82. Jim

Chapter 81

June 10th

Jim

So I’ve got about eighteen hours left and things are going just about right. I took a quick rest to get ready for everything I need to do today, and when I woke up Gret’s body was at my feet, just like he said.

Undertakers and them are responsible for all manner of violations after we’re dead so we can be presentable. I read an article on it awhile ago. Gret didn’t have any of it, and she doesn’t look like her. Not a thing like her. Her eyes have recessed into her head. She’s bloated. Blood is pooling in her organs. Even slicing the jugular like he did doesn’t get rid of it all. There’s no dignity in it. Every death is a violent death, and a sticky, sloppy death. They can’t fool me.

But I have her back, at least. And that’s something.

I don’t have anything to do for a funeral, and I don’t have anything to say. Annette Marshal will be over later on. I don’t really believe in God anyway. I think people have been expecting me to find religion for awhile now because that’s the style for men of my health, but all that tells me is that you need to be weak to buy into it, and they wouldn’t ask if you were strong. If your faculties were strong.

Annette was raised Methodist, I think. She asked me about God occasionally. We have been witness to the miraculous – does that imply an incongruity? No. That’s a non sequitur. Jesus could have come back from the dead, and it wouldn’t make him God. It wouldn’t have made his teachings moral. The two don’t have anything to do with each other. The miraculous does not imply the divine. If it did then Kyle Marshal would be God, and so would Stag. And so would I, probably.

Well hey, maybe we are. First commandment is all about having no god before the big one. Why would you hedge yourself like that unless you had to keep yourself at the front of the pack? Maybe there are other gods. Maybe they’re us.

I’m rambling.

Gret’s never gonna open her eyes again. Here or anywhere else. That’s the end of her, except what I remember of her. But man, I’d like to talk to her again. I’d like to hear what she has to say about whether Terrence Malick is ever gonna make another movie, or about taking a trip overseas. Anything. Anything.

When Socrates was on trial for his life he said that maybe he would wake up somewhere where he could keep on interrogating, and keep on exercising an intelligence and a will, and the conversation could continue. The one about beauty, and truth, and all the others. Virtue and those. If I had to pick a heaven, it’d be that one. But nah. I think we’ve got what we’ve got. And I didn’t spend near enough time in the conversation. And besides, I know where Socrates ended up. The hotel isn’t heaven – it’s life support.

Gret’s dead and I did it.

Dull Gret. Pieter Bruegel never figured her out, or at least he never told anybody if he did. What an arrogant man he was. And she’ll never be again.

I sit in my chair and watch her fail to move.

She had her first boyfriend at 16. He came over and we had the father-of-the-girl talk. The one in the sitcoms where the kid gets the shit scared out of him. I’m not the most imposing guy. Even back then, I wasn’t. So we just talked.

I asked him four questions. One – are you sleeping with my daughter? Two – is it consensual? Three – are you using protection? Four – if I ask her all those questions, will I get the same answers?

He said yes to all four. He was a little red-haired guy named Mike, I think. Mike. He was a nice kid. They broke it off after maybe six months. I never asked Gret any of those four questions. That was mom’s job.

When she got pregnant with Izzy, I think people blamed her for it. I couldn’t ever get her to talk about it, but I think that’s what happened. She was at school, and the boy she was with was popular. That’s how it goes.

I think I know what made me think of that, just now. I don’t really feel like talking about it. When Zig was in the house and he was shouting, I heard him say some things about what he did to the bodies. I can’t – that’s my little girl on the floor. That’s my little girl.

He took people away. Everyone he took, they were loved.

Chelsea Leigh would have raised a good kid, I bet.

We are all subject to a violation upon death. The undertaker plays with our insides, and if he doesn’t we’re just made ugly.

I can’t wonder about things like that.

I’m not sorry for what I did to Izzy’s father. She deserved better. Looking back, I don’t think I ever hated anybody the way I hated him after he did what he did. I had never really hated before.

Hate is a justification. It makes you feel okay about what you’re doing. I have smothered a young man to death with my own hands. I have allowed another to be eaten alive. Another I gave a knife and left him to slit his wrists. I shot a child in the head in the name of hate. I am not justified in my actions. I am not in the right. But I’m not sorry. At the time I thought it through to myself, and I decided that I would do it to protect my family.

That’s bullshit, you know. I was lying to myself. I did it because I hate him, and I want him to hurt. It makes crossing lines easier. But I have given up my claim. I would do it all again. I’m not sorry, and that’s why I have to die.

As soon as I say goodbye to you, I’m going to find a way to get in touch with Izzy. And that’s going to be the end of it. The rest of the plan is already done. Pretty soon Matt Leigh is going to wake up, and Stag’s going to just fall apart. So I’ve got to finish up before then.

I thought it would be easier with your body. To say goodbye, I mean. I thought I could do what I did when my dad died, and look him in the face and swallow and say ‘see you.’ I was ready to, but I can’t. I don’t think I can.

I’ve got the picture right where I can see it. Your hair is a mess and you’re almost asleep on your feet. And Izzy’s asleep in your arms. That was a good day by the end of it. Victory, I wrote. Right on the back in black marker. We win. We won. I love you.

Everything is going to Izzy. That’s the plan – the whole plan. In my living will, everything goes to her. I said Stag can pick through my brain, but there won’t be anything left for him to find. It’s all going to her; she’s going to know, and she’ll know what to do. That’s my last part, and everything else is in place already. If any part of the contract is violated, then my will be done. And I already wrote my will down.

And then I’ll kill myself, and then you just need to wait for the pendulum to get to his sternum.

I find myself thinking about the day I went to see Jake in prison. Bernadette was playing, with Earl van Dyke on the vibes. After that Izzy went to visit Nina, and we had dinner, and then you were gone the day after. That wasn’t a bad time. In the car, going down Satch Road. That was when I decided to start calling the man Stagger Lee. That’s all I remember. I don’t remember how you had your hair that day, or where you had come from to pick us up. It was just Stag in my head. I missed out on both of you.

Huh.

When this is over the people who don’t deserve to live will be dead – that means the good guys win. Victory.

And that’s where I’ll leave it, I guess.

Bye, now.

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Chapter 83

81. Izzy

Chapter 80

Izzy

“Sunday?”

“Yeah?”

