This section had been inserted between the chapter where Dylan Corey leaves Zeke’s house and meets his fate and the section in which Lauren decides she needs to face Blaine. My editor felt that it dissipated the tension, and she was right.
The event that Zeke describes is based on something that really happened to my mother.
A morning of sorts arrived, eventually. Rocky and Phil worked on the snowmobiles, and the roar of engines cut through the silence every so often, and startled the followers. No use hiding, was the general feeling. Blaine would find out no matter what they did, and his was the only opinion that mattered.
Lauren entered the front room to find Phil standing at the window. “What’s it like out there?”
Phil shook his head. “I don’t think you want to look.” He stared out into the gloom. “I still can’t get over what happened, how they just kept coming. Russell—he knew me. I could see it in his eyes. And he would have killed me anyway, just to get a little peace. Then it would’ve been the two of us, going around hurting, killing, like junkies that can’t ever get enough dope. It’s not right, for a man to have that much power over others.”
“Blaine’s not a man. I don’t think he’s been one for a long time.” Lauren joined Phil at the window. “It’s getting dark already?”
Phil nodded. “Came sooner today. Less and less light every day. And it’s so cold. Rocky and me–we just ran to the shed out back for wood. Only made one trip, and our hands just felt like they was about to fall off from the cold.” He flexed his fingers. “They still ache.”
They both turned as the door opened. Waycross stood in the entry, holding a tray bearing a couple of liquor bottles and a package of fig bars.
“We’re going to get together in the TV room in a few minutes.” She looked happy, considering, the hostess with everything under control. “Let’s go.”
Phil and Lauren waited until Waycross left. Then they looked at one another.
“Last meal.” Phil shrugged. “Could do worse, I guess.” He gestured for Lauren to precede him out of the room. “Not sure how.”
“I have a funny story.” Zeke uncapped the whiskey bottle and poured himself a shot. “But it’s about someone in this room that I don’t exactly wish to rile, so I will wait a minute and see if there are any objections to the tale before I tell it.”
Lauren sat against the wall, drink in hand. A finger of whiskey, with plenty of ice. The others had settled in closer to the fire, which sputtered and threatened extinction more than once until Rocky shoved in wads of kerosene-soaked newspaper and threw in a match. The paper flared to ash, and the bewitched wood warmed to a steady smolder. A little heat, at least. Better than nothing.
“Go ahead, Master Pyne.” Waycross nodded to the man over the top of her glass.
“Master Pyne.” Zeke grinned. “Guess that’s what you call dispensation.” He held up his hand to keep the rest from talking, and took a swallow of whiskey. Smacked his lips. “I remember–I will never forget–sitting up with Ellen watching Johnny Carson, you know, when he played that guy with the turban and the cards that he held up to his head–”
“Karnak.” Phil spread his arms wide. “The Mag-nificent.”
“Him.” Zeke nodded. “And we’re sittin’, watchin’, and the phone rings, and Ellen says ‘who in hell is calling at this hour,’ ‘cept she didn’t say ‘hell’ because Ellen didn’t use words like that.”
“Zeke.” Phil rolled his eyes.
“Getting there, okay?” Zeke poured a couple more of fingers of whiskey into his glass, then set the bottle in the middle of the circle. “So I answers the phone, and it’s our good Mistress here–” He bowed his head toward Waycross, who sighed loudly and shook her head. “–and she’s whispering real low, so’s I can hardly hear her and she says ‘Zeke, you gotta come over–Mike’s working third tonight and there’s something in the basement.’ And I tell her, well, don’t go down there, because in all those movies, you know, you’re alone and you hear something in the basement, the last thing in the world–”
“Zeke.” Phil slumped to one side, and wrapped his arms around his head.
“Getting there, okay? The last thing in the world that you do is go down to see what it is.” Zeke took one of the cookies from the tray, and dunked it into his drink. “And I’m thinking that whatever this is, it’s shaken up Ginny Howell, which worried me more than a little bit. So ‘don’t go down there,’ I says to her, ‘I’ll be right over,’ and I gets my shotgun in case it’s from this world and my bag o’ tricks in case it ain’t, and I tell Ellen to stick by the phone just in case neither of those work and I head on over.” He popped the sodden cookie into this mouth, and talked while he chewed.
“Now Mistress, she was just a young strip, you know, freshly married and not yet Mistress. And she opens the front door to me, and she’s standing there in her PJ’s and bathrobe with one of Mike’s ‘cycle helmets on her head, holding a baseball bat. And before I can say ‘all-righty there,’ the most godawful bang goes off, just like a cannon cracker, and Mistress screams a bit and I will admit that my heart picked up the pace.” Zeke lowered his voice to a rough whisper. “So I go down the stairs in the dark, taking ’em real slow because I can’t get no read of what’s there, and I hear these plop-plop noises and then this smell hits me like a whole coop o’ rotten eggs.”
“And then Mistress flips on the light and I damn near swallow my tongue ’cause there’s red all over the walls and the ceiling, clots of stuff dripping out of the beams and I said ‘what the hell, Ginny,’ and then one of the things drops down onto my head and I howl and grab it off me because what in Lady’s name and then I look at the thing and shout ‘oh my Lady–it’s a finger’ and then I really look at it and oh my hell it’s a carrot.” He held up his hand, thumb and index finger about three inches apart. “A piece o’ carrot about yea big.”
“So we go right down in the basement and we look and on the east side is all this shelving that Mike had built so Mistress could have a place for all the jars of stuff that she’d canned and the one shelf looks like an elephant exploded there and as we’re watching, one of the jars starts to shuddery-shake and then the next thing we know, bam, and it’s like blood and guts gouting all over and I asks her, Ginny, what the hell is this, and she says vegetable soup, and I says vegetable soup–what the hell did you put in it? The usual stuff, she says, carrots and tomatoes and peas and potatoes and cabbage and I says wait a minute, did you cook the cabbage first and our Lady Mistress said well, yes, but I put it in a little crisp because I knew it would get soggy over time.”
“Raw cabbage in the vegetable soup.” Phil sagged to one side, shoulders shaking, and pounded the floor with his fist. “Boom.”
“I learned, all right?” Waycross paused to wipe her eyes. “Cook the cabbage with ginger first.”
Zeke dunked another cookie. “So I go get Ellen and we helped Mistress clean things up and air out the place because woo-hoo and every time after that, every time Carson did his Karnak, Ellen would pretend to hold a card to her forehead and she would say ‘Cabbage soup,’ and we would both laugh so hard we’d miss all the jokes.” He ate, chewed. “That’s my funny story. Someone else can go now.”
So Phil told a tale about a raccoon getting trapped in Hoard’s Diner and Brittany described the disaster of her first home permanent. Lauren watched them split up the last of the whiskey, five people she had known only a few days. Five people she would have trusted with her life. She finished her own drink, wondered if more would help, and realized that no, she had passed that point some time ago. She rose and left the room just as Phil and Rocky began a round of rock-paper-scissors for the last cookie, felt Waycross’s stare bore a hole between her shoulder blades, and kept on walking.