Short Story — “The Gatherers”

Clearly one of the themes in The Eye-Dancers is learning to cope with mystery, with things beyond the scope of our understanding.  Marc Kuslanski, in particular, feels the need to explain every irregularity, every new experience that lies beyond the purview of his knowledge.  How he ultimately learns to deal with this is his great dilemma (and opportunity for growth) in the novel.

The protagonist in “The Gatherers,” a short story I wrote shortly before beginning The Eye-Dancers, is faced with just such a dilemma when he spots a small group of people linking hands, standing in a circle.  On the surface, this does not seem particularly odd or out of the ordinary.  But there is more to the story . . .

I hope you enjoy “The Gatherers.”

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“The Gatherers”

Copyright 2014 by Michael S. Fedison

**************

Christopher Burriss was frustrated.

He’d wanted to take a right-hand turn, head to the drug store, and buy the strongest over-the-counter pain medicine he could find. But he hadn’t. Instead, he had driven straight through the light, cursing and slamming his fist into the dashboard.

It wasn’t that the intersection had caught him by surprise, or came up more quickly than he anticipated. He just could not seem to make the turn. It was as if a force, an invisible presence, had locked the steering wheel in place.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said to the dust bunnies floating inside the car. He just wanted something to take. To dull the pain.

Yes. The pain. The flaring, mounting pain that had overtaken him without warning. He’d been driving . . . where? He couldn’t remember. Had he been shopping? Running an errand? Going to work? When, suddenly, his head began to throb, then to pound, as if someone had lobbed a grenade inside his skull and pulled the pin. And his side. His entire left side ached. A knifing, jabbing pain, spreading from his rib cage, up to his armpit and down to his hip.

He thought of turning around—the intersection, and the drug store, were still close behind. A driveway came up on the left, and he slowed down, signaled. Trailing him, a white Subaru, too close for comfort, waited for him to complete his turn.

But he couldn’t do it. The steering wheel wouldn’t budge. Was it stuck? Making sure that his foot was planted securely on the break pedal, he exerted more force, but still the wheel would not move. The car behind him honked its horn.

“Shut up!” he yelled back. “I’m trying! You think I’m doing this for fun?”

He pulled as hard as he could. Nothing. The driver behind him continued to beep, and now others joined in. A line of traffic was forming in his rearview mirror.

“Great. Just beautiful.” He pressed hard on the gas pedal, and sped forward. The Subaru followed, still closer than he liked.

The pressure in his head was unrelenting, and his side was a lit fuse. He didn’t think he could drive much longer. It was difficult just to stay in control of the vehicle, to keep it within the lines. He felt himself swerving into the wrong lane, toward oncoming traffic. The car behind him honked again, perhaps thinking he was drunk or falling asleep. He wished he were drunk. Anything to numb the pain.

He drove for miles. He wasn’t sure how he managed to, but he did, even as his condition became more serious. Houses, buildings, trees flew by him like mirages. He had no concept of time, of how long he’d been traveling. All he knew was that something else seemed to be in control. He had tried several times to pull over, onto the shoulder of the road, to let the traffic pass him. But he couldn’t. Maybe the wheel was stuck. Maybe it couldn’t be turned. But that was impossible. He had rounded a few curves, it had swiveled effortlessly then. It—

“Mom, Mom, why? . . .”

“Sssshh, honey. Be quiet. We just have to hope for the best. That’s all we can do.”

“But, Mom. Why? Why won’t . . . ?”

The voices weren’t clear. But he recognized them. How could he not? Sharon, and Mollie. Why was he hearing them? They weren’t here. Sharon was at work, wasn’t she? And Mollie. Mollie would be in school. She had just started the second grade. She was excited, eager to get back to her school friends, looking forward to new adventures, new vistas.

