Read Seldom Seen in August Online

Authors: Kealan Patrick Burke

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Seldom Seen in August (7 page)

BOOK: Seldom Seen in August
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He exited and a moment later, the
lights went out. The indigo glow from the television screens was
the only illumination in the room.

Behind him, Cochran’s voice: “Goodbye,
Wade,” followed by the sound of a door closing.

He was alone.

 

CHAPTER 8

 

Days seemed to pass him by as he lay on
the dirt floor suffocating beneath a sheet of sweat and above a
mattress of old dirt. He tried hard not to let Cochran’s words
drain the fight from him. August was a month that meant nothing.
The longer he spent obsessing over it, straining his mind, the less
chance he stood of keeping it together long enough to deal with
whatever came next, so he banished it from his mind.

Then something on one of the monitors
caught his eye. At the same time he was startled by a shriek of
static. It quickly abated, fading to a muffled stutter as someone
fed audio from the screen he was watching into the
basement.

A tall thin man dressed in a dark suit
was absently scratching his thigh with the muzzle of a revolver
while his other hand turned the hot water faucet in the bathroom
sink. The bathroom looked identical to the one in which the phantom
child—Eddie—had killed himself, only reversed, like a mirror image.
A simulation
, Wade reminded himself.
That’s all it was.
Nothing to do with me no matter what that old bastard said. I don’t
control what other people do with their lives.
Onscreen, the
man in the suit leaned over to stare into the sink. The water was
exposing something that had been written there, washing away a thin
veneer in the basin to reveal a clue, or a message. With great
effort, and disregarding the absurd twinge of jealousy that he
hadn’t thought to do what the man was doing now, Wade tried to
straighten his head to make out the words. As it turned out, it
wasn’t necessary. The man in the bathroom spoke them aloud in a low
gravelly voice.

“Revelation.”

Beneath the crackle and hiss of the
audio, the familiar humming began. To Wade it was like invisible
hornets had been released into the room and were coming
closer.

The man in the bathroom stopped
scratching, set his gun down on the rim of the bath tub, his
attention still focused on the sink.

“Repentance.”

A noise distracted the man and he
turned, made a grab for his revolver, but only succeeded in
knocking it into the tub. He cursed loudly as the shower curtain
tried to strangle him, and retrieved the weapon. When he
straightened, he saw what Wade had already seen. An enormous shadow
had darkened the bathroom, cast by someone or something standing on
the threshold, just out of frame. Fear contorted the man’s face and
he jerked out his arm, reflexively and without aiming, pumping one,
two, three rounds into the shape before him. The reports were too
much for the small speakers to handle. They sounded like a gloved
fist thumping a microphone.

Apparently the bullets had no effect.
The man screamed and fell back against the sink, cracking his skull
against the porcelain rim. He slid to the floor,
unconscious.

Allowing Wade to see the final
word.

 

RETRIBUTION

 

Wade yanked at the restraints so
fiercely he felt the flesh bunch up and begin to tear around his
wrist bone. He didn’t care. He was well able to handle himself,
well able to think his way out of damn near any situation, no
matter how hopeless it seemed. The pain his efforts incurred was
inconsequential in the grander scheme of things. But this situation
made him nervous because he wasn’t sure what was coming next. The
humming was getting louder all the time and the dark was
unsettling, obscuring as it would any enemy Cochran might throw at
him. Worse, whatever it was would be something from his own head.
Something apparently he had forgotten, and what worse monster is
there than one with which we are not familiar?

He yanked again and his wrist caught
fire. His head swam, lightning bugs sailing through the dark before
his eyes. Teeth clenched, he persisted until he felt the zip-tie on
one hand slip lower, taking with it a flap of skin. Wade hissed air
through his teeth, and looked back at the screens to distract
himself from the mounting agony.

The woman with the knife was standing
in the living room, watched by a half-dozen indistinct and
curiously faceless shapes. They twitched and shook every time she
raised the knife and brought it down on her abdomen. At least a
half-dozen of them were small, like children, watching impassively,
shivering with almost orgasmic glee.