“Who’s Stagger Lee? Who’s the music man?” she asked.

They sat in the field that was the room that was memories.

Sunday thought. “What do you know?” he asked.

“He’s one of you, I think,” Izzy said. “He’s one of the people in the hotel. Nina calls him the music man, but my grandpa calls him Stag.”

Sunday shook his head. Shake shake shake shake shake shake shake shake shake.

“I never heard a name for him. That never really comes up,” he said. He stuffed a fistful of crackers into his mouth. Wrappers littered the ground. Izzy ate as well. “But he’s a bad guy.”

“Yeah. Nina says he plays with his food. Like he tortures people. I think he – my mom is dead because of him.”

Sunday was very quiet. His whole frame seemed to come into focus. “I didn’t know your mom was dead,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

Izzy smiled sadly at him, and didn’t meet his eyes all the way. Sunday stopped her from looking back down and held her by the hand. “I’m sorry,” he said again.

“Thank you,” Izzy said.

“I’ve never lost somebody, really,” Sunday said. He looked very far away. “I had a mother.” He started to speak and got tangled in the words. He stayed quiet for a few minutes and picked at the grass.

“A few months ago he killed a friend of mine. And I thought – I don’t know. I saw him for a second afterward and I didn’t recognize him. I thought maybe I was crazy or seeing things or something. Nina and my grandpa told me about what he was, but still. Who is he?”

“The person I knew was a …” he struggled with the words. “A malignancy. And a thug.” He sat there with a strange look on his face, remembering. “And a monster,” he said after a minute. “He comes from an old story. An old idea.”

“Older than you?”

“No,” Sunday said. “He’s not as old as me. I don’t really – how do years work now? Is it still eighteen before nineteen? Or does nineteen come before eighteen now? You all keep changing it.”

Sunday counted out on his fingers.

“It would have been about three or four hundred years ago, I think. Not too long ago. And it was a Thursday. Somebody probably dreamed too hard. Who knows. The impression I got from him was that he was petty, and a bully. I thought he was ambitious, or driven, or whatever the word is, but I think now that he was scared.”

“Of what?” Izzy asked.

Sunday shrugged. “I never asked him. I don’t even know if I’m right about it. Like I said, it was just an impression. But he wanted something that he wasn’t allowed to have. And he went far to get it, like Thursday does, and that’s why I thought he was driven. It was all he thought about.”

“Was that the note?”

Sunday was vaguely surprised. “Yes,” he said.

“My grandpa told me about it. He has it now. Do you know what it says?”

He shook his head. Shake shake shake shake. “That’s not my job. And even if I did I couldn’t tell you. It’s an old, old truth, is what they say.”

“Right.”

“Anyway, he took it. Did the dad you miss … did your grandpa, I mean. Did he tell you that only one person can know what’s on that note at a time?”

“Yeah.”

“He stole it from somebody, and he made them forget. You’re not allowed to do that here. You’re not allowed to get rid of ideas that don’t have any other home.”

“Did he kill who he stole it from?”

“Yes. He carved him up, and he took it.” Sunday put his hands in his pockets and sighed. Izzy didn’t know how old he was, but he looked old. This happened a long time ago, she knew. “And once he knew it,” Sunday continued, “we couldn’t take it from him. So they told him to leave and never come back. If he comes back inside it’d kill him. They gave him a little room to live in, but that was it. They barred him, and that was a mistake. He would turn up in dreams every once in awhile, and those always floated back here, and they were horrible. He was making people do things. I don’t know why. And I don’t know what happened after that,” he said quickly.

He was a bad liar. He had already said that he knew who Nina was.

“Nina stole the note,” Izzy said. “She wrote about it.”

“Oh.”

And there they sat. She let it drop. He didn’t have to say a thing.

“I’m going to meet him.”

“What?”

“I saw him here. I need to see more.”

“You said that you had never seen him before your friend’s house.”

“I hadn’t.”

“But you saw him in here?” Sunday asked. He indicated the spreading field.

Izzy nodded.

“This place belongs to a memory of yours,” Sunday said. “If he was here, then –”

“Then I’ve met him before, yeah. And he made me forget. And if I forgot that, then what else did I lose?”

“Small girl –”

“So I need to see more, so I can figure it out. Right? That’s what I’m supposed to do, right?” She looked at him pleadingly. “I need to go back and see what he was doing to me.”

“What happens if you find out?”

Izzy shook her head. “I don’t know. I tell someone. Something. I don’t know.”

“Who will you tell?”

Izzy gestured towards Nina’s notebook. “Anybody,” she said.

Sunday sighed and looked at Izzy very carefully. “There are other things, small girl. Like the tree and the rain, you know? There are happier things than this. You don’t need to.”

“Yes I do.”

“I know,” he said. “But will you finish you crackers first?”

“Sunday,” she started.

“There are happier things,” he said again. “Things that you can see. This place is beautiful, and – and there are so many things here. Everything is here.” He had not let go of her hand, and looked afraid to.

“You don’t get it.”

“I do. He took things from you. He took your mother and your friend. I have a mother. My mother is January. She’s days and days.” He picked up a wrapper from the ground and let it blow away in the breeze. “I would be very sad if anything happened to my mother. And now I have a friend, too. I don’t want her to be sad.”

“What do you want me to do?” Izzy asked.

“Stay.”

“I won’t.”

His shoulders slumped. He thought and thought. When he looked back up at her, his eyes were very strange.

“You’re resolute.”

“Yes.”

He sighed.

“Are you afraid, too?”

“Yes.”

“Tell me why.”

“Him. Stagger Lee. The music man.”

Sunday nodded. “I’ve decided something.”

“What is it?”

“You would rather be sad than afraid.”

Izzy nodded. He nodded with her. Nod nod nod.

“I understand,” he said. “Are you willing to see things that will hurt you?”

Nod nod nod. Nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod nod.

“Yes.”

“What was your mother’s name?” Sunday asked.

“Her name is Gret Parsons. Why?”

He closed his eyes and wiped the cracker crumbs from his hands. “There are more memories here than yours,” he said. “And you would rather be sad than afraid.”

Sunday stood up and stared at the tree at the center of the field. Before his gaze, it wavered and dispersed into the changing air. They were in a room again. The floor began to shift and crack. It fell away into a dim light that surrounded the pair. They stood on nothing as the room crumbled away.

