Authors: Athol Dickson
“Daphne Du Maurier’s
comes to mind; readers will feel the tension through the final paragraph. If Alfred Hitchcock was still alive, he’d be banging down Dickson’s door to make movies of his novels.”
, literary critic for
“Rich with local dialect and scenery. . . . Dickson’s approach is thought-provoking, and his prose beautifully evokes the taciturn spirit of the Mainers who people this novel . . . full of interesting ideas and well-developed characters.”
“A well-written, intelligent follow-up to Dickson’s Christy Award-winning
. An involving, suspenseful take on God’s transforming grace, it tackles a serious issue while providing an absorbing story.”
is a fascinating tale fueled by hope and redemption. . . . The cleverly crafted narrative is laced with elements of suspense, mystery, and drama that effortlessly guide the reader along. . . . This is redemptive storytelling at its best.”
Whom Shall I Fear?
Every Hidden Thing
Copyright © 2005 by Athol Dickson
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the prior written permission of the publisher and copyright owner. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Cover design by Cory Clubb
Interior design by Edie Glaser
Published by Author Author, Inc.
Laguna Niguel, California
Printed in the United States of America
Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version. .
For Greg Williams
What a wretched man I am!
Who will rescue me from this body of death?
~ Book of Romans
EEP RETURNED TO THE SCENE
of his disgrace in the back of a northbound pickup truck with New Brunswick plates. It was late October or maybe early November; all Riley knew for sure was that the leaves were mostly down, it was already wicked cold, and his old friend Brice was shivering so badly it took a while to get him over the tailgate. The Canadian behind the wheel spun his tires getting back onto Route 1, spraying them with gravel. Riley figured the man was mad because he and Brice had moved so slowly, or maybe because of what they were.
With Brice clutching his arm, Riley took the old shortcut through the alder grove behind the Whitfield place, one scarecrow leading another. They passed beneath a naked oak and emerged from the woods, crossing the railroad tracks and stumbling down the gravel bed to reach the turn in Ellis Street where the harbor could be seen at the bottom of the hill. Although Riley’s weak eyes would not focus on the details, he imagined Dublin, Maine, below them just as he remembered: James Neck away off to the west and McCleary Point with its lighthouse down east, the two rocky points nearly meeting in the distance like Atlas’ granite arms around the world. Riley blinked at a large slate gray smudge below and knew it for the old harbor, adorned with lobster boats and unused mooring balls, which had been abandoned by last season’s fancy yachts already gone south to Florida or put up on the hard for the coming bitter winter. Out among the workboats and empty moorings Riley thought he saw some fuzzy shapes that might be lobstermen’s floats, short wooden docks unconnected to the shore, bearing piles of traps and brightly colored buoys. For the first time in a while Riley wished he had not lost his glasses. After being so long gone it would have been nice to see his home more clearly.
Riley strained to use his imagination, or his memory; it was hard to tell the difference. He remembered Main Street running down to intersect with Water Street at the center of Dublin. Five blocks wide and three blocks deep, the red brick mercantile buildings and white clapboard storefronts lined the roads downtown. On Ellis and Thompson and a few other winding streets higher up stood many antique houses clad in pale gray shingles or white siding, with front doors painted glossy black or bright red, windows divided into handmade rippled panes, and roofs of green and black Vermont slate or mossy cedar shakes pitched steep to shed the snow. The picture-postcard houses down around the harbor and up among the spruce and pines and winter-stripped birches of the surrounding hills stood looking down on Dublin just like Riley, still looking down from where they had been fashioned for rich builders of wooden whalers, clipper ships, and schooners, for merchant mariners and privateers, back in olden times when Dublin was the center of the shipwright world.
With the burden of his old friend heavy on him, Riley Keep descended slowly toward downtown along the bricks of Ellis Street. He had to find Brice someplace warm to sleep. He had to get himself a drink.
They had arrived at quitting time. Many working folk of Dublin passed them, heading uphill toward their homes. With Brice’s arm around his shoulder Riley peered at the oncoming pedestrians closely, hoping to make eye contact, hoping he could hit some of them up for a buck or two. As usual, not one looked his way. He might have been invisible.
Riley used to take it personally, railing at the callousness of so-called decent people who judged a man so harshly for his matted hair and filthy clothing. But three years on the streets had taught him there were some who simply feared they might become like him one day, might disappear into the weakness of their flesh and turn into faded creatures without substance, ghosts, specters of the people they once were. Riley knew this fear was reasonable—his homeless life had taught him that, at least—so he did not blame the ones who looked away as he bore the skeletal burden of his old friend to the edge of downtown Dublin.
