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Authors: Ronald Malfi

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BOOK: Cradle Lake
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He stepped off the porch and cut through the yard on his way around to the back of the house. Momentarily, the scent of his father's cologne grew stronger. The sky was a country sky, afire with an abundance of stars. The moon was fat and full, the color of bone. Lighting a second cigarette, Alan crossed the yard while trailing the palms of his hands over the high grass. It was warm enough for fireflies, and this night they were out in multitude, filling the sky with their peculiar brand of visual Morse code.

Alan's gaze fell upon the dark hollow in the curtain of trees. It looked like the mouth of a cave in the side of a mountain. He exhaled a cloud of smoke out of the corner of his mouth and tromped down the tall grass on his way over to the stand of trees. Stupidly, it caused him to think of the alley between the two buildings and the pale moon face that had floated there, watching him from across a Manhattan street.

Quit it.

A cool, summery breeze cascaded down into the yard, rustling his hair and causing gooseflesh to spring up on his
bare chest. The breeze passed through the branches of the pines, too, making them undulate. As if waving him closer, beckoning him. A ghostly moan rose out of the woods: the wind funneling through hollow trees.

He passed through the opening between the trees and stepped onto the path.

Darkness rushed in to greet him. Just a few paces down the path, he paused and glanced up. Despite the brilliance of the moon and the clear sky, the overlapping branches above his head were plentiful enough to keep much of the moonlight off the path and out of the woods. Yet as his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, he made out something glowing dimly in the shadows of the woods just a few yards ahead of him on the path. He walked toward it, keeping his knees bent and one hand in front of his eyes to swipe away errant tree branches. As he drew closer he realized it was the smooth white stone he had seen earlier that day, the one with the strange upside-down triangle carved into it. And even though the moonlight was limited here in the woods, the stone glowed faintly, as if radioactive.

Alan crouched before the stone and waved one hand in front of it. His fingers left psychedelic trails in their wake. Looking up, he saw more white stones staggered at intervals along the path, which appeared to wind deeper and deeper into the woods.

Happy trails,
he thought again and continued down the path.

Even with the stones guiding his way, he nearly got lost. If the stones were supposed to serve as directional markers, they could have been arranged in a better fashion. Some of
the stones sat on the edge of the path while others veered off into the underbrush, causing him to step clumsily and blindly into a bush or to bark his shins on moss-covered deadfalls. All the stones had a symbol, each one different, carved into them, and they seemed to radiate with that same phosphorescent light.
It's reflecting the moonlight; that's got to be it.
When he touched one, it was as cold as ice. He pulled his hand away and felt a timorous laugh quake through his body.

He stood there for a moment, the reality of the situation settling upon him. Wandering around out here in the dark was foolish. He could trip over something, break an ankle. Or fall down a blind ravine and break his neck. If he was so curious about where this path led, he could follow it tomorrow in the daylight.

Yet something refused to let him turn around and return to the house. He could convince himself that he swore he smelled his father's cologne again, stronger here in the woods, but he didn't necessarily think that was true. Whatever was urging him to keep going was inexplicable.

Alan continued down the path. The antacid began working on his ulcer, dulling it into stupid submission. By the time he reached the end of the path, all the glowing white stones behind him now in the darkness, he'd forgotten about the pain.

The trees opened up on an immense moonlit clearing of low grass, billowy ground fog, and pockets of tiny white flowers. He stepped into the clearing and looked around in awe.

The trees seemed much older than the ones in the woods, their trunks an impressive circumference, like
the trees in the redwood forest off the Pacific Coast, and they were as white as polished bone in the moonlight. They were staggered in a rough circle around the perimeter of the clearing, glossy and seeming to drip wetly with moon glow. Their bare branches reached high into the night sky and passed like a network of veins across the colorless face of the moon. They were towering, tremendous, mind-boggling things.

In the center of the trees was a small lake.

