Our War with Molly Nayfack is being edited, and progress is - well it's steady because I have a schedule and a system. I can't say it's accelerating, but I can say as I revisit it I'm getting excited about it again.
Sample Chapter (One of Twenty-One)
The pastor, a rough sinewy man quickly approaching the end of his youth, did have bouts of loneliness on warm November Sundays. Blessed neither with the charisma necessary for his position, nor the complex understanding of the good word, Steven had started his adult life as a small engine repairman. And on this Sunday, as his congregation hall lay empty and silent before him, small engine repair was what he did. Lost in a world between habitual divine reference and the Reader's Digest book of small engine repair, Pastor Ritzer scratched his dry scalp with the edge of a slot screwdriver. Before him, in six pieces of varying size, lay the autopsied appliance still bleeding oil all over his oak and sawdust table. With or without a book to guide him, ethanol conversion was new territory.
He was so caught up in finalizing his new machine, in fact, that he almost missed the timid sound of knocking coming from the church's double doors. He checked his watch, surprised at the sound. Service would have begun nearly a half an hour ago. The pastor grabbed his old shop rag, stiffened by years of collecting petroleum, and wiped the muck from his hands before walking to the massive door and opening it. The source of the uncertain knock was Andrea Newmann. He could tell by the red cracked veins in her eyes and the trembling of her lips that she had either been crying or hadn't slept in a long time.
"Hello pastor," she said. Andrea was a thin woman who walked with timid steps but a head held high, approximately six years older than Steven as he recalled. She was wearing the butcher's frock of her husband's profession, a patina of gentle pinks mingling with the deep reds of quickly aging blood. She held her body close to the door as if he were about to close her out, "Is there a service this morning?"
"I waited a few minutes this morning to see if anyone would arrive," Pastor Ritzer lied. He caught himself in the lie and swung the door open to let her in, "The truth is, lighthouse keepers get more visitors on mornings like this." She let out a single tearful chuckle and then stopped her breath short. The mystery was solved. She had been crying. Ritzer discreetly looked her up and down, noting her hair was tangled in the strings of the butcher's frock behind her. He considered untangling it for her, but stopped himself. She wasn't unattractive for her age, and he was too unused to communicating with his congregation to know what was off limits.
"I was wondering," she said pausing to choke back tears, "If I could get some communion this morning. It's been a while."
Ritzer walked quickly over to his table and scooted his chainsaw project to the side, pulling a silk cloth from his communion box. He had been snacking on the thin, unleavened wafers hours prior, and knew there would be at least a few left. He always left a few for emergencies. Also in the box was a bottle of wine, untouched. He lifted the box from the table, scattering a handful of errant bolts onto the concrete floor and turned back to Andrea. She was now sitting, trying to find a place for her hands that wasn't covered in hog's blood.
"It will be a while," he said, "I can expedite the sacrament if you want."
"I closed the shop for the morning, so I have time," she said, casting her eyes to the ground, "But I know you have other work."
"Andrea," he said, his voice telegraphing the genuine sympathy of friends, "why are you here?"
She didn't answer right away. Steven knew that her husband wasn't in a good place. When he was able to, Steven had agreed to deliver sacraments to the Newmann household for their youngest child. Delia had been battling a wasting sickness diagnosed by the town doctors as neuropathic heredofamilial amyloidosis. Food did nothing for her. It was incurable short of a miracle. And miracles were precisely the sort of business Steven was regrettably in. He only knew the name of the disease because he had included it in his prayers up until three months ago. That was shortly before the child's funeral. He hadn't spoken to the Newmann family since, which was a shame since Andrea and he had grown close in that time. In her fragile state, Andrea's husband would take up the mantle of protector and healing counsel. But in a small town like Cairo, word of drunken behavior got around. Ritzer knew that all too well. She leaned into him, a few strands of her soft hair, animated by the static from her gown reached out and clung to his neck. All she said was,
"It's not a good day."
"Your husband is drinking?"
"Yes," she said, "He hasn't been to the shop in nearly a week. It's been this way since Delia was taken up. It's getting worse."
"I could talk to him," Steven said, "To be fair I don't know what I'll say, but I'll think about it."
"Thank you, preacher," Andrea said, turning her head to wet his shoulder with her eyes, "I know your faith will help carry us through this troubled time."
