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The Narrows

Ronald Malfi


  For Don,

  A great editor and one helluva good guy.

  Author’s Note

  This is the part where I ask forgiveness from all the good folks who reside in the western part of Maryland and along the swollen green range of the Allegheny Mountains; for the purposes of this story, I have taken many liberties with your region, to include its topography, history, and its people, and I know how these things can be sacred to some. For the uninitiated, U.S. Route 40 certainly does exist, as do the specific mountains named within this book. The Narrows and Wills Creek exist, as well. But anyone familiar with the area will know I have taken liberty in altering certain details to better suit this author’s tale.

  However, that’s not to say dark things don’t hide in real places…



  “I feel a wonderful peace and rest to-night. It is as if some haunting presence were removed from me. Perhaps…”

  —Bram Stoker, Dracula

  Part One:

  Stillwater Runs Deep

  “We all rose early, and I think that sleep did much for each and all of us.”

  —Bram Stoker, Dracula

  Chapter One


  The students in Miss Sleet’s sixth-grade class were reading quietly to themselves when one of the girls in the back of the room screamed. Heads whirled in the girl’s direction—it was Cynthia Paterson, sitting stiff as a board in her chair, her head craned back on her neck—and there was the sound of pencils rolling to the floor. Matthew Crawly, whose desk was just two up from Cynthia’s, followed Cynthia’s eyes toward the bank of windows that looked out upon the football field, a bright green grid mapped with white, spray-painted lines. He could see nothing of significance on the field itself or in the parade of champagne-colored trees that lined Schoolhouse Road beyond the field.

  Miss Sleet stood sharply from behind her desk. She was a narrow, hardened woman in her sixties whose body—cloaked in garish floral prints with lace cuffs—looked angular and violent. Her hands were like the claws of a rooster.

  “What is—” Miss Sleet began…but then the rest of her words were replaced by a guttural groan as her own eyes flitted toward the wall of windows.

  Toward the back of the room, a few more students cried out. A good number of the girls had already popped out of their desks and stood like pageant contestants at the back of the classroom, their backs against the file cabinets and the rank of hooks that held their autumn coats. Cynthia Paterson jumped out of her chair as well, her face suddenly pale, her eyes impossibly wide. Soundlessly, she pointed up at the windows.

  Matthew looked again, this time at the windows themselves, streaky with dried soap scum and peppered with Halloween decorations made from brown and orange construction paper. Spotty, gray shades made of thick vinyl were rolled into tubes at the tops of the windows, wispy with cobwebs. As he looked, he spotted a furtive movement at the top of the window closest to Miss Sleet’s desk—a twitching, incongruent thing where the shade met the wall. Something small and black hung from the shade. It was no bigger than the sandwiches his mother packed him for lunch, but even from this distance, he could see that it was comprised of coarse brownish-black hair and vibrated with life.

  “A bat!” one of the boys shouted. “It’s a bat!”

  The furry thing stirred and, even over the shouts and whimpers of the students, Matthew heard it emit a high-pitched, tittering sound. Its wings cranked open, its movements as seemingly uncertain as those of a newborn baby. A tiny triangular head capped with pointed ears bobbed as it sniffed the air—up, down, all around. Then it dropped from the shade and, amid a collective cry of fear from the students as well as old Miss Sleet, it zigzagged across the room. Its papery wings flapped frantically.

  The students standing at the rear of the room scattered. The sound of their shoes on the linoleum was like an adult’s reprimand to remain quiet: shhh. Some of them made it to the door but, in their panic, they couldn’t seem to get it open. Those still in their seats—Matthew Crawly among them—ducked as the winged critter flitted above their heads. The thing screeched as it drove itself into the chalkboard—Miss Sleet screeched too—then it cartwheeled up into the ceiling where it beat its wings against the acoustical tiles with a sound disarmingly similar to tree branches whapping against windowpanes in a strong wind.

  “Good Lord,” Miss Sleet croaked. When the classroom door was finally wrenched open and a stream of kids spilled out into the hall, Miss Sleet shouted at them not to let the bat out of the classroom. Then she staggered backward into one corner, snatching her purse from her desk and clutching it to her chest like some protective idol.

