Authors: Steven L. Campbell
A Collection of Short Stories
Copyright 2013 Steven L. Campbell
Published by Steven L. Campbell at Smashwords
Cover design by S.L.Campbell Graphics and Books
Originally titledRidgewood Sparks, this bookis a collection of stories centered on the fictional town,Ridgewood, based on the author’s hometown in Pennsylvania.
All characters, organizations, places, andevents portrayed in this book either are products of the author’simagination or are fictitiously used. Any resemblance to actualpersons—living or dead, locales, organizations, or events is purelycoincidental.
Smashwords Edition License Notes
Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book is alicensed copyrighted property of the author. However, you arewelcome to copy and share it for non-commercial purposes, providedthe book remains in its complete original form. If you enjoyed thisbook, please return to your favorite ebook retailer to discoverother works by this author. Thank you for your support andrespecting the hard work of this author.
To Jennie and our children and their children
Table of Contents
Tales for Young Adults
Are WeThere Yet?
TheThing in the Mirror
Night ofthe Hell Hounds
Bottomof the Seventh
DeadRabbits Don’t Run
In theWake of Annihilating Kings
AChild’s Tale of Learning
Tales for Adults
A Matterof Time
A Buzzingof Bees
A SinisterBlast from the Past
Connectwith Steven L. Campbell
Tales for Young Adults
Are WeThere Yet?
With all its blemishes, I wrote the strange andcreepy “Are We There Yet?” in 1999 and published it at my oldno-longer-in-service website. Since then, I have recycled parts ofit for an upcoming novel,Margga’s Curse.
ON A PARTICULAR August day, not far from Ridgewood,Pennsylvania, a black Grand Cherokee wound its way over a hillycountryside. The closer the Coleman family got to Ridgewood, theharder the rain fell. Fifteen-year-old Douglas Coleman pulled athis sweaty T-shirt and wished that the air conditioner in hisparents’ Grand Cherokee worked. The “grand” had left the vehicleseveral years ago. Same with their lives. Their fortune had beenyanked away over the summer by a cruel twist of fate, right beforethe dog days of August had hit.
He didn’t care if they ever got there, but heasked anyway: “Are we there yet?”
“Almost,” his mother said. “Another half-houris all.” She looked unhappy, as though she had done somethingwrong. Douglas sighed and crossed his arms. It wasn’t she who hadmade a mess of things.
Next to him in the back seat, Douglas’seleven-year-old sister, Keera, snored. Drool leaked from the cornerof her open mouth and formed a puddle along the front of her pinkT-shirt. Douglas wondered how she could sleep when it was so hotand their lives had been ruined—thanks to him, of course, thoughhis mother and Dr. Jarvis insisted that it wasn’t his fault.
He clenched his jaw and deepened his frown,if that were possible. No matter how many times his mother saidthat things were going to get better, he knew they would never beas good as when they had lived in Minneapolis.
Keera took a breath and snored louder.Douglas jabbed her shoulder until she turned her head and quieted.Then he tilted his own head and let the warm spray from his openwindow douse his sweaty face.
The landscape of woods and occasional farmand cornfield looked like home. But it wasn’t. Minneapolis andeverything that had been theirs were a long ways behind them now.There would be no going back until he turned eighteen. Then hecould go to college at Minnesota State where many of his friendsplanned to go, and be far away from a place where the statedepended on a captive groundhog to predict their springs.
We have no other choice, Dougie! His mother’swords still resounded in his ears from the days they had spentpacking. They were SFC: strapped for cash, a term his father hadstarted using after lightning had struck him three months ago. Itwas a term that Douglas hated hearing. It ranked up there with SOL,which was how he felt most of the time.
In the front seat of the old truck, AdrianaColeman banged an open palm against the dashboard. The engine wasoverheating again.
“We there yet?” Douglas’s father asked as heawoke from his nap.
“Almost,” Adriana said. She pointed to agiant, white billboard sign ahead of them that read WELCOME TORIDGEWOOD in large, blue letters.
Maurice Coleman rubbed his right temple as heturned in his seat to look at Douglas. “We’re muh-moving, son,” hesaid. “Nuh-new home, new town, new people. New, new, new.”
Douglas’s face soured. “I don’t want to makenew friends,” he said. “It’s taken me all my life to make the bestof the ones I’ve left behind.”
Adriana said, “When we get settled, you cane-mail your old friends, or call a couple next weekend. I know theywould love to hear from you.”
Douglas sighed. “Like they’re gonna careabout my new life. I saw their looks. They were glad it wasn’t anyof them heading to a new a place.” He sputtered as a realizationclawed at his mind. “I’ll be the new kid at school. The oneeverybody’ll pick on.”
“It’s tenth grade. You won’t get pickedon.”
Before Douglas could argue, Adriana said, “Iknow you’re going to like your new bedroom. You’ll have plenty ofspace for your easel and desk and all your paints and canvasand—”
“Whatever. I’m not painting anymore.”
“Anyway,” Adriana said and sighed, “it’s abeautiful home in the country, just down the road from UncleJason’s farm.”
“Great. I love the smell of cow manure.”
Adriana set her mouth firm. Her expressionwas one of iron now. Douglas returned to gazing out at the lousyrain. The move was his fault, after all. If he had put away thelawn mower before going to Kenny’s house, then his father wouldn’thave been struck by lightning while putting the mower into theshed. But he had been in a hurry to see Kenny’s new computer, andso the storm came and knocked Maurice Coleman from his shoes with alightning bolt that left him with impaired short-term memory.
Blame and guilt weighed Douglas’s shoulders.If not for his carelessness, his father would still be employed asa lawyer. And not just any lawyer. Maurice Coleman, the man aboutMinneapolis, had been successful as a private practice lawyer,earning as much as six figures last year. But now, he wasn’t wellenough to be an ambulance chaser.
“Nobody’s fault,” Maurice said from the frontseat.
Douglas clenched his jaw, turned away fromhis father, and glared out his window at downtown Ridgewood. Thestreets appeared barren and so did the stores—a steadyconglomeration of brick and cement shops that shoved against eachother. Their windows looked dark and lifeless, though all were openfor business. Even the tiny McDonalds and Burger King—crampedbetween more brick buildings—looked dingy and deserted. At a streetcorner, Douglas looked at a discolored tavern on the left, its onlyvisible window sporting a black sign with white letters thatannounced fifty-cent wings on Friday nights. Below it, neon signsadvertised a selection of beer inside. On the uneven sidewalk infront, three young girls around the ages of ten or eleven camearound the corner and passed by on Rollerblades, each of themteasing each other with obscenities. An old, sickly looking man ina tattered Army jacket stepped out of the tavern, turned up hiscollar to the rain, and then looked at Douglas and grinned. Douglasshuddered at the rotting teeth he saw and looked away. Icy painsliced through his stomach.
“I spy … muh-my right eye,” Maurice Colemansaid, “suh-something blue.” His stutter caused Douglas to clenchhis jaw tighter as another icy feeling jolted through hisstomach.
“C’mon Duh-Douglas,” Maurice said cheerily,“play along.”
Douglas crossed his arms and held in hisanger. “Later, Dad. Okay?”
The light changed and Adriana drove themdeeper into an increasing murkiness of more constricted stores thatlooked empty of any life. They crossed over a cement bridge and awide gray fording called Myers Creek. On the other side, a gothicstone church called St. John’s Cathedral sat large and tall. Itstower bell was in mid-procession of peeling four o’clock.
Past the church, St. John’s Cemetery rolledwide and far with many tombstones marking the dead there. Keeraawoke and screamed.
Douglas jumped and nearly screamed as well.Alarmed, Adriana turned to Keera, and then returned her attentionto her driving when a car horn sounded at the stop sign she almostran. Maurice made hushing sounds, but Keera sobbed louder.
“The cemetery … it scares me,” she said. “Isaw myself buried beneath the ground.”
“It’s okay,” Adriana said. “It was just adream.”
Keera turned to Douglas. Her tears dropped toher chin. “I saw you in a coffin,” she said between sobs. “I sawMommy and Daddy, too.”
Pain knifed through Douglas’s stomach. Heshuddered.
“Bad dream,” Maurice said. “Bad dreamtap-tap-tapping.”
Douglas’s stomach lurched. “Mom,” he criedand hiccupped. “I don’t feel good.”
“We’re almost there. Just two moremiles.”
Maurice made more hushing sounds as he turnedand looked out his rain-covered window. “Almost home,” he said. “Nomore tap-tap-tapping.”
Douglas pressed his hands against his stomachas his mother drove south and into the murky countryside, pastwoods and occasional clearings of soggy cornfields and pastureswith waterlogged fences and muddy cows, and farms with rustedtrailers and car skeletons in the yards.
They stopped at an intersection and Adriannawaited for a semi decorated in yellow running lights to speed bybefore she eased the steaming, chugging vehicle into theintersection.
Douglas saw the other semi come at them fromthe corner of an eye.
Instantly, a thousand screams filled hishead. His world exploded, which deafened the screams. Then allsound and sight went dark. He flew in darkness a long time beforehe awoke.
He stared out his window. The closer he andhis family got to Ridgewood, Pennsylvania, the harder the rainfell.
The move was his fault. He pulled at hissweaty T-shirt and asked, “Are we there yet?”
“Almost,” his mother said. “Another half-houris all.”
She looked unhappy, as though she had donesomething wrong.
The Thing in the Mirror
INSIDE A SINGLE yellow eye of a two-story brickhouse, fifteen-year-old Randy White sits at his bedroom desk andstares into a rectangular wall-type mirror propped in front of him.He draws a few lines to his portrait, trying to capture aconvincing likeness of himself to show Mr. Evans, his art teacher,on Monday.
A crowd roars from outside his bedroomwindow; he wonders for a moment if the Fighting Eagles have scored.A half-block away, Ridgewood High School’s football team isbattling a well-matched contest with their tough-to-beat rivals,New Cambridge. His parents and sisters are there amidst thefervor.
Randy glances at the radio on the stand bythe side of his bed and considers turning on the game. Then,annoyed, he realizes the noise of the game has become adistraction; the skinny boy stamps to his window to close it.
Football season has ascended upon Ridgewood’sFriday nights and tonight the air is heavy in the third quarter,the game tied. Randy knows that sweat and adrenaline and coffee andsoft drinks are flowing fast. He had been part of that lifeonce.
