Dead Hand first pages

Tuesday, July 26, 1982, 11:43 p.m.

It was nearly midnight. He was tiried, and preoccupied by thoughts of his long day. Instead of crossing the street at the corner, as he should have, he went at a long angle which would take him directly to his front walk.

He heard the car coming from behind him, but paid no attention until he realized, all at once, that there was no headlight shadow ahead of him, the engine was wound up too high for a residential street, and it was getting louder far too quickly.

Shocked terror jerked him around. He had just enough time to catch a glimpse of an angry young face in the light of the dashboard. The car hit him before he could even begin to jump aside.

It struck him hard, crushed his pelvis, and threw him the rest of the way across the street. His left shoulder hit the curb and broke. The car did not stop.

He lay there, thinking nothing, feeling nothing, aware only that he was lying on his side. Then he thought, Stupid. He was angry at himself, not the driver of the car. He had escaped death many times, by paying attention to his situation, to what was going on around him. He had let himself become distracted, and though he had good reason for that, he had missed all the clues, as obvious as they were, and now here he was.

Sensation began to come back. His shoulder hurt badly, but his pelvis was too damaged for pain to mean anything. He could not move his legs at all.

His shoulder was on the curb, but his head was on the strip of lawn between the street and the sidewalk. That was why he was alive. He reached toward the grass with his right hand, and took hold of it. He focused his thoughts, shutting out his anger, shutting out the pain, and pulled himself a few inches up and over the curb.

This was going to take a long time. He was at the corner of his yard, and his house was rather far back from the sidewalk. He got another grip on the lawn and pulled again, rolling more onto his stomach, so that the broken bones in his shoulder didn’t grate quite so sharply. Another grip, and another, until he came to the sidewalk. There was nothing to hold on to.

He called out for help. His voice was so weak that he couldn’t have heard himself if he had been on his own front porch. Nor would he have seen himself, darkly dressed against the dark lawn in the night, just out of reach of either street light. He called out again, just to be sure. There was no response. Then he figured that, if he pushed himself up a bit, he could sort of fall forward a few inches.

It was hard work, and it hurt everthing, but he could do it. The pain in his lower body became a numbness. There had to be internal bleeding. He ignored his shoulder. Midnight came and went, but at last he reached the grass again. Now all he had to do was grab the grass, pull, pause a second, grab the grass….

He had to get into his house. He would be okay once he was inside. He didn’t have to actually get into his safe place, the surmaisys would take care of him. But he had to get inside.

Each of the porch steps was a major accomplishment, but at last he made it to the top. He had to rest now, for a moment at least. His surmaisys was aware of him, he knew that, but he still had to get to the door, and then — how would he open the door? There was no way he could reach the knob from the porch floor, no way he could get up onto his knees. Maybe the surmaisys would be able to open it for him. Maybe.

He reached out one more time, his fingers just inches from the door, and then he felt a kind of tearing, as if darkness were pulling him away from himself. Stupid, he thought again. And then he felt, almost felt, thought he felt the surmaisys touch him. And then noth

Part One: Longiquus

The body of Philip Proctor, age 73, was found on his porch Wednesday morning. He had apparently been struck by a car while crossing the street in front of his house, some time the night before. Bloodstains from the curb to the porch showed how he had dragged himself, despite a crushed pelvis and a broken left shoulder, across his lawn to his house. Having no heirs, the hospital, where he was declared dead on arrival, asked the court to assign a lawyer to attend to his estate. On Friday, attorney Aline Moyer became his administrator. On Saturday, he was cremated.

Sunday, August 1, 1982. 

Marylin Daniel, age twelve, sat on her back porch, reading another nurse story. They weren’t exactly what she wanted, but they were better than the so-called teen-age romances that other girls her age read.

She was also — sort of — keeping her eye on her little brother Lawrence, age eight, who was now near the back corner of the yard, by the fence which separated her yard from the Miller’s next door. He wasn’t actually standing in the flower bed. To an outsider, it would look like he was staring blankly at the spot where the fence ended, just short of the edge of the forest which closed off the back of the yard. In fact, he was staring into some adventure he was telling himself.

“Watch the marigolds,” she called to him.

“I am,” he called back without turning.

Hazel and Jonah Daniel had learned to not take Lawrence to church. He had no interest in the service, and would slip almost at once into a reverie, which was okay, until one of the characters in his internal stories had something dramatic to say, and Lawrence would say it out loud. And since Lawrence was too young to stay home alone, Marylin had to stay home with him. Which was fine with her. Why waste a beautiful, hot, summer morning in a stuffy church, when there was sunlight and a breeze and a book to read. Even if it wasn’t exactly the right kind of book.

