Here are the first 50 pages of Ghostflowers. This is reproduced from my manuscript and does not reflect the look of the finished book, so all typos and indentation errors are my fault—and the fault of importing this text into WordPress from Microsoft Word. Maybe by the time of Kirk and Spock we’ll have computers that talk to each other and translate together properly. Until then, I’ll take the blame.
It had to be the heat.
It slammed her as she stepped out of the diner, enveloping her. She smelled the green trees towering across the street, black silhouettes in the gloaming, and the moisture in the air tickled her bare arms with infinitesimal dewdrops.
It had to be the heat that did it.
And then—she couldn’t breathe. Her vision blurred, grew fuzzy around the edges. She swayed backward, and it felt as though the bottom dropped out of her soul, and every muscle went as limp as a dish rag. Her knees weakened, let go—
No. It wasn’t the heat.
It wasn’t the heat at all.
It was his eyes.
The biker was a night-black blur, leaping for the waitress as her knees buckled and the star-speckled blacktop raced toward her.
The sheriff bellowed something at the door, and Rob yelled, “Hey!” The waitress moaned as the biker gathered her into his arms. He hurtled past the sheriff and kicked open the glass door. He blinked in the diner’s white fluorescent glare.
Tina Tyler spun, serving tray on one arm. A gravy-spotted spoon clanged to the tile floor.
“This woman has fainted,” the biker said. “Is there someplace—”
Conversations fell silent. An elderly couple stared at him from a booth. Deputy Duke turned at the counter, chewing a bite of his cheeseburger. He saw the biker’s long, dark hair and his worn jeans, and whispered, “The sheriff’s gonna shit.”
“Yeah. Yeah, over here.” Tina pointed toward the swinging doors leading to the kitchen.
The bells on the glass door jangled. Sheriff Hicks strode back into the diner, his hand on the butt of his revolver. His jowls glowed pink. “Now, look here—”
The cook burst through the swinging doors. Ruthette’s eyes were wide with worry, yet her low voice was as strong as steel. “Don’t you drop her, boy, or I’ll kick your butt all the way to Richmond.”
The rider cradled Summer’s head. He smiled. “No need for butt-kicking, ma’am. I’ve got her.”
Sweat trickled down Ruthette’s dark skin. She slung a dish towel over her shoulder and shoved open Ralph’s office door. “You damn well better.”
The room smelled like old grease. Ralph Jenkins spun around at his desk. On a small black and white, a blind detective was shouting for help. “The hell?”
Ruthette swept a stack of Playboys off of Ralph’s napping sofa. “You put her over here.” She saw Summer’s boyfriend in the doorway, craning to get a look past the sheriff. “Robby, you go and get me a nice, cold dish towel, you hear?”
Rob West raced toward the wash sink. The rider placed Summer onto the sofa. Ruthette slipped a red and orange crocheted pillow under Summer’s head. The rider looked down on her. Her hair spilled over the pillow in a blonde waterfall.
Tina Tyler peered behind the sheriff. “She okay?”
Ruthette felt Summer’s forehead.
The rider said, “She fainted.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll be the judge of that,” the sheriff said.
Tina glanced at the sheriff, then at the rider, then back at the sheriff. “Yeah. Okay, I’ve got the front. No worries.”
Rob slipped past the sheriff and handed Ruthette a cool, damp towel. She folded it and draped it across Summer’s forehead.
Summer’s lips moved, and Ruthette leaned toward her.
Hicks stepped forward. “Did she say something?”
Ruthette said, “Michelle?”
Hicks grunted and watched the biker. He motioned for Duke. “Take our friend into the kitchen. Get his I.D. And search him.”
Ralph Jenkins spun in his chair and said, “Somebody want to tell me what the hell is going on?”
Duke grabbed the rider’s elbow and read the name patch on his jacket. “Come on, Mr. Trager.”
Trager let himself be led into the big kitchen. It smelled like bacon and French fries.
“You better hope she’s okay,” Duke said.
Trager looked back towards the office door. Under the screech of tires from the television, he heard the beating of her heart, her steady breathing. “She’ll be fine. Glad I caught her before she hit the ground. Besides—” he glanced at Duke’s badge, “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Duke nodded. “I didn’t say you did. Sheriff might be of a different mind, though.” He held out his hand. “I’m gonna need some I.D.”
“We need to call the doctor?” the sheriff said.
Ruthette shook her head. “Looks like she just fainted. Heat, I ‘spose. Ralph, we got any smelling salts?”
Ralph ran his hand through his sparse grey hair. “Maybe in the medicine cabinet?”
“There ain’t nothin’ in there exceptin’ a bottle of mercurochrome and some Paregoric from the 1940s. Robby!” she shouted.
Rob had been hanging around in the background, fidgeting. “She breathing?”
“Well, of course she’s breathing. Now, go get that first aid kit under the cash register. Might be something in there we can use.”
“You got it, Ruthette. Be right back.” He turned around and, just then, Summer moaned aloud. Rob stopped in the doorway. “Is she—”
Summer’s eyes popped open, and focused on the cook. “Ruthette,” Summer said.
“I’m here, girl.”
“Ruthette,” Summer said, “why am I in Ralph’s stinky office?”
Ruthette smiled. The staff all knew that Ralph’s office collected the amalgamated aromas of burgers, fries, the Friday fish, and the stench of Ralph’s tennis shoes—worn without socks—which, together, multiplied the odors exponentially. “Sweetheart, you passed out.”
“I was outside.”
“The guy on the motorcycle?”
“He carried you in.”
Sheriff Hicks stepped closer. “Summer, did he hurt you?”
Summer frowned and stared up at Hicks. “Hurt me? Who?”
“The hippie. On that motorbike.”
Summer looked away; then it came back to her in a rush of images: the bike, the rider, the heat that had risen inside her—
“No. No, he never touched me. I was—I fell. The heat— No, he caught me.”
Summer started to sit up. “My customers. Ruthette, my tickets—”
“Tina’s got it for now. You stay here and rest. You want me to call your mama?”
Summer’s eyes widened. “No. Hell no.”
Ruthette smiled. “That’s what I figured.” She turned toward Rob. “Robby, you go and get Summer a big glass of ice water, okay?”
Rob rushed into the kitchen, and Summer lay back on the sofa. “I’m all right, really.”
“Maybe we should get you home soon.”
“God, not that,” Summer said. “Suddenly this office isn’t so smelly anymore.”
“Hey. My office don’t stink. I clean,” Ralph said.
“Sure you do,” Ruthette said. “Last year.”
Ralph stood up and took the high road. “Well. I better go man the grille.”
Ruthette whispered, “Yeah, you better.”
The sheriff cleared his throat. “Ruthette, you keep a watch on her. I’m going to have a talk with Mr. Motorcycle.”
Ruthette’s gaze flicked to the doorway. Back in the kitchen, the biker leaned against a steel cooking table, his arms crossed.
She shivered, suddenly feeling cold, chilled to the bone. The biker turned his face toward her. Something small, a tiny little voice, shouted at her for attention. Then an icy shadow fell over her.
His eyes. It was his eyes.
The hairs on her forearms were standing up straight.
And she knew.
Something just ain’t right here.
