It could not be doubted that Low Ferry was devoutly and not very diversely religious. The one church was the center of many peoples' lives, particularly the older people and the farmers – sometimes it was the latter's only regular social contact with someone outside of their family from week to week. They drove in every Sunday when the roads were good, and when they were flooded out or snowed under they rode in on horseback, stabling the horses in the parish house's spacious garage.
Still, as with so many small towns where farmers have been the bedrock of the economy for generations – especially in Low Ferry, where most of the families had immigrated from Europe in the last two centuries – there were deeper currents below the surface. Christianity sat on the village like the snow and there was a great deal of brown, earthy tradition underneath. As their most recent immigrant I could see it clearly, but I don't know if those born and raised in Low Ferry even knew it was there.
Unlike Chicago, with its spook stories about poisoned candy and very real stories about kids getting hit by cars, there wasn't much to fear on Halloween in Low Ferry. Nobody was even in
a car after dark on October thirty-first. The only reason that the church held a Halloween Party every year, really, was because we all needed somewhere to gather. It might as well be under the wide ceiling of the cavernous church basement, close to the cemetery. It gave the adults an excuse to dress up, at any rate.
I planned to dress up myself, that year, in my Dottore
mask if nothing else. I didn't really have anything to go with it, but when you're wearing a handmade replica of a seventeenth-century costume prop there's only so much you really need.
As I stepped into the street I ran into Carmen and her boyfriend coming out of the cafe, and joined them for the short walk to the church. Clara, toddling along between them, was dressed up as a kind of elaborate combination of dinosaur and unicorn, some of it already smeared with chocolate.
"She did it herself," Carmen confided. "I asked what she wanted to be, and she said she wanted her dinosaur pajamas and her unicorn hat."
"It's not a bad look," I said, waving to Jacob as he passed. Others were streaming up the street, the families coming from trick-or-treating, the older kids from god-knows-where. The single adults in the village, like myself, exchanged sheepish what-are-we-doing-here looks as we went.
"Aren't you cold?" Carmen asked, pointing to my scarf, wrapped around the mask I carried instead of around my throat.
"It's not so bad out," I answered. "Bracing, that's what it is."
"You sound like Charles."
"May I live to be his age," I intoned, and Carmen laughed.
"Hello Paula!" she called, as the door to the hardware store opened and Paula emerged. She was certainly...shiny, in a heatproof silver welding-apron and a headdress made out of bolts and needle-nosed pliers. "What are you?"
"The spirit of industry," Paula replied. "You?"
"The parent of a unicorn-saur," Carmen said.
"Christopher?" Paula lifted an eyebrow at my clothes -- plain black denims and a black jacket. "Johnny Cash?"
"I haven't put mine on yet," I said.
"Fair enough. Be my date tonight?" she asked, offering me her arm.
"Never happier," I replied, and took it as we continued up the street.
The church was dark for the most part, but lights blazed around the back-entrance, down a narrow road that divided the church from the cemetery. Carmen chased after Clara, who was running on ahead, while I stopped to greet a few farmers and say hello to Bert, who owned the grocery store.
"Christopher!" Charles called from the doorway, where he was wrestling one of the coffee urns into submission. "Come inside, son! Aren't you cold?"
"Not much," I answered, but I joined him inside and caught the top of the urn as it began to slide off. I carried it after him down the half-flight of stairs and into the basement. The warm lower-level, below the sanctuary, smelled like dust and stale tea, coffee, pastries, and chafing-dish fuel.
"Care to help me?" he asked, setting the urn down, and I nodded and trailed after him deep into the forbidden depths of the basement, through a couple of unmarked doors and into the kitchen's storeroom. He deposited a tray full of chipped mugs in my hands and picked up another urn.
"Don't know that I told you," he grunted, as he hauled the large cylinder along, "but we've got a new Sweeper this year for the festivities. New Fire Man, too."
"Oh?" I asked, elbowing a door open for him. "Well, don't spoil the surprise. Are you Straw Bear this year?"
