The downside of posting rough draft chapters as I finish them is, the more I write, the more I need to revise previous chapters. It’s not much yet, just little details here and there. But anyone reading along will notice the inconsistencies. Oh well. You’ll all just have to buy the book when it’s finished. Thanks for reading!
Isolation: Chapter 6
Richard felt for a brief moment as if he were hovering in midair. That, or time must have slowed down. It was amazing to him that he could have several thoughts in so short an amount of time, and then to have the self awareness of having those thoughts while still falling was almost enough to make him forget he was falling at all. Almost. But beyond all of that was the most prevailing thought, and the accompanying fright, that someone had been watching him through the window.
He wasn’t sure how he came to be falling. It happened so fast that it escaped his attention, like his first and last visit to a haunted house. It wasn’t a real haunted house, just one of those attractions that spring up in late September every year in preparation for Halloween. He didn’t particular like being scared. When he was very young his father played a practical joke on him. The two were on a father-son day hike in Baxter State Park on their way to see Little Abol Falls. Little more than a creek tumbling over some rocks, it was still impressive to young Richard, being the first waterfall he’d seen in person. On their way back to the car he needed to urinate so his father told him to go off the trail and behind a tree to do his business. After using his stream to knock a few ants off of the tree, he zipped up and went back to the trail. Only his father was gone. Richard’s mind immediately brought forth the stern warning his father gave before they got out of the car to hike the trail. He leaned over from the driver’s seat, leaned in close to Richard’s face and said in as serious a tone as he could:
“Be careful, Dick. There are wild animals in these woods. This isn’t our backyard. These animals don’t want to play with you. They want to eat you. If you give them the chance, they will eat you. Stay by my side and don’t wander off the trail, understand?”
Richard hadn’t wanted to get out of the car after a speech like that. But this was also the first time his father had taken him on a special trip, just the two of them. He loved his father and didn’t want to disappoint him or waste this opportunity. Now he was wishing he’d stayed in the car. He looked up and down the trail but saw no sign of his father. Before he could do anything else he heard a low growl from behind. He froze in fear. Only eight years old and his first time out in nature, Richard was terrified without his father. The growl rose again, this time accompanied by the rustle of brush. The young boy managed to turn around to see what his attacker would be. In his mind he pictured a ferocious bear, fifteen feet tall with twelve-inch claws and teeth and red eyes. A loud growl issued from a nearby bush which shook violently. This was it, Richard knew it. The monster behind the bush jumped up, and Richard’s bowels gave up. He let out a cry that could be heard for miles, a cry that would chill the heart of any parent. Especially the parent that evoked the cry, the one who jumped out from behind the bush as a practical joke on his son. Donald immediately realized he’d been a fool and done a terrible thing and rushed forward to hold and comfort his soiled son. That was their last time in the woods until the family camping trip three years later. For years after, Richard associated the experience of being scared with the emotion of abandonment, and so tried his best to avoid frightening situations. And he was generally successful until he was fifteen when two older cousins, visiting while their parents got a divorce, pestered him into going to a haunted house with them.
The cousins had been to every haunted house in New Jersey and prided themselves on never being scared. Richard didn’t understand the attraction. Why go to a haunted house, a place intended to scare you, if you knew you wouldn’t be scared? He was old enough to understand that some people would do it to impress a date, but his cousins never took girls. They weren’t going in order to impress anybody, just proving over and over to themselves that they weren’t scared a’ nuthin. In a weak moment of trying to fit in, Richard agreed to go to the haunted house nearest his home to show his cousins he could be just as fearless. But once in the car the older cousins, who could drive and shared a car, drove right passed it.
“I think you missed it. It’s back there on the right.”
“That place is for sissies and little girls. You ain’t a little girl, are you Ricky?”
“Shut up, Manney.”
“We’re heading into Portland. We hear there’s a haunted house there that’s so scary it makes kids puke. You ain’t gonna puke, are you Ricky?”
“Shut up, Michael.”
