Season of the Beast, chapter 2
April 9, 2013
(Editors note: Season of the Beast is chilling tale of a gripping evil that blossoms in an unfortunate autumn for the residents of a small Wisconsin college town. Ray Bradbury said it scared him. You have been warned. Chapter 3 will be published on Tuesday. The novel in its entirety is available for purchase in paperback and ebook formats on Ballot Press and for ebook formats on Amazon.)
By BOB JACOBS
Sharon Weisman stood at the stove frying crumbled hamburger in a non-stick pan. She sprinkled it liberally with black pepper before adding a cup of taco seasoning. Black pepper was the secret ingredient in her famous tacos. They were famous at least with Jeffrey and his pals at the radio station in Eureka where he did Humboldt County’s favorite drive-time radio show.
Jeff had called earlier from the station saying he had “glad tidings of great joy” and would bring home a six of Dos Equis if she’d do tacos. It was her turn to cook anyway.
A dollop of grease popped out of the skillet, landed on the back of her right hand, and blistered instantly. “Damn it!” she cried, wiping the grease on her purple flowered apron and rushing to the sink to soak the burn in cold water. Grease had an affinity for Sharon. Especially hamburger grease. She thought it was nothing short of criminal at the price of the stuff these days that it should turn out to be more liquid than solid when it cooked down.
She turned off the burner, tossed the spatula on top of the cooking island, and went up the half flight of stairs to the bathroom to spray her hand with sunburn lotion. She looked out the window at the redwood trees, which made a cathedral out of the back acre of her house on the Northern California coast, and sighed as she saw rain beginning to fall again.
They had lived together up here in the last wilderness in California for four years, since she had finished her graduate degree in Art History at Humboldt State University. Jeff had concurrently lost his job there teaching theater, a victim of academic politics, which few outsiders know about and scarcely any would believe. In this particular case he had pissed off the department chairman by being good at poker and relieving the old bastard of his stash at the monthly stag poker club, an event the chairman himself insisted on hosting to humiliate the untenured male faculty.
Professor Bowman, the chairman, had concocted a load of crap about Jeff’s being “a blatant homophobe and a disruptive influence on the staff” and had shot him down for renewal after his second probationary year of teaching. Only six years out of grad school himself, Jeff had told the old fart to fuck himself and walked rather than making a fight of it.
Jeff had taken the first job that came along, in his case a disc jockey and talk show host on Arcata’s “hip” FM station. There he could take comic potshots at the college and its archaic professors while sending out resume after resume in response to the thinning annual teaching job announcements in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Sharon painted and hammered away at the word processor regularly and had finally started making some decent money doing freelance articles for a variety of art magazines. She even had a couple of biographical short stories in print this past year, one winning the big prize of three thousand bucks in the Family Circle short story contest.
She had been out of the mainstream too long here in the last stronghold of 1970s hippiedom. The groovy, back-to-nature crowd had lost its charm as Sharon had matured and the hippies had all become old and boring tree-hugging potheads. She wasn’t sure anymore that these free spirits were either free or had much spirit, for that matter. All they wanted to do for the most part was sit around swilling wine, smoking dope, and sneering at the rest of the world.
As much as she was out of love with the place and the times, she was in love with Jeff. Sometimes it was hard for her to make any rational sense out their being together. If any two people on the planet had less in common growing up than she and Jeffrey Nichols, it could only be due to coming from alternate universes.
Self-made from raw materials given him by lower middle class parents in an LA suburb, Jeff was large, physically and emotionally. He lived large, talked large, dreamed large, and sometimes pissed her off for nothing else than being so goddamned large optimistically. Sharon tiptoed into the water to check out temperature and footing. They were not bashart and basharta. Not on the surface anyway.
He was three inches taller than six feet and looked like a cross between Leonardo da Vinci and a koala bear. Eleven years her senior and a foot taller at the head, Jeff could be an intimidating presence indeed.