"Of course," Charles said. "Here, put the mugs down."
I obediently set the mugs on the counter with my mask on top of them and helped him hold the urn while it filled with water from a high tap. When it was done we eased it back against his shoulder.
"So," he continued, as he carried it out into the larger room where the partygoers were, "you don't look like you're in costume, Christopher."
"Right here," I said, picking up my mask and unwinding the scarf. I turned away from him, pulled it over my face, tied the straps in the back, and turned around – eyes now framed by circles of copper wire, thin nose protruding, bushy eyebrows caught permanently mid-waggle. Charles laughed.
"Oh, that's wonderful," he said. "Did Lucas make it?"
"You know him?" I asked, surprised, and then felt stupid. Of course he knew him -- even those who hadn't met Lucas knew at least about
the peculiar recluse at The Pines.
"Sure. He was up here just last week, asking me about the Straw Bear."
"Really," I said, intrigued. "He showed you his masks, I guess."
"A few. He said he had more." Charles was staring almost disconcertingly at my mask. "He's very...deft, I guess you could say. It looks like you."
"What?" I asked, studying my reflection in the big silver urn.
"Well, a little bit. Not the eyebrows, but the face, you know?"
"Huh." I hadn't noticed, but without the glasses perched on Dottore
's nose I supposed the narrow, scholarly face would look like mine. "Is Lucas here?"
"Haven't seen him yet, but he'll probably show up. He's been invited, anyway."
Charles set up the water to heat and people began to crowd around us, picking at the trays of food on the table. The children were more concerned with the games that a couple of industrious youngsters were running, where you could win a few pieces of candy or a small toy. The adults wanted coffee to keep them awake.
I felt faintly superior to most of the others there – their masks, if they wore any, were cheap plastic things well below the level of craftsmanship Lucas had put into mine. I got a lot of compliments on it, and a few outright stares.
The children were in much more elaborate outfits than the adults, chasing each other through the room or huddling in groups to plot mischief. I looked around for Lucas but, not seeing him, went to busy myself hopping from group to group, picking up news and redistributing it. All of the players in that season's live-action soap opera – Michael, Nolan, Sandra, Cassie, Nolan's younger sister and one or two other minor characters – were drifting around the party as well, being watched by the village and watching each other warily.
Around nine o'clock, with night well-fallen and some of the younger children already taken home by their parents, people began to slip outside. The cold evening air was almost a welcome relief after the warmth of the basement, and the sense of anticipation among the adults began to grow. I took off my mask and tied it carefully to a belt-loop, joining them in the cemetery.
In twos and threes, bringing their children with them or following them out, the adults began to gather inside the cemetery gates, off to either side of the dirt road that wound around and between the headstones. A group of young teens lounged on the steps of the few mausoleums, some ways off. The children stood at the gates, watchful, either remembering past years or having been told by older siblings what was about to happen. In the distance the edge of a forty-acre forest, marking the far boundary of the cemetery, loomed darkly.
Some of the adults had gone missing in the bustle. Charles, for one, and Leon; Jacob's wife as well. I thought perhaps Leon was the new Sweeper, and about time, since the schoolteacher who had done it for years was laid up with lumbago worse than ever and it was time she passed the broom, so to speak.
It occurred to me that Jacob's wife might be the Fire Man this year. Low Ferry wasn't a paragon of gender equality, but the Fire Man needed to be nimble and light. By and large the men of Low Ferry were built on huge broad lines, good for farming but not for the relative acrobatics the Fire Man needed. The part was usually played by a young man or woman. I'd been asked once, my second year in the village, but I'd had to decline.
My speculations were cut short as the Sweeper appeared, hooting and coughing his way down from the main road. It was certainly Leon, dressed in layers of burlap tied on with bits of yarn and old worn belts. He swept the loose top layer of dirt on the road with his broom, aimlessly, clearing any little remnants of snow to the sides. He shook his head as he came, setting off the little bells tied to the wispy straw wig bound in a topknot and hanging down over his ears. Once inside the gate he moved his broom more vigorously, occasionally shoving a giggling child off the road.