Izzy gaped. “Are you doing that?” she asked.

“Yes.”

The room settled again. There was a new door inside. It read “431 Clover Street” in little gold letters.

“Do you know what’s inside?” Sunday asked.

“Yeah.”

“Will you look?”

She nodded.

“Once we go in you can’t stop it,” Sunday said.

Izzy opened the door. This time Sunday walked through with her. To where Gret Parsons died. He held her by the shoulder.

It was a living room, and it was ruined. The radio was playing.

Immediately she felt herself being drawn out of herself again, into the fabric of the carpet and into the walls and ceiling. She felt a lack of herself as Izzy Parsons went away again. Sunday held onto her and the feeling left her. It had not passed but fled. She was herself, and the room was a room. It was a living room, and it was ruined. But she was not it.

Broken and splintered furniture, dust and smashed windows, trash bags and papers, a postal box on a chair, sleeping bags, a gun on the floor, and her mother kneeling down and examining.

Izzy stared as hard as she could. How she moved. How she breathed. What order she thought of things. Where her eyes went as she looked around the room. She took it all. She perceived and did her very best to retain the impressions of her mother.

Gret walked into the kitchen and Izzy followed. She heard her mother swear. She heard Sunday whimper.

There were bodies. There were flaps of skin and muscle and bone. Mr. and Mrs. Leigh. Every detail. Every detail. She perceived.

White paint splattered the walls: “we’ll now go to the tents and put on the gloves; and I’ll try to make you feel what a sweet thing it is to be alive.”

Her mom pulled her gun from its holster and crept out of the room. She walked silently. Izzy watched her feet. She followed her upstairs and checked the house. Her mother was quick and quiet and not afraid.

In the kitchen, her mother looked carefully at the bodies and followed a trail around the house that Izzy couldn’t see. Some logic drove her from point to point. Her mom pulled her phone out and dialed.

“Police. This is sergeant Gret Parsons, with the military police. I’m at the site of a murder in a residential area. I’m at 431 Clover Street. Three people are dead inside the house. No, I’m okay. The bodies look old, and there’s no sign of anybody else in the house. Umm … three bodies – two adults, one child. All mutilated. Cut apart; there are pictures scattered all over the kitchen. It looks like they’ve been tortured. Yeah, the power’s been cut in the house. Understood. 431 Clover Street, Wilkes-Barre Township. Gret Parsons. I’m with the 320th. Yes.”

The phone left her ear. A rush of static and music. She watched the color drain from her mom’s face. Sunday squeezed her hand.

“Shit. Shit, shit.”

She ran into the living room and tried the door.

“Oh, god.”

She ripped open the box on the chair and looked inside briefly. She discarded it, uncaring. Izzy looked over her shoulder.

There was a camera inside – she had seen it before, when the doorbell rang at her grandpa’s house.

“Hello? Hello? This is Sergeant Gret Parsons, 320th Military Police Battalion. The house is occupied. Do not approach. Tell the squad car not to approach the house.”

She shut the phone angrily. She put her gun away and waited for a moment. A second voice.

“Did they hear you?”

“I’m alone. How about you come over and we talk.”

“Are they coming? Do you think they can hear you?” The voice’s body appeared. Stagger Lee. Izzy was frozen. Her mother was not.

“No,” she said. “Nobody’s coming.”

“Why not?”

“I told them not to.”

“You’re not Jim. What are you doing here?”

“I’m Gret. How about we sit down?”

“Oh. No, I think I’ll stand. It’s almost time to go. Why did you tell them not to come?”

“Because that was you on the phone.”

“Hmm.”

Their voices were pleasant. He took a step towards her mother, who didn’t back up. Every detail. Every detail. How she held herself. Where her hands went.

“Did you kill that family in there?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Stagger Lee said.

“Why?”

“I’m not sure I understand the question.”

The innocence reminded her of Sunday. He really didn’t understand. He wasn’t lying. It was nauseating.

“Did you kill a girl named Chelsea a few months ago?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“I knew her.”

“I did too. I’m sorry.” He walked to within inches of her, passing Izzy and Sunday to do it. She watched his stride. Every detail.

“You’re Jim’s daughter,” he said. “I’m sorry about your dad. Nobody deserves that. Nobody deserves that, Gret. I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you.”

He hugged her. Izzy sobbed loudly and shut her eyes.

“Nobody deserves to die, Gret.”

“No. Nobody does.”

Izzy’s legs gave way. She hit the ground hard and shook. Both hands covered her eyes. Sunday knelt in front of her and held her and held her. Whatever happened after that happened in the dark. But she could still see. She could see through her eyelids. She could see when she turned around. She grabbed at Sunday, trying to distract herself. She looked into his face.

She heard her mother speak: “Did you write that on the wall?”

“Yes,” Stag said. “It’s George Borrow. From Lavengro. Do you know it?”

“No.”

Sunday pushed Izzy’s head into his shoulder and whispered to her. Whatever it was he said, Izzy didn’t hear.

I now wandered along the heath, till I came to a place where, beside a thick furze, sat a man, his eyes fixed intently on the red ball of the setting sun,” Stag said.

“Please. Please don’t. My –”

Her voice left her.

“’What is your opinion of death, Mr. Petulengro?’ said I, as I sat down beside him.

My opinion of death, brother, is much the same as that in the old song of Pharaoh, which I have heard my grandam sing —

Cana marel o manus chivios ande puv, Ta rovel pa leste o chavo ta romi.’ When a man dies, he is cast into the earth, and his wife and child sorrow over him. If he has neither wife nor child, then his father and mother, I suppose; and if he is quite alone in the world, why, then, he is cast into the earth, and there is an end of the matter.’

And do you think that is the end of a man?’

There’s an end of him, brother, more’s the pity.’

Why do you say so?’

‘Life is sweet, brother.’” Stagger Lee smiled.

“Please don’t do this,” her mother said. “You don’t have to do this. Please don’t.”

“Shh.”

Izzy shook her head. Shake shake shake. Shake shake shake. Please don’t do this. Please. She sat and shook and cried. Sunday shielded her as best she could. Through everything, she saw her mother stop moving completely. Just stop.

Please.

