Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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Good Night, Timmy

by Rick Grehan



Wellington, New Hampshire

August, 1955

They were coming.

Timmy crouched on a boulder at the river's shoreline. The rock was mostly submerged in mud, but the reeds grew thickly along the bank, and their roots were strong enough for him to grab a clump in each hand to keep himself from slipping into the muck.

They were close.

He could hear their calls and taunts over the buzzing of the grasshoppers and other insects. He crouched lower. It was a good thing the summer had been so dry, and there had been little spring runoff. Most of the creeks were mere trickles, and even the Contoocook River was lower than anyone had seen in years. That meant no black flies swarming his face. Had it been otherwise, the flies would have made his hiding spot miserable.

The two boys were just up the bank from where Timmy hid. They were walking along the railroad tracks, calling and laughing. Occasionally, one of them would pick up a rock and throw it into the underbrush.

"Hey, Timmy! Where yah hidin'?"

"C'mon out! We won't hurt yah! Just gonna have some fun!"

"Yeah, we just wanna talk to yah! Oh,I fergot! Yah can't talk!"

They tittered and snorted.

He hated them. The Rody twins. Whenever he went outside, whenever he wanted to explore the shores of the river, or the woods, or anywhere around Wellington, he had to watch for the Rodys. If they saw him before he could hide, they would chase him and throw rocks and sticks at him. And if they managed to catch him, they would carry him to the shore of the river and throw him in. Sometimes they would drag him to one of the marshes south of town and push him into one of the ditches.

And always they would be laughing.

But Timmy couldn't call for help. He couldn't make words with his voice.

A rock hissed through the underbrush and slapped into the mud next to him. They had seen him! And they were between him and escape! He swallowed hard to keep from sobbing, and waited for them to come crashing down through the underbrush at him.

But another rock landed in the water yards away to his left, and he realized that the one that had struck nearby had simply been a lucky throw. He held his breath, listening.

They were moving away, heading south, following the tracks. Soon, they would be around the bend where the train line passed through woods just north of Elmwood Junction. They'd be out of sight. He could climb up the bank, and run north back to the town.

Timmy heard a swish in the water behind him, and turned to see a black snake making its way along the shore. It was a big one, easily four feet long. This part of the Contoocook was infested with them, and many grew quite large. So large, in fact, that some of the signalmen refused to get off the train at the junction without a pistol.

But, it ignored Timmy. The snakes always did. One could glide right past his shoe, and neither he nor the snake would pay the other any attention. That was why he often hid from the boys down here at the water's edge. They were afraid of the snakes.

As he watched, it disappeared around a boulder.

That's when he spotted something in the water. About fifteen feet out from the shore, where the river's bottom dropped off sharply. It wasn't a rock. It stuck up from the depths, a collection of rods and spires that reminded him of the steeple atop the Congregational Church in town. Moss and scum had settled on them, but could not hide their strangeness. And they extended deeper into the water. Timmy could just make out an outline that suggested a larger object to which the spires were attached.

He stood up and stepped carefully off the boulder, trying to get as close to the water's edge as he dared. The smaller rock he had lowered his foot on cracked and gave way, and his shoe sank into some kind of ooze. He looked down, and saw that what he had stepped on was not a rock. Though smooth, round, and covered with a sheen of mud like everything else around it, it had broken open like a large egg. He withdrew his foot, and saw that the thing's interior was filled with dark, gray muck. A putrid odor drifted up; he grabbed his nose.

He was about to turn away, to resume his examination of the spires in the water, when sunlight fell on something floating on the muck inside the egg-thing. A bright point of reflected light sparkled. And the colors that twinkled in that point were unlike anything he had ever seen.

Timmy squatted down, ignoring the smell. He peered inside the hole his shoe had made, and saw that the source of the colors was a small, metallic square, half the size of a postage stamp. Looking closely, he watched the colors swim across the surface of the metal like the rainbow-hued reflections of oil carried across the surface of moving water.

He reached through the shattered opening, gingerly plucked the square from the the ooze, and withdrew it. It came out with some resistance. He saw then that hair-like tendrils of silver were attached all around its edges, and they had been sunk in the muck inside the egg-thing. Some slime still clung to the tendrils, so he leaned on hands and knees to the river's edge, and swished the rectangle in the water.

When he had cleaned it to his satisfaction, he examined it even more closely. Colors ran across its surface; bands and patterns formed and changed hypnotically. And the silvery threads waved gently as though in a breeze; but there was no breeze. One brushed his cheek, just beneath his eye, and he felt a faint, electric pinprick. He drew his face away quickly.

He opened his pocket and pushed the object gently inside, careful to tuck in all the waving tendrils, and returned to the egg-thing to see if there might be another shiny rectangle inside. He began digging around it, hoping to pull it out of the mud so that he could pour its contents onto one of the bigger rocks to make his search easier.

He had dug the egg-thing out enough that it shifted when he pried it from beneath. It rotated in place. Timmy fell back with a silent cry. Panicking, he tried to stand, slipped on the rocks, and fell. He scrambled on all fours to the bank, grabbed two bunches of reeds, pulled himself to his feet, and scampered up the slope and away from the exposed skull face leering up from the mud.

Had he stayed and examined it more closely, and had he known more about skulls than what he had seen in Halloween cartoons and picture books, he would have recognized that it was not the skull of a human, nor of any animal. In fact, it was not the skull of any creature on this Earth.

His only thought was to get away from it. He ignored the reeds and the brambles, he was unconcerned even that the Rodys might hear him and chase him. He broke through the underbrush and onto the tracks, turned north for Wellington, and ran.

