Fiction, Vol. 4.1, March 2010
There had been a town-wide blackout in the early morning hours of August 12th, and the suited visitors first appeared in the half-light just before daybreak. John Murray, the morning delivery driver for the Millerstown Hub, claimed he saw a line of twenty or more identical black sedans proceeding noiselessly into town from Highway 303 at around 5 a.m.
Once arrived, they fell like heavy rain onto Millerstown, silent and upright in their long rigid skirts and starched collars. Their shoes clicked hollow as they walked through school hallways, up front steps, and out back doors. They held private meetings with high school English teachers, bus drivers, dentists and janitors. In every bar and every diner, the usually empty corner tables were now occupied by thin, ominous figures, casting forth again and again the same message. You didn’t see anything. Or, What you saw, you did not see.
A gas station attendant, living in a small ranch style home at the edge of town near Kensetter’s Marsh, told a story of how three visitors, two men and a woman, knocked on his door in the dead of night. They entered uninvited and turned the cabinets and furniture inside out. Then, with a hard look of warning, they vanished out the back door, trod through the moonlit backyard, and sunk into the black woods.
Under the foreign and watchful eyes of the swarm of suited visitors, Millerstown became a representation of itself, a play, an unsteady performance. The families ate their meals at seven as they normally would. Turn signals still flashed, the clock-tower chimed twelve times at noon as always, and plastic buttons with the smiling faces of sons and daughters holding baseball bats were still pinned to jackets all over town. But all this continued only because it was supposed to, because it was expected. Millerstown played the part of a small, suburban community in the Midwest in the same way that a possum plays dead to avoid being eaten.
And then, after a week, the town was left alone. The shiny black cars no longer rolled through the streets, the midnight knocking ceased. The government men and women left as they came, without announcement. For a short time, their presence left a residue behind, something like a scar. Nobody felt entirely satisfied with closing their garage doors, bolting their locks, and turning their lights off at night. Once it was clear that they were truly gone, an unsettling quiet came over the town. What had brought them? The rumors concerning some kind of crash in Kensetter’s Marsh the night before their arrival couldn’t be taken seriously, especially since nobody, in earnestness, came forward as a witness. After all, when the police department finally got around to conducting a search of the marsh in early September, nothing unusual was found.
The unease in the air lingered into the early fall. When school began in September, parents drove their children in the morning, leaving the all but empty school buses to wind through the developments in vain. A PTA meeting was held, during which the mothers and fathers of Millerstown expressed their concern over the safety of their children, but the same meeting a week later showed twice as many open seats. They were gone, after all, and it didn’t look like they’d be returning. Since there was no plausible explanation to believe, the residents of Millerstown simply chose not to dwell on the events. The incident was just an odd end to an otherwise humdrum, if slightly warmer than usual, summer. Besides, there were other matters to discuss, like the rash of graffiti on public buildings, or the construction to widen Waverly road that had dragged on months after it was supposed to have been completed. Before the last of the summer’s warmth faded, Millerstown had become itself again.
Clouds moved to reveal a meager half-moon. A warm breeze pushed against Fred as he stared up at the summer sky, mouth agape. His block, at 2:15 a.m., was as still as he had ever seen it. Darkness hung on the trees and the roofs of the perfectly lined houses. He walked slowly, almost drunkenly down the brick sidewalk and took in each black shape rising from the ground around him. The houses of his neighbors, whom he’d lived among for so many years, seemed strange to him. Their outlined shapes were hulking, unnaturally large silhouettes against the hazy dark blue of the sky.
Of course, Fred was acting strangely himself. He couldn’t remember the last time he was awake and outside at that time of night. There was no practical reason for it, and if Nora had woken up and noticed the bed empty, he would have a difficult time trying to explain it to her. The truth was that he had felt himself being pulled out of bed and into the warm August night by an unknown force, and since he hadn’t felt anything pull him anywhere in a long time, he didn’t resist.
