Fairground, church, water tower, and graveyard, it was all still there, written across the mercilessly hot face of the Connecticut landscape. Add to this the five o’clock express train to New York ripping through the junction and a factory whistle blowing and you have Millhouse, Connecticut. Not the greatest place in the world. Rob Martin knew that. Still, for him it was unfinished business. A place where parts of him were buried. The parts that counted.
He was two days into a grueling drive up from Miami when the fairground caught his eye. He didn’t stop. At least not at first. Th e church and water tower came next, then the graveyard. Just past the last tombstone he made a quick U-turn and pulled the vintage Jaguar, an old X150, to the side of the road and shut off the engine. His friend, Larry, was seated beside him drinking beer.
It was quiet except for the radio. Rob leaned over and switched stations, from Donovan Leitch to the Mamas and the Papas to the news, where he stopped.
“5,500 National Guardsmen were sent into the area. Twelve persons injured, 122 persons were arrested.”
They were still covering the race riot that had erupted in Omaha, Nebraska, over the Fourth of July weekend. Rob clicked off the radio and mumbled, “Damned if we haven’t got another Vietnam right here in the States.”
“Look at them!” Larry Campbell cried out suddenly. “Holy shit! They’re all over the place. What are those damned things, anyway?”
“What things?” Rob asked. Larry’s eyes were bulging as he peered out over the hood of the car; he had smacked one hand against his forehead, and his back could have been used for a ski slope as he leaned forward.
“Fucking bats, that’s what they are!” Larry stared straight ahead in dumb amazement.
“What are you—”
“Look at them— they’re smiling. Smiling bats!”
Suddenly Rob understood. “Oh, hell,” he said. “I warned you about that crap, didn’t I? Bats, for God’s sake.”
“Can’t you see them?” Larry was almost screaming. “Th ey’re swarming all over the friggin’ place.”
“No, Larry, I can’t see them.” Rob dropped his sunglasses on the dash and pushed open the car door.
Because they had been in a hurry to leave Florida, because the editors hadn’t given them much notice, Larry Campbell had rushed about in a frenzy, picking up everything he could lay his hands on in the way of drugs. Not that he would use it all, but he was hooked on the high of collecting the stuff . The glove compartment of the car looked like a miniature narcotics lab. Six bags of grass, twenty pellets of mescaline, an aspirin tin full of cocaine, bottles of uppers, downers, laughers, criers, some LSD, and three sheets of high-powered blotter acid. In the trunk of the car was a cooler full of beer, two quarts of Jim Beam, and a 16-gauge shotgun.
It was the 16-gauge that worried Rob the most. There wasn’t anyone more unpredictable than Larry Campbell once he took that one toke over the line. That had happened in North Carolina at a place called South of the Border, and Rob felt apprehensive now about having Larry along with him. In fact he felt jittery—even scared.
“Hey, why the hell is it so quiet?” Larry stretched his long vulturine neck, and peered out over the car door. “Hey, we’ve stopped. Why’d we stop?”
Rob pointed. “The town’s just on the other side of those trees.”
“No kidding? We in Connecticut?”
“What happened to North Carolina?”
Rob laughed nervously. “That was yesterday. Today we’re in Connecticut.”
“Now that’s the way to travel,” Larry said and slouched deeper into tufted black leather. Large oily gobs of sweat covered his forehead, hung from his drooping mustache. He didn’t notice. Beer had spilled on his denim shirt and Levi’s. He didn’t notice that, either.
Rob leaned against the car, trying to collect his thoughts. It was still hard for him to believe that Larry Campbell had just turned twenty-four and was writing a twice-a-week column for the Miami Herald. He was probably the youngest person in the country to be writing a regular column for a major newspaper. He had been doing it for a year, and already it bored the crap out of him. “I want adventure!” he’d scream between pounding his typewriter and pacing his small office on the third floor of the Miami Herald building. “Adventure!”
So naturally, when he’d heard that Rob had landed an interview with Robert Kennedy, he went ape shit.
He pleaded with Rob, cajoled, he’d do anything, even help Rob write the piece. No credit, he just wanted to meet the man. He’d even pay the expenses, all the expenses! On and on he went until finally Rob agreed.
