Read Darkness Online

Authors: John Saul

Tags: #Horror

Darkness (6 page)

K
elly Anderson sat silently in the backseat of the Chrysler, staring unseeingly out the window. Though the scenery had slowly changed from the red earth and pine trees of Georgia to the marshy flatland of Florida, Kelly had been unaware of it. Her thoughts had been turned inward, remembering the two weeks she’d spent in the hospital.

She hadn’t needed to be there—her wounds had healed quickly, and even the stitches in her stomach had been removed after only a week. What they’d really been trying to do was to figure out if she was crazy. She’d convinced them she wasn’t, although she herself wasn’t at all sure it was true. But the idea of being locked up in a hospital somewhere had terrified her even more than the image of the old man that she’d seen in the bathroom mirror the night she’d tried to kill herself, so instead of telling the psychiatrist about it, she’d made up a story. And the story wasn’t really a lie, because she
had
been worried about her father not
working, and she
had
felt she could never do anything right. So when she told them she’d just decided that maybe it would be easier for everyone if she weren’t around anymore, they’d believed her.

She hadn’t told them about the nightmare man—she knew better than that.

She’d talked her way out of telling Dr. Hartman about thinking she was pregnant, too. That hadn’t been too hard—she just said she’d been feeling really bad lately, and when she missed her period, she automatically thought she must be pregnant. She even claimed she’d been drinking with some friends one night, didn’t remember what had happened, and just assumed she must have gone to bed with someone. That part hadn’t been true at all—she hated the taste of liquor—but they’d believed her.

And they hadn’t locked her up.

They sent her home instead, and a week later her mother told her they were moving to Villejeune.

There’d been a long story about the job her grandfather had found for her father, but Kelly knew it wasn’t true. Or even if it was, it still wasn’t the real reason they were moving.

What they really wanted to do was get her out of Atlanta, and away from her friends.

Her friends, she thought hollowly. It was kind of funny, really, since she never thought of the kids in her crowd as friends. They were just other kids, people to hang out with so she wouldn’t have to be by herself all the time. She never really talked to any of them very much.

If she had, they might have found out how crazy she really was.

Maybe she should have let them lock her up after all. At least that way her mother wouldn’t have had to move back to Villejeune. She recalled her mother’s words, last week: “I always hated it. It always felt like everyone there was just waiting to die. Nothing ever changed, nothing ever happened. And it wasn’t just me. A lot of the other
kids felt the same way. Most of us could hardly wait to get out, and a lot of us did. There wasn’t any reason to stay—Villejeune was just like all those other little towns on the edge of the swamp. Nobody had any ambition, nobody had any dreams.” Then, as Kelly watched, her mother’s eyes had wandered over the fading wallpaper in their living room, taking in the worn furniture they’d never been able to replace. She’d sighed, and smiled wanly at Kelly. “Well, I guess my dreams never came true, did they? And your father says the town’s changed, so maybe it’s time I gave it another chance.” She’d fallen silent, as if trying to convince herself that she believed what she was saying, and then she brightened, though Kelly had seen her force the smile onto her lips. “Anyway, it’s time for you to have a change, isn’t it? Meet some new people, make new friends! It’ll be fun.” The words had struck Kelly like tiny knives. An overwhelming sense of guilt had descended on her.

It was her fault that her mother had to go back.

“Well, for heaven’s sake, will you look at that?”

The words from the front seat startled Kelly out of her reverie. She sat up, focusing for the first time on the landscape beyond the confines of the car, as her father slowed the Chrysler. Ahead of them on the highway was a large billboard, featuring a panoramic vista of a golf course and marina, dotted with houses and condominium units. In bold letters above and below the scene, the legend proclaimed:

VILLEJEUNE LINKS ESTATES
ANOTHER PROJECT FOR GRACIOUS LIVING
FROM ANDERSON & ANDERSON

Kelly stared at the sign, uncertain what it meant. Then she heard her father’s voice.

“Do you believe it? He never said a word. He just said to keep an eye out for a new project he was starting.”

“But—” Mary began, her words instantly drowned out by Ted’s delighted laugh.

“He went all the way! He didn’t just give me a job. He made me his partner!” He stepped hard on the gas pedal, and the car lunged forward. And when her mother turned to look back at the sign through the rear window, her eyes fell on Kelly.

She winked.

“Maybe this is going to work out after all,” she said. “It’s starting to look like Villejeune might not be quite the town I remember.”

This time, there was nothing forced in her mother’s words, and for the first time since the night she’d tried to kill herself, Kelly truly felt better.

Ten minutes later the Chrysler came to a stop in front of Carl Anderson’s house. For several long moments Ted, Mary, and Kelly simply stared at it. Ted finally broke the silence: “Not much like the house I grew up in, is it?”

Mary shook her head, but her eyes remained fixed on a large split-level structure that sat well back from the road on an acre of landscaped grounds. There was a wide front porch, with bougainvillea climbing a trellis, and the front of the house was banked with a profusion of azaleas and jasmine. The expanse of lawn was broken by several clumps of palm trees, and near the house were two large magnolias that—judging from their size alone—must have been transplanted from somewhere else. As for the house itself, it had to be at least four thousand square feet, and though its lines were modem, the architect had softened the structure with a shake roof, so that despite its broad expanses of glass, it had a cozy look to it. Beyond the house she could see the canal that drained the property. There was even a small dock with a motorboat tied up to it.

An image flicked through Mary’s mind of the house Ted and his father had lived in when she had first started dating him. A tiny, two-bedroom affair, smaller even than the house they had just left in Atlanta, the Anderson place had always seemed on the verge of collapse, no matter how hard Carl had worked to keep it in repair. The repairs back then had been makeshift, for Carl’s
work had been so sporadic that he’d never dared spend the money it would have taken to put the old house to rights.

