2014: A Dark Place
I didn’t want to…
I swear, I had no choice…
Oh God, forgive me…
The pliant, gritty sweetness of damp soil. She could taste it. Smell it. And that voice resounding in her head: it sounded plaintive and yet it somehow gripped the base of her abdomen in cold, wet fingers.
Melissa Montez bobbed briefly into consciousness, uncertain of where she was or how she’d gotten there. A single cone of light shown down into her face with pitiless intensity, driving into her eyes to get at the soft meat of her brains.
Her head throbbed sickly, and she was vaguely aware that her stomach had clenched and kicked up the two or three oatmeal cookies she’d eaten on her drive over to—
“Emery?” she whispered, her voice a tiny, fragile sound like that of a dozing child. She tried to raise her head, but then the blackness blotted out the mean light, and Melissa welcomed it.
“I didn’t want to…” that voice said again, following her down the inky tunnel that swallows us all on the other side of our eyelids. “I swear I had no choice.”
Melissa felt her mind divided into halves. The sensation was not painful, simply odd. In one half she studied the blankness of unconsciousness, the rippling black so much like a curtain hiding secret things, things kept at bay by the sparest veil of fabric; in the other half, her waking half, she heard muffled footsteps, grunts, and sharp breaths sucked quickly through the nose and exhaled through the mouth. Was that her breathing? No, she didn’t think so, but with only half a mind to really consider the situation there was no way to tell for sure.
Something struck her elbow then slid away in a tumble of fragments like damp sand. She mumbled something, but it sounded far away to her own ears.
Another wet fwap struck her, this time in the small of her back, and slid away. The sensation drained off some of the murk that had clouded her thoughts, making room for the nauseating thump-a-thump of a migraine.
“What—” she tried to speak, but the pain in her head spiraled to a new height, sending several yellow strings of bile to join the small mound of regurgitated cookies.
What’s happened to me?
She tried to open her eyes, confused and terrified that she should be in such a dark, unfamiliar place. Only one eye obeyed, however; the other was a bulbous knob of burning hurt. Still, she could see that dirt surrounded her on all sides.
“Stop making a mess,” a voice remonstrated her, a voice her addled mind interpreted as the general tone of male authority. “I want her to come in clean.”
“Her? Her who?” Melissa blinked—one lid seeming to stretch painfully over something lodged where her left eye should be—her fingers digging into the soft dirt as she tried to rise. FWAP. A larger heap of that gritty stuff struck her in the head this time, tangling in her hair, cowing her back down to her belly. Understanding exploded in her head, setting the pain and nausea on a new, chaotic tilt.
Buried! I’m being BURIED!
She scrabbled, urging her limbs to move quickly, but the traitorous things refused her, instead pawing weakly at the ground. “No!” she cried, but it was barely a whisper. “No! Don’t!”
The inimitable and trenchant sound of a gravedigger at his trade. Dirt pummeled her, and finally her instincts surmounted the pain and confusion, dumping adrenaline into her veins. She rose on all fours, turned into the light shining down on her, and there stood Emery Winnan, decked in suit pants and a collared shirt rolled at the sleeves. He stood above, gazing down at her, his strong hands gripping a shovel loaded with earth. “I didn’t want you to wake up,” he said, and the apology in his tone terrified her.
She tried to stand, to rise from the soil that had snuggled up to her sides, but Emery lashed out with the spade, the flat of the blade connecting squarely with her jaw. She fell. The migraine bloomed afresh with all its sick fire, seeming to boil her brains.
Melissa Montez lay in the grave Emery had dug for her, still conscious yet unable to move. After a moment, the sound returned—shk-FWAP-shk-FWAP—and as the dirt built her final tomb around her, a new sound came to her dirt-clotted ears. A voice. A woman’s voice.
It’s all right, child, that voice said, making that left eye burn the more. Momma Magus will see to you.
Tears rose in Melissa’s one eye, but they did not spill. The dirt ate them.
And then it ate her.
Jonah watched Morgan read the last page of the journal, flip back to the prior page, flip forward, scan the words, then look up at him with wide, questioning eyes. “There’s nothing,” she said, her voice sounding loud in the pre-dawn quiet of the apartment.