####

Billy Stoddard was at the wheel of his prized Nash-Healey, driving north on the road to Wellington. The car was his high-school graduation present from his father, and it had served him and his college classmates well last year, transporting them to and from countless parties, get-togethers, and sports events. He had attended classes, too -- a few, at least. But, he had to walk to classes, and Billy never liked walking when he could drive his Nash-Healey instead.

Back in Wellington for the summer, Billy had decided that his roadster wasn't distinctive enough, even though it was fire-engine red, probably the only one of it's kind in the county, and quite possibly the only Nash-Healey in that part of the state. Nevertheless, he'd driven it to the dealership in Massachusetts that morning to have a brand new electric horn installed. A much louder horn; because Billy wanted a horn that turned heads when he blew it.

He'd brought along Tracey Sheldon, his current girlfriend. Actually, she really wasn't his girlfriend, though she might have thought so. But, she was certainly the best that Wellington had to offer. And it simply wouldn't do for Billy to be seen in the big city on a summer day in his pride and joy without a girl in the passenger seat.

He glanced over at her. She was passable, he told himself. Not up to the standard of the girls at college. But, she had a good smile that she used a lot, and she knew how to have a good time. Which meant that she agreed to do whatever he wanted. The two had amused themselves on the ride back by honking the new horn at all the slower cars on the road in front of them. One startled driver had actually swerved off into the grass, bounced painfully over a field of stones, and ended with his auto's front wheels jammed in a gully. Passing him by, they laughed and waved.

Tracey caught Billy looking at her, and smiled brightly. He smiled back. Yeah, she'll do for the summer. He turned his eyes back to the road.

Timmy burst out of the woods ahead of them, veered, and ran frantically along the roadside. He was obviously fleeing from something. Billy could see that the boy was completely unaware of the approaching car.

Billy pulled quickly behind him, and pounded a rapid tattoo on the horn's button. At the klaxon's sudden blaring, the boy leaped away from the road as though struck by an invisible blow. His hands flew to his ears and he careened through a stand of weeds. Timmy tripped, then tumbled into the roadside ditch, disappearing in a sprawl of arms, legs, and a cloud of dust.

Billy turned back onto the road, threw his head back, and bellowed a laugh.

"Billy! That was horrible!" Tracey squealed. She covered her mouth to suppress a giggle, then punched him harmlessly in the shoulder. "You're awful! Simply awful!" She turned around to look over her shoulder.

"Aw, the retard's fine!" Billy yelled. "No harm done -- maybe a bit dusty! Didja see him jump, though?" He laughed again.

Tracey gave him another playful punch. Her giggles were unstifled now. "You're awful!"

They sped on to Wellington.

####

That evening, when Timmy had not shown up in the kitchen for supper, Aunt Dot suspected he'd had one of his bad days. He would probably be in his hiding place. Sure enough, she found him huddled under the front porch steps.

"Come on out, dear," she called softly, reaching into the darkness. "Your supper's ready." She felt him take her hand, and pulled the boy gently out, hugging him as they stood. Holding hands, they climbed the steps together, passed through the front room, and entered the kitchen.

"Those boys chase you again?" she asked as she washed his face and hands. He looked back at her, but said nothing. She shook her head. "I swear, I wish the sheriff would do something for once and for all about those two boys. It's not proper."

She saw the mud on the back of his shorts and shirt. And his elbows and knees were scratched. She guessed they must have pushed him into a ditch, and shook her head again. Out loud, she said, "Well, the mud on your clothes is dried now, so just sit careful at the table. I'll wash them tonight after you're in bed."

Timmy walked to the table, climbed into his chair, and Aunt Dot placed a plate of potatoes and vegetables in front of him. He sat silently while she seated herself. The old woman bowed her head and recited a whispered prayer. After she'd crossed herself and said "Amen", he picked up his fork and began to eat. She did the same.

Most nights, after supper, Aunt Dot and Timmy would sit together in the front room and listen to a music program on the radio. And afterward, Aunt Dot would tell him of when, years ago, she and Uncle Dan had visited the Cape, and how she'd always dreamed that they would one day have enough saved up to buy a cottage with a view of the ocean, a cottage with a backyard that Uncle Dan would ring with a picket fence, and that she would fill with a flower garden. Timmy would sit silently while she described the garden in detail, naming all the flowers, and where they would be planted along the fence. Then she would sigh, say that was before Timmy's Mom brought Timmy to live with them, and then his Mom disappeared, and then Uncle Dan passed away, and ... and Aunt Dot would sit for a long time, not saying anything, holding Timmy's hand, and looking at the pictures on the wall. And then it would be bedtime.

Tonight, though, Timmy left the table and went straight up to his room. Aunt Dot had guessed during dinner that he'd probably do that; he often did on his bad days. So, she waited several minutes before following him. Entering his room, she gathered his shorts and shirt, and walked over to where he lay. She bent and kissed him on his forehead, whispered "good night, Timmy," then left the room, closing the door behind herself.

Timmy heard her footsteps pass down the stairs, and listened for the sounds of her busying herself with his clothes in the tiny washroom behind the kitchen. Then, he slid his hand beneath his pillow, felt the tingling of the tiny hairs, and pulled out the metal rectangle of shimmering colors. In the twilight that slanted through his room's single window, the colors seemed to shine with their own, internal light.

Timmy lay awake, shifting the rectangle back and forth between his fingers, watching the colors swirl and the silver threads wave, long after the evening had deepened into night. The delicate glow of the thing hung before his eyes like a faint firefly. The moon rose, and its light spilled through his window and onto his pillow. The fleck of metal shone with new and quieter hues. He placed it on his pillow where he could watch it, and fell asleep.

