IN THE SHADE
When Gary Sawyer first heard the screams, he thought they were just the noises of boys playing. His son, Kyle, had been out most of the morning with his friend, Sean Corcoran, from two “blocks” up, and they were rarely the quietest of companions. Upon noticing the sharp, high-pitched noises from one of the boys, overlaid with shouted but unintelligible words from the other, Gary assumed that the two were involved in some strange adventure game, or that one of them might be angry at the other. Such things happened from time to time, even between boys who were as good friends as Kyle and Sean were.
Gary sometimes thought of the stretch of road on which he lived—and from the end of which he heard the noises—as a “block,” but it really wasn’t. It was a cul-de-sac, a little, knobby protuberance sticking off the main street, with three houses along each side and four circled around the bulb at its end. Well…there were three completed houses at the end, and one that was still under construction.
Gary was not a fan of the way streets were laid out in Florida developments. He had grown up in the Midwest and the northeast, and one thing you could say about northern suburbia—at least where he had lived—blocks there were blocks. Streets crossed each other at right angles—more or less—and they split neighborhoods into rectangular agglomerations of dwellings, with backyards abutting other backyards, usually with fences in between, as God clearly intended.
In Florida, however, things rarely followed any sane deity’s design. The roads along which people lived tended to meander and twist like big, sightless worms working their way through the soil of neighborhoods, with no clear geometric path. Occasionally they would close into a single, huge loop, but there was rarely anything one could honestly call a block. Also, there were all those little protruding bits of rapidly terminating street, such as the one on which the Sawyers lived—strange polyps of roadway. They were called cul-de-sacs, and residents often referred to them as “sacks.” Gary supposed the French term sounded fancier than “dead end”, but where he had grown up that was what they would have been called.
Gary recognized his thoughts as the typical, dreary ruminations he tended to have when his wife was away on business. He didn’t mind staying at home on the weekend with Kyle; indeed, he could think of nothing he’d rather do. But he always felt that at least a small piece of himself was missing whenever Deborah was away for more than a week.
The screams and yells were getting steadily closer, and it gradually became clear that they were not the sounds of anyone having fun, nor even the vocalizations of a heated argument. They were noises of pain, fear, and desperation.
As soon he realized this, Gary—who had been standing in his living room idly sipping at his second cup of coffee, thinking about turning on the TV—all but dropped his mug on the coffee table, sloshing some of the brown liquid onto its polished surface, and rushed for the front door. It was unlocked, so he was quickly able to swing it wide and head out onto the porch.
He looked down the road toward the rear of the cul-de-sac and saw Kyle and Sean coming up the street. There was no sidewalk—another annoying attribute of those Florida developments—so pedestrians were forced to walk in the road if they didn’t want to tread on the strange, spongy lawns of Saint Augustine grass. This wasn’t such a big deal on the cul-de-sacs—no one drove fast on streets that came to an end after a hundred feet or so—but it was mildly irritating.
That habitual thought was pushed from Gary’s mind as he realized how Kyle and Sean were walking. Kyle was supporting Sean, almost pulling him along. Sean leaned heavily on Kyle, hardly seeming to want to bear his own weight or to put one foot in front of the other. Even from where he paused briefly on his front stoop, a good fifty or sixty feet from the boys, Gary could see that Sean’s normally tanned face looked deathly pale. Kyle, too, was somewhat pallid, but Sean…Sean looked as though he hadn’t seen the sun in years.
It was Sean making the shrieking noises, and he continued to do so even as he stumbled along. Though his body appeared feeble, his voice had a horrible, banshee-like power. Beside him, Kyle could hardly be heard, yelling, “Dad! Dad! Something got Sean!”
As if supporting Kyle’s statement, Sean’s shriek briefly took on the words, “It got me! It got me!” before reverting to unarticulated howls.
Gary saw that Sean’s right hand was tucked into his left armpit, his right shoulder pressed against Kyle. Then he realized that part of the left side of Sean’s yellow shirt, beneath his arm, was wet and stuck to his side by a dark-colored fluid, which looked almost black on the yellow of the shirt.
Wait a minute. Was that…that couldn’t be…blood, could it?
Gary sprang from his stoop, rapidly covering the ground between him and the two boys. He had probably not run so fast since his teenage years, but despite his speed, he felt as though he were trying to swim through molasses…or through thick, partly coagulated blood.
He was vaguely aware of several of his neighbors looking out their front doors to see what all the caterwauling was about—some were probably more indignant than concerned—but then he reached the boys, and everyone else left his conscious awareness.