Nurse Jenkins was dealing oh so carefully with cantankerous old Mrs. Sullivan, and hoping that Doctor Mackenzie wouldn’t come in until she got the old lady quieted. Marylin hadn’t read this book before, but she knew that by the end of it, Nurse Jenkins would prove herself indispensable to the hospital, and would avoid any entanglements with the young intern, and with Doctor Van Patten as well. The pleasure came in seeing how cleverly Nurse Jenkins accomplished this. Sort of like that Columbo TV show her father liked to watch.

Lawrence moved. She looked up from her book. He had gone over to the tree behind which was the gap in the undergrowth at the edge of the woods. His adventures might go there, and down the slope to the river, but he himself would not. He had no desire to actually be in an adventure, he wanted to make them up in his head. It was fortunate that school was interesting enough for him that he didn’t drift off very often while in class.

Marylin returned to her book. It was the best she could find at the public library. They had a good children’s department, and plenty of books for adults, but not much for someone her age. She would be in seventh grade this fall, and she hoped that the junior high library would have something more interesting to read. She was rather excited by the prospect, looming not too far off now. New teachers, new friends — she made friends easily — more challenging classes….

Lawrence was working his way across the back of the yard, toward the hedge between their yard and Mr. Proctor’s. Poor old man. It felt rather strange, knowing that she would never see him again. Not that she had ever seen him that often before. She had never spoken to him. She had tried to imagine, if he had survived the hit and run, what it would be like to be his nurse. But she had decided she would rather not. Broken up as he was, there would be bed baths and bed pans — too much reality, not enough chance to show off her competence.

Lawrence came slowly along the hedge. There were no flowers planted there, as there were along the fence or around the patio below the porch. He paid no attention to the tiny blue light, like a blue firefly, visible even in daytime, hovering in the air in front of him. Two slow steps brought him right up to it. It disappeared into his chest and reappeared again behind him. Marylin was mildly astonished. Maybe it had gone behind him.

There were other little blue fireflies. Not many. The ones in full sun were harder to see. They were all on that side of the yard, near the hedge, some of them quite high. They were not moving like fireflies. just ever so slowly drifting in one direction or another.

Lawrence, who was looking toward the front of the yard, between the house and the hedge, paid no attention to them at all.

Marylin put the open book face down on the glass-topped table beside her chair. The little blue lights were beginning to bother her, but her brother’s not reacting to them bothered her more. He was totally into his fantasy now, and probably wasn’t seeing the hedge or the house or the yard either. He never talked about his fantasies much, except to say that he was having adventures, and he didn’t indulge in them when there was something else to do. But to not even notice the little blue lights at all…. She left the porch and went across the patio to the lawn.

She was among the fairy lights now. There weren’t that many, but there shouldn’t have been any at all. They were all the same shade of intense, almost electric blue. There was nothing intrinsically frightening about them (she liked using words like “intrinsically,” and laughed at herself when her friends didn’t understand), and she wasn’t really frightened by them, but they shouldn’t have been there, and she wished they would go away.

She went to Lawrence and stopped a few feet from him, right in front of him. His eyes came into focus almost at once, and he looked right at her. Their mother worried that he might get lost in his fantasies forever. Their father wasn’t very concerned about that. Marylin knew that it would never happen. There was nothing wrong with Lawrence.

“Did you see the little light?” she asked him.

“Huh?”

She pointed at a fairy light in the yard a few yards from them, then at one a few feet above them in the hedge. He looked, saw them both, and said, “Oh, yeah, sure. What about’em?”

At least he saw them, so it wasn’t just her imagination. “Don’t they bother you?” she asked him.

“Hah? No. You can’t touch’em.” He went to the first one she had pointed to. It had drifted a foot or so toward the back of the yard. He swatted at it. It passed right through his hand. “See?”

