October 12, 2016

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Chapter Two: Uncanny Earth

September 9, 2016

Sam fell on the bleachers, dropped his bag at his feet, and tried to catch his breath. Jessica glanced up from the algebra on her knee.

 

“Where’s the fire?” she asked. “You supposed to be somewhere?”

 

“Probably,” Sam panted. “I’m a little. Late.”

 

“Just a bit.” She looked him up and down, frowning at the hair plastered to his head and the sweat-stains down the front of his t-shirt. She wrinkled her nose. “Where’d you come from? The farm?”

 

“Double English. Ran. You know how far that is?”

 

“You tell me.”

 

Sam pulled a Gatorade bottle from his bag and popped the cap with his teeth, downing half of it in three gulps. He finished drinking and took a long, deep breath. “A mile. Maybe two.”

 

“And it took you that long? Jeepers, Tex, don’t hold your breath for Varsity.”

 

“Tell me about it.” Sam shook his head like a dog, perspiration flying. Jessica flinched, sweat spotting her glasses.

 

“PS,” she said. “Gross.”

 

Sam leaned over and kissed her cheek. “You love it.”

 

She looked at him sideways as she wiped the lenses on her sleeve, unmoved. “Super gross.”

 

Sam shoved the bottle back in his bag and looked down the bleachers. “I miss anything good?”

 

Troy, two rows down, whistled thinly through his teeth and shook his head. “Not a damn thing, Sammy boy. This game’s staler than Blondie.” He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Wake up, Mike, your ass is showing!”

 

The ball hit the backboard with a thud and bounced back down the court. A player stopped at the three-point line, looked up at the bleachers, flipped Troy the bird. Troy laugh and returned it, cheerfully. “That’s m’boy!”

 

Sam watched the players converge at the other end of the court, the ball just travelling, no real action. Mike appeared and disappeared, a red jersey in between a lot of other red jerseys, and Sam’s attention drifted to a group of seniors on the far side of the field, kicking a football near the posts. Over the tops of the trees that lined the parking lot, clouds were slowly stacking like a suit of dark cards.

 

Sam looked up at the sky above him, at the hazy blue streaked liberally with innocent white, and said, “They say it was gonna rain today?”

 

“That’s what I said, thank you,” Jessica replied.

 

Troy waved his hand. “It’s not going to rain,” he drawled. “Trust me, I know things.”

 

“Like what happens when you jump off a roof and miss the pool?”

 

“What can I say? I am the Alpha and the Omega.”Troy rapped his knuckles on the cast around his foot for emphasis. “I get shit done.”

 

Sam watched the storm clouds gather on the horizon, ignoring them both. The afternoon was humid, the clouds high and thin, bookending a week of sweaty high eighties. They were in for rain, it appeared, even if the weatherman had neglected to mention it. Thick and bruised with purple, those clouds were thunderous, no doubt about it; Sam felt the hairs on the nape of his neck shiver with the static charge. They moved with a swiftness and density typical of hail and lightning… though the season was all wrong, barely the beginning of October, and there was almost no wind.

 

Weird, he thought, but the feeling they left him with was a little stronger than that. The feeling of wrong was almost exactly right.

 

“Sure is some whack end of summer,” he said.

 

Troy rolled his eyes. “Man, it was like this last year.”

 

“You sure?”

 

“Sure I’m sure. Final game of the season washed out at half time. Remember? Away game in Scottsville?”

 

“Pumas led twelve to nine.”

 

“Three points down of the game-play record.” Troy shook his head, wincing. “And it didn’t even rain! Such a sadness, man, and I mean criminal.”

 

There was a shout from the court. Mike dropped a basket from the two-point line, his team applauding. Troy clapped along.

 

“Clouds aren’t the only thing that’s weird about it.” Jessica slipped a folded newspaper from under her math book. It was the afternoon edition of the Rutland Herald.  “You see this?” Sam shook his head. She passed it to him.

 

“Jesus Tap-dancing…” he muttered, unfolding it across his knee and glancing at the headline. “This for real?”

