March 1st, 1952
Acadia National Park, Maine
Huxley awoke from some odd dream. It had been more of a nightmare. He was being bounced around in a box but was unable to move. Music came from somewhere but he couldn’t place it. He felt like he was suffocating and was blind.
But once his mind had come awake, he realized that, perhaps, it hadn’t been a dream at all.
It had been a nightmare. But it had been all too real.
Huxley’s senses started to come to him. He felt his vision was gone due to something over his face, some sort of fabric that covered it. He could only breathe through his nose due to something in his mouth. It was wet from his saliva but he knew it was more fabric. And he felt it was held into place by something that was tied around his head. He tried to push it out with his tongue but it was no use.
Then he started to notice other things. His arms were in his lap and his wrists were tied together. The rope was very tight. So tight, he didn’t have any feeling in his fingers or hands. His legs were straight out in front of him and his ankles were also tied together. He tried to move them but he couldn’t even get his ankles to rub together.
But the one thing that he realized over all of this was he was cold. Really, really cold. Whoever had put him here had taken all of his clothes off and sat him in snow and propped him up against something solid.
This was when the fear suddenly struck his heart. His breathing began to get harder that made his nose whistle. He was sure that if he could see, he would be able to see frozen mist coming from his nostrils. His heart was beating hard. It caused whatever grogginess to leave him entirely.
Then he heard a voice coming from just in front of him.
“Calm down, Huxley. Calm down. Can’t have you having a heart attack on me. Though, that would be hard for a heartless bastard like you to do. Wouldn’t it?”
At that moment, the cloth bag that had been around Huxley’s head came off and standing there in front of him was a man. He wore round glasses, a black watch cap, and had a beard. And the man was a bit paunchy around the midsection. It was hard to tell with the large red and black plaid jacket he wore.
“Remember me, “ the man asked Huxley.
With eyes as wide as he could make them, Huxley didn’t recognize this man. Though, something deep in his subconscious sparked. But his fear and the cold he felt pushed it away. He tried to scream through the gag in his mouth, frozen vapor came out from the corners.
“I guess not, huh? I look a bit differently than the last time you saw me.” The man looked at him thoughtfully. “I’ll fill you in, but first…” He stopped speaking and walked around Huxley to somewhere behind him. He tried to turn to look but saw what he was propped up against and blocked his view. It was a large, round tree stump. He spun his head to look straight out in front of him. He was in an open area with trees on both sides that were downhill from where he sat. Snow covered the ground all around him. A small campfire burned a dozen feet away but he couldn’t feel the heat. In front of him, the ground sloped down into a black abyss. But he could hear water slapping against rocks from somewhere out there. It had to be the Atlantic.
The man came back around and carefully put a large wool blanket over him. He pulled it up as far as he could up Huxley’s chest and even made sure his toes were covered.
“That better? I can’t have you freezing to death.” With that, a little chuckle escaped him. The frozen vapor from his mouth looked like smoke to Huxley, like he was the goddamn devil himself.
Huxley tried to scream at the man but he just got hushed.
“It’s no use. There is no one around, not for miles. I could take that gag out of your mouth and you could scream until your throat erupted blood. But I have a headache and I want this to go as quietly and calmly as possible.”
The man moved over to the fire and hunkered down, taking his gloves off and warming his hands. He turned them slow and thoughtfully, making sure all sides of his hands got the same amount of warmth.
“I like being out here. Most people don’t, even around here. I mean, I get it. Most people don’t like the cold. But not me. I love it. It’s the heat in the summer that I hate. That’s why I moved to Maine. The summers can get hot but not for long.” He turned to look at Huxley. “And one thing you can say about Maine: you will have all four seasons. Not just a few weeks of fall and then straight into winter. Not like down south. Here you get it all.”
The man put his gloves back on and stood, coming back over to look down at Huxley. The man spoke with a certain ease as if talking to a friend at a party as they used the grill in their backyard.
“Yep. Moving to Maine was one of the best things I ever did.” Now he looked at Huxley with a hard stare. “And the worst.”
Huxley looked into the man’s eyes and saw a glint, even in the low light of the fire. That little light in his subconscious from earlier was getting brighter. He now thought he remembered this man from somewhere.
“Nothing like thinking you finally got it all and then to have it ripped from you. You wouldn’t understand that part, though. You wouldn’t understand the loss, the pain. You only understand the thrill of taking that from someone.”
