The Dead at Hill’s Pond by William de Rham
Editor’s Note: Here is a thriller and mystery wrapped tight. Conscience is the devil in a criminal mind. Dead men tell no tales, but sometimes they don’t need to.
The Dead at Hill’s Pond
by William de Rham
She flew through the house one last time, checking everything was ready: beds made; bathrooms cleaned; bar stocked—and golly, wouldn’t she like one right now, even though she allowed herself only the occasional drink and never one before six—and ice and water, plenty of ice and water.
Dashing through the living room, she inspected her 61 year-old carcass in the mirror. Hair? Make-up? Clothes? Perfect.
In the kitchen, where tea was laid, she rolled a cigarette, lit it, and settled to wait, as she’d been doing for years. She was patient. She knew his weakness. She would wait.
Top down, the ruby Boxter raced through autumn woods an hour outside Boston.
In the passenger seat, Julie took no notice of the bright yellows and oranges flashing by, or of the low stone walls built before the Revolution. Her eyes cared only for Todd. Every time she saw him, for just the first second, his dark-haired, broad-shouldered youth stopped her breath.
He’s going all the way, she thought for the thousandth time. He’s got all the tools: talent, ambition, charm, that on-screen magnetism any actor would kill for, plus the kind of stubbornness Hollywood demanded. First, she’d make him a star. Then they’d start their own production company. Give them ten years and they’d run the industry.
“God! I LOVE this!” Todd shouted to a sun hanging high in a cornflower sky.
“It’s a Porsche, baby! What’s not to love?” Over the engine’s roar and rush of wind, she laughed.
“Not the car! YOU! You and every minute I’m with you.”
His voice was raspy yet sweet, like honey over gravel, with just a hint of a lilt left from his Louisiana origins. As always, it warmed her stomach. But then her brows knit. She was gambling so much. He was so young, so full of—
Tossing her head, she let the wind comb her long, auburn hair. She felt his eyes on her and luxuriated in all the black she wore: the cashmere turtleneck and velvet jacket to accentuate her sharp features and porcelain skin; the tight cords tucked into Hermès riding boots to show off the long, strong legs he loved.
The speedster’s tires thudded off the road and then back on as he jerked the wheel.
“What?” He laughed as he straightened them out.
“FUCKIN’ watch the road, will you! I didn’t spend my whole bonus on this baby to have you wrap us around a tree.”
“Relax. I know what I’m doing.”
“Since when? Still can’t believe I let you talk me into driving her all the way to LA. Should’ve moved her with the rest of our stuff.”
“Your stuff, you mean.”
The bulge at his jaw said she’d hurt him. She slipped her lightly freckled hand over the center console and stroked his thigh.
“My stuff’s your stuff, baby, you know that. Sorry, don’t mean to be a bitch. Sinuses are killing me, that’s all,” she fibbed.
“There’s a blanket in the trunk. We could hit the woods—get naked—clear those sinuses right up.”
She felt her insides loosen, but withdrew her hand to look at her Rolex.
“Uh, uh, babe, it’s ten to three. She said be there by three.”
“So, we’ll be late.”
“Fine. Your old mentor. You explain.”
“On second thought…” The Porsche leapt forward.
They came to Hillsborough, the village of his teens; still just the post office, pharmacy, and Andy’s Eat, Gas & Go along a two-lane Main Street shaded by oak and maple.
“You’re running on empty. Get gas,” she ordered.
“Pay that gouger Andy’s prices?” he asked, thinking of all the times he’d been refused credit for as little as a bag of chips. “We got enough.”
He drove to the end of Main, where the hanging yellow light still blinked and Hill’s Pond sparkled blue. Pausing at the light, he pointed.
Across an expanse of emerald playing fields, steep-roofed, red-brick buildings huddled around a gray-stone chapel resembling a miniature Westminster. Tweedy spectators cheered on teens in bright jerseys as zebra-shirted referees blasted their whistles in the cool October air.
“How very bucolic,” Julie drawled.
“You know what they say about appearances,” he sing-songed, turning for the school.
“That why you never talk about it?”
“No,” he laughed. “Wasn’t that bad—just not very…interesting.”
“It’s boarding school. It’s meant to be safe. Safe’s not interesting.”
“I should be grateful, since it’s where I found my talent. Or she did.”
“Good of you to come see your old teacher on our way.”
“Well…I wanted you to meet. She’s the closest thing I have left to a…if it hadn’t been for her, I’d never have become an actor…which means I’d never have met you—And you have been bugging me about seeing this place—Okay! Quick tour. Main building: admin, classrooms, dorms—plus a dining hall serving the world’s most awful food. Library’s there. Field house there: weight room, locker room, swimming pool, plus the basketball court with proscenium stage to double as a theater.”
“Scene of your misspent youth.”
“Hope not. Otherwise, you and the William Morris Agency won’t make a dime off me.”
“I’d forgotten it’s Halloween,” she murmured as they passed small houses sporting all manner of Jack-o’-lanterns, ghosts, ghouls, and scarecrows. Early trick-or-treaters were out.
“Oh look! What a cute little witch!” She laughed and waved at a pointy-hatted toddler trailing a broom and two parents.
“Stupidest fuckin’ night of the year,” he growled.
“Sorry. Wasn’t thinking.”
“All this is faculty housing,” he continued. “Used to call it ‘the gauntlet.’ It’s what you had to get past to party late-night down at the pond. There’s forest between here and there that blocks the noise. But you still had to sneak past here to get there.”
“Ooh, real James Bond stuff!”
“Don’t know. Never went.”
“How come? Mr. Goody-goody?”
