8/07/2010

Install

"Seventeen thirty-one Rural Hill Road. Job five alpha. Premium video on one, modem with twelve meg on two, high definition DVR on three. I added it to your handheld. Call me when your route is complete." Soll said.

It was easy for Byron's dispatcher to rattle off four hours of work like it was nothing. The job had been added to his route at three thirty. It was a one to four appointment. Undoubtedly, the customer had been scheduled for tomorrow, but they'd called in to raise hell until some poor schmuck got stuck with the overtime and another reason, for the third day in a row, that he couldn't get home in time to see Karen before she started her night shift. Byron closed his phone and approached the address.

Let Soll know if he needed anything? He needed to be home right now, enjoying his life, not working until the sun went down every single night because some customer service chronie didn't have the balls to say "No, you can keep your god damn appointment, thank you very much, and you'll like it. We'll install your shit tomorrow."

He flipped his transmission in to reverse only to find that his back-up alarm wasn't working. As he backed his van up the long, weed-ridden driveway, he flattened a post-it note against his steering wheel before securing his tool belt and stepping out of the van. He would see the post-it before he parked his van at the shop and went home for the evening. A reminder to tell the mechanics to get his alarm working so he didn't back over some little kid and get sued for one point five million. He'd seen it happen to another cable guy a few years back. Terrible fucking luck, that was.

Byron performed the cone-dance. Seven cones total. One sitting at your front bumper. One on your rear bumper. Two on your blind side, and three in front of the sliding door on your van. It was a necessary evil. They made him pick up the cones before he left as a method of reinforcing safety. If you had to walk all the way around your vehicle and pick up the damn cones, the odds of you seeing a dog or a kid under your truck were increased tenfold.

They'd do anything to keep you from running something over. It was damage control. Lawsuit prevention. Human resources called it "preemptive safety." Reason number two was that all traffic related accidents resulted in an on-the-spot drug test. Most techs failed and were fired the next day. Byron's theory for that one? Being a cable tech drove you to drinking, illegal drugs, and pills because it was one of the world's shittiest jobs.

He'd heard about this one guy who'd parked his van at his house on his lunch break, only to take off with his little girl playing hide and seek with the undercarriage. He found her mangled body under his truck around the same time that his three to five appointment called in bitching at the call center because he was late. He forgot the cone-dance. Terrible fucking luck, that was.

For being in a more prominent part of the city, the first thought that entered Byron's head as he crossed the lawn was how out of place the house looked. The cable drop was ratty and weather-worn where it fed in to the top of the attic. He'd have to replace it. Make that a five hour job, Soll. Thanks.

The shutters were a dark charcoal ---- a shade that would make most residents in this area cringe. Byron was surprised that the home-owners association hadn't ordered the place bulldozed to the ground by now. Except for rows of willow trees on either side of the property, the house was flanked by a seven bedroom, five bath on the left; on the right, a Mercedes, a Lexus, and a BMW sat in the driveway about a hundred and fifty yards down. Tiger Woods would probably find it acceptable to play golf on either of their front lawns. At this place, he probably couldn't even sink a tee in to the ground. It was a mixture of hardened sod, dead flora, and dandelions ---- accompanied by dog shit, which Byron narrowly evaded as he ascended the porch steps. He'd gotten skilled at judging the size of dogs by the piles of shit they left. This one was probably huge. Doberman, german shepherd, mastiff ---- one of the three, for sure.

He rapped on the front door as he slipped his booties on. His shoes were perfectly clean, but the boot-covers were another "preemptive technique" in this neighborhood. The moment he tracked a speck of dirt in to one of these houses was the moment one of these big wigs made a phone call to the CEO of his employer and sent him packing. Well, maybe not THIS customer ---- but any other in a five mile radius.

"HELLO? SHARPE TELECOMM. I'M HERE TO INSTALL YOUR CABLE. HELLO?" He knocked again.

He usually gave them five knocks before he went back to his truck for the door tag. 'Dear sir or madam, we regret to inform you that we arrived at your residence at -insert time here- today. Please call 1-800-SHARPE to reschedule your pending appointment with us for a day and timeframe when you can be home and available for our technician to install your services.'

