Shoeshine Drop

A Bad Feeling

Pastor Ford asked if he could pray with me before I left his office and it ought to go without saying that I allowed him to do that. I'll admit that it was a little uncomfortable. Most of my prayer experience was between me and God alone. Any other time, it took place among a larger group of people, like when daddy would be called on during the service. Mr. Reese, would you please lead us in prayer? Daddy hated that. He wasn't the kind to lead anybody out loud, other than when it served him as the boss or a supervisor. Being humble in front of a throng embarrassed him and that trickled down to me. I remember sitting in church, glad that it was the adult men who always got called out and wondering how they felt about it, but terrified with the thought that one day it would be my name the preacher voiced above the congregation and I knew I could never be as prepared as the old men around me who spoke so eloquently and, frankly, far too long.

Ford wanted to pray specifically for me. He also lifted up the town of Waterman and asked for guidance as to how both he and I should proceed.

Yes, it was uncomfortable to be prayed for aloud by another man and the fact that he asked if I minded us kneeling together in the center of the room only added to it, but I got the sense this was nothing out of the ordinary for him and I'm glad we did it. We could use all the divine intervention we could get. I was leaving with nothing solid in the way of a plan and I felt no closer to an explanation than I came in with, but knowing God was on my side helped.

What I did leave with was more baggage. The problem might be wider spread than I had thought and Pastor Ford said I might be a carrier. I don't shake easily, especially at the words of any mere man, but that had done the trick. As soon as he said it, I knew the meeting was basically over. It was just a theory anyway, but what if he was right? How was I supposed to protect the people of Waterman if it was dangerous for me to get near them? I needed to know for sure, but I had zero idea how I should go about it. And then there was Megan. Should I even be with her? She was starting to depend on me and I liked it, but what could I say? Sorry, but I got stuff to do and we can't see each other until I get this Shoeshine funk off me. I'm sure you undersand."

I put the cruiser in reverse and remembered I was supposed to give Megan a lift from the diner. I picked up my phone and dialed her number.

"Oh, thank God," she said when she answered.

"That doesn't sound good. It went a little longer at the church than I thought it would, but I'm on my way."

"I didn't know you were a religious person," she said with effort. Her voice was too raspy and filled with fluid.

"There's a lot you don't know about me, but we can talk in the car. Just be ready when I get there because you need soup and rest, pronto. I can hear it in your voice."

"It's gotten steadily worse just in the past hour. Soup and rest sound phenomenal."

I pulled into a space at Clem's right in front of the door and I didn't even have to shut off the car before Megan was tumbling out, bundled tightly in an olive green, wool jacket. It wasn't cold enough for that, but it was an indication of how bad she must feel. She would probably have a fever, too.

I started to get out and help her to the car like one of those dinosaurs they call a gentleman, but she waved me back. She opened the door and slid inside with an audible BRRR!, as if the first snow was promised on the air.

"I would have opened the door for you. Chivalry isn't quite dead around here."

"Maybe not, but I will be if I don't get into a hot shower and a warm bed very soon. No time for pleasantries - punch it, Hoke."

I didn't understand the Driving Mrs. Daisy reference at first, but then remembered the movie and even the musical theme chimed back to me out of nowhere. I punched it like she asked and even asked if she wanted me to flip the lights - a joke, really, but she said it wasn't necessary and if she'd have told me yes, I would have done it.

Once we got on the road headed toward my house, I asked if she had made arrangements with her family so they'd know where she would be.

"I got Gina on the phone and she yelled back to let Aunt Carol know. I don't think she likes us together."

"Who?"

"Aunt Carol. She yelled something back to Gina. I couldn't make it all out, but I could tell it wasn't nice. Something about that sheriff and a cradle."

"They think I'm a horrible person. I knew this would happen."

"I think you're a wonderful person. It's just that they don't believe there isn't anything going on when I stay at your place and can you blame them? From the outside looking in, I guess anyone would be suspicious. But you've been a perfect gentleman so far and I don't see any reason that would change." She punctuated her encouragement of my character with a coughing fit that lasted longer than I liked and I waited for her to stop before I said anything else.