The little light in Huxley’s subconscious became blinding.
He suddenly knew who this man was. Three years ago he had been slimmer. There had been no beard on his face. But the glasses was the same. He hadn’t been wearing this lumberjack outfit but a tan suit.
The last time he had seen this man, he was being held by a thin woman. Her arms held him close as he wept. She had wept, too. Tears streamed down her gaunt face.
The look on his face with the sudden recognition had been seen and understood by the man. He gave Huxley a smile and a slight nod.
“Now, you know who I am. Odd. Part of me had hoped you would have recognized who I was as soon as you saw me. I do look a bit different but I had hoped that my face was burned into your mind, that you would see me everywhere you went. Maybe you had nightmares about me.” He took his glasses off and looked at the lens, gently blowing off a couple of flakes of snow that had started to fall.
“In the very least, maybe you had nightmares about what you did to my little girl.”
Huxley noticed now that he was shivering. Not just from the cold but from fear. His legs started to bounce slightly. He looked at the man and his name finally came to him.
Roger Malin. His wife is Patty Malin. His daughter had been Carrie Malin.
Huxley remembered he had looked over to Roger and Patty from across a table in a courtroom but only sparingly. He couldn’t look at them in the eye. He knew he was guilty. Honestly, everybody did. But due to one simple mistake made by the police and an unreliable witness, they couldn’t make the charges stick. After a three weeks hearing, the judge had to stop it. Those two problems in the prosecutor’s stance caused a guilty man to walk free. As he passed by the table that Roger and Patty still sat, weeping together, he finally looked at them in the eyes.
Huxley smiled at them. Then he was gone out of the doors of the courtroom. And he didn’t see them until this moment. Well, just Roger.
Roger squatted down and after a few seconds to think it over, he pulled the gag from Huxley’s mouth. Huxley coughed and breathed hard through his throat. The air was very cold going in. He shivered harder.
“I think we need to have a conversation. I’m guessing that it will be the last one you’ll ever have…”
Before Roger could continue, Huxley interrupted.
“Don’t kill me, please. Look, I did it. I admit it. I’m guilty as shit. Just don’t kill me. Just take me to the police and I’ll tell them everythi…”
Roger reached out and slapped him across the face. It lacked the sting due to the cold but it jerked Huxley’s head so hard to the right, he saw stars.
“No,” Roger said calmly as if they were just having a conversation over coffee. “That time has passed. Since you last saw me, my wife died from the cancer that was eating her a year before you took Carrie. She lived another three weeks after you last saw me. I had buried a child and a wife. Since you last saw me, I decided that, instead of killing myself, I would focus on finding justice my own way. I made it my life’s work to make you pay. To get you here, at this place, at this particular moment in time, took a lot of planning.”
Roger got onto his hands and knees and put his face a couple of inches away from Huxley’s face. Kissing distance, as his late wife used to say.
“Since you last saw me, I have become something I wasn’t before. Before, I was a family man. I was loved. Now… I have become something dark, something… nefarious. Yeah, since you last saw me, I have become your shadow. Though you didn’t see me, Huxley Norman, I saw you.”
Huxley looked deep into Rogers’s eyes and saw something there. If he wasn’t scared before, he was most certainly now. Frozen vapor from their breath cast them in a place where just the two of them existed, face to face. Roger pulled back then and sat down on the snow.
“Please, just let me go. I’ll turn myself in. I’ll admit to everything. I won’t mention about what’s going on here,” Huxley cried out.
Roger shook his head. “Sorry. Three years too late. Once I made up my mind on this decision, it was going to happen, even if it killed me.” He stood up. “I guess I should have put the fire closer. I can’t have you getting too cold. I don’t have another blanket but I do have something else.” Roger went back behind Huxley and the tree stump. Huxley heard a vehicle door open. After a minute, he heard it shut and Roger came back around and put a large rubber cover over him. He even pulled it up to his neck and tucked it underneath him all around. Huxley actually started to feel a bit warmer.
“That better, “Roger asked. Huxley nodded. “Good. Now, before we get to the conclusion of tonight’s festivities, I’m going to tell you a little story. It won’t take long but it’s something I haven’t been able to tell anybody. And if there’s anybody I can tell it to, it would be you. I guess I’ve been waiting to tell you all this time.” Roger sat back down in front of Huxley. “Yeah, I should have brought the fire closer. The cold is creeping into my bones.”
