Season of the Beast, chapter 4

May 22, 2013

season cover 2(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 5 will be published on Wednesday. The novel in its entirety is available for purchase in paperback and ebook formats on Ballot Press and for ebook formats on Amazon.)

Chapter Four

Welcome To The Club

The party was a very jovial affair, if a little stiff at first. Jeff and Sharon arrived a little too late for fashion. The first thing they both noticed was that every person in the place had been drinking. It wasn’t that Jeff and Sharon were teetotalers. Like many young Californians, they drank wine, the occasional margarita, and every now and then a beer or two on a hot, sticky afternoon.

Wisconsin people drank beer.

Plenty of beer.

Oddly, they didn’t seem to think of it as drinking.

“How about a beer?” Doc Warner said as he greeted them at the door.

Doc Warner, officially known as Dr. Philip J. Warner, was Jeff’s chairman in the Department of Communication where he would be teaching in the Radio-TV-Film sequence. No one had called Doc “Dr. Warner” for the entire 25 years of his tenure at Oshkosh. An elfin man, just over five feet tall, with a shock of brilliant gray hair, he looked like a diminutive Phil Donahue. He built the department single-handedly and there was no doubt who ran it with a benevolent, but self-protective, hand. After pouring foamy glasses of brew, he introduced Jeff and Sharon around the room.

The cozy parlor of Doc Warner’s old Edwardian home was a din of garbled talk, amazing in its sheer volume since there were, in fact, only a handful of people there. Another thing that Jeff and Sharon noticed about Wisconsin people is that they tend to be loud. Especially when drinking beer.

George Snyder was there, dressed for a party in clean pressed Levi 501s, a Wrangler shirt, leather vest, and spit-shined burgundy boots. He had left the tattered Stetson at home, knowing that hat-head made a bad first impression on some people.

Jim Fletcher, Rick Pilford, and Karen Murphy were the other three members of the small department who had come to greet the newcomers. Jim and Rick were the married guys. Their spouses stood at the fireplace sharing the misery of people who are habitually along for the ride. Jim ran television services; Rick was the technical director and engineer for the department’s practical labs. Karen, whip-sharp and a touch artsy in her gypsy-style dress, was the resident art designer and graphics person. She ran the computer labs, too. Sharon took an immediate liking to them. Jim, a good-natured hunk, had made up a stupid little rhyme about the names of the two women. Rick had made a handkerchief disappear into his hand, and Karen explained that what he really wanted to be was David Copperfield, the magician. It didn’t take long for the women to lose the two guys and sit down for a chat. Karen was most interested to hear about the studio in Jeff and Sharon’s new house, and the two quickly dropped out of the party and into a burgeoning friendship.

Soon great quantities of the amber fluid turned the party into a real college bash. What had begun as a one-sided conversation dominated by questions of the two newcomers about California and why in the world they would have given it up to move to the land of snow and cold, was now a noisy, good-natured gab session.

Jeff was trapped on an old floral print sofa with George and a small tubby man.

“Red isn’t part of the gang, officially,” George quipped to Jeff. “But we let him hang around to make him feel wanted.”

Red grinned with slightly drunken good nature and strained to focus on Jeff’s face. Usually Jeff liked a couple of feet between himself and the next person. Here in Oshkosh, folks sidled up within a foot with no apparent discomfort. Jeff didn’t like being close enough to smell what the other guy was drinking either, especially not on this guy’s breath.

Jeff was, however, feeling the effects of the good, rich beer, coupled with the scotch he’d had before coming over, and the lack of dinner, which he and Sharon had missed to do something which seemed much more important at the time. He wished that the snacks that Mrs. Doc, as Warner’s motherly if somewhat pushy wife was called, had laid out on the long table in the dining room had compensated for real food.

“You’re an ignorant cowpuncher,” Red slurred while trying hard not to sound as if he were slurring. “You keep me around to make you look good. That television stuff you guys play around with over there in Comm is a mere toy, and if you din’t have an honest-to-God acada-mission aroun’, they’d toss all of you fakers off campus.”

“You’re also a little drunk, Dr. Death,” George jibed.

“Yes, I am. But, tomorrow I’ll be sober and you’ll still be an academic fake trying to find your ass with both hands.”

Jeff laughed at the jocular jousting.

It had only been a couple of weeks since the affair on Lake Butte des Morts, and George’s arm still ached inside the now well-autographed and slightly pornographic plaster cast. Jeff chanced a shot across their bow to test the waters.

