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An Idolwood story
By Ivan Ewert
Start at the beginning of the Idolwood series
He watched the children play.
His eyes were closed, rimmed in flesh and red with recent lack of sleep, yet he watched from the relative comfort of his office. Through a pair of gimlet eyes which peered, amphibian, from the mud puddles and the first green shoots of spring. Through a pair of eyes baked from polymer clay set deep within the knot of an old silver maple tree.
Through six such eyes, crafted by his hands and wakened by his seed, the Hanged Man cast himself from his body and dangled above the playground, unencumbered by the mountain of his flesh.
It languished at the edge of Idyllwood, a tired little thing of wood-and-plastic play sets erected when the developers decided to market to young families. It was old, the grass overtaken by Creeping Charlie in the absence of any care. The faux wooden forts were splintering badly enough to prick an unwary child once a year or so, though never so badly that anyone thought to remove them.
He watched the children play, though he did not know their names. What cared he for names? They were full of life and light, heat and breath. They were flesh and blood, warm and ripe as little berries in the hot summer sun. They knew nothing of the world, nor of all it held against them.
He thought of the gooseberry patches of his youth, those patches he would raid in secret at the height of season's bliss, the plump fruits dangling among the sharp thorns of those cornflower vines. He remembered the heavy sun beating down on the dunes and hills, the salt breeze of the Pacific cutting through the clean, brisk scent of sand dunes.
He remembered his youth, in patches, and he watched the children play.
The BMW glided easily to a stop in front of the pale gold split-level, Marsalis bouncing easily through School Boy over the radio. Despite the tune, Grey's fingers remained still, did not keep their usual time against the steering wheel. "I'll be back in about an hour. Be ready, understand? It's still a school night."
"Sure, dad." Isaac reached for the handle, but Grey thumbed the automatic lock.
"I'm not joking, Isaac. I'll call Mrs. Bouchard when I leave Ms. Allaway's, and I want you..."
"I'll be ready, dad, I promise."
Grey's knuckles tightened on the wheel. "Don't interrupt me. I want you to be ready, period."
"Do you understand me, Isaac?"
"All right then." He unlocked the doors and Isaac bolted out, throwing open the passenger door quickly enough for Grey to snap, "Watch it!"
The boy didn't turn, but he shut the door slowly and carefully, without a slam.
Grey's knuckles whitened, and he took a deep breath through his nose. The cool feel of the leather steering wheel had once calmed him while waiting in traffic, the heated leather seats providing a cocoon of luxury he could wrap himself after a long day at the office.
Only now there were no days at the office, long or otherwise. No reason to drive the BMW, no reason to keep up the payments, except that he had earned them, earned this little luxury for himself through years of hard work.
Work that no longer existed, luxury he couldn't possibly continue to afford.
The Bouchards had a Pontiac squatting under their carport. They kept a 1978 Pontiac Bonneville, for God's sake, in a carport, matte black where it wasn't rusting through.
"It's like dropping him off at the Clampett's for peanut butter and banana sandwiches," he said to the sleek dashboard, listening to the purr of a well-maintained motor.
Deborah had wanted a minivan.
He forced a smile and lifted a hand to wave at Mrs. Bouchard as she let Isaac in, her copper curls swept up in pins above an empire-waist top. She waved back with a bright smile, and then withdrew, closing the door against the renewed spring chill.
The telephone interrupted his escape, drew him back from the silence of memory and into the heavy, sodden weight of his flesh. One meaty hand encased the headset receiver, fumbled slightly and strapped it over the shining dome of his head.
"Harris," grunted the Hanged Man, blinking into the fluorescent office lights. He was set apart here, by glass walls as well as by his intellect. Beyond was a busy hive of activity, mindless insects at mindless tasks, but he had separated himself from the meaningless buzz of the mundane.
"They're both gone, love." Gamine's voice was liquid and smoke, husky with secrets.
"The Traitor, my love, is gone; along with the Straw Man. They've both gone."
"Where are you?"
