THE TOWN FEELS LIKE home immediately, and he credits the leaves. It must be a pickup day. Plastic bags bursting with withered remains of life are stacked on the curbs, a few spilling over onto the sidewalks, flecks of crimson and copper that dot the white concrete like blood splatters on pale flesh. The air is that contrary blend: alive with a smell, but the smell is death.
Those who pass him have their heads down and shoulders hunched, turtles seeking their shells. He stands tall as he walks, embracing the cold wind, which is wonderfully unblocked by concrete walls, unmarred by razor wire fencing. He is grateful for that. There are other people in this town who have similar feelings, memories of days when one could not embrace the wind and longed to, no matter how bitter and chill. He knows some of them, and he knows that those very memoriesrealitiesare in some cases exactly what chased them to this town, a chance to hide from the past.
At first glance, this town feels like a fine place for hiding from reality, too: impossibly quaint, with an actual town square and a brick courthouse. It could be the stage set from some Hollywood version of small-town middle America if not for all the empty buildings. Half the storefronts facing the courthouse have FOR RENT or FOR SALE signs in dusty windows. As he moves away from the square, walking north, toward the lake, stepping carefully around those swollen bags of leaves, he encounters vacant properties, once-tidy yards filled with brown weeds, vinyl siding begging for a hose and some bleach.
Hard times have come to Chambers, Ohio.
Five blocks farther north, the lake visible now, the smell of water pushed toward him by a steady wind, and he departs to follow the signs for the high school. Turns west, walks a few more blocks, and now he can see it. A two-story main structure with single-story wings sprawling in odd directions, indications that several additions have been made over the years.
Chambers High School, Home of the Cardinals.
A cardinal was the third creature he ever killed. Caught it beneath his grandmother's birdfeeder. He'd watched the cat's approach to this task and marveled. The cat didn't hide; it just waited with incredible, dazzling patience. There was no cover under the birdfeeder, nothing to shield a killer, and still the killer succeeded. As the cat approached, the birds would scatter. The cat was unbothered by that, content in his role and devoted to it, possessed of unusual clarity of purpose. The cat would simply settle down into the grass beside a dusting of fallen sunflower seeds and wait. And without fail, the birds would return. Even though they could see the cat, its lack of motion reassured them, convinced them that they were safe. The cat never reacted to those first birds. The cat would wait, and watch, and eventually they'd become so confident in their safety that one would come just near enough, and then there would be a blinding strike, and those around the victim would scatter.
Give them enough time, though? Then they would return. Always. Because the feeder was there, the feeder was home, and though they might be capable of remembering what had befallen one of their own in the same spot, they did not believe it could happen to them as well.
Unshakable confidence. Unshakable stupidity.
He is fascinated by the confident specimens of the helpless. He finds no fascination in the fearful.
The first bird took him longer than it took the cat, but not as long as he'd expected. The secret was in his stillness. The secret was in their stupidity. It took him only five days to get the cardinal. He killed the cat when that was done. There was nothing more to be learned from it.
Excerpted from The Prophet by Michael Koryta. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Koryta. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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