Duke held out the biker’s IDs like a pair of playing cards. Hicks took them and snapped them against his palm. California driver’s license, issued in April. Pale green military I.D. “Trager, James Phillip.”
“That’s Colonel Trager,” the biker said.
Hicks glanced up at him, but asked Duke, “You search him?”
Duke held out a six-inch hunting knife. “On his belt.”
Hicks took the blade, flipped it in the air, and caught it by the handle. His eyes never left the biker’s.
“Don’t look like no colonel to me.”
“What’s a colonel look like?” the biker said.
The sheriff pulled a crumpled pack of unfiltered Pall Malls from his shirt pocket and lit one. “Like a soldier,” he said, exhaling blue smoke. “A hero. Respectable. Clean. Not like some dirty hippie.” He stepped up and glowered in the biker’s face. “What the hell you doing in my town, boy?”
“Do I need you to approve my passport or something? You want to see my papers?”
“I asked you a question.”
The biker’s gaze didn’t flinch. “I shipped back from ‘Nam a couple of months ago. Retired. Riding across the country. I’ve never really been through the South before. Thought I’d see your natural stone bridge. Maybe write a book about my ride. Sure didn’t expect all this Southern hospitality.”
The sheriff hmphed. “A book.”
“Yeah. It’s one of those things you read.”
Hicks watched him. He listened to him, too. His voice, his accent. Sounded weird. Not American enough. And a retired Lieutenant Colonel at only twenty-eight? His gaze moved to the name stenciled on his jacket.
His hair is too long. He’s a biker freak. He’s too damn young to be a real colonel, much less a retired one. And he sounds like a goddamned foreigner.
“Sheriff!” It was Ruthette, shouting from Ralph’s office. “It’s Summer.”
Hicks exhaled and threw his cigarette to the floor. He ground it out with his steel toe. “Stay here.”
The biker almost laughed. “I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else.”
The sheriff entered the office. Summer was sitting up against the couch’s armrest, sipping a Coke through a paper straw. Ruthette said. “She’s doing all right.”
Hicks looked at Summer.
“I’m fine,” she said. “Really.”
“Obstinate as hell,” Ruthette said.
Hicks glanced at the black and white TV and snapped it off. “Sure you don’t want me to call Doc Bragg?”
Summer shook her head. “No. Not a chance.”
“It was just the heat,” Ruthette said. But her round face was creased with worry.
“Summer,” Hicks said, “are you sure the biker didn’t do anything to you?”
“I’m fine. He didn’t do a thing.” She stood up, then wobbled on her feet. Ruthette pushed off the sofa to help her, but Summer waved her away. “No. I’m okay. I’m ready.”
She looked the sheriff in the eye. “I need to talk to the—” She didn’t know what to call him. The stranger? The biker?
—the night man?
“I need to talk to him.”
Hicks looked at her with distaste. “What the hell you want to talk to that punk for?”
Rob cleared his throat. “Summer, I’m with the sheriff on this. If he—”
She stepped past the sheriff and looked at both Rob and Hicks from the doorway. “I would have been flat on the ground if he hadn’t caught me. I need to thank him, at the very least.”
Hicks started to object, but Ruthette was up, and she put her hand on his chest. “Come on, now. You boys need to go back and finish your dinner. It’s all got to be ice cold by now. Let’s go. I’ll heat everything up.”
Hicks stared at her. His right eye twitched.
The stranger stood at the back screen door, looking out into the dark trees beyond the loading dock. Deputy Duke saw Summer and smiled. “Feeling better?”
Her eyes stayed on the biker. “Duke, give us a few, will you?”
He glanced across the kitchen. Ruthette was pushing Hicks toward the front room. “I don’t know, Summer.”
“Come on, Duke. It’ll be okay. You’ll be right over there.” She nodded to Hicks and Ruthette. “This guy’s not going anywhere. I promise.”
Then the stranger turned toward them. His eyes, his face, seemed unusually shadowed. He was focused on Duke. She looked closer, and all she could see were shadows where his eyes were supposed to be.
Duke looked at her, then the biker, then looked away, as if confused.
“Okay,” he said slowly. “Okay. Yeah. My burger is cooling. Right. Okay.”
Duke followed the sheriff into the dining room. Summer watched them go, then turned toward the biker.
He took a step toward her, into the light.
He was stunning.
His night hair framed his head with the mane of a black lion. He moved his tall, lanky frame toward her, like a panther, and the slow smile spreading across his face lit his wide, black eyes with a glint of humor, a hint of secrets.
His eyes—so wide, so dark. They clutched her in a dark embrace. They were liquid, black water, depthless, and she was floating in their black, enveloping warmth.
I know you.
I’ve seen you.
She blinked. She had never seen—she read the name on his jacket—this TRAGER before in her life.
“Trager. Army,” she said.
“You been to Vietnam?”
She crossed her arms. “Do you ever speak?”
“So. Who are you?”
He opened his mouth to answer, then realized he had no idea what to say. He could smell her—perfume, with hints of lavender and vanilla; the aroma of cooking grease in her hair; and underneath it all—
His mind, his being, was suddenly adrift, floating in the dream that was her.
He didn’t know how to answer. There was a lifetime of things he wanted to say—and not one of them would she understand.
“James,” she said, testing how the name felt on her tongue.
“Yeah, well.” He stepped closer. Even with the smells of the kitchen and the old grease, she smelled the outdoors on him—a freshness, a wildness that spoke to the part of her heart that was yet untamed.
“I’m Summer,” she said. “You cause this much trouble everywhere you go?”
He shrugged. “Whenever the sun goes down. My buddies in ‘Nam called me the Midnight Rider.”
She grinned. “Then you’re only half as good as me. I cause trouble all the time.”
He watched her, the fear tickling his spine like a nagging itch.
Is this her?
“Somehow,” he said, “I believe that.”
“Listen. Thanks for, like, saving me.”
“Hey,” he said, “I was afraid my bike had scared you, or—” he said, not knowing exactly what the hell he was saying at all.
“Oh, I think you scared the old people eating out front. Me? I kind of like the bike.”
They stared at each other.
“Anyway,” they both said simultaneously. She laughed. He smiled.
“Anyway,” she said, “thanks for being there.”
“Glad I was. Glad I’m—”
“Me, too.” Now, why did she say that?
In the corner of her eye, she saw the kitchen doors swing open, and the sheriff’s bulk filled the doorway. He walked toward them, staring straight at Trager.
“’Scuse us, Miz Moore. I’ve got business with Colonel Sanders, here. Duke’ll give you a ride home.”
“No, I’m sticking around for a while.”
“Now, you listen—”
“No,” she said, facing him. “Did you hear me? I have work to do. I can get a ride later from Rob or Tina. Besides, I haven’t done anything—and neither has James.”
Hicks turned to Trager. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll hop back on that kiddy bike and ride it out the same way you came in.”
“This town ain’t big enough for the both of us? Is that it?”
“Listen, Colonel. Me—I’m the law in this town. And we don’t take kindly to your kind of trouble around here.”
“In other words, we ain’t puttin’ up with any of your goddamn hippie crap, you got that? Biker boy?”
The rider smiled. “Some of us in ‘Nam had a saying. ‘You didn’t see me, I wasn’t here, and I’m not here now.’ That about right?”
“You’re getting the picture.”
