Exclusive excerpt from Phantom Nights:
WHEN LELAND HOWARD GOT OUT OF HIS CAR in front of the homestead, he saw his half-brother Saxby and sister-in-law Rose Heidi on the front porch, either just arrived or about to depart; he wasn't sure which. At any rate, Saxby had got there first.
Figures, Leland thought. He'd had a deal of driving to do, Sax, all the way from Elizabethton. The Tri-Cities area, where Sax had his dealerships, Chevrolets and Case farm equipment.
July 30 and not a breath of air stirring. Not much rain in West Tennessee for a month, six weeks probably. But the deep front lawn and flowerbeds behind a white wrought-iron fence looked freshly watered. Magnolia and gingko leaves glossy as wrapped Christmas candy. There were artesian wells on the six-acre property, four blocks west of the courthouse square and midway down a wide street of mostly antebellum homes, some of which stood long unclaimed in the sun, suffering stupors of dry-rot.
Leland took off a cocoa-colored panama hat and mopped his forehead while his man Jim Giles parked the Pontiac Eight in the shade of a monster cedar across the street. Got out and leaned against a high fender of the Pontiac. He was a lanky man, country-saturnine, gorilla hang to his arms, outsized hands, wearing a shiny blue suit a size too small for him. The suit spoke of a lifetime of meager gleanings, of hand-me-downs and thrift store racks. Giles looked middling-poor, but not servile.
Leland lingered on the sidewalk with a certain aplomb that had always come naturally to him, drawing everyone's attention up there on the shady porch. No hearse in sight, but one might be parked 'round back to spare the family's sensibilities. Doc Hogarth taking his ease in one of the chain-hung gliders, drinking lemonade, as was Rose Heidi beside him. She looked to be about seven months gone this time, setting herself down at every opportunity. They'd hauled along the children, all dressed up, so no fooling; Priest Howard's low state of health could finally be terminal, after all of the false alarms Leland had not bothered responding to.
Two of the kids around Rose Heidi were bored and acting up. A third boy, Sax's oldest, was off to himself reading a Batman comic book. Burnell the houseman hovered just behind the screen door and threshold he had never crossed in 26 years. One of those Nigras every family of means had, around so long he had a certain proud status in both of Evening Shade's communities -- white and colored.
Spare me, Jesus. Leland put his hat on and walked through the open gate, up the brick walk to the classic three-story Classic Revival house, his boyhood home. Gold toothpick in a corner of his mouth. Seersucker suit looking a little wilted this time of day. There was a ruptured duck in the buttonhole of his right lapel. Couldn't remind the voters of Tennessee often enough that he'd served his country well, shrapnel in his back to prove it. War wounds were always a good subject of conversation at the VFW.
Half brother Saxby coming down the steps to meet him part way. Sax had four-effed it during the last great world conflict, flat feet and nearly blind in his right eye.His face in the late afternoon sun was florid, overfed, bulges of fat now all but hiding his small eyes, only little darts of light visible. And he'd developed a wheeze.
"Didn't know how quick you could make it, Lee; said they hadn't seen you up at the farm in a while. On the stump around Union City, your campaign people told me."
"That was 7:30 this morning. Then I stopped in at Dyersburg for a Rotary lunch, drove on down to Memphis, pay a courtesy call on Boss Crump. Which is where the sad news caught up to me, Sax, in the lobby of the Peabody."
Saxby offered to shake hands. Leland kept his hands hard and calloused. Chopping wood was good exercise, another benefit. The farmers whose votes mattered to him as much as Boss Crump's captive wards in Memphis disliked politicians with pampered palms, "slick as snot on a doorknob," a saying Leland recalled from his youth. That was what Sax's hand felt like, manicures a ritual along with his weekly hair trim.
"Boss Crump!" I bet you snuck his endorsement right out from under Walker Wellford's nose."
"No way to carry West Tennessee with the Boss," Leland said comfortably.
"You know I been keeping my ear to the ground but it looks too close to call in my neck of the woods without the Knoxville Sentinel on your bandwagon."
"Expect I'll get their endorsement next week. And I surely do appreciate how you've been busting your hump for me in the Tri-Cities."
Saxby's customary smile resembled a wince. He stared past Leland at Jim Giles, leaning against the Pontiac.
