On hearing a third vehicle drive past his house in the space of twenty minutes -the latest coming back from the old Evans place- George Westerbrooke was again sitting on his toilet trying to shake off the feeling that he needed to trickle out just one more drop of piss. But there was no more piss left in him; he knew that, he just wished the burning sensation would go away. This was how he’d spent most of every night for the past three weeks, and nothing the doctors could say or do for him helped one shitty iota.
Already the cancer had spread into his spine and started to work its way up to his brain. Two months tops was what they said at the last appointment he bothered to attend, and that was seven weeks ago. Doctor Grayson had told him to visit the surgery once a week but George didn’t see the point in that, didn’t see the point in wasting what little time he had left on God’s good Earth just to be told by some snot-nosed kid in a white coat that he was still going to die sometime around the allotted date they’d set.
A car accident maybe, or even a shooting accident, either of those he could fully understand and accept, at least that way he’d have someone to blame for his death, but this, this was a faceless assassin.
He looked down at Mary, his devoted wife for the past forty-four years who insisted on being with him, and for the last hour had been kneeling on the bathroom’s cold linoleum floor in her white cotton nightdress. He held her withered hand in his as she offered him a weak smile, but the sadness in her still bright-blue eyes was more than evident. Her face, now creased by seventy-one years was still ever so beautiful, and her once thick, vibrant blonde hair had turned grey and thinned. He felt the cold in her small skeletal hand and rubbed the back of it.
‘You go back to bed, honey, I’ll be fine,’ he said.
‘What for, George? So you can sit here all alone and think about the things we didn’t get to do? Or the places we didn’t get to see?’
‘But you shouldn’t have to go through−’
She placed a hand on his face to halt his words and used her thumb to wipe away the tear he’d allowed himself to shed. ‘Now, now, George Westerbrooke,’ she said. ‘What I have to do and what I want to do are my choices entirely. And right at this very moment, above all other destinations of the world I could be, I choose to be here with you, in this place, our place.’
‘I don’t deserve you, Mary, do you know that?’
She smiled. ‘So after all this time you finally decided to agree with my mother?’
George shrugged. ‘Well,’ he said, his voice somewhat resigned. ‘I suppose the old battle-axe had to be right about something.’
Again she smiled and then lowered her head as silence fell between them. It wasn’t an awkward silence; to Mary it was a silence in which two people who have spent most of their lives together are comfortable with, a silence that is used to think about the good times spent between them. But for the first time this silence had a different ending for Mary, because so far she hadn’t bothered to worry about how she was going cope with not having George around anymore, and in reality she didn’t much care, but she knew George did. And after almost fifty years with the man both as husband and closest friend, she also knew when he sought solitude.
‘You know what I think will make us both feel a little better?’ she said. ‘If I go down and make us both a lovely cup of tea?’
George nodded. ‘That would be nice, dear.’
Downstairs in the kitchen, Mary had the kettle over a flame on the stove that George had bought for her seventy-first birthday but had spent the following two days cussing and sweating as he fitted it. It was two weeks after that when he’d told her what the doctor had said to him on his appointment a week before her birthday, when he first complained of having some slight bladder trouble. For Mary, that day turned out to be the worst day of her life … so far.
The kitchen still held the aroma of the blueberry pie that won her the first prize at the town festival yesterday just before that awful incident with the poor little Ferris girl. She folded her arms and leaned against the counter. Life is nothing but a spectrum, she thought, no matter which end of it you stand at, the Lord can ever so easily push you off.
Other than the sound of water just before the boil, the kitchen was almost silent. Almost, because when she listened hard enough, broken sobs could be heard as they echoed off the tiled bathroom walls. George had always been the proudest of men but the cancer had reduced him to little more than a scared child. The tear she wiped from his cheek before she came down wasn’t the first he’d shed since finding out about his condition, although, it was the first he’d shared with her.
