Copyright (c) 2015 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
By R. Peterson
Pete Monroe laughed out loud when he saw the faces of Gene and Patrick as they exited the Royal Theatre on Cloverdale’s Townsend Avenue. His boys had just sat through one hour and fifteen minutes of The Hideous Sun Demon a new horror movie starring Robert Clark and Nan Peterson. Patrick’s eyes were as large as Roswell flying saucers and Gene followed so close behind his big brother they were almost wearing the same shoes. “Did you enjoy the movie?” Ellen Monroe asked her children.
“I had to shut my eyes every time Gil McKenna changed into the monster,” nine-year old Patrick moaned. “I’ve never seen such an awful face.”
“He wasn’t looking under his seat when that singer Trudy was on the screen,” his little brother laughed. “That dress she was wearing looked painted on!”
“Where did you pick up that pool-hall talk?” Ellen demanded of her seven-year old. She wasn’t the only post World War II wife and mother who thought America’s values were crumbling.
“From Dad, when I was helping him and Uncle Bert clean the garage,” Gene blabbed. “He said he’d like to be the one to paint a dress on Dorothy Provine.”
Ellen gave her husband a look that said. Boy are you gonna pay for that remark tonight.
Pete steered his 1952 Ford nervously onto Vineyard Road and a grin suddenly crept up his chin. “Honey you missed the turn!” Ellen blurted when her husband went straight instead of turning on Canyon Road.
“How would you boys like to earn some money?’ Pete asked his sons with an alligator smile. Both boys were now hanging over the front seat, eyes wide with excitement. Two silver dollars jingled in Mr. Monroe’s hand. That kind of money could buy a lot of sodas and candy in 1959. “All you have to do is walk or run less than a quarter mile … and I’ll pick you up.”
“Where?’ both boys asked at the same time.
“There,” Pete stopped the car and pointed with the hand holding the silver dollars.
An orange moon like a giant pumpkin illuminated an open gate. A heavy mist rose from the low grounds behind a rusted cast-iron fence that surrounded Black Rose Cemetery.
Patrick stared out the back window of the Ford as Gene tugged on his arm begging. “Come on Pat, that’s a buck each. We can go to the show three times and still have enough left over for a Big-hunk and a Nehi grape each time.”
Ellen Monroe looked at her son sympathetically and then glared at her husband. “You think this is funny, don’t you? Scaring your children half to death.”
“If we forgot to gather the hens' eggs, my father used to tell me and Bert stories about the Slew-Foot Creature and then send us out to the chicken coop after supper,” Pete told his wife. “It didn’t put any hair on our chests, but it made us remember the eggs the next time.”
“We don’t have poultry,” Ellen told her husband.
“Still a buck will buy a lot of eggs,” Pete grinned as he flashed the coins in the moonlight.
“With another dollar you’ll have enough to buy that submarine model you’ve been saving up for in Stephenfield’s Hardware store window,” Gene suggested.
Pete jingled the coins in his hand.
Patrick did some fast figuring. The Nataulas Nuclear Submarine model was $3.99; he already had $2.88. The dollar would put him there … almost. “Alright I’ll do it,’ he said. “But only if you’ll loan me eleven cents so I can buy it Monday after school …” Patrick looked out the window and gulped. “… if I’m still alive.”
“Here’s the deal kids,” Pete was smiling. He drove a little way past the cemetery and turned right on a dirt maintenance road. This was going to be fun. “I’ll drive to where they dump discarded grave flowers on the North East corner and let you guys out. There is a small gate there. I’ll park back here and flash my lights. You boys will then walk the cemetery from corner to corner and I’ll pick you up.”
“That’s too far,” Ellen shook her head, “It looks like it could rain at any time. You’re are cruel man, Peter Monroe.”
“This is a funny story they’ll someday be able to tell their own kids,” her husband argued.
Ellen Monroe looked like she was ready to cry as they drove away leaving her children huddled together next to the small chain-link gate.
