Friday, February 22, 2013
Trouble always stems from living in a small town. The main dilemma is that your life, your business–personal or otherwise–is on display for the world to see. It’s not that everyone means to pry or be nosy. They just can’t help but witness the drama that unfolds. And some can’t wait to share it with others.
These people are your friends and neighbors; they’re your colleagues or classmates. You see them all the time. They often judge you or gossip behind your back. And you promptly return the favor in their absence.
All small towns are the same at heart. Everyone wears a smile, even when it’s just for show. Because you wouldn’t want to let anyone know you have issues in your personal life. You wouldn’t want to give the gossipers a few more rounds of ammunition. So you wear that plastic smile, grinning from ear-to-ear like some mindless jack-o’-lantern.
Tyler Reese never had to deal with the discomfort of small town life. He was born and raised in the big city. He grew up surrounded by towers and skyscrapers that appeared to stretch as high as the clouds. He spent his life encompassed by packed highways and congested freeways.
Reese grew accustomed to the sounds of car horns blaring, ambulance sirens wailing, strangers exchanging vulgar obscenities. This was background noise to him. What he hated was absolute silence. That’s when he knew trouble was brewing.
To a man like Reese, small towns just mean less work for him. Reese is a member of the Census Bureau. When people neglect to fill out and return their census forms, it’s his duty to track them down.
That particular day, his assignment was Eden Harbor; a sleepy little town in the center of Long Island. A place that Tyler had no sincere desire to be… and for good reason.
Ten years ago–when Tyler was still in school–it was Bobby Sudrow who made the trek to Eden Harbor. The bureau never heard from him again.
The early morning fog crept in from the bay, slowly enveloping the roads. Tyler drove at his own leisure. No rush, no hurry. One hand on the wheel of his rental car, the other hand gripping his morning caffeine fix. The coffee was boiling hot and singed his tongue with every sip. But it was also the only thing keeping his eyes focused on the hazy road.
The car the bureau had reserved for Reese was a ’07 Honda Accord. The interior was worn and beaten. The upholstery riddled with cigarette burns. But the Honda still had that “new car” smell that Reese found nauseating.
Reese listened to the radio to keep his mind occupied. He tried his best not to think about Bobby Sudrow.
Bobby Sudrow was a nice guy by all accounts. A family man. Everything he did, he did for his wife and two daughters. Every penny he saved went to their college funds. Every free moment he had, he spent with them. He liked barbeques, cold beer, those summer days at the beach. It was the little things in life that put a smile on his face. And it was no plastic smile he sported. It was the real thing.
His last assignment was Eden Harbor. According to the reports, he never made it. His red Camry was found abandoned in the town of Dorchester, some two hundred miles away. The police search turned up nil. They couldn’t find a shred of evidence that said Bobby Sudrow ever existed. Even his insurance card was removed from the glove box. The interior of the Camry had been wiped clean with the skill and patience of a professional, and not a single useful fingerprint or trace of DNA was discovered.
The joke among colleagues is that fear or trepidation of visiting small towns alone is commonly referred to as Sudrow Syndrome.
It was eight o’clock when Reese pulled into the only gas station in town. At least that’s what the hand-painted sign strung above the gas pumps claimed.
He got out, yawning, his arms stretched above his head. In the distance, he heard the chiming of bells. Church-like bells that tolled precisely once every four to ten seconds. Ominous, yet strangely soothing.
A man stepped out from the mechanics garage, his hands caked in oil and black residue. Around his long neck was a chain connected to a diamond shaped locket, which for all Reese knew was stolen. It seemed out of place amongst his oil stained jumpsuit and canvas shoes.
“What can I do for you?” the man asked, wiping his greasy hands with a yellow cloth.
“You can start by filling me up,” Reese answered. “And if you’re familiar with the area, you can give me directions to the Henderson’s place."
The man cackled annoyingly, a loud boisterous laugh that made Tyler’s ears sore. “In the golden age of technology, who stops to ask for directions?”
“Someone who’s too cheap to splurge for a GPS,” Reese replied. “Now you know where it is?”
“What do you want with that old dump?"
“The name’s Tyler Reese. I’m with the census bureau. The Henderson’s never returned their census forms, so the bureau sent me.”
“They sent you all the way here for that?”
“We’re very thorough.
The man fingered his diamond locket with one hand and brushed the other through his wavy brown hair. Avoiding eye contact, he motioned down the road with his head.
“Half a mile down the road if you’re heading east,” the man said, opening the gas tank. He unscrewed the cap and jammed the nozzle into the tank. Then he started fueling. “It’s an old cedar house, green with mold on the outside. Their front yard is littered with pink flamingos and gaudy patio furniture. It’s something out of a trailer park.”
“So you’re saying it’s hard to miss?” Reese joked, if only to ease his screaming nerves.
