I needed to think. I kept hearing her say it and it rang in my head like an alarm.
St. Claire. Megan St. Claire.
I watched her go up to the trailer while my beams lent her light. I watched her bend to put a scrub between the ears of the welcoming basset hound with the droopy eyes who had followed her up the deck with a tail that whipped at the air joyfully and a smile that said, Glad you're home - Can I come in? I watched her deny the dog an opportunity for the sanctuary of the house as the door closed behind her, but not before she lifted a last coy goodbye to me with a wiggle of her fingers. I watched the trailer dim from view as I backed into the road and pointed back toward Waterman. I watched all of that, but heard only one refrain.
St. Claire. Megan St. Claire.
I would see her tomorrow, to be sure. I had more to process now - like how this could possibly be a coincidence - and I would do that with a lullaby of Megan's voice playing in the background, only not the way I would have hoped. I would see her tomorrow, though, and I would ask her how she was related to Carol and Regina Two. She'd told me she lived with her cousin, so I had a likely idea of how it worked out, but I wanted to be certain. The circumstances that were tangling my world together in an impossible knot were starting to become overwhelming. At first it had simply been the greasier and more uncomfortable parts of the job - mop up duty, reports, and dealing with grieving families. Even digging deeper into the history to see if there was something to make life better for the community. But it was all still the job. Then Jarreth came to me with his video that shifted my idea of reality and all of a sudden it seemed like there was new pain and new blood around every other turn.
I was at a loss already and now with this new revelation about Megan, I decided the whole thing was starting to be more about me. Like whatever was out there knew I was meddling and had fixed its focus in my direction. For the moment, I knew it would be a good idea to show up at the office and help out where I could there - if I could. After that, I'd go home and try to fit in a few hours of sleep.
The report folder that held everything about Gail's suicide, including the photos the troopers had sent over, was laying squarely in the center of my desk, waiting for me. I had my part to do in the write up before it could be filed away and forgotten, but I took a minute to consider the photos first. Not that I wanted to, but because I recognized an anger that was building inside - something I thought might be useful at some point - and forcing myself to look at Gail's body again and the gore that resulted from her suicide added fuel to the flame.
Don't call it suicide. It's murder. The ghost might not have had much to do with Gail herself, but it killed Jody and so it killed her.
Once I finished my part of the report according to protocol, I closed the folder and took it to the file room. I didn't want it lying around the office until somebody got to it. The evidence locker is in the same room with the files, so I also took the baggie that held Gail's letter out of my shirt pocket and carefully unfolded the paper. That scrap of pressed wood felt like some sacred piece of parchment and almost as delicate as something an archaeologist might find in the sarcophagus of an ancient pharaoh or a sliver of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
I read it again and it stuck out to me that Gail had twice told Dudley that he didn't deserve any of this. It didn't get to me for any other reason than because it was the truth. Nobody had deserved the The Drop. Any of it. Yet, the body count continued to pile like hail stones if you counted everyone who'd gone over through the years and with the rapidity that the numbers seemed to want to increase, I couldn't get away from the idea that we were being punished somehow. But that wasn't right, was it - the no one deserved it part? Tom Renault deserved it, but he was dead. Tom got what was coming to him, so why was Waterman bearing the cross for his sins? I felt the anger in me stoked hotter, searing numb the nerve endings of my consciousness, that sense inside of me that cared what happened or who got in my way if it meant the end of Shoeshine Drop. I was Dudley when I'd first come into his room, spitting fire, determined to charge out and KILL THAT WHORE! I felt a kinship with him. Not in the way he'd had such total and personal loss - he had me trumped there. But I knew the same urgency now.
I pounded the side of the filing cabinet and made an impressive dent, which hurt and blew more oxygen into the lungs of my fire-rage. Megan was tied in now, if only by DNA, but tied to it nonetheless. It couldn't have her, whatever it was - ghost or demon, angel or God. It couldn't have her. I turned my attention to a collection of bowling trophies the station had won during summer league that we kept on top of the filing cabinet and swept my arm into the mass of them, sending them flying to the floor in the middle of the room with a scream that embodied everything that haunted me.
I looked up and saw the frightened face of my newest deputy, Ella, who'd just graduated from the academy and was paying her dues on the second shift.
"Sir? Is everything okay?" She cradled an armload of folders against her chest and her eyes told me the outburst was not what she'd expected when she'd decided it was a good time to do some filing.
"I'm fine. Sorry ... I had a moment there."
Ella put her files on a small table that stands just inside to the right of the door and bent to start picking up the trophies. "Let me get this for you ..."
"No, I'll do that." I wiped the corners of my mouth with my fingers and felt the soreness in my knuckles that would be a constant companion for a couple of days. "I'm the one acting like a child - I'll clean it up," I said, clenching and unclenching my fist to loosen the tightness caused by a little swelling. I heard my mother telling a hot headed twelve year old version of me, Actions have consequences, Mar Mar. The sooner you figure that out, the better.
"Can I look at it, sir? You might need first aid."
"No!" I shot. "Thank you. Do your filing."
