Dudley looked surprised when I walked into the room.
"That's what I'm talkin' about," he said with a huge grin and acted like he wanted to get up out of his bed.
"No, stay there, Mr. Warren," I ordered. "You're not going anywhere till they clear you. I'm here to ask some questions and that's all."
He sat up with his back against the bedrail. "There's no time to waste. These nurses think I'm crazy, but I know what I heard - what I felt. My wife and son were both murdered and like it or not, it's your job to do something about it."
"I want to, but you're going to have to tell me what happened out there before I can." I sat in the chair beside his bed and opened my notebook.
Dudley shook his head. "You're not gonna believe me anyhow. You're just like the rest of them, so what's the point? I'll do it myself." He looked again like he might try to get out of bed and I threw up my hand once more.
"Don't make me call the nurse and have them sedate you again. What are you planning to do?"
"Kill her!" he spat and suddenly something in him changed. He bolted forward and punched at the air with his fists. "Kill that thing - that ghost whore!" He fell back against his pillows and began to weep. "She killed my wife and she killed my boy. I've got to kill her back for them - for all of them she pushed over, so she can't push nobody else."
"How do you intend to kill a ghost?"
"It don't matter. You don't believe me, either," he garbled through a wash of tears.
"Actually, I do," I told him and he stopped crying.
Imagine a child who's decided he no longer believes in Santa Claus. He walks into his living room in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and sees the fat prowler himself, putting together a bicycle. That's the look that fell across Dudley's face when I said that. It was hope and disbelief fighting for the number one spot in his mind.
"Don't screw with me, sheriff. I'm goin' through a lot right now."
I scooted my chair closer to his bed so we could talk more privately without any of the hospital staff overhearing.
"I'm not screwing with you. I've got evidence that suggests this is very real, but it wouldn't do any good to share it because of how outlandish it sounds. I do believe it, though. I need you to tell me everything that you saw, you felt, or you heard out at Shoeshine Drop and don't skip a single detail. I'm sorry to have to ask you to do that at a time like this, but I think it's important that I act fast. With what has happened lately, there are going to be people heading out there with fresh curiosity and we can't have that, can we?"
Dudley swallowed hard. "No, sir. We can't."
"Are you up to it?"
"Where do you want me to start?"
It dawned on me that we might be interrupted. "Hold tight," I said and stepped out into the squared off room that featured the nurses station in the center. I didn't see Hannah anywhere and I thought that was a good thing. I hoped that she was taking my advice and clearing her mind.
There was an intense woman I'd never seen before at the desk. I found myslef immediately intimidated by her crystal blue eyes and mouth that was drawn into a frown. I was hesitant to approach her, but when she spoke, she couldn't have been kinder. I have a real bad habit of doing that - judging books by their covers.
"How does Mr. Warren seem to you?" she asked before I could pose my own question and it felt like she was genuinely concerned.
"From what Hannah told me earlier, I think he's better. I'm about to take his statement and I don't want to be interrupted, so I thought I'd find out if he's scheduled for any nursey type stuff soon. Sorry - my medical vernacular is poor."
She laughed and the intensity of her face melted away to something quite beautiful. I looked for a name tag and she wasn't wearing one, which was a disappointment. Periodically, my mind had been going back to Megan at the diner and every time it did, there was a twinge of shame. This woman looked like she might have the potential to numb that, and she was closer to my age.
"Your medical vernacular is poor and yet you use words like my medical vernacular is poor. I'm sure you could be more creative than nursey type stuff if you tried."
"Probably so. That said, is he scheduled for anything?"
Her fingers feathered over a keyboard as she read the monitor in front of her. The light from the screen reflected in her eyes and they seemed even brighter. Spectacular. Unfortunately, they were no match for Megan's and here was that shame again, riding voices that whispered, creep and dirty old man. I guess that was better than the more recent voice I'd been hearing.
"Not for another twenty minutes," she said when she looked up. "That enough time?"
