Friday, March 7, 2008

Chapter 9: Third Night, Part VII

"Again?" he muttered. Vernon forced the seatback upright and shoved the footrest down. In his haste to stand, he overbalanced and nearly fell head-first on the floor. He staggered forward several steps and stumbled to a halt when his shoulder bumped into the wall. The window rattled around its ancient air conditioner. He turned around and rested for a moment, then shoved himself upright and crossed the room, casting glances at the darkened doorway. Shadowy tendrils wrapped around the frame, and the darkness bulged into the living room. Vernon glanced at the windows and saw the night trying to force its way in there, too. He grabbed the lanterns and headed for the bedroom. He stood in the doorway and watched the shadows balloon and deflate in the light, like jellyfish trying to squeeze their way out of a jar. They pulsed in unison, back and forth, back and forth. He stepped closer to the edge of the door to watch.

A loud snap from behind made him jump back a step as the lights in the living room went out. Another blown breaker? He turned and looked at the closet, where shadows still brooded. It looked like a dark, grainy photograph of a clothes rack. Raymond jerked in his arms. Vernon shifted his grip and bounced the baby slightly, making shushing noises. Do I really need to get them back on? Ray twitched harder, then left his grip altogether.

"Huh?" Vernon whirled, expecting to see the infant hurtling toward the ground. Instead, he floated toward the doorway where darkness bubbled and writhed. One slender arm held the boy aloft. "Oh, no, you don't!"

He lunged and wrapped his free arm around his son. The strand holding Raymond grew longer, wrapping itself around his arm and torso, pinning the hand holding the lanterns to his side. Raymond woke crying at the cold touch. His feet slid across the floor as the darkness dragged them both forward. He spread his legs. His toes hit the doorframe, followed by his knees. Vernon grunted and leaned back, groaning at the pain in his hip. He halted. Aching, exhausted, muscles hummed and cried out for relief. His back creaked under the strain. Slowly, he started leaning forward.

Dropping one lantern, Vernon swung the other with his wrist. Light flashed across his knees and waist, but couldn't reach high enough to break the grip holding them. Come on! He swung harder, his hand flapping hard enough to create a breeze across his uncovered leg. Tears leaked down his cheeks. Please don't let it end. Not like this. He whipped his hand forward with a grunt and let go. The lantern flew up, straight across the arm holding them and into the dark room. It disappeared, but the ebony tentacle snapped in half. Vernon slammed onto his back. The impact drove the air from his lungs. Trying to breathe, he shoved himself backward. More arms chased after them, but withered and fell short in the light. Vernon gasped and climbed to the bed, laying Raymond beside him. He clung to the baby until they both calmed, then stood and grabbed the remaining lantern. He limped to the closet as quickly as he could force himself to move, snarling at the shadows there. He stopped at the door.

"You can't have them," he growled. "Do you hear me? They are mine. You can't have them!"

He shoved the lantern in among the clothing. He grinned at the fleeing shadows for a moment, then turned his attention to the circuit breakers. Hunting through the hand-written labels, he found the one labled "living room" and flipped it back on. He heard a deep, angry grumble that rattled floorboards and looked through the door. Shadows fought the spreading light, grudgingly retreating under furniture and out the windows. After a moment's hesitation, he reached in and snapped the other breakers off, leaving only his room and the living room alight. Maybe that'll stop all this running around for tonight. I'm too tired to keep this up.

Vernon left Raymond on the bed for a moment and walked to the living room, where the lantern lay on the floor. That's a good light, he thought as he picked it up. The wire handle had bent and the glass cracked, but it shone just as brightly. He carried both back to the bedroom, set the lanterns on either side of the baby and collapsed on the bed.


Part I of Chapter 10 coming soon.

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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Chapter 9: Third Night, Part VI

The shadow shortened and darkened as he came. It gained strength as it compacted, picking up speed. Vernon fumbled with the switches on the lanterns. By the time he got them on, the shadow's head and shoulders had disappeared underneath the chair. Raymond was not far behind. Vernon threw himself on the floor and slammed the lights down in front of the seat, cutting the shadow in half. He heard a slight growl from the darkness below the chair. Vernon picked the baby up and held him close, kissing his cheeks and forehead. Salty tears wet his lips. Ray quieted, although he still trembled.

