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Johnny woke in the crook of a tree under a diamond-studded sky. The hammock around him was worn nylon, and the great oak a hundred feet tall. Even at sixty feet, its trunk was thicker than Johnny, its branches bent but strong. Johnny knew every one of those branches by feel: the worn spots from his feet and hands, the way they leaned out from the trunk and split like fingers. He could climb the tree in total blackness, find his way past the hammock to smaller branches that bent beneath his weight. From there he could see the moon and the forest, the swamp that rolled off to the south. This was his place—six thousand acres—and he knew every stream and hill, every dark pool and secret glade.
He didn’t always sleep in the tree. There was a cabin, but it felt heavy at times. He’d built it himself, so it wasn’t the shape or size of it that pushed him, like a wind, to the ancient tree on its splintered hill. It wasn’t the dreams or memories or any dark thing others might suspect. Johnny came for the views, and for the way they connected him to the land he owned. The tree grew from a knob of stone and soil that rose from the swamp to join a span of similar hills that cut a line between the wetlands and the thin-soiled higher ground that notched into the far, north corner of Raven County. From the hammock’s crook he could see beyond the swamp and across the river. Climb another thirty feet, and he could see a glint of light that was the tallest building in town. That was eighteen miles in a straight line, thirty-seven if you had to drive. Roads this far north were twisted and crumbled, and that was fine with Johnny. He didn’t care for people on his land, and had fired once on hunters too antagonistic to leave when asked politely. He didn’t plan to hit them—they’d be dead if he had—but black bear had a special place in Johnny’s heart, and two mothers had been killed with cubs still in the den. Because of that, he marked the borders and tracked hunters, in particular, with sleepless determination. Police, of course, didn’t see it his way, and neither did the courts. After the shooting, there’d been a few months in jail and a firestorm of media. That was because reporters never forgot, and to most he was still the same dark-eyed child they’d made famous ten years earlier.
But Johnny didn’t care if people thought him dangerous or strange. It hurt to see the worry on his parents’ faces, of course. They wanted him in the city and between four walls, but deep down they understood how life had lifted him from the dark pages of his youth and brought him to this special place. And it was special. He could taste it on the breeze, see it in a sky so heavy with stars, it made his eyes water to look up and marvel at the relentless depth of it. Beneath all that pure, white light was a purple forest that moved with a rhythm as familiar, now, as the beat of Johnny’s heart.
Leaving the hammock, he let his hands and feet find their way to the smallest branches that would still take his weight. The trunk was thin so high, the horizon a purple line darker than the rest. He studied the canopy, then moved up the tree until the trunk was small enough to cup with both hands, and then with only one. It was dangerous to climb so high, but Johnny had a reason.
He was looking for fire.
* * *
There’d been fires in the wood before: campfires and lightning strikes; a burn, once, from a hunter’s dropped cigarette. Fires like this were different because Johnny, the next day, couldn’t find a trace of them, not a charred twig or a burnt blade.
And he’d looked hard.
The first time it happened was just like this: a cloudless sky and a whisker of smoke. He’d gone higher for a better look and seen a glimmer halfway up a distant hill that was two down in the line of peaks that ran north and west. Three sides of that hill sloped gently beneath a layer of pine and scrub; the side facing Johnny was a slab of weathered stone. Near its base, boulders littered an area the size of a city block, and from that ruin the rest of it rose: sheer walls and slopes of scree, then more piled stone and knuckles of trees before the final wall of broken granite pushed free. That’s where the fires were, somewhere on that weather-beaten face.
In three years he’d seen the fire eleven different times. This was the twelfth, and Johnny took his time watching it. Paths ran between the boulders and up the shattered face, but the paths crossed and doubled back and petered out. It was easy to get turned around, so he gauged angles and approaches. He pictured the route he would take, and when he left the tree, he did it quick and sure, dropping the last eight feet and rising at the run. He was barefoot in cutoff jeans and no shirt, but his soles were hard as leather and his eyes sharp from years in dark woods. And this night wasn’t close to dark. Stars speckled the sky, and from beyond the river a half-moon rose. Even then, most would find it hard to move at such speed, but when Johnny ran, it was for real.
