Enter abandoned orphanages at your own risk…
Dec. 29, 2013
THE DARKEST NIGHT
© 2013 M. Ramon
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Jerry opened the lid of the small tin container the tiniest bit. The container had a painting of a dog on it, a beagle with bright eyes, its tail stuck mid-wag. Mr. Foyle had given it to him out of the blue one day, for no reason–just because. That was how Mr. Foyle was; he was the nicest person Jerry ever knew. That was before Mr. Foyle went away; no one was sure why he left. A few of the older kids said they heard some of the adults talking about it, and that he had been fired. Still others said that they heard he had quit. It didn’t really matter which it was; either way, he was gone.
Jerry snaked two thin fingers into the container, and when he withdrew them there was a fruit fly caught between them. The fly struggled to get free, but it was such a small thing. Jerry closed the lid tight. He looked around to see if anybody was watching. He was alone at the table; other kids didn’t like to sit with him because they said he smelled bad. Jerry didn’t think he smelled bad, but the other kids didn’t give his opinion much weight. The other children were bunched around other tables, talking to each other, smiling at each other, shoveling up the slop this place had the gall to call food.
No one was paying him any mind, and that suited him just fine. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the small frog he had found three days before. He held the frog in his lap, below the table to avoid attention.
“Come on, Mr. Green Pants,” Jerry whispered. “It’s time to eat.”
Jerry held the wriggling fly close to the frog’s mouth. At first Mr. Green Pants sat frozen like a statue, but then his tongue shot out and the fly disappeared. Jerry giggled at the way the tongue felt for the brief instant that it touched his finger. It was smooth and sticky, not rough at all.
“Yum yum,” Jerry said.
He slipped the frog back into his pocket and opened the tin again, snagging another fly. He closed the lid and pulled Mr. Green Pans out of his pocket. Again his small amphibian friend flicked his tongue out and swallowed the fly alive. There was a commotion from the other end of the cafeteria, and Jerry turned to see what was happening. All he could see were the backs of a few kids who were gathered around a table and laughing at something.
When he turned back around he was frozen in place by the unexpected appearance of a forbidding presence; it was the tall, stocky frame of Ms. Stockwell. She stood looking down at Jerry like a predator looks down at its helpless prey, the way the high and powerful always look down on the weak below them. Her face was like a slate of granite, her mouth set in a frown, her thin, badly painted lips pulled into a tight, jagged line so that they looked even thinner. Her eyes were dull, her eyebrows like two dark storm clouds on an ominous day.
“And what does the thing think it is doing with that animal?” she asked.
Jerry didn’t have to ask who she was referring to when she said “the thing”. It had been her nickname for him ever since he could remember.
“Wh-wh-what animal, Ms. Stockwell?”
As he said this Jerry slipped the frog into his pocket in a weak attempt at subterfuge.
“Who are you–Stammering Stanley?” Ms. Stockwell asked. “I’m referring to the horrible, slimy thing you’ve hid in your pocket.”
“But it’s not slimy,” Jerry said quietly, knowing he could not win, that kids like him never won.
“Come with me, young man.”
Ms. Stockwell grabbed Jerry by the arm and pulled him out of his seat, dragging him along behind her as she headed for the exit. Jerry looked back at the table, and at the tin box sitting atop it, the tin box that Mr. Foyle had given to him back when he was still around to offer some protection to the children.
“But what about my box?” Jerry asked.
“What, no stammering now?” she asked. “What box do you mean?”
“My tin box, with the dog painted on it. I need to get it.”
Ms. Stockwell stopped and looked at the table. She let go of Jerry’s arm and walked back to the table, and grabbed his arm again as she headed for the exit. Near the exit there was an open trash can filled with the foul refuse of the day’s meals. As they passed the trash can Ms. Stockwell tossed the tin box into it; it landed with a soft splat on something wet.
“But that’s my box,” Jerry protested.
The towering woman squeezed his arm even harder and gave him a vicious tug. It made his teeth clack together painfully. From behind Jerry heard a kid speak loudly:
“Stinky Jerry is going to get it!”
A smattering of laughter greeted this pronouncement.
As Ms. Stockwell led Jerry through the halls they passed a few people along the way. The adults paid no attention, but the kids watched them pass with pity in their eyes. They knew Ms. Stockwell, and they knew this was going to be a bad day for Jerry. These kids, away from the mob of the cafeteria, didn’t feel the need to laugh at him, or to make any jokes.
Ms. Stockwell led Jerry past the staircase rising up to the second floor, and cut through the lobby. As they passed through the lobby Jerry looked up at the big letters on the wall:
THE CEDAR FALLS HOME FOR ORPHANED CHILDREN
Below those words, the Home’s motto:
MERCY. BENEVOLENCE. FAITH.
Just how much mercy had been shown within these walls?, he wondered. There had been some–Mr. Foyle had shown mercy–but not much, he reckoned.
Then they left the lobby behind. Through another hall, and then another. They finally stopped before a closed door. The lettering on the frosted glass:
Mr. Clyde Forsythe
Director and Headmaster
Ms. Stockwell tapped on the glass with a gentleness that was surprising given her size and demeanor. Jerry had expected her to bang the door hard enough to pop its hinges.
“Yes, what is it?” came a voice from the other side of the door.
“It’s Ms. Stockwell, Mr. Forsythe. I have a trouble maker who needs correction.”
There was a moment of silence in which Jerry had enough time to hope that Mr. Forsythe was too busy to deal with an unruly child, that he would tell Ms. Stockwell to just turn the kid loose with a warning. But if the Home had little mercy within its walls, it had even less luck.
“Come in,” the voice called out.
Ms. Stockwell opened the door and pulled Jerry into the room with her. Mr. Forsythe sat behind a desk that was too large for such a small office. Ms. Stockwell had to close the door before she could pull a chair out from the desk and take a seat. Jerry stayed standing, knowing better that to presume to take a seat himself. Mr. Forsythe sat behind the desk, his fingers tented beneath his jowls, his bald head shining with the reflection of the sunlight coming in through the window behind him. His spectacles were too small for his face, and they seemed to pinch his nose painfully. His eyes looked scrunched together; Jerry wasn’t sure if it was just a distortion caused by the think lenses of the spectacles, or if the man just had unfortunate genes.
“What seems to be the trouble, young man?” Mr. Forsythe asked.
“Young Master Smith here has seen fit to bring a filthy animal into our midst,” Ms. Stockwell answered for him.
Jerry knew better than to argue with her inaccurate description of Mr. Green Pants, or her use of the distasteful surname. Smith was the surname that all kids who came to the Home without a proper name were given, and all of them came to hate it eventually.
Mr. Forsythe cocked his head to the side, looking at Jerry with those strange, close-set eyes of his. He leaned forward on the desk, planting his hands down on it one on top of the other.
“Hmm. Is this true, Master Smith?” he said, spitting out that last word like it put a bad taste in his mouth.
“Well, sir, the thing is, I found–”
“Speak up, child,” Mr. Forsythe said.
“Yes, sir. I found a frog in the yard when I was outside the other day, and it wasn’t dirty or nothing.”
“Grammar, grammar,” Mr. Forsythe said.
“Yes, sir. It wasn’t dirty. It was just sort of sitting there all alone, and I thought that I could make it my pet.”
“You thought you could make it your pet? Did I hear that correctly, Ms. Stockwell?”
“You did, Mr. Forsythe,” she said.
“Do you know the rules about pets here at the Home, young man?” Mr. Forsythe said, turning his attention back to Jerry.
“Yes, but I didn’t think–”
“Ah, ah–just answer the question. Do you know the rules about pets?”
“Yes, sir. Pets aren’t allowed.”
“Very good. So you see the problem?”
Jerry looked at Ms. Stockwell. Her lips were spread in a gruesome smile. He looked back at Mr. Forsythe, who looked back at him with boredom.
“Yes, I see the problem,” Jerry said weakly.
“Where is this ‘pet’ of yours then?”
“It’s…I’ll go set it free. Just let me step outside for a minute and I’ll set it free; I promise.”
“That won’t be necessary. I will dispose of it myself. Where is it?”
“I can set it free. If you just–”
“It’s right here!” Ms. Stockwell bellowed.
She slammed one meaty hand against the pocket where Mr. Green Pants was nestled. Jerry screamed–not in pain, but in shock. He reached into his pocket and pulled out Mr. Green Pants. The frog didn’t move in his hands; it lay limp and lifeless, killed by Ms. Stockwell’s swift blow.
“Why?” Jerry said, looking at Ms. Stockwell. “I said that I would set it free.”
“Give the thing to me,” Mr. Forsythe said.
The man grabbed a wad of tissues from a box on his desk.
“Give it here.”
Jerry stopped. Knowing that there was nothing more to say, Jerry handed the lifeless body of the frog to Mr. Forsythe. The headmaster folded the tissues over it and threw it in a small trash can next to the table. Things that Jerry loved had a tendency to end up in the trash.
“Now that that’s done, we have the matter of punishment to discuss,” Mr. Forsythe said.
“Punishment?” Jerry asked.
“Yes, of course. You broke the rules. When rules are broken, there must be a punishment. What do you think would be a fitting punishment for this infraction, Master Smith?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“How about you, Ms. Stockwell? Do you have any ideas?”
“I think a visit to the Special Room is in order, don’t you think Mr. Forsythe?”
Jerry stiffened at these words. The Special Room was something that the children only spoke of in whispers. It was the most feared punishment at the Home. Jerry had never been taken there, but he knew a few kids who had. When they came back they were different, more quiet than they had been before. They cried at night when they didn’t think anyone could hear them. Some of them didn’t come back at all.
“I won’t do it again, I swear,” Jerry said.
“Oh, I’m sure you won’t,” Mr. Forsythe said.
The headmaster pushed a button on the side of the desk. A moment later the door opened, banging into the back of Ms. Stockwell’s chair. She stood up and pushed the chair in, and the door opened all the way. A tall man in a crisp white shirt and white pants stood in the doorway. Jerry had seen the man around before; most of the kids we’re afraid of him.
“Branson, we have a child here that must pay a visit to the Special Room,” Mr. Forsythe said.
The big man looked down at the scared child who stood before him. There was nothing in Branson’s eyes but utter indifference. Branson grabbed Jerry by the scruff of the neck and pulled him from the room. Ms. Stockwell and the headmaster followed after them as Branson led Jerry to the Special Room. The key ring attached to Branson’s belt jingled and jangled as they walked. The way there was a serpentine one through a maze of halls leading into parts of the building that Jerry had never visited before.
When they finally stopped at a door, Jerry looked up and saw that the door was unmarked. Branson unhooked the key ring from his belt and found the right key, using it to unlock the door. He opened the door and pushed Jerry inside. Branson followed him into the room, and then Mr. Forsythe and Ms. Stockwell. Jerry looked at the wall. There were a pair of shackles bolted to the wall, and another, slightly larger pair bolted to the floor. In the corner there was a table, on top of which were laid sticks of various sizes and thickness, and a couple of belts.
“Move to the wall,” Branson said.
Jerry turned and made a run for the door, but Ms. Stockwell stepped in his path, blocking his exit. Branson grabbed him from behind and yanked him back savagely. Mr. Forsythe closed the door and locked it from the inside.
Minutes later kids all over the Home heard the faint, hollow sound of screams coming through the air vents in their bedrooms, in the classrooms, even in the cafeteria. Some of them turned their heads to look at the nearest air vent for just a moment before turning away. Most of them pretended that they didn’t hear anything at all.
The first day of summer always held a sense of wonderment, and the promise of long days and warm nights ahead. Fireflies, the buzz of grasshoppers, lightening flashing brilliantly from distant thunderheads on hot, muggy nights, as well as the sound of mother’s calling their children in from their shared adventures (or misadventures); these were the things that made up a summer. The summer held secrets that would be remembered by children long after they ceased to be children, when they would meet as old friends or barely remembered strangers, as mothers and fathers, husband, wives and divorcees, and they would say, “Remember the time when…?”.
The first day of summer had started out as a good day for Frankie Gardener and his little sister. At twelve years old most boys would resent having their eight year-old sister tagging along with them all day, but Jessica was pretty cool for a sister, and he didn’t really mind. Sometimes he gave her a hard time, told her to go away or that she wasn’t old enough to join in whatever fun he and his friends had found to kill the day, but when he did he was just going through the motions of how a brother was supposed to act toward his little sister in front of his friends, and she always knew that he didn’t really mean it.
So she took the occasional half-hearted jibes from her brother in stride and stuck around, knowing that in a few minutes the older boys would turn their attention away from the little sister and focus on more important things, like seeing who could climb the highest on mean Mr. Kerch’s apple tree before the old man himself came out to yell at them to stay the hell out of his yard, or figuring out whether it was the second or third down in a pick-up football game (one’s view in these arguments seemed to depend on whether or not one’s team had possession of the ball).
When Frankie headed out the door that morning, the first of summer, Jessica followed after him without discussion; it was expected. The siblings joined a loose-knit and shifting group of kids, which grew larger and smaller in turns as the day wore on. At some point Buddy Weaver and a few of his friends joined the flock, which made a few of the kids uneasy, given the boy’s size and unpredictable temper, but he seemed to be in a good mood, and they all breathed a little easier. A game of freeze tag had given way to a half-assed game of baseball that ended when their only ball was line-drived straight into some sticker bushes. No one volunteered to search for the ball, and so the group, using that odd groupthink that seemed to settle over gangs of kids just like a colony of ants, decided as one that the next destination would be Sag Creek.
They used a rope that had been tied around the trunk of a particularly sturdy tree by some earlier generation of kids to swing out to the center of the creek, where they let go and soared for brief moments that felt like forever before crashing gown into the muddy water. They splashed and swam, and spat water at each other in the bruised light of early evening.
Everything was fine until Buddy Weaver started dunking Jessica under the water. It just looked like typical horseplay at first, but when Jessica shouted that it wasn’t funny anymore and Buddy responded by dunking her under again it took on a note of the casual viciousness that the big boy was capable of at odd times.
“Quit it!” Jessica said when she came up again. “I mean it, Buddy!”
Buddy dunked her again, then brought her up. She gasped for air and started flailing her thin arms against his stocky frame. He laughed at her efforts, sounding eerily like a braying donkey. He pushed her back under the water again. A few of the kids laughed along with him, glad to be in on the joke instead of being the joke itself, while others looked on with the quietly disapproving looks of kids who knew better than to vocalize that disapproval to a kid who had an advantage of a few inches and twenty pounds over them. Frankie, seeing what was happening, waded out into the water, heading toward Buddy on the bigger boy’s blind side.
Buddy let Jessica up and she struck out wildly with one small fist, catching him on the bridge of his nose. He cried out, in surprise more than pain, and shoved her away from him. She lost her footing on the slippery creek bed and went down, going under the water or a moment until she was able to right herself and stand up. Water dripped from her dark blond hair, landing in little droplets into the body of water.
“What’s your problem?” Jessica asked.
“I was just playing around,” Buddy said. “You didn’t have to hit–”
He didn’t see it coming when Frankie, standing to the left and slightly behind Buddy, took a swing, his arm snaking around and his fist landing on Buddy’s jaw. Buddy crumpled to his knees, the water coming up just below his chin. The way he folded with the force of the blow was almost comical, though no one laughed.
Frankie stood upright in the creek, staring at his fist. It throbbed with a dull, aching pain, but he couldn’t deny feeling a certain kind of thrill. He had never punched anybody in his life, and he had always secretly believed that if he did it would have little or no effect. Seeing Buddy Weaver fall to his knees after one blow was proof that he was stronger than he had given himself credit for. The fact that it was Buddy he had struck, the boy who had pushed him down the slide behind the school in the first grade, who had thrown a stick in Stan Mercer’s path when Stan was riding his bike last fall (the result: a sprained wrist and a janked up wheel rim), and who had been messing with his sister, just made the moment that much sweeter.
Frankie imagined this moment as a scene in a movie, when the nice, unassuming kid had finally had enough of the bully’s wretched behavior and stood up to him, knocking him down in front of the whole school, standing over the defeated young tough as the crowd cheered and clapped in celebration at the takedown of the terror of the playground. But there, at the creek, in a moment that was not a scene from a movie, nobody cheered, nobody clapped, and there was no celebration. Buddy stood up, towering over Frankie. Frankie looked up into the other boy’s face with a look of confusion; this was not how the movie was supposed to end.
Buddy pummeled Frankie with his frozen ham fists. Frankie lost the use of his legs, and his knees buckled under him and sent him face first into the water. Buddy dragged him toward the bank of the creek. One of Buddy’s friends waded out to help pull Frankie out of the water and onto the dirt.
“Leave my brother alone, you asshole!” Jessica yelled out.
Frankie was lying on the ground with his eyes closed, but they popped open when Jessica said this. He had never heard a word like that come out of her mouth, and it shocked him. He looked up and saw that Jessica was trying to rush to his aid. Stan Mercer, he of the sprained wrist and damaged bike, was holding her back. Frankie knew that Stan meant Jessica no harm, and that he was simply trying to protect her, and he made a mental note to thank Stan when he got the chance.
Buddy turned his attention to Jessica for a few seconds, and then turned back to Frankie. He had a sneer on his face. Frankie could feel his right eye starting to swell up from the shots that Buddy had landed. Buddy looked him over, as if deciding just what to do with this pitiful specimen he found before him. Then the sneer was gone, and the shininess of the boy’s eyes dulled a bit. Frankie could see Buddy’s mood change like a storm cloud passing.
“Ah, I was only playing,” Buddy said. “No hard feelings, huh?”
This was Buddy’s way, had always been his way, even back in the first grade when he had shoved Frankie down that slide. Only minutes before they had been pals, and minutes after Buddy was trying to be his pal again and he seemed genuinely confused as to why Frankie was angry with him.
“Don’t be a baby,” Buddy said.
He stuck out a hand, offering to help Frankie to his feet. Frankie didn’t take it, preferring to stand on his own. Frankie ran his hands along his throbbing face and looked at them; he hoped there wouldn’t be any blood, and there was none. Buddy withdrew his proffered hand, sulking at what he saw as a slight on Frankie’s part. The two boys stood facing each other for a moment, both of them breathing heavily from the tussle, and then Buddy turned away, motioning to the kids who had come along with him when he had joined the group earlier that day.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” he said.
He looked back at Frankie.
“We don’t want to hang around with a bunch of pussies, anyway.”
Frankie thought of responding to the putdown, but decided against it. The fight was over, and he saw no reason to start it up again. Buddy and his friends slunk away through the trees, leaving trails of set, soggy footprints behind them.
“Are you okay?” Stan asked as he let go of Jessica.
“Yeah; I’m fine,” Frankie said.
Jessica ran over to Frankie and gave him a hug.
“I thought you were dead meat for sure,” she said.
He gave her shoulder a slight squeeze and gently pushed her away, lest the other kids think he was a softie.
“It wasn’t so bad,” he said.
“Well, your eye is all swollen up like a balloon,” Jessica said, seemingly in awe of her brother’s most prominent battle wound.
Frankie could barely see out of his right eye. He reached up and touched it lightly with his fingertips, and a sudden flash of hot pain made him wince away from his own touch.
“Yeah, I guess it is,” he said.
“Sorry, man,” Stan said. “I would have helped, but he had his friends around him, and, you know….”
“It’s all right, Stan.”
Frankie understood. He knew that, in all honesty, he probably would never have challenged Buddy in the first place if it hadn’t been his own sister who Buddy had been roughhousing with. It would have been up to some other brother to take a drubbing. Frankie walked over and took a seat on the trunk of a small, fallen tree.
The kids still at the creek, the ones who hadn’t left with Buddy, went back to swimming and splashing now that the entertainment was over. Even Stan seemed to forget about the whole thing, taking hold of the rope and swing out over the water, using the momentum to launch himself through the air, soaring for a couple of seconds before gravity did its work and dragged him down from the air and into the water. Jessica took a seat next to her brother and sat watching the other kids at play.
“What are you gonna tell Mom about your eye?” she asked.
Frankie shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know. I’ll think of something.”
“If you tell her what really happened I bet Buddy’s dad will whip him good.”
“Yeah, but then everyone will say that I’m a snitch.”
The girl sighed.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
In the world of adolescence which they inhabited you didn’t tattle, you didn’t rat, you didn’t snitch. It was something akin to a mortal sin to do so, and there was no surer way to convince everybody that you were just an overgrown baby who couldn’t be trusted. The kids who betrayed the secrets of the playground and the park, or in this case the creek, were the kids who found themselves left out of all the fun. Nobody wanted to be one of those kids, the earnest few who were only trying to do the right thing, and found themselves punished for it for however long it took until the other kids forgot why they had been punishing them in the first place. Then, and only then, was it safe to join in once more. So Frankie wouldn’t snitch, and Jessica would go along with whatever story he made up to explain the swollen and darkening eye.
Eventually Jessica wandered away from her brother and joined in the play. Frankie didn’t feel much like swimming or swinging on the rope anymore, so he stayed where he was seated and watched the other kids. He wondered about Buddy, and whether this whole mess was done with, or if the capricious boy would seek to humiliate him further at some later date. He hoped it was over.
As the last light of day started to drain out of the clear summer sky the last of the revelers started their exodus. Goodbyes were said, backs were slapped good-naturedly, and tentative plans were made for the next day’s activities, many of which would never come to fruition, given the fickle moods of the children making them.
Frankie and Jessica headed home accompanied by Jenny Snider, a girl around Jessica’s age whose own home was along the way. Jessica and Jenny walked together a ways ahead of Frankie. Frankie’s eye was still throbbing; he could feel his pulse beating in the stretched skin of his eyelid. He was unsure of how the fight would play out in neighborhood lore. Would the story be of a boy who bit off more than he could chew and took a whooping, or would it be the story of a smaller boy who had stood up bravely against a bigger boy and had never cried or begged?
The girls did a few cartwheels and laughed.
“Did you see?” Jessica asked, turning back to look at her brother.
“Yeah, I saw.”
“I don’t know. Pretty good, I guess.”
The girls rolled their eyes and walked on. When they came to Ketchum Street the girls said their goodbyes, and Jenny ran off down Ketchum. Frankie hadn’t stopped to wait for the girls to say their parting words, and Jessica had to catch up to him. She came up beside him, brushing the hair out of her eyes.
“It’s late,” she said.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Too late. Mom’s gonna be mad,”
She hummed a bit to herself, some tune Frankie couldn’t make out.
“Have you thought of what you’re gonna tell her about your eye?” she asked.
“Well, you’d better think of something.”
“Come on, let’s cut across here,” Frankie said, motioning for his sister to follow him.
There was a chain-link fence that ran along the sidewalk there. Beyond the fence there was a parking lot, and to the right of the parking lot sat the imposing building that everyone called the Home. Frankie didn’t know why it was called that, but it had always sounded vaguely sinister to him–the Home. He parted a section of the chain-link that had been cut through by who the hell knows, way back who the hell knows when. Cutting across the parking lot would only save them about a minute and a half at most, but to a kid a minute and a half was nothing to sneeze at when you were already late getting home. Ninety seconds could make the difference between a stern word of reprimand and an all-out grounding. So a minute and a half could be a really big deal.
“Come on,” Frankie prodded.
“I’m coming. Hold your horses.”
As Frankie held the tear in the chain-link open as wide as he could Jessica squeezed through to the other side without difficulty. For Frankie it was a bit of a tighter squeeze. His shirt caught on a jagged metal point, and Jessica had to help him free the cloth so as not to rip it. Coming home late was bad enough, and coming home late with a wrecked eyed was worse, but also coming home with a ripped shirt would earn him capital punishment for sure.
“Careful,” he warned.
“I am being careful.”
“You’re pulling on it too hard.”
“You can do it yourself if you want to.”
“Sorry. Just be careful.”
The shirt came free with the aid of the young girl’s nimble fingers, and Frankie made it inside the fence with his shirt intact. The chain-link rattled as he let the gap in the fence close in on itself.
“Thanks for giving me a hand with that,” Frankie said.
They walked on, the Home on their right and an overgrown field on their left. Frankie kicked a bottle that was lying on the cooling asphalt, and it went rattling on the ground for fifteen feet before rolling to a stop, unbroken. At the other end of the lot they came to another fence. This one also had a section where the links had been snipped with some unknown tool, and he took hold of the fence on either side of the gash and pulled it wide.
“Come on,” he said.
He watched the street. A pickup truck sped by, the wind of its passing blowing against his face. Jessica had not slipped through the fence, and he turned to see what the holdup was. Jessica was still thirty feet behind him, staring up at the Home.
“What are you waiting for?” Frankie called. “Hurry up.”
Jessica didn’t respond, didn’t acknowledge in any way that she heard him call to her. He let go of the fence and placed his hands on his hips, wondering what in the hell was so interesting about the dark hulk of a building.
“Jess, what are you doing?”
Jessica turned her head to look at him slowly, as if she were moving under water; a light breeze that lifted her hair around her head only served to heighten the effect. Her eyes were dark pools of shadows in the gloom of the evening.
“Can’t you hear them?” she asked.
“They’re calling us.”
She shifted her gaze back to the building, and stood still as a statue for a moment. Frankie sighed, starting to get angry. Jessica could be a little weird sometimes, but this was too much.
“Come on, dummy,” he said. “We’ve got to get home.”
He expected a sharp response from her, a demand that he not call her a dummy, a claim that he was in fact the dummy. There was nothing. A little ball of fear settled into his stomach as he looked from his sister to the dark, empty building that held her attention, then back to his sister. Jessica moved then, and for the briefest of instants Frankie was able to feel some relief. Then he realized she was moving toward the building and not toward where he stood at the fence.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
There was no response. Frankie followed after his sister, jogging to catch up with her, slowing down to a walk as he came up even with her.
“Come on, Jess; talk to me. What are you up to? Is this some kind of joke?”
“They want us to play with them,” Jessica said.
Her voice sounded slow and dreamy, the voice of a sleepwalker.
“You’re nuts, you know that? Now stop playing around, and let’s go.”
Frankie stopped walking, but Jessica kept going.
“I’m not going in there with you, Jessica.”
She walked up to a gaping hole that used to be a window before somebody busted the glass out, and peered inside the dark interior of the building.
“I’m gonna leave you,” Frankie said. “You’ll be out here all by yourself. Do you want that?”
Jessica grabbed hold of the empty window’s bottom edge and pulled herself up.
“Jessica, don’t go in there. I’m serious.”
Frankie walked toward her, meaning to pull her down and drag her back home, if that was what was necessary. Just as he reached to grab the back of her jacket she was jerked away from him and the through the window frame, disappearing into the darkness.
Frankie hoisted himself up and jumped down into the shadows. He squinted hard in an attempt to see the room he was in, but he couldn’t see more than a couple feet in front of him.
‘”Jess, where are you?” he spoke to the inky blackness. “Jess, say something. Jess!”
The only things he could hear were his own breathing and the sound of blood rushing in his ears, and the small ball of fear in his stomach wasn’t so small anymore. Then a shadow seemed to take form and break away from the surrounding darkness, moving closer to him. It drew up before him, and he was unaware of the fact that his bladder was releasing warm fluid that was dripping down his pant legs.
Fifteen minutes later Frankie walked into his house. His mom had been waiting for him and Jessica to walk in so she could scold them for staying out after dark; his dad, who wasn’t as strict about such things, was in the garage working on a new birdhouse. When Frankie stepped into the living room something in his face, something that had nothing to do with the swollen eye, told his mother that something was very wrong.
