Book excerpt

Before the Cradle Falls

James F. David

Tor/Forge

1
 
The Park
 
Sunday, 10:25 P.M.
Carolee and Carolynn Martin left Meaghan’s house on the run. They had promised their mother they would be home by 10:30 P.M. and it was nearly that already. Their mother was strict and being even a few minutes late would get them grounded.
Carolynn led the way, jogging down the block along the park, following their usual path home. Carolee struggled to keep up. The Martin girls weren’t identical twins and quite different in everything from physique to personality. Puberty hadn’t run its full course yet but it was clear both would resemble their mother with slight figures—thin but not skinny. Carolynn had their mother’s blond hair, and Carolee their father’s dark brown. Both were pretty, but only Carolynn had found the courage to actually date a boy and then only to go roller-skating with his church’s youth group. Nancy Martin didn’t believe freshmen girls should date and approved the roller-skating trip reluctantly.
“Slow down, Lynn!” Carolee called to her sister.
Carolynn ignored her, keeping up her fast pace. Carolynn was the dominant twin, quick with ideas, creative, outgoing, and reckless. She took a risk now, angling across the street toward the park.
“We’re not supposed to cut through the park at night,” Carolee protested, still following her sister.
“If we don’t, we’ll be late, Lee,” Carolynn shouted back.
The Martins had moved into an apartment near the park three years ago after their parents split up. It wasn’t a divorce, exactly. The Martins were still married. Their father had simply left one day and never come back. Unable to afford their home on one income, Nancy Martin was forced to sell their house and moved herself and the girls into the apartment. Adjusting to the loss of space and privacy had been difficult. Eventually, the girls made new friends and with them explored the vast North Portland park, discovering its many secret places. During the day the park was a bright and active place with a swimming pool, playground, ball fields, and picnic tables. At night the park was dark and forbidding, full of shadows and a frightening silence. There had been problems in the park at night—fights and drinking mostly; teenagers using the dark to do secret teenage things. Carolee and Carolynn knew about night in the park but still here they were. Fearful of what hid in the park’s shadows, Carolee ran harder now, keeping close to her sister’s heels.
The park was sprinkled with mature fir trees that towered into the night sky, their canopy creating deep night shadows far below. There were open spaces too, and patches of shrubbery; large rhododendrons where children played hide-and-seek and other chase and catch games during the day. Deeper in the park was the playground, lit by one halogen bulb mounted high on the “rec-shack” where balls and jump ropes were handed out in the summer and where kids could buy gimp to make key chains and necklaces. As the girls approached the playground they saw movement. The merry-go-round was turning and in the dim light they could see three people riding.
Carolynn slowed, Carolee stumbling to keep from running into her.
“Watch it, Lynn,” Carolee said.
“Quiet,” Carolynn whispered back. “There’s someone in the park.”
The girls kept moving, angling away from the playground, trying to keep in the shadows. Carolee could see three teenage boys holding beer bottles. Empty bottles were scattered around the playground. Two more boys stepped out of the darkness, one of them pointing in their direction. Pulse already pounding from the run, Carolee’s heart now thumped loudly. The merry-go-round stopped rotating, one of the teenagers standing, eyes locked on them. More boys came from behind the rec-shack, some staggering while they swigged from brown bottles. Something was shouted, the boys erupting in laughter. There was more talking now, some laughter, then shouting and cheers. Then, with a last round of laughter, the boys sprinted toward the girls.
“Run,” Carolynn shouted.
Carolee ran faster than she ever had, discovering how fear can drive your body like no other emotion. She raced after her sister in a reckless run for home. Carolynn was pulling away from her at the same time she heard the pounding of feet behind her. She risked a quick look over her shoulder and saw the pack of boys spread out behind her, the leading edge only a few steps behind. She didn’t have any more speed so she dodged around the trunk of the next tree, hoping the shadows would confuse them as she angled in a new direction. She lost sight of Carolynn when she did. Her quick move didn’t fool the boys. Instead, the pack split, half the boys following her, the others continuing after Carolynn.