"Speak like my angel. Speak like my Hanged angel, love."
"I cannot...love." He whispered the last word, casting his eyes across the minions of his daily life. They were poorly dressed writers throwing paper at half-dressed designers, sales representatives darting back and forth between them like parasites. None of them looked to his office. None of them would meet his eyes.
"They can't hear you, my love. They cannot touch you."
"Where are you?"
She sighed, and with the sigh a vision of her pout entered his mind, full lips pursed against the hollows of her cheeks. He felt a stirring in his groin, glanced through the windows again, and closed his eyes to shut the world away.
"I've been jogging, my love. For the last two hours, up and down the streets of your Idyllwood." The honey began to drift from her voice, a Midwestern flatness creeping back into the tone that became more matter-of-fact as she spoke. "The Traitor is keeping different hours now. Since the day he took the idol, he's been in and out without any reason. Maybe he's on vacation, for the boy's sake? I can't tell for sure."
"What of the Straw Man?"
"Clockwork, love, he lives like clockwork. If he doesn't hold some power I'd be more than a little surprised." Her voice shifted, returned to its suggestive manner. "So because of that, I don't think it's time to risk it. But if you tell me to, my love, I will enter the Traitor's lair. After all, he holds two hostages now, two of your children, your darlings..."
"And he will pay...my love. He will pay," whispered the Hanged Man, hoarsely. The insects outside his office lingered over their desks, twirling pens between their fingers, dawdling in heartless conversation with each other over meaningless, petty concerns.
"Tell me, love. Where is his child?"
"The boy went with him. A dinner? Who can say, love? Should I watch over the boy as well?"
"Other eyes shall see to that. For now, love...get you home. You must be rewarded for all this hard day's work."
Alex loitered outside the ranch house and looked at the heart rate monitor which served as his watch for the ninth time. Grey was running late by over three minutes. Alex shifted his weight to his left foot, ran a finger along the Wrangler's hood, and shook his head. He ought to get it washed soon—it had already left a streak across his workout pants. He couldn't wash it today; though, there'd be no time, especially if Grey kept him waiting.
It was Thursday. He should have been shopping for groceries. He was low on ground turkey and milk, and he'd had to cut some mold from the last slices of wheat toast. There'd be no time to get the Jeep washed until Saturday. It could probably wait another week after that, he reasoned. It wasn't so dirty that he couldn't drive it.
Four more minutes passed before Alex saw the car coming down the street. He smiled easily and shifted back to stand, hooking a thumb into his waistband.
"Thought you were lost," he said as Grey stepped out of his car.
"I had to drop Isaac off at a friend's." Grey shut the door carefully, tucking his phone into a jacket pocket. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting."
The apology was more than half a sneer, but Alex just smiled in return and fell easily into step behind Grey.
Edie's door opened when they were halfway up the drive. Her close-cropped hair was no longer quite so grey—she'd washed a richer chestnut dye across it which picked up the chocolate shade of her thermal shirt. A faded denim skirt covered in dye stains hung loose about her waist. She stepped out onto the porch, nodding to the men.
"Hello, Alexei. Who's your friend?"
"Hey, Ms. Allaway. This is Grey Jordan, my new neighbor."
"Exactly," said Grey, stepping closer. He interlaced his fingers and rested them across his stomach. "I've been looking forward to meeting you."
Edie's mouth hitched up, adding a few new wrinkles. "Why? Have you lost the hyacinths already?"
Grey smiled in return and shook his head. "I found some of your work online, Ms. Allaway. Specifically, I found some of your dolls."
"Oh? How'd you come across me, Mr. Jordan?"
"I was doing some research."
"What kind of research?"
Alex spoke up. "We found some things around our houses—the shared foundation, you know? I don't have a computer, but Grey looked them up. Found you while he was looking for them."
"You found these in your foundations?" Edie looked over her glasses at Alex. "What kind of things, Alexei?"
"Dolls," said Grey.
