A dark matter, p.9
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       A Dark Matter, p.9

           Peter Straub

  The Eel and Dill looked up at Mallon. He was glowing like a torch.

  “Once we get in there,” he said, “we might just change the world.”

  Mallon asked Dill to take the white paint and paintbrush out of the bag and use them to mark out a circle approximately six feet in diameter on the brown, patchy earth that covered the long, low rise before them. “Boats, give him a hand. I want that circle to look pretty damn circular, if you know what I mean. The circle is the most perfect form in nature, and ours isn’t going to work right if it’s shaped like an amoeba.”

  “Where do you want it?” Dill asked.

  “It has to be where it has to be. All of you, look over the ground and find the circle. Find the circle. It’s already there. We’re just going to paint over it so we can be sure we find the right place tomorrow night. So start looking, everybody—you’ll see it in the dead grass, you’ll see it in the dust, look long enough and it’ll jump out at you. If you can find this place without me leading you to it, you ought to be able to find the circle.”

  Dill said, “You want us to look … ?”

  “I’ll give us all a minute. When the minute is up, everybody is going to point at the place where they found the circle. All right, start looking.”

  Old Howard stared into the pages of L. Shelby Austin and remembered looking for something nobody would ever be able to find. On the patchy ground, no circle waited to be discovered. Spencer was wrong, young Howard admitted to himself. Maybe not about everything, of course not about everything, but in this one instance, that of the imaginary circle, he was out to lunch. There it was, irreducible fact. The fucking circle did not exist. He still thought that was true. Nothing in L. Shelby Austin could change his mind, not that L. Shelby Austin, author of The Moondreamers, gave a damn. Howard remembered looking over at the Eel, and being unable to see if her faith was strong enough to support belief in the magic circle.

  It could have gone either way. The Eel was putting on a tremendous show of concentration, furrowed forehead, squinty eyes, tense shoulder muscles, the whole deal.

  Far back in time, Spencer Mallon cried, “Time’s up!”

  Three arms shot out, his, Dilly-O’s, and Keith Hayward’s, their index fingers by some miracle all pointing at roughly the same patch of ground. Half a heartbeat later, everyone else, Howard Bly among them, jumped on board, and four other arms flew out straight before their dishonest owners.

  Meredith Bright squealed, “I see it, Spencer! It’s right there!” Young Howard thought, She wanted to see it, that’s all; for the hundredth, the thousandth time, the fat old Howard in the Game Room thought, She was faking it, just like me.

  Triumphant, Mallon ordered Dill and Boats to paint the white circle upon the existing one they had located through what he called “psychic divination.” The two boys pulled the small cans and the wide brushes from their bags, pried the lids off the cans, and set about trying to describe a decent circle on the untreated ground. The dead and dying grass soaked up the paint but left a white shadow bright enough to be seen. The earth, however, refused to take the paint and instead clotted the brushes. Mallon told them to pour it out. If they needed more, they’d bring it tomorrow. Stepping slowly backwards toward each other, pouring thin white streams from their cans, Boats and Dill traced out a reasonably acceptable circle they completed by turning side by side and drizzling the last of their paint onto the ground.

  “Perfect,” Mallon said. “Now get the ropes.”

  The boys took the ropes from the bags and looped them on the ground in front of the circle. They would serve, Mallon said, chiefly as symbols of confinement, but should actual roping be called for, he would depend on the boys to do their best. They looked nervous and uncertain, but they nodded.

  “Candles,” Mallon said. “Matches.”

  Dill and Boats dipped into their bags and produced a white wax candle and a box of kitchen matches for each participant, Mallon included.

  Mallon arranged his party here and there in the grassy dell according to a pattern he had worked out in his mind and confirmed, he said, in texts of ancient magic. At the center of the pattern, he stood facing the fuzzy white circle, his back to the overgrown rise. Ten feet apart, Boats and Dill stood before him on each side, like watchful bodyguards. From a position well to the left of Boats, Howard, Eel, and Meredith Bright gazed at Mallon and the circle, the Eel and Meredith for some reason seeming to be so uncomfortable with their proximity they kept edging apart; so easy together they seemed to form a separate party of two, Hayward and Milstrap took a similar position to Dill’s right. Once they had taken their places, they were to strike their matches and light the candles. Today, they would pretend to execute this step.