Shrugging, he drove through woods and onto a low earth-and-stone causeway fording the pond. As always, his stomach clenched.
“You call this a pond?” she marveled. “It’s as big as the reservoir in Central Park.”
“Actually, it’s a kettle hole, made by a glacier. Massachusetts has a couple, like Walden Pond. This is about the same size: a mile and a half around and over a hundred feet deep in places.”
“Look at you! Mr. Naturalist. What else do you know? Maybe I’ll put you up for the park ranger in that remake of ‘Gentle Ben’ I hear they’re planning,” she teased.
“I know a kid drowned in here,” he said to shut her up.
“Oh my God!”
“And I know there’s idiots who come here late at night with Ouija boards trying to raise his spirit.”
“That’s just bizarre.”
“One said it dragged her into the water and tried to drown her. School expelled her the next day; after she admitted to the nurse she’d been tripping on acid.”
“Smart. Who was the kid?”
“Who got expelled?”
“Just a guy. Hey, it’s 2:59,” he said, tapping the dashboard clock and accelerating.
Twenty yards off the causeway, they pulled up to a white cottage that hadn’t been painted in years. Green moss crept from its stone foundation up the wood siding. A screened porch hung off one side.
“Charming,” she mocked. “Belvedere certainly treats her well.”
“This is hers. Bought it when she moved here, with the pittance her husband left.”
“Can’t wait to see inside. Just tell me there’s a big, comfy bed.”
“There is, but not for us. We’re not married and she’s a stickler. You’ll get Jacky’s—the spare bedroom upstairs. I’ll get the couch in the downstairs den.”
“You gotta be kid—’
With a screech of rusty hinges, a screen door flew open and a tall woman with chopped, mannish, gray hair loomed. She wore a white Russian folk shirt—belted at the waist and boasting she had no chest—over flowing, wide-legged, black cotton pants smeared with powdery fingerprints. Long, yellowed toe nails poked from Birkenstocks. She surveyed them with hands braced on hips, a roll-your-own smoldering between orange fingers.
“Uh oh,” he muttered. “Stanislavski mode.”
“Late!” the woman barked.
“Not!” Julie fired back. “My watch says exactly three. It’s never wrong.”
The woman arched an eyebrow and peered down her nose. “You must be Julie.”
“Juliette, actually. You must be Margaret.”
As the women stared each other down, Todd studied his mentor. He hadn’t seen her since graduation five years ago. She’d grown so thin. The line from jaw to chin and the tendons at the backs of her hands stood out starkly. Purple smudges shadowed her eyes and her once pearl-like skin was as gray as the ash on her cigarette. And what the hell had she done to her hair? Where was the trademark Gibson Girl that had helped land her so many roles before she gave up the theater to marry?
“Come inside, then, before the tea gets cold and flies find the sandwiches,” Margaret ordered. “Don’t bother with the bags, girl. He’ll get them. And you, Toddy-boy, she’s upstairs in the guest room. You’re—”
“In the den. I know—”
The screen door clapped as Margaret vanished inside.
“Girl? Who’s she think she’s talking to?”
“You’re asking the bellboy?”
He led her in, past a staircase lined with Broadway posters, where he set her bag. His went into the den where the scripts and theater books he’d spent four years studying overloaded oak shelving. The living room was all art deco: framed Erté prints, overstuffed furniture, and a bar so laden with dusty bottles there was no place to sit and drink. His nose wrinkled at the musty, tarry odor. More dust floated in the bands of late afternoon sun seeping through the windows overlooking the pond.
How much time had he spent rehearsing here? Broadway numbers at the baby grand; scenes and monologues in the middle of the room with the furniture pushed back; days perfecting his audition for Juilliard. So old and dowdy compared to the bright temple his memory had constructed.
He walked Julie into a kitchen darkened by pulled shades and cooking smoke. A tarnished silver tea service sat on the table amidst plates of sandwiches and cookies and an overflowing ash tray.
“Sit,” Margaret ordered, hefting the tea pot. Julie massaged the sinus spots between her nose and cheeks; then sneezed a mouse-like “t’choo;” and then another, and another.
“My, such small sneezes from such a tall drink of water,” Margaret said.
“Okay, babe?” Todd asked.
“Fine. Headache’s a little worse.”
“Have an apple from the bowl,” Margaret said. “They’re from the farmer down the road. Good for headaches. Colds too, if you’re getting one.”
“What’s all that?” Todd asked, pointing to the glass-and-wood cabinets containing a jumble of apothecary jars, all filled and labeled. “Where’s all your good china and—?”
“Herbs…barks…fungi…other things I need for my…potions.”
“My new hobby.”
“Since when do you have time for hobbies?” he scoffed.
“Since this summer, when Belvedere fired me.”
“No!” Todd’s jaw dropped.
“Yes! John Jasper retired as headmaster and there went my protection. Bastards waited ‘til August to do it. Well, I never was popular. Maybe if I’d coached field hockey. Theater doesn’t hold a candle to sports here. And there was the whole Jacky thing. People never stopped looking at me like I had a third eye.”
“My, how very dramatic,” Julie murmured.
“Well I am a teacher of theater, and an actress,” Margaret bristled. “What else should I be?”
Before she could answer, Margaret shoved a plate under her nose.
“Have a sandwich. That’ll help your head.”
“What are they?” She grimaced at the mound of crust-less, white triangles filled with something resembling tan shoe polish.
“Don’t you know? Todd’s favorite: peanut butter and honey, also from the farmer. Keeps his own bees.”
“No, thanks,” Julie said, watching Todd pop one into his mouth. “Need to watch my weight.”
“I can see that,” Margaret agreed. “But then, at your age, what woman doesn’t?”
