Serial Novel Part 8
by CHRIS CASTLE
LOVED IN RETURN
n a way, Mike was glad the snow was falling and slightly hampering them from sight. It meant he was not aware of the stares they were no doubt receiving from the curtains of various houses. Nick took point, looking straight ahead, which meant Mike looked left to right. Both of them were aware that the threat was not only that of some turned ink-creature but now also from the folks who had once been friends and neighbours up until a short time ago.
The candles that still flickered from the windows gave them a general sense of where to head out to. The first house on the list, The Burke’s, held a single candle that had burned almost down to the wick in the window. Nick knocked on the door and when there was no answer, ushered Mike up. He picked the lock and eased the door slowly, to see if there was any other lock to offer resistance. Instead, it swung open, aided by the steadily increasing wind. Nick shone the flashlight onto the long strip of darkened hallway. Every room had it’s curtains drawn and candles burning.
Mike found them, lying side by side on the bed. The pill bottle was beside them, empty. On the small table next to them, a note sat propped between their two drinking glasses. As Mike lowered the torch to the floor to give them some privacy, Nick stepped into the room. He took the letter from the envelope, holding the pen light up to the paper. Mike saw the words through the paper and noticed the handwriting seemed small and neat. When Nick was done, he passed it over to Mike and stepped out of the room without a word.
We are too old to be so very frightened. We want to leave together and not be taken by the cold, the demons or the dark. If you are the one who has found us, cover us and leave us be.
We loved and were loved in return.
Mike coughed back the first sob and then jammed a hand over his mouth. He looked away from the couple on the bed until it was over and then drew the sheet higher, to cover each of their faces.
In all but two of the houses they searched, bodies were discovered. Mike found Mr. Button, who had sat very neatly in what must have been his favourite chair and blown his head off. On the wall behind the chair, the old man had had the foresight to take down the photographs on the wall, so the blood did not touch any of them. Mike crouched down and saw he had left the framed pictures in lieu of a letter. Each of them depicted a scene from the Second World War, the old man much younger, posing in his unit, in one halfway out of the cockpit of a fighter plane. What a sorrowful end, Mike thought and let the tears run.
He had given up all pretence of fighting it after the second house, the Bunsen’s, and now his eyes were puffy and stinging from the salt. The cold soon dried them, almost as soon as they fell, but he had gone past caring. The other’s had left notes; some of them were long, others leaving details for their burial. At the last house, poor Mrs. Peters, she had written just a single line, although it seemed to sum up every place they stepped inside that afternoon:
I’m so scared.
The two empty houses left no indication of where they had gone or the reasons why. They searched the attics and the cellars but found no sign of them. Nick refused to acknowledge them as dead and put them down as missing persons. Mike understood that it was a symbolic action, that he could not bring himself to take on any more death than all they had seen already that day. Mike went along with his point of view and playing his part in the tragedy: one man lying, the other man accepting the lie.
“Do you think they all did it when this started or after the first meeting?” Mike asked, standing in the empty house that had once belonged to the Garrison couple.
“It’s hard to say; the virus, the hysteria, the onset of the snow. It must have been a lot to fight in a short space of time. I wish I could have taken a few minutes to reassure them but the time-”
“There was no time,” Mike said, stopping Nick short. “We’ll have to notify Glenda about the bodies and raise it in this half-assed meeting tonight, just so people know.” Mike felt wrung out and flinty after the tears and felt it in his tone. He looked up and saw Nick glancing over, taken aback.
“I have to focus on tasks otherwise…I think I’m going to go insane,” he said.
“That’s the only logical way to go about it, I guess,” Nick said thoughtfully. “We should head back to the station house and start working on the kids’ situation next. We’ll have to sleep at some point, too.”
“Later,” Mike said quickly, the idea of closing his eyes and being made to see the sequence of the last few hours was too much to think about.
“A lot later, I imagine,” Nick said quietly, as the two of them walked out into the snow.
They walked back to the station house and unfurled the map. Nick carefully removed the dots from the houses they had just visited and Mike drew more lines through the sheet with the town’s people on it. Soon they’ll be more lines than people; he thought and folded the paper back into his pocket. Each of them drank coffee and sat opposite each other, making sure the other ate and then prepared to head back out. Apart from work, neither of them spoke a word to the other. The dark houses were still on them, in them and paralysing them to a degree neither were prepared to admit to out loud.
Tom’s truck was parked incongruously up on the kerb away from the houses. When they tapped on the door, he pointed behind them and the two slipped into the back seats. The dog was in the front passenger seat, snoring loudly and sprawled across Tom’s lap.
“When he ain’t a guard dog, he makes for a hell of a hot water bottle,” he said and offered the flask up. Both of them shook their heads, without speaking. The old man’s eyes darted into the mirror.
“You been through the houses?” he asked quietly and Mike felt Nick nod. He waited a moment more and then sighed in understanding. “Yeah, I guess you did.”
“Have you seen any movement?” Mike said, wanting to push away from what was now on all their minds.
“Nothing yet; no one's so much as opened the door since I got here. I saw people pacing around but no more than that.”
“Good Tom. We’re going in to speak to them. You head on home and get some shut-eye. Be back at the station at five, okay?” Nick opened the door to step out when Tom turned round to face them.
“You going to announce what happened to those folks in their houses at the meeting, to McKenzie’s men and such?” he asked. The dog twitched but didn’t move.
“I figure its best,” Nick said wearily. Mike looked up and saw something in Tom’s gaze.
“I thought I might go round there, put a few of their private things in storage at my place, if it’s all the same to you. I don’t know about procedure and whatnot-”
“You do that, Tom. That’s a nice thing to do,” Nick said and smiled. Mike tried to but nothing could make him grin at that moment. He noticed Tom was the same.
“It’s what the other people will do that ain’t kind, Nicky. That’s what puts me of a mind to do it. If you tell folk, the same folk who were there this morning, they’ll steal the place blind by morning, you mark my words.” His voice was low and a mixture of anger and sorrow.
