Are you ready?
“Huh?” Michael Perrin twitched in his sleep. An uncertain number of tall white forms stood around his bed, merging with the walls, the dresser, the bookcases and easels.
He’s not very impressive.
Michael rolled over and rubbed his nose. His short sandy hair tousled up against his pillow. His thick feathery red eyebrows pulled together as if in minor irritation, but his eyes stayed shut.
Look deeper. Several of the forms bent over him.
He’s only a man-child.
Yet he has the hallmark.
What’s that? Throwing his talents in all directions instead of concentrating? Never quite able to make up his mind what he is going to be? A ghostly arm waved at the easels and bookcases, at the desk swamped with ragged-edged notebooks, chewed pencils, and scraps of paper.
Indeed. That is the hallmark, or one of—
The alarm clock went off with a hideous buzz. Michael jerked upright in bed and slapped his hand over the cutoff switch, hoping his parents hadn’t heard. He sleepily regarded the glowing green numbers: twelve-thirty in the morning. He picked up his watch to check. “Damn.” The clock was eight minutes late. He only had twenty-two minutes.
He rolled out of bed, kicking a book of Yeats’ poems across the floor with one bare foot. He swore under his breath and felt for his pants. The only light he dared use was the Tensor lamp on his desk. He pushed aside the portable typewriter to let the concentrated glow spread farther and spilled a stack of paperbacks on the floor. Bending over to pick them up, he smacked his head on the edge of the desk.
Teeth clenched, Michael grabbed his pants from the back of the chair and slipped them on. One leg on and the other stuck halfway, he lost balance and steadied himself by pushing against the wall.
His fingers brushed a framed print hung slightly off balance against the lines and flowers of the wallpaper. He squinted at the print—a Bonestell rendition of Saturn seen from one of its closer moons. His head throbbed.
A tall, slender figure was walking across the print’s cratered moonscape. He blinked. The figure turned and regarded him as if from a considerable distance, then motioned for him to follow. He scrunched his eyes shut, and when he opened them again, the figure had vanished. “Christ,” he said softly. “I’m not even awake yet.”
He buckled his belt and donned his favorite shirt, a short-sleeved brown pullover with a V-neck. Socks, gray Hush Puppies and tan nylon windbreaker completed the ensemble. But he was forgetting something.
He stood in the middle of the room, trying to remember, when his eyes lit on a small book bound in glossy black leather. He picked it up and stuffed it in his jacket pocket, zipping the pocket shut. He dug in his pants pocket for the note, found it folded neatly next to the keyholder, and glanced at his watch again. Twelve-forty-five.
He had fifteen minutes.
He trod softly down the wall-edge of the stairs, avoiding most of the squeaks, and ran to the front door. The living room was black except for the digital display on the video recorder. Twelve forty-seven, it said.
He opened and closed the door swiftly and ran across the lawn. The neighborhood streetlights had been converted to sodium-vapor bulbs that cast a sour orange glow over the grass and sidewalk. Michael’s shadow marched ahead, growing huge before it vanished in the glare of the next light. The orange emphasized the midnight-blue of the sky, dulling the stars.
Four blocks south, the orange lights ended and traditional streetlamps on concrete posts took over. His father said those lights went back to the 1920s and were priceless. They had been installed when the neighborhood houses had first been built; back then, they had stood on a fancy country road, where movie stars and railroad magnates had come to get away from it all.
The houses were imposing at night. Spanish-style white plaster and stucco dominated, some two stories tall with enclosures over the side driveways. Others were woodsy, shake shingles on walls and roofs, with narrow frame windows staring darkly out of dormers.
All the houses were dark. It was easy to imagine the street was a movie set, with nothing behind the walls but hollowness and crickets.
Twelve fifty-eight. He crossed the last intersection and turned to face his destination. Four houses down and on the opposite side of the street was the white plaster single-story home of David Clarkham. It had been deserted for over forty years, yet its lawns were immaculately groomed, hedges trimmed, stucco walls spotless, and Spanish wood beams unfaded. Drawn curtains in the tall arched windows hid only emptiness—or so it was reasonable to assume. Being reasonable hadn’t brought him here, however.
For all he knew, the house could be crammed with all manner of things...incredible, unpleasant things.
He stood beneath the moon-colored streetlight, in the shadow of a tall, brown-leafed maple, folding and unfolding the paper in his pants pocket with one sweaty hand.
