CHAPTER THREE- Hurry up and wait.
Comes the dawn, with or without you. It certainly showed up without Barbara or Ray Meadows, both fast asleep until the day was well on its way. Around eight o'clock, Barbara stirred and did a groggy Saturday morning get up. Ten minutes in the bathroom and she was almost awake and ready to head downstairs. Caffeine. Gotta have caffeine. Last night's little adventure was completely forgotten until she wandered through the sunlit kitchen and found the piece of shingle, complete with grass stuck to one corner, on the kitchen table. Dirt and all. Right where Ray left it the night before. Not that many hours before, in fact. She left that charming brown souvenir on the table and started the coffee and breakfast for two. Ray wouldn't sleep much longer. Not even on a Saturday, and especially not the Saturday before April First. There must be more he has to do to get ready.
Truth be told, there wasn't. He was absolutely ready. Picking up that weird Ray II was his last bit of preparation before Monday morning, nine a.m. Or maybe more like nine thirty or so. It depends on how long the C.E.O. is going to ramble on. But, ready or not, Ray was up by eight-thirty, with the smell of coffee and breakfast drifting all the way up to the bedroom. It was definitely time to get up. A quick run to the little Ray’s room and he was out and dressed and ready for- well, maybe not the day- but certainly the start thereof. Jeans, a sweatshirt and some old sneakers. No need to over dress today. He did remember to bundle up his clothes from yesterday and made his way down to the kitchen, bundle under one arm and still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. A late night. And weird, too, as he started to recall.
Ray deposited Friday's work clothes by the door to the basement and sat down hard at the kitchen table. Barbara was ready for him with food and caffeine. At least it wasn't going to be a busy day. Ray thought he could just sit right there for the next two days or so, and that would just fine. Sit right there until Monday morning. Getting too old for these late nights. The coffee was hot and the toast needed buttered. Ray set to work with a knife.
"So that's the infamous shingle?"
Ray had forgotten all about that piece of gritty asphalt, the prize from last night's journey into the unknown. He looked around and found it not far from where he had left it. No doubt about it. That was it.
"Yeah, that's about the size of it. One loose shingle. No big whoop."
"Did it put up much of a fight?"
"I see you had to beat it into submission. Must have been one tough shingle."
Ray had absolutely no idea where Barbara was headed with this. It was a broken piece of shingle. That's all. Wasn't it? Maybe he'd better have another look. Ray reached out across the table and pulled the shingle over to him. Yep, that's the shingle all right. Torn across what must be the back side, where it would have been tucked under the one above it and nailed to the roof. No big deal. Except for that. Didn't see that last night. It was too dark. In spite of the hot coffee and warm toast, Ray couldn't stop a shiver. What caused this?
Across the shingle, diagonally from the upper left toward the lower right, there was a scrape. He hadn't seen that in the darkness, and never turned the light on when he got inside. But there it was, and it sure didn't happen on that kitchen table. This took some serious force. Or a heavy weight. Maybe both. Barbara sat down and looked over at the scarred shingle, now in Ray's hands and being intently stared at by one Ray Meadows.
"So what happened last night? You had to get rough with it?"
"I don't know. I didn't see this last night, but I guess it was there."
"You didn't do that?"
"I don't think so. No."
Ray's mind started to spool up. He was awake now, my friends. More awake than he wanted to be. The sounds of last night came back too easily. What hit the roof? And where is it now? Whatever hit this shingle carved three distinct furrows in the surface, starting light at the top and coming close to pushing all the way through the shingle at the bottom, and hitting it with enough force to rip the shingle loose and slide it off the roof. The marks looked oddly like the top half of a Fleur de Lis- with the center mark straight and pointed, widening in the middle. To either side of that were mirror-image wounds, each curving to the outside, away from that center. All three started out light and ended up deep enough to have pushed the surface grit and asphalt into ridges where they stopped. Ray could feel the scars bulge the underside of the shingle where they stopped. They almost went clear through. Ray was wondering if maybe he'd better go up on the roof and check for damage where this thing hit. Whatever it was. And what was it?
Ray tried to convince himself it could have been a piece of some airplane. Commercial airliners are always shedding parts. He had read about one a few weeks ago: Big chunk of aluminum landed not fifty feet from some guy plowing a field in Iowa. Big excitement for a small town, to say nothing of the farmer. Ray remembered reading that the farmer wouldn't give the piece of debris up to the airline or the FAA. He put it over his mantle. What a conversation piece. Ok, maybe it was aircraft junk. That would have the speed and force to do this, if it were a real small piece. From a low flying plane. Ray was close to believing his own lie when that sound came back again: The thump-scrape-thump-scrape-thump-thump-thump in the middle of the night just above their heads. Moving across the roof. Moving up the roof. Up the roof. Up. This was not caused by inanimate metallic trash. Unless it suddenly learned to climb.
Ray finished up his breakfast without taking his eyes off that shingle. Didn't he have some shingles downstairs in the basement? He was sure there were a few left over. The roofers said to save them. Just in case? In case what? In case something- like a flying moose- came dancing across the roof one night and lost its footing? You never can tell. But he was sure he'd kept them. Time for some experiments into force and damage as they relate to asphalt shingles. Ray picked himself up from the table, feeling like he'd been up all night. He picked up the shingle, too. He also remembered to shag the clothes on his way to the basement door. May as well take care of two things at once. Barbara was watching, wondering why he was so quiet. Not enough coffee? He hadn't finished his first cup.
"Where you headed with all your toys?"
"Basement. Want to try something."
"Wash the clothes in cold water. And don't forget the softener in the rinse."
"Oh, yeah. Ok."