"Still having convicts drive you around?"
"Parolees. It's in my nature to forgive another man's transgressions. The preachers and the church ladies go for that."
"What's that one there paroled from?"
"Manslaughter. Twenty years; mandatory eight."
"He killed somebody?"
Leland couldn't resist. "Bare-handed. But James is a gentle soul. Just on occasion takes a deep disliking to one fella or another."
Leland looked up at the second story windows, drapes partly drawn, of the large northwest corner bedroom. Pyrocantha hugged the walls up to the window sills. Partly drawn? Old Doc Hogarth sitting outside right now with his raspberry lemonade the color of weak blood and a paper fan in his other hand, courtesy of Malfitano's Quality Furniture on the Square. Nothing left for Doc to do but pronounce Priest Howard dead; a job of comfortable waiting, no doubt.
"Guess I'm not too late, the look of things."
Sax glanced at where's Leland's attention was focused. "I thought it was all over for sure about 2:30, then he opened his eyes and even said a couple of words. It's like he's hangin' on for your sake, Leland."
Leland's lip curled. "Same old song and dance. Hour from now, he's sitting up eating a good supper."
"Catch sight of him and you won't be sayin' that. Any breath might be his last. I stayed with him for an hour and a half, just walked outside when you showed up. Had to give myself a short break, use the -- " Sax allowed himself to choke up.
"Dying can be a hard business. Who's up there with him now?"
"For a fact? Thought Mally went off to Nashville to live with her daddy after William blew his brains out."
"She did, and studied nursing. Came home again, it's been eight months, she said. And from what Burnell tells us, Mally has been a pillar of strength for daddy."
Saxby's youngest boy was surreptitiously torturing his sister; the little girl wailed. Sax said sharply, "Rose Heidi, do somethin' about those chirrun."
"Well, they are just awfully hot, Sax. They want to watch television inside. It's almost time for Howdy Doody."
"Not with my daddy bein' called home this very instant. Have some sense." To Leland, Sax said, "I'll just go on back up there with you. Maybe if he hasn't drifted off too far you could tell daddy the good news about Boss Crump. Much as he's always had a deep regard for the old sumbitch."
Leland nodded. From a coat pocket he fished out the little sack of hard candies he always had with him on the campaign trail and handed some out to the kids who clamored around him. He took off his hat again to Doc Hogarth and Rose Heidi. A ceiling fan on the porch ruffled his wavy blond hair.
"So pleased to see you again," Rose Heidi said with the minimal amount of enthusiasm she thought she could get away with. Whisking a wad of scented handkerchief through the blue-moon hollows of her dark, belligerant eyes. "Hasn't it been such a long time, though." She had been born accusing the world of a vague something, Leland thought; and all of the world's deeply-flawed -- by her lights -- inhabitants.
The little girl, whose name Leland couldn't remember, sprawled half in her mother's lap, inviting another pinch in her behind from the trouble-making brother, who danced away from the glider with a smirk.
"Joe Dean, you keep it up and there will be a switchin' in your immediate future," Rose Heidi said.
Leland turned his attention elsewhere.
"Leland." Nod. "You're looking fit." He glanced at Saxby, who obviously despised what he considered to be a subtle reference to his own girth.
"Believe me," Sax said to Leland when they were walking up the curved stairway inside. "I have tried every diet known to man, and I can't lose an ounce." Wheeze. "What's your secret?" This with a sidelong glance. In spite of a forced smile, his eyes, like bees in a violated hive, were busily angry.
Light passing through a stained glass window above the front door made a rainbow splash on the gloomy brown wallpaper, illuminating the depressions in the wall on either side of Sax's boyhood room, where Leland had on occasion pounded Sax's head.
"My mother," Leland said, "was as trim as a willow sapling. Could have something to do with it. How much exercise do you get, Sax? I don't count fucking Rose Heidi. My guess is she does most of the work anyhow."
Silence, as they walked toward their father's room.
"Trust you to come up with a trashy remark," Sax said dourly as they paused at the door.
"Just wait out here in the hall while I say my fond farewell." Sax hunched his shoulders grudgingly. Leland said, with a slight smile, "Our daddy's not going to have a deathbed change of heart and turn loose a single dime that has my name on it."