Before he closes the window, a loud cheerfollows the spinning ball kicked over the heads of the visitingblue and white team. The ball passes between white jutting polesrising toward the night sky, and then falls and bounces into a wirebackstop, rattling the fence where on the other side, a few beesbuzz atop the uncut field of brush and scrub in the waningSeptember twilight.
Behind the school and beyond the fieldlights, portions of Myers Ridge jut like jagged canine teeth tryingto bite into the remaining bands of sunset above it. The clouds areturning dark, but not because of the failing sunlight.
Randy notices a sphere of white lightblinking along the cliffs of Myers Ridge and wonders what it is.The light moves back and forth and up and down, then zips away fora few seconds before it returns and repeats the pattern.
Randy thinks of UFOs, so he hurries back witha digital camera. He zooms and snaps a picture. The orb blinks offand on. Randy takes another picture. The crowd roars. The orb stopsblinking.
He waits for the strange light to blink onagain, but the ridge remains dark.
Bands of lightning spread out across thenorthern sky, streaking and skipping over the pink and purpleclouds. Randy reaches to close the window when white light flashesin front of the window and sends him falling backwards. Partiallyblinded, he scrambles from the floor to the window and closes it.Then he ducks and waits; he wonders if little gray beings willenter his room and want to abduct him.
After several minutes, he peeks outside. Thenhe pulls his curtains over the window and hurries to his desk. Hewatches his window in the mirror for several minutes. The footballcrowd is muffled on the other side; there is no other disturbanceout there.
No UFOs. No aliens. All is safe. Right?
And the light?
He ponders the light for several minutes.Perhaps, he decides, the flash of light wasn’t as close as hethought.
He returns to his portrait and draws. Hishand, eyes and mind become synchronous and he discovers he reallylikes what he is doing. He understands the rules of composition andpositive and negative space now. He has become an artist and heknows it. Drawing what he sees is easy to do.
He looks at his face and studies the formsmade clear by the light from the lamp on his desk. Then behind hismop of brown hair where thick green curtains should cover thewindow he closed not long ago, he sees a closed door instead.
What? This can’t be.
He slowly puts down his pencil, rubs hiseyes, and looks again at the mirror. The door is there! A plainslab of dark oak with a glass doorknob on it, all in the exact spotwhere his window should be. He quickly turns from the mirror andlooks at his window covered by green curtain. In the mirror, hesees the door.
Fascinated and a little frightened, herepeats the procedure until he is certain the mirror is not lyingto him.
He looks at his window. “Hello. Aliens?”
He lifts the mirror from its propped upposition and crosses his room. Facing the curtain, he holds themirror by its wired back with his left hand and sees clearly in themirror the door now next to him. He reaches out to where he knowsthere is curtain. He watches it happen in the mirror as he touchescold wood instead.
He yanks his hand away and blows on hisfingers as though the wood had been ice.
He hears the muffled noise from the footballfield where his parents and two young sisters are watching thegame. But he barely thinks of them now.
He lifts his hand to the curtain and watcheshis hand in the mirror grasp the faceted doorknob. It is solid andcold and he shivers and takes a deep breath to calm his excitement.Then he turns the knob.
The door in the mirror swings out and hefeels its weight against his right shoulder as the door comes torest against him. He moves forward and watches the door open allthe way in the mirror.
Beyond the door is a hallway with a woodfloor as dark as the door and just as polished. Across the hall isa plain, off-white wall where a large painting of a seascape hangsfrom an ornate gold frame.
He reaches back toward his window and seeshis arm enter the hallway. He turns and looks at his hand pressingagainst the curtain and the window behind it. He does not feel thecurtain or window, even when he leans his shoulder against thecurtain.
When he looks again at the hallway in themirror, he tumbles through the doorway.
In his bedroom, the boy holding the mirrorfalls into the curtain and window, evaporating through green fabricand window glass and wood frame and wall. His reflection continuesto tumble likewise into the hall, sprawling onto the cold, hardwood.
In Randy’s room, the mirror falls to thebedroom floor and bursts into shards and slivers.
At the window, Randy White has vanished.
At the window, glass begins to chatter on theother side with the sound of rain. Two-hundred yards away thefootball game has ended. Several minutes pass before the front doorat Randy’s house opens. His father calls upstairs to remind him oftheir ritual of going out for ice cream after a home game. Wear ajacket, Randy’s father says, it’s raining.
Minutes pass. The youngest girl impatientlystomps upstairs calling for Randy to hurry. Inside his bedroom, thegirl sees on his desk his drawing pad and a self-portrait lookingback in wonderment. Past the desk, Randy’s camera lies near abroken mirror below his window. She crosses the room, picks up thecamera and turns it on. She looks at the pictures that Randy tookof the flashing orb. The images are blank.
She puts down the camera and picks up a pieceof mirror glass, jabbing the end of her thumb on an edge. She criesout, switches hands and sucks at the bead of blood from her injury.She holds up the knife-like length of glass and sees the door. Ashadow falls across the polished floor. She looks closer. Theshadow is crouched over a body. A long, smooth, gray face turns.Large glowing yellow eyes peer at her. A mouth of sharp teethconsumes the Navy blue fabric of Randy’s shirt.
The creature lunges at her. She screams anddrops the broken mirror and runs from the room, crying and yellingall the way downstairs. She races past her mother and older sisterand into the arms of her concerned father.
No one believes her when she tells them whatshe saw. Upstairs, no one else sees the door or the hall or thecreature consuming Randy White’s body in the mirror. They see thebroken mirror, but nothing more than shards of glass and splinteredwood. Looking around, they see Randy’s drawings and evidence of aboy missing from home.
Perhaps he ran away, a police officersuggests.
He did stop enjoying sports, Randy’s fathersays.
Another police officer suggests abduction,which would explain how the mirror was broken.
Abducted and eaten, the little girl says. Byan alien.
No one believes her. Of course.
She says no more and takes one of Randy’ssketchbooks and fills the pages with drawings of the creature shesaw in the mirror.
No one pays her any attention. No one everreally believes the wild things that come from a child’s overactiveimagination. Not ever.
RACHEL MCCUTCHEON AND her younger sister had thehouse to themselves. Their parents and big brother Tim shoppedthirty-three miles away at New Cambridge for groceries and a newair conditioner to replace the old one that stopped working lastnight. April had brought a taste of summer with it, and its stickytorment caused Rachel to pull at her green halter and whiteterrycloth shorts. She struggled to sit up on her mom’s plushysofa. Then, upon sinking in a mushy spot on the middle cushion, shefreed a romance paperback wedged between the cushions and leafedthrough it. It was from a bag of similar books Tim’s wife Josie haddropped off an hour ago. Buxom women and muscular men seduced andcheated on each other in graphic description. She threw the bookback in the bag on the floor and looked over at her eleven-year-oldsister Britt who lay in their dad’s huge recliner, her summer tanglowing around the pink bikini top and bottom she wore. Anoscillating fan blew on her every fifteen seconds and played withher long sable hair, the ruffles on her beachwear, and the pages ofher beauty magazine.
Like Rachel, Britt was barefoot. But Britt’stoenails were expertly pedicured and painted light blue to matchher fingernails. Rachel’s nails were unpolished and her fingernailskept short by her teeth.
“This stuff is flower petal porn,” shedeclared as she stood and dropped the bag of books next to Britt,who looked up with aquamarine eyes opened in wonderment.
“I mean these books are for lonely old churchladies and librarians,” Rachel said before she made her way to thekitchen and peered in the refrigerator for her leftover Italian subfrom lunch. Not finding it among the assortment of diet food anddrinks and several plastic dishes labeled with leftover dinners,she swore and slammed shut the door. Something fell over inside.She ignored it as the doorbell’s annoying buzz took her from herdilemma. She started for the sun porch and stopped. Two curiouseyes peered in at her through the door’s three diamond shapedwindows. She stopped and frowned, and then crossed her arms overher chest.
“Can we talk?” the boy on the other sideasked, his voice muffled by the glass.
Rachel almost said no, but Britt, who was nowbehind her, pushed past her and opened the door that stuck to itsjam for a moment because of the humidity and too much paint.
“Hi, Paul, come on in. I like yourT-shirt.”
Fourteen-year-old Paul Joseph looked down thefront of his plain aquamarine shirt and said, “Thanks.” He lookedup at Britt and smiled, his gaze resting on her bikini top. “Goingswimming?”
“I wish. The pool’s still covered fromwinter.” Britt stuck out her bottom lip.
Rachel harrumphed and returned to thekitchen. Paul quickly followed with Britt close behind.
“Can we talk?” he asked again. His squeakyvoice gave away his unease.
Rachel stopped. The ache to have him back inher life stabbed at her chest. She said, “I’m still mad at you forhitting me with that tomato.”
“That’s why I’m here … to apologize.”
Rachel felt her gaze linger on his facelonger than she wanted to. He was pleasant on the eyes. And she hadbeen dreaming about him a lot lately, often lying with him in apostcoital embrace, running her fingers through his well-groomed,silky and shiny auburn hair.
Her cheeks flushed. She tightened her armsover her chest and said, “It was a rotten thing to do.”
“I know. And I’m sorry.” The serious lookfrom his steel blue eyes seemed to penetrate her soul.
She uncrossed her arms and ran a hand throughher short red hair, combing it away from her forehead.
“Forgive him already,” Britt said. Then toPaul, “You want something to drink? I could go for something cold.It’s so hot in here.”
Rachel stepped between them and took Paul bythe arm. “He’s coming with me,” she said, steering him to thedining room and the stairs.
A frown replaced Britt’s flirty smile.
Rachel turned to her and said, “If you followus or try eavesdropping on us, I’ll tell Dad what you and Taylordid at the movie theater last week.” Then she pushed Paul up thestairs.
Inside her boxy bedroom, Rachel set theceiling fan’s speed at high, and then reclined on her narrow bed.Paul plopped down in her yellow beanbag chair—the one he had boughther last year for her thirteenth birthday. Her high school FightingEagles swimming, volleyball and softball trophies littered hernightstand next to him. He always admired her athleticachievements, fondling at least one or two trophies when hevisited. He kept his hands free this time as he crossed his armsand looked at her with eyes still serious.
After a moment, he cleared his throat andsaid, “Sorry I lost my head and threw a tomato at you. But…”
Rachel’s frown deepened.