“Do you really think they will Tom?” Mike said. The thought hadn’t even occurred to him at that point.
“What they don’t steal they’ll use for firewood. Either way, those places are going to burn now, regardless.”
Mike let Nick take the lead as he knocked on the door. Both of them took a step back as footsteps padded closer to the door but stopped short of unlocking it. Even though there was tension in the situation, Mike read no absolute danger in the air. He didn’t reach for the gun and glanced over to see Nick hadn’t either.
“Sheryl, Bill, this is Nick from the sheriff’s department. We were wondering if we might have a word.” Mike restrained from peering around the side of the house or gazing up to any windows. Even though he had been in many hazardous situations before, he had never been so nakedly aware of being considered a threat. It was a different environment now, he understood: they were now being thought of as a threat to innocent people.
“Is there just the two of you?” The voice was hoarse and they both recognised it as Bill Grounds. Every time they had met, Mike had been struck by the booming nature of his voice. It was like the man had once worked as a carnival barker and had never adjusted to life outside.
“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Nick said and smiled ruefully to Mike. Somehow that weary smile seemed to carry between the door and Mike was aware of something like a deep breath of decisions being made in-between the silence.
“I have your word?” The voice rose in pitch but gained no weight. Mike wondered how close this man was to screaming or even total collapse. Not far at all, he suspected.
“All we want is to make sure everyone’s doing okay,” Nick said, staring hard at the door as if he could see right through it. Suddenly, Mike saw a vein tightened in his partner’s neck “And we’re doing it as the law.” In almost the next second, locks unsnapped and the door opened.
“Have to be careful now,” the man said, standing in the doorway. “Come in,” he added, waving his hand and beckoning them inside. Nick went first and Mike followed.
“Added a deadbolt or two since all this happened, Bill?” Nick’s voice was slow and careful and Mike thought he noticed the tone; it was the way he spoke after something dreadful had happened.
“You know the crazy part? I only screwed them on after the town meeting, not when all the rest of it started. Can you beat that?” The man turned round and looked Mike dead in the eye, a look of glazed bewilderment in his features. Mike thought he might have been drinking but then realised there may be more to it. Shock, Mike reckoned, taking his chair, next to Nick. Not at what’s happened, but at the way people are reacting.
As they settled in their seats, Mike took a second to really look at the man falling to pieces before them. Bill was a big man and though he had lost none of his size there was something in him that had changed his appearance. He looked hunched as if waiting for a blow. In such a big frame it gave him an odd, twisted look, as if something was punching him from the inside. The other thing Mike noted was two-day stubble that had already shaped into something close to a beard. It gave him a wild, unchecked look and gave his fear a sharp, possibly violent, edge.
“Have people been knocking on your door, Bill; hanging around outside, things like that?” Nick leant forward in his chair immediately, trying to put the man at ease.
“I can sense it even when I can’t see it right out in front. What those folks have been saying on the factory floor’s been as good as toxic to the kids: you know it and I know it.” He reached into his shirt pocket and shook a cigarette free. He glanced round; his eyebrows rose to offer them up and then started patting down for a match.
“We know things are being said right now that are causing tensions here, Bill. That’s why we’re here, now, making sure you’re all alright.” Nick pulled out a lighter and lit the cigarette. “Sheryl mind you smoking in the house, big man?”
“Sheryl’s gone, sheriff,” he said quietly, after he’d puffed two long streams of smoke out from between his lips. “Took Hannah and Flora with her, too.” For a second nobody spoke and Mike noticed Bill seemed as shocked as the two of them at what he’d just said.
“What happened, Bill?” Mike asked, seeing Nick was still too taken aback to continue. “Are they okay? Did something happen to them?”
“Yeah something happened, sheriff; this town happened.” He waved his hand around towards the window, the smoke trailing around him in the air.
“She left this morning, while everyone else was making themselves mayor at the town meeting. We figured it was the best time to go when all those jackboots were brainwashing the sheep and polishing their knives.” He slumped back in the chair, his face at odds with wired body language. Mike saw he was clearly relieved to have confessed to someone and at the same time wracked with worry and guilt.
“What about Gill?” Nick went on carefully but with an edge to his voice. Mike had never heard the tone before and realised it was surprise; he was uneasy at the idea of playing catch-up and being caught off guard.
“My boy’s upstairs, sleeping. He wanted to stay and make sure his old man doesn’t get in any trouble.” His eyes became watery and behind the joke, Mike saw a mixture of pride and shame in the expression. “He thinks the town’s going to come after us because we’ve got so many kids. Had,” he said, re-adjusting.
“The girls?” Nick pushed on.
“Took the motorbike: Flora in the sidecar and Hannah holding on. She figured on the bike being able to manoeuvre around the cars and trucks.” He stubbed the cigarette out in the tray and looked to the window. “She said the petrol could get her as far as the next town, maybe the mountains if it came to that.” He was talking quietly, but Mike noted he was already acting like it was history and not something that happened a few hours ago.
“You should have come to us, Bill,” Nick said and all the warmth had dropped out of his voice. In its place, Mike could hear anger and also fear. It was different than the people at the meeting, though; it was fear for others and anger at not being able to protect them.
“If I had gone to you, it would have filtered through to the others and you know it.” Bill’s voice raised a notch and Mike wondered if he was going to have to step in. Instead, the recriminations seemed to taper off as soon as they’d begun.
“The only thing a small town’s good for is gossip, chief and you know it. You’ve got the badge but there’s a new kind of law coming before too long, you mark my words and they ain’t going to be coming round and knocking gently on the door. They’re going to be carrying flames and clutching rope, you see if I’m not right.”
“Then why are you still here?” Mike said, exasperated as he was confused at what the man was saying. A new wave of tiredness was spreading over him, different from the other attacks. It was weariness at the people around him, their selfishness. He looked over to Nick and wondered why he wanted to risk everything for these people. Why not run like Sheryl Grounds had done and at least have a fighting chance?
