December’s Thorn by Phillip DePoy is the seventh book in the Fever Devilin mystery series, set in rural Georgia (available January 22, 2013).
Fever Devilin is an academic with a complicated past and an unusual view of the world. A folklorist by training, he’s returned to his family home in Blue Mountain, a small town in the heart of Georgia’s Appalachian Mountains, where nothing is ever quite what it seems, and the past is always complicated. Still recovering from a near-death experience, Fever is visited by a woman who claims to be his wife. And she’s there to deliver some shocking news: Fever has a son.
His friends don’t really believe the woman exists—they think she’s another hallucination of a mind still slowly recovering from a long-term coma. Fever’s fiancée is torn between being outraged and concerned for his mental health. None of this is helped by the fact that Fever, even in the best of times, has a tendency to see things that others don’t and that may not, strictly speaking, exist. But when someone starts shooting very real bullets from a very real rifle in Fever’s direction, the one thing that everyone can agree upon is that there’s something very deadly going on. All Fever has to do is sort out who is trying to kill him—and why—before they succeed.
The past lingers all around us, a clear winter’s light, and a shroud.
Five nights before Christmas, a stranger came to my door. She was dressed in widow’s black, pale and gaunt, and appeared to be half-frozen by the icy rain. The night behind her was starless, and the moon refused to shine. It was a pretty face, in some way, despite an overwhelming sorrow in her eyes. She said nothing. She stayed in the doorway, a granite angel, a cemetery decoration.
I stood transﬁxed, for a second. I’d been asleep on the sofa and my mind was clouded. I was still dressed: ﬂannel shirt, gray sweater, black jeans, construction boots. Then I remembered my manners. “Please come in,” I said. “You must be cold.”
“I’m not,” she said, stone still.
Her voice was melodic, a surprise. It didn’t remotely match her face, or her clothes—or her spirit.
“Do you know me?” she said.
I blinked. “I—I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I don’t. Should I?”
She held out her hand, and in it there was a golden ring, a wedding band.
“It’s me, Fever,” she said, her eyes rimmed in red. “It’s your Issie. Your wife.”
I don’t know how long I stared at her, hand on the doorknob, before I stepped aside.
“Please come in,” I said as gently as I could.
She drew in a breath, nearly a sob, and crossed over the threshold into my home. She didn’t look right or left. She took three strides and stopped, eyes closed.
“It smells like home,” she said.
True enough. A warm ﬁre in the stove at the hearth, a hint of cloves from dinner’s steamed pumpkin, and the bold, dry evidence of rosemary and lavender hanging in the rafters in the living room all combined to sanctify the air.
“Why don’t you sit down by the ﬁre?” I asked her.
She acquiesced without a word.
It’s difficult to recall my exact emotions at that moment. I may have thought I was dreaming, or misunderstanding what she was saying, or even that some lonesome winter’s ghost had wandered my way. I was trying to wake up, but my stupor had been complete, and even my own living room seemed strange, somehow different, as if I might have been transported to another reality—a reality in which some other version of myself was married to the cemetery angel.
She sat on the sofa close to the ﬁre but didn’t look at the hearth. Her eyes wandered. She seemed to devour the contours of the room, the sofa, the rugs, the large picture window. Her eyes paused at one of the older quilts hanging on the wall, then she stared out the window with something akin to longing, as if being indoors was difficult for her, as if she were an elemental wraith, and not a human being at all. I followed her gaze. The icy rain was turning to snow and beginning to collect on the porch.
“Snow,” she said softly, and again the melody of her voice, a single perfect velvet note, surprised me.
I did not sit down. “Would you like some coffee or some tea? To warm you up?”
She shook her head.
“Well,” I told her, “I think I’ll have something.”
I turned toward the kitchen. The pots from dinner were still on the stove. The dishes were in the sink. I turned on the light.
“Oh!” she said, alarmed.
I turned back to see her, and she was squinting and turning away from the harsh light of the kitchen. The glare from the overhead fixture seemed to be hurting her. I switched off the light instantly, and she sighed.