Pete parked his Ford so that the headlights shown across the rows of tombstones just outside the drive-through gates. With the lights on high-beam he and Ellen could just make out the tiny figures huddled together at the far corner of the nine-acre bone-yard. Pete flashed his lights off and then on again quickly. The boys hadn’t moved. “Pete, they’re terrified,” his wife wailed. “Go back and pick them up this instant.” Pete flashed the lights off again just as a meteor streaked across the sky. When he flicked the headlights on again, he could see two figures silhouetted against the stormy sky. “Look at them go,” he yelled. Pete unrolled his window to better hear his son’s panicked cries. He watched them jump several tombstones and skirt a hedge that was badly in need of a trim. Lightning arched on the horizon and a second later a low rumble shook the ground.
A black cat streaked between a clump of rose bushes and a granite-block mausoleum too old to read the name inscribed above the iron door. He lost sight of his children as they ran through a low spot in the rolling slopes that made up the oldest part of the cemetery. A large black bird soared into the air, probably a crow or a raven. Pete looked for the tell-tell splayed feathers at the end of each wing but the star-swallowing sky made it hard to determine.
Pete turned his lights off and looked at his watch it was 9:14. He laughed softly as he imagined his sons’ terror at the loss of the finding-our-way-home beacon. A white line appeared just below the moon. “Stop that!’ his wife screeched. Pete turned the lights back on and was surprised when he didn’t see his children re-appear in the car’s high beam. A ragged gulley, that traversed the graveyard at a diagonal like a scar through the mowed grass, was famous for washouts that sometimes exposed ancient bones from old west times when Cloverdale had been South Fork and men were often buried in their boots without coffins.
“That ravine is full of old exposed tree-roots,” Ellen fumed. “They could have snagged a foot and broken a leg.”
“More likely they decided to play a trick on their old man,” Pete said. “When I go over to see what’s become of them, they’ll jump out and try to scare the daylights out of me.”
“If they do, you’ll deserve it,” his wife told him. A cold wind blew from the south and parted Pete’s hair sideways as he opened the car door.
“That’s enough hiding,” Pete called as he walked carefully among the old monuments. He expected Patrick and Gene to jump-out at any minute and he was on edge. “Show yourselves now or one of the dollars is going back in my pocket.”
Pete was through the ravine and almost to the cast-iron fence at the far end before he turned back. His eyes were adjusting to the absence of light. If the boys were hiding, he didn’t know where. He was almost to the car when he turned and began to search again, this time in a wider area.
Ten minutes later, Ellen started up the Ford and drove slowly through the cemetery, calling out her open window. “Come back to the car boys. Your dad is sorry for trying to scare you and it won’t happen again, will it Pete?”
Her husband was beyond hearing. His casual gait had turned into a jog as he crossed the graveyard numerous times calling his son’s names.
An hour later, a now bawling Ellen left her husband and drove the car back into Cloverdale to fetch the Sheriff.
A light rain was falling. John Walker and six deputies searched the entire cemetery with high powered flashlights and three patrol cars idling with high beam headlamps sweeping above the rows of headstones. A dozen volunteer searchers covered the surrounding fields. “They’re not here.” John told his deputies. “Cover all the roads in every direction a mile out and work your way back in.”
Patrolman Rick Davis, a former boyfriend of Ellie before she became Mrs. Monroe, hugged a weeping Ellen as the county police cars sped from the crime scene. “Don’t worry, if they’re here we’ll find them,” he assured her. With her sobbing head buried in the officer’s shoulder Ellen didn’t see the scornful look Davis shot at her husband. Pete was crawling on his hands and knees about a hundred feet from where he’d left his boys, covered with mud and trying to find tracks with a borrowed Coleman lantern.
