Dim to Black

Reading Time: 8 minutes

A young girl with strawberry blonde hair clutches a stuffed bunny rabbit as she follows the trail of matted grass and snapped twigs. Ahead of her a man drags something heavy, wrapped in a blanket, deeper into the woods.

He sings, “I’d like to lay my weary bones tonight, on a bed of California stars…”

He stops, wipes sweat from his brow. She ducks behind a tree, holds her breath, then peeks her head out to watch. He digs, his shovel tossing dirt, until it clangs on metal. He rolls the stuffed blanket into a hole with his boots. It lands with a squishy thud.

The clouds part, the gibbous moon illuminates the man as he turns from the grave towards her.

***

Sixteen years later

The Allegheny River winds and churns it way through the thick Venango County forest. A few cars meander on a two-lane road hugging the river. It’s peaceful, beautiful, remote.

A hatchback passes Haller’s General store, then struggles up a steep dirt road, spewing pebbles into the tall grass and pine trees. The driver, Zoe Cardinal, relaxes her grip on the wheel when she reaches a flat stretch, alternating between open fields and dark woods. She drives by the dilapidated church that gave this road its name, then spots the wood sign nailed to a tree that announces Cardinal Cabin. She slows nearly to a stop before turning into a narrow rutted track. Dappled sunlight breaks through the trees stretching overhead, highlighting her strawberry blonde hair.

After a mile, the rough driveway ends in a small clearing. She parks next to a well-worn, one-story cabin clad in aluminium siding. She pops the hatchback, grabs a stack of oil paintings, heads inside. She returns to the car, retrieves more paintings.

***

Frank, a gaunt man with hollow eyes, sits on a tidy bunk in a prison cell sketching on a yellowing piece of paper. He appraises his work for a few moments before slipping it into a small bag. He wiggles a beaten harmonica out his pocket and plays a tune.

A heavy-set guard appears, nods to the Frank. The door slides open. Frank gathers his meagre belongings and follows the guard down a long hallway. They reach a small room with a metal table. Another guard, a woman, hands Frank a large brown envelope. Frank dumps the contents on the table. Amongst a few crumpled dollar bills is a cheap wristwatch.

He turns it over, looks at an engraving on the back. F, Counting the seconds til we’re together. Love, L

A mixture of grief, and anger, and something darker cloud Frank’s face.

“You got someone pickin’ you up?” the woman asks.

Franks nods, “My brother, Mike, driving down from Erie.”

“He straps the watch on, signs a form, slides it back to her.

Outside Smithfield Prison, Frank shields his eyes against the blazing sun. He spots a weathered man leaning against a battered pick-up truck. Frank heads toward him, slows to a stop as he nears. The brothers appraise each other, then Mike breaks the stalemate, engulfs Frank in a hug, and tries not to cry.

As they separate, the sketch Frank tucked into his bag slips out, drifts to the ground. Mike reaches down to pick it up.

“Don’t,” Frank says, lunging for the paper, but Mike’s already straightening up, looking at the portrait of a young woman.

It’s the spitting image of Zoe.

***

As Zoe brushes a swirl of dark blue on the canvas, a faint shiver runs up her spine. She pauses mid stroke, catching the glassy eyes of 12-point point buck anchored to the wall opposite her.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Zoe begins, nodding to the canvas on the easel, where a gibbous moon hangs in a midnight sky. Then she waves to the fourteen oil paintings nailed to the wall below the buck, each one identical to the next: a midnight sky, a gibbous moon, the cabin in a small clearing, surrounded by thick forest. “But-“

The landline phone rings, startling her. She laughs at her jumpiness, picks up the receiver.

“Hello,” she says.

“Zoe?”

“Hey Erica.”

“I thought you’d be getting ready for the Exhibition…”

Zoe opens her mouth to reply, but gets distracted by a photo on the wall next to the phone. It shows Zoe and Erica, when they were kids, and their parents, shortly before their mother disappeared. Their father looms behind the mother, his hands on either side of her neck, nestling under her strawberry blonde hair. Her smile, forced and frozen, like the buck’s.

“You still there?” Erica asks.

“Mmmhmm.”

“Are you okay?”

“It’ll be fifteen years,” Zoe says, tracing a finger over her mother.

“You shouldn’t be on your own, not tonight, and not there.”

“The answers are here.”

