Albert stood, hat in hand, feeding the brim round and round through his fingers.
Rising, Lindstrom threw his Humboldt Standard on the desk. "For God's sake-what now?"
The boy took in the man's unshaven condition and red eyes. He had never seen him like this but Mam said that was what grief did to you-made you hollow and sick and wondering why the world went on like it did.
"Sir," said Albert. He didn't know if the news would make Mr. Lindstrom wild, and, with him pacing back and forth like that, he already put Albert in mind of the caged circus tiger that passed through Eureka last spring.
"Well?" The man prompted. "Is that log bucker Derwent making trouble again?"
"No, sir." Unless you counted that Derwent was sodden drunk behind Miz Etta's and had been for days. Albert's hat brim made another orbit, and he shifted his weight from one muddy, sawdust-crusted boot to the other, taking care to stay on the mat. "No, sir...I'm come to tell you that they found her things."
Lindstrom made a small choking sound. Turning his back on Albert, he stalked to the window where the greenish panes sagged in their glazing bars. The boy knew well there wasn't a thing new to see out there. He waited while Lindstrom got out his handkerchief. Pressed it to his eyes, his forehead. Replaced it. "Which...things...of Mrs. Lindstrom's? And where were they discovered?"
Around went Albert's hat again. Seeing Lindstrom halt and fix his eyes on it, the boy made an effort to hold still. "By the Overhang, sir. You know, downstream from where the footbridge washed out and there's the big drop. Sir, it was her hat. The one with the ribbons wide as my hands. And then her basket, what she used to gather things in. There was still some dried-up ginger and bark in it." Albert delivered this information with his gaze circumspectly on Mr. Lindstrom's kneecaps, but he could tell the man was trembling, and the boy found this so unsettling that his hat slipped completely through his fingers, rolling some feet away-a dreadful scrape. If he chased it, he would get mud on the floor, and Mr. Lindstrom liked everything just so. But he couldn't just let it be and go away because it was Albert's only hat, and, truth to tell, it wasn't that much cleaner than his boots. Not to mention what Mam would say if he returned home hatless. Some prankster had thieved Albert's only other shirt and pair of trousers off the line last month, and Mam swung between accusing Albert's friends and Mr. Kee the Chinaman.
Albert wasn't sure if Mr. Lindstrom noticed the hat problem, even though the man's red eyes were burning a hole in him. Mam said the worst part about the man's grief was that he had no place to hang it. "Without a body or even knowing what became of her-what good will the headstone be, when he knows she's not under it? If you can't be sad over something or feel sad every time you go a certain somewhere, well then it just haunts you. All the time and everywhere." Mam clucked when she said this, and all the women she said it to clucked back. Mrs. Holloway said in her sly voice, "Looking haunted is nothing new for Pall Lindstrom-it was indecent the way his eyes would follow her around when she was alive! Like he wanted to eat her up!" All the women clucked again-excited this time-and leaned their heads together.
"Boy?" Lindstrom snapped Albert from his reverie. "I said, did they find anything else?"
"No, sir," he replied at once. He meant, No, sir, nobody found her.
Another silence fell, if you could call it that, considering the constant whine of the mill's gang saw. Eighteen months without an accident, Albert's father the foreman said. This was a point of family pride because Albert's grandfather had lost his arm twenty years prior on that very mill floor. "Pa was on the platform running the logs past the saw. Chain gets wrapped around his arm-yanks it clean off."
In a move so fast Albert lost track of it, Pall Lindstrom stooped for the runaway felt hat and shoved it back at him. "All right, then. You've said your news. You make sure those...items...get delivered to my house and get on outta here."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
But the manager had already forgotten him, running one hand through his unkempt hair (hair Albert had never seen but neatly pomaded) and taking a seat again at the desk. There lay the newspaper, and, with a grunt, Lindstrom swept it off into the waste basket.
Red Gap Woman Continues Missing, Believed Dead.
Albert hurried down the wooden steps.
With a scream, the gang saw broke another log into cants, the dark red heartwood sheared in rough planks.
Chapter 1: Wreck
It was hard to say if he hit the deer or the deer hit him.
Not that it much mattered-the end result was the same. Ben surveyed the damage: crumpled hood-a frozen wave of blue, paint-flaking steel-smashed headlight, leaking radiator. He had already tried to force the hood back down, but the latch no longer lined up. A quick check in the back of the borrowed car revealed only the manufacturer's spare tire and jack. No rope to tie car parts shut, and given the plunging temperature and ominous grating sound from the engine, Ben had no intention of shredding any of his clothing to fashion one.
Damn it all! Now he owed Lance for a wrecked car, on top of everything else.
How far was he from Highway 101? California had upwards of 35 million people, but he looked to be the only one of them on this road, if it could even be called that. The map had it marked as a logging trail-pure dotted line.
Ben powered up his cell phone, more to cover his bases than from any hope it would prove useful. The welcome screen hardly flashed before the Low Battery indicator appeared. No bars anyhow.
What was it that couple had done a few winters ago, when they broke down on a logging road in Oregon? Burned the tires-that was it. Hoping the smoke would catch someone's eye. It didn't, and in the end they froze to death. Or was it starved to death? All Ben knew was that, whatever reasons for survival that couple had, he had better ones. He was already in disgrace and on the run. If this flight now cost him his life-hell, if it even cost him a couple frostbitten toes!-he would be damned if he gave his advisor or his girlfriend that satisfaction. Make that his ex-advisor and ex-girlfriend.
Ben checked the map again in the fading light. If he didn't know any better, he would say it felt like snow, but this was freaking early October, and he might be at 2000 feet, but he couldn't be more than ten miles from the coast. Still, he rummaged through the duffel bag in the back seat and pulled out his fleece and Gore-Tex. He had let Courtney keep his wool cap, so he was out of luck there.