“Well, Red appears to have his coordination down better than you, sir,” he said, nodding toward the broken arm.

The shock was palpable. Red and George both stiffened, and Jeff felt the sudden silence like a brick on his head.

George and Red went ashen-faced, and Jeff was immediately sorry that he had committed a gaffe of some kind. His mouth went dry as it was prone to do when he was anxious.

George took a long pull from his glass, his jaw muscles making tight little knots.

“Uh… so… Didn’t mean to hit a nerve,” Jeff mumbled.

“What’s going on over here, boys?” Doc Warner asked. “You fellas look like World War Three just started. Don’t like chips and dip in California?”

“No. It’s uh…nothing,” Jeff volunteered. “Just foot-in-mouth disease.”

“Hey, it’s nothing you did,” George said to Jeff. “It’s a… well… you didn’t do anything wrong, okay? Let’s just forget it.”

Doc’s face turned into a basset hound’s. It was his favorite mask of concern. It usually defused conflict before it began. It wasn’t good for his staff to start off with personality problems. He nudged George in the side. “How about letting the boss in on this, hey?”

“It’s my fault,” Red said. “And there’s no point in being silly about this anymore. We’re all grownups and it’s time to get it out in the open.”

“This sounds serious, Red,” Doc said solemnly. “You aren’t, uh… well… what are you trying to tell us?”

“It’s all right, Doc. It’s not anything earthshaking, merely embarrassing. I’m the one who broke George’s arm, that’s all.”

“How in the world did you break George’s arm?”

Red explained the whole incident in the boat, at least as much as he knew. George filled in some of the details. It was the first time that either man had talked about the events of that day, even to each other. Neither of them told the whole story.

Doc knew, of course, as did the entire community who read the story in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern newspaper, about the body that had been found floating in Lake Butte des Morts. In a town where the police were nearly as busy as a carp in a koi pond, a body found anywhere doing anything was very big news. This was a community where the last real murder happened several years ago, not last week.

Oshkosh was as well insulated from massive urban problems as Doc Warner was from life in the real world. That was one of the things that made it a nice place to live and to raise a family. Some said it was a darn sight nicer place before the invasion on the western edge of the city by the Experimental Aircraft Association and it’s magnetic draw on out-of-state visitors every year, especially for the first week in August when the convention and Fly-in attracted a couple of million folks to town for the big show. There were those who wished the damned association had stayed in Hales Corners or gone to the moon for that matter, and some mumbled that it was probably some crazy son-of-a-bitch airplane psychopath who had sliced up that poor damned farmer from the town of Winneconne and dumped him into Lake Butte des Morts, because sure as shootin’ it wasn’t the kind of thing that anybody from this part of God’s country would ever thought to have done.

Some remembered Ed Gein, who had inspired the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho by butchering women and wearing their skins like a body stocking while hanging around his placid home a few miles to the west of Oshkosh, and thought that maybe this was exactly the kind of thing that somebody from this part of God’s country might thought to have done.

The official line from the Oshkosh Police Department was that poor old Jerry Boelter had fallen into the river by accident and had his body had chewed on by the muskies and sturgeon in Lake Butte des Morts, and it was a really terrible tragedy, but no foul play was suspected. Jerry was known to drink more than his share of beer and not ever to wear a life jacket while out in his duck boat fishing.

George revealed that Red had taken a complete physical exam from Arch to check for seizure disorder, and that was news to the crowd. Without going into complete detail, the story of Red’s odd attack provoked a lot of discussion about various uncles or friends of families who had similar experiences. Arch had prescribed a mild tranquilizer and told Red to cut down on his workload for a while. Red had neither taken the pills nor cut down on his workload, but he was drinking a little more than he usually did.

Karen and Sharon drifted over to the vicinity of the sofa as Red was finishing his recounting of the day.

“All told it was pretty hideous,” Red said. “The worst part was when that… thing popped to the surface.”

He went on to describe the body in clinical detail. Sharon made a funny little noise and clapped her hand over her mouth.

“Sorry,” Red said looking up at Sharon’s stricken face.

There was an odd moment of electricity as their eyes met. It wasn’t hostility, but that curious chemical attraction which some people have for each other on first sight. Jeff noticed it, too. A slight twinge knifed his ribcage. Jeff had a tough time guarding against jealousy, and he was very perceptive about the ways people felt about each other.