Its surface covered by a blanket of roiling mist, the lake didn't appear to him all at once. The mist slid slowly off the surface of the water in a rolling, smoky fashion, dense as wool. As it reached the edge of the lake, the mist thinned out until it clung low to the ground where it continued to undulate as if alive. Motionless, Alan stood and watched as the mist dissipated throughout the clearing, slowly spreading out to the surrounding corral of trees. It took several seconds before he realized he was holding his breath.

It's beautiful …

Alan walked to the edge of the lake and peered down at the water. It could have been tar or smoked glass it was so black. His reflection mirrored up at him, looking ghastly and skeletal. His skin was white as stone, his eyes huge and dark and seemingly recessed into deep pockets. He could easily make out the apostrophe-shaped cut above his right eyebrow and the bruise on his cheek.

He dropped to one knee and reached out, sticking two fingers into the water—

(ice-cold!)

—only to pull them quickly out, hissing between
clenched teeth. A bundle of muscles at the small of his back tightened from the cold. He flexed his fingers, working the feeling back into them, amazed at how numb they'd become from no longer than a split second beneath the water. It was July and the water was ice-cold …

His reflection stared up at him.

Rippling.

Things moved in the trees.
Large
things.

Alan stood and stared at them: black silhouettes framed against the night sky. Only the ones on the branches that passed in front of the moon were clearly outlined.

Birds,
he thought, though the realization afforded him little relief and did not do the birds justice.
Buzzards.

There were scores of them, whole families, multitudes. Carrion birds, stooped over like hunchbacks in bell towers. And although he knew it was crazy, he had the disquieting feeling that they were all watching him.

Carnivorous birds.

It was insane, sure … but if they all decided to simultaneously swoop down off their perches and attack …

A noise somewhere off to his left collected his attention. Alan turned and squinted. For a second he thought he could see the pale shape of a man wending through the trees. But the harder he looked for the figure, the more he became convinced it was just his imagination.

When he looked up again he noticed some of the buzzards had moved closer together on a number of the lower branches of the giant, skeletal trees. That many birds and the night should have been a cacophony of shrill, earsplitting shrieks. But these birds were silent. They'd gathered on the
lower branches of the trees while he wasn't looking, as if creeping up on him for an ambush …

Out of nowhere the absurdity of the situation struck him. Nervous, he laughed maybe a bit too loud, his eyes still on the collection of large birds—they didn't seem disturbed by the sound—before retreating across the clearing toward the wooded path.

But Alan could not find the path. The opening in the trees was now obscured by a dull mist. In fact, it appeared as if the mist itself had gotten caught in the boughs of the trees and tangled around their trunks like smoky strands of gossamer. A disturbing thought suddenly struck him:
The mist doesn't want me to leave.
Trapped, captive, imprisoned forever. It was ridiculous, of course, but it still caused a cold butterfly to flutter to life in his stomach. He wanted to laugh again, if for no other reason than to fool his addled brain into clearheadedness, but decided against it. He had been lucky with the birds thus far. He didn't want to press his luck further by startling them with mad laughter.

For several minutes he wandered around the perimeter of the clearing, peering through the soupy mist in hopes of locating the path. He couldn't retrace his footsteps because he'd left none behind. None that he could see, anyway. He knew
approximately
where the opening should be, as he had pretty much walked in a straight line from the end of the path to the clearing. But as he swam through the fog toward the place he assessed the path should have been, parting the cloudy air with his hands, he stumbled over and over again into a profusion of pine needles.

Finally, when it seemed he would never find the path
again and he started deliberating whether or not he should push his way through the goddamn trees and keep walking until he eventually staggered into his own backyard, he spied the dark hollow through the wall of fog. He went to it and crossed between the trees, stepping onto the dirt path. He spotted one of the luminous white stones up ahead in the woods.

I checked here already,
he thought.
I know I did.

Disquieted, he pushed on through the woods, refusing to look back over his shoulder the entire way.

