The following is the opening prologue for Sleeping Wheel. These events take place several years before the main story, but certainly plays into the central issue terrorizing the sleepy town of Sleeping Wheel to this day.
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Gordon Van Goody waited for the stage producer to count down from five before flashing his trademark smile down the camera lens- disarming, but not too casual.
Channel Eight’s lead anchor opened the day’s broadcast. “It is sixty-seven degrees on a Tuesday morning and it’s great to be with you, Sleeping Wheel.”
Spotless veneers glistened from the other side of Cheryl Oakes’s television screen as she prepared for work. It was all part of the routine, always on but never watched. The morning news played to an empty room, filling in the silence while she shook the last of sleep clear. If everything went smooth, she could hit the interstate before the five-day forecast was finished.
It was a practiced effort, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a war of attrition with a very tired, and very stubborn, seven-year-old boy. He had already been through so much, she often worried. The poise with which he carried himself swelled her heart, but it was not without the taste of ash. It wasn’t fair, being forced into such maturity before he had time to ever enjoy being a child.
There was so little time. No one ever had enough to go all the way around. Then again, that was its point.
How long would it be before she no longer saw the boy that they brought home from the hospital two weeks early but healthy, and see a man aged before his years, a man who would take up after his late father more than she cared to admit? He had already started taking on his father’s mannerisms, Jonathan, who was taken at just forty-one years from a heart attack in the middle of the night. A myocardial infarction, Dr. Lichens explained, as if the proper terminology would put distance between him and the unseemliness of death.
“These things can happen without any warning, sometimes,” he told her with a diffident shrug in the hospital waiting room as the world crumbled around her.
He said it would have come on like a light switch, that he wouldn’t have had the time to feel any pain. John was here, and then he wasn’t. One day they were planning a trip to the natural history museum, the next she was being shown a catalog of satin liners for his coffin. It was all so arbitrary, to be written out of existence as if he had never been a father, a best friend, a husband and lover.
The sound of milk spattering onto the kitchen tabletop pulled Cheryl back to her present reality. She wiped the spilt milk clean with a dishrag and called her son down from his bedroom. She warned if he didn’t eat his cereal right away it was going to go soggy. The threat earned no response. This was part of their routine as well, a protracted and, at times, infuriating part. Tradition was like that.
Gordon Van Goody segued to Chuck Butch for a rundown of last night’s high school football scores as Cheryl marched to his bedroom on the second floor. The chill braced her before she could reach the top of the stairs. She saw his door parted, just as she left it after checking on him the night before. She rapped on the doorframe with the back of her knuckles, but nothing stirred, not even the reluctant shuffling of blankets.
Her voice cracked, “Honey?”
She faltered, mute with incomprehension as she stared at the empty bed. The curtains lapped in the breeze coming in through the open window. Her heart was a stone dropped down a long, dark well. This couldn’t happen here, not to them, and not in Sleeping Wheel. This had to be a prank, some cruel hide-and-seek she prayed, but already knew better.
Cheryl pushed down the shock and fell into action. She upended his mattress and box frame, turning everything upside down and when that didn’t work, inside out. She repeated the process for every other room and closet in between, but nothing could be found. Only the basement was left. Even in her bewildered panic she knew her son avoided the old coal cellar with the same preternatural fear every child possessed, but it was the last room left in the house. He had to be down there.
Returning down the stairs, taking them two at a time, Cheryl froze as she passed the archway which opened to the kitchen. She was no longer alone. The visitor sat at the small wooden table in the center of the room. Behind him, the back door was still open. He offered her no attention as he continued eating the breakfast she poured for her son.
He finished another bite and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The morning paper was on the table beside him, folded to the funny pages. Cheryl wanted to scream. She wanted to knock the bowl from the table and the smug expression from his face. She wanted to dig her fingers into the sides of his throat and squeeze as hard as she could until he told her where her son was. Before she could do anything, the man tapped his finger on the newspaper and recited the crossword puzzle’s lone answer.
From the other room, faces on a television screen spoke, but no one heard. Their mouths peeled open, revealing disarming, but not too casual smiles that no one was around to see.
A fat, black fly rubbed the hairs along its forelimbs before making one more, cautious orbit. It landed on the back of Cheryl’s wrist and waited, watching through a myriad of crisscrossing lenses for signs of life. Sitting at the kitchen table, her eyes were open, but took in nothing. Her mouth hung slack in protest, but nothing reached the surface.
Satisfied, the fly began the trek toward the knuckle of her ring finger. The rest of Cheryl’s hand was submerged in the milk left at the bottom of a cereal bowl. A tacky film had formed along the surface. The fly climbed out and drank deep from the clouded sea.
“Perfect day for a cookout, Chuck.”
“Sure is, Gordon.”