Authors: Scott Nicholson
Tags: #Science fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Horror, #Horror - General, #Fiction - Horror
"I wonder if they saw the smoke from down in the valley," Cris said.
"Probably not," Anna said. "There would have been sirens or a Forest Service helicopter by now." It was strange to be reminded that another world ex-isted off this mountaintop, a world of sanity and order, where the dead stayed in the ground for the most part and people drifted through ordinary lives. Anna stood, heading for the wreckage of the barn. "Good thing the fire department didn't get here in time to put it out, huh? I don't think any part of Ephram should remain."
"What are we going to tell them?" Mason said. "I mean, what really happened here?"
"I've got a theory. But a theory's worth about as much as a match in hell. There's supposed to be some old trails that go down the side of the mountain. I'm going to find one and ride down to the river and folow it until it meets a road."
"Need some company?" Mason asked.
"Not the kind that gets woozy from heights. Plus you need time to heal."
"I'll go with you," Zainab said.
Anna shook her head. "No. They need you here. And I've had a lot of experience with horses. It'll be faster if I go alone."
Paul nodded. "The writer's having trouble breathing. Ate a litle too much smoke. Good luck, Anna." Paul, Cris, and Zainab headed up the road, where Spence and Bridget gathered near the house's founda-tion like ghosts who felt an obligation to haunt. But there were no more ghosts at Korban Manor. They had all moved on, to wherever their destination had been before Miss Mamie copied them as crude little dolls and Korban hijacked their midnight flight to eternity.
Korban Manor was nothing but ash and charcoal and a sprinkle of embers. And Korban was nothing, just a burned memory, a flash in the cosmic pan. A dream that was already half forgotten, one that faded by the minute, and Anna was sure his magnificent mar-ble grave marker was only a handful of dust, those words too soon summoned crumbled like the lie they were.
Just before sunrise, she'd hiked to Beechy Gap and visited the site of the cabin where she'd seen the strange little carved figures. The cabin was gone, a small pile of ash marking its passage. The figures must have exited, too, wended toward the heavens in smoke and fire. Free at last.
Anna sorted through the fallen barn timbers for a saddle and bridle. She lifted a shattered board and saw Ransom's blank face, a trickle of crusted blood at one corner of his mouth. The scrap of cloth from his charm was clenched in one rigid hand. She covered him be-fore Mason noticed. The dead deserved her respect. Death wasn't roman-tic or glamorous. She was through worrying about their motives, their hopes, their endless dreams. Her fascination had faded. She had no desire to ever see an-other ghost, especially her own.
Even Rachel's, though the two of them had shared an intimate bond that ran far deeper than mere mother and child.
Maybe this was how Anna was destined to belong. Those were her people, her connection, kindred spirits, however briefly. In an odd way, maybe they lingered in-side her, invisible, in her blood, in the tainted, cancer-ous cells that corrupted her organs and pushed her inevitably toward the final darkness. She was as much a ghost as she was a mortal. A stranger in two strange lands. But they all were. Every organic thing that had ever caught the spark of life. The dying begins with the birth.
Did she really expect that, by becoming a ghost, she would understand what being a ghost meant?
She'd been alive for twenty-six years and had come no closer to the meaning of life in all that time. Why should death be any less of a mystery to those experiencing it?
As for today, the air was fresh and the pain inside was somewhere down around six, an arc and trick, or maybe a five, a broken wing. A hel of a long way from zero. She could live for those who had gone before, and those yet to come. Weeks or months, it was all a precious and fleeting gift.
Anna saw a flash of dul silver in the broken lumber, moved some timbers, and found a bridle, then a saddle and blanket. She puled them from the rubble. Mason watched with interest as she harnessed one of the Morgans. Some of the smoke that had collected in her lungs had started to rise. She cleared her throat and spat loudly. "Is that how they do it in Sawyer Creek?"
Mason smiled at her. It wasn't such a bad smile, though it was surrounded by a face gray from smoke, ash, and weariness. She carried the blanket to him and covered him up.
"Better keep you warm, just in case," she said.
"Go out frost?"
"That's not funny."
Spence grabbed at a piece of black ash as it wafted to the ground.
No. It wasn't the Word.
He grabbed another, then another.
The Word would endure. Mere fire couldn't destroy it. He coughed. The ashes had stuck to his tears, mak-ing his cheeks feel thick and clotted. He coughed again, his stomach quivering.
"Why don't you come away from there? That smoke's no good for you." He turned. The Muse?
No. Bridget, Ms. Georgia Peach, the latest corruption.
