The Hole — Chapter 11
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Shortly before the sun came up, Elliot found a promising exit and took it, now driving roughly north, parallel to the barrier. Evajean woke some time later and they stopped long enough to eat a quick breakfast of apples and cold oatmeal. Hope devoured a few strips of jerky. The water jugs they’d gathered and filled in Nahom still had plenty left for another week of travel.
Near where they pulled off sat a service station with attached convenience store. Elliot broke the glass door, went inside, and came out with more snack foods and a road atlas. He also found several cans of dog food for Hope and a cheap can opener.
They traced their journey on the map and found a highway only another thirty miles north that would take them back to I-70 — provided the wall of light let them through.
As they drove, the barrier could occasionally be seen, off in the distance to their left, but it was mostly lost in the glare of the cool light from the September sun.
“What do we do if we can’t find a way around?” Evajean asked.
“We will. That thing can’t go on forever.”
“Yeah,” she said, “it can. We’ll have to go back. Give up on finding out anything.” She took a small bite from her apple.
Elliot said, “If that happens, we’ll figure it out. If we can’t get to Utah, we’ll go somewhere else. There have to be other places that’re safe.”
He remembered Evajean standing tall in Nahom, the golden box held high over her head, and a field of energy forcing the crazies back. He shook his head. “But let’s worry about that when we get to it.”
“Yeah,” Evajean said. “I wish I knew what we’ve gotten ourselves into.”
“I don’t think we got ourselves into anything. Something got us.”
Then Evajean screamed. “Elliot! Look out!” She was staring out her window and, as Elliot jerked the wheel, startled, he saw two more of the tubular beats with the enormous faces, charging across the empty field to the east.
“Goddamn,” he said, and pushed his foot down on the gas. The truck coughed and lurched forward. The creatures closed the distance quickly until they were on the road behind Elliot and Evajean.
These were smaller than the first two, only a few feet taller than the truck, and slower, but they had no trouble keeping pace.
We need to find some place to hide, Elliot thought. overpass trick isn’t going to work again.
“There!” Evajean shouted. Coming up was an exit leading to a small truck stop town and, beyond, a modest church made of stone. They could hide in there.
Elliot thought of Nahom’s temple. But those creatures weren’t the crazies, just animals. They wouldn’t be able to open the doors and were too big to come in through the windows. Inside, he and Evajean could wait them out.
He took the exit, the creatures twenty yards behind. The truck bounced through the curve, rocking as Elliot brought it straight again. The church was close.
“We’re going to have to run,” he said. “Be ready.”
Elliot braced himself, and hit the brakes hard. The truck shuddered to a stop just in front of the church’s wooden doors.
“Go!” he shouted, jumping out. Evajean followed, clutching Hope to her chest. They ran, crossing the dozen feet to the entrance.
It was locked.
The creatures had stopped at the truck, sniffing the contents in the back, their flat faces pressed into the barrels and boxes. Elliot could see them inhaling, ridges sliding along the surface of their bodies. He turned to Evajean.
“Around back. There has to be another way in.”
There was. A side entrance with white paint peeling around the door’s tiny window and unbelievably, it stood open a few inches. Elliot leaned his head to the crack, but Evajean pushed it open and ran past him, struggling with Hope in her arms. Elliot followed.
They were in storage room, dark but for a bit of light coming through a window against the back wall. Elliot turned and pulled the door shut, twisting the deadbolt into place. The room felt solid and safe.
“I think this’ll be okay,” he said to Evajean. She leaned against a shelf of gardening supplies and set Hope down. The dog yipped and sniffed around her feet.
“You think they’ll leave?” she said. “I mean, how long do you think it’ll take?”
Elliot shrugged. “They’re animals,” he said.
“Yeah,” Evajean said. “Guess we’ll just have to see.” She pushed away from the shelf. “We should look around, if we’re going to be here a while.”
“Sure,” Elliot said. He was thinking about the truck, about all their food and supplies, and how much trouble they would be in if the creatures destroyed all of it or somehow disabled the vehicle.
