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Chapter 2

Tuesday, January 17, 1967
"Mark, school!" Irene Raincrow tentatively poked her head through the bedroom door at the rear of the house. Despite the pictures of Jesus and the crucifixes she'd hung on the walls, she never stayed in that room for very long at a time. Not even when Thomas, her new husband, was home from the railroad, and it was daylight. Working nervously to twist her long, gray-streaked red hair into a conservative bun, she added, "Your father will be angry if you're slow getting ready."

Lying face-up, his eyes half open to the thin shafts of blue light creeping through the east window, Mark thought, Raincrow isn't my father. Mark, paralyzed, couldn't speak those words aloud, any more than he could say, "Shake me, Mom, shake me hard until I can move again." Instead, he only managed a weak, guttural sound that she interpreted as assent.

Hearing her retreat, he fought the old panic. Always now, he sensed the brooding presence of Ghost hovering nearby. Sometimes it hid in shadow; at other times, it wrapped itself in light. Mostly it was an unseen thing, muttering its secrets to him, its disembodied voice seeming to come from somewhere very near, yet very far. Now, as Mark drifted on the frontiers of sleep, Ghost froze his muscles and solidified into a palpable shape near his bed.

Mark sensed the vague, floating presence was malevolent; yet it seemed to pose no threat to him. Like a misunderstood child, Ghost didn't want to hurt him; it only wished to tell its strange, garbled stories, show its pictures.

And warn him of that other presence lurking inside his skin, impatiently waiting to express itself.

The only escape was to relax, to blot out the apparition by thinking of other things until he could sink fully into dreams once again.

* * *

In his dreams, there is the roar of an engine, punctuated by the sounds of honking horns and screeching tires. Mom is in the backseat with him, scrunched up against the opposite door far, far away as Al drives and yells.

"Jesus, Reenie! At least try to hold onto him, will ya? He's already hurt. Any more jostling, and he might not make it. Come on, the hospital's only a couple more miles."

"Let him die!" she howls, her eyes wide.

"Ah, babe, you don't mean that."

"You goddamn right I do! Didn't you see it?"

"Reenie, it's the booze. You might as well have seen snakes coming out of the walls. That baby there is your son."

"He's a monster!" The word echoes in his bruised ears, the sound trailing off into darkness . . .

. . . Then a bright light in his eye. Hospital smells.

"Bad fall you had there, Barry. Can you hear me?"

Barry? Mark wonders why the man, speaking with a foreign accent, calls him by the wrong name. The pain, the heat, the hunger are all too intense for him to argue. "I can hear."

The doctor leans into Mark's view, his eyes huge and insectile behind thick glasses. Thick gauze covers one of Mark's own eyes. There seem to be other bandages as well, and the flesh beneath them burns like a furnace. "Your mother says you rode your tricycle down the stairs of her house," the doctor says. "Now, tell me the truth, is that the way it happened?"

Memories sputter and misfire, vaporous images that don't quite ignite inside his skull. "There was a ghost!"

Frowning, the doctor says, "A ghost did this to you?"

"No, the ghost talked to me and then . . ."

"And then what, Barry?"

He swallows. "Then It came."

Time in the dream rushes forward. Now it is night in the hospital and all is dark and quiet, except for the ringing in his ears. A softer sound, a furtive voice and Mom's face materializes before him. She places a finger across his swollen lips. "Shut up. Don't say anything. And don't you start whining."

"It hurts," he whispers. "It's so . . . hot."

"Get your ass up," she hisses, pulling the covers down. Mark sees she is wearing one of her white nurse's aide uniforms. "We're leaving."

He whimpers, cringing as her hands snake their way underneath him. Releasing him, she glares and says, "Look, those doctors are coming back soon to give you more shots. Do you want more shots?"

"Uh-uh."

Glancing around with exaggerated wariness, she adds, "Not only that, The Cops are coming. They want to question you. Do you want to talk to The Cops?"

Mark's good eye, the one not covered in layers of gauze, widens. "Uh-uh!" The Cops, he knows, carry guns and throw kids in jail for misbehaving; Mark has always been terrified of The Cops.

"Then let's go, but quietly. You don't need to be here any more. The doctor says you're healing fast." She pauses, and then mutters to herself, "Very, very fast."