He saw them perfectly well, even when he was deep in his fantasy. He just didn’t care.

~~~

Robert Mitchell, age five, slid open the glass door between his bedroom and the back patio, and went outside. It was a beautiful day, hot and sunny, and his mother was too busy with fussy Suzane to spare any time for him. He didn’t mind that.

He imagined that he was running in the same way that Flash Gordon ran (having just seen another fifteen minute black and white episode), in that long easy lope, that always looked as if he were just arriving somewhere. Robert couldn’t run like that at all, but that was what he imagined.

He ran between the swings, in what felt to him to be a graceful arc, around to the foot of the steps of the big slide, near the hedge between his yard and Mr. Proctor’s house. The slide was seven feet tall, and his mother had been afraid that it might be too tall for a five-year-old, but his father had insisted that Robert could handle it — which made Robert feel quite proud — and let Robert help him assemble it, and then had spent over an hour holding Robert’s hand, figuratively and literally, as he conquered his own trepidation and learned that he could, in fact, handle it. The little slide, attached to the other end of the swing set, was for his sister, who was only three.

He climbed up the steps like someone who was familiar with such heights and sat down. The metal was not yet too hot but it would be in an hour or so. He sat for a moment, focusing his attention on what it was going to feel like. Then he pushed off. He had no thought but pleasure as he went down. He stopped at the bottom, one foot from a small, blue light, like a firefly but brighter.

All thoughts of Dale Arden, Doctor Zarkov, and Ming the Merciless vanished.

It wasn’t a firefly, he saw that perfectly well. It was a tiny bubble, smaller than a firefly, glowing with a blue light. The light wasn’t coming from inside the bubble, but from the bubble itself. It was beautiful. It didn’t frighten him. He knew that it was something extremely unusual, but it did not feel at all dangerous.

He cautiously reached out to touch it. It took him quite by surprise when he couldn’t feel it. His hand passed through it — or it passed through his hand — without any sensation whatsoever.

It was moving very slowly, away from him and up a bit, and away from the hedge a bit. He watched it for a moment, then he saw that there were other little blue lights, all of them on this side of the yard. They were all moving in different directions. He couldn’t see them at all if they moved far enough away. Or if they moved too close to the sun. He stood up from the slide and looked behind him. There were tiny blue bubbles there too. He watched as several oh so slowly emerged from the hedge. Or disappeared back into it. Or came up from the ground. Or went back down again.

But none of them went as far as the sand box. He ran to it, not bothering this time to run like Flash Gordon. The sand was still wet from yesterday, dry at the top but a good wet if he dug down into it. There was a tunnel he wanted to dig.

~~~

Ralph Stroner hated jogging. He knew it was good for him, that he needed to do it, and by God he was doing it, but he still hated it. Partly because he needed it, which made it difficult, and sometimes painful. At least Elsie was doing it with him. That had been part of the deal. She didn’t need to jog, and after she and Dr. Mulroy had convinced him that he had to do something, she had decided that she had better things to do with her time, even if it was only Sunday mornings. But Ralph had made it perfectly clear. If he was going to torture himself once a week, then Elsie was damn well going to suffer with him.

The fact that she didn’t actually suffer, that she actually rather enjoyed it, didn’t matter. He had her company, and they could talk a bit when he had to stop to catch his breath. At least she was with him, and that was what made it bearable.

One concession they made was to change their route every now and then. It was easy enough to work out something that was two miles long, if you knew that the average block was a quarter mile long and an eighth of a mile wide. They usually wound up going something more than two miles anyway. That was okay. But he refused to double back, running the same streets both ways. They had to go “around the block,” one way or another. That way he wasn’t looking at the same damn houses and trees all the time. Even if it was only once a week.

And he refused to wear a running outfit. Jeans and a shirt was fine. Elsie could wear bright red sweats with a navy stripe if she wanted to. He had capitulated on shoes after the first time out.

This was their third time running along Wellman Avenue, and next week they would find a different route. Nice houses here, east of town. Not all of them were big but they were all nice. Those on the south side, with the river behind and below them, were the best.

They crossed Fletcher Street which, on the right, after half a block, ended in a small circle.

“Be pretty nice to live out here,” Elsie said. She was breathing hard, but not as hard as Ralph was.

“There’s money out here,” Ralph said. He had to breathe a couple times before he could continue. “Haven’t seen any —” gasp — “for sale signs.”

And then he saw little blue motes, dancing in front of his eyes, and stopped. Elsie stopped too. He stood, and panted, and saw that the motes weren’t actually dancing, that had been his own movement. Maybe he was having a heart attack, the very thing this jogging was supposed to prevent. He looked across the street. No motes there. He looked behind him. No motes there. Just here, sort of in front of this one house.

“What is it?” Elsie asked. She was a few steps beyond him, looking back at him. She didn’t make the pretense of running in place.

Ralph waved at the house. They were not quite directly in front of it. Little blue motes, not that many really, hung in the air, some quite high up, moving in all directions, very slowly.

Elsie looked at it. “Nice house,” she said.

“Maybe it’s just my eyes.” He walked a few steps across the lawn toward the front porch, to where one of the motes, at about chest height at the moment, was slowly moving from left to right, and rising even more slowly. He put out a finger tip but didn’t quite touch it.

“What is it?” Elsie asked.

“Is this a bug?” Ralph knew damn well that it wasn’t.

Elsie came up and looked at the end of his finger.

“Here,” he said, and touched it. Or tried to. It disappeared inside his finger tip. He felt nothing. He pulled his finger back until the mote was visible again.

Elsie bent over to look more closely. After a moment she said, “No….”

“It’s blue, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. What is it?”

“Dam’fi’know. Look, there’s another.”

“Where?”

“Right over there. See it?”

“No.”

