Read The Manor Online

Authors: Scott Nicholson

Tags: #Science fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Horror, #Horror - General, #Fiction - Horror

The Manor (6 page)

BOOK: The Manor
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And, according to his father, dreams were a god-damned waste of good daylight. Mason went into the bathroom. The plumbing was primitive, though the fixtures were as ornate as the rest of the house. A cast-iron tub sat in the corner. The sink was marble, with gleaming chrome spigots and a framed mirror. He faced the ceramic toilet and relieved himself, noting the small siphon tank set high on the wall. The pipes behind the wal jumped and quivered when he flushed. He washed his hands at the sink, glancing in the mirror. Though the water was cold, the mirror fogged.

He wiped at it with the sleeve of his shirt. Still the haze remained. He frowned at his bleary reflection. The face in the mirror seemed a litle slow in respond-ing, the sad and tired face of a condemned prisoner. When he returned to the room, his tools were spread across his bed. They almost seemed to taunt him, dar-ing him to take them up and fail. He didn't remember taking them out of the satchel. Was he that uptight and distracted?

The portrait of Korban glowered down at him, the imagined smile gone. Korban was just another task-master, a demanding and cold critic. An observer, out-side the creative process, but ready to judge something that no one but the creator could understand. Just an-other asshole with an opinion.

Mason went to the tools, drawn as always by then-power. He bent to them, touched the fluters, chisels, hammers, and gouges, took comfort in their edges and weight. They ached to feed, they needed Mason's fin-gers to help them shape their world. And Mason needed them in turn, a symbiotic addiction that would create as much as it destroyed. He turned his back to Korban's portrait, then wiped the tools with a chamois cloth until they gleamed in the firelight.

"We can just push the beds together," Adam said.

"Yeah, and when you rol over in your sleep,
you'll
be the one whose ass falls into the crack."

"Wonder what kind of bed the married couples got."

"Probably a swinging harness rigged to the bed-posts, with a mirror on the ceiling."

"Don't act so persecuted, Paul. This will be romantic, like in the old days when we used to snuggle on your sister's couch."

"Yeah, until Sis found out.
That
was a scene that won't make it into a Disney family special." Adam sighed. If only Paul weren't so hardheaded. They would make do. They always had. And God wasn't out to punish people like them, despite the vehement rants of the rabid right wing.

"Listen," Adam said. "We'll push both beds side-ways against the wall, and you can have the back. If anybody rolls off in the night and knocks his head on the floor, it'll be me." Paul rubbed his hair in exasperation. A few strands of it stood up, dirty-blond and wavy, young Robert Redford hair. That, combined with his half-lidded eyes and thick eyelashes, made him look sleepy. Adam liked that sleepy look. It was one of the things that had first attracted him to Paul.

"Okay," Paul said. "I'll quit griping now. This
is
sup-posed to be a second honeymoon." Adam smiled. Paul's tirades never lasted long. "Does this mean I get my virginity back?" Paul pulled one of the feather pillows from under the blankets and threw it.

Adam knocked it away easily. "Say, did you get a load of Miss Mamie?"

"She could pass for a drag queen if she had a little neck stubble." They laughed together. Adam said, "You don't mince words. And you don't mince anything else, ei-ther."

"I'll mince your meat if you're not careful. And that's why you love me."

"Well, that's one of the reasons."

"Let's get unpacked. I want to go out and meet some people."

"That's exactly like you," Adam said. "We go eight hundred miles to get away from it al, then you have to swing right into the middle of the social scene."

"Live to party, Princess."

"Hey, it's
my
inheritance we're throwing away here. And don't think I'm going to let you forget it." Paul gave his fake pout in reply.

Adam carried their luggage to the closet. Paul had three matching suitcases and a heavy-duty case for his video camera. Adam had only a gym bag and a back-pack.

"Besides," Adam said, "when the money runs out, we can always rent that tremendously gorgeous body out for Calvin Klein commercials."

"As long as I don't have to pose nude with Kate Moss. She gives me the willies."

"If she gets a look at you, she'll want to carry your baby."

"Like
that
wil ever happen."

"Hey, come on. You'd make a cute dad."

"Don't start that," Paul said.