In the silence, Todd swallowed and reached for his tea.
“Here, Todd, try some honey in that.” Margaret spooned two dollops. “The bees feed off the spring blossoms and summer wildflowers. It goes well with the bergamot in the Earl Grey, don’t you think?”
As Todd nodded, Margaret turned to Julie. “So, off to California. What have you planned for our boy? How will you use his fine talent in the land of the lotus-eaters? Anything in place?”
“Not yet. Once I’m settled, we’ll start him auditioning for commercials and soaps.”
“Commercials and soaps? What about theater?”
“Too little money,” Julie dismissed with a wave. “And pickings are slim.”
“But what about the regionals?” Margaret insisted. “Arena Stage, the Guthrie, A.C.T? Where he can do the great work—”
“I know what’s best for my client.”
“Yes? And is that ethical, do you think? Being Todd’s agent while you’re also his … what? … sweetheart?
“Oh? I didn’t see a ring. Well, I suppose congratulations are in order…But Todd, is that wise? What if things don’t work out between you? What will you do while she continues her … brilliant career? Wait tables? Pump gas? Obviously, that won’t be a problem if you have some real credits to your name—if you’ve proved to everyone you can act.”
“The Juilliard degree already proves that,” Julie lectured. “Now, he needs exposure. The industry must see how the camera loves him.”
“The industry needs to see what a great artist he could someday be,” Margaret insisted.
“The industry cares about one thing: profits! They’ll call him ‘great’ when he’s sold enough movie tickets and DVDs, something you’d know if you still were in the business instead of dying on the vine in this…this backwater!”
“Julie!” Todd exclaimed.
“Oh, damn this head!” she cried, squeezing her temples. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I don’t know what’s wrong.”
“Never mind,” Margaret said, pleased by Julie’s outburst. “I’ve heard worse—much! What’s important is we both want what’s best for Todd. A little spirited disagreement never hurt.”
“Is there any Tylenol?” Julie begged.
“Nope, never use ‘em. But I could fix you a natural remedy.” She pointed to her cabinets. “I’m still learning, I’ll admit.
But, I’ve had my successes. Just let me get my book.”
Julie gave Todd a pleading look.
“It’s okay,” he said quickly. “We’ll drive to the pharmacy.”
“Go all that way? You just got here.”
“It’s not far—”
“Or I know—we could try a poppet!” Margaret’s eyes lit. “I’m new to that too, but I made it work for the farmer. That way, she wouldn’t have to take anything or worry it’ll make her sick, which is why she’s wearing that fraidy-cat look, I bet.”
“I’m not wearing—”
“No, a poppet’s just the ticket. The power of suggestion’s a powerful thing.”
“You mean a doll,” Todd said flatly.
“No,” she scoffed.
“After what happened?” His face was bright red
“Nonsense. You’re too sensitive, Todd. Haven’t I always said? Wonderful for acting, of course. But not life. Anyway, voodoo’s got nothing to do with this. This is…healing. I fill my poppets with all kinds of good things, especially positive-ness. I’ve been making them from fabric. But I found something in the woods that might work even better, especially since we’re curing a headache. Come see.”
She led the couple onto the porch where a jungle of plants hung from the ceiling and flower pots crowded trestle tables.
“Smells fine, doesn’t it?” she said with relish.
“This can’t be doing my sinuses any good,” Julie said, rubbing her eyes.
“Here we are.” She brought a shoebox down from a shelf. “Might seem a tad … mmm, but with some work, it should do nicely.”
She removed the lid.
A plastic baby doll lay inside: naked, plump, bald, with gray-tinged holes smashed through its head.
“Jesus, Margaret!” Todd exclaimed. “Who the hell did that?”
“No idea. I told you, I found it in the woods. But what an actor’s exercise! To imagine who did this, and why! Here, hold it Todd. Use your empathy. Tell us what you see.”
“Something really creepy,” he said, backing away. “Put it away, Margaret. We’ll go to the drugstore—”
“And let it go to waste?” Margaret’s eyes flashed as she grabbed scissors and moved amongst her plants, clipping and muttering as she went: “Peppermint, eucalyptus, chamomile, rose petals. And last, but never least,” she said, snipping deftly, “fair Juliette’s hair.”
“Hey!” he cried.
“Oh, relax. I didn’t take much. Just enough to—”
“Stop it, Margaret! You know how I feel about this!”
“This juju crap—”
“It’s not juju!”
“It’s what got my parents killed!”
“That bugaboo again? You need to go back and re-read the State Department’s report. Your parents died of pneumonic plague, which happens in the Congo. It’s awful, but it happens.”
“Really? You want to explain how a husband and wife running the visa section in Kinshasa—experienced Foreign Service officers who’d lived in all sorts of Third World hells, including Haiti and Bangladesh, who took all the precautions, who rarely left the embassy—contracted plague and died in three days? How no one else in that embassy had even a cough, including me?”
“I can. It was that crazy old albino woman with the red hair. I was there that day, helping Dad hand out forms to a room full of applicants. I saw the fit she threw when Mom said she couldn’t have a visa. And when Dad threatened to have one of the Marine guards remove her? She went snake-still, staring and mumbling I-don’t-know-what, then threw a powder in the air and pointed at Mom and Dad. Everybody freaked. The whole room cleared out. Three days later? Both were dead. The story that went around was she’d cursed them with ‘the breathing sickness.’”
“Ignorant superstition, which this isn’t. This is just harnessing nature, for good. Anyway, what’s the harm? If it works, great: you’re saved a trip. If not,” she said, wrenching off the doll’s head, “the pharmacy’s open ‘til seven.”