Paul sighed. “You told Justin we hadsex.”
Rachel relaxed her frown and forced herselfnot to smile. “He saw us kissing at Pizza Hut and wanted to knowhow serious we were. He’s been stalking me all school year, so Itold him we went all the way. Now he can’t play me like I’m somevirginally challenged moron that he needs to score with.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t have to tell him we hadsex.”
“Yes I did, so get over it. Besides, we knowthe truth and that’s all that matters.”
Paul sighed again. His face and shouldersrelaxed, but his arms remained crossed and pressed against hischest.
Rachel gave him a small smile and said, “Ihad a good time that night, just the two of us talking. We shoulddate more often.”
“It wasn’t a—”
“Don’t you dare say it wasn’t a date, PaulJoseph.” The frown returned. “You asked me out. You paid for myfood and drinks.That’sa date. Plus, we held hands and youput your arm around me. And I know you liked it when I kissedyou.”
Paul squirmed, looked out her window, andsaid, “Okay, I liked it. But my parents say I’m too young to date.So, if … I meanwhenwe go out again, no kissing … inpublic.”
The frown left. Rachel sat up and movedcloser to him. She surprised herself when she almost said she hadwanted him to take her virginity that night after they left therestaurant together. Instead, she said, “We’ve been neighbors allour lives and have done things only best friends do. We know eachother’s closest secrets. I’d hate to do anything to jeopardize ourfriendship.
“And you’re right to be mad at me,” she said,standing. “It was reckless and stupid of me to lie to Justin. I’vebeen beating myself up over it ever since.” She stood in front ofhim, forcing him to lie back in the chair to look up at her. “Canyou forgive me for telling him we had sex?” she asked.
Paul sorely smiled at her and she feltsmitten all over again.
“Of course,” he said after clearing histhroat.
“Thank you.” She placed her feet on eitherside of his legs and squatted in front of him, sitting lightly onhis ankles. She bit her lower lip and let him squirm internallywhile she gauged the emotions on his face.
A moment later, she stood and returned tositting on her bed.
“Thank you for not being mad at me anymore,”she said.
“You’re welcome,” Paul said; his voice wasbarely audible. Then, after clearing his throat again: “Have youever noticed strange things about Ms. Umberto?”
Rachel followed his gaze out her window tothe side of the yellow, square house a hundred yards away. “Otherthan dating Mr. Nash?’
“Like strange green lights flashing in herhouse at two and three o’clock in the morning.” Paul struggled hisway from the beanbag chair.
“Spying on Ms. Umberto when you should beasleep? That’s pretty creepy, Paul.”
“I think she’s a witch.” Paul went toRachel’s window. “She always seems to know when I’ve forgotten todo the homework for her class, or when I don’t know the answer to aquestion.”
“Pfft. All teachers do that. I think it’scalled teacher’s intuition. They do it to keep us on our toes.”
“Maybe so, but even my mom mentionedsomething weird. She said Mr. Hallstead was a patient on her psychward for a few days during winter break because he thought Ms.Umberto was a dragon.”
“Your mom actually told you that?”
“No. I overheard her talking on herphone.”
Rachel shook her head. “Ms. Umberto’s thecoolest teacher I know. How could you possibly think she’s awitch?”
Paul stepped away from the window. “Becauseshe moved into a haunted house.”
Rachel stared at the two-story Victorianhouse and its large manicured lawn shining bright in the distance.No one in the neighborhood had referred to the place as hauntedsince its restoration five years ago. Before that, the house hadsat abandoned and rundown amidst a tangled growth of trees andbrush. Some of its windows had been smashed out and its front doormissing long before Rachel had been born. And everyone knew therumors of murders, ghosts, and creepy sounds and voices at theproperty until old Mr. Deveraux from Ridgewood’s Savings and Loansbought and fixed up the place. Now the house was like all theothers in the perpetual land development of Ridgewood’s west side.Even a modern one-story, two-car garage sat behind the house,painted the same yellow and trimmed in white.
“I don’t mean witch in a Wicked Witch of theWest sense,” Paul continued. “It’s just the way she looks at me …like she sees into my soul. It’s unnerving. I can never relax inher classes.”
“So now you’re peeking in her windows, spyingon her?”
Paul sat at the edge of Rachel’s bed andsaid, “I’m looking for proof. If sheisa witch, maybe shecan … you know … reverse your curse.”
“There is no cure for what I am.” Rachelforced herself not to shout. “Except…” She swallowed to keep fromsaying the word. “I would love to be normal.” She smiled at Paulwho looked tense again. She couldn’t blame him for being afraid ofher. “Thanks for thinking about me. But I’m stuck being what I am.My whole family is. As long as there is plenty of deer and cattleand other animals in the neighborhood, we’ll be okay.”
“I worry about you,” Paul said.
“Well, I think you’re being overlyimaginative about Ms. Umberto,” Rachel said, directing theconversation away from her and her family. “Call me tomorrow. Weshould do something.”
“You want Pizza Hut again?”
Paul stood, looked out Rachel’s window againand said nothing.
“You should probably go now,” Rachel saidwhen he continued to stare out her window. “Unless you’re afraidMs. Umberto will turn you into toad when you pass by herhouse.”
“Very funny.” Paul stumbled through thedoorway and Rachel listened to him leave down the squeaky stairs.Britt called out a flirty goodbye moments before the front dooropened and closed.
“Paws off, he’s mine,” Rachel yelled out.Then she turned and looked out her window again. Moments later, shesaw Paul ride his bicycle along the blacktop road past theirteacher’s house. His house sat unseen on the other side.
She was about to turn away when she saw Paulvanish. His bike rolled several feet before it crashed into theditch alongside the road.
Rachel ran downstairs and out the front door,calling Paul’s name as she hurried to where she had seen himvanish. A brown toad sat in the road.
She knelt to get a closer look at the toadwhen Ms. Umberto’s front door opened. Rachel looked up as theteacher stepped onto the porch and called her name.
“Come,” Ms. Umberto said. “I have somethingfor you … something special. And bring Paul with you.”
THE LONG TRIP home to Myers Ridge was longer thanDanny Sutton remembered. He sat feeling a bit motion sick in thebackseat of his father’s Taurus, surrounded by brand-new fantasynovels and superhero comics while his parents, George and Michelle,stared straightaway at the interstate. Country music—his mother’sfavorite—played low from the radio. Their three-day stay in Chicagofor the Fantasy Writers and Artists Fair was over and he had plentyof new reading material. However, reading in a moving vehiclehadn’t set well with his stomach. Now, neither did watching thecountryside pass by at 70 miles an hour.
The day had turned to evening and his stomachhad gone from feeling lousy to feeling downright rotten. He fishedsome chewable antacids from his backpack, and then took out hisspiral bound sketch pad and an HB drawing pencil. Drawing wasdifferent than reading. Drawing relaxed his mind and took him deepinto imaginary worlds, which would take his mind off being ill.
He found a blank page and lightly drew somescribbled circles. He saw a clearer image emerge as the circlesconnected and the drawing slowly transformed into … a … giant …lizard.No.Keep drawing.A Tyrannosaurusrex.No.A fire-breathing dragon with long, batlikewings.
Chills crept up Danny’s arms.
A black night sky surrounded the dragon. Heimagined it flying in and out of moonlit clouds above Myers Ridge,swooping down where the woods met the cliffs near the portion thatbroke off thousands of years ago during an ice age, making thecliffs steep and dangerous … or so said Mr. Bailey, his ninth gradescience teacher.
He drew his parents’ house on the other sideof the woods while imagining that he flew with the dragon—a girldragon.
He drew another dragon just above the first.He was the second dragon and he and the girl dragon were boyfriendand girlfriend. He liked that.
He imagined that he, the boy dragon, followedthe girl dragon through the night sky, racing with her andfrolicking amidst the air currents and clouds. As they flew overhis parents’ house, he saw a pickup truck parked along the road.The driver stood outside the truck, looking up. He lifted a longobject to his shoulder and face.
The shot from a high-powered rifle broke thelow sound of wind and the lazy flapping of their wings. The girldragon twisted, then fell to the earth on her back, landing with athud in Danny’s front yard, dead from a well-placed shot betweenthe protective plating over her heart.
Danny stopped drawing. He tapped the backendof the pencil against his forehead, contemplating what he hadimagined. Who was the man and why had he killed the girldragon?
He looked at the two dragons he had drawn,still flying together in the night sky. Then his attention focusedon something he hadn’t drawn: the man standing outside the pickuptruck. In his arms, he carried a high-powered rifle with ascope.
Danny shuddered and slammed shut the pad.
“Well, I’m done,” he announced.
His mother half turned in her seat. “Donewith what, dear?”
“Fantasy, magic, dungeons and dragons … thewhole nine yards.”
“I thought you had a good time?” his motherasked. A frown scrunched up her nose.
Danny looked at the drawing pad he hadpurchased at last year’s fair. Magic Brand Art Supplies letteredthe front. His pencil said the same.
“You’ll feel better when we get something toeat,” his mother said.
Danny looked up and saw his father exit theinterstate. Soon, they were ordering food at a Wendy’s drivethru.
Back on the interstate, Danny ate and thoughtabout his drawing. Surely he had drawn the man with the rifle andpickup truck. He must have been so wrapped up in his imaginationthat he wasn’t aware of what he was drawing.
The triple cheeseburger, large fries, andhuge soft drink actually settled his stomach as well as his nerves.He thought about drawing more but the evening sun had slipped belowthe horizon behind them and home was less than fifty milesaway.
Danny put his head back and dozed. He dreamedabout flying again with the girl dragon. Her name was Tavreth andshe was nine hundred years old, barely a teenager in dragonyears.
In his dream, he made a friend, which lefthim feeling good when he awoke.
He recognized Ridge Road and knew that he andhis parents were less than a half-mile from home.
As his father cleared the bend, Danny saw therear lights of a pickup truck parked on the road in front of theirhome. Mr. Langford stood at the driver’s door, bathed in GeorgeSutton’s headlights.
Mr. Langford turned and hurried toward theircar as George stopped.
“What’s going on?” Michelle asked as Georgerolled down his window.
A sickening feeling of dread came over Dannyas he listened to Mr. Langford tell them a fantastic tale. And ashe looked at the black lump of dead dragon in the front yard, hisaching heart went out to her.
