Read Grist Mill Road Online

Authors: Christopher J. Yates

Grist Mill Road (31 page)

 

ROSEBORN, NEW YORK, 2008

Patrick runs across the wildflower meadow and up to the orchard, moving as fast as he can through the crowds of apples, only starting to slow when he reaches his car.

After driving the short distance, he backs up until the trunk of the car is within a few feet of the barn doors. He gets out and looks around. With the car where it is, no one can see inside the barn, not even if they look carefully, blowing by at fifty-five.

He opens one of the barn doors and peers inside, Matthew still in the same spot where he fell, half sunlight, half shade, the heavy rock beside him. Patrick opens the trunk, takes out the rope and duct tape and tosses them onto the sunlit floorboards. He picks up the shotgun, carrying it inside and leaning it against the closed door. And then he stops and listens as an engine sound comes closer, but passes, and he goes back to the trunk, taking out the kitchen knife, the box of shotgun shells and a picnic blanket, quickly putting the shells in the backseat and covering them with the blanket, before heading back into the barn with the knife.

He walks over to Matthew and kicks his foot. Nothing. Patrick bends down, putting the back of his fingers to Matthew's nose. Breathing. And the blood has stopped running from his head.

After uncoiling some of the rope, he cuts it into several six-foot lengths. First he ties Matthew's hands behind him, next his legs and finally his hands again.

And then he sits down, leaning back against the wall next to the barn doors.

Perhaps it would be better to do it now, with Matthew unconscious. But how hard would it be to lift his body into the trunk? And probably impossible to drag him all the way to the spot where he wants them to find him.

Will I remember the right tree? he wonders.

Blades of sunlight slip inside the barn through one of its tumbledown sides. Elsewhere the light is gray, a smell like sawdust in the air.

Was it all just an act? Everything Matthew just said, was it really nothing but part of some revenge plot? Act innocent, fake some honesty.
I know that you and Hannah are married—but I promise you I had no idea when I first contacted you
. If Matthew's plan is to come for Hannah, wouldn't he deliberately try to confuse him? Wouldn't he make out as if telling Patrick the truth, offering up a confession?
The police never worked out who killed Randy. But I know who killed him
. And speaking so openly about investing with Idos as well, was this just another one of his tricks?
Apart from having to deal with an asshole called Don Trevino, I have nothing but good things to say about them
.

But what does it matter? Whether everything Matthew has said and done was some kind of an act or not, Patrick knows he has to burn these thoughts from his mind. Hannah has left him, there is only one way.

He takes out his phone and writes her a message, telling his wife how much he loves her, telling her what he is going to do, that he is doing it for her, because he loves her. After he presses
SEND
, Patrick closes his eyes and covers his face with his hands, sitting like this for a few moments, the darkness behind his eyelids interrupted only by an afterimage of the sunlight in the barn. And then, as that old light fades, Patrick's mind begins to slide as if from one world to another.

When he opens his eyes and drags his hands from his face, the sunlight in the barn seems to burn twice as bright. And that's when he can see it starting to form, the first shape appearing slowly in an empty spot close to where Matthew is lying unconscious. It is a wooden pulpit salvaged from an old church, the place where the diners are greeted in Red Moose Barn. He glances around as he begins to hear the sort of sounds that rattle through a happy restaurant. Cutlery, crockery, chatter. Now Patrick can see the bar forming, running down the far wall where the sunlight pours through, a stained glass window casting its red and green leaf-light on tobacco-colored floorboards. And there's the barman in blue chambray shirt and leather half-apron, pouring cocktails from a shaker into vintage glasses etched with cherries and leaf scrolls. The retired professors who live in the converted schoolhouse nearby pick up their Barnstormer cocktails, clink glasses, take a sip and nod with approval.

From somewhere at the other end of the darkness, music is playing. A live band, perhaps.

And look, table seven has ordered the cowboy steak for two. It arrives sizzling in a cast-iron skillet, earning a round of applause from table seven's diners, a young couple who look like they've come up from Brooklyn for a day of apple picking and cider donuts.

There is such a buzz in the place, motes of dust dappling the late-afternoon sunlight, the air full of laughter, an immense sense of good cheer.

And now, better than any of this, he starts to hear a voice, a woman's voice saying the same thing over and over as the guests wander up to the pulpit. Welcome to Red Moose Barn, she says. Welcome, welcome. And it makes him so happy to hear Hannah's voice in this place, Hannah who has quit her job at the newspaper and moved up here to support him. What a fine life they have together, living in the old farmhouse they fell in love with as soon as the real estate agent showed them around. At night, when their day at the barn is over, they sit together on their porch swing, sipping red wine, gazing up at the madly bright stars.