Adam began puting Paul's cotton shirts on hangers, careful to keep his back turned. He didn't want his dis-appointment to show. Paul was dead set against adop-tion, against that ultimate long-term commitment. And nobody could be as dead set as Paul.

"Sorry," Adam said, his words muffled by the closet. "I just thought, out here in the wilderness, away from our old life and all the pressures—"

"I
said
not to start."

"You said we could talk about it when we got here."

"But I didn't mean right away. I want to relax a litle, and you're making me all tense."

"Let's not fight. It's a bad way to start a vacation."

"I need to work some, too. How can I get anything done if you're bugging me about that 'settling down' crap?" " Adam sighed into the dark hollow of the closet. He finished puting away the clothes, then pretended to be interested in what was going on outside the window. Paul would have run geting some footage here. A nice, peaceful nature documentary for an uptight Boston boy.

They had a room on the third floor, smaler than the ones he'd seen while the maid was leading them up-stairs. The window was set in a gable. The entire upper floor, including wals and angled ceilings, was covered with varnished tongue-in-groove boards. On the way up, Adam had asked the maid about a narrow ladder that led to a smal trapdoor in the roof. She told them it went to the widow's walk and that guests weren't al-lowed up there. She said it with what Adam thought was nervousness and a dismissive haste. He wondered if, during some past retreat, a guest had suffered an ac-cident
there.

He turned from the window, ready to make peace. If he could get Paul talking about video, the spat would soon be forgotten. "So, do you think you brought enough tape?"

"Got enough for eight hours. Too bad the budget didn't allow for me to get a Beta SP camera. I'm stuck with crappy digital."

"Wel, you're freelancing for public television. What do you expect, the budget for
Titanic
minus Leo Di-Caprio's dialogue coach?"

"Hey, I'd be happy with his hairstylist's budget. Docu-mentary grants are at the bottom of the list for funding these days. Maybe I should go into 'Mysteries of the Unexplained Enigmas and Other Offbeat Occult Pheno-mena.' With al this talk about the manor being haunted, who knows?"

Adam smiled, counting a victory whenever Paul slipped into sarcastic humor. Paul wouldn't take any money from Adam to subsidize his videos, but other-wise he had no qualms about being a "kept man." Paul stretched out on one of the narrow beds and stared at the ceiling. Maybe he was visualizing the edit of some sequence.

"Tell you what," Adam said. "I'll see if I can arrange to be abducted by space aliens while you roll the cam-era."

"I hear they do all kinds of bizarre sexual experi-ments."

"Sounds better every minute."

"Hey, what can
they
do that I can't do better?"

Adam crossed the room. Paul had that sleepy look again. "Kiss me, you fool." Paul did. Adam felt eyes watching them. Strange.

"What?" Paul asked, his voice husky.

"Don't know," Adam said. He looked around. No one could possibly see in the window from outside, and the door was locked. Besides the furniture, the only thing in the room was an oil painting, a smaller replica of the man's portrait that hung in the foyer.

I'm not going to be paranoid. It's okay to be gay, even in the rural South. It's OKAY to get back
to na-ture. This love is as real as anything in this world.

He slid into bed beside Paul, wondering if the old geezer Korban would disapprove of two boys boffing under his roof. Who cared? Korban was dead, and Paul was very much alive.
October was a hunter, its prey the green beast of summer. The wind moved over the hills like a
reluctant hawk; wings wide, talons low, hard eyes sweeping. Beneath its golden and frosty skin,
the earth quaked in the wind of the hawk's passing. The morning held its gray breath. Each tender
leaf and blade of grass trem-bled in fear.

Jefferson Spence looked down at the keys of the old manual Royal. "Horse teeth," the keys were called. George Washington had horse teeth, according to leg-end. Spence knew he was wasting time, finding any distraction to keep him from starting another sentence. He stared into the bobbing flame of the lantern on his desk.

He looked up at Ephram Korban's face on the wall. In this very room, twenty years before, Spence had written
Seasons of Sleep,
a masterpiece by all ac-counts, especially Spence's own. All his novels since had fallen short, but maybe the magic would return.

Words were magic. And maybe old Korban would let slip a secret or two, bestow some hidden wisdom gleaned from all those years on the wall.

