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Authors: Ronald Malfi

Cradle Lake (9 page)

BOOK: Cradle Lake
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“Oh. Okay, sure.” Hank didn't seem bothered or surprised by the declination.

Heather walked soundlessly up the drive and did not look at Alan. He watched her the whole way, feeling the weight of her depression on him, suffocating him, like a physical presence.

“You don't have to tell her what happened,” Hank said. It came out like an afterthought. “No sense hanging a dark cloud over the neighborhood.”

Alan calmed a bit over dinner, though a needling disquiet at the base of his animal brain persisted. He had decided not to say anything to Heather about the incident after all. They plodded through dinner mostly in silence. Heather seemed content to stare at her plate. Alan could see the scars on her wrists and wondered if Lydia had questioned her about them. He considered asking her but bit his tongue at the last minute. He didn't want to talk about scars, didn't want to think about dead babies.

Maybe Hank was right. Ridiculous as it seems, maybe the kid was just stunned and knocked unconscious. Dragging him into the lake had been the equivalent of splashing cold water on someone's face after they'd passed out.

He wasn't so sure he could completely convince himself …

“I saw a hunter yesterday morning,” Heather said. She was still staring down at her plate. “Did I tell you?”

“No. Where?”

“In the backyard. It was early. You were still asleep.”

“I didn't realize you could hunt back there.”

“He just stood there. He had a gun over his shoulder. He watched the house for a long time. Then he turned and went into the trees.”

“What do you mean, he watched the house?”

“Staring,” Heather said. “Out in the yard. I thought maybe he could see me from the window, but I'm sure he was too far away.”

“For how long?”

“How long what?”

“How long was he standing there?”

“I don't know. A little while.”

“That's strange.” He frowned, turning back to his plate. “I don't like the idea of guys toting guns through our yard.”

“He was barefoot.”

“What?” He looked up at her.

“No shoes, no socks. Barefoot. And his pants were rolled up.”

No,
Alan thought,
that can't be right.
And on the heels of that:
Please, God, don't let her be cracking up again. Not here, not now. Please fix whatever is broken inside her. I don't think I can stand it if she's hallucinating.

Before dinner had ended, someone knocked on the front door. The sound startled him, and he nearly knocked over his glass of iced tea.

Heather peered out the nearest window. “It's a police car.”

A hot ember sparked to life in the pit of his stomach. He thought of the police car he'd seen on two occasions across
the street. He stood, the chair scraping the floor. “I'll get it.”

A formidable man in his early fifties, dressed in a khaki sheriff's uniform and a wide-brimmed hat, stood on the other side of the door. His upper lip was covered in a bristling, gingery mustache, and his eyes were small, lucid, and bright blue. Dark crescents of sweat bled from his armpits and soaked his uniform. “Good evening,” he said, nodding. “I'm looking for Alan Hammerstun.”

“That's me.”

“You make an emergency phone call earlier this afternoon? A boy getting struck down by a vehicle?”

In all the excitement he'd completely forgotten about dialing 911. “Shoot, yeah, I did.”

The guy looked like he wanted to come inside, but Alan didn't want Heather to overhear their conversation, so he stepped onto the front porch and closed the door behind him. “I'm sorry. I'd forgotten.”

“I'm Hearn Landry, county sheriff,” he said, leaning back on the porch railing. His knuckles looked like the forked hooves of a hog, all pink and fatty. “You folks are new in town, ain't that right?”

“Moved in a week ago. We're from Manhattan.”

Alan half-expected the sheriff to say something about how he didn't cotton much to city folk in these here parts, but, to his surprise, he said, “No kidding? I got a brother works as a bouncer at one of them strip clubs up there.” He laughed deep in his throat—a sound akin to someone crushing gravel beneath a heavy boot. “Real nasty place, too.”

“About the boy,” Alan began.

“Right,” said Landry. “What was his name?”

“Cory, I think.”

“First or last name?”

“Uh, I guess first. Not sure.”

“Little squirt, about to here?” Landry said, holding his hand perhaps four feet off the ground. “Could be the Morris kid.” Tipping his hat back on his square head, he said, “So what happened?”

