The whining. It was incessant.
Like tine, thine whine
"Excuse me boys, could you two please stifle it," Sue yelled over her shoulder at the boys in the back seat. He was at it again. Jake. Beating up on his younger brother. His favorite pastime. Ten years old and already a well-practiced bully. Lovely. Never mind the fact that poor Teddy was begging pathetically, pleading for him to stop. This didn’t deter him in the least. In fact, he seemed to thrive on that whine. That whine that pierced. Pierced right into one's brain. Jabbing like a. . .a . . .
Like tine, thine whine
Sign, thine whine?
Whine benign, fine?
Whine devine shrine ashine?
Nine pine thine whine
Decline mine wine stein
Like tine, thine whine
Brushing the hair back from her eyes, she sighed deeply.
She really didn’t want to contend with this problem again today. How long could a body beat their head against the wall, anyway? So futile. That all familiar dull throb at the back of her head was beyond annoying. She’d overdone it again. As usual she didn’t know when to call it quits. It was the stupid lists that she insisted on making out. She had to accomplish everything on them, or it would drive her crazy. She’d lay awake in bed tossing and turning, knowing that there was still one more thing on the list that needed to be crossed out. And so she'd spent the entire day shopping for odds and ends for the new house: Cleaning supplies, brooms, mops, door mats, pillows, curtains. And then, seeing that the boys would be starting in their new school the following week, she spent several hours picking out new school clothes and shoes, and then school supplies: notebooks, pencils, paper, folders, rulers, pens. And as if that wasn't enough to accomplish for one day, she'd just spent the last two hours handpicking the plants that she intended to lay out in her new flower garden over the weekend. Begonias, Impatiens, roses, daisies, all were piled high in the back of the wagon along with bags of topsoil, fertilizer, a new rake, a new hose, gloves, and other miscellaneous items. Everything on the list. She was totally pooped.
"Jake, you stop it right now, do you hear me?"
Like tine, thine whine
She glanced in the rear-view at Jake who was clutching a fistful of Teddy's hair, refusing to let go despite Teddy's pathetic whimpering. It was choking her, that sound. Closing around her throat, squeezing the very life from her.
"Jake!" She barely pushed the strangled word out. But it was enough to get Jake’s attention. He released his brother, albeit reluctantly, and sat back with a smug grin. It didn’t sit well on his handsome face. He really was quite striking. He had his father's dark hair and green eyes. Teddy, on the other hand, was a mirrored image of herself, mousey brown hair, walnut colored eyes, and fair skin. She watched painfully as he rubbed his injured scalp and brushed the tears from freckle-spattered cheeks. His quivering bottom lip was thrust out a good two inches, at least, pouting pitifully as he tried desperately to stifle his tears. He was a silent crier. Something else they had in common. Not Jake. Jake was a bellower.
For the life of her, she couldn't fathom why Jake found such pleasure in tormenting his younger brother. It seemed that it was never ending, the incessant bickering, the hitting, pushing, pinching, name calling, arm twisting, and even biting when things really got heated. The list of tortures went on and on. It was always something. And poor Teddy, only six years old and trying to be so brave. But it seemed Jake wouldn't quit until he had the satisfaction of seeing tears. So, in essence, Teddy was actually prolonging his misery with his stolid bravery.
She would have to have another long sit-down heart to heart with Jake. Try to figure out why. Somewhere along the line she had failed as a parent. He was angry at someone, something. Who? Was it her? And if so, what had she done? What hadn’t she done? What could she do? What should she not do?
I’m probably overanalyzing this whole thing, she thought with a sigh. What he probably needs is a good swat on the rear. But. . . . she had come this far without resorting to violence. She didn’t want to start now.
Mother was a swatter.
Well, more of a walloper, really. And she usually preferred aiming for the side of the head over the backside.
If she’d so much as looked at her mother crooked, she would find herself flying across the room. She’d done a lot of that growing up. Flying. She’d gotten good at it, too. She’d discovered there was a right way and a wrong way, and had worked quite diligently to perfect her own technique over the years. If it was done wrong, it could be a truly dismal experience: Painful and humiliating, sloppy landing, bumps and bruises. But if done correctly, it could be quite memorable. She’d found there was a certain way an experienced flyer learned to hold their body to maximize projection. Not too stiff and not too loose, but a controlled relaxed. That way one could travel further and more smoothly. An exceptional flyer, a level that took years of experience to achieve, almost appeared to be gliding.
She considered herself at the exceptional level. There were times that she’d glided for what seemed like eternity, sailing so smoothly, free from confining restraints, from cumbersome gravity, stretching the interval between impact of palm and landing to unbelievable lengths.
There was one flight in particular that she recalled with striking clarity. The grandfather clock at the end of the hall had been chiming the twelfth hour of noon and she’d paused in her mopping to listen to the melodic melody, counting down the hours, enjoying the sweet peal of the clarion notes. She’d reached the halfway mark (she remembered this clearly), a nice even six, when she’d encountered sudden impact.
She assumed the position (in hindsight, probably her best form ever), and was instantly gliding.
And then. . . . she was sitting next to Bobby Tayler in the school lunchroom. She was telling him about her stamp collection, how her uncle had just sent her father a letter all the way from Japan. "They have the most unusual stamps," she’d told him. "Maybe if you’d like, I’ll bring it to school tomorrow so you can have a look."
Chomping with zeal into a bright red apple, Bobby had nodded enthusiastically.
He was listening to her. And not just polite listening, either. Really listening. . . . with interest. She loved him for that.
And then he was telling her about an upcoming baseball game, how the coach was going to give him a shot at shortstop, and how he was all nervous with butterflies in his stomach and everything, talking to her like she was really somebody, all the while smiling across the table at her with those dreamy, flint-gray eyes of his. She loved those eyes. She wanted to dive into those eyes and just roll around for hours. They made her knees feel weak, sent her heart to fluttering like the wings of a butterfly. Fluttering wildly. Flying. . . .