He had to undo this. But how?
He picked up his drawing pad, and thenrummaged in his backpack for his eraser. In the dim light, he readMagic Brand Art Supplies lettered along one side. He had never usedit before, so he hoped his idea would work. It was, after all, hisplan all along, and he should have checked to see if it workedbefore leaving the house.
He opened his pad to the drawing of him as adragon flying with Tavreth, and Mr. Langford ready to shoot. Thenhe busily erased the old man, his rifle, and the pickup truck.
Outside, each one vanished. He erased Tavrethand she vanished from the front yard.
His mother was quick to turn on him.
He pulled from her grasp.
“It’s better this way,” George said, pullingher away from the boy.
“We’ll start over afresh,” Danny promised ashe found the first drawing he had drawn the day after his realparents bought him the pad and pencil.
But as he erased his pretend parents, theones who liked taking him places, and their pretend car, he knewthat this was the end. Then, alone on the road, he erased thelocked cell in the basement where his real parents were.
Picking up his backpack, he headed up thedriveway and toward the front door. He paused only once, trying tofigure a way to turn himself into a dragon. But he cast away theidea. His fantasy life had gone too far. It was time to facereality.
He took a deep breath, opened the front door,and entered.
Night of the Hell Hounds
Here is the Ridgewood short story “Night of theHell Hounds” published January 2013 at Amazon and Barnes &Noble and no longer available to purchase at those websites. Thisstory became the basis for my upcoming novel,Margga’sCurse.
IT WAS THE weekend after Halloween, dark and cold onthe night Lenny Stevens parked his Schwinn bicycle next to thegarage at Dave Evans’s place on Myers Ridge. Dave had told him hewould be behind his dad’s barn. Lenny found him there, roasting hotdogs on a stick at a fire that failed to advance any warmth. Histent was set up behind him, and his twin sister Amy had her owntent behind her. She sat cross-legged across the fire from Dave,whispering and giggling with Vree Erickson. Lenny’s heart patteredwhile his gaze caressed Vree’s long hair looking golden in thefirelight. Amy saw him, patted her sleeping bag and told him to sitnext to her. He did, sandwiching himself between the two girls andsnuggling under Amy’s blue blanket, which she draped over theirshoulders. He quickly warmed, all the while smelling hot dogs andwood smoke and perfume that smelled like oranges.
They wore sweatshirts and blue jeans andjackets to ward off the night’s chill, and Vree had on white furrymittens that seemed to make her all the more beautiful to Lenny. Hesaid hello to her and she nodded, smiled, and remained silent whileAmy controlled the conversation about Mr. Baretti—a tenth gradeteacher she didn’t like. When she finished, Lenny opened his mouthto make small talk with Vree. He never got a word out.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Dave said, seeming toawaken from the trance the fire had put him in. “Take a look at theold Myers place and tell me what you see.”
The old, burnt shell of Myers Mansion was toLenny’s right and at the bottom of a hill. It languished inside athicket of property almost a hundred yards away and barely visiblein the darkness. No moonlight broke the cloud cover then, so hesquinted to see the spooky remnants of the mansion destroyed inJune by an unknown arsonist. The police were still investigatingthe fire and Lenny and his friends had their suspicions of theculprit—he figured it was Craig Coleman and his gang of toadies wholiked to smoke and drink there, even though the place was supposedto be haunted.
“Dave thought he saw ghosts,” Amy said. Shegave him her whittled stick and a hot dog to roast. “Always withthe ghosts.”
He looked again at the house, excited aboutthis new turn of events. The once prominent house had been builtninety years ago by a once-famous Broadway playwright namedBenjamin Myers who became even more popular writing blockbusterscreenplays for Hollywood before he and his wife mysteriouslydisappeared.
“You saw Myers and his wife’s ghosts?” heasked.
“Apparitions of some dogs,” Dave said; “threeof them as plain as day. They vanished right before you came.”
“You saw his dogs? The hunting dogs thatfroze to death?” Lenny almost dropped his hotdog while he fumbledto pierce it with the stick.
“How did they freeze?” Vree asked. She, whohad moved last year to Ridgewood, inched closer to Lenny. He beganto tell her when Amy interrupted.
“It’s a dumb story that says the countysheriff found Benjamin Myers and his nine hunting dogs frozeninside the house on a hot summer day.”
“It isn’t dumb,” Dave said.
“Yes, it is. I checked the town’s newspaperarchives that time I did an English paper about Cathleen andBenjamin Myers. There was no mention of anyone or anything frozeninside the house the day they disappeared.”
“So, how did they disappear?” Vree pressedcloser to Lenny when she said this.
“No one knows,” he said as he relished thefeel of her body against his; “but it started a half-century ofghost stories.”
“The police concluded that Mr. and Mrs. Myersdied in a plane crash during a trip to the Caribbean,” Amysaid.
“Which isn’t official,” Dave added. “Myersand his wife always flew using pseudonyms, and no bodies orsubstantial wreckage were ever found, which means there’s noconfirmation that they died at sea.”
Amy sounded irritated when she groaned. “Itmakes more sense than believing that he and his dogs froze todeath, or that Cathleen jumped to her death at the bottom ofWidow’s Ravine.”
Lenny glanced at where a trickling streamseparated the two properties. A half-mile away to his left, thestream fell into a steep-sided gorge called Widow’s Ravine, a placethat the rest of the legend claims Cathleen Myers jumped to herdeath after she found her husband and his dogs frozen. He told Vreeabout the legend and added, “Her screams can be heard whenever herghost relives the suicide and plunges into the ravine.”
“For the record, none of us have ever heardanyone screaming from Widow’s Ravine,” Amy said. “And I’ve neverseen any ghosts.”
“Well, I have,” Dave said.
“Whatever.” Amy popped a peppermint LifeSaver candy into her mouth and offered Vree and Lenny some.
“And I’m not the only one,” Dave said beforeswallowing the last of his hotdog. “Our cousin Ricky says AlanBaker was driving up here one night after the fire when he saw apack of wild-looking dogs on the Myers property. When he aimed aflashlight at them, they vanished. Then, as he was driving away, hefelt the weight of invisible animals jumping on the hood of histruck. He hurried home and discovered that something had scratchedthe truck’s paint and dented the hood.”
Amy shook her head and said, “I wouldn’tbelieve anything Alan Baker says.”
“I’m just saying what Ricky told me, isall.”
They quieted and Lenny cooked his hotdog andate it without a bun or any dressing, just the way he liked them,and snuck glances at quiet Vree cloud gazing. He looked up once ortwice and wondered what she saw there.
A stick snapped behind Amy’s tent and causedhim turn partway to the left. The dark shape of a human figurestepped around the tent and into their midst.
“Who are you?” Dave said, almost shouting,which drew Vree’s and Amy’s attention. “This is private land.”
Fiery hues of the campfire revealed astunning woman. Flame glinted from her long black hair, her bronzeface, and her long, sweeping black dress tied off at the waist. Awhite lace collar hung around her neck, and pearl buttons sparkledin a row between her ample breasts. Tall and curvy, she looked atthe four teenagers with mesmerizing and penetrating eyes—blackerthan either her hair or dress, or the rubies set in the gold ringsthat she wore on eight fingers and two thumbs.
“This parcel of land is owned by MargaretEvans,” she replied as she strolled to stand next to the firebetween Dave and the rest of them.
“She’s our grandmother,” Dave said. “Our dadlives here now.”
“Yes, I know of your family, David,” she saidto him. “And Amy.” She smiled and looked kindly at Amy, beamingthose mysterious charcoal eyes. Then she looked at Lenny andlingered with a puzzled, yet bewitching gaze.
He held her gaze until Dave asked, “How canwe help you?”
She looked away and said, “I must rest amoment. The journey here has tired me.”
She sat with a grace that made her seem toglide to the grass. There, she tucked her legs delicately besideherself and covered her bare feet beneath her dress. Her gazeshifted back to Lenny, then to Vree, and then to him again.
“I don’t know you two,” she said.
“I’m Lenny Stevens,” Lenny said. “This isVree.”
“My full name is Verawenda Erickson,” Vreesaid. “Well, actually, Verawenda Renee Erickson. My friends startedcalling me Vree because of my initials.”
“I am Ademia Consuela Ramona CathleenSavakis,” the woman said to her. “I have been called all of thesenames and more. But you can call me Ademia.” Her eyes narrowed andthe corners of her mouth lifted for a moment as she smiled at Vree.Then she asked, “Do you and your family live on the ridge,too?”
“Yes. My parents and I moved just down theroad almost sixteen months ago … from Pittsburgh.”
“My parents and I live in town,” Lenny said.“My dad—”
Ademia’s stern gaze caused him to close hismouth with a clack of teeth striking together. He saw a flicker ofsadness cross her face before she turned and looked at Dave. “Andwhy do you mistake me for—” she leaned closer “—a gypsy … no … awitch?”
Dave stiffened and said, “I don’t.”
“I suppose I do look like a gypsy. My motherwas Brazilian, my father Greek. But I’m neither gypsy nor witch,although—”
She paused and looked thoughtful. Then sheglanced in the direction of the burnt remains of the old mansionand said rather sadly, “I must go now.”
She stood as easily and gracefully as she hadsat.
“Good night,” she said before turning andheading toward the Myers property.
The four watched her until the night made herinvisible. Then Amy said, “Did you guys notice that she had noshoes on her feet?”
“And on a cold night like tonight,” Vreesaid. She shivered and tightened the blanket around her. “It feelslike it might snow.”
Dave stood and said, “Lenny, throw some morewood on the fire. I have to see a man about a horse.”
“Cute,” Amy said. “Water some weeds for mewhile you’re at it.”
Lenny sighed that the woodpile was at the farside of the barn and that he had to leave Vree’s side. Icy airlatched onto him and left him shivering when he stepped frombeneath the blanket and away from the fire.
He had taken eight steps toward the barn whenDave came quickly to him and pointed down at the Myersproperty.
“Look,” he said with a voice that was barelyaudible. Then it rose as he said, “Don’t you see it? It’s BenMyers’s ghost!”
Lenny turned in time to see the glowingapparition of a man in a white shirt and dark pants walk throughthe Myers house’s burnt remains. Then the ghostly image wavered anddisappeared.
“Tell me you saw that,” Dave said.