####

The colors disappeared. It was dark, and an alarm called. The alarm was unlike any Timmy had ever heard, but somehow he understood what it meant. It was telling him that he needed to get out -- to get out now!

He was in a room illuminated by ghostly blue light originating from some corner he could not see. His side and his head ached; it hurt to breathe. He was lying in cold water that moved and gurgled around him. The room he was in must be filling with water. It was sinking.

He had to get out.

He managed to stand, using the wall against his back to brace himself. The effort was so painful he nearly fell back down. The wall was cold metal, so he couldn't be in his bedroom or the kitchen. He was in something like a car, or a bus ... but it wasn't either of those. He knew the way out was directly in front of him, so he took a step forward. It was uphill. Whatever room he was in was tilted. Water rushed over his ankles.

He had to steady himself against the walls to climb to the door. Every step was agony, he was certain something in his side was broken.

By the time he made it to the door, the water was to his waist. He knew that, ordinarily, he could touch buttons to make the door open. But that wouldn't work now. He also knew that there was a device on the wall next to the door that he could crank to make it open even when the buttons didn't work.

He found the crank's handle, and just in time. The entire room groaned and titled even further. He was able to hold onto the handle with one hand, and the door's frame with another, to keep himself from falling back into the rising water.

He turned the handle. It was hard going at first, he wasn't sure he was strong enough to turn it. It became easier, though, and he felt the door swinging open.

More water poured inside. Along with it came gusts of outside air, hot and damp. Noise, too. The rushing of rain falling on water. A brilliant flash -- lightning -- followed almost instantly by thunder.

The room shifted again, causing the water to rise suddenly to his neck. Somehow, he managed to continue turning the crank. The door opened more. He released his hold on the frame, and felt for the opening. It was wide enough for him to fit through, though just barely. Lightning flashed again; thunder boomed.

He pushed himself forward, through the door, trying to float on the water outside that was gushing in. Everything shifted. The door, the room he had been in, sank swiftly behind him. His foot caught on something, and he felt himself being pulled down. He kicked frantically, and managed to free himself.

His head broke the surface. The water all around him danced in a deluge of rain. Lightning flashed again and again. He coughed up water, and the pain sent red sparkles across his vision. He tried to inhale, but found he could not. His pain was now so intense that he couldn't feel his arms or legs. When he tried to move, he simply spasmed. He was going under. He would sink in the water. He would die.

Lightning blazed.

Timmy awoke with a gasp. He sat up and looked quickly around the room. His room. Though dark, it was not the room in his nightmare. There was no blue glow, no cold metal walls, no sound of water. Outside his window, the night was still. There was no rain, no lightning, no thunder. He could see the stars above the dark treetops.

He felt his clothes. Dry.

Timmy lay down, and suddenly remembered the thing on the pillow beside him. His hand searched for it, feeling carefully for the tiny, tingling fibers.

It was gone.

####

The Commander was in a relaxation period when he received the alert. He sighed, acknowledged the signal, and admitted the data download. He scanned the information as it arrived, then sat up abruptly when he realized what it meant.

His companion on the cushion sent him a mild interrogation. His response was the equivalent of a quick and firm: "Official business, I can say no more." His companion acknowledged, slid off the cushion, and left the area.

Now alone, the Commander established contact with the Communicator who had originated the alert.

"Are you quite certain?" the Commander queried. "I knew this particular Monitor. We had assumed that he had been killed. His vessel lost."

"Commander, I am certain only that his implant has been reactivated," the Communicator replied. "Beyond that, I am certain of nothing."

The Commander recognized an undercurrent of confusion in the Communicator's transmissions. He sent his own indication of confusion back. "I do not understand," the Commander relayed.

"Permit me, Commander, to forward to you some of the packets that we have received. You will appreciate what we are dealing with."

The Commander agreed.

The packets that arrived were snippets of sights, sounds, emotions, and thought-chains. He examined and reexamined each several times in an attempt to make sense of them. He could not. Their content was too --

He registered alarm. "Communicator, could it be the enemy? We have always feared this."

"Commander, that is highly improbable. Our boundaries with the enemy are many parsecs from that system, and have been so for a long time. It is something ... something else."

A hint rode the Communicator's sub-carrier. The commander identified it, and shot back a burst of amazement.

"Surely, Communicator, you do not mean to suggest --" he stopped, fell silent, and calculated the probabilities himself. It took him only a moment to make his decision. He pushed himself off the cushion.

"This requires direct observation. I will assemble a team and lead the probe myself. Communicator, continue to forward information to me as you receive it." The Commander left the relaxation area.

####

Aunt Dot saw that something was bothering Timmy when he came down for his oatmeal the next morning. He was quiet as usual, but his face was clouded with a peculiar, dark unhappiness she'd never seen before. He sat in his chair, looking down at the table, every now and then scratching behind his left ear.

"What's the matter dear? Don't feel like oatmeal this morning?" she asked, setting down her teacup.

At her words, Timmy looked up suddenly, his eyes wide with amazement.

"Timmy?"

He had fixed his eyes on her mouth. As she watched, his lips began working, moving, as though he were about to say something. She gasped. In all the years she had cared for him, he had never said anything. He had made sounds -- crying when sad or in pain, laughed once or twice when happy -- but that was all.

His hand came away from behind his ear. Aunt Dot saw blood on his fingers.

"Timmy!" she cried, standing. "You're bleeding, child!" She rounded the table to his side, turned his head, and saw the wound behind his ear. "Oh, my..."

She retrieved a clean washcloth from the stack next to the sink, dipped it in the pail of fresh water she always kept in the kitchen, and cleaned the blood away. She examined the exposed wound and the puffy skin around it.