“Do you think so too? Do you think life is sweet and beautiful, Gret?”

“Please.”

“Do you think, Gret? Don’t you think life is beautiful?”

“No,” she said.

“Why not?”

“There are cancers like you in it.”

“Gret, if you believed that bad things took joy from the world you would have killed yourself. Fear sits next to joy, but it can’t replace it. Life is beautiful even when it’s scary. And why would someone want to die, when there is so much to live for?”

“You killed her for no reason. You killed her. You –”

The room was silent, except for Izzy’s sobs.

“Okay,” her mother said. “I know what you are.”

“Do you know why I’m here?”

“You want my dad.”

“I want what was taken from me.”

“Please. Please.”

“Your dad locked me up. He didn’t play fair, Gret. And he took something that should be mine.” He smiled pleasantly. “I’m going to stop your lungs,” he said.

Izzy screamed and didn’t stop until her voice broke. She scratched at the ground and at her face and at Sunday’s back. She pushed away from him with all she had and tried to run to her mother. Sunday held her tightly, immovable.

“Go fuck yourself,” her mom yelled. Izzy heard it despite the fear in her. “What? You think you can scare me? All you’re gonna do is kill me. You think you can scare me, too? You think you – you think you can scare me?”

She gasped and sputtered. Spit rolled from her.

“Gret, death is the worst thing in the world. Death is the end of life, and life is wonderful.” He took her by the shoulders.

There was nothing left in Izzy. Her mind left her, and she could still hear the words. But there was nothing left to comprehend.

“Gret. Gret, stay with me. Listen to me, please. Shh, listen. I’m going to kill you, Gret. I’m going to kill you and cut you up because I know he loves you. They’re never going to find you. And when they go looking I’ll kill them too. And then I’ll come to your house, and I’ll kill Jim, and I’ll kill whoever else comes to save him, Gret. I’ll kill him after I’ve taken his girls away from him. I’ll skin him and I’ll throw him away. I’ll tear his skull apart and see his inside him, and I’ll take what’s mine. Shh. Gret. Shh, now. I won’t kill Izzy, Gret. I’m going to keep her with me, and she’ll hold my hand. But not until after I hurt her. She’ll be first.”

Nothing inside Izzy. Nothing left. Stagger Lee ran his hand through her mother’s hair.

“She loves you so much, Gret.”

Izzy didn’t hear Matt and Zig enter the room. She didn’t see their eyes. She didn’t see the knife or her mother as she bled. Sunday just rocked her back and forth. Her mother’s last words were “stop toying with me and hurry up.” Izzy didn’t hear them.

Hours after Gret had bled to death, Izzy and Sunday sat huddled where they were, in the corner of a hotel room. No one spoke for the rest of the day or the rest of the night. In the morning, Izzy said something to him, muffled by their proximity.

“Show me again,” she said.

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Chapter 82

79. Jim

Chapter 78

Jim

My hands are shaking. Jesus Christ. I’m alone in the house. I dropped the gun as soon as Stag shut the door. Jesus.

I’m so tired of this. I’m tired. I want it to be over.

I really do. No fooling. Nick and the Leighs and Gret and Zig and Izzy and now Matt. I don’t know, Kyle. I think I crossed a line, here. I think what I did you don’t come back from. Even if he didn’t die. Even if I knew he wouldn’t when I pulled the trigger.

What the fuck am I still doing here, kid? I think I crossed a line.

I can pull a lot of stuff and talk my way back into going to sleep with it on my conscience. You know me. I never second-guessed. Even lying to Izzy. I was right to do it, and if I wasn’t I at least didn’t mind too much being wrong.

This is different. It wasn’t like Nick, either. Nick was an accident. We made a mistake, and that’s alright. After forty years, making a mistake isn’t so bad. I miss him, but come on, now. If we hadn’t left him I wouldn’t be here. Like I said, this is different. It went according to plan – it was an … it was an acceptable loss. I don’t like talking that way.

Talk about things the way they are, George Carlin said.

I, premeditated and in cold blood, have shot a child so that I could hurt somebody else. So that I could rattle somebody, and have him playing my game from here on out. I shot a child. I did, and I will not deny it.

Have you ever killed a kid, Kyle? Even back in those old days before any of us? Did you ever kill a kid? I know you did. Did you let it get to you? I know you didn’t.

We are monsters, and we deserve to die for what we’ve done. We deserve it. Man, I don’t know. If we were good people we would have turned guns on ourselves. I don’t know if you can die, but I don’t think that would stop you from trying it if you really wanted to. And I’m still alive because I have a plan, and it needs a couple things done.

For these things I have debased myself. So I just need to hold off the tiredness a little bit more, and that makes it feel a little better. As if I deserve that.

Okay.

I don’t know where you are right now, but I get the feeling if I do this right I can get you to hear me, and I want you to know that I still need your help. It takes – what? Three weeks to get back from the hotel if you take the long way? The first thing I need you to do is turn around and head back in as fast as you can go. I need you inside the hotel because I’m gonna send Stag in. And when he gets there, he’ll be weak and crippled and he’ll know it, but he’ll go in anyway. He won’t have a choice after I’m done with him. So you let him come to you, and then you tear him to shreds, and we can be done with it.

Trust me on this. I can make him go in. So turn around right fucking now.

Also –

Also, this is probably going to be the last time I talk with you, kid. The last time, you know? If it goes well, I mean. Step two or three of the plan is for me to not make it. I just figured I’d let you know that. I’m not so good at this stuff, but this’ll be the last you hear from me. And I just wanted to let you know that you’ve been a good friend to me and mine, Kyle Marshal. I have never cared what else you were – I don’t care. You’ve been a good friend to me, and that’s worth something. Thank you for knowing me, and for making me better. Give my regards to Annette when you make it back, okay? Thanks. I’m trusting you with this.

Goodbye. I’ll see you –

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Chapter 80

78. Matt

Chapter 77

Matt

Matt’s eyes weren’t focusing right. They weren’t really seeing the way they should, and his friend knew it. He stroked his face, and Matt pushed inward, away from him. His friend didn’t notice. It was an animal reaction – there was no consciousness driving it. The back of his head felt sticky, and he couldn’t stop shaking. His friend said something to him out of sight, but Matt couldn’t hear it. He could feel the vibrations of the voice and he knew the words, but there was something keeping him from hearing it.