"Should be," I told her and popped my hand on the counter to punctuate it before I turned to walk back toward Dudley's room. As an afterthought, I spun around. "You're not wearing a tag and I didn't get your name." I'd hoped to revisit the desk later and see if there was a spark. I noticed she hadn't been wearing a ring. What I didn't want to do was have to ask around for her with only her description. I'm looking for the beautiful lady that was here earlier. I can't tell you her name, but she's red headed and looks like she'll rip out your intestines and feast on them if you say the wrong thing. She around? What she replied killed it for me, though. Completely.
"It's Regina, but my friends call me Gina for short." She flushed a bright shade of pink.
Great. I had begun to think ths whole thing was a conspiracy against me somehow.
"Good to meet you. I'm Marty."
"Wow!" she gushed. "Me and the sheriff on a first name basis!"
"Trust me, I'm nothing to write home about, but I guess we are." I added Number Three under my breath.
"Sorry. It's just me splitting my thoughts, but getting them crossed instead."
"Seems like you've got a lot to deal with. I'll make sure the nurse knows to knock before she barges in."
In Dudley's room, I sat back in the chair and pulled it as close to the bed as I could without clocking my shins on the metal frame. When I walked in, Dudley had his eyes closed and looked to be asleep. I aimed to take my seat as quietly as possible and wake him gently so as not to startle him. He hadn't been sleeping, though, which I realized when he let go a sudden hitch and tears ran like rivers down his cheeks. It was something I expected to be a part of this off and on, or even frequently.
"Gail! My Gail!" he sobbed and made no attempt to hide his torment, lifting his arms to heaven as if by doing so, he might find she'd not finished falling and he could catch her before she was broken.
I remained silent and let him have his pain. I wouldn't shush him sweetly the way people do when they don't know what else to say in those moments and I certainly wouldn't have said something as thoughtless as It's alright - things are gonna be okay. I have always hated hearing people who have no clue whether or not it will be okay tell someone who's grieving that things are going to get better. In times for those who have lost, the world has ended and all hope is gone. You never know the degree the heart mourns unless it's you that's hurting, so it's always best to keep silent and simply be there for them.
On top of that, I knew it very likely would not be okay for somebody before this was all over with. Death seemed to be having too good a time to let go that easily. I think Dudley and I were probably the only people in Waterman, except for maybe Jarreth, who absolutely knew without a shadow of a doubt - I'M ALL IN, BABY! - that it wouldn't be okay.
I'd gotten lost in my thoughts when he spoke up. I was worried about having so quickly forgotten about Jarreth and I hoped I would remember to check on him soon.
"I'm ready." It was the wet speech of the broken hearted, but he managed to straighten himself up.
I found a box of tissues on the rolling food tray to my left and handed him a couple. He told me Thank ya and wiped his eyes, then covered his nose with it and blew a loud honk. Then he started talking without my having to prompt him.
"I've been in Atlanta for several days working out a problem one of our big clients was having with their payroll system. I normally work overtime and fast to make sure I get back home as quick as possible since I'm gone so much, but I didn't this time. Gail had been taking Jody's death real hard, as you can expect. We both were, but she'd been mostly taking it out on me. So I wasn't in any hurry to get back and be her punching bag. I just took ... I took ..." His chest started to heave up and down and he sucked air in great gulps as he started to entertain a fresh batch of tears. "I took my time!"
The monitor he was plugged into began to beep furiously and almost immediately, a voice rang out from a speaker on the side of the bedrail.
It was Hannah's voice. She was off of her break.
"Mr. Warren, a nurse is on the way."
"Call her back, I'm fine," he barked.
"She has to check and turn off the alarm anyway. Is there anything I can get for you?"
"Not right now."
Another nurse walked into the room - a tiny black woman who also had a look about her that said she was a peach unless you got on her bad side.
"How are we feeling, Mr. Warren?" She read the numbers on the monitor, which may as well have been an alien language to me, then reset something and the beeping went back to a steady, occasional blip.
"Maybe we ought to do this later, Mr. Warren. It's not a good time." I started to get up.
"No!" he said too loudly and the nurse fixed me with a gaze that told me the ball was in my court, but if any harm came to her patient, I'd definitely be on her bad side.