Huxley felt the cold leaving his body from the warmth of the big rubber cover. But he didn’t feel better. He was still shaking. He tried to calm his fear as Roger began his story.
“So, I was distraught. My daughter was gone. I buried my wife. The doctors said she succumbed to the cancer that ate into her brain. She was supposed to live another year but I think she allowed the cancer to finish the job early.” He breathed out with a heavy exhale. “And there I was, alone. My loneliness was brought on by a man who liked the way my little twelve-year-old girl looked as she pedaled her bike to her friend’s birthday party not a mile away. My wife and I thought it was time, time to let her go on her own. We thought we should at least walk with her, to help her carry the helium balloons she wanted to give her friend because of what I did for a living. But she convinced us she could do it on her own. We watched her leave, the balloons trailing behind her as she held onto them, the strings between the handlebars and her hand. She looked like she had been doing it all her life. You know, Huxley, a neighbor of mine had told the police that he had seen those balloons rising up into the sky that day while he cut his lawn. I guess when you grabbed her and she let them go.”
Roger stopped and sniffled. He rubbed his eyes. Huxley started to speak but for some reason, nothing came to mind. He wanted to protest but he couldn’t. For some reason, he just waited for Roger to continue.
Roger shook his head as if to get control of himself. “Anyway, the police found her in the stream you threw her into. She was naked. You had stripped off every bit of clothing to do what you felt you needed to do. The police said she was face down in the water. Her wrists and ankles still had bloody marks on them from the ropes you used where you had tied her up so tight.” Roger lifted his fist and squeezed it to emphasize the word ‘tight’. “They never found her clothes or her bike. Just her naked little body, her soul long gone. Her mother and I fretted over three days, hoping they would catch the vile, evil monster who did it. We hardly ate or slept. My job gave me the time to do what I needed to while we stared into thin air, wondering what we should have done that day. Guilt wreaked us. It gutted us.”
Roger shifted a bit and looked above Huxley’s head as if looking at something. Then he lowered it back down and looked right into his eyes. “They finally caught you. Your car had been seen by a man in the area and when they spotted it and you in town and pulled you over, you had some scratches across your cheek which you said you did while you were fixing a chicken coop from the chicken wire. But it was her, wasn’t it? It was my Carrie. She fought back and hurt you. She tried to get away and come back home to us. They arrested you and questioned you. But they made that one mistake, that one thing that helped you walk out the door with our daughter’s blood on your hands. They were so excited they forgot to read you your rights. Nobody remembered telling you and their honesty in court let you walk. But it wasn’t just that. The man that saw your car in the area the day you took her was considered a drunk. He had even been drinking at the time. His word was no good, in your lawyer’s eyes. And then the juries. My lawyers and the cops kept apologizing, over and over and how they fucked it up.” Tears were creeping down his face as he continued. “I ignored them. In their passion for upholding the law, they let my daughter’s rapist and murderer go. And then I had my sweet Patty to take care of but she ignored me like I ignored the police. She wanted to go and saw no reason to stay. Like I said, I felt the same. I wanted to go but I discovered my reason to stay. I threw myself into my job. I had been in the war, in intelligence. But once it was over, I got out so I could be with my family. I had already missed enough time with my daughter, important years. My job with the new Air Force got me into experiments dealing with weather. It became my savior. It gave me something to focus on. But more importantly, it helped me hatch my plan.”
A wind suddenly came up over the crest that looked down to the ocean. It was hard enough to almost blow the campfire out. Roger immediately looked at spot up and behind Huxley. Huxley never saw it. He had to squint his eyes against the cold gale. The rubber cover flipped up near his feet, exposing them. As he felt the cold take ahold of them again and another shiver struck his body, he heard something from behind him, something rubbing together. But he didn’t linger on it. He was thinking about his back, butt, and the bottom of his legs because they were now numb due to the frozen ground added to the numbness of his tied up hands and feet. He knew that if he stayed this way much longer, he might suffer some sort of nerve damage.
When Huxley had focused back on Roger, he was no longer looking above him. He was looking right at him. He didn’t move forward to recover Roger’s feet. He just looked at him with his dark eyes.
