Read The Waking Dark Online

Authors: Robin Wasserman

The Waking Dark (4 page)

Don’t make me go up there.
 

She shouldn’t even be babysitting. She should be at Hayley Patchett’s party, toasting the dregs of summer or getting toasted by the Patchetts’ sorry excuse for a pool. But she hadn’t been invited. Not really, not until Hayley’s best friend, Emily, had accidentally-on-purpose asked Cass what she would be wearing to the big party that, oops, she wasn’t even invited to. Hayley had played it off like of course she’d just assumed Cass would hear about the party and realize she was wanted. She wasn’t. Not that she cared. Here was another secret that Cass had resolved never to reveal: She was better than them – and she knew it. Better than Hayley and Emily and Kaitlin (who had inanely dubbed herself Kaitly to fit in with the others). Better than the idiot jocks and the ignorant teachers and the drug cases and the head cases. Better even than her parents, who’d proved their inferiority by growing up in Oleander and then, against all reason,
staying.
She didn’t hold it against them, any of them. But she gave herself credit for an insight that few people seemed to grasp. The town was rotten; the town was dying. There were only two more years to endure, and then there would be college, somewhere so far away she could be excused for never coming back.

But that meant finding the money to make her escape, which meant, at least tonight, playing the dutiful babysitter. She mounted the stairs slowly, and crept down the dark hallway, telling herself she was only staying quiet so as not to disturb the children. Not because it felt like there was something lurking in the shadows, something around which it was best to make no sudden moves, lest it stir, lest it strike. The ceiling fan sighed overhead, stirring up a hot breeze. Just the fan, she told herself. Not someone’s warm breath, misting against her neck in the dark.

She was too old to be afraid of the dark.

She did not believe in gut instincts, in premonitions, in the body’s ability to sense danger and plead, as it did now,
Turn
back.

Get
out.

Save
yourself.

She thought she’d left the door to the baby’s room open, but it was closed now. Probably just Gracie, paying a visit to her baby brother. Except that Gracie hated her baby brother, and treated the room as if it carried the plague.

She was trembling.

Feeling abundantly foolish, she twisted the knob – slowly, silently – and eased open the door.

Cass laughed.

The room was intact, and empty, but for the baby in his crib. He lay there gurgling, with a small smile, and for a moment Cass felt a rush of what she realized other people must always feel when they see a baby. She lifted the tiny package of warm, wriggling flesh, breathing in the fresh, sweet smell and pressing her lips to his pale dusting of blond hair.

“Turns out you’re pretty cute after all, aren’t you?” she whispered.

Silly of her to suddenly panic because of a bad dream and a dark house and a noise it turned out she hadn’t even heard.

Nothing was wrong.

Everything was fine.

She smiled, and patted the baby’s head, and that was when the darkness claimed her.

 

Grace woke up from the dream and knew it had not been a dream.

Grace ran down the hall.

Grace blew through the door.

Grace tore the pillow out of the babysitter’s hands.

Grace lifted the baby, the blue baby, the cold baby, and pressed her lips to the baby’s lips and tried to make him breathe.

Grace screamed, and the babysitter gave her a blank look, then pushed her to the floor, then opened the window, then began to climb through.

Grace didn’t know whether to grab her leg and drag her back into the room or give her a push and watch her fall, but she delayed too long. And maybe it didn’t matter, because Grace was just a kid, that’s how everyone treated her and that’s what she suddenly realized she wanted to be, because a little kid couldn’t be expected to know what to do. A little kid could just lie on the floor, watch the baby turn blue and the babysitter climb out the window, and cry.

Grace cried.

Grace saw, through her tears, the babysitter’s face as she turned back one last time before launching herself into the air. She looked at Grace as if to say
You
always
claimed
you
were
old
enough
to
take
care
of
yourself, now see how you like it.

Grace ran to the window and looked down, just in time to see the babysitter land, and to watch her writhe on her back like an overturned hermit crab, and to hear her screaming in pain.

Grace picked up the baby, who she had not liked, but had no choice but to love. He was her brother.

Grace vowed: the babysitter would pay, the babysitter would be punished, the babysitter would die, because her brother was dead.