"Now if you don't mind, we can get started on communion," he said rising, and for the first time all morning, giving a genuine smile.
"I'll be back," Andrea said standing. There was an unfamiliar optimism in her voice, "Tomorrow night. And I won't be alone."
Before he could respond, she had turned and was walking out the door. With the closed door still echoing through the congregation hall behind her, Steven Ritzer walked back to the table where he had dropped the bolts on the floor. One by one he picked them up and placed them back next to the chainsaw. Behind his tools he fished his hand into the bookshelf and produced his father's bible. A thin layer of dust had already begun to accumulate on its binding. He ran his thumb up the spine of the book. Then to no one in particular said,
It was twisted, pulled up like it had been ripped out of the ground by a giant. The McCarthy brothers, Mike and Felix were measuring a nine foot gap where the railroad tracks had been torn up.
"Could have been an earthquake," Mike said, "Only the tracks look like they were pulled away from each other."
The tracks, hot rolled steel beams from the first construction project, would have required a powerful and heavy machine to bend like a paperclip. And yet here it was. No tractor treads, no harnesses, and of course no known reason.
"Somebody did this," Felix said reaching out and trying to move the track with his hand. It didn't budge. The beams were nearly an inch thick at the top running sideways. There were no signs of tools or hammers, no chiseling to weaken the track. Only the bent steel itself. It was as though they had suddenly become animate and twisted themselves out of shape to ensure the once yearly lumber haul wouldn't take place.
Mike pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket and pointed into the mist,
"Could've been pulled by a rope. Maybe a couple dozen ropes."
"Who pulled?" Felix said taking one of his brother's smokes out of his shirt pocket and lighting it, "There's nothing out here but birds. And even though they're little devils, they're not going to suddenly organize and turn on us."
"Maybe not," Mike said around a reused filter. Even though the mist was light that day, they could still only see a dozen yards around them. Surrounding them at the edges of their vision they could see the trees clutching the soil with thick and warped roots. They stood like sentinels, bearing silent witness to this strange and impossible desecration of the town's lumber line.
The combination of woods and thick fog were enough to overwhelm an isolated individual, particularly a vulnerable and troubled young girl quickly watching the approach of sunset. Mike whispered a name under his breath. It was partially to answer Felix's question to himself, partially to remember her name, "Molly Nayfack."
"Make the call," Felix said, dusting a small patch of dried mud off his Wellingtons, "Call the Sherriff or have a look around ourselves. This didn't happen out of nowhere. Do you want to look around?"
"Did you bring the gun?" Mike asked. Despite there being no observed predators outside of the clear cut line and no evidence of potential game other than the crows, the pair often carried a bolt action Winchester model 70 with them. The muted bang of the .22 hornet rounds didn't make a sound much louder than a man screaming, so their justification of using it for signaling didn't quite follow. Sometimes they did employ it for recreational target shooting, but the weapon's primary purpose was unavoidably a deadly security blanket.
"I didn't bring it, no," Felix said, "I did bring this, though." Mike held his hands out and caught the small flask of One Winged Fly craft whiskey that was their family label. Felix continued, "I mean if you need it."
"I think I might," Mike said topping it and taking a modest swig. It had a thin almost citrus taste, odd for whiskey. Despite the brewing process being a secret, Mike always suspected that his parents had some unconventional ingredient that would explain why they only occasionally indulged. It was probably something radioactive that had left him with a hollowed out liver even at the age of 27. He pocketed the flask behind his jeans and picked up a straight piece of wood for a walking stick, "Let's go."
The only slightly older Felix cracked the knuckles of his left hand, "You need a stick? You scared?"
The area 30 feet from the tracks looked mostly like everywhere else in the world outside of Cairo. Tall white pines mingled with pin oaks and sycamores. Occasionally you would see an apple tree or some other variation with massive roots gnarling around other trunks. Of course trees like that rarely had fruit if you found them in the wild. The crows descended on them like barbarians. Mike nudged his shoe against a small pile of fallen leaves mingling with pine needles.