“I’d be surprised if you passed it by without looking twice.”
Reese glared to the east. It was then he noticed the green smoke. He couldn’t pinpoint the exact location. It was rising up through a series of tall oak trees.
“What’s your name?” Reese inquired.
“Alexis,” the attendant responded. “But everyone calls me Lex.”
“Well, Lex, you mind if I ask you what’s the deal with that?” He motioned to the green smoke filtering into the sky.
“Oh, that,” Lex started, as if he was used to this routine. He continued to avoid eye contact. “That’s the forbidden zone.”
“The forbidden zone?” Reese repeated, almost mockingly.
“Yeah, you might want to steer clear of that whole area.”
“No one can trespass there. It’s been forbidden by the local authorities ever since the incident.”
“The incident?” Reese mumbled, taken aback.
“Your tanks full,” Lex said, disregarding his bewilderment. “That’ll be sixty dollars.”
Reese paid his debt and got in his car in a hurry. Lex watched as Tyler drove out, heading east toward the old Henderson place. If his intention was to stir Reese, mission accomplished.
As Reese left the station, those two words shot up from the back of his mind, ricocheting around in his head. Sudrow Syndrome. If there was such a thing, Tyler had a serious case.
Reese passed the harbor. All the boats remained tied down in their spaces. The docks were deserted on such an ideal fishing day. And all local stores and businesses were seemingly abandoned.
The green smoke curled up from the invisible chimney and ascended to the clouds above.
Five minutes down the road, Reese found what he was looking for. It was just how Lex described it. Pink flamingos and purple longue chairs strewn about the lawn. A bird feeder in the shape of a beer car. He was staring at a white trash portrait with a pulse. On the front porch sat a rotting pumpkin, probably a leftover from last year’s Halloween.
The door was slightly ajar, so Reese nudged it forward and peeked inside. A pungent odor from inside the house floored Reese and he gagged. He took a deep breath and entered, holding the collar of his shirt over his nose to stifle the unbearable stench.
“Mr. Henderson?” he called out. “Mrs. Henderson? Anybody?”
The smell grew overpowering as he moved past the foyer and started down the narrow hallway.
In the kitchen, Reese saw a man slumped over at the kitchen table. The back wall was stained with blood that had coagulated and dried to a hard red crust. As he moved through the kitchen, still holding his nose, he spotted the entry wound below the man’s forehead. A single shell casing lay near his feet, alongside the splinters of his skull. Reese flinched when he felt the cold sting of metal as a gun barrel was jabbed in his neck.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” a voice said. Reese felt the steam of their breath on his ear. The man’s thumb cocked back the hammer of the gun. Reese didn’t see it, but he heard the unmistakable click. “Mr. Henderson’s been waiting too. Three days now. I apologize for the smell, but you do get used to it after a day or two.”
“Who are you and how do you know about me?”
“You’re from the census bureau, right? Henderson never filled out his form, so they would send somebody down here. You were the next offering.”
“Is this whole town backwards or is it just a handful of you?”
“Listen carefully. What I’m about to tell you might seem ludicrous, but it will save your life. I have no intention of hurting you.”
“Hard to believe when you’ve got a gun jammed in my neck.”
The man drew his gun back and released Tyler from his grip. He spun around and locked eyes with Frank Cornell, a man not much older than himself. The only unusual thing about him was the absence of the middle and index finger on his left hand. Frank wiggled his nubs in the air, acknowledging his missing digits.
“A little chemistry accident,” Frank admitted, almost embarrassed to do so. “They couldn’t reattach them.”
“That’s the last question I had on my mind at this moment. You better explain this from the beginning. And try to make sense."
Eden Harbor is controlled by the Minions. Servants who worship and appease something beyond natural description. This thing appeared many years ago, back when I was just a kid.
It appeared from a smoking crater in the town junkyard. I’d like to believe it fell from space. Or who knows, maybe it rose up from the depths of hell. But that’s not what the Minions chose to believe.
They thought it was a gift from above. They believed it was sent here to guard us and protect us. To shield us from outside evils, and to bring us good fortune. And they assumed it wouldn’t leave its place of origin so long as we appeased it from time to time. Truth be told, it hasn’t.
Reese felt as though he had been assaulted. It was too much to digest. “What is this thing you refer to?”
“It’s an abomination. That’s the best way I can paint you a picture of it.”
“How many people know about this?”
“Everyone in town knows about it.”
“Then why don’t you just leave town? Pack up your shit and bail.”
“That’s why I can’t leave town. Everyone knows. The Minions won’t give anyone the chance to spill their guts to the world. They watch the roads constantly. Those that have tried to flee never make it past the gas station. Did you hear the bells? See the green smoke? They knew the second you got in to town.”
“What was the green smoke really about?”
