Read The Orchard Online

Authors: Charles L. Grant

Tags: #Fiction, #General

The Orchard (17 page)

BOOK: The Orchard
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“It’s chewy,” she said. “It’ll help calm you.”

Her hair was in rags across her face, and no matter how often she pushed it away, it returned. Her blouse was stained wet and bunched over her waistband, and somewhere along the line she had tossed the suit’s jacket onto the couch.

“I think,” she said at last, “this is a judgment of some kind.”

His mouth was filled with tasteless candy, but he chewed it anyway, swallowing, sometimes choking.

“I mean, it could be, couldn’t it? Like we’ve been transported somehow to a different plane than the one we live on—you know what I mean? Do you know about planes? Of existence?” He nodded; she nodded back. “So we’re here, see, and we’re being judged. Like we’re already dead—We don’t know it, but we are.” She grinned. ”You must have had some pretty interesting thoughts about women, El, to see Ginny that way.”

He spat the candy out behind him, took off his jacket, unbuttoned his shirt, and pulled it down and back roughly to show her his left shoulder. There was a deep, ragged scratch there, and bits of stained white thread sticking to dried blood. “That’s not on another plane,” he told her sharply, pulling the shirt back on and trying not to wince. “That’s here, Katherine. She wasn’t an apparition. I saw her. I felt her. She was nothing like a ghost or some kind of an illusion.”

“But she had to be, El. Don’t be silly. You must have cut yourself when you tripped on the stairs, caught it on the edge of a seat or something.”

“I fell later, not then.”

She looked down at her shoes. A finger poked at her skirt, flicked at some lint he couldn’t see. “You don’t think it’s a judgment, then?”

“I don’t think so, no.”

“Then what?”

“If I knew that, we’d be gone, don’t you think?”

The strain worked on her face, giving her lines about the mouth and canyons beneath her eyes; smudges of dust hollowed her cheeks and streaked over her brow, and though she had tried to wipe away the results of her weeping, flecks of eye shadow and mascara still clung to her skin.

She’s beautiful, he thought, and didn’t know the question was coming until his lips moved: “Why didn’t you go out with me, Katherine?”

She was startled and leaned away for a second, and he was embarrassed and tried to wave it all aside, telling her with his gestures that it didn’t matter, he was being ridiculous, and this was, after all, hardly the time.

“I think,” she said, “it was because I felt a little sorry for you.”

“You did?”

A nod, a brief smile. “You were trying so hard, El, all those accidental meetings on the street, looking in the store window like you were an urchin begging for food.”

“Me?” He didn’t know whether to be angry or hurt.

“I didn’t want to feel sorry for you, you understand? I wanted to like you without having to feel as if I had to mother you to get your attention.” She grinned, like a child who has a wonderful secret. “When you stopped it, I thought you found another girl. Then, when I found out—”

“You found out?”

She shrugged. “I asked around.”

It was his turn to grin, and feel awfully foolish.

“When I found out you didn’t have a girl, I couldn’t get the nerve to call you. Stupid, you know? I wanted to—it’s the thing we women can do these days—and I just couldn’t do it.”

“I’ll be damned.”

Candlelight danced, and the chandelier sang off-key.

There was no doubt about it—he could see his breath now.

And he didn’t move when she said, “There’s someone in the theater.”

He had heard it almost as soon as she had spoken—a low moaning, someone in pain. Instantly, he was on his feet, grabbing her arm and pulling her with him, telling her to hold the doors open while he went inside, following his shadow to the head of the center aisle and seeing, halfway down, a figure sprawled on the floor. He ran to it without thinking, turned it over, and saw Paula staring back at him, terrified. She began crying the moment she recognized him, threw her arms around his neck when he lifted her and carried her back to the couch. Katherine hovered, and sat beside her on the edge of a cushion as soon as he moved away, helplessly waving his hands until he returned to the auditorium and shouted Gary’s name. He knew there would be no response, but he kept it up for several minutes, walking up and down the aisles, ignoring the dark that reached out from the stage to drag him back, drag him under, to where the thunder was born.

Ignoring it as long as he could, too angry to yield to the fear lying in ambush, too frightened to dare let his mind out of its cage.