He remembered her pleading expression as she took it from him. "Come on, Ben. Stay. You can't just drive out of here by yourself."
"It's dangerous! What if you run out of gas or break down or something?"
"Then a mountain lion will eat me, and wouldn't that be convenient for you?"
"You're being childish."
"It looks that way, since you clearly prefer older men."
She stomped one booted foot then. "You know what-just shut up, Ben. I've already said I'm sorry you had to find us like that. That sucked, I know. I'm not proud of going behind your back. It just...happened."
"'Happened'? What the hell, Courtney? You just 'happened' to crawl out of our tent and into Wilson's? And-what-I know it was dark, but you didn't clue in when he got on top of you and you felt his freaking beard?"
Furious tears sprang to her eyes. "That's not what I meant, Ben. I meant that I knew things weren't great with us-"
"Who said things weren't great with us?" Ben shouted. "Because it wasn't me! If you thought things weren't great with us, you think maybe you could've brought it up? Given us a shot at working through whatever the hell you thought wasn't right?"
He was beyond listening. "Just what the hell did you think it would fix-screwing a second guy who-wait-just happened to be your boyfriend's boss?"
"Because that's what this is about, isn't it?" Courtney retorted. Panting, she got right in his face. "You say this is about me 'betraying' you or some b.s. like that, when what really fries you is that I did it with your advisor. This is about your career."
Ben recoiled as if she had punched him in the gut. He would have sat down to ride out the shock, if not for the rampant poison-oak vines curling close by. Toxicodendron diversilobum. This time of year the leaves were brilliant orange. Objectively beautiful. If you didn't mind the toxin.
It took a minute, but when he spoke again he was relieved to find his voice steady. "Courtney. I'd be lying if I said career didn't enter my mind. I mean, Wilson's one of, like, four professors on the entire planet doing canopy work and the only one doing coast redwoods. If you had to stab me in the back, you couldn't have picked a better way to do it. But no matter who you did it with, it still would've hurt."
"Oh," she said. Her gaze dropped. "So now you wanna say you're in love with me?"
"I was. In love with you." He unsnapped the pocket on his thigh to fish out Lance's car keys, ignoring her muttered curse. "You tell me, Courtney: if this was about career, are you 100% sure it wasn't about yours?" He thought of her behavior around Wilson since joining the team: enthusiastic, helpful, soaking up the botany professor's knowledge as if he were the Dalai Lama expounding on secrets of the universe. It had almost embarrassed Ben, especially since he suspected his own behavior bore striking similarities. He took a deep breath, finding sick enjoyment in the sight of her clenched fists. "Sleeping with the boss doesn't exactly hurt you, does it?"
She made a strangling noise. For an instant he thought she might even hit him.
"You shut up, Ben," hissed his former girlfriend. "Shut up and get out of here. Do everyone a favor and run away, like you always do. We don't need you. The project doesn't need you. Lance can do your job in the canopy-"
"-And Wilson can do my job in the sack."
"Go to hell!" Courtney screeched. She kicked impotently at the soggy forest floor and turned on her heel.
"Hey, Silent Spring," he called after her, "watch the Polystichum munitum. You're a botanist, remember? You can screw everything but the ecosystem."
What Courtney thought of Ben and botany and the whole entire ecosystem echoed to the outer limits of the North Coast Range, and with her malediction ringing in his ears, Ben jumped in Lance's Corolla and drove away.
He leaned against the passenger side door to regroup. Okay. Ten miles to the coast, say, which meant fifteen miles to 101. It might be October, but there still had to be a few tourists driving up and down this remote stretch of the Golden State. It would be dark as sin before he was even halfway there, however, assuming the map wasn't out of date and that the logging road actually still connected. In the pitch black he'd certainly get lost, die of exposure, and be devoured by the local fauna, to Courtney and Ed Wilson's delight, Ben was sure. No, the walk would have to wait for first light.
Which meant he was going to spend tonight here. Even as he thought this, the first flake drifted down, alighting on his shoulder. A fluke, he thought. A fluke flake. But then another followed, and another. Ben groaned at his bad luck. Freezing temperatures meant he would have to sleep in the car and run the engine from time to time, the warped, grating, rumbling engine that would blow up or give out before long. The forest gods hated him.
"I tried to protect you," he said aloud. "It was Courtney who kicked the sword fern-why are you coming after me?" Of course, this could be about the deer. Involuntary deerslaughter was probably worth a year's bad karma, give or take a few months, depending on how much the deer resembled Bambi. This roused him. If it were still alive, he could at least put it out of its misery. How, he didn't know, since there was only the cheap jack in the trunk and his own Swiss army knife. Trying not to picture whether he would have to corkscrew or tweezer it to death, Ben made his way back along the road. A good, fist-sized rock could do the trick-bludgeon it into oblivion-but all he saw were ineffectual stones not much bigger than gravel. Maybe strangle it with poison-oak vines?
The snowflakes were falling faster now and beginning to stick, but after a hundred yards or so he was able to pick out the bloody smear on the surface where the deer landed after impact. Holding his breath, Ben peered into the ditch alongside, but no carcass lay there. He could picture the animal struggling up the farther bank, through that area where the huckleberries were trampled, on into the forest.
He hesitated. If the creature could scramble into and out of a ditch and slog through a tangle of huckleberry and Rosa gymnocarpa, maybe it was well on the road to recovery and he could get back to ensuring his own survival. But this smacked of cowardice on his part-Courtney would certainly call it that-and there was the blood, after all. "I'll give you another hundred yards," Ben said. "If you're not dead or down in the next hundred yards, we're calling it even." He considered getting his headlamp out of the car, but its batteries were nearly dead, and coming at the deer like a glowing Cyclops would only make its last moments more terrifying. "Man up," he told himself. "And get it over with."
