A DARKNESS DESCENDING
Mrcus no longer counted the years. The nights came too quickly. He kept moving along a seemingly aimless path.
“Where are you now?” He spoke to the invisible Gregor that never left his side. “Is it time for you to know I am still here?”
The rhythm of his life beat to a single drum. Stay free, let Gregor know you are alive, do no harm and try, try to remember. The darkness covered him and he learned well how to hide where people could see him. They did not look closely. They were afraid and though it pained him, Marcus knew it was for the best. Still the closeness allowed him to hear about Gregor. Too many different serial killers were reported. Many were one. Marcus wondered if they noticed the pattern. There were never more than eight and Marcus, carefully attuned, was often able to keep it to a smaller number.
The leering face that haunted his dreams, consuming his memories, was often screaming. It was a small satisfaction in the lonely life he could no longer share with the ghosts of his childhood.
The world had grown cold. Winter was coming. Marcus knew he should turn south, walk where the nights were not so cold, but he found himself unable to move. He could not see the faces he once loved, when he was alive. Untethered, he was no longer sure he could move. Gregor, he thought, you won. The words crossed his lips. He felt his spine stiffen. “Never,” the word exploded and it was then he realized he was not alone.
He was old, leaning on a cane whose three-pronged base was the only thing keeping him upright.
“Never let my monster win.”
“Your monster? Man or beast?”
“Something with more or less than two legs.”
“Two legs. He is a man, but no less a beast. You should not come closer. I don’t know that I won’t hurt you.”
“Not afraid.” The old man, back bent, an awkward hump pressing him to the earth, approached. “You don’t look too good.”
“I am not good.” Marcus looked away, but the need to have a companion was too strong. “I am a monster.”
“Don’t seem to me to be any more of a monster than a lot of people I’ve met. I’ve seen a lot of monsters, but that’s a long story.”
“Tell me. There are many things I cannot do, but I can listen.”
A smile made its way through a mountain of wrinkles. With some difficulty, the old man sat.
“Are you not afraid?”
“Nope. You are a dangerous man with a good heart and I know you won’t hurt me. Have I gotten it right? If I’m wrong then I’ll find out if all those religious classes I attended made any sense at all.”
“Well yes, I am dangerous. I no longer believe I am a man, but I think I still have a good heart, though it has long ago been broken. I have no idea what your religious classes taught you or if any of it is true. I can tell you that I will not hurt you, though it would be rather easy, that you look like food to me and I am hungry. I haven’t eaten in a long time.”
The old man smiled. “I’ve seen danger. You may be hungry; I may even be food, but not tonight. Another time perhaps. At my age, the people I loved, they are almost all gone.” His eyes, masked by cataracts seemed to float, a light blue in a field of bluish white.
“I see you do not understand.” He made to rise but Marcus stopped him.
“The people I loved are all gone. If they still live I do not know where. I,” Marcus’ voice softened, a hiss on the wind, “do not remember their names, can no longer see their faces. Once a long time ago, I dreamt often of them. If you are not afraid I would like the company.”
The smile, half hidden in the deep lines of his face, was warm. Once again he sat down, warm hand fighting its slight shaking. “Many years ago I sat in a boat almost too afraid to do what I’d been trained to do. I had to step over the bodies of men I called friends. I never knew why they died while I lived. I guess I never will.”
“Do you have children?”
The man frowned at the question and Marcus was surprised when he answered. “Yes, a son, a daughter.”
“They are the culmination of all that came before.”
“I would like to think that.” He laughed harshly.
“My father,” there was a sadness in Marcus’ voice the old man could not ignore.
“You miss him.”
“I saw him die. I could not save him, now I can no longer remember his name. I cannot see him. I think I still remember what he told me. The big word was his. I try to be what he wanted me to be, but I do not know.”
A deep silence filled the space between them. Finally the old man spoke.
“I do not say this lightly, but I am sure you are the man your father would have wanted you to be.” He raised his hand, stopping Marcus’ protest. “I am not saying the circumstances of your life is what he would have wanted. I am saying that what you have done with what you were given, was what he would have hoped you would do.”
“I think that is something my mother would have said. I cannot remember why but once she told me our choices make us what we are. I have chosen. The road has been hard.”
“If it makes you feel differently, I’ll tell you that I came here to join all the brothers I watched die. It was Normandy. Very few of us still live. I miss them. I have spent so many hours feeling guilty I’m still alive. All the things I’ve been able to do. They were young. They missed so much. You just made me realize there’s something I can do, something important. I can be their voice. I think it’s time I talk about what I saw.”
“What you saw?”
“I saw men rescued from Bergen-Belsen. Skeletons, searching in the ruins for those they loved. I learned that evil has more than one face. Evil, so many embrace it until it comes to them. They were Christians, the Nazi’s.”
“I did not know, but then I hated school.”