"You stupid blowhard," Bridget said. "Be glad that stuff got burned. Maybe someday you can write a real story, something that's not possum vomit."
Real? How dare she criticize—
"And you can leave me out of it." She walked away, then turned and stood with her hands on her hips. "I don't know what I ever saw in you. But I can sure see you now."
"I believe you said this was always your favorite part. 'The End.' Well, it sounds good to me, too." Spence watched her go. She didn't matter. She was just another prop, another character sketch. One of the little people. He stood under the snowfall of gray and black, waiting for the Word to come from on high. Maybe if he could remember the story, bring it back to life, it would lead him again to the Word. Something about the night? He touched the crumpled page he'd tacked inside his jacket. Maybe later, after years had passed, he would be able to read it. And maybe it would contain some hint of the night's long spel. But the night was leaving, retreating over the far steel-blue hils, going on to other writers, other vessels. It would spread its loving cloak on another part of the world, shower its gifts elsewhere, whisper its secret sentences. And Spence was again alone, with nothing but himself and words.
The ashes rained on.
Mason tried to curl the fingers of his scorched right hand. A strip of electric pain jolted up his arm, pausing only briefly at the cut in his shoulder to gather momen-tum before reaching his brain. He bit his tongue to keep from crying out.
Maybe this was what suffering was al about. The art of sacrifice. It wasn't about enduring starvation, strug-gling for recognition, fighting the fear of failure. Maybe it was about finishing, leting go. And realizing that the dreams you bring to life sometimes have no place in the world, and are best left as dreams.
The toughest critics weren't in New York or Paris. They weren't in the art schools. They didn't wear berets and sport tiny mustaches and drink espresso. Sometimes they lived in your mirror.
"How are you holding up?" Anna asked, tightening the cinch around the horse's girth. She had strong hands.
"Well, I don't think I'll be doing much sculpting for a while." Mason thought of his tools, buried some-where under the heap of ashes and bones in the base-ment. He had no desire to see them again. Anna nodded at him and adjusted the saddle, then stroked the horse's ears. The Morgan snorted with pleasure.
He had to ask. "What was it like ... you know?"
"To be dead?" Anna's cyan eyes fixed on a faraway point somewhere beyond the range of sight.
"Somebody who loves me said it's the same as being alive, only worse." Mason looked up at the thin pillar of smoke. The wind was carrying it away, and he caught the odor of apples. Now that the sun was out, the sky was a shade of winter-born blue.
December would come with its soft snows, then the nights would get shorter and spring would arrive. Grass would grow over the ruins, locust and blackberry vines would spring up from the burned-out spot. The granite would sleep under its skin of dirt. The sun would rise and fal, the seasons would turn, the clock's restless hands would spin in only one direction.
"What are you going to do later?" Mason asked.
"I don't know. I think I'm cured of metaphysics, though. Let the dead rest. They've earned it." She put a foot in the stirrup and swung astride the horse. It was a natural fit. "What about you?"
"Depends. As soon as I get to back to Sawyer Creek, I'm going to tell Mama that dreams aren't the only thing we got in this world."
"Really. What else have we got?"
"Dreams and pain. Wel, that's a lovely mix. Maybe you can add 'faith' to that list." The kind of mix that maybe love was made of. Mason wondered if one day he might find out. He looked down at the ground and saw a bit of color amid a pile of loose hay. He kicked at the hay, and then saw the flowers. A bouquet of bluets, flame azalea, daisies, baby's breath, painted trilium. Spring mountain flowers, fresh-cut and sweet, the stems wrapped in clean lace. He carried them to Anna. "Somebody must have left these for you." She took the bouquet and held it to her nose, eyes moist. "Dead stay dead," she whispered. "And rest in peace."
Anna tucked the bouquet into the bridle, eased back on the reins, and the Morgan raised its head.
"See you soon, Mason. Take care of yourself."
She twitched the reins and the horse started down the dirt road.
"Hey, Anna," he yelled after her. "Did you mean what you said up on the widow's walk?" She didn't stop, but turned in the saddle and looked back. She shouted over the steady clop of the horse's hooves, "About trusting you? Maybe."
Anna gave him a half smile, then left him to wonder which half of it she meant. Scott Nicholson is a journalist in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. He studied creative writing at the University of North Carolina and Appalachian State University. He is author of The Harvest and the Stoker Award finalist The Red Church, both published by Pinnacle Books. His next novel, The Home, will be published in 2005. Readers can visit Scott Nicholson's Web site at