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Voodoo heart, p.1
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       Voodoo Heart, p.1

           Scott Snyder
 
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Voodoo Heart


  CONTENTS

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Blue Yodel

  Happy Fish, Plus Coin

  About Face

  Voodoo Heart

  Wreck

  Dumpster Tuesday

  The Star Attraction of 1919

  Acknowledgments

  Copyright

  For Jeanie

  THE BLIMP PASSED FIRST, SILVER WITH SIX WHITE FINS AT THE tail, like a giant bullet fired slowly through the sky. It glided far above the sugar pea field, too high to cause a stir. Its long black shadow skated over the dirt road between the rows of bright green plants, over the barn beyond, and then the blimp was gone and for a long moment all was as before. A spotted rabbit scampered out into the road, sniffed the air, then darted back into the trellised stalks just as Preston Bristol’s Model T came crashing through, trailing a thick cloud of dust and chalk. The car was weather-beaten—one headlight missing, the other yellowed and cracked, the tires patched with flapping runs of tape. As it bounced along, tiny continents of rust rattled loose from the peeling hood and were whisked up and off.

  Inside the car, Pres had his right foot jammed on the gas and his left foot pressed on top of his right. He squinted through the sunlit windshield at the blimp up ahead, still unable to accept it as a fixture of the sky and not something conjured up by his eye, a floater, a stain. He’d lost the blimp in a cloud formation over the Arkansas border and hadn’t seen or heard mention of it in nearly a week. Now, suddenly, here it was, right in front of him, coasting along not even a quarter mile ahead. Pres could see the great aluminum blades of its propellers. He could see the windows of the blimp’s cabin—the windows! He tried to find Claire behind one of them, but all the curtains were drawn shut. Pres had never been inside the blimp (this—two hundred, maybe three hundred yards behind it—was the closest he’d ever gotten), but even so he could picture its empty dining room, the booths of buttoned velvet, the golden maple dance floor across which he imagined someone, a man, swinging Claire past all those drawn curtains, pressing the stiff blond brush of his mustache into her ear. Pres glanced at the .38 lying on the passenger seat. He wondered whether anyone up there would try to stop Claire from coming home. He stuck his head out of the car window and listened for her voice.

  “Claire!” he yelled at the blimp. “Claire, can you hear me?” But there was only the roar of the wind in his ears.

  As the field gave way to grazing land, the front of the car nosed inside the blimp’s shadow. Pres felt a gust of joy blow through him. He would catch it this time. He had it! As if in agreement, his map, weighted down in the backseat by a rock, began to beat its corners against the seat leather.

  Pres had started after the blimp in late February of 1918. Now it was only the middle of spring, but the past couple of months seemed to him like a cannon through which he’d been shot from twenty-one years young straight into the sagging net of old age. His hands ached at the joints. His ankles had swelled. His back was sour from hunching over the wheel. Last week, while undressing for bed, he’d noticed a dusting of silver in his black hair. He wondered if Claire would look any different to him, if all that time up in the air had changed her somehow. As the car splashed through a series of deep-rutted puddles in the road, he imagined her emerging from the blimp a radiant version of herself, tanned as a pancake and sugared with freckles, her eyes the brilliant green of the stripe inside a marble. He wondered what he’d say to her, how it would feel to touch her. She was his fiancée and his best friend, his only friend, and yet he had no idea how he’d react when he encountered her again. Would he kiss her? Crush her against him? Maybe she would make the first move, though, he thought. Maybe she would grab him by the ears and cry into his neck and tell him exactly what had happened, why she’d left at all.

  A cloud appeared ahead of the blimp, simply rolled in from nowhere. More than a cloud, it was a vast island, beginning as a thin shore of vapor and quickly thickening to tangled, cottony fields before billowing up into tall forests of green-and-black thunderheads. Sadness seized Pres so fiercely he began to shake. Not yet, he thought, his eyes fixed on the blimp, which was already nearing the first tendrils of haze. He was too close. He’d come too far to lose the blimp again. He reached for the gun on the seat beside him. In his mind, he pointed the .38 out the window and blasted six large bullet holes in the blimp’s gas cells. The helium poured out with a flute-like music as the airship deflated and settled gently to the ground. But even as he aimed the gun, he knew that it was too small to do any real damage, that he himself was a tiny, harmless thing.

