ORIGINAL FICTION: "Climbers" (Chapter Twenty)

Chip Haynes

CHAPTER TWENTY- The other shoes drops, so to speak.

Ray Meadows woke to sunlight streaming through every crack and crevice of the drawn blinds over the bedroom window. The sun's up, Ray. Time to join it. It couldn't have been too up, as he looked across the bed and saw his wife still sound asleep. Hmmm. It was both bright and early. What a way to start a Saturday. What ever happened to sleeping in to the crack of noon? Ray knew he had things to do. Lots of things. And hydroponics was none of them. Fortunately for Ray, neither was skim milk. Ray slid out of bed quietly, made his way to the bathroom and got dressed as quietly as he could. Sneaking downstairs in his socks and carrying his shoes, Ray had his wife's breakfast ready, on a tray and delivered back up to the bedroom before she stirred from the comfort of that nice soft bed. See? Not all men are pigs. Not all the time, anyway.
With the wife happy and breakfast out of the way, Ray found his way to the basement. He still needed to rustle up some boxes. Too bad he wasn't having much luck. Funny thing, Ray thought: He felt like he was always moving empty boxes out of the way down there to get other things done. There always seemed to be empty boxes in the way. Now that he needed a few, there were none to be found. Ok, no boxes. He'd have to live with that. He could make do. Undaunted, Ray made his way back up the stairs, through the kitchen and out the back door. It was one beautiful day, even without the boxes.
Out in the garage, Ray swung the door up and out of the way. Plastic pipes and fittings were bunched all over the floor. Plastic grit and dust from last night's cutting party covered the floor. It didn't look that bad last night. Funny what the harsh light of day can do for your view. Ray grabbed the broom and began sweeping the floor again. Today was "Clean It, Prime It & Glue It Day”. He knew there wouldn't be much of a mess in that. So the garage would stay clean- right up to the point he started messing with that cement to fill the pipes. Now that would be messy. But later.
With the garage floor cleaned (again), Ray sorted out all the pipes and fittings (again) and began the slow tedious process of fitting tab A into slot B to make a cage. Five of the six sides were absolutely identical, the sixth side having the door. Easy enough to do the same thing over and over for five sides before he had to stop and think about it on that last side that was different. And that's just what he did: Pick up the pieces, swab on the primer, add the glue when the primer was dry and fit the pieces together. Like really big Tinker Toys. The very first one took the longest to assemble, of course. Ray wanted to make absolutely sure he had that first one together correctly as a pattern for the four to follow. After side number one, it was monkey see, monkey do. And he monkey did. By the time Barbara came out of house after eleven that morning, Ray had three sides glued together and was halfway through number four.
Barbara was doing her part for the cause: She was staying out of Ray's way until she knew it was time for him to take a break and get something to eat. She knew that, left alone, he'd probably work non-stop through the afternoon and end up tired and crabby all evening. No need for that. She knew just what to do and just what to say. I think perhaps she had done this before.
"Hey, Mister Cage Man, you know what time it is?"
"Whoa- um, no. Lunch time?"
"Very good, Cage-Meister. Now- Where are you taking me for lunch?"
"Taking you?"
"Well, you'd better not be taking anybody else."
"Oh, yeah, right. Of course. Lunch. Yeah."
Barbara walked into the garage and began surveying the situation. Not bad. Ray had done quite a bit of work that morning. And used quite a bit of glue.
"How's your supply of plastic pipe glue holding out?"
That was her ace in the hole. She knew Ray. He wouldn't have bought enough glue for the whole job. By now, it should be running low enough that even he could see that. And he did see that. Low on glue. Got to get more. Soon. And lunch. Must eat. Ray's mind began to work its way through these complex problems and issues. It eventually made it through the maze and found the cheese.
"Hey look, I am kind of low on glue here. How about I take you out to lunch and we swing by the hardware store for another jar of sticky?"
"Woooo, the hardware store. It's a date."
Ray went to wipe the glue off his hands and realized that he was going to have those purple stains for a while. It wasn't coming off. At least it wasn't like super glue. His fingers weren’t glued together. Barbara may never let him work with that stuff again. He kicked a few errant pieces back into the garage and closed the door. With the car in the driveway, it was a simple matter for them to climb in and head for lunch. He did need a break, he just hadn't realized it until now. And he was hungry.
Driving through the residential area, Ray took stock of his current sartorial situation: He was a mess. Old clothes that weren't really clean this morning when he started were now covered with even more white grit and dust and purple primer and messy glue. Yuk. He had the stuff in his hair and his hands still weren't clean. At least he hadn't been painting, but he really was a mess. Where could he take his wife for lunch dressed like a construction worker doing double shifts? Bar-B-Que came immediately to mind. The hard-hat's delight. Ray pointed their still one-and-only vehicle toward a small franchise restaurant not too far from the house and almost on the way to the hardware store. It was lunchtime, and The Hoosier Smokehouse was busy. Ray pulled in to a spot out on the last row and sat dumbfounded staring out his side window. There, right next to their car, was an old pick-up truck- with a hand-made FOR SALE sign in the window. Barbara looked over and knew this could end up being an expensive lunch. She'd have to keep a close eye on the proceedings. She did manage to steer Ray into a plan of action: Lunch first, truck later. They both got out of the car and with Ray glancing back at the old truck, they walked up to the restaurant and got in line for a booth. Busy day.
They were seated and had ordered their drinks- large iced teas, both with lemon- when Ray decided to go for it, truck-wise.
"So what do you think of it?"
"Of what?"
"That truck out there- Do you think that's the one?"
Barbara looked out the window. From where they sat, she could just make out the dented roof of the old machine at the other end of the parking lot. Their own car, right next to it, was lost in the crowd.
"If it is, you're going to have to paint it."
"Isn't that kind of expensive? I mean, it's just an old truck."
"Ray, I don't care if you paint it with a roller and pink house paint. That is one ugly truck. I’m sorry, but it is."
She was right, of course. That truck was ugly as sin and not nearly as much fun. A product of those simpler times (and simpler minds) of the 1970's, it was hard to look at that machine and even imagine what it looked like new. Shiny ugly instead of dull ugly? If it had been a refrigerator, it would have been Harvest Gold. Now it was faded to a baby-poop rancid mustard ochre, not to put too fine a point on it. It was not pleasant to look at. Probably never was. Rust offered the only pleasing contrast to the remains of the paint, and the rust was taking over everything south of the doors. The rocker panels, the wheel wells, even the lower edges of the doors were fast dissolving onto the parking lot where it sat. Neil Young was right: Rust never sleeps. The driver, one the other hand, apparently did. At least once. The right side front end was bashed pretty good. A broken headlight and a crumpled fender screamed "WAKE UP!" to a sleeping driver some years ago. The windshield was only slightly cracked. The roof, dented as it was, had been painted brown- probably to hide the rust. Ray didn't care.
Sure, it was ugly. Maybe he'd only drive it at night. And if all went well, he could sell it- maybe as early as next month. It was just cheap temporary transportation for a cage. Nothing more. Better they should buy something ugly that they wouldn't get attached to. Ray was beginning to like that truck for what it was. Even Barbara had to admit it would serve the purpose. It was big and it had to be cheap. The waitress returned with their food and Ray went for it.
"Do you know anything about that truck for sale out at the end of the parking lot?"
The waitress squinted out the window from where she stood. There were at least a dozen trucks in the parking lot.
"You mean that ugly old rust bucket out by the road?"
"That would be the one. Kind of yellow with a for sale sign on it?"
"Yeah, I know that truck. It's Ray's. He works back in the kitchen. You aren't really interested in that old thing, are you?"
"Well- I'm looking for a truck, and that's a truck."
"Just barely. I'll tell him to come out and see you."
With the waitress gone, Ray looked over at Barbara with a grin. What were the odds? Ray? Another Ray? Maybe this was the truck. Barbara smiled, knowing that her Ray was a sucker for weird twists of fate like that. He wasn't superstitious or anything, he just liked a little oddness in his life from time to time. Like buying a truck from some guy with the same name. It was hinkey, and Ray Meadows liked hinkey.
Half way through dinner, one very large man in a food-stained cook's white uniform presented himself at their table. He fit the truck perfectly: Both had seen better days and a lot of miles. This could only be The Other Ray.
