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The Narrows, Page 2

Ronald Malfi

  Those stores that were still open and thriving had their front stoops ornamented with sandbag barricades. Muddy debris cluttered the sidewalk and, every once in a while, the boys had to step over fallen tree limbs rattling their brown, crunchy leaves in the wind. The last time Stillwater had flooded this badly, Matthew was five years old. His father had shored up the foundation of the house with sandbags and moved all his tools and equipment in the garage to the higher shelves. He had plugged up the exhaust pipes of the pickup truck and the old Dodge with tennis balls and wrapped them over with electrical tape. The water came, simmering at first in the street out in front of the Crawly house, the surface alive with dancing raindrops, the water itself oily and black like ink. Soon enough, the Narrows flooded and a torrent came gushing down the street and across the opposite field. From the living room windows, Matthew and Brandy had watched as the muddy water rose against the framework of the house. Things had been in that water. Brandy had readily pointed them out to him at the time—the bobbing head of a passing snake, the arched and moss-slickened back of an enormous turtle, someone’s cat clinging to an iceberg of Styrofoam. Plastic lawn furniture had washed across their backyard. To this day, Matthew could still recall the loud pop just before the power had blown out.

  He wondered now if it flooded like that where his father was…

  The traffic light at the intersection of Hamilton and Susquehanna—which was the only traffic light in Stillwater, unless you counted the blinking-yellow yield lights where Paxton Street merged with Route 40 on the far side of Haystack Mountain—was dark. Both boys darted across the street to Hogarth’s, the scalloped edging of the drugstore’s green-and-white canvas awning flapping in the wind. There were more sandbags here, along with overturned trash cans and mounds of sodden leaves, glittery and blackish-brown, smashed up against the front of the building. Some of the windows in the nearby shops boasted long spidery cracks, probably from items having been scooped up by the torrent and thrown against the glass. That mildew smell was here too, just as it was back home, and just as it had been all week at school. It seemed the air was clogged with rot.

  Matthew stood before the drugstore’s front window in reverential silence. Dwight came up beside him, their mismatched reflections like two ghosts standing side by side in the smoked glass. Scraps of paper whipped against their shins and a single Styrofoam cup cartwheeled down the sidewalk toward them.

  “See?” Dwight said.

  Matthew stared longingly at the intricately detailed Dracula mask in the window, complete with realistic hair as dark and smooth as raven feathers. The vampire’s mouth was a ragged, fang-ringed hole from which exclamations of fake blood streamed in perfect ribbons. Its pallid skin looked as colorless as dough, the blackened pits of its eyes seeming to contain infinite space.

  “Yeah. It’s still there,” Matthew said.

  “I told you it would be.” Dwight sounded bored. “You can probably get it for cheap after Halloween.”

  “Yeah,” Matthew said, disappointment evident in his voice. It meant nothing, having the Dracula mask after Halloween. What good would that do him?

  “Hey,” said Dwight, suddenly perking up. “You think that was a vampire bat back in Miss Sleet’s classroom?”

  “No. It was just a fruit bat or something.”

  “A bat that eats fruit?”

  “Or maybe it ate bugs.”

  “How do you know?”

  “I don’t know. I just know.”

  “Vampires,” Dwight said…and the eyes of his ghostly counterpart suddenly lit up in the reflection of the drugstore window. “Maybe that’s what got that hairless boy.”

  Matthew said nothing. He didn’t want to think about the hairless boy. In fact, he’d had nightmares about the boy since some kids in school had told him about it.

  “How much are you short, anyway?” Dwight asked.

  Matthew did the quick math in his head—he had a Superman lunchbox back in his bedroom where he kept his meager savings—and said, “Only about seven dollars.”

  “That’s not so bad.”

  “My allowance is three bucks a week.”

  “Ask for an advance,” Dwight said.

  “What’s that?”

  “It’s when you get money before you do the work. My dad does it all the time at the shop.”

  “That sounds like a rip. Who would do that?”

  “I just said my dad does it at work.”