"Sorry," she said when it was over.

"I'm gonna get you something for that cough and you might need something stronger than what I have access to. You sure you don't want me to take you to the doctor right now?"

She paused to think about it. "No, I've felt worse."

"I don't trust you or that cough," I said, testing her humor.

"What? Why?" She gave me a hurt puppy dog look and I understood that she was giving her best effort at playing back.

"Of course I trust you, but I do think I know your personality type. Head strong. You'd rather wait until the final mile before asking for help. Am I close?" She nodded that I was. "Don't worry. I like that about you."

"You've got me pegged for the most part, but things are different when there's a baby on the way. If my temperature gets too high, I won't give you any push back about seeing a doctor."

"Have you checked it lately?"

"No."

"Well lucky for you, I have a first aid kit in my trunk with a handy dandy thermometer." I pulled over and got the kit out of the back, checking the thermometer on me first to make sure it was reading accurately. It's the digital kind you slide across your forehead and when I checked Megan, I was relieved to see it was barely over 100. High, but manageable.

"What's it say?" She asked, looking more like a little girl than she ever had; vulnerable and reliant on someone else for help. Shouldn't that be the extent of this relationship? I thought to myself. Me as a father figure rather than a creep longing to be her lover?

"It says I can take you home  and put you in bed, but if it clicks up much higher, we're off to the hospital." I tossed the thermometer back into the kit and the kit through the security window in the glass that protects me from the bad guys, into the back seat.

   Megan pulled the wool jacket tighter around her and looked out the side window, watching the world go by as I drove. I thought the rest of the trip might be made in silence, but Megan wasn't much for quiet reflection.

   "Why did you have to go to the church?"

   I had completely forgotten that's where I had been for the last hour and with a wave of nausea, the memory of what Pastor Ford had said came flooding back.

   I think you're a carrier.

   That had to be wrong. Ford had only had a few minutes to formulate his theory based on what I told him, so why should I put so much stock in it? He was an overweight pudge of a man who obviously didn't make the best decisions. But that wasn't fair. I'm the one who had sought after his advice. Asked his opinion. Getting mad at him for giving it honestly was akin to an atheist finding fault in him for being honest if asked if he thought they were headed for hell. I knew his pedigree and vocation. What was he supposed to say?

The truth was, I couldn't afford to ignore any theory until I was certain about exactly what we were dealing with.

"I'm looking at the Drop issue from every angle. Have you met Pastor Ford yet? I'm sure he's been in to Clem's."

"I know Ford. He's been in a couple of times since I started. He has a taste for Coke. He had four full glasses the other day."

I wondered how much sugar one man could take before going into a coma. I would have liked to take a peek at his blood work. "That he does," I agreed, but chose to keep the existence of his small office fridge and the contents therein to myself. I also conveniently left out the stack of empty, dripping cans on the floor behind his desk. "He mentioned trying to get a handle on that, so maybe he won't drain your fountain next time he comes in."

Megan got lost in her thoughts for a few minutes, but I didn't try to goad her into conversation. If she needed to think or just be quiet to rest her voice or not blow her lunch all over the dash of my cruiser, that was fine by me. I would be courteous and let her. Then she broke the silence with a question and from the tone of it, I guessed she might have been afraid to ask it for fear of it having a serious negative impact on our budding relationship.

"Do you believe in God?" It was one of the biggies.

"Yes."

"That was short and confident."

"I am confident about it. What about you?"

She looked out of her window again. Creation flowed past on a current of individual miracles. Every blade of grass, every kind of life that the world offered was unique and complicated; impossibly random, yet minutely designed. I wondered how anyone could not believe in God. I got the feeling she'd rather not answer, but the can had been opened now and it wasn't a question you ask someone and expect to veil your own ideas.