Another sheet of pain flared and exploded along his nerve endings. Had someone taken a razor blade and sliced open his left side? He actually looked down, checking for blood, sure that he would see the beige fabric of the seat stained with red. But there was nothing. No hint of a wound, no evidence of an attack.

He felt the car swerve again, and he righted his course just in the nick of time. An 18-wheeler whined past, in the other lane, honking an accusatory horn at him.

“What is this?” he said. “What’s happening to me?” He needed to get control of himself, right now. If he kept this up, he would be a candidate for a soft-cushioned room with calming pastorals hanging from the walls.

An intersection was coming up. He didn’t know which one, but it didn’t matter. He was determined to turn off of this road. He’d had enough of it.

But when he saw the street sign, he reconsidered. Blakely Avenue. Unless he had a good reason otherwise, he avoided Blakely. It was a nightmare—a congested mess, a snarl of traffic jams, of hot metal, bumper-to-bumper, broiling in the midday sun, matched by the hot tempers of the motorists. Every week, there was an accident. Better to wait until the next intersection, and turn off there.

For some reason, though, he merged into the left-hand turn lane, and flicked on his signaler.

“No!” he said. “I’m going straight.” He tried to turn the signaler off, but it was stuck. He fought with the wheel, trying to force it to the right. It wouldn’t budge. It didn’t matter anyway. The lane next to him had filled with cars. He was trapped. He had to take the left turn now.

“This is unreal.”

The left-hand turn arrow flashed green, and he turned onto Blakely, merging into the extreme outside lane, past a gas station with a sign by the road boasting of fresh sub sandwiches and soft drinks inside. He swore under his breath. This was unreal. Ahead of him, through the maze of cars, he could see a long line of fast-food restaurants, car dealerships, and chain stores. And, coming up on the right, the mall. The largest mall in the city. He hated it, and yet . . .

A hammer blow to his head sent him reeling. He desperately needed some painkillers. The mall would have a drug store inside.

He inched along, crawling with the traffic, before stopping at a red light. The mall’s entrance was just ahead now. He signaled for a right-hand turn, and, intuitively, knew that the steering wheel would oblige this time. A chill ran through him, as if someone had just poured five gallons of ice water into a gaping wound. Now the water rushed through him, mixing with his blood, freezing him to the core. There was something about this spot. Something familiar. Something . . .

“Something what?” he said. There were two cars ahead of him. As luck would have it, the car in front was going straight, blocking his chance for a right-on-red.

Anxious, fidgety, having a hard time just sitting there, not being able to make sense of anything, he glanced toward a strip of grass that lay just beyond the sidewalk, in front of the mall parking lot, and spotted a small gathering of people—about a dozen of them. (Where had they come from? Had they been there a minute ago?) They were all looking down, hands joined. Solemn. That was the word. They were solemn. And they were . . . He blinked. Again. And again. That confirmed it. They weren’t all there. It sounded crazy, but that was the only way he could describe it. He was sure he could see the sun rays hitting them, traveling through them, as if they were composed more of air than of flesh-and-blood organic matter.

He felt inexplicably drawn to them, almost as if they exerted a force, compelling him to join them. But he didn’t want to. The idea of it was intolerable. He wasn’t sure why, but he was determined to resist. He would just go into the mall, buy his pills, then get out.

The light finally turned, and he drove past the people who were there, yet not there, and pulled into the mall parking lot. His head was getting worse, if that were possible, and the pain in his side was unrelenting.

He struggled out of the car, the world losing its focus as he stood up. He grabbed his side, doubled over, coughed. He was in even worse shape than he’d thought. If he wasn’t careful, he’d pass out right here, on the asphalt. He had to pull himself together, buy those painkillers. He needed to focus only on that one goal.

But the people gathered near the lot entrance made that impossible. He glanced back in their direction, his view of them only slightly obstructed by a row of shrubs flanking the perimeter of the parking lot. He could see their bowed heads above the shrubbery, the specter-like quality of their skin. Again, he felt a powerful urge to go to them.

