Authors: Charles L. Grant
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Black; nothing but black. And no response when he whispered, “Scotty, hey, Scotty!” as loud as he dared.
Christ, the kid probably fell or something, he decided, and made his way along the wall to the lefthand fire door, grabbed the crossbar, and shoved down. It didn’t move. When he tried to pull it up, his hand slipped and he nearly fell on his back. The opposite door was the same-iron, sounding hollow when he kicked it, not budging when he put his shoulder to it and pushed as hard as he could. His soles slipped on the worn carpeting. His palms coated the bar with sweat and his fingers lost their grip.
No sweat, he thought; the other ones.
The other exits were locked.
Then he heard the scream.
Look for all these Tor books by Charles L. Grant
AFTER MIDNIGHT (Editor)
GREYSTONE BAY (Editor)
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 1986 by Charles L. Grant
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
First printing: December 1986
A TOR Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, Inc. 49 West 24 Street New York, N.Y. 10010
Cover art by David Mann
ISBN: 0-812-51860-8 C AN. ED.: 0-812-51861-6
Printed in the United States of America
For Howard, who walks the land in the sun
but never forgets midnight;
who works in the city
but comes home to Oxrun.
My best man in many more ways than one.
ld man Armstrong is dead, and no one since has claimed or worked the farm.
And whatever they were like, the man and his family, is a mystery best left to children’s autumn dreams and the winter-long dreams of patient old men who lie awake until dawn, thinking of the time they wouldn’t wake at all.
If there had ever been a farmhouse, substantial or not, it is gone—roof, walls, and foundation; if there had ever been a barn, a shed, outbuildings of any kind, they are gone as well, battered into the rocky soil or turned to wind-chased ash in the aftermath of a fire. No fence. No well. Not even a rutted road a wagon might have taken from the markets in the village. And the field that might once have been the site of high-growing corn, perhaps a green bed of alfalfa, perhaps lettuce rows or cabbage, is derelict now, and has been so for at least a century, if not more. Grasses whip-sharp and thin fill the furrows that are left, shrubs dream of being trees, and here and there for color an evergreen that has escaped being cut down for indoor use at Christmas. Dogs never run here, and cats seldom prowl, leaving the brown and green landscape to the insects and the crows.
To get there is easy: you cross Mainland Road, climb down and up a wide drainage ditch, then hunt for a decent gap in the wild thorned hedge that hides the land from the highway, and Oxrun Station beyond. Once through, and into the field, it remains a matter of not tripping over dead branches from trees you never saw, of avoiding the burrows that look to snare your ankles, of dodging the occasional hornet and slapping at gnats when the sun is near to setting.
Burrs cling to trousers, twigs snap under heels, and winter-raised rocks look to rob you of your balance.
Every so often, from somewhere just on the other side of my peripheral vision, I thought I saw a rabbit, stock-still, ears pricked, but turning showed me nothing but hillocks and tangled weeds. I even imagined a fox charging through the grass toward its den, pursued by a black hound—and that’s when I decided that old man Armstrong, whoever he was, was right in leaving this place. It didn’t hold dreams and it didn’t hold nightmares, but in spite of the noise of the traffic behind me and the growl of an airliner stalking the blue above, it created images behind my eyes that I didn’t want to see, didn’t want to explore.
I shivered for no other reason than it felt right at the time, pushed my hands deep into the pockets of my worn denim jacket, and pushed on, using my knees to hack through those overgrown places I couldn’t go around, telling myself for slim comfort this was the way the pioneers had done it, this was how it was when the village was born.
How nice for them, I thought glumly; no wonder they’re all dead.
By the time I had gone a hundred yards, I felt as if I had been lifting weights all my life without benefit of pause, and I was damning those pioneers for coming here at all.
And what made it worse was the fact that Abe Stockton up there passed through it all as if he were a ghost.
“C’mon, Abe, give me a break, huh?”
He looked back and grinned at me, seeing my puffing, my not too silent groaning, and pointed to the line of woodland north and south of the field. Dark walls. Hickory, pine, and oak. Birds sing there constantly that never sing here.
Then he nodded to the west, lifted the collar of his tan sheepskin coat, and ducked quickly away from a sudden violent gust that lifted dust from the dry ground and shoved it in our faces. When the air calmed and he had blinked his eyes clear, he inhaled slow and deep, and let it out in one explosion. A hand with a handkerchief wiped the sweat from his face. A hand covered his eyes, his mouth, and clenched into a fist.
I stopped feeling sorry for myself then and my less than perfect physical condition. At least I would be able to get out of bed tomorrow morning and go to work with the reasonable assumption that I’d do it all again the day after. And the day after that.
Abe Stockton couldn’t.
Abe Stockton was dying.
“There,” he said, pointing an old man’s finger toward our destination. “Give it a couple of minutes more and you can rest, if you need it.”
“Hell, I can walk all day if I have to,” I lied with a grin. “Didn’t I ever tell you about the time I managed eight thousand feet of Everest between breakfast and lunch?”
He smiled; he didn’t laugh. I doubt anyone in the Station has ever heard him really laugh, or has seen much more than that brief pull of his lips that narrows his face, squints his dark eyes, deepens the creases that mark him true New England. He is an unabashed and unashamed stereotype, no question about it, and he has been Chief of Police here for almost thirty-five years.
We ravaged a thicket with our boots and slashing arms, and once on the other side, he shook his head wearily and mopped his brow again.
“I ever tell you a Stockton was the first chief here, back a hundred years, maybe more? After the war, I think. Sonofabitch must have been ninety feet tall too, if you believe all the stories. I ever tell you about that?”
He had. He has, in fact, told me a lot of things over the two decades I’ve known him, much of which I’ve used in one form or another to chronicle the village’s time, none of which he’s told to anyone but me.
Which was why, now, we were going to the orchard.
“You gotta see it to believe it,” he said to me yesterday afternoon, between prolonged bouts of coughing that turned his pale face red and tore his lungs apart. “Nothing I say is gonna make sense until you see it for yourself.”
“But I have,” I told him, thinking of the work I hadn’t done and had to get back to soon before the creditors decided to set up camp on my lawn. “I’ve been there a couple of times, as a matter of fact.”
“Not with me, you haven’t.”
And that sealed it; I was going.
A hundred yards later we were there, seated on a rock large enough to hold ten, dark enough to trap midnight and never give back the stars.
The orchard must have been a wonderful place, back when it was alive and no one stayed away— scores of twisted apple trees whose fruit scented the air each fall and turned the land red once the first frost had passed; the blossoms in spring must have looked like snow from a distance, an entire field of it daring the sun to melt it down; the sound of children picking their own for pies and preserves and butter and cakes must have brought Christmas early to this part of the world.