“WOODY? MY God, is that you? How long has it been?”
Woody wasn’t exactly sure just how long it had been, but to his way of thinking, it certainly hadn’t been long enough.
He remembered Crystal, of course. Hell, who wouldn’t? She had been gorgeous once. Still was, pretty much, although she did appear to have considerably higher mileage on the old odometer these days. Woody could still recall the way she used to whisk her pom-poms around at basketball games, wiggle her tight little butt, and aim her perky pubescent tits up at the grandstand as if to say, “Here they are, boys. Come and get ’em.” Well, it looked as if, at some point between then and now, somebody had indeed come and got ’em, and loosened up the chassis considerably in the process. She was a raging airhead then, and judging by appearances, she was a raging airhead now. Maybe some things you simply don’t grow out of.
“High school?” he said, wishing he had been a little quicker getting to the alley for his after-set cigarette.
Tonight, he knew, his set had been a good one. His voice in tune. His fingers adept on the guitar strings. The crowd congenial. They even seemed to be listening to him, which was a nice change of pace for the club he was currently working. Usually they just sat out there in that dark netherworld behind the spotlight, swilling beers and downing shots of tequila until they didn’t know where the hell they were and certainly didn’t give a shit where the hell Woody was or give two hoots for the fact that he was trying to entertain the ungrateful bastards.
No, it had been a good night. Until now.
The airhead squealed like a pig being disemboweled and gave his arm a playful slap, sloshing the beer from his glass onto his pant leg. “Well, of course it was high school, silly! But what year was that? When did we graduate?”
Woody was wondering if beer would stain khaki. He was also wondering how many shots of tequila this broad had poured down her throat during the course of the evening. “You mean you don’t remember?”
She giggled, like being stupid was the asset she was most proud of. “What year is it now?” she asked, looking honestly thoughtful.
Woody dragged up a smile and pointed it at her like a gun. “Doesn’t matter. Having a good time tonight? You don’t seem to be feeling any pain.”
Ha. Ha. She laughed the same laugh a hyena might laugh after finding a nice tasty zebra carcass lying on the savannah. A long series of hoots and haws with a couple of snorts scattered around to give it texture.
“I’m having a wonderful time! But, I didn’t know you could sing, Woody! Gee, I mean, you’re a real singer!”
“The matter is still up for debate.”
Whoosh. He imagined his words flapping across the top of her head like dying pigeons and splattering in a burst of feathers against the far wall, stunned into oblivion, uncomprehended by anything or anyone in between. Least of all her.
“Really?” she asked, suddenly sincere. “Well, I thought you were great!”
“Thanks,” he said, leaving his smile thumbtacked to his face like a poster.
“Buy me a drink?” Crystal asked with a flirtatious leer that promised more than drinking company if he played his cards right.
Woody was used to that look. It was a look he had seen time and again over the years. He supposed he was handsome enough, coming in at a little under six feet and as trim as a runner, with a sprinkling of soft hair across a well-defined chest and sporting long, elegant fingers—a guitar player’s fingers, his mother once told him. No moles, no scars, no Adonis, but with shoulder-length, reddish-blond hair that framed an open, expressive face, which in moments of repose seemed to wander toward the forlorn side, there was something about him, Woody knew, that certain women, and certain men, seemed to enjoy looking at. Sometimes that knowledge amused him. But not tonight.
Woody’s smile faltered. “Sorry, kid. Not allowed to fraternize with the customers. Club rule.”
It took her a minute to absorb this. “Gee, honey, I’m not asking you to fraternize me, whatever that means. Sounds kinky, though. Oh, wait, I think I know what it means.” Rusty wheels turned inside her tequila-glutted brain for all of five seconds before she said, “Well, maybe I don’t. So how about that drink?”
Woody glanced over her shoulder at nothing whatsoever and announced, “Oops, there’s my boss. Gotta run.” And with that, he took off like a bat out of hell toward the back door, aiming a last “Have fun tonight!” over his shoulder at the decidedly disappointed-looking ex-cheerleader behind him.
Once outside, he breathed in the cool night air and then replaced the freshness of it inside his lungs with a grateful puff from a Pall Mall.
Glad to be alone, Woody gazed up at the moon, which hung like a streetlight above his head. Where the hell was he? Oakland? That’s right, Oakland. His agent had booked him this gig right after Del Cerro, with no waiting in between jobs for a change. That was nice. His three days here ended tonight after his next set. Then he had a two week run in a club called Strikers, which was part of a gigantic bowling complex in San Diego—more than a hundred lanes, or so he’d been told—again without any dead time between gigs.
He supposed he’d be singing to the accompaniment of strikes and spares and rumbling bowling balls, but what the hell, he could always crank up the mike. San Diego, he thought. My hometown. Supposedly every entertainer’s dream, playing their hometown. Woody didn’t quite see it that way, but what the heck. The money was good. Or sort of good. And how many of his old cohorts would be hanging around a bowling alley? Not many, or so he hoped.
He knew he should be happy to be leading the life he’d once dreamed of, but somehow his dream had lost a little of its pizzazz when it made the transition to reality. Maybe they always did. Maybe fiction was always better than fact. Too bad, that. It was a good dream. Not that his life now was bad, exactly. It just wasn’t as good as the dream. After all, two weeks in a bowling alley in San Diego didn’t quite measure up to a run at the Palace, now did it? Actually he didn’t even know if the Palace still existed, or if it was still the holy of holies that up-and-coming young performers aspired to. Maybe it was a Kmart now. Wouldn’t surprise him.