Once among the trees, the snow stopped like magic, none of it able to reach the ground through the thick canopy of branches overhead. Second-growth redwoods, Douglas firs, the occasional hemlock. What light remained of the day came only in a few oblique slants, fingers clawing their way inward. And there was the silence. Even the birds had left off, and his footfalls made no sound in the spongy mulch of plant debris. Had Ben not spent the last couple months in an even denser pocket of redwoods, he might have felt fear, but as it was, the woods acted as a balm. The faint lemony smell of redwood enveloped him. His crises assumed their proper proportions beneath the towering growth. Before post-doctorates, before academic backbiting and machinating, before Ed Wilson's betrayal, before Courtney, even, there had been the forest. The forest and his love for it. He found his attention divided between the spectacular overhead views and the rich flowering of fungi at the roots, humble parishioners in a Gothic cathedral. There was no sign of the deer, and he was easily 150 yards in. He should go back before he got lost. Definitely. Or maybe after getting just one sample of that cream-colored Indian pipe because he'd never seen one so huge-
Ben rocketed to his feet, the Monotropa uniflora tumbling from his hand.
The voice could have come from any direction, and he spun in place, his heart racing. Who could be out here?
"Hello?" he called. He was glad he had his knife out, inadequate as the blade seemed.
Movement through the trees caught his eye, and he winged up an instant prayer that what he glimpsed would not be human. Better a bobcat, even, than a human owner to that pitiful cry.
It was the deer.
Above him, where the forest floor angled sharply upward, it took another limping step and sagged against the nearest trunk. Ben could see the sheen of blood on its right hind leg, the one that was dragging at an unnatural angle.
"Jeez," he breathed in relief, shaking his head. He was hearing things, obviously. A combination of anxiety and anger and deerslaughter-guilt were doing things to his brain. He would end the animal's suffering, get back to the car, down a granola bar, and sleep it off.
The deer was too spent to flee, but it took a few more stumbling steps as Ben clambered toward it. He debated the most merciful way to kill it. Cut its throat, most likely. But with only his three-inch army knife, he was likely to get kicked while he sawed away at the jugular. Maybe if he kept to the deer's damaged side he could avoid this.
Even as he drew closer, breathing harder with the effort, the deer sank down, its good legs giving way beneath it. Its head drooped, and the heaving of its flanks mirrored his own shortness of breath. Death was coming. The creature had no need of further help from him, then.
When he reached the peak of the slope, Ben sighed deeply and crouched beside the corpse. God, what a crappy day. Crappier for the deer than for him, he had to admit. He felt he ought to say something, since he had killed it. Apologize, at least. "Hey," Ben murmured. "Deer. I'm...sorry. For the collision, I mean. Bet you don't see too many cars up here. Can't blame you for not looking both ways, and I was driving angry..."
That was it for inspiration, such as it was. He fell silent. What was the point? The staring eyes were indifferent to his remorse.
After another minute Ben snapped his knife shut and rose to his feet. Only then did he look around. The North Coast Ranges were no Himalayas-King Peak only cleared 4000 feet-but what drama they lacked in elevation they made up for in weather and vegetation. Ben found himself on a nameless summit, the ground falling steeply away to the south. Although that downward slope was forested, his trained eye easily detected a recovering timber field. You could see it in the scattering of mossed and lichened stumps, the relative uniformity of the new trees' sizes and ages, the gap through them winding southeast where the skid road had passed. The logging must have been done many decades ago. Between the trees curled shreds of fog, precursors to the blanket the North Coast Range pulled up to its ears nearly every night.
Curiosity stabbed him. He ran his fingers lightly over the Douglas fir the deer had collapsed against. Although 95% of the coast redwoods had been logged before conservation efforts kicked in, the remaining 5% were not fully charted, usually hiding in remote pockets of the mountains where it was too laborious and therefore too expensive to log. Every redwood botanist dreamed of finding undiscovered trees. Every redwood botanist and every wannabe redwood botanist, Ben corrected himself. Absolutely there wouldn't be any around here-not so close to where loggers had passed-but he couldn't help wanting to make sure. He would just get a little higher and take a quick look before heading back to the car.
Stowing his knife in his pocket, Ben studied the tree for climbing routes. It was relatively young-he estimated distance to first limb at a merciful eight feet or so. Still it was no cakewalk. He had no ropes, no gear, no helmet. All back with Ed Wilson's crew. Long ago he used to free-climb, but as he grew older and the trees he tackled grew higher and higher, he had lost that easy confidence. If he fell now to his death, he could picture Ed Wilson and Courtney shaking their heads over the Eureka Times Standard headline. "Ironic," Courtney would say. "Wonder why he was climbing without his gear." "Trying to prove something," would be Wilson's comment.
Ben hunkered down, took a couple running steps and leaped for the lowest limb, cursing as he swung himself up, trying to gain purchase with his soft-soled boots on the trunk and running a long splinter up his palm. But he got up and wrangled into a sitting position. Locking his thighs around the branch, Ben pincered the end of the splinter and extricated it. Then he tucked his feet under him, rose to a stand on the limb and worked out the next step in his ascent.
It was glorious. Risky. Free. When he was thirty feet up, he cast one look down. The deer's broken body lay far below, already part of the past. The branches were getting skinnier at this height; he couldn't go much further and expect them to carry his weight. At forty feet up he knew better than to look down-the descent was a problem to be dealt with later. Instead he balanced himself in the crotch of the branch, wrapping his legs around it. He took a deep breath and looked out.