A big part of his insecurity had to do with his first wife. Sharon knew the whole story of how Jeff had married his high school sweetheart Susie Martin while they were both college freshmen. One day soon after graduation, Jeff had come home from his first business trip to New York a day early to surprise Susie. It had been quite a surprise. Susie and Jeff’s best friend Frank Wilson had been in the bathtub together, naked. And Susie had been giving him a blowjob when Jeff walked in with a huge bouquet of roses.

All the rest of that day and all that night Jeff had walked the streets of Santa Barbara where the couple had been living. He never saw Susie or Frank again. When he had gone back to the little house on Chapala Street, they were gone. Jeff never even got a good-bye note. He didn’t date all through grad school, believing at one point that he might convert to Catholicism so he could become a priest. It was a romantic notion that kept him from going over the edge until he finally found a therapist and went through a year of healing talk therapy along with some anti-depressant medication. He hated to say the word Prozac since it had become so trendy and “in” long after he’d dispensed with the need for it. It was something he just didn’t talk about.

He determined not to let anything start up the old feelings of inadequacy and betrayal. Certainly not now and certainly not because of a tubby little elf who looked like he might be flirting. Still, there was something about the little guy…

“What a terrible thing to have happened,” Sharon said. “Where did you say it was?”

“On good ole Lake Budamore.”

Sharon’s stomach took a turn. Even mispronounced like that she recognized the name of the dark blotch on the Rand McNally.

“Lake Butte des Morts?” she asked.

“That’s the way the French would say it,” George said. “Here in Bohunkland, it’s pronounced like one big, dumb word: Bude-a-more.”

“Well, it’s a terrible thing to have happened to you fellas,” Doc said, patting them both on the shoulders. “We’re glad you’re feeling better, Red… well… actually, I guess we’re glad that you’re both feeling better, hey?”

Sharon and George struck up a conversation and moved away toward the fireplace as Red veered out of the room toward the kitchen. Doc and Mrs. Doc buttonholed Jeff, asking insipid questions about life on the West Coast until Karen came along, edged her way in, and led him off to the other end of the room near the munchies with the disclaimer that she’d been waiting all evening to talk to the new guy about movies and his connections in California. Mrs. Doc was mildly offended, but Karen didn’t care for her anyway and really did want to get to know Jeff since it appeared that she was going to pal up with his wife, and since said wife was deep in conversation with George.

Karen was very attractive in a dark, fierce, competitive way. She put most men off their stride with her faint bullishness. Most other women would call Karen handsome, or maybe horsey. Thin and taut, Karen Murphy had eyes that pierced deep inside the person on whom she fixed them. “Commanding” is what Jeff thought of her. Some men might have called it domineering.

“Thanks for getting me off the griddle back there,” said Jeff. “Somebody should have warned me.”

“You don’t look like the kind of guy who needs a lot of warning. Red’s too sensitive for his own good anyway. George needs to let him face the world on his own without being so protective of him. I mean… well…” She stopped and regarded Jeff for a moment. “I’m talking too much,” she smiled.

Jeff’s glance strayed over Karen’s shoulder to the far end of the room where Sharon was laughing at some joke George had just told. Her eyes sparkled in the light.

Karen prodded. “Worried about the little lady, Mr. California cool?”

“Not in the slightest,” he lied. “You worried about George?”

Her eyes shifted briefly. This Californian was more perceptive than she was used to in her male colleagues, most of whom were just blocks of fragile ego, tip-toeing around fearfully in this age of sexual equality. She toasted him with her glass and took another swallow.

“Now that you mention it, I have had my doubts now and then. Don’t we all? It’s part of the fun of a relationships, isn’t it? Sometimes he smothers me with attention, and sometimes he’d rather hang out with his buddy Red and… uh…”

She caught herself giving away too much here. It must be the unusual number of beers that she’d put away. “Now wait a minute. I’m the one who’s doing the asking here. And the truth is you have nothing to worry about with your lady. Old George is true-blue, through and through. And just for the record, I do love him… a lot.”

“One more question?”

“Just one. Then it’s my turn to talk movies, bud.”

“There’s more to this lake incident than got said, isn’t there?”

