The Realms of the Dead, p.21
“What I’m wondering,” he finally said, “is exactly how we’re supposed to get the damn thing in the cage to begin with. I mean, it’s not like we’ll just hold the door open and say, Oh no, I insist…after you.”
Marilee stopped what she was doing and looked up at him. For a moment their eyes were locked in silence, yet Chuck could tell that the girl wasn’t thinking about the question he’d just asked. No, it was apparent the child already knew the answer and expected him to come to the conclusion on his own. Placing her hands on her hips, Marilee cocked her head to the side and exhaled impatiently through her nose.
Chuck, however, didn’t feel like reasoning the problem out. The wound in his gut throbbed with pain and the events of the day had left him feeling as though he could collapse into unconsciousness and sleep for days on end. Physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, Chuck Grainger was drained.
When she realized he wasn’t even going to attempt an answer, Marilee sighed.
“You’re right,” she admitted. “NCMs just won’t go into th’ cage of their own accord; there hasta be a reason for ’em to want to.”
Control joined the pair and silently placed her hand on her partner’s shoulder. The wrinkles on her brow and the way she kept glancing at him from the corner of her eye told Chuck that she’d already realized what the girl was getting at.
“Th’ principle is th’ same as any other trap.”
Chuck hung his head and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger as his shoulders slumped. As exhausted as he was, he no longer needed to have it spelled out for him. He knew the answer even before the words passed Marilee’s lips.
“We use bait, Mr. Grainger. We use you.”
Chuck Grainger stood on a frozen lake with the wind whipping his hair. In all directions, the ice stretched for as far as the eye could see, reaching out to meet the horizon and ostensibly continuing well beyond. There were no mountains in the distance, no rocks or crags or anything to suggest that this lake actually had any sort of boundaries. For all intents and purposes, it seemed as vast and limitless as the universe itself.
It was cold enough without the wind, but the breeze dropped the temperatures even further. With each inhalation, it felt as if a thin membrane formed within his sinuses and the chill tightened his exposed flesh to the point that it seemed as though it had been pulled taut around his skull. Flurries swirled in the currents of air and a ghostlike line of snow snaked over the lake’s surface; pushed by the wind, it drifted like low-lying smoke, its movement both hypnotic and haunting in the complete silence.
Within moments, it blew over Chuck’s shoes and he glanced down, his attention naturally drawn by the only movement in the otherwise motionless tundra. The ice beneath his feet was thick and murky, yet not entirely opaque; what he saw below was distorted by ripples that created the illusion of movement as he turned his head and looked as though he were viewing it through a thin mist. But there was no mistaking what lay at the bottom of the lake.
Staring up through the depths was what his mind insisted on calling a garden of corpses. Men, women, and children of every age and race imaginable: Packed shoulder to shoulder, the bodies were anchored to the lake bed by strands of moss. The green fronds coiled around their legs and spread across hips, bridging the cadavers with tendrils of vegetation.
Their skin had a glossy bluish tint and wide eyes shimmered as though the viscous fluids coating them had crystallized. With arms stretched skyward and fingers hooked into claws, open mouths stretched faces into gaunt caricatures that reminded Chuck of a painting entitled The Scream; bubbles from their final breaths were suspended in the ice, billowing plumes of perfect little spheres destined to never reach the surface.
In the center of each bubble, however, was a black speck. Squinting his eyes in an attempt to see better, Chuck peered into the depths. Perhaps it was a trick caused by imperfections in the ice, but it looked as though whatever was encapsulated within the bubbles was moving. That possibility wasn’t entirely outside the realm of reason. Hadn’t he noted earlier how the corpse garden seemed to sway as he moved his head?
But, no: This was different. Even if he remained perfectly still, Chuck could still make out movement. Almost as if the black specks randomly surged forward before rebounding back. As if they were battering the ice outside their bubbles in attempts to break free from their frigid prisons.
A gust howled across the lake, splattering Chuck’s face with precipitation that was more slush than snow. The chill of the sleet and wind, however, couldn’t compare to the icy certainty that surged through his veins. For he knew what was trapped within the bubbles; he still couldn’t see them clearly, but he knew.
They were bugs. Black, hard-shell bugs with a multitude of legs sprouting from segmented bodies.
The same insects that had swarmed over his body as he held the severed head in his hands. The same ones that had scurried along eddies of energy when the walls of his office had seemed to crumble away.
From somewhere close by, Chuck heard a slow, cracking sound. Images of fissures creeping across the ice formed in his mind, the cracks branching across the surface as the main fracture steadily inched toward him.
There was nowhere he could run. The frozen lake was boundless, with no distant shores or islands to provide refuge from the glacial grave awaiting him.
He would plunge into the depths as the ice gave way beneath him. Strands of moss would encircle his legs and he’d reach toward the hazy disk of the sun as though he could somehow claw his way back to the surface.
His own scream would bubble through the water, eventually becoming trapped as the ice above reasserted itself.
There was no other way this could play out.
Chuck’s eyelids fluttered open as headlights splayed across the wall and his bedroom window glowed like an ethereal portal as the car outside passed his apartment. With the bedsheets twisted around his body, he lay in the darkness. Scenes from the nightmare replayed so vividly it almost seemed as though part of his mind was still dreaming.
