To remove screws easily, use a screwdriver bit and the “reverse” setting on your electric drill. —Tiptree’s Tips Harold had Facebook, and LiveJournal, and Twitter. He had a BlackBerry, an iPad, an iPod, and a third-generation Kindle.
He had a pain, mild but constant, a fluttery twinge in the soft tissue just above his left eye, deep in the hollow where you’d put your thumb if you were going to try lifting him by his cranium. Sometimes late at night, in his tiny apartment in a grimly forgotten, perpetually unfashionable corner of Lower Manhattan, he would find himself Googling: twinge, eye, flutter. Or: thumb, skull.
When it occurred to him what that last pair rhymed with— numbskull—he stopped Googling it. But he couldn’t forget.
Each weekday, Harold took the subway to his job at a video store a few blocks from Ground Zero, a place with a sale bin out front and a sputtery neon sign in the grimy window. Once it had thrived, but the only videos people rented nowadays were ones they wouldn’t dare view on the Internet for fear of prison time.
The films didn’t have brightly illustrated cardboard sleeves, or even titles. Furtive men—no women, in Harold’s depressingly extensive experience—entered the store with money in hand, and asked without looking up at Harold for number 19, or number 204.
Harold wondered if they were ashamed of themselves, or if maybe they just didn’t like seeing his eye twitch. If maybe they were creeped out by him. What he didn’t wonder was what kind of unspeakably sordid images the videos contained; he needed the job too much for that.
But after three years in the store—the sputtering neon sign, the nagging eye pain, the worn black plastic cassettes or clear jewel cases that he wiped thoroughly with spray cleaner anytime one of them got returned—he also needed a vacation. So when the store’s owner laid Harold off for two weeks due to cash-flow problems, he decided to go to Maine.
He’d never been, just seen pictures of the place. Probably Maine colors weren’t as bright as they looked in the pages of magazines, with lighthouses as red-and-white-striped as new candy canes, and water as blue as . . . well, nothing in this life was ever really that blue, Harold felt sure.
But it didn’t matter what it was like there. It was the idea of Maine that attracted him: clean air, not too many people. Forests you could walk into and not find your way out again, mineral-clear lakes, numbingly cold, where you could wade in and dissolve with a sigh, like a fizzy lozenge.
Not that he meant to; wade into one of those lakes, that is, and never wade out. But the idea of such wilderness—of surfaces that hadn’t been handled and breathed on, or even looked at, by millions of people—spoke deeply to him, somehow, even though he had never experienced any such place himself.
So Harold left all his electronic gadgets at home and took a bus from Port Authority to Bangor, Maine, then a smaller one whose seats were made of hard plastic. As they wound out of Bangor, the driver drank Diet Coke and blared Top Forty on the radio propped up on the cluttered dashboard while the bus juddered along the twisty, crumbling two-lane blacktop.
Hours passed while Harold stared out the window at a world growing steadily more rural and less like anything he’d ever seen before: small wooden houses with garishly colored plastic toys in their rough yards, lobster traps stacked along unpaved driveways, boats sagging on trailers. Next came lengthy stretches where it seemed no one at all lived, the unfenced fields high and boulder-studded and the forests appearing darkly impenetrable.
At last they reached a small, desolate-looking intersection marked by an out-of-business gas station and convenience store. No sign, but the driver said it was the right place; hoisting his backpack, Harold got out and the bus trundled away, leaving him alone on the gravel shoulder, which was littered with hundreds of old and new filtered cigarette butts.
All around him loomed giant evergreens, their pointed tops etched on a fiercely blue sky. A big white-headed bird—a bald eagle, Harold realized; he’d never seen one of those before, either—sailed above.
The roar of a diesel engine shattered the silence as a log truck loaded with forty-foot tree trunks hurtled past, the smell of fresh pine sap sharp in its wake. Watching it go, he felt a sudden, drowning sense of isolation and loss, as if his old life had been torn away and had yet to be replaced by anything.
If it would be. Abruptly, he wished he hadn’t come. Back in the city, he was always so surrounded and assaulted by crowds and clamor, it was easy there to pretend that he wasn’t alone.
Here it was different. Turning, he heard the gravel crunch loudly beneath his feet. A big dog barked, somewhere on the other side of a line of trees. From the rotting eaves of the boarded-up convenience store, wasps drifted, each one materializing in the gloom at the nest’s entrance, then launching itself.
Harold wondered suddenly what it was like in that nest, in the insectile dark. But he didn’t think he’d better try to find out. Just then a car pulled up to where the gas pumps used to be.
“You waitin’ for a ride?” The car was an old, dark blue Monte Carlo with the word taxi inexpertly stenciled on it in white.
The driver, a large, whiskery man wearing a fedora, chewed a cigar stub. Harold did not recall any cabdriver back in the city ever waiting so patiently or looking at him so frankly, as if genuinely engaged in this interaction and curious about Harold’s reply.