One o’clock in the morning. He wasn’t dressed for adventure. He had the instructions, the book and the leather keyholder with its one old brass key; what he lacked was conviction.
It was a silly decision to have to make. The world was sane; such opportunities didn’t present themselves. He withdrew the paper and read it for the hundredth time:
“Use the key to enter the front door. Do not linger. Pass through the house, through the back door and through the side gate to the front door of the neighboring house on the left, as you face the houses. The door to that house will be open. Enter. Do not stop to look at anything. Surely, quickly, make your way to the back of the house, through the back door again, and across the rear yard to the wrought-iron gate. Go through the gate and turn to your left. The alley behind the house will take you past many gates on both sides. Enter the sixth gate on your left.”
He folded the note and replaced it. What would his parents think, seeing him here, contemplating breaking and entering—or, at the very least, entering without breaking?
“There comes a time,” Arno Waltiri had said, “when one must disregard the thoughts of one’s parents, or the warnings of old men; when caution must be put temporarily aside and instincts followed. In short, when one must rely on one’s own judgment...”
Michael’s parents gave parties renowned throughout the city. Michael had met the elderly composer Waltiri and his wife, Golda, at one such party in June. The party celebrated the Equinox. (“Late,” his mother explained, “because nothing we do is prompt.”) Michael’s father was a carpenter with a reputation for making fine furniture; he had a wide clientele among the rich and glamorous folk of Los Angeles, and Waltiri had commissioned him to make a new bench for his fifty-year-old piano.
Michael had stayed downstairs for the first hour of the party, wandering through the crowd and sipping a bottle of beer. He listened in while the heavily bearded, gray-haired captain of an ocean liner told a young stage actress of his perilous adventures during World War II, “on convoy in the Western Ocean.” Michael’s attention was evenly divided between them; his breath seemed to shorten, the woman was so beautiful, and he’d always been interested in ships and the sea. When the captain put an arm around the actress and stopped talking of things nautical, Michael moved on. He sat in a folding chair near a noisy group of newspaper people.
Journalists irritated Michael. They came in large numbers to his parents’ parties. They were brash and drank a lot and postured and talked more about politics than writing. When their conversation turned to literature (which was seldom), it seemed all they had ever read was Raymond Chandler or Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Michael tried to interject a few words about poetry, but the conversation stopped dead and he moved on again.
The rest of the party was taken up by a councilman and his entourage, a few businessmen, and the neighbors, so Michael selected a reserve supply of hors d’oeuvres and carried the plate upstairs to his room.
He closed the door and switched on the TV, then sat at his small desk—which he was rapidly outgrowing—and pulled a sheaf of poems from the upper drawer.
Music pounded faintly through the floor. They were dancing.
He found the poem he had written that morning and read it over, frowning. Yet another in a long line of bad Yeats imitations. He was trying to compress the experiences of a senior in high school into romantic verse, and it wasn’t working.
Disgusted, he returned the poems to the drawer and poked through the TV channels until he found an old Humphrey Bogart movie. He’d seen it before; Bogart was having woman trouble with Barbara Stanwyck.
Michael’s troubles with women had been limited to stuffing love poems into a girl’s locker. She had caught him doing it and laughed at him.
There was a soft tap on his door. “Michael?” It was his father.
“You receiving visitors?”
“Sure.” He opened the door. His father came in first, slightly drunk, and motioned for an old, white-haired man to follow.
“Mike, this is Arno Waltiri, composer. Arno, my son, the poet.”
Waltiri shook Michael’s hand solemnly. His nose was straight and thin and his lips were full and young-looking. His grip was strong but not painful. “We are not intruding, I hope?” His accent was indefinite middle-European, faded from years in California.
“Not at all,” Michael said. He felt a little awkward. His grandparents had died before he was born. He wasn’t used to old people.
Waltiri examined the prints and posters arranged on the walls. He paused before the print of Saturn, glanced at Michael, and nodded. He turned to a framed magazine cover showing insect-like creatures dancing on a beach near wave-washed rocks and smiled. “Max Ernst,” he said. His voice was a soft rumble. “You like to visit strange places.”
Michael muttered something about never having been anywhere strange.
“He wants to be a poet,” his father said, pointing to the bookcases lining the walls. “A packrat. Keeps everything he’s read.”
