BY STEVEN MICHAEL SARBER
Louis Armstrong's “What a Wonderful World” played softly on the old Silvertone console radio in Len Thomas's den. The speaker crackled a little, but otherwise, the antique was in good condition. Len had replaced the Bose CD system in favor of the old radio, and remained happy about the decision. It gave character to the room. And out of sentimentalism, he played only the oldies on it. U2 would have sounded fine, he was sure, but it wouldn't feel right.
Len was a partner at a prestigious law firm in Manchester, New Hampshire. He'd put in many eighty-hour weeks over the course of his career, and was working at home, as usual. What wasn't usual was the calm look on his face. His usual hard look was gone, a slight grin replaced it. Now he stood, extinguished the cigarette he'd forgotten about in an ashtray, and walked over to the oak bar in front of the window. As he poured a bourbon and water he studied his reflection in the glass.
“Not bad,” he said aloud. He'd held together pretty well for a man in his fifties. Hardly a touch of gray marred his full head of hair. No paunch, to speak of, hanging over his belt. Yeah, he was in nearly as good condition as the radio. Of course, it was a bit older. It surely predated WWII. He began to caress the top of the console as he studied his reflection. His reflection appeared different, he couldn't quite put his finger on it, like a reflection out of someone else's past.
The Silvertone clicked off. Len raised his hand from the top of the radio, studying his fingers. It was like looking at a different hand, through another person's eyes. His head hurt a bit. No matter, that wouldn't last long. He turned toward his desk. The message was clear.
Pulling the bottom drawer open Len retrieved the .38 revolver he kept for security. After checking to make sure it was loaded, he left the den. There was a job to be done.
Opening the door to the hall, Len Thomas left the den, and the decency of his former life behind.
He walked down the hall, stopping at the door to his seventeen-year-old daughter Candace's room. Both his girls were in there, watching television and gossiping about boys. Len raised the .38 and put three bullets into his younger daughter, Angela, then the remaining rounds found their mark in her older sister's chest.
Len blinked twice, and turned to the family room at the far end of the hall.
Janis, his wife of twenty-six years rushed toward him.
“Len! What's happening...” she wasn't allowed to finish her sentence. He words were cut off by a crushing blow which obliterated her nose. Len was now holding the gun by the barrel, using it like a hammer. The dark wooden stock stained deep-crimson, more with each crushing blow. He kept going until he could barely raise his right arm.
Finished with his task, Len dropped the .38 and walked to the garage. He selected a length of rope and fashioned it into a noose. After securing the free end to his workbench, he tossed the noose-end over a rafter. Forty-two hours later the county medical examiner cut loose the rope and placed his body on a gurney next to the bodies of his wife and daughters, preparing to take the Thomas family to their final resting places.
The family's only living relative, Janis's older sister Morgan, put the house up for sale. She donated most of the family's possessions to the Salvation Army.
But not the Silvertone.
The old radio went home with her.
This was the time for change and new beginnings. And Glenn Butler needed both. That's what this move was all about. A new place with no familiarities whatsoever. No questions, no sympathy, or empathy, or sugar-coated concern.
And you couldn't get much new and different than Tipton's Meadow, New Hampshire. It was a far cry from St. Louis.
The stereo in his '99 Ford Explorer fuzzed out, another classic rock station gone, time to begin the search for good music again. Or maybe make life simpler and just put in a Cream CD.
Keeping a eye on the unfamiliar highway, Glenn fished for “Disraeli Gears”, the '67 guitar-driven masterpiece.
Glenn started it at track six, “Tales of Brave Ulysses”. A song about an adventurer for a man on an adventure.
And he could relate to Clapton. They had both lost a son. They both played blues guitar, even if Glenn played as a hobby, and Clapton did it to inspire thousands of people across the globe. The blues were an outlet, a way to communicate grief.
There was no excuse for his guilt. Nothing he could have done would have saved his wife and son. Yet the guilt remained. Slightly lessened, but there, nonetheless.
This move probably was a good idea. They told alcoholics and drug addicts the path to sobriety was to change your people, places and things. He wasn't an alcoholic, however they did share a mindset. Guilt, shame, and self-loathing. But could a simple move change anything in his world? Change the fact that, in a cemetery in south St. Louis, Missouri, his family lay in the ground with two stone markers the only proof of their existence? Change how he felt about that fact?