Another door was set into the opposite wall, leading into a hallway or the main part of the church. Evajean opened it and peered out. She yanked her head back and looked at him. “There’s light,” she said. “Candles, I think.”
“Who’s there?” The voice was strong but muffled by the barely open door. Evajean jumped back. Hope scampered to the door and nudged it with his nose until he could fit. He ran through and disappeared.
“Who…” the voice said again, then gasped. “A dog? Is that… How did you get in here, puppy?” They could hear Hope’s excited barking.
“I think it’s okay,” Elliot whispered to Evajean and she nodded. “I’m going out,” he said.
He pulled the door open, letting more of the candle light into the room, and stepped through. Evajean was close behind. The short hallway opened into the main room of the church. Several dozen candles were set up along the rows of pews, with more clustered on the small altar at the front. Near the altar, bent down and scratching Hope behind the ears, was a fat man in jeans and a green t-shirt. His sweaty face reflected the orange light of the candles.
Hope turned to look at Elliot and Evajean. The man stood up quickly, his eyes wide. “I don’t have anything,” he said, holding up his hands.
“It’s okay,” Evajean said, taking a step closer.
The man backed up. “I don’t have anything and, besides, this is a church. You can’t go and hurt someone in a church.”
“We’re not going to hurt you,” Elliot said.
“We’re only hiding,” Evajean said. “Just until those things outside go away.”
“What things?” the man said, his hands still up. Then he moaned. “Oh, god, are there more of them? Are they back?”
Elliot nodded. “Those big creatures, the ones with the flat faces, if that’s what you mean…yeah, they’re back. They chased us in here. We don’t want to hurt you and we don’t want to take anything. We have a truck outside and are just going to wait in here until it’s safe to go out and get to it, get outside and drive away.”
The man slowly lowered his arms while Elliot was talking and now he sat down against the altar, reaching out again for Hope. “This your dog?” he said.
“Hope,” Evajean said. “That’s Hope.”
“She looks like a good dog,” the man said.
“He is,” Evajean said. “A very good dog.” She walked half the distance toward the man and, when he didn’t react, covered the remainder. She sat down across from him, scratching one side of Hope’s head while he scratched the other. “It’s okay with you, then? If we stay here?”
“Oh, sure,” the man said. “Sorry about that. I don’t mean to be all riled up, but it’s just that it’s been a while since I… God, it’s been a while since I saw anyone.”
“Us too,” Evajean said, and Elliot was glad she didn’t mention Nahom or the crazies. There would be time for that later, but now he just wanted to know who this man was and whether, like the people of Nahom, he was more sinister than he seemed.
“I’m Elliot Bishop,” Elliot said, walking over and holding out his hand.
The man stood up and took it, his grip tentative at first, then firm. “Melvin Werner,” he said. He turned to Evajean.
“Evajean Rhodes,” she said, and the two of them shook hands as well.
“Evajean,” Melvin said. “And Elliot, and Hope. Like I said, you all are the first people I’ve seen in what has to be a couple months at least.”
“You’ve been here all that time?” Elliot asked.
“Mostly. My car broke down not far from here and this is where I just ended up. Got a grocery store with plenty of food a quarter mile up the road, but I’ve been here the rest of the time. I’m a church man, you know? Feels best when I’m in a place like this.”
“Those things outside,” Evajean said, “the creatures, have you seen them a lot? Or many of them?”
Melvin swallowed. “I have. Rather more than I’d like to, in fact. That’s another reason I’ve been staying here instead of the store. I like the stone between me and them. But if you just wait, give them time, they’ll leave. Didn’t catch how many there were did you?”
“Now? Just two,” Elliot said. Evajean had picked up Hope and was looking around the interior of the church.
“See, the thing I’ve noticed,” Melvin said, “is they stick around longer the more of them there are. Just one and you can bet it’ll get bored of sniffing at the walls and head off somewhere in a few hours. Two tends to be half a day at least. One time, there were four of the things and I was in here three days before they left. Got low on food and water, too.”
