The Gift sample

Part One: The Cellar


The ward room didn’t have any medicinal smell. This was a good hospital, but he had expected there to be some smells. On the left were four beds, behind curtains and separated by curtains. On the right were a desk and an empty chair beside the door, then four more chairs, metal tables on wheels, spare drip stands, and some electronic devices against the far wall. There was a waste basket in the corner beside them.

He went to the third curtain. His chest was tight. He was not quite nauseated. He had to take a deep breath, then another before he could pull the curtain aside, just a little bit, and peek in.

The man on the bed looked a lot older than his seventy seven years, thin from whatever was wasting him. He was pale, his faded brown hair was a bit long, and there was a grayish stubble on his cheeks and chin. Hair didn’t grow very fast on someone in his condition, whiskers were even slower. It would be enough if he were attended to once a week. He hadn’t been here that long yet. “Father?” Almost a whisper.

The man turned his head toward him a little, his eyes turned a little more. “David.” His voice was soft and smooth and barely audible. “You came.”

There was a chair on this side of the bed, a small table between it and the wall. Various medical devices were on racks on the other side, with lights and dials and tell-tales of some kind. David, still clenching, opened the curtain just far enough so that he could come in. He pulled it carefully closed behind him. It felt stupid to ask it, but he couldn’t help himself. “How are you, Father?”

His father gave him just the tiniest smile, as if he understood perfectly, which he probably did. “I’m okay. I’m dying.”

“I know. That’s why I came.” He took the chair beside his father, who was lying at the level of his chest. “Were you waiting for me?”

“I was.” His shallow breathing almost didn’t move the sheet that covered him. “It won’t be long. I’ve already made arrangements.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize. You made a life for yourself, and you have done well. ”

“I have. But… You’re fading away.”

“I am. That’s about right. I have been for a long time. It’s just that you can see it more clearly now. There’s no energy left. There’s almost no life left. Can you stay with me today?”

“As long as you like.”

“It won’t be long. Now that you’re here.” His face was calm, only a little sad. “If you have to go out for anything, it’ll be okay. I won’t die while you’re gone. Just — don’t take too long, okay?”

“Is it really that close?”

“It is.” He looked away. The sheet barely moved as he took a breath. He looked back. “There are things I have never been able to tell you, and still can’t tell you. When I was struck down, my mouth was shut. I don’t know how I can say even this much. Maybe it’s because the hold on me is weakening, the closer I am to dying.”

“That sounds sort of crazy, you know?”

“I know. Just stay with me, will you?”

“I will.” He slid his hand under the sheet so that he could put it on his father’s bare arm. There was almost no flesh on his bones.

His father had begun wasting away when he had collapsed in the living room ten years ago. He could have died, maybe he should have died back then, but he had been too strong, his will was too strong, and he had lived on. 

David’s mother had spent her days with him during his months in the hospital, had nursed him at home while he was in the special bed they had bought, had always been there for him while he had been in the wheel chair, and had walked with him when he had finally been able to get around in a walker, until he had gotten strong enough so that he could at least take care of himself, mostly. But he never fully recovered. 

They had moved into a ground-floor apartment two years ago, so that it would be easier for him. He had seemed to be getting better. But she had died, only six months after the move. She had worn herself out taking care of him. He had declined after that, and now he was here. This ward, according to the front desk, was the best that what was left of the insurance could now provide for him. 

A nurse came in and smiled at him. He moved his chair aside so that she could go to his father and do what had to be done. She was courteous, gentle, and caring. She called him Mister Connover, not Brian. She took his temperature with a digital thermometer held to his ear, made a note of it on her tablet, took his pulse and his blood pressure with a digital device, made notes, then took down readings from several instruments on the other side of the bed. David’s father watched with un-anxious eyes. She finished and asked him, “Do you need anything?”

“No. My son is here. This is David.”

“Hello, David. Do you need anything?”

“Something to drink, maybe.”

“We have both Coke and Pepsi, Sprite, Dr. Pepper, Vernor’s —”

“I’d like that.”

“I’ll be right back.” 

It was a ward, but it wasn’t a bad place. Nurses came, one at a time, to see the other three patients. David didn’t know anything about them, except that they were all men. His father didn’t know much either, other than that they were here to die. 

The nurse came back with David’s ginger ale and a simple apology. There were other patients of course. The Verners was in a can, cold, beaded with condensation. It tasted awfully good. “Can you drink?” he asked his father.

“With a straw.” His voice was barely a whisper. His eyes were closed. He didn’t want anything now.

Dr. Novakovich came in. He gave David a small, understanding smile, then went to the other side of the bed. “Mr. Connover,” he said, his voice low. His father said nothing. Novakovich touched the side of Brian’s throat, looked at the notes on his tablet, and said, “Is there anything we can do for you?” 

“I’m fine,” his father whispered, “thank you.”

Novakovich looked across at David, then came around to his side of the bed. “You have to prepare yourself.”

“One can never really be prepared for something like this. He wasn’t this far gone when I saw him last week.”

“He just didn’t let you see it. I told him he should. I don’t think he’s in any pain.”

“No pain,” Brian said, barely a whisper.

David looked at him. “Are you ready?” 

“I am. Now that you’re here.”

“I got a feeling this morning.” He glanced at Novakovich. The doctor’s face showed nothing. He looked back to his father. “I didn’t know that it would be this.”

“Of course you didn’t. Maybe I should have said something, but it didn’t seem so urgent then. It came on more quickly than I thought it would. We have a link, David, you and I. We always have had. That’s how you knew to come.”

“Stop at the nurse’s station,” Novakovich said, and left.


“Yes, Father.”

“We have some time before anybody else comes in. There’s so much you need to know, and I can’t tell you any of it. And there’s no way I can make you understand. But I need you to do something for me.”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“They’ll know when I die.” His smile was so faint, so real. “They’ve got a monitor at the nurse’s station. They’ll come. They might want to send you away. For your own good and all that.”

