Ester was old enough to be out alone, walking to a friend's house, running an errand to the store or going to the library to check out a book, especially in a town like Sutter. No one thought it was the most exciting place in the world, but people did appreciate the small town feel. The crime rate certainly didn't warrant people worrying about the kids. Not at least until the darkness. Problem was people think and see what fits their own reality. It takes a lot to shift perceptions and so even now Ester's mother didn't worry about her walking home from her friend's house six blocks away. She did, being a mother, however, caution her to be home before dark.
Ester, on the other hand, didn't worry about the night. She loved the feel of the cooler air caressing her skin and sending shivers down her back. She felt a freedom in the night, her senses keener and her mind clear. Which is why she didn't worry about the movie running later than she expected because they had paused play several times to answer phone messages, popcorn, and laugh at some school gossip.
Now standing at the open front door, she realized that it was getting dark quickly and while she didn't worry about the night she did worry about her mother's sharp words and getting grounded. So she said goodbye quickly and headed out into the evening. She walked quickly but even in doing so she realized that it would be completely dark before she got home. She could hear her mothers nagging voice in her head. That's why when she came to the end of the block, she hesitated. She knew this was where she should turn right and move through the quieter sidewalks of the subdivision, where help was just a house away. But if she headed straight ahead she could veer across the industrial park and shave about 20 minutes off her hike home. She could see the water tower, looming in the sky, the heart of the industrial park, where metal buildings creaked in the night air and waited for the workers to pour in the next morning. She put her head down and darted straight ahead. The decision made she felt lighter because she just might be able to slip into the house unnoticed and avoid a tongue lashing.
The tall dried weeds rustled along the chain link fence surrounding the factories, but it provided no real barrier as the gate stood wide open on rusted hinges. A random light here or there cast shadows along the sides of the metal buildings. She paused for a moment, frowning, occasionally she caught a whiff of a putrid smell drifting on the evening air, dirty dumpsters no doubt filled with decaying food from partially eaten lunches and maybe even chemicals discarded without care for EPA regulations.
She stumbled slightly as she walked along the broken pavement and counted the buildings. She'd turn left after the fourth building. She glanced up at the night sky and could just make out the water tower looming larger as she neared the center of the park. Shivers raced up her spin and she quickened her pace. She could have sworn she hear a twig snap and perhaps even a footstep behind her but when she darted a backwards glance over her shoulder, she saw nothing but empty space. None the less her heart raced, thumping in her chest with each step. She stumbled again and when she did she caught a glance of a hunched figure lurking behind the corner of the nearest building.
She hesitated for a second and then burst into a sprint, using the outline of the water tower to guide her path. She didn't hear anything or anyone is pursuit so she slowed to a jog and cast a glance backwards. Seeing nothing, she slowed, realizing that she was probably running from shadows rather than any real danger. She wiped the back of her hand across her noise trying to block the cloying smell of decay. It seemed overpowering here at the center of the park. She turned left with the water tower as her map.
Her heart slowed as she walked, calm now that her mind had accessed the lack of any real threat. But the mind of a child can not always pick up on dangers that don't belong in this world. How is one to know of the evil that can exist in the darkness. Even adults go about in their self assured manner, acting as if they rule the earth, when in fact they had no idea about the power that slithered about waiting for opportunity. So he lurked there at the edges of her sight. Watching, waiting, hungry. She could smell his decay but he could smell the sweet essence of her soul. So light, and young and pure.
He delighted in his sense that she enjoyed the dark night. She felt so at ease here other than her brief sprint of fright. It made them feel connected somehow and so he waited rather than rushing forth as his hunger urged. He enjoyed her as one might enjoy the aroma of a fine wine. In the end, the waiting would cost him but he didn't know that now as he lurked there, gleaming yellow eyes focused only on his prey.
She stopped for a minute to tie her shoe and as she bent down, she glanced to her right. She gasped as her eyes locked with his and she realized that her safety was more fragile than she realized. She quickly tied her shoe, pretending not to notice him, but her muscles were suddenly rigid and there in the cocoon of darkness, he realized that she saw him. He never even managed a step forward before she was off, at a dead run toward the water tower. It didn't take her long to realize that she'd never make it home, so she decided instead to climb, hedging her bets that his long gangly arms could not climb the tower as she could. She grabbed the first rusty ring of the tower's ladder and pulled herself upward, her fear of heights forgotten as she dangled there, wanting only to get away from this creature. She knew, as only a child might, that he was not human and therefore she had no choice but to escape. There would be no mercy from the beast, as there might be from a human adversary.
