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When the Dark Man Calls
By Stuart M. Kaminsky
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Stuart M. Kaminsky
All rights reserved.
Carrboro, North Carolina, July 5, 1957
Crickets, millions of them, made the hot summer night cry in the woods behind the house, but Jean hardly noticed. From her bed she could see deep into the trees where the fireflies, twinkling like stars, turned the darkness into a mock sky, her private sky. She lay unwilling to remove the protection of the no-longer-cool sheet. A slight breeze puffed through the window, not sufficient to make the drapes billow, but enough to make a daddy longlegs pause and lower its body against the window ledge.
It was probably past midnight, but Jean couldn't sleep. Her legs were badly sunburned from inner-tubing on the river in her shorts. Her mother had rubbed Noxzema on them and told her that if it looked bad in the morning, she probably wouldn't be able to go to Durham to the movies. There was a Pat Boone movie downtown, and the other girls were going. Alice Parkes' father was going to drive them, and take all of them out for a sundae. Jean was determined to go even if it meant lying to her mother. She knew she couldn't lie to her father. His black eyes saw into her soul. He never said anything about going to Durham and seeing Pat Boone even though he thought modern music was a waste of the precious time God had given us.
"I won't try to force it out of you or you away from it," he said when she asked to buy a Paul Anka record. "We learn from example, from trying and doing within limits. You know what I think of such things, but if I keep you away from them, you'll long for them and make more of them than they are. I trust in time your judgment will mature."
He had said it sitting across from her at dinner, his dark eyebrows almost touching over the crinkle of his nose, his gray-flecked brown hair falling forward. Jean had the feeling that her mother saw nothing much wrong with Paul Anka. In fact, Jean was sure she had heard her mother actually listening to Elvis on the radio once. Her mother had turned off "Heartbreak Hotel" when she heard the door open, but she had been listening. Jean also knew that some of the people in town thought Lucille Kaiser was little more than an every-day-a-yes-sir housewife who did what her lord and master told her to do, minded the family and the two children and stood behind him foursquare. Jean knew her mother could get her way with the big things, the things she wanted, the dishwasher, the trip to Atlanta, sending Lloyd away to Chicago to divinity school. The around-town things and the matters of discipline she not only left to her husband, but did so gladly.
Something like a real breeze came through the window now and the curtains did billow. Far away, over the hill toward Raleigh, thunder cracked. Jean considered reaching over to turn on the radio to catch one of the late disc-jockey shows from Raleigh, probably WRAL, and find out if the rain was coming. If it was, Mr. Parkes might decide not to drive to Durham, might get Alice to call and suggest that the girls stay home and play Sorry. She could imagine Alice calling with her dad behind her, making her disappoint everyone. Jean pushed back the covers and reached toward the white Motorola her parents had given her for her tenth birthday. There was rain coming down now, and the fireflies were gone. Centipedes were curling up and the crickets hopping for cover. A crack of lightning came as Jean's hand touched the radio knob, but she never turned it on. From her parents' room across the hall she heard the closing of a window. Her father might come into her room to close her window, too, and catch her with the radio on.
And there was another sound, like a door opening downstairs. But it couldn't be a door opening.
Jean turned on her side, humming "April Love." If she were a few years younger and had a doll she really played with, not just the ones on her dresser, she'd call it "April Love." Tomorrow she'd share the idea with Alice and Susan, just drop it out as a kind of joke she thought up on the edge of the moment, as her father said. "Wouldn't that be a funny name for some little kid to call her doll, 'April Love'?"
Alice would wait to see how Susan would react, and if it was all right, all three of them would giggle a little.
There was another sound from downstairs, or she thought there was. It was hard to tell now. Barabbas the cat was out in the woods for the night, had been out there for days, would need a good flea bath when he got back. Barabbas was easy to catch since his back right leg had been broken in the woods a year earlier. But it wasn't Barabbas. And it wasn't the raccoon that sometimes came up to the house looking for night garbage. He was too smart for that since ... Maybe her mother had gone downstairs for a drink of Coke or iced tea. Jean brushed the hair from her eyes and looked out the window. Drops of rain were hitting the window ledge and the breeze felt good, tingly on her red legs, like mint.
For about ten minutes she lay nearly drowsing, listening to the rain. Then she heard the sound of soft footsteps on the stairs. The steps were coming up slowly, carefully, quietly so as not to disturb. Jean let herself sink back into near-sleep, expecting her door to open and her mother or father to look in on her.
But it was her parents' door she heard open slowly. Jean tried to let the sleep take her, but the rain came down harder and pinged insistently at the window.
"Jeannie?" she heard her mother's voice through two doors, sounding distantly frightened or in pain.
