Stranded outside of St. Claire, Missouri with no motorists stopping to give him a ride, Mark watched a lightning storm in the distance rumbling closer. It soon broke over him, and afraid to stand under a tree amid flashes of lighting and the crashing of thunder, he stayed beside the road, drenched in the rain. After twenty minutes or so, a station wagon passed, slowed, then backed up.

A large, middle-aged man wearing wire-rim glasses, a red flannel shirt and blue coveralls leaned over in the passenger seat and rolled down the window. “You look like you could use a ride, son.”

Mark didn’t even wait to be told “get in.” He climbed into the car, closed the door and wiped the rain off this face.

“Some storm,” said the man, who appeared to be in his late forties. As he gripped the steering wheel, Mark noticed how large his hands were, almost like clumps of earth. He glanced over. “Call me Arthur.”

Mark looked surprised. “That’s my father’s name.”
The man chuckled “That’s what my son says. Small world, isn’t it?”

“My mom said my dad always wanted to be called Art.”
“Wanted to? Is he dead?”
‘No, divorced.”

“Sorry to hear that. Divorce is the devil’s work.” Turning his attention to the road, he leaned forward, trying to see the road beyond the swishing windshield wipers. The two headlights feebly cut through the stormy darkness.

“Can you take me to the main highway or nearest town? I can get a ride easier there.”

“The road will still be there in the morning. But you’re a sight for sore eyes. How old are you?”


“Runaway, huh?”

“No, I’m just trying to get to Connecticut to see my dad. My mom knows what I’m doing.”

The man muttered something Mark couldn’t hear.

A moment later, he chuckled. “Easier ways gettin’ across the country than standing out there, trying to catch a ride in the rain. Anyway, my place isn’t far. You can stay there tonight.”

Mark swallowed. Something had changed in the car. He felt his body tense. “Thank you, mister, but I gotta keep moving.”

“Son, trust me, the only thing you’ll get in this weather is pneumonia. We’ll get some hot food in you and clean things and you’ll feel a lot better.”

Mark knew he couldn’t get out in the middle of the storm. Besides, where was he? He had no idea. The man seemed nice. He hadn’t actually done anything yet—but Mark felt little pools of fear seeping into him.

After driving for twenty minutes or so, they pulled up in front of a lighted wooden house on a hill overlooking a corral. The man turned off the engine then the headlights and started to get out.

Mark stared up at the house. No one appeared beyond the lighted windows.

“Come on in, boy.”

Mark followed the man into the house and had a strange feeling when he noticed everything looked unused. It wasn’t just the dust coating the black dining-room table or the way two framed photographs lay tilted down on the mantel, but, to Mark, the house felt abandoned. As the man continued down the hall, Mark went to the mantel and looked at the overturned pictures: the first was of the man posing with a drab woman at the entrance to what appeared to be a livestock auction. The second showed a gangly boy about fifteen—Mark’s age.

“Come on down here, I’ll give you a change of dry clothes before we have dinner.”

Again, the strange feeling. “Thanks, mister,” answered Mark, trying to keep the fear from surfacing in his voice. “But I don’t think your clothes will fit me.”

“They’re not my clothes,” he said, his voice more authoritative. “They’re not anyone’s anymore.”

Mark went down the dimly lit hallway. Glancing to the right, he passed a large room, with men’s clothes scattered about an unmade double-bed.

Hearing the man moving about, Mark continued down the hall. The man appeared in the muted light of a table lamp, saw Mark, and motioned for him.

It was a boy’s room, with everything from model airplanes dangling from the ceiling to 4H Club ribbons pinned on a cork board, and a single-bore shotgun in a rack on the wall.

The man began rooting around in the closet, soon tossing out a pair of work pants, a shirt, and a sweater. “Go ahead, put these on.”

He waited for Mark to undress. Seeing that he was shy, he shook his head at Mark’s modesty and walked out of the room. “I’ll fix us dinner.”

When Mark entered the dining room, he saw the man had set the table with plates at either end so they would be facing each other. There was room for eight diners, so the table looked almost barren. The plates were simply two white circles on the dark wood. Mark didn’t know why he stared at them for so long while waiting for the man to bring the silverware and glasses.

The man cooked hamburgers, green beans and mashed potatoes. He gave Mark a glass of milk and poured himself a glass of iced tea. He must have been hungry, too, for he didn’t speak during the meal, except to ask Mark if the meat was good.

“Yes, sir, very good, thank you.”

Outside, the rain had subsided, but in its place, wind was blowing against the house. “Uh, mister,” Mark said, looking up from his hamburger.