To hear him cry like that broke her heart and she didn’t want to leave him alone to do it, but she knew if she went to console him he’d try his best to hide his feelings, and she didn’t want that either. She didn’t want him to bottle it all up, he needed to let it out, and if being alone was the only time he could do that, then she’d have to accept that.
With a raised hand she stifled a sob of her own as she unlocked the back door and stepped out onto the stoop to feel the night’s warm air. Clear skies high above one low cloud showed a magnificent array of glistening stars which were made all the brighter by her welling tears. She wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her nightdress, then took a deep breath to calm herself, but the breath she took was acrid and caused her to cough. There was a rancid stench in the air, a burning stench, and when she looked again at the one low cloud she realised it was lower and moving faster than a cloud normally would. She looked to her left to see a faint orange glow reflect off the tall pine trees at the bottom of Mrs Winkle’s garden. Her brewing antics never smelled like this before, and, as far as she could remember, she’d never seen visual evidence of it before.
She walked past and ignored the whistle of the boiling kettle as she carried on through the house and out the front door. And when she reached the middle of the road she saw flames coming from the front of Mrs Winkle’s. Back inside she fumbled through her phonebook to look for Dennis Meade’s telephone number as the kettle still screamed to be lifted from the heat.
It rang four times before anyone picked up and Mary didn’t wait for a “Hello”. ‘Dennis, this is Mary Westerbrooke … what? Hold on a minute.’ She put the phone down and turned off the flame under the kettle and picked up again. ‘I said … oh never mind, just get your truck out to Dorothy Winkle’s. I’ve just been out front. Her house is on fire.’
Mary heard the phone go dead and once again silence reigned. She forgot about the kettle and the tea and called up the stairs to George to let him know about the fire and that she’d be going up there to see if Mrs Winkle was all right, she listened but didn’t hear his reply, she hoped he’d climbed back into bed and gone off to sleep.
After he'd regained consciousness, Mitch had managed to pull himself up enough to rest his shoulders against the bedroom wall. He reached up to find a wound in the right side of his neck. The bullet had passed clean through just above his shoulder, but in doing so had allowed two holes for him to bleed through. There was also a strong pain on the left side of his head, like he’d been clubbed with something heavy. He looked to his left to see Deputy Walker, motionless behind the closed bedroom door. His face looked pale in the strange orange glow coming from outside and his head was jolted forward by the corner of the room. There was a black hole above his left eyebrow that trailed a thin line of blood around half his eye socket; he looked to be staring at the broken, blood-spattered window above where Helen Ferris lay.
The room, apart from Mitch’s laboured breathing and grunts of pain as he tried to move, held an eerie silence; as well as the odour of burning wood. Peter Ferris’ body lay beyond the left-hand mirror in a similar position to his own, his eyes were closed and his chin rested on his chest. Helen, again in a similar pose, but with her legs folded underneath and her, and skirt riding high on her thighs, stared directly at him.
He looked to where he’d seen the body of Elizabeth Ferris fall from the mirror before he blacked-out, but that part of the floor was bare. Had he dreamed it all? Was he still dreaming? Was he at home and still in bed? No, no way, the pain that seared through his lower neck and left side of his head dispelled all hopes of that. Which could only mean the truth of what just happened was that of a living nightmare. He’d seen the walking, talking corpse of Elizabeth Ferris, and witnessed as she shot dead his deputy, and then turned the gun on him. He needed to think, needed to get his own mind around this. No one will believe his explanation of how these three people came to be dead; they’ll think he’s insane, think he’s seeing dead kids all over again.
Mitch was still slumped against the wall as he contemplated his copious lack of options when he realised there was something weighty in his right hand. It was a gun, his gun; he raised it to sniff at the barrel and caught the strong scent of cordite. He emptied the magazine over his lap to see four unused rounds and two spent ones, yet remembers full well that he’d aimed the gun but hadn’t pulled the trigger. He returned the bullets and the empty shells to the magazine and closed it again. He wondered what the hell was going on.