"If I stay, you have to keep yourself calm. Your health is what's most important and they have the authority to ask me to leave." I glanced toward the nurse and she gave me a nod of approval.
"Let me get this over with. There's gonna be a lot to do over the next few days and I don't want to put off tellin' you what you need to know."
"Stay calm, Mr. Warren," the nurse said. I guessed her name was Devon since there was a dry erase board on the wall behind the monitor with that name scrawled in marker under the word Attendant, "Nobody expects you not to be emotional, but try not to get too overwhelmed, okay?" She flashed a practiced, but believable smile and I was glad she wasn't all business.
"I won't let him do that again, Devon."
"See that you don't," she said and didn't correct me about the name, so I was right. Devon left the room and closed the door softly behind her.
Dudley waited until she was good and gone to speak again. He held up his hands and regarded them, turning them forward and back in front of his eyes. The monitor interrupted the silence a couple of times, but otherwise there was no sound. Finally, he looked at me.
"You remember that old fantasy movie from the eighties - the one where the boy started reading a book up in a dusty attic and the story came to life? There was this big rock man that rode a rock tricycle and he ate rocks too, except now he was runnin' from some kind of darkness that was devouring the whole world and leavin' nothing behind. Remember that?"
"The darkness was called The Nothing - I remember it. That's The Never Ending Story. I rented it every time mama took us to the video store; probably watched it a thousand times."
"Those were the days, weren't they?"
They were. I had to agree with him on that.
"Sheriff Reese, that rock man - I don't remember what they called him in the flick ..."
"He was a Rock Biter."
"Yeah, that's it." Dudley smacked the matress. "He knew it was the end of him, but he only had one regret. His hands. The Nothing had taken something from him and he hadn't been able to hold on. 'They used to be such strong hands,' he kept sayin'."
I recalled that part well. Even as a kid, it had seemed deeply sad and symbolic and made me want to cry. That and the scene with Atreau's horse in the swamp. I can't say I've ever completeley gotten over that one. I reached out and touched his shoulder. "None of this is your fault."
"Ain't it though? What if I'd been home for them? What if I'd raised my boy to trust me enough to come to me with the hard stuff instead of thinkin' he had to handle it on his own?"
"It's my fault."
They say these moments tend to work themselves out better if you keep your silence and don't try to fix it. You're supposed to be strong for them and show compassion, so that's what I tried to do.
"I'm sorry. I can't imagine what you're going through."
"I spent so many years bulding strength through my work, providing the things I thought my family needed and for what? What benefit do they have now?"
I started to choke up a little myself. He reminded me of my own daddy, who'd worked tirelessly with strong hands of his own to support us. Had I told him enough how much I appreciated him? How much I loved him? He wasn't the kind to feel comfortable with overtures like that coming from me. His was the philosophy of a tougher generation when the tender things between men were understood, but went unspoken. Maybe I should have said it more anyway. We were losing time and I needed him to get to his statement.
"Mr. Warren, why don't you start with when you got home this afternoon?"
He rested his hands on his lap. "Yeah, I suppose we ought to open the dam if we're gonna."
I sat back in my chair and listened, taking notes of the important stuff.
"I noticed Gail's car wasn't in the driveway, which was odd because she usually knows about what time I'm gonna get home and she waits for me. I figured there must've been something she needed right then, you know, milk, toilet paper - something like that. I dropped my overnight bag by the couch and went straight to the kitchen to see if there were any leftovers in the fridge. That's when I saw the note she left on the counter. I reckon you've seen it already. They took it from me when they found me raving like a lunatic. I'd like to have it back, by the way, when you're done with it."
"I have it put safely away."
"Maybe you think that's morbid or something but ..."
"Not at all. You'll get it back, I promise."
"Thank ya. Well, of course I read it and turned myself right back around and out the door. Actually, that's not entirely true. I think I stood there for about a good minute in some kind of daze, trying to make sense of it. I mean, I knew what it said, but the reality of it was hazy, like I was dreaming or something. Once I came to, at least enough to drive, I tore out of there like a bat out of hell.
