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Scott Nicholson

Forever never ends

PROLOGUE: TUESDAY

It fell from the heavens.

The object cut a hot, green-yellow slice through the dark belly of the atmosphere and shot to earth under the cover of twilight clouds.

It rammed into the worn granite of the Appalachian mountainside, plowing into the ground and throwing bits of rock and shredded fern and stump dust into the air. Steam rose from its scalded shell and joined the night fog. The thing inside the shell rested, wounded from the impact and weary from its journey across galaxies.

It would heal. It always had.

The rain began, clattering across the metallic skin. An orifice opened, dripping sulfuric meringue, and a trembling tendril tested the air. Then it drooped to the ground and probed the soil, verifying that its instinct had not failed.

Bacteria. Protozoa. Amino acids. Life.

Food.

CHAPTER ONE

Tamara Leon ran across the parking lot with rain pounding her head and shoulders. She hadn't brought her umbrella today, and she cursed herself for the oversight. The fierce winds of a Southern Appalachian spring often reduced umbrellas to rags and twisted metal anyway. Still, it would have given her a meager talisman against the rain gods if nothing else.

She rammed the key into the door lock of her Toyota sedan and worked the handle, then slid into the driver's seat as rain drummed the roof. Tamara slammed the door and caught her breath, her leather satchel spotted with water. She looked at herself in the rearview mirror to see if the Gloomies were hiding in her eyes.

Nope, only eyes.

She wiped a clear circle on the fogged window with the sleeve of her coat. The brick buildings of Westridge University stood clean, square, and solid around the perimeters of the parking lot. The college had all the personality of a tweedy, pipe-smoking administrator. Not a hint of controversy roamed those halls, except when Tamara cut loose with one of her more spectacular psychology theories. Like the existence of extra sensory perception.

She started the car to let the heat circulate before she started the long drive up the mountain. The rain continued to pelt down like liquid ball bearings. At least it wasn’t snowing. Then the half-hour drive could easily stretch into two or three hours. She pulled out of the parking lot, the windshield wipers beating sheets of water off the glass.

Tamara slid a tape into the cassette deck, Wild Planet by the B-52’s, and killed the miles by singing along with Cindy and Kate, making up harmony parts as the duo wailed away in the high registers. Drivers passing her, seeing her bobbing up and down in her seat and shaking her head from side to side, probably took her for a drunk. But she was doing a great job of closing down, putting the workday behind her.

This was her time. She wasn't Dr. Leon and she wasn't 'Mommy' or 'honey,' as she would be in a half hour. And time away from home meant a delay in defending herself from Robert’s increasingly cruel taunts. She could pretend, at least for another evening, that home was a happy place.

She often wondered if her whole life had been role-playing. Little tomboy, teenage jock, valedictorian of her college class, wife, professor, mother, unheralded backup singer for the B-52's. Everything but Daddy's little girl. The one thing she would have liked to have been, but had never gotten the chance.

The miles whirred by under her wet tires, and soon she hit the outskirts of Windshake. She drove past a stucco-sided motel that hugged the edge of a cliff. A plastic black bear stood by the motel office, its paws raised against the rain. It wore a black T-shirt that said John 3:16 in white letters. Most days, she could look out over the valleys below and see a 180-degree panorama. But today she saw only a mist that covered the mountains like a gray wool blanket. She had just crossed the county line when the first whispering of Gloomies echoed in the caves of her skull.

Shhhh, they seemed to say, as if calming her, hushing her, lulling her into dropping her defenses. But her defenses were rock solid, the Great Wall of China against Mongol hordes. Gloomies didn’t exist. Hadn’t Robert told her that a dozen times, each reminder more terse and insistent than the one before? Didn’t the world say people with ESP were crazy?

She passed a boarded fruit stand that huddled under a red gap of hill. Through the chicken wire that had been strung across the front of the store, shelves of honey jars caught the last feeble daylight and reflected back like golden eyes. Rubber tomahawks and long burgundy ears of Indian corn hung from the rafters. A life-sized hillbilly doll, corncob pipe tucked into the black bush of its beard, sat in a rocker under an awning, its stitched face fixed on the highway.

Corn farmers and barn dances, church socials and knitting bees. Cow pastures and cornfields. Burley tobacco warehouses and craft shops. Windshake wasn't a melting pot, it was a big black kettle where you dipped your slaughtered hogs.

The quaint attraction of small-town mountain life had worn off in a couple of months. Quite a change from Chapel Hill. That community had a real international flavor and was an energetic wellspring of ideas. There, people gathered in coffeehouses and bars and discussed Sartre and Pollock, Camus and Marxism. Here, they drank liquor from Dixie cups in the Moose Lodge parking lot and talked about hubcaps. She wasn’t sure which of the two lifestyles was the most compelling.

The sibilant noise wended through the alleys of her head again: Shhhhh.

No. She wasn’t hearing telepathic signals. The Gloomies could keep to themselves. Because they aren’t real, are they?

Tamara cranked the stereo another notch, and Fred Schneider talk-chanted his way through an amphetamine-fueled tune about a girl from Planet Claire. She took the narrow fork into their neighborhood, a cluster of small houses at the foot of the slopes. The closer she got to the driveway, the tighter her stomach clenched, her body anticipating another showdown. What would it be tonight, cold indifference or hot rage?

Think happy thoughts.

At least Robert had a job here and the family was relatively secure. She was lucky to have a position at Westridge. Even if she had given up her assistantship at the University of North Carolina, where she'd been a rising star in the psychology department.

Don't think about it. Robert wanted to stay, wanted you to develop your career. At least, that’s what he said. Maybe that’s where the gap had started, the trickle that eroded into a canyon.

She’d watched his face grow longer and older as he came home jobless every day, tired from delivering air check tapes to Piedmont radio stations, worn out from filling up program directors’ voicemail boxes, pissed off at the media whiz kids who wouldn't recognize talent even if it came from Walter Cronkite's golden pipes.

She’d decided that, for his self-esteem and their mutual happiness, they'd be better off moving here, where Robert had been offered a shift. It meant a cut in pay for Tamara and not much of a boost in overall household income. But her sacrifice had been repaid with sullen resentment, and her disturbed sleep and headaches didn’t help matters.

Because she had been stupid enough to share her suspicions, that the strange set of sensations she’d nicknamed the Gloomies were back.

The invisible voice came again, louder, more drawn out this time: Shhhhuuu.

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