Black House - Chapter Twenty-five



OH, FORGET about that. We know where Jack Sawyer went when he disappeared from the edge of the cornfield, and we know who he is likely to meet when he gets there. Enough of that stuff. We want fun, we want excitement! Luckily for us, that charming old party Charles Burnside, who can always be depended upon to slip a whoopee cushion under the governor's seat during a banquet, to pour a little hot sauce into the stew, to fart at the prayer meeting, is at this moment emerging from a toilet bowl and into a stall in the men's room on Daisy wing. We note that Ol' Burny, our Burn-Burn, hugs Henry Leyden's hedge clippers to his sunken chest with both arms, actually cradling them, as if he were holding a baby. On his bony right arm, blood slides out of a nasty gash and rolls down toward his elbow. When he gets one foot, clad in another resident's bee slipper, on the rim of the bowl, he pushes himself up and steps out, wobbling a bit. His mouth is twisted into a scowl, and his eyes look like bullet holes, but we do not suppose that he, too, carries a weight of heavy-duty sorrow. Blood soaks the bottoms of his trousers and the front of his shirt, which has darkened with the flow of blood from a knife wound to his abdomen.

Wincing, Burny opens the door of the stall and walks out into the empty men's room. Fluorescent lights on the ceiling reflect from the long mirror above the row of sinks; thanks to Butch Yerxa, who is working a double shift because the regular night man called in drunk, the white tiles of the floor gleam. In all this sparkling whiteness, the blood on Charles Burnside's clothes and body looks radiantly red. He peels off his shirt and tosses it into a sink before plodding down to the far end of the bathroom and a cabinet marked with a piece of tape on which someone has printed BANDAGES. Old men have a tendency to fall down in their bathrooms, and Chipper's father thoughtfully installed the cabinet where he thought it might be needed. Drops of blood lay spattered across the white tiles.

Burny rips a handful of paper towels from a dispenser, dampens them with cold water, and lays them on the side of the nearest sink. Then he opens the bandage cabinet, removes a wide roll of tape and a wad of gauze bandages, and tears off a six-inch strip of the tape. He wipes blood off the skin around the wound in his belly and presses the wet paper towels over the opening. He lifts away the towels and presses a pad of gauze to the cut. Awkwardly, he flattens the strip of tape over the gauze. He dresses the stab wound on his arm in the same fashion.

Now swirls and scoops of blood cover the white tiles.

He moves up the row of sinks and runs cold water over his shirt. The water turns red in the bowl. Burny keeps scrubbing the old shirt under cold running water until it has turned a pale rose only a few shades brighter than his skin. Satisfied, he wrings the shirt in his hands, flaps it once or twice, and puts it back on. That it clings to him bothers Burny not at all. His goal is a very basic version of acceptability, not elegance: insofar as it is possible, he wants to pass unnoticed. His cuffs are soaked with blood, and Elmer Jesperson's slippers are dark red and wet, but he thinks most people will not bother to look at his feet.

Within him, a coarse voice keeps saying, Fazzdur, Burn-Burn, fazzdur!

Burny's only mistake is that, while buttoning up his damp shirt, he looks at himself in the mirror. What he sees stops him cold with shock. Despite his ugliness, Charles Burnside has always approved of the image returned to him by mirrors. In his opinion, he looks like a guy who knows where to find the corners ¡ª sly, unpredictable, and foxy. The man staring at him from the other side of the mirror is nothing like the canny old operator Burny remembered. The man facing him looks dim-witted, worn-out, and seriously ill. Sunken, red-rimmed eyes, cheeks like craters, veins crawling across his bald, skull-like crown . . . even his nose looks bonier and more twisted than it once had. He is the sort of old man who frightens children.

You shud fry-den cheerun, Burn-Burn. Dime do ged moo-vuhn.

He couldn't really look that bad, could he? If he did, he would have noticed long before this. Nah, that wasn't how Charles Burnside faced the world. The bathroom's too damn white, that's all. A white like that makes you look bleached. Makes you look skinned, like a rabbit. The dying old horror in the mirror takes a step nearer, and the spotty discolorations on his skin seem to darken. The spectacle of his teeth makes him close his mouth.

Then his master is like a fishhook in his mind, pulling him toward the door and muttering, Dime, dime.

