Authors: Jennifer McMahon
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Don’t Breathe a Word
In memory of my grandmother,
Laura Koon Howard, M.D.,
who had a rational explanation
If you are holding this book in your hands, you are one of the chosen. You must understand that with this privilege comes great responsibility. The knowledge contained in these pages will change your life forever. But you must be very wary of who you share this knowledge with. The fate of our race depends on it. On you.
June 23, Fifteen Years Ago
otter than hot, no air-conditioning, sweat pouring down in rivers, the Magic Fingers motel bed vibrating beneath her, Mr. Ice Cream doing his thing above. He’s not bad-looking, a little paunch-bellied, but he’s got a nice face. Blue eyes that remind her of a crystal stream. Of that song “Crystal Blue Persuasion”—something her ma listened to all the time. Of course, she told him that, and now sometimes he sings it to her, his idea of foreplay. She wishes he’d shave his mustache, but no chance, the wife loves it.
The wife, however, does not like to ride. But Phoebe does. He’s got a Harley and he takes her out every Saturday, and sometimes in the evening after they close the shop. Wind in her hair, bugs in her teeth, the bike roaring like something unholy underneath her. He likes to park way out at the end of a fire trail, do it to her on his bike. Sometimes she’s sure it’s the motorcycle he’s screwing, not her. She doesn’t mind. It’s hard to compete with all that glossy paint and chrome so shiny she can see their reflections. And it beats the crap out of the high school boys who don’t last five minutes in the backseats of cars.
Phoebe doesn’t mind, no. She’s just turned twenty. Three months ago, she moved to Brattleboro with her friends Nan and Sasha. She wanted to go farther, California maybe even, to put as much distance as she could between her and her mother. But Sasha had a boyfriend in Brattleboro, and Vermont was better than the shit old mill town she’d grown up in down in Massachusetts. And when her ma calls the apartment, drunker than drunk, Nan and Sasha talk in silly accents, say she’s reached the China Star restaurant. Her ma says, “Is Phoebe in?” and Nan says, “Peking duck? Okay. You want wonton? Special today.” Then they all fall over laughing.
They’ve got a low-rent hovel of an apartment—greasy walls, squirrels nesting in the drop-down ceiling (one fell through when Sasha was cooking ramen noodles—a great story to tell at parties), but they’re hardly ever there, so it’s okay. Phoebe got a job scooping ice cream at the Crazy Cone, which pays her share of the rent and keeps her amused. Mostly kids come into the Crazy Cone for the arcade, dumping change into The Claw with its promise of stuffed pink poodles and fake designer sunglasses.
Her boss, Mr. Ice Cream, is twenty years older than she. He takes blood pressure medication and wears orthotics in his shoes. He has hair on his back. She tries not to touch it but always ends up running her fingers through it anyway. Being repulsed but unable to stop at the same time. Phoebe’s like that.
She’s on the lumpy motel mattress trying not to think about the hair on his back, or that his breath is particularly bad today. Rancid, like old meat. Maybe Mr. Ice Cream is really a werewolf. Phoebe imagines him covered in hair, sprouting fangs by the light of the full moon. Enough. She clears her mind, tries to relax, to let the Magic Fingers do their thing underneath her while he does his thing on top. She looks up at Mr. Ice Cream, who’s got his eyes clamped shut, his face sweaty, lips swollen-looking under his caterpillar of a mustache (her friends think it’s so cool that she’s going out with an older guy, a rich guy), but what catches her eye is what’s happening on the wall behind him.
The TV flickers and glows with the dull blue fire of the evening news. There’s a story on about the girl who’s disappeared in Harmony. Three nights ago, she went into the woods behind her house and never came out again. She said there was a door in those woods, somewhere in the ruins of an old town long abandoned. She’d told her little brother she’d met the King of the Fairies and he was going to take her home to be his queen.
The newscaster says all that remains of the village in the woods is chimneys and cellar holes. Some lilac bushes and apple trees in old dooryards. The little settlement was called Reliance, of all things, and was never shown on any maps. It disappeared without explanation. Perhaps everyone died off in the flu of 1918. Or maybe, went local legend, the fifty-odd residents were spirited away. The newscaster gets a little gleam in his eye here because everyone loves a good ghost story, don’t they?
