Authors: Jen Blood
Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Thriller
“My brother—Cindy’s husband—was older than me by about fifteen years. I kinda caught my folks by surprise.”
He opened the door for me and stood by politely when I entered the house. The Basset ambled in after me. The house had that neatly-lived-in feel that comes from stay at home moms and a lot of home cooking. We walked through the living room into a sunny kitchen, where a slim blonde woman was setting out plates.
“This is Erin, Gracie.”
The woman turned. She looked familiar, though it took a minute to place her. She wiped her hands on her jeans, then reached over and shook my hand.
“Grace Colby—used to be Simmons. I was a year behind you in school. We had Spanish together.”
My memory wasn’t as specific as that, but I did remember her—a quiet girl who kept to herself, not popular, not unpopular. A ghost, like so many of us back in high school. She nodded toward a chair.
“Have a seat. You want coffee?”
Once coffee and sandwiches were on the table, the three of us sat down. We exchanged pleasantries, talked about the town and what I’d been up to and what Diggs—apparently mutual friend to everyone in Littlehope—was up to, before I finally got down to business. I got my notes out and explained what I was looking for. Things had been going smoothly up until then, but they looked like natives confronted with demon technology the second the red light on my recorder came on.
“No one will hear this tape but me. I just like to use these things so I know I got the story right,” I explained. “If you think of something later, or there’s something you’d rather not include, you can always let me know.”
Jed scratched his neck, eyeing the recorder uneasily. “There’s not all that much to tell. Cindy didn’t have no family of her own, and I never knew her all that well. My folks would’ve been better to talk to, but they passed on a couple years back. I have another sister—she was closer to Cindy than me. She moved out to South Carolina last winter, but I can get you her number.”
“That would be great,” I said. “In the meantime, maybe I could just ask a couple of questions, see if it jogs any memories.”
He nodded, but before I could ask anything, he stood and walked over to a wall of photos in the living room.
“You remember them?” he asked. I had the feeling he’d been waiting a while to ask that question.
“I do,” I said. I joined him in the other room. There were a series of framed photos of Cynthia and Will with a man I didn’t recognize, most of them studio portraits like the ones people used to have done at Sears.
“Your brother died?” I asked.
“Urchin diving,” Jed said. “Will and Cindy were never the same after that. Will was eight when it happened—he took it hard. Cindy took it worse. She sold the house, sold the boat.” He looked at me, but I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Isaac Payson started sniffing around not long after. He’d come to the mainland, bring them stuff. I don’t think Will ever liked the guy much, but Cindy…” He shook his head.
“So, you met Isaac?”
“What did you think of him?” he asked me, before I could ask him the same question.
“I didn’t hate him,” I said, after a little consideration. “And my father loved him. He never…” I searched for the words. “…Scared me, I guess, the way you might think somebody like that would. Being out there, part of the Church, was never as horrible as people made it out to be afterward.”
Jed nodded after a while. His eyes looked wet, though no tears fell. “That’s what Cindy always said—well, mostly what she said. Will was a tough case, hard to reach—something was wrong there, even before his dad died. But I think Cindy felt like Payson was making an effort.”
“You said, ‘mostly what she said,’” I prompted. “When did she say otherwise?”
He thought about it for a few seconds. “It was about two weeks before the fire.” He took a deep breath. I had the sense that whatever he was about to tell me had weighed on his mind for a long time. “Her and Will came back to Littlehope on a Friday afternoon. We had a picnic out to the lighthouse.”
“And she said something changed?”
“She didn’t say anything—that was the thing. I said something about how maybe I’d been wrong, maybe her being out there with Will was a good thing after all. Maybe Payson wasn’t such a bad guy.”
“And she said…”
“Not a damned thing. All she could talk about was something about a doll, some puppet that Will didn’t get. Or Payson took.”
I looked at him. “An angel?”
“Yeah. I don’t know what the problem was. Something happened, though. Isaac took his doll back. The kid was twelve years old, I don’t know what in hell he was doing playing with dolls, anyway.”
“It was a marionette,” I explained. “The Paysons made marionettes and sold them on the mainland.”
