Out of print, but signed copies are available here at Author's Den.
When Dr. Kurt Snaber moved into a new house in a new town he was accompanied by his dog, Louis, and the ever-present voices of his mother and his dead wife. Only the dog was welcome.
As he settled into a new position at the local university, and a tentative romance with a new neighbor, Snaber's life began to take an even stranger turn than the one that had brought him to this place. There was something strange going on in this quiet neighborhood--something that seemed to happen each night at 11:00 o'clock.
It was August in Oklahoma. It hadn’t rained since late June. The string of consecutive hundred-degree days was up to some ridiculously high number. There was just a tinge of some strange, stale funk in the air. Kurt Snaber didn’t care. He was leaving here.
He stood in his front yard, a few feet from the real estate sign with the attached rectangle, the one bragging that this house was sold. The movers had come, loaded up their truck and left ahead of him. Louis, the yellow Labrador, sat in the air conditioning of the Accord. There was just one thing left to do.
Gerald finally pulled up, parking his Volvo along the side of the street. The fat psychology professor got out of his car with a grunt. He waddled to the back of the car but stopped on the street. He kind of rubbed a book he was holding as he studied Kurt for a few seconds. Gerald had the straight gray hair trademark of a middle-aged male professor indifferent to his appearance but the intense green eyes of a psychopath. Gerald’s usual expression was snooty. The look he had now begged some question.
After a few seconds, he put his head down and entered the yard. He came to within an arm’s distance of Kurt.
“This is a good thing you’re doing,” he said.
Kurt looked away from the shrink and around the suburban neighborhood. It was so quiet this time of day, all the professional people off to work. Life would go on here, and he would be gone.
“I know,” Kurt agreed and then looked back at his friend.
Now Gerald had the snooty look.
“You know, a lot of people still think you killed her.”
Kurt couldn’t help but smirk. It wasn’t what Gerald said, though. It was Gerald. This blunt, often cruel man was the best he could do for his only friend. Of course, it was Gerald’s blunt nature that had drawn Kurt to him. Before Melanie died, so many people had given Kurt the same look, disguised pity. Gerald had never given that phony look.
“The police didn’t seem to think so,” Kurt replied.
“No. But everyone knows how smart you are. You were the top mathematician at the university. You could have pulled it off. And I don’t think the police miss her.”
Kurt shrugged. He couldn’t argue with that. “Do you think I did it?”
Gerald studied him again, keeping the snooty expression.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know. To take the truth further, I don’t care. She was a nasty bitch. In your shoes, I would have killed her a long time ago.”
Kurt stared hard at his friend, but only for a few seconds. Then he laughed and looked away.
“She controlled you,” Gerald said. “Smothered you, abused you, like so many husbands do to their wives. You haven’t known yourself for years.”
Kurt nodded. He couldn’t argue with any of that either.
“I want you to have this,” Gerald said.
Kurt looked back at his friend and took the book he was holding out. It was a trade paperback, green, with two black intertwined snakes on the cover. Kurt read the title out loud.
“Essentials in Meditation.” He read the name at the bottom. “Gerald Moon.” He smirked. “I didn’t know you had a book.”
“Most people don’t. It’s a few years old, print on demand. I think I’ve sold about twenty copies.”
Kurt flipped the book over and looked at a hideous author picture of his friend on the back cover.
“Skip past the commentary. Go right to the exercises. Most are borrowed, but a few are mine. I think meditation is right up your alley. Between your job and that bitch, your world has been closed off for a long time. You got to be careful how you open it up. You don’t want to end up in another mess.”
Kurt wasn’t sure what another mess could be. He doubted that he would ever meet another Melanie.
“All right. Thank you.”
Kurt stuck out his hand. Gerald took it and then surprised Kurt by pulling him in. They shared an awkward hug.
After pulling away, Gerald said, “Keep in touch. If nothing else, I’m terribly interested in seeing how you turn out.”
Kurt nodded and then watched Gerald waddle away. When he was gone, Kurt got into the Accord. He looked at Louis, who was twitching in his seat, antsy to go.
“Did I kill her?” Kurt asked, looking at the dog. “It’s a good question.” Kurt put the car in gear. “But it’s only a rhetorical question.”
As frequently happened in the last few months, Kurt found himself drawn to a book. This time, it was the book of meditations written by a friend. It sat on the console between him and a bored Louis.
For years, he had been deeply involved with math texts and journals, drowned in this or that math problem. Then, a few months ago, he had picked up something new. He had begun supplementing math with fiction. He was surprised at how addicting it was. Soon, it was less of the math and more of the novels, some classics like Hemmingway and Dickens, but mostly modern horror writers like King and Laymon. Many of the things they wrote shocked Kurt. He found himself amazed at how wicked and perverted they let their characters become, and he enjoyed the jolt to his sense of decency. Eventually, he took a hiatus from math and was basically reading fulltime. He was a fast reader. All and all, he thought he had finished nearly a hundred novels this summer.
Of course, he couldn’t read now. The road wouldn’t let him. Oklahoma went by okay. He listened to the radio and coasted along, thinking of the new home he was moving into and the new job he would be starting. Maybe he would meet a woman. Maybe he would turn and run like hell when he did. Maybe he wouldn’t.
Missouri was hills and forest. It was pretty but the up and down wore on him. He grew sick of the radio. He longed to be in his chair, with a soft light shining down on a novel. He longed for this because now he realized that over the last few months the fiction had been his coping mechanism. It had occupied him with worlds of imaginary people, filled him with their struggles and angst, and kept his memories below the surface of consciousness. Now, somewhere near the middle of Missouri, Kurt had nothing to hold the memories down. Kurt remembered.
It was going to be a long summer. Kurt had woke up late and taken his coffee outside on the deck. It was a quarter till nine, and already the thermometer had passed eighty. Before he finished his mug of coffee, he had little beads of sweat on his forehead. He thought of the day ahead of him as he looked at the clear water of his pool. It would be another week before summer classes started. He would be teaching two graduate courses. He didn’t need to prep but would anyway, working out problems he hadn’t worked for a while, enjoying retracing his steps.
Last night, he had gotten involved in something new. He had been at the grocery store, near the checkout lanes, when something caught his attention. It was one of those cardboard bookstands they liked to put up front for the impulse buyers. Kurt examined the rack before picking up a Stephen King novel and thumbing through it. He had heard people talk about King and how “out there” he was. He had always thought that sounded exciting, but it wasn’t something the women of his life, first his mom and then his wife, would have approved of. He felt a remnant sense of guilt as he put the novel in his basket. He then selected another horror novel, this one by some author he had never heard of, Richard Matheson.
He had started on the Matheson shortly after getting home. He had finished it before he went to bed. Now, with the first jolt of caffeine in his system, Kurt wanted more reading. He didn’t have anywhere to be or anyone he had to see today, so he decided to forgo his morning shower. He did take a quick dip in the pool, though, just to wash off the mucky feeling that had come with sleep and the sweat that had gathered while he was on the deck.
Afterward, he got dressed and fetched the King novel from the kitchen counter. He was going to read by his chair in the living room, but when he got there he saw someone pulling up in front of the house. It was an unmarked car, but Kurt knew it was a cop, having talked to this particular cop a couple of times already. He watched the old man stroll up the sidewalk, looking around the neighborhood as he did, seeming to admire the fine architecture of the expensive houses. Kurt opened the door before the man had a chance to knock.
“Hello, Detective Anderson. I saw you pull up.”
“Good morning, Dr. Snaber.”
Detective Anderson’s general look was serene, seasoned and confident. Now, he was looking at Kurt with a measure of astonishment.
“Come on in and have a seat. I’ll get you some coffee.”
“Coffee would be nice. Thank you.”
Kurt went to the kitchen, where he got two fresh mugs to fill. From memory, he knew the detective took it the same way as he, black. He brought both mugs to the living room, where Detective Anderson had already relaxed in one of the recliners, the one that had been Melanie’s favorite.
They were quiet for a little while, but Kurt glanced at the man a few times. He seemed to really enjoy the chair, like he was melting into it, like it was his to enjoy, his prize.
Does he know it was Melanie’s? Kurt wondered.
Detective Anderson finished drinking his coffee before he said, “The reason I came here today was to tell you that I’m closing the case again.”