  Pres watched as the cloud swallowed the top of the balloon, then its silvery bulk, until only the cabin was visible, sailing along beneath the cloud’s underside. He watched until the blimp was gone.

  For a long while after, Pres kept the car pointed down the same road. Every few moments he glanced up at the cloud cover for punctures or tears, any hole that might afford him a glimpse of the blimp. How much time passed this way he couldn’t tell—an hour, two? The land shifted, became hilly and wild. When the clouds lifted, revealing nothing behind them but an empty tabletop of blue sky, Pres stopped watching the air altogether and scanned the ground for clues.

  In the past he’d found things thrown down from the blimp—Claire’s things. Back in Cayuga he’d discovered one of her shoes standing up in the road like a dart. When he’d pulled it from the ground he found the impression of Claire’s foot still inside, a soft dent where her heel had been. He’d torn the shoe apart looking for a message from her, something written beneath the fabric, maybe carved into the heel. Outside of Pittsburgh he’d found her flowered hat floating in a pond, half pecked-apart by birds. A few times he’d come upon the smashed remains of cola bottles—Dapper Boy’s Pop, Claire’s favorite. The bottle tops were always sealed, the caps carefully twisted back onto the severed necks. Pres believed Claire was using them to send messages to him, that she wrote desperate notes and sealed them inside these bottles and then flung them out of the blimp, hoping they might find a soft landing. Each time he caught sight of a bottle neck he screeched to a stop and searched the area for her note. He picked through the grass, checked the bushes and trees, but the note always managed to blow away before he came looking.

  Pres had met Claire in a wax museum near Buffalo. He was twenty and just orphaned with a pinch of money. She was nineteen. Her job was to stand very still among the dummies and then come to life and scare people. The first day Pres came by, the museum’s manager had Claire sitting on a bench of figures sculpted to look like they were waiting for a train. She had a circular valise covered with exotic stickers by her feet and wore a hat that drooped over one eye. On one side of her a young boy in overalls sucked on his ticket; on the other a plump man frowned through a monocle at a pocket watch chained to his vest. Pres had never seen such a pretty girl. Her hair was short, shorter even than his, ending at her ear in a soft, curling point that made him think of a beckoning finger. She looked so ready to leave, too, so eager, leaning forward with her hands on the edge of the bench, her neck craned to see down the tracks. Her lips were parted a touch in the middle, as though she were kissing the station—her whole life—good-bye. When Pres leaned in close he saw her tongue inside, pink and wet in the flickering light from the lamp on the wall. He wanted to kiss her, but even more he wanted to be the one she was waiting for, to be what was coming to collect her. He tried to angle himself so that she was looking right at his face, but every time he positioned himself inside her gaze, she shifted her eyes, rolling them a bit so that she was always looking just over his head or to the side of his ear. It wasn’t until she burst out laughing that Pres realized she was a real girl, playing with him.

  Pres’s face burned; the girl was laugh
ing so hard she had to hold on to her hat.

  “Enough already, birdie. I knew it was you,” he said.

  “Sure, I could tell,” she said.

  “I did. I saw you shaking. You make a lousy statue.”

  “So get out of here so I can keep on being lousy at it,” she said, and then she started arranging her pose, settling back into place like a clay figure hardening under a flame.

  “Fine with me. I got a real job to get to, anyway, a serious job.” Pres spoke a little too loudly, as though she were already out of earshot. But he wanted to stop her from retreating. “I work at the Falls of Niagara. I’m on the new patrol. I watch for people trying to go over in barrels.”

  She blinked a few times and then looked at him like she’d only just noticed him standing there. “Oh, you’re still here? Get going already. Someone’s coming.”