The pile moved easily, having been moved into place after being bundled up first. As Mike flipped up the edge, he spotted a small set of footprints pressed into the soft ground beneath. Further up, Felix kicked more leaves to the side. More tracks. Over the course of several minutes, they uncovered a massive string of them, leading to and from seemingly everywhere. All of them were made by the same two feet, a heeled simple shoe, small for an adult male - likely a petite woman. Whoever it was, if their footprints were any indicator, they wouldn't have been strong enough to even budge the tracks, let alone twist them like origami.
"All the same, and all of them fairly fresh," Felix said, "One person was here walking all around, and retracing steps. Whoever it was somehow got out here alone to do this."
Mike was becoming more aware of the oppressive mist closing in around them. And the more he looked at the tracks, the more he became aware that whoever had done this could still very well be out there watching them. There was an oppressive watchful feeling in the air. Almost as though they were doing precisely what the vandal had wanted. It was a complex feeling of inevitability, somehow evident in the roots of the trees themselves. And that's when he had a curious thought. What if the footprints were somehow hoaxed? What if this had been a conspiracy of trees, hatched in the middle of night in response to the shameless encroachment the train had made into the alien world?
With short breaths moving his mind, he attempted to chart how much strength the towering trees might have if they were to suddenly become animate. And perhaps there was someone else, some agent with human hands and little shoes that looked into the untamed wilderness and became lost. Perhaps, realizing the unconquerable wild around them, this person had sided with an army that outnumbered them all. It was a mad thought, the sort of thought that bred easily in the entropy of this wild city of trees and birds. And in Mike's mind in particular.
In that moment, staring into the roots and footprints, Mike suddenly forgot that he was not alone.
"We're not alone," Felix said, "Someone's down there by the tracks."
"Who?" Mike asked. Felix had always fared better in the deep woods, gathering information from sounds and discerning images from the shadows in fog.
He was observant, often deciphering clues far removed from his senses through context. It was prodigious, sometimes frightening. Once upon a time, Mike had considered Felix to possess a second sight. Of course these days he realized it was more skill than paranormal gift. Felix knelt down, not quite hiding, but certainly keeping his voice low,
"I don't know. I didn't hear a vehicle, but there's someone down there. And she's not making a lot of noise."
"She?" Mike asked, lowering his voice to a whisper, "What makes you say that?"
"I want to say I heard breathing. It sounded like a girl - woman. Like a gasp maybe. To be honest, it's just the feeling I get."
The wide range of information Felix unconsciously processed fell into the spectrum of his feelings. In addition to his propensity for picking up on subtext, he had almost no aptitude for actually understanding which of his senses were providing them. The result was a near facsimile of latent ESP - which these days neither of them believed in.
Mike caught himself hugging the ground near a small pile of leaves. Just as Felix often processed information differently, Mike too had a propensity to look into situations. It was near impossible for him to stifle the flood of paranoid thoughts slowly creeping into his mind. Much of it was magical, well outside the spectrum of what they considered realistic. And what's more, it would not help them. It was her, the disciple of trees who had come to force them to watch whatever had driven her from reason. Out here she knew ways of twisting the mind into something tortured, sick, barely recognizable as human. She was down by the truck, where their only means of escape was, and she knew they were here.
"Hey!" Felix called out into the fog.
Mike's blood froze.
"Felix? It's Jessica," the voice came back. Footsteps crunched leaves and twigs toward them and a shadow against the wall of mist grew visible. Both of them imperceptibly sighed in relief as she strode up to them saying, "Well, I'm waiting. What the hell happened here?"
"Good question," Felix said, "We've been looking around and we found some footprints."
Jessica inhaled deeply and let out a slow steady hissing sound,
"So you took it upon yourselves to contaminate the scene of a crime," she said, scolding them with hefty sarcastic nods, "What did you find?"
Deputy Myers, the Sherriff's second in command was a well groomed and athletic woman, married to the safety and order of the town's citizenry. She wasn't known to be a hard case, often overlooking standard police procedure in the name of convenience - when it made sense to be merciful. She was also nearly impossible to outrun, as the McCarthy brothers had learned as rebellious teens. She read from the small notebook she pulled from her shirt pocket, and clucked her tongue,
"I was coming out here to detain you both, but it looks like there's a much bigger problem here. What sort of tracks?"
"Detain us?" Mike said, looking with boundless uncertainty to Felix. Before Felix could stop him, Mike had sputtered and hissed his lips together, saying, "What'd you find out?"