“So it’ll be half a day for this pair?”
“That’s been my experience,” Melvin said. He took a step back to address both Elliot and Evajean. “Now, you all hungry? Can I get you something to eat? And I truly am sorry about the way I behaved before. Wasn’t welcoming of me at all. Like I said, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen anybody and it was rather a shock to have you two suddenly standing right there.”
The three of them ate, Melvin supplying bottled water, canned peaches, baked beans, and Hostess cakes. He heated the beans over a camping stove set up on the altar and boiled water to make coffee.
The church was tiny, only big enough for perhaps eighty people to fit comfortably on the pews, and Melvin had placed nearly half that many candles throughout. They failed to fill the place with light, but they gave enough illumination so that the shadows didn’t feel threatening. The stained glass kept out the majority of the sun.
Outside, Elliot could still hear the creatures milling about. Occasionally, one would wander by a window, causing it to shudder, and, once, the double doors thudded but held steady. Melvin was right: the church felt solid and safe.
Melvin had left them to get coffee from the storage room. Evajean stood in front of the altar, looking at the tapestries above it.
Elliot let out a long breath. He didn’t trust Melvin, not yet, not after everything they had been through since leaving Virginia, but he felt his guard slipping. It disappeared entirely after Melvin came back, Folgers in hand, and the rich smell of brewing coffee drifted through the old church.
The doors thumped again. Melvin looked up. “Oh, it’s safe. They’ll bang away for fifteen minutes then get tired of it. I wonder if it hurts them, kicking it or ramming it or whatever it is they do out there? Anyway, the doors have held up nicely every other time, no reason to think they’ll give out now.” He poured coffee from the pot into three cups and pointed at two cardboard containers of sugar and creamer. “Sorry there’s no real milk,” he said.
“No, this looks wonderful,” Evajean said.
Elliot poured sugar into his coffee, grabbed a Twinkie, and pulled open the packaging. He took a sip of the coffee, which was wonderful, and took a bite of his cake. It made him feel like he was home again, like this all hadn’t really happened and it was Sunday morning, early and relaxed. He sat down and finished the food and drink to the sounds of the creatures milling around outside.
An hour later, the creatures were still there, though their banging at the doors and walls of the church had become less constant and enthusiastic. Evajean had fallen asleep on a pew, Hope curled next to her. Melvin sat, reading a book. Elliot tried to nap, but couldn’t and so he paced. He looked over the contents of the church, but didn’t really find much and didn’t really care to. He only wanted to use up some of his nervous energy. Eventually, Evajean got up and fed Hope the leftover baked beans. She smiled at Elliot and he smiled back. He didn’t know how long they would have to wait here, but the waiting wasn’t bad. It was the first time he had felt reasonably secure and content for quite some time.
He and Evajean leaned against the altar, chatting about the good and the bad times before the plague, when Melvin returned from one of his trips to the church office and walked over to them.
He started to say something, stopped, looked around nervously, and then tried again. “Do you have it?” he asked. “I know you do because I saw it. In the dream. I saw this moment, the two of you standing there and that dog… Can I see it?” Melvin trembled eagerly, hugging himself.
Elliot looked at Evajean. Her eyes had gone tight, her lips pressed into a line. She held Hope to her chest, and the dog growled low in its throat. The calm of a moment ago evaporated.
He turned back to Melvin. “See what?”
“The box. The book. The one you have with you. I know you have it. The dreams, over and over again, they have been telling me that you have it and that I need to see it. I just have to.”
“Do you know what it is?” Elliot asked. Evajean still had the box in her coat pocket, but he wasn’t going to tell Melvin that, not yet.
“It’s a message. A powerful message for the two of you, but only I can tell you how to read it. Don’t you see? This all was planned. All of it.” He glanced back and forth rapidly between them, his eyes watery. “I can tell you how to read it,” he said again.