The rider glanced over at Summer and said, “I’m glad you’re well.”
“I am, now. Thanks.”
He stared at the sheriff a moment and said, “My knife.”
Hicks handed him the knife. “Time to go, ain’t it?”
The biker looked back at Summer. He winked.
He shoved open the back screen door, and it slammed shut behind him. The sheriff followed the biker out and hung back at the edge of the diner, watching Trager climb onto his motorcycle. Summer followed him outside.
The night roared with the growl of the bike’s powerful heart. The rider turned in the parking lot, and the bike leaped onto the road. The taillight disappeared around a thick curtain of trees, and she wondered why the night felt so empty.
Hicks exhaled smoke into the night. “Don’t you come back here, boy. Don’t you even—”
Summer went back into the kitchen. She felt a smile growing across her face, reflecting something she felt in her heart, opening like a midnight rose.
Then Rob came in through the swinging doors. “Babe, are you all right? I really don’t want you to work anymore tonight, okay?”
She shook her head. “I’m all right. I just want to finish up tonight and—”
“What happened out there?” Rob said. He tried to be casual, but there was a note in his voice. Who was that guy, and do I have anything to worry about?
“I guess it was just the heat. I could have broken something if that guy hadn’t been there.”
He tried to look into her eyes. Then Tina came up and put a hand on her shoulder. “Summer, I can hold down the fort. Go home. Get some rest.”
At the grill, Ruthette took a spatula out of Ralph’s hand and pushed him away. “Listen to her, girl. We can handle it, even with Ralph here, messin’ things up.”
Summer shook her head. “I’m okay. Just a little while longer, that’s all, just to help out.”
“Stubborn,” Ruthette said.
Tina grinned. “Stupid, too.”
Summer smiled. “You got that right.”
“So what really happened out there?” Tina whispered.
Summer stared toward the road, into the shadows where the biker had gone.
“Hell if I know,” she said.
—but his eyes—
High above the blacktop parking lot, DIXIE DINETTE flickered in letters of bright red and blue. The X bore flashing white stars in the design of the Confederate flag, and the sign was topped by an elongated shooting star whose yellow light sputtered erratically.
The Dixie Dinette occupied a low-slung building of brick and wood at the intersection of Route 1 and Route 38. In the heat, without a breeze, the aroma of burgers and hot grease hung in the moist air like a fog. Around the Dinette, crickets chirruped in the grass, and beyond, in the dark trees, sang a chorus of locusts.
The clock above the jukebox read 9:45. The first movie at the Shenandoah Drive-In, The Green Berets, was just about halfway over, and Summer Moore and Tina Tyler were dealing with the influx of tourists and teenagers who had nowhere else to go. The Dinette was busier than usual—it always was around July Fourth—and it was so humid inside and out that Tina’s thick, frizzy hair was already threatening to fluff up into a brown wedge. With both drive-in theaters open and tourists sticking around to take snapshots of the Bridge and Carter Caverns, Ralph had decided to stay open till midnight.
Summer didn’t mind. She needed the extra cash. She wanted a vacation, a 360-degree change, and she wanted away from her Ma.
She stared at the county sheriff sitting at the counter.
Sheriff Hicks had pulled up in his cruiser around 6:30, and parked himself at his usual stool near the dessert case, next to Deputy Duke. His sheriff’s uniform, crisply starched, was a nether shade somewhere between a dull brown and an olive green. An enamel flag pin adorned his collar, his one breach of regulation. His duty was to his flag, his country, and to his town. His town. And if wearing the American flag was against regulations, then by God, you could call him a criminal and lock him behind bars, but that flag would stay right where it was, right above his all-American heart.
Summer had done her best to ignore him for more than three hours. He had complained to Duke—and to anyone else who’d listen—about leftists and politics, about those traitors Jack Anderson and goddamn Ellsberg, and all the damn hippies, and he’d been bossing her and Tina around as if he owned the place.
Hicks glanced up from the afternoon paper out of Richmond and lit his fourth Pall Mall. “Girly girl,” he said. He jabbed a pudgy finger repeatedly into his coffee cup.
Summer stared at his finger, then took the coffee pot off the burner. She poured it all the way to the rim.
He laughed. “Paper says you damn kids got the vote now. You all don’t even know what to do with it.”
She looked him in the eye. “Sure I do. I’d make John Lennon president. And then I’d put the Chicago Eight on the Supreme Court.”
Beside the sheriff, Duke almost spit out his coffee.
The bell rang in the kitchen window. “Order up!”
Summer turned away, grinning.
Behind her, Hicks said, “That girl is a goddamn commie.” He lifted his mug, and hot coffee spilled onto his fingers. “Shit!”
Ruthette Haskins slid a cheeseburger platter across the window. Ruthette’s dark brown skin gleamed with perspiration, and Summer got a whiff of the sweet pomade glistening in her hair. “There’s your boyfriend’s dinner, now. A little pink, like he likes it.” Ruthette paused. “You know he shouldn’t eat it like that.”
“He won’t listen.”
“I know. And I gave him extra fries.”
Summer turned and slid the platter in front of Rob West at the counter. She leaned in close and said, “I will pay you to get me the hell out of here. Cash money.”
He shook salt and pepper on his burger. “Your mother?”
“Evil, as usual. I think she’s taking lessons from Satan.” She folded a stick of Juicy Fruit into her mouth. “By the way, I didn’t get that job.”
He looked up. “What? Crap. How come?”
She shrugged, then rested her elbows on the counter. Her long, sandy blonde hair tickled the back of Rob’s hand. The jukebox at the end of the dinette played something about being with the one you love. She flicked her eyes toward the end of the counter. “He’s been awful tonight.”
“Yeah, I heard.” He took a bite of his hamburger. “John Lennon’s from England, you know.”
“Yes, I do know where the Beatles come from, doofus.”
“So, Lennon’s a foreigner. Legally, he can’t be president.”
She stared at him, half-smiling, then tapped the tip of his nose. “You are a nerd. And he can be president because I say so.”
He smiled and chewed his burger. Then someone at the counter called her name, and he watched as Summer poured coffee for Pearl Seabury, the clerk over at the courthouse. Summer was full-bosomed and already tanned brown from laying out in her garden since May. Her straight, sandy blonde hair spilled to a teardrop point below her shoulder blades, and with her ice-blue eyes, she was just too gorgeous for a regular guy like him—and he knew it. They had been going steady for three years, since senior year at Stonebridge High, “The Home of the Undefeated Confederates!!!” In August he would start his junior year at Virginia Tech; Summer had decided to forgo college again this year, and Rob was beginning to think she’d never achieve anything better than her high school diploma. Damn shame. She was too smart to let life pass her by.
The sheriff suddenly cleared his throat. It came from deep inside him, a wet, raggedy sound that echoed through the diner. The old couple at the window looked up.
Ruthette leaned in to see who had made that godawful sound. “Did a giraffe just die in here?”
Summer came back over to Rob. “My God.”
“Be proud,” Rob said. “We are in the presence of the prototypical redneck lawman.”
“Prototypical. Good one. College word.” She glanced at the sheriff. “How about pig?”
“Don’t say that too loud.”
“Pig,” she said. “Piggy piggy piggy.”
