Next morning at Morey’s bookstore, the regulars drifted the aisles, no longer looking like ghosts, but instead looking haunted. They seemed sad, and somehow desperate. Even Rose looked a bit haggard, thought Jim, and finally he realized that when she’d come in, she hadn’t taken off her overcoat and hat.
“Rose?” he said. He’d been about to ask if she was okay, but she cut him off.
“I’m all right, Mister Morey. I just didn’t sleep so good last night.”
“Do you need to…”
“No, I’ll stay at work. I need the hours.” Her lips were pressed together in a severe line, as though she had a headache. It was safer at the bookstore. Nice as her apartment was these days, it wasn’t as safe as a big store full of used books. Especially a used bookstore where the person working at the register could stand right next to a big shelf full of best loved books.
Jim awkwardly trailed off, feeling unable to get a word in edgewise. Most of the customers looked no happier than Rose. They were huddling around the register and drifting back amongst the shelves, but they weren’t buying much of anything. Several of them had gone next door for coffee, and come right back into the bookstore to drink it. “Rose, can you run the…”
“Sure, go ahead,” she cut him off again. “I can handle the place for a while, I’ll call you if it gets busy.”
Shaking his head, Jim wandered back to his office. Rose was cranky and tired, and he wondered if he was getting on her nerves. He had a bunch of accounting and paperwork to catch up on, and figured whatever was up, she might appreciate some time to herself.
Rose watched him go. She hadn’t meant to be sharp with him. She was just distracted.
Rose looked up. They’d been drifting out in the afternoon, and now there were only two other freaks left in the store. Sonia had come in around two, but the one looking at her … was Mike Clelland, the same guy who’d resented her at herself so badly when she got the mandala. What do you want? she wondered at him.
Sorry about that, he thought. And, to her surprise, he really was sorry. He shared his actual regret with her, not just a social form. I’m always impatient, he was thinking, and I was desperate that day. Bad dreams.
She understood instantly, and shared a twinge of sympathy with him. But bad dreams or not, it just wasn’t a way to treat people.
He seized on the sympathy and did something with her disapproval that was sort of half-accepting and half-ignoring. Bad dreams again last night, too, he thought at her. He seemed desperate for sympathy, for understanding. He had something a hell of a lot worse than bad dreams in the undercurrents of his mind. He wondered if, maybe she’d had them too?
Not dreams, per se. Nothing that definite. But I didn’t sleep well last night, she realized, adding the little touch that let him realize it along with her.
Neither did I, he thought. She could tell instantly that it was true, but also that it wasn’t the focus of his thoughts. Finally her curiosity roused the issue out of the recesses of his mind where it had been hiding, all at once in a confused torrent of disjointed thoughts that nearly overwhelmed her. She recoiled from the force of it, as he broke down weeping.
Oh god, Joe, he was thinking, they finally found him and he’s dead and all he had was a damn coat and paperbacks, and I’d been trying to make a place safe for him and I’d been trying to find him and oh, damnit my brother is dead, and he was out in the middle of the nightmare-storm last night and there just wasn’t any shelter and he was just so goddamned Lost and he was a sweet kid, really, and why in the hell does this happen to us and how did it get so bad, it didn’t used to be this bad and oh, God, I just needed to share it with somebody and now I’m all over Rose and I didn’t want it to be this way damnit damnit damnit, too much too fast damnit I’m sorry I harshed on you so bad, I just wanted to get stuff to make a place safe for him and I know you needed it too and I saw you and I wanted to say I’m sorry I drove you away and I just really need a friend right now….
Half a dozen people were staring at Mike now, at this man who’d walked up to the pale redheaded woman behind the counter, looked into her eyes for a few moments, and then quietly started crying.
Sonia Ashstone turned pale, and backed quietly into the newspaper section, her eyes wide with some kind of fear and sudden realization, but Rose didn’t notice through Mike’s torrent of grief and the Best Loved Books shelf.
Rose felt Mike’s grief, and she couldn’t speak at the moment because of it, but she stepped out from behind the counter and got him a chair. She put it next to the Best Loved Books shelf, and helped him get into it, then silently stepped back behind the counter on the other side of the shelf from him until he got it under control. Tears were rolling down her cheeks too, but she didn’t sob, and hopefully Mike hadn’t actually projected in a way that any non-freak customers would notice. Mike sobbed once or twice, then choked it off to quiet sniffles. At least as long as he was close to the Best Loved Books shelf his thoughts had a little privacy. She could still feel the general shape of his grief, because she was so close, but the spray of specifics got dulled into so much mental static by the nice solid shelf of books.
Nobody said anything. A couple of customers quietly approached the register and made purchases, then left, with nervous sideways glances at Mike. A few minutes passed, and a few more customers left.
Finally, Sonia approached the counter, trembling, with a newspaper in her hands. She laid it down next to the register, and said in a whisper because she didn’t have a voice at that moment, “Rose? This is what I dreamed last night.”
Rose stared down at the newspaper, at the dogs and the blood on the ground in the photo, and the blood-caked back seat of the car where they’d found her body. The dogs seemed familiar somehow. With a fascination that bordered on horror, she began to read.