“Sorry,” I said, watching her.
She did not respond, except to wander into my kitchen.
I moved to the espresso machine, but I was suddenly afraid that its loud grinding would frighten her. It was becoming clear to me, as I began to wake up more fully, that it would be best to keep her calm. So I took out the kettle and found a bit of tea in the same cabinet where I kept the coffee. Tea was pushed to the back, a second-class stimulant.
In short order, however, the kettle was on the stove and two cups were on the kitchen table, each with its bag of pomegranate black tea: a blend of tea leaves, calendula ﬂowers, and pomegranate. That tea was a gift from my ﬁancée, Lucinda, who was, at that precise moment in her own home not far away, ﬁnalizing plans for our spring wedding.
Exploring that thought for only a moment proved as effective as caffeine, and I was much more awake.
“What did you say your name was?” I called to my fragile visitor.
“I don’t wonder that you’re angry with me,” she answered softly. “But you know my name. You know my name full well.”
“Essie?” I repeated.
“No.” Her voice grew hard, though it managed to remain melodic. “Issie is a diminutive, to be certain, and one not used all that often, but how else does a husband refer to a wife?”
I could feel that I might be about to say or do something confrontational and, ultimately, rude, even though I realized it would be the wrong thing to do with someone so delicate, so obviously troubled. There was no telling how she might react to being told that she was out of her mind. Still, confusion was turning to irritation fairly quickly. I wanted to say, “I have to tell you that I don’t know you, and I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Here’s what I did say: “How did you get here? I didn’t hear a car. Did you come by yourself? Is there someone with you?”
She looked away. “I thought you might ask about that.”
The whistle from the kettle startled us both. I turned around quickly to take it off the heat and switch off the gas ﬂame. When I turned back around, she was standing.
“Please don’t be angry,” she said, almost whispering. “Any more angry than you already are.”
“I’m not angry,” I began.
“I know that you are, and you have every right to be,” she interrupted me. “But let me tell you this news and then everything will be out in the open. Then we can say what ever else there needs to be said. Please?”
“News?” I asked, completely at sea.
“I’m here to tell you,” she said, but then she stopped and seemed to have lost her train of thought. “I think I would like some tea after all.”
“Yes,” I said quickly. “Absolutely. I have your cup right here.”
As quickly as I could, I poured the hot water into the nice white cups. Scented steam rose up.
“I smell pomegranate?” she asked.
“Right,” I assured her. “Good guess.”
She took up her cup and saucer. “Shall we go back in by the fire?”
She returned to the living room and I followed. She sat on the sofa. I sat in one of the chairs across from her, back to the window and front door, facing the sofa and the stairway to the bedrooms—not my usual seat. I was uncomfortable with my back to the door.
I worried that someone would barge in without my seeing them coming. I tried to reassure myself that innate paranoia and the strangeness of the situation were mostly to blame for that fear.
“All right,” I said, trying to settle into my seat, turning a little so that I might see the front door out of the corner of my eye. “What news is this you have for me?”
She opened her mouth, and then closed it. She cast her eyes down. She licked her lips once. She took a sip of her tea, and then set the cup and saucer down on the table between us.
“I don’t know how to say this,” she ﬁnally said.
“Best to just blurt it out,” I encouraged her. “Then we can examine it however you like.”
I had no idea what I was talking about.
“Well, then,” she said.
She placed her hands in her lap. She took a deep breath. Her eyes rose to meet mine, and they were ﬁlled with anguish.
“Here is my news, Fever,” she said, wincing. “There is a child.”
I sat silently, contriving and then dismissing responses and questions to her ﬂat statement.
At last I came up with the perfect, well-thought-out question. “What child?”
“He has your eyes.” The stranger sipped from her teacup. “This tea is delicious.”
I wanted to say, “It was a gift from my ﬁancée.”
I did say, “Yes. Pomegranate.”
“Do you want to know about him?” she asked primly.