“Summer, shh,” Rob whispered. You didn’t say pig anywhere near a cop in the South—unless you were ready to get your knuckles busted and spend a night in jail.
“Well, he is a pig,” she said, just loud enough for Rob to hear. “He’s everything I despise about this town.” She stared out the window and saw her own reflection in the glass above the old couple in a window booth, Kate and John Juniper. “Welcome to ‘Hee Haw.’” A pair of headlights shone through the windows as a car bounced into the driveway. The dark car aimed straight for a space below the Junipers’ window.
“You know, that new movie, Klute, is coming out.”
“Klute? You still haven’t taken me to Summer of ‘42.”
“All right, then. Only the finest for you.”
“Hm. The drive-in—and a cooler of Rolling Rock?”
“Well. Of something.”
“Romance lives.” She kissed him on the cheek. “And you are the Prince Charming of Hooterville.”
The Junipers turned to look at the headlights bearing down on the diner. The car tore straight for them. The high beams flicked on.
The car screeched into the space by the Junipers. John flinched away from the window. A brunette riding shotgun in a gleaming convertible flicked out a cigarette in a glowing arc that scattered on the black pavement. She grinned at them and hopped out of the passenger side, her breasts bouncing beneath her deliberately tight t-shirt. Ronnie Sheffield. Kenny Cousins sat behind the wheel.
“Look at that,” Summer said. “He got it.”
Kate Juniper took a bite of her fried chicken. “Damn fool kids.”
The brass bell clanged on the door and Ronnie strutted in, her face beaming. “Summer,” she said, “Kenny got the Mustang. Do you believe that? He got it.”
“It’s beautiful, Ron,” Summer said. “He’s been talking about it for, like, how long now?”
“God, like, forever,” Ronnie said, flicking back her hair. Rob went outside. The lights in the parking light gleamed off the polished, dark green hood. Kenny pulled his bulk out of his new car. Ronnie went to the door, then turned to Summer. “You coming?”
Three Dog Night played from the jukebox, singing about nights out in the country. A single headlight, bright, sliced through the darkness outside. It bounced in the driveway, and a motorcycle rolled into the parking lot. Its engine was the muted purr of a thunderbeast.
Summer called out, “Be right there.”
The bell jangled as Ronnie stepped into the moist night. Then she heard the low growl of the bike.
Moonlight rippled like water off the shiny, black motorcycle. The rider shut off the motor, and it ticked soft in the still night.
The rider was a rugged dream. An animal. Feral. A rebel. The army shirt and his faded jeans, black boots, and his mane of jet black hair branded him an outsider, a hippie, to Stonebridge’s geriatric establishment. Ronnie’s heart skipped a beat. Something in her shifted, something secret, something nasty.
Ronnie whispered, “Too cool,” just low enough so Kenny wouldn’t hear.
Kenny looked at the biker and squared his shoulders. He lit a Marlboro and stared him down. Three knuckles had Band-Aids wrapped around them, spotted with blood. He had been in a fight yesterday. Ray Ray Pollard finally and willingly ponied up the two hundred dollars he’d owed him. Now, the Mustang was his—and so was Ronnie. He’d make damn sure this biker knew it.
Deputy Duke turned to see who had ridden up, and he looked long and hard enough at the rider to know that trouble had just driven in. Well, well. Take your shoes off and sit a spell. He glanced at the sheriff. Hicks was silent, folding the paper, staring straight ahead. There was a reason Hicks always took this stool. From here, he had a vantage point where he could see through all the windows. Duke looked closer. The sheriff was staring into the polished glass of the dessert case, watching the biker.
“Huh,” Hicks grunted. The biker’s reflection was dark. Indistinct. Like smoke. “Huh.”
Summer called out, “I’ll be right back, Ruthette.” The cook looked up, then saw the rider through the window. She flicked her eyes toward the lawmen.
“Don’t need no trouble here tonight, sheriff,” she whispered. “Don’t you start nothing here tonight.”
The rider was peeling off a glove when Summer stepped outside. The combination of heat and moisture slammed her, and sweat beaded down her sides, but she was grateful even for a few brief minutes outside in the fresh air, under the stars. The Mustang gleamed in the lights from the diner’s flashing neon sign.
“You did it,” Summer said. “You actually did it.”
She’d bought her ‘69 Camaro last year for three hundred dollars, used. Kenny’s car was sweet—the perfect shade of forest green—but hers was black and tough, a muscle car with a crimson interior and red detailing. Rob called it the Batmobile.
“It’s gorgeous, Kenny,” she said. “It’s perfect. It’s you.”
Her words hung in the still, moist air. No one said anything.
She looked up.
It was the guy on the motorcycle.
Firm features, a thick mustache, black hair flowing over his shoulders. His jawbones, his chin, seemed chiseled, all hard angles. The only softness she could see was in his eyes—eyes filled with sadness, yet glinting cold, with flint or steel. He was a night dream, a raider; and as he stared at her, she felt his gaze bore into her, flooding her. His dark, wide eyes reflected the red flashing neon; and the heat of the summer night, mixed with a strange chill, passed through her simultaneously: two opposing currents weaving through her blood, rushing like a virus. They enveloped her with the warm night.
She felt his heat, his icefire, pounding through her blood, and a bead of sweat trickled down her spine.
The rider swung his leg off the cycle and stepped onto the pavement. Then his eyes met hers.
It hit her with the sudden snap of a steel cord, or a whip.
Inside the diner, Sheriff Hicks put down his coffee. He turned to watch the rider. The sheriff took a tiny white pill from his shirt pocket and washed it down with coffee. “All right,” he said to no one but himself. “It’s time.”
The rider reached out for Summer’s hand. One of his gloves dropped to the asphalt, and his fingertips—ice cold, yet burning like a dying sun—brushed her skin. She shivered, and her senses exploded with the aroma of roses; a sea of moonlight and sweat, and roses.
—a dream. It has to be a dream.
His voice seemed distant, eons and centuries away, yet she felt his words—
—echo throughout her body.
And he said,“Is it you?”
—Is it you?—
And his eyes were black, midnight black, blazing like twin black suns, the light around them flickering around the rim of his soul. She couldn’t turn away. She couldn’t breathe. Then she glimpsed a woman’s face, as if shrouded in mist—
The bell jangled as Sheriff Hicks shoved open the glass door. He said something, something empty and important and sheriff-like. What’s going on here? or Hey, you stop right there! or something official and pointless; but no one heard him. His words were muffled; they hung empty in the air, for all Summer could hear, all she could see, in the tunnel of darkness that swallowed her senses, was the rider, and the depth of his dark eyes—eyes she had known forever—and his shallow intake of air, his pulsating need ringing through her soul.
Is it you . . .
And she whispered on the warm night breeze, through the long emptiness, between lifetimes—a whisper that echoed down the songlines, into darkness.
Then the earth spun. Her knees buckled. Someone called her name—
—and in the shadows, she saw his eyes—
He rides the long night, a dreamline, an infinite echo, from lifetime to lifetime.
The night stretches ahead, and behind him come the shadows, trailing like hungry remoras.
Forever behind him.
The background soundtrack of the summer locusts was muted by the growl of the Electra Glide as he roared back up Route 81, toward the mountains, away from the Dixie Dinette. Chances were there’d be a service station on the main road. He’d top off the tank and decide what he was going to do, now that he was finally here.