She grimaced as the rust bit into her tender hands, her feet slipped as she struggled to ignore the pain and climb, climbing higher and faster than she ever had before. She could still smell him, felt him behind her in the darkness on the ladder, but as she had predicted, he struggled to climb even more than she. He snarled behind her, but lower much lower, he was not in reach of her. She hazarded a look below but in the swirling blackness of the night, she could not make out his shape on the ladder. She paused for mere seconds to catch her breath and then started the climb again, broken metal scratching at her palms.
She was high now, far up on the tower and her head swirled with the thought. In the distance, she could see the sparkling lights of houses, dotting the horizon calling her to safety but outside her reach. So she climbed into the ever darkening sky. Her tiny heart beat faster, thudding inside her chest and with open mouth she gasped for air, choking on the stench of him. It frightened her as the breeze carried his smell and she feared he was closer than she realized.
She breathed in as deeply as she could, coughing out the stench and grabbed the next rung. It was then she realized it. The tower would become a dead end. She giggled crazily at the thought...dead end. When she could climb no further into the night sky, what then? Even though he was slower and clumsier than she, at some point he would catch up, trapping her in a perch on top of the water tower, with no escape and little room to fight, even had she the weapons to do so. Perhaps she was just exhausted or perhaps the thought of what awaited her at the top made her dizzy but when she grabbed for the next rung, her hand, ripped by some jagged steel, let loose and she dangled there in the air by one hand. It was then she felt his hot breath on her ankle and he reached out a gnarled hand to grasp at her. She simply let go. She let her other small hand loose and felt herself falling though the calm night air. Falling, almost drifting toward the earth, and she smiled because behind her he roared in frustration.
He snarled and howled at her trickery. He swung from rung to rung, quickly, hoping to descend faster, desiring her soul more than he had ever desired anything in all his years, and that was mighty because he had always existed. It had felt like a romance there in the dark night, his pursuit of her like that of a lover. He ached from wanting her.
Reaching the ground he lurched forward but he quickly realized that she was gone. The small body, broken, crumpled in a heap, no longer contained the seed of her being. It was useless to him, pounding the ground in frustration he rubbed his face with a rough hand and cursed this place of light, even in the darkness he knew the light would come again, then hungry he would slink away and hide in a hole in the ground or a musty water pipe. He felt rage surge through him, like a tidal wave, sweeping his body over and over again until he was reduced to shudders. Reduced to nothing by a wisp of a child, he kicked her as he rose to his feet and trotted off into the black night.
At 325 Smith Road, Ester's mom, paced as she looked at her cell phone. The minutes were ticking by and she was furious at her daughter. She had made it a point to repeat her directions about being home before dark, right as Ester scooted out the door. She had fretted as the day turned to dusk but wasn't particularly worried but now as she glanced out the window into the deep darkness of the night, her anger formed a bubble of dread inside her chest. Her daughter frequently lost track of time, arriving home ten to twenty minutes late more often than not, but tonight was different. Two hours? No that wasn't Ester. She had tried calling Vanessa's to ask but the phone had went directly to voice mail. Suddenly the phone vibrated in her hand and her heart lifted, perhaps they were calling to explain the delay.
The call had only alarmed her more. Ester had left the Struckoff house over two hours ago. She started to phone the police but opted instead to look for her first. As the drove through the streets, she ignored the warm lights in the windows of each house, imagining the families clustered inside, safe, only made her heart freeze more. After driving every route that Ester might have taken home, Connie, turned the car onto East Main and pulled into a spot directly in front of the police station. As she was getting out of the car, she noticed Kane standing next to the building, looking at his cell phone. She must have looked at him for a little too long because suddenly he raised his head and their eyes connected.
"Connie, how are you?" Kane asked as he stepped toward her, sensing perhaps that she was struggling.
"Kane, I'm probably being foolish but Ester...."
He frowned and took her arm, "Are you alright?"
"No, no, I'm not..." tears rolled down her face and her voice was just a whisper.
Kane encircled her with his arm and lead her up the steps, into the station, and to his desk. He hurried to get her a cup of tea. Upon his return she had calmed, but her face was white and bleak. He felt a knot forming in his stomach, Ezra and Emma flashed before his eye and he pulled his chair closer to hers and started asking some questions.
