Read Draw the Dark Online
Authors: Ilsa J. Bick
Draw the dark / by Ilsa J. Bick.
Summary: Seventeen-year-old Christian Cage lives with his uncle in Winter, Wisconsin, where his nightmares, visions, and strange paintings draw him into a mystery involving German prisoners of war, a mysterious corpse, and Winter’s last surviving Jew.
ISBN: 978–0–7613–5686–8 (trade hard cover : alk. paper)
[1. Supernatural—Fiction. 2. Artists—Fiction. 3. Crime—Fiction. 4. Emotional problems—Fiction. 5. Jews—United States—Fiction. 6. Wisconsin—History— 20th century—Fiction.] I. Title.
Actually, not really the wall—my bedroom wall—but thepicturesof the sideways place, which I copied from the cover of this really old book my mom kept on her nightstand after my father disappeared. I was only a year old when Dad went away, so I never knew him. Uncle Hank is my dad’s brother, and he says Dad was a really good man and loved my mom more than was good for either of them because my mom wasn’t quite right after my father vanished. Uncle Hank says Mom would stare at this old book for hours, and when he asked about it, she’d say, “He’s there, Hank. He’s gone sideways and he can’t find his way out and he needs me. If I can just find the way . . . ”
Uncle Hank figured she was crazy with grief. Most everybody else thought she was just crazy because she couldn’t accept that my dad had found someone else. (Not that anyone knew that for a fact, they were just saying. People here say a lot of things when they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.) Anyway, no one was surprised when, two years after my dad went away, my mom disappeared too.
That was fourteen years ago, and I’ve been looking for my mom ever since.
People in Winter say either she did the same as my dad, found someone else, or killed herself someplace far away to spare us. Uncle Hank doesn’t believe any of that, and neither do I, because the only important thing she left behind—well, besides me, I guess—was the cover from that book, with her good-bye note to Uncle Hank written on the reverse, telling him to make sure that cover went to me. So I know that cover’s the clue, if I can just figure out how toseeinto it the right way.
Which might explain why the only things I really remember about my mom are her eyes. They were . . . stormy. Gray, like mine. So maybe that’s why I have this . . . well, I guess you’d call it an obsession with trying to see the worldthroughher eyes. Because if I can justdothat, I think I’ll find her again. See,Ithink she figured out a way to slip into the sideways place, and that’s where she is now, with my dad, and neither one of them can get back. That’s why they need me. That’s why, among other things, I have to leave.
The cover is . . . well, it’s strange. There’s this freaky, bombed, blasted-looking landscape, with craggy coal-black trees that claw at a sky that’s gone the color of a bruise, a deep swirling purple streaked orange and yellow and bloodred. A spiky mountain stabs the sky. There are creatures there too: half dragon, half wolf, with drippy fangs and slitty, gold eyes. Everything on that cover is weird and scary—and somehow very, very familiar, as if I really have seen this place before. Or, maybe, just belong there.
That’s the sideways place. That’s what I’ve painted on my walls, every detail, right down to the mountain, everything the same as the cover.
I’m not talking about a real door with hinges, the one that will take me back downstairs to where it’s warm and safe and familiar. No, I paintedthisdoor in my sleep. Twice, actually. The first time I was so freaked out, I painted over it. The second time, only a month or so ago, I let it stay on what I guess you’d call a personal dare. Because the door’s incomplete. There’s no knob, so there’s been no way to get through. I’ve thought about this a lot lately, especially after what happened last night, and I think that last step, painting the knob, has to be a conscious choice and not something I do in a dream. I just haven’t been brave enough and that’s been fine—until now.
Because after last night, I know I have to leave. I can’t stay here anymore. It’s not safe for the people I care about with me still in this world.
See, I draw—and what I drawoutcomes alive. Sometimes I draw nightmares, what people want to forget except their minds won’t let them. So sometimes that means I’m pulling out the past. Other times, well, I guess you could say I draw destiny because I pull out their worst nightmares of the future, what they’re afraid will happen. Or maybe I do both because my shrink says the person you are is who you were, all your memories and experiences and all the dreams and hopes everyone put into you, so you sometimes can’t tell where they leave off and you begin. In a way, who you were is what you will be.
I think that’s right because sometimes when Ipaint—when what I am comes out of my head and down through my fingers— I kill people. Or get them killed, which is pretty much the same thing, even if I don’t do it on purpose. Like last night . . .
So. Whatever’s really living in the sideways place isinmeandbehind that door. All I’ve got to do is draw the knob and give it a turn. And I will, Iwill . . .but if my shrink is right, if you can’t know where you’re going unless you understand where you’ve been, then I need to understand how I got here so I can keep going and make it through and, maybe, get us all back in one piece.
