Hale County Chapter 3
‘Let thy light shine, then, in dark places’– Edgar Cayce
William turned on his computer, righting his web camera as he waited for it to boot up. Glass of water in hand, he lowered his scarf enough so that he could down his medicine. He was exhausted. Returning to his hideout unseen had been a challenge. All the sneaking, moving inch by inch, making sure that no one so much as caught a glimpse of him, not even the squirrels…or the Reverend, had been a draining experience. But being careful was more important than being comfortable. Even when he made it safely back to the cabin he sat hidden in the trees and watched just to be sure no one was there waiting for him to return. Several hours later he felt it was safe to go in again. He needed a new plan. A contingency plan the movies called it. If they got him, no one would ever know the truth.
The Reverend. What was the deal with him? Not human, no, couldn’t be. Did he follow me home?? William began to breathe heavily, almost hyperventilating. Calm. He had to be calm.
The computer was ready. He made sure the bandanna was wrapped tightly around his face, then slipped on the oversized toboggan. William pulled himself upright in the chair as best he could, staring into the camera, uncaring that he looked like a wild man, and hit the record button. The bottle of pills lied tipped over beside the keyboard, lid haphazardly tossed aside. The truth was more important than his personal grooming.
“They thought they were going to get me, coming to my house and all, but they don’t think the way I do, people!” William’s medicine still hadn’t kicked in fully. He was erratic, voice full of paranoia. “I’m like ten steps ahead of them! Twenty even! Not even the squirrels know!”
William’s eyes flickered off camera at nothing in particular, his mind wandering madly. When he spoke again it was soft and distant. “You see, the doctor’s at the asylum, they have all kinds of methods for ‘curing you’ as they say. But they’re not curing you.” Tears flowed from his eyes, lost in memory. “They are making you a monster.”
A scratching noise snapped him back to the moment. He gazed sternly into the camera, eyes shifting from sorrow to anger. “They give you these experimental drugs that haven’t even been tested on animals, man! They strap you to these mechanical chairs and attach all sorts of things to your body! They stick these long needles in your temple! Makes you see things, say things…do things.”
William paused, eyes once more losing their focus. “And if that don’t work, they got scary ways, terrifying ways, of making you change, man. They leave things for you, terrible dark things.” Another thought seemed to occur to him. He looked back into the camera. “The Reverend, beware the Reverend…he works for them…he must…”
He stopped the recording. He shook his head slightly. The medicine was beginning to take hold. He felt the rational part of his mind rise above the schizophrenic portion. There were so many things he had to say, and time was running out. William was going to tell his story, no matter what that meant. He began to furiously reconfigure his computer, building a loop so that he could feed various videos on a timed broadcast. They may get him, but his voice would be heard.
Dr. Michaels walked Amanda to her car. The intrepid reporter shot a look around the area, suddenly remembering the fact that someone had been watching her earlier. Or perhaps she was just being cynical. It was no doubt the ominous surroundings that had put her on guard. Now she was back to her car, her tour through the mental institute complete. Other than one little incident, everything about the place seemed perfectly normal. Everything, that is, but the doctor who was walking beside her. She had set up the meeting with the intent of breaking a story yet all she left with was respect for the facility and the passion of the doctor who oversaw it.
Amanda clicked the automatic door locks from her remote as they approached the car. To her surprise, Evan opened her door for her. Oddly, she didn’t feel the cool air like she had earlier. She had to wonder if that had something to do with Evan and the tingling he ignited within her. She looked at him quizzically.
“What?” He asked with that disarming smile of his.
“I may have misjudged you,” she said, smiling herself.
“May have?” he teased.
“Well, you DID sugar coat the tour,” she said, only half-kidding. It was a huge facility. They hadn’t covered half of it. Of course, she knew his time was precious. Amanda was actually surprised he had taken that much time out of his schedule. “But I do believe you genuinely care about helping people.”
“Fair enough. Do I get to ask a question now?”
“Have dinner with me?”
Amanda hadn’t been sure of what question he was going to ask but that certainly wasn’t the one she expected. Taken aback, she didn’t know how to respond.
“I’m committed,” she finally said.