“Saw what?” Amy asked as she and Vree huddledbeneath the blanket and peered out at them.
“Ben Myers’s ghost,” Dave said. “It was justthere. Just like the dogs I saw earlier.”
As if cued by Dave’s words, Lenny heard dogsbark from the ruined house. He said, “When Myers’s dogs died, theirspirits came back as hellhounds to guard the house fromtrespassers.”
“Another dumb tall tale,” Amy said toVree.
“Dumb or not,” Lenny said, “I hear thembarking.”
“I do, too,” Dave said.
“You do?” It was Vree who spoke. She flungaway her end of the blanket, stood, and peered down the hillside.“Where are they? I want to see.”
A pack of nine dogs charged from the ruinsand lined at the bottom of the hill, all of them glowing an aura ofgreen light. Lenny went to Vree and stood at her side as the dogslooked up at them, snarling and baring teeth.
“I don’t see anything,” Vree said toLenny.
“Because nothing’s there,” Amy said. She hadstood and now peered down the hill, too.
But Lenny saw the dogs as clear as thoughthey stood beneath a noon sun. There were white hounds with blackand brown patches, some rough-coated terriers, and a brownRottweiler that stood in the middle and slobbered white foam fromits mouth.
“I see them,” Dave said as he joined hisfriends. “And they don’t look happy to see us.”
The Rottweiler growled low and guttural. Andthe red ember of fire in its eyes caused Dave to step backward.
“Let’s go inside the house,” he said. Then hesaid it again, louder, as the other dogs joined in. As the growlsrose in both pitch and volume, Lenny agreed with Dave’s suggestion.He tugged at one of Vree’s arms and told her and Amy to follow Davewho had turned and now hurried past the barn, toward the house.
“But I don’t see or hear anything,” Vreesaid.
“Because there’s nothing’s down there.” Amywrapped her blanket around Vree’s shoulders and said to Lenny,“We’re staying here and camping out tonight, even if it snows.”
The growls stopped.
Lenny looked down the hill and saw that threeof the seven dogs had vanished, which included the Rottweiler.
“It isn’t snow I’d worry about,” he said,seconds before vicious barking came from the driveway.
“They’re after me,” Dave yelled as he ranfrom around the side of the barn and headed toward them. “Get inthe tents. Hurry.”
In a puff of red smoke, the Rottweilerappeared in front of Dave, blocking the way.
Dave skidded to a stop and stared wildly atthe dog. Then he bolted to his right and vanished into the fieldand darkness there.
Two hounds glowing green raced into view fromaround the side of the barn and charged after him.
The Rottweiler followed, almost flying acrossthe ground as it too vanished in the dark.
“They’re heading toward Widow’s Ravine,”Lenny said. “We have to help—”
Just then, horrible howls from below the hillfilled the air. Amy and Vree screamed as they stared down thehillside. The remaining dogs charged the hill.
“They’re real,” Amy said before she tore pastLenny, the blanket dropping to the ground. Vree followed, close ather heels.
Lenny looked once more at the hellish ghostdogs coming at him before he raced after the girls heading to Mr.Evans’s house, which was lit up inside and looked so safe andinviting.
“But what about Dave?” he called out.
The girls kept running, but he stopped. Hisbest friend was being chased to a dangerous place with sinkholesand cliffs. He turned and hurried after Dave as the remaininghellhounds crested the hill and raced after him.
He plowed blindly into brambles and thornyweeds that slapped and poked and grabbed him, scratched his faceand hands, and scarred his clothes and shoes.
The hellhounds closed their distance quickly.His drumming heart climbed into his throat when he realized hecouldn’t outrun them. Still, he shielded his face with his arms ashe pushed on.
The dangerous terrain looked foreign in thelow-lit night, yet he followed the sound of the hellhounds ahead ofhim and thought only of Dave’s safety.
His inhales and exhales sounded like whimpersand moans when moonlight broke through the clouds and he burstthrough the confining brambles at a clearing atop a steep cliff ofMyers Ridge.
Dave was there, at the edge but safe for themoment, doubled over and breathing hard. The hellhounds that hadfollowed him had their heads lowered and their rear ends in the airlike wolves that had just pinned their prey.
Lenny hurried and kicked at the Rottweiler’sbackside, hoping to punt it over the cliff. Instead, his foot wentthrough the apparition and he landed on his backside.
Quick to get up, he hurried to Dave’s side asthe rest of the pack caught up and formed a line, boxing him andDave at the edge of the cliff. The hellhounds glared with red eyesand growled with slobbering mouths. One of the hellhounds howledand Lenny lashed out at it, this time with words.
“Leave us alone.”
The Rottweiler growled and leaped at him. Itsforepaws struck his chest and sent him stumbling backwards, hisarms flailing. For a moment, it seemed that he had stabled hisbalance. Then the evil apparition barked sharply at him from whereit had landed. Lenny flinched, lost his footing, and stumbled overthe precipice of Widows Ravine.
He plummeted on his back one hundred feetthrough icy air to the icier waters of Myers Creek. When he enteredthe T of the tributary and creek, his aching throat released a yelpof surprise as the water enveloped him like a brutal winterblast.
He remembered then that he did not know howto swim.
He sank quickly into darkness until hisbackside struck the rocky creek bottom. He rested there a moment,dazed. Then he pushed off and struggled toward a sliver ofmoonlight barely rippling on the water’s surface far above him. Hisarms and legs felt encumbered by his heavy clothes. Worse, hislungs ached to release the little breath he held. He fought anintense, overwhelming urge to breathe deeply; he was only halfwayto the surface when he knew that he could hold his breath nolonger. He was going to drown.
He looked at the rippling moonlight andwished to see Vree one more time.
Just then, shimmering outstretched handsbroke through the water’s surface and came for him. The nearesthand bore five black ruby rings, blistering from the gold of eachring. That hand grabbed the front of his jacket and pulled him fromthe depths of Myers Creek.
His lungs sucked in air and bits of water. Hecoughed and sputtered fitfully while Ademia managed to get him toshore. There, lying on his stomach, he vomited creek water and bitsof chewed hotdog on the bank of Myers Creek until he caught hisbreath.
“Your friend David is safe,” Ademia said,helping him to stand. “I stopped the dogs from attacking. But I wastoo late to keep you from falling.”
Still weak and exhausted, he fell to theground.
“Who are you?” he asked, looking up at her.He shivered wet and cold at her bare feet, and looked at her,puzzled. She was as dry as when she had sat at the fireearlier.
“I am someone you beckoned,” she said. “Now Iask the same of you, young man. Who are you?”
He paused and wondered what she meant. Andwhile he wondered, he suddenly knew.
“You’re Cathleen Myers,” he said. He forcedthe words through a clenched mouth that trembled from the cold thatburned at his bones. “And it’s true. Your husband … and his dogs …froze to death.”
She was quiet while she studied him withdarkened eyes below a troubled scowl.
Finally, “I am the scorned wife who calledforth an ancient, evil power from Myers Ridge,” she said. “A powerthat froze to death my unfaithful husband and cruelly cast me to mygrave.”
At that moment, they heard Dave crying outLenny’s name from atop the ridge. Lenny trembled too much to hollerback. Ademia placed her hands atop his head and filled his bodywith warmth.
“Answer your friend,” she said; “you’re safenow.”
“Thank you,” he said to her. Then he calledout and told Dave that he was okay. Dave told him to go to thebridge on Russell Road and to wait.
“I owe you my life,” he said to Ademia. Therubies of her rings began to glow, turning from dark to brightwhite light. She held her hands to her face.
“I am forgiven,” she said before the lightfrom her rings engulfed her and she vanished.
Lenny stumbled upright. Ice water fell fromhis clothes but he was not cold. As he headed toward Russell Road,he wondered about his rescuer Ademia, the ancient power she hadcalled from Myers Ridge, and whether he would see her again.
Bottom of the Seventh
I wrote this short story in 1974 when I was inhigh school and edited it 2000 when I published it at my website.In this story presented in 7 parts, love helps win a high schoolbaseball game in the BOTTOM OF THE SEVENTH.
MY NAME IS Tyler Lake. I’m a junior at Ridgewood HighSchool. Today is the first Thursday in June and the last day ofschool. It is also the last regulation Varsity baseball game of theseason.
It’s the bottom of the seventh inning, thelast chance my team has of scoring two runs and winning this game.Coach Walker is reminding us of that as I peek into the bleachersbehind our dugout. The pretty blonde-haired girl, Julie Sommers,sits in the third row. The evening sun seems to spark her hair andI see a halo of white around her from the dress she wears. I avoidmaking eye contact.
“Do you really see her?” my friend DerekHampton says next to me in the dugout as I twist and crane my headto get a better look at her.
“I do,” I tell him, thankful he isn’tquestioning my sanity.
I look away and try to focus on the game.Coach Walker’s pep talk is over and Danny Richards now watches thecoach give him signals from the third base coach’s box. CoachWalker is a short, heavy man who always has a pipe clamped betweenhis teeth. He smokes his cherry tobacco only when our games areover. Never before and certainly never during our games. He’ssuperstitious that way.
I steal another glance at Julie and shiverwhile Danny approaches the batter’s box at home plate.
“I HAD MY first chance to kiss her when we were inseventh grade,” I said to Derek in the lunchroom at school almost amonth ago, “Remember? It was three days before Halloween at mysnooty cousin Lisa’s house, during a party for her fourteenthbirthday.”
Derek and I sat across from each other,avoided eye contact, and kept our voices low. I reminded him how myAunt Debbie had invited the neighborhood boys and girls over forcake and ice cream. Aunt Debbie was always generous to us kids, soit wasn’t unusual to see twenty or thirty of us hanging around.And, she had a heated in-ground indoor swimming pool unlike therest of us with above-ground outdoor pools, so it was possible toswim yearlong there. I loved to swim but couldn’t stand my cousin,so I wasn’t complaining too loudly when I was late for the partybecause my mom’s fIx-or-repair-daily automobile blew a backtire.
When we arrived, I tossed Lisa her presentalong with the card my mom bought and made me sign, gobbled down abig bowl of strawberry ice cream topped with chocolate syrup, andpractically flew to the pool. There were almost twenty kids inthere when I cannon-balled into their midst. I maneuvered aroundother kids and swam until I came to a circle of six girls playingBlind Man’s Bluff. They were classmates from school, and theysurrounded another girl wearing a white bikini and a redneckerchief blindfold. She tried tagging one of the girls whocrouched low, while the others snuck up and yelled “Boo.” I watchedas the stunning “blind man” waded through waist-high water towardme.