“I won’t go.”

“I don’t want you to. I’ve told them that. Stay with me until the people from the mortuary come. They’ll take me away, and that’s all right. They know what to do. I talked to my lawyer, and made sure that they would do what I asked. The funeral will be day after tomorrow. Please, stay at the grave with me. At least until midnight, okay?”

“I will. If you want me to.”

“I do. Think of it as a dying man’s last fantasy if you like. But stay with me, at least until midnight, and then maybe you’ll understand. Okay?”

“I will stay with you Father. For as long as you like.”

His father relaxed then, and his eyes closed, and his head sank back a little. His slow breathing got slower and shallower, and slower and shallower, and then it stopped. A light flashed on one of the devices on the other side of the bed — flash, flash, flash. A different nurse came in. She glanced at David, almost said something but didn’t, then went to his father.

David sat while the nurse did things, to which he did not pay any attention. He realized that he wasn’t breathing either, and made himself inhale deeply. He let it out slowly and took another deep breath. He was no longer nauseated, he was just empty. He took a sip of his ginger ale. His eyes burned. The nurse finished, turned to him, said, “I’m sorry.”

“Thank you. He was ready to go.”

The nurse left. He took another sip, put the can down on the table, then pulled his chair up close to the bed, crossed his arms beside his father, put his head down on them, and cried.




A mortuary is just a building after all. A funeral parlor. A funeral home. A home in which nobody lives, and only a few dead remain for more than a very short time. His mother had her funeral in this place, and he had grieved before, during, and after the service. And then he had moved on, so sorry to loose her, so glad that she had died knowing that she was loved. Died, not passed on. People can’t say the word, as if euphemisms made death unreal.

It’s one thing to come and see someone who has died when you were not with them. There they are, looking better than they have in quite some time. Except for the mouth. The mouth never looks right. Something has to be done so that you don’t get the Jacob Marley effect. A cloth tied under the chin. Or something.

But when you have seen someone die, there can be no lies, no deceit, they are not who they were, they are dead, and the best artists in the mortuary can’t make them look alive again. There is absolutely nobody there any more.

He was the first to arrive. The service was at six PM, so that people could come after work if they wanted to. It was in a small side chapel, the way his father wanted it. Mr. Stonebarger had offered the use of the main room, but David said no. Funerals were for the people who attend them. The deceased knows nothing about it any more. David had read the instructions before giving them to the ambulance crew. This was what his father had wanted, so this was where he was. There wouldn’t be many people anyway.

His father had been a moderately social person. He could talk with anybody, but he had only a few friends whom he saw frequently. He was busy with other things, and often was away from home for a weekend or so. No one knew where he went. People would speculate as to which government agency he was working for, but he would just laugh and say that he could be mysterious, if he wanted to be, without any government assistance. Then he would laugh again.

He wasn’t laughing any more.

There was seating for twenty four. The chairs were quite comfortable. People in them wouldn’t be distracted from their thoughts, memories, prayers, the words of the service. He took the chair in the front row, on the right, on the aisle. He got himself comfortable, sat as still as he could, and did his best to not think about anything.

A few people came in. He didn’t look around. Dr. Novakovich came to his chair, smiled at him in a sad kind of way, said nothing, then took the chair behind him. 

Someone else came toward the front. His Aunt Sylvia. She glanced at him, her expression hard to read, and took the chair on the other side of the aisle. Brian and Sylvia hadn’t spoken much since he had been struck down, he didn’t know why. 

A few more people came in. It wouldn’t be as many as a dozen. He didn’t look to see who they were, he was too focused on the coffin in front of him. That was where his father was. 

No. That was where his body was. His father was gone, to whatever he believed in perhaps. 

Mr. Stonebarger took the dais. 

Brian had not wanted clergy. He had written the brief service himself — simple, direct, no regrets, just an acceptance, calm and sure and absolute. He had appended a note to it, not to be read aloud, which said, “This is not for me, it is for those who come.” 

And yet he wanted David to wait by his grave until midnight.

Then it was over. He did his best to talk with the people, a few of whom he knew. Sylvia spoke with them too. He did his best to accept their condolences gracefully. Someone said she would pray for Brian. David told her, “My father is now in better hands than he has ever been. It is we who need your prayers.” Even though he didn’t believe in prayers.

It was time to go to the grave. The only limousine was for Brian, and it had gone ahead. 


The hearse was parked on the road. The coffin was at the grave, in a newer part of the cemetery, where there were no standing stones, or monuments, or mausoleums, only flat markers. There were a few flowers, a small shrub here and there, some flags on special holders. There were no trees here, maybe he should plant one. They probably wouldn’t allow it. Its roots would disturb the graves as it grew. At least his father’s grave was next to his mother’s. 

He went to where Mr. Stonebarger was waiting. David was to stand here. Sylvia, when she came, was to stand there. There were no other kin.

Everybody who was going to come had come. Mr. Stonebarger said a few words out of a small book, words which David didn’t really hear or understand. He finished, the coffin was lowered, and people went away. 

David caught up with Sylvia. “Thank you for being here.” She looked at him, a single tear rolled down her cheek, then she too left. He stood, hollow and vaguely hurt by the rebuff, then he got out of the way while the crew went to work closing the grave.

“Should you really be here?” Mr. Stonebarger asked him.

“It’s my father’s last request.”

“Can I get you anything?”

“No, thank you. I’ll just stay for as long as he asked me to. He didn’t explain, but I’m going to do as he wanted. Is that all right?”

That was okay.

The equipment finished and rolled away over boards which had been carefully placed so that the heavy wheels and treads wouldn’t disturb the lawn. Two men came with a cart with wide wheels and very fat tires, and started laying the turf. Another man came and showed David a small, brass plaque, with an elaborate anchor to hold it in the ground. Name, birth date, death date, that was all his father had wanted. David nodded, and the man went to place it at the head of the grave, where the sod-men had finished. 