 

Jessica nodded. “Happened at the cross-walk two streets from mine. The whole road was closed off. Mom had to detour by West Park just to get us to school.”

 

Sam’s eyes moved from the headline to the grainy full-colour picture below it. The crumpled end of a silver sedan sat behind bands of striped police tape, the white outlines in chalk clearly visible between the dark puddles of oil on the tarmac. The inset in the corner was a two-tone passport photo of a middle-aged man. The caption below it read ROGER MCCORMACK, ALLEGED SHOOTER.

 

“I’ve seen this guy,” said Sam. “He’s got a billboard out by Route Thirty.”

 

Troy nodded. “‘Roger McC Is The Dealer For Me.’ Fucked up, right?”

 

“Twilight Zone and then some,” added Jess. “And I don’t mean the movie.”

 

Sam studied the man’s photo, trying to match it with the beaming face in the red Ascot suit standing ten feet high along Centre Road. The man in the mugshot was drab and unexciting, making the story below it all the more strange.

 

Again Sam’s attention returned to the screaming headline. He smoothed the paper cleanly in half, and began to read from the beginning:

 

RUSH HOUR SHOOTING, 5 DEAD AS PUBLIC LOOK ON.

 

10/9. Morning Of Shooting Horror: An instance of apparent road-rage has resulted in the deaths of five people early this morning in the town of Manchester, Bennington County. At approximately 7:30am this morning, Sean Hastings (aged 34), Benjamin Thomas (55), and Josette and John McGuire (25 and 4 respectively) were shot to death after their vehicles were involved in a minor car accident at the intersection of Union Street and Seminary Avenue. The shooter, identified as car-salesman Roger McCormack, allegedly passed through the intersection on a red signal, colliding with two oncoming vehicles.

 

Although no one was seriously hurt in the three-car altercation, concerned shop owners alerted police to gunfire at the scene of the crash. Witnesses drawn to the area following the accident report a tall, heavy-set man (Mr McCormack) engaged in a heated exchange between Mr Hastings and Mr Thomas. Mr McCormack, retreating to his car “seemingly to retrieve his insurance details”, instead returned to the scene with a .22 Colt revolver, and opened fire on both Mr Hastings and Mr Thomas, apparently “without warning”. Carl Lumbly, manager of the Cross-Walk Café, witnessed the shootings. “There was a lot of shouting,” he said. “The man [McCormack] was clearly distressed. Next thing we know, he’s got a gun in his hand and people were screaming. It was awful. Unreal.”

 

Sean Hastings was shot twice in the upper chest, while Benjamin Thomas received a single gunshot wound to the left temple. Both died at the scene.

 

As stunned pedestrians looked on, Mr McCormack then turned the gun on Ms McGuire and her young son, who, although not involved with the initial accident, had stopped to render assistance. McCormack then proceeded to re-enter his vehicle, where he took his own life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

 

Roger McCormack, the 45-year-old manager of “Roger’s Trade-N-Save”, a used car lot based outside Barnumville, was a life-long resident of Bennington County, with no prior criminal convictions and no record of mental illness. His actions this morning remain motiveless, pending police investigation.

This morning’s shootings bring the town’s unusual spate of deaths to seven in as many days, following Sunday’s bizarre gas-main explosion, which claimed the life of postman John Sheldon. [Continued, p.3]

 

Sam finished reading and lowered the paper.

 

Troy was watching him, eyebrows arched, reading his thoughts. “Pretty freaky, huh? As if that Sheldon guy losing his head off of that flying metal Frisbee wasn’t nuts enough.” Troy did a brief pantomime of a man being decapitated by a projectile drain cover, feigning the look of comical surprise at the end. Sam managed a smile, though the image left a sour taste.

 

Jessica was glaring. “That man probably had a family, Troy,” she said. “A little respect, okay?”

 

“Jess, the man was beheaded by a flying manhole. He practically ridicules himself.” Turning to Sam, Troy continued. “Read the one at the bottom. Some college guy reckons all the crazy shit’s being caused by the earthquakes.”

