I was underwater. The surety of it was reinforced by the liquid quality to my hearing and the fact that I couldn’t breathe. I was drowning. A hand squeezed my shoulder and I flailed one arm, trying to strike whoever was holding me under. My fist struck flesh and there was a grunt of pain before the words being said to me finally made sense.
“Lane! Stop! Calm down, you’re okay. Just breathe.”
My father. I opened my eyes and the world swam.
I was in my room and the shades were drawn wide, letting in somber light. I was warm, so warm I almost wished then that I was underwater. I bet I would’ve steamed.
“What happened?” I croaked, my throat a rusty hinge.
“You don’t remember?” my father said, leaning back away from me.
I tried going back. Going back to whatever brought me here. There was darkness and pain, an awful, gut-wrenching pain, and before that a feeling of paralysis. Then images came back to me. Sara floating above the field. The stumps rushing toward us. Heely screaming.
“Jones, he’s…” I couldn’t get myself to say it.
My father’s jaw hardened and he nodded. Tears flooded my eyes and I managed to roll onto my side. My father held me while I cried. He stroked my hair back from my brow but didn’t say anything. When the sobs were done constricting my throat and body, I swiped the hot tears from my eyes and gazed up at him.
“She’s safe. She’s with her parents and hasn’t woken up yet, but she’s safe.”
“I’m not sure, Lane. Nathan told me what he saw. Told me how Heely was killed, how Jones…but I wasn’t there.”
“He’s telling the truth,” I said, feeling my throat trying to close again at the thought of the stumps and Sara hovering in place. “It happened.”
My father sighed deeply and looked out the window. “I figured it was. Crazy as it sounds, I figured it was.”
“How long have I been asleep?”
“About twenty hours. I was going to bring you to the hospital in Arbor but I couldn’t find anything wrong with you physically, no wounds or cuts, and the same with Sara May. The doctor came out and had a look at both of you but said we’d have to wait and see if you woke up. There was nothing he could do.”
“You didn’t tell him what happened?”
“No. We didn’t.” After a pause he asked, “How are you feeling?”
I did another self-assessment. The pain was gone from my back, and other than the sensation that my head was waterlogged, I couldn’t find anything else wrong. “Feel okay. Head feels big and sloppy,” I said.
“Can you can stand?”
He got me up and out of bed then. I felt a little like a newborn trying to walk, but slowly the strength and steadiness returned to my muscles. He brought me to the table and set out some bread, sliced sausage, and cheese. When I saw the food, I was sure I wouldn’t be able to eat. I kept seeing Sara. And Jones. The stumps. But with some urging from my father I took a few tentative bites and realized I was famished. I ate two sandwiches loaded with butter and my mother’s homemade pickle relish. After downing two cold glasses of water I was tired again but told my father no when he suggested I lay back down.
“I want to see Sara,” I said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea right now. She needs her family around her, and to be honest they’re very shook up. I’ll talk to Nathan and see what he thinks tonight.”
“Where’s Jones? I mean…where’d they take him?”
My father’s face softened. “He’s at Morning Peace Funeral Home in Arbor. The service will be on Tuesday. They’re going to have him buried at their farm out under the tire swing.”
My vision clouded again at the mention of Jones’s swing. His father had put it up for him when we were about seven. We’d spent more hours than I could count playing on it, and I recalled how thrilled Jones had been when he’d told me his pa was going to hang it for him. The simple pleasure of an old tire and rope seemed to deepen my sorrow even further and I broke down again. My father hugged me, held me at the table until the storm of grief had passed.
“I want to see momma,” I said when I could speak again. “I’d like to go see her.”
“Sure. We can go if you feel up to it. Get your coat, it looks like it might rain again.”
We left the house after I’d changed into better clothes, and climbed into the truck. The sky was the same slate color as the day before but the ground was dry. It hadn’t rained in a while and I wondered if the storms would ever go away now that Jones was gone.
As we rattled down Secondary Road my head started to throb. I rubbed at my temples and tried to focus on the pain. It was better than thinking about Jones. When we pulled even with his driveway I couldn’t look, so I faced the other way until we reached 7. When we didn’t turn toward Arbor right away, I glanced at my father who was staring at Nimble’s store.
“The hell is going on now,” he muttered and turned the truck into the little parking area in front of the store that was crowded with two other vehicles. “You stay here,” he said, shutting the truck off, but I was already opening my door.
“I’m coming in.”
“Lane, I said-”
“I’m coming in,” I repeated. There must’ve been something in my tone that stopped him because he just stared at me for a second then headed toward the door. I’d never talked to my father that way before and it unsettled me some. But I didn’t have time to apologize because then we were stepping inside and raised voices in the heat of an argument drowned out all other thoughts.
“-soon to say anything of that sort,” Arthur Nimble was saying.
“The facts are right there for God’s sake. I mean a boy’s dead, Arthur,” Daryl Hudson said.
“That was an accident,” Nimble replied.
“Yeah, but did you hear what caused the accident? Did you catch the part where Nathan said he saw his own little girl floatin’ in the middle of the field? That seem just a bit odd to you? How about him claimin’ the stumps came to life and one killed his old mule?”
The group of men stood around the alcove with the woodstove. Nimble was near the center as were the two Hudson brothers. Old Vincent King was there as well, jaundiced-eyes half lidded and scowling. Mr. Shawler stood behind Daryl Hudson, and Alfred Hagen, the feed shop owner, leaned against the farthest wall, shock of gray hair in disarray beneath his faded cap.
“Something’s terribly wrong here, friends,” Daryl continued. “Vince knew it the moment we heard about Ellis’s goat gettin’ bit by its own young. Things are still happenin’ that aren’t right, and now we have a boy dead.”
“Daryl, you need to calm down,” Nimble said.