And when at last he returned to the lobby, wiping his face dry with a sleeve, Paula was sitting up and Katherine was leaving the ladies’ room, a wad of damp paper towel cupped in her hand. She gave him a
she’s all right
smile and returned to the couch, daubing Paula’s cheeks, her forehead, until her hand was gently pushed away.

“I’ll live,” she said. “I got scared in the dark and ran. I think I must have collided with a seat or something.” And she looked at Ellery. “Is Gary back yet?”

“No. Look, where were …no.”

“That’s okay.” She massaged her forearm absently. “He will be. He doesn’t like to leave me alone for very long. He says I could hurt myself because I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing. He calls me a hothouse flower.” A sigh; a deep breath. “Hothouse flowers are stronger than he thinks.”

“Why”—Katherine rose and smoothed her skirt down over her hips—”why don’t we check the doors again, huh? God knows there isn’t anything else—”

“It’s still raining,” Paula whispered, wonder softening the hysteria in her voice. “It’s still pouring out there, and it isn’t even flooded.”

When she stopped, her teeth began chattering.

“Good idea,” he said to Katherine. “We’ll each take a candle and make the rounds. There’s got to be something we’ve missed. Maybe some sort of special emergency exit, one of those flush-to-the-wall doors or something.”

He picked up a candle from the table, lighted it, and handed it over. Paula shook her head when he offered her one, pushing back into the couch’s corner and holding her arms tight at her sides. Her rouge was gone; there was no blood in her face. Then Katherine headed for the auditorium, stopped, and turned. He was still at the table, looking at the staircases. He couldn’t go up there again, not a third time. He didn’t care if the place was falling down on their heads, there was nothing anyone could say that would make him climb up there again.

She gave him a smile, pity or sympathy, he didn’t know, and he felt no guilt at all when she hurried away, one hand sliding up the brass banister, her shoes at the bottom where she’d kicked them off.

He shook himself to dispell the chill that seemed to deepen for a moment, and winked confidently at Paula before stepping out of the lobby. She whispered something to him—he thought it was
i
wish gary were more like you
—but he didn’t go back to find out. Whatever it was, it was meant kindly, to be reassuring, and he didn’t want to tell her that if Gary were like him, he and his wife would be living someplace far different than their estate on the Pike.

He kept his arm straight out in front of him, the candle at an angle to drop the scalding wax on the floor.

He tried all the doors, pulled aside the wall coverings and examined every inch of brick he could reach, climbed a second time to the stage and hunted for a rear exit he might have overlooked before. All he found was some incomprehensible equipment thrust into the corners, and when he came around the curtain, he glanced up at the balcony to see how Katherine was doing.

There was no light.

He called to her.

There was no answer.

Deciding she had already finished, he moved toward the lobby, thinking about what he’d imagined Paula Richards had said, wondering at the same time why he hadn’t panicked. This was, he told himself sardonically, hardly your ordinary predicament, yet he had somehow managed to keep relatively calm, reasonably in control, despite the encounter with. … He moistened his lips. He couldn’t say it. But there must be something inside him, something he hadn’t been able to put to his tongue yet that knew what was happening, or had a fairly good idea; and that influence, felt and not known, must be what was preventing him from dropping off the deep end.

He hurried into the lobby.

He dropped the candle on the floor.

“Oh, god,” he said dully. “Oh, my god.”

Katherine was sprawled on the carpet under the chandelier, one leg pulled under the other, one hand outstretched and clawed at the air. A candelabrum was lying beside her head, and the left side of her face was covered in red.

“Jesus, Paula, what happened?”

He ran to the fallen woman and put out a hand, drew it back into a fist when he realized she was dead, that the blood on her cheek was already drying.

“Paula, goddamnit, what the hell happened?”

There were tears in his eyes when he looked over his shoulder, and one of them slipped to his cheek when he saw her sitting primly in the middle of the couch. She was looking at her hands folded neatly in her lap, and she was smiling.

 

It came at last, the scream.

It tightened his chest with bands of cold iron, flexed the muscles of his arms, brought darkred ridges to the sides of his neck.

