From a new star in horror fiction comes a terrifying novel of obsession, greed, and the shocking actions we’ll take to protect those we love, all set in a small town filled with dark secrets.
"Marino has a good eye for genuinely disturbing imagery. This novel hums with a terrifying momentum." — Kirkus
The Larkin siblings are known around the small town of Wofford Falls. Both are artists, but Peter Larkin, Lark to his friends, is the hometown hero. The one who went to the big city and got famous, then came back and settled down. He’s the kind of guy who becomes fast friends with almost anyone. His sister Betsy on the other hand is more… eccentric. She keeps to herself.
When Lark goes to deliver one of his latest pieces to a fabulously rich buyer, it seems like a regular transaction. Even being met at the gate of the sprawling, secluded estate by an intimidating security guard seems normal. Until the guard plays him a live feed: Betsy being abducted in real time.
Lark is informed that she’s safe for now, but her well‑being is entirely in his hands. He's given a book. Do what the book says, and Betsy will go free.
It seems simple enough. But as Lark begins to read he realizes: the book might be demonic. Its writer may be unhinged. His sister's captors are almost certainly not what they seem. And his town and those within it are... changing.
And the only way out is through.
"Marino draws readers in quickly, creating sympathy for the characters, unveiling the necessary details to immerse them in a world of art, siblings, deadly intrigue, and a centuries-long nefarious quest. Dread is present from the start, but it quickly escalates into a disorienting cosmic terror that touches everyone." — Booklist
"Marino offers horrors both existential and visceral." — M. R. Carey, author of The Girl with All the Gifts, on The Seven Visitations of Sydney Burgess
"Dark and fascinating . . . Not quite like anything I've ever read before. A strange, compelling, late-night page-turner. It kept me reading way past my bedtime." —T. Kingfisher, author of The Hollow Places, on The Seven Visitations of Sydney Burgess
Also by Andy Marino:
The Seven Visitations of Sydney Burgess
Release date: October 4, 2022
Print pages: 368
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It Rides a Pale Horse
“Morning, Lark,” the runner calls out.
“Sure is, Jamie-Lynn,” Lark says.
She lifts her knees high to dance through a mound of plowed snow on the shoulder of the road. “You seen Wrecker today?”
“Just brought him half the breakfast menu from Roberta’s.”
“The Saturday Special.”
“He ate with great relish. Takes four sugars in his coffee now too.”
Jamie-Lynn plants a leg calf-deep in a drift and hops delicately up to the sidewalk. “Working on his next heart attack.”
“Never let it be said the man lacks ambition.”
“Maybe I’ll see him later.” She scampers around the corner, a puff of frozen breath hanging in her wake, and vanishes up Market Street in the direction of the Wofford Falls Memorial Ambulance Service: three garages, picnic table, grill. LED sign reminding you to get your flu shot.
“Jamie-Lynn switch to mornings?” A voice comes from the doorway of Clementine’s Yarn & Tea. Lark turns to behold a hulking figure, half shadowed by the shop’s faux-rustic eaves. A meaty tattoo-sleeved forearm moves through a patch of light. Fragrant smoke billows and drifts. Lark sniffs the air.
“Coconut.” The man steps out of the shadows. Linebacker-size, meticulously bearded. A tabby cat twines around his ankles, a slinky blur of peanut butter swirl.
“Clementine,” Lark says to the cat, “you little sneak.” He lifts his eyes to meet the man’s, half a foot above his own. “When’d you embrace the vapor, Ian?”
“Last night. Literally overwhelmed by guilt.” He nods his head toward the storefront next door—Hudson Valley Vape HQ—and lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Guy just stares at me with those big sad eyes every time I smoke a butt. Kills whatever enjoyment I have left.”
Ian reaches into the pocket of his ripped black jeans and retrieves a crushed Camel soft pack. “I bequeath what remains to the Peter Larkin nicotine deficit.”
Lark takes the smokes. “I’ll pay it forward. From what I hear, Jamie-Lynn’s on mornings when Terry’s got the girls.”
