. They turn off the highway, go east on Mill Street, then turn left into the mill parking lot. There they will wait, engines blatting, puffing exhaust fumes into the night air, until the departing workers clear spaces for them. Presley could get out now, but he'd rather wait. Incoming workers are slow. Sometimes if he is out of his own car, they roll down their windows and speak to him. They were the ones who started calling him "Elvis," a name he hates, since he thinks of the singer as a white man who imitates niggers. Now almost everyone in town has called him "Elvis" at least once, but always in the daytime, and in public. Presley does not think many men in this town would dare to call him that face-to-face, in private.
The mill parking lot is a dark stretch splashed with round yellow islands of illumination. The lights are incandescent, reflected by fluted iron shades. They attract moths, hard beetles, and bats; around every light Presley can see a cloud of the night fliers now. That's another reason for not getting out of the car a moment before he has to. He hates bugs and bats.
11:57. Presley sighs, picks up his hat from the front seat, jams it on his head, and climbs out. The Ford patrol car squeaks a little on its springs. He draws a lungful of cool air. The weather has become a lot milder than it was the past week, ever since the storms of yesterday week broke a long hot, dry spell. Five cars show up, running in a pack. Presley, standing in the intersection, motions them in. He is on duty.
Excerpted from Shadow Show by Brad Strickland. Copyright © 1988 Brad Strickland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 25, 2011
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