  Matthew did not think his mother would give him an advance. Moreover, the fact that getting an advance was something Dwight’s father did, confirmed that it sounded like a rip-off. He stared at the mask in the drugstore’s window and thought about how cool it would be to have that mask for Halloween, to wear it with a black cape and the star-shaped pendant he’d already made out of cardboard covered in tinfoil, which was also salted away in his Superman lunchbox.

  “Okay,” Dwight said in a huff. “We came and we saw the stupid mask. Can we go down to the Narrows now? You promised.”

  The eyeholes in the mask were gaping black pits; the pronged maw of its mouth looked like some sort of trap set deep in the woods to catch bears. Matthew only looked away from it when he felt Dwight tugging at the hem of his shirt.

  “Dude,” Dwight moaned, “you promised.”

  Matthew sighed. “Okay. Let’s go. But we gotta hurry.”


  They headed back toward Cemetery Road, then crossed into the undisciplined swell of forestry that comprised the foothills of Haystack Mountain. Beyond, the Cumberland landscape, with all its swells and slaloms, looked like there was something enormous just beneath the earth trying to push its way out. In the summer, the trees surrounding the base of the mountain were full and green, obscuring the curving blacktop of Route 40 and the roiling gray water of the Narrows beyond. Now, in autumn, the trees were bare and the curl of asphalt could be glimpsed though the meshwork of ash-colored branches.

  Despite his labored respiration, Dwight Dandridge moved quickly ahead of Matthew, crossing through the trees and out onto a plain of sun-bleached reeds like some pioneer straight out of a history textbook. There was a darkened triangle of sweat at the back of Dwight’s striped polo shirt, and Matthew could hear his friend’s wheezing exhalations—heee, heee—as clear as day.

  Matthew was still thinking about the Dracula mask as they slowed down to an airy trot at the cusp of Route 40, the winding whip-crack of highway that cut through the mountains. Matthew’s mother didn’t allow him to travel this far from town, and she had on more than one occasion forbidden him from crossing Route 40. Although it was typically within the boy’s nature to adhere to his mother’s mandates, Dwight Dandridge’s influence over him was greater than any other force in his life, as is customarily the way with young boys and their friends. Often, his mother would employ the old adage, suggesting that, if Dwight jumped off the Highland Street Bridge, she had no doubt her easily-manipulated yet good-hearted son would readily follow. This comment always reminded Matthew of the time Dwight had tied a bunch of kites to his back, arms, and legs, and contemplated jumping off the highest point of the bridge to see if he could fly. Somehow Matthew had talked him out of it.

  “Come on,” Dwight urged, making Matthew aware that he was lagging behind. “Don’t chicken out on me now.”

  “I’m not chickening out.”

  “Bok bok bok bok bok!”

  “Cut it out, jerk.”

  Dwight waved a hand at him as he crossed the highway. “Come on!”

  After checking for traffic, Matthew crossed the highway toward the steep embankment on the other side that led down into the cold, black waters of the Narrows. Dwight was already peering down the embankment, no doubt assessing the tribulations of traversing the rocky decline down toward the flume of water. White stones burst out of the hillside, looking like the tops of skulls rising from their graves, and Matthew could see tentacular tree limbs and nests of brambles sprouting from the earth, ready to snatch them up and
trip them down the side of the mountain and into the Narrows. Some random garbage was strewn about as well, remnants of the storm. People’s lives had been uprooted and swept away, the leftover bits scattered like flotsam and jetsam throughout the wooded mountainside.

  Dwight began descending the hillside, pausing halfway down to peer over his shoulder at Matthew, who remained standing at the cusp of the highway. “You coming?”

  “This is stupid,” he responded, though he was already testing his footing on one of the large white stones. Slowly he descended the hillside, using the stones when he could to secure his footing; when he couldn’t, he crouched low to the ground, hoping that the muddy earth wouldn’t betray him and send him tumbling down the rest of the way. At one point, startled by the growl of a heavy engine whipping along Route 40 directly above his head, he nearly lost his balance and tumbled down. Dwight, having seemingly materialized beside him like a guardian angel, managed to snag a handful of Matthew’s shirt and prevent the fall.

