The Haunted Computer--Scott Nicholson 1 2 3

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THE HOME—CHAPTER ONE

This was going to be another of those loser places.

Freeman could tell that right from the get go. The home looked just like all the others he'd waltzed through over the last six years. Sure, this one was built of stone and most of the others were brick. This one was in the mountains, surrounded by big oak trees and enough peace and quiet to drive you squirrel-shit nutty. At least the fence here wasn't topped with barbed wire like the one in Durham, where the homeless and the crack brains were always climbing over. As if a group home was a happy Neverland or something.

All group homes were bad news. But even from the road, he could tell this place was different. It had a face that ate children and grinned. This building had an attitude of “Go ahead, punk.”

Or was he the one with the attitude problem? Hadn't a parade of counselors and shrinks and do-gooders thrown aside all their mumbo-jumbo disassociative-this-and-that and pretty much nailed "hopeless case" across his forehead like some kind of welcome mat to his brain? All of them except good old Dad, who had gone deeper inside his head than anybody.

Freeman looked over at the driver, Marvin something-or-other. Not a doctor, just an ordinary guy. Dark skin, cheap aftershave, sunglasses, gum wrappers in the ash tray. At least Marvin bothered to peek over the sunglasses to meet Freeman's eyes, treating him as if he were a human being instead of a problem with legs.

Or maybe Marvin worked for the Trust.

Freeman thought about triptrapping Marvin, seeing if he could read him. But Freeman was down, and the triptrap wouldn’t work when he was this depressed. Plus, people with the Trust were pretty good at keeping their thoughts to themselves. They had shields. Whether this was due to some sort of implant or whether they weren’t allowed to think, Freeman had never been able to determine. It’s not like the Trust left secret decoder books laying around or anything.

"What do you think, Freeman?" the driver asked, nodding toward the long building and sprawling grounds.

"It's not so bad." Freeman figured there was no point riling good old Marvin. Might as well give him the benefit of a doubt. Surely, everybody didn’t belong to the Trust. After all, Marvin had scarcely talked during the four-hour drive up from Durham and had sprung for a couple of Supersizes at McDonald's. So what if Marvin had kept the radio tuned to some saccharine gospel, adjusting the buttons as each station's reception faded? At least Marvin hadn't preached, given him the buddy-buddy, or, worst of all, asked Freeman about his past.

"Wendover's one of the finest," Marvin said, reaching over and turning the radio down a little. As they'd started the climb into the mountains, the Jesus-music had taken a definite turn for the twangy, white people singing with barely suppressed yodels. Freeman wondered how Marvin felt about the whites stealing his people's spirituals, putting organ music behind the songs, branding it “Southern Gospel” and making a fortune.

Marvin didn't look like it bothered him. Marvin didn't look like anything bothered him. He definitely didn’t act like Trust material. Most of those goons were too cold and uptight, as if they’d watched too many Gene Hackman movies featuring Secret Service agents. But it was the ones you weren’t sure about, the ones who bled red and wore ugly suits, that were the most dangerous.

Freeman gazed out the window again at the grounds. The fence was stone up to about waist high, topped with black wrought-iron bars ten feet tall. At the back of the property, the trees grew alongside the fence. Be pretty easy to hoist himself over if he got itchy feet, even with those sharp points on top. Pull a “Shawshank Redemption.”

The home was set a hundred yards from the fence, two-story wings set out from a three-story main entrance. The building looked like some giant bird, grounded by its own mass, its bones broken. The windows had little awnings over them, giving the appearance of brooding eyes. Even with the stone facade, the building bore that institutional look, as if it were always dark on the inside and independent thoughts would be locked in the broom closet for punishment.

A half dozen small cottages were scattered among the wooded edges of the compound, and a sheet of silver marked a lake at the rear of the property. The lawns themselves were closely mown, the oaks and maples clutching the ground with great gnarled fingers. A stand of willows swooned near the lake, as sad as a row of widows.

"Looks old," Freeman said.

"About seventy years," Marvin said. "Old for a person, maybe, not for a building."

