Tamara Whelan and her sullen adolescent daughter have just arrived in the isolated Wyoming mining town of Iron Mountain. The financially strapped single mother has accepted a teaching job, replacing someone who died under suspicious circumstances. As Tamara struggles to adjust to life among superstitious neighbors in an unforgiving place, she’s plagued by horrifying night visions of a strange man and an unfamiliar beach that glistens in the moonlight. Unbeknownst to her, the man, Thad Alexander, is real. He lives in Belize and has been dreaming about her as well.
These two strangers find their lives increasingly intertwined as mysterious and menacing extraterrestrial technology allows them to read each other’s minds and become intimately familiar with each other’s worlds. Amid natural disasters and inexplicable vanishings, Thad and Tamara find themselves at the tumultuous center of a titanic battle between love and destruction, waged by forces beyond their control.
A novel that expands the boundaries of the paranormal, Nightmare Country tackles weighty issues of time, love, loss, and the impermanence of life.
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By Marlys Millhiser
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 Marlys Millhiser
All rights reserved.
The occupants of the Toyota station wagon thought they were never to reach the mountain of Thad Alexander's dream. But Tamara Whelan could see it on the horizon now. She loosened her grip on the wheel and tried to relax the cramp in her back. They'd not met a car since turning off the interstate near Cheyenne. Just treeless hills and telephone wires and fenceposts and power poles rubbed white where cattle had scratched rough hides against them. A windmill, etched against unending sky, blades stilled in the torpor of an August afternoon.
Tamara had worried about the frozen foods in the grocery bags, about being stranded with car trouble and no one to ask for help, about the stiff misery of the girl beside her.
Insects in the weeds of roadside ditches made clicking sounds that rattled on wind rushing through open windows, the wind so dry it burned the tissues in their noses, mouths, and throats. Their teeth felt like chalk. Their eyes stung from lack of tears.
A ridge of hills and rock outcropping ahead, as if a giant's fingernail had scratched up a section of the rolling yellow-green and buff prairie. And in the middle, the mountain. Really too low to be called a mountain. Too big for a hill. Ragged, gouged, stained. The color of dead, rusty coffee grounds.
The road dipped to a creek lined with bushes, a bridge, an intersecting road of crushed limestone, and a sign shaped like an arrow. IRON MOUNTAIN.
"We're almost there, Adrian." Tamara turned the station wagon onto crushed limestone. Her daughter didn't bother to answer, but a flush spread over creamy cheeks, fingers clamped over knees as if trying to bruise them. White dust puffed behind the Toyota, rocks pinged against its underbelly.
"At least there's no air pollution out here," Tamara tried again. Or Seven-Elevens or grocery stores to stock junk food.
"There's apples in one of the bags in the backseat."
"I don't want apples."
"Now, look, I know this isn't easy, but it's not the end of the world," Tamara said, and then wished she hadn't. Iron Mountain and the settlement at its base, which bore the same name, came into full view. And that's just what it looked like—the end of the world.
She let the Toyota stall and die as it came up to the bridge that recrossed the creek, blocking all traffic because the bridge was one lane. There was no traffic. They sat staring through the glare on the windshield.
"It's fairly isolated, Mrs. Whelan," Mr. Curtis had said, sitting comfortably near his air conditioner in Cheyenne. "But there are only seven students, and the parents aren't demanding. We don't expect you to stay forever. Nobody does. It's a good place to start, gain some experience for your record. Get your feet wet slowly." Mr. Curtis had scratched his scalp with the eraser end of a lead pencil and laughed.
Adrian turned toward her mother, lovely eyes afloat with tears that managed not to drip down her cheeks. "Life isn't fair."
"Oh, baby, this is the only offer I had. And I know how you hate me to repeat the obvious, but we do have to eat. Let's try to make the best of it." Why do I use the same dumb clichés my mother used? Tamara coaxed the Toyota into a rumble. Why am I so tired?
"If you hadn't left Daddy, we wouldn't be in this mess." Hurt and anger mixed to sound like hate.
"He left me." How much patience is one parent supposed to have?
"Daddy wouldn't do that unless you did something awful to him."
"Don't chew on your nails."