Ray was gone, down the stairs and out of sight. Barbara closed the door to the basement, knowing that Ray could be down there for awhile. Like all day. She also knew the odds of Ray remembering that softener in the rinse was about one in a billion. No big deal. They were his clothes. She cleaned up the kitchen and pondered her Saturday. Might be a good day to fuss around out in the yard. It's warm enough, and the sun is out.
Downstairs in the darkness, Ray was watching that damaged shingle on his workbench as though he expected it to come alive. He was also glancing around at different tools, wondering which one to pick up first. He had found the extra shingles, over in the corner by the cans of dried up paint and the sack of concrete that had somehow solidified right where it was. Entropy, the first law of the workshop. But he did have a small stack of unused shingles to work with. If only he knew what to do next. He thought he needed to try to recreate the damage on a fresh shingle. If only to get some idea of the force involved. Would that tell him what did it? Who knows. Then he remembered: the wash.
A quick detour to the washing machine, and dump the bundle in. Then pull the bundle back out and unroll it. Check the pockets. Oh, look: change. And his car keys. What else? Ah, yes- a Swiss Army knife and everybody's favorite: facial tissues. Nothing like a pocket full of Kleenex to give your wash that I-just-had-a-cold look. Ok, the clothes are ready. Now, what did Barbara say about the water? Cold. Yes: Wash them in cold water. And something about the rinse. OK, maybe that has to be cold too. He stared at the settings on the washer as an archaeologist might try to read hieroglyphics, but with less success. Then he found it: COLD/COLD. Happy that he had found what must be the perfect setting, he twisted the dial and waited for the sound of rushing water. Good deal. He went back to the workbench. It wasn't until the washing mashing starting its rhythmic churning that he remembered that maybe he'd better add some detergent. Like right now. He rushed back and dumped in what he felt must be about the right amount. Which is to say about four times too much. So his clothes would indeed be clean, but if he got caught in the rain next Monday, they would also suds up again. Ray felt he'd done all he could for the wash, and turned his attentions to the shingles on the work bench.
Ray's first choice for damage duplication was a claw hammer. Sixteen ounces of True-Tempered steel. He laid out a fresh shingle on the bench and turned the hammer around, claw-end first. He went for one good glancing swipe and hit the shingle. Yes, indeed, he hit the shingle. It flew off the bench, past him and slid across the floor. Ray put the hammer down and went for the shingle. Back under the strong light of the workbench, Ray compared the two. There was no doubt which was which. His little experiment left two very even parallel marks across the second shingle. So it was possible to mess them up. But the one from last night was nearly cut through. Ray had managed to move the grit, but hardly scratched the surface, really. He started to get a bad feeling in his stomach about whatever hit the roof last night. His mood lightened when he remembered: That roof shingle was nailed down. It wasn't just free to move when it was hit. Bring on another fresh victim. Ray took another shingle and nailed it to the bench. Ok, this is more like it. Won't have to go chasing this one.
The second experimental shingle attack went much better. No silly chasing, and the damage was right there in the light for all to see. Even if Ray was there alone. Ignoring the buzzing coming from the washing machine, Ray took a close look at his second attempt. He pulled up the nail holding it in place and turned the shingle over. Yep, this was it. You could see the force marks on the backside, and the front was really scarred. Just like the other one. Alright. Victory. Then he thought about it. He had really swung that hammer. Hard. If he had been trying to hit a nail like that, he would have buried it. And last night's shingle still looked worse. Oh, boy. Ray sat on his work stool and looked at those two shingles for some time. Maybe he did need to go up and have a look at the roof. Before it rains. And with extra replacement shingles. Sounds like the job of the day. Time for the ladder. Then things got quiet.
It took Ray a moment to figure out what happened. Had he gone deaf? No, it was the washer. It had stopped. Maybe it's done. Ray opened it up. Nothing moving. No water. Must be done. He pulled the clothes out, transferring them to the dryer and spinning the dial to COTTON/STURDY/MORE DRY. The hum and tumble of the dryer had no problem masking the sound of the now empty washing machine starting its rinse cycle. Ray was on his way upstairs and never gave it a second thought. Hope it doesn't rain Monday.
Sometimes people don't get nearly as excited as you'd want them to. In this case, no one seemed too awfully concerned about those two damaged shingles. Ray took them upstairs and showed them to Barbara. Ray wasn't put out over them, so why should Barbara get all worked up? She didn't. Ray left the shingles on the kitchen table (a popular storage area in the Meadows' house) and went for a look around the outside of the house - in daylight this time- before heading out for the garage to get the ladder.
With his less than meticulous approach to outside surveillance, Ray found a grand total of nothing. Not that there was all that much to find. Had he been way too meticulous, and got down on his hands and knees with a magnifying glass, examining every last little piece of something in the yard, he would have found: Very Little. But there was something. Small bits of the damaged shingles (there was more than one) had dribbled off the roof on one side of the house. No big deal, really. All of the bits together wouldn't have filled the flat palm of your hand and they were scattered about. So Ray didn't see a thing. He had found The Big Piece last night, and that was enough. Whatever it was.
Walking off toward the garage, he still didn't have the slightest real theory of what it might have been that skipped across his roof last night like eight drunken reindeer minus the fat guy. Sometimes ignorance is indeed bliss. This was definitely one of those times. In the garage, Ray's eyes got accustomed to the dark and he found the ladder. He managed to drag it out into the sunlight without doing any serious damage to his car. With the ladder extended and leaned up against the house, Ray realized he hadn't bothered to bring up any fresh shingles. Or a hammer or nails, for that matter. Back to the basement, Ray.
Back in the house, Barbara was in the front room, watching the kids across the street. She heard Ray come through the back door, and called him to the front room.
"I think I've solved the mystery, Ray."
"Those kids? On our roof?"
"Sort of. Look at what they're playing with."
