Summer afternoons in Pico Mundo are long and blistering, with little hope of wind and none of rain. Although my wristwatch and the car clock agreed on 4:48, hours of searing sunshine remained ahead.
The morning weather forecast had called for a high of 110 degrees, by no means a record for the Mojave. I suspected that this prediction had been exceeded.
When cool-climate relatives and friends are astonished to hear such temperatures, Pico Mundians put a chamber-of-commerce spin on our meteorology noting that the humidity is a mere fifteen or twenty percent. Our average summer day they insist, isn’t like a sweltering steam bath but like a refreshing sauna.
Even in the shade of a huge old Indian laurel with roots no doubt deep enough to tap the Styx, I couldn’t pretend that I was being cod­dled in a sauna. I felt like a child who had wandered into the ginger­bread house of a Black Forest witch and had been popped into her oven with the control at SLOW BAKE.
Occasionally a car passed, but no pedestrians appeared. No children were at play. No homeowner ventured forth to putter in a withered garden.
One dog slumped past, head low, tongue lolling, as if it were stub­bornly tracking the mirage of a cat.
Soon my body provided the humidity that the air lacked, until I sat in a puddle of sweat.
I could have started the Mustang and switched on the air condition­ing, but I didn’t want to waste Terri’s gasoline or overheat the engine. Besides, as any desert denizen knows, repeated heating and cooling may temper some metals, but it softens the human mind.
After forty minutes, Fungus Man reappeared. He locked the side door of the house, which suggested that no one remained at home, and got behind the wheel of his dust-shrouded Explorer,
I slid down in my seat, below the window, listening as the SUV drove past and left a trail of sound that dwindled into silence.
Crossing to the pale-yellow house, I didn’t worry unduly about be­ing watched from any of the sun-silvered windows along the street. Living in Camp’s End inspired alienation rather than the community spirit needed to form a Neighborhood Watch committee.
Instead of going to the blue front door and making a greater spec­tacle of myself, I sought the shadows of the carport and knocked on the side door that Fungus Man had used. No one answered.
if the door had featured a deadbolt lock, I would have had to force a window. Confronted by a mere latch bolt, I was confident that, like other young Americans, I had been so well educated by TV cop dra­mas that I could slip easily into the house.
To simplify my life, I keep no bank accounts and pay only cash; therefore, I have no credit cards. California had thoughtfully issued to me a laminated driver’s license stiff enough to loid the lock.
As I’d anticipated, the kitchen wasn’t a shrine either to Martha Stewart decor or to cleanliness. The place couldn’t be fairly called a pigsty, either; it was just plagued by a general disarray, with here and there an offering of crumbs to ants if they wished to visit.
A faint but unpleasant smell laced the well-cooled air. I could not identify thesource, and at first I thought that it must be the singular fragrance of Fungus Man, for he appeared to be one who would issue strange and noxious odors if not also deadly spoors.
I didn’t know what I sought here, but I expected to recognize it when I saw it. Something had drawn the bodachs to this man, and I had followed in their wake with the hope of discovering a clue to the reason for their interest.
After I circled the kitchen, trying but failing to find meaning in a mug half filled with cold coffee, in a browning banana peel left on a cutting board, in the unwashed dishes in the sink, and in the ordinary contents of drawers and cupboards, I realized that the air was not just cool but inexplicably chilly. For the most part, the sweat on my ex­posed skin had dried. On the nape of my neck, it felt as though it had turned to ice.
The pervasive chill was inexplicable because even in the Mojave, where air conditioning was essential, a house as old and as humble as this rarely had central cooling. Window-mounted units, each serving a single chamber, were a viable alternative to the costly retrofitting of a dwelling that didn’t merit the expense.
The kitchen had no such window units.
Often in a home like this, the residents held the heat at bay only at night and only in the bedroom. Sleep might otherwise be difficult. Even in this small house, however, an air conditioner in the bedroom would not be able to cool the entire structure. Certainly it could not have made an icebox of the kitchen.
Besides, window-mounted units were noisy: the chug and hum of the compressor, the rattle of the fan. I heard none of that here.
As I stood, head cocked, listening, the house waited in silence. On consideration, I suddenly found this stillness to be unnatural.
My shoes should have teased noise from the cracked linoleum, from floorboards loosened by time, heat, and shrinking aridity. Yet when I moved, I had the stealth of a cat on pillows.