"Looks like a black-fly bite," she said, clucking her tongue. "Guess you were playing down by the pond yesterday."

She dabbed behind the boy's ear again. "He was chewing on you for a while, and I 'spect it'll bother you for a couple of days, yet." Putting the washcloth in the sink she returned to Timmy, took both of his hands into her own, and looked into his eyes. "Don't worry it, you hear, Timmy? You'll just make it worse." His eyes were wide. He was watching her mouth as she talked.

Aunt Dot returned to her tea, regarding Timmy uneasily. He turned his attention to his oatmeal, and began shoveling heaping spoonfuls of it into his mouth.

"Slow down, Timmy," she cautioned. "You'll get a tummy-ache. I know you're wantin' to go outside, but -- "

Once again, he looked up suddenly, and she stopped in mid-sentence. Timmy usually didn't make eye contact with anyone; he only did so rarely with Aunt Dot. But now, he was looking directly at her face, and there was something different in his eyes, a look she had never seen before. It almost seemed like he --

"Timmy?"

He dropped his spoon into his bowl with a clatter, and darted away from the table. She heard the back door swing open and bang closed, heard him run around the house and across the front yard. She sat for many heartbeats after his footfalls had departed, still holding her teacup above its saucer.

####

Timmy crouched at the pond's shore, staring intently into the water. In the spring, he liked to come to this spot and watch the tadpoles wriggling in the muddy shallows. The tadpoles had all gone now, but he did spy a small school of minnows, as well as a pair of water striders chasing one another in the water-channels between rocks.

But now, he saw more than just the darting fish and insects. He saw the tiny bits of life in each; glimmering sparks of awareness wavering under the water or skimming across its surface. He focused his attention, the water sparkled with microscopic pinpoints of life, each pinpoint shining like a star in a glowing and moving firmament.

Farther out, deeper in the water, larger shapes of awareness glided and glowed. There, a young pickerel. Deeper, a horned pout. He saw into the streams of their simple thoughts, laid out like strings of tiny jewels pulled along by an unseen hand, unwinding as each fish observed, decided, acted.

And, he understood.

The pickerel was heading toward the shore, some mechanism of its mind convinced that food could be found there. Timmy spoke silently to each of the minnows, urging them into even shallower water, among a clump of reeds, beyond the reach of the approaching pickerel. The school darted into the cover.

Timmy stood, turned. He converted his perceptions from light to sound, and listened. The awarenesses in the wildlife around him resolved into a rushing music, like water tumbling over rocks; and each rock and pebble vibrating at its own, unique tone. Above the music of the animals rose the songs of the thoughts of the people in the town of Wellington.

Mentally, he singled out and examined each person's thought-song. He found the two he sought. He left the riverside, and headed toward the town.

####

Timmy walked into Wellington. At that moment, the Rody twins, who had been prowling the alley behind the town garage in search of mischief, were compelled by a sudden, inexplicable urge to explore the railroad tracks that led north toward the paper mill. They were well up the tracks by the time Timmy arrived at the library.

Miss Nutting, the town librarian, spent most of that day moving the returned books back to their places in the shelves. A careful woman, she pushed the wooden cart slowly and cautiously up one aisle and down the other, locating each book's proper location. As she replaced each book, she tidied the surrounding shelves.

It was a weekday, so she was alone in the library most of the time. Occasionally, she heard the front door open and the building's floorboards creak as someone entered, walked to the desk, and deposited a book in the returns box.

Wait, she thought, that's not true. She wasn't alone. There was someone else down one of the aisles. A boy, sitting on the floor, a book open in his lap. He turned the pages quickly, as though he were scanning a picture book. He couldn't possibly be reading at that speed. When he reached the book's end, he closed it, placed it back in the shelves, withdrew the one beside it, sat down, and resumed turning pages.

And then, she had forgotten he was there. Even when she rolled the cart past the aisle he was sitting in, she was simply unaware of his presence.

Later, she heard the front door open and close. Someone had left. But she couldn't recall having heard anyone come in. She shrugged, slid a book into its spot, pushed the adjacent books upright, and rolled the cart forward.

####

That night at supper, Timmy was more distant than ever. He sat at the table, face downturned, as Aunt Dot slid his plate in front of him. He picked up his fork and began to eat, his motions almost mechanical.

"Did you go visit the garage today?" Aunt Dot asked. "I know how you like watching the men work." She hoped she could coax from him the reaction he'd had that morning. But Timmy didn't look up. She sighed. Was she wishing for too much? Was this morning her wishful imagination? The doctor had said that this is how he would always be. But ...

"We can listen to the radio tonight if you'd like," she said. "I'm sure we could find a music program on the dial."

Timmy continued eating.

Aunt Dot turned her attention to her own food, though what little appetite she had was evaporating. She had barely finished the first fork-full when Timmy picked up his glass, gulped down his milk, and climbed out of his chair.

"Timmy, didn't you want -- " she began, but he had already passed her and exited the kitchen, eyes still downcast. She heard him climb the stairs, and a few moments later the floorboards of his bedroom creaked gently. She could tell from the sounds that he was undressing, and would soon be in bed.

Sure enough, after she had finished her dinner, cleared the table, cleaned the plates and utensils, and gone upstairs to his room, he was under the covers. He lay on his side, face turned away from the door. She walked softly to where he lay, and looked down at him. His eyes were closed, his breathing slow and regular. He had already fallen asleep.

She signed again, bent, and kissed him on his forehead. She whispered "Goodnight, Timmy", then left his room.

Timmy's eyes opened. He turned his head slightly, concentrating. Aunt Dot had gone back downstairs. She had decided to pass the evening reading a magazine. He looked at the window. It was early evening, still relatively bright outside. He would wait until darkness settled in, and she had gone to sleep.

