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Outside Bly, Oregon
November 19, 1944
"Well gosh darnit, wouldn't you just."
Archie Mitchell gripped the gearshift of his 1941 Nash 600 sedan, but he could feel the loose spin of his tires over mud.
The late autumn rains had softened Dairy Creek Road into little more than a dark rivulet woven through the dense ponderosas and junipers blanketing the mountainside. Uncertainty spun in his gut. They should have known better than to take these logging roads this time of year.
"The kids, Arch," Elsie warned from the passenger seat. Her blond waves, her pink lips. Hazel eyes darted to the rearview mirror. In its reflection: an assortment of brown and green plaids and corduroys, jumbled knees and slipping socks. The Patzke kids, Dick and Joan, plus three others-Jay Gifford, Edward Engen, and Sherman Shoemaker-made up the entirety of the field trip. All of them with their hair combed tidy for Sunday. Whispering and humming tunes. Dick Patzke pulled on his teen sister's ponytail in the back seat.
"Are we stuck?" asked Ed.
"Everything's going to be just fine," Elsie assured the kids. "The Lord has brought us a little trial by nature is all."
Trial by nature. Archie smiled. His wife was right. He ought to have watched what he said. It's no wonder she had been the star pupil at Simpson Bible College, unlike him. Somehow, despite his many failings, God saw fit to give him Elsie.
He hit the gas again and this time the car lurched forward, a river of putty-gray slurry slipping out beneath them as the tires regained traction.
"You see, then?" Elsie patted his knee. He tried to feel comforted, but the bad premonition, the nervousness that had been ratcheting through his chest all morning, wouldn't go away.
Which was precisely why they were here. This trip to Gearhart Mountain had been Elsie's idea. She and Archie had been cooped up indoors, him fretting over her well-being all the time; they needed a change of pace. It was too easy to go haywire without a little fresh air, and it wasn't natural for a young, happy couple in their prime. Besides which, she'd heard the Patzkes had just lost their eldest boy overseas. Surely it was the duty of their pastor to step in and offer a kindness to the family in grief. It didn't hurt that a pair of avid fishermen in the congregation had told him the trout were still biting at Leonard Creek.
"My ever-hopeful fisherman," Elsie had teased him later that night, when they were lying in bed together under the yellow glow of their matching bedside lamps. "Wouldn't that be a nice thing to do for the Patzke kids? A little day trip some Sunday? The Patzkes could use some time alone to grieve, don't ya think? And besides, I could use the practice if I'm to be a mama soon."
She was trying to draw him out of his thoughts . . . and it worked. Archie rolled over and kissed his wife's round, taut belly. Five months and counting. This time it would all go perfectly. There was no need to worry. A healthy son was on his way-Archie reassured himself of it by the glow in Elsie's cheeks.
He'd whispered yes into her nightdress, and now some Sunday had become today.
The woods thickened around them, the sky a blissful blue. Only a few wisps of cloud lingered from yesterday's storm. Still, as they drove up the ever-steepening road, Archie could feel the knot of tension in his chest coiling tighter. He rolled down his window, taking in the crisp mountain air. It was cold enough to carry the scent of winter-and for a moment, he blinked, thinking he'd just seen a snowflake. An eerie feeling moved through him, as if he was in a room in which a door had suddenly blown open. But it was just a tiny seedling, some minuscule bit of fluff held aloft on the wind.
The kids sang hymns again as Archie maneuvered the Nash onto an even narrower service road. It was bumpier than Dairy Creek and he watched Elsie with a worried eye. She had one hand on her belly as they bounced over ruts.
He braked slowly, not far from an abandoned little cabin the fishermen had told him about. "Maybe it would be better to walk the rest of the way."
Elsie reached for the latch. "How about if I take the kids down to the creek? Maybe you can get a little further in the car. That way you won't have to haul the picnic things as far."
She was right, as usual. "You sure you'll be okay?"
Her smile was like sunshine. It filled him with something more than love, a thing he could not name, for it would insult God to know it. How he worshipped her. How he'd lie down on the mud and let her walk across him like a bridge if she asked. How he sometimes feared God had been too generous in giving him Elsie, feared what lengths he'd be willing to take just to make her smile, just to feel her gentle hands on him in the darkness, her curious little kisses that set him on fire with shameful thoughts. With Elsie, he was powerless.
"Of course," she said now. "You know you must sometimes tolerate letting me outta your sight." Another smile, and then he watched as the kids scampered out of the car like baby goats let out of the pen.
