Home > A Winter Haunting (Seasons of Horror #2)

A Winter Haunting (Seasons of Horror #2)
Dan Simmons

ONE

FORTY-ONE years after I died, my friend Dale returned to the farm where I was murdered. It was a very bad winter.

I know what you’re thinking. There’s the old journalism anecdote of William Randolph Hearst needing someone to cover the Johnstown flood and sending a young cub reporter. It was the kid’s big break. The next day the novice cabled back this lead to Hearst’s paper: “GOD SAT ON A LONELY HILL ABOVE JOHNSTOWN TODAY, LOOKING DOWN IN SORROW AT NATURE’S FIERCE DESTRUCTION.” Old-timers swear that Hearst did not hesitate ten seconds before cabling back this response: “FORGET FLOOD STORY. INTERVIEW GOD.”

I say I died forty-one years ago and your response is, Forget the story about Dale. Who cares? Tell us what it’s like to be dead-what is the afterlife like? What is it like to be a ghost? Is there a God?

At least, these would be my questions. Unfortunately, I am not a ghost. Nor do I know anything about any afterlife. When I was alive, I did not believe in ghosts or heaven or God or spirits surviving the body or resurrection or reincarnation, and I still do not. If I had to describe my current state of existence, I would say that I am a cyst of memory. Dale’s sense of me is so strong, so cut off and cauterized from the rest of his consciousness by trauma, that I seem to exist as something more than memory, something less than life, almost literally a black hole of holistic recollection formed by the collapsing gravity of grief.

I know this does not explain it, but then I do not really understand it myself. I know only that I am and that there was a-“quickening” might be the best word-when Dale decided to return and spend the winter at the farm where I once lived and where I died.

And, no, I have no memory of my death. I know no more of that event than does Dale. Evidently one’s death, like one’s birth, is so important as to be beyond recall.

When I was alive I was only a boy, but I was fairly smart and totally dedicated to becoming a writer someday. I spent years preparing for that-apprenticing myself to the word-knowing that it would be many more years before I could write a real short story, much less a novel, but practicing with opening paragraphs for stories and novels nonetheless.

If I were borrowing an opening for this tale, I would steal it from Thackeray’s boring 1861 novel Lovel the Widower: Who shall be the hero of this tale? Not I who write it. I am but the Chorus of the Play. I make remarks on the conduct of the characters: I narrate their simple story.

Thackeray’s omniscient “I” was lying, of course. Any Creator stating that he is a simple Chorus and impassive observer of his creatures’ actions is a hypocrite and a liar. Of course, I believed that to be true of God, on the few occasions when I considered that He might exist at all. Once, when Dale and Mike and I were having a chickenhouse discussion of God, my only contribution was a paraphrased quote from Mark Twain: “When we look around at the pain and injustice of the world, we must come to the ineluctable conclusion that God is a thug.” I’m not sure if I believed that then or now, but it certainly shocked Mike and Dale into silence. Especially Mike. He was an altar boy then and most devout.

But I’m digressing even before I begin the story. I always hated writers who did that. I still have no powerful opening line. I’ll just begin again.

Forty-one years after I died, my friend Dale returned to the farm where I was murdered. It was a very bad winter.

Dale Stewart drove from western Montana to central Illinois, more than 1,700 miles in 29 hours, the mountains dwindling and then disappearing in his rearview mirror, endless stretches of autumn prairie blending into a tan and russet blur, following I-90 east to I-29 southeast to I-80 east to I-74 south and then east again, traveling through the better part of two time zones, returning to the checkerboard geometries of the Midwest, and forcing himself down through more than forty years of memories like a diver going deep, fighting the pain and pressure that such depths bring. Dale stopped only for food, fuel, and a few catnaps at interstate rest areas. He had not slept well for months, even before his suicide attempt. Now he carried drugs for sleeping, but he did not choose to stop and use them on this trip. He wanted to get there as soon as possible. He did not really understand why he was going there.

Dale had planned to arrive at Elm Haven in midmorning, tour his old hometown, and then drive on to Duane’s farmhouse in the daylight, but it was after eleven o’clock at night when he saw the ELM HAVEN exit sign on I-74.

He had planned to move into Duane’s old house in early or mid-September, allowing plenty of time to enjoy the fall colors and the crisp, sunny autumn days. He arrived on the last day of October, at night, in the last hours of the first Halloween of the new century, hard on the cold cusp of winter.