Mom carries him down a set of back steps out to her car. So many clothes and things pack the interior that there is barely room for him. After tossing him into the passenger seat, she climbs in, reaches into the backseat, hefts a large suitcase and wedges it between the seat and dashboard like a barricade.

"Do we live here in your car now?" he asks, almost peering over the top of it.

The starter grinds before the engine catches. "No, Mark. We're moving down south a ways."

"Where's Al?"

She frowns as she puts the car in drive. "That no-good bastard isn't with us anymore. He left to live somewhere else."

* * *

Thomas Raincrow took a sip of coffee and looped the black bolo tie—the one with the turquoise stone set in a silver eagle—around his thick, tanned neck as he studied himself in the mirror. His suit, like all the others he ministered in, was black; he calculated that little touches like the bolo, the eagle feather in his black hat and the snakeskin boots made him look more exotic to his congregation and less like a run-of-the-mill preacherman. Exotic was good; exotic helped fill the collection plate at his Church of the Shepherd, where he was known as Brother Thomas. Put a white man in a black suit, and all you had was an undertaker; but put a red man in that same suit, and you had a shaman, a holy man.

Glancing over at Irene, who was nervously smoothing some wrinkles out of her drab ankle-length dress, he asked with his deep, flat voice, "Is Mark up yet?"

She turned toward him, her eyes not quite meeting his. "I called him a few minutes ago. You might have to go in there."

Shaking his head, Raincrow sat down at the table and rumbled. "You should whup him, take spiritual authority and drive the devil out of him for yourself once in a while." She stared at the checkered linoleum floor, nodding meekly. Irene was terrified of her son, and Thomas wasn't sure what to do about that. Early on in their relationship, he had dismissed Irene's stories about her son as the wild imaginings of an alcoholic (a recovering alcoholic, thanks to him, praise Jesus, although she still snuck cigarettes on the back porch when she thought he wasn't looking). While it was perhaps true the boy was under the Devil's influence, Mark surely wasn't a devil himself.

Raincrow feared little, having fled the poverty of a Navajo reservation in Arizona for the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton at seventeen, culminating in two tours in Vietnam in his late twenties. A sparkling shower of flying metal from a Bouncing Betty antipersonnel mine had ended that career, leaving him a semi-cripple. His life had drastically changed after attending the A.A. Allen tent revival in Texas two years ago.

Irene favored him with a submissive smile from across the small kitchen table. "I'm so glad you're home this week, Thomas."

"I don't understand how Illinois Central Railroad can afford to lay me off this time of year when I'm a foreman," he growled, "while they keep laborers on. Of course," he added with a little snort, "through the winter, most of the laborers are white."

"The Good Lord calls the shots," Irene offered. "Being off, you can take care of His business this week. You said you're going to the nursing home today?"

"I'm going to look in on Bill Evers. He had another stroke, you know." Raincrow straightened up in his chair, gazing over the top of her head. "I'll do a laying-on of hands for him. The medicine sure isn't helping any."

Reaching across the table to take his hand, she said, "You have gifts, Thomas. Real gifts. You should use them, try to make this ugly-assed world a little better. Just remember: charity begins at home."

"You're right." He sighed, squeezing her hand back. "Satan prowls like a lion. Sometimes when I look at the sky these days, it seems black with demons to me. I should be ministering against such evils, not telling wetbacks how to drive spikes into railroad ties."

Raincrow, who had never attended any formal seminary, had been ordained by the laying-on of hands at a retreat in Oklahoma. At the same time, he'd never entirely rejected his parents' animist beliefs either, which in fact syncretized well with his brand of charismatic Christianity since either theology blithely accepted the constant intrusion of the supernatural into everyday life.

Irene glanced at the clock, and then swore under her breath as she cocked an ear toward the hallway that led to Mark's room. "Speaking of the devil," she said, "he's not getting up."

Raincrow pushed back from the table and rose, an imposing figure despite the limp he would carry the rest of his life. Turning, he headed toward Mark's room. Like Irene, like his parishioners, Mark needed only a firm hand to steer him toward the paths of righteousness. There was that old metallic clink-a-clink as Raincrow undid the buckle of the heavy leather belt he was wearing.

The bedroom door was slightly ajar and, with a grunt, Thomas bulled his way in. "Hey!" he called. "Today is a school day. Time to get up."

Though seemingly limp, Mark wasn't asleep. Lying on his back, his eyes were wide and fixed on the foot of the bed.

"Mark?"