His friend laid him down on the floor of the string room and walked away from him. So Matt was left alone, and he couldn’t see the ceiling. Again he felt a vibration in the air, and he knew – or some part of him knew – that his friend had plucked a string. There was another and another. The music began.

Immediately Matt felt himself jolt and invert and revert. The music shot through him. He took deep, cutting breaths and gulped hard after each one.

The music calmed him a little as it went. He didn’t feel anything, and then he felt terror and then joy and then nothing again. His brain was pulling itself together to the tune of the music. He felt it crawl, and he felt little bits of his skull begin to move back together again.

He felt a little pressure on his hand, and he turned his head a tiny bit and saw something at the edge of his vision before it closed itself to him. And after that there was nothing.

The first thing he heard – and the last before he blacked out to let the music do its work – was the sound of his friend sobbing.

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Chapter 79

77. Mister Stagger Lee

Chapter 76

June 9th

Mister Stagger Lee

4:31 pm. He entered the house unheeded by its occupants. His friends were inside. One was gone and in pieces in the shade. The other was being held. The devil himself could be in the house, and he wouldn’t care. He would bring his friends back to where they would be safe. Into the light with him.

So he entered the house and found what he was looking for.

Jim sat in his chair. Matt was unconscious on the floor. Jim’s eyes were open.

A small pot of water sat boiling away at his feet with no flame to heat it. And Izzy and the dark were gone.

“Stay where you are,” Jim said. “There’s a chair to your left. Sit in it.” His shaky old hand, resting on his knee, pointed a gun at Matt’s head.

“Hi, Jim,” he said. He sat down.

“Hey, Stag.”

“Jim,” he began.

“You take another step and I shoot. Nod if you understand.”

He nodded and smiled expectantly. “I’ve been meaning to ask you, Jim. I’ve heard that name now a few times – what is it?”

“Stagger Lee?”

“Yes, Stagger Lee. What does it mean?”

Jim’s gun didn’t move. “I named you after the worst thing in the world,” he said.

He swished it back and forth in his mouth, tasting it and considering it. Stagger Lee smiled with his teeth and his eyes. “I’m the only thing in the world, Jim.”

“Sure, yeah. How did you get out of Nina’s room?” Jim asked.

He laughed. “Where do you think we are? The room’s wherever Matt is. He’s got a really good imagination, doesn’t he? He dreams me right out of it.”

“So I should probably shoot him now, huh? That’d solve my problems pretty well.”

He smiled. Stagger Lee smiled. That could be his name. “I’m sorry about what happened to Gret, Jim, but it wasn’t my fault she was in that house alone.”

“You don’t get to say her fucking name!”

“Ah,” he said evenly. “I apologize. I know it must be hard for you. If it makes you feel better, it wasn’t her fault, either.”

Jim cocked the gun against Matt’s head, and Stagger Lee smiled wider.

“Put that away, Jim. Don’t embarrass yourself.”

“I want my daughter’s body delivered to me intact, and I want a day safe from you. If you don’t agree I kill the boy. Yes or no?”

Jim Parsons had very cold eyes, he noticed.

“You can have Gret – sorry. You can have your daughter. But I want something too, Jim. I’d like very much to see what it was you took from me.”

Jim nodded. “I know,” he said. “How do you plan on getting it?”

Mirth. “Cracking you open and reading it inside you.”

“Sure. That’s fine with me. I’m serious. You come back tomorrow and I won’t lift a finger to stop you. You can break me apart all you want. I want the day to get things in order, though. And after that I just want it to be over. So my daughter’s body and one day for Matt Leigh and your property.

Stagger Lee straightened up and asked a question in timidity. “What if I walked over and took him from you, Jim?” he asked. “The last time we made a deal it didn’t work out for me very well. So what if I just cut the knot and took my friend and saved him from you?”

“Depends on how fast you think you are. Gret’s body and one day for Matt Leigh and the message. Yes or no?”

“You know, you already killed a friend of mine. Do I get his body?”

“I killed two,” Jim said. “Yes or no, Stag?”

He stared. “Jake?” he asked. Hate. Hate. His voice grew very quiet. “What did you do to him?” Hate.

“Oh. I gave him a knife.”

A tear rolled down his cheek. “Why?”

“Yes or no, Stag?”

He glared at him. He glared and glared. No one deserved to die. No one deserved it. He looked the old crippled man up and down. His hand was shaking from the weight of the gun. There was fear there. He knew he saw it. There was fear. He smiled.

“Can you kill a child, Jim?” he asked.

“Yes.”

He stared into the old man’s eyes for a long time. “No, you can’t,” he said. “No deal. I think I’ll just –”

Jim pulled the trigger. The bullet impacted the back of Matt’s head, and bone and brain and blood scattered and splattered across the floor.

The music man was on his feet and across the room. His hand was outstretched. Rage flooded him. Jim did not move or even twitch. He stopped inches from his face.

“You’re standing in his blood,” Jim said. He nodded vaguely at Matt’s body and the little pot of water next to it. “Sit back down.”

“He was a little boy!” he shouted. “You coward. You piece of filth, he was a little boy. He didn’t deserve that!”

“Yeah,” Jim said. “So save him. Go sit down. We have a deal to make.”

“I should stop your heart, Jim. I should –”

“Sit the fuck down, Stag. You’re gonna run out of time if you don’t.”

He looked at the boiling water. Since the gunshot it had begun to hiss. “What is that?” he asked.

“That’s how you’re gonna save his life, Stag. Here’s the rules of it: Matt’s still alive as long as the water hasn’t boiled away. You understand what I’m saying? The water is our contract. You agree to my terms and spill it, that’s binding. He wakes back up, you put him back together however it is you do that, you leave my house, you give me my daughter’s body and I’m safe for twenty-four hours. That’s 4:39 am tomorrow. If anything happens to me in those twenty-four hours, you don’t get shit, but after that you can do what you want to me. You can search around in my head as much as you want. These are the terms in water. You violate any part of the agreement, then my will be done. Yes or no?”

“I’ll kill you. I swear that I’ll kill you. He was a little boy, you scum.”

“He is a little boy, unless you keep wasting time talking at me. Yes or no, Stag?”