“Fuck,” Wade said and redoubled his
efforts. Skin tore free, muscles strained, and nerves sang. With a
startling burst of pain, his thumb broke with a dull popping sound,
but there was no time to consider the injury. Slick with blood and
sweat, his hand slipped free of the zip-tie.

“Hallelujah,” he said, hoarse from the
effort it took not to scream. He took a moment to nail down
consciousness as it struggled to leave him, then pulled on the seat
of the chair while moving his feet downward. A bit of wriggling and
the chair legs were free of the plasticuffs, freeing his own legs
in the process. He stood, shakily, his limbs numb, the pain fierce
in his right hand. Briefly he inspected it and grimaced. It would
need some work, and soon, if he didn’t want it to get infected. He
had come close to slipping the skin off like a latex glove. The
restraint on his left hand proved no easier to remove now that he
had all but flayed his right, but eventually he managed to snap the
frame of the chair and slide the hand free.

Then he turned to face the
screens.

The humming was so loud now it seemed
to come from inside him.

Three of the screens had gone dark. Not
just blank, they’d been switched off. Wade felt he knew what that
meant, and didn’t like it much. He felt a modicum of relief that
he
wasn’t on one of those screens, waiting to be switched
off, then realized he probably was, in some other place, with some
other captive watching fearfully on the other side.

Resisting the compulsion to massage the
blazing pain from his hand, he used his other hand to search his
pockets, his waistband. He was not surprised to find they’d
relieved him of his gun, and everything else he’d had on
him.

On another of the monitors, a small
squat man with a comb over was peering up at the light bulb in one
of the upstairs bedrooms while behind him, a black man with half
his head missing wriggled like a lizard out from under the sodden
mattress.

August
, Wade thought as he
headed for the door through which Cochran had exited.
The hell
happened in August?

Another screen went blank. Wade could
tell only because the blue light from the bank of screens faded a
little. It inspired urgency in him. He did not want to be in this
musty room when the lights went out.

August…

Despite what Cochran had said, he was
sure that particular month held no significance for him.
Unwillingly, he ran through a mental list of the people he had
encountered and the things he had done over the years. It was
difficult, as there had been more than one incident that had
occurred during his “gray period”, a time in which, like the
ill-fated Gail, he had worshipped a chemical god. Of the memories
he was able to summon, was not proud, nor could he stand to dwell
upon them for long, a development that Cochran might have found of
great interest. Wade was not immoral; he did have a conscience. He
had just found a way to exist and do what needed to be done without
it plaguing him. Regret and remorse were like a pair of mean dogs
he kept staked out in his backyard. He knew they were there, but
only because he heard them barking, and it was easy enough to drown
out the sound.

He found the door. It was made of metal
and cold to the touch. There were a number of dents in the surface.
Wade scrabbled for a knob and found it, turned, and the door would
not open. It hardly budged at all.

“Shit.” He hammered on it with his good
fist. “Hey!”

To his ears it sounded as if his cry
had not gone further than his lips. Meanwhile, the humming seemed
to have settled in his ears, those industrious hornets searching
for the fastest route to his brain.

His shadow, blurred at the edges, faded
as another screen died.

Wade turned. With only a half-dozen
screens still on, he would need to find an alternate way out before
the room was in total darkness. Quickly, he inspected the ceiling,
but saw little, the light blocked by the heavy beams. He recalled
how they’d looked in the full light—as if a few tugs would bring
them down. It was a risky proposition. If it did come down, he’d be
standing right under it and stood a good chance of getting crushed
under the weight of its collapse. Another problem was that he was
now one-handed and as such doubted he had the strength to cause
those rafters much distress.

Sudden frantic motion on one of the
screens made him look at them again. Just before it went dark, he
thought he saw an obese man try to punch a sobbing woman, until she
looked up at him and screamed from the open, fleshless hole of her
face.

