PAYNE DREAMED of smoke, fire, and, strangely enough, rain. When the alarm clock woke him, he still had the smell of burning wood and damp forest foliage in his nostrils. The combination was so pleasing that he rolled over and hit the snooze button, burying his face in his pillow to keep the sensation of the dream with him for a moment more. He’d have to wake up in a minute and drag himself into the shower to prepare for the day.
Joe’s Pizza & Beer wasn’t much of a job, but it was the only one he could tolerate for more than a week or two. Joe was a guy with a big beer gut and a surly personality, but he didn’t bug Payne about sleeping late or calling in if he just didn’t feel like hiking his ass down to the bar to wait on spoiled tourists or drunkards. The fact that Joe never said anything to Payne was what kept him at the little hole in the wall.
His alarm bleeped at him again, and he growled at the interruption. He pried open his eyes and cast his blurry gaze at the glaring red numbers. Ten thirty. The bar opened at eleven. He sighed and rolled to the side of his mattress, rubbing his hands over his face as he managed to force himself into a sitting position. He’d gotten twelve hours of sleep last night and shouldn’t have been as bone-tired as he was right now.
Payne pushed himself off the bed and stumbled to the bathroom. The worn little washroom was clean despite the slightly rusted faucet and cracked tiles. It didn’t matter how much he scrubbed, the place wouldn’t shine. Of course that was what he got for living in the Two Acres Apartments over on the north side of New Haven. The small city was home to mostly middle- and working-class people, but he managed to find the bad neighborhood the second he hit the border. He preferred Two Acres to wealthier neighborhoods, though. Even if he could afford them, he wouldn’t live there. Nobody asked questions in north New Haven, and Payne preferred it that way.
Twisting the knob on the shower, he waited through the five-second delay it took for the water to start flowing and then another twenty before the hot water made the temperature bearable. His neon green parakeet, Mist, flitted into the room and perched on the faded blue towel hanging on the rack.
“Hi,” he greeted, his voice gruff from sleep. “Why are you out of your cage?”
Like the bird was going to answer him. The little Houdini managed to do a nightly jailbreak while Payne slept.
“One day I’m going to padlock your butt in there, and then what will you do?”
Mist chirped at him, and it sounded a lot like “I dare you” in Payne’s estimation.
“Brat,” he rumbled. He put his finger out so Mist could climb up on it. Mist ducked his head and nibbled on Payne’s index finger as if testing the sturdiness of Payne’s offering. “Come on, dude. I don’t have time for this.” Mist fluffed up indignantly before hopping on his finger. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
Payne carried him back out to his cage by his dresser and deposited the little mongrel onto the top perch before shutting the door again. Enough was really enough at this point. By the time he got out of the shower, the damn bird would probably be out again, but there was nothing he could do about it.
He hurried back to his shower and ducked behind the curtain. He was going to be late to work again.
“TAKE YOUR fifteen, kid,” Joe barked from the other side of the back bar where he was fishing a take-out order from the oven. There were no other customers in the restaurant, but it was still early. It was only three. The kids from the local high school would be dropping by in the next few hours to grab a pie before hitting the movie theater on the same block. Friday nights were popular at the pizza place. He was surprised the drunks weren’t out en masse yet, but he figured they’d pick up too.
“I’ll be out back taking a smoke,” Payne said, pulling off his apron and throwing it behind the counter. He pulled his pack of Camels from his pocket as he circled the worn wooden tables and mismatched chairs before pushing open the back exit door. The rain was still falling in a hard drizzle, casting the concrete world into shades of gray. It suited Payne’s mood today.
He lit his cigarette and took a deep soothing drag.
“That is a disgusting habit,” a familiar voice rumbled from behind him.
He whipped around, a mixture of disbelief and annoyance flickering through him. “What the hell are you doing here?” The last thing he wanted to see was his largely absentee father.
Green eyes so like his own narrowed at him. “You watch your mouth, boy.”
“I’m eighteen. Fuck off,” Payne snapped. Rage and resentment warred for supremacy in his chest. Errol had no right to talk to him like that. The man hadn’t been in his life for the last seventeen years, and Payne sure as hell hadn’t wanted him in his life for the past year, though the jackass kept showing up randomly.
“We need to talk,” Errol said, crossing his arms over his massive chest. “We’ve needed to talk for a while now.”
Payne sighed. “You’ve got five minutes and then I have to go back to work.” He raised his cigarette to his lips and took another drag.
“Your grandfather is dying.”
“And I care why?” He knew it sounded harsh, but he didn’t know Errol’s parents from Adam.