Iron Mountain watched as the green Toyota pulled up beside the flagpole at the schoolhouse. The light movement of a curtain here, a shadow hand at a window there. The only sound—a dog barking. The only movement—that of a man in his undershirt bringing a cigarette to his lips. He sat on the low concrete step at his back door. When Tamara Whelan stepped from her car, he untied the dog and took it into the house.
The quiet now was more empty than peaceful.
The school was an ugly block of formed concrete in a faded mustard color. Its yard and playground were the crushed white limestone of the road leading to Iron Mountain and of its only street. A great mound of the stuff hovered above the school at the rear.
Adrian slouched against a fender. She was taller than her mother. Only the eyes and color and texture of their hair indicated a blood relationship, the hair a soft auburn that curled tightly where it touched perspiring skin. Adrian wore hers long, gathered from the forehead and fastened at the crown with a barrette. Her mother's was short, and it fluffed toward her face.
Tamara stared down an incline at the scattered car bodies lying amidst dried weeds and dulled with a coating of the powdery dust. "Mr. Curtis said there was an apartment here for us."
Two trailer houses connected by a wooden shed supported a monstrous TV antenna. A battered couch leaned against one trailer. In front of it a porcelain bathtub stood on little paw feet. Across the street, a row of four identical triplexes with a gap on the end where there should have been a fifth. All that remained of the latter was a foundation and blackened rubble. The rusty mountain soared behind the lot of them, promising in winter to cut off the sun by three in the afternoon.
"Let's quit and go back to Grandma's."
"Grandma has all she can do to take care of herself and Great-Grandma. We're on our own, and—"
"And we'd better learn to make the best of it," Adrian said in a perfect imitation of her mother's voice.
The street ended just past the school in a metal gate connecting a chain-link fence and a NO TRESPASSING sign. A man in a white shirt and tie, Levi's, and a yellow hard hat stood rolling his sleeves up to his armpits.
Russ Burnham didn't think the women looked like vagrants or hippies. Maybe tourists who got off on the wrong road? Then he caught the tight expression on the smaller one's face. Oh, shit, not another schoolteacher. He wanted to turn around and pretend he hadn't seen them, but knew he couldn't get away with it. Curtis, you son of a bitch!
"Excuse me, I wonder if you could help us." The smaller woman hurried toward him now, her expression harried and a little frightened, her eyes probing to discover whether he was made of safe or dangerous material. "I'm Tamara Whelan and this is my daughter, Adrian. I'd assumed we were expected, but there doesn't seem to be anyone ... around."
The Whelans stopped at a safe distance. They were careful people. Both wore the pallor of the East. The daughter was just a kid. A big kid.
"You the new teacher?"
"Yes." Tamara Whelan seemed to relax. "Did Mr. Curtis—?"
"No." He swiped the back of his wrist across the sweat on his forehead and stepped through the gate. "Company provides an apartment. You just have to pay utilities."
Russ nodded toward the brick triplexes with the garish green shingles, blackened around the chimneys from the days when coal was used to heat. He thought of an old family story. A great-great-aunt of his dad's had been torn from her fancy parlor and moved west to a sod hut. She went beserk and killed her baby and herself. A fragile woman, according to family memory.
"Perhaps you'd show it to us, Mr...." the fragile-looking woman in front of him said.
"Burnham. Russ Burnham." He liked the way sun picked out the copper in their hair. "It's not lush, but better than a sod hut."
"I should hope so. Isn't it unusual for a company to provide housing for a schoolteacher?"
"It's not like we're crowded. B & H is responsible for most of the children here." He led her past the burned-out foundation to the second triplex in the line.
"B & H. That's sugar, isn't it? Mr. Curtis said this was a mining town."
"We mine limestone. Used in the processing of sugar." Why was he always the only one out and about when the teachers showed up? Her next question would be: "Then why is it called Iron Mountain?"
"Why is it called Iron Mountain if—?"
"Because of the color." What's Curtis doing sending someone like her out here? Creep's got the brain of a dead gnat. "But then, he used to be a teacher too."
"What?" Tamara Whelan stopped on the concrete steps up to the chicken-wire fence. "Who?"
