Authors: Scott Nicholson
Tags: #Science fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Horror, #Horror - General, #Fiction - Horror
"You're too young to be a dinosaur."
"Everything's electronic these days. Electromag-netic field detectors, subsonic recorders, infrared cam-eras. If you can't plot it on a computer, they don't think it exists. But I believe what I see with my heart." Cris looked around the room, as if noticing the dark corners and flickering fire-cast shadows for the first time.
"You didn't come here because of—"
"Don't worry. I'm here for personal reasons."
"Aha. I saw you talking to that muscle guy with the canvas satchel, out on the porch."
kind of personal reason. Besides, he's not my type."
"Give it a few days. Stranger things have happened."
"And I'm sure you're here to throw yourself into your art?" Anna pointed to the sketch pads. "I won't give you my lecture on the artistic temperament, be-cause I like you."
"Oh, I think my husband is plooking his secretary and wanted me out of the house so they could use the hot tub. He sent me to Greece over the summer. New Mexico last spring to do the Georgia O'Keeffe thing. Now the North Carolina mountains."
"At least he's generous."
"I'l never be a real artist, but it gives me something to do on retreats besides chase men and drink. But my Muse allows me those little luxuries, too. Speaking of which, I noticed a bar in the study. Care for one before dinner?"
"No, thank you. I believe I'll rest a little."
"Wel, just don't walk around with a sheet over your head. I might mistake you for a ghost."
"If I die, I promise you'll be among the first to know."
Anna lay back on the pilow. A feather poked her neck. The door closed, Cris's footsteps faded down the hall, dying leaves whisked against the window. The smoke-aged walls gave off a comforting aroma, and the oil lamp's glow added to the warmth of the room. She felt at peace for the first time since—
No. She wouldn't think of that now.
The pain was back, a rude houseguest. She tried the trick of numbers, but her concentration kept getting tangled up with memory, as it so often did lately. Ever since she'd started dreaming of Korban Manor.
Ten, round and thin
An image of Stephen slid into her mind between the one and the zero. Stephen, with his cameras and giz-mos, his mustache and laugh. To him, Anna was the parapsychologist's version of a campfire girl. Stephen had no need for
ghosts. He could prove them, he said. Their graveyard dates ended up with her wandering over grass and headstones while Stephen focused on set-ting up equipment. The night she'd sensed her first ghost, shimmering beside the marble angel in the Guilford Cemetery, Stephen was too busy marking down EMF readings to look when she called. The ghost didn't wait around for a Kodak moment, it dissolved like mist at sunrise. But before those evanescent threads spooled themselves back to whatever land they'd come from, the haunted eyes had stared fully into Anna's.
The look was one of mutual understanding.
Nine, loop and droop ...
That had been her first investigation with Stephen. But the ghost-hunting circle was small. Her frustration was outweighed by her loneliness. They'd slept together on the floor of Asheville's Hanger Hall on a winter night when the wind was too brisk even for ghosts. And two weeks later, she'd overheard him at a party calling her a "flake, but a lovable flake."
So after six years of study and field research, she was little more respectable than an 800-hundred-number phone psychic. There were plenty enough skeptics out in the real world, between the hard scientists and those who were always up for a good old-fashioned witch burning. But the laughter of her own peers was enough to drive her to big, spooky, empty places where she could chase ghosts alone.
Eight, a double gate...
Then the pain came, and the first of the dreams. She had stepped from the forest, her feet soft on the damp grass, the lawn as lush as only dreams could paint it. The manor stood before her, windows dark as eyes, the trees around the house twisted and bare. A single strand of smoke rose from one of the four chimneys. The smoke curled, collected, gathered on the roof just above the white railing. And the shape formed, and the woman's whispered word, "Anna," woke her up, as it had so many nights since.
Seven, sharp and even .
That was what the pain was, a seven, sticking in her intestines.