Burny knows why it's dime: Mr. Munshun wants to get back to Black House. Mr. Munshun comes from some place incredibly distant from French Landing, and certain parts of Black House, which they built together, feel like the world of his home ¡ª the deepest parts, which Charles Burnside seldom visits, and which make him feel hypnotized, weak with longing, and sick to his stomach when he does. When he tries to picture the world that gave birth to Mr. Munshun, he envisions a dark, craggy landscape littered with skulls. On the bare slopes and peaks stand houses like castles that change size, or vanish, when you blink. From the flickering defiles comes an industrial cacophony mingled with the cries of tortured children.

Burnside is eager to return to Black House, too, but for the simpler pleasures of the first set of rooms, where he can rest, eat canned food, and read his scrapbooks. He relishes the particular smell that inhabits those rooms, an order of rot, sweat, dried blood, must, sewage. If he could distill that fragrance, he would wear it like cologne. Also, a sweet little morsel named Tyler Marshall sits locked in a chamber located in another layer of Black House ¡ª and another world ¡ª and Burny cannot wait to torment little Tyler, to run his wrinkled hands over the boy's beautiful skin. Tyler Marshall thrills Burny.

But there are pleasures yet to be reaped in this world, and it is dime to attend to them. Burny peeks out through a crack in the bathroom door and sees that Butch Yerxa has succumbed to weariness and the cafeteria's meat loaf. He occupies his chair like an oversized doll, his arms on the desk and his fat chin resting on what would be a neck on a normal person. That useful little painted rock stands a few inches away from Butch's right hand, but Burny has no need of the rock, for he has acquired an instrument far more versatile. He wishes he had discovered the potential of hedge clippers long ago. Instead of one blade, you get two. One up, one down, snick-snick! And sharp! He had not intended to amputate the blind man's fingers. Back then he thought of the clippers as a big, primitive variety of knife, but when he got stabbed in the arm, he jerked the clippers toward the blind man and they more or less bit off his fingers by themselves, as neatly and swiftly as the old-time butchers in Chicago used to slice bacon.

Chipper Maxton is going to be fun. He deserves what he is going to get, too. Burny figures that Chipper is responsible for the way he has deteriorated. The mirror told him that he is about twenty pounds less than he should be, maybe even thirty, and no wonder ¡ª look at the slop they serve in the cafeteria. Chipper has been chiseling on the food, Burny thinks, the same way he chisels on everything else. The state, the government, Medicaid, Medicare, Chipper steals from all of them. A couple of times when he thought Charles Burnside was too out of it to know what was happening, Maxton had told him to sign forms that indicated he'd had an operation, prostate surgery, lung surgery. The way Burny sees it, half of the Medicaid money that paid for the nonexistent operation should have been his. It was his name on the form, wasn't it?

Burnside eases into the hallway and pads toward the lobby, leaving bloody footprints from the squishing slippers. Because he will have to pass the nurse's station, he shoves the clippers under his waistband and covers them with his shirt. The flabby cheeks, gold-rimmed glasses, and lavender hair of a useless old bag named Georgette Porter are visible to Burnside above the counter of the nurses' station. Things could be worse, he thinks. Ever since she waltzed into D18 and caught him trying to masturbate stark naked in the middle of the room, Georgette Porter has been terrified of him.

She glances his way, seems to suppress a shudder, and looks back down at whatever she is doing with her hands. Knitting, probably, or reading the kind of murder mystery in which a cat solves the crime. Burny slops nearer the station and considers using the clippers on Georgette's face, but decides it is not worth the waste of energy. When he reaches the counter, he looks over it and sees that she is holding a paperback book in her hands, just as he had imagined.

She looks up at him with profound suspicion in her eyes.

"We sure look yummy tonight, Georgie."

She glances up the hallway, then at the lobby, and realizes that she must deal with him by herself. "You should be in your room, Mr. Burn-side. It's late."

"Mind your own business, Georgie. I got a right to take a walk."

"Mr. Maxton doesn't like the residents to go into the other wings, so please stay in Daisy."

"Is the big boss here tonight?"

"I believe so, yes."


He turns away and continues on toward the lobby, and she calls after him. "Wait!"