Mr. Stonebarger came back with a folding chair. It had special feet so that it wouldn’t sink into the soil. David set it a few feet from the head of the grave and sat, looking at nothing. Mr. Stonebarger waited for a moment, then went away.

Trickles of memories came to him, of his childhood, of his parents, of good times. His father’s collapse and suffering intruded for just an instant, then went away as if it had never been there. The ever more plentiful good memories comforted him.

He dried his eyes and looked up at the darkening sky. He would be content to sit here until midnight. His father wouldn’t know if he left, but that didn’t matter. This, he realized, was a part of the healing process, the grieving process, which he really had to go through if he were to move on. He had a life, a career, a nice little house, people read his books. No girlfriend yet. Not since that one time in college.

A car drove slowly by, slowed even more as it passed him, then went on. 

College had been a wonderful experience. He had met people and learned some social skills. He had learned the difference between academic and commercial fiction, and had sold his first novel. His professors didn’t understand him, but people read the book.

He had graduated and moved to the house he now had, making a down payment based on three sales. That had all worked out well. It was a little house, in an older neighborhood, on the far side of town, but he was only half an hour or so from his old home. He went back often, as sad as it was to see his father struggling, his mother struggling for him. After a while his parents had moved to their small apartment, and he had visited them there. He had once tried to offer some help, but his father had gently told him no, he had his own life to live, and David, like Brian and Sherianne, had to get on with it.

And accept it when it came to an end.

There wouldn’t be much daylight left. 

There were houses behind him, separated from the cemetery by a stone wall, with carefully tended small trees overtopping it. The road was a quarter mile away on his left. On his right, not that far away, was wooded land, all second growth of course, land that was no good for anything else. At least not right now. The better parts of the cemetery were in front of him. There were upright stones there, obelisks, small mausoleums. It was not a scary place, not even a sad one really. 

Headlights came along the gravel road, a car pulled up and stopped. Mr. Stonebarger got out, no longer formally dressed. “It’s getting late, David. Have you eaten?”

“I couldn’t, but thank you.”

“Something to drink, maybe.”

“Waiting like this is part of the vigil. I’ll get something on my way home. I’ll feel really shitty tomorrow. And the next day I’ll go back to work.”

“Another novel?”

“I’ve been working on it for a while. It’s not great literature but the books sell. My parents read them.”

“Are you going to be all right here?”

“I’ll be fine. Thank you for coming….”

Mr. Stonebarger waited a moment, then nodded, didn’t quite pat his shoulder, went back to his car, and drove away. 

The sky became dark. There were soft night noises out here, away from houses and traffic. There were stars overhead. If he wanted to know what time it was, he could press a button on his watch, and it would light up for a moment. But it didn’t matter. He would know when it was midnight, one way or another.

The moon was far down in the sky, and shone only a little light on the gently mounded grave, with the scars where the sod would not heal for weeks. He knew it was midnight because his father was standing on the other side of the grave, looking at him. What sky-light there was came from behind his father. He was just — a sharp thrill ran through him — a shadow in the darkness. 

This was not the frail, almost cadaverous old man who had been buried just hours ago. This was — if David could actually have seen him — as he might have been had he never been struck with illness. He had been forty five when David was born. David was now thirty two. David knew people as old as his father, and older, who were doing well, who were strong and bright and capable. His father should have been that way. His mother, too, for that matter. “Father, are you all right?”

He could not make out his father’s face, but he knew that he was smiling, in that soft, affectionate, accepting kind of way he had. “I am here. For just a little while. And that is good.”

“But — Can you talk to me now?”

“Very little.” There was something in his voice which David didn’t like. “The thing that was done to me, ten years ago, which took my health, and ultimately my life, keeps me from speaking. I can hardly say this much.”

“I don’t believe in ghosts, Father.”

“I am not one. Whatever your thoughts about an afterlife, they are not relevant here. They — There are things I cannot tell you, but which you need to know, and which you will have to find out for yourself.”

“You frighten me.”

“Yes. I’m sorry. I wish — I need your help. Go back to our house. There is something there which you must find, where Sherianne kept her canned goods. It will not explain, but it will help you to learn what you must. Can you do that?”

“Of course, if that’s what you want me to do. But what about the people living there?”

“There is nobody living there. The house was never sold. Go there, for me, please.”

The skin all over David’s body got tight. “What can I do for you?”

“Just go, please. Find what you must. Do what you can. I — I wish I could have spent more time with you. That is what I regret, not the dying. Death, in itself, will be a welcome release after all these years. Will you do this for me?”

“I will go tomorrow, I promise.”

His father’s smile, invisible in the darkness, was broader now. “Thank you. I love you.” Then it was as if he had expanded to fill all space, and receded to an infinite distance at the same time. And he was gone.

David stood there a while longer. Then he took the chair down to the grounds offices, stood it up against the door, went to his car, and drove away.




His only dreams during the night were dark, abstract, and repetitive. 

He woke slowly, thinking about his current novel, and decided that he would have to spend a few hours on that while he was at his best. He could go to the old house after lunch. 

He had a cup of coffee at six-thirty, not so much to wake up as to focus on what was in his head, which his fingers would translate into words. He had another cup at nine, then went back to work, but the image of a shadow in the darkness came between him and the story. The chill it gave him was not one of inspiration. He tried to suppress it, but he could not. He had to do what his father wanted him to do.

The drive to his old house took just a half an hour or so, but David had not been in this neighborhood since his parents had moved to the apartment. He turned up the familiar street and began to feel that there was something wrong. He almost drove by where the house should have been before he realized that there was no house there. The bushes in front of where it had stood were gone. The small tree at the side was gone. The garage in back was still standing, and the tree to one side of it was still there. The branches of other trees which had grown close to the house had been trimmed back, but not very well. And there was no house. 