He went to the mote, higher and moving in another direction, and put his finger tip almost on it, following it.

Elsie came over to look. “I see it now.” She looked around. “They’re so tiny. Are there any others?”

“Yeah.” He lowered his hand. “A few.”

“I can’t see them unless I get right up close.” She looked for the one she had first been looking at. He had to point it out to her again.

After a moment, she said, “Maybe we should get off the lawn.”

“Yeah,” Ralph said, and they went back to the sidewalk.

They continued their  jog, saying nothing, and when they got to the corner of Zimmer, they turned left. It was a short block to Holmes Avenue, and then they would go back home.

~~~

Vinnie Oldenburg liked using push mowers. He liked the effort it took, the sound they made, the clean cut of the grass, the smell. What he didn’t like was that, at sixty seven, he had no endurance. Every ten minutes or so he had to stop. He was strong. He could run — for a few minutes. Hundred yard dashes. He could lift and carry far more than most people his age — but only for a short while. It was this loss of stamina which had made him quit the force five years ago. It wasn’t fair to the other cops, especially his partner, that he couldn’t keep up the pace. Well, forty three years was enough for anybody.

His strength returned and he started pushing again. He had begun in the front, which was easy, and had done both sides before moving to the back yard, where bushes, trees, and flowers required more care. He had set brick borders for the mower wheels to ride on, flush to the ground separating the lawn from the flower beds and mulch beds. He was proud of his back yard, with its carefully tended flowers and carefully trimmed shrubbery, even if very few people ever saw it. He wasn’t doing it for anybody else. He was doing it for himself.

He had to have something to do once he had left the force. He knew too many guys who had just sat back after retirement, and had died within three years. He was too young for that. Keep physical, keep mental, keep social. That was the ticket.

That last thought made him stop again, for just a couple seconds, and then he pushed on.

He needed to rest twice more, longer now, before he finished. He didn’t let those pauses get him angry. Anger wasn’t good for you. He had seen his fellow cops get angry. That was when they made mistakes. He got angry too, sometimes, at the brutality, the greed, the stupidity, but he never let it control him. It was a lesson he had learned at the beginning of his career. He never thought about it.

He put the mower away, brushed off the cuffs of his olive work pants, went up to the back porch, brushed off his work shoes, and went inside, past the cellar stairs to the nook. He had been working hard, it was hot, so, even though it was the middle of the day, he got himself a beer, went through the dining room and foyer, and out onto the front porch. He sat in a chair and opened the beer.

Poor old Philip Proctor. Run down by some stupid kid probably. Probably drunk too. Didn’t have the decency to stop, just drove right on. No skid marks on the road, just blood stains on the curb, the sidewalk, the grass, the porch.

He took a sip of his beer. He and Proctor had known each other slightly. Strange old guy. They had talked on occasion. Proctor had been outwardly friendly, but there had been an impervious reserve, so deep that nobody could see it. Nobody except a cop.

Proctor had sat with Vinnie on the porch, but Vinnie had never been inside Proctor’s house. He didn’t know anyone who had. God knew what he used to do with himself all day. Or where he went when he went out.

He took another sip. And then he very much wanted to put it down. He managed to set it on the little table beside his chair without knocking it over.

He felt strange. It wasn’t the beer, it wasn’t his heart. It was as if — as if he were somehow superimposed on himself, out of sync with himself, by a half an inch, or half a second. The yard, the street, the houses across the way, were all kind of shimmery somehow, as if he were looking at things through two sets of eyes.

There was a pulse in his throat, so his heart was still beating. Pounding almost. His breathing was deep, but he wasn’t out of breath or hyperventilating. He was barely aware of his stomach, which was the way it should be. Maybe he should make an appointment with Dr. Esteban. Just in case.

He stood up from the chair, or tried to. He felt heavy, not paralyzed. And clumsy, as if his two superimposed selves weren’t quite coordinated with each other. The heavy and the light. The dark and the light. Connected together along all edges, but loose from each other somehow.

He felt a tension, not from within, but from outside. Something was pulling him, not so much up as out. Away from his chair. Away from his self in the chair. Over that way. Sort of toward Philip Proctor’s house.

He felt the edges between himself — ahh — stretch? They, or he, didn’t tear or break, but faded, or dissipated, until he was out of his chair. He didn’t feel heavy any more. And the world was not shimmery, but — colorless?

He wasn’t sure about his point of view. It was about the same as when he had been sitting down, but he was at the edge of the porch now — on his knees? He looked down. He saw the floor of the porch and nothing else. He turned around, or something like that. He saw himself, dark and shadowed against the colorlessness, still sitting in his chair, eyes open, mouth open, breathing irregularly.

The tension on him increased, but he was not completely disconnected from himself yet. All the edges had thinned and come together as a single strand. He was moving away from himself, becoming more vague and — hazy? — and disinterested.

But he had been a cop too long. This was wrong. What was wrong? He wasn’t dying, but this could kill him. Someone in the shadows. A presence behind a closed door. A watcher from the windows. Not instinct, but highly trained senses.

He was receding from himself, his edges thinning to nothing, the link becoming ever more indistinct, and that was wrong.

He wasn’t afraid. He didn’t want to die, but it didn’t frighten him. He was angry. It focused him. It sharpened him. He couldn’t resist the force that was pulling him away from himself. But he could — flow back along the attenuating edges of himself, into himself again….

He gasped as if he had been holding his breath. His hand twitched on the little table, but he grabbed the beer before it fell over. He was staring at the Mitchell house, directly across from him. But it was toward Proctor’s house that he had been drawn.

He raised the beer and took a long pull, still looking at the Mitchell house, not at Proctor’s house next to it. Not right now. Making eye contact would give away that he knew something. Not now.

He pushed himself, no longer heavy, up out of his chair, and went back inside to fix himself an early supper.