“These are Keds’ prints,” Pete told the Sheriff as John Walker tried to get him to come back to the patrol car for a cup of coffee. “That’s the shoes Patrick was wearing!” Pete raked his now bloody and swollen fingers through the wet grass looking for sign. “This smudge here might have come from Gene’s hand-me-down hiking boots. They were a little too large and always twisted a little when he ran.”
The soft rain was now falling harder. It was as if the sky had opened up and poured forth its grief. John Walker took hold of Pete Monroe and dragged him back to his Sheriff’s car just as the rain turned to a downpour. “Whatever marks they left will be gone now,” John told the struggling father. “We’ll put out an APB. If they’re still in Montana, we’ll find them.”
“Still in Montana?” Ellen was screaming. “My boys were on foot! How far could they have gone?’
Rick Davis seemed eager to offer an explanation. “Sometimes children are abducted, by persons unknown. It’s almost dawn. Your kids could be halfway across the state by now.”
“That’s a slim chance,” the Sheriff injected. If the look he gave the city patrolman had been a loaded gun, Corporal Rick Davis would have been dead. “They probably got lost in the dark and are holed up in a barn somewhere trying to stay dry.”
Lightning crackled three times as if laughing at his overly optimistic assumption.
It was after ten AM when John Walker released Pete and Ellen from police custody. The rain had subsided and the unwelcome sun was shining brightly. Ellen Monroe had cried so many tears there was nothing left. Her eyes scanned the farm grounds in all directions as her husband once again turned onto Vineyard Road. “We promised we’d go right home and let the police do their job,” she told her husband. She glanced in the rear-view mirror. Rick Davis was still following in his patrol car to see that they both got home safely.
“I don’t care what you promised,” Pete told here. “I aim to find my children or die trying.”
“Damn you to hell!” Ellen spat at her husband. Her rage was lost on Pete; there was nothing in the world that could make him feel any worse.
Pete was on his knees again near the gulley when Officer Davis led Ellen back to his car. “Your husband needs to sort things out for himself,” he told her. “I’ll give you a ride home and he can come along in your car when he’s ready.”
Davis stayed with Ellen until Dr. Descombey arrived and injected her with a sedative to make her sleep. “What about her husband?” Davis asked Sheriff Walker when he returned to the police station.
“Leave him be,” John told him. “If he doesn’t come in by the end of the day we’ll take him into protective custody for his own good. We’ve got two missing kids. What we don’t need is a dead body to go with them.”
Pete Monroe thought he had found another smudge under about three inches of clear water in the bottom of the gulley. He couldn’t tell if it was a cat track or part of a shoe print. When he leaned forward for a closer look, his knees, weakened from an endless night of searching, slipped in the mud and he splashed head first into the muck. “Why me God?” Pete screamed at the sky. “What have I done to deserve this?”
The shadow from a large bird crossed the ground but Pete didn’t see through the swell of tears.
One week later Ellen Monroe found her husband wandering through the cemetery at dawn. He’d been out all night during another rain shower and had a temperature of 104 when Dr. Descombey checked him at his clinic. Pete Monroe was admitted to Cloverdale General Hospital for pneumonia and a severe case of depression. The fluid in his lungs was gone after three weeks. The depression never left.
The All Points Bulletin issued across five states proved fruitless. The Monroe boys seemed to have vanished off the face of the Earth. The official explanation that Sherriff Walker typed into his report stated abducted by person or persons unknown. As the months went by Ellen Monroe slowly began to heal with the help of Rick Davis who found an excuse to drop by almost daily. Her husband was never home. The sheriff’s department or sometimes neighbors would find him wandering Black Rose at all hours of the day or night and in all kinds of weather.
Six months after the boys’ disappearance, Judge Henry Wallace had Peter Eugene Monroe committed to State Hospital North for sanity testing and observation. Pete spent long hours staring from his upstairs cell-like room at the cemetery next door that had stolen his children and made his own life unlivable.
