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Authors: Ray Wallace

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BOOK: The Hell Season
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He wandered the house until night began to fall, reaching out to the ghosts in the reflections, changing the stations, always changing the stations. Then darkness came and robbed him of most of the visual images he’d been pursuing from room to room. He could have gotten his flashlight but felt—quite irrationally, he knew—that its bright, sterile beam would somehow destroy the mood of the moment and the voices of his family would be lost to him. At some point he ended up back in the living room, sweating in the warm evening air. Outside, there was thunder. Another storm. What kind would it be this time? Thomas didn’t care. When the rains came he wandered out onto the porch to discover that it was only water falling from the sky. Back inside, the darkness thickened and still he listened to the voices of those he lost.

I should stop this
, he told himself.
This can’t be healthy. I need to turn off the radio and leave
.

But he couldn’t. The radio was going to have to stop working. Or someone was going to have to come and take it away. Shouldn’t the batteries have died by now? He thought that they should have. He’d been listening for a long time. But maybe they didn’t work the same way that they used to, back before the terrible morning when his world was changed. Maybe they would just go on working forever...

As he was changing the station for what seemed the thousandth time a hand that was not his own reached out and pulled the radio from his grasp. There was the sound of breaking plastic as it was thrown against the wall. And just like that, the voices of his family were silenced.

Consumed with a sudden rage, Thomas whirled on the person who’d come into his home and destroyed the one tenuous link he had to his family. His hand was closed in a fist and he was drawing it back to throw a punch at the indistinct figure standing there in the darkness. Before he went through with it, however, a light popped on and he saw that it was Dana before him carrying a flashlight of her own, and the surprise and the guilt he felt at seeing her instantaneously overwhelmed his rage, were more than sufficient to make him lower his hand and ask in a strained voice, “What the hell did you do that for?”

 

*

 

Later, in the car, Dana’s car, she said that she forgave him, that she knew it wasn’t his fault, what had happened between the two of them. “It really did happen, didn’t it?” she asked at one point. “I mean… you know…”

“Yeah,” he said to the night which had fully fallen outside beyond the car windows. “I think it did.”

“Well, I just wanted you to know that,” she continued. “I was hoping that we could just… put it behind us. That we could be friends. Do what we can to help one another. Because I think that’s really important. More so now than ever. Having people you can rely on. People you can trust. And there’s something… I don’t know what it is. Something I saw there in you that first time… Well, after I’d gotten myself under control, free of the
awfulness
that had fallen from the sky that day. I’ve always had a bit of an intuition, you see. Actually, I’ve always prided myself on it. Just a little, at least.”

She was babbling but Thomas let her go on. He knew that what she was saying was important to her, that it was obviously quite difficult for her. She had reached a decision she was still trying to come to terms with and this was part of the process. So he kept his mouth shut and let her say what was on her mind, let her work it all out for herself. It was the least he could do, after all.

“My husband, Bill, he used to kid me about it. About my little talent. My ability to know if someone was a decent sort of person or if they were the type you wanted to keep at arm’s length, not get too close to. ‘How’s the old BS detector working?’ he’d ask if we were like, oh, I don’t know, talking to a car salesperson or the guy over at the electronics store trying to steer us toward one big screen TV over another.” While she spoke the vehicle pulled out of the neighborhood Thomas and she had shared for the past few years without ever realizing it, just a couple of people with families who’d gone about their businesses without ever getting to know those who lived around them, like so many other American suburbanites across the country, Thomas supposed. She drove slowly, carefully weaving the little four door sedan she was driving around the abandoned cars parked haphazardly in the road they followed toward the center of town.

“So, anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I got the feeling, from the moment that my head was clear enough to think about it, that you were a decent guy, the kind of guy you’d want on your side. The kind of person who’d help you out if he could. And I’m sorry for what happened and I hope that… well… that we can be friends. I would have come by and told you sooner but I just needed a little time. I could probably use some more but I came by anyway because, in all honesty, I’m not at all sure how much time there might be left.”

With that she fell silent. There was only the sound of the car, the gentle hum of the engine and the tires on the pavement. A full minute went by before Thomas said, “I’m sorry too. And I’m glad you came back.”

After that they were quiet for a while. Back at the house, after Dana had destroyed the radio and Thomas had managed to keep himself from striking her, she had told him where she had been since the last time he’d seen her. When she’d come out of the hallucination she’d been wandering down the street, lost and confused. It had taken her a little while to get her bearings. Once she had she’d gone home, spent the night there, trying to get her head around what had happened, what was still happening. She’d wanted to check on Gerald but she couldn’t bring herself to go back to Thomas’s house, not yet, not then. By the next morning she’d gone in search of other people. There was strength in numbers, she knew. Even after the disastrous way in which her last small attempt at community had ended, she still felt a need to seek out others and join with them, to find a way to fight whatever forces were behind the ruination of her world.

The previous morning, she’d driven through the heart of town before the sun had risen, saw the massive hole in the earth located there for the first time.

“People were there. They had rigged some spotlights with generators. There’s a plaza nearby with a Wal-Mart and a Home Depot. I guess they got the stuff from one of those places. They had the hole lit up like it was daytime. You could see wisps of steam coming up out of the hole. And the smell… Oh, it’s a terrible place. Something foul there, that’s for sure. Something unnatural about it. Tomorrow, you’ll have to check it out. Not tonight though. I really have no urge to go near it at night again. It’s bad enough during the daytime. Once you see it, I’m sure you’ll feel the same way. But we’re going to have to pass close by. The Wal-Mart I mentioned… It’s become a communal home of sorts. People just started showing up there. Fifty-three of them, at last count. I guess it’s a logical place to go if you’re looking for supplies. This one guy, he started a flyer campaign, went out and stapled photocopies to telephone poles that told anyone who might read them where they could find fellow survivors.”

