It starts this time at sunrise. The slight brush of gold against the mountains off to the west pours down the peaks beneath that incredibly vast Wyoming sky. It is going to be another surprising early spring scorcher - you can tell from the slate cast to the blue just above the mountaintops. Already the 191 is shimmering in the heat. The only thing is that behind the windbreak of the Pinnacle, the fog hasn't burned off yet.
Outside of Bethel, just about two miles down the road is the Pinnacle Drive-In. Like most of its kind it was built in the middle of the last century. Like most it saw its last show, flickered its last reel in the years after the oil crisis. The Pinnacle is just a half-mile off a dirt track from the 191 as it winds up along to Eden, and for a while during the last of the Regan years, the Clinton years it had been a great place for parties, kids coming up out of Rock Springs or down from Eden and Farson kept it in mind because of the windbreak of trees along the lot line towards the highway - a perfect shield from prying eyes to underage drinking, bonfires and anything else. But somewhere between then and now, the Pinnacle got a bad reputation. No one would say it was haunted, Jesus no. Haunted houses, ghosts - that was all baby stuff. Kid stuff. But still…it slipped from the tongues of teenagers. It vanished from photos of the area. It became one of those holes of the great American Tapestry - a place that had an air about it of something unsettling. Something truly…Strange.
No one had died there. No one was assaulted. No violent story supports a myth of the haunted Pinnacle. But Tommy Gerrant up in Eden, Gerrant and his old gang from the class of '94 - they are the ones who tell the story best. How they had heard voices in the wind, in the night. How they had almost gotten lost in the mist, and the sounds, and then the screams. They hadn't been dropping acid that night, either. Gerrant had, in fact, been nearly sober. And while they beat it like hell out of there that spring night just days after graduating, and laughed about it the next morning the laughter wasn't altogether genuine. Wasn't the kind of laugh after a prank, or drying out to realize how badly you'd been tripping balls. Somehow a part of them, a part deep down knew how close to death they might actually have been. Death or worse.
The fog has, in fact started to get much thicker, to slowly fill the lot all the way up to the windbreak and then ripple back, higher still, the way water at the beginning of a bath starts to gurgle up. By six in the morning of May 29th, 2016 the fog has risen to half the height of the drive-in screen, long tendrils snaking out into the field beyond, covering the dirt track back to the highway completely. And while the fog is bad enough, it is the voices in the fog which mark the Pinnacle, set it apart. The voices and the sound of thudding hooves, of beating wings, the screams of panicked men and slaughter.
He couldn't keep running. There was a stitch in his side, he was gulping in air. The fog was thinning. It had to be thinning- he could make out the shape of the ground in front of him once more, but whether it was a good or bad thing he didn't know. They had all been fooled before.
Ahead. It was just ahead. He wanted to yell out, to call out to anyone else running with him, around him, about the clearing in the mist, but would it give him away? He stepped through where the fog had thinned, where he could actually see. And let out a soft moan of disappointment. Another trick. Another joke, as cruel as all the rest.
He had come through clearings like this (how long had he been running? Hours? Days? Before the fog seemed like some distant memory) before. Some more ludicrous - huge purple trees that sang to one another at one clearing, and once the fog had cleared underground, when he was sure the chase had long ago begun on the surface. Here, though he could almost mistake it for places he knew were real, were home. But the…posts? The posts hung with iron bells were wrong. The long white wall standing alone made no sense at all. And then he heard the hooves behind him. Behind him now, and it didn't matter. He would have to run through it. He had been found.
The fog thickened again across the wide expanse of hard earth, and if he could only make it through to the other side, he would be able to hide again. The riders couldn't sniff him out if he could lay still on the other side. And he had one stone left. He slid his hand into the leather pouch at his side, and cupped the small round ball in his fist.