From this altitude the treetops below formed a seemingly unbroken sea of green and he could look across that sea to where the ground rose again. Trees, trees and more trees. He was right-whatever logging happened in this area happened long ago. In fact the slope immediately below him might be the youngest second-growth as far as the eye could see.
And the eye could see far, thought Ben. His gaze traced the contour of the narrow valley, winding west and south and then rising again abruptly a couple miles away. Even in the time it had taken him to free-climb the tree, the coastal fog had crept further in and begun to swallow the forest. Not all of it. The lowest-lying parts of the valley first. The taller trees and those over the slope had the appearance of rising from clouds. That one tree for example-
He did a double-take. Blinked. Squinted. Patted his chest for the binoculars he wasn't wearing.
There shouldn't be any old-growth coast redwoods for miles around. Not with the timber companies so busy in here. So what was that honking-big thing sticking up even past the trees on the summit? A monster-head and shoulders above its nearest companions, although it leaned a good ten or fifteen degrees off vertical. No way could they have missed that one. 500,000 board-feet of good solid redwood, if it was an inch. Huge like the Dyerville Giant that crashed to earth in 1994. The Giant had been a leaner as well, though at what angle he couldn't remember.
"Sequoia sempervirens," he murmured. "The Ever-Living Tree. You really are. You ought to be long gone, but there you stand."
Ben tried to estimate his location. Without money or car, compass or rope, he couldn't go explore this now. It would have to wait until he'd returned to civilization and cleaned up the mess that was his life. But return he would.
A wave of excitement washed over him, the first positive emotion he'd felt since coming upon Ed Wilson and Courtney going at it, and he felt kind of tipsy with it. Which possibly explained what happened next.
"I'm coming for you, big guy!" Ben cheered. Lying along the branch, he hitched his leg back over and, getting a firm grip with both hands, swung himself down. He had to rock himself over to the limb beneath, but he managed, his right foot skidding across it at first enough to make his heart leap to his throat. When he reached it safely, he gave another whoop. Hell, this was awesome! Why did he let stupid academics tame him into using gear? "Screw belays!" Ben hollered to the forest at large.
The next step in the descent looked easy enough. With reckless joy still thrilling along his veins, Ben almost laughed as he swung down, dangling until his toe made contact. No problem. Or, it would not have been, had not two things happened at once: first, in all the swinging and kicking and dangling, his army knife worked its way from his pocket. It tumbled out, and, instinctively, Ben let go with one hand in an attempt to catch it. When he realized his idiocy, he scrabbled again at the branch above, feeling his toe lose contact with the limb below. He might yet have recovered, but the forest had one more thing for him.
It echoed from every direction-louder this time-rushing up to his ears with almost physical breath.
With a cry of shock, Ben's hands released their hold, and he hurtled through the twilight. Ricocheting against the branches with painful impacts on his right leg, then left hip, then left shoulder on the way down-collisions which probably saved his life-he finally landed shoulder first on the cooling carcass of the deer, his head rocking back to smack on the tree roots. Pinpoints of light exploded across his field of vision. Then everything went black.
Chapter 2: Limbo
His head was cracking open. Someone was pounding on it-thuds with a rubber mallet-trying to break it apart to get at the goods inside.
Ben groaned, his hand flailing at the unseen attacker. This made pain shoot through his shoulder. He felt air on his bare skin.
"Whoa, there. Lie still. This is going to feel cold, okay?"
Cold rocks laid across his head and shoulder. Rocks? Ice. His mind labored to find the word. He passed out again.
"Yeah, I agree with Clyde: concussion. Wake him up from time to time. Have Clyde look in on him. Other than that I'd say nothing looks broken."
"His shoulder's pretty banged up," said the woman. "And he's got a scrape on his hip."
"My wife checked him out pretty thoroughly," came another man's voice. "Don't think she would've been this concerned if he hadn't been so young and good-looking."
"Oh, be quiet, you. He's at least graduated from college, though, because he has his class ring-see? 'UC San Diego. 1997.'"
Ben felt hands prodding him again.
"Nah," said the first man. "That's all it is-bangs and scrapes. The important part is the concussion. So like I said, wake him up from time-oh, hey-there-his eyes are opening a little. Son-what's your name, Son?"
Effort. A memory of hiding behind his mother's legs and the preschool teacher making exaggerated mouths at him: "Ben-ja-min. Well, hell-o, Ben-ja-min!"
"Yes, Son. Your name is..."
"-Fine where it is. Got his stuff outta the back seat, including his wallet. Looks like Hello Benjamin's name really is Benjamin Platt. So at least he hasn't knocked all his brains clean out."
"Of course he hasn't."
"What do you think he was doing out there, Bea? His duffel bag had a couple carabiners and a few of these-" A clinking sound.
"Hmm...wonder what those are. We'll just have to ask him later. But in the meantime, you have to move his car, Charlie. Or the snow will get in with the hood like that. At least take it to Rube and let him try to hammer it out."
Ben didn't want anyone named Rube hammering on Lance's car, but that seemed impossible to express. He let out a moan of protest.
"Oh!" said the woman, and Ben heard her quick step across the room.
"-Make him muffins or scones?"
"He's not a guest, Bea. He's a convalescent. And convalescing on our dime, I might add. Don't be making him any special foods. Save it for the real guests. Did you call Alice? Can she take him? We're gonna have a full house tomorrow, and we can't have him laying around."
"I thought maybe we could move him to the Green Room," said Bea.
Gasping sound and then Charlie choking on his coffee. "What? Green Room? Keep that door locked, Bea."