On knock number five, he was out. Fuck this. He made good money doing what he did, particularly since he'd never been to any apprenticeships or electrician workshops, but that was because Byron had common sense. He was a hard worker. He didn't have time to sit around for people who would bitch out the cable company for an hour, but not be home as soon as they rolled him over here. He could be getting his back-up alarm fixed right now.

It was after knock five when Byron had turned to fetch his doortag. The door finally whined open. Byron cursed softly under his breath and turned to face the customer. The wood sounded like it was about to shatter from its protest. The girl in front of him seemed shy, certainly timid of strangers. She looked to be in her late teens, but he'd be damned if she didn't have an ID. Byron wasn't about to get stuck in a house with a minor, pulling cable, only to be accused of rape two weeks later. It happened to a guy on his team a few years ago. A six month trial and three months of suspended employment later, the guy received a verdict of not guilty. Terrible fucking luck, that was.

"Hello, ma'am. Is your mom or dad home?" He asked.

She said nothing, but rather, she reached forward and handed him twos slip of paper: A xerox copy of the account holder's driver's license, as well as a copy of her own (she WAS eighteen), and a check for one hundred seventy three dollars and fourteen cents. The big "Cee Oh Dee," as Soll put it. Byron shrugged. You never knew when they'd take you by surprise by being prepared. It was all well and good, as Byron hated trying to collect money from people. Maybe they desperately needed internet service to order new shingles from Home Depot since there was no car in the driveway. Byron chuckled.

"Thank you, ma'am. I'll have to reroute a new drop of cable out here before I come inside and hook up your lines and equipment. I'll be a couple hours out here." Byron said.

She stared at him for a long moment before the corners of her mouth upturned in to a thin smile. It was then that he noticed ---- her mouth was stitched shut. The threads were worn and half-coming apart at the edges, but he figured anyone could be desensitized if they walked around long enough looking like Raggidy Ann. He tried his best not to stare or hint that he was put off by it. Maybe she was smiling because he hadn't reacted the way most would. Did she have mouth cancer or something? Byron gave her a little nod, and then he was walking back to his van and performing the dog-shit shuffle again. He didn't even see a dog around outside. Where was it coming from?

It was fifty two degrees outside and the sun would start to drop in the next hour or so. It was the night-time work that really exhausted Byron. When your best source of light and warmth started to set, the job got vicious. He grabbed his thirty two footer and took it down to the end of the driveway at the pole.

After ninety minutes, Byron had the drop routed from the amplifier on the line, all the way up to the second story upstairs window. He had to drill an access hole for conduit to get a live signal inside the house. Sharpe Telecomm wouldn't let him drill a hole in the side of someone's house without requiring permission first. Byron walked back to the front door as the last rays of faint sunlight were lost among the sagging limbs of the willow trees to the west.

He knocked, and this time, the response was immediate. The door flew open and Byron found himself chest-to-chest with a massive monster of a man. His beard was flecked with a hint of this and a crumb of that, and he smelled terrible. Byron had been inside disgusting houses before. He knew this one guy who got fired awhile back who told him a horror story about an install at a lady's house. The lady had thirteen cats. When he reached back to swap her box, he got a palm full of feline fecal matter. Terrible fucking luck, that was.

Byron cross examined his license photo with the man in the doorframe. They looked similar, except the guy in the photo was much younger, and he didn't have a beard.

"Hello sir. Are you Mr. Weaver? I need your permission to drill outside here so that I can get your cable up and running ----"

"Reaver." The man said. His voice was reminiscent of thick burlap and crunching leaves.

"Excuse me, sir?" Byron asked.

"It's Reaver. And do I look like I give two shits about a half-inch hole? Hook everything up and leave soon if you know what's good for you." The man slammed the door shut in Byron's face. Bingo.

So that guy was the reason he was standing out here on this corroding wooden porch with the peeling paint. The temperature was dropping by the minute. Byron decided not to dwell on how much of an asshole his customer was, because he wasn't the first, and he wouldn't be the last. Only assholes would let their adult offspring walk around with stitches holding their trap shut.

