Miracle in a Dry Season    Dangerous Passage

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Darlington Woods by Mike Dellosso


Something evil is drawing them here . . .

Rob Shields has just lost his wife and son. Battling depression, denial, and an irrational fear of darkness, Rob travels to the small town of Mayfield, MD to check out a house he has inherited from his great aunt Wilda, a woman he has never even met. There in Mayfield strange things begin to happen that lead Rob to believe his son, Jimmy, is not really dead. After a restless night and eerie dream, Rob is convinced the answer to the mystery surrounding Jimmy’s disappearance and alleged death is to be found in a village called Darlington, a town found on no map.

Teaming up with a quirky local waitress who insists she has been there, Shields begins his quest to find the truth about the town—and his son. In Darlington, Rob and Juli come face to face with the town’s secret, creatures called Darklings inhabit the night and instill paralyzing fear in Darlington’s citizens. Their search for Jimmy leads them into the woods surrounding Darlington where, once in, there seems to be no way out.

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CHAPTER ONE:


Present day

As he pressed his beat-up Ford down an uneven stretch of asphalt, Rob Shields had death on his mind. His own. The void within him had grown to colossal proportions, opening its gaping black maw and swallowing any hope or happiness he once had. Lost forever. No chance of return. Death welcomed him, enticed him, drew him in with its easy ways and comfortable charm.

Oh, he knew he would never do it. Taking his own life had a certain appeal to it, held a certain freedom that his bleak outlook on life longed for, but it took a much braver— or dumber—man than he to actually pull it off. But still he wanted, maybe needed, to pretend he was as serious as murder. And that meant it was time to see the house. If he was to fantasize about putting an end to his journey, he at least wanted to see the place that had promised a better life. Just one visit, one look, would satisfy him.


He glanced over at the empty passenger seat then into the rearview mirror at the vacant spot in the backseat. Kelly would be jabbering about what beautiful country this was.


“Look at the wildflowers. Oh, I love wildflowers.”


And little Jimmy would be singing away to his MP3 player, getting the lyrics all wrong.


Man, he missed them.


A familiar sadness overcame him, and he once again thought of his own death. He couldn’t bear to live without them any longer . . .


Life had become a great burden, an endless source of sadness. Every day was lived in despair. Unhappiness and discontent had become his bedfellows. He would see the

house, allow himself one evening of pleasant dreams about what could have been, then return to Massachusetts to live out the rest of his life in isolated misery. And in his mind,

that in itself was a form of suicide. A living death.


Rob depressed the accelerator, and the odometer needle climbed nearer to seventy. On the horizon, heat devils performed an arrhythmic dance, and the sun-scorched

blacktop appeared to be glossed with mercury. The road cut through pastureland like a hardened artery. To his right, a handful of horses stood motionless, their noses to the ground. To his left, the land stretched out like a green sea, undulating slowly to an even tempo.


Mayfield had to be no more than an hour away, but the fuel

gauge said he needed gas now. Up ahead, an elderly man in a ball cap was on both knees working his garden. Rob slowed the car and stopped beside him. The older gent turned his body slowly, revealing a patch over one eye.


Rob leaned across the center console and spoke loudly. “Where’s the nearest gas station?”


The old man cupped one hand around his ear and raised his eyebrows.


Rob said it louder. “Where’s the nearest gas station?”


The man nodded in the direction Rob had been traveling. “’Bout a mile down the road. Shell station on the left.”


“Thanks,” Rob said, and he pulled away. In the rearview mirror he could see the man watch him for a moment then return to his garden.


Exactly one mile down the road Rob steered into a cracked-asphalt lot and up to an old-style analog gas pump, the kind with the rotating numbers. He didn’t even know those kind still existed. The station had seen better days. From the sun-bleached Shell sign to the grime-coated plate-glass window of the little convenience store to the scarred and faded blacktop, everything spoke of neglect. This was one outpost time had forgotten.


Rob got out of the car and noticed the handwritten sign on the pump: Pre-pay inside. Management.


Walking across the lot, he could feel the day’s heat radiating through the soles of his shoes. A little bell chimed when he opened the door. A thin, fair-skinned man with shoulder-length hair nodded at him from behind the counter.


“Thirty in gas,” Rob said, reaching for his wallet.


The clerk punched some buttons on the register and said, “Thirty.”


Rob paid him. “How far to Mayfield?”


The clerk looked up. “Where?”


“Mayfield.”


After a quick shrug, “Fifty, sixty miles.” He looked like he wanted to say more, so Rob waited. “Not much in Mayfield.”


“A house,” Rob said.