Snuffle. For God's sake, Leland thought, the old days flashing through his brain. Sax still snuffled like a little kid.
"None of us can be sure what is in daddy's heart at this fateful hour. You may be underestimatin' his capacity for forgiveness."
"I seriously doubt it," Leland said, his smile wise and cold. They heard a car with poor brakes outside, then voices of newcomers. "More company to grieve with us?" Leland said. "How many did you invite, Sax?"
"That would be Pastor McClure and his wife." He turned and went back along the squeaky hall to the stairs, saying, "Hope you choke on that toothpick." Leland allowed Sax's mood and attitude a few moments' study, then gave an exaggerated snuffle and nose-wipe that Sax just had to hear. Just to remind him who had taken charge early in their relationship and was still on top. Childish of him, but how satisfying.
MALLY SHAW LOOKED UP when Leland entered his father's bedroom. She was sitting on a rocker near the old man, a Bible open in her lap. The Howard family Bible, no less. Ponderous to hold, the pages fragile as moths' wings from age. He caught a little of what she was reading aloud as he opened the door. Psalms.
"Go on, Mally," Leland said.
Instead she placed a bookmark in the Bible, closed it, glanced at Priest Howard's face elevated on pillows and stood.
"Appears that I'm in time," Leland said.
"Praise be, Mr. Leland," Mally said, and she put the Bible on a stand near the bed where diffused sunlight brought out what was left of the gold stamping on the leather cover, darkened by the oils from countless fingers over a century and a half.
Leland admired the profile Mally presented against that same light. She would be, he guessed, four or five years younger than he was. Even a man who had liking for dark meat &emdash; never one of Leland's prejudices, since he'd been old enough to take up the chase &emdash; couldn't fail to be attracted to such a comely woman. It was obvious that more than one white man had temporarily roosted in the family tree, going back at least a hundred years.
Leland approached his father's massive and ugly old mahogany bedstead. Initial shock, at how desiccated the old man looked, this bone-sack, toothless, eyes agley, caved face the color of a harvest moon. The old enchantment ebbing, its nucleus deveined. He was taking fluids and holding at his low level on morphine. Nothing left of him to dread or despise, this relic who in his prime could change the weather with his scowl. Leland wasn't at all sure in the eclipse-like pallor of the sickroom that Priest Howard was still drawing breath. Still, Leland felt uneasy. Then he saw the dying man's chest rise convulsively and fall again beneath tangled fingers, the flickering of lashless eyelids.
"Who's there?" Priest Howard said, voice phlegmy but surprisingly strong.
"It's Leland, daddy. How you feeling today?"
"I've seen ... the Light."
"How's that, daddy?"
"There's ... shadows in the Light. They're ... waitin' on me."
Leland, perplexed, looked across the bed at Mally, who was smiling sympathetically down at the old man.
"Hasn't said that much in two days."
There were bad odors in the room, among them human flesh on its way to the grave; and something good, refreshing, the mild appealing scent that Mally wore.
"What light does he mean?" Leland said with a slight, unexpected shudder.
"I don't know. First time he's spoken of it, Mr. Leland." Her face calm, but her lower lip folding between white teeth.
Priest Howard's veiny eyelids trembled again. His head moved fractionally on the pillows.
"Come closer ... Lee. See you."
Leland took the toothpick from his mouth and popped in a piece of candy to suck on before he approached the bed. There were a few chick-feather remnants of hair clinging to his father's long runneled skull. No further movement. Leland bent over the old man, growing tense, thinking he'd heard that tell-tale death rattle in his throat. Eyes flicking to Mally who was frowning as if she'd heard it too. Then his father breathed again.
There was a tank beside the bed. Mally placed the mask over Priest Howard's mouth and nose, opened a valve on the tank. Leland liked the compassion he saw in her eyes. Totally absorbed, the ministering angel. She had fingertips on the pulse in one of the old man's thin wrists.
Half a minute passed; she removed the mask.
"Can't give him all he wants," Mally explained. "Enough so his lungs stop reaching, hard on his heart." She picked up a moist sponge and gently wiped it across the dying man's forehead.
Leland motioned her back and leaned over his father, who apparently had been restored to the point of being able to open his eyes. Pale, pale blue beneath an overgrowth of wilderness eyebrows.
