Authors: Dennis Etchison
She pulled open the compartment door and found herself staring at two eyes.
And a mouth. Open, lips contorted, teeth exposed in a rictus smile. Water, the very water that had dripped on Elizabeth, seeping out of the corpse’s nose and mouth.
“Christ!” said Ashcroft. “It’s Dick Baxter!”
The grotesque body, squeezed flat, looked like a monster that had been netted in some mysterious deep.
Water was exuding from every pore, seaweed plastered the body’s exposed skin.
Nick held his palm out, as if to feel the water running out of the dead man’s nose and mouth.
“Tell me,” he said, his voice barely contained now, about to explode, “how does a man drown on board, without ever touching the water?”
“We don’t know that he drowned,” said Ashcroft.
“You have eyes, man! That’s water in his lungs. And look at this. Seaweed. On his throat. See the salt drying on his face? What does that tell you?”
“It tells me,” said Ashcroft solemnly, “that I want to find Al and Tommy real bad.”
Elizabeth stopped listening to them. She could only see the dilated eyes, the inflamed nostrils, the open mouth, something green and something brown there between the teeth, the purple lips deformed, opened wide.
She closed her eyes, threw back her head and let out a scream that reverberated off the walls and continued to echo around them for a long time afterward.
Reverend Malone floated down the corridors, a specter in his own house.
His robes flowed open, rustling over the uneven stones as the material filled with dank air and blossomed around his thin body. From time to time his bare heels caught and tripped on the hem, but he took no notice of the tearing of the vestment as he drifted on, circling the pews beneath darkling stained glass, doomed to visit, again and again, without end, the stations of his dispensation.
“The mark,” he was muttering. “The stain. The corruption . . .”
He came once more to the enormous gold cross mounted in the apse behind the altar.
I will lift up mine eyes
. . .
He hovered before it, seeing his unshaven face reflected in its patina, his uncombed hair, his stained teeth, his dried, blistered lips.
“Filth,” he murmured, and spat at it.
His spittle ran down to the base, blurring his haunted image but holding the strange tincture that still shone in his hollow eyes, as though they were glowing with a deep ocher light.
He laughed bitterly, the hoarse sound deflecting off the bricks and beams until it returned to him from the cavernous depths of the building and the farthest corners of the sacristy, an inhuman, sepulchral echo that would inhabit the church forever.
He shuffled on, tipping hymnals onto the floor as he went.
His toes chattered over the rough stones, but he ignored the blood and skin left in the wake of his passing, a glistening slime-track that marked the deepening record of his path.
“Blasphemy,” he said, white foam appearing at the corners of his mouth. “O the blasphemy . . .”
I’ve always known, he thought, in that isolated part of his mind that miraculously remained rational. I’ve felt it in the walls, in the vestibule, in the dismal and fetid basement passageways, since long before I was old enough to say my first prayer. I’ve felt it in the night, on the sweating night, the long arm of it there, reaching out to me through the blood of my father and his father before him. The taint was there before my seed was formed. I’ve felt it always. It was there for all time, within me and without me, lying awake in the darkness, trying to speak its name. And now it is revealed, and the world will speak its name, my name, without mercy, over and over throughout the long night ahead.
And its name is evil.
And its name is wickedness.
And its name is damnation.
And its name is sin beyond redemption.
“The mark,” he recited, “the stain, the corruption,” his tattered and ruined robe taking to the air around him like gigantic, unknowably dark and tireless wings as he descended the steps of the altar one more time.
The old ways die hard,
he thought, or perhaps it was the voice within him that spoke, the voice that never slept and which only now dared to come forth again.
Don’t they, my son? You should have expected that, after so many years following blindly in His footsteps.
“Take me now!” he cried, “O my God, why do you not? What good can I be to Your flock?”
His yellowed teeth clamped together until he tasted of his own warm, putrid blood. The foam on his lips became pink, then red. He did not try to stay his hands as the nails began digging into his sides, slashing and clawing, like the meaningless writhings of an animal caught in the death throes of a trap at the edge of the world, beyond all hope of salvation.
