The game of sunken place.., p.1
The Game of Sunken Places,
To all those authors who showed me that evil could be fought while on vacation, wearing knee-socks.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Q&A WITH M. T. ANDERSON
REGNAL DATES FOR THE KINGS AND EMPERORS OF THE REALM OF NORUMBEGA
SOMETHING STRANGE IS HAPPENING—AGAIN!
The woods were silent, other than the screaming. It was a summer’s night. Nothing in the forest moved. Somewhere in the darkness, things wailed hoarsely.
There were miles of empty pathway rambling past old logging trails and older ruins. There were aisles of trees, motionless. The blind river ran through the shadows. And crouched, listening in the bracken, his breath fast and frightened, was a real estate developer. He wore shorts, and a T-shirt that read, ME, A CHOWDERHEAD?
He should not have come into the woods. There were signs marked No TRESPASSING by the road. The signs were so old that the trees had grown around them, and gray vines laced their edges like witch macrame. Signs like that, these woods devoured.
But Milton Deatley had paid no attention to the signs. He liked to walk in the forest by night and picture it his. He liked to dream of bulldozing the trees, leaving wide tracks where the messy scrub now grew. He pictured the forest cut down and subdivided into smooth lanes full of luxury homes with carpeted rec rooms, with Peg-Board tool racks in the garages, with walk-in freezers and sauna baths, with concrete elk out on the lawn. He wanted this land to develop. In his brain, he called his estates Rumbling Elk Haven.
He had been walking for an hour through the stillness when he heard the screaming. The woods were silent, and there could be no mistake. This was not something misheard.
It was something evil.
In the moment that he first heard it, it seemed to him that nothing else existed: nothing but darkness, and heat drizzling off the leaves, and the sound of several human voices howling.
Carefully, he moved through the woods. He knew the paths well, because he had strolled there in the day. He had named them things in his mind, things they would be called when they were paved. He liked it when paved spaces—roads, cul-de-sacs, rotaries—were named after baseball stars, or vice presidents, or girls who refused to go out with him in middle school.
The path was coated with needles. His tread was soft on them. The screaming did not stop. Sometimes it was only one voice. At those times, it sounded like a man screaming in falsetto. Sometimes it sounded like several people, all being cut with different instruments.
The boughs of the trees were perfectly still. None of them moved. A bird was motionless on a branch, its eye open. The moon was not bright.
Milton Deatley saw a light through the forest.
Carefully, he moved toward it. He put down his feet quietly, but there were twigs on the path that snapped.
The light was a fire. He could see the rippling shadows of flame.
He walked toward it, crouched.
He came to the verge of a clearing in the pines. He huddled there, squatting close to the ground, ready to run.
The fire was from an abandoned snowmobile. Someone had poured oil on it and had thrown on a match. It lit up the clearing. By its light, Milton Deatley could see the screaming ritual.
There was a mound, a tall, steep hillock, and on its sides were scattered people in robes, with hoods that hid their faces. Their arms were stiff at their sides. Their mouths could be seen when they opened them to scream.
Before them stood a figure in a robe. He had some kind of tablet, a mystical tablet, lying before him, and he pointed to it by the light of the burning Ski-doo. Each time he pointed to a different square on the tablet, someone new shrieked. It seemed like an alien kind of singing. Then the keening-master would raise his hand, and pour more oil on the fire from a watering can. The fire would flare.
Milton squinted at the tablet. Now he saw that it was actually a game. A board game, with spaces to move pieces, and spots to put stacks of cards. It was open on an old Formica-topped kitchen table. The table’s legs were rusted.
The conductor touched spaces on the board. The eerie choir cried.
Milton watched them. Their voices intertwined. Some shrieked one note; some gasped; others wailed strange sighs.
From behind the mound, from out of the shadows, several more figures came. They carried the limp figure of a woman.
Her head rolled back. Her hair hung down limply.
“She is finished,” said one of the men who carried her.
“Indeed,” said the conductor with the game.
Milton Deatley’s heart beat in panic.
The group with the woman moved toward the fire.
And Milton turned to run.
He pushed aside branches and jumped toward the path. He heard a scuffling behind him. He was on the path now, barreling as quickly as he could go toward the road. His chest felt giddy and queasy. Twigs slapped at his face.
A small man was standing on a stump, saying to him, “Now things will not go well for you.”
He found himself in a maze of mounds. He scrambled from gully to gully. He clawed at the needles and loam and catapulted over rises. He slid down knolls. He could not hear if anyone pursued him.
He broke out into open woodland. There were lights floating through the trees. Perhaps insects. Deatley kicked up leaves as he ran.
He kept thinking: This is no joke.
Deatley paused in the midst of the wood. He was on a slope. He realized he was running up the mountain, not down toward the road. The bonfire lay between him and his SUV. He was trapped.