A beach ball bounced off the back of my headand I turned partway around to see Derek and some of my otherfriends laughing. Just then, the “blind man” stumbled into me,fell, and accidentally pulled down the back of my trunks. Isquirmed around to haul them back up as the two of us wentunderwater. My legs tangled with hers and for a moment her body wason mine and had me pinned to the pool floor, her stomach pressedinto mine. When we stopped struggling, she and I floated into agentle embrace. Then she took off the blindfold. It was JulieSommers. Our faces were inches apart and I wanted to kiss her. Butshe disappeared from view and a strong arm pulled me up. Uncle Johnand Cousin Paul brought us to our feet and asked if we were okay.Julie said “yes” and I mumbled an affirmative. Julie returned toher game and I sat on the sidelines and daydreamed aboutwhat-ifs.
“You should have kissed her right then andthere,” Derek told me that day in the lunchroom.
He was right.
THE FANS IN in the rickety metal and wood bleachersbehind me jump to their feet as Danny laces a hit over the secondbaseman’s head. The spectators on the Franklin High School’s sideof the diamond moan at first, and then shout encouragement to theirpitcher. The Franklin Yellow Jackets players do the same.
I glance again at Julie and forget about thegame happening in front of me. I think of the past month when itbecame hard for me to stay focused on anything for long. It waswhen my grades took a turn for the worse, when my hitting slumpstarted, when—
Players dodge and dive around me and bring meout of my reverie.
“Fire in the hole,” someone shouts as thefoul ball skirts past me and ricochets off the bench, and thensails back onto the field. I sneak another glance at Julie. Herface and hair glow more luxurious as the evening sun reddens towardthe horizon.
Never have I seen such beauty. I amstricken.
IT WAS LESS than three months ago when I finallybecame less petrified talking to girls and asked Julie Sommers on adate. I tried so hard not to act like a jerk that I wound up actinglike a jerk.
We met for pizza at the local pizza shop. Wesat at a window seat with Derek and his girlfriend where theevening sun glowed against Julie’s perfect skin. She was like anartist’s finest creation. To be in her presence made me a nervouswreck. I tried to lighten my jitters by telling jokes, but I waslate with some of the punch lines, and forgot them altogether andhad to start over. The best I could do was fill my mouth with pizzaand be quiet, but I even failed at that. Derek had to hammer me onthe back to dislodge the pepperoni wedged against my windpipe.
When my breathing became regular again(although looking at Julie made inhaling difficult). I ended ourdate by reaching for a napkin and knocking over my cola, spillingit into the lap of Julie’s pretty dress.
After that horrible event, I entered a funkand spent some time at a safe distance, dreaming of Julie andachieving the perfect date with her.
Our next date went well. She came to abaseball game, I hit a home run, and I gave her the ball after thegame. She kissed me on the cheek and made me forget my name for amoment.
“It was the perfect hit,” I said when mindreturned to reality. “It’s such a wonderful feeling when a batterconnects with the ball and hits the perfect hit.”
“What’s the perfect hit feel like?” sheasked.
“The ball feels soft against the bat.Sometimes there is barely a feeling at all.”
“How soft? Like hitting butter?”
Yes. Like hitting butter. She wasperfect.
DEREK POKES ME in the ribs with a bony elbow andtells me I’m on deck. I seem to float from my seat and up thesteps. In foul territory, I almost hover above the on-deck circlewhere I swing a weighted bat, all the while dreaming of hittinganother home run for beautiful Julie Sommers.
I put on a batter’s helmet and observe thescoreboard telling me there are two outs. I wonder if Petey Wilsonwill be the final out, but he answers my question by placing a hotbouncing double between left field and center field. However, thecenter fielder is quick to catch up with the ball and throw it tohis shortstop, thereby keeping Danny Richards from rounding thirdbase and scoring the tying run.
The Yellow Jackets’ coach calls for a pitcherchange and Coach Walker is at my side giving me a gut wrenching peptalk.
“Forget about those last two strikeouts,” hesays, which causes those last two strikeouts to loom large in mymind. “Just get a hit, Tyler. Just get a hit.”
I steal a glance at Julie. Coach Walker tellsme to get the crowd out of my mind, but their excitement fills myhead and their noise drowns out Coach’s words. He places a beefyhand on my thin shoulder and his touch brings the sight of him backin focus.
“You can do this, Tyler. All you need to dois empty your mind of everything around you and focus only on theball. Can you do that?”
I nod and wonder if I can forget about theanxiety dancing across my back.
Coach Walker puts an arm around my shoulders.“Imagine yourself hitting the ball … connecting,” he says.
My mind is searching. I know what he means.Whenever I connect with the ball, it feels soft against the bat.Sometimes there is barely a feeling at all, like—
“Like hitting butter,” I cry out.
“Sure. Butter. Why not?” He smiles. “Now yougo to that plate and you imagine you’re going to hit a stick ofbutter. See it in your mind. When that pitcher throws the ball,it’s nothing but a stick of butter.”
“A LOAF OF bread, a container of milk, and a stick ofbutter!”
Derek and I laughed at my mom’s shopping listfor bread, milk and butter as we walked beneath the gentle May sunto the grocery store. We had my eight-year-old brother with us, andthe three of us sang again the segment from television’s SesameStreet.
“A loaf of bread… a container of milk… and astick of butter!”
We carried on, two high school eleventhgraders and a third grader sharing a wonderful moment together.Then Derek and I got into a serious conversation about school andclasses and girlfriends.
“Julie and I have a date to the movies Fridaynight,” I told him. I’m sure my face beamed as bright as the highbeams on headlights as we made plans to double date.
When we left the store, an ambulance screamedpast us toward the hospital as we came to an accident scene threestores down. While we waited for the police to let us cross thestreet, someone—an elderly woman—told us a car had run a red lightand hit another car broadside. The driver from the second car wasokay, she said. However, a passenger in the car was in criticalcondition.
We stared at the dented cars and broken glasson the street. I’m sure I prayed for the injured passenger. Derekand I even reflected on our own mortality. It frightened me tothink someday I would die and never play baseball again. When mylittle brother began to cry, we detoured the scene and took thelong way home. The accident was soon out of mind.
“A loaf of bread,” Derek sang out.
“A container of milk,” sang my brother. Helooked up at me and waited for me to finish.
“A STICK OF butter,” I say.
“Whatever it takes.” Coach Walker nods andreturns to his spot next to third base. I watch the pitcher throwbullets to his catcher until the home plate umpire tells him he’sthrown enough. The umpire beckons me to enter the batter’s box. AYellow Jackets’ fan demands that the pitcher strike me out. Myteammates plead for me to get a hit. Coach Walker gives me the takesign and then swings his arms to try to fool the other team intothinking I’m hitting away. My self-assurance teeters; my boostedspirit descends for a moment. I dig my cleats into the dirt anywayand swing my bat menacingly at the pitcher. He responds with a nodto his catcher, mimics a professional pitcher’s windup, and blows aletter high fastball past me.
“Stee-rike one!” the umpire bellows.
I try to shut out the voices around me as thecatcher taunts me with “No batter no batter no batter.”
Coach Walker gives me the swing awaysign.
This time I shut out the crowd until I onlyhear the sound of my heart thumping in my ears. I lace the nextfastball pitch behind Coach Andrews standing foul of firstbase.
The umpire’s voice is far away. “Foul ball,”he says.
Coach Andrews gives me a nod and raises histhumbs. Coach Walker gives me another sign to swing away. I dig inat the plate and want to rip the cover off the ball if I should Ihit it. I look at a fastball just below my kneecaps.
I stare at another swing-away sign, dig in,and see another low fastball.
After the same sign and a high fastball for afull count, Coach Walker calls time and hurries to my side. I meethim halfway. “Butter pitch,” he says.
I gulp and nod and enter the batter’s boxwith wobbly legs. Beyond the pitcher, Petey Wilson is dancing atsecond base. Over at third, Danny Walker is taking a big lead. Thepitcher is eyeballing Danny as the third baseman leans toward thirdbase and the second baseman charges second base. Nothing happens,so I step out of the batter’s box and sniff at the dust in the airwhile my heart rate decreases. Danny and Petey return to theirbases until I step back into the batter’s box. Then the dances andmy racing heart start again.
The pitcher nods to his catcher, mimics aprofessional pitcher’s windup one more time, and sends the ball myway. I’m afraid to swing!
“Hit the ball!” Julie’s voice breaks thebarrier. It seems like she is standing behind me, reaching aroundme and grabbing my wrists, forcing me to swing at the pitch.
And she is.
I feel her embrace, smell her rosy perfume,and hear and feel the clunk of the baseball as it strikes a thinsection of the ash bat directly above my right fist. The ballshoots high above the infield. It’s a pop up heading between thethird baseman and the shortstop, sending them into the outfieldgrass.
With my shoulders slumped in defeat and myface pasted with disappointment, I lope to first base and never seethe third baseman and shortstop collide or the ball fall safely tothe ground. When I reach the bag and kick it, I hear cheers comefrom our side of the field. Looking across the diamond, I see PeteyWilson on the heels of Danny Walker. The two of them race towardhome. The right fielder fumbles the ball that got away from theother fielders, and Danny and Petey score the tying and winningruns.
Our dugout and bleachers erupt with whoopsand shouts and boisterous cheers. Coach Andrews hugs me and slapsmy back. “Luck be a lady tonight,” he says. As we leave the field,Coach Walker hands me the game ball. “It wasn’t the prettiest ofhits,” he says, “But it got the job done.”
My teammates mob me and a few of them remindme how lucky we were to win.
“An error is an error and two runs scored,”Coach Walker says as he fills his pipe and lights it. He parades usto the infield where we congratulate the other team with handshakesand hand slaps. When we return to the dugout, I see Julie leavingthe bleachers with the rest of the crowd. Suddenly, I don’t carewhat others may think of me. I know I want to talk to her beforeshe goes, so I run to her. Somewhere inside the mass of bodies, Ilose her for a moment. Then I see her through the shifting mass.Her head turns and our gazes meet before she disappears again. Abeefy hand touches my shoulder and a waft of cherry scented smokewarms my nose.