Ray looked. And Ray kept looking. He had no idea what those kids were doing. Never did. Never cared to.
"What's that? Horse shoes? With wings?"
"OK, that's close. Lawn darts."
"Kind of like a big steel dart about a foot long. Solid and heavy. An outside game. They're trying to put the dart in a ring on the ground over there."
Ray kept watching, but he couldn't see the ring on the ground. Just kids throwing things back and forth.
"They're not playing catch?"
"Not intentionally. Those things would hurt. Or really scar up a shingle roof. "
Comes the dawn. Even with someone as partly cloudy as Ray, the sun gets through eventually.
"You mean they might have thrown one of those up on our roof last night?"
"Nothing gets by you, ray. Mind like a steel trap."
Ray watched the game more intently now. Yes, those things did seem to take some strength to throw. But all the way to the roof? Could they do that? And why WOULD they do that? Ray continued to give the scene his squinty-eyed stare of thinking concentration.
"How much do those things weigh?"
"Oh, I don't know. A pound? Two?"
"Where could I get one?"
"Well, if you're real quick, you could run out and just snatch one out of the air. I think they'd be impressed. I know I would be."
"Uh-huh. And another option would be?"
"How about a toy store?"
"Ok, I'll try that first. If they're out of stock, then we'll just have to hijack one in mid-air."
"What's this 'we' stuff, paleface?"
Ray smiled. Yeah, maybe that was the answer. A kid with insomnia got bored last night and went out to throw a few- what did she call them? Lawn Jets? Something like that. Sure. If it's heavy enough, that would do it. Maybe the wind took it. But he still had a roof to check. Maybe the Lawn Thingy was still up there. That would be good- the mystery would be solved. Ray headed for the basement and Barbara kept watching the kids throw those lethal looking toys. With Ray picking up shingles and hammer, and searching for just the right nails, Barbara stopped watching the game outside and went for the phonebook in the kitchen. When Ray emerged from the basement stairs, Barbara was on the phone.
"Ok, thank you very much. I'll be down there this afternoon. You close at six? Ok, Thanks again."
With the receiver hung back in place, Barbara turned to see Ray with that inquisitive look. He knew she must be up to something. But what? She answered before he asked.
"Well, if it was a lawn dart, they got it back. It's not on the roof."
"How do you know that?"
"Elementary, my dear Watson. I counted the darts they're playing with and called the toy store. No darts missing in their set. Therefore, none of their darts are on our roof. Maybe someone else's, though."
"Geez- How many of these things are out there?"
"I don't know. They were pretty popular for a while. The toy store still has a couple of sets if you want one for testing. Or maybe a quick game of catch."
"That's ok. We may still have one on the roof, if every kid in town has a supply."
Ray continued out the back door, headed for the ladder. Barbara settled back in, no longer concerned about the lawn darts or the roof. She was sure it was no big deal and the answer, if there was one, was fairly simple. Wrong on both counts. And frightfully so.
Let's turn our attention to Ray and the roof: Ray's on the roof, so now's a good time to think about them. He got up the ladder ok, and even made that shaky transition from the ladder to the roof without becoming one with the flower bed below. Good move, Ray, you're on the roof. Way to go. Remember, Ray, for all his posturing lately, is not really an outside/on the roof kind of guy. Sure, he's got a workbench in the basement. But that's in the basement, safely inside the house. If he were an outside kind of guy, that work bench would be in the garage, wouldn't it? And take a close look at that ladder while we're here. Covered with dust. Slopping over with it, as Daffy might say. Doesn't get a lot of use, does it? Nope. But Ray's been up there before. No roof virgin here. Of course, he's no gable slut, either. But he was up on that roof once, years ago, when the shingle roof was installed. The job foreman wanted to show Ray what a great job he was doing on the Meadows' roof. Demanded that Ray come up and take a look to see the quality of the installation. Ok, truth be known: The foreman knew Ray was an inside guy. Never been on a roof, even as a kid. But he thought it would be funny to get him up there and watch him stagger around, terrified. So, on the pretense of quality assurance, he got Ray Meadows up on the roof. Things did not go quite as planned for anybody up there that day.
The foreman, expecting to see Ray be a real buffoon up there, stayed close to his paying customer. Looking stupid is one thing. Falling off the roof is quite another. And bad for business, if it's your customer doing the falling. So the roofer kept close to Ray, walking him all over the roof, showing him the attention to detail that was going in to this job. Then he made The Big Mistake: The foreman handed Ray one of those now-infamous shingles. The idea was to show Mr. Meadows the thickness and quality of the product. Ray took the shingle and proceeded to examine it as he carefully continued his walk around the roof. Some time later, Ray realized he was still holding that stupid shingle. He didn't know shingles from Shinola, so he put it down. On the roof. Loose. And walked on. No one noticed. Not right away, anyway.
Ray was down off the roof, and back in the house, when the worker stepped on the loose shingle and went for an E ticket ride. Ray heard it, though. The dull thump of roofer hitting roof, the loud yell that can't be printed here, followed by the sound of a man sliding to the edge of the roof. The nice, quiet free-fall part of the show was cancelled by the roofer being quick enough to lock his boots into the gutter before he went over the side. Saved by the downspout. Whew. Thank God for a job well done. The gutter didn't just rip off the eave and fall with him. Lucky guy. Good job.
So Ray had been up there before, but this time he was alone. Only one person to slip on shingles today and Ray was understandably nervous. It had been some years ago, but he was remembering every little detail of that excursion. Feeling a bit woozily, Ray found a spot that looked less uncomfortable than the rest of the roof and sat down. Time for a break. And a good look around. What a view.