 

“Tremors, Troy.”

 

“Whatever, same difference. Read it.”

 

Sam skipped down the page to the second article, a small piece buried in the lower right corner. There was no picture attached, and the size of the headline was sedate by comparison:

 

STRANGE TOWN BEHAVIOUR LINKED TO “UNCANNY EARTH”, COLLEGE PROF CLAIMS.

 

Bennington County is again the scene of an inexplicable act of violence as a shooting on a major Manchester thoroughfare resulting in the deaths of five people early this morning, one of them a young child [see above]. While authorities struggle to make sense of the recent spate of baffling incidents in the County area (so far claiming almost a dozen lives), Gordon Jennings, a Professor of Applied Geo-Sciences at the University of Vermont, believes there is a telling link between these events and the unusual increase in seismic activity in a phenomena known as “the Uncanny Earth”…

 

“‘Uncanny earth’?” Sam read aloud.

 

Troy grinned indulgently. “I know. Keep going. It gets better.”

 

Sam opened up the paper and flicked to the middle, where the article continued, this time sandwiched between a piece on land prices and the classifieds:

 

[Cont.] Professor Jennings, who also holds a Doctorate in Analytic Psychology, attributes the sudden increase in unexplained behavioural violence and incidental fatality - including the shootings this morning – to a pattern of seismic irregularities he loosely terms “the Uncanny Earth”. His paper on the theory, published early last year, received much critical attention. Prof. Jennings, who has recently returned from a lecture series in Maine, elaborates:

 

“The human mind is more attuned to geographical anomalies than most people believe. It’s entirely possible, if not strictly scientifically plausible, that certain individuals may experience strange or irrational activity in connection with strange or irrational geographical phenomena. It is a documented fact that most animals exhibit some kind of intuitive behaviour linked to extreme weather alterations and geological phenomena. Why not humans?”

 

This “phenomena”, he explains, ranges from increased seismic activity such as tremors and low-level earthquakes, sub-atomic vibrations below the range of human perception, and a substantial realignment of “inverse phase-space”.

 

“Essentially, such phenomena is comprised of various areas of data, which are then correlated and heavily scrutinised for meaningful, physical implications. The plausibility of such phenomena impacting on everyday activity, to a substantial degree, is not generally within the realm of probability. But then again,” he is quick to add, “I doubt earthquakes localised entirely around the Bennington County limits is entirely “probable”, either.”

 

The claim was made following the area’s third earth tremor in less than a fortnight. The Bureau of Geographic Sciences has recorded three major tremors since October 1, with a total of fifteen minor tremors registering below 1.5, below the threshold of human perception. No geological cause for the tremors has yet been found.

 

“This kind of inexplicable activity is not uncommon along central tectonic faults,” says Prof. Jennings. “Vermont, however, has none.

 

“This activity is irregular. It appears to be localised entirely between a small geographical area roughly twenty miles square in the central western half of the state. To date, this conforms to no known model of geographical phenomena. There is every likelihood that its after-effects should be equally unpredictable.”

 

The Bennington County area has experienced more seismic activity in the past seven days than the entirety of the East Coast has in the past seven years.

 

Sam finished reading and lowered the paper. “This guy for real?”

 

“Total bull,” said Jessica, shading a slice of pie graph with her biro.

 

Troy looked past her. “I reckon the prof’s got it nailed.”

 

“Bull. Shit.”

 

“Think about it.” Troy swivelled around, swinging his plastered foot down carefully. “First there’re the earthquakes. Tremors. No warning, no explanation. Nobody knows what they are, or where they’re coming from. Suddenly people start going crazy. No reason, no explanation. It all fits.”

 

Jessica flipped her notebook shut with a snap. “That’s like saying ‘it was cloudy yesterday, so today must be Tuesday’. Two unrelated facts don’t have to have meaning.”

 

“It makes more sense than what you just said. Anyway, something has sure set them off. People don’t just go round blowing people away.”

 

“Unless he was a postal worker,” Sam added. “Because that shit happens.”