He stomped out the Pall Mall and immediately lit another. Damn cigarettes. Not good for his voice. But he wasn’t exactly doing opera here. Sometimes a little cigarette hack in the middle of “Drop Kick Me, Jesus” added depth to the rendering. Or maybe it didn’t. Who the hell cared anyway? And actually, “Drop Kick Me, Jesus,” even by country-western standards, was a bit too banal for his playlist. He stole most of his material from George Strait, George Jones, and Willie Nelson. Not that they would mind, he was sure, since none of those august entities had ever in their lives heard of Woody Stiles, yours truly, or if they had, they had forgotten about him two minutes later.
He wasn’t exactly in the fast lane to stardom, he had to admit. Here he was, pushing thirty. After years of struggle, his gigs were getting closer together and being fairly well received of late, but that elusive recording contract seemed to be nowhere on the horizon that he could see. Against the advice of his agent, he had dumped his band a couple of years back. He had been soloing ever since. Just him, his God-given voice, and his Gibson acoustic. Without a band, his gigs were a little more limited—no dance clubs to be sure—but on the other hand, he didn’t have to split his pay five ways either. So all in all, going solo was a smart thing to do. Lonely, though. Jeez, it got lonely sometimes. He missed getting drunk with the guys after a show and playing till dawn for no one but themselves in some seedy motel room, surrounded by a mountain of takeout Chinese cartons and empty beer bottles, until the neighbors started pounding on the walls and screaming at them to “Shut the hell up, for Christ’s sake, people are trying to sleep over here!”
The band had picked up another lead singer somewhere, he had heard, but what happened to them after that was anybody’s guess. Flying under the radar somewhere, he supposed. Back to hustling for tips in the dives they had worked themselves out of while he was at the helm, maybe. Or maybe they were finally working themselves up again. He hoped so. They were nice guys. Good musicians. A little too dependent on outside stimulants, maybe, but how many working musicians weren’t?
Woody himself had locked his sorry ass in a hotel room in Dallas for two weeks and weaned himself off crystal meth along about the time he’d dumped the band, and it was the best thing he’d ever done for himself. Wasn’t easy, mind you. He still remembered dropping an issue of Variety on the floor and leaving it there for five days before his petrified muscles limbered up enough to allow him to bend over and pick it up. But there’s no point in plucking away at your guitar strings until your fingers bleed and singing every insipid request that the drunken louts in the audience throw at you if you’re just going to turn right around and suck the night’s proceeds up your nose through a rolled-up dollar bill. No wonder so many country western singers were ex-druggies. It kind of went with the territory.
Lately, Woody had even been trying to wean himself away from country as well, going for a more Jackson Browne sound, but he supposed his voice just wasn’t built for it. He could get an audience jiving pretty good with a little Mel Tillis or Clint Black, but when he shot for Billy Joel or Sting, he could see the bar patrons go glassy-eyed and start fiddling with their car keys. Not a good sign.
Woody had a repertoire of almost six-hundred country western songs under his belt, and maybe another couple of hundred of the more mainstream easy rock stuff, but he was bored with every damn one of them. In fact, Woody was beginning to think this line of work wasn’t exactly a manly sort of business to be in. There is a certain panache to being a recording star, someone with an honest-to-God contract with a legitimate industry label, but to just flit around from one town to the next, following his agent’s leads, singing for a bunch of drunken cowboy wannabe’s in their too tight Levi jeans and overblown cowboy hats, which they only drag out of the closets on Saturday night, with their bleached blonde girlfriends hanging worshipfully on their arms like Cissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter being dragged around by Tommy Lee Jones, just seemed a little—well—demeaning.
But Woody loved to sing. That was the problem. When he sang he did it for himself, not the audience. He could lose himself in the lyrics of a song sometimes, and when he did, those were the moments he most cherished, closing his eyes to the crowd and letting the words and the music carry him to a place where he didn’t have to think of anything at all. A place where he could lose all sense of self completely. The meth had helped carry him to that place too, but at the same time, he knew, it was killing him. On meth he could sometimes lose himself so completely inside a song it was hard to let it end. He would find himself repeating verses over and over until the audience started wondering what the hell was going on. Finally, to bring him out of it, his band would play the closing bars right over him, just to get him to shut up.
It had seemed kind of funny at the time, but looking back on it now, he realized it wasn’t funny at all. The euphoric high that kicked in when he snorted that expensive white powder might be making him happy, or at least making him think he was happy, but it was dragging the band down behind him like an anchor tossed over the side of a ship, sinking farther and farther into the depths until it hit the ocean floor with a resounding clunk. Fact was, they were losing gigs. Word got around. Club owners didn’t want to risk their business to a drugged-out singer who might or might not show up for work, a singer who wore Band-Aids across the end of every finger because he had played them down to the bone the night before while on a high that numbed everything from fingertips to brain.
Another problem with meth was that he smoked constantly while on it. It had affected his voice. Did a real number on it, in fact. An occasional cigarette cough in the middle of a lyric was one thing, but when you started bending over the microphone, gagging and spitting and hacking up a lung, the audience tended to notice.
So Woody gave the drugs up for Lent, metaphorically speaking, and he was glad now he had. For one thing, he was still alive. That was a plus. For another thing, as his body gradually tuned itself up again like an engine coughing out the last drops of water from the gas tank, he found he could still, once in a while, find that euphoric state where he lost himself inside the music. It didn’t happen as often now, but it happened.
And it was a blessed relief when it did.
Woody regretfully stubbed out his second Pall Mall—the one habit he could not break, no matter how many times he tried—drained the last drops of beer from his glass, and did a couple of flaps to his trouser leg, trying to speed up the drying process from the beer the dizzy broad had spilt there earlier. Then, after looking down at himself to make sure everything was properly in place, zipper closed, shirt tucked in, no hawks of phlegm on his boot tops, he headed back inside the bar.
