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Authors: James W. Hall

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BOOK: Forests of the Night
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“It's all the same. You can't help who you are. None of us can.”

“I'm his son, but he and I aren't the same person. Don't do this.”

“It's done.” She wouldn't look at him.

It was nearly two in the morning when she pulled up to the entrance road to camp. Parker had not tried to argue her from her decision. She had taught him the power of silence, and now it was all he had to use.

When she'd brought the truck to a halt, she turned and looked at him. In the green glow from the dash, her face was slack, a withered mask.

“Lucy, I love you. You love me. Don't throw that away.”

“Go on,” she said quietly. “Get out of my truck. It's finished.”

She reached across him and opened his door.

“Go,” she said. “Go.”

Parker stepped down and had to jump aside as her tires threw a storm of gravel. He watched her taillights swerve around the first bend and disappear.

The rest of the tale was exactly as Charlotte had heard it a dozen times before. When Parker reached the campground, he found his parents' home in flames. No one in the camp had awakened yet, for the house was more than half a mile from the cabins. He hesitated for a moment, staring at the flames, then drew a deep breath and rushed into the burning house.

Fire ringed the living-room floor, springing up from a glistening trail of what smelled like kerosene. Flames climbed the walls, feeding on the drapes and his grandmother's quilt, which hung from the wall below the stairs. The heavy oak logs had not yet caught, but the fire had already risen up the stairway and was fluttering at the upstairs floorboards.

With the smoke growing more dense at every step, Parker could barely see by the time he reached the bottom of the stairs that led to the sleeping quarters. Before he started up, he looked back through the dense smoke of the great room. There was still a narrow path of escape, but the flames were closing fast.

He screamed to wake his parents. But his voice was swallowed by the roar. As he mounted the stairs, a heavy beam from the ceiling gave way and fell in his path and the shower of sparks set his shirtsleeve ablaze. A second later, another rafter gave way and clipped him on the side of the skull.

When he came to, Diana was kneeling at his side in the grass of the main yard. Her hair was singed, and a gash on her cheek had been hastily bandaged.

Chief was consumed in the fire that night, along with Nathan Philpot, the boy from Parker's cabin, and a handyman who'd been hired only a week before. A man named Jeremiah. It was assumed that Jeremiah had been awakened by the noise of the fire and tried to rescue the Monroes, only to perish himself.

During the trial, the prosecution argued that the unlucky Nathan Philpot had changed bunks to escape the noxious fumes coming from his counselor, slipping into the cot that Parker Monroe had vacated. Before setting the fire, the culprit had gone to Parker's cabin, mistaken Nathan for Parker, and dragged him back to die with the rest of the family.

The prosecutor claimed it was clearly Standingdog Matthew's goal to wipe out the entire Monroe clan because of their refusal to part with their land.

Parker did not take the stand and refused to tell anyone, even Diana, where he'd been that night.

Standingdog offered no defense. In a buckskin jacket, he sat erect but showed no sign that he understood the words spoken against him or in his behalf. And he sat impassively when the prosecutor pointed at Standingdog Matthews and named him as the killer and listed the evidence against him. A boy in Parker's cabin who had seen him wake Philpot and drag him away. The kerosene-spattered shirt found hidden in his shack, his long-standing feud with the Monroe family, his lack of an alibi on the night of the fire, and the testimony of several other Cherokees who confirmed that Standingdog had made repeated threats on the Monroe family.

The defense attorney cross-examined no one, and Standingdog continued to listen placidly as a parade of witnesses praised Chief as the most inspiring man they'd ever known.

None of the Panthers attended the trial. One evening Parker could endure it no longer and stole Diana's car and drove to the Panthers' home in Horse Cove. The place had been stripped to the bare walls. The Panthers long gone. None of the neighbors would speak a word to Parker.

When Parker was finished with the story, Charlotte rolled onto her side and put her back to him. He reached out and lay a hand on her shoulder, but she didn't respond. She lay listening to the night sounds, the hum of distant traffic, an incessant dog barking a few doors away. Her heart felt as
if it had swollen to such a size inside her chest that it was cramping against her ribs.

All she had ever believed about Parker Monroe now had to be reconsidered. Over the years, she had never caught him in an overt lie. But after hearing his story, she saw he'd been treating her as he'd dealt with the FBI interrogators. Omitting the crucial facts, giving her the bare outlines of truth, but not its whole weight.