"You interested in the truck?"
"Yeah. What can you tell me about it?"
"Everything. It's a '72 GMC, 350 vee-eight automatic. It's got an AM radio and the tires aren't too bad. Needs brakes, though."
"Does it have air?"
"If you roll down the windows."
The big Ray smiled. For him, this was major-league humor. The smaller Ray smiled out of courtesy- and self-preservation. Barbara smiled because the whole scene was hilarious- to her. At least everyone was smiling, for whatever the reason. Ray kept after it.
"How's it run?"
"Better than it looks. Been a hard life. I bought it from my brother- He works construction. Every time he buys a new truck, I buy his old one. He's fixing to buy another truck, so this one's got to go."
"And what's it got to go for? How much you want for it?"
"Just five hundred dollars and it's yours. You could drive it home from here."
Ok, so five hundred bucks for a rolling heap wasn't really that bad. It was serviceable and would do the job. But it was the principle of the thing. Ray had to hem and haw a bit. Maybe he could get it for less. Maybe not.
"Oh, I don't know. It needs brakes?"
"Yeah, and a new muffler if you want to hear the old radio."
"Tell you what, you think about it. I'm here most days. You decide, you let me know."
"Fair enough."
With that the big Ray went back to the kitchen, leaving Ray and Barbara Meadows to ponder life, liberty and the pursuit of a pick-up truck. Sure, it would work. But did they really need it slowly rusting away in their driveway? Maybe for a little bit more money they could get one they wouldn’t be embarrassed to drive in broad daylight. Ray was strangely silent, leaving Barbara to wonder.
"What do you think, Ray?"
"I don't know. If we bought that truck, it wouldn't be to keep it."
"That's for sure."
"Maybe we should look for something a little better for a little more."
"A keeper?"
"A keeper."
"Your call. Whatever you decide is fine with me. He only wanted five hundred. I'll bet we can snag it for four easy."
Ray was taken back by Barbara's interest.
"You want that truck?"
"I thought you did."
"Nah, I want a truck, but maybe not that truck. Maybe a truck that isn't its own project. One project at a time."
"You're right. So we spend a little more and get a little more."
"Unless I get the cage done tonight and we need a truck tomorrow afternoon."
"Then we buy it?"
"We'll see. Maybe there'll be a better deal on the way home."
Lunch was eaten and the table was cleared- a subtle signal to get out and let some one else have a chance to eat. Ray and Barbara got up and paid their bill. Out in the parking lot, the old truck was still right next to their car. Ray wasn't as dazzled by it as he was when they pulled in. Now it was just another old truck. He could take it or leave it. For now, he'd leave it. Maybe they would find something better on the way home. He planned to take the long way, but only after that stop at the hardware store. He did need more PVC glue, truck or no truck.
The hardware store was a quick easy affair after lunch. Busy, but not yet hectic. That would be later in the evening, when all those home repairs go bad late in the day. For now it was a quick in and out with more glue. And more cleaner/primer and a couple of extra fittings, just in case. Ray cruised out of the parking lot looking for a different way home. Not the same old same old. If he didn't find another truck to look at, he may well end up with that yellow peril in the restaurant parking lot.
Sneaking around the back of the hardware store, past the loading docks and huge pallets of bulk materials, Ray Meadows was taking the road less traveled. Unless you were a semi-truck full of lumber. Meandering the residential back roads, and vaguely pointed toward home, Ray gave himself half an hour to make the normal fifteen minute drive back to the house. If he didn't spot an old used truck for sale on this drive home, they'd go back tomorrow and buy the screaming yellow clunker they just saw. Up one street and over the next, Ray was tacking toward home like a sailboat in a stiff breeze. Yes, they were closer to home than they were, but not by much. Halfway between the hardware store and home, Ray saw a truck in an empty corner lot. Was it for sale or did it just happen to die there? Ray pulled their car up into the lot and shut off the motor. Ray couldn't suppress the giggle and Barbara's mouth dropped open.
"You have got to be kidding. Tell me you're kidding, Ray."
"It's for sale."
"It's for scrap."
"It's a truck."
"Ray, it's LIME GREEN!"
"No doubt about that."
"It's got some sort of radio antenna bigger than the whole truck on the back there."
"Maybe it's strictly remote controlled."
"I like that. We wouldn't be seen in it. Just drive along in the car and steer it from over here. Works for me. You aren't serious, are you?"
"Let's go have a look."
"You are serious. Ray, please don't be so serious."
Ray got out of their car, closed the driver's side door and wandered over around the truck. Yes, it was ugly. An evil ugly. Intentionally so. Someone went out of their way to ugly up this machine- starting right at the factory. The remains of a "racing" stripe and the torn letters "SPORT TRUCK" (now reading, 'PORT TRU') graced the side of the thing. The truck's bed was a combination of rust and rotten wood while the remaining letters across the tailgate simply spelled out a short greeting: YO. Charming. The interior looked like a bad hotel room in Beruit. After the bomb went off. But the windshield wasn't cracked and it had a set of cool (rusty) chrome wheels and wide tires. Who could resist? Those black rubber mud flaps with the chrome silhouette of an obviously naked Barbie were the finishing touch. This was one seriously tacky truck and an extended cab at that. And unlike the first truck, this one had both of its headlights. Probably due to the fact that it had a rather elaborate steel brush guard across the front end that looked like it could repel anything smaller than a Buick. And had. But the lights were still there.
Half way around the truck, Ray heard Barbara get out of the car and walk over. She was also doing the once around the heap, looking at the machine. Like Ray, she almost couldn't bring herself to look inside. What hideous apparition awaited them inside that thing? Oh, good: An eight track tape player. What else? A stick shift on the floor. Of course. Ray had gone back to the car and was now headed back to the truck.
"Ray, what are you doing?"
"Writing down the number."
"Come on, this thing's evil."
"Yeah, isn't it?"
"No, I mean that in a bad way. It's horrible."
"Worse that the other one?"
"Far worse. I'd say buy a new truck before you buy this one."
"Ok, you're right."
"Come on, let's go."
"We'll buy a new truck."
"Isn't that what you just said?"
It wasn't often that Ray got to twist Barbara's words around to his advantage. She was usually very carefully, and he was always a little too slow on the uptake to get away with it. He got her this time, though: A new truck. Why not? They could certainly afford it. The car was paid for. Why not, indeed? Ray was headed back to the car as Barbara just stood there, mouth open. What had she just done? Ray turned back to see her unmoving in the empty lot, standing next to that one very ugly lime green truck.
"Come on, I've got a cage to finish. We'll go truck shopping tomorrow."
Barbara found her feet and padded back to the car. Slumped into the passenger's seat, she knew when she'd been had. Like just now. But Ray was right. A new truck. Why not? They can't possible be as ugly and disgusting as these. And they did need that second car, even if it wasn't a car. Ray turned the car around in the lot and headed for home. He wanted to have that cage completely glued together that night. Tomorrow would be a day spent filling each side with cement. He was running a little behind schedule, but he was getting a new truck out of the deal, so all was not a total loss.
Back at the house, Ray wasted very little time getting back into the groove. Garage door open and bits and pieces strewn out on the driveway, and within five minutes you couldn't tell he'd ever been gone. Barbara watched all this for a few minutes and wisely retreated to the house. It was cooler inside. Ray had side number four done within the first thirty minutes or so, and started on number five without hesitation. An hour later, there was only one side left: The tricky one. Ray sat right down on the garage floor and pondered that last side.
The sixth side was going to be in two pieces: A frame that would attach to the other sides, forming the cage; and a door, hinged and latched. The hinges were easy enough, just larger T joints that would slip over the outer frame pipes. The latch was going to be a problem he knew he'd have to solve. But later. He could build it now and add a latch tomorrow, once he figured out how. For now, Ray slowly assembled the frame with the door hinges in place. He could add the door to the mounted hinges later. He would have to fill them with cement separately. After a careful dry run it was all taken apart, ready for the glue. Ray was so intent on doing it right the first time, he paid no attention to anything outside the garage. He never saw Jake Jacobson walk by, but it didn't matter. Jake still had a healthy fear of skim milk, and wasn't about to stop in to see how Ray was doing on that hydrofoil thing he was working on. Just let him be until this health craze thing passes. Shouldn't take long.
