It was ten minutes past two when the storm that was pummeling Curtisville finally slowed to a whisper. The nearby sea became as smooth as glass, and so pale with fog that it resembled a silver-plated mirror. Once again, the whole town soon disappeared beneath a veil of gray haze.
On the other side of Azalea Street, seven-year old Marc Henshaw stirred uneasily in his sleep as he dreamt of a crowd of shadowy figures emerging from a creepy, Hobbit-like house in the middle of a dark forest. They came armed with pitchforks, scythes, axes, clubs and knives, as if they were going up against a Hollywood-type monster.
Something was wrong. Faintly, he could smell smoke and burnt meat. And what was that noise? It sounded like sparklers crackling and popping.
He suddenly sneezed violently, sending his disheveled strands of brown hair flying. And then he heard it: the familiar wailing of sirens. Distant at first, then growing louder and louder.
Rolling out of bed, Marc muffled several more sneezes with a cupped hand. “Jeez...where’s this smoke coming from?”
He hurried to the window and stared out as a fire truck and a couple police cars pulled up in front the of houses across the street.
Oh crap, an emergency! he told himself. Hope nothing happened to the Hawthornes. He liked the Hawthornes. They were nice and enjoyed a good laugh, and Giselle had this really cool marble and singing rock collection. Who was going to get those when they were gone?
Expecting to see flames shooting up from the Hawthornes’ roof like in the movies, he saw instead a mass of twisted metal lying at the base of a nearby utility pole. Relieved, Marc scrutinized it with puzzled eyes. It didn’t look like part of a car fender, more like part of a roof or a ladder even. How’d that happen? he thought. Looks likes it’s been through a tornado!
Instantly, The Wizard of Oz and all the news footage that had shown tornadoes flashed through his first-grade mind. Would he have to hide in his basement? Would he have to make a run for it when that monstrous, black funnel started sucking up his street like a psychotic Hoover.
He ceased his panicking when he heard the shouting and screams, and noticed that a growing crowd of onlookers had gathered near the flashing vehicles and were now looking upward. He recognized the voice of Mrs. Hawthorne and became even more worried.
“What?” Pressing his freckled face to the cold glass, he fixed his eyes at the top of the power pole. Squinting through the dark and thick mist, he could barely make out something resembling a scarecrow clad in tattered orange and black rags. “What is that?”
The power lines suddenly burst into a blur of sparks revealing the ragged, sagging shape dangling high above.
Marc bolted to the far wall with a whimper and a loss of bladder control.
“Oh crud...no!” he croaked. “Constance!”
Constance Greene, the always cheerful eighth-grade girl who often came to babysit, now resembled a freak show exhibit.
What flesh that was visible in the ragged holes of the half-melted rain poncho was charred to a crisp. The still recognizable face was swollen red, the hazel eyes bulging from the sockets in an expression of absolute horror. What little strawberry blonde hair remained was now smoky patches of spiked bristles.
Her purple, cateye glasses were missing, as well as her left hand.
A false dawn crept through the murky, fog-enshrouded wood that surrounded the fancy upscale area of Sandy Cove. The red-orange glow lit up the twisted, gnarled boles of the trees, and casted long wavering shadows upon the soaked grass and the dark, swollen waters of the nearby creek. It illuminated the myriad eyes of various wild life as they fled the lightning strike and resulting explosion, never once tarrying to watch the majestic manor go up in flames.
Unlike the local wild life, however, the neighbors of 2184 Hewitt Rd collected a safe distance away to watch the mansion burn. The brick and timber structure spat and crackled, shooting up sparks and towering tongues of flames twice as tall as the surrounding grove of trees.
By the time the fire company arrived, the entire house had collapsed into a smoldering heap, the flames subsiding to a dull red glow. It was only after the hoses finally reduced the conflagration to a few flickering embers, that the real horror was finally reveled.
Lying amidst the blackened brick and splintered smoldering timbers were the charred remains of what was once the Chalmers Family. Seven human beings: ranging in years from eight to forty-eight, scattered and tossed around like rag dolls.
Deputy Welsh wiped his brow and stared down at what he assumed was one of the older children--seventeen-year-old Kenneth Chalmers. The once-handsome boy was now barely recognizable. He lay stretched out upon his back, what looked like a metal railroad spike jutted from the ruins of his chest. His severed head lay grotesquely under his left arm. The horribly scorched and mangled features twisted into a semblance of a scream.