A yellow-tinted street light leaned like a question mark over the sidewalk, illuminating a small patch of grass on either side of the brick. Fred walked under the light and saw what seemed to be a hundred bugs hovering around it. He stood for a moment, feeling at the verge of being taken over by some unseen force. The image of the stock boy, with his greasy brown hair and large eyes, popped into his mind. It subsided, and he stepped back into the darkness between the street lamps.
He replayed the interview at the Washington Street Shop & Save over in his mind. The boy’s official job title was Stocker, but for the last few weeks or so he had been working in the parking lot, gathering discarded shopping carts and replacing them in the queue just inside the store. Yes, this was only a summer job, and he would quit when school started up again in a month. No, he had never been involved in any other incident like this before.
The kid’s eyes were fixed on a cluster of crows at the far end of the parking lot. His eyebrows would raise slightly each time a car drove too close to the birds, sending them into the air for a moment, and then fall again when they returned to earth for their crushed baguette. Even when he was answering Fred’s questions, he averted eye contact and spoke in short, clipped sentences, offering little information of his own. In fact, he mostly just confirmed the facts of the incident that Fred had gathered from witnesses and the claimant herself, Mrs. Joyce Adderly. Miles had been pushing a train of carts, eight or nine long, when something caught his attention. Was it the crows? A car? He couldn’t remember, it was something, or it was nothing, but in the moment he looked away, he felt a slight thud. When he looked back, he saw the claimant, Joyce Adderly, down on her knees near the front of the train of carts. He approached her and asked if she was alright, she told him no, wasn’t he watching? He ran into the store and found his manager, something or other Haskins. Upon seeing that Mrs. Adderly was a rather elderly woman in clear distress, Haskins called an ambulance, and later that afternoon a claim was reported at the store, the owner of which promptly notified Fred. Mrs. Adderly is suing the store for an ungodly amount of money that she cannot possibly name until she receives the full extent of her necessary medical treatment.
Fred knew it wasn’t the case itself that stuck with him. After sixteen years as a Claims Adjuster, he’d seen this kind of thing a hundred times before. Old ladies were always falling, hips were cracking. If there was a grape on the floor in Produce, it would be found and slipped upon. Rugs were always bunched at exits and broken bones had to be paid for. Lawsuits seemed to grow like weeds in supermarkets, where a million things could go wrong and when they did, it was never anyone’s own fault. Personal responsibility cannot exist in a place with so many distractions. That was just the way things were.
What bothered Fred was the way the kid had made him feel. There in the parking lot that day, he heard himself asking the questions, the routine inquiries involved in such a case. They sounded different though, and suddenly he didn’t recognize his own voice. It was flat and arduous, speaking a language made of shallow, cold words. Atonal and entirely ineffectual. A language born in a vacuum, in an empty house with no windows. Fred felt himself painfully pull these words from within and push them in front of the stock boy. And even as the words were in the air, he turned and watched the crows peck at bits of bread, at tiny rocks. He was dragging this kid in front of something he didn’t want to see. He was showing him a world that neither of them wanted to believe in.
When he was fifty yards away Fred stopped, turned, and looked back at his own home, which he was surprised to find nearly indistinguishable from every other huge black mass in the night. The carefully manicured bushes lining the front and side of his house were no longer their tight, symmetrical forms. Now, they were simply a black base to a black form jutting awkwardly from a black earth.
He reached the end of his block and looked up at the clouds. Something surged inside of him, the hint of a revelation at the edge of his mind. He relaxed, willed it to grow. His throat filled, he let out a sigh, and he knew now that something was indeed happening. The night opened, the sky opened, and in the corner of his eye a white streak turned into an even whiter flash. He heard a not-too-distant rumble that seemed to come from the east, near Kensetter’s Marsh. He turned his head to watch thin layers of not-quite-smoke rise above the black trees less than a half-mile away.
Every street light on the block had suddenly gone out, so he walked on toward the marsh in the first pure blackness he could remember.
It had been a summer filled with strangeness in Millerstown, and Miles Kiski sat alone in his room wondering if it all was supposed to mean something. First, there was his friend Robby Decker, who had grown almost four inches in one night. On the Monday of the last week of school, Robby arrived fifteen minutes late for homeroom, red-faced and sweaty.
