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For Your Consideration: No Title Yet (Suggestions, and Comments in General, Welcome) [Apr. 2nd, 2009|11:46 am]
     Bobby slammed on the cruiser’s brakes, jerking to a stop. His heart hammered in his chest. That sweatshirt. That pink hooded sweatshirt. His head swiveled toward the Vincent Merrill Memorial Playground. There, perched on the dome-shaped monkey bars. Near the top. Next to the boy in the blue shorts.
     He realized he had stopped in the middle of Neibolt Street at three in the afternoon. He pulled the cruiser to the curb and stared at her. His ears were ringing; he held the steering wheel in a death grip. She was turned three-quarters away from him, so he couldn’t see her face well enough for certainty, but those golden curls...she had the right build...most of all, she had that damned pink sweatshirt. Allison Walker. Had to be. After three years, there she was on the monkey bars, waiting for him.
     He unbuckled the seatbelt. He would walk up to the green chain-link fence, and call her name, and she would come to him. He would report his luck over the radio and bring her home with him; Michelle wouldn’t mind, would surely be overjoyed, knowing that The Dream would be gone for good now. Allison could stay with them until her parents were notified. Yes. He reached for the door handle, and she turned and gave the street a sweeping glance, and he saw that she was not Allison. The cheekbones were a touch too prominent, the nose straighter. She was just a little blond girl in a pink sweatshirt. A stranger.
     His breath escaped in a ragged rush. He slumped, his grip on the steering wheel now loose and watery. Tears prickled at the back of his eyes, but he fought them. After a while he pulled back onto Neibolt and drove away.
     She looks back once before entering the darkness, to make sure he is following. She smiles, just as she has smiled at him a thousand times, ten thousand, from the picture he still carries in his wallet. And then the smile widens, widens too far in fact, as though her face were more elastic than it should be. Then it contracts, becoming again the smile he knows by heart, a sunny little girl’s smile, and her pink sweatshirt disappears into the blackness. He hesitates an eternity, then follows.
     “Bobby? Are you all right?” A pause, then: “Was it The Dream again?”
     He forced his hands to let go of the sweaty twists of sheet he grabbed to keep from screaming. He heard the concern in Michelle’s voice, and something else: on that second question, fear.
     He recognized the fear. She was afraid of The Dream coming back, not only for his sake, but for hers as well. She was afraid he’d need another transfer, and they would have to repack their lives and move to another alien place. They had left Lisbon six months ago, running north into Vermont to escape The Dream that invaded his sleep almost nightly. He had suffered a near breakdown at the hands of The Dream. She had left behind everyone and everything she had known,the house they had shared for four years, without complaint. For his sake. He knew she feared a relapse, knew she might not uproot as willingly a second time. So far, that had seemed a remote possibility; he had not had The Dream since leaving Lisbon. Until tonight.
     “No,” he said. “Not The Dream. Work finally getting to me, I guess.”
     He felt her relax against him, a little. Work stress was still bad, but it was better than The Dream. A month after they’d come to Westborough, when the child murders had begun, she had worried about his ability to handle what was no longer a stress-free assignment in a quiet town. He had told her, with complete honesty, that he could handle this Shoemaker business just fine. “Murder is a known entity,” he’d said. “And somehow knowing even an awful truth like this one is better not knowing at all.” He’d meant it then. It was still true, but she needn’t know that.
     He touched her shoulder lightly. “Need help getting back to sleep? I sure do.” It was an old joke between them, and its familiarity comforted. She pulled him closer. The moon peaked in through the window from a cloudless autumn sky.
     The darkness is unending, impenetrable. He can scarcely tell if he’s heading in the right direction, but he thinks he is: from somewhere ahead he hears her laughing, echoing and faint as though from very far away. Closer, he hears the thick Drip. Drip. Drip. of water. The air is damp and smells of slow decay and eroding stone. Underneath is another scent he cannot name, paradoxically dry and dusty, perhaps the essence of Time itself.
     He stumbles against the right-hand wall of the tunnel and pulls up short. The dusty smell is stronger now, and in the dim light he can make out the individual stones. Someone has scrawled a strange circular design on the wall in pink chalk. He cannot see it very well: a Star of David at the center, and in the middle of that, an eye rendered in hieroglyph. The rest is to ornate to make out in the darkness.
From somewhere ahead, that high, echoing laughter. She is getting further away. He pushes off from the wall and shuffles forward again, following the sound of her laughter.
     After meeting with the realtor, Bobby Dawson had gone exploring. Downtown Westborough was strange to him, and he wanted to remedy that before bringing Michelle up (she had been unable to get out of her shift at the restaurant, and so he had come up alone to see the house). He had gotten lunch at a café on Main Street, found the grocery and natural food stores. At the café, he’d asked about good antique stores, and the girl behind the counter suggested the Odds and Ends Emporium in the Harmony Lot, a large parking lot surrounded on three sides by stores.