Jim took his feeble hand and gripped his knee. He dragged his leg across the ground and placed it next to the pot of water. He gave it a very weak kick, and they watched as the water shifted from the movement.

The music man stared at Matt’s limp body, and at the hole in his head. He wanted to cry. “Yes,” he said quietly.

“Good. There’s that, then. We’re bound in water. Pour it on the floor and let it touch him. He’ll wake up and he’s yours. And you give me what I want. Those are the rules. Then you get out of my house.”

The man kicked the pot over. It sizzled as it ran against the boy’s skin. Matt screamed, and opened his eyes. His friend reached for him and held him close. The jagged bits of Matt’s skull dug into his shoulder. His eyes lolled, frenzied.

“Shh,” he said. “It’s okay. I’m here now. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”

Matt stared at him, wild-eyed, gasping and crying. His friend lifted him and stood up, his eyes on Jim. Very quietly, he whispered comfort to Matt. With his friend sobbing into his shoulder, he walked to the door. He turned back to the murderer and stared his way for a few minutes.

“See you tomorrow, Stag,” Jim said.

“No you won’t,” he said. “I’ll blind you first. You’ll never see me again. But Izzy will.” He didn’t blink when he talked. He had forgotten to.

The two left the house. He and Matt. Back to the room where he could play music. Everything was going to be alright.

That was the third time he and Jim Parsons had had a conversation.

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Chapter 78

76. Izzy

Chapter 75

June 8th

Izzy

Nina was right – all of the hallways were the same. All of them. And there were more and more every time she looked. She had stopped counting at a hundred and forty floors when she realized that she wasn’t out of breath. She took five or six steps to catch up with each of Sunday’s strides, and still she didn’t get tired.

Being in the hallways felt different – she couldn’t see the way she could in the room. Her vision was strictly front and center, like being outside or back home. After a night in the room, it felt very strange to not be aware of things behind her and above her and things that might happen soon. She kept looking behind and around, and twice she heard a metallic noise from below her, like something big scraping across the ground. She stepped a little closer to Sunday, who either hadn’t noticed the noise or didn’t care.

“I’ve heard the hallways are dangerous,” she said.

“Did your books tell you that?”

“Yes,” Izzy said.

“Oh.”

“Why?”

Sunday shrugged. “I don’t really know why you guys spend so much time figuring this place out, you know,” he said. It’s not that complicated. It’s just – and these hallways aren’t that dangerous, really. This wing is mostly okay. This place isn’t that complicated, though, is what I was saying. I don’t know why you need your books.”

Izzy shrugged.

“I’ve seen those books before,” Sunday said. “They all have a lot of pages and the writing is really small and there’s no pictures.” He mimed reading a book until his hands muddled themselves. “You don’t need that much room to talk about this place. You don’t need it.” He shrugged too.

Shrug shrug shrug. Shrug shrug shrug shrug. Always exaggerated, and always what she had done.

“I guess,” Izzy said. “But this place is weird, isn’t it? That seems like a good reason to write about it to me.”

“Nah,” he said. “You’re where you go when you’re dreaming. That’s it. The hotel is where dreams are. You don’t need a travel guide some lady wrote to tell you anything about it.”

Izzy stopped and stared at him.

“Do you know Nina?”

Sunday laughed. “Sure,” he said. “Everybody knows Nina. She wrote your books. I know a guy who met her in here back maybe thirty or so years ago, I think. And I helped her out once when she was a kid. She’s old.” Nod nod nod.

“Yeah,” Izzy said, hurrying to catch up. He hadn’t slowed down when she had stopped. He didn’t even look as though he had noticed. “She doesn’t act like it, though.”

“You know her?”

“I’ve met her. She’s living in Pennsylvania near me. My grandpa knows her.”

“Is your grandpa the dad you miss?”

Her eyes fell.

“Yeah.”

“Oh.”

They rounded a corner into another hallway.

He looked at her curiously.

“Is that why you’re so quiet? Because of your grandpa?” he asked. He sounded sincere. Like he really didn’t know.

“I can’t ever leave,” Izzy said.

Sunday stared blankly.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s why I’m so quiet.”

“Oh.”

She rubbed her eyes and walked.

“I’m sorry,” he said after about a minute. “Um, I don’t really – you know we don’t really think the way you – I’m sorry. It never occurred –”

“It’s okay,” Izzy said.

He scratched his head. “I can’t tell if you mean it or not. It’s tricky.”

“I mean it.”

“Oh, okay. I’m sorry. This place isn’t – I’m sorry.”

“I said it’s okay.”

“I know,” Sunday said.

“What were you going to say about this place?”

“Nothing. It wouldn’t have been – I don’t know the word it wouldn’t have been. Nothing.”

She shoved him in the side. It made a “thud” and he didn’t move.

“Come on,” she said. “Go ahead and tell me.”

“It’s just that this place isn’t that bad,” he said. “I didn’t want to say anything because – I know you’re upset and it didn’t seem like the right time. But this place is beautiful, small girl. It’s beautiful. Try not to be so sad. This isn’t a bad – excuse me.”

He was crying. A hand the size of a spade wiped across his face and nose. The bird on his shoulder rocked back and forth with the motion.

“This isn’t a bad place to spend your life. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to – I’m sorry about your grandpa. I don’t have words for it, but I’m very sorry. Please. Please don’t tell it.”

He was sobbing.

Izzy stared at him as he leaned against a wall and buckled at the knees. He sat hunched on the floor, shaking and shaking and crying his eyes out.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I wasn’t supposed to make you sad,” he said. “That’s what it said. That’s what it said. Now it’s going to swallow me up. Please don’t tell it that I messed up, small girl. Please don’t tell.”

“Why are you afraid of Mr. Marshal?” Izzy asked.

His hands were pulling at his hair. He could hardly look at her. He whispered his words like he might be overheard.

“He’s the dark,” Sunday said. “He’s the whole dark, and I can’t – he said he’d swallow me up if I didn’t do what he said. I don’t want to die, small girl. I don’t – Izzy, I don’t want to die.”

Izzy shook her head. “I won’t let him hurt you,” she said.

Through his tears, he breathed in deep. “You won’t tell?” he asked.

She held out her hand to him. “I’ll protect you,” she said. “I won’t tell him anything. It’s okay.”