He waited, and as he waited, he scanned the countryside, located the three people, and watched ...

####

Much later that same night, Ned Rody opened his eyes. It was after midnight, and he was in bed, though he was not aware of either of these facts. He only knew that he had to get up, which he did.

His was the top bunk of the bunkbed he shared with his twin brother, Ted. He had climbed down so many times in the dark that he could do it noiselessly and without thinking. When he reached the floor, Ted had risen, too, and was standing beside the bed, waiting.

Both boys, still in their nightshirts, tiptoed to the door, opened it soundlessly, and padded down the hallway to the back door. Their movements were deliberate and mechanical, and neither boy knew why, nor wondered why, they were quietly opening the door to the house, slipping outside, and walking into the woods in the middle of the night.

Nor did they pay any attention to the little boy who stood beside the path they followed among the trees, and who watched them disappear into the dark.

####

Billy Stoddard sat up. He blinked, then climbed out of bed, walked softly to the chair over which he had draped his slacks earlier that evening, and fished his car keys out of the front pocket.

Without turning on any lights, barefoot, and still dressed in his nightshirt, Billy quietly opened his bedroom door and left his room. He walked purposefully but silently down the hallway, and descended the stairs to the den. Everyone had gone to bed hours ago, so the downstairs was empty, unlit, and silent. Billy turned on no lights. He went softly to the front door, unlatched it, and let himself out.

His Nash-Healey was parked at the edge of the driveway. Billy could see it easily in the glow of the two decorative street lamps that flanked the brick path leading away from the front door. He walked directly to his car, opened the driver-side door, and climbed in. Billy started the car, and backed it out of the driveway and into the street. He shifted into gear and headed down the road.

Billy paid no attention to the small figure in the bushes across the street. He couldn't have seen Timmy anyway; Billy had not turned on his car's headlights. It was a stupid thing to do at night, even on this infrequently traveled road. But, Billy was simply unaware of that fact. Nor was he was aware of the fact that he was driving his Nash-Healey to the town boat-launch on Cheshire Pond. His body was doing what it was told; his mind was a distant, barely-conscious passenger.

Timmy watched Billy drive away. Then, he turned to look at the house. No one had heard Billy walk downstairs, nor had anyone heard the front door open and close. They had not even heard the car start and drive away. They were all deep asleep.

Timmy had seen to that.

####

Eventually, the Stoddard household did wake up, thanks to the pounding on the front door and the repeated buzzing of the electric doorbell. Mr. Stoddard moaned, rolled over in bed, and turned on his bedside lamp. Without his spectacles, he had to squint to read the clock.

"Two thirty!?" he growled. "What the hell?!" The pounding and buzzing continued. Puffing and grumbling, Mr. Stoddard donned his bathrobe. His wife turned her head on her pillow and muttered something. He ignored her, left their bedroom, and waddled painfully down the stairs.

Halfway down to the den, he stopped on the stairs and barked an exclamation. "Nora!" he yelled back up to his wife. "What the hell happened?! The damn stairs are wet and muddy!" His wife called an incomprehensible reply from the bedroom.

Mr. Stoddard opened the front door and was confronted by the town's sheriff. The officer's squad-car idled in the driveway. Mr. Stoddard could hear voices crackling on the radio through the car's open window.

"Everett? What the hell is this all about?" Mr. Stoddard barked. He slapped a mosquito that had alighted on his ear.

"Mr. Stoddard," Sheriff Fogg said, touching the brim of his hat. "Your son Billy around?"

"Around? Of course he's around! He's up in bed -- it's after two in the morning for God's sake! Why, has he done something? Better be something damned bad to get me out of bed at two in the morning!"

"Don't know for sure, yet. I'm hoping he can tell me why his car is parked in the water just off the boat launch."

Mr. Stoddard swayed a bit. "What?! The hell you say-!" He looked past the sheriff, searching the spot where Billy's Nash-Healey should have sat at the driveway's end. Though it was dark, he could see by the outside lamps that the space was empty. "Where the hell is my boy's car?!"

The sheriff pulled his hat off and smoothed his hair in exasperation. He fitted his hat back onto his head. "Like I said, Mr. Stoddard. It's out in the middle of Cheshire Pond! It looks like someone just drove it down the launch and into the water. I was thinking maybe your son might know something about it."

Mr. Stoddard turned and boomed into the house, "Billy! Get down here now! Nora! Wake that son of yours up and get him downstairs! Nora!!"

Nora called something that neither Mr. Stoddard nor the sheriff could make out.

As for Billy, he was already awake. He sat in his bed, staring in disbelief down at his nightshirt, sheets, and blankets --

-- which were thoroughly soaked. Almost as though he had gone swimming in this nightclothes, then come home and climbed straight into bed.

####

It was going to be a busy night for the Sheriff Fogg. After he had told the Stoddards to arrange for someone to tow Billy's car and had gotten Mr. Stoddard to promise that Billy would be at the town offices that afternoon to explain his car being in Cheshire Pond and muddy footprints leading through the family's house, the sheriff had returned to his squad car just in time to receive a radio dispatch. Someone had called the station about screaming in the woods behind the Huntington's barn on King's Road.

The sheriff started his car and sped off.

It was a quick, five-minute drive. The barn was just off the side of the road, across from the Huntington's farmhouse. The sheriff pulled into a stretch of grass in front of the barn, fetched his flashlight, and climbed out. The lights were on at the house, and the sheriff saw someone peering through one of the front windows. He guessed it was Mrs. Huntington. She saw him, gestured wildly, pointing past the barn, and disappeared behind the curtains.