"Jeannie?" her mother repeated. It might be a dream. She thought she heard her father mumbling and starting to come awake.
"Jean?" It had been clear and certain, a question right through the rain and the doors. It was her mother's voice and it came again, but there was that question in it, not really a calling and then that sound, like when Gus Torkias, the Greek grocer's son, had thrown the pumpkin against the school wall on Halloween. Then her mother said her name again, and the sound of it sent cold terror from her neck down her back and to the secret place inside her. She thought it might go through her and make her wet the bed, and it took all her strength to keep this from happening. Then that sound again, but it was as if there had been a rock in the pumpkin.
Jean sat up, mouthed "Mommy," but didn't say it. She looked at her door, wanted to get up and lock it, knowing it was just a little chain for privacy, not knowing what was making her behave like this. Her father would think she was a baby.
But she couldn't bring herself to get out of bed. She lay back and covered herself with sheet and blanket. That was even worse. Whatever was out there, out in the hall or in her parents' room, might come in while she was lying like that, might be hovering over her right now. She was crying as she threw back the blanket and sheet and looked up at the figure. She sucked in her breath and realized that it was a chair with her new dress on it, the one she was going to wear to Durham.
"Mommy," she screamed after the breath came back, but it wasn't her ten-year-old voice. It was the voice of a child much younger. She screamed again, and the thunder and lightning mocked her.
Then she heard the footsteps in the hall. They were coming from her parents' room. They were not quite heavy, and they moved toward her door. Through her tears she watched the door, wanted to get up and run for the window, jump to the lawn fifteen feet below and run for the Pressmanns' house, but she couldn't. She could only stare at the door and try to suck in her breath. It was outside the door. She could hear it panting the way her brother Lloyd or her father or her uncle Mike did when they played baseball or carried her on their backs down the stairs when she was younger.
It stayed outside the door while she grew old. The moment never passed. It was forever. It was the story her mother had told her of the Inferno. She was caught there for eternity in fear, never knowing what was outside her door.
She didn't hear the footsteps go away. When forever had passed and light came through the window, the first light of morning through the trees, Jean felt something return to her. The sheet she was grasping was wet with her own perspiration. Her pajamas were wet. She pushed the sheet back, shivered once, and looked at herself. Her sunburned legs glowed red and she felt them.
"I had a dream," she whispered inside her head, knowing it was more a sob than a whisper, trying to convince herself.
She got out of bed slowly, weakly, never taking her eyes from her door. "Dream," she repeated out loud but softly, allowing herself to look at the window and see the sun. The word dream took on a little more strength with the light, and she repeated the word over and over as she walked to the door, repeated it till it had no meaning, dreamdreamdreamdream, had no beginning or middle or end.
When she touched the brass door handle, it would not turn. Her hands were too moist. She had to take the edge of her pink nightgown and use it to grip the knob and open the door. She expected nothing out there. It must be gone by now.
But the patterns on the hall carpet were there, dark and wet, and they made a trail to the stairs, and her parents' door was open and she rushed to it, wanting this over, knowing it would be over through that door, and it was.
She stopped just inside the room and saw them, and it was no dream. And then the sound came. The horrible scream from inside the room, and she wanted to run, but the sound wouldn't let her. She could only be free to run when her mind told her what the sound was, and then it did tell her and she turned and ran down the stairs screaming and out of the house screaming and toward the Pressmanns' screaming, and a devil inside her said she wouldn't see the Pat Boone movie today, and the devil told her that the sound she heard was simply the phone in her parents' room.
And the devil laughed at her.CHAPTER 2
Chicago, Illinois, January 20, 1983, 6:00 P.M.
Howard street was crowded with backed-up buses and steaming cars. On the north side of the street was Evanston, which stretched north to Northwestern University and then beyond to the exclusive North Shore. On the south side of Howard was Chicago and Jean Kaiser, who, balancing a bag of groceries, turned down Seeley Street and began the careful walk home, avoiding a collision with a chunky Latino man whose hands were in his jacket pockets and whose head was down as he went forward like a determined tank.
With snow thick on the ground and a hazy light from the street lamps, Seeley looked like what it had probably been two decades earlier: a pleasant residential street of small apartment buildings, mostly three-story six-flats with some three-story three-flats and even a few small courtyard buildings and one or two more recently built smaller apartment complexes. But the neighborhood had been changing and changing fast. It had already begun to change when Jean and her twelve-year-old daughter Angie moved in, and Jean knew it. It was the change that allowed her to get a large old apartment for rent she could afford, but there were times when she questioned her decision.