Three or four mounted riders followed him, the horses kicking up mud from the melting snow, ruining the crazy patterns the sweeper left behind him. There was Jacob's wife, along with three young men – one of the Harrison boys and two I couldn't place in the darkness. The riders threw sticks into the crowds for people to catch or scramble after: long poles made of balsa and a few of hollow plastic, not too hard or heavy, hardly dangerous at all. Their horses, decorated with ribbons and more bells, stomped and snorted. A few children playfully sword-fought with the sticks or went haring off into the darkness, already looking for the Straw Bear. Eventually the adults herded them into a group that trailed loosely down the road after the riders.
We walked through the cemetery hollering and whistling, following the riders until they abandoned us at the edge of the trees. They wheeled the horses, well out of range of the children, and broke into a galloping race back to the front gates, the showier ones leaping gravestones as they went.
The rest of us turned to the trees. There was a collective moment of anticipation before a few brave souls walked in first, pushing the low brush aside and starting to look in earnest for the Straw Bear. We were quieter in the forest, and sometimes we could hear the rise of a bird from the brush or the scuttle of a small animal fleeing hastily ahead of us. It was eerie, and a few of the children looked scared, but for the most part people seemed to be enjoying the shadows – venturing into the darkness to beat winter back, to beat back chill and death. This was our ritual, deeper than any church service, all-encompassing. If nothing else, it made us a village, tied us together in an experience that most of Low Ferry had shared since they could walk.
Leon was there, still in-character, brandishing his broom to make the children laugh occasionally. Paula kept poking Nolan in the back with her stick until he swatted at her and wandered off, annoyed. Nora Harrison, well along in her pregnancy, was escorted by several chivalrous junior sons of the extended Harrison clan. Carmen was carrying a tired-looking Clara on her shoulders. It was, in fact, pretty crowded in the trees.
I held back a little, wandering away from the others, content to look up at the stars through the tree branches and listen for the inevitable shout of Straw Bear! Straw Bear!
once someone finally found him.
I'd managed to lose sight of everyone, which is no mean feat even in the dark, when I heard a bird-cry off to my left. It was followed by what I thought was the rustle of wings, and instinctively I turned to look for the source of the noise. There was no sudden flight against the sky, however, and no fluttering feathers – instead I came face to face with a wide sheath of plaited straw, behind which a pair of eyes flashed and darted wildly.
I suppose if we were less serious, if it really were a children's game like everyone pretended, Charles would have dropped a wink and lifted his mask. Hello Christopher, where's the rest? Run along and don't tell. I hope I look all right.
I might have winked back and told him he was terribly fearsome and said Good luck scaring the children,
but I didn't. Because it wasn't a game, really, not in Low Ferry.
Instead the figure growled and raised his arms, surrounding me in the musty-sweet smell of dry grass and the shifting shadows of his braided costume. Fear rose in my throat, real terror, and I yelled in answer to his low groan.
"Straw Bear! Straw Bear!"
From all around me came the immediate sound of crashing as would-be rescuers ran through the undergrowth. I shied back from the figure and shouted "Straw Bear!"
again, even as I fell on my elbows, staring up at him. Two women arrived on the heels of my shouting and batted at the upraised arms of the bear with their sticks, driving him off. He howled and shambled away while they gave chase.
they shouted, terribly serious, more people joining them as they went. I could hear the groans and growls receding in the distance as I was helped to my feet – they sounded like they were moving back towards the cemetery now, as they should be. My heart was beating fast and my breath came short, knocked out of me by the fall.
"You okay, Christopher?" Jacob asked, arriving in a cluster with a few other farmers, and now there were grins all round.
"Fine," I gasped. "Let's go on, we'll miss the Fire Man – which way is it?" I added, rubbing my chest with one hand.
"This way," someone else said, and we tromped back in the direction of the cemetery, following the noise, Michael offering me a shoulder to lean on as I stumbled along. I couldn't seem to get my breath back.