Oakland. There seemed to be a whole lot of cowboy wannabe’s in Oakland. Looking out across the dimly lit club was like looking at a Stetson store closing up for the night. Hats everywhere. The name of the club was Diablo’s. He had worked it once, a year or so back. It wasn’t a bad gig. The owner was a decent enough guy who paid nightly without a fuss, and the clientele, although pretty well sloshed at this late hour on Saturday night, were reasonably well behaved. He hadn’t had to duck any flying beer bottles or watch from the stage as the patrons disassembled the place in a drunken brawl, clutching his beloved Gibson to his chest to keep it out of harm’s way as the furniture went sailing past his head, which had happened more than once in other drinking establishments he had been employed in. So on the whole, it had been a good night. A good run.
In a couple of hours, he would crank up the old Chevy Suburban and head south. Maybe stop somewhere along the way to cop a few zees at the side of the road. Find a Laundromat, do his laundry. Pig out on fast food as he drove along, watching the California countryside unfurl before him, carrying him back to the place he was born, the place he had sworn he would never go back to.
He thought of that place now as he climbed the black wooden steps to the stage and settled himself on the barstool behind the two microphones, one for voice and one for guitar. He heard the noise in the crowded bar lower itself by maybe a decibel and a half as the audience turned their faces to him behind the spotlight that always looked, to Woody, like the critical eye of God, appraising him as he worked. There were drunken faces in the audience now, faces a little like his own but still receptive, once again wanting to be taken to that same place Woody always longed for, that place inside the song where mundane reality fell away and euphoria took over.
It was a nice place to be. A nice place to return to. That place inside the song was always safe. Always free from fear.
Unlike home. Unlike San Diego.
Sipping occasionally at another beer, Woody dutifully played his songs and waited for the night to end, dreading the day ahead.
Dreading the trip south.
THE HOUSE Woody grew up in still sat at the end of a dead-end street in an older section of San Diego known as Park Canyon. The area was aptly named, with one great canyon and multiple small ones slashing through the neighborhood, dividing streets, separating one house number from the next by sometimes as much as a mile. The catchphrase in Park Canyon was “never expect hot pizza,” meaning most delivery drivers found themselves lost four or five times, on the average, before they accidentally stumbled on the destination they were shooting for, if they stumbled on it at all. The “under thirty minutes or your pizza is free” rule was automatically cancelled when the phone-in order came from Park Canyon.
Woody had been paying taxes and utility bills on the house for the past ten years, ever since the stabbing deaths of his mother and father in what the police had called a “robbery attempt” of the mom-and-pop store they had owned and managed since before Woody was born. His parents’ murderer had never been found, and this constantly tortured Woody, sometimes causing him to erupt into such impotent bursts of rage it was all he could do to hold onto his reason. But the thought of selling the house he was raised in, the house his parents loved so much, the house he himself had loved so deeply during the years he grew up there, troubled Woody even more. He had no siblings to fight over the property, so the choice he made to do nothing at all about the house after his parents died was an easy one to make. He had sold the store, of course, and that had given him a few grand to get his life rolling, but the house he had left exactly as it was. A time capsule, holding all his memories. Both the good and the bad. But it was the good ones he wished to protect. The bad ones he could live without.
Woody’s grip tightened on the Suburban’s steering wheel at the first sight of the battered Dead End sign perched up ahead at the end of the street. That sign had been there for as long as Woody could remember. His was the last house on the right. Cut into the hillside, it looked like a one-story Craftsman from the street, but at the back, hidden from view by towering plumes of flowering bougainvillea that climbed into the trees and hung heavy from the eaves, the house was two-story. Back there, in an area passersby never saw, was a small lawn bordered by jade plants and roses, and beyond the border the ground plummeted away into the largest of the many canyons that intersected the area. That canyon had been Woody’s playground until his thirteenth year. After that, he never entered it again.
The house on Highview Lane was surrounded by others like it. Built back in the forties, the homes were a little worse for wear but maintained as well as could be expected, considering the fact that most of the people living on the street were older now. Looking at it as he drove up, Woody could see no signs of children anywhere. No bicycles or skateboards dropped carelessly on lawns. No tires hanging from tree limbs like the ones that were popular when he was a kid. No tree houses, no sound of children’s laughter rising up from the canyon beside the house where Woody and his friends had played that summer so long ago, back when Woody’s body was beginning to change, when manhood was a concept he was just beginning to understand. It was during the summer of Woody’s thirteenth year when the horror actually raised its head from the canyon for the first time. It screamed out its fury at the young interlopers who were trespassing on its territory, disturbing its sleep, causing it to waken, causing it to unsheathe its claws and reach out with gnarled, grasping fingers, and in doing so, giving Woody, and maybe his friends too, something to trouble their dreams for a lifetime to come.
Woody wondered, not for the first time, what had become of those friends he had been so close to that long-ago summer. Cathy. Jeremy. Chuck. And Bobby, of course. Just names now. The faces he remembered would not be the faces they wore today. Except for Bobby, they would be all grown up now, like him. All grown up and probably as far away from this place as their adult lives could carry them. Only he would be dumb enough to return here after everything that had happened, he thought. Jeez, he must be nuts.