He looked up to the domed ceiling and saw the nodding shadow of Paula’s head, the crystals on the chandelier refusing the light—and he opened his mouth to let out the anger, to set free the fear, to demand in the wailing the explanation rightfully his, for his torment and the dying and the dark that was spilling down the staircase and across the flowered carpet.

In spite of the candles, the dark was closing in.

The concession stands vanished. The steps were gone in black.

And the scream became raw as he tasted blood in his mouth, the sweat pouring down his face, the bite of a split knuckle as the scream settled to a sobbing, to a whimpering, to a harsh and halting breathing that soon dropped him to his back.

And when that stopped as well, he could hear the old man, and the old man was snoring.

“Shit!” he yelled, pounded the floor with both fists and rolled over, scrambled to his feet and felt his eyes widen. “Shit!” as he charged into the office and looked down, his shirt torn off his injured shoulder, his legs snapping outward, trying to hold him while his hands reached for the wattled throat and halted less than a finger’s length away.

“Get up!” he screamed.

“Fucking bastard, get up!” he shouted, and threw the weathered coat aside, grabbed the man’s lapels and yanked him toward his face. Spittle flew when he screamed again; the head bobbed and nodded when he shook the man furiously; a drop of blood landed on a bruised cheek when he bit into his own lip and threw the old man down.

The eyelids didn’t flutter.

The face muscles didn’t twitch.

A hand coated with liver spots dangled to the floor.

Rain drummed in cadence; thunder drifted away.

Behind him, so softly, he could hear Paula humming.

“Damn you,” he said to the stranger sleeping on the couch, and dropped to his knees, too weak to tear out the old man’s throat, to pummel his chest, to drag him into the lobby and break a chair or a table or his own hands over the head that no longer moved.

He sniffed, and the tears stopped, and when the candle on the desk finally guttered out in a draught, he remembered a rhyme and knew then it was so.

“Wake up,” he whispered. “Old man, wake up.”

Thunder rattled a picture frame on the wall, and the candle flared again, turned to smoke, and the smoke was a shadow.

“Please. Wake up.”

He rocked back onto his heels, pushed himself to his feet, and left. Paula was still on the couch. Katherine’s body was gone, and her shoes by the far staircase, the candelabrum, the stains of her blood.

With thumbs pressed to his cheeks, fingers massaging his brow, he walked to the lefthand door and stared out at the rain.

“Paula?”

He could see her in the glass. Pale there as well, her hair fleeing its pins in slow-waving wisps. She was watching him; she had heard him.

“Do you …”

The cold drifted from the door, touched him, moved on.

“… do you remember before, when we were talking about dreams?”

After several seconds she nodded. He didn’t ask the next question. He waited instead, until she licked her lips several times and made a feeble effort to put her errant hair to rights. A hand to her throat, pulling the skin thoughtfully, inadvertently loosening the high collar’s pearl button. The other hand spread in a fan across her chest.

“We all do it,” the reflection said though the dark lips didn’t move. “We remember sometimes; we forget most of the time.”

Yeah, he thought; but you have nightmares just the same.

“They don’t always make sense, except to some part of your brain.” A brief scowl, a briefer smile. “You’re supposed to be working out your daily problems somehow.”

Right, he thought; but it doesn’t always work.

“Do you dream, Ellery?”

He nodded.

“So do I. It’s lovely.”

Raining harder, and easing, until the thunder brought it back.

“I read once,” she said, “that you do most of your dreaming, the serious stuff, I mean, just before you wake up.” A shake of her head; a sighing look at the chandelier. “I don’t know about that. I’m no expert.”

“I know,” he said, and knew she hadn’t heard him.

She continued to talk, and he continued to watch the rain, flaring brightly at times like static on a black screen, drops running together in a mockery of tears.

The cold deepened.

The thunder was gone.

Then he heard Gary’s name, and he turned as slowly as his legs would allow.

Paula was standing, her eyes closed, lips parted.

He watched without fascination as her hips thickened slightly beneath the confines of the tweed skirt, her waist draw in, her breasts enlarge, the angles of her face sharpen here, and there grow soft;

he watched as the skirt slit up one side and her leg poked through, the stockings gleaming in the light;

BOOK: The Orchard
11.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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