"I guess I believe in something. There's too much detail that has to work together just so to be random chance, but what caused it all - aliens, God, or something else - I don't know."

I heard mama again, quoting a tenant from scripture. Mama seemed to be the angel on my shoulder lately, softly reminding me how I had been raised - whispered breaths that were part nostalgia and longing to hear her voice again and part carefully measured teaching from a mother to her son.

Don't be unequally yoked, Marty. She's a nice girl, but what a load for your neck to bear, that is!

Megan looked at me, her face drawn pitifully into a frown and now real fear, like dry skeletons, danced in her eyes. She thought this might be the beginning of losing me.

"Does that change things between us?"

I considered the best way to reply, but I didn't think I should linger too long, giving her the wrong impression. "I think it's supposed to mean something, but I'm no theologian and I don't care. We'll figure it out. Honestly, my own journey is new, because for the first time, I'm doing it without mama at the helm. And even if there is some sort of rule, what I know about God is that He doesn't expect me to cut ties with someone because they don't believe the way I do. If I have the truth, then He'll want me to be a part of the lives of those who don't. At least, that's the way I remember it from Sunday school." Another thing I remember from those days was how petrified it made me at the thought of talking to people about this stuff. Like Megan, I was certain it would lose me my friends and there was no chance I would be bringing out the Big Jesus Stick with a stranger. And that's how I pictured it in those days. A big stick I was supposed to wield that I could smack people over the head with if they wouldn't listen. I reached over and placed my right hand on top of Megan's left one, which she had curled into a tight fist in defense against the bad news she thought I was going to give her about us. "Don't worry. I told you I'm not going anywhere unless you ask me to."

At that, the corners of her mouth lifted coyly, which must've been too much for her to take because she dove into another fit of hacking that very nearly caused me to turn around and drive her to the doctor whether she liked it or not.

"Don't try to talk anymore,"I counseled.

"That an order, sheriff?"

"A request. I don't like to watch you suffer."

"Okay, I'll be quiet."

I took my hand away from her fist, which had loosened, and laid it to my side. There was still anxiety inside of me that said this could all be mere novelty to her and would recede back from the shores of my life like the low tide, but when I pulled my hand away, she moved hers over on top of mine and offered the coy smile again. Our hands remained that way for the rest of the trip, like an old couple made familiar by years, even decades, but not days, and eventually our fingers found the perfect comfort of interlaced communion. It wasn't the first real kiss, but it was good and it felt right. My shoulder angel spoke up again, of course, using mama's voice.

Would you hold your sister's hand like that? Or your daughters?

I ignored it. No, it was more than that. What I did was mentally flick it away like an annoying mosquito. Whenever mama realized you weren't going to listen to her, she would find a way to end the conversation with some humorous tag line, presumably to cut the discomfort of the moment. Now I heard her again because even the mama in my mind knew I would never be able to see Megan sororally.

Well, Marty, mosquitos are still good for something, even if it's just for feeding the bats.

Pulling onto my street, I looked down toward the cul-de-sac and saw a dark blue Sentra pulled in behind Mrs. Henley's Buick sedan. I wasn't sure if it would be a good thing or a bad thing that Mrs. Pate - she drove the Sentra - had been able to wrangle somebody so quickly to make a visit.

Out of psychological necessity, I told myself it was a good thing because from what I had seen earlier, the sooner the better. Then again, what if what had happened to her amounted to possession? I'd seen the movies and I thought if any of that held water, the folks from the church would be in trouble.

"I'll make you some soup and get you tucked in, then I'm gonna come back and check on Mrs. Henley. Do you mind?"

"I'm not supposed to talk," she teased. "Do you think something's wrong?"

"Maybe."

"Then stop here and let me check on her with you."

We were passing Mrs. Henley's right then. The front door was closed, hiding whatever the world had become by now behind it like an unthinking, dutiful sentry. I couldn't risk Megan going in there with me. Forget the danger - the smell alone would have done her in.