“Where’s your sister?” she asked.
He didn’t say anything; he just started crying.
“Frankie, where’s Jessica?” she asked again, her voice rising.
There was a hysterical note in her voice now. Her husband, having heard her and sensed that something was wrong, came in through the door leading from the kitchen to the garage. He stalked from the kitchen into the living room and stopped, watching his wife and his son face each other near the front door.
“Mary, what is it?” he asked.
She paid him no mind.
“Where is Jessica!” she yelled at Frankie.
And Frankie could only stand there crying, starting to hyperventilate, cold urine dripping from the cuffs of his pants to the clean beige carpet.
Tom Dwyer closed the door to his office without bothering to lock it; there was nothing in there that anyone would want to steal. Inside the black canvas bag he carried were the tools of his trade: a yellow legal pad and a black ballpoint pen for taking notes, and the same small tape recorder he had been using to tape his interviews for the past twelve years. He bought the recorder used from Rick Hedlund for forty bucks when Rick retired from the paper. Tom had been the new guy at the Cedar Falls Review at the time, and Rick the seasoned newsman.
Times had been good for the paper then, with circulation rising at a steady annual rate. In the years since technology had dealt a blow to the Review. The free access to up-to-date information at the tap of a button or the click of a mouse had made getting yesterday’s news printed on pulped paper seem downright antiquated. Last summer there had been a bloodbath, with a third of the staff being let go. There would be no more Home & Gardening Tips from Marissa Greenauer, and no more Neighborhood on the Move pieces from Jeff Schuler. Tom had been one of the fortunate ones, surviving the slaughter with a ten percent pay cut. Part of him wondered if Morty had kept him around because he felt sorry for Tom after Michelle’s death. On the day he had come to think of as Black Friday he had shook hands and said his goodbyes with those people who would be leaving the Review offices for the last time. Tears were shed and promises made to keep in touch. Some of the promises were kept, and some just slipped away as promises sometimes do.
Tom’s beat wasn’t clearly or easily defined. In his time at the Review he had covered general crime stories, city corruption, Town Hall meetings, car accidents, and what some people liked to call “human interest stories”, although Tom preferred the term “people stories”. Some of the stories he covered were stories that he sought out, and some of them sought him out. Not a week went by when at least one person didn’t call his extension at the Review, or send an e-mail to his public address, telling him that they had just the story for him; some people even sent in hot tips through snail mail. He followed up on the ones that looked interesting and discarded the rest.
When he first heard the message on his machine left by the father of the missing girl, he considered handing the job off to someone else, maybe Jim Grady or Cathy Meyers; he had been feeling better lately–maybe not happy but something close to it. Doing a story on a missing eight-year old girl seemed like a sure way to bring back the black cloud that had hung over him for months, oppressive in its weight, after his wife died. When you were just starting to climb out of the valley of depression you didn’t want to deal with dead girls, and considering the odds, which he knew only too well as a reporter, the girl was most likely dead. The Review had run a story on her a week before–YOUNG GIRL GOES MISSING – BROTHER THE ONLY WITNESS. One week was at least five days too many when it came to missing kids. If a kid didn’t turn up after forty-eight hours, you knew that the ending was probably not going to be a happy one.
Jim Grady had written that story, which was why he was the first one Tom thought of handing the story off to, but the girl’s father–Mr. Hank Gardener–had called him, not Jim Grady. He had asked Tom to come out to their house on Oakview Lane. Mr. Gardener had sounded desperate, like a man on the edge of a cliff, on the verge off falling into some unknowable abyss, and after some hesitation Tom knew that he had to go. Mr. Gardener hadn’t made clear in the recording just what he expected from Tom, but he asked for Tom to come out to their home as soon as he could. Tom had called the man back and set a time.
That time was in twenty-five minutes. Tom felt no need to hurry. Oakview wasn’t very far, and he was sure he wouldn’t be tardy. He waved to Cathy on his way out of the building. As he stepped outside he had to squint against the harsh light reflected off a dozen or more windshields parked in the lot. It was a warm day, but not too warm, and the sky was a piece of spotless blue glass above him. He walked to his car, unlocked the door and got in, tossing the canvas bag on the passenger seat. He started the engine and pulled out of his space, then drove out of the lot and joined the traffic on Rosemont.
Traffic on the roads wasn’t bad, and he arrived at the Gardener house on Oakwood Lane with five minutes to spare. He parked at the curb, cut the engine and climbed out of the car. He leaned back into the car to grab the canvas bag, and shut the door lightly, an old habit from his years with Michelle, who always scolded him whenever he slammed his car door. He walked up the stone path to the front door of a nice-looking house and rang the bell. The woman who answered the door looked tired and worn. Even in middle-age she was pretty, but there was a dour look in her face that made Tom want to look away. He held her gaze, however.
“Hi, ma’am. I’m Tom Dwyer from the Cedar Falls Review. Your husband called me and asked me to–”
She didn’t wait for him to finish, walking away from the door, leaving it open. Tom stood his ground for a moment, unsure if the open door was an invitation to come in or not. Before he could decide a man popped into the doorway.
“Hello, Mr. Dwyer,” the man said. “I’m Hank Gardener.”
Hank stuck out his hand and Tom shook it.
Hank stepped out of the doorway and Tom followed him inside. Hank shut the door as Tom looked around the living room. I was small but nice, with a plush brown couch that looked comfortable, and a white La-Z-Boy recliner. Mrs. Gardener was nowhere to be seen.
“You’ll have to excuse my wife,” Hank said. “She’s…”
He trailed off, leaving words unspoken.
“It’s all right,” Tom assured him. “I know this is a difficult time.”
“Yeah, well, um…would you like something to drink? A glass of water?”
“No thanks; I’m fine.”
“Please, have a seat.”
Hank directed Tom to the couch. Tom sat down, setting his bag down on the couch beside him, and Hank took a seat on the recliner, where he sat hunched forward, his hands rubbing together nervously.
“So, how can I help you, Mr. Gardener?” Tom asked
“What I was thinking was that maybe you could do a story about our daughter. Jessica, that’s her name. She’s been gone a week now, and the police…I mean, I know they’re doing their best, but I don’t think they have a clue. We call the detective–Samuelson, his name is–every day, but he never has anything new to tell us. I thought–we thought, Mary and I–that if Jessica’s name was kept out there, if people didn’t forget about her like they do sometimes, that maybe some new leads would turn up. Or something like that, I don’t know.”
Hank stood up and paced around the living room, running his hands through his hair and looking over at some framed family photos hanging on the wall. Tom looked them over. A sweet family stared out from them, smiling. The father and the son both had dark hair, the father’s touched with a bit of gray at the temples. They both had brown eyes. The mother and daughter looked like they could be before and after snapshots of the same person, as a child and as an adult. They shared dark blond hair and bright, blue eyes. In the pictures they were all happy, with no idea that somewhere a clock was ticking, that damned clock that ticks for all of us, counting down the hours and the minutes until the next disaster, counting the seconds until the next worst day of our lives.
Hank sat down on the recliner again, folding his hands in his lap.
“I asked my colleague Jim Grady for copies of his notes from the story he wrote last week,” Tom said.
He reached beside him and unzipped the bag, taking out a few papers that were folded together. He considered taking out the tape recorder, but decided against it. He riffled through the pages before finding what he was looking for.
“Friday, June twenty-first,” Tom read aloud. “Your son Franklin and your daughter Jessica were–”
“We call him Frankie,” Hank interrupted.
“We call him Frankie. He hates to be called Franklin. Never mind, I don’t know what I’m saying; it’s not important. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Frankie and Jessica were walking home together. At approximately quarter-past-nine at night, and shorty after parting company with Jennifer Friedman, nine years old, Frankie and Jessica took a short cut through the grounds of the old orphanage on Pinegrove Road.”
Tom looked up at Hank to see if he had everything right so far.
“Yes, that’s right,” Hank confirmed. “They call that old orphanage the Home. I think that was part of its proper name way back when–the Orphan Home, the Home for Orphans…something like that.”
Tom looked back down at his papers.
“While walking across the parking lot Frankie noticed that Jessica was no longer beside him.”
“She said she heard someone calling to them from inside the building,” Hank said, taking over the story. “Frankie says he didn’t hear anything, but she did, apparently. She went over and boosted herself through a broken window. Frankie followed her inside, but it was too dark to see anything. He tried, but he couldn’t find her.”
Hank’s voice started to crack a little. He cleared his throat and continued.
“He came home scared out of his mind. He looked like he’d seen a ghost. When we finally got him to talk he told us what had happened. I decided that I was going to run over and look for her myself, but Frankie…he sort of went a little bit nuts. He hung on to me, and he wouldn’t let go. He started babbling about something he saw when he was inside that building. He was talking so fast it was all sort of hard to make out. All I could do to calm him down was to tell him that we would call the cops and let them look for her.”
“You don’t know what he saw?” Tom asked.
“No. Later, after Mary called the cops and they were asking him questions, he said he couldn’t remember what he saw. We took him to the hospital so he could be checked out. The doctor said there was no physical reason why he couldn’t remember everything that happened that night. He said it must be some kind of psychological block.”
Tom looked down at the notes.
“There’s something here about a bruised eye. Did that happen when he was inside the Home?”
“No. Frankie got in a fight with some kid earlier in the day. At first he didn’t want to tell anyone how he got the banged-up eye, but eventually he told us. The cops talked with the other kid and his parents, and the kid confirmed it.”
“And Frankie hasn’t, I don’t know, had any sudden recollections since that night?”
The sound of breaking glass came from somewhere in the house. It startled both Tom and Hank.
“Excuse me for a moment,” Hank said.
He stood up and disappeared down the hallway that opened off of the living room. A moment later he stuck his head out from the hallway.
“I’ll be back with you in a few minutes. Mary is…I need to take care of something.”
“Take your time.”
Hank disappeared again. Tom stood up and walked over to the wall with the pictures on it to take a closer look. He moved from the pictures to the TV cabinet. There were a few more pictures propped up on top, as well as a birthday card. On the card a cat lay coiled on a cushion, and the caption read:
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO A PURRFECT MOM!
Tom went back to the couch and took a seat. His throat felt dry, and he was starting to wish he had taken the glass of water Hank had offered earlier. He heard a noise from the hallway, but when he looked that way he didn’t see anybody. Then a face appeared, peeking out at him. It was a boy.
“Hello,” Tom said.
Frankie emerged from the hallway, coming into the living room and standing there, looking at Tom.
“Are you the guy from the newspaper?” Frankie asked.
“Yes, I am. My name is Tom Dwyer.”
Tom stood and offered his hand, withdrew it, then offered it again; he felt terribly awkward.
Frankie ignored the proffered hand and took a seat on the recliner that his father had recently vacated. Tom withdrew his hand a second time and sat down on the couch.
“So you must be Frankie,” Tom said.
The boy nodded is head.
“I’m sorry about your sister. I’m sure she’ll be back soon,” Tom lied.
“I heard you and my dad talking. He doesn’t know, but I was listening. I had to duck into my room when he came toward the hallway. My mom must’ve knocked something over or whatever.”
Tom didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing.
“Can I tell you something?” Frankie asked.
“Of course you can. You can tell me anything.”
“I didn’t really forget what happened that night.”
Tom looked toward the hallway, then back at the boy.
Frankie shook his head.
“Why did you lie to your parents and the police?” Tom asked.
“Because I knew that they would never believe me. They would’ve thought I was crazy.”
Tom shifted uncomfortable on the couch.
“Do you want to tell me what you saw?” he asked.
Now it was Frankie who looked toward the hall for a moment, checking to make sure that his father hadn’t returned. Satisfied that they were alone, Frankie turned back to Tom.
“The shadows took her.”
Tom waited for the boy to elaborate. Seeing that he didn’t intend to, Tom prodded him.
“What do you mean? What shadows?”
“She heard them calling to her. I didn’t hear it, but she did. She climbed inside and I climbed in after her. The room was dark, and I couldn’t really see anything. I kept trying to see into the darkness, and then…”
“Then I saw the shadows. They were alive. Living shadows. I saw them form from the darkness. They took her. I should have stayed, I shouldn’t have run, but I was scared. They came toward me, and I ran. I left her there.”
Tom wondered whether the kid was playing with him. His next thought was that maybe the boy believed what he was saying. Maybe he saw something so terrible in that place that the only way he could cope with it was to make up this story about living shadows. These thoughts must have played out on his face, because Frankie winced and looked away.
“You don’t believe me,” Frankie said.
“Well, that’s quite a story.”
Then he noticed that Frankie was crying quietly.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” Tom said.
“I’m not lying. I know what I saw.”
Hank came back into the living room, and Frankie surreptitiously wiped away his tears, hiding them from his father, as he got up from the recliner. Frankie left the living room, heading down the hallway.
“I see you met Frankie,” Hank said.
Tom put the notes back in the bag and stood up as he zipped the bag shut.
“Wait; you’re not leaving, are you?”
“I really have to get going. I’m sorry about your daughter. I hope she’s back home soon. I’ll write up a story about her, letting people know that if they have any information to report that can help that they should report it to the police.”
“Does that ever work?”
Tom could see that the man was barely holding himself together; he was trying to be a rock for his wife and his son, but even rocks could crack under enough pressure.
“Sometimes,” Tom said. “Sometimes it can make all the difference.”
Tom headed for the door, opened it and stepped out onto the stoop.
“Here’s my card,” Tom said, taking the card out of his pocket and handing it to Hank. “You already know my number at the paper, but this card also has my cell number on it. Call me if there are any new developments you want to share, or if I can help you in some way.”
Hank looked at the card for a moment before slipping into his own pocket.
“Thank you Mr. Dwyer,” he said. “This means a lot to us. I’m sorry that you couldn’t talk with Mary, but she’s very upset.”
“It’s perfectly understandable. Please give her my regards.”
Tom turned and walked to his car. When he reached it he turned back, but Hank had already closed the door. Tom got in the guy, placed the canvas bag on the passenger seat and headed back to the office. On the way he turned over what the boy had told him. Living shadows had taken his sister; the kid really believed that. Tom hoped that Frankie’s parents would get the boy some professional help, and soon. Whatever had really happened to his sister, it had caused something to go really wrong in the boy’s head.
Frankie tried to stay awake. Since the night of his sister’s disappearance sleep had become something of an unwelcome guest that came to visit him every night. Before, he had rarely been able to remember his dreams upon waking. And that’s how he thought of it–Before with a capital “B”–there being now a Before and After, Before that night in the Home when he saw what he saw, and After, where he lived in a world that he knew he could not hope to ever fully understand. Before his dreams had been fragile, insubstantial things, like strands of gossamer, and they would fall apart and fade as soon as his eyes opened to the light of a new morning. But since the night at the Home, in the After, his dreams had gained substance. Now they were like a slick of oil that stuck to him throughout his days, or a heavy, oppressive weight that he could not shake off.
Now he lay awake, staring up at the ceiling above his bed, watching the play of shadows as the tree outside his window swayed in the wind. For a while the dark had held a power of claustrophobic terror over him, but he had refused to leave on a light. He was afraid that if he did so his parents would see the light in the crack beneath his door, and he didn’t want them to know that their twelve year-old son needed a light on to go to sleep.
His next plan had been to take some money from his money box in the bottom drawer of his dresser (the piggy bank he had named Ham-ster had been discarded three years before, when his cousin Lyle had made fun him for using it), and going down to Chester’s General Store to buy a nightlight. He figured that the light wouldn’t be strong enough to show beneath his door. The problem with this plan was that Chester knew his parents, and his father dropped into the General Store regularly. Chester might inquire about Frankie’s purchase of a nightlight. There was also the very real possibility that one or both of his parents might check on him in the night, which is something they hadn’t done Before, but had started to do After. If one of them opened the door and peeked in, they would see the light.
So he braved the dark. The first two nights had been the hardest. He had broken out in a sweat while lying in bed, and every shadow, every inky pool of darkness, seemed to hold great menace. After those two nights, the fear of the darkness has lessened in severity, even if it had not disappeared entirely, but the fear of the dreams had persisted. If anything the dreams themselves had gotten worse.
So he lay awake, not wanting sleep to come but feeling it sneaking up on him nonetheless. First his eyelids grew heavy, and then came the yawning. Itching, burning eyes told him it was time to sleep. He balled his hands into fists beneath the covers, digging his nails into the tender flesh of his palms. He just wanted to stay awake, to ward off the dreams for one night.
Thinking these thoughts, he fell asleep. In the dream he opened his eyes and found himself inside a room. He had dreamt of rooms like this one before, but each time it was a different room, with a slight difference in dimensions, or some other thing that let him know that each room was different than the last. The only light was weak blue-white light coming through a window set high up on one wall; it illuminated the wall opposite the window, a bright arc of light that tapered to shadow a full foot above Frankie’s head. In the light he could make out scratch marks on the wall. He couldn’t divine any meaning from them; they were just random scrapes in the chipped paint. He turned around and found a door. The wood was midnight black, and the tarnished brass doorknob gleamed dully in the dimness.
He moved closer to the door, his shoes scraping against a bare cement floor. When he reached the door he placed his left hand against it. The door felt smooth. He felt something like a faint pulse, a double thump that he felt first in his hand before it traveled up his arm and into his body. It thudded in his head, a sluggish, pounding rhythm that made his teeth hurt. He took his hand away from the door and the pulsation ceased.
Frankie reached slowly for the doorknob, afraid to feel that awful heartbeat once more, but when he gripped the brass knob he felt nothing out of the ordinary. He turned the knob and pulled gently; the door didn’t budge, and he thought it might be locked from the outside. This prospect caused his heart to beat a little faster; he didn’t want to be locked in that room. He pulled harder and the door gave way, swinging in. He peered out into the hall. It was darker than the room, but there was a window at one end that let in a little bit of light.
After stepping out into the hall he turned in the other direction, away from the window and toward the dark. His skin felt all prickly, and he had the feeling that he was being watched. He shuffled forward, his hands held out in front of him like a blind man trying to find his way in an unfamiliar space. It was almost as if he could feel the darkness with the tips of his fingers, soft and velvety. His breathing was slow and even, the air cold in his lungs. His eyes strained to see something, anything, through thick veils of gloom.
Frankie swung his right arm off to the side, making contact with the wall just to reassure himself that it was still there. He stopped and turned back. The square of light that represented the window at the other end of the hall was smaller now, and fainter. He turned back to the void in front of him and continued forward. The feeling of being watched intensified, and there was a sick, sour feeling in the pit of his stomach.
A gust of wind blew past Frankie, and it carried a dank, rotting smell. He thought there must be a busted window up ahead somewhere, which would explain the breeze. As for the smell, he had no idea; it was a mixture of spoiled milk and rotting meat. Frankie kept on, staying in contact with the wall to his right, his left hand waving in the air before him like a divining rod, leading him not toward water or oil but to something unknown and unknowable.
After a few more steps he stopped and looked back again, and he stared in wonder at the square of light at the far end of the hall. It much smaller than before, too small actually; he knew he hadn’t taken many steps since the last time he checked, but somehow he was much farther from the light than before. The box of light was now just a faint glow in the dark, so small that it looked like a postage stamp floating in the air. Frankie thought about turning back, getting closer to that light. The light seemed so much safer than the dark that pressed down upon him. But something pulled him on, pulled him further into the bowels of that rough beast he found himself in.
He took another step, and still another, and the postage stamp of light fell farther behind him. A strange grinding noise speared the dark, but it sounded far away, in some other part of the building. Frankie’s heart thudded in his chest, beating out of time in some peculiar rhythm. He stopped dead in his tracks when he felt something wet hit his face. He could feel it dripping down his cheek. He took his right hand away from the wall and wiped the faux tear from his face. The substance felt warm and sticky to the touch, but it was too dark to see what it looked like on his fingers. It was thicker than water, but thinner than oil. He thought about raising his fingers to his mouth to taste it, but the thought immediately sent a roiling wave of disgust through his belly, so he wiped his hand on his pants instead.
He took another stop and another drop of the viscous fluid dripped onto his face. Frankie wiped it away and looked up at the ceiling, but it was too dark to see the source of the drippings. He moved a little to the left, hoping he was out of the path of whatever was leaking from the ceiling, and stepped forward. After two steps his feet splashed in a shallow puddle of liquid. Not wanting to think about the liquid and what it might be he hurried forward, wanting to get to somewhere where there were no leaks of mystery fluid.
At first he quickened his pace, but as he moved further along he had to slow down; the floor was completely wet, but rather than being made slippery, it had a clinging effect, and his shoes were starting to stick to it. At first it was like stepping on a gooey mass of gum, and not too bad. Then it got harder to move, and it felt like he was walking across a pool of tar. With each step it became harder to pull his foot free from the ground, and Frankie thought that both of his shoes would soon be pulled clear off his feet. His breathing became labored as he moved forward one slow step at a time. For the first time the thought struck him that he might become stuck there in that hallway, and the idea terrified him.
A few more steps and the pull of the sticky substance abated somewhat, and his steps became easier to take. A thrill of relief shot through him, a slim but glowing hope that he would not get stuck in that dark hall after all. Two steps and it was back to the sensation of stepping on gum, six more steps and it was like stepping on dried puddle of spilled juice. Seven stapes later and the floor became smooth, not sticky at all. Frankie sidled over slowly until he could feel the wall, and he leaned against it for support, his breath coming in harsh gasps as raw adrenalin coursed through his body.
His back was to the wall. As he stood trying to get control of his breathing and the brutal beating of his heart he felt something moving against his back. He ignored it at first, but the sensation persisted, an undulating pulse that seemed to ripple against him. Frankie stepped away from the wall and turned to look at it. He hadn’t expected to see much due to the lack of light–the postage stamp at the far end of the hall having disappeared entirely–but the wall itself was aglow with some internal light. The faint light had a sickly greenish tinge to it, like a distant light being refracted through a piece of smooth green glass.
A small black circle appeared on the wall at the center of the light; it grew larger, and larger still. When its growth finally ceased the circle was wide enough for two grown men to walk through side-by-side. The gaping hole in the wall reminded him of a giant, toothless mouth. Then a wispy, smoky substance began to pour forth from the mouth and out into the hall.
Frankie stepped back until his back touched the opposite wall. The smoke started to take shape, and Frankie wanted to scream, because he knew that shape; he had seen it before, on the night Jessica had disappeared. More smoke spewed from the mouth, and it also took a shape, similar yet unique. And still more smoke wafted out, and then more. Frankie stood frozen, wanting to run, but not knowing where to run to. Back down the way he had come there was the patch of tar-like stuff, and he was certain that this time he would get stuck. In the other direction was more darkness, and he had a feeling that taking that path would lead him to something even more terrible than the living shadows that stood before him.
Dark arms grew from the wall at this back and took him in a rough embrace, and the option to run was taken away from him. So instead of running, he screamed. As the shadows moved toward him, his scream reached a new register he didn’t think himself capable of. He screamed until one of the shadows reached out with a malformed shadow-hand and reached into his mouth. He gagged as a hard, cold claw reached down his throat, and he knew what it was reaching for–it was reaching for his heart, which it would pull out through his throat, and he would then get to see his heart beating in front of his eyes for a split second before he died. Hot tears streamed down his face as the shadow-thing opened its mouth in a sneer; the mouth had teeth, so many teeth.
Frankie woke with a scream, which he stifled immediately by placing his hands over his mouth. He was afraid that his parents might have heard, but after a few minutes he knew they weren’t coming. He took his hands away from his mouth tentatively, as if he didn’t quite trust himself not to scream again. To his surprise he was able to remain silent. He took a measure of pride in this small victory.
It was still dark, and he sat up in bed, his clothes drenched with fear-sweat. He sat in bed, staring out his bedroom window until the light of a new day arrived to banish the shadows of the night, and birds filled the morning with their song. When his mother called him to breakfast he sat at the kitchen table and ate his bacon and eggs just like he would any other day. He made sure to thank his mother for the breakfast, and to tell her that it was really good. When she asked him if he had had sweet dreams, he smiled and lied, telling her that yes, his dreams had been sweet.
It had been a week since Tom had stopped by the Gardener home, and three days since the resulting story had run in the Review. The story had gone over a few of the facts of the case, such as the location and time of Jessica Gardener’s disappearance; a picture of the girl, pulled from the first story written by Jim Grady had been included, and a plea for people to call the Cedar Falls Police Department if they had any information that could help with the case. Frankie Gardener’s story of living shadows had been omitted. Printing the confused fantasies of a scared young boy wouldn’t do anybody any good.
The day after the piece ran in the paper Tom got an e-mail from a woman identifying herself as Patricia Gomez. She wanted to meet with him, she wrote. She said it had something to do with the disappearance of the Gardener girl, but she didn’t elaborate. Tom replied to her e-mail, telling her that–as stated in the story–anyone with information about the case should get in touch with the police. A half-hour later he received another e-mail, telling him that whatever it is that she wanted to talk about was related to the Gardener case, but was really about another case that had been covered in the Review two years previous, the disappearance of a man by the name of James Gomez. James Gomez was her husband.
Confused but intrigued, Tom agreed to meet her at a café on the north side of town, a place called Pauly’s. After sending off his reply Tom logged into the Review’s archives, and looked up the story of James Gomez, a name he was unfamiliar with. He did a name search, and silently cursed the system’s broken search function as he waded through a page of false positives, stories that contained either the names James or Gomez, but not James Gomez. He found what he was looking for when he clicked through to the second page of results. The link read:
Local man James Gomez goes missing.
He clicked the link to read the story that was attached to the headline:
James Gomez, 32, of Cedar Falls, went missing on Saturday. Mr. Gomez, who worked for Juniper County Consolidated School District 212, had spent the day reviewing a vacant building on Pinegrove Road that the District is considering as the site of a new high school.
Tom stopped reading, minimized the window and searched the folder where he kept his recently published stories on his computer. He found the file for the Gardener girl and double-clicked it, and the story opened up in Word. He scanned through it until he found what he was looking for. The location of the vacant building where Jessica had gone missing–the place people called the Home–was on Pinegrove Road. He closed the file, maximized the previous window and continued to read.
Mr. Gomez’s last known contact was a phone call placed to his wife at 4:12 PM. Mrs. Patricia Gomez reported that her husband called to tell her that he would soon be heading home. Mr. Gomez never arrived, and at approximately midnight, after hours of fruitless attempts to get in touch with her husband, Mrs. Gomez placed a call to the Cedar Falls Police to report her husband missing.
The story was only vaguely familiar to Tom. He checked the byline and saw that the story had been written by Greg Watson. Greg was one of those who hadn’t survived Black Friday at the Review.
He searched for related stories and found one, published three months after the original story. It was a recap of the details of James Gomez’s disappearance, and included a quote from Detective Ryan Sterling of the CFPD saying that the Department was following up on several promising leads, though he failed to elaborate on the nature of those leads. Given the fact that Mr. Gomez was still missing, the leads must not have been so promising after all.
Tom logged out of the system and set his computer to sleep mode. He checked his watch; it was 12:14, and he was supposed to meet Patricia Sanchez at 12:30. He was going to be a little late. He left his canvas bag behind this time, not expecting a story to come from this, and headed north.
Traffic was light and he made better time than he thought he would, arriving at Pauly’s only four minutes late. When he walked into the café he stood near the door for a minute, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim interior after the brightness of being outdoors.