"Really." She straightened a bit. "I didn't realize Brody had any children. It was Brody there before Mr. Jordan, wasn't it?"
"Yeah. He didn't have any kids. One girlfriend for a while with a little girl, but she didn't last that long. Besides, these aren't a little girl's dolls."
"Not a stable person's, either. These are disturbing, malformed, ugly little things. "
Edie laughed, and then fell into a coughing fit. She took a handkerchief from her sleeve and turned away, spitting into it three times and passing it from left hand to right and back again before tucking it once more in her sleeve. She turned, smiling fully now. "Excuse me, still fighting off the last of the colds. You don't like my crafting, Mr. Jordan?"
"No, I don't."
Alex frowned. "Hey, we don't think these things we found are yours. I mean, I don't, anyway. They don't look like your stuff."
"Thank you, Alexei. Nice to know not everyone thinks I'm the crazy old lady down the street."
The comment forced Grey to look at her again. Isaac had been right—she wasn't necessarily old. She had maybe a few years on him. He took a deep breath. "I'm not calling you crazy, Ms. Allaway..."
"...But please, understand that these were disturbing things. I'd just like to know more about them. You spent some time with my son, didn’t you?"
Edie laughed, and Grey's lips tightened. She'd been laughing at him since he walked up the drive. "Mr. Jordan, we talked five minutes tops. I gave him a plant. What's so disturbing?"
Alex glanced over. "Did you bring it?"
"Yes, it's in the car," said Grey. "If you'll wait here?"
"It's my driveway, Mr. Jordan, I'm not going anywhere. Alexei, how's your mother?"
"Oh, you know..."
Edie and Alex turned to small talk as Grey stalked toward the car. This wasn't going the way he'd hoped. He should have come without Alex to keep butting in, placating the...well, placating her. He would have been able to be more direct with her, ask more specific questions. As it was, Alex was turning the whole thing into a garden party. He opened the trunk and took out a shoebox, brought it up the drive.
"...But I talk to her every Sunday. I'll let her know you asked."
"Thank you, Alexei. If she needs more cuttings, just come on by."
"Yeah, but she kills them all. Doesn't water them enough, you know?"
"This is the first doll," said Grey, stepping forward and opening the box.
Edie glanced at it once, began to casually look away, and then stopped. The smile left her face and she turned back, pushing the glasses back to the bridge of her nose. "Mr. Jordan, may I see that?"
Grey handed it over with a self-satisfied smile. She wasn't laughing now. "Like we said, it's nothing a sane person would want to keep around."
"And yet you cradle it in a shoebox. In your fancy car. Well done." She took it from the box and turned it over three times; passing it from her left hand to her right, then back again, just as she had with the tissue. "But it's..."
She gave a sudden, sharp cry and dropped the doll to the driveway. It bounced from the blacktop, landing on its back, the gouged hollows of its eyes staring up at the three of them. Edie stepped forward quickly and brought her foot down on the papier-mâché skull, smearing its ochre features across the driveway with a bright and brittle crunch.
Alex and Grey were shocked for silent a moment, as Edie ground her foot more savagely into the concrete.
"Well. You're right, Mr. Jordan. That was a ghastly little fucker," she said, then fell into another coughing fit, this one hard enough to double her over and clutch at her chest.
"You okay?" Alex stepped forward to take her shoulder, but she waved him off.
"Fine. Fine. Just a cold..." She coughed again, eyes shut tight against the fit, then took out her handkerchief once more.
"What the hell was all of that about? That wasn't even yours!"
"So it was yours?" She stood, passing the handkerchief once more between her hands, tears at the corners of her eyes from the spasms. "You're claiming it? You wanted it?"
Grey felt his cheeks flush. "No, of course not, but that's no call for you to destroy it."
"Didn't you want to? Didn't you?" She stepped toward Grey, index finger rising. "Admit that much to me. Didn't you feel it the first time you touched it? Like you wanted to smash it to pieces?"
"Now you are talking crazy."