And he was running hard.
A footpath took him to the river, and when the water spread, he followed a ridge that carried him to the second hill and up it in a hard, fast climb. At the top he paused, looking for smoke. The wind was right, and for a moment he thought he was too late, that the fire was dead and whoever built it, gone. It had happened before—a sudden void of scent—and when it did happen, he wanted to throw caution to the wind and run blind, if that’s what it took. The fire was a riddle, its builder a ghost. But life in the forest taught lessons beyond readiness and speed. Patience had its place, as did stealth and simple faith, and Johnny trusted his senses.
The fire builder was no ghost.
* * *
The smoke came again in the final valley, a downdraft that tasted of wood ash and charred resin. Creeping to the edge of the trees, Johnny studied the open ground and boulders tumbled like flung houses against the root of the hill. Paths ran between them, and in places they touched to form cathedral vaults. Beyond the boulders, the trails were narrow and twisted, and Johnny let his eyes move up and down the dark lines they cut through trees and scree and along the foot of the lower face. Other trails showed higher up, but they were faint in the moonlight, and not so much paths as ledges. Johnny looked for fire on the face, but couldn’t find it.
Halfway up, he thought, nearer the east side than the west.
Problem was, the fire seemed to move. Last month it was higher up and farther west; the one before that, dead center above a rockslide shaped like an inverted V.
Crossing a final stretch of broken ground, Johnny took the main draw through the boulders. Side trails split off three times before stone met above his head, and the path narrowed. When it got tight, Johnny angled his shoulders and trailed fingers over the walls, feeling a vellum of fur and fine hairs left over the years by bear, coyote, and deer. Once around a final bend, the stone rose up to form a secret place that might have been there, unchanged, since the dawn of man. Johnny peered up a narrow chimney and saw a slash of pale stars. After that, he followed the right-hand trail, twisting up the slope as boulders dropped away. He was on a ridgeline beneath a final belt of woods. Still no sign of fire.
“All right, then.”
He worked through the trees to a slope of scree at the base of the cliff. Rock shifted as he climbed, and twice he fell. After ten minutes he peered down, dizzy from a sense of sudden wrongness. There was too much space beneath him, too much purple stone and empty air. Looking again, he saw a notch in the tree line that should be beneath him, but had somehow shifted left. It felt as if he’d gone blank and climbed a hundred yards without knowing it. Leaning out, he tried to determine exactly where he was. Higher than he should be, and farther right.
No problem, he thought.
But that was not true. The slope was too steep, the scree as slippery as scales piled one atop the other. A hundred feet up was a stand of scrub oaks and pine. Beyond that, a footpath followed the base of the lower cliff and led to a series of ledges that twisted upward to the final cliff beyond. Johnny was too high and too far right, pinned on a section of slope he avoided exactly because it was so dangerous. He told himself it was a simple mistake, that he’d rushed the climb, that things looked different in the false light of 4 A.M. He said it twice, but didn’t believe it. He’d been up the face seven times with no problem.
Moving with care, Johnny tried to work his way off the pitch. He looked for the largest stones, the most stable holds. Twelve feet across, his foot slipped, and twenty feet of stone disappeared beneath him. Johnny felt it go, then was gone, too, the sound like a freight train as he saw the fall in his mind: hundreds of feet, near vertical, then trees and boulders, an avalanche of scree heavy enough to bury him alive.
But Johnny didn’t die.
Fifty feet down, he slammed to a stop, bruised and bloodied and half buried. It took time to think through the hurt and figure out if the chance yet remained to die. The hill above was swept clean. Around him, loose stone mounded against a two-foot lip of solid rock, beneath which was a drop long and steep enough to kill most any man alive. Johnny looked left and right, and that’s how close it was—a foot or so, or maybe inches.
* * *
Dawn was a blush in the trees by the time Johnny limped to the small, square cabin and let himself inside. His bed took up space near the stone fireplace, and he fell into it, hurting. When he woke, it was three hours later. After dropping his clothes in a corner, he went to the creek to wash off dust and blood. He bandaged the worst of the cuts, then pulled on jeans, boots, and a shirt. At the door, he checked his face in a four-inch mirror. The eyes that stared back were as still as glass, and so unflinching that few people looked into them for very long. At twenty-three, Johnny didn’t smile without reason or waste time on people he found insincere. How often could he hear the same questions?