The hot wind buffeted the rider’s face, streaming his long hair behind him in a black wake. The heavy, olive shirt he had been issued in Di An billowed with the breeze. On his left shoulder, a division patch bore a red numeral 1 inside a squared-off shield of green, the insignia of the First Infantry Division. The strip of tape over his left pocket read U. S. ARMY. The strip over the right read TRAGER. His right collar bore a simple silver eagle.
His ears throbbed from the engine’s roar. Yet the rider heard the crickets, the locusts in the trees, the breeze whistling through the soft, black hairs on his arms. A bald eagle swooped over the road and dove into the trees. He smelled sweet dew forming in the hot, humid air.
The long night was alive.
He had ridden the night through the British countryside; past the ruins of marble columns in the hills outside of Rome; through kilometers of verdant brush surrounding Johannesburg; following interstates and freeways; down old, country roads where dogs howled as he passed. Running, always running, ahead of the shadows.
The cone from the headlight illuminated the road only seventy feet or so ahead, but his eyes easily picked out a green exit sign a quarter of a mile away. He read it by starlight: STONEBRIDGE.
He leaned into the exit and the road blurred beneath the tires. The curve straightened into a two-lane road that led down into the valley. A mile farther in, two rows of hills spread out and formed a vague crescent, meeting again as mountains five or six miles farther in the hazy distance.
He pulled onto the grassy shoulder and shut off the engine. The abrupt silence was broken only by the soft tap-tap of the hot engine as it began to cool. Then he made out the sound of crickets moving in the grass on each side of the road, and the flutter of wings deep in the trees. Yet there was silence in the earth, and a heavy silence in the shadows between the trees. The land felt strange here; old, yet unfinished, as though it were waiting.
At the edge of the headlight’s reach stood a painted metal sign, shaped like an open book:
“Home of the Eighth Natural Wonder of the World”
The Gem of Crescent Valley
CARVED BY THE AWESOME MAJESTY OF MOTHER EARTH AND THE TIMELESS GRANDEUR OF ETERNITY.
Affixed to the sign was a vinyl sticker of the American flag, partly covered by a bumper sticker proudly bearing the Confederate flag. Bullet holes cratered the sign.
He looked up at the velvet sky. The stars that night would have seemed unusually bright to us, for the sky above Stonebridge was clear and there were no streetlights for miles. But to him, the canopy above was ablaze with suns most can only see through telescopes or in astronomy books. He followed the track of the Milky Way, and smiled at the smoky shape of a nebula, just a pinprick of light, hanging over the black tree line.
The nights had been this clear in the north, and that vista was the only thing he missed from his journey through Canada. After his plane had landed at LAX, he had ridden his bike through California for almost two months until the white knights had gotten wind of him in San Francisco. Then he had ridden up into Oregon, then Washington, trying to throw them off, sensing them always somewhere on the road behind.
When he returned across the New York border, he could no longer sense his pursuers. He had lost them again—only for a short while, he was sure—and once more he had kept his promise to Angeline. The Hawkbournes would not come to harm by his hand. He had sworn it to her as she lay still and silent in his arms, her eyes burning into his, her crimson blood spreading down her crinoline dress.
That was a lifetime ago, and a promise he would never break.
So he raced the endless night, a shadow chased by shadows.
He bent down and placed his palm in the grass, feeling the earth beneath it. Feeling its memory. Feeling it breathe—
A light flared against the trees. He looked up, expecting to see the bright tail of a meteorite as it streaked into the atmosphere. Instead, the light on the trees grew brighter, more artificial.
His first instinct was to hide, to seek cover from incoming fire. Then headlights appeared around the curve and flashed on a tourist billboard.
VISIT CARTER CAVERNS!
The headlights angled toward him. They would be focused on him in seconds.
The shadows along the edge of the trees grew darker, longer, as the headlights approached. And the concentrated blackness of the woods stretched out, kissed the tip of his boots, then slipped up his leg, smooth like black ooze. It swallowed him with shadow.
A dark green ‘69 Mustang convertible bore down upon him—the kids from the Dixie Dinette. The headlights sliced through the shadows between the trees. The passengers in the car would never notice a too-thick patch of darkness along the side of the road, a solid sliver of midnight that light could not penetrate.
Music beat from the Mustang’s radio, some pop song he recognized from Armed Forces radio back in ‘Nam. The rider smelled a whiff of cigarette smoke, of beer; the odor of hot engine oil; a young woman’s perfume, the scent of summer sweat.
Then the Mustang tore past him, never slowing as it headed toward the country. “—you got me running, and hiding, all over town—” faded down the road, and the young woman’s laughter shimmered on the air like rain.
The taillights disappeared behind a bend in the road. Starlight sparkled in the rider’s black eyes as the shadows slipped away in silence. A cricket finally chirruped, then the insects in the trees resumed their nighttime song.
He stared back the way he had come.
There, in the valley. He’d find the comfort of friendship, at least for a short while, and perhaps even find a respite from the loneliness, the feverish hungers, that he had lived through in unpronounceable jungles halfway across the world.
He placed his hand on his shirt pocket, and touched the outline of the letter he had received in Saigon.
—and a promise to keep.
He had ridden this black night many times before, into valleys, into darkness. The engine growled to life. Rocks spit out from the back tire, and the Electra Glide leaped away from town.
He followed the odor of the car’s hot engine. The road curved and the trees began to thin out, and he saw the Mustang’s taillights a quarter of a mile ahead as it flew past a gas station.
A bell clanged twice as the rider drove over the station’s black rubber hose. He shut off the engine and stared at the faded green dinosaur painted on the cinder block wall. The new logo, a big red diamond, shone through a plastic and neon sign at the edge of the road. It was nothing, he thought, compared to the simple artistry—and the geologically deeper connection—of the original Sinclair dinosaur. He had first seen the cartoon dinosaur at the World’s Fair in Chicago, the first time he had experienced the vibrancy of Chicago’s night life, and had a wonderful time in a South Side night club listening to Big Bill Broonzy and his band.
A head popped up inside the office—a skinny, tousle-haired boy, maybe fifteen, curly blond hair. The boy loped outside. He waved and smiled, exposing a big goofy grin. He wore a pale blue t-shirt with an ironed-on picture of the Woodstock logo.
“How about a fill up?” the rider said.
The boy blinked behind thick glasses. “You sure, mister? Gas just went up a coupla cents.”
The rider glanced at the sign. REGULAR 29¢.
“I’m independently wealthy,” he said, unscrewing the gas cap. “Go to town.”
The boy adjusted a metal lever on the pump, and a bell clanged inside. He filled the bike’s tank and replaced the nozzle on the pump. “Gallon and a half. 46¢, mister.”
The biker handed him a dollar from his pocket. “Keep it.”
The boy broke out in a big, wide, buck-toothed smile. “Cool!”
It hit him, then. Out in the open.
He was too high profile for this sleepy, little town. Too different. Too cool.
He needed cover. “Hey.” The kid looked up, eyes wide. “This town got a hotel?”
“Oh, sure, mister. A couple of them. There’s a new fancy one out by the natural bridge, but there’s a motel right up the road.” He pointed north.
