Paradise Falls: Chapter 4
- Paradise Falls: Prologue
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 1
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 2
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 3
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 4
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 5
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 6
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 7
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 8
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 9
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 10
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 11
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 12
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 13
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 14
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 15
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 16
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 17
- Paradise Falls: Chapter 18 (future)
As the sun rose over the horizon, Lexi turned the wheel of her Focus and repressed a grimace at the terrifying squeal of too-old axles. She pulled up to a guard station big enough for one, stuccoed and painted light coral.
How is it possible this guard shack looks 100 times better than my own home? Lexi wondered as her shoulders slumped.
Sam, hefty and bearded, stuck his head out to eyeball her. When he recognized her car, he grinned and waved Lexi in. He ambled out to lean against her window.
“Hey there, Lexi,” he drawled in a thick southern accent.
Lexi nodded noncommittally.
“You got a guest today, I see?”
Lexi’s stomach fell. She’d hoped no one would notice Simon behind her. “Yeah,” Lexi quavered. “No school today. So…” she trailed off.
“My lips are sealed,” Sam grinned and winked at her.
Lexi nodded a quick thanks and drove forward.
Simon couldn’t stop gawking at all the new things to see. Huge panels of glass stretched far above him. Chandeliers with hundreds of glass pieces reflected light in a thousand patterns. People walked by in swimsuits, towels over a shoulder or arm, talking and laughing, or pulling wagons full of snacks and towels.
His mom grabbed his wrist and hissed, “Come on, hurry up!” She towed him to the stairs and half-dragged him down each step.
Lexi led him down the basement hall under fluorescent lights. Their shoes squeaked on the older linoleum that lined the employee corridor. Anxious fingers punched the code into the employee break room as Lexi glanced left and right.
Once the door shut behind them, her shoulders relaxed. A small television blared local news from its perch on a grimy microwave. Gray, dented lockers lined the wall across from the entrance, and Lexi made a beeline for number 36.
“This hurricane season is shaping up to be a real whopper,” said a man on the TV with wavy black hair and a toothy smile.
“Oh yeah, Ted?” replied a woman with sleek red hair brushing her shoulder as she swiveled to face him.
“You betcha!” replied Ted, with confusing enthusiasm. “We’ll all have to keep our ears to the ground and our TVs tuned in to channel 4 weather. We’ll keep you updated on the latest storm path.”
Simon turned from the screen. The wall opposite the lockers was built with huge blocks. He stepped closer to the wall and noticed a large crack running along the space between blocks at his eye level. He lifted a hand and touched it, feeling the rough edges. Curious, he followed the meandering trail and traced his finger along the wall until he ran into a chair. It crashed to the floor.
“Stop that!” hissed Lexi, shooting a glare over her shoulder. She hurriedly hung up her purse and grabbed her olive green apron, lashing it around her waist as if it had made the noise. She pulled the strings in a haphazard bow and then turned to look in the locker.
Simon watched as his mom stood statue still and stared down and down and down. Finally, she bent and grunted as her thin arms lifted a box from inside. Lexi positioned it on the cleaning cart and then bent down to grab his shoulders.
“Look at me,” she said, even though she knew he wouldn’t. “You have to stay in here. You can’t wander. I’m not supposed to bring you here, do you understand?”
Simon continued to stare at the floor at Lexi’s shoes. She gave him a little shake and said louder, “Do you understand me?” Simon made no move to respond and Lexi stood up and walked to the door, wincing at the loud squeal of the hinges as she opened it. About to step out, she tried for the last time. “Simon. Do. Not. Leave. This. Room.”
Simon peeked at the crack again. It ran all the way across the wall. He followed it back and forth, observing how it disappeared under the door frame. Can I see it on the other side? he wondered. The small boy pushed laced his fingers together and yanked them apart again and again. Finally, his chubby hands reached for the knob and he poked his head out.
Eyes shot both ways. No sign of Mama. Then he craned his neck to get a good look at the wall. He “hmphed” in satisfaction. place with no windows. He stepped forward to feel the crack and saw that it went all the way to the corner, too. He traced his fingers to follow it. How far did it go?
Simon followed the wall until it veered left and he saw the anomaly stopped there. He sighed, almost disappointed. Then he heard a shrill scream nearby. Simon jerked and his heart pounded. What was that?
Lexi stood with her arm outstretched. Her feet felt rooted into the carpet by rigid cement. The number 204 reflected the warm light next to her clenched jaw. With a deep breath, and a quick peek down the hall, she shoved a key card into its slot and pushed her way inside.
She rolled her cart inside and let the heavy door swing shut behind her. Sweat beaded on her forehead, neck, and back. Her hands trembled as she lifted the box from her cart and moved toward the bed. They had done their homework: it slid easily into the space under the bed frame.