"Listen to me, Mr. Jordan, and you listen carefully. You get a gut feeling about something like that, you do what feels right, understand? You think too much. I can't say I'm surprised. Alexei?"
"How about you?"
"Yeah, I don't like it."
"You too, then. You said dolls. How many were there?"
"Just one more," Alex said. "It wasn't in the foundation, though. I found it down by the river."
"Where are you keeping that one, Grey?"
He disliked the sudden formality. "I keep it in the house...Edie."
"No, that's no good. You'll have to fetch it."
"Yeah, not really enough time," said Alex, looking at his watch.
Grey rolled his eyes. "Oh, for the love of God, Alex, give it a rest, all right? I know you have a schedule to keep and I know we're upsetting it, but if anyone can afford one day away from the gym, it's you."
"Well..." Edie's voice was low. She looked Alex up and down, considering. "Actually...no. Maybe he can't."
"Oh, come on," Grey spat, "now you're just trying to spite me."
"No," she said, turning to him. "I'm trying to help you. I think you're going to need it, too."
"Do you want a soda, Isaac?" Mrs. Bouchard's smile stayed bright as she opened the refrigerator. "I've got root beer, Mountain Dew and diet. I'm getting a diet."
"No thanks, Mrs. B."
"Well, if you change your mind, just help yourself. Joey and Brand are down on the computer."
"OK, thanks." He thrust his hands into his pockets and galloped down the stairs to the sound of mingled gunfire and screams from the family room.
Brandon was on the sofa, shoes up on the cushions and controller in his hand, lounging like a huge dog to take up the entire couch. Joey sat on the floor near his head with the second controller as they both put avatars through their paces. Across the widescreen television, a gang of zombies lurched toward the pair of guns symbolizing the young men.
"Hey, guys, what's up?"
"Hey, Dolly." The gap in Brandon's front teeth flashed in a grin.
"I told you..."
"No, I'm telling you, bitch. Spell me." Brandon tossed the controller to Isaac. "I'm gonna go get a coke and check out Joey's mom."
"Try it and I'll cut your balls off," retorted Joey, shaking the curls from his eyes. "C'mon, Isaac, shoot 'em! They're getting close!"
"Where's the save point?" Isaac threw a weak punch at Brandon's shoulder as he passed, and vaulted over the back of the couch. He loved the big, overstuffed feel of it, nothing like his father's sleek modern designs. This was a couch for living in, not admiring. He liked that about the Bouchards.
"We've got this wave and then the big boss shows up. The save point comes after him."
"Which big boss is it?"
"The corpsegrinder, remember? On the trailers it's the one with the big teeth."
"Oh yeah," said Isaac, strafing bullets across the screen. "That looked pretty intense." Neither of his parents held much with video games, another reason he loved coming to see Joey. Everything was so much more laid-back around his family.
They shot their way through the horde of dead in relative silence, until the ground exploded beneath the feet of their avatars. With a sound of bone on chalkboard and tearing sheet metal, the corpsegrinder appeared.
It looked like a long and heavy worm, exploding across the screen with the desperate cry of a wounded animal. As it launched itself from its subterranean lair, it displayed a distorted human face crudely stitched across its head, stretched and peeling away from the hideous visage of the creature. The mouth split in two, tearing the sides of the dead lips to reveal massive, broad, flattened teeth, yellow and cracked along their terrible surfaces. The whole thing repulsed Isaac.
"Come on," he said, kicking forward, "fast forward the cutaway."
"Shut up, I haven't seen the whole thing yet. I've only seen the teasers."
The great lumpen body of the corpsegrinder fell to the earth, screen shuddering in mock reaction to the game's physics and the mock terror of the avatars. Their horrified screams were drowned out by the continued feedback of bone and metal, a buzz saw sound that made Isaac wince. He hated these moments of the game, where you controlled nothing, could only sit and watch as terrible things unfolded themselves before your helpless eyes.
Something cool and slick slid into his ear.