He looked around the place, searching for Patricia Gomez, and found her. She was the only woman in the place not wearing a waitress uniform; she sat alone in a corner booth, eating a salad. She hadn’t seen him come in, and he watched her for a moment. She looked to be around thirty. She had tan skin, dark hair, and a slender, athletic frame. She stared out the window as she ate, watching the traffic passing by on Eighth Street. As she brushed an errant lock of hair away from her face, depositing it behind her ear, Tom couldn’t help but think of Michelle, who had completed that same maneuver countless times when she didn’t know he was watching her.
The image dissipated before his eyes, and all that he could see was this woman whom he didn’t know sitting at a table, watching the traffic as she ate a salad. Tom walked over to her booth, and as she reached for her cup to take a drink she saw him approach from the corner of her eye. She turned to him and started to stand.
“Please, keep your seat,” Tom said.
He slid into the booth so that he was facing her.
“It might be a little rude to order before the other party has arrived,” Patricia said, gesturing to her salad, “but I was starving. I hope you don’t mind?”
Her voice rose a bit at the end, making it into a question.
“Not at all,” Tom said,
“Are you hungry?” She asked.
“No. I rarely eat lunch. I just eat a big dinner.”
He laughed, and Patricia looked at him like she was trying to figure out what the joke was. Tom looked down at her cup.
“Coffee?” he asked.
“Grapefruit juice,” she corrected. “You look just like the photo I found on the paper’s website.”
“Oh God, that picture was taken, oh, at least seven years ago.”
“Could have fooled me. You look the same.”
Tom spread his hands wide on top of the table, a questioning look on his face.
“So,” he said, “What was it that you wanted to discuss?”
Her demeanor changed then, becoming more serious. Her coffee-colored eyes clouded over for a moment, and then she reached down beside her, grabbing a copy of the Cedar Falls Review and laying it on the table. Tom slid it over to him and took a look at it. It was a copy of the paper from the day his story ran about the plight of the Gardener family. There were notes scribbled in the margins in blue ink, but he couldn’t read the script.
“What’s all this?” Tom asked, tapping the blue pen markings with his finger.
“Oh, that’s nothing; just some thoughts I jotted down. I have terrible handwriting, I know.”
“You wrote in your e-mail that you think the disappearance of the Gardener girl is somehow linked with your own husband’s disappearance.”
“Yes. My husband worked for the school district.”
“Yeah, I looked into it. The day he went missing he had gone to the same vacant building where Jessica Gardener went missing. Something about a new high school.”
A waitress came up to the table.
“Can I get you anything, sir?” she asked.
“No, thank you; nothing right now,” Tom said.
“Do you need anything?” she asked Patricia.
“No, I’m good.”
The waitress left them alone.
“They district wanted to convert the building into a new high school,” Patricia continued. “Cedar Falls High was dealing with serious overcrowding at the time. In the end they decided to build a brand new building out near Straub Park. I heard their decision had something to do with a problem with sorting out ownership of the Home. It was an orphanage up until nineteen forty-three, when it was shut down by the state. It stood empty so long you would have thought that whoever owned the place would have forfeited their ownership. Is that even possible?”
“I’m afraid that I don’t know much about property rights. And your husband–what exactly was he doing there that day?”
“He was supposed to take another guy along with him, somebody who worked for the contractor the city had hired to renovate the building. The guy who worked for the contractor was supposed to look the building over from top to bottom and come up with a preliminary figure on how much the job was going to cost. The guy had some kind of emergency that day and had to reschedule. For some reason James went on alone. Maybe he thought he could come up with his own ballpark figure. Who knows?”
She shrugged her shoulders to show that she certainly had no idea.
“The last time I heard from him he was still in the old orphanage,” she continued. “He said that he would be home by quarter-to-five. He also mentioned something about the place giving him the creeps. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but I’ve thought a lot about it since that day. And now…”
She tapped the newspaper on the table. Tom shook his head.
“I’m not sure what you’re saying,” he said. “Do you think there’s a killer using that building as a…I don’t know…hunting ground?”
“Well, not exactly.”
“So what are you saying then?”
“Listen. Shortly after James went missing I started having these nightmares. The nightmares were never exactly the same, but in them I always found myself trapped inside a building. Sometimes I would be stuck in a room and trying to get out. Sometimes I would find myself trying to navigate a maze of hallways, looking for something. I don’t know what I was looking for, but I always had the feeling that there was something that I was supposed to find; I don’t think I ever found it.”
She coughed, and took a sip of grapefruit juice.
“Anyway, in one of the dreams I found myself standing outside of the building. And I recognized it. It was the Home, the old orphanage.”
She looked at him expectantly, as if she had given him all of the pieces of the puzzle and was now waiting for him to put them together and see the whole picture.
“Okay, so you had nightmares about the place,” Tom said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“That’s when I started doing research on the building. I mean, I’ve lived here in Cedar Falls for twenty years, and I’d passed by that building at least a thousand times without taking much notice of it. It was like background scenery, something that was always there but that you never really thought about. The only reason I even knew that it used to be an orphanage was because James mentioned it to me when he was talking about the building a few days before he disappeared.”
“You said that you did some research,” Tom said. “What did your research turn up?”
He was still confused about where she was taking this.
“The first thing that I learned is that information on the orphanage’s past is surprisingly scant. There are a lot of gaps in available info. Hold on.”
She reached down again and brought up a purse, which she laid on top of the newspaper. She opened the zipper and took out a small notepad.
“I wrote some stuff down this morning so I wouldn’t forget anything when I talked to you,” Patricia said.
She opened the notepad to the first page.
“The orphanage was built in 1908. It was called the Mercy Home for Orphans until 1916, when it was renamed the Cedar Falls Home for Orphaned Children. The state ordered the orphanage to shut its doors in 1943 amidst allegations of abuse and maltreatment of children in its care.”
Tom waited for her to go on reading from her notes, but instead she closed the notepad, laid it down on the table and looked at him.
“And?” he said.
“And nothing. In two years that’s all I’ve been able to find out about the place.”
Tom was dumbstruck.
“Come one, that can’t be all.”
“Well, there are some small things that don’t seem all that important. There was a small fire at the Home in the spring of 1938, but nobody was hurt and the fire was put out before it could cause much damage. I came across a story from 1933 about Henry Horner paying a visit to the Home. He praised it as a model of what orphanages should aspire to be. Funny, huh?”
“And who is Henry Horner?” Tom asked.
“Oh, sorry. In 1933 Henry Horner was the newly minted Governor of Illinois.”
“How could I not have known that?”
Patricia smiled at that, a quick flash that was like the sun peeking out for a brief moment on a cloudy day.
“I don’t get it, though,” Tom said. “If the place was bad enough to get shut down surely the press must have been interested in the story.”
“There was a war on then; I guess they had more important things to focus their attention on,” Patricia said.
“I don’t know; it seems funny to me. And anyway, what does all of this have to do with your husband and Jessica Gardner?”
Patricia sighed. She looked down at her salad, made a face and pushed her plate to aside. She picked up her cup and drank the last bit of grapefruit juice, and set the cup down next to the plate. She sat quietly for a second, and to Tom it looked like she was thinking carefully on how to proceed.
“Here’s what we know,” she said. “One: the Home has an unpleasant history, and it was shut down some seventy years ago due to allegations of abuse. Two: the last time I heard from my husband, he was inside the building, and he said that the place gave him the creeps. I never heard from or saw him again. Three: the Gardener girl was last seen by her brother crawling through a window into the Home. If I have it right, she told him that she heard someone calling out to her?”
“That’s right,” Tom said. “But her brother didn’t hear anything.”
She nodded her head.
“Four,” she continued. “After James went missing I started having strange dreams–nightmares–in which I was trapped inside the Home. When you talked to them, did anyone in the girl’s family mention having nightmares?”
“I didn’t get to talk with her mother, but I did talk with her father and her brother, and neither one of them mentioned nightmares.”
He thought about that other thing that Frankie had told him, the part he had left out of the story he had written in the Review, but decided that she didn’t need to know that.
“So no nightmares that we know of,” Patricia said. “Still, there are a lot of coincidences.”
“You know, a lot of bad stuff that seems to be connected to that place.”
Tom shook his head doubtfully.
“I’m not so sure about that. I mean, okay, the place got shut down because they were mistreating kids, but that was seventy years ago. Your husband did pay a visit to the Home on the day he disappeared, but whatever…um…happened could have happened after he left there and headed home. As for the girl, I guess she just had bad luck. For all we know someone was squatting in that building, some pervert, and along comes a little girl that catches his eye. Just bad timing on her part, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Did her brother see this alleged squatting pervert?” Patricia asked.
Again Tom thought of what the boy had told him, the thing about the shadows.
“No. Actually he has trouble remembering what he did see. So I guess it’s possible that he did in fact see the guy who snatched his sister, but that he can’t remember it.”
Patricia thought about this for a minute, and then shook her head.
“No, that’s not it. I don’t believe that some random perv just happened to be hanging out in that building and snatched the girl.”
“So what is it that you believe happened?”
“Do you believe a place can be haunted?”
Tom sat back in his seat; this was an unexpected turn.
“Haunted? You mean, like, by ghosts?”
“Or spirits, or entities–whatever you want to call it. But do you believe that a place can be haunted?’
“No, I don’t,” he said frankly.
“Haven’t you ever seen anything, or experienced something, that you couldn’t explain?”
“There are a lot of things I can’t explain. I can’t explain why people could hurt children. I can’t explain how people could send their fellow human beings into a gas chamber and tell them that it was just a shower. I can’t explain how some asshole could get plastered, go for a drive and get in a car accident, killing a woman he never even met.”
His voice broke, and he cleared his throat.
“Yes, there a lot of things that I can’t explain,” he continued. “But that doesn’t prove the existence of ghosts.”
Patricia knew that she had touched a nerve, so she proceeded with caution.
“I understand what you’re saying,” she said. “But those aren’t the sort of things I’m talking about. If you look for it, you will find a lot of things that can’t be explained, and that can’t just be put down to human depravity or indifference. There are stories of strange disappearances, and a whole host of other events that defy rational explanation. These things happen, and we say, ‘well, wasn’t that strange?’, and then we move on as if the world we live in still make sense to us. But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to move on. Maybe we should stop and ask ourselves, ‘wait, what really happened here?’”
“And you think that what happened here is that ghosts took your husband and the girl?”
“Don’t be so derisive,” she said; there was a flash of anger in her voice.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that this is all sort of crazy.”
“They both disappeared inside that building.”
“I’m not convinced of that. Your husband…excuse me if this is too personal a question, but were you and your husband having any problems around the time he went missing? Where there any fights?”
“My husband did not leave me,” she said flatly.
“I’m just saying–”
“He did not leave me. The cops thought that was a possibility too, at first, but after they talked to me, and to our families, they agreed that he did not leave by his choice. Somebody took him. Something took him.”
“Do they agree with your haunted building theory?”
“Fuck you,” she said with some venom.
She placed her notepad back in her purse.
“Check, please,” she called to the waitress, who was setting down a platter at another table.
The waitress put up a finger, a “give me just one moment” gesture.
“Wait, don’t leave like this,” Tom said. “I’m sorry, but how did you expect me to react to all of this?”
“Thanks for the help. For the record, I never told the police this, because I knew that they would think I was crazy. I just thought that maybe…I don’t know what I thought. Just forget that any of this happened.”
The waitress came over and handed Patricia the check, then walked away. Patricia stood, her purse in her hands.
“You can keep the newspaper,” she said.
She walked off before Tom had a chance to say anything else. She paid the check at the counter and left the café. Tom watched through the window as she got into a blue Nissan and drove away.
“Shit,” he said under his breath. “This has been a productive use of my day.”
He pulled the copy of the Review closer to him and started to read the story he had written about the missing Gardener girl. The things that Frankie Gardener had told him in confidence, the things that had sounded so unbelievable that he had written them off as the fantasies of a boy who was trying to explain something that was unexplainable, kept ringing through his head. Living shadows. The boy said that he saw living shadows.
Frankie sat on a bench at the edge of the park. He watched as other children played. The younger ones crowded the jungle gym and the swing sets, while the older ones used the big, open field on the east side of the park to play football. The basketball courts on the south side of the park were the sole province of high school kids and a few adults who wanted to test themselves against some young bucks.
There were a few clouds in the sky, and a pattern of light and shadow was spread over the whole of the park. A light breeze blew the smell of freshly cut grass past Frankie, and he inhaled the rich aroma. A few smaller kids ran past him, one kid insisting vehemently that one of the others was “it”, while the boy in question insisted that he was not “it”, and that the first boy was in fact “it”.
Frankie rubbed at his arms. The day had started out warm, but now it was starting to cool down, and he was sorry he had left the house without a jacket. He shifted in his seat and took a peek at his digital watch. It was 3:48. He rubbed his arms again and scanned the park, looking for kids that he recognized. He saw a few, but no one he felt like hanging out with.
“Hey, Frankie,” a voice called.
Frankie turned around and saw Tom walking up to him. Tom waved, and Frankie reciprocated. Tom came up and took a seat on the bench next to Frankie.
“I sure am popular all of a sudden,” Tom said.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing; never mind,” Tom said, shaking his head. “The first thing I would like to know is, how did you get my cell number?”
“I found the card that you gave my dad.”
“Hmm. You know, when I first heard the message you left for me to meet you here, I was half tempted to delete the message and stand you up. I think I’ve heard enough crazy stories about the Home to last me a lifetime.”
“You really don’t believe me.”
“No. I’m sorry, but I don’t. I think that you believe your story about what you saw that night, but that doesn’t make it true. You’re young, something really bad has happened to your family and you are under a lot of stress. Maybe this…ghost story is your way of coping with it all.”
“So why did you come?” Frankie asked.
“You said you almost didn’t come. Why did you then, if you don’t believe my story?”
Tom sighed heavily.
“I don’t know. I guess I like you. You seem like a good kid. And after what Patricia told me, I guess I’m a little curious in spite of myself.”
“Nobody. Listen, this is kind of a busy day for me. What did you want to talk about?”
Frankie hesitated. If Tom already thought he was crazy, what Frankie had to tell him now would surely remove all doubt.
“It’s the dreams,” Frankie said.
Tom was taken aback by this; he hoped that Frankie didn’t notice. Patricia had talked about nightmares, and now the boy wanted to talk about his dreams.
“What dreams?” Tom asked.
“Ever since Jessica was taken I’ve been having nightmares. At first, in all the dreams I was stuck inside this building.”
Tom looked at the boy, wondering if this was some kind of sick game. Was it possible that Frankie and Patricia Gomez were teaming up to screw with his head? It didn’t seem likely.
“I didn’t know it at first,” Frankie said, “but as I had more dreams, and saw more of the building, I figured out that the building in the dream is the Home.”
Tom looked away from the boy. He had the sick, sinking feeling that he had made a huge mistake in coming here, that he had irrevocably attached himself to something stranger than he could hope to imagine.
“In the dreams I saw the shadows again,” Frankie continued. “No matter how the dreams started, they always ended with those things catching me.”
Frankie shivered at the memory of the dreams. He went on:
“The last few nights the dreams have been different, though. In these dreams I’m still inside the building, but I’m not trapped, and I’m not running from anything. It’s more like I’m a ghost, or something. Nobody can see me, but I can see them.”
“Yeah. In these new dreams there are a bunch of other kids in the Home, too. There are also adults there, but they…they’re not so nice. Like I said, none of them can see me in the dreams. I’m just sort of floating around the place. Sometimes it’s dark, and sometimes it’s the daytime.”
Frankie paused in telling his story as some kids he knew passed by. They didn’t seem to notice either him or Tom. When they were out of earshot, Frankie continued:
“The dreams start with me watching these kids doing whatever–eating breakfast, playing outside, doing schoolwork, sometime I even watch them as they sleep. But in every dream some kid always gets themselves into trouble. The kids who are sleeping, I don’t know, maybe they did something earlier in the day. But they all get in trouble, and then they are taken to the Headmaster’s office, where they’re kind of scolded. For some of them that’s it, and then they get to go back to whatever they were doing before, but some of them…”
“Some of them what?”
“Some of them get taken to the Special Room.”
Frankie paused, and Tom filled the silence:
“What’s the Special Room?” he asked.
“It’s where kids get the worst punishment.”
“What kind of punishment?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve never been inside the room. In the dreams the door always closes so I can’t see what is happening inside. But I know it’s bad. The kids are terrified when they find out that they are being sent to there. Some of them cry and beg. Some of them try to run, but they never get away. They get taken to the Special Room, the door closes on me, and then…then I hear their screams. And that’s when I wake up.”
Tom thought about the little history lesson that Patricia had given him about the Home, about how it was closed in 1943 amidst allegations of abuse. Both Patricia and Frankie started having nightmares about the place after a family member went missing, and now Frankie was having dreams about kids suffering abuse at the hands of the staff, something that apparently had really happened all those years ago. Now Tom not only wished that he hadn’t come to meet Frankie at the park, but also that he had never met Patricia Gomez, or went to see Hank Gardener when the man got in touch with him. He definitely should have sent Jim Grady in his place.
“What’s wrong?” Frankie asked.
The boy must have seen something in his face. Tom had never been a good poker player. Tom shook his head.
“Nothing. Just some things that somebody told me the other day.”
“About the Home?”
“Damn kid, you really can read me like a book.”
“Do you believe me now, even a little bit?” Frankie asked.
“I…I don’t know what I believe. This is all just…strange. I don’t believe in ghosts, I can tell you that. But there are too many coincidences here for comfort.”
Neither of them said anything for a minute. The football game on the field on the east side of the park was ending, the crowd of adolescents breaking off in little groups and heading off to other adventures.
“I’m not lying,” Frankie said, breaking the silence between them. “And I didn’t hallucinate or dream what I saw that night. Those things…they took my sister. And I have to get her back.”
“Listen,” Tom said. “I don’t know what you’re thinking of doing, but I don’t think you should go back into that building.”
“I have no choice. My sister is there.”
“The police checked the building from stem to stern. She’s not there, Frank.”
“Yes, she is. She’s hidden in the dark places, the places you can’t see with your eyes, but she’s there.”
“You’re starting to scare me, kid. Don’t go in there. If something were to happen to you, it would kill your parents.”
“I have nothing to fear, though,” Frankie said. “Right? There’s nothing there that can hurt me. Spooks and spirits only exist in fairy tales. It’s kid’s stuff.”
Frankie got up from the bench.
“Telling my parents won’t stop me, you know?” Frankie said. “I would still go looking for her. But it would make it harder, so I would appreciate if you kept this between us. All right?”
Frankie turned to leave without waiting for an answer.
“Wait,” Tom said, standing up.
Frankie turned back, his eyebrows rising inquisitively. Tom could see resoluteness in the boy’s face, a stubbornness that convinced him that the boy spoke the truth when he said that he wouldn’t be deterred, and that he would let nothing stand in his way if he really wanted to do something.
“Just wait awhile, okay?” Tom said. “We’ll make a deal. I won’t tell your parents, but you have to wait.”
“For how long?”
“I don’t know. Just…a while. I have some things I have to look into, and I don’t want to have to worry about you getting yourself hurt. So will you just please wait?”
“She’s my sister. I should have gone there looking for her two weeks ago, but I was too chickenshit. And now you want me to wait some more?”
“I know that you’re worried about her, but I want to help out; I really do. I want to help you find her, Frankie. But I need a little time. Will you just give me a little time?”
Frankie appeared to think it over.
“Yeah,” he said finally. “I’ll give you a little time.”
Tom detected just a little bit of an emphasis on that word, “little”.
“Thank you, Frankie.”
The boy nodded his head and turned away. He left the park and disappeared around the corner onto Mulberry Street. Tom took a seat on the bench again, and sat there seeing nothing. He had to think what his next move was. He had to figure out just what the hell he had gotten himself into.
It had been three days since the meeting in the park with Frankie, and Tom didn’t know any more about the history of the former Cedar Falls Home for Orphaned Children than he had learned from Patricia that day at the café. There seemed to be a black hole on the Internet whose gravity was so powerful that it let few facts about the Home escape.
Even slogging through a website dedicated to the history of Juniper County only produced one item mentioning the Home. There were scanned images of flyers announcing the annual bake sales at Lodge 51 of the Women’s Society for Sororal Fellowship going back 62 years, but just one brief paragraph mentioning the Home, an item about a picnic held on its grounds to which members of the public were invited, the purpose of which appeared to have been to give childless couples a chance to see all of the wonderful kids who could be theirs if they wanted them.
He even tried searching the Review’s archives. The Review was founded in 1942, a before the Home closed its doors, and he thought he might find something there that Patricia wouldn’t have been able to find on her own. He was disappointed, however; the online archives only went back as far as 1970.
He considered getting in touch with Patricia and telling her about Frankie and his dreams. He thought that maybe by working together they could find more info on the Home. He decided against it, however; considering how their first meeting had ended, he was probably the last person that she wanted to talk to.
Tom decided to pay a visit to the Cedar Falls Public Library. The library had a section devoted to the history of Cedar Falls stretching back to the founding of the town in 1901, which had come in handy when Tom had done a story covering the town’s centennial during his rookie year at the Review. The Local Heritage Room also had microfiche archives of the Review going all the way back to its maiden edition.
Grateful to have a job that allowed him to (mostly) keep his own hours Tom took off early, and headed over to the CFPL just past 6 PM. The Local Heritage section had its own room, and a person had to check in at the front desk before being allowed back. Many of the books, articles and other materials were old, delicate or irreplaceable in physical form, though the library had digitized the bulk of the collection two years before. Tom checked in with the librarian at the front desk, showing her his library card.
“This card has expired,” she said.
“Oh, sorry; I didn’t know that library cards could expire.”
“They can,” she said flatly. “You can still see the collection, though. Go ahead; I’ll have a new card ready for you when you come back down.”
He thanked her and headed for the Local Heritage Room. To get there he had to walk around the front desk to get to a flight of stairs leading up to the second floor. He climbed the stairs, coming out into a curving hallway which led to the Heritage Room itself. The room was sparsely lit by sunlight shining in through high, opaque windows in wide, slanting shafts that were swimming with dust motes. There were banks of fluorescents spaced evenly on the ceiling overhead, but they were turned off, and Tom couldn’t find a switch to turn them on.
Rows of bookshelves took up most of the room, but there were also a few reading desks and two tables, as well as chairs set off by themselves and placed at angles to each other. There was also an old microfiche machine set in a corner. Tom walked down the rows, reading the labels at the end of each row.
CENSUS RECORDS, 1910-1940
A few rows over:
PARK DISTRICT RECORDS, 1953-1978
Several rows on:
HISTORY OF THE CEDAR FALLS ANNUAL FESTIVAL
He stopped when he came to a row marked:
CEDAR FALLS REVIEW ARCHIVES, 1942-1975
Tom headed down this row. The shelves were stacked with boxes, each containing one year’s worth of records of the Review. He stopped at the box marked:
Cedar Falls Review–January 1, 1943-December 31, 1943.
Tom pulled the box off the shelf and carried it out to one of the tables, where he set it down. He lifted off the top of the box and set it aside. The box was filled with cardboard sleeves, and each sleeve contained a microfiche card.
He tried to remember if Patricia had mentioned which month in 1943 the Home had closed, but he couldn’t recall. With no other choice, he began at the beginning, pulling out the first cardboard sleeve. A piece of tape was affixed to the front of the sleeve, and someone had written on it with blue pen, faded now with time:
Jan. 1-Jan, 3, ’43 (Vol. 2, No. 1-Vol. 2, No. 3)
Tom pinched the edges of the sleeve and pulled out the flat microfiche card, taking care to hold it from the sides. He held it up to the dusty light coming in through the windows. They were too small to make out, but he knew that the card was filled with tiny black and white images, each one a page of this long ago issue of the Cedar Falls Review.
Tom walked over to the microfiche machine in the corner and took a seat. He turned on the machine and slid the card into the projector. One of the minuscular images was blown up on the screen, and Tom found himself looking at the front page of the first issue of the Review published in 1943. He read one headline:
Some Cedar Falls residents still grumble at the use of gasoline rationing cards, but most see it as their patriotic duty to conserve.
He looked over the rest of the page, and then moved on to Section A/Page 2. There was more war news, and a story of a minor car crash out on Rt. 203. Page 3 had a story about the mayor of neighboring Bloomsdale being indicted on bribery charges, as well as a story about the importance of keeping your house warm in the winter (complete with some handy tips on how to do so).
Tom scanned through the rest of the paper and started on the issue for January 2, 1943. There was more war news, an update on Bloomsdale’s embattled mayor, an item about a state legislator who had paid a visit to Cedar Falls the previous day, a story about a bank robbery in Waterton that appeared to be connected to two other robberies in the preceding months, and a warning to be on the lookout for a stray dog that had been seen wandering around town and that was believed to be infected with rabies. There was nothing about the Home.
Tom didn’t find anything on January 3, either, so he slid the card out and walked back to the table, replacing the card to its sleeve and placing the sleeve back in the box. He took out another sleeve and turned around to walk back to the machine, but he stopped in his tracks when he heard the sound of something heavy hitting the floor. He looked around the room, trying to determine where the noise had come from.
He set the sleeved down on the table and started walking down the rows. He found the culprit lying in one of the aisles between shelves. It was an old, worn book with a light blue cover; it was lying face down. He picked it up at turned it around to see the front cover.
Juniper County Telephone Directory, 1956
He found the open space on the shelf where the book belonged and slid it in between the directories for 1955 and 1957. Tom followed the line of blue spines; the directories ended after the 1968 edition.
He left the row with the directories and retrieved the sleeve from the table, taking it over to the microfiche machine. He sat down and slipped the card (Jan. 4-Jan. 6) out of its sleeve, and slid the card into the machine.
The process continued through January and February, and then March. The light in the high windows shifted and weakened, and finally started to drain away as the sun dipped toward the horizon. The images started to blur as Tom’s eyes grew tired of searching the blown-up newsprint for any mention of the Home’s closing. He was halfway through April before he finally found it, in the April 16 edition of the Review, under a headline reading:
Home for Orphaned Children shuts its doors forever after horrid revelations.
Tom was startled at the squeak of a chair moving across the floor. He turned to see who had joined him in the room, but found that he was alone. He looked at the chairs in the room, but he couldn’t tell for certain which one had been moved. A cold, tingling sensation traveled the length of his spine. He turned back to the microfiche machine. There was no way to print the article, so he searched inside his jacket pockets and fished out a small notebook and a pencil. He read the article, jotting down the important facts.
The Cedar Falls Home for Orphaned Children closed its doors for the last time yesterday after a final report was released by the Illinois Attorney General’s office, which found a longstanding pattern of abuse and neglect perpetrated by orphanage staff.
Tom wrote in the notebook:
Home closed April, ’43, after release of IL AG report. Pattern of abuse by staff.
He read some more:
There are questions still unanswered about the whereabouts of children who have gone missing from the orphanage over the years. Ryan Friehl, Director and Headmaster of the Home since 1939, reportedly told investigators that the children were transferred to other orphanages across state lines. Mr. Friehl could not produce any paperwork detailing the transfers, claiming that the records were destroyed in a fire that started in the records room of the orphanage in the spring of last year. Mr. Friehl claimed that he had no recollection even of the names of any of the orphanages that the children were sent to.
Tom wondered if the fire mentioned here was the same fire that Patricia had mentioned when they met. He wrote in the notebook:
Missing kids. Dir. Ryan Friehl said kids were sent to orphanages in other states, but couldn’t recall names or produce records. Said recs were destroyed in fire.