  “After the candles are lighted, we will maintain silence for as long as I think is necessary,” Mallon said, “When it feels right to break the silence, I will begin to recite something in Latin. It will be whatever comes into my mind. You won’t understand a single word, and that’s perfectly fine. Concentrate anyhow, pick up whatever you can. You are part of the raw material, too, and I am going to need your total involvement. So listen hard—listen as though your life depended on it. Because it might!”

  This also required rehearsal. Pretending to hold up a lighted candle, Howard Bly watched his hero and tormentor stand as still as a driven post and mutter a rushed string of words he would not have comprehended even had they been audible because they were in a language spectacularly dead. As ordered, he concentrated as hard as he could without closing his eyes. After a couple of minutes, Howard began to feel that their little group had been joined by a number of strangers. It was no more than a feeling, but the feeling was too strong to ignore or dismiss. Because the strangers were invisible, they became more present to him after he closed his eyes. One by one, then in groups of two and three, they wandered up and encircled Mallon and his followers. Howard could feel this happening: it was like gradually being surrounded by more and more ghosts. But these presences were not ghosts. In exactly the same way, the fat little candle he held slightly above his head had begun to burn, for he could feel the flutter flutter flutter of its small, bright flame. Though invisible to the open eye, it was a real, not a ghost flame.

  In the same way that he saw the wavering candle flame, Howard knew that the strangers all about them were not human. He had seen one of their kind on Gorham Street. The Eel had seen one in the girl’s bathroom at Madison West. The creatures had been waiting for Mallon and his group on Glasshouse Road, but instead of trying to scare them off, they had spooked them into going toward the meadow. Now they resembled (it came to him) humane, upright dogs: dogs in handsome but outdated human clothes, deerstalker hats, Norfolk jackets, swallowtail coats, smoking jackets, bowlers, homburgs. About half of them seemed to be Weimaraners, but a good many bulldogs and Irish setters appeared in the crowd. Some of them smoked cigars. They looked a great deal like the dogs in the Eel’s great painting, except that they seemed melancholy and irritable, not relaxed. They made Hootie extremely uncomfortable, for among the ranks of those who had made the dog-things so grumpy was himself, who alone could see them.

  And why would the creatures drive them toward the meadow in the way sheepdogs drive their herd? Howard could read the answer in their watchful attitude: the agents, as Mallon called them, wanted to see how far they’d get.

  Mallon had no idea that the dogs had gathered round. His anxiety seemed to have left him completely, and he appeared to be both utterly at ease and so charged with excitement as to be on the verge of trembling. The radical incompatibility of these states caused the young Howard to fear that Spencer Mallon might split in half, or float away from him, never to return.

  Just as this appalling notion flew into his mind, the young Howard Bly caught a strangeness in his peripheral vision—a movement like that of a white scarf blown across the meadow. He moved his head to look more closely and for a second or less had the impression that he was seeing something small, white, and agonize
d, not a scarf, twist itself off of the brown grass some four feet to the right of the white circle of paint and gyrate upward until it snapped into invisibility. Around it, the atmosphere had flared: the landscape appeared to bulge as the white shape flew past. So quickly had it come and gone, he questioned whether he had seen it at all. Then he realized that of course he had seen it, in his way, and that the tormented white scarflike thing had been in flight from whatever had caused the world to ripple and bulge as it followed in pursuit. The wretched white thing had flown through, it had escaped into this world.

  Immediately, there came a second recognition, that the invisible but real flame had guttered out and the dog-creatures had left them—all at once, their invisibility had become absence. For a moment, this absence felt more threatening than their presence.

  Mallon lowered his arms and told everyone that they had done everything they could for that day. He thought the rehearsal had gone well, in fact very well. He did, too: Howard could still feel the man’s suppressed excitement beating away beneath his cool exterior.