"We picked a couple of the larger items on your list, but like I said that's kind of outweighed by this. Gambling and spiking punch bowls isn't so difficult to overlook. The fact is, you're troublemakers. And that means you're at the top of the list of people the Sherriff wants to talk to today." She smiled with a hint of her own breed of mischief when she said, "It's not what you think, though. It's worse."
"Oh good," Mike said swiping his arms out in a wide gesture as he walked past her, "I hadn't made many plans for the next six to ten years." As the three of them approached the tracks, he spotted her mountain bike parked next to their truck, leaning on its kickstand. Mike considered kicking it over with a loud 'woops,' but instead moved it gently out of the way so he could open his door.
"They're on their way," Andrea said into her radio, "And send some people out here. Somebody's ripped these tracks up all to hell."
"Copy. Can't wait," they could hear the sheriff say back. He sounded as cold and distant as ever. It was nearly the voice of a machine. They were almost certainly doomed to have attracted the Sherriff's attention. Felix and Michael gave each other a quick look of despair.
The consequences of being caught for even the most petty of crimes would be steep once news reached back to the elder McCarthy estate at the edge of town. Mike could imagine their parents yelling over the desk down at the Sherriff, slapping their hands on the dull metal bars of a cage and demanding the two boys never be let out. And yet, Jessica was teasing them about what was about to unfold. That was almost certainly a sign that it wasn't over for them both. At least not yet. She wasn't a total monster.
"Before you go," Jessica said, "What's this you said about footprints?"
"One set, Michael said collapsing into the quilt covered seat in his pickup truck and slamming the door behind him. Rolling the window down quickly, he continued, "One set up there on the hill. Maybe there are more. We didn't look around that much. Do you want a lift back to town?"
Jessica weighed her options. If there had been a small army out here pulling up the railroad tracks, there was a chance they would still be here. And yet, there was an even greater risk that any sign of fear or weakness at this point would have an inevitable effect on the McCarthy brothers and their interactions with the sheriff. Now, more than ever she needed to look strong, unflappable in front of them. She had known the two boys for the whole of their adult lives. They had a way of finding trouble.
She looked over her shoulder up the tracks and saw the twin beams rising up, twisting like curls of black frozen smoke in the early morning air. The truck's doors opened and slammed shut again and the engine roared to life. Time to make a decision.
"I'm not going to escort you to the Sheriff's office. You know where you need to be, and he's already waiting for you. I'll be fine out here on my own."
"Jesus, Jessica," Felix said leaning over to talk through the driver's side window, "We get it. You're an unstoppable law machine. It's ridiculous for you to stay here in the woods by yourself. Nobody's going to mess with the footprints now. We've already seen them. And it's not like the tracks can get more broken than they already are. Hop in the back and we'll give you a ride."
It would be easy to get out of the situation with both of them egging her on. It might even look foolhardy to stay. Then again, she was expecting more officers to arrive any minute. Ten minutes in this isolated spot didn't seem like the most difficult thing in the world to survive. But there was something in Felix's voice. He was scared - more so than he should have been. Something about this seemed more wrong to him than the natural order could provide. It was ordinary to hear paranoia rising in Michael's voice, but both of them? At the same time? She looked around their surroundings once again. The shifting walls of perpetual mist danced in the rising sunlight around them.
"Don't tell me what to do," is what she desperately wanted to say. Her mind and her mouth had already made the agreement to start the words when suddenly in the distance they heard an enormous crack.
The sound wasn't unfamiliar, though its meaning here and now was unknown. Someone, somewhere nearby, was felling a tree. The creaking snap was followed by more sounds of breaking branches and rustling leaves. There was a whine, the sound of a house being torn like paper as the enormous trunk fell, and then a crash that shook them like an earthquake.
Suddenly, movements were quicker - the decision easy. Suddenly, all three of them were filled - not with a fear of the unknown - but the terror of an animal caught in a snare.
Jessica leapt into the truck's bed and slapped the side of it. The vehicle whirled around like a bull and started charging into the mist. But was it toward the origins of the sound, or away from it? How easy would it be to trap them now out here in the woods with the only path leading back to town blocked by a tree? Wordlessly, they each thought about it until they finally reached the police station. It was a warning. One they knew they would be forced to ignore.