"I'm sorry, buddy. Daddy's got you. You're alright." He sat in the recliner and started rocking. The baby's trembling eased, and Raymond buried his face in the hollow between Vernon's neck and shoulder. Just a little break, that's all I'm asking for, he thought. He turned his face toward the front windows, which seethed with darkness just like the one in the back. Vernon clutched his son tighter. You don't need him, and you don't need them. Take your own people. Leave mine alone. The night quivered harder.

His eyes fell on the lanterns glowing on the floor. Shadows cowered under the chair, occasionally lashing out at the light. It reminded him of Grande, his mother-in-law's Chihuahua. The nervous little rat would bark and growl at everyone but her – and run away from anything that actually confronted him. But once your back was turned, Grande would launch from his hiding spot and snap at your ankles. If no one was watching, Vernon would boot the dog back wherever it had come from. I wasn't always so good at knowing when someone was watching. Vernon shifted in the chair and chuckled at the ceiling. On one visit a few months before Alexis was born, he'd sent the pooch sliding across the vinyl floor under the dinning room table and turned with a satisfied smirk on his face only to find his wife staring at him with one hand over her mouth in horror. It wasn't until she started shaking and her lips curled past her fingers that he realized Cheryl was laughing. She giggled through dinner whenever Grande slunk past and kept right on chuckling when they went to bed.

This one's for you, Cheryl. He stood and walked across the room. Hitching Raymond higher on his shoulder, he bent down, tipped the lanterns over and shoved them under the chair until only the wire handles were visible. Something between a squeak and a growl came just on the edge of hearing. Light shone out from underneath the seat, playing across the carpet and wall. He grinned despite the twinge in his hip. That'll teach you. He stared for a moment, then grabbed the handles and fished the lanterns back out.

Something caught at his foot as he turned to go, and he stumbled around to keep his balance. Light splashed across the room. He looked down and brought the lanterns around once he steadied himself. The shadow hooked around his shoe dissolved. He scowled at it and limped backwards to his recliner. The darkness returned as soon as the light moved out of range. Vernon set the lights on the floor and sat. Why couldn't the light come alive here? Leaning back, he smiled at the image of bright shards stabbing under furniture and into cabinets. Raymond squirmed. He patted the baby's diapered bottom, a series of soft whaps that sounded loud in the still room. Muscles in his shoulders gave a painful twinge. Vernon shifted in the seat and craned his neck, trying to find a more comfortable position. This won't last too long, but at least it feels better for now. He found himself staring over the back corner of the recliner.

The kitchen had gone dark.
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Part VII coming next week.


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Friday, February 15, 2008

Chapter 9: Third Night, Part V

Baby in one hand and darkened flashlight in the other, he walked quickly through the living room while casting glances over his shoulder at the light. One of three bulbs in the fixture had burned out, but the remaining two burned steadily as he passed into the kitchen. Ray snored in his ear. His shoulder and elbow ached with the effort of supporting the kid's weight. When did he get so heavy? It'd be nice if I could put him down and leave him there for a while. He set the flashlight on the kitchen table and shifted Raymond to the other shoulder. Handling the lanterns proved awkward, but finally he got the battery cover off and slipped four new D-cells in each. The box claimed that was good for sixteen hours; even with a manufacturer's tendency toward outrageous claims, he figured that should be enough to see them through the night.

The lanterns swung from his free hand while he looked from the dark room at the back to the rope coiled on the table and back. He shifted from foot to foot and tried to quash a surge of impatience. The microwave clock showed it was not yet ten. Still plenty of time. But why wait? He had no idea how long it might take to find Cheryl and Alexis, much less bring them inside. Vernon nudged the baby with his chin. Ray didn't budge. Moving the lanterns to his other hand, he hooked his forearm through the loop and let it slide up to his elbow. The rope felt heavier than he remembered and kept trying to drag his arm down. He hitched it back up and walked into the living room. He cast a glance back at the blackened window beside the refrigerator as he crossed the threshold. His feet crossed, and he stumbled as he tripped over his own heel. The rope slithered free and landed on the floor in a tangled heap.