  “Everybody, go home and have a good dinner, if that’s in the picture for you. Then comes the surprise I promised you. Hootie, Eel, Boats, Dill? This is your night to go to a fraternity party. Keith and Brett have made it possible for all of us to attend the Beta Delt bash tonight, and it’s gonna be great. Free beer, live rock ’n’ roll, three girls for every boy, three boys for every girl. Except you, Meredith! Big big fun guaranteed for all. Keith and Brett, we all thank you for making a dream come true. See what I mean, Hootie?”

  “Yeah,” Howard said. “Amazing.” This was another world now, he thought, one he hardly knew at all.

  No one else, it seemed, had seen the tormented white scrap fly over the dead grass. No one but he had sensed the presence of the agents or held a candle with an invisible flame. So what did I do, I believed it was me, the old Howard said to himself. Hootie said to Hootie, what you saw back there was nothing but yourself, and Hootie believed what he said.

  Dill returned home for dinner. Howard and the Eel went along home with Boats, whose mother was still sober enough to cook one of their favorite meals, macaroni and cheese. She slopped the yellow mush onto their plates, placed before them a bowl of potato chips and cold bottles of Coca-Cola, and watched them eat, chain-smoking Parliaments and smiling at the way they bolted their food. Boats’s mom had always been fond of the Eel.

  “Hey, where’s your boyfriend at?” she asked. “You guys are usually pretty tight.”

  “Yeah, well, he dumped us,” Eel said. “He’s just so above it all and skeptical, he’s gonna miss everything, not that I care even a little bit, God knows.”

  “Yeah, sure,” said Boats’s mother. “Okay. So are the rest of you going to a party tonight, or just hanging out, as per usual?”

  Boats’s mother, Shirley Boatman, had once been very pretty, and the aggressive question had a wistful undertone.

  “Maybe a little of both,” Boats said.

  “You guys should party it up a little more. Where is it, anyhow?”

  Boats and the Eel continued eating. His mother popped ice cubes out of the tray in the freezer and freshened her drink with two inches of Seagram’s and an equal amount of 7 Up.

  “Hey, you don’t have to worry about me spoiling the fun or anything.” The ashy tip of her cigarette dropped into her glass and disintegrated when it struck an ice cube. She stirred the drink with a finger, and most of the ashes disappeared.

  She took a drag on the cigarette and blew out a column of smoke that angled above the table and over their heads. “Who’s throwing this shindig, anyhow?”

  “It’s just some kids. And Mom?—only old people say ‘shindig’ anymore.”

  Filling a sudden silence, Eel said, “All I can tell you is, this party’s on Langdon Street.”

  “Langdon Street. When I was a girl in high school, we all talked about going to fraternity parties, but none of us ever did. Our parents wouldn’t have let us, for one thing. My mom and dad? They woulda nailed my bedroom door shut. All I’m gonna do is say—don’t drink too much, and don’t make a fool of yourself. Eel and Hootie, I’m talking to my son here. You two’ll do fine, I know.”

  “And what, you expect me to act like an idiot? Gee, Mom, thanks a bunch.”

  “You want to know what I expect? Mainly, Boats, I expect you to keep your hands in your pockets. Don’t take anything that don’t belong to you. It’s not like sneakin’ candy outa the A & P. It takes money to belong to a fraternity. Once they’re in, they watch out for each other.”

  “Whatever you say, Mom,” Boats said.

  “Just remember—if you get into trouble, you have to get out of it by yourself.” She turned to Howard Bly. “And Hootie, your mom said it was fine for you to eat over here tonight, but she doesn’t want you to stay out too late. And she asked me if I knew anything about someone staying in your basement at night.”

  The three boys looked at her in shock. To little Howard Bly, it was as if adored Spencer Mallon had been revealed to be the white thing that twisted in torment up and away.

  “Uh-oh,” Shirley said. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t want to know what’s going on, but if that pervert you all love so much is sleeping in your basement, you’d better get him outta there, pronto.”

  That evening, Howard was unable to take Spencer aside when they gathered outside the Beta Delt house, which was not actually on Langdon Street but down a walkway between two other fraternity houses. A wooden, listing structure badly in need of a new paint job, it stood on the far edge of a small asphalt parking lot with a private drive servicing it and two other, equally undistinguished houses. The back of the house led directly onto a wooden deck over Lake Mendota and a long, unstable pier.