I screwed up, thought Dale as he took the overpass above I-74 and followed the night-empty road the two miles north toward Elm Haven. Screwed up again. Everything I haven’t lost, I’ve screwed up. And everything I lost, I lost because I screwed it up.

He shook his head at this, angry at the bumper-sticker-stupid self-pity of the sentiment, feeling the fog of too many nights with too little sleep, and punched a button to lower the driver’s-side window. The air was cold, the wind blowing hard from the northwest, and the chill helped to wake Dale a bit as he came out onto the Hard Road just a mile southeast of Elm Haven.

The Hard Road. Dale smiled despite himself. He had not thought of the phrase for decades, but it immediately came to mind as he turned back northwest onto State Highway 150A and drove slowly into the sleeping town.

He passed an asphalt road to his right and realized that they had paved County Road 6 between Jubilee College Road and the Hard Road sometime in the last few decades-it had been muddy ruts between walls of corn when he had lived here-so now he could drive straight north to Duane’s farmhouse if he wished. He continued on into Elm Haven out of curiosity.

Morbid curiosity, it turned out. The town itself seemed sad and shrunken in the dark. Wrong. Smaller. Dead. Desiccated. A corpse.

The two business blocks of Main Street along the Hard Road had lost several buildings, disorienting Dale the way a familiar smile with missing teeth would. He remembered the tall facade of Jensen’s Hardware; it was now an empty lot. The A & P, where Mike’s mother had worked, was gone. He remembered the glowing windows of the Parkside Cafe: it was now a private residence. Lucky’s Grill on the other side of the street appeared to be some kind of flea market with stuffed animals staring out at the Hard Road through dusty black eyes. The Corner Pantry market was boarded up. The barbershop next door was gone. Bandstand Park was worse than gone-the tiny yard-sized space was now cluttered with a tiny VFW hall and various tin sheds, the bandstand torn down, the trees uprooted and their stumps cut out, and the war memorial hidden by weeds.

Dale made a U-turn and drove back east, turning north onto Broad Avenue. The clouds were low and the wind was cold. Leaves blew across the wide street ahead of his Toyota Land Cruiser, their dry scraping sounding like the scuttle of rats. For an instant, fatigue convinced Dale that these were rats, hundreds of them, rushing through the cones of his headlights.

There were no streetlights on Broad Avenue. The great elms that used to arch over the wide street had fallen victim to Dutch elm disease decades ago, and the trees planted since seemed smaller, stunted, irregular, and ignoble in comparison. Some of the fine old homes along Broad still stood back behind their wide lawns, the houses dark and silent against the night wind, but like an old war veteran at a reunion, Dale was more aware of the missing houses than of the few survivors.

He turned right onto Depot Street and drove the few blocks to his childhood home across the street from where Old Central School had stood.

His home of seven years was recognizable, but just barely. The huge old elm that had stood outside his and Lawrence’s bedroom was gone, of course, and the new owners had long ago paved the short driveway and added a modern garage that did not go well with the American-square design of the house. The front porch was missing its railings and swing. The old white clapboard had been replaced with vinyl siding. Jack-o’-lanterns and a bulging straw man in bib overalls had been set out on the porch in celebration of the holiday, but the candles had burned out hours earlier, leaving the jack-o’-lanterns’ triangular eyes as black and empty as skull sockets; the rising breeze had scattered the straw man’s guts to the wind.

Old Central, of course, was gone. Dale had few clear memories of the summer of 1960, but he vividly remembered the building burning, embers flying orange against a stormy sky. Now the once-grand square city block was filled with a few ratty-looking ranch houses-dark and incongruous amidst the older, taller homes on each side of the square-and all signs of the former school building and its huge playground had long since been eradicated.

The tall sentinel elms around the school block were gone, of course, and no trees had been planted in their place. The tiny houses on the square-all built after 1960-looked exposed and vulnerable under the black sky.

There were more gaps in the rows of homes facing the former schoolyard. The Somerset place next to Dale’s old home was just gone, not even its foundation remaining. Across the street from the Somersets, Mrs. Moon’s tidy white home had been bulldozed into a gravel lot. His friend Kevin’s family home-a ranch house that had seemed modern and out of place in 1960-was still there on its slight rise of ground, but even in the dark Dale could see that it was unpainted and in need of repair. Both of the grand Victorian homes north of Kevin’s house were gone, replaced by a short dead-end street with a few new homes-very cheap-crowded where the woods had once started.