“What do you mean?” Jonah said, holding out his hand for what remained of the book—torn pages were scattered everywhere. Morgan held onto it, though, flicking wildly between the pages.
“It just—ends,” she said and tossed the book to the floor. “He writes about going to meet Verina for the last time. Lists all the reasons he shouldn’t but makes it clear that he will. Then—nothing.”
Jonah had retrieved the journal from the floor, unfolded the crimped pages carefully, and read the last paragraph of the last entry himself.
It’s no good. None of it. I can’t see her anymore. I have to get my family out of here. Sal suspects. He has to suspect. And I’ll see Verina and Sal in a deep grave together before I let anything happen to Rebecca or the girls. I’ll tell her so. Tonight. One last goodbye. As for you, my dangerous little friend, I think our time is up. I’ll put you somewhere safe. As worthless a gesture as it may be at this point, I’ll leave with these words: God, I’m sorry.
Jonah flipped through the final, blank pages, willing the slanted writing to appear, but none did. The hitman had left them dangling with that final, pathetic sentiment. As if any god could forgive you, Jonah thought bitterly and snapped the book closed.
He leaned back, drawing his hands down his face and groaning. “What a waste,” he said.
Morgan leaned back on the sofa, her face cast up to the ceiling. Tears welled and skated down her cheeks.
“What is it?” Jonah said, touching her knee lightly.
She glanced at him but looked away quickly. “I just—I thought there might be—” But she could not or would not finish. Four years of grief knotted up behind her lips and burst forth in a series of sobs. Jonah put his arms around her, hating the way she tensed at his touch but holding on anyway. The scents of lilies and stale coffee hung around her like a cloud. Eventually her hitching shoulders slackened and she let him hold her, let him comfort her; though he knew too well that any comfort over such loss was fleeting.
“There has to be more,” she said finally, her words coming off muffled while she lay pressed against him. “I can’t believe it just ends there.”
“Maybe there is more,” Jonah said, hoping he sounded surer than he felt. “Maybe we missed something.”
“You need to get some sleep. We both do.”
Morgan looked at her watch. “I have to be up for work in four hours. Sleeping now would only make me more tired.”
“Well, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to drive home on nothing but a gallon of coffee.”
She turned her eyes up to him. “Can I stay here? Stay with you?”
Jonah was reminded of a scene from The Great Gatsby. The scene when Nick Carraway explains the monumental decision Jay Gatsby made in kissing Daisy Faye, how Gatsby knew that, if he were to kiss this wondrous creature, he would be forever tied to her, for good or ill.
The thought occurred in less time than it took for him to answer. “Yes,” he said. “Stay with me.”
While Jonah and Morgan sealed the bond that would tie them for the rest of their days—for good or ill—Emery sat waiting for the promise of which he had been foretold. All those years of searching, of seeking some way to fill the well that gaped within himself, that well that echoed dolefully without end, that well that gobbled all the decadence and religion and success he tossed down its slime-coated throat, still crying it was not enough, it would never be enough—finally he would be full. He would be complete.
He stood still clinging the shovel in both hands. He’d tossed the final shovelful of earth onto the mound over an hour ago, watching as the ground pulsed languidly with Melissa’s final, weak movements. When the mound finally stilled Evan let his breath go, unaware that he’d been holding it to begin with. And since that moment he’d been waiting patiently—very patiently—for Verina to return to him.
She’ll come, he thought, his eyes partially closing as the memory of their last meeting (their first real meeting) rilled through him, sending a shudder down his back. She’ll come, and we will be together.
He forced himself to put the spade by then ran his fingers through his hair, wanting it to look its best for her despite the heavy labor he’d performed.
“For you, my love,” he whispered. “I did it for you.”
The minutes rolled on, accumulating like grains of sand in an hourglass, gaining size, gaining weight. As they built into hours, and the first sherbet-hued fans of dawn spread upward into the sky, Emery’s hopes began to buckle, to collapse under the weight of waiting.
“She wouldn’t,” he whispered, and his voice was that of the petulant and enamored lover. “She wouldn’t leave me. She wouldn’t lie to me.”