Jake didn't want to look too closely as he walked past the driveway and so never really saw the half finished cage at the edge of the garage. At this point, it could be nothing else. No way to hide it or disguise it. Or pass it off as a weird science project. It was a cage, now a cube four feet on a side, and lacked only the side with the door. That door was coming together pretty quick as well. In spite of the lunch, hardware store and truck delays, Ray was back on schedule. He could be mixing cement within the hour. Some pressing, some gluing and a whole lot of blind dumb luck. By four o'clock, Ray Meadows had himself a cage. Time for a quick break.
By five o'clock, the garage and driveway was a mess. The garden hose snaked all over the floor and there were puddles everywhere. Loose cement dust was fast becoming small puddles of cement and Ray was covered with the stuff. It was on his clothes, in his hair and up his nose. Talk about prematurely grey, Ray was. But he had done Rube Goldberg proud. He knew he'd have to get any air bubbles out of the pipes as he filled them, and this thing was a little large to just pick up and shake.
Ray had a cunning plan: He had carefully balanced the cage on one end in a plastic milk crate, with the opposite diagonal corner pointed towards the rafters. The whole thing was tied off in several spots to those rafters as well as the opposite wall. Another rope ran to the old work bench, where Ray had bolted the bench grinder from the basement. Out in the driveway, a five gallon plastic bucket was his mixing bowl for the sticky grey concoction of water and Portland cement. Ray Meadows had a system: Mix up about half a bucket of goo, then slowly pour the almost liquid mess down the highest (and uncapped) opening in the cage. He had mixed it intentionally wet- a cement slurry that wouldn't clog itself in the pipes. With that done, he'd turn on the bench grinder while he mixed up the next batch of cement. The bench grinder, tied as tightly as it was to the up-ended cage, set up a vibration guaranteed to rattle the fillings out of your mouth. Or all the air bubbles out of the wet cement. This was going to be a very solid cage. No getting out of this one, Mister Climber. Once it was filled, Ray planned to cap the last end and lower the whole heavy mess to the garage floor. It could cure there overnight while he tried to get all this cement off of his body. The clothes would be thrown away. No way around that.
Mix, pour and shake; mix, pour and shake. Ray kept with this system until he saw cement dribbling out of a second uncapped opening just below the highest he was using. Almost done. One more batch of goo. The sun was starting to find the trees, and shadows were growing across the yard as he mixed a final batch and climbed the ladder to pour it in. That accomplished, all openings were capped and Ray very carefully lowered the cage to the garage floor. It was heavy and solid now. Ray took a few quick measurements of the cage to make sure it wasn't going to bend or break under its own weight. So far, so good. This was going to work. The cement would be cured by morning and it would be a complete cage, door and all, by noon Sunday. What then? Ray still didn't want to think about the what then. Just get this part done, then move on. Build the cage. Ray picked up all the extra bits and pieces and put away his tools and the bench grinder in the basement. Back in the garage, he hosed down the garage floor and the driveway. What a mess. Sure could use a good rain storm about now. Wash this stuff away.
The garden hose had to be wound back in its spot over by the house, and Ray was just the guy to do it. Everything else was put away, time to coil the hose. Ray trudged across the yard, realizing now just how tired he was. The hose felt like it weighed a ton. Slowly coiling the seemingly endless length, Ray could only stare out numbly at the lawn chair beckoning from under the tree. The lawn chair. Maybe a little sit down would be nice. Been a long day. He deserved a rest. Ray found the end of the hose and opened the nozzle, draining the last of the water out into the yard. There. Done. Lawn chair. Now.
Ray made his way over to the chair and settled in slowly. He was going to be sore in the morning. He was sore right now. Long day. He could actually look forward to going back to work on Monday. He needed the rest. The evening was perfect: Balmy with a light breeze. The cloudless sky was a deepening blue. Flowers were in bloom and the birds were singing. A perfect evening soon to be a perfect night. Still too early for the usual rowdy Saturday night traffic noise, it was quiet now, almost serene. Ray was out so fast lights would seem to linger by comparison. Zero to snore in about twenty seconds flat. We have a new record, folks. Ray Meadows has left the building.
In the house, Barbara had been keeping an occasional eye on her busy husband. He had been working hard all day and now that day was about over. She had managed to get him to take a break for lunch, but it was dinner time now. She saw Ray head to the basement with the grinder and his tools, and had heard him hose down the drive not long after that. Now all was quiet on the Meadows front. Was Ray done for the day? What else could he have to do? She looked out toward the garage and saw- Nothing. No Ray. Hmmm. She checked the back yard and- We have Ray: Sound asleep in the lawn chair. So much for dinner. Barbara decided to let him sleep- for a while anyway- and maybe they’d go out for a late night feed after he's had a chance to rest. Less of a chance of spotting another ugly truck in the darkness. Two a day was her limit. Past her limit, really.
The television was on. Just a random thing, really, at this point. Barbara had been watching an afternoon movie that ended some time ago. She had also made herself a sandwich, something to tide her over until Ray was done for the day. Now Ray was quite done for the day and the movie was long gone. So was the sandwich. Barbara sat down on the couch and started looking for the remote. Not there. Not there, either. Ok, no problem. It wasn't like she was a guy. She got up and changed the channel on the TV without it. Yes, you can still do it that way. Losing the remote isn't the end of the world, as far as I know. She found a nature show- something about the variety of bears in Alaska. Pretty far removed from suburban Indiana, but the scenery was spectacular. Might be worth a look, so she settled in to have that look.
An hour later it was dark outside and Barbara Meadows knew far more about bears in Alaska than she did the day before. Or hour before, for that matter. She looked around the darkened room and remembered: Ray! Ray was probably still sound asleep in the back yard. Better wake him up and feed the poor boy. He's had a rough day. No need to make it worse. She was on her feet and headed toward the back door before she had to stop, go back and put her shoes on. Ok, now: Try again. Walking slowly through the dark house, Barbara could see out the back kitchen window and into the yard where Ray was still motionless on that lawn chair beneath the tree under that glowing blue shape just above him. Time and Barbara Meadows stood completely still.
Barbara couldn't move. She could only stare, transfixed, by the sight that confronted her. Her husband was asleep in a lawn chair in the back yard. Not a problem. He was under the big limb of that old oak tree that drooped over the fence. Still not a major problem, barring the odds of an incontinent bird. But just above him, on the limb closest to the ground- and Ray- was a big problem. A climber was stretched out along the limb- Barbara could see it clearly now that her eyes had adjusted from the television light to the darkness. Head to head and almost feet to feet, the glowing blue thing was less than five feet above her husband. Was it moving? She stared hard into the darkness to try to see it move. Yes, it was moving. Moving closer to Ray. There was no question in mind of what she had to do. Maybe now all those afternoon aerobics shows on TV were about to pay off. Barbara Meadows turned and sprinted for the stairs. The gun was in the bedroom.
In the darkness of the back yard, Ray Meadows went from sound asleep to wide awake in less than a heartbeat. Hard there been a noise? Had he heard something? A bad dream? For a moment, he wasn't sure he was awake. Where was he? Why was everything in front of him glowing a fuzzy sort of blue? And getter brighter? It took Ray Meadows a full two seconds to wake up, ponder all this and get his eyes to focus. When they did, he wanted very much to close his eyes and try again. He saw what was immediately above his head: All bright blue, crackling with an electric charge and hissing through that gaping mouth of oddly smooth serrated blue-white teeth. His last coherent thought was that we wanted very much to be someplace else. Any place else. Please. Not here. Not now. Then he couldn't help himself. He screamed.
Halfway up the stairs, Barbara Meadows heard her husband's yell. Too late for the gun and no time to lose, she spun around on the stairs and jumped over the railing, landing on her feet in the first floor hallway, pointed toward the kitchen and back yard. Another leap and she was in the kitchen, bounding for the back door. There had been no other sound from the back yard. There didn't need to be. Ray's scream still echoed in her head.
