Friday, October 26, 2007

Chapter 6: Second Night, Part IV

Rubbing his nose, he choked back the tears and snatched a light green blanket from the top shelf. He slammed the door closed and stalked into the living room, dragging the cover behind him like a child preparing for bed. He threw himself in the recliner, pulled the lever and flapped the blanket, letting it settle over him. Vernon leaned back and closed his eyes with one arm folded across his face. His right arm, he kept draped over his belly. He flexed the fingers and wrist to find the pain there fading. His elbow hurt when he moved, but not as much as before. Guess I got lucky. Vernon yawned and drifted. He was nearly asleep when a thought rose up. What about the dark under the blanket?

He tried to ignore it. The blanket was thin enough to let a fair amount of light through. If something was going to happen, wouldn't it have by now? The darkness hadn't shown much patience so far. He shifted in the chair. The blanket fluttered and stilled. Might as well worry about darkness in your pants. Something brushed his leg, and he scratched it with his foot. He felt something scurry across his chest and took the arm off his eye to swat it. At the next intrusion, his eyes popped open, and he lifted the blanket. Dim, green light illuminated the length of his body, but he couldn't see any scurrying shadows. What is going on here? He rubbed his leg again, balled the blanket and threw it across the room. Bouncing out of the recliner, he started brushing and swatting everything he could reach with his left arm. My clothes must be full of them!

Vernon caught sight of himself dancing and squirming in the window. Shaking his head, he stilled and forced himself to take deep breaths. Just like when we went camping. He'd made a few outdoors excursions with Cheryl while courting her, and the first sight of a mosquito, ant trail or spider web always sent him into gyrations while he tried to remove imaginary bugs from his body. No matter how much he could feel them marching across his skin, they never found a single insect.

The room suddenly felt stifling. Vernon walked to the front door, opened it and stepped out onto the lit porch, taking deep breaths of chill autumn air. The night writhed beyond the steps. He leaned against the door and watched.

A patch of the random, black-on-black shapes paled ever so slightly and coalesced into a defined, if hard to see, form. At first, it looked like some kind of tall bird standing before him with wings lifted for flight. As the edges sharpened, he realized it was a figure holding its arms outstretched. It had no more detail than a shadow, but he knew that figure quite well.

"Cheryl?" Half-whisper, half-sob, the word threatened to strangle him as he forced it through a constricted throat. He took a step forward.

The figure retreated a step and sharpened.

Another step carried him halfway across the porch.

His wife's shade backed up, arms still open. The darkness swirled, lightened and formed a smaller, vague figure to her left.

Vernon stepped to the terminator between light and dark at the edge of the porch.

The pair retreated again, still faint but growing sharper. Faint laughter floated to him through the night.

"They said you'd come back. That's the only reason I stayed." The figures stood motionless and silent. "Come closer, please."

Cheryl shook her head and lifted her arms higher. Vernon lifted his foot.

The phone rang.

"What?" Blinking, he turned his head back to the living room, where the phone called for his attention. He scowled and turned back to the yard. His family still beckoned. He started to step off the porch as the answering machine's digital voice answered. If you don't answer, they'll come here. They'll bring light and drive them away. "Just a minute," he called to Cheryl and dashed back into the house.

Picking up the cordless handset cut the answering machine off. "Hello?" he gasped.

"Mr. Hamilton." Travis Ware's voice issued from the earpiece. "I was starting to worry about –"

"What do you want, Ware? I'm kind of busy?"

"Are you alright, Mr. Hamilton?" While he spoke, Vernon leaned back and tried to look out the door, but couldn't see past the frame. Ware's voice sharpened and took on an urgent note. "What's going on there?"

"Nothing." He walked to the door. The night was totally black. "No!"

"What is it?"

"They're gone!"

"Who's gone? Mr. Hamilton, have you seen them already?"

"Gone." Vernon whimpered in his throat. "They were right there."

"I told you it's best to ignore them, Vern. Trust me, no good can come from paying too much attention to any apparitions you see at night."

He wiped tears from his eyes. "Shut up!"

"I know how you feel, and I'm sorry for your pain, but if you think about it, you'll realize I'm right."

"I said, shut up! I had them here. A few more minutes and I could have gotten them to talk to me, or gone out to them or something…"

"You step out into the night, and you'll never come back."

"Fine! I don't care! What do I have here, anyway?"

Ware's voice hardened. "You have a son, Mr. Hamilton. I'd say that's something. Are you so selfish that you'd abandon him for the sake of a lie?"