Sure enough, from the woods beyond the field behind the barn, a scream drifted out of the night. More screams issued from the trees as he trotted across the field. He could distinguish two voices in the cries. Both sounded like school children. He also heard what sounded like a man's voice, calling rather than screaming.

He entered the woods, his flashlight waving, dodged among the tree-trunks and skirted several large, moss-tinged granite boulders. He broke into a clearing, and his flashlight beam played over the back of a man standing in the clearing, facing away from him as he approached.

The man turned at the sound of the sheriff's footfalls. Sheriff Fogg saw that it was Bob Huntington. The sheriff also saw that Bob was holding a rifle. The sheriff's hand went to the butt of his revolver as he continued to walk forward.

"Robert," the sheriff said, nodding at the man. "What's the problem here?" He suddenly realized that Bob's eyes were wide and fear-filled.

Bob motioned with his head. "Come look for yerself, sheriff," he replied. "I ain't see nothin' like it."

Sheriff Fogg looked past the man, and discovered the source of the screaming. It was the Rody boys, Ned and Ted, both cowering atop a large granite boulder about eight feet high and twice that across. The sheriff cast his flashlight beam on them. Both boys were in their nightshirts, covered with dirt and bits of leaves, their faces red and puffy, tears streaking their cheeks. "Get us down!" they cried over and over again.

"What in -- " the sheriff began, then bellowed, "What in damnation are you boys doin' up there?"

They simply continued screaming their request.

"Claim they don't know how they got there," Bob yelled over their cries. "Told me they just woke up and found themselves on that rock."

The Sheriff tipped his hat back. What is going on around here? First the Stoddard boy's car turns up in the lake, and now this!

"Well, why don't those fool kids just slide down?" the sheriff asked. "It ain't that high!"

"'Cause of that!" Bob said, using his flashlight beam to point to the base of the boulder.

Sheriff Fogg looked, gasped, took a step back, and unholstered his revolver. "Damnation!" he whispered.

Black snakes. Lots of black snakes. Lying stretched in intertwined rows that appeared to completely encircle the rock. The sheriff panned his flashlight beam over the dark mass.

They were all moving, languidly sliding over one another. Occasionally, one of the creatures nearest the boulder would lift its head, questing up the surface of the rock's side. The sheriff saw a tongue flick and withdraw. Faintly, underneath the screams of the boys, the sheriff could hear rustling as countless bodies slid over and under the dried leaves carpeting the forest floor.

"I 'spect there must be over a hundred," Bob said.

"You ever see anything like this, Robert?" the sheriff askeded.

"Nope."

"Nor me."

"I've tried throwing sticks and rocks to scare 'em away. They don't mind anything."

"You tried stompin' up to them? See if you can get close enough to the boulder to fetch the boys down?"

Bob shook his head. "I know they ain't poisonous, sheriff, but I also know I don't want to find out how a bite from one of those big ones feels. You're welcome to try, though."

The sheriff looked about himself. "Maybe we could build a fire -- that'd scare them off for certain."

Bob shook his head again. "Beg pardon, sheriff, but dry as it's been lately, it's sure we'd burn this whole wood down if we did that."

The boys continued their screaming.

####

Timmy crouched by the pond. In the moonlit semi-darkness occasionally deepened by passing clouds, he watched the school of minnows resting peacefully near the water's surface. Their tiny minds hummed a pleasant drone.

Meanwhile, a pickerel lay on the shore next to him, its mouth and gills working helplessly. It was the same one that had thought to attack the minnows before. Timmy had told it do beach itself, and so it was stretched across pebbles and mud, not understanding how it had come to be there, its basic instincts to flop and struggle back to the water frozen and inoperative.

Timmy became aware of a presence behind him. He turned. Two figures stood just beyond the edge of the woods. He wondered how it was that he had not perceived them sooner. He had learned that he could sense a mind as dim as a bird's flying overhead, or a spider clinging to a plant stem at the pond's edge. But these people has somehow eluded him.

And then, abruptly, he could see and feel their minds -- they blazed like twin sunrises. The intensity of it caused him to slip backward off his heels, so the seat of his shorts went 'plop!' into the muddy water. As he watched, one of the figures glided forward, stopping a few feet away, inches from the nose of the dying pickerel. The figure's head tilted down, apparently to examine the fish.

"The boy's accomplishments are more significant than we estimated," a voice said in Timmy's mind, and he somehow knew it was coming from the figure standing before him. The moonlight brightened as a cloud passed away, and the man's face was dimly visible. It was narrow, as though it had been pressed in on the sides, and shone an ivory white in the moonlight. The man's eyes were large and dark, and yet somehow luminous.

"He will become very dangerous, very quickly," another voice said. It was from the other stranger. The one examining the fish looked up and turned his head slightly. Timmy felt the command for silence that passed from the first to the second. He also sensed the second's acceding response.

The stranger at the shore returned his attention to the fish. He bent down.

"He was going to eat the minnows!" Timmy said in his mind.

The stranger stopped. Both figures swayed slightly.

"You need not shout," the stranger said. He reached down and carefully lifted the pickerel, whose fins now moved only barely.

"Yes," the stranger said, "it was going to eat the minnows. So you would have had it kill itself. And suppose a man were to catch it to eat it. Would you have had that man kill himself?"

He tossed the fish into the water. Timmy felt his hold on the creature pushed away, as by a powerful, unseen hand. The light of the fish's mind, dimmed almost to invisibility by its time out of the water, quickly regained brightness. Timmy saw its mind recede, as it swam into the depths. He returned his attention to the stranger, feeling his own upwelling of guilt.