In truth, he didn't know exactly what to say. Obviously, the kid had been struck by a car … but he had also walked home as if nothing had happened, clutching his mother's hand, and that had been the end of it.

He took a deep breath. Said, “I think maybe I overreacted.”

Landry knitted his eyebrows together. “Overreacted?”

“Well, I mean, the kid
was
hit by a car. I saw it happen. But then—”

“Do you have a description of the vehicle?”

“It was a red Audi.”

“And the driver's name?”

“Well, no, I didn't get a name. She was from out of town.”

“Driver was a woman.”

“Yes.”

“License plate, perhaps?” The tone of his voice said he didn't hold out much hope.

Alan shook his head, feeling like a fool. “Sorry.”

“And the boy?”

“I guess, uh,” he stammered, searching frantically for the words, “I guess he was just stunned.”

“Stunned?”

“You know, like—”

“Like hitting a deer with your car. Sometimes you just shake ‘em up a bit. Scramble the marbles. That it?”

“Yeah.” The word eked out of him like squealing hinges on an old door.

“In other words,” Landry said, “the kid's okay?”

“Yes.”

“You sure?”

“He got up and went home.”

“Just … got up?”

“Yes.”

“Just like that?”

“Yes.”

The sheriff rubbed his mustache. “Cory, you said his name was?”

“I think so.”

He jerked a thumb toward the street. “Happened right out there, yeah?”

“Yes.”

“You grow up in Manhattan, Mr. Hammerstun?”

“I did.”

“Bet you've seen a few people get hit by cars in the city, huh? Crossing the street, not paying attention, jaywalkin' and whatnot?”

“I've seen a few.”

“Still,” Landry said, tugging down the brim of his hat, “guess you got a little riled up for nothing this afternoon. See some kid get whacked by someone maybe going a bit too fast, figure you'd call the fuzz.” He winked. “Just, you know, in case. Ain't that right?”

He couldn't think of anything to say other than, “Sure.”

“Well,” Landry huffed, turning toward the porch steps, “guess I'll go pay the Morris house a visit, see how little Cory's doing. Maybe he got the license plate number
stamped onto his forehead. How about that?” Again: that rumbling, gravel-crunching chortle.

Jesus,
Alan thought, and actually winced.

“All right, then,” Landry said, moseying down the steps.

“Sheriff?”

Landry paused at the bottom of the steps and, tipping his hat back again, turned around. “Yeah?”

“How come it took you so long to come out here?”

“What do you mean?”

“I called 911 over two hours ago.”

If Sheriff Landry was contemplating the magnitude of the question, his face did not show it. He remained stoic and unapologetic, like the wooden masthead of a great ship. After a few seconds he set his jaw and said, “One of my deputies came on the scene after your call. Checked around the neighborhood, took a couple statements. Folks said they'd witnessed the accident but the kid was okay. Said it was no big deal. Said they were surprised to hear someone'd called the cops over it, really, seein' it was such a small, inconsequential thing.”

“Inconsequential?”

“My deputy didn't think anyone had moved into your house yet, so he didn't bother knocking on your door for a statement. Figured I'd come by this evening and extend the courtesy myself.”

“Oh.” His voice was suddenly small, nonexistent.

“So don't worry about the boy. He's fine. And, of course, we appreciate your concern in the first place.” Landry nodded, his expression unchanged. “Welcome to the pumpkin patch.”

CHAPTER EIGHT

Around nine o'clock that evening, Heather went in for a bath. Alan grabbed a pack of cigarettes and snuck out to the back patio. Jerry Lee tagged along. Outside, the sky was an electric parade of stars. Alan smoked while Jerry Lee found a cool spot to snooze in the grass.

It wasn't long before Alan's gaze drifted across the yard to the opening in the trees. Heavy boughs swayed before the mouth of the opening.

A noise off to the side of the house caught his attention. Jerry Lee raised his head and emitted a deep, resonant growl. Alan froze, the cigarette jutting from his lips, and watched as the ill-defined shape of a man materialized from out of the darkness.

It was Hank. He carried a six-pack of Miller Lite bottles. “You feel like some company?” There was tremulous uncertainty in his voice. “I just wanted to apologize.”