Ella had shown me early that she was a strong young woman, fearless. But she was still easy to rattle in the office if she thought she'd disappointed one of the higher ups and I'd cut her with my tone. She lowered her head and pushed slowly past to the filing cabinet. "Yes, sir."
It was an uncomfortable next few minutes as I tidied my mess and Ella worked at the cabinet. We performed a kind of impromptu dance as I reached over her to place trophies back and she ducked out of my way to the flip flap tune of her filing. After that, I went back to my office and Ella went back to whatever was next on her checklist. She would find that menial and beneath her, but she would do the job as expected until the day she was put on patrol. I envied her the melancholy that she could leave behind the doors of the office and boring as it may be, click off at the end of the day as a job well done. In my office I sat in my chair, willing a solution to fall in my lap, but nothing did.
I stared at the wall in front of me, the chair that Jarreth had impressed the arms of with the vice of his fingers, the window of the office door that played a constant old timey movie of shadows that rolled across it back and forth as personnel fielded our uptick of calls and wrapped up a day, the description of which belonged to a writer of the most sadistic sort.
None of those things showed me an answer and after a while the depth of solitude in my office became deafening.
I stepped out into our version of a bullpen, which was only a few desks and a dry erase board we never used, and looked around. The activity didn't stop, but it slowed as my presence indicated a need for the staff to tread carefully around me. Ella had apparently warned them. I don't like that kind of counter productive trepidation around the office, so I decided to address them.
"Everybody stop what you're doing." There were eight or so uniforms in the building, including Ella and Clark, who I thought I remembered telling to go home, and when the phone on his desk rang, his instinct was to answer it. "Let it ring," I said. "If there's an emergency, it'll come across the scanner."
Clark pulled back his hand and sat down to face me along with the rest of them.
"This has been a hard day, to say the least, and I appreciate the work you're all putting in. I realize I haven't been around a lot during the past few days, but I've had good reason and it ties to Shoeshine Drop. Actually, I've been here more than some of you think; it's just been late hours more often than not. And until we can come up with some kind of solution to what's been happening, I'll likely have to be spending more time in the field."
Clark gave a thumbs up and offered a touch of encouragement. "It's all good, boss."
"Thank you. As you know, the location of The Drop on Priddis Mill Road makes getting a solid control of the situation extremely difficult, so I have a ton to think about. In the meantime, beginning tomorrow morning, I want to have a car with two officers parked out there around the clock. Clark, I'm putting you in charge of that. No singles. There needs to always be two." Clark nodded and jotted something on a clipboard. "You are to stay at your post and leave it only if you're called away to back somebody up, which I doubt will happen. If it does happen, it had better be something like the gates of hell opened up on the square and swallowed the statue. Otherwise, you are to stay put until you have eyes on your relief. You're there to keep people safe from becoming another statistic. That means don't bother chasing speeders or a driver without plates."
Clark raised his hand and I motioned for him to speak. "You're instructing us to ignore a crime?"
"I'm telling you what your priorities are. We don't have a speeding problem out there; most folks are smart enough not to drive hell's bells around those curves and it's been two years sense there's been a hint of a wreck anywhere near it. What we do have is people falling or jumping off a cliff and the very real probability that curiosity seekers will want to go out there and take selfies or something. So unless you have me a good solution to the problem right here and right now, then yeah. I'm telling you to let a few speeders go on by."
There was a chuckle from right side of the bullpen. Deputy Rose, who was ten years my senior, was shaking his head. He and I usually get along well and I consider him a mentor, but my respect only went to a certain line and I felt like he was mocking me.
"What's the joke, Matt?" His face sobered immediately.
"I'm sorry, Marty. Just sounds to me like you went and got the heeby-jeebies and you're lettin' old superstitions get the best of you."
"Why do you think that?" I'd hoped I wasn't so obvious about it and I couldn't be angry at him for being honest. Keeping each other on the level is one of the things that makes my staff a strong team.
"Don't you think two 'round-the-clock uniforms is overkill? It seems like you're not trying to protect Waterman from curiosity as much as you are a ghost."
"What do you think?"
"About the legend? In fact, I'd like to know the opinion of everyone in here when it comes to Shoeshine Drop. Do you want to go out there alone? Anybody?" My crew looked at each other to see if anyone would speak first.
"Buncha hockey, if you ask me," Rose piped, arms folded across his chest. "There's never been one shred of evidence that backs up that story. Campfire tales is all it is. But, I gotta say if I was in your shoes, I'd probably be barking the same orders."
"Anybody else? Because you'd better be clear what you believe about it one way or the other. The legend is real whether the ghost is or not and there are a lot of people in this community who'll bet their next paycheck that there is something bad out there. And those people talk. No matter what you or I think, I need you to be a dancing bear for me and tell them there's nothing to it if they ask. Do not posit that there's anything to the legend because that'll only draw more people to it."
Nobody offered an opinion. I looked at Simmons, whose desk was directly in front of where I was standing, and our eyes met. He kept his silence too - as he'd been told to do when he ripped Jarreth's video for me, but he knew there was more to it than Matthew Rose did. He'd seen the footage.
