Later, Jeff realized that the events of early August were inevitable, but it always seemed to him that what happened on the day before the Fourth of July was somehow the beginning of the end.
The day was clear and bright and warm enough that it was obvious that by the afternoon it would be too hot to do much of anything.
Around 11:30, Jeff and Riley went outside to play catch. Stuart was still in bed, having taken to writing even later than normal since his children had arrived. They were allowed to stay up late, hanging out with dad until midnight or later, watching movies, playing cards and games, or kicking the older men's asses on the Wii. However, once they went to bed, Stuart made sure to get his time in on Tomb, and he told Jeff that although the editing part of his work was falling behind, he had managed to keep at a fairly steady rate of productivity. “These chapters will just be rougher,” he'd said the night before, when the kids were tucked in and Jeff was heading downstairs to sleep.
The work on Jeff's own book had largely stalled as he had been playing babysitter, but he found that Danny's Dime filled much of his spare thoughts, in the shower, on the toilet, lying in bed, and he was ready to write several more chapters in one long tear as soon as the kids were gone. The feeling made him antsy, as if he were waiting for Christmas, and he remembered the way that Stuart had spoken about his own urge to get cracking when he had first arrived.
Playing catch had been Jeff's idea. He felt bad that the kids had to kill time during the day when they could be out and about, just because their dad was sleeping. The day before they'd gone out to lunch while Stuart slept, coming home to find the man ready to spend the afternoon with his kids.
Today, Riley had been planted in front of his laptop, while Vanessa was watching a movie. She seemed to have an endless stream of films where outcast teen or preteen girls found out they were lost princesses of various tiny European kingdoms. Were the girls not clearly different actresses, Jeff would have sworn they were all the same film.
So Jeff had found some old baseball equipment in a cupboard, probably left over from the author's first summer here with his college friend by the looks of it, and they had gone outside.
Jeff had made sure to mow the lawn before the children's arrival, so the yard behind the house was soft and clear for running and fielding. They started out gentle, getting a feel for each other and warming up their muscles. The sun was still behind the trees, but it was warm enough that they were beginning to sweat as they grew more confident.
Soon the ball was popping into the pockets of the gloves with a slap, and Riley and Jeff began to challenge each other, throwing towering fly balls, rudely hopping grounders and lightning line drives.
Jeff had not worked so hard and been so satisfied since co-ed flag football in college, when they would all return to the dorms, pumped up on adrenaline and caked in mud.
As soon as the throw left Riley's hand, Jeff knew he didn't stand a chance of retrieving it. He turned and ran, trying to gain some distance, envisioning himself making a miraculous diving catch anyway, but he quickly saw that the blackberry bushes would make that impossible, or at least very uncomfortable.
“Fuck,” Jeff said to himself, facing the brambles.
“Shit!” he heard Riley call from behind him, “Sorry!”
“S'okay,” Jeff heard himself yell, even though it really fucking wasn't.
Riley quickly puffed up beside him and they both stared at the twisted green obstacle for a while.
“Maybe it's in the clearing,” Riley said hopefully.
“Here,” Riley said, and stepped back from the bushes. He lowered himself to his hands and knees and pressed his face close to the recently mowed grass.
Jeff followed suit and he saw that the kid was right, through the initial bushes he could see a large, dead patch of yellowed shrub and thorn.
“There used to be a trail,” Riley said, standing up and dusting off his palms.
Riley was wearing shorts and he was barefoot, having shed his flip flops as soon as they had started running for the ball. Jeff knew that his shoes and jeans made him the defacto explorer for this miserable expedition.
Riley walked along the blackberries until he came to a gap that could have been imaginary.
“It used to be a real trail,” he reassured Jeff, “It's not too bad when you get in there. At least, it didn't used to be. Just a sec,” he said, and ran back to the house. A moment later he appeared around the far corner, dragging a two-by-four. Jeff was grateful.
They flopped the board into the bushes and stomped it down, using their mitts to take the brunt of the vines that sprung back. Sure enough, once the initial bushes were cleared, there was an obvious trail that lead a few feet in and then curved back toward the clearing.