“You’re his only grandchild, and he’s leaving you his property in West Virginia. However, he wants to meet you first.”
Suspicion flickered. “Yeah? Why ain’t he leaving it to you?”
“Because I have my own land, my own life.” It was the first time Payne was hearing about it. “He wants to give you something of your own, too.”
“What the hell for?” Nobody did something for nothing, because no one really gave a shit about other people. It was the first lesson he’d learned when his mother had left him at a playground when he was eight years old. Errol had only shown up when Hope Memorial Children’s Home had released him into his custody at seventeen. The guy claimed he hadn’t known Payne existed, but the picture in Payne’s wallet said otherwise. It was of his mom, Errol, and Payne when Payne was a baby. Payne had left the condo Errol had moved them into a week after he turned eighteen. The guy did have a knack for finding him no matter where Payne wandered, though. He kept popping up like a wart or something equally unpleasant.
“Payne,” Errol said. Payne sensed a lecture brewing. “I don’t know what my father’s reasoning is, but I know he wants to give you something a lot of other people have wanted over the years. How about you just be grateful and come with me?”
“How long is it going to take?” He was getting restless again anyway. It might be nice to get out of the city for a while. “I can’t afford to take off more than a few days.”
“I’ll cover whatever wages you miss out on,” Errol sniffed, looking like he thought Payne’s job was the equivalent of being a hobo or something. “Besides, I already talked to Joe and he approved the time off.”
Payne narrowed his eyes. “You talked to my boss?”
Errol shrugged, the nonchalant movement putting Payne’s teeth on edge. “Joe is an old acquaintance. He was the one who told me you worked here. You weren’t hard to track down after that.”
“That fucking asshat!” Payne growled. Had he thought he liked Joe before? He must’ve been out of his mind. The guy was a snake.
“Language,” Errol snapped. He took a deep breath and let it out between clenched teeth. “So, I’ve removed all your excuses. Are you coming?”
“When are we leaving?”
“Tonight after you finish your shift.” Errol extended his hand toward Payne, palm up. “I need your key. I’ll pack you a suitcase and load Mist.” He had bought Mist for Payne when Payne had said he wanted a pet. The bird was the only thing he really liked that anyone had ever given him.
After a moment’s hesitation, he extricated his keys from his pocket and handed them over. “This better be worth it.”
“It will be. I promise.” With that, Errol turned and walked back down the sidewalk that led to the front of the building.
“Asshat,” Payne growled under his breath. He flicked the butt of his cigarette into a puddle and listened to the hiss as it extinguished a second before it sank into the brown soup.
PAYNE’S SKIN was crawling by the time his shift was finished at ten p.m. His restlessness had grown with each passing second that he had to run around the pizzeria, waiting on customers. When he wasn’t tired, he had an almost manic energy that gave him insomnia and a need to wander that had driven him from his bed and into the nearby park for midnight jogs more than once. It made him more than a little irritable.
“Take off, kid,” Joe commanded as Payne bit a customer’s head off for asking for a refill. “You’re as agitated as a sailor on shore leave. Have fun with your daddy.”
“He ain’t my daddy,” Payne corrected automatically. He was developing a fine sweat as the urge to run started to build. If he were being fanciful, he would’ve said he distantly heard drumbeats. He shook his head to dispel the notion. Maybe I’m just going crazy. “I’ll see you later, Joe.” It was only then that he realized he wasn’t sure exactly how long he had off. “Hey, Joe?” he asked, half turning back toward his boss.
Joe raised his head from the pitcher of beer he was filling. “What?”
“How long is my vacation?”
“S’long as you need it,” Joe drawled, turning off the tap. “You just come back when you’re done.” For some reason, that did not comfort him very much.
Payne left by the employees’ entrance and found the rain coming down even harder than it had been earlier. He only lived four blocks from Joe’s, so he walked rather than rode the bus. Unfortunately, he’d forgotten his umbrella, but he forged ahead in the dark, cold rain. He didn’t mind the dark, though. For some reason it seemed to cocoon him rather than frighten him.
The rain actually felt good against his heated flesh, and he raised his face to the sky. The familiar buildings were a blur, and the sound of cars and city noise faded away as the drums he’d shaken off started thrumming in the back of his mind. They sounded distant, like they were coming from the park. He drummed his fingertips against his thigh with the beat, almost dancing his way around the cracks in the sidewalk.