As Lexi stood, a thought pierced her consciousness: What the hell are you doing? A sob threatened to burst from her throat. She curled a hand over her throat and observed the room. Several expensive flower arrangements of white lilies and fragrant roses rested on shiny clean surfaces. How many weeks of groceries could she buy with what those flowers cost? And then she saw not one, but two gift baskets overflowing with expensive alcohol and snacks she never saw at her local dollar store.
The sob evaporated and her features sharpened. Screw him, whoever he was.
Simon crept around the corner, following the scream. He heard it again, though this time it sounded further away. The basement hallways stretched from him like long rigid arms; each seemed to beckon him. He kept going. The light looked different ahead.
As he moved along the hall, he came across dozens of doorways. He passed one to his left gaping open. Laughter leaked out, along with a floral smell of soap.
Another scream. Close.
Just as he reached another intersection, a young girl ran past him, screeching. An older boy followed her, hands bent to look like claws, a clownish grimace on his face. He growled, “I’m gonna eat you, little girl!”
The girl shrieked again and ran through an exit. The opening led to a bright outdoor patio. As he walked to it, Simon started to hear more shrieks, laughter, and splashing. He let go of the breath he had been holding. Just kids. Playing. Not monsters.
He walked outside and shielded his eyes from the shimmering sunlight. He edged nearer the pool, staring. He’d never seen a pool so big. Or so clean. Children swam and dove; adults floated and talked. He bet that water was cool as an ice pop…
Simon wiped his forehead, smearing sweat. He kicked off his ragged sandals and stepped down onto a step through the clear surface. He almost groaned with relief. Perfectly crisp, the liquid lapped at his ankles, teasing his hot skin with refreshing strokes.
A red ball hit the rippling facade in from of him, splashing the front of his jean shorts and faded t-shirt. He gasped, then smiled. Even better.
“Sorry!” yelled a boy, wading toward Simon. He reached for the toy and Simon watched him grapple with it for a few seconds before he finally grabbed hold.
“Are you ok?” the kid asked. His straight brown hair was slicked back from going underwater, Simon noticed in awe. He had never gone under, even in the bath.
Simon nodded, focused on his rippling toes.
“D’ya wanna play?”
Simon’s chest jumped in surprise. Play? He wasn’t sure. When he played with kids at school, it usually didn’t go well…
“D’ya wanna?” the boy asked again.
Simon nodded again.
“Cool! C’mon we’re playing catch!”
Simon followed the steps down into the chilly pool, savoring each inch. He’d been hot for months. They had no air conditioning at home. This felt like heaven. He squinted in the direction his playmate was going.
“I’m Matty!” he yelled over his shoulder. “What’s your name?”
Simon’s heart started to beat faster. When he didn’t answer, Matty swiveled, eyebrows raised. “Can’tcha talk?” he asked quizically.
Simon stared down at his feet, waving and distorted.
“That’s weird,” Matty said. “Canya catch?”
Simon nodded once again.
“Well, that’ll work!” Matty tossed the melon-sized ball. “Head’s up, kid!”
Simon leaped up and clutched at the red plastic, but missed: it bounced off his fingers. He fell sideways with a splash, caught his balance, and resumed his pose, standing, eyes downcast.
“No problem, kid!” yelled Matty and swam to the red orb. Once he had retrieved it, he brought it straight to Simon and handed it to him. “How ‘bout you throw it to me this time?”
Simon raised his gaze to his spontaneous playmate. How could some kids do things so easily? He’s looking right at me, he thought, and smiling. How does he do that?
Simon lifted the ball to his chest and pushed it out toward his new friend. Matty reached forward and caught it easily. “Nice one!” he whooped. “Okay, here ya go.” He lobbed the sphere in a slow arc in Simon’s direction, but he fumbled it again, bouncing it out of the pool and into the grass.
“Um,” said Matty awkwardly, “I might take a break okay?”
Simon shook his head no.
Matty stared. “Sorry, but I wanna take a break.”
A loud groan escaped Simon’s lips. Matty frowned, looking to see if anyone had noticed. Simon’s groans got louder. He felt himself losing control. He wanted to play with Matty, but Matty didn’t want to play with him anymore.
Matty’s eyes widened, and he began backing away. This made Simon feel even more panicked. He lifted his hands out of the water and started flapping them up and down, harder and harder, groaning louder. People were starting to look now. Kids looked scared, adults drew them closer.
“Simon!” yelled a shrill voice from behind him. “Simon, get out of there, NOW!!” Simon kept groaning and flapping. He couldn’t have stopped even if he wanted to. He heard his mom yelping in panicked tones to the adults close by.
“…having a fit…please help…pull him out…”
Simon felt tight grips on both armpits pulling him to the edge. They yanked him up and chlorinated water painted the concrete. His movements slowed and his groans quieted. Then he felt his mother’s pinching grasp pull him to his feet. Her long gel nails dug into the soft skin under his arm and he cried out.
“Shut UP!” She hissed. Everyone near them carefully avoided looking their way. Face red with fury and embarrassment, Lexi lugged Simon toward the frigid ground floor.