He looks back. She is standing up, a sure sign of great concern.

"You aren't going to bother Mr. Maxton, are you?"

"Say any more, and I'll bother you."

She places a hand on her throat and finally notices the floor. Her chin drops, and her eyebrows shoot up. "Mr. Burnside, what do you have on your slippers? And your pants cuffs? You're tracking it everwhere!"

"Can't keep your mouth shut, can you?"

Grimly, he plods back to the nurses' station. Georgette Porter backs against the wall, and by the time she realizes that she could have tried to escape, Burny is already in front of her. She removes her hand from her throat and holds it out like a stop sign.

"Dumb bitch."

Burnside yanks the clippers out of his belt, grips the handles, and clips off her fingers as easily as if they were twigs. "Stupid."

Georgette has entered a stage of shocked disbelief that holds her in paralysis. She stares at the blood spilling from the four stumps on her hand.

"Goddamn moron."

He opens the clippers and rams one of the blades into her throat. Georgette makes a choked, gargling sound. She tries to get her hands on the clippers, but he pulls them from her neck and raises them to her head. Her hands flutter, scattering blood. The expression on Burny's face is that of a man who finally admits that he has to clean his cat's litter box. He levels the wet blade in front of her right eye and shoves it in, and Georgette is dead before her body slides down the wall and folds up on the floor.

Thirty feet up the hallway, Butch Yerxa mumbles in his sleep.

"They never listen," Burny mutters to himself. "You try and try, but they always ask for it in the end. Proves they want it ¡ª like those dumb little shits in Chicago." He tugs the clippers' blade out of Georgette's head and wipes it clean on the shoulder of her blouse. The memory of one or two of those little shits in Chicago sends a tingle down the length of his member, which begins to stiffen in his baggy old pants. Hel-lo! Ah . . . the magic of tender memories. Though, as we have seen, Charles Burnside now and again enjoys erections in his sleep, in his waking hours they are so rare as to be nearly nonexistent, and he is tempted to pull down his pants and see what he could make it do. But what if Yerxa wakes up? He would assume that Georgette Porter, or at least her corpse, aroused Burny's long-smoldering lusts. That wouldn't do ¡ª not at all. Even a monster has his pride. Best to carry on to Chipper Maxton's office, and hope that his hammer doesn't go limp before it is time to pound the nail.

Burny tucks the clippers into the back of his waistband and yanks at his wet shirt, pulling it away from his body. Down the corridor of Daisy wing he shuffles, across the empty lobby, and up to the burnished door further distinguished by the brass nameplate reading WILLIAM MAXTON, DIRECTOR. This he reverentially opens, summoning to mind the image of a long-dead ten-year-old boy named Herman Flagler, otherwise known as "Poochie," one of his first conquests. Poochie! Tender Poochie! Those tears, those sobs of mingled pain and joy, that yielding to utter helplessness: the faint crust of dirt over Poochie's scabby knees and slender forearms. Hot tears; a jet of urine from his terrified little rosebud.

There will be no such bliss from Chipper, but we may be sure there will be something. Anyhow, Tyler Marshall lies bound and waiting in Black House, helpless as helpless could be.

Charles Burnside plods through Rebecca Vilas's windowless cubicle, Poochie Flagler's pallid, deeply dimpled backside blazing in his mind. He places a hand on the next doorknob, takes a moment to calm himself, and noiselessly revolves the knob. The door opens just wide enough to reveal Chipper Maxton, only monarch of this realm, leaning over his desk, his head propped on one fist, and using a yellow pencil to make notations on two sets of papers. The trace of a smile softens the tight purse of his mouth; his damp eyes betray the suggestion of a gleam; the busy pencil glides back and forth between the two stacks of papers, making tiny marks. So happily absorbed in his task is Chipper that he fails to notice he is no longer alone until his visitor steps inside and gives the door a backward kick with his foot.

When the door slams shut, Chipper glances up in irritated surprise and peers at the figure before him. His attitude almost immediately changes to a sly, unpleasant heartiness he takes to be disarming. "Don't they knock on doors where you come from, Mr. Burnside? Just barge right on in, do they?"

"Barge right on in," says his visitor.

"Never mind. The truth is, I've been meaning to talk to you."

"Talk to me?"