Jeff walked along the board and when he stepped cautiously off the far end into a deep bed of mulch, he felt like he were a world away. The trees above and the bushes around him acted as insulation, quieting the world to nothing but the faint hum of insects. The temperature was much cooler and he immediately pictured himself as a jungle explorer, machete at the ready, listening for some giant creature stalking him.
“Okay?” Riley asked, ruining the illusion.
“Sure,” Jeff said, beginning to walk along the narrow path. He still had to reach out with the mitt and hold vines away as he walked along, his shoulders were too wide, and it occurred to him that if this were an animal trail, he'd be better off crawling, or being four feet tall. But there were too many thorns around for him to be tempted to proceed on hands and knees, and he could already see the yellowed opening of the clearing.
“Got it!” Jeff said, seeing the ball almost immediately, the white sticking out against the gray and brown of dead blackberry roots. He stepped into the clearing, hearing the dead foliage crunch loudly beneath his feet and reached for the ball. He snagged himself on a dead thorn, hissing as it drew sharply across his skin, tearing without penetrating. He hurled the ball over the bushes into the yard.
“Okay?” he called.
“Yeah!” Riley called back, his voice already fainter.
Jeff was ready to leave when he saw it. From one angle it simply looked like a tangle of dead vines, but now that he'd moved into the clearing, it looked familiar. He'd seen something like it before. In the yard.
He approached in tentatively, reaching out with his glove as if expecting to be hurt or stung. He squinted, leaning forward bit by bit until he could touch it with his covered hand. He flicked his wrist, stabbing at a clutch of the dead vines. They fell to one side and left an opening like a wound, and beneath it was just what Jeff had expected. Or perhaps feared.
It was maybe a little taller than the one in the yard, and it was much less weathered, being sheltered by the trees and bushes. The writing on it was clearer, but they were still apparently just runes or symbols, nothing he could make out. He wanted to draw away, but part of him was fascinated. Just what the hell were these things?
He reached out his bare hand then, not even realizing what he was doing, and pressed a fingertip against the stone. It was cool, almost cold, certainly much cooler than the surrounding air. Almost immediately there was a sound, at the edge of hearing, a humming? It was like electronic feedback or white noise, practically beyond perception. Jeff's eyes began to water and his vision began to swim.
“Yo!” called Riley, from just the other side of the bushes. “What's up?”
“Sorry,” Jeff called, all himself again, “Be right there.”
And he was right there, stumbling off of the board into the open, embracing the warmer air and the louder environment.
“You stop to take a shit or something?” Riley asked.
“No, I was just looking...” Jeff pointed at the post in the yard, which was clear, and now that he saw it again, much sorter and worn than the one in the bushes, “There's another one of those things back there.”
“Oh, yeah. There's a couple of them down at the beach, too.”
The kid nodded.
“Oh, most of the time they're under the water. You can only see them when the tide is way, way out.”
“What are they?”
“No one knows. They're hella old though.”
“No one knows?”
“I guess someone must. But if they're way old you'd think someone would dig them up and put them in a museum or something, so I guess they don't matter.”
Why the fuck would you want to dig them up? Jeff wondered to himself. When he did speak, he said, “But your dad...”
“What about him?”
Jeff had been about to say, 'But your dad said there was only one of them,' but that wasn't true. Jeff had asked about them and the man had been dismissive. He had never said there was only one. Hell, maybe he didn't know about the rest of them. Jeff shook his head. “What do you think they are?”
“Dunno. Dad always told us they were old grave markers or some shit, but that's the kind of thing you'd figure he'd say, you know?”
Riley held up the ball and they played for a bit longer until Stuart emerged onto the deck with a squealing Vanessa under one arm and announced that they were going into the city for hamburgers at Dick's, a local drive-in institution.
Jeff's mind was far away as he played with Riley and as he drove the family into Seattle. He felt like Stuart had lied to him, again, or still, or something, but he couldn't quite pin it down. Stuart had said he didn't know what the post in the yard was, had been dismissive, but there were more of them. Several more, apparently. And it wasn't like it had to mean something, not really, but it seemed like it should. It seemed like it had to mean something.
Later, Jeff thought of the discovery of the second post as the beginning of the end. It was also when his dreams grew worse. Much worse. And he began to remember them.