The sun came up on a brisk, clear Sunday. Frost laid a sparkling skin across the ground but quickly melted where touched by the autumn light. Odus had slept uneasily, visions of the Circuit Rider galloping across his eyes whenever he happened to drift. He tried to remember what Granny Hampton had said about the Circuit Rider, if the old-timers had some means of warding him off. Didn’t seem likely, because even after all these years, Solom was still a stopping point for Harmon Smith. The other mountain communities on Harmon’s original rounds had probably all seen their share of mishap and death. Odus would bet that anybody following the histories of Balsam, Parson’s Ford Windshake, Rocky Knob, and Crowder Valley would see a trail marked by bloody hoofprints, at least every seventeen years or so. Seventeen years seemed to be the gap between Harmon’s visits, for whatever reason. Odus didn’t have a head for numbers, and he couldn’t parse out any reason why seventeen would be special. But Rebecca Smith’s death was generally attributed to the Circuit Rider, and that had only been five years ago. The Circuit Rider had a lot of territory to cover, stretching into East Tennessee and Virginia, and even a man on a hell-driven horse could only cover so many miles in a day.
Odus dressed in a pair of overalls that were dirty and stiff but had aired out for a couple of days. He scrambled a couple of eggs and rummaged in the counter. Like any common drunk, he knew exactly how much liquor was in the house and that on a Sunday, a bottle would be hard to come by unless he felt like visiting a bootlegger and paying a king’s ransom. Odus had tucked back a pint of Old Crow, and the bourbon lay golden and gleaming in the glass, greasy and somehow thicker than water. He’d been tempted to polish it off last night, especially after Harmon had walked into the general store pretty as a show pony, as if knowing they were talking about him and daring them to make a play. But liquor tasted better on a Sunday and mock courage might serve where plain old backbone failed.
Because Odus was going to hunt down the Circuit Rider.
After Harmon had mounted Old Saint and vanished into the dark, off toward whatever errands called such a creature, Odus and the others had gone onto the general store’s porch. The others were shaken, excepting old Sarah, who had been around for a few of Harmon’s past visits, though she claimed this was the first time she’d ever seen him up close. Sure, David Tester had talked big, quoting some Bible passages from books that Odus had never heard before, with names like Nehemiah and Malachi, but he was as scared as the rest.
David had quoted Malachi as having set down these words in the old days, back when pretty near everybody with a beard, a high fever, and a clay tablet could be a prophet: “Surely the day is coming, it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble.”
Then David went on to say that the dead horseback preacher had been quoting from the book of Matthew, when Christ delivered his Sermon on the Mount.
Odus didn’t feel much like an evildoer. Sure, he cheated the government and big corporations and rich Floridian tourists, but he never cheated a human being. His reputation as a handyman was built on his word. He delivered what he promised, and he was never a day late about it, either. He treated people fair and expected the same. That was more than Odus could rightly say of the Lord, at least from what he’d seen. So he couldn’t see why the Lord would want to set something like the Circuit Rider loose on Solom, especially since most of them were decent, churchgoing folks.
But it didn’t matter whether Harmon had ridden up through the gates of hell or whether he’d clopped down a set of golden stairs. Odus could track the Circuit Rider down, because, ghostly stallion or not, the animal had left hoofprints in the muddy parking lot. With a flashlight, Odus had followed the tracks until they disappeared on the asphalt of Railroad Grade Road though the prints faded and vanished within minutes of me animal’s passing. Chances were that Harmon was hiding out up in the woods, probably on his original land at the foot of Lost Ridge where the Smith house sat. Even a dead man probably took comfort in familiar surroundings.
Odus hadn’t mentioned his plan to the others because he didn’t see that they could offer any help. Ray had a country lick of sense, but he was too steamed at his brother to work as a group. Sarah had too many years on her, Sue Norwood was too young, Lillian was an outsider, and David couldn’t shake free of his Bible enough to tackle such a thing.
Odus hunted in the fall and usually got himself two or three bucks each season. The venison could be frozen or canned, and he traded the meat for vegetables and fruit. It was another way to keep from holding down a regular job. Now the tracking skills would come in handy, though a Winchester.30–30 wouldn’t do the same job on Harmon Smith that it did on a white-tailed deer. Odus figured he’d find the right weapon when the time came. He threw a can of Vienna sausages, a couple of apples, a Thermos of coffee, and the bottle of Old Crow in his leather hunting pouch, hauled it and his fishing rod to the truck, and headed for the river road.
Mark Draper pulled up to the Smith house just before 9:00 a.m. Jett had e-mailed him the directions a few weeks back so he could pick her up for the Thanksgiving weekend. He’d been to the mountains before, but never tins deep into them, where Tennessee and Virginia met North Carolina in a craggy collision. Mark had asked Katy as few questions as possible about Gordon. While he was curious, as all ex-lovers are, he didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of that curiosity.
