Thursday, January 09, 2014

Black Holes - A Short Story

The lanky kid and his younger brother stood over the dying couple sprawled on the kitchen floor. Syrupy blood was still pooling around the large, lumpy bodies of the man and woman, but the kids needed to make sure, so they watched and waited. There was no movement for several minutes, no moans or twitches, and the older boy let the red-stained knife drop to the linoleum floor.
            “They wasn’t right anyway,” he said.
Dreary midday clouds hung low in the sky like oil-soaked cotton balls. A stiff wind swirled and stirred pine branches in an undulating current that flowed from one tree to the next. Dried brittle oak and maple leaves danced a whirligig in the open spaces just above the smattering of dingy snow still frozen in shady crevices where the warm rays of the sun did not reach. It was mid-November along Minnesota’s North Shore, nine miles north of Two Harbors, and Jim and Cam Leisling and their 16-year old son Sean drove slowly up a dusty, snaky gravel road leading to the family cabin for a late fall weekend getaway.
            There was little conversation during the three-and-a-half hour drive from Minneapolis. Their marriage on life support after seventeen years, conversations between the two adults were perfunctory and focused on needed information, leaving Sean to entertain himself with his iPad in the back seat. The SVU bounced and teetered along the rutted road until the Leisling’s passed a low tangled hedge and rolled into a clearing surrounding the family’s Northwoods cabin. Having more in common with a 1970s suburban two-story home than a rustic pine lodge, the only thing cabin-like about the house was the surrounding wall of dense woods and bramble. Headlights swept over the small weathered shed at the end of the drive, and Jim pulled the vehicle to a dusty stop a few feet from the front steps.
            The clearing was deep in evening shadows as Jim, a tall, sinewy man with a cascade of wavy brown hair and the obligatory day’s growth of beard, got out and stretched his back. The silence was profound after three hours of humming tires and alt rock on the radio. He jumped a bit when Sean slammed his door shut.
            “Need help with the luggage?” asked Cam, her tone flat, her body already turned toward the house.
            “No,” he replied automatically. “I’ve got it.” He watched his wife walk into the house, her tight Levis covering a slim and athletic body that many younger women would kill for. It reminded him momentarily of the enthusiastic sex they used to enjoy and how much he missed it.
            Once moved in, Jim turned up the heater and built a fire in the fireplace while Cam organized the kitchen. Sean disappeared to his room moments after they arrived.
Jim poured himself a glass of wine. “Would you like some?”
Cam stopped shelving cans and pushed thick dark brown locks out of her eyes. “Sure.”
Taking his glass outside, Jim leaned against the front porch railing, hoping Cam might follow him, but she continued working in the kitchen. The night was chilly and he exhaled small white puffs of air that existed for a moment, then vanished. Tomorrow he and Sean would hike a nearby trail for three miles to Birch Lake where they’d fish and camp for the night. It was an annual tradition that Sean was growing less and less enamored with. It saddened Jim to think this might be the last year. Of course, it might be the last year for a lot of things.
The sky the next morning was a depressing matte grey and the temperature hovered around a bone chilling 30. In her bathrobe and flip flops, Cam helped Sean cram a few final items into his backpack. Jim came downstairs, his bag slung over his shoulder.
“We about ready?” he asked.
Sean, a thin, under weight boy, struggled with his overstuffed pack. “Yeah. Ready.”
Jim smiled. “You remember we’re only going to be gone one night.”
“Duh. I need things to do because the fishing is always crappy.”
“Well, Mr. Sunshine, let’s be on our way.”
The trailhead was just a ½ mile north up Highway 61, the main thoroughfare running along the shore of Lake Superior north to Canada. Cam watched Jim, six –foot-two, broad shouldered, walk next to the much shorter, spindly Sean who was taking comically long strides to keep up, and she smiled despite herself. It was not something she did often anymore. Their marriage hadn’t ended on a particular day or as the result of a single event, it had been eroding for several years like a porous sea wall, and you really didn’t see the impact until you stopped and looked back at the crumbling edifice. She still loved him, but was desperately unhappy living with him.