"Just talking to myself." Wait till you've been here awhile, and you'll be doing it. But he was embarrassed and kicked at the wooden gate. The remaining hinge gave up, and the gate fell into the weeds. He ignored it with a growl. "This one's been altered. Abner Fistler knocked out inner walls. Made three apartments into two. Makes more room for you and Mrs. Fistler. Also gives you three doors instead of two. Made old Kopecky nervous." He stomped up more concrete steps to the porch and tried the front door. Locked.
"Who's old Kopecky?" She probably thought he was crazy. Her daughter had stopped where the gate should have been, not bothering to hide a look of horror. Because of him? Or her new home? Why should he give a damn?
"Last teacher." He walked over to the corner entrance. Locked. A dirty face peered around red brick. Russ grabbed a small arm and pulled it and the body attached into view. "Want you to meet your new teacher. Mrs. Whelan, this is Vinnie Hope."
"Hello, Vinnie." The new teacher smiled uncertainly and took on a whole new look.
"Vinnie, your mom got the key to this place?"
Vinnie snatched a glance at the fat daughter and scurried off through weeds toward the next triplex. Red shorts, tanned stick-legs, tangles in her hair. "Name's Gloria Devine Hope," Russ mumbled for want of something else to say. "That's why we call her Vinnie."
When Deloris Hope arrived with the key, the teacher moved her car across the road and Russ helped them carry in (boxes, groceries, luggage, and a stereo. He avoided looking around the place, pushed away memories of the last time he'd entered it, ignored the startled expressions of the Whelans, assumed a brusque attitude to put off questions, and pleaded the excuse of work to get the hell away from there.
A gold brocaded couch and matching armchair sat on a Persian rug in a room with livid aqua walls and grimy ceiling. A small maple dining-room set stood on a floor of chipped institutional-gray tiles. A stove, cupboards, counter, and refrigerator faced into the room from the back wall. A film of chalky dust over all.
Inside cheap metal cupboards and nestled on folded linen cloths—exquisite chinaware, rimmed in gold and decorated with tiny pink and lavender flowers. Goblets of cut crystal, some clear and others shaded in cranberry. Tamara held a delicate teacup in her hand and stared at Deloris. "But I brought my own dishes—"
"Refrigerator's working." Deloris closed the door on an ancient machine with rounded corners. It began to rattle and the floor to vibrate. Faded eyes in a young face looked from the teacup to Tamara and then away. Her blond hair frazzled in that heavily permanented but no-set style, and she looked as if she wore last week's eye makeup. "When you want heat, the thermostat's on the wall by the bathroom door."
"But who furnished this ... this place?"
"I gotta get back. The baby's got the croupies." Deloris Hope smiled reassuringly and left in a hurry.
That evening, as Tamara selected a linen tablecloth from the maple buffet stuck up against the extra front door, a fire siren ripped the stillness of Iron Mountain for a half-minute and stopped. She and Adrian rushed to the window and pulled aside gritty golden sheers. A screech of tires, a blast of a horn, and four pickup trucks and some cars careened past, laying a cloud of white dust so thick it obliterated the schoolhouse across the road.
"Workers from the mine going home." Tamara wished she could go too. "I didn't think they could all live here."
They dined on fine china and drank from crystal goblets and by candlelight, trying to ignore the horrid barnlike room these treasures inhabited. A thin pretense at celebration. Veal patties, rice with parsley, steamed broccoli, and a tossed salad dressed in lemon juice and herbs.
"What's for dessert?" Adrian's dinner, except for the broccoli, was gone before her mother had finished dishing up.
"Chilled white grapes."
"I'll have ice cream."
"There isn't any. And that broccoli is better warm."
"I know why we're out in this forsaken hole. So you can starve me to death."
"Adrian, the doctor told you if you don't learn to control your weight now, you'll be an obese adult."
"I like being fat."
"No, you don't." The silence grew long and nasty.
"Have you noticed the stains on that wall?" Adrian said finally over the grapes, and pointed to the partition between apartments. "Looks like someone tried to wash off blood and left smears."
"Probably just a moisture stain like we used to get in Columbus."
"What moisture? Bet it hasn't rained here in ten years. My throat's sore from just breathing."