The kids across the street were still playing with those lawn missiles. The game must have degenerated a bit, Ray thought, since they didn't appear to be aiming for that ring that he could now see quite clearly from his new vantage point. Nope. They're not aiming for that ring at all. What are they aiming for? The sky. They're just seeing how high they can throw those things. And running like mad to get out of the way when it comes back down. Ray came to the unmistakable conclusion that the kids were good runners, but lousy throwers. Those things weren't coming up high enough to be at eye level with his perch. Close, but he was still looking down at their highest throws. Uh-oh. This is not good. Ray knew what that meant. Unless they had another method of launching those things, or bigger kids were involved, those lawn darts would never make it up to this roof. Not with any force, at least.
Ray sat for a minute and looked around the roof. Forget the kids. A career in professional baseball was not in their future. It took some time for him to figure out where he was relative to their bedroom in the house beneath him. No, he wasn't quite over the bedroom here. It must be over the ridge behind him. No problem, just a careful climb to the top. Ray made his way up on all fours to the top and stopped on his hands and knees at the ridge line. If there had been any lack of concern on Ray's part about the seriousness of the situation (and there had), that carefree approach to last night's events evaporated the moment he saw the roof on the other side. If the sight itself didn't convince him, the sound of his heart pounding in his ears should have done it. Big Trouble.
Two roof lines converged on the other side of that ridge where Ray was crouched like a nervous cat. Neither roof face was large and their angles no steeper than any other part of the roof. But if you ignore the questions of "What was it?" and "Where did it come from?" It was obvious what happened. Something had stepped down on the roof at the top of the other face and lost its footing. Ray could see the first skid mark, not too deep, on the shingles just below the ridge. The second step was the one that tore the shingle loose. Ray could see where that shingle came from, and saw that the shingle beneath it had also been damaged. Something fell and hit hard right there. The third impact point was nearly as bad as the second. That shingle was torn, but not completely in half. It was still in place, more or less, but torn and badly damaged. It would have to be replaced now.
From there, near the base of the two roof lines, Ray could see where "it", whatever it was, made one very hard direct hit on the roof, without slipping. The shingle there was punctured, not scraped. Ray knew he'd have to go up into the attic to check the damage on that one. The damage continued of the other roof face, but not as bad. Just some scrapes and marks that lessened as the second roof face's ridge was reached. In some places, the marks and damage showed evidence of the same three-pronged impact that had torn the shingle loose last night. Some of the damage wasn't as well-defined, with just one mark in some places, two in others. So maybe it was the same thing, hitting the roof a little differently each time. Whatever it was had come right over the roof ridge where Ray was still crouched.
That revelation made Ray stand up quick. Too quick, as he lost his footing trying to look around under him for more damage or marks. He ended up dropping right back down where he was, and grabbing the roof ridge for support. He was breathing hard now, and it took some time for what wits he had left to be collected. The good news, from Ray's point of view, was that he was in nobody's view. The kids in the other yard couldn't see him in this roof face unless he stood up. And he'd just tried that. For now, he was content to hug that roof on his hands and knees and very carefully look around the side he was on.
Nothing. Not a scrape, not a mark. No sign that anything ever landed on this roof. Not here, anyway. Did whatever it was go airborne again? He wasn't even going to try to look over the edge of the roof and down in to the yard to see if anything was there. Ray looked back over the ridge. The damage was all still there. He hadn't imagined it. Not that he thought he had. Ray Meadows was not the imaginative type. Not really. He could come up with some great practical jokes, but they were just that: practical. So now Mister Practical was going to have to fix some damage on his roof without thinking too much about how the damage got there. Not now. Not while he was still on the roof. Ray made his way back over to his hammer, nails and fresh shingles and went to work with some determination. Just do the job. Don't think about it. And don't look down. You looked down, Ray. Don’t.
Inside the house, Barbara was actually worried about her husband. She knew how often he went up on that roof. In spite of her earlier candor, she knew what an outdoorsy kind of guy he wasn't. So she kept one ear cocked toward the roof, waiting- for what? For the sound of Ray going airborne? She did hear him hit the roof after his quick stand up, but a quick look out the window showed no Ray flying by to meet the ground, so she assumed that everything was ok. What was that about ignorance? She was blissfully unaware of the situation some thirty feet above her. That would change all too soon.
Ray went about the business of roof repair with a cold detached approach that let him get the job done for now. He replaced half a dozen shingles- he had only brought six new ones up with him. That seemed to work out about right. The ones he left were damaged, but not badly. He would still have to look at that punctured impact area from the underside, in the attic, to be sure the boards under the shingles were ok. But for now, the roof looked done. Not perfect, as there were still some scars on some of the shingles, but no cause for worry during those summer thunderstorms. They'd stay dry. Ray should have re-phrased that last thought. Whoever's living here this summer would stay dry. Unimaginative Ray couldn't tell the future, either. He gathered up his hammer, nails and the old shingles and headed for the ladder. He realized then that he was tired. All this physical excitement was getting to be work. Maybe an afternoon nap was in order. But not upstairs. Not near the roof.
Let's hear it for afternoon naps. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. called them free color movies. Yup. Beats watching the tube. Unless it's baseball season. Then you can find a game, turn the volume on low and sack out on the couch in the living room. With that dull droning of the announcer trying desperately to make the game sound interesting, and the cool breeze drifting though the curtains, it's only a matter of minutes before you're long gone. Off in La-La Land. That's as close as I get to an interest in sports. Sort of an audio night light in the afternoon. But it works for me. Oddly enough, it worked for Ray, too. Somewhere between coming down off the roof, putting the ladder back in the garage and putting the hammer and nails back in the basement, Ray had it all figured out: He could check out the attic later this afternoon, before dinner. Or maybe after. Then pay a visit to the hardware store, if need be, tonight. It's open 'til nine, isn't it? What did he need? He had enough nails and there were more shingles in that box downstairs. What would the attic require? A board or two to shore up a cracked roof panel? No problem. By the time Ray had the TV adjusted and was making his way to the couch, he knew what was at the top of that hardware store list: A flashlight. A great big honking one that would light up the night like a rock concert. Something bright enough to light matches at ten feet. That's what he needed. Maybe a couple of them.