The old man smiled. “Many people accepted Hitler, welcomed him, the old way of governance. They wanted a leader, were used to following not deciding. When the war was lost, most of Hitler’s followers said they had no choice. The Nazi leaders were tried for the crimes they committed, but the ones who knew and did nothing, nothing happened to them. I know you can’t punish a whole generation.” He turned to look at the cane that was once again shaking. “Sometimes when I see the faces of my lost friends, the skeletal bodies of the rescued, I wish we could.” He took a moment to still his hands. “They had choices. They just took the easy ones. Maybe I would too.”
“I do not think you would take the easy way.”
“I can see your choices have taken you on a most difficult path.”
When Marcus did not reply, he continued. “You’ve reminded me that I can teach not just my grandchildren, but those who will listen, that doing nothing, watching the world change and saying you cannot do anything about it, is a choice.” He looked into the velvet night, starlight shining on the rocks around them. “It is pretty, this world. Yet we do so much to make it dirty. There is so much hate. There is always someone, some group to blame. Fear, hate is almost more unifying than words of love, the brotherhood preached in churches. I guess”— he chuckled—“that’s why we use God as an excuse to kill those who don’t believe the way we do. I don’t think we’re making him proud. I’m talking too much.”
“You are not.” Marcus smiled, the muscles aching. “I like your talk. I think people will listen. There is passion in your words. As little as I know of the world,” to the man’s surprise, he once again smiled. “Of some things I know too much, but of the world, I know very little. What I have seen tells me that you speak the truth. It would be good for others to learn from you.”
A slow smile broadened the face, wrinkles stretching, showing that once he’d been a handsome man. “Thanks for showing me that my life still has purpose.”
“Please do not thank me. You have also given me hope. I had thought only to kill my monster, and I will. But today you have taught me that I will have more choices to make. I shall think carefully. Today I have done something I am proud to have done.” His face darkened. “I am hungry and I have miles to walk while it is still dark. Darkness is my light.”
The old man grabbed his arm. “Go back to what you know, who you remember. Find the peace you gave to them. It will warm you. Do it before you forget.”
“How do you know?”
“I am forgetting. You reminded me. I am returning the favor.”
Marcus watched the old man walk away, back straighter than when he arrived. “Where shall I go? What of Newbie, Jason, I would like to know.”
The road stretched before him. Once again he walked.
He had been searching. The camp, long since destroyed, stood a barren wasteland. The boys, the girls were gone. Marcus saw the shrine, a memorial to those who had died there. The floorboard, names etched in its soft wood, the center of the shrine. The names of those who died had been carefully carved into the granite stone, chiseled tears surrounding them. Flowers were neatly arranged at the base of the plaque.
“Jason, I do not see your name here. I think I know how it would be written. I do not know Newbie’s name.” He shrugged. “I could not read it anyway. Are you there with all these others?”
He could not search in the day and was afraid of going to the police. What would they make of him, his questions? With slumped shoulders, he walked away. He thought of Gregor’s offering. He did not know her name.
“You must have gotten away.” He spoke quietly to the night. “Do you carry many scars? There are those that cannot be seen. I hope you think kindly of me.”
He knew the way.
Leaving the camp behind, he took to the remembered road. He walked slowly. “It may not last”—he saw Gregor’s imaginary scow—“but I am enjoying the freedom.”
He did not let the cold bother him, ignoring the pain. Plodding through the snow, he stopped in a small town just long enough to steal boots. He ate when he could, careful to remain unseen.
The town was smaller than he remembered; but the park, its acres of roses, now soft in slumber, was familiar. Even sleeping, awaiting another season, the fragrance was intoxicating. A quick turn before the gardens and he was once again looking at the abandoned building that was, for a short time his home. The windows were boarded up, no glass remaining. Soon it would be day. Marcus easily removed the wooden planks, stepping inside. The stairs were soft, the wood rotting. He walked carefully to the basement. It was dark, the air reeking of death. Many animals had died here. He ignored their bones. Searching hands feeling the floor, he found it, the glass shard. His sharp eyes saw the blood stain. His. He once again felt pain as the knife sliced through the flesh of his neck.
He saw the terror in Gregor’s eyes, felt the hunger when he woke. He sat hard upon the ground.
How long he sat unmoving he did not know, but day grew bright then turned again to night and still he did not move.
“They say it’s haunted.” Youthful voices found their way to where Marcus sat.
“I’m not going in.”
“Someone did. Look, the woods been taken off. Come on guys, chicken shits. I’m not scared. Take the flashlights. It’s not real big, we’ll be on our way home before you can sing the National Anthem.” The boy laughed and was soon joined by the others.
Marcus heard their approach. He stood, waiting. There was no place to go.
The youngest of the four boys dropped his flashlight, yelling for his friends.
“Who are you?” Their chosen leader asked, fear underlying the bravado of his voice.
“No one. I”— he searched their faces—“am a traveler. I have no money and no place to stay. It is cold. This place offered as much shelter as I could find. I did not mean to frighten you.”
