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Carol was waiting for me in the office when I came downstairs at eight o'clock the following morning. She was sitting in my swivel chair, going through my Rolodex. She looked weary, her hair mussed, and displeased. "That guy's a freak," she said flatly. "I want two hundred more. And in the future, I want to meet the guys you set me up with before I commit."
"What'd he do?" I asked.
"Do you really want to know?"
"I'm kind of curious.… Yeah."
She began to recite a list of Stanky-esque perversion—I cut her off.
"Okay," I said, and reached for my checkbook. "He didn't get rough, did he?"
"Au contraire." She crossed her legs. "He wanted me to.…"
"Please," I said. "Enough."
"I don't do that sort of work," she said primly.
I told her I'd written the check for three hundred and she was somewhat mollified. I apologized for Stanky and told her I hadn't realized he was so twisted.
"We're okay," she said. "I've had…Hi, sweetie!"
She directed this greeting to a point above my shoulder as Andrea, sleepily scratching her head, wearing her sweats, entered the office. "Hi, Carol," she said, bewildered.
Carol hugged her, then turned to me and waved good-bye with my check. "Call me."
"Pretty early for hookers," Andrea said, perching on the edge of the desk.
"Let me guess. You defended her."
"Nope. One of her clients died and left her a little money. I helped her invest. But that begs the question, what was she doing here?"
"I got her for Stanky."
"Something like that."
She nodded and idly kicked the back of her heel against the side of the desk. "How come you were never interested in the men I dated after we broke up?"
I was used to her sudden conversational U-turns, but I had expected her to interrogate me about Carol and this caught me off-guard. "I don't know. I suppose I didn't want to think about who you were sleeping with."
"Must be a guy thing. I always checked out your girlfriends. Even the ones you had when I was mad at you." She slipped off the desk and padded toward the door. "See you upstairs."
I spent the next two days between the phone and the studio, recording a good take of "The Sunset Side of You"—it was the closest thing Stanky had to a ballad, and I thought, with its easy, Dr. John-ish feel, it might get some play on college radio:
"I'm gonna crack open my venetian blind
Stanky wasn't happy with me—he was writing a song a day, sometimes two songs, and didn't want to disrupt his creative process by doing something that might actually make money, but I gamed him into cutting the track.
Wednesday morning, I visited Rudy Bowen in his office. Rudy was an architect who yearned to be a cartoonist, but who had never met with much success in the latter pursuit, and the resonance of our creative failures, I believe, helped to cement our friendship. He was also the only person I knew who had caught a fish in the Polozny downstream from the mill. It occupied a place of honor in his office, a hideous thing mounted on a plaque, some sort of mutant trout nourished upon pollution. Whenever I saw it, I would speculate on what else might lurk beneath the surface of the cold, deep pools east of town, imagining telepathic monstrosities plated with armor like fish of the Mesozoic and frail tentacled creatures, their skins having the rainbow sheen of an oil slick, to whom mankind were sacred figures in their dream of life.
Rudy's secretary, a matronly woman named Gwen, told me he had gone out for a latte and let me wait in his private office. I stepped over to his drafting table, curious about what he was working on. Held in place on the table was a clean sheet of paper, but in a folder beside the table was a batch of new cartoons, a series featuring shadowy figures in a mineshaft who conversed about current events, celebrities, etc., while excavating a vein of pork that twisted through a mountain.…This gave rise to the title of the strip: Meat Mountain Stories. They were silhouettes, really. Given identity by their shapes, eccentric hairstyles, and speech signatures. The strip was contemporary and hilarious—everything Rudy's usual work was not. In some frames, a cluster of tiny white objects appeared to be floating. Moths, I thought. Lights of some kind. They, too, carried on conversations, but in pictographs. I was still going through them when Rudy came in, a big, blond man with the beginnings of a gut and thick glasses that lent him a baffled look. Every time I saw him, he looked more depressed, more middle-aged.
"These are great, man!" I said. "They're new, right?"
He crossed the room and stood beside me.
"I been working on them all week. You like 'em, huh?"
"I love them. You did all this this week? You must not be sleeping." I pointed to the white things. "What're these?"
"Stars. I got the idea from that song Stanky did. 'Stars Seen Through Stone.'"
"So they're seeing them, the people in the mine?"
