It starts when you pull the lamp chain and light doesn’t come. Then you know you will never wake up in time, you will not make it to the end of this paragraph alive. Desperate reassuring thoughts try to rise over the panic in your head: it’s okay, you don’t need lights, you are practically awake already. You are lying on your bed, you can guess the familiar shape of the side lamp in the morning twilight and hear the old radiator clunking in the night; you are safe. It’s just that the lamp doesn’t work. But you want it to work; you need to dispel the darkness and let certainty outline the room so the things outside know you’re awake and won’t dare enter, and you pull the chain again and again, and you recall the lamp switch has failed before (has it?), and look, the lightbulb really is trying, though it barely manages to seep a wan glow, and it’s not enough to flash the room out of the shadows, but who needs more, the lamp says, you’re here, this is your room, I am your lamp, that’s your radiator going clunk in the night, that’s the same old closed door beyond which things might lurk and breathe skinless and eyeless, but you can rest, we promise we don’t exist really, lie down. Or are you lying down? Because you think you’re up on your elbows, but your arms aren’t feeling the weight now that you focus on them; in fact, your eyeballs are not moving, and then you try to say “hey” but your throat isn’t responding either, so you cling to the sheets (Do you? Are your fingernails truly scratching the linen?) and you struggle to emit a sound, make your vocal cords vibrate, push some air through your windpipe, just feel your fucking windpipe, for God’s sake, shout and wake up the slumbering blob that is you on your bed, sleeping, dreaming, at the mercy of drooling things outside the closed door, and you pull pull pull pull pull the chain and the lamp insists, I can’t, it’s a technical fault, but I promise you you’re awake, look at me, I’m your good old lamp, I’ve never lied to you, the chain has failed before, you know this, you should install a real switch you can snap on and off, and that’s when you realize your bedside lamp never had a chain. Furthermore, there’s no radiator in the room that can go clunk. It’s their footsteps (clunk), and the door is already open—try to shout—they’re in your room—try to shout—they’re creeping up your bed (clunk), stretching toward you (clunk), squamous ice-cold webbed fingers aiming for your spine—try to SHOUT!
Her own scream woke her up. It probably woke the whole block, really. She could still hear it resonating in the shoebox width of the room while her racing heart geared down from sprint to marathon and senses swept her surroundings, checking up on reality (of course this is your room, you dimwit, look at how cold and smelly and dampened by bureaucratic rain-pattering and faraway sirens it is). It had not been a bad scream, Kerri judged by the echoes of it. Not so much an eeek, a mouse kind of shrill as a strong, hard-boiled holy mother of fuck.
Tim’s grave, silent stare seemed to confirm it: On really bad nights she would wake up to the dog on the bed, barking away the nightmares. Today he was just sitting by, eyes level and fixed on her, an At ease, soldier expression on his face.
She sat up in her unheated room, lit by the TV static sky, and touched the ice-cold window glass. Real sensations, all of them. She wondered how dreams managed to deceive her every time; they were so blatantly dreams in retrospect, the fake stimuli so dim and shallow. She caressed Tim’s head: his short fur, his wet nose, his whiskers. It was all too complex to be fabricated.
“How do you stay sane, Tim?” she asked him.
Tim whimpered, olivertwisting his pale blue eyes.
Kerri gave him a flirt-acknowledging smirk and allowed him to hop inside the spartan cast-iron-framed bed. She sat against the wall, flipped through the dozen books on the solitary shelf, opened one paperback, and retrieved the newspaper clip.
The teen sleuths grinned back at her across thirteen years, from the sunny grayscale shores of Sleepy Lake, 1977.
“Do you still see them?” asked the shrink.
Nate, crash-landed on the armchair opposite, threw back a dehydrated stare.
“Your friends, I mean,” Dr. Willett clarified. “Are you still in contact with them?”
Nate took a drag of his cigarette clutched between Band-Aid-wrapped fingertips, stalling for the end of the session.
“My cousin Kerri calls from time to time. She went to study biology in New York, and she stayed there. I see her once or twice a year. Her mom still breeds Weimaraners back in Portland.
