ORIGINAL FICTION: "Climbers" (Chapter Six)

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CHAPTER SIX- Summertime, and the living is queasy.

As April went on, the days got longer and the nights got warmer. With no reoccurrence of the roof runner, as the Meadows had called it, they both lapsed into their old calm and comfortable ways. The windows were opened at night to let in the breeze and the scent of the spring flowers. There was, of course, the occasional mad dash around the house in the middle of the night to close the windows when a late night thunderstorms rolled through, but that was the extent of the madness for the Meadows. Through April, anyway. By May, that night in late March was an unremembered memory. Sure, it happened, but when? They would be hard pressed now to remember a date. Was it in early April? Who cares? It was some odd random thing. It’ll never happen again. Not in a million years.
Such was life in the Meadows household some two months after that initial bump in the night. Now it was the end of May. The days were bordering on hot. The nights were balmy, but comfortable as long as there was a breeze. Most nights there was a breeze, and the windows were left open. On those rare still nights, a box fan was propped in the window to help things along a bit. And the thunderstorms still caught them asleep from time to time. Ray could probably run around and close all the windows in his sleep now. Then again, sometimes he did.
On weekday nights, the Meadows went to bed fairly early- ten o'clock- unless there was something really good on television. Or Ray got all involved in surfing the 'net and lost track of time. Either way, the house was usually dark long before eleven. Tonight was no different. Half past ten and all was well. And all were asleep. The breeze worked its way through the window screens, carrying the fragrance of Barbara's flower gardens as well as the neighbor's vegetable garden. Almost like living in the country, except for the odd car now and then on the street. No bother, really. The moon was up, a week before full, casting just a bit of light on the Earth below. If you waited for your eyes to get adjusted to the dark, it even cast a shadow. So all was calm and all was bright and it wasn't even Christmas. Near midnight, the moon was directly overhead. There were no shadows, moon or otherwise. It was perfect and silent. There was no warning at all.
One single loud thump. No scraping, no running. Just THUMP. Ray and Barbara were awake instantly, but for a moment they didn't know why. Did they hear something? Or just dream it? Barbara had to ask.
"You awake?"
"You hear something?"
"I think so."
"On the roof?"
"Don't know."
Ray slid out of bed as quietly as he could, picked up his bathrobe and his little flashlight. The big flashlight he had bought two months before had made its way under the bed for some serious dust collecting. Ray went to the window- and saw nothing but the neighborhood. Barbara got up with him, found her flashlight- one of the small new ones- and followed here husband down the stairs. Neither had bothered to turn those flashlights on. They were navigating by moonlight. They both took a look out the front windows. There was nothing more to see than any other night. In the kitchen they stood for a moment, looking at the huge Night Killer flashlight still poised on the shelf by the back door. Without speaking, they both decided that maybe it was a bit much. They had their small lights and they weren't using them. No need to wake the entire neighborhood. Out the back door and down the steps to the yard. They stood for a minute or two, just turning and looking. Was there something out there with them? Or were they alone and the noise was some sort of mutual dream? Before Ray could speak, he caught a dark movement in the corner of his vision. In the split second it took to turn his head, it was gone.
"I don't know. Something."
"Under that tree limb, I think"
Cautiously, slowly, Ray and Barbara walked over to the limb. The tree itself wasn't theirs, and grew on the other side of the fence. But it was a big tree, and the limbs covered parts of four yards. Welcome shade in the summer, less welcome leaves in the fall. Under the overhanging limb, there was nothing to see. Nothing there. Ray braced himself by reaching up and putting a hand on the limb. He pulled his hand back as if it had been burned.
"What's wrong?"
"Put your hand on the limb."
"I don't think so."
"No, it's ok- just do it."
With all the enthusiasm of petting a friend's rattlesnake, Barbara reached up and touched the limb. She pulled her hand back, expecting a shock or something. Nothing. She touched it again, a little longer. Then she put her palm flat against it. She held the limb. She grabbed the limb as hard as she could. Then she let go. The limb was moving.
"The wind?"
"Not likely. There's no breeze."
"Oh, yeah."
"And besides- the motion. The wind would blow a limb back and forth. Not up and down."
"Oh, boy. So what…?"