“It was worse than they know,” Sonia whispered. “That was only two blocks from me, and it came through my walls.” Rose looked up.
Mike Clelland heard her, and stood up and came around the corner of the shelf.
All three of them began to read the article. Their synchrony was unconscious, but they read it at exactly the same speed. A little slower than Mike usually read, a little faster than Sonia usually read. Mike was reading upside down. Sonia had already read it once. Rose started over from the beginning. The three of them came together to each horrible detail, and each felt the other’s responses. Their throats all hurt from Mike’s crying and Sonia’s dread. And they all finished the article together.
“My brother Joe got caught in the storm.” whispered Mike. “He was up on a roof, and he ran from the dogs. Right off the roof. They’re calling it a suicide.”
Rose looked past him, at a man standing awkwardly, waiting for a chance to bring his books to the register.
“The newspaper,” Rose announced in a conversational voice, “Is three twenty five.” There’s somebody in line, she thought, deciding that Sonia should buy the newspaper. We’ll talk later. She rang up the sale as Sonia ponied up a fiver and a quarter and Mike slunk back to the chair next to the bookshelf.
And then the customer walked out, and there was nobody in the bookstore except Sonia and Mike and Rose. Mike got his head under control a little, got up and walked out in front of the counter.
“Sorry about your brother, Mike,” Rose said. She’d identified Joe from Mike’s memory of him. He’d been the guy swearing at the stop-sign whom she’d seen that night Mister Morey had given her a ride home. “I met him once.” It seemed kind of lame, but that was really all she could say.
“Thanks.” said Mike. “I just really needed someone to understand. There’s nobody I can talk to about… ” and he pointed mutely at his head. “I hadn’t seen him in a few months. I mean, he was okay one morning, but he just went out one day when he was a little bit tired, and he never came back.” The silence drew out. Could happen to any of us, he thought.
“I’m sorry about your brother, too, Mike,” said Sonia. But you’re still an asshole, she thought. Then, realizing she’d projected when she hadn’t meant to, she turned bright red with embarrassment. Oh God, I’m sorry, I didn’t want to do that.
Mike looked at her, pained. “Thanks,” he said. And decided for both of them to drop the rest.
“Sonia?” said Rose. “What did you mean when you said it was worse than it was in the paper?”
Sonia’s face turned gray. “Those dogs didn’t just maul her, kill her, and eat most of her, Rose. They raped her first.”
Rose started with shock. “Raped her?” Mike Clelland was nodding, with a grimace on his face. That makes no sense! Rose was thinking. Humans shouldn’t even smell right to dogs! and people can grapple and wrestle way better than dogs anyhow, even if dogs can do more damage with teeth! Killing her would be easy for a pack of dogs, but raping her?! No way!
“Just believe it, Rose,” said Sonia, sullenly. “It was real. I … dreamed it. And now I … remember it for her. I thought it was somebody’s nightmare at the time, just an unbelievably powerful nightmare – but it was real.” And Sonia sat down, suddenly looking haggard. She didn’t want to remember it all again, and she especially didn’t want to remember it at Rose.
Oh Goddess, Sonia, I’m so sorry, Rose thought.
Mike grimaced. You’re sorrier for her having a rough night than you are for me when my brother is dead, he was thinking at her.
She’s my friend, shot back Rose, and she experienced a rape, and she’s not an asshole. And then, like Sonia, she realized she’d projected more than she intended to. But unlike Sonia, she wasn’t particularly embarrassed about it.
“Rose,” said Sonia quietly, “Maybe we should just move out of this horrible city, all of us. Us freaks. We don’t belong here.”
“It’s not the city,” said Mike. “I mean, I’ve lived here a long time. The city was fine until about three years ago.”
“What happened three years ago?” Rose asked.
“I don’t know. The dreams, the buzz, just started getting worse. Nastier, slimier, every month worse than the last. Joe was weaker than me, and more sensitive too, so it was worst for him. We’d been living here for years, with the same amount of good stuff I use now just to try to keep one room safe in my house, and it was okay. Something changed, is what happened. Before Joe … left, he used to say he felt like there were hooks everywhere, trying to snag him. And he’d lived here a dozen years before that without ever feeling that. And it kept getting worse, and about two years ago the really bad dreams started.”
“And one day he went out, and one of the hooks snagged him,” finished Rose. “He got caught in a nightmare-storm, and now he’s dead. And this woman in the paper, she’s dead too, except for her it was a hell of a lot more than a dream. And they got caught in something that freaks like us feel, and whatever it is started three years ago.” She cocked her head sideways, thinking, are you guys putting this together the same way I am?
Sonia and Mike both looked up with a start, sharing the conclusion that was already in Rose’s mind at the same instant.
Oh my God. It’s a freak like us, isn’t it? A really strong one, gone crazy in a real bad way. The three of them shared the thought and stared at each other, not wanting to believe it. But there was no other conclusion. That’s what it had to be. And the cops were never going to catch what they were never going to understand.
“So,” Sonia finally said, voicing the question that all of them were thinking. “What do we do now?”
This is one chapter of The Hook, a novel which is being published serially on this site. This page links to all chapters so far serialized.
The complete novel is available from Amazon.