They ran her down a half minute later, the fastest boy coming up behind and pushing her sideways, tangling her feet and sending her into a tumble. The rest of the boys pounded to a stop as she got to her feet. Carolee found herself surrounded by a half-dozen teens, all breathing hard, some swaying from inebriation.
“Don’t hurt me,” Carolee said, backing in a circle, looking for a face she knew, someone to befriend her.
“We ain’t gonna hurt you,” one of the boys said, stepping forward, taking charge. “We just want you to come to our party.”
 “I’ve got to go home,” Carolee said, still looking for a friend. She vaguely recognized some of the boys from high school. She thought they were upperclassmen, two were on the football team. They had never spoken to her. Seniors were above noticing freshmen.
“What’s your name, sweet thing?” the leader asked, stepping closer.
“Carolee,” she replied, trying to sound calm.
The boy’s speech was slightly slurred but his body steady. Most of the others were swaying.
“I’ve got to go home,” Carolee said, pleading.
“Not now, it’s party time,” the boy said, stepping into her personal space.
Carolee could smell the beer on his breath and turned her head. Suddenly he grabbed he wrist, twisting her arm behind her and pulling her against his body. The pack cheered, howling and whistling approval.
“She wants you, Marcus,” one shouted.
“Every girl wants me,” Marcus said.
Carolee tried to push away with her free hand but now he held her with both, grinding his hips against hers.
“Please, let me go!” she pleaded.
A shout in the distance quieted the boys and Marcus released his bear hug, still holding her wrist. The other splinter group was calling and Marcus shouted back, telling them they had caught her. Helpless, Carolee was dragged toward the playground, the other boys trailing along, some stumbling along in a near stupor. There were a half-dozen boys circled near the merry-go-round now. When they parted to let Marcus drag Carolee to the center she saw her sister. Carolynn was on her knees, her blouse torn open, her arms across her chest. Her nose was bleeding and she was dirty. A boy towered over her, the others looking on in a mixture of horror and lust. Carolee pulled away from Marcus, dropping down to her sister, putting her arms around her. Carolynn was sobbing and flinched when Carolee touched her. Carolee soothed her with words, pulling her sister’s torn blouse around her body, Carolynn pulling the edges closed.
“All right, Marcus!” the boy nearest Carolynn said. “Time to party!”
 “Looks like she gave you some trouble,” Marcus said.
“Naw. I like it rough and so does she,” the boy said, eliciting nervous laughter from the others. “Damn good-looking too.” Then looking at Carolee, “She’s pretty fine too, but I want her first,” the boy said, pointing back at Carolynn.
Marcus looked uncertain, as if he realized things had gone too far. The other boy was full of nervous energy and like a live wire moved constantly.
“Give me a drink,” the jittery boy said.
A bottle in a brown bag was passed forward.
“Let me have some, Rico,” Marcus said, waiting for his friend to finish his long swig.
Cued by the ringleaders, the rest of the boys drank—most from beer bottles. The boys surrounding them were layered, with Marcus and Rico at the center, leading the assault, the boys immediately around them on the fence, not quite ready to join in but wanting it to happen. Those in the back were unsure, hoping the attack wouldn’t go further but like spectators at an accident, unable to turn away. Carolee knew what happened now depended on the next few seconds. It wasn’t too late to stop the attack.
“Please don’t hurt us anymore,” Carolee said.
Caught mid-swig, Rico didn’t hear what she said, and bent toward the huddled girls. Before Carolee could repeat what she said Carolynn launched herself at Rico, fingernails raking his face.
Rico staggered back, then with a roundhouse swing caught Carolynn on the side of the head, knocking her to the ground. Carolee crawled toward her sister but Marcus snaked an arm around her waist, dragging her back.
“That does it,” Rico shouted. “She’s asking for it. Hold her!”