And now—this.

The front door opened, and Carl Anderson strode out. Crossing the lawn as the occupants of the Chrysler scrambled out, he ignored Ted and Mary as he wrapped Kelly in a bear hug. “So you finally decided to come see your old grandpa, huh?” he asked. Before she could answer, he held her away. “Let me look at you.”

Kelly felt a wave of self-consciousness, and tried to resist the urge to hide her right hand behind her back, with its still-visible scars as an ever-present reminder of what she’d done. Then she braced herself for whatever her grandfather might say about her pink hair and her black clothes. But instead of criticizing her, he only grinned. “I always wondered what pink hair would look like. It’s not so bad. Pink and black was real big back in the fifties, you know.”

Kelly felt the unfamiliar sensation of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. “Mom and Dad hate it,” she blurted out without thinking.

“Of course they do,” Carl replied. “That’s what parents are for. Half their job is to disapprove of their kids. Hell, when your dad was your age, I barely even spoke to him. Now, why don’t you go up and take a look at your room. It’s the big one above the garage.” Kelly’s eyes shifted back to the house and the windows above the three-car garage. Even from here she could see that the room went all the way through to the back of the house; and through the sheer curtains, she was certain she saw the blades of a ceiling fan. Suddenly she remembered all the hot nights she’d spent in her tiny room in Atlanta, sweltering in the still air despite the fact that she always kept the window wide open. As her grandfather turned his attention to her parents, she started across the lawn.

Maybe, just maybe, things were going to be all right after all.

Dusk was gathering, and Michael Sheffield was getting ready to close up the swamp tour. Everyone else—even Phil Stubbs—had already left, for after the first week it had been apparent to Stubbs that despite the pressure he’d been put under to hire Michael, the boy was the best worker he had. For the first two weeks, before school had let out, Michael had shown up every day promptly at three-thirty, and had not only done what he’d been told, but looked for additional work to do as well. The second day, when Stubbs had told him it was quitting time, Michael had shaken his head. When he’d been feeding the nutrias, he noticed that one of the furry little rodents was about to give birth to a litter, and he was in the process of fixing her a special nest away from the rest of the exhibit. “She’ll get nervous with all the people watching her,” he’d explained. “I’ll just fix her up a box in the storeroom, and after a couple of weeks maybe we can set up a special cage for the babies. Sort of like a children’s zoo.”

Stubbs had shrugged disinterestedly and let Michael do what he wanted, pretty much forgetting about the whole thing within a few days. But two weeks later Michael had stayed late again, and the next morning Stubbs had found a whole new exhibit next to the nutria cage. Inside a glass-fronted box were the new mother and her babies, who were now tumbling around like puppies. All around the box Michael had placed a series of neatly-lettered signs describing the life cycle of the little animals, from the period of their gestation to their expected life span, explaining what they ate and what their economic value was, as well as a clear description of their place in the ecosystem of the swamp. Stubbs had frowned at the exhibit, wondering why Michael had bothered with it, but that day he’d noticed that the baby nutrias had attracted more attention than any of the other cages at the headquarters, and on the tours that
afternoon, people seemed more interested in the nutrias than the alligators.

By the third week Stubbs had stopped bothering to tell Michael what to do, since the boy was always busy and invariably stayed late, usually saying only, “There’s a couple things I still need to do.” The next morning Stubbs would find another of the animal exhibits revamped, or new docking lines on the boats, or a fresh coat of paint on whatever had started looking shabby. By now it was simply assumed that Michael would be the last to leave, and that whatever anyone else forgot to do, he would take care of.

For Michael, the job was the closest thing he could imagine to paradise.

He’d always known there was something different about him, something that separated him from the other kids.

At first, when he was Jenny’s age, he’d tried to be like them, tried to join in the spontaneous play of the rest of the children his age.

But his classmates seemed to sense that Michael was somehow different, and as he’d grown up, he had yet to make a genuine friend, yet to find one single person whom he felt he could tell about the peculiar emptiness that yawned inside him like a vast chasm threatening to swallow him up.

Over the years, he’d learned to pretend that he was like everyone else, laughing at the other kids’ jokes, pretending to have emotions he didn’t quite feel.

And as long as he could remember, he’d been fascinated with the swamp and everything in it. By the time he was ten, and he’d begun to accept the fact that he was never going to make any real friends, he started going out into the wilderness by himself, poking around among the bayous, watching the animals and identifying the plants. To him, there’d never been anything frightening about the marshes and bogs, nor had he ever gotten lost. Although he knew that for most people the waterways—and the endless tiny islands they surrounded—
were a confusing, even frightening, maze, he saw each island as an individual. He knew every bend in the bayous.

Now, thanks to his father, he was being paid to spend even more time in the swamp, with its profusion of fascinating wildlife.

This evening he’d decided to go frog hunting. The big bullfrogs were peaking this time of year, and he’d already set up a terrarium to hold half a dozen large ones. If he was lucky, he might even still find an egg mass. Then he would be able to set up an entire life-cycle exhibit. Taking a large bucket with a mesh cover, and a flashlight, he got into a rowboat and set out, handling the oars expertly and silently, so that the little boat slid through the swamp without disturbing anything around it. Within a few minutes the dense vegetation closed around him, and his ears throbbed with the soft symphony orchestrated by the insects and frogs that teemed in the wetlands.

Then, slowly, he began to hear another sound, a sound that seemed to beckon to him. Obeying the call that drifted out of the swamp’s depths, he pulled a little harder on the oars.

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