Sex had been the first thing that united them. They made love very damned well, as Jeff liked to say. But, in all but this one, terribly satisfying aspect of life, they shouldn’t even have known one another, much less carried on a successful live-in affair for a couple of years.
Sharon’s childhood was a world removed from Jeff’s roughhewn start. Arnold Weisman, Sharon’s dad, was an oil company executive. Her mother ran a smashingly trendy fashion shop in Orange County. Sharon had grown up thinking that all people lived in splendid hilltop homes with gardeners and cleaning ladies and new Corvettes for their sixteenth birthdays. Breaking free of daddy’s expectations that she would marry a nice boy from the neighborhood who would take over his father’s law practice one day had been as hard for Sharon as it had been for Jeff to tear himself out of the hubcap-popping street culture of his childhood.
Sharon’s father still pressed delicately for the lawyer’s son by sending Sharon hometown newspaper clippings describing the vapid social lives of her former classmates. He hoped she’d come to her senses someday soon and dump this Goy before it was too late.
Sharon had nearly forgiven him.
She stuffed the final taco shell as Jeff’s motorcycle hummed down the dirt road. It was a 1975 Norton Commando 850 Roadster in showroom condition. He parked it under the carport, which was itself sheltered by a towering hundred year old Colorado blue spruce.
Jeffrey Nichols bubbled into the house, tossing his yellow slicker onto the drying rack by the back door, and kicking out of his soaked black engineer boots. He held one arm behind his back and stood smirking stupidly at Sharon.
She raised her eyebrows and peeked at him over the black wire rim of her glasses. She pretended not to notice that he was hiding something from her. She gestured in the direction of the table, loaded with enchiladas, burritos, tacos and finished with a carafe of Jeff’s favorite red wine. “Everything to your liking, oh magnificent macho man?”
He stood by the table, grinning and dripping on the carpet. “Lovely. Just lovely. like you. Like this lovely day. Like this lovely life in these lovely, sunny north woods.” He paused shaking the hand behind his back.
Sharon feigned disinterest, knowing that he was aching—dying—to tell her something. “Take your coat off and hang it up, please. You’re getting the rug all wet.”
Jeff smirked, tugged off his heavy leather jacket and flung it in the general direction of the living room fireplace, sitting down with his hand behind his back.
“Pass the salsa, dear,” she said.
Jeff’s eyes narrowed as she took a bite and wiped the juice off her chin with a delicate bright napkin.
Sharon tried not to smile, then broke, swallowing hard, taking a sip of wine and tossing a tortillas chip at Jeff. “All right, all right, dopey. What’s the big secret? We win the lottery?”
“Aw, c’mon now. I can’t guess. Gimme a break so we can eat.”
“Oh… you found a million bucks in an unmarked shopping bag?”
Jeff shook his head. “C’mon. Try.”
“You sold your novel.”
“Not yet. Again…”
“Uh…. the owner gave you the radio station.”
“C’mon Share. C’mon.”
“Oh, Jeffrey—stop it now and tell me what this is all about. I worked hard on this dinner and I want us to enjoy it. Okay?”
He brought a large manila envelope out from behind his back and placed it next to her plate on the table. “In that envelope, my dear Ms. Weisman, is the key to a whole new life—if you should choose to accept this assignment.”
Sharon looked down at the envelope. Beside the return address was a logo of the University of Wisconsin System. She looked back at him, her eyes softening.
“How would you like to move to the heartland of America, m’dear. The great Midwest. The spiritual home of my ancestors.”
She loved this gorilla of a man more than she thought possible. “Get out of this damned rain forest?”
“Out of the rain and out of Mrs. Plunkett and her idiot son and their goddamned stupid radio station and out of the fungus and mildew and the rain and the loggers and tree-huggers and rednecks and aging hippies, my love. Back into teaching for me. Back, back, back. They’re taking me back.”
“Oh, sweetheart—you got the job!”
“You are looking at Associate Professor Jeffrey R. Nichols, Ph.D., lady… and I want some respect around here starting right now.”