Welsh passed a hand across his brow a second time. His face was ashen beneath his dripping slicker hat, and his eyes were thin amber slits. He shuddered convulsively. “Decapitated,” he murmured. “Just like the rest. Dead before the fire ever got to them.”
“Think that’s bad,” a gravely voice suddenly spoke over his left shoulder. “Well, it’s going to get a hell of a lot worse.”
Welsh jerked with surprise, then relaxed when he noticed the massive form of Deputy Behr standing next to him.
“Worse?” muttered Welsh, and through the thick curls of fog he saw that the older man’s face had taken on a greenish tinge.
“Yeah,” the large man simply nodded his slicker hooded head in the direction of the forest. “That red building just beyond the tree line over there.”
“Welsh hadn’t noticed the building before. It sat just beyond some large willow trees, not much bigger than a small A-frame.
“Yeah...a lot. Couldn’t tell how many...” Behr’s voice trailed off as he shrugged and looked thoughtfully at the blackened ruins.
“A lot?” Welsh’s eyes widened. “A lot,” Behr repeated. His eyes were now dull and glazed.
“What do you mean ‘a lot?’” Welsh asked, staring at Behr. “Like forty...fifty?”
Behr shook his head. “I don’t know. Many hundreds...”
“Hundreds?” Welsh choked out. “In that tiny place?”
“That’s just the front entrance,” Behr murmured. “The rest’s underground. I only got as far as the vending machines...then I had to turn back. I just couldn’t...”
Welsh stared at his companion with deep concern. He moved like he was drunk, swaying slightly like he was standing on a rocking ship. A strange dusty grayness underlay the all-weather tan of his craggy face.
“Jake, what exactly did you see in there?” Welsh asked him. “A cannibal den? A mass murder-suicide?”
“N-no,” Behr replied, his eyes still fixed on the burnt house. “Nothing like that...best you ask Sheriff Eaton about it, because I can’t tell--I just can’t!”
“Well, I guess I’m going to have to ask him then,” said Welsh nonchalantly as he dug in his rain slicker pocket, pulling out his flashlight. “May as well go see what’s in that bunker thing too. Can’t be any worse than all this mess.”
Behr suddenly stood before him, barring his way.
“What the hell, Jake!” Welsh exclaimed, taking a step back.
“No, don’t!” said Behr hoarsely. “You shouldn't look in that bunker, Nate!”
“What is this?” Welsh demanded, gazing at his friend in astonishment. “Get a grip, Jake! We’re not kids scared of some damn haunted house! We’re rational thinking adults!”
“Nate--for God’s sake!” Behr rasped, grabbing hold of his arm. “Don’t go down there! You shouldn't see--that--I don’t know--that abomination of abominations, but believe me, your brain and soul will never be the same again should you decide to go into that festering hell pit!”
“Okay, okay,” Welsh winced, trying to pull his arm out of Behr’s iron grip. “I promise.”
“You sure,” Behr stared at him as if trying to determine if he was lying or not.
“Yes, I promise not to go down there,” Welsh gritted his teeth. “Now let go of me.”
Behr released his arm and let him stagger back. “Sorry, man. It’s just after seeing that room...”
“It’s--it’s okay,” Welsh stammered. He started rubbing the circulation back into his tingling wrist.
But it wasn’t okay. Panic and possibly even madness had just seized his partner, and now all he wanted to do was flee from this cursed place and immerse himself completely in his classical music collection.
No. Abruptly, he turned and began ploughing his way through the fog. No, he wasn’t leaving yet. He wasn’t going to let himself turn coward on account of a couple horrifying crime scenes. No siree. I'm gonna stick this one out like superglue and not be afraid!
Werewolves aren’t supposed to be afraid.
For a while, Marc stayed where he was, his back pressed up against the far wall, hugging his knees to his chest. Tears streaming down his cheeks, he stared at the window, keeping his small clenched fists tightly jammed against his mouth.