 When the boys near Carolynn hesitated, Rico cursed his friends and ordered them to hold her down. Finally, two boys stepped forward, grabbing for Carolynn’s flailing arms, pinning her to the ground. Then Rico climbed over her, sitting on her stomach, pulling at the remnants of her blouse.
“No! Leave her alone,” Carolee pleaded.
“Hold her,” she heard Marcus shout.
Then Carolee felt hands on her, two boys pulling her to the ground. Then Marcus was on her, copying Rico’s moves. There was no doubt on Marcus’s face now. Drunk, hormones pumping through his system, Marcus’s had passed the point of no return. When he touched her body she exploded in tears.
“There’s someone coming, Rico!” one of the boys suddenly shouted.
The boys froze mid-attack, Carolee’s blouse bunched in Marcus’s hands. There was a voice in the distance, someone shouting.
“Shut up!” Marcus hissed to Carolee.
“Help! Please help me!” Carolee shouted before a hand was clamped over her mouth.
“It’s just an old man,” Rico said.
“Leave those girls alone,” Carolee heard a man shout, the voice nearer.
“I’m getting out of here,” one of the boys in the back said,
two others leaving with him.
“We can take him,” Rico said, but Carolee could see Marcus had sobered, now repulsed by what he was about to do. She could see remorse in his eyes and she cried again, this time from relief.
“I’ve called the police,” the man coming through the darkness said, holding something up in his hand.
“Let’s go, Rico,” Marcus said.
The hands holding Carolee released, the boys running off.
Rico lingered, even as the boys holding Carolynn ran.
“They’ll tell,” Rico said, looking from Carolynn to the approaching figure. Then to Carolynn he said, “If you tell anyone about this I’ll hurt you!”
 Then Rico ran after Marcus, quickly disappearing into the shadows. Now Carolee saw the man coming between tree trunks, wearing a long overcoat and a hat. Carolee crawled to her sister who was sitting up now, putting her torn clothes back together as best she could. Both girls were crying and they hugged each other.
“Get out of the park,” their savior said.
Carolee helped Carolynn to her feet.
“I’m all right,” Carolynn said. “Mamma’s gonna kill me.”
Carolee looked at the man who was moving into the light. His hat shaded part of his face but what she could see was a peculiar color.
“Thank you,” Carolee said, but the man shook his head, dismissing the thank you.
“Give this to the police,” the man said, handing Carolee a small piece of paper.
Carolee put the paper in her pocket and tried to thank him again.
“Go home!” the man said angrily.
Carolee didn’t understand the man’s anger but desperately wanted to be home. She wanted to shower and scrub every part of her body where she had been touched. This time Carolee led the way, running through the park even though her body was exhausted by the tension and her struggle against the hands that had held her down. For a change, Carolynn followed her, a few yards behind. Carolee thought of Rico’s threat but planned to tell her mother what happened anyway. From the bruises on Carolynn’s face and their torn clothes their mother would know half the story at her first glance and Carolee would fill in the rest despite her fear of Rico. Those boys would pay for what they had done.
A few minutes later Carolee broke out of the park onto the street that led to their apartment complex. Nearly exhausted, she slowed to a walk. There were house lights across the street and a woman walking her dog and it made Carolee feel safe again. The park at night had been a surreal nightmare and she would never again enjoy the park the way she and Carolynn had as children. Then she realized Carolynn wasn’t with her and she turned, waiting for her sister to emerge from the park. A minute passed and then another. Carolee called her sister’s name.
“Lynn, where are you?”
Now panic returned. Lynn had been behind her. Carolee remembered looking over her shoulder at least twice, but how far back was that? Desperate to get out of the park, Carolee had lost track of her sister and now felt guilt for leaving her behind. Remembering the terror of the park’s shadowy interior, she couldn’t force herself to go back. Instead, she turned, fleeing for home.
 
Copyright © 2002 by James F. David James F. David has a Ph.D. from Ohio State University and is currently a professor of Psychology as George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. He is the author of the thrillers Footprints of Thunder, Ship of the Damned and Before the Cradle Falls. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Tigard, Oregon.