     “You could walk from here down to Elliot Street, then up to the Lot here,” she scribbled a rough map on a napkin. “Personally, I prefer the back way.”
     So he followed this second route to the Harmony Lot, from Main to First Avenue and then onto Marsh Street. Halfway up this last, an archway opened in the brick solidity of the Blair-McCallister Block. There were businesses on either side of the archway—Devlin, Winters & Burke, Attorney’s at Law; the Westborough Gazette—and the second storey, presumably apartments, continued above. It was simply a rounded hole in the brick, with a narrow street through it. A nearby sign pointed through the archway: HARMONY LOT.
     Bobby had stood on the sidewalk, looking through the twenty-foot tunnel. Shoppers toted bags from Odds and Ends and Hutchin’s Jewelry and a place called Intense, some headed toward their parked cars, others toward Elliot Street at the far end of the Lot. A family of four came out of Frankie’s Pizza, stuffed and contented. He stood by the archway perhaps ten minutes, chills climbing his back. Memories of The Dream had tried to assert themselves. The tunnel. The darkness. The smell.
     He looked at the archway some more. Ridiculous. He was an adult; he knew the difference between nightmares and the real world, and there was no reason that stupid dream should interfere with him going through the archway. No reason at all, and he walked back to Main Street and turned onto Elliot Street and the proprietor of Odds and Ends said, yes, he could hold anything for up two weeks with a twenty-five percent deposit, and Bobby had put money down on a set of end-tables for their bedroom.
     He did not see the girl again for nearly a week. At work, there were the usual run of domestic disturbances and armed robberies, and on Wednesday a middle-aged man named Carl Rorschach shot his elderly mother with a double-barrel shotgun in Sharpsboro, thinknig she was the postman, and then led Bobby and his coworkers on a twelve-hour manhunt around Sharpsboro and Kennestead. There were dead-ends to follow and paperwork to file on the Shoemaker case (they were getting nowhere, and the Westborough Gazette had run more and more outraged letters, calling for Sheriff Perry’s resignation).At home, Michelle had fixed the kitchen faucet he’d been promising to get to and was re-papering the guest bedroom and wanted to know what he thought about tearing out the kitchen linoleum and laying down tile.
     “What color were you thinking?”
     She showed him the sample from the hardware store. Marbled blue.
     “Perfect,” he said, and they had figured out how much tile they needed, and on Thursday he stopped at Ace Hardware after work and picked them up. The next day he saw her.
     He was coming back from lunch at Barney’s Diner, and stopped for pedestrians at Jackson Street.He watched them and tried to guess what they did for a living. Bank teller. Construction worker. The older gentleman in the blue suit was probably one of the lawyers at Devlin, Winters & Burke. Then he saw her. That pink sweatshirt again. Her curls bounced with each step. Halfway across she turned and looked at him. It was not the disinterested sweep she had made on Neibolt Street. She knew he was there. She smiled, and the steering wheel became ice, because while he knew she wasn’t Allison Walker, her cheekbones and nose were not Allison’s, the smile was. He could compare it to the the photo her parents had given him three years ago in Lisbon, but there was no need. Then she hurried across Jackson Street, and he could not see which way she turned.
     “She can’t be older than seven,” he said aloud once he was driving again. Which, of course, was how old Allison Walker had been when she disappeared. Three years ago. But that smile...that hair...that damned hooded sweatshirt...
     Much later, it occurred to him to wonder: what was she doing on Jackson Street at noon on a school day? Waiting for me to be there, he thought, and shivered.
     It is lighter now. Ahead, he can see the end of the tunnel. Somewhere back in the darkness, the pavement beneath his feet has changed; instead of asphalt there are ancient cobblestones, worn and gray. He can see her now, her pink sweatshirt brilliant against the gray stone all around. Beyond the tunnel’s end he can see a patch of sky, and great gray buildings. From the color of the sky he thinks it must be sunset. Not that it matters; all that matters now is Allison, he has found Allison. She exits the tunnel, and he quickens his pace, heart hammering, thinking only that he has found her at last.
     Michelle set down her coffee cup and said, “All right, enough. We need to talk about this.”
     It was Saturday, his weekend off, breakfast on the table and the Westborough Gazette sports section in front of him. “Talk about what?”
She glared, and shook her head. “Don’t. Damnit Bobby, you know what.”
     He sighed. The Dream. He’d been having it almost every night since seeing her on Jackson Street. Twice he’d awakened, a scream half-caught in his throat. He thought he’d lied well enough to convince her it was something else. Apparently not. “I didn’t want to worry you,” he said.