I suppose it's true: A wild animal, however vicious its reputation, is more afraid of you than you are of it. That's what people say, at least. In truth, I don't think wild animals understand the concept of future events quite as humans do. We can contemplate events that have yet to happen, and their consequences. Be it dinner, dismemberment or death, we can pretty much figure out how it's going to go, especially if it's going to go badly. We can think about it, dwell upon it and become obsessed with it. Maybe the animals are luckier after all. Forget Carpe Diem- Carpe The Moment. That said, you must know: This climber did not do what it did out of anger. Not that it mattered much to all concerned, climber included.
Ray had screamed and, giving him credit where credit is due, did not reach out and try to grab the climber as Steve Vaan had involuntarily done. He did, however, throw his arms out sideways in an attempt to get off the lawn chair and away from that thing. He kicked his legs off the bottom of the chair and was trying to roll off the chair and onto the ground. That's when the climber fell. It fell. It didn't jump, it didn't attack, it didn't possess malicious intentions or a gnawing hunger for human flesh. It was startled by Ray's scream and his sudden movements and it fell, pure and simple. Unfortunately, it fell on Ray Meadows. He hadn't moved fast enough to out run gravity or the climber.
In the last instant before they hit, Ray managed one defensive move: He threw his right arm across his face- between his face and those weird teeth. Did it help? Dumb question. Would you rather be bit in the arm or the face? I thought so. The climber landed on Ray with the full force of about a twenty pound dog. It wasn't nearly the weight impact Ray had expected. The electrical shock, however, was far more powerful than he could have ever imagined and almost instantaneous. Ray heard the hissing crackle of an electrical discharge as the bright blue animal in his field of vision faded away to black and he went completely numb. The climber, landing face first on Ray's arm, did the only thing it could do- it bit down hard. Catching Ray just below the elbow it closed down on Ray's arm, not quite exposing the bone. Ray never felt a thing. Being a herbivore (and card-carrying vegetarian), the climber released the arm almost as fast as it bit- but the damage was done. The climber's clawed feet found traction across the tops of Ray's legs, leaving searing deep cuts through the cement encrusted blue jeans. Not good. Ray never moved. Ray's eyes were wide open as the climber thrust a hand out, grabbing Ray's left shoulder and steadying itself before it leapt straight up and into the tree. Each claw on that climber's right hand left its deep mark in Ray's shoulder. The leap left more damage across his legs, but Ray had no say in the matter. The claws on the climber's right hand left a set of long slice marks across Ray's ribs as it jumped up and into the tree, cutting through his T shirt like it wasn't even there. After that first initial shock, Ray was just a stunned bystander in the whole affair. Being in a metal framed lawn chair had not helped.
Barbara was out the back door as the climber made its leap to the heavens. Unarmed, she had no interest in the climber at this point. Armed would have been a considerably different story. Right now, all she wanted to do was get to Ray. Until she got to Ray. Then she needed a phone. She had to get to the phone. 911. Please- hurry.
Emergency medical teams pride themselves on their fast response time. While they never seem to get there fast enough, they do in fact get there in record time every time. Constantly honing their speed and efficiency, fire rescue and ambulance crews have saved infinitely more lives than day time talk shows- no matter what you hear. Barbara Meadows dialed 911 at 8:23 p.m. that evening. They keep accurate records on this sort of thing. A rescue truck from the closest fire station was dispatched, along with an ambulance for transport. Both vehicles were on the road, sirens and lights going full blast, by 8:25. Fire rescue's bright red truck pulled up at the curb in front of the Meadows' house at 8:28. The ambulance was less than a minute behind. The first medical crew jumped and ran like a track team toward Barbara Meadows as she motioned them to the back yard. They were expecting attack related trauma. There had been no specifics.
What they found was a man in shock, bleeding from a deep double-sided wound on his right forearm. Lesser wounds could be seen across his legs, ribs and one shoulder. There were also some odd burn marks on both the victim and the lawn chair frame. Blood was pooling on the ground under the chair. The first medical team worked fast to stop the bleeding at the forearm wound and quickly cut away Ray's shirt and pants to assess the damage. The bite on the arm- although not yet recognized as a bite- was the worst of it. Pressure bandages covered most of that right arm as well as both upper legs. The shoulder and ribs faired considerably better, but were treated just the same. By 8:30, Ray Meadows had received a considerable dose of medical attention from the first medical team on the scene. Whether it would be enough to save him, or even get him to the hospital, remained to be seen.
The ambulance crew wheeled their big aluminum stretcher up the driveway and into the back yard. With them came the neighbors. Not far behind were the police, having arrived not long after the ambulance. There had been some question as to the exact nature of the emergency. Had some one been attacked? And by what? During a later review of the 911 tape, Barbara Meadows could be heard to say, "It bit him! It bit him!". To this day, she denies remembering having said any such thing. But that was her voice on the tape. It was her call. It was her. The police were dispatch to a possible crime scene- some sort of animal attack. It's never a light hearted situation when the police are in the dark.
Then again, there wasn't much they could do. They taped off the back yard and managed to do a bit of crowd control as Ray Meadows was wheeled out to the ambulance. Reasonably stable and redundantly sedated, Ray was headed for the hospital with Barbara in the ambulance with him. Fire rescue had packed up and were off to their next adventure as the ambulance went back on lights and siren and sped into the night with its wounded cargo and the wounded cargo's wife. A handful of police officers- uniformed and plain clothes- milled around the Meadows' back yard, trying to figure out what they were looking for. The wife hadn't been much help.
All they had were the barest of details: The victim was obviously on that lawn chair over there when- what?- someone or some thing attacked him with sharp weapon and something hot. By nine o'clock, the police knew less than when they got the initial call. By nine-thirty, they gave up and left. There were no clues, no motives and no suspects. A complete no hitter. Maybe this guy Ray Meadows can help the investigation along- tomorrow. By ten o'clock on that balmy perfect Saturday night the Meadows house was dark and empty. The small crowd of neighbors had broken up and gone home. All except one.
Jake Jacobson heard all the sirens and seen the flashing lights. He trotted right over to see what the problem was. Keeping in the back of the crowd, he watched Ray being wheeled into the ambulance and saw Barbara climb in as well. A quick question to one of the police officers told him where they were headed. He'd head to the hospital later to see if Barbara needed anything. Like a ride home. For now, he was standing alone in the dark driveway. The Meadows' car was parked outside the garage and the garage door was still open. Ray's hydro-whatever project was sitting just inside the door. Kind of looked like a cage from this angle. Jake walked back toward the garage, keeping close to the side of the house. It never dawned on him until he set off the lights over the garage and in the back yard: Whatever tangled with Ray was still loose. That was no shop accident. He was attacked by something. A right handed man doesn't cut up his own right arm with a power tool. Left arm, yes. Right arm? Very unlikely. So there was something out there. Jake stood stock still and the lights went off. Funny- he didn't remember all these lights here some months ago. Ray must have added them. Why all the wattage? What was Ray afraid of in the dark? Jake took a step away from the house and toward the garage- and the lights came back on. It was a cage. Jake could see the door and frame assembly now. It had to be a cage. There was something running loose that attacked Ray Meadows. That's what the cage was for. In spite of the warmth of the summer night, Jake Jacobson got a shivering chill. With one last quick look behind him, Jake walked as fast as he could out of that yard and toward home. Whatever was out there made Jake change his mind about one thing: From now on, he was buying bullets.
Some time after ten o'clock the street where the Meadows lived was dark and quiet. The hour of high adventure had passed and everyone had gone home. Even a very troubled Jake Jacobson. Off in the distance, a small motor was running ragged but getting closer. Around the corner at the end of the street, a single dim yellow headlight shone in the night- not quite illuminating the roadway in front of it. Slowly, the machine made it to the Meadows' house and pulled up into the driveway. Swerving to miss the car in the drive, Steve Vaan wheeled his wheezing little Honda right up and into the garage, just missing the cage. The automatic lights outside came on and the motorcycle's engine shut off. Mister Steve Vaan, now formerly of Lyndon Illinois, refused to move until those lights out there went off.
The frantic madness at the hospital had subsided somewhat when Jake Jacobson rolled in to see if Barbara needed a ride or anything. Ray had been wheeled in from the ambulance, cleaned up, sewn up and doped up. Stable and sedated, he was transferred to a room near, but not in, the intensive care area. His condition was listed as "guarded", which meant they weren't entirely sure what had happened to him, but he probably wouldn't die from the wounds. The hospital staff had conferred with the police on the subject, and none of them could wait to hear Ray Meadows' side of the story. This was hinkey.