I finished up my speech in the gallery. "I'm leaving to go home in a few minutes. If you have any questions or comments for me, now's the time. Clark is charge of scheduling the patrols at the The Drop, so do me a favor and don't give him any lip about your assignments. I don't care whether or not you believe in the legend or if you think it's ... what'd you call it, Matt?"
"Yeah, that." Everybody laughed and we needed it.
Ella raised her hand. "What if we gotta pee? Some of us can't just hang it out the window like a cave man."
That got an even bigger laugh.
"Alright, fine. Squat as far from The Drop as you can and stay on this side of the Danger Zone."
I liked it when they smiled together and they all were. "You have your orders. I'll have my phone on me and it'll be turned up if I'm needed."
They dispersed back to their business and I called after Simmons.
"My office, please."
"This is about that boy's video, isn't it?"
"What else?" I asked and fell like an anvil into the chair behind my desk. I pointed to the chair across from me where Jarreth had left his finger marks in the arms and he sat down too. "I'm at a crossroads."
"Because I don't know what to think in light of the information. It's not just the video, it's testimonies from reliable sources that match what we saw. If I were a naturally superstitious man, I suppose it might be easier to accept it at face value, but I'm not. Ignorance is bliss, I guess."
"Is it ignorance to believe your own eyes?"
"Sometimes. I've seen magicians do things I would have sworn were impossible, but when you break it down, it's such a simple explanation, you want to smack yourself in the forehead. I'm kicking against it as hard as I can, but the evidence so far - it's nuts." I stared at him and waited for a response.
"What do you want from me, sir?"
Simmons didn't have a crystal ball. He couldn't see into my mind and give me what I hoped for, which was reassurance that everything we'd seen in that footage might have been doctored after all. That the solution was as easy as a better barricade and a friendly public service announcement to stay away from the Danger Zone. But he wouldn't be doing that. He'd already said it looked authentic. As real as Gail's lifeless, yet satisfied body at the bottom of the cliff, waving its dismembered hand in a final gruesome adios to the world. My mind shifted the memory into a morbid comedy so that it wasn't a wave at all, but a middle finger salute. I got my peace, suckers. See ya when it's your turn to fall the wall!
"I want you to tell me what you really think."
"About the video or the legend?"
"Both, but start with the video. Is there no way it could have been tampered with - enhanced?"
He took a deep breath and looked out the window of the office door like he was afraid somebody might be eavesdropping. I felt a knot in my stomach at that. There was only one reason he'd be overly cautious about anyone hearing his adducement.
"I don't think so," he sighed.
"I'm not the top shelf when it comes to analyzing video, but there are certain things you look for that are the basics. Tiny editing points, inconsistencies like the direction of your light sources and broken motion - things you'd never catch with the naked eye, but can be singled out if you take it frame by frame, which I did. As far as I'm concerned, it's clean from start to finish. Of course, there are guys at GBI in Atlanta ..."
"No. It doesn't leave here unless or until it has to. Have you said anything to anyone?"
"Good. Keep it that way." I paused and looked at the ceiling, but the only contribution it gave was a couple of nasty brown stains and a spray of cobwebs that hung and swayed in the turn of the air.
"I think it really happened, sir." Simmons glanced at the window again, but no one else was listening.
"So do you have the slightest idea what to do about it? Some kind of voodoo chant or spell we can trot out there and holler so we can all go on about our regularly scheduled programming?"
"Maybe we could call a priest. Perform an exorcism."
"Do those things work?"
"Seems to for demons if it's done right and I think that's closer to what we've got - a demon."
They call her a demon or a ghost ... She was a guardian angel, I heard Carol St. Claire's voice tell me. Carol St. Claire - mother of whatever haunted Shoeshine Drop. Then I heard Megan's voice just as clearly. It's St. Claire. Megan St. Claire.
Suddenly I was filled with anger again at the aspect of Megan's inclusion in all of this, although she hadn't technically been included. I was doing that on the wheels of paranoia. I rose from my chair so fiercely that Simmons flinched.
"What's wrong, Marty?" I'd scared him. He always called me sir.
"What's wrong is I'm sick of it! I'm good at solutions, but I don't know how to solve this one and people are dying. How soon before somebody I care about goes out there and ends up like Gail and Jody and all the others? She almost got Dudley, too. Did you know that? All that crazy talk they say he was yelling when they found him? He told me about what happened to him out there and it matches up."
Simmons gulped hard because he didn't want to say what he was about to. "I don't patrol, but if you need me to be a man out there, say the word."
"You don't want that. You don't even carry a piece."
"You're right, but what's a sidearm gonna accomplish at The Drop? I'm willing to do my part."
"Thank you. I appreciate it and I'll be pulling my shifts as well. Right now I'm going home to try and get some sleep if I can."
We stood and shook hands and Simmons went back to his work. I flipped off the light to my office and grabbed my jacket from the hanger next to the door.