Kurt nodded, though the detective wasn’t looking at him to see it.
“Fact is, Dr. Snaber, I didn’t really want to reopen it, but the way you’ve been acting, you didn’t leave me much choice.”
Kurt thought about that. It wasn’t really the way he had been acting, so much as it was the way he hadn’t acted.
“Folks saw you and became suspicious.”
The old detective paused to look hard at Kurt. It was the astonishment again.
“But your alibi is airtight. You said she sent you out to buy ice cream. A clerk at the grocery store recalled seeing you at the time you said you were there. One of your neighbors said they saw you pull up and heard the single gunshot before you got out of your car. Both the DA and I agreed there just wasn’t really much more to investigate.”
Not able to look at him anymore, Kurt went for a sip of his coffee and then looked straight ahead.
A little while later, Detective Anderson got up. Kurt watched as he strolled across the floor and then stopped.
Standing in the doorway, Detective Anderson said, “Just a piece of advice. Whether or not you did it, I wouldn’t hang around here if I were you. People are always going to think you’re the murderer, and that tends to make life real unpleasant.”
Detective Anderson gave Kurt a wink that could have meant many things and then said, “I hear you’re pretty good at your job, and it looks like quite an estate you’ll be acquiring the other half to. Shouldn’t be that hard to sell it and then pick up and move anywhere.”
The detective nodded, like you would nod to some longtime business associate, and then walked out.
Two things stood out in his head as he moved down the interstate. One was the road. It was getting dark now and, more and more, each piece of the pavement looked a lot like the piece of pavement that came before it. The other was also repetitive. The sequence of events from when Detective Anderson winked at him to when he nodded at him replayed over and over.
There was a major purpose beneath this repetitive memory. At least, that was what he felt right now. He was seeing it in his mind’s eye because he wasn’t ready to move on, to go further back in time. Moving on would bring him closer to the parts he really didn’t want to remember.
Kurt had hoped to make it to the other side of St. Louis before stopping, but now he didn’t think he could make it. He had to find something more than driving to occupy his mind. The next exit he saw had a hotel, so he took it.
Kurt checked in at the hotel and then took Louis for a walk. The dog didn’t seem real excited to be out and about, as if he could sense this wasn’t the big stop, just a temporary leave from the car.
Kurt felt better, attending to the dog, waiting for him to take care of his business, looking around the immediate area of the little off-the-interstate town and thinking where he might want to eat. He saw a Denny’s sign and could immediately taste eggs and beef.
“Denny’s it is,” he said out loud.
He left Louis in the room with a big-bone chew toy, plus fresh food and water. Lou wouldn’t have any of this, though. He just lay on the bed, a bored expression on his face. Kurt turned on the television. Lou seemed somewhat more interested in that, but not much.
“Cheer up, boy. You’ll love the new place. We won’t have a pool but we’ll have a lake.”
Louis didn’t seem to hear him. He watched the cartoon with tired eyes. Kurt left him there, thinking he might save a morsel of his steak in a doggie bag.
The Denny’s was within walking distance, which Kurt was glad for, not wanting to get back inside the car. The hostess was a heavyset girl. She showed him to a relatively empty nonsmoking section. About a minute later, Kurt was spooked.
“How are you?” she said in a genuinely friendly voice.
Kurt had not seen her come up. When he looked up and saw the familiar face, he had to refrain from jerking further into the booth.
It’s not her.
Her hair was blonde and in a tight bun. Her face was round but small. Most of all, it was the eyes. A perfectly beautiful woman, except for the beady eyes, just like Mel.
Beady brown eyes. Mel’s eyes were blue. It’s not her. Stop freaking out.
“I’m okay,” he said, lowering his stare, which helped, because though she did fit nicely into her uniform, it wasn’t Mel’s body. She had bigger breasts than Mel, and she was rounder at the hips.
The waitress giggled. That helped too. She was younger than Mel.
“Are you sure?” the waitress asked.
Kurt couldn’t think of what she meant.
“Sure of what?” he asked through labored breath.
“That you’re okay.”
Kurt forced himself to look at her face, the face that really wasn’t so much like Mel’s. It wasn’t as round as he originally thought. Her cheekbones were actually rather sharp. Pretty, but no Mel.
She giggled again and then said, “Can I get you something to drink?”
“Water,” Kurt said, because it was easy to think of.
She smiled and handed him a menu. “Okay. I’ll be right back with your water.”
Kurt watched her move away. He saw her turn and look back over her shoulder. Now she looked very little like Mel. Maybe he would be able to act normal when she returned.
It wasn’t until she was out of sight that Kurt realized something. The look she had given him as she walked away had been kind of flirtatious. Her smile had been big, and she had held her stare.
Maybe she just wanted to get another good look at the crazy man.
Kurt wasn’t sure. He thought he was probably attractive enough. When he looked in the mirror, he wasn’t repulsed. He worked out daily and was much leaner than most thirty-three year olds. He had a full head of sandy blonde hair. Mel had always told him that he should watch out for students flirting with him, that he had a sophisticated look but with a young man’s charm. Of course, by charm, she only meant his appearance was charming. Her voice was in his head.
Don’t even think about fucking around on me! Ever! Ever! Ever!
The waitress situation didn’t matter, though. Sure, it would be nice to see what time she got off. Maybe they could go out and have a couple of drinks, end up in his hotel room. Yes, that would be nice. He supposed things like that happened, too.
But what do I do now? What do I say to her?
He heard Mel’s voice in his head again.
I don’t know why I worry. Once you get past your looks, there’s nothing left to want for.
When the waitress came back, Kurt was barely able to look at her. He wasn’t even sure why this time. He had the steak and eggs. He saved a little for Louis.
Why was he here again? It was supposed to be one time.
There were so many people, but that was to be expected. Melanie was well known in the community. He had glanced at them and caught their stares. Many were looking at him as if he were some kind of oddity. Others were looking at him with a mixture of disbelief and rage. The latter group was her family and her partners. He was trying to look sad but was sure he had already slipped here and there. Why couldn’t he focus? He knew he had to focus. He finally just put his head down. Maybe no one would notice his expression anymore.
“You’re not fooling anyone.”
That voice. It couldn’t be.
He looked up. She wasn’t there. She wasn’t standing in front of him. She was still in her coffin up front. She looked nice—dead, but nice. He looked around. More faces. Wondering faces. Suspicious faces. He put his head down.
He thought of the lie he had told his mother.
In her letter, she specifically requested that you not come. She didn’t want you to see her like this.
There was no letter. Mel probably would want his mother here. His wife and his mother had been very close. Kurt just didn’t want the old hag around, taking over.
Now he thought his lie might have been a mistake, because his mom would have kept him straight. She could have stood beside him and kept him focused. If nothing else, her reaction could help him to gauge what his was supposed to be.
“Because she loved me. You never did.”
He looked up again, but she was still in the same place, lying there peacefully. Aside from the scar the mortician’s cosmetics couldn’t quite hide, she looked as she did when she slept. Many times he had watched her that way and wondered how she could wake up and be so different.
“You wished I’d never wake up, and now you’ve got your wish.”
He looked up and saw that she was still in her casket, but she was sitting up this time. Her beady blue eyes were looking right at him.
“No!” he said.
“Yes,” she responded, as she came over the side.
He looked around. For the first time, no faces were staring at him, because there were no faces there now. Aside from him and his dead wife, the church was cleared out.
The cold of her breath touched the side of his neck. He turned and saw her inches away. The rip up the middle of her face was not a scar but the same rip the bullet had made, blackened from the heat of the blast. Her nose dangled from a thin strip of skin. She opened her mouth and displayed the mess of shattered teeth.
Kurt yelled out.
Then he felt wetness on his face.
The wet doggy tongue lapped his face again. Kurt lifted an arm to place on Louis’s head.
“It’s all right, Lou. I’m awake again.”
Kurt didn’t want to go back to sleep. The memories that arose while driving were preferable to the dream he had just escaped.
A dim light was coming through the blinds. It wasn’t morning light but lamp light. He looked over at the bedside clock.
He had requested a six o’clock wakeup call. He would miss it. He and Louis were on the road before five.
Kurt had filled up his thermos with coffee at the gas station. Between the coffee and a CCR CD, he stayed pretty keyed up.