But could it really be considered a nightmare? There had certainly been moments of fear…but it was nowhere near the terror that had plagued his dreams over the last few weeks. He’d grown accustomed to bolting awake with a gasp, his body slick with sweat as his heart hammered in his chest. But this time he’d awakened naturally.
Why would Lewis release him so easily?
Maybe, he thought, it’s because you didn’t actually wake up. Because you’re really still dreaming.
Chuck pinched his left arm, digging fingernails into his flesh and wrenching it sideways. The resulting pain felt real enough…but how could he be certain?
Sitting up, he flicked on the bedside lamp and took in his surroundings. Everything seemed to be in its proper place. The refrigerator hummed from the kitchen and the murmur of Mrs. McNeil’s television filtered through the walls as late-night traffic hissed by outside. It felt colder in the bedroom than usual, enough to prickle his skin with chill bumps that refused to be chased away regardless of how briskly he rubbed his arms; but if the temperature outside had dropped and the thermostat hadn’t been adjusted accordingly, that would be easy enough to explain.
“You’re paranoid,” he said aloud. “Don’t start doubting your own mind.”
Maybe that was Lewis’s new scheme: to unbalance Chuck to the point that he was never certain what was real and what was just another Bleedover. To drive him mad with a constant questioning of reality.
“Paranoid,” he repeated. “Could’ve been just a regular dream.”
Chuck scrunched his eyes as he stretched and considered getting out of bed, certain that the remainder of the night would be as sleepless as it would be long.
But then he heard it: a slow, cracking noise from somewhere close by.
His eyes flew open, fully expecting to find himself back on the ice with the corpse garden reaching towar
Or was it?
Was it just his imagination, or had the room grown even colder?
Chuck exhaled slowly and the air rolled like a cloud from his mouth. No matter how low the thermostat was set, there was no way he should be able to see his own breath. No, there was only one explanation for such a drastic change in climate.
Part of him clung to the belief that he was still asleep, despite his pinching experiment earlier. After all, hadn’t he just been dreaming that he was surrounded by frigid desolation? The ice, snow, and bitter chill of the wind: These things had simply carried over into a new set of subconscious images, ones so vivid that they even contained a reasonable facsimile of pain.
The temperature dropped when Nodens had been killed. It had also plummeted in his office, just before everything went to hell.
This was no nightmare…at least, not one from which he could awaken.
A loud crack came from his left and Chuck’s head whipped toward the sound as he sprang from bed. Propped on the bedside table was the picture of Lydia that Control had given him. As he watched, breaks crept across the glass. The cracks spread slowly, branching off into smaller tributaries as the main fissure zigzagged down the pane.
“You want me?” Chuck issued his challenge to the empty room and his voice cracked with emotion. “What the hell are you waiting for? Come on! Come on, you son of a bitch!”
As if responding to his defiance, the bedside table shook. At first it was nothing more than a series of slight tremors, but within seconds chamomile tea sloshed from a half-emptied cup that clattered against its saucer. The lampshade swayed from side to side, splashing the walls with light as spare change vibrated toward the table’s edge. The coins flashed and gleamed as they fell, drawing Chuck’s gaze to the floor. The entire table shook and rattled as if jostled by invisible hands and the legs wobbled, rising a fraction of an inch before slamming back into indentations in the carpet.
The quaking spread through the room like a chain reaction. The door rattled on its hinges and the bed’s headboard rapped against the wall as drawers slammed in and out of the dresser in rapid succession. The ceiling fan shimmied overhead and books flew from shelving, their pages fluttering in the air as Chuck’s collection of jade Buddhas whizzed across the room. The figurines slammed into the wall, one passing so closely that its base grazed Chuck’s hair.
But still he held his ground. With clenched fists and chest puffed out, Chuck Grainger stood in the epicenter of the chaos. His heart hammered erratic rhythms and the muscle in his jawline quivered as he gritted his teeth. Though the room was as cold as a walk-in freezer, he didn’t shiver. Nor did he seem to be fazed by the maelstrom surrounding him. Naked and defiant, he stood in the heart of a Bleedover, ready to see the conflict to its conclusion.
“Is that all you got?” he yelled. “Parlor tricks? Third-rate, wannabe haunting bullshit?”
All of the air seemed to whoosh out of the room and Chuck rocked back and forth, his head swimming in waves of vertigo as the bedroom windows exploded outward in a shower of broken glass. Bile surged into his throat, flooding his mouth with stinging bitterness, and his knees barely felt capable of supporting his body as the room spun in dizzying circles. He reached for the wall, needing something solid—something concrete and real, a stabilizing force in a world thrown off kilter; but before his hand had even closed half the distance, the wooziness subsided.
Chuck’s heart pounded within his chest and he felt like a man who had been choked to the point of almost passing out, only to be released at the last second. Gasping for air, he fell against the wall, noticing that he could no longer see his own breath. Perhaps it was exacerbated by the adrenaline gushing through his veins, but the room felt as hot as the sweat lodge he attended every summer.