  Matthew got out of his chair and walked across the room toward the windows. His eyes did not leave the frightened creature vibrating against the ceiling. He’d seen plenty of bats before—at dusk, the sky above the Crawly house was alive with them—but he’d never seen one in the daytime. And he’d never seen one so afraid.

  Dwight Dandridge, Matthew’s best friend, was one of the students who’d remained in their seats. The larger boy had his head pressed down on the desktop, his meaty arms hugging his body, a look of petrification on his face. Sweat beaded his reddened brow. As Matthew approached, he gave Dwight a wink that Dwight returned, even in his stupefied state, with a crooked grin.

  At the front of the room, Miss Sleet inched her way toward the open door. More kids filed out, though a good number of them remained standing in the doorway, too mesmerized by the thing flitting against the ceiling to look away. Someone pointed at it and murmured nonsense.

  Matthew went to the center window, peeled away a grinning jack-o’-lantern made of orange construction paper, and undid the latch.

  “What are you doing?” Dwight said, craning his head to watch Matthew but apparently too afraid to lift it off his desk. “You gonna jump out?”

  “No.” With a grunt, Matthew pushed open the window on squealing hinges.

  “Matthew Crawly!” Miss Sleet half barked, half whispered from across the classroom. She was shoving students out the door and into the hallway, her purse still clutched to her chest. Matthew could hear a lot of commotion going on out there in the hall. “Stop that!”

  “It’s okay,” Matthew said evenly.

  The bat swung around until it nested in a potted plant atop a large metal filing cabinet at the back of the room. Its movements caused the students out in the hall to shriek shrilly and—almost humorously—caused Miss Sleet to hustle more quickly from the classroom.

  “Those things got rabies,” Dwight informed Matthew, still slouched down at his desk.

  “Not all of them,” Matthew said…though he was a bit discomfited by the bat’s having appeared now in the middle of the day. Bats were nocturnal. Of course, it was entirely possible that the thing had gotten trapped in the school during the night and had simply been sleeping here, undisturbed, until chubby, little Cynthia Paterson had noticed it. It could have been here for weeks, in fact.

  Wild and fuming, Mr. Pulaski staggered into the classroom, his janitorial jumpsuit a palette of stains, his wiry, gray hair a frizzy mat on his head. With the eyes of a hawk, he quickly spotted the bat nesting in the potted plant on the filing cabinet. Mr. Pulaski was chewing hungrily on his lower lip and holding a wrench out before him like a fencing sword. Many of the students in Stillwater Elementary were afraid of Mr. Pulaski, and there was no shortage of stories—each one more frightening and implausible than the next—circulating about the creepy old janitor. Once, Matthew had seen the old fellow dump sawdust on a puddle of pinkish vomit in the cafeteria. When Mr. Pulaski had sensed Matthew’s eyes on him, the old janitor had met his gaze—those steel-colored eyes like the burned-out headlights in a Buick�
��and had held him in it, trancelike. “Might taste a bit different,” Mr. Pulaski had said, his voice like the twisting of old leather, “but it still looks the same.” Then he had winked, sending Matthew scurrying off down the hallway, his skin gone cold.

  Now, Mr. Pulaski struck Matthew as oddly comical. Wielding an oversized wrench and peering across the room at the bat with excessive disdain, he suddenly reminded Matthew of Don Quixote, from the book he’d read over summer break: the confused and improbable hero who battled windmills.

  “You boys get out of here,” Mr. Pulaski said, referring to Matthew, Dwight, and the smattering of other boys who still lingered in the room, pressed against the tops of their desks.

  “Don’t hurt it,” Matthew said.

  If Mr. Pulaski had heard him, he made no acknowledgment. Holding the wrench now in both hands, he crept slowly down one aisle of desks toward the filing cabinet, his eyes trained on the small brown husk of vibrating fur clinging to the leaves of the potted plant. Out in the hallway, someone moaned. Matthew thought it was probably Miss Sleet.