"No, you could be contagious and I don't want to make an old lady sick," I lied, but only partially. There was merit to that thought as well. "I want to get you settled, then I'll make sure everything's okay with her and come back, okay?"

"Okay." I heard a whisp of relief in her voice. She would have really loved to help, but she felt like hell warmed over.

I had gotten chilly the night before and nudged the temperature up to 78. I forgot to bump it back down to 70 before I left out that morning and so we were met with a cozy burst of warm air when we walked through the door. I asked if it was too much for her and offered to make it cooler, but she immediately squashed that idea.

"Don't you dare touch that thermostat. It's perfect," she said and made her way directly to the couch.

"You wouldn't prefer one of the beds?"

"The couch is more comfortable to me when I'm sick. I can wedge in between the cushions and the back and its like I'm getting a big hug." She coughed miserably again for several seconds, then moaned. "I just want to lay here until I feel human again. I'll get up and take a shower eventually."

"You can play it any way you want to," I said and went for the closet in the hall where I keep the extra blankets. "It's already warm in here, but I thought you might like a blanket or something. What do you want - I have wool, fleece?"

"Anything warm."

I pulled out one of those baby soft blankets they sell a lot of at Christmas time. Megan appreciated my choice and let me know with a satisfying sigh when I tucked it around her. "You're not acting like your fever is low grade. Let me check it again."

"You're good to me," she said and patted my thigh, "but leave me alone now."

I wanted to show her how good I could be. If the revealer of fate appeared and told me that this was mine - to be the caregiver she needed for the rest of eternity and she would not be able to return it - I would consider myself blessed.

"How about that soup?"

"I want to try and take a nap first. I'll eat after my shower. You need to check on Mrs. Henley anyway."

"I'll be back in a jif."

I leaned down to pull the blanket up further over her chest and had a flash of inclination to return her kiss from when I was in the hospital. That singular kiss to my forehead had more healing power than any medicine the doctors could have prescribed and I thought it might lift her a little as well. But I changed my mind at the last second. I don't know what gave me the nerve or the gall to do it, but I moved my face further down and placed my lips softly on hers.

It startled her, but she didn't protest. Instead, she parted her lips slightly and invited mine to press in. It wasn't long, but when I backed away I was embarrassed. If I had thought about it any longer, I would have changed my mind completely.

"That was nice. Unexpected, but nice."

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have. You didn't ask me to do that and —"

"I've been wanting you to, but a girl likes spontaneity."

"Spontaneous is definitely the word. I didn't see it going down like that at all."

"And now you're going to be sick on top of it," she grinned. "It was perfect and now I know you really do like me because I'm basically the walking dead."

She had no idea how far and how fast I had fallen for her. The thought overwhelmed me again that I wasn't that guy and never had been. I'm not that lucky. "I do."

"You have to go check on Mrs. Henley."

"Right. Stay put."

"I'll be here when you get back."

____________

Mrs. Pate's blue Sentra was parked behind the Buick. If the church party was still there, maybe a sliver of light could be seen at the end of the tunnel, at least for my poor neighbor who lived just over there.

I started walking across the circle of the cul-de-sac and at the halfway point, decided I had better pick up the pace. There was no particular reason for this other than a feeling in the pit of my gut that if I found nothing out of sorts in Mrs. Henley's house, at least I got my heart rate up and if it turned out to be the opposite thing - the bad thing - I'd be glad I ran.

I got to the door fast enough, but with plenty of time during the run to formulate another visual of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Only now it wasn't a light. I was keenly aware of it with the same assurance that when I walked through Mrs. Henley's door, there would be blood. What I saw now in my mind, down the black corridor, was an eye. Not white, but still bright and alive. The pinpoint grew as I closed in to the house and it became a glowing red orb full of death and hate and knowledge. It waited for me with elation, like a mistress waits for her lover to reach her under the cover of night, away from the goodness of his home. Into the cinders of the glowing eye, I seemed to fly under the dual obligations of both duty and irresistible magnetism.