Vernon growled and tilted his head back. "Why can't anything be easy?" he asked the ceiling. When it didn't answer, he squatted, set the lights beside the recliner and went to his room, where he grabbed a couple of pillows off the bed. He dropped them on the floor in front of chair and kicked them around until they lay side by side. He laid Ray on top, pausing to make sure the infant wasn't going to wake up. Vernon stood and backed toward the doorway, his shadow stretching in the brighter kitchen light to drape over Raymond. He smiled and turned his attention to the rope.

Grabbing the end, he stood and started winding it around his forearm between the hand and elbow. He'd gotten about half of it done when Ray started whimpering behind him. "You're OK," he muttered. The cries increased as Vernon coiled the rope. He muttered to himself and continued to loop it around his arm. He heard a thump. The crying turned to screams. Vernon tossed the rope on the floor in disgust and turned on one heel. "Oh, come on!" he snapped. "Can't you go five minutes without someone holding you?"

Raymond wasn't there.

Vernon's shadow trailed out from his feet. Long and thin, it had stretched beyond the pillows and grew even as he watched, dragging Raymond across the room by the collar of his onsie. It appeared to be headed for a tall chair in the corner that sat just high enough he might fit under it. The baby kicked and screamed. Breaking into a run, Vernon bent down and snatched up the lanterns.


Part VI coming next week!

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Chapter 9: Third Night, Part IV

The fixture spread uneven light across the room, weakest in the corners. Shadows congregated there, writhing and sliding up and down the wall like black amoebas. Every so often, one would stretch out until it turned a pale gray, then snap back and resumed its race up and down the wall. It wasn't until he caught sight of another shadow mirroring the movements in another corner that he realized what they were up to. They're trying to band together. The room held far too much light for them to succeed, but he found the sight fascinating and disturbing. They looked to have a bottomless reservoir of patience, trying an endless parade of shapes to find one that would work. He stared at them like an unfamiliar machine, wondering what made them tick. Are they independent, or part of the darkness outside? That seemed unlikely; he had barely escaped in the back room, but these shadows hadn't once tried to attack him or Ray. Then again, their movements were far too organized to be a collective of individuals. And they didn't stand a chance if those patches of darkness actually succeeded in overpowering the light. Is it just a change in tactics? What's controlling them?

He twisted his head and stared at the closet. No movement visible there, but the shadows inside had deepened. He could barely see the clothing anymore. The darkness radiated a sense of brooding. Hope I don't have to go back in there any time soon. He glanced at the light. Had it just flickered? He stared for a few minutes before deciding it had not. Still, I need to go ahead and go get those things. Spine crackling, Vernon sat up and scooted to the edge of the bed. He grabbed a flashlight, stood, stretched and turned to go when movement outside the window caught his eye.

It was Cheryl. Not a fully detailed figure, but much more so than the previous night. He could make out the lines of her clothing and the ghostly sketch of her face. She smiled and spread her arms, beckoning him to come join her. He took one step forward and slammed his shin into the metal bedrail. He stuffed a fist into his mouth to muffle a yell. Raymond cried out and jerked his arms, but did not wake.

Cheryl still stood there when he looked up. Her smile had faded, and she waved franticly, as if telling him to hurry. Vernon turned to walk around the bed to the window and fell when his right foot refused to move. The flashlight dropped to the floor and rolled.

Shadows under the bed had grabbed the toe of his shoe and the first couple rows of laces. He felt a tug, and he slid a fraction of an inch. More darkness jumped out and latched onto the sole. It pulled again. His foot disappeared to the ankle. He pushed with his hands and braced his left foot against the bed frame. Cold crept up his leg, and his pants rippled across the calf. Shadows filled the holes in the denim except where light shone directly on the skin. Another wrench on his leg, his left heel slipped, and he skidded a few more inches. His leg wedged mid-shin, but the pressure kept building, and the icy grip crawled toward his knee. His calf muscle ached with the strain, and he thought his injured hip might pull free. I can't fit under there. It pulled again, and he flopped on his back. Grimacing, he looked around the floor. Not in one piece, anyway. The flashlight lay to his right. He grabbed it and clicked the switch, shoving the light under the bed to shine on his foot.

