Jones Cooper feared death. The dread of it woke him in the night, sat him bolt upright and drew all the breath from his lungs, narrowed his esophagus, had him rasping in the dark. It turned all the normal shadows of the bedroom that he shared with wife into a legion of ghouls and intruders waiting with silent and malicious intent. When? How? Heart attack. Cancer. Freak accident. Would it come for him quickly? Would it slowly waste and dehumanize him? What, if anything, would await him?
He was not a man of faith. Nor was he a man without stain on his conscience. He did not believe in a benevolent universe of light and love. He could not lean upon those crutches as so many did; everyone, it seemed, had some way to protect himself against the specter of his certain end. Everyone except him.
His wife, Maggie, had grown tired of the 2:00 a.m. terrors. At first she was beside him, comforting him: Just breathe, Jones. Relax. It’s okay. But even she, ever-patient shrink that she was, had started sleeping in the guest room or on the couch, even sometimes in their son’s room, empty since Ricky had left for Georgetown in September.
His wife believed it had something to do with Ricky’s leaving. “A child heading off for college is a milestone. It’s natural to reflect on the passing of your life,” she’d said. Maggie seemed to think that the acknowledgment of one’s mortality was a rite of passage, something everyone went through. “But there’s a point, Jones, where reflection becomes self-indulgent, even self-destructive. Surely you see that spending your life fearing death is a death in and of itself.”
But it seemed to him that people didn’t reflect on death at all. Everyone appeared to be walking around oblivious to the looming end—spending hours on Facebook, talking on cell phones while driving through Starbucks, reclining on the couch for hours watching some mindless crap on television. People were not paying attention—not to life, not to death, not to one another.
“Lighten up, honey. Really.” Those were the last words she’d said to him this morning before she headed off to see her first patient. He was trying to lighten up. He really was.
Jones was raking leaves; the great oaks in his yard had started their yearly shed. There were just a few leaves now. He’d made a small pile down by the curb. For all the years they’d been in this house, he’d hired someone to do this work. But since his retirement, almost a year ago now, he’d decided to manage the tasks of homeownership himself—mowing the lawn, maintaining the landscaping, skimming the pool, washing the windows, now raking the leaves, eventually shoveling the snow from the driveway. It was amazing, really, how these tasks could fill his days. How from morning to night, he could just putter, as Maggie called it—changing lightbulbs, trimming trees, cleaning the cars.
But is it enough? You have a powerful intellect. Can you be satisfied this way? His wife overestimated him. His intellect wasn’t that powerful. The neighbors had started to rely on him, enjoyed having a retired cop around while they were at work, on vacation. He was letting repair guys in, getting mail, and turning on lights when people were away, checking perimeters, keeping his guns clean and loaded. The situation annoyed Maggie initially—the neighbors calling and dropping by, asking for this and that—especially since he wouldn’t accept payment, even from people he didn’t really know. Then people started dropping off gifts—a bottle of scotch, a gift certificate to Grillmarks, a fancy steakhouse in town.
“You could turn this into a real business,” Maggie said. She was suddenly enthusiastic one night over dinner, paid for by the Pedersens. Jones had fed their mean-spirited cat, Cheeto, for a week.
He scoffed. “Oh, yeah. Local guy hanging around with nothing to do but let the plumber in? Is that what I’d call it?”
She gave him that funny smile he’d always loved. It was more like the turning up of one corner of her mouth, something she did when she found him amusing but didn’t want him to know it.
“It’s a viable service that people would pay for and be happy to have,” she said. “Think about it.”
But he enjoyed it, didn’t really want to be paid. It was nice to be needed, to look after the neighborhood: to make sure things were okay. You didn’t stop being a cop when you stopped being a cop. And he wasn’t exactly retired, was he? He wouldn’t have left his post if he hadn’t felt that it was necessary, the right thing to do under the circumstances. But that was another matter.
The late-morning temperature was a perfect sixty-eight degrees. The light was golden, the air carrying the scent of the leaves he was raking, the aroma of burning wood from somewhere. In the driveway Ricky’s restored 1966 GTO preened, waiting for him to come home from school next weekend. Jones had it tuned up and detailed, so it would be cherry when the kid got back.
He missed his son. Their relationship through the boy’s late adolescence had been characterized, regrettably, by conflict more than anything else. Still, he couldn’t wait for Ricky to be back under his roof again, even if it was just for four days. If anyone told him how much he’d really, truly miss his kid, how he’d feel a squeeze on his heart every time he walked by that empty room, Jones wouldn’t have believed it. He would have thought it was just another one of those platitudes people mouthed about parenthood.
He leaned his rake against the trunk of the oak and removed his gloves. A pair of mourning doves cooed sadly at him. They sat on the railing of his porch, rustling their tawny feathers.
“I’m sorry,” he said, not for the first time. Earlier, he’d removed the beginning of their nest, a loose pile of sticks and paper that they managed somehow to place in the light cover of his garage door’s opening mechanism. Mourning doves made flimsy nests, were lazy enough to even settle in the abandoned nests of other birds. So the garage must have seemed like a perfect residence for them, offering protection from predators. But he didn’t want birds in the garage. They were harbingers of death. Everyone knew that. They’d been hanging around the yard, giving him attitude all morning.