Stephen came over the day she found out the colon cancer had metastasized to her liver. He held her hand and his eyes managed to look dewy and glazed behind his thick glasses. The mustache even twitched. But he was too practical, too emotionally void to realize ex-actly what the diagnosis meant. To him, death was nothing more than a cessation of pulse, a change in en-ergy readings. So much for soul mates.
Even after Anna had talked the doctors out of a colectomy, accepting the death sentence as the cancer raced to other organs, Stephen still acted as if science would intervene and save her. He probably even prayed to science, that coldest of all gods. She refused his offer of a ride home from the hospital. She'd come to accept that loneliness was a natural state for someone soon to be a ghost.
Six, an arc and trick...
Miracles happen, one of her oncologists had told her. But she didn't expect them to occur in a hospital, with tubes pumping radiation into her, blades removing her flesh a sliver at a time, doctors marking off her dwindling days. And she had stopped dreaming in the hospital. It was only back home, in the wee hours of her own quiet bed, that Korban Manor once more stood before her. - Night after night, as the dream grew longer and more vivid, the shape on the roof gained substance. At last Anna could clearly see the distant face, diaphanous hair flow-ing out like a veil. The cyan eyes, the welcoming smile, the bouquet held before her from the forlorn stage of the widow's walk. At last the face was recognizable. The woman was Anna.
Five, a broken wing.. .
The pain was softer now, snow on flowers.
She'd conducted some research, knowing the manor was familiar to her through more than just dream visi-tations. She found a few items on Korban Manor in the Rhine archives. Ephram Korban had spent twenty years building his estate on the remote Appalachian crag, then had leapt to his death from the widow's walk in an ap-parent suicide. Some locals in the smal town of Black Rock passed along stories of sightings, mostly disre-garded as the gossip of hired hands. A field investiga-tion, shortly before the house was restored as an artists' retreat, had netted zero in the way of data or enthusiasm. But maybe Korban's pain, his anger, his love, his hope, his dreams, were soaked into these wals like the cedar stain on the wainscoting. Maybe this wood and stone and glass had absorbed the radiant energy of his humanity. Maybe the manor whose construction had obsessed him was now his prison. Maybe haunting wasn't a choice but an obligation.
Four, a north fork. . .
She drifted in the gray plane between sleep and thought, wondering if she would dream of the mansion now that she was actualy here. She closed her mind to her five senses, and only that other one remained, the sense that Stephen had ridiculed, the one Anna had hidden away from her few friends and many foster parents. The line be-tween being sensitive and being a freak was thin.
Three, a skeleton key...
For just a moment, she was puled from sleep. Some-thing wafted behind the maple baseboard, scurried along the cracks between dimensions. She didn't want to open her eyes. She could see better if her eyes were closed.
Two, an empty hook.. .
She felt eyes on her. Someone was watching, per-haps her own ghost, the woman spun from the smoke of dreams who held that bouquet of fatal welcome.
One, a dividing line...
The line between some and none, here and gone, bed and grave, love and hate, black and white. Zero.
Anna had come from nothing, was bom to nothing, and walked toward nothing, both her past and future black. She opened her eyes.
No one was in the room, no ghost shifted against the wall.
Only Korban, dead as dry oil, features shadowed by the flickering firelight.
The sunlight's angles had grown steeper in the room. The pain was gone. Anna rose and went outside to wait for sundown, wondering if this was the night she would finally meet herself.
"Have you seen George?" Miss Mamie asked Ransom Streater. She hated to mingle with the hired help, with the exception of Lilith, but there were times when or-ders had to be given or stories set straight. The best way to head off gossip was to originate it.
"No, ma'am." Ransom stood by the barn, his hat in his scarred hands, sweat clinging to his thin hair. He smelled of the barnyard, hay and manure and rusty metal. Around his neck was a leather strap, and she knew it was attached to one of those quaint charm bags. These rural mountain people actually believed that roots and powders had influence over the living and the dead. If only they knew that magic was created through the force of will, not by wishful thinking.
Magic was al in the making. Like the thing she held cradled in her arms, the poppet she had shaped with great love and tenderness.
"I need someone to help the sculptor find some wood tomorrow," she said.