Kyle was repeating, “Dad! Dad!” but Sean did not again slip into words.
Gary stopped and quickly squatted down in front of the boys, his eyes focused on the one who was not his own flesh and blood.
“Kyle, what happened?” he asked, even as he looked at Sean, who had, like Kyle, come to a halt. Up close, the boy looked worse than he had from a distance. Like most Florida boys, Sean and Kyle tended to have deep tans almost the entire year ‘round, which even the obsessive-compulsive application of SPF-45 lotion by concerned mothers could not prevent. Now, though, Sean looked faded, pale, and distant, like the cover of a book that had been left in the back seat of a car for a year, bleached by the relentless sunlight until it was barely recognizable. Gary felt that he wouldn’t be surprised to be able to see right through Sean. Even his hair looked lighter than its usual shade of brown.
“What happened?” Gary asked again. “Sean, what’s wrong with your hand?” He gently grabbed Sean’s shoulders, helping to support him.
Sean continued to shriek, gaping at Gary as if he did not know what he was, let alone who he was.
Kyle, however, said, “It got him, Dad! The…the dark in the house got him! It got his fingers!”
Gary had no idea to what “dark” in what house his son might be referring, but for the moment it was unimportant. Kyle’s words, combined with the way Sean was holding his right hand under the opposite arm, focused his attention on what must have been the source of blood on the boy’s shirt.
“Sean,” he said, his voice calm but firm, “show me your hand.”
Sean, giving no sign of understanding, and certainly making no move to obey, just looked at Gary and continued to scream. His eyes were wider than any Gary had ever seen. They looked almost perfectly round. Gary could almost have thought they were in danger of falling out of his head.
“Come on now, Sean,” he repeated, reaching for Sean’s right wrist, “I need to see your hand.” More neighbors had come to watch the spectacle, but none of them made any inquiries or offers of help.
Sean gave token resistance when Gary made to pull his hand from its fleshy hiding place, but he was only nine years old, and his heart obviously wasn’t in fighting. He even lifted his left arm a bit to allow his right hand to come free, still shrieking as he did, not even looking down at his injured extremity.
Gary, however, was looking right at the poor hand as it came into view. He had no choice but to continue doing so.
“Dear God,” he whispered, just staring for a long moment. His first thought—sardonic, annoying, and disgusting to him—was that Sean and Kyle were not going to be able to play a good game of catch again any time soon, if ever.
The four fingers of Sean’s right hand, to varying degrees, had been severed—the pinky almost completely, then the ring finger to below the proximal knuckle, the middle to just around the equivalent knuckle, and the index finger only missing its latter half. It looked as though Sean had stuck his hand at an angle into a paper cutter, or some huge die-press machine, and had the distal portions of his fingers cleanly sliced off. There was no sign of compression or tearing in the remaining stumps. They were as plump and round as though the rest of them were still present but just somehow invisible. The flesh, the tendons, the vessels, the bones—everything from the skin to the center—looked like a perfect MRI scan through the boy’s digits.
Well, not quite perfect. For one thing, blood flowed sluggishly but steadily from each severed member, dripping along Sean’s arm to fall to the pavement below. It was less blood than Gary might have expected, but maybe Sean had already lost so much that the flow was petering out. How long ago had this injury happened? How much blood had he lost?
In addition, the ends of the remaining bits of fingers, the surfaces of the cuts, looked almost crystallized, or frozen. That had to be an optical illusion. One did not find things frozen outdoors in late spring in south-central Florida.
“Dear God,” Gary repeated, more loudly this time. He yanked his own shirt over his head and wrapped it around Sean’s injured hand, trying to put pressure on the finger ends without causing the boy too much pain. Then, keeping the hand between their bodies, he picked Sean up in his arms and rose to his feet.
Sean was a decent-sized boy for a nine-year-old, but he felt absurdly light to Gary. Could a person lose so much blood that their weight changed noticeably? How much blood loss would that require? Could a person still be alive after losing that much blood, let alone be awake, walking, and screaming?
No. That couldn’t be possible. It must just be adrenaline, boosting Gary’s own strength, that made Sean seem so light.
Well, he was glad of it, because he didn’t want to waste any more time. Yelling, “Come on, Kyle,” over his shoulder, he hefted his son’s friend further up against his now bare chest, the wrapped hand pressed between them, and practically sprinted back toward his front door. He vaguely heard Kyle’s feet flopping along behind him, but even if he hadn’t, he probably wouldn’t have stopped.