It certainly wasn't going to help if he kept brooding about it. He turned the stereo up and tried to focus on Clapton's tone, the clarity of the notes screaming from the speakers.
“Tales of Brave Ulysses” gave way to “Swlabr” as another highway marker announced he was one mile closer to his destination. Tipton's Meadow; he'd all but pulled that name from a hat. Looking for a small town still close enough to a major city so that he wouldn't feel completely like a fish out of water, he came across that name and it stuck out. It may be foolish to start over at a place picked purely because you liked the name, but hell, he could do any damn fool thing he wanted.
Highway 93 promised hope, showed beauty, and scared the hell out of him. The countryside was beyond what he'd imagined. It was stunning. A place this breathtaking should gestate a deep sense of well-being. Why did the seed it planted feel so wrong?
After flipping the sign in the door to “Come on in”, Ellis McCormick opened the store as he did every morning. With a sigh.
Things just weren't the same since Rosemary passed. Dreading the day he would finally give in and close up for good, he looked forward to it as well.
The store was a curio and antique boutique his wife had run for over thirty years, called simply, “Rosie's”. Ellis had always helped out when she needed someone to move things around, or sometimes at night he'd help clean up. But he wasn't a businessman. He'd left that part solely up to Rosemary. He'd been quite content with his occupation as the town handyman.
Ellis sat on the porch, lit his pipe, and opened the morning paper. If Rosie were still alive, she would chide him. “Forget the newspaper. You need to pick up your Bible once in a while.”
She would be right. Nothing but bad news in here, anyway. But he didn't put the paper down. It had been a part of his daily routine for far too long.
Besides, maybe he'd go to church this Sunday.
Roughly an hour later, the pipe long burned out, Ellis walked out to the recycling box at the curb and dropped the finished newspaper in. That was something you couldn't do with your Bible, not unless you wanted the Lord to strike you down.
As he stood at the curb he spotted a dark green Ford Explorer. That would be the man who bought the Adams house, Glenn Something or other. Not many young men moved out here from the city, especially not from halfway across the country. Ellis wondered what this man's story was, how he ended up out here in nowhere-land.
The man driving waved as he went past Rosie's, and Ellis raised his hand in return. No U-Haul trailer. That fit with what he had heard, that this fellow had no family, and no contacts out here.
So why New Hampshire? Specifically, why Tipton's Meadow? This was no bustling town; there was a small movie theater, and a bowling alley. Other than the high school sports teams there was little to do. It just intrigued him. Most young people were trying to get out, not move in.
And maybe he was just prejudiced. His own daughter moved to New York as soon as she was old enough. They still talked almost every week, and their relationship was not what you would call strained. Though he hadn't seen Kelli in almost eighteen months.
Ellis returned to the store, and sighed again. There was one bright spot. His new find. An antique radio he'd gotten at an estate sale the week before. The radio needed a new power cord, and a good rub down with some tung oil, but otherwise it was a striking example of craftsmanship.
The Explorer pulled up in front of the modest Colonial-style home, and Glenn switched off the engine. He opened the truck's door and nearly fell out onto the driveway. He'd been on the road for twenty-plus hours, and hadn't even made a pit stop in the last eight. His legs were like jelly. And the porch seemed worlds away. Willing his legs to come alive, he made it to the front door.
After hobbling to the bathroom and draining his bladder, Glenn went into the bedroom. He bought the house furnished, and though he planned to get a new bed- who wanted to sleep where someone else had sex, unless you count hotels- it would serve nicely right now. He could have slept on the floor.
He woke at noon, somewhat more ready to unpack. Or at least bring his possessions inside.
Unpacking might be pushing it a little.
When he had pulled into the driveway that morning it had been quite chilly, now, with the afternoon sun high overhead, it was a pleasantly mild. A south breeze brought the scent of flowers. Glenn recognized Lupine, butterfly weed, with its striking orange flowers, and some Jack-in-the-Pulpit. His neighbor appeared to have a green thumb.
His wife was, or yet, had been, a botanist. God, would he ever get used to thinking of her in the past tense? She had worked at the Missouri Botanical Garden. It was something she loved, and was good at. She could grow anything. At their St. Louis home, Jenny had planted a mimosa tree on their first anniversary. It was a beautiful tree, and it flourished under her care. Which was no easy task in the St. Louis climate. Most Missourians had a saying; “If you don't like the weather here, wait ten minutes- it'll change.”