Flying. She was flying, and then she was rolling. Not a sloppy roll. Years of experience kicked in and she completed a nice tight roll, tucked just perfectly, her arms around her ears to cushion her head. And then the clock was chiming. She counted along. Six chimes, she remembered clearly. Six chimes, almost as if. . . . . as if time had stood still.
Time did stop
No ticking of the clock
Tic tock, tic tock, not, not, not
I won’t drop, no flop, no plop
No more feet go clop, clop, clop
No more tears to sop with mop
Time did stop
No ticking of the clock
Tic tock, tic, tock, not, not, not
There was a strange blur of yellow monopolizing her vision. Slowly, the blur merged together bringing double lines into focus. She started with a gasp and, yanking the wheel hard right, swerved back into her own lane.
Lucky for you nothing was coming, dimwit. The object isn’t to keep the double yellows between the wheels, Miss brain.
A mewling sound drew her eyes to the rear-view once again. There she discovered that Jake had launched a new attack. He was holding Teddy in a fresh neck lock, giving him nooggies with great relish, his knuckles digging in.
He immediately stopped and sat back giggling while Teddy rubbed his injured scalp, fighting bravely to blink back the tears welling in his eyes. There was humiliation on his tiny pale face, as much as any six-year-old could muster. That combined with his hair, now sticking up in unsightly tufts, made for quite a pathetic picture indeed.
How long are we going to encourage this insubordination, Miss Brain?
She knew that she had to work on being more assertive when it came to discipline, but she just didn't have the stomach for it. Just reprimanding them verbally seemed to take such a tremendous effort these days. It was exhausting, so thoroughly and totally exhausting. Sometimes after having to assert her authority over them, she'd be so fatigued that she would have to lie down for an hour's nap, sometimes even longer. But even this didn’t seem to help much anymore. She was tired. A deep down tired. Deep down at the core.
She rubbed the back of her skull, an attempt to alleviate the irritating ache that harbored there.
Should she continue to be patient, bide her time in hopes that the abuse would eventually come to an end and they’d become the best of friends? And in the meantime, was the psychological damage being inflicted on Teddy reversible? This was something that she needed to take into serious account. He was already such a quiet withdrawn child, content to just sit and play by himself for hours at a time, quite the opposite of Jake. Jake couldn't sit still for two minutes, let alone two hours. But she couldn't blame him. He was, after all, an exact replica of his father. Daryl always had to be doing something with his restless hands at all times. Even if he was lounging on the couch during a ball game with a glass of rum and Coke propped in one hand, the fingers of his free hand always had to be drumming like mad on the armrest. How many times had she sat across from him, unable to tear her eyes away from those drumming fingers? Fingers drumming for hours at a time. Drumming endlessly, drumming. . . .
Fingers drum, ho hum, ho hum
Hum drum, hum drum, drum till numb
Yum, mum bum, come drink some rum
Sum: rumdum’s fingers drum dumb some
Drum till numb
Ho hum, hum drum
Drum, drum, horn
Gasping, she swerved back into her lane, waving apologetically at the passing car whose horn blared shrilly. She shook her head to clear it.
You’re driving a car, dimwit. Not going for a leisurely stroll through your mum garden. Let’s try to focus, shall we, Miss brain.
Thinking back, she attempted to pick up along her previous train of thought.
Restless hands, right.
Of course, there were times when this could come in handy, like with this new house. They’d finally gotten their house out in the country, and though she had to admit it had great potential, it was, undisputedly, what one would call a fixer upper, a handyman special. A bottomless money pit was probably more accurate. In any case, it was bound to keep Daryl's fidgety hands busy for quite some time.
She exhaled slowly, an exceedingly long, drawn-out and ragged breath.
Daryl was a pincher.
Love pinches he called them.
Love hurts. Whoever wrote that one must have known Daryl Kemps personally. She wore testimonies of his love, black and blue mementos all over her butt and thighs. It was some hysterical game for him. He would always try to sneak his love pinches in when she was least expecting them so that he might reap a good squeal for his efforts. There were still those occasions when he'd really surprise her (like last time when he snuck up on her in the shower) and he'd get the reaction he was looking for. But for the most part, she'd become quite adept at suppressing her pain, and he'd shuffle away sulking, completely downtrodden, and most certainly plotting his next round of attack.
She was forever on guard. Whether she was standing at the stove, sitting at the table, leaning into the washing machine, napping on the couch, in bed sleeping, in the middle of sex, washing the dishes, brushing her teeth, leaning in the fridge, vacuuming, tying her shoes. . . .
Pinch a buttock, pinch a thigh
Love aglistening in my eye
I will not shy, sigh, cry
I won’t deny, I’d nigh die
Thy on high so wry
Tell me, tell me, do not lie
Why love’s aglistening in my eye
That mewling sound again.
She peered up at Jake’s reflection. He’d switched tactics. This time he had a hold of Teddy’s arm and was twisting in opposite directions. Indian burns.
"Okay, that's it!" Swerving off the road onto one of the many dirt side streets, she threw the car into park and spun to confront him. "This is it, Jake, do you hear me," she snapped. "Your last warning, you little brat!"
Her hand flew to her mouth, clamping it shut, appalled that it could have uttered such atrocities to her child. She could feel her heart thrumming wildly and it seemed her headache was compelled to pulse right along with it.
Jake sat rigid, appearing startled, his green eyes wide. They were such beautiful eyes, like velvety moss. Shame flooded through her at the sight of him. He wasn't used to seeing her lose her temper and, if at all humanly possible, she preferred to keep it that way.
Taking a deep breath, she continued in a calmer tone. "Jake, if you put one more finger on your brother, you're going to spend the rest of the night in your bedroom. . . . with no t.v.," she added as an extra incentive. "Is that what you want?"
