CHAPTER 25 – Gut Grinding
Carl caught movement across the bar top with his peripheral vision, and he watched Vince make a half turn toward the door where Mandy and Rachel slumped on chairs they had set upright. Neither one spoke. Their gaze seemed to dissipate into the dusky air no more than five or six feet before them. It was doubtful that either one had watched the ritual at the bar or examined the debris for possible other lucky finds. Mandy leaned back with her arms hanging down the sides and her legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Rachel sat with her legs sprawled out before her in a V with her dress skirt draped between them. She leaned back with one arm draped over the chair back, a pose Carl had seen more than once by some barfly too sotted to remain on her feet. And, although Rachel’s dress hem was primly below her knees, the position could often result in it riding up to well above them, at least with a tighter skirt, displaying to any and all what the lady had to offer. He could see Vince’s jaw muscles begin to work.
“Your ass fits on that bar-chair like it feels right at home.” Vince’s voice was a low growl. “Is this the kind of place you hung out in after abandoning your two little boys?”
Rachel dragged her agonizing body upright and faced her captor with confusion clouding her face. “Huh? Wh—what are you—?”
Vince turned to fully face the room and leaned against the bar at his back with his elbows propped back on it. “Was this where you snuck out to meet your lover before crawling into bed with him?”
With understanding dawning on her, even in all its insanity, she replied, “Why are you saying that? I’m not your mother.”
His glare of hatred flickered, and he seemed to realize he had strayed from reality again. Still, he wouldn’t let it go. “Because you’re all the same. Hell, you even dress and look like her.”
“But—but you made me wear this! Why are you doing this to me?” Her raised voice was the most challenging Carl had ever heard from her.
“Because you’re here and Vic isn’t!” Vince shot back, each word oozing bile.
Even though Vince hadn’t ignored her response, Carl noted that rather than admitting his error, he resorted to trying to rationalize his increasingly irrational behavior. And, as Vince further loosened the demon that drove him, the malevolence he exuded suddenly expanded like a bloated sack of putrescence, and Carl took a step backward in reflex.
“Because since I was just a little kid I’ve been told how bad I am. Because I could see how other people lived and I knew I must be bad or I could be happy like them.”
Foamy spittle began to form around the edges of Vince’s mouth as he strode through the floor debris to loom over her.
“Because you—because my mother ran out on me and Vic when we were too young to take care of ourselves, condemning us to live in hell with a man you—a man she knew was a brutal, sadistic sonofabitch who was not fit to be around kids, much less raise them.”
He stood so close, she had to lean back to look up into his face. “But, I’m not your mother! I didn’t do what she did!”
Vince glared at her for a long time, but then his eyes softened, the hard lines in his face faded, and he took a step back as gazed upon her face like she was the Madonna. Carl half expected his old friend to fall to his knees and kiss the hem of her angel-robe. It appeared he was starting into one of his back and forth sessions in which he bounced from hating the woman who had abandoned him and Vic to idolizing the mother he remembered.
Vince’s voice was softer when he said, “You know, I used to tell Vic about you when we were small.” He turned and meandered about the room as he spoke, picking his way through the wreckage. “He was so young the last time he saw you he couldn’t even remember what you looked like. I used to tell him about how you’d come into our room at night and talk to us and sing to us, and how you were such a wonderful mother. He acted like he remembered…just like a kid. Like the time you stopped his crying when he fell in the driveway. Remember that? When I saw how you kissed away his tears and hugged him, I loved you more than ever. I thought you must be an angle from heaven because you were so beautiful and wonderful.” He turned his eyes upward, like he could see the opening in the gentle swirl of white, puffy clouds through which his angelic mother must have passed. But, then within seconds, it was like those clouds had never existed, and in their place roiled dark, lightning laced ones forever blocking the sun. His hateful glare darted about the room for tense moments until it settled on Rachel’s tearful face, and he stomped over to her. His words again had hard edges—knife-like edges—that cut where they touched. “I never told him how I used to wonder how you could have just walked out on us like that if you really loved us. I always kept those questions and doubts to myself, always searching and trying to come up with an answer I could believe, because I couldn’t break his heart like you broke mine. I always made sure he thought you—”
“I am not your mother!”