Woody parked his Suburban on the macadam driveway and stared at the house for the first time in a decade. It didn’t look too bad, actually. The two ancient palm trees, one at either side of the front porch, were still there, reminding Woody, as they had when he was a child, of towering masts flanking a sail-less ship. The yard had been kept up by a gardener Woody paid once a month by mail, and if the windows were dirty and the paint on the stucco had faded to a rather bilious olive color, which wasn’t at all the cheerful seafoam green he remembered, at least the place was standing. Familiar curtains still hung in the windows, limp now with age, deceiving strangers as to the house’s vacancy, and neighbors had kept a continual eye on the place for him without his requesting them to. His parents had been very popular in the neighborhood, probably because of their willingness to extend credit to those finding themselves a little short in the purse when it came time to buy family groceries at the end of every working month. Upon their deaths, many of those neighbors had come forward at the funeral to press an envelope of money into Woody’s hands, paying as much as they could on their outstanding debt to help the boy, not yet twenty, through his grieving period and give him a better start on his own life, a start which his parents were no longer there to help him with.
Woody could have given that start a considerable boost by selling the property his parents maintained with such love through all the years of his growing up, but he could never quite bring himself to do it. It was not a matter of thinking he might one day return here to live in the house. That was something he never intended to do. Ever. For with all the wonderful memories still living like silent tenants inside the house, it also harbored other memories, memories he spent every waking hour of his adult life trying to forget. It was not so much the house that bore these memories to Woody, but the neighborhood. The sloping hills. The sage- and juniper-padded canyons.
He climbed from the Suburban and walked to the front porch, where he paused to take in the view to the south: the Mexican hills surrounding Tijuana, hazy in the distance. Memories flooded through him as he stood there, looking out across the sun-drenched vista spread out before him. It was a vista he remembered so well as seen through much younger eyes than the ones he looked through now.
God, Woody was suddenly so inundated with memories he could barely contain them all. He had always tried to keep those memories buried, hidden away from himself, stashed away in the darkest cellars of his mind, where he hoped they would languish, forgotten, never to see the light of day again. But he could feel them now, trying to claw their way out of the shadows—trying to gain a foothold on his consciousness. If those fears were allowed to show themselves, Woody knew, they would unleash a flood of terror he had spent a lifetime trying to lose inside his music.
Simply looking at the house now forced the truth to well up in Woody’s mind. His fears were not buried at all. They never had been. They were still waiting for him, right here where he’d left them. On Highview Lane. House number 3436. The house of his childhood. The place where he had once learned what fear was all about, and the place he had been running from ever since. Until today.
He slipped the long-unused key into the front door and entered a different world. Stepping from sunlight into shadow, he could almost smell his mother’s bread pudding bubbling in the oven. Could almost hear Lucy and Ricky going at it in reruns on the old RCA TV in the living room. Could almost hear his father calling out from the back bedroom, wondering where the hell his clean socks were. Could almost see his mother coming out to greet a thirteen-year-old Woody as he plodded in from school, his book bag dangling from one arm and his battered skateboard tucked under the other. Giving him a gentle peck on the cheek, ruffling his hair, telling him he needed a haircut, telling him to go wash up, dinner would be ready soon. Asking him how his day went. Making him feel loved and safe and home. Like she did every day of her life.
Woody propped his Gibson inside the front door. He would bring in the rest of his stuff later. For the moment, he stood in the doorway and breathed in the smell of the house. It smelled just as he remembered it. The air was a little staler perhaps, the place having been shut up for so long, but the aromas inside the house were even now, after all these years, as familiar to him as the scent of his own skin.
Everything had been left in situ, as archaeologists were fond of saying. The furniture still placed exactly as he remembered it. The long sofa against the far wall, his father’s brown recliner set at an angle at the end of it. His mother’s piano parked in the corner by the picture window where she would sometimes look out on the street as she played. The old spinet still sprouted a growth of framed snapshots across the top, like those pictures you used to see of some homesteader’s shelter in the Old West, built into a prairie hillside with maybe a garden or a few stalks of corn shooting up from the roof. The fireplace, long bereft of fire, looked dusty and forlorn, desperately in need of a good cleaning. In fact, the whole house needed a good cleaning. Dust was everywhere, sprinkled across the furniture like powdered sugar on a baker’s tray of goodies. His mother would have had a conniption fit if she saw the house looking this way.
In her day it had been kept spotless. Squeaky clean. The windows gleaming. The furniture polished. The carpets vacuumed daily. Everything in the exact same place it had been the day, the week, the year before.
A surge of sadness threatened to bring tears to Woody’s eyes, thinking of his mother slaving away inside this house for the better part of her adult life. But she had enjoyed it, that was the funny thing. Go figure. Woody never quite understood it. It was like she was born to clean and loved every minute she spent with a rag in one hand and a bottle of 409 in the other, cleaning everything that didn’t clean her first, as his father used to say.
What the hell was he doing here anyway, Woody thought, clearing the emotion from his throat. He could stay in a motel somewhere. He had money. Not a lot, but enough for that. Seemed kind of silly, though, wasting money on a motel when he had free lodgings right here at his fingertips. He didn’t have to start the gig until tomorrow night, and he supposed he’d be spending every minute of his time between now and then making the house livable. He wasn’t a clean freak like his mother, but he sure couldn’t live in the place the way it was.
He took a peek down the long, dimly lit hallway and could almost hear Willie Nelson moaning out the lyrics of one of his old tunes from the Motorola radio that used to sit in Woody’s old room, the nasal twang of Willie’s voice echoing sweetly through the shadows of time and memory. “Turn that blasted thing down,” Woody’s mother used to rail. “I can’t hear myself think!” But he never did, and she never seemed to mind.
Woody approached his room now, wondering if it would look the way he remembered it. The Batman bedspread. Posters of X-Men on the wall. Storm was his favorite. She was hot, with her snow-white hair and a body to die for. Woody used to wonder why real women never looked like that. He made the mistake of asking Cathy once, and he could still remember her rolling her eyes like he was a first class nimrod and telling him real women weren’t “drawn, stupid.”