“Then do it,” Evajean said. Elliot turned to see her taking the golden box out of her pocket. She held it out to Melvin. Elliot wanted to stop her, to keep her from giving the box away to this strange man. But he couldn’t, because what choice did they have? It was useless to them unless Evajean could make it glow again. But she couldn’t or wouldn’t remember how she did that, leaving the box was just a container full of pages of gibberish. If this guy could translate, why not let him?
“Ahh.” Melvin’s hands shook as he reached for the box. Melvin pulled it close to his face, running his fingers along the surface. He backed up and sat down in the first row. “This…It’s exactly like in the dreams. I knew it would be, of course, but to actually see it… I can’t believe you came.”
“What is it?” Evajean asked.
“I believe it’s your guide,” he said. “Can you show me how to open it?”
Evajean did and Melvin flipped the pages with wonder. “I can read this,” he said. “Just like the dreams told me I could, I can read it.”
“What language is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then how can you read it?” Elliot said.
“I don’t know. But I can. It’s the craziest thing, but I can.” He peered closely at one of the pages, scanning over the lines of text. “It says, ‘A summary.’ No, that’s not right. It says, ‘A proclamation.’ That’s it. I can read it,” he said again, looking up and grinning. “The dreams taught me this language…so I can read it to you.”
Evajean and Elliot walked over and sat down on either side of him, leaning in to look at the pages. Melvin studied the book a moment more, whispering under his breath, and then leaned back. “The One Mighty and Strong,” he said. “That’s who this is about. It’s a message regarding the One Mighty and Strong.”
They looked at each other. gibberish, Elliot thought. useless information that did nothing to sort out their situation. And so he laughed.
“You think I’m joking?” Melvin said. He held the book close to his face again and read. “It will come. It will come at the start of the age of ascension, when the Mad King Moroni spreads his arms across the world and the ancients return to the land. It will come, the Ones Mighty and Strong, and it will banish the darkness and end the Mad King’s reign.”
“That’s bullshit,” Elliot said.
“Let him finish,” Evajean said.
Melvin read. “With the world benighted by Moroni’s madness — ”
“That’s the name!” Evajean said and Melvin stopped, looking up at her. “What the crazies said in the warehouse. Moroni. That’s what they told us, Elliot.”
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“You think I do?” Melvin said. He set the book down. “Look, okay? I’m a goddamn plumber. And then, years ago, I’m at a bar. I’m watching a football game. I go out to grab a smoke at halftime and there’s this guy, just a normal looking guy. But he tells me things. Says bad stuff’s going to happen, that the world will be a very different place soon. He says there’s a war coming. I think maybe he’s talking about the terrorists, that he’s one of those lunatics who march around with signs and thinks the President’s a Muslim. But I haven’t finished my cigarette, so it’s not like I’m going anywhere. I stand there and listen. He says there’s been these folks who’ve known about this war for a very long time and that they’re preparing for it. He tells me I have a role to play.”
“Why didn’t you say something when we first got here?” Evajean said.
“Because,” Melvin said, “I didn’t know it was you for sure. I hoped it wouldn’t be you at all, because if it was, that’d mean that guy was right. With just the dreams, I thought maybe I was losing my mind. But this, if it’s all real, is much worse.” He flipped the book’s pages. “The guy told me what I needed to do would become clear, but that it’d be about helping some people do something important. The dreams eventually told me the rest.” He stared at Elliot. “It’s my job to make sure you two understand the message in this book. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I ended up in this church. That’s why I didn’t get sick. But I wasn’t safe. No. They tried to stop me.”
“Who?” Evajean said. “The crazies?”
“They weren’t crazy,” Melvin said. He shifted in his seat. “At least I don’t think they were. Just men. With guns. Six or seven of them broke into my house. I was sleeping, but it was so hot I had the window open. I was able to climb out and hide. I looked in and saw them. Huge men with rifles. They were looking for me, but eventually they left. That’s when I ran away, and I just kept running until I was here. This was the church in the dreams, so I knew you would come eventually.” He held out his hands, encompassing the full sweep of the small church. “The men never did find me,” he said. “And now you’re here.”