Tom read more:
The investigation by the state AG’s office started late last year when three children who ran away from the orphanage were found by a Juniper County Sherriff’s Department deputy as they were wandering about on Rural Road 10, three miles outside of town. The children displayed visible signs of beatings. One of the children, an unnamed young girl said to be nine years of age, also had what appeared to be cigarette burns on her legs.
Many residents have voiced anger at the delay in the release of the AG’s report, and the resulting delay in the shuttering of the Home, as the orphanage was allowed to continue operating and caring for children until the report’s release. Some believe that the delay was due to the fact that state AG George F. Barrett had a close, personal friendship with Clyde Forsythe, the director of the orphanage from 1928 until his death in 1939, whereupon he was replace with Mr. Friehl. Mr. Barrett has denied the charge.
Deputies from the Juniper County Sherriff’s Office escorted all children remaining at the Home to two other orphanages, St. Mary’s Children’s Home in Cicero, and the Our Lady of Peace Orphanage in Berwyn.
Tom wrote down the relevant points. His pencil slipped, scrawling a long, jagged line across the page, when he heard a scraping, squealing sound, like wheels turning under great duress. He turned in his seat to see that one of the bookshelves had been moved, and it was standing askew. The thing was big, and weighted down with books and boxes, and Tom didn’t want to contemplate how much strength it would take to move the thing on its wheels, which looked too small to begin with. The room was dark now, with just a little purplish light still filtering in through the windows. A perfectly still silence settled over the room.
Tom stowed the notebook and pencil in his pocket as he turned back to the machine, switched it off and pulled out the card. He slipped the card back in its sleeve, stood up and returned to the table, put the sleeve back in the box and replaced the top.
The bookshelf that had been moved was several rows over from the shelves that held the Review archives. Tom moved quickly, putting the box back where it belonged and headed for the entrance of the curving hall. A he reached the entrance the room was filled with a cacophony noise as books, boxes and magazines fell from their shelves as if they had been swept aside by some giant, invisible hand. Tom froze for a moment, staring into the dark corners of the room. He couldn’t explain it, but he was filled with a dreadful certainty that he was being watched by strange eyes. He was stuck with the sudden certainty that he didn’t want to be in that room anymore, and that wild horses couldn’t ever drag him back to it.
So he ran. He bombed through the curved hallway, and then started down the stairs. The librarian was standing at the foot of the steps, watching him as he descended. He slowed his pace, fighting every muscle and nerve in his body that wanted to continue running until he couldn’t run anymore.
“What was all that racket?” the woman asked.
“What? I didn’t hear anything.”
It was a stupid lie, almost comical, but the woman had a look of self-doubt on her face, as if she thought it entirely possible that she had imagined all of the noise. Tom walked passed her, heading for the door.
“Wait, mister,” the librarian called to him.
Tom stopped and turned to her, his heart beating wildly in his chest.
“Yes?” he said, struggling to keep his voice even.
“You forgot your new card.”
She walked behind the desk to get the card, and held it out to him. Tom thought about it for a moment, and decided that a step closer to the desk was a step closer to the staircase, and he didn’t want to go any nearer to that staircase than he had to.
“I’m sorry, I’m late,” he said. “I’ll pick it up the next time I’m here.”
He turned and pushed the front door open, letting in a breath of cool night air.
“But…” the librarian started.
Tom didn’t catch the rest as the door closed and cut off the woman’s voice. He hurried down the library’s front steps and to his car. He didn’t feel safe until he had gotten into his car and shut the door. He sat there for five minutes, allowing his heart so slow its thudding, staring up at the dark windows on the second floor of the library. He started the car and drove home.
This time it was Tom who arrived first, and Patricia found him waiting for her in the same booth they had shared the first time they met. Tom saw her as soon as she came in, and he waved her over. As she neared the booth Tom stood.
“Thanks for coming,” he said. “Have a seat.”
Patricia sat across from him and he sat down again.
“I almost didn’t come,” Patricia said. “I was still mad from the last time we met. But from what you wrote in your e-mail, in sounded like you were ready to be a bit more open-minded.”
“Yeah, well…” Tom trailered off, not knowing what to say to that.
“So, what exactly happened to you at that library that made you want to get in touch with me?” Patricia asked.
“Can I get you two anything?” the waitress interrupted.
It was the same waitress from last time, a thirty-something woman with a nametag that said her name was Carol.
“Some grapefruit juice, please,” Patricia said.
Again with the grapefruit juice, Tom thought.
“I’ll take a refill on my coffee,” Tom said, pushing over his empty cup.
“Coming right up,” Carol said and left them alone.
Tom recounted his story of the trip to the library the previous day, stopping only when the waitress came back to give Patricia her cup of juice and to refill Tom’s own cup from a pot of lukewarm coffee. He started by telling her of his desire to find more information about the Home than she had been able to provide him with, and then about the microfiche and the long search, day by day, page by page, column by column, for anything to do with the Cedar Falls Home for Orphaned Children (and its closing). Then he recounted the first interruption, the sound like a chair being moved, and how he had found that he was still alone in the Local Heritage Room. Then he told her about the bookcase that had been moved so that it blocked access to an entire row, and about the last part, when the contents of most (if not all) of the shelves had come crashing down at once, and the curious sensation that followed, the feeling of being watched from the darkness. When he had finished Patricia looked down at the table for a minute, taking it all in.
“What was it that made you go looking for more information about the Home?” she finally asked, looking back up at Tom. “I mean, after we talked I was sure you thought that I was either crazy or a liar.”
“I didn’t–” Tom started, but Patricia waved him off.
“Yes, you did,” she said. “So, what made you change your mind?”
Tom hesitated, wondering if he should tell her about Frankie, or if it would be best to leave the boy out of this strangeness. He decided to tell her.
“Remember the girl who disappeared in the Home–Jessica gardener?” Tom asked.
“Yeah. It was the story you wrote about the case that caught my eye.”
“The girl has a brother. His name is Frankie, and he’s twelve years old.”
“I remember the story mentioning him.”
Tom took a drink of coffee; it was nearly cold, but he didn’t care much.
“Well, the day I went to see the Gardener family I had a few minutes alone with Frankie when his dad left the room. The dad–Hank Gardener–told me that his son didn’t remember the details of what happened the night Jessica was taken. They even took him to the hospital to get him checked out, to make sure there was nothing wrong with him physically that was impairing his memory, but he was fine. The doctor’s thought that he was just blocking out what happened because he couldn’t handle it.”
“I’ve heard of that happening,” Patricia said. “Do you think that’s real, or just psychobabble bullshit?”
Tom didn’t answer the question; he wanted to get the rest of the story out.
“Hank left the room to take care of some problem with his wife–she seemed to be taking it the worst–and Frankie came out and, for some reason, decided to confide in me.”
Patricia leaned forward, bare curiosity shining in her face.
“He told me that he did remember what happened,” Tom said. “He just didn’t tell his parents or the police because he thought that they wouldn’t believe him. He was right; hell, I didn’t believe him.”
“What did he tell you about that night?” Patricia asked.
“He told me how Jessica heard a voice calling her, which I already knew. But there was more to it than that. Jessica climbed through a broken window and dropped out of site into a dark room, and Frankie followed after her. When he got inside he couldn’t see her because it was too dark. He was trying to see in the darkness, and what he saw was…he called them ‘living shadows’. He said that these shadows came toward him, and he ran.”
“Jesus. I can’t imagine how terrified he must have been,” Patricia said. “I’m sure he must feel guilt, too, for having left her behind.”
Tom took note of the fact that she hadn’t doubted the boy’s story in the least.
“He shouldn’t feel guilty,” Patricia said “What could he do, faced with something like that?”
“There’s something else, as well,” Tom said. “A couple days after we met I saw Frankie again. He got my cell number from a card I gave to his father, and he left me a message asking me to meet him at a park the next day. I almost didn’t go, and I’m not entirely sure why I did. It had a little to do with our meeting here; maybe it had all just sort of piqued my interest.”
The waitress sidled up to the table and Tom cut his story off.
“Anything else?” she asked
“No ,thank you; not right now,” Tom answered for the both of them.
The waitress looked down at their cups and made a face that said, is that really all you cheapskates are going to order?, before walking off to service another table.
“What did he tell you at the park?” Patricia asked when they were alone once again.
“He told me about these nightmares he had been having ever since the night his sister went missing.”
Patricia’s eyes went wide.
“Just like me,” she said. “My nightmares started after James disappeared. At first they were coming every night; their less frequent now, but I still have them every now and then.”
“That’s what really made me look at this thing from a new angle. His dreams sounded a lot like yours, and they started after the disappearance of a loved one, just like yours. It struck me as supremely creepy. Did you ever see anything that could be described as ‘living shadows’ in your dreams?”
“No. Did Frankie?”
“Yes. He said that his dreams always ended with the shadows catching him.”
“Are those the only dreams he’s had?”
“No, there were others. He said that the dreams had changed recently. Instead of finding himself trapped inside the Home and getting caught by the shadows, these new dreams found him moving throughout the Home when it was still an orphanage. He sees kids going about their day, and in every dream the kids get in trouble and are taken to the Special Room.”
He explained to her about Frankie’s description of the Special Room, and about the screams that always came from the other side of the closed door. Patricia looked sick at hearing it.
“Are you all right?” Tom asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Go on.”
“That’s about it, actually. Do you think that…I mean, it sounds kind of crazy, but it’s a crazy world…”
“Come on, spit it out,” Patricia urged, “What is it?”
“Do you think that these dreams, the ones where Frankie sees the kids being taken into the Special Room, aren’t really dreams, but like, I don’t know, some kind of psychic memory of the Home that he’s managed to tap into?”
“Anything is possible in a world where shadows can snatch a little girl off to who-knows-where. Don’t you think?”
Tom shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just a theory I had.”
“I like it. I’ll tell Harry about all of this and see what he thinks.”
“Who the hell is Harry?” Tom asked.
“He’s a paranormal researcher who I made contact with about two months ago.”
“A paranormal researcher? Like, a ghost hunter?”
“Don’t say it like that,” Patricia said.
“With such derision. I haven’t met him face to face, but we’ve been corresponding through e-mails for a couple of months, and he seems like a good guy. He’s not some crackpot.”
“I’m not worried about him being a crackpot; I’m worried that he’s a crook who saw an opportunity to take advantage of a woman who is desperately looking for some answers, and took it.”
“He hasn’t ‘taken advantage’ of me in any way,” Patricia said, balking at the suggestion. “He hasn’t asked me for money, or anything else. Most importantly, he believed me when I told him about my thoughts about the Home.”
She was starting to flush with anger, and Tom saw that he had offended her in some way, perhaps had called her judgment into question. He recalled all too clearly how their last meeting had ended, and he was quick to calm the situation down.
“Okay, I’m sorry. I don’t know the guy, and I shouldn’t pass judgment on him.”
This seemed to cool Patricia down some; Tom felt that a storm had been averted.
“Harry and I have been talking about the possibility of him coming out to spend some time at the Home,” Patricia said. “To see if he can pick anything up, or find some clues as to what happened to James. I have to tell him about Frankie; his story about what he saw that night, and his dreams, are just more proof of what I’ve thought all along.”
“That the Home is haunted?”
“Yes. I already filled Harry in on the details I was able to dig up on the Home’s past, and he has some theories about the nature of the entities.”
“That reminds me,” Tom said.
He reached into his inside coat pocket and took out the small notebook he had jotted notes in at the library. He tossed it on the table.
“There might be some stuff here that you weren’t able to dig up about the Home.”
Patricia picked up the notebook and flipped back the cover. She scanned Tom’s writing, her eyes all lit up like a kid examining a new toy.
“There were missing kids?” she asked, looking up at Tom.
“Yep. The director of the place–a guy by the name of Friehl–said they were sent to other orphanages out of state, but he–”
“He couldn’t recall the names or produce any records,” Patricia finished, reading from his notes. “He said that they were destroyed by a fire. That must be the fire I read about while doing my research.”
“If they didn’t really go to other orphanages, then where did they go?”
“Hell if I know. There are a few possibilities, and none of them are particularly good.”
“Hey, can I borrow this?” Patricia asked, holding up the notebook. “I want to copy this stuff down, and then I’ll get it back to you.”
Tom looked around and caught Carol the waitress looking over at the two of them. He figured she was probably trying to figure what kind if a tip she would get on two cups of coffee and a glass of grapefruit juice.
“Listen,” Tom said, turning back to Patricia, who was still looking through the notes. “Maybe we should exchange phone numbers; it would be more convenient than e-mail.”
He pulled out one of his cards, identical to the one he had given to Hank Gardener. The card had his e-mail address (which Patricia already knew), his number and extension at the Review, and his private cell number. He handed it to her and she slipped it in her purse without looking at it.
“Let me give you my number,” she said.
She produced a pen from the tangled bowels of her purse, turned to a blank page in the notebook and jotted her own cell number down. She then tore out the page and handed it to Tom, who folded it and slipped it into a pocket.
“What do you think about Frankie?” Patricia asked. “How do you think he’s holding up?”
“Not well. Like I said, he feels a lot of guilt. When I met him in the park I had to convince him not to go back to the Home to search for his sister alone. He promised to hold off.”
“Do you think he’ll keep his promise?”
“I don’t know him well enough to say for certain…but yeah, I think he will. For a while, anyway.”
“How long is ‘a while’?”
“Hopefully ‘a while’ is long enough to keep him from doing something stupid and getting hurt.”
“Hopefully it’s at least long enough for me to get in touch with Harry, fill him in on everything you’ve told me, and see where he wants to take it from there. Best case scenario, he’ll finally come out here himself.”
“Then what? We hold a séance?”
Patricia gave him a look, and he laughed.
“Just a joke,” Tom aid quickly. “I figured we could use some levity around here.”
They decided to break for the day. Patricia promised to get a hold of Harry ASAP, and then to get back in touch with Tom to plan their next step. Tom decided that for the time being he would leave Frankie in the dark about what they were up to, to which Patricia objected, but Tom held firm on that point. She agreed begrudgingly that it was best. Patricia left first, with Tom offering to pay the bill, making sure to leave a good tip.
Tom spent the evening catching up on the past few episodes of his favorite TV shows. It felt good to get his mind off of living shadows, psychic memory dreams and things that go bump in the night. He ate a frozen chicken dinner as he watched his shows–the chicken was soggy, the vegetables were dry and the brownie came out undercooked. The potatoes weren’t too bad, though he did have to add some butter to make them palatable.
At midnight Tom shut off the TV, tossed the tray of chicken bones and a few leftover kernels of corn into the trash, and took a leak before brushing his teeth. He stripped down to his boxers and got into bed. It was a warm night, and there was no need to use the covers, which he left bunched up at the foot of the bed.
As he lay awake he worried about work; since this business with the Home had started he hadn’t written anything, not a single piece, for the Review. He had already passed on two stories that Charlie–his editor–had given to him, giving the excuse that he was working on something big that was going to take up most of his time. When Charlie had asked him what the big story was, Tom had played coy, telling Charlie that he wanted to keep his cards close to the vest for the time being, and Charlie had let it go at that. The man had no reason to doubt Tom, who had proven himself exceptionally reliable over his years at the paper. There was no way that any of what was really going on could ever be printed in the Review, and Tom wondered just how in the hell he was going to explain the failure of his “big story” to ever materialize. He figured that he would just have to cross that bridge when he came to it.
He just hoped that Patricia’s friend Harry wasn’t a crook or a weirdo, and that he actually had some sound input to offer. Tom had no choice but to trust Patricia’s judgment of the man. She was oddly defensive when it came to Harry, which Tom put down to what she had said about him: that he had believed her. It must have been terrible to walk around for so long holding a secret belief about the true nature of her husband’s disappearance, while knowing full well that 99% of people would have scoffed at her if she had dared to share it with them.
This realization brought his thoughts back to Frankie, and how he must be feeling. Frankie had had to lie to his parents about what had really happened the night his sister had disappeared. The truth must have been eating the boy up. Tom pictured Frankie lying awake in his own bed, afraid to let sleep take him, terrified of the things he might see in his dreams. Tom felt sorry for him, and hoped that maybe–somehow, some way–they would find Jessica. Deep down, however, he didn’t think this was the type of story that ended with ‘…and they lived happily ever after’.
When Tom finally fell asleep, the digital clock next to his bed read 12:48 AM. Through the next couple of hours he slept a fitful sleep, strange half-formed dreams breaking up and dissolving almost before they had begun and morphing into one another, different places, different times. In some of the dreams he experienced everything in the first person, and in others he watched everything from a detached perspective; at times he felt like he was in a movie theater, watching a flickering set of moving images as they formed together to tell disjointed stories about him, about people he knew and places he had been. Tom tossed and turned, and sometimes mumbled things in his sleep. The sheets at the foot of the bed were knocked to the ground.
Then for a period there were no dreams, and Tom’s nocturnal aerobics ceased. This was utter blankness, supreme calmness. Tom lay afloat in the black, gentle sea of dreamlessness, and the sweat that had broken out over his body, leaving a slick sheen on his skin, dried up.
Slowly, a still image formed within the darkness. At first Tom didn’t know what it was that he was looking at, but then the image widened out (again that eerie feeling of watching a movie, of a camera slowly zooming out to give a wider view), so he could see more of the image, and he realized that he was staring at a chain-link fence. In the gaps between the wires he could see the street beyond the fence, dissected into neat little squares. Then a pair of headlights swept by, cutting through the night, and Tom realized that he was not looking a still image after all. In some deep, buried part of his sleep-mind he knew that this was the start of a new dream, and he was wary.
As this dream began, there was silence, as if in the dream Tom were a deaf man, but then the sounds of the night came to him as if they were being played on a radio whose volume was slowly being turn up. There was the sound of crickets, the soft susurration of the wind, and the scraping sound of feet dragging on cement. When he heard this scraping noise Tom tried to locate the source of the noise, but he couldn’t move at all; his gaze was fixed on the fence. When he attempted to raise his arms up, there was no response from his body. It felt like he was in a catatonic state, unable to do anything but stare straight ahead. The wind picked up for a moment before dying down, and Tom could see some littered paper blowing across the street.
The sound of shoes scraping on cement came closer, approaching at a slow, deliberate pace. Still unable to move, Tom waited for the source of the noise to come into view. Moments later an old man walked through his field of vision, shuffling forward one dragging step at a time. Tom’s body moved then, but it moved independently of him, as if someone else were in control of his motor movements. The old man was disheveled, wearing a torn shirt and shoes; the sole of the right shoe flopped free of the rest of the shoe with each rise of that foot. He had a snowy-white beard and a head of hair to match. Tom turned to follow the man’s progress. A few steps on the man lost his balance, but was saved from falling to the ground by the fence, which he fell against before struggling to right himself.
“God damn it!” the man hissed.
The man looked around, then looked at the fence and lashed out with one hand to strike the wire mesh.
“Whatcha go an’ do that for?” he asked the fence.
His voice had a slur to it, and Tom realized that the man was drunk. Satisfied at having his anger at the fence be known, the drunk old man started walking again, his feet scrape-scrape-scraping with each staggered step. Tom followed after on his side of the fence, again moving by someone else’s volition. The man seemed to be completely unaware of his presence.
The man stopped when he came to a tear in the fence. Something about the fence, and the opening in it, seemed familiar to Tom, like some barely recallable memory that may be important, or may mean nothing at all. The man parted the cut ends of the fence, learned down and began the intricate process of squeezing himself through. Tom stood still, watching the old man struggle through the fence. The man finally made it through with one last push, and the effort sent him stumbling forward, his arms flailing in a vain attempt to regain his balance. He lost the battle with gravity and went sprawling to the ground, hitting the pavement with a loud crack as his chin made contact with the ground.
Tom tried to ask the man if he was okay, but he couldn’t speak; his mouth refused to open. The man pushed himself up to his knees. A thin sheen of blood dribbled down his chin, coming from his mouth. He held his hand under his mouth and used his tongue to push two loose teeth out onto his palm. He stared at the teeth for a minute like he was fascinated by seeing them there in his palm when they were supposed to be in his mouth.
“Goddamn shit,” he said.
The man slipped the two teeth into his pants pocket, for what reason Tom didn’t care to hazard a guess. The man, still on his knees turned his head and spit some blood onto the asphalt. He then struggled to his feet, still a bit unsteady. Once standing he stood still for a second and took a few deep breaths of the crisp night air.
“What a night,” the man spoke aloud,
He wiped his bloody palm on his dirty pants and started shuffling along again. Tom was pulled along after him. The man was headed for the fence at the other end of the lot. His path there was not a straight one, but rather a swerving, wavering one, and twice Tom thought the guy was going to fall again; maybe this time he would crack his head open. But the man managed to stay on his feet. Tom was behind him now, and he could see a prominent bald spot amid a sea of white, matted hair.
The old man stopped in his tracks, and Tom stopped as well, though he had no say in the matter. His body was still under some foreign control. The man titled his head slightly, as if he were listening for some faint or distant sound. Tom could only hear the wind and the crickets. The man turned his head to the right, so that he was looking off at something that Tom could not see. Again Tom had that feeling of familiarity, as if he were seeing a reenactment of a story told to him once, but something was off about it. It wasn’t supposed to be an old man taking a short cut through a parking lot, but a little girl. A little girl and her brother.
Terrible realization came down on Tom’s head then like a grand piano dropped from a fifth story window. He felt like kicking himself for not seeing it sooner. He knew where he was now, and more than anything he wanted to shout at the man, to tell him to go, to run away and to never return to this lot. But he could not speak, and he could not move except when whatever external force that was using him as a puppet decided to move him.
The man turned his body fully toward that unseen thing on Tom’s right, so that Tom was looking at him in profile. Tom’s head turned on its own and he saw it, and any shred of hope or doubt was removed. There stood the Home. The man took two steps toward the silent, hulking building. The darkened windows looked to Tom like empty, dead eyes, the eyes of a corpse left open and staring long after all life has fled from the body. If he couldn’t warn the old man, or stop him, Tom just wanted to get away from there. He felt that he had been brought there to bear witness to this, but he didn’t want to see it. He wanted to wake up, he wanted to find himself in his bed, where he could laugh at that strange dream he had had, and to take comfort in the knowledge that that’s what it was–just a dream.
The man took three more steps, and Tom wondered if he was hearing the same phantom voice calling out to him that Jessica Gardener had heard. The man stopped again, and he looked confused, like he was trying to puzzle something out but the pieces just wouldn’t fit.
That’s it, Tom thought. Something is very wrong here. Leave now, while you still can.
And then Tom was moving toward the man, and he was powerless to stop himself. The man’s attention was still focused on the Home; he had no idea that Tom was so near to him. Two hands rose up into Tom’s field of vision, and he realized that they were his arms. Only they couldn’t be his arms, because his arms had substance, and these arms were wispy, shadowy things that looked like they could be torn asunder by a stiff wind. But even as the thought occurred to him, Tom knew that looks were deceiving, and that no wind could tear these arms apart. He knew that these were not his arms, and that this was not his body. He had simply been allowed to hitch a ride with some terrible thing, and to see through its eyes. Again he wished that he could warn the man, that he could save him.
Then the arms had a grip on the man, and they started to drag him kicking and screaming. The man struggled to break free of the shadow that had a hold of him, but he could not. Tom watched through the thing’s eyes as they rushed toward a broken out window (perhaps the same broken window a little girl had climbed through not so long ago), and just as they were crossing the threshold, leaving the outside world behind in exchange for the dark interior of the building, Tom woke up.
He lay in bed, his body covered in sweat. The fitted bed sheet had come loose sometime during the night, leaving one corner of the mattress bare. He sat up and looked at the window; it was still dark outside. He glanced at the clock. It was 4:46 AM.
Tom swung his legs out of bed and sat on the edge of it for a few minutes, waiting for his heart to slow down. When he felt that he was as calm as he was ever going to get, he stood and walked to the bathroom, where he flipped on the light and turned on the tap, scooping a few handfuls of cold water into his mouth. It was just regular old bathroom sink water, but it tasted good. He turned off the tap, moved over to the toilet, put the lid down and sat on it.
He sat there in the bathroom for nearly an hour before getting up and going to the living room. He sat on the couch and turned on the TV, knowing that he would get no more sleep that night. The first movie he landed on while surfing through the channels was a horror movie from the 80’s. A couple of clueless teens were trying to get away from the faceless, axe-wielding villain by running into an old, spooky-looking house. Tom changed the channel, looking for lighter fare.
The car sat idling at the curb as people went in and out of the North Side Sports Complex. Inside of the car, a mother and her son. After being prodded by his father for the past week that maybe he should go out and play with his friends, maybe he should go see a movie, maybe he should do something, anything, that any normal twelve year old boy does on long summer days, Frankie had announced over a breakfast of scrambled eggs and buttered wheat toast that he wanted to go swimming. Frankie’s mother had been quick to tell him that he didn’t have to go swimming if he didn’t want to, but he told her that he did want to. It was a lie, of course; Frankie just wanted to make his dad happy. Mary Gardener had insisted on driving her son to the Sports Complex herself.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Mary asked as they sat in the car.
“I’m sure, Mom. I’ll be fine.”
She smiled a painful smile and touched his face lightly before looking away from him.
“I’ll be back at one o’clock, okay baby?” she said.
Frankie opened his door and stepped out into the summer sunshine.
“Wait,” Mary said as Frankie was about to shut the door.
Frankie held the door open, leaning into the car to look at his mother, his towel draped over one shoulder. He had his swimming trunks on under his pants.
“Just…I love you.”
“I love you too,” Frankie said.
He shut the door.
“Be careful,” Mary said.
Frankie heard her through the closed window, and he raised a hand to give her a reassuring wave. He turned and head for the entrance of the Sports Complex. He knew that his mother would wait and watch until he went inside, and maybe even for a little while after that, but he didn’t turn back again. He walked through the doors into the cool interior of the building. He walked up to the front desk, and the lady sitting behind it greeted him with a smile.
“How can I help you?” she asked.
“I’d like to go swimming.”
“Okay. Resident or non-resident?”
Non-residents had to pay a little more to use the pool and the Sports Complex’s other facilities–an indoor ice skating rink and a fitness center.
“Resident,” Frankie said.
“All right-y. Do have your Park District I.D. card?”
“You’ll need your Park District I.D. to receive the resident’s rate, hon.”
“Oh. Well, I don’t have it; my parents must have forgotten to give it to me.”
The woman made a face.
“Do you think you could call home and ask them to bring it to you?”
Frankie shifted from one foot to the other, starting to get angry with this cheerful woman, hating her for her cheerfulness.
“No; their busy,” he said.
“Hmm. You really need the I.D. to get the resident’s rate. Otherwise, anyone could say they were a resident.”
Frankie looked behind him; a small line had formed. It was a hot summer day, a perfect day to take the family down to the pool, and now these people were stuck behind some kid who had forgotten to bring his Park District I.D.
“Not that I’m saying that I don’t believe you,” the woman was quick to assure him. “But rules are rules.”
Frankie wanted to just give up and leave, but he had nowhere to go until one o’clock, when his mom was supposed to pick him up, so he ignored the urge.
“How much is it for a resident?” he asked.
“And for a non-resident?”
Frankie couldn’t help rolling his eyes as he dug into his pocket to pull out the money his dad had given him for the day. He counted out a five and four singles, and handed them to the woman. She deposited the bills into the cash drawer and smiled up at him.
“Thank you. Go right on in.”