“Andy just left. At sixteen or so, she threw a backpack over her shoulder, left home, and jumped on a train to . . . I don’t know, find herself or whatever. She was always the complex one. I think she calls Kerri sometimes, or sends her postcards.
“Peter was the golden boy. He stayed in California to finish high school; he planned to attend the Air Force Academy, follow Captain Al’s steps . . . and then at sixteen he got discovered by a casting agent. He did movies, became a big star.”
He snorted, put out the cigarette, and dropped the tone of his voice.
“Then he overdosed on pills and died in a hotel room in L.A.”
In another city in another state, Kerri stroked the pulp-quality paper on which the Pennaquick Telegraph was printed, its pores, the jagged edges of the page. Real sensations, like this cold room and the coarse army blanket and Tim’s ears brushing her thighs. This did happen. This piece of paper says it. “Teen Sleuths Unmask Sleepy Lake Monster.” “Uncover Criminal Plot.” “Haunting Debunked.” We did it.
“Do you miss them?” Dr. Willett prompted.
Nate gazed at the window. It was March, but still winter. That’s what the last thirteen years had been: a very long winter.
“Nah,” he said. “We were kids. Childhood friends don’t last forever. I mean, who holds on to the past for that long?”
Thomas X. Wickley’s own thirteen-year-old copy of the Pennaquick Telegraph, stained with blood and urine, burned inside his breast pocket during the parole hearing.
“You were charged with fraud, attempted burglary, kidnapping, and child endangerment. And you pleaded guilty to all four. Is that correct?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Now, you know kidnapping is the most serious of these charges. And yet it’s also the one for which you could have more easily pleaded innocence. You were aware that this crime in itself, kidnapping a minor, added ten years to your sentence?”
Thirteen fucking years.
“I was,” he answered.
His hands on the table didn’t even shudder at the number. They stayed still and gnarled like ancient trees, mumbling in grumpy voices, Thirteen years, you say, boy? That’s nothing!
It was true. He never had any plans for those thirteen years anyway. Not since things went awry in Blyton Hills.
“Mr. Wickley? I was asking, would you mind retelling for us the circumstances of that charge?”
“Not at all,” he said, in the tone both weary and secretly glad to be asked of every old man who has a chance to tell a story, no matter how embarrassing. “My . . . perceived rivals at the time were teenagers. Children. During that night at the house on the lake, they split up to cover more ground. I saw the chance to seize one and I did. She’d accidentally fallen through a trapdoor and I found her in the basement. I gagged her and tied her up. I didn’t even consider she was only a little girl. I was blinded by greed. I am no danger to those children anymore. I don’t hate children.”
He stopped well before being carried away into saying he liked children. Words must be picked carefully in a parole hearing.
“You are aware, of course,” the commissioner said, “that those kids are no longer children.”
They giggled. The kids in the picture did, with their shiny hair and bucktoothed smiles. He heard them through the breast pocket of his orange jumpsuit.
He scoffed out of the gaffe: “I am sure I am not a danger to them, whatever their age.”
It burned him. The newspaper was scorching through his breast pocket.
“They were doing the right thing,” he said. “They weren’t meddling. They were the good guys.”
The commissioner leaned back in his chair just as the quietest, meanest member of the board saw it fit to intervene. “Still, the circumstances are aggravating. Here you are, doing fifteen years on account of being captured by four teenagers.”
“And a dog,” Wickley added.
“Yes, and a dog. That must have been a blow to your ego. You had problems with other inmates because of it. Some resentment would be altogether reasonable.”
Wickley looked down at his hands again, admired them upon finding them perfectly calm. Dry and undaunted, like tree trunks in the gentle breeze that carried the giggles of four teenagers. And a dog.
“What we mean to say is that there was, so to speak, some insult added to injury in the way you were apprehended. Actually, the word in the police report is ‘snared,’ ” the commissioner read. “By means of a contraption involving . . . ‘a high-speeding serving cart, two flights of stairs, and a fishing net’?”
Wickley watched him frown, briefly striving to pry an image out of the type, while the giggling in his own breast pocket grew into a television laughtrack.
