Though the whole area was commonly called Dark Hollow, the true hollow was a deep and narrow valley that wormed between the toes of three substantial hills. Halfway up the tallest hill was the flattened natural shelf that had been commandeered as the Passion Pit, and it was surrounded by snarls of undergrowth that were burned to gnarled skeletons three years ago by a thoughtlessly discarded cigarette butt. The trees were badly charred as well, but few had actually died. Pine trees endured forest fires heroically, though these looked desolate without their needles. Slowly, but surely, the land reclaimed its life and color, and here and there a new green sprig of spruce or Frazier pine could be found.
At night, especially an overcast and moody night like this, Dark Hollow was as dark as a tomb and as inviting as an open, beckoning grave; yet there were worse places in Pine Deep, places where the shadows were darker still and the air hummed with a malevolent tension. But these places were never named and they were never thought about by choice. Dark Hollow, a doorway to those other places, remained as the darkest place known consciously to the people of the town, and in its way, it was dark enough.
The last crickets of the season chanted a weak and dispirited chorus from the withered grass of the hollow, and in a half-burnt old oak, an owl demanded identification of all that moved in the night. All day the spot had been empty and then between one second and the next a man stood by the stump. A moment before he had been standing on the road and now he was here, and he looked as startled as the birds around him as if he didn’t understand it either.
His face looked strained and tense, but also sad. He looked around at the shadows that clung like webs around Dark Hollow, then down at the stump, and then slowly sat down. His pale skin glowed faintly in the darkness, and his deep-set eyes looked like the empty sockets in a skull. A guitar stood nearby, canted back to rest against the trunk of a scrub pine. Before him, on the ground, was the remains of an old campfire left behind months ago by hoboes. The wood was only half burned, but cold and damp.
There was a soft flutter in the air and the gray man looked up as the ragged night bird jumped from one branch to a lower one. It stood there on stick legs, head cocked to one side as it regarded him as if it knew him.
“Yeah, brother blackbird, you know me. And I know you.” Though his lips moved to form the words no sound came out. Even so, the bird rustled its wings and edged slightly closer. The man watched it for a long while and thought, You know the Bone Man. In his own ears his voice sounded sad. Yeah…everybody know the Bone Man and everybody know that he don’t amount to much.
He pulled his guitar around and strummed the strings. The sound was high and sweet, but distant, like something heard through a closed door.
“Are you cold?” the Bone Man asked the bird. “I’m cold as a motherfucker.”
The bird made a faint sound, like the squeak of a rusted hinge.
“I’m always cold.” The Bone Man looked back at the old fire logs. He said nothing else, even when the logs suddenly burst into flame. The bird flapped its wings and almost flew away. But didn’t. It remained there, watching the man, watching the waxing golden light, feeling the blossoming warmth. The logs caught and settled down into a cheerful, chuckling fire, so strange in that desolate place.
The Bone Man fished in his pocket for the sawed-off and polished neck of an old whiskey bottle. It fit on one finger of his left hand and he rested the fingers of his right hand across the strings, but he didn’t play quite yet. Instead he closed his eyes and hung his head as if in prayer and the woods grew still around him. Then slowly, barely touching the strings, he began to play an old blues song. “Black Ghost Blues” by Lightnin’ Hopkins. He played it through while the thunder rumbled overhead and the lightning slashed at the sky.
When the song ended he was a quiet for a while, listening to the storm; then he began playing a different tune. It was a sad song, one his grandfather had written a long time ago and called “Ghost Road Blues.”
Not far away, close enough for the Bone Man to feel it, down the long hill at the bottom of the hollow, was another place, a place that was far darker even than its name, a place of mold and decay, where seething insectoid life thrived in twisted vitality around a swamp that lay always hidden by shadows. The tall trees were clustered over it like mourners bowed over a coffin, the twisted bracken and shrubs that were tangled along the lumpy ground as thick as moss on a wet stone, bathing it forever in darkness despite the brightest summer sun; and now, with the swelling dark of autumn and the fading of Indian summer’s last shreds of warmth, the place was a temple to lightlessness, bitter cold and a pestilential silence.
The gray man finished his song and for a while he just sat on his log and felt the roiling darkness of that shunned and malevolent place lapping like black waves around him. He remembered that place; remembered it and feared it. In his memories he saw that place splattered with blood and rent by violence. Long ago, the Bone Man had thought—foolishly, naively—that the evil of that place had perished with the evil man who’d used the swamp as a fortress. He’d believed that when the man died his evil would die with him. Now, looking back down the littered corridor of empty years, he finally understood what that cold and evil man had told him. Evil never dies. It merely waits. And it grows stronger in the dark. Even now, thirty years later, he could still hear the harsh mockery in that man’s voice as he said those words. Evil never dies. It waits.
