As their jobs and way of life slip relentlessly away, people in Fir Creek, Oregon, begin looking back, toward better times and choices once made. Soon, bodies begin turning up under increasingly odd circumstances. Grappling with the mystery of the bizarre deaths, the local police chief comes to understand that to stop them, he must exorcise both the town’s demons and his own.
That, however, begs the answer to a daunting question: How do you arrest the haunting ghosts of the past--before it’s too late?
Driven by memorable characters, permeated with the timbered atmosphere and lore of the Pacific Northwest, Catharsis is a twisting ride through the human psyche, unsettled by change, in exploration of the hard prices called due for our past actions: the often terrible prices of love, and life.
|Publisher:||Wolf Mountain Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.04(w) x 8.84(h) x 0.98(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Richard Davison was the sort of person who brings up the past the way a bulimic brings up meals already savored, bled of all good flavor: intently, convulsively. Because sour as it might be on the return trip, it was still sweeter than his sorry slice of the present.
At the moment in that, it was either very late or very early, depending on how you looked at it: night had punched the clock, given way to newborn morning, but Richard hadn’t noticed. In the heart of night or in broad daylight, the world looked the same from where he sat. Where Richard--who had, long ago and half a mile away, been erroneously christened “Tricky-Dicky” by some smartass sports reporter--was sitting was at a bar in his hometown of Fir Creek, Oregon. He was, at the moment, sole customer in the Outdoorsman Cafe’s windowless little upstairs lounge, the Stag’s Head Room . . .
And what a stupid goddamn name that was, Richard considered, out of a blurrier and blurrier blue. Nobody called a male deer a stag, not in Fir Creek. Buck was what you said, unless you wanted your ass ragged. You didn’t crow to your buddies, Hey you should see the stag I just shot up on Loggers’ Butte, did you? Of course you friggin’ didn’t.
“Hey,” Richard said to the bartender, Burt Passo, who stood behind the bar, watching some dumbass midnight movie and looking bored to the point of inertia. “This place has a stupid goddamn name, you know that, Burt?”
Burt turned half his head, less of his attention, toward Richard. “Sure, Richard, whatever you say. Need another of those yet?”
Richard considered the tall glass before him, most recent of a doomed procession of Long Island iced teas he had put away--he’d lost count of how many. How’m I doing? he thought, sourly. Why, just fine and friggin’ dandy. To Burt, though, he said only, “Nah, I’m okay for a minute.” Richard took himself a potent sip. “You know, Burt, names’re a funny friggin’ thing. You know they used to call me ‘Tricky-Dicky’?”
“Um-hm,” Burt grunted, still focused on the TV mounted near the ceiling, where a scantily clad young woman was about to fall from a boat and be eaten by piranhas.
“I guess that guy from the Register-Guard who hung it on me thought it was pretty funny, after Nixon and Watergate,” Richard mused, not realizing he’d said Washergate. “But you know something? I hated that goddamn name. I’ve always hated being called ‘Dick’ or ‘Dicky.’ Makes it sound like you’re nothing but a goddamn penis. Know what I mean, Burt?”
Richard shook his head . . . and had to pause, wondering what he’d been saying. Oh, yeah. “But, he meant well, so I never said anything. After all, those were good times,” he proclaimed with a sloshy sort of reverence. “Good friggin’ times, Burt.”
Burt didn’t even um-hm to that.
Richard leaned toward him, tilting precariously, holding up one hand, thumb and index finger almost touching. “We came this close,” he said. “This friggin’ close, Burt, to winning that goddamn state championship.”
Burt at last turned fully from the TV, looking a bit annoyed, and as if he was trying to decipher what in the hell Richard might be blathering about now.
“Those were the days,” Richard went on, hand still hanging in the air, finger and thumb frozen this close. “The Jesus-H-bald-headed-Christ days. I was somebody. Tricky-friggin’-Dicky, maybe, but still somebody.” He glanced up at his hand, surprised to see it still hanging there, and slowly lowered it, like a flag lowering at the death of some prominent person. “And Erin was still crazy about me,” he added, thickly. “Now what do I have? No job, no wife. Nothing. That’s what ol’ Tricky-Dicky ended up with--zilch. Not a goddamn thing.”
Burt frowned. “It’s getting kinda late, Richard.”
