Terra Incognita—Chapter 4

I read some of this now and some of the writing is painfully bad.  Oh, well.

Chapter 4

It was several hours before Marcus fell back into slumber. By that time, he was questioning whether he had seen the image at all or if he had dreamed the whole thing. To be safe, he slept on the sofa, turned around so the back faced the window. Before doing so, however, he had thoroughly examined the window, running his hand over the perfectly dry panes. Marcus even opened one side of the window and peered upward at the glass ceiling looking for some sign of the rope he knew he would not find

When sleep finally did overtake him, Marcus slept soundly and, surprising to him, dreamlessly. Morning was nearly gone when he rose, stretching to relieve the soreness in his muscles. He took another look at the bay window, still seeing no evidence of moisture or of his own dead body hanging just beyond.

He turned away from the window and saw the bedroom door was open. He walked to it, peered around the corner, and found it empty. Heather’s twin suitcases, already packed, lay on the bed. Heather herself was nowhere to be found.

Marcus checked the bath and found the towel Heather had used in a heap on the floor. He amused himself comparing the immaculate marble vanity before him to the one at home, lost beneath a sea of cosmetics and other beauty supplies. He often complained about the infestation which, he remembered with a pang, was no longer in the house they had shared until recently.

He showered, wondering where Heather had decided to go for breakfast, if that was where she had gone. When he finished, he dressed and repacked his suitcase. He had gathered all the suitcases by the door to the suite when it opened and Heather walked in carrying a bag from one of the shops in the hotel. She did not speak, choosing instead to take up the smaller of her luggage and proceed back out the door into the hall. Marcus, grabbing the other two bags, followed.

He stayed in her wake, not daring to follow too closely. She wore jeans that fit loosely, but accentuated the curvature of her hips and he felt the flame of desire stir within him. Still, the thought of her reaction to his situation, categorical disbelief, bothered him like a pebble in his shoe. Marcus tried to imagine their roles being reversed and what his response to such a revelation would be and decided that it would not included the verbal barbs he had faced the previous day.

Marcus nearly missed the elevator Heather had entered, sliding his hand between the doors just in time to make them reopen. She gave him an innocent look, glazed over with mischief. As they rode down to the ground floor, neither of them dared to look at the other and when at last they stopped and the doors opened, they stepped out in silence and made for the parking lot. He had done their checkout over the phone, so he bypassed the registration desk a few steps behind her, carrying the two larger bags. He noted that her bag seemed heavier and he wondered briefly if she had done some extra shopping or just stuffed it full of valueless objects to add to the weight he would carry.

The sky outside was overcast, not threatening of storms but of long, steady rain that would soak everything and everyone foolish enough to be caught in it. Marcus unlocked the doors and popped the trunk lid with his remote and Heather got in the passenger seat still without speaking, leaving her bag by the back tire. He loaded the bags, tossing hers in unceremoniously, and slammed the lid shut again.

Climbing in behind the wheel, he turned the key in the ignition. Heather sat unmoving and Marcus thought if Rodin had sculpted her pose, he would have named the piece, “The Pouter.” Her arms crossed upon her chest, she stared at nothing through the windshield. He imagined her reaction to what he thought he had seen through the bay window the previous night and smiled as he pictured her scrambling to unlock the door and get into the hall in nothing but her birthday suit. She would probably have run all the way to the front desk, Marcus fantasized, before realized that she was naked.

This thought lightened his mood considerable and, after picking up a late breakfast to go, he found he preferred the silence of the drive over the verbal warfare Heather had engaged in yesterday. He turned on the radio to a country station and bopped his head a little from side to side while he ate, cruising along the interstate north towards Kentucky. Nearly an hour had passed and they were nearing the state line when Heather finally broke her self-imposed gag order.

“So why are we going to Kentucky again?” she asked. Her tone said she had been waiting for the answer to this question for some time, even though Marcus had already given it. He thought briefly of pulling the letter out of the console again, but changed his mind. No amount of reasoning or persuasion would convince her of where they were going, just as no amount of reason could be found in it. To some degree, he understood her disbelief of the circumstances of the letter Marcus had received, but that did not lessen the sting of her words. He wanted it to be untrue as much as she believed it to be, but he knew that the time would come when she would believe because she would have no choice but to believe.

“You’ll find out when we get there,” Marcus said. He realized that his answer seemed to indicate that he was conceding to her point of view, that the letter and its content were a complete fabrication, but that was unimportant. All that mattered to him now was keeping a tentative peace until she was faced with the unbelievable.

He thought of the letter again, running it verbatim through his mind again like a favorite song. Erasmus. The name itself conjured too many images and memories to describe and a strong feeling of unease entered him as they crossed into Kentucky. He felt somehow that time was growing increasingly short in that other place, like an hourglass pouring down to its final grains of sand. He silently cursed himself for not driving straight through, for stopping in a posh hotel while the dark events in the letter moved on with increasing speed. Unconsciously, his foot pressed down a little harder on the accelerator, hoping to make up for the time he now felt was foolishly wasted.