With that thought in mind, Ray pulled off his shoes and settled in for an afternoon nap. It was the top of the third, and somebody was leading. Ray figured he'd just follow along behind. Way behind. Oh, yeah. Nice breeze. Sweet dreams, Ray.
Barbara decided that with Ray off the roof, it was safe to go outside and putter around a bit. Not that she didn't trust Ray, but hammers do have a tendency to fall down, not up. So she waited until her husband was safely snoozing way to tend to the flower beds out front. Gloves and trowel in hand, she was set for a fight with the encroaching weeds. She was sure to win this one. It was still early in the season. Settled on alongside the first bed, she was able to pull weeds, turn the soil and keep an eye on those kids with the lawn darts.
A weed here, a weed there, the work went quick but her mind was ahead of it. Those kids weren't that big. Or that strong. Look at those throws. Barely above the first floor. Certainly not as high as the second floor windows. Barbara had mindlessly weeded out three flowers before she looked down to see what she was doing. Oops. Put the plants back, Barb. She hastily re-planted her mistakes, ignoring the kids for a few minutes. They didn't matter now anyway. She watered the plants and realized what Ray knew from watching the kids from the roof: No way. It wasn't a lawn dart. At least, not thrown by these kids.
Barbara had seen the shingle Ray intentionally damaged in the basement. And of course she had seen the shingle that had been ripped off the roof the night before. But had she really understood the force involved? Probably not. Ray only began to understand when he saw the rest of the damage on the roof. Six shingles ripped up, including that nasty puncture impact and as many more scratched up shingles that were still up there. Barbara had seen the two damaged shingles side by side, on the kitchen table. They looked sort of the same, but not really. Which was which? She wasn't sure. And how bad could it be if Ray was taking a nap?
Yes, Ray was taking a nap. Or maybe the nap was taking him. Ray woke with a start. Huh? What was that? Did I hear something? On the roof? Something running heavily, almost falling, across the roof? Something big? As soon as Ray discerned a change in the afternoon sunlight that hinted at early evening, he was up off the couch. Flashlights, he thought. The attic first, then flashlights. He struggled into his shoes and made his way over to the TV. Goodbye baseball, and thanks for the background hum. Works every time. Ray headed for the stairs and clomped his way up to the second floor. Halfway down the hallway, he pulled down the folding stairs to the attic. Time to face reality, if there's any reality up there.
Let me ask you something right here: When you watch a scary movie, do you notice that the characters in the movie often times aren't, well, over-burdened with excessive intelligence when it comes to facing their demons? They just sort of blunder along, unthinking and unarmed? Remember The Exorcist? That woman heard what sounded like a body falling in her attic, so she went to check it out. WITH A CANDLE! Not even a flashlight, and certainly without a weapon. Would you? Not me. When something goes bump in the night around my place, I pull out a Katana from the cane stand and then we go for a look. That thing could cut a person in two any way you care to slice it. Literally. If it were me, and I heard loud thumpy noises in my attic, there'd be three of us going up there for a look: Me, Smith and Wesson. Unarmed? Huh-uh. No way. Seen too many stupid people in the movies.
Ray wasn't stupid. Kind of groggy from his nap, but not stupid. He just didn't have a clue what he was dealing with. How could he? But it was broad daylight, and he was inside his own house. You're supposed to be safe there, right? He was. He made his way up the folding stairs from the second floor to the attic, and found the pull cord for the light bulb. Those sixty watts of unbridled lumens (in natural warm soft white) sure got lost quick up there. Ray wove his way around the trunks and boxes, Christmas decorations and unused exercise equipment to the part of the roof he had seen from above. He looked, but couldn't see any damage. He ran his hand over the roof panels, and found a slight bulge. Maybe that's it. No crack, though. Just a warp or bulge or something. Is this the right place? Ray looked around the attic to orient himself. Yes, this was it. Not much to be done here. Still need that big flashlight, though. And maybe a stronger light for up here. Ray made it back to the steps without incident. If there were any demons hiding up there, it was time for their afternoon nap.
Downstairs, on the first floor, Barbara had cleaned herself up a bit and begun dinner. Saturday dinners at the Meadows' were usually fairly simple: Soup and sandwich in the winter, Salad and sandwich in the summer. Spring and fall? It depended on the weather. Today was definitely a salad day. One of their last, but who knew?
Ray could tell from the sounds coming out of the kitchen it was going to be salad and sandwiches tonight. Fine with him. Ray wasn't a picky eater. No need for a big elaborate meal, or anything with okra. Knowing this, Barbara planned accordingly. And okra was right out. Ray was washed up and at the table before the salad, but the salad had spent more timed getting cleaned up for the occasion. With the addition of the sandwiches and a couple of tall iced teas, Barbara sat down to join her husband for dinner. Not a bad Saturday. Not bad at all. Barbara led the conversation, as she often did. Ray was the quiet type.
"How'd it go on the roof?"
"Oh, not bad. Fixed up six shingles. The rest will be ok."
Ray's attempt at nonchalance didn't work. Barbara hadn't seen the roof, and had no reason to expect more damage than what she had seen on that one shingle. This was not what she wanted to hear.
"It's ok. I fixed them. Let it rain."
Ray tried a smile, but he wasn't fooling anyone. Least of all Barbara.
"Ray, what happened up there last night?"
Ray took his time with that one. He didn't really want to think about it any more than he had to. And now he had to. All he knew was what it wasn't. And it wasn't those kids.
