Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Chapter 10: Dawning, Part V

It was like being thrown spread-eagle into a sensory deprivation tank. A faint breeze across his skin spoke of motion away from the house, but he felt nothing else save a bitter cold. He heard no wind; even Ray's screams cut off as darkness enveloped him. Vernon sniffed. The air smelled sterile, dead. No grass, no earth, no flowers. He closed his eyes with no discernable effect. He tried to cover them with his hands. It felt like swimming through syrup; he had to fight to move his arms. An attempt at kicking yielded the same result. He took a deep breath and waited for the end. What will it be like? Will I die first, or will I just fade away? At least I'll be with them again. He sobbed. The sound fell dead. I hope they find Ray in the morning. His grandparents will take good care of him. He sniffled and sighed. serial no norton2005

Pain wrapped around his waist, driving the breath from his body in a long grunt. His body folded around the red-hot band. Vernon's eyes bulged. He struggled to breathe. Air entered his body, he noticed a new sensation: something tight that quivered around his hips and stomach. He frowned and forced his hand to his side. It moved slowly, but eventually reached his waist and found a rough, wrist-thick cord. He followed it around. His fingers found a bulging knot just above the waistband of his pants. The rope!

Vernon took a breath and forced himself upright. His body moved in harsh jerks, fighting the black current that tried to sweep him along. His upper half straightened first. Then his left heel struck something soft. It took him a moment to realize he'd stuck it into the ground. Vernon gripped the rope tighter and heaved. He could feel his foot digging a divot in the dirt as he slowly turned. Facing the house once more, he planted his feet, grabbed the lifeline with both hands and started walking. He bent nearly double, like a man braving a hurricane. It was a laborious process – digging a foot in, grabbing a new handhold, pulling and stepping, then starting over again – made even harder by the monotony. He had no way of knowing how much progress he made. His feet slipped as much as they stepped. Something that felt like vines and branches snagged at his ankles. Others raked his clothing, hair and flesh. At times, the only thing keeping him in place was his grip on the rope. It was during one such trip-up that something slammed into his shoulders.

It reminded Vernon of his brief attempt at joining the high school football team. He had taken his stance and barely heard the "hut, hut" before two of the largest guys he'd ever seen did their best to drive him into the ground. Vernon walked with a limp for two weeks, and his shoulders and ribs had been sore for three. This blow made that one feel like something out of a pillow fight. His shoulders went numb, and he slid back several feet. He clamped his hands down. When he finally got his feet underneath him once more, he shuddered and took a shaky step. The rope felt slippery all of a sudden; his hands didn't want to maintain their hold. Vernon leaned over further, using his legs to propel himself forward. His progress slowed even further than before. Step after step, he trudged onward. His back and legs ached, and his hands tingled as feeling gradually returned. Is this ever going to end?

His foot caught again. Pain shot through his shin, and his grip on the rope slipped. "Come on!" Vernon shouted, straightening. "Just stop already." His voice cracked. "Please, just stop." He leaned forward but did not take another step. What's the point? I'm not going to make it. It's never going to let me go. He whimpered. Or is it already too late? Is this what it's like to be trapped, always trying to get out but finding no end? A faint cry answered from somewhere ahead.

Vernon looked ahead and blinked. That's the first sound I've heard. Am I somewhere near the end? He lifted his other foot and slipped it forward. All resistance vanished, and it landed on a hard surface. He leaned over further and found himself staring at his own foot resting on a wooden step. He fell forward, collapsing on the porch. His breath came in great gasps. Sweat stung his eyes. He raised his hand to wipe it away and stopped. Red covered it from fingertips to heel, and a ragged gash ran down the palm. He lifted the other hand and found the same. The wounds started burning.