He paced across the dirt cellar, eyes flicking from the mound where Melissa Montez lay dead and the steamer trunk which had become a kind of holy ark, though he did not understand why. He fought a growing desire to deal a kick to that trunk. Such an action would be to blaspheme his lover’s heart. But blasphemy has its own sort of dark allure, and as he rounded the cellar for the thirtieth time, he grabbed up the spade and brought it down squarely atop the trunk’s elaborately scrolled frame. There was a hollow thunk followed by a dry crack. “Verina!” he bellowed. “Where are you? You promised! You promised! Don’t leave me!” He crashed the spade against the brick wall, breaking the blade. Then he grabbed the trunk by its handles, flipped it upside down so the lid dangled from its hinges like some dead thing, and shook it. “Verina!” He called her name over and over, shaking the trunk. Finally, he tossed the chest aside, ignoring the sound of splintering wood as it struck the far wall and was destroyed. And so the luggage which had accompanied Evan Harmont’s grandmother across the Atlantic leaves this tale forever.
He fell to his knees next to the mound, his face streaked with dirt and tears. He extended his hands—one crusted with the same blood he’d used to perform the ritual—palms-up: a supplicant’s gesture, a gesture reserved for the bereaved. “Please,” Emery whimpered, teeth bared, eyes wet. “Please.”
He collapsed forward, arms thrown out and face pressed to the earth. He breathed deep and let the sobs come. “Please,” he repeated and went on repeating.
He did not notice the soil where Melissa’s body no longer rested begin to tremble, did not notice the slender and pale hand rise sleekly from its grave, did not hear the pattering of dirt as it rolled away to disclose the mud-caked hair and eyes and mouth. One of those eyes was a glossy violet set in a raw, blood-caked cavity.
“Darling,” the gravelly voice cooed. “I’m here.”
Jonah let himself into the apartment quietly, careful to clench the keys with his whole hand so as to prevent their jangling. He shut the door and moved into the kitchen, depositing the grocery bag on the counter. He removed a carton of eggs, a package of spinach, and some cheese and laid them out. As he busied himself making breakfast and setting the kettle on the stove (the thought of coffee nauseated him), he kept his ears attuned to any stirrings from the bedroom. Morgan had been very tired, and he didn’t want to wake her unnecessarily.
He hadn’t slept—he hadn’t been able to—but Morgan fell into a deep sleep almost as soon as her head touched the pillow, which was something of an anomaly. Jonah had thought that particular cliché ridiculous, but that was just what had happened. One moment they were sharing a final kiss, and then the next she was still, her breathing slow and even. But he lay awake, his mind circling the hitman’s journal and its dubious conclusion, attempting to approach it from different angles, perhaps cull out something they had missed. But there’d been nothing, and after an hour of lying in the brightening bedroom, his thoughts began to turn to Melissa Montez and what he would have to tell her. Even if Morgan had no interest in pursuing this new road they had both set their feet to, he could not continue lying to Melissa and himself. He wanted Morgan, and if she didn’t want him then he would have to be content with the short time they’d had together. Enough said.
He glanced at the clock. It was a quarter to eight. If Morgan didn’t get up soon he would have to wake her.
He plated the spinach and cheddar omelets, steeped two mugs of tea, then made his way into the bedroom. Morgan was sitting up in bed, the sheets pooled around her, looking sharp-eyed and a little wild with her hair draped about her shoulders. The pale and puckered scar along her collarbone stood out in stark contrast to her skin, which the added springtime sun had turned an olive shade. The journal (they’d shoved the torn pages loosely back into the binding and in mostly chronological order) was in her lap, her attention focused on it so intently Jonah fancied the old paper might spontaneously burst into flames.
“Find something?” he called. Morgan glanced up at him, smiled, then patted the bed next to her.
“Come here,” she said. Jonah went, pulled off his shoes, and slid under the covers beside her. He could feel her warmth even through his jeans and T-shirt. “Look at this,” she said, holding the journal out to him. “See anything?”
Jonah read the lines penned there:
… R. suspects something. She must. Or maybe I’m baiting myself. It’s hard to tell one way or the other. I’ve been so jittery ever since the move. Sometimes I wish Merlin would send me a job for no other reason than to occupy my mind. That would make the problem worse, I know, but I just can’t stand the way she looks at me these days…
Jonah shrugged. “Am I missing it?”
Morgan pushed the book into his hands, her smile calm, patient. “Look at it like this,” she said, and turned it vertically so the words ran downward. “See anything now?”