Nimble fingers stuffed hair and leaves down the doll’s throat.
“Look,” Julie said, “I appreciate…but really, I need to get—Todd, could we just go—”
“But I’m almost finished,” Margaret protested.
Rooted in place, they watched her plug the ugly holes with cotton, wind flesh-colored tape around the head, and then remarry it to the doll’s body with a snap.
“There. Now all we have—”
“Todd,” Julie whined softly, hanging heavily on his arm, “this really hurts.”
“We have to go,” he insisted.”
“Fine!” Margaret snapped.
From experience, Todd knew she was just about to blow.
But Margaret just … deflated. Her shoulders slumped. Her eyes dulled and her jaw slackened as she repeated in a low and tired voice: “Fine;” then “Do as you will.”
“Back before you know it,” Todd reassured.
“Whatever. Supper’s seven…”
“Way before then,” Todd soothed.
Quickly, he shepherded Julie into the Porsche, then stomped on the gas to take off down the road.
“What are you doing?” she cried. “Town’s the other way.”
“This way’s faster.”
“God this hurts.”
“Do you need the ER?”
The posted speed limit was 25. He took the curve at 50.
“Just get me the pills, Todd. Just get me—”
He reached for her hand, but it had already flown to her head.
“Oh my God,” she gasped.
“The pain, it’s…gone.”
His foot eased off the gas.
“You sure?” He looked at her doubtfully.
“The pain, the throbbing, the pressure: they’re all gone.”
He pulled over in front of an old, wooden church: white, steepled, surrounded by headstones, and separated from the road by a low stone wall. Some twenty yards away, a stocky figure in a duffle coat and calf-high, lace-up L.L. Bean boots stood at a grave, his back to them. Clouds now hid the sun and had turned the sky a pearly white. Still, all the reds and golds and greens of autumn seemed to Todd so terrifically bright.
You’re sure you’re alright?” he asked.
“Still want the pills?”
“I don’t think I need them.”
“Maybe just to be safe?”
“No, I’m okay. Really, I’m fine.”
“Very fine, I’d say, Toddy-old-boy.”
“What?” Julie asked.
“Did you just call me ‘old boy’?”
“No,” she said, laughing. “Old is the last thing I’d call you.”
He looked over to the duffle-coated figure still with his back to them and fleetingly wondered if he was hot.
“Todd? What is it?”
“Nothing, just my imagination. Okay…so…where now? Back to Margaret’s?”
“GOD, NO! After that performance? Let’s just get out of here. Go find a good hotel. I mean, what a crone!”
Thunder muttered in the distance.
“Don’t be that way,” he said. “She’s just trying to help.”
“Right, like calling me old, fat, and unethical is helpful.”
“She never said that.”
“No? It’s certainly what she meant.”
“Yes indeed, Toddy-boy. Exactly what she meant!”
His head swiveled. The boy now leaned against the headstone with a nonchalance Todd found infuriating. He couldn’t see the boy’s face—he was too far away—only that he seemed to be waggling his fingers in a taunting wave.
“How do you know?” he snapped at Julie, wondering how the boy could overhear from so far away. “You just met her. You know nothing about what she means or who she is or what she’s been through.”
“I know enough to see she’s bitter and mean—”
“She’s not mean—”
“Oh yes, she is. You know she is!”
“Shut up, you!” he mumbled.
“Did you just tell me to—?”
“Try losing your only son, then tell me how you feel.”
“Todd, what the hell are you talking about?”
“The reason she came here in the first place. Jacky. Her only son. He’s the kid who drowned.”
“WHAT? Oh God, that’s awful!”
“Awful? It sucked donkeys’ dicks, as we used to say. Remember, Toddy-boy?”
“Did you know him?”
“Of course I knew him.” Todd snapped. “He was my roommate.”
“Oh, Todd, noooo … What happened?”
“Nobody knows, really. Just disappeared from school one weekend. Everyone thought he’d run away back to New York. Which was all he ever talked about: New York and what a big shot investor his Dad had been—”
“Yeah, until he lost everyone’s dough and blew his brains out the window onto Fifth Avenue.”
“I said, shut—”
“Todd, what is the matter with you?”
“Nothing! Just bad memories … bad times. We both came here in the ninth grade, the fall after his Dad committed suicide and my parents were killed. We were both scholarship kids, and they put us together; I guess because of what we had in common. I came because my granddad was an alum and he was able to wangle some funding. Jackie came because headmaster Jasper was his dad’s best friend at Yale. Bill Fuller was his name, an old-line WASP with enough family money to call himself a ‘private investor.’ Margaret gave acting up for him; went to live in his Fifth Avenue duplex; had his baby; lived the good life for fifteen years until Fuller lost everything in the market, both for himself and his family, and shot himself. When Jasper heard Margaret and Jackie had been left with practically nothing, he hired her to teach theater and gave Jackie a full boarding scholarship.”
“Todd, slow down. You’re talking so fast I can barely keep up.”
“Sorry.” He gulped, trying to slow. But the words wanted to rush and everything was so bright and his heart pounded so fast.
Lightning flashed, turning everything blue-white and making the backs of his eyeballs ache.
“Hey, you hot? I’m burning up.”
“No,” she said, studying him closely. “Freezing, actually. Feels like it’s dropped ten degrees. Todd? What’s the matter?”
“Dunno. Feel so strange. Like I’m rushing and can’t stop. Geez, look at that wind.”
Transfixed, he stared at the waving tree tops. More thunder pealed and the first drops of rain hit. Julie punched a button and the Porsche’s top rose. Just as it latched into place, thunder and lightning exploded together, bone-jarring and phosphorous-bright. Wind-driven leaves and rain slapped the windows.
