The Dead Whisper On by
Would You Run Into a Burning Building?
Candace "Canada Mac" MacHugh lives a ghost of her former life.
Once a proud Butte, Montana, miner who daily risked her life setting explosives, she's now a garbage collector in her dying hometown.
Her beloved father is dead and she doesn't speak with her mom.
Canada Mac is alone. Longing for the past. Dreaming of making a difference.
Until one night when her father's voice speaks to her from the shadows. The dead, it seems, have messages they hunger to share with the world—warnings of impending disasters and grave danger. Of cities doomed to burn.
But they need Canada's help.
A dead man spoke to her from the shadows. "Seven o'clock," the voice rasped, barely audible over the wind tumbling through the dry heat of late summer. "The Mint." Even as the wind carried away the whisper, she began telling herself it was an illusion, a ghost speaking to her from the shadows of her own mind rather than the shadows of this pothole-laden street.
She put down the garbage can and glanced at Steve on the other side of the garbage truck. He was bending down to pick up a couple of clipped branches; if he'd heard the voice, it hadn't stopped him.
"Hold up," she said as she opened her ears, opened her eyes, opened all her senses.
Steve pitched the branches into the gaping maw of the truck, oblivious to her words. She'd forgotten he liked to wear headphones while he worked, listening to the Monsters of Rock on KXKX as he toted the trash. A real conversationalist, Steve.
She was turning toward Steve, getting ready to walk over and stop him, when a sudden movement caught her eye. It was the shadow of the garbage can she'd just put down: as it intersected with the shadow of the giant truck, something inside it shifted. Part of the shadow—a darker shade, she could tell, even though she only saw it for an instant—moved from the can's shadow to the truck's shadow. Like a fish, flashing silver just beneath the surface of a brook as it darted away.
She drew in her breath and held it, waiting. Would she see the shift again? Would she hear the voice again?
Nothing happened, and after a few moments she was startled by a tap on her shoulder.
Steve. He lifted the headphones away from the side of his head. "Hey, Canada. Whatchas waitin' for, Christmas?"
She shook her head, the spell broken. "Sorry, Steve. Just thought I saw something."
"Like something. Let's get going." She lifted the lid back on the silver garbage can at the curb, her eyes still searching the shadows, then pounded the side of the truck with her gloved fist two times: the signal to move to the next set of cans.
Even as the truck growled forward, she watched and listened, hoping for another glimpsed shadow, another whispered secret.
In the bright, crisp morning, Candace MacHugh listened for another word from her dead father.
* * *
Late that afternoon, she drove her car onto the patch of bare ground next to her trailer—her version of a driveway—and turned off the '72 Dodge Charger. She sat, listening to the engine ticking as it cooled.
Yes, it had been her dad's voice. She knew his voice well even though it had been eleven years since she'd last heard it. His today had been mostly sotto voce, but she recognized it immediately. So many wonderful memories entwined in its throaty rasp. Memories of bedtime stories, tales of Butte's earlier years filled with ash-filled smoke and noodle parlors and underground bars and Al Capone's hideouts and fresh pasties with gravy. Memories of Dad's taut, cabled frame in the wooden bleachers, yelling at her as she stepped up to bat: "Lookin' for a dinger, Canada! Let's have a dinger!"
She smiled. Yes, even her name reminded her of the dearly departed Bud MacHugh, copper miner. She was born Candace MacHugh, a name her mother had lovingly picked, but her father had soon twisted the name, dubbing her Canada, and it had stuck since.
Canada gave her head a quick shake and pulled the keys out of the ignition. Time to get out of these clothes.
From her mailbox she retrieved another day of boring mail, then walked to the trailer and unlocked it. The trailer, together with the '72 Charger, were the two remaining threads that still connected her to the memories of her long-dead father. Heaps of junk, yes. But they were her father's heaps of junk. And now hers.
She turned the key in the front door's lock, replaying the whisper in her mind. Seven o'clock. The Mint. Made sense. Her father had always loved that bar, had knocked back many a stale beer there after a long swing shift in the copper mines.
A deep, elemental part of her was terrified by the voice. But another part of her was relieved, because as of about eight o'clock this morning Bud MacHugh had kept his last promise to her.
He had said he would come back.
He'd told her, if there were a way to contact her, let her know everything was okay, he'd reach back across that gulf between life and death and let her know.
Unfortunately, it had taken eleven years for him to do that. And in that time she'd given up any hope of it ever happening. Had never really had much hope of it happening in the first place, to be honest. But now, with the whisper, with the moving shadow ... the old wound caused by his death, once healed over, had opened once again. And if she did nothing about it, it would become infected.
The front door opened wide, an entry to the darkness of her trailer. Just inside, a stack of newspapers, nearly eight feet tall, threatened to topple. Next to that, a stack of magazines. Behind those, more stacks of periodicals, mailers, and inserts. Just on the other side of the door sat a beat-up washing machine, with clothes heaped on top.