Welcome to Red Moose Barn, she says. Welcome, welcome. So good to see you again.

*   *   *

WHEN MATTHEW STARTS TO MOVE,
Patrick looks down at his watch, a little after four o'clock, still plenty of light left in the day.

He picks up the duct tape and rolls Matthew onto his side, Matthew's eyes flickering, his body making small efforts to move as he tries to say something.

Shh shh,
not yet, says Patrick. He tears a strip of tape and moves it close to Matthew's face, Matthew trying hard to turn his head away, Patrick pressing the tape to his mouth. And then he sits there on his haunches while Matthew slowly comes to.

The blades of sunlight have slipped all the way across the barn now, falling over an old sign that reads,
U-PICK APPLES HERE.

A few minutes later, Matthew starts fighting the ropes.

There's no point, says Patrick. You never were any good at that game anyway.

But Matthew carries on fighting, knees bending and straightening, his arms struggling behind him.

Patrick heads over to the barn door, picks up the shotgun and moves back around to where Matthew can see him. Stop! he says. But Matthew keeps moving a few more seconds until Patrick cocks the hammer on the gun.

Good, says Patrick. Now listen, I'll make you a deal, Matthew. If you do what I say, go where I say, walk where I tell you to walk, if you do
everything
I say, then when we get where we're going, I'll take away the tape and you can tell me anything you want. Agreed?

Matthew doesn't move, just stares fiercely up at him, as if he imagines he might disarm a man with the strength of his gaze, snap rope with the power of thought.

Patrick waves the shotgun up and down. Move your head like this, he says, or else move it like this, he adds, waving the gun side to side. It has to be one or the other, Matthew, he says.

Matthew glares at him a moment longer and then nods.

Good, says Patrick. First I'm going to cut the rope at your legs. Your arms stay tied at all times. Then you're going to climb into the trunk of my car. Agreed?

Matthew nods.

Very good, says Patrick, picking up the knife. And don't worry, it won't be long now, he says. I'm really looking forward to hearing everything you have to say.

 

MATTHEW

I doubled back along Sunset Ridge to avoid you, not wanting you implicated in my daddy's death at all, thinking it better you weren't even aware of it, and then headed back toward town, taking the trail that ran down the North Mountain Gully, a route in and out of the Swangums that almost no one ever took, reaching the edge of Roseborn unseen by another human soul.

I knew the Jensens owned the last house on Grist Mill Road. There was a rail trail that ran alongside their land, so all I had to do was squeeze by a few bushes and there it was, Hannah's home.

Hours earlier, as my daddy had left the house waving his pistol, he'd threatened Hannah in the vilest terms imaginable against breathing a word to anyone. I just wanted her to know she was safe.

For a few moments, I stood there, looking across the grounds at the house. It was late in the evening, that moment of twilight when the trees lose all sense of depth, becoming nothing more than cutouts against a fading sky. The lights from within Hannah's house were burning amber, and I felt a sense of looking in on something pure, something I could never have, a happy family living in the perfect home.

Later on it would feel to me as if I'd taken a snapshot of that scene, that precise second of my life, and I pictured it often while
I was in prison, imagining myself growing up in those golden rooms, how differently everything might have turned out.

While I was breathing it all in, I noticed some movement behind one of the windows, Hannah pacing around a room, gripping herself by the shoulders. I headed across the lawn, picked up some gravel from the driveway, and threw it so that it clattered the glass.

Hannah came to the window, saw me, and clapped her hand to her mouth.

When she came out through the back door, she looked like she'd been shaking for the last several hours, Hannah's skin moonlight pale, her face marked by tears. She ran over to me gesturing to keep quiet before taking hold of my hand and leading me away past a pond, and then on toward a large outcrop of rock. Up ahead I could just about make out the opening of a cave. Hannah kept on pulling me silently until we were both inside and reached down to switch on a lantern, some of the cave lighting up, but the space so vast the lantern wasn't strong enough to illuminate its farthest reaches. Then Hannah turned to me, wrapping her arms around herself and said, in the most fearful voice I've ever heard, Is he dead?

I nodded at her, not realizing right away that she was talking about you, of course, Pete.

Oh God, said Hannah, her words little more than squeals, he's going to kill me, now he's going to kill me, she said, and then started to shake feverishly, tears coming out of her eyes.

Still with the same cold sense of calm I had up in the mountains, I grabbed hold of her by the shoulders. Hannah, stop, I said. No one's going to kill you.