“Time is short in more ways than one, so I’ll speed this up. I learned a lot from my job. I learned more about weather and how to predict it more than just about anybody ever has. After it was just me in my life, I dove into learning all I could. I learned about how the jet stream moves around, fast and slower across the country depending on the time and the weather and how the Moon can interfere with it. Even though we have cloud cover tonight, there is no Moon. And after going over my calculations quite extensively, I know that the jet stream is going over our heads right now. It’s very powerful.”
Roger grabbed the rubber cover and the wool blanket that partially covered Huxley so when he stood up, he yanked it off of him. The cold hit him hard and caused him to suck in his breath.
“I’ve been following you for a few weeks and you know what I noticed? You have no life. You get up, you go to work, you go to the bar, and then back home. There were some nights I didn’t think you would make it. I’m surprised you didn’t crash, swerving from side to side on the road. And you never got pulled over. Luck, I guess. Or destiny. But you never drank with anybody. You always sat at the bar alone. One drink right after another and right before closing time, you would leave alone. I guessed you were trying to wash away the guilt.” Roger laughed into the night air. “It didn’t work, I suppose. And taking you before you got into your trailer was easy. A little chloroform. Out like a light. Nobody will know you’re gone for days. That’s too bad.”
The Roger screamed as hard as he could. The sound didn’t seem to resonate at all. It just seemed to die feet from his mouth. Roger composed himself and looked at Huxley.
“Enough. I’m getting too cold and time for stories are over. It’s time to end this.”
Roger walked past Huxley to somewhere behind him. Huxley began to scream out a protest. Maybe he could convince Roger to stop, to let him go, and he’d never tell a soul about tonight. But as he started, he realized his mouth was almost too cold to move. And then another wind came from over the crest and hit him right in the face. Snow was falling harder now and he felt their sting in his eyes before he could shut them. They drove into his cheeks, neck, and the rest of his body but he barely felt them. His whole body was numb. He shivered. And he heard that sound somewhere above him, the rubbing of something large in the wind.
Roger came back into view. Huxley saw he was holding an ax. Huxley’s eyes got wide. Roger laughed.
“No. This isn’t for you. You’re not that lucky.”
Roger leaned over Huxley and grabbed the rope that was attached to his wrists and disappeared over his shoulder. He pulled it until his arms were over his head. Huxley couldn’t do anything about it as he gritted his teeth from the pain.
“I don’t want you to break your arms.”
Then he disappeared around Huxley again. The wind died and the sound of a THUNK was heard. But Huxley had little time to register it in his mind. He was brought straight up as if he suddenly had the power to fly. It pulled the breath from his lungs it was so sudden. And then there was a sudden stop as the rope that was tied around the weave of rope around his ankles pulled taunt. At that moment, both of his shoulders were pulled from their sockets and he screamed. Every vertebra in his back popped, two pulled apart just enough that, if he was set back down to Earth again, he wouldn’t be able to walk without a surgery or two.
He was being pulled heavenward and earthward at the same time. He felt faint and nearly passed out when he was hit with a bucket of cold water. It felt like nails being hammered into every inch of his frozen skin. Huxley started to shiver uncontrollably and it made the pain in his body hurt worse. He tried to scream but could only moan from the pain and the terror.
“Wow. I didn’t expect that. Your arms are out of their sockets, huh? I’m just glad that didn’t pull them out completely or my plan would have gone to hell. I guess I would have cut you up with the ax anyway. Then throw you over the cliff for the gulls to eat. I guess I lucked out.” Roger laughed after that.
Huxley slowly looked at Roger who smiled up at him. He squinted his eyes. Roger was pointing above Huxley and he slowly looked above him as best as he could since his dislocated arms were mostly in his way. Even though the cold water and the pain had awoken him to a point, what he saw made his eyes grow wide. He suddenly understood what was really going to happen to him.
Above Huxley, doing a slow dance in the breeze were weather balloons. They were large, large enough that they cleared the treetops. He thought he saw five but there might have been more. They towered over him and were leaning slightly behind him. Even though it was dark, he could tell they were the same color as the one that had been placed over him for warmth. Huxley looked for words but none came. He found his voice again and screamed.
“Finally figured it out, did you?” Roger dropped the bucket in his hands to the ground and kicked it out of the way. He stared up at Huxley. The rope that was anchored into the ground was taunt and slowly moved a few inches back and forth with the movement of the balloons. As Huxley continued to scream, Roger just watched the rope. The knot he had tied was strong and held fast.