"Yes. Come on in, will you? Take a seat. I'm afraid we might have a little problem, and I want to explore some possibilities."

"Oh," Burny says. "A problem." He plucks his shirt away from his chest and trudges forward, leaving behind him progressively fainter footprints Maxton fails to see.

"Take a pew," Chipper says, waving at the chair in front of his desk. "Pull up a bollard and rest your bones." This expression comes from Franky Shellbarger, the First Farmer's loan officer, who uses it all the time at the local Rotary meetings, and although Chipper Maxton has no idea what a bollard may be, he thinks it sounds cute as hell. "Old-timer, you and me have to have a heart-to-heart discussion."

"Ah," Burny says, and sits down, his back rigidly straight, due to the clippers. "Hardz zu hardz."

"Yeah, that's the idea. Hey, is that shirt wet? It is! We can't have that, old buddy ¡ª you might catch cold and die, and neither one of us would like that, would we? You need a dry shirt. Let me see what I can do for you."

"Don't bother, you fucking monkey."

Chipper Maxton is already on his feet and straightening his shirt, and the old man's words throw him momentarily off his stride. He recovers nicely, grins, and says, "Stay right there, Chicago."

Although the mention of his native city sends a prickling sensation down his spine, Burnside gives nothing away as Maxton moves around the side of his desk and walks across his office. He watches the director leave the room. Chicago. Where Poochie Flagler and Sammy Hooten and Ferd Brogan and all the others had lived and died, God bless 'em. Stalks of grain, blades of grass, so foul so beautiful so enticing. With their smiles and their screams. Like all Caucasian slum children, pure pale ivory white under the crust of dirt, the fishy white of the city's poor, the soon-to-be-lost. The slender bones of their shoulder blades, sticking out as if to break through the thin layer of flesh. Burny's old organ stirs and stiffens as if it remembers the frolics of yesteryear. Tyler Marshall, he croons to himself, pretty little Ty, we will have ourselves some fun before we turn you over to the boss, yes we will yes indeedy yes yes.

The door slams behind him, yanking him out of his erotic reverie. But his old mule, his old hoss, it stays awake and on its mettle, bold and brash as ever it was in the glory days.

"No one in the lobby," Maxton complains. "That old bag, what'shername, Porter, Georgette Porter, down in the kitchen stuffing her face, I bet, and Butch Yerxa sound asleep in his chair. What am I supposed to do, ransack the rooms to find a dry shirt?"

He strides past Burnside, throws up his hands, and drops into his chair. It's all an act, but Burny has seen much better than this. Chipper cannot intimidate Burny, not even if he knows a few things about


"I don't need a new shirt," he says. "Asswipe."

Chipper leans back in his chair and clasps his hands behind his head. He grins ¡ª this patient amuses him, he's a real card. "Now, now. There's no need for name-calling here. You don't fool me anymore, old man. I don't buy your Alzheimer's act. In fact, I don't buy any of it."

He is nice and relaxed and he oozes the confidence of a gambler holding four aces. Burny figures he is being set up for some kind of con job or blackmail, which makes the moment all the more delicious.

"I gotta hand it to you, though," Chipper goes on. "You fooled everybody in sight, including me. It must take an incredible amount of discipline to fake late-stage Alzheimer's. All that slumping in your chair, being fed baby food, crapping in your pants. Pretending you don't understand what people are saying."

"I wasn't faking, you jackass."

"So it's no wonder you staged a comeback ¡ª when was that, about a year ago? I would have done the same. I mean, it's one thing to go undercover, but it's another to do it as a vegetable. So we have ourselves a little miracle, don't we? Our Alzheimer's gradually reverses itself, it comes and it goes, like the common cold. It's a good deal all around. You get to walk around and make a nuisance of yourself, and there's less work for the staff. You're still one of my favorite patients, Charlie. Or should I call you Carl?"

"I don't give a shit what you call me."

"But Carl's your real name, isn't it?"

Burny does not even shrug. He hopes Chipper gets to the point before Butch Yerxa wakes up, notices the bloody prints, and discovers Georgette Porter's body, because while he is interested in Maxton's tale, he wants to get to Black House without too much interference. And Butch Yerxa would probably put up a decent fight.