Waltiri regarded the television with a critical eye. Bogart painstakingly explained a delicate matter to Stanwyck. “I wrote the score for that one,” he said, lips pursed.
Michael brightened immediately. He didn’t have much money for records—he spent most of his allowance and summer earnings on books—but he did have a Bee Gees album, a Ricky Lee Jones concert double, and the soundtrack albums for the original King Kong, Star Wars and Citizen Kane. “You did? When was that?”
“Nineteen-forty,” Waltiri said. “So long ago, now, but seems much closer. I scored over two hundred films before I retired.” Waltiri sighed and turned to Michael’s father. “Your son is very diverse in his interests.”
Waltiri’s hands were strong and broad-fingered, Michael noticed, and his clothing was well-tailored and simple. His slate-gray eyes seemed young. The most unusual thing about him was his teeth, like gray ivory.
“Ruth would like for him to study law,” his father said, grinning. “I hear poets don’t make much of a living. Still, it beats wanting to be a rock star.”
Waltiri shrugged. “Rock star isn’t so bad.” He put a hand on Michael’s shoulder. Usually Michael resented such familiarities, but not this time. “I like impractical people, people who are willing to rely only on themselves. It was very impractical for me to want to become a composer.” He sat on Michael’s desk chair, hands on his knees, elbows pointed out, staring at the TV. “So very difficult to get anything performed at all, not to mention by a good orchestra. So I followed my friend Steiner to California—”
“You knew Max Steiner?”
He nodded, smiling. “Sometime you must come over to our house, visit Golda and me, perhaps listen to the old scores.” At that moment, Waltiri’s wife entered the room, a slender, golden-haired woman a few years younger than he. She bore a distinct resemblance to Gloria Swanson, Michael thought, but without the wild look Swanson had had in Sunset Boulevard. He liked Golda immediately.
So it had all begun with music. When his father delivered the piano bench, Michael tagged along. Golda met them at the door, and ten minutes later Arno was guiding them around the ground floor of the two-story bungalow. “Arno loves to talk,” Golda told Michael as they approached the music room at the rear of the house. “If you love to listen, you’ll get along just fine.”
Waltiri opened the door with a key and let them enter first.
“I don’t go in here very often now,” he said. “Golda keeps it dusted. I read nowadays, play the piano in the front room now and then, but I don’t need to listen.” He tapped his head. “It’s all up here, every note.”
The walls on three sides were covered with shelves of records. Waltiri pulled down big lacquered masters from a few of his early films, then pointed out the progression to smaller disks, scores released by record companies on seventy-eights, and finally the long-play vinyl records and CDs Michael was familiar with. For scores composed in the 1950s and ‘60s, he had tapes neatly labeled and shelved in black-and-white and plaid boxes. “This was my last score,” he said, pulling down a bigger tape box. “Half inch stereo eight-track master. For William Wyler, you know. In 1963 he asked me to score Call It Sleep. Not my finest score, but certainly my favorite film.”
Michael ran his finger along the tape box labels. “Look! Mr. Waltiri—”
“Arno, please. Only producers call me Mr. Waltiri.”
“You did the music for Bogart in The Man Who Would Be King!”
“Certainly. For John Huston, actually. Good score, that one.”
“That’s my favorite movie,” Michael said, awed.
Waltiri’s eyes sparkled. For the next two months, Michael spent most of his free time in the Waltiri house, listening to him recite selections on the piano or carefully play the fragile masters of the scores. It had been a wonderful two months, almost a justification for being bookish, something of a loner, buried in his mind instead of hanging out with friends...
Now Michael stood on the porch of Clarkham’s house. He tried the handle on the heavy wooden door: locked, as expected. He removed the key from his pants pocket. It was late for the old neighborhood. There was no street traffic, not even the sound of distant airplanes. Everything seemed to have been muffled in a blanket.
Two months before, on a hot, airless August day, Waltiri had taken Michael up to the attic to look through papers and memorabilia. Michael had exulted over letters from Clark Gable, correspondence with Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a manuscript copy of a Stravinsky oratorio.
“Up here, it feels like it’s the forties again,” Michael said. Waltiri stared down at lines of light thrown by a wall vent across a stack of boxes and said, “Perhaps it is.” He looked up at Michael. “Let’s go downstairs and get some iced tea. And on the way, instead of my talking about myself, I would like you to tell me why you want to be a poet.”