Richard didn’t even hear. Draining the bottom half of his drink in one dispirited gulp, he banged the empty glass down and said, “Set me up, Burt.”
Burt sighed, looking uncertain. “Okay, but this is it. I want to close up pretty quick.”
“Sure, sure,” Richard said, with a dismissive wave of the this close hand.
Burt swept away the empty glass, snatched a replacement from a diverse reserve rising from a shelf behind the bar like an uneven city skyline, and began mixing another of the formidable iced teas. Ice went in first, followed by a poker hand of stout liquors, filling the glass within a hairsbreadth of the top, leaving just enough room for a tiny squirt of Coke, strictly for garnishment, color.
Richard watched Burt’s progress, but his expression was desultory. He shifted on his stool and winced. Glancing down at the swell of his belly, he unfastened the top button of his jeans--it bit into his waist, a development attributed wholly to excess shrinkage; he was tempted to complain to the Wrangler company--and let out a grateful sigh of relief.
Burt set his new drink down. “There you go, Richard. But last one, okay?”
“Sure. You know, I was just thinking,” Richard said, and it came out sinking.
“Bet I couldn’t even squeeze into my old football pants anymore.”
Burt shrugged the noncommittal shrug of a seasoned bartender. “We all get older,” he said, though he, with ten years on Richard, was skinny as a ruler stood on edge.
The sound of someone tramping upstairs from the restaurant below prompted a pause in their increasingly pointless exchange. Both Burt and Richard turned to look. A stocky but lithe-looking man with dark hair, wearing work clothes--faded jeans, grease-smudged T-shirt, vibram-soled boots--emerged from the stairwell, passing beneath a ratty six-point buck’s head mounted above it. Seeing four curious eyes, two clear and two blood-heavy, fixed on him, he flashed a disarming grin, walked to the bar, and took a stool.
Three down from Richard.
“Well, if it ain’t old Neal,” Richard said, his tone subtly, indeterminately adrift between camaraderie and hostility.
Glancing sideways at Richard, Burt shook his head. “How’s it going, Neal? Off work?”
The newcomer, Neal, nodded. “Off shift, anyway,” he said. “Not much work involved, not anymore. I have time for a beer before you close up, Burt?”
“Sure,” Burt said, bending to a cooler behind the bar. He arose with a longneck Miller, popped the cap, and set it down before Neal.
Burping, chewing futilely at the noxious vapors, Richard slid from his stool and lurched toward diversion, scooting his drink with him atop the bar. He struggled atop the stool nearest Neal, squirming backward onto the new perch. “So they’re not keeping you too busy, huh? Me neither,” he said, his tone now listing toward sulky, maybe borderline indignant.
Neal glanced at Burt, who rolled his eyes, and spun his stool around. Sharp eyes considered Richard, free of the fleshly folds narrowing Richard’s eyes. Finally, Neal flashed another grin--this time, a calculated one. “I guess I’m lucky to be working at all. Should count my blessings,” he said, with something approaching sincerity.
“You ain’t just choking your chicken,” Richard said. But he was placated, and his tone lightened when he said, “You know, I was just telling Burt about the good old days".
“Which good old days?” Neal interrupted.
Richard gaped as he might at a dull child, an expression honed on his own kids, and wife, on nights not unlike this one correction, ex-wife. “You know. High school. Playing ball. We came this friggin’ close to winning that state championship.” He glanced up to see if his hand was doing its part. It was, he noted with relief. He vaguely sensed that he was nearing a point at which command of his extremities might start to slip.
“Oh,” Neal said, glancing at Burt again. “Those good old days. Yeah, we almost won. But we didn’t. And almost only counts in horseshoes, Richard.”
Richard squeezed his eyes shut. He thought then that he knew how a great artist, painter or poet or writer, feels when the dumb masses misinterpret a brilliant work. Why was it, when you were seriously drinking, that everyone else slipped to the next astral plane down, couldn’t track what you were saying?
“No, it’s not just that,” he said in exasperation. “It’s everything. We went downhill like greased shit with no brakes after that. This whole town did--friggin’ mill’s shut down, environmentalists have the woods locked up . . . my old lady shit-canned me, took my kids . . . I can’t find a decent job driving truck . . . ”
He might’ve gone on indefinitely, had Neal not interjected, “They say things’re tough all over.”