“Some of the townspeople I talked to claim to have heard strange noises coming from the woods over the years—a ghostly moaning, crying. Some even say if you pass by on the right night of the year, you’ll hear the devil whisper your name. Others report seeing a green mist that sometimes takes the shape of a person.”
The camera shows a close-up of an old woman with a craggy face. “It’s no place for children out in them woods. Reliance is haunted and everybody knows it. I don’t even let my dog run loose down there.”
The newscaster says there’s been no trace of the missing girl except for a single pink and silver sneaker found in a cellar hole. A size-six Nike.
Then the camera pans back and shows the woods, which could be the woods anywhere, in any small town.
Phoebe turns from the TV, tries to focus on the here and now. Runs her fingers through the pelt of fur (is there more now?) on Mr. Ice Cream’s back.
But still, she finds herself thinking of those woods in Harmony, wondering where the door might be. In a thick tree trunk? Behind a rock?
Most people, they would say there’s no such thing as doors like that. Imaginary.
But Phoebe knows the truth, doesn’t she?
Don’t look under the bed.
A drop of Mr. Ice Cream’s sweat lands on her chest, giving her a chill.
It’s stupid, really. Crazy. The fact that in every bed she’s slept in since childhood, she stuffs everything she can underneath: heavy boxes of books she’ll never read, Hefty bags full of sweaters and shoes.
“You’re so organized,” Nan and Sasha say.
But what she is is afraid. Because when she was a little girl, she saw the trapdoor under her bed that only appeared in the darkest hours of the night. Heard the scrabbling, the squeaking of hinges as it was opened. And she saw what came out.
And she knows (doesn’t she?) that sometimes he’s there still, not just under the bed but in the shadows at the bus stop, lurking with the alley cats behind the Dumpster at her apartment building. He’s everywhere and nowhere. A blur caught out of the corner of her eye. A mocking smile she tells herself she’s imagined.
Mr. Ice Cream finishes with a werewolf roar.
“How was it?” he asks once he’s caught his breath.
“Like eating an ice cream sundae,” she says, trying to banish all thoughts of doors and things that might come out of them.
“With a cherry on top?” he asks, smiling.
“Mmm,” she says. “Gotta love that cherry.”
He laughs, rolls off her.
“Hey,” she says, “ain’t we near Harmony?”
.” He’s always correcting her grammar, and the truth is, Phoebe’s grammar is pretty good, she just talks like this sometimes to piss him off. “And yes, I think it’s the next town over.”
“Can we ride by there before we head back. I wanna see the woods where that girl was taken.”
And there it is again, in the back corner of the room, just out of her range of vision. A shadowy figure nods his head, smiles. She feels it more than sees it. She turns and he’s gone.
oming into the town of Harmony, just beyond a dairy farm with a collapsing silo, they pass a massive boulder with the Lord’s Prayer carved across the front. Phoebe memorized the words the year she went to Sunday school when her ma was dating the born-again trucker with the glowing plastic Jesus on his dashboard.
She tightens her arms around Mr. Ice Cream’s waist as she hears the words in her head:
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
She gets a chill in spite of the heat and her ten-pound leather jacket with its million pockets and zippers—something she splurged on back when she was trying to get Mr. Ice Cream to notice her.
The road bends to the left, taking them into the center of town. On the right is the Harmony Methodist Church with a letter board out front promising a huge rummage sale on Saturday. Below that, in all caps, it says: PRAY FOR LISA’S SAFE RETURN. Across the street are a general store, a post office, and a pizza shop. It’s a freaking media circus in the village, which makes Mr. Ice Cream edgy as hell—he doesn’t want the wife to catch a glimpse of him and his new scoop girl on the evening news. “I’ll wait here,” he says, parking the bike at the general store. “You go look around.”
It’s not hard to find the girl’s house. She turns off Main onto Spruce Street and spots a big old rambler with an overgrown lawn, peeling paint, and a porch that needs a new railing. News vans and cop cars out front. A crowd of people looking, just looking, drawn to disaster like metal filings to a magnet. Phoebe stands across the street, roasting in her heavy jacket as she studies the house, thinks that it must have been pretty once. Upstairs, in the top left window, a boy pulls open the curtain, peers down at them. He’s got a Superman T-shirt on. His dark hair is shaggy, falling down into his eyes. He looks out at the crowd, at Phoebe, and suddenly she understands that she shouldn’t be here. That coming was all wrong. But it’s like touching the hair on Mr. Ice Cream’s back.