St. Louis was incredible in the morning light. He went right downtown, ignoring the faster bypass. Traffic was bad, and he came to a dead stop a couple of times, but that worked out for the best. It was just longer he got to look at the Arch. It was supposed to be a gateway to the west or something like that, but today it was his gateway to the next phase of his free life. He was able to forget for a little while about the memories and the dream.
He hit 55 North with an invigoration that went beyond the caffeine in his blood. Traffic lessened with each mile he got out of St. Louis. They cruised for another hour before hitting a McDonald’s drive-thru for breakfast. Kurt had an Egg McMuffin meal and gave the Canadian bacon to Louis, who was glad to have it.
A little while later, Illinois became monotonous. There were a whole lot of cornfields. The excitement inside of him wore out. He thought about the dream. So much of it was as it had been in real life. He had been alone, facing the stares. He was sure the funeral played a big role in getting the investigation reopened. The funeral wasn’t the only thing, though. He went there.
“Done!” Kurt said, recording the last entry into his computer. He then looked up and caught the old man’s glare.
He had come in early, to be alone and grade the finals, uninterrupted. In a mere two hours, Kurt had moved three piles of exams from one side of his desk to the other. Grading exams so fast was one of the abilities he had that others considered uncanny. It wasn’t uncanny to him, though. He just had to sit down, focus, and he was gone until the job was done. That is, unless he was interrupted, and he had to be interrupted hard. People had claimed that they had said his name or otherwise tried to talk to him while he was working, only to watch him continue working.
Finished grading, Kurt had entered the grades into a spreadsheet, which had automatically figured the final exam scores in with the previous scores.
“Dr. Bronner,” Kurt said. “How long have you been standing there?”
“I just walked up,” Dr. Bronner responded in a near whisper. This tall, bald man was usually stern, his countenance serious and resolute. Now his face was very still and pale.
“I was just leaving,” Kurt said. “I’m done with my exams. I’ll send the grades in tomorrow.”
“I . . . I was going to do that for you. I didn’t think you would . . .”
Kurt stared at the old man, waiting for him to finish. He knew what Dr. Bronner was getting at, but Kurt didn’t know what to say to him.
“Your wife,” he said. “I read it in the paper. I was going to call and offer my condolences today. I was going to offer to take care of your exams.”
“No need for that,” Kurt said, before he could stop himself. He knew it was a stupid thing to say. He guessed that he probably shouldn’t have said anything at all, just hung his head and nodded a little.
Kurt felt like such a fool. He stood up. He looked at the three piles of exams.
“I’ll make copies of the spreadsheets and report the grades from home tomorrow.”
Kurt looked at Dr. Bronner, whose face was still pale and still. Kurt realized he had said something really stupid again. He wasn’t supposed to care about things like grades right now.
“All right,” Dr. Bronner said, backing away, but keeping his eyes on Kurt until he was out of sight.
He heard Dr. Bronner’s footsteps rushing away.
The travel center was huge. On one side was a restaurant. On the other side were restrooms and showers. In the middle was the store, where Kurt roamed around looking at various foods and worthless souvenirs, anything to occupy his mind.
This time, it had been the cornfields repeating over and over, and it had been Dr. Bronner rushing away, over and over, and it had been the intense fear that Dr. Bronner’s footsteps would be gone and replaced by an older memory. Luckily, there had been the exit. Kurt had been in the store for twenty minutes. There were other people looking around, at the T-shirts with silly attempts at wit printed on them, at the baskets of stuffed animals and key chains. Kurt knew he would look odd if the stayed too long. He thought he might go into the restaurant for some coffee. On his way to the restaurant, he went by the store’s front counter. Something there caught his eye. There were various books on CD.
Why didn’t I think of that before?
The selection had been limited, but it had been enough. There was one by Koontz that he had not already read.
Kurt had been worried that he would become so absorbed in the book that he wouldn’t be able to drive. That was a few hours ago. Illinois had changed into Indiana and then Michigan, and he was deeply absorbed into the story. All the characters had been assigned faces. The terrain of Koontz’s tale unfolded in front of him.
A robot had come out and taken over the driving for Kurt. The robot had even been nice enough to fill up the gas tank, as Kurt listened with the volume turned up a little higher. The robot wouldn’t go piss for him, though, so Kurt held it. He let the robot be aware of his swelling bladder, as it took him closer to his new home.
About half an hour from his final destination, the book ended. That was fine. The afterthought of the book, its plot, what it had been like to take each character’s perspective, carried him home.
Owen Street was outside of town, right off the highway, cut out of the woods.
“We’re here,” Kurt said as they pulled onto the narrow paved street.
Louis seemed to understand. He sat up in his seat and looked around. Kurt had not brought the dog when he came in July to look for a place to live, so it was Louis first time to see it. One side of the street was on a big lake, and that was where the houses stood. They varied in size, but all looked nice and maintained. The other side of the street was lined with sheds and garages. The exteriors all matched that of the respective houses they were across from, per the housing addition requirements. Intermixed with the sheds and garages were a few really small matching cabins, which Kurt surmised were for guests. Just before the corner there was a park with a general use dock. The street then curved around in the opposite direction, where there were houses surrounded by woods on both sides. The street ended into more woods a good hundred feet before the highway. Kurt’s new home was at the end of the street.
Kurt pulled across the street onto the pavement in front of a two-car garage. The siding was dark green, like that of the house. His muscles tight, he got out and stretched, feeling a shocking chill that caused him to remember that he was a lot further north than he was used to and it was late in the day with the sun going down. He stared across the street at his house, two stories, all his. He liked the house enough, but it was the location that had gotten him. There was something he liked about the way it was almost completely surrounded by woods. He also liked the way the shade gave it a dark atmosphere, even during the day, and the way it was the last house on the street and the only one that had a gap between it and the next house.
“It’s hidden,” was what Gerald had said when Kurt told him about it. “Just like the job you’re taking. It feels like you’re hidden from everybody.”
Thinking of that now, Kurt laughed, a little nervously.
Kurt wanted to go right inside, but he knew Louis had other preferences. He got the dog’s leash from the floorboard and hooked him up.
The Lab seemed thrilled to be out of the car. He pulled Kurt along, as if he knew where he was going.
The park was small but probably plenty big for the people of Owen Street. It had a canopy with picnic tables and a grill. There was also a steel swing set and a slide.
Lou cared about none of this. Like any Lab, he wanted the water, and this of course, compared to his former swimming pool, was big water. Lou paused briefly to take care of other business. Kurt looked around, hoping none of his new neighbors were peeping out their windows. As always, he had a plastic bag in his pocket, but he had left the little shovel in the car.
“We’ll just come back for that,” he said out loud, hoping if anyone was watching, they could also hear. He didn’t want to start out by being known as the guy who left dog shit in the park.
When Louis was finished, Kurt undid his leash and then watched as the dog ran out on the dock, sliding a little on the steel surface before he jumped into the water. Kurt couldn’t imagine how cold the water must be. Lou didn’t seem to mind. He swam in circles, barking at Kurt a couple of times.
“I didn’t bring your ball,” Kurt said. “Sorry fella. Next time.”
Kurt walked out on the dock and looked across the lake. The water had a green tint but was transparent. That made it far cleaner than the brown lakes of Oklahoma. Kurt estimated the lake was about half a mile across. The other side was not near as crowded with houses. There was a small one to the extreme of each side. Right dead in the center, all by itself, with a long patch of trees on both sides, was the most majestic place on the lake. Its dark brown stood out against the green that surrounded it. It was three stories and huge, with a deck and large widows on each level. A series of staircases led right down to the lake. Kurt had coveted the house in July, but it was already occupied. He doubted it was within his price range anyway, which was very high after he sold the Oklahoma house.
Louis had made his way out further, and by the happy look on his face, was nowhere near tired. Kurt looked around some more. He could see right down several lakefront yards until a thick group of trees completely blocked off the view between the lake and a blue house. Kurt thought of how that backyard was like his own, so thick with trees you couldn’t see beyond them. He thought that even had he bought one of the lakefront houses, he still would have wanted his backyard that way.
Kurt waited for a little while longer, about as long as he could stand waiting to be in his new house, and then called Louis in.
Kurt didn’t even try to get the movers to bring his stuff out. Leaving Oklahoma, he had thought he would make it here early enough for them to come out, but he had prepared for them not to. He had packed bedding, including a large sleeping bag to cushion the hardwood floor. Now Louis was spread out on that bedding.