Wade winced and shook his head, his
wounded hand throbbing and dripping blood on the floor. He looked
back up at the ceiling. Darker now, the shadows thicker still.
Okay, forget trying to bring it down, he thought
. If it was
as fragile as it looked, there was a chance he might be able to use
something to knock a hole in it large enough for him to squeeze
through. The table would help give him the boost he needed to reach
up and pull himself out. Of course, he didn’t know where it would
lead, but considering his options, it was the better
one.

He squinted around the ever-darkening
room, eyes scanning the gloom for something, anything he could use,
and found only the broken remains of the chair. With difficulty, he
braced the broken frame against his chest and kicked out at the
legs until they broke away and fell noiselessly to the
floor.

Another television went off.

Grabbing one of the chair legs, Wade
all but leaped onto the table. It wobbled but held under his feet.
He looked up at a dark space between the beams. There was nothing
to see there, so he reached up with his unwounded hand and pressed
his fingers against the wood. It was soft, spongy and crumbled at
his touch. Wade smiled. Perfect. As he’d guessed, it wouldn’t take
much to punch through, though the space between the beams was going
to make it a tight squeeze.

He stepped back, the leg of the chair
held like a sword before him, splintered end up, and paused as
abruptly, Cochran’s words came back to him:
I suggested we build
a fully functional neighborhood right in the middle of
Harperville’s black zone.
Wade frowned, so preoccupied by this
newest mystery that he scarcely noticed when another television
died. If they had built the neighborhood only recently, why was the
basement ceiling decayed, as if it had suffered the weathering of
countless generations? The answer, when it presented itself,
reduced dramatically the hope that he’d felt at the sight of that
crumbling wood.

The ceiling was old and weak because in
an otherwise sealed room, it would be the only logical escape
route. The decay was deliberate, subtler than a flimsy trapdoor or
a neon sign pointing upward, but the nature of it was the same.
Like so much of what had occurred since he’d come to Seldom Seen
Drive, this move had also been premeditated. Just not by
him.

He swore and rammed the chair leg up
into the ceiling. It punctured a hole in the wood on the first try.
He quickly withdrew the spear and attacked the panel as hard as he
could with only his left hand. It was an awkward assault, but the
objective was reached. The leg penetrated as if the ceiling were
made of bread. With almost manic glee he watched as a hand-sized
hole appeared in the wood, lit by the faintest suggestion of
daylight.

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

The last of the television screens went
off and now he was surrounded by darkness that felt dense, heavy,
suffocating. The humidity made it seem as if he were in a room with
a thousand men, each one struggling to draw air as thick as glue
into their lungs. Fresh sweat broke out all over his body. The
sound of his blood smacking against the surface of the table was
the only sound in the room.

He resumed his assault, jabbing up at
the ceiling as if he were Jonah struggling to open a rent in the
belly of the whale, every thrust marked by the pained rasp of his
breathing.

The air was close, clinging to
him.

Wood crumbled. The hole
widened.

A television lit up.

Wade did a double take, then glanced
over at the screen, guardedly thankful that the cloying dark had
been allayed even if only for a moment.

But what he saw on that screen quickly
changed his mind.

The picture was grainy black-and-white,
the kind of poor quality image generally associated with cheap
closed circuit cameras. This one stared unblinkingly down at a
wrought iron gate three times as tall as the men waiting in line
behind it. A klaxon sounded and the gate swung open, revealing a
parade of men in orange jumpsuits, each one with a number printed
on the pocket. The majority of the men were black, but here and
there a white face was glimpsed, looking distinctly out of place
and more than a little scared. Among those faces, Wade recognized a
much younger version of his own. He was skinny, his eyes huge dark
holes in the round oval of his face. To the adult Wade’s older,
experienced eyes, he knew the term for a boy who looked like that:
“punk” – which meant a prime candidate for rape. The sight of that
boy, his face struggling to find a suitably sullen expression to
make him appear less vulnerable, sent a wire spinning out from him
to his older self, reestablishing a connection Wade had managed to
sever in the intervening years.

BOOK: Seldom Seen in August
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