"Yeah. They don't pay much attention to them, but they're going to start interacting soon."
"It must be going around." I told him about Stanky's burst of writing, Kiwanda's adventures in office management.
"That's odd, you know." He sipped his latte. "It seems like there's been a real rash of creativity in town. Last week, some grunt at the mill came up with an improvement in the cold forming process that everybody says is a huge deal. Jimmy Galvin, that guy who does handyman work? He invented a new gardening tool. Bucky Bucklin's paying his patent fees. He says they're going to make millions. Beth started writing a novel. She never said anything to me about wanting to write, but she's hardly had time for the kids, she's been so busy ripping off the pages. It's not bad."
"Well, I wish I'd catch it," I said. "With me, it's same old same old. Drudgeree, drudgeroo. Except for Andrea's back."
"Andrea? You mean you guys are dating?"
"I mean back as in back in my house. Living with me."
"Damn!" he said. "That's incredible!"
We sat in two chairs like two inverted tents on steel frames, as uncomfortable as my upstairs couch, and I told him about it.
"So it's going okay?" he asked.
"Terrific, I think. But what do I know? She said it was a trial period, so I could get home tonight and she might be gone. I've never been able to figure her out."
"Andrea. Damn! I saw her at the club, but I didn't realize she was with you. I just had time to wave." He leaned across the space between us and high-fived me. "Now maybe you'll stop going around like someone stole your puppy."
"It wasn't like that," I said.
He chuckled. "Naw. Which is why the people of Black William, when asked the date, often reply, 'Six years, two months, and twelve days since the advent of Vernon's Gloom.'"
We moved on to other topics, among them the club, business, and, as I made to leave, I gestured at Rudy's grotesque trophy and said, "While those creative juices are flowing, you ought to design a fishing lure, so I can watch you hook into the Loch Polozny Monster."
Rudy laughed and said, "Maybe if I have a couple of minutes. I'm going to keep working on the comic. Whatever this shit is, it's bound to go away."
I WAS FOOLING around in the studio one evening, ostensibly cleaning up the tape we'd rolled the previous weekend at the Crucible, hoping to get a live rendition of "Stars Seen Through Stone" clean enough for the EP, but I was, instead, going over a tape I'd made, trying to find some ounce of true inspiration in it, finding none, wondering why this wave of creativity—if it, indeed, existed—had blessed Rudy's house and not mine. It was after seven; Stanky was likely on his way home from the library, and I was thinking about seeing if Andrea wanted to go out, when she leaned in the doorway and asked if she was interrupting. I told her, no, not at all, and she came into the booth and sat next to me at the board, looking out at the drum kit, the instruments, the serpents' nest of power cords.
"When we were married, I didn't get what you saw in this," she said. "All I saw was the damage, the depravity, the greed. Now I've been practicing, I realize there's more or less the same degree of damage and greed and depravity in every enterprise. You can't see it as clearly as you do in the music business, but it's there."
"Tell me what I see that's good."
"The music, the people."
"None of that lasts," I said. "All I am's a yo-yo tester. I test a thousand busted yo-yos, and occasionally I run across one that lights up and squeals when it spins."
"What I do is too depressing to talk about. It's rare when anyone I represent has a good outcome, even if they win. Corporations delay and delay."
"So it's disillusionment that's brought us together again."
"No." She looked at me steadily. "Do you love me?"
"Yeah, I love you. You know I do. I never stopped. There was a gap.…"
"A big gap!"
"The gap made it more painful, but that's all it did."
She played with dials on the sound board, frowning as if they were refusing to obey her fingers.
"You're messing up my settings," I said.
"Nothing. It's just you don't lie to me anymore. You used to lie all the time, even about trivial things. I'm having trouble adjusting."
I started to deny it, but recognized that I couldn't. "I was angry at you. I can't remember why, exactly. Lying was probably part of it."
"I was angry at you, too." She put her hands back on the board, but twisted no dials. "But I didn't lie to you."
"You stopped telling me the truth," I said.
The phone rang; in reflex, I picked up and said, "Soul Kiss."
It was Stanky. He started babbling, telling me to come downtown quick.
"Whoa!" I said. "If this is about me giving you a ride…"
"No, I swear! You gotta see this, man! The stars are back!"
"Like the one we saw at the library. The lights. You better come quick. I'm not sure how long it'll last."