They pulled into the makeshift parking lot of the haunted house. It was built in a farmer’s field just outside of town. Rumor was the farmer did all of the preparation himself. Took him months. Some say most of the year. There was a corn maze and a pumpkin patch for families during the day. But at night, the junior high and high school kids came out in droves to test their nerves against what was billed as the “Scariest Night of Your Life.” The year Richard and his cousins visited was the last year the attraction opened. A few days later a terrible accident took the life of a local teenager and the farmer was blamed. The haunted house wasn’t even a house at all. It was made up of three buildings, each progressively scarier. The first was an old barn, converted and used for the more cliché horrors like jump scares, ghosts on wires, shadow figures, etc. Younger children and their parents had the option of going through this building, so it wasn’t all that frightening. Really it was just to leave the older kids wanting more, so by the time they made it into the next building, a large cattle barn, they’d be easier to scare. Here, the haunts were amped up to include horror movie characters like Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Meyers. Blood, guts and gore filled the stalls. Terrible scenes of car crashes and grisly accidents. People missing legs, arms and heads. Shrieks and screams filled the air. This is where girls jumped and grabbed onto the arms of their dates and the boys had a chance to play protector. But beneath their tough façade, many still felt uneasy. Richard took it all surprisingly well, much better than he suspected. He was nearing the end of the second building having endured only slight trepidation, and a little nausea at all the fake blood, and could see the exit door at the end of a hallway. Just in front of the exit, the hall took a small crook, about twenty inches, so that he’d have to move right to follow the path out. The hall was well lit, and with the door in sight, he let down his guard just as the twenty inches of wall facing him opened and a masked figure sprung out at him. It happened so fast, all he could remember was seeing the door and walking toward it, and then being on the ground staring up at the ceiling. The fall itself held no place in his memory. What he did next surprised even him. He discovered he wasn’t frightened; he was impressed. As his cousins helped him to his feet, he found himself applauding the man who emerged from the wall. The man bowed ever so subtly, stepped back into his hiding place, and closed the trap door. Richard was amazed at what he was feeling. Perhaps there was something to be said about this whole horror business he thought as he exited. What he had forgotten, was there was one final building to traverse: the slaughterhouse.
Richard’s head hit the cabin floor with a solid thonk. Ouch. He rolled over onto his knees and crawled to the hutch, sitting back against it harder than he meant and rattling the cabinet doors. Someone was outside the cabin. Watching him. Brady rushed to his master’s side and licked his face in concern. Richard pushed him aside and leaned forward to look out the window but pulled his head back before he could see anything. He took a deep breath and held it, listening for any sounds outside, but all he heard was his heart beat, pounding in his head. His eyes caught sight of the west window and a cold shiver took hold of his body. I’m too exposed here. Then he realized the door was unlocked. His impulse was to jump up and lock the door, but his body didn’t respond. Move you idiot. He didn’t want to see that face again, didn’t want to be seen by it. Him. Whoever it was. Who was it? Who could it be? Lock the door. Now. Richard’s joints thawed and he crawled to the door. He felt eyes boring into him from the window behind. Reaching for the door his hand trembled. His whole body trembled. The handle clicked as he grasped it. Sshhh. He fastened the lock on the handle and reached higher for the deadbolt. Iron grated against iron as it slid into place. He tried to control his breathing. The cabin felt cramped, alone. A million miles from anywhere. He had to turn around. Turn around. He braced himself against the door and stood to his feet. His legs felt as if they were made of stone and treacle. He suddenly felt he was acting very silly. Acting silly? A man appeared in my window! Had he really? One way to find out. Richard took several large breaths, counted to three and spun around.
All that greeted him through the windows was the forest, brightly lit with morning sun. Well of course he won’t still be there. Go outside. Richard collected his nerves and grabbed the rifle. Making sure it was loaded, he unlocked the door and was about to throw it open boldly but then thought better of it and opened it only a crack. He stuck the rifle barrel out the door first and pushed it open slowly. The duct tape covering the gunshot hole was already peeling back. Should have sprung for the good stuff. For the second time in as many days Richard found himself wielding a gun out of fear and possible self-defense. He was supposed to be the one doling out the scares. It was probably just some hunter or other. What season was it, anyway? Deer? Turkey? He had no idea. He didn’t even know who all this land belonged to, hadn’t bothered to ask Kevin or Cheryl how much of the property around the cabin belonged to them. Maybe it was Richard who trespassed the night before while chasing after Brady, provoking some unknown neighbor to investigate. Maybe he hadn’t seen anyone at all. He had gotten himself pretty worked up over the books. And let’s be honest, it wasn’t the first time this had happened. Shut up. We’re not getting into that now.