His chest was heaving up and down, his mouth was open, a rivulet of saliva running down his cheek, pooling on his pillow. Faint, gurgling sounds came from his throat. Raincrow thought, He's having some kind of fit, like that guy on my crew used to have. Maybe he's swallowed his tongue.

As he reached for the supine child, he caught a glimpse of a dark shape standing near the foot of Mark's bed. It was a thing seen out of the corner of his eye, and when he looked straight at it, it vanished. Shuddering, Raincrow had a fleeting impression, a nebulous afterimage, of something man-shaped yet not quite a man.

His heart stuttered in his chest as he fell back, pressing his back against the wall. Whatever had been there was now gone; but there had been something there, just for an instant. He'd seen it, actually seen it with his own eyes; he could still feel a chill in the room emanating from where the thing had been standing.

Mark, his eyes open and blank, was still unaware of his surroundings—at least, in this world. Raincrow wondered where his mind, perhaps his spirit, was drifting. What was he seeing right now? Raincrow started to ask, but his mouth had suddenly dried up. Easing away from the wall, leaning closer, his right hand locked firmly on his unfastened belt buckle, Raincrow started to reach for Mark with his other hand.

On his bed, the boy flinched a little. Raincrow imagined he looked like someone tied up with rope trying desperately to escape. Mark's lips pulled back from his teeth as he strained and, as Raincrow watched, he changed.

Like the shape he'd witnessed at the foot of the bed, it was a thing like the single beat of a hummingbird's wings, occurring almost too fast to see. The geometry of Mark's face seemed to contort, the smooth flesh of his cheeks darkening, his sightless eyes briefly burning like lamps.

Then he was just a small boy once more, one who was going to be late for school.

Raincrow felt his knees go watery as he tried to draw courage from the pictures of Jesus that Irene had hung on the walls. Christ wouldn't be afraid, he told himself. Our Savior would know what to do.

His muscles shaking, burning with adrenaline, Raincrow drew the belt from the loops of his pants like a sword from its scabbard. It whistled as it arced through the air near the ceiling, before it came down, again and again.

"Get thee hence, Satan," he said, his scriptural quote overwhelmed by the child's agonized screams.

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From Chapter 4

Monday, April 29, 1968
ATOM AGE VAMPIRE! The marquis at the State Theater on State Street shouted at Mark as he bicycled past it after school. FRIDAY NIGHT SPOOK SHOW! ALSO SHOWING: MONSTER ZERO!

Pedaling backwards to brake, Mark screeched to a halt in front of the lobby windows. Colorful posters hung taped to the glass (and sometimes, Mark knew, the posters were better than the films). The movie poster for ATOM AGE VAMPIRE! was OK, Mark decided, even with its hokey depiction of a blonde menaced by a fanged, disfigured creature. However, the poster for MONSTER ZERO!—ah, that was something else. Godzilla, his maple-leaf dorsal fins crackling with blue light, was breathing a bolt of flame at three-headed dragon Ghidrah as giant pterodactyl Rodan and a pair of flying saucers circled menacingly overhead. A river of screaming faces with—oddly enough— western features fled from crumbling buildings toward the flat foreground of the image.

Mark already knew all about the film, having read about it in one of his issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland he'd bought on the sly. Mom and Raincrow would have killed him had they found such a thing in his possession, or if they knew he was contemplating sneaking to the State Theater for the Spook Show this Friday night.

He dismounted and leaned his bike against a parking meter, stepping closer for a better look at the MONSTER ZERO! poster. There was something about Ghidrah, with its trio of horned, reptilian heads attached to serpentine necks, which haunted him. He'd gotten the same deja vu sensation looking at photos of the rubbery beast in his monster magazines. What was it about Ghidrah? It was maddening, like having a word stuck on the tip of his tongue.

Ghost.

Vaguely, Mark could remember the one dream—or parts of it, at any rate. The one dream about Ghost always seemed the same, despite the fact he couldn't remember the details. When he was dreaming it, he knew exactly who and what Ghost was, the knowledge always dissolving like mist when he awoke.

An image always stayed with him afterwards: an ophidian neck and head sinuously curving upwards out of the water.

The dream-dragon's head looked like Ghidrah's.

And Ghost rode on the monster's back.

* * *

He rode to the very edge of Gulfton, to a crumbling, narrow blacktop just off 19th Street Road. Mark's fortress brooded at the very end of that overgrown lane.