When the snakes showed up she’d been inside the Wal-Mart, had gone up onto the roof and waited out the infestation of serpents. She’d never been bitten, never experienced the metamorphosis that Thomas went through.

And then they were there, pulling into the parking lot of the plaza with the Wal-Mart and the Home Depot. Thomas wanted to tell Dana about Gerald, about what he’d done to him, but the words stuck in his throat. The guilt of it...

A short distance down the six lane road that ran before the plaza, Thomas could see the lights that surrounded the hole. Finding himself in such close proximity to the possible source of his recent woes made him feel more than a little uneasy.

There were a surprising number of cars filling the spaces before the superstore. Then it dawned on Thomas that most of them undoubtedly belonged to those who had either been working or shopping at the place when the great disappearance took place. Dana pulled up in the fire lane behind a couple of other cars and killed the engine. Then she and Thomas were out of the car and heading over toward one of the building’s main entrances. There were generators here, too, with orange extension cords running between some of the closed automatic doors and into the building. Dana reached out and grabbed one of the doors, pulled it open, then motioned for Thomas to follow her through. They closed the door behind them before walking through the cavernous entranceway, past the area where the shopping carts were corralled, then over past the rows of checkout lanes to a large, thinly carpeted part of the store that had been cleared of the shelves of clothes that had recently dominated the area. Dozens of mattresses had been laid out there and lamps—either standing on the floor between the makeshift beds or on end tables that had been dragged over to the area—were being fed power from the extension cables connected to the generators out front. The place was well lit and there were people lying or sitting on the beds, reading or eating or sleeping, or standing around talking in hushed tones, some more animatedly than others. A large screen TV was on with a DVD playing at low volume: Steven Spielberg’s
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
.

Dana waved at a few people and they waved back. A young man removed himself from a small group and walked over to where she and Thomas stood at the edge of the lighted area. There was something strangely familiar about the man even though Thomas was convinced he had never met him before.

“Dana, good to see you again,” said the young man.
Dana and Thomas exchanged looks: his questioning, hers perplexed.
“And Thomas.” He held out his hand for Thomas to shake which he did if a bit timidly.
“Do I know you?” asked Thomas, not sure he really wanted an answer to his question.

“Now what kind of way is that to greet the man you killed?” The guy smiled as Thomas pulled his hand away. “Ah, you recognize me now, don’t you?”

And, as impossible as it was, Thomas
did
recognize him.

“My God… Gerald?”
The man gave a little bow.
“Alive and well.”
“But… but… how?” It was all he could think to say.

“Now
that’s
an interesting story.”

 

 

CHAPTER 5

 

Friday, June 25

 

Thomas slept pretty well, all things considered. Maybe it was the close proximity of other human beings. He wasn’t sure. What he did know was that for sleeping in such a strange environment after an equally strange day he spent the night in mostly uninterrupted slumber. And for that he was grateful.

He and Dana had gone to find him a mattress and blanket, set his stuff next to hers at the edge of the area where most of the other people had gathered. The generators were turned off at midnight, a time generally agreed upon by those who had been there for the past few nights now. At seven-thirty AM they were turned back on. After Thomas had been awake for a few minutes, Gerald came over with a box of snack cakes pilfered from one of the store’s grocery aisles and some bottled waters then sat on the mattress next to him. Dana sat on her bed across from them and for a time they talked while they ate.

Thomas still couldn’t get over the fact that Gerald was alive. And so young.

The night before, he’d apologized to Dana for not revealing his identity to her sooner.

“I wanted it to be a surprise,” he’d said. “For both of you. Something like this... Can you blame me?” He‘d turned to Thomas, a strange little smile on his face. “Actually, I guess I should thank you. Who knew that dying could be so good for you?”

“I’m really sorry about what happened,” Thomas had told him.

“I know that,” Gerald had said. “In the right frame of mind you would have never done what you did. This world... The way it is now... It’s meant to torment us, to warp our minds and our souls. We’re being punished for something. Our sins, most likely. That’s why our loved ones have been taken from us. Why we’ve been left here in this nightmare. We’ve all done something for which we must suffer. Many of us probably don’t even know what that something is. Eventually we may pay our dues and be allowed to leave this place. How long that might take I have no idea. What happened back at your house… That’s just part of it. And I have a bad feeling that it’s only going to get a lot worse before any of it gets better.”

Thomas wasn’t sure he agreed with all of that. Sure, he’d done some bad things in his life, things that could have been considered sinful. Who hadn’t? But as far as anything truly terrible, enough to deserve
this
… He wasn’t so sure about that. As for those he had met since that morning when everything had changed so drastically… Dana and Ron and Tanya, and even Gerald, no matter what he might say. They all seemed like basically good people. True, he didn’t know them all that well, but first impressions had always meant something to him and no one he’d met so far—even the few here he had been introduced to last night—had struck him as inherently bad or evil individuals. Again, like himself, certainly not bad enough to deserve whatever it was that had been happening. No, he thought there was something else going on here. The idea that they were in Hell, that they were being punished for their sins, struck him as too obvious and simplistic. He was convinced there was more to it than that although, at the present time, he had absolutely no idea what it might be.

“Don’t worry, I didn’t suffer much,” Gerald was saying around a mouthful of chocolate and cream snack cake, reiterating some of what he told Thomas the night before. “My body was quite frail. When I opened the closet door and stepped out to see what you were shouting about you struck me with your fist and I went down. Then you must have kicked me or something because everything went black. I don’t remember any more of what happened after that.”

BOOK: The Hell Season
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