Good old Cathy. He wondered where she was now. Wondered, too, if she still wore those heavy red pigtails dangling off either side of her head. Probably not. Now she probably had a spiky new do with a few streaks of blonde scattered through it like every other young woman on the planet. Too bad. He used to like watching those pigtails swing around her head when she spun quickly, or bounce up and down like Slinkys when she was pedaling her Sting-ray bike, trying, as always, to keep up with the guys, or better yet, outdo them completely.
She was one of the guys, actually. As tough as a cob, and if mad, as apt to swing a left hook as the rest of them. Until the summer of her thirteenth year, at least. After that, she wasn’t quite as tough. Or as fearless. None of them were. That summer changed them all one way or another. Things were never the same after that.
Woody peered around the doorway of his old bedroom and couldn’t believe his eyes. Everything was exactly the way he had left it. NASCAR, he remembered now, had replaced Batman on the bedspread along about his fifteenth year, and there it still was, a little faded, a little musty smelling, but still the same old red NASCAR spread he had conned his mother into buying for him after explaining to her that he was almost a man now, for God’s sake, and Batman was for kids. “God help us when you get your driver’s license,” his mother had said, but she bought him the bedspread anyway. And curtains to match. They still hung on the windows overlooking the canyon.
Woody stepped to the window and gazed out. The backyard looked just as he remembered it. The grass had been recently mown. The roses on the verge of the canyon were properly manicured, adding a riotous touch of color to the landscape. The flagstone path that meandered through the lawn was neatly swept. His old swing still hung from the jacaranda tree in the corner, but the bare patch of earth under the swing, scraped raw over the years by sliding tennis shoes, had been gradually filled in by the encroaching grass until now the lawn beneath it looked as pristine as it had the day the swing was strung up by his father. It was as if nature had erased all memory of the time Woody had spent there, contentedly swinging back and forth, dragging his feet across the ground, chewing Baby Ruths and contemplating his young existence.
Before his eyes could be drawn farther out, past the lawn toward the depths of the canyon, he turned away from the window and, as an afterthought, drew the curtains closed behind him. Still, in a corner of his mind, deep down in a place where nature had not encroached, he heard the voices of the twins, Jeremy and Chuck, yelling out to him yet again from the stand of willow trees deep in the canyon, their voices practically squeaking with fear. “Jesus, Woody, look at the blood! It’s everywhere!”
Then he heard another voice. A voice from the darkness of a summer night long ago. A voice he had once heard in this very room. A calmer voice. A whisper so filled with longing that even now, it tore at his heart like a knife. “Touch me, Woody. Touch me like I’m touching you.”
Woody closed his eyes to that memory. Trying to squeeze those voices, those echoes, from his mind was like squeezing pus from a wound. But even as they faded in the distance, he knew they were not really gone. They would be back. They always came back. Closing a curtain wouldn’t keep those voices out. And closing his eyes only made the voices louder. The trick was to concentrate on something else. Like cleaning. How many hours had he spent polishing his Gibson, or scrubbing the Suburban, or straightening motel rooms before the maid got there, in his attempt to make those voices, those memories, go away? How many times had he stood in front of a mirror and cut his own hair, usually botching it up pretty good in the process, just to have something to do to tear his mind away from the past?
For the first time, standing in his old room, standing in this place he thought he would never see again, he wondered if maybe that was why his mother would lose herself so completely in the job of keeping this house spotless. Was she trying to escape memories of her own? Did she have fears, or regrets, or true terrors of her own that only the reek of Pine-Sol could wash from her mind? Did her cleaning truly make her happy, or like himself, did it merely keep her sane? Had she known of the horrors surrounding this house, this neighborhood? Surely not. If she had, she would never have let her young son set a foot outside the door.
Shaking his head, trying to clear his mind like an Etch-a-Sketch, he strode purposely from his childhood room and headed for the door that led from the kitchen to the garage. The cleaning supplies were there, or had been once. Maybe they still were. Time to get the house in order. He was here. He might as well stay. He would clean away the cobwebs and the dust and open the windows to air out the miasma of all the empty years, and then he would go to the old market and pick up some groceries and beer. He wondered if Mr. Mendoza still owned the place. Woody remembered how the man had come to his door on the morning after his parents’ funeral, hat in hand, offering condolences, and offering money too. Money for the business. Money that Woody had pretty well gone through by now, but money that, at the time, had been sorely needed. Woody had named a price, and the old Mexican gentleman had whipped out a checkbook and paid him in full. And just like that, a part of Woody’s past had been no longer his own.
Amid the solid clatter of his boot heels on the three concrete steps that led from the kitchen to the garage, worn smooth by a million footsteps over the years, Woody all but clutched his chest and gasped at the sight of his father’s old Fairlane sitting there. God, he had forgotten the car was still here. Old, even when Woody was young, the car had survived the ages almost unscathed thanks to Woody’s dad’s tender care. Woody had not sold the car after the funerals, thinking, he supposed, it might come in handy at some time or other. And here it still sat. Woody tested the driver’s side door to see if it was locked, but of course it wasn’t. He eased himself onto the wide bench seat and saw the keys still hanging in the ignition, right where he had left them after driving the car from the store that day after the police had gone. With a hand that seemed to be trembling, Woody turned the key and was met with total silence. The battery was as dead as Caesar, and why wouldn’t it be? He sat there for a moment in the silence and ran his fingers over the dashboard, thinking of the many times his father had driven him and his friends to the library, to the movies, to the park where they would play until dark, until he returned, hours later, cheerfully blasting his horn, to pick them up.