Frankie bit back a smart-ass comment and walked past the front desk. There were two hallways, and Frankie headed down the left one, which led to the men’s locker room. He took off his shirt and pants and stowed them away in a locker, putting the orange locker key and what was left of his money in the webbed pocket of his trunks. He then went into the showers and got his hair wet. The Sports Complex had a rule that everybody entering the pool area had to shower first, and they usually had someone watching the locker room exits to check and make sure that people were complying. Frankie had learned long ago that all you really needed to do was wet your hair really quick.
He headed for the short tunnel leading from the locker room to the pool area, and when he walked out once again under the clear, summer sky he saw the shower checker guy standing a few feet away from the entrance to the tunnel. Frankie shook his hair like a wet dog, letting the guy see the water spraying loose from his hair. The guy looked at him with a bored expression, and looked away.
The pool was crowded. The depth of the pool ranged from three feet at the shallow end to ten feet at the deep end. There was a roped off area near the diving birds that was even deeper, but swimmers weren’t allowed to cross into the diving area. For the littlest kids, there was a foot-and-a-half deep kiddie pool set off to the side of the main pool. Set away from both the main pool and the kiddie pool there was a hot tub. The hot tub was walled in, and you had to enter through a gate. You weren’t supposed to use the hot tub unless you were at least eighteen years old; a few times Frankie and his friends had snuck thought the gate and into the hot tub, but they always got caught.
Frankie found an unoccupied pool chair and took a seat, spreading his towel over the back of the chair. It was hot, and he knew the cool water of the pool would feel good, but he decided to wait a while for the crowd to thin out a little bit. He lounged back in the chair and closed his eyes, listening to the splashing, the laughter, and the calls of “Marco” and “Polo”.
Eventually the sound of the swimmers and revelers faded away as Frankie drifted off into a light sleep, the kind of sleep that was best suited to lazy summer days. He didn’t dream of the Home, or of that terrible room where the bad kids went (along with plenty of good kids) to be punished. He dreamt instead of flying in a plane and looking down at the clouds from above. The clouds looked like white cotton balls that had been spilled out over the earth. Frankie had never been in a plane in his life, but in the dream it felt great to be high above everything, all of the people that he knew, all of the places he had known and loved, but would leave some day.
He was pulled from sleep by the sharp sound of a whistle being blown. Frankie sat up on the chair and looked around. Without a watch he had no way to tell how long he had been asleep. The pool was slightly less packed than it had been before he nodded off, and he figured that it was as good a time as ever to plunge in. He kicked off his shoes, then pulled the locker key and money from his pocket and deposited them in the left shoe before stowing the shoes under the pool chair. He pushed himself up out of the chair and walked around the pool to where the black numbers on the deck showed the water was five feet deep. He stretched one leg out and leaned down, dipping his foot into the chlorinated water; it was cold, but not too cold. He held his nose and jumped in feet first, sinking down until his feet touched the bottom of the pool, and he pushed himself back up so that he was treading water on the surface.
The bracing coolness felt wonderful. Frankie was five feet tall exactly, and he found that by standing on tiptoes he could keep his mouth above the water line. Frankie tiptoed further toward the deep end until he had to push off of the bottom again to keep his head above water. He didn’t feel much like swimming laps, so he just kept himself afloat by paddling. He was still near the wall and out of the way of other swimmers.
A wave of water hit Frankie from behind; he paid it no mind, figuring it for the wake of a passing swimmer. Then a second wave hit him, harder than the first, and he realized that he was being deliberately splashed.. He grabbed onto the edge of the deck and turned around to see who was splashing him.
Buddy Weaver and three other kids were standing in the pool about eight feet away; the pool was shallow enough where they were so that they didn’t need to tread water, and they stood together, looking at Frankie. Buddy was smiling; it was the kind of smile Frankie imagined Buddy had on his face right before he pulled the wings off a fly. The kid standing to Buddy’s left, a kid named Kyle, was shorter than Buddy, and the water that only reached mid-chest on Buddy came up just under this boy’s chin. Kyle also had a smile on his face. Frankie knew the kid on Buddy’s right side–his name was Kevin something-or-other, and Frankie remembered him from his second-grade class. Kevin wore a bored expression on his face, as if this whole thing were part of some routine that he had grown tired of. The last kid was behind Buddy, and it looked to Frankie as if he were trying to hide behind the bigger boy. But then the kid moved to the right a little and Frankie could see him clearly. It was Stan Mercer, the same kid who had gotten a sprained wrist courtesy of Buddy the year before. He was also the same Stan Mercer who had held Jessica back for her own protection that day down by the creek. The look on his face said that he really didn’t want to be a part of this; it also said that he wasn’t willing to not be a part of it.
“How’s it going, Frankie?” Buddy asked. “We haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Yeah, where have you been,” Kevin from second-grade asked.
“I’ve been staying in,” Frankie said.
“Why? Don’t you wanna hang around with us no more?” Buddy asked, still with that smile on his lips.
Frankie could feel anger starting to well up in him.
“You know why,” he replied.
“I do?” Buddy said. “That’s funny; I didn’t think I knew. How about you, Kyle?”
Buddy turned to Kyle.
“No, I didn’t know that you knew, Bud,” Kyle said. “Why didn’t you tell us you knew?”
Kyle laughed, and Buddy did too. Kevin still looked bored, and Stan still looked ashamed to be there.
“Do me a favor, Frankie,” Buddy said. “Even though I know, could you remind me?”
Now the anger seemed to fill Frankie’s chest until it seemed that there could not be any room left for such inconsequential things as a heart or a pair of lungs.
“My sister…you know what happened to my sister.”
“Oh yeah,” Buddy said. “I forgot all about that.”
Buddy started to turn away, but he stopped and turned back to Frankie.
“By the way, have they found her body yet?” he said.
Stan winced at Buddy’s words. Frankie mouth the words “shut up” but his throat was so tight that no sound came out.
“They should probably check all the Dumpsters in the area where she went missing,” Buddy continued. “I hear that after perverts are done fucking kids sometimes they chop ‘em up and throw them away like trash.”
Frankie pushed himself away from the wall and headed straight for Buddy. This time he wasn’t just going to land a sucker punch. This time he wasn’t going to get pummeled and dragged out of the water. This time Frankie was determined to hurt Buddy, and to hurt him bad. He willed the rage that filled him up to travel to his hands, and to make itself felt so that Buddy would never forget how badly the heat of that rage could burn. He felt his feet touch the bottom of the pool, and he no longer had to paddle. He waded up to Buddy, who watched him come with gleeful eyes. Frankie cocked back his arm and swung with all his might.
That was when Buddy, moving surprisingly fast for a big kid standing in chest-high water, swung his body out of the path of the blow, and the unchecked momentum caused Frankie to lose his footing and slip, and his head went under the water. He had just enough time to feel a flash if embarrassment, and then the embarrassment turned to panic as someone grabbed the back of his head and pushed it further down in the water. Frankie opened his eyes to try and see who was holding him down, but the water burned his eyes and everything was a blur. The hand on the back of his head closed into a fist, getting a grip on his hair, and pulled him up. It was Buddy.
“You think you’re some kind of tough guy, or something?” Buddy asked.
“Go to hell,” Frankie had time to say before his head was dunked back under.
Buddy held his head under long enough this time so that Frankie started seeing black pinpricks floating in front of his eyes. He struggled to break free of Budd’s grip, but it was futile. Buddy was strong, and he was weak. He had known this as a certainty since the day he had abandoned his sister to the darkness. He was weak. He was a coward. He was a pussy. Frankie stopped struggling then, knowing that he deserved this, that this was his atonement, to suffer for his weakness.
Frankie was pulled up again, and he sucked in deep gasps of air that burned like fire in his lungs. His head was swimming. Kevin didn’t look bored anymore; he looked scared. Kyle looked uncertain, and Stan still had that same expression on his face, the one that told Frankie that Stan sure was sorry about all of this, but not to expect any help from him.
“Hit him,” Buddy said.
It took a second for Frankie to realize that Buddy was addressing Stan. It looked like Stan himself wasn’t sure at first.
“You,” Buddy said, nodding his head toward Stan. “Come on. Hit him.”
Stan had a pained expression on his face as he realized that Buddy wasn’t going to let him just be a bystander. The problem was, Stan liked Frankie. Frankie had never thrown a stick in front of his tire when he was riding his bike, as Buddy had.
“No way, man,” Stan said.
Stan swam to the edge of the pool and pulled himself out, water pouring off of his body onto the rough deck.
“Where the hell are you going?” Buddy asked.
Stan didn’t answer; he just walked away, disappearing into a crowd of people congregating near the refreshment stand.
“I don’t know what his problem is,” Buddy said, sounding genuinely confused. “Come on, guys. Punch his lights out while I hold him for you.”
Kevin didn’t move, but after a moment of hesitation Kyle came forward.
“I’ll do it,” he piped up.
Kyle moved closer, ready to strike, and that was when a whistle blew.
“What are you kids doing?” a lifeguard standing on the deck asked them. “There’s no roughhousing allowed here.”
Buddy let go of Frankie right way.
“We’re friends,” Buddy said. “We were just playing around. Right, Frankie?
Frankie swam to the edge of the pool and climbed out.
“Are you okay, kid?” the lifeguard asked him.
“I’m fine,” Frankie said, though he felt far from fine. “Can you tell me what time it is?”
The lifeguard looked at the waterproof watch he wore on his left wrist.
“It’s twelve thirty-two,” he said.
“Thanks,” Frankie said.
Frankie hurried to the pool chair where he had left his shoes, grabbed them out from under it and headed for the runnel to the locker room, carrying the shoes in his hand. He jogged through the tunnel, his feet leaving a trail of wet prints behind him. In the locker room he considered taking a shower to wash the smell of chlorine off of his body, but decided instead to get the hell out of there as quick as possible, before Buddy got the idea to follow him.
Frankie sat down on the bench in front of the locker where he had lefty his things, took the key and money out of his shoe, set them on the bench beside him, and slipped the shoes on. As was his habit, he hadn’t untied the shoes when he took them off, and he didn’t have to retie them. He took the key, stood up and opened the locker. He dressed quickly, putting his pants on right over his soaked trunks. After slamming the locker shut Frankie picked up the money and put it in his pocket, then headed for the exit which led him to the front entrance of the Sports Complex.
The same cheerful woman was seated at the front desk, and she flashed her smile upon him as he passed her. Again he bit back a nasty comment. A clock near the entrance said that it was now 12:37. Frankie walked out of the building and took a seat on the stone bench to the right of the entrance. Fifteen minutes later his mom drove up. She was a few minutes early, and for this he was grateful.
“Frankie, where’s your towel,” Mary asked as Frankie got in the car.
He remembered that he had left his towel hanging over the back of the pool chair.
“Sorry; I forgot it,” he said.
“That’s no problem. Just go back in and get it; I’m sure they’ll let you back in.”
‘No, Mom. It’s not a big deal. It’s just a towel. I’m really hungry, though, so can we just go? Maybe we can stop by Burger King on the way home. What do you think?”
“Didn’t your father give you enough money to buy something at the pool?” she asked, a wrinkle of concern appearing on her forehead.
“Yeah, he did, but I don’t really like any of the food they sell at the food stand.”
It was a lie, but she didn’t know that.
“Can we go?” Frankie asked again.
“Okay. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, flashing her his best imitation of a smile.
He was turning into a good liar, Frankie thought. Mary put the car in DRIVE and pulled away from the curb. In the rearview mirror Frankie watched the Sport Complex fall further behind them. Then they turned the corner onto Ashland, and he couldn’t see it at all.
Tom was tired, his eyes red and watery when he checked himself in the rearview mirror. The dream of the previous night had stuck with him throughout the day, clinging to him like a thin, oily film that wouldn’t wash off. He had already hit up two homeless shelters in town, the Hope House on Dalton Road, and the Nancy David House on Altamont. He hadn’t found anything useful at the first, and he discovered that the second one only took in women; the woman who informed him of this talked with him through a locked door, apparently wary of opening the door for a strange man. Now he was parked in front of the Open Arms Home for the Displaced, reflecting on the irony of the penchant of homeless shelters to put the words “house” or “home” into their names. The name “Open Arms Home” also brought to mind that other “Home”, but he pushed the thought away.
The Open Arms Home was a squat, single-story building painted a faded shade of light blue, with a fence surrounding it on three sides. Besides his own car the parking lot had only two other vehicles in it, with empty spaces for five more.
Tom got out of the car and walked into the place. When he walked through the front door he found himself in an empty room that looked like a waiting room at a doctor’s office. There were two rows of chairs lined up at ninety degree angles along the walls. Ahead there was a hallway with doors set at intervals all long it on both sides; the hall ended in a tee, with two more halls branching off in opposite directions. All of the doors that he could see were closed save for one, the nearest door on the right-hand side. He walked to the open doorway and peaked into the room. There was an elderly man with a shock of perfectly white hair, and thick coke-bottle glasses that were perched precariously on the tip of his nose, sitting at an old beat-up desk. The man was typing something into an ancient computer that looked like it was manufactured sometime in the late 80’s, and he didn’t seem to notice Tom standing in the doorway.
“Excuse me?” Tom said.
The man stopped typing just long enough to hold up one finger, the universal sign for “give me just a moment”, before resuming his work. Tom stayed standing in the doorway, not sure if it would be appropriate to enter the room without an express invitation to do so. The old man kept typing for at least another minute before he finally stopped, cracked his thick knuckles, and turned in his chair to face his visitor. He looked Tom over, first at his face and then travelling all the way down to his shoes, and then back up to his face.
“I take it you don’t need a room here?” the man said.
“No, I don’t.”
“Then what can I do for you, Mister…?”
“Dwyer. Tom Dwyer. And you are?”
“I’m George. I help run this place. Like I said before, what can I do for you?”
“I write for the Cedar Falls Review. Here, let me give you my card.”
Tom searched his pockets, finding one of his cards and handing it to the man, who looked at it briefly before setting in on the desk.
“I’ll ask a third time,” George said. “What can I do for you? Are you doing a story on shelters, or something of that nature?”
“No, it’s actually, um…the thing is, last night I was driving home and I saw this man walking on the sidewalk, and he looked like he might be drunk.”
The old man said nothing; he sat looking at Tom impassively, waiting for him to elaborate.
“He was kind of staggering about,” Tom continued. “He looked like he was having a hard time keeping on is feet. Later, when I got home, I was kind of worried about it–you know, whether the guy would get home all right. I drove back to the spot where I had seen him, but he was gone. The thing is, he looked…well, he looked like he might be homeless, and I thought I would check at a few shelters in town to see if I could find him and make sure that he’s all right.”
“So you saw the guy staggering around drunk, but you didn’t stop? You just went home?”
“Yes, but I went back.”
“And a lot of good it did you.”
Tom fought to keep his annoyance in check.
“You’re right; maybe I should have stopped when I first saw him and offered to give him a lift, but I didn’t, and I can’t change that now. I just want to see if the guy is okay.”
George didn’t say anything.
“Was there anyone who didn’t make it back here last night who should have?” Tom pressed.
“Yeah,” George said. “There’s one guy who didn’t make it back for curfew. He hasn’t shown his face at all today, either, but that’s not unusual. He misses curfew quite a bit, usually because he’s been drinking, and afterward he stays away for a few days because he knows I’m gonna lecture him again and give him extra chores around the place.”
“What’s his name?”
“I don’t feel comfortable telling you that.”
“What? Why?” Tom asked. “Look, I’m just concerned about this man’s safety. I don’t want to cause anybody any trouble.”
“I appreciate your concern, but I don’t know you from Adam, no matter how many fancy cards you have in your pocket with your name on them. I don’t feel comfortable giving out any information about our residents to strangers.”
Tom sighed, irritation creeping up on him and settling in the back of his neck in a tight ball.
“Okay, how about this. How about if I tell you what the guy looked like, and you tell me if it matches the guy who didn’t show up last night.”
George shook his head and crossed his arms, which were covered in a thick coat of wiry white hair. Those arms were thick with muscle in a way that reminded Tom of Popeye.
“Uh-uh,” George said. “No dice. Like I said, I appreciate your concern, but I’m not going to give out intimate details of any of our residents.”
“Intimate details? I’m just asking…you know what, never mind. Could you at least do this much for me, could you call me if the guy turns up, just to let me know that he made it back safely?”
George thought about it for a second.
“I’ll tell you what I can do. If he comes back, I’ll tell him you were in here asking about him, and I’ll give him your card. If he wants to he can call you and tell you that he’s okay. How about that?”
“That sounds good,” Tom said, thinking that he had no other choice. “Thank you for your time.”
“Yeah,” George said tersely, turning back to his computer, stashing Tom’s card in a desk drawer and resuming his typing.
Tom, who had been standing in the doorway the entire time, turned toward the front door.
“Asshole,” he whispered as he walked away from the old man’s office/room, too low for George to hear.
Tom left the Open Arms Home and headed for his car at the end of the lot.
“Hey, hold on,” a voice called from behind him.
“Tom stopped and turned expecting to see George, thinking that maybe the old man had had a change of heart and had decided to answer some of Tom’s questions. What he saw instead was a painfully skinny young man in an outdated Michael Jordan number 45 t-shirt coming toward him.
“I heard you talking to George, man. I know the guy you were talking about.”
“You do? What’s his name?”
“His name’s Walter. I don’t know his last name.”
“Is he an older guy, white hair and beard, has one shoe with the sole coming off?”
“Yeah, that’s him, man. I told him to get rid of those shoes, but he keeps hanging on to them. Hey, do you think he’s all right?”
“Yeah, I’m sure he’s fine,” Tom said. “Thanks for helping me out. George wasn’t much help.”
“Oh, he’s not so bad once you get to know him. But yeah, he can be kind of a dick sometimes.”
“Well, thanks anyway. I’ve got to go, so…”
“Yeah, I’d better get back inside before George realizes that I’m out here. See ya.”
The man turned back to go inside, but Tom stopped him.
“Hey, listen,” he called to the man. “Did Walter have a regular place where he went when he wanted a drink?”
“Yeah, man. He usually went to the Moonlight Tavern on Ninth Street.”
“Thanks.” Tom said.
The thin man hustled back inside, and Tom got into his car. He sat there for a few minutes, just thinking. Walter. That was the man’s name. Walter fit the description, even down to the shoes, and he hadn’t come back last night. He hadn’t been seen all day, either. It could just be a coincidence; they happened every day, coincidences did. But Tom couldn’t quite convince himself that that’s all this was. He had told the skinny man that he thought Walter was okay, but he didn’t really believe it. He started the car and drove out of the lot, one thought repeating in his head.
His name was Walter.
He drove to the Shop N Gas on Main Street, filled up the car’s tank, and then drove to Ninth Street and found the Moonlight Tavern, which was closed at that time of day. He followed the route he figured Walter would have taken the night before, stopping and parking at the curb when the route led him to the Home. The building stood staring blankly at the clear summer afternoon.
Tom got out of the car and walked along the fence until he found the cut section where Walter had squeezed through (and where the Gardener children had squeezed through weeks before). He scanned the empty parking lot, and the empty, dirty windows of the Home. He looked at the far end of the lot, at the fence facing this one, where he knew there was another torn section where people could duck through. Then there was Cardinal Street, and if you followed Cardinal west for five blocks you would come to Owl Drive. If you went north on Owl for a quarter mile you would find the Open Arms Home for the Displaced.
Walter had been walking to the only home he had.
Tom spared one last look at the empty building that was once an orphanage. Just as in the dream those blank windows reminded him of cold, staring eyes, and the thought made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. He got back it the car and left the Home behind. When he got home he called Patricia and told her everything, about the dream, about the homeless shelter, about George and the skinny guy, and about how the Home was directly in the path Walter would have taken to get from the bar back to the shelter. She listened quietly, letting him get it all out. She said she would tell Harry.
“When is he planning on showing up?” Tom asked.
“He definitely wants to come, but he’s tied up right now. Plus, he wants to find a couple of volunteers to come with him. He’ll come, though.”
“All right. I just hope he hurries the hell up.”
“These dreams. You, me and Frankie have all had them. Why us? It’s like we’re connected somehow.”
“But the dreams aren’t quite the same,” Tom said. “You and Frankie started having dreams after a family member went missing in the Home, but I have no connection to it myself. You and Frankie both had dreams where you were lost inside the Home, but Frankie also had the dreams about the kids getting punished in the Special Room. My dream was of something that, from all appearances, was actually happening in real time.”
“Still, it’s like we were meant to meet each other. Like we were meant to form a group. Speaking of which, maybe it’s time you had a talk with Frankie,” she said. “Before he gets impatient and does something foolish, like trying to go in there alone.”
“I’ll talk to him tomorrow. You’d better go ahead and get in touch with Harry and fill him in on the latest news.”
“All right. Call me tomorrow and let me know how it went with Frankie.”
“I will. Bye.”
Tom ended the call and set the phone down on the table next to the couch. Now he had a new problem; he had to figure out how to get ahold of Frankie.
It started raining at sunrise, and by ten o’clock, though the rain had slackened off to occasional drizzle showers, the streets of Cedar Falls were slick and glistening, and shallow puddles had formed in potholes and along sunken curbs. The sound of crickets, what often seemed like the ever-present background music of summer in the Midwest, was absent as the insects took shelter from the soggy morning. Parks, front lawns and backyards were mostly deserted as people chose to stay in on a gray day.
Tom parked in front of a McDonald’s five blocks away from Frankie’s house and started walking, the hood of his raincoat raised despite the fact that it wasn’t currently raining. The sky was a cold slab of granite. It was a chilly day, and Tom walked with his hands stuffed in his pockets. A few cars passed him as he walked a wet cement path that led him to the house behind Frankie’s, which sat facing the next street over from the one the Gardener’s lived on. This had been part of the half-assed plan he had come up with the previous day after talking with Patricia. He didn’t want to risk being seen by Frankie’s parents, who might recognize him, raincoat or no raincoat, and so he made up his mind to approach the Gardener home indirectly.
He stood in place for a second, scanning the street for any watchful eyes. When he was convinced that the coast was clear he cut across the side yard of the house; as he ran through the backyard he shot a glance at the yard, hoping this family didn’t have a dog, or if they did, that it was the cute and cuddly kind, not the rip out the throat of all trespassers kind. He didn’t see any dogs, or a doghouse, so he thought he would be all right.
At the point where this house’s backyard ended and Frankie’s backyard began there was a short wooden fence. Tom planted his hands on the top rail and vaulted himself over; when his feet hit the sodden ground they slipped out from under him, and he found himself lying on his side, his face planted in the mud. He pushed himself slowly up to a sitting position, wiping some mud from his face. He looked at the back window of Frankie’s house to see if his slip-and-slide routine had attracted anyone’s attention, but he didn’t see anybody peering out from any of the windows. That was good.
Tom stood up cautiously, testing his right ankle, which had twisted considerably when he lost his footing. It was sore, but he didn’t think he had a sprain. He walked around to the side of the house, crouching low, below window-level. He crouched beneath the first window he came to for a moment before lifting himself up slowly to peek in. The room he was looking into looked like the master bedroom, not the room of a twelve year-old boy. Tom crouched down again and duck-walked to the next window. When he tried to look in the window he found that the glass was opaque and pebbled, and he couldn’t see inside; Tom figured it was a bathroom window.
There was one more window on this side of the house. He moved to this last window and looked in. The curtain was only parted about three inches, but he was able to see Frankie sitting at a desk, staring at a computer with his back to the window, a pair of headphones settled on his head. From Tom could see of the room the boy was alone. He tapped lightly on the window, but Frankie didn’t hear him. Tom tapped again, a bit louder this time. Still, Frankie didn’t seem to notice.
“Crap,” Tom said to himself.
He tried again, but instead of tapping he rapped the window twice with his knuckles, two sharp knocks. Frankie jumped in his seat a little, startled at the intrusion. He twisted around in his chair and looked at the window, staring at Tom for a moment as if he were a stranger. Tom put his hood down so Frankie could see his face better, and the look of confusion (tinged with a slight hint of fear) disappeared from the boy’s face.
Frankie took his headphones off and set them on the desk, then got out of his chair and came to the window. He unlatched the window and lifted it up at far as it would go, then leaned down through the opening. Tom was still crouched low.
“What are you doing?” Frankie asked.
“I came to talk to you.”
“That much is obvious. What I mean is, why are you here at my window? I do have a front door, you know?”
Tom was starting to feel just a little bit ridiculous.
“I guess I didn’t want to have to explain to your parents why I needed to talk to you alone. I thought it would seem…well, a bit creepy.”
“You’re right,” Frankie said. “Sneaking around and knocking on a twelve year old boy’s window is far less creepy.”
Frankie laughed, but there was no meanness in it.
“Come around to the front door. My parents are gone. My dad’s at work, and my mom left yesterday to visit Grandma and Grandpa in Milwaukee. She won’t be back for a few days.”
Frankie shut the window and latched it, and Tom stood up. He walked around to the front of the house. When he got to the front door it was already standing open. He wiped his muddy shoes on the doormat before going into the house and shutting the door. Frankie was sitting in the same La-Z-Boy he’d sat in when Tom first met him.
“What happened to you?” Frankie asked. “Your coat is all muddy.”
“Yeah, I fell…”
He didn’t finish the sentence: when I hopped over a fence. That little feeling of ridiculousness had escalated to full-blown embarrassment. Leaving the sentence unfinished Tom took off his coat and hung it on a peg near the door, kicked off his shoes and took a seat on the couch. There was that feeling of déjà vu; it felt like the first time he and Frankie and met.
“I was wondering when I would hear from you again,” Frankie said. “It’s been almost a week since we met at the park. I was starting to think that you had forgotten about me.”
“Sorry,” Tom said. “I’ve been dealing with…things.”
Tom took a deep breath, and then he started to talk. He didn’t stop until he had filled Frankie in on everything that had happened since they had met last. He told Frankie about Patricia, and about her missing husband, about the dreams that she and Frankie had in common, about the history of the Home that he and Patricia had managed to dig up, about the missing kids, and about the incident at the library. He told Frankie about his own dream of the man whose name he knew to be Walter, and how he had found confirmation at the Open Arms Home for the Displaced that the dream was not merely a dream, that Walter was real and was missing, and that his “dream” was really a vision of something that actually happened. As Tom spoke the look on Frankie’s face turned from one of quiet interest to one of shocked horror, and finally to one of stout resolution. When Tom had finished his story a palpable silence hung between them for a minute. It was Frankie who broke that silence.
“We have to do something,” he said. “Whatever that building–that thing–is, we can’t let it get away with it. We should burn the fucker down.”
The boy’s eyes lit up at the thought, and Tom could tell that Frankie was picturing it in his head: the Home all aflame, whatever presence dwelt within its archaic walls screaming in agony as it faced, at last, its own death.
“What about your sister?” Tom asked. “Shouldn’t we try to find Jessica first? That’s what you said you wanted to do when we met at the park.”
Frankie didn’t say anything at first; he just stared off into some unknown void, his face tortured.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to find her,” he said. “Whatever happened to her in that place…I don’t think she’s coming back.”
Frankie looked at Tom with that tortured, sad look in his eyes, as if he were seeking confirmation of that most dreadful thought, which would bring an end to the agony of the unknown…but would also be the end of hope. Tom chose hope.
“We don’t know anything for sure, Frankie. There’s still a chance that she’s in there somewhere. And if she’s still in there, there’s a chance that we can find her. I believe that.”
A single, solitary tear traced a path down Frankie’s cheek and Frankie wiped it away with the back of his sleeve.