Okay, all paranormal shit aside, he had a choice, either sit on his ass all night and try to work it out, and, quite possibly bleed to death in the process, or somehow get to the phone downstairs and call Doc Grayson.
He holstered his gun and rolled to his right and managed to kneel and put both palms on the bed in front of him, his eyes now level with the blood-spattered window where he could see Mrs Winkle’s house in flames.
Mitch pushed off the bed and rose to see the whole of the house across the street engulfed in fire. He put his left hand over the wound on his neck and applied as much pressure as his nerve-endings could tolerate and stumbled his way through the door and onto the dark landing. He used the wall to steady himself as he made his way to the top of the stairs where he managed to get down three or four before he heard the distant honk of Dennis Meade’s fire truck, and then his world started to go in and out of focus. He continued down and managed to reach the front door just before blackness settled in.
Forty-year-old Chief volunteer fire-fighter Dennis Meade turned left onto Woodsman Drive to see an ominous orange glow six hundred yards up ahead. In the cab with him and pulling on their protective gear were Matt Harvey, Mike Dresden, and Sue Tyrell. All four sleepy-eyed and all four secretly fearing they were inadequately trained for this type of fire, their last three outings being in almost as many years. Two of which were small bush fires started by out-of-town campers and the third was an old disused barn, purposely ignited by its owner because it was quicker and cheaper than having it demolished by hand.
Dennis pressed on the gas pedal like he was trying to push it through the truck’s floor in order to push the aging behemoth to its limits; his head, with its sparse scattering of grey, wet from the sweat of anticipation and fear.
‘Mike,’ he yelled above the honking noise, ‘once we stop, I need you to run to the back of the house, make sure that still ain’t nowhere near them flames, we don’t want that thing goin’ up on us if it’s full.’
‘Matt, Sue, you reel out those pipes and get ‘em wet, fast.’
‘Right, chief,’ they both said.
As the fire-truck got passed the Westerbrooke’s place, Dennis noticed Mitch’s cruiser up ahead, Mitch wasn’t anywhere to be seen but he saw Mary Westerbrooke stood beside the car.
‘Jesus, it’s an inferno,’ said Matt Harvey, as he snapped-shut the studs on his jacket.
Sue looked out. ‘Oh Christ, I hope she ain’t in there.’
Seconds later all four bailed out as Dennis stopped the truck closer to the burning house than he felt comfortable with. Three of them followed the instructions they were given and Dennis, now snapping his own studs shut, approached Mary Westerbrooke. The intense heat hit him like a blast-furnace and the noise sounded like the jet engines of a 747.
He had to shout to be heard. ‘Have you seen Dorothy?’
Mary shook her head.
He glanced at the cruiser. ‘Where’s Mitch?’
‘I’ve no idea; I’ve been here waiting for you since I called. His car was already here but I haven’t seen him.’
Fearing the worst, Dennis turned to the fire. ‘Don’t tell me he went in there looking for..?’
‘Dear God, I hope not.’
‘Hey, Dennis,’ Sue called. ‘We could sure use some help over here.’
He looked to see her and Matt drag the two dilapidated hoses closer to the house, each of them springing more leaks than the Nixon administration. He shouted back, ‘Yeah, one minute.’ Then to Mary he said, ‘You need to stay well back.’
‘No, Dennis,’ she told him. ‘What I need to do is to get back home to my George.’ She placed a hand on his arm. ‘Just find Dorothy and Mitch, okay?’
Dennis nodded as she turned to leave.
‘Yeah,’ he shouted. ‘I’m comin’ for Christ’s sake.’
‘No, look.’ Sue pointed.
Dennis turned to the old Evans place to see Mitch Cunningham slumped but managing to remain upright against the door post. His arms hung limp, his head lolled over his chest, and the right side of his shirt-front was heavily blood-stained.