Childish Things

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Chapter 10: What Happened to Ginny

Clay was confused. Part of him remembered sitting in the drunk tank with Eric Emerson, and he could remember Emerson going full-on Exorcist on him, and then...

Now he was dreaming again, although there was no hard break separating him from the drunk tank to the dreams. One moment Emerson had been hanging from the ceiling directly above him, holding Clay aloft in a headlock while a female police officer had screamed for Emerson to put him down, and the next, Clay was sitting on the bluff overlooking Woods Lake.

Clay held his hands up to his face and saw that they were his hands, alright, but they were his hands from twenty-five years ago. He was dreaming then.

This time was different, though. Clay could control his body in this dream, could see and think in real time, rather than being a passive observer. He had heard of lucid dreaming before, but it wasn’t something that he’d ever taken seriously. If asked, Clay would have politely lumped it into the same mental rubbish bin as astral projection, the chupacabra, and the Loch Ness Monster. Although to be fair, until very recently ghosts and life after death would have been in that same rubbish bin too, despite the articles he wrote. Clay took a moment and looked at his surroundings.

It seemed like a terribly long way down to the water from here, but it was clearly something that people survived on a regular basis, judging from the tire swing hanging from the tree next to Clay. Still, he didn’t like his chances just jumping out into space without the assistance of the tire swing. Roughly forty feet below, a jagged line of nasty looking rocks jutted out from below the surface of the water. These rocks sent a shiver up his spine, and he couldn’t quite figure out why.

Clay turned around then, suddenly filled with a sense of urgency that he couldn’t explain. All he knew was that he was in the wrong place now, he was needed somewhere else, and he needed to leave now, before it was too late.

Ginny came crashing through the woods then, and Clay noticed with dismay the x of bandages, the simple ponytail in place of her usual braids. He knew what day he was dreaming about now, and he was now equally sure that he didn’t want to see what happened next. Ginny stopped suddenly, gasping in sudden fright. She hadn’t seen him, clearly.

“How did you... You were just... Were you following me?” she asked, and Clay understood that he was really here, but not, somehow. In the woods a mile back, there was a younger version of himself walking back home dejectedly, wondering what he’d said to Ginny to make her so mad. That boy was probably turning back around now, rehearsing all the things he was going to say to make her happy again. In just a moment, he’d come through the clearing and see...

It wasn’t quite clear yet, but Clay knew what happened next, if not the specifics of it.

In the next few minutes, Virginia “Ginny” Bannister was going to reach the end of her short life.

“Ginny, I know this is gonna sound crazy, but you gotta listen to me. Something bad’s gonna happen and you gotta get out of here now!”

Ginny just stared at him for a long moment, getting visibly angrier by the second. “I told you to knock it off, Clay. First you’re seeing things that aren’t there, and now you’re telling me something bad’s gonna happen. It’s not funny, Clay. Cut the...”

“Ginny?” a voice called from in the forest. Clay’s voice, or at least the Clay who existed in this time. Clay watched the color drain out of her face, and when she looked at him again, the anger had been replaced by fear.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Ginny, it’s me, it’s Clay. When I first met you, you were skipping rope and counting by singing about Cinderella and the snakes. Ginny, I know this is weird, but you gotta believe me...”

Clay had intended to keep going, but a rock clipped him in the head, just above the eyebrow, and he stopped dead. Ginny had another rock in her hand, and she threw this one as well. Clay saw this one coming and ducked it. Ginny backed away from him, shrieking now. “Who are you?”

Ginny was still backing away from Clay, the edge of the bluff getting closer and closer, and Clay reached out to stop her.

He was able to grab a hand and pull her back just as her sneaker was edging out into space, and she shot into his arms. The reality of what had nearly happened hit her all at once, and she sank her head into his shoulder, weeping softly. Did I do it? he thought. Did I save Ginny?

Behind him, he could hear his past self come crashing through the underbrush, and he let go of Ginny for just a second to make sure that it was really him coming through the trees, that it wasn’t just another trick of the house...

...and Ginny flew backwards and off the cliff.

“Clay,” she shrieked, and he ran up to the edge of the cliff, trying to save her. She was too far down, he could never reach her from up here without tumbling off the edge himself. He looked around for a second, saw the tire tree, and shimmied up the branch as fast as he could. He undid the knot holding the tire in place faster than he ever thought possible and managed to get back down before Ginny had time to shout his name again.

“Ginny!” he shouted. “I’m gonna drop the rope down to you. Grab hold.”

Clay hadn’t had a chance to untie the tire, and he used it to hold on to as he lowered the rope to Ginny. He felt the tire get heavier as she grabbed hold of the rope and set her weight on it. Clay began to pull. After a moment he could see the top of Ginny’s head peeking over the edge of the cliff, and he began to pull harder now, determined to save her. First Ginny, then Brady, he was saying to himself. She had a hand on the ground now, one hand letting go of the rope and the other still holding on, and Clay felt a sick stab of recognition. This is it, he thought. This is where she goes. But nothing happened. Clay just had time to think I did it, I saved her, when the tire was ripped from his hands and thrown over the edge. He couldn’t see what did it, but it was immensely strong.