  Hayward and Milstrap ushered Mallon and the group through the front door and into a lounge or living room with battered and abraded leather furniture arranged around a cold fireplace. A boy in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and sandals looked up from a game of solitaire and yelled, “What the hell is with these kids, Hayward?”

  Hayward said, “Kitchen help.”

  “You should be kitchen help, you asshole,” said the boy.

  Howard was able to speak privately to Spencer only after Hayward had led them downstairs and into a large empty room with a bandstand at one end and a bar at the other. When two young men summoned Hayward and Milstrap from an arched doorway, Howard turned to Mallon and described his dilemma. He was fearful that Mallon would either get angry or refuse to move out of the basement, and he kept hesitating and mixing up his words.

  No problem, Mallon said. He had not intended to go back to the store that night, anyhow—he’d crash at Meredith’s. He’d had a little trouble in that direction, but everything was copacetic again. Women, you know, they’re all a little crazy. By the way, there was no reason to tell all of this to the Eel. Okay?

  In that direction? Crash? Copacetic? Was this guy speaking English? “Okay,” he said.

  He wanted to say: Forget about tomorrow, forget the whole thing, my love, you may know you’re being watched, but you don’t know what you’re up against. Pay attention to what they told you. Quit while you’re behind.

  How could he say these things to Spencer Mallon? It was impossible. For a moment little Howard Bly hovered on the brink of attempting to do that which was not possible to do, and at the end of that moment all choice was stolen from him. The two frat boys who had conferred with Keith and Brett were ordering them into a single line. The boys watched them file through the arch so closely they might have been trying to memorize their faces. Howard was aware that they paid special attention to the Eel and himself. While Milstrap ushered the group into an empty kitchen, Howard looked back and thought he saw Keith Hayward shove folded bills into his pocket.

  Milstrap told them that they had been brought in early to avoid inspection at the door. Mallon and Meredith were fine, of course, but as far as the Beta Delts were concerned, the high-s
chool students had been hired as kitchen help. When this turned out to be an ordinary party, just beer, no food, well, sorry, but kiss my ass, okay? So Hayward had forgotten to tell the kids. Big deal, right? Officially, they were supposed to wait in the kitchen until midnight, then go out and start cleaning up the BD Room back out there. In reality, they could wait until the BD Room got really noisy—maybe fifteen minutes after the band started playing—and after that do whatever they liked. If they were nice to the Beta Delts, the Beta Delts would be nice to them. And by the way, the beer was free. Have as much as you like, just don’t puke or pass out.

  Mallon and Meredith Bright left with Hayward and Milstrap. For a little less than an hour, the Madison West students flopped around undisturbed in the kitchen. Then a din of voices arose in the party room, a guitar began to play blues over a shuffle rhythm, voices male and female amped up into party mode, and the little band slipped out of the kitchen and filtered into the BD Room. The lights had been turned down. Gyrating, bouncing bodies filled the room. Instantly, the crowd separated them.

  Howard realized that he had never been to a party even faintly like this, and neither had any of his friends. In high school, big parties took over entire houses, and you could always escape to a quieter, less crowded room or go out on the lawn. You listened to records and hoped somebody had managed to bring beer. Here, everybody had been jammed into one room, and they were all yelling and screaming. The band was the loudest thing he had ever heard in his life: he felt the bass reverberating in his chest, and the sound vibrated as it passed through his body. Everybody, even the dancers, carried big plastic cups full of beer, and beer splashed onto people’s clothes and all over the floor. Loud, hard, utterly joyous music echoed off the walls and drilled into his ears. Trying to get to the bar, Howard moved down the edge of the dance floor, weaving through the crowd and squeezing past people who never noticed he was there. When finally he made it to the bar, the Eel was standing right in front of him, reaching up to take two of the sixteen-ounce cups from the boy working the taps. It was one of those unexpected times when he became achingly aware that the Eel was a girl, a real girl, instead of a tomboy so successful that he thought of her as just another guy, more or less. Even worse, she was stunning. Astonishingly, as if to console him for the bone-deep ache that accompanied this perception, the Eel turned around and gave him one of the cups filled to the top with foaming beer.

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