Before the mist Master Egin had always scolded him for carrying around so many trinkets, so many baubles. In fact, his master had stopped calling him by name, and only referred to him as the Pack Rat. But Master Egin was dead - Sasha had watched him turn in the mist (when? When was that?) to face the riders, but he hadn't stayed to see how it would end. The riders had cut through them many many times before. He didn't know if Egin had just decided to end it all, or had been hoping to buy them a little more time. But no one had seen Egin since. And even he had stopped calling out to Egin (how long ago?). For some time now he had simply ran. And by now he wasn't sure how many were left from after the siege, he could hear some off in all directions, but the fog played tricks with the ears as much as it did with the eyes - there could be a thousand of them still fleeing the burning city, there could only be a few. He cupped the Fascinator in his hand, felt it cool and comfortingly solid in his palm. He was hoping the magic was simple enough to fool the riders, and as the sound of those terrible hooves got closer, he swallowed hard, said a small prayer, and threw.
The Fascinator gave the briefest sparkle as it left his hand. A simplestone magic. It could only do one thing - draw the attention of anyone close to it. Sasha used to use it at county fairs throughout the Myr as part of his illusion show - doing a few easy cantrips for small trickles of coins. How far away the river country felt now, he thought as he sprinted across the hard packed ground towards the fog on the other side. How far away everything felt.
But the rider passed the stone by, not even fazed in the least by its shine. Sasha heard the hooves coming down hard behind him, and his last scream before the dread rider bore down on him was more frustration and anger than fear.
The fog started to thin again, pull back on itself by mid-morning. A light breeze picked up, carrying away the last wisps of fog on towards the east. By eleven, it was gone altogether, horses, voices and all. Except
Except for the body of a young man, crumpled against the trunk of an old knotted pine as if hurled there. And laying near the drive-in screen lay a stone, no bigger than a marble, perfectly round, winking in the morning sun.
She took in a deep breath. Out there, behind her closed eyes she heard the clack of fingers against a keyboard, the warble of a phone. Don't you dare cry she told herself, and then she let it out in a slow controlled puff that hitched a little at the end, but so far so good. Don't you dare. After a few calming breaths that voice popped into her head - a clear, calm voice she liked to think of as a grown-up voice said Oh Mavis, what did we do now? She'd found more often than not that by the time that voice came rolling round in her head it was far too late. Much like now. When she finally knew she wasn't going to just bawl, she opened her eyes.
This waiting room was getting a little too familiar. Two years ago, she hadn't even known this place existed, not in any real way. She knew it was here, of course - that there was a Principal's Office, that bad kids got sent there. But it had all been like an idea, an imaginary place that loomed over any kid who might act out. Now she looked down at the long coffee table and noticed that there was a new Seventeen magazine, over top of the National Geographic she had flipped through the last time she'd been sitting in this plastic chair, sitting here just under the cheesy framed picture of the moon with the saying "Dream Big, Go for the Moon, if you don't get it, you'll still be heading for a star." There was a part of her that knew the quote wasn't quite right, but then again, what did she know? She was the one doing summer school, after all. Just like last time, she wanted to tell Mr. Bell she hadn't woken up this morning wanting to get in trouble, that she wasn't really a bad kid at all, that it wasn't her fault. Isn't it, Mavis? that grown up voice said, and if it had been a real person, she would have happily punched it back to sleep again. Which, of course, was the answer to Mr. Bell's too familiar question: "Do you know why you're here?" A question she was going to have to answer very soon, since right now Jess Fremont was in the office, telling Mr. Bell her side of the story.
How had it gotten started? She had a clear image in her mind of Jess and her little posse standing in front of the doors out of the cafeteria at lunch. Mavis had felt her heart sink, the flutter of panic starting to build, to start clenching up in her chest in little hitching gasps. There was something about the way they had been standing there, chatting, laughing, watching her, watching her that had trouble all over it. But where was she going to go? She had to get to class. And it was the only way out. She'd closed her eyes, and hoped it was just going to be something nasty yelled out against her ears as she tried to slip past them. But she bumped into Jess instead.