"Well, I think we can rule out those lawn things the kids were throwing."
"So I noticed. They couldn't reach the roof on a dare. Besides, it sounds like whatever it was left a mess up there."
"No, I wouldn't call it a mess, really."
"What would you call it?"
In the seconds of silence that followed Barbara's last question, Ray's mind came up with the only word to fill in that blank. He didn't like the sound of it, but the answer was out before he could stop himself.
Now it was Barbara's turn to sit in silence. A thousand things ran through her mind. None of them pleasant or plausible. They were not dealing with a loose raccoon and they both knew it now. Ray reached across the table and picked up the original shingle that had been torn off. He pondered it like Hamlet musing over Horatio's skull. If only skulls and shingles could talk. Maybe it was good they couldn't.
"Tracks of what?"
"I have absolutely no idea. You tell me. What could have skipped across the roof and left gouges like this? A piece of debris from an airplane? A very wimpy meteorite? An animal?"
Barbara looked at the shingle again, but now as though she'd never seen it before. What did make those three marks? Did it really look mechanical, or was she just trying to convince herself that it wasn't an animal?
"It's got to be something that fell across the roof, right? What sort of animal makes a track like that?"
"I don't know. I'm not much of a tracker. Maybe it was piece of junk from something, but..."
Ray really didn't want to share his worries. Not yet. But he was cornered.
"But whatever it was went down one side of the roof and up the other."
"Up the other?"
"Is that an 'mmmm' yes? It went back up the roof?"
"Yes. It went back up the roof."
"So we can rule out airplane debris, can't we?"
Ray thought of a million reasons why he didn't want to rule out aircraft debris. Not yet, anyway. It still could be. Really.
"No, not yet. Something could have hit at a shallow angle and skipped across. If it was going fast enough- and it looks like it was- it could have sailed on over into the neighbor's yard. Long gone. We were lucky."
Ray tried his smile again, and this time it held. Maybe this wasn't as bad as it sounded. Some freak piece of a low-flying airplane. That's it. Except . . . and there went that smile. Barbara saw it leave his face so fast she knew he had just thought of something. She wouldn't like it but she had to ask.
"What is it? Why wasn't it a piece of flying junk?"
Ray was fidgeting. He couldn't escape the evidence he had seen. And now, he really wished he could. But the more he thought about it....
"It changed direction."
"So it bounced. Ricocheted?"
"I'm sure it did, but not the right way."
"What's the right way?"
"Whatever bounced down one side of the roof went up the other side at a steeper angle. A piece of junk might change angles, but it would have skipped up the other side at a more shallow angle. Less energy. Not a steeper one."
"Meaning this thing still had energy to invest to change its trajectory, and the means to do so. It made an effort to climb out of that fall."
"So it was an animal."
"I don't know that."
"What else could it be, Ray?"
Ray was at a loss here. What could it be, other than an animal? Within reason? Not much. Maybe some sort of missile still under propulsion would do that. But a missile under power would have left one long continuous scar, not a series of steps. Unless the fins were causing rotation. Sure. That would do it. Ray realized he was about one short step from UFOs. Guess again, Monkey-Boy. It was not a missile. Ok, so no missile. But what? What if a person stood at the top of that first ridge and ran down one side and up the other? Could he change direction like that? Go up steeper than he came down? Sure. Why not? As long he wasn't going flat out on the way down, he'd still have some strength to make an effort to change direction on the upswing. And if he was loosing control going down, that steeper angle would really slow him down so he could... oh boy: So he could get his footing. Those were footprints. Of someone or something had stumbled across the roof last night and recovered before they ran out of roof to run on.
"Ray? What could it have been? Kids?"
"Huh? Oh. I guess it could. But how would kids get on our roof?"
"How would anything else?"
"I don't know. It was just some weird fluke. It's done and it's gone."
"I hope so."
Ray thought this might be a good time to mention the hardware store. For once, he was right.
"I'm going to head down to the hardware store. Want to come?"
This changed Barbara's mood immediately. Fortunately, it changed for the better: From concerned near-panic to light sarcasm. This was an improvement.
"Hey, you never said we were going to have a hot date on a Saturday night. Should I change into something a little more uptown?"
Ray did his part to play along. Anything was better that thinking about that roof.
"No, no. Don't worry about it. It's casual night in the tool section. You're fine."
Both Ray and Barbara cleaned the table, and did a quick wash and rinse of the dishes. Within thirty minutes they were out the door and on their way. The hardware store on a Saturday night. It just doesn't get any better than this. Try as they may, it just doesn't get any better.
During the drive from the house to the store, neither of the Meadows had much to say. The sun was about to set and the sky was showing the beginnings of night to the East. No stars yet, but soon. Without thinking about it, both Ray and Barbara were looking at roofs. Their roof, the neighbors' roofs, and all along their route. What were they looking for? They had no idea. Someone on the roof? Is roof running the latest fad? They couldn't remember seeing anything in the paper about it. Certainly nothing on the evening news. Roof running: The new streaking. Remember streaking? Me neither. And some things are best left that way. Weird harmless (stupid) fads. Like eating goldfish or buying Yugos. Suddenly, the goldfish sound good. That must be it. They hoped. Some sort of teen-age thing. Climb a roof and join the club. It’s got to be.
They pulled into the hardware store parking lot and found a spot. On a Saturday night at the hardware store, that's no easy task. Ray wasn't a big fan of Saturday nights here. Give him Fridays any time. Now Friday night at the hardware store, that was fun. Think I'm kidding? Think again. By Saturday night, that weekend project is in trouble. If you're shopping here on a Saturday night, it's because something went wrong. You mis-judged, or measured wrong, or screwed up. So here you are, back for more. Someone (wiser than me) once said that every project requires at least three trips to the hardware store.
