Monday, January 11, 2010

Land of Shadows: Chapter Two - Unwelcome Company

The day had dawned bright and clear, but clouds had begun rolling in from the southwest and the temperature had dropped about ten degrees. The bridge was open and as she drove past the checkpoint she waved to Micheal Eastland. She smiled slightly at herself remembering the crush she used to have on Micheal. They were still good friends but he was married now and they had a little girl at home.

There was a line on the southeast end of the bridge. Returning hunters by the looks. Some she knew, some she did not. Little by little the town was growing.

She turned west onto Maple looking for any clue as to which way he could have gone. At the intersection of Madison she stopped the Volvo and got out. Of course Bo and Duke tried to get out but she ordered them to stay in the truck. The pavement was in pretty bad shape here, there was more pothole than road in fact. The mud held numerous tracks left by vehicles that had come through the intersection, but all sets were incoming save one remnant of a track. It was a big 4x4 too. A small glint of metal gleamed from one of the ridges formed by the deep tread of the tire. It was a small spiral of steel like something formed by a drill bit. Even at 94 he was the best diesel mechanic in town and was pretty good at metal fabrication, so with the help of a couple of younger assistants he was kept pretty busy in his shop. He was always covered in small metallic bits, and his truck, when not in use was parked right there in his shop.
She pulled out her walkie talkie and pressed the talk button.

"Hey, Mike, you were on the bridge Thursday right?" His response was hesitant and he sounded so embarrassed she truly felt sorry for him.

"Yeah. I didn't know what he had done, so I just let him through. I'm sorry, if I had known..." She interrupted him before he could continue cutting himself down.

"I just need to know if anyone else left heading south." She knew that a log was kept of all the people that came and went and the direction they were headed in case something happened and a search party needed to be sent out. She waited patiently there by the tracks. She could almost hear him rifling through the pages on his clipboard.

"No he was the only one. Said he was going to get some supplies from town and might be gone all day." Dee thanked him and turned off the radio before he could apologize again. The tracks turned south on Madison so she did too. The tracks quickly faded on dry pavement but every time he drove through a large pothole he left fresh tracks for her to follow.

* * *

They came to an abrupt and unexpected stop halfway between Two Rivers and Manitowec on Wisconsin 42. This stretch of the highway was also known as Memorial Drive as it ran along the lake shore. The view was breathtaking this morning but neither he nor his captor had paid it any attention. Jewels was experiencing a moment of satisfaction at his captors' consternation. The creature was beating at the truck with a crowbar in a blind fury. But the current situation was not the truck's fault, nor was it even the fault of the tree that had suddenly sprung up in the center of the highway. Things had been going too easy for the last few hours and it had not been paying attention like it should. This was quietly encouraged by Jewels.

Jewels had no real control of his own body anymore but if he worked real hard he could exert some influence or cause some distraction. He found that by bringing his attention to an itch between his shoulder blades he could magnify to proportions that the parasite could not ignore and it would be distracted until the opportunity to do something about it arose. Which is exactly what he had been doing just before the truck hit the maple tree that had just been a seed stuck in a crack in the pavement when most of the world population had checked out.

The truck had not been going more than twenty-five when it struck the tree, but that had been enough to destroy the truck. Only the fact that fastening the seat belt was was such an ingrained habit had prevented them from going through the windshield. Jewels found himself wishing they had been going faster. That would have ended things right there. They had been forced to exit on the passenger side because the driver's side door would not open. The buckled fender was butted up against the leading edge of the door. It would take more strength than the parasite could have forced out of Jewels' thin frame on the best of days to open the door. He was forced to climb from one bucket seat to the other and maneuver past the gear shift and and the shifter for the transfer case. Getting out of the truck he slipped and fell hard on the pavement.

During the parasite's subsequent tantrum against the innocent truck Jewels found that he had control of his voice.

"Are you going to be finished sometime soon?" he asked in a startlingly calm voice between what were becoming almost desperate gasps for breath. "For such a superior life form you have an amazing short temper." This only renewed his unwelcome guests rage and he smashed out what was left of the windshield and knocked off the mirrors. Jewels could feel his blood pressure raising at an alarming rate. He could picture his escalating heart rate as a car's tachometer, the needle getting dangerously close to red line. He wondered how much goading it would take to push it over the top. What would a stroke feel like?

"You maggots are nothing without someone else to carry your stinking broods. You build nothing and destroy everything you touch."

"Shut up old man!" his voice screamed. Jewels thought he had touched a nerve and continued.

"You're vermin, ugly, filthy and stupid, no imagination, why the fuck we're so scared of you I just don't understand. You are cast offs you live like cockroaches in swarming over a shitpile ... "

"Shut up you old Fuck!!!" his voice shouted, barely recognizable. Jewels could feel the rage flowing from the parasite. It was squirming inside him, churning in his belly. He thought maybe he might have a chance. Piss the thing off enough to blow a gasket. But suddenly the rage just evaporated and it reasserted control.

Jewels could only sit there helplessly as it restored his full sensory inputs. He was suddenly aware of the pain in his joints, his hips. He realized how seriously neglected the stump of his leg had become. Ulcers had formed between his stump and the prosthetic. If not taken care of soon the infection would require that the rest of his leg be cut off. But then he realized that the parasite had just a little more planned for him. He watched in horror as his left hand laid itself on the cab of the truck, his arthritic fingers making a fist but with the pinky extended just over the edge of the passenger side doorway. The right arm reached out, grabbed the door and slammed it viciously. Jewels screamed. This time it was fully his own cries of pain he was hearing.

