Mark of the Essence

Chapter 1

Genevieve stared back at her reflection through cupped hands; but it was useless. No matter how hard she tried, her eyes couldn’t penetrate the darkness that lay beyond the glass. She knocked on the window a second time - no response. If there was someone still in the store, they were either out of earshot or ignoring her.

“That’s the fastest I’ve ever seen a store close before,” Genevieve grumbled. “I can’t believe I went out the wrong entrance!” She gave the window a parting smack then turned around.

The back alley she found herself in was lined with buildings on both sides, but none of them had any windows. “I guess I’ll just follow the buildings and circle back to the front when I find an opening.”

Genevieve adjusted the canvas grocery bag on her shoulder and started off. She shivered; her cotton shirt and cargo pants ineffectively keeping back the evening chill. The temperature seemed to have dropped considerably since she had first entered the store. Damn. I wish I brought a jacket. It’s going to be a cold walk home.

As she walked, a strange silence seemed to permeate the air around her. There was no sound of traffic in the distance, no people’s voices - just a light breeze blowing scraps of paper and swirls of dirt around her sneakers. Her eyes scanned the unfamiliar surroundings. I should have gotten around the building by now. It’s a big shopping center, but it isn’t that big.

The sound of a large static snap in the distance made her jump. She spun around looking for the source of the noise.

“Hello?” she called out. “Is anyone there?”

No one answered.

The sky was dark and clear, but the sickly yellow-green fluorescent lights, that seemed to adorn every metal building she passed, blotted out the stars and made the sky overhead look like cheap, black, construction paper.

Genevieve walked for at least ten minutes, but no matter how far she went, nothing seemed to change. There were no trash bins, vehicles, or any signs or writing anywhere. Each building she passed looked like a mirror of its neighbor. They were two stories high, about half as wide as they were tall, and set so close together that a mouse would have had trouble squeezing between them. The sides facing the alley were made of a dull corrugated gray-green metal that was rusted on some of the buildings and spotless on others.

There was no real way of telling what purpose each of them served. They looked more like storage crates in a dusty shipyard than buildings. The windowless structures could have been houses, stores, or just abandoned for all she knew.

This is crazy. Even if the alley emptied out into the projects, I should at least have gotten to the edge of the hill by now. This damn town doesn’t have any level spots besides the lake and the high school football field. But the flat dirt road just kept going and going, leading Genevieve deeper into the cold and lonely night.

A short distance ahead Genevieve saw a break in the wall of buildings. A feeling of relief washed over her as she jogged to the opening. But the feeling didn’t last long.

The break in the buildings should have been a path or alley back to the shopping center parking lot. Instead, she found herself at a four-way intersection; each of its roads identical to the alley she’d been traveling through. They were made of compact red dirt and lined with the same sleek but decrepit metal buildings, all of which sported the same single greenish light. Where the hell am I?

As Genevieve investigated the intersection, she noticed a beat-up wooden crate standing near one of the structures on the street to her right. Aside from an occasional rock or scrap of faded paper, it was the only unique item she had seen since first entering the unfamiliar alleyway. She walked up to it but found no writing or marks on the box either.

Genevieve looked around again. Maybe I should head back to the store. I mean they have to open up tomorrow morning if nothing else. Right? Genevieve looked at the crate again as if she was half hoping it would give her an answer. No, that’s stupid. I’m not sitting in some back alley overnight waiting for the grocer’s to open.

The box was big, only a few inches shorter then she was, but at least twice as wide. It was made of lightweight and extremely cheap wood, but gave no indication as to what it was supposed to contain or where it originated. Finding no useful information on the crate, Genevieve sighed. She started to turn away, but stopped when something bright caught her eye.

On the ground, just behind the box, was a faint green line. It seemed to encircle the whole building, coming from around the far corner and heading back around the bend on the other side. It looked like a shiny piece of string. She leaned over to pick it up, but misjudged how close she was to the crate and bumped into it with her shoulder.

“Oops!” Genevieve exclaimed.

The box wobbled, then fell towards the string. She flinched expecting to hear a large bang when it hit the ground, but instead Genevieve saw, through her closed eyes, a large flash of light and heard a sound like the world’s largest bug zapper going off.

She jumped back. “What the hell…” she yelped, as her eyes flew open.

But her words trailed off as she focused on the spot where the box had fallen. The crate had been cut down to only a few inches. The side that faced the line had wisps of smoke rising from its charred edge. The rest of it was just, gone.

Genevieve stared at what was left of the box, trying to get her mind to process what was happening. The smell of burnt wood wafted up from the smoking crate, before being blown down the dirt road by the cold wind. Slowly, she picked up the remainder of the wood and backed up a few steps. The damaged side was black; the missing portion had been sheared clean off. So clean, in fact, that the burnt wood on the edge looked smooth.

“What’s going on here?” she said.

Genevieve looked back at the bright line and noticed for the first time that the whole building seemed to give off a soft greenish glow. It wasn’t the lights on the buildings that were glowing green - there was some kind of field made of light encasing them, giving all the structures the same sickly cast.

Cautiously, she extended the remaining piece of the crate towards the glowing field. But the instant it crossed the line, there was another bright explosion. Genevieve jumped back and dropped the wood, inadvertently throwing it against the field, but nothing hit the ground or the building; once again, it was just gone.