That threw Richard off track an insignificant banana peel derailing a mighty locomotive. His focus turned inward, rummaging a dark and disordered attic for a worthy replacement subject. Gradually, a mist of cold venom seeped into his eyes. “I would’ve been all-state, if it wasn’t for you. Fifteen-hundred-yard running back. Kinda hard to outshine that.”
Neal took a thoughtful pull from his beer, and when he looked at Richard again all of the disarming easiness was gone from his face. Even Richard, from beyond an indefinite, but vast, expanse of Long Island iced tea, could see that Neal was tiring of their conversation.
“Oh, I don’t know, Tricky-Dicky,” Neal said. “Throw one or two fewer interceptions, hard telling what might’ve happened.” He stared at Richard for a moment before adding, his tone easy again if his face wasn’t, “But that’s all in the past. Going on fifteen years. Doesn’t really matter now.”
When Neal said Tricky-Dicky, Richard felt anger boil up like a rush of oil in a primed well; but, either of their own volition or simply because they were so greased with liquor, his eyes rolled down to Neal’s left hand, on the padded edge of the bar. There was a jagged scar there, between the second and third knuckles, a purple furrow marking a once-deep cut, and Richard thought, My teeth left that scar . . . my real teeth, not the falsies that took their place.
It was a startling thought, and maybe a saving one. His anger subsided, ebbed back into a murky, sodden pit. “No, I guess not,” he murmured, unconvincing to his own ears. “But, Jesus, I wish . . . I just wish I could . . . go back, you know? I wish I could have another shot. At everything--playing ball, Erin . . . life.” He finished weakly, his voice shrunken to a small thing, rueful, pitiful.
Neal’s beer was not yet half-gone, but he slid from his stool. He drew a pair of crumpled dollars from his pocket and tossed them toward Burt before looking at Richard with an expression less, far less, than sympathetic. “Would it really make any difference, Richard?” But he left Richard no opening to respond. “You can’t go back. All of us--you, me, everybody--have to live with the choices we made. Just a waste of time to sit around wishing for second chances.” Nodding at Burt, he said, “Thanks,” and headed for the stairs. The sound of his descending boots was loud, harsh.
Behind him, Richard sat huddled over his drink, his focus retreated entirely into the tall glass. It drifted forlornly there amid dwindling ice cubes, reeking of alcohol.
Considering him, Burt gently shook his head. “C’mon, drink up, Richard,” he said. “Time to go home.”
It was that kind of town, anymore.
When he went out to his pickup, banished at last by Burt--and after precariously negotiating the Stag’s Head Room’s steep friggin’ stairs--Richard had to support himself with one hand against the cab while he dug in his pocket for his keys. He balanced unsteadily there in the otherwise empty parking lot, fingers flailing like the tendrils of a half-paralyzed jellyfish amid the coined debris of his most recent unemployment check, staring in strained, and largely futile, concentration into near darkness. Then, suddenly, his fingers stilled in his pocket, his focus drew back, sharpened the tiniest of bits.
Someone was watching him. He felt it.
Pushing away from the pickup, Richard spun around, with none of the balanced agility of the high school quarterback he had once been, And no one was there. For an instant, he tried to persuade himself maybe: maybe somebody was standing in the shadows, and that was what he had sensed. Maybe it wasn’t just the liquor and accompanying paranoia. But there was no one. There was only the vague black side of the Outdoorsman Cafe facing him, like the darkened screen in a theater after its run of hit movies has decisively ended. That, and the murky outline of Richard’s fading hometown, witness to the paranoid spectacle one of its once-celebrated sons had become.
In the near distance, an automated break whistle dumb machinery and circuitry, not knowing its purpose was past--sliced the night, echoed; a shift of ghosts sighed and grinned and stepped away from silent saws and conveyors.
Richard turned slowly back to his truck. The hand that had been wriggling for his keys came out of his pocket, balled into a fist, and smacked weakly against the cab. Then he slumped slowly to his knees on the pebbly blacktop.
He felt the tears come, hot and fast, and, riding the swell like unwilling surfers, he heard his own sobs: “I wish . . . I wish . . . ”
In a darkened bedroom at the other end of town, the sounds of a summer night whispered through the screens. Soothing whispers, but in the bed a big man slept fitfully, eyes darting behind closed lids--as if something inside was trying to get out, searching for an avenue of escape.