Outside it was chilly enough for the jacket, but not cold. There was moisture in the air, though, and fog rolling in, so I knew I might need it. I wasn't going home like I told Simmons. Where I was headed was a higher elevation - in more ways than one, it turned out - and it tends to get windy up there. Especially when there's fog.
What I hadn't told the staff was that I would be the one taking the first shift at Shoeshine Drop and I would be alone.
The roads were lonely that late at night, even for Waterman. I guess the news about Gail had seeped into the marrow of the community and people felt safer shut inside their homes, as if The Drop might draw them like a supernatural magnet if they let down their guard. Maybe they had something there because isn't that what was happening to me?
On the way out of town, I passed Shiner's and noted that they'd closed up for the night. Dudley spent a lot of time there when he was around, so it could've been that they closed up in respect for him. Clem's was deserted, too. I slowed a little as I passed and could see Rita leaning on the counter, reading something. I assumed it was one of the romance novels she always kept tucked under the register for times when business slowed and she had a minute to expand her mind with salacious prose. Beyond the last traffic light in town, which had timed out of its red, green, and yellow cycles into a steady flashing amber dot that reminded me of a heartbeat, was the darkness and mystery of the mountains.
The fog was settling like smoke from the nose of a malevolent dragon and the beat of the traffic light rode along on each crystalline vapor of it, wrapping me in a blanket of on again, off again light.
To answer your question, I have no idea what I was thinking. I'd seen the footage, read Jody's letter, and had gotten a first hand account from Dudley. I expected something bad might happen and the fog was setting the scene perfectly. I thought of Megan and how she said she believed me. If that was true, I wondered, how would she feel about what I doing?
A thousand more questions bombarded me as I climbed the mountain and eventually found myself on the winding, desolate asphalt of Priddis Mill Road. Where would Waterman be if they found me in the morning at the bottom of The Drop? They'll never erect a statue in my honor, but leaving them without a sheriff would be irresponsible. What would it do to Megan if I died? She didn't love me - it was too soon for that and reality dictated that she'd probably never let her feelings for me go that far. But the news would shock her and that's not a good thing for a pregnant woman.
I gave myself every good reason to put on the brakes and turn around, but I couldn't make myself do it. I would drive to The Drop and whatever happened, happened. At the very least, if I came out breathing, maybe I'd have a better idea of what we were dealing with.
The fog continued to thicken as I climbed skyward and by the time the cruiser crawled into view of the overlook, with its necklace of yellow caution tape, I think it might have been the same thickness Soseby described when he told me about the night Regina One had been killed.
Up to that point, I hadn't decided what to do when I got there - whether I would sit guard the way I'd instructed my officers to do or if I'd take my chances and get out of the car. There was just enough room to park in the clearing on the road side of the tape, but I could barely see it and ended up bumping the yellow plastic threads that represented the only barrier between safety and a doorway to hell, until they broke.
The fog only allowed my headlights to cut through so far. I pulled in as close to the Danger Zone as I dared, to where I could just make out the spray painted writing on the guardrail.
I rolled down the window and sniffed at the air. There was rot in it. Acrid and rancid. It was the smell of death and decay, like the air around a cadaver that's been sitting for a couple of days in the hot sun. We had that smell in our water one summer when I was a kid. A rat had fallen into our well out back and when it died, it's decaying body left a stench that passed through the filter and tainted every drop from the faucets. Daddy had to put bleach in the water supply for a while and we couldn't use it until the smells of both decay and cleanser were gone. At first, I thought it was my imagination, geeked up that evil was surrounding me, but it wasn't overreaction. I was about to find that out full throttle.
I sat in my cruiser for a long time, willing the smell to go away, but it remained there, searing the edges of everything, so that my thoughts went to bleaching my own skin if that's what it took - if, that is, I survived the night. It hit me what it must be in reality. I was smelling the remnants of Gail. Her swan dive had left the walls of the cliff smeared with gore like an abstract painting in tones of deep red. I also considered that it could be the body of another animal close by. Whatever it was, I rolled up my window and tried to push it from my mind.
I sat there a while longer with only the scanner for company, which was mostly silent at that time of night, and watched the fog mist tumble and wave like the starlight from another painting - that psychedelic piece by Van Gogh that Dudley had mentioned earlier in the day, Starry Night. It was the way Dudley had described what he'd seen when he looked over the edge of the cliff for Gail. He'd heard her voice clear enough that he was convinced she was down at the bottom, maybe standing in the water and letting it rush refreshingly past her knees as she waited for her lover to come for her. He'd been treated with a funhouse version of the world when he laid on his stomach and peered over.
All at once, I was overcome with the urge to see it for myself. To Step right up, Step right up and try my luck with the magic swirling cliff air just like Dudley had. When he'd given me his testimony, it had been vivid enough that I'd formed my own picture and now the compulsion to test it against the real thing was incalculably strong.
The fog between my headlights and the guardrail turned and danced and soon it became a hypnotist's pendulum. It curled in on itself with the smooth slyness of a snake secretly luring its prey into a trance. It became playful in its motion. A jokester - a court jester - boasting its wares for the king, performing its dance and soon, on a breath of wind, singing her song.