~~~

Wilson Mitchell kissed his son’s forehead. “Good night, Flash.”

“Good night, Dad,” Robert said, and closed his eyes.

Wilson turned out the light beside the bed, left the room, and closed the door behind him.

He didn’t take the nickname seriously, and knew that Robert didn’t either. But he remembered watching the old black and white nineteen-thirties serials on TV when he had been Robert’s age, and understood perfectly the fascination and romance of what he could now see was a pretty bad movie. Not as bad as The Phantom Empire, perhaps.

He went to the kitchen to help Vanessa finish cleaning up. She thought the nickname was silly and cute, which it was. Robert never called himself “Flash,” and Wilson didn’t use the name often, except in certain special moments. It was his duty, and his privilege, to put his children to bed at night, a chance to spend a few minutes with them alone. After all, Vanessa had them all day long, and though he knew the kids made considerable demands on her time and energy, he sometimes envied her the attention she was able to both give them and get from them.

She had already done most of the clean-up but she didn’t mind. She knew how important Robert and Suzane were to her husband, and she liked to give him any opportunity to be with them. There weren’t many such. He was at work all day, and he didn’t intrude on them and their play when he was home. He was as good a father as he knew how to be, probably better than most, and she loved him for it. And for other things.

They finished putting everything away. Vanessa was only five foot one, So Wilson put things into the over-counter cabinets for her. They wiped off crumbs and water and finger prints and straightened up the things on the counters, not quite touching each other. Wilson loved his wife more than he did his kids, but he had learned not to crowd her. He had learned that lesson the hard way, back in college. When he had met Vanessa, he was determined to pay more attention to what she wanted than to what he wanted. The learning curve, once he got past a certain threshold, wasn’t that steep. He was doing pretty well, and the rewards were … well….

They went into the family room to watch some TV. There were a couple shows on Sunday night that they liked. But first there was some more straightening up to do. Vanessa wasn’t one of those women who insisted on keeping a perfect house, for which Wilson was grateful, but there were toys and books on the sofa, and scattered wooden blocks and plastic spacemen between the sofa and the TV, and, well…. It didn’t take them long, working together, to get things back in the storage bins, if not actually put away. Then they could turn on the TV, turn off the overhead light, sit back on the sofa and —

“Damn!” Vanessa said. A word she never used around the children. Wilson followed her gaze. The patio light was still on, which they hadn’t noticed while the family room was fully lit, and Suzane’s Playmobil house and people and animals were scattered all over.

“I’ll get it,” Wilson said. The toys were too expensive to let sit out over night. He pushed himself up from the sofa, put a hand on Vanessa’s shoulder, leaned down and kissed her forehead, went out the sliding glass doors, and closed them behind him. It was still hot outside, and there was no sense wasting the cool air from inside.

The plastic house had to be disassembled before it would fit in a box, but he could scoop up the figures and furniture and other things. Sometimes Suzane got enthusiastic, and there were a few pieces beyond the edge of the patio. He retrieved those, looked for but did not find any more, and turned back to the house.

There were three tiny blue sparks, visible despite the patio light. One was up near the eaves, moving left to right ever so slowly, slightly upward and away from the house. Another was at about knee level, moving right to left, slightly down and toward the sliding glass door. The third was descending diagonally, right to left, at the level of his eyes. He hesitated a moment, then stepped back onto the patio and, keeping his eyes on the third spark, went to the box and dropped the Playmobil pieces into it.

The higher spark changed direction, and floated more directly toward the wall on the right. The middle one would hit the wall on the left before it touched the ground. The now knee-level one touched the sliding glass doors, passed through the glass, and disappeared.