Clunk of something solid. Bea slamming the coffee pot on the table? Ben tried to pry his eyes open, but the light shot bolts through his head, and he quickly screwed them shut again.
"The Green Room," insisted Bea. "He already has a head injury. He's not going to say anything. And why don't you plow the drive and let me run this place? If no one can get up the road because of snow, we won't have any guests period, and then it doesn't matter if I fill every room with sick people."
His first dream was cold and it might have been wind and it might have been rain but there was a Tap tap tap.
A tree swaying, brushing the window.
The sound again.
And when he looked over, a pale hand with a wide gold ring sliding across the wet pane.
Fingernails on glass.
Chapter 3: Vision
Ben awoke to the smell of bacon and coffee and the muted sounds of conversation and dishes clinking below him.
Slowly he opened his eyes and found that he could without pain. Equally slowly he turned his head on the pillow. There was a twinge and a throb, but they were bearable. He waited for the two-of-everything to resolve into one-of-everything.
He was in a green room. Brownish-red and green. Redwood wainscoting fenced him in, above which wallpapered ivy climbed. The redwood floorboards peeked between moss-and-forest braided rugs. A lifted corner of the bed coverlet showed him embroidered pine cones and needles. Even the light filtering through the sheers was greenish, as if Ben lay in a forest. Air from an unseen vent rippled them then, sending watery shadows across the ivy.
Speaking of water.
He had to pee like crazy. God-what day was it? How long had he been wherever he was? Vague, embarrassing memories flickered: being spoon-fed and then throwing up; something about a bedpan; Bea and Charlie arguing about him.
He became aware of a tightness and ache in his left shoulder. Similar tender spots on hip and leg. Bangs and scrapes, that one man had called them. Nothing to freak out about.
With a motion of ages, Ben pushed the coverlet back and heaved himself to a sitting position. Once, twice, the forest room circled him, but when it jerked to a stop, he placed his palms flat on the mattress. Up and at ʼem.
Easier said than done. However long he had been in bed, either his body had forgotten how to obey mental commands or his brain had forgotten how to issue them. Ben could only get what he wanted done-crossing the room to the dresser-with intense concentration, and he felt the tightness of headache branching from the base of his skull. Another ripple of the sheers made the room sway, seaweed in an unseen current, and he caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror over the dresser-hand to mouth so he wouldn't throw up. God, he thought again-he must have been out of it at least a couple days, judging by the facial hair. Courtney liked a good five-o'clock shadow, but this would scare her. His brown hair, short and prematurely peppered with gray, stood up at all angles, away from his dark, stunned eyes. "I look...like the nutty professor," Ben mumbled, to try out his voice. It worked, even if he had to string the words together visually before they emerged. The hand went from his mouth to his temples, rubbing. That's right-a professor was the one thing he would never actually be now. Once Wilson and the crew packed up and left the canopy in a few weeks, the first text back to the U would probably include something about deleting Ben's name from the project write-up. Hell, why stop there? Why not go ahead and kick him out of the U altogether?
The green room had no bathroom attached. Ben shuffled to the door pinball-style: dresser to hat rack (he knocked this over and a wave of nausea prevented him from righting it) to door. Once that was open, and he wavered in the jamb, he found himself looking down a dim hallway of closed doors, a braided runner traveling its length.
Ben had not managed to try more than two of the locked doors before he heard hasty footsteps, and a woman appeared halfway along.
"Look at you!" she cried, and Ben recognized her voice as Bea. He had pictured her older, but she only appeared around fifty, mostly-brunette, trim and quick. "You probably shouldn't be up!"
Ben arranged the words. "I...probably shouldn't. Bathroom."
"Of course." Quite naturally she took his arm. "This way. I'm afraid it's at the end of the hall. Bed-and-breakfast, you know. Only two of the suites have their own bathrooms. And all the rooms are occupied, so we couldn't put you any closer."
He tried to nod, but it made him dizzy. He knew this. He knew Charlie didn't want him on the couch or in the place at all. Bed-and-breakfast-and-concussed-wildman-wandering-the-halls. A bed-and-breakfast. He really was on vacation. This would have to go on the tab with Lance's car.
"Can you manage?" Bea asked, opening the door for him.
"Take as long as you like. The guests are just finishing up breakfast, and there's another bathroom they can use downstairs before they head out on their hikes and such."
Another glimpse of his crazy lumberjack-professor face in the bathroom mirror alarmed him. "Bath..?"
"Absolutely. Take a bath. I'll get your things and put them outside the door. Charlie went and fetched them from your car. I'm afraid-well-lots of the clothes looked like they could use a wash, so I went ahead and did that."
The headache had wrapped completely around by this point. Ben had a thousand questions, but more urgently he wanted to relieve himself and then lie on the cool tile floor until someone stopped the merry-go-round. "...Thank you...Bea."
Her face lit up. "You did catch my name, then! I knew you hadn't knocked your brains clear out like Charlie feared. Another couple days and you'll be good as new. You get yourself set and then go back to bed if you want, or come downstairs if you rather. Call me or...knock something over again...if you need help." She grinned at him. "I'll be in the kitchen working on the afternoon treats."
He must have fallen asleep in the tub. All he knew was that one minute he was sinking into comfort as the mirror steamed up, and the next his eyes flickered open and he was shivering against the lukewarm water. With a groan, Ben yanked the drain plug and reached for one of the towels. His sudden movements had predictable results on his head, and he clutched the curved rim of the claw-foot tub until the dizziness passed.
A timid knock on the door. "Benjamin?" It was Bea. "Are you all right in there? It's been a good forty-five minutes-"
"I'm good, I'm good," he called. "Just fell asleep. I'll be out shortly."