We emerged from the trees to see the Straw Bear at bay, standing in front of a lumber-pile in the center of the cemetery. The sticks fell in uneven rhythm on his arms and chest, not the random attacks of children but the purposeful, symbolic drumming that others in Low Ferry's past had used to drive off evil – Thud-ump-ump-thud-ump
Even as we arrived the Bear roared defiance and the straw suddenly parted, revealing a disheveled and sweating Charles underneath. He shrugged the suit backwards and off, crying out in a very human voice, "Help me! Help me!"
Those who had attended other Halloweens in Low Ferry all knew where to look even before the fire flared to life. Behind the low graveyard wall was a sudden red glow, and a lithe body vaulted over the stone and ran across the graves, carrying a flickering torch made of rags dipped in pitch and wrapped around a long stick. He darted through the crowd, the flame trailing out behind him, and touched the torch to the Straw Bear costume as he ran past. It flared up bright, crackling merrily. The new Fire Man was good. He hadn't even broken stride.
He turned before he reached the bonfire wood and ran back again, leaping straight through the flame of the burning straw. The Fire Man's leggings were thick leather and he didn't wear a shirt which could have caught fire, so it was safe enough. Clearly at some point in our history the village had figured out that it was a good idea to keep the youths from setting themselves aflame, and had arranged a dress-code accordingly.
It was a wonderful sight, as it always is. The Fire Man's mask looked new, made of brilliant strips of red and orange silk stretched across a wire frame. It came to me as he jumped a second time, twirled and danced, and jumped across the flame again that I had seen that kind of mask in the workshop Lucas kept. Hard on the heels of that thought came the realization that Lucas was at the village revels after all.
He was the one leaping over and through the flaming remains of the Straw Bear's costume, the one laughing at the children who clapped and kept time for the dance steps on either side of the leaps. I recognized the cut of his hair and the visible shape of his chin and throat, even if I had never seen him move so quickly or smile so openly. He was different – no tension in his body, no hesitant looks or slouched shoulders.
My chest tightened further, but not with sentiment – it was still hard to breathe, even if I tried to inhale on the rhythm of the clapping hands and stamping feet. Lucas jumped the flame one last time and ran to the wood piled for the bonfire, throwing the torch into the center of it. The whole crowd burst into spontaneous applause as it exploded in light and heat. I was busy trying to get enough air in my lungs to call for help.
The problem was, in the end, that my heart had yet to stop beating triple-time since Charles ambushed me in the forest. I tried to keep up with the clapping, the shouting bounced around and around in my head, but I couldn't. I wanted
to see the bonfire and see Lucas pull his mask off and pick a girl for the dancing, but everything was narrowing down to a pinprick of light. Pain was flaring in my chest and my throat felt like it was closing off.
It was in the middle of Low Ferry's oldest ritual, then, that it happened: my heart gave out entirely from the strain and shock and the blow I'd taken when I'd fallen.
To everyone's surprise, mine not least of all, I died.
Fortunately for me, it was a short death. Which is not to say that the process of dying was short (though that too) but rather the time I spent dead could be measured in minutes rather than on a scale of "now" to "judgment day".
Everyone nearby knew immediately that something was wrong. People have occasionally passed out at the revels, but I was not known for my impressionable spirit or any kind of religious fervor. I'm told that my eyes rolled up in my head and I simply dropped straight down in a heap with very little fuss, which seems pretty much like me.
Immediately a crowd gathered around and just as quickly they were shoved away by Charles and Jacob, so that Dr. Kirchner had enough room to drop to his knees and revive me. Or perhaps resurrect is the better word, since I had no pulse and wasn't breathing at the time.
Needless to say, I don't remember any of this. A sort of false memory has settled in my mind, though, built up from stories I heard later on. It seemed like nobody's life was complete that winter until they'd come to see me and tell me their version of events. The tales varied wildly, as these things tend to do: in one memorable account of the Temporary Death of Christopher Dusk, my spirit was seen to leave my body as a bright orange glow. I try to ignore that one.