Woody thought of the way his father sometimes, if the traffic was light, let him snuggle up beside him and steer the monstrous Fairlane down the city streets while his dad worked the pedals. He could still remember the feel of his small hands on the wheel and the car’s rumbling power beneath them. Remembered craning his neck to see above the dashboard while his father draped one arm across his shoulders and let the other rest, bent, in the open window beside him. Remembered, too, the comforting smell of his father’s warm body so close to his, the homey mixture of spearmint gum, tobacco, and Old Spice cologne. Scents that would forever remind Woody of the man who raised him with such love. With such gentle kindness.
It was his father, he remembered now, who had bought him his first guitar. His mother had spent hours with him as Woody sat nailed in misery and guilt to the bench beside her, trying to teach him piano, but much to her disappointment, his heart was never in it. His father had seen the boy’s anguish, taken pity on him, and bought him the guitar instead. He had taken to it like a duck takes to water, his father always said, and even his mother had to agree. They paid for lessons from a man down the street, and Woody had gone faithfully to those lessons every Saturday afternoon for more than two years, until the day the man, Mr. Peters his name was, told him there was nothing more he could teach him. The man had taken the last payment of five dollars from Woody’s hand, wished the boy a terse “good day,” closed his front door behind him, and Woody never saw Mr. Peters again. He found out later the man had died shortly after that. Cancer, his mother said. He had been sick a long time. Woody still wondered if the lessons had stopped because the man wasn’t up to teaching him anymore, or if he truly had learned everything the man had known about guitar. It was one of those questions in life that would never be answered.
Now, approaching thirty, Woody had begun to realize that life dealt out a lot of unanswered questions. Questions that simply would never be answered, no matter how much you fumed and fussed and fretted over them.
Woody stepped from the car, ran a hand lovingly along the sill of the door, and heard the solid, satisfying clunk of it slamming shut. Maybe while he was here he would get the Fairlane running again. Take it out for a spin around the neighborhood. Burn out the kinks. His father would like that, if he was still looking down from whichever celestial plane his murderer had sent him to.
The garage was stifling hot on this summer day and stuffy from being closed up so long. Woody released the simple hook and eye that held the garage door closed and peeled it up into the ceiling, creaking and groaning, to let the air and sunlight stream in for the first time in a decade, replacing the past with the present. Airing out the memories. Shedding light on the darkness of old hurts.
Illuminating Eagle, leaning against the wall in the corner.
His old bike. Woody stood there in the breeze blowing up from the canyon, staring at it with a smile creeping across his face. How many hours had he spent perched high on Eagle’s seat, feeling the wind in his hair and the sun at his back, as his bike carried him to all the places his childhood led him? It had been a damn good bike. A Cannondale. His father and mother had bought it for him on his ninth birthday. It had taken a couple of years for his body to grow into the 26-inch racer, but when it did, he and the bike became inseparable. He had named her Eagle because she could fly, dammit! She could really fly! Cherry red and as sleek as a bird of prey, she had sped him down these neighborhood streets like a steed carrying its warring master into battle. Always faithful. Always there. Always ready for the next adventure.
She had even saved his life once. And not only his life, but Chuck’s too, back on the day when the evil in the canyon had reached out to snatch them both from this world, as Woody’s father had been snatched from it years later. He still remembered Chuck’s arms around his waist, holding on for dear life, practically squeezing Woody’s guts up into his throat. Remembered Chuck screaming into his ear, into the wind, “Faster! Go faster!” as desperate, running footsteps rattled the gravel behind them and cruel fingers strove to reach out to pull them from their seats and tear their young bodies to shreds.
The evil had taken human form that day, if you wanted to call it human. Jesus, he and Chuck were both screaming their heads off by the time the Cannondale bounced out of the canyon and onto Juniper Street. But they had made it. The evil did not leave the canyon, and they had known somehow it wouldn’t. When they realized they were safe, that scrabbling fingers and slavering fangs were no longer reaching out behind them, groping and snapping, eager to rip them off the bike and snatch their lives away, they had howled with joy. Their victorious young voices rang bright in the summer twilight, echoing off the houses, sailing down the street. The sound of simple childish laughter that had only moments before been screams of horror.
They had turned then, with Woody still pumping the pedals like a madman and Chuck still all but strangling him, trying to hang on, as the summer-hot asphalt hummed beneath their wheels. Still screaming, in jubilation now instead of fear, they yelled taunts at the terror that no longer pursued them. And in the distance on that day, from somewhere among the sage and juniper and willow trees that stood like proud sentinels at the base of the canyon, they had heard laughter. A wicked gurgle of sound that once again burned fear into their hearts. But for the moment, they knew they were safe.
Chuck and Woody had gone to their separate homes that night, watched TV with their parents as if nothing strange had happened during the course of the day, and later they had climbed into their beds alone, far away from the comfort of each other, and only then did the terror once again raise its head to bring the darkness crashing down around them like cold black water settling over a drowning man.
Woody wondered now why neither he nor his friends had ever gone to their parents with the news that an evil presence stalked the neighborhood; that a demon lurked in the canyon, waiting to pounce from the underbrush and drag their screaming bodies into oblivion. None of their parents would have believed them, of course, because somehow Woody and his pals knew, as well as they knew their times tables, that the horror was never meant to be seen by adult eyes, was never meant to be grasped by adult minds. The terror was real enough, no two ways around that. But it was real only to them. Which didn’t mean it couldn’t still kill you deader than snake shit. It wasn’t their fault there was too much reality in an adult mind to see it, that something about mortgages and paychecks and the rote of daily grown-up living could block out childish visions. And it sure as hell brought Woody and his friends closer together, knowing the danger was directed toward them alone. In battling their fear, they had no one to turn to but each other, and this made them a unit.
Never again would Woody be as close to anyone as he had been to his friends on that hot, hot summer of his thirteenth year when all hell broke loose and fear was no longer something you caught a glimpse of on a movie screen, but a real live rampaging beast, all fangs and snapping jaws and a mind gnawed by malice and madness that was just as goddamn real as you were.
