Saturday, March 1, 2014

Serial Saturday: "Cipherstalker", Part 1

The town of Precinct, Connecticut was, on the whole, an unassuming town. The citizens just plain did not make assumptions about anybody—but in a town like Precinct, Cramwell Fornberg generally didn’t fall under the category of “anybody” in the minds of everyone else.
Those who knew him from when he and his wife first moved to Precinct as newlyweds said that Cramwell and Jelilah were the happiest pair of people on earth. Cram must have been a rich man, because he bought a mansion on a hill overlooking Precinct, and there he and his bride lived, coming down periodically to participate in social events, buy food and furniture, or to spend long hours in the Precinct Library, for both were voracious readers.
Later on, when Cram and his wife left for the seaside and Cram came back alone, rumors began to spread that he had killed her. Her body was never found. Two things were certain about the odd man’s return: he had a very large suitcase (large enough for a body, people said) strapped to the top of his car, and a few days later, a large box arrived at Fornberg Hill. This only served to confirm the rumors in the minds of the townsfolk.
The oddest thing was that Cram didn’t seem to care what everyone thought. He continued the life he had led with “Jelly” just exactly as if she was still with him, though he never socialized anymore. Nowadays, it was only the café, the diner, the park, the library, the grocery store, and his mansion. It was always the same: the same places every time, the same times every day, the same days every week. People began to say that Cramwell forfeited his soul when he killed his wife, and their children grew up believing that Cramwell Fornberg was the world’s only flesh-and-bone robot, who kept to his “programming” and did not stray for any reason. Cramwell became the man who never spoke to anyone, never even needed to look up from the ground as he went about his daily habits.
As time wore on, Fornberg Hill grew a shroud of mystery and horror about it. Those who believed Cramwell killed his wife were the sort who also said that he must have cut her body into pieces and hid them around the house. Others said he had the body shipped to his door afterwards in that large, long, package, and he kept it preserved in a glass tomb. Never mind that the large suitcase was the same one he left with; there must be some other explanation, however gruesome it might seem. Occasionally on still, clear, nights, a gentle, mournful wailing is heard. Some say it is out of despair and loneliness over losing his wife. Others speculate it is his guilty, shame-filled mind that tortures him in the light of the moon. Nobody ever asks him. Cramwell Fornberg is the town enigma; living, breathing, walking misery personified.

Then one day, a series of peculiar events occurred which changed Cramwell’s life forever.

“Heads up!”
“I’ve got it!”
“Too high! Jump! Don’t lose it!”

Karthey Mavis watched in horror as the baseball sailed up over the high, unkempt hedges surrounding the base of Fornberg Hill and vanished. Her brother Derrik extracted himself from the hedge where he’d landed after the failed jump as if the very leaves were poisonous.
“Great job, dimwit!” Derrik’s friend Gavin—the one who had thrown the ball—spat in frustration.
“It’s your fault anyway, Gavin!” Derrik retorted, “You were the one stupid enough to throw the ball toward that hedge, whether you meant it to go over or not!”
“Guys!” Karthey interrupted the argument and threw her glove like a gauntlet between them. “Fighting won’t bring the ball back, and I know neither of you have the guts to go get it yourselves.”
Derrik and Gavin glanced at each other. Derrik shuffled uncomfortably and glanced at the hedge out of the corner of his eye. “I wonder how many balls and kites and runaway pets the old coot has got in there, anyway,” he remarked.
Karthey shivered and checked her watch. “It’s almost five,” she observed ominously.
Gavin looked at the frightened faces of the siblings, “What happens at five?”
Derrik’s eyes flashed a terrible gleam as he stated, “Dinner.”

Karthey tugged at the scarf around her neck and nervously twitched at her lucky coral bracelet as she began walking away, her booted feet taking long strides, to put as much distance between herself and the hill as possible in the shortest amount of time.
“Wait, you guys,” Gavin begged, “What do you mean dinner?”