Harold hefted his backpack, which he had let down onto the cracked concrete pad that the absent gas pumps had once stood on. Ten minutes later, after crossing a causeway and traversing some of the most astonishingly beautiful geography he’d ever seen—trees, a long beach with legions of small birds striding stick-legged on it, a wide expanse of water, then more trees and water again—he reached the island city of Eastport, Maine.
“Here you go. That’ll be seven bucks. A buck a mile,” the taxi man explained around the cigar stub.
Harold blinked, still stunned by the beauty and variety of the fields, forested land, and reedy marshes he’d been whisked through, the ponds, pools, and tidal inlets he’d passed over.
Chomping the cigar, the driver eyed him wisely. “City boy, eh? Don’t worry. You stay here, you’ll get over it. Eventually,” he added with a wink, taking the ten Harold handed him.
“Keep the change,” said Harold. The Monte pulled away in a belch of gray exhaust fumes that the breeze, smelling strongly of salt water and creosote, snatched up and dispersed.
Leaving him alone, again, though here at least there were people going about their business: into the hardware store, the pizza shop, and the T-shirt-and-souvenir store all located in the three-story red-brick buildings directly before him. To his left loomed another brick edifice, an old bank now repurposed into an art gallery, with a fountain and a small terrace in front of it. There was an ornate metal park bench placed on the terrace, which he thought was a nice touch.
Right behind him was an old-fashioned diner. Through a small screened front window, he saw a long Formica counter and a series of red leatherette booths, and suddenly realized he was starving. He’d been on the road almost two days with only snacks and small bottles of juice to eat and drink, from the vending machines in various bus stations.
Turning to enter the diner, he got his first view of the bay, which even after all of the water he’d already crossed he hadn’t realized was so very near. Seeing it on a map had been one thing, the letters printed over it spelling out Passamaquoddy Bay, which he guessed must be a Native American name. But being right next to it was another, especially since thing, there was no one on it.
Or almost no one; dark blue with flocks of gulls hovering over it, the bay was narrow and extended a long way to his left and right, which he recalled from the map were north and south. A few fish- ing boats puttered, their wakes boiling white, engines puffing up clouds of diesel. The bay itself looked serene, though, not like the busy, commerce-clogged waterways at home.
He gazed for another moment, inhaling the salty air. But more delay than that, the pangs of his appetite would not allow. A whiff of grilled bacon drifted sweetly out of the diner’s screen window, seized him by the nose, and drew him hungrily in.
Half an hour later he was sopping up the last bit of egg yolk with his last corner of buttered toast. The waitress was so free with the coffee refills, he thought she’d have left the pot if he’d asked. He washed the delicious mouthful down with a sip from his freshly topped-up cup and, sighing, leaned back.
He’d made it. He’d gotten here, all the long way to Maine’s downeast coast, so far from the island of Manhattan and, as he had already begun realizing, so utterly different from it.
And he felt . . . fine. Scared, a little, and still not sure how he was getting away with such an adventurous, such a previously unthought-of, expedition. He didn’t quite trust his success yet, he guessed. But so far, so good.
Two men slid onto stools at the counter. They were in their sixties, maybe, Harold thought from their work-bent postures, and they were similarly dressed in jeans, boots, and faded plaid shirts, with Red Sox ball caps on their heads. When they spoke, continuing a conversation that had evidently begun outside, their accents amazed Harold.
“Pretty fah from heah.” The first man stirred sugar into his coffee.
“Fah,” the second man agreed. “Nawt thet fah, tho.”
They were saying that something was only somewhat far from here, Harold realized. He listened some more.
“State prison’s just a hop, skip, and a jump from here, if you’ve got a car once you make it outside the fences.” Cah.
“They didn’t say he’s got a car. In the newspaper.”
Paypah. “Maybe he didn’t. Not then. He might by now, though. Have one, that is.”
The second man drank coffee, then added, “He’s not coming here, though. I know, I know”—he put his work-worn hands up to ward off objections—“this’s where he’s from originally. Killer like that, though, he does a runner”—runnah—“he’ll hightail it to somewhere else, prob’ly. Somewhere he can blend in.”
Somewheyah. “Prob’ly,” the first man agreed, nodding sagely. “Like New York City. Hell, I guess most anyone you’d meet out on the street might be a killer, there.”
You’ve got that right, Harold thought wryly, gathering from what he’d just overheard that a convicted murderer had recently escaped from the state prison and was on the loose. But that had nothing to do with him, he told himself reassuringly. All he wanted was a walk in the woods, and there was certainly nothing there, he felt sure, to appeal to a prison escapee.
He got up from his booth. The men had turned to discussing a hunter who’d gone out three days ago and hadn’t returned. Old Bentley, they called him. Bentley Hodell; had heart trouble, poor guy. Had an attack out there, maybe—mebbe—out in the woods.
Excerpted from Dead Level by Sarah Graves. Copyright © 2012 by Sarah Graves. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.