Why did I continue? Why not turn away and back to the security of Megan and the safety of a warm - very warm - almost intolerably warm - home that was mine? Why?

Because the mistress was a siren and once I heard her song, I was helpless to ignore it. And again, I had a duty. I marched toward the evil, regardless of the outcome because that's what mama taught me to do.

Marty, you do good for people. If you want to make me happy, you do good for people.

Daddy too.

All a man really has is his virtue, son. It's what defines you. And sometimes it's what winds up killing you.

The smell coming from the other side of Mrs. Henley's front door was almost solid enough to chew. It blew me back and out of the vision of the eye, but I had to step back up to it anyway and when I did, I felt the evil there, pulsing like Poe's heart beneath the floorboards. Jim Taylor would have been proud. I settled on it once and for all - that this was of the devil. One way or another, his hands were dirty with it and I had the understanding that I was totally ill-equipped for what I was about to face.

I lifted my hand to knock, but it took effort. I watched in slow motion and it took an eternity, but that wasn't the worst part. Knuckles meeting wood - knowing that once I engaged, there was no going back - that was the first of the horrors.

I made three quick raps on the door and waited, but not too long. The time was over for politeness. "Mrs. Henley, Mrs. Pate, it's Sheriff Reese. I'm coming in, all right?"

There was no answer, but I'm almost positive I heard someone laugh, just barely over the rustle of the dry fall leaves that clung desperately to the branches of Mrs. Henley's pecan trees. I called again.

"Mrs. Henley, I'm sorry, but I have to come in - invitation or not."

I gripped the knob and it turned freely. The door swung open on another draft of the rotten smell I had encountered earlier in the day, but there was something else mixed with it now, too. Metal. Copper. The smell from the bottom of the Drop on the day Gail Warren had painted the cliff.

I drew my pistol, hating myself at the possibility of having to point my gun at an old lady and it was work to position my finger along the trigger guard. But I had to. It was my training. Hand always ready, just outside the guard. Not on the trigger just yet, but always at the ready.

I moved instinctively to my left, through the door that led to the hall and the bathroom strewn with human waste. There was still garbage all over the floor around where the foot of the ladder that led to the attic would land if it were pulled down like earlier, but it was shut now. I glanced to the floor of the bathroom. From where I stood, I could see that there was more trash there and now great swatches of brownish red smears that didn't look fecal stained everything, leading out of the bathroom and back past me into the front part of the house like something had been dragged. I followed the smear path and saw it connected with the kitchen. The tile there had been cleaner than that of the bathroom and the color of the caked drag pattern was a brighter red, dousing the flames of any hope that what I was looking at wasn't what I thought it was.     Oh God, I thought and as if by divine revelation, I knew exactly what had happened and why no one had answered the door. My fears were validated by other signs around me. A struggle had occurred. The bloody streaks of palms covered the walls and a near perfect hand print congealed in a thick puddle by my right foot.

Call somebody ... you need help here.

But I didn't want to do that. I needed to try and find the victims in the unlikely event any of them were alive. And if Mrs. Henley was still here, I needed to dispatch her. Calling for backup would take away any element of surprise I might have.

Come on, Marty. Do you really think you've got any element of surprise at this moment?

Still.

I blanched again at the thought of a violent encounter with Mrs. Henley.

Not Mrs. Henley anymore. It's Tom. Somehow it's Tom Renault.

I turned on my heels, suddenly feeling like I was being watched. The red, glowing eye. A waiting ember of fire that had found a comfortable spot in my mind, floating in the air beside me now, it seemed. We stared each other down in another place. A place where the floor was fog and there were no walls. The world where the Tom train chugged freely and merrily along like the little engine that could.

"Get out of my head!" I whispered fiercely and a spray of spittle flew from my teeth. Anger mingled with fear in a grotesque slurry. All that returned was that same tinny, far away laugh I'd picked up at the front door, but a little louder so I could make out the voice. It was Mrs. Henley's voice, echoing from the misty realm of the station where the Tom train was preparing to fly; idling as it waited for its passengers to board.