The kids at school said the abandoned house was haunted, and it was—but only by Mark who, accustomed to the real thing, didn't fear imaginary phantoms and haints. Weeds and brush had almost engulfed the place which, when combined with local stories about poltergeists, made it an almost ideal hiding place for Mark. Usually, people stayed away from here—usually, but not always. Glancing warily around, Mark surreptitiously pushed his bicycle into a riot of shrubbery near a collapsed, skeletal structure that had once been an outbuilding.

His ten-speed wasn't new, but most of the gears worked. The frame was a drab shade of green, a spray-can job by a previous owner, the better for hiding in bushes. Raincrow had bought it for him for last Christmas, from a guy he worked with whose own son had cobbled it together from spare parts. It was a gift given coldly and without affection, another go-away thing handed over to keep him out of his parents' hair.

Mark knew it was more than that. He was more than just a nuisance to Mom and Raincrow.

They were afraid of him. They knew.

Knew what?

They knew about Ghost, for one. Several times now, one or both had walked into his room when he was lying awake but unable to move, wreathed in icy air as Ghost hung nearby, muttering riddles. Mark knew they couldn't see or hear Ghost in quite the same direct way he could when Ghost visited; still, it was at these times they sensed an ominous presence there. He knew they did because he sometimes overheard them afterwards whispering together about evil spirits and possession by demons.

My secret place, he thought as he gazed at the lonely, neglected house with the battered porch and shattered windows; I can forget all that junk here for a little while. It didn't look it, but the house was still quite solid in its decades-old white oak beams constructed atop a solid stone foundation. Mark loved the place and often imagined he was a grownup, maybe even with a family of his own, living here in peace and contentment.

Wiping moisture from his brow, Mark carefully took the red dime-store radio from his pocket and switched it on. There was only a soft, tinny hiss on the speaker before he carefully dialed it back to 630 AM, KXOK radio in St. Louis, where Manfred Mann was singing about an Eskimo with the unlikely name of The Mighty Quinn. Lowering the volume a notch, he quietly made his way around to the rear of the house, to the back porch.

Mark sniffed the air.

Something was wrong here, out of place. At the base of the rotted back steps were three cigarette butts. Scrawled across the back door in fresh, blood-red spray paint were the letters KKK. Somebody else had been here since yesterday.

He froze, sniffed the air again.

The intruders, whoever they had been, were gone.

Relaxing, Mark felt the warm breeze ruffle his unruly hair and allowed his attention to return to Ghost and to . . . the other thing. Ghost was only half the problem. The other thing was . . . well, maybe it is a demon, he thought to himself as he forcefully pushed open the back door of his fortress. If so, he wondered how they were related—Ghost, and the thing that hid inside him. There had to be a connection. It was too big of a coincidence.

Inside the back door, with its rusted hinges, was the kitchen. No food had been prepared here for a long time; a gas stove with chunks of porcelain skinned away still lurked in a corner, near the hulking remains of an ancient refrigerator.

I wish I could talk to somebody, Mark thought, as he passed through the kitchen, entered what had been a dining room and made for a set of rickety stairs that led up to the second story. Probably there's nobody I can talk with. Not about this. Not now, not ever.

Maybe I could talk to Raincrow, he thought, who was a preacher-man, after all. But for all his dinner table talk of rebuking demons, for all his supposed belief in spiritual warfare, Thomas Raincrow was deeply afraid of him. Mark could smell it in his pores. Rather than flee, Raincrow simply tuned Mark out, pretended he wasn't there—or, at least, that he wasn't different.

Mark sighed deeply as he reached the top steps and made his way into a cramped room at the end of the hall. Here were his treasures.

Stacked in loose piles and crammed into cardboard boxes were what Mark figured was just about every magazine in the world. There were hundreds of them. An avid reader, Mark always felt a sense of safety surrounded by the aging periodicals. A few were detective magazines, or boring lady-books such as Good Housekeeping; but most were interesting: Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, Electronic Hobbyist, and the like. In the corner, in a plastic milk crate he'd scavenged from behind the supermarket, Mark kept his illicit collection of comics and monster magazines.

Near the south-facing window, laying face-up and open, was a recent copy of Guns and Ammo. His sometimes-friend Kevin must have left that there, having shoplifted it the week before from the Piggly Wiggly over on Elm. Printed across two pages was a large photograph of a military M-16, with the caption: America's Rifle Comes Home! The New Service Rifle Finds Favor Among Civilian Shooters.