The man with graveyard dirt on his suit and the ragged night bird sat in their silence and watched the fire.
And it grows stronger in the dark.
The road swept around a tight bend and then settled down into a long stretch of flat, straight highway. Mike pedaled laboriously, trying not to breathe too hard, yet feeling his lungs begging him for more air. The night had grown quiet and close around him, a gelid mass that was hard to move through with any kind of speed. He didn’t dare look at his watch. Already it had been nearly an hour since the maniac in the wrecker had driven him off the road, and Vic wasn’t going to be pleased at all. Mike wondered if a broken rib would exempt him from the usual belting, and decided that it probably wouldn’t. He could almost imagine how Vic would put it: “Your ass ain’t broken, boy, just bend over the chair and try for once to take it like a man.”
A man , he thought bitterly as he pumped the pedals, wouldn’t take it at all.
The tears wanted to come again, but he actually snarled out loud to drive them back. He would not—he absolutely would not ever cry because of that bastard Vic. Not ever again! His anger sent energy to his legs and for a while he pedaled on in furious silence, ignoring, even savoring the pain.
If I can take a broken rib, then I can take another belting.
He had gone almost three miles when a series of brilliant and lengthy lightning flashes drenched the road in revealing brilliance. Mike slowed his bike and stared. Just ahead of him, beginning a few inches beyond his front tire, were long black skid marks. They were so dark that Mike knew they were fresh, and they cut away to his right in a very tight arc, ending abruptly at the shoulder of the road. He gingerly got off his bike and walked the length of those skid marks, stopping on the verge with his heels on the blacktop and his sneakered toes hanging out over the deep ruts torn into the near edge of the big drainage ditch. He waited for the next lightning flash, and in its glow he could see where the ruts began again on the other side of the ditch; these ruts were deeper, more smashed in, and huge clods of mud had fallen away into the ditch. As bolt after bolt of lightning danced through the sky, he worked it out in pieces, seeing first the place where all four tires had cut furrows in the dirt as the car must have slewed sideways, then the gap-toothed hole in the otherwise orderly wall of cornstalks. The car must have plowed right into the field and kept on going. Mike crabbed sideways, trying to get a better angle of sight. One final flash of lightning was all he needed to see the gleam of metal many yards into the corn.
“Jeez!” he said aloud. Indecisively he looked back at his bike for a thoughtful second, and then into the corn again. He knew that the car crash must have happened only recently, because there hadn’t been any skid marks when he’d come out this way. Say two hours, tops.
The wrecker had come from this direction, he thought, and wondered if that crazy driver had driven this car off the road, too.
A horrible thought occurred to him. There could still be people in there. Trapped!
Mike could feel his pulse racing. The thought of people trapped in a wrecked car was one of the truly terrifying images for him. When his own father had fallen asleep at the wheel of his car while driving home from his nighttime job, the ambulance men had told Mike’s mom that he had probably been alive for as much as half an hour. Half an hour before the gasoline leaking from the ruptured tank had somehow found a way to ignite. Mike shuddered at the thought of someone else being trapped like that, being alone and afraid. Dying the way his dad had died. That was the stuff of his nightmares.
Before he was even conscious of his decision, he had taken a step off the blacktop and onto the top of the steep slope of the drainage ditch.
Then something truly amazing happened.
A deer stepped quietly out of the woods right in front of him, coming right out of the opening that had been smashed in the cornstalks. It stepped out boldly just as a bolt of lightning seared the whole world to whiteness all around him. Mike gasped and jolted to a stop, mindful of the pain in his ribs, but too surprised even to wince.
The deer was a big buck, maybe a twelve-pointer, and normally that alone would have been enough to stop him in his tracks, but that was nothing compared to the color of the thing. It was pure white. Not just pale but an unnatural white, like milk or a freshly whitewashed fence. Hard muscles rippled beneath the smooth hide as it walked slowly out of the cornfield and stood facing him across the few yards of the drainage ditch.
Mike marveled at it, smiling at the majesty of the animal without even being aware of it. For a while he totally forgot about his broken rib and about Vic’s hard hands waiting at home, he forgot about the skid marks and the wreck. He was filled with the beauty of the magnificent creature. It was easily the biggest deer he had ever seen, at least two hundred pounds, and stood tall and proud in the road before him; and it stood so close!