Vernon pulled free and stood. Cold still climbed up his leg. Shivering, he hooked his fingers through holes in the fabric and ripped the fabric. The tear spread around his thigh, and the pants leg came free. He yanked it off and tossed it on the floor. A dark arm shot out, grabbed the denim and dragged it under the bed. He looked out the window. Cheryl was gone.

"Not again," he muttered. Why would she leave just as I got free? Tears trickled down his cheek. He would have thought she'd wait for him; she seemed so frantic. Unless she was just trying to distract me so it could grab me under the bed. He shook his head, but the thought refused to leave. Everyone says that's not really her. What if they're right? What if she's just some sort of illusion?

"No," he growled. "That's my wife and daughter out there, and I'm going to get them back." Raymond woke crying. Vernon suppressed a groan and lifted him from the bed. "Let's go, buddy."

_____counter-strice source

Part V coming next week!


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Monday, February 4, 2008

Chapter 9: Third Night, Part III

Vernon struggled to stand. His right leg quivered as he straightened, and he fell back to the carpet. He rolled left and grabbed the other flashlight. Sitting up, he flailed with both while scooting backwards. He gritted his teeth against the pain in his hip and focused on the darkness before him. Every pseudopod the light touched broke apart, only to reform the instant he swung at another limb threatening to snatch him again. Several brushed his hair and bleeding ear before he managed to dispel them. Others hooked through his clothing; his shirt and pants hung in tatters by the time he dared a look over his shoulder and groaned. He had only crossed about half the distance to the bathroom. Ray had finally quieted and was staring at him with wide eyes. When something slid across his scalp, Vernon quickly turned back around and screamed. Every arm the thing had snaked toward him.

The light flared above and the bulbs went out with a twin pop. The darkness flattened under the flash, seeking refuge out the window and under furniture. Vernon struggled to a crouch and lurched toward the bathroom as night came flooding back. He collapsed on the floor next to Raymond and pulled himself into a ball around the baby, making sure they both had plenty of light around them.

When the pain in his hip subsided somewhat, he scooped up Raymond and climbed to his feet. He shoved the flashlights under his arm. He kept most of the weight on his left leg, using the right one to steady himself. Black shadows pushed in on the band of light. He carefully placed each hobbling step in the center of the path and crossed the corner of the kitchen into Alexis' room. He staggered to her bed and dropped on the pink comforter. Rubbing his hip, Vernon laid the baby beside him with a sigh.

"That was a little too close, buddy." His voice trembled, but he couldn't suppress a wry laugh. "We just about get eaten by some kind of monster shadows, and I'm talking about it like it was a car accident. And to a baby at that." He shook his head. "This place must get to you after awhile. What do you think? Is Daddy cracking up?" Ray sneezed. "You think so? I hope you're right." He lay still for several moments, one arm around Raymond until the infant went back to sleep. The pain in his leg settled to a dull throb, and he felt himself drifting off. He turned a heavy-lidded gaze toward the door. Darkness pulsed and fought against the light in the back room. That's three rooms you've been driven out of tonight. Do you really want to go to sleep in here right now? He groaned, sat on the edge of the bed and lifted Raymond to his chest.

The lights in here looked steady enough, but then they had in the other rooms, too. The less power the house is drawing, the more stable the other lights will be. The breakers should only start flipping when we're using too much. It was a basic principle, but this old shack had worse wiring than any machine he'd ever seen. No telling how that might factor into it. I need to get those lanterns. He frowned, and his brow furrowed. Are they still on the table? In the dark kitchen. He sighed and stood with a long grunt.