That’s what I saw last night, Marcus thought, a message. He had nearly dismissed his vision from the night before as a dream, but now he suspected another answer—a sign. It had been a sign from the evil Erasmus had written about, the Necromancer, warning him not to get involved. That this Necromancer held enough power to penetrate the real world greatly disturbed Marcus and he wondered how Erasmus thought he would have enough strength to counter such magic.

Checking beside him, he saw that Heather’s silence had slid smoothly into a nap. She lay turned slightly toward him in the seat, which she had reclined to a nearly horizontal position. Her hand rested under her chin in an almost contemplative posture. He stared at her a moment, mindless of the road ahead, and marveled again at how beautiful she was. Her lips pursed out slightly as she slept and he felt a strong inclination to lean over and kiss her, overcome only by a stronger inclination to not have the stuffing smacked out of him. Their lips had met many times before, but a reunion would have to wait until their relationship could be resolved, for better or worse.

He continued to drive north for another seventy miles before turning off the interstate. The gray sky still threatened rain, but none had yet fallen on them as he guided the Toyota through the hills and trees of his childhood home. Soon he began to recognize familiar landmarks, sites that still toggled his memory, but looked different now, smaller and time-worn, stores he had seen built, now boarded up with leasing opportunities available, the local elementary school, complete with a new gymnasium and auditorium, and, of course, the new Wal-Mart Supercenter complete with everything a town of barely three thousand people could need.

Marcus drove slowly through his hometown, recalling episodes from his childhood with every turn of his head, and soon emerged out the other side, back into the wooded hills, spotted here and there with houses and tobacco barns. The roads curved around the terrain like a length of string dropped carelessly on the ground. Sinkholes, so common in cave country, appeared regularly among the fields.

Heather stirred finally, opening her eyes wide and looking at her watch. She leaned up in her seat and looked out at the unfamiliar landscape.

“Are we there yet?” she asked.

Marcus wanted to ask, “Is the car still moving?” but decided a fight so close to their destination should be avoided. Instead, he said, “Almost. Just a couple more miles.”

Turning off the state highway, the Toyota cruised along a narrow country lane, hardly wide enough to accommodate his car, much less two if they encountered any traffic. They did not meet anyone, however, and four miles later Marcus turned onto a long, gravel drive that snaked up a hill to a small brick house.

They reached the house just as the first large drops of rain began to fall. Grabbing the bags from the trunk, Marcus and Heather both raced to the front door, where Marcus knocked three times. After a few moments, the door opened and a small, aged woman looked out at them. She was dressed in a cotton dress that looked more like a nightgown than something to be worn in public. Thick, light gray hair streaked out in all directions from her head like sunbeams in a child’s drawing. Her eyes, though, danced with vitality as she recognized her visitors.

“Marcus, come in,” she said excitedly.

“Hi, Granny,” Marcus said. He opened the door and hugged her, his arms wrapping around her small frame. “How are you?”

“Still livin’,” she answered.

Heather entered behind Marcus and smiled at his grandmother. They had met once before when their relationship had just begun and Heather insisted on seeing where Marcus grew up. He had brought her here, where he had lived with his grandmother since he was two, his parents having been killed in an automobile accident. Marcus had no memories of his parents, but his grandmother had ensured they would not be forgotten. Pictures of his parents adorned every wall and occupied many frames on any flat surface that would hold them. A fair number of pictures of Marcus at nearly every stage of his childhood also were numerous and the resemblance between him and his father was unmistakable. Heather had marveled at their last visit at how many pictures the house held.

“When you get to be my age, sweetie,” his grandmother had explained, “most of the things you have to look forward are in the past.

Marcus knew his grandmother was in her eighties and though she was still quite lively for her age, she looked markedly older than Marcus remembered seeing her two years before. The lines in her face seemed deeper, time eroding them like water in a riverbed. Her back was slightly stooped now, making the proud, upright woman look small and humbled. These things troubled Marcus more than a little. In light of what he felt lay ahead, he counted on his grandmother’s strength more than ever to help him through it.

Heather stood in the doorway and offered a polite, but impersonal, greeting. Sylvia, as everyone but Marcus called her, waved this off and with surprising speed wrapped her bony arms around Heather, who stiffened a moment before relaxing and returning the embrace.

“How are you, sweetie?” Sylvia asked.

“I’m good,” Heather answered.

Marcus had told his grandmother nothing of Heather’s leaving and hoped she would not have the insight to detect that anything was wrong in their relationship. However, when he saw his grandmother turn away from Heather, the look she gave Marcus told him that she suspected trouble.

“So,” Marcus said, “what’s for lunch?” He smiled broadly, trying to change the subject before the questions started.

Sylvia shook her head. “That’s just like you, always thinkin’ with your stomach. It’s a wonder you’re not four hundred pounds.”

“I would be,” Marcus said, “if I ate your cooking all the time.”