"Yes, ma'am." The man's Adam's apple bobbed once.
"When was the last time you heard from George?"
"This afternoon, right after the last batch of guests come in. Said he was going up Beechy Gap to check on things."
Miss Mamie hid her smile. So George had gone to Beechy Gap. Good. Nobody from town would miss him for at least a couple of weeks, and by then it wouldn't matter.
And she could count on Ransom to keep his mouth shut. Ransom knew what kind of accidents happened to people around Korban Manor, even to those who wore charms and muttered old-timey spells. And a job was a job.
Everyone had a burning mission in life.
Some missions were more special than others.
She took the little doll from its bit of folded cloth. Its apple head had shriveled into a dark and wizened face, the mouth grim with animated pain. The body was made from whittled ash and the arms and legs were strips of jackvine. Ransom drew back from the doll as if it were a rattlesnake.
"Wil you take care of George for me?" Miss Mamie asked.
"He was my friend. It's the least I can do." A shadow crossed his face. "I need to wait til morning, though. I don't go up Beechy Gap at night."
"First thing, then. I don't want to upset the guests. You know what's coming, don't you?"
"A blue moon in October," Ransom said. His eyes shifted to the barn door. A horseshoe hung above it, points up, the dull metal catching the dying daylight. As if luck mattered.
"You've been with us a long time."
"And I aim to stick around a lot longer."
"Then you won't let me down?"
"I'l bury him proper, silver on his eyes. I take pride in my work."
"Ephram always said, 'Pride wil walk you through the tunnels of the soul.' "
"Ephram Korban said lots of things. And people said lots of things about him."
"Some of it might even be true." Miss Mamie stroked the dol, suffering her own moment of pride at its skillful rendering. Folk art, they called it. The little poppet contained far more folk than anybody knew. "Excuse me, I have a dinner to host."
Ransom gave a litle bow and tugged the strap of his overalls. Miss Mamie left him to feeding the livestock and headed toward the manor. She carried the dol as if it were a precious gift to a loved one. Even though the house was as familiar to her as her own skin, to see it from a distance always brought a fresh rush of joy. The fields, the trees, the mountain wind seemed to sing his name.
This was her home.
Pain comes in many colors, but fear comes in only one.
George Lawson thought he'd experienced all the colors of pain in his fifty-three years. White pain, like the time he'd raked the tip of a chain saw across his shinbone while clearing out some locust scrub a few summers back. He'd gotten acquainted with dull sky-blue pain when rheumatoid arthritis had painted a strip along his spine. And the invisible gray gut-punch had hung around for months after Selma dropped him for a rug-weaving hippie back around the end of the Reagan years.
He'd felt pain in a hundred colors, oranges and candy-apple reds and sawgrass greens, and pain had taken just as many shapes and sizes. But he was damn near positive he'd never felt pain like the kind that bear-hugged him now. This was al of those combined, a rainbow of pain, an oil slick in a mud puddle, every-thing a nerve ending could jangle at a felow, and then some.
The fear was nothing but black. Bigger, darker, blinding and suffocating, growing like a shadow over those other colors. Black fear lodged in his throat like a grease rag, like a clot of stale molasses, like a lump of coal. He sucked in a gasp of that autumn-sweet Appa-lachian air.
George tried to move his left arm just as an experi-ment. Mistake.
Two twenty-penny nails had pinned his biceps to the floor. He even tasted the nails, though he was pretty sure the only things in his mouth were some dust, a lit-tle blood, and a few loose teeth. And the fear. The taste was metal and rust and the kind of smithy, gunpowdery bitterness that filed the air when a fixer-upper worked a hammer. The collapsed shed settled around him with a splintering groan.
George knew he'd better open his eyes. Because in-side his head, he was looking down a long dark tunnel, and the deeper he got, the farther away he was from the light pouring in from the mouth of the tunnel. He was riding down into that tunnel as smoothly as if he were on miners' rails. And part of him wanted to slide on away, down into that cool airless place just around the bend.