How are you, son?
Are you holding up okay?
For ten years he’d endured one version or another of the same pointless phrase, knowing, as he did, that people sought the darker currents that ran beneath.
What did you see in those terrible places?
How messed up are you, really?
Those were the people who risked the darkness of Johnny’s eyes, those who asked the questions and looked deep, hoping for a glimpse of the boy he’d been, the glimmer of wildness and war paint and fire.
* * *
Thirty minutes later, Johnny left the cabin, pushing south into the swamp, and from there across tendons of dry ground until he reached the ruins of a settlement once owned by freed slaves and their descendants. Most of the structures were rotted and fallen, but a few buildings still stood. When people asked about Hush Arbor, this was the place they meant: the cemetery, the old houses, the hanging tree. Few understood how large it really was.
Unlocking one of the sheds, Johnny backed out a truck that was white and dented and a half century old. From there, it was two miles to a metal gate. Once through it, he merged onto a state road and turned up the radio, scrolling past gospel and talk radio and local sports. Near the bottom of the dial he found the classical station out of Davidson College, and listened to that as hills spread out and the city rose. Johnny knew every street corner and neighborhood, every monument and cobbled drive and twist of asphalt. In three hundred years, Raven County had seen its share of loss and conflict. Sons had gone to war, and died. There’d been riots, depression; parts of the city had burned.
Johnny drove past the courthouse and stopped at a light, watching how people held hands and laughed and admired their reflections in the burnished glass. A block later he angled to the curb where the old hardware store touched the sidewalk and women gathered to look at potted plants and tomatoes and wooden trays stacked with beans and corn and peaches. Nobody noticed Johnny until he stepped from the truck; and when it started, it started small. A young woman blinked, and another one noticed. By the time Johnny edged past, four of them were staring. Maybe it was the way he looked, or his history with the town. Whatever the case, Johnny kept to himself as he pushed through the door and made eye contact with the old man behind the glass-topped counter at the rear of the store.
“Johnny Merrimon. Good morning to you.”
“Sorry about the welcoming committee.” Daniel dipped his head at the front window. “But two of them are pretty enough, and about your age. Maybe you shouldn’t rush past so quick and determined.”
Johnny nodded, but didn’t respond. It wasn’t that he didn’t like a pretty girl—he did—but Johnny would never leave Hush Arbor, and few women were interested in life without power or phone or running water. Daniel didn’t seem to know or care. He waved at the ladies beyond the glass, then put his eighty-watt smile back on Johnny. “So, young Mr. Merrimon. What can I do for you this fine day?”
“Just the ammunition.”
“Got a new four-wheeler out back. I can offer a good deal.”
“All I need are the cartridges.”
“Fair enough. I like a man who knows his own mind.” The old man unlocked the counter and removed a twenty-count box of .270 Winchester. “Twelve gauge, too?”
“Same as always.”
“Bird shot, then. Number seven.”
Daniel put two boxes on the glass, and a tuft of white hair rose at the crown of his head. “What else?”
“That’ll do it.”
Johnny paid the exact amount from long habit, and had both boxes in his hand before Daniel spoke again. “Your mother asks about you, you know.” Johnny stopped, half turned. “She knows you come here, and that it’s a monthly thing. Now, I know it’s not my business—”
Daniel held up both hands, his head moving side to side. “I know that, son, and I’m not the kind to interfere—I hope you can accept that about me—but she comes here asking about you, and damn it…” The old man broke off, struggling. “You should really call your mother.”
“Did she ask you to tell me that?”
“No, she didn’t. But I’ve known you since you were six, and you’ve never been the selfish kind of boy.”
Johnny put the boxes down. He didn’t mean to sound angry, but did. “We have a good thing here, Daniel. Don’t you think?”