Gordon Smith seemed to be doing all right for himself, judging from the restoration work on the old farmhouse. The new tractor by the woodshed probably cost twice as much as Mark’s Honda Accord, and Jett had told him the Smith property contained over two hundred acres. Goats milled around the barn, and a row of stricken roosts was lined across the barn’s front wall. The rich tang of manure filled the air, but the air contained a freshness and greenness despite the season.
Mark got out and wiped the last sleepiness from his eyes. Three sups of coffee hadn’t changed the fact that he’d left Charlotte before sunup. Now he had to take a whiz, but he ordered his bladder to calm down. He didn’t want his first sentence to Katy’s new husband to be, “Could I use your bathroom?”
He was approaching the porch when the door opened and Jett’s head poked out. “Daddy!” she squealed, and despite the grin that spread across his face, a dagger of memory pierced his heart. She’d sounded the same way when he picked her up after her first day of kindergarten. Now she was living under another’s man’s roof, his ex-wife was sharing that man’s bed, and he was years older and wearier.
They ran to each other and Jett jumped into his arms, nearly blocking him over. “My, you’re getting big, honey,” he said. “This fresh air must be doing wonders for your appetite.”
“Daddy,” she repeated.
“Let’s have a look at you.” Mark held her hand as she twirled like a ballerina. She was in flannel pajamas and wore gray bunny slippers. Her hair was dyed a shade darker than she’d worn it in Charlotte and held a hint of purple. She had grown at least an inch, maybe two, since he’d last seen her.
“Thanks for coming.”
“I told you I’d be here whenever you needed me.”
“And I need you. We need you.”
Mark gave her another hug. “What did your mother say about my coming?”
Jett looked at the ground. “I didn’t tell her.”
Katy appeared in the open doorway, hand at her throat, clasping the front of her nightgown together. She was as beautiful as Mark remembered red hair shining in the sun like lustrous copper, freckles dappling her cheeks, her pert lips parted in an unspoken question.
“Hi, Katy,” Mark said, feeling stupid. He waved.
She blinked twice and rolled her green eyes. “What in the world are you doing here?”
“I came to see my daughter.”
“You can’t just show up out of the blue. We have a custody agreement.”
“I asked him to come, Mom,” Jett said. ‘To help us.”
Katy looked at the two of them as if they were coconspirators in some bizarre practical joke. “We don’t need any help.”
“You don’t think so, but you’re spaced out, Mom.”
“I’m perfectly fine,” she said but looked at the barn as if she’d misplaced something and couldn’t remember where she’d last seen it
“What kind of trouble are you in?” Mark asked Katy.
“I don’t know. Something about the barn. And recipes.”
“Can I come in?”
“I’ll have to ask Gordon.”
“Where is he?”
“Taking a shower.”
“Okay, I’ll just wait here with the world’s bestest girl.” He put his arm around Jett as Katy went back inside. “So what’s all this about the barn?”
“Well, it’s kind of hard to explain.”
“Look, we’ve always been honest with each other, even when we mess up. If it wasn’t for my drug use, you might not-“
“This isn’t about drugs, Daddy. It’s about the goddamned man in the black hat and the scarecrow boy and the goats that tried to eat me, and maybe about Mom losing her mind. She thinks the house is haunted.”
Mark wiped his mustache, unable to comprehend what his daughter was saying. Had she dragged him up here for some dramatic story? He was glad to see her, but if she started lying to get attention, he predicted trouble ahead for both him and Katy. So far, Jett hadn’t punished either of them for the divorce, but she no doubt harbored a seething anger.
He was about to question her when Gordon came onto the porch. Mark nodded in greeting, straightening his spine and lifting his head, because Gordon had at least three inches on him. Jett led Mark up the porch and made introductions. Mark gripped Gordon’s hand, wondering whether to go for the macho thing and try to squeeze the hardest. Instead, they both pressed flesh as if afraid of catching germs.
“Come in,” Gordon said, turning and going back inside. “Make yourself at home.”
Jett gave him a sideways glance as if to say, “See what I have to live with?”
They sat in the study. Katy fidgeted, hustling around the room and arranging magazines, Gordon’s collection of religious relics on the mantel, and the plastic cases of DVDs that were stacked in front of the television. Mark noticed folded blankets stacked beside the sofa and wondered who had been sleeping downstairs. He was alarmed to find pleasure at the thought of Katy’s abandoning her marital bed. Whatever her sleeping habits, she certainly was a lot fussier about housekeeping than she’d been when they shared the same roof.