“We’re not afraid.” His voice shook, but he did not back away. The four flashlight beams pierced Marcus’ eyes. He turned his head. “The girl, the one who left here, how did she do?”
“If you’re a traveler, how do you know about her?”
“How is she?” Marcus ignored the question. “She made it home, has a good life?”
Finally the older boy answered. “Yeah. Clara made it to town. Told everyone about this place, about the guy who took her, about the guy who saved her. The police came here, did everything they could to find them.”
“Figured the one who took her was the one who killed all those people.” The youngest boy picked up his flashlight, continuing the tale. “They never found out anything about the guy who helped her. Why do you want to know?”
“I am glad.” He turned his back to them. “It was worth it. I’ll leave now.”
“Your him.” The oldest boy’s voice hushed. “The guy that saved her.”
Marcus did not at first answer. “I am. Let her know that I am free. Perhaps she will care.”
“Clara will care a lot.” The youngest of the four bounced on the balls of his feet, voice rising. “She’s the Librarian. Talks about him, you, all the time.”
Marcus stepped between them, wondering what they would do.
“Jeez, your cold.” It was the youngest. “Tom your place is closest, why don’t you give him your coat. You won’t be out in the cold as long as the rest of us.”
The coat was thrown over Marcus’ shoulder. He turned to face the boys, handing it back.
“Thank you. That is kind, but if I remember my father, I believe going home without my coat would have made him angry. I would guess coming here and talking to a stranger would not have sat well with him either. Don’t get in trouble for me. Do not stay here in the dark. It is dangerous.”
He stepped aside, letting them pass. They were moving fast and Marcus watched until they entered the town, the streetlights making them safe.
There was another place to go. He held onto the memory of the name. The pain pills had lasted weeks. Another mystery Gregor could not solve. In some ways they lasted far beyond the actual medicine. His ability to ignore the pain had left Gregor unwilling to inflict more.
Marcus had seen his frustration growing. He did not want to be continually bested. Gregor stopped, though not completely, and life had grown easier.
Marcus paused, he knew the man’s name but it took him a few minutes to remember the place. It had been close to Canada, he remembered Gregor wondering if it was time to head to that country, but he didn’t like the cold and this was as far north as he intended to go.
Once again he lost himself in memory. It had been a national park. Gregor had laughed at the thought of eating a grizzly. He remembered him saying the state had a face, but Marcus could not go to a library to look at the maps.
Slowly walking the empty streets of the dark town, he looked for a bookstore, any place that would have a map.
He could not read the store’s name. There were many travel cases, pictures of the world, neatly placed. Surely there would be a map. He circled behind the store. He did not bother with alarms. With his speed, he knew he would be out of the store before the police could arrive. The lock was easily broken. There was no alarm. He paced between the shelves. The book had one word in bold letters. The word meant nothing to him, but the cover was a map. Grabbing it, he went to stand as close to the streetlights as his sensitive eyes allowed. The first page was useless. He flipped past it. Finally he saw what he was looking for. There were many maps.
Very few people were on the street this late. Marcus knew who he was looking for. Some were far too young. She was what he needed.
Before he approached, she called out. “Fifty bucks buys you an hour.”
“I do not have the money and I don’t want the hour.”
She looked ready to walk away, but he was the only one near and she was bored. “You were coming over weren’t you?”
“Yes. I need your help. I can see that you are…cautious. You should be. There are many things to fear in the night, but I am not one of them.” He held out the atlas. “I cannot read and I need to find a place. I do not know where I am. Will you help me?”
She looked him over, carefully inspecting the clothes that didn’t quite fit. He knew he was not well washed, his hair long and poorly cut. He stood quietly awaiting her decision.
“Come over.” She waved him towards the light. Ignoring the pain, he handed her the book.
“You’re here. Now where do you want to go?”
He grinned and he could see her face soften. “I know only that I need to get to a city in the state with a face. It is a large city outside the”—he paused—“Ice Park, I think.”
He nodded. “I was taken there. It was not my choice. I do not know how to go back, but there is a person I would like to see.”
“You’re going to Montana.”
“Montana.” Slowly, he repeated it. “ It has a face?”
She reached for the map, quickly flipping through the pages. “This is the state.” She pointed out the profile.
“The park must be Glacier National Park. On this side”—her long red nails pointed to the map—“is the forest. The biggest city near there should be one of these. Bigger dots mean bigger cities. Here, put it down for a minute.”
He did as he was told.
Reaching into her purse, she pulled out the ruby red lipstick she wore, circling the place they were and where he wanted to go.” When she finished, she smiled. It was kind. “I don’t know who you’re looking for but I hope you find her.”
He turned away, clutching his map.
Once again she reached out for the map. “See this highway, it’s I ninety and goes north. I have a feeling you’re walking. Go that way till you see the highway. Take it and just keep walking. It will at least get you into Montana.”
“I have met many kind people on my journey.” Marcus tried to smile.
“I would guess you have met many not so kind.”
He nodded. “They are not who I am looking for.”