Dylan Evans stood on the rickety metal walkway at the edge of the quarry. He stared into its cold, black waters far below and wondered what his mother would do to him if she knew he was there. He glanced over at his best friend, Stuart, who gave him a crooked grin. “You gonna go?” Stuart asked.
Dylan nodded, but he wasn’t sure. The whole summer had been like that day: hot, sticky and unpleasant. There were a few families in Winter Falls who could afford air conditioning, but Dylan’s wasn’t one of them. So he and Stuart, and a few other boys on other days, would usually go to the Winter River to swim. It was upstream of the sawmills and had managed to avoid the worst ravages of the town’s industrialization. The thundering falls, after which the town was named, had carved out a vast pool of cold, clear water, and every summer it would be full of people taking a break from the heat. By most accounts, it was the best thing about Winter Falls. Perhaps the only good thing.
It was Stuart who suggested they go to the quarry. His brother had told him about it the summer before, and very pointedly told the boy to stay away, if he knew what was good for him. Being eleven years old, however, Stuart decided that anything his big brother wanted him to stay away from was something he absolutely had to know about. So he talked Dylan into coming out and doing some swimming.
The pond created by the quarry was vast and silent. Nothing swam in it, as far as they knew, and the high quarry walls kept the wind from disturbing its surface. The water was dark and still, and Dylan was sure that if he jumped, he would find the surface as hard and unforgiving as concrete. He curled his toes around the edge of the old steel walkway that stretched above the watery pit and tried to keep his knees from shaking. He was not afraid, oh no. Of course not. Perish the thought.
If he was afraid, he knew that Stuart would only make it worse. His friend knew how to push him, how to make him do what he wanted, and most of the time Dylan was fine with that. Stuart was popular. He was cool and fun and interesting, and if there was one kid in the town who led the others, it would be him. Dylan had no idea why Stuart had picked him as a friend, but he wasn’t about to risk a good thing, even if it did mean taking a trip out to swim in the forbidden quarry.
Stuart gave him a little shove, and Dylan screamed. The sound bounced around the quarry and was almost immediately met by Stuart’s high, childish laughter. “You dick!” Dylan yelled, and he shoved Stuart right back.
The other boy took step back, and found that his foot was trying to step down on thin air. His laugh turned into a terrified yell as he slipped under the broken handrail, twisting to try and grab the walkway before he fell off. Dylan lurched forward, his hand outstretched to grab his friend, but he found that he couldn’t move. The water far below caught his eye, and, in the battle between his fear for his friend and his fear for his life, there could be only one winner. He tried to stretch, to reach Stuart without giving away any of his own safety.
He wasn’t close enough. Stuart was hanging halfway off the edge and slipping, his eyes wide and white. Each breath came out as a panicked whine as he tried desperately not to look down. Dylan tried to reach him again, barely able to shift his feet. “C’mon, Stu,” he said. “You… You can do it. Just… You know, climb…”
“Can’t climb,” Stuart breathed. “Oh, god, Dylan, help.”
Dylan’s voice matched his for sheer terror, and his vision was starting to blur. “Stu, I can’t. You just have to pull yourself up.”
Stuart shook his head. “No, no, no,” he said through gritted teeth. “No.” Despite his protests, the boy lifted an arm and reached out to try and pull himself up. His arms shook and tensed, and his fingers grasped at nothing but air. He slid back, his chest and shoulders vanishing past the edge, and it was this that finally made Dylan move. He jumped forward and grabbed for his friend’s hand. Grabbing him, however, loosened Stuart’s grip, and the boy slid further off the walkway until he was hanging on by his fingertips on one hand and Dylan’s grip on the other.
It took a moment before Dylan realized he was cursing under his breath, saying the kind of words his mother would have beat him for. He tried to move back, but the movement made Stuart scream. He didn’t want to adjust his grip, knowing that his friend could slip out. They stayed in that tableau for a moment, perfectly balanced on the edge of the walkway.