Evan smiled. “You’re committed, to your job.” He took her left hand, his fingers encircling where a wedding band should be. Warmth spread through Amanda’s body at his touch. “And you live out of your car,” he said with a chuckle.
She glanced around the interior, littered with fast food containers and empty coffee cups. “Very good,” she said, impressed, “what’s my favorite food?”
“I’m not that good,” he laughed, “but I would love to find out.”
“Why would you go to dinner with me? I’m trying to dig up dirt on your hospital,” she said with a smile.
“Then this would be the perfect opportunity.”
Amanda was about to respond when someone shouted out across the parking lot.
“Dr. Michaels! A word, please!”
They turned to see Dr. Lane stalking towards them, the expression on his face was beyond angry.
“Now, I KNOW what his favorite food is,” Evan told her slyly.
Amanda couldn’t help but smile. She reached into her glove box and pulled out a card. “If you’re serious about dinner,” she said as she handed Evan the card.
“I’ll call you later,” he grinned as she put the key in the ignition. He closed the door for her. Amanda cranked the car and was pulling away just as the other doctor made it to Evan.
She was about to turn out of the drive but couldn’t resist a look back. In her rearview mirror she could see the two men having a very heated discussion. The older doctor handed Evan a folder and was stabbing angrily at it with his finger, shaking his head no. Evan slammed the folder into the other doctor’s chest and stalked off to the asylum without so much as a backwards glance.
The look on the older man’s face was one of shock, mingled with fear. The man was standing there, dumbfounded. Amanda herself was transfixed by the scene. Dr. Lane looked her way. For just a moment, the two locked disbelieving stares. Dr. Lane lowered his head in disappointment and walked back to the building, leaving Amanda to wonder what could have caused such a confrontation. One thing was certain, dinner would be very interesting.
“Mr. Winkler, I’m just trying to figure out how it got into my office. The door was locked,” Jason said for the third time into the phone. It had been a blur since lunch, since the discovery of the package. He had to cancel his remaining classes for the day. Whoever had left the package for him had somehow managed to sneak it into his office unawares. “Yes, I’m sure. I had to unlock the door to get in.”
Jason was exasperated as he scoured the box the pouch was delivered in for any clue as to who might have sent it. It didn’t help matters that the head janitor didn’t have an answer either. Not many people had a key to his office. It had disturbed him so much that he took a long lunch break to calm himself as well as to see if anyone would enter the office again while he was away.
Jason had set the package on the corner of the desk at a forty-five degree angle, not daring to touch the old round stone, he couldn’t. He locked his office up securely and went for lunch, hoping beyond hope that the episode was merely his imagination running wild for lack of food. But as he sat in the car, his lunch uneaten, Jason couldn’t shake the feeling that someone, somehow, knew.
The impossible fact that it was now sitting in his office twisted his stomach in knots. No one knew about it, at all. Certainly no one in Hale County knew of its existence or even its significance and why it couldn’t be the actual Cherokee marble he remembered all those years ago.
A Cherokee Marble, and an old one at that. Most people never knew they existed, that Cherokee Marbles were a sport dating back to 800 A.D. This specific one was ancient. Jason had only seen it one other time, supposedly for the last time. Yet there it sat on the desk in his office. But how? No one could have known…
Jason had spent the next few hours in anticipation, anxious to see if someone had gone back into his office and left him any more surprises, or perhaps they had taken it back. When he had unlocked the door and entered his office it was readily apparent that someone had indeed been there. The package was now lying across the room on a shelf filled with his archaeology books. Only three people had keys. One of them couldn’t have done it, the other, well, it was farfetched but he had to call and find out. The resulting argument wasn’t getting him anywhere.
“No,” he gritted out into the phone, willing a patience he didn’t possess at that moment, “the only other people who have a key are you and Dean Robinson, and he’s out of town. I even left for lunch a little bit ago and came back. The door was still locked but the box had been moved from where I purposefully left it!” If he wasn’t convinced the janitor didn’t have a sense of humor he’d have believed he was pulling a prank on him. As it was, Jason fully believed the grumpy caretaker.