He knew it would probably get cold in the winter, but Kurt thought he would still keep the floors as they were, carpetless in every room. The hard floor added to the backwoods ambience. Besides, Labs, with their bristly hair, were hell on carpets. He would get a few rugs to go here and there.
The house was brand new. It hadn’t even been done when he bought it. Now, it smelled lightly of paint and finish. Downstairs consisted of a big living room at the front of the house. In the back was a full bathroom, a dining area and a kitchen. Upstairs were a half bathroom and one large bedroom that had a big window facing the street.
Kurt thought he would probably spend most of his time upstairs. He would use the downstairs for the utilities of life, like getting ready for the day, cooking, and possibly entertaining.
Entertaining. Was that something he would do here? Would he have people over?
The thought of it didn’t feel right. Not as of yet. He was still enjoying not having anyone around.
Kurt had made the makeshift bed downstairs in the living room. He wanted the upstairs to be finished before he stayed there. Not wanting to disturb Louis, Kurt had settled in the kitchen, his rump on a pillow, his back against the wall, his mind in a book that he had packed in his overnight bag.
Kurt had hoped that the book would keep him from having another dream like the one he’d had last night. Halfway into it, and really into it, he was sure his dreams would be fine. Like on many of the nights since he had picked up this hobby, his dreams would not seem like his own, but like a modified world of some horror novelist. In those worlds he was never scared, just intrigued. Kurt finally put the paperback on his lap, but just to rest his eyes for a little while.
He started reading again, but the story took on a strange new logic. It had pretty much the same characters, but one could fly and one that had been obviously good was now bad.
I made him bad, rang out in Kurt’s voice, though he hadn’t opened his mouth.
When he heard Louis whining from outside the story, Kurt realized that he hadn’t opened his eyes. When he did open his eyes, the kitchen light stung them.
Kurt closed his eyes momentarily, and then opened them to look at the book, which was still on his lap. He wanted to pick it up and get right back in the story, make corrections for the false story he had seen in his dream, but he couldn’t, because Louis really was whining, and now he was scratching too.
Kurt got up and found him at the front door, one paw near the doorknob and leash in his mouth.
Kurt looked around for a couple of seconds, trying to find a clock, and then smirked at how stupid he was being. He looked at his watch and saw it a few minutes after eleven o’clock.
Louis seemed ready to dart as Kurt was putting on his leash. This wasn’t how he acted when he had to go to bathroom. This was how he acted when he sensed something interesting.
Or maybe he’s thinking of the lake.
Stepping outside was a bit of a shock. Kurt had not expected it to be pitch black. Not a single garage light was on. He thought of turning his on but thought better of it. If dark nights were the standard, he didn’t want to be the one to upset it. He remembered the turd he had left at the park earlier. He felt around on his front porch for the shovel, Louis pulling at him to go the whole time.
He found the shovel, and then let the dog pull him. He thought they might go to the park. Maybe there was a little light there. Louis surprised him, though. They only moved a few steps. He couldn’t make out the dog in front of him, but he could hear his whine. Lou was confused.
Kurt waited for a little while, the shovel in his hand worthless to him now, because if the dog shat, he would not be able to find it until morning.
Lou finally pulled him back toward the house.
The next morning, Kurt went into town and had a big breakfast at a little café. He used a payphone to call the movers. They arrived at the house about ten minutes after he did.
Two young men unloaded his stuff and politely put it where he directed them to. He tipped them each twenty dollars, which they seemed surprised and grateful to get. Kurt spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon pushing things into place, unloading boxes and hooking things up. Early in the afternoon, he found Louis spread out on the living room couch.
“You’ve been really patient. What do you say I take a break and you take a swim?”
Louis’s ears shot up. He understood the word swim. He darted from the couch to the front door. He picked up his leash from the floor, reminding Kurt that he needed to get busy putting hooks in the wall.
On his way out the door with an excited dog, Kurt noticed an unopened box labeled small electronics.
The phone’s in there. Why haven’t you opened it yet?
Kurt shook his head. He knew that voice.
Kurt waited. The voice was gone now. He was sure. He walked Louis to the lake, seeing nobody until they got there, and then the only people he saw were three jet skiers in the distance.
His leash removed, Louis jumped in and swam out. He barked out at Kurt, which reminded him that he had forgotten the damn ball again. He wished he hadn’t. Playing ball would have distracted him from thinking about how he had been avoiding plugging the phone in.
He had gotten it turned on before he arrived. He could have even brought the phone with him in the car and plugged it in as soon as he got here. Did it matter, though? He had the cell phone after all.
And where is that? her voice asked.
He shook his head again. Leave me alone, he wanted to shout out. He wouldn’t, though. Not out in the open like this.
“Hurry up, Lou,” he said with a shaken voice.
The Lab looked back at him as if he sensed Kurt’s distress.
Well. Where is the cell phone?
“It’s in the car,” he mouthed without making an audible sound.
“And it’s turned off,” Kurt mouthed, before shaking his head again.
“Come on, Lou,” he said, and then whistled and smacked his lips together.
Lou reluctantly came in. Kurt got the wet dog leashed and rushed with him toward the house. Lou whined and tried to pull him into the grass of other houses. Kurt waited until they got to their own yard and then let Lou shit there, before putting him in the house.
He went to the car. It was in the garage now, because he had wanted to make sure it was out of the way of the movers. He looked in the console, where he had placed the cell phone a couple of days ago. Sure enough, it was off. He picked it up and stared at it. He thought of how he had used the payphone earlier to call the movers, when he could have used the cell phone instead.
It’s all right. You don’t have to turn it on.
That voice was his own. He put the phone back where it was and closed the console. That was when he noticed the book sitting on the floorboard of the backseat. He thought it must have fallen sometime during the trip. He had forgotten altogether about Gerald’s meditation book.
Kurt went into town. There, he went to Wal-Mart and then to the grocery store, all the while eager to get back home and into a book.
That night, the phone sat downstairs on its stand, the cord still unplugged. Kurt sat upstairs in his swivel chair at his computer desk. The light from the lamp on top that desk provided just the perfect amount of light to read by, or maybe he was just so into the book that it felt right.
Gerald’s book was over on top of the bookcase. Kurt had looked through it but not read anything. Instead, he was finishing up the novel from the night before. He had a vague sense of something from outside the story disturbing him, but he was able to hold that disturbance at bay. That was until the disturbance put its front paws right up on his lap and barked at him.
“What is it?” Kurt said, a little frenzied.
Louis gave a slight “woof,” and then took off down the stairs. Kurt found him by the front door, prancing in place, with his leash in his mouth.
Kurt remembered the night before. He checked his watch. It was a little after eleven o’clock.
He quickly got the leash on Lou, opened the door, and then was pulled out into the dark. The excited dog panted and gagged as he tried to move faster than Kurt was willing to go. Kurt thought of turning him loose, but didn’t know how his neighbors would react should Lou decide to go messing around in their yards. He was also afraid that Lou was after something, and that something might be a cat or a female dog in heat, either of which Kurt wanted to be there to pull him away from.
They were heading in the direction of where the road curved. By the shadows, Kurt thought they were at the curve when Lou stopped. He stood there panting for a little while and then let out a pathetic whine, like he was confused. A few seconds later, there were a few audible sniffs, and then Lou protested again with another whine.
Kurt felt a tinge of guilt. The poor dog was confused. He wondered if that was because he was away from what he knew as home. He leaned over and patted a stiff body.
“It’s all right, boy. You’re going to love it here, once you’re used to it.”
Lou whined again, before pulling Kurt back toward their house.
Phillips College may have been the most beautiful campus he had ever seen. It didn’t look as if the trees had been planted there as much as it appeared the buildings had been built amongst the trees. Kurt found the math building where he had interviewed a couple of months ago.
Inside, a little bald professor named Dr. Neal showed him to his office. Dr. Neal spoke with a voice too deep for a man his size.
“Dr. Wellburn would have shown you, but he’s still not back from vacation.”
Dr. Wellburn, the head of the math department, had seemed thrilled that Kurt was coming on. Kurt wasn’t sure about Dr. Neal yet. Dr. Neal had asked some weird questions during the interview.