“Okay, okay, okay,” Genevieve repeated as she closed her eyes. “It’s okay, everything will be fine.” Her palms started to sweat and she could hear her heart beating in her ears.

“Wait...” she said, opening her eyes and looking franticly around. It wasn’t her heartbeat. It was footsteps. Someone was running. Someone was running right towards her!

Genevieve darted back to the intersection to seek out the source of the sound. She peered cautiously around the corner, keeping a safe distance from the building and its strange glowing field. But the footsteps were closer than she thought. As she looked around the corner a blonde girl in a long gray dress whizzed by, missing her head by mere inches. The unexpected encounter threw Genevieve off-balance. She stumbled forward into the middle of the road and landed on her knees.

“Ouch!” Genevieve cried as she hit the ground. She turned towards the runner and was about to call out to her when something hit Genevieve from behind!

This time Genevieve was thrown completely to the ground. The person who broadsided her, went flying over her back and landed a few feet away. Genevieve lay on the ground in shock. She shook herself out of the daze and stood up; brushing the dust off her clothes and out of her wavy brown hair. Her shopping bag had fallen during the encounter and its contents, including the fruit she had bought from the grocer’s, lay strewn about her feet.

“You should watch where you’re going!” Genevieve called out, for a moment forgetting how odd the situation had become.

The man who tripped over her groaned and then started to stand up as well. Genevieve bent down and picked up her bag. She started retrieving her things, trying to get as much red dust off her freshly purchased produce as she could before returning them to her bag along with the rest of the miscellaneous items that had fallen out.

The man that tripped had apparently dropped something as well because rather than standing up he began to feel frantically around on the dark ground in front of him. When Genevieve finished retrieving her things, she walked over to him.

“Did you lose something?” she asked, scanning the ground around her. At the sound of her voice the man spun about, as if this was the first time he had heard her.

“Who are you?” he barked.

Genevieve jumped back, clutching her bag. The rough looking man was also covered in red dirt from the road. He had a black bandana on his head, and his sleeveless gray shirt showed off both his muscles and the fresh scrapes he had gotten from tripping over her. There was a holster on his hip, but the gun appeared to be missing.

Genevieve started to answer him, when the sound of more people running caught her attention. This time she turned to see four very large and very angry-looking men, running towards the intersection. She looked up the street where the girl in gray had run. It was empty. Whoever the girl was, she had gotten away clean.

“I said who are you?” the man yelled again.

Genevieve looked back at the man on the ground. “I…uh…” she stammered.

“There she is!” one of the men running toward her yelled.

“Shit!” she exclaimed, and then without another word took off in the direction the first girl had gone.

The man that tripped started cursing, which got louder when the other men stopped to help him up.

Genevieve had no idea where she was going, if she was running down the street she had just come from or if she was heading in a completely different direction. All she knew was she had to get away.

The road began to get twisty. Smaller streets appeared on both sides as she ran. Now Genevieve really could hear her heart beating in her ears. She could also tell that she would not be able to keep running for much longer.

Rounding another bend, Genevieve saw something glimmer in the distance. She took a quick look over her shoulder, but couldn’t see the men chasing her. She turned down the side street towards the light.

The buildings here were shorter than on the main road, but were built in the same style, using the same dull gray metal. They also had the same eerie green fields encasing them. Genevieve swallowed hard and looked behind her again. Still no sign of them.

At the end of the street, the road took a sharp turn to the left. That was where the light was coming from - not the sickly yellow-green glow from the buildings, but real white light!

Genevieve took the corner at top speed and had to catch herself from slipping on the dirt road. When she made it around the corner, and out of view of the side street, she stopped to catch her breath and listen. Genevieve could hear people yelling in the distance, but no footsteps on the street behind her. Whoever they were, she had lost them for the moment.

Once her breathing started to return to normal, Genevieve turned and looked up the road to see where the light was coming from. Three buildings down, she saw light pouring onto the street from the left. She straightened up and took a deep breath then walked cautiously up to its source.

The structures on either side of the brightly lit building were identical to all the others she had passed: cold, boring gray metal rectangles with no windows, signs, or decorations. But the one in the center could have been a small shop nestled into any strip mall she’d ever been to.

There were two large bright windows set on either side of the single doorway. Above the windows was a white sign with something that looked like a curvy dollar symbol written in black. The shop’s metal door was propped wide open with a small rock, and light poured out through the opening into the thick black night.

Genevieve peeked in the door. The small shop had one narrow aisle down its center that ran straight back from the doorway and one even smaller aisle crossed it at its midpoint. From the wares displayed, it appeared to be a general store of some sort. On the left were shelves chock full of every houseware item you could ever think to own. On the right was a glass counter filled with smaller and presumably more expensive pieces. Brightly colored displays lined the counters lit by conical pendant lights that dangled from the ceiling above. A huge black TV screen took up the whole back wall. Kneeling in front of it, with a small metal box to one side, was a dark-haired man dressed in all black, quietly cursing to himself. He appeared to be trying to fix something in the wall, without much success.

Genevieve looked down the road in both directions. “Shopping was what got me into all this trouble in the first place,” she said under her breath. She looked back in the shop. The well-lit little store looked much more appealing the dark and empty street. “Well, what have I got to lose?” She took deep breath, tightened her grip on her bag, and walked into the shop.

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For more information on Mark of the Essence and my other books, please check out the My Books section of my blog! :)