He was still seeing that image from the other night, and Ginny still matched it, was still acting out the image of the hand clutching for the rope, and Clay shouted, “Ginny! Let go of the rope!”

Ginny let go, grabbing the edge of the cliff with both hands. Clay rushed over to grab her, and he started to haul her up as the tire swing fell past her. Clay thought he had her when the rope snaked around her ankle and tugged her down and out of his grip. She was headed for the rocks, and Clay closed his eyes and turned away. He still heard the sound when she hit, a brittle crunch that sounded like stomping on a handful of peanut shells.

He turned around to see himself standing there in dumb wonder, and he knew that in about two weeks time, he would consider describing this scene to his older brother, only this time it wouldn’t be the rope slipping from Ginny’s hands, this time it would be how the tire detached itself from the tree and then flung itself over Ginny’s head. Either way, the end result was the same, and Ginny was dead, and most likely Brady was still dead, and for all he knew this was just the house messing with him, letting him think he’d had a chance to save her before yanking her away again.

In either case, he’d failed to save Ginny, even if he’d ever really had a chance, and now it was too late. He wondered why he wasn’t freaking out at the sight of himself standing a few feet away. Even though he knew what was happening, still had his adult memories and perspective, the boy across from him wearing his face had no such advantages, and as such should be shrieking in terror. He wasn’t though, and the why became readily apparent when past-Clay ran over to where future-Clay was standing and passed through him. The feeling was incredibly disorienting, and for a moment Clay thought that he was being obliterated. After a second, the pieces of himself began to drift back together again, although Clay doubted the pieces had ever really been separate.

“Ginny?” his past self yelled. Clay edged closer to his past self, trying not to bump himself and feel that horrible moment of detaching from himself again. He looked down at the rocks, steeling himself for the sight of her horribly crushed body laying at the bottom of the bluff, perhaps tangled up in the rocks that had smashed the life from her, but she was nowhere to be seen. The only thing to ever say that Ginny had been here was a red splash across the rocks, already fading to a dull copper against the hard slate gray. The water lapped against the coppery stains gently, and Clay could see that these stains would be gone by the next time he came out here.

Somehow, Clay doubted that he would ever come here again. His memories were beginning to fade together somehow, and he was having a hard time keeping his present personality separated from his past personality, and things were running together into a sticky mess that he couldn’t keep separated.

His brother was not dead, dead was something that happened to old people, and yet his brother had been dead for a quarter of a century. He’d never kissed a girl yet, because girls were gross, and yet Clay could remember fondly his first real girlfriend Claire, Claire who had gotten a nose ring when that was still considered a risque fashion statement and not something that you got done at Wal-mart. Claire and Ginny and Maddy and Brady and his mother and father and countless others all swirled into a nasty glop of memory that became impossible to sort out, and Clay simply stopped trying, just focused on the here and now, trying to draw in breath, which was harder than you’d think for the simple fact that

Clay was choking. Emerson was still dangling upside down from the ceiling, and Clay was caught in a headlock from a eighty-year old man who Clay would have guessed to have a hard time killing a bottle of water only a week ago, and yet here he was, doing a pretty good job of trying to kill Clay. Clay looked around him, feeling as though he was trying to catch up on a movie that he’d just walked in on ten minutes from the end. He could see a female officer shouting at Emerson, although there was no sound coming from her mouth. Over her shoulder and through the door leading into the sheriff’s station proper, he could see another officer shouting into the radio to someone. His gaze shifted back to the officer screaming at Emerson, just in time to see her pull the trigger on her pistol. With that, sound came rushing back in all at once, and Clay found himself battered on all sides from the sheer volume of it.

The officer was still screaming at Emerson to put him down, and he could hear the other dispatcher telling whoever was on the other end of the radio to “Get your ass down to the station, now!” Emerson was still dangling from the ceiling, and Clay could see no visible means of support for the old man. For just a moment, Clay had thought that Emerson was clinging to the ceiling by hanging from his toes, and the image was so ridiculous that Clay would have laughed, if he’d had the air.

The officer on the other side of the bars fired again, the sound overwhelming in the close confines of the jail cell, and despite the iron grip on his throat, he clapped his hands over his ears voluntarily. Before he’d even started to move, though, he was falling, and he hadn’t covered his ears fast enough to be spared the sound of Emerson, shrieking and keening from above him, hitting a resonant frequency in Clay’s head high enough to make his scream sound distorted.

He hit the ground hard enough to knock any remaining semblance of air from his lungs, and Clay spent a long while gasping on the floor. Finally, he was able to draw in sips of air at first, and then great whopping breaths that seemed like the sweetest things he’d ever tasted. Emerson was still scrabbling around the ceiling, pouring out what looked like tar from where he’d been shot. It wasn’t tar, though. The smell alone was enough to convince any bystanders of that.