  At the bottom of the valley they crossed over to the concrete lip of the Narrows and peered down. The water level was still very high, the water itself black, swirling and fast moving. Cattails spun out of rents in the concrete and crickets chirped happily in the tall grass. Dried mud covered everything, further evidence of the flood that had so recently besieged their hometown.

  Matthew had heard stories of fishermen pulling three-eyed rockfish from the Narrows, or kids catching uniquely colored frogs with extra appendages. Before his father had left, Matthew had asked him if these stories were true. Hugh Crawly, who had evidently been just months away from leaving his son, daughter, and wife, had told the boy that he couldn’t vouch for the stories of others, but that he had once personally witnessed a two-headed turtle sunning itself on one of the footpaths down by the creek. He’d been with some other friends that afternoon and claimed that one of his buddies had suggested they catch the thing and call the Smithsonian in D.C. Someone else volunteered that they should make soup from it, though the notion of eating a creature as so clearly deformed and unnatural as this one did not sit well with the rest of the men. Finally, in the end, no one wanted to touch it. “It’s because of the old plastics plant,” his father had concluded that afternoon. They had been out by the garage, where his old man had been working on the family pickup truck, wiping down one greasy gadget he’d removed from beneath the pickup’s hood. “Before that plant closed down, people would see all sorts of funny-looking critters down in the Narrows. The water there is still polluted with runoff from the plant. You should never swim there.”

  Matthew never had. Now, he looked across the Narrows and halfway up the neighboring mountain where the old plastics factory, now long defunct and abandoned, squatted low to the ground like an animal lying in wait. Its ranks of tiny barred windows looked like grids on a circuit board and its stone façade was networked with thick cords of ivy. Two slender concrete smokestacks rose up like medieval prison towers at one end of the factory.

  “Help me look,” Dwight said. He had a big stick now, which he used to thwack the overgrown grass.

  Matthew glanced around. “How do you know we’re even in the right spot?”

  “Billy Leary said it was down by the Narrows, between the Witch Tree and the stone bridge.” Dwight pointed to the overpass made of black stones that spanned the Narrows in a tight little arc, then he pointed over to the Witch Tree, a creeping, skeletal horror that clawed up out of a base of brownish nettles, its branches like flailing arms, the suggestion of faces etched into its ashy bark. Matthew knew countless stories and rumors surrounding that tree, the most sinister suggesting that the tree had once been a little boy who had broken into an old witch’s house and stolen all her sweets. The boy had thought he’d gotten away with it but the witch came looking for him later that night, her grotesque face peering right into his bedroom window. She kidnapped the boy and turned him into a tree so he could never steal things from her or anyone else again. Indeed, if you stared at the trunk of the twisted and gnarled tree long enough, there seemed to be a face—or many faces—within the bark.

  “How much do you get doing your paper route?” Matthew asked.

  “Fifteen bucks a week.”

  “Wow. That much, huh?”

  “Yeah.” Dwight wandered over to the stone footbridge, a semicircle of daylight winking out from beneath it. Beyond the bridge, one of the many footpaths described a winding walkway through the thicket. With the tip of his thwacking stick, Dwight chipped away some of the mortar between the stones in the bridge’s foundation. “Why?”

  “You think maybe I can take it over for a week? Just till I get enough money to pay for the Dracula mask.”

  “That wasn’t Dracula,” Dwight said, still searching the ground.

  “Yeah it was.”

  “No it wasn’t, dummy.”

  “Who was it, then?”

  “Just a regular old vampire.”

  “What’s the difference?”

  “Dracula is a specific vampire. Maybe even the lead vampire. He’s one guy, you know? Dracula is his name. It’s like saying all monkeys are called King Kong.”

  “My sister says Dracula’s real name was Vlad.”

  “You know what I mean, dummy,” Dwight said.

  “And King Kong wasn’t a monkey,” Matthew said. “He was an ape.”