“You’re not much of a detective are you, sheriff?” he said and smiled sadly. Before Mike could respond, he shifted his eyebrows over to the table, where a pair of crutches sat.
“It’s not like I have a choice,” he said flatly. As he rummaged back into his pocket for another cigarette, he kept looking at Mike as he leant over to Nick and accepted the light.
“Why are you still here?” he said quietly and sat back in his chair to wait for an answer. In the silence that followed, everyone stared at the smoke and no-one looked at each other.
“Do you think others are going to start taking off now?” Mike said as they trudged the short distance over to the Todd’s house.
“Could happen,” Nick answered, clearly still shaken by the idea of the woman and her children having slipped away. As they looked around, Mike saw the imprint where the motorbike had once sat in front of the Grounds’ house.
“How do you think she explained it to her children?” he said, turning and facing Mike. “Do you think she told them the truth or dressed it up into some sort of adventure?”
“How do you talk to your kids about the end of the world?” Mike replied, looking up to the sky. It was utterly grey now and almost blank. The snow was coming and an image of the small girl on the sidecar covered in snow came to him. In his mind, Mike couldn’t decide if she was laughing or crying. He looked back down and saw Nick looking at the houses, the small gardens in front.
“Tell them it’s not ending, I suppose,” his voice distant, as if talking to himself in the privacy of his own house and not out in the cold, preparing to talk to families scared witless. “Tell them things are just beginning.”
As they made their way up to the front door, Mike became aware of the curtains fluttering from the second floor. At the front porch, they heard the stampede of feet and then the chastising voice of an adult. Mike looked over and saw Nick smiling as the adult quietly but firmly laid down the ground rules for guests and the animated hum of agreement. Someone still cares about house rules; he thought and smiled, seeing Nick doing the same.
“They’re still here,” Nick said and Mike detected a hint of relief in his voice.
“Is that better or worse?” Mike said before he could stop himself and felt the stare from Nick come quick and hard. Neither looked away and for a moment the two of them stood frozen, until the door swung open.
“Hello sheriff Nick, Sheriff.” The lady of the house, Debra Todd, looked up and beamed at each of them. Mike was used to a little stiffness around the town, which was completely at odds with the total comfort they felt around his partner. She ushered them in as they said hello and took off their hats.
“Hello sheriff Nick! Hello, Sheriff!” Mike looked down the narrow hall and saw the gaggle of Todd kids bunched up at the kitchen doorway. He waved and saw them immediately go shy and quiet. As Debra showed them into the small living room, he gently tapped his badge and winked and saw the three of them smile, before disappearing towards the stairs and their bedrooms.
“Here they are!” Terry Todd said, offering up the two empty chairs and shaking their hands one by one. Nick got a pat on the back as well and Mike suddenly wondered how all of this would have gone down if he’d been forced to deal with it on his own.
“You boys sit yourself down while we get you set up, okay?” Terry went on, pouring coffee into their cups and waving his hands towards them encouragingly. On the table was a small plate of biscuits.
“How are you all holding up?” Nick lifted his cup and took a sip, showing his enjoyment for it as he waited for them to answer. Mike watched as the couple looked to each other and saw countless untold words pass between them. The two had been married twenty years and happy the whole way through, according to Nick. He wondered when the world had shifted to make that fact sound as outlandish as the current situation at hand.
“We’re holding up,” Terry said finally, putting his hand over the top of his own cup, blocking the steam as it rose up. “We’re waiting for what happens next, the same as everyone else, I guess. You got anything you can tell us?”
“We’re trying to keep a lid on things and that’s the truth. Tempers running high, it seems. We thought it would be good to make sure the kids are doing okay, too.” Nick set down his cup and glanced at each of them, Terry first and then Debra.
“There’s nothing wrong with our kids,” Debra snapped out all of a sudden. It took Mike by surprise and Nick flinched too. Terry, he noted, didn’t react at all, as if he’d been waiting for it.
“I’ve no doubt about that,” Mike said and saw the woman’s face light with anger. In the dynamic of the couple, she was the strong one, the glue that held it all together, he realised.
“Seems like a lot of folk think otherwise, sheriff,” Terry said and Mike saw all the blood had drained out of his face. “I thought something crazy like this might bring this town together but it seems like all it’s doing is tearing everything apart.”
“We’re here to make sure nothing happens to the community,” Nick said but his voice wasn’t carrying the same weight it had done earlier in the day or even an hour before. The doubt hung in the air and there was no hiding from it.
“I saw Sheryl take off with her kids this morning,” Debra said quietly, some of the redness going out of her cheeks. Mike noted Terry spun round at that and looked shaken at the idea of a secret being kept from him.
“Did she say anything to you?” Nick asked hurriedly, trying to cut off Terry before he could begin to ask his own, private questions.
“I waved to her from the bedroom window. She waved back but those girls, bless them, they didn’t move an inch. It was like they were frozen in place.” She shivered and Mike knew there was something in what she’d seen that she couldn’t get across to the rest of them.
“What can we do, sheriff?” Terry said as he rose up out of his chair. He went and stood by his wife and took her by the hand. Mike felt he was intruding somehow and looked away, seeing Nick doing the same.
“I can’t allow anyone to steal my kids,” Debra said in a whisper. Her three children were playing out of earshot and it was just as well; even though it was a whisper, there was a fierceness to it that carried clearly through the room.
“We won’t let that happen, no matter what you might have heard,” Nick said, his voice finding its strength again. Mike looked at him and realised, internally, the man had made a decision about something.
“Whatever happens, we’ll be looking out for you,” Mike said and was surprised to feel the energy surge through him at finally being able to say something concrete. Lines were being drawn and it was galvanising both of them. He looked over and saw a little relief flicker over the couple, too.
“We feel better for having you watching over us,” Debra said and the smile that beamed over her face just about broke Mike’s heart.
“We’ll do whatever we can, Debra, but you’ll have to be careful too,” Nick said, cutting through the tenderness of the moment. It was harsh but necessary and they all seemed to understand that.