Raymond cried inside the house. Groaning, Vernon pushed himself up and walked to the door. The baby's cries intensified, but he paused and stared at the wall where he had tied the rope. Wood in the window and door frames had shattered. Several asbestos plates from the siding lay smashed on the porch, and that section of the wall buckled outward slightly. He shook his head and set about untying his end. His hands didn't want to uncurl much from a fist, which made working the knot difficult. Blood slicked the rope, further complicating the work. He finally got the last loop out. Letting it drop with a thump, he crossed the threshold.

In the bedroom, Ray had twisted around so his head pointed at the foot of the bed. His arms and legs waved as he wailed. Vernon limped over and looked down at him.

"Hey, buddy. How you doing?" The baby looked up and stopped crying. Vernon thought his look had an air of expectation about it. "I'm sorry. I couldn't get them." Ray smiled. He sat on the bed and lowered himself until he lay next to his son. "I guess they didn't want to be saved."

Raymond drifted off to sleep, but his father lay awake much longer. He kept going over that last statement. Is that true? Do they really want to stay out there in the darkness? He found it hard to credit. Who would want that? Why wouldn't they want to come back to their family? Realization slowly dawned. They're part of the night now. "No," he muttered. But the denial lacked any force, even to himself. Tears leaked down his face. They're gone.


Part I of Chapter 11 coming next week!


serial no norton2005

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Chapter 10: Dawning, Part IV

He had no idea how long he sat there, staring at the dark and weeping into his arms. The night shifted and probed at his bright shelter, but mounted no major offensive. He doubted he'd care much if the porch light went out right then. All that planning to save her, and I drive her away. The rope's heavy weight mocked him. He pounded a fist into the porch. I should have gone out there after her. Why else did I tie this thing around myself? He tugged on the cord. It whacked against the porch, loud in the still night. Scowling, he started twirling it jump-rope fashion. The rhythmic slapping set up a harsh beat in his head as he continued to berate himself. Coward! Coward! Coward! The rope spun faster and faster. serial no norton2005

What if she didn't want to be saved? The rope smacked to a halt. He shook his head, but the thought wouldn't go. All Alexis wanted to do was play. She kept appearing and reappearing, taunting him and, he had to admit to himself, frightening him. It's like she was trying to get me out of the light. He shook his head again. Surely not. But people here kept saying over and over again he shouldn't talk to the figures when he saw them, that no good would ever come of it. Vernon grunted. He couldn’t believe that. What did they know? They were too scared to even try. They've lived here forever. Wouldn't they know something about it?

Bouncing to his feet, Vernon kicked the flashlight and whirled to face the darkness. He found Cheryl staring back at him.

She stood left of the steps, a few feet back from the railing. She had her arms crossed, and her foot tapped on what might have been the ground, but Vernon thought was probably several inches above that. She looked fainter than her earlier apparition, but had enough detail for Vernon to read her posture as one of impatience. She had looked the same on their honeymoon, standing next to their luggage while he argued with the hotel manager that yes, he had indeed made a reservation. It had taken nearly an hour to get a room; by the end of it, his new bride had looked ready to smash both his and the manager's heads against the marble countertop.

He stepped forward hesitantly, afraid she might flee or start taunting him. Cheryl remained in place. Wish I could see her face properly. Her dim features made it difficult to tell if she was smiling or frowning. He could barely tell she even had a mouth. Only her eyes possessed any solidity, and they tried to pin him to the wall. Probably not smiling. He cleared his throat.

"What do you want?" No response other than an increased tempo in her foot. He reached the top step. "Come on, Cheryl. Say something. How am I supposed to know what to do if you won't tell me?" He wished he could have the words back the instant they left his lips. She'd never liked that sort of argument. Figure it out for yourself, she would always respond. She blurred and started to fade as he talked. He stopped on the second step and held his hands palms out, just short of the darkness. "Wait! Just wait." She sharpened a bit. "Thanks."