I don't think she heard what I said, she wasn't even looking at me. I'm a witness, she said, her voice stuttering out through her tears. So he has to kill me, she said, he's going to kill me. Hannah started rubbing the spot on her head where my daddy had pushed the barrel of his gun.

Finally I caught on. Wait, Hannah, I said, he's not going to kill you, I promise. He's dead. It's my daddy who's dead.

Hannah started to blink. What? she said, her face tilting up at me, an edge of disbelief in her voice.

I promise you, Hannah, he's dead. You're safe. We're all safe. My daddy's dead.

Looking down at her, I could see Hannah trying to work it all out, everything changing inside her head, a different world. Was it him? she said. The old…?

No, I said. No, Hannah, I killed him. It was me.

Hannah's eyes froze on my face, and then, a moment later, she threw her arms around me, pressing one of her cheeks to my chest. Oh God, she said, I'm sorry, Matthew, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry.

I lifted my hands to hold her, and in that moment, it felt to me that the two of us would be forever bound by this secret. For minutes our bodies were locked together as Hannah's tears soaked into my T-shirt, and I stroked her head, the two of us bound in each other's arms, bound by the knowledge we now shared.

*   *   *

WE SAT IN THAT CAVE
for an hour, its cool breath lapping over us as I told Hannah everything that had happened since my daddy climbed out of his car for the very last time.

When I reached the part about picking up the rock and bringing it down on my daddy's skull, Hannah placed a hand on my knee to comfort me. You had to, Matthew, she said, you didn't have any choice.

It felt so good to be understood, Hannah's hand on my knee like a candle in the dark.

Someone will probably find him tomorrow, I said. There's a trail right under the spot where I … And I guess there'll be police. And a funeral. So I don't know when I'll get to see you again. Will you be all right, Hannah?

She nodded and leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. Thank you, Matthew, she said.

I should probably get home, I said.

When I stood up, Hannah got to her feet as well, giving me a look as if she understood me, as if she knew everything I was and
wanted to tell me that everything inside me was OK—no labels, no judgments, only compassion.

Standing there in that dimly lit cave, I think I trusted her look, I really did believe Hannah was capable of understanding me. Which is not to say that she deliberately tricked me, I don't think that's what happened at all, but perhaps the person Hannah was deceiving at that moment, at that moment and for the next several weeks, was herself.

*   *   *

TWO HIKERS CAME ACROSS THE
body the next morning.

My mom had barely noticed my daddy's absence from their bed—often he would sleep in the car after one of his special Friday nights—and after a perfectly normal breakfast, Tricky and I pounded our way up Grist Mill Road on our bikes as if it were any other Saturday morning, but before we could reach the parking lot, a police officer, his car blocking the road, turned us away without telling us why. The officer didn't even pay me any special heed, so I guess he hadn't realized whose son I was—because even if they couldn't identify the body right away, my daddy's car would've been the only one left in the parking lot overnight.

The police didn't take long to come to the conclusion that my daddy's death was unsuspicious. There seemed to be a simple explanation—the day my daddy died he'd lost his job, gotten steaming drunk, and had been shooting his mouth off in O'Sullivan's and his gun in the mountains. Probably the only issue the police stopped to consider was whether my daddy had drunkenly slipped or drunkenly thrown himself from the polished bedrock of Sunset Ridge. Perhaps the detectives who suspected him of killing Randy McCloud thought he'd suffered an overwhelming attack of guilt, that's the sort of thing you might have thought if you didn't know him.

Anyway, whatever the police suspected, when they came to find my mom at our house Saturday night, the word they used was
accident
. I heard them clearly through the thin walls of my bedroom, Mom having sent me and little Billy packing when she
saw uniforms approaching our front door, and after the officers told her what the result of that
accident
was, I heard a little shock come out of my mom, but not ever so much in the way of tears.

In the days that followed, I wouldn't say we were buried beneath an avalanche of bereavement cards. Those we did receive were all covered in sick-looking flowers, and it seemed to me that the messages written inside had about as much feeling behind them as scientific formulae, the same phrases repeated over and over.

There was only one card I cared about. It arrived with my name on the envelope and no return address. My mom handed it over numbly, not even watching to see me open it, so I took it to my room. The card inside was plain and white, and in your elegant hand were written the words—

If it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you

A year later, it occurred to me to search for those words in the Bible. It didn't take me long to find them, the first place I turned was the book of Matthew, and there they were.

For years I've been wondering the same thing over and over. If Hannah had known the truth—that I loved you, but nothing had happened, and that you loved me, but nothing had happened—would it have made any difference? Would Hannah have accepted me for who I was, or would things still have gone the same way, several weeks later, up in the mountains?