Ian takes a dainty puff on a device the size of a kazoo. He reaches behind his back to crack the door. Clementine darts inside. “What’s that little prize you got there?”
Lark slides out the baking-sheet-size object he’s got tucked under his armpit and brandishes it like a shield for Ian to inspect. “Tin. Original purpose unknown.”
Ian leans in. “Shaped kinda like a manta ray.”
Lark stuffs the smokes into the pocket of his old Canada Goose. “Might’ve been a drugstore ceiling.” He tucks the tin scrap back under his arm. “Peace be with you, brother.”
Coconut smoke curls up into the eaves. “And also with you.”
Lark moves on down the sidewalk, past the vacant storefront where the bagel place opened and closed in a six-month span. Mob front went the chatter down at the Gold Shade. Shitty bagels is what Lark would counter with, if it was worth tossing his two cents at the calcified regulars camped out by the video poker. Regardless, the glass still says FREDDIE B’S BEST BAGELS in the style of a nineteenth-century newspaper’s masthead. Inside the darkened interior a lone table saw rests atop a workbench. Lark pauses to catch a reflection just so—the murmurous EKG line of the Catskills, hazed in gray permafrost, crowned by a poppy seed bagel painted on the window.
The overhead lights flicker in the empty shop. There’s a muffled entreaty for them to just fucking turn on. Then the lights come up and stay. A man as elongated as a Giacometti sculpture, twig limbs sticking out of a sleeveless Danzig shirt, turns away from the switch on the wall. Lark waits. The man pretends not to see him, comes to the window, presses his forehead against the glass. Lark raps a knuckle against the B in FREDDIE B and the man doesn’t flinch. Then Lark pulls the Camels from his pocket and slaps the pack against the center of the painted bagel.
The gaunt face retreats from the glass. A moment later the former bagel shop door opens with a chime and out comes the man, hands cupping the tough knots of his biceps for warmth.
“Krupp,” Lark says, “you wretched creature. Put on a coat.”
Krupp snatches the Camels from Lark’s outstretched hand. “Filthy enabler.” He peers into the pack. “What have I done to deserve this bounty of”—he closes one eye and pokes carefully inside—“six whole cigarettes and one broken one.”
“Courtesy of Ian J. Friedrich.”
“He quit again?”
“Switched to vaping.”
“Another one bites the dust.” Krupp sucks air through his teeth, squeezes his upper body tighter, rocks on his heels. “Cold today.”
“Colder tomorrow. Vaping’s not the worst idea. It might help you cut back.”
“Says the guy who just gave me gratis smokes.”
“You’re now officially the only asshole I know who still smokes actual cigarettes. But seriously, stop smoking. It’s bad for you. They’ve done studies.”
Krupp raises the pack to his mouth and pulls forth a smoke with his lips. Then he pats the pockets of his paint-spattered jeans, frowns, and gazes off toward the mountains, lost in thought.
While Wayne Krupp works out the last known location of his lighter, Lark’s eyes drift to the awning of the neighboring shop: KRUPP & SONS HARDWARE. His oldest friend, Wayne, representing the full & SONS portion as the sole Krupp who stuck around.
“How goes the expansion?” Lark says.
The unlit Camel bounces. Krupp scrunches his face as if he’s just zeroed in on a vital clue somewhere in the mountains. As if he could pinpoint anything at all from Main Street in Wofford Falls, twenty miles away and down in the valley. The tin scrap slips down the side of Lark’s coat and he traps it with his elbow and slides it back up.
When Krupp finally opens his mouth, the Camel tumbles out and lands in his upturned palm. “Supposed to be demolition day today but I don’t have it in me.” Krupp turns, nods at the shop’s interior. A sledgehammer leans against the subway-tiled back wall, next to the deep farmhouse sink.
“I have to make a delivery this afternoon,” Lark says, laying a hand on Krupp’s bare shoulder, “but if you wait till tomorrow, I’ll come by and trade you one dozen of Roberta’s finest mozzarella sticks for the privilege of smashing the living hell out of that wall.”