Grace would, if necessary, see to it herself.

 

The killing day.

The day the devil came to Oleander.

That
day.

Whatever they called it, through the months to come – through the funerals and the potluck dinners and the sermons and the sidelong glances between formerly trusting neighbors – it was all anyone could talk about. It seemed safe to assume it was all anyone would
ever
talk about, as it was assumed that Oleander had been changed forever, and that, once buried, the bodies would stay in the ground.

But then the storm came.

One year in Oleander.

One typical year, as those were the only kind Oleander dealt in, even the year of the killing day. In blood as in drought or in poverty or in flame, Oleander was Oleander, and there were still crops to be sown and meth to be harvested, pies to be baked and pigs to be prized, bargains to be hunted and farms to be foreclosed, cherries to be popped and hearts to be broken, worship to be offered and sinners to be shamed. There was still the promise of a warm night on a covered porch or a sledding trip on a snowy afternoon; there was, flickering on the periphery, like the shy fireflies that danced around Potawamie Lake on late-summer nights, still a glimmer of hope. There was gossip and tradition, for these were the fumes on which Oleander ran, chugging steadily along with its needle wobbling on empty, and would until it faded to a dried-up husk, with only a broken and rusted
WELCOME
TO
OLEANDER
,
HEART
OF
THE
REAL
AMERICA
!
sign to mark what had once been a town.

Tradition: In early October, once the funerals had been endured and the mourners’ houses purged of dying flowers, frozen lasagnas, and baskets of corn muffins long gone stale, the veil of solemnity lifted, and business – what little business the town had left – continued as usual. In the liminal days between summer and fall, this meant the annual Harvest Festival, capped off by the Main Street parade. The recently departed Sally Gunther, who, thanks to the flask of Jack Daniel’s stashed in her bra, could always be counted on to mount the D’Angelo’s float and strip with Mardi Gras–worthy aplomb, was sorely missed. Kathleen Hanrahan, who’d been favored to win that year’s Miss Oleander banner and wax-flower crown, was not. At least, not by Laura Tanner, third-grade teacher, two-time divorcée, and four-year reigning Miss Oleander, who was more than happy to continue her streak. The parade route was altered for the first time in memory, stopping three blocks short so as to avoid the empty drugstore, with its boarded-up windows, faded police tape, and, if you believed in such things, bad juju.

The rest of the month was dominated, as per usual, by election drama, which this year culminated in a mayoral victory by local businessman and walking comb-over Mickey Richards. Known to the satisfied customers who drove off his car lot as Mouse – and to the former football players who’d shared his high school locker room as Mouse Dick – the new mayor had coasted to an easy victory. It didn’t hurt that, a couple of years before, he’d recruited a corporate tenant to inhabit the refurbished power plant on the edge of town – a white elephant into which a previous mayoral regime had sunk millions the town didn’t have. But Mayor Mouse’s real selling points were one: his financial involvement in the reconstruction of the Church of the Word, which had burned down on the day of killing. And two: his key campaign promise, the firing of Oleander’s long-serving chief of police, Richard B. Hayes.

The almost total absence of surviving murderers to imprison had left behind a free-floating lynch mob’s worth of blame. It had, unsurprisingly, settled on the town’s top cop. In his decade in office, Hayes had established a long and undistinguished record of crosswalk management, the occasional meth-lab bust, and the quiet fixing of parking tickets for any teacher willing to give his kid an A. The killing day had overwhelmed his mediocre investigative abilities, and his final conclusions were best summed up as: “A lot of people had a bad day.” Occasionally, when pressed for more, Hayes suggested, “Must’ve been something in the air.”

November meant the annual all-church bake sale, its funds buying Thanksgiving dinners for indigents all across eastern Kansas, its participants vying eagerly for bragging rights that would last well through Easter. This year’s sale, in honor of the recent church groundbreaking, was co-chaired by Ellie King, who everyone agreed had, of late, gone a bit spooky around the eyes. Something about the way she looked
through
you, as if aiming for your soul but coming out clear the other side.