By late afternoon she had all of the supplies they’d brought put away and beds made and some laundry going. She was about to boil water for tea when there was a knock at the front door. This is unusual, she thought as she walked through the living room. The sun had descended behind the trees to the west and the clearing around the house was gloomy and shadow-filled. She flipped on the porch light as she opened the door. Standing just beyond the dull yellow glow of the light were two young people, a lanky pre-teen boy with an unusually pale complexion and a tousle of sandy hair and what appeared to be a younger boy, maybe eight or nine, his face mostly hidden in shadows under a dark hood. Why weren’t they standing on the porch, was her fist thought?
            “Sorry to bother you,” said the boy, his strange drawl drifting into an uncomfortable silence.
            “Uh, that’s okay,” responded a confused Cam. “Can I help you?”
            “My brother and I are looking for work.” The younger boy hadn’t moved a muscle. “We were wondering if you needed anything done, like painting or cleaning. We could sure use the money.”
            Cam began to quickly form her response that, no thank you, they really didn’t need any work done at the moment, when she finally noticed the older boy’s eyes. Despite the shadows and enveloping darkness around them, she could see his eyes were black. Not merely black pupils, or dark contacts, but entirely black, like glass marbles filled with ink. As she stared, the boy shifted from one leg to the other.
            “Could my brother have a drink of water? He’s really thirsty.”
            A shiver coursed through Cam’s body, and she suddenly felt cold, from the inside. “Uh, sorry, but you’ll have to go now.” She took a step back into the house.
            The boy put a scuffed brown shoe up on the porch. “Please, Ma’am. We’re tired and thirsty. Won’t you let us come in?” His voice was affected, unnatural.
            Cam’s eyes widened as the boy’s face became clearer in the sick yellow light. Black eyes gleamed behind a strangely pale, almost translucent face, like one of those clear Halloween masks. Her heart now racing dangerously fast, Cam slammed the door shut in a panic and leaned with her back bracing the door. The handle jiggled. “It’s cold out here, Cam,” came the plaintive voice. In her terror, she managed to flip the dead bolt with a trembling hand.
            Seconds, minutes passed. Her body shook. She tried to slow down her breathing, but kept picturing those little monsters right on the other side of the door. Door. She ran through the living room to the kitchen and quickly locked that door, too, then peered out into the small back yard. It was empty, but her antenna was up and on high alert. Soon her rationale side began tamping down the terror. They’re just kids. It was probably a prank with special contact lenses. Locals who get their kicks from scaring city folk.
After ten minutes of peeking out windows and seeing no one, she sat down on the couch with a glass of wine, her heart rate finally returning to normal until the boy’s final comment reached the surface of her consciousness. “It’s cold out here, Cam.” How do I make sense of this, she wondered? How did the boy know my name? We only arrived yesterday. I didn’t go anywhere. Could her husband have put the strange children up to this? She rejected that idea immediately. They both detest practical jokes. Unfortunately, she had no way to contact her husband and discuss this mystery as he had purposefully left his phone at the cabin.
Finishing off another glass of wine, the still unnerved Cam double-checked all of the door and window locks and went upstairs to change for bed. Catching her still trim and firm naked body in a full-length mirror, she wondered what had happened to the passion they’d shared for so many years. He wanted to be more experimental. She wasn’t comfortable with that. She’d wanted more intimacy. He was impatient. Slowly, the hairline fracture in their love life grew wider and wider until it was a deep canyon separating two humans who led separate lives under one roof. She put on a t-shirt and boxer shorts and slid under the comforter, wondering which was more frightening, creepy black-eyed kids or living by herself. She couldn’t decide.
            Last night’s encounter seemed almost like a disturbing dream to Cam as brilliant sun streamed in through the kitchen windows and the smell of coffee permeated the house. She still kept a wary eye out the closest window as she showered, dressed and made herself a light breakfast, but with distance now separating her from the children, the fear and concern for her safety had dissipated almost entirely. Around four that afternoon, Cam was happy to see Jim and Sean walking into the clearing looking weary but satisfied. She went to the front porch to greet them.
            “No bear skin? What kind of woodsmen are you?”
            “The tired and hungry kind,” quipped Jim.
            “We saw a moose,” said a wide-eyed Sean. “Thing was huge.”
            “Wow,” responded Cam. “Did it see you?”
            “I dunno,” said Sean, brushing by his mother. “I’m going to make something to eat. I’m starving.”
            Jim set his pack down and collapsed in one of the porch chairs. Cam leaned against the railing. “We had a good time. Fishing stunk, of course, but we hiked around and did…you know, woodsy guy stuff.”