Vernon walked into his room and placed Raymond on the bed. He limped around to the closet, still open after the morning's episode. He clicked on both flashlights long before he got there, keeping the beams trained on Cheryl's clothing. What shadows still remained between the clothes scuttled away toward the back. As he approached, he moved the lefthand flashlight to his shoulder and tilted his head to hold it in place. He reached in a shaking hand, wrenched the hangars aside and played the lights over the wall until he found the circuit breaker. He snapped the two tripped switches back on and looked over his shoulder. The living room brightened as lights came back on in the kitchen.

He turned the flashlights off and lowered himself to the bed with one under each hand. Please, just give me a minute to rest. I've still got so much to do. He let his lids settle. Plenty of time to get the lanterns in minute. Vernon shifted his leg and hissed at the bolt of pain that shot through the hip. He grimaced and straightened his leg, but the pain took time to diminish. Even then, it remained as a dull ache. Sleep fled further as he became aware of his throbbing, tattered ear. He sighed and stared at the ceiling.


Part IV coming Friday!

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Friday, February 1, 2008

Chapter 9: Third Night, Part II

Yawning, he tilted his head back and squinted at the light fixture in the ceiling. Two bulbs shone through the frosted glass. Amazing that such a small thing could be so important. The light burned brighter for a moment, then dimmed to less than a quarter of its previous intensity.

Shadows washed across the room like a slow tide. The room was darker at the edges, except next to the bathroom and where light came in across the kitchen from Alexis' room. The window to his left might as well be an opening on to some far corner of space. Weaker shadows pulled at his clothes and raked across his face. Something barbed stabbed through his right earlobe and tugged. Vernon hissed and jerked his head left; pain tore through his ear. Blood dripped on his neck and shoulder. Blackness pulsed in the window, pushing its way further into the room every time it surged forward, past the desk, over the edge of the couch, reaching for them.

Holding Raymond tighter to his chest, Vernon snatched up one of the flashlights by his side and clicked it on. He shifted that one to the hand holding the baby, keeping a light trained on him. He grabbed the other flashlight, turned it on and waved it around. Shadows to the front and right side retreated from the lancing beam. The seething dark to his left paused momentarily, then continued its tidal advance. It rumbled as it came. Vernon could feel something like amusement from that side of the room. He rolled off the couch and sprang for the patch of light near the bathroom. His foot landed on the edge. He teetered and fell hard on his shoulder, knocking the wind from his chest and the flashlights to the floor. Ray woke at the impact and started crying. Bright spots of color danced in Vernon's vision as he tried to breathe. He grabbed the baby and shoved him as far into the light as he could. Red faced, Raymond screamed louder and waved his arms and legs. Thank heaven he can't crawl yet, Vernon thought as he climbed to his hands and knees.

Something wrapped around his ankle like a cold python and pulled. Vernon fell flat on his chest with a yell. He sneezed from dust kicked up off the floor. His fingernails dug into the carpet as he slid backward. Looking over his shoulder, he saw night had swallowed half the room. Tentacles as thick as his thigh waved back and forth, visible against the weaker shadows slapping and clawing at him as the darkness dragged him further from the light. One flailing hand slapped down on the barrel of a stray flashlight. His fist closed on it just as the world turned upside down.

"What?" he shouted, trying to understand why he saw the floor above his head. Ray still screamed, flailing arms at the ceiling now underneath them, but Vernon could barely hear the baby over the thudding pulse in his ears. The shadow shook him like a dog with a rag. His arms flapped around his head, throwing wild arcs of light around the room. His knee popped and pain shot through his hip. He felt himself lifting higher in the air and craned his neck. The soles of his shoes brushed the ceiling.

The dark had withdrawn its other tentacles and pushed itself further into the room. Soon the only bright points would be around the bathroom and his second flashlight laying on the floor. Vernon pointed the flashlight at it. He heard a slight hiss, but the beam barely penetrated. It's too big. But what else can I do? Sweat stung his eyes as he swung the flashlight in a double-handed slash at the arm holding him up. The grip on his ankle lessened. He slipped a fraction of an inch before it tightened and swung him toward the black mass. Light shaking in his fist, he pointed it straight at his ankle. The hold on his leg evaporated. He crashed to the floor. Tendrils whipped toward him.

_____counter-strice source

Part III coming Monday!


