Authors: Scott Nicholson
Tags: #Science fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Horror, #Horror - General, #Fiction - Horror
—whatever trick his eyes had played on him as he'd stepped inside the shed. Because if a fellow couldn't trust his own eyes, his days as a to-the-sixteenth-inch handyman were numbered. But right now, all that mat-tered was—
that slippery shadow that you could see right through
—the next push, prying that ceiling joist off his left arm. His chest erupted in hot blue sparks of pain, hell-blazer blue, a blue so intense it was almost white. But the joist gave a little groan and inched upward, awak-ening the nailed nerves in his biceps.
"She's moving, soldier! She's a-moving! And the pain ain't nothing, is it? Hell, we been through boo-koos of this kind of hurt. This is like a pansy-assed waltz through the daisies." A waltz. The long white shadow had been doing a waltz. Like a worn linen curtain blowing in the wind, only...
"Sure wasn't no screech owl's face, Georgie-Boy."
The shadow had a human face.
George gurgled and the spit trickled down his cheek. He pried again and the joist lifted another cruel and precious inch. New colors of pain came, pus yellow, electric green, screaming violet, crazed ribbons of agony. A big section of the roof quivered-and the am-putated hand worked free of its wooden skewer, fell and bounced off his forehead and away.
But George barely noticed, because he was back in the tunnel, riding the miners' rails. And he was round-ing that slow curve into darkness, that final rum away from the bothers of breathing.
And suddenly he knew what was around the bend.
would be waiting, the white shadow with the large round begging eyes, the thing with arms spread wide, one hand holding that dead bouquet of flowers. She looked even more afraid than George. Just before the shed collapsed, he'd seen the long see-through tail wrig-gling under the lace hem of her gown, a tail as scaly as a—
"The snakes crawl at night, Georgie."
"No, they don't," George said, voice hoarse and weak. "I know, because I looked it up." He was weeping because he realized he couldn't re-member his mama's name. But sorrow didn't matter now, neither did the pain, nor the nails in his flesh, nor the missing hand, nor the dust filing his lungs, nor the creeping night. Even Old Leatherneck was nothing, just a distant jungle ghost, a cobweb, an echo.
Al that mattered were the miners' rails and that turn in the bend, and the tunnel opening into a deeper, air-less blackness. A black beyond the colors of pain.
She was waiting. With company.
Johnny Cash was right, and the encyclopedia was wrong.
crawl at night.
Mason was tired from his walk along the wagon trails. He'd spent the afternoon trying to clear his head, relishing the solitude and quiet of the mountain forest that surrounded the estate. Out there, under the ancient hardwood trees, nobody had any expectations of him. He didn't have to be a hot new artist, he wasn't the repository for his mother's hopes and dreams, he had no obligation to prove his worth to the world's most un-forgiving father. On the grounds of Korban Manor, he was just another loser with a bag of tricks.
The foyer was nearly empty when Mason returned to the manor just before sunset. He nodded at an el-derly couple who wore matching jackets, their shirt-sleeves laced, drinks poised. Roth and a dark-skinned woman were talking, Roth miming as if he were snap-ping a photograph. The gaunt maid stood at the foot of the stairs, hands clasped behind her back, staring at the portrait of Korban. Mason waved to Roth and crossed the room, careful to avoid looking into the fireplace. He was afraid he'd see something that probably wasn't there. He touched the maid on the shoulder. She spun as if electrocuted, and Mason stepped back and held his hands apart.
"Sorry to startle you. Are you the one showing us our rooms?"
She forced a smile and nodded. Mason squinted to read the brass nameplate fixed to her chest.
"Name, please?" Her voice was barely above a whis-per. Roth's laughter boomed from the other end of the room, no doubt fueled by one of his own jokes.
"Jackson," Mason said.
"Mr. Jackson, you're late." She tried a smile again, but it flitted across her pale face and settled into the shadows of her mouth. "Second floor, end of the south wing."
"I hope we've got bathrooms," he said, trying for bumpkin humor. "I know we're supposed to go back in time, but I didn't see an outhouse anywhere."
"Shared baths for
she said, already heading up the stairs. "You have a private bath. Follow me, please."