Apparently, the stranger sensed it. He said, "It would be wrong to blame you completely. New abilities -- " the man tilted his head as though listening "-- as well as strange memories, have been suddenly thrust upon you. You are young, and without guidance. Still -- "

The man stepped forward and extended his hand. Startled, Timmy looked at it. The fingers were long and delicate. He looked back to that peculiar face.

"Your clothing is quickly absorbing the water you are sitting in. You find that uncomfortable, don't you?"

Timmy took his hand, and was lifted to his feet.

"Timmy," the man said, "though you don't realize it, you have something that does not belong to you. Something that was not meant for you. The tiny, metallic device with -- " Timmy had the sensation that his own mind was being searched "-- the colors and the waving silver hairs."

"I put it on my pillow," Timmy said, "but it got lost."

"Not lost," the stranger said, and then pointed to Timmy's forehead. "It's in here."

"In my head?" Timmy said. Fear rose, and he became aware of a tingling, crawling sensation under his hair.

"Yes, in your head. It's a very special device. It can move, change shape, and grow. But, what is most important, it gives you capabilities you would not -- should not -- otherwise have."

Timmy gave in to the urge to scratch behind his ear. "Can you get it out?"

"The implant is well integrated at this point. Removing it would likely kill the child." The was from the other stranger. The one closest to Timmy whirled quickly, and Timmy felt a mind-blinding flash of anger burst like a firework.

"Which we will under no circumstances do! The boy will be in my care!" the first stranger said heatedly. The other took a step back and bowed slightly.

The stranger turned back to face Timmy. "It is nonetheless true that we cannot permit things to continue as they are." He looked to the woods. "What you have done so far is relatively venial. But, at some point in the future -- ". His words trailed off. He looked across the pond, where the recovering fish swam farther away.

"You must come with us," the stranger said.

Timmy felt a brief stab of fear. Leave? It would mean leaving Aunt Dot. But, on the other hand, it mean no more Billy Stoddard, no more Rody twins, no more ... Then again, he could deal with them. He was dealing with them. He could --

"First, it will be someone whose thoughts you need only suppress, or twist in one direction or another. Later, you will find someone who ought to be punished, perhaps for good reason, and you will compel him to injure himself as punishment. And then, you will encounter the man whose punishment must go beyond injury and you will drive him beyond injury."

Timmy sat back down. His thoughts rebelled at the image of himself the stranger portrayed. "But, I wouldn't hurt -- "

"Not even a fish?"

He sat for what seemed a long time in the darkness, ignoring the feel of the chill, wet mud on the seat of his pants. Finally, he looked up. The stranger had extended his hand again. It floated before Timmy's face.

"Come with us." This time, it was a request. The stranger was not ordering; he was asking.

"Where?"

"Let me show you."

Thoughts and sounds and sights flooded into Timmy's mind. His eyes widened. Timmy gasped.

####

The sheriff waved his flashlight beam through the woods in exasperation, searching for anything that might suggest a solution.

"Damnation, Robert," he growled, "we have to do something!" He considered returning to his squad car to radio for help from one or two of the nearby towns. He was about to tell Bob his plan, when the man gasped.

"Sheriff, look!" Bob whispered.

Sheriff Fogg swung his flashlight around. Both beams illuminated the area at the boulder's base.

The snakes were leaving.

"Damnation!" the sheriff hissed.

They were all sliding, flowing like a dark liquid. Both men followed the serpents' winding, glistening bodies as they moved away from the rock, deeper into the woods.

"They're leaving!" the sheriff said. "All heading in one direction."

"Looks like they're going for the river. Where I 'spect they come from in the first place," Bob said.

The men watched in silence. The boys had stopped screaming, so the only sound was the rushing rustle of the countless serpentine bodies sliding over dry leaves. It took no more than two minutes, and the last one was out of sight. The men searched around the rock's base with their flashlights.

"All of 'em gone," Bob said, shaking his head.

The sheriff was shaking his own head as he examined the ground, kicking at leaves. "'Til the day I die, I will not forget that sight," he mused aloud. Then, he swung his flashlight up and two wild, dirty, and tear-streaked faces appeared.

"You boys can climb down now," he said. "I'll drive you home, we'll talk to your folks, and you can get some rest. But sometime this afternoon I'm going to be by to find out from you just what happened here."

He sighed. It had been a busy night, and it was going to be a busy day.

####

"Aunt Dot?"

It was a voice. One that she knew, but didn't recognize. She opened her eyes. The room glowed faintly with early morning. The sun would not rise for some time yet, but enough light filtered through the bedroom windows' lace curtains to make everything visible.

Including the little boy who stood beside her bed.

"Timmy?" She raised herself on one elbow.

"Good morning, Aunt Dot," he said clearly.

She gave a little cry. With her free arm, she pulled the boy toward herself and hugged him. She felt his arms encircle her neck. She began to cry.

"Don't cry, Aunt Dot," Timmy begged. "Please ..."

Still sniffing, she released him and held him at arm's length.

"But, Timmy! Timmy, you can talk! The doctors said you never would!"

Timmy grinned sheepishly. Fresh tears welled in her eyes. She had never seen such expression in his face.

"It's a long story, Aunt Dot. I don't really understand all of it myself, really. But -- " He looked down.

"Timmy! It's wonderful!" She pulled him to her again. "Wonderful!" She actually giggled.

"Aunt Dot," Timmy said, pulling away. "I just want you to know how much I -- I wanted to thank you. You took care of me after Mom went away. And I know that wasn't easy for you, especially with Uncle Dan gone. And me being the way I ... I was."

"Oh, Timmy, darling!" she cried. She laid her hand on his cheek. "I don't mind the least little bit! You're such a sweet boy, I -- "

"Aunt Dot, I have to go away."