So I have to start at the beginning: the Wednesday morning I woke up from a nightmare. The morning after I saw the murder for the very first time.
blood . . . no Papa no no . . .
with lots of blood and horses screaming and men shouting
Papa no . . .
and . . . had there been a knife? No, it was . . . it was . . .Grant Wood, I thought. That’s the painter who popped into my head when I tried to remember what I’d seen in my dream. Even if you don’t know who Grant Wood is, you probably knowAmerican Gothic, the painting he did of this small, white Gothic farmhouse, the one with the guy and the pitchfork. The guy’s really Grant Wood’s dentist and the woman is Wood’s sister, but that’s not important, not what my brain snagged on when I tried to remember the dream.
What I thought was:Not a knife, but
(blood on my hands)
a pitchfork . . .
My head killed. My legs were all sore and my knees ached like when I ride my bike a long time. My right arm hurt and my fingers were all cramped up, like I’d taken a million PSATs and filled in all those circles just right. And there was crud under my nails, like dried blood only bright like I’d cut myself, which I hadn’t.
And one last thing: there was this weird, well,mutteringin my head, like the growl of motorcycles or the rumble of far-off thunder. My head felt . . . crowded.
So yeah. Weird.
This was September, the second week of school, a Wednesday. It was hot and my sheets were sticky and my mouth was gummy. We don’t have air-conditioning because we’re only a couple of blocks off the lake and we get by with fans. So I lay there, the fan going like a jet engine, the sweat wicking away, until I started getting cold and the smell of fried eggs told me I’d better get moving. So I sat up—and that’s when I noticed that my wall was a little different.
I’ve been drawing and painting on my walls since forever. Uncle Hank and Aunt Jean didn’t care, said creativity shouldn’t be stifled. Or maybe they were remembering my mom and figured they couldn’t stop me. That’s about right because I couldn’t stop myself if my life depended on it. First, I did kid stuff: mostly rockets and stars and things like that. The stuff with Mom—her face and eyes . . . that didn’t start until maybe I was five, six. There are things I paint over, either I can’t look at them anymore or they aren’t important. But I never paint over my mother or her eyes. You know how when a peacock unfurls its tail, the feathers all have those cobalt blue eyes and so there are hundreds of eyes staring from that tail? Well, I did that on one of my walls, made this peacock fan of my mother’s eyes. Only you see things in her eyes, the way you would if my mother’s eyes were mirrors or stuffed with memories. So in her eyes, there’s me when I was little and then Uncle Hank and Aunt Jean and other eyes with real-place buildings, things I recognize from around the town.
The sideways place, though, that didn’t start up until after Aunt Jean died. I think that’s because the afternoonbeforeshe died was the first time I let myself get really, really mad—so mad I reached through to the sideways place or it shot out of me, I’m not sure. All Idoknow is that by that night, Aunt Jean was dead, her car spinning off black ice and into the water, and I knew that was because of me.
Anyway . . .thatWednesday morning in September there were two things on the wall with the sideways place that hadn’t been there before.
The first was a pair of eyes I didn’t recognize. Not my mom’s. Not mine. More like . . . a wolf’s: slanted, the color of molten gold.
The second was a door. No knob, just a black rectangle painted a little to the right of that spiked mountain. Somehow I knew that the muttering in my head was from the things squatting justbehindthat door.
That really gave me the creeps. So I got out of bed pretty fast. Did the shower, dug out clothes from under a pile of books on Dali and Picasso, and hurried downstairs. Because I just didn’t want to think about it. Not the muttering or the dream
(blood and horses screaming . . .no Papa no)
That morning Uncle Hank did a double take, gave me the squinty cop eye, like the Marlboro man without the lung cancer. “You look like you’ve been carjacked and drug about ten miles.” His voice sounded like tires on gravel, and he leaned in a little closer and frowned. “There’re smudges under your eyes. You worried about something? School?”
I mumbled I was fine and just tired, which should’ve satisfied him because that’s about all I everdosay, and I’m comfortable with Uncle Hank. Only I don’t think Uncle Hank would’ve let it go, if he hadn’t gotten a call from the dispatcher. Then he was jamming on his Stetson while I shoveled his eggs and sausage onto bread and wrapped that up with waxed paper. I practically had to throw the sandwich at him, he was out of there so fast. Didn’t say what the call was about, but you get used to stuff like that when your uncle’s the sheriff.
Tugging on my shoes, I noticed that my new Chucks were wet, which was weird because my shoes were on the mat inside the back door. So there was no way they should be wet, but they were and smelled like grass too. So I had to hunt for an old pair because I didn’t want to stink up my Chucks.
I biked in. We live south of town, which is right on the lake, and the school’s about four blocks west of Eisenmann Ironworks and Ceramics Plant. If the wind’s blowing the wrong way, you smell the factory before you see it. I don’t know how many acres the factory takes up, but it’s pretty much half the size of the town, what with the foundry and ceramics buildings, the warehouses, water towers, and all. The plant even has its own railroad.