When you were twelve, seventy was old for anything. Even God. Freeman tried to think up a clever comeback, like an actor who thought his improvisation was always better than the script.

"It was built under the Works Project Administration," Marvin said. "Right after the Depression."

Looked like the Depression had never ended here, as if the shadow of hard times clung to every nook and cranny of the home, which would make it a perfect fit for Freeman.

They turned off the highway and headed for the front gate. It was open, the hinged bars swung wide. In Durham, the gate was always locked. Whether that was to keep people in or keep them out, Freeman wasn’t sure. And the counselors hadn't volunteered much information.

Here, maybe they trusted people.

Yeah, right. "Trust" was just another of those power words that the personality police liked to slam you with. Trust, self-esteem, possibility-thinking, empowerment. And that biggie, hope. Nothing but a blowhard waste of alphabet.

And the Trust was a negative word to Freeman anyway. Dad had worked for the Trust. Or, as Dad liked to say, the Trust was just the means to Freeman’s end.

As they drove into the shaded entrance, Freeman read the words "Wendover Home" set in metal scrollwork over the gate. The style of the letters was old-fashioned, like the script in some of those leather-bound books he'd stolen from the Durham Academy's library.

"This place been group all that time?" Freeman asked.

Marvin had been humming along with the radio in his rich bass. Apparently he knew white people's music. "No. It's only been a children's home for about a decade. Stood empty a long time before that."

"Bet this is some pricy real estate." They'd passed a collection of big houses on the way in, planned subdivisions with names like "Elk Run" and "Carolina Oaks."

"A lot of rich people keep summer homes up here," Marvin said. "Plenty of golf courses and resorts around. A couple of ski slopes, too."

Freeman took his eyes from the building that was going to be his next temporary home. He studied the mountains that rose up above the valley floor. The fall colors of red and gold were splashed amid the blue-gray and green. Long slivers of granite showed in the slopes, the peaks raw and jagged. Freeman found himself comparing them to the tall buildings of the city. No contest. Buildings were way creepier, because buildings were full of people.

"Think they'll let us go skiing?" Freeman had never been. He wasn't even sure he wanted to go, but being out in the open, in a hushed world of glistening white snow, seemed like something to wish for.

"I wouldn't know. I'm just a driver for Social Services."

Social Services. The enemy, almost as bad as the Trust. Knew what was best for you, whether you liked it or not. Marvin was way too cool to be one of them. Freeman edged closer to the car door.

They pulled into the cul de sac in front of the double doors and Marvin stopped the car before a wide set of concrete stairs. "Here we go," Marvin said. "Wendover."

Freeman glanced up at the windows on the second floor. A pale blur of motion appeared at one of them. A face? Someone watching?

Paranoid already. Good.

Freeman twisted his mouth into a frown. Better start off on the right foot, walk in mean, talk tough, squint like a miniature Clint Eastwood with saddle sores. Ready to eat nails and shit bullets.

Freeman got out of the car and tried out a strut. He took a breath of air and thought something was wrong. Then he realized that he wasn't smelling garbage and smog and car exhaust. The air was clean, cool, ripe with the fresh scent of pine and running water. So this was that Appalachian Mountain air that everybody had talked about when they promised he was going to a better place.

Marvin opened the trunk and retrieved the gym bag that contained all of Freeman's earthly possessions. Freeman looked up at the window again, real casual, so cool that he was probably exhaling frost. The face, or whatever it was, shimmered and disappeared.

Freeman's mouth fell open, definitely uncool. Must have been the sun. A reflection of a cloud. Faces didn’t just disappear.

Freeman shouldered his gym bag and followed Marvin up the stairs. Marvin even moved cool, with an athletic grace. Freeman was tempted to imitate the driver's smooth stride, but it was hard to be smooth and jerky-tough at the same time, so he stuck with the limping strut.

Marvin held open one of the doors and slipped his sunglasses into his jacket pocket. "Welcome home.”

Home. Freeman had heard that before. At least a dozen times in the last six years.

The smell of the place wafted from the hall like liquid, sucked the fresh air out of his lungs and replaced it with a heavy corruption, like the funk of wet, moldy newspapers.