"I don't think I was in my right mind from then on and through all of what happened after I got out there. Fact is, right now is the first time since I walked through the door of my house and laid down my bag that I've been able to think right. Now that being said, what I'm about to tell you really happened. I know that much."
I figured I'd get the inevitable question out of the way. "How can you tell, if you're just now feeling like you can think clearly?"
"I've seen things I didn't think could possibly be real, but they were. I served in the Gulf War. And I've done stupid things that made me see stuff that wasn't. I know the difference."
"Thank you for your sacrifice."
Dudley wiped his mouth on his sheet. What was coming next wouldn't be easy to retell, so I poured him a cup of water from the standard liver colored hospital jug on the table beside him.
"Drink this and we'll talk about what happened to you," I said and handed him the cup. He bent the straw toward his lips and drank deeply, then let out a refreshed sigh.
"I needed that, although I imagine what I'm about to say's liable to give me another touch of the dry mouth."
"That's fine." I looked at the clock and saw that there wasn't much time before one of the nurses came back in. We might have to take a pause, but at least for the moment he seemed relatively calm.
"Forgive me if I have to take this part slow," he said and I nodded. "A man my age getting a reality check like that is a life changing event. You a religeous man, sheriff?"
"Yes, sir. Christian."
"Not as much as I'd like to be when it comes to walking the walk, but I won't be swayed if that's what your getting at."
"I'd never try to, especially now. I didn't believe in anything before and I didn't care how you or anybody else believed as long as you let yours be yours and mine be mine. I guess you'd have called me an atheist if you wanted to slap me with a label, except I wasn't interested in proving my worldview wrong or right. To me, anything that couldn't be explained by science wasn't real."
"Seems like that's changed."
"No choice but to now. I ain't sayin' I have the answers to the universe, but after today, I know there's something else out there - something we can't see and maybe ain't supposed to."
"What happened at Shoeshine Drop, Mr. Warren?"
"It started almost immediately. I pulled up to the clearing on the left and Gail's SUV was parked there longways beside the guard rail. I pulled in right behind it. It was shut off - not idling, - but I looked and saw keys were still there, laying in the driver's seat. I figured that told me one of two things: Either she'd gone and done it, or she was somewhere close by, trying to talk herself into going through with it, so I started calling out her name.
"As you know, she didn't answer, so I crossed over the guardrail to see if I could make out her body at the bottom of the cliff. I knew better than to stoop so close to the edge, so I laid down on my belly where most of my weight would keep me from going over when I looked down. Here's where it went bat crazy.
"Over the edge, maybe ten feet and beyond that, everything I could see went blurry."
"Blurry?" This was a new wrinkle to the legend.
"No, not blurry," he closed his eyes and shook his head in frustration. "That ain't exactly right. It was more like it went all swimmy-swirly like that painting by the fella who cut off his ear."
"That's the one, Starry night. I thought I'd gotten dizzy, but when I rolled around enough to look behind me, everything was normal. The only thing that was weird was the drop off over the edge. You might think of it like somebody painted a perfect landscape on the surface of a pond, then took a stick and stirred it up, only it didn't go muddy. It just kept slipping in and out of confusion. Is any of this making sense?"
"Not really, but I don't expect it to." I jotted a note about swimmy-swirly landscapes in my book.
"I called out to Gail one more time. By then I was messed up in the head real good with both the realization that she was truly gone and by the insanty of what I was seeing. But then I heard her call back to me.
'Dudley, I'm down here!' and I yelled 'Where?'. 'At the bottom,' she yells back.
"I've never been happier in all my life. It was her voice. She'd made it down alive and she sounded fine. 'Gail, are you alright?' I called and she laughed.
'Of course, I am, silly!' I knew it didn't make any logical sense, but I thought maybe the weird look of things below me could be a trick of nature - a force of the wind that would carry me safely to her if I jumped into it while it was still going on. I nearly got to my feet and I'm thinking that would have been the last mistake I ever made, but I didn't get the chance.