Before Barbara could finish the sixty-four thousand dollar question, Ray jumped up and grabbed the limb with both hands. He hung there for some time, five seconds or so, then let go and dropped to the ground. For a guy who was fast asleep not fifteen minutes ago, he was thinking pretty good. He put his hand back up to the limb. He had duplicated the movement.
"Something jumped on this limb."
"Something? Something as big as you?"
"Ok, so maybe something not as big as me. But close enough. Maybe a fifty or sixty pounds of something."
Barbara started to get nervous and look around the yard. There was nothing to see. As far as she could see. But it was the middle of the night, and they were standing there without even using their feeble little flashlights. The moonlight that they were depending on was about to be blocked out by their own house. Barbara looked to the sky and saw the moon was at the edge of the roof. It was time to go inside. She was close to being scared and she didn't like it.
Ray agreed and they headed for the back door. If it weren't for the seriousness of the situation, it would have been funny. There they went, looking like a couple of kids trying to sneak home late. Their heads looked like they were on well-greased gimbals. They had to watch everything, see everything, check everything. They were lucky to make it to the door without tripping over anything. But they did.
Once inside, Ray sat down at the kitchen table. Barbara walked around the kitchen, then went for the light switch.
"Leave the light off."
"I'd feel better if it were on."
Ray might be a lot of things, but cold-hearted wasn't one of them. Not yet, anyway. If Barbara wanted that light on, who was he to say no? And why?
"Ok, go ahead."
Ray closed his eyes to cushion them from the shock. It was still bright and uncomfortable. What vitamin was it for night vision? Vitamin A, he thought. Gotta have your vitamins, son.
With the kitchen light on, the moonlit world outside disappeared in darkness. The moon was no match for Mister Edison. Barbara sat down heavily at the table. Neither of the Meadows spoke for some time.
"You want some coffee?"
"No. We really should get back to bed."
"You sleepy?"
"I don't know. You?"
"I'm tired, but my mind's buzzing."
"Any ideas?"
"If it's kids, they're good."
"If it's kids, they're the world's youngest professional commandos."
"So if it's not kids?"
Ray went over every animal he could think of in his mind. Maybe something exotic got loose from some private collection. But what? A bintourong? A jagaurundi? How about something simple like a tree climbing insomniac wolverine? Ray couldn't come up with an animal that fit the situation: A nocturnal tree (and roof) climber that weighs more than fifty pounds and was usually pretty quiet, but prone to clumsiness. Sounded like a kid to him. But it wasn't. Maybe. Maybe it was time to take some action, boys.
"I think I'll call the police tomorrow."
"And report it? Whatever it is?"
"No, no. Just see if they've got any reports of other people hearing things that go bump in the night. Or whatever. Maybe it is some kid running loose at night. A bad sleeper but a good climber."
"Uh-huh. And then?"
"And then, on my lunch hour, I'll swing by the hardware store and pick up a few things."
"Like what?"
"Like motion sensor lights to put around the house. Maybe some stronger locks for the doors and the garage. "
"Sounds like a plan, man."
"How about you find us some vitamins? Heavy on vitamin A."
"Vitamin A?"
"Night vision. It'll be good for us."
"Can't hurt. But this lack of sleep can. Come on."
With that, Barbara headed toward the stairs. Ray was right behind her. They'd been up long enough and tomorrow was a work day. Ugh. The kitchen light went out and they used their little flashlights to find their way to bed. Got to get some use out of them.
Morning came as it always does: Way too early. The Meadows were up and stumbling around, obvious victims of a late night. Ray was trying to shave without killing himself and Barbara was trying to remember the recipe for toast. Grog City. By the time they got their collective act together, Ray was only fifteen minutes late getting out the door for work. Not bad. He'd still make it on time if the expressway was clear. Barbara was not so fortunate. Or maybe she was. After cleaning up those breakfast dishes, she made the Big Mistake: She sat down on the couch. Next thing she knew, the clock on the mantle said it was after ten-thirty. Almost eleven. Huh? But she felt much better.
Ray was at work, and couldn't afford the luxury of a morning nap. There were things to do, and people to watch you do them. He did keep busy enough that by mid-morning he was feeling a bit guilty of procrastination. He hadn't called the police department. He wasn't really sure it would do any good. After all, he had no report or complaint to file and no real crime had been committed, as far as he knew. But he said he'd call, and he hadn't. So he'd better. It was almost lunch time before Ray sat back down at his desk. He picked up the phone. He put the phone down. What would he say? What did he know, really? He heard a noise? Something went bump in the night? Ray Meadows felt like a fool. But he called anyway. The police operator routed the call to the desk sergeant. Ray was still unsure as to where to begin or even what to say. But he did his best.