“I’m much, much bigger today,” he whispered to Miles, wide-eyed and pointing down to his pants that failed to cover up his ankles. For the rest of the week, before he was able to buy a new wardrobe, Robby was forced to wear his father’s corduroys and flannel button-downs. Whenever anyone noticed the difference and stopped him in the halls, an expression of grave unease would pass over his face while he stared down at his own open palms.
Then there were the Zampellas, who moved their house across town, from one giant field to another, because they didn’t like the way the bugs sounded at night anymore. At least that was the rumor that Miles had heard about why they moved, and who can really be sure if it was true or not. One Saturday in the second week of June, an endless caravan of moving trucks rolled slowly east down route 303 through the center of town, carrying all of their expensive furniture and Mr. Zampella’s mythical collection of arcade games. Then came the white picket fence that used to hold the horses in, stacked in sections on the beds of pick-up trucks. Then the horses themselves, and the basketball hoop, and the ten or so stone statues that populated their old back patio. Finally, the house itself staggered through the streets on top of three long rigs hitched together. To Miles, it seemed the whole population of Millerstown was out that day, lining the streets to witness the Zampella’s bizarre miniature migration. When the move was completed, all that was left of their old estate was a paved semi-circle driveway in a field of grass and dirt that looked like either a frown or a smile, depending on which side of the drive-way you were standing. Miles imagined the sound of the bugs in the now-empty field in the middle of the night, and how it would echo off of nothing.
Next was the revelation that the empty lot behind his cul-de-sac was going to be developed in to a Wal-Mart, which would put the old Shop & Save he had worked at for three straight summers out of business. The Millerstown Hub broke the story in late June with a full feature spread, inviting readers to write in their opinions. At first, the residents were on the brink of outrage, lamenting that Millerstown would lose its identity in the long shadow of the corporate giant. But angry letters to the editor became less frequent as the weeks wore on, and eventually everyone resigned to the inevitability of the new super-store’s arrival. Many even secretly awaited the glossy aisles and the convenience of it all.
Miles himself got into the habit of cutting through the empty lot on his way home from work at the Shop & Save. With each step, he imagined where he’d be if it were actually a year in the future, and the giant new store was up and running. He pictured the endless aisles of products, the blue and green cardboard boxes, the orange and white cartons bathed in fluorescent ceiling lights. Shoppers like wind-up toys buzzing about in straight lines, making turns at right angles. A voice booming through the speakers announcing a special on honey-baked hams, to be found in the freezer section. The rattle and squeak of shopping carts. A kid like him, mopping up a puddle of laundry detergent in aisle nine.
Thinking of the land behind his block pregnant with a Wal-Mart made him think of the poor old Shop & Save, and how even though he complained about it all the time, he knew he would probably miss it. He also thought about the way Lisa looked in her Swenson’s Coffee uniform, walking from the little drive-thru hut at the other end of the parking lot toward the automatic doors of the Shop & Save, to visit with him on her breaks. She always brought him a small cup of coffee, which made him crazy and when she left after 20 minutes or so to walk back to the hut, he would rocket up and down the aisles humming to himself.
Lisa wore a beige cap with her black pony-tail coming out of the back. It would bounce against the back of her neck as she walked across the rough asphalt, carrying his coffee cup so that her wrist curved in a way that made him embarrassed to look at, but he didn’t know why. She always wore jeans, a solid colored t-shirt, and the blue checkered Swenson’s apron tied around her waist.
He used to daydream about asking her to meet him in the parking lot late at night, and he would have done it too if she hadn’t quit her job just a couple of weeks earlier. He didn’t know why she did it, it was just that one day he didn’t see her walking across the parking lot, squinting in the sun. He didn’t see her the next day either, or the day after, and eventually heard that she didn’t work there anymore.