He continued staring until he stopped shaking. It's not her. Not her. Not her out there. Just a dummy...just like the one in the Haunted Mansion's elevator. You remember that Walt Disney trip, last year? The lights going out in the elevator, and when you looked up, and you saw the hanging body of that Gracey guy. You were so scared that you totally chickened-out and Mom and Dad had to take you out of there cause you were freaking out like a lil' baby, scaredy-cat... but it wasn't real. Just like this isn't real. This is all just someone's sick joke
Slowly, he uncurled from his huddle and scuttled off the bed like a frightened mouse.They'll figure it out...the cops and firemen...that it's just a joke dummy. Probably just some stupid teenagers that put it up there. Better get some clean clothes before Mom and Dad finds out you peed your old ones like a scared little baby. Better not let the kids at school hear about this or they'll be calling you a major wimp or bedwetting baby!
Wiping the tears from his face, Marc reached into his clothes drawers for a cleaner set of pajamas, and was startled when a small manilla envelope fell onto the floor. He leaned down and picked it up. It felt rather heavy like it was full of postcards or a wad of cash. With a puzzled frown, he slid out the yellow note paper that was inside and unfolded it, as he read the message, a chill rippled its way up his spine.
"From Constance Greene to Marc Henshaw. With Deep Regrets
Dear Marc, by the time you read this letter, I’m either going to be dead or confined to a jail cell or a padded room. I wiped them out--the entire Chalmers family. I had to do it because they would have gone after innocent people like you. I had to do it...alone, all the others in my party of fellow collaborators quit on account of being too afraid of any earthy or supernatural repercussions or too busy covering their own arses. Even though I now think of them as nothing but a lily-livered bunch of yellow-bellied cowards, I still don’t want them to suffer the same grim fate that would very shortly befall me.
I’m mighty sorry I had to drag you into this awful business, but you had to know the truth--the Chalmers, who had lived in this area for as long as most people could remember, were inhuman monsters that would put the animatronic creations of the movies and TV to shame. How did they get that way exactly? I don’t know, maybe it was like in The Bad Seed, madness being passed through the bloodlines or maybe some long ancient forebear made a bargain with someone ...or something and as a result the whole family line became tainted to the core. Whatever the reason for this darkness, it seemed to spread like a contagion, causing anyone unfortunate enough to come into close contact to be drained of their vital life force, their creativity and free will.
I’ve seen the results of these feedings--once cheerful energetic kids now replaced by some hollow-eyed shell. Drifting aimlessly around like zombies or slumped at their desks or in front of their lockers. Just like everyone else, I didn’t think much of it at the time. After all...it was the beginning of school, people were possibly stressed or irritable from having to switch out of their summer vacation mode and get back to the academic rat race. Also with so much time spent in crowded room sharing the same air and germs, someone was bound to come down with something.
As the months dragged on, there were other signs that I didn’t pay much attention to back then...and maybe I should of. Maybe I should of told someone in authority...I don’t know maybe the principal or vice-principal or the nurse or even the school councillor lady. Maybe things would of been different had I done something helpful instead of sitting on my hands out of fear of further ridicule and humiliation.
At first. this ‘bug’ affected the prep/rich kids and their band of wannabe followers--the competitive, overachieving know-it-alls, the jock athletes, the shallow fashion gurus and cheerleader types, the selfish, arrogant brainiacs, the kiss-ass popular types who were always doing extra-curricular activities.
Not it wasn’t that this ‘Affluenza’ virus was an all-consuming epidemic causing bunches of people to keel over like plague victims. No, it was more like a slow gradual process with two or three people becoming wasted wreaks ever half month, until finally they wouldn’t bother showing up at all for a few weeks. A few never came back, I assumed they either transfered to some less stressful school or moved away due to parental concern.
I never heard of any of these missing kids dying or ending up hospitalized. The Chalmers Triplets were rather wise when it came to feeding off the people hovering around them. Take a few at a time and let them last, and never leave behind a clear trail of evidence pointing back at you."
Marc stared at the sheets of paper clutched tightly in his trembling hands. What the flipping heck did he just read?
This all had to be some sort of sick, stupid joke. It just had to be.
Constance was always fond of making jokes and pulling pranks.
Of course, this had to be one of her Halloween-inspired pranks. Constance always liked Halloween not only because of the candy and creepy imagery, but because it always gave her an excuse to act like someone so much more interesting than herself.