I shot a glance toward the door. “About the child?” I had a sudden fear that the child might charge into my home.
“He’s quite precocious, of course,” she told me. “Like his father.”
“Precocious,” I repeated, unable to take my eyes from the door.
“Fever,” the woman said gently, “look at me.”
Reluctantly, I did.
“I’ve come to apologize,” she said ﬁrmly, “and I want you to hear me out.”
I leaned forward and looked deeply into her eyes. I spoke as soothingly as I could considering the irritation and, admittedly, good bit of fear I felt.
“Look,” I said, “this has gone far enough. I’m going to call some people who might be able to help you. Just sit tight.”
I set my tea on the coffee table and stood so quickly that it startled her. I ignored her discomfort and strode very deliberately to the phone. I hadn’t quite thought it through when I found myself dialing Lucinda.
The phone rang a very long time. I ﬁnally caught sight of the clock in the stove. It was almost midnight. At last Lucinda answered.
“Hello?” she managed to mumble.
“Hi, sorry. I have a situation.”
“Fever?” She struggled to wake up.
“There’s a very disturbed woman in my house,” I whispered, “and I’m not certain what to do. It seems clear that she’s out of her mind and possibly dangerous.”
“Fever?” she said again.
“Yes, please wake up. I am in the middle of a difficult—a potentially very difficult situation.”
“There’s a woman in your house at this hour?” She was beginning to rouse herself. “Who is she?”
“No idea,” I assured her. “She just appeared. I’d fallen asleep on the sofa.”
The stranger materialized in the wide doorway to the kitchen.
“I’m talking to someone who can help you,” I told the woman.
“What the hell is going on over there?” Lucinda growled.
I could count on a single hand the times I’d heard Lucinda use a four-letter word, even one so mild. This particular usage did not bode well, I thought.
Before I could think how to calm the little play that was transpiring in my kitchen, the strange woman charged toward me, grabbed the receiver out of my hands, and hung up the phone.
“Who was that?” she demanded to know, her voice, for the ﬁrst time, shrill and grating. “Was that Brenda Gain?”
“Who?” I asked.
“I know I don’t have a right to be jealous,” the woman said, still seething, “but you could at least have the good manners not to call up my rival when we’re in the middle of an important conversation. I’m trying to tell you something important. Something you’ll want to know. I’m afraid, Fever. I’m afraid for all our lives. You have no idea what my mother is capable of. Or the boy, you don’t know what he might do.”
I could see that she was becoming increasingly hysterical and irrational. Despite the chill in the room and the snow outside, I could feel beads of sweat along my hairline.
“All right,” I said, “all right. Good. Yes. Maybe we should call for help. I could call the sheriff.”
“The sheriff?” she repeated, stumbling a bit in her forward panic.
“Yes,” I said encouragingly. “That may be just the thing. He could protect us. From your mother. And the boy.”
“No, he couldn’t,” she said ﬁrmly. “But he could kill them. He’s the law. He could do that and get away with it. Maybe that’s what we should do. The sheriff could at least kill my mother.”
The phone rang.
My hand shot out to pick it up.
“Yes?” I said quickly, desperately wishing for the voice at the other end to be Lucinda’s.
“Fever, all you all right?” Lucinda said into the phone, unable to hide the concern in her voice.
“Thank God you called back,” I whispered.
“Sweetheart, are you awake?” she asked me.
It seemed an odd question.
The stranger moved to grab the phone out of my hand again.
“No,” I said to the stranger immediately, “this is the sheriff’s assistant—who is going to call the sheriff right now. He’ll come to my house. He’ll help you. He’ll sort this all out. I don’t think there will be any need to kill your mother—or anyone. Just try to stay calm.”
“Oh, dear,” Lucinda said, the tone of her voice changed entirely. “Okay. No idea what’s going on over there, but I’m calling Skidmore.”
“Yes, please,” I said, “and now. It’s an emergency, as you might well imagine.”
“Right now,” she said, and hung up.