Krupp shakes his head. “It’s not the labor of it that’s getting to me, it’s something else. All the things the place has been—there’s remnants. You know what I found behind the counter?” He moves closer to the window, taps the glass. Lark lets his arm fall away. “One of those jars the Red Vines used to be curled up in.”
“From the candy store?”
“Every day after school, you and me, sliding dimes across the counter. When’s the last time you had a Red Vine?”
“The Clinton administration. You were wearing that same shirt.”
Krupp goes to the door. “Come in and smell the jar.”
Lark gestures vaguely in the direction of his house. “I gotta get going.”
“I sat there with it in my lap and I cried, Lark. Uncontrollable tears. You believe that shit? It was the candy store, then the leather repair place, then the hat lady, then Freddie B’s. And the jar’s still there. Do you want it? You can have it. We could trade off, you keep it for a week, then I keep it for a week.”
“Yeah, we could do that.” Lark studies Krupp’s expectant face, crow’s feet branching from those hollow eyes. “Listen, I’ll see you later at the Gold Shade.”
Krupp nods at the tin scrap. “You been out to Wrecker’s?”
“Bought him like five breakfasts.”
“The Saturday Special. Hey, I think Jamie-Lynn’s on mornings now.”
“Saw her too. Anyway.”
Krupp lifts the unlit smoke back to his lips. “See you at the Shade.”
The door chimes and closes behind him.
Lark turns a corner and heads south on Market, the ambulance service at his back. Roots of a venerable elm disrupt the sidewalk. The commercial strip thins out, its end punctuated by a ramshackle dwelling of boarded windows but for one hung with a Tibetan flag. Past this squat rises a low stone cemetery wall frosted with a thin drizzle of snow. On the other side of the wall an old woman bends to lean a wreath against a weather-beaten headstone.
“He would’ve been eighty-seven today,” she calls out.
Lark tugs at his wool hat. “Happy birthday, Harry.”
Past the rust-pocked gate, perpetually ajar, the sidewalk meanders into dense evergreens. Here it becomes, abruptly, a gravel path. A new kind of quiet descends. Lark’s boots squelch in the soggy earth beneath the gravel.
The first figure looms darkly, bent overhead like a carrion bird, a half tunnel draped in scorched chrome to mark the sudden clearing: a flat half acre carved out of the forest. The modest house rises up from the clearing’s center, rendering its yard a grassy moat.
Lark carries his prize across the yard past the second figure, a ten-foot amalgam of wire and wood, petrified and braided, punctured and sewn.
Beyond this he comes to an anvil sheltered by a small wooden hut. He lays the tin scrap on the cast-iron surface. Salvage beyond salvage, he decides: junked once long ago, recovered, junked again. Cut with strange precision—yes, vaguely manta-shaped—its purpose unknown. From the hut’s single shelf he selects a metal-setting tool, more sharklike than your average hammer, fitting to pound down what could be the tin’s dorsal. He lowers blow after blow and the anvil clanks, absorbs, directs the force into the tin.
By the time Lark makes his way to the backyard studio, the hammered tin has shed all evocations of manta. There’s the working of material. Then there’s the joining. Between the two states he blanks his mind, sheds associations, so the material can become what it needs to be: part to a whole that has yet to become anything at all.
He lifts the tin to the edge of a bulbous plastic amoeba composed of half-melted hubcaps. Considering. From the open garage door of the studio’s industrial-heated indoor half spills low, dissonant classical strains: Shostakovich.
He thinks of the legendary Russian composer eating boiled leather during the siege of Leningrad in 1943. Germans at the gates, citizens carving up dead horses for meat, the genius in three dressing gowns and an overcoat breathing steam at his frozen piano. Is that how it happened? He moves his toes inside thick, dry socks.
Lark slides the tin up the melted gray lava of the hubcaps and closes one eye.
There are winters in this world that make the Hudson Valley seem like the Florida Keys.
Dead horses. Boiled leather.
One thing the tin will never be is a face. He heads inside to find a railroad tie.