Kurt looked around his office. There was a big oak desk, a couple of filling cabinets and a Gateway computer box.
“We all get new PCs this year. You can get the free math software from the secretary.”
Kurt nodded. He moved to the window. The third-story view was of the center of campus. Sidewalks that were dead right now would soon be bustling with life. He could barely see the surrounding buildings for the trees.
“Why here?” the voice behind him asked.
Kurt turned to Dr. Neal, who was looking at him accusingly.
“Why would you leave a position at The University of Oklahoma to come to a private school across the country?”
Kurt had answered this question before. In fact, he was fairly certain it was one of the questions Dr. Neal had asked at the interview. It still caused him to tense up. Looking at Dr. Neal’s accusing eyes, he wondered how much the man knew about him. All he would have had to do was get a hold of a few Daily Oklahoman newspapers. There had never been anything printed that accused Kurt, but surely it was possible to read between the lines and see what so many other people saw.
“Phillips is a top notch school,” Kurt said, hoping his voice was steady.
“Yes. I know that. We place almost all of our math majors at excellent graduate programs or in the best teaching positions around, but there is no graduate school here. Phillips lacks the challenge a person of your ability and obvious scholarship needs. You could go stir crazy.”
In what felt like a tight motion, Kurt shrugged. “I just needed a change of pace and a new atmosphere. Now if you’ll excuse me—”
“Of course. You want to get settled in.”
Dr. Neal smiled with half of his mouth. He nodded and turned around. Before he was gone, he said, “Oh. I was supposed to tell you. The secretary said your mother tried to contact you a couple of times.”
After plugging the phone in and listening to the dial tone, Kurt started to dial the number. He knew it might be better for him if he finished dialing. He couldn’t bring himself to do it, though.
The phone rang twenty minutes later.
“So you are alive,” a grating voice said.
“Hi, Mom. I—”
“I can’t believe you really went through with this. If Melanie were alive, she would have put a stop to it.”
He didn’t know what to say. How could he justify it to her?
“I should have come up there as soon as Melanie died. I could have kept your head straight."
Kurt pictured her, sitting there in her wheelchair, the oxygen mask hanging on her face. He remembered the threats she had made when he was still in Oklahoma. She was coming. He had talked her out of it. He had told her that her body couldn’t take the trip, that he would come visit her soon. He had not.
“You could have gone to a school nearby. You still can. Then you could be here to help me get around, and I could be there to help you make decisions. You’re just like your father was. You’re smart when it comes to numbers, Kurt Snaber, but you need somebody else around when it isn’t a math problem you’re working on.”
Part of him didn’t believe her words, but part did, a part that had been trained to believe.
“Maybe, if you won’t consider coming here, then I should come up there.”
“No, Mother,” Kurt managed to say. “It’s too cold here. Your health—”
“Then come back here, you stupid shit!”
The way she screamed sent chills down his spine. She began to cough and then gasp for air.
Kurt couldn’t stand it anymore. “I have to go,” he lied. “Someone’s at the door.”
Kurt was now frozen. There were too many things impinging upon him at once. His mother’s words were still there. The face of Dr. Neal was there. Both of these things were on the perimeter, though. He felt that if he stood still, they would stay there. If he moved, he would give them the impetus they needed to attack his mind, to bring feelings he didn’t want.
He tried moving his focus away from his mind, to his body. His stomach was tight and seemingly motionless. His chest hurt.
He moved his eyes around, looking at his new house, trying to feel the excitement of his new life, but he couldn’t now. It was contaminated. With these thoughts, he felt smothered. Now he had to move. He rushed right by Lou, who looked up at him, ears raised, eyeballs round, wanting to go, but Kurt couldn’t stop right now.
Kurt stepped outside and sucked in a deep breath, but it didn’t cleanse him. The trees that overhung the road no longer gave him a sense of security. Instead, they seemed to mark him.
Come all who want him. Here he is. Here’s the guilty one.
“That’s ridiculous,” Kurt said as he moved down the street. “I don’t have anything to worry about.”
Kurt moved down the street. Up ahead, he saw someone pulling into their garage. He realized that he would probably have to pass them if he wanted to continue his walk. He turned around. He couldn’t handle that now. He couldn’t be around another person.
Yeah, but in just a few more days school starts. You’ll have to deal with a lot of people then, you stupid shit.
“Go away, Mother,” he whispered. “Get out of my head.”
That’s why he didn’t teach his summer classes. Couldn’t handle being around people anymore. Couldn’t handle all those eyes looking up at him.
Kurt couldn’t believe it. That was Mel’s voice. They were both there at the same time, conversing in his head. He heard them laugh.
He ran the rest of the way back to the house, hoping the person who had pulled up down the street didn’t see his freakish behavior. Inside, he looked around frantically. His mind went to the novels upstairs. They would take him away but not fast enough.
He rushed across the room. He turned on the radio and flipped through it until he found something reasonably heavy. He put an ear right up to the speaker. At first, he just recognized it as a familiar tune. Then he placed it, though he didn’t know the title. It was some Pearl Jam song about a pellet gun. It was enough to drown out the voices in his head. It wasn’t quite enough to drown out the sound of the phone ringing in the background, though, so he covered his free ear.
He had lucked out. The radio station had been at the beginning of a commercial-free music spree. Three songs later, it was a fast-paced song by the Foo Fighters.
There was a sharp pain in the ear Kurt held against the speaker. The rest of him felt much better. He felt safe, now that the voices were gone.
Kurt turned off the power. He looked over and caught Louis’s stare. The Lab knew something weird was going on, but at the same time, was experiencing the midday drowsies. Kurt went for the stairs. He didn’t know if the voices were coming back or how long they would take, but he wasn’t going to give them a chance. It was time to get into a new consciousness.
He had several new novels on the top shelf of the bookcase, but he looked first at Gerald’s book.
Was this what he wanted? This wasn’t like the novels, which were like a drug to him now, a dependency that wasn’t always going to be healthy. The voices in his head were right; he was starting school in a few days. There were classes to teach and students who would be coming into his office for help. What would he do when one of his female students reminded him of Melanie? He couldn’t just pick up a book and start reading, nor could he run to his stereo and blast his brain with music.
Maybe it was time for meditation. He remembered that Gerald had said to skip past the commentary and go directly to the exercises. He found a page marked Exercise 1: Breathing and Inward Attention.
There was about a page of details about how to sit and what type of environment to create for himself. Then there was a simple set of instructions about focusing and what to do if his mind wondered.
Kurt found himself immediately intrigued. He took the pillow from his bed and tossed it on the floor. He closed the blinds and then stripped down to his boxers.
In the relatively dark room, he sat cross-legged on the pillow with his back straight. He closed his eyes. He felt a little tight and uncomfortable. He thought about the instructions he had read. He let his mouth hang slack and placed his tongue to the roof of his mouth. He focused on slowing his breath.
The book had said he should think about his breath and the sensations he felt, to kind of watch them and not let his mind get dragged off with thoughts. The first sensation to come was his itching skin. First, it was the bottom of his left thigh. Then it was almost the same place on the other side. Then it was his back.
Already, this was hard. His mind slipped to the alternative, though, back to the madness of a while ago, back to the voices. He focused on the itchy places on his skin, watched them, and they intensified, but only for a few seconds. They seemed to expand, changing from itching sensations to burns. The patches of burn expanded, until they united into a single burn all over him. Kurt felt the urge to consider this in an intellectual way, but he let that urge slide through his mind, like an echo in an auditorium. The burn actually seemed to go out in front of him, even though he could still feel it.
Kurt wanted to be amazed by this, to think of its ramifications, but he let that be an echo too.
The outside sensation floated off and then his spine began to tingle. A picture of his spine came to mind. It was glowing with electricity. The electricity grew especially intense at the extremes of his spine, until it was painful, but in a good way, like a massage. The electricity then expanded out. He watched an electric skeleton form in his mind’s eye and felt his muscles bombarded with energy. He felt every single muscle of his body tense and felt as if he would jerk upright without his own will. A cramp pinched the right trapezius muscle of his back. Still, his muscles continued to tighten. The pain was intense, but at the same time, he was just watching it, like he was watching someone else’s pain in a movie.