The trauma inventory on Ray Meadows' person offering a wide list of events and possible weapons. The wound on the forearm looked like a bite, but from what? What left that sort of smooth curved chisel sort of mark? Nothing they could think of. But with matching marks on both sides of the arm, it had to be a bite. A really bad one, something with extremely sharp, serrated teeth. In contrast, the tops of his thighs were shredded. The jagged tears on both legs here looked like Ray had tangled with a runaway roto-tiller. What these wounds lacked in depth they made up for in intensity. These were going to be a problem. The deep scratches across his ribs were just that. No stitching required here, just clean and patch. It was the shoulder wound- or wounds- that had the medical and police staff the most puzzled. It looked like a clawed hand had reached out and clamped down hard on Ray's shoulder, leaving more than just claw marks. There were pressure bruises and abrasions leaving a near-perfect hand print across the top of the shoulder. Something very nasty grabbed this guy. No one wanted to even mention the burn marks and signs of electrocution. No one had a clue on that aspect of the attack.
In their questioning of Barbara Meadows, the police ended up with very little to go on. No, she never saw anything. She just heard her husband scream and she ran out to the back yard. No, she hadn't seen anyone around the house and he hadn't been talking to anyone. She was sure he had been alone. No, she had no idea what it could have been. Jake showed up during the interview to offer a ride home. Barbara was relieved to see him. The police backed off and Barbara made her way over to where Jake stood nervously waiting.
"How is he?"
"The doctors all say he'll be ok, but he's going to be doing very little lifting and walking for a while."
"Where is he?"
"They transferred him to a room about half an hour ago. He's pretty heavily sedated. They said I should go home and come back in the morning. Like I could sleep."
"That's why I'm here. Thought you might need a ride."
"Oh- you're right. I never thought about it. I guess the ambulance ride was a one way trip."
"They usually are. Need a ride?"
"I guess I do. Please."
Jake led Barbara through the maze of the hospital corridors toward where he had parked near the emergency room entrance. They had the main door in sight, and were fast closing on it when that door opened and Steve Vaan strode through all wide eyed and dressed in black. Barbara didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She managed a yip before Steve took over the conversation that had yet to start.
"How is he, Barbara?"
"He's ok now, he's sleeping."
Steve frowned and stopped her in her tracks.
"No, he's not sleeping."
"Sedated. He's sedated. They gave him something to let him rest. But he's going to be ok."
Steve looked over at Jake who was just about to jump between his neighbor and this over-dressed lunatic. Steve went on the offensive.
"Hi, I'm Steve Meadows- Ray's cousin from Chicago. And you are?"
"Jake. Jake Jacobson. I'm just a neighbor. Friend of Ray's. I was going to give Barbara a lift home. You?"
"I'm fine. You two go ahead. Barbara, I'll see you at the house in the morning?"
"Ah, ok. Yes, fine. In the morning."
Jake led Barbara out the door and into the night. Steve watched them go with grim amusement. No one was going to get much sleep tonight. Tomorrow was going to be a booger. Steve found a soda machine and added a bit of caffeine to his system. He had been up since before dawn. This had been one very long day so far. A quick look around the hospital showed that Ray was still an undiscovered situation. Wounded by an unidentified assailant, there was no guard posted to keep an eye on Ray Meadows. A soft-eyed plea at the nurses' station got what little information was available. Ray was "asleep" and in guarded condition. Steve knew what that meant: They had no idea what they were dealing with. The real fun would start sometime tomorrow when Ray Meadows woke up and the police started asking questions. Who, what (they knew when and where) and why? Drugged as he was for the pain, Ray would have to be careful to not say the wrong thing. Like the truth.
Some time around midnight, Steve quietly left the hospital and made his way to the police station. Maybe there had been a report filed already. Maybe a concerned cousin, just in from out of town, could get some answers. Or at least find out what the police thought they knew. Steve presented himself to the desk sergeant and pleaded his case. He was turned over to a detective who had the report on his desk. The officer's sour look told Steve most of what he wanted to know. This guy was as clueless as the hospital.
"Officer, I'd like to know what happened to my cousin this evening."
"So would I."
"You don't know what happened?"
"All I know is his wife called 911 about 8:20 this evening saying he had been attacked. Bitten. Fire rescue shows up and patched him up and the ambulance guys hauled him off to the hospital."
"And Ray didn't say anything?"
"He was out of it when the paramedics arrived. Blood loss or shock or something. They kept him pretty well sedated after that. I'm hoping to talk with him tomorrow. When he wakes up."
"Do you know anything about the situation? I saw his wife, Barbara, at the hospital but I didn't want to bother her with questions."
"Yeah, neither did we. She seems strong enough, but we can wait a few hours. As for the situation, all I got was that he was on a lawn chair out behind his house when something or someone came up to him and attacked. Apparently there was no warning."
"I saw the yard earlier. The chair was right there under the tree?"
"Far as I know. I don't think any one moved it. Any ideas? I'm open to suggestions here."
Steve gave the nice officer his best disarming smile. Oh, yeah. He had some ideas. One pretty good one. But he'd keep that one to himself for now.
"No, not really. I'm just in from out of town- Chicago. I guess I just happened to show up at a bad time."
"Maybe not. Always nice to have some family there when things get tough."
"Yeah, you'd think."
Steve thanked the officer for his time and promised to get back with him if he found anything. Yes, he'd be staying at the Meadows house after tonight for a few days. But not tonight. Steve took a good look around in front of the police station and called for a cab. It was near one in the morning when he checked into a small hotel at he southern edge of town. After nearly twenty hours of non-stop, slap-dash adventure this guy was ready to sleep. He knew he was going to have to get used to sleeping nights for a while. May as well start now.
Barbara Meadows made it home safe and sound. Of all the people involved in the evening's events, she was the least concerned about a second attack. Jake had dropped her off at the house and offered to come in and make sure whatever had been in the back yard was gone and the house was safe. Barbara thanked him, but assured him that she would be just fine. It was late. Go home, Jake. And thank you. She closed the garage door- but not before seeing a faded yellow motorbike stashed in the far corner. She was astounded. Steve rode that thing from Lyndon? Amazing. Brave. And stupid. Why would he want to do that? Must have taken him all day. With the garage door closed and Barbara safely locked in the house, she had one last thing to do before trying to sleep: Upstairs in the bedroom she pulled out the box that held the pistol. She opened it up and removed the gun and its shoulder holster. Cleaned, loaded and holstered, the gun was on her night stand before the light went out. That climber would be in for a bigger surprise next time. Dead animals don't need cages.
Sunday morning came and went. Very few people stirred. It was a quiet morning, even for a Sunday. Because the attack came later in the evening, there was no mention of it in the morning paper. That gave the Meadows (and Steve) a day of grace before it would all hit the fan. The only person to get at all excited over the event was someone Ray had met months before. Officer Patricia Robinson happened to hear of the attack when she came on duty that Sunday morning. A wild animal attack on Compton Road last night. A man in the hospital. The bells started going off in her head. Didn't some guy question her awhile back about loose exotic animals in that part of town? She found the police report and recognized Ray's name. Looks like he found his wild animal. She mentioned the connection to the detective and offered to go down to the hospital and be the friendly face Ray Meadows could talk to about the whole thing. Find out what they were dealing with. And how big a gun they'd need. So it was that when Ray Meadows woke up (or came to) that Sunday afternoon, the first person he saw was not his wife. It was Officer Patricia Robinson. He smiled though the fog.
Not far behind the good officer was Barbara Meadows and her new-found cousin, Steve V. Meadows. Steve had arrived at the house at ten that morning by cab. After a quick look around the yard, they set off for the hospital. Barbara drove and Steve didn't argue. Never argue with an armed woman. Steve had still been more than a little vague on his sudden appearance so many miles from his own home. And how he got there. Walking into Ray's hospital room, they weren't surprised to see a police officer. That they expected. They were surprised that Ray was more than just awake, he was chatty. Must be the drugs. Or the friendly, congenial (and large) police officer.
"So, Mister Meadows, you were asleep?"
"Ah, yes, I was. Sound asleep."