As far as Charlotte was concerned, leaving out the girl and the love affair amounted to something worse than a lie. For Lucy Panther was the very heart of the story, the meaning of it. Charlotte lay unmoving, her blood cold in her limbs, as if she'd just discovered the man she loved was a charlatan. A man who had pretended to be simple and honest and true, but was actually far more complex, more darkly haunted than she could have known.

And worse than that, far worse when she considered its consequences for the future of their marriage, Parker Monroe was a man who very possibly had used up a crucial portion of his lifetime supply of passion before Charlotte ever walked onto the stage.


Ten o'clock on tuesday morning a blinding thunderstorm brought the traffic on Dixie Highway down to five miles an hour, though some maniacs were still cutting and weaving at five times that, as though it were full sunshine. Diana Monroe hugged the far right lane and crept along, leaning forward to peer through the smeared window of her Jaguar.

A few hours earlier, bedraggled and reserved, Parker had called a cab and left the house at seven.

With her cruiser still in the motor pool, Charlotte had little choice but to call her mother-in-law for a ride downtown. Gracey sat in the backseat muttering to herself while the two women rode silently in the front. Charlotte had called into work and been granted a temporary reprieve from her next session of facial videos. She wasn't due back at the station until after lunch.

Normally, Gracey took the Metrorail downtown to the New World Center, Miami's school for the artistically gifted. But after the drama last night, Charlotte had decided she needed to speak with Mr. Steven Underwood, make sure he realized the enormous strain Gracey was under. If there were other teachers besides Underwood who held sway in her daughter's life, Charlotte hadn't heard their names mentioned.

Charlotte also wanted another look at the young teacher, to decide which of her impressions of him was accurate. On the three other occasions they'd met, the young man seemed to fluctuate between sincere concern for Gracey's welfare and smug amusement at Charlotte's worry. It was possible both Underwoods existed. At twenty-five, the young man might identify a little too closely with his students. Smart enough to make nice to parents one-on-one, then later undermining the hell out of them, scoffing at their old-fashioned values to score points with his students. Charlotte was determined to find out. It was time to start plugging holes in the dike, no matter how minor they might appear to be.

As soon as Diana slid into a parking space outside the New World Center for the Arts, Gracey popped out of the back door and without a word hurried up the stairs into her school.

“I can't park here,” Diana said.

“There's a parking garage around the block, near the courthouse.”

Diana looked over at her and shook her head, something vaguely disapproving in her eyes, although Charlotte knew if she called Diana on it, there would be denials. “I don't disapprove of you, darling. I'm on your side one hundred percent.” Though it never felt that way. Never in all these years had Charlotte considered herself a full-fledged member of the Monroe clan.

As odd as it seemed, part of her alienation had to do with Diana's appearance. Her mother-in-law carried herself with such a straight-backed dignity, something so close to haughtiness, that she managed to radiate a superiority and distance that Charlotte could never quite bridge. Her face was all patrician sharp angles. An aristocratic geometry made more severe by her arching eyebrows and neatly composed mouth and piercing brown eyes. She had rich black hair with only a few stray strands of white. Miraculously, her deep golfer's tan had not damaged her complexion. She had the velvety skin of a woman in her twenties. Her daytime wardrobe consisted almost exclusively of bright pastel pants and polo shirts with the insignia of the Granada Country Club. She was handsome in a way that no one in Charlotte's shabby Tennessee family was. It was a beauty that was handed down reverently through the generations along with the family silver and crystal and a few rare gemstones.

Her maiden name was Parisi. And every so often, when a certain wistful look overcame Diana, Charlotte imagined that her mother-in-law was revisiting the grand family villa back in Tuscany, with its endless vineyards and happy peasants who tended the groves of olives and persimmons. The rich Mediterranean sun beamed down on all the dukes and countesses invited over for exquisite dinners in the rustic courtyard with its view of Parisi land stretching all the way to the sunset.

“Charlotte, could I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“About the television appearances, Parker, I mean. All that coverage.”

“What about it?”

“Is it necessary? To have such a high profile? So much publicity.”

“I don't know what you're saying.”