“Nick of time,” she said, but got no answer.
She looked over. Todd had his face buried in his arms atop the steering wheel.
“Everything’s so bright and loud.” His voice quavered.
“It’s okay. You’re safe. Just talk to me. Take your mind off it. Tell me about your friend.”
“How quickly they forget.”
“Ohhh…Jacky. He hated it here. Everyone made fun of him because he was fat and slow in class and worse at sports; and because he wouldn’t stop bragging about his big-deal life in Manhattan. Despised Margaret for making him come here. ‘My cunt mother,’ that’s what he used to say. But he was good to me. We’d go for burgers at Andy’s or sneak over to the mall for a movie and he’d spot me if I didn’t have money, which lots of times I didn’t.”
“Moochy-mooch Moochy the Moocher!”
Todd peered through the streaming window, but saw no one.
“So what happened?”
“Dunno…came back to our room after dinner one Saturday and he’d gone. I thought he went home. Margaret let him, some weekends. But when Sunday night curfew came and he still wasn’t back, they called Margaret who was just back from skiing. No Jacky. No sign he’d been there. They searched and searched: local police, state police, even the NYPD, in case he’d gone there. All that time, he was in the lake.”
Lightning stabbed the cemetery ground, briefly illuminating someone sitting on the wall.
“Ah, God—” Todd clutched his collar.
“Breathe, Todd. You’re okay. Just talk to me. How’d he get there?”
“How should I know? Fell through weak ice trying to go home? It was freezing that night, so bad my ears felt like glass about to shatter. But there’d been a warm spell. They thought it melted a lot of ice that never had time to re-freeze.”
“Think he did it on purpose?”
A shadow passed his window.
NO! Never! Why would you even think that?”
“I don’t. It’s just you said his father killed himself. And there he is: unpopular, doing badly—”
Careful here, Toddy-boy, don’t want her thinking this was somehow your fault—that you could have prevented—”
“NO! I’d have known and done something. I never believed the police. That was so unfair to Margaret.”
More lightning stabbed. He looked at her in its eerie afterglow. Her face seemed cold, drained of blood, made of stone. The wind blew. The Porsche rocked.
“Shit!” she swore. “We should get outa here before a tree comes down on us. And you’re in no shape to drive.” She opened her door. “Switch.”
“NO! HE’LL GET—” he yelled. But it was too late. Seconds later, she opened his door and pulled him out. Slimy leaves smacked his face and he ducked. A nasty, taunting laugh brought his head up.
Jacky sat on the stone wall, sopping now, his skin blue, his lips bluer, his hair, duffle and boots mud-streaked. He laughed again, and Todd dove into the passenger seat, slamming the door behind him.
“Easy, Todd! Fuckin’ A!”
“Go, go, go, go, go, GO!
She turned the key. The motor roared. And quit.
She twisted the key, but got only the sludgy grind of a dying engine. Amidst his frantic urgings, she twisted and twisted until all she got was a click.
“Shit!” she hissed, searching the gauges. “No fucking gas! Didn’t I say stop?” Her look was accusing.
“Keep it together, Toddy-boy. Otherwise, she’ll know for sure you’re a loser.”
“Am not,” he whispered, but didn’t believe it.
Rain still poured. But down the road, sunlight broke through the clouds. His head seemed to clear, like someone flipped a switch. He wiped fog from his window to check the stone wall. Deserted.
“TODD! Are you fuckin’ listening to me?”
“Sorry? That’s all you can say? Sorry? SHIT! Now what the FUCK do we do?”
“Look. It’s clearing. The sun’s coming out. We’ll walk back to Margaret’s. It’s only a little—”
“And leave this here to get stripped?”
“It’s Hillsboro. No one¬’s¬—”
“Like we had plenty of gas.”
“Okay, you stay. I’ll walk to town, get gas—”
“Right!” she said, shoving open her door. “Like you’re in any fuckin’ condition!” Leaping out, she slammed it. He scrambled after her. Everything was still so loud and bright. His heart galloped. Every breath hurt.
“Come on, Julie! Don’t be like that. I’m okay,” he lied.
“Great!” she threw back over her shoulder, walking away.
The clouds closed up. As the sun disappeared, more rain came.
“Julie, c’mon. I’m sorry. Okay? I can fix this.”
Without turning, she dismissed him with a wave.
He’d never seen her so angry.
“You’re losing her, Toddy-boy!”
He raced after her, panicked.
Just as he reached her, she staggered and fell to her knees in a large, muddy puddle.
“Oh God, it’s my head again,” she moaned. “Worse than before. Like someone’s—”
Her hand flew to her eye and she screamed.
“Jesus, it’s like I’m being stabbed!” She fell onto her palms. “Now it’s the other! What is this? What’s happening to me? Nothing’s ever hurt this bad!” She rocked back on her knees and covered her face with filthy hands.
Todd knelt beside her. Gently, he tried pulling them away.
“Don’t,” she said. “What if I can’t see?”
“Shhhhhh,” he soothed.
She let him uncover her eyes. The surrounding skin was filthy from her hands, but otherwise the whites were clear and the irises green as ever.
“Can you see?”
“Yeah. Still hurts. Ah, shit! There it goes again.” She covered the eye.
“Can you stand?”
“Let’s get you back to Margaret’s, then see about a doctor.”
Minutes later, they fell through the cottage door soaked and shivering.
“Good lord, what’s happened?” Margaret cried.
“Julie’s had some kind of attack.”
“It’s better now,” Julie said, shaking her head emphatically. “Just sinus…I’ll be fine.”