Sitting on the porch, Michael sipped from his glass and shook his head. “I don’t know. Mom says it’s because I want to be different. She laughs, but I think she means it.” He made a wry face. “As if my folks should worry. They’re not your normal middle-class couple.” He squinted at Waltiri, who leaned forward, head inclined like a watchful bird. “She might be right. But it’s something else, too. When I write poetry, I’m more in touch with being alive. I like living here. I have some friends. But...it seems so limited. I try hard to find the flavor, the richness, but I can’t. There has to be something more.” He rubbed his cheek and looked at the fallen magnolia blossoms on the lawn. “Some of my friends just go to the movies. That’s their idea of magic, of getting away. I like movies, but l can’t live in them.”
The composer nodded, his slate-gray eyes focused above the hedges bordering the yard. “You think there’s something higher than what we see—or lower—and you want to find it.”
“That’s it.” Michael nodded.
“Are you a good poet?”
“Not very,” Michael said automatically.
“No false modesty now.” Waltiri wiped condensation from his glass on the knee of his pants.
Michael thought for a moment. “I’m going to be.”
“Going to be what?”
“I’m going to be a good poet.”
“That’s a fine thing to say. Now that you’ve said it, you know I’ll be watching you. You must become a good poet.”
Michael grinned ruefully. “Thanks a lot!”
“Think nothing of it. We all need someone to watch over us. For me, it was Gustav Mahler. I met him when I was eleven years old, and he asked me much the same thing. I was a young piano player—how do they say—a prodigy. ‘How good will you be?’ he asked after he heard me perform. I tried to dodge the question by acting like a young boy, but he turned his very intense dark eyes on me, cornered me, and said again, ‘How good?’ I puffed up and said, ‘I’ll be very good.’ And he smiled at me! What a benediction that was. Ah, what a moment! Do you know Mahler?”
He meant Mahler’s music, and Michael didn’t.
“He was my god. The sad German. I worshipped him. He died a few months after we met, but somehow I felt he still watched me and he would be disappointed if I didn’t make something of myself.”
By early September, Waltiri had taken Michael even further into his confidence. “When I began to write music for movies, I was a little ashamed,” he said one evening when Michael came over for dinner. “Even though my first score was for a good movie, Trevor Howard in Ashenden. Now I have no regrets, but at the time I asked myself, what would my heroes say about writing for silly films?” He shrugged in resignation. “It was next to impossible to work otherwise. I married Golda in 1930. We had to live. Times were hard then.
“But always before me was the shining splendor of perhaps doing serious music, concert hall material. I wrote some on the side—piano pieces, cantatas, exactly the opposite of the big orchestral scores for the studios. A little has even been recorded recently, because I am so well-known as a film composer. I wanted to do an opera—how I loved the libretti of Hofmannsthal, and how I envied Richard Strauss that he lived in a time when such things were easier! ‘Dream and reality are one, together, you and I alone, always together...to all eternity...’ ‘Geht all’s sonst wie ein Traum dahin vor meinem Sinn...’” He laughed and shook his head. “But I am wandering.
“I had one last fling with serious music. And. ..” Waltiri paused in the dim, candlelit dining room, his eyes again focused on the distance, this time piercing a framed landscape over the china cupboard. “A very serious fling it was. A man my own age then, perhaps a little older, by the name of David Clarkham, approached me at Warner Brothers one day. I remember it was raining, but he didn’t wear a raincoat...just a gray wool suit, without any drips on it. Not wet, you understand?”
“We had some mutual acquaintances. At first, I thought maybe he was another studio vulture. You know the kind, maybe. They hang around, bask in other peoples’ fame and fortune, live off parties. ‘Lounge lizards,’ somebody called them. But it turned out he was knowledgeable about music. A charming fellow. We got along well...for a time.
“He had some theories about music that were highly unusual, to say the least.” Waltiri went to a glassed-in oak bookcase, lifted a door, and withdrew a small thick volume in a worn wrapper. He held it out for Michael’s inspection: Devil’s Music, by someone named Charles Fort.