“Why us?” Evajean said.
“You’re supposed to play a part,” Melvin said. “Something to do with the One Mighty and Strong.”
“What else does the book say?” Elliot asked.
Melvin Werner continued reading.
The book spoke of a war that had been brewing for countless generations, one between the being known as Moroni and some other, unnamed party. Moroni was set to return and, in fact, should have already returned by the time of the One Mighty and Strong’s coming, a being that could, with the help of “outcasts,” banish Moroni. All of that was too vague for Elliot to make much sense of, but the book’s concluding pages were of immediate interest. The Mighty and Strong would be found (or lived, or resided — Melvin wasn’t sure) in a “city by the dead lake.” But two of the outcasts, a man and a woman, needed to first go to “place of many artifacts” to recover some item or items that would reveal the whole truth and allow them to defeat Moroni.
“It’s Salt Lake City,” Elliot said. “It must be.” He stared at Evajean. She stared back. Salt Lake City was already their destination because that’s where Henry had told her to go. Which confirmed, of course, that Henry played some role in all of this.
Evajean didn’t mention it. Instead, she asked, “What’s the ‘place of many artifacts’? A museum?”
“It could be,” Elliot said. “A museum. Or maybe a university.”
“You have your mission,” Melvin said. He was smiling. “And all with my help. One of the outcasts, that’s most definitely me.”
“But that thing is in the way,” Evajean said. “That barrier.”
“What barrier?” Melvin asked. But before either of them could answer, he clapped his hands together. “I know!” he said.
“The dreams?” Elliot said.
Melvin nodded. He went into the storage room and came out with a folded and worn paper map. “You know how I said I’d seen this all before? It’s not all I saw. There was another thing, a dream of a house, a big one. I woke up — this was a day before those men broke into my house — I woke up and ran to my car, got this out, and circled it.” He held up the map. A location was marked in bright red ink. “It’s not far from here,” he said. “If you hadn’t shown up, that’s where I would’ve eventually gone, just to see.”
Melvin turned his attention back to the book. Elliot and Evajean looked at each other. Elliot thought, can I trust this guy? Then, why am I trusting this guy? Because, he realized, he was trusting Melvin. What Melvin said sounded right. Deep down Elliot thought it all somehow made sense, like Melvin was only repeating what Elliot already knew.
And he also knew, in that same pre-cognitive way, that Melvin wouldn’t be coming with them.
Elliot walked over and looked out one of the church’s windows. “I think they’re gone,” he said.
Melvin set down the book. “The creatures, yes,” he said. “I haven’t heard them in a while, you’re right.”
“We should get out of here,” Evajean said.
Both men agreed. Melvin set about gathering his belongings and the supplies he had stockpiled, stuffing all of it into a large duffel bag. Evajean tracked down Hope, who had run off to explore while they’d read the golden book.
When everything was collected, they stood at the front doors of the church. These were closer to the truck than the side entrance, making their escape slightly safer if the creatures were still outside.
Elliot put his hand on the heavy latch. “Okay,” he said. “On three. Be careful and be ready to run if you see anything.” He swung the doors open, the hinges sticking and cracking.
The truck sat only a dozen yards away, the passenger side toward them and all the doors unlocked. It was quiet outside the church, the creatures nowhere in sight. Elliot took a step out, then another, Evajean and Melvin close behind.
They had covered half the distance when the creatures came back.
One must have been hiding behind the truck, its body flattened impossibly thin, because it now rose up, huge mouth opening and contracting with the sound of lips smacking. Melvin screamed, falling away from it, but Evajean reached out and grabbed him, pulling him toward the truck. The creature vanished again, sinking low, and then rolled, popping up from behind the cab and rearing.
From around the corner of the church, the second creature appeared, calling out to its companion in a deep moan. Melvin dropped his duffel bag, turning to look at it. Evajean shouted at him to keep moving. Elliot ran the rest of the way to the truck and opened the passenger side door. He grabbed the rifle as soon as he was inside, turned around in the seat and fired out of the open door. The first shot went wide, but the second bullet clipped the creature by side of the church, hitting it in the soft grey flesh of its belly. It screamed horribly and rolled on the ground, away from the building.