“Yeah,” she agreed cordially. “There was more to it, all right. Red is into ghosties and goblins and things that go bump in the night. Real freak-out stuff. He claims to see and hear things that, well, we mere mortals don’t hear and see. A ‘Sensitive’ is what he calls himself. And according to my dear old cowboy bunkie, what happened that day on the lake set Redsie off into some kind of fit… so bad that it was he who broke George’s arm. It didn’t happen falling down in the boat like they told the rest of the crowd. Red thinks it’s some kind of supernatural thing. George thinks it’s epilepsy. There. That what you wanna know?”

Jeff was intrigued. Somewhat “sensitive” himself, he had done a couple of scripts for the Tales from the Crypt television show, and another piece about UFO encounters for The X Files. It was his big claim to fame with students. He had never had any real psychic experiences himself, but believed that some people could hear and see things. It was a matter of faith, not scientific proof, he supposed.

“You let on to Red that you’re a true-believer and he’ll drag you all over the county to show you haunted houses and such,” Karen said.

Red lurched up to the two of them, bumping into Karen hard enough to spill her beer on the carpet. Karen swore softly under her breath and gave Red a chilly look. Red grinned back at her and she couldn’t resist cracking a smile.

“I heard that remark, Ms. Murphy,” he slurred. “Damn right I can show ‘im some ghosts if he wants ta see ‘em.”

“Hey, I’m ready,” Jeff said. “Can I bring my camera?”

Red drew himself up to his five feet six inches and tried to act sober. It didn’t work. “Don’t need to take it anywhere, chum. Place you’re livin’ in is full of ‘em.”

Karen looked at Jeff. “Sharon told me you guys bought the old Parker place,” she said. “I’ve never been in there, but I hear the studio’s really nifty.”

Jeff opened his mouth to reply, but Red cut him off.

“Terrible place,” he mumbled. “Terrible. Studio’s where it happened, all right. Over near the back wall. Awful.”

Red spotted George and Sharon in the corner of the room and wandered over to interrupt them.

“What’s he talking about?” Jeff asked Karen.

“Oh, more of his garbage. Mrs. Parker was a painter and they found her one afternoon up in the studio. She was dead.”

“Somebody killed her?”

Karen held up her hand. “No, no. Nothing like that. She just had a heart attack or something. It was thirty or thirty-five years ago, anyway. So the local gossips have made up some horseshit about it. You know, mythic tales from the backyard fence. Red’s just gullible for that kind of crap.”

“You don’t believe in the paranormal, then?”

“Chester, I believe in what I can see and feel. I’m a one-way street when it comes to reality. Too many bad drug trips when I was a kid for me to think that the brain can’t be fooled into anything you want it to be fooled into, know what I mean?”

Jeff thought about Mrs. Parker lying dead under Sharon’s lovely skylight and then about Sharon’s funny reaction to the name of Lake Butte des Morts.

“Uh, Karen, look… let’s not say anything about this to my wife, huh?”

“Bout what?”

“About the dead woman and the ghost stories.”

Karen shifted her weight. Jeff couldn’t avoid noticing the appealing thrust it gave to her hips. She cocked one eye at him. “Keep secrets from the missus, do we?”

Jeff flared in a brief flush of annoyance at her insinuation. There was definite sexual tension between them. At least he felt it. And it was getting uncomfortable. His right jaw clenched and unclenched. Karen didn’t let that pass, either.

“Oh, oh. Touchy subject, eh?” she asked.

Jeff sipped his beer and counted to sit silently. It was a trick he had learned from a science fiction novel about a race of people who learned how to use a hypothalamic pause to maintain perfect control of their emotions. His jaw loosened and he shrugged lightly.

“No… it’s okay. Share has a… well… she’s really down to earth about most things, but, y’know. The move to a new place, just getting married to an idiot like me… well…. I don’t want to bug her with some stiff in the attic. Not just yet, all right?”

“You bet, Chester. It’s cool.”

The conversation passed onto small talk about the weather and what winter would be like. When Jeff and Sharon finally got around to leaving their welcome-to-town party, Red had passed out on the floor in front of the fireplace to the cruel amusement of all present except George, who managed, in spite of attempts at cynical levity, to look responsible somehow. Sharon noticed the little white rings people had left all over Mrs. Doc’s mahogany end tables with their drinks as she and Jeff said their goodnights. She hoped they wouldn’t be permanent. The rings reminded her of the cold sore, which the beer and the conversation had made her forget for the evening. As she said goodnight to George, she hoped especially that he hadn’t noticed it and kind of wished she’d made a joke about it just in case he had.