I'd never seen something so beautiful, so peaceful and endearing. I thought I was hearing chimes behind her melody as she sang softly.
I wanted to touch the fog, to feel it envelope me as it turned and danced into itself with misty delight. I was the king, after all, The king of Waterman and this was my servant, working the stage for me, for my pleasure. This was my show and I deserved to enjoy it. I deserved to be happy for once. To finally rest. It was my choice to make.
So you gotta let me know, should I stay or should I go ...
I should go to the fog and beyond it, too, if that's how the play was supposed to end. Sometimes we live within the pratfalls and punchlines of a comedy and sometimes it's the harsh chill of a tragedy that drives us toward whatever happens to be our end. Either way, there is an end and we don't get to decide that part. That's reserved for the writer. We just get to play the roles for a while.
I should go to the edge and look over it to see how my role plays out. To see what artwork the writer has given me. To find out if I'm only an observer or if it's time for me to take my bows and add my own paint to the wall of The Drop.
I needed to see.
Because I'm the king around here. I am the law and nothing is above the law, not even The Drop.
The fog spun pinwheels in front of my eyes and I pulled the lever of the door.
I was firmly in its grip now, unable to do anything to stop it. I stepped out of the car and walked to the Danger Zone, lifting one leg, then the other across it. The smell of death was overwhelming now, but somehow intoxicating - almost sweet and inviting like fresh baked cookies when you're showing a home to sell, only this was blood and maggots and rot.
I had to see over the edge. To get a glimpse - a taste. To see if it was heaven or hell.
I stood at the edge and felt every pore begin to tingle. There was no need to lay down to see it. I could go there and experience it fully.
I heard another voice. It was everywhere around me and inside me. My head was an immense, empty hall with hard walls that bounced the sound in horrific reverberance. I put my hands to my temples, but there was no use trying to stop it.
The voice screamed its maddening instruction at me and suddenly I was elsewhere. That's the best way I know how to describe it - elsewhere.
I found myself buried in complete emptiness, surrounded by the same fog that played on an invisible current. I stood firm, but could see no floor.
I called out into the expanse of nothing. "Hello?" And as if triggered by the sound of my voice, the fog began to thin and I was back at the The Drop, but it was different. Someone else was there. More than one, but just hazy shapes in the mist.
It wasn't the shape, but the words I heard that made me realize the one closest to me was Deputy Soseby. The story he'd told in the diner was happening before my eyes. As the fog lifted a little more, I could make out his face, young and virile, but staring through eyes of fear. Staring at me.
He pointed in my direction.
"We need to get both of you to the hospital. You've been traumatized. Let's deal with one thing at a time."
What are you talking about? I thought. I tried to say it, but different words came out. I saw myself point at the girl - Regina One. She was cowering behind Soseby, so I couldn't tell much about her, but she was there.
I screamed at them.
"The whore made me wreck my car! Made me run off the road and now it's DOWN THERE!"
There was such rage fire burning through me and at the same time, I felt like I'd been punched in the gut. I hadn't said that. It wasn't me.
Soseby took at step back and tilted his head a click. "You settle down, mister!"
I felt my fists loosen. I'd been clenching them hard enough that if my nails had been any longer, there would have been bloody crescents in my palms. I was dizzy and confused, like a boxer pinned against the ropes, physically spent and unable to do anything but hang on for the ride.
Regina One stepped out from behind Soseby, still too engulfed by the fog to make out much of her.
"He tried to touch me. He ripped my shirt and lost control when I wouldn't let him!"
At that, I felt the rage fire stoked, even though it wasn't mine. I had a front row seat on a roller coaster somebody else was controlling and where they went, I went.
I heard myself scream again, "Liar!" and shot off straight toward them, trembling with what felt like acid in my veins. I could taste the hate winding its courses through Tom Renault. It lay on my tongue with a flavor the same as the smell from earlier where I suspected stood the real me in real time, teetering at the edge of The very real Drop. Now there was the copper taste of blood as well and I realized he or we had clenched our teeth hard enough to make them bleed. We'd gotten away lucky with the fingernails, but not so much now and I was at the point of being unsure who I was feeling, anyway. I felt him, but I don't think he ever knew I was there, and there was a merging of our minds, although, Thank God, not a total one. I had the sense of his emotions, but I knew the difference between him and me and was able to distance myself once I recognized the emotions that didn't belong to me. Tom Renault was physically in control, though. What he saw, I saw and what he thought, at least briefly, I thought.
He was faster than I imagined he'd be and Soseby hadn't expected his speed, either. We were on them in a beat and Soseby stepped backward. There was a scream and Regina One fell over the side.
No, no, no ... I tried to holler, but there was no voice available to me because I wasn't really there. I had a front row seat. I was the guest of honor, yes, but the script had been written in blood and I was just there for the show. I also knew what came next. Soseby had told me.