There was no television. Their books were on a train presumably headed for Cheyenne. And none of the mysterious inhabitants of Iron Mountain bothered to pay a call. No hint of sound from the Fistlers on the other side of the stained partition. Tamara thought fondly of the house they'd left in Columbus, and even of their crowded quarters in Iowa City, where they'd lived the last two years with her mother and ancient grandmother while she'd studied to renew a lapsed teaching certificate.
Too tired and dispirited to begin dusting the powdered limestone off everything, they showered and went to bed early. The bathroom had no tub, only a shower and stool and a cabinet stuffed with gorgeous thick towels. They had to brush their teeth in the rusting metal sink in the kitchen.
Tamara crawled into a walnut bedstead that would have brought a fortune in an antique store. There was just room for it and a matching dresser and a rocking chair. The dresser's mate was in Adrian's room, with a valuable iron bedstead. Why would B & H furnish the place so extravagantly and not spend a penny or so on floors, walls, kitchen, and bath?
Tamara went to sleep worrying about how they would survive Iron Mountain even for a school year. But her dreams were of another place, a place she had never seen. She dreamt of a beach that glistened white with moonlight, the sand rumpled with footprints. And of a small dog who crouched in the shadow of a broken block of concrete.CHAPTER 2
Thad Alexander laid scraps of last night's dinner on a stone burial chamber sunk almost flush with the beach. But the dog waited until he stooped at the water's edge to rinse his fingers before she crept toward the food. He remained crouched until the animal had finished. Two other strays raised noses at the smell of a meal, realized it was already gone, and went back to sleep.
Thad returned to his father's house, collected fins, snorkel, and mask and walked in wet sand along the edge of the Caribbean in the shadows of predawn. There were two hotels on Mayan Cay, one on each side of the cemetery. He passed the thatched huts of the sleeping Mayapan Hotel—a yacht and a sport-fishing launch tied up to her dock—and he was near the end of the village of San Tomas.
Brackish pink traced the sky along the reef. Rows of dead seaweed at high-water line showed dark against white sand, much of it black and gooey where the sea had retched man's accidental oil spills and deliberate dumping. It took turpentine to get it off bare feet and forever marred shoes once attached. A paltry justice.
Thad crawled over the roots of a mangrove tree that fanned out like fingers to dip into salt water and entered a beach clearing with a shack on stilts, with chickens running loose.
"Aye, backra, you want boat?" Ramael, the fisherman, sprawled across wooden steps. "Full of gas. I guide you to special wreck."
The last time Ramael guided him, Thad had taken tanks. When he'd come up from a long dive, Ramael was drunk. They'd run out of gas halfway home.
"I'm just going to snorkel before breakfast. How much for the boat for an hour?"
"One dollar B.H."
The currency printed by the government of Belize was still fondly referred to as "B.H.," for British Honduran, as opposed to the U.S. dollar, and was worth even less. The plump head and shoulders of a young Queen Elizabeth II continued to gaze wistfully from this ex-colony's bills.
Morning sun spread over the clearing, warm and already enervating in steamy air. Thad pushed the old outboard into the water and poled until it was deep enough to lower the motor. Standing and holding the tiller between his legs, he nosed the boat toward the reef line. He drew his T-shirt up over his head, and for the instant his face was covered, the boat swerved. The tiller tried to unbalance him.
When his vision cleared of shirt, a two-masted yacht was moored directly in his path. Although he turned the outboard in plenty of time, shock prickled along the backs of his fingers.
A strip of red at the water line. White hull and superstructure. A strip of blue along the gunwales and outlining portholes. Red life preservers and dinghy. Sails reefed for the night and encased in blue covers. Even a miniature crow's nest. Ambergris written in gold across her stern. A man smoking a cigarette stood on her deck.
Thad registered this detail through a fog of reactions. He'd been preoccupied, true, but remembered only an empty sea as far as vision extended before pulling the shirt over his head. The Ambergris was simply too large and colorful to be missed. The only explanation was that he'd been so engrossed in thought he'd seen what he expected to see. Yet he could remember thinking of nothing except steering the outboard and removing his T-shirt.
Excerpted from Nightmare Country by Marlys Millhiser. Copyright © 1981 Marlys Millhiser. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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