“That’s one pitch I would have tried harderto connect with,” Coach Walker says.
I nod. “I’ve missed a lot of good pitches,” Isay.
I return to the dugout and retrieve mybaseball glove. Derek and I walk down the left field foul line,following the others to the parking lot. Inside his car, I tell himwhat happened while he drives away from the school, past thefootball field, and toward the sun sinking to the gentle hills ofRidgewood Cemetery.
Derek stops and I get out. The cast shadowsof daylight cover me. I say another prayer for the passenger whothe ambulance rushed to the hospital a month ago. At a large andpink marble headstone, I place the game ball on her grave. A breezestirs through the trees of Ridgewood Cemetery and I embrace itswarmth. Julie whispers in an ear, “It didn’t feel like hittingbutter.”
I laugh and share her warmth, and the two ofus talk—boy and girl, mortal and spirit—until, in the final momentsof twilight, a cooler breeze stirs through the trees of thecemetery and I embrace Julie’s love one last time.
FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD Vree Erickson finished mowing thelawn an hour before the Pennsylvania weather forecasters’predictions of heavy evening snowfall for Ridgewood began.Satisfied with her achievement, she drove the mower to her father’sshed, then dismounted and propped open its double doors, unaware ofthe magma that exploded one hundred miles beneath her. Theexplosion slammed superheated carbon toward the earth’s surface atsupersonic speed, shoving tons of carbonic graphite into the deepbowels of the ridge she stood on. The limestone remnant created byan ice age more than ten thousand years ago shook, and portions ofMyers Ridge splintered and opened, including the spot where Vreestood. She scrambled to climb from the ground falling with her, butthe hole beneath her feet swallowed her and her grandfather’sriding mower.
Her landing was softer than she expecteddespite the rock and stone she fell on. The John Deere’s landing,however, sounded worse. From skylight filtering through the eye ofthe hole, she could make out the crumpled edges of the overturnedmower a few feet away. She smelled gasoline fumes mixing with thecool, earthy air, and knew that rock had punctured the gastank.
On her backside twenty feet below hergrandparents’ backyard, she shivered and rubbed her arms throughher jacket. A miserable wet chill penetrated her clothes andstabbed her skin like a thousand icy knives. She looked around andsaw a boxy chamber of stone—a cave no bigger than her bedroom. Asshe sat up, dim green light from a long protrusion of crystal nextto her right leg caught her attention.
The crystal rose diagonally almost fifteeninches from the floor and was nearly six inches in diameter. Whenshe took hold of its smooth and angled sides, the crystalbrightened and warmed her palms. She pulled herself closer, wrappedher arms around it, and let its heat and blazing emerald lightconsume her until she felt her backside stop throbbing and thechill inside her leave.
She marveled at the crystal’s heat, tried torecall if all crystals produced heat, and then wondered how she wasgoing to get out. No one was home to rescue her; her mother hadgone shopping in town and her grandparents and siblings werepicking out Thanksgiving turkeys at a farm on the other end of theridge. And now, the gray sky began to unleash a chilly rain thatwould eventually turn to snow. The thought of dying of hypothermialeft her trembling. She hugged the crystal and wished she couldmagically fly from the hole.
As she pressed her forehead against thecrystal and told herself she would be okay, that someone wouldrescue her as soon as they got home, the ground shook again.
Tumbling sod from above fell around her asthe sinkhole widened. Then the cave floor collapsed and sent herdeeper into Myers Ridge. She screamed moments before she landedface down on sod and rubble; a blanket of straggling stone followedand covered her until the second quake stopped. Stunned and dazed,she rested inside her burial mound, the crystal still glowing andin her embrace. Then, coming to her senses, she rose to her handsand knees and pushed away the rocks and dirt and tried to stand,but her lower back felt sprained from the hard landing. She feltbattered and bruised, and blood oozed from cuts on the backs of herhands, but none of her injuries seemed life threatening.
Icy air crawled inside her clothes and icierrain fell on her face from where the dismal skylight revealed alarger underground chamber, perhaps forty feet from the top; sheprayed there were tunnels to lead her back to the surface.
The rain increased and the skylight almostvanished. She looked down, saw a shimmer of green light in therubble in front of her, then rescued the crystal and cradled it inher arms until it blazed again and its heat warmed her and stoppedthe pain in her back. Then she used the rock’s green light as abeacon to look for a way out.
Away from where the topside earth had falleninto the cavern, rainwater streamed across a granite floor andfilled centuries-old furrows, turning them into rivulets where thefloor sloped down. She followed the largest rivulet for severalminutes to a narrow passage. There, the rivulet became thepassageway’s floor, so she sloshed cautiously along, keeping herfooting until the floor steepened and angled down almost forty-fivedegrees. She thought about turning around and looking for anotherway out, then considered she had to be close to an exit, andcontinued.
As soon as she stepped on the angled floor,gravity yanked her feet from under her. Like a hapless rider on anamusement park’s waterslide, she plummeted along the slippery flooruntil the hill’s interior ejected her and the rainwater.
The cliffs of Myers Ridge rushed past her andupwards as she followed the rain down. Her sudden entry intobristly treetops along the bank of Myers Creek sounded likegunshots as boughs of pine broke against her tumbling body.
When the fall ended, she lay on her back on amattress of pine needles, catching her breath. When she tried tosit up, her lower back screamed with pain again, so she used pinebranches overhead to help pull her to a seated position.
Lightning flashed and the sky opened. Throughthe downpour, she saw the green crystal glowing brightly on theground ten yards away. She shielded her eyes and looked away whenthe crystal became too bright. Its heat came to her like wildfirethen, entered her clothes and dried her, mended her bones and tookaway the pain, and filled her mind with new purpose. She stood—aslim figure suddenly strong inside a burning array of emeraldlight—and locked her mind on a familiar’s thoughts miles away.
AT A NEAR near-empty Walmart parking lot inRidgewood, a heavy man leered across the passenger seat of a whiteImpala and out a partially open window. A middle-aged woman bundledin black imitation fur slid from a silver SUV’s driver’s seat anddropped onto the black pavement. She wore her auburn hair in apixie style and was dressed in blue jeans and black pumps. Sheopened a yellow umbrella, looked up at the dark, galling sky, andheld up a hand as though trying to catch raindrops. Then shereached far inside the van for a black purse before she hurriedacross the sparsely lighted lot and entered the store.
The man heard no blip from the automatic doorlock on her keychain or the horn honk and lights flash to tell himshe had locked the doors. He waited a moment, then wiped awayfingerprints with a rag from under the seat before he squeezed hislarge body from behind the steering wheel and wiped away printsfrom the door. Then, as he crossed behind the Sorento, he looked atthe vehicle in contempt.
“Honor this,” he said as he raised a middlefinger at the MY CHILD IS AN HONOR STUDENT bumper sticker.
He opened the side door and climbed in on allfours.
The roomy rear interior contained two rows ofseats. A magazine titledElle Decor, some paperback books,and a box of glitter crayons littered the first seat. A day plannerhad fallen behind the passenger seat. He opened the notebook.
“Karrie Erickson,” he said, reading the nameof the book’s owner. “A school teacher.” He smiled, lookingpleased. “I got something for ya, teacher, but it ain’t noapple.”
He flipped away the planner, closed the door,and hunkered on the floor of the back row seat. He snatched acrumpled bag from McDonalds beneath the seat in front of him andate some old fries.
Drippings of sweat pooled across his foreheadand mixed with the rain there. He undid the top three buttons ofhis flannel jacket before he wiped his fat face with his sleeves.He was a short, floppy man with graying hair that seemed to explodefrom his head. He had a mocking thick-lipped face that appearedangry from behind pudgy grease-stained fingers always lurkingthere. And his bulbous brown eyes—not so much looking as unable torelax—were forever in motion.
After many minutes, Karrie Erickson returnedto her vehicle, got in, tossed two plastic bags on the passengerseat and started the ignition. A pleasant tone from the dashboardreminded her to buckle up. She jabbed at the radio and a lamentingsong about lost love encircled her and the mostly concealedintruder behind her.
Large wipers slapped across a panoramicwindshield in tune to the music as she put the Sorento in gear anddrove away from the stolen Impala that had lost its shine somewherein Ohio and was now showing rust around the wheel wells. Even thechrome that its dead owner had once been proud of had turneddull.
Karrie drove to the nearly deserted mainstreet and headed south away from downtown Ridgewood, back towardAlice Lake and the road to Myers Ridge. Along the way, sheincreased the volume of a favorite song.
After they had gone about a half mile, theman crawled to behind Karrie’s seat, took a black Smith &Wesson M&P from the belt holster of his sagging blue jeans, andpressed the pistol against the back of her neck. She jumped and theman grinned at the sudden intake of air as she gasped.
“Pull over, Karrie,” he said. “Pull over orI’m gonna blow your brains out.”
“Who…” She trembled and no longer looked atthe road. She had turned in her seat, looking over her shoulder athim. “Who are you?
“Turn around and pull over,” the manhissed.
She turned around and stared instead in therearview mirror, trying to see the man’s face behind her. The SUVwas on the wrong side of the two-lane highway.
“Pull over!” The man shoved the barrel of thepistol against the base of her skull. She cut the wheel sharply tothe right and drove the Sorento hard onto the berm. He ordered herto park at the roadside and to leave the engine running. When shedid, he grabbed her purse and bags from the passenger seat andordered her to the vacant seat.
“Buckle up good and tight,” he grumbled ather when she crossed over to the passenger seat. Then, keeping thegun aimed at her head with his right hand and holding her purse andbags with his left, he climbed to the driver’s seat. It was adifficult maneuver because of his size.
Karrie remained buckled to her seat,trembling.
“Thanks for not trying to get away,” the mansaid and settled behind the steering wheel. “Nothing I hate morethan shooting someone before I’ve had the chance to know thembetter.”
As he adjusted the seat to his liking, Karrierattled out several questions in a raspy voice: “Why are you doingthis? What do you want? How do you know my name?” She began tobawl.
He took her cell phone from her purse andtossed it out the window. It clattered on pavement and landed in alarge puddle. He kissed the wet air before he rolled up thewindow.
“I have money,” Karrie said. “Please … justtake my money and leave me alone.”
The man threw the purse and bag at her. Theylanded in her lap.
