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|Publisher:||Open Road Integrated Media LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)|
About the Author
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By Michael Cadnum
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Michael Cadnum
All rights reserved.
There was dark, and there was light, and the light was losing. Shadows expanded, filling the space between branches. The air was cold enough to hurt, and the remaining snow glowed blue in the twilight.
She would be home soon.
He took in a long, slow breath and held it. Moments like this were life. Everything else, every other experience, was sleep.
Sometimes people cured by surgery of an arterial block wake in old age to their still-human lives. These people grieve, stripped of ignorance, realizing the years they will never see. And sometimes it gives them such a shock they develop yet another form of dementia, a madness caused by knowing that they have wasted their lives.
As long as he could do this, sweeping in secret across the twilight, he was still alive.
His feet chose the places where the snow had melted, pressing into the black earth so evenly and lightly each step left no print at all. He was just outside the house now, his ear against the chimney as he paused. The bricks were warm.
As warm as she would be when he touched her.
He stiffened. He crouched, panting so hard it hurt. A car passed on the highway, the winter tires rumbling and hissing through the wet. He did not breathe, and it was like playing dead Caesar. Here I am, ladies and gentlemen: nothing at all. I am gone, here and, at the same time, nowhere.
The car slowed, a vessel of light, pushing the darkness ahead of it. It wasn't possible, was it, that I am out of practice? Surely they see me.
The car on the road wasn't moving. It was stuck, frozen, locked into a pot hole. Or worse: they were watching.
The magic is gone, he told himself. You can't play this part as well as you used to. You've lost your touch.
Doubt: an actor's enemy. He knew his mind was not his friend. Don't think, he commanded himself. Be empty. Even Hamlet is mostly space, blank white around the wedding bed and the chalice of poison. Be blank, he commanded his soul. Dive deep into the earth.
The car still did not move, a square vehicle, a Jeep, he realized, stopped on the crown of the road.
They see me, he breathed.
The engine was grinding. The distant Jeep made the sort of growl that sounded both painful and crocodilian, and yet it went nowhere.
Go, he breathed. Leave me here alone to do what I have come to do.
Brake lights surged, faded, surged again. The rattle of the engine began to recede. The mutter of the Jeep faded, and there was only the hush of the countryside, the sound of skeleton trees taking their long, deep breaths.
He smiled to himself, his teeth cold for an instant. He was trembling, as in those dreams in which he could not remember his lines and the audience stared, lips parting to jeer. His breath was uneven, and he was amused at himself. You should do this more often, he mocked himself, and then you would not find it so novel.
He had promised his sister — never again.
But don't I have the right to love? Everyone else does, loving in their puny, limited ways.
The woman who lived here was, he surmised, recently divorced. Or perhaps she was a woman who had decided never to marry. He knew the pattern: boyfriends, but no one steady. She was an isolated, confused creature. But she did not admit this to herself. She thought of herself as independent, a woman with a career.
It was time.
For weeks he had walked miles across the hills to watch her from the bare trees, to listen at her window to the murmur of her phone calls, the blather of her television, the hush of her solitude. He had watched her with men friends over the weeks, walking arm in arm to the Porsche or the Alfa Romeo parked in the driveway. He had watched her standing with her arms folded, surveying what would be, in its season, a garden.
He knew the extra burden a beautiful woman carries is cruel, wearisome to the soul. And sex — what was it so often but a bartering, pleasing men so the men might feel some power, for even a few spasms of pleasure? Men wanted to possess. But he knew better.
He knew the best act of love, the perfect act that gave what people wanted most without ever fully realizing it.
Almost home, the voice whispered. She is almost home. He left the house, picking his way through the decaying snow. He found a hiding place that fit his body exactly.
The evergreens clawed at his clothing, and then the boughs were still. The snow was rotten, holes eaten through the glaze where water had sweated from the branches. It was not so cold after all, and he let himself grow still.
He knew how to be invisible. He waited in the evergreens, the black spruce beside the driveway, drawn within himself, standing upright like one of the trees. He loved trees, and felt a deep trust among the greatest of their kinds, the masters of sunlight and air, these deep-rooted sentinels which saw nothing, heard nothing, and yet knew how to heal, sap and bark, and give future to their kind.
Carefully, so slowly that it made no sound at all, only the faintest pulse in the air, he eased down the zipper of his pants. He loosened his belt one notch. Something steel in him shivered. He was a master at this artful waiting. He needed no yoga to guide him into the melting point between appetite and the cold air.
Headlights flared up the long driveway. The slush burned white for an instant. The automatic garage door shrugged upward with a sound like a gasp, one corner of the door, as always, heaving skyward first.