"Do you want to say something to me, daddy?"
" ... Can't win."
"What's that? Can't win what, daddy, the Democratic primary?"
"See to it ... myself."
Leland drew back, a burning sensation behind his breastbone. He bit down hard on the piece of cherry-flavored candy.
"Hard news for you, daddy. I'm stronger than Wellford everywhere. Come November when all the flowers have withered in your crypt, I'll be the incoming junior senator from Tennessee."
"Mr. Leland -- " Mally said, small-voiced.
"Don't be shocked, Mally. We've always carried on like this, haven't we, old man? Hammer and tongs all of my life." He put his face closer to his father's, forgetting in his anger to hold his breath, not caring to hold his tongue. "Still rankles, doesn't it? Couldn't forge me to your likeness. Now, understand this, before you go off to Jesus or the devil. Leland Howard is the winner in this family and you have lost again -- you miserable sumbitch."
He wasn't prepared for the hand that shot up, strength of the long fingers at his throat. The almost merry look in his eyes that had been so dim and distant moments ago.
"No. You ... lose. Thief."
Priest Howard's brown lips curved just a little, tendons standing out in his neck. He rolled his eyes toward the evening's light and the figure of Mally Shaw between himself and the light as Leland brushed away his clutching hand, outraged and demeaned. And, it occurred to him as the burn worked deeper into his heart, possibly outmaneuvered in a last gesture of contempt and hatred by a long-time spiteful and hating man.
Leland felt Mally's eyes on him as he straightened and backed off from the bed. His father's eyes were closed again. That rattle of oncoming death in his frail throat. Unmistakable. Someone knocking at the door. Sax. Leland looked at Mally, his mood baleful. Instantly her gaze went down. She used the sponge again on Priest Howard's forehead, as if her protective tenderness were the proper response to Leland's outburst. God damn if it didn't look to him like the old man was still smiling. The door opened, Sax sticking his sweaty, balding head inside.
"Leland? I've got Pastor McClure with me."
"Yeah, bring him on, I'm finished here." Not caring, soon as he spoke, for the taste of the words in his mouth.
Mally Shaw was listening close for another breath, fingers on the old man's pulse again. But she looked up momentarily. Something about Leland's tone. Their eyes meeting. Something in his eyes too, that she'd spent her life resenting, the white man's calculated appraisal of her. But other concerns claimed her attention.
"Would someone ask Dr. Hogarth to come up please? I'm needing him now."
WHEN IT WAS ALL OVER and Mally could take her leave from the old man's house, which was oppressively filling up with relations and everyone of importance in Evening Shade come to pay their respects, drove in her '41 Dodge sedan to her favorite getaway place at Cole's crossing, on the main line of the Southern Railway outside of town. The railroad spanned the South Fork of the Yella Dog River there on a low trestle. The Yella Dog was hardly worthy of the name, only a few feet deep most of the time, but it swelled to cover a floodplain in the wooded bottomland when the heavy rains fell. Other times it was a fine place for picnics on the gravel bars shaded by high hickory and sage orange trees.
Sun burning red half the length of the horizon in a drought-shroud of atmospheric dust; in the bird-flecked waning light she parked just off the narrow gravel road a hundred yards south of the track. On the side of the road opposite the river loop were the remains of an old railroader's hotel with breachedwalls and roof fallen in, and a still-active Negro church that had a bell rusted soundless in its squat belfry. Behind the country church lay a cared-for burial ground where Mally's late husband William and a host of kinfolk on both sides were interred.
Hoping to catch a breeze, she left the car door open on the driver's side, cracked window glass aglow with the light of the vanishing day and enjoyed a Chesterfield while she thought abouther future. Now that she would no longer be caring for Priest Howard, Jesus cherish his lonely soul. Mally was a registered nurse but there wasn't much call for her services locally. The physician running the county's clinic for indigent Negros -- which was pretty much of an oxymoron in one of the poorest counties in the forty-eight states -- could use her. But the pay was a pitiful fifteen hundred a year; aside from her near-starvation wages, she considered the doctor in charge to be incompetent, and she wasn't in a crusading frame of mind. John Gaston Hospital in Memphis paid better, but it was either find a place to live in Memphis or drive a hundred miles round trip six days a week. Mally had her doubts that the old Dodge could survive many such trips. Balding tires, a front-end shimmy whenever she drove faster than thirty-two miles an hour. Repair bills would eat her alive.