If he was going crazy, at least it wasn’t the scary seeing demons or hearing voices kind of crazy. It was drumbeats and sleepless nights and animal urges. Yeah, that’s so much better. He almost laughed at his wayward thought. He wasn’t stressed or anything else. Maybe this was just what growing up was like. He wasn’t a kid anymore at eighteen, but he didn’t quite feel like a man yet either. The awkward state between was throwing him off.
Headlights flashed as he crossed the street toward the grungy brick building he lived in. Keeping his head down, he kept moving away from the unfamiliar car. Though he didn’t recognize the dark colored sedan in the blackness, when the horn was tapped twice, he figured it was Errol. He jogged over to the car as the window rolled down.
He ducked as Errol came into view. “Nice wheels. What happened to the Durango?”
“What happened to your umbrella?” Errol asked, ignoring his question entirely. “You’re going to catch your death. Get your butt in the car.”
Payne rolled his eyes but did as he was told. He circled the car before opening the door and sliding in. Errol’s ride smelled new.
“Are you cold?” Errol asked as Payne settled into the seat.
He should have been. “No.”
“Okay. Well, if you need to turn on the seat heaters just press that button.” He motioned to the red button on the dash and put the car in drive.
Payne grunted but otherwise offered no comment. The rain started coming down harder, and he let his eyes slide shut, listening to drumbeats until he fell asleep.
A long, long drive later, Mist’s chirps drew Payne out of his dreamless sleep. He stretched, stiff.
“Good morning, sleepyhead.”
“Still looks like night to me.” Payne rubbed his eyes. “How long I been out?” It was disorienting to look out the window to see towering green trees and thick foliage. The lights of the city were long gone. He couldn’t ever remember seeing so much nature. “Why are we in the woods?”
“You’ve been out about eight hours, and we’re heading to Blackwater Falls,” Errol said, turning onto a dirt road beside a tall wood-and-vine fence that looked like something out of Jurassic Park. They passed through an open gate that was level with the huge fence and looked heavy as hell, the width of each doorway looking as wide as Payne was tall. “We’re about ten minutes from my parents’ place.” They drove another half a mile before they came to another gate that blocked their path. This one was just a simple bar that lay across the road to block their way attached to some sort of metal box with a white keypad visible from where Payne sat.
Errol put the car in park before climbing out into the early morning air. Mist chirped in the backseat as if in question. Payne shrugged. “You got me, man. If he has a shovel in with my suitcase we’re going to brain him and steal his car.” He didn’t think his sperm donor was out to kill him, but the unfamiliar surroundings were making him uneasy.
Errol keyed in something on a keypad, and the gate slowly swung inward. Payne reached back and rubbed Mist’s head through his travel cage’s door. It was a wonder he hadn’t escaped on the drive. Mist made that happy little sound he usually did when Payne hit the sweet spot behind his head.
His father returned to the car and drove through the gate, a weird look of relief on his face. Payne eyed him suspiciously. “What?”
“Nothing,” Errol said just a bit too quickly. “I’m just glad you’re here.”
“Yeah… that’s not Jeffrey Dahmer weird at all.”
Errol’s gaze flicked over to him as they continued down the road, the way getting decidedly bumpier. “Are you nervous?”
Payne shrugged. “I don’t know. This is just weird.” But now that he mentioned it, he felt weird too. There was an odd tension in the air that made him want to twist in his seat. It was like the restlessness he usually felt but magnified. He’s probably right. I’m just nervous.
“Don’t worry. Your grandfather is going to love you.”
Yeah… Payne doubted that. “What’s his name?”
“Granddad Fowler to you,” Errol said pointedly. Payne resisted the urge to roll his eyes, but barely.
They came around a bend in the road, and the house finally came into view. It looked like something out of one of those shows that featured vacation homes. The light stucco exterior led up to an elaborate terra-cotta roof. The bubbling fountain in the driveway added to the awesomeness in Payne’s estimation. Large country cottages Payne occasionally caught sight of on the HGTV network paled in comparison to the sheer visual splendor of casa Fowler in the early morning light. He liked the place instantly.
“Whoa,” he murmured, pressing his forehead against the glass. “He seriously lives here?”
“Sure does,” Errol said, pride lacing the sure words. “Blackwater Falls has been in our family for almost a hundred and fifty years. The land that surrounds it has, of course, been here much longer, but the house has stood that long.”
“So why don’t you want it?”
“I have other responsibilities elsewhere. I can’t be in two places at once.” He pulled behind a beat-up old pickup truck before putting the sedan in park and cutting the engine. “Let’s go. They’ll be waiting.”