“That cabin,” Erica begins, starts again. “You’ve got to put it behind you, Zoe. It’s not healthy, to obsess-“

“You think I want to paint it and nothing else? Something shook free, a few months ago. Like a key wiggling in a lock, twisting a quarter-turn, but it won’t turn any further,” Zoe says, gazing at the replicated paintings on the wall. “Something happened here, something I can’t quite remember…,” Zoe trails off.

“Where’s Dad?”

“Oil City. With his buddies.”

A long pause before Erica says, “Frank Gale got out today.”

“Didn’t he have another 5 years?”

“His lawyer got him off. Said they never found Mom’s body, and the evidence was circumstantial,” Erica says. “I’ve tried calling Dad’s cell.”

“Reception sucks out here.”

“If he’s drinking, maybe wait until tomorrow to tell him about Frank. You sleeping okay?”

“No,” Zoe says, placing her palm over her mother in the photo, feeling her pulse through time.

***

Country music plays from tinny speakers in Mike’s pick-up truck. Frank taps his fingers in time with the tune as the scenery flashes past.

Mike clears his throat, says, “Ginny an’ the kids is lookin’ forward to seein’ you.”

“How they doing?”

“Good, yeah. Mike Junior is tall as me, tho that ain’t sayin’ much.”

Frank nods. Through the windshield, a sign shows Tionesta, 10 miles.

“Tionesta’s the next exit-,” Frank says.

“Promised I’d take you straight home.”

“I was just thinking. We could stop at Haller’s. Like old times.”

“I dunno…”

“C’mon Mikey, Uncle Frank can’t show up empty-handed. Just a quick detour.”

Mike considers his brother’s gaunt face, nods reluctantly.

A few miles down the road they reach Haller’s general store. Mike turns into the rocky parking lot, pulls into a spot near the entrance, the bumper kissing the ‘live bait’ sign.

On the wooden deck leading to the store, Frank stops at a glass animal enclosure, peers inside. The rattle of snake greets him. The tongue flicks out, hitting Frank’s reflection between the eyes.

Inside, the shop is packed with shelves of fishing gear, sunglasses, and bug spray, watched over by the heads of dead-eyed moose and deer hanging from the wood-panelled walls. Kids line up for the hand-dipped ice cream. Mike admires a fishing rod.

“I’m gonna hit the john,” Frank says. “Meet you at the sparklers.”

Mike nods absentmindedly, looking at lures.

Frank locks the bathroom door, lifts the screen off the window, and wiggles out into the parking lot. He beelines for the pick-up truck, rifles through the glove box, flicking through papers and maps until he finds what he’s searching for, a hunting knife. He pockets it and runs into the woods behind the store.

***

Zoe stands before a canvas lit up by the purple glow of the setting sun. She squirts a blob of ink-black paint on a palette. She stares at it, closes her eyes, willing herself to remember.

After a minute, her breathing quickens, her fingers turn white from gripping the paint brush. Her eyes fly open with a start. She dips the brush in the black tint and paints with ferocious determination. 

***

Frank pants as he runs uphill through a thick forest, his boots crunching through the undergrowth. He pauses, orients himself, then sprints up a steep incline, using the branches to pull himself forward. He reaches a rutted, single-track dirt road.

***

Zoe’s painting shows the cabin, but it’s no longer the focus. Deeper into the woods behind it, she’s illustrated a cross-section of the forest, revealing the trees and their roots. Nestled near a large oak tree, is a partially-buried oil tank. Silvers of something white float on the iridescent oil.

Zoe stands back, examines the painting, like she’s seeing it for the first time. She takes a steadying breath, rummages through a drawer, grabs a flashlight, and heads outside.

Frank pauses as he nears the cabin. He follows the beam of a flashlight dancing across the clearing and edges toward it.

Zoe opens a utility shed, shining the light around till she finds what she’s looking for, a shovel. She picks it up, turns to face the doorway. Frank blocks the exit.

Zoe catches her breath when she sees him. He examines her closely.

“You look just like her,” Franks croaks. 

She grips the handle of the shovel.

He raises his hands, says, “I didn’t know you’d be here.”

Zoe notices his watch. “Mom picked that out, then we went to the key cutter.”

Franks nods. He unstraps the watch, holds it out. Zoe steps toward his outstretched hand, wary. She snatches it quickly, steps back, and shines a light on the engraving.

“I was a, a friend, of your Mom’s,” Frank says.

Zoe tosses the watch back, he catches it one-handed.

“You kill her?” she asks.

Frank shakes his head, swallows. He tries to speak, fails. He wipes a tear from his eye with the back of his hand.