The pain stretched into his neck and felt as if it were burning a hole through him. That burn spread out over his body, until he felt as if he were one big fire. Kurt felt as if he could stop it at anytime, shut it all down, but he would not. He let it intensify. He gave himself to watching it.
The next picture his mind’s eye received was of his muscles bubbling. Then he felt all sensation melt until there was nothing. His mind’s eye went black. Even his breath was gone.
There was mostly just relaxation. Occasionally, sensations arose, and if he liked them, he let them grow. It was orgasmic at times, but so much more, because he could give himself completely to the sensations.
Finally, he opened his eyes. The room was darker now. He looked around the room. Everything had a surreal quality to it, as if it was all coming at him, but not encroaching, just for his sensory display. His own body was more object than subject.
The big red numbers on his alarm clock intrigued him.
I was gone for at least two hours.
Kurt felt the cold nose touch his back. That set off relaxed laughter. Lou’s cold nose was suddenly this incredible thing, another phenomenon to experience in its fullness.
Kurt reached back and touched the dog’s head. He turned and looked at Lou. Lou sniffed lightly. Kurt was further amazed at the Lab’s obvious curiosity.
Standing up brought an upward sensation inside, a rapturous feeling from his gut into his chest. Kurt stopped to savor it. Walking brought a similar sensation. He wondered why he had not noticed all this sensation, waiting to be harnessed, to be experienced in full, before.
So this was the secret of the monks. No wonder they could go without women and other carnal pleasures.
At the same time, he was amazed that he could notice this now. It seemed impossible that he could be this far on the first try.
He moved slowly downstairs, savoring the motions. He saw that the answering machine light was blinking. There were five new messages. Had he heard the phone ring? He supposed he had, in a way, but had been indifferent to it, like it had been a bird on a branch outside. He hit the play button and heard his mother’s voice.
“I know there’s nobody at your door. You couldn’t make friends that fast if your life depended on it. Pick up the phone, you ungrateful fool of a man.”
There was a long period of silence and then the beep. In that time, Kurt checked himself. Her words hadn’t cut into him. He wondered how the meditation had worked. Maybe it was that he knew he could enter that place again, that total tranquility with intermixed bursts of pleasant energy.
The next three messages were long, but the only sound was the labored breath of an old woman. The time limit his machine gave for each message was a minute. She used the full minute each time. The last message was a wanted voice.
“Hey, Bonehead. Just calling to see if you made it there okay. Give me a call. I’m very curious. If I’m not in my office, I’m at home.”
Kurt dialed the home number first. Gerald picked up after three rings.
“Hello,” he said in a cordial voice that was unnatural for him.
“Dr. Moon,” Kurt said in a voice he had never heard himself make.
There were a few second’s pause and then Gerald said, “You sound relaxed. You’ve been meditating.”
“Yes, one time. Does it normally work so fast?”
“Nope. Never. But that’s just for everyone else. You’re different.”
There was another pause, and then Gerald said, “About a month ago, I was out and about and found myself near your house. I thought I’d stop in. If you were home, maybe you’d offer me coffee. If you weren’t home, then I’d get coffee at the gas station. No big deal.”
Kurt could hear the heavy man’s breath. It wasn’t phlegmy, like his mom’s was, but it was just as labored.
“I saw that your car was there, so I stopped. I came up to the door and knocked a few times. When you didn’t come, I thought maybe you were out for a walk or in back. But then I heard Louis scratching at the door. I knew if you were outside, you’d have Lou with you. If you’d been out back and saw Lou rush in, you’d of followed to see what was happening. And I knew you didn’t have any friends who might have come by and picked you up. The curtains were pulled shut. You can see where the situation was kind of odd for me.”
Not only could Kurt see where the situation was odd. He could actually see the situation perfectly in his head. Big fat Gerald sweating outside the door. He thought he could feel the curiosity and mild anxiety Gerald must have felt at the time.
“I would have looked around back first, but as you know, I have a big frame to haul around and am most likely to take the quickest route. So I tried the door. It was unlocked. ‘Hello,’ I said as I came in. ‘Anybody home.’ There was no answer so I just went inside. I nearly walked right past you. I guess I didn’t expect to see you sitting in the living room, since you hadn’t responded when I called out.”
Even though the story was familiar, Kurt had never heard of it being this extreme before. People had called his name and not gotten his attention before, but to come right in his house and walk right by him.
“You were sitting in that chair of yours, under the light of a lamp. Your face was emotionless. I would have thought you asleep, but your eyes were open and moving, scanning the page. Pretty soon, you sort of automatically reached up and turned the page. I was fascinated. You were there, in the same room as me, but at the same time, miles away. Whatever was in that book had drawn you in completely. As a shrink, I’ve worked in some hard core mental institutions. I’ve been around awake people who were oblivious to my presence, but none of them were sane.”
Kurt tried to think of the time Gerald was talking about, just to test himself. He had absolutely no recollection.
“I went into your kitchen and made coffee. I sat across from you and drank it. I left. You never came out of that book. That’s how I knew you’d take so well to meditation. That’s why I told you to skip the commentary. A lot of it’s about the initial experiences and limitations people have. With your ability to block out everything and focus, I didn’t think you’d have limitations.”
Kurt had questions. He wondered what the book he had been reading. What day was it? He knew these questions didn’t matter, though. It could have been any day or any book. As long as Gerald found him reading, he would have found him like that.
“I’m very interested to know more about what you find. You’ll keep in touch, right?”
“Sure,” Kurt said, his mind elsewhere. He hung up the phone.
The air of the late afternoon was cool, but Kurt wasn’t so much into that as he was into himself. Meditation had changed him in some fundamental way. He didn’t feel as separated from his surroundings as usual. He was himself, but at the same time, he was himself within the surrounding air and trees.
Remembering how he had neglected Louis the last time he went out, Kurt had decided to walk the dog shortly after getting off the phone with Gerald.
They went around the curve without Lou trying to pull him toward the lake. Did the dog still sense his calm and just want to be near him? He could think of no other reason Lou would ignore water. They walked down the block, looking over the different houses. Kurt found himself strangely attracted to the printed numbers on each. Looking at those numbers brought a smile to his face that he didn’t understand. It was the house marked 107 that really got his attention. He thought it crazy, but he could almost feel it pulling at him. Lou stopped in front of it.
“Do you feel that too?” Kurt asked out loud.
A concrete sidewalk led to the front door. It was blue with two stories. Kurt looked along the side and saw trees. He remembered he had been looking at its backyard from the public dock the other day. It was the one house on the lake with a backyard thick with trees. The house looked vacant.
Kurt thought he might recognize the pull toward the house. It reminded him of his old house, of its vacancy when he left it. It was a sign of change.
He wasn’t sure of this, though, and amateur psychologist wasn’t his favorite role to play. He turned Lou around and they headed back to their place. He thought of cutting through the woods. Lou still hadn’t used the bathroom. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if he did it in the woods, since Kurt had forgotten the shovel yet again.
He saw something up ahead that changed his mind.
Normally, he would have done his best to avoid the woman. This wasn’t a student or colleague that he had to talk to. Avoiding her would be easy. He had only to cut right through the woods, like he had kind of planned on anyway. The nervousness wasn’t there, though.
She was in front of the last house, right before the public dock. She was kneeling in front of the house, watering flowers. She looked up as Kurt and Lou walked by.
“Hi,” she said, looking at Kurt in a friendly but inquisitive way.
Kurt still didn’t feel the usual anxiety he had around women, so he stopped.
“Hi,” he said. “I’m Kurt Snaber, and this here is Louis.”
The woman set her watering can down and stood up. She dusted off her hands as she moved toward them. Her appearance was almost shocking. Her pale white face contrasted with green eyes and hair as red as a ripe tomato. Her hair was cut short in a messy style. She was wearing green overalls cut above her knees, with a white undershirt. Her breasts were too large not to be noticed. Right then, Kurt couldn’t decide if she were extremely attractive or just very odd looking.
She paused a few feet away, looking down at Lou, who had already moved off to the side.
“Oh. He won’t bite. I don’t even think he knows how.”
Kurt thought that was a relatively smooth thing to say. He couldn’t believe it.
“Heidi Ellinger,” she said, taking the last steps toward them and then gently extending her hand. Kurt shook that dainty hand.
“I teach Creative Writing at the college.”