“Well, first thing,” Margaret said, leading them to the living room bar, “let’s get a good belt into you both; stoke your furnaces. Then upstairs for hot baths. Julie you’ll have mine. Todd’ll take Jacky’s shower.”
She poured two brandies. Todd downed his and held out his glass.
“Have mine,” Julie said. “Wait, you still have to get to town.”
“I thought you’d been,” Margaret said.
“Got sidetracked,” he said, taking a swallow of Julie’s and setting the rest on the bar. “I’ll grab that shower and go.”
Minutes later, pounding, steaming water loosened the muscles of his neck and back. The brandy glowed in his stomach. The hyper feeling was gone, replaced by a warm sort of peace. He knew he should hurry. But really, all he wanted was to lie down. The white tub bottom invited. He knelt. The water felt so good. He lay down and curled. The water felt soooo good.
Then he felt nothing at all.
Consciousness came to him slowly and with it, cold.
He forced his eyes open, but could see nothing, not even a hint of light.
Something was cinched around his neck, like a necktie too tight. Every breath coated his face with a warm and sour fug. A hood?
He knew he was naked—frigid air stung his skin and made his nipples ache—and somehow bound to a chair. He wanted to rip off the hood. His arms wouldn’t budge. Something pinched and pulled at his wrists. Tape? Ankles too. Cold, slick earth chilled his feet. Revolting.
He heard footsteps; then a clank.
“Who’s there?” It came out a croak. His throat was so dry.
A freezing torrent slammed into him, filling the hood, pelting his shoulders and chest with what felt like stones. He wretched up the water burning his lungs and gasped.
Hot, harsh words drilled his ear: “Now, you fucking tell me what happened to my son!”
The righteous hate in Margaret’s voice almost emptied his bladder.
“Julie?” he begged, playing for time.
“She’s around … somewhere. She’s fine. And she’ll stay that way if you tell me what really happened.”
“You already know!” he cried. “You brought Jacky here and he hated it and you didn’t care. He wanted to come home—just for a weekend—but you had to ski. He was miserable, just like the police said, and he went out and chopped a hole in the ice and—”
“BULLSHIT! I NEVER BELIEVED THAT!”
“You know it’s true!”
Another clank, another swirl, another frigid wave. Ice settled between his thighs and against his scrotum. Groaning, squirming, he dug his toes into the mud, trying to get away.
“Want some more?” she barked.
“Won’t make me say different,” he rasped through chattering teeth, bracing himself.
But the water never came. Instead, a voice whispered in his ear: “Maybe not. But I bet this will.”
He felt a quick, sharp tug at his neck—a pinching—and for a second knew she’d slit his throat. Panic stopped his breath. But he felt no pain, no hot blood; only the hood ripping away.
There was little light—just a single bulb glowing weakly amidst a rat’s nest of wire and pipe hanging from the ceiling. A furnace and oil tank hulked. An old, claw-foot tub, filled with water and ice, stretched before him.
Clothesline bound Julie, naked, tight to a steel pole supporting the ceiling. Silver tape gagged her. The cold had turned her skin blue-white. She looked at him with terrified eyes.
“Tell me what happened to Jacky.”
“Not the truth.”
“You’re calling a real shit storm down on yourself. She’s one of the biggest agents in the business. She knows everyone.”
“Who cares? All I care about is the truth. It’s all I ever cared about. Now TELL me.”
“I’ve told you—”
“BULLSHIT!” Lightning-fast, she dragged the bucket through the tub and doused Julie. The silver tape only muffled her shriek.
“Stop it, Margaret! She didn’t do anything. If you have to hurt somebody—”
“So you did do something.”
“You said she didn’t do anything; implying you did.
Another bucket. Another shriek. Julie’s knees buckled. Shivers racked her body.
“Keep going, Margaret. It won’t change my story. Nothing can, because it’s the truth. I had nothing to do with Jacky’s death. You’re the only one to blame. He died because you weren’t there.”
“SHIT!” Margaret raged, hurling the bucket against a wall. She stood, panting, fists clenched. Slowly, she dropped them and straightened, filled with new determination. Striding, she disappeared behind him and then was at his side holding the doll from earlier.
“Remember this? It’s what I used to give Miss Julie her headache, and cure it, and give her the eye trouble that brought you back here. After Louisiana? Haiti? What happened in the Congo to your parents? I should think you’d know exactly the damage this can do in the right hands. Mine are a little more experienced than I let on. Let’s see what happens if I put this needle in dolly’s eye—”
As Julie screamed, her head slammed against the pole and her body went rigid. When Margaret withdrew the pin, she collapsed against the ropes, head lolling.
“See how easy that was, Todd?”
“For the love of God, Margaret!”
She jabbed the needle into the other eye. Again, Julie screamed and went rigid.
“TELL ME WHAT YOU DID TO JACKY!”
“NOTHING! I SWEAR!”
“You know,” Margaret said, reaching into her pocket and taking out a Swiss Army knife, “I don’t think dolly really needs that left eye. What would happen if I levered it out? Would Julie lose just her sight? Or would the whole eye go? Let’s learn together.”
The blade plunged. Julie’s head whipped back. The chords of her neck stood out as she screamed into her gag.
“Last chance, Todd.”
“I told you—”
Her hand twisted. The doll’s eye flew. Julie screamed again as her left eye bloomed. Then she slumped against the ropes.
“WHAT DID YOU DO?” Todd cried.
Julie’s eye hung down her cheek from the rope of nerves connecting it to her brain. Blood pattered onto the dirt floor.
“Tell me what happened, or I start on the heart.” She held the knifepoint to the doll’s chest.
“STOP! OKAY? Just stop and I’ll tell you.”
“Go on.” Margaret’s hands dropped to her sides.