A quick snap of his arm knocked her off the chair with a vicious backhand. “Shut up! You are who I say you are—and I say you are her, and that you have to answer for what she did! You’re all the same. You’re all just like her, every one of you.”
Across the room, Mandy edged closer to the door.
“No! No, we’re not all the same! There are bad people and good people. Not all are bad. You can’t punish the good ones for what the bad ones do. You can’t hold the innocent responsible for what the guilty do.”
“Yes, I can! If nothing else, my father taught me that. That is the one, constant lesson that he hammered into me from the day you—she left. I can do it because now I’m the one that makes the rules; because I’m stronger than you; because now no one—no one!—can tell me I can’t.”
Rachel turned and reached to grasp the chair to pull herself back to her feet. When her weight was fully on it, Vince kicked it out from under her. She sprawled on the floor and stayed there for a moment before rolling onto her back to glare up at him. She said nothing; just lay there waiting to see what he would do next.
He turned and stalked back to the bar where he stood again with his back against it and his elbows supporting him.
When it appeared that his fury might be on the ebb, she rose up at the waist and reached behind her for the chair now on its side. But as she touched it, it slid away from her a couple of inches. Her eyes were on Vince, so she knew he hadn’t touched it. She assumed it was Carl, or even Logan and turned to scowl at him. But they were both several feet away. Mandy was even farther. She decided she must have nudged it, herself. She reached for it again, and this time she watched it move away from her outstretched hand still over three inches from it. She jerked her hand back and stared in awe at the piece of animated bar furniture.
“Did you see that, Carl? I can do it!” Suddenly excited, Vince stepped away from the bar and looked about the room. “I’ve been wondering if I could do something like that. Back at your place when the window blew in without even scratching Vic, somehow, I shielded him. I knew I’d done it. I just didn’t know what I did. Ever since then, I’ve been wondering if, somehow my mind can—I don’t know—project? If I had somehow used the force of my mind to save him, it couldn’t have been just a one-time thing. If I could do it once, I should be able to do it again. All I had to do was understand what I was doing. So, I reasoned it out. I thought about what happened, about how I felt at the time, how the only way I could save him was…well, it looks like all I have to do is want it bad enough. Like if I wanted to twist Rachel’s guts into a knot bad enough…”
He reached toward her with his hand in a fist and clenched it tighter as he rotated it. And just that quick, she curled into a ball with her arms wrapped about her belly and screamed long and loud.
He held his fist in the air for a moment longer then relaxed its clasp. As he did, Rachel’s body released some of its tension. She remained curled into a ball, panting, but she appeared to be no longer in excruciating agony. She slowly rolled over enough to see him and gazed at him with her eyes wide in awe.
Grinning like Vic had while displaying his new captive back at Muir Beach, Vince looked from Carl to Mandy and back to Carl. Then he turned his eyes back to Rachel, reached his hand toward her, and slowly made a fist. As it tightened, her mouth gaped in a mixture of shock and increasing pain. She drew her knees up tighter and gasped for air. But before she screamed, he opened his hand.
“I thought at first it must be love, because nothing was stronger than my love for Vic. But this proves that ain’t the case, doesn’t it? Unless…they do say that love and hate are simply two sides of the same coin. That’d be the pits, though, if it only worked on someone I either loved or hated. There’ll probably be times I’d like to…” Glancing about the room again, his landed his sight on Logan.
It took him a couple of heartbeats, but the little man finally realized what their leader was contemplating. Backing up through the debris littering the floor and shaking his head, he pleaded with his eyes for mercy. But when Vince’s hand reached toward him and began closing into a fist, mercy didn’t appear to be in consideration.