The one near the truck reared to its full height, leaned over the cab, and lowered its head until it was only feet from Elliot. Elliot glanced over his shoulder and saw Evajean trying to pull Melvin up while he scrambled for the bag, grasping for the straps but missing. The creature Elliot had shot writhed in the dirt, its head high, several sets of legs kicking in the air.
The one above him pulled back, its muscles tensing beneath its skin, like a snake ready to strike. Elliot awkwardly swung the rifle around and up, aiming at the half open mouth. The first shot missed. He fired again and the creature jumped back, lifting its face to the sky. Elliot didn’t know if he had hit it or scared it. But he used the moment to spin and fire again at the one by the church. He either missed or the beast failed to react.
Melvin and Evajean were running to the truck, Melvin clutching his duffel. Elliot scooted into the driver’s seat, leaving the passenger door hanging open.
They had almost made it, Evajean’s hands reaching out to find purchase on the door’s rim, when the creature closest to the truck recovered. It moved faster than Elliot imagined it capable, slickly coming around the front of vehicle. It lashed forward, bypassing Evajean and going directly for Melvin.
The man screamed and held his arms up as the mouth stretched into a fantastic maw and closed over him. Melvin’s legs hung miserably, the creature’s lips smacking around them.
Evajean spun and started back to help, but Elliot grabbed her, pulling her inside. She fell backward across the seat just as the creature lifted its head away from Melvin. His body stopped midway up his chest, arms and head gone. From the waist up was only a saliva slick knob of muscle and bone, organs slipping and flopping to the ground. He collapsed, surrounded by a growing puddle of bile, blood, and the monster’s spit. Evajean coughed and retched, but managed to recover enough to yank the truck’s door closed just after Hope jumped inside.
Elliot started the engine. The creature not occupied with Melvin’s remains twisted at the sound to look in their direction. It hissed and started forward, slower than before, cautious of the gun. Elliot slammed down the gas, Evajean shouting at him to “go, go!” and he raced away.
The monster devouring Melvin looked up, following the vehicle’s progress. It quickly lost interest and returned to its prize. The other snaked its head in and made a grab for what remained of Melvin’s legs. The two fought and Elliot kept his foot down, accelerating the truck away from the horror.
“Jesus,” Evajean said. “Did you see that? I can’t believe I saw that.” She looked out the window while she spoke, rocking gently. Somehow, through outright luck, Evajean had Melvin’s map with her. She silently handed it to Elliot shortly after they were back on the highway and the threat of the creatures was, at least momentarily, gone. He drove in the direction indicated on the map, hoping that it meant a way through the barrier.
“That was the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” Elliot said.
Evajean nodded. She was crying.
Elliot felt driven. The words in the book, the story Melvin had translated, resonated with him, pulling him forward like an addiction. The quest laid out was right and everything he had been able to think since their escape only made him more sure. It was like discovering you could paint and becoming immediately convinced that the only course of action left was to put brush to canvas and abandon all else. it’s true, he thought, that book is right and that we’re supposed to find or help the One Mighty and Strong, then I have a purpose in all this.
“We have to keep going,” Evajean said. “We can’t stop — we know what we have to do now.”
Elliot looked at her, startled by the repetition of his own thoughts. ’s true. All of it. “We won’t,” he said. “We’ll follow the map and hope it can get us to Salt Lake City. And then we’ll find the museum, or whatever place it is we’re supposed to find, and… I guess we’ll take it from there.”
“We don’t have a choice,” she said. “But, you know what, Elliot? I don’t think I want a choice. I mean, even if I had one, if I could maybe just walk away from all this, turn around and go back to Charlottesville, I wouldn’t. I have to see this through.”
“Yeah,” Elliot said. “Me, too.”
“It didn’t say anything about Hope,” she said. “The book, it didn’t say anything about dogs.”