As he stood there and pondered this, he heard hunting horns.
Someone was coming down the mountain. Someone with many legs.
Weapons. Things made of metal.
They were all around him.
He fell on his knees.
And still, from the forest, they came in droves.
The envelope was outlined in gold leaf and addressed in Gothic script. Nothing else that came in the mail that day was of particular interest. Bills with plastic windows. Three unwanted record club selections. Catalogs selling button-down oxford shirts for men, in colors like yucca, furze, and jungle burgundy. There was considerable curiosity about the Gothic letter by the time Gregory Buchanan ripped it open.
Later that day, he showed it to his friend Brian. They were having burgers.
“Look what I got.”
“What is it?” asked Brian.
“Invitation,” said Gregory. His mouth was full. “From my uncle Max up in Vermont.”
“Why all the gold lettering?”
“He’s strange, Uncle Max.” Gregory shook his head. “Probably insane. He lives in kind of a different w
Brian smiled and nodded.
“So,” said Gregory, “I’m supposed to go up to his place in Vermont for a while. To visit him and my cousin Prudence.” Gregory squelched some ketchup onto his plate. “The letter says I have to bring ‘a companion.’” Gregory opened up the note. “Well, it says, ‘a companion for your amusement, so long as he be of solid reputation and respectful and unspotted demeanor.’” Gregory handed the note to Brian. He explained, “You’re the only one of my friends who’s house-trained.”
Brian, pudgy and dark-haired, looked at the letter through his glasses. He read, half-muttering, “‘…to enjoy the salutary effects of the bucolic landscape and air untrammeled by the effluents and insalubrities of the urban crush.’”
“You’re the smart one,” said Gregory. “Can you translate?”
“I think it means that the countryside is healthy and the city is dirty. Does he always talk like this?”
“I don’t know. I only met him once.”
“I’d,” said Brian, shrugging, “I’d like to go.”
“I’m inviting you. You don’t need to be timid.”
“I’d like to.”
“I’m warning you, he’s strange.”
“It will…I guess…it will be an adventure.”
“Oh, sure. It’ll be weird. Very weird.”
Brian smiled. “I don’t want to miss it.”
“No. So that’s that.”
“Okay,” said Brian. “Okay. Now I’m going to order another Fanta.”
They couldn’t know what an adventure it would be. Already, things were waiting in the hills. Things were hiding in the bushes by the dingy lights of rural Halt’N’Buys, traveling on their strange and lonely pilgrimages.
Things had issued invitations.
Gregory Buchanan and Brian Thatz had been best friends for many of their thirteen years. No one could figure out why, or how. The differences between the two were obvious at first glance: Gregory was slim and fair-haired, with a smirk that suggested his flippancy and wit; Brian was stockier, with wire-framed glasses and dark hair, and a quiet frown that suggested he was the more thoughtful and pensive of the two. Gregory was popular, even though (or perhaps because) almost nothing he said made sense. Brian made a lot of sense, but hardly anyone but Gregory ever heard what he had to say. Others didn’t see how they got along. Gregory said it was like they were two lobes of the same brain.
When they were in groups, at school or out with the rest of their friends, Gregory kept up a steady flow of talk. Brian hung back shyly, but he often saw things no one else saw. They were inseparable. It was assumed they would spend their school’s October vacation together.
Very soon, they had made arrangements with their parents to travel by train up to Gerenford,Vermont, where they would be picked up by Uncle Max for two weeks’ stay in the Green Mountains. Mrs. Thatz, Brian’s mother, could only comment that, “At this time of year, the view will be lovely! You’ll be there for the changing leaves!” She then lapsed into an autumnal rapture about oranges and reds and fading yellows while Mr. Thatz passed out more mashed potatoes.
So three weeks after the letter arrived, the two were standing in North Station in Boston, waiting for the 8:47 train. The sun was particularly bright that day as the two squinted down the tracks, standing by their overstuffed suitcases. Brian examined the various stickers on Gregory’s suitcase. He asked, “Hey—you’ve never been to Algiers. Have you? Or Sri Lanka? Or Salzburg?”
“No,” said Gregory. “Actually, this is my cousin Prudence’s. You’ll meet her up at Uncle Max’s. She lives there and takes care of things for him.”
“Whose side of your family are they on?”
“Uncle Max isn’t on either side,” Gregory explained. “He’s not related. Prudence’s parents—my aunt and uncle—died when she was seventeen or so. Uncle Max was a good friend of my real uncle. After her parents died, Prudence went to live with him. Before that, though, she traveled all over the world.”
“Is she nice?”
“I guess so. I like her, but she’s very boring. She doesn’t really make jokes. That’s one thing you’ll notice about her. Really nice, and has the sense of humor of a brick. But, you’ll meet her.”
Brian nodded, scuffled his sneaker on the concrete, then peered down the track.