Whether from mercy or simply a reluctance to plant a seed of rebellion in one so subservient, Vince released his grip before Logan’s knees hit the floor. He turned back to Carl without so much as a “sorry about that” to Logan. The little man quickly scrambled away to cower against the wall. “Okay! It looks like I’m not restricted. Damn, Carl, this is better than one of those Hollywood guns that never runs out of bullets. I need to work on my control, though. I’d hate to kill someone without meaning to just because I got pissed for a minute. Hell, I kind like having you and Mandy around.”
Carl didn’t respond, but his stomach tightened in icy knots.
“I think what I need is practice.” Vince turned and glanced at the shambles of the back-bar before dismissing with a wave of his hand of any possibility of another unbroken bottle. When he turned back to the room, his eyes went straight to Rachel. “Lots and lots of practice.”
This time he tried holding his hand at his waist instead of stretched out toward the victim. Still, though, he focused his mind with a clenching fist. Her response was immediate. But before her scream got too loud, he released his grip and let her ease her drawn up legs back to the floor. Before she had a chance to fully settle down, he clenched again, but only as he had done with Logan. She jerked her legs but didn’t draw them all the way up to her chest, and her scream was only an abrupt “Uhn!”
When Vince turned his grin on Carl, his old friend had backed up a couple of steps and was gaping at him. This struck Vince as hilarious, and he burst out laughing. “What’s the matter, buddy, afraid I might pick you to play with?”
All Carl could manage was sick grin and a brief shake of his head.
Vince turned back to the room and located Rachel again just before she crawled behind an overturned table. “No, no, no, little girl. Mustn’t hide from daddy when daddy wants to play.”
Carl could see Vince’s hand tighten, not into a tight fist but more like it gently squeezed a wad of soft clay nestled in his hand, and just enough to leave finger impressions pressed into it.
Rachel groaned and rolled onto her side, drawing her legs up. She didn’t scream, but she was in obvious distress.
“Damn, this is fun!” Vince said as he released Rachel and made eye contact with Mandy who had moved even closer to the door. She returned his gaze with one of horror. “Uh, Mandy…not thinking of taking a walk, are you?”
“No! No, of course not. I…uh…she screamed pretty loud. I just wanted to make sure it’s all still clear out th—oh!” She had pointed with her thumb and made a quick glance out the door, but then immediately jumped back. “Some of those things!” she gasped.
A scowl darkened Vince’s face as he grunted and strode to the window.
From the shadowy space between two of the blackened houses across the parking lot, two figures emerged. He didn’t have to study them closely to know they were more of the hideous creatures he had seen earlier. And, although they appeared to be walking with no urgency or goal, they were headed toward the supermarket and bar. Spinning around, he hissed, “On your feet, and keep it quiet! Out the back door—quick! Carl, take Rachel’s chain and see that she keeps moving.”
When Vince slowed their flight two blocks away after deciding they weren’t being pursued, Carl handed the end of Rachel’s chain to Vince reaching hand. She walked slowly and hunched over as though in pain when allowed to set her own pace, and Vince was in no mood to pamper her. After telling Carl to take the lead with Logan, he handed to task of managing Rachel to Mandy, flinging the chain to her with disgust.
“Here, you haul her for a while.” Then, after he had turned to continue walking, he stopped and turned back. He dropped the small knapsack he carried at Rachel’s feet. “She can carry this, too. And give her yours. I’ve been too easy on her. She’s young and strong, and it’s time she started pulling her weight.”
After a couple more blocks, nearing downtown, Vince chose an older, stucco house on the edge of a burned-out area just past the city hall complex. A small, triangular park across the street graced the front of what had been a large church where everything except the twin bell-towers was now a shamble of blackened ruins above which curls of smoke still wavered.