“For what? Scaring the shit out of me just now?”

Hank crossed the yard and set the six-pack down on the picnic table Alan had been meaning to scrub clean for the past several days. Hank pulled out one of the plastic lawn chairs but cast a speculative look at Alan and did not move.

“Have at it.”

“Thanks,” Hank said, dropping into the chair. “Mind if I bum one, too?”

“You smoke?”

“Sometimes. Don't tell Lyds.”

In a gesture of amnesty, he handed Hank a fresh cigarette, then nodded toward the beer. “How about a trade?”

Hank smiled. His oversized teeth looked like tombstones in the moonlight. “Heck, I insist on it.”

Alan dragged another chair around to the other side of the picnic table and sat in it. He hadn't realized how exhausted he was until that very moment; his entire body seemed to sigh as he came off his feet. “So what was it you wanted to apologize about?”

Hank popped the cap off a bottle of Miller Lite and handed it to him. “About earlier. About insulting your sensibilities by lying to you.”

Alan took a swig of the beer. It was cold and tasted fantastic. “Lying to me,” he said. It came out more as a statement than a question. “You mean about what exactly happened to the kid?”

“That,” Hank said, “and some other stuff.”

“What other stuff?”

Hank sighed. All of a sudden he looked miserable. “Today after everything happened, I went into town with a few of the guys for some beers. We wanted to discuss what
to tell you. We knew you'd have questions, and we wanted to give you a suitable explanation without having you think we were all … I don't know …” A playful smile creased his face. “Bat shit crazy?”

“Fair enough.”

“It's always been here,” Hank went on after a moment of silence. “Old-timers called it Cradle Lake, because it's embraced and protected by the forest. There were other names for it, too. Ancient names. You find an old Cherokee sitting on a barstool in some cruddy watering hole, buy him a beer, and he'll tell you about the magical healing lake his ancestors talked about before the days of the white man.”

Hank turned away from him and stared at the darkened opening in the wall of heavy trees. “Woods surrounding the lake are said to be haunted, too, but that's just superstition. Maybe the Indians used to believe that—and maybe those woods
were
special back when they used them—but I've never seen anything out of the ordinary in there.”

“What are you saying?”

Hank was working a thumbnail under the label on his beer bottle. “The boy's neck was broken. His pulse was weak, and I knew he didn't have much time. It was a risk lifting him, moving him like that, and I wasn't sure his neck was broken until I saw the way his … well, the way his head turned—”

“Stop it.” He didn't need Hank's recount of the horrible story; the image was already in front of his eyes.

“He would have died waiting for an ambulance. Either that or spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.”

“I don't understand.”

Hank set his bottle down on the picnic table. In the
darkness and beneath the moon, his face was a luminous white orb, his eyes as black as bottomless pits. “Maybe the Cherokee knew what they were talking about, or maybe it's all just a coincidence. Maybe there's no good explanation for it. All
you
need to know is that the lake is
special.
It's a gift. Today you've witnessed what it's capable of.”

Alan uttered a nervous laugh; it came out as a squeak. “Jesus Christ, I'm not sure
what
the hell I witnessed today.”

“Just what you saw,” Hank said calmly. “Exactly what you saw.”

Alan stared at him. “So you're saying the lake saved that kid's life today. It's got the power to … what? Heal people, fix them, make them better?”

“Not everyone.” Hank tapped his bum knee with two fingers. “I've been in that lake exactly seven times since I've moved to town, including today, and this damn leg of mine has never healed.” He shrugged. “Had I known of the lake when I was younger and the injury was still fresh, things might have been different. What I'm saying is maybe there was a time when it
could
have fixed me. But probably not. I don't think age has anything to do with it. Nor do I think it's dependent on the type of injury. To be honest, I can't say why it hasn't fixed my leg. I
will
say I haven't used reading glasses in three years, and the little bald spot I'd had for nearly a decade no longer exists. My cholesterol's as perfect as you could hope for, and overall I've never felt better. But this leg?” Again, he shrugged. They could have been talking about baseball scores or the weather. “Hell if I know why some things are fixed and others aren't.”

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