Isaac leapt off the couch with a scream that mimicked that of the creature. That set Joey off. He flew to his feet and collided with Isaac as he lurched upward. The two collapsed on the ground in a heap, punching at one another in sudden, meaningless terror.
When their screams stopped, Brandon rose slowly from behind the couch, grinning, and pointed a finger glistening with Vaseline at the two of them. "That. Was. Awesome."
"You fuck," shouted Joey from underneath Isaac, "You goddamn fucker!"
"Joseph!" Mrs. Bouchard's voice came ringing down the stairs. Brandon's grin widened and his body shook from the effort of holding in laughter. He waggled the greasy finger he'd used to scare Isaac in Joey's direction like an old schoolteacher reprimanding a poor student.
"Sorry, mom!" Joey shouted in return, then mouthed, "Motherfucking son of a bitch!"
Isaac stayed on the floor, breathing hard. Between the twitchiness of shooting, the sound of the game and the graphic visuals of the corpsegrinder, Brandon's prank had pushed him right to the edge of terror. For a minute he thought he might have wet his pants, and then realized he'd knocked over Joey's cup of root beer.
He lay, forgotten, on the sticky basement carpet; breathing heavily as Joey and Brandon began throwing punches at each other.
The Hanged Man sat, mute.
A fetch had been destroyed, without the least hint of warning.
They'd gone before, of course. Taken for trash and placed in dumpsters, where the darkness enfolded them and gave him time to mourn, time to withdraw from their hollow eyes and speechless mouths. He'd had time to turn them into meaningless nothings once more, jars of clay and ash and residue.
Once, a fetch had been knocked from a tree by a squirrel, laying face down in the mould and mulch of the Morgan Glen preserve. It had been forgotten by all and left behind, but left behind with time to recover, to decide. The Hanged Man had abandoned that fetch, the child, not the other way around.
This was something different.
This was death.
Death dealt by a hand which was not his.
His coworkers had all left for the night as he'd wrestled with a layout problem, a problem that seemed infinitesimally small to him now. He stared out into the empty outer room, desks abandoned, lights off, leaving him alone in the fishbowl of his office.
He took up the telephone calmly, with a hand that did not shake.
"My love?" Gamine answered. He could hear the strings in the background. Handel.
"Find them," whispered the Hanged Man. He pitched his voice precisely, low and sweet and filled with danger.
"Find the traitor. Find his child. Find too the bones of my babe, O my love, O my Gamine. Find him and you will take such joy this night and in the nights to come. Find him, and you alone will know my pleasure, and take those rewards you shall so richly deserve."
Her voice shook across the line. "My angel," she whispered, "Be sweet to me."
"Find him, Gamine, and such sweetness shall you know...as never before, you shall know what it is to be pleased and to be praised."
She ended the call, not he.
August Harris pushed his bulk upward, brushed at a mustard stain upon his vest. He took a light field green jacket from the hook at his back and shrugged his bulk into it, sending his computer into hibernation with the flick of a switch. He looked out the small window across the parking lot beyond, into the growing darkness of a spring evening.
The Hanged Man left the office and returned in silence to Idyllwood.
The three of them stood in Edie's back yard, cast into shadow and their features dimmed by the combined glow of the dying sun and the twinkling strands she had placed along trellises, the low solar-powered uplights, and the party lanterns stretched along her fences.
"Look around here. What do you see?"
The garden was lush and full, moist and green. Neither of the men grew living things, but both could feel the earliness of these blooms, the hint of an edge in Edie Allaway's garden. Her grass already held the deep rich color of early summer despite the earliness of the spring. Where there was no grass there were paths of gravel and of stepping-flowers, an exquisitely presented tapestry of color and scent.
"It's very nice," said Alex politely.
Despite himself, Grey had to agree. It was, he thought, a beautiful vision that seemed to take the world away. He felt the tension melting from his shoulders and his back, smelling the rich green breeze, the warmth of the earth. Something about it put him at ease, asked him to sit, to rest, to stop thinking and simply enjoy the things the world had to offer.