It looked like it had been struck by a tornado, which had somehow destroyed just this one house, and left the others nearby undamaged. He had seen something like that when he had been away at college. There had been a severe storm here over a year ago, but he hadn’t heard that any tornadoes had touched down. 

He got out and went to the edge of the foundation, which now supported nothing. There were rough plants growing in the soil of what had been the crawl space, a foot or so below ground level, under where the parlor had been, and in the soil of the crawl space under the other end of the house. The slanted concrete walls of the Michigan basement were broken and crumbling. It was the full width of the house, but under only the middle.

He stepped down onto the gritty soil of the crawl space, went to the edge and looked into the cellar. Everything was gone — the unused coal bins, the furnace, the big iron sinks, the stairs, even the little room, just below him, where his mother had kept her canning. 

The shelves that had been there were gone, smashed by a falling piece of interior wall, a rough-sawn stud and lath and plaster, which now leaned crookedly in their place. The glass-fronted cabinet, which had been across from the shelves, and which had held some very old books, some of them worm-eaten, was gone, along with the stairs up to the kitchen. They hadn’t been able to take all his mother’s canning with them when they moved, but there wasn’t as much broken glass on the ground as there should have been. Maybe the tornado had sucked it up.

His mother had gone to the local farmer’s market every year, to buy fresh fruit and vegetables which she put up, which were so much better than the canned or frozen you could buy in the store. This was the produce that was too ripe to ship, which farmers kept for themselves, and just for this market. Peaches, strawberries, cherries, green beans which he had never liked, tomatoes which she used mostly for cooking instead of eating, rhubarb from which she made the most wonderful pies. He really missed those pies.

He went next door to the Ivorsons, father and daughter. Mr. Ivorson was his father’s age and retired. Frances had never married or left home. She took care of her father as he got older. 

He rang their bell. Mr. Ivorson came to answer. “David.” He came out onto the porch. He never invited people inside. “How are you? How is your father?”

“He died three days ago. The funeral was yesterday.”

“I’m so sorry. Ah, how are you?”

“It’s too soon to tell. I’m still rather numb. I knew it was going to happen, but the end came awfully suddenly. Father wanted me to do something for him here.” He waved at where the house had been. “What happened?”

“Oh, that. Damndest thing. I almost don’t notice it any more. There was that terrible storm, some time after your mother died, you remember? The sky went all yellow. They saw several funnels, but only one touched down, just for a few seconds. Made a terrible sound, crashing and smashing. Just took it all away. People came right out to turn off the gas and water and electricity, but there was almost nothing to clean up, so they didn’t bother. They did a bad job of trimming some broken branches hanging from the trees. There was some debris that had fallen in the yards near by, but we cleaned that up ourselves.”

Frances, somewhere in her fifties, came out to stand behind her father. She smiled at David, but she didn’t say anything.

“So it’s been sitting like that,” David said, “just a hole in the ground.”

“Just like that.”

“Father told me that the house had not been sold.” Frances smiled and went back inside. “You’ve never seen a for sale sign?”

“Never have.”

“It’s not been cited for a nuisance?”

“Not as far as I know.”

“It should be. A hole in the ground like that is dangerous. Well…. Okay. Thanks.”

Mr. Ivorson nodded and went inside. He and his daughter had never been sociable.

David went back to where his old house had been. The fences on either side of the yard, both dense with old-fashioned rambling roses, were still there. Mr. Ivorson kept them trimmed on his side of the fence. They pressed right up against the neighbor’s house on the other side of the yard. That the fences were still there at all didn’t make sense. The strip of yard between the house and Mr. Ivorson’s fence was only four feet wide. The tornado must have been very picky.

He needed to get down to look at the place where his mother’s canning had been. He went around to the back of the house, where the cellar wall from the crawl space to the ground was less steeply sloped than at the sides. The concrete was badly cracked and broken, so there were plenty of hand- and foot-holds. He got to the bottom without much difficulty. 

There was dirt and fallen leaves and broken twigs, but no rubbish. He could see the places where everything had once stood. The back of the little room was vertical, not sloped like the other walls, and was set was a foot or so further toward the front of the house. 

The piece of wall that had fallen against it was about six feet high and maybe three feet wide, half supported by part of another stud. He went to it, kicking the larger fragments of broken mason jars away. The smaller stuff crunched under his feet. There was no sign of the food that had been here. What a waste. He took hold of the slanting stud, tested it to see how it moved, then pulled it to the side. It twisted in his hands, and he had to jump out of the way as it fell.

A narrow, roughly door-shaped opening had been knocked through the concrete behind where the shelves had been. This was what his father had wanted him to find. 

It was dark in there. He went through the opening into a small chamber dug out of the ground, and heard a loud squeak down near his feet. It was a rat. Its body was more than a foot long. It squeaked at him again. He backed out of the chamber. The rat followed. He backed faster, the rat charged, and —

A harsh, high whistle came from overhead, and a huge hawk dove down over David’s shoulder, grabbed the rat, and flew back up into the tree beside the garage. It whistled again, then held the rat against the branch with one foot and began tearing at it with its beak.

It wasn’t a red-tailed hawk, it didn’t have the distinctive coloration, and it was far too big. It was a fairly uniform rusty brown above, bluish gray below, with black tail feathers and pinion tips. It looked sort of like a ferruginous hawk, which he had researched once for a story, but it wasn’t. It tore pieces off the rat and swallowed them, looked at David, and called again.

He watched it eat. It let the rat’s tail drop to the ground. Then it dropped the head, stood up on its branch, and spread its wings wide, huge wings, seven feet or more in span. It screamed loudly, then flew down at him. He raised his left arm to protect his face, and the bird landed on it with a heavy shock, which knocked him back a step. Its talons encircled his arm, penetrating the under side of his jacket and shirt and skin. He caught his balance, held his forearm away from his face, gasped, and sank to his knees. 