“The bells and smoke are how the Minions notify the townspeople that a new sacrifice has arrived or been chosen. To create the smoke, potassium chlorate is added to a fire. It’s this white crystalline substance. I should know, I showed them how to do it. It’s probably the only reason they’ve spared me.”
Reese let out a long, exasperated sigh. “Say I honestly believe you, what can be done?”
“You can help me destroy it. Without it, they’re powerless. We can blow the thing back to hell and then we’ll be free.”
“We could do that. Or I could get in my car, turn around and get the fuck out of here.”
“They’ll never let you escape. They’ll hand-feed you to this beast. If you don’t believe me, try it. See how far you get. Think of it as a game. You can even time yourself.”
Reese weighed the options. He didn’t seem to have many. He knew what Frank was saying could, on some level, be true. He felt a presence the instant he arrived. Lex seemed to be eyeing him up at the gas station. Maybe he was being watched.
“This is going to be a long day,” Reese sighed. “They better be paying me overtime for this shit.”
“I’ve spent three years cooped up in this house,” Frank shared. Reese had driven Frank back to his one-story house with his rental car. Not like he had much of a choice. Frank had a gun, he did not. “I’ve been waiting for the Minions to come knocking one day and sacrifice me to their false deity.”
“If this thing is how you describe it, how do you intend to kill it? It doesn’t sound the least bit human. It’s not like shooting someone in the head.”
“I said we were going to blow this thing to hell. It wasn’t a figure of speech. Gather around the chemistry set. I’ll teach the shit they don’t show you in school.”
“What are we making?”
“Fulminated mercury,” Frank said. “Used in a wide variety of explosives.”
To create fulminated mercury, Frank explained, we need to dissolve mercury in a beaker.
He cracked the stem of a thermometer with a hammer and carefully drained the poisonous mercury into a beaker. To dissolve the mercury, you use nitric acid.
Frank gently twisted the cap off a two liter bottle of clear liquid. He poured until the beaker was half full.
Once the mercury is dissolved, ethanol is added to the mix. The final process involves pouring the liquid into molding trays and freezing it. It takes a total of three hours.
When it freezes, it forms a crystal-like structure. Fulminated mercury is extremely delicate to friction and shock. A slight jolt can easily set it off. The radius of the explosion depends on the quantity of fulminated mercury.
For this occasion, Frank made three pounds worth. Enough to detonate a shopping mall.
They waited for nightfall. The fulminated mercury was secured in the bed of Frank’s silver pickup truck. Reese climbed into the passenger seat. Moment of truth, he thought. Either this guy is a crackpot or he’s telling the truth. Let’s hope he’s a crackpot.
Frank drove at a constant speed of thirty miles per hour. He didn’t want to draw attention to himself, and didn’t want to speed because of the delicate explosives in back.
Reese kept his eyes peeled for any looming dangers on the road. But every so often his eyes would inadvertently drift to the pistol jammed in Frank’s waistband. If this is all bullshit, Tyler thought, you better hope you can wrestle that gun away from him.
“Pothole!” Reese exclaimed before Frank jerked the wheel to avoid the huge dip in the road.
“That was a close one,” Frank sighed. Moments later, Frank veered to the right and stopped in front of a gate that was chained and padlocked. The chain-link fence was eight feet high and wrapped and lined with razor-sharp barbed wire at the top.
“A shortcut,” Frank said. “Welcome to the origin of the green smoke. This is the junkyard, where they stash the cars of their sacrifices. There’s a shack with a small chimney attached. You meet the guy from the gas station?”
“This is his place.”
They exited the truck and Frank gingerly slid the box of mercury from the back. He gave Tyler a flashlight to lead the way. He rested the box on the ground and pulled out a set of keys. He unlocked the gate and pushed the chain-link doors open.
“Should I ask why you have the key?”
“Many people do. This is a place of worship to them. And like I said, I showed Lex that little trick with the green smoke. Membership has its privileges I guess.”
Frank picked up the box and they moved quietly through the junkyard. Police cruisers and BMWs were buried under UPS trucks and dismantled eighteen-wheelers.
“Do all the vehicles get dumped here?”
“Not all of them,” Frank answered. “Some get dropped out of town, so we don’t raise suspicion. How many people can disappear in one small town before everyone else takes notice?”
More and more, Tyler was starting to think Frank was being sincere. You read about cults all over the world, Tyler thought. It’s not that far-fetched to believe the whole town has been coerced into worshipping a false idol. That some terrible, unspeakable secret is hidden in the center of this heap.
“How far do we go?”
“You’ll know when you’re there,” Frank assured him.
A red mist spurted across his face as the back of Frank’s head exploded with a single deafening blast. The box tumbled to the ground and Tyler gasped, squeezing his eyes closed. He expected the blast to throw him a good two hundred feet. But the mercury had endured the damage of the fall and had not been triggered.