“Arthur, remember.”

“Uh, Arthur, where’s your family?”



The man put down his knife and fork and stared across the room. “My son and his ma died in a car accident last year.”

“I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, but you can’t spend your life grieving, or you’ll end up grieving for yourself.”

Mark glanced around the dining room and down the empty corridor. “Nobody lives here now, just you?”

Arthur pondered the question then nodded. “Afraid so.”

“Don’t you get lonely?”

“All the time. Where are your folks?”

“My mom’s back in San Francisco, but my father’s waiting for me… up the road.”

“Where’s up the road?” he asked, removing a toothpick and working it inside his front teeth.

“In Connecticut.”

“That’s a mighty long ways up the road.” He removed the toothpick and examined the tip. “How’d you end up lost in the Diamondbacks?”


“That’s what they call the woods in this part of Missouri.”

Mark felt hot, as though a large light were being held on his face. He could feel sweat forming on the back of his neck. “Oh, well, I wasn’t lost. I was with a friend. He, well, we had an argument and he left me back there.”

“Some friend, leaving you like that. Lucky I found you.” The man dropped the toothpick on his dish. “Rain’s stopped, wind’s up. I’ll start us a good fire. You know where the wood is.”

“The wood?” he asked, not sure what the man meant.

“Outside, behind the house, where it always is.”

Mark got up and started toward the front door. “Do you have a phone I could use to call my mom?”

The man shook his head. “Took it out. If people got something to say, then they can do it face to face or write. Let’s get that fire going. I can feel it getting cold in here.” The man got up to clear the table and Mark started outside to fetch the wood.

With the lights from the window cast out on the darkness, Mark watched the man put the dishes in the sink. At first, it looked as though he were talking to himself or, hoped Mark, only singing. But his expression didn’t seem relaxed, the way a person is when singing or humming alone. The man appeared to be in an argument. With whom? Mark didn’t know.

Keeping out of the rectangular frame of light falling across the muddy ground, Mark started running away from the house, but when he reached the end of the light cast by the home, he stopped to gaze into the night. It was pitch black, even the stars muted by clouds. Where would he go in the darkness before him? Scared to return to the house, but more afraid of going on into the woods, he went back to fetch the wood.

Once the fire was going, the man brought out a checkerboard and set it up on a table near the fireplace. They played several games, and the man easily won each time. “You’ll get better with practice.”

“My dad taught me to play chess.”

“Chess, that’s a sissy game, with all those priests and servants ready to die for the king.”

“Bishops and pawns,” Mark said, without meaning to correct him.

“Whatever. I’ll stay with checkers.” Pushing the checkers into a tin box, he glanced up at Mark. “You could use a haircut.”

“I guess so.”
The man mumbled something Mark couldn’t hear.
“Nothing. I’ve gotten to talking to myself out here.”
“Maybe you should move into town.”
The man stared grimly at Mark. “Why the hell would I move to town?”

“To be with people.”

As though hearing something in the night Mark couldn’t make out, the man turned and his mouth opened. He looked almost surprised by the sound. Mark heard nothing. Not even wind. Everything was silent.

The man turned back. “I wouldn’t want to be out there alone on a night like this.”

Mark stifled a yawn.
“Sleepy, huh, son? Well, you go to bed.”

“Where? In that room where the clothes were?”

He nodded.

“Can you give me a ride to town in the morning?”

“We’ll see how things go tomorrow. I could use an extra set of hands for the chores.”

“Mister, I mean, Arthur—I have to get going real early. My father’s going to be worrying if I don’t call to say where I am.”

The man’s gaze fixed on Mark. “It’s a big country, boy, especially when you’re hitchhiking ‘cross it. You could be anywhere. Now you go to bed. I’m gonna stay up a while and read The Good Book.”

Awkwardly, Mark got up and walked down the hall, turning to stare at the man.

Sensing he was being watched, the man looked up with a detached smile. “Don’t let the cooties bite. If they bite, hug them night and…” He paused, apparently waiting for Mark to finish the line. “Go on, boy, give me the ending.”

Mark raised his hands in ignorance. He didn’t know the words.

“You lost your memory, boy? …Hug them tight and they’ll come back the next night.” His smile vanished and he thrust his hand out. “Now get some sleep. We got a big day ahead of us in the morning.”

Deciding only to remove his shoes, Mark climbed into bed and pulled the covers up to his neck. Abruptly, he threw them back and got up. Tip-toeing over to the door, he moved a chair up against the doorknob, tilting the legs so it would block the door from being opened. Satisfied he was safe, he got back into bed.