The bird, which must have weighed six or seven pounds or more, whistled softly and held on to him. He lowered his arm until he was looking right into the bird’s face, its eyes coppery, its strong beak ivory with a darker hook. It looked back at him, its head drawn back a little so that it could see him better. It opened its beak and whistled softly. Its mouth and tongue were red. The feathers of its throat, chest, and belly shimmered slightly. 

David panted, but his fear dissipated. This wasn’t a pecking bird, it attacked with its feet. It was holding his arm very firmly, but no tighter than it had to. Its talons hurt, and there was blood where they penetrated his clothes and skin. He kept his arm steady. The hawk looked into his eyes. He looked back. “Thank you,” he said. 

The hawk gave three short, sharp calls, then launched itself from his arm and flew away.

He sat back on his heels, held his arm as he took a moment to catch his breath, then took off his jacket and rolled back his shirt sleeve. There were eight deep punctures on the underside of his arm, and they hurt. Blood flowed freely, but not copiously. There was nothing he could do about it here. 

He stood and carried his jacket instead of putting it on. No sense getting it any bloodier than it was. It was probably ruined anyway. He managed to climb out of the cellar, using just one hand, and went back to his car. 

Nobody was watching, nobody was on the street. He took off his shirt, wrapped it around his arm for a bandage, put his right arm through the sleeve of his jacket and hung the left side over his shoulder like a cape. Then he got in the car, beginning to feel the shock, and decided that it would take him longer to search for and find an emergency room, than to just go to his local clinic at home.



Part Two: The Hawk


The clinic was less than twenty minutes from his old house, but the ache in his arm was making him sick, and he was seriously out of focus by the time he got there. He managed to park without hitting anything. 

The few people in the waiting room glanced up at him. Some of them stared at his bare chest under the jacket over his shoulder. He unwrapped his arm as he went to the window and leaned on the counter. “I can’t get to the emergency room. Can anyone here help me? I’m David Connover. I’m a patient here. I can’t get to my wallet.”

The receptionist stared at his arm, his bare chest, then picked up the handset and said, “I have a patient here, ah, he’s bleeding on the counter. He’s been clawed by something.” She waited. “He’s in no condition to drive, he looks like he’s going to faint.”

David did his best to look like he was going to faint. It wasn’t hard to do. 

A nurse came out after a few minutes, looking a bit impatient and weary. David turned toward her and held out his arm. Blood dripped onto the floor. Then, very carefully, he went to his knees. The nurse hurried away, and came back in just moments with a wheelchair. She helped him into it, took him to a treatment room, took his jacket and shirt, and helped him to lie on the examining table.

A doctor came in and made a cursory examination. David told him about defending himself from a hawk attack. The doctor said, “Someone will see you shortly,” and left. Someone, presumably, who knew how to deal with hawk attacks.

He lay very still and concentrated on ignoring his pain and nausea. It hadn’t been an attack, but what else could he have said? 

Another doctor came in with two nurses. They examined his arm as he told them what he could about what had happened, keeping it simple. They offered him morphine. He had hated its side-effects the one time he had had it before, and refused it. They used only local anesthetic, which numbed the area around the punctures after less than a minute. He felt nothing as they cleaned out the wounds, carefully bandaged each one, then put a protective padded bandage along his forearm. He no longer felt nauseated by the time they finished.

The doctor gave him a prescription for Percocet. “Try not to use any more of this than you have to.”  

“I understand about that. I’d really rather not use it at all.” He put on his jacket, but not his shirt, and left, walking very carefully.  

He took it easy driving to the drugstore. Sally Erenger, the pharmacist who knew him well, sold him the Percocet and some extra-strength Tylenol along with the bandages he should use when it was time to change them. 

He went out to his car, and thought that maybe he could leave it here and walk home. It was only four blocks away, he had done it many times before. But not today. He really needed to be at home, right now, so he drove. 

The anesthetic was just beginning to wear off by the time he got there. He took one of the ten pills, then made himself coffee, and fixed a peanut-butter-and-onion sandwich for an early lunch. And because he was hungry. He leaned heavily on the table while he ate and drank. The pain receded as the drug took hold, the light became a little brighter, and colors were just slightly pastel. It wasn’t at all like morphine, which was dark and gray and sticky-damp and fuzzy and enclosing in a nightmare. He went to  the stairs so he could go to bed, but he was just a little too light-headed to feel safe climbing them. He got a bottle of Coke, in case he got thirsty, and lay down on the sofa, the Coke on the floor beside him. 

He dozed fitfully. He should get back to work, but it was perfectly clear that he was not going to get any more writing done today. The Percocet was interfering with his creative processes, though it was a lot better than the morphine had been. He decided not to take any more unless he needed it to get to sleep at night. 

The hawk hadn’t meant to hurt him, but it had, and he might not be able to work the next day. What he needed to do was take sick-leave, as it were, until he could think creatively without pain or drugs to distract him. Taking tomorrow off was a good idea.

Or maybe he would feel up to going back to his old house, what was left of it. His father hadn’t said anything about it being destroyed. He really needed to go into that place carved out of the ground, to find what his father had wanted him to find. So what was he going to do about the rats? There would be no hawk to rescue him a second time. A pistol was out of the question. He didn’t have one anyway.

He had a crowbar. He could kill rats with that. If he killed one rat, that might frighten off the others. And he would kill them, take out his anger on them. What his father had said, or implied in the cemetery, was more than disturbing. The thing that was done to me…. 

Assuming his apparition had been real.

The destruction of his house had been real. Mr. Ivorson had talked about it, and how bizarre it had been. And the cellar, open to the sky, that had been real. And the chamber carved into the soil had been real. The rat had been real. The hawk had been real. The pain, though rather remote at the moment, was real. 

… he was wandering…. 

He dozed again, dreaming while still half awake, images of dark chambers, giant rats leaping into the air, shadows in the darkness — that one gave him chills — and a beautiful huge hawk which looked him in the eye, and spoke in a way that he could almost understand. 