Byron circled the corner of the house and turned on his Mag-Lite before he reached the top of his ladder. He tied off to the drop line so he couldn't fall. Workman's comp would be nice, but Byron had no desire to get hurt on the job, considering his penchant for illegal painkillers on the really bad days. The Hilti was an eighteen volt hammer drill, capable of cutting through concrete in a matter of moments with the right bit. After he finished his drilling, he poked the cable through the conduit and unstrapped his lanyard. He'd heard a story about this one guy who'd tied off his lanyard to a power line. A bolt of lightning hit the transformer, and the customer walked outside two hours later to find an extra crispy Sharpe technician and a free hammer drill. Terrible fucking luck, that was.

His cable hit something that wasn't supposed to be there.

He squatted on the rung of his ladder that was third from the top (any higher, and it was an OSHA violation), trying to peer in to the opening he'd drilled. The attic was padded with little to no insulation, and it was a wonder how the freaks stayed warm at night. There was a chilly drift of wind through the willows, and then the smell hit him.

Byron had categorized hundreds of houses by smell in his past five years as a cable tech. There were the smoke-filled houses with a dozen ashtrays. There were the houses with more animals than pieces of furniture. There were the houses with the stench of addiction and an air of pungent chemicals that made your sinuses flare up for three days after. None of those came close to this one. It was a smell that was familiar to him, and yet only because he'd smelled it before, in his childhood.

He'd never left his hometown before in his life, and maybe that was sad, but he knew that fucking smell. Byron stood up on his top rung and looked over the crest of willow trees, where the first hints of the moon were starting to tickle through. About a mile to the east, there was the riverbank. It was funny how you could completely forget a sound, taste, or smell until you experienced it again, twenty years later. It all came flooding back. The last time he'd thought about it, he'd probably been fifteen or sixteen. It was definitely funny how the human brain could work. Except the smell from that time wasn't funny at all.

He was seven, and it was hide-and-go-seek dodgeball ---- a hybrid mix of games that he and his brother had indoctrinated the other neighborhood kids in to playing because they were proud of their invention. "It" counted to fifty at home base, then set out to tag somebody in the back of the head before they reached home themselves with a soccer ball. Every person who got hit by the ball became an It, and those who made it safely would continue on to the next round. They were poor, but there were epic hide-and-go-seek dodgeball games between them in those days.

He'd gotten binoculars for his birthday a few weeks prior. He was laying on his stomach, looking across the playground field behind their apartment projects on the riverbank. An old run down Chevrolet in front of J213 was home base. His brother had tagged everyone out, and Byron was the last man standing. It was Byron against an army of Its at age seven, just before sundown and a dinner of Spaghettios and Nick at Nite when his ma called he and his brother in for the night. One last attempt to get to base. A showdown of sorts.

They'd circled around the back of the complex looking in one of his other favorite spots, and he'd made a break for it across the side of the waterfront in a dead sprint. He turned to crest it and hit the parking lot at the lip of the bank, but he never made it. He fell through a sink hole where the ground was soft at the head of the riverbank, and then there were bones and a rancid onslaught on his nasal passages. He'd fallen a good twenty feet in to a decaying, half-eaten animal corpse soup. Instinct and fear told him he was laying on his back in the middle of something's dinner plate. In the corner, he made out a small pair of yellow animal eyes, staring him down ---- but they were too low to the ground. It was a small thing, incapable of producing this pit of blood racked nightmares. He'd reached out to it, to see if it scampered away. It was too dark to see a way out. The smell of decaying remnants --- the scraps of the prey who fell victim to the hole ---- it was too strong. The foulness of it swept him away in to unconsciousness.

He'd known, back then, somehow, even though he was seven and riding the shortbus ---- that whatever had made that hole and left those bones wasn't a byproduct of Mother Nature. When he woke up a few hours later to find himself sealed off in the smell, his screams eventually brought the fire department. They broke out the jaws of life, and then he was free ---- but he never forgot the smell, or where it came from. He wondered about it for five minutes out of every day of his life. Something from his hometown that was beyond mundane shit like cable and stinking houses ---- it intrigued him, but also sent a shiver up his ass end. This wasn't any stinking house. It was the house of that smell.