Then Stuart really began to panic.
“Pull me up!” he yelled, and his shrill voice echoed around the quarry. “Dyl, please, pull me up! I’m gonna fall, Dyl, please please please -”
“I’m trying,” Dylan said, gritting his teeth. He took that moment to change his grip, and felt his friend’s wrist, slippery with the sweat of summer and panic, start to slide. “No,” he said, his words washed out by Stuart’s screaming. “No, no, no…”
“Please, Dyl, don’t let me fall!” His voice cracked, and tears were streaming back from his eyes.
Dylan moved again, trying to brace himself against a railing, but that was when Stuart lost the tenuous grip that he had. His weight started to drag Dylan towards the edge, and the two boys screamed together in terror. The walkway moved a little, and the water below them seemed to move with it.
Stuart had barely a moment before he fell. Whatever word was coming out of his mouth turned into a keening howl of terror as he fell towards the cold, black water. The breath came out of Dylan’s chest in a cold roar as he hit the walkway and watched his friend hang in the air, slowly diminishing before he was swallowed by a loud slap, a splash and perfectly circular ripples that spread across the water’s surface undisturbed.
Time stopped. Dylan lay face-down on the walkway, watching the ripples proceed to the edges of the pond and reflect back again, catching each other and turning that perfectly circular order into chaos. He could hear his own breath loud in his ears and felt as though he was falling as his friend had.
“Stu?” he said quietly.
He wanted to see his friend’s head bob up in a splash, followed by a howl of joy at being alive. He wanted Stuart to tell him that it was an awesome drop, and to challenge him not to be a chicken. To go for it.
But Stuart didn’t come up again. The ripples subsided, leaving the surface of the water flat again, and there was no Stu. Dylan began to be aware that he was crying, and panic, red and hot, was starting to creep in around the edges of his mind. He would have to get someone. He would have to tell someone. He would have to tell Stuart’s mother, who would almost certainly hold him responsible for killing her son.
His thoughts cut off as he saw motion down in the water, and for a moment he thought that he was saved. That all was not yet lost for him. “Stu?” he called out. “Stu, are you okay?”
The water started to bubble, and then churn. The air in the quarry started to get cold and dark, and Dylan began to shiver in the new and unexpected shadow that covered the pond. Below, the water looked like it was boiling, leaping up on top of itself and frothing white on top of the blackness. Dylan tried to stand up on shaking legs, and gasped when he touched the metal of the walkway. It was freezing cold, and he realized that he could see his breath in the air. He held himself and shivered, goosebumps breaking out on his skin.
With a roar, the water erupted, and sent him reeling back down again. A great spout of white, cold water shot up from the center of the pond like a geyser, spraying mist and frost everywhere. Suspended in the geyser, hanging only a few feet away from Dylan and the walkway, was Stuart.
His friend was naked and broken and battered. His arm was twisted behind him, and bones were sticking out of corpse-pale skin that was bruised purple and black. His head hung at an unnatural angle, and blood seeped out of his mouth, only to be sluiced away by the water. Stuart’s body looked like a puppet, held up by strings from below, his limbs moving under pressure from the water, without purpose or life to them.
Then he spoke.
The voice dropped itself into Dylan’s mind and made him scream again, his throat stinging from the effort. It was the voice of nightmares, the sound of a thousand horrible things all speaking in unison. The single word spoke of shadows and worse than shadows. It spoke of death and decay and terrors worse than an eleven year-old should ever have to know. He smelled blood and shit and wanted more than anything else to throw himself into the waters below to die with his friend.
But he couldn’t. He lay on the walkway, transfixed and shivering and screaming until the voice spoke again.
Dylan’s mouth snapped shut and he tasted blood.