  Pres heard the brush of shoes against carpet coming from around the corner. “They use young guys like me to spot barrels because we got good eyes, see?” he said, and crossed his eyes at her.

  “Fine, fine, you goon. Now shut it. I need to concentrate.”

  “If I don’t warn the guy on hook before the barrel gets into the rapids, that’s it. Whoever’s inside is going over.”

  “Shh,” she hissed through the corner of her mouth. “I can’t stay steady with you talking. You’ll get me fired!” She cocked her head to peer down the tracks again.

  “I mean they’re dead. Swept right—”

  She grabbed his hand and pulled him down to the bit of bench between herself and the man with the pocket watch and then she was kissing him. It wasn’t a good kiss; she mashed her whole face against his straight on—jammed her nose into his, her forehead into his brow. He could feel the ridge of her teeth behind her lips. But Pres liked it, the feeling of being pressed into this girl, of having collided with her. He was about to kiss her back when he became aware of someone else in the room, watching them, and he froze. He stayed with his lips pressed to hers, his wrists pulsing in her cool hands, and waited for the person to leave. It occurred to him that whoever was looking at them probably assumed that Claire was kissing him good-bye before leaving on the train, and it felt dizzyingly strange to think of someone standing there, saddened by the portrait of parting lovers who were really only kissing hello.

  All that summer, on bright evenings, Pres would drive through the city to Claire’s parents’ home. When he reached the yard, he would slow the car to a quiet roll and open the passenger-side door and then Claire would creep from the hedge and jump in. The two of them would speed off through town with the headlights off, taking the unlit streets, some of them old gravel horse paths, until they arrived at the forest at the northern city limit. There, Pres would tuck the car behind a screen of bushes and they’d get out and follow the railroad tracks through two miles of woods to the clearing where the blimps were made.

  A high gate blocked them from getting close to the facility, but through gaps in the trees they could see the fireworks of construction blazing across the hangar’s translucent walls—arcs of bouncing blue sparks, loops of flame. Pres and Claire spread their blanket on the grass by the fence and watched along with the other lovers who’d come from town, visible to each other only during particularly fierce bursts of light from inside the hangar. Claire often brought snacks, while Pres offered up a jelly jar of apple wine bought from one of the men who made it in his tub at the boardinghouse near Pres’s place. As they sipped and ate, the two of them whispered guesses back and forth as to who the other spectators were, who those two glowing cigarette tips belonged to, who that woman was being kissed there with her hands above her head, her fingers laced through the fence links. Pres figured that all the people at the clearing were from nearby, people they knew, but Claire liked to pretend they’d ventured there from the kinds of places she read about in travel magazines.

  “I bet she’s from Spain. See how her hair’s pulled to the side? That’s a Spanish style.” Or “That man beneath the trees, he’s got fat on him like a Russian. They need it because of the tundra.”

  She knew things about places he’d never heard of, cities with rivers for streets, countries where for part of the year the sun never dropped below the horizon, where a single day lasted for weeks.

  Pres had trouble visualizing such places. He’d never ventured more than fifty miles from Niagara. His parents had died in bewilderingly quick succession, and the single greatest comfort to Pres, the sole comfort really, was knowing that the city in which he lived contained all the artifacts of their lives: their friends, their haunts. Two streets west of the house was the tannery where his father had worked. Three blocks toward the river was Harbor Lights, his grandparents’ restaurant, above which his mother had grown up. Here was the chapel where his parents had been married. There, the cemetery where they lay. The city was like a private museum that Pres could tour whenever he pleased.

  Even now, nearly a year after their deaths, Pres had trouble imagining himself going much of anywhere at all. But sometime early in the summer Claire started using we instead of I when she talked about traveling. We. For Pres, that tiny word transformed the whole future into a hot little secret between just the two of them.