“You can build your nest anywhere else,” he said, sweeping his arm over the property. “Just not there.”
They seemed to listen, both of them craning their necks as he spoke. Then they flapped off with an angry, singsong twitter.
He drew his arm across his forehead. In spite of the mild temperatures, he was sweating from the raking. It reminded him that he still needed to lose those twenty-five pounds his doctor had been nagging him about for years. His doctor, an annoyingly svelte, good-looking man right around Jones’s age, never failed to mention the extra weight, no matter the reason for his visit—flu, sprained wrist, whatever. You’re gonna die one of these days, too, Doc, Jones wanted to say. You’ll probably bite it during your workout. Whaddaya clocking these days—five miles every morning, more on the weekends? That’ll put you in an early grave. Instead Jones just kept reminding him that the extra weight around his middle had saved his life last year.
“I’m not sure that’s a compelling argument,” said Dr. Gauze. “What are the odds of your taking another bullet to the gut, especially now that you’re out to pasture?”
Out to pasture? He was only forty-seven. He was thinking about this idea of being out to pasture as a beige Toyota Camry pulled up in front of house and came to a stop. He watched for a second, couldn’t see the person in the driver’s seat. When the door opened and a slight woman stepped out, he recognized her without being able to place her. She was too thin, had the look of someone robbed of her appetite by anxiety. She moved with convalescent slowness up his drive, clutching a leather purse to her side. She didn’t seem to notice him standing there in the middle of his yard. In fact, she walked right past him.
“Can I help you?” he said finally. She turned to look at him, startled.
“Jones Cooper?” she said. She ran a nervous hand through her hair, a mottle of steel gray and black, cut in an unflatteringly blunt bob.
“Do you know me?” she asked.
He moved closer to her, came to stand in front of her on the paved drive that needed painting. She was familiar, yes. But no, he didn’t know her name.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Have we met?”
“I’m Eloise Montgomery.”
It took a moment. Then he felt the heat rise to his cheeks, a tension creep into his shoulders. Christ, he thought.
“What can I do for you, Ms. Montgomery?”
She looked nervously around, and Jones followed her eyes, to the falling leaves, the clear blue sky.
“Is there someplace we can talk?” Her drifting gaze landed on the house.
“Can’t we talk here?” He crossed his arms around his middle and squared his stance. Maggie would be appalled by his rudeness. But he didn’t care. There was no way he was inviting this woman into his home.
“This is private,” she said. “And I’m cold.”
She started walking toward the house, stopped at the bottom of the three steps that led up to the painted gray porch, and turned around to look at him. He didn’t like the look of her so near the house, any more than he did those doves. She was small-boned and skittish, but with a curious mettle. As she climbed the steps without invitation and stood at the door, he thought about how, with enough time and patience, a blade of grass could push its way through concrete. He expected her to pull open the screen and walk inside, but she waited. And he followed reluctantly, dropping his gardening gloves beside the rake.
The next thing he knew, she was sitting at the dining-room table and he was brewing coffee. He could see her from where he stood at the counter. She sat primly with her hands folded. She hadn’t taken off her pilled houndstooth coat, was still clutching her bag. Those eyes never stopped moving.
“You don’t want me here,” she said. She cast a quick glance in his direction, then looked at her hands. “You wish I would go.”
He put down the mugs he was taking from the cabinet, banging them without meaning to.
“Wow,” he said. “I’m impressed. You really are psychic.”
He didn’t bother to look at her again, let his eyes rest on the calendar tucked behind the phone. He had an appointment with his shrink in a few hours, something he dreaded. When he finally gazed back over at her, she was regarding him with a wan smile.
“A skeptic,” she said. “Your wife and mother-in-law offer more respect.”
“Respect is earned.” He poured the coffee. “How do you take it?” he asked. He thought she’d say black.
“Light and sweet, please,” she said. Then, “And what should I do to earn your respect?”
He walked over with the coffee cups and sat across from her.
“What can I do for you, Ms. Montgomery?”
It was nearly noon. Maggie’s last morning session would end in fifteen minutes, and then she’d come out for lunch. He didn’t want Eloise sitting here when she did. The woman could only bring back bad memories for Maggie, everything they’d suffered through in the last year and long before. He didn’t need it, and neither did his wife.
“Do you know about my work?” Eloise asked.
Work. Really? Is that what they were calling it? He would have thought she’d say something like gift, or sight. Or maybe abilities. Of course, she probably did consider it work, since that was how she earned her living.
“I do,” he said. He tried to keep his tone flat, not inquiring or encouraging. But she seemed to feel the need to explain anyway.
“I’m like a radio. I pick up signals—from all over, scattered, disjointed. I have no control over what I see, when I see it, the degree of lucidity, the power of it. I could see something happening a world away, but not something right next door.”
He struggled not to roll his eyes. Did she really expect him to believe this?
“Okay,” he said. He took a sip of his coffee. He didn’t like the edgy, anxious feeling he had. He felt physically uncomfortable in the chair, had a nervous desire to get up and pace the room. “What does this have to do with me?”