"They ain't joking when they say it gets cold if there's a ghost around. I felt it myself. A chill bit through me and the wind picked up too. There's some high weeds at the edge of the cliff - they ought to keep 'em trimmed so you can see where the ground ends - and they had started to rustle and shimmy around. It almost sounded like a whisper and soon enough it was one - another voice, but I ignored it at first for Gail's. All I wanted to do was talk to Gail.
"'How'd you get down there?' I asked her and when she answered again, it was with that little girl laugh.
"'I jumped. Come on, it won't hurt. You won't feel a thing!'
"That's what she said, You won't feel a thing."
"It wasn't her, though," I said.
"No it wasn't. It was --"
There was a light knock at the door and Hannah stepped in. "It's time to check your vitals, Mr. Warren." She spoke in that sappy, candy cane way nurses like to use because they think it puts the patient at ease and harkens them back to the days when mommy kissed their boo boos. Dudley would have none of that.
"Number one, missy, I'm a grown man and I'd appreciate it if you'd talk to me as such. Number two, me and the sheriff are in the middle of an important conversation and I'm not ready to be checked up on."
I touched his arm. Hannah stood there, unimpressed with his bluster, but I don't think she was sure how to handle it with me in the room and the tiny detail about him losing his wife to suicide just a couple of hours ago.
"It's okay. Let her do her job. I'm sure it won't take long." I locked eyes with him and when he didn't reply, I added, "I'm afraid I have to insist."
"Fine," he chuffed. "Whatever you have to do, do it quick, missy."
Hannah walked over to his monitor display and wrote some things down on her clipboard. "Mr. Warren, I'll treat you as an adult if you'll pay me the same courtesy. My name is Hannah, not missy. Deal?" Her temperment had changed to meet his request and maybe a little too far the other way, but I can't say I blame her. I can get rough around the edges, myself, when people speak to me disrespectfully. As they say, the sugar done been chewed from her gum. I was actually kind of proud of her.
It seemed Dudley might have been as well. He smiled and stuck out his hand. "Deal. And I'm sorry."
"No apology needed, Mr. Warren," she said and took his hand with gentility so as not to disturb the IV line he had attached to the back of it.
Hannah turned his hand over and looked at it while she held it in her own. "How's that feel? Comfortable?"
"Ain't bothering me. Why's it there in the first place?"
"It's there in case you need us to help you feel calm. Doctor Phillips would like to keep you overnight - just for tonight, don't worry - and we'll probably give you somethng to help you sleep. You've had a tough day and you'll need it."
"Like I said, whatever you got to do. I don't want to go back to the house right now anyway."
While Hannah asked him questions, fiddled with meters, and wrote things down, I stared at the dingy tiles on the floor and let my thoughts wander to what I'd discovered so far. I ran through it all in my head, starting with Jarreth's video and ending with what Dudley had just told me. I had a good idea of what would be coming next and it made me want to leave right then and there. I saw myself flying out of the room with some excuse about another emergency I had to see about. I could have pretended to get a call on my cell and they'd have never known the difference. I could sleep on it and come back the next day before they sent him home with a smile and a sleepy drug hangover. I could do those things and I'd only be putting the horror off for a few more hours. There was no running from it. I needed to hear the rest and regardless of how ugly the picture was turning out, the puzzle was coming together.
"Alright, I think I can leave you two alone for a while." Hannah tapped her pen on the clipboard.
When she was gone, Dudley resumed, but he couldn't make himself hold my eye like he had before. I got the feeling he was having some of the same thoughts I had about sticking a pin in it for a time. The look on his face told me he was ashamed at the very notion of his story and he kept his eyes trained on the ceiling.
"I knew it wasn't her, but in the relief of hearing her voice, I forgot about the legend and Jody's letter. All I could think about was Gail. Gail at the bottom of the cliff, calling to me. Gail alive and happy.
That last part surprised me. "Jody's letter? You knew about it?"
He nodded gravely. "Gail fell asleep with it in her hand one night and I read it. I didn't tell her I knew because she obviously didn't want me to. Anyway, I had come to my senses enough to know I wouldn't be jumping, but all the time, my heart was still telling me to get to Gail.
'Stay put and I'll drive down there,' I hollered.