“Everything was just as I said. Jacky was pissed at you for leaving and not letting him come home and for taking him out of New York and making him to go to Belvedere where he just didn’t fit.”
The knife and doll sped for each other.
“BUT HE DIDN’T KILL HIMSELF AND HE WASN’T ALONE! I WAS WITH HIM!”
Knife and doll froze, inches apart.
“I said we should go party down at the beach, to cheer him up. We snuck down, but it was so cold, no one was there. I asked if you had anything, and if he had his key. He did, so we crossed the causeway, let ourselves in, and drank a couple bottles of wine he said was his Dad’s that you’d never miss. Got pretty wasted. Started back around three. Snow’s blowing. Wind’s fierce. He said it’d be quicker crossing the ice. We were both so dumb and drunk, we never stopped to think if it was safe.
“We got out there, and suddenly, everything’s spinning, and I knew I was going to throw up. I told him go ahead. When I could finally stand, I looked for Jacky and saw him half-way across. Then he just vanished. One second, he’s there; the next he’s gone.
“Wind was blowing so hard I couldn’t hear. But I saw a dark spot on the ice and figured it was him and that he’d passed out and I’d better get to him before he froze. Halfway there, I heard him yelling. I ran. I got closer and I saw the dark spot was water. Jackie’s thrashing, calling for help. I slipped and fell, hard. The ice under me cracked, and kept cracking. Jacky begged me. But I couldn’t move. I was terrified. Then I couldn’t hear him anymore.
“I lay there, waiting for the ice to break and the pond to swallow me up. But it didn’t. You don’t know how many times I wished it had. I made it back to the causeway and up to the room without being seen. The next day was Sunday when everybody’s off. Nobody asked about Jacky until curfew, which was when I told the dorm master I thought he was home, which was when he called you. The rest you know.
“Okay, Margaret? Satisfied? You wanted the truth. There it is. Now, for God’s sake, call an ambulance—”
“I don’t know, daughter. Are we satisfied?”
It was then Todd noticed how quiet Julie was. He looked over to see her staring at him with her one good eye. It did not blink, or squint. It just stared, as a single tear spilled. Then her head turned away.
Moving to Julie, Margaret gently peeled the tape from her mouth.
“Satisfied? No,” Julie answered with a trembling voice. “But at least we finally know the truth.”
“Finally,” Margaret agreed. She sliced through the clothesline and helped her shivering daughter into a flannel robe.
As soon as she’d belted the robe, Julie tore away the eye hanging down her cheek. Flesh-colored spirit gum stretched and snapped.
“That gizmo worked like a charm,” Margaret said
“Helps to know the best special effects guy in New York,” Julie said.
“Daughter,” Todd repeated.
“Born thirty-five years ago, the only dividend of a failed marriage to a very good man who loved her and raised her while I, selfishly, pursued my career and then a second marriage. He even sent her to Northwestern to study acting and subsidized her for two years auditioning in New York. I still say she gave up too soon. Such talent! She’s utterly wasted at William Morris.”
“I like my side of the casting desk, thank you very much,” Julie said. “I like not starving.”
“You never said you had a daughter,” Todd said softly.
“Yes I did,” Margaret said. “You’re just lousy at retaining anything that doesn’t involve you.”
“Besides, we were estranged,” Julie added. “Thanks, in part, to you. It started when Mom decided to move here instead of staying in New York. I was just back from college and the thing with Fullerton had just happened, and I thought it could be a chance for us to get close. But she just had to come here. Pissed me off, her ducking out—again. But that was nothing compared to when Jacky died. My only chance at a brother—gone. For years, I thought it was all her fault.”
“So this whole thing’s been a set-up. To pay me back.” Todd accused.
“No. To learn the truth,” Julie said.
“And yes, to pay him back,” Margaret insisted and then turned to Todd. “Oh, you were so slick. You had everyone so fooled—the school, the police. When he first disappeared, you played dumb so beautifully. And when they found him weeks later, you said just enough to confirm the suspicion of suicide, but nothing to lead anyone to suspect you were involved.
“At first, I thought you had to be. Jacky wasn’t suicidal. I was his mother. I’d have known. And what fourteen year-old is going to kill himself that way? Chop a hole in the ice and jump in? How morbid—and Jacky was anything but morbid.
He also wasn’t the outdoor type. He never would have gone out there alone. Someone had to have been with him. I thought that someone could only be you, since you were his only friend.
“But then, as time went on, that didn’t seem right either. You never let on in any way that you knew anything about what happened. And you seemed to miss him so—I felt sorrier for you than myself. And we had the theater in common. You were so talented. It was almost like God had sent you to me as a consolation. So, I let you into my heart and worked to make you the finest actor I could and get you into Juilliard and give you a stellar career, which I hoped to be proud of.
“Then you left and never came back. Not once! The weekly phone calls became monthly, and then just on holidays; and that’s when I began thinking I’d been played.”
“Which was when she reached out to me,” Julie said. “Not for forgiveness. But to convince me it hadn’t been suicide at all. At first, I wouldn’t listen. But she argued hard and I said I’d take a look for myself. I came to see you in that production of ‘Sweet Bird of Youth.’ She was right about your talent. You have it in spades. And you were so handsome and sexy and fun to be with. And you convinced me I was your end-all and be-all, and what girl can’t help falling in love with that?”
“When I heard how she felt,” Margaret said, “I hit the ceiling. We had quite a row. I threatened telling you who Julie really was. But she said if I did that, and I was wrong, it would needlessly destroy your relationship. So, as a compromise, I came up with this little … improv. You’d either stick to your story, in which case we could be pretty sure you’d told the truth all along. Or you’d break and tell us what really happened. I was pretty sure it would be the latter.