 

Jessica laughed briefly. Troy pulled a face. “I was being serious, but whatever. It’s whacked out, but it fits. You got any better ideas?”

 

Sam shrugged. He didn’t, and he didn’t much care. People acted crazy all the time. From what he saw most nights on the news, they didn’t particularly need a reason.

 

He folded the paper again and handed it back to Jessica. It was halfway to her hand when he looked up, saw the game court, and stopped moving, the newspaper hanging between them.

 

“Hey,” he said. “What are they doing?”

 

Jessica and Troy were looking at him, blankly. Sam nodded to the field. They turned towards the court, where the game had stopped. The players stood in a half-circle on the asphalt, watching the basket on the north end of the court. The ball lay just past the centre line, wide open and completely ignored.

 

“What are they doing?” Jess said.

 

Troy cupped his hands around his mouth, and yelled, “Hey Mike! Mikey!”

 

Mike appeared not to hear him; nobody did. They all stood rooted in place, staring at the hoop, frozen like store mannequins.

 

“What the hell? Someone call time out?”

 

“Listen,” said Sam.

 

Jess frowned. “To what?”

 

Sam narrowed his eyes. “Listen. Can’t you hear that?”

 

“Sam, what are you ---”

 

“Look.” Sam pointed this time. “Look.”

 

At first they didn’t see it, and for a moment Sam couldn’t, either. He narrowed his eyes, forcing them not to blink, ignoring the sun glare. And there it was again: barely visible, little more than a hint, but definitely there. He hadn’t imagined it.

 

The hoop was vibrating.

 

As Sam watched, the slight trembling grew; across the distance between the court and the bleachers – perhaps thirty yards – he heard it: the pole rattling in its metal bracket. Quiet at first, and then louder. The net swung back and forth, feeling the tailwind of a phantom dunk.

 

Sam blinked, his eyes watering. He couldn’t be certain of what he was seeing. It must somehow be a trick of the light; a mirage, or something like it. But when his eyes cleared, the image was still there: the hoop was shaking. Something was happening.

 

And it was getting stronger.

 

A sound clinked over Sam’s shoulder, like the pop of a photographer’s bulb. He looked up. The fluorescent light overhanging the bleachers flickered once, twice, chiming on and off like an irregular glass bell. The filament filled with hot white light, then burned out; no sooner had it gone dark than it immediately began filling again, brighter this time, buzzing.

 

“What in hell…” Troy looked down from the light above them, meeting Sam’s eye.

 

Sam turned slowly to Jessica; she was staring at the textbooks on the bench beside her. Her collection of Bic pens were jiving on the spot, twitching like small muscles charged with an electric current. One rolled off the cover and fell between the slats, and Sam realised that he could feel the vibrations, too: the bleachers were shaking under them, the joints and braces creaking like rusty old bones. It moved up from the seat of his pants into the hollow of his chest, where it stopped, filling up the space around his heart like thick black tar. It felt deep, and also strong – almost as strong as the pull and release of his pulse.

 

The sensation was awful. It was almost hard to breathe.

 

This is what it must feel like, he thought slowly, to have a heart attack.

 

There was a shout from the parking lot to the east, and Sam turned toward the sound. The lines of parked cars rocked in unison, visible behind the hurricane fence, bouncing on their suspension. A group of cheerleaders backed away from a street lamp, the round sphere flashing angrily on top of its pole. Like the fluorescent above the bleachers, the filament was filling and draining, shorting out the current only to begin filling all over again.

 

As Sam watched, the globe emptied and filled, emptied and filled, quicker each time; so fast now it pulsed like a strobe. It seemed to be building, just like the tightness in Sam’s chest. A static tingle ran across the back of his neck, the hairs there standing sharp on end. A sharp, acidic taste filled Sam’s mouth; bitter on the back of his tongue, and somehow painful, like biting down on tin foil.

 

It tastes like lightning, he thought, the idea as convincing as it was absurd. Lightning without thunder.

 

A sudden sharp, brittle CRACK snapped across the field, and Sam started as the parking lot globe exploded with a hot white flash. Glass fell in a glittering shower on the hood of a yellow Mustang.