“I have a weapon. It’s what I used for hunting. I keep it out back-” Nick acknowledged this but seemed to wave it away at the same time.
“I mean what happens around you. Keep the kids with you at all times from now on, okay? Don’t even let them go as far as the street, you hear?” His voice was low but strong and he had drawn them all in, Mike included.
“Don’t go to the meeting tonight, that’s done, already. If anything comes up, we’ll let you know, otherwise, stay here and stay safe.” Somewhere, one of the kids bumped something upstairs and made them look up to the ceiling briefly.
“Are you planning on calling on any others?” Debra asked, as Terry broke away to see about the commotion upstairs.
“Planning to,” Nick said and let his sentence hang in the air, waiting for her to add whatever else she needed to say.
“The other kids left are all with the church folks. We saw them being collected, no doubt up to Daters place on the outskirts. Scooped up in that Jesus minivan they’ve got for Sunday service, all bright yellow and sickly.” She shook her head and Mike felt something dry in his throat. Child snatchers, he thought.
“Are you saying they were taken by force?” Mike said quietly and then coughed. He drained his cup as he waited for her to answer. She was looking over to Nick but she finally brought herself round to him.
“The parents let them go. Some of them were nodding their heads like they were making an agreement or a pact or something. Some of them were even smiling, if you can believe it.” She shook her head and then looked back to him again. “They’ll say those kids went willingly but I can’t say I’d believe them.”
“How did they look?” Nick asked and she acknowledged the question with a slight tilt of her head, though her gaze didn’t leave Mike’s eyes.
“Haunted,” she said. “They looked haunted, sheriff. Like they knew they were doomed and couldn’t do a damn thing about it.”
“Are we saying they were kidnapped?” Mike asked as soon as they stepped down onto the street. The implications of what they’d just been told were making his head spin. “Christ, if on top of everything else, we’ve got that to deal with…”
“It's hearsay until we know otherwise, partner, you know that. We’ll have to wait until we get there and judge the situation.” Nick turned round and faced Mike square on.
“You think it was right for Sheryl to take the kids and go?” His voice was flat but that was because he was trying to suppress his emotion, not find it. Mike knew it was coming but was still surprised now the moment had arrived.
“I think it was her choice but not just hers. They talked it through as a family and made a decision. If all the people here acted in the same way, we’d probably be in a better spot than we are now. It’s better to talk than be told what to do.” He kept his head high and waited. All around them was silence; nothing moved and no-one spoke in the streets around them.
“People have got more of a chance if they look to each other,” Nick snapped back. “If we go our separate ways-”
“It already has, Nick. The meeting, McKenzie, it’s all fallen apart.” Mike’s voice softened and he felt a spark of surprise that Nick hadn’t understood the play.
“I’m talking about the good people, Mike!” Nick said and his voice was barely lower than a scream. “I’m talking about the people who care.” His face flushed scarlet and Mike took a step back. Once again, he had underestimated the man. Nick was already thinking ahead to the splinter groups and the people he wanted to save and those he had already been cut adrift from. Mike realised something else, too: shame. His partner was in anguish at the people he had tried to care for and had already, in a way, accepted losing.
“She could be safe by now,” Mike said, but Nick was already shaking his head.
“She would have been safer with us,” he replied sharply, but already the edge was going out of his voice. “We have to stay together if we’ve got a hope of getting through this. You understand that, don’t you, Mike?”
“Of course,” Mike said and felt a little angry at being thought of as so naive. But when he looked up, he saw the pain on his friend’s face and all thoughts of self-pity or self-righteousness seeped away. “And you understand its okay to take sides now, right? That we have to choose who we can save and leave who won’t stand by us?”
“I know it. I just don’t want to have to accept it just yet.” He reached over and gripped Mike on the arm. His smile was sad and so much like Debra Todd’s it was almost uncanny.
“It’s about people now and not the town, isn’t it?” Mike said and realised that this was the point of the entire discussion they were having; to get to this point and be in agreement about it.
“It is, yes,” Nick said slowly and let his arm fall. “We stay together or we leave together. But the town be damned if it becomes a place that’s not safe anymore.”
Mike put his hand out. He didn’t know why anymore than why his partner took it. But they shook and then made their way on, Mike feeling lighter than he had done moments before. He looked over to the older man and knew Nick felt the same way too.
The yellow minivan sat outside the tall townhouse, looking totally at odds with the stark building. Even as they stepped up to the door, Mike noticed the complete lack of sound didn’t seem out of place in a spot like this. Instead, it seemed almost appropriate. Nick knocked on the door but didn’t take a step back to allow for any space to be established. He seemed primed for confrontation and Mike was glad.
A single steady clip-clop echoed down the hallway and the doorway opened with no hint of fear that they found at the Ground’s and no sign of welcoming as the Todd’s’ house.
“Is there a problem?” Dater said, looking them both over as if they were readying for a job interview or an appraisal. Mike noted the pointed way in which she did not use their titles and saw the sharp crease of a smirk that it drew out on the corners of her mouth.
“We’ve just been trying to establish the whereabouts of several teens that were said to have stepped onto your van. We-” Nick’s voice was tight, almost strained he coughed. Mike held onto that same feeling. Everything about her was measured and pinched, as if she’d laid claim to a dozen, worthless secrets that she attached great significance too.
“Our mini van,” she said, interrupting Nick, looking to gain the upper hand.
“Your banana yellow minivan, that’s right,” Nick came back, throwing her off her pace and almost making Mike laugh, despite their situation. “We were told four teenagers were placed there and we guess brought here.”
“There was no ‘placing’ as you call it,” she barked, desperately trying to regain her composure. “We spoke to the families and decided it was in the best interests of the children to be relocated for the time being, away from the risk of their computers and such and placed in more simple, safer care.”