“Listen, Patricia’s been communicating with this guy named Harry…damn, I still don’t know his last name. This guy is a…”
Tom racked his brain trying to remember the term that Patricia had used, fighting the urge to use his own pet term, “ghost buster”. It was on the tip of his tongue, but like all such thoughts he sensed that it was slippery as a greased up pig, and might shoot away beyond his grasp at any moment, not to return until he had no use for it anymore.
“Paranormal researcher,” he spat out, the words floating up in his memory. “She says that he wants to come out here and take a look at the place. Maybe he can help us find some answers.”
Frankie looked uncertain.
“Do you really think he can help us?” he asked.
Tom thought about it.
“Patricia seems to place a lot of faith in him.”
Which, of course, wasn’t really an answer, but Tom thought it best to keep his doubts to himself for the moment. Frankie sat all the way back in his chair, using the tips of his toes to rock himself gently back and forth, thinking, computing all of the information he just been given. Doubt entered into Tom’s thought flow, and he wondered whether he should have shielded the youngster from some of what was going on, but he disregarded the idea quickly; Frankie had a much more immediate connection to all of this than Tom had, and surely deserved to be kept fully in the loop.
“So we’re going to wait for this dude who Patricia’s been talking to,” Frankie said. “Then what? What if he doesn’t have any answers?”
“I don’t know, Frankie. I guess we’re going to have to cross that bridge when and if we come to it. For right now, I think it’s best if we all sit tight and wait.”
Frankie nodded his head almost imperceptibly.
“I’m not going to go off on my own to that place, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he said.
Tom didn’t say it, but that’s exactly what he had been thinking of.
“Now that you’re all caught up on the situation, I’d better get going,” Tom said. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Yeah; I’m fine,” Frankie said.
Both of them stood, and Frankie followed Tom to the door. Tom put his shoes on, took his coat down from the peg and slipped it on. Frankie opened the door for him and Tom stepped out onto the stoop.
“Thanks for coming,” Frankie said. “I appreciate the fact that you’re keeping me involved.”
“What else could I do? I’ll see you again soon, Frank.”
“Don’t go playing around in any more mud,” Frankie shot at him as he closed the door.
“Smart ass,” Tom whispered, but he had to admit it was pretty funny.
When he got about halfway to the McDonald’s where he had left his car parked his cellphone chirped in his pocket. Tom pulled the phone out and stared at the screen; it was an unknown number. He answered it.
“And this is Frankie speaking. Just so you know, this is my cell number. My parents bought me this phone for my birthday last April. Now you can get in touch with me without having to go sneaking around backyards. Talk to you later.”
“Later,” Tom agreed.
Frankie hung up and Tom saved the number to his directory, feeling stupid for not thinking to ask the boy a simple question like, “Hey Frank, do you have a phone I can reach you on?”
As he started walking again a light rain started coming down, and Tom put his hood up. When he got to the McDonald’s he went inside and bought a large coffee, then went back out to his car. He thought for a while in the car as he sat and drank the coffee. When he was finished with it he opened his window and tossed the empty cup into a nearby trash can. He started the car and drove out of the McDonald’s parking lot, then headed for the Review offices. He had resolved to put in an appearance, even if he was only going to spend the day playing solitaire on his computer. Maybe he would even dig up some fluff story to write about to keep Charlie off his back.
As it turned out, Tom did find something to write about. Cathy had taken on two different stories to work on, but she decided that she wanted to hand one of them off to someone, so she asked Tom if he could do the write-up on one of them, freeing up some time to work on the story that was more important to her. Tom was glad to help her out, and she gave him all of the notes she had already collected for the story, a piece about a thousand dead fish that had washed up on the shore of a lake in Oregon. This event was strange enough, but to add to the weird factor it came three weeks after about two hundred seagulls were found dead near the same lake.
Tom went through all of Cathy’s notes, as well as transcripts of her e-mail exchanges with a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as a biology professor at Northern Illinois University who lent his own insight into the phenomenon, all the time marveling that Cathy had handed him this story after doing all of the heavy lifting herself. Both the Fish and Wildlife spokesman and the professor had given their theories on the various environmental factors that were likely responsible for the phenomenon, ranging from cold water inversion and pollution in the case of the fish, to power lines and high-altitude hail for the birds. They seemed to agree that the two events–the deaths of the fish and those of the birds–were unconnected, and that it was mere coincidence that they happened near the same lake just weeks apart.
When he had finished writing the story Tom sent it through the Review’s internal e-mail system to Charlie, his editor. If Charlie had any problems with it Tom would find a reply in his inbox the following day in which Charlie would suggest changes to the story. The good suggestions Tom would use, and the not-so good ones (he would never call them bad suggestions, he respected Charlie too much) he would discard.
Tom left his office and headed home shortly after six o’clock, nodding his head as a substitute for saying goodbye to Cathy, who was still working on the story she had kept for herself. He stopped by Sammy’s Subs on the way home and got a toasted Sammy Hammy Special, a small bag of Lay’s potato chips and a medium lemonade. He set the wrapped sub and bag of chips on the passenger seat and ensconced the lemonade in the cup holder, and drove home on slightly glistening streets, a reminder of the light showers that had passed through earlier in the day.
Once home he pulled a TV tray over to the couch and sat down to eat his dinner while watching the WOLD channel, which showed reruns of classic shows. He caught the tail-end of an episode of The Honeymooners, which was followed by a double-header of I Love Lucy episodes.
He watched TV for a while after he had finished his meal, then he jumped on his laptop and spent an hour reading and replying to a backlog of e-mails, none of which were all that important. After he shut down the computer he went searching through the box in his closet where he kept a bunch of old paperbacks that had been bought at used book shops and garage sales over the past couple of years. He picked out a Dean Koontz book called Twilight Eyes, laid out in bed and started to read. He thought it was a pretty good book. There were goblins, a creepy carnival and a love interest; what more could you ask for?
Tom made it through half the book before the lines started to blur and his eyes began to itch. He reached that point where he found himself reading the same lines over several times before he could really get a grip on what was being said, and he knew it was useless to go on, and that it was time to put the book down for the night. He saved his place with a bookmarker and set the book on the bedside dresser.
He paid a visit to the lavatory, emptying his bladder and brushing his teeth. As he left the bathroom he paused for a moment with his hand on the light switch, and then withdrew it, leaving the light on. He shut off the light in the bedroom however, but with both the bathroom and bedroom doors left open he could see into the lighted bathroom from where he lay on the bed. The night was a bit chillier than it had been during the past few weeks, so Tom wore a t-shirt to bed in addition to his usual bedtime attire of a simple pair of boxer shorts, and he covered up with a single thin sheet.
Tom tossed and turned for a while. He felt tired, but sleep would not come. He tried to empty his mind, but thoughts continued to race through his head. He thought of Frankie and his sister, Patricia and her husband, and of Walter, who never made it back to the shelter after spending the night out drinking at the Moonlight Tavern. He switched positions, from lying on his right side to lying flat on his back, and then to lying on his left side before lying flat on his back again.
Tom lifted his head up from the pillow and scrunched it up, then set his head back down on it, staring up at the ceiling. He was debating whether to give up the fight and get up to watch some TV when the reflection of the bathroom light flickered on the ceiling for a few seconds before blinking out completely. Tom looked toward the open bedroom door, barely glimpsed in the meager gleam of pale, cold moonlight coming in the bedroom window. The bathroom light flared to life again, flickered some more, and then died.
Tom climbed out of bed and stepped from the bedroom into the bathroom, walking slowly so as not to stub a toe or bark a shin in the darkness. In the bathroom he flipped the light switch on and off a few times. The light flared back to life once, for just a second, leaving a halo that faded away moments after the light itself had died.
Reaching up on tiptoes Tom searched along the ceiling in the general vicinity of where the bare bulb was supposed to be. When his hand made contact with the bulb Tom flinched away, pulling his hand back as he pulled in a sharp intake of breath. The bulb was still hot. Tom reached in the dark to grab the hand towel hanging over the bar fixed to the wall that faced the toilet. Using the small towel as protection he reached up again until he found the bulb. He tapped at it lightly a few times; each tap brought a small burst of momentary light. The bulb felt a little loose, so he got a grip on it and twisted slowly to the right (recalling the lesson from his youth: leftie loosey, righty tighty).
The light started shining again as he turned it, and when he was sure it was screwed in tight he turned back to the wall-mounted bar to replace the hand towel. Tom jumped back, a sharp yelp escaping from his throat. He was facing the shower, and the shower curtain was open. There was a naked woman standing in the shower, facing away from Tom so that all he could see was her bare back. She was filthy, as if she had just been rolling around in a dirt pile and had come to wash herself off. She started to turn, and Tom knew.
(Oh please, God, no; not this.)
He knew who the woman was, and he didn’t want her to turn around. He wanted more than anything in the world for the woman to keep her back to him.
(Please don’t do this to me. I can’t see this.)
And then she was facing him. The front of her was just as dirty as the back, but now he could see her face, and he thought that the sight of it just might break something fragile in his mind, something that, once shattered, would never be put together again. Her face, a face that had been beautiful in life, was not only dirty, but it was raw and ragged, with strips of flesh hanging loose. One eye was missing, and a solitary worm was squirming around in the empty socket. The she-thing opened its mouth to speak, and Tom could hear the jaw squeal like a gate being pushed open on rusty hinges.
“It’s so lonely down here, Tommy. It’s lonely, and it’s cold. Please come down here with me, baby. Please come down here with me. Please come down.”
Then Tom could no longer hear her terrible, choked voice, because the words were being drowned out by the sound of someone screaming. It took him a moment to realize that he was the one who was screaming. He had been frozen in place with his back against the wall, but he bolted then, running from the bathroom. As he shot down the hallway he could hear her calling after him:
“Tom, please don’t leave me. I don’t want to be alone. Tommy, please; I love you! Don’t leave…”
Tom had the presence of mind to grab the car keys from the table near the front door before rushing out of the house. He shut the door as he went; whether it was out of some safety-conscious fear of thieves seeing the open door as an invitation to come into his home and make off with his valuables, or whether he was just trying to put one more obstacle between himself and the thing in the bathroom, he wasn’t really sure.
He unlocked the car, got inside and hit the button to lock all four doors. A memory came unbidden to him then: him and Michelle making a point to buy a four-door, the front seats for them and the backseat for the baby seat they hoped to be buying soon, knock on wood. That had been before the failed attempts at getting pregnant, before a doctor filled them in on the consequences of congenital defects of the fallopian tubes and told them that, while not impossible, the chances of Michelle getting pregnant were in single-digit territory, and before even that small chance was snatched away because some asshole thought he was straight enough to drive home despite having a blood alcohol level that was twice the legal limit. The fact that said asshole had killed himself as well as Tom’s wife had been small cause for comfort; what he would have preferred was that the guy had lived, so that he could have tortured the fucker before sending him down to hell.
Tom shook off the reverie and started the car, burning rubber as he sped away from his house. It took him ten minutes before he was able to lay off the peddle enough to drop down to the legal speed limit, and even then he had no idea where he was going. After some time he found a twenty-four hour diner and pulled into the parking lot. He sat in the car awhile, deciding what to do. He was still dressed only in a t-shirt and boxers, and while the place didn’t look fancy they surely had at least a “must be wearing pants to be served” policy. Despite the horror of the situation he was in he had to laugh when he pictured a sign reading:
Well, at least he had on a shirt.
Tom got out of the car and jogged up to the diner’s entrance. He peeked in through the windows. There were a couple of truckers sitting at different tables, eating breakfast at midnight. Tom could see the bathrooms, too. He opened the door and entered the diner. The dining area opened up on the left, but straight ahead there was a short hall leading to two doors, one marked GENTS and the other marked LADIES. He scurried down the hall on his bare feet and ducked into the gent’s washroom.
The bathroom had three stalls, three urinals and three sinks.
All good things come in threes.
Again he had to laugh, but the laugh had a desperate, lunatic edge to it. Tom found the cleanest stall and locked himself in. He put down the toilet lid and sat on top of it. Just as his heartbeat was starting to get under control his stomach started rumbling, and Tom could feel a hot ball of liquid rising up his throat. He got down off the toilet, dropped to his knees, lifted both the lid and the seat and emptied his guts into the toilet bowl. He wretched until there was nothing left to expel, and when the dry heaves ceased he pulled the handle, flushing the whole, stinking mess away.
Tom put the seat and lid down again, and retook his throne. He leaned his head against the side of the stall and closed his eyes. Sometime later he heard someone come in to use one of the urinals; whoever it was didn’t bother to wash his hands, and Tom hoped it was one of the truckers and not one of the diner’s cooks. Minutes later he was asleep, his head still leaning against a stall wall that was covered with the crude poetry found in such places as diner bathrooms.
Patricia ate a light breakfast consisting of a small bowl of Special K, a piece of lightly buttered toast and a glass of orange juice, while reading an article on the web about the latest deadlock in Congress. When she had finished her breakfast she did some stretching before changing into a pair of running shorts and a cotton tank top, and slipping on her running shoes over a pair of white ankle socks. She walked out of her house, grateful for another clear blue day after the previous day’s steely grayness.
As she walked down the stone path leading to the sidewalk she noticed Tom’s car parked at the curb. The car looked empty. Patricia looked around, turning her head left, then right; there was no sign of Tom. She approached the car warily, peering through the front passenger window, finding the front of the car unoccupied. She moved over to the rear passenger window and peered in. Tom was scrunched up into a fetus position on the back seat, asleep. He had on a t-shirt and boxer shorts, and nothing else. Patricia rapped her knuckles on the window, and Tom started, his legs kicking out but fining no room to expand, his feet knocking against the door.
“Shit!” she heard faintly.
Tom swung his legs down from the seat and sat up. He looked around blearily, squinting his eyes at the harsh light of morning. He looked surprised when he saw Patricia looking in at him, and they stared at each other wordlessly for a moment. Patricia put her hands up in the air in a what gives? gesture. Tom reached over, and the window lowered with a soft electric whine.
“Good morning,” he greeted her.
“Good morning. Can you tell me why you’re sleeping in your car in front of my house, half dressed?”
“Because the toilet at the diner got to be kind of uncomfortable after a while.”
“Ooo-kay. Do you want to elaborate, or should I just go ahead and call the boys from the funny farm to come and fetch you?”
Tom laughed; there was a note of nervous exhaustion in that laugh.
“Would you care to invite me in?” he asked. “I could explain it to you over a cup of coffee.”
“I only have instant,” she said.
“That sounds fine.”
Patricia led the way, taking Tom into the house. He went to use the toilet while she made the coffee, pouring out two cups.
“Would you like some creamer in your coffee?” she asked upon his return.
“Yes, thank you.”
Patricia added a dash to both cups and handed one of the cups to Tom.
As Tom sipped his coffee he couldn’t help running his eyes over the woman, her tan thighs, her tight shorts. He lifted his gaze to find her staring back at him.
“I, uh, uh…this is good coffee,” he stammered in embarrassment.
“I was about to go for a jog,” she said, explaining her attire. “What about you?”
Tom looked down at himself. It felt pretty foolish to be standing here in Patricia’s kitchen dressed in boxers and an old, faded t-shirt.
“Something happened last night,” he said, meeting her gaze again, staring into her chocolate-brown eyes.
“Another bad dream?”
“No. It was a nightmare, for sure, but it was no dream. This time I was awake.”
“Awake?” she said with a note of incredulity.
“Well, that’s something new.”
She took a drink of coffee, and Tom thought she was taking the news a little too calmly. As he told her all of it, however, her calm chipped away. By the end of the story she was fidgeting nervously and chewing on her bottom lip.
“And she looked like…like your wife?” she asked.
“Yes. Sounded like her, too.”
“I didn’t know that you were married. I’m sorry, for…you know.”
“It’s all right.”
“Do you mind if I ask how she died?” Patricia asked.
“Drunk driver. The guy who hit her died in the accident, too. They were the only two cars on the street; no one else was hurt, thankfully.”
“So there’s no connection between her and the Home?”
She was quiet for a while, digesting it all.
“I think we should see what Harry thinks,” she said finally.
“Yeah. Lately we’ve been communicating on a private chat room. It’s easier than e-mailing back and forth. Let me see if I can get him. Wait here a sec.”
Patricia set her cup on the counter and whisked out of the kitchen. Tom drained his cup and washed it out in the sink before setting it in the dish rack. Patricia reappeared, carrying an open laptop. She placed it on the kitchen table and took a seat.
“Pull over a chair,” she said.
Tom moved a chair close to her and sat down. He was sitting close so that he could smell her shampoo, a scent like apples and spices. He watched as Patricia deftly worked the keyboard, signing in to the chat room.
“Let me see…,” she said. “It looks like he’s logged on.”
She typed quickly (but accurately, so unlike himself with his thick fingers that insisted on hitting the wrong keys):
PATGOM: Harry, you there?
They waited. Tom was beginning to think they weren’t going to get a response when it came:
PARABNORMAL: I’m here, Trish.
“He calls you Trish?” Tom asked.
Patricia rolled her eyes.
“Shut up,” she said playfully.
She typed some more:
PATGOM: New info. Tom is here with me. Last nite he had a vision.
“A vision?” Tom asked.
“What else would you call it?”
PARABNORMAL: Lay it on me.
PATGOM: He left bathroom lite on cuz he’s a fraidy cat.
Tom groaned, but didn’t say anything. Patricia continued:
PATGOM: Lite went off. He went 2 check on it, saw wife in tub. She passed away last year. (No connection 2 the Home.)
“God, you type like a teenaged girl,” Tom said.
“Get with the times, pops,” Patricia said.
Tom snickered at that.
PARABNORMAL: Strange. Even stranger than the library event. Contrary to what some scary films would have you believe, entities rarely manifest themselves in any way beyond the boundaries of their natural habitat, which in this case is the Home. It takes a lot of effort to exert their will beyond that point. And they almost never make appearances disguised as other people. (Again, contrary to what Hollyweird has told you.) They must be pretty riled up.
“What in the hell did we ever do to them?” Tom asked. “Why are they so pissed at us?”
Patricia typed his question, and seconds later Harry responded:
PARABNORMAL: Maybe they sense some danger to them. The same reason could explain the dreams. They fear you, and so they are trying to scare you all off.
Patricia thought for a second, and then typed:
PATGOM: Any progress on a theory about nature of entities?
PARABNORMAL: Been thinking about it a lot. About the lost orphans, and all. I think the entities may in fact be the aural remnants of children who died in the Home.
PATGOM: Aural remnants?
PARABNORMAL: Their spirits, if you will. Not quite the same, but close enough for govt. work. Think about it. Those “missing” orphans weren’t just missing, I think you’ve already guessed that. They most likely died at the hands of overzealous staff. Now their remnants–or spirits–are trapped within the walls of the place where they lived out the last days and years of their short, sad lives. Entities in general tend to be tied to the place where they met their end. These kids (or their remnants, rather) are confused and angry, maybe even still in pain. I don’t think there is evidence of true maliciousness on their part. Yes, they have taken people, and yes those people are probably dead (I’m sure you’ve guess that, too, by now). But they are not doing this because they are “evil” per se. It’s more like when a wounded dog lashes out in anger at anyone it can, even someone it loves.
Tom was shaking his head.
“I don’t buy it,” he said. “What that thing did to the old man wasn’t hot anger; it was cold cruelty. It stalked him, like it was playing a game. And appearing as a rotting version of my wife–if that’s not malicious, then I don’t know what is.”
“Mmm. You make a good point.”
Patricia typed it, in her shortened form:
PARABNORMAL: Well, it’s just a theory, of course. I have a friend working on hunting down more info on the Home. Maybe he’ll find something that will bring a new theory to light. Until then, I’m sticking with this one, as I think it makes the most sense.
PATGOM: Any idea when u will b able to come out here?
PARABNORMAL: It will be at least a week or two. I’ve already found a couple of volunteers, one of whom has helped me before. They’re young, but I trust them. Right now we are just trying to free up our schedules.
PARABNORMAL: Hang in there.
“That’s easy for him to say,” Tom said. “He’s not the one being paid home visits by these…what did he call them? Remnants?”
Another message from Harry popped up:
PARABNORMAL: Another thing. Have either of you looked into other disappearances connected to the Home, other than the Gardener girl and your husband? It would be interesting to get a gauge on how active these particular entities are.
Patricia looked at Tom.
“Why didn’t you think of that?” she asked.
“Hey, even I’m not perfect, as hard as that is to believe. But it’s a good idea. I’ll check the Review’s archives and see what I can find.”
Patricia tapped at the keys, her fingers deft and swift.
PATGOM: Tom will check on it.
PARABNORMAL: Good. Anything else? Time’s kind of tight for me right now.
PATGOM: That’s all 4 now. Will get back 2 u if anything new comes up. Thanks a million. Bye.
PARABNORMAL: Adieu, jolie dame.
“Why did he call you a ‘jolly dame’?” Tom asked.
“It means ‘pretty lady’,” Patricia said with a snicker.
She closed the laptop and turned in her seat to face Tom.
“So, what now?” she asked.
“Right now I’m going to pay a visit to an old acquaintance of mine.”
“Does it have anything to do with–you know–all of this?”
“Okay,” she said.
She scooted her chair back and stood up, then looked him over. Tom had almost forgotten that he was sitting there in his boxers.
“You can’t go around looking like that, though,” she said. Give me a minute; I’ll see what I can do.”
She left him alone in the kitchen for the second time that morning. Tom took the quiet moment to look around the kitchen, taking in the sleek black microwave, the Oster blender, the four-slot toaster, as well as the cream-colored wallpaper and the lacey curtains on the two windows looking out on the side yard and the backyard respectively. Patricia came back into the kitchen carrying a folded pair of khaki trousers.
“Stand up,” she said.
Tom complied, pushing his chair in after he stood. Patricia held the pants by the waistband and let gravity do its work, the pants unfurling so that the pant legs were brushing the floor. She lifted them up and brought the waistband level with Tom’s waist.
“Hold this here,” she said.
Tom grabbed hold of the pants, holding them against himself. Patricia took a few steps back and eyed him, one arm folded over her chest and one hand pressed to her chin in an inquisitive manner. She stood like that for a second, squinted one eye slightly, and then nodded.
“Perfect,” she said. “They belonged to James. It looks like a good fit.”
Tom looked down at the pants.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “I can make a stop at my house and pick up a pair of my own pants.”
“No, no, no. Take these.”
“All right. Well, thanks.”
Tom put the pants on; he had to admit that they were a good fit. It felt strange to be wearing her husband’s pants, but the look of satisfaction on Patricia’s face went a long way to assuage any feelings of discomfort.
“Now,” Patricia said. “We just have to do something about those bare feet.”
By the time Tom left Patricia’s house he was fully decked out in James Gomez’s clothes–the khaki pants, a pair of black dress socks, black wing tip shoes, and a white button-down dress shirt. He made a stop at a convenience store to call the man he wanted to see from a payphone that looked busted, but turned out to work just fine. In his rush to get out of the house the previous night he had neglected to pick up his cellphone on the way out the door. He knew that eventually he would have to go home again, but he wanted to put it off awhile.
The man told him to stop by around noon, and Tom thanked him. He had a couple of hours to kill, so he then went back to the diner where he had spent most of the night sleeping on a toilet; this time he was there not to sleep, but to get some breakfast. He had silver dollar pancakes with maple syrup that was gummy and tasted bad, with a side of hash browns and a cup of coffee (his second cup of the day).
The man he had called was named Bennett Hendrix, and he had been a Catholic priest until late 2004, when he was excommunicated after a series of odd sermons that culminated in a church service the week before Christmas in which Father Hendrix had informed his parishioners that demons were all around them, that some of them were demons, and that he himself had been possessed by a demon that he had managed to cast out of himself. He then left the church, running out into the cold December day, screaming about demons and the indifference of an unloving God.
After an eighteen month stay at a mental hospital in Rockford Hendrix (no longer “Father Hendrix” at that point) had come home to Cedar Falls. Tom, who was not Catholic (he preferred the term “irreligious” to “atheist”) had looked Hendrix up in the phone book and left a message asking if he could do a story on him. The former priest had called him back, and agreed to speak with Tom, with the understanding that anything they talked about would remain off the record unless, and until, Hendrix consented to any of it being published. When Tom arrived at the man’s house, the house Hendrix had grown up in and which had been left to him by his parents when they passed, he had been greeted by a small, bespectacled, mild-mannered African-American man in his mid-fifties, with a soft-spoken voice and a calm demeanor. He didn’t seem like someone who would go raving about, screaming about demons. The first thing the man had said to him was:
“I’m a black man, and my name is Hendrix. No, there is no relation, and any joke you can think of, I’ve already heard it.”
The two men had met a total of three times, but mostly Hendrix had talked about anything and everything but what had happened at the church on his last day as a priest at St. Bernadette Parish. In the end Hendrix had decided he didn’t want anything they had talked about to make it to print, and Tom, a man of his word, had moved on to another story. He kept in touch with Hendrix for a while through periodic phone calls, but eventually the phone calls had stopped, as Tom got on with his life. When Michelle died he thought about going to see the old priest, thinking that maybe together they could find reason in the unreasonable, logic in the illogical. Tom never had gotten around to visiting, however.
It was noon on the dot when Tom pulled up in front of Bennett Hendrix’s house, parking at the curb. As he walked up to the door it swung open before he had a chance to knock. Hendrix, his hair a little grayer and the lines around his eyes a little deeper than Tom remembered, stood in the doorway.
“Long time, no see, Mr. Dwyer,” Hendrix said.
“A long time, indeed,” Tom agreed.
Hendrix moved from the doorway, allowing Tom to enter his home. Hendrix headed through his living room, waving Tom along after him. Tom followed him into the kitchen, where lunch was spread out on the kitchen table.
“Sit,” Hendrix said. “We’ll eat while we talk. Or talk while we eat. Same thing , I guess.”
Tom wasn’t very hungry, having just eaten breakfast some two hours before, but the food looked good, so he sat down and pulled the plate that Hendrix had already fixed for him closer. On the plate there was a turkey and roast beef sandwich on wheat, cut diagonally, and a cantaloupe wedge.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Hendrix asked, still standing. “I have freshly squeezed orange juice, ginger ale, Diet Coke…”
“I’ll take a ginger ale,” Tom said.
“Coming right up.”
Hendrix moved to the fridge and brought back a cold can of Seagram’s Ginger Ale, setting it down next to Tom’s plate, and then went back to the fridge and pulled out a pitcher of orange juice. He got a glass down from a cabinet and poured himself, then put the pitcher back in the fridge and brought his glass over to the table, setting it down and taking a seat.
“Do you want to…you know, say grace?” Tom asked.
Tom figured the man might still have enough of the Church in him to hold on to the custom.
“No, that’s quite all right,” Hendrix said. “I’ve done enough of that.”
Hendrix picked up one diagonally cut half of his own sandwich and took a bite, and Tom followed suit. It tasted good, with a hint of Dijon mustard. Tom grabbed one of the two cloth napkins resting in the center of the table and dabbed at his lips.
“So,” Hendrix said, swallowing a bite of his own sandwich. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?”
Tom thought about how to approach the subject. He had been thinking about it ever since leaving Patricia’s house, but every way he thought of just sounded crazy.
“I wanted to ask you about demons,” Tom said.
Hendrix paused mid-bite, sitting frozen for a moment like a statue. He slowly put his sandwich down on his plate and turned his head to stare out the kitchen window for a while. Tom felt uncomfortable in the silence, and he thought that he had made a mistake in coming to see the ex-priest.
