The weather had been warm and other than a few mosquito bites Preston found himself in relatively good shape. He stretched and let the crisp fall air fill his lungs. He would be done with the book in a couple of days and then he would venture back into the real world. Perhaps he would return home, perhaps he would just steal a car and drive. To where, he wondered? It didn't really matter, anywhere was better than Wellow Falls. His thoughts turned to the hypocrisy and the beatings before he yanked his thoughts away from such useless musings and turned back to the book. He read another sixteen pages, swatted a mosquito, and then felt his eyes growing heavy.
"To achieve this, the Germans must conquer a new German empire which would dominate the European continent. This pointed to a foreign policy that went far beyond the demands for the revision of the Treaty of Versailles...and became a full-blooded policy of acquiring Lebensraum (living space)..."
These were the last words he read before sleep overcame him in the Wellow Falls woods.
There was unusual movement in the woods and Preston sensed it. His eyes flickered open, cold and calculating, his senses coming alert and probing the surrounding environment. A rustle could be heard in the undergrowth, almost like the whoosh of the wind but different in its oscillations. It rose and fell, rose and fell, like footsteps, heavy tramping footsteps. Preston had long ago memorized the sounds and feel of the woods and he knew that someone was very close.
Stealthily, without making a noise, Preston wriggled out of his sleeping bag and withdrew his knife. Heart and mind were awake, pounding with adrenaline and excitement and a cold fury at having been disturbed in his retreat. Using the moon's light, Preston crept forward, away from the large tree and towards the sound. He moved and tread like a shadow, blending into the heavy silence of the woods. He could clearly hear heavy, clumsy footsteps now and the carelessness of the intruder doubled his fury. The cracking underbrush stopped and Preston slinked around the base of another tree. He felt the bark and sap under his fingers and he closed his eyes to magnify his other senses. A thick stench, like that of sewerage, or of a decomposing animal mingled with the smells of damp earth and aged wood, assailed his olfactory sense. He grimaced, opened his eyes, and stepped around the tree.
Standing in the middle of the brambles with arms to his side and a slightly confused look on his face was the nerd that Preston had beaten up just a day earlier. He looked at Preston and then whispered something that Preston could barely hear.
"No, please...can't do it..."
"Did you say something nerd. My god your a damn foolish kid coming here in the middle of the night." Preston remembered every blow his father had dealt as punishment for smearing carbon paper over the kid's face and he clenched his fists. His visit was like a manna from heaven and he was going to pay the beatings back and more. The little nerd continued to stand in front of him mumbling to himself.
"not a killer...I know, I know, it was promised but I don't want it anymore..." The boy's eyes seemed to roll back for a second and he spoke.
"Preston, run, please run, my mother and father. Run before I give in." He sobbed and Preston took a step forward.
"I'm not running anywhere you half twit moron. You should have learned your lesson Limpy." The eyes rolled some more and then the body began to shake as if some kind of internal battle was being raged between the eyeballs and the brain. There were more utterings, a gasp, and then a small smile. The boy's head dropped.
"Perhaps you are right, nothing but cruelty." Preston unsheathed his knife and the little boy fell to his knees. The boy stopped trebling and he raised his head to look at Preston. There was a leering smile on his face.
"Oh I've learned my lesson Preston. And I have you to thank for it." He rose slowly to his feet and advanced towards the bully.
"You see Preston, starting today, things are going to be a little bit different. I have a friend, and my friend tells me that you are no longer the bully in town, the one calling the shots, the big, mean honcho. As a matter of fact, my friend tells me that you're only what I want you to be. Wormfood, personal slave, slop boy, what will it be good old Preston boy?" The little dweeb began to dance around in a spasm of self adulation like a little faire elf.
"Oh you're dead," Preston hissed pointing his knife and thrusting with fury. There was a red sizzle near the boy's pointer finger, like the crackle of electricity which jumped across the space dividing them and landed on Preston hand. It seared and he dropped the knife. The energy danced over the silver metal before fizzling out and disappearing into the ground.
"What the..?" Preston took a step back and dimly heard a giggle.
"Just a little trick Preston, just the beginning of bigger things to come for you, Wellow Falls, and everything and everyone else. You see, it's been promised to me, all of it has been promised to me." For an instant Preston felt confusion and then his mind told him to run. Pride and fury dragged at his feet, but Preston's rationality was too strong and he leapt for the forest. The woods came to life at his call, showing him paths and its secrets as he escaped through it. From behind came incessant raving.