She had pleaded with Nick to leave her alone, to let her walk back to town by herself. She wasn’t trying to get away from him, but away from the horror she had seen on that boat.
On her way through town, Elizabeth passed the Square.
A banner was stretched across Main Street. It sagged between the trees like one of those advertising streamers that are tied to the tails of single-engine airplanes to promote new products. If she closed one eye it resembled the elongated flag of some unknown country flying proudly against the freshly-painted wood of Town Hall.
She swung her pack onto a park bench, folded her legs under her, and took out a Razorpoint pen. Drawing was always a good diversion and this was definitely worth recording. She hadn’t seen anything like it except in picture book collections of old glass plate prints.
She ignored the workmen who were busy lashing together the bleacher stands, because she knew she would not be able to capture the movement no matter how hard she tried; besides, the bleachers were not yet finished. Like scaffold seating for the Rose Parade in Pasadena. But she had not been to the Rose Parade since she was a child and could not remember how they were supposed to look when they were done.
She skipped the refreshment stand, too. It reminded her that she was feeling queasy, and anyhow it did not fit in with the nineteenth-century setting. And the exquisite light. That was what was missing from the photographs she had studied of midwestern towns and settlements, even from those corny but fascinating old Norman Rockwell prints, postcards from a bygone era: the lighting. She decided it had to do with the clarity of the sky and the way the trees showed up against it, so that you could count every backlighted leaf if you wanted to, and the purity of the shadows slanting down from the sharp symmetry of the old architecture, so full of acute angles, steeples and eaves and attic vents and shingles over impossible rainspots. She would have to work fast; even as she began, a granular film of dust or mist descended over the elms and poplars, diffusing the rich, saturated blue of the sky and erasing shadow lines from doorways and window awnings.
She was aware of a flapping overhead.
It was another banner, unfurling directly above the bench.
ANTONIO BAY CELEBRATES ITS PAST
Well, they damn well should celebrate it, she thought. They should tell the whole world. How many people outside of the locals even know this is here, a perfect reproduction of the past, built by relocated New Englanders, probably, and set up here in our state to remind them of home? Not a reproduction, she corrected herself; an original, the real thing, by God, tended and repaired and guarded against shopping malls and supermarkets and crackerbox glass-sided insurance buildings. Don’t let them put up a mall here, for God’s sake, not here. I’ll bet the city council has passed a law against it already. Because this is too choice to believe. They ought to declare Antonio Bay a historical monument and charge admission; I’d pay.
She worked quickly on her preliminary sketch until it was nearly complete, but there remained one part of the tableau that did not want to come, some detail that was incongruous and would not fit onto her sketch paper no matter how many times she came back to it.
She returned to the foreground details that framed the square. After a few minutes more she had everything else in rough and there was no way to avoid filling it in, the end of the park, the small area around the speaker’s shell.
She chewed her lip in irritation and tried again.
The townspeople passed her bench, neither ignoring her nor taking any particular notice of what she was doing. Children ran ahead in T-shirts and tennis shoes, dishwater hair falling over their foreheads. Women in sleeveless blouses walked in pairs, chatting amiably, as their husbands strolled the park in walking shorts and black socks, carrying ice chests and Instamatic cameras.
Two women stood out from the others, one in a tailored suit and the other holding a note pad. They moved purposefully, cutting ahead of the crowd and arriving at the bandstand by a tarpaulin-covered pedestal in the middle of the roped-off section of the park. The one in the suit was talking fast, as if dictating, the other attempting to take it down, her pencil jerking over the page. Elizabeth wished she had her glasses. That was it, the centerpiece of her sketch, the only area she had yet to block in. She concentrated, straining to find the form in it, when suddenly she began to get sick to her stomach all over again.
The tarp. The shape of it. It was long and bulging in the breeze as they lifted the edge of it.