“Get comfy,” he said and pulled the SUV backonto the road. They hadn’t gone far when Karrie began tohiccup.
“Please … pull over,” she said. “I’m … goingto throw up.”
“Forget about it. If you’re gonna hurl,Karrie, you’ll have to hurl in your lap. I ain’t stopping.”
She pressed the button to roll down herwindow.
“Roll that window back up or I’m gonna shootyou where you sit. Now! And turn off that damn music! Stuff makes aperson insane.” The pistol cracked to life, thunderous anddisquieting as he fired a .40 caliber slug that tore through theSorento’s roof.
Karrie leaped to obey his orders. While shedid so, he attacked the automatic door lock on the door panel andlocked the two of them inside. Then he smiled big yellow denturesthat appeared sinister and green from the dashboard’s electroniclights. “I bet those hiccups are gone now.”
Her question came on a whisper, “Where areyou taking me?”
“You just get comfy and enjoy the ride,honey,” he said. He picked his fat nose and drove past Alice Lake,heading deep into the woods south of Ridgewood. The rain stoppedand that made him grin again. After the rape, he planned to driveall night and be in Virginia by morning, long before thoseroly-poly Ridgewood donut eaters or the PA patrol boys startedtheir searches for Karrie’s missing body and vehicle. By then, shewould be long dead like the others, her body deep in some mountainwoods in northern Maryland.
That was the plan and it made him giddy. Healmost giggled until shimmering green light appeared ahead and ahuman figure inside the light stood in the middle of the road.
The man pulled Karrie’s SUV to the left lane,punched the gas pedal, and plowed into the light as the figurestepped in front of him. Karrie screamed as green light explodedaround them.
The engine stalled. The man threw thegearshift into neutral and tried to restart the engine, but itsquawked in protest. He coasted the SUV to the side of the road andpressed the pistol against Karrie’s skull as the figure approachedthe passenger door.
“I’ll blow her brains out,” he shouted whenKarrie’s locked door opened.
“You’ll do no such thing,” the figuresaid.
The pistol jammed and Karrie struggled fromher seatbelt. She fell freely into Vree’s waiting arms. When sherecognized her daughter, she cried out. “Vree. What are you doinghere. That light—”
“There’s a house a quarter-mile up the road,”Vree said. “Call the police.” She touched her mother’s forehead andKarrie’s expression calmed. “You won’t remember seeing me.”
Karrie looked hypnotized as she left the SUVand walked casually along the berm of the road, oblivious to therain drenching her.
Vree hurried to Karrie’s seat. She wasuntouched by the rain, and a halo of green light shimmered aroundher as she turned to face the trembling man. A more trembling handpointed the Smith & Wesson at her.
“Are you going on another joyride toVirginia?” Vree asked. “Or are you going to Florida like last year?Biscayne Bay wasn’t it?”
“How … how?” The man shielded his eyes fromVree’s brightness with his left hand. Then, trying to sound tough,he said, “Who are you? You’re just a girl. What d’you want fromme?”
“Where’d you get the gun?” Vree asked. “Anddon’t lie to me.”
“That’s a police officer’s weapon. It wasstolen five years ago from the Ridgewood Police Department.”
The man choked out a denial.
“It belongs to a missing police officer namedRita Malloy,” Vree said. “Remember her?”
The man shook his head. He pressed his backagainst the door. His left hand searched for the door handle behindhim.
Vree scowled at him. “Were you gonna shoot mewith Rita’s gun?”
The man shook his head again and managed toutter a whisperyuh-uh.
“You were gonna shoot Karrie. After you rapedher.”
“I-I … no.”
“Are you sure?”
The man stretched his right arm at Vree,aimed the pistol at her glowing face, and squeezed the trigger.Again, the pistol jammed.
He slumped in his seat.
Vree reached out and effortlessly took thegun from him.
“Isn’t that why you kidnapped Karrietonight?” she asked. “Weren’t you planning to rape and kill herlike the other women?”
The man’s voice sounded weak as he deniedit.
“But you were. I know you were. Let me showyou how you were gonna do it.”
The windshield lit up like a TV screen andshowed fractured moonlight streaming past bare tree branches insidea clearing surrounded by dark woods. There, Karrie’s Sorento wasparked in the clearing and facing them. The driver’s door openedand the man stumbled out. He hurried to the passenger door andpulled a semi-conscious Karrie out.
As they watched, Vree said, “You know thosepictures of sad clowns and homeless puppies and starving children?That’s how Karrie looks there. It’s in her eyes, just like theothers. Just like Rita’s when she begged you for her life.”
“No,” the man next to her said. “Stop this. Idon’t wanna see no more.”
“Are you gonna vomit? If so, hurl in yourlap. I ain’t stopping.”
When the man in the windshield finishedraping Karrie, he collapsed on her and rested for a minute, thenrolled away from her body that now looked lifeless next to his. Hisgreat stomach heaved as he caught his breath. Then he sat up,wheezed, pushed himself to his knees, wheezed some more, and stoodand staggered toward the van while zipping his pants.
“Watch this,” Vree said as Karrie’s left armmoved. The woman’s fingers wrapped around a dark object. Then sherolled on her left side and fired the fallen Smith & Wessonuntil the man dropped to his knees, wheezed deep and hard, and fellbackwards and stopped breathing. The windshield went dark.
“She would have killed you in those woods.But I’m not gonna let that happen,” Vree said.
The man turned and cast a bewildered gaze ather. “You’re not?”
“No.” Vree opened the door. “Someone wants tosee you.”
She stepped out and another glow entered andtook her seat. This glow was ghostly white, and the figure was ayoung woman wearing a black sweatshirt with Ridgewood Policelettered across the front. Sadness edged the woman’s pale blue eyesframed by ragged and dirty hair that had once been short andstrawberry blonde.
“I’m Rita Malloy,” the ghost’s papery voicehissed, although her pallid face remained calm while she addressedthe man. “You kidnapped me one night in my driveway five years agowhen I was leaving to go to work. I never made it to the stationbecause you raped me at knifepoint and then stabbed me in thestomach when you were through. But I was slow to die, so you shotme with my weapon and left my corpse for the wild dogs and coyotes.My remains have never been found.”
The man looked at Rita’s pistol pointed athim. He pulled at his door handle and pushed his left shoulderagainst the door. It didn’t open. He closed his eyes.
“You took my money,” Rita said, “went toAtlantic City and won nine hundred and seventy-five dollars withit. Then you bought some hookers and killed them too.”
The man covered his ears. “No, no, no,” hesaid.
“You’ll never hurt anyone again.” Rita shovedher pistol’s barrel against his temple. The gun did not jam.
A HALF-HOUR later, Pennsylvania State Police officersfound the man’s body in the driver’s seat of Karrie Erickson’s SUV.Rita Malloy’s government-issued pistol was in his right hand, hisindex finger on the trigger. On the dashboard, they found a crudelysketched map in glitter crayon on a McDonalds’ greasy paper napkinspattered with blood and showing them the locations of Rita’s bodyand the other women he had killed.
At the bottom of the map, they read thesewords:For my crimes, I don’t deserve to live.
A police officer drove Karrie home while acrime scene unit came to investigate the SUV. No one saw Vreehiding and watching from the woods. Moments later, she vanished,carried through space by the green light.
At the banks of Myers Creek, the green lightaround Vree faded. She stumbled away from where the crystal lay andstared at it for several minutes. She almost reasoned that she hadimagined saving her mother from the hands of a rapist and killer.But that would be denying the truth … albeit, the weird truth.Weird things had happened to her before, and she was certain theywould continue.
DeadRabbits Don’t Run
I SMELL IT again. Past hemlock and below hill thearoma is coming from man’s wooden lodge, drifting to me on smokefrom most powerful and burning my nose with the fragrance of theblood of my sins. Although my eyes are closed, I know that if theywere open I would still see the tormenting image of man eating hisbloodless rabbit meal: chewing, always chewing; licking fingersclean; sucking bare every tawny bone; he will leave no bloodlessmeat behind. Before he sleeps tonight, he will bury bones intoground behind his lodge near where I committed my first crime. If Icould move, I would run to there now and commit one last sin bydigging up bones and feasting on marrow for the remainder of myshort, pathetic life.
It was there that I lost my dignity by givingin to temptation. After seeing man bury rabbit bones in groundbehind his lodge, I waited until just before the new day to digthem up. I wisely returned all ground before feasting underhemlock. I have returned often since then, alone, always alone, andbecoming less and less of a hunter.
When man left his lodge for two summers, hiswoman replaced him. She did not bury rabbit bones. Instead, shethrew bones with bloodless meat into high grass where it wasquickly consumed by my large and stealthy body. Although thebloodless meat was dry and chewy, it had a rich flavor that wasaddictive. I became a scavenger and stopped hunting my meals.
If my sons should find me here, dead andbroken, will they uncover the follies of a foolish old laggard whospent his final days chasing dead rabbits? Or will the hemlock hidemy body as I rot away, and will my death erase all evidence of myfoolish ways?
Did I cry just now or was it the hungry wailof my empty stomach?
There is a tear in my eye. No. It is snowmelting and running like tears. Snow assaults my eyes like largewhite gnats trying to blind me of the images from the past thathaunt my tortured mind and torment my conceited soul. Is this mysalvation? Regret is my pardon! Is there no limit to mydelusion?
Rabbits are near. The elder towers above meand looks with his laughing eyes upon my broken body. He mocks myanguish. He knows I am dying and he sneers at my torment with histaunting round face. White and smiling, always smiling, the greatwhite rabbit runs across the sky, mocking my ruin. He has traveledquickly to pull the blanket of night over me. He is right to laughat me, to taunt me of my predicament. I would chase him away if Icould move. His children made me strong and my strength made me aleader. Now I am helpless, waiting to return to ground. I wonder ifmy bones will make a good meal. Or maybe man will use them instead.I’m sure my teeth would make a beautiful necklace.
Cold bites deep into my wounds. I have notlived the length of time it has taken me to survive this day. Did Icry just now, or was it the sound of my empty stomach?
I smell deer … and rabbit nearby. Man cooksthe meat of their families tonight. I smell it in the smoke comingfrom the cabins. They will bury some of the bones in their yards,just as they do every day. That is why I stopped being a hunter.When the rabbits became too fast for me, man made it easy for me tobecome lazy. I robbed from their graveyards and dined on the old,cold bones of the dead.