Read Darkness Online

Authors: John Saul

Tags: #Horror

Darkness (4 page)

T
he jangling of the telephone made Carl Anderson groan softly and roll over in bed. The second ring brought him fully awake. He sat up, feeling a twinge of protest from his right hip, and reached out to pick up the receiver, at the same time glancing at the clock on his nightstand.

Six-thirty.

He should have been awake half an hour ago, and by now he should be dressed and in the kitchen, scanning the newspaper while he ate his customary plate of grits, accompanied by half a dozen sausages. “Anderson.” He spoke the single word into the receiver in a carefully developed monotone that would give the caller no hint as to his mood: Carl had learned long ago that the less someone knew about how you were feeling, the less he could manipulate you. But when he heard his son’s voice telling him what had happened the night before, the monotone disappeared. “Oh, Jesus,” he moaned. “Is she going to be all right?”

“The doctor says she’ll heal up in a couple of weeks,” Ted replied. “Anyway, the cuts will.”

Carl frowned, his eyes drifting to the framed photograph on his dresser. His son and daughter-in-law, with his granddaughter between them. He’d looked at the picture a hundred times since Ted had sent it to him last Christmas, his eyes always lingering longest on the image of Kelly, her pale face framed by the strange pink hair, her black clothes making her complexion even pastier by contrast.

But it was Kelly’s eyes that always arrested his attention. They had an empty look to them, as if nothing in the world interested her. There was no sparkle to them, nor even any hostility.

Only a strange lassitude.

Ted’s voice cut through Carl’s momentary reverie. “Dad? You still there?”

“I’m here,” Carl replied, his gaze still fixed on the picture. “What can I do?”

Now it was Ted who was silent for several long seconds. When he spoke, his voice had a reluctant note to it. “The job we talked about last month,” he said finally. “Is it still open?”

Carl frowned. “What about Mary? You know what she says about Villejeune.”

“That was last month,” Ted replied. “After last night …” He left the words hanging, and Carl remembered again the problems he had always had in talking with his son. Indeed, after Bessie had lost her fight with cancer when Ted was still in his teens, he and his son had lived together in a peculiar silence, working together—when there was work—but rarely sharing much in the way of their private thoughts. But at least Ted had been there, his presence a comfort of sorts. It wasn’t until his son had married Mary and moved to Atlanta that Carl began to feel the loneliness of his solitary existence. Then, five years ago, Villejeune had begun to change. Suddenly Carl’s struggling contracting business had taken off.

With that early success, he had started his campaign to bring his son home. A campaign that, until now, had failed completely. The day Ted and Mary had left Villejeune, Mary said she’d never come back. She’d hated the town, hated the swamp, hated everything about the place. She had only agreed to marry Ted on the condition that they move away. And she’d stuck to her word. Obviously, though, everything had changed.

“The job’s here,” Carl said now. “I’ve got a lot going on, and not enough men who know what they’re doing.” He fell silent for a moment, then pressed his original question once more. “Ted, has Mary agreed to all this?”

When Ted replied, Carl could hear the strain in his voice. “She’s not thrilled about it, no. But—look, Dad,” he went on in a rush, as if afraid that if he didn’t spill the words out quickly, he wouldn’t be able to say them at all. “I haven’t worked for a while now, and there just aren’t any jobs. And with the kids Kelly’s been running around with—well, we know we have to get her out of here, and there just doesn’t seem to be anyplace else to go.”

Carl felt a pang of resentment—it wasn’t that they wanted to come home at all. There was just no place else to go. Still, he told himself, at least he’d have them here. And maybe, once Mary saw how Villejeune had changed, she’d want to stay.

After all, like Carl himself, and his dad before him, it was the place she’d been born. It was home.

“Okay,” Carl said aloud. “Just let me know what I can do and when you’ll be here.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Ted said. “It—well, it’s nice to know I can count on you.”

“Nothin’ to it, son,” Carl replied. “If you can’t count on your dad, who can you count on?”

He hung up the phone and got out of bed. Hurriedly, he showered, dressed, and fixed his breakfast, but by the time he stepped out of the house into the damp, hot Florida morning, he was already more than forty minutes behind schedule.

Still, it didn’t matter. He was going to have to see Dr. Phillips about the pain spreading from his hip, so his schedule was in the dumper anyway.

The important thing was that Ted and Mary were finally coming home, and bringing Kelly with them.

The heat was beginning to build as Carl drove through the village. Carved out of the Florida swamps on the northern edge of the Everglades so long ago that no one really knew when it had been founded, Villejeune had survived for more than three hundred years. Though it had had a few ups, most of its times had been downs, with the people of the town scratching out a living any way they could. There had been a few brief booms—the first during the nineteenth century, when there had been a flurry of plantation development, though the plantations had soon failed, cultivation overtaken by the ever encroaching swamps and marshlands. Prohibition had helped, for the lowlands had offered endless hiding places for small stills that pumped out moonshine night and day, and for a while Villejeune made a good living on the rum-running trade. The Florida land boom had followed, even reaching Villejeune for a few months before people had stopped buying land that was three feet under water. But when Prohibition died, so did the good times for Villejeune. For the next half century it went into a slow but extended decline, the cypress of its buildings slowly succumbing to the inexorable onslaught of the climate, while the people who lived in the buildings did their best to survive an economy as soft and treacherous as the mud beneath the swamp.