November meant football and cheerleaders and a warm beer on a cold night rooting for a team that had not a chance in hell of winning, and a rote moment of silence for the lost soul Nick Shay and the assistant coach who’d killed him. The moment was briefer than intended, broken as it was by the howls of the marching band, who’d just discovered the feces that certain thuggish members of the team had secreted in their instruments. This, too, or at least some crude and beastly act like it, was tradition. The participation of Jeremiah West – about whom the thuggish branch of the team had harbored its suspicions until he’d turned up at practice this season a new and brutish man – was not.

By November, Daniel Ghent was finally sleeping through the night. Though he still had nightmares of bullets and blood, he no longer jerked awake at two a.m. in a puddle of his own sweat, and he never remembered them in the morning.

 

There was no Founders’ Day tradition in Oleander, no bunting-bowed ceremony of child-chanted couplets and paeans to hometown pride. It was an odd absence in the communal calendar, odder still in a town that had been founded twice. The first settlers arrived in the fall of 1855, Boston abolitionists determined to ensure Kansas’s entrance to the Union as a free state.

There are towns in the Midwest where residents can trace their heritage back to Civil War days – where even the meth-addled Dumpster divers can map out the exact boundaries of their forebears’ ancestral homestead. But not in Oleander. Here history stretched back no further than 1899, because here, while the rest of the country celebrated the birth of their Lord and awaited the birth of a new century, Oleander died. It was a Christmas Day fire. That much was known, but nothing more – not how it began, or why, or how it happened that not a single resident survived. On Christmas Eve, there had been 1,123 souls living in the town. By sundown the next day, there were none.

There were charred bones and piles of ash, and that was all.

They founded a new town on Oleander’s mass grave, and gave it the same name. They never spoke of the dead; they spotted no ghosts. The new town filled up with strangers who saw the possibilities of cheap property and ripe fields rather than the outlines of buildings that no longer stood and the gray dust of a cremated world. The new Oleander bustled and shone, its determined noise drowning out any echoes of the past. Grass and flowers and trees sprang from fallow ground. The scents of corn and life drove out the lingering smoke, and finally, the fire and its carpet of bones could be safely buried in the past and allowed to slip through the cracks of collective memory. But the earth had memory of its own.

 

Christmas in Oleander now was a twinkling wonderland, complete with an unexpected Christmas Eve snowfall. No one but Grace Tuck and her parents remembered that little Owen had been meant to play baby Jesus in the winter pageant. The Tucks skipped Christmas that year. Grace – no one called her Gracie anymore – had frozen pizza in front of the TV, trying not to look at the corner where the tree should have been. Her mother had not come out of her room since the night before, while her father had been drunk since Thanksgiving.

They weren’t the only family in town to bypass the festivities: Ellie King gave herself up to a marathon prayer session in the skeleton of the half-rebuilt church. While she was out, her father packed up the last of his belongings and carted them over to the Sunflower, a sad apartment complex for a sad assemblage of men whose families had moved on without them. The daughter who’d once been his secret favorite, back before she turned into a bigger zealot than her mother, promised she’d come visit the next morning. She never got around to it.

The remaining Prevette brothers sought salvation in the form of hammers and spray paint, laying midnight waste to the town crèche. They broke every window at town hall before graffitiing giant red genitalia across its century-old stone face. Scott signed his name at the bottom.

Daniel Ghent was alone. The Preacher had taken to the road; the Preacher had not been home in three days; the Preacher had developed a habit of sleeping on the street, in small lean-tos improvised from cardboard and plastic wrap, the better to stay close to his flock. The Preacher had been claimed by God, and Milo had been claimed first by social services, then by his mother. Giuliana Larkin had materialized in the Preacher’s life a few years after Daniel’s mother died, and dematerialized before Milo was on solid food. For good, they’d all thought. But then came the killing day and Daniel’s turn in the media spotlight, and she’d spotted Milo on the evening news. A week later, she was back and settled into a house on the luckier side of town. She’d needed only one efficient hour to pack a small red suitcase for Milo, then pack Milo into a small red Civic. One hour to dissolve any illusions Daniel might have had of a family. This year there would be no reason to feign a belief in Santa and no need to hastily wrap an old stuffed animal from the bottom of Milo’s toy chest with a card attached reading “Love, Dad.” Around the Ghent house, there lately didn’t seem to be much reason for anything.