Jonah studied the two pages, noting a few splotches of ink near the binding. “Some ink,” he said. “Looks like smudges.”
Morgan’s eyes narrowed in that playful way of hers—an expression he was quickly coming to love and fear equally. “Are you sure? Look closer.”
Jonah studied the splotches, seeing almost at once that they weren’t splotches at all. They were words, faded and running perpendicular to the rest of the writing. Squinting, he could make out a reversed number—36—and a word that bore no meaning—tnomrah.
He opened his mouth to say just this, but Morgan held up a hand. “Do you have an envelope? And a pen? It can’t be a ballpoint.”
“Yeah,” he replied a little dubiously and went to the dresser and removed an envelope from the top drawer. He handed it and the pen he always carried with him to her.
Morgan started to write something in the upper left-hand corner of the envelope, speaking as she did so. “I can only guess that he must’ve been in a hurry and forgot about the ink.” She held out the envelope, now bearing her name and address. “Watch.” She flipped to a blank section of the journal in the back, placed the envelope inside, and snapped the book closed. When she opened it and removed the envelope, the mirrored ghost of her name and address was plainly visible on the clean paper. She flipped back to the original page and pointed. “Thirty-six,” she said, meeting his eyes. “That’s the house number. The word is above the number. So what does that tell you?”
“Jesus,” Jonah muttered, finally understanding. “It’s a name. Harmont.” He yanked his phone from his pocket, opened the browser, and started typing wildly: Harmont, 36 Avalon Avenue, Silver Strand, NJ. The search string generated several dozen links that appeared entirely unrelated to the journal’s author. “None of these seem—” Jonah looked up, noticed Morgan was still donning that playful smirk. “What?”
“I’ve Googled the Avalon House from every angle. It’s a waste of time. Top hits always relate to tourist attractions and Wikipedia entries about King Arthur. Our anonymous author was careful, indeed. I think our best bet is to ask older people around town if they knew anyone by the name Harmont.”
Jonah was nodding. “I’ll bring it up to Clark Rodgers. He should be back to work today. Gina practically threatened his life to get him to go see a doctor.”
“He’ll be a start,” Morgan said, tossing away the blankets. She walked lithely to the chair where Jonah had folded her clothes and dressed quickly. “I’m going to ask my parents about it after I get out of work. They didn’t live around here in the fifties, but maybe they’ve heard the name before. Besides, I need to have a talk with my dad about his late-night travels.”
Jonah touched her shoulder, not wanting to give her up to the world outside, not yet. When she turned to him he kissed her, and she pressed close to him, arching her head up to accept the kiss more fully. With the moment passed, Jonah led her to the kitchen, transferred her tea to a travel mug, and packed one of the omelets. He walked her downstairs where Morgan kissed him once more. “Thank you,” she said, holding up the mug and Tupperware. “For breakfast and—Just thanks.”
“I’ll talk to you soon.”
He saw her drive off, staring after the sedan as it shrank along Knoll Avenue, then closed the door and stood in the hall a moment. He looked from the door leading up to his apartment to the door that was the Lundys’. After a moment, he knocked on the Lundys’ door, fully expecting no answer, but, to his surprise, the sound of the bolt turning and the latch unlatching came only a few seconds later.
Sandra Lundy stood before him, dressed for the day and wearing, what Jonah thought, was more makeup than he’d ever seen on her naturally pretty face. “Morning, Sandra,” he said.
“Hello, Jonah. Something wrong?”
Sandra peered over his shoulder, glanced behind herself, looked back to him. “Did Morgan just leave?”
Jonah felt his cheeks flush. “Um, yeah,” he said.
Sandra nodded, smiling. “You’re good for her,” she said matter-of-factly. “You want to come in? Have some coffee?”
“I would, but you look like you’re heading out.”
Sandra sighed. “No. Not going out. Just waiting for my wayward husband to come home.”
“He was out all night?”
Sandra nodded. “He’s been staying out with his—friends—later and later these past few weeks. I thought it would be nice to surprise him with breakfast.”
Jonah wondered what dressing for a romantic evening had to do with breakfast, but, of course, he knew perfectly well. Sandra thought her husband had strayed, and perhaps this was her final attempt to show him what he’d be risking if he didn’t cut the shit. “He’s not cheating on you,” Jonah said, and the words were out before he knew he was going to say them.