“We would like to speak to these teenagers if we could, ma’am. Ashley Jensen, Floyd-” Mike was stopped by a dismissive wave of her hand, while at the same time, she directed papers at Nick. Her eyes were blazing despite her best efforts at control and she looked no different from the performance on the factory floor hours before. It was as if she were using up the last little residue and trace of her fury on the two of them.
“Those are documented papers, signed by parents and guardians, allowing us to take control of the situation.” She looked at the papers as if they were treasure and smiled at the confusion it was bringing to Nick’s face as he ran his eyes over them.
“Where did you get these documents?” Mike asked, hoping there would be some glaring hole they could punch through. Her expression, and the satisfaction in it, made his heart sink.
“Mr. McKenzie had these drafted, after being advised through his associate, Jules. It is all thoroughly clear in matters of legality.” She looked Mike in the eye and adopted an expression of false shock.
“They drafted them on a typewriter and used books for research. Can you imagine such quaint ideas?” She said and widened her eyes. Mike looked at her and realised just how thoroughly she was in the thrall of McKenzie and his power play. This woman would kill for him, he thought and shuddered instinctively.
“We would still like to see them, regardless of this,” Nick said, handing back the paperwork. “I want to make sure they are being taken care of and I am in my rights as sheriff to ask this.” Her features flickered slightly in the face of Nick’s natural and actual, authority. She edged back slightly and neither of them waited for any more encouragement to step inside.
“I’m afraid we can’t have you speaking to the children for long. We have taken it upon ourselves to create a mini place of worship and the children have very kindly volunteered to help us.” Mike recoiled at the way she would not use their names, or even refer to them as teenagers, adults practically. He remembered seminars he had attended about cults and how their re-programming always began with the loss of identity in small, insidious ways.
“We hope to be up and running after the successful evening. meeting.” She looked over, affecting what Mike guessed was a compassionate expression. “Will you be attending?”
“With bells on,” Nick muttered and again she wilted slightly at his unwillingness to admit defeat. “If we could just see Ashley Tate, Floyd Dean and Michael Merryweather, we’d appreciate it.” Mike watched as each name seemed to make her almost flinch in anger. They reached the small open space of the living room and found the three teenagers, working flatly, methodically and without joy.
“Hello gang,” Nick said warmly, his hearty voice sounding odd in the midst of so much oppression. Mike affected the same tone and waved. He thought he saw a brief smile from Floyd Dean, though the others remained solemn.
“Would you give us a minute or two to speak alone, please, Mrs. Dater?” Mike said and was not surprised to see her vigorously shake her head as if she’d been waiting for him to ask just such a question.
“As their guardian, I feel it is my responsibility to preside over every interaction forthwith, with the outside world.” Her voice was firm and toneless and Mike imagined it was the way she had ordered these poor young kids about from the moment they’d stepped through the door.
“How are you, okay?” Nick said, moving towards them. Mike could see his partner was clearly at war with himself; restraining his anger at the woman while trying to establish an approachable front with the two young men and the young woman. The boys were fourteen, the girl fifteen.
“We’re fine,” Michael Merryweather said and the other two deferred. He had obviously been designated spokesman for the group in any matters.
“Your folks decided you might be safer here, huh?” Nick piled on, his eyes making contact with all three steadily, going from one to the other. Mike did the same, looking for any signs, either good or bad.
“They thought it was best,” Michael stated. His eyes were clear but cold and Mike thought he saw something of the older woman in him.
“They did,” Floyd almost spat out, disrupting the controlled air of the room. Mike could feel the Dater woman stepping forward and moved across into the space, blocking her off.
“Guess it was a hard call, huh?” He said, acutely aware of the woman’s breath around his neck. Even though it should have been hot, and maybe it was, it still felt cool to his skin.
“We discussed it,” Merryweather said and then returned to his chores, clearly expecting the other two to follow his example. They did, but slowly, and the divisions were glaringly obvious. The girl was stoic but clearly in pain, while the other boy, Floyd, was practically trembling with anger. There was more in him; fear and betrayal.
“Well, that’s clarified,” Dater said, walking around them and blocking the three from view. If you have any further questions on this matter, I’m sure something can be agreed through the proper channels.”
“I am the proper channels,” Nick said, his temper breaking, He reigned it in, but not quite quick enough. His obvious anger seemed to make her glow with contentment.
“For now,” was all she said, almost sweetly, and waved her hands towards the door, letting the paperwork hang in the air for an extra moment, to emphasise the power she exuded over both the two of them and the three others behind her.
“Well, she seemed nice,” Mike said, as they stepped outside, trying to diffuse some of the tension that had locked up his body. He turned round and saw Nick rolling his neck.
“I feel like I’m building up a storm under my skin,” Nick said and followed it with an audible crack as if he needed to prove the point. “We have to get those kids out of that place.”
“What about that Merryweather kid? He seemed, I don’t know, proud, to be there. The others were scared stiff, sure, but he seemed glad to be there.”
“He’s a bad seed, always was. It’s the other two we need to concentrate on,” he said and that momentary puff of shame in selecting people rode over his cheeks again. Mike waved it away.
“We’re past the guilt thing; we need to get practical on this and now. How are we going to do anything, while she’s waving papers under our noses?” Mike reached the end of the street and looked back to the house. He imagined Floyd trying not to cry and Ashley Jensen making herself strong. “We could just take them out of there.”
“If needs must, we will. I think they’ll be under no direct threat as long as McKenzie doesn’t get involved. It’s too risky for him to do anything this early.” Nick spat on the floor but wouldn’t meet Mike’s gaze.
“You don’t mean the Jensen girl? Jesus Christ, she’s what, fifteen?” Mike felt a blaze go through him and started to turn back round. Nick grabbed him roughly, spinning him around.
“We’ll keep coming back, keep checking. First chance we get, we act, okay? But not now.” Mike let himself relax and eased himself out of the grip.
“You think he’s collecting disciples?” Mike said, his whole body feeling hollow.
“I’m saying McKenzie always acts for a reason,” Nick replied and the two of them walked further down the road. Mike felt his body sagging with the latest defeat and saw Nick drooping, though thought that was something else entirely.