OK, so it must work like this: Friday night at the hardware store: it's party time. Hopes and dreams run high as you buy the stuff you need for that Great Project for the weekend. You're psyched. You're pumped. You're riding high. You haven't hit your thumb yet, not once. Everything's going great because you haven't really done anything yet. And tomorrow, Miss Scarlet, is another day.
Saturday: D-Day. Project city. You spend the day working up a sweat and making sawdust. So maybe it doesn't go quite as planned. A little oops here, a little whoa there, and by dinner time you're looking at Plan B: How to save this turkey. So you re-group over dinner and you just know that you can make it work. Just got to make a trip to the hardware store on a Saturday night. Saturday night at the hardware store is the Night of Determination. The Concentrated Effort of Salvation. We are going to make this work.
I guess that's better than the Sunday Night Total Panic Blow-Out. Never go to the hardware store on a Sunday night. It's not a pretty sight. Red-faced men hefting power tools in desperation. Credit cards waved like little plastic magic swords. Don't go. It is not a spectator sport. It's that third trip that gets you.
But this was not Sunday night. This was Saturday, and even then, it was Ray's First Trip. Did this officially qualify as A Project? Not yet. Ray didn't want to think of the situation in those terms. He just needed a flashlight. Simple little thing, really. Time for a new one, that's all. Something brighter. No big deal. Once they got inside the store, Ray and Barbara split up, as they always do. Barbara was headed for the interior decorating area: Paint, tile, flooring and wallpapers. Or maybe this time the garden section. That would be nice. She meandered in that general direction. Ray headed for the electrical area. Flashlights. Got to get a flashlight.
Standing in the middle of the aisle, facing rows and rows of flashlights, Ray still didn't see what he had in mind: that one beast of a light that would melt vinyl siding. He scanned the shelves, looking for the One True Light. He was still in the dark. Then a miracle happened. They still talk about it in down in aisle fourteen. No one could remember it ever happening before- or since. A clerk stopped and asked Ray if he needed help. The angels sang and there was much rejoicing. Ray was understandable stunned. He did his best DeNiro.
"Are you talking to me?"
I didn't say it was good, just his best. The clerk was new. He didn't know the secret place where all the other clerks hang out when the store's open, so he did what he thought he was supposed to do: Help the customers. Like I said, he was new. And he certainly caught Ray Meadows by surprise. Everyone else in aisle fourteen moved away quietly, in case it was a trick. Ray and the new clerk had the aisle to themselves. There were no witnesses.
"Uh- yes, sir. Can I help you find something?"
Ray knew this had to be trick, and started looking around for the hidden camera. Finding none, he thought he may as well play along.
"Sure. Looking for a flashlight."
"These are all flashlights, sir."
Ah-hah, thought Ray, that's it. The only clerk in the store is Forrest Gump. He knew there was a catch.
"Yes, but I'm looking for something a little bigger. A lot bigger, in fact."
Sparky The Wonder Llama brightened considerably. It was scary.
"Oh, yes sir, like our nine volt, sealed beam hundred thousand candle power wide angle Night Killer."
"Um... yeah. Something like that, I guess."
Ray felt like he'd just been out maneuvered by Clarence the Talking Mule in a game of Latin Scrabble. The clerk was moving behind Ray, who backed away defensively.
"Right here, sir. They're on sale this week. You even get a regular two D cell water proof flashlight with it. Can't beat it for only $18.95 and the batteries are even included. What do you think?"
Ray thought he felt like an idiot, but wouldn't say so.
"Yes, that's it. That's exactly what I want. I'll take two."
The clerk handed him a package of the two lights. That wasn't quite what he had meant, but things had gone so well up to this point, it didn't matter.
"OK, now I'll take another two. For a total of four lights."
Ray was all smiles and now it was the clerk's turn to be flummoxed. Why would anyone want four flashlights?
"Sir? Another set?"
"Yes, please. I'm illuminating a manuscript."
Ray took the second package out of the clerk's hands and headed down the aisle with a smile. He had won. The clerk had no idea what Ray was talking about, but it must be mighty dark there.
Ray took his flashlights to the checkout counter, paid for them and put them out in the car. No sense in looking for Barbara until he was ready. Now he was ready. It was dark outside, but the lights in the parking lot held the night back. For awhile, anyway. Ray went back in and found his wife in the garden area, contemplating a decorative pool. They spent some time strolling through the flowers and trees, each picking out what they'd like to see around the house. They also pointed out plants they'd just as soon run over with a roto-tiller. It was a favorite game of theirs. After a complete tour of the plant life, they went for the car. Just another exciting night for the Meadows: Saturday night at the hardware store.
The trip home was almost as uneventful. It was dark now, and they both continued to scan the rooftops without really thinking about it. What were they looking for? They didn't even know they were looking. At the stop light, Barbara turned her attention to Ray's purchases. They were underway again when she pulled the "Night Killer" out of the package.
"So- Big enough for you?"
"Yeah, that should just about do it."
"Do what? Kill the grass and fry the earthworms under it?"
"Something like that. But it came with a second smaller light."
"Great. In case you need to finish them off just a little bit. Where's the switch on this thing?"
"Hang on-wait a minute-don’t touch that- "
Too late. Barbara found the switch. The interior of the car became one with the sun. Anything outside the car- like the road, of instance- became the Black Hole of Not There. Ray managed to pull the car over based solely on what he remembered seeing before he saw The Light. Barbara, for all her fast fumbling, did manage to find the switch as they stopped. After the brilliance, the darkness was complete. Even Ray was amazed, but no man will ever admit he bought too much power.
"That's ok. I wanted to work on my tan this weekend."
"This should do it. Did it come with sun block?"
"Maybe it should. The batteries were included, though."