"Run all you want Preston! Run to the ends of the earth but I'll still be here! I've seen your destiny, and it is mine. I hold it in the palm of my hand!" Giggling reverberated through the forest and a sweat broke out on Preston's forehead. His lungs ached but he forgot the exhaustion and continued running.
He came to Vineyard Meadow, a flat grassy triangular area where he had played as a kid. He crouched in a familiar hollow hidden by tall strands of grass and groped in the sand until he found a large rock. A dark shadow plunged out of the forest and into the moonlight.
"Come on you little fucker, just a little closer."
"You are..." Which was cut off as the dark shadow plunged out of the forest and Preston slammed the rock into his back. There was a thump and the body disappeared into the tall grasses. A breeze blew the leaves and Preston bent over in exhaustion. He felt the adrenaline coursing through his body and could feel the sweat popping out on his arms and back. The bark of a dog echoed through the woods and Preston watched the tall grass. A minute passed and he slowly and cautiously crept forward. Finally, a little giggle.
"It's going to take more than a rock Preston, more than a rock. I've seen it all, I've seen you and what happens to you, my friend showed me. Your floating motionless, dead, on a sea of water. He says our destinies are linked, became linked from the moment we met." Another little giggle and then a fainter whisper. "Do you believe in destiny Preston. I'm going to help you avoid it all Preston, to become one of us. There is so much you have never seen." The grasses rustled and Martin rose. Where the rock had smashed his chest was a dark liquid like a skin that seemed to pulse over the wound like an external set of nicotine tarred lungs. The smell was putrid.
"Look what I've become Preston, invincible, powerful beyond my wildest dreams. My friend says I can have everything I've wanted. Come Preston, come to me and you can have it. Come to me." Martin smiled and Preston could sense the new power which gave this boy the confidence to make such an overture. It was revenge the small boy sought, the desire to see Preston grovel and beg, to plead for mercy from whatever power now controlled this nightmarish figure in front of him.
Of course he was dreaming. It had to be a dream because limping geeks did not suddenly spurt red electricity from their fingers and heal with black, oozing, breathing, moldy scabs. Except that it wasn't a dream and Preston knew it. The ground he stood on, the breeze, the boy in front of him were real and Preston realized that some portion of reality had buckled. The little boy stuck out his hand.
"Come to me Preston," he said like a father talking to a naughty son and Preston's anger exploded.
"You can shine and spit, polish and work, but when it all comes down to it, your still a loser Limpy. A lousy, little, faire of a loser." The nerd smiled and reached into his back pocket, pulling out a silver object. Preston's mind told him to run, but his pride made him stand his ground.
"Have it your way." There was a lunge and the silver object shot towards him. Preston tried unsuccessfully to lurch out of the way and he felt cold metal cut effortlessly through the middle finger on his right hand as blood spurted wildly from the wound. The digit bounced into the tall grasses. He looked at the grinning little boy in shock and staggered backwards before another blow could be delivered. He collapsed, rolled down a small hill, and could hear Limpy thrashing through the grass looking for him. In an attempt to stem the flow of blood, Preston pushed the wound into his other hand and scampered through the tall grass into the surrounding woods. He could hear the giggling in the distance. The pain was incredible and he could feel the warm blood flowing from between his clenched fist.
He staggered down a familiar path and rested against a large rock. The blood had stained his clothes and he could feel his body tiring and weakening. In the distance, he heard feet moving, reaching the edge of the glade and starting down the path.
He needed to reach the gulch, it was his only hope of escaping the little terror. Motivated by determination and hate, Preston's eyes remained clear and focused, intent on seeing their master through his difficult plight. He ran on, his legs beginning to feel loose and rubbery, his vision narrowing as large black spots began to mushroom around his vision. The sounds of the forest began to recede and Preston heard his own breathing, loud and labored, anxious and desperate.
At last Preston reached the gulch, a long crag in the earth which had once been mined for granite as part of the Wellow Falls quarry. It stretched hundreds of feet in both directions and provided a barrier between two halves of the woods. Going around would take a considerable amount of time. A hundred feet down was a shallow puddle of water and the rusted remnants of the mining companies long disused machinery. The only way across was a narrow plank about ten feet long, which the local kids maintained as a shortcut through the woods. The giggles were nearly upon him when Preston dashed across the gorge and kicked the plank away. He heard the slight whoosh as it sailed down, end over end, and then a muffled splash as the sound of its landing reverberated up the granite sides.
Martin emerged from the woods, limped over to the edge and looked at Preston.
Their gazes met and Preston realized it was life and death. The games he had played as a bully were over. Whatever buckle had occurred in reality it was deadly serious, and it would claim the lives or the souls, or the bodies of one of them.
"You're not alive," he whispered.