It reminded her, she realized at last, of the shape of that man Baxter’s body laid out under canvas on the deck of Ashcroft’s boat, coming back from the
That was when she had lost her breakfast over the side, seeing the canvas there and knowing what was under it and smelling it steaming in the sun.
She did not want to know what was under it this time.
She forced herself back to her sketch. But the whiteness of the paper bleached out before her eyes and she was no longer able to find a pattern to the lines, even to remember where she had left off.
She hooked her pack over her arm and stood up, the weight of it almost holding her down.
Oh no, she thought. I’m not going to be sick here, in front of all these people, am I? It can’t be true. Because they’ll try to help me, bundle me up and force me to see a doctor, and he’ll make me lie down and take a pill and go to sleep and I’ll never get out of this place, not until they pull off the canvas and more weird things start to happen. I’m just passing through, honest. I don’t want to get mixed up in any of this. I knew it. No, not here, please.
She put her head between her knees, but that only made her more dizzy. She stood again, slowly this time, and tried walking. I’ll move my feet over the grass, I won’t move my head or my arms, just keep walking slowly, one step at a time, and I’ll be all right, I will. I have to be.
She came to cement curbing. Somewhere a marching band was tuning up. A Rexall Drug Store swam into view. She braced her hand on the doorway, took several deep breaths, and went inside.
“Can you help me?” she said without waiting to be asked. “I need some Alka-Seltzer. Or Pepto-Bismal. Or—”
No one behind the counter.
The back room? There didn’t seem to be one. Everyone’s out in the park, she thought. Practicing whatever it is they do here every hundred years. Behind her, a fly fan whirred persistently over the doorway.
Well, I’ll just have to take what I need. Who cares? They don’t, obviously; they have more important things on their minds. They’ll never miss it. Or I’ll leave a note. Not a note, just the money. They’ll figure it out.
The patent medicines were shelved behind the counter.
Which means I’ll have to walk all the way to the end, climb over those boxes, reach up to the second-from-the-top shelf . . . I’ll never make it.
Hell with it, she thought. You’re a big girl now. You can make it on your own, with no help from anybody. Stand here in the coolness, under the fan, for another minute. You’ll be fine. Stop babying yourself.
She backed out of the drugstore.
She heard horns blowing, the creak of children’s swings, the pounding of carpenters at work in the square. Pounding and pounding, inside her head. Her face felt hot, swollen. Beads of perspiration popped out on her forehead. She heard voices. Leaning against the building, she turned.
The woman in the suit was walking this way, crossing the street, dictating as she went. She did not bother to look up, as if she knew what traffic there was would stop for her, as if she owned the town. Her high heels clopped over the pavement with a regular, insistent rhythm, pounding, pounding.
“Excuse me,” said Elizabeth.
They did not hear her. At the entrance to the next building, the younger woman glanced her way once, then followed the older one inside. Elizabeth could hear them talking beyond the door. There was a sign with a ship’s anchor hanging in front. She could not raise her head to read it.
I need to sit down, she thought.
She felt her way inside.
It was pitch-black. Voices, glasses clinking, the grinding of an old-fashioned manual cash register. Her eyes began to adjust.
She saw waving seaweed and yellow shells under a purple light, in a long fish tank behind the bar.
Good, she thought. Bars always sell Bromo-Seltzer, don’t they? Of course they do. All I have to do is ask.
I’d better sit down first. Get my bearings, clear my head. So dark in here. Can’t see where—
The back of her hand brushed a table.
Right here. I don’t even have to go up to the bar. Someone will serve me. Just a Bromo, please. They won’t like that. I’ll leave a good tip.
If I sit back here, though, they may not see me. I can’t see much myself. Better sit closer, over there, under the light coming through the—what are those? Portholes?
She was able to discern the woman in the suit, her severe blond hairdo outlined against the wall. I wonder if I’ll look like that at her age? No. She’s so extreme. I’ll bet she was beautiful once. She had to be.
Elizabeth felt her way toward the booth and slipped into a miniature captain’s chair at an adjacent table.