"This is Sergeant Robinson, how may I help you?"
"Yes, this is Ray Meadows. I live over on Compton Road and I was wondering if you'd had any reports of anything, uh, going on at night in my neighborhood."
There, Ray, that wasn't so bad. You didn't sound like a total idiot. Just a rather dim burglar, perhaps. The sergeant was wary. Has this person done something, and wants to know if they were seen? Here we go.
"Yes, sir- Mister Meddles?"
"Meadows. M-E-A-D-O-W-S. I'm Ray Meadows. I live at 1061 Compton Road. I was just wondering if there had been any reports of activity at night in our neighborhood."
Sergeant Robinson wasted no time. The computer was a wonderful thing. Before Ray had finished, the police officer was looking at what little was available on one Ray Meadows, 1061 Compton Road. Nothing. Clean as a whistle. If this was indeed Ray Meadows. May as well play along. The crime reports are public information anyway.
A second later, the sergeant was looking at a map of the city, with Ray Meadows' house dead center. All reported crimes in the last month were indicated in a one mile radius on the screen. Both of them.
"Well, Mister Meadows, it looks like you live in a very safe part of town. I've only got two reports on screen here within a mile of you. Let's see what they are."
The first- and closest one- turned out to be a car theft. Which turned out to be the car owner's son. A family crime. Gotta love it. Easy to solve, no prosecution. Dad will make it tougher on that kid than the court ever would. Three blocks away, the second crime was a night stalker report. Someone out there, late at night. The sergeant took a closer look at this one. Could this be our boy Ray? Let's see: One to two a.m. on a Wednesday night. Person seen just standing along curb in middle of 900 block of Albion Drive. Unsolved, and suspect unsighted by responding officer. Description of person: Vague. Suspect: None. No follow up, case dead.
The sergeant relayed the bare facts of the two items to Ray. Not much, the sergeant was right. Nice neighborhood. Too bad.
"What were you looking for, Mr. Meadows? You sound disappointed."
"Well, it's tough to say. My wife and I have heard things at night, and I'm just not sure what they were."
"What sorts of things, sir?"
"Well, about two months ago-"
"Excuse me, sir? Two months ago?"
"Uh, yes. Something went across our roof."
"Two months ago? In April?"
"I guess, why?"
"And you're calling now?"
"I guess so. Sounds kind of stupid, I admit. Probably just kids."
"On your roof?"
"And you waited two months to call?"
"Uh- . . . .yeah."
"Why the delay, if I may ask?"
"Well, we heard something last night."
"Kids on your roof?"
"I don't know. You tell me."
"Well, Mr. Meadows, we don't have any reports of any sort of activity like that in your part of town. That sort of thing is more common in the commercial or industrial areas. Criminals try to gain entry through roof ducts and ventilation systems. That sort of thing."
"You think someone was trying to break in to my house?"
"I don't know, sir. Was there any sign of an attempted entry? Any sort of damage?"
"Some shingles were torn up the first time. Last night? I don't know."
"What happened last night?"
"I have no idea. My wife and I woke up. We must have heard a noise, but I can't tell you what it was. Just all of a sudden we were both awake. About midnight."
"What did you do?"
"We got up and looked around outside. I don't know why, now. I have no idea if there really was anything."
"You didn't find anything outside, then?"
"The tree was moving."
"Excuse me, sir?"
"The limb. Big tree limb hangs over the fence into our yard. It was moving."
"Ok. And the wind couldn't have been moving it?"
"Not last night. It was still and calm. No wind. Besides, the limb was moving up and down, not back and forth. Something must have jumped on that limb just before we saw it moving."
"And you didn't see anything, sir?"
"No, not really. Just shadows at night."
"And you think it might be kids?"
"Officer, I was hoping it might be kids. What are my other options?"
"Well, I don't know."
Ray got this mental image of a large cat with glowing green eyes. It's waiting in the tree at night. It's hungry and Ray's starting to look like an easy meal.
"You don't have any reports of missing animals- large exotic pets that might have gotten loose? Something that might roam at night in high places?"