What I recall after the lighting of the bonfire is mainly a sharp, sudden pain, followed by constricting tightness in my chest and then nothing – a void, a gap, until it was replaced with the sensation of bone-deep warmth and the sound of quiet breathing in a different rhythm from my own. And a voice – Dr. Kirchner's deep bass, reassuringly calm.
"Really, Lucas, he's resting quietly. I don't mind you staying here, but you should at least wash your face. You're covered in ash."
"I don't care. He might wake up."
"Sooner or later he will, but it'll be all right if you aren't here. I'll let him know that you were waiting for him."
I tried to move, to let them know I was awake, but when I shifted my weight the muscles in my chest twinged alarmingly. I did get my eyes open, and made a surprised noise when a face loomed close to mine.
"Hello, Christopher," said Dr. Kirchner, smiling reassuringly. "How are you feeling?"
"I...why are you – in my bedroom?" I asked, and he laughed uneasily.
"We're not in your bedroom," he said. "You've had an episode. Are you breathing comfortably?"
"Yes," I answered. "Should I be?"
"It's good that you are. The roads aren't great and I'd hate to have to helicopter you to the hospital."
"I don't need a hospital," I replied. And then, stupidly, "I want to go home."
"I know, but I have to make sure you're all right first."
He helped me to sit up and I saw that we were in the office of the church – I was lying on the pastor's couch, covered in a couple of tattery blankets. Lucas was standing in a corner, near the window, still in the Fire Man's leggings. He was wearing a shirt three sizes too big for him, obviously borrowed from somewhere, and there was grease and ash-dust on his arms and face – a very pale face, under the grime.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi," I answered.
"Well, now that's out of the way, back here please," Kirchner said, tipping my chin back so that I was looking at him. He rattled through a series of questions that were both soothingly easy and incredibly invasive, which I answered more or less honestly. I may have lied a little about how well I felt, but I wanted to convince him that I should be allowed to go home. It seemed very urgent at the time.
For a while I forgot Lucas was even in the room, until he moved to leave and gave me a small, shy wave from the doorway. I found out later that he'd been the major conduit of information between the doctor and the rest of the bonfire party, in the first few minutes after they moved my unconscious body to the church and, well, panicked a whole lot. No doubt he was leaving to tell them I was awake.
"I'm going back to my office to get you a heart monitor," Kirchner said finally. "I want you to stay still and rest until I come back. I'm going to have Charles keep an eye on you, all right?"
I nodded and might have drifted off for a minute or two, since the next thing I recall is Charles, bending over and poking me in the forehead.
"Christopher?" he boomed, and the echo bounced around between my ears for a while.
"What?" I groaned.
"Just making sure you're still alive," he answered, and mercifully leaned back. Beyond him, it seemed like half the town was assembled – though, looking back, it was probably only a few of the church elders and pillars of the community, the kind who always get front-row seats in Low Ferry's dramatic moments.
"Do you need anything?" Charles asked. I thought about asking for water, but one of the elders piped up before I could.
"What you need are peppers," he said, voice firm and resolute. "Good for the circulation, get you back on your feet in no time."
"What if circulation's not his problem?" Jacob asked. His father, behind him, gave an emphatic nod. "He needs to see a city doctor."
"A little modern medicine couldn't hurt," Paula agreed, crossing her arms. "Have you thought about getting a pacemaker, Christopher?" she asked, a little more loudly than she needed to.
"A pacemaker? Why?" another man asked.
"Do you like peppers?" the first inquired.
"Not really," I said slowly.
"Hmpf! Proves my point!"
"Well, we don't know what the problem is," Charles said. "Best not to meddle too much until – "
"Mustard poultices every night and brisk walks in the cold are good for the constitution."
"Brisk walks in the cold? What do you think tonight was?" Paula inquired.