Ray looked around the uniformed Officer Robinson to see his wife come through the door with- of all people- Steve Vaan. How did he know? How did he get here so quickly?
"Hi, Barb, Hello Steve!"
"Hi there, cousin. How you feeling?"
Ray might have been drugged, but he was no fool. Cousin? Is that the game of the day? Ok, he could play with that. Cousin Steve.
"Flying high, I think. Wide awake, at least."
Patricia Robinson, an officer and a lady, was kind enough to defer to Ray's wife on the matter of further questioning. Not that she had gotten very far either way.
"Mrs. Meadows? You don't mind if I ask you both just a few questions? I'd like to figure out what we're going after here."
Barbara gave her a sunny smile. She knew the game would have to be played.
"Oh, no, you go right ahead."
"Thank you. You said last night you never saw what happened in the back yard?"
"No. I just heard Ray yell and came running."
"About how long do you think it took you to get out to the back yard where he was?"
"Seemed like forever."
"I'm sure it did."
"Oh, let's see: I was in the living room, so I'd say maybe ten, fifteen seconds at the most. Maybe less, I was running."
"I'm sure you were. And you saw nothing? No one leaving the yard or anything moving?"
"It was dark out there until the yard lights came on. No, I saw nothing."
Officer Robinson turned her attention back to the wounded but wired Ray Meadows.
"Ray, you were asleep on that chair?"
"Yeah. Sound asleep. It had been a long day of weekend projects out in the garage. I was pooped out. Must have fell asleep out there before it got dark."
"So you had been asleep for awhile?"
"Probably an hour or so, yes."
"And you had no warning before the attack?"
"Did you see what it was? See anything at all?"
"No, it was pitch dark. Whoever it was must have snuck up on me and hit me pretty hard. All I know is I woke up in here before dawn this morning. The nurses kind of filled me in on how I got here. It's pretty weird waking up someplace you know you didn't fall asleep. Ever had that happen to you?"
Officer Robinson had to smile.
"So far, Mister Meadows, I've been lucky. Always woke up where I fell asleep."
Steve took this opportunity to throw himself into the fray- and clue Ray in on his story.
"You are lucky, officer- seems like that happened to me all the time. In college."
"OK, sure, in college. But not lately. And you are?"
"Steve Meadows. I'm Ray's cousin. I came down from Chicago last night only to find my favorite Hoosiers up and ran off to the hospital. Took me a while to catch up with them. I'm not sure if my timing's good or bad."
Ray answered the question for him with a grin.
"Good timing, Steve. Impeccable."
"On last thing, Mister Meadows- You said you'd been working on a project- that thing in your garage?"
Oh, boy. That thing in your garage. Ray remembered everything. Like leaving the garage door open to the world. That thing was The Cage. Ray was working full time now to keep that innocent smile. You know, the one you use when you get pulled over and you DO know how fast you were going? That one.
"What is that thing? The detectives said it looked like a big cage."
"Officer, have you ever heard of hydroponics?"
Ray was able to bluff his way through with the hydroponics ruse once again, just as he had done with Jake Jacobson on Friday night. And once again, he couldn't help thinking that maybe that's what he should have been doing all along. Something nice and safe. Like hydroponics. Eventually Officer Robinson was done with her questions, even though the answers had to be less than satisfying. There were no answers. With the police out of the picture, and the door to the room quite closed, they could talk at last. Barbara gave her husband a warm, if delicate hug. Ray could only offer a one-armed response.
"How are you, really?"
"Weird. Very weird."
Steve had to ask the real question.
"How much do you REALLY remember?"
"All of it. Right down to the paramedics' name tags."
"Ok, what happened?"
"The clumsy thing fell out of the tree on me."
They knew they shouldn't laugh, but they did. All three of them. It was easy enough to picture something of great stealth and silence going stupid and falling out of control. That sudden transition from the Bolshoi Ballet to the Three Stooges. It had to be funny, even if the results weren't. Barbara recovered her composure first.
"I saw it in the tree."
"Just before it happened. I looked out he back window to see if you were still asleep and there it was, right above you stretched out on the limb."
"How could you see it in the dark?"
"The blue glow. It wasn't very bright, but it was there. I was on my way upstairs when I heard the scream."
"That would be me. I woke up to a glowing blue face right above my head. It was bright blue then. Took me a moment to focus on it and realize what it was. It was already crackling with an electrical charge and I guess I shouldn't have startled it. I was never very good at being cool."
Steve had to ask for a little clarification.
"You yelled before it hit you?"
"Yeah. My fault it hit me at all. Maybe if I hadn't yelled and tried to jump out of the lawn chair, maybe it wouldn't have lost it's perch and fallen on me like it did."
"Did it really bite you?"
"Define bite."
"What happened to your arm?"
"Ok, that could be a bite. Or you could say that I broke its fall by putting my arm in its mouth."
"I don't think it meant to bite me. It's just that, well, there it was. It fell. I covered my face with this arm, and that's where its open mouth landed. Of course it bit. Nobody wants a sweating arm in their mouth. Especially somebody else's."
Steve tried to put it all together, and just about got it right.
"So it fell out of the tree and landed on you, mouth open. When it hit, all it tried to do was get away?"
"That's about the size of it. It was making tracks. Unfortunately, it was making tracks all over me."
"Where'd it go?"
"Straight up. Back into the tree. I kind of lost sight of it since it had discharged it's electrical charge. I think they stop glowing then."
"They do. How do you feel right now?"
"Like I could juggle live rats running up and down a spiral staircase. I'm sure it will pass."
"No, it won't."
Barbara looked over at Steve after that last comment. Was he serious?
"What do you mean, Steve? He's going to be alright, isn't he?"
"Oh, yeah, he should heal up ok. Some scars. Great for war story night around the old campfire at night. But the wired feeling? The wide awake jitters? Welcome to the club and late night TV."
"Like you?"
"Maybe worse. I only grabbed the thing. You got bit. Intentional or not, you got a very strong dose of whatever it is those things put out. Kind of the rocking pneumonia and boogie-woogie flu. You're going to be awake for awhile. The sedatives will kill the pain, but they won't put you to sleep. Not now.
"I don't know. I cat napped for about six months before I could settle into to getting at about four hours of sleep in an afternoon. Didn't sleep at all- not a wink- for about the first week or so after it happened. Last night was the first night I've slept in darkness for more than a few minutes at a time."
There wasn't much to be said after that. Small talk was made to fill in the awkward silence, but no real conversation reared its ugly head until Ray finally got around to it. He had been thinking about it, and something didn't quite add up.
"Steve, how did you know to show up last night? You couldn't have known about all this. And how did you get here?"
"I didn't know. Bad timing, that's all. I showed up about eleven last night at an empty house. There was yellow crime scene tape all over the back yard, medical supplies strewn around and a climber cage in the open garage. Looked like someone got a free trip to the hospital. All I had to do was call around to see where you were admitted. Just dumb luck that I showed up last night. And I got here on that old Honda motorbike you saw. Slow, but sure. Mostly slow. I left Lyndon before dawn yesterday.
Barbara had to ask what both she and Ray were thinking.
Steve managed to smile and look grim at the same time. It was a rare talent.
"The found me."
"Who? The climbers?"
"No, my family. They were finally able to trace me to Lyndon. I found out Friday evening that they were on their way."
"How? How could you know?"
"My friend the lawyer. They were fool enough to tell some one that they were leaving to get me. That some one called him after they had left for the airport and tipped him off that they knew where I was. He called Friday, I spent the night getting ready to bug out. Left the apartment in Lyndon about five in the morning. Took all the back roads, made a lot of detours and didn't stop until I had crossed the state line."
"And you rode the entire way on that little Honda thing?
"It's amazing how far you can go when you're not in a hurry- or rather, when you can't hurry. I made sure I looked like a local as I cruised along at about thirty miles an hour. Lots of stops, lots of turns. Never stayed on the same road for more than a few miles. Took evasive action through two states. Even I couldn't have followed me."
"So you got lost."
"About a hundred times. Ended up pushing the bike twice- out of gas. Finally broke down and bought a spare gallon gas can to carry along. Only ran out once after that."
"And do you think your family did show up?"
"I know they did. Called my apartment yesterday afternoon and it wasn't me who answered the phone."