“Can I get you something to drink-” Mark could tell by her exhalation that she almost said “honey,” one of those lingering endearments that were difficult to shake off despite a legal document terminating such pleasantries. Mark himself knew the price of a relaxed guard having lost a recent girlfriend by accidentally calling her “Katy” in a moment of passion. Gordon didn’t seem to notice, but Jett sat forward on the sofa, attuned to the air of expectation that filled the room.
“I had coffee on the way up,” Mark said, and that reminded him of the pressure in his bladder.
“So, to what do we owe this surprise visit?” Gordon asked.
“I’m sorry. I thought Jett had cleared it with you guys. I would never intrude otherwise.”
“You didn’t think to call me?” Katy asked standing by the cold fireplace holding a throw pillow against her stomach. He admired her long fingers, the nails painted cherry, the freckles scattered across the backs of her hands like star maps he’d once memorized.
“It’s some personal stuff,” Jett cut in. “I didn’t want you to make excuses and keep him away.”
“Jessica, we all appreciate your need for a broad support network,” Gordon said. “But in my house, I need to know what’s going on. We’ll let it slip this one time, but from now on, everything gets cleared through me, okay?”
Gordon flashed Mark a wink that suggested “Oh, what we fathers have to go through, right?” A freshet of anger sluiced through Mark’s veins. Pompous ass. Wearing a turtleneck sweater on a Sunday morning, looking like Captain Nemo with that same sanctimonious burden of saving the world from itself
“How about breakfast?” Katy said. “I was making some scratch biscuits.”
Scratch biscuits. The old Katy couldn’t even handle Bisquik, and microwaving yeast rolls had been about the peak of her culinary skills. Country life must have inspired her. Or beaten her down. He found himself scrutinizing her as he listened to Gordon. Had she lost weight? She’d done something different with her hair, the trendy, cheek-sweeping cuts she’d preferred giving way to a longer, more free-flowing style that feathered across her collarbones. Damn. She was still beautiful, but then, that had never been one of her shortcomings.
“Actually, I was hoping to take Jett out for breakfast, if that’s okay. Where’s the closest McDonald’s?”
Gordon gave one of those bluff, hearty laughs that were simultaneously cheerful and irritating. “Try Titusville. That’s our college town. Population fourteen thousand when the semester is in session. Three thousand during Christmas break. But it’s a twenty-minute drive, probably longer on a Sunday when the little old ladies drive their Olds Cutlasses to church.”
“Let me fix you something here,” Katy said. “We have fresh eggs and bacon, and I have a new waffle iron, too.”
Mark shot her a glance. Gordon didn’t have enough parental experience to pick up on the subtleties, but Katy should know the point of the suggestion was for Mark and Jett to spend time alone.
“How about the general store?” Jett said. “We can get something from their deli. You and me, Dad, just like when you used to drop me off at school.”
Mark searched Katy’s face for any hint of a sting, but she seemed lost in menu planning. “That sounds great, pumpkin. A real-life general store, huh?”
“Yeah, it’s like a hundred years old and it’s full of weird old stuff you never need.”
“Sounds great. Is it open this early?”
“Sure,” Jett said. “The woman who owns it lives next door. Except it’s more like she lives at the store and just sleeps at home.”
“Sounds like the ticket to me.” Mark stood, half expecting Katy to invite herself along. He wasn’t sure whether he would mind or not. Making Turtleneck Boy jealous would almost be worth the trouble, but Mark didn’t want to reopen old wounds. Or risk fanning old embers, either.
He was being a selfish ass, as usual. This was about Jett, not any of the three adults.
“Is that okay with you guys?” Mark asked.
Gordon and Katy looked at each other, Katy obviously awaiting her husband’s response. Gordon nodded at her, then Katy nodded at Mark. Jett grabbed his arm and squeezed in joy.
“Do I need to have her back at any particular time?” Mark asked. “Like for church?”
“I attend services, but Katy and Jett don’t,” Gordon said. “My spiritual interest is purely academic, though.”
I’ll bet it is, Mr. Penny Loafers. If God walked in the front door, you ‘d invite Him into the study for a sherry and a chat about ways to improve the cosmos.
“Great, then,” he said. “I’ll have her back in time for lunch.”
“I’ll make a casserole,” Katy said. “Table for four?”
Jett surreptitiously shook her head. Mark was beginning to see why his daughter was freaked out. The woman who had been his wife for ten years and girlfriend for a couple of years before that had become a completely new woman in the four months she’d been in Solom. Perhaps this was the real Katy, and the one he’d known had been inhibited and repressed. Though that made no sense, because Katy had always been independent and, if anything, a bit too strong-headed. Her head now seemed to be filled with little more than the back pages of Good Housekeeping.
“I don’t think I can stay for lunch,” Mark said. “I’ve got some clients to check on this evening. Self-employed people work seven days a week, remember?”