“There,” I said, trying to smile. “Sheriff’s on his way.”
“Wait, how did the sheriff’s assistant know to call you?” my visitor asked.
I only hesitated for a second.
“The sheriff is one of my best friends,” I explained. “His office monitors all of my calls. It’s not hard to do. We have a central switchboard for the whole town—and it’s a small town. You know how they are.”
This bizarre explanation, miraculously, seemed to satisfy her.
“Yes,” she said, returning to her more melodious tones, “Blue Mountain is a lovely town. I’ve wandered around the main street area before coming here. I never expected it would take me so long to walk from the town up the mountain to your house.”
“You walked up the mountain?” It would have taken her hours to walk that far.
“I’ve walked farther than that,” she said, as if she were telling me a secret.
I took a moment, then, to truly look at this woman. She was, I guessed, about my age, and would have been very pretty were it not for the obvious aura of insanity. She stood a good six inches shorter than I. Her lips were parched and cracked a bit from the cold, and betrayed no lipstick at all. Her dark hair, almost a match for the color of her dress, was pulled back behind her head. Her face was porcelain white. Her black dress reached below her knees, and she wore black tights and black boots with ﬂat heels.
She was wrapped in a quilted cape or shawl. She wore no hat. She did have on gloves, black ﬁngerless gloves that were made, it appeared, of very soft leather. Her ﬁngers were bone ﬁne and delicate, almost blue.
“Why do you stare so?” she asked at length.
Then, unexpectedly, she blushed. Her eyes rose to meet mine and her demeanor began to trend, uncomfortably, toward the seductive.
Against all better judgment I blurted out, “I don’t know you. I’ve never met you. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know why you’re here. I only want to get you some help. Do you understand that?”
I instantly knew it was the wrong group of sentences to say. The expression on her face changed from slightly ﬂirtatious to monstrously wounded.
“No,” she whispered. “Don’t deny me, Fever. God. Don’t do that.”
“Look,” I began, “let’s go back into the living room.”
“You’ve called the sheriff to have me taken!” She stepped suddenly backward, away from me. “You mean to deny me! You can’t be that cruel! I have to go.”
“Wait—wait,” I stammered.
But it was too late. She was ﬂushed with panic. Her face red, her eyes ﬁlled with tears, she shot to the front door. Her expression had changed again, in a ﬂash. She wore a mask of almost pure rage.
“You’ll regret this.” Her words stabbed and sliced the air like a dagger. “The same potions and medicines I used to save him twice? I can use them to kill you. Slowly. No one will know. Until it’s too late.”
She pulled open the door. Snow and a shock of frigid air rushed in.
“Wait,” I said again. “Save who? What potions? I don’t understand.”
She stepped onto the porch. I was already shivering from the cold wind, and snow was beginning to collect on the floor.
“I never expected this from you,” she said. “Not you. I know we deceived you. I know we broke your heart. I know you have a right to hate us. But to pretend you don’t even know me at all—I would not have thought you capable of that. Not the Fever Devilin I knew so long ago.”
She turned oddly, a pirouette, a dead leaf in the bitter wind, a collapsing rag doll, and then flew down the porch steps and into the midnight yard.
“I’ll be back,” she said, fading into the darkness. “And when I come back, it won’t be to reconcile. It won’t be to apologize. My return next time will be your tombstone. You should have listened to me. You should have heard what I had to say. Now, you’re dead—your life is done. Cold clay, Fever. That is your only future now. That is what I’ll bring the next time I come back: the frozen ground to dig your grave!”
And she was gone into the night.
I leapt through the doorway and bounded down the stairs into the snow and wind. I chased after shadows for what seemed an hour, but could not find her. Shivering and soaked, I gave up and retreated to my living room. I was standing over the fire, hands trembling, when I saw the flashing lights coming up the road toward my house.
Copyright ©2013 Phillip DePoy
Phillip DePoy is the award-winning author of many novels and plays as well the director of the theatre program at Clayton State University. He lives in Decatur, Georgia.