Away from the diner. Away from—
Without a word, the boy ran off toward the office. He rummaged around behind the counter, then came back. He held out a map. “Here ya go, mister. It’s free.” He snatched it back and unfolded it, then pointed his finger on the red line that was Route 81. He memorized the main roads and their pattern, the location of the diner, the stone bridge—
—and St. John’s Cemetery.
The rider took the map, folded it, and said, “Thanks. I can use—” And then the boy held out a small, stuffed dinosaur–green, fuzzy, wearing a tiny t-shirt that read SINCLAIR.
“Free with every fill up. I guess a gallon counts, don’t it?” He shuffled his feet. “Besides, we got four boxes we gotta unload.”
The rider took the dinosaur and watched the fluorescent lights gleam off its round, blackbead eyes.
“I’m in first-year ROTC at Stonebridge High.” He pronounced it rot-sea.
The rider nodded. “Okay.”
“You seen any action? ’Nam, I mean.”
Did he mean the heat of the flame throwers? The intermingled smells of sweat and urine in the fetid tunnels? The aroma of charred flesh?
“Yeah. Five years. I saw a little.”
“Man!” The boy beamed like a kid with his first BB gun. “Hey, you kill anybody?”
He stared at the boy and said, “Yeah.”
“It’s not pretty,” he said. But he had wanted to be truthful. He had wanted to say, It’s not good. It’s not civilized.
It’s not human.
“Must be great to, like, get out of here and, like, see the world, huh?”
Frogs burrupped from the lowlands behind the service station. The trees hung motionless along the road, and stillness ruled the night.
He looked up at the night sky. “What’s your name?”
“Steve. I’m Steve.”
“I wish you could shut off all your lights for just a minute or two.”
Steve looked back at the office lights, then turned to the rider. “Uh—”
“Tonight, when you shut down for the night, Steve, look up before you go home. The sky is darker here in Stonebridge. There aren’t the streetlights that cities have, or flashing signs, or marquees. In New York, L. A.—hell, Saigon, even—you can’t see the stars at all. Too much light. Too much gets in the way.”
Steve watched him, but finally glanced up at the sky.
“Keep looking up. Enjoy the night for what it is. What is can be. Sometimes, life is written in the stars. There’s magic up there, if you can see it. Sometimes, it’s down here, too.”
And in his mind’s eye, he saw an oval face, framed in sandy blonde hair; an upturned nose, pouting lips, and piercing blue eyes.
He straddled the bike, kicked it, and spat gravel behind the tires. In his mirror, he saw Steve, standing away from the sheet metal canopy, staring up at the tapestry of stars.
The motel was a long, one-story building: a central A-frame roofed with bright green shingles, and a long wing of rooms on each side. The tall sign by the road was lit by floodlights on each side of a giant, tri-cornered hat. Patriot Motor Inn was painted underneath in an antique script. A red neon VACANCY sign sputtered below the colonial hat.
The rider parked in front of the office and went inside. The desk clerk sat tilted back in an office chair, snoring against the background noise of a flickering black and white television. He was in his fifties, and he wore thick, black-rimmed glasses and a stained, short sleeve white shirt. His pudgy stomach rose and fell with each wet snore. A plastic nameplate lay angled on the counter.
Assistant Manager on Duty
The rider rapped his knuckles on the countertop. The man snorted awake.
“You must be Tucker,” the rider said.
Tucker focused his wet, bulbous eyes at the rider. Long hair, late twenties. A hippie? He glanced out the window and spied the motorcycle.
Yep. Hippie. The sheriff was gonna crappity-crap.
“How much for a room?”
Tucker blinked his pink eyes.
“The sign says Vacancies. I only need one.”
Tucker’s eyes suddenly widened. “Oh. Okay. A room.” Crap, crap, crappity crap.
Tucker said, “$10.50,” deliberately quoting the highest rate. He slid across a registration form. “Two double beds. But you might could find a cheaper place out by the old bridge, if you—”
“I knew a Tucker in ‘Nam. Saved a platoon with a couple of grenades.” He placed twenty-one dollars on the counter. “One night in advance.”
Tucker reached for the cash, then paused, his hand in mid-air. Tucker’s fear emanated from him in waves. “Look, mister—”
“Yeah, okay,” Tucker said, trembling.
The rider let himself focus on the man; let his perception reach out and touch him.
His fear was physical. And it went back a long time, back to high school. Stonebridge High, where Hicks had been the schoolyard bully, the big dog that pissed on the little pups.
Tucker had always been the runt.
The rider felt his fear, absorbed it. The room slowly faded around the desk clerk, growing darker. The television was an incomprehensible murmur in the background, the picture an out of focus static that no longer registered to Tucker’s watery eyes. There was only this stranger, Mr. James Trager, colonel, the jacket says, and his silhouette was a black hole, a singularity darker than night.
Tucker blinked. The voice had come from everywhere.
—Tucker. There’s nothing to be scared of.
Tucker nodded once, slowly.
—The sheriff is a clown, isn’t he?
The clerk almost smiled.
—If the sheriff asks—if anyone asks—you have no reason to keep watch on me. No reason at all.
Tucker’s lips parted slightly, moved soundlessly.
—I am the perfect guest. You don’t want anyone to bother me. Understand?
A thin line of drool dripped from the corner of Tucker’s mouth.
—You like me. I’m a great guy. I even told you a few jokes.
Tucker swayed in the chair. The line of drool oozed onto his chest.
The rider slid the cash across the counter and cleared his throat. Tucker blinked. He looked up at the rider, then down at the counter. The form had been filled out. The rider placed another twenty on top of the first. “Let me ask you for a favor, Tucker. My bike is kind of loud. Can you give me one of the rooms on the end? That way we can keep it quiet and peaceful for everybody else.”
“Oh, oh sure!” Tucker almost leaped out of the chair. He opened a shallow lock box on the wall. “Room 34. All clean and ready to go!” He handed over the key, then picked up the cash. “And thanks, mister—I mean, Colonel. Thanks for everything you did over there in that godforsaken jungle.”
The rider nodded, afraid Tucker would next salute him.
“God bless America,” the rider said.
“Yes SIR!” And Tucker saluted.
The rider parked his bike a few spaces over from a two-tone ’66 Caprice filled with cardboard boxes and piles of laundry. He untied his duffel bag from the seat and looked out across the parking lot, toward the forests and the wooded mountains sloping up against the sky. This town was too small, too close knit. He had to get the lay of the land, but the bike was too loud, too high profile for a Mayberry like this.
He unlocked the door and slung the bag into a chair by the window. He left the lights off, seeing only by a slit of moonlight shining through a gap between the window’s thick curtains. The carpet was an ugly green shag that needed vacuuming. The beds were made with identical lime green and pale blue patterned comforters. The sink was in the center of a simple Formica counter, and four glasses covered with crinkled paper were on a cork tray with an empty ice bucket. The white, ceramic bathtub was cracked in a couple of places, and the toilet underneath a small window—Excellent, he thought—was bound with a white paper wrapper.
SANITIZED FOR YOUR PROTECTION
He placed the stuffed dinosaur atop the television between the V of the rabbit ears. There was a red, painted coin box on the bed’s headboard:
25¢ FOR A RESTFUL VIBRATING MASSAGE!