Sylvia turned on Heather. “I’m sending my recipe books home with you so you can make him fix you a decent meal.”

Heather laughed a real laugh for the first time since their trip had begun the day before. “You’ve obviously never seen him around a kitchen.”

“Don’t let him fool you. He can cook. Watched me do it for years. You just gotta make him want to do it.” She gave Heather a sly wink, as if she knew exactly how a woman could make a man want to do something.

Sylvia ushered them into the kitchen and the two of them sat down as she bustled around the kitchen. She had obviously known about when to expect them as lunch was nearly ready when they arrived. Potatoes had been peeled and boiled in preparation for mashing and baby carrots sat in their buttery bath giving off sweet, fragrant steam. Soon, Marcus heard the familiar pop and sizzle of chicken being placed in the electric skillet and he grinned. Even if this whole thing goes wrong, he thought, at least I’ll get a good meal out of it. He looked at Heather and, though she tried to hide it, saw that she was also anticipating a good home-cooked meal.

An hour later, stuffed to the point that he thought his insides would pop, expelling the large meal all over the dining room, Marcus sat back and patted his bulging stomach. All that remained of the meal were a few unidentifiable crumbs and a caramel smear from the turtle cake his grandmother had “whipped up just in case someone special stopped by”. For a long while, the only sounds were the metallic pings of silverware on dishes as the combatants called a truce in their war on hunger.

Sylvia finally broke the silence. “You’re going back, aren’t you?” The question shocked Marcus, not only for its directness, but also for its uncanny insight. He had not spoken to her about the other place since he was a child and thought, hoped even, that she had forgotten all about his long trips exploring the woods. He looked at Heather who wore an expression mirroring his own feelings, but mixed with a good dose of confusion.

“You’re going back there, aren’t you?” his grandmother repeated when he still failed to answer. “To that other place?”

Marcus fought to recover his senses. He realized then that he never had any intention of revealing his true reasons for the visit, hoping to pass it off as just a vacation from work, a chance to get away with Heather to spend some quality time and renew, if not save, their relationship. A dozen responses sprang to his mind, but none of them offered safe passage through these troubled waters. If he lied, she would know, she always knew when he lied and repeatedly told him how bad he was at it, just as Heather did. Finally, he decided that the truth, however unprepared he was to share it, was his best option.

He nodded.

“I thought so,” Sylvia said, sitting back in her chair with a satisfied look on her lined face. “Knew you wouldn’t drive all this way just to see the person who raised you.”

“Gran . . . “ Marcus started, and ended. His thoughts still seemed to be stuck, like a car in a deep snow drift, spinning its tires in a futile attempt to extricate itself.

His grandmother leaned forward and patted his arm. “Now don’t go thinkin’ I’m some psychic like that Sylvia Browne lady or whatever. I knew you’d be comin’ weeks ago, but not because of some vision or something.”

“How did you know?” Marcus asked. It was all his mind, otherwise seized up entirely, could spit out.

His grandmother gave a look out the dining room window. The thick clouds outside had blotted out most of the daylight and a steady rain could be heard on the glass. Marcus knew, a mile or so straight out from that window, a cave opened in the woods, mostly hidden by underbrush and moss. Out that window, a whole other world opened up.

“I’ve been hearin’ things,” she started, looking back at her grandson. “Not in that ready-for-the-nuthouse kinda way. Stange things, comin’ from those woods. And lights. Sometimes I’ll be sittin’ outside just ‘fore the news comes on and I’ll see lights shinin’ up through the trees.”

Heather, who had been silent through most of dinner, except for a few polite compliments on the quality of the meal and some rather short answers to Sylvia’s general questions about her well-being, spoke. “Could be some sort of drug lab or something, or maybe a moonshine operation.”

“Girl, you don’t know nothin’,” Sylvia said, waving her hand dismissively at Heather. “No drug lab’s gonna make the noises I’ve heard in those woods. Anyone making anything like that ain’t gonna want to draw attention to themselves by hollerin’ and putting up a bunch of damn lights. And nobody around here’s gonna go to the trouble of makin’ shine when they can go up the road and buy a case of beer for cheap. People are too lazy to work for their booze nowadays.”

Heather eased back into her seat and offered no argument. Marcus saw in her face that, while the logic was sound, she still held onto her suspicion. She looked at Marcus and her eyes narrowed, as if trying to make him reveal the joke he and his grandmother were both playing on her.

Marcus turned his attention back to his grandmother. “How long are we talking about here? How long has this been going on?” he asked.

“Oh, I’d say three weeks or so,” she answered. “Started out makin’ the awfulest racket, then last week the lights started. Like somethin’ was getting ready to bust out of there and start somethin’.”

Marcus stood and walked around the table to the window. He stared out through the glass and could see the dark outline of the woods refracted in the droplets of water. No lights could be seen in the darkening sky and he knew somehow that there would be no more lights. Not tonight or any other night. They had achieved their purpose and would shine no more.

He had come.

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About Lee Smiley

I write things. Maybe you'll read them.
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