Sharon pushed away from the table and ran around it throwing herself into Jeff’s arms. It had been a long, long time and her heart had been breaking for the big lug who was nothing if not a born college teacher.
Losing his job at Humboldt State University had been the biggest trauma of his life. They never called it “getting fired” in academia. It was euphemistically phrased as “your contract will not be renewed owing to programmatic needs of the department.”
Three years of late night talk shows and peddling local spot announcements while sending out endless resumes had tried to beat the humor out of him.
Jeff endured it as a way to make a living while waiting for his break. Jobs were awfully hard to come by. Degrees in cinema/television from the University of Southern California, a master’s degree in communication and Ph.D. in dramatic art from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and ten years as a writer-director in commercial film and television made him a rare—very rare—hybrid in the “Ed Biz.”
“Ha! They must be pretty hard up back there in Oshkosh, huh, babe? To hire a yo-yo like me.”
“Where’d you say?”
“Oshkosh, b’gosh, Wisconsin, Madam. Think cheese heads.”
“Oshkosh…” she repeated slowly.
“And Green Bay Packers…”
“Well, it sounds like something you don’t want to say too many times when you’re bombed,” Sharon asked. “I mean—it is a real university, isn’t it?”
“You know, beer and bratwurst and uh, fat people in red sweat shirts. Remember L.A. during the Rose Bowl that year?”
After doing the dishes together, they poured themselves snifters of cream sherry and spread out in front of the fireplace with a Rand McNally Road Atlas. Sharon pointed at a large blue blotch on the map with OSHKOSH printed next to it about half way up from the bottom. “Lake Winnebago, hmm? Big one.”
“Biggest freshwater lake contained to a single state, m’love. It joins up with Lake Michigan through the Fox River at Green Bay.”
“Well, someone’s been doing his research.”
Jeff smiled and tousled her hair. “Betch yer bippy, lady. Got a lot to learn and a short time to learn it.”
“Okay, Mr. Wizard. Do they make those God-awful Winnebagos there?” Sharon always thought that people who need to go camping in a motorhome should just not bother.
“I think you mean the Answer Man, and no, they don’t. But if you want overalls, Oshkosh is your place.”
“And what else are we going to find in this bovine paradise, Mr. Answer Man?”
“There’s water all over the place, for one thing. I think a nice houseboat might be in order. The letter from the school says they’ve got nice hot summers, super autumns and… well… winters sound like a bitch, frankly.”
Sharon feigned a shiver and snuggled closer. “It doesn’t rain much though?”
Jeff shook his head. Sharon had hated the mildew and the mud and the constant drizzle of California’s north coast, but had stuck it out knowing how much more Jeff hated the smog and turmoil and general crap of Southern California, where Sharon felt perfectly at home.
“Not a lot of rain, pal. But it snows… a lot.”
“Well, at least we like to ski, huh? Anything’s better than being mildewed to death all year long.”
Jeff pointed at the map again. “See here, the river flows from this lake right through the middle of Oshkosh and into Lake Winnebago and then right on up to Lake Michigan. God, I’ll bet it’s beautiful there. Maybe we can get a place on the shoreline. Wouldn’t that be neat?”
Sharon squinted down at the name of the second lake west of town. It had a French name. “Lake Butte des Morts,” she read out loud. “Bluff of the Dead? What do you suppose that means?”
“Ooohhh, Bloof of zee Daad,” Jeff chortled in a stupid Dracula impression.
Sharon stared at the map. A chill crawled up her neck and she shuddered slightly. “Sounds pretty grim to me. Why do you suppose it’s called that—really?”
Jeff rolled over on his back, balancing the snifter of sherry on his stomach. “In that part of the country, God’s Country, as my Grandpa used to call it, it’s probably got something to do with an Indian battle, I’d guess. Or, being as it’s a lake and all, mebbe a boat wreck or an outbreak of diphtheria among some settlers or some such thing. Or just possibly it’s about a bunch of zombies or some Frenchman’s nightmare. It’s a name, m’dear. Just a name that celebrates something that happened there a long time ago. That’s my best guess from looking at this here map.”