We stopped for a second. I was crazy with fear and Tom was crazy with rage, but there was no time to dwell on it. Soseby turned instinctively away from us and bent to help her. It was that moment that Tom made his decision. He hadn't wanted to kill her, but none of this had been in the plan. There was a place a little further up the road - a place he'd taken the others and nothing like this had ever happened with them. They'd been good girls. Easy to control, to manipulate. All he'd wanted to do was touch them and if he was lucky, get touched in return. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn't and every time they cried, but he always made it better and nobody ever knew any different. None of them had died and none of them had needed to. But this one was different than the others. She'd led him on for years, letting him go so far, but no more and now that it was time, now that she was of age, as they say, she went and said it was over. That she would tell if he ever tried again and she had knocked his hand away when he tried to touch her like he'd been able to do before. He'd lost control and now that lady luck had kept him from falling, she had the audacity to blame him for everything and to a pig! She'd ruin him if he didn't do something. She had to die. They both did. He would come up with a story later and he'd be believed. Because he was Tom Ever-Lovin' Renault!
I read his thoughts and was sick. There'd been more of them. Tom Renault was more of a monster than anyone had known. I wanted him to die. I hoped I got the chance to ride with him as he fell like I knew he would and maybe get a sense of his own fear as death clawed for him with talons of stone and veins of ice cold river water.
We crept up behind Soseby, who was urging Regina One to try and take his hand. We stopped for a second - just a second and Regina looked up past Soseby into our eyes in untempered horror. She understood what fate had decided for her. I saw the face of Regina One clearly for the first time, but it wasn't. I'd seen that face before. I'd seen it tonight and once before tonight when she'd poured me coffee.
It was Megan who looked up at us in terror and pain, with tears spilling down her beautiful face. Megan was the spitting image of Regina One.
Mind, heart - maybe both - protected me from losing my last ounce of sanity right then. I tried to close my eyes against seeing what was about to happen, but Tom was in control and I saw fully through his eyes, no matter how tightly I thought I was closing mine. There was also the pain of guilt I felt now that I knew the resemblance Regina One shared with Megan, as if by not watching through it, I would be betraying both of them in those final few seconds.
There was a flash the moment Tom lifted his boot. It was gaudy snake skin, but I couldn't make out the color of it. The fog placed a dulling film over everything so that it felt like we were part of an old movie in sepia tones. I wondered how surprised Soseby would be if I ever got the chance to mention that detail because he'd not mentioned it to me at the diner. I actually doubt he noticed Tom's boots in the first place. The old man had tried to give a concise picture of how out of sorts he'd been while it all took place, but even his first hand telling of it hadn't been close to what I'd just witnessed.
The flash saved me from having to endure it. Once my eyes adjusted from the brightness of it, I realized I was back in the complete white out of fog I described earlier as Elsewhere. I'd been spared the nightmare of hearing Regina One scream on her way down, shrill at first and piercing, then diminishing to little more than a distant sliver of sound that would eventually become part of the background noise of the mountains. Rivers against rocks, breezes through pine branches, deer and other creatures of the wilderness moving through the forest.
I had the distinct feeling the vision wasn't over; not by a mile.
I found out I was right when I turned around to see the mist fading again, revealing more horror. I was floating over the edge of the cliff, looking back toward the face of it where a young man stood, eyes shut tight. A voice in his head told him it was the right thing to do. I knew it because I could hear the voice too. I was inside the thing that urged him. He was afraid, but he was also happy to be there; petrified to do it, but filled with jubilation that he had the choice.
The voice was gravelly and deep.
"Step off, son. It's okay, my boy. Just do it and everything will finally be all right."
"Daddy?" The young man asked with the uncertainty of a child.
"That's right. Daddy's here, son. I'm here and I'll never leave you, nor forsake you. Never again if you'll only jump."
The young man was dressed in the clothes of the late sixties or early seventies; long bell bottom pants and a greasy drape of hair kept in check by a tie-dyed bandana. He'd given a noble go at growing a beard, but it was splotchy at best. A white tee shirt under a woven vest with native American print adorned the top part of him and he wore a tangled hash of beads around his neck and flip flops on his feet. He was an exact cliche of every photo I'd ever seen of a flower child.
He stuck out one leg and a flip flop let go to turn over end past the cliff face.
I felt the rage again, but this time it was mine. Renault was having fun and everything about Shoeshine Drop became as clear to me as a perfectly cut diamond. No fog could hide it. Regina had never had anything to do with these tragedies, this evil. It was Tom trying to get people to jump and pulling or pushing them himself if they were strong enough to disobey. It was Tom Renault thieving the very words of God that were intended for comfort and twisting them to cause pain and death.
She's not a demon ...
That's when I heard another voice, the whisper made famous through years of lore and lies. It came from somewhere close by, near the drop off.
Shoooooeeee Shhhiiiinnneee ...
"What?" The boy opened his eyes, torn out of his stupor by the new sound. He brought his foot back to the ground and backed away a couple of steps toward the guard rail.
Shhhoooooeeee Shhhiiiiinnnnneeeee .....
To this day I don't understand how whatever Tom was had such a powerful command over words, yet all she seemed to be able to manage was that single one. I've come to terms with the fact that otherworldly things operate under the influence of otherworldly gears and may never offer some explanations.
