Friday, May 1, 2009

Sneak Peek: "Valley of the Shadow" Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Mitch Kent stepped onto the back porch and stretched. Thick, tattooed arms reached toward the overcast sky, forcing an expansive yawn. He twisted at the waist, rolled his head, and then eased his burly frame into one of the lawn chairs.

A tall, gray-haired man strolled up from the barn. He seemed irretrievably gaunt, like a dry stalk of November corn bent by the wind. But his face bore a wide, yellow-toothed grin.

“Mornin’, Hoss.” He spoke with a slight bucolic twang. His voice was soft and gravelly, as if he were constantly on the verge of laryngitis. In an odd way, the sound of it both soothed Mitch and grated on his nerves.

Mitch nodded. “Morning, Howard.”

The old man squinted at the layer of gray clouds. “Y’know, we gotta make another run for gas today.”

“Mmmm . . .” Mitch groaned. “Let me check my schedule. I think I may have a conflicting appointment this morning.”

Howard chuckled and leaned against the porch railing. “I know it ain’t your idea of fun, but you don’t really want us to run outta gas, do you?”

“Heaven forbid.”

Howard laughed harder. “Better get some breakfast. I’ll get the truck ready.”

Mitch rose, shuffled into the kitchen, and pulled out a box of stale crackers and a jar of peanut butter. Twisting off the lid, he peered inside and sniffed. They were nearly out. They’d need to stop for food on the way back.

He ate, downed four glasses of water, and trotted out the door as Howard pulled up in the old milk truck.
This had been their routine for nearly five years. Mitch had struggled to keep track of how long it had been since he’d first come to the farm. It was just after he’d met Conner, Devon, and Helen. Nearly five years ago.

It felt like an eternity.

Howard, for his part, was bearable at best. Mitch had grown accustomed to the old man’s hygienic idiosyncrasies and quirky jocularity. But it was his insufferable optimism that Mitch found most wearisome. It seemed the farmer could put a positive spin on any event, no matter how dismal. Every cloud had its lining. Every trial, its lesson.

Like the night several months back when they were rudely awakened by the shrieks of an old woman—Noreen, or something—who’d arrived at the farm the day prior. She had wandered away from the compound that night, no doubt seduced by some vision of a loved one promising that the answer to all her questions lay within the brooding forest out yonder. Her bloodcurdling screams echoed for several minutes, growing more distant until they eventually stopped. Mitch had to cover his ears. He’d warned her repeatedly not to pay attention to anyone who might try enticing her out into those woods. Especially after dark.

And to that tragedy, Howard’s only comment was that at least now they knew the creatures were still out there. They had been experiencing a dearth of visitors and alien activity at the time. Normally someone would happen by the farm at least once or twice a month. By car or truck. Many of them on foot. They’d stay for a day—two at the most—and then just disappear. A few into thin air. But most would fall prey to, among other things, a woeful lack of discernment by following an enigmatic vision into the darkness.

They had gone several months without a guest until Nadine, or whatever her name was, had stopped by the farm. In fact, Mitch had started to hope that perhaps this whole alien ordeal was finally over.

But it wasn’t. Much to his despair. Mitch sank further into despondency and Howard . . . well, Howard continued to look on the bright side.

And so the months wore on. Long weeks of dismal gray solitude, punctuated by brief periods of terror. Oh, and once a week, they would spend the better part of the day siphoning gas from abandoned vehicles and empty gas stations. All to keep the generators running and the lights burning at night.

This was their routine. This was their life.

But Mitch was growing weary of it. All of it.

Some time ago, he’d developed a keen interest in books, but even that had started to grow stale. He’d begun reading at first just to pass the long hours of tedium, starting with pop fiction novellas and working his way up through more arduous tomes. After the first two years on the farm, he’d amassed quite a literary collection during their weekly jaunts into town. Besides fiction he had also dabbled in biochemistry, astronomy, and philosophy. He would always make sure to stop by a library or bookstore to pilfer an armload of anything that caught his interest. Though 'pilfer' wasn’t exactly an accurate descriptor. More like 'confiscate', 'impound', 'sequester'.

He’d also collected several dictionaries, a set of Encyclopedias Britannica, and something called a thesaurus.

The truck rattled and squeaked as they drove along. Mitch slouched against his window, watching the drab landscape roll past while Howard whistled a cheerful tune.

“It’s time for an oil change again,” Mitch muttered, noting that the engine was sputtering a bit. Howard had certainly made use of Mitch’s skills as a mechanic during their time together. Mitch didn’t mind, though. It kept him busy and passed the time.

Howard interrupted his tune to reply. “I think there’s still plenty left in that quick mart over on Highway 20. Remind me to stop by on the way home.”

“And we also need more food. I noticed a paucity of peanut butter this morning.”

“Paucity, huh? I just picked some up last week.” Howard snorted. “Boy, you’re eatin’ me outta house and home. Where d’you put all that food anyway?”

“It would seem my appetite is rapacious.”

“I think I liked you better before you started all that reading.”

They rolled into Harris, a small town just thirty miles south of them. They had come across it only two weeks ago, so there was still plenty of gas left to siphon. Mitch had stopped wondering why the gasoline in all these abandoned vehicles had not gone bad yet. There was no telling how long they had been sitting there dormant. And after a time, gas just went bad. But thankfully they never had any issues. The gas always seemed to work just fine.

They spent the next three hours canvassing the whole northwest quadrant of the town, working their way toward the quaint downtown business district. A variety of shops and stores lined the wide main street. Howard had compiled a shopping list and was headed for the hardware store. Mitch, however, spotted a small bookstore down the street and said he was going in for a peek. Howard muttered something about not being surprised and waved him off.

Mitch entered the darkened store and listened for any odd sounds. The aliens generally kept to the shadows, so one never knew what one might find in a darkened building. But the place seemed quiet enough. The musty scent of old paper filled the shop. Enough daylight filtered through the front windows to allow Mitch to scan the shelves as he strolled up the aisle. He ignored the magazines, the weight loss and the workout books. He paused for a moment at the how-to section for anything that might prove helpful, but nothing caught his eye.

Next he came to the fiction aisle: romance, romance . . . more romance. Historical romance, suspense romance, Western romance, romantic comedy. Coming to the end of the aisle, Mitch was turning to go down the next when he stopped in his tracks and let out an involuntary gasp.

Another man stood in the aisle before him.

He was a slender black guy, just over six feet tall, probably in his thirties, Mitch guessed, with short-cropped hair and a goatee. He wore plain faded jeans and a black T-shirt. And sunglasses.

Mitch blinked. Sunglasses? He hadn’t seen the sun in five years.

“Who—who are you?” Mitch stammered, trying not to sound startled.

The stranger removed his glasses. His brown eyes held an intense, almost wild look. “You need to leave that farm,” he said. “You have to get away from him.”