“Well… it gives me the willies.”
Jeff prodded her with his thumb, making her jump and clutch at his hand. “Probably the most beautiful lake you’ve ever seen,” he said. “Explorers used to name things really shitty stuff like that. Iceland isn’t really icy, but Greenland is nothing but a huge glacier. Bad names were a great way to keep other explorers and tourists from going to the good spots and messing ‘em up.”
Jeff put the drink down on the floor and hugged her tightly. “There is one little matter we have to settle up, lady.”
“And what’s that, Doctor?”
“The Midwest is a pretty conservative place, y’know.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Especially Wisconsin. I mean, it’s the birthplace of the Republican Party, after all,” he said.
“Yeah. So what are you getting at? Do I have to become a Republican to move to Wisconsin?”
“Worse than that. It won’t do to for an associate professor to show up in a conservative place like that shacked up with a scarlet lady.”
Sharon swallowed hard. “I suppose that might be frowned on in a place called Oshkosh, huh?”
She stood silently for a breath. The trees dripped on the front porch. The logs crackled, flames chuffed, and the big, iron bass fiddle fireplace resonated.
“Well… what do you think we should do about that?” she asked.
Jeff kissed her lightly on the forehead.
“Think you know me well enough to take the plunge now?”
“You asking me to marry you, Jeff?”
“That’s what I’m asking. Yes it is. I’m asking you to marry me, right now.”
Sharon dabbed at her eyes.
They made joyous love on the floor in front of the bass fiddle fireplace. A long time later they lay on the rug, naked and sweaty and content with themselves. Jeff went to the kitchen to pour another sherry for each of them. While he was gone, Sharon pulled the map off the coffee table and opened it to Wisconsin again.
Her eyes fixed on Lake Butte des Morts, an innocuous dot on a Rand McNally Atlas. Ice cracked in her soul. Winds whined up stone canyons and whistled around her heart. There were no mental images of summer swims and water-skis on Lake Bluff of the Dead. She shivered in spite of the heat and the recent torrid activity that had left her limp and breathing heavily.
Jeff padded barefoot back across the thick wool carpeting and spread out on the floor beside her, sliding the icy glass across the flat slope of her tummy. She jerked back, snatching the glass out of his hand, gulped down a large swallow and sucked her bottom lip. Jeff looked at her over the rim of his own snifter, his eyes narrowing.
“Hey, lady… you having second thoughts or what?”
Sharon snapped back to life. “What?”
“You had that ‘I-dunno-about-this-shit’ look in your eye, kid. Second thought time?”
“About marrying the old Teach maybe?”
“Oh, no, Mr. Nichols… you don’t get out of it now.”
He smiled and rubbed her shoulders. “That’s Doctor Nichols, and we have to get some plans laid, you know. Got about a month to be there, settled in, and ready to start hassling the students.”
Sharon smiled back and nuzzled against his warm chest. “Okay,” she said.
“Where do you want to honeymoon? I hear they’ve got some nice cottages at that nice Lake Butte des Morts this time of year.”
“Very funny, pal. You’re a real comedian… especially sitting there with your bare ass hanging out, not to mention something else.”
She snickered. He grinned back.
“I love you, Teach.”
“I love you more,” he said.
They would be married in a ceremony that was much too quickly arranged for the liking of Sharon’s parents, who would look pained throughout the ceremony and the reception.
They would motor along, following the track of old Route 66 all across Arizona, New Mexico, the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma, through the rolling Ozark Mountains of Missouri, which seemed to be the only place left in the world where fireworks were sold openly and frequently, and across the river at St. Louis into Illinois and up through the jumble and glitter of Chicago and past Milwaukee with its beer breath and Jeffrey Dahmer horror stories to the place called Oshkosh between the two lakes.