Vernon slammed the phone down with a wordless yell and walked out onto the porch. He stayed there for several hours, eyes scanning the darkness, but his wife and daughter didn't return.

Finally, exhausted, he went back inside, threw himself on the recliner and wept until he fell asleep.


Part I of Chapter 7 coming soon!

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Chapter 6: Second Night, Part III

As the curtain fell back in place behind him, he stared around the kitchen, unsure of what exactly he wanted. Finally, he shrugged, ignored the cabinets and headed for the refrigerator. After everything else they did, they probably left something in there to eat. He hooked fingers through the refrigerator and freezer handles, opened both doors and peered inside.

A wide assortment of food stared him in the face. Unfortunately, it was only a potential feast – cartons of eggs, frozen microwave dinners, beef, chicken, pork, sliced meat, cheese, sandwich condiments, vegetables, fruit, milk, soft drinks, juice, butter, bread. And not one bit of cooked food to be seen, not so much as a casserole or salad. I guess they think I need to learn to be a cook, too, he thought sourly and swung the doors shut. As they closed, the fridge shuddered and the compressor started up. The lights flickered. Not again!

He dashed around the ice box toward the back room. Something caught at his shoe laces, and he stumbled through the doorway, banging his injured arm against the doorframe. Grimacing and rubbing his elbow, he turned to see shadows streaking across the floor in time with the flickering lights. They converged on the doorway, backing off only when they hit the patch of illumination coming from the back room. It knows I'm here. It only lasted a few seconds before the lights overhead steadied and banished the darkness.

Vernon sighed and took a shaky step back into the kitchen. The darkness had seemed nearly mindless the night before, but those streaks of shadow just now had been quite orderly, heading straight for him like a pack of wolves trying to corner a deer. Is it learning, somehow? A frightening thought, one followed by an even more frightening idea: What if it's mad because it couldn't get me? What happens when it learns more?

A foul-tasting, caustic burp slipped free. His throat constricted at sudden pressure rising from below. Hand clasped over his mouth, Vernon spun on one heel and dashed into the bathroom. He just made it in time, sliding to a halt at the toilet and bending over as the afternoon's sandwich forced its way back up, burning his throat and mouth as bile and partially digested food splashed into the bowl. Gagging at the vomit smell wafting back up at him, he winced as his stomach clenched painfully and he retched again. And again. And again. Finally the spasms passed and he collapsed next to the commode, gasping through a raw throat.

"Oh, man," he croaked, and swallowed. Even that hurt.

Lightheaded, he grasped the side of the toilet and climbed to his trembling knees and then shaky feet. He flushed it, watched everything he'd eaten that day swirl around for a moment and stepped to the sink, where he splashed cold water on his face. Once the dizziness passed, he stepped into the back room. He spied his flashlight on the floor where he had left it that morning and went to retrieve it. Couldn't hurt. Picking it up, he thumbed the rubber button only to have the bulb flash briefly and die with a pop. At least I've got all those new ones... He smacked his forehead. His entire supply of lights and batteries were still in the car, surrounded by a sea of night. He hurled the flashlight into the corner with a yell. It struck the wall with a tinkling of glass and thudded to the floor. Pounding his fist into his thigh, he stalked out of the room.

Back in the kitchen, Vernon glanced at the refrigerator, shuddered, and turned his gaze to the cabinets. His stomach clenched. Not right now, he thought and rubbed his throat. Food might not be a consideration, but he could use some water.

He walked to the nearest cabinet. Plates and bowls, but past them to the right he could see the glasses lurking behind the next door. Small glasses squatted in front of their taller brethren, with the plastic cousins relegated to the corners. Vernon rose to his toes and stretched his good arm to grab a large, blue cup from behind a bowl. Faint shadows crawled across his hand and forearm. They lacked any real strength, but that didn't stop them from trying to hold him back. It was like fighting cold cobwebs that squirmed and grasped. He dropped to his heels and whipped his hand down. A few strands followed his arm out of the cabinet, withered and died in the light. Trembling, he shuffled to the sink, filled the plastic cup and brought it to his lips. Shaking hands sloshed the water; he spilled nearly as much as he got down his throat. He repeated the process, drinking more this time. Vernon tossed the cup in the sink and walked to the side door, through the second bedroom into his room.

He stopped at the bed and tossed a few pillows to the other side before halting. Do you really want to sleep in here tonight? No, he didn't. The thought of spending the night where he'd almost been taken earlier threatened to make his gorge rise again. Leaning out the door, he glanced at the recliner. I've slept in it before just fine. Just need a blanket or something. Vernon walked around his bed to the closet on the far side, pausing to look at the blackness pressing against the side window. He swallowed hard, grasped the knob and yanked it open.