Katy smiled, but it wasn’t the sardonic grin she always flashed when she was pissed about his workaholic ways. “That’s nice. Gordon is a hard worker, too.”
“It’s not work when you enjoy it, isn’t that right, Mark?” Gordon said. “Religion fascinates me, and faith is even more mystifying. As Mark Twain said ‘Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.’ “
“Well, may we all be dogs in the next life,” Mark said wishing he’d smoked a joint before meeting Jett’s new stepdad.
Katy was determined to pull off a nice souffle, figuring Jett would talk Mark into staying for lunch after all. Gordon was attending one of the churches, probably the True Light Tabernacle, and she figured he’d be hungry afterward. Part of her was also hoping to impress Mark, give him yet another reason to regret her loss. Seeing her ex-husband had shocked her in ways she never would have expected, and she wondered if Jett had planned the rendezvous so Katy wouldn’t have time to psychologically prepare for his arrival. Katy had done a good job of hiding her feelings. The physical attraction was still there, but for a grown woman, attraction was tied to love or at least like.
She opened a drawer to find an opener for the can of evaporated milk. The key lay in the drawer, among measuring spoons, whisks, peelers, and spatulas. Someone had moved it. She’d left it in the other drawer, the miscellaneous drawer that was rarely opened.
She couldn’t resist picking up the key. A floral smell drifted from the hallway, and barely audible footsteps trailed up the stairs. Katy frowned at the eggs she’d cracked into a metal bowl. Well, if she hurried, the eggs wouldn’t go bad.
Katy ascended the stairs, following the faint aromatic thread of lilacs. It led to the linen closet. Someone had left the door open, and the attic access was ajar. Katy perched on her tiptoes and pulled the string, and the access door yawned wide, the ladder unfolding as the door dropped. Key clutched in her fist, Katy climbed into the darkness above.
Her eyes adjusted to the gloom, the morning sun piercing the ventilation shaft on the east gable and throwing yellow stripes across the attic. Dust floated in the sunlight, and a stray wasp cut a slow arc in the air. Katy stooped under the low rafters and navigated the clutter until she came to the dresser with the dusty mirror. The silver-handled hairbrush was still on the dresser, with an old stool pushed in front of the mirror as if someone had been checking her reflection.
“Rebecca?” Katy’s voice was muffled by the insulation, furniture, and boxes of old clothing that lay scattered and stacked like a museum to unwanted things.
A rustle arose from inside one of the boxes.
“I don’t want to take your place,” Katy said.
“He wants you.”
Katy wasn’t sure whether she’d actually heard the words or if the breeze had whispered through the ventilation screen.
The access door slammed shut with a rusty scream of springs and hinges, making the attic even darker.
Katy backed away from the sudden noise. She bumped into the long wooden box that contained the strange outfit she’d discovered on her earlier visit. She forced herself not to think of the box as a coffin. The clothes inside had probably been the relics of a previous Smith generation, left to molder as moth bait. Except, why had the clothes moved?
The surface of the mirror grew bright with collected light. Katy glanced from the mirror to the cramped attic. The reflection was somehow different from the reality that pushed itself against the silvered glass. She fell to her knees, looking from the mirror to the dimly lit attic, trying to comprehend the juxtaposition of elements. There lay the golden strips of sunlight, the oblique darkness of the old bureau, the array of boxes, and the slanted brown rafters. What was missing?
She tore her gaze away from the mirror. An image of Jett popped into her head: Jett under the blankets in her bedroom, confused eyes wide in panic. Her daughter had been trying to tell her something.
Scarecrow creature. Man in the black hat. Goats.
Why had Jett called Mark?
Katy should have been able to protect both of them. That was why she’d gotten divorced, why she’d married Gordon. Why she’d given up a banking career. None of it meant anything without Jett.
Sacrifice. It meant the same thing as “motherhood.” Fathers never understood. They shot their sperm and went about their business.
But what had Katy been doing these past few weeks?
She looked down at her clothes. This wasn’t her. The clothes didn’t fit. They itched.
She shook the sleeve of her dress and bits of straw fell out.
The key was warm in her hand, almost electric.
The light shifted with the rising of the sun, and a shaft of yellow fell across the dark slot in the middle of the bureau. A keyhole glared in the brass workings beneath the double handles.
“Open me” Rebecca said, the words hollow and muffled, as if spoken from the depths of a coffin.
“But you’re not” One of the hens cackled in the barnyard outside, a frantic and rattling punctuation to the eerie stillness of the attic. “Not yet, anyway.”
Katy approached the bureau, avoiding the gravity of the mirror. The key lifted her hand as if magnetized and she followed it between the dusty cardboard boxes and linen-draped humps of furniture. She pushed the key into the bureau lock, or else the key pulled her hand, she couldn’t be sure. Then the lock was turning and the doors groaned open like a death angel spreading its wings.