  The summer seemed full of secrets. In the moonlit forest, blimps were being built for reasons that, though clearly explained by the city’s naval officers as part of a national “contract,” still were hooded in mystery. Every few months another blimp emerged from the woods, glided over city hall, and moored on the high school baseball field for a brief celebration. The blimps had summery names: The Mayfly, Honeysuckle Rose, The Raindrop. That one boasted a cabled observation basket that could lower from the clouds. Another—The Roost—had a ladder hanging from its cabin that airplanes could cling to in midair like trapeze artists. No one knew for sure where the blimps flew off to afterward; some people said to a naval base in New Jersey, but others claimed out to sea.

  The blimps’ architects and engineers had come from Germany, and in the spring the city’s naval officers had moved them into a house on Jemmison Street, right near the city center. They were large, blocky men, these Germans, broad-shouldered as umpires. And yet they seemed so helpless, so lost all the time, startled by the passing clatter of a police horse, frightened into apologetic fits of nodding and waving by a simple hello from someone passing on the sidewalk. One of them, a man named Heitmeyer, never went anywhere without a parasol to keep off the sun. Pres knew his name because he’d gone into the diner right behind Heitmeyer one morning and seen him write it in the guest book. As Pres ate his breakfast, he kept glancing over at Heitmeyer, who sat in a booth against the far wall. He was studying what Pres guessed was some kind of blueprint spread before him on the table. Every now and then Heitmeyer took up his pencil and began working on whatever it was, bending close to the paper, creating a little fort around it with his arm. Pres got so curious that he pretended to have to go to the men’s room just to catch a glimpse. What he saw, though, when he passed the booth wasn’t a blueprint at all, but a drawing, a fanciful sketch of a sky filled with blimps of all shapes and sizes: fleets of blimps layered one on top of the next, stretching up into the atmosphere. An elegant network of ladders and rope bridges and spiraling tubes connected the blimps, creating a city in the sky, a floating metropolis protected by a vast, blue moat. How wild to get to live someplace like that, Pres thought. But even as the sketch disappeared behind Heitmeyer’s arm, Pres found himself wondering how great it would really be. What if lightning popped one of the blimps? What if they ran out of fuel? What if someone living up there wanted to come down?

  There were other secrets that summer, too. More people than ever before were going over the falls. For years no one had done such a thing, simply stepped into a barrel and shoved off toward the rapids, but now there were jumps all the time. The jumpers were always local people, too, not daredevils from Buffalo or Albany, not publicity hounds or stuntmen, but people everyone had known for years: Gideon Wells,
who delivered milk and ice and butter every week, and pretty Laura, who kept minutes at city hall. No one knew why they did it, but all around the city, people wondered who would be next.

  Claire loved Pres’s stories of working on the patrol. She loved them so much, it made him blush with pride there in the pinescented darkness. Over and over he told her about Pipe Island, where he worked, a slender strip of land shaped like a corncob pipe at the edge of the falls. He told her about the squat stone tower at the bowl end of the island, where he spent his days scanning the river for barrels. He even taught her how to spy jumpers. First thing, he explained, laying his head on her leg, was to watch the shore. Barrels were cumbersome, and the hedging along the riverbanks was leafy even in winter. More often than not, people could be spotted before they made it within a hundred feet of the water. It happened all the time, he said. He’d be looking through the binoculars, scanning the American, then the Canadian side of the river, and he’d catch a rustling in the bushes near the top of one of the banks. All of a sudden, a lady in bathing trunks and a frilly swimming cap would be rolling a fat, brown barrel down the bank and splashing it out into the river. Occasionally, though, the barrels were already in the water by the time he saw them rushing toward him.

  I’ll bet you think that barrels float, he said, that they bob along like corks. Well, they don’t, not at all. In fact, he told Claire, they tumble forward underwater, hardly ever rising to the surface. They would come at him like mice moving beneath a carpet, little swells in the current. Winter was even worse, he said. The barrels often drifted beneath ice floes headed downriver and were only visible as shadowy spots on the white plates of ice. And once a jumper made it past the patrol, chances were no one would ever see him or her again; the jumper would just vanish into the white curtain of the falls.

 
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