He slipped inside, and sank behind a plastic bag of humus.
The fat plastic hummock gave off heat. The sound of the car was loud, shaking the air. And then the engine fell silent. The garage door sank, hesitated, thumped shut with the softest of shudders. The car door opened, and the air was rich with the stink of auto exhaust, the stale air from the interior of the car — and her. The ersatz floral breath of cosmetics caught him, and the under-scents, too, the real smells, the presence of her body just steps away from where he waited.
She carried a package, and she left the kitchen door open so she could return to the car, the car door open, too, so the temporary, unbuttoned feel of things was what encouraged him to stand and drift like a span of smoke, a creature made of all-but-nothing, off to one side, avoiding the light like a man standing clear of an abyss.
From inside, in the kitchen, came the weighty clink of bottles. He had seen the empties in the recycling she had dragged out once a week to the edge of the road — imported vodkas and no mixers. He felt a glow of compassion, such sudden sympathy that it was physical pain in his bones. She was suffering.
He knew what her life was like. It was a routine, a day after day of hope, a reel of postage stamps, each one the picture of a future — a home, a pathway, an illusion. He knew: mortal pleasure passed. It kindled a moment, an hour, but then the soul lived on faith that joy would come again.
The refrigerator shut, a soft sound, like something taking place far away. Her step squeaked on the waxed floor, and a cupboard door shut, a sharp wooden tock. She nearly returned to the garage, but he could sense her indecision, that familiar near-pain of the bladder that caused her to hurry off through the house, her steps receding into silence.
One touch, and she would have no more disillusion, no more attempts to recover what was already lost, the simple faith of childhood.
His hand searched, lightly discovering and dismissing one object after another. He always used what happened to be there, the adept at work, the actor ad libbing lines more telling than the script.
His hand declined the gardening shears, the rusty scissors, the pruning shears, the Phillips screwdriver and the adjustable wrench in its wraparound tool bag. He had been right, it seemed, about the divorce. This was a man's half-ordered clutter, and the workbench was dusted over with the grit that accumulates in a garage over a span of many months.
His hand closed over a handle. He felt his face fold into a smile. Yes, this was something he could use.
It was not perfect, and would require a certain artfulness. He liked that: a challenge. There was the distant chunk of a toilet's flush, and her step was through the house again, a quick stride across the kitchen.
She was in the garage, stopping, tugging a package across the seat of the car. Tin cans clacked together. Paper rustled, plastic crackled and then she was turning, ascending toward the light of the house, remembering only at the last moment to return briefly to kick the car door shut.
He fell upon her silently, as from a great height, a man who was not there, a shadow, something flung carelessly across the half-dark.
She screamed, but his fist was in her mouth, her tongue a squirming thing. He embraced her, a lover come to ease her load, feeling for a heartbeat.
No, he breathed into her, it's all right. I have come for you.
The screwdriver buried into her skull, right where so long ago in infancy the fontanelle had knitted, there at the intersection of the parietal bones. There was an instant when the bone fought the core of steel. His fist lifted into the half- light, and slammed down onto the pommel of the tool.
Three times his fist hammered the screwdriver. Blonde hair went dark, glistening. One leg thrust out and up, into the door jamb so hard wood splintered. One arm spun, wheeling, and the other went so rigid it was stone and seemed to drag the shoulders, pulling the entire body downward.
He held her, soothing her, stroking her, easing her passage to the floor.
"It's all over," he breathed into her ears, because he knew she could still hear, that the dying lingered for minutes as their bodies became that other place, the world they had abandoned.
He knew the pleasure she was experiencing, her life sucked through the aperture in her skull upward into the eternal and more perfect void as he, with the tenderness to make her moment perfect, undressed her, whispering to her how beautiful she was in her finest moment, how beloved she was.
And even then there was no haste. This was not the compassionless lust of the man who wished to master the beautiful, seduce it, and employ it to his ends. The love he made was perfect, willing himself to follow her, his knees oblivious to the cold concrete until he ebbed into her entirely, as far as he could go into the passage beyond which he could only call to her, wishing her the good voyage.
He set fire to the rubber gloves and the prophylactic that, wet with seed, did not burn at all but only writhed, curling, wasting away.
It was a long but lovely walk home, under a sky that was charred with cloud. His feet selected stones on which to step, picking through the decaying snow, leaving no trace.
The apartment, when he reached it, was too warm. The rooms were too small. She glanced at him, and then stood unmoving. "What," she whispered, "have you done?"
His sister could tell. It took her only a moment. She knew: he had done it yet again. She put her hand to her throat, her lips parted, and he wanted to say: don't worry.