It was slow going with Brice so feeble and Riley loathe to make him hurry. But the hillside back behind them slowly donned a veil of shadows, and Riley Keep began to worry. As the Maine evening crept down with its icy claws extended like a heartless predator, Riley was reminded that the cold killed homeless people every winter night in northern cities. Alcohol and hypothermia conspired together, liars both of them, whispering there was no harm in sleeping right there where you were, and the next morning someone came and carried you away, stiff from the cold or the rigor mortis as the case may be, but stiff as a board one way or another. Those who could maintain a thought from day to day headed south in early autumn, or else stayed down in warmer states full time, but Riley Keep had done the opposite; he had braved the deadly cold to bring Brice home to Dublin.
The idea had come to him below a highway overpass in Florida. Brice was flat on his back, delirious and making threats. Riley was pleading with his friend to swallow some warm Gatorade. Brice had belched a curse or two and swung a bony fist at Riley in slow motion. He couldn’t sit up, much less stand, so there was no real danger of violence. But there was danger, nonetheless. Even in Brice’s appalling infirmity Riley knew the urge enticed his friend the cruel way a shimmering mirage might lure a thirsty pilgrim deeper into the desert. Riley knew this because the same urge beckoned to him just as cruelly.
It had been a time for drastic measures. That much was clear after listening to Brice’s diagnosis at the free clinic. With the nurse’s disillusioned eyes on Riley the way policemen stare at murderers, he had promised they would sober up together. After that, whenever Riley panhandled enough change to buy a meal for Brice and a little something for himself, he always hid the bottle, cutting off his old friend. Drinking alone, Riley hated his own weakness. He hated the disloyal lies he had to tell to sneak a drink for himself, and he hated drinking while his old friend died of drink. Something had to change. So, batting Brice’s wandering fist away below the overpass, Riley Keep had tried to make a plan. For an hour or two his mind had rambled as it usually did, roaming back into his history, losing track of reason in the pain of long-lost possibilities. Then he suddenly remembered a strange story they had often heard, rumors in so many places—shelters, alleys, jails, bars—crazy drunken stories of a place that rid a person of disease and pain and scars and habit. Some said you must sleep beneath a certain tree in this place; others said you only had to drink the water. Some maintained this magical release would only work for men; others said it worked for women too. All you had to do was find the place where miracles were happening. No one knew its name, but everybody knew someone who did, and mostly they believed it was back east.
Another flash of intuition had come below the overpass. It was a little later, with Brice asleep at last and Riley watching as the grackles swooped into the shadows higher up where the embankment rose to meet the bottom of the bridge. Riley saw one bird glide below a sweating concrete beam where
had been painted in lovely cursive script, the letters three feet tall and Day-Glo orange. There was no explanation, no hint of a reason, just
up there on the beam. Riley and Brice had been seeing the word everywhere. It had become a kind of fetish for the homeless, the way people used to draw that little cartoon fella above the words
Kilroy was here
. Painted on boxcar sides, scratched into the Formica in toilet stalls, carved into the wood of roadside picnic tables,
had been popping up wherever homeless people passed. Was it a reference to the city in Ireland, or to Riley’s hometown up in Maine? Probably there were ten other Dublins here and there around the world. It meant nothing to Riley until that moment when, for no particular reason, suddenly he wondered if the name might be connected to the rumors of a place where miracles were happening.
In the instant that idea occurred to him, Riley knew it for the truth—it must be true, or his old friend would surely die—and by this incoherent logic Riley also knew what must be done.
The trip had taken four weeks and a day. With Brice barely able to walk at first, Riley often carried him piggyback along the highway shoulder, although Riley himself was not in the best of health and could not manage such a burden long. They hitched most of their rides from truckers who were so hungry for company they would put up with the stench of men who had not bathed in months. One fella took them all the way from Pooler, Georgia, to Richmond, Virginia, popping small black pills and talking nonstop about nothing the whole way. Somehow Riley usually managed to beg food for his friend and find a warm place for him to sleep, even if he himself went hungry and remained awake and shivering—and sober, which was worse.