"I'm gonna catch the biggest fish," one of the boys crowed.
"No, I'm going to . . ."
"I'm gonna catch a whale!"
"That's stupid. There ain't no whales in a creek," the first boy shouted back. The voices reminded Archie of when he was a boy, fishing off a bridge with his friends. Children happy to be children, let loose to play. He wasn't hardly thirty years old but he felt like an old man already.
"Last one down to the creek-"
. . . is a rotten egg, Archie finished to himself. Some things never changed.
They ran down the trail, goading each other to run faster. Elsie brought up the rear with the Patzke girl. Joan Patzke really was a good kid, Archie thought. Considerate. She knew enough to stay with Elsie, made sure she had company and a hand to hold.
If only every family in his congregation was as nice as the Patzkes . . . If all the parents in Bly could be as good as these children, everything would be all right, he thought. But still somehow, the thought failed to ease the tightness in his chest.
Once the baby was born, he'd be able to breathe again. The doctors all assured him that five months was well and good enough along to stop worrying-but they had said that the last time, too.
He parked as far off the trail as he could, but the Nash took up most of the road. There was no way around it. The trail was too narrow.
He opened the trunk and was enveloped in the aroma of chocolate. Elsie had decided that, if they were going on a picnic, they needed a chocolate cake. She baked the layers yesterday, setting them out on racks to cool last night. She'd made the frosting this morning, beating the butter and sugar by hand with a big wooden spoon. Elsie only baked chocolate cake once or twice a year, and the thought of it made his mouth water. He lifted the cake carrier and slung the wooden handles over one forearm, then hefted the picnic basket with the other. Inside were turkey sandwiches. A thermos of coffee for the adults and a jug of cider for the kids.
He put the basket on the ground and was closing the trunk when another tiny white seedling, no bigger than a snowflake, landed near his nose. He brushed it away, oddly unnerved by it. That feeling again: a wind surging right through him. He shivered and slammed the trunk.
A woman stood in front of him.
He jumped in surprise, but she remained perfectly still, observing him. She was a young woman and beautiful. She was dressed in a kimono, a nice one from what he could tell, but she was disheveled. Her shiny black hair was falling down in wisps, the ends of her obi fluttering in the breeze.
Where had she come from? There hadn't been anyone on the trail or in the woods-Archie was positive. He'd been paying extra close attention as he navigated the mud.
Funny for someone to be roaming around the mountain in such fancy dress. Though Archie had seen Japanese wearing traditional garb in Bly-years ago.
No Japanese left in town anymore.
The strangest part was the look on her face, the way she smiled at him. Cunning. Sly. It stopped the questions forming in his throat. Kept him from doing anything except stare.
More of the white seedlings drifted between them, swirling playfully. She lifted a finger and gestured toward them. "Kumo," she in a voice barely above a whisper. Archie didn't know the word but he was pretty sure that was what she'd said. Kumo.
The sound of children yelling broke his concentration, and Archie looked away. Little Edward-or was it Sherman?-was shouting something in the distance. Had to be sure Elsie was okay, that the kids hadn't gotten up to some mischief . . .
And when he turned back, the woman in the kimono was gone.
For a moment, he paused, confused. He looked down at the spot where she had stood, and there were no footprints. The mud was untrampled.
A chill ran down his spine, followed by a tremor of guilt.
But then the boys yelled again, in high-pitched, excited little voices, and Archie was forced to let it go.
"What's going on?" Archie called out, picking up the food items again and beginning his trudge toward the tree line. He got closer, and the voices became louder.
"Whoa!" That was Joan's voice.
"Honey?" That was Elsie now. "We've found something. Come look!"
He could see their forms now, through the trees. The creek in the distance, black and twisty as a snake. Something light and large in a clearing, covering the ground like alien moss.
"What is it?" Archie called out, hurrying.
He wasn't at all sure what to make of the shape in the distance: it could be a piece of a banner come loose from a building or warehouse, or even a bedsheet escaped from a clothesline. It was weathered, grayish, and sprawling-unnatural in all this wilderness.
"Some kind of parachute?" Elsie shouted over her shoulder.
A knife of panic. He dropped the basket and the cake. "Don't touch anything!" There'd been a news story a few months back. Something about a parachute falling out of the sky and catching fire on the power lines at a power plant near Spokane. Whole plant could've gone up in smoke but for the generator cutting off. The newspaper had called it a parachute, but onlookers didn't agree. Some feared it was an unmarked weapon of war.