Except Constance was now dead, unless that was a cleverly-disguised mannequin hanging outside, but Marc didn’t think so. It looked a bit too real and he doubted she could have pulled that one off without help.
As he resumed reading, he soon discovered that Constance didn’t feel much in the way of sympathy for a lot of the kids that got sick. They had been super mean to her back in the sixth grade, constantly gossiping behind her back about her being poor, being stuck in Special Ed, having to live in a cruddy trailer park near the freeway, and having tweaker trash-turned-fanatical-Jehovah Witnesses as parents. How she was held back in sixth grade and by the time she got to middle school, people mostly forgot about her until she became one of those funny-to-the-point-where-they're-desperate kids who try to make fun of everyone and everything. Everyone always laughs along because she was a class clown, inept and silly in her pathetic efforts to fit in, and people constantly thank their lucky stars and gods that they weren’t in her black oversized, Mickey Mouse-like sneakers.
The writing blurred as Marc’s eyes filled up with tears once again. Constance always acting quirky and sweet, always dressing in bright colorful sweaters, skirts and leg warmers, was in fact, a miserable, messed-up loser. It was just her way of coping with the cold harshness of real life--by acting like a lovable and awkward fool.
Outside, there were camera flashes amid the blue and red light as someone played shutterbug. Marc wondered if they would ever find Constance’s glasses or her left hand. Not bothering to check, he flipped to the second sheet.
Constance continued further on with her speculation on what was causing ‘Preppie Flu,’ figuring it was mostly stress-related, the effects of over-achiever burn-out due to hormonal angst and mounting pressure from hyper-competitive, overbearing and rich parents.
"At least that was what I and just about everyone else thought at the time...until Clarissa Milonakis finally got suspicious.
The Chalmers Triplets were thirteen at the time and looked like a cross between Hayley Mills from the 1961 Walt Disney film--The Parent Trap and Shirley Temple, the latter of which I greatly despised. Fashion-wise, they looked out of place because of the way their hair and clothes was styled...like they stepped out of the later '40's or early '50's. Besides being well-kept and well-behaved, they were also very pious individuals like the rest of their large family.
Strangely, despite their rather unnerving dedication to religion, sickly-sweet personalities perfect old fashioned niceness, the Populars generally adored them, although they were much loathed among the so-called ‘losers’ and ‘rejects,’ as well as some of teachers. They were also much disliked among the local animal population: dogs, cats, even livestock would suddenly flee at the very sight of them coming down the street. One of the science class hamsters even committed suicide after being handled by Sally Joye Chalmers. He just hung from the top bars of his cage,not bothering to eat or sleep. Every time someone would take him down, he would climb back up and he stayed that way for several more days until he died.
Now that was strange, it should have raised red flags, but his premature demise was later chalked up to him feeling devastated from the recent loss of another fellow hamster--his girlfriend. Besides, I was too distracted with heavy-duty school work and problems spiraling beyond my control at home to worry about the exact cause of death of a little rodent.
Example Problem #1--the Jehovahistic absurdities that called themselves my ‘parents( jailers were more like it),’ as well as the entire Kingdom Hall Community(brain-washed cult followers) disapproving of my spirited attempts at leading as independent existence and formulating a plan of action for a collegiate education and eventual career.
Okay, now about Clarissa Milonakis--she was an eighth grader and the daughter of wealthy Russian immigrants, she rose to the top of the honor role, and way before the arrival of the Chalmers Triplets, had already established herself as the most popular girl at Curtisville Middle School.
As well as being a total spoiled snob, she was also a mean, killer bee/shark queen and one of my chief tormentors from my primary days.
So imagine to my surprise when shortly after first period when she met me at my locker and proceeded to ask me all kinds of questions.
CM: Have you seen Olive?
ME: (shaking my head) No, I haven’t.
CM: Oh...Well, what about Nikki? Have you seen her?
ME: (another shake) Uhh...no. Sorry.
CM: Ariana? Bess? Zoey? Brianna? What about Violet?
ME: (looking rather dazed and confused) Uhh-huh.
CM: (nervously biting her sparkly flawless nails) Damn, I got to find them...the Home Ec. Bake Off starts in half an hour!
