Via DolorosaRonald Malfi
[an imprint of Redrum Horror]
VIA DOLOROSA by Ronald Malfi
An Imprint of REDRUM HORROR
Copyright © 2006 by Ronald Malfi.
Originally published in hardcover by Raw Dog Screaming Press.
Also available in an Abattoir Press trade paperback.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The ABATTOIR PRESS and REDRUM HORROR logos are property of Redrum Horror Publishing.
Cover art by Joshua Hansen.
Visit us online at www.abattoirpress.com.
Visit Ronald Malfi at www.ronmalfi.com
Also by Ronald Malfi
The Space Between
The Fall of Never
The Nature of Monsters
They stayed at the Paradis d’Hôtel, and it was a magnificent hotel. Pushed back and hidden in the shade of the black and wet trees and resting along the white, banded cusp of sand, it sat and looked out upon the dark and silent sea. It was a large hotel, but still somewhat quaint, with a roof of red shale and a naturally stained Roystonea fence surrounding the circular gravel drive. Out back, extending the length of the hotel and facing a vast, rolling slope of lawn, was a stone veranda, pressed cool and firm to the ground beneath a sprawling, slate-shingled arcade. The lawns themselves were brightly green and handsomely manicured, the grass as soft and as fine as down. In preparation for the cicadas, saplings were draped in cheesecloth and sprayed with repellant. Agaves, long and green and thinly-stalked, swayed out by the pools. The air was mostly still but when the breeze came, it came smelling of the sea, and it came with an assuredness that could only come from a place that was uncorrupted by man, far out in the wide and open sea.
For the first two weeks, they breakfasted in the hotel gardens under the shade of the cool, sweeping palms. The breeze was a reminder of their isolation, smelling of the ocean and nothing else. Lunchtime, they would dine either at the hotel, which provided a vast selection of eateries, each of discriminating and individual refinement, or they would venture out about the island and eat at one of the small, indigenous bistros or cafés tucked along the brilliant stretch of white beach at the salted foot of the sea. They drank cold, tropical drinks beaded with sweat and, when in the proper mood, the man would order a plate of flat fillets of anchovies, heavily salted, and eat them without crackers and just a small cocktail fork. The girl would smile and read her poetry books and watch the man as he ate and drank. If they were seated at a table on the beach, she would dig her toes into the sand while she read.
At the pools, she would swim laps while he watched and worked over his sketches, and she would sometimes pause and prop herself up on the paved concrete ledge of the pool and smile at him. Looking at her, flexing and popping the tendons in his sketching hand, he would smile back. It was one of those rare and perfect moments when you are so incredibly content that you are too afraid to move or breathe and risk ruining any of it.
“You look tired and hot,” she would say. “You should come in the water.”
“I’m fine here.”
“You should come in.”
“I like watching you swim. You’re beautiful,” he told her, “and it’s better for me to look up and watch you swim, sweet.”
“The water is like magic here,” she said. “I feel I could swim all day until it’s dark and I would never get tired. It’s like magic that way.”
“Don’t get too tired.”
“No,” she said, smiling beautifully at him, “there’s no getting tired.” She told him, “It’s like magic.” She said, “We’re in a dream.”
“Yes,” he said back. “Oh, yes.”
“I think I’d like to go lay out all sexy on the beach,” she told him.
“You should put on some sunblock so you don’t burn.”
“I want to tan. I want to look pretty for you, and tan.”
“You don’t tan,” he said. “You get pink. Like shrimp.”
And she laughed. “Like shrimp,” she repeated, still laughing. She had the perfect mouth for laughing—a small, discrete mouth, where the outskirts of her lips hardly exceeded beyond the boundaries of her small, narrow nose. “Like peeled and pink shrimp.”
They swam together in the cool sea during the day. The girl swam out far, but the man stayed in close to the shore. The water was not clear enough for one to see his feet on the bottom the deeper he waded out. Cold patches were in abundance, and it was very easy to be comfortable one moment and to have your muscles freeze in the sudden chill the next. At night, the tide came in close to shore and pulled at the sand, making it smooth and dark and fine. Their footprints from the daytime were washed clean away. (It was good, they discovered, to hike the dunes surrounding the hotel, and to recreate, on a constant basis, their footprints. It was their stake on the land.) One afternoon, some of the brown-faced Moroccan staff deposited several planks of whitewashed boards out behind the hotel. During a walk, searching with casual interest through the sea-grass, the couple uncovered the planks. The man retrieved his paints and made faces on them while the young woman laughed. They were faces, caricatures, of people they knew from back home. They were good faces.
There was a triad of marble fountains on the east side of the hotel and in the dip of a valley courtyard, large and wholly clean. When the weather was nice, great white swans could be seen drifting across the surface of the water, and on the clearest days, the sky and the great sweeping clouds were reflected. And for quite some time, the weather was nice.