The 8:47 arrived at 9:23. With a hiss and a screech, the train slowed to a halt and shot its doors open. The acrid smell of burning rubber and oily steel drifted through the air. There was quite a large crowd waiting to get on. Seating was tight in the train cars. Finally, they found two seats facing each other and heaved their luggage up on the rack above them. With a jerk, the train rolled off to the west.
For about an hour, Brian occupied himself with a 1930s detective novel in which people fired off rounds in alleyways and spoke out of the sides of their mouths, saying things like, “I’m falling for that dame real hard, like a bicyclist in a big, spiked pit.” Gregory played handheld Foosball.
The train rumbled on through Massachusetts and Vermont, passing far western towns whose names were, to Bostonians, merely legends. The vistas grew more and more expansive, the landscapes continually more rolling and uneven, until finally the Green Mountains rose into sight. The train wound through vast wooded valleys, past cliffs that had been blasted from the stone to make chasms for the dwarfed highways. Through the window they could see nothing but unending forests and pine-covered hills, mellow in the glow of early fall.
When Brian next looked up, the train was almost empty. People had stepped off at earlier, more suburban stops. There were only a few people left.
One of them was staring straight at him.
Brian looked up meekly and tried to see the man’s face. The man was hiding slightly behind an old lady’s plastic rain-hood. He was dressed in an old tweed overcoat, a black leather cap pulled down over his forehead. His face was thin, his eyes sunken.
Brian nervously dropped his gaze back to A Dirk on Thirty-Third Street, where Archie Temple was hanging off the side of a hotel, pummeling a thug with one hand and reading his prayer beads with the other.
Out of the corner of his eye, Brian saw the man draw something out of his pocket.
Something that glittered with blades.
The man held a bladed yo-yo. The string was silver. The blades glinted around the yo-yo’s edge. Staring at Brian, the man let it drop once, beckoned, and drew it back up into his hand. He had not been harmed. He kept on with his yo-yoing. The metal edges flashed. He did not seem to notice the yo-yo in his hand, he was so intent on peering at Brian.
Brian pretended to read.
The man sat back in his chair. He wound the string of the yo-yo around his fingers. He stared. His fingers were tightly wrapped. He did not seem to notice. His fingers were turning white. Where the yo-yo string was wrapped around them, they had a tinge of red.
After scanning a few pages in a distracted, disjointed manner, Brian looked up again. The man was rising from his seat. The yo-yo string went slack around his fingers. His hands were purple now from the lack of circulation, webbed with white where the string had bitten into the flesh.
Brian squirmed. He kicked the sole of Gregory’s sneaker. Gregory was intent on his game. Brian kicked him again.
Gregory said, “Cut it out.”
Glaring at Brian, the man shook out one hand, then the other. He closed and opened his fists.
He walked toward Brian. Brian froze in his seat. He was terrified.
The man was beside them. He looked down at Gregory, and then at Brian, and smiled.
Brian didn’t know what to do.
The man walked on down the aisle. He staggered past the conductor into the train car.
Gregory was looking out at the hills, his face reflected in the glass. “It makes you want to tr
“Gregory,” whispered Brian. “Did you see that guy? With the yo-yo?”
“I’m talking about my life,” said Gregory. He raised his hand poetically. “Someday, I want to be a shower curtain repairman.”
“This guy was staring at us. He had this bladed yo-yo.”
“See, you have your rich fantasy life to get you through the day. But me…”
“He was sitting right over there.”
“For me, shower curtain repair offers exactly the right mixture of high adventure and mental challenge. Just right for the man who likes his La-Z-Boy with the footrest flipped up.”
“I’m not kidding.”
Gregory craned his neck around. “Why didn’t you tell me when he was there?”
“I didn’t want to attract his attention.”
“I can understand that.”
They stared at the spot where he had sat—but there was no one sitting there now.
The train galloped on, over miles of tracks.
Finally, as the day grew dim, the train skidded into Gerenford, a town whose only conspicuous feature was a huge marble monolith dedicated to the town’s founder, a man who’d settled down at the spot when he’d found that his tent pegs were stuck. The two friends lumbered off the train with their bulky luggage and watched the last car snake away to the north.
“There. That man,” whispered Brian, grabbing Gregory’s arm and tugging him. “Into the snack bar.”
“What? He went into the snack bar?”
“No. Walking right there.”
“Because, Brian, people are allowed to go to the snack bar.”
“He was the one staring at us on the train.”
The man was walking toward the station exit. He carried two strangely shaped valises.
“Him?” said Gregory.
“It was weird. It’s like he knew us.”
Gregory smiled. “Cool.”
“Come on!” Brian whispered urgently.
They walked quickly into the little restaurant next to the station. “He was watching us?” said Gregory.
“With a bladed yo-yo?”