Glenn wiped a tear from his cheek and pressed the button on his key-fob, unlocking the Explorer.
He hadn't brought much to New Hampshire. Three suitcases full of clothes; they still had the airport tags on them from their vacation to the Rocky Mountains last year. He took out his pocket knife and cut the tags from the handles and stuck them in the back pocket of his jeans.
A twenty-seven inch television and DVD player, a boom box, his guns, and his acoustic and electric guitars. And, of course, a 15-watt Marshall amplifier. That would probably be getting a workout tonight. It was his support program. He played the blues when he needed to express grief, rock when he felt good, and even heavy metal, when he was angry. Tonight would probably be metal and blues.
The anger still didn't make any sense to him. But there it was, a constant, draining parasite, gripping tighter each time it took hold of his heart. Trying to push it away, Glenn finished unpacking the truck.
After unpacking, Glenn debated whether to shop for some dinner, or go out to a restaurant.
Deciding he would need to stock the fridge anyway, he chose the grocery store.
Johnson's Market appeared to be the only place in town to shop for food. It was a small store with fresh, crisp produce, bright-red healthy looking cuts of meat, and a surprisingly diverse selection of the staples to any bachelor's diet; Chips, canned soups, frozen dinners. Cart filled, he passed by the liquor aisle. Eying the endless row of bottles, Glenn decided against alcohol. He wasn't going to drink alone on his first night here. It would only feed the anger and sorrow. He settled for a twelve-pack of Coca-Cola instead.
After checking out, pushing the cart across the parking lot, Glenn heard a voice call out.
“Hey, there,” the voice said.
Glenn looked over his shoulder to see a man, sixty-ish, tall, rugged, walking toward him.
“I'm Ellis McCormick. And you are the new guy in town.”
The old man gripped Glenn's hand in a strong handshake, his hands calloused and rough; a workman's hands.
Glenn laughed, “Glenn Butler. I suppose you don't get many new faces around here?”
Ellis laughed. “Not really. Most people seem to want to get out of here these days.”
“Small town, little excitement, nothing to do. I get the picture. But it's exactly what I'm looking for. Quiet.”
“Can I ask why?”
Glenn shook his head slightly. “You could, but you wouldn't get an answer.”
“Fair enough,” Ellis said. “I apologize. But know that in a place like this the gossip cooks up quick.
Folks will already have their opinions why you came here.
“Hey, speaking of cooking, how would you like to come over for dinner, Glenn? I've got some salmon just begging to be grilled.”
“I will have to take a rain-check. Give me a few days to get settled, I'm wiped out from the drive up.
“So what are the rumors, anyway?” Glenn began to load his groceries into the Explorers trunk, and Ellis helped, handing the bags over to him.
“Nothing special, so far. Maybe you're on the run from something, maybe the Witness Protection thing. But there will be quite a buzz soon around here.”
Glenn laughed again, “No, nothing like that. Let's just say I needed a change and leave it at that.”
The two men shook hands again, and parted ways, Glenn slid into the driver's seat of the Explorer, and Ellis entered Johnson's Market.
Trey Barker sat on his bed, looking at a movie poster from Pet Sematary on his wall. It was his favorite movie: scary, violent, and morally ambiguous. No good triumphing over evil in that one.
He felt like watching a movie. He should be doing his homework. Case settled, he would watch a movie. Maybe one of the newer splatter flicks. They weren't as good as Pet Sematary, but he enjoyed the graphic nature of them.
What he wanted most to do was find Fat Albert. Albert was the Turnbaum's gray tabby. A bit like Church from his favorite movie, just fatter. Fat Albert liked to bring gifts to Trey's front doorstep. Many mornings he had stepped out barefoot to get the paper for his mom, and stepped on a disemboweled mouse, or sparrow, or snake. He wondered how Albert would feel if it was him whose insides were strewn about the ground. That would turn this quiet little town on end. People would start locking their doors at night. They would talk. A madman is on the loose, one who murders pets. It's only a matter of time before he starts to go after people.
But it was no good. He didn't have the stomach to kill the cat. He was all talk. Or, all imagination.
