SAMPLE SUNDAY: Excerpt from the forthcoming novel NIGHTWALKERS BOOK TWO: NIGHT LOVERS
Russell hurried into the house and to Papa Henry’s bedroom. He eased the door open and stepped in. Other than the old man on the bed the room was empty. Friends and acquaintances had already visited to pay their respects. Family had sat and said goodbye.
Russell was alone with Papa Henry. He pulled up a straight-backed chair and sat next to the bed where his great-great-grandfather lie breathing his last breaths.
During his visit home at Christmas Russell at marveled how Papa Henry still looked so good for his age, and at how he’d looked mostly the same for as long as he could remember. But now, had he not known that the emaciated man on the bed was his great-great grandfather he would not have recognized him. Now he looked every minute of his one hundred seventeen years.
Papa Henry’s eyes were open, staring up at the ceiling. Russell reached and touched his hand. Papa Henry did not respond. He seemed not to be aware of Russell’s presence. Or perhaps he was not truly here. Maybe he was staring at what lay on the other side of this life. Russell didn’t speak to him. If Papa was resting he did not want to disturb him.
Looking at the poor, shriveled soul lying in the bed, any hope Russell might have harbored that God would grant a miracle withered and died. The hope was replaced by dread and guilt, scratching at the shell of his heart: Dread because he was about to lose the man who had been as much a part of his life as his parents. Guilt because he had left home at eighteen, had been gone for seven years, had given away some of the time they could have spent together.
Knowing that a loved one has lived a long and good life does not lessen the pain when that life comes to an end. Even though Papa Henry had lived a longer life than most and by all accounts an honorable one, Russell felt that his passing was coming too soon, before anyone was ready. His death was going to leave a gaping hole in the family that could never be filled.
Exhausted from his long drive, Russell sat back and closed his grainy eyes.
Better. His eyes needed relief from even the last low light of the day. Later he would drive down the road to his parent’s house and sleep like the dead in his old bed. Old bed. New bed in the apartment on Lippincott Avenue.
From the kitchen he could just make out Grandma Agnes’ voice. By her tone he knew she was thanking some departing guest for visiting.
From the shelf, the tick-tick of Papa Henry’s wind-up clock.
The country was so quiet compared to what he had become used to. Even walking alone at night on the beach wasn’t this quiet.
The breeze wafting through the window carried the scent of raw earth, the musty smell of chickens and mules, and the acrid odor of charred wood.
Russell felt fresh guilt because he did not want to be here. This was where he had come from, but the core of him belonged elsewhere now. This place was no longer his home. Already he missed the sweet fragrance of the apple tree in his side yard, and the salted scent of the ocean. He missed not having walked downtown and then to the beach this morning as he’d planned. He even missed the stained glass window in the foyer at his apartment house.
Thinking about the window gave him a rush of excitement, like a breeze whipping around his heart. He was at the top of the stairs in his apartment house, looking down into the little foyer. He could see Mrs. Porter standing there. Maybe she’d come back to collect Cooley’s share of the rent.
No, not Mrs. Porter. Someone else.
He couldn’t tell who she was, because looking down he could only see the crown of her lowered head as she stood at the foot of the stairs, next to the window. A mass of dark hair fell over her face. There was no light on in the stairwell or down in the foyer. Only moonlight filtering through the stained glass illuminated the little space. It blanketed the woman down there in a kaleidoscope of icy colors. He couldn’t even tell whether she was colored or white.
Had Mrs. Porter already rented out the downstairs apartment? He was going to ask the woman if she was his new neighbor, but before he could speak she tilted her head up to look at him.
The breeze in his chest became a buffeting wind. His intended question froze in his throat. Though he still couldn’t make out her features, Russell could tell now that she was a young woman, maybe about his age.
Standing in the strange colored light she seemed to be smiling up at him, and that gave him a sense of something familiar. But he didn’t know what or why.
She placed her hand on the stair rail and said, “Shall I come up to you, or will you come down to me?”
Russell didn’t realize that he had drifted off until a sense that he was falling made him start. He jerked awake on the chair with that feeling of rushing wind in his chest, whipping around his heart.
Beyond the window it was now full dark. While he’d been dozing someone had come in and turned on the lamp.
Papa Henry was watching him.
Russell placed his hand gently on Papa Henry’s bony wrist. “You don’t need to talk, Papa. Save your strength. I’m here.”
Russell shook his head. “You got nothing to be sorry about, not after all you’ve done for us. All you went through in your life, all your struggles…” Emotion clotted Russell’s throat and choked off his words.
“Do you feel it?”
“I don’t understand.”
“We walked. Yes Lord, we walked.”
“It’s all right Papa. Just rest, okay?”
“I’m gonna rest. I’m gonna go on and see my Nan.”
“It’s okay Papa.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t stay…didn’t have the courage.”
“You’ve earned your rest.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you…”
Papa Henry’s eyes looked clear, but maybe he wasn’t all right. He wasn’t making much sense. Maybe in these last days or hours his mind was going.
“It’s all right, Papa.”
“…couldn’t keep the burden from you.”
“You’re no burden, Papa. You’ve been good to all of us.”
“Don’t walk, you hear?”
“Stay in the Army. I think you’ll be all right then.”
Yeah, Papa Henry’s mind wasn’t clear, Russell thought. He’d been out of the Army for three years. Papa knew that. Or at least he used to know it.
When Papa Henry was asleep Russell eased out of the room. He hugged Grandma Agnes goodnight.
There were still a few cars in the yard between the store and the house, stragglers from the herd that had been there when Russell arrived. He could hear voices in the store, those people who thrived on visiting sorrow, and who would stay until they’d drank up the last drops of another’s suffering.
Russell wasn’t tired anymore. He felt as if snapping awake on the chair in Papa Henry’s room had jump-started his energy. He didn’t want to deal with the people in the store, but he wasn’t ready to go down the road to his parent’s house to sleep, either.
Standing in the dark next to his car at the side of the store Russell considered his options. It was just after 9:00, too late to call on old friends unannounced, if that’s what he wanted to do. He didn’t.
He could go into town. Murfreesboro was just a few minutes away. Eazy’s Tavern, just on the outskirts of town, was the weekend nightspot for colored people. Odds were, since he’d been too young to drink when he left for the Army, not many people there would know him well enough to bother him. He could sit and enjoy a cold beer and listen to the jukebox in peace.
He felt it in his chest again, that rustling like a breeze through leaves, making his heart shiver. He took it as a sign of excitement, encouragement that going to Eazy’s was a good option.
As Russell pulled opened the Chevy’s door he had a sense that he wasn’t alone outside the store. He leaned and looked toward the cars around back, anticipating that someone was about to speak to him. But he saw no one in the dark among the vehicles.
He looked toward the front yard. No one stood in the meager light offered by the storefront windows.
That fluttering in his chest again. Russell’s eyes were drawn to the road and toward the shadowed stalks of corn across the blacktop. Rather than disturb Grandma Agnes someone might have gone into the cornfield to take a leak. But the night was quiet. Even the people in the store had stopped talking for the moment. If someone was moving about in the cornfield near the road he would have heard them.
Russell slipped into his car, backed onto the road and pointed his headlights toward Murfreesboro. As he neared the bend that curved around the cornfield he popped on his high beams. Just before rounding the curve he stole a glance at his rearview mirror.
The feeling was still with him, and he would not have been surprised if he’d seen someone back there, standing in the middle of the road.