"Brisk walks in the cold where nobody jumps out at you from behind a tree, maybe," I suggested weakly, not that any kind of walking appealed at the moment.
"Sorry about that," Charles said contritely. "That isn't what did it, is it?"
"I don't know," I said.
"Maybe it's pneumonia," Jacob's father ventured. "I think vitamins."
"Peppers have vitamins!"
"Can't I go home?" I asked Charles.
"It's past midnight, and Kirchner wants to hook you up to a bunch of machines," Charles said. The argument – peppers versus bed rest versus pacemaker – was still going on around us and looked to be getting into really full swing.
"What is going on in here?" a new voice demanded, and everyone fell silent. I turned my head just enough to see Dr. Kirchner standing in the doorway, a bundle of wires in one hand. "Charles!"
"What?" Charles demanded.
"He's not a circus sideshow! Out, all of you."
"He wanted to see us," Paula protested, even as Charles began sheepishly herding them out of the room.
"I don't care if he wanted the moon!" Kirchner retorted as Charles boomed, "Everyone out!"
They filed out, still bickering, and Kirchner closed the door behind them. The silence was a deep relief. I relaxed and breathed slowly, my muscles objecting every time I inhaled. The CPR, probably, raising bruises on the skin that I could feel but not see. I didn't want to sleep lying on my back, but the chances of actual movement were pretty slim. Especially with Kirchner attaching all kinds of odd, cold patches and wires to my body.
"So," I said, while he fitted something onto my index finger. "How bad was it this time?"
He glanced up at my face for a hurried moment, then went back to fiddling with the machine. "You should rest, Christopher."
"I died, didn't I?"
"Your heart stopped briefly. That's why they call it heart failure."
"For how long?"
"Briefly," Kirchner said firmly.
"So you're saying I did die."
"Christopher..." Kirchner looked frustrated, not that I blame him. At the time, however, I was sick and scared and didn't have much room in all of that to think of someone else's feelings. "Yes, medically, you were dead for a little under a minute. That's not very long. Most people can hold their breath for a minute. Now, are you going to stay calm about all this or do I need to give you a sedative?"
"I'm fine," I said. "I'm not dead anymore.
"Good. Try and sleep."
I was out cold by the time Kirchner finished his work, and I didn't wake again until well into the following morning. Even then, I suspect the only reason I woke up was because Kirchner had to readjust some of his machines.
"Not that I'm going to be the one to kick you out of a church," he said to me, when he saw I was awake, "but you should consider a brisk walk in the cold as far as my car."
"Will there be peppers?" I asked. He smiled and began removing the machines.
"Away we go. Are you sure you're medically qualified?" I managed, sitting up. "I'm not positive the best solution for a man arisen from the dead is to put him on a church sofa for a night. Even with machines."
"Well, your vocal cords aren't damaged," he answered, helping me to stand. "And there's clearly no neurological dysfunction. You're doing very well, Christopher, considering the situation. I think you'd be happier at home, wouldn't you?"
"Yes," I admitted. I leaned heavily on his shoulder as we walked to his car.
I don't recall much of the drive down the street to my shop or getting up the porch steps, not to mention the staircase from the back of the shop to my kitchen. I don't remember Kirchner leaving, either. What I remember next, after this briefly lucid exchange, was waking in my bed to find someone sitting in a chair next to it.
"Are you here to check the machines again?" I asked, confused.
"He unhooked you," Lucas answered. Yes, of course he had.
"So I could have died in my room and nobody would have known," I grumbled.
"No," Lucas replied. "Dr. Kirchner stayed here for a few hours, then he called Charles and me and I told Charles I'd come watch you, since I know where you keep your sandwich stuff."
"Vital," I said. He was wearing ordinary clothes again, and he tilted his head to indicate an empty plate on the windowsill next to the chair. "How the hell long have you been here?" I asked.
"Not too long."
"You didn't have to. I wasn't planning on dying again."
"You scared everyone. I'd rather be here anyway, I'm tired of hearing them talk about you."