In retrospect, I realized that the drawers and the cupboard doors had opened and closed with only the softest whisper, as though con­structed with frictionless slides and hinges.
When I moved toward the open doorway between the kitchen and the next room, the cold air seemed to thicken, further muffling the transmission of sound.
The sparsely furnished living room proved to be as dreary and as marked by disorder as the kitchen. Old battered paperbacks, no doubt purchased at a used-book store, and magazines littered the floor, the couch, the coffee table.
The magazines were what you might expect. Photos of nude women were featured between articles about extreme sports, fast cars, and pathetic seduction techniques, all surrounded by ads for viril­ity herbs and for devices guaranteed to increase the size of the average man’s favorite body part, by which I do not mean his brain.
My favorite body part is my heart because it is the only thing I have to give Stormy Llewellyn. Furthermore, the beat of it, when I wake each morning, is my first best evidence that I have not, during the night, joined the community of the stubbornly lingering dead.
The paperbacks surprised me. They were romance novels. Judging by the cover illustrations, these were of the more chaste variety, in which bosoms seldom heaved and bodices were not often lustily ripped open. They were stories less concerned with sex than with love, and they were a peculiar counterpoint to the magazines full of
women fondling their breasts, spreading their legs, and licking their lips lasciviously.
When I picked up one of the books and thumbed through it, the riffling pages made no noise.
By this point, I seemed to be able to hear no sounds except those that had an internal origin: the thud of my heart, the rush of blood in my ears.
I should have fled right then. The eerie muffling effect of the ma­lign atmosphere in the house ought to have alarmed me.
Because my days are characterized as much by strange experiences as by the aroma of meat smoke and the sizzle of fat on the griddle, I don’t alarm easily. Furthermore, I admit to a tendency, sometimes re­grettable, to surrender always to my curiosity.
Riffling the soundless pages of the romance novel, I thought that perhaps Fungus Man did not live here alone. These books might have been the preferred reading material of his companion.
This possibility turned out not to be supported by the evidence in his bedroom. The closet contained only his clothes. The unmade bed, the scatter of yesterday’s underwear and socks, and a half-eaten raisin Danish on a paper plate, on the nightstand, argued against the civiliz­ing presence of a woman.
An air conditioner, mounted in the window, wasn’t running. No breeze blew from its vents.
The faint foul smell first detected in the kitchen grew stronger here, reminiscent of the malodor of a shorting electrical cord, but not quite that, with a hint of ammonia and a trace of coal dust and a whiff of nutmeg, but not quite any of those things, either.
The short hallway that served the bedroom also led to the bath. The mirror needed to be cleaned. On the counter, the toothpaste tube had not been capped. A small wastebasket overflowed with used Kleenex and other trash.
Across the hall from Fungus Man’s bedroom stood another door. I assumed it led either to a closet or to a second bedroom.
At that threshold, the air grew so chilled that I could see my breath, a pale plume.
Icy against my palm, the doorknob turned. Beyond lay a vortex of silence that sucked the last sound out of my ears, leaving me for the moment deaf even to the labor of my heart.
The black room waited.
DURING MY TWENTY YEARS, I HAVE BEEN IN MANY DARK places, some lacking light and others devoid of hope. In my experi­ence, none had been darker than that strange room in the home of Fungus Man.
Either this chamber had no windows or all the windows had been boarded over and caulked against every prying blade of sunshine. No lamps glowed. In this profound gloom, had there been a digital clock with an LED readout, the faint radiance of its numerals would have seemed like a blazing beacon,
At the threshold, I squinted into such absolute blackness that I seemed to be peering not into a room at all but into dead space in a far region of the universe where the ancient stars were burnt-out cinders. The bone-brittling cold, deeper here than elsewhere in the house, and the oppressive silence argued as well that this was some bleak way sta­tion in the interstellar vacuum.
More peculiar than anything else: The hallway light failed to pene­trate even a fraction of an inch into the realm beyond the door. The demarcation of light and utter lightlessness was as sharp as a painted
line at the inner edge of the threshold, up the jamb, and across the header. The perfect gloom did not merely resist the intrusion of light but foiled it entirely.
This seemed to be a wall of blackest obsidian, though obsidian that lacked polish and glimmer.