Now they had come home, shuffling down the hill to Dublin, two favorite sons disguised inside the wasted forms of strangers twice their age. As Riley Keep hobbled along it occurred to him that three years on the streets felt longer than most lifetimes, long enough to lose your memories. He was not sure if the storefront mission in his head was an image from this place or from some other little town along the way, or a fantasy he had invented. He only knew the cold was coming fast and if they did not find shelter soon he would break the display window glass at one of the small stores they were passing and leave Brice lying on the pavement to wait for the police to come. A night in jail would be far better than a night out in the weather.
Then they turned a corner with the vicious winter creeping at their heels, and the homeless shelter was right there.
Brice had given out, so Riley mostly carried him inside, taking all of his friend’s weight except what little Brice could manage with a pair of legs wasted down to skin and bone. The first thing Riley saw was an image of himself in a full-length mirror just inside the door. Riley never looked in mirrors, never had the opportunity except in public washrooms, and who used public washrooms when there was an alley handy? So when he saw himself by accident, it gave him quite a start.
The man in the mirror was not just older than his memories; he was older than his years. He was filthy—deeply, pressed down into pores and wrinkles filthy—and wearing clothes so soiled that even Riley could not have said what color they once were. His whiskey-colored hair was wild and bushy, hanging clear down past his shoulders and clumped together here and there, with an alder twig above one ear. The long gray streaks in his beard especially surprised him. There had been no gray the last time Riley saw his own reflection. This stranger in the mirror stood with back bowed and shoulders bent by the burden of his old friend Brice, and the added weight of something even heavier. He could not meet his own eyes. The very thought of meeting them was frightening. Like the people on the street outside, he did not care to see a ghost.
“What do you think?” asked a small old woman who had somehow come up very close unnoticed. She stood with both hands on her hips, staring directly at him without a hint of subtlety, her manly jaw set square and stubborn.
Riley said, “I think I need a shower.”
“We agree,” she said. “Come on.”
Still with Brice’s arm around his shoulder, Riley followed the old woman through a small front room with exposed bricks on each side, past a couple of men sitting in orange plastic chairs around a chipped wood-grain coffee table, then on back down a narrow hall, the old woman pointing left and right, speaking in short energetic bursts as they moved deep into the building.
“That was the waiting room back there. This is my office. You bring anything to drink in here and you’re out forever. No second chance on that. Men’s bunk room. You get the last two bunks tonight. Lucky. Probably be some others on the floor. Women’s bunk room. Stay out of there. Meeting room, which is also where we eat.”
In that room Riley saw more men and a couple of women, all of them watching television. He was surprised. It seemed like a lot of homeless people for a town the size of Dublin.
The little woman said, “You need to be here by nine at night, when I give a little talk. Miss that, and you’re out. Don’t bring drugs in, either. Same thing: no second chance on that. Kitchen back there. Stay out unless you’re on duty. Clothes pantry. Laundry room. Women’s locker room and bathroom. Stay out of there. Men’s locker room. Don’t steal anything or you’re out forever. Men’s bathroom. Got a shower stall back there. Soap and clean towels on the shelf. Keep the soap box and put your soap back in it. Don’t use anybody else’s. Drop your clothes on the floor there. I’ll bring you something else to wear. See me when you’re clean. You guys stink.”
“Uh . . . “ Riley cleared his throat. “Where’s Jerry?”
Jerry was the guy who ran the place when Riley was last there. He had never seen this bossy little woman before. At the mention of Jerry’s name she turned to look up at him. He tried to return her stare, tried to look straight down into the rigid toughness of her square and wrinkled face, but there was something in the woman that pushed back at him fiercely, something he could no more have stood against than he could stand against the unremitting urge that ruled his life. “Jerry’s gone,” she said. “You’ve been here before?”
“A long time ago.”
“What’s your name?”
He did what he could to resist the accusation in her hard unblinking eyes. He did not offer more than necessary, saying only “Livingston.” Brice had given that name to him a long time ago, renaming him as was right and proper for a man who had left everything to descend into the asphalt jungle, calling him after the old missionary who got lost and found in Darkest Africa.
The woman searched his face, and something changed in hers. For the first time Riley saw emotion there. She stared at him as if the weight of every soul that suffers had just settled onto her. “I know who you are,” she said.
Riley shook his head. “You weren’t here.”
Her mournful stare held him in place a moment longer. “No. I wasn’t.”
Riley marveled that a woman used to seeing men in his condition would display such sorrow. Strangely ashamed, he dropped his eyes to his filthy shoes until the old woman turned to walk away. Then, looking up to watch her go, it seemed to Riley that the burden bowing down his shoulders also pressed on hers.