In his sleep, he murmured, thickly, almost incoherently, “Grandpa . . . ,” and after forming the soft ah sound of that single word his mouth hung open, a windy cave beneath the foliage of a dense mustache. At the end of the bed, beneath a light comforter, his feet, ever so slightly, rose and fell on the mattress, as if he were walking prone on his back.
It was the dream again the dream for two reasons: he’d had it before, recently; and it wasn’t anything like his usual foggy snippets of dreams, wasn’t the least bit fleeting or surreal. Just the opposite. This dream was real enough to touch, smell, taste. It was as vibrantly real as the shock of jumping into a pool of icy water on a hot summer day. A clear pool, in which everything seems sharp and close, even something far, far down . . .
Or far back. More than thirty years back.
In his sleep, the big man tilted his head on his pillow; under the comforter, his hands went to his hips, searching for pockets in his underwear, where of course there were none. And his feet kept rising and falling minutely against the mattress, walking to nowhere in a time long gone . . .
He was eight years old, and everyone called him Danny nearly everyone. All except his companion this warm evening.
He was tall and broad-shouldered, still, silver-crowned and leathery with age, but unbowed by the years. Outwardly, at least. After three-quarters of a century, there was no stoop to his back, no hitch in his step: he just moved a bit slower than he once had. He was Danny’s grandfather, Grandpa Daniel, and Danny’s adoration of the old man reflected in how he emulated him. Danny walked with his own small hands tucked in his back pockets, shoulders back, frequently glancing up to ensure he was getting it just right.
They were walking along Darley Road, up on the Plain, above town. Grandpa Daniel had arrived the day before for his annual visit, now the extent of his travels. Pride might keep his back straight and his shoulders level, but it couldn’t brace waning energy; he was an old man, tired, and more so all the time. But Danny couldn’t see that, couldn’t see beyond a still-quick and canny smile to a cold and stony truth. They made an odd pair, walking slowly, the slanting sun casting long thin shadows before them, as night bugs began to tentatively flit from the grass bordering the road: big and little, old and young, polar opposites on the endless sphere of life.
“There!” Grandpa Daniel exclaimed, breaking a brief silence. They had parked in a gravel turnout and set out walking in a lull of quiet. “Look at that gelding.” He pointed toward a sleek horse, beyond a fence in a pasture, benignly munching grass and watching them pass. “He’s a fine looking animal.” Grandpa Daniel loved horses. That was why they had driven up to the Plain after dinner. He loved horses, and he loved his grandson, so the two made a good mix. The night before, he had read aloud to Danny the story of The Red Pony. Danny, enthralled, couldn’t decide if Grandpa Daniel was Billy Buck, the wise cowboy grown older, or the Grandfather who’d been the great Leader of the People.
Danny looked where his grandfather pointed and said, “Uh-huh,” though he saw only a big ol’ horse. But he didn’t want his grandfather to know that, so he changed the subject. “You were a real cowboy once, weren’t you, Grandpa?” Billy Buck--he must’ve been.
“That’s right, Daniel.” His grandfather always called him by his full name, like he was a real person, a grownup, instead of just a kid. Danny liked that.
“When was that?”
The old man’s lips puckered and he whistled softly. “A long time ago,” he said, as if in awe of it himself.
“Tell me about it!”
“I’ve told you about it more times than I can count,” Grandpa Daniel began, but seeing Danny’s disappointment he relented. “All right,” he said, roughing his grandson’s sandy head. “It was when I was a very young man, barely twice your age. I left home and went a-wandering, and one of the places I wandered to was a wide spot in the road called Paisley.” He pointed toward the steep green ridges of the Cascades, rising near. “Over the mountains, in eastern Oregon.”
“In the desert.”
Grandpa Daniel nodded. “So they call it, and compared to this it surely is. Anyway, I’d run out of what little money I’d saved from my last job, and I was hungry, so I hired on at a big ranch--”
“The Dangling Diamond,” Danny finished for him.
“Now, who’s telling this story?” Grandpa Daniel asked, sternly, but belying it with the hint of a grin.