“Your house?”


“Should have been.” Then he turned and left. The bell chimed again on his way out.


At the pump, Rob unscrewed the fuel cap and inserted the nozzle. Jimmy always loved to squeeze the trigger.


“Can I pull the trigger, Daddy?”


That’s what he called it, a trigger. He’d pretend the nozzle was a cowboy gun. Thoughts of his son flooded Rob’s mind, and he did nothing to stop them. Now was a time for remembering, for soaking up every good feeling and every fond image left to enjoy.


When the rolling numbers hit seventeen dollars, a quick movement caught Rob’s attention. He jerked his head up and toward the side of the store where a stand of shrubs sat quiet and motionless. Then he heard it, a muffled giggle, and his breath caught in his throat. He knew that giggle. Knew it like the sound of his own voice. The movement was there again. An image ran from the shrubs to the rear of the store and out of sight. The nozzle snapped off and fell to the ground with a solid clunk. Rob knew that run too, the shortened stride, the slightly exaggerated pumping of the arms. He could feel his heart thudding all the way down to his fingertips.


It was Jimmy. His little buddy.

Crossing the lot in large walking strides at first, then a run, Rob rounded the building fully expecting to find his son, Jimmy, red-faced with brown hair matted to his forehead,

waiting in a crouch to scare him.


“I got you, Daddy!”


Instead, all he found were a few rusted-out fifty-gallon drums, a stack of dry-rotted tires, and a haphazard pile of rebar. His breathing rate had quickened from the short sprint, and beads of sweat now popped out on his forehead and upper lip. He wiped them away with the sleeve of his T-shirt.


He walked the length of the building, scanning the field of

knee-high grass behind it. “Jimmy?”


But no answer came. Not even a rustle of grass. And no giggle.


“Jimmy,” Rob said in a normal volume, more to himself than the phantom of his son that had haunted him now for going on two months. The visions—the psychologist called

them hallucinations—had come frequently at first, sometimes as much as once a day, then grew more sporadic. Until now, he hadn’t had one for over two weeks. At first,

Rob was convinced there was a purpose to them, a meaning. Maybe they even meant Jimmy was still alive, waiting for his daddy to find him and rescue him. Maybe. The psychologist disagreed. Rob thought he was a quack and stopped attending the weekly sessions.


Scolding himself for once again allowing his frazzled imagination to dupe him, Rob returned to his car like a man taking his final stroll down the long corridor to the electric

chair. The sun’s heat now seemed more intense, and his shirt clung to his back and chest.


He picked the nozzle up from the ground and balanced it in his hand.


“Can I pull the trigger, Daddy?”


Every time he pumped gas he’d think of Jimmy. It was one of those little things that would haunt him the rest of his life. But it was a haunting he welcomed. After squeezing out the rest of his thirty bucks, Rob returned the nozzle to the pump, opened the car door, and was hit by a breath of heat.


Sitting in his car was like hanging out in an oven, but Rob did not turn the ignition. The air outside was still and the heat sweltering. Sweat seeped from his pores, wetting the front of his shirt. He thought of the image of his son and that familiar gait and noticed his hands were trembling. Tears formed in his eyes, blurring his vision.


“Jimmy.” He said the name again, as if it were some holy word that could cross the span of the finite and infinite and bring his little boy back. He wanted to hold him, bury his

face in Jimmy’s hair, and draw in the smell of sweat and cookies.


“I like how you smell, Daddy. You smell like a daddy.”


Wiping the tears from his eyes, Rob started the car, pulled away from the pump, and headed east toward Mayfield.


As he drove, the empty seats beside and behind him burned like hot coals. As much as he tried, he could not dismiss the memory of Kelly reaching over and placing a graceful hand on his thigh, her hair rippling in the wind, a smile stretched across her face. Nor could he stop glancing in the rearview mirror, half hoping to see Jimmy bouncing against the back of the seat.


Rob slapped at the steering wheel. He knew he was going mad, that the solitude of the last three months had nearly driven him over the edge and blurred the line between reality and fantasy. And he was obsessing again. He had to think of something else, so he turned his mind to the house his great-aunt Wilda had left him. He’d never seen the place, had never even met Wilda. But when he found out he was the sole heir to the house, his mother raved about how much Kelly and Jimmy would love the place. That was six months ago.


Before his world got flipped on its head and everything went to pot.