“God bless America,” he murmured.
He lay across the bed closest to the window and stared at the rough, stucco ceiling, stained with the brown blood of a dead bug near the corner, and tried not to think about her.
He hadn’t expected this. He had long ago given up believing it would happen again. But why here? He never would have come to Stonebridge if he hadn’t received the letter. After all this time—What? Fifty-nine years?—why was it happening here? Why now?
He shut his eyes, wishing away the vision of her face, her soft, round curves, her aroma, the light behind her eyes.
“No,” he said. “It cannot be her.”
He was on his feet without knowing it, pulling off his pants.
The night called.
He had to run.
Naked, a sliver of moonlight slicing across his back, he messed up the sheets and punched an indentation into a pillow. He turned on the air conditioner beneath the window. He snapped on the TV and turned the volume low, then filed a water glass halfway and placed in on the nightstand. He ripped the wrapper off the toilet seat and balled it into a trash can under the sink. If anyone came looking in the morning, it would appear as if he had spent the night.
He opened the window over the toilet, and he smelled the wildness of the Virginia hills; the rich loam of the earth, the sharp scents of flowers growing wild and free. Except for the low murmur of locusts in the pines, it was silent outside. And in the darkness, a silent shadow slipped through the window, fleeting down the wall. It slid over a gravel drive leading behind the motel, then merged with the shadows between the trees. It rose in the darkness, a night-thing, feral, and loped between the elms and pines, growling low in its throat like a beast loose in the night.
She loved the sound of locusts on hot summer nights.
Thunder was merely an annoyance; but the sound of rain, the incessant patter on the roof, disturbed her in a way she never understood, and always put her on edge.
Locusts, though, singing, alive and invisible, their song cascading high in a symphony through the trees, then crashing like a wave to shore—that was magic.
The Hollies harmonized slow on the radio as Summer relaxed beside Rob in his blue ’67 Falcon. The headlights cast weak, yellow beams that bounced across the blacktop, and she gazed through the open window as the trees rolled by, loving the way the warm breeze through the window vent caressed her skin.
She had surrendered to Ruthette forty-five minutes after the biker had left. She had over-poured coffee into two cups just minutes after Duke and the sheriff had driven off. Then a couple of her tickets had come back—she had done the math and sales tax all wrong, and one table complained they never got the peach pie they had ordered.
She took care of things for them, and then she hid in the kitchen. She scooped up a handful of cubes from the ice machine and held them against the back of her neck. She smiled at Ruthette, the cook, bustling at the flat grille.
“Long night,” Ruthette said.
Summer closed her eyes, felt the cool trickle of the ice as it melted down her spine. “Long, damn night,” she said. “Do me a favor, will you? Drop some broken glass or Clorox in the sheriff’s dinner.”
Ruthette smiled. “Heh.”
Summer turned up the radio. The Turtles seemed happy, singing together; but the music wasn’t working. She shut her eyes and leaned back against a refrigerator. She kept an old Magnavox clock radio in the kitchen, tuned to the top 40 AM station from Hampton, or WNOR, the cool FM rock station out of Norfolk. Whenever Stonebridge and its blue hairs pressed in on her, or when redneck truckers leered at her figure just a little too long to be comfortable, she would disappear in the back for ten or fifteen minutes, and let her music smooth over the rough edge of the day. She’d float into the beat, feel the lyrics vibrate inside her like her heartbeat. When “Bridge Over Troubled Water” played on the radio, the sadness it evoked would crash over her in soft waves. And when the Stones’ “Paint It Black” came on, her heart would beat with an almost forbidden rhythm that pounded with soul. Songs took her away. They gave her something new, and made her feel more alive.
Ruthette glanced over and saw the sweat stains spotting her pink waitress outfit. She shook her head. “Girl, you need to—”
“No,” Summer said. “Don’t you even start. I’m too tired to hear it.”
Ruthette went to a metal cabinet and pulled out a brown, moccasin purse. She took down the tip jar from the shelf above the grill. “Seventeen dollars,” Ruthette said, stuffing the bills into the purse. She slipped the purse over Summer’s shoulder.
Summer tried to smile. Oh well. At least she had made enough tips to buy a few paperbacks and some new albums.
“Go.” Ruthette pointed toward the door. “Get your boyfriend and go.”
Rob watched her hug Summer through the grill window. He hopped off the stool and held open the glass door, and then Summer shuffled out of the kitchen and waved goodbye to Tina.
Outside, the warm night embraced her. She stopped and inhaled, tasting the humidity and the thick richness of the woods deep in her throat, and she felt the night take hold.
Rob said something, she didn’t know what, and she dimly heard him open the door for her. But something stirred deep inside her, waking, squirming like a soul-beast first sensing its surroundings, testing the bars of its flesh cage—hungering, restless.
Rob had disappeared. There was only the night—the night, and the rider’s dark, deep eyes.
Summer looked up. “Huh?” She had zoned out. She was already in the car. Rob had closed her door and had the key in the ignition. He started the engine. The radio lit up, and mama said not to come. “Summer, are you okay?”
She gave him a thin smile. “Tired. Maybe fainting has affected me more than I thought.”
He put his hand atop hers. “Why don’t we forget about going to the movies tomorrow night? We don’t even have to go to the party on Saturday. I just want you to be okay.”
“I know,” she said, looking out at the night.
“Maybe it’ll do us both some good to get away together.” He turned the radio down a notch. “A friend at Tech has a cottage on the beach at Nag’s Head.”
“A one-night stand at the beach?” She tried to smile.
“At least two,” he said.
“Rob, I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
“So come back to Tech with me. Stay with me in September.”
“Rob . . .”
“You don’t have to go to college. We’ll find you a job in Blacksburg. We’ll get an apartment. I’ll read to you at night. Gothics. Tolkien.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh no. No singing dwarves.”
It wasn’t the first time he had brought up living together.
“Rob, not again. You know I can’t move in with you. Mama would kill me.”
“Screw your mother.”
“. . . or she’d never speak to me again.”
“There’s a big loss.”
“We’ve gone over this.”
“I know. Look, I know. But—”
How could she tell him without hurting him that she just wasn’t ready to move out and shack up with her high school boyfriend? That something about it just wasn’t right, no matter what Cosmo said, no matter what couples were doing in the big cities. Rob was a wonderful guy—he and Summer had been best friends since kindergarten—but in his faded t-shirt and glasses, he was too cut and dried, too clean. Too Stonebridge.
“I’m just not ready,” she said, looking out into the darkness within the trees. “I just feel like—One of these days, I’ll be ready.”
She glanced at Rob, then looked away quickly. Too quickly. She felt her cheeks grow warm and hoped that Rob wouldn’t notice, because she was scared. Scared that she suddenly didn’t care about the drive-in, always the damn Friday night drive-in; scared that the Fourth of July party in the woods was only two days away, but it could be months away for all she cared. And she was scared because something behind her eyes, in her heart, deep inside where yearnings wait, she felt something growing.
Something was happening, and she felt so stupid, so weak, as though she didn’t know a single damn thing.
But that just wasn’t true.
No matter what Ruthette or the sheriff believed, it had not been the heat that had knocked her out.