“You’re getting a reputation around town, you know. That you’re available to help with things—checking houses while people are away, getting mail.”
He shrugged. “Just in the neighborhood here.” He leaned back in his chair, showed his palms. “What? Are you going on vacation? Want me to feed your cat?”
She released a sigh and looked down at the table between them.
“People are going to start coming to you for more, from farther away,” she said. “It might lead you places you don’t expect.”
Jones didn’t like how that sounded. But he wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of reacting.
“Okay,” he said, drawing out the word.
“I wanted you to be prepared. I’ve seen something.”
When she looked back up at him, her eyes were shining in a way that unsettled him. Her gaze made him think for some reason of his mother when he found her on the bathroom floor after she’d suffered a stroke. He slid his chair back from the table and stood.
“Why are you telling me this?” He leaned against the doorway that led to the kitchen.
“Because you need to know,” she said. She still sat stiff and uncomfortable, hadn’t touched the coffee before her.
Okay, great. Thanks for stopping by. Don’t call me, I’ll call you. Let me show you out. Instead, because curiosity always did get the better of him, he asked, “So what did you see?”
She ran a hand through her hair. “It’s hard to explain. Like describing a dream. The essence can be lost in translation.”
If this was some kind of show, it was a good one. She seemed sincere, not put on or self-dramatizing. If she were a witness, he would believe her story. But she wasn’t a witness, she was a crackpot.
“Try,” he said. “That’s why you came, right?”
Another long slow breath in and out. Then, “I saw you on the bank of a river . . . or it could have been an ocean. Some churning body of water. I saw you running, chasing a lifeless form in the water. I don’t know what or who it was. I can only assume it’s a woman or a girl, because that’s all I see. Then you jumped in—or possibly you fell. I think you were trying to save whoever it was. But you were overcome. You weren’t strong enough. The water pulled you under.”
Her tone was level, unemotional. She could have been talking mildly about the weather. And the image, for some reason, failed to jolt or disturb him. In that moment she seemed frail and silly, a carnival act that neither entertained nor intrigued.
The ticking of the large grandfather clock in the foyer seemed especially loud. He had to get rid of that thing, a housewarming present from his mother-in-law. Did he really need to hear the passing of the minutes of his life?
“You know, Ms. Montgomery,” he said, “I don’t think you’re well.”
“I’m not, Mr. Cooper. I’m not well at all.” She got up from the table, to his great relief, and started moving toward the door.
“Well, should I find myself on the banks of a river, chasing a body, I’ll be sure to stay on solid ground,” he said, allowing her to pass and following her to the door. “Thanks for the warning.”
“Would you? Would you stay on solid ground? I doubt it.” She rested her hand on the knob of the front door but neither pulled it open nor turned around.
“I guess it depended on the circumstances,” he said. “Whether I thought I could help or not. Whether I thought I could manage the risk. And, finally, who was in the water.”
Why was he even bothering to have this conversation? The woman was obviously mentally ill; she belonged in a hospital, not walking around free. She could hurt herself or someone else. She still didn’t turn to look at him, just bowed her head.
“I don’t think you can manage the risk,” she said. “There are forces more powerful than your will. I think that’s what you need to know.”
For someone as obsessed with death as Jones knew himself to be, he should have been clutching his heart with terror. But, honestly, he just found the whole situation preposterous. It was almost a relief to talk to someone who had less of a grip on life than he did.
“Okay,” he said. “Good to know.”
He gently nudged her aside with a hand on her shoulder and opened the door.
“So when do you imagine this might go down? There’s only one body of water in The Hollows.” The Black River was a usually gentle, gurgling river at the base of a glacial ravine. It could, in heavy rains, become quite powerful, but it hadn’t overflowed its banks in years. And the season had been dry.
She gave him a patient smile. “I don’t imagine, Mr. Cooper. I see, and I tell the people I need to tell to make things right. And if not right precisely, then as they should be. That’s all I do. I used to torture myself, trying to figure out where and when and if things might happen. I used to think I could save and help and fix, drive myself to distraction when I couldn’t. Now I just speak the truth of my visions. I am unattached to outcomes, to whether people treat me with respect or hostility, to whether they listen or don’t.”
“So they’re literal, these visions,” he asked. He didn’t bother to keep the skepticism out of his voice. “You see something and it happens exactly that way. It’s immutable.”
“They’re not always literal, no,” she said.
“But sometimes they are?”
“Sometimes.” She gave a careful nod. “And nothing in life is immutable, Mr. Cooper.”
“Well . . .” she said. But she didn’t go on. Was there an attitude about it? As if she were a teacher who wouldn’t bother with a lesson that her student could never understand.
She moved through the door and let the screen close behind her. He didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing, just watched as she stiffly descended the steps. She turned around once to look at him, appeared to have something else to say. But then she just kept walking down the drive. Her pace seemed brisker, as if she’d lightened her load. She didn’t seem as frail or unwell as she had when he’d first seen her. Then she got into her car and slowly drove away.
Excerpted from DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND © Copyright 2011 by Lisa Unger. Reprinted with permission by Crown. All rights reserved.