Jake shook his head emphatically. To spend the whole night in his room would be like the ultimate torture for Jake, she knew, a fate worse than death. He'd be climbing the walls in two minutes flat.
"I mean it, now. No second chances, understand?"
He nodded vigorously.
Brushing the hair back from her eyes, she then tucked it neatly behind her ears, and shifted the wagon to reverse. She hesitated, twisting around to view the situation more clearly. Because of the location of the bushes, she couldn’t see to back safely onto the main road. It wasn’t a difficult decision. Putting the car back into drive, she continued up the dirt road in search of a spot to turn around. "You know, Jake, you're going to have to learn how to treat your little brother with more respect or you're going to start paying the consequences," she said, realizing as she spoke them that the words sounded terribly familiar, that she had in fact spoken them more times then could be counted. "This has gone on long enough, do you understand?"
"Your brother has feelings, you know," she continued on despite the fact that she was preaching to deaf ears. "He's a real, live, breathing, human being, contrary to what you may believe. Not some. . . . some punching bag. Goodness! Where on earth am I going? See Jake, this is what happens when you misbehave. Now look what you've gotten me into."
She looked ahead with consternation at the dirt road winding before them. It was taking them deeper and deeper into the woods with no place to turn around in sight. As a matter of fact, it was only getting narrower. It didn’t deserve to bear the title "road" anymore, as far as she was concerned. Now it seemed barely more than a beaten path.
She turned on the headlights as the filtered light through the canopied trees above became close to nonexistent, and considered for one brief moment throwing the wagon in reverse and backing out.
No. There had to be somewhere to turn around just up ahead, she thought. Had to be. This. . . path couldn't go on forever. Besides, she was the first to admit that she was perfectly lousy at backing up. Couldn’t even back into a parking space without screwing up. Just never could get the knack of it.
If you’re in reverse and you turn the steering wheel right, the back of the vehicle veers right. Left, car veers left. Easy enough. But the steering wheel always seemed so touchy when in reverse. Before she knew it, she would be way off coarse and then overcompensating and then zigzagging like an idiot. There was something about going backward that got her all turned around and flustered. And besides, it was too dark in here. She wouldn’t be able to see where she was going. Backup lights wouldn’t furnish adequate light to back out safely. She’d end up plowing into the trees, getting stuck, and then they’d have to walk out. Either that or spend the night in the car smack dab in the middle of the woods, not a very appealing notion in the least.
Turn slight right
Not tight right
Bright light in sight
Might fight night flight plight fright
Blight, bite plight fright height
"Look mom, a bridge."
She pulled to a halt. Just ahead, a narrow bridge in all its unkempt rickety splendor sat spanning a small creek bed. She pondered as to whether or not she should attempt to cross it. It wasn’t like they would drown or anything if they ended up in the creek, she thought. It was practically nonexistent (nothing more than a mere trickle really) but, all the same, the bridge before her didn't appear very sturdy. As a matter of fact, it looked like it might collapse if a snail attempted to cross it, much less a full sized station wagon.
She sat contemplating her next move, nibbling nervously on her bottom lip.
How long would it take for a snail to cross a bridge that size, anyway? An hour? Two? Three? A day?
And what would possess a snail to embark on such a journey in the first place? Quest for food? Quest for a mate? Weren’t there plenty of potential mates and food, for that matter, on one side of the bridge without having to cross over? Or did that well-known adage ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ apply to the insect world as well? Was a snail an insect? No, probably something much more difficult to pronounce, like arthropod, or something. What was the deal with that, anyway? Arthropods, gastropods, pteropods, scaphopods, pelecypods, cephalopods. Who the heck came up with all those ridiculous names that no one in their right mind would ever remember?
Wait a minute, she thought, the confusion shrouding her brain. I just remembered them.
And they’re mollusks, you dimwit. The six-year-old in the back seat could probably tell you that, Miss Brain. An arthropod is segmented, like a crab or a--------
Male snail laid trail over dale
Should snail ail, pale, fail, wail, turn tail
Do not rail snail
Hail frail snail
Regale male snail
Tell whale of tale of pale, frail, male snail
"What. . . . . what honey?" She blinked a few times, bringing the bridge in front of her back into focus. For a few moments she sat still, gripping the steering wheel.
"Are we lost?"
"No. Of course not. I'm just . . . . I'm trying to turn around, is all."
She couldn't back up now, she decided, her list of alternatives instantly narrowing to one. She’d gone at least half a mile already.
"There has to be a spot to turn around right on the other side of this bridge," she said, trying to sound optimistic.
Taking a deep breath, she lifted her foot from the brake and slowly inched her way onto the bridge. There was a loud creaking and groaning of boards as rusty nails attempted to pull free from their bondage of countless years. A splintering sounded as one rotted board gave way beneath them and for one frightening moment she believed they were going down. Panic gripped her, urging her to just gun it, get it over with. But reason won out, though just barely, until they were safely on the opposite side. There was no sigh of relief however. That bridge would have to be crossed again on the way back out. But . . . she would cross that bridge when she came to it. She wanted desperately to giggle giddily at such a notion, but thought better of it. There was moistness on her brow. She didn’t bother dabbing at it. The two hands on the steering wheel before her were not about to tear themselves loose for such a menial task.
"Jesus, what have I gotten myself into," she muttered under her breath as she turned one bend only to discover another up a short way. Setting her jaw, she continued on toward it.
The path was becoming even more narrow, if that was possible. Branches began to scrape against the sides of the wagon, grating on her nerves, making her skin crawl worse than fingernails on a chalkboard and causing the throbbing at the back of her skull to intensify tenfold.
In the back seat, Jake and Teddy were as quiet as two little mice. That part she didn’t mind so much. Almost made it worth it. Slouched down in their seats, they peered out their windows at the ominous branches that almost appeared to be groping out for them as if to snatch them bodily through the windows for the sole purpose of gobbling them whole.