He hadn't counted on how long it took him to manage simple tasks like dressing and shaving, however, nor the breaks he took in between, stretched out on the floor. He would have to ask Bea for some Advil.
It was during his second stint on the tiles that he made his discovery.
He was running one hand behind the bathroom vanity and the other along the toilet base so he could pull himself up again, when a jagged edge met his fingertips, neatly slicing the skin on his index finger. Detachedly, Ben inspected the blood welling up. Wait till Charlie caught wind of this injury. Now the concussed invalid was gonna bleed all over the antique furniture.
He rolled onto his back to reach behind the vanity with his uninjured hand, and, with a little jiggling to coax it free, Ben pulled out a gilt frame. Perhaps from its fall, the glazing had broken on it-hence his cut-but what it held appeared undamaged. It was a-what were those things called?-piece of needlework. A verse, hemmed in on all sides by painstakingly-stitched trees, firs and redwoods and a California bay:
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall--the sap of spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
What was it? A hymn? Ben frowned. And who would go to all the trouble of stitching such a depressing verse and then framing it and hanging it on the wall? No matter. He would see what Bea wanted to do with it.
She was bustling about, setting out lemon bars and chocolate-chip cookies beside a coffee urn and tea caddy.
"Nice place you have here," said Ben. He had worked on the bland phrase as he toiled down the stairs, clutching the handrail and resting on the landing. He almost dropped the needlework several times and ended up stuffing it in his waistband. Honestly, the place was a little antique-y for him-spindly chairs with upright backs, dark upholsteries and carpets, fussy lamps, rickety side tables. Plenty of china knickknacks and gewgaws for the unwitting to knock over. More to his taste was the thick stand of conifers he glimpsed from the bay window, barely held off by a flower-bordered lawn. The unseasonable snow had melted away, it appeared.
Bea smiled up at him. "You think so? I do. Charlie isn't so sure. He says he hates all the namby-pamby, grandma stuff. Always afraid he'll break something. But I tell him no one wants to visit a ghost logging town and stay in a place that's all chrome and glass. It's got to fit the period. Not that we could change the Dryad much even if we wanted to, now. They added it to the Historic Register last year, you know."
Her rapid speech left him struggling to keep up, but he gave one nod. Gestured vaguely with one arm at the parlor. "It's like stepping back in time."
"Exactly! Which is what people want. And it should look like that because many of the furnishings are original to the house. But what have you done to your hand?" She inspected his sliced finger. He had applied pressure, but when she pushed his thumb away, a bead of blood emerged nonetheless. "I'll get you a towel for that. Why don't you have a cookie and sit in the armchair? You won't do any harm there. Some coffee or tea?"
Ben obeyed. He extricated the framed sampler from his waistband and sagged into the chair, shutting his eyes. After some minutes he heard the clink of a teacup and saucer on the table beside him and felt a washcloth thrust into his injured hand. "I put some aspirin there for you, too, in case you want it. We had Dr. Stevens from Eureka check you out at first. He said you might have headaches and spells for a while afterward, and if you do, just to call Clyde. Clyde's his brother-in-law. He's not exactly a doctor himself-more of a veterinarian neighbor-but, well, people are just animals after all."
"Thank you." Add doctor's (and vet?) bills to the running total.
He heard the creak of springs as Bea dropped into the wingback opposite. "Oof! This is my little time to put my feet up. Hope you don't mind."
She commenced humming to herself, but Ben had the sense she was merely waiting to see if he would prove more sociable. She was like a kettle on the back burner, set at simmer but easily coaxed to a rolling boil. Because of all she was doing for him and despite his troublesome head, he felt willing enough to comply.
"Bea...I cut my hand when I reached behind the vanity," he began. "...Long story." He cracked an eyelid and saw his guess was right-she had thrust aside her own needlework and sat forward eagerly. "There was...some glass back there. I found this." He handed it over.
"Good heavens." Bea looked dumbstruck.
Ben waited, but she didn't seem inclined to add more. "What is it?" he prompted. "Do you think it's original to the house?"
Ignoring him, she turned the frame over and began prying the backing loose. When it sprung free, Bea gingerly separated it from the sampler, frame and broken glass, laying the last on some newspaper. She ran her finger over the stitches, her lips pursed. "It's original, all right," she said at last. "Look at the date and these initials."
In tiny lettering, hardly distinguishable from the stitched undergrowth of the trees: D. L. 1892.
"D. L.?" said Ben.
"Daphne Lindstrom. At that date, she would have been Mrs. Pall Lindstrom for a year already." Bea sighed. "A tragic story. The Dryad is the old Lindstrom home, you know."
Her quick smile. "This place. This is the Dryad."
His tea had cooled off enough that he could swig it to swallow the aspirin. Ahh...placebo effect, here I come, he thought. "No, actually," said Ben. "It's not...amnesia...or anything, but I don't even know where I am. What town, I mean."
Bea blinked at him. "Oh, yes, of course. I forgot that. You're in Red Gap. The Gap used to be a big, bustling logging town, say, more than a century ago. Its own post office and library and dance hall and everything. And back then it was Mr. Pall Lindstrom who ran the place. He didn't own the lumber company, but he was management, and since everyone in the Gap worked for the lumber company, that meant everyone in the Gap answered to Pall Lindstrom." She smoothed the sampler and fitted it back into the glassless frame. Ben felt like she was avoiding meeting his eyes. "You don't happen to be a lumber scout, do you, Benjamin? Charlie found some carabiners and things in your car and he said that was what you were. And you know the Gap isn't part of the protected woodlands, but it borders on them, and people don't take very kindly to lumber companies scouting around here, for all that Red Gap got its start that way."