Pete Monroe plopped onto the four inch thick mattress that made a bed in his room without feeling the bounce. He didn’t feel much of anything anymore. It had been almost six weeks since Ellen’s last visit. The names and dates on each tombstone and every bent blade of grass and smudged piece of soil in the cemetery played through his brain like an endless series of flash cards. He relived every moment of the night when everything had changed. There was a clue somewhere, there had to be. Pete clung to this tiny thread of hope as his life slowly unraveled.
George Pickett, the hospital psychiatrist was the one who broke the news of Mrs. Peter Monroe’s divorce filing in late 1967. Pete took the news as just one more blow that could no longer hurt his battered mind and body. A few days later, he found a piece of stout wire unraveling under his mattress box springs. Pete considered removing it and wrapping one end around his neck with the other end jammed into the cell room’s light socket. It was an easy way out and Pete was long past the point of fearing pain. He had the mattress lifted and one end of the wire free when someone knocked on his door.
Tim Brennerman was a newly hired clinical aide with a degree in Social Services and a passion for star gazing. “That’s the Sears/Lockwood comet,” he said crossing the room and pointing out the barred window at a white smudge on the pre-dawn sky. “It only comes round every eight years or so.” Pete sat on his mattress and stared at the floor. “I read your file,” Tim said. “It’s hard to lose one child let alone two.” Pete would not acknowledge that he was even listening. “The last time that comet was here was within a day or two of when your children went missing.” Tim looked at Pete with compassion. “Many people in this world believe that a comet is a kind of frozen chariot that sometimes whisks people away when it passes. They are doomed to ride the streak forever unless they are brought back the same instant they were taken. If a comet can disappear and be gone for so long and then return, maybe children can too. One chance, one moment in time is all anybody gets.”
Pete could recall every detail of that night. He remembered the white smudge under the moon. This new thread of hope was hopelessly insane and tiny, but it was the only thing keeping him alive.
Pete Monroe applied for release but Judge Wallace and the hospital psychiatrist said that although he showed improvement, his stay was extended for another six months … for his own good. Pete used the time to study comets and their orbits. Brennerman loaned him his large collection of space body texts and brought others from the library. After just six weeks Pete was an expert. The Sears/Lockwood comet appeared every eight years and ninety-two days and crossed from horizon to horizon in a matter of hours. Peter Monroe was no longer a man obsessed, he was a man on fire. The comet was due to return on May 18th. just three weeks away.
Ellen Monroe had been in to see her former husband just once since the divorce. Pete had been immersed in a book describing paranormal and occult phenomena and had hardly looked at her. This time he gazed at her with hopeful eyes. “I’ve got good news,” he told her. “The Sears/Lockwood comet … it’ll be back in two weeks!” Ellen saw the familiar light in his eyes that was more of a mind fire than a hope. “That’s where the children are,” he said. “Riding through space in a kind of deep freeze chariot.”
Ellen looked at her former husband and shook her head. “Bad things happen in this world,” she said. “I’ve learned to move on. You need to too.” She dropped an envelope on the mattress before she left. Pete opened it with shaking hands. The former Ellen Monroe and Rick Davis were getting married on the night of May 18th.
Pete spent the next three weeks talking to Tim Brennerman and pouring over every occult book he could find. The clinical aide had lost a younger brother when he was twelve. “Just like he vanished off the face of the Earth,’ Tim told him. “It’s what started me looking at the world and all the weird goings on that happen every day.” He looked at Pete hopefully. “I’d give anything to bring back my brother, but it looks like you only get one chance. Comets don’t go on forever. One, two passes … and most of them burn up when they fly into the sun.”
There was a world to put right and Pete knew he had to escape State Hospital North. One morning Tim’s favorite patient was gone when Tim opened the door carrying a breakfast tray. The bars on the window had been removed with a hacksaw. Tim put the diamond edged tool he found on the floor back in his pocket. A pillow and an extra change of clothes were arranged under a blanket to look like a sleeping body. “I can give you till the end of my shift,” Tim told the empty room. “Then the next guy coming on is sure to turn the hounds loose.”