Kurt liked her voice. It was the one thing about her that was definitely sexy. There was something in how she introduced her profession, though. She didn’t like something about it. Kurt thought of bringing it up, but thought such forwardness would cause him to seem very strange at this point. Besides, though he had always been very able to understand the blocks students were having with math problems, up until just now, he had never thought himself that good at analyzing people otherwise. His current analysis of this stranger felt right, but he didn’t know if felt right translated to right.
“I’m starting at the same place next week. I’ll be teaching math.”
Heidi’s smile grew a little. “Really? That’s interesting. We live in the same neighborhood and work for the same place.”
Kurt wasn’t sure what was interesting about that. He was interested in Heidi, though. There was just something about her, something he couldn’t quite place. He wasn’t even sure if it were positive or negative.
“Well, I’ll let you get back to your flowers.”
“Okay,” Heidi said. “I guess I’ll definitely see you around.”
Kurt nodded. “I guess so.”
As she turned, he got Lou on the move. He looked back as they went, and watched her butt as she moved away. It had a different kind of shape to it, kind of an oval. He caught her glance and realized that she had seen what he had done. Her look wasn’t accusatory, but it wasn’t welcoming either.
He turned around. He wasn’t that nervous, though.
Where was Mel’s voice? he wondered. Where had it been the whole time he was talking to Heidi? Had he really found something that was going to make everything okay?
Heidi reminded him of the first time he had heard the song Smells Like Teen Spirit. It was so different than any song he had ever heard. He wasn’t sure if he liked it or not, but it stuck in his mind.
He supposed he could put her out of his mind if he wanted to. He liked her there, though.
Maybe nothing would ever happen between she and he, but that didn’t seem right. He was somehow almost certain that something would happen. He just wasn’t sure whether it would be good.
That evening, he was finally able to convince himself that he was being ridiculous. All these thoughts of intuition were crazy. His mind had been distorted by the paranormal plots of too many horror books. He still didn’t plan to stop reading them. Tonight, he planned to mediate first and then read a little later.
Upstairs, he got on the floor. He closed his eyes and focused on slowing his breath. This time, he went quickly to the electricity of his spine. That feeling fizzled out after a few seconds and he was left with a very peaceful feeling of nothingness.
The feelings of ecstasy came and went for a while. Then he felt as if he could control them. He let them come occasionally but spent most of his time in the perfect tranquility. Finally, he felt a pull. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew he had to go to it.
He got up, feeling very strange. His movement didn’t feel natural as he went across the floor. It was too light. Still, he went to the window and looked down on the street. It was very dark. He didn’t know why he would be pulled over here to see this, but he didn’t feel like leaving just yet. Something had pulled him here, and he thought that something was a part of him, or at least very connected to him.
There was a slight glow that came into view, like a vehicle coming in the distance. It wasn’t a vehicle that came into view, though. It was a small figure, a glowing little girl.
It wasn’t natural. It couldn’t be. He was horrified. There was total darkness.
Fear was all around him now. He was drowning in it. He could not move at all, not even to breathe. Something was close. He hoped it hadn’t seen him. He needed to get away. Getting away was secondary, though. First he had to breathe. He didn’t know how. He felt sharp pain, but he didn’t know where it came from. It was like his consciousness hurt.
It was Louis that saved him. The mutt pressed its head into Kurt’s body and whined. That helped him to somehow locate vital parts of his body. He opened his eyes. It was still dark. He still had to breathe.
He started by pushing the air out. Then his instincts took over and pulled air in.
With the air came realization. He felt the pillow beneath him. He felt one leg crossed in the other. He was still on the floor. He had never gotten up to go to the window.
Louis whined again, frantically. Kurt stood up, only to fall back to the floor on his side.
What had just happened? Meditation had gone from being the best thing he had ever had to a terror. His eyes searched and found the only source of light in the room.
“My God, Lou,” he said. “Something was really out there. You saw it too.”
He knew this was true. He knew, because the digital alarm clock letters read 11:05.
A dream, he thought.
That was the best explanation, once down to earth for a little while. About the same time each night, Louis started acting strange and wanted to go outside. The meditation was giving Kurt sensations that were so foreign that they felt metaphysical. These things in mind, he had fallen asleep while meditating and had a dream.
This explanation made him a little less fearful. It was easier to relax into going asleep. Even that experience was new. He didn’t really fall asleep. He followed himself into sleep, watching the process. He watched strange thoughts and images come into his head and knew they were illogical. He eventually found that he was no longer on his bed. He was walking on a dirt road.
For the first time that he could remember, he knew that he was dreaming.
The dirt road was surrounded by wheat fields. There was no town or house in sight. He wanted to find people, though. He wanted to talk to the people in his dream.
He felt so light. He leapt into the air, way up in the sky. Reaching the apex of the jump and starting down reminded him of what it felt like to come down the climb of a roller coaster. He landed as lightly as he had jumped.
He jumped from the road into one of the fields. He jumped several times across that field, seeing into the distance, where it was nothing but more fields. He realized he wouldn’t be able to bring people here now, unless he forced it, and if he forced it, the people wouldn’t be right. So he just continued to jump about until he became bored. Then he jumped straight up, high into the sky, and started flapping his arms. Doing this, he found he was able to fly around. He did tricks in the sky, flips and turns. He found he could do the splits in the air, or roll himself into a ball.
He let himself drop, very fast, toward the earth, and then right before he hit, he swept back up. He thought of Gerald. What would he think of this? Maybe he would call him when he woke up, or maybe he would wait until the morning. He thought of Heidi, who had not liked telling him she was a professor.
Of course, that was because she was a writer, but couldn’t make a living doing that.
Kurt’s dream faded away, and he let it. He sensed the bed beneath him and the covers above him. He knew it was the thought that had grabbed him and pulled him out. He also knew the thought was right. It seemed so simple now. Any creative writing instructor would also be a writer. If she were a really successful writer, though, she probably wouldn’t teach. At least, she would introduce herself as a writer instead of a professor.
It was a little after four. He went back to sleep and back into the sky.
Knowing that he was dreaming while he dreamt had made for less restful sleep. He slept later than usual. The back of his neck throbbed dully, and his body felt like it was full of acid. He didn’t care. The ride was worth the price.
He hadn’t worked out since he had gotten here. That would get the juices flowing. A little caffeine would be nice, too. First, he had to take Lou outside, though.
The air wasn’t cold enough to penetrate the thick sweatshirt he had put on, but it went right through his pajama pants. He felt the gentle sting of goose bumps on his legs, and all three parts of the sexual apparatus tried to find refuge inside of him.
Lou finished in the front yard and was looking down the street.
Kurt thought it over. His hair was standing up. He was in his pajama pants, with nothing under them, and he had not had his coffee yet. He was going.
The walking helped immediately. The yuck inside was settling and the throb in his neck seemed to be melting away.
Was this stupid? Probably. Did that matter? Not too much. Odds were he probably wouldn’t see her, and if he did, his behavior would look natural. He had a dog, and dogs liked to walk.
Lou made a high-pitched sound and tapped his paws when he saw that they were going toward the dock. Kurt unleashed him and watched him jump into the water without hesitation.
He walked out to the dock and acted like he didn’t hear when Lou barked his request to play. Kurt was very aware that he was next to her backyard. He wanted to look over but didn’t want to be seen. Assuming she was home, and assuming she had looked out her window, the ball was in her court.
Why Kurt? His own voice asked. You’re not even sure if you’re attracted to her.
Because he had no fear. That wasn’t right. He had fear, but it wasn’t kicking his ass.
After a few minutes, Kurt called Lou in. He stood clear while the Lab shook off, and then he leashed him up. At the entrance to the park was a direct view into her front yard. Kurt glanced but didn’t see anything.
The disappointment sat in. He now realized just how much he had been counting on seeing her, even in his morning state. He would be fine, though. He would go home and have a light breakfast. Then he would meditate, before he worked out. He also needed to call Gerald sometime today.
He heard the distinct sound of a door opening. It had come from behind him. He whipped around a little faster than he would have had he thought about it first. Heidi was coming out of her house.
She was wearing sweatpants and an oversized T-shirt. Her hair was even messier than her mussy style allowed. Once again, something about her appearance was a shock to his senses. He suddenly recalled the first time he had tasted an artichoke. He hadn’t liked it but wondered if it could grow on him. It had.