Under the illusion that he is playing a cat-and-mouse game in which he is the cat, Chipper smiles at the old man in the wet pink shirt and rolls on. "A state detective called me today. Said I.D. on a local fingerprint had come back from the FBI. It belonged to a bad, bad man named Carl Bierstone who's been wanted for almost forty years. In 1964 he was sentenced to death for killing a couple of kids he molested, only he escaped from the car taking him to prison ¡ª killed two guards with his bare hands. No sign of him since then. He'd be eighty-five by now, and the detective thought Bierstone just might be one of our residents. What do you have to say, Charles?"

Nothing, evidently.

"Charles Burnside is pretty close to Carl Bierstone, isn't it? And we have no background information on you at all. That makes you a unique resident here. For everybody else, we damn near have a family tree, but you sort of come out of nowhere. The only information we have about you is your age. When you turned up at La Riviere General in 1996, you claimed to be seventy-eight. That would make you the same age as that fugitive."

Burnside gives him a truly unsettling smile. "I guess I must be the Fisherman, too, then."

"You're eighty-five years old. I don't think you're capable of dragging a bunch of kids halfway across the county. But I do think you're this Carl Bierstone, and the cops are still eager to get their hands on you. Which brings me to this letter that came a few days ago. I've been meaning to discuss it with you, but you know how busy things get around here." He opens his desk drawer and pulls out a single sheet torn from a yellow notepad. It bears a brief, neatly typed message. " ¡®De Pere, Wisconsin,' it says. No date. ¡®To Whom It May Concern' is how it starts. ¡®I regret to inform you that I am no longer able to continue monthly payments on behalf of my nephew, Charles Burnside.' That's it. Instead of writing her signature, she typed her name. ¡®Althea Burnside.' "

Chipper places the yellow notepaper before him and folds his hands together on top of it. "What's the deal here, Charles? There's no Althea Burnside living in De Pere, I know that much. And she can't be your aunt. How old would she be? At least a hundred. More like a hundred and ten. I don't believe it. But these checks have been coming in, regular as clockwork, since your first month here at Maxton's. Some buddy, some old partner of yours, has been looking out for you, my friend. And we want him to continue what he's been doing, don't we?"

"All the same to me, asswipe." This is not precisely truthful. All Burny knows of the monthly payments is that Mr. Munshun organized them long ago, and if these payments are to stop, well . . . what comes to an end with them? He and Mr. Munshun are in this together, aren't they?

"Come on, kiddo," Chipper says. "You can do better than that. I'm looking for a little cooperation here. I'm sure you don't want to go through all the mess and trouble of being taken into custody, getting fingerprinted, plus whatever might happen after that. And me, speaking personally, I wouldn't want to put you through all of that. Because the real rat here is your friend. It sure looks to me like this guy, whoever he is, is forgetting that you probably have something on him from the old days, right? And he's thinking that he doesn't have to make sure that you have all your little comforts anymore. Only that's a mistake. I bet you could straighten the guy out, make him understand the situation."

Burny's mule, his old hoss, has softened up and dwindled like a punctured balloon, which increases his gloom. Since entering this oily crook's office, he has lost something vital: a feeling of purpose, a sense of immunity, an edge. He wants to get back to Black House. Black House will restore him, for Black House is magic, dark magic. The bitterness of his soul went into its making; the darkness of his heart soaked through every beam and joist.

Mr. Munshun helped Burny see the possibilities of Black House, and he contributed many and many a touch of his own devise. There are regions of Black House Charles Burnside has never truly understood, and that frighten him, badly: an underground wing seems to contain his secret career in Chicago, and when he drew near that part of the house, he could hear the pleading whimpers and pungent screams of a hundred doomed boys as well as his own rasps of command, his grunts of ecstasy. For some reason, the proximity of his earlier triumphs made him feel small and hunted, an outcast instead of a lord. Mr. Munshun had helped him remember the scale of his achievement, but Mr. Mun-shun had been of no use with another region of Black House, a small one, at best a room, more accurately a vault, which houses the whole of his childhood, and which he has never, ever visited. The merest hint of that room causes Burny to feel like an infant left outside to freeze to death.

The news of the fictitious Althea Burnside's defection has a lesser version of the same effect. This is intolerable, and he need not, in fact cannot, endure it.