Ellen Monroe was in the back room of the small church putting on her wedding dress when Pete climbed silently through a window. Gloria Simpson, Ellen’s maid of honor had just slipped out to look for a string of borrowed pearls. “Pete! What are you doing here?” Pete covered her mouth with his hand before she could scream.
“You may not want me anymore Ellen, and I can’t say as how I blame you,” Pete whispered. “But I promised that I would bring our children back, and that’s what I’m going to do … or die trying.”
“You’re crazy,” Ellen spat as Pete dragged her through the window. A minute later he was stuffing her into his waiting car. “This thing still runs?” Ellen swore as he pushed her into the passenger seat of the Bel-Air. “I thought it died the same time you did.”
“I’ve thought about that night every waking moment for the past eight years,” Pete told her. A pistol was suddenly in his hand. “I’ve got one chance to make this right. If I’m wrong, it all ends tonight … and I’ll never bother you again.”
“Why wait? Do it now!” Ellen told him. “Rick says when a person is as crazy as you they never get better.”
“Because I’ve got one chance and sometimes that’s all life gives you,” Pete told her.
It was after nine o’clock. Pete stopped at his former house and insisted that Ellen put on the green dress she was wearing the night her children disappeared. “I’ll do it,” his ex-wife told him. “Just for tonight. But then I want you out of my life forever.”
“That’s a promise,” Pete told her solemnly.
An orange moon like a giant pumpkin illuminated an open gate. A heavy mist rose from the low grounds behind a rusted cast-iron fence that surrounded Black Rose Cemetery. Pete parked the Ford in what he thought was the exact spot he’d parked in eight years and ninety-two days earlier. “I hate you,” Ellen spat from the front seat. She started to open the door and Pete held her back. “You ruin the lives of our children and now you try to snuff out any kind of happiness I might have in my life.” Ellen began to cry.
A black cat scurried between the headstones and Pete looked at his watch. It was 9:12. “I’m sorry but I made a promise years ago that I’d bring back my boys. It’s just that I can’t do it alone. I need you here because everything has to be the same. Every little thing has to be just right.”
Pete saw flashing police lights in the distance. Rick Davis must have figured out where Pete would take his ex-wife.
A large black bird soared into the air, probably a raven. Pete looked for the tell-tell splayed feathers at the end of each wing and this time was sure. Three police cars turned into the graveyard.
“You promised that when this was over you’d leave me alone forever,” Ellen reminded him.
“I haven’t forgotten,” Pete said sadly.
A policeman’s voice over a loudspeaker told him to get out of the car with his hands raised.
A white line appeared for just an instant below the moon. Pete closed his eyes and prayed, squeezing his fingernails into his palms hard enough to draw blood. Like Tim said: One chance, one moment in time was all anybody got. He flicked the car headlights off and then on again.
Seconds later Pete and Ellen could both hear laughing. Patrick and Gene flung open the rear doors of the Chevy and flung themselves into the backseat. “We would have been here sooner, but I had to help Patrick clean out his shorts when that black cat ran across our path.” Gene was laughing uncontrollably.
“You were more scared than I was,” Patrick argued. “I didn’t know chickens could run so fast.”
“Where’s our dollars?” both boys demanded with their hands dangling over the front seat. “We made the run … now pay up!”
Pete took the silver dollars he’d kept in his pants pockets for over eight years and dropped one into each boy’s hand. “A deal is a deal,” he told his children. “No-body is ever going to say that Pete Monroe goes back on a promise.”
Both boys noticed their mother crying at the same time. She was hugging each of her sons with a grip that would take eternity to break. No one noticed as Pete opened his door and disappeared into the fog. Patrick later claimed to have heard his father’s joyful but somehow sad voice as if from a distance. “Thank you God … A deal is a deal.”
Just before the gunshot.