“You remember to take your pills?” He said.
“Just trying to make sure I don’t take the whole damn lot,” he said, as the last of the daylight drifted away into twilight.
The two of them stepped into the station house and lit candles in the darkness. Mike felt oddly relieved to be back inside the rickety old building. A part of him wouldn’t have been surprised to have come back to find the windows put out, or even the whole thing in flames. He put on coffee and looked out into the near dark of the town. It no longer looked fragile, or weakened but spiteful and coiled, ready to attack. It looks like a bad place, he thought, a place that could take away goodness.
“Penny for them?” Nick said as he handed Mike a mug.
“Just thinking the town looks different in the dark,” he muttered and saw the familiar grin crease across the old man’s mouth.
“It’ll look as sinister in the daylight as in the dark if McKenzie gets his way,” he said, before sipping from his mug. “Glenda will be over any time now, the same with Tom Cloud and Tina. You think Sarah will come over, too?”
“I’ll go to her if she doesn’t come. I think maybe she’s better served being at home for now, especially if the weather’s getting up.” He looked over and felt warmth inside his body as he spoke. How long had it been since he had spoken about someone else being a part of his life, a factor in his every decision?
“Ask her to stay here from now on, if she’s agreeable.” Mike smiled, listening to the way Nick spoke. Sometimes it felt as if he were reading from an old book rather than his own mind. “I’d feel as comfortable as you to know she’s not cut off from us, from here on in.”
“I’ll ask her and I’ll respect her wishes,” Mike answered, noticing he was affecting the same old-fashioned speech. We sound like two low-rent knights, he thought and smiled.
“The bargain basement heroes, right?” Nick said and Mike shook his head.
“You read my mind,” he said, genuinely impressed. Before he could say more, there was a swift knock on the door. Mike made his way over but felt a sharp pull on his arm. He looked back and saw Nick was unholstering his gun. Mike did the same, slowing his walk to the door and trying to catch a glimpse from the nearby window at the silhouette.
“Let me in before I freeze to death!” Glenda hollered, making Tina laugh beside her. Both of them audibly sighed.
“We can’t afford to be anything less than careful from now on in,” Nick said but was still almost apologetic as he said it.
“You’re right,” Mike said, “We’re targets now, whether we like it or not.”
Glenda and Tom read through the last of their notes for the day, as Nick made a fresh pot. Glenda hadn’t discovered anymore about the virus, while Tom had stored what he considered valuable-value to their privacy, you understand’-from each of the now empty houses. Glenda looked visibly shaken as she found out about the ones who had taken their lives and all of them had sat in silence as Mike repeated the incidents involving the teenagers. The early froth and chat of the meeting had grown respectfully solemn. Finally, Tom cleared his throat.
“So, are we even going to go to this meeting, knowing what we know?” He drained his coffee and set it down. Out of all of them, he looked the least worn; he was a man who had risen early and worked hard his whole life, after all.
“I think I’ll attend with Glenda. We need to show we haven’t given up and to see just how much further McKenzie and Jules are going to try and take it. I think the rest of you should stay and look the town over.”
“What are we looking for, chief?” Tina asked. There was a faint tinge of alcohol on her breath but no-one said anything.
“I figure if you keep an eye on the families with children, check on anything that could be burned up.” It should have sounded ridiculous but Mike realised it was what they had all been thinking.
“You think they might be readying to ambush folks?” Tom asked and it was clear he was a little shocked, even if he didn’t sound surprised.
“Or traps,” Nick said calmly. “We’re only seeing the public face of it with McKenzie at the factory. They’ve already scooped up those three kids. I don’t want anything else like that to happen, paperwork or no paperwork.”
“That Dater woman could end up being the wildcard in the pack,” Mike said and saw Nick’s eyes spark up in agreement.
“That’s what I’m thinking. Jules is tied into this somewhere along the line and enough of them are going to be pinning their flags to McKenzie face to face, but she’s the one I’m worried about. She’s got that something that tells me she’ll go further with the least encouragement.”
“Fervour,” Tina said quietly and they all looked over to her. “When she was talking and sweating, she looked like she was in raptures. She reminded me of my old Sunday school teacher, who only ever looked happy when she was hurting someone or making them feel small in front of others. That’s what she’s like.”
“You got it in one, Tina,” Nick said, not hiding his admiration. She looked over to him, coming back to herself, and smiled a little, looking embarrassed.
“You always remember the good ones and the bad but not the ones in the middle that were okay, right?” She shrugged and pulled on her coffee, her hands shaking.
“The three of you loop round, keeping an eye on things and then we’ll reconvene when it’s over and go from there.” Everyone nodded and for a moment there was just silence. Finally Glenda spoke up.
“What about our Plan B chief? No-one’s talking about it, but we should. If we come back and we’re looking at some maniac cult running our town, we want to be thinking about a...what do you call it? An ‘exit strategy,’ don’t we?”
“Running away,” Tom said flatly and the two of them glared at each other.
“I like to think of it as escaping, Tom. I don’t have any notions of standing my ground like you do,” she said, her voice tight. They were friends but both of them were tight enough to snap at a moment’s notice.
“Whatever happens, McKenzie won’t go all out straightway. He’ll want to give an illusion of respectability for a while at least. If we can’t live with that and no news is coming from any other point, we're looking to either the city or the mountains.” Nick spoke clearly and it seemed to diffuse a little of the tension.
“What about navigating the bridge?” Tom asked, setting his cup down.
“Tom, they’re saying it’s a patrol to keep the city people out, but it’s as much to keep us in as well.” Glenda said. Mike watched as the air went out of Tom’s throat as if he’d been socked him in the kidneys with a bag of copper coins.
“Are you saying they’ll trap us?” he managed to say after a few seconds.
“Tom, if they control that bridge, they’ll hunt us,” she said. “It won’t be a trap, it’ll be a slaughter.” The old man faltered again and Nick put a hand out to touch his elbow, just as Tina did the same.