“I thought it might have something to do with that,” Hendrix said.
He turned back to face Tom.
“I thought I was done with all of that,” he continued. “That was a bad time in my life. I was confused. It was like something broke inside of me, and shattered into a thousand pieces. But that place in Rockford helped me put myself back together. I’m better now. Let the past remain the past, I say.”
“Actually, it’s not the past that I’m concerned with,” Tom said.
Hendrix’s eyebrows went up, naked curiosity plainly showing on his face.
“You see…it’s hard to explain,” Tom went on. “Me and some…friends of mine have been having some problems lately that we can’t explain. Strange things have been happening.”
“Bad things, I take it?”
“Yes. There have been dreams, bad dreams. All three of us have had them. My two friends have had similar dreams of being trapped somewhere, only it’s not just any ‘somewhere’, but the same ‘somewhere’.”
“And you find this strange?” Hendrix said before taking a drink of o.j.
“It’s very strange when you consider that they didn’t even know each other when they started having the dreams.”
“Interesting,” Hendrix said. “And you’re certain that this place they both dream of being trapped in is the same place?”
“And you have dreamt of being trapped in this place, as well?”
“No, I haven’t. This place, this building that they dreamt of, was in my dream as well, only I wasn’t inside of it, but outside. I saw something happen in the dream…I saw something happen that I believe was actually happening as I dreamt it. It was like I was being shown this thing for a reason.”
“For what reason?”
“I think it was a warning,” Tom said. “I think something was warning me to, I don’t know, mind my business.”
“I’m assuming that this thing that you saw in your dream wasn’t pleasant.”
“No, it wasn’t pleasant at all, but I’d rather not say what it was.”
“Have there been any other dreams?” Hendrix asked.
“One of my friends has had another kind of dream. These dreams are also set in this one location, but in these dreams he’s not trapped so much as he is…I guess you would say an observer. It’s like he is watching scenes play out that actually occurred a long time ago. I mean, like things that actually happened.”
“In his dreams he is seeing the history of this place. Which was also unpleasant?”
Tom nodded his head.
“There were other things as well,” Tom said. “Not just the dreams.”
Tom told the man about the incident at the library, and about what he had seen the night before in his bathroom, the grotesque imitation-thing that looked like his wife. As Tom spoke the man’s calm demeanor turned dour. As Tom finished the man pushed his plate away, the sandwich half-eaten, his appetite having evidently deserted him.
“And you think all of this might be the work of demons?” Hendrix asked.
“I don’t know what to think,” Tom said.
Tom pushed his own plate away. Neither of them would be finishing their lunch.
“So you came to see the mad priest,” Hendrix said.
“I didn’t mean to offend you–”
“And you haven’t. Please, Mr. Dwyer, understand that I am no longer bitter about what transpired all those years ago. I know now that I was a sick man. I am better now, though.”
“And you no longer believe in demons?” Tom asked.
“Well, I didn’t say that. I still believe in demons; just not the biblical variety. I believe we all have demons in us, those dark places in our hearts where we keep all of our fears and our hatreds, and all the things we cannot speak of. But do I believe in demonic possession, in agents of the Devil who can possess us or oppress us? No, I do not.”
“But these things that have been happening…I thought…”
Hendrix held up a hand.
“Give me one moment.”
The man stood up from the table and left Tom alone. Tom looked at his abandoned plate and felt a slight rumble in his stomach; he hadn’t completely lost his appetite, after all. Before he could reach for the sandwich Hendrix returned, taking a seat across from Tom. Hendrix placed a slip of paper on the table and slid it across to his guest. Tim picked up the paper and took a look at it. It read, in the old man’s neat, tight handwriting:
2254 Oberst St.
ph. # 815-555-0394
Tom read it over again. Centennial Oaks–the name sounded familiar. He looked up at Hendrix.
“What is his?” Tom asked.
“This is the place where I went to get well,” Hendrix said softly. “I think they can offer you some help. If you want I can call ahead and talk with a doctor there who I know. If he’s still there, that is. There is nothing to be ashamed of in asking for help.”
“You think that I need ‘help’?”
“These things that you’ve told me aren’t exactly…normal”
Tom knew he would get no help here. He pocketed the slip of paper and stood.
“Thank you for your concern, Mr. Hendrix. I’m sorry if I’ve inconvenienced you in any way.”
Hendrix stood and followed Tom to the door.
“Call that number.” Hendrix said. “You’re not alone, even if you think you are.”
“Thank you,” Tom said, forcing a smile as he silently cursed himself for having miscalculated so badly.
Tom walked out the door, but he stopped and turned around.
“When you were at this place,” Tom said. “This Centennial Oaks place. Did they help you figure out what led to…well, you know.”
“I already knew, Mr. Dwyer. They just helped me to face it.”
Tom held the man’s gaze.
“Would you like to know?” Hendrix asked.
“My conflict with myself began when I realized that I could no longer hear the voice of God. I’m sure you can understand how, for a man of the cloth, this posed quite a problem.”
“Can you hear it now?” Tom asked.
“Sometimes I think I can,” he answered. “Sometimes I think I can. Faintly. Sometimes all I hear is the echo of my own voice calling back to me. That’s the most terrible thing, when all you can hear is your own voice echoing in the void.”
With nothing left to be said between them Tom turned away and walked to his car. As he pulled away from the curb Hendrix was still standing in the doorway, watching after him.
It had been a day since Tom had visited the ex-priest who shared a name with the guitar great who died at the age of twenty-seven, and Tom was grateful for the lack of any eerie visitations in the night. Now, as the clock on the wall above his desk ticked past 7:00 PM, Tom found himself sitting in his office at the Review. The only other person still in the building was Janice the cleaning lady. He searched through the paper’s online archives. He typed in the keywords “disappearance, missing, unexplained”, and for the time frame he chose the earliest date available for the online archives as the start point and the current date as the end point, which gave him a time span of over forty years.
There were 62 results, and Tom began clicking through to them one by one. The first item was a brief piece about a boy who had been thought missing but was found hiding in his uncle’s barn out on Rt. 90. The second item was about an elderly woman who had wandered away from her retirement community; her family was especially worried because the woman suffered from dementia and may not have been able to find her way home. The third item reported that the woman had been found alive and well, if a bit cold and hungry.
Tom knew he had to refine his search. It could take him hours just to find one story that had any possible connection to the Home. He added in more keywords, adding the word “unsolved” as well as street names near the Home, and 8 results came back. The most recent was the story of the disappearance of Jessica Gardener. Tom read the headline for the next story:
Cedar Falls Teen Still Missing
He clicked through to read the story, which was dated October 8, 2004:
Marie Spence, 15, was reported missing by her parents one year ago when she failed to make it home from school.
He read quickly, looking for anything that would connect this story to the Home. Marie Spence had been a freshman at Ridgewood Academy, a private secondary school on the east side of Cedar Falls. From kindergarten through eighth grade Marie had ridden a bus to school, but when she started high school she had begged her parents to let her walk to school; riding the bus was for little kids, she contended, and it would be another year before she got her own drivers license. Her parents relented, and so every morning before school, and every afternoon when school let out, Marie walked the distance between her home and the school, which usually took her about a half-hour. Tom had to admire the girl; when he was fifteen he’d been so lazy that even a ten minute walk to school would have seemed too long.
He read on, finding that the girl had lived with her parents in Rivermist Estates, which was a gated community. He opened a new browser tab and navigated to Google Maps. He keyed in “Cedar Falls, IL”, and when the map came up he zoomed out a bit to get a larger view. He found the spot on the map where Ridgewood Academy was located, and followed the most likely route the girl would have taken to get home. About halfway to her own house she would have passed close to the Home.
As Tom was reading about Marie Spence, and drawing awful conclusions about her ultimate fate, Patricia Gomez was arriving home from the rec center she worked at part-time. A modest but sizeable inheritance left to her by her maternal grandmother meant that, so long as she lived frugally, she wouldn’t have to work a regular, nine-to-five job, but she liked spending a few hours at the rec center every week, teaching kids arts & crafts, giving lessons on learning Spanish and helping Deb out with her fitness classes. Today had been one of the fitness class days, and when Patricia got home she was physically drained, her muscles begging for a hot shower.
She stripped down and jumped in the shower, getting the water to just the right temperature, which for her was as hot as she could stand it. She let the water wash over her body as the bathroom filled with steam, fogging up the mirror over the sink. She massaged her biceps, her thighs, her calves, working out the knots that had formed there. Though her muscles ached, it was a good kind of ache, the kind that spoke of a day spent really doing something.
When she was done showering she toweled herself off before stepping out of the shower, tossing the towel into a corner. She wiped off a section of the mirror and looked at her reflection. She blew out her cheeks, turned and shut the shower curtain, then walked to her bedroom, where she put on a pair of baggy shorts and a loose-fitting t-shirt.
Her next stop was the kitchen, where she fixed herself a salad–romaine lettuce, chopped tomatoes and cucumber slices, with just a bit of shredded mild cheddar. She ate the salad with a glass of cheap wine (her husband had always teased her for what he called her “pedestrian” taste in wine) while catching up with the day’s news on the web. The salad and the wine were good, the news a mixed bag.
The salad eaten, the wine glass drained, Patricia washed the plate and glass and set them to dry. As she left the kitchen she shut off the light, and darkness and silence reigned in that room.
As Patricia was finishing the job of washing her dishes, Frankie Gardener was watching the credits roll at the end of a South Park rerun. His parents were spending the night out of town, visiting Grandma Seibert, Mary’s mother. Grandma Seibert hadn’t been feeling well lately, and whenever his mom talked about her he could hear the worry that she tried so hard to conceal. It was the first time Frankie had been left home alone overnight, and his mom had told him (somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand times) that he could come if wanted to, that there was plenty of room at Grandma Seibert’s.
Every time she said this Frankie assured her that he would be all right, and told her that he wanted to stay home; he would go with to Grandma Seibert’s the next time they went to visit. Hank Gardener told his wife to leave the boy alone, that they had to trust him enough to stay home alone some time, and now was as good a time as ever. Eventually she had relented, but on the condition that Frankie listen to her recite every emergency number she could think of, which wasn’t necessary, considering the fact that she had already written these same telephone numbers on a piece of paper that she stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet, under the heading EMERGENCY #’S.
The wind picked up outside, blowing phantom notes in the gutters. The sound sent shivers up Frankie’s spine for reasons he didn’t understand. He felt just a little bit ashamed of the feeling. Here he was, the first time he was left alone overnight, and he was getting scared because of the wind. Frankie went to the big window looking out onto the street. The street was deserted as the last faint rays of sunlight sank below the horizon, not to return until morning.
Frankie closed the curtain, went back to the TV and flipped through the channels looking for something else to watch.
Tom arrived home at nine o’clock, just as a light, cold drizzle started falling from the evening sky. He had grabbed a burger at Wendy’s on his way home, not feeling up to cooking for himself. He kicked off his shoes and sat on the sofa, stretching out his legs and resting his feet on the coffee table. He went through his notes as he ate, reading about the disappearances. There was Marie Spence in October of 2004. There was Peter Danko, nine years old, in May of 1995. Kent Freise, twenty-two, went missing in the late summer of 1982. Three year old Sammie Jo Hayes disappeared one year before Kent Freise. She had wandered away from her front yard when her mother went inside the house to answer the phone; the call lasted just long enough for Mr. Hayes to inform his wife that he would be late for supper, and when Mrs. Hayes went back outside little Sammie Jo was gone. The family lived on Cortland Road, one block away from the Home.
There were two more that Tom felt were more than likely connected to the Home, one in 1976 and the other in 1971. The Review’s online archives only went back as far as January of 1970, and Tom was not going to pay another visit to the library to search further back.
Tom set his notes aside and paid a visit to the bathroom to relieve his bladder. He still felt uneasy in the bathroom, and he had made a conscious decision to always keep the shower curtain pulled closed, as if that alone could keep the vision of his wife away. It was almost silly, but it gave him some measure of comfort, at least.
He decided to pass on a shower, which would entail pulling open that shower curtain, and instead headed straight for bed without bothering to undress. The rain was starting to pick up outside, but he hoped it would blow through by morning. Nothing felt more wasteful than a rainy day in summer.
Patricia couldn’t get to sleep. The wind was blowing against the window in sheets. The clouds above had come alive, and flashes of lightning lit up the room for brief moments, followed by thudding claps of thunder. When she was young her mother told her that she shouldn’t be afraid of thunder, that it was just the sound of God clapping. As another flash of light was followed by another peal of thunder that rattled the windows, Patricia decided that God must be very angry at someone.
When he heard something tapping against the window Frankie got out of bed, moved to the window and pushed aside the curtain. He discovered that what he had heard was the sound of hail pelting the window. The hail was small, no bigger than a dime, but it was plentiful, striking the window and falling down. Some of it had gathered in a small drift on the outer window ledge.
Frankie let the curtain fall back into place, and moved back to the bed. He pulled up the covers and closed his eyes. Lightning flared, the light shining through the thin window curtain and brightening the room momentarily. For just a second Frankie could see the veins in his eyelids before the light faded away.
A gust of wind brought on another round of that strange whistling music in the gutters. Frankie wished with all of his being that his parents would walk in the front door, that they had decided not to stay the night with Grandma Seibert and had come home. It was a foolish thought; they would not be home until morning, and until then Frankie was on his own. It was a lonely feeling.
An angry burst of lightning flashed out of an angry, roiling sky and struck an electrical substation just west of Renner Avenue. A loud, electric whine buzzed through the night, dying with a bright flash of light and a shower of sparks from the substation. A small fire began to burn, but the rain put it out quickly, and a haze of smoke rose up around the substation. In the morning half the residents of Cedar Falls would wake up to find that they had no power.
The storm still had more to give, and the hail knocking at Tom’s windows was now coming down in quarter-sized chunks. The sound of the storm–the rain, the thunder and the hail–conspired to rob him of sleep. He tried plugging his ears with cotton balls, an old trick his grandfather had used when he wanted to take a nap, but that didn’t help at all. He eventually took the cotton balls out of his ears and tossed them in the plastic wastebasket under the bedside table.
Frankie hid under the covers, more ashamed of himself than ever. Twelve year-old boys weren’t supposed to be afraid of a storm. That was chickenshit little kid stuff. He forced himself to lower the covers so that his head was sticking out from them. It made him feel a little better about himself. Just a little.
Patricia stood in her darkened kitchen. The light switch was useless; the power was out. She couldn’t get to sleep, and so she had gotten out of bed to get herself a glass of water. Now she dropped a few ice cubes into the glass (the ice still left in the trays would be melted before morning) and waited for the water to chill a little. When she finally took a drink the water felt good going down, soothing here parched throat.
A bright flash glared through the kitchen windows, and she had to shut her eyes against it. Before the light had died out a shuddering crack of thunder erupted, drowning out the clatter of hail being driven by the wind into the windows and the sides of the house. In that moment, with her eyes squeezed tightly shut, Patricia felt that the windows must surely shatter at such a report. But the windows held.
Frankie heard the same peal of thunder, but as he was further away from the source he wasn’t filled with the same momentary fear his bedroom window might shatter because of it. What he was more concerned with was the hail. It was coming down harder than ever, and seemed to contain some malevolent sentience, intent on shattering every window in the house.
Tom held the penlight as steadily as he could between his lips as he fiddled with the switches in the fuse box. None of the lights in the house worked, and he had hoped that maybe the problem was just a blown fuse. He still remembered the last time a bad storm had knocked out power for the whole neighborhood; it had taken ComEd two days to fix the problem and for the lights to come back on.
Everything looked straight with the fuse box, so it probably was the entire neighborhood. He slammed the door of the fuse box shut and headed back upstairs from the basement, He went into the kitchen and searched the drawers for a candle and a lighter. He found a couple of half-used candles pretty quickly, but had no luck finding a lighter. Michelle had been the smoker, and since she was gone he hadn’t had much use for one. Eventually, after stubbing a toe and barking both shins in the dark lit only by the thin, weak beam of the penlight, he found a box of matches. The side of the box read Flame-O Brand. When he slid the compartment that held the matches open he found that there were only three matches left in the box; there was no telling how old the box was.
Tom set the candles–big, fat purple ones each contained in its own heavy glass–on the counter next to the penlight. He took out one match and dragged it across the striker strip on the side of the box. The strip itself looked worn down, and the match failed to light. He dragged it across two more times, pressing down harder each time. After the third try the match head started to crumble.
“Damn,” Tom said to the empty kitchen.
He tossed the useless match in the trash and tried the second match. He was careful not to press so hard, and the match head didn’t disintegrate like last time, but after seven attempts to light it he gave up and tossed it in the trash as well. That left one match. Tom grabbed it, held it between his fingers, and placed it on one end of the striker strip at an angle.
“Let there be light,” he said aloud before dragging the match across the strip.
And then there was light, and he saw that the light was good. Tom lit both candles with the match before blowing it out. He ran the match under the tap for a second, an old safety measure passed on by his mom, before throwing it in the trash with the two duds.
Tom took the candled into his bedroom, setting them on the dresser near the window, and sat on the edge of his bed. The storm outside flashed and roared, showing no sign of abatement.
Patricia sat at the kitchen table, feeling wide awake now despite the late hour. She watched the play of light against the walls of the kitchen, and listened to the sounds of the storm–the thunder and rain, the hail ticking against the windows, the mad gusts of wind. The glass set on the table before her was empty now. As another clap of thunder boomed the empty glass vibrated slightly on the table. In the silence that followed the thunderclap Patricia heard another sound. It was a creaking sound, like someone stepping on rotted wood. It was coming from somewhere in the house.
Something knocked against the bottom of the bed. Frankie held his breath. It happened again, harder this time. Frankie threw the covers away and jumped out of bed. He stood there for a moment watching the bed. Nothing happened. He got down on his knees and leaned his head down to peer under the bed. The space beneath was dark; he couldn’t see anything…but that didn’t mean that nothing was there.
Frankie stood up and backed away from the bed. There was a flash of lightning, the light distorted by the rain sheeting down the window. The bed jumped as if a tremendous fist had thudded against it from below, and Frankie turned and ran, slamming the door shut behind him. He stood in the dark hallway, his breath wheezing in and out of his lungs in hot, ragged gasps.
As Frankie stood panting in his hallway Tom Dwyer was sitting on the edge of his own bed. He rested his head in his hands. He rubbed at his eyes, knowing that if he went to the mirror in the bathroom and looked at his reflection he would see that those eyes were raw and red. He was tired, but a queer uneasiness had settled over him that he couldn’t quite shake off. He dismissed the storm as the cause of the uneasiness, or at least as the main cause. Living in the Midwest one got used to bad thunderstorms. It was something he couldn’t put his finger on that kept him awake as the candles on the dresser burned weakly in a feeble attempt to banish the darkness of the night.
The candles seemed to realize the futility of their battle, and they died out with a disquieting suddenness. It took Tom, still sitting on the bed, a few moments to realize that they had ceased their steady flickering. He looked over at the shadows where he knew the dresser to be. He stood up from the bed, but before he could take a step toward the dresser something gripped his right ankle. Then something gripped his other ankle. In his shock he didn’t think to start screaming until those twin vises pulled on his ankles and he found himself lying face down on the carpet. Then he started to scream, but his screams were drowned out even to his own ears when another giant clap of thunder boomed over his house. The unseen hands that had taken hold of his ankles started pulling then, and he realized that they were dragging him under the bed. That was when he started to struggling, kicking his legs fiercely against the force of the dual grip that something–some thing–had on him.
Patricia stood in the middle of the living room, cocking her head. She was trying to pinpoint from which direction the noise was coming. When she was in the kitchen she had thought it was coming from the living room, but now that she was in the living room it sounded like it was coming from elsewhere. She strained to hear, closing her eyes (though it was dark enough that closing her eyes made little difference), but she couldn’t quite get a lock on it. She opened her eyes.
What could be making that noise? Some animal that had found its way inside, taking shelter from the storm? She didn’t think it likely. She always checked to be sure that all the doors and windows were shut and locked before going to bed, and this night had been no exception. Then what? She didn’t know, and not knowing bugged the hell out of her. The noise came again, and this time it sounded like it was coming from the kitchen. She walked to the kitchen as fast as she dared in the dark, feeling her way there from memory. Once she was in the kitchen the noise stopped, and in the scant moonlight coming in through the windows she could see that the kitchen was empty.
She had just about decided that she must be going crazy when something cold and rough brushed against the back of her neck. A sharp yip escaped her as she jumped. She turned around, but could see only thick shadows. She reached one hand out into the darkness, feeling for…she didn’t know what. She was afraid to think of what might be there in front of her, unseen. She gasped when her hands touched something solid. And then something had a grip on both of her wrists, and she was pulled from the kitchen.
Frankie stepped back down the hall slowly, keeping his eyes on the end of the hall where his bedroom door still stood closed. He had tried the hall light switch, but nothing had happened when he flipped it up. As he backed up he reached his parents’ bedroom door, which stood on his right. He heard a noise coming from his right just a second before something gripped his shirt and pulled him into the bedroom.
Tom managed to free one ankle, and kept kicking at whatever unseen thing had a hold on him. Every time his foot connected a chill ran up his leg and through his body. The lower half of his body up to his hips was under the bed now. He kicked again and again as he clawed the carpet, trying to pull himself forward. The grip on his ankle tightened, sending pain shooting through his leg. He kicked again, putting everything he had into it, and the thing that had him released its grip ever so slightly; it was just enough for Tom to break free. He shot out from under the bed and stood up. His right ankle throbbed from that last hard squeeze, but he was steady on his feet. He fled the bedroom.
Patricia was lifted off of her feet, and as she hung suspended in the air she could feel invisible arms holding her, and she felt a great well of strength coursing through those unseen arms. As the rain came down in a torrent, and as hail rapped against her windows, she was tossed like a ragdoll against the wall of her living room. The impact knocked the wind out of her, but when she bounced off the wall her fall was checked as she landed on the sofa. She lay there, trying to breathe.
Frankie also found himself to be a plaything for whatever strange presence had snuck into his house in the night. He was thrown onto the bed where his parents would normally have been sleeping, and then he was swept off the bed onto the floor. He was grabbed by the shirt again, and as he was pulled up the shirt tore, one patch seeming to float in midair as he fell back to the ground. There came a sound then that sounded eerily like an angry grunt, and as the piece of cloth was released, falling to the carpet, Frankie was gripped by both ankles and swung around. His head missed the corner of his parents’ dresser by a hairs breadth, and he was released mid-swing. He landed on the bed, but the momentum carried him over, and he tumbled head over feet to the ground once more.
“Please, stop it!” he yelled. “Please, just stop!”
He was picked up off the ground again. He was carried over to the window, and the window exploded outward in a hundred glittering shards. Now there was a gaping hole where the window used to be, and the rain and the wind blew the curtains around crazily. Whatever thing had a hold of Frankie tossed him through the window, and as he landed on the soggy ground outside a word came to him that he had either heard in class or read in a book–he couldn’t quite remember which. The word was “defenestrate”. A funny word; he wished he could remember what its meaning was.
Tom made it to the end of the hallway before he ran face-first into some invisible barrier. He stepped back, rattled. He was struck in the chest; he thought he knew what it would feel like to get struck with an aluminum baseball bat. He was knocked to the ground with the force of the blow, and then something was on top of him, pressing down on him, pressing on his chest, making it hard to breathe. He felt something on his face; it was like a gust of breath, only it was cold. It also smelled of something rotten, and his stomach turned at the foul stench.
Patricia got up off the couch and made a run for the door, but her legs were taken out from under her, and she went down hard, slamming her left elbow hard enough to send a shockwave up the length of her arm.
“Oh God, please let this be a dream! I want to wake up!” she pleaded.
But it wasn’t a dream, and she knew that.
Frankie tried to stand up, but something heavy landed on his back and he was pressed flat to the muddy earth. Then the weight lifted, and he thought he might have a chance to get up and run. Before he could act on this thought he was struck in the ribs; it felt like he had been kicked, and hot pain flared in his side. He was grabbed by his ankles and pulled away from the house. He tried to see where he was being dragged off to as rain fell on him and hail pelted painfully against his face. A lightning flash lit up the night momentarily, and he saw that he was headed toward the tool shed near the back fence. He did not want to go inside that tool shed. He felt that if he did, he would never come out.
He pictured himself being found there in the morning, when his parents came home. They would find the house empty, and the window in their bedroom busted out. Then one of them (he thought it would be his father) would run out the back door, stand outside the broken-out window, and follow the drag marks through the muddy grass. The marks would lead him to the shed; he would open the doors slowly and find his son.
Frankie shook his head, trying to shake the image away. And then he started struggling for his life.
Patricia made another attempt to reach the door, and this time she was able to reach it. She tried to pull the door open, but it wouldn’t budge. She pulled again, but still the door didn’t open. Then she remembered that it was locked. She had made sure to lock it before going to bed. Now she wondered why she had ever done such a foolish thing as that.
Tom knew that he was going to die. He couldn’t breathe and he was going to die. Above him he could see only darkness, but there something pressing down on him, and it wasn’t going to let up until he was dead. He thought of Frankie and Patricia, and he wondered if they were okay, or if they were fighting their own desperate battles that night. Then he thought of Michelle (not the thing in the bathtub, that hadn’t really been her; it was just a spookhouse imitation), and he thought of the way her face looked when she got mad, not serious mad, just a little mad, the kind of mad he could make her laugh her way out of. He wondered if he would see her again in whatever world awaited him after this one.
If I can’t see her again, then please let there be nothing. Without her, let there be nothing.
He felt lightheaded, and it was a giddy sort of feeling. He thought:
This isn’t so bad. I always thought dying would be worse.
The doors of the shed were pulled open by invisible hands, and Frankie was pulled toward the open maw of the structure. He twisted and squirmed. He screamed as loudly as he could, but he was being drowned out by the noise of the storm. He was tugged forward, but he managed to get a grip on the side of the door jamb. He held on, fighting to break free.
Patricia turned the deadbolt and swiped the chain free of its catch. She turned the doorknob and pulled, and this time the door opened inward. It felt like a minor miracle. She felt something tug at the back of her shirt, trying to pull her back into the house, but whatever it was had a loose grip and she was able to pull free. She bolted away from the doorway.
The thing was still pulling on him, but each tug felt weaker. Frankie’s fingers were blanched white as he held his grip on the door jamb. He had a thought then, a bright, shining thought that burned away all others: it, the thing that had a hold on him, was losing strength. He didn’t know how or why he should know this, but suddenly he was certain of it. It only had so much strength to expend, or so much time in which to expend it (or some combination of the two), and it was running out. The thing gave one final tug, but Frankie held on.
The weight on his chest felt lighter. Tom thought it was just a trick of the mind as consciousness started to slip away from him. Then the weight lifted even more. Then it was gone. For a moment Tom didn’t breath, but then he started sucking in air in huge gulps. He could breathe. It wasn’t a trick being played on him by his brain; he could really breathe. He was so overcome with joy that he started to laugh. He didn’t stop laughing even when he started to cry.
Patricia stood in the middle of the street, looking at the rectangle of darkness that was the entrance to her home. She had thought the thing (whatever the hell it was) would follow her outside, but it hadn’t. She had the feeling that it was gone entirely, but she didn’t trust the feeling. She stood out in the rain until her shirt and shorts were soaked through, and she was shivering in the cold, wet night. When her teeth started to chatter she finally made up her mind to trust her gut and reenter the house. As soon as she stepped foot inside she was sure of it. The thing was gone, and she was alone. She closed the door and locked it, then found her laptop, opened it, and quickly typed out an e-mail. When the e-mail had been sent she walked to the couch and laid out on it. She curled herself into a fetal position. She had the strange inclination to suck on her thumb like a small child, and the thought made her laugh at herself. She closed her eyes and was asleep in less than five minutes.