            “Woodsy guy stuff. Cool. Thanks for taking him. He may not act like it, but he really enjoys doing that with you.”
            “I enjoy it too.”
            “Come on. I’ll make you a sandwich.”
            “Uh, can it wait for a minute?”
            “Sure. What’s up?”
            “I did some thinking while we were up there…thinking about us. What I realized was that I truly don’t want to lose you, Cam. We used to have such a great thing between us. I would really like to try and get that back.”
            Cam took a deep breath. This was unexpected. “Kind of caught me off guard there, J-Man. It’s been a tough few years.”
            “I know. I know. And I know that we can’t just turn things around like flipping a switch, but we can work on it. If you want to.”
            Cam put a hand to her mouth and began tearing up. This seemed so out of the blue, but also damned welcome. Fighting back a total meltdown, she nodded “yes.” Jim stood up and wrapped his arms around his wife warmly, pulling her close and kissing her hair.
            Their week at the cabin was one of the best they’d ever experienced as a family. The weather was cool but sunny, the hiking, canoeing and fishing seemed to please everyone, and the entire family dynamic was vastly improved. Part of this was clearly the result of long overdue and passionate sexual encounters between Jim and Cam after Sean went to sleep. For reasons she couldn’t quite understand, Cam never mentioned the black-eyed children to Jim. It was silly, of course, but she felt that talking about it out loud made it real, whereas now she could just keep it taped up in a box in the basement of her mind.
            Back in Minneapolis, the Leisling family renaissance was in its second month when Cam began worrying about missing her period. After several bouts of morning nausea, she found herself in the pharmacy section while grocery shopping, flushed, looking around suspiciously as if she were buying porn. Sitting on the edge of the bathtub at home, she was struck with unfathomable dread and unimaginable joy as she stared at the LED “Yes” in the tiny window of the plastic wand. Pregnant…at 37. She’d had Sean when she was 20. Tears tracked down her ruddy cheeks. What do I do now, she asked herself?
            Cam prepared for several days before broaching the subject with Jim, girding herself for the inevitable and heart wrenching abortion discussion, but to her surprise, he was overjoyed at the prospect of a baby. He called it “a sign” that truly marked the rebirth of their relationship. Her enthusiasm was real, but also tempered by the reality of pregnancy and the rigors of carrying for an infant at this stage of her life. Regardless, Cam allowed herself to be as happy as she’d been in many years.
            The pregnancy was difficult, and after eight months Cam was exhausted and put on bed rest. The baby was doing fine according to the most recent ultrasound, but she was a physical and emotional wreck, and had regretted the decision to go through with the pregnancy more than once. Jim and Sean were being helpful and encouraging, but she wished someone else could carry the baby even for a few hours. She felt far more uncomfortable and gloomy than when she was being pregnant with Sean.
            Bored and feeling useless, Cam flipped off the TV and decided to do some picking up around the now messy house. Just getting to her feet was a struggle, but she managed to waddle to Sean’s room where she began collecting dirty pants and shirts that had been tossed in a corner of the room. Under a shirt on his bed Cam discovered Sean’s phone, which he’d forgotten for the millionth time. Picking it up, she accidentally activated the screen. It was a paused video of what looked like the camping spot that Jim and Sean had stayed at their last trip north. They had showed her lots of photos of the site, but she hadn’t seen any video. Cam tapped the “play” icon and the camera wiggled and swung in a slow arc around the wooded area while Sean narrated.
            “This is our camp site. It’s cold out here. That noise is my dad breaking sticks to make a fire. As usual, we didn’t catch any fish.”
            The camera moved until Jim was in the frame, and he smiled and waved as he tossed small branches into the fire pit. The camera started to pan again, but Cam thought she saw something and went back, stopping the video at the point where Jim is waving. Squinting, she looked deep into the shot. Her face went pale. Behind Jim, barely discernable in a tangle of shadows, brush and branches, stood the black-eyed boy and his brother, looking directly toward the campsite.
            “What the hell is this?” she said, accosting Jim with Sean’s phone the moment he came through the back door.
            “What the hell is what?” he asked.
Jim took the phone and peered at the frozen image. “Yeah, I know I look goofy, but—“
“I’m not talking about you. Look behind you in the forest. Directly above your left shoulder. See?”