Lark leaves his wet boots on the rubber mat and pads in socks down the stairs to the basement. A long hallway is lit by miniature spotlights dangling from tracks—gallery lighting for rows of framed paintings. Earthy odors of solvent, deep peanutty fixative, and sterile oils curl through the corridor. Two doors open to clean, empty rooms. More spotlit paintings, more track lighting. The only missing elements are the taciturn museum guard in the corner, the climate sensors on the wall, giggling kids on field trips.
The third door is closed. Lark regards his face in a small square mirror. A thirty-six-year-old bird of prey, but one with kind eyes, he’d like to think—a raptor gone vegetarian.
He contemplates himself for a full minute—the agreed-upon price of admission. It’s not necessary to come to any conclusion. All his sister asks is a little buffer, a moment of stillness to blunt any manic surge that might derail her day’s work.
From behind the door comes a rhythmic, steady thwack thwack thwack. His sister’s Spaldeen bouncing against the hardwood, her painter’s version of his mind-blanking journey from workshop to studio. He imagines the fluid toss, her fingers splaying with invertebrate quickness while her body squares itself up to contemplate the new piece.
He knocks. “Betsy!” he calls into the mirror, noting the shape of his sister’s name in his mouth, the way the sy drops his lower lip oddly. “I have to go out again, you good?”
The Spaldeen thwacks once more and is silenced. Lark imagines one last epic bounce, a chalky pink dot stuck up in the firmament.
Bare feet on hardwood, mousy footfalls. The door swings open and here’s Betsy Larkin, all rat’s-nest hair and magnified eyes behind glasses with lenses thick as checkers. Vintage hip-hop thumps from the wireless speaker mounted to the upper corner of the wall by the small window, upon which she’s painted a thin, quavering spiral. She holds out a gift-wrapped, shoebox-size package. The wrapping paper is decorated with grinning elves, a holiday leftover. Betsy has Sharpied the elves’ eyes bright red. White ribbons dangle and curl from the package.
“Happy birthday,” she says, her voice coated in the husk of an all-nighter.
“Jesus.” Lark studies the hollows of her eyes, the flecks of dry skin at the corners of her chapped lips. “You look like shit, Bets.”
“After I sleep I’ll look better. You’ll still be you.”
Lark takes the gift. “We agreed, this year. No presents.” He hefts the box despite himself: light as cotton balls. No sound from inside. “If this is an empty box I’m supposed to learn some kind of lesson about consumerism from, I’ll be pissed I wasted the energy opening it.”
A crooked smile breaks out on his sister’s face. “Some people say thank you when they receive a gift.”
He tilts his head to glance over her shoulder. “How’s that Edward Hopper coming?”
Betsy steps aside to give him an unobstructed view of the painting. Neither Larkin sibling is precious with the other about works in progress. Price of admission paid, Lark is free to roam his sister’s studio. First, he stands in the doorway, peering at the large canvas clamped to the studio’s central easel.
“Nighthawks at the diner,” Lark says—an unlikely pick for his sister, who prefers the obscure margins of an artist’s oeuvre, paintings less likely to be reprinted on dorm room shower curtains.
“It’s just called Nighthawks,” Betsy says.
Indeed, straight ahead is that most uncanny Hopper, four noirish figures in the big window of a dream-diner. There’s something awful and airless about the empty street outside. A stage set, a movie backlot. It strikes Lark now that it’s like looking at an exhibit through glass: a diorama of midcentury humanity in some alien museum. A struggle to understand these creatures, to place them in an appropriate setting. So one is approximated (diner, window, city street), the mannequins propped, the scene complete but inhuman.
There’s the counterman in his immaculate whites, the three patrons (fedora, fedora, red dress). Betsy’s forgery impeccable down to the brushstrokes. So much more to her art than simply reproducing an image: There’s the matter of getting the oils Hopper would have used in the ’40s, the mimicry of his style, his process. (It would occur to him later, the contrast of 1942—Hopper painting Nighthawks comfortably in his Washington Square studio and Shostakovich composing at his piano while German snipers cut down his starving countrymen in the streets.) And if Lark knows his sister she’ll be altering her diet to eat like Hopper did while he worked.