I doubled back toward the center of the house and stood among the garbage under the attic hatch, deciding what to do next. It was darker back there, but less dirty beyond the hall where I stood. There were two other doors deeper in, both closed. Both in shadow with only the slightest slivers of light - outside light from the windows beyond them - lining the bottom edges. I held my breath and watched the lines for movement behind the doors, but there was none. The house was eerily silent, with not a single drip from a faucet or settling creak from the foundation. Even the breeze had stopped for a moment and hard as I tried, I couldn't make out any more rustling of the leaves. It was just still, like the calm before a tornado touches down when nature's easement is only a lie and the worst is yet to come. I did start to hear one thing after a few seconds. My own breathing - hard and shaky. I still held my piece drawn at the level of my waist, but poised to raise and fire if I needed to.

It was an eeny-meeny-miney-mo situation if there ever was one. I chose the door to my left and kicked it open, raising my gun as it flew inward. My heart raced, but the room was empty. From the darkness of the hall, the fresh light was almost blinding and would have been a problem had Mrs. Henley been there to attack, but she wasn't and my eyes graciously adjusted to make up for it by the time I entered the room and tiptoed to the closet.

Now my heart joined my breath as a second thing I could hear.

Buh-BUM

Buh-BUM

I opened the closet door toward me with a quick gesture and thrust my gun forward.

Buh-BUM

Nothing there.

Buh-BUM

I stepped out into the hall and glanced at the other door, but now my index finger ignored the guard and feathered the trigger, able to deal fire at a flinch.

Buh-BUM

I kicked that door open as I had the first and let out the breath I'd been holding.

Don't do that. It's important to breathe at a time like this.

"Thanks mama, but I've got this," I whispered.

The room behind door number two wasn't quite as bright from the sun through the windows, due in part by the sheer amount of stuff packed in there. Random stuff like old, yellowing newspapers and knickknacks still in unopened boxes, probably bought from the Home Shopping Network in the wee hours of the night when a widow's loneliness is at its worst. Mrs. Henley had been a pretty impressive hoarder and this room was her attempt at hiding it. There was another closet on the right side of the room, but the wall of junk between me and it was convincing enough that even a possessed old lady couldn't have gotten to it to hide.

I shut the door to room number two behind me and stepped back into the hall under the attic hatch.

Buh-BUM

Pat

A small noise. No more than an almost inaudible tap, but then I felt it.

Buh-BUM

Pat

I looked to my right shoulder and saw a couple of splats of fresh red there, soaking into the ribbon. Then there was another and when I looked up another drop caught me directly in the middle of my forehead. I wiped it, backed out of the line of fire, and checked my fingertips. Blood.

Around the closed rectangle seam of the attic door, a widening pool of red had begun to spread and I had barely made it out of the way before it turned into a stream that fell to the garbage cluttered floor in a thin line that sprayed in every direction when it made contact.

I jumped further away and holstered my gun. I knew what came next and wished with everything I had in me that I had been smart enough to bring a partner. Clark would have been a good man to have by my side. He was loyal to a fault and wouldn't judge if it came to vomiting. But here I was, trying to find a safe place under the attic, away from the thickening tendril of blood, but where could I get my hand around the pull string without being covered in it?

After a few seconds of setting my feet in a way that I was pretty sure wouldn't see me sprawled out in the spreading gore, I was able to reach and grasp it. I took a deep breath, ignoring the stench and yes, the taste permeating the air that was thick with it, then tugged at the line. The hatch swung down and jagged, torn body parts started to fall around me. They weren't neatly dismembered like the work of a serial killer who takes pride in his craft, but viciously rended with the savage carelessness of a hungry animal.

Legs, arms, hands, intestines - every part - launched by gravity toward me and landed with blackish sounds on the floor as I jumped out of the way. When it was over and the last piece of gore had made its path downward, I counted three heads. They had made the loudest sounds, thumping thickly, including that of poor old Mrs. Pate, this time wearing a wide grin that said nothing of cheer. Her final moments had served her a table of insanity, the sort which brings a smile of horror because she couldn't have known what else to do. She'd seen the face of a devil.