"Yeah," he says. "Let's have some straightening out here. Let's have some understanding."

He rises from the chair, and a sound from what seems to be the center of French Landing speeds him along. It is the wail of police sirens, at least two, maybe three. Burny doesn't know for sure, but he supposes that Jack Sawyer has discovered the body of his friend Henry, only Henry was less than perfectly dead and managed to say that he had recognized his killer's voice. So Jack called the cop shop and here we are.

His next step brings him to the front of the desk. He glances at the papers on the desk and instantly grasps their meaning.

"Cooking the books, hey? You aren't just an asswipe, you're a sneaky little numbers juggler."

In an amazingly small number of seconds, Chipper Maxton's face registers a tremendous range of feeling states. Ire, surprise, confusion, wounded pride, anger, and disbelief chase across the landscape of his features as Burnside reaches back and produces the hedge clippers. In the office, they seem larger and more aggressive than they did in Henry Leyden's living room.

To Chipper, the blades look as long as scythes. And when Chipper tears his eyes away from them and raises them to the old man standing before him, he sees a face more demonic than human. Burnside's eyes gleam red, and his lips curl away from appalling, glistening teeth like shards of broken mirrors.

"Back off, buddy," Chipper squeaks. "The police are practically in the lobby."

"I ain't deaf." Burny rams one blade into Chipper's mouth and closes the clippers on his sweaty cheek. Blood shoots across the desk, and Chipper's eyes expand. Burny yanks on the clippers, and several teeth and a portion of Chipper's tongue fly from the yawning wound. He pushes himself upright and leans forward to grab the blades. Burnside steps back and lops off half of Chipper's right hand.

"Damn, that's sharp," he says.

Then Maxton comes reeling around the side of the desk, spraying blood in all directions and bellowing like a moose. Burny dodges away, dodges back, and punches the blades into the bulge of the blue button-down shirt over Chipper's belly. When he tugs them out, Chipper sags, groans, drops to his knees. Blood pours out of him as if from an overturned jug. He falls forward on his elbows. There is no fun left in Chipper Maxton; he shakes his head and mutters something that is a plea to be left alone. A bloodshot, oxlike eye revolves toward Charles Burnside and silently expresses an oddly impersonal desire for mercy.

"Mother of Mercy," Burny says, "is this the end of Rico?" What a laugh ¡ª he hasn't thought of that movie in years. Chuckling at his own wit, he leans over, positions the blades on either side of Chipper's neck, and nearly succeeds in cutting off his head.

The sirens turn blaring on to Queen Street. Soon policemen will be running up the walk; soon they will burst into the lobby. Burnside drops the clippers onto Chipper's broad back and regrets that he does not have the time to piss on his body or take a dump on his head, but Mr. Munshun is grumbling about dime, dime, dime.

"I ain't stupid, you don't have to tell me," Burny says.

He pads out of the office and through Miss Vilas's cubicle. When he moves out into the lobby, he can see the flashing light bars on the tops of two police cars rolling down the far side of the hedge. They come to a halt not far from where he first put his hand around Tyler Marshall's slender boy-neck. Burny scoots along a little faster. When he reaches the beginning of the Daisy corridor, two baby-faced policemen burst through the opening in the hedge.

Down the hallway, Butch Yerxa is standing up and rubbing his face. He stares at Burnside and says, "What happened?"

"Get out there," Burny says. "Take 'em to the office. Maxton's hurt."

"Hurt?" Incapable of movement, Butch is gaping at Burnside's bloody clothes and dripping hands.


Butch stumbles forward, and the two young policemen charge in through the big glass door, from which Rebecca Vilas's poster has been removed. "The office!" Butch yells, pointing to his right. "The boss is hurt!"

While Yerxa indicates the office door by jabbing his hand at the wall, Charles Burnside scuttles past him. A moment later, he has entered the Daisy wing men's room and is hotfooting it toward one of the stalls.