Payne climbed out of the vehicle, but not before reaching in the back and grabbing Mist’s travel cage. He wasn’t leaving him in the car in case the little escape artist got any crazy ideas. They ascended the steps together, and Payne couldn’t deny the nervousness that churned in his stomach. He wasn’t entirely sure why, but this felt like some kind of job interview.
Errol knocked twice on the door before taking a step away from it. The sounds of movement in the interior made Payne’s nervousness spike. He held his breath as the door opened to reveal the home’s occupants. He craned his neck, looking up at their greeter. It was a woman by the clothing, but she was taller than Payne’s own six-foot frame by a good two feet at least. His eyes bulged. Holy shit.
She ducked her head and looked at the pair of them, her expression warm despite her severe white bun and heavily wrinkled face. “Good mornin’, Errol,” she said, a heavy Irish lilt in her voice. “Stan is expecting you. I made coffee and danishes for the lot of you.”
Errol nodded. “It’s appreciated, Kisme. Can you send Michael out to get my boy’s bags from the trunk?”
She nodded, and Payne was afraid that she was going to knock her head on the doorframe. “I’ll send him right away.” She stepped back from the door, and Errol led the way inside.
Payne was immediately swamped by the warmth. It wasn’t a physical warmth. There was a comfortable atmosphere like a warm hug somehow infiltrating the entire living space. The tension in Payne’s shoulders seeped away, replaced by a sleepy lethargy. He followed Errol down a hallway that emptied out into a living room.
An older version of Errol stood up out of a leather recliner. He was around Payne’s height with the same sparkling green eyes the men of the family seemed to favor. “Ah, Errol. Glad you brought the boy.”
“The boy has a name,” Payne rumbled, knowing he sounded like a sullen child. He tried for his normal peevishness, but it was forced in a place like this. He passed Mist’s cage from one hand to the other before he extended his free hand for a shake. “Payne Mackenzie.” He’d always had his mother’s last name.
The white-haired owner of Blackwater Falls stuck out his hand for a shake. “Stan Fowler, as you well know. But I can just be Granddad to you.”
“Uh, okay.” He didn’t know what else to say. The option of the familiar title threw him off. It wasn’t easy to rebel when he was given a choice.
Stan considered him for a long moment before releasing his hand. “Your father hasn’t told you squat about this place or me, has he?” Payne shook his head, and the older man nodded like he expected as much. “I didn’t figure. You didn’t look enlightened. Ah well. You hungry?”
Payne shrugged. He wasn’t used to eating breakfast, but as he caught a whiff of those danishes what’s-her-name had mentioned, his stomach rumbled in protest to his nonchalance. “I could eat.”
“How about we get you a danish and some milk before I show you to your room?” Again, Payne nodded. “Good deal. The pool has been all cleaned out and ready for your arrival, so if you fancy an afternoon swim you’re welcome to it.” Given that it was March, it was a bit early in the season for swimming pools, but Payne appreciated the effort. “There are three designated walking trails I will show you, but you are only to take the ones I show you. I only have a few rules while you’re here, but disobedience of those rules will result in severe consequences. Do you understand?”
Payne didn’t like the sound of that, but he nodded anyway. This was beginning to feel a lot like the group home he’d stayed in. “I get it.”
Stan ticked off his rules on his fingers. “First: no exploring the woods. You’ll notice Blackwater Falls has a large fence around the perimeter. It isn’t so much to keep people out as it is to keep the animals in. It has been a wildlife refuge for many, many years. Most of the time the animals stick to their own territories, but they can be dangerous if you slip into the wrong territory without knowing it. Myself and our other groundskeeper use chemicals to repel them from certain areas. Keep to the yard or the walking trails and you’ll be fine.” He raised another finger. “Second: do not go in the basement. There are too many old antiques down there that I don’t want lost or damaged. If you obey those two rules, our time together will go right as rain.”
Weird, weird rules but nothing Payne could really object to. He had no desire to break something he couldn’t afford to replace or get eaten by some wild animal before he got a chance to enjoy his vacation. He was choosing to view it as strictly a vacation until he figured out what strings were attached to this whole I-wanna-give-you-my-house thing. Payne looked at Stan. “You know, for a guy who is dying, you look pretty healthy.”
Stan chuckled, the sound slightly bitter. “It’s not the outside that betrays the poison within. It’s what’s beneath the surface, son. Remember that.” He bent over the coffee table and put a cream-filled danish on a plate before passing it to Payne.
Payne thought of the drumbeats in his head that were curiously absent at present. He’s not kidding about that. It’s what is beneath the surface that really shows who we are. He tried not to think about what that said about himself.