“We worked together, Clarkham and I. He suggested orchestrations and arrangements; I composed.” Waltiri’s expression became grim. His next words were clipped and ironic. “‘Arno,’ he tells me—we are good friends by this time— ‘Arno, there shall be no other music like this. Not for millions of years have such sounds been heard on Earth.’ I kidded him about dinosaurs breaking wind. He looked at me very seriously and said, ‘Someday you will know exactly what I mean.’ I accepted he was a little eccentric, but also brilliant. He appealed directly to my wish to be another Stravinsky. So... I was a sucker. I applied his theories to our composition, using what he called ‘psychotropic tone structure.’
“‘This,’ he tells me, ‘will do exactly what Scriabin tried to do, and failed.’” Michael didn’t know who Scriabin was, but Waltiri continued as if with a long-rehearsed speech.
“The piece we wrote, it was my forty-fifth opus, a concerto for piano and orchestra called Infinity.” He took the book from Michael’s hand and opened it to a marked passage, then handed it back. “So we get infamous. Read, please.”
“Or of strange things musical.
“A song of enchantment.
“Judge as you will, here is the data:
“That on November 23rd, 1939, a musician created a work of undeniable genius, a work which changed the lives of famous men, fellow musicians. This man was Arno Waltiri, and with his new concerto, Opus 45, he created a suitable atmosphere for musical CATASTROPHE.
“Picture it: a cold night, Los Angeles, the Pandall Theater on Sunset Boulevard. Crowds in black silk hats, white tie and tails, long sheer gowns, pouring in to hear a premier performance. Listen to it: the orchestra tuning, cacophonic. Then Waltiri raising his baton, bringing it down...
“We are told the music was strange, as no music heard before. Sounds grew in that auditorium like apparitions. We are told that a famous composer walked out in disgust. And then, a week later, filed suit against Waltiri! ‘I am unable to hear or compose music in a sensible fashion!’ he said in the court deposition. And what did he blame? Waltiri’s music!
“What would prompt a well-known and respected composer to sue a fellow composer for an impossible—so doctors tell us—injury? The case was dropped before it ever reached court. But...what did that concerto sound like?
“I submit to you, perhaps Waltiri knew the answer to an age-old question, namely, ‘What song did the sirens sing?’”
Michael closed the book. “It’s not all nonsense,” Waltiri said, returning the tattered volume to the shelf. “That is roughly what happened. And then, months later, twenty people disappear. The only thing they have in common is, they were in the audience for our music.” He looked at Michael and lifted his eyebrows. “Most of us live in the real world, my young friend...but David Clarkham... I am not so sure. The first time I saw him, coming out of the wet with his suit so dry, I thought to myself, ‘The man must walk between raindrops.’ The last time I saw him, in July of 1944, it was also raining. Two years before, he had bought a house a few blocks from here. We didn’t see each other often. But this wet summer day he comes to stand on our porch and gives me a key. ‘I’m going on a trip,’ he says. ‘You should have this, in case you ever wish to follow me. The house will be taken care of.’ Very mysterious. With the key there is a piece of paper.”
Waltiri took a small teak box from the top of the bookshelf and held it before Michael, pulling up the lid. Inside was a yellowed, folded paper, and wrapped partly within, a tarnished brass house key. “I never followed him. I was curious, but I never had the courage. And besides, there was Golda. How could I leave her? But you...you are a young man.”
“Where did Clarkham go?” Michael asked.
“I don’t know. The last words he said to me, he says, ‘Arno, should you ever wish to come after me, do everything on the paper. Go to my house between midnight and two in the morning. I will meet you.” He removed the note and key from the box and gave them to Michael. “I won’t live forever. I will never follow. Perhaps you.”
Michael grinned. “It all sounds pretty weird to me.”
“It is very weird, and silly. That house—he told me he did a great deal of musical experimentation there. I heard very little of it. As I said, we weren’t close after the premiere of the concerto. But once he told me, ‘The music gets into the walls in time, you know. It haunts the place’
“He was a brilliant man, Michael, but he—how do you say it?—he ‘screwed me over.’ I took the blame for the concerto. He left for two years. I settled the lawsuits. Nothing was ever decided in court. I was nearly broke.
“He had made me write music that affects the way a person thinks, as drugs affect the brain. I have written nothing like it since.”
“What will happen if I go?”
“I don’t know,” Waltiri said, staring at him intently. “Perhaps you will find what lives above or below the things we know.”
“I mean, if something happened to me, what would my parents think?”