“It's just… I don't know. Unseemly. I know he's ambitious. But all that exposure…is it really necessary?”

“What in the world are you talking about?”

Behind them a taxi honked, and Diana glanced into the rearview mirror with a distracted air.

“Oh, never mind,” she said. “I just worry about the silliest things. Don't pay any attention to me. Forget I mentioned it.”

Diana recomposed her face, but Charlotte could detect a lingering strain around the eyes, a wrinkle of anxiety that seemed rooted in some faraway thought. As if some haunted memory was dogging her.

Charlotte guided Diana to the parking garage and the two of them, huddled beneath Charlotte's umbrella, walked back to the school.

“You're sure you don't mind if I come along? I'd really like to meet this man, too. Give you my impression.”

Charlotte considered asking Diana to stay in the background, to let Charlotte handle this, but she knew even if Diana agreed, it wouldn't matter because when she felt so moved, Diana Monroe could be as ballsy and assertive as any man she'd ever met.

They climbed the stairs and entered the building. Charlotte led the way to the main office and spoke briefly with a secretary and learned that Mr. Underwood was in the auditorium at the moment but would be free to talk with her in fifteen minutes or so, after his ten o'clock class.

Charlotte located the lecture hall and was choosing an out-of-the-way spot in the hallway to wait when Diana pushed open the doors and swept into the dark room.


Charlotte followed and found her mother-in-law in a seat in the back row, leaving the aisle seat free.

The movie was just wrapping up. Joan Crawford in
Mildred Pierce
. Recently Gracey had rented the film and for the last week had been watching it in fits and starts, rewinding a section, playing it again, freeze frame. It was a forties melodrama, a mother-daughter movie that Charlotte had watched as a child, fantasizing that she had a mother like Joan Crawford who spoiled her daughter religiously, sacrificed her own marriage, worked endless hours so her Veda might have a fancy new dress, piano lessons, all the trappings of the wealthy upper classes that Mildred Pierce had been denied as a child. But as Charlotte watched a crucial scene play out, she realized that Gracey must have been viewing a totally different movie.

In the confrontation between Veda and her mother on the stairway of their house, Veda damns Mildred, calls her a common frump. Throws back in her face all those years of wretched self-denial. And second by second, as the tirade unfolds, Joan Crawford's rigid mask softens. Tears shine her eyes, and Veda, in a burst of utter contempt for her mother's weakness, slaps her face.

Then comes the moment the movie has been building toward. The instant that Charlotte must have discounted long ago because it didn't fit with the fantasy she'd constructed around the film.

At that insolent slap, Joan Crawford's facade is torn away and her anger erupts with such raw pain that Charlotte pressed herself back in her seat and almost turned away. Crawford screams at her child, “Get out before I kill you.” But Veda ignores her and walks blithely up the stairs, and Joan Crawford, in full fury now, barks out the girl's name with such terrible force the little brat, the vicious heathen, stops dead.

And when Veda turns to face this terrifying woman that she has clearly underestimated, Joan Crawford slowly reassumes the neutral, zombie mask, a bit of acting that Charlotte had never noticed before, but that now chilled her to the core. That such monstrous rage could flash into view,
then so quickly be concealed behind a bland half-smile seemed hideous and inhuman.

When the lights came on and the rustling of the forty or so students had stilled, Underwood bounded up the stairs to the stage and looked out at his class. He wore jeans and a black T-shirt, and his long ponytail was clasped by some brightly colored bands.

Underwood was silent for a moment, then he spread open his arms as if basking in a tumult of applause. Turning, he swept one hand at the empty screen.

“Did you see that?” he shouted. “You see what she did? Joan Crawford, that last moment. Who saw it? Who can describe it?”

In the second row, Gracey sat up so straight it was as if every cell of her being were focused on the young teacher. Underwood didn't give the class time to answer, but hurtled on.

“We're acting all the time,” he said. “None of it is real. We make it up, all of it. Some of us are just better at it than others. There's no such thing as an authentic gesture, a real smile, a true emotion. Everything we do and feel is awash in ambiguity and the thousand conflicting emotions. We're liars, all of us. Lying twenty-four hours a day, even our dreams are lies. Joan Crawford knows that. That's her genius. She shows that at the end of the film. She's the terrible mother and the saintly mother. She's beautiful and damned. Both slave and master. She can make her face do anything. She can scream and contradict that scream in the same instant.