“No,” he said. “I can’t. I won’t.”

He closed his eyes, turned away from them, and then dared to open his eyes again.

“Don’t look back,” he said. “Just get those pills. You’re all right. You’re okay.”

But he wasn’t okay, and the mere act of walking was a struggle. He concentrated, willed his feet to move, one step, two, three. Left foot in front of the right, right in front of the left. He tried not to look too far ahead. He didn’t want to be discouraged by the distance he still had to cover. So he focused on the ground directly in front of him. A single step was an accomplishment, navigating a foot of pavement a victory.

Finally, he pushed his way through the doors of the mall. It was crowded in here, but at least the drug store was close—the second store on the left. He dodged a band of teenagers who seemed oblivious to anyone but themselves, and staggered into the drug store, heading straight to the nonprescription painkiller aisle. He wanted to find the most potent product on the shelf, but it was not possible to be discriminating. His head felt like it would blow up in a minute; his side was a minefield of live ammunition. He grabbed the first package he saw with the words “extra strength” written on it.

He leaned against the shelf, dizzy now, on top of everything else. The store was spinning, spinning. Another bomb burst exploded in his head, and a thousand nails poked and prodded his left side. He was aware of noises, sounds. Where were they coming from? Beeps. A soft, whirring hum, like a faint heartbeat. An antiseptic smell. And then voices . . .

“Christopher . . . can you hear me?” Sharon. Why was he hearing Sharon?

“Dad, Dad . . .”

“Mollie,” he said, closing his eyes. “Mollie, but you’re in school. Aren’t you?”

More voices, blurring, blending, like a musical score gone out of control.

“Faster! Hurry! Move!” A strange voice, this one. It sounded like a young man. “You gotta go faster! Hurry!”

“Good morning, Mr. Burriss.” A woman’s voice, one he had never heard before. Or maybe he had. He couldn’t tell. “Sunny today. About time, too. After all this rain.” And then he heard her footsteps, walking away, growing fainter, then coming closer, louder again. He felt her—how could he feel her? Fingers brushing against his forehead, slightly moist, the smell of soap . . .

“Dad!” Mollie again.

And then Sharon, “Christopher, honey . . .”

And the frantic screaming of the young guy. “Move it! Hurry, hurry!”

“Shut up!” he yelled. He rammed the palm of his hand against his head, once, twice, three times. “Just . . . shut . . . up.”

He tried to walk, the store still doing cartwheels in front of his eyes. He groped, like a blind man, using the shelves as support. Glancing at the checkout counter, he saw a ponytailed blonde in a blue smock ringing up a heavyset man. Two old women stood in line behind him.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I can’t. I don’t have the strength.”

He wasn’t a crook, but there was no way he could wait for the cashier to check out those customers. He’d collapse right there in the line. He needed the pills now. He needed relief now. Pocketing the bottle of painkillers, he left, as quickly as he could.

Stumbling out into the mall, he found a nearby drinking fountain, and swallowed half a dozen of the pills. There. Hopefully that would take the edge off. But what could he do about his throat? Why was it getting so hard to breathe? And his eyesight. Why was everything spinning? Why were his surroundings growing hazier? The passersby were now two-dimensional, black-and-white. The color itself was being drained from the world.

“Need to get out of here,” he said. “I just need to get home.”

“Dad . . .” Mollie again, but her voice fainter now, farther away. “Dad . . .”

He wanted to follow that voice, go to it, but how could he do that? It was a hallucination. Wasn’t it?

It seemed to take hours to reach his car. He could barely see now. Shapes were merging together, blurring—so much so that the spinning had stopped, or perhaps it hadn’t. He couldn’t tell. He couldn’t be sure of anything anymore. Except that his side and head continued to torment him. The painkillers hadn’t helped at all. If anything, the pain was getting worse.

