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Authors: Ray Wallace

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BOOK: The Hell Season
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Is that what this is?
Thomas couldn’t help but wonder.
Some sort of movie set?
Maybe Julia and the kids and Dana’s family weren’t the ones who’d disappeared. Maybe it was he and Dana and Gerald and whoever else was here, trapped in this town, who’d been taken away, brought here to this reproduction of the place where he’d raised his children these past several years, recreated down to the smallest detail. But who could do such a thing? And why? To what end? It didn’t make any sense.

You’re losing it, man. Losing your mind. Right here. Right now.
Who could blame him, really? It was all so damned crazy. He couldn’t get his head around any of it. A movie set, though? What was he thinking? Just another half-baked explanation that made as much—or as little—sense as any other.

He let loose with a wordless cry of frustration, unnaturally loud in the surrounding silence, the only other noise the low rumble of his idling vehicle. His head felt as though it might explode. He knew he should search for another way out. No way the barrier could surround the entire town. Could it? Instead, what he did was get back in his car and drive away from the barrier in the direction from which he’d just come. He knew there was a liquor store nearby. A few minutes later and he was there.

Someone else had saved him the effort of having to break in through the front door of the place. He had no idea who it may have been and right then it didn’t seem all that important. A drink was all that mattered. Flashlight in one hand, pistol in the other, he walked into the dark interior, calling out, “Hello? Anybody in here?”

No response.

Feeling just a wee bit guilty for his thievery, he pulled down a bottle of whiskey from one of the shelves, a whole fifth of eighty proof oblivion. There were some warm two liters of Coke in a nonfunctioning electric cooler behind the store’s front counter. Armed with his newfound provisions, he walked back outside, sat down and put his back against the brick wall of the storefront. And there he drank, surrounded by the warmth and the silence of that summer evening until the thousand senseless thoughts and memories swirling through his mind were washed away by the booze and the welcoming embrace of sleep.

 

 

CHAPTER 3

 

Wednesday, June 23

 

When he awoke he wasn’t sure where he was. Actually, it took him a few moments to remember
who
he was. When he did, when he remembered that his wife, Julia, and his children, Robert and Jenny, had been taken from him, he moaned.

“Quiet,” said a voice from nearby.

Thomas’s eyes were still closed so he didn’t have any idea who had spoken. The voice wasn’t familiar. He opened his eyes and moaned again at the tiny bit of light that pierced his brain like a sword.
Another day another hangover

“I said, quiet.”

He still couldn’t see the person who possessed the voice. It was undoubtedly male, not particularly deep, the words spoken in a gruff tone barely above a whisper.

Thomas sat up. The pain in his head intensified but this time he was able to suppress the third moan that threatened to escape him. He was sitting on a bed. The room around him was unfamiliar, filled with vague shapes in the wan lighting. To his right, just a few steps away, was a window with its blinds pulled open. Two people were crouched down near the window, a man and a woman, with their backs to him, gazing out above its lower edge as if they were trying to remain unseen by something outside. The darkness beyond the window was fading but it wouldn’t be full daylight for another half an hour or so, judging by the quality of light coming in through the glass. Thomas realized that he was wearing the same clothes as the night before. How had he gotten here, wherever
here
was? His need for answers overrode his discomfort and any trepidation he might feel in the presence of these strangers—if they meant him harm surely they would have gone through with it by now—and so he rolled off the bed and practically crawled the short distance to where the two strangers were looking out through the closed window.

Oh, God, what now?
Thomas wondered.

Whatever it was, it couldn’t be as bad as the bugs the day before or the blood that fell from the sky the day before that, now could it? But of course it could, he realized as he took a look for himself. Just as bad if not worse.

At first his brain refused to believe what his eyes were telling him.
He was looking down from the second floor of a building and what he saw down below was…
Snakes.
Everywhere.

Writhing masses of them, in some places so thick that you couldn’t even see the ground over which they crawled. That last moan Thomas had managed to suppress made its presences known. He felt an elbow in his ribs and fell silent. He and his two newfound companions stayed where they were for some time, seemingly mesmerized by what they were witnessing, watching the light intensify on that awful scene. Full daylight did little to dispel the horror of the view through the window. It only served to fill in the details.

Thomas had a snake phobia. As a child he’d been held down by a neighborhood bully who’d dangled one of the awful, limbless creatures over his face for what was probably only a minute or so but had felt like hours of terror. Looking back, he realized that it had more than likely only been a garter snake but to Thomas’s young imagination it had seemed the size of an anaconda, ready to wrap him up tight and squeeze the life from his lungs. Laughing, the bully had eventually let him up and he’d run home, crying all the way. He’d had nightmares for weeks after the incident often waking up in the middle of the night gasping for air. The fear of the serpent that had been instilled in him that day had never fully left him.

And now this.

He was practically paralyzed by the sight of so many of the undulating monstrosities. And some of them truly were monstrous, twenty feet long if they were an inch, a good foot in diameter, any one of them quite capable of squeezing the air from the lungs of a now fully grown Thomas Wright, of slowly swallowing and digesting him, of basking in the summer sun with a human sized lump at its midsection. The thought of it gave him a sick feeling above and beyond what the previous night’s drinking had left him with. Wide-eyed, he eventually backed away from the window. This was after he realized that the vehicle he saw down there with the snakes crawling over its hood and windshield and roof was his own. So he was in an apartment located above the liquor store. He had to assume that the people now sharing the room with him had helped him up here some time during the night when he was either out cold or just too drunk to remember. They had saved his life. He had yet to exchange words with them. He didn’t even know their names.

He stood and circled around the bed, passed a dresser and a small book case as he approached the door he assumed would take him out of this place. He wasn’t sure where he planned to go but he knew he just had to get away. Images of all those snakes flickered through his mind, a phantasmagoric display of long, grey and green and black bodies, flickering tongues and hungry yellow eyes. As he reached for the doorknob a hand fell on his shoulder and spun him around none-too-gently.