The thought of teaching at Evening Shade Community high school depressed her. She could teach physics or math, but the school didn't offer either basic math or science courses. A total disgrace, in Mally's opinion; not the least of the consequences to the school's graduates was that they could not meet admissions requirements for Tennessee's state universities, even if they had the money for a higher education. The school's roof leaked shamefully, there were rats, the library was one shelf in a dank room, the spines falling off old textbooks stored inside.
Hoot owls in the liveoaks, radiator hiss as it cooled down. She sat sideways in the seat with her sandaled feet on the running board. Feeling used up, all in. And obscurely guilty, as if somehow she had failed Priest Howard. Then that ugliness wth his son Leland in his last hour -- couldn't he have been spared the indignity of that visit, although surely he'd seemed to want it, insist on his estranged golden boy being at his side before he gave up the ghost. Simply to have the pleasure of calling Leland -- what? Thief.
She had no notion of what might be unsettled in their bellicosekinship to account for that. But whatever had weighed so heavy on the old man's mind, he hadn't confided it to Mally during his last lucid weeks.
Spite of what Mr. Leland might be thinking right about now, that look he'd given her.
High-power white man with a leching eye, they always spelled trouble. Gold toothpick and two-toned shoes, thought he had style. But Mally had some experience in telling the wrong ones, those men with a history of default in the romance game.
Mally tugged at a bra strap that was too tight under her dress. Finished her cigarette and dropped the butt in the gravel, squirmed uneasily. She looked at the sky, dusky blue now, the sun gone. The air seemed to be cooling but wasn't moving, still felt as thick as wet paint on her maple-toned skin.
She calculated there was light enough left to walk across the road and around behind the church, pay a visit to William. Wrong of her to be almost there, and not go to the graveyard. Because she was not a blaming person. Her anger long gone, sadness still around and always would be, but at a distance, no longer a torment. Still, a lot of sorrow to deal with in one day ... she had to go.
Mally heard a dog howl not too far off as she stepped out of the car. The sound made her quiver. A fright from childhood, lore of the easily haunted. And then, a couple of years after The War -- that business in Korea, couldn't think of it as a war after what they'd been through only six years ago -- there had been an actual dog pack roaming Evening Shade and the next county over. At least thirty wild dogs. Killing livestock and unwary domestic animals. An elderly white woman had been dragged, her apron full of snapbeans, off a rickety screened porch and mauled in her dooryard, bitten through and through, the wild dogs lapping her gore from the hardpan ground. Sharpshooters from the sheriff's department had exterminated that pack, but talk was lately that a new pack of stray dogs had formed and been spotted near a horse farm off Worthington Pike. A foal had been torn apart in the paddock.
Which was, Mally calculated as she walked around the unpainted frame church (some whitewash from a bygone year still clinging to the woodgrain stubborn as lichen) about three miles as crows flew on up the road from Cole's Crossing.
She heard a rattling and hard slither in the gravel of the road behind her and turned to catch a glimpse of a towhead boy crouched over the handlebars of his bicycle, pumping hard, unbuttoned shirt flapping palely as he swerved around the car door she hadn't closed. A wavering light on the fender of the bike. His sudden appearance gave Mally a moment's cold spell, hair frizzing on the back of her neck, but he didn't stop for a look around. Had somewhere to get to, in a hurry. She listened hard, thinking there might be others behind him. Wishing she had brought the flashlight from the glove compartment. Steel barrel, a weapon of sorts.
But so far just one white boy, up on the road toward the railroad tracks and out of her line of sight now, not several to be acting big for one another if they spotted her there all alone.
Smart to remember that even one teenage boy could be too many, depending on his size, in these circumstances.
Hurry on up then, Mally told herself. Make your visit, and go.