Ben started to laugh, but it brought on a wave of nausea and he choked it back. "No, Bea. I'm no lumber scout. I'm the opposite-a graduate student. I study trees." Or he used to, at any rate. Not that Bea needed to hear the Ed-Wilson-Courtney saga. "I thought I would take a...shortcut...to 101, but I hit a deer. How did you ever find me?"
"That was Charlie," said Bea simply. "He drives all the back roads here. Now that the Gap is a...kind of...tourist destination Charlie keeps the hiking trails in shipshape. Someone reported a tree across one of the trails from Big Diamond, so he went to clean it up. When he saw the condition of your car and no you in it, he followed where you went into the woods and found you all collapsed. He brought you back here. So it's Charlie you have to thank," she added, on a slight defensive note. Perhaps she knew he'd overheard some of Charlie's complaints about him.
"I do thank him," said Ben. He felt she expected more explanation. "I only went into the woods because the deer wasn't all the way dead. I was going to finish it off."
"Well, you succeeded in that. Charlie found you sprawled on top of the thing. He couldn't figure out if you tried to wrestle it to death or what! You won, but Charlie wondered if that crippled thing managed to kick you senseless before it passed on."
"Right," said Ben. "First you think I'm a lumber scout and then that I got licked by a deer with one hoof in the grave."
She giggled. "I told him that was nonsense. But then, what did happen?"
Not feeling that the truth was much more dignified, Ben described free-climbing the fir to take a look around. Bea sucked in her cheeks when he mentioned how high he got, but said nothing. "I-uh-got in a little trouble on the descent," said Ben. He left out the bits about spotting the mysterious giant redwood, as well as hearing the voice, naturally. "Fell about thirty-five feet or so. I'm no threat to your woods," he finished. "No threat, but maybe not that great of a protector, either."
Bea patted the back of his hand. "I don't know about that. To think you study trees! I bet you would have all sorts of things to teach us. Some of the guests have questions about the trees here that I can't answer." She considered the sampler again. "Though Daphne Lindstrom probably could have. Look at the detail of this work."
"Uh-huh." Until the headache receded, Ben had no interest in examining some depressed woman's hundred-year-old needlework. Not that he would, even in the best of health. "Bummer of a verse she picked, though."
Bea frowned at him. "I told you it was a tragic story. This just proves it. She was a sad case. Local legend has it Daphne Lindstrom was the first child born in Red Gap..." (Ben settled back in his armchair. If Bea was going to start with Daphne Lindstrom's birth, he could be in for a long listen.) "She was Daphne Chase then, and a strange girl, they say. Always out in the woods, making up games for herself. There was one particular grove of redwoods not far from here that was her special haunt. Well, the lumber company decided that grove would do more good sawed up into boards and when Daphne heard about that, she got so upset her family had to send her away."
"Away where?" Ben asked, more out of politeness than interest.
"Oh, you know-back in those days, if a great-aunt couldn't shape you up, you went to a sanatorium somewhere. In any case, she didn't come back to the Gap until she was sixteen, and by then most of her redwood grove was ancient history, and she was ready for a different kind of love. Pall Lindstrom took one look at Daphne Chase and fell head over heels. Here he was, chasing after a girl just sixteen, and him the big manager man and handsomest fellow in Red Gap. Maybe even the county."
"Well, she didn't get her redwoods, but she got the most eligible bachelor, right?" said Ben. "Good 19th-century consolation prize. Mrs. Pall Lindstrom."
Bea shook her head. "Yes and no. It was after they got married that Daphne Lindstrom started going downhill again. Keeping to herself. Wandering in the woods for hours, just like when she was a child. Fighting with her husband whenever he so much as looked at another woman-"
"Oh-and don't forget: stitching gloomy samplers," Ben interjected.
"You men! You're so unromantic," said Bea. "I guess it was all over a hundred years ago, but I must say that living in her house keeps her alive for me."
"I'm sorry," said Ben, grimacing. Bea wasn't the first woman to call him unromantic. "So where does the tragedy come in...? I take it Pall Lindstrom looked at too many other women?"
"No, no! He was a model husband. Worshiped the ground she walked on and such. But Daphne just turned in on herself. Devoured herself, in the end. One day she went for her usual walk in the forest, and that was the last time anyone saw her alive. In fact, that was the last time anyone ever saw her again period. Her hat and foraging basket were found a couple weeks later where the trees overhang the Yoak River ravine about a mile down from town. People think she leapt to her death and her body was carried out to sea."
"That's terrible," he said automatically. If he hadn't felt so lousy, he might have asked how Bea knew so many details of the dead woman's story. Or embellishments, as the case probably was.
"I told you it was sad." Bea twiddled with her reading-glasses chain absently. "I'll have to get a new frame for this and hang it up again. Though, like you say, the verse is kind of a downer. I'll put it in the Green Room. It belongs there."
"My room?" exclaimed Ben. "I mean, the room I'm staying in?"
"Uh-huh." Another pause. Bea collected his cup and saucer, stacking them with hers. "The Green Room...was Daphne's private sitting room when she was alive. I think she liked it because the trees grow almost right up to the window there. There was no bed in there, of course, or dresser, but everything else is original. Do you like it?"
"Sure," said Ben. "It's a great room. And Bea-I really do appreciate you and Charlie rescuing me like this. I'm sorry to be taking up space when you two have a business to run, and you'll have to let me know what I owe you-"
Before he was halfway through this trying speech, Bea was waving her hand at him. "Don't bother your scrambled head about that, young man. When you're feeling a little better we'll find some use for you. Now tell me-is there anyone you need me to contact? Let ʼem know you're alive and almost well-just stopping in Red Gap for some R&R?"