The moon was shining across the silver metal of his drill bit as Byron bored the hole a little wider. Before his brother's forehead went for the big dance with a seven point six two NATO in Afghanistan a couple of years ago, he'd always told Byron to go back out to that sinkhole and figure out what the hell was going on down there. Not because he'd seen it ----- but because he'd seen the terror in Byron's eyes at the time, when they'd lifted him up in to fresh air, drenched in the blood of beasts. His brother lost his Spaghettios that night over the side of the top bunk. The smell was inescapable if you were within five feet of it.

He never got the chance to check it out because that housing project had been torn down to construct a new park, and they'd added a riverwalk down there for the tourists. This house was less than two miles from the spot, now that he thought of it. Parks, water, and tourists meant money, and so of course the nicer houses were on this side. Except this one. It had probably been around before then.

The ill omen in his conduit shouldn't have been there, but the smell was too strong and Byron couldn't bear to stare in for more than a few seconds before he started retching. It was yellow, wet, and shiny. Not so rounded. It was angular and sinister ---- Byron felt like he was staring down a panther in the middle of the suburbs. Someone was standing on the other side of the wall, watching him. For how long, now? He gagged and gaffed down the ladder as quickly as possible. The hard stuff was over with. Now it was hooking up the damn boxes and getting home to kiss his girlfriend before she left for work.

Byron strapped his ladder to the top of his van and loaded up the freakshow family's equipment before he made his way back up the overgrown walkway to knock on the door for the final time. He almost slipped on his heel and ate it as he sank his workboot in to a hefty pile of fresh dog spatter. He scraped the edge of his shoe on the top step and gave the door a good rapping. Something told him that a faint hint of dog shit wouldn't really affect the aroma inside this house. She opened the door. Her again, except she didn't seem so timid. It couldn't have been her, staring him down at the top of house ---- her eyes were a pale blue. He couldn't botch the install and leave because the old man was watching him work. That was a good quick way to get his ass landed in human resources for "customer sensitivity training."

He stepped inside and his feet sank a good few inches in to the welcome mat by the door. Black fluid eeked out from the sides of the absorbent bristles, caking the marred hardwood with a veneer of filth. The smell was pervasive and inescapable. Byron's eyes were already watering. When he got upstairs on his own, he was putting on the breathing mask. No way he could stand this. The girl stared, and she was trying to speak, but only thin hints of sound escaped the muffled stitchjob that held her mute and helpless to communicate. Tears streamed down her pale cheeks steadily. Byron squatted in front of their TV to hook up the digital box. He couldn't stand being so close to someone who was being abused, and yet he was a cable guy, and helpless to do anything but phone in a domestic "red flag" call. Law enforcement rarely took tip-offs from the cable company unless a tech found a drug lab.

It was one of those old televisions that looked more like an antique piece of furniture. The tube was probably bigger than Byron's head. Rednecks used them as a new stand when lightning struck their trailers two or three times during the summer. Most of them hadn't figured out that you could mount most modern devices to the wall yet.

She wouldn't stop, and she was getting slightly louder, but he knew she was trying to scream at him. It was like a cat at his bedroom door, mewling incessantly, except the sound had a sort of sadness to it. Byron fired up the box and it got an IP address. He moved to the computer --- running Windows 98. Of course.

He hooked the modem to plant and got it up and running within a few minutes, but a Microsoft Word file on the bottom toolbar piqued his curiosity, if only because of the name: 'ismellyou.doc.' He maximized it and started reading with the abrupt lisps of the threaded mouth finally coming to an end. She'd stopped trying to scream, and now she only perched behind him.

Been watching you install cable for a long time, boy. Never have been able to get your scent out of my head. Still have your binoculars. You left them in my father's old resting place when you were little. Want them back?

Byron dropped the third box and ran for the front door.