Dale continued slowly east past Second Avenue, stopping where Depot Street ended at First. Mike O’Rourke’s home still stood. The tiny gray-shingled house looked just as it had in 1960, except for the rear addition that obviously had taken the place of the outhouse. The old chickenhouse where the Bike Patrol had met was gone, but the large vegetable garden remained. Out front, staring sadly across First Avenue at the harvested fields, the Virgin Mary still held out her hands, palms outward, watching from the half-buried bathtub shrine in the front yard.

Dale had seen no trick-or-treaters. All of the homes he had passed had been dark except for the occasional porch light. Elm Haven had few streetlights in 1960 and now seemed to have none at all. He had noticed two small bonfires burning in yards along Broad, and now he saw the remains of another fire-untended, burned down to orange embers, sparks flying in the strong wind-in the O’Rourke side yard. He did not recall bonfires being lighted for Halloween when he was a boy here.

Dale turned left past the small high school and left Elm Haven behind, turning west on Jubilee College Road at the water tower and accelerating north on County 6, hurrying the last three miles separating him from Duane McBride’s farmhouse.

TWO

I NEVER left Illinois during my eleven years of life, but from what I’ve seen of Montana through Dale’s eyes, it is an incredible place. The mountains and rivers are unlike anything in the Midwest-my uncle Art and I used to enjoy fishing in the Spoon River not far from Elm Haven, but it hardly qualifies as “river” compared to the wide, fast, rippling rivers like the Bitterroot and the Flathead and the Missouri and the Yellowstone. And our lazy sitting on a bank and watching bobbers while we chatted hardly qualifies as “fishing” compared to the energetic fly-fishing mystique in Montana. I’ve never tried fly-fishing, of course, but I suspect that I would prefer our quiet, sit-in-the-shade, conversational creek side approach to catching fish. I’m always suspicious of sports or recreational activities that begin to sound like religion when you hear their adherents preaching about them. Besides, I doubt if there are any catfish in those Montana rivers.

Dale’s corner office on the campus of the University of Montana, his former family home in the old section of Missoula, and his ranch near Flathead Lake are all alien to me but fascinating. Missoula-for a city of only about 50,000 people-seems cordial to the things I probably would have loved had I lived to be an adult: bookstores, bakeries, good restaurants, lots of live music, a very decent university, movie and live drama theaters, a vibrant downtown section.

Dale’s psychiatrist, a man named Charles Hall, had his office over one of these older used bookstores. Dale had been seeing Dr. Hall for the last ten months before his trip back here. Dale had first visited the psychiatrist two days after he had set the muzzle of the loaded Savage over-and-under shotgun against his temple and pulled the trigger.

Dr. Hall’s office was small but comfortable-books, artwork on the wall, a window looking out onto leaves, a desk off to one side, and two worn leather chairs facing each other with a small glass table between. The table held only a pitcher of ice water, two clean glasses, and a box of Kleenex. Dale had needed the Kleenex only on his third visit, when he’d had a spring cold.

During their last session in mid-October, the leaves had been red outside the windows and Dr. Hall had been concerned about Dale’s decision to spend the winter in Illinois. Eventually, however, the subject changed from emergency phone numbers and the necessity of Dale’s getting in contact with another doctor to provide the necessary antidepressants and sleeping pills.

“You understand that I strongly advise against your plan to spend the winter alone in Illinois,” said Dr. Hall.

“Noted,” said Dale.

“Does my advice make any difference?”

“I’m spending a hundred and twenty-five dollars an hour for it,” said Dale.

“You’re spending a hundred and twenty-five dollars an hour for therapy,” said Hall. “To talk. Or in your case, Dale, not so much to talk, but to get the prescriptions you need. But you’re still going to spend the next ten months or so alone in Illinois.”

“Yes,” said Dale. “But only nine months. The usual gestation period.”

“You realize that this is a classic pattern.”

Dale waited and listened.

“A spouse dies and the survivor moves away-especially men, Dale-and tries to ‘start a new life,’ not realizing that what’s needed at such a time is continuity, contact with friends, a support system…”

“My spouse didn’t die, ” said Dale. “Anne is alive and well. I just betrayed her and lost her. Her and the girls.”

“But the effect is the same…”

“Not really,” said Dale. “There’s no continuity here. My home here in Missoula is off-limits except for supervised visits and divorced-daddy Sunday pickups. I hate that. And you agree that spending another winter at the ranch is a bad idea…”

“Yes, of course,” said Dr. Hall.

“So I’m headed back to the Midwest to spend part of my sabbatical. Back to The Jolly Corner.”

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