The waterspout moved closer, dragging Stuart’s lifeless body with it. Dylan brought his head up, shaking and bleeding, and an animal whimper escaped his throat. Stuart’s eyes were still alive. They stared at him, pleading and begging. Whatever was using his body had not yet let him go, and the mad terror that came through his gaze was more than Dylan could take.
“Tell your people, boy.” Stuart’s mouth moved, but there was no way that voice was coming from him. Nothing human should have been capable of making that sound. Stuart’s eyes nearly spun in their sockets. “Tell your people that their masters are coming back.” Blood began to seep from Stuart’s eyes, running down his face in tiny rivulets. “Tell them to prepare.”
The scream that Dylan had been commanded to hold in had wrapped itself around him and tunneled under his skin, threatening to burst out at any moment but remaining just below the surface. Despite that, despite the terror and the cold, he stood, slowly, on trembling legs, and looked into his friend’s bloody, unblinking eyes.
“Prepare for what?” he whispered.
There was a moment of silence, underscored only by the rushing of water. Then Stuart’s mouth opened, far enough that Dylan could hear the cracking of bone, and whatever had hold of him began to laugh. Dylan’s scream finally erupted, and the two horrible noises blended together into an echoing cacophony there in the quarry. And then, after a horrible, immeasurable time, the laughter stopped. Dylan watched as Stuart’s body went limp, and whatever life it had vanished from its limbs. The eyes went flat and dull just as the waterspout lost its energy, and Dylan prayed that Stuart was dead.
Dylan watched his friend’s body plummet to the water for a second time. He watched the water churn and settle, the ripples go out and in and out again. Soon, the pond was as flat as it had been when they arrived. Dylan watched, and Stuart did not come back.
But Dylan waited nonetheless.
The house smelled like wet ash and bad memories. It was a heavy odor, one that reminded you of all the bad things in the world and all the ways that life could go wrong. It slithered its way around you, into you, until your brain finally shut down and accepted it.
The fire had really taken its toll on the building, but not enough. If it had been truly merciful, it would have devoured the house, burned it until it was nothing but a black stain surrounded by pale green grass. But the fire, capricious in its way, had left the greater part of the structure standing, as if even the most primal of destructive forces could not bear to stay for long. Walls still stood, though they leaned. The floors were intact, though they warped in ways that made them look like they had been shaped by the wind. The roof was open to the sky, and charcoal gray clouds scuttled overhead. Not as dark as the house, but close.
They said that the blaze was visible for miles, that fire trucks from three different towns came out here to Winter Falls to put it out. There were still puddles of water on the burnt and peeling floors, mixed with ashes into a kind of black slurry that got over everything. The March rains didn’t help either. The whole place was cold and damp, and the rotting smell of mold was already starting to insinuate itself into the dominant odor of fire and blackened wood.
The faint patterns of wallpaper could still be seen on some of the walls, a finely-drawn French pattern that might have looked good the day it was put up. There will still light fixtures in the walls, though their bulbs had exploded and their metal frames had started to sag and droop from the heat. The massive oak archway that led into the living room was still intact – it had been made of wood that had been preserved at the bottom of Moosehead lake for centuries, rendering it hard as iron. The fire probably licked at that wood and went out in search of easier prey. The living room beyond, though, was charred chaos. The antique furniture, the wall-sized bookcase, the two hundred year-old grandfather clock, all of them had succumbed to the flames. There was nothing left now but their ghosts, pale spots amid the ash and desolation.
The house was dead. Finally. But not dead enough. If you stood back, you could still see its ghost amidst the ruins. You could follow the lines of the burned and broken walls and infer where they should go. You could look at the burn pattern in the wet grass and see how far the rooms extended. The great greenhouse out back was still more or less intact, along with everything that resided in it. So was the ramshackle gardiner’s shed down the hill. And doubtless the basement had been untouched by the flames. That fact alone was enough to prove that although the house was injured, it was still very much alive. Its spirit still dwelt here on the top of this hill, a force that had been malevolent and angry before.
