Ushers Passing Chapter 46


COLD WIND BLEW OFF THE BLACK LAKE AND INTO NEW THARPE'S face.

He stood on the frigid shore, wearing the heavy fleece-lined coat that Mr. Usher had sent him while he was still in the Asheville hospital. He would always carry on his side a pattern of jagged scars, a reminder of his battle with Greediguts.

The sky was a pale, featureless gray. There was snow in those clouds, he thought. But the cold wouldn't be so bad this year, since Mr. Usher had had the Tharpe cabin insulated. He'd offered central heating, but Myra Tharpe had said she didn't want everybody on the mountain coming to her house.

Across the lake, the ruins of Usher's Lodge jutted up from the island like broken teeth. The bridge had not been repaired, and there was no way to reach the island except by boat.

Which was fine with New. He wouldn't set foot over there for a million dollars.

He walked along the lake's edge, the water whispering at his feet. The tip of the gnarled cane he carried poked holes in the black mud where the water licked up.

When the tunnel's ceiling had collapsed, New had held on to the Mountain King's wand as he was battered back and forth between the walls. He'd been able to grip his fingers in a hole where several stones had dislodged from the ceiling, and he'd hung there like a flag as the water churned around him. He'd fought upward, the currents shoving him forward and pulling him back, and then he was spat out of the tunnel by the force of conflicting currents and pushed to the surface. Rough waves had slammed him to shore, and he'd lain stunned and gasping, with two broken ribs, until Raven and Mr. Usher had found him.

He'd come down here from the mountain several times before, to see what the lake had belched out. Once there were hundreds of silver knives, forks, and spoons stuck in the mud;once two whole suits of armor had washed up. But the strangest thing he'd found was a muddy stuffed horse that looked as if it were still running a race. On its flanks were deep gashes that appeared to have been made by spurs.

New stopped to pick up the rags of a silk shirt with the wand;then he let it fall back into the water. After it was over and he'd come out of the hospital, he'd found that his rage was gone. Nathan had been avenged, and the Pumpkin Man was dead. Greediguts was buried somewhere in the mud and debris. He hoped the Mountain King was finally at rest. He was the man of the house, and he had to go on. He was working hard at making his peace with his mother, and she collected and read the Democrat now that it carried his name on the masthead as copy boy.

At first she'd balked at what he'd wanted done when he got home from the hospital, but finally she agreed.

Behind the house, they'd buried the Mountain King and the bones of his sister on either side of Pa's grave.

He stopped to watch a flock of blackbirds fly across the lake.

Now there was no Lodge to crash into. The birds and ducks were coming back.

He stared at the island, and ran his fingers over the wand. There was still power in the wand that he didn't understand. Sometimes he thought he should have drowned in that tunnel, but the wand had somehow given him strength enough to pull himself out.

It was often hard to keep himself under control, but he was working on that, too. One day he'd flipped Bully Boy Vickers for knocking down another, weaker boy at school. Bully Boy never knew what hit him. But for the most part, New minded his manners. Sometimes it was more fun to work for what you wanted, anyway. Like his job at the Democrat. Raven said his English was coming along so well that he might be able to write a story soon.

The magic was still there, though. It would always be there. He would just have to figure out when and where to use it.

He looked down at a beautiful green plate, half buried in the mud. He bent to pick it up - and exposed the black slugs that squirmed beneath it. New skimmed the green plate over the lake, and it sank in the water.

The chill reddened his cheeks. He watched the island, and listened.

Sometimes, when the wind was just right and the birds were silent, he imagined he heard a soft whisper that came from the ruins. He was never sure, though;it was just something that came and went when he wasn't listening for it.

He started to walk on - and then stopped in his tracks.

Floating amid brown weeds five feet from shore was a gray cap, splattered with mud.

New waited for the cap to wash to shore, but it was hung in the weeds. He advanced a few feet into the chilly water, then reached out with the wand and started to lift the cap out.

And as he picked it up, the thing rose up from underneath it - a muddy, decayed, and skeletal corpse, wearing a gray coat with silver buttons in the shape of roaring lion's faces.

New screamed and tried to back away, but the mud closed around his boots and locked him.

The thing - what was left of the Pumpkin Man - knocked the wand aside, reached out its long, dripping arms, and clutched New's throat in bony hands, squeezing with demonic strength . . . squeezing . . . squeezing . . .

New gasped for breath and sat up in bed.

It was still dark outside. There was sweat on his face, and he sat until his fit of shivering had passed.

The same dream! he thought. It was the same dream again!

His mother was sleeping, and he didn't want to wake her, but he rose from the bed and took the wand from where it leaned in the corner. He went out to the front room. The last embers of the fire glowed. Outside the cabin, a restless wind moved across Briartop Mountain like the sound of something dark and lonely, searching.

The same dream. Why do I keep having the same dream? he thought.

New stood at the window, listening to the high shriek of the wind. The insulation that Mr. Usher had put in kept the house warm. He had a busy day at school tomorrow and he had to be rested, but still - he paused, listening, his face mirroring unspoken concerns.

Was it over? he wondered. Would it ever really be over? Or would the evil just take some other form and come back stronger - maybe looking for him?

If so, he had to be ready.

His hands tightened around the wand.

The wind changed direction and tone. It dropped to a low moan, and beat against the cabin with a strange, steady rhythm.

New listened.

And imagined he heard the sound of a pendulum out there in the dark, swinging back and forth . . . back and forth . . .

He hoped he imagined it.

Oh God, he hoped.

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