Darkness on Stonebridge Lane
When Jeff stirred awake ahead of his 4:46 alarm, he found himself sprawled on his stomach and reaching for the other side of the mattress, expecting Diane’s warm, soft form to curl next to. It was the same awkward position he had found himself in dozens of time in the past weeks when he had woken unexpectedly. It looked like longing. It felt like desperation. His body was betraying what his mind knew, but his mind was making his body do it.
Diane wasn’t there, and she wasn’t going to be there. She made it quite clear: I’m not coming back. She actually yelled it. Repeatedly. He heard her clearly, and was sure anybody else in the building had, too, if they were near the parking lot when she tromped through the rain and stuffed her belongings into the car as she shouted about their lame marriage and how she deserved more.
Jeff wondered again how things had gone to shit so fast, but the thought only lasted until a long, beast-like groan moved through the morning air, followed by a clattering of underground pipes and the sound of rushing water. It was the sewer system still managing the water and mud and dead fish and other filth that had overflowed last week from the river that formed the western border of the Riverside Crossing neighborhood. In addition to that damage, the part of the neighborhood next to the river had no power. A utility company truck was on the scene yesterday, but the streets over there were still dark when Jeff went to bed last night. To top it all off, nobody knew where Steven O’Neill was. As if on cue, Jeff’s radio alarm cut on as a news reporter read the latest about the teenager—the Amber Alert issued two days ago has not met with any results. Officials remain puzzled as to the boy’s whereabouts.
As if, Jeff thought as he hauled himself out of bed. He slid on a pair of black running shorts and a fluorescent yellow shirt, and then dug around a dresser drawer for socks and wristbands. The Steven O’Neill thing had to be a prank. Trick-or-treaters had chatted about the boy the night before as they stalked the neighborhood for candy, and had left enough gossip in their wakes for someone to think the disappearance was a hoax. The only thing for sure was the fact that Steven had left a Halloween party early Sunday morning on the opposite side of the neighborhood from his parent’s riverside home, and that was the last anybody had seen him. Except things like that didn’t happen in Riverside Crossing. Somebody knew where Steven was, but nobody had yet cracked the teenage code of silence. No matter. Halloween was officially over, and surely the prank was going to end, too.
Jeff stepped onto his balcony and looked out across Riverside Crossing. The sidewalks and streets were mostly dry. The rain that had soaked the neighborhood for the previous week stopped Sunday afternoon, and hopefully wouldn’t return any time soon. It was pleasantly warm for November 1st, and the smell of wood burned in fire pits the night before mixed with the smell of dirty river water in the air. It was dark, but street lights, porch lights, and driveway security lights glowed around the neighborhood well enough to make it through a run. Jeff saw that nothing glowed out at the far reaches of Riverside Crossing, but it was no matter–his eyes will have adjusted to the low light to see well enough by that point. Besides, the darker the better just now. Nobody would see him. Nobody would finger him as the guy with the lame marriage.
Jeff’s only safety concern was the leaves homeowners pushed to the curbs before leaf pickup day. Some piles stretched down streets and around corners for blocks at a time, and it was anybody’s guess what they hid–rocks or garbage or chuck holes, or dead fish or sludge or whatever else the river had belched out. The piles also made it impossible to tell where the storm drains were except if water pooled around the low spots along the curbs. There was another way to tell where the drains were, though. It came to Jeff as he stretched his calf on the curb outside his building and again heard the groaning and clattering and rushing water close to him and several feet below the pavement. Hopefully, somebody from the village would come out and check the sewer situation before winter.
Jeff’s eyes settled for a moment on the light pole next to him where neighbors had plastered posts about missing pets: Have you seen a lab mix named Roger in the last week? An orange tomcat named Spike had been gone for three days. Another cat named Julia and her dog playmate Ralphie were both missing from the same house. The pets are chipped, the signs mostly read. Please call. Their families miss them. Jeff didn’t recall seeing any stray animals the last few days, though a pet sounded like a good idea now that Diane was gone.
Once Jeff’s calves and tendons were loose, he was off. His shoulders were cranky from his awkward and troubled sleep, but he wouldn’t feel any pain once the adrenaline kicked in. The first order of business, though, was to breathe. It was hard to find the right rhythm at first, but it came once he turned right off Old Walnut Circle onto Redbud Lane and took a left turn onto Meander Drive. He was thankful for the familiarity of the course–the flatness, the long straightaways. He could zone out and relax and sink down into his own thoughts. No surprises. There had been enough of those lately, and there were bound to be more when Diane’s lawyer called about all the divorce details. What if he surprised Diane? How about some divorce papers delivered to her at work? Could a lawyer do that? He’d have to hire one and find out.
Jeff was gliding once he turned left onto Tangueray Drive. He was awake and happier to be alive than he had been since he couldn’t remember when. Hello, dopamine. Cigar butts and smears of ash marred sections of sidewalk along Tangueray, where block parties had jammed late into Halloween night. Empty beer cans clinked around some driveways as a slight breeze drifted through. It looked like it had been a happy Halloween, at least for the adults. The smell of smoke was thicker there, but gave way to the stench of dirty water once Jeff turned on to Stonebridge Lane. The gurgle of the river sounded just beyond Jeff’s vision in the near dark.
A utility company truck sat along the curb when Jeff turned right onto Stonebridge Lane. One of its back doors hung open. A light shone inside. Was it the same truck that had been there at dusk yesterday when he had driven past? He hadn’t noted much about the truck, but did remember a burly man in an orange vest sorting through a mess of wires in the yard adjacent to the truck. A green utility box laid next to the mess, though it looked like it had somehow been yanked out of the ground and crushed.