Mason took a last look back at the fireplace, then at Korban's giant face. Even with dead eyes and confined to two dimensions, the man had charisma. But then, so had David Koresh, Charles Manson, and Adolf Hitler. And Mason's father. The gallery of assholes. Mason shook his head and started up the stairs. Lilith hadn't offered to carry his satchel. Maybe she'd noticed how possessively he clung to it, or maybe the chivalry and manners of the nineteenth century stil held sway here.
Lilith glided over the oak treads with a swish of her long dress. If she was going for big-city Goth, she cer-tainly had the sickly complexion for it. She moved with a grace that belied her brittle features. Judging from her bony hands and the angles of her skul, Mason ex-pected her to clatter when she walked.
The second floor was as grand as the first, with the same high ceiling and wainscoting. A pair of chande-liers hung above the great hallway, each with cream-colored candles stuck in a silver ring and surrounded by crystal teardrops. Astral lamps burned at eye level every twenty feet, the flames throwing enough light to shrink the shadows along the wood trim. Rows of three solid maple doors lined both walls, and oil landscapes were set at intervals between the rooms. The art was of high quality, al of manor scenery. One of the paintings was of the wooden bridge that Mason and the guests had crossed, and the image brought back memories of his light-headed panic. It, like the other paintings, bore no artist's signature.
Huge portraits of Korban, with different lighting ef-fects than the one in the foyer but possessing the oblig-atory scowl of the era, hung at each end of the hall.
"Nice paintings," he said to Lilith.
"Mr. Korban lived for his art. We all did."
"Oh, are you one of
He meant it as humor. Either he was too worried about his imminent failure as a sculptor or she was preoccupied, but the joke fell as flat as canvas.
"I used to be," Lilith replied.
They passed an open door and Mason looked inside. Jefferson Spence's bulk was overwhelming a wooden swivel chair as the writer unpacked papers and spread them across a desk. Miss Seventeen was nowhere in sight. Mason noticed that the room only had one bed, then quickly looked away, chiding himself for being nosy. Lilith led him before a door at the end of the hall. It creaked as she pushed it open. She stood aside so Mason could enter, her eyes on the floor.
"Thanks," Mason said. His battered suitcase, a Samp-sonite with electrician's tape holding the handle together, was already inside the room. The suite was large with a king-sized wooden poster bed, cherry desks, matching chestnut bureaus, and round-topped nightstands. Tall rectangular windows were set in the south and west wals, and Mason realized the room would get sunlight throughout the day. That was a luxury at a place that had no electricity. The setting sun suffused the room with a honey-colored warmth.
"Wow. This must be one of the better rooms," he said.
The maid stil waited outside, as if afraid to breathe the room's air.
"It's the master suite," she said. "It used to be Ephram Korban's bedroom."
"Is that why his portrait's on the wal?" Mason said, nodding to the painting that hung above the bedroom's large fireplace. It was a smaler version of the painting that hung in the foyer, of a slightly younger Korban. The eyes, though, were just as black and bottomless, and the faintest hint of a smile played across those so-cruel lips.
"Miss Mamie chose this room especially for you," Lilith said without emotion. "She said you've come highly recommended."
Mason tossed his satchel on the bed. The tools clinked duly together. "I hope I can live up to her expectations."
"Nobody has yet." Lilith still waited outside the door. If she was joking, there was no sign of it in her wan face.
"Uh, I don't know much about places like this," he said, putting a hand in his pocket, falling back on his
"Aw, shucks" routine. He'd learned that people were more forgiving if they thought he was a dumb hick be-cause their expectations were lower. He achieved the same effect with his southern drawl, though that was mostly unintentional. He secretly suspected his success at Adderly had been due to the sophisticated instruc-tors'
amazement that a country rube could break the confines of his heritage and actually compete in the ranks of the cultural elite. "You might think I'm stupid, but am I supposed to tip you?"
"No, of course not. And Miss Mamie would kill me if you tried." Lilith managed a smile, relieved at being dismissed. She was even attractive, in a nervous, pallid way, like a princess whose head was due to roll. She wasn't as pretty as the stuck-up woman with the cyan eyes, but Lilith probably wasn't contemptuous of artists if she herself was one.