"It's awful, isn't it?" I asked. "A man can't fall over in his own municipal cemetery without – "
I closed my mouth, startled. We stared at each other for a while.
"Of course," I said. "That was tasteless."
"Are you feeling all right?" he asked. "Really, I mean, just between you and me."
"Yes, mostly," I answered, sitting up and wincing. "My chest hurts a little. I'm sorry about Halloween. You looked like you were having a good time."
"Oh, I was!" he said, suddenly enthusiastic. "It was a lot of fun. They don't have anything like that in the city, you know? I couldn't believe Charles let me do it, but I think I did all right. Although – " he seemed to recall that he was speaking to an invalid, which I had managed to forget for a moment too, enjoying his enthusiasm. "I mean, you don't have any reason to apologize, I don't think you planned to...pass out."
"No – I would have done it somewhere a little more forgiving," I said, rubbing the bruise where the back of my head had knocked against a grave plaque. My shoulders felt sore as well, like I had a sunburn under my skin. "But it's still a shame. I had no idea you were going to be the Fire Man."
"I asked Charles," he said. "It's actually one of the reasons I moved here."
"Is it?" I replied.
He looked indecisive. "I should call Dr. Kirchner and let him know you're awake."
"I thought you moved here to get away from city life for a while," I said, as he crossed the room to pick up the telephone.
"I thought the same of you," he replied, dialing from a number written on his hand.
"I asked first."
He smiled. "All right. I – Dr. Kirchner? Um, sorry, can I speak to him? Thanks." He touched the little table the phone rested on, waiting. "Hi. He's awake. Christopher, I mean. No, he seems okay. So, I'm going to – yeah. Okay. Okay, bye...bye." He hung up and looked at me sheepishly. "I don't like phones much."
"You were going to tell me why you came here?" I prompted.
He sat down again, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his thighs and bowing his head, lacing his fingers across the back of his neck.
"I liked the idea of it. I'd read about it in a book about – well, anthropology and stuff. I'm interested in things like the Straw Bear, even when they're sort of watered down like they are here. Transformation rituals, I guess you could call them, that sounds like a non-stupid way to say it. I thought it would be neat to see this one. And I did want to get away for a while."
"Everything," he said, eyes still on the floor. "I chose Low Ferry because of the Straw Bear, but also because you always get cut off for at least some portion of the winter. I liked that idea. Too many distractions in the city."
"Distractions from what? Your masks?"
"Sort of," he said.
"Living out at The Pines, being the village Fire Man in the Halloween festivities...none of that was accidental, then?"
"No," he said quietly. "I didn't really expect things to end up the way they did, though. With you, and with the boy and everything. And Charles has been really nice, I didn't expect that."
I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring grin, although between my bad color and the headache starting to make itself known in the back of my skull it probably looked more like a grimace.
"Your turn," he said.
"Lucas, you know why I came here," I said. "I wanted a break from city life too. I've never made any secret about that."
"You're not even thirty-five," he answered. "You have a heart condition."
"That isn't why," I insisted. Lucas fixed me with a look that I had never seen, nor ever expected to see, on his face: cynical disbelief tinged with indulgence, like a parent catching their child in a lie.
"Why else would you?" he asked.
"I was tired of the city, that's all."
"Nobody just leaves the city for no reason," he replied.
"Well, if it comes to that, what's yours? It's fine to say you like the way things are here, but you must have had one too, or you'd have just come to visit for Halloween."
"I'm working on a piece, an art piece, and I needed quiet and time to think. And you're avoiding the question."
"Because I don't have an answer for you. Sometimes people just do leave the city," I said tiredly. "Burnout, change of pace, call it whatever you want. I just thought about it for a while and then did it. My father'd died a few months before, I'd just had a bad breakup and – "
It really was no use. The cynicism was back, and I hated seeing it on his normally innocent, reserved face.
" – and a very negative and frightening electrocardiogram," I finished with a sigh.
"Is it serious? Are you dying?"
"Aren't we all?"