“Most of what I spend in town I spend in your store. It’s not much, I know, just cartridges and salt, fishing gear and tools. I come here because you’re local and you’re nice, and because I enjoy it. I really do. We smile and talk rifles. You ask what I do up in all that wilderness, and I give you the best answers I can. A joke between us is not a rare thing, either.”
“I don’t come here for advice about girls or my mother.” It was the hardest voice, the darkest eyes. It wasn’t fair to unload on Daniel, but Johnny lacked the will to walk it back. “Look, I’ll see you next month, okay?”
“Sure, Johnny.” The old man nodded, but kept his eyes down and his mouth bent. “Next month.”
Johnny pushed his way from the store, not looking at the women still gathered on the sidewalk. He settled into the truck, closed his eyes, and wrapped his fingers around the wheel.
He was forgetting; he could feel it. Forgetting how to relate, to be a part of … this.
Johnny opened his eyes and looked at the old man and his store, at the stretch of sidewalk and traffic, the pretty girls who still looked his way and giggled and whispered and stared. One of them was Daniel’s granddaughter, who was twenty-two and pretty as a picture. The old man had tried to set them up once, six months ago.
Johnny had forgotten that, too.
* * *
So Johnny made a choice, and it wasn’t an easy one. In spite of what the shopkeeper said, selfishness had nothing to do with Johnny’s long absences from his mother’s side. When she looked at her son’s face, she saw the daughter, killed young, and the husband who’d died trying to save her. Johnny knew that truth because he faced it every time he chose to confront a mirror.
This is how my father stood.
This is how my sister would appear.
That all made sense, but Johnny was forgetting, too—not just how to live a normal life, but also the sound of Alyssa’s voice, the secret looks only a twin could understand. The past walked beside him as a shadow might, and every day that shadow stretched and thinned, the memories of childhood and family and how good it all had been. Johnny feared that when enough days had passed, the shadow would fade and pale until it was simply gone. Johnny dreaded that day more than anything else, so in the end, he did what the old man said.
He went to see his mother.
Katherine Hunt lived with her second husband in a small house behind a picket fence. Two blocks from the library and the original courthouse, it filled a shaded lot on the corner of Jackson Street and Bank. It had a good porch, good neighbors. Pulling to the curb, Johnny studied the bright windows, the gleaming paint.
“Are you staking out the place?”
Johnny’s stepfather came around a boxbush the size of a small car. He wore blue jeans and leather gloves, was dragging a tarp full of lawn clippings.
“Aren’t you supposed to be out catching bad guys?”
“No bad guys today.” Clyde Hunt dropped the tarp and opened a gate in the fence. He was in his fifties and fit, and wore his hair short. Clyde leaned on the passenger door, then dropped an eyelid and pushed a hand through the open window. “How are you, son? It’s been too long.” The big detective leaned closer, squinting. “Goddamn, Johnny. What happened to you?”
“It was nothing. Just. You know…”
Johnny retrieved the hand, but couldn’t stop his stepfather from looking more closely with those cop eyes of his. He saw the abrasions and the scratches, the way Johnny sat with one shoulder rolled inward.
“Step out of the truck, Johnny.”
“I just came to see Mom—”
“Your mother’s not here. Come on, now, son. Step out of the vehicle.”
Johnny thought about it, then switched off the engine and stepped from the truck. Clyde peeled off the leather gloves and watched him onto the sidewalk.
“You look a little busted up. What happened?”
“Doesn’t look like nothing. Is it the ribs?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“Don’t bullshit me, son. I saw the way you were sitting, the way you walk. You don’t think I’ve had cracked ribs before? Come on, now. Let me see.” Johnny looked the length of the street, then lifted the shirt on one side. Clyde whistled low. “Goddamn, son. That’s a hell of a lot of damage. Was it a fight?”
Clyde studied Johnny’s face, and the doubt was hard to hide. There’d been fights before: trespassers, the two hunters, the four months in jail. Johnny was stubborn, and rarely backed down. It caused problems. “Come inside, I’ll patch you up.”
Johnny lowered his shirt. “That’s not necessary.”
“It wasn’t a suggestion.”