This is ridiculous, she thought as she rounded another bend with no end in sight.
No. Think positive.
She could see the path curving sharply to the right up ahead.
There was a clearing just beyond that bend.
She could just feel it.
And if there wasn't, by God, she would throw the wagon in reverse and back all the way out, even if it took two hours. She was getting the major creeps. Who knew what kind of hermits might be hiding out in the dense brush. Or worse, muggers, rapists, murderers. . . . . .
Like her mother.
Of course, she hadn’t really murdered Dad, not physically, anyway. But as far as Sue was concerned, she’d put him in an early grave. Could a man be belittled and humiliated to death? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes! In the end, he’d been reduced to a sniveling, spineless jellyfish, jumping in answer to her every beck and whim so that he wouldn’t have to feel the lash of her whip.
Yes. Her tongue stung like a whip. A nasty whip ripping through flesh, biting to the bone. Yes, tongue, whip. Assimilating. A metaphor, simile. The English language, the epitome of idiocy. Such a garbled mess of mumbo jumbo. What was up with that, anyway? Wasn’t there someway all those Einstein's could simplify it somehow? Nouns, verbs, adjectives, participles, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections, articles, phrases, simple sentences, compound sentences, complex sentences, nag, nag, nag, nag, nag.
Her tongue wagged
As the hag nagged, ragged, ragged, nagged
Poor old dad jabbed by the jag
Until he lagged, sagged, gagged
What a drag
A giggle escaped her. It couldn’t be stopped. Not until she caught a glimpse of the two frightened faces in the back seat. A pang of guilt plowed into her, a sledge hammer to the gut. "It’s okay. Mommy’s fine. We’re fine," she tried to assure them.
This had really been stupid. She should have just backed onto the main road in the first place and saved herself all this misery.
No, you had to follow this path, Miss Brain. This is the path you’ve chosen. Your chosen path.
You hath chosen
Your chosen path
Now you mustn’t laugh
As you bath in the wrath
Of the aftermath
A branch cracked like a whip on the windshield and she jumped, her heart hammering as she made the last bend.
Her spirits leapt at the sight that opened up before her. "Hey, alright! Look, boys. A barn."
Just up ahead she could see the remains of what was once a red barn, though now there was only a smattering of faded red scattered here and there, a patchwork of neglect. As they neared, there appeared a small house beside it, and as she pulled from the path into the clearing, it became apparent to Sue that the place had been deserted for quite some time. The windows were all broken out, the screens ripped and splayed, and the front door was broken off and hanging by only one hinge, swaying ever so slightly in the light evening breeze. What were once flower beds under the front windows were now overgrown with weeds, some of which reached at least three feet. A mockery of a flower garden, she thought, pursing her lips. Ugly, monstrous, misshapen flower wannabes trying so desperately to stand tall and proud, claimed defiantly for their own a place where ordinarily they would be shunned and plucked up by the roots at the first sign of existence.
You're only fooling yourselves, suckers, she thought. You're still only weeds, no matter what manner of airs you put on. Cast your eyes into the back of this wagon here, you wanna see the real thing.
She glanced into the rear-view, beyond the boys, into the very back where a brilliant rainbow of colors greeted her, purples, pinks, oranges, reds, yellows, blues, every color imaginable. They were so vivid to her now, more so than she remembered, and for the first time she noticed their sweet fragrance permeating throughout the wagon. She breathed in deeply of such a heavenly scent. She felt a strange twinge of remorse as she glanced back to the twisted tangled weeds stretching so wholeheartedly to the sun.
Perhaps she was being too harsh. Perhaps beauty truly was in the eye of the beholder. Maybe they had every right to a bed of their own. Why not let them have their moment of glory, their day in the sun?
Do not shun
Those that reach for the sun, aplomb,
Run at the gun,
Have a ton of fun
When the pun is done
You have won one, chum
Come, come, do not shun
Those that reach for the sun, my son
She shook her head to clear it of such strange gibberish, disturbed at how this pattern seemed to keep repeating itself, her thoughts wandering off on such bizarre tangents. Perhaps it was the pressures of moving. All the credit cards were maxed and Daryl was already talking about quitting his new job. Or perhaps it was the pressures of moving and motherhood combined.
Or perhaps it’s because you married a man with a tongue as sharp as your mother’s, and you know you did that on purpose, you know you did. To punish yourself. You let her degrade dad all those years. You never spoke up, not once. You let her go on and on demeaning, debasing the only person who ever showed you an ounce of kindness, someone you supposedly loved, let her walk all over him, a kind, gentle man just trying to survive an abysmal situation, let her tromp him into the ground, crush him beneath her shoe like a lousy cockroach, just let it go on and on and. . . .
It was as she started to maneuver the wagon around, that she saw it. . . . .
She slowly pulled to a halt, peering toward the barn, the beat of her heart racing. Around them, darkness was just beginning to creep in, creating shadows within the dusky barn aplenty. But she had seen something, she was sure of it. Something had crossed from one side of the barn to the other. Something large.
And there had been something. . . . . something strange about its movements, its gait . . . awkward, disjointed. It had been. . . . unnatural. She imagined a giant praying mantis lurking within the shadows.
She could feel beads of sweat beginning to form all over her body as she sat frozen, clammy, numb, unable to tear her gaze away from the ominous murkiness of the barn’s interior.
"Mom, what are you doing?" Jake whined from the back seat.
She opened her mouth to reply, but all that came out was a thin pathetic whimper and she quickly clamped it shut again.
Teddy's tiny voice spurred her into motion and she began to slowly inch her way forward once again, turning in a tight circle back toward the path, all the while keeping her eyes glued to the barn, swivelling her neck quickly around when it could crane no further.
Finally, the circle complete, she headed toward the small, dark opening in the trees ahead, the whole while keeping her eyes glued to the rear-view. It had probably just been a figment of her overactive imagination, she surmised. Yes, the distorted shadow of a rat or raccoon or something perfectly . . .