“No, I haven’t been drinking! Look, Mr. Winkler, if you would ask your staff if they have seen anyone near my office I would appreciate it.” He grimaced as the janitor mumbled out a litany of swear words before finally agreeing to do it. Before Jason could bite out a ‘thank you’ the phone went dead. The last time he made the janitor angry his office trash wasn’t taken out for a month.
He gave the packaging one more going over. Someone had to see something. He crushed the brown box and tossed it in the trash, immediately turning his focus to the old granite marble that had been inside. It just wasn’t possible.
Jason sat there for the next two hours staring at the artifact, studying every crease in it. He hadn’t wanted to touch it at first but there was no getting around it. He was afraid that if he did then it was confirmation that it actually existed. There were too many memories attached to it. Memories he was afraid to access. More to the point, if he did allow those memories to take hold, he was terrified what that would mean. Finally, he could stand it no more. Carefully, he reached out and lifted the worn marble off the desk.
The large granite orb was smooth, carefully crafted to perfection hundreds of years before the first Anglo settlers ever arrived in the New World. There was a light film of aged dirt across its surface. He took a handkerchief from his desk drawer and began lightly polishing one of the symbols until the white owl became clearer. It was only a few moments before the entire image shone through. Seeing an exposed figure, Jason began to polish in earnest. In moments the Cherokee Marble was free of the dirt, the granite looking as smooth as the day it was so carefully created, now exposing the cougar just as clearly.
Jason was mesmerized by its brilliance, just as he had been all those years ago when he first saw it. He had found it by accident in a dig in Northern Georgia. He remembered the day so vividly. It was the day he met Rachel. A smile played on his lips at the memory.
That smile evaporated at the thought of a darker memory; the memory of why he never expected to see it again. This time when he took the rag to the marble he did so with hesitancy. He wrapped his finger in the rag, licking the rag enough to dampen it. He turned the marble around until he found exactly what he knew he would find, the one imperfection in otherwise pristine artifact, a small pin size hole directly above the eye of the cougar. There was an overwhelming feeling of nausea mixed with fear.
“It’s not possible.” But even as he said it, he knew it was. He pressed his finger to the granite surface wiping at the image of the cougar. Jason’s hands fell away from the orb, dropping it back into the deer skin pouch he had pulled it from. He glanced at the dirty white rag. There, amongst the greyish brown stain was a small red smudge. Blood.
His nightmares had come true.
The room became a memory, his vision saw only a dark, fog intensive winter morning. He remembered the marble sinking beneath the frigid waters, how the white image of the owl seemed to glisten at him for a brief moment before quickly vanishing from sight. How many times had he held it in his hands? How many times had he stared at those images, knew its meaning, felt its weight? Jason grabbed the trash can and vomited violently, the Cherokee Orb lying there accusingly.
Laurel Rose Manor sat on a hill overlooking the sprawling countryside. The tall, three story French Acadian style house struck a majestic pose as the afternoon sun began its descent. Beams of sunlight swept over the front of the house, bathing it in bright fall colors. A small red Chevrolet Cavalier made its way up the long winding drive.
Behind the house, sitting in a rustic lawn chair by the expansive pool, JC Michaels waited on his visitor. He took a sip of his beer, peering at the last of the hummingbirds that had yet to fly south. In the summer there were almost twenty feeders in the meditation area off to the side of the pool but now as fall was quickly fading there were only two, just enough to feed those stragglers who were late to leave for the warmer Mexico climate. JC had put out the feeders when he came across an old one stored in his mother’s belongings. This was his tribute to her. At their peak there would be over a hundred or so hummingbirds. Now, however, fall was here and they were almost all gone until spring. When he needed some internal peace he would come out and watch them.
A shadow loomed over him.
Ashlyn was beautiful. Her dark chestnut hair and light blue eyes lent an air of electricity to her already magnetic smile. Her light sweater hugger her perfect form. She was one of those girls who didn’t have to work at being beautiful, she just was. When she spoke? Well, that was the closest thing JC could ever imagine to hearing angels sing. He saw in her what he wanted most out of life; normalcy. She accepted him without question, through all his faults. A huge silly grin spread across his face as he rose to meet her. He took her in his arms, their lips meeting softly.