Mike waved off Nick and Glenda as they made their way to the factory. The weather was just about holding. Having only been in the town since March, he hadn’t experienced what the locals called ‘A Real Honey Falls winter.’ The locals had teased him about it some and Nick had seriously talked through the impact the cold had on the town in the harshest days. He also got out a small photo album, showing the various graffiti takes on their beloved phrase that tended to crop up on walls around the town. ‘Snowy Balls,’ seemed to be the preferred moniker of choice.
The three of them split up and took small sections of the main part of town. It was agreed they would not stray further than ten minutes apart, in case something did happen. Also, eerily, the town was so quiet, a shout for help would actually carry from one to the other. Without discussing it, Mike took the quadrant containing Sarah’s house and it was the place he scouted out first.
Over the course of the next hour, Mike wandered up and down the street and for the first time became aware of being on his own. He had taken it for granted that Nick had always been by his side or in the close vicinity, and latterly, incredibly, Sarah had come into his life also. A low sense of dread ran through him, thinking back to the darkness of the creatures as they’d turned and the erratic movement of their bodies as they twitched in and out of life. If one set upon him now, alone, Mike wondered if he could fend it off.
More than that, though, he felt sorrow. Mike imagined all those poor old men and women who had literally been scared to death. He thought of the teenagers, essentially kidnapped and removed from their families. Then there was the woman on her motorbike, trying to protect two children and pushing further and further into the darkness of unknown territory. At the corner of the road, he peered into Bill Grounds windows and imagined the husband not passing out but drunk, all the same, separated from his family and playing scenarios over and over in his head, all of which revolved around his only son being stricken by a broken leg. An accident the family would have been teasing the boy over, just a few days ago. It was probably signed in all manner of colours and words; a multi-coloured cast that could end up destroying the family, one by one and scattered miles apart.
Finally, he thought of the poor kids themselves, the ones who had simply switched on their computers and consigned themselves to a death that, until then, was reserved for the movies and comic books. Mike could not comprehend what they had gone through and a part of him was selfishly glad for that. For a second he closed his eyes and tried to imagine the sheer ferocity of the spiked energy as it plunged into their fingertips and under their skin, fusing and burning and scarring all in one, visceral moment. Did they see veins change red to black? Did they feel the blackness as it formed shell casings over their body, over their very eyes? Mike shuddered, as the idea of hard ink entombing his eye sockets came into his brain. It was a living death; as brutal as a fist, as fatal as the gun.
“Mike?” Tom called out to him, raising his hand in salute. Mike returned it and shook himself out of his thoughts.
“Any trouble brewing?” he asked, noticing his voice was shaky at first but settling by the last word.
“None. I think I spent most of my time jumping at my own shadow more than anything. Damn thing keeps stalking me.” He smiled and Mike wondered if he was trying to calm both of them down. Even though it had barely been an hour, he was grateful for human contact and could see the old man was too. The two kept walking and met in the middle.
“Tina’s on the corner. She’s saying there are lights coming down from the factory floor. We should hoof it back and make a plan for what comes next.” He drew out a cigarette and offered the pack to Mike. He began to reach for one and then thought of Sarah and dropped his hand.
“Girl’s got you broken already,” he said but there was no cruelness in the teasing, only warmth.
“Something like that,” Mike offered and folded his arms against the cold.
“My late wife always rallied against me smoking. I told her I quit a hundred times and she’d call me on it, saying how she must have seen the shed catch fire every night at seven pm. what with all the smoke she saw coming out of it.” He smiled and it took ten years off him, if not more.
“It’s good to have someone, even if it’s only someone to worry about,” he went on, the smile fading. “Perhaps that’s why me and the sheriff are so stubborn about holding our ground. Feels like the town’s all we’ve got left to protect. Maybe it’s sad, maybe it’s selfish but that’s the way it is.”
“It’s neither of those,” Mike said and saw Tom’s hand come up to wave away any hint of sentiment. Nick and Tom could have been brothers, he thought and smiled. “At least I know where the sheriff gets it from.”
“Old timers, see? Set in our ways. Are you heading back or you staying a little while?” Tina appeared on the corner and both of them waved.
“I want to call in on Sarah,” he said.
“You do that and give her my best. I’m sure we’ll let you know about what went on when you get back. Anything desperate, I imagine one of us will come knocking on the door. Otherwise, I’ll let you go with no news is good news until you come back.”
“Appreciate it,” Mike said, stepping away. Tom turned and walked towards the woman in the distance. Behind them, there was a thin trail of light coming from the top of the hill where the meeting had clearly come to a close. Looks like a funeral procession, he thought and turned away towards Sarah’s house.
“Come in,” Sarah said and Mike gratefully followed her into the house. Two candles burned around the front room and the little girl sat wrapped in blankets in the far corner away from the window. As they sat, he tried to imagine it in happier times, fully lit and warm.
“Anything happening this afternoon?” he asked and watched her break into a smile.
“You should know, trying to peek through my curtains every few minutes,” she said and gently kicked out, brushing his leg.
“I’m not a stalker until they take the badge away from me,” he replied and saw the smile slowly dip from her mouth.
“How long is that going to be?” She hooked her head out towards the window and the trailing lights from the factory. He frowned, resolving from the start not to lie to her.
“Sooner rather than later, I guess. I’ll keep the tin but I don’t think the law’s going to hold much longer if McKenzie keeps getting his foot in the door.” The torches separated at the foot of the hill. Some went on their way, but he noted a fair size group stayed grouped together, like fireflies.
“Is that a group of concerned citizens or a mob?” Mike felt her come up beside him and look out. He followed what he took to be Nick and Glenda as they split away towards the station road. The two of them, with their two weak torches, looked tiny, feeble almost, compared to the cluster that stayed still. If they attacked now, he thought and shivered. Sarah caught it and gripped his arm.
“Have any of them come around when I haven’t been stalking you?” he asked, half-joking, half tense.