In the rear-view, a dark hulking figure moved from the shadows and began to cross the barn, and then stopped abruptly midway through, turning toward her . . . .
Sue stepped lightly on the brake. For some insane reason, she felt that it was important that she see, important to know exactly what she was up against.
It moved from the shadows into the fading sunlight. . . .
Sue heard a strange shrill whistle that sent terrified shivers down her spine before she realized that it was issuing from her own throat, a scream trying to force its way past a throat constricted in terror.
What she was gaping at in her rear-view mirror could not be. It simply could not. It was tall and stood on two legs. But that was where any resemblance to human form abruptly ended. It was an animal, but not. It was a beast. It bore a hideous oversized head with a tuft of wispy long-flowing hair the color of virgin snow that cascaded down its back to spill about broad, hunched shoulders. It had no neck that she could see. Folds of thick, rhinoceros-like skin hung loosely all about its body, but even so, she could tell that beneath all that loose skin stood a muscular, powerful creature, incredibly agile, impossibly swift. It glared at her with beady yellow eyes that were barely perceptible beneath the thick protruding flap of skin that served as its forehead. Its nose looked akin to that of an elephant’s trunk, only a shorter version, and she watched in horror as it lifted this snout to the wind as if trying to catch her scent. As it did so a small, round, sucker-like mouth was revealed, one cram-packed full of teeth, rows upon rows of them, all needle sharp. And they were moving in that hideous aperture, grinding and clicking together as if in a self sharpening motion.
She’d seen enough.
Dirt and gravel went flying in all directions as she stomped on the accelerator, and for a few endless seconds time did stop, no ticking of the clock as the tires spun ineffectually, digging into the moist earth. Finally, they gained traction, sending the wagon fish-tailing crazily toward the narrow path.
In the rear-view mirror, the creature lurched after them.
"Mom! What's wrong? What's going on?" Jake shrilled from the back seat, sounding petrified.
"Down, down, down! On the floor, now!" she screamed. Grinding the accelerator into the floor, she fought to keep the careening wagon on the dirt path as the branches whipped wildly, pounding like iron mallets against the sides and hood and roof.
Before she flew around the first curve, she made sure to capture a glimpse of the monster now striding fluently after them, its trail of white hair flowing out behind like a wispy veil.
She became aware of that same eerie, high-pitched whistling again and she bit her lip in order to eliminate that minor distraction so as to better concentrate on keeping the wagon on the narrow path ahead of her.
She soon discovered this to be a minor lapse in judgement, however, when the wagon hit a deep rut, bouncing wildly, and she felt her teeth connect, her lip between them seeming to be no obstacle whatsoever. The vehicle skidded dangerously and she fought for control, overcompensating, and with a loud scraping of metal, the wagon sideswiped a tree and then another, momentarily snatching the wheel from her hands before she was able to once again latch on and regain control.
In the back seat, Teddy began to whimper. She glanced at him in the mirror. He and Jake both sat with wide, frightened eyes, clutching at the doors and front seat to brace themselves as they bounced, their heads bobbing up and down like marionettes.
"I said on the floor! Now! Now! Now! Now! Now! Now! Now!"
They disappeared from sight, throwing themselves to the floor, leaving only to be seen in the rear-view, in the not so distant distance, the creature rounding the bend, long arms pumping steadily as it strode after them, incredibly gaining on them.
"God! God! God!" she screamed as she stomped on the accelerator again, swerving dangerously. She rounded the next bend and directly ahead appeared the rickety bridge.
Cross that bridge when you get to it, will you!
Her heart dropped. She knew that she should slow down, that the decrepit bridge would never be able to take this wagon flying at this speed. But she couldn't bring herself to let up on the accelerator. Her foot was welded to the floor with fear and she went hurtling, caution to the wind, toward it.
She hit it at full speed and it crumpled beneath them, but not before the wagon was launched into the air . . . , airborne, and for a few weightless, timeless moments, she just knew that a miracle had occurred. They were flying! And why not? She did, after all, have a bit of experience in this department. They were going to fly out over the tops of the trees just like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in that movie. She’d always loved that movie. Had always imagined she and her father being rescued from their miserable existence, soaring away from all their worries, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sputtering and backfiring and then taking to the sky, sailing smoothly on a road of billowing white clouds, the only other opposing traffic flocks of migrating birds who gave them but a fleeting glance before continuing on ahead.
And now, here she was, living it.
Squeezing her legs together to keep her bladder from letting loose, she gripped the steering wheel tightly as they sailed toward the heavens. They were flying! Miraculously flying, defying all laws of gravity, going against all rationality, flying. . . flying. . . , leaving behind that monstrosity, that demon from hell so intent upon capturing and devouring them, leaving it behind to stand scratching its hideous head, a look of complete bafflement contorting its repulsive features.
Wheee! Wheee! We be free
See thee ye, wee lee?
Ye decree we plea, thee free
Free, no fee, see?
Lee flee with glee
Gee, she pee
Ye slap knee, tee hee hee
Yes sireé, we be free, see?
And then, alas, the upward arc of the vehicle ceased and it dropped like the heap of metal that it was, bouncing and skidding frighteningly, tires spinning as it sideswiped more trees. Sue heard one of the back windows implode with a disheartening, deafening shatter, and while fighting to regain control, she caught a glimpse of the creature behind them, leaping nimbly across the crumpled bridge, clearing it effortlessly in one single bound to continue after them undauntedly, its long-flowing mane of white streaming straight out behind it like the tail of a kite.
Behind her, she could hear Jake crying along with his younger brother, and she felt a strange malapropos surge of exultation at the thought of them huddled together there on the floor, clinging desperately to each other in their terror, finally finding solace in each others’ arms as was proper for two siblings. Not that constant abuse, the hitting, pushing and punching, the scratching and pinching, screaming and crying, bickering and whining and. . . . .