*   *   *

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE
night, several hours after my daddy's funeral, something hit me like a blunt object, thudding into my thoughts while I was asleep, a nightmare in which I had a cold feeling of certainty that my daddy was alive, only I couldn't see him, that my daddy was speaking to me, but I couldn't hear him, that his belt buckle was ready, he was everywhere, waiting for me, and I would never escape.

For the first few minutes of wakefulness, the feeling of being trapped by something I would never shake was all-consuming, and yet that single nightmare would turn out to be the closest I ever came to feeling any sense of guilt for what happened on that Friday, July 1982. If I've ever dreamed about my daddy since that night, I certainly don't remember. I knew then, almost as strongly as I know now, that what I did that day was right. My daddy had already murdered Randy McCloud. How many other people might he have killed if I hadn't pushed him off Sunset Ridge? However, waking up that morning after the funeral, my bedcovers soaked through with sweat, I did begin to feel an urgent need to talk to someone. The previous week had seemed to move at an agonizing pace, having to keep everything locked inside while soaking up little Billy's tears and listening to my mother's complaints about the unfairness of life.

How I wish it were you that I'd gone to that morning, Pete, your cabin I'd chosen as a place of refuge—I should have realized I could spill out a thousand words to a hundred other human beings, and not one of them would understand me nearly as well as you, who understood even my blinks—but instead I left my bike in a patch of bushes by a rail trail and, reaching the house, picked up a handful of gravel. When Hannah came to her window, I was already walking toward the cave. It was eleven in the morning, tiny purple flowers in the grass winking at me, the air wet through with threats of thunderstorms.

When Hannah got there, I was already sitting on the ground with my back pressed to the cave wall. Hannah sat down as well and nestled up to me. I guess I was still feeling the aftershocks of my nightmare, because the first words I said to her were, I killed him, Hannah. My daddy, I murdered him.

Hannah rested her head on my shoulder. That's not what I think, she said. I think you saved me, she said. And you saved that man as well.

He's called Pete, Hannah.

OK, she said, but I don't want to talk about him. I only want to talk about you from now on, she said.

That's how we began.

I've never much seen the appeal of talking about myself. Even as a child, the idea of confession at church seemed like an essentially selfish act—selfish on both sides of the box—but back in that cave, never switching on the lantern in the daytime, something about the half-light that surrounded us made it easy to talk, as if darkness had the power to drag words out of me. Or maybe it was nothing to do with that cave, maybe it was Hannah who was in possession of that power. Just a few days ago, Pete, I found out that she became a journalist. Hannah Jensen is a crime reporter for the
New York Mail
. How many words has she dragged out of how many people?

We would meet in that cave every two or three days, and when we did, I would tell Hannah stories about growing up in Queens, our thin cramped apartment, the airplanes roaring over our heads as they slipped down to LaGuardia, and how I thought if you stood on top of the tallest rooftop and jumped as high as you could, you might be able to reach up and touch one of those jet planes right under its belly. I told her about moving upstate and seeing Roseborn for the first time—on the drive up, I fell asleep in the back of the car and, not having been told where we were moving, simply assumed my daddy had taken us all the way back to Texas.

I told her about rattlesnakes, skylakes, and ice caves, I told her about Tricky and our games, Tarzan, Houdini, and Deer Patrol. I don't know how we filled all those hours, our lives so barely lived at that age, and the more I told Hannah about myself, the more my feelings for her deepened.

I remember thinking that Hannah was feeling the same way toward me—and who knows, perhaps she was—but although we might have been together in that cave, I realize now that we were actually hundreds of miles apart, not only at different stages of life, but also different people altogether.

Anyway, it felt immensely easy talking with Hannah. Somehow she managed to convey a sense that she was interested in everything I had to say, as if my words were sustenance, and she a hungry soul in need of saving.

As July drained away and summer neared its peak, that dark cave became somewhere to retreat not only from recent events, but also from the fierce temperatures outside. Sitting with our backs to its cool stone flanks, I remember that one day I was telling Hannah all about the good air in the mountains, how you could make rainbows dance over the wet rocks and that you could swim in the lake and dry off in the sunlight. That's the moment when the feeling came to me that I wanted to share the mountains with Hannah. Hey, why don't we go up there tomorrow? I said. It'll be great, I can show you around.

Perhaps Hannah sensed that I had more than one motive for wanting to be with her in the Swangums—for a while I'd been thinking about kissing her again, only somehow it would have felt wrong in that cave, a place that was meant only for talking.

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