That would probably be more accurate. Because who would he ever tell any plans like that to? He had no friends. He was just the freak boy. The boy who spent all his time watching horror flicks and making scary masks and gory disembodied hands with latex.
He'd show them all one day. He would be a famous special effects creator working in Hollywood. Of course, the real potential in special effects was computers now. It was all computer generated imaging these days. Not much work for a latex-mold maker. Maybe he could bring back that genre. Kind of like a retro thing. What the hell, if fashion from the sixties and the eighties could come back, anything was possible.
Trey would just go on they way he always had. Maintaining barely passing grades at school, walking home alone, and working on his passion. It wouldn't be long before he turned sixteen. He hoped that after he got his license he could talk his mom into letting him drive out to Hollywood for the summer. That wouldn't happen, but he could hope.
But for now, maybe it would be more prudent to get started on his American History homework.
History, what a waste of time. They said those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Who cares? It wasn't his problem, the men who ran the country made the decisions that affected his life. And they didn't seem to mind repeating history... as long as they weren't the ones who suffered from their decisions.
Opening his History textbook Trey found a note tucked inside. It was from a girl in his class named Tiffany. She was pretty, popular, all the qualities of a girl who would never talk to him out loud, in front of their classmates. So he was surprised to see this note. He was sure it was a mistake, but there it was, addressed to him, containing her phone number and the words call me in bubbly girl script.
He set the note aside. How could he call her? If it was a joke at his expense, well, it would be painful. If it was serious, oh boy! Now that was a thought. The kind wet dreams were made of.
Glenn lay in bed, restless, clutching the one piece of Jenny he'd brought from St. Louis; a white satin nightgown. He had given her that nightie and a string of pearls for their last anniversary. It still faintly held on to her scent, flowery and sweet. Tears welled in his eyes, but did not fall.
After some time he fell asleep, still embracing the remnant from his past. When he woke he found that he was ashamed. He hadn't brought any photographs of his wife and son. They were in a storage unit back in Missouri, along with other items he didn't want to throw away, but didn't feel he could bear to look at every day while he tried to move on in a new place. He still had pictures of them in his wallet, but he would never forget their faces without tangible proof of their existence.
Now the guilt was here again. A Mount St. Helens of guilt, ready to blow at any time.
Maybe it was wrong that he had left nearly all evidence of Jenny and little Sean twenty-five hundred miles behind. Maybe he had done that very thing so he would have a viable excuse to harbor the guilt.
Jenny and Sean were killed by a bad man. A junkie. End of story. It was no one he had arrested, nobody he had ever had a run-in with. Just a bad man. And Glenn couldn't blame it on the neighborhood, they were killed miles from home. That bad man followed them for blocks, and when Jenny stopped at an ATM machine he saw his opportunity to strike.
According to eyewitnesses, the man approached Jenny as she inserted her card into the machine. He had a syringe in his hand, and told her he had AIDS. If she refused to pull out all her money and give it to him, he would stick the needle into her arm, infecting her.
Jenny did as he asked, she took out a hundred and eighty dollars; all that the Butler's had in their bank account. Whether it just wasn't enough, or the bad man planned to kill her anyway, the deal went bad. The man ordered her and Sean into the alleyway between buildings, dropped the syringe into his back pocket and took a hunting knife out instead.
Mercifully, he didn't needlessly torture them. Their end was swift. When Glenn got the call on his cell phone, instead of his radio, the Chief of Detectives, a man Glenn had known for twenty-odd years, even before he had decided to become a police officer, said simply “They didn't suffer, Glenn. There was no pain.”
As if he knew that. The brain is one marvel of science, who can say that the pistons don't keep firing for a few seconds, no matter how fast the death. If you unplug a computer, or a television set, it still holds some power in the transistors. A brain can be no different.
No, he couldn't believe that they didn't suffer. The only possible light at the end of that particular tunnel was that the junkie was found two days later, dead of an overdose of methamphetamine. He suffered, at least for a while.
Glenn thought about all this as he showered. He remembered the phone call to Jenny's parents. Now that was unpleasant. They did blame him. Nothing new there, though. Glenn had accepted that a long time ago.