He looked straight ahead, through the mounting haze. Beyond the shrubs. the small gathering of people still stood there, heads bowed. And again, the force—he didn’t know what else to call it—urging him, prodding him to join them.

He shook his head, put his hands over his eyes. No. It was the only word he could think of. No. No. No. He wouldn’t succumb to their mesmerizing hold on him.

But then he was looking at them again. (How did that happen? He hadn’t remembered taking his hands away from his eyes.) Only, he wasn’t just looking. He was staring, riveted. Something was different about them now. They no longer looked like wraiths. They had fleshed out, like sketched characters who had received a finishing touch of paint. As the rest of the world dissolved, the gatherers became more solid.

“Dad . . . dad . . .dad . . .”

“Chris . . .Chris?”

The voices, fading . . .

As if tugged by a magnet, he walked toward the group. He could no longer resist their pull, had no strength left to fight it. There was a sense of inevitability now, of things coming to an end. Or perhaps a beginning. Somewhere overhead, he thought he heard a gull sqwauk, but maybe it had been a crow or a jay, or nothing at all.

As he neared the patch of grass where the gatherers stood, hands still joined, the pain in his head and side escalated to an intolerable crescendo. It no longer felt like knives cutting into him. Now it felt like metal, jagged teeth, rusty but sharp, gripping, biting, eviscerating. And his head. Was it even still there, attached to his shoulders? Or had it burst into pieces like shrapnel?

He fell to his knees, gasping—so hard to breathe. And finally the people let go of their hands, broke the circle, and approached him. He was aware, yet not aware, of the traffic noise in the road. It sounded like the hum from some other world, some gap in a dimensional barrier. But then another sound emerged, near, close, and horribly loud.

Tires screeching. Get out of the way! Too late, too late . . .

Impact. The feeling of being torn, broken, trapped in a heap of wrecked metal. Pain, flaring, shooting through his body. His head on fire. His side a shattered mess. And his last thought before the blackness came . . . Mollie. Sharon. What will they do?

The people were upon him, the only figures left that were real. And he understood now why this spot felt so familiar. Why he had experienced a chill of recognition when he’d reached the parking lot entrance . . .

“Hello, Chris,” a bald man with a gray mustache and a long, beak-like nose, said.

“How do you know my name?” he asked. And he realized, as he stood up, that the pain was gone now. Not lessened, not dulled. Gone. And his breathing had returned to normal, an easy, gentle rhythm. He had never felt better.

“We just do,” the man said. Apparently he was the group’s leader.

“What’s happened to me?” he wanted to know. The sound of the traffic was now completely muted. He could still see the cars, the road, the mall behind him in the distance, but they were outlines now, light pencil marks blending in with the empty white space of the blank page.

A middle-aged woman with short black hair and a pleasant smile said, “You know now, don’t you, Chris?”

He again remembered the screeching tires, the never-ending second before impact. He had been pulling out of the mall—he’d come here to meet an old friend who wanted to meet for lunch at the Food Court, a long-lost buddy, out of the blue. The other car never even attempted to stop, never slowed down. . . . He had been preoccupied, thinking about the visit with his friend, the way life sometimes threw curveballs at you, reintroduced you to people you knew once, and then almost forgot. He hadn’t looked left or right, he just went when the light had turned green.

“But the voices. The . . .” Then he stopped himself. It all came clear. Sharon. How he wished he could kiss her again, hold her, just one more time. And Mollie. Sweet, pretty Mollie . . .

“You fought hard, Chris,” the old man said. “Very hard. You almost made it, against the odds.”

“Who are you people?” he said.

“As you are all too well aware, Blakely Avenue is a busy road,” the old man said. “It’s taken its share.”

“You mean . . .?”

“I was killed in sixty-six, the year after they put the first shopping plaza in,” the old man said. “Hit right near where you were. Drunk driver got me.”

“I was blindsided about a quarter mile down the road,” a young guy, who looked no more than twenty, said. “Never even saw it coming.”