He rested his hand around hers. It engulfed it. And he just looked at her for a minute, like he couldn’t believe what he had heard.

“Thank you,” Sunday said.

He stood up, and they walked down the hallway hand in hand.

She would protect him.

She meant it, too. She didn’t care what Mr. Marshal had said to him, if he had said anything. It didn’t matter to her. It wasn’t fair to make Sunday cry like that. It’s not fair for people to pick on people. That’s what bullies do.

She blinked as she realized what she was thinking. She had never had a little brother before.

She had thoughts that felt like they were viewed through glass about the way things used to be before everything happened. Her home had been bigger before safe places started to pull farther away. Before she visited Nina, before she saw the tall man in the Leigh’s house, before Chelsea, before she knew about the pregnancy, before Jake. Before her mom. A little more than a year ago she had graduated middle school. She felt just like that. She felt like all the other things didn’t really happen. She couldn’t make them real. So she swallowed the thought as best she could and kept it down.

Chelsea had wanted to keep it. They had only talked about it three times – once on the playground and twice after – and each time Chelsea had called it “he” like she knew for certain. That made it seem too close. To Izzy it wasn’t real, so it wasn’t a he or a she or an anything. Chelsea died before she started to really show. She corrected herself – Chelsea had been killed.

She had wanted to name it Matt. Once Izzy had asked her what she would have done if she had been wrong – if it had been a girl. Chelsea looked straight at her and gave an answer. Afterward she had tried to play it off as a joke, but she had said it. If it was a girl it would have been named Izzy. And nobody really knew what to think of that.

It was hard to keep her thoughts straight here. She jumped around. For some reason thinking about Chelsea had made her think about watching Star Wars with her family, and about the tree house. She settled on a very small memory that surprised her in its tenacity. Her school counselor, asking her incessantly if she was alright. Over and over. She wondered if this train of thought would lead to a revelation of great connectedness and unity. If it did, she wondered if she would notice or if she would find some way to distract herself. She shrugged and thought about other things.

The new things she thought about resembled very much the old things. They were the same. They were all she could think about in the world. Even here, where things didn’t connect to one another. Even here.

She looked up her enormous and scarred companion, who had not let go of her hand. He had stopped walking, and was looking far ahead.

She went to speak.

“Wait,” he whispered. “Look.”

Ahead of them was … something. She could hardly see it – it was flat against the ground, and small, and quite far away. Sunday crept up to it and gently pulled Izzy along. “You’ve read the books,” he said. “So you know about ideas.”

“They live here, right? Anything you think of?”

Nod nod nod. “Whatever anybody thinks of,” Sunday said. “As long as they get picked up and cared for.”

This was familiar. Socrates and Phaedrus and something about writing things down and killing them and the idea man collecting them. Nina didn’t write in metaphors even when she wrote crazy things. It was hard to keep that in mind.

“Memories too?”

“Mm hmm. And dreams and things people forgot about. Help me bend down,” he said, indicating his leg. They had arrived at the shape on the floor, and Izzy saw what it was. She squared her shoulders and let Sunday lean on her slightly as he lowered himself down down down.

In front of them was a framed picture. Sunday took it reverentially. “Shhh,” he said. “It’s okay. You’re a beautiful thing.”

Izzy studied. “What is it?” she asked.

Sunday shrugged as he stood back up, grunting in pain from his bad leg. He took care not to drop or jostle the little frame. “I don’t know,” he said, “but it needs a home. Come on – you can touch it. It’s okay.”

She let her fingertips run along the back of the picture, and felt her stomach drop away. She and Sunday were standing in the middle of an enormous parking lot, flanked by streetlights in the middle of the night.

“This is somebody’s dream, I think,” Sunday said. “It feels asleep. Sometimes they just need a little help.”

A young man wearing overalls was kneeling down next to a horse in the middle of the parking lot, petting it. The horse was breathing hard, and its eyes darted. It trembled on the ground, jostled itself, and made weak and rasping noises as the man whispered to it. Izzy couldn’t hear what he was saying.

“Is this his dream?” Izzy asked. “Or the horse’s?”

“I don’t know. I’m not supposed to look.”

“Could you make it better?” Izzy asked.

“Sure,” Sunday said. “But it wouldn’t count. All it would do is give me a memory of a healthy horse. The good things don’t get rid of the bad ones – they sit on top of them. Whoever this dream or this memory belongs to would still remember it the way it went in his head. It’s just my job to catalog them and make sure they stay. I can’t go changing them – it wouldn’t count. It wouldn’t be real.”

The man fed the horse a little slice of apple, and continued petting it as it brayed weakly. She reached out for the horse and waited for Sunday to stop her. He didn’t, and she let her hand fall. It felt like a horse would, she supposed.

“I pet a horse when I was little,” Izzy said. “At a birthday party. That’s how I know what a horse feels like. Does that mean I’m petting that one when I pet this one?”

Sunday nodded. Nod nod nod nod nod nod nod.

“It’s turning into your memory,” he said. “You’re putting bits of yourself into it. What you bring to it tells it what it is. That’s why I don’t look.”

“Do you have memories?” Izzy asked.

He shrugged. “I can’t remember,” he said.

He stuck his tongue out and laughed, and Izzy smacked him on the forearm. She was grinning.

She looked back at the horse and started to see more and more similarities to the one she had pet at the birthday party. She turned away from it and left the man to tending his friend. She looked back at Sunday, who was studying the photo in which they were standing.

She looked down at the picture, and her surroundings twisted themselves again, and she stood back where she was in the hallway with Sunday. He was laughing a little.

She took it in, reasoned it out, and asked a question.

“You said you’re not supposed to,” she said. “And you mentioned your job. What did you mean? What’s your job?”

Sunday shook his head. “I just give them a place to stay.”

“Are you the idea man?”

Sunday grinned dimly.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m the idea man. But then, so are you.” He took the picture from her gently and held it in both hands.

“What?” Izzy asked.

He smiled. “We’re all idea men. Every one of us. Now come on, I know a room near here that this one would like.”

“Where do ideas live?”

Sunday waved his hand around him and pointed at random rooms. “They’re everywhere, small girl,” he said.

She reached out and touched the edge of the picture and sort of expected to have her hand pass through it. Sunday put it away in the big pocket of his coat. She thought for a minute.