To hear most people, you’d think the Eisenmanns are gods or something, which I guess they kind of are, considering that just about everyone works for them. (Me, I’d known for a long time there was no way I’d ever stay in this town one second longer than I had to. It’s not just that I’ve never been very popular or had much to say. People here have known each other all their lives; they probably know things about you that you’ve forgotten. To them, Milwaukee and Madison are like foreign countries.)
The Eisenmanns are the American Dream. In fifth grade, we had this special civics unit on the Eisenmanns, how they were dirt-poor and came over from Germany before World War I, made the trip all the way into iron country and built up the factory, put the town on the map . . . blah, blah, blah. The second Eisenmann was the one who actually created the town when you get right down to it. Being one of the first German immigrants to come out this way and a guy who knew iron, he decided he wanted other skilled Germans to be his workforce. So he built a couple of big dormitory-style buildings about a block away from the plant and then paid for all these workers to make the trip from Germany and Austria to Wisconsin. Living in the dormitories, all they had to do was walk across the street to work. Eisenmann even paid for these guys to go to school when they weren’t working their shifts. Learn about America, the language, all that. Even now, most everyone works for the Eisenmanns in one way or another. So, yeah. The Eisenmanns are gods.
I was in second-period U.S. History after World War I, and the teacher was talking about our independent projects for the semester when the principal came to the door and asked to see the teacher a couple of seconds. My chair was on the right side of the room, same as the door, and in the back, so I had no idea if anyone was with the principal. Everyone else kind of started in talking, though no one talked to me. Which is okay because I’m used to it. There was my mother leaving the way she did that made other mothers tell their kids to stay away from me. Then there was that business with my first-grade teacher, Miss Stefancyzk, how she had this breakdown and put her head through a noose not an hour after she yelled at me, but I was little and I’m still not sure I did that. And then there was Aunt Jean, which I do know about—although nobody else does, especially not Uncle Hank. If he knew, he’d hate me for life. He might even kill me himself.
Anyway, it was okay that no one talked to me. Not like I have a lot to say. Probably safer that way.
Instead, I doodled an idea I had about a charcoal I was working on in art. I’d found this old picture of a lady trying on a hat in front of this four-paneled mirror. The woman’s back faced you—like a Magritte painting—andherface was reflected in each panel of the mirror at four different angles. I took a look at the Magritte and that old picture, and I thought, yeah, this is a way of seeing my mom from, like, all around. So I’d recognize her no matter what and then . . . and then . . .
And then I wasdrawing, my head growing hollow as a gourd, the knuckles of my clenched brain relaxing and fingers unfurling and filling me like skinning on a glove. I love this feeling. I’m not very good with words, but I know there’s what you do with a pencil or brush and then there’sdrawing, like hauling up water from a well, sometimes so deep you wonder there’s anything there at all. Michelangelo used to say that the statues he created were trapped in the stone; the stone alreadywasDavid or the Pietà, and all he had to do was, well, free them.
I guess you could say that’s what I do when I draw. I . . . draw out something just as I channel something else. Like if I draw a tree: I’ll pull out what the tree is from what I see, but I’m also drawingfromthe tree, its energy. I know that sounds weird, but . . . I don’t know any other words to say it. I think that’s why artists say they’re tapped out, nothing more in the well. For them, there’s no more water, nothing left todrawfrom or out.
But for me, when I draw, when I’m at my best, there’s this tiny click, the flick of an inner light switch, and then I’m pulling,drawingfrom this hidden place in my head and the drawing swells and grows larger andisme. When I draw, there is nothing between me and the pencil and the paper because we’re all one unit, with a single purpose.
So as I drew out my idea for my mother, the world thinned, then shushed to a whisper, then simply went away, and I was at once diamond bright and formless as a nebula, floaty and yet so concentrated with purpose, and it was the best feeling. It was like I wasn’t there, and still, I was mostintenselythere, in the smell of graphite that filled my nose and the sturdy feel of the pencil between my fingers and how my vision sharpened so the weave of paper was hills and valleys and threads all connecting together, and it was a real high, the best, and I loved that, I would kill to stay in that place—
My name dropped like a hammer. I blinked away from my drawing. The teacher and the principal stood together at the front. Every single pair of eyes from every other person in the class was on me—like they’d been calling my name for a while and I hadn’t heard, which was very likely. I felt myself, all those great expansive feelings, shrivel, collapse, and go black as a lump of coal.
The principal said, “Christian, would you come with me, please? Bring your books.”
“Sure.” My stomach was a little fluttery. When this happened at school, it was either somebody’s relative was sick or something bad at home. The only thing I could think of was something had happened to Uncle Hank.