Jeremiah West’s Christmas was picture-perfect, at least judging from the family portrait that topped the family’s annual Christmas letter. The West patriarch, it was reported, had posted record earnings in farm-equipment repair. Mother West intended to spend the winter perfecting her pie recipe in time for the spring bake-off. This year nothing would stop her from taking home the blue ribbon, not even her “dear neighbor” Maddie Thomas’s “white-knuckle grip on the trophy” thanks to her “thoroughly reliable pumpkin pie.” (The letter’s careful breeziness here could not disguise the bitter determination underlying this upcoming grudge match.) The letter detailed Jeremiah’s record-breaking rushing and receiving stats, but not the joyriding escapade for which he’d spent a night in jail.

Winter passed, cold and barren, with hearty meals and stoked fires, empty streets and packed bars. Down at the Yellowbird, where Old Winston had been a constant fixture, beers were hoisted in his honor, their departed patron saint of lost weekends. The regulars lived for that time of night when the door would swing open and a sullen Jule Prevette – always in those mannish combat boots and distinctly unmannish fishnets – would arrive to escort her new stepfather home.

 

Oleander thawed, snow melted, crops sprouted, and the Preacher prepared for the end. He saw the angels of death shadowing their prey; he saw Satan’s handmaidens digging their pit to hell. Oleander thawed, but the chill lingered in the shadow that was cast over the town, promise of dark days to come. Only the Preacher saw the signs. Only the Preacher knew what lay beneath the earth, the darkness stirred up by the misguided creatures above. Only the Preacher heard the song whispered by the budding branches,
the
end
the
end
the
end
of
days.
The Preacher warned them, though they would not heed. So be it. When the time came, they would be lost to the shadows. When the pit opened and loosed its demons upon the world, he would be prepared.

He would take care of his own.

 

The year passed from Sunday to Sunday, the churches vying for souls with brimstone sermons, potluck dinners, bingo nights, and the ever-shifting tiles on the welcome signs that hung by their doors:

 

FREE
COFFEE
.
EVERLASTING
LIFE
.
MEMBERSHIP
HAS
ITS
PRIVILEGES
.

STAYING
IN
BED
SHOUTING

OH
GOD
!”
DOES
NOT
CONSTITUTE
GOING
TO
CHURCH
.

YOU
HAVE
ONE
NEW
FRIEND
REQUEST
FROM
JESUS
:
ACCEPT
OR
DENY
.

DO
NOT
WAIT
FOR
THE
HEARSE
TO
TAKE
YOU
TO
CHURCH
.

EVEN
SATAN
BELIEVES
IN
GOD
.

IT

S
THE
TEN
COMMANDMENTS
,
NOT
THE
TEN
SUGGESTIONS
.

SEVEN
DAYS
WITHOUT
GOD
MAKES
ONE
WEAK
.

DOWN
IN
THE
MOUTH
?
TRY
A
FAITH
LIFT
.

SANTA
CLAUS
NEVER
DIED
FOR
ANYONE
.

SIGN
BROKEN
.
MESSAGE
INSIDE
.

GOD
SHOWS
NO
FAVORITISM
,
BUT
WE
DO

GO
ROYALS
!

THINK
IT

S
HOT
HERE
?
IMAGINE
HELL
.

Eventually, though it never seemed possible through the days of clouds and frost, the sun returned, and with it the birds and the leaves and a planting festival as exuberant as the harvest extravaganza. Amanda West took second prize in the bake-off; the 4-H club showed off its wares, its hand-churned butter and free-range goats; the high school’s ag class staged the annual slaughter and barbecue of its chickens. Grace Tuck rode the rickety Ferris wheel and threw up behind the custard stand. Daniel Ghent watched Milo’s Cub Scout troop perform a knot-tying demonstration; he watched from a distance, and left before the parents crowded the muddy field to congratulate their precocious offspring.

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