“I was hit by a truck,” the middle-aged woman with short black hair said. “My car was wrecked beyond recognition.”

On and on they went, a dozen accounts in all. And now, he would join them. When the next time came, perhaps next week, or next year, or three years hence, he would relate his story, along with theirs.

“We’ve got to stick together, you know,” the old man said. “Wouldn’t be right otherwise.”

“But Sharon. And Mollie. Will I . . .?”

The man nodded, smiled. “Yes. Of course. In due season.” He extended a hand. Chris, reassured, took it. Then the black-haired woman reached for his other hand.

They formed into a line, all thirteen of them, and, with hands clasped, walked away into the distance.

****************

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

36 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bonnie Marshall
    Jun 06, 2014 @ 18:44:00

    Compelling, Mike.

    Reply

  2. renxkyoko
    Jun 06, 2014 @ 18:45:46

    Ah, I knew it. That’s sad, though.

    Reply

  3. jjspina
    Jun 06, 2014 @ 19:38:40

    Mesmerizing, Mike! Loved it! It kept me riveted. I just knew something bad was going to happen. Great post and story! When are you going to put all your short stories into one book? They are all so wonderful! I would read them again and again!

    Reply

  4. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel
    Jun 06, 2014 @ 20:41:35

    Wow and whew. That was darn exciting, Mike!

    Reply

  5. evelyneholingue
    Jun 06, 2014 @ 21:44:45

    Excellent suspense built with twists and turns. Until the very last paragraph I wasn’t 100% of the ending. You’re very good at physical descriptions to show your protagonist’s feelings.
    Chilling story. We all have a Blakely Avenue in our neighborhood.
    Thank you for your generosity when you decided to share this story with us.

    Reply

  6. jenniferkmarsh
    Jun 07, 2014 @ 10:22:42

    Aaaahhh, I thought so. Very interesting way to go about it. Very sad too, though. Great writing as always, Mike.

    Reply

  7. Lyn
    Jun 07, 2014 @ 12:04:34

    That had me holding my breath, waiting to see what was going to happen. Very sad, though, I would have preferred a happy ending. Still, at least he isn’t in pain any more. You really know how to draw the drama out Mike 🙂 Well done!

    Reply

  8. araneus1
    Jun 07, 2014 @ 12:21:34

    magic, my compliments.
    Terry

    Reply

  9. teagan geneviene
    Jun 07, 2014 @ 17:12:12

    Brilliant as always, Mike.

    Reply

  10. 2embracethelight
    Jun 08, 2014 @ 01:14:46

    Loved it!
    Yisraela

    Reply

  11. merrildsmith
    Jun 08, 2014 @ 15:52:13

    Wow! Great story–I just had to find out what happened!

    Reply

  12. laurie27wsmith
    Jun 10, 2014 @ 04:41:54

    Another gripping story Mike, perhaps an anthology in offing?

    Reply

  13. Gallivanta
    Jun 11, 2014 @ 06:06:14

    Oh that’s rather eerie, especially with Friday 13th coming up. Glad you didn’t post it then! I would have been too scared to read to the end.

    Reply

  14. Sherri
    Jun 11, 2014 @ 14:45:46

    Chilling story Mike..had me gripped…

    Reply

  15. BarbaraK aka fiddlbarb
    Jun 12, 2014 @ 18:18:49

    So very talented!

    Reply

  16. Trackback: In Search of Versatility | insearchofitall
  17. Barbara
    Jun 19, 2014 @ 16:22:20

    Whoa, what a ride! I could just feel Christopher’s head pain, and then the ending…so sad, but loved the fact that the ghosts of the others were there to help him. Wonderful story!

    Reply

  18. shehannemoore
    Jul 03, 2014 @ 18:24:25

    Great story, wonderfully written. And yes, while the actual premise may not be new, your voice certainly hooked and held and the ending was terrific.

    Reply

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