Having no choice but to proceed on foot he limped off to the southwest. If his leg held out he would make it to Manitowoc before dark.

* * *

Dee pulled up alongside the wrecked truck feeling grieved and relieved at the same time. She fully expected to find his dead body slumped behind the wheel. But the truck was vacant. She carefully examined the scene. Very little made sense about it. The damage to the truck was extensive, but a lot of it was unrelated to the accident. A crowbar lay across the hood. Somebody had just really wailed on the truck. Jewels was not really known for having a temper, but then again he was not really known for turning on his best friends and killing them either. She tried to open the driver side door and found it jammed. Crossing to the passenger side she opened the door and gasped at the sight of the blood spattered on the door frame. A mashed little finger fell out of the door to the crumbled pavement. She felt suddenly ill. She was not normally a squeamish person but this was a special case.

There were no other tracks about and her adversary was not in sight so he must have left on foot. The blood was dried so several hours at least had past. But he was on foot so was losing his head start advantage. She went back to the Volvo and let Bo and Duke out. She gave them a scrap of one of Jewels old jackets for the scent and let them out to sniff the area. Bo was confused at first and Duke was totally lost. The parasitic wraith had changed Jewels' scent and it was throwing the dogs off. She led Bo over to the blood spattered door. He sniffed around a bit at first then began heading southwest as she expected.

She drove into Manitowoc as if expecting to be ambushed at any second. But she did not see any sign of him. 'Too much to hope for that he might have crawled off somewhere and quietly expired' she thought to herself and immediately felt guilty for it. Once again she wished that this task had not fallen on her.

It was five thirty when she entered town so she started looking for a place to hole up for the night. Navigating through towns was tricky enough in daylight. As well has having to maneuver around abandoned vehicles in the road, there was crumbling pavement, occasional trees growing up where they had no business being and areas where the road had collapsed entirely. At night it could be impossible. But Maritime Drive was relatively clear. At least until it abruptly ended at 10th Street. Three trucks had piled up at the intersection. Only the fact that one of them had collided with a south bound cement truck on tenth had kept them from tearing through the chain link fence alongside 10th and continuing on into the river.

She idled there for a moment considering her options. The intersection was blocked completely.
The bar caught her eye. It was on a sturdy looking two storey brown brick building at the corner on the north side. The awning served as the bar sign and half of it was missing so it simply read "Bar". The windows on the first floor were all barred and most of the glass was intact on this side. It looked to be as good a place as any for her to spend the night. She backed up and pulled into the parking lot on the east side. There was a long covered porch along on this side with four doors that opened up onto it. They all proved to be locked. She let Bo and Duke out again.
"Check it out boys." she ordered, and the dogs quickly began sniffing about the building. She circuited the building with them, a shotgun cradled in her arms. But the dogs never hit on any suspicious scents. She paused at the front door of the bar, trying to peer inside past the bars and the dust but could see nothing. The door was locked, the bar had not been open yet. She sighed and pulled out her lock picks. She could pick a lock but would never have been able to make a living as a thief. After five minutes the lock finally gave up, she felt it was more in sympathy than because of her skills. She was just glad old Bill Parsons was not around to see how long it had taken her, or Heaven forbid, the twins. Either one of them could pick most locks in less than thirty seconds.

Bars were usually good, secure havens and she had often camped in them when out scavenging. They have easily secured points of entry and few windows. This one was pretty much as she pictured it from outside. The bar counter had polished marble top with oak panelled sides and brass rails and fittings. The beer taps were either antique or reproductions. A mirror covered the wall behind the bar so the bartender could keep one eye on the patrons at all times. Bottles and glasses stood in neat rows on the shelves behind the bar. A stage towards the rear served for live band performances or Karaoke nights. Tables and booths provided the seating. Sixteen years of dust covered everything.

But that just made the one clean spot on the counter stand out from the rest. She slowly spun around expecting to see Jewels standing behind her with a crowbar, ready to cave in her skull like he had done to her Daddy. But there was no one there. She felt slightly silly for scaring herself. Bo and Duke would have let her know if anyone were here. There were boot prints on the dusty hardwood floor but they were not fresh. A few weeks or months maybe. And the "clean" spot on the counter was the same. A Crown Royal bottle and a single shot glass stood sentinel on the counter there. The bottle was about three quarters full. She hoped that the bar's one remaining regular customer would not choose tonight to visit his favorite pub.

She searched the building and finding it secure decided it would be a good place to camp for the night. She unloaded some essential gear and supplies from the Volvo. There was a large studio apartment on the second floor. The bed was not too dusty. Stairs led up to a door opening onto the roof. She retrieved a pair of binoculars from her pack downstairs and surveyed the area.
The sun had gone down by this time, it was a cool night. The air was crisp and clear. No street lights or stadium lights to soften the falling darkness. Stars shone by the millions, possibly billions she thought. Anyone that had grown up before the disappearance would look at the sky in wonder. For decades man had been losing the stars to the growing city lights. But to Dee it had been like this ever since she could remember. It was beautiful, yes, but it was a beauty she sometimes took for granted. The moon was about 3/4 full so there was enough light to see the creature moving around about a block away. It was big and shadowy and it moved in absolute silence. It did not seem to be alert to her presence, but she would have to be quiet. Where there was one, there would be others. She rechecked the lock and the basement. There was very little she could do to secure the Volvo any more than it already was so she just left it. She would trust the dogs to alert her to any dangers. She looked over to the streamlined silver case and briefly considered banging out a journal entry. It was so tempting. As never before she felt the need to have that connection with her father, but she determined that it would just be too dangerous at this time.

© 2010 R. Keith McBride

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