     “Bobby.” Her eyes welled. “Don’t you remember, when you proposed, we swore to be a team, face the world together? No matter what?”
     Four years ago, after an evening out. Unable to get a cab home, they had walked through an October downpour until, shivering and worn out, they had taken refuge on the soggy benches outside the Lisbon Transportation Center. Huddled under the pitiful protection offered by the building’s front overhang, he had asked, not in the well-practiced poetry he’d intended, but flat out: “Marry me?” There hadn’t even been a ring, but she had said yes, and they had sworn, just as she said.
     “You’re right,” he said now, and their fingers entwined on the tabletop. He looked into her eyes. “It’s under control this time, Shelly. I swear. You won’t have to move again.” He squeezed her fingers. She squeezed back. She looked reassured.
     After breakfast, they walked through Mosher Park, hand in hand beneath the first hints of autumn color. He did not mention the girl who was not Allison Walker even once.
     His first thought is that he was wrong about the sunset. It is not only that strip of sky which he saw from the tunnel that is colored that dull, smoldering red; it is the sky itself, or all that can be seen in the square at the end of the tunnel. The skyline is shaped, delineated by the ancient buildings which surround the square. Jagged points and spires knife skyward, leaning at every possible angle as they rise. Their windows remind him of the narrow pointed casements in medieval cathedrals. There are spaces between the buildings, no ways outside the square save for the tunnel he has come through, and with the certainty one finds in dreams he knows that even that way is now blocked, a point of entry only. Something large and dark and almost bird-like, passes overhead with a sound like flapping canvas.
     He turns his eyes at last to the others in the square. The girl in the pink sweatshirt he knows, of course, but as he scans the circle of faces he realizes with a jolt that he recognizes others, too. Some of them he can put names to; others are simply faces, faces he has seen staring from bulletin boards and office walls in every police station he has ever walked through: toddlers and children and teenagers and even, yes, an old woman in mourning garb. At the far end of the square, he can see Chris McCormick, a skinny black ten year old, one of his first cases with Lisbon Missing Persons, still wearing the torn Aerosmith tee shirt he disappeared in, and beside him...
     Someone takes his left hand; a girl in red pigtails and a dirty calico dress. A boy, probably twelve or thirteen, takes his right. He looks at the boy’s overalls and slouch hat, like a character from
The Grapes of Wrath, and he thinks My God how long have they been waiting here? All around the circle, they are joining hands now, all of them gray and colorless as the stone, even the girl’s sweatshirt made dull in the wan light of the red sky. Their eyes begin to drift upward, their heads tipping back. He looks up, too, and the creatures that are not quite birds pass overhead, and just before he wakes up he thinks And now we wait. Here under the red sky, we wait—
     The following Monday, driving home, Bobby swung onto Neibolt. She was where he expected her to be, perched three-quarters of the way up the dome-shaped monkey bars. The playground was otherwise deserted. No traffic passed. They were alone. It was six o’clock. He walked up to the fence, his uniform hat in one hand.
     She smiled, but said nothing. He came in through the gate and stood at the base of the dome.
     “What are you doing out here, all by yourself?” Doing his best The-Policeman-is-Your-Friend voice.
     Now she spoke. “Waiting.”
     For a moment the question stuck in his throat, refusing to come. “Waiting for what?”
     She rose. “Someone who was looking for me,” she said, and descended. She walked past him out of the playground. When she reached the sidewalk, she turned. Looked at him. Then she headed south toward First Avenue. Her pink sweatshirt receded, her blond curls bouncing toward the corner. At last, he followed.
     She led him past the barbershop, the Union Bank, First Avenue Grocery. He quickened his pace, eating up the space between them until she was a mere fifteen feet in front. He saw no one; no cars, no pedestrians. A few cars clustered together in the grocery parking lot, steel bears that had opted for early hibernation. No children on skateboards or playing hopscotch on the sidewalk. She turned onto Marsh, crossing to walk up the left side of the street, and he followed. He knew now; he understood and it was all right. Halfway up the street, she came to a stop, waiting. He had nearly reached her when she turned again and smiled. For an instant her mouth seemed to stretch like putty, the smile too wide, and then she was simply the girl in the pink sweatshirt, she was Allison Walker only not, and she turned left into the Harmony archway.
     He walked to the archway. Beyond, where there should have been a parking lot, shops, a pizza place, there was only darkness. It was like gazing into an abandoned mineshaft. From somewhere in the darkness, he could hear her laughter, faint and childlike, echoing as if it came from far away. Closer, he could hear water dripping. Squinting, he thought he could see a faint pink smear a long ways off. A chalk drawing on stone, perhaps. He thought he could smell Time.
     One hand outstretched, Bobby stepped into the blackness.