“So, whatever—what we mean to say,” the man resumed, “is that some extra concern about you taking revenge is not unjustified.”
The prisoner drove his right hand to his heart. Violently. Slapping the picture silent.
“Gentlemen. I staged a haunting in an old mansion and dressed myself as a giant salamander to scare people away. I was captured by four teenagers and a Weimaraner. And I am sixty. Do you seriously believe I pose a threat to anyone?”
The board members chortled. The commissioner started putting away his papers.
Five days and nineteen hours later, he made parole.
The riveted iron doors opened the following Monday and sun shone on Wickley’s arid face, on the sentinel turrets, on a reservoir-sized puddle on the cobblestone road.
He put his box of belongings at his feet, took out the crumpled pack of Raleighs and lit one with the second-to-last match from his Sambo’s giveaway matchbook. The first drag tasted rancid, and yet periorgasmically good. The legendary afterjail cigarette.
Smoke curled away in the sun like a flower out of the animated film Yellow Submarine.
He unfolded the newspaper page he’d transferred from his orange jumpsuit to his civilian jacket pocket, next to a movie ticket stub for The Eiger Sanction. The grinning children in the picture met sunlight again.
The names in the second paragraph were highlighted in faded yellow: Peter Manner, Kerri Hollis, Andrea “Andy” Rodriguez, Nate Rogers, Sean. Peter Manner’s name was struck out in pen. That had been a recent addition; he’d overheard the news in the library two years ago. “Peter Manner, the kid in that flick with Lisa Bonet, he OD’d,” some convict had said, followed by the usual condescending platitudes on the rough lives of child stars and whatever. If bad fortune had struck out the other three names too, their deaths never made it to the prison grapevine. Not everyone stars in a Christmas blockbuster movie after all. The dog would most likely be a strike-out too, but lacking any official confirmation, Wickley would rather wait.
He further browsed the box for his father’s wristwatch and strapped it on. He was due to check in with his parole officer in two hours.
He picked up his box and crossed the street to a nearby pub.
They’d changed the label of his favorite beer. Also that of Coca-Cola bottles, the red background now shattered in the furiously sharp-angled pattern of the new decade. Two men by the window table were talking baseball, and Wickley, sitting at the bar, didn’t recognize a single name. He was going to light himself another cigarette when the barman approached and said, “Sir, you can’t smoke in here.”
He stared at the guy’s afterimage for a while before he tipped the cigarette back into the package and continued drinking. At least he’d called him “sir.”
The Pennaquick Telegraph clip lay unfolded on the counter while he enjoyed his beer. The verb is not an overstatement—he was really enjoying it. Now and then he side-glanced at the picture for no reason in particular. Perhaps because it was one of the few familiar things he could turn to: the panting dog, the smiling children. Even the dead one was smiling. Christ, even the deputy sheriff was smiling. The only one not smiling in that photo was him.
He glanced at the mirror across the counter. The old man there looked remarkably weary for someone who had spent thirteen years shelved in a cold, dry place, but not thirteen years older than the one in the newspaper. He had been blessed with one of those faces that age rapidly through the first three decades, but later remain relatively unchanged throughout adulthood. He continued not to smile now, but he somehow looked better than the detainee in the picture. Having lost the salamander costume helped.
The highlighted names stared up at the ceiling fan. He looked down at his hands and gnarled fingers slumbering on the counter, as unfazed as they were during the interview. They really didn’t give a damn.
He stayed on his stool, drinking in little sips, listening to a new but not bad song playing on the radio. One of the men by the window loudly rejected the idea of a player Wickley had never heard of being a better pitcher than one he remembered perfectly well.
Delicately, Wickley grabbed the newspaper clip, held it up, crumpled it into his hand, lit the last match in the book and burned it. The barman grunted at this act of arson not covered by the nonsmoking sign.
Wickley sprinkled the ashes on the floor and left for the restroom.
Life out of prison is full of easily overlooked luxuries, such as using a public urinal without having to check your back. He smiled at that adage as it shaped in his mind, and took pleasure in reading the ageless poetry scribbled on the tiles and trying to aim at the little pink spongey cube near the drain.
Thirteen goddamn years.
He was free.