Rob was scheduled to interview Kennedy at his summer home in Cape Cod on the eleventh. He had planned to fly into Boston on Saturday and meet with Kennedy on Monday, but Larry had insisted they drive.
“He’ll love the Jag! He’s crazy about women and cars. Any asshole can fly, Rob. Think of it. You and me talking to Bobby Kennedy! In my Jag!”
Rob turned away now and stared off at the tree line. Heavy oak and chestnuts loomed like sentinels against a thin blue sac, and under the lush spread of green leaves, graves. Only a few headstones were visible from where Rob stood.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, moving away from the car.
“Where you going?” Larry asked without looking at him. The heavy aroma of beer hung in the air.
“To take a pee,” Rob said.
“Over there?” Larry sat up abruptly and peered off in the distance. “Over there!” he cried.
Rob took another step away from the car. “Sure, why not?”
“Why not? It’s a fucking cemetery, that’s why not.”
“Do you think they’ll mind?” Rob asked and kept walking. At the edge of the shoulder, where the gravel quit and the weeds took over, a narrow path had been worn into existence by the years of trampling feet. It wound down the embankment, curved around a dilapidated fence, then disappeared from view through the thickest clump of trees.
“I thought you were in a hurry to get home to Millhouse?” Larry hollered.
Rob did not answer him aloud, although in his mind he replied: I am home, buddy boy. I am home.
“Hey, Rob!” came the voice over his shoulder. “Watch out for those fucking bats!”
Rob pushed on for a while, following the path that widened in some places, and in other places almost disappeared altogether. At the second row of trees the path split in two; he went to the right and made his way deeper into the wooded area. The sun disappeared suddenly and the hush thickened as he made the final turn. Off in the distance he could still hear the low hum of an occasional car whizzing by, and as he walked he heard Larry singing:
“Oh, my, my, ain’t I nobody’s baby?
Oh, my, my, I ain’t nobody’s baby.”
But now Larry had apparently given up making noise, because it was quiet, exceedingly quiet.
Perhaps he’s fallen asleep, Rob thought. Or perhaps he’s passed out. What ever the case, there was no longer any sound coming from the car.
Rob turned aside from the path and climbed the high bank. The light grew thinner and the trees thickened into a fat stretch of timberland. It was a steep climb, and he paused to catch his breath at the top. Here no sun shone at all; an intangible pall reigned over the face of things. Rob knew this to be the heart of the cemetery.
For years it had been this way, graves placed around the outer perimeter, leaving the center thick with trees. A secret playground, where kids went at night to fool around. Rob himself had gone there as a boy. The Miller kid had insisted they do battle, so off to Crestwood Lawn they went, and Rob kicked the living hell out of him right next to Mary Bennett’s grave.
Rob squinted into the gloom. Mary Louise Bennett, that you? Sure that’s you. And—he shifted his gaze left —and that’s you too, isn’t it, my grotesque friend. All these years and you’re still hanging around.
He moved in the direction of his gaze until he stood in front of an old tree stump, its heart rotted out, a hole dead center, twice the length of his arm. At the bottom, he was sure, was a murky pool of rain water—and years of leaves turned to slime.
But don’t put your hand down there, Rob, because . . .
He stared at the hole in the stump, tempted to do just that. Aft er all these years, he was ready to see what was down there, instead of letting Elizabeth and Tony scare the crap out of him like they had when they were kids.
“There’s a monster down there, Rob!” Tony would say. “No kidding.”
Elizabeth added, “I saw him once, Rob. Honest to God, I did.”
From the beginning it had been Elizabeth’s idea to fool around in the cemetery, despite Rob’s reluctance. He had told her the usual weird stories about what goes on at night in cemeteries, but he had always seen by her face that it made not the slightest difference. Th e cemetery seemed to excite her, though not the danger, for she had never accepted that there was any. She was like a woman possessed.
Rob guessed that for her it was a chance to do something that one ought not to do, something forbidden, like stealing apples from Lady Johnson’s tree. In a sense, it was an act of defiance, the boys against the girls sort of stuff, and why Rob went along with it through most of his teen years was still a mystery.
He hesitated now, caught by a great urge to confront that stump once and for all. He took a step forward and then stopped, flinging a look back along the path he had come.