Tom got up off the hallway floor. The house was silent but for the sounds of the storm. He stood in the silence for a while, letting it wash over him. He wiped away the last of his tears, wiping the dampness off on his shirt. He hobbled to bed then, his ankle flaring with pain. He got into bed and covered himself up, then fell asleep.
Frankie crawled in through the broken window, making sure to clear away any stray shards of glass still stuck in the frame. He cut his foot on a piece of glass that had fallen to the dirt, but he didn’t mind. What was a minor cut compared to what could have happened in the shed?
He walked to the bathroom, trailing wet footprints behind him; the trail of prints left by his right foot also contained some blood. He found the first aid kit that was kept in the cabinet under the bathroom sink. Frankie opened it and took out the small spray can of Bactine. He sat on the edge of the tub, lifted his injured foot onto the opposite knee, and sprayed the cut with the antiseptic. It stung a bit, but not as bad as he thought it would, and soon it felt sort of numb.
When his foot had dried he took out a large Band-Aid from the kit and stuck it to the bottom. He went to the hall closet and took down a large towel, which he took to his parents’ bedroom and placed on the carpet beneath the broken window, hoping it would catch most of the rain that was blowing in. He would have to think of an excuse to tell his parents about the window, but he was sure he would come up with something. Then he went back to bed. Amazingly, sleep came easily. By the time he woke in the morning the storm had passed.
Tom picked up Frankie at the park where they had met before. Tom parked and honked, and the boy came walking over, favoring his right foot. When he got to the car he slid into the passenger seat.
“Hey,” Frankie said.
“Hey. What’s with the limp?”
Frankie shook his head.
“Last night,” was his terse response.
Tom nodded; that was all that need be said. That was the extent of their communication for a while as they drove. On some of the side streets Tom came across some braches in the road–remnants from the previous night’s storm. He stopped the car each time, ran around the front and tossed the debris away. Frankie waited patiently; he had nothing better to do, anyway. His parents had bought his hasty excuse for the broken window. When the hail got really bad, like silver-dollar-sized bad–their bedroom window couldn’t stand up to the punishment, and had shattered…or so the story went. They didn’t seem to think it odd that the glass had shattered outward and not inward, or that their son had developed a slight limp since they had seen him last.
“Are you hungry?” Tom asked when he got back in the car after clearing away a toppled-over trashcan that was lying in the street.
Five minutes later they pulled up in front of Patricia’s house. Tom pulled into the driveway, pulling close to the closed garage door before putting the car in PARK and shutting off the engine.
“Follow me, my man,” Tom said.
Frankie followed him to the front door. Tom rang the bell. When Patricia didn’t answer the door Tom rang again, and gave the door two sharp raps. Just as he was about to ring a third time (and as worry started to worm its way into his head) they heard the deadbolt turn, and the door opened.
“Sorry about keeping you waiting, guys,” Patricia said. “I was busy powdering my nose.”
Tom leaned toward Frankie.
“That’s what women say they were doing when they were really using the bathroom,” he said in a mock whisper.
Patricia rolled her eyes.
“You’re feeling especially charming today, I see,” she said.
Tom made the hasty introductions:
“Patricia, Frankie. Frankie, Patricia.”
She looked down at Frankie and smiled, and held out her hand.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Frankie,” she said.
Frankie, who was still at an age where shaking an adult’s hand seemed weird, shook with her.
“It’s nice to meet you, too,” he said, returning the compliment.
“Sit down,” Patricia instructed her guests. “Do you fellas want anything to drink? I have some juice, some diet soda…it’s warm, though. The electricity is still out.”
“No thanks,” Frankie said.
“I could use a glass of water,” Tom said.
“Coming right up.”
Patricia left them alone in the living room, and they both sat down on the couch. Tom picked up the TV remote from the coffee table and tried to turn the TV on. It was only after he had pointed the device at the TV and clicked the POWER button without a response that he remembered: no electricity, to TV. He put the remote down as Frankie snickered. Patricia came back with a glass of cool water from the tap.
“Thank you,” Tom said, taking the glass.
Tom took a drink, wiping the moisture from his lips. Patricia stayed standing, her arms folded over her chest.
“I e-mailed Harry last night to tell him about my nocturnal misadventure,” Patricia said. “I messaged him again early this morning after we talked, Tom. I told him about your expectance, as well.”
She turned to Frankie.
“How about you?” she asked. “Tom told me that you had a bad night, too.”
Early that morning they had played a game of phone tag. Patricia called Tom to tell him what had happened to her the night before, and Tom had related his own story, as well as telling her about the stories of missing kids he had found and that he believed to be connected to the Home. Then Tom had called Frankie and Frankie had told him a condensed version of his own nighttime tale, cutting the story short when he heard his parents pulling into the driveway. Tom had called Patricia back, but since he only had part of the story, he told her that it would be best to wait until the three of them could get together, and for the boy to tell the story himself. Getting out of the house had been easy for Frankie; he only had to tell his parents that he was going to the park to play football with some friends from school, and his mom’s only concern was that he should be wary of any downed power lines he came across.
Now Frankie told his story, leaving out the screams and the hot tears that had threatened to come forth when he fought against his invisible enemy. Tom and Patricia listened patiently until he was done. They were all quiet for a while then.
“You say that it felt like the thing that was pulling on you was losing its strength toward the end?” Patricia said. “You just sort of knew it?”
It was just a question; Frankie didn’t hear doubt in her words, and for that he was grateful.
“Yeah,” he replied. “It was like it only had so much gas in the tank, and at the end it knew it was running on fumes, and it tried to finish the job quickly. But I was able to hold on.”
He looked down at his small hands, the instruments of that awesome feat.
“That pretty much jibes with what Harry suggested this morning,” Patricia said. “Only he used the term ‘plasmic force’ instead of ‘gas’.”
Tom started to let out a groan, but Patricia gave him a look that made him shut up mid-groan.
“How’s your foot?” Patricia asked Frankie.
“Not too bad. I’ll live,”
Left unspoken between them was the thought of how close they had all come to that statement being false. It was such an unpleasant thought to face up to in the clear light of a brand new day.
“My ankles hurt like hell,” Tom said.
“It’s my back that’s killing me,” Patricia said. “I was thrown up there against the wall.”
She nodded to the wall above the couch.
“What do you think is going to happen tonight?” Tom asked. “Do you think we might have a repeat performance?”
Frankie tensed up at the suggestion. He felt that he had gotten very lucky in surviving his scrape with whatever forces had set upon him in the night–they all had–and he wasn’t so sure if they would get that lucky again.
“I’m not so sure,” Patricia said. “I think it’s like Frankie and Harry both suggested. These things, it’s like they can only expend so much energy before they have to take a break. Harry says that they would have a fountain of energy in their primary habitat, which is the Home, but as they stray farther that all changes. It’s like when they’re in or near their habitat they are plugged into a power socket, but when they leave it they have to operate on battery power.”
“And their batteries might not be very efficient,” Tom said, expanding on the theory.
“Right,” Patricia agreed. “Think about it. First there was that incident at the library–they moved some stuff around and knocked some boxes off the shelves. Frightening, yes, but it’s not much when you think about it. Then there was the apparition of your wife. Again–scary, but physically harmless. I think it took them some time to charge up enough juice to pull off what they did last night. I don’t think they would be able to charge up enough to do it again so quickly.”
Frankie felt a weight being lifted off of him while hearing this. He thought that maybe he would be able to get some sleep that night, after all. Then Tom went and deflated this sense of hope.
“But this is all just conjecture,” Tom said. “We don’t actually know anything.”
“If you have a better theory, I’d be interested to hear it,” Patricia said.
“All right, all right; I didn’t mean anything by it,” Tom said. “I’m just saying that we should be cautious. We don’t want to get complacent and then get blindsided by something.”
“If they do come back tonight, there’s nothing I can do about it until it happens,” Frankie said. “I mean, I have to go home. It’s not like I can tell my parents, ‘Hey, it’s not safe here anymore because some evil ghosts are trying to kill me, so could we move to Nebraska or something?’”
“Look, maybe you guys are right,” Tom said. “Maybe these things ran out of energy, or gas, or plasma force–”
“Plasmic force,” Patricia corrected as she left the living room, heading down the hallway. “Keep going; I’m listening.”
“Whatever. Maybe they ran out of it, and by making it through the night we bought ourselves some time. Just try to…I don’t know, be aware and on the lookout for anything strange. If something happens, we’ll just have to deal with it.”
Patricia came back into the living room carrying her laptop, sat on the couch next to Tom and flipped up the lid.
“What are you doing?” Tom asked.
“Harry said he would probably send me something,” she said. “And that I should keep an eye out. I’m checking my e-mail.”
Tom took another drink of water, which was starting to get warm. As Patricia tapped the buttons on her laptop Frankie rubbed his hands together in an unconscious gesture that betrayed his continued uneasiness in spite of Tom’s attempt to reassure him that they would probably (a key word, that) be okay for a while.
Tom watched Patricia as her eyes moved back and forth over the screen, her lips screwed up in concentration. When she was done reading she looked up at him.
“Good news,” she said.
“Harry will be here in a week. He’s bringing the two assistant he mentioned while we were IM’ing the other day.”
“Shit. A week is a long time.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers. And please don’t swear in front of Frankie.”
“I don’t mind,” Frankie said.
Patricia typed a reply, letting Harry know that they had gotten the message and that they would be waiting patiently (or trying to, anyway) for his arrival. After sending the e-mail she closed the lid of the laptop and set it aside.
“We’ll meet here next Tuesday,” she said. “Is that going to be all right for you guys?”
“Yep,” Tom answered.
“Yes,” Frankie said, nodding his head.
“Good. Later, we’ll figure out the best time to meet up. I’ll call you.”
“All right,” Tom said.
With that agreed upon the three of them sat in a row on the couch, Patricia and Frankie flanking Tom, none of them saying anything.
“Well,” Tom said, cutting through the silence. “If there’s nothing else to go over right now, I guess we should get going. Come on, Frankie; I’ll drive you home.”
They all got up from the couch and Patricia showed her visitors to the door.
“Be careful,” she cautioned them as they left. “But stay positive. The cavalry is on the way.”
“I just hope the cavalry knows what the hell they are doing,” Tom said.
He high-tailed it out of there before Patricia could retort.
“Bye,” Frankie said.
Frankie blushed at the comment, but he turned away so Patricia wouldn’t notice. When he got into Tom’s car Tom took one look at him and saw the flush.
“Yeah, she has that effect,” Tom said. “Trust me, though–you don’t want to see her when she’s angry.”
They pulled out of the driveway and drove away from Patricia’s place.
“Hey Frank, what do you say we catch a bite to eat before I drop you off?”
“You’re hungry, huh?”
“No, not really,” Frankie said, staring out his window. “I just don’t want to go home right away.”
The week was a quiet and uneventful one, for which the three of them were grateful. That first night was a long, sleepless one for all of them, but as the days wore on sleep came easier.
Tom made a few appearances at the office, staving Charlie off with hints at the big story he was working on, and how it was worth the time he was spending on it. He was careful not to be definite on a time frame for the completion of the story, or on the exact nature of said story.
Patricia spent every weekday at the rec center. Over the weekend she caught a Buster Keaton double feature at the Egyptian, and visited her sister in Waterville. She went through all the motions of how she thought a reasonably happy, contented, not-scared-witless thirty-two year old woman was supposed to act. She smiled, she laughed, and she listened attentively to her sister’s concern about her daughter’s newfound pre-teen rebelliousness. In truth, though, her thoughts were never far from Cedar Falls, the Home, and the dark things she had a feeling she wasn’t quite through with (or rather, that weren’t through with her).
Frankie spent a lot of time at the park, he watched a movie (not at the Egyptian, which only showed old black& white movies and art house films, but the Northstar 16, which showed all the good shoot ‘em up movies with lots of explosions). He even went swimming at the Sports Complex again, scanning the pool and surrounding area carefully for any sign of Buddy or his minions. The coast looked clear, and he swam laps until he was pleasantly exhausted.
He didn’t see Buddy, but Buddy saw him; the boy left after seeing Frankie, brooding on his failed attempts to teach the little bastard a lesson he wouldn’t forget. Frankie would never know that he and Buddy were just feet from each other that day at the pool, Buddy staring needles into his back.
In short, they spent as much time away from their respective homes as possible. Those places had become places to fear, and even if they were able to sleep a little better, they each on their own thought it better not to tempt fate, and to be home as little as possible.
Tuesday dawned bright and warm. Early in the day a few clouds rolled in from the southeast, but they passed quickly, leaving the town to bathe in the pure sunlight of summer. At two in the afternoon Frankie told his parents that he was going to his friend Tony’s house. Tony had been his friend through the last school year, but Frankie hadn’t seen much of him during the summer, and that’s not where Frankie was really going. Instead he walked to the McDonald’s where Tom had parked the day he had come stumbling into Frankie’s backyard like a second-rate secret agent. Tom was waiting for him there. They had a late lunch before heading over to Patricia’s house. Patricia wasn’t home when they got there, but she had let Tom know to check under the doormat for a key. Tom let Frankie and himself into the house, and Frankie went straight for the TV remote. He turned on the tube and started channel surfing, looking for something good to watch. Tom helped himself to a Snapple bottle, feeling a little guilty about taking something without asking, even though Patricia had said for them to make themselves at home. He then took a seat beside Frankie on the couch just as Frankie settled on a movie.
“What is this?” Tom asked.
“Transformers 3. I’ve seen it before, but it’s pretty cool. Have you seen it?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
They watched the movie together, but Tom barely noticed anything that was happening on the screen; he was thinking about Patricia, who had driven into the city to pick up what passed for their cavalry–Harry and his assistants. He checked his watch often, and each time he was surprised by how little the hands had moved.
When it reached six o’clock, and as Frankie sat absorbed in another movie, Tom took out his phone and thought about calling Patricia to ask her what the hold-up was. He wrestled with it for a minute before putting the phone away; he didn’t want her to know just how nervous he was.
Six minutes later a car pulled into the driveway. Tom got up off the couch and went to the front window, pushing the curtain aside to look out. It was Patricia’s car, and he could see three silhouettes inside it besides hers. The living room got quiet as Frankie turned off the TV.
“Is it them?” Frankie asked.
“Yes,” Tom said as he let the curtain fall back into place.
Tom turned away from the window, pacing back and forth in front of the sofa. From outside came the sound of cars doors opening and closing, and the soft chatter of people talking amongst themselves. Tom moved to the door and opened it just as Patricia was about to slip her key into the lock.
“Good day, Miss Gomez,” he said with a smile. “Would you like to come in?”
“That’s Mrs. Gomez,” she corrected him.
Tom could have kicked himself for the mistake. He moved back and let her enter. A burly, bearded man followed behind her, and then two younger people, a man and a woman who looked to be in their early- to mid-twenties. Tom nodded to the new arrivals, and Harry nodded back.
“Harry Starks,” the bearded man said, sticking out one beefy hand.
“Tom Dwyer,” Tom said back, shaking the hand briefly.
Harry gestured with a hand first at the young man, then at the woman.
“These are my assistants Jack Ketchner and Katie Newsome.”
Tom shook their hands as well.
“It’s nice to meet you all,” he said.
Frankie, forgotten until now, came forward.
“I’m Frankie,” he said simply.
“Glad to meet ya, Frankie Boy,” Harry said, giving the boy’s shoulder a playful punch.
Frankie waited until the attention had turned away from him to rub the spot where the tap had landed. After offering refreshments all around (and receiving a “no thanks” all around) Patricia pulled three chairs into the living room from the kitchen, and the group took seats. Harry sat down on one end of the couch, and Patricia sat next to him. Frankie took the other end of the couch. Jack, Katie and Tom sat in a semi-circle on the chairs, facing the couch.
“So, what do we do now?” Tom asked.
“First, let’s review,” Harry said, and then did just that, reciting from memory. “Approximately two years ago James Gomez went missing after visiting what you call ‘the Home’. After this Patricia started having dreams of being stuck inside that same building. Then about five weeks ago Jessica Gardener went missing after climbing through a window into the Home.”
He looked at Frankie.
“And that’s when you saw these ‘living shadows’, right?” Harry asked.
“And then you started having bad dreams as well,” Harry said.
“At first the dreams were all about being trapped in the Home,” Frankie said. “They always ended with the shadows getting me, hurting me. Then I started having the dreams where I was seeing things that had really happened at the Home a long time ago. Bad things that happened to the kids there.”
Harry was nodding his head.
“Retrocognition,” Harry said.
“Retrocog-what-tion?” Tom asked.
“Retrocognition. Think of it as a sort of time warp, where a subject finds themself in the past, seeing or experiencing events that have already happened. What I would be interested to know is if there is any level of retroactive psychokinesis.”
Tom started to speak again, but Harry raised his hand up, fending him off.
“Retroactive psychokinesis,” Harry explained, “is a rare phenomenon in which a person experiencing retrocognition can actually influence the past events that they are witnessing, or change them in some way.”
The big man turned to looked over Patricia’s head at Frankie.
“Have you been able to do anything like that while having these ‘dreams’?” he asked.
“No. If I could have, I would have stopped that stuff from happening.”
“You think that people can actually do that?” Tom asked, incredulous. “Change the past, I mean.”
“There have been cases that I have heard and read of,” Harry answered.
“Did you see in in any journal or magazine that I might have read?” Tom asked.
“Probably not, unless you have a keen interest in parapsychology.”
“So you’re saying–”
“Tom, shush,” Patricia said.
Tom obeyed, but he wasn’t happy about it.
“When was the last time you had one of these dreams?” Harry asked, turning his attention back to Frankie.
“They stopped after that thing that happened last week. You know, the–”
“Yes, yes,” Harry interrupted him. “We’ll get to that. That’s when the dreams stopped?”
“And how about you?” Harry asked Patricia. “Have you had any of your dreams about this place since the incident a week ago?”
“No,” she replied. “But then again, I haven’t had many dreams like that at all for the past year or so. They were more frequent right after James disappeared.”
Harry turned to Tom, who sat with his arms folded over his chest.
“And the only dream you had was the one where you saw the old fella get taken into the Home?”
“Yes. His name was Walter.”
“This suggests ESP, or far-seeing. Not nearly as rare as retrocognitive dreaming, but what’s unique as that you had the sensation of seeing through the eyes of one of these entities, although you had no control over it physically. Usually far-seeing entails the agent–that would be you–witnessing an event from a third-person perspective, much like Frankie and his latter dreams.”
“Sounds like astral projection,” Katie chimed in.
“”Huh?” Tom asked.
“That’s a fancy term for an out-of-body experience,” Harry said. “But I don’t think that’s quite correct. When a person has an out-of-body experience they are still uniquely themselves, even if they have become detached from their physical form. This was different, however. Our friend Tom here found himself inside another form. It’s very strange.”
“You can say that again,” Tom said.
“Then there is the apparition of your late wife, Mr. Dwyer. As I told you and Patricia when we messaged each other the day after the event, such manifestations are actually quite rare.”
“Don’t people claim to have seen the ghost of their loved ones all the time?” Patricia asked.
“Yes,” Harry said. “And most of them are probably telling the truth.”
“Wait,” Tom cut in. “Didn’t you just say that it was rare?”
Harry let out a sigh.
“Allow me to explain. It is not rare for people who have passed on to come back in some form to see their family or friends again, but in these cases it is the deceased person themselves choosing to come back, for whatever reason. In this case, from what you told me, I don’t think the apparition was actually your wife, but rather a crude facsimile of her. A fake, a forgery. The apparition was put-on that was meant to scare you.”
“It did a great job of it,” Tom said. “And you’re right–that thing was most definitely not Michelle.”
“This is all over the place,” Jack said. “We have an inhabited building that is connected to unexplained disappearances, we have retrocognition, far-seeing, apparitions–it’s a complete mishmash of sub-types of paranormal events.”
“Wait until you hear what happened to all of us a week ago, kid,” Tom told the young man.
“Yes, let’s talk about that,” Harry said.
Tom groaned and mumbled something.
“What’s that?” Harry asked.
“I said that I would rather not. But go ahead. What the hell, we might as well get it all out there.”
Harry went on:
“All three of you, in separate locations, experienced violent telekinetic phenomena on the same night, at the same time. The event at the library was one thing, but the event last week was a whole different ballgame. Just to think of the force, the will that it must have taken to project such kinetic force in three separate places, all of them a good distance away from the Home, and at the same time, is a bit staggering.”
Harry went over his theories again about how what he called “aural remnants” rarely strayed beyond the boundaries of the location they primarily inhabited, which in this case was the Home, upon which Patricia passed on Frankie’s “gas tank” analogy in explaining why the things that had attacked them seemed to run out of energy and disappear.
“Not bad,” Harry said. “I think that’s probably about right. Or maybe ‘battery’ is a better term. They charged their battery up, and the battery simply ran out of juice.”
“That’s what I said,” Patricia said with a smile of self-satisfaction.
“Why us?” Tom asked.
“Excuse me,” Harry said. “I’m not sure I understand the question.”
“Why the three of us?” Tom said, sweeping his hand toward Patricia and Frankie, and then pointing at himself. “Why does this place keep screwing with us?”
Harry thought about it for a moment.
“Well,” he said, “Patricia and Frankie each have a personal connection to the Home, and you have a connection to them, so…fuck if I know, man. Excuse my French, Frankie Boy.”
Harry coughed into a closed fist.
“We were thinking that maybe the Home is aware of us,” Patricia said. “Maybe even afraid of us. I think it’s trying to scare us enough that we’ll drop all of this.”
“That’s a good theory,” Harry admitted.
“What are we going to do now?” Tom asked.
“Well, like I’ve told Patricia before, I believe that these entities are the aural remnants of the children who died at the Home, murdered most likely. I have a friend who I asked to look for more info on the history of the Home, but he wasn’t able to dig up anything that you guys hadn’t already found on your own. We know that a number of children almost certainly died under violent circumstances within the Home. This seems to be confirmed to an extent by Frankie’s retrocognitive dreams.”
“So these ‘remnants’ are the ghosts of kids?” Tom asked.
“I believe that they are.”
“And why are they snatching people out of the night, and trying to hurt us? Patricia’s husband and Frankie’s sister didn’t do anything to these kids, and neither did Walter or anyone else who went missing near the Home.”
“As I’ve said, I don’t believe that the aural remnants are malevolent or evil. I don’t think they are even capable of being such things. You have to get out of this mindset that these ‘ghosts’, as you call them, think, experience or feel the way that you or I do. They are operating on a whole other level than us, where there is no good or bad, no right or wrong. Their entire existence is probably a tortured one, where they relive the horrific experiences that they endured in life, and when someone, anyone, intrudes on their territory, they just react without thought, lashing out at anything and everything, the way a dog with rabies will attack the very person who has fed and cared for them all of its life. They are in pain, and they will snap at anything that comes within reach. Now they sense a danger in the form of your trio, and they are probably thinking, ‘Hey, why are these jerks trying to mess with us? We are the ones hurting here.’ Get what I’m trying to say?”
“I think it’s a load of bullshit, if you want to know the truth,” Tom said. “I’ve seen how these things go after people. That thing whose head I got inside of, it stalked that old man. It was like a game. Malevolent intent? Ask Frankie if he sensed any malevolent intent when he was thrown through a window.”
“Look, I don’t claim any definitive knowledge about the nature of these particular remnants,” Harry placated. “I’m just giving you my theory of the most likely situation that we are facing here. I could be wrong. We’ll have more definitive answers after tomorrow.”
“What’s happening tomorrow?” Patricia asked.
“Tomorrow we are going to set up our equipment inside of the Home, and then we are going to wait, and observe anything that might happen.”
“Your equipment?” Patricia asked. “The stuff in the bags you put in the trunk of my car?”
“Correct,” Harry said. “I would set up tonight, but it’s getting dark, and I want to set everything up in daylight. Remnants such as these are usually more active at night, and more powerful. I want to set up camp in peace, if that is at all possible. Then we will wait and see what happens. I don’t think we’ll have to wait long, but if we have to we’ll spend the night there.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Tom asked.
“Of course not. But we’ll do it anyway. Anyone who wants to pull out can do so at any time.”
“Who’s going with you?”
“Well, there will be me, Katie and Jack. I would also like for you and Patricia to be there. You two have had first-hand experience with these forces, after all.”
“What about me?” Frankie asked.
“No way,” Tom said.
“But I’m a part of this, too,” the boy protested.
“I have to agree with Tom,” Harry said. “No offense, son. You’ve got a lot of heart, but you’re too young. I don’t think any of us could forgive ourselves if things went south and you got hurt, and I don’t think that your folks would ever forgive us, either.”
Frankie stopped himself, seeing that he would get no help from anyone there.
“Whatever,” he said sulkily.
“So tonight we’ll stay here, if it’s all right with our hostess?” Harry said, looking at Patricia to see if it was in fact all right.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” she said. “And I will come with you tomorrow.”
“Me, too,” Tom, said. “I guess I should stay over her tonight, too.”
“Good,” Harry said. “Tomorrow we are off to search the abyss.”
“Not me,” Frankie said.
Patricia frowned and patted Frankie on the shoulder. The shoulder was still sore from Harry’s friendly greeting punch, but Frankie didn’t mind her comforting gesture.
“Then it’s all set,” Harry said. “And now I wouldn’t mind those refreshments you offered earlier, Trish. Maybe a glass of water? I’m parched.”
“Sure thing,” she said, getting up from the couch.
Tom rolled his eyes at the pet name.
“Come on, Frankie,” Tom said. “It’s about time I took you home.”
“Yeah, great,” Frankie said. “Everybody say goodnight to the little kid.”
Tom didn’t respond to the boys words. He drove Frankie home, dropping him off two blocks away from his house. He watched as the boy walked away into the gloaming. Frankie stopped once, turned back and waved at Tom. Tom waved back, and Frankie continued on his way home. When Tom couldn’t see him anymore he pulled away from the curb and drove back to Patricia’s house.
Tom was deep asleep when he felt someone shaking him awake. He came out of sleep slowly, reluctantly. He opened his eyes and saw the shape of someone standing over him, but the image was blurry. He rubbed at his eyes and the image became the tiniest bit sharper. Who he saw was Katie, Harry’s young, blond assistant.
“Mr. Dwyer, are you awake?”
“Whuh? Yeah, I’m awake.”
“Follow me. Harry thinks you should see this.”
Katie had bunked up with Patricia for the night, while Harry had called dibs on the couch. Patricia had no cots, so Tom and Jack each got a spot on the living room floor. When Tom sat up he could see enough of the living room by the illumination of the flashlight that Katie held in her hand to see that both the couch and the spot on the floor that had been occupied by Jack were bare.
“Where is everybody?” he asked.
“Shh. Just come on.”
Tom threw off his sheet and got first to his knees, then to his feet. He followed the young woman as the beam of her flashlight bounced with each step. She led him to the open door of Patricia’s room and walked right in. Tom hesitated at the door for a moment, reluctant to see whatever it was that he was supposed to see. Then he walked into the room.
The whole gang was huddled together with their backs facing him. Their attention seemed to be focused on the wall a few feet in front of them, but he couldn’t understand why. In addition to Katie, Harry also had a f