And then she was off, clattering away on her five inch platforms as she frantically searched the crowded hallways for her fashion police friends. Asking a few more students then running in and out classrooms, and then finally clattering over to ask one of the lunch ladies who was working a double shift as hall monitor. Eventually, the bell rang and I went off to my next class.
It wasn’t until my third period Science class that a thought suddenly occurred to me. We were watching a film on diseases, and then it got to the part about immune carriers of diseases such as TB and Typhoid where it brought up one notable example--Mary Mallon A. K A. Typhoid Mary.
Ever heard of her, Marc? You probably have. I’ve seen you watching Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Well, one of those episodes--I forget which number exactly--they ran a short segment about her, this Irish cook who over a course of seven years managed to infect 53 people. So I figured that the Chalmers Triplets were like Typhoid Mary, healthy-looking carriers of a contagious disease. But exactly what kind of disease? Definitely not Typhoid, it would have been on the news by now, the CDC would have issued a state-wide quarantine.
No, this particular 'pest’ had to be something completely unknown to science. It didn’t have the typical cold and flu-like symptoms--fever, runny nose, sore throat, pounding headaches. People just got extremely tired and depressed, wasting slowly away, day by day.
At that point I suddenly realized just what the Chalmers Triplets reminded me of. For the first time in my life, I actually found myself worrying about the welfare of Clarissa’s missing bunch of ditzy friends."
Marc jumped as the front door banged open downstairs. He soon heard footsteps hurrying toward his bedroom door and quickly shoved the envelope and its contents into his pillowcase. Light from the hall spilled into the room as his parents cautiously entered.
“Hey Mom! Hey Dad!” Marc exclaimed in the most cheeriest tone he could muster.
“Hey there, Tiger,” Mr. Henshaw murmured. The tall and gangly man in the blue night robe looked tense and drawn, but he still managed to crack a smile. “Just checking up to see if you’re okay.”
“Yeah, I’m alright,” said Marc casually. “Just went to get some new PJs, that’s all.”
“Not another one of those mishaps?” Mrs. Henshaw asked worriedly.
Marc thought she always looked weird wearing that big purple night gown with her red hair all frizzy and tangled up...kind of like a zany fairy godmother. But at least she was friendly and nice, even though she had the tendency of asking rather embarrassing questions.
“No, it wasn’t one of those,” Marc quickly assumed. “Just had a dream I was...fighting this big red dragon...and I got really hot and sweaty for real (yeah, that sounded good). So I got up to get me some new PJs.”
“Oh, one of your Hobbit dreams, huh?” Mrs. Henshaw nodded, sweeping the thick locks back from her pale face.
“Yeah,” Marc shrugged, blushing slightly. “Must have been all those sirens and lights outside that caused it.”
He noticed his parents exchanging uncomfortable looks. “Something wrong?” he asked already knowing the answer.
Mr. Henshaw hesitated, scratching his scruffy beard. “Well...your mother felt that it would be best if you spent the night downstairs for a change.”
“Oh,” Marc nodded slowly. “In Kenny’s room?” He dreaded the very prospect of spending the night with a sleep-erratic toddler.
“Well, on the couch just for now,” Mrs. Henshaw assured him.
“Oh...okay,” he nodded, greatly relieved. “Let me just get some stuff together.”
Just as he was turning toward the bed, he felt his mother's gentle, but firm grip on his shoulder. “Honey, we can do it. You just go downstairs and wait.”
“Mom...it’s fine,” Marc stammered. “You don’t have to--”
“I’m really sorry, son,” Mr. Henshaw sighed, “But we feel it’s not best for you to spend the night in this room--He broke off abruptly as the squeal of tires sounded in front of the house, followed by the opening of car doors. “Lord love a duck! More cops...probably be knocking on our door pretty soon. Maybe it would be best to stick Marc in Kenny’s room...it will be lots quieter.”
“But Dad!” Marc’s mouth puckered into a deep frown. “I don’t think that’s such a good...”
“No, no, no,” said Mrs. Henshaw briskly, shouldering past them and yanking the blankets off Marc’s bed. “It’s best you get some rest. I’ll be sure to get you some new jammies, okay?”
“Okay, Mom,” Marc sighed dismally, glancing one last time at his pillow before letting Dad lead him away.