Gripping the wheel, she stood on the accelerator, spurred forward by the sheer horror of what was pursuing them. She was running for her life. She knew this instinctively, intuitively. Not only was her own life at stake, but the lives of her children, as well, and she had strong suspicions that it would be a painful and horrifying death, beyond anything imaginable. The hideous creature pursuing them would probably eat them layer by layer with that large leech-like sucker mouth, starting first with the tougher outer layer of skin, peeling them like a grape piece by piece while they screamed and begged for mercy, and then moving on to the more succulent fat and muscle beneath before ending with the finale of sumptuous entrails and delectable liver, lastly cracking open the rib-cage to reach the warm, savory, still-quivering heart within.
Wrong, Miss Brain! Getting a bit carried away, aren’t we? You saw that mouth. Does it look like a potato peeler to you? It’s for latching on. Where might it latch on, you ask? That’s right, you guessed it. Brain, brain, brain! It latches on to the top of your numbskull and sucks you dry till there’s nothing left but an empty, shriveled up carcass, not that it would get much nourishment in your case. . . .
She felt moisture on her face and realized that she was crying. She felt woozy, light headed.
No, Sue! The children! Save the children! Oh God, please!
She glanced for just an instant to the rear-view to confirm that it was still gaining on them, and when she looked to the path again, she discovered, to her great dismay, that she was headed directly for a clump of trees, and though she tried desperately to veer away from them and around the curve, she was too late. Though she did manage to avoid striking the trees head on, the side of the wagon skidded into them so violently that she was flung clear across the entire length of the front seat, slamming painfully into the passenger's door as the wagon slid to a grinding halt.
How many times do I have to tell you, Miss Brain? Seat belt! Seat belt!
"Noooo! Noooo!" Scrambling back behind the wheel, she tried frantically to restart the stalled engine, just barely registering the pain that shot up her arm.
Nice going, Sticks and stones may break my bones. So will tree trunks if you slam into them at seventy miles an hour, Miss Brain.
Mom always referred to her in that sarcastic tone, like she was talking to someone with an IQ of about twenty. Straight A’s in school. Straight A’s! But that was never enough. She would always be an idiot to mom. Nothing she did was ever good enough. It was the same thing now with Daryl. But now the lovely term of endearment was ‘dimwit’. She could read circles around Daryl. And algebra, Trigonometry, all Greek to him. He could barely do simple division, and yet she was the dimwit.
But. . . she deserved it. Deserved every derogatory syllable uttered, every ounce of abuse that he doled out. For her father.
For you daddy.
"God! Nooo!" she screamed, frantically banging on the steering wheel, the pain shooting up her arm giving the steering column before her a dull-gray, fuzzy texture.
And then, something clicked.
Way to go, dimwit.
Throwing the gear into neutral, she turned the ignition and the engine roared to life. Throwing it back into drive, she stood on the gas petal.
Her eyes flew to the mirror. . . .
Too late! It was upon them! It leapt at the car with one incredibly long arm raised over its head. This was driven down with such tremendous force that the back window literally disintegrated, showering her with shards of glass, billions of tiny splinters whizzing all about the wagon, a tumultuous spray of slivers.
She kept the accelerator pressed to the floor, screaming at the top of her lungs, only vaguely aware that a duet of screams had joined her from the back seat, their voices blending so perfectly, harmony epitomized.
Maybe she would enroll them in some singing courses, she thought vaguely. One never knew where hidden talent might lay dormant just waiting to be awakened.
She’d had a good singing voice once. Had even been asked to sing a small solo in the church choir. Her father had literally beamed from the pews, while by the look on her mother’s face, you would have thought that she was listening to a pair of screeching, brawling tomcats.
Heard a few sour notes there, Miss Brain. Gonna have to work on your high C. Don’t look, don’t look!
Told you! You never did listen.
A long orangutan-like arm was hooked in through the back window and the creature was now clinging by one large, hooked, sloth-like nail that had punctured clear through the back tailgate, and Sue watched in horror as it hurled itself, in a powerful acrobatic move, up and onto the roof of the wagon. There ensued a clambering above, a clamor of rippling metal and she shrieked when one large claw punctured the roof by her head, peeling it back in a neat triangle like a giant can-opener.
The wagon skidded crazily and she cringed at the thundering of metal above her as the heavy body on the roof was pitched from one side to the other.
Sue couldn't stop screaming. She screamed and screamed as the car barreled forward, lurching crazily from side to side, bouncing off of trees and whipping through underbrush. She didn’t think it humanly possible to sustain a single note for so long, but it went on and on forever, and she seemed to be on perfect pitch this time, her tiny backup singers in the background managing to hang right in there along with her. They had good lungs. Obviously their swimming lessons had paid off.
And then the wagon ran over something, cutting off all three voices in mid trill. She never saw what it was, a rock, a downed tree trunk, whatever it was wasn’t important. What was important was that it sent the wagon to bouncing wildly and suddenly the creature on the roof was tossed, flipping onto the hood. It was still hanging on thanks to its claw still firmly embe dded in the roof. Only now it’s hideous face was pressed up against the windshield directly in front of her. Immediately, like a giant leech, its mouth suctioned to the windshield right in front of her face and she got a close and personal front-row view of those teeth in action, hundreds of them, all needle-sharp. With a life of their own they worked hungrily against the windshield before her, clicking and tapping maddeningly on the glass.
At this proximity, she noticed a previous oversight. Horns, two, like goat horns, pointed, protruding from just above its temples and sweeping backward so that, most of the time they remained hidden beneath its mane of white.
A high, shrill, inhuman sound was escaping from her throat as she jerked the wheel left and right in an attempt to rid herself of the monstrosity that clung to her windshield, a beast leering so brazenly at her with fathomless, yellow eyes, eyes that seemed intent on boring into her very soul. Eyes so cold, so. . . . empty.