“Well, you were right, it was the Dangling Diamond. And there I spent a full year, learning about cowboys and cattle, and life. A whole winter I lived by myself, except for my horse, in a line shack, a cabin where cowboys stayed to tend the cattle. And after that, when I rode out in the spring, I decided I’d had enough of being a cowboy.”
“You were lonely?”
“I’ll say. A horse is a noble animal, but not much good at making conversation.”
“What’d you eat all winter?” It was the first time the practical question had occurred, and Danny felt a bit foolish for not asking it before. But then, he was little before.
“Oh, I packed things in, and there were a few supplies in the cabin. But when I’d get really hungry, I’d just butcher a cow, and cook myself one great big, juicy steak.”
Danny cocked his head, then slowly shook it, grinning. “Huh-uh, Grandpa.”
“Maybe I made two steaks from each cow. It’s hard to remember; it was a long time ago, after all.”
Danny said, “You’ve been lots of different things, haven’t you, Grandpa?”
The old man nodded. “That I have, Daniel. But a man used to have to bounce around to earn his living. The world wasn’t always like it is now--and there’s something for you to remember: everything changes, always. Nothing stays the same forever.”
Something in that chilled Danny, something he couldn’t yet grasp.
He was mulling it over when he looked up and realized where their strolling conversation had taken them. They had climbed a gradual knoll, and rail and wire fences along the road had given way to a taller chain-link enclosure. Beyond that, neat rows of stones grew from green grass like a low, cold crop. A slow crop, sown over generations.
Stiffening, Danny drew closer to his grandfather.
“What’s this?” Grandpa Daniel said. “What’s the matter?” Danny only shook his head. “Daniel, what are you afraid of?”
Danny stared at his feet, embarrassed. Finally, he said, in a whisper, so they wouldn’t hear and sense their advantage: “Ghosts.”
“Ghosts?” Grandpa Daniel pondered aloud, but not unkindly. Danny nodded, cheeks reddening. He was eight now--not a baby anymore.
Grandpa Daniel knelt stiffly to Danny’s level, seeming to consider the problem. At last he said, “Look at me, Daniel,” and when he did his warm eyes glinted with understanding, and with truth. “Do you know what a ghost really is?”
Danny thought he did, but before his grandfather’s vast knowledge he faltered. What could he, even at eight, know compared to a cowboy, soldier, sailor, and finally a deputy sheriff?
Shrugging one small shoulder, he murmured, “I dunno.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what a ghost isn’t. It’s not any boogerman in a bed sheet, floating around in a cemetery,” Grandpa Daniel said. “A real ghost is just a memory, Daniel. That’s all. Just a memory of someone or something that’s passed on, or away from us. Now, someday, you will have some of those,” he warned. “Everyone does. They come with age, it’s just part of the deal. But for now you don’t have to be worried, or afraid. Can you understand that?”
Danny puzzled over it--thinking, at the same time, No, not Billy Buck. The Leader of the People. After a moment, he asked, very softly, “Is Grandma Heather one of your ghosts?”
It was Grandpa Daniel’s turn to lower his eyes. When he looked up again, he said, “I think you understand just fine. Yes, Daniel, she’s one of mine. A wonderful, wonderful ghost.” He paused a moment, eyes shining. “Now, are you still afraid of anything in there?” He jerked his head toward the cemetery.
Danny thought that might still take some work, but for his grandfather he said, “Nope.” Brave as he could be, which felt very brave with his Grandpa Daniel near.
“Good!” Grandpa Daniel said, proudly. Standing slowly, with a great creaking of worn joints, he settled one creased hand on his namesake’s shoulder. “Now, what do you say we head back and see what your mother will give us for dessert?”
They turned then and started back toward the car, the old man with his hand still on his grandson’s shoulder, the dusk falling behind them like a curtain . . .
He felt himself rising, toward the surface of the pool that was his dream, that was sleep. For the briefest of instants he broke the surface, emerged into that grainy in-between of consciousness and unconsciousness as surreal as most dreams--then, just as quickly, he slipped back under.
But in that fleeting instant, a flickering millisecond, he thought he felt something solid and warm resting on his shoulder. And two almost simultaneous thoughts occurred: His grandfather had been right, that long ago summery twilight; Grandpa Daniel was one of his warmest ghosts . . .
But there were others, too.