“Can you do that? No, of course you can't. Only one or two of you can even come close. That's why you're here. That's why I'm here. To guide you to that place. To teach you how to be anybody and everybody in the world. Not just the sad, limited person you were born as. Or the person your parents are trying to mold you into. Why would anyone surrender to a single identity when you could be an infinite variety of people? All people. But to accomplish that, you need to expand. Open like frail flowers to the ruthless sun, to expose yourself to the brutal poetry of the world, the lethality of reality.”

He smiled triumphantly at his turn of phrase. And then his voice grew oily with sarcasm.

“Unless you throw yourself into that harsh, soul-piercing struggle, you'll
never amount to anything. You'll be normal. Normal. Think of it. Oh, what joy you'll have being normal.”

Titters ran through the room.

“Normal, normal, normal. Is Joan Crawford normal? Is Ann Blyth normal? Or Barbara Stanwyck or Fred MacMurray or Bogart?”

He was strutting now. A tyrant rallying his troops to battle.

Charlotte stood up, stepped into the aisle. For a giddy moment, she considered pointing her umbrella like a lance and rushing to the stage to run the idiot through.

Underwood squinted into the lights, and as he recognized her, his mouth arched into a smile.

“I see we have an audience today,” Underwood said.

Forty heads turned. Gracey glanced over her shoulder and when she saw her mother and Diana, her mouth turned sour and she crossed her arms over her chest and slumped down in horror at their grotesque intrusion.

“Well, okay then, let's give them something to see.”

Underwood summoned a student onto the stage, a tall thin girl with braces and stringy black hair. He told her that she would be Veda. Did she know her lines? She nodded shyly that she did. And then he pointed at Gracey and curled his finger. With fuming reluctance she rose from her chair and joined her classmate on the stage.

Underwood posed them, spacing them as movie mother and daughter had been, then showed them where they would pretend the stairway to be, then he stepped away and clapped his hands as if waking them from a trance.


They played the scene, quietly at first, too fast and out of sync, but when the tall girl called Gracey a common frump, then cocked back her hand and unloaded a slap so hard that Gracey staggered back a step, the big room was hushed.

Charlotte found herself drawn forward down the aisle, edging closer to see her daughter's face, to intervene if necessary.

But when Gracey shouted Veda's name and the tall girl turned to stare at
her “mother,” the fury in Gracey's face was utterly real, and when it drained away to something approaching the same unnerving nonchalance as Crawford's had, Charlotte was paralyzed, and it took the whispers of Gracey's classmates to wake her from her daze and find herself only steps from the lip of the stage.

“Bravo!” Underwood cried out as the scene ended. “Bravo, my little elves.”

Charlotte turned and marched up the aisle and out of the auditorium. A minute later Diana joined her in the corridor.

“Let's go,” Charlotte said.

“What about the conference?”

“I've seen enough. I have the picture.”

“She's wonderful, isn't she? A real talent for acting. That was something very fine indeed.”

“That was a horror,” Charlotte said.

Diana followed her out to the street. The rain had passed, and the sun was in full force, humidity so dense she was instantly sheened with sweat.

“Well, you do have to agree he's a charismatic young man.”

“A fool,” Charlotte said. “A dangerous, self-absorbed adolescent.”

“Oh, good,” Diana said. “Now everything can be Underwood's fault.”

Charlotte halted. Around them the manic hustle of downtown Miami rushed on. A man hawking plastic Baggies of limes weaved in and out of the logjammed traffic. By the front door of the pawnshop behind them, a mutt lifted its leg and pissed on the wall a few inches from a sleeping man. The harsh tang of high-octane coffee. And from a dozen tiny stores lining the street came competing rhythms and lyrics. Bob Marley and hip-hop, Sinatra and Dylan.

“All you need to do is love her, Charlotte. Love the girl. That's all.”

“Is that right? And that'll fix everything?”

“Yes, it will. It will fix everything that can be fixed.”

Charlotte's chest was splitting like some deep-sea diver who'd gone down too far, then come up too fast.

She nodded. The quickest way past this moment was not to engage. Take the advice in a silent gulp like a shot of hundred-proof wisdom.

BOOK: Forests of the Night
8.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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