"That's a sure sign."
"I thought so."
"So what are you going to do now?"
"Move on, hide out."
"The suave Richard Kimball?"
"Something like that. And it looks like I've already found the one armed man."
"Very funny."
Pondering their current state of affairs, Steve warned them of what their immediate future might hold: The Press. There had been nothing in the morning paper only because it had happened so late the night before. Monday's paper may be a different story. Their story. Would the press pick up on it? It was a story ripe for sensationalism. It was a story that didn't need any if the real truth got out. Their fears were realized before dinner time when a local television news crew showed up at the hospital. They had heard about the emergency on a police scanner recorded the night before and played back in the morning. Sounded slightly more interesting than the usual Saturday night trash, so a camera man and a reporter were sent out to the hospital to do a little digging. Being about a third or fourth string news crew, they never got any further than the front desk, and even less information. Of course that made them hungry for more. Doubling back to the police station only got them stonewalled by the boys (and girls) in blue who were determined to say nothing, since they really didn't know quite what to say. What did happen last night? We aren't at liberty to disclose the details of an ongoing investigation. A nice way of saying we haven't a clue. They found no one at the Meadows' house, so it was back to the hospital.
By this time the TV news team was getting anxious about having something- anything- to put on the air for the evening news. They needed a story- now. Steve Vaan was escorting Barbara Meadows past the front desk as the reporter was trying once again to find a shred of a news story in all this. The receptionist was guarding the patient's confidentiality- and the hospital's reputation. Tough job when she really didn't have much more of a clue than the police. At least she knew the patient's condition: Guarded.
"So can you at least tell me when Mister Meadows is due to be released?"
"Well, no sir, I can't. That's up to the doctor."
"And where is the doctor?"
"He's gone for the day."
"And the family? Are they still here?"
"I really don't know, sir. Visiting hours are until eight, so they could be."
"And could I see them?"
"Well, sir, you're not really allowed up in the rooms unless you're related to the patient. And I'm guessing here that you aren't."
"Could I wait here until they come out, then?"
"Well, yes sir, you could. Do you know what they look like?"
The reporter was crest-fallen. No, he didn't know what they looked like. The family could be four feet tall, glowing blue with short tails and he wouldn't have known. Of course, that would have been the other party's family. Steve Vaan had watched this exchange of no information whatsoever and decided to seize the moment. It was his way, and it usually seemed to work. Leaving Barbara to instruct the front desk that they wanted no reporters or press of any kind, Steve followed the slumped reporter out the front door, close on the heels of the trailing camera man.
"Hey there, you boys looking for that Mellows fellow?"
The reporter turned with a big made-for-TV smile. It was scary how fast he could turn it on. Steve didn't even flinch.
"Why, yes, yes we are. Are you his family?"
"No, no, nothing like that. Just he's in the same room with my old man."
"So you saw him?"
"Kind of tough to miss him. Them rooms up there weren't all that big, you know."
"Ok, so what did he look like?"
"Oh, I don't know. Embarrassed, mostly."
"Embarrassed? What do you mean?"
"Oh, it seems this whole thing got blown way out of proportion. He fell off a ladder and now every one thinks something happened to him."
"I heard it was some sort of attack. An animal or something."
"Might be that's what you heard last night, but today he's telling a different story."
"What about his family?"
"Don't know. You might catch up with them over at the Hoosier Smokehouse. That's where they said they were headed about half an hour ago. They might tell you something different. Look for a woman in a yellow dress and a young fellow in overalls."
The reporter lit up like a Christmas tree. His big break- the inside story. The scoop. Scoop of what, he had no idea. But it was certainly a big scoop of something. Running for the van with the camera man in tow, the reporter was no longer a problem. Halfway through that exchange of misinformation, Steve had felt Barbara slide up next to him. With the reporter gone, she finally spoke.
"You are a mean, mean little boy."
"Like that's news. Come on, there must be someplace to eat around here."
"Any place but the Hoosier Smokehouse."
"That goes without saying."
Cruising out of the hospital's parking lot, Steve explained to Barbara what they needed to do over the next few days: Avoid, stall and delay the press. It's only news when it's new. A couple of days, three at the most, and no one's going to be the least bit interested in Ray Meadows' accident. Not even the police. Tomorrow's Disaster du Jour will replace him. They just had to lay low for a couple of days and play Don't Meet The Press. Barbara drove them to Monty's. Tried and true and not anywhere near the Hoosier Smokehouse. Seemed safe enough- until they walked through the door. That's the trouble with a neighborhood restaurant: You're liable to meet your neighbors there. Whether you want to or not. The first person Barbara Meadows saw as they walked through the door was Jake. Jake Jacobson, the neighborhood man about town. And of course he saw them and motioned them over to his table. Here we go again. Hope Steve can hold his pasta. He was going to have trouble holding the conversation.
"So Barbara, how's Ray doing?"
"Great Jake, just fine. He seemed real good this afternoon."
"How long you think the doctor's going to keep him in there?"
"I don't know. I'm thinking maybe a couple more days. They want to make sure there's no infection or reaction."
"What's to react to?"
Steve stepped in (verbally) to save the day.
"Medication. Those antibiotics can be pretty nasty sometimes."
"Ok, yeah, you're right. You folks up for some dinner? I've ordered, but we can just double it."
Barbara cast a worried glance at Steve, who was one big hungry smile. Uh-oh. Looks like they were stuck with the Jacobsons for dinner.
"Sure, fine by me. What's on the menu?"
Jake's wife Carol was just as hyper as her husband. It was always a scary scene when those two got around food. She was proud of their choice.
"A garlic and shrimp pizza! With extra sour cream!"
Ok, so maybe it wouldn't taste that bad. It sounded that bad, but how would it taste, really? Neither Barbara or Steve had been ready for that one, and both just sat there, bug eyed and slack jawed. Too bad their stunned shock was misinterpreted.
"Look at that, Jake, they're drooling all ready."
"Yeah, I can tell you two are really going to like this one. You ever get any thing like this in Chicago, Steve?"
"Only when the health inspectors go on strike."
Faced with the prospect of such an- interesting, for lack of a better word- pizza, Both Barbara and Steve did their best to make small talk until the dreaded pie made its fateful appearance. Of course that didn't take nearly as long as they'd have liked. But in the meantime, some one had to fill in the air with talk, lest Jake take the helm and steer them into trouble waters. Like about what had happened last night, really. Uh-oh. Too late. Jake had spent the day putting two and two together. He came up with three and half, leaving questions unanswered.
"So, Barbara, I was thinking about what happened to Ray."
Oh, boy. Here it comes. Steve watched Barbara carefully to see how she was going to handle a random question. Might be a tough one.
"You folks have motion sensor lights in your back yard, right?"
"Yes, we do. Why?"
"I was just wondering how some one could sneak up on Ray and run back out again without anyone seeing them."
"I don't know, Jake. Ray was asleep out there, and the lights don't come on unless you move through the trip beams."
"Yeah, but who ever went back there was either very lucky or knew where those trip beams were."
Steve was too quiet. He knew Jake had a potential checkmate here. How could some one- or something- get in that yard and back out again without tripping all those lights? How, indeed? Vertical hadn't occurred to Jake. Or had it? Had Jake figured out the cage in the garage? Steve saw the only way out was at hand- like it or not.
"Hey, the pizza's here! Dig in!"
Carol Jacobson was right: It was better than it sounded. Even better than it looked, and it didn't look half bad. It was steaming hot and dripping with cheese. Lots of garlic and popcorn shrimp. It wasn't that bad, really. And it accomplished what Steve Vaan was unable to do: It stopped the conversation before an answer had to be offered. Now, that’s good pizza. They were halfway through the two large pizzas, faces stuffed and garlic everywhere when the restaurant's night manager approached hesitantly. He was headed for Steve.
"Excuse me, are you Mister Steven Meadows?"
The planet stopped revolving for Steve- and Barbara as well. How in the world?
"There's a phone call for you, sir. It’s your cousin, Ray. He says it's urgent."
"Be right there."
Steve managed to wipe most of the cheese and garlic off of his face as he reassured Barbara that everything was going to be all right. He should have expected this. Ray wasn't going to be sleeping any time soon. He had lots of time on his hands and nothing to do in the hospital. So of course he could track them down and call. Why not? Steve found the phone in the restaurant's kitchen.