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Monday, January 28, 2008

Chapter 9: Third Night, Part I

Snatching up a couple of flashlights, Vernon ran toward the back room. Light shone on them from the front, but a cold, hard grip tangled in his hair and jerked his head back as he dashed past the refrigerator. He grimaced and whipped his head from side to side. No use. He backed up a step, then leaned forward against the pull. The pressure on his scalp increased, and he could feel hair ripping. He swiped at the darkness behind his head and nearly knocked himself out with one of the flashlights. Vernon's skull rang from the impact as his thumb pressed the switch. The grip on his head weakened immediately. He stumbled to the back room in two lurching steps. He collapsed on the couch, chest heaving.

Raymond squirmed in his grip. Vernon sat the baby on his lap and bounced his knee. The scratches on his face didn't look quite as bad. The baby giggled, burped and spit up. Wiping the mess off Ray's blue onesie with his sleeve, Vernon yawned and held him close. Raymond laid his head on his father's shoulder as his eyes slid closed. He patted the infant's bottom and stared at the blank wall above the DVD player sitting on the desk. Too bad the TV got smashed. I could really go for a movie right about now. Anything to take my mind off... His gaze shifted to the window.

Despite the brightness of the room, the glass remained a flat black. He sat straighter and squinted. No, not flat. Night swirled past the window, occasionally pressing inside a couple of inches. Every so often, it would flatten and spread along the wall, only to shatter in the light. The few shards of darkness that survived scurried to join the shadows behind the desk like cockroaches. Hesitant tendrils slipped out from under the desk and whipped back. Vernon watched them a moment, then lifted his feet off the floor and set them on the couch. He turned back to the window. Does it know someone's in here? He found the idea hard to credit, but why else would it fight so hard to get in? Maybe it's not fighting at all. Maybe it's like water – just pushing against whatever holds it back until it flows through. He sighed and laid his head back on the back of the couch, wincing as his tender scalp hit the fabric. Whatever else the darkness might be, it wasn't mindless. It wanted them. But why? Food?

He shivered. He couldn't quite believe Jennings Grove was nothing more than a feeding ground for a nightmare. Even so, he still couldn't quite comprehend the native's willingness to remain, let alone live here. Ware called it "home," but could that really be enough to hold all these people here? It might. He got the feeling that trying to drag most of them away would lead to the fight of a lifetime. Great-Uncle Art would love this place.

Arthur Keele was something of a legend in Cheryl's family. As Houston expanded, most of the clan abandoned their various agricultural pursuits and started ventures in the city, including her grandfather. But the oldest son refused to sell. In fact, Art bought out his other siblings at outrageous prices to keep the family's land intact. "The city ain't going to swallow me, ya hear?" he'd tell anyone willing to listen. He held out for years, far longer than anyone thought he could. But the price he paid for the land beggared him. His wife left and took their children to Oklahoma with her family. Faced with starvation, he slowly parceled the land away, cursing his brothers and sisters with every acre he lost. He died on the original homestead with nothing but a few hundred acres that his children promptly sold to a developer. Cheryl's grandparents and great-aunts and –uncles sheepishly refused to talk about Art, but their children idolized him and passed their hero-worship to her generation.

Vernon loved the stories about Great-Uncle Art. His own family had consisted of nothing but his parents, who had never found much use in such sentimentality. They sold and bought what they needed with no thought of passing anything on to their children. He'd inherited something of their carpe diem attitude, which he supposed had helped lead to this predicament. If I'd thought to save more, maybe we could have held on to our own house instead of selling it just to survive. I wouldn't have had to take the first job that came along, and I wouldn't be here running for my life through an old house with bad wiring. Art certainly would have held on longer. Vernon got to talk with him once just a few months before he died. The old man had been drunk and more than a little senile, but he remained adamant about not letting anyone take him from the land. "This was our home," he kept saying. "The city ain't going to swallow it."

Could they really feel the same way about Jennings Grove? Vernon shook his head. Too many questions and no answers. He doubted it would make much difference, anyway, but it might be nice to know more about his mess he had gotten them in to.


Part II coming Friday!

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