He took a deep breath, then plunged ahead in a rush. "Look, Cheryl, I'm going out of my mind here. You and Alexis are gone, except for these weird visions – or whatever they are. I'm trying to take care of Ray and figure out a new job. I spend every night trying to keep the darkness from eating me and the baby. I can't sleep. I can't even get any rest." His voice hitched, he hiccoughed, and a sob ripped free of his chest. "I can't do this anymore. I need you. Please, help me. I just want us to be together again, as a family."

Tears rolled down his cheeks. He leaned on the railing and wiped his eyes. When he looked back up, Cheryl floated a couple of feet from the rail. Her figure had grown more defined and the steely gaze softened. She made no sound, but unfolded her arms and extended one hand. Vernon reached out.

A wail sounded from inside the house. Vernon twisted toward the door as Raymond started crying. His foot slid underneath the porch step, and he fell. Flailing, he tried to snag Cheryl's hand. His arm passed through hers with tingle. She dissipated like wind-blown smoke, and something else caught his hand. He hung, frozen in mid-fall with his arm in the darkness and his foot wedged under the step. Then the grip on his wrist pulled. Vernon's shoe came off, and he tumbled over the railing and into the night.


Part V of Chapter 10 coming next week!


serial no norton2005

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Chapter 10: Dawning, Part III

Wrinkling his nose at the smell, he straightened, glanced at the red stain with a shudder and returned his attention to the darkness in front of the stairs. serial no norton2005

A small face appeared right in front of his, its sketchy, smiling features full of glee.


Arms flailing, Vernon fell backward. Wooden boards scratched his back and smacked his head. Spots danced in his vision. He rubbed the back of his skull and sat up. A knot rose where he'd hit the porch. Alexis floated in the darkness at least a couple of feet off the ground. He climbed to his knees and paused, panting and grimacing. Once the pain in his head subsided, he stood and turned what he hoped was a stern look on the girl hovering before him. Sweat ran down his cheeks.

"Alexis, you get on this porch right now." Vernon found himself surprised at his own steady voice.

She shook her head. "I want to play." Even though he heard her, he couldn't see her lips move other than to bow in a sulking pout.

Vernon swallowed. "Not now."

She shook her head.

"You do what I tell you, young lady. Now get down here!"

She slowly descended until her feet rested somewhere near where he thought the ground should be. Alexis held out one hand. Vernon stepped forward with his own hand outstretched. He hesitated on the steps. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and reached for her through the darkness. Cold slid along his skin. He shuddered and extended his hand, but felt nothing. He frowned and opened his eyes. Alexis was gone. He glanced at his arm, which had disappeared to the elbow, and pulled back.

Vernon managed to get his arm free before dark fingers reached out and tried to grab him. They snagged on the sleeve of his shirt, ripping fabric as he scrambled back up the porch. He watched the white tatter flutter in the breeze and disappear. Why didn't it try to pull me in before? He shook his head. More questions. All he ever got out of Jennings Grove was more questions. I almost had her. Where did she go? Tears burned his eyes. He turned and rested his head on the doorframe. Wet tracks coursed down his cheeks. Why did she leave?

"That was fun, Daddy."

Whirling around, he found his daughter standing before him again. He took a step. She retreated, winking out then reappearing a few feet back. Scratching his chin, he backed up a step. She advanced to the shadows' edge. He jumped forward. She vanished. Vernon hurried back against the doorframe. Alexis slowly materialized out of the darkness like ink spreading through water. She still wore that playful smile on her face.

Vernon thumped his head against the wall. The blow bumped the goose egg already growing there. He winced and clutched the back of his head. Giggles sounded from left and right, the sound mingling in front of him. Breathing heavily, He slapped his thigh in frustration and stomped a foot on the porch. His ankle clipped the flashlight sitting there and knocked it over. It threw a bright arc across the porch as it rolled over the boards and came to rest pointing at the steps.