Sudden pressure inversion?
That would certainly explain the light-headedness. It would also account for the shattered windows and difficulty breathing. Yet even a rational, scientific explanation couldn’t mitigate what he knew to be true: Something evil had fled the room. Something dark and malevolent had retreated so quickly that a vacuum had been left in its wake.
Chuck stared at Lydia’s cracked picture and forced himself to breathe more slowly. Books were strewn around him and the venetian blinds rustled as a breeze blew through traumatized windowsills.
Maybe this was some new guerilla tactic, a hit-and-run specifically designed to keep him on guard and off balance.
Was he being toyed with?
Or was this supernatural display just a small part of a larger stratagem?
Uneasiness knotted Chuck’s stomach and he rolled his neck, hoping to release some of the tension pinching his shoulders. If this truly had been some sort of psychological warfare, it had been effective. For Chuck Grainger was seized with the certainty that something very, very bad loomed over the horizon; like a monster lurking in the shadows, it was close enough for him to sense the foreboding weight of its presence, yet shrouded in mystery.
After what seemed an eternity, Chuck ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. He wanted to take the battle to Lewis, to mount an offensive and be done with this whole thing once and for all. But until Marilee had finished constructing her Faraday Cage, he had no weapons with which to wage this war.
Tomorrow morning. Or afternoon, at the latest. In less than twenty-four hours, they would send Albert Lewis’s deranged spirit back to whatever hell had spawned it. Between now and then, he didn’t have to win…he simply had to hold his own.
Something, however, told Chuck that this might not be as simple as it sounded.
This same certainty also told him going back to bed was pointless. He couldn’t shake that feeling of impending doom. It hung over the room like an oppressive cloud, weighing so heavily in the atmosphere that it seemed to possess a physical weight. Sleep would be an experiment in futility: He would toss and turn on the pillow-top mattress, his mind obsessed with questions for which there were no answers; he would fight against the twinges of anxiety, trying to convince himself that he was just being paranoid, that the immediate future didn’t truly conceal some all-consuming menace that would burn his world to the ground.
He would try. But he would fail.
Since sleep was not an option, Chuck busied himself with mundane tasks. Squatting, he gathered books from the floor, stacking them in the crook of his arm after inspecting each one for damage. As he studied the spine of a first edition of Kerouac’s On the Road, his cellphone rang and he glanced around the room, trying to pinpoint its location.
The ringtone was muffled and as he followed the sound of a synthesized sitar to its source, Chuck frowned. Experience had taught him that calls in the middle of the night—when people were usually wrapped in the arms of slumber—rarely brought good tidings.
These types of calls were born of emergencies. They were harbingers of tragedy, of accidents and death, the modern equivalent of a banshee wailing in the darkness.
Chuck found the phone beneath the bed and his hand trembled as he reached for it. Part of him didn’t want to answer the call. He didn’t want to hear the voice on the other end, fraught with grief as it struggled to find words.
The knot in his stomach tightened and he held his breath as his fingers closed around the phone. The device felt heavier than it actually was, almost as though he was holding a brick, and the glow emanating from the screen seemed unusually bright in the darkness beneath the bed.
Time slowed to a crawl and Chuck closed his eyes as his sense of dread grew to a crescendo. His entire body was trembling now and he silently cursed himself for his apprehension. He just needed to answer the damn thing and get it over with. But five words plagued his thoughts, repeating like a dark mantra.
The beginning of the end…
Sitting up, Chuck cupped the still-ringing phone in his hand and opened his eyes. The screen had an icon of an old-fashioned handset flashing on it, just above an arrow emblazoned with the words Swipe to Answer. Culled from his contact list, a description of the caller hovered above the icons and Chuck’s voice was a harsh whisper as he read it aloud.
His index finger glided over the smooth glass just before he raised the phone to his ear.
The line crackled and popped with static as his body tensed and his stomach felt as though it had been twisted into a cold, compact ball. Cutting through the hiss and drone of static, a woman wept softly, the sound of her grief rising and falling with raw emotion.
Between the choked sobs was a whispered plea, “Help…help me…”
Chuck sprang to his feet, unable to voice the emotions raging within.
And then, from somewhere in the background, a young girl screamed.
There were still several hours before the trains started running and the subway tunnel was a sea of darkness. Every fifty feet, sodium lamps affixed to the curved walls created islands of light and Chuck’s footsteps echoed in the silence as he ran. Sweat plastered his hair to his scalp and his wound felt as if a knife were plunged into his gut with every step. But still he ran: splashing through puddles that rippled from dripping condensation, panting as his taxed lungs sucked in the cool, moist air, and praying that he wasn’t already too late.
The tunnel seemed to stretch into infinity as it wound past junction boxes and tangles of wire. Around every bend, Chuck hoped to see the platform and service elevator that marked the end of the line. But time and time again there were only rails and concrete walls, yet another stretch of tracks burrowing deeper into the bowels of the earth; over the years, he’d become so accustomed to his daily commute that he’d never really taken into account how far the subway actually traveled. Now, however, he was all too aware of exactly how much distance a speeding train could cover in a relatively short amount of time.