It would have been perfect, though. He had the keys, and he knew the code to the alarm. He could see the two of them strolling through the darkened aisles together, as if on a real date, for once having the whole place to themselves. Stopping to talk at Soups and Condiments, leaning in for a kiss in the radiant glow of Dairy. He could even make a joke of giving her a bouquet of flowers from Garden. The whole idea was so perfect it was like he had seen it somewhere in a movie, but he was pretty sure he hadn’t.
Lisa disappeared in the same week that the incident occurred with Mrs. Adderly, which was another thing that had happened that summer, but the more Miles thought about it, the less strange it seemed. In fact, it was probably the most normal thing that happened to him the whole summer, maybe in his whole life. Miles was glad that Lisa wasn’t around to see that, because he was embarrassed by the situation, and he tried not to think about it too much. Of course, his supervisor Mr. Haskins assured him that accidents happen and that he wouldn’t have to worry about getting in trouble or paying for anything, but still he felt ridiculous about the whole thing. The worst part was the way the old lady groaned and wiped the sweat from her forehead, muttering goodness to herself while sitting on the curb outside the store. And of course all the insurance man’s questions, and the weird, desperate way that he looked at Miles during the interview.
And then there was the feeling on that particular August night, as he was sitting alone in his room, that he wasn’t alone at all. There was something in the air that was tugging on Miles, and there were things, like ghosts, moving in the corner of his vision that he couldn’t quite focus on. Somewhere outside in the distance, he thought he heard a rumble. Again, he wondered why all these things were happening in Millerstown when nothing had ever happened there, and why for some reason he felt they were all connected.
It seemed to Miles that his room was getting smaller. The walls were inching forward, braver by the moment. They could have grown arms and fingers, reached out and touched him. His mom snored in the room next to his, and he was amazed how well she slept when these things were moving this way and that in the house. But they were probably just in his room, probably weren’t in theirs at all. His jacket was hanging by the hood from his closet door, looking like a mouth drooping open. He grabbed it and wondered if the ghosts would follow him outside.
The strange-colored mist over Kensetter’s Marsh continued to rise as Fred walked steadily down the street. He felt like a character in one of those old black and white Twilight Zone episodes, who are always normal people in towns just like this, always unsuspecting, always just a bit too curious. He didn’t know what he was moving toward, what he would find once he got there, but a strange calm was inside of Fred where there normally might have been panic, adrenaline, burning wonder. The streetlights were out, and though the moon was no bigger than it had been earlier, Fred felt closer to it than before.
A dog was howling somewhere a few blocks away as Fred reached the end of the last development before the long field in front of the marsh. He could make out the black rectangle of the Shop & Save only a few hundred yards away, and from inside the glass windows of the store, there seemed to be a faint white glow. Behind the building, deeper in the woods, the reddish mist rose in thin, ghostly pillars. He tried to empty his mind, but the image of his daughter came forth.
He wondered if Leslie knew the stock-boy. A soon-to-be senior, Leslie would be a couple of grades older than him, but this being Millerstown, the school only had a few hundred students in all. Perhaps they passed one another in the halls each morning, or ate at adjacent tables during lunch. Leslie was pretty, with long auburn hair and bright hazel eyes. Fred knew that she was a popular student at Millerstown High, and he suspected that she probably had little to do with boys like Miles Kiski. Since the fall of her ninth grade year, Fred had noticed a change in his daughter. Fred had no idea how, but suddenly she was owed so much more than she was given. He suspected that it wasn’t only Leslie, though, but every one of her friends as well.
Some were new, some he had driven to softball practice just a few short years before, but all seemed to be cut from the same mold. Christie, Jenny, Kara, Melissa, they formed a small force wherever they went, created a slight but unmistakable gravitational pull. Their hair was always long, either flowing off the shoulders or pulled back in tight pony-tails using black or red ties. Each was unnaturally tan in proportion to the average amount of sun in Millerstown, their legs and arms shining light brown against their white tank tops and denim shorts. They wore too much make-up, which bothered Fred, and the deep blue eye-shadow rimming their lids made their eyes look larger, wider, somehow older. When they walked down Main Street in small droves, their plastic bracelets rattled and their flip-flops thwacked against the heels of their feet. When they spent the night in the basement of his home, staying up late to talk and watch movies, Fred could always faintly detect the smell of their perfumes blending into one alluring, troubling odor.