“The hell I do! Something needs to be done. We have to find the root of this. And I think I know where it is. I think we all do.”
“That’s enough, Daryl. I won’t tolerate any more of that talk in my store. You want to spout nonsense, go do it outside or by God I’ll throw your old ass out myself.”
“You coward. I always knew you were chicken shit. Same as your old man. He woulda said anything to keep out of the war.”
“You sonofabitch,” Nimble said, stalking forward, hands knotting into fists. “My father had diverticulitis and you know it.”
Chairs skidded back as everyone stood and several people got in between the two men. I stared from beside my father, hearing the argument but unable to follow what Daryl was getting at. Something had to be done? The root of this?
“I had two cows and a pig die,” Daryl yelled over the commotion. “Alfred had ten bags of seed go bad in his storage. They turned to black mold. David Murphy’s wife is in the hospital for reasons unknown, and we all know it’s because of that girl!”
“Stop it!” my father roared, and the room fell silent. I’d never heard him yell that loud before. Every eye in the place turned to him. “What are you suggesting, Daryl? I’m getting the picture, but why don’t you spell it out for everyone here. Your old man must’ve had loose lips about what happened with John Whiterock, but what confuses me is why you’d think it was something worth repeating.”
“Murphy, you should keep your tongue unless you know what you’re talking about,” Daryl growled. He had taken a step toward my father, and though the elder Hudson was perhaps sixty at the time, he still cut an imposing figure from years of work in the field.
“I know exactly what I’m talking about,” my father said, not backing away an inch. “John Whiterock was murdered because your father and Elias Feller thought he’d bewitched little Justin Feller. I’m sorry to say my grandfather was present as well and didn’t stop them. And now you’re suggesting the same thing about Sara May. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“What happened to your wife then, David?” Daryl asked.
“That’s none of your damn business.”
“I think it’s everyone’s business if it affects the town.” The old man’s eyes found me standing slightly behind my father. He pointed. “You. You were there too. You saw her. You saw the girl hover in the air. You tell everyone the truth, boy.”
“Don’t speak to my son,” my father said, moving in front of me.
“I’ll talk to anyone I damn well please,” Daryl said, stepping forward. There was movement from behind me as Daryl cocked back a fist and prepared to hit my father. One second Hudson was there, the next he was stumbling back and tripping over his own feet.
A woman had appeared beside my father and her hand was outstretched toward Daryl as he continued to fall and finally skidded several feet before coming to rest against the side of the fireless woodstove. She wore faded jeans, scuffed work boots, and a dark, long-sleeve shirt buttoned tight to her throat. Her hair was black as coal and tied back from her face. She was pretty in the same off way I thought my mother was pretty. She had narrow cheeks and a rounded nose below two gray eyes. She was fairly tall and lithe in a way that spoke of someone who liked to run.
Everyone was frozen in place as she lowered her arm to her side and glanced around the group. Ernie helped his brother up from the floor as my father ushered me off to the side.
“Who the hell are you?” Nimble said.
“My name is Catherine Abercrombie.”
“You fuckin’ bitch,” Daryl said as he gained his feet and threw himself at the woman.
Catherine moved in that funny way again. It was like watching a piece of film with a frame or two missing. One second she was standing relaxed, not looking at Daryl, and the next she’d turned, stepped forward, and driven her fist into his stomach.
Daryl doubled over as if he’d run into the hood of a car. Catherine shoved his head sideways and the old man went down on the dusty floor of Nimble’s where he lay wheezing.
She looked around in an almost lazy way and when no one else said anything or stepped forward, she glanced at my father and said, “I’m assuming you’re David Murphy?”
“I am,” he replied.
There was silence again in the store while his words were digested. Finally Nimble said, “You called her here, David?”
My father nodded. “Daryl’s right about one thing, something has come to our town. Now it might have always been here and just woke up or it might be passing through, but to be honest I don’t understand any of the things that have happened and no one else does either, except maybe Miss Abercrombie here.”
“Can I ask why she would know anything?” Vincent King said.
“You can address me yourself,” Catherine said, staring at King. “I’m standing right here.”
King seemed to struggle with something before saying, “Well, out with it then. Why would you know what to do?”
“Because I’ve performed over fifty exorcisms,” she said quietly.
This set the room abuzz once again. Ernie helped Daryl off the floor for the second time, and Catherine eyed him warily as he wobbled to the nearest chair and sat, head hanging down, shoulders slumped.
“How do we even know that’s what this calls for?” Mr. Shawler asked, his voice rising above the din.
“You’ll let me be the judge of that,” Catherine replied.
“Respectfully, ma’am, aren’t priests the only ones who are okayed to do an exorcism?” Nimble asked.
“They’re the only ones recognized by the church, but of course the church only recognizes what old, white men can do. Never women.”
“It’s not right. She’s lying,” Daryl mumbled. She ignored him.
“I went to Father Benedict in Arbor and talked to him personally yesterday,” my father said. “He knew of Miss Abercrombie’s talents and got word to her.”
“Why didn’t he come instead?” King said.
Catherine gave him a smile that would’ve frozen flame. “Because Father Benedict can barely put his shorts on without fucking it up.”
“Blasphemy,” Daryl coughed. Everyone ignored him.
“When I heard of the occurrences here, I became interested,” Catherine said. She spoke in an eloquent way that hinted at a fine education well outside of Minnesota. Maybe even outside the United States. “And I only travel when something interests me.” Her gray eyes finally fell directly on me and I felt pinned to the floor. Time seemed to stand still for a moment and there was a tugging shift within my bones, as if she were seeing through me, sifting my thoughts and memories and sorting them within seconds. She nodded in my direction and I tried to summon a smile but failed.
“You must be Lane,” she said. “I’d like to speak with you in private.”