Alan wasn't sure how long he'd actually been outside, stumbling through the clearing to find the path, but by the time he stepped into his backyard, the moon had repositioned itself in the sky. The night had cooled considerably, causing a chill to ripple through his body and his bare chest to prickle. For some reason, he felt fatigued, as if he had just returned from a long, arduous journey.

He lit one final cigarette, taking his time walking around the side of the house toward the front porch. A strong breeze rustled the remaining leaves high in the trees. Finishing the cigarette, he looked across the street. All remained still and quiet.
Ghost town,
he thought. Which made him think of Heather.

There was a police car parked farther down the street, a couple of houses away from Alan's. He just happened to glance up and see it. Its lights and engine off, it looked abandoned. From this distance, he couldn't tell if there was anyone sitting inside it or not. Was it the same car from earlier
that day? He tried to make out the sheriff's department emblem on the door, but it was too dark.

Alan tossed the cigarette butt and walked to the edge of the property. One of the neighbors was probably a police officer and parked his car in the street at night to deter burglars. No big deal. Yet on the other hand, if there was something going on in the neighborhood—something that required around-the-clock police surveillance, in other words—he wanted to know about it.

There was movement from inside the police car. He was positive he saw something. The shape of someone sitting up behind the wheel …

Alan stepped into the street and walked toward the police car. The cruiser's headlamps flared on, startling him. He froze, spotlighted in the glow of the headlights. His shadow became an elongated scarecrow on the pavement behind him.

The cruiser's engine coughed to life. The car pulled away from the curb and nearly hopped the opposite one as it spun around and took off down the street toward the nearest intersection.

Alan watched the cruiser's taillights disappear in the darkness.

CHAPTER FIVE

Hank Gerski's basement was a shrine to the Baltimore Orioles. Theatrical-sized posters of Cal Ripken Jr. hung from the paneling; a conga line of autographed baseballs sat on the mantelpiece, hermetically sealed in clear plastic globes; a scuffed pair of cleats hung from a bronze peg above a coffee table, the tabletop itself a patchwork of baseball cards housed in Lucite. Hank had played a single season with the O's in the early nineties before an auto accident ruined his left knee. He worked now as a bookkeeper for a law firm and didn't seem bitter about settling for a life of mediocrity.

Alan surveyed the paraphernalia. “Do you miss playing?”

“I did early on. Thought my life had ended. Not so much anymore, though.”

“I'd be devastated.”

Hank shrugged. “Family keeps me busy enough, I guess.”

“Yeah, but still … I mean, that had to have been one
hell of a ride, playing professional ball.”

“It's only a game,” he said, grinning goofily. He was dressed in a ridiculous Hawaiian shirt and overly starched chinos and sipped noisily from a can of beer. “You guys planning to have kids?”

Outside, laughter from the backyard could be heard as Lydia entertained the rest of their guests. Alan hadn't wanted to attend the barbecue, but he thought it might be good for Heather to get out of the house and meet some of the neighbors, so he had accepted Hank's invitation.

“I don't know,” Alan said dryly.

“It's a great neighborhood, a great place to raise kids,” Hank went on. “Everyone's real friendly. Fourth of July we have a parade down Market Street, and at Christmas all the shops in town are decorated real nice. Santa comes through on a fire engine and everything, throwing candy canes to the kids. You'll see how crazy it gets at Halloween soon enough, too, so make sure you guys get plenty of candy. Your doorbell will be ringing all night. And trust me, man, you don't want to clean up toilet paper from the trees the next morning.”

“Anything bad every happen in this great neighborhood?” Alan said. He hadn't meant to sound sarcastic, but Hank didn't seem to notice.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I've noticed a cop car sitting across the street on two different occasions. Once in the middle of the night. I was wondering if there'd been some burglaries or vandalism in the neighborhood. Anything like that.”

“Oh,” said Hank, “you're talking about Sheriff Landry. It's
nothing to worry about. Just the standard neighborhood patrol.”

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