"What," Spence said to the portrait, his voice filling the room, "are you trying to say?" Bridget called from the bathroom in her soft Georgia drawl. "What's that, honey?"

"To have and have not," he said.

"What is it you don't have? I thought we packed everything."

"Never mind, my sweet. A Hemingway allusion is best saved for a more appreciative audience." Spence had collected Bridget during a summer writ-ing workshop at the University of Georgia. He had led the workshop during the day and spent his evenings cooling off in the bars of Athens. Most of the sopho-more seminar students had joined him for the first few nights, but his passion for overindulgence and his brusque nature had caused the group to dwindle. By Thursday of the first week, only the faithful still or-bited like bright satellites gravitating toward the black hole of Spence's incalculable mass. Three of those were eligible in Spence's eyes: a bronze-skinned African goddess with oily curls; a hol-low-cheeked blonde who had a devilish way of licking her lips and an unhealthy appetite for the works of Richard Brautigan; and the tender Bridget. As always,

a couple of male students had also crowded his elbows and plied writing tips from him in exchange for drinks. Spence had litle patience with writers. His best advice was to spend time in front of the keyboard instead of in front of bar mirrors. But, to Spence, women's minds were simpler and therefore uncluttered with literary pretensions. He had selected Bridget precisely because she was the most innocent, and therefore would be the least corrupted of the three choices. With her fresh skin and clean hair, her simple and naive speech, her down-home manners and bele grace, she was everything that Spence wasn't. She was a lamb in a world of wolves. And Spence was pleased that he'd goten the first bite.

He'd lured her to his hotel room that weekend with the promise of showing her his latest manuscript. "Not even my agent has seen it," he'd said, swimming in a haze of vodka. "Consider yourself blessed, my sweet." She stayed the night, clumsily undressing as he watched. She shyly turned her back when she un-snapped her bra, and Spence smiled when she faced him with her arms covering her breasts. His was a smile of approval, but not for her physical qualities, as delightful as those were. He was pleased with himself for such a perfect conquest, such a decadent notch in his triggerless gun.

She hadn't complained or expressed surprise when he didn't attempt intercourse. A few women had actu-ally ridiculed him,
him,
Jefferson Davis Spence, the next last great southern writer, just because he was im-potent. But Bridget only lay meekly next to him while he stroked her as if she were a pet cat. Her warmth was comforting in the night. After a few weeks, she'd even stopped trembling beneath his touch.

That had been four months ago, and he figured she was probably good for at least another half a year. Then, as with all the others, the scales would fall from her eyes, the sexual frustration and the endless servi-tude would wear her down, until going back to colege and getting a degree seemed a much better career choice than watching the great Jefferson Spence barrel headlong toward his first coronary. Then Spence would find himself alone, desperately alone, with nothing but himself and his thoughts, himself and words, himself and the monster he had crafted inside his own head.

He looked down at the paper that was scrolled into the Royal. Six years. Six years, and al he had to show for it was this paragraph that he'd rewritten three hun-dred times. It was the same paragraph with which he'd lured Bridget that first time, the one he didn't even dare show his agent or editor. He'd known the time had ar-rived to get away from it al, seek a fresh perspective, summon those arcane Muses. If there was any place where he could recapture the magic, it was Korban Manor.

He placed his fingers on the keys. The shower came on in the bathroom, and Bridget began singing in her small, pretty voice. "Stand By Me," the old Ben King song. He typed "stand by me" under his opening para-graph, then clenched his teeth and ripped the page out of the carriage. He tore the sheet of paper into four pieces and let the scraps fluter to the floor.

Spence leaned back in his chair and looked out the window. The treetops were swaying in the wind that had arisen with the approaching dusk. He imagined the smells of autumn, of fallen apples bruised and sweet under the trees, of birch leaves crumpling under boot heels, of cherry bark spliting and leaking rubbery jew-eled sap, of pumpkin pies and chimney smoke. If only he could find the words to describe those things. Spence turned his attention back to the portrait of Korban on the wal. He thought about walking into the bathroom and watching Bridget soap herself up. But she might try to excite him. Each new beauty always thought she would be the one, out of dozens who had tried, to overcome what he called "the Hemingway curse." And with each fresh failure, Spence felt angry and humbled. Though he welcomed anger, he loathed humility.

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