When he called it was, “If you had,” this, “If you hadn't,” that. But you couldn't live your life by the “ifs”. Not and stay sane, anyway. What else was missing were any inquiries as to how he was doing. Not from her side of the family, and he had no family. He had lost just as much as Jenny's parents. His wife and son were gone forever.
Glenn spent so much time replaying the past the hot water ran out. He finished his shower shivering, but refreshed. Freer than he'd felt in a long time.
Old Eva Birch sat in the dark as she did many nights. She was nearly ninety years old, blind in one eye, but still sharp as ever. She swallowed a gulp a Wild Turkey, straight, no ice, no water, and crushed out the Pall Mall non-filter she'd been smoking. Nasty habit, but who had the nerve to tell her to quit? Not anyone in this town. And certainly not her doctor. Hell, fifty years ago she helped deliver him. You just couldn't tell someone who'd helped bring you into the world to stop something that has been a part of their life for longer than your own. At least that was her guess.
So she sat, and smoked, and drank. Because something was wrong here. Many years ago her father might have said there's a foul wind blowin'. But it was more than that. It was a stench, hanging over the town like pollution. Old Eva didn't know what it was, or if it could be just the onset of senility. God knows she felt fine, but what was actually going on upstairs was anybodies guess.
No. Her mind still worked fine. And it would work even better after she refilled her glass of whiskey. She rose slowly and hobbled to the kitchen where the liquor was kept. The old joints weren't in such good shape anymore, that fact she couldn't argue.
While Old Eva sat in the dark with drink and smoke, feeling something was very wrong with her town, Ellis applied a coat of finish to the Silvertone. He'd already replaced the cord and the belt to the turntable, and once the finish was completed he would plug it in. See if it sounded any good. Probably not, an old speaker would be prone to dry rot. But at least the radio had solid-state components, no tubes to change out.
Yep, the old thing would sure look good when he put a nice thick coat of lacquer on it. This was the part he loved, working with his hands to bring something new life. A good many of the things in this little shop he had resurrected from a fate with the county dump, but few he was able to bring back to the degree of beauty they had come off the showroom floor with. This radio would be one of the few.
He looked at the wall clock. Ten minutes of midnight. It was probably time for bed. Ellis walked up the stairs to his living quarters in the upper floor of the Victorian home. The lower floor housed the shop, the kitchen, and dining room, but upstairs was all his. At least since Rosie passed.
Upstairs were pictures, upstairs held memories. There were many downstairs as well, but the memories hanging on those walls were different. The upper floor had pictures of Rosie, and Kelli, and himself in happy times. In the days when he still had a family.
Kelli had come along late in life. They had all but given up on having a child when Rosie suddenly started getting sick in the mornings. Touch of the flu, they thought. But when the ill feeling persisted for two weeks, Rosemary went to see the doctor.
Nine months later Kelli McCormick came into the world to greet her parents. Ellis was forty-two, Rosie forty. As delighted as they were, they had fear. At an age when many of their friends were soon to become grandparents, they had a baby. It was a scary prospect. But they couldn't have loved her more.
One check in the pro column was that they had money saved up. Just change the notation in the savings book from retirement fund to college fund. It was that simple. A good many new parents couldn't say that.
Naturally the benefits didn't stop there. The way something so small could having such a grand impact on your life defies logic. Or at least, that was what Ellis thought.
After brushing his teeth, he picked up the phone, thought better of the idea, and set it back down. It was late, but Kelli wouldn't be in bed, she might not even be home. Maybe that was what he wanted, to get her voice mail. That would keep things simple, he could just leave an innocuous message, she could call whenever she felt like it. Something inside was pushing him to call his daughter, and if it was something important he should talk to her directly. He picked the phone back up.
Halfway across the country, on Highway 70, driving through Topeka, Kansas, Spike Caan lit up a joint. Something fucked up was happening, and he needed to calm his nerves. A lifelong dedication to operating without direction was suddenly in jeopardy. Spike was being manipulated eastward, pulled by a force he was powerless to ignore.
He didn't like it.
Spike had spent his entire existence running from responsibility, from guidance. Anything controlling his actions was unwelcome. He tried to will himself to pull a u-turn and point the Caddy's front end in the opposite direction, but couldn't. The electrical impulses from his brain seemed not to reach his muscles. Powerlessness- a horrible feeling. He still didn't like it, but fuck it, if you couldn't change something you might as well enjoy the ride. He pressed the gas pedal to the floor, the Caddy's eight-cylinder engine roared, throwing him deep into the driver's seat.