“No,” she said but rather than relief, he picked up sadness in her voice. “I was braced for men trying to cause me trouble, but no-one around here even stopped by to ask about Mae. I…I thought the town was better than that, at least.”
“The town’s changing,” Mike said quietly, willing the group to break apart and growing more and more panicked when it didn’t. “That’s what I noticed today, that’s what I couldn’t tell Nick earlier.” He looked over to her saw she was watching him intensely.
“It’s like I can see the town shifting from what it was to what it is with McKenzie, with people dying.” Mike hadn’t told her about the suicides yet, but he knew he would. He had to. “The town’s starting to feel like one of the ink-creatures, all dark and twitching, like it’s got the virus in its bones.”
“I’m glad you came over to make me feel safer, sheriff,” she said and he laughed, a big unexpected bark of a laugh.
“I’m sorry, Sarah, I-” he meant to apologise but she squeezed him tightly.
“I want you to tell me the truth, Mike. I need you to, okay?” Her voice was hard underneath the softness and he got an idea that she was the stronger out of the two of them, in the times when it would really matter.
“I will, Sarah. I promise.” He held her eye and followed she became distracted by what was happening on the hill. The group moved apart and slowly drifted back to their dark houses. Mike felt himself relax and was aware Sarah’s grip eased up slightly. Slowly, they returned to their seats. He smiled and she returned it, but he could still see the flicker of hardness in her eyes.
“So tell me about what else happened today,” she said and sat back. He wondered if it was in his eyes, the things he had seen. Before Mike had a chance to back down, or filter what he knew, he began to speak.
When it was over, Sarah got up and took Mike by the hand and led him to her seat. For a long while, the two of them sat, holding hands and saying very little. Mae slept and outside, the town was silent. It couldn’t last, even though Mike would have given anything for it to stay like that, simple and untarnished by the world outside. When she spoke, he felt a burst of sadness ride through him, even though he had come to love the sound of her voice.
“Do you think I should stay with you at the station house?” she asked.
“I do, yes,” he replied. There was no need for explanations now, or complications. Their time together was rapidly becoming one of simple, big decisions.
“I’ll grab it all before Mae wakes and I’ll drive us down. It should take fifteen minutes. I’ve already put most of it together. Can you watch her while I haul the rest together?”
“Of course,” he said as she slipped off out of his hand and into the far room. Mike leant forward in the chair and then, feeling uneasy sitting while Sarah moved around, stood. He crouched over to where the girl slept and watched her. Everything about her was small and perfectly formed.
He only looked away from her twice. The first time was to watch Sarah as she darted in and out of the doorway. The second was to look out the window to the town and the darkness. When he looked back to the sleeping child, he once again couldn’t help but be reminded of how tiny she seemed and just how vast the darkness appeared to be close by.
The short drive to the station house told its own story. Mike looked along the streets and saw that more houses were in total darkness, while others burned brighter. The black houses were bad enough but somehow the others seemed worse. The fires seemed too strong in the windows; the glass warped and wrong looking. As he looked harder he saw shadows dip across the rooms and each of them seemed too long and angular to be normal, steady people; people he had known and come to trust on some small, level. Now, they looked odd somehow and otherworldly and it took him another moment to realise what it was. They look like the ink creatures.
“They’re gathering,” Sarah said, bringing him back from the buildings. It was a good word to describe what was happening. There was no uniting or coming together but gathering, as if they were readying for an attack.
“Looks that way,” he said. Both of them were whispering. The tension that had been bubbling up had come to the fore now and Mike wondered if soon it would be strong enough to make the air itself crackle.
“Do you feel it, in the air?” He asked, looking at her as she drove. Her back was straight and her head focused on the road. If something was to happen to them now, he would trust her with his life.
“Like sparks,” she said, not as a question but as a statement. Her eyes flickered out to the houses for a moment and he watched as she drew breath. “It’s been like this since the meetings. If you threw a bucket of water in the air, I think it would crackle and explode.”
“I’m with you on that,” he said, seeing a curtain twitch as they passed by. “It feels like a weird fairy tale, doesn’t it?” Mike felt himself blush and wished he hadn’t talked so foolishly.
“That’s what it feels like,” she said, her voice lightening for a second. “I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Monsters, shadows, flames and dark castles; it’s like something I’ve shown to Mae at bedtimes.” The station house came into view and the car stopped behind Tom’s, making a line of cars in a row.
“I guess this is our moat then,” she said smiling, as she opened the door and made her way round to scoop up her daughter.
“Then I guess this is our castle,” he said, flipping the boot up and taking a bag in each hand. Sarah took the other and the three of them faced the station. Two candles were burning and Mike could see the four of them talking around the table.
“Good enough for me and my princess,” she said and nudged him with her shoulder. She smiled and he felt himself lighten briefly as they walked towards the door. In the back of his mind, he remembered the long shadows and the busy houses and started to think about blacking out the windows and securing the building. He was not thinking so much of a castle as a fortress in the near future. Now the town was officially on the brink of war.
Chris Castle is an English teacher in Greece. He has been published over 300 times and has been featured in various end of year and best of anthologies. He is currently writing a novel. His influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver. He can be reached for feedback at email@example.com. Chris has become a regular contributor to our journal: His stories, Grid, Slumber, Last House on Vector Street, Stealing Three, Zombie Cake, Button and Pa, The Garden, Butterfly Eater, Finger, and The Last House all consecutively appear in the January, April, June, August, October, and December 2013 issues of HelloHorror and its February, April, August, and October 2014 issues. Chris Castle's novel, Bedlam Days, is serialized in HelloHorror. Part 1 appears in the Winter 2015 issue, Part 2 appears in the Winter 2015 issue, Part 3 appears in the Summer 2015 issue, Part 4 appears in the Halloween 2015 issue, Part 5 appears in the Winter 2016 issue, Part 6 appears in the Spring 2016 issue, and Part 7 appears in the Summer 2016 issue of HelloHorror.
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