He shudders at the memory of her Method-acted Jackson Pollock phase, the endless drinking, the rage he endured as she splattered and staggered and dripped.
Lark steps inside the studio, searching the canvas for the plot twist. All around him lie the vestiges of his sister’s process, the stacks of books on Hopper, the trial-and-error palettes of colors that didn’t quite make the cut. Weeks spent only mixing: She’s always been the patient one. Her studio’s the opposite of his airy workspace. His sculptures are born outside—weathering nor’easters and downpours and gusts straight out of arctic fishing. In here, sheltered and hermetic, everything’s coated in a single-minded obsessiveness.
He has to get right up next to the canvas before he sees the twist, the out-of-joint turning that only Betsy can pull off. He estimates that the world holds a handful of forgers as skilled as his sister. One or two generational talents, passing off even the hoariest of old masters as genuine. A freakish control of Renaissance-era technique and material, fooling scholars dedicated to the study of a single artist’s output. Yet still this is a lesser, more pedestrian skill than whatever it is Betsy Larkin possesses.
Which is what?
Lark doesn’t know, not really. He can only sense it, the way you might look at a sea anemone for the first time as a child and know like you might know a face in a dream that it will sting you.
Shit, Betsy, he tries to say, but only weak exhalations come out. The quality of light in the painting takes him by the throat and squeezes. The world inside the canvas is coated in a nacreous wash. The haze of the lint-colored dawns that have been breaking over Wofford Falls for months. He feels, all at once, like he just woke up. But the worst of it is localized in what the woman in the red dress holds. She studies an object propped in her slender fingers. A book of matches, perhaps, in the original. Her pallor is ghostly. What she holds is Betsy’s turning: not a book of matches at all but a sickly compulsion. An out-of-focus thing as focal point. The paralysis of an unknown object that doesn’t look like anything at all. Figures in the painting (in the diner) either involved in it or studiously ignoring its existence.
What is that? he tries again, leaning forward to press his face nearly against the canvas. The words catch in his throat. He has the impression that the woman in the red dress picked the object up off the ground before entering the diner. The one piece of litter marring an immaculate sidewalk that sports not so much as a scuff or a blot of old gum. It’s organic in nature, he decides. Yes: There’s a fibrous stalk sprouting from a tiny crack in its shell.
The longer he looks, the more is revealed. Remarkable, in such a tiny section of the painting, that his sister has hidden so many layers. The figures frozen in the last moment before they comment on what the woman is holding in her hand. Or, Lark thinks, perhaps they won’t say anything at all, and the object will evolve, unremarked on, and the business of the diner will go on into the long night, humdrum and quiet, while the woman’s arm, idly propped on an elbow, drips with a foul corner of reality. Because this thing she holds is not right, not the way Betsy has rendered it.
There are teeth hidden inside of it, he’s never been so sure of anything in his life. Little Chiclets of baby teeth. The man next to the woman in the red dress stares straight ahead. Nobody looks at anybody else.
Lark flashes once again to boiled leather, horses rotting in the snow.
Bile rises in his throat. His stomach revolts. Up in the corner of the room, a hi-hat clicks tinnily. Sweat beads his upper lip, drips from his lower back to soak his waistband. The canvas tilts.
He turns away from the painting, covering his mouth, clutching the gift box to his damp chest.
“It’s not finished yet,” Betsy says.
Lark finds himself out in the basement hallway again, waiting for the nausea to subside. Like the figures in the diner, he turns away from everything, fixes his gaze on the blank wall. Ignorance. Bliss.
“What is it?” he manages to get out, after a while.
Betsy leans against the side of the doorframe, arms folded, and yawns.
Lark pads away down the hall, toward the stairs. “There’s lunch stuff in the fridge,” he calls back—the message he came down to deliver in the first place. “Cold cuts and pickles. Make sure you eat something.”
“I’m not hungry,” she says.
He pauses at the bottom of the stairs. What the woman in the red dress holds still reaches for him. The stalk a dendrite joined with thin tributaries to each little tooth inside its unformed, sickening veneer.