He slept for a while. It was about supper time when he decided to get up. He felt a lot better, and his head was clearer, but the pain was coming back. He took a Tylenol, then got one of his favorite frozen entrees out of the freezer, which he kept on hand for those days when he wasn’t up to cooking. If there ever was such a day, this was it. It tasted awfully good, and he was tempted to have another, but he decided not to. 

He poured himself a small whisky, sat in his big chair, and sipped his drink, letting it calm the thoughts and images tumbling through his head. Better that than the Percocet. He decided to watch Murphy’s Romance, just to pass the time. It was still early when he felt that he could face the stairs and go up to bed. 


The thing that was done to me…” 

His father’s voice, from somewhere deep inside his head, woke him up. He was afraid, and crying, and angry, and it took him a moment to calm himself enough to look at the clock. It was not yet six. He lay flat on his back, his arms straight down at his sides, doing his best to keep his mind still so that the emotions could drain away. 

They did, after a while, until all the grief and rage and fear were just a stain in the back of his head. He slid out from under the blankets, took a moment to straighten them, got dressed, and went down for breakfast.

He had two pieces of buttered rye toast, two strips of left-over bacon, coffee with lots of heavy cream and sugar, and tried to let thoughts about the novel he was working on well up from his unconscious, as he usually did first thing in the morning. Even though he had decided to take the day off. But the intrusion of his father’s words over-laid his usual creativity. “The thing that was done to me… 

His father had been struck down by someone, not just a heart attack or a stroke or something. It had taken him ten years to die, but he had been murdered. He might have recovered if David’s mother hadn’t died…. 

His death four days ago had been so sudden. Maybe he had crossed a threshold. Maybe he had been struck again somehow. Maybe he had just given up after all. He had been murdered, though there was no way to prove it. 

He had asked David for help.

He went upstairs to his computer, took a look at where he had left off, made a few notes on how to continue, on ideas that had been forming during the night in spite of everything, then closed the files gracefully, closed the folder, quit his word processor, and let the computer go to sleep. It would be there waiting for him when he decided that he could return to it. He could afford to take some time off. He was two books ahead of his schedule. He needed to take some time off anyway. Even a writer as productive as he was had to attend to more important things sometimes.

He changed the dressing on his arm. His clothes could get dirty down in the cellar, but he had no work clothes or anything like that. He got the strong pocket flashlight from the table beside his bed, went downstairs, got his crowbar from the back closet, and went out to his car. He kept himself calm by concentrating on where he was going. 

He drove up the alley behind the house, pulled into the yard beside the tree next to the garage, went to the edge of the foundation, and stepped down to the exposed crawl space.

The roughly door-shaped hole in the wall frightened him, seen even from here. He would never choose to go into a place like that — carved out of the ground, infested with rats, a place that really shouldn’t be there. The concrete in which the doorway had been cut was undamaged, unlike all the other walls, which were cracked and crumbling in places. He hadn’t noticed that before. The tornado, or whatever it had really been, had not been able to damage that wall. A strong chill ran from the base of his skull down to the small of his back, and his stomach muscles clenched painfully. It felt unreal across his shoulders, but he was going to go there anyway. 

He let the crowbar slide down until the crook rested against the edge of his hand, made sure the small but super-bright flashlight really was in his back pocket, and worked his way down the crumbling concrete slope to the floor of the cellar.

 He stopped just outside the opening to kick away as much of the smaller pieces of glass as he could. He looked over his shoulder at the tree near the garage, hoping that maybe he would see a great hawk up in the branches. There was no hawk. He looked into the darkness of the opening, tapped the ground just inside it lightly with the tip of the crowbar, and stepped back. Something scurried, and squeaked, and a rat came out, ready to do battle. Rats don’t do that, but here it was. He struck with just a strong movement of his wrist, hit the rat with the tip of the crowbar, and crushed its head. 

He took a breath. All right. He could do this. 

He turned on the flashlight and shone it into the chamber. It startled the rats there, now scurrying and squeaking, running in all directions at once until they were out of sight. He went in. 

The floor was  littered with unidentifiable stuff, whatever the rats had brought in. There were piles here and there, which might be rats’ nests. Something moved in one of them, then in another. He poked at the nearest one. Whatever was there buried itself more deeply. There was more movement here and there, but never where he shone the light.

This place had been carved out of the earth, just high enough for him to stand up in. His father would have had to duck his head. It was very neatly done, about eight feet wide and ten feet deep. There was something like a door at the back, not exactly like a door….

This chamber could have been dug for any number of reasons. His old house had been the first in the neighborhood. It was — or had been — old enough that this chamber could have been cold storage for apples or potatoes, or for ice, or maybe it had been dug for whisky during prohibition. But it wasn’t the chamber, it was the door that wasn’t quite a door that frightened him. His father must have known about it….

It was made of grayish metal or plastic, set in a jamb that looked like stone. He touched it with the end of the crowbar. It made a very solid but oddly muffled sound. There were no hinges, no latch. He hung the crowbar on his left arm and touched the door-thing with his hand. It opened away from him. He chilled and let his hand drop, unable to move.

He took the crowbar from his arm so that he could shine his flash through the doorway, into a passage, taller than the chamber and darker. It sloped down gently under the front yard, under the street. The ceiling seemed solid, there were no cracks or roots or wet spots, no water stains on the floor. A rat squeaked near him. He struck blindly at the sound and crushed it. At least he hadn’t just hurt it.

The passage was well made, about three feet wide and seven feet high. The walls, floor, and ceiling were smooth, as if compacted from black soil, rather than being cut from it. He didn’t know how that could be done. It should have been just dirt, but it didn’t crumble when he poked at it with the crowbar. It was a uniform black. There should have been layers, different colors of soil, and sandy soil, and clay, stones, and roots, but it was all black. He looked behind him at the bright cellar beyond the more natural chamber. That was where he really wanted to go.

