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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Darkest Time of Night

A Novel

Jeremy Finley

St. Martin's Press

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

ONE


Even before I learned about the boldness of blue, the vanity of purple, and the purity of white, the bell taught me the meaning of red. You go any farther than that bell, Lynn Marie Stanson, Daddy had said, pointing to the Faraday original shining like an apple at the pitch of the greenhouse roof, and you’re as good as dead.

He’d made the threat on a Sunday. I remember this because I was wearing half-size-too-small saddle oxfords, shined to the best of Daddy’s ability, which hurt my toes. I’d meant to take them off as soon as we got home, but Mrs. Ross, who watched me sometimes after Mass while he worked, had insisted that I immediately help her with the double wedding ring quilt for Ruth Mosely’s daughter. After a few agonizing moments of trying to thread a single needle, I mentioned that Daddy would be drowning in sweat if he were in the greenhouse. Mrs. Ross raised one eyebrow and said she’d put the lemonade in the icebox.

Ice clinked in the glass as I ran across the lawn and threw open the door. Momentarily overwhelmed in the heat generated by the glass panels, I took a sip of the drink, knowing Daddy wouldn’t mind. I assumed he would be inside, puffing on his pipe, as he had walked in the direction of the greenhouse when we got home, quickening his step when he looked at his watch. Instead, I smelled only fertilizer, with no trace of tobacco. I was tracing my name in the soil spilled from a repotted spider fern when I heard his voice.

Hoping the mower was acting up again and he would soon mutter one of the words that made me giggle and Mrs. Ross frown, I crept out the back door, glaring at its weary, squeaking hinges.

I expected to see him alone among the burr oaks, perhaps having moved the Atco mower into the shade. Instead, he stood with his hands on his hips, one eye narrowed, encircled by three men holding lanterns.

I froze in place and then inched back inside, careful to leave enough of a crack in the door to peer through. One of the men, wearing a wool suit too hot for a Tennessee summer, made a sweeping gesture of an arch. My father frowned, scrunched his forehead, and pointed to the skies. The man in the wool suit nodded once.

“We brought these to show you,” the man said, holding up the lantern. “You’ll see. We really need you to show us where it is. You agreed.”

“I know I did,” Daddy muttered.

I had been out of school for a month, so I’d had plenty of time to get to know all of Daddy’s customers, and he always let me hand out cigars to his friends at Tuesday night’s poker games. I knew with certainty the three men in the woods were strangers.

Don’t do it Daddy, I wanted to whisper in his ear.

He made a beckoning motion to the men, and I felt the sting of hypocrisy. After all, he was the one who filled my head with terrors: wild animals, thorns, sinkholes, bear traps, snakes, and monsters.

Monsters? I’d asked.

Especially monsters, he nodded. Lynn, we never, ever go in the woods.

Not even you?

Not even me, peanut.

I almost called out for him, but something about the way he walked with the men caused me to hesitate. Daddy was never in a hurry, his hands usually deep in his pockets, his boots lifting and falling in a routine rhythm. He now seemed to scurry along with the three men, deep into the foliage, all carrying lanterns despite the midafternoon sunlight.

When he had almost disappeared into the green, I threw open the door and followed. Mrs. Ross would have her head thrown back and would be deep into a snore by now anyway.

The rule about the woods was for both of us, Daddy.

Last fall, I brought home a balloon from the Davidson County fair, and the string had slipped from my grasp despite my taffy-coated fingers. I watched it float into the woods and become ensnared in a low-hanging cluster of branches. I could see the bobbing of the purple balloon not far from where I’d stood. I’d called for Daddy to fetch it for me. It couldn’t have been more than a yard away. He’d just shook his head and took me by the hand into the house.

I told myself I’d watch him and the men from a distance, enough to know that he was all right. If something happened, I’d go for help. Pretending to be some sort of lookout helped temper the gnawing feeling in my stomach.

After a ten-minute walk, they stopped in a small clearing. Daddy looked around and motioned to the man in the suit. He pointed to a corner of the grove, and the man hurried over and nodded in grim acknowledgment.

I hid behind the trunk of a maple tree that had squeezed itself into life among the oaks. Squinting, I could not only see what the man was looking at on the ground, but could read what was written upon it. My narrowed eyes widened.