But when the rains came, the winds tore at the great palms and stripped the magnolia trees bare. The storm shook the hotel and rattled the windows. It was a strong, dedicated rain, and it came to the island as if by custom, pounding the sand and roiling the sea and beating hard and strong against the framework of the quaint but magnificent hotel. The rain came only once and lasted a full two days, and the skies never cleared on those days, and everything remained dark and wet and muddy and as if caught in a dream.
The shrimp boats scaling the coastline were ambushed by the torrential rains on the first day of the storm, and there proved some difficulty in turning them around and steering them back toward port. The man, Nick D’Nofrio, could see the vessels through the large, glass patio doors of the hotel room. He could see the great shrimp nets, pulled back and fastened against the bodies of the boats, coming undone and whipping loosely in the strong wind. He could see the braided, sea-slick lines, and he could hear, even from where he stood behind the glass and so fa
r away, their rough engines breaking through the current over the rush of the storm. There were three boats, and they were having a difficult time maneuvering back up the coast in the storm. The tide was creeping up the beach and the waves were enormous and foamy and white, and the boats, in turning around, would burst through the foam and leap into the air and crash back down into the ocean. Nick could see all this through the glass patio doors. Outside, the rain accosted the doors and the wall of windows, shades drawn, and the harsh wind stripped the headstock of the great palms in the courtyard. The pools had been closed down, and they were empty and lonely in the courtyard. What patio chairs that had not been collected lay strewn and forgotten about the pool area, many on their sides like fallen soldiers. From the windows, Nick could see the beach, too, out beyond the courtyard, and it did not look like the beach either he or the girl had become familiar with. It looked cold, dark, and foreboding, the sand packed hard and solid from the rain, its color dark and bone-like. It looked smooth, too, and like glass.
There was a large brass clasp bolting shut the patio doors. Now, Nick undid the latch and pushed the doors open. He cracked them only two inches, but the wind was strong and he could feel its strength against the doors, could feel it trying to take them from him. The wind was cold, too, and it rushed into the room through the opening. The sheer white curtains billowed out and a few leaves of hotel stationary, each page emblazoned at its bottom with the hotel’s crest, rustled on the desk across the room. Shivering, he looked out at the rain and saw it coming down, punctuating the surfaces of the three fountains in the courtyard below, as well as the surfaces of the swimming pools, hard and unforgiving and like something nearly alive.
Holding onto the door handle with one hand, he managed to produce a lighter and a half-empty pack of generic cigarettes from his breast pocket. He pushed the cigarette between his lips and, with his right hand, fumbled with the lighter. The flint kicked up only blue sparks. He couldn’t light it and, after a few moments, grew agitated and stuffed the lighter back into the breast pocket of his shirt. The cold made his hand hurt, rendering it temporarily useless.
They ate dinner in the small hotel restaurant that first night of the storm. Neither of them had an appetite. The girl drank plenty of wine and looked forlornly at her salad throughout the meal. She was dressed plainly in a printed dress with thin shoulder straps, which exposed her small, round shoulders, the freckled skin a faint pinkish color from the summer sun. Her dark hair was cropped short and leveled just to the line of her jaw, pulled back behind her ears at either side of her round, smooth, white face. The waiter, who was a young boy with dark skin and a black, neatly kept ponytail tucked discreetly into the collar of his starched and pressed uniform, undoubtedly sensed the couple’s unease. The young waiter had been very friendly to them the first few days of their stay, but he did not say much this first night of the storm.
He could sense the change, Nick knew.
The waiter took their orders and brought their drinks with an air of anxious discomfort. Nick watched him closely, watched him to see if he kept quiet because of the unease. Or perhaps, Nick thought, the young waiter was like an old farm dog whose demeanor was influenced by something in the storm. Yet Nick didn’t think it had anything to do with the storm.
“I don’t like being quiet with you,” Emma said at one point during dinner.
“Sometimes it’s necessary,” Nick told her.
“Is it necessary now?”
“I think that maybe it is.”
“I want to say something to you,” she said. “I feel like there is so much to say and that I should say it to you, Nicky, but I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything.”
“But I need to talk to you. We need to talk.”
“I just feel—”
“Don’t,” he said again. “Not now.”
“Can we please talk?”
“I think it’s necessary to be quiet now,” Nick said.
She left before the check came on that first night of the storm. Nick paid the bill with a credit card after ordering a final cup of hot coffee from the dark-skinned young waiter. He sat, sipping the coffee, which he took black without cream or sugar, and remained seated at the small, circular table against the bar, looking out past the sheet of windows along the wall and at the darkness of the night and the intensity of the rain. He thought, This rain should be just as strong by the end of summer. I feel that by the end of summer, this place will need much rain to wash everything away. He thought about this and did not know what it meant…yet he was familiar with truth, and knew he could not lie to himself, and knew that when he understood most things, he usually understood the truth in them first before he understood anything else about them. And he did not know if such a talent was a good talent.
