Quinn thinks Benjamin got kidnapped, and maybe she’s right. But that isn’t what my gut tells me. I love that girl, I do, but something isn’t right here. Call it a father’s intuition.
Damn it, I was always afraid something like this would happen. I was never comfortable with all that ‘urban exploration,’ never. It’s bad enough when white kids do it, crawling around unstable buildings eaten through by termites and infested with bugs and rodents. I warned Benjamin off it when he was a teenager. “You’ll get yourself killed doing that,” I said, “and if you don’t, someone will get the wrong idea and kill you for it.”
Like that kid ever listened to me. And now here I am trawling through some backwater mountain town and hoping I come up with my son and not a dang dead body.
And let me talk about White Oak a minute. This town is creepy. Oh, on the surface it’s all right. I’ve never been much for the mountains but the area around Asheville has been a tourism hotbed for about a hundred and fifty years, or that’s what Quinn tells me, and in that time so many little towns and roadside hamlets have cropped up, it’s a wonder you can even see the mountains anymore. That’s where the national park land comes in, I guess. Most of the forest around here is protected.
White Oak is just like all those other towns, at least when you first look at it. It’s small, just one main street with an old Mast General Store, independent bookstore, gas station, and more antique shops than you can shake a stick at. Get a little further out toward the highway and you hit the strip mall sort of places — Ingles, Starbucks, McDonald’s, that kind of thing. The corporate establishments that don’t jive with the Good Old Appalachia vibe they’re going for.
Maybe it’s because my kid disappeared around here, but I just don’t get a good feeling from this place. First thing I did was go to the motel they put him up in and ask for him at the counter. That’s sort of a test, see, because a motel isn’t supposed to give out any info about its guests.
I think the concierge took that whole discretion thing a little too seriously. “Benjamin Farrow?” he said. “Never heard of him.” I went through my whole spiel, I’m the guy’s father, haven’t heard from him in a while, just checking in, et cetera, but he kept shaking his head. “Never heard of him. Don’t think we’ve ever had someone with that name here.” And meanwhile I’m thinking, “Jesus, talk to me straight. This isn’t the goddamn mafia.”
I didn’t say that to the concierge. Instead I said, “My son was with a museum crew doing research for an exhibit on the Madigan Estate just north of here. Have you seen a car with this license plate on it, a little grey Versa with its back covered in bumper stickers?”
That was when he got cagey. I could barely get a word out of him after that. He said he hadn’t seen a car like that and that he didn’t make a habit of remembering every plate number he saw. So I walked out of there thinking he was definitely hiding something, even if I didn’t know what. Drove up the road a few miles and got a room at a different motel. I’m not leaving till I find my kid.
I must have gone to just about every place in this town asking about Benjamin, full on milk-carton missing poster, with a photo and everything. Nobody’s ever seen him. Not one crumb of recognition. That was my whole morning. Hours of disappointment, a bad burger for lunch, and then back on the streets. And finally I found something.
At this point I’m going door to door, and I’m picking up on what I’ll charitably call a very spooky pattern: people are pretty friendly, for the most part, right up until I mention the Madigan Estate. Then they clam up. One guy says he’s never heard of it. “How can you not have heard of it?” I ask him. “It’s been there longer than you’ve been alive.”
And he just shrugged, gave me a dirty look, and kept walking.
About two o’clock I got a hit. An old lady running an antique shop near the corner of Main looked at Benjamin’s picture, then looked at me. She stared so long without saying anything I thought she’d checked out right there.
“I think he bought a typewriter,” she said finally. “You’re his father?” And she took my ID and stared at it for another twelve hours or so. “Well, I’ll be. You aren’t THE Lucien Farrow? That travelling cellist feller?”
She actually said “feller.” I told her I was.
“Well, I’ll be.” This was to be most of our conversation. “My daughter gave me one of your CDs for Christmas last year.”
“I hope you liked it.”
“I haven’t unwrapped it yet,” she said, and that was that. I’ve had stranger talks with people, but nothing comes even close to what she said to me next. “I don’t think he’ll be coming back, Mr. Farrow, and if you don’t mind my saying so, you should leave it at that and go home.”
Obviously I thought this was some kind of threat, and I was still trying to figure out how I should react when she nodded at my notebook and went, “You a journaler, too?”
“It’s about the only way I can keep track of myself,” I told her.
“Now, I know you won’t just go home,” she said. “So how about I tell you what I can, and you make of it what you like.”
Getting angry now, I asked her if that meant she knew where my son was.
She leaned on the counter, and there was something in her face, it wasn’t exactly kindness but it was somewhere in that territory, that calmed me down. “I can tell you’ve noticed it,” she said, nodding at me. “Some people are more sensitive than others. This ain’t a good place, Mr. Farrow, and it ain’t a healthy place for sensitive people. Most folks my age don’t like talking about it, and the younger folks don’t know about it.”
I asked her what she was talking about, like I couldn’t feel a wet chill creeping down my neck.
“The people who know this ain’t a good place think they can get rid of that stain so long as they keep quiet about it. Like washing your hands gets rid of germs. But these aren’t those kinds of germs, and this place doesn’t carry your typical sort of disease.” She was holding me with her eyes now, like she was daring me to call her crazy.
I didn’t call her that, even though I was thinking it. I know from experience that if you just let elderly people talk they’ll eventually get around to what you want them to say. She was the only lead I had on Benjamin. How could I interrupt her?
“It’s the woods out there by the estate,” she said. “There’s something wrong with them.”
And then she told me a story.
Sorry, but I’m not going to write it down.
Just in case.