“What do you think you’re doing?” asked the man in a hushed but forceful tone, anger evident on his face. He was shorter than Thomas by a good four or five inches. But he was thick, his shoulders wide beneath the black t-shirt he wore, well muscled arms on display. His hair was cut short, nearly to the scalp, military style. Dark eyes glared at Thomas from above a slightly crooked nose that had obviously been broken a time or two in the past. The woman, slightly older and noticeably taller, came over and stood next to him. Dressed in a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, her long brown hair was pulled back tight in a ponytail. She was fairly attractive with a wide adhesive bandage covering a wound on her forehead. They both wore police issue holsters at their hips, the butts of handguns visible there.
Now why didn’t I think of that?
thought Thomas as he reached down and patted the gun still tucked into the front of his jeans. Just too many things on his mind when he’d visited the police station, it seemed.

“Getting out of here,” Thomas replied, returning the shorter man’s glare. A fight with the other man probably wouldn’t go well for Thomas, but the headache, the nausea, the thought of all those snakes... It was all making him consider some less than rational courses of action.

“Oh, well that sounds like a great idea,” the woman chimed in. “Who knows what’s beyond that door? Damn things could be waiting out there, ready to take you down as soon as you open it.”

Thomas imagined the creatures all over him, biting and squeezing. It made him want to scream.

“Well, we just can’t stay here!”

“And why not?” It was the man speaking again. “It’s safe enough for now. We’ve got food. Water. And if they behave the way those bugs did yesterday, then maybe they’ll eventually just dry up and blow away.”

“And if they don’t?”

“We’ll worry about that when the time comes. We just need to stay calm, don’t do anything stupid, take action only when completely necessary.”

Thomas knew that it was a sensible argument. A lot more sensible than opening the door, running outside and hoping for the best. The confrontation had served to distract him from the images filling his mind, enough so that he was able to think a bit more clearly. Some food would help. Definitely some water. Maybe an aspirin or ten.
Goddamn, all this drinking and drugging is gonna get me killed.
He told himself he would have to stop. If he wanted to get through this—whatever
this
was, exactly—if he wanted any chance at figuring it all out, at possibly ever seeing Julia and the kids again, then he was going to have to keep his wits about him, to stay on top of his game. He decided right then and there it was time to go on the wagon. Drugs and alcohol were not going to make anything better. They would only make things worse. This he knew from experience. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d have to dry out. There’d been times throughout his and Julia’s marriage when he’d started to imbibe a bit too frequently. Once, she’d actually threatened to go stay with her mother, to take the kids with her if he didn’t do something about it. He’d quit then, gone cold turkey for more than a year. But eventually his willpower had eroded and he’d gone back to the bottle. Not as badly as before. In fact, he’d been able to hide most of it from Julia, to let her believe it occurred only on rare events. She wasn’t happy about it, reminded him of her threat, said that she’d go through with it if things got worse again. But they hadn’t. He kept it all under control quite nicely. And then his family had disappeared, and the skies started raining blood, and he’d run to the bottle again, sought the solace that it promised, the escape that it offered. But the escape was short-lived. And each time he returned he felt that much less capable of dealing with the grim reality of his situation.

Face it or die
, he told himself.
Face it or die.

“I’ve got a terrible headache. You wouldn’t happen to have anything that might help, would you?”

The other man’s expression softened and he nodded. “Just so happens that we do.” The man went and retrieved the duffel bag he’d left lying by the window, set it on the bed, unzipped it and rummaged around inside. He tossed Thomas a plastic bottle of Excedrin. “You know, that stuff they got downstairs… It’ll end up killing you. Especially now.”

Thomas nodded, opened the bottle and tapped a few of the pain relievers into his hand. “Preaching to the choir, my man. Preaching to the choir.”

 

*

 

Sure, mine and Julia’s marriage had its problems. What marriage doesn’t? It’s so strange and unfortunate the things that two people who love one another will sometimes put each other through. And make no doubt about it, I loved her and I know that she loved me.
Still
loves me. How can I be so sure of her feelings? By the simple fact of what it was that she put up with. You may have discovered by now, oh, imagined reader, that I’m a bit of a wreck. Emotionally, that is. Not all the time but enough to make me a bit difficult to deal with on occasion. It’s a shortcoming of mine I’ve never had any trouble recognizing or admitting, either. Where I’ve always run into problems was in finding a proper and permanent way of dealing with it. It would have been easier, I suppose, if I could discover an origin for my emotional struggles. But I couldn’t. Seemed that the shrink I’d spent some time with couldn’t either.

My childhood had by and large been a happy one, the incident with the bully and the snake notwithstanding. My father had a good job which allowed my mother to stay home and look after me. I had my share of friends. There was Mikey from down the street. And Sean from the next street over. The three of us were inseparable throughout most of grade school. We did all the usual things that boys of that age tend to do, I suppose. Rode bikes and skateboards in the summer. Played baseball. Had the occasional sleepover. In the winter we’d play football or street hockey after school. As we got older, we pretended we weren’t beginning to find members of the opposite sex interesting in ways we’d never thought of them before. (Looking back, I can’t help but wonder whatever happened to those guys. Sean and Mikey each moved away within a year of each other. I was in junior high at the time. We had vowed to keep in touch with one another and, for a little while, we had. Maybe a year at the most. But in time I found new friends, got a girlfriend—I assume that they did the same—and we just stopped contacting each other. Sometimes, it’s just the way things go, I suppose.)

High school was fine. I was fairly popular. Got pretty decent grades. All in all, managed to make it through that period of my life relatively unscathed.

BOOK: The Hell Season
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