He went to the door and looked down at where the spark should have been. There was no spark. He went inside and looked back at the one descending toward the ground. He had actually walked through it, or it had passed through him, when he had come inside. He had felt nothing.

“What is it?” Vanessa asked from the sofa, glancing away from the TV for only a second.

“Just making sure I haven’t missed anything.” He watched the spark for another couple seconds, then switched off the outdoor light and went to sit beside his wife.

~~~

Margo DeVries’s father always turned off State 41 onto Wellman Avenue when they came back from visiting his parents, even though this way through town was longer, slower, and ended up in the same place downtown. He didn’t like to drive in the first place, especially when it was getting dark. Margo thought that was silly, but when she thought about getting her own license next year she wasn’t so sure.

She would have preferred to sit in the middle of the back seat, but her father said that she blocked the rear view mirror, so she sat behind her mother, whose seat was pulled farther forward. This let her see the oncoming traffic clearly, if at a slight angle.

Making the left onto Wellman sometimes meant that someone behind them had to stop as well — 41 was still two-lane, though people had been talking about making it four-lane for years, or at least adding a left turn lane onto Wellman — but not this evening. One approaching car, with its headlights off — “Idiot,” her father said — passed them, that was all. Wellman angled off 41, then curved right to parallel the highway. The speed limit dropped from forty five to twenty five when it crossed Wurtz and the houses began.

These were nice houses. Margo wished her parents could afford to live out here. All of them had lights on inside, some had porch lights on, some had their curtains open, though she couldn’t see much about what was beyond them. Wellman angled left, crossed Holmes, and angled right again. There was a stop sign at Zimmer, and it was there that Margo saw, half way down the block, on the left, lots of tiny blue lights in the air.

Her first thought, which she knew was wrong even as the thought formed, was that it was far too early for Christmas.

Her father, having come to a full stop, even though there was no traffic at the moment, now accelerated slowly. Neither he nor her mother said anything about the lights.

They were floating in a half circle, or a half globe, around and above a particularly large house, the only one that was completely dark. They spilled over into the yards on either side, even over the roofs. Margo’s parents said nothing.

She watched the lights as they drove past, slowly moving in arcs around the dark house. She had no idea what they were, and felt a faint thrill run down her back. She kept watching them as they receded behind her. Her father stopped at Fletcher, then drove on. She could no longer see the lights before they got to Stanislav. Margo turned forward again, and was going to ask her parents about them, but they had said nothing, and she decided not to.

They had seen nothing. The thrill on her back was stronger this time.

~~~

Ernest Redding had built his home office in the finished basement, under the bedroom end of his house. It was the end furthest from the stairs, but there were sliding glass doors on one side, which opened onto a little patio at the back of the house, and a door at the other side, to a set of four steps up to the front lawn. It was all one large room — bookcases built in along the end wall, his desk which was not too big, visitor chairs in front of it, a table, plants, a fish tank, a sofa, file cabinets, and a beautiful rug.

He was working late, as usual. He made sure to get home from his office at Redding Castings as soon after five as possible, but when the rest of the family settled down to watch television in the evening, he usually went down to his office instead. He hadn’t gotten where he was today by spending time on frivolities like TV.

Working was all he had ever done. He didn’t know how to do anything else. He had gotten his BA in business when he was twenty one, when UNC Bristol was still just a college, small but first rate. He had borrowed what had seemed like an awful lot of money in those days, in order to open a small, special metal parts plant, and had worked Redding Castings up to the largest industry in town, except for the University across the river. At age forty five, he was Bristol’s success story, with a wife whom he loved and who understood him, two teen-age children, and one of the best houses in this part of town — not big or ostentatious, just perfect for his family and his needs, easily worth twice what the neighboring houses were worth.

Sunday evenings were when he made his plans for the following week, working from eight to midnight. Rose was usually not asleep yet when he went up to bed, and he liked that. Unlike some other men he knew, he didn’t have to look elsewhere for affection, and Rose seemed to be truly fond of him. He sometimes felt a twinge of guilt about not spending more time with her, but he didn’t know what he would do if he did. Work was all he knew.

He kept the light low when he worked at night, except on his desk. It saved electricity, and it helped him concentrate on what he was doing. He did his most careful work at home. His office at the plant was bright, there were views out the windows, people needing attention, and his secretary — worth every penny — with business that needed his input. He wasn’t distractible, but at home there was nothing to disturb him. His family knew that only death or fire — figuratively — were sufficient excuses for interrupting him at night.

The rest of the basement was a recreation room, plus a spacious laundry room near the stairs, but it was not used when he was in his office. He kept the door closed anyway. When he sat back to move one set of paperwork aside and get another, he was surprised to see that the door was open.