Unable to sleep more than in snatches, Mark kept waking, listening to the silent house and for any sound of the man.

Then he heard wood creaking down the hallway.

The doorknob started to turn. Mark was too terrified to do anything but stare at the knob turning, then the door beginning to inch open—but stopped by the chair. More pressure was put on the chair, but it held. Everything paused. To Mark, it was as though the house had fallen into a vacuum. The door knob was released, and the wood creaked again.

As Mark was about to get up and make sure the chair would hold if the man returned, something bumped against the house. Mark lay still, watching as the edge of a shadow outside grazed along the white ceiling of the bedroom. Without moving his head, he looked down the length of his body and in the darkness saw the man staring from the corner of the window.

After a moment, the man left, but Mark didn’t sleep the rest of the night.

At dawn, he dressed and—as quietly as possible—walked down the hall, hoping the man had left to do his chores. But as Mark passed the bathroom, he saw the bare-chested man shaving with a straight razor. Noticing Mark looking at him from inside the reflection of the mirror, the man glanced over. “Stupidest waste of time God ever thought up, but your mom hates it when I don’t shave.”

Mark couldn’t speak. It was like he was in a dream and could only wake up and escape from it by not talking, or if forced to, saying so little that the man wouldn’t know that Mark knew it was a dream.

“Gotta take a leak, huh, boy? I know how it feels. Go ahead. I’ll finish up later.” He stepped past Mark then glanced back. “There’s coffee and cornbread set out. Then let’s get that barn cleaned up once and for all.”

“Could we go into town today after we’re done?”

“Tomorrow? I can’t wait that long.”
“Don’t whine, son. I hate whiners.”

“How far is the main road? I can walk.”

“It’s too far to walk. You’d get lost in those woods. Just hold your horses. There’s no hurry.”

Mark stepped past the man and closed the bathroom door. An instant later, he heard the man talking to someone. “This is your doin’. Always wanting to be taking him to the movies and fancy stores. You’re spoiling that boy. He’s got to pull his own load.”

Mark started crying and kept crying until the man came back and knocked on the door. “You all right in there?”

“I’ll be right out.” Mark wiped his eyes on a towel and went back into the bad dream.

All morning they lugged spider-webbed spanned tracker wheels and nail-infested two-by-fours into the sunlight. They stopped for lunch, then returned to finish cleaning out the barn. Both the man and Mark were sweating.

“This’ll put muscles on you,” the man said.

Nodding, Mark went to pick up another armful of boards.

Later in the afternoon, Mark was lugging a mule harness across the barn when the man glanced up from polishing a bridle with saddle soap. “That a boy. We’ll get this place looking like new. Your ma won’t even recognize it.”

Mark dropped the harness beside the gear and approached the man. “Just take me to the main road. Please, I beg you. That’s all I need.”

The man stopped polishing the strap and lifted it to his nose. “I love that smell of saddle soap and leather.” Seeing Mark staring at him, the man frowned and went back to work. “We’ll go when I say we will, Lyle.”

“Lyle? My name’s not Lyle.”

Getting up, the man walked over and slapped the boy across the mouth. “Don’t you ever talk back to me again. You hear me, Lyle?”

Mark ran.

He sprinted down the hill toward the dirt road leading away from the farmhouse.

The man chased him down in a few steps and grabbed him behind the neck. Forcing his arm behind Mark’s back, the man pushed him toward the house. “You stay in your room until you mind your ways.”

It was a long day in the room. He saw the man passing by the window as twilight fell. Then night came and he returned to the house.

Mark sat wedged in the corner of the closet, clutching a baseball bat. The first thing the man had done when shoving Mark into the room was to take the rifle and shotgun, and, remembering something, removed a hunting knife that was hanging under a jacket behind the door. Then he stepped into the hall and locked the door.

But Mark had the baseball bat. He knew he’d only have time for one blow. If he didn’t stun the man or knock him down, the man would take the bat and beat him to death. Mark knew it. He could feel it. The man was crazy and he was trapped inside his craziness. He had to get out.

Listening to the noise from the kitchen, Mark guessed the man was preparing dinner. But not once did he come down to the bedroom.

Then the man started talking to himself, only this time louder, as though he were in the midst of a huge fight. “No one asked you, woman. It’s between me and the boy… he’s my son! Stop it! I’m warning you to hold your tongue. I mean it.”

Something smashed.

“See what you made me do!” he shouted. “No! You’re not taking him anywhere. You’re staying right here.”