Before he went insane and entertained thoughts of death. The boy and his mommy walk back to the car to clean his hands. He’s been working on a candy apple for some time, and it’s creating quite the mess. Daddy told them he’d meet them at the lemonade stand. Lemonade is great for a warm day, he said. The grass in the parking area is brown and ground into the dry dirt from everyone walking and driving on it. His mommy is holding his clean hand and singing a Sunday school song about Joshua and the battle of Jericho. The boy is still thinking about the eagle the man behind the table was holding. He never knew eagles were so big. And when it looked at him, it seemed to see right past his skin and into his insides. They had other things at the stand too—an owl with big yellow eyes, a couple different kinds of snakes, and an aquarium full of toads—but the eagle was his favorite. He wondered what it would be like to be able to fly like an eagle, way up in the sky where no one could bother you, seeing the whole world at once.

****

“Here we are,” Mommy says. Their car looks extra clean because Daddy washed it just before they left. The black paint looks like a dark mirror and makes him look funny, like one of those curvy mirrors at the carnival.


Mommy opens the trunk and leans over into it, looking for the napkins. It reminds him of a poem about a crocodile with a toothache. He wishes he could remember all the words. Something about the crocodile opening so wide and the dentist climbing inside, then SNAP! Mommy always claps her hands real hard at that part, and it always makes him jump.


A man comes up behind Mommy. He’s wearing dirty old blue jeans and a tight black T-shirt. His face is big and round, and there are a lot of little scars on his cheeks. His eyes are placed real close together and pushed back into his head. With his shaggy hair and large face, the boy thinks he looks like a head of cabbage.


“Excuse me,” the man says. He reaches out to touch Mommy’s hip then looks at the boy.


Mommy jumps and stands up fast. She turns around and looks at the man, crossing her arms in front of her. She seems nervous. “Yes?”


Cabbage Head looks nervous too. He pushes his hand through his hair, and the boy notices the sweat on his forehead. It makes his hair wet where it comes out of the skin. “It’s your husband—”


Now Mommy looks scared. “Wha–what’s wrong?” Her voice shakes.


“I need you to come with me.” He looks at the boy with those deep eyes then back at Mommy. “The boy can stay here at the car. We’ll only be a minute.”


Mommy bites her lower lip and looks around. She kneels beside the boy. She looks real scared and is breathing fast. Her hands are shaking, and she’s still biting her lower lip. “Stay here, OK? Don’t leave the car. I’ll be right back. Don’t leave the car.”


She hugs the boy then kisses him on the cheek. Opening the back door of the car, she motions for the boy to get in. “Remember, stay here. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back for you soon.” She closes the door, blows him a kiss, and leaves with Cabbage Head. The boy watches as they walk away and disappear behind a trailer.


It doesn’t take long for it to get too hot to stay in the car. He opens the door and slides out, staying low to the ground so no one will see him. He leans against the car, but the black metal is too hot. So he sits Indian-style on the ground next to the back tire and picks at the grass. He wonders what could be wrong with Daddy. Did he have a heart attack or get cancer? Mr. Davies next door got cancer last year and died. This scares the boy. Maybe Daddy’s just lost and the man needs Mommy to help find him. He thinks about the man and his deep eyes. They were like the eagle’s eyes. Something about them didn’t look right, though. The boy feels like if he looked at them long enough he’d see things that would give him nightmares for a very long time. And they would see things in him too.


It seems like a long time of sitting by the tire and picking at brown grass before the boy hears footsteps coming, the sound of dry grass crunching like stale potato chips. He stands and looks around, hoping it’s Mommy. But Cabbage Head is coming toward him, alone. Where’s Mommy? Is she with Daddy, and the man is coming to take him to them?


Cabbage Head comes close. He’s sweating even worse now, and his hair looks like it has been messed up. He offers the boy his hand, a big meaty thing that looks like a bear’s paw. “C’mon, son. You must come with me.”


“Where’s my mom?” the boy asks. He notices his own voice is shaking.


“She’s fine. She wants me to bring you to her.”


The boy can tell the man is lying. He wants to run away but is afraid he’ll never find Mommy or Daddy on his own. “Where is she?”


Cabbage Head closes his hand and opens it again. His wide palm is all shiny with sweat. “Come. She’s waiting for you.”


There’s no way the boy is going to hold the man’s hand. He turns to run but the man catches him by the arm. “Oh, no, you don’t. You’re coming with me.”


The boy tries to holler, but the man’s sweaty hand is over his mouth, pressing so hard it hurts. The boy has never known what it is like to be so scared. He’s sure Cabbage Head is going to kill him, or worse, keep him alive but never allow him to see his mommy or daddy again.



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Copyright 2010 Mike Dellosso
Published by Realms
All rights reserved. Do not duplicate without permission.