Read What Follows After: A Novel Online

Authors: Dan Walsh

Tags: #FIC042040, #FIC027020

What Follows After: A Novel

© 2014 by Dan Walsh

Published by Revell

a division of Baker Publishing Group

P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287

www
.
revellbooks
.com

Ebook edition created 2014

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—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

ISBN 978-1-4412-3458-2

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

1

T
HE
P
RESENT

The young look forward, the old look back.

Someone way smarter than me said that. Guess I’m old then. If you saw me, you wouldn’t need to be told. But the looking back part, been doing a lot of that lately. So much so, I’ve been driving Elaine nuts.

Funny how the memory works. You can think you forgot something, like it’s gone for good. Then you hear a song from fifty years ago, and it unlocks a door. One you haven’t opened for so long, you forgot it was even there. A flood of images and sounds—and all the emotions that go with them—come rushing in. It’s great when it’s a nice song and opens a nice door. Not so great when the room behind that door is stacked with boxes of pain.

The song itself was stupid, the lyrics, I mean. I didn’t even like it back then. Seems like I would, coming from a beach town. Had a catchy tune, I’ll say that. I was in the car when I heard it. Before that, I’d barely heard it over the last several decades. The few times I had, it triggered a replay from one of the worst moments of my life.

I’m talking about “Surfin’ Safari” by the Beach Boys. I’m not a superstitious man, don’t believe in omens, but considering what I
had come here to do, I’ve gotta say . . . I got a little spooked hearing it again. I reached over and shut the radio off. Of all the songs that could have played on the thirty-minute drive here (and I wasn’t even listening to an oldies station). What did it mean? Was God trying to tell me something? Like maybe, turn this car around?

I was pretty shaken up when I heard it. Pulled the car over to the side of the road, thought about calling Elaine. But I already knew what she’d say. She thought I should let the lawyer and real estate agent deal with it. Get whatever we could and buy something else. Another property, something that had no attachment to the past.
“We can even find a place
on a lake if you want.”

But the market was terrible now. We’d only get about half of what it was worth. But here’s the funny thing . . . Elaine and I had just been talking a few weeks ago about how much we wished we could afford a little getaway place, somewhere on the water, because we both liked to fish. Or if the fish weren’t biting, just to sit there. That was part of our retirement dream, a waterfront place. All sorts of possibilities for something like that here in Florida. But our pension fund got creamed a few years back. Like most folks, we’ve been digging out ever since. And like most baby boomers, we didn’t have enough years left to close the gap. A getaway place was totally out of reach.

Then out of the blue, a registered letter came from some attorney in Louisiana saying I’d inherited a three-bedroom house right on the water, near this little town totally forgotten by time.
This
seemed more like the providence of God. The house was mortgage free; the taxes were even up to date. At first, I thought it had to be some kind of prank. But as soon as I saw the dead man’s name on the letter, I knew it was real.

He’d written me a few years ago, promising one day I’d get just such a letter. It was the last time we had communicated. I didn’t
believe it, couldn’t imagine how he could’ve held on to the property all these years, considering what had happened. So I just put the whole thing out of my mind.

But here it was, in my hands, big as life. Elaine and I owned a perfectly good waterfront home, all ready to go. So, should we use it or sell it? That’s what I had driven here to find out. I put the car in drive and got back on the road, headed toward the place. I hadn’t been here in fifty years, not since I was eleven, but I didn’t need a map. The scene was burned into my mind.

Everything seemed the same. The little downtown area, if you could call it that, hadn’t changed one bit. I could see every street, every building, every curve in the road, just the way it had been. The question was, though, and this was how Elaine had put it to me:
“Can
you spend time there without dredging up the past? Can
you replace all the fear and pain with something positive
? ’Cause that’s what it’ll take.”

I honestly didn’t know. I suppose that’s why I’d come. Brought my fishing pole with me, some clean linens and a pillow, a suitcase, my Bible, and a couple of good books. I aimed to give the place a fighting chance. That was the idea anyway. People nowadays call it “facing your demons,” but I don’t like the sound of that. I think demons are real, and I’m quite sure I don’t have any living in me. All I’m facing is a ton of bad memories. If being here didn’t put an end to them, we’d sell the place, buy something else.

Simple as that.

Turning down the last dirt road leading toward the water, I remembered having one of those “getting everything out” sessions with my father before he died. About what happened here. The talk had been his idea. During my teen years, he had told me bits and pieces of the story, hard as it was to hear, the stuff I’d have no way of knowing on my own. There was that other long talk a
few months after Elaine and I had gotten married, one of those man-to-man things. Dad had wanted to make sure I knew all the life lessons he’d learned because of what happened in ’62.

Years had passed, decades really, and the subject never came up again. Until that final conversation just before he died.

I pulled into the long dirt driveway leading to the house. I could just see it through a stand of overgrown oleanders. Slowing to a stop, I thought, Dad was right. There were still a lot of things I hadn’t understood about what had happened back then. That last conversation with my father was tough to sit through.