He hesitated. Let Bea think he was trying to get his head together. "Uh...I was kind of at the end of a project. No one is expecting me anywhere, anytime soon. Thank you, though."
"No thanks necessary." She pushed herself briskly up from the wingback. "I'd better get busy again, but I don't feel comfortable leaving someone with no entertainment. We have plenty of books and games and puzzles for the guests, of course, for when the weather is bad, but I don't think your head would be up to it."
"It wouldn't," Ben agreed. "I think I'll just rest here a while and look out the windows, if you don't mind."
"Not a bit. But I could at least find you the book on Red Gap that our local historical society put together. Lots of pictures, hardly any words. You can flip through it if you like, if I can remember where I saw it last..."
Diffidently, Ben turned the pages. The black-and-white photographs of Red Gap in its heyday might have been any logging town in the Coast Ranges near the turn of the century. Wooden buildings clustered in the shadow of encroaching evergreens: mill, company houses, general store. A river ran below the town to float logs to the mill when winter freshets allowed. He lingered over the trees. The size of them! Some of them easily twenty, thirty feet in diameter. Fallers posed on springboards, one or two boards up, to clear the tree's base and work clear of the root system. One shot even had a logger lolling in the spacious undercut he and his fellows made in the mammoth trunk of a coast redwood. Nowadays such behemoths drew researchers, worshipers almost, they were so rare and sequestered.
When the sound came again, Ben barely heard it, lost as he was in thought.
With an angry movement, he flipped a handful of the book's pages. No use mourning over what was past. Those trees were gone. Fallen. Sawed up into houses and furniture.
Tap. Fingernails on glass.
The sound stirred a memory. Oh, yes-the dream. The hand on the window.
He raised his eyes to the bay window. There was the postage-stamp lawn, outlined in asters and Gloriosa daisies that had shriveled in the untimely snowfall. Sparrows hopped and preened at a bird bath in the corner nearest the house. Stepping stones made of tree rounds marked several paths away: to the road, around the back, into the woods.
Feeling his headache now only as a dull throb at the base of his skull, Ben's gaze followed the path into the woods, round by round.
And then he saw her.
She stood, hesitating, just where the path disappeared in shadow, a muted glow cast by her long ivory dress. Her back was to the house but her head half turned as if she had just remembered something.
Ben wondered if the Dryad did weddings. It was a picturesque enough spot, although, if there were a wedding being held there today, Bea didn't seem overly concerned about it. But what was with the dress, then? Of course, Bea had said the Dryad was full up right now-maybe there was something going on with the historical society-an excuse for people to tromp around in period clothing.
The woman turned then. Took a step toward him. Ben couldn't see her face, but he got an impression of flowing hair pinned back, pale skin, a pointed chin set at a defiant angle. Her hands, which had been lifting her skirts off the ground, released the yards of material, and she raised them slightly, palms upward. He saw her mouth move.
"...Bea...?" His voice came out rather hoarse. "...Bea! There's someone out here who needs help, I think...Bea!"
The room spun again when he tried to sit forward, but he sank back at the sound of Bea's rapid footsteps. Laying a firm hand on his shoulder to keep him in place, she hurried to the window to peer out. "Is it one of the guests? Did someone hurt himself hiking?"
"The woman," he said. Moving wouldn't be so bad, if not for the spinning, and the spinning wouldn't be so bad, if not for the wave of nausea that followed.
"Woman?" echoed Bea. Opening the front door, she marched onto the verandah, the better to have a look around and halloo a few times. A few moments later, he heard the clack of her shoes returning and the door closing. "I don't see her now, at any rate. Was she injured? What did she look like?"
He swallowed carefully. "I don't know if she was injured. She...was back by the trees-no, I see she's gone now. She had a long white dress on-"
"Long white dress!" Bea exclaimed. "Whatever for?"
Ben gave a bark of a laugh. "I was going to ask you. A long white dress. And big, curly hair tied up. And her hands. They were pale. There might have been a ring on one of her hands." He sat up straighter. Why had he said that? He didn't know if there had been a ring or not. Not at that distance. The ring he remembered was from the dream, the long white hand sliding across the pane.
Bea was frowning at him again, her head cocked to one side.
"What?" he demanded.
She bit her lip. "It's all right, Ben. Clyde said you might have some confusion."
"Clyde-what? Clyde the veterinarian?" Ben protested. "He said I might have some confusion about what?"
"Oh, nothing to worry about," she reassured him, coming to pat his arm. "It'll pass."
He resisted the urge to fling her off. "I'm not confused, Bea. Dizzy, yes. Head hurting, yes. Slow, yes. But I'm not confused."
"You might have fallen asleep."
Ben glared at her. "I was not asleep-you've only been out of the room five or ten minutes. And I was not confused! I saw what I saw. A lady, right where the path enters the woods, and she was wearing a long white dress and had her hair pulled back and held up her hands to me. I don't know about the ring," he admitted. "I may not have seen that."
Bea sighed. "You saw a lady outside in a long white dress with wavy hair."
"Curly hair. More curly than wavy."
"And she might or might not have been wearing a ring. Is that right?"
He nodded. He didn't have to rule it out-plenty of women wore rings.
"You think maybe she looked a little something like this, Ben?" Bea pushed his hands away, where they were clutching the historical-society book. He looked down at the open page. There he found a three-quarter portrait of a young woman seated in an arbor, her long white gown spread around her, her light-colored, wavy hair pinned up and back. A slender Sequoia sempervirensbranch lay in her lap, over which her hands rested protectively. On her left hand she wore a wide wedding band.
The caption read: Mrs. Pall Lindstrom, née Daphne Chase, 1893.