“How was your day?” he asked after they broke the kiss.
Ashlyn sighed as she put her purse and laptop on the lawn table beside his chair, her smile never wavering, “I’ve been running all day it seems.” She noticed the beer on the table and raised her eyebrows questioningly.
“Oh,” he laughed, “Trey came over earlier, brought some beer. He said I was a wuss if I didn’t have at least one.”
“And what was the verdict?”
JC picked up the warm beer that was still almost completely full. “I’m a wuss.” He tossed the beer into a small wastebasket as they both laughed. “Have you seen the cast list yet?”
“Nope, I told you we would look at it together and so we are,” she said as she teasingly patted her laptop.
“You never go anywhere without that thing,” he laughed.
“Inspiration can strike at any moment.”
“Are you ever going to let me read it?”
Ashlyn covered the laptop playfully. “When I’m done, which should be soon,” She leaned over, giving him a kiss, “you will be the first to read it.”
“Very nice,” a coy smile on his face, “is there a part for me in there?”
She bit her lip playfully, almost seductively so and said, “If you’re nice.”
JC leaned towards her, matching her smile. “I’m always nice.”
Her face instinctively moved closer to his. “Not always.”
Their lips met again; a long slow kiss between two people who were content in the moment. Everything ceased to exist but them. When they finally broke the kiss, Ashlyn smiled and opened the laptop.
“It’s dead,” she said apologetically.
JC rose from his chair and took her by the hand. “Come on, we’ll use the one in the study.”
In the few months she had been dating JC and coming to his house she had only seen probably half of it, and never the study. The study belonged to his dad. JC hated talking about his dad. Not that he didn’t love him, but being the son of the director of Hale County Mental Institute carried its baggage. Especially with all the rumors and gossip that surrounded the place.
A huge black cherry desk sat against the far wall. The walls were lined with bookshelves, which were loaded with books of all kinds. Most of the volumes were psychology and science related. The walls were bare of any family photos. The two murals that hung on the wall behind the desk were the only decorations.
JC guided Ashlyn to the high-backed leather chair behind the desk. As he was signing on to the computer she found herself staring at the sole picture that was framed on the desk. The resemblance to her boyfriend was amazing. Father and son were peering back at her, smiling as they posed by a lake. His dad held up a tiny one while the six year old JC was holding a catfish nearly as big as he was.
“Is this your dad?” she asked.
He pursed his lips disdainfully, not taking his eyes off the computer screen. “That’s him.”
She looked at JC, studying his face. “I don’t think I’ve ever met him.”
“He’s my dad and I’VE hardly met him,” he said sarcastically. He felt a touch on his hand. JC glanced down to see Ashlyn smiling sympathetically at him. “It’s okay—and you are signed on.”
“Alright mister, let’s find out who is playing what.”
JC rolled his eyes, a gesture she didn’t miss. She took him by the hand. “You had a great audition. It doesn’t matter who they cast you as.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You always get the lead.”
“Not always,” she said sheepishly.
“Just watch,” he joked again, “I’ll be playing a tree.”
“You have to be positive.”
JC gave her a knowing look, but softened it with a smile. Her positivity was yet another reason he liked her. Never had he met someone with such a great outlook. Sometimes he wondered if this were real or if he were like one of those patients at his dad’s hospital, living in a fantasy world that didn’t exist. If that was the case, then he already knew which world he preferred.
Ashlyn typed in the address to the school’s theater department. In mere moments the information lit up the screen. They scanned the page until their eyes focused on the cast list, a look of disbelief on both of their faces.
JC quickly turned off the computer, his skin drained of color. Without a word he marched out of the study. Ashlyn watched him go, a look of total shock on her face. She glanced once more at the darkened screen and chased out after him.
Steven was drenched in sweat, his head lolled to the side. Some of the droplets smacked off the concrete floor sending liquid echoes through the room. Barely lucid, he hardly noticed anything at all—except fear. That, he knew well. Whatever drug they had given him made him feel disassociated with his body. He KNEW he should be afraid, felt the fear all around him, but he was strangely apart from it.