Sergeant Robinson had to look that one up. Now this guy doesn't seem so nuts. He sounds scared. Must be something out there, even if it is only a loose kid. No loose animals reported. No lost pets beyond the usual cats and dogs. And one missing ferret, but that was a long shot.
"No sir, no reports here that would account for what you've seen. That's not to say there isn't something out there."
"What do you mean?"
"Well sir, if someone had an exotic animal, and was keeping it illegally, they're not very likely to report it if it escapes."
"I see. You're right. So maybe that's it."
" Mister Meadows? Sir?"
"If there is some sort of animal out there- please call us. Don't play the game hunter or try to trap it. A loose animal out of its own environment is not an easy thing to deal with. It's dangerous. Just give us a call. Day or night."
"I will if you promise me one thing."
"And what's that, Mr. Meadows?"
"If you get any other reports- either of sightings or of a missing animal, let me know. I'd like to know what this thing is."
"Yes, sir, I'll add that to the report."
Ray felt pretty good about himself when he hung up from speaking with Sergeant Robinson- and he made a note of the name. First name Patricia, in case you'd been picturing a man. She wasn't. Either way, Ray felt better. Had to be some sort of loose exotic animal. Well, big cat or not, at least now he could deal with it. It'll just take a trip (or two) to the hardware store.
By that weekend, Ray Meadows had made the required three trips to the hardware store. As well as three trips to Radio Shack and one or two other little excursions. Even stopped at a toy store and picked up a basketball. This guy was a thinking fool. Friday night the Meadows' house was starting to look like Maxwell Smart's vacation cottage. And Ray was This Close to figuring it all out. Spot lights, motion sensors, flood lights, infrared interference beams, and garden lights. They might not see anything, but the power company would be happy. Of course, the neighbors might not be too thrilled about living next to a lighthouse. Deal with it, folks.
Ray spent that Friday night working on The Plan. Where to put the sensors, where to aim the lights, where to get the power to run all of this stuff. Saturday morning, he was a man with a plan. The first lights were the easiest. He added motion sensors to the existing outdoor lights on the front porch, the back door and over the garage door. They were all tied in to switches anyway, so they wouldn't come on until someone- hopefully either Ray or Barbara- threw the switch. That was easy enough.
The interference beam was the tricky one, so he saved it for last. In its most basic form, it's a simple item: An infrared beam is bounced out and back to the combination light source/receiver. Any interruption of the beam to the receiver trips a switch inside the unit. What would you like the switch to do? Turn on a light? Sound the door bell? Detonate the explosives? Name it. Ray had to make this one do double duty. It had to look (and be) somewhat practical, but still be of some use to protect the house. The plan was but a simple one.
The walkway from the garage to the back door could be the practical application of that sensor. Anyone walking from the garage, or down the driveway to the back of the house, would trip the switch on their way to the back door. It would turn on a set of low mounted garden lights around the back yard. Very pretty lights. That lit up the entire yard. Rather brightly, as a matter of fact. Now here's the tricky part: That beam got bounced off of three mirrors. If anyone- or anything- tried to walk across the Meadows' back yard or side yard, they'd have to walk through that beam. And all those lights would come on. Oh, happy day. Or night, as the case may be. Ray had mounted the mirrors two feet off the ground. No reason to have every dog in town set this thing off. Two feet seemed about right. All the mirrors were discretely placed around the yard, and the main unit was tied in to an inside electrical switch. All of their outside sensors and lights could be turned off. But only from inside the house.
One thing Ray Meadows couldn't figure out was the roof. Ok, that's not entirely true. The roof could be easy. The tough part was wiring the roof with lights and sensors and not looking like some paranoid lunatic who thinks the government put a radio in his head and the aliens are after him. Again. For now, Ray figured maybe this would do it. The roof would have to wait. He had covered the yard, the house and the garage. Even added a motion sensor floodlight inside the garage. Why not? Beats groping in the dark for the switch. For that brief moment, Ray Meadows thought he might be on to something: The whole house. He could install motion sensors throughout the entire house. On the inside. Every light could be controlled by a sensor. No more need for light switches. No more hunting in the dark, no more struggling to turn on a light when your hands are full. Hey- this could work. He wouldn't even have to clap.