I closed my eyes and said the first of a series of prayers that would punctuate the next few hours.

"God, I've got to handle this, but I don't have the stuff. I don't know what to say, except that I'm sorry. I believe in You. I have for as long as I can remember, but I have to be honest here ... I have no idea why I'm the guy you chose for this. You're gonna have to be my eyes, my hands, my feet. I know I'm not a perfect man, but I promise I'll try to be who You want me to be from now on. Please help me through this because I'm just a baby when it comes to this stuff and one thing I do know is that babies don't win battles. Call it an advance, I guess. Deal?"

I opened my eyes and the walls of the house still held me tightly in the wrappings of hell. I could see from memory the pristine and alluring ambience of a home primed for the holidays and I ached for that in my belly. Instead, I was greeted again with the sights and smells that accompany death and the total loss of anything good. There was the slightest part of me that had hoped for a magic spell that would have made it all right around me when I opened my eyes - that I would be back in at least a semblance of order brought on by an answer to my prayer, but that's not how God works and I knew it. Like any good father, He requires the lessons of the valley for His children to reach the riches of the mountaintop.

Then I heard the laugh again, disguised as the voice of Mrs. Henley, now loud enough to make out that it was coming from within me and not from the house. She wasn't there.

I whirled in a circle anyway, shouting into every corner and shadow as I made my turn. "Come out, if you're tough enough! Let's do this here! You want me, come get me, you hellish churl!"

"You'd like that, wouldn't you Marty? But no. You rode my train once without paying the fare. You want to be a good boy, don't you? Good boys always pay the fare."

"What are you talking about!?" I screamed and ran into the front room.

"She'll do just fine. She's a real gold piece, this girl. Now that I have her, I get two for the price of one."

"Megan! You leave her alone!"

"Too late, Marty. She's already boarded the train."

"No!" I closed my eyes again and concentrated on the glowing red one that penetrated the darkness. It was distant again, but it was there and the world was suddenly a haze around me like before as the dream fog rolled in and distorted reality.

I saw Mrs. Henley's Buick fly past me from behind. The wind from the car spun the mist, making it dance and swirl in that sick mesmerizing dance I was becoming too familiar with. There was a flash and now I was in the back seat of the Buick, sitting in the middle. Driving on my left and pointing what looked to be a .22 caliber pistol at her passenger was Mrs. Henley; bloody and caked with filth. To my right - the passenger - was my Megan, cowering and begging for her life. Her's and her pebble's.

Mrs. Henley turned to face me. Her skin was grayish, that is the parts of it that weren't covered in smears of blood that belonged to the home visit party she'd mangled only minutes before, and she grinned with a mouth full of black, rotten teeth. Her eyes glowed like embers. Both of them, glowing like the detached one that had floated in my mind.

"I'm hungry," she said and it came out in a greasy crackle. She licked her lips and bright red blood tracked along the path of her tongue. "How fast can you run, Marty?"

Another flash and I was back in Mrs. Henley's house, lying on the floor of the front room, surrounded by a stinking pile of papers. I shot up and if there was any nausea like before, I never noticed it. I was too worried about Megan.

I flew through the door and saw immediately that Mrs. Henley's Buick was gone. Looking across the cul-de-sac, I could also see that my front door was standing wide open.

I ran to my house, calling Megan's name the whole way, knowing well that it was for nothing. When I breached the door, I found the blanket I had tucked around Megan lying in a heap in front of the television. A line of things from the tabletop were strewn and scattered on the floor. At least she had put up a fight. But the thing that knocked me into another gear, one I didn't even know I had, was a message scrawled in blood just inside the door where Mrs. Henley or Tom or whatever it was, knew I would see it.

A tissue ... A tissue ... We all FALL DOWN!

They were headed to Shoeshine Drop.

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