“I’ve seen them,” Gracie said. “They did a spread on them one time in Down East.”
“Yeah—I read it, I think,” I said. “There were actually two different kinds of angels, though. The ones they sold had black eyes. But every kid that was part of the Church had their own angel—Isaac painted them himself. Those angels had blue eyes.”
“And he took Will’s angel?” Jed asked.
“I don’t know anything about it,” I said. “My father never mentioned it to me, but…” I didn’t want to say anything against Will, but my mind was already spinning. Isaac had had a short fuse when it came to the kids sometimes, and even Jed admitted that Will was a pain in the ass. Still, I couldn’t remember the preacher ever taking one of his precious Payson Angels back.
“Well, whatever happened, Cindy wasn’t happy about it,” Jed said. “I should’ve seen it then. For the four years she’d been there before that, all she did was sing this guy’s praises. She couldn’t say enough about what he did for the congregation—what a friggin’ Eden that island was, how much she loved everybody out there… Then, all of a sudden when I’m finally ready to say maybe she’s got a point, she changes her tune.”
He shook his head. Grace came over and took his hand, leading him back to the table. I followed suit. Jed sat back down and picked up his sandwich before he finished his thought.
“Two weeks later, they were both dead.”
“You couldn’t have known,” I said. “Nobody could have.”
“I wish to God I’d gotten her off that island then and there. You don’t know how many times I’ve gone over that day, thought about how I should’ve done something.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. He studied me, his head tilted to one side, then offered a sad smile.
“She loved your dad, you know.” I looked at him in surprise. “Not in
way, of course,” he said quickly. “But she talked about him a lot. The things he taught her out in the garden, the time she spent with you out there. I know my nephew was a prick from the word go, but all you had to do was whisper the name Erin Solomon in his ear and he’d blush like a fool.”
He looked down at his coffee cup. I couldn’t tell if it was because he was trying to keep his own emotions in check, or just giving me a minute to do the same.
“I’m sorry about what happened to your dad,” he said. “He was a good man. He didn’t deserve that. Neither of you did.”
“None of us did,” I said. I stood before things got completely maudlin. “I should get going, let you finish your meal. But this has been good… Helpful, I mean.”
Jed shook my hand. “I’ll be curious to read what you finally find out about all this. It’s been a sore spot for me—for this family, for a lot of years. It would mean a lot to understand how they wound up like that in the end.”
“For me, too,” I agreed.
We said our goodbyes. Just before I left, Grace gave me an impulsive hug—this quiet girl I couldn’t really remember, from an adolescence I’d just as soon forget. I returned the embrace, then got out the door as fast as I could, already turning over this new piece of the Payson puzzle.
July 26, 1990
Her son has a smile now that Rebecca hasn’t seen since he was a toddler. He stands tall in front of the congregation, his shoulders back, his dark eyes staring straight ahead. Others in the Church have commented on the startling resemblance between mother and child. His hair is thick, raven’s-wing-black, and his complexion is smooth and dark—a clear indication of the Passamaquoddy tribe that runs strong in her blood. In almost every way, physically Zion is a replica of his mother. She imagines, sometimes, that there was no father at all… An immaculate conception, though she is certainly no virgin.
It is an evening service. The chapel is stuffy and close, the air heavy enough to feel as moisture-soaked breath at the back of her neck. There are no windows; Isaac had them boarded, saying they distracted from the glory of the Lord and the purity of their worship. The smell of the congregation triggers an almost orgiastic anticipation in Rebecca as she waits for the Reverend to begin.
They’ve been on the island for one week, and in that time Zion has given himself completely to the Reverend. Isaac, in turn, has fostered that devotion; her son is at his right hand constantly. The other children help with chores, go to bed early, rarely attend evening services, but Zion is the exception. Rebecca hardly sees him now.
He stands with Isaac’s hand on his shoulder, a peaceful half-smile on his lips. Rebecca thinks she understands, finally, what it is to be in love. There will never be another man who fills her, changes her, moves her, the way that Zion does. She glances around and sees admiration coming from the others, and knows that she is not alone in her belief that there is something different about her son. Isaac has said it himself:
This boy will one day be a leader among men.