That Ray Meadows did not rush right back out to the hardware store is a tribute to his self-control. As good as the idea sounded, he didn't. Some small voice inside him whispered those all-important words: "Check with your wife first." Ok, a reasonable request. So he did. And it's a tribute to her self-control that she only smiled and did not laugh out loud. Needless to say, the only thing that ever got shot down faster was the Iraqi Air Force. The motion sensors stayed outside. For now.
The basketball? Ray had no interest in basketball. None at all. But it was a great way to set the sensitivity on those motion sensors. Just a little bit bigger (and a lot faster) than the average cat or raccoon, Ray would bounce it past the sensors, turning the sensitivity up just a little each time until it registered. Anything smaller or slower would pass by unnoticed. Anything bigger, and it would see the light. And now so would Ray. Once it had served its purpose, the ball ended up in a box in the back of the garage. Eventually, Ray thought, he'd give it to some neighborhood kid. One that didn't climb roofs.
By Sunday night, it was done. Both Ray and Barbara got the biggest kick out of walking around the yard just to watch the lights come on as they went. Simple things for what minds? But it worked. Every part of the yard was covered. No way to get near the house or even cross the yard without a light coming on. They got a good night's sleep Sunday night, and Ray went to work refreshed Monday morning. It would be their last weekend of peace and quiet. Ever.
The moon that had been full that weekend was now waning. Still bright, but rising later each night, and it had Ray getting out of bed Wednesday night to see if a light had come on. On Thursday night, the moon rose after ten o'clock. Ray could see it from the bedroom window. He and Barbara had gone to bed early. There was nothing on TV, and he wasn't too thrilled about a couple of hours in front of the screen. He could surf tomorrow. So now here he was. In bed, but not particularly sleepy. Laying on his left side, he could look over the silhouette of his wife, asleep next to him, and out the open window. The next door neighbor's roof was shimmering under the moonlight, with the moon itself out of sight just above the window frame. How long had he been lying there? Half an hour? Maybe longer. What was he looking for? Other than sleep, he didn't know. Nothing to see out there. He wasn't really looking. That's when he saw it.
Had it not moved, he wouldn't have seen it at all. No way. But it ran- almost danced- across that roof. It stopped at a vent pipe. Ray propped himself up on one elbow. Whatever it was turned toward him. It heard him move. Ray was shocked. He tried too hard to see this thing. Was it a kid? It couldn't be. The window was open, only a screen between them. And it had heard him move in his bed. He couldn't hear a thing, just the pounding of his pulse. Then he remembered- don't look directly at it. That optic nerve thing. Look to one side.
When he did, he was almost sorry. He could see it better, all right. But what was he looking at? If this was a child, he- or she- was not normal. Wiry, almost skinny and maybe four feet tall. Couldn't weigh more than- than what? That fifty pounds needed to move a tree limb? Long arms and legs and that head- Was that a hat? Or was this some sort of primate with a bluntly pointed muzzle? It had run up to the vent pipe on its hind legs, but it used its front legs (its arms?) for balance. Ray kept looking, afraid to move, afraid to even blink. It sniffed the air. The moon did its best to light up that roof. Ray kept staring into the darkness. Staring at something that seemed to be staring right back at him. Something that knew he was there, watching from inside another house. In an unlit room in the middle of the night.
It was mottled. Some sort of pattern of lines and shapes, like something he had seen before. But where? On what? Was it wearing clothes or fur or what? Ray couldn't tell, but it looked to be patterned. Like a- like a giraffe. That's it. Sort of. But all in dark tones. Not quite as dark as pitch black, but darker than the roof it was on. Blues and blacks? Browns? Dark reds? Certainly not the light browns and creams of an African giraffe. No way to tell in the darkness on the edge of this town. And what was that? A tail? Did this thing have a tail? He couldn't tell. It seemed as though he saw something, but now, the way it was turned, he couldn't tell. What was that thing? It was not a child. It was not human. It couldn't be. As he watched, this apparition was almost bobbing up and down, as though it was too nervous to stand still. Or too afraid.
It took a quick glance back the way it came, hunched over and it was gone. Ray saw it go over the far side of the roof, away from him. It moved on all fours, but seemed to almost stand up and run. Ray couldn't move. He couldn't speak. Barbara was still sound asleep next to him. And Ray Meadows’ former boring life just ran over the neighbors’ roof.
To Be Continued...

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Copyright 1996,2011 Chip Haynes