He had lived his life, it seemed, in apartments like these, this upstate New York cage just like the cages in a dozen other small cities. He stroked her hair, kissed her cheeks, her tears. His sister wept, and he sat beside her as she cried even into her sleep, into her dreams, shrinking away from him, knowing what he'd done and yet trying to lie to herself.
At last she was asleep.
He stepped into the living room, and snapped on the television. He sank into the sofa, a man subsiding into ordinary existence once again. The images shifted over him, the alternating print of the images falling over him as he gazed without really seeing.
He sat for a long time, well into the night. He had used to imagine that one day his own image would grace the television screen, his own body-miked voice resounding, his life made multiple, his mortal existence transformed into a Life. He knew how to move so the mike didn't pick up anything but the sound of his voice. He could act. But that was all long ago. It is I, he thought, the Artist, springing up out of the dark to sit down and watch — what? What am I looking at?
What am I looking at, sitting here enjoying the remnants of pleasure? He stirred himself. My friend, he thought. It's my friend speaking without making a sound.
The Artist found the remote. He turned up the volume, and the famous voice made the lamp beside him tremble metallically, a tiny, locustlike rattle. It's Hamilton Speke, he thought, plying yet another talk show.
Speke was always showing up on television, accompanying hosts grateful to give their ratings a healthy pulse. Speke's face was always beaming from a magazine beside the candy at the checkout counter. The Artist had always seethed, resenting his old friend's championship role as healthy; successful figure full of life. But the Artist had made no move to escape from the darkness where he belonged and meet his friend again. Some creatures belonged under the rotting log, fat with the joy to be found under the stone slab. The Artist knew himself to be such a creature, and so the moving lips of the image of Hamilton Speke did not stir him to any more than the slightest dash of envy, a touch of salsa to the afterglow that still calmed him.
But then the Artist caught his breath.
He leaned forward.
He stood, rigid, unable to make another move, frozen with disbelief.
No — Speke couldn't do that.
Speke was talking about a play in progress, a play nearly finished, a play that was, the smooth-voiced host said, going to be the "long awaited masterpiece." Speke was agreeing, making that famous modest shrug and nod: "It's still a long way from being finished. Maybe a year or two away. But when I'm done, I think it'll be my most important play. At least, I hope so." Said with that easy confidence, that unassuming air that was both modest and untouched by doubt.
Speke began describing the play, and the Artist felt himself turning, cell by cell, to a thing of stone.
He can't do that, thought-screamed the Artist, the soundless howl deafening him to every word Speke uttered. Speke can't use that story. That story belongs to me. That's mine — the most important days of my life. Those were the days that began to change me from an ordinary man into the creature I am now.
Mine. My life.
He hurled himself out into the cold.
At last he was able to breathe. Buildings so often seemed like a trap to him. His shadow flowed ahead of him on the streetlight-glazed asphalt.
Of course he can use that story. He can do anything. He's Hamilton Speke, admired and even loved. And deserving the love of strangers, a man of color and heat.
The Artist felt himself laugh. Of course I can't write the play myself. No, it's not that. I tried, and the pages were always blank. That's my kind of perfection, the empty kind. To write the play I would have to be like Speke, sure of myself, comfortable under the lead blanket of the television lights.
The Artist let himself fall to the frozen muck. The tree above him made a breathy whisper, stirring like a rooted thing struggling to leap upward. Oh what a nimble self-deceiver I have been, thought the Artist.
Speke is taking what is mine. And I know how to stop him.
The Artist had lived like a man in a coma, a twilight human. Like a man who was so much air, a puff of exhaust — nothing. Hearing Speke, and seeing his beaming face, the sort of countenance people admired and trusted, handsome, bright with health, had changed everything. This was the anger that riffled the surface of seas, and heaved mountains toward the stars. The Artist's anger was like gravity, like the sun and moon.
You can't do this, Hamilton.
I know exactly how to take my old friend apart, piece by piece. I know the kind of women he craves, I know the kind of solace he needs, and I know the things that wake him at night.
I won't let you.
It will take months, but I have waited so long a little more time doesn't bother me at all. He smiled, looking upward into the now starless night. I'm on my way back, he promised the sky.
The darkness was coming. This time it would take what it owned.
And leave nothing.CHAPTER 2
There was a fire.
He couldn't see it, standing in the full, almost blinding light of summer, but he could smell it.
Hamilton Speke stood still, blinking in the bright sun, thinking no.
No, anything but a fire.
Excerpted from Ghostwright by Michael Cadnum. Copyright © 1992 Michael Cadnum. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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