He ran toward them now. "Did you hear me?" His voice came out ragged, breathless. "I said be careful and don't-"
Archie choked and stopped running. Something drifting on the wind caught in his throat. It looked like snow, but it couldn't be. Too early for snow, though not unheard of this time of year. Another seedling-or maybe something else. Maybe it was ash. He saw loads of it in the air now: bits of white fluff, like dandelion seeds but smaller. No dandelion seeds in November. He froze, momentarily mesmerized. He lifted a hand to catch one but the wind carried it away.
His hand was still suspended in the air when another bit of white caught on his eyelashes. It was so close to his eye that at first, it was just a semitransparent orb. A mote.
But then, as his eye attempted to focus on it, it moved.
It moved strangely, like it had arms. The arms wove left and right, up and down. With cold clarity, he knew what it was.
A tiny translucent spider.
His shock was cut through with a thundering boom.
And then: he was blown backward, as if from cannon fire.
When Archie was just a kid, there'd been a terrible accident on his parents' farm. His uncle Ronald had gotten trapped in the grain silo when a fire broke out. It was a nightmare, the inside of the silo a whirling tornado of flame. No one had been able to get to his uncle and drag him out, no way to get water in to douse the flames. He remembers his parents' panic, the shock of it, farm hands running and shouting, everyone helpless.
It was a terrible accident. Everybody said so.
Later, when neighbors came over to console Archie's parents, Archie supposedly in bed but listening on the stairs, he remembered how his father had insisted that his brother had brought it on himself. "He was probably drunk," he'd said bitterly before Archie's mother had shushed him. But in that moment, it all made sense to Archie (or maybe he was just grasping at straws): how Uncle Ronald had just shown up on the doorstep one day, no mention of where his wife was. How he slept on the couch and Archie would find him in the morning reeking of alcohol. "He was a sinner. And believe you me, those who sin will meet the fire of Hell in the end," his father had said that night.
And the terrible feeling Archie had had, feeling that he was somehow responsible for it. His mother dismissed it as Christian sympathy. Because you are such a good boy. A good Christian soul.
Archie sometimes looked back on that night as the start of something. A fire lit inside him. For years he tried to be good. He would refuse temptation, not give in to sin. He would be above reproach.
All the while, however, he carried a terrible secret. A guilt that he couldn't allow himself to acknowledge and snuffed out as soon as it came creeping back to him.
And then, at last, he found Elsie. Because she was so virtuous, so clean, he found it easy to be good around her. The mistakes of the past were behind him forever, he thought.
But he was wrong.
In trembling shock, Archie climbed up from the roots and mud, staggered to his feet, lumbered toward a thick and billowing smoke. It was as if the spot where everyone had been standing had suddenly opened up, gone volcanic. He choked; smoke burned his eyes. Where was everyone?
The colorful shapes he’d seen just a minute earlier—Elsie’s white cardigan, the Patzke girl’s blue dress, the Shoemaker boy’s plaid shirt—were gone from his field of vision. Or no, not gone. Strewn across the ground. Like laundry thrown carelessly in the air.
Screaming. Had the sound ripped from his own throat?
He was running again, climbing over two of the clothes piles—one flailing and shrieking, one eerily still. He would trample a hundred burning children to get to Elsie. It was his greatest sin, this worship of her. It was the bit of hell that burned inside him.
She was screaming. Thrashing. Inhuman.
The next thing he knew was that he was kneeling in the mud beside her—this creature who was his wife transformed. Transmuted by fire and chaos into something else. He whipped off his coat and tried to smother the flames, holding her down. Let me help you, he screamed.
But her face was no face, it was all gash: red and pulpy, an open wound, skin seared off flesh. Her lips moved but he couldn’t make out what she was saying.
There was moaning all around him. He was paralyzed by shock. This wasn’t real. He had plunged backward through time, twenty years, to the night of that fire, only this time, it wasn’t his uncle but Archie himself, at the center of the flames, burning alive.
He didn’t know how long he knelt there, panting, choking, screams tearing his throat raw. Coughing up smoke and blood, flapping in vain at his wife’s burning body, even when she had begun to go still.
Finally, hands fell on his shoulders—dimly, he was aware of two road workers they’d passed on the way up Dairy Creek Road. The strong hands dragged Archie along the forest floor, away from the blast, away from the still-burning pyre the mysterious parachute has become. Away from the children.
Away from her—his life, his future, his everything.
Just before losing consciousness, a thought came to him. This is my fate. My punishment.
For the terrible thing he did.
He’d thought he’d outrun it but all this time, hell had been waiting for him, with its mouth wide open.