'Don't worry about that, Dudsey. Just jump down. I did it and you can do it too.'
"That swirling, spinning vision got faster every time I looked over the edge to try and make her out and I started to get sick to my stomach. It felt like the only thing that would make it stop was to fall. And that's what I wanted to do. Fall. Suddenly I wanted it more than anything else - to feel the air rushing past my body and gravity pulling me down just as fast as I could go. It was as clear an answer as there could be, that everything would be fixed if I'd just roll myself over and down.
"That's how I know whatever is out there can be beat. It's an impatient little cuss. I started to whine like a baby, saying Gail's name over and over while I fought with myself whether to do it or not. Then I heard another voice and it snapped me out of it. This new voice was deeper, husky, and it was tired of waiting. It said, 'Do it! Jump!'
"It was so close it might have been right at my ear. If it had waited thirty seconds longer, I think I would have done it. That was its downfall, if you'll pardon the wordplay, but like I said, it was impatient.
"I tried to get to my feet, but there was some kind of pressure holding me down and I started to slide forward toward the edge, only I wasn't doing it myself. I was being pulled by invisible hands. Then everything was full of its voice, overwhelming, so it was hard to hear anything else, to think about anything else.
'Jump, Dudley, Jump! Jump, Dudley jump!'
"I started screaming at the top of my lungs and fighting it. 'No, no, no! Stop! Let me go!', but it just kept on pulling me toward the edge. I grabbed at anything I could find to hold on to, but there ain't nothing there but the weeds and they tore up from their roots without a fuss and the whole time, my head is full with that voice so loud I thought I'd give in just to make it go away.
Jump, Dudley, jump!
Jump, Dudley, jump!
Jump, Dudley, jump!
"It chanted that over and over again like a skipping record. Then it stopped. I could hear everything. My body had stopped being pulled, too. I swear it happened - I got the scrapes to prove it."
Dudley lifted his gown from underneath the blanket and revealed himself from chest to stomach. He pulled back an enormous swatch of medical gauze and tape with a wince and there were massive scratches there like what you'd expect to get if you'd fought for your life on your belly to keep from being pulled over the edge of a cliff.
"My God," I whispered, more to myself than to Dudley, and tried to look away, but I couldn't.
"Told ya," he said, fixing the dressing back and resettling his gown under the covers.
"That happened today at the Drop?"
"I don't make a habit of body surfing gravel, sheriff. I remember thinking, once it all settled down, that the voice telling me to jump hadn't sounded like a girl. Then again, it had done a fair impression of Gail, so I reckon it has a gift for sounding any way it pleases. Next thing I know, it does sound like a girl and doing that thing folks talk about."
"That's right, only don't make it sound so matter of fact. If you'd heard it, you might well mess your britches. It's a devil sound. You don't hear it as much as you feel it from the inside out. It starts in your bones and works its way out through your stomach. And when it finally reaches your ears, it slides in like a snake. You feel it in every fiber of your body. 'Shhhhooooeshiiine!'
"I think I passed out right after that. I knew what it meant when I heard it. It meant Gail was gone and it intended for me to go too. I remember starting to scream, but then I blacked out and there was nothing else. Doctor Phillips said that's the way they found me - screaming and clutching Gail's and Jody's letter. I don't even remember if I went to the car to get it or if I had it on me the whole time."
And as if somebody turned off a spigot, Dudley abruptly stopped talking. It was the end of his story and I could tell he was spent. They could come to put the good stuff in his veins to cover up the monsters of the day with a blanket of sleep and he'd welcome it.
I got up from the chair and tucked my notebook in my shirt pocket.
"You got anybody coming to stay with you?"
"I could make some calls, get you some company."
"I got nobody now, sheriff, and I think I want to keep it that way."
"Whatever you want, Mr. Warren. The offer's there. I've got a lot of thinking and planning on what to do about this."
Dudley closed his eyes. I thought he might not need the drugs after all. I stepped to the door and had my hand on the knob when I heard him speak out.
I turned around and he was looking at his palms again.
"They used to be such strong hands."
"I know. Try and get some sleep."