He looked hurt and embarrassed, and I regretted the question as soon as I'd asked it.
"It's not what's killing me any more than anything else at the moment," I said. "My heart gets confused sometimes, that's all, and beats a little faster than it should. I wouldn't let them operate to fix it – it's a dangerous procedure and there isn't really any need. Well, there wasn't. It hasn't been fatal before. Not fatal for me, anyway."
"Is that what your father died of?" he asked.
"My family's got bad hearts."
"So you left the city because...?"
I ducked my head. "It was healthier for me here. I didn't want to live the rest of my life not doing what I wanted – resisting temptation – but if I'm in a place where what I want to do is limited by what it's possible to do, and what it's possible to do can't hurt me..." I shrugged. "I didn't want to be The One With The Disease. My friends would have looked at me differently."
"Do they know? Your city friends?"
"Well, unless the gossips manage to piece together a few slips I've had over the years...pretty much me, Dr. Kirchner, my city doctors, and you."
"Nobody in Low Ferry knows?"
"That's sort of the point," I drawled.
"That's pretty brave of you."
"Cowardly. What people don't know can't change the way they see me, and I like being normal."
"You're not normal, Christopher."
"In their eyes I am. It doesn't have to be a valid reason for you, I'm not interested in defending myself. But I don't like being the odd one out, the man people stare at and whisper about. Neither do you."
He bowed his head. "I suppose so."
"So you enjoyed yourself, though?" I tried, hoping to change the subject.
"It was..." he looked lost for a minute as he groped for words, then gave up and shrugged. "It's hard to explain. It seems unreal, all the excitement and then all this."
"Well, don't worry about me. The roads are a little rough right now, but there should be a good dry spell in a week or two and I'll see a doctor in the city when I can."
He opened his mouth and it looked like he would say something, but for the longest time he didn't speak. Finally he cleared his throat and tried again.
"We should make sure you don't get any more shocks – no sudden surprises," he said.
"Well, I don't want a completely boring life. And I don't want to be handled, though I don't see how I'll be able to help that." I tried to look reassuring. "I don't want you or anyone else to be afraid of what might happen to me. I can look after myself."
He did look heartened by what I'd said, which made me glad. It had taken me a long time to get to know Lucas, and I didn't want him pulling back again just because he thought I couldn't cope.
"As soon as the roads are decent again, I'll have everything looked at," I assured him. "What time is it anyway? What day is it?"
"November second," he answered. "About dinnertime. Want me to bring you some?"
I slid my legs off the bed and tried standing up – reasonably steady, given everything.
"I need a change and a wash first," I said. "If I feel tired I'll call the cafe, they'll bring me something."
"Do you – " he was about to ask if I wanted some help, but he must have seen the annoyed resignation in my face, because he stopped himself. "If you need anything, I'll be around tonight. I'm staying at the hotel."
He left me alone with an absent farewell that seemed to indicate his mind was on other matters. It was a relief, actually, to have a few minutes to myself. I did wash myself and managed to ease into a pair of loose pajamas, but making or even ordering a meal was beyond me, and soon I was asleep again.
The next afternoon, while I was settling back into my normal rhythm and the pain from the bruises was fading, there was a sudden, unexpected spell of heat in the village. It was brief and powerful and gave way after a very uncomfortable few hours to a startling evening freeze. This melted most of the snow and at the same time hardened all the mud it left behind, clearing the roads handily. It was as though someone had heard me speak.
The weather which allowed me to leave the village safely was strange, but I had told Lucas I would go and so I had to. On the day after the freeze I closed up the shop and let Charles drive me as far as the train station outside Low Ferry, with the promise that I would call him when I needed to be retrieved in a few days' time. I caught the train across the wide flat plains of northern Illinois, and made it in to Union Station in Chicago by early afternoon.
I took a cab to my hotel, which was clean and cheap but most importantly near the hospital. I ate a quick meal, brushed my hair and changed my clothes, and went out to get on the El, to make pilgrimage to Eighth Rare Books.