And what of Jack Sawyer? We already know. That is, we know he fell asleep in a receptive place between the edge of a cornfield and a hill on the western side of Norway Valley. We know that his body grew lighter, less substantial, cloudy. That it grew vague and translucent. We can suppose that before his body attained transparency, Jack entered a certain nourishing dream. And in that dream, we may suppose, a sky of robin's egg blue suggests an infinity of space to the inhabitants of a handsome residential property on Roxbury Drive, Beverly Hills, wherein Jacky is six, six, six, or twelve, twelve, twelve, or both at the same time, and Daddy played cool changes on his horn, horn, horn. ("Darn That Dream," Henry Shake could tell you, is the last song on Daddy Plays the Horn, by Dexter Gordon ¡ª a daddy-o if there ever was.) In that dream, everyone went on a journey and no one went anywhere else, and a traveling boy captured a most marvelous prize, and Lily Cavanaugh Sawyer captured a bumblebee in a glass. Smiling, she carried it to the swinging doors and launched it into the upper air. So the bumblebee traveled far and away to Faraway, and as it journeyed worlds upon worlds on their mysterious courses trembled and swayed, and Jack, too, journeyed on his own mysterious course into the infinite robin's-egg blue and, in the bee's accurate wake, returned to the Territories, where he lay sleeping in a silent field. So in that same darned dream, Jack Sawyer, a person younger than twelve and older than thirty, stunned by both grief and love, is visited in his sleep by a certain woman of tender regard. And she lies down beside him on his bed of sweet grass and takes him in her arms and his grateful body knows the bliss of her touch, her kiss, her deep blessing. What they do, alone in the faraway Territories, is none of our business, but we compound Sophie's blessing with our own and leave them to what is after all, with the gentlest possible urgency, their business, which blesses this boy and this girl, this man and this woman, this dear couple, as nothing else can, certainly not us.

Return comes as it should, with the clean, rich smells of topsoil and corn, and a rooster's alarm-clock crowing from the Gilbertson cousins' farm. A spiderweb shining with dew stitches the loafer on Jack's left foot to a mossy rock. An ant trundling across Jack's right wrist carries a blade of grass bearing in the V of its central fold a bright and trembling drop of newly made water. Feeling as wondrously refreshed as if he, too, were newly created, Jack eases the hardworking ant off his wrist, separates his shoe from the spiderweb, and gets to his feet. Dew sparkles in his hair and his eyebrows. Half a mile back across the field, Henry's meadow curves around Henry's house. Tiger lilies shiver in the cool morning breeze.

Tiger lilies shiver . . .

When he sees the hood of his pickup nosing out from behind the house, everything comes back to him. Mouse, and the word given him by Mouse. Henry's house, Henry's studio, his dying message. By this time, all the police and investigators will have gone, and the house will be empty, echoing with bloodstains. Dale Gilbertson ¡ª and probably Troopers Brown and Black ¡ª will be looking for him. Jack has no interest in the troopers, but he does want to talk to Dale. It is time to let Dale in on some startling facts. What Jack has to say to Dale is going to peel his eyelids back, but we should remember what the Duke told Dean Martin about the whisking of eggs and the making of omelettes. In the words of Lily Cavanaugh, when the Duke spoke up, ever'-dang-body lissened up, and so must Dale Gilbertson, for Jack wants his faithful and resolute company on the journey through Black House.

Walking past the side of Henry's house, Jack puts the tips of his fingers to his lips and brushes them against the wood, transferring the kiss. Henry. For all the worlds, for Tyler Marshall, for Judy, for Sophie, and for you, Henry Leyden.

The cell phone in the cab of the Ram claims to have three saved messages, all from Dale, which he deletes unheard. At home, the answering machine's red light blinks 4-4-4, repeating itself with the ruthless insistence of a hungry infant. Jack pushes PLAYBACK. Four times, an increasingly unhappy Dale Gilbertson begs to know the whereabouts of his friend Jack Sawyer and communicates his great desire to converse with the same gentleman, largely in reference to the murder of his uncle and their friend, Henry, but it wouldn't hurt to talk about the goddamn slaughter at Maxton's, would it? And does the name Charles Burnside ring any bells?

Jack looks at his watch and, thinking that it cannot be correct, glances up at the clock in his kitchen. His watch was right after all. It is 5:42 A.M., and the rooster is still crowing behind Randy and Kent Gilbert-son's barn. Tiredness suddenly washes through him, heavier than gravity. Someone is undoubtedly manning the telephone on Sumner Street, but Dale is just as certainly asleep in his bed, and Jack wishes to speak only to Dale. He yawns hugely, like a cat. The newspaper hasn't even been delivered yet!