And now it was wounded. Now it was more dangerous than ever. Its influence would seek out those who could restore it, who knew what it was in their hearts, even if their minds rejected the idea as foolish, childish or impossibile. The force that resided here would not rest for long.
I stepped over the threshold, where the door no longer stood. I set my bag down gently on the burned and cracked floor, looked up and the grey and ugly sky, and felt the house embrace me. It whispered in my ear and touched my memories, hoping to win me over. To be honest, I wasn’t sure that it would not succeed.
“Well,” I said. “I’m home.”
Jacob put his pen down and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. Summer had finally come to his corner of rural Maine, and it was having its effect on everyone. The blackflies droned outside, and the air was humid enough to curl books. What’s more, Jacob’s students were itching to go on summer vacation and do… whatever it was teenagers in a town of two thousand people could do. Drink and have sex, probably.
He picked up another paper and wished he was somewhere else. Anywhere else. “The major theim of Tom Sawyer is that you shouldn’t paint something if people asks you to becuz he probly just doesn’t want to work.” Jacob sighed and just scrawled “See me” in bright green ink across the top of the page. At this rate he was better off just berating the class as a group than seeing them individually. Clearly none of them had read the book, none of them wanted to read the book, and none of them cared enough to hide the previous two facts.
If nothing else, he had to teach them how to bullshit better.
“Tom sawyer was a kid like me becuz he didn’t like niggers in his -” Jacob wrote “See me” at the top and, for good measure, circled it.
There was no good reason for him to be teaching here. None. None at all. Winter Falls was an out of the way spot near the mountains in rural Maine, a town that was best known for its two feuding lumber mills and the highest rate of alcoholism in Piscataquis county. It was one of those tiny rural towns that people never escaped from, occasionally collecting newcomers and never letting them go. People like him. Him and his damned father.
The pile of papers, most of them scrawled in barely-legible handwriting, glared up at his from his kitchen table. No more, he thought. Maybe if I just throw myself into Moosehead Lake with a couple of pounds of concrete…. No, that wouldn’t work. He couldn’t get out of this life that easily.
There was a knock on the back door and he glanced up at the microwave. Nearly nine-thirty at night. He stood up from the folding card table he had set in the middle of his perpetually cluttered living room, squared up the essays and slid them back into a manila envelope. Maybe if I feed them to the deer. No. Not fair to the deer.
Jacob opened the door. “You’ll want to be comin’ over, Jake,” Alex said without any preamble. “It’s startin’ up again.”
Alex Bordeau was Jacob’s nearest neighbor – about a ten minute walk away – and the whole reason Jacob was in this town to begin with. He was in his late sixties, had lived in Winter Falls all his life, and had been good friends with Jacob’s father, which is more than Jacob could have said. He was heavyset, wore just as much plaid as Maine fashion law allowed, and knew more about this part of the state than anyone had a right to.
He was the one who called Jacob when his father died, who explained why Jacob was going to have to leave his trendy Tribeca apartment, his friends, his gym membership and his job at a real school to come up to Winter Falls. To his credit, Jacob held out for at least a week, until Bordeau came down on an overnight Greyhound to convince him. And convince him he did.
“Yer father,” Bordeau had said, looking so out of place in Jacob’s modern, white, almost Zen-like kitchen. “Yer father was a good man.”
“Sure he was,” Jacob muttered, pouring another glass of shiraz. “I’m sure that’s why mom stayed with him all those years, never left his side and loved him with all her heart. No, wait,” he said, shoving the cork back into the bottle. “I have that backwards. She hated him to her dying breath and made me promise never to go back to the little shit-stain town he came from.” He put the wine back into his brushed-steel refrigerator. “So it’s your word against hers, and if you think I’m not taking my dead mother’s side on this one, you’re nuts. The only reason I would even think of going up there would be to piss on his grave, but I have better uses for my piss.”
“Y’ever wake up in the middle of the night?” Bordeau asked.