In answer, a thin, sibilant, pulsing wail erupted from the house at the top of the hill. Gavin found himself rooted to the spot as the very sound of the ascending and descending tones threatened to tear his insides from his body.
He turned back to the Mavises, who had stopped to wait for him. “What’s that?” He whispered hoarsely.
That is Cram Fornberg, the man who lives in that house,” Karthey answered.
“They say he has his dinner at five-thirty, but half an hour before that,” Derrik paused for a truly chilling effect, “The Cram sings.”
Gavin listened to the smooth, plaintive, haunting tune. “He…sings?” he repeated incredulously.
Karthey grabbed Gavin’s hand and the trio returned to the safety of downtown Precinct. “My brother is one of those people who believe that Cram killed his own wife, and as punishment, got turned into a monster who eats people and animals.”
“Come on, Karthey!” Derrik tried to reason with his sister, “No human ever sounds like that! If he isn’t the monster, my guess is he keeps one for a pet!”
“All you know is that every day at five o’clock the wailing starts!” Karthey snapped back. “The rest is pure conjecture!”
“How long has it been since anyone has seen this guy?” Gavin asked as they walked past the shops and businesses of Precinct, headed for the residential area of town.
“An hour,” Karthey replied simply.
“Wait, really?”
“More or less,” she stopped, slightly irritated, and proceeded to explain, “Cram Fornberg has a system to his day: he comes down to the café at ten o’clock, sits in the corner booth for half an hour, then goes to the library till noon, walks across the Square to the diner, gets his lunch, sits in a bench at the back of the park to eat it, then at one-thirty he’s back in town, at the library. He stays in the library till four, goes straight to the grocery store for his daily necessities, and disappears up the Hill again. It’s been an hour since anyone has seen him.”
Gavin shook his head, “Then where did this monster idea come from?”
Karthey shot a glare at her brother as she said, “That is from the people who have grown so accustomed to Cram’s system that they create schedules of their own by which they can avoid the sight of him. The whole town’s done that,” Karthey bit her lip and hung her head, “even me. That way, it feels like he doesn’t exist, or he’s some sort of invisible ghost, because we know he’s there, but we don’t see him.” She cocked an eyebrow at her friend, “You seriously have never heard of him?”
Gavin shrugged, “Well, I was away at college in Maine, remember? I just came back this summer. I guess, growing up around here, I had no idea that everyone acted so weird. Then, after being at college for a year, and coming back here—“ Gavin shook his head, “So that’s why everyone does what they do? Because of this Cram-thing?”
“He’s not a thing!” Karthey burst out angrily. “He’s a person! Dad says he’s a very, very, very lonely, very troubled person!” Her chin clenched, and she looked like she was about to cry.
“If you’re so sympathetic,” Derrik taunted, “Why don’t you go visit The Cram? Like ‘Beauty and the Beast’—literally!”
“Shut up, Derrik!” Karthey snapped at her brother.
Gavin raised his hand, “Okay, well, I’ve got to get back home now. See you guys tomorrow!” He cast one last furtive glance over his shoulder at the Hill and departed down his block.

Karthey left her brother standing on the sidewalk without a word. Derrik instantly felt sorry; as much as he teased his sister, she meant the world to him.
“Karthey,” he ran after her, “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings!” He looked her in the eye sincerely. “I’d feel awful if you went up Fornberg Hill on my account. Promise me you won’t do it?”
Karthey roughly wiped the tears from her hazel eyes and sniffed, “Why would I do anything so stupid?” she asked her brother. “You know I wouldn’t leave you, Derrik, not without a good reason.” She rolled her eyes and managed a smile, “And since when have I done anything purely on your account?”
Derrik sighed with relief at his sister’s change of attitude. “Let’s get home together,” he proposed.
“It’s dinnertime,” Karthey reminded her brother teasingly, grinning. Together, brother and sister entered the house where loving parents and a warm meal awaited them.