Accustomed to obeyed orders, the big cop turned without looking back. Johnny watched him for three steps, then trailed him up the gravel walk and onto the shaded porch. Inside, they followed a broad hall to the master bath.
“Take off the shirt. Sit.” Clyde pointed at a stool in front of a sink and mirror. Johnny shrugged off the shirt and kept his eyes down as his stepfather rustled in a cabinet for hydrogen peroxide, ointment, and adhesive bandages. When he straightened, he stood for long seconds, watching Johnny stare at the floor, the wall, his hands. “Your mother does the same thing sometimes. Not as much as she used to, but it still happens.”
“What are you talking about?”
Clyde sat, and his voice was softer. “The way she gathers herself before facing the mirror. It’s just in the mornings, really, and just for a second or two.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Johnny faced the mirror and in his reflection saw the face of a dead twin. “Next week it will be ten years since we found her.”
“Thursday, I know.”
“Do you ever talk about it?”
“With your mother? Sometimes. Not like we used to.”
Johnny looked away from the mirror. “Where is she?” he finally asked.
“Your mother’s at the coast with some lady friends, and it’s a good thing, too. She’d have a heart attack if she saw your back like this.”
“You haven’t looked?”
Johnny shook his head.
“Go on, then.”
Johnny twisted on the stool, saw bruises and dried blood and ripped skin.
“You’ve bled through the shirt,” Clyde told him. “I’ll give you another one.”
“This next part’s going to hurt.” He palpated the ribs, the spine. “Just hold still.” Johnny did, but it was hard. “All right. I don’t think any ribs are broken. Cracked, maybe. Definitely bruised.”
“Are we finished?”
“Not yet.” The cleanup took another ten minutes. When it was done, Clyde pulled a shirt from the closet and tossed it to Johnny. “You could probably use a few stitches, but the butterfly bandages should do the job if you take it easy for a few days. No pulling, all right? Don’t chop any wood or climb that damn tree.” Johnny shrugged into the shirt. Clyde leaned against the wall. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“It was just a fall. A careless mistake.”
“I’ve seen you make mistakes. None of them have ever been careless.”
“This one was. Just stupid, really.”
“What about life in general? You doing okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“How about money?”
“The money’s fine, too.”
“How is that possible, Johnny? You don’t work. You don’t have plans to work.”
“Dad’s life insurance—”
“Your father’s life insurance, right. Let’s talk about that. You got a hundred thousand from the insurance company when you were thirteen. By the time you turned eighteen, it grew to what, about one-twenty? How much have you spent on lawyers? All of it?”
“I’m fine, Clyde. Really.”
“We’re here for you, son. Let us help you.”
“I said I don’t need money.”
“Only because you live on berries and roots and snakes…”
“It’s not like that, and you know it.”
“Okay, you have a garden. That’s nice. What if you couldn’t hunt or plant? What if you’d cracked your spine instead of a few ribs? What if that great swamp just swallowed you whole?”
“It didn’t. It won’t.”
“You can’t live like this forever.”
“Says who?” Johnny stood. “Listen, I appreciate the bandages and all, but I have to go.”
Johnny pushed into the hall, but Clyde caught him before he got to the front door. “Come on, Johnny. Wait, wait, wait.” Johnny did, just a second. But it was enough for Clyde to turn him, wrap him gently. “We just love you, son. We miss you and we worry.” He stepped back, but kept his hands on Johnny’s shoulders. “There’s no judgment here. Look at me, all right.” Johnny did, and felt the anger ebb. “Anything you need: if you want to come home, if you need money.”
“You want to go, I know. I can see that, too. It’s always Hush Arbor, always the land. Just tell me one thing before you leave. Help me understand.”
“Why do you love it so much?”
He meant the silence and the swamp, the lonely hills and endless trees. On the surface it was a simple question, but Johnny’s past had branded him in a way few could ignore: the things he’d believed and leaned upon, the way he’d searched so long for his sister. If Johnny spoke now, of magic, they’d think him confused or insane or trapped, somehow, in the delusions of a difficult past. Without living it, no one could grasp the truth of Hush Arbor.
Johnny wouldn’t want them to if they could.
Copyright © 2018 by John Hart