Around her, the congregation is on their feet, singing to Adam’s accompaniment on the old piano in the corner. Beside Rebecca, a woman’s hands go up in the air, her lips fluttering “Praise Jesus” in hysterical gasps, tears streaming down her face. For the first time, Zion looks uneasy at the rage of passions coming to the fore in the crowded space. Rebecca feels a familiar tightening in her stomach, as though the cord that once joined them is still there, invisible but no less powerful. She prepares to intervene.
As it turns out, she is not needed. Isaac leans into Zion’s ear, his hand still on the small, sturdy shoulder, his lips just inches from the boy’s face. Rebecca watches the older man’s mouth move. She feels a twinge of jealousy, but couldn’t say which of the two she’s jealous of. In response to Isaac’s words, Zion looks puzzled for a moment before he shakes his head, holding the angel Isaac just presented to him tightly in one hand.
Isaac asks him something else, and this time receives a nod of affirmation. Zion’s eyes are shining, black as midnight rain. In response to the nod, Isaac leans away from him and holds his hands in the air. Instantly, mid-verse, the church falls silent.
“This boy—this quiet, unsettled boy who stands before you today—has seen many things in his young life. You all know that he and his mother have risked their comfort, their livelihoods—their very lives—to join us here.”
Individuals in the congregation turn toward Rebecca, flashing kind smiles before they return to Isaac.
“In speaking to this boy just now, I’ve learned that through all the trials of his life, he hasn’t had a true opportunity…” Isaac pauses on the word, letting the silence close in around it and then open up again before he continues. “…to ask the Lord Jesus Christ into his heart.”
A low murmur of incredulity rises like warm air. Zion looks from Isaac to Rebecca. She smiles encouragingly, nodding through tears she can no longer contain.
“Zion.” Isaac keeps his voice up so everyone can hear, though he addresses only the boy. Zion nods. “Son, would you like to ask the Lord into your heart today? Are you ready to turn your back on the eternal fire of Satan, and let yourself curl up in the arms of the Lamb of God?”
Zion waits a moment, as though unsure whether or not the Reverend has finished, before he nods. “Yes, sir.”
Isaac pushes the child to his knees. In the dim light of flickering candles, Rebecca is drawn from the picture before her to the dance of two shadows behind the pulpit. Isaac’s is long, thin, climbs nearly to the ceiling and beyond, while Zion’s shadow seems to shrink into itself before gradually merging into the larger of the two.
The Reverend is a big man who looks more like a fisherman than a preacher, and he has a voice that could carry far past the walls of the chapel if necessary. He rarely needs to use that voice, however—his power is conveyed with a single glance. It comes through in the strength of his smile, the weight of his eyes, and—most of all—through his hands.
Isaac’s hands are long and fine. They don’t fit the rest of his body. Every time he touches her with those hands, late at night while the rest of the Church sleeps, Rebecca can feel God. There is a confidence in his touch that rushes through her in waves of white light. When he says he is Chosen, she never even considers questioning him.
Now, standing with the rest of the congregation, Rebecca can’t take her eyes from the image of the child that she loves melding with the man that she craves. She understands pictures better than words, interprets dreams the way she was taught by her tribe long ago, but this shadow written on the wall before her is a story she cannot read. She’s not even sure she cares to try.
A steady stream of Hallelujahs issue from one woman, started as a single word and changing to a song that rises, clean and sweet, over Isaac’s prayer for Zion. Both of the Reverend’s hands are tight on the boy’s head, Zion still kneeling as Isaac welcomes him into the fold. When the prayer is done, Zion stands and his eyes meet his mother’s. In that instant, a cool breeze blows through the congregation. The candles flare before going out completely, and the shadows at last fall silent.
I got back to the paper after my interview with the Colbys shortly after noon. During the walk back, Jim Abbott—the lead detective from the original Payson investigation—returned my call to say that he could meet with me in Portland the next day. I thought about making more calls once I was back in the office, but my lunch with Jed and Grace was still too fresh; I didn’t want to talk to anyone else. Not yet, anyway.