Poor Eagle. She was looking fairly pathetic these days. Her tires were flat, one of her spokes had popped out of the rim, and she was covered with the same patina of grimy dust as everything in the house. A clothespin was still clamped to the frame beside the back wheel but the Bicycle playing card it once held against the spokes had at some time during the course of the ensuing years drifted to the floor. It had all been illusion, of course, but that playing card had given a pretty good semblance of motorized speed when it bbrapped against the spokes, especially when Eagle was fairly flying beneath him. Woody picked the card up now and looked at it. The ace of spades.
Shit. That wasn’t a good sign.
He let it fall from his fingers and, pushing all thoughts of Eagle and that long-ago summer from his mind, continued his search for cleaning supplies, occasionally turning a leery eye to that ace of spades lying on the garage floor.
He found everything he needed, and after peeling off his sweat-stained shirt and tossing it into a corner, Woody walked back through the kitchen door and set about the awesome task of making the house livable.
As always, the act of cleaning cleared his mind. By the time he finished three hours later, he was surprised to hear himself humming. There might even have been a smile on his face as he looked around at the place, freed now from the residue of ten empty years. Once again, the furniture shone. With all the windows open, the stale air had been swept away, leaving behind only the comforting smells of Lemon Pledge and Comet and the sweet scent of roses wafting in through the back bedroom window, as it had in the days of his childhood.
In his parents’ bedroom, he even imagined a whiff of his mother’s favorite perfume, White Shoulders, reaching out across the years to comfort him. But it was just his imagination, of course. It had to be. There was nothing left of his mother inside this house now but her memory.
Yet somehow, at the moment, memory seemed to be enough.
AT SOME point between then and now, while Woody’s youthful dreams were settling into stark realities, his father’s old store had undergone a change of its own. STILES MARKET was no longer painted on the wall above the front door. Now, high above the street, in Day-Glo neon, it proclaimed itself to be JAYCEES. Woody didn’t know what the hell “Jaycees” was supposed to mean, but it certainly wasn’t the store he remembered. As much as he hated to admit it, the place looked considerably better than it had when his father ran it. It even boasted a butcher shop now, according to the sign, something his father had often talked about but never seemed to find the time or money to initiate.
Woody wasn’t more than two steps inside the front door when Mr. Mendoza, considerably heavier now than he was ten years ago, as if maybe he had been hanging around the potato chip aisle too long, came out of nowhere and started pumping Woody’s hand up and down for all of two full minutes while, in his melodic Hispanic accent, he welcomed Woody back to the neighborhood. He dragged Woody through the store, proudly pointing out all the changes he had made over the years. He had added not only a butcher shop, but also beer and wine and a separate little pharmacy area, and the back of the store had been extended out another ten feet. While Mr. Mendoza was obviously proud of the improvements, Woody thought something had been lost in the renovation. It took him a moment to put his finger on what it was, exactly, that was lost, but when he did, he summed it up in one word. Heart.
Jaycee’s was no longer a simple mom-and-pop store, where people could come not only to shop, but to chat. To visit. To show off their kids and gab about the weather. Now, between the electronic scanners at the checkout counters, the sterile, air-conditioned air, and the efficiently laid out aisles, there was only a sense of commerce. All personality had been swept away. Now the place felt like every other supermarket Woody had ever walked through. Cold, impersonal, and slightly desperate in its desire to lure every shopping dollar from the pocket of every patron that was sucked through the automatic front doors. Woody couldn’t imagine any one of these check-out girls in their crisp yellow uniforms reaching out to the customer with a comforting hand and saying, as he once heard his father say, “That’s okay, Mrs. Chen. Pay me when you can. I’ll not go out of business over a pound of bacon and a dozen eggs.”
Mr. Mendoza seemed to sense Woody’s disappointment.
“Times change, hey, son? The days of the little store are over. Now we have to compete with the big boys up the street. If your papa was still here, he would understand.”
And Woody supposed he would. Business was business.
With a final handshake, Mr. Mendoza scurried off to the front of the store, where one of the clerks was screaming over the screeching intercom for a price check on disposable diapers, and Woody set off in search of what he needed. He gathered up enough food to last a few days, grabbed a 12-pack of beer from the massive cooler on the back wall, and after paying for his purchases with a MasterCard, he headed back out into the California twilight.
Away from the store, away from a past that had already left him far behind, Woody steered the Suburban along the old neighborhood streets, and here, in the growing darkness of evening, he felt more at peace. On the surface, the neighborhood hadn’t changed that much. Every house was still familiar to Woody. Even the faces of some of the people he saw meandering along the sidewalks tugged at his memory. They were older faces now, but, like the houses, still familiar. He knew if he put his mind to it he would be able to add a few names to those faces, but he didn’t really try. It was enough to know everything hadn’t changed while he had been away.
As he drove down Juniper Street, approaching his turnoff on Highview Lane, he pointed out to himself every house where his friends had lived that summer. The twins, Chuck and Jeremy, in that white monstrosity on the corner. Cathy in the house right next to it with the three lean cypress trees towering at the edge of the lawn. Those trees always seemed to be swaying, whether there was a breeze or not, as if trying to keep their precarious balance on the planet. And on Highview after he made the turn, only two blocks down from his own, was Bobby’s house.
Good old Bobby. He had been battling his own demons back then. With alcoholic parents who seemed to be at each other’s throats from the moment they woke up in the morning, day after day after day, Bobby had spent as many nights in Woody’s house as he had ever spent in his own. They were almost brothers, him and Bobby. Even Woody’s mother had said so. She would have been shocked out of her socks to learn that he and Bobby had become considerably more than brothers during that summer of their thirteenth year, when puberty raised its ugly head and brought them closer together than they could ever have imagined. Woody still wondered at times, when sadness and memory combined to take him to that place he was always trying to escape, if he and Bobby would still be together today in the way they had been that long-ago summer.