The flashlight was bright, but he couldn’t see farther than about a hundred feet into the passage. Beyond that it faded into darkness. He struggled with it for a moment, then went into it. Each step forward brought another tiny chill until, eventually, after he didn’t know how long, the light of the flash reached the end, a gray rectangle of a not-quite door, set into a stone jamb.

He stopped right there. This wasn’t right. Behind him was the bright opening to the cellar, farther away than he thought it should be. Why would his father have ever come down here?

He made himself go to the door-thing, despite the increasing chills running down his back, along his forearms and shins. It was the same gray plastic-metal as the other one. There were no levers or hinges. He pushed the door gently. It opened away from him. He went into a stone-built room with no windows. It was about fifteen feet on a side, the ceiling about eight feet high, the floor smooth but not finished, and there was another door opposite. This one was made of heavy wood. Its lever latch was on the left. 

He looked back up the passage. The opening at the far end was bright against the darkness. He could just make out the roof of the garage and the tree beside it, beyond the far wall of the cellar. 

He looked around the room. There was nothing in it other than the open door-thing behind him and the closed door in front of him. No lamps, no furniture, no decorations, just the stones of walls and floor and ceiling, closely fitted without mortar. And the doors. Whatever the rest of this place was, the wooden door was real. 

 This room had to be somewhere under the house across the street. Or under the house beyond that one. Or under the house across the next street. Or the next street. It should not be here at all. He wanted, very much, to just go back to the cellar and forget the whole thing.

He went to the wooden door and, still holding the flashlight, pressed down on the lever latch. It clicked, but it opened inward. He took a step back and pulled it open, letting in the blinding light of day on the other side. 

He staggered back, raised his arm to shield his eyes, and struck his shoulder with the crowbar. It startled him so that he lost his hold on it, and it fell to the ground with a loud clang, which startled him again. He jerked away from the light. He should be maybe twenty feet under the ground by now, maybe more, where there was no business being light of any kind. 

He let his eyes adjust. He turned off the flashlight and stuck it in his back pocket. He thought again, very seriously, about going back up the passage to the cellar, to where the light was natural and good. Very seriously, for a moment, with his father’s words almost whispering inside his head, “The thing that was done to me….” His father had also said, that death would be a welcome release after all these years. He couldn’t go back. Not yet.

Anger at his father’s torment and murder became temptingly strong. He held it in check. He wouldn’t let it overcome him. He would use it to find his courage — to turn toward the bright door and pick up the crowbar, more ready to strike than to run away. 

There was sky, blue with traces of high clouds. Mountains miles away were forested up to a tree line. A balcony had a stone railing, four feet or so from the door. He went out. 

From here he could see more mountains stretching away to right and left, deep forested valleys, the blue sky with small clouds slowly moving left to right. It was a magnificent landscape — hardly what one would expect on the shores of Lake Michigan. Or under them. It would be worth coming back, if this was all there was, just for the view. Sunrise, sunset, stormy days, winter snow…. 

There was no snow on the mountains. There were no bird calls, no wind sounds, just his unsteady, heavy breathing. He went to the rail and looked down —

A sheer stone wall dropped away three or four hundred feet to the steep rocky slope of the mountain. The tree line was another three or four hundred feet farther down, descending less steeply to a forested valley. He didn’t know how far down that was. He backed away, as if he might fall. It took him a moment to catch his breath.

The structure behind him was just wide enough to contain the room from which he had come. The balcony to one side went only as far as the corner. The balcony to the other side went beyond the corner, as if it were at the top of a flight of stairs. 

He faced the mountains and closed his eyes. He knew that he was standing in bright sunlight, in chilly open air. He knew that his senses were real, and that he was really himself, with no after-effects of yesterday’s Percocet. He turned, with his eyes still closed, back to the darkness of the doorway, and went through it into the deeper darkness of the room. Maybe it was his own bedroom. He really wanted to be back in his own bedroom. Maybe it was his kitchen. Maybe it was a hollowed out chamber at the edge of his old cellar. He opened his eyes. 

The dark passage stretched ahead of him. His cellar was so far away…. It was reassuring that it was still there, but it wasn’t as much comfort as he wanted. He turned toward the light. The balcony was still there, at the top of a mountain, when it should be somewhere under Lake Michigan. Maybe he was crazy. He didn’t think he was. It didn’t feel like that. It was what he saw that was crazy, not him. 

If he should decide that he was crazy after all, that this was all an illusion and none of it was real, then he might make some kind of stupid mistake and hurt himself. If he didn’t believe that the mountain below the tower was real, and it was, and he jumped off the rail, just to prove that it wasn’t, he would kill himself. 

And if he went back home, he couldn’t do whatever it was his father wanted him to do. He had no idea why his father wanted him to come here. 

So what was he going to do about it? It didn’t really matter that this place wasn’t supposed to be here, he had to treat it as if it were. Always bearing in mind that it might not be. He struggled to shut down his spinning thoughts.

He went out onto the balcony, and then to what really was the head of a flight of stairs, going down along the smooth, stone side of the tower to a landing at another corner. The tower was far deeper front to back than it was side to side. The wall supporting the stairs went straight down to the mountain. 

There were more mountains, with deep forested valleys. There were small towns on the lower slopes, and larger ones in the valleys, and there were farms and woodlots farther away. It was beautiful country, not very densely populated, a stark contrast to the tower, which was bigger, far taller than any castle or tower he had ever read about for some of his books. This tower was way out of scale. 

It made him dizzy, and jumbled his thoughts again. He struggled to sort them out, which caused a subtle but increasing pressure in his head. It wasn’t confusion, or craziness, it was distress that was making him feel this way. It would be a very good idea to sit down, on the top step here, so that he wouldn’t, just by accident, fall down the stairs. He sat, and counted twenty five steps to the landing below him. Doing that calmed him.