"Wendover, here I come," he said cheerfully, in hopes of fooling good old Marvin.

He stepped inside the building and it was like stepping from day into night without passing dusk on the way, his eyes slowly adjusting to the gloom. The hallway ceiling stretched twenty feet above. The floor was tiled, spattered gray and brown, the kind that hid blood stains and vomit. A strip of worn red carpet lay along its middle like a weary tongue.

"Mister Mills," came a high, thin voice. A man's voice, but not a manly, jock-itch man’s. Some do-gooder wimp. Freeman looked up from the pointy toes of the shiny leather shoes before him.

"You talking to me?" Freeman said. De Niro in “Taxi Driver,” not Eastwood, but Freeman figured a Clint squint wouldn’t fly in the bad light. He tried the line again, changing the emphasis of the syllables. “You talking to me?”

“Welcome.” The man extended his hand. He was balding and his eyes were distorted behind his thick eyeglasses. The brushy mustache made him look like he was wearing one of those Groucho Marx disguises. His eyelids were heavy and purplish. The buggy, milky eyes blinked and the man licked his lips. Freeman's first thought was Lizard Man.

Freeman took the hand. It was clammy and moist, like the building's interior.

"Francis Bondurant," Lizard Man said. "I'm the director of Wendover Home."

"Hey, call me ‘Trooper.’ I’ve got a history with that one,” Freeman said.

Lizard Man pursed his lips, and Freeman expected a long tongue to flick out at any moment and snatch a mosquito from the air. "Why, er, yes, Mister Mills. How was the trip?"

"Nice ride," Freeman said, with just an edge of toughness. No need to disrespect Marvin just to rack up an easy score against this guy.

"He was well behaved. A total gentleman," Marvin said, and Lizard Man seemed to notice the driver for the first time, though he'd been standing a few feet behind Freeman. Maybe the Liz wasn't cool with "coloreds."

"Behaved himself, did he?" Now that Lizard Man had an adult to talk to, he became just like the rest, talked right over Freeman's head as if he wasn't there. "Well, we hope he gets off to a good start here. Wendover has a reputation for helping the difficult placements."

Difficult placements. The Liz made it sound like a game, stats to be padded like a batting average against a rookie pitcher. Maybe Wendover was the roach motel of group homes. Difficult placements check in, but they don't check out.

"Here's some of his papers." Marvin pulled an envelope from somewhere inside his jacket. "You should have received the rest in the mail."

Lizard Man studied the papers, made sure everything was signed in the right place, then nodded curtly. The whole transaction reminded Freeman of a prisoner exchange in a war movie.

"Very good, sir," Lizard Man said to Marvin. "Are you rushing right back, or would you like to stay and rest a bit?"

Marvin rolled his eyes over the shabby interior: The oil painting of a sailboat that had lost its gloss, the paneled wainscoting that buckled from the wall in places, the ceiling tiles that looked as if someone had dashed coffee on them. "Thanks for the offer. But I've got a Bible Study to lead back off the mountain. Wouldn't want one of my youngsters to misinterpret the parable of the fishes."

"Amen to that," Lizard Man said, and Freeman could tell right away the man had fallen into the automatic Jesus-response and didn't know the first damned thing about the parable of the fishes. "Well, thank you for delivering this young Daniel from the lion's den."

"He isn't delivered yet, Mr. Bondurant. You and your staff will have to take him the rest of the way to salvation."

"Quite so."

To Freeman, Marvin said, "So long, Freeman. Hope it works out."

"Thanks for the lift." Freeman almost reached out to shake Marvin's hand, but didn't want to mess it up by fumbling around halfway between a high-five and a soul shake. So he just nodded. He was supposed to be tough, anyway. He wasn't going to be softened up with a few kind words and a fast-food meal. He’d been hit harder by better.

"See you around," Marvin said to them both, then glided out the door. The shaft of sunlight that snuck in during his exit gave a hint of the wide green world beyond. Then the door swung closed, slamming with the finality of a coffin lid.

Freeman was home.

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