Then, a few years back, some people from California had begun quietly buying up large tracts of land to the north, outside of Orlando, and when their work was done, Disney World had emerged out of the marshlands. Suddenly the whole area began to thrive, and it wasn’t
long before Phil Stubbs, who had been eking out his living for thirty years by guiding adventurous—and very occasional—tourists through the swamp in his single leaky scow, had been able to buy a new boat, and then another and another.

Carl Anderson had taken one look at what was going on around Orlando, and seen that the boom would move southward. Acting quickly, he’d taken on partners and bought options on as much swampland as he could get. During the last five years he had begun exercising those options, draining the land and developing it into retirement communities. He’d started with a few small houses, but quickly expanded into condominiums. Already, a whole system of canals had been built, and even the smallest of his developments had tiny marinas attached to them. The larger developments allowed for private docks in front of rambling Florida-style houses, and the newest, his pride and joy, would include a golf course as well. As he’d expected, he had no trouble selling the developments—the weather was perfect for the retirement crowd, and a home in Villejeune all but guaranteed the buyers regular visits from their children and grandchildren. The fact that the kids had come to see Disney World rather than their aging relatives was beside the point. The point was that they came, and Villejeune was both close enough to Orlando to make the drive there easy and far enough away so it was still uncrowded and had a sense of its own identity. Carl wasn’t certain how long that would last, but in the meantime everyone was making money for the first time in decades. Most of all, Carl Anderson.

Even the village, after its centuries of somnolence, was beginning to change. The buildings were being repaired and fresh paint applied to ancient cypress siding. Some new buildings had appeared, but Carl, as chairman of the Villejeune Preservation Committee, had seen to it that the new architecture matched what was already there, so by the time a new shop opened its doors, it appeared to have been there just as long as
everything else. Indeed. Carl himself had come up with the idea of building these commercial structures with slightly sagging floors, so that despite their newness, they were all a little out of plumb, just as were their older counterparts.

Ted and Mary, Carl decided as he drove slowly along Ponce Avenue, were going to be surprised by what they found. Then, as Carl spotted Judd Duval lounging in front of Arlette Delong’s café, his mood soured. Judd might be a deputy sheriff now, but as far as Carl was concerned, he was still nothing more than a swamp rat. And Carl Anderson didn’t like swamp rats.

But that, Carl supposed, would never change. As long as there was a swamp next to the town, the swamp rats would be there too, appearing in the village every now and then, buying a few supplies, then disappearing back into the marshlands, to the crumbling stilted shacks in which they lived. Judd nodded to Carl as he passed, and Carl automatically nodded back, despite his dislike of the man.

A few minutes later the village was half a mile behind him, and as he pulled the truck into the parking lot of the small clinic that had been built only last year, Carl was relieved to see that Warren Phillips’s Buick was there, even though it was Saturday. He parked the truck, wincing as he swung himself out of the cab. When he stepped into the receiving room a moment later, Jolene Mayhew raised one heavily plucked eyebrow. “Looks to me like you’re here to see Dr. P,” she observed. “Did you do something to yourself, or are you just getting old?”

Carl grinned at the nurse. “Come on, Jolene—don’t you read my ads? No one gets old in Villejeune. That’s why everyone’s moving here. It’s the weather.”

“Right,” the nurse replied archly. “Almost a hundred, with humidity to match. And we’re barely into June. Gonna be some summer.” She glanced down at the calendar on her desk. “Did you make an appointment?”

“Do I need one?” Carl peered exaggeratedly around
the empty waiting room. “Doesn’t look like you’re doing what I’d call turn-away business. Maybe you should just close up shop and run away to Acapulco with me.”

“And maybe you should act your age.” Jolene tipped her head toward the closed door to Warren Phillips’s office. “Go on in. He was supposed to take the day off, but you know him. Anybody needs a doctor around here, they always know where to find Dr. P.”

Fifteen minutes later Phillips finished his examination of Carl. “Anything else, besides the hip?” he asked.

Carl, sitting up on the examining table, shook his head. “Feeling fine, just like always. Then this morning the thing started acting up on me.” He watched as Phillips prepared a hypodermic, then stretched out and rolled over on his side. “Last thing I need right now is a bum hip. Ted’s coming home and—” He winced as the needle slid into his hip, then rubbed at the sore spot when Phillips pulled the needle out a moment later. “Jesus. That felt like it went right into the bone.”

Phillips grinned. “It almost did. Cortisone. The hip should be fine in a day or so. Now, what’s this about Ted coming home? I thought Mary hated this place.”

Briefly, Carl explained what had happened. Phillips shook his head sadly. “I don’t know what goes on with kids these days.”

“Well, if you ask me, it’s not too hard to figure out,” Carl replied as he pulled his pants up and fastened his belt. “The whole world’s just gotten too complicated, and the kids get scared. But there’s nowhere to run away to anymore, so they kill themselves.”

Phillips looked doubtful. “You think that’s what happened to your granddaughter? She got scared?”

Carl chuckled darkly. “Oh, I s’pose the doctors in Atlanta have a lot of fancy names for it, but when you get right down to it, I think she’ll be just fine once she gets down here.”

Phillips’s frown deepened. “I wish I agreed with you.”

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