“Are my memories here?”

“Sure.”

“Can I see them?”

He looked at her, alarmed.

“You think that’s a good idea?” he asked. He looked around carefully, like he had when he told her about Mr. Marshal. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“Is there a rule against it or something?”

“No, no,” Sunday said. “It’s just that – I mean, wouldn’t they make you sad?”

She squeezed his hand until the pressure made her’s go numb. “That’s okay,” she said.

“Oh,” Sunday said. “Okay, then,” he said.

He reached for a nearby doorknob and opened what Izzy had thought was a room like hers. It was another hallway instead. They took it – Sunday opened another door into another hallway, and then another and another and another. Each one was a right turn, and each one was the center door in its row. Izzy realized that after enough rights they should have ended up where they started, and she was not surprised that they didn’t. It was another door. It was marked. None of the other doors had been marked.

It was marked “vacancy”.

“How does it work?” Izzy asked.

“You just go inside. The room does all the rest.”

She opened the door and walked through before he could stop her. He made a noise behind her, but she couldn’t make out what it was. She left him holding the picture frame.

The room was empty – she looked back at the door and found it hanging open and leading to a hallway she had never been. Sunday was gone. And then she felt strange things in her head.

She faded. She gave up any sense of being Izzy Parsons and decided instead to be the room. And so she was the room. Every part of her. She was an expanse and borders and boundaries and was aware of what was outside herself. She took the things outside herself and placed them in the room that was her and watched and watched. The room vanished and all that remained was the intelligence and the expanse and the boundaries, and a dim light. She populated it with whatever she wanted.

There was a deafening noise. Clack clack clack clack. Clack clack clack. Cla –

And they began. Izzy’s memories. She was not a participant or a viewer to them – she was not an audience but a film projector. She saw and felt them as a staging. She was the place in which they played out. She was a signal. She was the room and inside her was her life in moments. She allowed them, and saw them as they passed.

She is the tree house. She listens in the woodwork as Izzy and Chelsea and Charles and Matt plan on hot summer days. She feels the reverberations of pairs of feet climbing the knotted ladder. She is strewn with books and toys. She is a view to the raging fire last summer. She is refuge. She watches as Charles kisses Izzy on the lips, and as Izzy hits him. She is where Izzy and Chelsea and Charles and Matt hid from ghosts in sleeping bags.

She is the field at the base of the tree. She watches Izzy hand her mother nails and boards to build the tree house. Chelsea is there. Charles is there. Matt is not born. She feels the impact as the hammer comes down. She feels the splinter of the wood in the air above her and the crash of a body as Izzy’s mother falls from the tree and lands perfectly on her feet. She watches Izzy’s awed face at the sight of her mother catching a falling piece of wood and climbing back up the tree again. She watches Izzy bend down and pluck a bent nail embedded in the grass.

She is the bedroom. She is the drawer of keepsakes. Inside her is a little photo album, a jar of coins, a journal, class photos, academic awards from primary school, drawings she has made, birthday cards, jewelry left by her grandmother, broken toys, and the bent nail.

She is the playground.

She is the school. She is the car. She is a beach in Virginia at Easter. She is the doctor’s office. She is the playroom in the old house. She is the basement. She is the airport and the tiny plane on the way to Kentucky. She is summer camp. She is her swing set with the sharp edge. She is her grandfather’s hospital room. She is the school bus. She is the backyard. She is the dusty attic full of maps and antiques at the church in her neighborhood. She is Kyle Marshal’s house. She is her dining room – her grandfather prepares food for her and her mother.

She is how she imagines the funeral parlor at her mother’s wake. She is how she imagines the room in which she was born, overlooked by her mother and father.

She is the Leigh’s house, with a door ripped from its hinges. Chelsea is dead inside. Upstairs the curtains are drawn for the night. There is a tall man in a suit and many swirling things.

She is a dream she has forgotten: she is the field. Underneath the tree sit Izzy and her friends. Jake is there with Chelsea. Standing nearby is a man nobody notices, even when they look at him, until he makes himself known. The man is singing. It’s the man from the house. The man from the room, the man from the doorway, the man from the basement. Stagger Lee. In an old dream is the man, and the man is singing. Chelsea stands up and walks out from under the shadow of the tree to stand with the singing man. War, children. It’s just a shot away. One by one, they all join him.

And behind them, at the top of the tree, was their refuge, where they had watched the fire just last summer. And in the corner, just above the window, were three numbers that she had seen probably hundreds of times.

How could she have forgotten?

Four-thirty-one.

How did she miss it?

Stay away – warn them. Do something. Wake up.

Wake up. Wake up.

Izzy was gone. She did not wake up. There was no Izzy to wake. She was the field: she is a dream she had forgotten. All she can do is watch.

The man leads them to a cliff’s edge, holds their hands each in turn, and casts them over the side. They hit the water and let their lungs fill, and the dream ends. The room ends. The memories stop.

She wakes up as herself. She is in the hotel, and the room remains the field. She is not anything but Izzy – an occupant again.

Izzy Parsons sat all alone and lost in thought in the sunshine, huddled with her knees pulled to her chest. When she had seen him from the window of the Leigh’s house there was no familiarity. When she had learned his name there was no recognition. And here he was in a dream from a long time ago, living in a dead part of her mind for years and years without anybody telling her.

She whimpered softly under the tree. Her arms and shoulders had gone numb from holding herself up. There was something hiding in her, from when she was very small. There was something hiding inside her and all of her friends. It wasn’t only Jake. They had all seen him, and they had forgotten.

What else couldn’t she remember?

The dull violation. As soon as she was made aware it was old and faded. There was no one to lash out at and no one to blame. So she sat and thought until she felt like she would vomit. Stagger Lee was there in her childhood. Her’s and Chelsea’s and Charles’s and Matt’s and Jake’s.

So she sat, because that was all there was to do.

The door opened behind her very quietly and shut again. A massive, shaggy man covered in scars filled the frame and crossed it. He entered the field and, in a few steps, stood over Izzy. He sat down next to her, and she leaned her head on his shoulder, just below the feathers of the black bird. Tears ran down, but only a few. Together they looked up at the tree in the center of the room and watched as buckets of rain poured from its branches.

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Chapter 77