THE WASHINGTON D.C.-BOUND DIXIE TRAVELER, out of Memphis' Union Station promptly at eight-thirty every night, was due at Cole's Crossing at four minutes past nine, give or take a few seconds. Mally had been parked there many a night, collecting her wits after a trying day attending to Priest Howard, when the streamliner whipped past the unguarded crossing at seventy-two miles an hour. Mally seeing flashes of faces in the diners and club cars, sometimes wistfully imagining herself aboard in one of the coloreds-only coaches, all settled down with a sandwich from the buffet car and magazines to read, a new life waiting at the other end of the line -- but her imagination never made it quite that far. Stepping down in Washington or Philly or even New York, not knowing a living soul up there, fifty dollars in her purse, what next, Mally? She hated the blankness this question afforded, the fear in her bones.
As she kissed William's stone and rose from beside his grave, which could have done with some weeding, Mally heard the scream of the Dixie Traveler, that distant and important voice, knew that the Traveler was two miles down the line, at Watkins' Junction. Later on, well past Evening Shade's modest depot, the Traveler would stop for a minute and a half in Jackson, and not again until it reached Nashville. She walked quickly back to her car, glancing up the road where the steel rails, if you put your ear to one of them, would be singing with the energy of the oncoming train.
The sky was slate now; big trees stood out in sharp silhouette against the three-quarter moon beginning to command the sky and a few stars. ot much light by which to make out the boy nearly a hundred yards from her, standing on a rise at the edge of the railroad right-of-way, his bike lying down next to the road behind him. His back was to Mally as she reached her car and slipped inside under the steering wheel. The boy didn't turn when the door thunked shut. He continued to stand close to the northbound tracks, hands at his sides. White shirt like a drooping flag on his slender body, it pallor tinged by the green highball light on the signal bridge in front of the trestle.
Now why hadn't he gone on across? Mally wondered. Or had he pedaled hard this far just to be there for the passage of the Dixie Traveler, an imaginative train-watcher like herself?
But to her mind he was dangerously close to the track, and in his stillness -- she put on the car's headlights to see him a little more clearly in spite of the distance -- his stillness seeming ready to give himself up to something, to the enormous power of a diesel-electric engine.
Mally didn't turn the key in the ignition. There was a disagreeable rumble in her stomach, reminding that she hadn't eaten since early morning. And a small disturbance, a premonition in her heart as she studied the blond boy in his cut-off jeans. No sign from him, no uneasy moment to indicate he might be aware that he was being observed.
What was this? Mally thought, a little annoyed with herself. Too soon released from the inevitable end of Priest Howard, death still on her mind and in her nostrils, gloomily trying to make something ominous of a farm boy just waiting for a train to go by, nothing more ...
Mally started the engine, which coughed itself to life and gave her a shaking in the process. But her attention was still on the boy on the railroad grade. He had turned his head west and was looking down the line as the Dixie Traveler rounded the long bend at Half Mile, its powerful Cyclops headlamp ghosting the telegraph wires alongside the tracks, giving shine to a water tank and a no-longer-used coal tipple, leaning on rusted legs. The boys face, also lighting up. Too far for Mally to accurately judge what he looked like, but guessing at his age she thought maybe fourteen, and close to six feet tall with that gangly, just-growed look about him.
She put in the clutch and let off the handbrake, shifted into reverse to back up and turn around. The boy had to know she was there, but paid no attention. He was entirely focused on the onrushing streamliner, as --
-- he stepped up on the end of a railroad tie, then stepped across to the outside rail and laid himself face down in the Dixie Traveler's path with arms outstretched suppliantly, as if to a raging deity.
Mally ground the gears getting out of reverse and into low, the old Dodge spinning its all-but-shot tires in gravel and clay ruts, then lurching forward as she stood on the accelerator. A hundred yards to cover and she could see the green-and-white diesel engine of the "varnish," as old-time railroaders called deluxe passenger trains, out of the corner of her eye, moving, oh Lord, too fast to stop in time even if the engineer or the fireman in the high cab saw the boy lying there.
She pounded on the horn, which was feeble, and screamed, which no one could hear, as she raced the Dixie Traveler for the crossing and the prone boy about to give up his life. Memory of her Uncle Cletus, who had worked on the L&N and been mangled after a fall from a crummy one icy night, memories of him being fed his meals all stumped up on pillows at the table during family get-togethers and oh Christ Savior, who was the young boy craving to be mangled or die in such a terrible way, what had life done to him already that he hated it so bad?