The summer Bobby would not survive.
That summer, awakening manhood and all the rampaging desires that came with it were suddenly replaced by grief and outrage and a sense of loss so stunning it all but swept Woody away in its wake.
Woody’s parents had tried to comfort him through the aftermath of Bobby’s death, explaining to him that sometimes the world was a cruel place to live, where death sometimes reached out and snatched away even the youngest, the most promising. But there was no way for them to know it was not only the loss of friendship Woody mourned that summer, but the loss of so much more. Woody and Bobby had stirred truths in each other that transcended friendship. Love had been born that summer, and as quickly taken away. And Woody still, sixteen years later, ached with the loss of it.
By the time Woody was once again parked outside his parents’ house—he would never think of it as his own, only theirs—his sadness had crashed down around him like a pall. Again and again he was forced to swallow the emotion that threatened to spill out of him, blinking back tears as he stowed the groceries in the kitchen. A weariness of body unlike any he had ever known made him long for sleep, but he knew mere sleep wouldn’t be enough to still the memories. It never was.
He popped a beer and carried it through the darkening house, sipping as he went, surveying all the work he had done during the afternoon, trying to think of himself as the sole proprietor of this fairly expensive piece of California real estate, this house that after only a few hours of cleaning was once again as he remembered it. But in every room, through every shadowed doorway, the sound of his parents’ absence rang out like an empty echo.
This was no longer his home. He was an interloper, trespassing on the past, intruding into a place that was no longer meant to feel his presence.
And as he sat in the darkness in his father’s recliner, drinking his second, and then third, beer, he felt the deepening night outside pressing against the walls, weighing heavily on the roof over his head, gnawing away at the stucco and tile. In his imagination, he could feel the darkness trying to worm its way into his very heart, bringing with it all the memories he had desperately tried to keep at bay for so many years.
But with the fourth beer, Woody’s memories abated. His fear, and much of his sadness, left him. Alcohol, like music, could sometimes take him to a place where old hurts couldn’t enter, and he was grateful for the comforting emptiness it brought him once again.
A full moon now softened the darkness inside the house with tinges of blue. Through the windows, that big fat moon watched Woody roam from room to room, following along behind him like a trailing spotlight, illuminating his footsteps, dispelling the shadows that, without the beer inside him, might have sent him running from the house forever.
Woody stepped through the back door and felt the night breeze on his face. He could hear soft wind rustling the willows down in the canyon, stirring up the smell of sage and honeysuckle and flowering cactus as well. Scents Woody remembered clearly from his youth. How many times had he stood here with his father, watching the sun set and the moon rise, both at the same time? An anomaly of nature, his father once told him, that some people in other parts of the world never got a chance to witness.
Woody awkwardly slipped his adult body into his childhood swing beneath the jacaranda tree. He could smell its blossoms overhead. In daylight those blossoms were a beautiful blue, as deep as an evening sky. In darkness they were only a scent, invisible to the eye, lost in the evening shadows. The swing creaked beneath his weight. What should have been smooth earth beneath him, but was now grass regrown after his years of absence, felt strange and out of place under his feet.
He pushed himself into a lazy arc, gently swinging back and forth in the darkness. The weight and motion of his body brought a gentle fall of jacaranda blossoms raining down around him as his hands clutched the rusted chains that held him in place.
Woody closed his eyes and, as he had as a child, imagined himself in flight. He was a hawk, soaring high above the canyon, looking down on the world splayed out beneath him, surveying this dominion that was his and his alone.
The wind on his face blew away the years, the soothing motions of the swing rocked away his fears, and once again he was thirteen, with Keds on his feet and patches his mother had sewn on the knees of his jeans. It was the beginning of summer vacation. With nothing but freedom staring him in the face for the next three months, Woody thought of all the ways he and his friends would spend their time. Movies. Bike rides. Days at the park, wandering through the museums, exploring the zoo. The possibilities were endless. With no schoolwork to worry about, his days would be filled with only laughter and adventure and the comfort of good friends.
In the moonlight now, years away from that last remarkable summer, a smile lit Woody’s face as he sat swinging in the cool night air. The beer inside him smoothed out the rough edges of memory he didn’t wish to see.
But the other memories, the good memories, were scooped up in his hawk’s talons and carried to that private place where he always kept them neatly laid out, on display, ready to be sorted through and savored whenever the mood took him, like favorite pieces of art or well-loved books.
Jacaranda blossoms continued to drift down around him, shaken from the tree by the weight of his swinging body. They brushed his face in the darkness with the softness of butterfly wings as his mind carried him back to his thirteenth summer.
The summer of best friends and days that never lasted quite long enough. Days when laughter rang through these canyons like crystal bells, until the terror started. When even the nights in the midst of that terror were filled with wonders that pushed the horror of the Willow Man away, at least for a little while.
Nights with Bobby.
They had come together so slowly, he and Bobby. He wondered now how it had all begun. And then he remembered. It was the first week of vacation. Summer lay before them all like an endless, unknown road, waiting to be explored. Cathy, Chuck and Jeremy, and he and Bobby had all stepped fearlessly onto that road and been swept away to a destination that, but for the innocence of youth, might have destroyed them all.
As it was, it destroyed only one. But that came later.
It was the beginning of their journey together that Woody remembered now. Not just him and Bobby, but all of them. It began with the bones Cathy found among the willows. Human bones. Woody still remembered how they shone like porcelain in the sunlight.
They were almost… beautiful.