"NO!" I heard Renault cry out. I almost expected him to also scream, MINE!, like a brat who won't let the other kids play with his toys. In an instant, I was riding that Tom train visciously toward the young man and I saw us grab him by the arm. He screamed in terror and his complexion went white, just like Jody's had in the video. He resisted and cried as we pulled and I could hear Tom resounding in my head, growling with effort as we pulled, but the boy wouldn't budge. Something pulled him away from us back toward the guardrail.
And now I heard the labored struggle of a female, crying as well, but with sorrow and loss. She couldn't hold on and as we watched the young man lunge forward at one final, rabid tug from our end, I heard it again, broken and sad.
Shhhhoooe ... Shhhiii........
Light. Blinding, paralyzing brightness and then the oppressive fog of Elsewhere.
It was a blessing, really. I was me again for a second, breathing hard. Grateful that I hadn't been made to endure watching the young man fall to his death, but still able to hear Regina One's only moaning word echoing inside of me. My heart had begun to pound in my chest and it hurt. It beat too fast, much faster than the pulsing yellow light I watched in my rear view mirror that welcomes the climb into the mountains from good old, safe Waterman.
I went to my knees and started to weep. I wept for those lost and those who would be from here on because I truly didn't think I would make it out of whatever this was. I wept because I was tired and my soul was torn. And I cried for Regina One. For the legacy that had been unjustly stapled to her. Tom Renault had always been the only demon of Shoeshine Drop.
She was a guardian angel.
I stood, my hands folded in front of me, waiting for the Tom train to start up again and eventually, it did. I rode it over and over again, wrapped in the skin of whatever Tom's existence had become and each time, it was more of the same as history reran its scenes for me on some crazy psychological stage. I was a bystander in the wrong places at the right times.
The play went on.
A teenage girl who thought she'd lost everything because she'd lost hope. I never learned what that hope had looked like to her, but I felt her pain.
An old man who'd lost some hope of his own and decided life wouldn't give him the date of finality; he'd take that right for himself. Tom hadn't had to work hard for that one.
There was even some sort of ritual that took what seemed like hours. The sacrifice had been an animal - a fawn, I think - and while it wasn't a human life that fell to the lurid appetites of the demon Tom Renault, the fear and suffering and pain were every bit as palpable and hard to swallow. And I was helpless to help any of them. By then, I was able to draw a clean line between me and Tom. There was no longer a blurring of emotion, but only an ever growing disgust and hatred for him.
Regina One was always there, too, giving her all to try and stop the hurt, but she was simply too weak to overcome it as she lashed out her cries with the only word she could say.
My heart exploded in grief, compounded with each new vision and at some point in between them, - I'm not sure when I started to do it - I would run forward as soon as I found myself back in the fog. I don't know what I thought I would find. Maybe my bed and reality or maybe the true edge of The Drop, making me just one more victim. But every time I ran, I found more white-grey fog and an infinity of emptiness. That is, until the curtain opened on a new scene.
I wondered if I was the first passenger on Tom's train ride to nowhere, or if there had been others. Is this what everybody endured - a cruel, seemingly unending suspension of time before impact? Was Tom Renault a collector and we all get to see the horde we're about to join?
Or was I already dead and this was hell? I considered that perhaps I had misunderstood all those sermons and had taken communion from unbroken tables for absolutely nothing.
Questions forged in the midst of a fire of exhaustion and confusion cannot be answered in times like those. So I would continue to run when the crew changed the scenes that would play around every turn and atop every hill of my journey on the Tom train.
Finally, mercifully, I knew the end was close when I shook my head into focus and saw Jody. Jody floating and crying out for his mommy. There was Jarreth, holding his phone, frozen in fear. He'd wet himself. A great, wide, dark spot had spread out over the front of his jeans and it occurred to me that Soseby told me he'd done the same. Jarreth didn't mention it, but it wasn't needed information and I wouldn't have expected him to, but I saw. I saw every secret, final moment of every soul lost at Shoeshine Drop. Jody had managed to win his first battle, but I wasn't spared the one he lost. He'd known he would die and gave in easily. Regina One tried to help again, but even she understood that Jody had died before he ever crossed the Danger Zone.
And then Gail Warren stepped over the guardrail. The wind blew mildly through her unkempt hair. There was no fog, nothing out of the ordinary at all, because there was no need for dramatics. Tom Renault had no work to do, but waited and enjoyed the view. He didn't mind the lack of a challenge. His dessert was death one way or the other. And there was no whisper. No Shoeshine. Gail had been just as dead as her son the very moment she got the news and there was nothing to be done from either side to encourage or to stop it.
It was sadness and depression of the deepest kind and all that could happen, did. A spirit or ghost or demon has no power where determination has already laid its course.
Before crossing over the Danger Zone, Gail stopped and taped something to the back side of the railing. I knew it would be the letter. Then she stepped over the rail and walked calmly forward until her toes were dangling over the edge. Tears began to fall in torrents and she cried out over the deep chasm.
I heard Tom laugh at her. Low and satisfied, he kept it between me and him. He'd found a way to savor the moment a little more by remaining silent to her.