At just that exact same moment, as Connie was tearing the words from deep within her, anguished and hysterical, another slinked away from the industrial park, he too anguished but with anger, it rose off of him in waves. He had wanted to tear into the flesh of the girl, consumed with his frustration and hate of this hot bright world. Yet he knew it would do him no good, even eating the flesh would have done little to sate his appetite, for he craved the delicacy of her soul, and that had slipped away fluttering off in joy, before he had reached the hard ground beneath the tower. He had clumsily thrust the black bead into her tiny mouth, her tongue sliding easily to the side in death, but it was far to late to capture even a morsel of her being. He almost thought he could hear her, laughing at him in the clear night sky above.
His stomach gnawed at his insides. In the other world, the dark world it had been different. They had ravished and suckled, tore into the lesser creatures of the dark, sometimes toying with them, letting them believe they might yet escape. They had ruled in the darkness, not as powerful as the ones before The Sealing but more savage perhaps. Here in this world there was no one to marvel at his power, no one to acknowledge his strength, no one to fear him except those in their final moments, moments in which he seldom paused to relish the sizzling fear, so ravenous was he that he gulped and fed without hesitation. Thinking about it caused the anger to bubble forth from him and he snarled and growled at the night sky.
He was more, so much more than this world allowed, and he wondered not for the first time about seeking the tree that had birthed him, returning to the womb of the earth. It had been many years now, more than he could count had he cared to count, which he didn't because time meant nothing to him. He knew there were others here in this place, others from the darkness, some had followed to seek their glory by killing him, and others stayed because they sensed the stronger power that bloomed inside them here in this world where the old ways were not forbidden. He let the idea float through him, he could almost feeling the dark world calling, the seed of his creation, seeking his return. He sniffed the night air, longing, but in the end he crawled into a pipe stacked with dozens of others, waiting for the next project.
The Next Day
The police looked all night but with such a small core of officers they simply couldn't cover a large enough area. The sun was now high in the morning sky and frustration was sitting in. Kane knew that Connie waited, waited with others in her small house, waited for word, and his chest tightened because with every passing hour he feared what that word might be.
He walked along West Oak for the third time this morning, letting his eyes search the crackled sidewalk, stones from the crumbly concrete scattered along the path, subtle reminders of the disrepair that dotted the town. He drew a deep breath, throwing his head, expanding his chest, shaking his head trying to clear his mind. Directly in front of his line of sight, his eyes came to rest on the water tower. Surely she wouldn't have cut through the industrial park, empty and ominous at night. He paused for a moment to consider it, dread bubbled up inside him, and something else, something that slithered along his spine and tingled across his skin. His radio chirped, detaching it, he called his men to the industrial park.
They searched the park by twos, block by block, and so it was Ben Samson who was with him when they approached the water tower. Both men could see the tall, dried weeds, blowing in the breeze, scarping the rusted legs of the tower, that jutted from the ground like some giant creature, old but useful, huddled on the landscape for so many years that no one gave it a second glance. Together without a word, they walked toward the tower, a bubble of dread forming in their stomachs. As they were almost there, close enough to reach out a hand and touch a mammoth rusted leg, Kane saw her. He reached out a hand, touching Ben's shoulder, but it wasn't necessary as mere seconds after Kane's eyes caught sight of the tiny fragile body, Ben saw her too. He wanted to rush forward but Kane's hand stayed him.
Kane could tell by the twisted position of her neck and the bluish color of her tiny arms that rushing would bring no help to her lifeless body. His voice was husky as he spoke, "We go slow, looking for tracks or anything of interest. We don't know what this is yet. Best to not mess it up."
So they two of them spread out and approached the body from different angles, scanning the ground as they took the smallest of steps, crazy small steps for two big towering men. When they reached her they looked into her lifeless face, noting the wide eyes gazing upward to the heavens of which she now belonged. Neither man cried, not then in the sunlight of a day that had suddenly turned bleak with despair, but later they would, in the quiet loneliness of a bedroom, alone with hearts that ached at the evil reality of the world they lived in. They stood there for a time before Kane reached for his radio and called to the coroner.
Later as Kane walked up to the front porch of Connie's house, ignoring the railings in need of painting, eyes noting the bike at the right side of the house, resting against the corner with a flat tire, he wondered if she had been riding it might she have escaped. He knew by now Connie must already know, word travels fast in a small town whether its the right thing or not, it happens. He wasn't here for notification, she knew, he was here to answer her questions as best he could, to assure her that justice would be served, and to console her, impossible as that was.
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