Dad hadn’t started out as a good father, but he’d ended up one—so I listened. Hard as it was. And just like at the end of each conversation we had about that time in 1962, he said, “Sometimes, we only appreciate the things that matter most when they are taken away.”

Life in America at that time was so different than how things are now. You had to live through it to appreciate how much. JFK and Jackie had ushered in a new day full of hope. People called it Camelot. The economy was booming. The world was at peace, had been for over ten years. People still owned radios, but everyone was in love with their new TVs. It was the era of
I
Love Lucy
and
Leave It to Beaver
. Life was simple. Things made sense. Families were happy.

At least they looked happy. When they weren’t happy, everyone understood you were supposed to pretend.

One particular week in 1962 the world almost ended, and that’s not an exaggeration. Everyone who lived back then knew it was true. Historians would later say things were even worse than President Kennedy and the politicians had let on. In some ways, even worse than they realized. If God had looked the other way for a single moment, we’d all be dead. Every single one of us.

Of course, the world didn’t end back then.

But for our family, one part sure did.

2

I got out of the car but decided for the time being to leave my things. Thought it might be wise to take a quick once-around before I settled in. As I walked toward the house still painted that odd shade of green, I glanced to my right and left, trying to catch a glimpse of the neighbors. I was alone. Wasn’t even sure anyone lived in the properties on either side.

The house sat on five acres, much of it wooded, with the water in the back. Looked like the neighboring properties included at least that much land. Made things nice and quiet. Reporters in ’62 described the place as “secluded.” I could barely make out the outline of a white-framed house to my right through a thick cluster of pines. The house on my left had an unobstructed view, but from this distance, I couldn’t tell if anyone lived there. Both places looked more than fifty years old.

One thing was obvious: both were far enough away that you couldn’t hear a little boy scream if he had been shut up in the house. That was something I had wondered about that final day, fifty years ago. As I climbed the three steps leading to the front porch, it dawned on me . . . that wasn’t a healthy thing to be thinking about at this point.

Still, there it was.

I tried the front door. Of course it was locked. I glanced through some thin, weathered curtains hung up on the other side of the front door to block the view through the glass window. Saw a worn-out oval throw rug covering a wood floor and the bottom few feet of some upholstered furniture. Right off, I knew this front door had to go if we kept this place. Elaine would never go for company being able to look right into the living room.

As I unlocked the door, I tried to push a strong feeling of being in danger out of my mind. I didn’t need to run from these memories; I needed to face them. Like Elaine said, “stare them down.” I could tell even through her protests that she really hoped this place would work. She’d be fine here. I was the problem. We hadn’t met until 1972, so she’d never been here. We never even talked about the place until I got that registered letter a few weeks ago.

I took a deep breath and stepped into the living room. The house seemed much smaller than before.

I walked down a narrow hallway. A doorway to the right opened to the small galley-style kitchen, which led to the dining area. From there, a wooden door opened into the old screen porch facing the water. I walked through all this quickly. The closer I got to the porch, the more I tensed up. I couldn’t help it.

But I couldn’t spend the whole week avoiding it. If I was going to do that, I might just as well turn right around and head out the door for good.

I stepped onto the porch and looked to my left. There it was. The door leading to the storage room. The dark place. I remembered how dark just then. When I first opened it fifty years ago, the blackness was so thick you could feel it. It was only as deep as the porch, you could see that now; but in a kid’s mind, the darkness could have stretched on forever.

I tried the knob. It was locked, but I had the key. I thought about
walking away but felt an even stronger urge to get this behind me. Otherwise, it would keep messing with me all night.

When I unlocked the door, I was shocked to find beams of light shining in. I stepped inside and, what do you know, someone had built a small window just off center, about chest high. The storage room was no longer the scary place I remembered. It was empty. As I turned to leave, something in the shadows caught my eye. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust and focus. There beside the window, tucked behind an exposed wooden stud . . . I couldn’t believe what I saw. What was it doing here?

Could it have been here all those years? I slid it out and held it up to the light. My little brother’s Spiderman comic book. Almost like new. One of two he’d brought with him that day. I thought it had been lost for good.

This one was his favorite, the first comic book with Spiderman on the cover. I read the title:
Amazing Fantasy
. And the date: “15 Aug.” Had to smile at the price: “12¢.” Worth a whole lot more now, I was sure. I opened it and began flipping through the pages. My smile quickly disappeared as darker memories of that day began filling my head.

I closed it, set it back where I’d found it, then hurried out to the porch. My heart was beating rapidly. I could feel it pulsing in my temples. I had to calm down. It was fifty years ago.

I sat on a bench and glanced back at the storage room, the door still open. I wanted to lock the whole thing back up and go. Leave everything just the way I’d found it.

It was just a stupid comic book.

But I knew it was more than that. I had to conquer these dark memories. Here and now, once and for all. That was what Elaine was secretly hoping for, and I knew it was what my father, Scott Harrison, would have wanted too, if he were still alive.

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