He had no business here. Even if this were real, he didn’t belong here. There was no hint as to why his father had wanted him to come here. What did this place have to do with whatever had been done to him?

David had gone to a ghost town once, a real one that didn’t attract tourists. This place felt like that — empty, desolate, abandoned. Maybe there had been people when his father had last been here, maybe not, but there was no one here now. 

This place was real, though it was impossible. It wasn’t a dream. He was an active dreamer, and this wasn’t at all like that. It wasn’t hallucination, it was too physically solid. It wasn’t delusion, it was too constant, too detailed, and too internally consistent. There was no escape from it by just refusing to believe in it. Except to jump off the rail.

He looked out over the mountains and valleys. Enjoying the beautiful scenery might help him calm down and think coherently again. It did, but it took a while. He stood, and very carefully went down to the corner landing.

There were more steps going down around the corner, and walls, and terraces, and balconies of steel and stone and ceramic, mostly pale with accents of rich muted colors. This was much too big for a castle, almost a small city on the top of this mountain. The tower above the landing was just a spike, with no windows or decorations, as if it were solid all the way to the top. Except for that windowless room. Just looking at it made him dizzy, so he sat down again.

The stairs went down three flights, each a few steps longer than the one he had just come down. There was another balcony at the bottom, much larger than the one above, and made of materials appropriate to that part of the structure, not simple stone as the upper balcony had been. There were other smaller balconies on the walls above the stairs, and below the stairs, and beyond the stairs. There were no other exposed stairs that he could see. Whatever this tower or castle was, it was so huge and complex that he could make no sense of it.

He leaned out over the railing, holding it tightly, so that he could see the wall of the balcony below him. There was an open door flanked by dark windows. All the other windows that he could see were dark. But then, maybe they didn’t need lights inside during the day. 

There were no sounds of anything, except now the air around him, moving air brushing against the spike-tower above him and the vast, complex castle-city below. No birds called from the sky, and he didn’t see any. He could hear his own breathing, he could almost hear his heart beating, and the soft grating of his feet against the landing. 

He had no business here. The vastness of the landscape, the height of the tower, the impossibility of it being here in the first place, all pressed on him, not quite to the verge of panic. 

He went back to the upper balcony, to the door to the stone-built room, and went in. The open door-thing to the passage was still comfortingly bright at the far end. What a relief, that he wasn’t trapped here in this real but impossible place. He closed the balcony door, turned on his flash, went into the passage, closed the door-thing behind him, and went the long distance to the not-quite door at the other end, and into the chamber dug from the earth. 

Rats scurried into their nests. Two came out at him, one after another, from different places, challenging his right to be there. Rats don’t do that, but here they were. He stuck them with the crowbar, killed them both, one of them with a squeal. The chamber became almost as silent as the balcony had been. He closed the door-place, then went to the opening to his cellar. Faint sounds of traffic came from the street above.

There was a bundle of cloth in the corner to the right of the opening, all wadded up. He poked at it with the crowbar. There were no rats in it, but there was something small and hard. He used the crook of the crowbar to pull the bundle away from the corner. 

It was a man’s jacket, and it had been there for a long time. He picked it up, left the chamber, sat on the ground to one side of the opening where there was no broken glass, and took a moment to catch his breath. Then he opened out the jacket. 

The thing was in the left-hand side pocket, and it was heavy. He took it out and nearly dropped it when a slight tingle ran through him, like soft electricity. He put it down on the jacket in his lap.

It was crystal, a flattened ovoid like a mango seed — nearly as long has his hand, wider than his hand, and as thick as his two hands pressed together, but smooth and pearly white and softly iridescent and not quite translucent. It shimmered in the light which struck it, almost making rainbows. 

A shadow ran across the ground and made him look up. The hawk landed at the far end of the cellar and whistled. David’s face got hot. “Have you come to see me?”

The hawk whistled again and walked to the middle of the cellar. 

“There’s a strange place behind me.” The hawk cocked its head. “There are more rats in there.” The hawk came a little closer, as if it could understand him, and looked at the crystal. “I found this back there, wrapped up in the jacket.”

The hawk whistled, not loudly, a trembling, descending call, and came closer.

There was something in the jacket’s inside breast pocket, but the hawk was coming to him, looking at the crystal. It stopped when it was a yard or so from him, started to open its huge wings as if it were getting ready to fly, but closed them again after just a few seconds. Then it came to stand on David’s right and looked up at him.

“Do you know what this is?” David asked. The hawk shook its head and ruffled out its neck feathers. That probably didn’t mean anything. “Do you know about the passage behind me?” The hawk bobbed its head once. It was just reacting to his voice. 

He managed to get the crystal back into the side pocket without touching it with his bare hand. “I’m going home now,” he said and stood up. The hawk flapped its wings and bounced back a step or two. The question came to him unbidden, “Do you want to come with me?” How silly. It was just a bird. It couldn’t understand his words —

The hawk flapped its wings as if it did understand, as if it did want to come with him. David thought about it, then put the crystal back in his pocket, and held it with his left hand so that he could wrap the rest of the jacket tightly around his arm. The hawk came up off the ground, flapped around, and settled down on the thick part of the jacket. Its talons didn’t penetrate. 

He stopped breathing for a moment. Then he went, with the hawk on his arm, to the back of the cellar and, using only his right hand to help, climbed up the broken concrete of the slope. The hawk flapped only once for balance. He went to his car. The hawk was perfectly at ease. He felt rather silly as he opened the passenger door. The hawk flicked its tail, then jumped into the car, and settled down on the edge of the seat, as if on a nest, facing forward.

David stood for a moment, light-headed, his mind completely empty. He closed the door, walked around to the driver’s side, put the jacket, flashlight, and crowbar in the back, and got in behind the wheel. His hands and arms, his shoulders, even his legs were tingly-numb. He took a breath, then drove home.

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