  A cool breeze whistled through the open window, blowing papers off desks and rustling the Halloween decorations. Tornados of dead leaves whirred to life out on the lawn. On top of the filing cabinet, the bat burst from the plant and carved a clumsy arc across the classroom toward the open window. Mr. Pulaski made a pathetic gah sound as he took a swing at the bat with the wrench, and some of the girls out in the hallway cried out in a combination of nervous laughter and abject fear.

  “Holy shit,” Dwight squeaked then rolled out of his desk chair onto the floor, covering the back of his head with his hands. The bat swerved toward him, executing a fairly commendable loop-the-loop, then pitched out the open window. A second later, it was gone.

  Mr. Pulaski, who was still in the process of gaining his balance by leaning on one of the desks, stared blankly at the window then over at Matthew. Again, Matthew thought of the creepy wink the old janitor had given him that day he saw him cleaning up puke in the cafeteria. Might taste a bit different but it still looks the same. For whatever reason, eleven-year-old Matthew Crawly was stricken at that moment by an unfounded sense of guilt.

  Then the bell rang, signaling the end of the school day, and everyone cried out in surprise.


  It was mid-October, and the western Maryland town of Stillwater was still drying out from a rainy season that had arrived with the swift and unmitigated vengeance of a Greek god, flooding the Narrows and temporarily darkening the town square. Wills Creek—a slate-colored, serpentine ribbon that forged a valley between two tired mountains and ran along Stillwater’s northern border in a semicircular concrete basin, more familiarly known to the locals as the Narrows—had swelled like a cauldron coming to a boil, washing the Highland Street Bridge into the Potomac and casting torrents of black water down the length of the B&O tracks. The town’s roads had served as conduits, flushing gallons of water through the neighborhoods and out to the farm roads, while at the center of town, shop owners had watched with mounting horror as the level of the water had risen incrementally against the brick façades and plate-glass windows of their buildings. Some livestock drowned and automobiles that hadn’t been repositioned to higher ground flooded. If one were to stand on the circular walkway that circumnavigated the top of the abandoned grain silo on Gracie Street, the destruction would have appeared to be of biblical proportions. It took a full week for the water to retreat completely, leaving behind clumps of reeking, muddy sludge clogged with tree limbs and garbage in the streets. Many houses remained dark for several days more, the power having been snuffed out like a candle in a strong wind. The air stank of diesel exhaust from the litany of gas-powered generators that hummed in open yards. Shop owners were left to contend with flooded storefronts and stockrooms, freezers and refrigerators that were nothing more than coffin-shaped boxes in which goods thawed and rotted. The basement of the elementary school that Matthew Crawly attended had filled with several feet of water that had turned black and oily after mixing with the soot and muck from the elementary school’s ancient furnace. Generators were hooked up and a pumping machine was submerged into the swampy mess, trailing a long plastic sleeve up through one of the storm windows, across the playground and the muddied, ruinous baseball diamond, and over the chain-link fence where it vomited fecal-colored water into the woods.

  On this rain-swept Friday afternoon, Matthew and Dwight stepped over the train tracks and headed up the slight embankment toward Cemetery Road, their sneakers already blackened with mud. Dwight snapped a branch off a nearby birch tree and began whipping the air. Up ahead, the black iron gates of the Stillwater Cemetery rose up out of the rainy mist like spearheads. As they walked past the gates, Matthew could see the swampy cemetery grounds and the tombstones rising out of shimmering quicksilver puddles. The moss-covered mausoleums beneath the bare limbs of elm trees looked like props in a horror movie. The nearby willow trees hung in wet, loopy garlands, and the sky beyond looked terminally ill. The Crawly house had sustained some damage from the storm, and the electricity had only come back on two nights ago, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was the smell—a permeating, moldy stink that, when inhaled, felt like it got caught up in your lungs like lint in a dryer vent. Lately, it seemed like the whole town smelled this way.

  “I want to see it,” Dwight said.

  “I can’t. I’m not allowed out that far.”

  “Says who?”

  “Says my mom.”

  “Goddamn it, Crawly. Why are you such a chickenshit?”

  “I’m not a chickenshit,” Matthew said, shifting his backpack from one shoulder to the other. His sneakers squished in the mud. “What do I want to go all the way out there for, anyway? It’s just a stupid deer.”