He turns. Betsy, at the other end of the hall, a wraith in an unzipped, paint-spattered windbreaker that’s far too big. His sister’s never worn a smock. She favors oversized clothes, cardigans the size of lab coats, an ancient duster now composed entirely of crusted pigment. She shifts her weight and the gallery lights flash off her glasses. He considers the potency of this new turning, the heat wave of some bad affliction radiating out from her Nighthawks.
“You have to eat,” he insists.
“You look like you have some kind of Victorian-era wasting disease. Like you’re haunting a grim estate.”
She cracks another smile. “Shrouded in fog. Mastiffs and limestone and old Mrs. Poole who keeps the family secrets.”
“Listen, Bets.” The words lead a half-formed thought on a tether. “You know what I really want for my birthday?”
“You have your present.” She edges back inside the studio. There’s a practiced elision to her weird, sleepy grace that he’s seen develop over the years. Not meekness but an acknowledgment that she can’t resist what’s pulling her back to her canvas—a beck and call they both understand but which has shaped in Betsy’s very figure a lightweight, wispy acquiescence. “I have to get back to work.”
“I want to take you to lunch,” he says.
Silence falls between them. Lark can scarcely believe that he was able to successfully utter the sentence. How unpracticed that little string of words is in this house. How alien the phrasing.
Betsy halts. She slides a finger up under a lens and scratches at the raccoon bruise beneath her eye. Then she steps out into the hall and pats down a matted clump of tangled hair like she’s dabbing at a carpet stain. “I can’t go.”
“You don’t have a choice. My birthday, my rules.”
“I have to work.”
“It’ll be here when you get back.”
“You have a delivery to make.”
“So I’ll be a little late. It’s not like they’re going to un-buy the piece.”
It strikes Lark as funny, how they could run through a litany of the small excuses a normal person might use to get out of a normal invitation. As if this is some weekly tradition of theirs instead of wholly unprecedented. As if he’s poking his head into her office and she’s buried in paperwork.
A queasy blast slinks out of her studio door and washes over him and is gone. He can see his sister’s weary mind click through excuses. The smudges of her glasses and the strands of her hair are sticky and clipped together with Hopper’s transitory hues. For a moment he swears he can see the woman in the red dress reaching for Betsy herself, drawing her creator home.
The idea that for Betsy Larkin, home is inside the world of the canvas strikes him, at that moment, as immeasurably sad. Not so much tragic as the kind of gray depression sparked by a thick graphic novel, a study in miniature of a lonely anonymous character in a big city. An artist spending panel after panel on quotidian minutiae to convey with a sledgehammer this mood of quiet desperation. A sense of failure descends. He has not been doing what he set out to do, all those years ago, when Betsy needed help and he stepped in. He has been caught in a mire of his own, of routine and various paths of least resistance.
What is it about lunchtime that gives him the self-reflexive heebie-jeebies? He never wallows in failure over breakfast. Maybe he’s just hungry.
“Me and you,” he says. “Roberta’s. Counter seats. Free tiny muffins.”
“No,” Betsy says.
Lark sighs. But then Betsy comes toward him, windbreaker sleeves swishing. He stands there, motionless, holding his breath, waiting for one of those brain-clicks to stop her in her tracks, send her about-facing back to the safety of her studio to finish her work on that little slice of Nighthawks seemingly wrenched into this world from elsewhere. But his sister keeps coming.
“Not Roberta’s,” she says, nearly upon him. “The Gold Shade.”
“You want to eat at the Shade?”
The Shade is nominally a bar and grill, but Lark doesn’t know a single local who’d risk the grill part. Eaters at the Shade tend to skew tourist.
“I do,” Betsy says, and brushes past him up the stairs.
“Why?” he asks after her. But he already knows the answer.
The Gold Shade’s peculiar reek is accentuated by noonday emptiness. It’s as if the odor has taken on the dimensions of a sound, a cavernous echo of deep-fried batter and urinal cakes and surfaces sticky with sloshed beer. At least when Lark and Krupp take their places at the bar every Saturday at dusk, the crush of drinkers blowing off the week’s steam lends some variation.