She was in stride with him, almost preemptively, as if she'd seen the same reaction before. Then he saw it. A pile of tools under the stairs ---- wrenches, shredded PVC pipe, other plumbing equipment ---- and a ragged, bloodstained pile of t-shirts. Stitchmouth rifled through them quickly, caking her pale forearms with the dried blood. She held them up, one by one, for Byron to read.

Hiller Plumbing. (Call a Smiley face truck today!)

Orkin. (Ask the Orkin Man.)

FDT. (We know home security.)

So Byron would become the Sharpe cable guy who was torn apart by the binocular thief. The girl was scribbling furiously on the old plumbing work order with a sharpie. He watched her write. His kneecaps felt like they were being pummeled by ballpeen hammers.

CAN'T LEAVE. HAD YOUR SCENT SINCE YOU WERE LITTLE. CIRCLING OUTSIDE, WAITING FOR YOU.

She was screaming again, but mostly, it sounded like his tea kettle with five pillows muffling the whistle. She wrote something down again and tucked the post-it note in his breast shirt pocket. Then, she was hauling ass.

She had the crawlspace hatch open as fast as he could get there. She was panicked, her eyes jerking from the front door to the opening under the staircase. He switched on his Mag-lite and maneuvered himself through the ripped out hole in the middle of the dryrotted floorboards. The last thing he saw before he dropped ten feet to soft earth and the smell of death was her pale blue eyes and a somber smile, marred by intrusions of black threads and the needle-bored holes of her forced operation. A princess being held captive, slowly transforming in to a witch in the captivity of the monster. Terrible fucking luck, that was.

He pulled the note out and read it before he started moving.

HE WILL KNOW. TEN MINUTES. REACH THE END AND EMERGE BY RIVERBANK.

He didn't have his breathing mask, and so he was forced to rely on the drywalled crust of his cupped palm fo filter the stench. Instead of decay, spilled blood, and stagnant mud, it was flakes of drywall and sawdust, breathing through his mouth. His teeth and gums were sodden and crunching, brittle with the dregs of drilled out walls within moments, and he coughed and sputtered. No roots or signs of life were overhead in the earth of tunnel. It was him, the glopping slosh of his boots in knee-deep clay, and the smell. Four minutes had passed. Byron grunted and surged forward, trudging harder. His steel-toed shoes were lumbering and clumsy, sinking him knee-deep with each step until his calves were on fire from lifting them out. Glop. Rise up. Glop. Trip face first and eat the filth. Rise up. Glop. Two minutes left.

Although his entire body was covered in it, the smell of the mud was diminishing. Overpowering it was the decay and union of the earth with corpses. Byron sank his boot down and hit something hard. A mangled human head. Part of the scalp was sheared off, revealing white skull bone beneath. The Home HVAC hat was crinkled and the brim was hanging by one thread, embedded in the slosh a few feet away. Byron vomited. One minute left.

Now he saw where the corridor terminated. He'd been there once before, when this tunnel victims didn't exist and the yellow-eyed fiend had been but a tiny thing, feeding off the small animals and rodents of Byron and his brother's old hide-and-go-seek-dodgeball grounds. Now it was mature. Smart. Manipulative. Holding a young girl hostage to keep its secret.

Byron tripped again and gritted his teeth. He was free of the mud at last, and now there was only a thin ray of moonlight rising like a spire through the middle of the deep sinkhole. To the hint of an opening, an escape. It was close ---- the stench of blood and innards emanating from the house-end of the tunnel was almost visible with its strength. There was a lithe and agile pattering of claws, and then the visage of Byron's childhood horror was no longer imaginary. For the longest time, its form was fictional in his mind's eye, gripping him with a fear of the intangible. Despite the trend in human beings to create their own fear in the presence of the unknown, the real thing in Byron's case was much, much worse.

There wasn't a moment of silence or trepidation in which the thing stood there and allowed Byron to take in what was hunting him. Its assault was instinctual and immediate, and yet the yellow eyes held a certain malignant deliberance. The young man's scent wafted across the air and through the senses of the shapeshifting razor fiend. Where the sharp knife teeth ended and gave way to black gum and gristled beard, chunks of bone and coagulated drippings were entangled. The leftovers of previous feedings.