Light splashed over Alexis. A shriek drilled into Vernon's ears. The girl threw her arms across her face and fell back. Night rolled in around her like a blanket. The echoes bounced across the yard for several seconds before dissipating. Ears ringing, Vernon kicked the flashlight away. It spun off into the darkness as he called his daughter's name. She did not answer. He scanned the darkness for any pale flicker, but saw only hungry shadows that lashed out for him whenever he got too close. He dropped to the porch and hugged his knees. What happened? Where did she go? "Alexis," he whispered, "please come back."


Part IV of Chapter 10 coming next week!


serial no norton2005

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Chapter 10: Dawining, Part II

He took a couple of steps forward with hand outstretched. The figure retreated a few feet. Vernon blinked. He hadn't seen her move; one moment, she was at the bottom of the porch and the next she stood a couple of steps away. He backed up. She advanced again. More laughter. Vernon paused. He hadn't considered this. How could he rescue them if they wouldn't even let him approach? He frowned at Alexis, who tilted her head and smiled back. Her features were hard to read, but he thought the grin looked a tad mischievous. Just like when she doesn't want to take a bath. His daughter usually liked that part of getting ready to bed. She'd splash and play in there for better than an hour if they'd let her. But every now and then, she would decide it wasn't time yet. She got that same little smile on her face and ran off. Cheryl and Vernon would give chase while she ran away, shrieking with laughter. The girl was hard to catch once she got going. A house offered nearly limitless hiding places for someone her size, and with a child's boundless energy, she could keep going long after her parents got winded. serial no norton2005

"I don't have time for this, Alexis," he muttered. A single long stride took him off the porch and onto the first step. The girl vanished.

Vernon halted, eyes narrowed as he tried to peer into the night. Darkness flowed around him. Slender tendrils slipped out and brushed his face. He jerked back and let them die in the porch light, but stood his ground while he searched. Where did she go? A titter sounded from his right. His neck popped as he turned his head sharply that direction. Only shadows met his gaze. A breeze blew from his left, carrying a soft voice to his ear.

"Come find me, Daddy."

Goosebumps broke out on his arms, and the hair on his neck stood. He slowly backed up on the porch. Holding the rope out to one side, he pivoted on his heel and walked toward the door. He caught a pale flash out of the corner of his eye. Vernon waited until he stood on the threshold, then spun right and bounded across the porch. Alexis' pallid figure flickered like a light with a short, her eyes wide with surprise. She disappeared, then reappeared at the edge of his vision. Vernon turned right. He kept turning, trying to keep the strobing form in view. She reached the other side of the porch, then winked out.

"Can't get me."

"Come on, sweetie. Stay still, please. Daddy just wants to talk."

High-pitched, childish laughter slid across the yard, echoing oddly in the night.

Vernon moved back to the steps. He growled and shook his head. Why did she have to make this so difficult? Maybe I should go out there after her. He leaned forward and hesitated. Shadows reached for him, and he snapped upright. Maybe not. No point in going out there until he had something to grab hold of. He heard a loud whirr. Something pale swooped out of the night and perched on the porch rail.

"Alexis?" Vernon leapt onto the porch and headed toward the figure. He halted halfway there, his wide-eyed gaze drooping as it met the round, yellow stare of a large owl. It hooted and ruffled its feathers. The bird clutched the bloody ruins of some hapless rodent in one claw. Vernon cocked his head to the side. "How on earth did you get out here?"

He sidled closer. The owl kept its glare fixed on him, but did not move. As he drew closer, Vernon saw it hadn't made the trip through Jennings Grove unscathed. Bloody scratches showed where feathers had been ripped away, and one of the pointed tufts atop its head had a clipped look. Its beak opened partway, and its wings spread. Vernon halted. The bird folded its wings and hopped awkwardly in place. "Eat it or drop it," he muttered. As if in response, the owl lifted its foot. He gasped and put a hand to his mouth. The bloody mess was what remained of its leg. He swallowed several times, trying to fight his gorge back down. How can anyone call this place home? He reached out to steady the creature. It opened its beak and hissed. He drew back, holding his palms out. "Fine. Have it your way. I was just trying to..."