Then, there was absolute silence. Bobby Sudrow. Bobby Sudrow. The name flashed in his head repeatedly. Unarmed and unable to detect where the shot came from, Tyler was helpless. Until he remembered Frank’s gun tucked in his waistband. Flashlight in hand, he made a move.
“Don’t even think about it,” a familiar voice shouted and Tyler froze at their call.
Reese heard the rustling of fallen leaves, a chain jangling. As the shadowy figure took form, the diamond shaped locket around their neck came into focus.
Lex marched from the darkness, rifle in hand. He approached Reese, opening the locket for him to see a young woman with curly dark hair. She looked to be anywhere from twenty to twenty-five.
“My wife, Natasha,” Lex said. He coldly snapped the locket shut. “We all have to make sacrifices here. I want you to meet someone. He was a man who understood sacrifice. The sacrifices he made for his family alone proved that. And so we embraced him as one of our own.”
“Hello, Tyler,” a voice called from the darkness. Reese shined his light on a man who looked twice his age. His hair was snow white and thin, his skin pale and weathered. He looked closer to death than Tyler did. But there was something vaguely familiar about him. He had seen his picture before.
“No,” Tyler shook his head in defiance. “It can’t be you. You disappeared ten years ago.”
“I didn’t disappear,” Sudrow explained. “I started a new life, with a new family. This is where I belong. I wish you could stick around.”
“I’d probably overstay my welcome,” Reese quipped. Even in the face of certain danger, his dry humor seemed to ease the tension, if only for him.
“No more chitchat,” Lex shouted, the rifle still grasped in his hands. “This has gone on long enough.”
The townspeople, torches in hand, flocked in droves. It was a scene straight out of Frankenstein. There were men, women, and their children were all by their side. Their eyes all told the same story. Let’s just get this over with. This sadistic mob formed a ring around him, trapping him in the center.
From this wreckage, something had emerged. It appeared as a small blotch at first, like a stain on the sidewalk. But this seemingly inanimate blob was growing bigger as it moved towards them. When it reached the outside circle of the mob, its shadow eclipsed the glowing beam of the torches. It was as Frank Cornell had described it, truly an abomination.
They broke the circle to open a path to Reese. One of the townsfolk grew startled just at the sight of it and dropped their torch in the dirt.
It was unlike anything he had ever laid eyes on. Devoid of any normal human qualities. A long oval-shaped torso. Its texture was grey and lifeless, like that of a slug. No nose or ears were visible. It had no legs and took to moving like a snake, slithering along on its ample belly. Wherever it moved, a slimy trail was left in its path. Its mouth was comprised of two hideous rows of jagged fangs that could snap through a parking meter. Three red glowing eyes the size of baseballs rested upon what Tyler only assumed was its forehead. Its backside was curved, taking the shape of a monstrous barbed stinger.
Bobby Sudrow extended his arms in welcome. “Please accept this sacrifice we have presented you here today. We hope this will satisfy you and satisfy those that have blessed us with your presence.”
Tyler had fallen to his knees, accepting his twisted face. His eyes were aimed steady at the ground, as he did not wish to see it devour him. And so he missed it when the creature curled back his stinger and pierced through Bobby Sudrow’s chest.
The townspeople gasped, moaned. Some screamed. Its stinger retracted and continued to move at a lightning pace, tearing a gaping hole in the flesh of anyone that stood in its way.
Tyler looked soon enough to see it wrap its teeth around a dying Bobby Sudrow. It bit him in two, severing the waist from the torso and then swallowed the top half in one motion.
The fire of the fallen torch was starting to spread, forming a straight path to the box that Frank had released.
The explosion wasn’t quite what Tyler imagined, but it was enough to send the townspeople–those that survived the blast–scattering like cockroaches for their homes. And it wasn’t enough to stop this beast from its rampage. The explosion didn’t seem to slow it down, or even leave a mark on it.
The rifle that Lex had been toting was mere inches away. It was still attached to his right arm that had been severed from the blast. He rolled through the dirt, his legs brushing past the flames that had spread throughout the junkyard.
He literally had to pry it from Lex’s dead fingers. When the rifle was in his hands, the creature was already too close for comfort. Its red eyes were staring him right in the face.
You couldn’t call it a change of a heart. Because inside that grotesque mass, Tyler shuddered at the thought of a beating heart resting amongst its entrails. It showed its true colors when it ravaged a town that had been so rewarding to it. This… thing, it didn’t have a heart. That’s what Reese chose to believe. However, it did spare his life. Perhaps so he could live to tell its tale. Or perhaps it was just full at the moment.
Changing its direction, it crawled its way through the fiery wreckage. It was seemingly impervious to the fire around it, the flames barely scorching its exterior. It slithered through the gates, past the Forbidden Zone. It was loose.
The bureau has their work cut out for them, Tyler thought. The population of Long Island is about to be drastically altered.