Byron backed in to the wall in an instant moment as it pounced forward with lightning speed. Where his head had been before, there was now the crazed gnashing of the maw and a rapid swiping of cleft bone claws. Mud and earth were reaved in waves from the wall as it missed him by inches. He had no choice but to attempt to fight. He would pass out from the stink before he could run.

He reached in to his toolbelt and scanned the pockets by fingertip, trying to discern if there was anything he could protect himself with. He pulled out his needlenose pliers and held them clenched tightly against his palm, waiting for the next pass. The tip of the tool had broken Byron's own skin, and yet he didn't even notice. He was staring at the pair of Zeiss binoculars, the muddy lenses still intact, hanging from the thief's neck.

It roared and leaped on its haunches, claws extended, ready to eviscerate the neck of Seventeen thirty-one Rural Hill Drive's only cable technician in the past twenty five years.

Byron tried to strafe himself in to the corner in time, but sharp talons sank in to muscle and sinew between his neck and shoulder, and he crumpled to the ground under the weight of the thing. It pinned him, depressing its muscular haunches down in to his shins, two apexed claws resting their edges against his adam's apple. Hot expellations reminiscent of sour, sun-curdled milk and raw, tenderized meat came out of the mouth of the thing in waves, intoxicating Byron's senses. His eyes watered and his stomach turned upside down. He vomited again. It bore down in to his shoulder, reopening the wound a few inches wider, his body sinking down in to the mud and corpse-filth under the creature's weight. Byron's eyes, nose, and mouth filled with the stink. His ears filled with mud as the canyon formed around his head at razor point.

A rapid, guttural groaning came from the beast as it shook in jubilation. The yellow-eyed thing wrapped the strap of the Zeiss lenses around its claw, dangling them in front of Byron's face. back and forth. Hypnotizing him with the most elusive birthday present of his lifetime. It was laughing at him.

Byron turned to gain enough leverage to bring the point of the needlenose upward just as It began to chew on his shoulder blade. The tool bit through fur and hardened skin until he felt it twist through the jaw cavern from below. Byron stretched the handle apart as hard as he could. The entire time, he was screaming.

Sheets of flesh peeled back like the skin of an orange and Byron kept pushing. It bored upward, until the yellow glow of life in the thing's stare was but a solidified amber, unmoving and without any sign of life. Byron sank another foot in to the mud with the dismembered head of the thing inches from his face and the weighty hulk of its form trapping him in the sinkhole.

Forty minutes later, it was dry heaving in spastic bursts because his stomach didn't have anything of substance to yield to his vomiting any longer. He'd managed to strap the gaffs from his tool belt to his boots and begin the long ascent upward. He didn't need the fire department. The binoculars swayed around his neck, carrying the stench with them, and yet he was almost accustomed to the smell by now. When he gaffed upward to the sound of rushing water, crickets, and bullfrogs, fresh grass clumping at his pawing fingertips had never felt so welcome. He let out a primal scream in to the darkness, an echo of his triumph, before ripping the Sharpe Telecomm shirt from his torso and throwing it down the hole.

Byron lay there for a long while, gasping with the deliciousness of untainted oxygen. Then, he limped up the riverbank to Rural Hill Drive. He did the cone-dance and started the engine. Then, he went inside. Stitchmouth wasn't there to sign the work order. After setting it ablaze, Byron watched the house burn for five minutes before he left.

The fire department arrived at Rural Hill around the same time that Byron backed his van's rear bumper through the left brick wall of Sharpe Telecomm's Metro dispatch office. Before security could attempt to locate him, he'd already had time to throw his resignation papers through the boss's corner office window, strapped to a brick, as well as a post-it note on Soll's desk.

If my back-up alarm was working, you would have heard me coming. My route is complete. I quit.

A few nights later, as the moon reached its apex in the summer sky, Byron sat on the soft edge of the riverbank and had shots of his brother's favorite sourmash bourbon. He raised his binoculars to look upon the stars in closer detail. Instead of constellations and wisps of moonlight across the willows, he saw only fractured, distorted glimpses among the shards.

Both lenses had shattered.

Terrible fucking luck, that was.