“There comes a time when one must disregard the thoughts of one’s parents, or the warnings of old men, when caution must be temporarily put aside and instincts followed. In short, when one must rely on one’s own judgment.” He opened another door in the bookcase. “Now, my young friend, before we become sententious, I’ve been thinking there is one other thing I’d like to give to you. A book. One of my favorites.” He pulled out a pocket-sized book bound in plain, shiny black leather and held it out for Michael.
“It’s very pretty,” Michael said. “It looks old.”
“Not so very old,” Waltiri said. “My father bought it for me when I left for California. It’s the finest poetry, in English, all my favorites. A poet should have it. There is a large selection of Coleridge. You’ve read him, I’m sure.”
“Then, for me, read him again.”
Two weeks later, Michael was swimming in the backyard pool when his mother stepped out on the patio with a delicate walk and a peculiar expression. She nervously brushed back a strand of her red hair and shielded her eyes against the sun. Michael stared at her from poolside, his arm flesh goose-bumping. He almost knew.
“That was Golda on the phone,” she said. “Arno’s dead.”
There was no funeral. Waltiri’s ashes were placed in a columbarium at Forest Lawn. There were features on his death in the newspaper and on television.
That had been six weeks before. Michael had last spoken with Golda two days ago. She had sat on the piano bench in her front room, straight-backed and dignified, wearing a cream-colored suit, her golden hair immaculately coifed. Her accent was more pronounced than her husband’s.
“He was sitting right here, at the piano,” she said, “and he looked at me and said, ‘Golda, what have I done, I’ve given that boy Clarkham’s key. Call his parents now.’ And his arm stiffened... He said he was in great pain. Then he was on the floor.” She looked at Michael earnestly. “But I did not tell your parents. He trusted you. You will make the right decision.”
She sat quietly for a time, then continued. “Two days later, a tiny brown sparrow flew into Arno’s study, where the library is now. It sat on the piano and plucked at pieces of sheet music. Arno had once made a joke about a bird being a spirit inside an animal body. I tried to shoo it out the window, but it wouldn’t go. It perched on the music stand and stayed there for an hour, twisting its head to stare at me. Then it flew away.” She began to cry. “I would dearly love for Arno to visit me now and then, even as a sparrow. He is such a fine man.” She wiped her eyes and hugged Michael tightly, then let him go and straightened his jacket.
“He trusted you,” she had repeated, tugging gently at his lapel. “You will know what is best.”
Now he stood on the porch of Clarkham’s house, feeling resigned if not calm. Night birds sang in the trees lining the street, a sound that had always intrigued him for the way it carried a bit of daylight into the still darkness.
He couldn’t say precisely why he was there. Perhaps it was tribute to a good friend he had known for so short a time. Had Waltiri actually wanted him to follow the instructions? It was all so ambiguous.
He inserted the key in the lock.
To discover what is above or below.
He turned the key.
Music haunts the place now.
The door opened quietly.
Michael entered and shut the door tight behind him. The brass workings clicked.
Walking straight in the darkness was difficult. He brushed against a wall with his shoulder. The touch set off an unexpected bong, as if he were inside a giant bell. He didn’t know if he had crossed a room or made his way down a hall, but he bumped against another door, fumbled for the knob, and found it. The door opened easily and silently. To Michael’s left in the room beyond was another doorway leading into a smaller room. Moonlight spilled through French doors like milk on the bare wood floor. All the rooms were empty of furniture.
The French doors opened onto a bare brick patio and a desolate yard, with a brick wall beyond. The door handles felt like ice in his hands.
He exited from the rear of Clarkham’s house. A flagstone path curved around the outside to the side gate. When he had entered the front door there had been no moon, but now a sullen green orb rose over the silhouettes of the houses on the opposite side of the street. It didn’t cast much light. (And yet, the moonlight through the French doors had been bright...) The streetlights were also strangely dim, and yellowish-green in color.
There were fewer trees than he remembered, and those leafless and skeletal. The air smelled antiseptic, electric and mildewy at once, as if it had been preserved and then had spoiled for lack of use. The sky closed in, pitch black and starless. Through the windows of the houses across the street came fitful brown glimmers, not at all like electric lights or television. More like dull reflections from dried blood.
He walked gingerly across the dried, patchy grass to the front door of the house on the left. As predicted in the instructions, the door had been left open a crack. Warm, welcoming light poured in a narrow shaft from within. He pushed the door open with a damp palm.
