The Cypress House — Excerpt
THEY’D BEEN ON THE TRAIN for five hours before Arlen Wagner saw the first of the dead men.
To that point it had been a hell of a nice ride. Hot, sure, and progressively more humid as they passed out of Alabama and through southern Georgia and into Florida, but nice enough all the same. There were thirty-four on board the train who were bound for the camps in the Keys, all of them veterans with the exception of the nineteen-year-old who rode at Arlen’s side, a boy from Jersey by the name of Paul Brickhill.
They’d all made a bit of conversation at the outset, exchanges of names and casual barbs and jabs thrown around in that way men have when they are getting used to one another, all of them figuring they’d be together for several months to come, and then things quieted down. Some slept, a few started card games, others just sat and watched the countryside roll by, fields going misty with late-summer twilight and then shapeless and dark as the moon rose like a watchful specter. Arlen, though, Arlen just listened. Wasn’t anything else to do, because Paul Brickhill had an outboard motor where his mouth belonged.
As the miles and minutes passed, Brickhill alternated between explaining things to Arlen and asking him questions. Nine times out of ten, the boy answered his own questions before Arlen could so much as part his lips with a response. Brickhill had been a quiet kid when the two of them first met months earlier in Alabama, and back then Arlen believed him to be shy. What he hadn’t counted on was the way the boy took to talk once he felt comfortable with someone. Evidently, he’d grown damn comfortable with Arlen.
As the wheels hammered along the rails of northern Florida, Paul Brickhill was busy telling Arlen all of the reasons this was going to be a hell of a good hitch. Not only was there the bridge waiting to be built, but all that sunshine and blue water and boats that cost more than most homes. They could do some fishing, maybe catch a tarpon. Paul’d seen pictures of tarpon that were near as long as the boats that landed them. And there were famous people in the Keys, celebrities of every sort, and who was to say they wouldn’t run into a few, and…
Around them the men talked and laughed, some scratching out letters to loved ones back home. Wasn’t anyone waiting on a letter from Arlen, so he just settled for a few nips on his flask and tried to find some sleep despite the cloaking warmth and the stink of sweating men. It was too damn hot.
Brickhill finally fell silent, as if he’d just noticed that Arlen was sitting with his eyes closed and had stopped responding to the conversation. Arlen let out a sigh, grateful for the respite. Paul was a nice enough kid, but Arlen had never been one for a lot of words where a few would do.
The train clattered on, and though night had settled, the heat didn’t break. Sweat still trickled along the small of Arlen’s back and held his hair to his forehead. He wished he could fall asleep; these hot miles would pass faster then. Maybe another pull on the flask would aid him along.
He opened his eyes, tugged the lids up sleepily, and saw a hand of bone.
He blinked and sat up and stared. Nothing changed. The hand held five playing cards and was attached to a man named Wallace O’Connell, a veteran from Georgia who was far and away the loudest man in this company. He had his back turned, engaged in his game, so Arlen couldn’t see his face. Just that hand of bone.
No, Arlen thought, no, damn it, not another one.
The sight chilled him but didn’t shock him. It was far from the first time.
He’s going to die unless I can find a way to stop it, Arlen thought with the sad, sick resignation of a man experienced with such things. Once we get down to the Keys, old Wallace O’Connell will have a slip and bash his head in on something. Or maybe the poor bastard can’t swim, will fall into those waves and sink beneath them and I’ll be left with this memory same as I’ve been left with so many others. I’d warn him if I could, but men don’t heed such warnings. They won’t let themselves.
It was then that he looked up, away from Wallace under the flickering lights of the train car, and saw skeletons all around him.
They filled the shadows of the car, some laughing, some grinning, some lost to sleep. All with bone where flesh belonged. The few who sat directly under a light still wore their skin, but their eyes were gone, replaced by whirls of gray smoke.
For a moment, Arlen Wagner forgot to breathe. Went cold and dizzy and then sucked in a gasp of air and straightened in the seat.
They were going to have a wreck. It was the only thing that made a bit of sense. This train was going to derail and they were all going to die. Every last one of them. Because Arlen had seen this before, and knew damn well what it meant, and knew that—
Paul Brickhill said, “Arlen?”
Arlen turned to him. The overhead light was full on the boy’s face, keeping him in a circle of brightness, the taut, tanned skin of a young man who spent his days under the sun. Arlen looked into his eyes and saw swirling wisps of smoke. The smoke rose in tendrils and fanned out and framed the boy’s head while filling Arlen’s with terrible recollections.
“Arlen, you all right?” Paul Brickhill asked.
He wanted to scream. Wanted to scream and grab the boy’s arm but was afraid it would be cold slick bone under his touch.
