“You didn’t take your car?”
“No, I left my car in my space in the English department parking lot. I couldn’t have gotten the crate in there, anyway.”
For Dex, new light began to break. Henry would have been driving his MG, of course – an elderly sportscar that Wilma had always called Henry’s toy. And if Henry had the MG, then Wilma would have had the Scout – a jeep with a fold-down back seat. Plenty of storage space, as the ads said.
“I didn’t meet anyone,” Henry said. “At this time of year – and at no othe – the campus is quite deserted. The whole thing was almost hellishly perfect. I didn’t see so much as a pair of headlights. I got back to Amberson Hall and took Badlinger’s crate downstairs. I left it sitting on the dolly with the open end facing under the stairs. Then I went back upstairs to the janitors’ closet and got that long pole they use to open and close the windows. They only have those poles in the old buildings now.
I went back down and got ready to hook the crate – your Paella crate –
out from under the stairs. Then I had a bad moment. I realized the top of Badlinger’s crate was gone, you see. I’d noticed it before, but now I realized it. In my guts.”
“What did you do?”
“Decided to take the chance,” Henry said. “I took the window pole and pulled the crate out. I eased it out, as if it were full of eggs. No…as if it were full of Mason jars with nitroglycerine in them.”
Dex sat up, staring at Henry. “What…what…”
Henry looked back somberly. “It was my first good look at it, remember. It was horrible.” He paused deliberately and then said it again: “It was horrible, Dex. It was splattered with blood, some of it seemingly grimed right into tile wood. It made me think of…do you remember those joke boxes they used to sell? You’d push a little lever and tile box would grind and shake, and then a pale green hand would come out of the top and push the lever back and snap inside again. It 92
made me think of that.
“I pulled it out – oh, so carefully – and I said I wouldn’t look down inside, no matter what. But I did, of course. And I saw…” His voice dropped helplessly, seeming to lose all strength. “I saw Wilma’s face, Dex. Her face.”
“Henry, don’t – ”
“I saw her eyes, looking up at me from that box. Her glazed eyes. I saw something else, too. Something white. A bone, I think. And a black something. Furry. Curled up. Whistling, too. A very low whistle. I think it was sleeping.
“I hooked it out as far as I could, and then I just stood there looking at it, realizing that I couldn’t drive knowing that thing could come out at any time…come out and land on the back of my neck. So I started to look around for something – anything – to cover the top of Badlinger’s crate.
“I went into the animal husbandry room, and there were a couple of cages big enough to hold the Paella crate, but I couldn’t find the goddamned keys. So I went upstairs and I still couldn’t find anything. I don’t know how long I hunted, but there was this continual feeling of time… slipping away. I was getting a little crazy. Then I happened to poke into that big lecture room at the far end of the hall – ”
“Yes, I think so. They had been painting the walls. There was a big canvas dropcloth on the floor to catch the splatters. I took it, and then I went back downstairs, and I pushed the Paella crate into Badlinger’s crate. Carefully!…you wouldn’t believe how carefully I did it, Dex.”
When the smaller crate was nested inside the larger, Henry uncinched the straps on the English department dolly and grabbed the end of the dropcloth. It rustled stiffly in the stillness of Amberson Hall’s basement.
His breathing rustled stiffly as well. And there was that low whistle. He kept waiting for it to pause, to change. It didn’t. He had sweated his shirt through; it was plastered to his chest and back.
Moving carefully, refusing to hurry, he wrapped the dropcloth around Badlinger’s crate three times, then four, then five. In the dim light shining through from the lab, Badlinger’s crate now looked mummified.
Holding the seam with one splayed hand, he wrapped first one strap around it, then the other. He cinched them tight and then stood back a moment. He glanced at his watch. It was just past one o’clock. A pulse beat rhythmically at his throat.
Moving forward again, wishing absurdly for a cigarette (he had given them up sixteen years before), he grabbed the dolly, tilted it back, and began pulling it slowly up the stairs.
Outside, the moon watched coldly as he lifted the entire load, dolly 93
and all, into the back of what he had come to think of as Wilma’s Jeep –
although Wilma had not earned a dime since the day he had married her.
It was the biggest lift he had done since he had worked with a moving company in Westbrook as an undergraduate. At the highest point of the lift, a lance of pain seemed to dig into his lower back. And still he slipped it into the back of the Scout as gently as a sleeping baby.
He tried to close the back, but it wouldn’t go up; the handle of the dolly stuck out four inches too far. He drove with the tailgate down, and at every bump and pothole, his heart seemed to stutter. His ears felt for the whistle, waiting for it to escalate into a shrill scream and then descend to a guttural howl of fury waiting for the hoarse rip of canvas as teeth and claws pulled their way through it.
And overhead the moon, a mystic silver disc, rode the sky.
“I drove out to Ryder’s Quarry,” Henry went on. “There was a chain across the head of the road, but I geared the Scout down and got around.
I backed right up to the edge of the water. The moon was still up and I could see its reflection way down in the blackness, like a drowned silver dollar. I went around, but it was a long time before I could bring myself to grab the thing. In a very real way, Dex, it was three bodies…the remains of three human beings. And I started wondering…where did they go? I saw Wilma’s face, but it looked…God help me, it looked all flat, like a Halloween mask. How much of them did it eat, Dex? How much could it eat? And I started to understand what you meant about that central axle pulling loose.
“It was still whistling. I could hear it, muffled and faint, through that canvas dropcloth. Then I grabbed it and I heaved…I really believe it was do it then or do it never. It came sliding out…and I think maybe it suspected, Dex…because, as the dolly started to tilt down toward the water it started to growl and yammer again … and the canvas started to ripple and bulge…and I yanked it again. I gave it all I had…so much that I almost fell into the damned quarry myself. And it went in. There was a splash…and then it was gone. Except for a few ripples, it was gone. And then the ripples were gone, too.”
He fell silent, looking at his hands.
“And you came here,” Dex said.
“First I went back to Amberson Hall. Cleaned under the stairs. Picked up all of Wilma’s things and put them in her purse again. Picked up the janitor’s shoe and his pen and your grad student’s glasses. Wilma’s purse is still on the seat. I parked the car in our – in my – driveway. On the way there I threw the rest of the stuff in the river.”
“And then did what? Walked here?”
“Henry, what if I’d waked up before you got here? Called the police?”
Henry Northrup said simply: “You didn’t.”
They stared at each other, Dex from his bed, Henry from the chair by the window.
Speaking in tones so soft as to be nearly inaudible, Henry said, “The question is, what happens now? Three people are going to be reported missing soon. There is no one element to connect all three. There are no signs of foul play; I saw to that. Badlinger’s crate, the dolly, the painters’
dropcloth – those things will be reported missing too, presumably.
There will be a search. But the weight of the dolly will carry the crate to the bottom of the quarry, and…there are really no bodies, are there, Dex?”