“I knew how squirrely you were about the whole magic-witchcraft-voodoo thing because of what happened to your parents, and from your time with them in Haiti and also coming from New Orleans. We just had to make it real enough. I spent months losing weight, developing this look, packing away china, reading up on witchcraft, filling those jars and growing those plants.”
“Plus the honey,” added Julie.
“Right. My farmer friend supplements his income growing his own pot, plus a little belladonna for his bees, which gives their honey a certain psychotropic quality. They use belladonna in scopolamine, also known as truth serum. And they say witches use it in ‘flying ointment,’ which apparently makes you feel like you’re flying. Anyway, that and the…the…what did I put in his brandy?”
“A roofie, Mother.”
“Right! A roofie! Put you out for a good long time. Julie helped get you down here and now we know the truth.
“We’d hoped the belladonna would be enough,” Julie said. “Almost was. You told more truth in that car than you ever told Mom. When you were so adamant Jacky’s death hadn’t been a suicide, it was clear you’d been lying. When you talked about your ears freezing, I knew you hadn’t stayed in your room all night. Still, it wasn’t the whole truth. We needed to know what part you played.”
“To make sure you didn’t kill him,” Margaret added.
“Which I didn’t,” Todd insisted.
“No,” Julie agreed sourly.
“Think you’re blameless?” Margaret snapped. “It was your idea to sneak out; and to come here, which put Jacky on the pond, instead of in your room.”
“But walking across the ice was his idea!” Todd whined.
Margaret grabbed him by the hair.
“AND IT WAS YOU,” she growled, “who left him and never said what happened. Not that night, or the next day, or any day after, not until tonight. All that time, wherever I went—school, town, faculty functions—people looked at me like I was a monster—the coldest mother in the world. For the last ten years, I’ve lived YOUR LIE!”
“Easy, Mom,” Julie said.
Margaret let go.
“I couldn’t say anything,” Todd said. “Belvedere would have kicked me out. My grandparents too! They wanted little enough to do with me. Where would I have gone?”
Stone-faced, the women stared.
“What are you going to do to me?” he asked fearfully.
“Nothing,” Margaret said, as if he’d missed the point.
“Nothing,” Julie confirmed. “We decided while you were…asleep. I’m taking Mom to California to live in the sunshine and maybe restart her career. You? I’ll cut some starts in that tape. Shouldn’t take an hour to get free. Upstairs, you’ll find your clothes and wallet. Shower, dress, get on with your life. Go where you please. Just nowhere near me. Oh, and forget about acting. You’re right. I do know everyone. Any time I hear you’re represented by an agent or up for a part, I’ll quietly let it be known you’re unreliable as hell.”
Margaret leaned forward and whispered in his ear: “You’ll spend the rest of your life knowing you’ve spent your life not doing that which you were so clearly meant to do. I can’t think of anything worse.”
Todd watched warily as Julie used Margaret’s knife to make a small cut in the tape binding his right wrist and then followed her mother up the stairs. She did not speak, or even look back. She just turned off the light and closed the door behind her, as if he’d never been there at all.
He sat there, naked and cold, completely stymied by what had just happened. Slowly, like the dawn just breaking through the basement window, the magnitude of his loss revealed itself. It was everything. Yesterday, his golden future—stardom, wealth, power, and a beautiful woman—had been assured. Today? It was all gone. If Julie meant what she said—and he’d never known her not to—he had no chance whatsoever to make any kind of living through his acting. His grandparents were both dead now. He had no other family. Where would he go? What would he do? What could he do? Acting was the only thing he’d ever known.
“One thing’s certain,” a voice whispered in his head, “You better get out of that chair before your balls freeze to it.”
He set to work. Even with the start Julie had cut, freeing himself was hard. The tape was thick and tough and wrapped many times. He twisted his wrist until it ached, but made little progress. He hated the cold and his shivering and his nakedness, and his thirst—not to mention the cotton-mouth and wooziness from the drugs—and the slimy floor under his feet. He sneezed, and sneezed again, and again, and again: big, phlegmy, booming sneezes. His chest hurt and his sinuses filled and he knew he’d caught cold. Heat ran through him, despite his shivers, and sweat beaded on his forehead. He worried about pneumonia.
He raged against Margaret and Julie. They were so unfair! What had he done so wrong? Not rescued Jackie? He couldn’t have, even if he’d wanted. He’d been too big. And with those boots and heavy duffle? All wet like that? It would have been impossible.
“Quit bitchin’!” the voice in his head said. “You’re fuckin’ lucky to get out of this alive, after what you did, Toddy-boy. You can lie to them, but not to me! I was there. Bullshit, you stayed behind! Bullshit, you puked! You were right there with me, all the way to that hole in the ice you pushed me into so you could watch me drown and then have Mom all to yourself.”
So deep was Todd into his own head, he never noticed the basement door open or Julie standing at the top of the stairs holding a terry robe.
“Shut the fuck up, Jacky!” he snapped through chattering teeth. “At least I appreciated her. You? All you could do was disrespect her and call her a lot of disgusting names, just because she took you away from New York and brought you here. What the fuck else was she supposed to do? No husband, no money, too old to restart her career, and with an ungrateful little shit like you to take care of? You made me sick the way you treated her, especially since you were lucky to have her at all. So, yeah, I pushed your fat ass in and watched you drown and replaced you in her heart and never regretted it a bit. What the fuck you gonna’ do about it? You’re dead! Come to think of it,” he laughed, “what the fuck’s anyone gonna do about it?”
Julie had several ideas.
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright William de Rham 2014