Mally hit the brakes at the crossing and piled out of the sedan with the howling of the airhorn and the four thousand horsepower thunder of doom in her ears, partly blinded by the looming light. And knew she could not hope to reach in time the motionless boy lying fifty feet from her on his face, top of his head barely visible, laid down tight enough between the rails to be eating ballast.
She turned away from the furious blast of wind in her face and pounded a fist against the long hood of her car, then buried sobs in her cupped palms as she hunched over the fender, grit exploding against her bare arms, dust everywhere ...
The train passed and she slowly raised her eyes to it, to the dwindle of red lights atop the rounded end of the club car as a lumbery clatter from the weight of the Traveler on the long trestle carried back to her.
She couldn't look down at the roadbed, bring herself to cast about for scattered remains near where the boy had laid himself down, presumably to be destroyed.
Tears, to wash some of the grit from her reddened eyes. A draining force, exhaustion so compelling she could have slumped down beside her car and fallen asleep there in an instant.
Instead Mally wiped her eyes and took a breath, holding it grimly as she walked around the front of her Dodge to make certain. She had stopped the car askew in the road, and in the sullen yellow of headlights, insects whizzing through the beams, she saw the boy rise up on one knee from the track.
Mally's heart kicked up in her throat, as if a dreadful night had suddenly acquired lightning.
His arms and his shirt were streaked with black. He was bleeding from his mouth and nose, but only trickles. When he tried to stand, he wobbled and wheeled a little and his eyes slid up in his head. Then he pitched forward across the outside rail, only half conscious, but (as far as Mally could tell) in one piece.
MALLY ALWAYS HAD A FIRST AID KIT HANDY. The one in the Dodge contained smelling salts. When she brought the kit the boy was on his hands and knees. She held him up in a sitting position on the rock ballast and passed the little bottle of ammonium carbonate under his nose. She felt strength returning to his body and he jerked his head sharply aside, wincing. Mally had a strong grip; she was also angry with him and not about to let him go until he came up with some kind of explanation for what she now considered to be a terrifying, crazy stunt. Her own heartbeat had just begun to settle down.
She'd had a look at the place where the boy had stretched out and flattened himself between the rails to await the train, more or less tucked himself in, and she had seen that a sharp tool of some kind, probably an adze, had been used recently to gouge a couple of inches from three of the six-inch square creosote-dipped ties. A dangerous, deranged thing to do, because if the weakened ties broke under the weight of the train a rail could come loose, sending the dozen cars of the Dixie Traveler slewing off the right of way and into the Yella Dog. With, count on it, tragic loss of life.
"Look at me," Mally said, putting the cap on the bottle of smelling salts. The haze was nearly gone from his green eyes.
Head drooping, breathing through his mouth, he looked up with a youthful hothead's whiplash impertinence, perhaps just realizing it was a colored woman talking to him in that tone.
Mally wasn't having any. "I don't know who you are, but I saw what you did to those railroad ties. Was you, wasn't it?" A downward shift in his gaze confirmed that. Her grip on him tightened. "God would show you no mercy if you'd wrecked that train tonight, which I suppose you never gave a thought to while you were preparing to play daredevil."
At least he hadn't been trying to kill himself, as she had first suspected. But Mally wasn't in a merciful mood either.
He brushed the dirty forefinger of his free hand against his cut lower lip. More blood welled. Chest still heaving, given to a chill, molten memory of an eyelash escape. His blond mop needed washing. His bright sharp skin bathed in boy-sweat, smelling of diesel, of tobacco. Already a smoker; there was a mangled cigarette behind his right ear. In spite of appearances Mally didn't think he was from a rag-tag family. He wore a gold ring with a small diamond in it -- of course it might be stolen -- and an ID bracelet. Those were a big fad with kids nowadays.
He tried to squirm away from Mally, run for it. But she could deal with what strength had returned to his body, which was neither childlike nor with the full breadth of maturity, more bone than muscle yet. His body hair was soft and sunburnt silver.
"Just you sit still. I'm a nurse, and you need tending to."