She had always felt just fine in the steam and the heat of the diner’s kitchen. When she had stepped outside to look over Kenny’s new set of wheels, out in the darkness and the open air, the warmth had embraced her. She had always reveled in everything that was summer—the heat, the sun, the aroma of suntan lotion, the feel of wet sand between her toes.
She knew perfectly well what had started it all.
It was him, wasn’t it?
The Midnight Rider.
She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to force the deep night of his eyes from her mind. But they were so dark, so endless—and the touch of his hands, so strong, so hot.
No. She could not feel this. Not here with Rob, not now.
“Shit,” she whispered.
Rob looked her way. “Summer? You okay?”
She nodded, and when she opened her eyes, she was surprised by her tears. “Just a little headache. I’ll be fine tomorrow. I think I just need to get to bed.”
“Should you try to stay awake some? I mean, you did fall.”
“Rob, I only fainted—” Her voice trailed off. Her mouth hung open, and her eyes went blank, focused inward, on an image that sprang unbidden to her mind.
Rob’s voice was only an echo, a whisper in an endless cavern. She stood beneath a wide, gnarled tree. It towered over her, spreading its dark green canopy across her field of vision. It was an ancient and vast tree, an oak, wide and green; the oldest tree in the world. Stars blazed between its branches, and its roots burrowed deep into her being.
Through the windshield, the headlights illuminated a neighborhood street sign.
“Here,” she said. “Turn here.”
“What?” Rob stopped at the intersection of Augusta and Main. “But that’s downtown. Nothing’s open this late.”
“Turn.” She pointed toward the brick and concrete blocks that were downtown Stonebridge.
Main Street after sundown was a ghost town. Once past the empty hulk of the old Langley Theatre, Summer remembered seeing her first movie there, Lady and the Tramp, when she was only four, the tiny specialty shops like Patty’s Peanut Place and all the town offices were dark and empty, closed since 4:30 or five, except for Howard’s Hot Dogs, a glorified beer joint where half the old guys in AA at the First Stonebridge Baptist spent their paychecks after meetings.
Twin spotlights illuminated the American flag, hanging listless high above the post office. Rob stopped at the intersection of Prince Street, and they sat in the silence of the town, listening as the Stones wailed softly through the radio about a honky tonk.
Rob broke the spell. “Why’d you want to come this way?”
She shook her head, slowly, and gazed across the intersection.
St. John’s Episcopal, a two-century old brick and marble cruciform, was awash in yellow floodlights, illuminating the stained glass windows crafted in 1813. But she didn’t see the church where she had been baptized, the cemetery where she had played among the Civil War tombstones and cracked, marble slabs.
It was the wide, overhanging silhouette of the churchyard’s ancient oak that she focused on. Its gnarled, verdant limbs rubbed against the church’s shingles and spread out over Main Street, almost to the opposite sidewalk.
She did not notice that the locusts had grown silent.
The pounding of her heart was a violent, hard rock drumbeat. Why had she wanted to come here? This was stupid. What the hell had she been expecting?
“Holy—” Rob pointed through the windshield. “What the hell is that?”
A dark thing bounded out of the dense blackness beneath the twisted oak, trailing shadows behind it like mists. It moved catlike into the street with silent footsteps that pounded inside her, the beat of a wild and forbidden heart.
The thing stood five feet tall at the shoulders. Its eyes shone like scarlet and gold, twin hearts of redfire burning deep within. The buried floodlights on the church dimmed, flickering erratically, like blue sparks erupting from the earth.
It nudged the bumper with its great, black snout. Then it looked up, into the windshield, its eyes narrowing into angry, feral slits of fire. It was an animal, a monster; the concentrated essence of night, of a passion she felt in her soul.
This thing was impossible. This was a shadow thing, a creature straight out of a dream, a dream of heat and sweat.
Its ears flattened atop its broad, black skull, and it slammed its giant head straight into the grille. The car rocked backward with a crunch of metal. The chrome crossbar in the grille popped like a spring, and the tip of the hood crumpled like tin foil. They heard the tinkle of glass as a headlight shattered and sprayed across the road.
“Holy shit!” Rob shouted. “My car!” Rob punched his fist on the horn. “God, Summer! The window! Roll up your window!” He jammed his right hand on the horn and fumbled for the window knob with his left. Summer stared motionless through the windshield, breathless. The thing was huge. Mighty.
It leaped onto the hood. Its massive paws crumpled the hot metal. Its black, shaggy head seemed as large as a buffalo’s, and its fur rippled, almost like tendrils, or smoke, or something.
“Oh, Jesus! Summer! Summer, the window! Now!” Rob’s fist beat down on the horn. One hand accidentally hit a knob on the dashboard, and the wipers suddenly flicked back and forth, sliiip tick sliiip tick—
The thing followed their movement with its black eyes, left, right, left.
Then, it suddenly snapped forward and crunched a wiper between its shark-like teeth. It tossed back its head in fury, and threw the blade into the gutter. The thing bared its ragged teeth, exposing its long, yellow canines, sharp like the fangs of a sabretooth, and bellowed its challenge.
Summer caught herself panting in short, intense breaths. She watched this thing, this monster, enrapt. There was great power in this thing, this night beast—and savage beauty.
Rob was babbling. “What the hell? What— Is it a wolf? My God, it can’t be.”
The thing’s eyes locked with Summer’s. Slowly, its ears lifted away from its head. Its black eyes widened, somehow became softer. The thing whimpered once, shook its massive head, then bounded into the black depths of the cemetery. From within the deep shadows, it howled—long and high, a scream of rawness, of endless pain. It was more than the howl of a wild beast. It was a wail, a cry of infinite loneliness.
She knew when it was gone—she felt it, deep inside—just as something inside her had told her to be here, right here, right now.
She heard the locusts spring back to life outside in the trees, and the radio was playing that goddamn stupid “Chickaboom, Chickaboom,” and she didn’t like it one damn bit.
“Summer, that was a wolf! That had to be a wolf, didn’t it? Look what it did to my hood! Holy shit! Can wolves even do that?”
“We don’t have wolves here,” Summer said, softly. “Canada, maybe. The Rockies. But not here.”
Rob gazed through the windshield. “Not a wolf? Had to be a wolf! I thought for sure it was a wolf. A bear! It was bigger than a wolf! It had to be a bear! It was too big for a wolf anyway, wasn’t it? Had to be a bear!”
Summer said nothing.
It wasn’t a bear, and it wasn’t the Big Bad Wolf.
Rob hadn’t seen. She had. She had seen the night curl around its limbs in wisps of shadow as it had stepped into the street from the darkness of the graveyard.
It was pure ferocity. A wild thing. A shadow beast, prowling the night.
And it was loose.
Something inside her relaxed.
“We gotta call the sheriff! Tell him we’ve got a wild bear in town!”
She turned to him, calmly, her eyes half closed. “Rob, you need to get me home. I fainted, remember?”
He blinked at her. Then his mouth fell open. “Oh, God, Summer! I’m— Yeah, yeah, you’re right. Let’s get you home. Jeez, Summ, I’m so sorry!”
She forced a smile. “It’s okay. You can call the sheriff from your place.”
Rob nodded and stepped on the gas.
She looked out the window.
Rob could call the sheriff all he wanted.
Somehow she knew—she was sure—that beast would never be caught.