Jeff ran around the truck and tried to focus on the yard and porch lights all the way up on Bobolink Trail. Once past the truck, he saw an orange construction helmet sitting in the middle of the street. “Really?” he said aloud. The truck is hanging open and equipment is scattered around? No wonder it’s still dark on Stonebridge Lane.
Jeff circled out into the street around the helmet and stopped. He took three measured steps toward the helmet and booted it in the direction of the wire mess and damaged utility box that still laid in the yard. He watched the helmet bounce onto the sidewalk and skid a few feet before he turned and continued running. Something rippled beneath the strip of leaves to his right and skittered all the way down to the derelict utility truck. He heard the groan and clatter and rushing water yet again. Damn. They’ll have to dig up the whole neighborhood.
It came to Jeff as he ran parallel to the river towards the next turn that he had probably crossed whatever path Steven O’Neill took home two nights ago. Since he was running a double circuit around Riverside Crossing, he might pass four places depending on how far Steven had walked. Funny that the news and gossip always specified “missing.” Was that because the word was more hopeful than “abducted?” If the ordeal was real, though, “abducted” would start popping out of people’s mouths, and abduction wasn’t impossible. How hard would it be for someone to roll into the neighborhood and snatch Steven? Who would see it? Riverside Crossing was full of people who worked nine-to-five corporate jobs, not night owl artists or bartenders returning home in the wee hours. Hell, Jeff thought, somebody could roll through right now and snatch me, much less some skinny teen who was probably half wasted.
The idea of abduction was absurdly funny. It would certainly be a surprise, but anything seemed welcome if it cleared his mind of Diane and the refrain of I deserve more. More what? What more did she want or expect on his teacher salary? Vacations? A new car? A bigger condo? A house? Kids? It had to be kids. But why couldn’t she come out and say whatever it was? Maybe she had dropped clues. What had he missed?
Jeff made Bobolink, and then jagged left onto Sumac Lane. Before he had time to think of much else, he was back on Tangueray and almost all the way through the first lap. The running Zen finally eased its way into his mind, and he thought more about his body than Diane. He no longer felt the weight of forty-six years weakening his shoulders or cramping his back. There was no pain. He was somehow younger than he had been when he awoke less than an hour ago.
Despite the sun rising in Jeff’s mind, the sky was still dark. A few more houses had lights on, but they made no difference in illuminating the streets. As Jeff closed in on Stonebridge Lane again, he hoped that whoever was working the scene had gotten his act together and made the proper fixes.
It wasn’t so. It was as dark as it had been the first time around. Nothing moved around the truck. A radio crackled from inside, but no voice responded. The only thing that had changed was the orange helmet. It was no longer on the sidewalk, but resting on a pile of leaves in the gutter.
Who had moved the helmet? He hadn’t seen anybody all the way around. No cars had passed anywhere. Jeff stepped to the helmet to pick it up, but stopped when he felt wetness seeping through his shoes and socks. He looked down and saw he was ankle deep in leaves. He could smell dirty water, and now his feet were getting soaked. He kicked the leaves away with his left foot, but stopped when he smelled blood. He looked down and saw he was standing in a pool of it.
“What the hell…?”
Jeff heard a skittering beneath the leaves like something was moving toward him, but before he could move he felt something tug on his right foot. It was probably a coil of rope buried in the leaves. He tried to pull his foot up and out, but couldn’t move it. He pulled again and felt his heel sliding out of his shoe. The tugging sensation became a full constriction around his foot and moved up to his ankle. He yanked his foot and managed to move a few inches, but when he stopped pulling it ended up back where it had been. Sweat was pouring down Jeff’s forehead and face, and he could feel his heart thumping against his ribs. Thick rivulets of blood trickled down his calves. When he looked at the red streaks glistening dully in the low light, he saw a black tentacle slither out of the leaves. It twisted up his leg to mid calf and stopped. He felt the underside of the slimy limb pressing hard against the artery that ran across the top of his foot and ankle. Jeff heard the ubiquitous bestial groan again, so loud and so close he realized he was only yards from a storm drain. The stench of dirty water once again filled the air.
Jeff watched in disbelief as a set of barbs slid out of the tentacle with a soft sucking sound. Some sort of liquid he could barely see dripped at the end of each barb. The tentacle twisted and inverted itself, causing the barbs to pierce his foot and leg. A piercing pain shot through the lower right side of his body. A wave of exhaustion crashed over him, and his arms and legs felt too heavy to move.
The thought came to Jeff that he was seeing his own death unfold, though it looked like he was watching it through thick, wavy glass. He collapsed to the asphalt. Leaves crinkled beneath him. His mouth was suddenly dry and bitter. He could smell the river so strongly that he may as well have been in it. The beastial groan was close to his ear. He felt the strange sensation of asphalt tearing against his skin as the tentacle dragged him by his leg towards the storm drain. Within a few seconds, he didn’t feel anything at all. He looked up at the morning sky. It was lighter than it had been a few minutes earlier. The sun was rising on Riverside Crossing, but it was too late to do any good. He thought about Steven O’Neill. Now Jeff, too, will have mysteriously vanished. How long would it be before anybody noticed? How long until Diane noticed?
Jeff Burd spends a lot of time writing and thinking about writing, and worrying about not writing and thinking about writing. His work previously appeared in the February, 2019 issue of Parhelion.