"Nuh-uh." Jess had said. And Mavis had tried not to look into Jess's eyes. "Where d'you think you're going?"
"I'm talking to you, Freak." It didn't help anything that even before last year, Jess and her little gang: Marie, Tara and Britney were the ones who had started calling her The Freak. Had made the name spread like wildfire since the start of Junior High.
"I…I gotta get to class." She'd said, and hated the way her own voice sounded, low, quiet, trembling a little in her ears. A little mousey voice. But it was all she could do as her heart pounded in her ears. Britney had given a little high laugh.
"Gotta get to class." Marie had said
"Gotta get to class." Tara said, and Jess had given her the slightest push back from the doors.
"Well you're just going to be a little late, aren't you?" Jess said, and Mavis, her eyes on her shoes, and only at her own shoes heard someone far across the cafeteria call it out
"Freak!" and she knew that now everyone was watching. And she had to try and keep it in control.
"Please…" she'd said, but she was already losing it. She could feel the tears starting to well up, she was hot all over. "Please…"
"Oh what, you going to cry?" Tara had said, and Jess gave her just the lightest of pushes back again.
Part of the problem, Mavis Miss Landis, the lady she went to see every Thursday had said, part of the problem is you let them get a reaction out of you. But it wasn't easy, was it? It wasn't easy to try and not let it get under her skin, it wasn't easy when they were all around her, when there were eyes on her like this, when all she wanted to do was just run and hide for the rest of the day. The tears were really starting, and she couldn't hold them back, much as she wanted to. She felt one dribble down her cheek as she pushed past them one last time, through the doors. And that was when they followed her.
"Freak!" she heard Marie say behind her.
"Hey, Freak!" Tara called
"Freak." a new voice, another kid's voice said, behind her. How many kids were following her now? She scurried towards the doors leading up to the second floor, and Bill Noonen who was one of the older kids, one of the High School kids was walking past her
"How's it going, Freak" he said, and somehow that was even worse, there were so many of them behind her, calling it out behind her that sound - the sound of an angry…crowd. A whole crowd of them was like a roar in her ears and she thought she could just run through to the stairwell and it would be over, she could get to class but they were all there behind her, and the tears were stinging her cheeks and she couldn't see, and as she got to the second floor landing she felt a hand on her shoulder, and she…she panicked
And then she'd punched. She whirled around and threw a wild punch right across Jess's face even as the sound of the mob, loud even though it was summer school, rose up around her, and everything after that got a little hazy for a bit.
The frosted door of Mr. Bell's office opened and Jess came out behind him, sniffing a little and glaring at Mavis even as she walked past. There was a bruise already welling along the side of her face.
"Freak." Jess mouthed, low enough so neither Mr. Bell standing by the door or his secretary out in the other room could hear. And then started sobbing a little more now as she went out into the hall just so Mr. Bell could remember how traumatized Jess really was. The grown-up voice in Mavis' head groaned, and Mavis almost did out loud, too. This was very, very bad. Mr. Bell looked her up and down, and it was the sad look to his face that made her just want to cry all over again.
"Come inside, Mavis." he said, and what else was there to do but take another deep breath, and go in. She tried not to shuffle. Tried not to scurry. But all the same she kept her head down.
Mr. Bell's office was another place she was getting too used to seeing. His long desk with the little brass nameplate, the bookshelf off to the corner with its little potted plants and dusty looking classics he probably never read, the wide window looking out onto the parking lot. Except there were three chairs in here now, instead of the usual two.
"I've called your father, Mavis." and her heart was starting to pound all over again.
"He's on his way now." Mr. Bell said. "I think it's past time we all had a little talk, don't you?"
I love the contrast between…
I love the contrast between the heightened language of the opening, the voice in italics, and Mavis; you show so much without telling. Similarly, the world building is woven throughout without feeling in any way heavy-handed. There are punctuation issues and inconsistencies, but the story is compelling, and I certainly wanted to keep turning (metaphorical) pages when I got to the end!