He removes his jacket and tosses it onto a chair, then yawns again, even more widely than before. Maybe that cornfield was not so comfortable after all: Jack's neck feels pinched, and his back aches. He pulls himself up the staircase, shucks his clothes onto a love seat in his bedroom, and flops into bed. On the wall above the love seat hangs his sunny little Fairfield Porter painting, and Jack remembers how Dale responded to it, the night they uncrated and put up all the paintings. He had loved that picture the moment he saw it ¡ª it had probably been news to Dale that he could find such satisfaction in a painting. All right,

Jack thinks, if we manage to get out of Black House alive, I'll give it to him. And I'll make him take it: I'll threaten to chop it up and burn it in the wood-stove if he doesn't. I'll tell him I'll give it to Wendell Green!

His eyes are already closing; he sinks into the bedclothes and disappears, although this time not literally, from our world. He dreams.

He walks down a tricky, descending forest path toward a burning building. Beasts and monsters writhe and bellow on both sides, mostly unseen but now and then flicking out a gnarled hand, a spiky tail, a black, skeletal wing. These he severs with a heavy sword. His arm aches, and his entire body feels weary and sore. Somewhere he is bleeding, but he cannot see or feel the wound, merely the slow movement of blood running down the backs of his legs. The people who were with him at the start of his journey are all dead, and he is ¡ª he may be ¡ª dying. He wishes he were not so alone, for he is terrified.

The burning building grows taller and taller as he approaches. Screams and cries come from it, and around it lies a grotesque perimeter of dead, blackened trees and smoking ashes. This perimeter widens with every second, as if the building is devouring all of nature, one foot at a time. Everything is lost, and the burning building and the soulless creature who is both its master and its prisoner will triumph, blasted world without end, amen. Din-tah, the great furnace, eating all in its path.

The trees on his right side bend and contort their complaining branches, and a great stirring takes place in the dark, sharply pointed leaves. Groaning, the huge trunks bow, and the branches twine like snakes about one another, bringing into being a solid wall of gray, pointed leaves. From that wall emerges, with terrible slowness, the impression of a gaunt, bony face. Five feet tall from crown to chin, the face bulges out against the layer of leaves, weaving from side to side in search of Jack.

It is everything that has ever terrified him, injured him, wished him ill, either in this world or the Territories. The huge face vaguely resembles a human monster named Elroy who once tried to rape Jack in a wretched bar called the Oatley Tap, then it suggests Morgan of Orris, then Sunlight Gardener, then Charles Burnside, but as it continues its blind seeking from side to side, it suggests all of these malign faces layered on top of one another and melting into one. Utter fear turns Jack to stone.

The face bulging out of the massed leaves searches the downward path, then swings back and ceases its constant, flickering movement from side to side. It is pointed directly at him. The blind eyes see him, the nose without nostrils smells him. A quiver of pleasure runs through the leaves, and the face looms forward, getting larger and larger. Unable to move, Jack looks back over his shoulder to see a putrefying man prop himself up in a narrow bed. The man opens his mouth and shouts, "D'YAMBA!"

Heart thrashing in his chest, a shout dying before it leaves his throat, Jack vaults from his bed and lands on his feet before he quite realizes that he has awakened from a dream. His entire body seems to be trembling. Sweat runs down his forehead and dampens his chest. Gradually, the trembling ceases as he takes in what is really around him: not a giant face looming from an ugly wall of leaves but the familiar confines of his bedroom. Hanging on the wall opposite is a painting he intends to give to Dale Gilbertson. He wipes his face, he calms down. He needs a shower. His watch tells him that it is now 9:47 A.M. He has slept four hours, and it is time to get organized.

Forty-five minutes later, cleaned up, dressed, and fed, Jack calls the police station and asks to speak to Chief Gilbertson. At 11:25, he and a dubious, newly educated Dale ¡ª a Dale who badly wants to see some evidence of his friend's crazy tale ¡ª leave the chief's car parked beneath the single tree in the Sand Bar's lot and walk across the hot asphalt past two leaning Harleys and toward the rear entrance.

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