A terror gripped her as she peered into an abyss of emptiness, a chasm so vast that were she to fall in, she might be lost forever, wandering aimlessly, and for some reason this horrified her more than anything she’d seen previous, more even then the hideous mouth latched to the windshield before her.
She felt a strange chilliness coarse through her, as if someone had taken the liberty to shoot her veins full of Freon, and her whole being began to shudder as she fought to keep from becoming mesmerized by those fathomless eyes, that emptiness, all-encompassing, drawing her in, demanding that she end this futile attempt at escape, demanding that she face her inevitable, albeit horrific fate. Eyes, so cold, emptiness so terrifying, and yet. . . . enticing.
Succumb, they commanded, though gently, a gentle persuasion. I offer thou. . . . peace. . . . . .unlike any thou hast ever known before. . . . . tranquility. . . . so complete. . . . . . utter. . . . allow mine self to showeth thee. . . . what it means to be free. . . . totally free. . . . from torment. . . . from pain. . . . from fear. . . . . anxiety, despair, uncertainty. . . . . from the disappointments of so many unfulfilled dreams. . . . Thou suffereth so. . . . . . such misery. . . . such anguish. . . . . such guilt. Why must thou destroy those thy loveth the most. . . ? Thou giveth them life, so that thy may subject them to torment. . . . ? Who is the monster?. . . . . They are in pain. . . Peer into their eyes and thou shalt know I speaketh truths. . . . Thou hast failed them. . . . Peer into thine soul, and thou shalt know I speaketh truths. . . . Spare them. . . . giveth thine self over to me. . . Ye who hath lost thy faith in hope . . . .suffer not thy pain of thy father. . . . salvation awaits thee. . . .Peer into mine eyes and thou shalt be free. Why dost thou torture thyself so when I offereth. . . . . deliverance. . . . from thine self.
A sensation akin to that of a perfect glide overcame her. Except one step further, floating. She was floating, a totally new level that she’d never experienced before. It was exhilarating, breathtaking. There was a freedom there, unlike any. . .
Float, float, rote float
Don’t dote on goat who wrote quote
Cross moat in boat and don’t tote goat
Bloat goat, demote goat, smote goat who gloat
Denote, emote hope
Note vote, then float
Float, rote float
She lifted her foot from the accelerator and reached for the brake. . . . .
"Mom!" Jake screamed from the back seat, breaking her from the trance.
Blinking her eyes in confusion, she stood on the accelerator once again, giving the wheel a sharp jerk to the right, and there was a ripping sound as the hole in the roof peeled jaggedly open. The fathomless eyes before her opened wide in an instant of surprise and then, with a repulsive hollow pop, the mouth was torn free from the windshield and the demon was sent hurtling to the brush.
"Yes! Yes! Yeeeees!" she screeched.
Yes, that’s what it was, she decided. A demon intent not only upon devouring her alive, but on completely sucking dry what withered remains were left of her soul, shattering any hopes that there might someday be light again at the end of what truly seemed an endless and abysmally dark and dreary tunnel.
Up ahead, the main road came into view and she flew toward it, throwing any caution to the wind, clutching the steering wheel, a death grip, craning forward, eyes transfixed to the approaching road. Her once handsome features frozen in a maniacal, determined grimace, she flew out onto the paved road without letting up on the gas, only narrowly missing a tractor trailer, forcing the driver to lock up his brakes to keep from slamming into her.
The irate trucker laid on his horn, shaking his fist and shouting profanities from his window (Not because he almost smeared you all over the road, dimwit. Because you just caused him to lay down about two hundred bucks worth of rubber tracks back there), but Sue was oblivious. She spun the wheel and the wagon slid across the asphalt, fish-tailing for a few seconds before gaining traction, and after a few seconds of smoking, squealing tires, she barreled recklessly down the road toward home.
Tears of relief streamed down her face.
She had done it! She was whimpering. She was blubbering like a lunatic. She was shaking, her whole body trembling uncontrollably. But she’d survived. Had looked into the face of the demon and survived.
She glimpsed her image in the mirror. Wide, haunted eyes peered back at her above dark circles etched plainly into delicate skin. She stared numbly at the bright yellow daisy that sat atop her head (she had a special fondness for this particular wild variety dubbed black-eyed Susan). Its exposed roots were entangled in her disheveled hair along with several clumps of fresh, rich soil and loam interspersed with several tiny golden fertilizer beads. Her eyes dropped to her cheeks and she started at the sight.
Tears! But not ordinary tears. Tears of blood. Tears of blood streaming down her face.
Her brain spun furiously.
What did this mean? What strange phenomenon? Stigmata? Were these blood tainted tears retribution for locking horns. . . . . locking eyes with the demon?
Tainted tears, years of fears
Queer tear that sear
Here here ear, hear
Do not jeer, leer, peer so near at mere queer tear
Sheer, veer, revere, cheer dear tear
Tis sheer clear
Tainted tears, years of fears
And then she remembered the shattering windows, the stinging shards of glass.
A sob escaped her. Such a forlorn sound. A sound wrenched from deep down inside.
Behind her, down low, she heard frightened whimpering. She wanted to speak, to comfort them, but she couldn't command her lips to form the words, could only sob openly, her body shuddering as she peered at the windshield directly in front of her where a perfectly formed circle about the size of a grapefruit had been etched deeply into the glass. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought that someone had taken a grinder to it. Her body convulsed in repulsion at the thought of the obscenity that had latched on there only seconds before.
* * *
Veering into her driveway some twenty minutes later, Sue kicked open the mangled car door with a loud protesting metallic groan and threw her head out, vomiting violently for several minutes before climbing out of the battered, torn vehicle (Way to go, dimwit. What goes? Enter the friggin’ demolition derby?) on wobbly legs. With considerable effort, she pried open the back door and peered down at Jake and Teddy who lay cowering on the floor (why must thou destroy those thy loveth the most?) gripping each other tightly, peering up at her with wide, frightened, tear-filled eyes.