Canada walked through the narrow path between piles, making her way to her bedroom. Along the way, she passed more stacks: boxes, boards, three old televisions, cases of boxed and canned foods. No one but she had been inside this trailer—no one—for several years. How many? Five, at least.
Not that anyone else would be able to fit.
On the way to the bedroom, she pulled off her denim overalls. She hadn't received her father's physique; he'd always been thin and hard, as if he were wrought from lengths of cable. Her own body was rounder, softer. She had his height, his freckled complexion, his red hair, but her body carried a bit of extra padding. None of her father's hard, sinewy physicality.
Her mother always described her form as "feminine," which was really her way of saying "chubby." By that definition, she was quite a bit more feminine than her mother, as well.
Canada shook her head, banishing thoughts of her mother. No need to go there.
She hung the overalls on the back of the bathroom door. She had three sets, one still clean, so she didn't need to wash yet. But maybe she'd do it, anyway. It felt like a night to wash her clothes; something about the day had been extra gritty.
She raked the dirty clothes from the top of the washing machine, stuffed them inside with two sets of overalls, and started the water. It cascaded on top of the clothing as she poured in detergent.
Even as she did this, she knew the extra grit she was feeling wasn't on her clothes or her skin. It was in her mind. The voice.
Seven o'clock. The Mint.
That hadn't been her dad. Not really. Couldn't have been her dad. Even in a city like Butte, America, clogged with all the wonders and oddities of P. T. Barnum's most famous sideshows, the dead stayed dead. Sure, the city was filled with ghost stories, tales of miners coming back to haunt the tunnels where they'd met their bitter ends. But that's all they were: stories.
After her father died, when she was still working on the blast crew in the pits, she'd picked up a biography of Harry Houdini. The book said Houdini had promised, if at all possible, to communicate with his wife after he died.
His wife died several years later, never having heard from her husband—they had picked a secret code word, if she remembered correctly. So if Houdini hadn't been able to contact his wife, why would Bud MacHugh be able to contact his daughter?
And what about those shadows? Her eyes had to be playing tricks on her, seeing things that weren't there or warping what was. Maybe she was getting cataracts, although she couldn't recall a history of them on either side of her family.
Seven o'clock. The Mint.
She shut the lid of the washing machine, took a deep breath, and looked at her watch. She had just over an hour to make up her mind.
* * *
At a few minutes past seven, Canada walked into The Mint. Regulars joked it was a hole in the wall, because it was, in fact, just that. In the early 1900s, when prohibition tried to dry out America, the movement had only one notable effect in Butte: it forced the city's drinking establishments underground. Literally. More than a hundred lounges and speakeasy pubs flourished beneath the streets of Butte in cavernous rooms carved from rock. The Mint was a last vestige of that, and the only surviving lounge still operating underground.
It had no windows, of course. Just an unassuming door at street level, cut into the side of a vacant brick building, and a flight of concrete stairs leading down to the bar's true entrance. But windows were never much use in a place where drinking was the main order of business. Neon signs adorned the walls, and sawdust scoured the hardwood floors. Canada hadn't been inside The Mint for years, but it still smelled exactly the same: a little bit like musty dirt, a little bit like peanuts, a little bit like stale beer. A lot of people loved the M&M—perhaps, all told, Butte's best-loved bar—and Canada did wander there occasionally for a bite to eat.
But she never came here to The Mint. Not to her father's favorite haunt.
"Well, well. If it ain't our old friend Canada Mac." Joe, the barkeep who had worked at The Mint roughly since the Confederacy had surrendered in the War of Northern Aggression.
"If it ain't, then what?" she asked, trying to hide a smile.
"Just if it ain't."
"How ya been, Joe?"
"Been here, mostly. You?"
"Well, I haven't been here," she answered. "Mostly."
"How long?" Joe asked.
"I don't know. About a decade." Actually, she knew very well. It had been eleven years since she'd visited The Mint. Eleven years since her father's death.
"What'll yas have?" Joe asked, the folds of his jowled face moving as he spoke. Joe had mined once long ago, Canada had heard, but she'd always known him as a barkeep.
"I suppose a cranberry juice would do me fine," she said.
"Do me fine, too, if we had any."
"How about a bourbon and Diet Pepsi, then? Hold the bourbon."
"Still one a them teetotalers, eh?"
"Wouldn't you be?"
"I should wash yer mouth for such blasphemy."
Canada smiled, shook her head. "No, I mean, if you were me? You wouldn't drink, would you?"
"I know whatcher sayin', Canada, and I ain't goin' anywhere near the subject of yer mudder."
"I usually try to avoid it myself."
He held up his hands, tilted his head and shrugged. "An abomination, havin' yerself a mouth and refusin' to ever let a drop a Kentucky bourbon touch it. Why, it's a good thing Our Lady of the Rockies can't see you down here or—"
"Okay, I haven't missed the lectures, Joe. Just get me that Diet Pepsi."
"Diet, even." He spat the words, looked ready to say something else, then shook his head and wandered to the other end of the dark wood bar. Canada turned to look for the window, thinking she might get a glimpse of Our Lady of the Rockies, the statue Joe had referred to.