  “Billy Leary said it looked like some monster tore it to pieces.”

  “It’s probably gone by now anyway.”

  “Gone where?” Dwight asked, still swinging at the air with the birch branch. “It just got up and walked away?”

  Matthew shrugged. He was still thinking about the bat. After the bell had rung and the hallways had flooded with students anxious to begin their weekend, Matthew had gathered his books from his desk, stuffed them in his backpack, and was about to join Dwight out in the hallway when a heavy hand fell on his shoulder. Startled, he had turned around to see Mr. Pulaski towering over him, the oversized wrench still clenched in one thick-knuckled hand. “Shouldn’t be cavalier with bats, son,” Mr. Pulaski had warned him. (While Matthew had not known what the word cavalier meant, the heart of the statement was not lost on him.) “Sometimes they’s dangerous. Sometimes.”

  “Man, I just gotta see this thing,” Dwight droned on. “Billy Leary said it might have even been attacked by a bear. Can you believe it?”

  No, Matthew couldn’t believe it. Billy Leary was a crusty-faced half-wit who spent most of the school day in the remedial classroom by the gymnasium with four or five other students. Matthew did not put much stock in anything Billy Leary said.

  “It probably just got hit by a car crossing Route 40.”

  “Either way, let’s go,” Dwight insisted. Frustrated, he snapped the birch branch in half then tossed both pieces over the cemetery fence. “We’ll be home before supper. I promise.”

  “Okay. But I want to stop by Hogarth’s first.”

  Dwight moaned. Unlike Matthew, whose slight frame and baby-blond hair made him look even younger than he was, Dwight Dandridge was a meaty, solid block of flesh in a striped polo shirt. According to Dwight’s father (who was a drunkard, if the one-sided conversations Matthew had overheard when his mother was on the telephone were at all reliable), his son was rapidly on his way to Gutsville. If that meant Dwight was on his way to becoming fat, Matthew surmised that Mr. Dandridge had been living in Gutsville for most of his adult life, and could probably run for mayor.

  “Hogarth’s is on the other side of town, dummy,” Dwight groaned. His hands were stuffed int
o the overly tight pockets of his jeans and he was kicking rocks as he walked. Matthew glanced at him and found his friend’s profile, with his upturned nose and protruding front teeth, piggish and off-putting.

  “I’ll go with you to the Narrows if you come with me to Hogarth’s first,” Matthew said.

  “It’s still there, you know,” Dwight assured him. “You don’t have to keep checking up on it. No one’s buying it.”

  “Someone might.”

  “Everyone else has already got their Halloween costumes picked out, dummy. You’re the only holdout.”

  “That’s not true.”

  “Of course it’s true. Halloween’s two weeks away. What do you think everyone’s waiting for?”

  “So what are you gonna be?”

  “A fuckin’ cool space alien.” Dwight licked his lips in his excitement. “I got these big rubbery gloves with claws on the ends and this mask, such a freaky mask. You gotta see it! It’s got this fishy green skin and eyes like swimming goggles.” He was nearly out of breath talking about it.

  “Cool,” Matthew said.

  “Do you even have enough money to buy it yet?”


  “Give it up. You should just be a homicidal serial killer,” Dwight suggested. “Wear some ripped up clothes, put some fake blood all over your face and hands, and walk around with a butcher’s knife. It’s easy.”

  “That’s stupid.”

  “You’re stupid. Homicidal serial killer’s a fuckin’ awesome idea.”

  “Then you can be the stupid serial killer and I’ll wear your alien mask.”

  “No way, dummy.”

  They veered off Cemetery Road and headed across town. Even at this hour, the streets were mostly empty, and many of the shops along Hamilton Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, were dark and vacant, their plate-glass windows soaped over and their doors boarded up. Matthew imagined that he heard the autumn wind whistling through the ranks of empty storefronts as if through a system of caves. The arcade was gone now, along with the old pizza joint and the video store. The ice cream parlor where Brandy, Matthew’s sister, had worked two summers ago was gone as well; all that remained of it was a hollowed-out shell on the corner of Hamilton and Rapunzel, like something out of a movie about nuclear warfare.