“No.”

“What are you doing here?”

Frank sighs. “Looking for answers. About that night. What happened to Lillian.”

Zoe surveys him, tilts her head, like she’s comparing Frank to a memory, seeing if he fits the empty space.

“If that’s really what you want, grab a shovel.”

“A shovel? Is Archie, is your Dad around? I-“

She charges past him. Frank hesitates, then he picks up a shovel and follows Zoe into the darkness.

An owl hoots as they walk along an overgrown trail in the woods. The clouds part, the moon lights the path. Zoe stops, looks around, recognises the oak tree from her painting, and heads toward it. Before she reaches it, she notices a patch of ground, slightly mounded. The plants around it are yellow, shrivelled. Like life tried to grow, but was poisoned.

Zoe begins digging. She motions for Frank to join. They dig in silence.

***

The man from the family photo, Zoe’s father, Archie, drives a Jeep, takes a long drink from a can of beer, emptying it. He tosses it in the backseat where it joins its siblings. He cracks another open.

***

The hole is three feet long, a foot deep.

Frank pauses, wipes his brow. “You gonna say what we’re diggin’ for?”

“Answers.” Zoe says.

Frank digs again. His shovel strikes something hard. He drags the blade along the earth, revealing the curve of a metal tank. Black oil oozes to the surface. Zoe and Frank dig faster, exposing more of the damaged tank. They can see inside it now. Something rises to the surface: a curved expanse of bone, a skull, and a strand of strawberry blonde hair.

Frank falls to his knees, reaches for the strand of hair. It disintegrates in his hands.

“Lillian,” he half cries, half whispers.

Zoe pales, drops the shovel, and stumbles into the woods.

***

Archie parks the Jeep next to Zoe’s hatchback. He gets out, stretches. His snakeskin boots crunch along the gravel as he walks toward the cabin. His eyes narrow to slits as he examines Zoe’s painting. He jogs back to the Jeep, retrieves a rifle, and heads into to the woods.

Zoe leans against a tree trunk, crying quietly.

“I’d give my life to lay my head tonight, on a bed of California stars,” Archie’s singing drifts through the still night.

Zoe recognises the voice, the same one she heard the night her mother went missing. She bites her hand to keep from screaming. Finally, she calms herself, marshals her courage and starts back toward the grave.

Archie stands over a still-kneeling Frank, rifle aimed between his eyes. 

“She was gonna leave you. Is that why?” Frank asks.

“Where’s Zoe?” Archie counters.

Frank shrugs.

Archie growls, “Lillian was a lying whore. May she rest in peace.” He spits on the grave. “I paid the judge a pretty penny to put you away. And now you can join her.”

Frank glares defiantly as he slips the knife from the sheath. Archie smiles, his finger starts to pull the trigger.

A scream, releasing a decade of rage, pierces the air, accompanied by a hollow THUNK.

Archie topples face first into the grave. Zoe holds the shovel, shaking, breathing hard.

Frank gets up, unsteady, opens his mouth to talk but Zoe waves him off.

“Go,” she says.

He hesitates.

“Go!”

He shuffles back down the trail.

Zoe gazes grimly down at the grave. Archie twitches.

SCRAPE, THUD. The sound of a shovel tossing earth into a hole.

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    Aviator краш игра онлайн предлагает увлекательную и захватывающую игровую атмосферу, где вы становитесь настоящим авиатором и сражаетесь с самыми опасными искусственными интеллектами.
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    Aviator Pin Up (Авиатор Пин Ап ) – игра на деньги онлайн Казахстан
    Aviator игра предлагает увлекательное и захватывающее разнообразие врагов и уровней, которые не оставят равнодушными даже самых требовательных геймеров.
    Враги в Aviator краш игре онлайн представлены в самых разных формах и размерах. Здесь вы встретите группы из маленьких и быстрых врагов, а также огромных боссов с мощным вооружением. Разнообразие врагов позволяет игрокам использовать разные тактики и стратегии для победы.
    Кроме того, Aviator игра предлагает разнообразие уровней сложности. Выберите легкий уровень, чтобы насладиться игровым процессом, или вызовите себе настоящий вызов, выбрав экспертный уровень. Независимо от выбранного уровня сложности, вы получите максимум удовольствия от игры и окунетесь в захватывающий мир авиаторов.
    Играйте в Aviator и наслаждайтесь разнообразием врагов и уровней, которые позволят вам почувствовать себя настоящим авиатором.

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