Vince sent Carl and Logan ahead to check out the house for any unwelcome surprises then shuffled ahead of the other two to the front steps. Rachel, last in line, stumbled along in no rush to join the others. With his knee throbbing, Vince hobbled up to the front door and turned. Mandy was still several paces back, and Rachel trailing her. Huffed, he pivoted on his good leg and eased the spring-loaded screen door close behind him, taking care that it didn’t slam.
Mandy waited at the bottom of the steps for Rachel while her gaze wandered about until movement caught her eye. A single alien stalked across the street that ran east and west on the north side of the burned-out church. It didn’t seem to have seen them, but it was slowly turning in their direction as it scanned the area. Fearful, even at that distance, that the creature could hear any kind of verbal warning, she started to run up the steps, but then she remembered Rachel. Not that she cared if Rachel was caught or killed, but if it saw Rachel and came to investigate the house...
Mandy made rapid, urgent motions with her hands as well as pulled on the chain to urge Rachel onto the bottom step and then up them, but the girl didn’t even appear to notice. She continued coming, but at a foot-dragging pace that Mandy was certain was going to get them all killed. She reached out and jerked the heavy packs from Rachel’s hands then grabbed Rachel’s arm to pull her up the steps. Once on the porch, Mandy pushed her open hand into the middle of Rachel’s back and shoved her lethargic charge the last few steps to the screen door. She hefted the packs in one hand, and with the other she pulled the screen open while pulling Rachel to one side for it to clear. Fighting rising panic, she shoved Rachel inside and followed her, turning just in time to catch the screen door before it slammed. Finally, she eased the front door closed and threw the dead bolt.
All during this time she was terrified to look back towards the church and beyond; what would she do if the alien were rushing towards her? But, now, in the relative safety of the house, she opened the dead bolt again, edged the door open just a couple of inches; just enough to peer back at the church. Nothing in sight.
She re-closed the door, re-set the deadbolt, and leaned against it with her forehead, eyes closed, catching her breath and willing her pounding pulse to slow.
Vince’s voice growled behind her. “What’s this?”
Mandy’s eyes jerked open and she looked about, certain that the alien had found them, after all. When she and Rachel had come in, no one else was in the living room, although, in the small house, she could hear their voices as they explored the potentials of their find. Now, they followed Vince back into the living room. Carl walked around one side of Vince and Logan around the other. Vince was stopped and stood, apparently in shock, as he glared at Mandy.
“Huh? Didn’t I say Rachel carries those? Huh, Mandy? If you’re so sympathetic, maybe you’d like to join her. Huh, Mandy? You want to get sized for a collar? I’m sure we can find a collar and a chain to hook to it if we look around. Or maybe I’ll take up where I left off with Crissy before I was interrupted. Huh, Mandy? How’d you like that?
Vince’s tirade caught Mandy so by surprise, she simply stood with her mouth gaping while he ranted. Her initial confusion and fear quickly became terror when she realized how close she was to ending her life as Crissy had done. Crissy had sided with Rachel against Vince, and that night of screams still echoed in her mind. With terror gripping her throat, she couldn’t speak for long seconds while Vince stopped for a breath, and perhaps to contemplate a suitable punishment.
“When I give an order, I don’t like having to keep giving it. Once should be enough for anyone—even you, you stupid bitch. Maybe I’ll see what your guts look like. Maybe I’ll see how many knots I can tie them into before you die. Huh? Maybe I’ll open you up so you can watch while I can knot ’em from one end to the other. Huh?” He raised his hand up in front of her face and snapped it into a fist.
Mandy’s eyes grew wide and she doubled over in agony and dropped to her knees, gasping and clutching her arms across her belly. All but breathless from the sudden onset of such wrenching pain, she couldn’t even scream.
When he released her after a moment and Mandy could breathe again, released from the agony that had so suddenly gripped her, she felt a tinge of sympathy for Rachel, a connection. How much worse had it been for her? What damage had been done to their organs in those wrenching seconds? Would they heal if given time, or would the damage just keep getting worse each time Vince exerted his terrifying new power? How much pain could be tolerated without dying?