"Where are you?! Shoeshine Shoeshine Shoeshine ... Say it, damn you!" she wailed with arms held high above her, willing to be taken. "SAY IT!"
But Tom Renault was silent because there was no need to speak. Regina One was silent because there was no changing Gail's mind.
Gail lowered her arms and looked down. She whispered something I couldn't make out and allowed her weight to shift forward.
I ran as hard as I could to try and make it stop, even if it meant the ground would fall out from under my feet and I found myself racing headlong toward the rocks. Gail had been the last one and there was nothing left to see, yet there was a dread that overcame me, stronger than anything I'd felt so far. The train didn't seem to be slowing at all. There was no horn to alert me of a station stop coming up ahead. There was one more scene to play out in this act and it was the worst one yet.
This time the flash of light was so intense, so bright, that it took several seconds for my eyes to adjust. While I waited, I could make out familiar voices in the distance, fading up like someone was easing the volume slide louder on a soundboard. The voices were passionate, pleading, and I couldn't quite make them out at first, like when you wake from a dream and can almost remember it, but the details are just fuzzy enough to keep you from it.
I could pick out who was who, though, and that was enough. As my eyes worked into their capacity to see, I made out everybody, some standing in the clearing and some over the Danger Zone, close to the edge. I was floating with Tom again, just beyond The Drop, but he was angry now. I felt his rage white hot and searing and there was something else, too. Fear. Tom's anger boiled through us and threatened to merge with my own emotions like it had at first. I fought it and won, but not without an incredible effort and it was because of what I recognized was playing out in front of me.
Dear God, I prayed, let this end and hold me apart from him. Don't let me slide in with his evil.
The familiar voices now had clear faces to go with them and I'd been right on every count. Standing behind the safeguard of the Danger Zone, screaming things I couldn't understand, were Deputy Clark and former Deputy Soseby. They were pleading with two others who stood beyond the rail, arms and hands begging them to Come back! Come back!
As for the two beyond the Danger Zone, Sheriff Marty Reese held the hand of a young woman who stood just as Gail had, with only her heels holding her to the ground and her toes dangling precariously over the cliff. That version of me begged the young woman to come back. He tugged at her from his grip, but appeared paralyzed from going to her fully and pulling her safely to him. She refused to budge or turn to him. The young woman appeared to be as paralyzed as that Marty Reese, unable to break her trance. The young woman and her pebble. Two heart beats in one person, waiting to beat their last.
Tom was chanting something to Megan, who faced outward, peering straight into my eyes, but I couldn't understand him now and I heard no sign of Regina One.
Help us, Regina. If I ever wanted to hear you speak your line, now is the time. This is your scene!
I cried out to Megan as loudly as I could, but I wasn't really there and she couldn't hear me. Tom continued to chant his unintelligible lines, moving the scene along.
The play MUST go on.
"Turn back!" I screamed and Tom overpowered my voice as if he knew I was there inside him.
Bile rose to my throat as the vision escalated to its climax. Megan and her pebble stepped off the edge and the fog enveloped me as I let go of every ounce of hope and happiness I had ever known in a wail of torment.
Inside the expanse, I collapsed in a heap. There would be no more running to try and find a way out. No calling for help. I would die there and I didn't care if I did. I wanted it. I hungered for it. I wanted, more than anything in the world, to rot there in the fog and hope that either some dark, infinite peace or insanity might touch me and my final memory of Megan and her pebble stepping off the edge of Shoeshine Drop would fade into nothing along with my consciousness. Because I couldn't take it. I couldn't live the rest of my life with a memory like that and if I did find myself awake, I thought I might walk myself right over the rail beyond the Danger Zone and give Tom Renault exactly what he wanted. Blood. My blood and anyone else's who happened to be foolish enough not to believe in the real ghost of Shoeshine Drop and the guardian angel too powerless to do anything about it.
Some memories are just too much.
But it wasn't a memory, was it?
I saw myself there and it hadn't happened yet, so that meant I had time to try and change it. They say traveling back to the past would be disastrous because even the best intentions would screw everything up as we know it, but the future ... now that's something different. It hasn't happened yet, so the complications of changing that can't be felt. It's just moving the tracks. Pulling the lever and making the train go in a different direction.
I jumped up and immediately the fog began to lift. The world around me became familiar and I was standing at the edge of The Drop.
You ever think you're about to step on a snake and jump back like a crazy person? That's what I did. The death stench had faded with the vision, but a new smell crept up to me along with a distinctly wet sensation. I'd thrown up on myself at some point.
I suddenly became aware of being dizzy and the world went swimming again. I hit the ground and found the lights of my cruiser, still blazing through what was left of the fog. I crawled in that direction till I came to the driver's side of the car and managed to get the door open. I climbed in just enough to get a claw around the radio's handpiece and called for help. After that, I don't remember much other than sitting on the ground with my back against the open door of the cruiser and faintly hearing the radio squawk to an audible fade as I blacked out.
The last thing I remember thinking was how hard I intended to pull that lever and change the course of the Tom train.