Standing on the porch, the rifle lowered at his side, he scanned the forest.
“Hello? Anybody there?”
He felt nervous giving himself away by calling out. The image of the face in the window was already fading, or maybe it was obscure to begin with: its features mercurial and indefinite. Brady jogged passed his master and padded aimlessly around the yard, sniffing here and there. He doesn’t smell anything. Richard didn’t know which was more disconcerting: that a stranger was watching him, or not. The implications of either were more than he wanted to think about. Better at least take a look. Keeping the gun ready at his side he traipsed around the cabin. He looked down at the ground outside the window he saw the face through but couldn’t see any tracks in the grass. But, not being a tracker, he didn’t really know what he was looking for besides obvious footprints. He looked at the window, into the cabin. There really should be curtains on these windows.
The bloodhound approached his master obediently. Richard pointed at the ground. He needed to know.
“Smell anything, boy?”
Brady sniffed around Richard’s feet and along the edge of the cabin, then sat down and looked up at his master. Nothing. Richard knelt down and scratched Brady’s head. A part of him, he wasn’t sure how large, wanted Brady to catch a scent.
“Good boy, Brady. Good boy.”
Back inside the cabin, Richard locked the door securely. He needed to shrug this off. He had far too much work to do. Thirsty. He remembered the water cooling down in the sink and entered the kitchen. It was warm, and all the floaties had settled to the bottom. Richard lowered his head into the sink, put his lips to the water and drank, slurping great mouthfuls of water. It tasted terrible. He stood up, forcing himself to stop and save some for Brady who was already wagging his tail at his feet. The dog nearly knocked the pot out of Richard’s hand in an attempt to get to the water as he lowered it to the floor. He realized this would be a constant process until he got the gutters cleared and it rained. As soon as Brady finished the water he’d have to refill, boil, and cool more. He began to worry he wouldn’t get any writing done. But he realized he could do something about the flavor.
With the pot cleaned of Brady’s slobber, Richard set it down, full of stagnant water, on the stove top. He added fresh fuel to the fire and stoked it hot again. From the pantry shelves he opened a box of earl grey tea bags and dropped four of them into the water. From his shirt pocket he pulled a handful of fresh pine needles he’d picked up outside and dropped it into the pot, too. He could hardly hope to remove the horrible taste altogether, but maybe he could at least mask it. It couldn’t hurt to try.
With the water on the stove Richard sat again at his typewriter. He stuffed the book and two of the manuscripts back into his satchel. The third he stared at for a moment before picking up. It was the original manuscript for Dead of Night. From its pages protruded countless sticky notes with revisions, notes, and addendums scrawled in chicken scratch. He leafed through its contents, pausing here and there to read or reminisce. Eventually the final page lay open before him, the italicized words
mocking him with their inky-black permanency. A single blank yellow note stuck to the bottom right corner of the page, like an open-ended conversation or an ellipsis. Maybe a teaser of more to come. Richard fiddled with the note absentmindedly and let his eyes drift to the as yet still blank page in the typewriter. More to come indeed. He hadn’t had an original idea in months. It’s in there, in my head. Somewhere. I just need to find it. He decided he couldn’t work just yet. The business with the face in the window, and the water: he needed to get out. To stretch his legs. Back home his daily walks usually did the trick. There’s no reason it shouldn’t work out here.
Richard stood up from the chair with resolution. He would trek out into the woods, Brady at his heels and gun at arm, and explore. He would familiarize himself with his surroundings. It would at least give him room to think, if not also grant him peace of mind. If he found no people or signs of their presence he could more easily shake off the morning’s misfortune. The tea was removed to the sink where Richard filled his water bottle with the hot beverage. It still tasted bad, but not nearly as before. He checked to make sure the rifle was loaded, and put a few extra rounds in his pocket. You never know. He might run across a bear. Maybe he’d shoot himself some dinner. Richard donned his jacket and opened the door, ushering Brady and then himself out. With the door locked and the cabin secure, Richard confidently set off, allowing Brady to lead the way.