The highway lay off in the distance, almost hidden by the trees. He could make out the hood of the Jag as it sat glimmering outside the cemetery, steel-gray and elegant. North and south, as far as his eyes could see, were empty woods, except for the dark outline of an old farmhouse to the south, and a fence that curved and twisted away to the north before it vanished behind another clump of trees. The fence ran along Old Post Road, which led farther north to Millhouse, then on to Peabody, Ramsey, and Clarksville, until finally it crossed over the state line into Massachusetts.
Tony and Rob used to make beer runs on that road in Tony’s old Chevy. Go across to New Castle in Massachusetts where nobody knew them. Sometimes Tony’d let Rob drive the car, despite the fact that Rob was fifteen at the time, and a lousy driver.
Look, Tony—no hands! he’d hoop and holler.
Hey, retard—watch what the hell you’re doing.
We should have brought Elizabeth along. She’d have loved this. Zoom, zoom!
Hey, watch it, slow down— there’s a cop up ahead!
Rob had been car crazy since his eighth year. He’d sit behind the wheel of his father’s green Plymouth and pretend he was driving it. A few times he even thought about starting the thing up. Once he did, and wound up plowing down the fence in the front yard. His father just stood there shaking his head and saying to his mother: “The boy won’t live to be twenty.”
Maybe, Rob thought, his father was right. Maybe he had died back there before he was twenty. Maybe he’d wake up on his soon-to-be thirtieth birthday and find that he was still sitting in his father’s Plymouth. A kid. Just a kid with sandy-colored hair and blue eyes whose father took him hunting on weekends. The memory rose in his mind with startling vividness—creeks, sunlight, rabbits scurrying through the underbrush, crisp cold air, the sky ice-blue, like the walls of his parents’ bedroom.
Rob shook his head. Strange what a person could take for logical and natural, if the poison was administered in subtle enough doses, over a long period of time. He hated guns now, as much as he hated the taking of drugs. His irrational fear of both annoyed him somewhat, but all too often he’d heard of men too moody to be trusted with a bag of grass or a rifle in the house, and perhaps he knew himself to be such a man at times, moody and dark-spirited.
He laughed. Hey, you’re a nice guy, you know that. Think about your sweet side!
Sure, okay—I dig. In the meantime, Larry is waiting.
He turned again, lost for a moment. Far away, drifting on the dull air, he could hear the familiar church bells. The Protestants of Millhouse always gathered on Thursday evenings for a special prayer meeting. He knew where he was all right, and things hadn’t changed.
He faced the stump, spit speculatively. The oddness of his coming back to Millhouse after all these years was beginning to bother him. He had a feeling that perhaps it wasn’t such a hot idea.
He threw a glance at the waist-high stump, waited a minute longer, then stepped closer and looked down, into its murky depths.
Fuck it, he thought. You came back to find yourself, didn’t you? Isn’t that why you’re here? To put the pieces together, to settle an old question?
Go ahead, then.
Start by getting rid of some of those childish fears . . .
He plunged his arm into the cavity of the stump.
“You see, nothing’s . . .” he began to say to himself. But a stablike realization stopped the words in his throat, just as if someone had hissed in his ear: “Wrong, idiot!”
Something was down there, he realized, feeling the slimy warmth of water swirl around his arm.
Something soft. He tried jerking his hand out but it was caught, something had wrapped around it, and as he pulled he felt . . . what?
A spongelike ball with . . . hair? His hand was wrapped in hair! He pulled harder, heard a sucking sound, like a washing machine gone crazy. The murky water surged and stank. Jesus! That smell!
Panicked, he shoved his other hand in, grabbed his own wrist, and pulled. Something was jamming his arm against the inside of the stump. Scared shitless, with all his strength, he yanked his hand up and out; a face came with it. A woman’s face, eyes bulging, flesh turned green— her head appeared, then part of her body, and then she started to sink.
Stumbling back Rob screamed. A wild, demented scream that caught in his throat. Then he took off, running, away from the stump, away from the car. Crazed, bug-eyed, his body dripping sweat, he ran deeper, much deeper, into the woods.
Excerpted from The House of Caine by .
Copyright © 1988 by Ken Eulo.
Published in September 2009 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.