Plates and dishes began shattering.
“Damn you to hell!” the man shouted. “Then you go, but he stays.” A door slammed.
Mark ran to the window and looked outside.

A flashlight beam swept back and forth in the darkness as the man strode down a road leading into the woods. There was a long object in his other hand. At first Mark thought it was a rifle, then when the light bounced off it, he saw it was a shovel.

Mark tugged at the door. It wouldn’t budge. It was nailed shut from the outside.

Running back to the window, he waited until the man passed over the hilltop and started down the slope into the woods. Hurrying to the bed, he grabbed the pillow and held it against the window, then pressed the bat against it until the glass shattered. Mark waited for the man to appear running back toward the house, but he must not have heard the noise. Climbing over the shards of glass wedged in the window frame, Mark ran toward the car parked beside the house.

He opened the driver’s door and reached inside to feel for the keys… that weren’t in the ignition. Leaning over the steering wheel, he accidentally hit the horn.

The beep detonated the silence.

Mark panicked. For a second, he didn’t know where to hide, where to go. Then he saw the narrow tunnel of light poking out of the darkness. The man’s silhouette rose from the woods behind him.

Mark whirled around, trying to decide where to run, when he spotted a rickety bicycle in the shadows of the porch.

Sprinting up to the porch, he opened the front door and ran into the kitchen and grabbed a bread knife off the counter. Racing back outside, he stabbed the blade into the two left tires of the car. The tires hissed and settled down on the dirt.

The man was running now, maybe forty yards from the car. Mark grabbed the bike from the porch, leaped on and startled pedaling down the road as fast as he could.

The man chased him until he got winded then stopped, leaning forward on his knees. Catching his breath, he stood back up. “Lyle, don’t go! Don’t leave Daddy,” he shouted. Then he made a roaring noise that if Mark didn’t know came from a man would have sounded like a wounded animal. “Lyle, Lyle,” he shouted, “I’ll kill you if you go with her!”

Veering around a curve, Mark stood up on the pedals to gain more speed.

A moment later, he heard the station wagon engine start. Reaching a ridge, Mark coasted for a moment, then looked back. In the distance, hardly beyond the farmer’s fence, the car was limping along at ten or fifteen miles an hour, its metal rims noisily striking the road.

Mark pedaled on as fast as he could. His lungs burned and his legs ached, but the fear of the man kept refueling him.

On a hill too steep to ride, he got off to walk the bike. Reaching the crest, he looked back. The narrow road resembled a piece of string stretched across the darkness. In the middle, two headlights were bumping toward him.

Wiping the sweat off his face, Mark started down the steep hill. Leaning into the wind, he tucked his legs and let the bicycle coast faster and faster.

The hill sloped down for miles. At the bottom appeared a lighted gas station.

As he got closer, he saw a truck loaded with sheep pull up at the gas pump.

Leaping off the bike, Mark went around to the young man wiping the windshield. “Mister, can I get a ride?”

“No room, kid. I got my worker with me.”

Mark glanced up, seeing an older man sleeping in the passenger seat.

“Can I ride in back?”

“With the sheep?”

“It won’t bother me.”

“Suit yourself; I’m only going as far as St. Louis.”

“That’s fine.”

Mark climbed up the rungs and found a place in front, away from the rustling sheep.

Seeing the bicycle, the station attendant came over to the truck. “Hey, kid, your bike.”

“It’s not mine. It belongs to the boy who lives back up that road a few miles.”

The attendant glanced into the night then turned back to Mark. “No boy around here.”

“Well, his dad is sure up there. I just saw him.”

The attendant studied him. “Somebody pullin’ your chain. Ol’ Burke’s the only person livin’ up on the ridge since I bought this place, over five years ago. Never heard of no wife or kid.”

The truck engine started and the driver leaned out the window. “You’re gonna smell real good by the time we get to St. Louis.”

“I don’t care, mister. I just need a ride out of here.”
The attendant stepped over to the side of the truck. “What about the bicycle?”

“You keep it, mister.”’
“Yeah? What if Burke shows up lookin’ for it?”
“Tell him I gave it to you.”
“And who are you?”


“Lyle who?” asked the attendant.

“He’ll know,” Mark replied.

Momentarily, the truck pulled away down the road.

Watching the attendant roll the bicycle into the darkness, Mark shivered. Something terrible had come close. He didn’t know what it was—but sensed Lyle did, once.

Sliding down on the damp straw, he found a space among the sheep and leaned back, safe enough, he felt, to close his eyes.