“Are you here to see the fairies?” a girl asks her.
“Huh?” Phoebe says, turning to see who spoke.
The girl is ten maybe, dressed from head to toe in pink. She’s got a plastic compass, small and cheap like a prize from a box of Cracker Jacks, pinned to her shirt. Her pale arms, sticking out from the ruffled short-sleeve blouse, have bright red welts on them. “I thought maybe you were like the others. That you came out to see the fairies. ’Cause I can show you something real special that belongs to the King of the Fairies himself. Five dollars, and I can show you.”
Phoebe looks back at the window, sees the boy is gone. She reaches into her jeans, pulls out a crumpled five, hands it over.
“Follow me,” the girl says.
They walk past the crowd and the news vans, down the street to a white house. They turn into the yard, walk around back, past a swing set and vegetable garden in bad need of watering. Then the girl enters the woods. “Stick close,” she says.
And Phoebe wants to tell her to forget it, that she doesn’t need to see. Shit, she’s not sure how long Mr. Ice Cream is gonna wait, it’s nearly five now, his wife expects him home in time for supper. The girl moves fast. “Wait!” Phoebe calls, chasing her.
She remembers the old woman on the newscast:
No place for children out in them woods.
They jog through trees, over a brook, into where the woods grow dark. Phoebe wants to turn around, but it’s too late. She’ll never find her way back without help. There’s no path, no landmarks. It’s the same in all directions: trees and rocks, trees and rocks. They go down a hill where the woods open up. And then Phoebe sees that in the distance, off to her left, yellow crime-scene tape is looped around the trees.
“This way,” the girl says, leading her in the other direction.
“Was that it?” Phoebe asks. “Where Lisa was taken? Was that Reliance?”
The girl smiles. “All of this is Reliance, Miss.”
Then, as she walks, the girl starts humming a song Phoebe half recognizes. As she hums, it turns into “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” which Phoebe knows is impossible, no one under forty listens to that music, but that’s what she hears.
“What’s that you’re humming?” she asks.
“Me? I’m not humming,” the girl in pink says. “You stay here a minute. I’ll be right back.” The girl jogs on ahead, stopping to look over her shoulder to make sure Phoebe’s staying put.
Phoebe checks her watch, anxious to get back to Main Street, to Mr. Ice Cream waiting at the general store. She imagines him browsing through racks of tacky postcards, stale maple sugar candy, bug spray. He’d make small talk with the owner. He seems to feel like he’s in a club, he and all these small business owners: them against the world.
It’s quiet. Too quiet. Phoebe doesn’t hear a single bird or mosquito. She thinks of the Lord’s Prayer. What a crazy thing to carve into a rock. Why not “Welcome to Harmony”? She starts to say the prayer, then stops herself. Idiot.
Where the hell are all the birds?
Twigs snap. A shadow moves through the trees. Phoebe holds her breath, then releases it as the girl in pink steps out from a group of little saplings up ahead. She’s got a paper sack in her arms. Phoebe watches her jog over, smiling, the little compass jumping around where it’s pinned to her shirt.
“Look,” she says, thrusting the open bag toward Phoebe, who takes it from her and peers inside. It’s the smell that hits her first: earthy and vaguely rotten. Then she understands the lump she’s looking at isn’t a lump at all. There are fingers, swollen and curled.
Phoebe yelps, drops the bag, steps away.
The girl gives Phoebe a disappointed shake of the head, then picks up the bag, opens it up, reaches in. Phoebe wants to scream, to beg her not to touch it, not to show her any more. But when she pulls it out, Phoebe sees it’s only a glove. Tan leather, thick, and holding the shape of the hand it once covered.
“It’s his,” the girl says.
“Whose?” Phoebe says, stepping closer now, wanting to touch it but afraid. The glove is large, covered in brown stains, and all wrong somehow. There’s an extra finger sewn to the side just past the pinkie, the stitching sloppy and in black thread like sutures. Frankenstein glove.