"Don't ask me why or how," Walter Garvey said pacing in the control station with a mug of instant coffee in each hand, "I can't put my finger on it. All I know is something isn't right this morning. It's the kind of morning that grabs you and lives with you your whole life afterward."
"Walt, I don't need to hear that right now," Willard said leaning back in the recliner he had dragged into the control room. His feet, clad in a pair of old army boots were still unlaced, dangling down past the edge of the control terminal near the microphone, "Your doomsday talk could use a rest. That's what I'm sure of."
Walter Garvey and Willard Nayfack had been placed in charge of the control terminal on that November morning. Three hours earlier, the helicopter had already left. The town had only one helicopter still operational, which was just fine according to Cairo's only surviving pilot, Chance Cooper.
Ordinarily, the radio would be alive with chatter from the chopper checking in every few minutes to update them on his position. On this morning, the last message they had received had been nearly an hour ago. Willard had written down the last transmission in his leather journal and waited. He had been sitting, chewing the cap of his pen, staring at the ukulele playing wooden hula girl standing on top of the CB speaker.
The room was heavy with smoke from Walt's seemingly endless supply of cigarettes. He paced the room with both mugs of coffee still spilling wild streams over his knuckles and the unfiltered square hanging from his lips,
"I'm not saying it's the end of the world, man. It's just the end of what we know. Something big's going to happen. I had a dream last night that I got struck by lightning and a million hands came up from the ground. The hands were like grass, man - just waving and grabbing at me-"
"Walt," Willard said staring at the hula girl's wooden cleavage. He was trying to think of another errand to send his companion on, "Did you remember to get me that coffee?"
"Here," Walt said setting the coffee down hard on the terminal desk, "And yeah I didn't put any honey in it. I only remember my dreams when something important is about to happen. You know what it's like. My grandmother always told me I had a way with dreams. I know things. Don't ask me how. I just do. And I'm telling you this is not good news. And instead of readying myself spiritually and mentally for these energies, I'm watching our only helicopter disappear in the void. Something's going on. They should have contacted us by now."
"I wanted honey," Willard said, breaking his eyes away from the radio and its companion for only a moment, "Please."
"You never want honey," Walt said, "Coffee black, no honey, no milk. It's always been that way."
"Honey, please," Willard said.
"Of course," Walt said, eyes wide and cigarette dangling loosely, "Of course. Everything else is coming to an end."
"Thank you," Willard said quietly as Walt carried both of their cups away down the hallway muttering to himself.
As soon as his companion was gone, Walt rolled the radio dial over to the police band and plugged the duct-tape covered headphones in, pressing them to his ear. The headphones had been a hand-me-down from the police station six years ago when they had their own replaced. Of course with only the one helicopter, the control terminal was a far lower priority. With fuzz edging out as he honed in on the police frequency he stared, as was his custom, at the hula girl.
"They're on their way," came Jessica's voice, "And send some people out here. Somebody's ripped these tracks up all to Hell."
"Can't wait," came the reply. That serrated voice could only have been the Sherriff.
"The tracks? Far out," Willard said chuckling and jotting the exchange in his ledger, "Why the tracks?" Energized, he rolled back the dial to the chopper frequency, hoping that during that fifteen second period nothing important had been broadcast. Just to be sure, he pressed down on the microphone switch and, as if in passing, said, "Rob, Chance, any word?"
No response. Only the swirling cackle of static breaching the gulf.
"Fine," Willard said, "Don't talk to me." As he rose to stretch and crack his spine, he turned behind him and spotted the massive windows letting a gentle ambient light into the room. The second story windows were virtually useless, thanks to the perpetual fog surrounding them, but very rarely the mist would clear up and he'd see the field where the helicopter was to land and take off. He certainly didn't know how Chance did it, flying in weather like this. As he turned to look down the hallway, he couldn't help but see the green domed lights hanging from the ceiling gently drifting from side to side. He glanced over back at the wooden hula girl and noticed her gently bobbling, her tiny strands of doll's hair shaking.
"Did you hear that?" Walt called back down the hallway, "Earthquake?"
"No," Willard said, snapping his fingers in thought, "I know that sound. That was a tree..."
"Chance Air One switching back on, we're coming in, please turn on the lights," the radio said. Both Walt and Willard breathed a chuckle of relief and smiled to one another, "Control, turn on the lights, we're coming in." Willard pointed to Walt,
"Switch them on. I'll meet them out there."