The young waiter, who had been friendly the first few days of their stay, did not approach the table to refill Nick’s coffee; he hovered nearby, instead, like a lone hyena waiting for a pride of lions to depart a heap of fresh kill, his black eyes roving over Nick and over the now half-empty table, apparently lost in some sort of personal deliberation. It was obvious he wanted to clear the table and be done with it. Nick finished his coffee and set the cup on the edge of the table, baiting the young waiter. Finally, the beckoning cup became too tempting and obvious to ignore and, sporting some reluctance, the young waiter eventually made his way back to the table.
“You want a refill, Lieutenant D’Nofrio?”
“Yes, Lieutenant. I remember how you like it.”
“I hope it’s not too late. Are you getting ready to close down?”
“It isn’t very late. The kitchen is closed,” said the young waiter, “but the bar will stay open for a few more hours. Were you still hungry? I think there’s some soup still on the stove, if you want it.”
“No. I just didn’t want to be a nuisance.”
“Of course not, Lieutenant.”
“What’s your name?” Nick asked the waiter.
“How did you know I was a lieutenant, James?”
The young waiter suddenly looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry. The bell captain told me.”
“What did he tell you?”
“That you were in Iraq with his son, and that you tried to save his son’s life.”
“Is that all he said?”
“Yes. I didn’t ask anything more about it.”
“How old are you, James?”
“Nineteen, Lieutenant.” The kid treated him with respect.
“Your father was in the military?”
“My father was in the Navy, sir. We lived in Annapolis when I was younger.”
“Your father’s retired now?”
“He’s dead now, Lieutenant.”
“Hell,” Nick said. “I’ll just have that coffee, then, James.”
The second cup of coffee came and Nick sipped at it, watching the rain sluice down hard against the wall of windows. It was an old and beautiful hotel, fitting for the island. He remembered the drive in and remembered how it was difficult to tell when you were leaving the coast and arriving on the island. The causeway that communicated with the mainland was wide and expansive, and there were always trees and small, shanty-like houses balanced precipitously at the edge of the island. Emma had been reading passages to him from one of her poetry books—Byron, if he was remembering correctly—and when they had hit the causeway, she had looked up, anxious to see the glistening span of water and the approaching island ahead. But it had been difficult to make out the island, as it all looked like flat, connected land, and there was really no long stretch of water separating the island from the mainland. Still, she had stopped reading, having tucked Byron (or whomever it had been) neatly in the rift between her seat and the Impala’s passenger door, and, with
adolescent alacrity, had looked on through the windshield without speaking.
That was like a thousand years ago, he thought now, sipping the coffee and watching the rain. Two weeks or a thousand years ago. It’s all just about the same when you get right down to it.
Emma could not sleep that first night of the storm. She remained on her back beside him, warm, in the bed and in the dark, and he could see her from the corner of his eye as he remained on his own back until he finally turned over and away from her. Sleep would not find him, either, and he listened long and hard to the rain coming down against the patio doors. He said nothing while he listened to her breathing, very close beside him in the bed, once familiar but so suddenly alien and frighteningly removed to him, as if he did not know her—as if he had never known her. They had not talked since dinner and, even at dinner, they had not talked.
Put yourself back on the beach, he told himself. Rewind everything just one day and put yourself back on the beach, and in the daylight, and without the storm and the wind and the creaking of the hotel in the throes of the wind. Put yourself back on the beach, he thought.
“I don’t like it,” Emma whispered just as he was about to fall asleep. She caught him in that state of half-consciousness where he found it temporarily difficult to differentiate between dreams and reality.
“It’s just a storm,” he said after realizing he was awake and everything around him was real.
“Can you move closer to me?” she said.
“I’m right here,” he said.
“I don’t like it. It’s loud and so much, and it bothers me.”
“It’ll be fine,” he assured her.
“I can’t find sleep. The rain is too much and I can’t find sleep.”
She was silent for a while. Then, at one point, he heard the bed creak. In turning slightly and looking over at her from the corner of one eye, he could make out her slender, pale form slipping off the side of the bed and moving through the darkness of the bedroom toward the patio doors. She did not say a word. He watched her linger, unmoving, before the midnight glow of the storm, her figure silhouetted against the moonlight and framed in that rectangle of double-doors, and did not say anything. To him, her form was familiar, unlike her breathing had been only moments ago, and he found a confusing mix of emotions in such a familiarity. The urge to go to her was suddenly overpowering. Yet he did not move from his place in the large bed except to pull the sheets up tight around the base of his neck and against his collarbone. The girl hadn’t closed the drapes, and he watched the rain slam against the patio doors and watched her slight frame stand before the doors, her thin and pale arms hugging her body. It was a hard rain. He could smell the girl, could still smell her in the pillow and in the sheets, and the smell was warm, clean, domestic. It was a smell only the slightest bit salty from the sea.