"It's not just nice, Alexei. It's focused." Edie reached out and poked one finger into his bicep. "Something you and I have in common. Yes?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"Oh, I think we do. As much time as you put into this," she poked gently again, this time at the center of his broad chest, "I put into this. This garden gets my attention. And whoever made the doll I just wiped off the concrete? They had focus, too. Serious, and unpleasant, focus."
She turned to Grey. "What do you make?"
"What do you mean?"
"What do you make?" Her voice was impatient. "What's yours?"
"Well ..." He shifted. The place put his at ease, but the sharpness of her questioning felt embarrassing. "I sketch, sometimes. I'm back in classes for it."
She shook her head. "Sometimes isn't focus. Sometimes isn't craft. What do you make?"
"Money," said Alex. "Right? You must make money."
"I'm sorry, Alex, is that a joke?" Grey glared at him.
"No. Sorry," Alex shrugged, smiling apologetically. "You drive the Beemer, you dress well. And someone tried to rob you, yeah? So you must make money."
"How does it feel when you make money, Grey?" Edie folded her arms and considered him. The side of her mouth hitched up again. "Better than sex?"
Grey tried to laugh, but it came out little more than a short and nervous bark. "No. No, it's not better than sex."
"So what is?"
Her gaze was frank and level. It disarmed him, and he shook his head. "Honestly? Not much."
"Okay," she nodded. "Alexei, what is it you love?"
"Lifting." The answer was immediate. "My routine. Being in shape. Being strong."
"That's what I thought. Now boys, I love this garden. I love these plants. Do you know how much I make, selling odd dolls online? It's not much. Do you know how much plants cost? What I pay each month for fertilizer, for new pots and seeds? Keeping the grow lights running?"
"How much?" Grey asked.
"More than I make." She smiled again, with sharpness behind it. "Ask Alexei. How much does staying this big cost you?"
He shrugged. "Supplements are the worst. The food, that isn't cheap."
"Mmm-hmm. Gym membership, I bet; plus all the magazines and books? The ones that promise you'll know more, learn more, and be more? You pick all those up, don't you?"
"Okay." She turned to Grey. "Understand?"
He looked from one to the other, shaking his head. "No. No, I don't understand you for a minute."
Edie sighed. "I'm trying to speak your language here. In the language of money, that's what I mean by focus. Listen, I'm not going to speak for Alexei, but when I'm wrist-deep in soil? When I hear the plants breathing, when I taste something I grew? That's better than sex. That's worth not working my life away in an office. That's worth being poor. At least, it's worth being poor to me.
"Now, whoever spun that idol and put it in your house had that same kind of focus. They're looking for something bigger. And they're looking to get it out of you."
Grey's gaze was level. "I've heard something like that before," he said slowly. This was more along the lines he had expected. She was talking the way he'd anticipated, and he could get an angle on her. He was moving back onto level ground, and he had the secrets now.
"Online. There was an article about dolls, and history, and grave robbing. It was all about this...focus."
"Hm. Go ahead, forward it to me. You obviously have my address."
Disarmed, he waited a moment longer. It didn't bother her, not knowing. Combined with the speed with which she'd destroyed the doll, her bluntness, the sheer fearlessness she showed, all of it upset his plans. He hadn't wanted to put all his cards on the table, not for her.
He hadn't wanted to want to trust her, here in her garden. Now Alex was shifting his weight again, obviously uncomfortable by the growing lateness of the hour. "Grey, I really..."
"This person called it magic." He spoke quickly. "He spelled it wrong, but that was his point. He equated that kind of single-minded focus—the kind you're talking about—with power over other people. Is that what you're saying to me? That there's some kind of, of, I don’t know, some kind of psychotic magician living here in Idyllwood?"
"That's not the word I'd use, but it gets the point across," she said, her voice softer now. She laid a hand on Alexei's forearm.
"And I think there are at least three."
Story by Ivan Ewert, Copyright 2011
Image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2011