Wait. She'd already forgotten. She was underground, in a bar without any windows. A long time since she'd been here, indeed.
Joe brought her drink. She pulled out the straw. "I don't like straws, Joe. Thought you'd remember that."
"I did." He was rubbing the bar down with a rag, wiping up a spill. She saw a smile creasing his face.
Canada set the straw on the hardwood bar. Same old Joe. She picked up the glass, took a long draw, listened to the clinking of the ice cubes shifting inside the glass, then set it back down on the counter and tapped her finger on the rim. "Make this a double," she said.
Joe took the glass, squirted more Diet Pepsi in it from the tap's nozzle, slid the glass back in front of her. "That diet stuff 'll make yas sterile," he said. "Aint yas never read that anywhere?"
"I've indeed read such things," she said, putting the glass down after another sip and wiping her hand across her face. She wagged her finger. "But ya shouldn't believe everything yas read." She smiled to herself; it was amazing, really, how quickly she could slip into and out of Butte-speak without thinking about it. It was like a second language, in many ways. But for anyone born in the Copper City, it was really a first language.
"Amen to that," he said as he started dipping beer glasses in soapy water, then rinsing them in hot water and putting them on a towel.
"A lot of the guys still come in here?" she asked.
"Sure. Disco, Lucia, Binkowicz, Hambone—"
She chuckled. "Haven't seen any of 'em for, I dunno, forever. Lucia and Binkowicz still have their secret stash?" Those two were rumored to have quot;acquired" quite a collection of mining equipment before the mines finally closed. Rumor was they could keep on digging for two years on their own.
"Oh, yeah, they still got the stash. Talked a bit about packing up Montana Power's headquarters with some ANFO, sending 'em into bankruptcy in style."
Canada wasn't sure if Joe was serious or joking about blowing up the building. Perhaps he wasn't sure himself.
She let her eyes wander over the bar's interior. Still the same dark wood. Still the same beer signs. Still the same smoke stains on the ceiling.
"Love what you've done with the place since I've been here."
"Change. That's what we're all about," he said without looking up. "So, yas gonna tell me?"
"Tell you what?"
"Whatcher doin' back in here after ten years."
"Actually, it's been eleven," she corrected.
"I know. I just didn't want ya to feel bad because ya just said it's been a decade."
"I said 'about a decade.' "
He finished dipping and rinsing the glasses, snapped off the towel draped over his shoulder, started drying his hands. His eyebrows arched again.
She wondered if she should even mention anything. But of course, if you couldn't say anything to Joe, you were in serious trouble. Over the years, Joe had counseled more people on their problems than any psychologist or therapist in Butte. Maybe more than all of them put together.
"When's the last time you saw my dad?" she finally asked.
"Well, I s'pose the last time I saw yer pop was maybe a week before he died. And that, as ya just said, was eleven years ago."
She nodded, sipped her drink, listened to a fresh sizzle from the direction of the kitchen in the back. Immediately, the distinct smell of grilling onions wafted by. Maybe she'd head over to Muzz & Stan's Freeway Tavern for a wop chop, a pork cutlet (beat 'n battered, the sign above the Formica bar said) served on a burger bun; Canada took hers with onion, mustard, and pickles. She loved to sit at the Freeway and look at the old posters of Evel Knievel at the end of the room.
The famous daredevil still visited his hometown every year for a weeklong celebration called Evel Knievel Days. Daddy had known Knievel, even worked with him in the mines briefly. Not close, but they'd grown up around each other, known each other in the way any two young men from a rough-and-tumble town would know each other.
Joe's big paw was on her hand now. Gentle. "I still miss him sometimes, too."
Canada forced a smile. "Thanks, Joe."
"But you ain't answered my question."
"What's bringing yas back here?"
"Ah. Well. I'm not so sure I like the answer to that myself."
Joe smiled, leaned over the bar. "Who said we have to like the right answers?"
Canada shrugged. No harm, really, and well, it was Joe. She hadn't seen him, hadn't talked to him for years, and already all that lapse had disappeared. It was as if she'd been in here just yesterday, surrounded by the smell of cooking onions and spilled beer, the sounds of shouting voices and sliding chairs. The place even tasted the same; that ever-present sawdust, for whatever reason, always felt like it was in your mouth. Probably why people always ended up drinking more than they should here—trying to get rid of that taste.
She sighed, looked down at the dark veneer of the bar. "Well, I know Daddy's dead." She swallowed, looked back at Joe. "But I heard him today. He talked to me." She chanced a look at Joe's face, searching for a reaction. Nothing.
"What'd he have to say?" Joe asked in much the same way he might ask her what the weather was doing outside.
"To meet him here at seven o'clock."
Joe nodded, glanced at the clock as if this was the answer he expected. "Yer old man never was too good with time."
The Dead Whisper On by T.L. Hines
Copyright © 2007; ISBN 9780764202056
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.