"I'm kind of busy," I said.
"Dude, you have got to see this! I'm not kidding!"
I covered the phone and spoke to Andrea. "Want to ride uptown? Stanky says there's something we should see."
"Maybe afterward we could stop by my place and I could pick up a few things?"
I got back on the phone. "Where are you?"
Five minutes later we were cutting across the park toward the statue of Black William, beside which Stanky and several people were standing in an island of yellow light—I had no time to check them out, other than to observe that one was a woman, because Stanky caught my arm and directed me to look at the library and what I saw made me unmindful of any other sight. The building had been rendered insubstantial, a ghost of itself, and I was staring across a dark plain ranged by a dozen fuzzy white lights, some large, some small, moving toward us at a slow rate of speed, and yet perhaps it was not slow—the perspective seemed infinite, as if I were gazing into a depth that, by comparison to which, all previously glimpsed perspectives were so limited as to be irrelevant. As the lights approached, they appeared to vanish, passing out of frame, as if the viewing angle we had been afforded was too narrow to encompass the scope of the phenomenon. Within seconds, it began to fade, the library to regain its ordinary solidity, and I thought I heard a distant gabbling, the sound of many voices speaking at once, an army of voices (though I might have manufactured this impression from the wind gusting through the boughs); and then, as that ghostly image winked out of existence, a groaning noise that, in my opinion, issued from no fleshly throat, but may have been produced by some cosmic stress, a rip in the continuum sealing itself or something akin.
Andrea had at some point latched onto my arm, and we stood gaping at the library; Stanky and the rest began talking excitedly. There were three boys, teenagers, two of them carrying skateboards. The third was a pale, skinny, haughty kid, bespotted with acne, wearing a black turtleneck sweater, black jeans, black overcoat. They displayed a worshipful attitude toward Stanky, hanging on his every word. The woman might have been the one with whom Stanky had been speaking at the Crucible before Carol made her move. She was tiny, barely five feet tall, Italian-looking, with black hair and olive skin, in her twenties, and betrayed a compete lack of animation until Stanky slipped an arm around her; then she smiled, an expression that revealed her to be moderately attractive.
The skateboarders sped off to, they said, "tell everybody," and this spurred me to take out my cell phone, but I could not think who to call. Rudy, maybe. But no one in authority. The cops would laugh at the report. Stanky introduced us to Liz (the woman lowered her eyes) and Pin (the goth kid looked away and nodded). I asked how long the phenomenon had been going on before we arrived and Stanky said, "Maybe fifteen minutes."
"Have you seen it before?"
"Just that time with you."
I glanced up at Black William and thought that maybe he had intended the statue as a warning…though it struck me now that he was turning his head back toward the town and laughing.
Andrea hugged herself. "I could use something hot to drink."
McGuigan's was handy, but that would have disincluded Pin, who obviously was underage. I loaded him, Stanky, and Liz into the back of the van and drove to Szechuan Palace, a restaurant on the edge of the business district, which sported a five-foot-tall gilt fiberglass Buddha in the foyer that over the years had come to resemble an ogre with a skin condition, the fiberglass weave showing through in patches, and whose dining room (empty but for a bored wait-staff) was lit like a Macao brothel in lurid shades of red, green, and purple. On the way to the restaurant, I replayed the incident in my head, attempting to understand what I had witnessed not in rational terms, but in terms that would make sense to an ordinary American fool raised on science fiction and horror movies. Nothing seemed to fit. At the restaurant, Andrea and Pin ordered tea, Liz and Stanky gobbled moo shu pork and lemon chicken, and I picked at an egg roll. Pin started talking to Andrea in an adenoidal voice, lecturing her on some matter regarding Black William, and, annoyed because he was treating her like an idiot, I said, "What does Black William have to do with this?"
"Not a thing," Pin said, turning on me a look of disdain that aspired to be the kind of look Truman Capote once fixed upon a reporter from the Lincoln Journal-Star who had asked if he was a homosexual. "Not unless you count the fact that he saw something similar two hundred years ago and it probably killed him."
"Pin's an expert on Black William," Stanky said, wiping a shred of pork from his chin.
"What little there is to know," said Pin grandly, "I know."
It figured that a Goth townie would have developed a crush on the local bogeyman. I asked him to enlighten me.