* * *

It is the day before, and he and Kevin are hanging out here, going through magazines. Kevin flips through the Guns & Ammo and wishes for his own M-16. "I'd want one like the Marines have, with a bayonet and everything," Kevin says dreamily, tracing the menacing shape of the weapon with his trigger finger. "I'd carry it to my grandpa's farm, take it down by the woods and kill me some Japs. DAH-DAH-DAH-DAH-DAH."

Mark, looking up from a piece about the secrets of tunnel diodes in a ten-year-old issue of Popular Electronics, says in a distracted voice, "We're friends with the Japs now and, anyway, there aren't any at your grandpa's. Besides, it's a poor design."

"What is?" Kevin glances toward his buddy.

"The M-16. It's a poor design. The gas tube—"

Kevin slaps the G&A down and stands up. "What are you talking about?"

Mark's eight-year-old face is blank, his voice flat and detached, and his eyes glassy. "The gas tube. As a bullet travels down the barrel some of the expanding gunpowder gases behind it bleed off through a vent in the front sight post, diverting into the gas tube. This sends the gases back down the rifle to the upper receiver, where it blows directly into the chamber to cycle the action. Except carbon in the gas fouls the bolt face, you know? Messes up the extractor."

Kevin huffs, "Man, you are such a weirdo."

* * *

Weirdo . . . Turning the page, he sat the Guns & Ammo on a stack of Lifes, thinking, I guess I must've read about the gas tube in one of these. Except the knowledge didn't feel as if it had come from a book. There was a certain intimacy, a sense of personal experience, associated with that particular fact. Often when Ghost told him strange things, they had that sort of feel to them. Mark frowned; why would Ghost know all about the M-16?

Not for the first time, Mark considered that his father—Dan Arsenault, his real father—had been in the Army. Or maybe it had been the Air Force. His mother didn't talk much about his dad. If Dad had been a soldier, a marine or an airman, he surely would have known about the M-16. Assuming Dan Arsenault was dead, as his mother intimated, perhaps his spirit was telling him these things from beyond the grave.

Mark sat down on the dusty floor and leaned against some boxes as a shaft of afternoon sunlight washed over him, warming him without banishing the specters that always lurked nearby. Taking a breath, Mark spoke into the dead air, "If you're my dad, why don't you say so? Why don't you ever answer my questions?"

A languid swarm of dust motes drifted passively in the light.

Nobody—no thing—replied.

His brow knotted as his jaws clenched. "Hello? I know you're there, dammit!"

The swear word failed to provoke a response.

Bounding to his feet, Mark grabbed a copy of Life with Jackie Kennedy's picture on the cover, rolled it into a club and began slapping it into his left hand. [whack] "Who are you?" [whack] "What do you want with me?" [whack] "I know you're there." [whack] "You're always there." [whack] "Speak up!"

Nothing.

On his little radio, the pop group Amen Corner sang ". . . bend me, shape me, anyway you want me . . ."

Mark crushed the magazine into a tight tube and hurled it across the room. Then silence, except for the staticky music coming from the distant AM station.

Clenching his fists, Mark shrieked in rage. The long, ululating sound erupting from his lungs felt good.

It wanted to come out.

"No!" Now fear tinged the sound of his voice, even as desire burned in his heart.

"No . . ." Mark slumped to the floor, letting his back sag against a stack of boxes. He breathed slowly, closing his eyes. The thing retreated a little further back into shadow.

A cool breeze spilled through a broken window, carrying spring-smells. Even as green life was returning to the world, the day itself was growing old; the sun was maybe an hour away from touching the horizon, and a thin crescent of moon hung above it. Somewhere in the woods behind the old house, a whippoorwill sang.

Mark continued to breathe, slower and deeper, slower and deeper, seizing on these bucolic images to calm down. Soon, he found himself growing drowsy, as he often did anytime It almost escaped. Drawing his knees up to his chest, pulling the hood of his jacket over his head, he closed his eyes.

The dream returned and again, if only in that dream, Mark understood Ghost's identity as clearly as he could smell the salty sea-air and see the dragon's head rising from the water line. As he watched, the dragon's tail lashed out of the water, looped perfectly over its back and into its mouth.

The dragon was eating itself.

-----[Snip]-----

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