Another cheerleader screamed.

 

“Ho-lee shit,” Troy muttered, pale.

 

Sam felt gooseflesh brush his fingers as Jessica slipped her hand into his, squeezing lightly, shivering up his arm all the way to his shoulder. The pressure in his chest rose to his temples, seeming to expand and contract behind his eyes, and the metallic taste of copper flooded across his mouth. His ears popped and everything became suddenly distant.

 

And then it stopped, as if someone had thrown a switch. All at once, the vibration ceased; the pressure vanished; the taste disappeared.

 

Just like that.

 

It stopped.

 

* * *

 

Time resumed slowly. Sam swallowed with effort, the taste of vomit burning the back of his throat. The ringing in his ears became tactile and hot; a car alarm yelped from somewhere behind the bleachers, but otherwise the afternoon had returned, draped in an anxious hush.

 

Troy took a deep breath. “What in the hell…” he said. That was all.

 

Sam’s ears throbbed. Over on the court, the players had come halfway back to life, full of indistinct shouting and nervous energy. One ran off towards the sound of the alarm. No one seemed much interested in continuing the game. The ball, Sam noted, was nowhere to be seen.

 

“I think,” Jessica said slowly, “I would like to go home.”

 

Sam saw the whiteness in her face, and nodded. He found his voice somewhere at the bottom of his chest, feeling as dense and indistinct as talking underwater. “I’ll walk you to the bus stop.” He stood on legs flimsy as cardboard stilts, shouldering his backpack while Jessica gathered up her books. Carefully, Sam bent down and picked up the fallen pen by his sneaker, handing it to her.

 

He turned to Troy. “Hey. You coming?”

 

Troy shook his head vaguely, watching the activity milling in the parking lot. The group of cheerleaders had advanced, part of a growing crowd examining the exploded lamp from the safety of the curb. “Gonna hitch a ride with Mike. You guys go ahead. This could take some time.”

 

“Later, then.”

 

Troy waved a crutch after them as they started down the steps, craning forward in his seat for a better view of the car lot.

 

A sequence of jumbled images played distractingly through Sam’s head, and he trailed one hand down the guardrail, just to be safe. In his mind he saw the net shaking on top of its pole, the ball players frozen, eerie entranced; the pens dancing across the cover of Jessica’s notebook, wriggling and strangely alive; the final flash of caged lightning, glass falling in a glistening rain…

 

The danger in what he saw scared him terribly, in a way it hadn’t at the time – like a driver merging in traffic and missing the cyclist he never saw, or a commuter missing the train which subsequently derails. The prevailing thought was that something had missed them: that they had come very close to something huge and terribly strong – like an invisible hurricane that was almost close enough to see – and that at the critical last moment, it had missed them.

 

Only now were the disastrous possibilities apparent to him: What if the basketball ring had fallen on the rooted players? The glass from the lamp showered down on the girls walking by? The answers were both equally fatal. The bleachers themselves were built in the 70s. What was twenty years of rust and wear against a tremor like that? They could have shaken apart beneath them.

 

Jessica stepped off the bleachers and started for the gravel path curving its way around the field to the main road. Sam stepped off the last step and stopped dead before she got there, their linked hands strung out between them like a tether. He was staring at the pavement, and what he saw there had stopped him in his tracks.

 

A long gash, an inch wide at its centre, split the concrete in half like a bolt of jagged lightning. The sidewalk had cracked open. There had actually been an earthquake, and the sidewalk had cracked open.

 

Sam stared at it, disbelieving and vacant. What was it about that idea that struck him as wrong, exactly?

 

Where do you start?

 

“Sam?”

 

Jessica was squeezing his hand. Sam squeezed back and started walking again, sneakers crunching loudly on the gravel. But his eyes fell inevitably to the horizon, to the tower of dark clouds silently building there. They no longer looked just wrong to him; they looked the very image of an invisible hurricane.

 

Whatever’s in those clouds, Sam thought, it isn’t anything like rain.

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