Sandra’s eyes widened. “I’m sorry?”
“He’s working a graveyard shift at a diner off Route Nine, near Beachwood.”
He watched Sandra’s brow wrinkle, unsure if the expression meant he’d crossed some sort of line—which he was almost sure he had—or if the information was so contrary to what she’d come to believe that she couldn’t quite grasp it. “He’s—He’s what?”
“I followed him last night. I know that was a weird thing to do, but I—Look, I saw him. He’s a cook over there. I guess he wanted the extra money.”
Sandra shook her head. “But—but what for? We’re retired. We get by just fine. All the bills get paid.”
“Have you checked your bank statements lately? I mean looked real close at them? You might be getting by because Phil’s got this job.”
“There’ve been a few deposits that I couldn’t recognize, but Phil says they’re his poker winnings.”
“Odd for a man who loathes gambling,” Jonah said. “Were they around the same amount? Besides, I thought Phil said he never wins at poker?”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! I don’t remember!”
Jonah held up his hands. “Sorry. I—shouldn’t have said anything.”
Sandra sighed. “No. No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you. It just—It doesn’t make any sense.” Her eyes trailed away, and Jonah recognized that look of deep introspection easily enough—his mother wore it daily after his father’s death
“Will you talk to him?”
“Hm? Oh, yes, of course I will. I’m just—I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it. We were supposed to be able to get by on our pensions and the rent. I did the math. I know I did it right. I know it.”
Jonah thought maybe there was some expense of which Sandra was not aware but said nothing. He’d pried enough. “I’m sure he’ll be home soon,” he said. “Maybe you two could come by the Sand Castle tonight. Have a burger and a beer on me.”
Sandra smiled, and Jonah wondered how she could entertain the idea of any man cheating on her. “I think we’ll take you up on that,” she said. “And, Jo,” she squeezed his shoulder, kissed his cheek. “Thank you.”
Jonah smiled back. “No need.”
He turned to leave, then, remembering, turned back quickly. “Oh, I forgot to ask. You or Phil ever hear the name Harmont around town?”
For a moment, Jonah thought he’d angered her all over again; Sandra stood with her jaw perceptibly clenched, her hand tight on the doorjamb, but as quickly as this reaction surfaced it disappeared and Sandra Lundy stood looking at him with a dubious and politely inquisitive smile. “Can’t say I’ve ever heard the name,” she said. “Why?”
Jonah shrugged. “No reason. I’ll see you two tonight.” He left her and returned upstairs, wondering if Sandra had actually lied to him, and, if she had, why?
Sandra waited until Jonah’s door closed before closing her own and allowing the practiced smile to tumble from her face. “Why?” she whispered, stalking through the living room and into the kitchen, pacing along the tiled floor, her low heels clacking. The smells of bacon and fried eggs mingled in the air. “Where did he hear that name? How did he hear it?”
A stack of bills and bank statements sat on the counter; Sandra had been preparing to shred these latter when Jonah had knocked. She took them up now, her eyes going automatically to the one monthly transaction that would raise Phil’s hackles if he ever saw it. Luckily, Phil hated numbers, hated finance, and if she’d ever seen him with a bank statement in his hand he was using the paper to pen a grocery list or recipe. She’d been transferring exactly $400.00 each month to a separate checking account for the past fifteen years—roughly a year after her father’s money had bled away. It was from this secret checking account that she paid the annual property taxes on the house located at 36 Avalon Avenue. The house that had caused so much trouble for her and her family.
She studied the deposits for the month. A cash transaction—each roughly $400—had been made each week. So the amounts weren’t the same, though that didn’t mean much. Phil could have fudged the numbers a bit to lend credence to his story about the cash being poker winnings. But the lies between her and her husband were not the most vital of issues just now. Jonah had asked about Harmont. That fact brought the past rushing up from its dark and noisome depths like some fetid and poisonous tidal wave, and Sandra Lundy stood directly in its path. But before the memories could swirl and suck and drown her, the wall-mounted phone in the kitchen rang. Sandra stared at it a moment, allowing the past to recede—and thankful for it—then picked it up.