“I’m still not—“
“There,” she barked, pointing to the children. “Don’t you see two children standing there?”
He kept looking, and then gave her a hapless expression. “I’m sorry.” Cam grabbed the phone from Jim and sent the video to her mailbox. “Bad day?”
She glared at him as she finished sending it. Painfully, she wobbled to the living and wobbled back carrying her iPad. After several taps, she brought up the video and then played it on the larger monitor. When she finally captured the screen shot she wanted, she handed it to Jim. “Now do you see them?”
Mesmerized, Jim slumped down into a chair. “Holy shit, you’re right. There are two kids there. I see them.”
“Are you saying you never saw them or talked to the them while you were camping?”
“No. There was no one…why are you so upset? I’ll admit it’s a little freaky, but—“
“It’s more than a little freaky. Those kids, the same ones who are in the video, came here to the house not long after you and Sean left.”
“I know you’re going to find this hard to believe, but these kids, an older boy and his younger brother, were…creepy, and I don’t just mean a little strange, I mean full on creep show, like I was terrified to be anywhere near them.”
“What did they want?”
            “The older boy asked if they could do odd jobs, then he asked for water…seriously, I think they just wanted to come into the house for God knows what reason. And their eyes…Jim, their eyes were black. All black, like some kind of creature.”
            “Why didn’t you say anything about this earlier?”
            “Because I know that it sounds batshit crazy, and all I wanted to do was forget about it. But then this….”
            Jim got up and gently hugged Cam. “Please don’t get upset. It’s not good for you.”
            “You’re sure that you guys didn’t have any contact with those kids?”
            “Cam, finding two children out in the middle of nowhere, especially weird children, is something that I wouldn’t forget.”
            “Oh, and the boy knew my name.”
            Jim let go of his wife and stepped back. “He knew your name?
            “I know,” she said, now starting to tear up. “Scared the crap out of me.”
            Jim sat on the couch holding and rocking the sobbing Cam as the living room was slowly enveloped by early evening shadows.
            Four nights later, Cam’s water broke. It was early, but not dangerously so. Jim put Sean in charge of the house and drove Cam to nearby Fairview Hospital. Excited, but in excruciating pain, Cam tried to answer the intake questions as they rolled her in a wheelchair to her birthing room. Flashes of Sean’s birth began playing in her mind and she hoped this time around would be easier and shorter. Now in bed, Jim stood next to her holding her hand. His hand was freezing. Then all emotions, senses and actions began to zero in on her pelvic region and getting this baby out into the world as quickly as possible. Nursing staff entered and left the room, smiling, reassuring her that she and the baby were doing fine. An hour passed, then two. She was dilating, but very slowly. She finely relented to an epidural and this eased some of her pain, but dulled her senses. She could make out Jim sitting in a chair by the window. He smiled and waved, but his expression was odd, distant, which struck her as a little weird, but everything about having a baby was weird.
            The doctor announced she was very close to being fully dilated and this was good news. After four hours, she was exhausted and having trouble seeing clearly from the tears, perspiration and drugs. She looked for Jim, but he wasn’t in her field of vision. Must be getting water or taking a bathroom break, she thought. A long moan erupted as she felt the baby moving downward slowly.
            “You’re doing great, Mrs. Leisling,” said the doctor in his calm, professional voice, only the top of his surgical cap visible between her parted legs. “Don’t push quite yet. There.” A nurse smiled at her and squeezed her hand. “Okay, I know you’re tired, but let’s give it one big push now. Ready? Come on, Cam, push. Yeah. There you go. You’re really doing great.”
            Her 37-year old body gave all it could and three agonizing pushes later the baby finally slid out into the doctor’s waiting hands. “Okay. Wonderful. Here’s that big boy. Where’s Mr. Leisling?”
            “I don’t know, Doctor. He was just here,” said a nurse.
            Nearly hysterical, a sobbing Cam raised her head and saw her precious glistening baby in the arms of the doctor, squirming, breathing in air for the first time.
            “Oh, look,” cooed a nurse. “He’s opening his…”
            There was an audible gasp, the doctor said something under his breath, and the whole mood of the room changed. “Find Mr. Leisling. Gwen, get it to the emergency room.”
           “It?” Cried a panicked, sweat-soaked Cam, struggling to her elbows and surveying the faces of the stunned staff. “It?”

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