There had been no traffic on the road for a good fifteen minutes, but now a pickup truck came by, stopped at the grade crossing. Two overalled men in the front seat, a barking dog in the truck bed. Mally recognized one of the men in the cab who leaned out through the window to ask if they could be of any help. He was married to a childhood friend of Mally's.
"He fell off his bike but I think he'll be all right, Cuffy. Either of you recognize this boy? Can't seem to get his tongue working yet."
They didn't know him, and drove on. Mally said to the boy, who couldn't stop squirming, "Need to do something about that bloody nose now. Tilt your head back like this -- " showing him, " -- and pinch either side of the bridge with your thumb and forefinger till it stops. That's it. Lord, I never seen anyone foolish as you in my born days! Please tell me that was the first and last time you'll ever act that stupid."
He looked at her with one eye, pinching his nose, quiet while Mally poured a little alcohol onto a cotton ball and began to clean around his nostrils and upper lip. Before she was half done he got antsy again and tried to get to his feet. He was looking at his bike, which he had seen was half under the front end of Mally's car. She hadn't noticed in time where the bike was in her anxiety to reach him before the Traveler got there first. Lost that race, and the bicycle probably was damaged. Nonetheless she yanked him down again on his butt.
"Give me any more aggravation and I will flat turn you over to the sheriff! I'm tired and if you'd like to know I had a pitiful day, not to mention the scare you handed me. My name is Mally Shaw if I didn't say so before, and if there's any courtesy in you you'll be telling me who you are."
She waited. He was num. With a stillness that conveyed a hint of grievance. Mally sighed.
"Be that way. I can find out if I want to, and I've a mind. Got to let the railroad know what happened here, 'less their trackwalers don't come across those damaged ties in time to prevent an accident."
That warning seemed to bother him more than being run over by a passenger train.
Mally looked over the ring, which struck her as an odd thing for a boy his age to be wearing, and the steel link identification bracelet. "And I was serious about the sheriff."
Maybe she ought to have been more cautious, invited the two men in the truck to stick around until she was through with her ministrations. But she didn't believe this boy was bad and a threat to her. He was just reckless and a danger to himself. Nothing about him suggested a violent disposition. Mally was confident of her instinct there. And he did have nice looks beneath the grime.
She changed her grip on him to his left wrist and turned it so she could read the engraving on the bar of the ID bracelet in the lights of the old Dodge.
"So you're Alex. Too much trouble just to open your mouth and tell me that?"
His lips compressed; he shook his head and a couple of drops of blood from his nose spattered her.
"Look out now, look at what you did!" She let go of him. "You don't want my help any more, fine with me."
Mally turned away to close her first aid box and was startled when he put a hand on her. But he released her quickly and there was a look of pleading in his eyes. Pleading what? It was then she realized maybe he wasn't being plain stubborn not talking to her. Could be he had no power of speech, couldn't answer for or explain himself. If he was a mute, what a hard thing that could be for an adolescent boy.
Looking down at him, Mally nodded.
Alex nodding too.
"Always been that way?"
This time he shook his head.
"Been to school, though, you can write?" Yes. "Something you want to tell me, then, write it down for me?" Yes. "I'll be right back, Alex."
Mally noticed how feeble the car headlights were, battery running down, must have stalled the engine when she skidded to a stop. On her way to start it up again and keep the battery charged she looked under the bumper to see how much damage there was to his bike. Looked like an almost-new, blue-and-white Schwinn, run over by the right-side tire. A pedal pushed up, chain off and the front fender bent out of shape. He wouldn't be riding it anywhere else tonight.
She took a pocket spiral notebook from her purse on the front seat and went back to where Alex was sitting, arms around his knees, nose elevated again. His lower lip was swelling, bitten, she supposed, during his fifteen seconds of extreme terror beneath the Dixie Traveler. A wonder he hadn't loaded up his jean shorts too.
Mally handed him the pad and pencil.
"Write down anything you want me to know. Where you live, who your folks are."
He took the pad, hesitated, then slashed two words across the page and thrust pad and pencil back to Mally. Licked his cut lip, hunched himself tighter in a mime of misery.
Mally stared at the words he had scrawled, then stared at him, her perspective forever changed.
"But that's no reason for you to throw your life away, is it?" she said to Alex. "What is it you need to be provin' to yourself?"
Phantom Nights is published in hardcover by Tor/Forge