Lilith pointed to the door on the west wall. "The bath-room's in there."
"Fine." He sat on the bed.
"Is that all?"
"Unless you want to take off my shoes for me."
She took a hesitant step forward, staring at the floor.
"Hey, I was just kidding." He gave a laugh that sounded like a horse choking on an apple. Lilith flashed her feverish smile again, then said, "Dinner's at eight sharp, Mr. Jackson. Don't be late. Miss Mamie wouldn't like it."
Then she was gone. Mason turned his attention once more to the furnishings. A lamp stood on each night-stand, an oval glass base filled with heavy oil and en-cased in brass workings. A fire crackled away in the hearth, a stack of split locust and oak piled near the stonework. It was a miracle the old place hadn't burned down in all these years. Mason leaned back on the pil-lows and stared at the hand-swirled patterns in the gyp-sum ceiling.
Okay, Mase, this is what you wanted bad enough to go to all that trouble for. You did everything
but stand naked in front of the Arts Council grant committee and shake your goodies. You swayed
the critics, sold your brand of snake oil, and now you've taken maybe the biggest step of your
career. Maybe even your life. Because if you don't produce any salable work here, you 're looking
at another foodstamp Christmas in Sawyer Creek.
And you'll have to look Mama in the eye, even if she can't look back at you, and tell her you
failed, that your dreams weren't strong enough, that you didn't be-lieve in them enough.
Diabetic retinopathy. A rapid deterioration of her vi-sion, except she'd never said a word even as the tunnel closed in. She'd lied to the doctors long enough for the condition to pass the point of no return, and Mason had only found out when it was too late. She was too young for Medicare and not poor enough for Medicaid, but still could have gone ahead and run up the bills and then declared bankruptcy later. However, that would have depleted the meager savings she'd set aside for his education. Mason had wasted the money at Adderly, beating on hunks of wood and metal, trying to turn them into dreams. The worst part was that Mason didn't know whether to admire
her sacrifice or despise her for being so noble. Now she was scraping by on disability and whatever little bit Mason could afford to give her out of his factory paycheck. But that job was gone now, lost because of his pursuit of art. And still Mama was his greatest fan.
"Don't ever let go of your dreams, honey," she said through teeth she couldn't afford to repair. "That's all we got in this world, is dreams."
Mason rolled to his feet and paced the room. It was the same way he paced when he was anxious about an idea, when he felt the itch in his fingers, when some new sculpture began to take shape in his mind. It was the same mixture of excitement and dread, excitement that the new idea was the best ever, and dread in know-ing that the finished product could never match the dream image. Except, this time, the anxiety wasn't the by-product of exhilaration.
This retreat was the biggest of his big dream images. He'd already decided that if no direction or recognition came from his time at Korban Manor, he would toss his tools off the old wooden bridge that separated Korban Manor from the rest of the world. Sure, the heights would give him trouble, but he could crawl blind if necessary. He'd listen to the metal clanging and clatter-ing off the far rocks below, then he'd alow the blisters and caluses to heal while he found a real job.
He always knew that creativity came at a price. You had to pay the price even for a chance at failure. Doctors and lawyers spent ten years in colege and paid tens of thousands of dollars. Criminals paid with the risk of lost freedom. Priests gave up pleasures of the flesh. Soldiers faced an even greater cost. Artists paid with other things, the cheapest of which was pain. Not that he minded suffering for his art. He just didn't think Mama should suffer for it. He looked down and saw that his fists were clenched into angry hammers, the rage nearly making him drunk.
He stopped pacing and leaned against the window, looking through the old-fashioned rippled glass to the manor grounds. Even though he was only two stories up, he had to grip the molding to keep the dizziness at bay. The woman he'd talked to earlier stood by the fence, petting a horse. The sunset gilded the horizon and the gentle light made her ethereal and beautiful, a fairy-tale princess floating above the grass. The green roling fields, the shimmering sky, the sparkling lake at the foot of the pasture, and the seemingly weightless woman al seemed locked away in a dream.