Thursday, August 30, 2007

Chapter 3: First Night, Part II

He started to turn, then jumped to face the other way at a shuddering thump. He jogged around the corner as the sound turned into a steady hum emanating from the window in the back room. He relaxed a little. Why is she running one of those air conditioners? It's not hot out here. Is she trying to waste electricity?

Light in the window flickered, dimmed and died. The air conditioner spooled down and fell silent. Vernon shook his head. A blown fuse? Well, she'll have to deal with it for now. He turned the light away from the window. It pointed south, toward the front porch. Maybe Alexis is hiding up there. He started to run. When I get my hands on her...

Cheryl screamed. Raymond started to wail. He froze, turning his head from porch to window and back. He ventured a half-step toward the front when his wife shrieked again.

Cursing, he spun on one heel and ran back to the steps. The knob turned, but the door wouldn't move when he pushed. He threw his shoulder at it. It gave with a grudging squeal of the hinges. Vernon stumbled into the house. He turned his flashlight toward the TV. In his panic, Vernon thought it appeared as though the darkness resisted the beam before it grudgingly parted to show his wife crouched on the floor, her body curled around the still-screaming baby. Her shirt hung in tatters from her back. She looks like she's been whipped! She sat as he approached, turning to face the light. A long scratch ran down her cheek.

"I w-w-wanted t-to see if the air conditioner worked, but when I turned it on, the lights went out." Her voice rose to a screech. "Something tried to grab Ray!" Her voice cracked. She began to sob hysterically, rocking back and forth.

"Honey, settle down. You probably just jumped when the circuit breaker tripped and nearly dropped him."

Cheryl twisted to expose her ripped shirt and bleeding back. "Does this look like I jumped?"

"It looks like you fell and ripped your shirt when you tried to catch him. Think about it. There's nothing in here to grab the baby. Look, I'll go find the breaker box, and we'll get these lights back on."

His wife sniffed and shook her head. Still rocking with Ray clutched to her breast, she hiccoughed and trembled. It must be the stress. I just hope she gets over this soon. Vernon pursed his lips. What if it's more than stress? We might have to find a doctor for her in the morning. He sighed. Lord only knows where we'd find the money for that. Turning, he played the light along the walls. That box had to be around here somewhere. Had he seen it in the bathroom? He took perhaps a half-dozen steps before his wife started yelling again. He whirled and pointed his light back in the corner.

This time, there was no doubt about it. Shadows visibly retreated from the light, uncoiling tendrils of darkness that fled beyond the beam's edges, dragging yellow and blue cloth with them. He thought he heard a faint growl. His eyes bulged. That was Ray's baby blanket! What is going on here?

He strode back to his wife. "Are you all right?"

Eyes wide, she rose to her knees. One hand clutched the baby, and the other latched onto his pants leg. "You can't leave us again. Promise you won't leave us!"

"After I get back..."

"No!" Her grip tightened, and her words spilled out in a rush. "You've got to stay. You've got the only light. We'll be safe if we stay here until morning, and then we'll get out of here..."

He placed a finger across her lips to halt the babbling. She shushed and looked wildly around her, like a mouse trying to figure out where the cat had gone. He pulled her hand free and pushed her back into a corner. He placed the flashlight on the desk and wedged it in place with the television so that the light made a pool around them. He knelt next to his wife and drew his knees to his chest. Got to stay in the light, he thought. As he squirmed into place, Cheryl's head snapped up and her eyes widened in panic.

"Where's Alexis? Where's my little girl?"

"I don't know," he replied grimly. "I couldn't find her. Unless you want to go out there and look" – she whipped her head side to side in denial – "we're just going to have to hope for the best and wait 'til morning. We won't do her any good if we let whatever's out there get us."

She huddled in closer and continued rocking the baby. Ray eventually quieted and drifted off to sleep. Vernon realized with a shock that Cheryl had done the same after her trembling stilled and her breathing evened. He frowned. How can she sleep with Alexis still out there? Guilt gnawed at him. You're the one who left her out there in the dark. How can you just sit here?

Vernon thumped his head against the wall. His wife snuggled against his arm. He waited several moments, then pushed her upright. She murmured something, but didn't wake. Crouching, he reached out along the wall and tried to stand. Something cold and implacable grabbed his wrist and jerked him off balance. Vernon pulled back, his mouth stretched in a grimace as the grip bit into his flesh. He heaved and fell over as his watch band broke, landing on top of Cheryl, who bolted upright and grabbed his shirt. Raymond kicked and started crying.

"What are you doing? You promised you wouldn't leave!"

"I was going to try to find Alexis..."

"She's fine. You said she'd be fine until we could find her in the morning. You can't leave us here alone!"

I never said that. Vernon bit back the retort. "All right, all right," he said instead, making gentle shushing noises. Cheryl gradually calmed and slid back into fitful sleep. He wrapped his arms around what remained of his family. Trying to ignore the pain in his wrist, he glared at the darkness. What do you want?

Part III coming Monday!

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