Jacob shrugged. “Yeah, sure I have. Who hasn’t?”
“Covered in blood?”
“What?” Jacob put the wine glass down. “Covered in blood? Who the hell wakes up covered in blood?”
“Yer father did. Sometimes. Though in his defense, he fell asleep like that first.”
Jacob took the old man by the arm and led him towards the front door. “I think I’ve heard about enough,” he said. “You can get the hell out of here and take my father with you.”
Bordeau planted his feet and Jacob nearly fell over when he stopped. The old man said… something. It was a word, but it wasn’t a word. It was an idea wrapped in sound, it bypassed his ears and went straight for his brain, and the first thing Jacob did when he heard it was to throw up all over his hardwood floor.
Once he stopped heaving, he wiped his mouth and managed to say, “What… the hell… was that?”
“Want me t’say it again?”
“No!” Jacob stood on unsteady legs. “No. God, no. Don’t say it again. Just tell me what it was.”
Bordeau didn’t answer right away. He walked into the living room and sat on one of Jacob’s imported sofas. He held his Red Sox cap in his hand and looked up at him. “What did you see when I said that?”
Jacob looked ruefully at the puddle of wine-colored vomit on the hardwood. That would need sanding and refinishing, he thought. But that thought flew away under the pressure of all the others. He sat next to Bordeau and too deep breaths. The old man looked at him. No pat on the back, no sounds of sympathy. How very New England.
“I saw… I saw a black…. I dunno, I think it was a… a tumor.” He looked up. “That’s all I can come up with. It was huge. I could feel it in my brain, but it wasn’t there. It was somewhere else, and it was horrible.” He shuddered. “The size of worlds. And it’s in everyone. And nobody knows about it.”
“Now you do,” Bordeau said.
“Yeah,” Jacob said. “Now I do.” He looked over. “But what does it have to do with me?”
“Not so much you as your father,” Bordeau said. “And now that he’s gone, it means that you have work to do.”
“What kind of work?”
“Fight th’ thing. The ‘tumor’ you saw. Good name for it, by th’ way. Probably as close as you’ll get to what it is.”
“What is it?”
“I can tell you more on the drive up. All you need to know now is that it killed yer father. Not the booze, and not nothin’ else. That thing.” He crumpled the cap in his hands and smoothed it back into shape. “And he went down fightin’ it.”
“Wait,” Jacob said. “I’m not going up there with you. If that thing is real, and it’s there, then I’m not getting anywhere near it!”
“Remember what you saw, Jake.” Bordeau stood up, stood over him. He seemed like the only real thing in Jacob’s perfectly decorated apartment. “That thing is already everywhere. There ain’t nowhere you can go where it isn’t. And even there were, you couldn’t go there. You have work to do.”
Jacob stood up quickly, nose-to-nose with Bordeau. “I don’t have to go anywhere. And you can’t make me. And don’t ever call me ‘Jake’ again, I -”
Bordeau said it again. Fortunately, there was nothing left to throw up, but Jacob spent a few good minutes curled up on the carpet, sobbing.
“I’ll take the other sofa for the night,” Bordeau said. “We leave in the morning.”
Jacob spent most of that night on the floor, curled up around a pain that he could barely describe. His dreams, what he could remember of them, were full of panic and horror. Everywhere he went there was that shiny black thing. It curled its horrible arms around the world, infiltrated every city and town and room. It wanted him, too. It sang to him in a voice that sounded the way decaying flesh smells. But where Jacob touched it, it died. It flaked away like scabrous skin and melted into the ground. And when he touched it, it screamed. And the world shook.
When he woke up, Bordeau was cooking eggs and had already packed two suitcases. “Get something in you,” he said. “We have a long drive.” Jacob passed on the eggs, but called his school and told them he had to take a leave of absence to take care of what his father had left behind. They offered their full sympathy and support and told him to come back when he was ready.
Two years later, and he never had.