She knelt on the floor before him and looked up at him while awe and fear enveloped her. Could it have really been him that caused it?
Before Vince could resume his harangue, she forced the air from her lungs and for her larynx to resonate, carefully forming her tongue and lips around the words she prayed might save her life.
“She wouldn’t—a—a—thing—one of—would have seen us if—up the street—packs slowing her down—other side of the church but coming—she WOULDN’T HURRY!”
Mandy’s mind raced to evaluate the impact her words may have had. Had she chosen the right words? Did her broken, jumbled speech make sense? It did to her, but did Vince understand? Would he believe her? What the hell had he done to her? Was it him? How could it have been? What kind of demon had he become? She retreated from the direction those thoughts started to take her. Her heart still raced; it hadn’t had a chance to slow down since she had spotted the creature beyond the ruins of the church. And then when her guts appeared to suddenly knot up at Vince’s mere threat… But her mind was clearing, and she climbed back to, first her knees where she paused, then her feet.
“I had to get her inside quick, Vince. Honest. I swear. That’s all. That’s why I took the packs. She was just pokin’ along. It would o’ seen her for sure, then it woulda got all of us. You, too, Vince. It woulda got you, too. It was only just past—” Once she got her power of speech back—she couldn’t get Crissy’s screams out of her mind—it poured forth in an unstoppable torrent. Her words flowed from her mouth as the tears began to well up and spill from her eyes.
Vince’s face had flushed red when he saw her helping Rachel. But she prayed his rage had not progressed past the recall point. It appeared he was still able to hear her panic driven explanation, and she prayed his mind was still capable of making lucid evaluations. It looked like maybe he had decided she was probably telling the truth. She could see his pulse still pounding in his temples, but she was pretty sure the rate was diminishing.
Finally, after almost a full minute of an eye-to-eye confrontation that terrified her but which she was even more terrified to break off, he seemed to relent. “Okay, Mandy.” His speech and manner were soft and cordial, as though her screaming death had not been little more than a heartbeat away. “I’ll accept that you were simply concerned with our welfare. But just to erase any doubts that may linger, why don’t you show me you really don’t sympathize with Rachel, or that you had no intention to go against my very specific orders?”
“Sure, Vince. Whatever you want,” she eagerly agreed. But she immediately dreaded what his mind might come up with as a test. She was no longer surprised by anything where Vince was concerned. He might have her hang from the chandelier by her knees—or by her neck.
“Back at Muir Beach, you prevented Crissy from leaving by busting her in the mouth—or so you said.”
“Yeah, Vince. I did. I mean I did do what I said—what you said...”
“Show me. Show me how you knocked Crissy on her ass. Or are you too squeamish to bust Rachel?”
Relieved, and yet dismayed, Mandy turned to do as she was bidden.
Rachel stood slump-shouldered beside the pack on the floor. Clearly, she had heard and understood Vince’s command. As her eyes met Mandy’s, an unspoken plea lay there in the stressed lines of her face reaching out to Mandy. In the few seconds Mandy dithered, acceptance glazed over Rachel’s features. Her eyes closed, and she waited for the blow.
Mandy felt for the poor girl. She had witnessed up close the abuse Rachel had suffered, even had a taste of it herself. She would prefer to not contribute to it, herself—just not enough to go against Vince, not enough to take his rage upon herself just to give the girl some relieve. She would have to make sure in future that Vince always directed his new power or any other display of rage at Rachel and not her. Rather than risking his anger, she would have used the machete on the girl, if that were what he had demanded. The way she saw it, Rachel was getting off easy.
Mandy’s fist came up from her own waist in a right cross anyone could have been proud of. It slammed into Rachel’s lips, smashing them back across the stumps of broken teeth. Mandy wouldn’t have dared to pull her punch even if it had occurred to her. The blow sent Rachel spinning and crashing into the wall behind. She slid down the wall to a crumpled heap on the floor and lay there, conscious and hurting, but not uttering a sound other than soft sobs.