"Hurry," she urged, choking the word out past a swollen lip. She held out a trembling arm toward them and they scrambled toward her eagerly, clinging and trembling, and, together, the three of them stumbled into the house.
Hugging her broken arm against her belly, she quickly scurried through the entire house flipping on every light there was while, at her heels, the boys clung pathetically.
In the master closet, she dug to the back of the top shelf, flinging items to the floor. The oak box slipped from her trembling hand and went clattering, spilling the contents from the red velvet-lined interior, the revolver and box of ammunition spilling out. Squatting on shaky legs, she dug frantically through the debris scattered at her feet, plucking out bullets with her one good hand. It was an extreme effort to load the chambers with a trembling left hand that would not cooperate, but in the end she prevailed, jamming them in one by one.
Clutching the revolver to her belly, she stood to face the boys who stood huddled in the closet doorway, their eyes wide and frightened.(peer into their eyes)
"Mom," Jake whined in a frightened tone. "Mom, what's wrong, mom?"
"Sssh, it's okay now, honey. (why must thou destroy those thy loveth the most?)
Everything's fine. Everything's just fine, now," Sue insisted in a high, anxious voice that was far from convincing.
Oh God, Daryl, where are you! She knew that he had to be on his way home from work, but she couldn't wait for him.
Jesus, can’t you just handle the situation for once, dimwit!
Scurrying down the hall into the kitchen, she placed the revolver on the table and, snatching up the phone, punched out 911. She began to pace nervously, her leather sandals echoing hollowly on the tile of the dining room floor.
"Nine-one-one operator, what's your emergency," the operator chimed in very professionally.
"Oh God, God, I was attacked. . . I. . . . I. . . . I was on a dirt road off of. . . . of Hammerhill Boulevard, a few miles west of 310. . . .on. . . . on a dirt road. . . . . a path!" (You hath chosen your chosen path. . . )
"Ma'am, calm down. Do you need an ambulance?"
"Yes. . . I mean. . . .no. I guess not."
"Are you injured?"
"No, no! I just . . . I'm. . . .well. . . I. . . my arm. I think it's broken and. . . and. . ."
"Okay ma'am, calm down," the operator insisted. "Can you describe your assailant? What was he wearing?"
"Ooooooh God," Sue wailed as the horror of what she'd borne witness to came flooding back to memory. "A vile, despicable. . . . oh God. . . . loathsome, disgusting monster. . . , God help me. . . . . a creature. . . a creature from hell. . . . straight from the depths of hell. . . . . a demom. . . . it was a demom. . . . . no, no, demon. . . . . demon!!!!"
Sue moaned in anguish, realizing that she must sound like a ranting, raving lunatic, but she couldn't help it. She couldn't stop herself. The words just tumbled out.
"A foul, repulsive. . . hideous. . . . ooooooh God!"
"ghastly. . . . revolting!!!"
"nauseating. . . abhorrent. . . ."
"He wants to take me from my children! Don’t you understand? Please help me! Help me! Somebody. . . . . somebody. . . . I didn’t do anything wrong," she sobbed, "do you hear me! I didn’t want to hurt anybody. . . . I didn’t mean to. . . I didn’t. . . . ."
She slammed the receiver onto its cradle and stood trembling, looking down into the huge petrified eyes of her children (Peer into their eyes and thou shalt know I speaketh truths). Taking a deep ragged breath, she pulled out a chair and sat heavily at the dining room table. Her eyes fell to the small revolver. (Thou hast failed them. Peer into thine soul and thy will know).
The phone began to ring.
It rang and rang and rang, the shrill, blaring sonance breaking the eerie silence of the large, empty house.
"Mommy," Jake whined and Sue put her fingers to her mouth, nibbling nervously at her nails while the phone rang. . . . and rang. . . . and then rang some more.
Finally, mercifully, it fell silent.
"Mom, I'm scared," Jake whimpered and Sue reached for his small hand, grasping it tightly in hers. Reaching for Teddy, she pulled him into her tight embrace as well. The poor children were terrified (Thou giveth them life so that thy may subject them to torment. . . . ? Who is the monster?).
At the curtainless window, not two inches from her left ear, she heard a strange scraping sound. . . .
It was ever so faint and yet. . . it was the loudest noise she’d ever heard in all her thirty-three years. Ear-piercing. Deafening, bone-jarring, the sound vibrating through her entire body like she was one of those giant Chinese gongs that someone had just walloped on. She felt her teeth rattle and something inside her head as well.
Let’s see, what could it be, Miss Brain? Let’s think reeeeeal hard.
Her body went numb.
(Ye who hath lost thy faith in hope. . . .)
She knew it was there.
(Peace. . . unlike any thou hast ever known. . . . .)
There was no question. It was a fact. An absolute known. Deep in the recesses of her brain, she supposed that she’d known of its impending arrival for quite a while now. It had only been a matter of time, really.
For you daddy. . . . .
She sat for a few seconds looking down at her two beautiful children who clung to her so desperately (why must thou destroy. . . ). Leaning down, she gave them each a kiss on the top of their tussled heads, breathing deeply of their baby shampoo fragrance. Her sons. Her two beautiful sons. She had so wished to raise them the right way (who is the monster), to watch them grow into strong healthy men (Peer into thine soul. . . . ). They had so much more to do together; little league games, boy scouts, girlfriends, proms, graduations, college, marriages, grandchildren. . . . God. . . . so much. . . . .
(So many unfulfilled dreams. . . .)
She swivelled her head slowly on a neck that had the consistency of a large limp noodle.
Time did stop, no ticking of the clock. . . .
and peered into. . . .
do not shun those who reach for the sun. . . .
the face of. . . .
(peer into mine eyes. . . .)