Shadow loomed over his head, toppling toward him as soon as the door opened. Shouting, Vernon collapsed, using both arms to scoot backward, heedless of his sore elbow. The wall of darkness evaporated as it fell, gone before it touched the floor. He scrambled to his feet with a strangled sob.

"Come on!" he yelled at the closet "Just leave me alone for a few minutes, that's all I ask. Just a few minutes without something trying to drag me off!"


Part IV coming Friday!

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Chapter 6: Second Night, Part II

Vernon took a step and nearly fell when his arm wouldn’t move. He twisted, jerked and pulled free a few inches before stopping. He flattened himself against the wall. His elbow dug painfully against the doorjamb, and he could feel the cold grip enveloping his wrist and forearm trying to draw him back in the darkened room. He groaned and leaned back, his weight maintaining the status quo. For now, anyway. But what happens if my arm breaks? Wood creaked. His elbow creaked.

He pulled harder. Wood bit deeper into his flesh. Warmth trickled down his arm. He gritted his teeth and planted his feet on the floor. He tugged back with a groan that grew to a yell and then a scream. Pain ripped through his elbow, but he felt the grip on the other end lessen slightly. Then the ancient carpet gave way with a dull, dry rip.

Sneakers slipping, Vernon slammed into the wall and dangled with legs splayed and butt a foot off the floor. Wood scraped and agony burned up and down his arm. Vernon felt himself slowly dragged back into the room. He dug in his heels. More carpet ripped and twin furrows cut through the pad underneath. The rubber soles caught the floor beneath, squealing as they skidded along the oak planks. His forehead smacked into the doorframe, and his arm disappeared to just below the shoulder. He planted his right foot on the far side of the doorframe, his left hand on the wall and heaved. He grunted with the effort. Muscles in his arm and leg tightened and bulged.

“Let go,” he gasped. “Let go. Let go, let go, let GO!”

With a strained hop, his left foot landed on the wall and pushed. More of his arm emerged. Vernon jerked, exposing more of the trapped limb. The motion sent the arm sliding up the wall and into the switch. The darkness growled as light flooded the bedroom. He thudded to the floor and rolled, coming to a stop on his stomach. He closed his eyes and breathed heavily, coughing at the dust kicked up when he fell. It wasn't that tough before. What's going on? He shook his head. Got to be more careful.

As his breathing evened and his heart slowed to something like a normal rate, Vernon rolled over, sat up and scooted toward the wall. He cradled his right arm against his stomach. The elbow ached, and blood seeped from a shallow cut where the wood had bit into his flesh. An ugly weal spiraled from forearm to wrist, and bruises covered most of the lower half of his arm. It looked as if someone had wrapped a rope around it and dragged him around the yard. Vernon bumped into the wall, placed a shaky hand against the textured sheetrock and slowly climbed to his feet. He drew in a long, ragged breath and sagged against the wall with his head resting on his forearm while he stared into the bedroom.

It looked so normal with the lights on, a nice place to lie down and sleep. Gazing at the pillows piled at the head, he felt a sudden chill. What if Ray had been here? His trembling increased. What if he'd been asleep on the bed when I shut the light off? His fist smacked into the wall. Stupid! He punched it again. Stupid! Again. Stupid! Again. He didn't stop until he had knocked a hole in the plaster. After one last look at the bed, he staggered over to the recliner and plopped down, sticking as many of his sore, bloody knuckles in his mouth as possible.

"Thank God the babysitter still has him," he muttered around the fist. Vernon yanked on the lever on the side of the chair; the footrest jerked up with a clanking of metal, and the backrest creaked as he leaned back. Sore arm crooked across his abdomen, he placed his other hand behind his head, pinky tapping his skull while he gazed out the darkened window above the old air conditioner. Don't let it get him, she told me. If he'd been here, I'd have done just that. He glared at his reflection in the glass. What kind of father are you? His stomach grumbled in counterpoint. Vernon ignored it, leaned back and closed his eyes. With work beckoning in the morning, sleep was more important than food right now.

Cheryl's face appeared in the darkness behind his lids, equal parts terror and determination painted on her features as she pushed the baby toward him before sliding off into the night. Eyes popping open, Vernon grimaced and squirmed in the seat. He jostled the injured arm and gasped. Once the pain settled to its previous dull throb, he closed his eyes again. His wife's terrified face confronted him once more. He sighed, took deep breaths and stared at the overhead lights until his eyes hurt and spots danced in his vision. It didn't help. Again and again, he closed his eyes to find her waiting for him. Again and again, he watched the night drag her away and leave the baby lying on the floor.