Barbara carefully put the flashlight down with the others. Then, as an afterthought, she put the whole bag back behind the front seat, hopefully out of harm's way. Their harm.
"Ok, let's try this again, without the flashy downtown nuclear blast impersonation. Sorry about that."
"Yeah, I think I can see the road now. Just past that big blue dot, right?"
Ray pulled back out onto the street and they finished up their semi-eventful journey. With the car in the garage, and the garage carefully locked, Ray and Barbara took their new flashlight collection into the house. After some consideration, one of the Night Killers was left by the back door in the kitchen, while the other was put upstairs in the bedroom. Both felt that might be a bit of overkill, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Just in case. The two smaller lights were distributed one by the front door and one back up in the bedroom, on Barbara's side of the bed. Ray kept his original flashlight at his nightstand so he wouldn't have to depend solely upon that searchlight just to get to the bathroom at three a.m. With fresh batteries in the old light, it should do fine.
Probably the most aggravating thing about a random occurrence is that it never happens once you're ready for it. How many nights have you sat out in the back yard in a lawn chair, camera in hand, ready and waiting for a UFO- only to have the darned thing land on the hood of your car two nights later while you're driving to the Dairy Barn for a banana shake? You don't have to answer. I can see by your expression: Happens every time. You only meet Elvis when you're alone, and neither of you has a pen. That's the Great Joy of Life. Well, that and Ben & Jerry's. You just never know, unless you're ready for it. Then you know it won't happen again. Such was life at the Meadows' household, now that they were Ready For It. Whatever it was.
That Saturday night, Ray and Barbara settled in after their jaunt to the hardware store. Barbara watched some television, Ray went surfing upstairs. Now, before you picture a grown man in baggy jams and cool shades rattling down the staircase on a surfboard, let me 'splain something: With Ray's job as an electronic communications specialist, it was only natural that his interest at work became his hobby at home: He surfed the Internet. Big time. One bedroom upstairs had been converted into what Ray called "The 'Net Works": a computer room for him to play in. He could cruise the whole world on little wires, bouncing off satellites and squeezing through those fiber optic lines. Find the latest information, or look up ancient history in its country of origin. (If only he spoke the language.) It was like channel surfing, but without the commercials- or scrambled pay-per-view channels. Ray loved it. He could find out anything about anything, given enough time to look at everything.
With last night's adventure fresh in their minds, both Ray and Barbara were keeping one ear turned toward the roof. Just in case. Neither had the slightest idea what they'd do if they heard something, but this time they had the lumens to see it. With the Saturday night movie over, Barbara turned off the lights downstairs and joined her husband on the second floor. Time to head for bed. Ray didn't need much convincing. It had been a busy day, following that late Friday night. And he really hadn't found much on the 'net this evening. Both were asleep by eleven, oblivious to anything that might be going on just above their heads.
What ever might have been up there on the roof Saturday night kept its footing. Sunday dawned clear and bright, and the morning sun shown in on two well-rested people. Any uneasiness they may have felt had been swept away by a good night's sleep, as is often the case in life. Sunday was their official "Lazy Day", and they treated it as such. Breakfast and the Sunday paper took until noon. The unofficial rule was "No sweat on Sunday- and no heavy thinking, either." As this Sunday was the last day of March, Barbara thought Ray might have some last minute details to attend to for tomorrow's April Fool-Off, and she was willing to let that no sweat rule slide a little. She needn't have worried. Ray had everything in the bag. Literally. Ray II, who had spent the entire weekend in the bag, so to speak, was eventually hauled out of the locked cabinet and put in the locked trunk of the car. It's tough being a dummy. Ray (the first one) made sure Ray (the second one) was safely tucked away in his bag in the trunk under the tarp. Tomorrow would see a very early start for work, and Ray wanted to make sure everything went slick as frog snot before 8 a.m. With any luck at all, it would rain. He had even reset the alarm for an hour earlier before their late Sunday lunch. He was ready.
Afternoon found the Meadows in the lawn chairs out back. Feet propped up, iced teas at the ready, soaking up some early springtime sun. It was bright, but not hot. Perfect weather for sitting outside in what would be the heat of the day in about two months. But for now? Perfection. In that lolling lazy situation, neither of them could help but look up. At the roof. Uh-oh. Thoughts. Barbara was the first to voice them.
"So what do you think about Prancer and Dancer?"
"Our little roof runners. What's the plan?"
Ray straightened up a bit in his chair. It was easier to talk about the roof when he wasn't looking at it. He had seen it.
"I don't know. Last night was pretty quiet. I think you were right- it was some sort of weird fluke. Won't happen again."
Barbara wasn't convinced. Besides, it was fun to get Ray going.
"And if it does? What's the plan then?"
"How about Kayro syrup on the roof and we cover the yard in sixteen penny nails? That should take care of it."
"Ok, Mister 'I Can Catch Anything', what if it's father is a lawyer?"
"Yeah, you're right. Eight penny nails, then. Do you really think it was some kid up there?"
"I hope it was."
"Because our other choices are just too weird. A kid running across our roof on a dare I can deal with. Strange animals or something . . . . No thanks."
Ray got to looking around at the other houses. He had never really paid them much mind before. Now he wished he had. Especially yesterday, when he was up on the roof. Did the other roofs show any signs of damage? He couldn't remember even looking. Maybe he'd have to make an excuse to go back up there. Maybe next week, if it happened again. But Barbara's right. It was a fluke. It was just some kid who is now the hero of his own little clique for running across the old Meadows' roof at midnight. Graveyard stunts must be out of fashion these days. Too bad. Still, thought Ray, it must have been a thrilling view up there in the middle of the night. Was there a moon out? Ray didn't know. He'd have to check. If it happened again.
To Be Continued,
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Copyright 1996,2011, Chip Haynes