I am not fearless. Toss me in a cage with a hungry tiger, and if I should escape, I will need a bath and clean pants as surely as will the next guy.
My unique path through life has led me, however, to fear known threats but seldom the unknown, while most people fear both.
Fire scares me, yes, and earthquakes, and venomous snakes. People scare me more than anything, for I know too well the savagery of which humankind is capable.
To me, however, the most daunting mysteries of existence - death and what lies beyond - have no fright factor because I deal with the dead each day. Besides, I have faith that where I am ultimately going is not to mere oblivion.
In spooky movies, do you rail at the beleaguered characters to get the hell out of the haunted house, to get smart and leave? They poke into rooms with a history of bloody murder, into attics hung with cobwebs and shadows, into cellars acrawl with cockroaches and ca-codemons, and when they are chopped-stabbed-gutted-beheaded-burned with the flamboyance necessary to satisfy Hollywood’s most psychotic directors, we gasp and shudder, and then we say, “Idiot,” for by their stupidity they have earned their fate.
I’m not stupid, but I am one of those who will never flee the haunted place. The special gift of paranormal sight, with which I was born, impels me to explore, and I can no more resist the demands of my talent than a musical prodigy can resist the magnetic pull of a pi­ano; I am no more deterred by the mortal risks than is a fighter pilot eager to take flight into war-torn skies.
This is part of the reason why Stormy occasionally wonders if my gift might be instead a curse.
On the brink of unblemished blackness, I raised my right hand as if I were taking an oath - and pressed my palm to the apparent barrier before me. Although this darkness could fend off light, it offered no resistance whatsoever to the pressure that I applied. My hand disap­peared into the tarry gloom.
By “disappeared,” I mean that I could perceive not even the vaguest impression of my wiggling fingers beyond the surface of this wall of blackness. My wrist ended as abruptly as that of an amputee.
I must admit that my heart raced, though I felt no pain, and that I exhaled with relief - and without sound - when I withdrew my hand and saw that all my digits were intact. I felt as though I had survived an illusion performed by those self-proclaimed bad boys of magic, Penn and Teller.
When I stepped across the threshold, however, holding fast to the door casing with one hand, I entered not an illusion but a real place that seemed more unreal than any dream. The blackness ahead re­mained uncannily pure; the cold was unrelenting; and the silence cloyed as effectively as congealed blood in the ears of a head-shot dead man.
Although from the far side of the doorway I had been unable to dis­cern one scintilla of this room, I could look out from within it and see the hallway in normal light, unobstructed. This view shed no more il­lumination into the room than would have a painting of a sunny land­scape.
I half expected to find that Fungus Man had returned and that he was staring at the only part of me now visible from out there: my hooked fingers desperately clutching the casing. Fortunately, I was still alone.
Having discovered that I could see the exit to the hall and therefore could find my way out, I let go of the doorway. I eased entirely into this lightless chamber and, turning away from the sight of the hall, be­came at once as blind as I was deaf.
Without either sound or vision, I quickly grew disoriented. I felt for a light switch, found it, flicked it up and down and up again without effect.
I grew aware of a small red light that I was certain hadn’t been there a moment earlier: the murderous red of a sullen and bloody eye, though it was not an eye.
My sense of spatial reality and my ability to gauge distance with ac­curacy abandoned me, for the tiny beacon seemed to be miles from my position, like the mast light of a ship far away on a night sea. This small house, of course, could not contain such a vastness as I imag­ined lay before me.
When I let go of the useless light switch, I felt as unnervingly buoy­ant as a hapless drunkard inflated by the fumes of alcohol. My feet seemed not quite to touch the floor as I determinedly approached the red light.
Wishing that I’d had a second scoop of coconut cherry chocolate chunk while I’d had the chance, I took six steps, ten, twenty. The bea­con didn’t increase in size and seemed in fact to recede from me at pre­cisely the speed at which I approached it.
I stopped, turned, and peered back at the door. Although I had made no progress toward the light, I had traveled what appeared to be approximately forty feet.
Of more interest than the distance covered was the figure now sil­houetted in the open door. Not Fungus Man. Backlit by the hallway light stood… me.
Although the mysteries of the universe do not greatly frighten me,
I’ve not lost my capacity for astonishment, amazement, and awe. Now, across the keyboard of my mind played arpeggios of those three sentiments.
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