We’re going to die. We’re going to come off these rails at full speed and pile into those swamp woods, with hot metal tearing and shattering all around us…
The whistle blew out shrill in the dark night, and the train began to slow.
“We got another stop,” Paul said. “You look kind of sickly. Maybe you should pour that flask out.”
The boy distrusted liquor. Arlen wet his lips and said, “Maybe,” and looked around the car at the skeleton crew and felt the train shudder as it slowed. The force of that big locomotive was dropping fast, and now he could see light glimmering outside the windows, a station just ahead. They were arriving in some backwater stop where the train could take on coal and the men would have a chance to get out, stretch their legs, and piss. Then they’d be aboard again and winging south at full speed, death ahead of them.
“Paul,” Arlen said, “you got to help me do a bit of convincing here.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We aren’t getting back on this train. Not a one of us.”
THEY PILED OUT OF THE CARS and onto the station platform, everyone milling around, stretching or lighting cigarettes. It was getting on toward ten in the evening, and though the sun had long since faded, the wet heat lingered. The boards of the platform were coated with swamp mud dried and trampled into dust, and out beyond the lights Arlen could see silhouetted fronds lying limp in the darkness, untouched by a breeze. Backwoods Florida. He didn’t know the town and didn’t care; regardless of name, it would be his last stop on this train.
He hadn’t seen so many apparitions of death at one time since the war. Maybe leaving the train wouldn’t be enough. Could be there was some sort of virus in the air, a plague spreading unseen from man to man the way the influenza had in ’18, claiming lives faster than the reaper himself.
“What’s the matter?” Paul Brickhill asked, following as Arlen stepped away from the crowd of men and tugged his flask from his pocket. Out here the sight was enough to set Arlen’s hands to shaking—men were walking in and out of the shadows as they moved through the cars and down to the station platform, slipping from flesh to bone and back again in a matter of seconds, all of it a dizzying display that made him want to sit down and close his eyes and drink long and deep on the whiskey.
“Something’s about to go wrong,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Paul said, but Arlen didn’t respond, staring instead at the men disembarking and realizing something—the moment they stepped off the train, their skin slid back across their bones, knitting together as if healed by the wave of some magic wand. The swirls of smoke in their eye sockets vanished into the hazy night air. It was the train. Yes, whatever was going to happen was going to happen to that train.
“Something’s about to go wrong,” he repeated. “With our train. Something’s going to go bad wrong.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do, damn it!”
Paul looked to the flask, and his eyes said what his words did not.
“I’m not drunk. Haven’t had more than a few swallows.”
“What do you mean, something’s going to go wrong?” Paul asked again.
Arlen held on to the truth, felt the words heavy in his throat but couldn’t let them go. It was one thing to see such horrors; it was worse to try and speak of them. Not just because it was a difficult thing to describe but because no one ever believed. And the moment you gave voice to such a thing was the moment you charted a course for your character that you could never alter. Arlen understood this well, had known it since boyhood.
But Paul Brickhill had sat before him with smoke the color of an early-morning storm cloud hanging in his eyes, and Arlen was certain what that meant. He couldn’t let him board that train again.
“People are going to die,” he said.
Paul Brickhill leaned his head back and stared.
“We get back on that train, people are going to die,” Arlen said. “I’m sure of it.”
He’d spent many a day trying to imagine this gift away. To fling it from him the way you might a poisonous spider caught crawling up your arm, and long after the chill lingered on your flesh you’d thank the sweet hand of Providence that you’d been given the opportunity to knock the beast away. Only he’d never been given the opportunity. No, the stark sight of death had stalked him, trailed him relentlessly. He knew it when he saw it, and he knew it was no trick of the light, no twist of bad liquor upon the mind. It was prophecy, the gift of foresight granted to a man who’d never wished for it.
He was reluctant to say so much as a word to any of the other men, knowing the response he’d receive, but this was not the sort of thing that could be ignored.
Speak loud and sharp, he thought, just like you did on the edge of a battle, when you had to get ’em to listen, and listen fast.
“Boys,” he said, getting at least a little of the old muster into his tone, “listen up, now.”
The conversations broke off. Two men were standing on the step of the train car, and when they turned, skull faces studied him.
“I think we best wait for the next train through,” he said. “There’s bad trouble aboard this one. I’m sure of it.”
It was Wallace O’Connell who broke the long silence that followed.
“What in the hell you talking about, Wagner?” he said, and immediately there was a chorus of muttered agreement.
“Something’s wrong with this train,” Arlen said. He stood tall, did his damnedest to hold their eyes.
“You know this for a fact?” O’Connell said.
“I know it.”
“How do you know? And what’s wrong with it?”
“I can’t say what’s wrong with it. But something is. I got a… sense for these things.”