She pulled her hand back, her elation draining away.

"Go away?" she echoed in a weak voice.

"Yes, Aunt Dot." he said, looking away, then back. "I can't stay here anymore. Things are ... I'm ... different." He struggled with the words. "It wouldn't be safe. Not for me ... or anyone else."

"Timmy ... Timmy, I don't understand. Of course you can stay here!"

"No, Aunt Dot, I can't. And I'm sorry I can't explain why. You'll just have to believe me. But, don't worry, it's going to be okay. Everything's going to be okay."

"But, Timmy, who will take care of you? Where will you go?"

"I'll be taken care of, Aunt Dot. Really. You can't worry. Please don't worry." He stopped, seemed to think about something, then said: "Here."

Aunt Dot gasped faintly. She fell back on her pillow. A wave of emotion spilled over her; peacefulness, both soft and powerful; a peacefulness more intense than she'd ever felt before. And she knew it was coming from Timmy.

"And don't worry about where I'll go, either. It's going to be great. I can show you, even -- but just for now. I can't let you remember it." He touched the sleeve of her nightgown, and his eyes met hers.

She gasped again, louder this time. Her eyes went wide, as images spilled across her mind.

"Oh, Timmy!" she whispered. "It's like nothing I've ever seen -- "

He smiled. "I know." He turned, and looked at the window. His smile faded, and seriousness overspread his face as he turned back to her.

"You have to go now, don't you?"

He nodded. "Listen Aunt Dot. I'm going to make sure you're taken care of, like you took care of me. I can't explain now, but when you wake up, you'll know what to do."

In spite of the soothing waves that continued to wash over her, her eyes filled again with tears.

"I'll miss you, Timmy," she whispered.

He moved closer to her bed. He leaned over her. "I'll miss you, too, Aunt Dot. Now, go back to sleep for a little while, and when you wake up, everything will be fine. You'll see."

Aunt Dot felt a wonderful fatigue settle on her. Her eyelid grew heavy.

Now, his face was just above hers. He bent and kissed her on the forehead, the same way she'd kissed him good night so many times in the past.

"I love you, Aunt Dot," he whispered.

She fell asleep.

####

Cape Code, Massachusetts

June, 1959

Dorothy Tenney carried the tea tray through her cottage's back door, and into the garden. Here on the Cape, no one called her Aunt Dot. To her neighbors and the store clerks, she was "The Widow Tenney." She smiled inwardly; she actually liked her new name.

She set the tray down on the wrought-iron table at the garden's center, looked out over the clematis enshrouding the white picket fence, and beyond to the dunes and the distant shoreline where the surf filled the late afternoon air with its constant sound.

Her mind turned back to that day years ago when she'd discovered that Timmy had run away. How she had amazed even herself that the event hadn't upset her as much as it should have. But, somehow, she'd known that wherever it was that he'd gone to, he was all right. He was safe. Of that, she was confident.

When the sheriff had finally come to the house to take her statement, Timmy's disappearance seemed to be just an unwanted distraction to him. He'd complained about the Stoddard boy, then said something about about snakes, and those two bullying brothers. When he'd mentioned the Rody boys, she'd told him it was no wonder Timmy had run off, what with the way the town had treated him.

It was after the sheriff had left that she'd gotten the sudden impulse to go down into the cellar and search through her husband's old trunk of keepsakes. And she'd found that stone wrapped in cloth sitting on top of the bundle of papers he'd saved from when he'd worked for the railroads down through the south.

Events moved quickly after that. Somehow, she'd known to buy herself a bus ticket to Boston, and take the stone to an assayer's office. When the little man at the desk had unwrapped the cloth and examined the stone with a magnifying glass, he'd become suddenly very polite. In fact, everyone in the office had become very polite.

And, before she knew it, she was wealthy. She had sold her place in Wellington and bought a cottage on the Cape. One with a garden in the back yard that overlooked the ocean. Where she could sit in the early summertime evenings, enjoy a cup of tea, and watch the sky. Just like she had told Timmy so many nights in the past after the two of them had finished listening to the radio.

What on earth had made her think of all that? Oh, yes, now she remembered. Tonight was the night that her favorite star would appear. In late June, it rose over one of the southernmost dunes. The star was faint, seemed to be a pale blue -- though with her eyesight she couldn't be sure -- and hung at the end of a chain of three brighter stars. Dorothy knew nothing of constellations, so she had no idea which one it was in. But she knew how to find it in the sky.

As she drank her tea, she watched the evening sink into night. Waves crashed far away, softened by the distance into a gentle rumble. The nighttime lights came out and filled the clear skies above her. The star she was waiting for was easy enough to spot when it peeked over the dune. She sat and watched it for at least an hour. It climbed and brightened as the night advanced.

Finally, it was time for bed. She repeated a ritual she had begun not long after Timmy had left, never fully understanding why, any more than she could understand how she knew that that particular star was important, nor why Timmy had run away, nor where he'd gone.

She kissed her finger, held it outstretched to obscure the star.

"Good night, Timmy," she whispered.

She carried her tea tray inside, and turned off the lights.

THE END


© 2013 Rick Grehan

Bio: Rick Grehan is a software engineer at Dell/EqualLogic in Nashua, NH. He is also a contributing editor for InfoWorld Magazine. (You can find a bibliography of his InfoWorld work here: Infoworld articles by Rick Grehan.) He has written for computer magazines for many years, having started as a technical editor for BYTE Magazine back in the 80's.
Mr. Grehan's most recent appearance in Aphelion was A Stormy Night at Wellington Depot, in the December 2012 / January 2013 edition.

E-mail: Rick Grehan

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