On a count of three, the men lifted the glass canisters above their heads. The two wearing glasses clearly struggled, their doughy triceps trembling in short-sleeved shirts. The man in the suit held his own, as did Daddy. All began to walk, holding the lanterns, peering into the glass intently.

Inside, black spots began to sputter upwards, just as a batch of twigs beneath my uncomfortable shoes betrayed me.

At the sound of the snapping wood and the sight of my blue pleated skirt peeking out from behind the tree, the lantern fell from Daddy’s hand, shattering to the forest floor.

I gasped, covering my mouth in a futile attempt to hide myself. I watched as small beetles began to crawl on the large pieces of broken glass now scattered between the men. Ladybugs drunkenly flew in unexpected escape, unsure of what to do with their newfound freedom.

I braced myself, as all children do when their parents’ eyes simultaneously become too white and too pinched. Daddy reached me in seconds, his hands gripping my arms with unfamiliar fierceness. “What are you doing?”

He scooped me up and carried me back through the trees. Although my vision bobbed as Daddy’s shoulder threatened to crash against my chin, I still saw the men gaping, straining their necks to watch as I was hustled away. Only when the man in the suit kneeled on the ground where Daddy had pointed did the other two tear their gaze from me. The last thing I saw was the man in the suit looking at the forest floor, covering his mouth in shock.

When we were once again on the lawn and free of the trees, Daddy set me down so abruptly I almost bit my tongue. I wanted to run away, frightened by this stranger suddenly embodied by my father.

He slapped me across the face. The same man who, as a single father, learned to paint my toenails, gave funny names to my earlobes, carried a curl of my hair in his wallet, and fluffed my pillow at night. I broke into tears, and I saw his hand tremble, threatening to strike again. Instead, his fingers curved, with only his index finger remaining, pointing up towards the greenhouse roof where, last summer, he had installed the bell that had once hung in the fire hall on Holly Street.

“Never, ever, ever again, do you step foot an inch beyond that bell. You go any further than that bell, Lynn Marie Stanson, and you’re as good as dead.”

“But you—”

“It doesn’t matter what I do! You are never to enter those woods again!”

Tears pooled in my eyes. He leaned in closer, taking my chin roughly between his thumb and fingers. “Don’t you know—you go in those woods again and you won’t come back. Do you understand me? Do you?”

I nodded repeatedly in his grip, and he hissed at me to get inside the house. I ran and didn’t look back.

Even now, decades later, if I stray too close to the woods, I seek out the bell. Even after Daddy died, and Tom and I added three thousand square feet to his house, painted it white and added a wraparound porch where I’d rocked each of my three daughters to sleep. Even after the girls grew up and started their own lives, and the glass from the greenhouse came down, the sign changing from “Bud’s Greenhouse” to “The Rose Peddler,” the bell remained. The contractor we hired to turn the greenhouse into a gardening shop had practically insisted it be removed. He declared the concept Daddy had implemented, of wiring the store phone to the bell so it would ring if a customer needed him while he was tending to his vegetable garden, was unnecessarily outdated. He suggested I have my business calls forwarded to my cell phone if someone was trying to reach me while I was watering the coneflowers and peonies that grew where Daddy’s green beans and tomatoes once flourished. I had given my husband a look. “The bell stays,” Tom had said to the contractor, with a wink. “My wife hates change.”

The two had exchanged knowing glances. I let them believe it.

It is not by chance that boxwoods stand as sentinels around the house, that roses and lilies fight for dominance in my formal garden, that hostas rest under four different willow trees, and that the front of the Peddler is flooded with coneflowers and daisies, yet I plant nothing remotely close to the tree line. The blot of red beneath the black shingles, on the verge of the trees, still holds sway.

I am a mother and grandmother, with my seventies on the near horizon. I should have let go of those fears long ago. But in all my life, I never entered the woods again. I may have been jarred that day Daddy hauled me out of the trees, but I know what that man in the wool suit had examined, then lifted from the ground of the clearing. I should have asked—and almost did, several times—but I never could find the courage to ask my father why the gravestone of a child was so deep into the woods.


Copyright © 2018 by Jeremy Finley, Inc