“You know, I wished I had seen the balloons flying in the sky when you took her. If I had seen them, maybe I could have got them in time to stop you.” Roger walked over to the rope and gave it a kick. It made a dull THUNK. Huxley looked down and thought it had let go. He stopped his screaming just for a second before he started up again. Roger didn’t notice.
“Every time I sent a balloon up, I would pretend it was going up to Heaven, at least for a moment,” Roger spoke normally, not trying to be heard over Huxley’s screams. It was more to himself. “The last thing I did after I made sure all of the instruments were reading correctly and sending a signal was I would tie a note to my little girl to one of the ropes. I was hoping she would get it since I didn’t know if God was giving her my messages when I prayed. Most of the time they would come back still tied. But a few times, they were gone. I’m sure they had been sheared off by high winds in the high altitudes. But deep down I hoped she had plucked it off and read it. Maybe even kissed it and thought of me.” Roger had tears rolling down his face. When they got to his cheeks, they had become cold and become frozen. He pulled out of his trance and looked back up at Huxley.
Huxley had stopped screaming and was now hoarsely moaning again. He looked back down at Roger and pleaded with his eyes. He begged through his eyes. His body had become frozen as it was stretched out from the shifting balloons and the earth. He had become too cold to feel the cold.
“I thought about tying another note to these balloons for her to read. But I know better.” Roger disappeared around him and came back with the ax in his hands. He looked at the head of it, admiring it. “Your balloons may be going up but they aren’t going to heaven.” Roger felt the weight of the ax in his hands. “These balloons are taking you to hell. Enjoy the ride, you fucking bastard.”
And with that, as Huxley’s eyes went wide and he tried to scream through his ruptured throat, he watched Roger give a swing with the ax. It cut through the rope that held him to the ground with a clean swipe. Huxley felt the connection between steel and fiber, then he was shooting into the air. The power of the balloons, finally released from their earthly bounds, took Huxley up quickly.
Huxley’s chest tightened. Fear overtook him. His eyes went wider than they ever had before. His fear had become a solid thing that buried in his heart that nearly stopped it. His breathing had become small, quick inhales. He wanted to shut his eyes as he rose higher and higher. The black ocean in front of him became larger. And then he entered the low clouds and the earth disappeared.
Roger watched until the clouds took the balloons and Huxley. He knew that they would rise for a few thousand feet until they reached the jet stream. Once that happened, it would take Huxley toward the Atlantic, in a Southeast direction. There was nothing but open water. And there was nothing but open skies once the balloons broke through the low cloud cover. The stars would be seen. Roger wondered if Huxley would live long enough to look up and see those stars and how clear they would look. He hoped Huxley would. One last look of the vastness of Heaven where Carrie was with her mother, his wife before he entered Hell.
Roger thought as he cleaned up, as he put the tanks back into the trailer that was latched behind his four-wheel drive pick-up, as he gathered up all of the evidence he had been here and stowed it away. He looked up one last time where Huxley and the balloons had disappeared into the night sky before putting out the fire and covering it in snow. He wondered if he would join Huxley in Hell once he left this world. Would he ride his own balloons toward the sky before entering Hell or would they take him to be with Carrie and his wife?
He’d find out one day. Roger had decided he was prepared for either.
He already had the paperwork ready that said these particular balloons were lost. It happened sometimes. He got into his pickup and slowly drove out of the clearing and eventually out of the park and toward home. Nobody saw him.
The clouds were far below him and getting further away. Seven miles above the ocean, a couple of minutes before Huxley’s heart finally gave out from fear, the cold, and the lack of oxygen, he did look above him to the stars. As he rose higher with a nearly blinding speed, his guilt for what he had done to that little girl suddenly slipped away, like the earth below him. In his last second before dying, his body frozen, he smiled. His last thought was he hoped Hell was truly hot.
The balloons continued until they reached a height of just over 25 miles when they almost burst all at the same time, tearing them to shreds. Their payload, a frozen, naked body, the limbs froze outstretched as if in a dive, experienced a few seconds of weightlessness before slowly finding gravity and falling back to earth. Within a minute, it was falling back toward the Atlantic, the light from the sun glinting off its frozen skin, at maximum velocity. The body spun around and around to almost a blur. Friction from the air caused the skin to heat up and peel away. By the time it hit the ocean below, Huxley was little more than a charred ruin and hit with such a force, his body exploded. What was left either floated on the surface unrecognizable or sank into the abyss below.