Black arms unfolded to either side and wrapped around the owl. Wings spread, the bird shrieked and tried to bite on every side. The noise suddenly stopped as the night pulled in opposite directions. The owl ripped in half and disappeared even as a brief crimson shower pattered to the boards. Vernon leaned over and threw up.


Part III of Chapter 10 coming next week!


serial no norton2005

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chapter 10: Dawning, Part I

Vernon jerked awake, heart thumping loudly in his ears. The dream faded as consciousness took over, but the dregs remained with him as a feeling of loss and frustration, as if he chased something that fled further the closer he got. He settled into the mattress and stared at the bright ceiling while his breathing and pulse slowed. Dirt streaked away from the light fixture like the brown fingers of a river delta. He made an exasperated noise in his throat and closed his eyes. Cheryl always made him scrub those marks off, usually while scolding him for letting him get to that point in the first place. Vernon hated climbing the step stool; it never felt sturdy enough. Besides, who on earth cleaned a ceiling? He'd argue, he'd find anything else to do, he'd try doing nothing at all. Then he'd give in and do it. She's going to make me move the bed to make sure I get it all. That woman's going to...

Cheryl! His eyes popped open and took in the light overhead. How could I have slept so long? I'm too late... He turned his head toward the window, which still showed it was dark outside. Vernon heaved a sigh and sat up. Raymond lay on his side, snoring slightly between the glowing lanterns. A small smile flitted across his face. Vernon grinned back, leaned over and kissed his son's forehead. Moving gently, he scooted to the edge of the bed and slipped off onto the floor. He grabbed his one remaining flashlight and tiptoed to the living room. Going to have to stop leaving the lights in the kitchen, he thought, glancing back at the sleeping baby before heading toward his recliner.

Resting in a coiled heap, the rope looked like a napping snake. Vernon snatched it up and hoisted it onto his shoulder. He crossed the room, opened the front door and flipped on the light switch. Holding onto one end, he let the rest of the rope slither to the floor. He yawned and leaned against the doorframe. Slapping the cord against the planks of the porch, Vernon watched the night try to push its way in. It rippled along the light's boundary. Deeper blackness shifted and circled further out. Somewhere out there, his wife and daughter waited rescue. Get to work.

Standing the flashlight against the wall on the porch, Vernon stood and swung the rope. It hissed as it cut through the air and whipped through the window. The end drooped over the frame. He grabbed it and pulled. The rope buzzed as it scraped over wood. Gathering a long section, he looped it and started coiling the end around the rope. He worked slowly. His gaze rested on the night outside more than the rope. Will they come? His hands paused. The thought hurt, and he wanted to shy away from it. He tried to push it away. But the thought wouldn't go. I've already seen Cheryl once. What if that's the only time she shows up? Vernon shook his head. He still had Alexis to consider. He'd rescue whoever he could tonight and leave the rope in place until he had them both. What if Ware sees it? He snarled and shook his head. That didn't matter. Let him see it. Let anyone see it. And let them think what they wanted. They can't stop me. All they could do was lecture him again.

He looked down and finished the noose with a few quick jerks on the rope. He nodded in satisfaction. Even if something grabbed him, the rope would only grow tighter. He played out the line until he found the other end and wrapped it around his waist, securing it with a series of square knots. Once he ran out of rope to tie, Vernon twisted the knotted end around to his back. He winced as the snug cord pinched his skin through his jeans. Shouldn't have tied it so tight. At least it won't slip off. He sighed and stepped out on the porch.

Alexis stood at the bottom of the steps, staring up at him. Just like her mother's earlier apparition, she was a pale reflection of herself, but with more detail than the last time he'd seen her figure. She stood hands clasped before her, long hair still despite a breeze blowing across the front of the house. A soft giggle floated to him on the wind.

"Hey, sweetie," he whispered. "Daddy's here."

____serial no norton2005

Part II of Chapter 10 coming next week!


serial no norton2005