It was completely dark on the other side. He hadn’t heard it open, but then he wouldn’t have while he was concentrating. He knew it had been closed, he had seen it closed when he had picked up the job he had just finished.

“William?” he called. There was no answer.

He didn’t understand his son at all. The boy was like him in many ways, except he had no interest in work, no concept of discipline. Ernest had tried to guide the boy, when he had the time, rather than push him. Boys who were pushed too hard either fought back or gave up, as he knew all too well. And William wasn’t exactly rebellious, he just didn’t care.

His daughter was all right, he was pretty happy about Thalia. And Rose would not disturb him unless it were really necessary. So who had opened the door?

Light from the office spilled out into the rec room beyond. It wasn’t as dark as he had at first thought, now that his eyes had adjusted somewhat from the brightness of his desk. There was a man, half way across the other room, coming toward the door.

It wasn’t William. He was too well dressed. And his hair was white. He stopped in the doorway. He appeared to be in his late sixties, maybe older, clean shaven, handsome in a remote way.

Ernest leaned back in his chair. He had nothing with which to defend himself, but this man didn’t look like a burglar. He stood there, calm, but with something a bit odd in his expression. Ernest could have said, Who are you? What are you doing here? How dare you? But what he said, after a moment’s reflection, was, “How can I help you?”

The man’s reaction was subtle, but Ernest could tell that the man hadn’t expected to be addressed that way. “I don’t know,” he said. His voice was cultured, with no accent. He looked over his shoulder into the dark rec room. “He’s not here,” he said, and turned back. “You’re not him.”

“Probably not,” Ernest said. He managed to keep his voice level. Whoever this man was, he had forced his way into the house somehow. He didn’t look dangerous, but that didn’t signify. “Who are you looking for?”

“I don’t know,” the man said. He took one step, then another into the office, looking around as he did so. “I never saw his face.”

“All right,” Ernest said, thinking, not a burglar, but somebody in a fugue. Not from an institutiion, his clothes were too well made. But if this man were severely confused, he could also be quite dangerous. “But if he’s not here,” he went on, “why are you here?”

“I — he needs to —”

Was he talking about William? What had the boy been up to now? He was out somewhere, Ernest had no idea where. But what could he have done, to have made this disturbed old man come looking for him? “Maybe you should tell me who you are.”

“I’m —” He looked a bit to the right, a bit to the left, obviously confused, as if he had just become aware of that.

“I can’t help you,” Ernest said, “if you won’t tell me who you are.” He was beginning, at last, to feel a little impatient instead of a little frightened. “Is there anyone I can call? Do you need the police?”

“Police. No. I don’t think so. It’s too late for that.” He looked around the office again, as if he were seeing it for the first time. Given his state of mind, he might well be. “I don’t know this place.”

“You came here looking for someone,” Ernest said. He sat forward in his chair, his forearms on the desk.

“Yes. He — I think it’s a he —”

“You didn’t see his face.”

“No. He came at me from behind.”

“Did he hit you?” He stood up slowly, casually.

“Yes. He hit me — I mean….”

“Are you hurt? Should I call an ambulance?”

“No. I mean, it’s too late for that. I need….”

“You need help. Let me call someone for you.”

“I — don’t know — this isn’t right.”

“Do you have your wallet? Maybe there’s a phone number we can call.” And the sooner the better. He felt sorry for the old guy, but this was taking far too much time.

The man reached behind his left hip, fumbled a bit, took out a thin wallet, and held it out to Ernest. It slipped out of his fingers and fell to the floor. Or toward the floor, because it never hit. It disappeared.

Ernest had been watching the wallet, not sure whether he should take it. He saw it fall and disappear four inches from the floor. A sharp, cold thrill ran down his back. He stopped thinking altogether.

The man looked down at where the wallet should have been. “This isn’t right.” He looked back at Ernest. Then his body stretched and twisted, up and to the left, and was pulled away, up and to the left, and out of the room through the wall near the ceiling.