Just inside the front door, Lark unzips his Canada Goose. Behind the bar, Beth Two glances up from her phone. She’s been the Shade’s Saturday bartender for as long as Lark can remember, with Beth One lost to the mists of local legend. Only a true Wofford Falls archivist like Wayne Krupp Jr. could attest to her current whereabouts.
It was Beth Two who served Lark his first drink with his fake ID, senior year of high school, then told him to get his ass outta there.
“You’re five hours early,” she says to him across the empty barroom. “And minus a sidekick.”
He stamps his boots on the floor, one two, shaking off slush. The jukebox is low, Beth Two letting it run on random play for the three regulars who might as well be bolted down to the stools.
“The prodigal son!” ratlike Angelo calls out, hoisting a Bloody Mary.
“Christ, Ange,” says Jerry Baker, who was once literally a baker. “Lark wasn’t prodigal fifteen years ago and he ain’t prodigal now. Less so if anything.”
“It’s an expression.”
“Which you been misusing as long as I’ve known you.”
“Constance,” Lark says, pointedly ignoring the two men, “how come you let these degenerates sit with you?”
The old woman stirs her white-wine-with-ice concoction. “They’re buying,” Constance says.
“That’s one way to put it, what they’re doing.” Beth Two makes a noise approximating clipped laughter. “You wanna see their bar tab?”
“Unfurl the scroll,” Angelo says.
The bar’s poised on that relaxed edge of ritual, all of them sticking to an approved script as facile and cozy as cheap nostalgia. The recycled comfort of the familiar, simple and free of cost. Then Betsy comes into the bar at his back, and the air in the room sucks up into itself and becomes a moonscape of astonishment. It’s that old-west moment when the outlaw steps in through the swinging doors and the whole joint hits pause—poker cards unflopped, whiskeys halted mid-pour, the rollicking piano grinding to a halt.
Even Beth Two’s practiced grace, that selective and studied lack of observance, fails her. Everyone gawks. Beth Two clutches a rolled-up bar rag in her fists like she’s ready to garrote somebody or towel-whip them locker-room-style. Angelo hacks up a lung into the crook of an elbow. Jerry closes one eye and peels the label from his Labatt Blue.
“Hey,” Lark says, as Betsy heads over to the corner booth, the only one with a window, where he knew she’d want to sit. He watches her slide the age-yellowed curtain aside. The ancient fabric is emblazoned with NFL team logos, including the long-defunct Houston Oilers, who haven’t existed since Lark was a little kid.
“Um,” Lark continues, looking helplessly at Beth Two. This whole birthday lunch thing was his idea, and he’s come unglued fast.
Beth Two lends a hand. “Menus?”
“That’d be great.” Lark offers up a goofy smile. “Thanks.”
“Menus? You lose a bet?” Angelo inquires.
Jerry musters up the will to swivel his head. “Hot tip,” he says, addressing Betsy without exactly looking in her direction, “the food here’s been on a steady decline since the Summer of Love.”
“Same as you, Jerry,” Angelo says, then coughs wetly into a bar napkin.
Constance glances over to the booth—the only regular, Lark notes, to look directly at his sister. “Don’t listen to ’em, Betsy. The french fries are perfectly safe and adequate. Each plate made from a single russet, I’m told.”
“By who,” Angelo says, “the executive chef?”
Instead of heading for the booth and risking an interaction with Betsy, Beth Two holds out the menus for Lark to come grab. He takes the menus, absorbs the regulars’ gaze, and slides into the seat across from his sister.
“Bets,” he says, keeping his voice low, which is silly—it’s not like there’s anyone here who hasn’t already clocked Betsy Larkin, out and about in Wofford Falls. He imagines, cartoonishly, the local stringers dashing off to file their stories for the late edition. Teletypes crackling down the wire. Wofford Falls’s own Howard Hughes, the recluse loosed once again on the unsuspecting town.
Betsy can’t seem to tear her gaze away from the window. Lark slides his half of the curtain back. The glass is speckled with sticky amber droplets. Across the street is the row of historically preser
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