"No," Walt said, "You turn on the lights and I'll meet them. I got the coffee earlier."
"Whatever," Willard said grabbing Walt's leather coat and tossing it over, "Just stay off the landing platform this time." Pulling his coat on, Walt mocked Willard with a shrill sardonic voice.
Willard ignored him, hopped over to the radio terminal, and depressed the button on the microphone,
"Lights are turning on, Air One. Welcome back."
He reached over to the knife switch on the wall and pulled it down, closing the circuit to the spotlights outside with a spark. Out in the field he could see the brilliant spotlights even from the window. Looking down, Willard spotted Walt jogging out toward the landing platform.
If he had any sense, he'd wait at its base until Chance had safely landed the aircraft. Already, he could hear the gentle thrum of helicopter rotors moving toward them. Even in this fog, with the spotlights in place they should have little to worry about. He picked up his mug and took a sip, then winced. Way too sweet.
As he was out pouring the coffee down the drain, the radio piped up again,
"Chance Air One switching back on, we're coming in."
Outside, Walt was waving his hands above his head as the small craft maneuvered its way down virtually blind. It finally touched gear to the tarmac and settled. With the dying rotor still deafening him, Walt climbed up the landing platform and rapped his fingers on the window grinning. Inside, he could see Chance and his co-pilot sitting stoically. They were as white as ghosts.
Walt could tell they had seen something out there in the mist and trees. Something had changed them. Even now, the dream came flooding back to him. Hands like grass. Was he talking to Chance in the dream? No, it had been the older McCarthy brother, Felix. Strange, since they weren't friends. Regardless, it didn't help the prickling feeling of unease slowly reaching up his spine, clenching a ghostly hand to knock on his shoulder.
"Chance," Walt called out through the door, "You gave us quite a scare out there."
Chance was a younger man, aged prematurely by years of uncertain landings and last minute course corrections in a world where he rarely saw the ground in-flight. His co-pilot Rob was an old alcoholic, a cartographer, and a geologist. He was also the closest thing to family Chance had these days. Rob was staring down at his clipboard with his hand in his left armpit and a pained expression twisting his face. He wasn't moving. Walt knocked on the door again, this time a bit more frantically,
"Hey, come on out. We've waited on you long enough today."
Chance solemnly opened the door and got up from his seat. He was thin, almost to the point of looking sickly. His flight jacket ordinarily hid his bony frame, but he often didn't wear it on longer flights. He slowly opened the door and stepped out. He was saying something, but the rotors were beating too loud for Walt to hear. Walt cupped his ear and screamed into the wind for the pilot to repeat himself. Instead, Chance slowly shook his head.
Walt could see then that his eyes were red. Tears were freely welling up and dripping into his wind thrown hair. With Rob still sitting in the co-pilot's seat with his hand in his armpit, Chance suddenly grabbed Walt. He pulled his face near Walt's ear and yelled,
"It's the end of the line, Walt. I think it's the end for us."
From the fog above, a shape descended on them. It shrieked with a sound like metal tearing itself apart as it plummeted into the rotor blades, quickly becoming entangled with them and vomiting sickly green gasoline all over.
As it descended - in that single moment - Chance Cooper turned and looked up to see the thing collapsing on top of them.
Walt leapt instinctively from the landing pad onto the grass. With a sickening crack he felt his elbows break his fall. Startled, he let out a single frightened sound and wriggled on his back away. He screamed for Chance to run, but the pilot was only shaking his head. In that long second Walt was able to see what the shape was, but he didn't believe it.
It was a helicopter. Another helicopter.
The second impossible helicopter landing on top of this one keeled to the side and snapped into a handful of scattered pieces leaking gasoline in a semi-circle around the two entangled craft.
"Impossible! This is impossible," Walt kept wailing as he crawled on his back away, "Where did it come from!?"
And the whipping twisted blades atop this chimera of machines turned toward him.
The sound of smashing and twisting could be heard for nearly a quarter of a mile. The fire could be seen for only a fraction of that. There were no survivors. Inside the control terminal Willard took care not to spill his coffee when the dim fireball reached through the fog. He set the cup down with more care than Walt had earlier, rolled the dial, and radioed the police.
(End of Chapter One)