Another needle buried into his arm. Within seconds he could feel the liquid that was pumped into him from this latest assault. It was burning him from the inside out. Steven let loose with a painful roar, snapping him out of his stupor. He tried to lunge forward but a massive hand landed heavily on his chest and forced him back into the seat. “Get your hands off of me you big ass gorilla,” he hissed through clinched teeth.
Bru, all three hundred pounds of him, drew back a fist.
“Now, now, Bru. Let’s not break him yet,” Samantha said from somewhere behind the large brute. The big man stepped out of the way allowing Steven to see her writing on a clipboard. The nurse had that same half smile, half sneer she wore earlier. “Can you tell me your name?”
“Piss on you,” he spat angrily. Every vein in his body felt like it was on fire.
Samantha stared him right in the eyes, the half sneer becoming a fully nasty one. “Bru,” was all she said.
Suddenly, the massive hand was latched around Steven’s throat like a vice. His own hands and feet were still strapped to the chair he was in. The crushing pressure on his throat choked off any screams he might have had. He was going to die.
“I think that’s enough,” she said calmly.
The hand was swiftly and thankfully gone. Steven gasped for air, gagging at the same time. The lights in the room seemed to dance before him like a disco ball. He felt his neck bruising from the inside.
“You’re lucky I got to ya’ first,” Bru growled in his deep voice, soiled breath forcing an involuntary cough from Steven. As he coughed he turned slightly to see an enormous bald black man standing off to the side in an orderly outfit. He was even bigger than Bru, if that was possible. He could make out the name ‘Tony’ on the ID badge as light reflected off of it. Steven gulped as softly as possible, trying to mask his fear, but it was just too much. He felt his body begin to shiver.
“Let’s start over, shall we,” Samantha said so politely that for a moment it was as if nothing had happened. “Name?”
“Steven…its Steven,” he sobbed, tears mixing with his sweat.
Samantha jotted something on the clipboard, a self-satisfied smirk replacing the sneer. Her frequent mood switch scared him more than anything the brute could do to him. Even her tone was different when she said, “it’s going to be okay Steven, we are here to help you.” It was so nice that hope flared within him. Perhaps he had misjudged her. The drugs, he was having a reaction to the drugs, that’s what was happening.
“Thank you,” he sobbed again, “thank you.”
At those words, her smile vanished as if being washed away by acid. The pure malice in her voice when she spoke chilled him to his core.
The clouds were building further along the horizon, casting a brooding pall across the grounds of Laurel Rose Manor. JC could see Delilah, his two year old German Shepherd, swimming in the front pond. There was a lone tree halfway between the pond and the house. It was well over a hundred years old. He could see squirrels playing on the ancient limbs.
Everything should be right with the world. He was in college. He had great grades and an even better girlfriend. But as JC peered off the upper balcony, his mind was a myriad of emotions.
Ashlyn slid her hand into his. “What’s wrong?”
He let his chin drop to his chest. “Come on, Ash. The lead? Seriously? There were so many guys better than me.”
“No, there weren’t.”
“There were a couple and you know it.”
“So you’re mad because you got the lead instead of being a tree? That’s a new one,” she said in a playfully sarcastic manner. Ashlyn was the only person he knew that could make sarcasm sound cute.
“It’s not that,” he said, frustrated.
“Oh,” she continued teasingly, “so you don’t want to act opposite of me?”
“You know better.” JC began to smile but faltered, pausing a second before continuing as he fought to phrase his next statement. “It’s just…” his voice trailed off. He turned to face her, looking deep into her eyes. “I don’t think I earned it. I…”
Ashlyn put a finger on his lips to silence him. She wanted to know where this sudden lack of self-esteem was coming from but she knew this wasn’t the time. Instead, she gave him a soft quick kiss. “You did. Now let’s go celebrate. Dinner and a movie?”
“You’re amazing,” he smiled meaningfully.
“I know,” she whispered happily, their lips meeting once more as the dusk began to settle on the manor. What neither of them noticed was the shadow that moved from behind the tree, watching the young lovers with a vengeful hatred.