There was something foreign about these girls, something that unsettled him. They lacked an innocence that Fred realized they never had the chance of developing―not in a suburb, like any other, that had lost the same innocence in the years leading up to their births. It was an innocence that had a Radioshack and Tropitan built on top of it. The girls were faultless, of course, but Fred feared them just the same.
As he walked through the darkness of the empty field toward the very parking lot where he had first met Miles, he thought he saw something move up ahead in the distance. It looked as if someone, dressed in white perhaps, was walking slowly across the pavement. He quickened his pace, broke into a jog. When the shape of the store grew larger and the grass at his feet turned into asphalt, there was nothing there to see but an empty lot. An odd hum filtered through the air, like a heavy fog, coming from the woods just beyond the parking lot.
He stepped into the edge of the tree-line and the ground was soft and wet. There was a faint smell that Fred couldn’t quite place, but he also couldn’t tell if it was new to him or not. He turned to take one last look at the parking lot before entering the woods, but something caught his attention in the Shop & Save. Straining his eyes, he detected a slight movement on the other side of the entrance doors. Somebody was inside.
Miles walks slowly down a long aisle of nothing but breakfast cereal, tipping boxes off the shelf as he goes along. Lisa is next to him, the image of Lisa, the spirits that changed themselves into Lisa. Cartoon faces are all around in the dark; a pirate, a mummy, a bee with an enormous tongue. They remain silent as he and Lisa stroll together. He looks down at her wrist, becomes embarrassed. The pony-tail bounces against the neck, and it is almost perfect. They round a corner, not speaking a word. In the distance, he thinks he hears a ringing. Something like a metal marble rolling on the floor.
They would be in complete blackness if it weren’t for the freezer and dairy sections rimming the outer walls of the store, running on a softly humming generator and glowing neon white from the bottom up, like a phosphorescent moon. And even now, as Miles and his Lisa walk slowly together down the aisles, things begin to change around them.
Colds and Allergies has moss, hanging ivy and a wooden structure overhead that Miles has seen in backyard gardens all over town. Lisa reaches back and takes out the tie in her hair, drops it to the grassy ground. Her silhouette changes, her hair blooms wide. He knows not to reach for her wrist, though he wonders what the curve feels like. A box of Theraflu becomes an owl and hoots, twisting its neck all the way around. Aisles away or in the parking lot, the marble continues to roll.
Paper Plates and Bath Tissues is a quiet stream, with rocks lining its edge. They stop for a moment and he considers taking off his shoes and wading in, but Lisa has already turned down Cake Mixes and Candy. He follows behind her, careful not to look too closely. He knows he shouldn’t touch her or stare in her eyes, so instead he gazes off to his right the way he would if they were in a tree-filled park at midnight. All he can see is the black shape of the shelves, but he looks anyway and they keep walking on their path.
This is nice, he thinks, the two of them walking. No need for touching, no need to talk or anything else. But now he wants to show her the moon glow, the impossibly bright and deep shine and see her in it. He wants to see the whiteness reflect off her white skin, in her dark eyes. Taking her wrist, he leads her down a corridor of bushes, of shelves. There are crickets now and a distinct breeze.
Dairy glows gloriously. It is almost blinding, and for a moment he worries that she will not want to approach it, but she is leading him now. They are up close to it, and he turns to look at her. Her eyes are down on the ground and her face is bright, as bright as the electric lights in front of them, brighter. Her arms begin to glow, her wrist and her legs. Her mouth opens, her hair raises slightly. They take one step closer and she is gone. Vanished. Burned up in the light.
Beyond where Lisa had been he sees a dark shape, an outline in the doorway. A familiar man standing, with his hands cupped against the glass looking in on him. Miles knows who he is and now he wants to tell him what it was he saw that day in the parking lot when he hit poor Mrs. Adderly with the carts. He thinks he might understand.
Around them, an enormous humming closes in.