"More so than ever." The boy's smell, the heat which radiated off his young face, and the blood loss made Preston nauseous and he backed away.
"This isn't over Limpy, not by a long shot." Martin leered at him and gave him the finger.
"Pretty hard to do that now, isn't it Preston? You have no idea what's in store for you. You're nothing but a tool Preston, a vessel. Remember that." Preston turned his back and staggered away. Humiliation made his eyes water. Nothing in his life had ever beaten him so badly and the humiliation almost made him want to die.
Fury lashed him forward, it propelled his legs and kept his brain functioning. The anger rose and filled his veins like an elixir and he swore vengeance on Martin and whatever force propelled him.
He emerged from the woods and stumbled towards Wellow Falls center. His right hand and pants were drenched in blood and the black splotches were expanding, getting larger and beginning to blot out the world. The streets were dark, despite the lights and shadows which fluttered across the pavement. They began to merge with the black splotches and Preston stumbled and fell to his knees. He groped at a post, smearing blood all over the wrought iron, and staggered back to his feet. He stumbled into the center, unsure of where he was or where he was going. He started down Nestle Street and collapsed again on top of a manhole cover. He felt the cold metal below him and he heard a hollow sound, like the sucking of a vacuum cleaner.
"No," he mumbled, "no," and he slowly rose to his feet. The Ame's house was vacant. They had moved; Preston remembered seeing the For Sale sign on the house just a week ago. A warm breeze skittered some dirt and he shivered as goose bumps began to ripple up and down his arms and legs. Clenching his teeth to ignore the constantly swelling pain, and with some last remnant of strength, Preston lumbered unsteadily for another block until he reached a large white colonial house. He collapsed against the siding to steady himself, and left a long red streak across several rows of shingles. Slowly, while the pain continued to grow and the black splotches consumed his conscience, Preston inched over to the basement window and kicked the glass in with his boot. He fell onto the ground, cleared the shards away as best he could with his sleeve and then wormed his way through the small window. Preston fell four feet from the window to the basement floor, groaned once, and then looked up at the ceiling.
The hollow sucking sound grew louder and Preston could not fight its approach any longer. He felt a spit bubble rise from his lips and pop before the darkness became complete.
There was blackness for awhile and then vaguely, in the distance, Preston heard the sucking sound. It seemed to gather the folds of darkness about it, to twist and turn and Preston felt himself being drawn towards it. He tried to move his body but it was lead, weighted down and immobile, prostate in front of the sound that was forming and taking shape around him. It grew and grew and finally Preston realized it was death. It was his life force being drawn away and dispersed - entropy.
"Nooooo!" his terrorized mind thought but still the sound grew louder and now the blackness became a tunnel through which he was falling. "Noooo!" he continued to scream before the world erupted red and the blackness flew apart into a thousand pieces. For an instant, he saw a woman in a blue cape looking at him and then she was gone.
His eyes burst open and there was a girl standing over him. She held his hands and where their fingers met was a red sullen glow. He watched in disbelief as the flesh of the severed finger knitted itself. He looked back to her face and she smiled kindly at him.
"What is this?" was the only thing he could whisper before he collapsed back onto the pillow and returned to the darkness.
The hollow sound was back, although this time its quality was different, less urgent and menacing. It reminded Preston of his father raising a conch shell to his ear and telling him to listen. It had been on one of the better days of their relationship.
"Can you hear the ocean Preston. It's magic, the ocean is trapped inside of this shell." The sound tugged at him and Preston followed it, trying to make something tangible out of the low groans and elusive cries. Slowly, he was able to pull the hollowness together and give it shape.
He was over an ocean. And as he looked the ocean began to speed by below him. He could see the waves and an occasional small atoll. He flew across the miles, expectant and waiting, but for what he could not be sure.
Finally, he saw land. There was a long sandy beach and behind it were high cliffs that rose almost perpendicularly to form the edge of a dense jungle. He flew by and realized it was an island. Not alone, but one island of five. In the middle was a larger island, with a huge set of mountains in the North and a vast plain in the south extending to the middle area.
There was a tug as he moved towards it. His momentum slowed and he saw the ocean churning below him. He continued ahead and now there was a more violent tug that nearly sent his view spiraling into the blue ocean. The waves looked large and Preston realized he was falling. He saw the swell of the sea, the white foam of the stormy ocean, and the speckles of sea weed and ocean growth. The island loomed before him but there was another tug and now he plummeted down like a flying ace shot from the sky. As he plunged, his stomach rose. The air rushed out of his lungs and his stomach heaved as the ocean grew closer. Preston screamed....
...and bolted upright.