"Steve, I think we've got a problem. A reporter."
"That TV guy? How'd he get back there so soon?"
"What TV guy? This was a newspaper reporter. He's managed to get a copy of the police report and the paramedics' report. They both mention a possible wild animal attack. He's not buying the 'fell off the ladder' bit. The ladder wasn't even out in the yard."
"How'd he get past the front desk?"
"Did you know I had a brother from St. Louis?"
"No, do you?"
"Apparently I do now. And he's a reporter for the Indianapolis paper."
"Didn't have to show an ID at the front desk, huh?"
"I guess not. I just wanted to warn you. Looks like this is going to be in tomorrow's paper as a wild animal attack. Any ideas?"
"Any idea how soon you'll be released?"
"No. Oddly enough, doctors don't hang around the hospital much on Sunday nights. I guess they've got more important stuff to do."
"Like what? It's too dark to play golf."
"I'll probably find out tomorrow. I'm going nuts in here. Wide awake and ready to do SOMETHING. Anything."
"Yeah, been there. Look, just lay low tonight and try to dodge the reporters if they come back. Right now, if he's anywhere, he's waiting for someone to show up at the house. And how'd you find us here, anyway?"
"Process of elimination. This was the third restaurant I tried. Lucky me."
"If you say so. Ok, Ray, just hang loose and I'll try to run damage control if we run into that reporter."
"I've got to hang loose. Ever wear a hospital gown?"
"Here's a tip: Put it on backwards with the breezy opening in the front. It's more like a bathrobe that way."
"Good idea. See you in the morning?"
"You bet. First thing."
Steve hung up the phone and complimented the cook on the pizza. And yes, he meant it. Back at the table, Barbara was trying hard to be happy and smile and not get too worried. Her smile faded when Steve got back. What was going on? Now she was worried.
"What is it, Steve?"
Steve managed a smile. It was easy for him, he had a plan. He always had a plan.
"More reporters."
Jake picked up on this. Was Ray's accident news? Was it even an accident?
"Yeah, they're sort of hounding Barbara about whatever Ray tangled with."
"Reporters can be real pests."
"Looks like we've got one waiting for Barbara at the house."
Carol seemed all concerned now. Like reporters were venomous. Or packed an electrical charge.
"What are you going to do? Barbara, you can't go home and face that."
Barbara agreed, sort of.
"Not after a large garlic and shrimp pizza."
Steve had the plan, and was willing to share.
"Say, Carol, how about Barbara stays with you two for a day or so- until Ray gets out of the hospital? I can keep an eye on the house and fend off the reporters."
Jake saw this as a great way to maybe find out what was really going on over at the ol' Meadows' place. He was sure Ray didn't fall off any ladder and he did want to know about that cage in the garage. Not to mention what sort of animal could go through that back yard without turning on all those motion sensor lights. Jake Jacobson had way too many questions. Thankfully, he kept them to himself. For now.
"I think that would be great. We've got the spare bedroom and it would only take a minute to make it usable. You stay with us, and any reporters will have to get through me."
Steve wasn't about to let Barbara get out of this one. They needed to do some serious reporter dodging over the next few days. Starting right now.
"Sounds great to me. How about you, Barbara?"
"Well, ok. That's probably the best thing. Until Ray gets out of the hospital. But what about that reporter at the house?"
Steve loved a good challenge. Like a hungry reporter to lead off down the garden path and leave in the bushes.
"You go with Carol and Jake, I'll take your car back to the house. I'll stay there tonight and take care of the reporter. I'll pick you up in the morning to go back to the hospital."
Barbara knew that it had to be. For a few days, anyway. And it wasn't so bad. Carol and Jake would be gracious hosts. The tough part would be keeping a low profile. And a reasonable waistline. Jake was not a low profile kind of guy, and they both loved to eat. She gave Steve her keys to the house and car. Dinner was finished up with absolutely no mention of dessert. It was amazing how filling those little shrimp could be. Oozing garlic from every pore, the less than fabulous four waddled their way out of the restaurant and into the night. Barbara went into hiding at the Jacobson's and Steve went on to face the dangerous beast of a clever reporter- with one last question in the parking lot.
"Barbara? How do I get back to the house from here?"
When the laughter died down, Jake had the best solution.
"Just follow us. I'll drive right past it before we head for home. Look for my blinker when we get on Compton Road."
That said, the two car caravan got underway. They only got separated once at a traffic light, and Jake made sure Steve didn't get totally lost. He drove down Compton Road and signaled as promised at the Meadows' house. By then, Steve had recognized where he was and spotted the house. It was easy enough. It was the house with the two reporters on the front porch and a camera man in the van at the curb. Oh, boy. Sparky the Wonder Llama had returned from the Hoosier Smokehouse. Steve pulled up into the drive. He wasn't about to open the garage door. These guys were hungry. And they hadn't eaten in awhile, either. Both reporters got up and met him in the front yard.
"Hey, aren't you the guy from the hospital?"
"You're Ray Meadows?"
Steve looked at both of them and smiled. This was going to be easier than he had thought.
"Yes and no."
The newspaper reporter didn't want to play games. Boy, had he come to the wrong place.
"What do you know about a wild animal attack?"
"It's nasty and painful and usually involves a wild animal. But that's not important now."
Was it really fair? Two reporters against one innocent bystander? And are bystanders truly innocent? Not this one. No, it wasn't really fair. In this battle of wits, the reporters were hopelessly outgunned.
"What kind of animal attacked Ray Meadows?"
Steve tried the echo question tactic. With two reporters, it just might work.
"What kind of animal?"
"Yes, Ray Meadows was attacked by an animal. Do you know what it was?"
"Do I know what it was?"
"Look, buddy, we've read the reports: The police, the paramedics', the hospital's. This guy got chewed up by something. We want to know what it was. Is there some kind of dangerous wild animal running loose around here?"
"Gentlemen, if there is, I'm certainly not going to stand around out here in the dark late at night and discuss it. Too dangerous. Good night."
With that, Steve left the two reporters standing in the front yard looking at each other. The camera man made a point of closing the van door. Better safe than sorry. Steve fumbled with the keys for as moment before he turned and offered his parting shot.
"You might try going to the right house next time. Ray Meadows lives at 2648. This is 2948. Good night."
With that he stepped inside and made a point of loudly locking the door. Did it work? He kept the lights off in the house to watch the two reporters on the lawn. And yes, he had turned that house number upside down on the side of the front porch earlier in the day. Just in case. It was a move that might pay off now. The two hyper media types took a long look at the house number. They looked back at their notes and photocopies. Walking out to the curb, they squinted into the darkness up and down the street. After all that, they were at the wrong house? Great. Just great. This was no way to get a promotion. They took off in search of the right house as Steve Vaan made a bee line for the back yard. He wanted to clean up that mess out there before they remembered that this had to be the right house- there was crime scene tape all over the back yard.
Five minutes of hard work and running back and forth had all the police tape gathered up and the lawn chair hidden inside. Steve managed to spread some dirt over the pool of dried blood where the chair had been and put all the paramedics' trash in the garbage in the kitchen. He'd dispose of that later. Some place else. The lawn chair went to the basement. It was a mess. Blood-stained and scorched, this chair was a problem. He couldn't throw it away without spending a considerable amount of time taking it apart and cutting it up into small pieces. Even then, these guys might go through the trash and find it. Plan B: Steve put it in the back corner of the basement and covered it with boxes. There. Looks like it's been there forever. It may well be from now on. Ten minutes after he started, he was done.
The Meadows' house was dark and silent and locked up tight. Steve was sitting on the living room couch, watching out the front window. How long before those reporters figured it out? Maybe they wouldn't come back. They could write and record their stories without any more real information than they already had, which was none. It wouldn't be the first time. Steve watched Compton Road for about an hour and a half. The sparse traffic on this quiet suburban street seemed like a major highway to a man used to the pace (or lack thereof) in Lyndon, Illinois. He missed the hustle and bustle of a real city. Maybe it had been time for a move after all. Now it was time for another one.

To Be Continued For Quite A While Yet (160 pages yet to go)...

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Copyright 1996,2010 Chip Haynes