The officer fired a few more rounds off that pinged and ricocheted around the small jail cell, and if Clay had been standing anywhere in the cell, he probably would have been sporting a few more holes than he had at present. Emerson skittered and screeched away from each of these bullets supernaturally fast, and the cleanest shot that the officer could claim blew away Emerson’s big toe. The stink increased exponentially as more of the black blood oozed from his ruined foot. Enraged, Emerson began to crawl towards the officer.

Seeing this, the officer began to reload her revolver, looking up every now and then to gauge Emerson’s progress. Emerson was at the bars, and for a moment, she kept an eye on him, trying to find out whether Emerson would be halted by the bars. Emerson barely slowed down, his body seeming to shift into an amorphous blob for a second before passing through the bars as cleanly as if they hadn’t been there at all.

The officer finished reloading and raised her gun to fire a second too late. Emerson dropped from the ceiling and onto her back, still screaming that same distorted scream that made Clay’s eyes vibrate in their sockets. She tried to bat him away, but Emerson was not content to merely strangle the officer. Instead, he twisted her head up and off her body as quickly as though he were removing the stem from a cherry. He looked at the head for a second before tossing it aside. He turned back to Clay and shrieked again, and then there was another of those loud booms.

Clay was covered in black gunk, and for a moment all he could see was that vile blackness. Once he cleared his eyes, he saw Emerson standing there, and through the hole in Emerson’s torso, he could see Deputy Whitecastle, holding onto a still-smoking shotgun. Emerson was looking down at the hole in his stomach with mild curiosity, and he turned around in something approaching wonder. He stared at the deputy for a moment, then down at his gun, and putting two and two together, started to shriek. Emerson was almost impossibly fast, but the deputy had been expecting something like this, and there was one more loud roar from the shotgun. Emerson’s head was turned into another splash of black blood, and then he fell over, that horrible shrieking silent at last.

Whitecastle nudged Emerson’s body with a toe of his boot before he convinced himself that the man was truly dead. Once that was done, he rushed over to Clay’s cell and quickly unlocked it.

“You okay?” Whitecastle asked.

Clay started to say something, but nothing came out but a harsh croak. His throat felt as raw as though he’d been gargling razor blades with an acetone chaser, and the best he could manage was a thumbs up.

“Good. You’re coming with me,” Whitecastle said.

Clay managed to croak out, “Where?′

“Your house, Whelan. We’re ending this.”

The effort of saying that one word had nearly killed him, so Clay just gave him that same thumbs up again.

“Good enough. Let’s go.”

On the ride over, Whitecastle filled Clay in on what had happened at Bannister’s house. It didn’t make much sense to Clay, probably because it still didn’t make much sense to Whitecastle. Still, Clay was able to piece together enough of the story to know that Bannister was dead.

“Why didn’t she kill me?” he croaked. His throat was feeling better, but anything was better than the fiery hell that it had been when he’d first regained consciousness. Right now his throat had been upgraded from fiery hell all the way up to gargling with cement. In truth, he wasn’t about to win any karaoke contests, but he could speak in a much rougher voice than he was used to.

“Why didn’t who kill you?” Whitecastle asked without taking his eyes off the road.

“Ginny. She was in Emerson, too. She’s playing with us, Deputy. She took her mother, and then she was getting ready to take me until your officer stepped in.”

Whitecastle grimaced. “Deputy Sheraton. Single mother of two. Those kids just got dealt a real shit sandwich, Whelan. This morning, they had a mother. Now, if they ain’t got any place else to go, they’re wards of the state.”

Clay nodded. He didn’t know what else to say.

Whitecastle punched the steering wheel angrily. “Dammit, Whelan. Why’d you have to come back here? Huh? What were you trying to prove?”

Clay didn’t answer for a long while. Finally, he said, “I don’t know. At first, I thought I was trying to find out what happened to my brother, but I know what happened to him. I’ve known all along, I think. That house killed him. It killed him, and when my mother came back to that house it killed her too. I suppose I can blame the house for killing my father, too. He smoked and drank before he came to the house, sure, but nothing like after we left. Guess losing a kid can do that to you.”

Whitecastle snorted. He thought of that jangling box of liquor that Bannister had been transporting back from Hardy. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess so.” He didn’t mention that Dale Whelan had come by his alcoholism more honestly than some, having been accused of killing his own kid. It didn’t seem necessary. From the look on his face, Clay already knew that bit of the story, and he didn’t believe it one bit. For that matter, neither did Whitecastle, at this point.

“I think I know why I came back to this place, though. I think I’ve figured it out,” Clay continued.

“And why’s that?” Whitecastle asked.

“To wipe that goddamn house off the map. You okay with that, Deputy? Mind if I commit a little arson in your town before you take me to the bus station?”

Whitecastle grinned. “Not at all, Mr. Whelan. In fact, if you don’t mind, I might do a little bit more than look the other way.”

“If you want to, I could use the help.”

Whitecastle’s grin grew even wider. “Damn straight.” With that, he flicked on the siren and sped towards the house.

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