Once he reached a nice straight stretch of rural highway, Spike let the speedometer creep up near one hundred. What the hell, he had no current warrants. At least none that would come back to the name on the driver's license in his wallet. And he had a little grass on him. And if some pig pulled him over and made too much fuss, then Spike could just cap 'im.
An hour or so later he turned into a Chevron for gas. That pulling feeling was getting stronger. Spike was hungry, but didn't think he'd be able to sit still long enough to eat at a burger stand. He grabbed some beef jerky and potato chips and two bottles of Dr. Pepper. Then back to the road.
The morning was turning out to be promising. Glenn had finished unpacking, consumed a half pot of coffee, and eaten a hearty breakfast of glazed donuts, all before ten o'clock.
Now the remaining adrenaline, sugar rush, and caffeine in his system had him walking circles, bored out of his mind.
But what if it wasn't boredom? He didn't feel his usual smattering of guilt spiced up with pain, this was different. Electric, the kind of thing that left your field of focus whenever you tried to lock-on to it. Whatever it was, however, it was there, in his chest. If he were a worrying man, he might think it was a small heart attack.
After aimlessly shuffling around the house for half an hour, that unusual feeling diminished. Glenn decided to go out and check out the town. St. Louis was a beautiful city, with the riverfront and the Arch, and the outlying areas had great scenery. But this was New England, nothing could have prepared him for the colors, the clean smell in the air, and the relaxed somesthesia he got from the atmosphere.
And that was not an unwelcome feeling.
Glenn walked up Fifth Street, which seemed to serve as Main Street for this town. Funny though, there were no other numbered streets. So how did they get from First to Fifth? The rest seemed to be named after Presidents: Washington, Roosevelt, Adams, and Jefferson. Maybe that old codger he'd met last night would know why.
He had seen where the man had come from, good observation skills were important for a cop, even a retired one, and decided the antique store would be a good place to start.
A bell jingled when he pushed open the front door, and a voice from the back called out, “Be right there.”
There were shelves and rows of carnival glass, ancient silverware, portraits, a Civil War sword hanging on the wall, the usual kinds of things you'd expect to find in a small town shop like this.
Against the far wall was an antique radio. It looked brand new, but the scent of varnish hung in the air. The old guy must be refinishing it, and doing a bang up job.
Glenn got that familiar uneasy qualm; funny though, he'd felt fine just a second ago.
Ellis came into the front room drying his hands on a beige dishtowel. Once they were sufficiently dry, he extended his right paw to Glenn.
“I see you found my store. Well, it's really, I mean, was really my wife's store. She's passed on, but she's the reason for everything you see here. I just try to make her smile down on me with what I do with it.”
Glenn glanced around Rosie's and nodded, “I think she smiles. It's great.”
“Thank you, Glenn. It's nice to see some young blood in this town. Small towns have a way of getting smaller, the young all want to leave, and the old die off. But there's no finer place in all New England, if you ask me,” Ellis winked. “But of course, I'm biased. Lived here all my life. I was born here, and one day my body will rest over in St. Paul's Cemetery right next to my Rosie, but enough of that. You didn't stop by to talk about death and loneliness. What can I do for you?”
“Maybe not today, but there will be plenty of time for stories. I guess I just wanted to say hello, you're the only person I've met here so far.”
In Manhattan, Kelli McCormick packed a beat up leather suitcase. She put her laptop in its case, grabbed her phone, and took an elevator down to the lobby of her apartment building. This trip would go one of two ways, as far as she could figure. One, her and her father could dance around the awkwardness between them, making small talk and half-heartedly laughing at lame anecdotes until they said their goodbye's. Or, and it was probably solely up to her to make this happen, they could bury their differences and rebuild the relationship. They could tear down the walls that she had put up after her mother's death.
Kelli grabbed a couple Tylenol out of the bathroom vanity and bumped a bottle of perfume off the shelf.
Chanel spilled down the drain, filling the air with rich fragrance. She didn't wear the Chanel often, it had been her mother's bottle, and now it was broken, her memories running down the pipe, on its way to a water treatment plant. Could this be an omen to how the trip would go, Kelli wondered?
But she didn't believe in that sort of thing.