A slow grin crept across O’Connell’s face. “I’ve known some leg-pullers,” he said, “but didn’t figure you for one of them. Don’t got the look.”
“Damn it, man, this ain’t no joke.”
“You got a sense something’s wrong with our train, and you’re telling us it ain’t no joke?”
“Knew a widow back home who was the same way,” spoke up another man from the rear of the circle. He was a slim, wiry old guy with a nose crooked from many a break. Arlen didn’t know his name—hell, he didn’t know most of their names, and that was part of the problem. Aside from Paul there wasn’t a man in the group who’d known Arlen for any longer than this train ride.
“Yeah?” O’Connell said. “Trains talked to her, too?”
“Naw. She had the sense, just like he’s talking about. ’Cept she got her sights from owls and moon reflections and shit like you couldn’t even imagine.”
This new man was grinning wide, and O’Connell was matching it. He said, “She was right all the time, of course?”
“Of course,” the man said, and let out a cackle. “Why, wasn’t but nine year ago she predicted the end of days was upon us. Knew it for a fact. Was going to befall us by that winter. I can’t imagine she was wrong, I just figured I missed being raptured up and that’s how I ended up here with all you sinful sons of bitches.”
The crowd was laughing now, and Arlen felt heat creeping into his face, thoughts of his father and the shame that had chased him from his boyhood home threatening his mind now. Behind him Paul Brickhill was standing still and silent, about the only one in the group who wasn’t at least chuckling. There was a man near Wallace O’Connell whose smile seemed forced, uneasy, but even he was going along with the rest of them.
“I might ask for a tug on whatever’s in that jug of your’n,” O’Connell said. “It seems to be a powerful syrup.”
“It’s not the liquor you’re hearing,” Arlen said. “It’s the truth. Boys, I’m telling you, I seen things in the war just like I am tonight, and every time I did, men died.”
“Men died every damn day in the war,” O’Connell said. The humor had drained from his voice. “And we all seen it—not just you. Some of us didn’t crack straight through from what we seen. Others”—he made a pointed nod at Arlen—“had a mite less fortitude. Now save your stories for somebody fool enough to listen to them. Rest of us don’t need the aggravation. There’s work at the end of this line, and we all need it.”
The men broke up then, drifted back to their own conversations, casting Arlen sidelong stares. Arlen felt a hand on his arm and nearly whirled and threw his fist without looking, shame and fear riding him hard now. It was only Paul, though, tugging him away from the group.
“Arlen, you best ease up.”
“Be damned if I will. I’m telling you—”
“I understand what you’re telling us, but it just doesn’t make sense. Could be you got a touch of fever, or—”
Arlen reached out and grabbed him by his shirt collar. Paul’s eyes went wide, but he didn’t reach for Arlen’s hand, didn’t move at all as Arlen spoke to him in a low, harsh voice.
“You had smoke in your eyes, boy. I don’t give a damn if you couldn’t see it or if none of them could, it was there, and it’s the sign of your death. You known me for a time now, and you ask yourself, how often has Arlen Wagner spoken foolish words to me? How often has he seemed addled? You ask yourself that, and then you ask yourself if you want to die tonight.”
He released the boy’s collar and stepped back. Paul lifted a hand and wiped it over his mouth, staring at Arlen.
“You trust me, Brickhill?” Arlen said.
“You know I do.”
“Then listen to me now. If you don’t ever listen to another man again for the rest of your life, listen to me now. Don’t get back on that train.”
The boy swallowed and looked off into the darkness. “Arlen, I wouldn’t disrespect you, but what you’re saying… there’s no way you could know that.”
“I can see it,” Arlen said. “Don’t know how to explain it, but I can see it.”
Paul didn’t answer. He looked away from Arlen, back at the others, who were watching the boy with pity and Arlen with disdain.
“Here’s one last question for you to ask of yourself,” Arlen said. “Can you afford to be wrong?”
Paul stared at him in silence as the train whistle blew and the men stomped out cigarettes and fell into a boarding line. Arlen watched their flesh melt from their bones as they went up the steps.
“Don’t let that fool bastard convince you to stay here, boy,” Wallace O’Connell bellowed as he stepped up onto the train car, half of his face a skull, half the face of a strong man who believed he was fit to take on all comers. “Ain’t nothing here but alligators, and unless you want to be eating them come dinner tomorrow, or them eating you, you best get aboard.”
Paul didn’t look in his direction. Just kept staring at Arlen. The locomotive was chugging now, steam building, ready to tug its load south, down to the Keys, down to the place the boy wanted to be.
“You’re serious,” he said.
“And it’s happened before?” Paul said. “This isn’t the first time?”
“No,” Arlen said. “It is not the first time.”