  Dwight paused in chipping away the mortar from between the stones, propping the long stick over one shoulder. He winced into the sun as he looked toward Matthew. “What’s the difference?”

  Matthew admitted that he did not know.

  “Have you ever even seen Dracula?” Dwight asked, peering beneath the stone footbridge.

  “He’s not a real person,” Matthew said.

  “Not in person, dummy. The movie, I mean. Have you seen it?”

  “Oh. Yes. I mean, no. I don’t know.” He couldn’t remember now. He’d seen a vampire movie on a cable access channel late one night over the summer after his mom and his sister had gone to bed. Had that movie been He couldn’t remember now. There had been a vampire who looked strikingly like the mask in Hogarth’s window. He’d suffered nightmares for several days after watching that movie.Dracula?

  “It’s pretty boring,” Dwight said. “And it’s so old. It’s not even in color. The only creepy part is he lives in this big old castle, and there are candles on the walls and shadows everywhere.” Dwight pointed across the Narrows to where the old plastics factory appeared superimposed against the cloudy sky. “Sort of looked like that place.”

  For some inexplicable reason, looking at it now, Matthew felt a chill radiate up his spine.

  “Anyway, I can’t just have you take over my route, doofus,” Dwight continued. “You gotta get up crazy early, before school even, and if you oversleep and miss the route, I’ll catch hell.”

  “I won’t oversleep.”

  “And besides, I’m saving up my money to buy a new dirt bike.”

  Matthew sighed.

  “Oh damn,” Dwight said. The tone of his voice ratcheted up a notch with excitement. “Here it is! Take a look!”

  Matthew turned away from the view of the abandoned plastics factory and found Dwight crouching in the tall grass, his stick planted like a staff in the ground. Dwight peered at something at his feet, a look of pure awe on his chubby face. From where Matthew stood, he could see there was something big down there in the grass, bending the stalks of the reeds and creating what appeared to be a crater in the earth.

  Matthew sidled up beside Dwight…then immediately recoiled when he saw what Dwight was looking at.

  “That’s…that’s not a deer,” Matthew said, his voice small. “Is it?”

  The thing no longer resembled whatever it had been when it was alive. Matthew could make out the suggestion of long, muscular legs covered in short tawny hair and hooves like chunks of obsidian. Through what was left of its skull, he could see a whitish zipper of dull teeth along a tapered snout. The skull itself looked like a bow
l with some pinkish fluid at its center.

  The entire torso of the animal had been demolished, reduced to a bloody, sizzling vomitus that rotted in the heat of midday. White ribs poked like bicycle spokes from a ragged tear in its side, through which Matthew could see its purplish organs and banded, milky pustules of fat. At first glance, he thought he could see the organs behind the ribs working, as if the thing was somehow still alive…but on closer inspection, he realized the movement he was seeing was the wriggling of maggots that had infested the carcass. The entire thing hummed with horseflies.

  “Sure it is,” Dwight said, though Matthew could hear the skepticism in his friend’s voice, too. “What else could it be?”

  “Whatever it is, it’s disgusting,” Matthew said.

  Dwight cocked his head, as if to examine the thing from a different angle. He pointed to the thing’s tattered hindquarters, where the ragged hook of a two-toned tail curled stiffly out of the brown weeds.

  “It’s a whitetail,” said Dwight. Sweat beaded his forehead.

  “What do you think happened to it?” Matthew looked up to estimate the distance between the carcass and Route 40 at the top of the hill. “Do you think a car hit it?”

  “A car didn’t do this. It looks like something ate it,” Dwight suggested. He stood and prodded the corpse with his stick. One stiff leg rocked and there was a ripping sound as part of its gore-matted hide tore out of the grass.

  Matthew wrinkled his nose. “Gross. Don’t do that.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because it’s—”

  Both boys jumped back, startled by the massive beetle that spilled out of the whitetail’s snout and scuttled into the grass, its metallic green carapace glinting sunlight. Nervously, Dwight laughed. Then he tossed the stick onto the ground and withdrew a small boning knife from his backpack.