When his stomach gurgled again, he jerked the lever on his chair and dropped the footrest with a clunk. The recliner rocked forward; he bounced out of the seat, ignoring the pain in his elbow. He went into the kitchen.


Part III coming Monday!

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Chapter 6: Second Night, Part I

Vernon reached out and placed a hand on the knob, but continued to stare at the door for several minutes. Worse? How could it possibly be any worse? He might have laughed if it weren’t such a frightening idea. What’s going to happen tonight? His grip tightened, then turned. The door pulled from its frame with a loud creak, and a breeze blew through, carrying an autumn chill and the fresh scent of the surrounding pastures. Vernon closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. It was a clean smell, void of the foul odors of livestock he usually associated with the country. Knotted muscles in his shoulders started to relax. He leaned on the doorframe I guess that’s one benefit to living out here – the clean country life in Jennings Grove really is clean. It’s just the sort of place we always wanted for Alexis and Raymond. Sighing, he opened his eyes as his mood sank once more. He remained leaning, arms folded as he watched the sun dip below the horizon and tried to recapture a bit of that feeling.

Shadows crept across the yard. Vernon blinked and rubbed his eyes. It made no difference. Darkness slid amoeba-like from underneath his car, deepening as it spread. Smaller puddles slunk from behind small hillocks and crawled out of dips in the yard. They sought each other out, running across the yard and pooling into larger and larger shadows that soon surrounded everything except the few places still exposed to the sun. Those islands of light dwindled and vanished until the only source of illumination came from the living room behind him.

Darkness oozed from between the boards near his feet and underneath the stairs to wash across the porch. The current eddied around the small rectangle of light, pushing at it. Vernon watched a moment, then straightened and flipped a second switch by the door. A bulb snapped on, bathing house and porch in its white brilliance. Shadows retreated to the edges. He slammed the door shut and turned to face the empty house.

Given how many people had been there, he found the living room surprisingly clean. The residents of Jennings Grove were polite intruders, it seemed. They’d left the furniture straight, Cheryl’s wingback “reading chair” and his recliner sitting side by side against one wall and the couch framing the walkway to the kitchen. He stooped and fished a couple of balled napkins from the floor, but couldn’t find any other signs of the party. After a quick glance to his left to make sure the light was on in the bedroom, he walked through to the kitchen, tossed the napkins in the trash can – which had a new liner in it – and looked around. As spotless as the front room, except for dishes stacked in the sink.

“Gotcha,” he muttered and walked to the counter. The dishes had been washed. What’s with these people? They live in a place where the night eats their families, and they just barge in whenever they feel like it, but they’ll stock your cabinets and wash the dishes while they’re at it? “Rod Sterling, take me away.”

He left the plates, bowls and glasses to dry and wandered into the second bedroom. Alexis’ bed remained as pristine as when they had moved in, the pink and yellow comforter nearly bright enough to banish the night by itself. All the boxes had been removed here, as well. In his own room, the furniture had been straightened and clothes put away, but the bed remained unmade. Ray’s nest of pillows – had it only been this morning? – still sat in the middle of the mattress. I guess they were more concerned with getting all the boxes taken care of. Or maybe they just wanted to leave me something to do. An oddly mundane chore given all that had happened in the last day or so. He shrugged. Might as well get to it. Heaven knew he could use some sense of normalcy, and he would have to get used to domestic duties sooner or later.

Pillows got tossed on the floor. He yanked the pale yellow sheet and dark blue quilt back and pulled on the corners of the fitted sheet until they lined up perfectly with the mattress. Cheryl had always been very strict about that. Next, the top sheet went back on the bed. He spent some time making sure the edges hung equally from both sides before tucking it in at the foot of the bed. He never quite understood why his wife insisted on that when the quilt covered everything anyway. “If you’re going to do it, do it right,” she always said. If only she could see me now. He smoothed the last few wrinkles out of the quilt and set about piling the pillows at the head of the bed. By the time he got it just right, all traces of day had vanished; if not for reflected glare from the light overhead, the window might have been a hole opening on some remote region of space. Vernon stepped back to admire his handiwork. Looks like a soldier’s bunk from some war movie. He gave a single, satisfied nod and walked out the door.

His hand, moving out of an ingrained habit, slipped back into the room, slapped the wall and slid down. The light switch flipped off.


Part II coming Friday!

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