Entering, Michael saw a small table perched alertly on delicately curved legs on the polished wood floor of the hallway. A brass bowl on the table presented fruit: oranges, apples, something blue and shiny. Down the hall about eight feet and to the left opened a rounded archway to the living room.
He closed the front door. It made a muffled, pillowy sound.
A faint mildewy smell issued from the walls and floor and hung in transparent wisps through the hall. Michael approached the archway, nose wrinkled. The house was lighted as if somebody lived there, but the only sound he heard was that of his own footsteps.
In the living room, a lone, high-backed, velvet-upholstered rocking chair occupied the middle of a broad circular throw rug before the dark fireplace. The throw rug resembled a target of concentric circles of tan and black. The chair faced away from Michael and rocked slowly back and forth. He couldn’t see who, if anybody, sat in it. He had just realized he was not following the instructions when the chair stopped rocking. It held steady for an unbearably long time. Then it began to swivel counter-clockwise.
Suddenly, Michael didn’t want to see what sat in the chair. He ran down the hall, around a short bend and into an empty room.
“Do not stop to look at anything,” the note had said. He had hesitated, he told himself, not stopped; still, he felt the need to be more cautious. He made sure no one followed, then departed the house through the rear door and found himself on yet another brick patio. To his left rose a white trellis arch overgrown with wisteria. Fireflies danced in oleander bushes to each side. Beyond the patio, glowing paper lanterns hung motionless over a stretch of empty flower beds.
Michael was startled to see someone sitting behind a glass-topped wrought-iron table under the wisteria trellis. Except for the wan flicker of the paper lanterns, there was little illumination, but he could make out that the person at the table wore a long dress, pale and flounced, and a broad hat. The face was obscured by inky shadow.
Michael stared hard at the seated figure, fascinated. Was someone supposed to meet him, take him farther? The note had said nothing about a woman waiting. He tried to discern the face beneath the hat.
The figure rose slowly from the chair. The jerky quality of its movement, a loose awkwardness, made his flesh crawl. He backed up, stumbled down the porch steps into the garden, and twisted around to fall on his face. For a second or two he lay stunned and breathless. Then he looked over his shoulder.
The figure had left the table. It stood at the top of the steps. Even hidden by the dress, every limb bent in the wrong places. He still couldn’t see the face beneath the hat.
The figure took the first step down from the patio, and Michael jumped to his feet. The second, and he ran across the garden to the black wrought-iron gate at the rear. The latch opened easily and he swung from the gatepost, halting in the alley to get his bearings. “To the left,” he said, his breath ragged. He heard footsteps behind, the sound of the latch. Was it the fifth or sixth gate to the left? The alley was too dark to allow him to re-read the note, but he could make out gates in the obscurity—gates in the walls on both sides. Trees loomed thick and black above the opposite wall, leaves hushed, dead still.
He counted as he ran...two, three, four, five gates. He stopped again, then passed to the sixth.
A lock blocked the iron latch. He knew instinctively he couldn’t just climb over—if he did, he would find nothing but darkness on the other side. He fumbled frantically for the key in his pocket, the only key he had been given.
The figure in the flounced dress had closed the distance between them to six or seven yards. It lurched slowly and deliberately toward him as if it had all the time in the world.
The key fit the lock, but just barely. He had to jerk it several times. A sigh behind him, long and dry, and he felt cold pressure on his shoulder, the rasp of something light and brittle brushing his jacket sleeve—
Michael flinched, crouched, pushed the gate open with his forearm, and fell through. He crawled and scrambled across broken dirt and withered stubble, fell again, gravel digging into the flesh of his cheek. No use fleeing. He closed his eyes and clutched the crumbling clods and twigs, waiting.
The gate clanged shut and the latch fell into place with a snick.
Several seconds passed before he even allowed himself to think he hadn’t been followed. The quality of the air had changed. He rolled over and looked at the stone wall. The figure should have been visible above the wall, or through the openwork of the gate, but it wasn’t.
He let his breath out all at once. He felt safe now—safe for the moment, at least.
“It worked,” he said, standing and brushing off his clothes. “It really worked!” Somehow, he wasn’t all that elated. A strange thing had just happened, and he had been badly frightened.
It couldn’t have taken Michael more than fifteen minutes to do everything in the instructions, yet dawn was a hazy orange in the east.
He had crossed over. But to where?