"Well," Pin said, "when Joey told me he'd seen a star floating in front of the library, I knew it had to be one of BW's stars. Where the library stands today used to be the edge of Stockton Wood, which had an evil reputation. As did many woods in those days, of course. Stockton Wood is where he saw the stars."
"What did he say about them?"
"He didn't say a thing. Nothing that he committed to paper, anyway. It's his younger cousin, Samuel Garnant, we can thank for the story. He wrote a memoir about BW's escapades under the nom de plume Jonathan Venture. According to Samuel, BW was in the habit of riding in the woods at twilight. 'Tempting the Devil,' he called it. His first sight of the stars was a few mysterious lights—like with you and Joey. He rode out into the wood the next night and many nights thereafter. Samuel's a bit vague on how long it was before BW saw the stars again. I'm guessing a couple of weeks, going by clues in the narrative. But eventually he did see them, and what he saw was a lot like what we just saw." Pin put his hands together, fingertips touching, like a priest preparing to address the Ladies Auxiliary. "In those days, people feared God and the Devil. When they saw something amazing, they didn't stand around like a bunch of doofuses saying, 'All right!' and taking pictures. BW was terrified. He said he'd seen the Star Wormwood and heard the Holy Ghost moan. He set about changing his life."
Stanky shot me one of his wincing, cutesy, embarrassed smiles—he had told me the song was completely original.
"For almost a year," Pin went on, "BW tried to be a good Christian. He performed charitable works, attended church regularly, but his heart wasn't in it. He lapsed back into his old ways and before long he took to riding in Stockton Woods again, with his manservant Nero walking at his side. He thought that he had missed an opportunity and told Samuel if he was fortunate enough to see the stars again, he would ride straight for them. He'd embrace their evil purpose."
"What you said about standing around like doofuses, taking pictures," Andrea said. "I don't suppose anyone got a picture?"
Pin produced a cell phone and punched up a photograph of the library and the stars. Andrea and I leaned in to see.
"Can you e-mail that to me?" I asked.
Pin said he could and I wrote my address on a napkin.
"So," Pin said. "The next time BW saw the stars was in eighteen-oh-eight. He saw them twice, exactly like the first time. A single star, then an interval of week or two and a more complex sighting. A month after that, he disappeared while riding with Nero in Stockon Wood and they were never seen again."
Stanky hailed our waitress and asked for more pancakes for his moo shu.
"So you think the stars appeared three times?" said Andrea. "And Black William missed the third appearance on the first go-round, but not on the second?"
"That's what Samuel thought," said Pin.
Stanky fed Liz a bite of lemon chicken.
"You're assuming Black William was killed by the stars, but that doesn't make sense," said Andrea. "For instance, why would there be a longer interval between the second and third sightings? If there was a third sighting. It's more likely someone who knew the story killed him and blamed it on the stars."
"Maybe Nero capped him," said Stanky. "So he could gain his freedom."
Pin shrugged. "I only know what I read."
"It might be a wavefront," I said.
On another napkin, I drew a straight line with a small bump in it, then an interval in which the line flattened out, then a bigger bump, then a longer interval and an even bigger bump.
"Like that, maybe," I said. "Some kind of wavefront passing through Black William from God knows where. It's always passing through town, but we get this series of bumps that make it accessible every two hundred years. Or less. Maybe the stars appeared at other times."
"There's no record of it," said Pin. "And I've searched."
The waitress brought Stanky's pancakes and asked if we needed more napkins.
Andrea studied the napkin I'd drawn on. "But what about the first series of sightings? When were they?"
"Seventeen-eighty-nine," said Pin.
"It could be an erratic cycle," I said. "Or could be the cycle consists of two sequences close together, then a lapse of two hundred years. Don't expect a deeper explanation. I cut class a bunch in high school physics."
"The Holy Ghost doesn't obey physical principles," said Stanky pompously.
"I doubt Black William really heard the Holy Ghost," Andrea said. "If he heard what we heard tonight. It sounded more like a door closing to me."
"Whatever," he said. "It'll be cool to see what happens a month from now. Maybe Black William will return from the grave."
"Yeah." I crumpled the napkin and tossed it to the center of the table. "Maybe he'll bring Doctor Doom and the Lone Ranger with him."
Pin affected a shudder and said, "I think I'm busy that day."
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Copyright © 1998–2008 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide