Later, when the nine-hundred or so residents of Stoneford who were affected that night would reflect on how it all began, their thoughts would mostly first return to the rain, and more specifically, when it stopped.
What was peculiar about it, and why it stood stark in the memory of so many, or at least those who happened to be awake at that time of night to notice, was that it wasn’t the gradual tapering off most have grown accustomed to. It just stopped. It was and then it wasn’t. Like somebody flicked a switch, only flicking a switch was even too much; it implies a process, an intent. No, in Stoneford that night, one millisecond it was pouring so hard the rain sounded angry, and then, seemingly in that same millisecond it was gone, leaving in its absence an eerie peace.
Other things were gone, too, but it took the residents varying lengths of time to realize that, depending on what it was.
One thing that was for sure gone was the whiskey in Officer Nick Lupo’s flask. What was more tragic was that he had poured it out himself just moments ago, and was currently having trouble remembering anything he regretted more in his life. What the hell was he thinking, after a day like today? What the hell even gave him the strength to do it in the first place? One moment he’s sitting in his parked cop car appearing to be keeping a vigilant eye on the safety of his fellow Stoneford citizens, and the next he’s rolling down the driver’s side window, reaching his hand out into the pouring rain, and upending his half-full silver flask, the sound of the booze trickling out onto the pavement blending harmoniously with the deluge flowing from the New England sky. It was almost pretty. Almost.
Oddly enough, that last drop from Nick’s flask and the final legion of raindrops that left their cloud together, hurtling towards the ground before the rain suddenly wasn’t… They just about splashed onto the asphalt outside Nick’s vehicle at the same exact moment. It was jarring to him, the way the drumming of the drops on the roof and hood of his car just ceased, like someone had hit a mute button. He pulled his hand back in, wiped his flask dry on his police jacket and shut off the pointlessly swooshing windshield wipers.
“Damn,” he remarked aloud, completely involuntarily. Nick wasn’t the type to talk to himself, even in mutterings, but this was something unlike anything he’d seen before. He looked at the time: 1:19 AM. He’d remember that for a long while onwards.
He shifted the car into drive, but kept his foot on the brake as he paused to look at the flask, which he’d tossed into the passenger seat next to him. It was given to him as a gift for being a groomsman in his buddy John’s wedding. Nick’s name and the date of the occasion--October 18, 2014--were inscribed on it. It was really nice, he thought. Too nice to sit empty. It should at least be allowed to serve its purpose, right? He decided then that once he got off work, he’d head home and fill that thing to the goddamn brim. Then he’d wind the top tightly shut and never open it again.
Because that would be his true test, wouldn’t it? It’s hardly impressive to quit drinking when there’s nothing around to drink. But if he knew a good buzz was just a couple twists of a cap away and he still resisted? Well, then, he might just be able to convince himself, convince everyone, that he was no longer an alcoholic.
All those thoughts were dashed with what happened in the following moments.
Nick saw the string of street lights running along Baxter Road were all out and the glowing TV screens emitted from the tiny condominiums around the corner along East Pattagansett had all blinked away. Nick stepped out of his vehicle and realized why he hadn’t immediately noticed. The moon shone so full and bright it lit the streets as well as the lamps had, the light never diminishing. The odd thing was, seconds ago that moon had been completely concealed by the dense hovering clouds as far as the eye could see. Where did they go? And hadn’t the moon been--what was it called--a crescent just last night? Nick couldn’t be sure; he generally wasn’t one to notice the moon unless it was reflecting in his glass of bourbon. But he thought he remembered so.
He maybe would have stood in wonder at this strange phenomenon a moment or two longer, but then he saw something that blew all these musings out of the water.
The condominiums on East Pattagansett sat across the street from a tiny beach on the Long Island Sound--Concord Beach. Its sand stretched maybe fifty yards from east to west before giving way to craggy rocks on the western side, often mostly covered by the tide. When the tide was out you could walk a short stretch to one particularly tall rock on which sat a flagpole, bearing the old familiar stars and stripes, thus giving it the imaginative title of Flagpole Rock amongst the Stoneford locals. When the tide was in in the summer, kids would swim out and leap off it, cannonballing into the Sound, just barely missing jagged slabs to either side hidden by the murky water. The local EMT dispatchers were no strangers to Concord Beach. Nick thought they may be taking a trip there tonight judging by the way his heart was hammering in his chest.
Leaving his car door ajar, Nick walked down Pattagansett, across the sidewalk, and onto the beach, mouth agape and eyes wide the entire way. His shiny tactical Oxford shoes (deep down Nick believed the more impeccable he kept his uniform, the less likely people would be to call him on his drinking) cut precise footprints in the wet sand. His legs suddenly felt like jell-o under the soft terrain, and he drew his gun. He didn’t raise it though--that feat seemed impossible at this point as he could barely keep his head raised and looking straight towards the Long Island Sound. Or where it should be...
The Sound was gone.
Where the tiny waves had lapped the Stoneford shore for as long as Nick could remember (and in actuality for about 5,000 years prior, though Nick had no concept of this), the sand now gave way to thick grass and bramble, leading to a forest of trees he didn’t recognize--they certainly weren’t the maple, birch, or oak that dotted the Connecticut coastline he called home. They were thick, tall, but not quite straight. Their bark was smooth and green-ish, but mostly covered by what looked like odd silvery horns, sharp and curved upwards. Their tops looked like willows but denser and a darker green, dotted with sinewy white strands. And despite that brilliantly shining full moon, no light penetrated that canopy. In fact, Nick couldn’t see farther than seven or eight feet into it. The last thing he could make out was Flagpole Rock, the U.S. flag flapping serenely in the wind of this strange alien forest. The sight almost made Nick sick.
A strong wind picked up then and he heard a chorus of thick branches creaking from the dark beyond the flagpole. That was enough. He turned tail and booked it back up to Pattagansett, feeling eyes, real or imagined he couldn’t say, digging into his back the entire way.
Nick slammed his car door with a CHUNK and picked up his radio.
“Hey! Hey-hey,” he stammered. Police lingo time was long past. Now he was just a human who was scared, needing to hear another human’s voice. “It’s Nick. I’m down Concord Beach and you won’t believe this shit… Over.”
Nothing. Static. He glanced at his empty flask from John’s wedding on the passenger seat and felt like crying.
“Hello?!” he offered again but was once more met with silence. “God dammnit.” He dropped the radio mic and took his iPhone out of his pocket. The words “No Service” jumped out at him as soon as he hit the home button. Not good, but he would have been more alarmed if he didn’t typically have shitty reception down by the water. The water that wasn’t there anymore.
Okay, next move. Nick figured he’s gotta get away from the beach. But what about those condominiums on Pattagansett? What about the people inside?
What about the eyes he felt on him from those dark woods that shouldn’t be there?
Nick put the car in drive and rode about twenty feet up, parking in front of the grey fiber cement lined condominiums. It occurred to him he knew the family who resided in the large end unit, or at least he did years ago. He approached the front door and hesitated a moment, not sure what to do. The situation clearly called for a panicked rapping; in fact he couldn’t go longer than a couple seconds without glancing over his shoulder at the beach and the woods. But he didn’t want to give anyone a heart attack, and it was important he appear in control of his own shock and dread if he wanted anybody else to remain calm. Nick collectedly pressed his pointer to the doorbell.
After a few prolonged seconds, Nick heard stomping feet plodding towards the door. The stomping paused a moment, probably for whoever was on the other side to peer through the peephole. When the door finally swung open, a man in his mid-sixties, robust belly under a white t-shirt protruding from a green checkered bathrobe, stared at Nick quizzically through round wire-rim glasses. This was Andy Gasko.
“Mr. Gasko, hi,” Nick said. He guessed the last time he saw Andy Gasko was the summer before he left Stoneford for his freshman year at Michigan State. Andy had put on more than a few pounds and the thick brown Jew-fro he remembered him with had dwindled to a more manageable curly grey. “You probably don’t remember me, I went to school with your son.”
“Nicholas, right?” Andy asked, and the moment he breathed his first word Nick smelled the pot coming off his breath. Nick wondered if Andy could smell the whiskey on his. “I remember you over here a couple times with David, sure. The storm take out a powerline or something?”
“No. Mr. Gasko--”
“Andy, you don’t have a heart condition, do you?”
“I mean, it wouldn’t shock me,” he cracked, gesturing to his wide gut and smiling. When he saw Nick wasn’t amused he became serious instantly. “But, no, nothing diagnosed.”
Nick nodded, then stepped aside and looked towards Concord Beach across the street. Andy followed his gaze, and his confusion grew into glaring awe. He put a thick hand to his grey stubbled jaw.
“My God,” Andy managed. Nick guessed he was maybe regretting partaking in his herbal remedy earlier. “What’s happened?!”
“Can I use your phone?” Nick pressed. Andy gawked a few more seconds, then shook his head as if to clear cobwebs from his mind. He nodded to Nick and stepped back inside. Nick followed.
The place was dark and cluttered and smelled of pot and some sort of incense.
“Mrs. Gasko home?” Nick asked. He couldn’t imagine she was, with the place in disarray like this.
“No, she, uh… She’s at her mother’s in Rhode Island,” Andy stated, looking around the living room, seemingly bewildered as to how he got there. “I was watching Netflix on my tablet and my wi-fi went out, same time as the rain stopped. Man, that was--”
“Your phone, Andy.”
“Right.” He found it on the floor beside the couch he’d been laying on, across from which sat a coffee table adorned with magazines and a small bong. Nick watched Andy not-so-smoothly dip the bong to the floor around the couch corner out of sight as he snatched up his iPhone. He handed it to Nick.
“You usually have cell service?” Nick asked as the phone lit up revealing the same “No Service” icon as he saw on his own phone.
“A bar or two at least. AT&T’s not the best around here, I gotta say.”
Nick looked to his left to a tiny kitchen. A landline phone hung on the wall. He went to it, picked it up and put it to his ear. No dial tone, nothing. He hung up and returned to the living room.
“Do you have a gun?”
“Not my thing.”
“Take mine.” Nick unholstered his Sig Sauer P220 pistol and handed it to Andy, who took the butt by two fingers. “I gotta get down to the station. I don’t understand what the fuck’s going on, but better safe than sorry. I want you to round up everyone on Pattagansett and tell them to head to the Green. Anyone refuses, you tell them to lock their doors and STAY INSIDE until they hear otherwise. You follow?”
Andy looked sick but nodded. Nick turned and headed for the door, passing a quaint pallet wood liquor cabinet bolstered to the wall. He stopped and turned again to face Andy.
“Nice bong, by the way,” he said. Worry melted into embarrassment on Andy’s face. He shuffled uncomfortably. Nick pulled the flask from John’s wedding out of his police jacket; he’d instinctively stuffed it back in before leaving his vehicle. It was comforting having it there. He held it up for Andy to see, giving it a slight shake.
“Mind if I get a refill?”
Soon Nick’s flask was full once more, with its top wound tight. But he hadn’t even made it back to his car before he was twisting it open again to take a long, satiating swig.
She sat perfectly straight, naked on the edge of the hotel bed, hands folded in her lap, eyes fixed on the light escaping through the crack beneath the closed bathroom door. It was the only light in the room. The sound of the running shower and the rain beating on the streets outside blended into one soothing shhhhhhhhhh. But Abby didn’t feel soothed. Abby was, for the first time in her life, considering killing a man.
That man was in the shower behind the closed bathroom door and she knew that if she were going to do it, she’d have to make up her mind by the time she heard that water shut off.
How long had he been in there? Two, three minutes? It seemed like an eternity. Probably because twenty minutes ago it felt like she was living in a completely different world. She reflected on what her life was like just six hours ago, as an old woman would recall her distant childhood.
She’d gotten home from work, shredded the pot roast she’d left in the slow cooker that morning for her and Dan, and fed Alex. She went on Facebook and wished some friends she hadn’t physically seen in fifteen years a happy birthday. She was going to change her profile picture from a photo of Alex really hamming it up for the camera at six months in a “Most Eligible Bachelor” t-shirt to one of her and Dan, but she couldn’t find anything recent and gave up. Shark Tank was on and she and Dan loved that show so they watched together over bowls of ice cream they decided to indulge in for their weekly cheat day. They both went to turn in around midnight and if she’d only fallen asleep faster and slipped into a deep consuming dream, she wouldn’t be here, sitting in the Roadway Inn Room 386 contemplating killing the man who’d just raped her.
But her phone, on silent, lit up on the night stand next to her bed and the light was just enough to rouse her. She picked it up and read the text from Stanton as Dan snored from the adjacent pillow. Stanton’s name wasn’t saved in her phone, just in case Dan ever happened to be looking at it when Stanton texted; she could tell him it was a wrong number. But it was undeniably him with his 212 area code and curt bare-bone texts.
“meet @ roadway inn rm 386 or im coming”
Then: “20 mins”
Abby sat up, kicked her legs over the side of the bed and slouched over, putting a hand to her temple. So this was it. She’d successfully given Stanton the silent treatment for the better part of three weeks now and he’d finally decided to give her an ultimatum. She knew it couldn’t have been that easy as to just plain ol’ never hear from him again. Not when she was living in a world where she was wishing strangers she’d met a handful of times a decade ago a happy birthday each year on the Internet. The world is too connected, she thought as she dressed hastily in the dark. It’s the reason her affair was even able to burgeon in the first place. In those short moments before she said goodbye to her husband, Abby blissfully envisioned a world where she, Dan, and little Alex lived out on a self-sustaining farm in the middle of some huge vast plain that never ended, and all they’d need until the day they died was each other.
“What’s going on?” Dan asked as he switched on the lamp next to his bed, snapping her out of it.
“The McLean’s Daschund Maggie won’t stop vomiting. Could be intestinal blockage so we need to know right now.”
“Aw, well I hope Maggie’s okay,” Dan said through a yawn.
“We’ll see,” Abby sighed. She hesitated a moment, then added “If we need to operate it could be a long night.”
“I’ll make sure the boy’s in a fresh diaper before your mother comes.”
“Please do or I swear she’ll call Child Services this time.”
And she was out the door of her home on Lantern Hill Ave, motoring right past the entrance to the parkway that would have taken her straight to her Emergency Pet Care Clinic. She drove past the Green, in the heart of downtown Stoneford, and the little old gazeebo at its center. People were shuffling out of the bars and restaurants that lined the small inlet of water from the Sound, tiny boats docked and bobbing gently. Abby kept her head down. She couldn’t have somebody stumbling out of the Old Salt or the Flyer Diner recognize her as she passed and start questioning why a married woman with a one year-old at home was out and about downtown alone this time of night on a Thursday.
She was relieved when the rain started coming down in buckets. It was good for keeping prying eyes indoors, and those that didn’t stay there would have to have some sort of Superman vision to make her out through the water gushing over her car windows. She relaxed a bit, but was still nervously rehearsing how this would play out in her head as she pulled into the Roadway Inn parking lot. She’d tell Stanton to his face they were through, and that would be that. He’d obviously try to get in her pants; he didn’t drive up from Manhattan and rent a motel room to not at least take a swing. But she’d stand her ground this time, like she should have the very first time. Abby was confident that she could resist him.
And Abby did resist him. She resisted him mentally as he thrust away with her shoulders pinned to the squeaking bed, her thoughts instead turning to her senior year at UCONN just after she’d had her emergency appendectomy, and how Dan even before they were dating went through hell to hitch rides all the way out to Willimantic just to bring her a booklet of burned CDs to listen to. Abby resisted with her heart, even as she felt it collapse in on itself like a star forming a black hole, as Stanton pressed his hairy forearm across her neck. She clinged to that feeling that ballooned in her chest every time she saw her son smile up at her-“Smile, Alex! Smile, mama’s Most Eligible Bachelor!”--and remembered to tuck it away somewhere deep and indestructible inside her, like a black box on a doomed flight. Because in a few minutes when this was all over, she knew much of her old self might as well be the charred, blackened crater of a crash site. Abby wouldn’t lose that precious feeling. She couldn’t. She resisted.
But not physically. She couldn’t stop Stanton from entering her with his broad commanding shoulders and her petite frame, and truth be told once he did she barely fought back. Because if she struggled he might get even more forceful with her. She might bruise and then she’d have to explain that to Dan, to her mother. And then what would happen? She’d lose her family and have to deal with this alone? Like everyone else Abby had heard the abysmal statistics on unreported sexual assaults in America, and also like many she never understood the rationale. So it was with a strange mixture of clarity, shame, and anger that she decided, before Stanton was even done raping her, that she would never speak of this to anyone ever for the rest of her life.
But somewhere between that sickening thought and when Stanton got off her to rinse himself of his trespass, an image wormed into her brain. It was of Stanton on his back, his icy blue eyes staring up in a fixed state of horror, dead. It instantly made her feel better; good even. Abby felt dopamine release in cascades in her brain as she repeatedly brought the image to mind, and in a moment she knew she was powerless to it. The thought that this must be what a serial killer feels like, a slave to their compulsion, flickered briefly in her thoughts but was stamped out almost instantly. Her body, her soul, her mind rejected rational thought. She couldn’t be expected to think lucidly after what had just been done to her. What had been taken from her. She was going to do this, see that image become reality, and fuck all the consequences, fuck all the--
SHNK! The shower shut off. Only a few seconds to dry and he’d be out! Abby glanced around the room from her seat on the bed. A lamp might be able to stun him if she connected with his head hard enough. He might even fall to the floor, and once he was there, she could use the wire to--
Abby paused mid-thought as, only seconds after the shower shut off, the rain outside did, too, and she turned her head towards the window. It normally wouldn’t have made her think twice but it had stopped in such a jarring abrupt way. It threw her so much she didn’t even notice that the bathroom light had gone off and Stanton now stood with the door open, flicking the light switch up and down in futility.
“Did we lose power?” he asked as though he hadn’t just forced himself inside her ten minutes ago after she struggled to evade his touch. And that’s when they heard the crashes.
Abby counted three, maybe four back to back, followed by the shrill sound of rubber then metal scraping asphalt, and a fifth ear-splitting boom.
They were both at the window in seconds, pulling aside the curtain to gaze down at the stretch of I-95 just north of the Roadway Inn. And just like that everything that had transpired between Abby and Stanton washed away, making room for the fresh terror that gripped them. Four vehicles lay in a mutilated mess at the foot of what appeared to be… a tall mound of earth rising up across I-95 out of nowhere, but as though someone had sliced precisely down its center revealing its deep insides. It was a flat wall of layered dirt and bedrock that cut fully across the four lane highway and formed into rolling hills beyond it into the distance. Abby could even see the range of half-hills carved through buildings, trees, and power lines, severing them into uneven pieces until finally settling into smooth terrain.
The loudest and last crash they’d heard was a flatbed truck flipping on its side and skidding into the already crumpled line of cars, its back end swinging forward and its cargo spilling across all the lanes. The lights lining the highway were out and the flames from the burning cars cast an unsettling glow around them. Abby could see two approaching cars’ headlights zooming towards the smoking wreckage in the darkness.
“We have to get down there,” she told Stanton, turning away from the window.
He stood, still gawking. “Where the fuck did that thing come from?”
“I don’t know. Get dressed.” She tossed him his clothes then got busy dressing herself.
“Hold the fuck on,” he spat. “We don’t exactly want to be seen coming out of a motel room together, Abs.”
“Jesus Christ, so count to twenty and come after me! And call 9-1-1!”
And she was out, slamming the door behind her. Several other hotel guests stood outside their doors looking alarmed that their lights and TVs had shut off. Abby booked it for the stairwell and leapt down two steps at a time. When she rushed through the emergency exit to the front parking lot she saw the mysterious hills extended south probably all the way to the Sound. Cut-off power lines lay dead in the street before her and in the distance she heard horrified urgent screams. What the fuck is happening?! she allowed herself before hopping in her car and peeling out in reverse. She was ardently avoiding all thinking--Abby knew she had to just act or she’d be a weeping mess on the ground, no help to anyone.
Abby swerved around several corners, then sped up the closest 95 South on-ramp. She was pulling up to the crash site in minutes, where four other cars had already come to a stop at a safe distance from the fire and smoke. The truck was closest to them, tipped on its side, black fumes escaping from its hood.
Passengers stood outside their cars staring in disbelief as much at the sudden range of hills as the carnage before them. Abby parked, popped her trunk, and got out, leaving her door ajar. From the trunk she pulled a small fire extinguisher she started keeping for emergencies after Alex was born.
“Any survivors?” she barked at the bystanders. A black couple who stood beside a minivan carrying two kids shook their heads. She couldn’t wait for other responses. Abby rushed towards the burning wreckage, fire extinguisher at the ready. She hopped over piles of spilled bags of ready-mix concrete, the cargo the truck had been carrying, and ran towards the flaming wreck. And as she got closer she knew there were no survivors in those first three cars. Their fronts were crumpled into the back seats. Her stomach lurched at the thought of the ripped and flattened hunks of flesh that the wreckage must contain--and, oh God, what if there were kids?!
No thinking, she reminded herself as she moved on to the fourth car, a red Toyota Sienna, engine flaming. She hosed down the hood with the extinguisher for a good forty seconds before the flames petered out. She batted away the smoke and chemicals to see the airbag deployed and a woman unconscious (or dead) inside. She dropped the extinguisher, reached inside through the shattered driver side window, unlocked the door, and opened it. The woman was in her forties and heavy-set. There was no way Abby could get her out herself. She turned to call to the bystanders for help and--
Abby almost leaped out of her skin to find Stanton already next to her, glaring solemnly. Beside him was a thin man in his twenties, Middle-Eastern and looking more frightened than her.
“I’m a doctor. I can help,” Stanton told her.
“Me, too,” the young man offered. “Well, technically I’m doing my residency at Yale-New Haven, so--”
“And I’m a veterinarian, hooray for us. We don’t need doctorates to pull a woman from a mini-van.” Abby reached inside across the woman and found her seatbelt. She unbuckled it and started to slide her out. Stanton and the thin man were there to catch her as she started to fall. The three carried her about twenty feet away, Abby holding her legs, then lay her down flat in the middle of the highway. Stanton took a knee and checked for a pulse.
“She’s alive,” he reported.
“Did anyone call 9-1-1?!” she asked looking directly at Stanton, exasperated. No cops or ambulances had arrived and she didn’t hear any sirens. Stanton went to speak but--
“Everyone’s cell phones lost reception,” the Middle-Eastern man explained. He held up his Android to show her. “Check yours.”
Abby pulled hers from her pocket and saw there was in fact no signal. She had a missed text from Dan but she’d have to look at it later--a man’s voice hollering for help from inside the tipped truck made her turn her head and rush towards it, Stanton and the other man right behind her.
Stanton and Abby bent over and ducked their heads down to look through the front windshield. A Latino man in his forties with a goatee and greying hair to his shoulders lay on his side in front of the wheel, wincing in pain, shattered glass in his hair and on his face.
“Oh, thank you, Lord Jesus, I’ve never been so happy to see white people,” he almost laughed. The Middle-Eastern man ducked his head down beside Abby’s so the trucker could see him and gave a quick wave.
“Hassan. I’m with the white people.”
Now the trucker did laugh. “I’m Marco. And let’s spare the Polo jokes until I get out of this thing, okay?”
“Are you hurt, Marco?” Stanton asked.
“A few cuts and scrapes, I think,” and Abby noticed streaks of blood across the printed pineapples adorning Marco’s short sleeve button-down. “Bones and balls intact, though.”
“We’re gonna have to shatter this window and take you out over the dashboard,” Abby informed him. “Do you have anything to cover your face and neck with?”
Marco held his hands up. “I’ll make do with these. They got me outta tougher jams.”
They stood and stepped back from the windshield. Abby looked to Stanton, who nodded. It took him thirty or forty seconds of kicking hard but he eventually shattered it. It was laminated safety glass that fell apart easily once broken, and not in big jagged shards.
“You okay?” Stanton asked Marco as he ducked back down. The bits of the safety glass laying in piles around him looked like tiny diamonds. Marco nodded. “Alright, let’s get those life-saving hands of yours.”
The three of them dragged Marco out onto the highway and gingerly helped him to his feet. He waved them off and brushed bits of glass from his shirt and jeans, looked at his left shoulder to find the tear in his shirt and an open gash. “Aye,” he muttered.
“There a hospital close by?” Hassan asked.
“Stoneford Hospital’s about five minutes from here,” Abby replied. “I’ll take Marco and our lady there. I’ll pull my car up and we’ll lay her in the back.”
Abby started to bolt to her car as Hassan and Marco moved to the woman’s side, but Stanton stopped and grabbed her arm. She immediately turned and ripped it away from him.
“Have someone else take them. How are you going to explain this to Dan?”
A quick image of Stanton’s dead icy blue eyes staring up in terror flashed in her mind. She breathed hard through her nose.
“Go back to New York, Stanton. Don’t come here again.”
Stanton’s fists clenched as Abby turned from him and walked to her car without another word. There were a dozen or so vehicles now pulled up to a stop on the highway. In the distance she heard sirens but they weren’t headed this way. And for a moment it occurred to her that she may actually still be sitting on that hotel bed naked, with her hands in her lap, waiting for Stanton to get out of the shower, and all this was just some sort of post-traumatic hallucination.
But then she was pulling up in her Chrysler to the unconscious woman and helping Hassan load her inside.
“Thanks for your help,” she told him.
“Yeah, good luck with everything, uh…”
“Abby,” she said. And she was off, with Marco sitting shotgun and the unconscious woman in her back seat. Since the strange hill-wall was blocking her way forward on the highway, she u-turned and cautiously got off on the closest on ramp. The hospital was just past the Green through downtown. They’d be there in a matter of minutes.
Abby remembered that text from Dan. She took her phone out of her pocket and opened her messages. One unread text from 1:17am.
“where r u really?” it read.
As her heart sunk she dropped her phone in her cupholder and bit her bottom lip. She fought desperately not to cry. No thinking, she reminded herself again and kept driving forward. This was getting harder.
“Everything alright?” Marco asked her, concerned.
“Mm-hmm,” was all she could manage. And everything will be alright, she told herself. She formed a plan in her head. Step One: she’d drop Marco and the woman off at the urgent care entrance of Stoneford Hospital, wish them the best of luck, really, and be on her way.
Step Two: She’d go home and hug Dan and assure him that she loved him, and only him, and that she just didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to talk tonight, but they would talk tomorrow; for now all she wanted to do was lay in bed with him, put on some old sitcom she’d seen a thousand times, rest her head on his chest, and drift off into a dream to the flickering glow of the television like she would when she was a kid.
But Step One was ruined when she found that every road to the hospital suddenly and inexplicably gave way to either hilly terrain, strange frightening forest, or flat plains of tall waving grass that seemed to extend into the darkness infinitely.
Step Two was ruined when she found that every road to her home on Lantern Hill Ave--and to Dan, sweet Dan, and Alex, my God, my baby Alex--did, too.
“Ah, shit,” Grayson said as the Guinness he was pouring from the tap overflowed and spilled across his fingers. He released the lever and wiped his hand on a green checkered bar rag. He couldn’t focus for shit tonight.
“To the brim is just fine,” offered Tom Lambert amicably. Tom was a crusty but somehow endearing old man of the ilk only New England seemed to produce. Grayson had been attempting to serve Tom when his mind decided to take a mini-vacation on him mid-pour. He plopped the pint of Guinness down on the bar before the man. “But since you’re feeling generous tonight--”
“One at a time, Breakdance,” Grayson told him. He called Tom “Breakdance” because three winters ago he’d been closing up the Old Salt for the night and he’d had to escort Tom out after one too many brews, as he did every night he closed the bar. Grayson overestimated Tom’s ability to navigate across the icy patches and let go of Tom’s arm too early. Next thing he knew the seventy-eight year old looked like he was throwing down on some cardboard in a subway station in the Bronx, popping and locking, feet twirling, donkey-kicking, culminating in a move that resembled The Worm. He turned out to be okay, but even if he hadn’t, Grayson would probably still have been stifling laughter at the funeral. And Tom’s ghost would be laughing right beside him, Grayson was willing to bet. That was some funny shit.
“HELLO?!” the young woman at the opposite end of the bar squawked, the personification of nails on a chalkboard. Grayson turned his head to what looked to him like a rejected Jersey Shore cast member, who probably got in using a fake ID. Still, he flashed her a charming smile.
“Yes, dear, what can I get you?”
“Finally. Can I get an Irish Car Bomb?”
“Absolutely. Where are you parked?” She looked at him with as much understanding in her eyes as that of a Muppet with no hand up its ass. “Just kidding, darlin’, I wouldn’t blow you up.” Grayson shot a side-wink at Breakdance, who winked back. Savy, that old man.
“Okay, good to know. Now make my drink.”
Grayson took a few steps closer to her. The bar was full for 12:45am on a Thursday night, which was good--he wanted as many people as possible to be able to corroborate his alibi for what he had planned later that night. It occurred to him that he might as well double-down and give them all a reason to recall him being there.
“You got a tab open?” he asked the girl who was staring at him with a lip curled in disgust.
“Then you can get the hell out of here!” he said loud enough so that many paused their conversations and turned their heads to see him dramatically pointing to the exit. She blinked, frowned, then furrowed her brows.
“Honey, are you aware that 18% of Stoneford, Connecticut residents claim Irish ancestry?”
“Oh, God,” she said rolling her eyes.
He continued, “And that that exceeds the national average by 7%? Did you know the man who owns this bar’s last name is O’Dowd? And mine’s Healy?”
People, especially the most faithful patrons (and by default the drunkest) were taking notice now and emitting grunts of support--or maybe those were belches, Grayson couldn’t be sure.
“Over thirty years ten thousand bombs were detonated in Northern Ireland. A lot of those were CAR BOMBS. So, sure, let me get right on top of that tasty beverage for you! Then I’ll pour you a nice frothy pint of my people’s blood, how about that? On the house for your troubles tonight, young lady!” He glared at her. He heard Breakdance snicker but instinctively knew he was also shaking his head looking down into his glass.
“Dude, don’t take it out on me you’re some washed up thirty-something tending bar in a dump. I’ll go across the street and they’ll make my fucking drink. Jesus.” She grabbed her purse off the bar and b-lined for the door. Some people who had been watching applauded unenthusiastically.
Johnny, the young baby-faced bar-back, came up behind Grayson with a bucket of ice and leaned into his ear. “You make Irish Car Bombs all the time. I saw you drink one tonight.”
“I know, Johnny; not the point,” Grayson returned. He looked to the old wooden clock shaped like a pirate ship hanging on the knotty pine wall across from him. It read 12:50; time for him to move. “I gotta leave you to man the fort for a sec, kid.”
“What? Where are you going?”
“Gotta go grow a tail. And feels like this one’s gonna be a fight to the finish, might be in there a bit.”
“Okay. Also: gross.”
“Don’t be a bitch, Johnny.”
And Grayson excused himself through the cramped crowd, boxed in by the Old Salt’s dark wood paneling adorned with antiques and framed black and white photos. He ducked into the tiny men’s room and locked the door behind him. Stepping into the one stall and onto the toilet seat with both feet, he slid open the bathroom window. It was just wide enough to prop himself up and squeeze through.
Once outside, though, Grayson was perturbed to find it was pouring buckets. How could he return to his place behind the bar looking like he’d just gone white water rafting? There was a change of clothes in his car but then he’d have to explain why he switched outfits to take a shit. He was failing at this whole heist thing he’d planned. Despite deep anxiety rising in his chest, Grayson walked from the Salt’s back parking lot at a brisk pace, reaching a sidewalk at least somewhat sheltered from the rain by the branches of tall maples. Within a couple minutes he was out of downtown Stoneford and walking through a residential neighborhood lined with old colonial homes.
It was heisting time.
Grayson liked to think of it as a heist--sounded cooler--but really he was just about to straight up burglarize someone. Someone he knew, at that, or at least used to. He’d never done it before, but then he’d never owed five grand to a guy who’d just gotten out of prison for assault and battery, prescription drug trafficking, and possession of a firearm without a permit--which the guy still had, as Grayson learned the hard way a couple days ago. He’d gone to high school with Frank Durso and remembered him often rolling up to parties with weed and occasionally harder drugs. Somewhere between then and now he got hooked on that hillbilly heroin Oxycontin, then decided to take some positive steps for himself and start selling it to teenagers instead. Frank also happened to run an illegal poker game out of the back of a night club in Bridgeport, a few cities over. That’s where Grayson got in trouble.
See, he’d gotten it into his head that if he came out big enough from that poker game he’d have a good starter bundle to leave Stoneford again, quit the Old Salt and take another crack at the whole stand up comedy thing in New York. But really try this time, not like when he’d moved out in his early twenties and ended up with a bong practically permanently adhered to his face. Coming back to Stoneford, the town he grew up in, after utterly failing to even take the first step at pursuing his dream wasn’t actually all that bad at first. He’d lie and tell women he’d done gigs at the Comedy Cellar and Caroline’s, opened for Jim Gaffigan or Carlos Mencia, and surprisingly more than half the time that was good enough to get them back to his place. Those were some fun days (and nights). Eventually it got old, though, and he settled into a long term relationship (two and three quarter years, his longest ever) with a special gal named Jenny Jang.
And, alas, it was the Jang residence Grayson stopped in front of and turned to face from the sidewalk, his clothes saturated with rainwater and dripping in streams onto the ground. Jennifer’s parents’ house had changed very little since they’d dated, at least externally. And he was counting on the locks having stayed the same as well.
From his jean pocket he produced a small brass house key. He turned it in his palm as he started to the south side of the house, where he knew there was a door that would lead into their kitchen. Grayson also knew which bedroom good old Jerry and Patsy Jang would be in around this time of night, and it was about as far on the other side of the home as you could get. He would have been concerned about the chance he’d find a spouse on the couch when entering the house of another married couple, but Jerry and Patsy Jang were about as excitedly in love and well functioning decades into marriage as anyone could be. It’s one of the reasons Jenny dumped Grayson; seeing how bored and angry they were with each other not even three years in compared to her parents’ three decades didn’t exactly give her confidence in a future together.
And now he was about to rob her parents, Grayson thought with a sharp twinge of shame; two of the kindest and most generous souls he’d ever met. He supposed she was right to break it off with him when she did after all.
She should have asked for the key back, though.
Grayson held the key out to the shiny brass lock, inserted it, and twisted his hand… and the door glided open into the Jang’s darkened kitchen. For a moment he stared wide-eyed before the entrance as water splashed on the red brick pavestones around him. This whole thing was just now starting to feel real, and he didn’t like how his gut was churning. A part of him had hoped the key wouldn’t work and he’d have to come up with some other scheme to get the five grand fast. You’re not a criminal, he told himself. And yet he stepped into his ex-girlfriend’s parent’s house to take something that wasn’t his and sell it in order to get the rabid bookie off his back. Keep it classy, Grayson.
The house was silent. He could hear the ticking grandfather clock down the hall under the soft patter of the rain on the windows. That’s when he remembered--
“Shit,” he whispered. He took the ski mask out of his back pocket and pulled it over his face. Amateur, he scolded himself. This is like Fisher Price My First Home Robbery. Of course the mask was soaked through, and for a moment when he couldn’t find the mouth hole he panicked and felt like somebody was trying to waterboard him. When he got the thing on right, it still made for impaired breathing, and the way his heart was going he needed all the air he could get. Plus his peripheral vision was close to nothing.
“Fuck it,” he said, and clawed the thing off his head.
Grayson made his way out of the kitchen and down a hallway to the parlor, ignoring the memories clammering to be greeted at every turn. There in a hand-crafted wooden box on the far mantelpiece was what he had come for. Dripping the whole way, he crept towards it. He recalled the first time Jenny had shown him what was in that box. Jerry Jang had won a trip to Toronto through work, and he and Patsy had taken off for the week. Jenny had invited Grayson over for a traditional Korean meal she’d prepared herself. They drank a bottle of wine each on the back patio. When they finally decided to take things inside at two or three in the morning, they’d already made love twice on their way to the parlor before going for round three on the sofa he presently passed. Afterwards she sprung up, grabbed the box from the mantel, and opened it. Just like Grayson opened it now.
Inside were two immaculate golden peacock feathers, passed down from Jang to Jang starting in the 17th Century, or so Jenny told him. They appeared light and delicate, but when in one’s hand the weight of the gold disclosed their strength. That night years ago, Grayson had asked Jenny how much these were worth. Jenny said she didn’t know, and it didn’t matter; these were her mother’s, would one day be hers, and another day down the line would be Jenny’s own daughter’s, and so on. They would never be sold, no matter the value. Grayson knew now that that was untrue. Taking one in each hand, he slid them into his jeans pockets, and closed the box.
The creaking of somebody trudging down the staircase just outside the parlor startled him so much he almost knocked over a Tiffany lamp on the closest end table. It rocked back and forth but righted itself without tipping. The person coming down the stairs paused. Grayson ducked behind the arm of the couch, but peeking out he could see he’d tracked water in all the way from the kitchen entrance, right past the staircase. The streetlight shining through the window made the tiny puddles glisten conspicuously. He imagined the person on the stairs, Jerry or Patsy Jang, staring at those now, piecing things together.
Sure enough, footsteps hammered back up the stairs quickly. He’d been caught. The only way out was past that staircase. No time. Grayson ungracefully surged forth from his hiding place, using the sofa to propel himself, scraping it against the wooden floors loudly. He heard panicked yelling upstairs as he ran out of the parlor and by the stairs. As he turned down the hallway to head for the foyer and the front door he heard pounding steps from above, then--BOOM! The resounding gunshot sliced through the calm of the rain and ticking grandfather clock, startling Grayson so badly his legs weakened a moment; just enough for him to slip on the trail of water he’d tracked in earlier. Almost doing an Olympic-gymnast worthy split, he cried out in pain and instinctively put his hands over his head. This, he thought, is what the kids would call an epic heist fail.
“The cops have been called!” Jerry Jang’s voice rang out from the second floor banister overlooking the foyer. “Leave my domicile instantly and I will not fire upon you again!”
That sounded pretty good to Grayson. Keeping his head low, he scrambled on all fours through the foyer and to the front door. Using the knob to pull himself up, he opened it and rushed outside into the rain, feet squishing in the flooded grassy lawn. It felt like he was in one of those dreams where no matter how hard you ran you barely got anywhere. The sidewalk was miles away but he eventually reached it. Grayson turned, and booked it back towards downtown Stoneford and the Old Salt, where a whole new set of problems awaited him.
But as soon as he turned the corner, flashing blue and red lights caught his eye, and a man running away from a home intrusion scene certainly caught the eye of the officer in the driver seat beneath them. From the far end of the street, the police car sped towards him, and even though Grayson knew this was it, he kept running. Because why not? He had run from his home in Stoneford to New York to try stand-up, and when that got hard and scary he had run back home. He had run from his relationship with Jenny even when he knew he should have stayed and fought for it. He ran from any semblance of ambition, resigning himself to working the goddamn Old Salt for tips and meals, and he ran from Frank Durso after he believed he could finagle some sort of shortcut to a better life through a stupid poker game. Why not just keep running? See how far he could get before the officers tackled him, cuffed him, dragged him to a new life more pitiable than the one he’d already constructed for himself. The car was basically on him already, and he heard the cops shouting for him to freeze as they barreled out onto the street to pursue him on foot.
And the worst part was, as his shoes pounded the pavement beneath him and he wheezed pathetically out of breath for such a short sprint, the thing that held most in his mind was an image of Jenny’s face when she would eventually get the news of what he’d done. He wouldn’t be there to witness the real thing, but his mind’s depiction was close enough, and Grayson knew that that face would haunt him every second of every day he sat alone in whatever prison cell they tossed him in, probably starting this very night.
The officers were just a few steps behind him now.
He could feel one swipe at his back and just barely miss.
The slightest lapse in effort from him and they would grab him, take him down. A criminal after all. This is it, he thought.
I’m sorry, Jenny, he also thought, and he accepted his fate.
And then the rain stopped.
And all the street lights and glowing house windows before him went dark.
Grayson slowed to a halt and even as he was doing so he realized he couldn’t hear the officers moving behind him anymore. Or their car engine running a little ways down the street. And he couldn’t see the flickering red and blue light that had been bouncing faintly on the walls of the buildings in front of him. Breathing hard, Grayson turned.
The cops were gone. Their car was gone. The street was gone. Stoneford, past about ten feet away from him, was gone. The asphalt of the road he had just run down was cut in a perfectly straight line across, and gave way to an endless field of tall amber grass, waving gently on a breeze that chilled him. He looked up to see the rain clouds were gone--the night sky was clearer than he’d ever seen it. To his left the power lines that had run along the road back towards the Jangs’ house had been sliced, and now sparked on the sidewalk. To his right, someone’s house had been halved… meaning half of it was just not there. And in its stead, more of that grass. The remaining structure groaned and Grayson tread backwards. He couldn’t take his eyes off it as it collapsed into the field. He stared at it, mouth agape, until every last speck of dust settled. Then:
“What the ffffuuuuucccckkkkk,” he elongated.
Something occurred to him. He felt the golden peacock feathers in each of his jean pockets. Taking them out, he held them to his face, turning them over in the light of the newly full moon.
“Did you do this?” he asked one, aware of how insane he must have looked.
A woman shrieked from her front porch in a house behind him and he swung his head to her, shoving the feathers back in his pockets. More residents were coming out of their front doors to gaze upon the suddenly missing piece of their neighborhood.
Grayson’s mind raced. He had no idea what was happening. He had no idea if this was real, or if he was going absolute batshit crazy. If he had something to do with it, or if he was just at the right place at the right time. He didn’t know where the rest of his town had gone and he didn’t want to think about that. All Grayson knew was that he did not want to be on the front line of what had to be the strangest phenomenon in human history.
And so, once more, Grayson Healy ran.
Andy Gasko sat on the sea green wooden bench on the sidewalk at the top of Concord Beach and stared into the woods where the Long Island Sound used to be. The sun was rising now and the thick trees seemed less scary. He’d also come down completely from his high.
He hadn’t heard from Nick since he left his house, though Andy held Nick’s gun awkwardly in his lap. He’d done as Nick asked and alerted his neighbors along Pattaganset as best he could. Most did get in their cars and head downtown as Nick instructed, but a few were too scared or stubborn to leave. Most notably, old Mrs. Timpano, who insisted on waiting until her daughter arrived, even though her daughter lived in Shelton and she had no way of contacting her with the landlines down and no cell reception. Andy thought Nick wouldn’t want him to leave until all the Pattaganset folks had evacuated, so here he was. But truth be told, as strange as it was, he didn’t think there was any immediate danger in the odd shift of landscape. He sensed a sort of peace emanating from the woods the longer he stared into it. Then again, Andy could have found something he liked about Charles Manson. So what were the Beach Boys really like, Chazz? Let’s hear your take.
Speaking of the beach, Andy noticed that the sand was still damp from last night’s rain, and he saw Nick’s precisely cut footprints heading at first towards the woods, stopping about halfway there, and then turning around to come back towards the street again.
Then he noticed something else. Something troubling. Andy stood and trudged towards where the sidewalk met the sand, adjusting his round wire glasses on his nose and peering intently.
Just a few feet from Nick’s there was another set of prints, big and barefoot. They only went in one direction and Andy followed their path backwards: from the cement sidewalk where he presently stood, all the way to that strange dark forest where they had originally come from.
A chill trickled down Andy’s spine and he tightened his grip on Nick’s gun. That peaceful feeling had left him. It would not return to him for quite some time, if it ever did.