Without the warning of a toilet flush, the door to the stall behind him slammed open.
“Good morning, Mr. Wickley.”
He knew then, by the sudden suspension of all lower bodily functions, that his subconscious mind had recognized the voice. Even thirteen years and a puberty later.
He spun on his feet and corrected his visual line upward and choked at the face of the bully confronting him—the dark-browed figure filling and brimming over the ghostly contour of a smiling memory.
“Andrea ‘Andy’ Rodriguez!” he blurted out.
The woman blew a bang of black hair off her face. “Andy. My name’s Andy.”
“I am not allowed to talk to you,” he protested. “I just got outta jail.”
“Really? Me too,” she said, checking her freebie Coca-Cola digital watch. “They must have noticed by now.”
He tried to sidestep her; she blocked his way. Wickley quivered, his fortitude crumbling at the sight of his own hands surrendering to shakes.
“I did my time!” he whimpered. “I paid my debt to society!”
“Hell yeah, you paid it, and with interest. Explain that to me. Thirteen years in a high-security prison with no visitors, for what? For putting on a costume and chasing kids around a tumbledown house? Are you kidding me?”
“I kidnapped one of you.”
“I staged a haunting. I made an elaborate scheme for fraud.”
“You are the fraud, Wickley. You’re nothing but a careless gold digger. You want me to believe you went to all that trouble just to scare people? The mystic symbols? The dead animals?”
“They were props.”
“The hanged corpses? The things in the basement?!”
“Steven fucking Spielberg could not have made props like that and you know it! It wasn’t you!”
“It was! And I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you med—”
“Liar!” She clutched his neck and shoved him into the wall, shattering some tiles with the back of his head.
One of the baseball talkers entered the restroom at that moment and stopped dead at the sight.
On the left, standing, Andrea “Andy” Rodriguez, 25, in big military boots and a white tank top, turns to camera as she lifts a squirming old man two inches off the floor.
“Fuck off,” she growled, and the intruder obediently retreated.
Wickley was gagging, writhing, kicking the air. Andy turned back to him, face slashed by the obstinate bang of hair, a furious and not fully devoid of self-satisfaction smile in her lips.
“I was twelve years old in ’seventy-seven and I beat you; now I’m twenty-five and you’re old and weak; just imagine the ways in which I can humiliate you. Tell me, why did you confess?”
“I did it.”
“Bullshit. Why did you take the blame?”
“I did it. I made my costume out of a diving suit. It was a good costume.”
“No, it wasn’t, really.”
“I set everything up. I made the lights fade and the house shake.”
“No, you fucking didn’t!” (She slams him to the wall.)
“I did, and you were terrified. (Sniggering in pain.) You pissed your pants.”
“That was Nate, not me! And it wasn’t you! (Her grip hardens, closing shut his windpipe.) Why did you take the fall?”
“Tell me or I swear I’ll throw you in my trunk, drive to Blyton Hills, and dump my car into Sleepy Lake!”
“Ng . . . ng . . .”
“Ng’ngah . . . ng’ngah’hai!”
“Iä fhtagn Thtaggoa! Iä mwlgn nekrosunai! Ng’ngah’hai, zhro!”
Andy banged him against the wall and released her grip, gaping at the echo of the odious words that had made the hair on her arms stand and the sun dim, shocked by the blasphemy.
Slowly daylight returned, and a silence punctuated by dripping water pipes. The old man slid to the floor, leaving a little smear of blood from the back of his skull along the way.
“I wanted to go to jail,” he moaned, panting, clinging to consciousness.
Andy stood, full of hate, fists clenched, adrenaline trickling down her temples.
“I wanted them to lock me away,” Wickley sobbed. “I had to get away from that place. I can’t go back. I don’t want to go to that devil house ever again! Never!”
And he sank his head in his palms and broke into tears. Sitting on the floor in a public restroom, crying grown-up sobs.
Andy snorted back the fury, panting, and flushed the urinal for him.
“You won’t. Good-bye, Mr. Wickley.”
And she stormed out, feeling not the least sorry for the pathetic old man left crying on the floor. Because he was right: he would never have to go back to that house.