Ernest stared at the spot, and at the place where the man had been, and at the still open door. He needed, very badly, to go take a leak.

~~~

Chester Sledge was dreaming. He was in a room or building, like a banquet hall, or a garage, or something in between. There were other people who, only in the dream, were classmates from college, not as young as they had been then, nor as old as they were now. Several of them were demonstrating a remarkable ability, maybe a quality of this somewhat ambiguous place rather than any personal skill. If Ed Lesson jumped high enough, and turned a summersault at the top, he kept going up until his feet struck the ceiling and he stayed there.

Several people were already up there, walking around upside down, laughing, thrilled by the experience. Chester watched them, vicariously pleased, wondering how it worked, reluctant to try it.

It wasn’t a lucid dream — he seldom had those — but he was very marginally aware that it was a dream, because it was impossible to say how high the ceiling was, or who the people were who were playing the part of classmates. He could accept the ability to walk around upside down, and the fact that he, and everybody else, was some twenty years younger than he really was.

He didn’t dare to try jumping. He was short, he was tubby, he was not at all strong or coordinated. So, when he found a table, he climbed up on it, in that effortless way that one does things in dreams sometimes. He stood, reached up with his hands, and when he felt the difference, let himself turn upside down until he, too, was standing on the ceiling.

There was no ambiguity of gravity. He did not feel like he was going to fall. He would have to jump to get back to the floor, like the other people did, there being no tables on the ceiling. His perspective from up here was entirely realistic and appropriate to the circumstances. It was mildly exciting.

But when two little girls on ponies rode by on the floor above/below him, he knew that he was dreaming and, with that knowledge, he woke up.

Except that he was still hanging head down above the bed. Except that, if he were hanging from the ceiling, his head should have been a foot or so from the bed, instead of more than a yard. And he was looking down as if he were lying on the ceiling, or a couple feet from it rather, instead of hanging. And he could see in the dark. And he saw himself lying beside Naomi, eyes slitted, mouth open, one arm up on the pillow behind his head.

He watched himself breathe. He wasn’t dreaming any more. He was outside himself, as if the edges of himself had gotten thin and stretched. And he was slowly moving away from himself, toward the bedroom door.

He couldn’t think. He didn’t want to leave. He didn’t want to die, not yet. His children still needed him. Naomi needed him. He had quit smoking. He would exercise more. Just please, God, don’t let him die like this.

The edges of himself — the concept was totally incomprehensible — grew thinner and more stretched as his point of view — he had no body up here — moved slowly, inexorably, toward the door. His body lay on the bed, breathing a bit irregularly, the fingers of the hand behind his head twitching. That bothered him, so he clenched his hand.

His hand clenched. His real hand. The one on the bed. He was outside himself, not quite disconnected from himself, moving slowly away from himself. But he could still make himself move.

Without thinking about the mechanics of how he was doing it by remote, he rolled over onto his side so that he was facing Naomi. His arm, over his head, fell down across her face. She moved her head, but his upper arm was across her mouth. She woke up.

“Chester!” she said. “Stop that!”

He rolled further onto her, pressing his arm pit against her, even as he drifted closer to the door. She protested, struggled, pushed him away, pulled herself out from under his arm, complained, then noticed that he wasn’t responding.

“Oh my God!” she whispered. “God, no, Chester.” She pushed herself up, grabbed his shoulders, and shook him. His head wabbled. His arm slid down across her chest.

“Chester!” she cried. She slapped his cheek hard. He felt it, and opened his eyes. He took a deep breath, then put his arm around her, and clutched her to him.

“Oh, God, Naomi. I thought I was going to die!”

~~~

Lewis Dorn parked in the little circle at the end of Fletcher Street and strolled back up toward Wellman Avenue, as if being out this late was a normal thing, which, for him, it was. He wore light brown slacks, a pale blue shirt, and was perfectly visible in the night. He had known guys who had been stopped, and even arrested, for trying too hard to not be seen.

Most of the houses were completely dark by now. No porch lights were lit here, everybody was at home. There were some night lights on, a back bedroom maybe.

He got to the corner and paused, hands in pockets, looking one way, then the onother. Then he turned right on Wellman, and strolled, hands still in pockets, looking at the dark houses.

The house in which he was interested was the fifth from the corner. He didn’t change his pace, or his manner, until he saw the first of the tiny blue lights, like sparks, floating around it and over it, and over into the yards on either side. Now he stopped.

He had read about Philip Proctor — whoever he was — being killed by a hit and run. He had no family, so the house would be empty. And Sunday night was the best time for this sort of thing. So here he was.

But little blue lights. That changed everything. He crossed the street, just to make sure, and looked back at the house he had intended to burgle.

Tiny blue lights, maybe a hundred, slowly moving around in a hemispherical space which, as far as he could tell, was centered below the house, maybe in the basement. The lights were not stopped by bushes, trees, fence, hedge, the corners of the house, or the other houses next door. They just passed through, coming out the other side.

If anybody were to ask him now what he was doing out here at this time of night, he would wave at the lights.

He crossed back over the street, and went slowly up the walk to the house. He did not try to avoid the few lights that were in his way. They passed right through him, and he felt nothing at all.

He stopped at the porch and looked around at the other houses. Either nobody else had seen these tiny blue lights, or they didn’t care. So, either he was crazy, or the lights hadn’t been here until a few minutes ago, or everybody knew what they were already.

And none of that really made any difference at all, did it? He walked back to the sidewalk, stopped, looked at the house again, then, hands still in his pockets, strolled back toward his car. To hell with it.

*  *  *  *  *