Heidi walked out on her sidewalk. She bent down to pick up a newspaper and then noticed him when she came up. She gave him an awkward look and then slowly raised a greeting hand.
Kurt knew he must look odd, standing there, staring at her. That thought couldn’t stop him, though. Anxiety came but fizzled fast. He had never in his life wanted so badly to go against his grain. He walked toward her.
Her face became a mixture of friendliness and apprehension. Why he was doing this he couldn’t be sure. Something was telling him abrupt was okay. In fact, abrupt felt good.
A few feet away, Kurt said, “You told me you’re a Creative Writing professor. I’ll bet you’re also a writer.”
Heidi tilted her head at him. Then she looked down at Lou. She actually reached down and gently petted his head, which Lou responded to with squinted eyes and a sniff.
As she continued petting the dog, she said. “I dabble here and there in shorter works and poetry.”
She looked up at him.
Kurt felt his evaluation process kick in, but it wasn’t being turned on a math problem, nor was it in a book. It was working in a new fascinating way.
Her expression was deep and inquisitive. Kurt realized two things by that expression. He was being studied. She wasn’t telling him everything.
He remembered what he had thought earlier, about her not making much money with her writing. The problem with that logic was the house she lived on. Teaching at the university level was good pay, but probably not enough to buy a house on this lake, especially not for someone as young as she was. Logic said it could have been that she came from rich parents or that she came from a lucrative divorce.
Here was that strange intuition again. Being around her, although it was not a great amount of time, didn’t feel like being around either of those. She didn’t exude the false confidence of a rich girl, and she was hidden somehow, kept away from long-term relationships.
“You do more than that,” Kurt found himself saying. With that, it clicked. “You must write under a penname.”
That caused her to hunch her shoulders for a second. Her mouth fell slightly open. She looked as if she would either dismiss herself or not be able to leave at all because of her fascination. Kurt knew he had nailed it. He hoped she would stay.
After a few seconds, she relaxed her shoulders and her stare. “Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?”
Kurt moved back toward this new person’s house. He had agreed to the coffee but said he needed to take Lou home first, not wanting to have to strap him to her front porch with the short leash. Lou had complained with a bark as Kurt left without him.
Kurt’s step was brisk. He felt nervousness, but it wasn’t crippling. He even felt like he could easily rid himself of it. He wouldn’t, though, because he liked the slight edge his nervousness provided.
He had not felt this way in the early courtship of Melanie. Had he really courted Melanie, though? Hadn’t she found him and come on really strong?
Was he really courting Heidi? He still didn’t know. There was an attraction to her, without a doubt, but he didn’t know what that attraction was.
Here you are at her door, buddy. And you brought yourself here. She invited you into her home, but you’re the one who invited her into your life.
Kurt was shocked and pleased at this new voice. It was Gerald. He would keep it, he thought, so long as it didn’t get nasty like Gerald could sometimes be.
You may keep me around, anyway. Remember, it was my blunt nature you liked.
The door came open, without Kurt actually having to knock. Had she seen him standing here for several seconds? What was her interpretation of it?
Kurt snickered at these thoughts.
“What?” Heidi asked.
There was actually a second when he thought of telling her why he was laughing, but he decided he had already played the oddball enough. Much more and oddball would pass over into borderline psycho.
“Nothing,” Kurt said.
Oh, that’s much better. And now Gerald was being nasty.
Heidi moved out of the way, and Kurt strolled in, pulling the door shut behind him.
“Have a seat,” she said, motioning to a couch with a coffee table in front of it.
Kurt sat down and Heidi left the room.
Heidi had the living room of a woman who spent most of her time alone and surrounded herself with an atmosphere personal to her. There were no pictures or plants, but there were plenty of knickknacks and paintings. The knickknacks were dominated by animals, a few mythical, like dragons and unicorns, but most real, like wolves and snakes. The paintings were of people and places, and they all had some subtly strange quality to them. One showed a city street with people rushing to and fro. It looked normal enough until you looked closely and saw all the children had solid white eyes. Another was a picture of a posing woman, with her shadow that of a man.
Heidi came back with two cups and a decanter of coffee.
“It’s French Vanilla. I hope you don’t mind, but flavored is all I have.”
Kurt didn’t mind. His body seemed to know that the scent it was taking from the air was that of something with caffeine. He felt as if his brain were screaming for it.
Heidi poured them both a cup and sat down on the opposite side of the couch.
The coffee was hot, but Kurt took big sips anyway. That seemed to pacify his brain. It knew how this would go. Stimulants were on the way.
“I like your living room,” Kurt said.
“Thanks,” Heidi replied, genuinely excited. “You should see the bedroom.”
Kurt glanced at her and realized she knew she had said something that could easily be taken out of context.
He didn’t really care, though. He knew what she meant.
“Because that’s where you write. There’s even more atmosphere in there.”
Heidi seemed pleased. The look on her face was suddenly younger. She didn’t look quite as old as he anyway, but the expression he had just caused reminded him of one of his undergraduate female students who had just scored high on a test.
Kurt realized something else about her, something that would provide a common bridge. Maybe it wasn’t real, though. Maybe it was just something he wanted. That didn’t seem right, though. He seemed more in control than that.
“You write horror, don’t you?”
Now, by her expression, Kurt was the neatest thing she had ever seen.
Heidi got up and walked out of the room.
Kurt sipped more at the coffee. He actually liked the French Vanilla. He smirked a little, thinking of how Melanie had always insisted on the same coffee all the time: Folgers Classic Roast. Still, that was the coffee in his cupboard. He would have to throw it out and go to the store.
Heidi returned with a stack of hardcover books.
She sat them on the coffee table. “There are four,” she said. “Two are novels. Two are short story collections.”
He could have told by the titles or the covers that he had been right about her being a horror writer. He read the penname out loud. “H. G. Ellis. That sounds familiar.”
“You might have heard of me,” she said. “I’ve made USA Today’s best seller list a couple of times, but just barely. I write under my own name too, but not horror, mostly literary stuff that I publish in journals.”
Kurt realized another thing he had been wrong about. “Oh,” he said. “You do like to teach. That’s why you use the penname. You don’t want your students thinking of you as a horror writer.”
“Yes,” she said in an excited voice. One of the novels in particular had caught his attention, so Kurt didn’t look at her.
“I want them to appreciate the art of writing, not appreciate their semi-famous teacher.”
Kurt looked up at her. For the first time, he noticed how chubby her face was. It was yet another thing he wasn’t sure about.
“Do you sell these?” Kurt said, holding the novel toward her.
“No, but go ahead and take one to read if you would like. You can just bring it back when you’re done.”
Kurt looked at the book in his hand, and then he looked at the three on the table.
“Don’t feel obligated,” Heidi said. “I know horror stories are not everyone’s cup of tea.”
Kurt laughed and then said, “Actually. I was going to ask if I could take all four.”
There would be no workout. There would be no meditation.
He ate only what he could grab and eat fast. He took Lou to the lake to swim twice and sat and read the whole time he was there.
Heidi’s first anthology was Kurt’s first anthology. He had been worried that he would not be able to get into the short stories. His worry was for nothing. He got into each and every one, reading one after another, the totally new characters and swift changes of scenery making him dizzy. The dizziness was familiar, though. He used to get it when he would switch from different math subjects. He felt confident that it would go away, and it did, leaving him with pure exhilaration, an orgy of the mind, switching, switching, switching.
One anthology down, he couldn’t pick up a novel yet. He picked up Heidi’s other anthology instead. This was the more modern of the two and the stories were different, more mature. Heidi had traded off a part of the sensationalism for a certain refinement in plot and character development. As a result, Kurt felt more into these characters, sometimes anticipating their thoughts and actions. He was disappointed when the second anthology ran out of stories.
Picking up the first novel, Kurt felt as if he were settling for what was left. That feeling didn’t last five pages. The story was very intense and to the point. Kurt felt a welcome tension the whole time he was in the book. It was only two-hundred pages, though. The second one was a bit longer. He got started on it immediately. Again, the story was intense. Before he could finish, Lou interrupted.
He had the leash in his mouth and his feet were pattering. He slobbered as he emitted a whining sound. Kurt felt a sense of horror, remembering the night before. He looked at the clock. It was a little after eleven.