The neighborhood was an uneasy mixture of families looking for bargain rents, older people on fixed incomes who couldn't afford to run, incoming Latino families hoping to find a stable neighborhood at a reasonable rent, black families caught below the dividing line between the lower and middle classes but looking at the neighborhood as a place from which they might want to climb, and, worst of all, the young men on their way from being boys to being whatever they would become. These young men got apartments in the neighborhood, tested their powers, and caused trouble.
Jean cautiously mounted a small hill of snow near an alley and managed to make it down without a fall. One small step for Jean Kaiser.
Actually, winter was the best time in the neighborhood. In the summer, the quintet of white assholes who lived across the street opened their windows three or four nights a week, blasted Rod Stewart into the night and screamed postmidnight obscenities at the moon.
When the police came, the boys of summer turned off the stereo, turned off the lights and went silent. They wouldn't even open their door. Jean had called the cops twice herself and had gotten into an argument with one young cop with a white scar on his chin. She had suggested that the police not simply ride up the middle of Seeley with their lights on when they came to check on the drug-happy gang, since there was always one jerk sitting in the window who gave those inside ample warning so that when the cop car stopped, the street was silent.
"We know how to do our job, lady," the young cop had sighed, making it clear that he had more important things to do but that he didn't mind taking a few minutes to look at Jean, who, at thirty-five, was dark, pretty, and just on the right side of being plump.
"Of all the alternatives for dealing with this problem," she had said sweetly, pushing her glasses back on her nose as she stood in her blue terrycloth robe at the door, "you have managed to find the least effective. I wonder what you would do if this happened in your neighborhood."
"I don't live in a neighborhood like this," the cop had said.
"I see," Jean had said with a smile. "It's the price we're supposed to pay for living here and the reward you get for not having to."
"Mother," Angie had whispered in exasperation from the living room where she had curled up on the sofa waiting for the police.
"Lady," the cop had said. "If I don't hear it, and they don't answer the door, I've got to have a complaint. Those jerks over there are into more than a little noise. Two of them have felony convictions including attempted rape and assault. You see, we do know a little about what's going on around here. You want to come fill out a complaint? You got neighbors to back you up? You know what will happen? Even if a judge believes you, and he probably will, he'll tell those punks that they'd better stop the noise or else. He'll warn them and they won't give a shit. They'll be back the next night making more noise than ever and having it in for you. That what you want?"
Jean hadn't answered.
"Lady," he had said, looking down her robe. "Take my advice. You look like a person with some education and you got a nice kid. Find yourself another neighborhood."
So, the winter was better, though less than a week earlier she had awakened to something that sounded like gunshots and the flashing of an ambulance light.
A block and a half to go. Two children about nine or ten were going down a small snow hill built in an apartment courtyard. They were riding on what looked like a huge red pan, and their voices carried in the cold air. One kid screamed "Indiana Jones" as he tumbled over at the bottom of the hill. The other kid laughed.
Jean reached up to pull her green knit cap over her ears. She knew her nose was turning bright red. It always did in the cold. So did Angie's. So, she remembered, had her mother's.
A few people were on the street digging spaces for their cars. Carving out Toyota-sized fortresses. In the morning, they would leave chairs, wooden horses, or cardboard cartons in the spaces they had cleared, a kind of primitive claim staked out on the public street. Jean had watched from her window one night as a man jabbed a screwdriver into the tires of a car that had been parked in the street space he had cleared and staked out. She was sure that somewhere in Chicago people had fought and maybe even died over parking spaces.
More than half the cars on the street were bedded down until a chance thaw or until spring came.
Jean crossed Seeley across from her three-flat and hoped she would avoid Martha, but chance was not to have it so and Martha, bundled, a terrier grimace on her gray pudding face, looked down at her dog, who sniffed around for an appropriate place to turn a patch of white-black snow a urine yellow. The dog was a friendly enough rotund mongrel. Far from young, the unimaginatively named Pal greeted all with a small bark and friendly panting. Her master, Martha the Mad, was far from friendly.
Jean hurried to the door, pretending that she was (a) in a hurry, (b) preoccupied, (c) unable to see in the darkness and (d) busy watching the ground to prevent a fall.
None of the above stopped Martha.
"Mizz Kaiser," she said.
No help for it. Jean stopped, shifted the heavy package to ease the ache and turned to the lump of a woman who stood before her with a grim tightness to her lifeless mouth, a small tuft of gray hair on the right side of her upper lip.
The Wicked Witch of the North, thought Jean, trying to smile.
At first, for months, Jean had argued with Angie about the girl's anger with the neighbors below them in the basement apartment.
Excerpted from When the Dark Man Calls by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 1983 Stuart M. Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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