Molly Elderson calling to chew the proverbial fat, gab a bit of gossip. Had Sandra heard that Eddie and Lisa Benevinto were expecting another baby? And, oh my, Kevin Willis had been spotted buying assorted bouquets over at Wanda’s Florals the past month, but Meagan, his wife, can’t recall the last time he came home with flowers for her. And, my God, did you hear—
Sandra sighed, resigning herself to the conversation, and tucked the receiver between her ear and shoulder while she scraped burnt eggs and bacon into the trashcan.
Waking next to her was like coming to life on a calm summer shore—gentle winds and gentle surf wrapping you in warm, knowing arms.
Emery Winnan breathed deep of her, his eyes still closed, and his brain sifted out the stink of fetid earth and rot, replacing them with the scents he recalled from his dreams: sweet soil and lavender and honey. He reached out, drawing a caress down the naked, paled flesh of her arm, ignoring its coldness. “Verina,” he whispered.
“I’m here, darling.” The voice was strained, gravelly, but for Emery Winnan it sounded like laurels of lightly tinkling bells. “I’m not going away.”
Emery smiled—a decidedly handsome smile even in the gloom of the Avalon House’s cellar—and opened his eyes. Verina lay beside him, gazing at him through shining eyes, eyes that, up until a few hours ago, had been a deep chestnut. But Emery had destroyed the one eye, covering it with the glass one with the violet iris, and death had faded the other to pale blue. Somehow, Verina’s eyes had found him miles away and drawn him to this place, to this moment, and suddenly Emery’s smile faltered.
Verina’s cold hands, caressing his face. Emery could smell the earth under those nails, could see it pushed deep beneath the quick where Melissa Montez had struggled futilely to free herself from the grave he’d dug for her. “What is it, my darling?” Verina cooed.
“Why me?” he asked, pulling her hand away. When he met her eyes again he saw hurt there and steeled himself against it. “I need to know. Why did you pick me? How did you pick me? How did you even find me?”
Verina freed her hand and cradled it against her neck, as if she were afraid it might break. “Something inside you drew me,” she said. “Like the sun drawing the face of a flower. It took a long time, but I found you. And you saved me.”
Emery sat up, turning his naked back to her—half of it was covered with damp earth. “I don’t understand that. There had to be something that brought you to me. Some kind of explanation.”
Verina’s hands, on his shoulders now, and for a moment Emery was repulsed, was compelled to shriek and pry those dead fingers from his flesh and run, run far, run forever if need be. But then her (Melissa’s) lips pressed against his ear, whispering. “You needed me. I needed you. Don’t you see, Emery? Our bodies were twined long before I sought you out.”
“You mean fate.”
“I mean—prophesy.” She spoke the word like a spell, casting a shiver over his skin that cinched tight and plunged deep into the muscles. He found that he was aroused and terrified. “This was set in motion long ago. You carry the blood, darling. You are the great stag, stepping proudly from the brush, the sun splaying its fingers through your gilded antlers, anointing you in its light. This is your birthright. This is the gift I gave away long ago with a promise of return, and you, my love, have delivered it. And now we can both bask in that golden place.”
Tears had run down Emery’s cheeks as he listened, and now the sobs overwhelmed him. Listening to Verina speak was like having a thousand points of pleasure traced along your body, slowly building, building, building but never climaxing, the intensity bringing you to helpless tears. “How?” he whimpered and turned to her, cupping her pale cheeks. “How do we go there?”
Verina smiled, sending a centipede scurrying from her nose to nest in her ear. “The ritual isn’t complete,” she said. “I won’t last this way.”
“But I did everything you said. I followed every instruction.”
“You did. And you did very well. But this body does not possess the blood. It is temporary. The ritual is a puzzle; its assembly began years ago, and there are three pieces I need yet.”
Emery’s brow clouded. “Who?” he whispered, and his voice was that of the zealot, the disciple willing to shed blood. “Tell me who. I’ll find them.”
Verina kissed his brow, smoothing it over. “We need never seek them, my love. Do what I say, and their paths will turn toward us. Will you do this for me? Will you be patient?”
Emery gathered her in his arms, pressing their naked flesh together. “Yes. Just tell me what to do.”
Verina smiled once again, and even with her new face, that smile reminded him of his mother. “Make a phone call,” she said.